5.01

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

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

“The only thing remotely amusing is your simplicity.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh yeah?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shut up!

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That is the most idiotic—”

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

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

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

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

“Okay, I’ll stop being silly.”

“Wait, that was an act?

Hawk stared at Erin. Ilvriss shook his head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s a celebration.”

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

“No. It’s a military parade.”

“What?”

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

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

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

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

“The 3rd Infantry Regiment of Pallass!”

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

“Whoa! That’s loud!

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

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

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

“Wait, where’s the rest of—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s empty.”

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

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

Shivertail! Shivertail!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Welcome to Pallass.”

He paused, looked around, and sniffed haughtily.

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

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

 

—-

 

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

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

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

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

Jelaqua shrugged, unconcerned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is Pallass! I can’t believe it!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yup!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nah.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Erin, hey, Erin!”

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

“Hey Erin!

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

“Seborn!”

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

But why were they attacking?

 

—-

 

Don’t move! You are under arrest!

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

“What? What? Get off of me!”

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

“Ow!”

“Get up!”

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

“Erin!”

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

“What’s happening?”

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

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

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

Throw down your weapons! You are under arrest!

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

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

“Get that Drake!”

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

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

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

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

“Archers! Stop that Selphid!”

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

Jelaqua!

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

“That hurt, damnit!”

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

“What’s happening?”

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

[Relc Punch]!

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

“[Triple Thrust]!”

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

“Hold! I said hold, burn your tails!”

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

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

“Hey, do we know each other?”

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

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

“That’s right!”

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

“Told you I’m famous.”

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

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

“Aw. Crap.”

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

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

“You teleported in with an unauthorized spell!”

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

“Oh, dead gods.”

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

“Oh shit.

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

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

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

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

Silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, I can go—”

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

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

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

“Um. Oops. Sorry?”

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

 

—-

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

—-

 

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

Now!

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We surrender.”

 

—-

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Yup!”

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

“That’s sort of how it happened.”

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

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

“I see.”

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

“So…are we in trouble?”

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

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

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

“Sheltering and feeding.”

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

“Please don’t do that.”

“Sorry. But are we in trouble?”

The Watch Captain looked glum.

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

“And that’s a bad—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, I can wander around—”

No.

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

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

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

The Watch Captain ground his teeth together.

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

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

Go.

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

“Uh, sorry for all the trouble.”

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

 

—-

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No…what gave you that impression?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The walls?”

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

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

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

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

“We are? I mean—we are?”

The Drake stared at Erin.

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

“Uh…no.”

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

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

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

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

“Where are we going?”

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

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

“Huh.”

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

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

“It is? I thought that was Liscor!”

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

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

“Really?”

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

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

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

“Not just stuff!”

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

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

“The what?”

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

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

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

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

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

“This is Pallass, the City of Invention!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wow. It’s so organized.

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

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

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

“You Humans. So messy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Down? How? You mean the stairs?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whoa! This is an elevator!”

“Hey, stop that!”

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

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

“Right, with gears!”

“Exactly—wait, how did you know?”

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

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

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

“Wow, look at those stairs!”

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

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

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

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

Real Drakes use steps!

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

Shut up, you old hag!

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

“Sorry about that.”

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

“Who was that?”

“My aunt.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The what now?”

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

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

“I want to ride that thing.”

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

“Okay then! We’ll join the queue.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How would you make all elevators like this?”

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

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

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

“I hope I die before that day comes.”

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

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

“Oh my god we’re high up.”

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

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

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

“This is three hundred feet high?”

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

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

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

“Yes. Higher, actually.”

What?

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, that Gnoll just jumped!

“Where?”

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

“Oh. You had me scared for a second.”

“What? He jumped—someone do something!”

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

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

“Fly?”

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

“Looks like—he might make it—aw, no!”

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

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

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

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

“Do a lot of people do that?”

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

“Oh really?”

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

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

Nelliam scoffed.

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

“Hmm.”

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

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

Nelliam snorted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

“My door!

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

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

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

“Oh. Good. So why do they want me?”

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

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

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

“I’m just doing my duty.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But it’s my door.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hold up! Don’t I get a say?”

Erin protested. Errif ignored her.

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

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

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

“Good. In that case—proceed.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Erin, I’m so sorry—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Errif’s brow furrowed.

“What is she talking about?”

Erin stepped forwards again, into Pallass.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I believe that is me. Hello, Erin.”

“Antinium.”

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

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

“Not yet!”

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

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

“She’s what?”

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

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

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

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

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

 

—-

 

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

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

Everyone stared at her. Erin grinned sheepishly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

—-

 

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

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

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

“Politics.”

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

5.00

Zel Shivertail was dead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Across Izril, there was mourning.

 

—-

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Mrsha?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right.”

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

“Morning.”

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

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

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

“Is that porridge I smell?”

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

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

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

“Got it. I’ll make lunch.”

“Thanks.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Goblin lover! Traitor!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come back here!”

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

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

“Hi, I’m Relc.”

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

“[Relc Headbutt]!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I do.”

Weird.

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

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

“I guess?”

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

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

He misinterpreted Erin’s blank stare.

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

“You want to have lunch at my inn.”

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

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

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

“You just want food?”

“Um. Yes?”

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

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

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

“I’m sure.”

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

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

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

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

“Right.”

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

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

“Why would I do that?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?”

“I’m hu—”

Why?

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

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

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

“What?”

“You really miss the inn?”

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

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

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

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

Erin blinked.

“What?”

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

“You think the Drakes will really do that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What—really?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ooh, really?

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

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

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

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

“I can carry a pig!”

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

“Say what now?”

 

—-

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um, Erin. What’s going on?”

“Lunch!”

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

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

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

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

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

Fifty minutes!

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

Fifty!?

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

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

“Ooh! Cheese! Is this free too?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh!”

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

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

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

“Who?”

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

“Ilvriss!”

 

—-

 

“I am not a grumpy Drake.”

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

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

“With what?”

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

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

“Like it?”

“It was—acceptable.”

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

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

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

“Hah!”

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

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

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

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

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

Wall Lord.

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

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

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

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

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

“Very sweet! It’s liquid ice cream!”

What?

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

“Want some?”

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

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

“Not in my book!”

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

“Gaah! The pain!”

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

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

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

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

“Fine. Jerk.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“One of those for me! Seborn, Moore?”

I’ll try it.

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

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

“Thisissogreat. I’llhavethiseveryday. Ilovethisstuff.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey!”

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

“What, mayonnaise?”

“Is that a Human creation of some kind?”

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

Erin smiled at Ilvriss. He stared haughtily at her.

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

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

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

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

“Wait, really?”

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

“Ooh, [Lord] money. Nice!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hawk?

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

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

“It worked. Dead gods.”

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

“Hawk, is this…a Walled City?”

The Courier blinked at Erin. He nodded slowly.

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

“Dead gods.”

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

“So this is a Walled City? I mean—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hawk sighed. Erin hesitated and raised a finger.

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

“Oh. In that case—”

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

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

“Incredible.”

“Hey!”

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

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

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

“Um, Miss Erin—”

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

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

“Erin, did you just—”

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

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

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

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

Excuse me!

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

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

“What?”

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

“Um.”

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

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

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

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

“Ah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No one pays me enough for this job.”

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

Just like that.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

The Depthless Doctor

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“—Ridiculous! I won’t hear of it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aye, Captain. I’ll give the orders.”

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

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

“Captain—”

“I see it. Quick, towards the wheel.”

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

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

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

“Sailor. What do you see?”

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

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

“Headed this way? Avoid it!”

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

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

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

“It’s getting brighter!”

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

“Ahoy! What have we here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I had a feeling I was needed.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Storm waters take me! How did you—”

“I’m an [Obstetrician].”

Captain Ad replied coolly. Tugrim paused.

“A what now?”

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

“Truly?”

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

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

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

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

“Want one?”

“No. No, I—”

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

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

“I have toffee if anyone wants it.”

 

—-

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She’s due any minute now.”

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

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

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

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

“Is he—is the curse—”

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

“He’s beautiful.”

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

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

“Leviathan to port! All hands! Leviathan!”

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

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

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

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

“Well, darn. That’s big.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Give up?”

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

“Oh my.”

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

 

—-

 

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

“You killed it. Just like that.”

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

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

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

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

The man shrugged in response to Rendala’s questions.

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

“Skill?”

Captain Ad nodded.

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

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

“Or ping pong.”

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

“It was a pleasure meeting you all. If you should ever have a medical problem, I’ll be sure to drop by.”

He saluted, and then was gone. The submarine sank out of sight. Rendala and the crew of the Kraken’s Horn stared at the spot where a few bubbles rose upwards for several minutes. Then Rendala turned to stare at Tugrim.

“Who was that?”

Legends. Each continent has them. They have heroes, Named Adventurers, famous [Generals] and so on. But what people forget is that the sea has its own myths as well. How could it not? But you seldom see those legends in person. You only hear of them, perhaps on the lips of a sailor who knew a man (or woman!) who knew someone else who’d seen the legend in person. And one of those legends that was told by the now-rich crew of the Kraken’s Tooth was the tale of the mysterious man with the piercing gaze, the fearless Captain Ad.

They say he sails to this very day, the man with the piercing glare, cutting through the depths of the ocean with his metal submarine. Occasionally chewing on a pretzel or toffee. More than one baby owes him their life, or so it’s said.

But who would speak such stories? Who would carry his tales above? Not sailors. Some stories, the real stories are too good to jabber on about like some land-locked fool. Some stories are true.

Or close enough.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

4.49

Outside of Invrisil, a battle was being fought between an army of Goblins and an army of Humans. The cold, muddy ground was warmed with blood and fresh bodies. Both sides struggled against each other, shouting, and the clash of arms filling the air. The battle had been long. The battle had been short.

To Osthia Blackwing, held captive in the heart of the Goblin army, it felt as though the battle had gone on for a week, and yet, at the same time, it had felt like it had rushed by in the course of minutes. She estimated that the true length was just over two hours. She had been forced to watch it all, as Goblins crashed into the ranks of Humans with their undead allies.

Crashed and broke. Despite their superior numbers, the thousands of elite Hobs and the presence of the undead, the Goblins had failed to overwhelm the Human army time and time again. And indeed, they had been forced back, humbled by one figure who had made the battlefield swirl around him.

Zel Shivertail.

Now Osthia watched him streak back across the battlefield, carried by a pink magical carriage that scythed across the Goblin front-line, running down any Goblin careless enough to get in its way. She was not the only one with her attention on the Drake [General]. The Goblin Lord sat astride his massive Shield Spider mount, staring at Zel Shivertail with narrowed eyes. He spoke, his voice filled with hatred and frustration.

“Why is he so strong?”

Silence greeted his question. The Goblin Lord’s lieutenants stood around him. Eater of Spears, Snapjaw, the Goblin [Beastmaster]…none could say it aloud. Their numbers had been cut down by Zel already. Now the Goblin Lord’s eyes turned to Osthia. She glared at him, her mouth gagged.

“What is he doing?”

Coming for you. She glared, her jaw working against the tight leather strips holding her mouth shut. The Goblin Lord nodded. He stared at Zel, and then turned to his lieutenants.

“Prepare. He is coming.”

The Goblins shuddered. He was coming. The hero of the Antinium Wars, the famous [General of the Line], the Tidebreaker. Those titles had been just words before. Now they were all too real. The Goblin Lord’s army was superior to the Human one, but the Goblin Lord had yet to meet Zel Shivertail on the field of battle. Now that was going to change.

Osthia could feel it. Zel Shivertail was not the kind of [General] who would risk a prolonged battle against the Goblin Lord, whose army was matched against his. He was coming.

She hoped he knew he was walking into a trap.

 

—-

 

Faces. That was what you saw in a battlefield. Faces. Even if you didn’t want to—at close range, that was all you could see. You saw the enemy as you gutted them with your claws or with a sword. Their faces, sometimes covered beneath helmets, sometimes full of hate or despair. It was easy to see only the enemy in them, but it was strange how there was a person behind each [Soldier]’s face. The Goblins looked like people sometimes.

Zel Shivertail gripped the side of Magnolia Reinhart’s carriage, feeling the wind blasting off his scales. He saw the battlefield flash by him. Hundreds, thousands of faces turned his way. Human [Soldiers], cheering as they saw the Drake [General] flash by, Goblins, drawing back in fear and hatred. Zel glanced ahead and saw Reynold driving the coach with minute flicks of the reins. The [Butler]’s face was pallid and his hands shook a bit, but he was still upright, still driving with impeccable accuracy.

“Good man.”

Zel waited until he saw his target in the crowd. Another man who stood out in the sea of armored bodies. The [Chevalier] Thomast fought in a doublet of red and gold cloth, much of which had been stained a deeper crimson still by blood. Not his. The clothing was probably enchanted, but Thomast had yet to take a blow. The [Duelist] and [Chevalier] fought with rapid thrusts and lunges that took down his opponents before they could strike. He turned as Zel leapt, scattering enemies and allies with his landing.

“Get ready to execute the plan! Turn and pick me up!”

Zel roared at Reynold and saw the coach speed off and turn—into the Goblin lines. Again the green-skinned monsters scattered, screaming and crying out in pain and horror as the carriage crushed them mercilessly.

Monsters. People. Zel turned his head and looked at Thomast. The [Duelist] was breathing heavily, but like Zel, he was ready to fight. They were the highest-level warriors on the field, or so Zel sensed. Funny, he didn’t know if he’d ever said more than a few words to the man.

“I’m turning over control of the left flank to you! Hold your ground or we’ll be overrun!”

“Leave it to me.”

Thomast nodded as Zel pointed, shouting over the roar of Humans and Goblins clashing. There were a thousand things that he could have said. The [Duelist] could have pointed out his lack of experience or Skills in battlefield command, the dangers of turning over strategy to someone else, or simply asked what Zel was doing. He did none of those things and instead turned his attention back to the battle. Zel was grateful. He ran forwards, cut down a charging Hob with a slash of his claws, leapt—and caught hold of the carriage as it streaked by the other way.

Three Goblins had grabbed on as well and had been crawling towards Reynold with daggers in hand. They took one look at Zel and let go. Zel saw their bodies disappear into the mass of Goblins as the coach turned. He gritted his teeth as he pulled himself closer to the front. All the pieces were in a row.

“Let’s do this. You ready?”

Reynold nodded. The [Butler] flicked the reins and the two spoke at once. Reynold uttered a command as the carriage sped towards the edge of the battle.

“[Flying Wheels]!”

Zel felt the coach lift up, and felt his stomach drop. He ignored the sensation and raised one claw.

“[Rapid Maneuvering]! [Hold the Line]! [Vanguard of Steel]!”

He felt the Skills take hold on the Human army below him immediately. Zel looked down as Humans changed formations, obeying orders he had given. Below him, the battlefield began to shift.

 

—-

 

“What’s he doing?”

From her vantage point apart from the battle, Magnolia Reinhart saw the established lines of battle break and Human [Soldiers] adopt a strange formation. They pushed past the undead and Goblins, encircling them from the right with cavalry and infantry alike crashing into the Goblin formations. A thin wave of Human [Soldiers] trapped the Goblins from the right, but so few that they were a single line compared to the green mass that began pushing back against them.

“That cannot be sound strategy. Sacra? What is General Shivertail thinking?”

“He used a Skill. [Vanguard of Steel]—can’t you feel it?”

Sacra turned her head, breathing heavily. Magnolia frowned and pinched herself.

“No, I can’t.”

I can. General Shivertail’s Skill is—look!”

Sacra pointed. Magnolia saw the thin wave of Humans that should have been immediately overwhelmed by the Goblin numbers holding their ground, roaring as they traded blows with the Goblins. She saw a young woman in armor take a sword strike to her unguarded neck. But rather than drop, the sword bounced off her skin.

Steel bodies. Magnolia’s eyes widened.

“I say, how long will the effects last?”

“Not too long. But they don’t need to.”

Indeed, the Goblins were in disarray as their opponents suddenly became immortal foes, almost impervious to harm. They drew back, and Magnolia saw another strange event take place. Pink, armored [Knights] began striding across the battle lines, hacking their way through Goblins, spacing themselves out across the center and left flank where the undead were pushing at the Human [Soldiers].

“He’s broken up my Knights of the Petal again. What is he doing? The Goblin Lord will begin attacking them again.”

Bethal stared as her Rose Knights began pushing the Goblin lines back. Magnolia glanced up, towards a flying carriage moving across the battlefield.

“I believe the Goblin Lord is about to have his hands full, Bethal.”

Every head looked up. They saw the pink carriage flying over the Goblin Lord’s army. A black bolt rose to meet it. Magnolia’s hands clenched as she saw Reynold frantically swerve to avoid it. But then they saw the carriage dip, and dive. A second lance of death magic shot forwards—a clawed hand blocked it. Zel Shivertail clung to the side of the carriage. He was right over the Goblin Lord’s head now. Magnolia saw his arm tense—then he let go and dropped.

 

—-

 

A hundred feet. Fifty feet. Twenty. The ground—

Zel landed with an impact that knocked the wind out of him. The thud was more like an explosion. He could feel dirt fountaining up around him, feel the crushing pain of impact. For a second the Drake lay there, stunned. Then he moved.

Up Zel rose. A claw shot out and slashed a Hob who’d tried to swing at him, thinking Zel would be too slow to react. Zel felt his claws shear through the Hob’s armor and flesh like parchment. He withdrew his hand and the Hob fell.

Goblins. Zel stood and looked around. There were thousands of them, all staring at him. Many had open-mouths. Some were still staring at Reynold as the [Butler] carried his carriage out of danger. They were stunned, unable to believe Zel had survived the fall.

Strength. Zel’s body hurt a tiny bit from the fall. But he had fallen further and survived. He’d fallen off a cliff once. And the danger of dropping into the middle of an army of Goblins? Zel had fought against Drakes, Humans, Antinium—all without more than basic steel armor and his claws. What was this compared to fighting a Drake Lord of the Wall?

And yet, they stared as if he were the monster. Zel wanted to laugh at them. They were afraid of him for surviving a fall from the sky? This was normal. This was what high-level battles were like. The first breath of air in Zel’s lungs was sweet. He inhaled, and then roared.

Goblin Lord!

His voice caused a hush across the battlefield. Zel turned, staring around for the Goblin Lord’s figure, or that of his spider. He saw neither. The Goblins were moving to surround him. Where was the Goblin Lord? Zel twisted around again as he heard a voice.

“General Shivertail!”

Someone was shouting his name. And the voice—Zel saw a bound shape. A Drake with bright yellow scales was fighting on the ground, her arms and legs bound.

A Drake? Zel stared, shocked. She was an Oldblood Drake. A captive? She’d managed to loosen a leather muzzle on her mouth. Now she screamed at him.

“It’s a trap! Get away, sir! The Goblin Lord—”

She turned and sprayed acid from her mouth at a Hob. He screamed in agony and another clubbed her down from behind with a mace. Zel looked around. All he saw were Hobs. And they had enchanted weapons, wands, bows—

The first arrow Zel blocked on an arm. The other eight glanced off his scales. The bolt of lightning made his side tingle and ache, but his armor caught most of the magic. The Drake turned and caught a sledgehammer blow to the side. He grabbed the Hob who’d hit him and pressed his claws into the Hob’s eyes. Digging deep. She screamed and died.

Turn. A sword slashed across Zel’s face. He felt the tip cutting through his outer scales, drawing a line of blood. An enchanted blade. Zel twisted before it could keep cutting and lashed out. Another killing blow. The Goblins stared as two Hobs fell. Zel wiped the blood from his scales and looked around.

Goblins all around. They closed in, their faces afraid, staring. Zel laughed and spread his arms wide.

For Izril! Sserys and the Drakes!

They were afraid to come to him, so he went to them. Zel charged alone, into the ranks of the Goblins. He cut them down, trying to find a single figure in the midst of the army.

Where was the Goblin Lord?

 

—-

 

“Incredible.”

Sacra breathed the word, her eyes wide. Magnolia saw the blaze of golden-red armor, the sole Drake in the center of the Goblin’s army. Zel Shivertail was a whirlwind, cutting Hobs down as they rushed him from every angle.

It was a sight to motivate the Human army, which was pushing back the Goblins, riding on the momentum of their [Vanguard of Steel] effect. And yet, Magnolia felt nothing but anxiety as she stared into the heart of the battle.

“Where is the Goblin Lord? General Shivertail is alone.”

No one answered. Bethal, Sacra, and the other servants were transfixed, staring at Zel. Magnolia looked around and then kicked Bethal in the rear. The other woman stumbled.

“Magnolia—!”

“Stop gaping and look, Bethal! If the Goblin Lord escapes then General Shivertail will be well and truly cut off. I don’t think Reynold can get back to him!”

It was true. The pink carriage was under attack as Goblins loosed arrows and spells at it. Magnolia knew that the carriage wasn’t that invulnerable—the enchantments might well be breaking. Reynold was already trying to steer it away from the battlefield. She kicked Sacra and gave the same order.

Find the Goblin Lord! We are the only ones who can look!”

The other servants and Bethal turned their gaze to the battlefield. Magnolia stared through the sea of Goblins, trying to connect the Goblin Lord’s visage to the milling crowd of Goblins. It was damnably hard—and not least because the Goblins did look alike at this distance! And yet, he had to be out there. If only she could find out where before he escaped completely. Zel Shivertail had been nearly on top of him and the Goblin Lord couldn’t have moved that far—

A swirl in the army caught her attention. Magnolia saw the Goblins moving slightly, eddying around something. The [Lady]’s eyes narrowed. She was no battlefield expert, but she’d seen more than one ballroom where one person was at the center of attention. She was the attention most of the time.

“There!”

Bethal had seen the same thing. She pointed a finger and Magnolia saw the Goblin Lord. He was dismounted, leading his Shield Spider away through a screen of Hobs. He hadn’t gone more than fifty feet in the chaos and he was moving slowly, confident that Zel couldn’t spot him through the waves of Goblins surrounding him.

What arrogance. For a second Magnolia could almost admire his casual retreat. Then she smiled and a glint appeared in her eyes.

“A shame you and I will never meet in the realm of politics. You might have done better there than on the battlefield.”

Sacra glanced at Magnolia, only having heard the last of what her mistress had said. She stared at the Goblin Lord, her hands clenched on her mace.

“There he is. But how can we get General Shivertail’s attention?”

“Oh, that’s quite simple.”

Magnolia’s fingers raised and she carefully flicked her hand at Zel Shivertail as he cut down another Hob with his claws. She pitched her voice so and tilted her hand as if she was cupping his chin in her hand. She turned her hand and whispered.

Look over there.

Across the battlefield Zel Shivertail’s head turned. Magnolia saw his body jerk and his eyes widened. He stared for a second and then charged into a Hob who was running at him. The Drake lifted one hand as he used the Hob as a shield. One hand, raised in thanks. Then he was charging. And she heard his voice.

Turn and face me, coward!

And the Goblin Lord turned. There was only a hundred feet separating the two as Zel Shivertail and the Goblin Lord locked eyes. The Goblin motioned and a wall of Goblins surged forwards. Zel Shivertail roared and charged.

“Golems!”

Magnolia’s voice was distant but the two War Golems heard. They raised their heads and abandoned their posts, charging into the Goblin army and heading for the Goblin Lord. She heard Bethal shouting at her Rose Knights and saw them slicing into the army. Suddenly, the Goblins were trying to hold back pink [Knights] and a pair of armored giants and Zel Shivertail himself. All headed straight for the Goblin Lord.

To his credit, he held his ground. The Goblin Lord refused to run. He mounted his Shield Spider and began firing black bolts of magic at Zel Shivertail. The Drake absorbed the magic, letting it splash over his enchanted armor, dodging others. Charging.

Unstoppable! The Goblins tried to block him with spears, grabbing at the General, throwing their bodies in front of him. But nothing worked. Zel came on, roaring, and Magnolia saw a pair of Goblins moving forwards to stop him.

 

—-

 

He was coming. Snapjaw’s mouth was dry with fear as she heard Zel Shivertail roaring. He was cutting a path through her people like they were made of grass! And he was heading to the Goblin Lord, her hope, the hope of her people.

He had to be stopped. She ran forwards with Eater of Spears. The two Hobs were ready to die to stop the Drake. Snapjaw raised her enchanted sword.

“Go left!”

She screamed at Eater of Spears. He roared and charged towards the Drake’s left. Snapjaw ran right. She could stab him from behind. She’d poisoned this blade. All she needed was one good strike and—

Snapjaw’s legs carried her past Zel Shivertail as he spun to face both her and Eater of Spars. Snapjaw blinked, tried to turn, and failed. She ran past the Drake [General], unable to turn. It was as if someone was holding her in place! And then she heard a voice.

A Human woman’s voice. It whispered in her ears.

This way, my dear.

Snapjaw fought against the voice, tried to slow her legs. But the voice was powerful and it held her. For three seconds. That was all. But in the time it was too late. Snapjaw turned, weeping, and saw the end.

 

—-

 

There he was. The Goblin Lord was sitting across his giant Shield Spider, only a few paces in front of Zel. The Drake [General] clenched his fists.

A huge Hob blocked his way. Zel looked up as Eater of Spears blocked his path. The Hob was a giant. His face was set, his eyes locked on Zel’s face. The two paused for a second as Goblins drew back, seeing one of their heroes facing the Drake [General].

Zel spoke.

“You can’t stop me.”

Eater of Spears paused. He stared at Zel, his face solid, grim, unflinching. He spoke, a bass rumble.

“Can try.”

He charged forwards, fist swinging fast. Zel leapt forwards as well and the two met in a clash of fist and claw. The Drake [General] slipped around the Hobgoblin’s fist and slashed left-right across Eater of Spears’ chest. He tore the Hob’s front open but the Goblin refused to fall. Bleeding, his body staining crimson, he lashed out and hit Zel in the chest with a mighty punch.

The Drake grunted and spun with the impact. He slashed again—this time Eater of Spears made a sound like a groan and Zel’s claws bounced off bone. His ribs. Flesh sundered, the Hob was too slow. Zel sprinted past him and Eater of Spears fell backwards, grasping weakly for the last healing potion at his belt. Only, Zel had crushed it sometime during the exchange of blows.

Unstoppable.

There was one last wall of Hobs between him and the Goblin Lord. Zel counted. Six—four—three—two—

The last two Hobs fell back, fighting furiously, until they heard a voice. They moved backwards, and Zel saw the Goblin Lord staring down at him. The Goblin was tall as a normal Human man, and proportioned in much the same way. He was no giant, no inhumanly large monster. But then, Velan hadn’t been either.

This Goblin was no Goblin King. But he still faced Zel, unafraid. His hands grasped a black blade of magic. He pointed it at Zel and the [General] opened his crimson claws. They stared at each other for a second.

And then Zel charged. He roared as he came, and in the distance the Human army screamed and shouted. The Goblin Lord charged, and the Goblins around him howled defiance.

The Shield Spider lashed out at Zel, trying to trap him with its legs, biting. The Goblin Lord swung—Zel ducked under both black and legs and found the Shield Spider’s belly. He cut into its center and tore pieces of carapace from its body.

The Shield Spider screamed. It bled as Zel dodged back, a pale blue ichor. The Goblin Lord raised his finger and shot a blast of death magic at Zel. The [Deathbolt] pierced Zel at point-blank range. He stumbled. But did not fall.

“Not enough. [Titan’s Cut]!”

Zel raised his claws and slashed. The arc of his claws traced through the air, and the air itself bent as he cut. An imprint of four claw marks opened up across the Shield Spider’s entire body and it screamed. The massive strike severed one of its legs, crushed another at the base and opened up its bulbous abdomen. The giant spider collapsed in a bloody pool and the Goblin Lord tumbled from its back. Zel walked forwards, claws ready.

The Goblin Lord had fallen behind his spider’s abdomen, out of view. Zel walked around the side, trying to get a good look. He saw a foot—then the Goblin Lord. The Goblin rose, pointing at Zel’s chest—

“[Bone F—]”

[Antimagic Slash]!

Zel’s claws went through a barrier of magic and into the Goblin Lord’s side. He tore—the Goblin Lord screamed as Zel ripped his stomach open.

Blood, red and wet, splashed to the ground. The Goblin Lord stared down at his open stomach and then up at Zel.

“Oh.”

That was all he said. It was such a normal word. Zel nodded. He stepped forwards, his claws open.

Goblins screamed as they saw their leader fall. They swarmed Zel. He turned and cut them down. Regular soldiers, fighting a [General]. He was five steps away from the Goblin Lord.

Four.

Three.

Two.

One—

 

—-

 

Do it!

Gershal of Vaunt screamed the words as he carried Salvia away from her downed mount. His voice joined thousands of others. The Humans roared, cheering.

“Finish him.”

Magnolia clenched her hands as she saw Zel cutting down Goblins left and right. They were all over him, leaping on the General’s back, trying to hold him back—trying to save their Lord. But Zel stepped forwards. He was close. So close. She saw his claws raise—

And then a pillar of white blocked her view. Magnolia blinked. She saw something—a yellowish-white thing—erupt from the ground. A pillar? No, more like a spike of ivory. A wall of bone. Magnolia stared.

And then she saw another. A spire of bone shot out of the ground, implaling a Hob and two smaller Goblins. More bone pillars began rising out of the ground in a circle around Zel and the Goblin Lord. They grew like obscene flowers, stained red with the Goblins they impaled, raising higher, higher—

“Magnolia. What’s happening?”

Bethal stared at the bone walls as they knitted together, forming a dome in the middle of the battlefield. A circular wall of ivory engulfed Zel and the Goblin Lord, blocking them from view from every direction. Magnolia stared. Bethal looked from her to Sacra, her face pale.

“Is it a spell or—”

“I don’t know.”

Magnolia whispered. Her heart was suddenly beating very fast. She stared at the dome of bone. It couldn’t be the work of the Goblin Lord. If he could cast that spell he would have done so before Zel reached him. But if not him, then there could be only one other person who cast the spell.

Az’kerash.

And now Magnolia truly felt afraid. She stared at the ivory wall as Goblins began to bang on the impenetrable bone with their weapons. She turned to Sacra.

Get me all the [Mages] you can find! Open that dome now!

 

—-

 

Zel twisted as he saw the bone spires rising from the ground. He saw the Goblin Lord’s eyes widen, and felt that sense of unease at the back of his mind spike into bells of alarm. He turned, ignoring the Goblin Lord, and saw the walls of bone close, obscuring the sky overhead. Suddenly, everything was dark.

Only his enchanted breastplate shed any kind of light in the enclosed space. Zel eyed the smooth ivory walls, wondering if he could break them. Then he felt…something.

Magic. It was a palpable presence at times, when great spells were cast. Zel could feel it being concentrated here, a tingling on his scales. He looked around and saw the air shimmer.

It wasn’t a tear in space, or a portal. It was more like a bridge or an—opening—that someone stepped through. The air twisted, and a shape stepped out of the shadows. Zel saw a bone-white woman, no a woman made of bone, a giant wearing bone armor and holding a sword and shield step out. She stared at him with green eyes that blazed with undead light.

And she spoke. One word.

“Venitra.”

The air moved. Zel turned and saw more shadows flickering, becoming people. Four more figures stepped into place. A skeleton of black bone, dressed in a [Mage]’s robes. The flames in her eyes glowed gold as she twirled the staff in her hand.

“Ijvani.”

A woman, a rotting corpse walked out to Zel’s left. By her side, a strange figure dressed in a trench coat, a humanoid creature with no face, features concealed by a hat.  The rotting undead spoke for both of them.

“Bea. And Oom.”

And the last, a Gnoll dressed in armor. His eyes glowed blue. His body was dead, but for the light in his eyes he might have been alive. He was powerful, taller than Zel, and he had a sword that glowed with magic in one hand. He spoke last, his voice deep, booming in the enclosed space.

“Kerash.”

The five undead stood in the dome. Zel’s heart was pounding in his chest. He stared from face to face. They had entered this place with a spell. Not [Invisibility]. He would have sensed it. No, the spell, the way they seemed to appear—[Teleport]? [Greater Teleport]? They had to have used an artifact.

There was no time to ask what was happening. No reason to either, really. Zel looked from face to face, and focused on Kerash. The undead Gnoll raised his sword and pointed at Zel’s chest.

“Surround the Drake.”

The five undead moved around the dome, trying to flank him. Zel backed up until his back was at one of the bone walls. Bea and Oom took his left side, while Venitra and Ijvani his right. Kerash stood in front of him. The five undead readied themselves, waiting. Zel eyed them as he shifted, his stance low, his claws open.

Five. Each undead was clearly unique. They all radiated danger, but—he appraised them quickly.

Venitra, the undead bone woman was clearly some kind of [Knight]. She looked like a kind of golem. Dangerous, but not unbeatable. The skeleton by her side—the way she held her staff reminded Zel of something. Had he met her before? She was a spellcaster, but that too was manageable.

The real threat was coming from Zel’s left. He had no idea what the rotten ‘Bea’ could do, but all his instincts screamed at him not to let her touch him. As for Oom—Zel risked a glance and saw a featureless, smooth face. Oom’s body was black, almost translucent, and the way he stood—the trench coat and hat were concealing something. He had no face. Was he even humanoid?

Kerash was the last. Zel thought he was a Draugr of some kind. They were powerful, hard to kill and strong, but it was only the enchanted sword that could hurt him. Get rid of that and—

Too many. Zel knew he was tired, but even if he had been rested, five high-level enemies at once would be—his eyes narrowed. He glanced towards the Goblin Lord, but the Goblin was trying to hold his guts in. Good. Even a healing potion wouldn’t heal that quickly. He had been shocked to see the bone walls go up. So he hadn’t planned this.

“So you’ve sent your minions to do what you’re too afraid to do in person, Az’kerash?”

The undead shifted when Zel spoke their master’s name. As if they were surprised. But who else could it be? Zel looked from face to face. Yes, who else?

“It seems you’ve planned this well. Did you plan on stabbing me in the back or were you always hoping that I might walk into a trap like this? Come out and face me yourself, coward. I know you’re watching.”

His words made the fires in the eyes of the undead glow brighter. Zel watched the bone woman—Venitra’s—eyes blaze bright green. So they could feel emotion. That was important to know.

A cold, precise voice filled the air in the dome, echoing. Zel had only heard Az’kerash speak a few times, but he could never forget that voice.

“I had intended to slay you at Liscor, but circumstances forced me to abandon that plan. Nevertheless, a strategy may be utilized again. My apprentice was the crux of this trap, though he did not know it. I am afraid I have little time to risk myself in battle, General Shivertail. It is my children you fight today. And it is they who will claim your life.”

That voice. Zel snarled, twisting around. But the Necromancer wasn’t here. He was speaking through his minions.

“Too afraid I’ll kill you a second time?”

Again the undead servants rustled. Az’kerash had called them his children? What had he done in the years since the Second Antinium War?

“Hardly. My battle was never with one individual. I wage war with Drakes, with species as a whole. The living are my enemy, Shivertail. You do not merit my presence. My creations are enough for you. Each one is a masterpiece, unique among their kind. Look upon them and despair, for they are your betters.”

“So you say. But you sent five.”

Again, Zel studied the undead. They had names; they had some kind of personality—were they Revenants? Spirits bound to flesh? Yes, they had to be. But two of them bothered Zel. Ijvani—he could have sworn he’d seen that staff before. Zel’s eyes widened as he recognized it.

“Ikriss.”

The flames in the skeleton’s eyes flashed at Zel’s voice, and Venitra shifted. The Necromancer’s voice was amused.

“Yes. You encountered Venitra and Ijvani before. A shame neither one managed to accomplish their tasks. Tell me, how did you realize I was still alive? It seems you were…informed of my survival before now.”

His voice was…probing. Zel lied as he tried to think. The bone walls were meant to hold him. Cutting his way out while the undead attack from behind was suicide.

“It wasn’t hard to figure out. Your illusion spells aren’t as potent as you thought. And you have enemies.”

“Only naturally. But was it Magnolia Reinhart who told you I was alive, or someone else? I had suspected she was aware of my deception. Did she warn you about me, or had you known before that?”

There was a pressure in the air that made Zel want to talk about Ryoka. Truth spells. He bit his tongue and focused on the other undead. Ijvani was one thing. But Kerash? The undead Gnoll was clearly the leader, but there was something else about him.

Draugr weren’t too dangerous to Zel. They were strong, but there was a limit to their strength. They couldn’t exceed the capability of their bodies in life. So unless this Gnoll had been particularly powerful, he wasn’t as dangerous as, say, Venitra. But that name—

“Are you really Kerash, the Gnoll Warrior-Chieftain who died over a hundred years ago?”

Zel addressed Kerash. The Gnoll shifted his grip on his sword, his eyes never leaving Zel’s face.

“I am my master’s loyal servant. That is all you need to know before you die, Drake.”

“Well spoken, first of my Chosen.”

Az’kerash’s voice was approving. Zel’s eyes narrowed. So. Kerash. That might be…his eyes flicked again to the five undead. What were they? Assassins? Vanguards? But why have them at all?

“Children, you said? You created these horrors, Necromancer? That’s strangely sentimental for someone who uses the undead as disposable tools.”

“Hardly. These are my champions, my chosen few. They are created to be superior to all other undead, to lead and instill despair among my foes. You gave me the idea for them, in fact. After my defeat and ‘death’ in the last war I reflected on my weaknesses. These five, my Chosen, are my answer to that flaw.”

An answer to a flaw? But the Necromancer’s greatest weakness was—Zel’s eyes widened. He murmured out loud as the pieces fell into place.

“So that’s why you made them. I see. They truly are your masterpieces. Your…hope. And if I crush them, your plans are set back, aren’t they?”

There was a pause. Az’kerash’s voice did not reply. Zel smiled as the undead shifted. When the Necromancer did speak, there was a twinge, the slightest sense of uncertainty in his voice.

“Enough of this! Kerash, finish Zel Shivertail off.”

“Yes, master. Everyone, on my mark. Attack as one.”

Kerash’s voice rumbled as he gripped his sword with both hands. Venitra raised her shield and both Oom and Bea took a step forwards. Oom’s hands were in the pockets of his coat; Bea’s rotting palms were turned towards Zel. Ijvani raised her staff.

Silence. The five undead and one Drake waited. For one eternal, immortal moment, there was nothing but the pumping of Zel’s heart, the burning eyes of the undead. Then he saw Kerash’s mouth open. Zel moved before the undead could speak. He sprinted right, into Venitra and Ijvani and slashed.

“[Lightning Slash]!”

Ijvani cried out as Zel raked a claw across her arms and ribs, slicing across her black bones. Zel grunted as he hit her bones—they were metal, or coated with it! He recalled the same sensation as when he’d fought her the first time. But his slash had cut deep across her ribs and sent her stumbling back. Zel turned and saw Venitra rushing at him, ready to stab.

“[Bonebreaker Headbutt]!”

Another Skill. Zel stepped forwards and smashed his head into Venitra’s. He heard a crack, and saw her stumble back. Zel whirled, and sidestepped as Kerash charged him with his sword. Zel kicked and the Gnoll stumbled. He would have leapt on Kerash and torn the sword from his hands, but Oom and Bea were on his left, and Zel moved away rather than let either get close to him. They were just approaching. Were their attacks touch-based?

He turned, looking for Venitra, and saw a black, skeletal hand. Ijvani pointed with her staff and uttered a spell.

“[Blackfire Fireball].”

And then there was flame. Zel roared as the flames engulfed his body, burning every exposed part of him not covered by armor. He struck at Ijvani but she was already fleeing. And then Venitra crashed into his left, stabbing. Zel stumbled, regained his footing and pushed back as she tried to bowl him over.

The two titans struggled as Oom and Bea circled. And then Kerash was closing in with his sword. He stabbed Zel in the arm as the Drake fought. The [General] turned and roared again. But he was alone. And outnumbered.

 

—-

 

Bring down that dome!

Sacra screamed the order and over a hundred [Mages] blasted the dome with spells from afar. Humans, a few half-Elves, and Goblins. Both armies were trying to crack the shields of bone, although the Goblins had switched to a defensive strategy to keep the Humans from nearing their Lord’s last line of defense.

Or so they assumed. Magnolia knew this had to be the work of the Necromancer. She stared as the rain of spells and enchanted arrows ceased.

“Nothing. Not a scratch.”

The bombardment hadn’t left a mark on the ivory surface, just cleaned it of the Goblin blood staining the outside.

“It’s impenetrable! Focus your attacks elsewhere! I want covering fire on our [Knights]! Take down that Crypt Lord!”

Sacra ordered the [Mages] to begin targeting Goblins. Magnolia knew it was the correct decision, but she would have rather kept trying to bring down the dome. Zel Shivertail could be in peril—

No, he was in peril! She knew it. Magnolia cursed, and saw a shape flick into the shadows behind her.

“Ressa, give me the weapon.”

Magnolia raised her hands and Ressa put the strange tube that her grandfather had given her into her hands without argument. The [Maid] stood behind Magnolia, her maid’s uniform covered in blood.

“Are you sure?”

“Zel Shivertail cannot be lost! Hold on, I’m aiming!”

Magnolia snapped as she raised the tube. She was no [Markswoman], but the dome was a big target and she felt like accuracy was not a requirement. She hesitated as she felt the magic contained in the artifact.

“How did grandfather Regis say to activate it? What was the command spell? Thaurmodesium?

Thaurmodenasium!

“Yes, that! Thaurmodenasium! By my command, fire or—”

Magnolia felt the tube warm slightly, felt it kick in her hands, and heard nothing.

Precisely nothing. A cone of silence had burst from the tube. Magnolia felt it leave her hands and stepped back as the tube floated in place. It was a simple metal tube, inscribed with glowing runes on the inside and outside. Now these same runes glowed brighter and brighter, so brightly that they became a beacon.

Heads turned. Goblins and Humans alike stared as the tube glowed, and then emitted a series of—sparks. A few paltry sparks jettisoned out of the front of the tube. Magnolia stared as they flickered forwards and turned to Ressa.

“Is that it? Because if it is, I’m going to the family estate and burning it down—”

Ressa gripped Magnolia’s arm and pointed. Magnolia turned her head back just in time to see the sparks of lightning continue forwards. They were just flickering bits of energy, but for some reason, they neither earthed themselves nor dissipated. Instead, they hung in the air, and changed.

They became…diverse. Or perhaps they created more copies of themselves, because the air was suddenly dancing with bolts of lightning. They played over the Goblins and Humans in front of the tube, making the soldiers yelp and drop their metallic weapons. And then, from the tube, there came more lightning.

It was like lightning had come to life. Magnolia stared as a dragon made out of lightning took wing, emerging from the tube and flying forwards. She saw ships made of lightning, proud warriors and [Knights]—it was a light show! The lightning danced over the heads of both the Human and Goblin armies, making soldiers look up in awe. And as the Dragon soared overhead, doing absolutely no damage to the Goblin army, it left a trail of words in the sky.

The script was elegant, cursive, and hard to read. It was a different writing script than Magnolia had ever seen, but ancient as it was, it was still perfectly legible.

 

From the armories of the Emperor of Storms: a gift. To his enemies, see light and sound, ever fleeting, the wrath of the skies. Behold the advent of lightning.

 

And then there was light from the front of the tube. Magnolia blinked at it. The opening of the tube glowed and that was the last thing she saw for a while. She felt the impact as the air shattered, though. It threw her backwards and only Ressa catching her saved Magnolia from breaking her neck.

A bolt, a beam, a cascade of lightning burst forth from the mouth of the tube, cutting through the bemused ranks of Goblin soldiers and some of the Humans too close to the radius of the blast. The lightning did not fry those it touched—rather, it vaporized them. It left a trail of melted ground and smoke around fifteen feet wide as it shot across the battlefield. It hit the bone of dome—

And cracked it open. The bone splintered, the Necromancer’s magic broke. For a second, Ressa could see six shapes struggling in the darkness—then the magic of the lightning flashed around the opening. It obscured the rest, as the tube earthed its charge on the dome of bone.

It had been broken open, but as the shock of the spell reverberated across the battlefield she could see the walls of bone shudder and begin closing. The spell was reassembling itself.

“No! Get in there! War Golems, go to General Shivertail’s aide!

Magnolia struggled to get up. She thrust away Ressa’s hands and stumbled upright. Her ears were bleeding, her vision still blinded. Still she pointed. And the War Golems, cutting through the Goblins, turned.

They charged, shrieking, racing across the ground. Goblins raced to stop them, screaming. The first War Golem blasted them with a beam of fire. The second blasted the rest with lightning, far less powerful than that of Magnolia’s artifact, but still strong enough to shock and kill.

Go, go!

Magnolia screamed the words, Ressa holding her back. Across the battlefield, the Goblins were screaming the opposite.

 

—-

 

“Stop them!”

Snapjaw raced at the second Golem, seeing Goblins with chains and rope trying to slow it. But the massive beast was unstoppable. She grabbed a chain and felt herself being dragged along. Lightning blasted her, travelling down the chain. Snapjaw felt her body shaking, saw flashes—she hung on.

Goblins seized her from behind. Two more Hobs grabbed a chain. Snapjaw saw them jerk as they held on. One Hob spasmed—she could see him dying as he held the chain. His heart—hers was fluttering, stopping. Still, they dug their heels in the mug.

Stop!

The Goblins had formed a chain twenty bodies deep on each rope, but the War Golem had only slowed. It was still moving forwards. Still moving—

A shape blocked its way. Eater of Spears roared as he charged into the War Golem. He swung a fist and the massive metal monster punched back. It’s dagger-fingers sank into the giant Hobgoblin’s stomach, tore. Eater of Spears roared in pain and Snapjaw tried to drag the War Golem back.

The rift in the walls of bone was closing! They just had to hold the Golem—hold it—

Snapjaw wasn’t sure when the next bolt of lightning stopped her heart. She saw everything flash—found herself lying on her back. She sat upright, saw the Golem pounding Eater of Spears down. Saw him hold on to its legs.

The first Golem was at the opening. It pushed inside as the bone began to flow around it. The second threw aside Eater of Spears and raced for the opening. It crashed into the gap, made it halfway inside—and lodged in place. The bone covered it, entrapping the struggling Golem. It fought, and then, slowly, began to die. The magical dome was crushing its insides, bending the enchanted metal of its body. The Golem stopped moving and Snapjaw saw the bright light in its mouth dim and go out.

It was dead. But one of the Golems had entered. Snapjaw hoped it would be enough. But she had no idea what was going on inside. She only knew her Goblin Lord was alive.

The rest was a mystery.

 

—-

 

Zel Shivertail was alone. He had been alone before. But never like this.

The undead surrounded him. Venitra cut at his left—Kerash his right. Zel blocked with his arm and leg. Both blades bit into his flesh. He roared and slashed at Kerash—a wall of oozing gelatin blocked him.

“Eat him, Oom!”

Bea cried out, circling Zel, afraid to get cut by his claws. Oom extended his ‘arm’, letting Zel’s claws sink further into his body. The Drake roared as he felt his scales burning and yanked his arm out.

“My second eldest creation, Oom. He was made to destroy you, Shivertail.”

Az’kerash’s voice was calm as the undead continued their attack. Ijvani blasted Zel with a spray of something black that tried to obscure his vision—he blocked it with his hand, and kicked at Venitra as she charged. But the bone woman was so heavy—her body was solid bone and the momentum of her change carried her in to him. She knocked Zel over and he grunted as her sword stabbed towards his head.

“Not—”

He threw her off her with all the strength he could manage. A sword stabbed at his breastplate and failed to penetrate his armor. Kerash slashed at Zel’s head and again the Drake blocked with an arm as he rose. More blood—another cut—the blade was terribly, terribly cold, but Zel could handle the pain.

What was worse was Oom. The undead creature had tangled around his legs, engulfing them. Zel tried to break free, and failed. Ijvani scorched him with another fireball made of black flames.

“Slimes! It’s not undead, it’s a damned—”

Zel roared as Oom tried to engulf him. He swung a fist and part of Oom’s body sprayed outwards, but the rest kept sticking to his body. The Necromancer’s voice was amused.

“Indeed. An Acid Slime, given sentience and far more power of course. It is rare for such a creature to form naturally, but a simple matter for me. Oom is your natural enemy, Shivertail.”

The acid was burning Zel, and if Oom covered his mouth, he’d be in Zel’s insides, suffocating him. Zel heaved and part of Oom splattered across the bone walls.

“Not yet.”

He moved his feet, but they were still stuck. Now Venitra and Kerash were on either side. Venitra swung and this time her blade cut deep into Zel’s arm. He staggered and Kerash sliced into his leg. Both blades hit bone.

Falling. Zel felt it. He twisted, reaching for a potion at his belt, but Oom was pulling him down again, trying to hold his arms. He had to—Zel felt more fire burning him, opened his mouth and felt it scorching his body. And Bea was reaching for him with a rotted hand.

And then the wall exploded. Zel felt the impact, felt something lift his body, Oom, and all the undead and throw them into the far wall. He slid to the ground, stunned, and then got up.

“What—”

There was daylight! Something had blown open the wall of the dome! Zel saw shocked Goblin faces turning towards him and heard the Necromancer’s voice.

“How—what artifact was—Kerash! Do not let Shivertail escape!

His voice was urgent. Kerash and Venitra threw themselves in the way of the gap. Zel charged and his fist collided with Venitra’s shield. For the first time in that battle, Zel ran up against something he couldn’t push back. Venitra struck at him with her sword and he dodged left. The gap was closing! Zel ran at Kerash, not caring if he took a blade to get out—

And then Oom abandoned his trench coat. He surged out of his clothing and into the gap, creating a wall out of his body. The slime formed a wall and the undead created a wall in front of him. Zel halted. He stared at the undead and thought for a second.

Then he backed up. Kerash stared and Venitra lifted her sword uncertainly. She took a step forwards, but too late. Zel had a potion at his belt and was downing it.

“Stop him!”

Ijvani tried to cast a spell, but Zel sidestepped the bolts of lightning. The undead wavered, but if they moved they would have to abandon the closing gap to the outside. Grimly, Zel downed two more potions, feeling his wounds close and his body surge with energy.

And the gap closed. He couldn’t escape. Oom and the four other undead flowed away from the gap as it narrowed. Then Kerash’s head turned.

“What is that sound? Oom?”

Zel heard a shriek. The slime turned—and was splattered as one of Magnolia’s two War Golems surged into the gap. It turned, its glowing mouth appraising, and immediately slashed at Kerash. The undead scattered.

The gap in the ivory walls closed. Zel saw another Golem racing at the opening, saw it get caught—he was already leaping at Ijvani.

“Golem, cover me!”

He roared at the War Golem as it slashed at Venitra and Kerash. The two warrior-undead scattered to either side, blocking the Golem’s sharp dagger-fingers and cutting at its legs. Both their blades cut into the Golem’s enchanted body more easily than Zel’s flesh.

Help me!

Ijvani screamed at the other undead as Zel savaged her with his claws. He was trying to destroy her head, but her bones were tough and she was blocking with her staff. He ripped one arm off and then felt a cold stickiness engulf his left arm. His scales began to burn at the same time.

“Oom! Hold him so I can touch him!”

Bea dashed forwards. Zel kicked at her and she stumbled back. She was least agile of the undead. But she managed to distract him long enough—Oom finally managed to engulf Zel’s torso.

“Finish him, Oom!”

Kerash roared as he cut at the Golem’s legs. The Golem was on its knees—it couldn’t handle the onslaught of both undead at once. Zel saw its mouth glowing red and shouted.

“Golem—fire on me!

The War Golem looked up. It focused on Zel and he saw a fiery inferno grow in its mouth. The fiery laser erupted from its mouth and blasted Zel and Oom as they stood locked in place.

Oom!

Bea screamed. The undead woman lurched forwards. Too late. The slime screamed, a soundless wail as the fire blasted its body apart. Zel felt Oom’s body vaporize around him. He stumbled, felt his scales flaking off. But his hands were reaching. Where—

There. He found a core in the slime’s body. A mana stone, his heart. It was large, as large as Zel’s fist. Oom’s gelatinous body wriggled around it, burning Zel, trying to infiltrate his body, burn it. Zel gripped the stone tightly.

All four undead were staring at him. Bea raised one hand. Her eyes were wide. Why had Az’kerash made her so much like a normal Human woman? Her voice shook.

“Don’t—”

Zel’s grip tightened. Oom screamed as the mana stone broke. And then there was silence.

The slime dripped from Zel’s body as he stood. The Drake swung his arm and the acid that had been Oom’s body splattered across the ground. He tossed the shattered mana stone to the ground and looked around.

The War Golem collapsed as Kerash drove his enchanted blade into the back of it’s head. Venitra rose, her shield smoking after having blocked a second fiery beam. The four undead stared at Zel Shivertail.

He was burned. His arms screamed—he could feel his bones cracked in places, feel the acid eating at him. But still Zel stood. He looked around at them, the confident undead, now, suddenly aware of their mortality.

“That’s one. Who’s next?”

“Oom.”

Az’kerash’s voice was a hiss. Kerash raised his sword as he and Venitra flanked Zel again.

“You will pay for that.”

Venitra’s voice was deep. Zel laughed at her.

“Venitra, don’t rush in!”

Kerash stopped Venitra before the bone woman could charge at him. The Gnoll pointed.

“Ijvani, lock down the Drake’s movements. Venitra, cover me.”

He advanced, sword at the ready. Zel gritted his teeth as Ijvani tossed a spell at him. It was some kind of ooze—like Oom it stuck to whatever it touched. He got some on his leg as he pivoted to dodge—Kerash slashed at Zel’s eyes and was blocked. Venitra charged with her shield and Zel scored her twice across the chest with his claws. He could cut her body! But the strikes weren’t deep and the impact jarred his hands. Zel hissed, raised his claws.

“[Rending—]”

And Bea touched his body.

It was quick, just a touch on his arm. But the instant her pallid flesh made contact with his, Zel felt a hot flash run down his arm. And then—a terrible uneasiness.

He whirled, seeing Bea’s hand stretched towards him. The undead woman had lunged at him, ignoring the danger. Zel’s claw took off her arm as she tried to retreat. But the second touch felt just as bad as the first. And as Bea stepped back there was a sense of…satisfaction in her eyes.

“What was—that?”

Zel sensed the other undead moving back. He grabbed at his belt and shattered a potion bottle as he smashed it over his arm. The liquid splashed across the spots Bea had touched him at. But instead of healing the spots she’d touched, the burning sensation ran down Zel’s arm. And—pain.

“Excellent job, Bea.”

Az’kerash’s voice sounded satisfied again. Bea picked up her arm and retreated. The undead watched Zel as he clutched at his arm. His arm and his claws hurt. Whatever the burning was, it was spreading like wildfire. Why? Because of the touch?

No, because of the potion. Zel realized his mistake too late. Healing potions healed most things, but they weren’t cure-alls. They couldn’t regenerate lost limbs, and they could only heal what a normal person could be expected to get through. That was because they amplified a body’s healing process, made it faster. And while that worked on damaged flesh and bone, it didn’t work on—

“Plague.”

Bea spoke the words mockingly. Zel coughed, and stared at the blood on his claws. His lungs burned as the magical disease coursed through his body. He looked around. The undead grinned at him. Four mocking eyes. Zel closed his and straightened.

Then he smiled. The undead hesitated. Zel opened his claws as he tossed his belt and the healing potions to the ground. He nodded to them, and clenched one fist.

“Well then. Let’s end this, shall we?”

He charged Venitra first, ignoring the blade she stabbed into his side. His claws were sharp. And there was nothing holding him back anymore.

 

—-

 

The battle had been long. The battle had been short. To the Goblin Lord, it felt as though the battle between Zel Shivertail and the undead had gone on forever. He knew it couldn’t have been more than…no, how long had it been?

Five minutes? Ten minutes? Twenty minutes? Half an hour? It continued. Zel Shivertail whirled, striking left and right, refusing to let the undead regroup. They had burned him, cut him, smashed his bones, poisoned him, infected him—and yet he stood.

The Goblin Lord had seen it all. He had lain where Zel had fallen, clinging to life with his own magics as the undead and the Drake battled. Now, he desperately uncorked a healing potion, one of the ones Zel had dropped and poured it over his stomach.

His organs began to heal. The Goblin Lord pushed them into his stomach, trying not to scream as Zel cut at Venitra. The Drake [General] was gasping, his green scales mottled with the disease as it spread unnaturally fast. Part of his body was simply black with ash and soot—his scales were flaking off. Yet still he attacked. Venitra raised her shield as the claws slashed across them. Zel hit her with a punch that cracked her pristine face.

“You dare—”

She cried out in outrage as fracture lines ran from one cheek. Venitra swung her sword and Zel grabbed it.

Weak!

He roared as he yanked the blade away. Venitra abandoned her shield and raised a massive fist. She swung and Zel punched. The Drake’s fist shattered her nose. His next blow cracked her bone chest plate.

The Drake lifted Venitra, her entire massive body and threw her at Bea, who’d been sneaking up on him from behind. The blow sent both female undead tumbling to the ground and Bea’s body broke as Venitra landed on her. Zel turned and Kerash’s sword lanced into his shoulder. Zel’s slash opened the Gnoll’s chest, exposing his ribs.

“[Blackfire Fireball]!”

Ijvani fired the same spell again, engulfing Zel in flames, giving Kerash a second to retreat. Zel turned, his body blazing, and kicked Ijvani. The skeleton broke into pieces and crashed to the ground. Venitra struggled to her feet and Az’kerash’ voice spoke in the silence as Zel paused a moment to gasp for air.

“Still?”

The Goblin Lord could hear Zel’s lungs wheezing for air. The Drake took a step towards Kerash and stumbled. The Gnoll backed up. His chest hung open, the dead flesh severed. Venitra raised her sword unsteadily.

“Hold.”

The undead paused. Az’kerash’s voice was sharp as Zel coughed more blood up.

“[Flesh Regrowth]. [Mend Bones]. Venitra, support Kerash! Your role is to take his blows not charge in alone! Ijvani, advance! Use more powerful spells to decimate the area—the other three will survive your magic! Bea, attempt to find the Drake’s back!”

“He’s still standing, master! He shouldn’t be—he should be dead by now!”

Bea cried out as she circled Zel. The Drake turned to face her, his eyes burning. He was slowing though. The Goblin Lord could see it. And yet, it was Zel who made the first move. He slashed at Bea, cutting into her stomach as she leapt back. Again, the contact with her body made whatever infection that was coursing through Zel intensify, but he ignored the spreading stain on his claws. He stood and beckoned at the other undead as they circled him warily.

“Come on. Come on! I thought you were supposed to be monsters!”

His eyes blazed beneath the blood and burnt scales on his face. Again, the four hesitated. But they attacked as one, moving in perfect unison.

Venitra low, Kerash high. Bea from the left, Ijvani from the back. Zel cut Kerash and seized Venitra’s head. He twisted and the bones forming her neck began to crack.

Weak!

Again Zel roared the word. Venitra managed to loosen his grip on her and stumbled back. The undead retreated as Zel swung at Ijvani, staring. Zel stumbled.

“You cannot win this battle, Shivertail. I am impressed you are still standing. But—”

“Four left.”

Zel regained his balance and grabbed Kerash’s blade as it swung at his head. His claws bled as the enchanted metal dug into his claws. He hit Kerash in the face, bashing the Gnoll’s face in. Kerash stumbled back. Bea leapt at Zel and he kicked her. The tip of his foot pierced her abdomen and he stomped her to the ground. She gasped.

“Your minions can’t kill me.”

Zel rasped as he ground Bea’s body underneath his foot. She was grabbing at his leg and he was ignoring it. Venitra and Kerash attacked with Ijvani, but Zel refused to budge.

“You think you understand strength! I am the shield of the Drakes! I am a [General]! And a general does not fall!

He bent and cut Bea in two. She gasped and stared at her lower half, separate from her torso. Zel turned.

“Three!”

He charged into Venitra, trading blows with the bone knight. It was she who fell back, cracked and broken. Zel ignored Kerash as the Gnoll cut at his back. And the Goblin Lord moved.

Slowly, ever so slowly he rose. His body was weak, and he had no more magic for a spell. But Venitra had dropped her sword as Zel continued his assault. The bone blade was heavy, but strong. The Goblin Lord grabbed it stealthily.

Drake!

Kerash was dueling Zel as Venitra fell to one knee. He was falling back—Ijvani was cowering, her body nearly torn to bits. The Goblin Lord crept up on Zel from behind, sword raised. He aimed for Zel’s neck as the Drake beat Kerash down with blows that cracked the undead Gnoll’s shoulders and arms. Wait…Zel’s claws were on Kerash’s head. He began to twist—

Now. The Goblin Lord leapt forwards. Zel turned, fast as a snake. He kicked the Goblin Lord and the Goblin felt his ribs crumple from the blow. He fell, gasping, as Zel flung Kerash backwards.

“Idiot.”

He coughed more blood out as he kicked the Goblin Lord before he could go for the sword again. Kerash stumbled up—Zel’s fist cracked his skull.

“Now.”

The Drake [General] was slowing, but he still charged Venitra as she came at him. The two grappled, desperate, Venitra’s body breaking. The Goblin Lord tried to get up. He grabbed the sword and slashed at Zel’s legs. The Drake grunted as the blade pierced his thigh. He turned, grabbed the Goblin Lord and raised a claw as he shoved Venitra back. The undead woman stumbled, and the Goblin Lord looked into Zel’s eyes.

“I—”

Someone moved behind the Goblin Lord. He saw Zel’s eyes widen, felt the Drake release him. Too slow.

“[Diamondshard Spray].”

A hand rose and pointed. The Goblin Lord felt something flash past his face—tear through one of his ears. Zel stumbled. Glittering shards of diamond shot through the air, some as long as daggers, tearing into his face, his body. The Drake turned towards Az’kerash as the Necromancer raised his hands. He moved.

“[Accelerate Spell]. [Stone Lance].”

Zel’s head twisted. The Goblin Lord saw a flash, felt the impact on the far wall as the lance of stone broke. And as Zel Shivertail turned his head back, the Goblin Lord saw part of his head was missing.

“[Deathblast].”

Again, the Necromancer pointed. This time the black magic that washed over Zel was a wave, far stronger than anything the Goblin Lord could create. It sapped the last of the Drake’s energy, rendered his body stiff. Az’kerash pointed, at the Drake’s chest and uttered the spell again.

“[Deathblast].”

The dark magic struck Zel. He stumbled, his leg moved—stopped. He stood in place, eyes vacant.

“[Deathblast].”

There was no light in his eyes. The Goblin Lord wanted to cry out. Treachery! He had attacked from behind! But that was how Goblins fought. And yet the Necromancer…Az’kerash’s black eyes were locked on Zel’s own. The Drake’s gaze was unmoving.

[Deathblast].

The fourth spell was the last. Zel didn’t move as the spell struck him. Az’kerash lowered his finger then, and looked around.

“Ah, my apprentice. Your timing was quite useful. For that distraction I thank you.”

The Goblin Lord stared up at his master, at Az’kerash. The Necromancer was here. Here. He must have used one of his Scrolls of Greater Teleport to come here. The Goblin Lord knew he had only eleven left. No—four now. He had spent those valuable artifacts for this.

For Zel Shivertail. The Necromancer turned his gaze back to the Drake. Zel Shivertail stood in place, part of his head simply…gone. He had dodged the worst of the Necromancer’s spells, but a shard of diamond had taken his left eye. And his body was burnt black in places, cut from a thousand blades, and discolored from where Bea’s plague touch had spread.

And still, he had fought through it all. And if the Necromancer had not come at the last—the Goblin Lord looked away.

“Master!”

A voice interrupted the silence. Bea crawled towards her creator, her body badly damaged. The Goblin Lord moved away from her as she dragged her torso towards Az’kerash. She was holding a broken stone in her hands.

“Ah, Bea.”

Az’kerash greeted her with obvious satisfaction in his voice. The undead woman did not share his joy. She held the pieces of Oom’s mana stone in trembling hands.

“Oom! He’s dead, master. Can you—is he—”

“Gone.”

The Necromancer’s voice was cold and dispassionate. Bea stared up at him, her legs separated from her body, cradling what remained of Oom.

“But he fought! Master—”

“I warned him to safeguard his mana core at all costs. He was foolish, allowing that War Golem to damage him so. No, perhaps it was Shivertail I underestimated. Or was it the capabilities of my Chosen? Venitra, Kerash, rise. I am disappointed in you both. And perhaps you most of all, Ijvani, how is it you failed to damage Zel Shivertail in any meaningful way throughout the battle?”

The other undead, the Necromancer’s Chosen, began to rise, shamefaced. Venitra had to have Kerash’s help to stumble upright.

“Master. We are grateful.”

Kerash’s voice rasped. Az’kerash eyed him.

“You are badly damaged, Kerash. I must restructure your body when we return to the castle. All of you. Prepare yourselves for transit. I will destroy the enchantment protecting this place momentarily. Ijvani, you will make your way back with an invisibility spell; there are no more scrolls of teleportation.”

Yes, master.

The Goblin Lord stared at the black skeleton as she stumbled away from the others. Bea still pleaded with her master.

“Master, what if I took the fragments back? If I put it in Oom’s special place, maybe—”

“He is gone, Bea.”

Az’kerash’s eyes flashed with annoyance and the undead woman shrank back. He turned, his face displeased, and then relented as he looked towards Zel again.

“Ah, General Shivertail. What a formidable opponent you were. Perhaps if you had been a touch faster in battle, or escaped Bea’s touch a moment sooner, I might have reconsidered arriving myself. But for all your strength in life, you will be the finest of my servants in death. For that I thank you.”

He walked over to Zel, his hands reaching out to touch the Drake’s chest. The Goblin Lord saw Zel’s eyes flicker, saw the Drake’s claws move.

[Antimagic Slash]!”

The cut was fast. It scythed through the almost-invisible aura of protection around the Necromancer’s body, cut into his neck—but only just. Zel was too far away. His claws only opened the Necromancer’s throat. And as the Necromancer staggered back, his black eyes wide with shock, Zel collapsed.

“What—”

The Necromancer’s throat did not bleed. He covered his pale flesh and stared at Zel. The Drake looked up at him, fallen, unable to move. Just looked.

“Return! Apprentice, finish the Drake! Secure his corpse!”

Az’kerash’s voice snapped. He grabbed for a scroll at his side and vanished. The undead around him stared at their master—Ijvani disappeared in a pop as she cast [Lesser Teleport] and the others fled, pulling out scrolls of their own. The Goblin Lord looked around, stunned by the sudden absence of the other undead.

“Hah. Hahaha. Coward.”

Zel Shivertail lay on the ground, laughing. He was still alive. Somehow. The Goblin Lord could see into his head, but the Drake still clung to life. His eyes turned to the Goblin Lord.

“I’m sorry.”

The Goblin Lord said it as he knelt by Zel’s side. He stared down at the Drake, seeing how the enchanted armor had failed in places. The magical metal had been melted in one place, pierced in two. Zel Shivertail stared up at the ivory ceiling overhead. The enchantment was breaking up—the dome was collapsing in places, letting sunlight in.

The Goblin Lord could hear Humans and Goblins shouting outside the dome in confusion. There was still a battle going on. But in this moment he only had eyes for Zel. He felt he should say something.

“I’m sorry. It was not a worthy death. Cowardly. It was—”

He got no further. A hand shot out and grabbed him by the throat. The Goblin Lord choked, tried to move back. He couldn’t. Zel Shivertail sat up, his grip crushing the Goblin Lord’s throat.

“I’m not dead yet.”

He stared at the Goblin Lord with his one good eye. It blazed with a strange light. How could he still move? How could he—the Goblin Lord was choking.

“I could kill you. It would be so easy.”

Zel Shivertail said the words casually. He stared at the Goblin Lord, and then, suddenly, released him. The Goblin Lord stumbled backwards, gasping for air.

“I don’t feel like it. Not anymore.”

Zel stared ahead. His head was—blood dripped from the missing part of his head. His voice was distant.

“I feel so tired. So this is how it ends? Funny, I always thought it would be—quicker.”

He turned his head. The Goblin Lord stared at him. But Zel was no longer looking at him. The Drake [General] looked ahead, and his voice was very distant.

“Sserys, old friend. I couldn’t lead them. I couldn’t inspire them like you did. But I tried. I wonder, would you say this was a job well done? I couldn’t kill the Necromancer, in the end. I only got one of his minions. And…”

His voice trailed off. Zel’s head drooped. His voice was lower. The Goblin Lord moved forwards to hear. Zel’s voice was a whisper as he looked ahead, looked at the past.

“My mentor, my friend, wings of my heart, did I do a good job? Defending our people? It was so very difficult without you. Will I see you, I wonder? Will you say I did a good job or a bad one when we meet?”

“You did.”

The Goblin Lord spoke, his voice trembling. He reached out, hesitated. He spoke, as gently as he could.

“You did. You protected them. Your people. You did it. It was a good job.”

Zel stirred. His eyes focused on the Goblin Lord’s face and he frowned.

“I’ll let Sserys tell me in person, Goblin.”

He stared at the Goblin, and then smiled. It was such a strange thing that the Goblin Lord nearly smiled back. The Goblin brushed at his eyes and was surprised to find water on his claws. Zel looked at him.

“Do you have a name?”

“No. No name. Just Goblin Lord. Apprentice. Goblin.”

The Goblin Lord sat next to Zel as the dome broke. The Drake looked up at the sky. He sighed.

“How strange. Everyone should have a name. It doesn’t seem right. You—should have one.”

The Goblin Lord was silent. Zel stared up, blood dripped slowly from his wounds. And then stopped.

“How about Reiss? It’s a proper Drake name. If I had a son—Sserys always talked about wanting to raise a boy and name him that.”

Reiss. The Goblin Lord stared at Zel for a second. The Drake laughed.

“Take it if you want it. I don’t think Sserys will mind. And—no, never mind.”

“I will. And I will avenge. Avenge you and my people. I swear it. The Necromancer will die by my hand.”

The Goblin Lord looked at Zel. The Drake eyed him, and then shrugged.

“Good. I hope you do it. But I won’t be around to see it. And truthfully…I would have liked to…”

His voice trailed off. Reiss looked into Zel’s eyes and saw the Drake’s vision had gone distant again. Zel whispered as the Goblin Lord wiped at his eyes again.

“A good job. Did I do it?”

He laughed once.

“I suppose I’ll never know. But I did try. I did—”

Reiss waited a long time, but Zel never finished his sentence. He sat there, the last traces of laughter still on his face. The Tidebreaker stared up at the sky as the walls of ivory finally broke and both armies could see into the dome at last.

There was just silence at first. Reiss sat with Zel, head bowed, until he realized that it looked like both he and Zel were dead. He stood slowly, and heard the Goblins roaring. But from the Human side there was no noise.

There was only silence. Then the Goblin Lord heard a groan from the Humans. It sounded like something living had been torn from them. He saw the armored ranks of men and woman falter, saw some fall to their knees and others begin to weep. The news dawned on the army slowly as they saw the Goblin Lord standing over the distant form of their [General].

Zel Shivertail was dead. The Tidebreaker had fallen.

And the Goblin Lord had slain him.

It was not the truth. Reiss wanted to scream it out loud. But he couldn’t. And the Goblins roared as they saw the fallen Drake and their victorious leader. They streamed towards him, screaming, staring in awe at the fallen Zel Shivertail.

“Dead! Dead, dead, dead!

Snapjaw shouted the words in triumph. She and the other Goblins were fighting to get to the Goblin Lord, offering potions. One Goblin reached to push Zel Shivertail aside. Reiss whirled and shouted.

Stop!

The Goblins froze. The Goblin Lord looked around and pointed to Zel Shivertail’s body.

“Leave body. Anyone who touches, dies.”

They stared at him, and then at the fallen Drake. Reiss wiped at his eyes. He said one word.

“Withdraw.”

He turned and walked away. Uncomprehending, the Goblins stared at him and then followed. Reiss the Goblin Lord led his army away as the Humans stared at the slumped figure in shining armor. They wept, and the cry went up. It echoed across the battlefield, across the city of Invrisil, and out onto the rest of the continent. The words shook the world.

 

—-

 

Magnolia Reinhart wept as she retreated from the battlefield. Ressa, beside her, was dry-eyed, but her hands were tight on her mistress’ arm as she guided Magnolia away. The Lady Reinhart spoke only once as they retreated behind the procession bearing the Tidebreaker’s body away from the battle.

“I am offering a hundred thousand gold coins. No, I will offer a million gold coins or whatever artifacts I own. Spread the word among the Assassin’s Guilds, in every part of the world. I will have the Necromancer dead, Ressa.”

“Yes, milady.”

 

—-

 

A’kerash strode through his castle, his damaged servants, his Chosen trailing after him. They were four now, and they dared not speak to him. The Necromancer had triumphed today, but that victory was hollow as well.

“Oom’s death was unfortunate.”

That was all Az’kerash said as he halted in front of his rooms. The four undead looked at him. Bea’s face was a mask of grief. The Necromancer looked at each of them and then away.

“I see I have overestimated your capabilities. Or perhaps underestimated that of my foes. The next generation of your brothers and sisters will lack your weaknesses.”

They bowed their heads. Az’kerash turned.

“I will repair you all shortly. Rest, and regain your strength. I have need of you yet. I have eliminated one of my greatest foes today.”

He turned and smiled bitterly. And from his castle, the same words were repeated. They broke upon the Walled Cities, and shattered the hearts of the Drakes. The end of a legend. The death of an era.

Fear for the future.

 

—-

 

The news struck Liscor like a wave. Grief-stricken Drakes stood in the streets, weeping, and the Gnolls were little better. Zel Shivertail was dead. The hero of the Second Antinium Wars, the shield that had protected Izril for so long, had fallen.

In The Wandering Inn, Klbkch saw Erin weeping at the counter and Lyonette slumped at a table. Mrsha was howling from the top of the inn. He turned, and left the building.

Klbkch did not weep. The Antinium did not cry. He slowly walked through the streets of Liscor, hearing the horns blowing, seeing grief in every corner. He walked into the Antinium Hive and heard a hush. The Workers and Soldiers did not understand the grief and fear, yes, fear that gripped the hearts of those above.

Well, that was their nature. Klbkch descended through the tunnels, walking by memory, and came to a large room. The Queen of the Free Antinium looked down at him.

“Klbkchhezeim.”

“My Queen. Has the artifact been installed to your satisfaction?”

“So it seems. The Courier delivered it to the door of the Hive this morning. I have placed it here.”

The Queen indicated a mirror made out of black glass, a tall frame that was far too small to reflect her entire body. Klbkch stared at it. It did not fit in this room, but it was a powerful artifact and there were few good alternatives.

“Have you activated it yet?”

“No.”

The Queen of the Free Antinium stared at Klbkch as he slowly walked over to the mirror. He placed a hand on it and the surface rippled. It changed. Instead of reflecting the Queen and Klbkch, the surface swam until it was reflecting another room.

It was quite similar to the one Klbkch stood in. The only difference was that this room was carved of stone, and there were quite a number of tunnels leading to and from this cavernous room. And the Queen in the center was far, larger than the Queen of the Free Antinium. She was massive, bloated, and rested on a huge dais in the center of the room. She stared towards the mirror.

“Klbkchhezeim? The connection is strong it seems. How fares the Free Antinium?”

“Zel Shivertail is dead.”

Klbkch’s voice was flat. The Grand Queen of the Antinium went still. In the frame, Klbkch saw one of the Antinium gathered around her turn. Xrn stared at him. The Grand Queen was silent as she stared at Klbkch. Then her mandibles parted and rose.

“Good. We have much to do, Klbkchhezeim, my Queen of the Free Antinium.”

She waved a languid feeler. The Antinium turned to face Klbkch, and the Grand Queen spoke.

“The Goblins are moving once more. The Humans stir for war. The Drakes have lost their shield. And the Antinium will rise.”

Klbkch nodded. He stared at the Grand Queen of the Antinium, and his hands tightened on the hilts of his sword. He said only one word.

“Perhaps.”

 

End of Volume 4.

 

 

 

Author’s Note:

 

So, we come to this at last. At last, the volume ends. And I had planned to write this last chapter directly before the break. Perhaps it’s better that I didn’t. Perhaps it would have been better had I not had the break.

We’ll never know. But it is done, and the world is changed now. Zel Shivertail is dead. And what follows will be…different.

This is the darkest end to a volume, and speaks of what is to come. And yet, and yet, our story is about Erin, about hope, and about more than just war. But it does feel like war and conflict threaten us despite our best hopes. As in this world, so in ours.

Thank you for reading. I had a good break, and I think it was appropriate—I hope to take a week long break after every end of volume, if only to recharge a bit. I have a lot of ideas for the next volume and a lot of story yet to come. Some of it will be tragic, some horrific (hopefully not due to bad writing), other parts hopeful, or sad or silly or…

Thank you all for supporting the story, whether it be from pledging or talking about it, or simply reading. I have a lot I want to do, from releasing the e-book to fixing typos and plot points and adding a glossary. I have a lot to do, but what I start and end with is this: writing. I hope you enjoy the story and if you do, I have a lot more to tell.

See you soon. I’m back to writing and Volume 5 begins in two days. I’ll put the monthly side stories poll up soon too, and maybe another short (non-canonical) piece side story I wrote during my vacation. Thanks for reading as always,

–pirateaba

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

4.48

Time was peculiar. Lady Magnolia knew that well. Some days, some moments could seem to last forever while entire years could flash by. It was all a matter of how much was happening. When it seemed like the world was ending and dire news was the headline of each morning, time could be at a standstill as every day became an unfolding disaster. By the same token though, when there was too much to do and time was precious, it slipped away like shadows in the sun.

She planned with Zel Shivertail, letting the [General] take command of his forces, assisting where she could without getting in the way. Magnolia pulled strings, marshalled all the resources at her immediate disposal, flattened gossip in places and encouraged it in others, and heard reports from [Scouts]. A day passed like that and then it was time.

The Goblins were here.

The first sign of their presence was the distant drum beats that echoed across the grasslands like thunder. The last of the winter’s cold fled with their arrival, and the dark skies and overcast day heralded a wet, if temperate battlefield.

“Muddy. Bad footing. I wish we could have had better weather for today’s battle.”

Magnolia Reinhart turned her head as she stood on those same fields. She had been staring at a black mass in the distance. Now she looked at an armored woman by her side. The woman was dressed so she looked nothing like the [Maid] she was—wearing thick metal armor and carrying an enchanted mace, she was the spitting image of Odveig, the former leader of the Celestial Trackers. But Sacra had many disguises, many faces. And Magnolia appreciated the depth of her knowledge in moments like these.

“Why is mud disadvantageous, Sacra? Aside from the obvious reasons. I would assume that the danger of slipping applies to Goblins as equally as Humans.”

Sacra bowed her head slightly, not taking her eyes off of the distant Goblin host.

“Your pardon Lady Reinhart. But Goblins are experienced in fighting in almost all forms of weather and terrain. Humans are not. Some of the soldiers here won’t have practiced in these conditions. They’ll be at a slight disadvantage.”

“I see. Hopefully General Shivertail will be able to compensate.”

Magnolia turned her gaze back towards the Goblins. They had been marching steadily towards Invrisil for two hours now, across the plains outside of Invrisil. The Human army had decided to meet them four miles outside of Invrisil’s suburbs. Any closer and the Goblins might use the houses and buildings as cover, or worse, scale the outermost walls and threaten the city itself.

Invrisil had not come under attack since the Second Antinium Wars. It had grown without fear, safe from [Bandits] and monsters due to the high number of adventurers who lived within its confines. But now, in the face of the Goblin Lord’s armies those same adventurers were in hiding.

All but a few. Magnolia shifted her gaze and stared at the army of Humans that had formed up ahead of her, in the path of the approaching army. The armor of thousands of [Soldiers] gleamed in the light drizzle from overhead, and Magnolia could see hundreds, maybe thousands of banners, each proclaiming a unit from a different village, town or city.

Just over forty thousand soldiers. A vast army. And yet the Goblin Lord’s forces were reported to be almost double that number. True, his forces would be comprised of noncombatants as well, children, pregnant Goblins, the elderly…and a good half of his army was the undead horde.

Even so, the numbers alone made Magnolia’s heart beat quicker. She stared at the Goblins until another voice spoke up.

“It’s not right.”

“What is?”

Lady Bethal stared at the Goblin Lord’s army. It was spreading out across the grasslands, growing larger by the second. So many. Magnolia tried to count and gave up. Bethal’s voice was pained, the only sound in the silence.

“We should have brought twice as many soldiers to this battlefield. Three times. These are Goblins. Why hasn’t every city within a thousand miles turned out their garrisons to support us? This isn’t a matter of politics! Why are we so divided? But instead Lord Tyrion siphons off soldiers we need, and so we have to send a Drake legend in with a half-formed army—”

“I know.”

Magnolia cut her friend off. She sighed.

“I know, Bethal. But we Humans do not always act in the best interests of our people. We are selfish, paranoid, petty…I should have known my enemies would fight me even in this. They would let a city of hundreds of thousands burn to hurt me.”

“Fools.”

“Not fools. Not entirely. Just…uncaring, I think. To his credit, Zel Shivertail realized how lackluster a force he had been given. But he chose to lead it anyways. He thinks he can win, not just defend, Bethal.”

Magnolia stared out across the ranks of Human soldiers, at the lone figure standing on the front lines. Zel Shivertail’s armor glowed in the dim light, a beacon for all those who looked for such things. Bethal shook her head.

“I pray he’s right, Magnolia. My Thomast is out there and almost all of my Knights of the Petal. If they are lost—”

Her eyes flicked to her husband, lost in the seas of soldiers. Magnolia could spot the iconic [Knights] in their light pink and red armor. She tried to soothe Bethal, although she didn’t feel that calm herself.

“Your husband is quite competent Bethal. As for your [Knights]—they are the most elite force on the field, bar none. We must commit all we can to this battle. And remember, if you should see Thomast in trouble, you have given me your word not to go into the battle.”

“I know.”

Bethal sighed loudly and Magnolia eyed her. That had been the condition she’d imposed on Bethal before she’d let the other [Lady] observe the battle. Magnolia and her small retinue stood at a distance from the army and battlefield itself. Close enough to observe, but far enough in theory that the Goblin Lord would not trouble himself with them. And if he did…

Sacra stood with both feet planted on the ground, mace by her side. She was joined by eighteen other [Maids] and [Servants]…none of whom were wearing their usual uniforms today. They were all former spellcasters and warriors and they were all armed with magical artifacts.

A small guard. Magnolia had put her faith in Zel Shivertail. She wasn’t here to fight herself; she was an observer in this battle. Well, an observer with a small role to play. Magnolia’s flicked her gaze to the two huge covered wagons parked by her small escort. Both lacked mounts to pull them anywhere and were sinking slightly into the ground at the moment. Each one was large enough to hold several horses if you managed to get them up into such a confined space, and they were large enough to take shelter behind.

But again, if it came to that then something had gone wrong. Magnolia trusted Zel Shivertail to win this battle. And as if her thoughts had summoned him, she saw his figure heading her way.

Zel Shivertail rode a horse briskly towards Magnolia and her escort, and Magnolia walked forwards to meet him. She had been only vaguely surprised to learn Zel Shivertail was a competent rider—he never rode horses when fighting, so it was rare that he got a chance to show off his skills.

“Is there something wrong?”

“No. I’m changing the plan, though. Hold the secret weapons until the Goblin Lord makes his move. Don’t unleash them unless you think you have a shot at him.”

“Why, pray tell? They could cause extensive damage—”

Magnolia bit her tongue as she realized she was asking questions of a [General]. She was no [General]; she should just let him do his work. Zel answered her curtly as he eyed the distant Goblin Lord’s army.

“I don’t like the looks of the Goblin Lord’s vanguard. I took a look at them with a spyglass—it seems like he has a very strong escort and he’s entrenched himself in his army. It will be hard to get a clear shot at him unless it’s by surprise.”

“I understand. I will wait for the opportunity, then.”

Magnolia smoothed her skirts, glad the magical fabric couldn’t get dirty or wet. She looked at the Drake [General] and couldn’t help but ask a few more questions.

“Do you believe you’re prepared? There are still a few more contingency measures we could take. The magical artifact my grandfather gave me—”

“That thing?”

Zel turned his head and eyed the strange tube-like object that Magnolia had brought with her. It was resting on a small pedestal, guarded by two of her [Maids]. He shook his head.

“Unless the battle turns badly, don’t use it. I’d rather save that for the Great Chieftain you were talking about. And I’d rather not risk collateral damage since we don’t know exactly what it does.”

“Very well. And I see you have equipped the artifacts I gave you. Excellent.”

Zel frowned as he scratched at the pair of rings on his fingers. Magnolia knew he also had a pendant around his neck. They seemed to be annoying the Drake.

“Yes. I’m grateful, really, but I don’t like rings. I fight with my claws you know. These things can catch when I hit something.”

Magnolia pursed her lips, unsympathetic.

“I should imagine their effects outweigh whatever awkwardness you feel, General. They will protect you from unfortunate teleportation, curses, metal attack spells…they should be standard fare to someone of your rank. I can’t understand how you survived this long without them!”

“Probably because everyone thought I had them on and never bothered to test whether I had them or not. And I’ve survived nasty spells before. One time I got teleported off of a cliff…”

Zel grunted. His eyes were going back to the Goblin army. They were coming so slowly. Magnolia tried to keep her voice light and bantering. She and Zel were both icons after all. They had to pretend to be calm for the sake of others.

“I suppose Drakes don’t bother with magical protections, then? You, what, trust the strength of your scales?”

“Hardly. You should see some of them. I know a Lord of the Wall that has rings on every finger. No, I was never supported by the Walled Cities so I had to make do without. And any artifacts I used I returned. Well, I’ll try to get these ones back to you in one piece.”

“Please, consider them a gift. It would hardly do for me to be seen as stingy and I have quite a few ugly rings in my collection.”

“Thank you.”

They traded words like that for a few more minutes, both keeping their eyes on the Goblin Lord’s army. And then Zel nodded towards the black host in the distance.

“It’s time. Remember what I said. Wait for the Goblin Lord to be exposed. And as for the rest…”

He paused. Magnolia waited, her heart beating fast, her face composed. Zel Shivertail just shrugged.

“It’s time.”

“Fortune in battle!”

Magnolia called after Zel’s back as he turned his horse. She heard Sacra and the others around her saying something similar. Magnolia shook her head. Such old sayings. Such trite words. As if that would help one whit.

This was a battle. And as the Goblins came close enough for Magnolia to see their faces in the distance, she heard the drum beats striking louder now, the thumping in rhythm with her chest.

Doom. Doom.

The sound was like the steps of a giant. Only this giant was made of tens of thousands of black-armored Goblins, hordes of shambling undead. Magnolia stared across the ranks of Human swordsmen, mounted riders, archers, nervously staring at their foe. She wondered how they could look at that massive army and not run. There were so many! But the Humans were numerous too. The Goblins approached, spreading out like a breaking wave. Closer, closer—

And then the drumbeats ceased. Magnolia’s heart skipped a beat as the absence of sound affected her more powerfully than the noise. She stared at the Goblins and then saw him.

A Goblin sitting on a massive Shield Spider. A figure dressed in robes. He didn’t shine with an aura or radiate malice, but there was no mistaking him. The Goblin Lord rode his mount to the head of his army and raised his hand.

“Sacra, what is he—”

Magnolia turned to Sacra, about to ask her opinion. Without Ressa she was acting as commentator and analyst of the battle. But she never got a chance to voice her question. Because as the Goblin Lord raised his hand the Goblins around him raised their weapons and shouted one word.

Goblin.

The noise broke the silence and rippled across the plains, causing a physical ripple in the army of Humans. Magnolia’s ears rang and she saw the servants around her wince. Only Sacra, Bethal, and Magnolia didn’t flinch.

The effect on the Human army was just as effective. Magnolia could see ranks of Soldiers waver for a second before standing straight. Just one word had caused their morale to waver.

And it wasn’t over. The Goblin Lord raised his hand again and the Goblins shouted.

Goblin!

The noise was fury and bloodshed, monstrous, the very definitions of what Goblins could be. Magnolia calmed herself with a Skill, looking across her army. They weren’t breaking, but the Human soldiers were clearly unnerved by the sound.

“He’s trying to shatter our morale!”

Sacra shouted at Magnolia, explaining the obvious. Magnolia nodded, noting that Sacra had taken the mace from her belt. Again, the Goblin Lord raised his hand and the sound rolled forth.

Goblin!

Again the massed voices of the Goblins struck the Humans. Magnolia had to admire the simplicity of it. It was like being attacked, but there was no way to fight back. A few of the Human officers tried to raise their own cheers, and Magnolia heard the cries taken up, but only by a small percentage of the army. And the wavering voices made the Goblin’s earth-shattering chant all the more terrifying.

“Idiots. You can’t beat Goblins in a shouting contest.”

Sacra shook her head as she twirled the mace in her hands, eying the Goblin army restlessly. Magnolia raised her voice to be heard.

“How do you do it, then?”

What?

How do you beat them?

“Like that!”

Sacra pointed. Magnolia stared until she saw the lone figure standing at the head of the Human army. Zel Shivertail. He had advanced a few paces ahead of the front rank of swords and pikes so he was visible by most of his army. He stood, his armor shining, arms folded as the Goblins shouted again.

Goblin!

They had spotted him, Humans and Goblins alike. The Goblins were screaming, their noise filling the air and the Humans were shouting too. They wanted Zel to raise his hands, to fight sound with sound. But Zel did nothing.

He just stood. Waiting. And as Magnolia watched the Goblin Lord exalting his army again she realized what Sacra meant.

The Goblins roared at him, screaming, tens of thousands of Goblin voices howling their rage and fury. And still, Zel stood with arms folded. Waiting. And as they screamed, the Goblins stared at him. And their voices began to falter.

They all knew him. Foolishly, the Goblin Lord had studied Zel Shivertail, had read his stories. Tidebreaker, [General of the Line], hero of two Antinium Wars. The greatest [General] of the Drakes. And so rumors had spread. Zel Shivertail had trickled into the Goblin consciousness like poison. And now he was here, and that knowledge was magnified by his presence.

Zel Shivertail was huge. It wasn’t just his physical appearance, which was already imposing. He was like a giant shrunken down and contained within a much smaller body. He dominated the attention of the battlefield.

And he stood there, listening to the Goblins cheering, staring at the Goblin Lord. Just stood. But as Magnolia stared at his back she felt the apprehension from the Goblin’s chanting vanish. The Humans standing behind Zel stood straighter. His armor shone like fire and Zel waited.

Slowly, the Goblin chanting stopped. They stared at Zel, frustrated, angry, and perhaps, afraid. Because of what he was. What he represented.

There stood one who had fought the Goblin King, had fought his Goblin Lords. He was right there. And he was terrifying.

The silence had regained the battlefield. Magnolia saw the Goblin Lord waving his hands, shouting, frustration clear in his motions as the Goblins advanced again. By her side, Sacra nodded approvingly.

“We might not have won the battle of morale, but we certainly didn’t lose.”

“And now it begins.”

Bethal stared at the Goblins as they began to march rapidly on the Human army. Magnolia waited, her heart beating loudly, her eyes scanning the battlefield. She realized that the waiting, the chanting, all of it, had just been the most basic of preludes. The battle began in earnest as the Goblins streamed towards the Humans, shouting, marching in black ranks.

The arrows came first. Magnolia saw a company of [Archers] led by one of the few Gold-rank adventurers raise their bows. The highest-level [Markswomen] and [Snipers] among them had the Skills and enchanted weapons to fire across hundreds of feet and began loosing arrows into the front rank of Goblins. Black bodies tumbled downwards, just a handful, and the Goblins raised their shields higher, snarling and trampling over their fallen.

And they had archers of their own. Magnolia saw arrows flying back towards the Human army—just a few at first, but more and more as the two armies closed in distance. The Gold-rank adventurer in the archer’s group—a Gnoll woman with a longbow—dodged as an arrow shot towards her head. She nocked an arrow and loosed it—Magnolia saw the Goblin who’d aimed at her fall, clawing at an arrow in his chest.

The duel between archers halted abruptly as the Goblins came within a hundred feet. Now Magnolia heard [Captains] calling out orders.

“Hold! Draw! Wait for it—loose!

A rain of deadly projectiles shot across the muddy ground towards the front rank of Goblins. Several fell, but the black armor the Goblins wore shielded them from the worst of it, as did their shields. They were coming faster now. The Goblin Lord pointed and his voice snapped an order. The front rank of Goblins surged towards the Human army.

And now Magnolia could see the Hobs. A line of over a hundred Hobs charged towards Zel Shivertail and his army, giant green warriors coated in black armor, holding massive weapons and roaring as they came. The Human [Archers] were aiming at them, trying to bring them down but for every one they, felled ten more came on.

“Dead gods. They’re going to be overrun!”

Bethal stared at the front rank. The Humans there were low-level. They weren’t [Lineholders] or experienced warriors! Hobs were a Silver-rank threat! Magnolia watched as well. She bit her lip and whispered.

“Come now, General Shivertail. Tell me you know how to deal with this.”

 

—-

 

“Oh, dead gods.”

Lieutenant Gershal of Vaunt felt his heart stop as he saw the Goblins charging. He had been assigned to the front ranks with his unit and had lamented the fact with the other sympathetic officers. But he hadn’t realized what it meant until this moment.

A wave of Goblins was coming at him, as endless as the sea. And at the head of them—

Hobgoblins. The closest one was a head taller than Gershal and three times as wide. Gershal could see the flecks of spit, see the frenzied crimson eyes staring at him, the gigantic maul in the Goblin’s hands—

“Steady.”

A voice snapped Gershal out of his trance. He looked to one side and saw another officer, the [Captain] assigned to the area speaking to him. Gershal realized he’d taken a step back. The soldiers around him were doing the same. Horrified, Gershal realized the entire front was pulling back in face of the Goblin’s charge. He shouted at his men, ashamed and terrified.

Hold your positions! Hold, damn your cheese-rotted heads!

Cheese-rotted heads. It was a petty insult children used in Vaunt. But it worked. The soldiers jumped and half-looked towards Gershal before snapping out of their fear. They reformed the line, men and women holding shields, pikes trained on the Goblins, swords ready for when they broke past the pikes.

Gershal carried a sword and shield as well. He breathed heavily, his eyes on the Drake in shining armor ahead of him. If he stared at Zel Shivertail he could hold his ground. But the Hobs! They were seconds away. What was going to happen when they hit? They’d be swept away, all of them!

Zel Shivertail hadn’t moved in the face of the Goblin’s charge. Now, as they were about to hit the front line he shifted. He raised one claw and spoke. Gershal barely heard his voice over the roar of the Goblins.

“[Stonewall Formation]. [Chargebreaker Guard].”

Something filled Gershal and he gasped as his shield felt warm. His footing on the slippery mud and grass felt firmer. But he couldn’t analyze the feeling. The Goblins hit his line and the entire army in a roar and crash of metal on metal that dwarfed every sound Gershal had heard in his life.

The first wave of Goblins smashed into the soldiers around Gershal. He saw a gigantic Hob charging towards him. The [Lieutenant] raised his shield, heart pounding. The Hob had a massive hammer and swung towards Gershal. It was too late to dodge, but Gershal knew he’d never block the blow. He braced—

And the hammer glanced off his shield. Gershal gaped and the Hob staggered. Gershal stumbled back. The blow had been incredibly strong, but it hadn’t smashed through his iron and wood shield! Both Human and Goblin were so surprised that they stared at each other for a moment.

And then instinct took over. Gershal swung his sword desperately as the Hob raised his hammer. His sword glanced off the Hob’s gauntleted arm and again the hammer came down! And again, it was blocked.

Gershal staggered under the force of the blow. It was tremendous! He could feel the incredible impact, and yet his shield and body held. No—more than that! With one arm he thrust the hammer away and the Hob stumbled backwards. Gershal charged into the Hob, screaming and thrust his sword towards the gap between his chest plate and leg armor.

The Hob howled as Gershal’s blade struck him in the thigh, glancing off bone. He swung his hammer and Gershal darted back. The two traded blows and again, Gershal found his shield could handle each of the Hob’s devastating attacks! But the Hob was quick and powerful. He blocked each of Gershal’s thrusts, snarling, trying to strike around Gershal’s shield with his slower weapon.

So caught up were the two in their duel that neither one realized where they were. Gershal backed up from the Hob’s swing and collided with something from behind. He turned—

And another Hob twisted around, her axe covered with blood. This Hob was taller than both Gershal and the hammer-wielding Hob. She was standing over a Human soldier, or what remained of them. The pike in their hands had been hacked in two from the Hob’s blows. Now both Hobs closed in on Gershal from either side.

He jabbed at them with his sword, trying to back up. But the Hobs were fearless. The female Hob swung her axe and only Gershal’s shield saved his head from being split open. The hammer-wielding Hob charged, roaring, his weapon aimed at Gershal’s back—

And a flash of green charged into him. Gershal spun and saw the Hob falling. Gershal stared.

The Hob was falling to the ground. His black armor, impervious to Gershal’s iron sword, was torn open and his chest was a bloody mass. And standing over him was a Drake in shining armor.

Zel Shivertail.

Gershal stared. He heard the female Hob scream and Zel turned. The Drake caught the blade of the axe as it swung towards his face and his left hand slashed across the female Hob’s chest. His claws were long and cut through the Hob’s armor like it wasn’t there. Gershal stared as the female Hob sagged. Zel dropped her and turned towards Gershal.

“You’re out of line! Get back!”

He roared and Gershal thought he was reprimanding him for a second. Then he realized—he was out of line! His duel with the Hob had carried him out of the line of Human soldiers and into the Goblin army. He backed up as Goblin soldiers streamed forwards around him, jabbing at him with spears, swinging swords he barely blocked with his armor and shield—

Zel Shivertail turned. He kicked a Goblin into eight of his friends, so hard the black metal bent and the Goblin screamed, and then slashed with his claws. Left, right, left! Each time a Goblin fell, their armor rent and torn open by Zel’s claws. He caught their weapons with his bare hands, impervious to the cutting edges and cleared a space around him, cutting down Goblins while Gershal found his unit.

Hold your ground!

The Drake roared as the Humans pushed back the first line of Goblins. He turned and charged towards a Hob—seconds later the Hob was dead and Zel was finding his next target. The Human [Soldiers] and Gershal himself roared in response to their [General]’s heroics. Gershal felt like his arm was ablaze with energy—he blocked a Goblin’s thrust as if it was nothing and cut the Goblin down, shouting. They could win this! They could win!

And then the arrows came and more Goblins. Gershal held the line with his soldiers, fighting, falling, dragging wounded friends to safety while more [Soldiers] rushed forwards to fill the gaps.

That was the first five minutes of the battle.

 

—-

 

“It’s working! They’re doing it!”

Bethal clutched at Magnolia, shaking her shoulder as they watched the battle from afar. Magnolia endured the shaking. She was a [Lady] and she couldn’t display an undignified countenance.

Of course, Bethal was a [Lady] as well, but they were quite, quite different. Magnolia eventually got Bethal to let go by grabbing her hands.

“I see that Bethal. Sacra, it looks like the Goblin charge has failed.”

“For now.”

Sacra eyed the Goblins as they clashed with the front rank of Humans, led by Zel. It was a slaughter on both sides, but one that was definitely favoring the Humans. They were holding, reinforcing gaps in their lines while their soldiers cut down wave after wave of the Goblins. The Goblin Lord’s Hobs, his elite shock troopers that gave him an advantage over the Human soldiers were being stalemated by Zel’s defensive Skills.

But that was only the beginning of the battle. Magnolia saw the mass of Goblins that had crashed against Zel’s front line moving left and right, trying to flank the Humans. Correspondingly, battalions of Human soldiers were racing across the ground.

“We don’t have the numbers to keep spreading out like this, surely?”

Magnolia pointed the extending front line out to Sacra, worried. The Goblins were racing to encircle Zel’s army. Sacra shook her head.

“We don’t have to. Look—we’re holding them off across this line while our archers hit them. Our mages are slowing their advance—”

Fireballs and lightning were blasting ranks of Goblins apart where they clustered most heavily. The Goblins were answering in kind—Magnolia saw flashes of magic blasting into Humans soldiers, shards of ice splintering off shields and acidic splashes causing some to drop their weapons and claw at their faces.

“—And our cavalry’s moving. If the Goblin Lord splits his forces too far trying to encircle us—yes, there they go!”

Magnolia followed Sacra’s gaze and saw a wedge of mounted Humans smash into a section of the Goblin line where they’d extended themselves too far. She saw the mounted riders hacking their way through, cutting off that group of Goblins from their main army. Surrounded, the Goblins quickly succumbed to the encircling Humans as the riders broke away.

 

—-

 

“That’s right! Hit them and away! On me!”

Captain Salvia laughed and shouted as her [Riders] cut into the Goblins. She raised her sword and whirled it, spraying Goblin blood. At once, the mounted warriors under her command wheeled their horses. The Goblins were already surging after them, loosing arrows and trying to catch her soldiers. Salvia grimaced as she saw an arrow pierce a horse’s side and both animal and rider went down. The Goblins on foot charged the fallen soldier, intent on tearing him to shreds.

Not yet. She galloped past the man and caught his outstretched hand. Her own stallion slowed as Salvia pulled the man into her saddle. She patted him and prayed he could hold their weight. Just a little further!

Break away! Back to the lines! Move it, move it!

Her soldiers streamed away too quickly for the Goblins to catch. Salvia let the horseless man drop as soon as they were close to their lines—he sprinted towards the back where more warhorses were ready to go. She turned her mount, listening for the next order from General Shivertail or a [Strategist].

The Goblins were floundering, surprised by their inability to break the Human front line, unprepared for the lightning-fast attacks. Their own spider riders were too slow to catch up with the Humans and that meant they were prey to Salvia’s forces. She grinned, her heart still pumping fast in her chest.

This is the way to fight a battle! Come on lads, let’s hit the Goblins again!”

She spotted an opening—a gap in the Goblin lines at the same time a [Messenger] rode towards her, pointing and shouting. Salvia kicked her horse into a gallop and she rode towards the break, her soldiers screaming war cries behind her. She hoped Gershal and his cheese-eating lot were alright. But then the battle overtook her and Salvia’s only thoughts were to cut and block and turn her mount.

They were winning! At least—for the moment.

 

—-

 

“Too fast!”

Goblins. Osthia Blackwing was chained and muzzled as she stood by the Goblin Lord’s personal guard. He’d dragged her onto the battlefield although she’d fought her captors. She wasn’t sure if it was a blessing or curse; he was using her as a tool to gauge the enemy’s tactics. Now she watched as the Goblin Lord gave rapid orders, trying to overtake Zel Shivertail’s forces and hammer them from all sides.

She’d watched his disastrous first charge with grim satisfaction. The Goblin Lord had known Zel Shivertail was a defensive [General], but hearing that and seeing a Hob being bested by a low-level [Soldier] with a shield and spear was something else entirely. Now the Goblin Lord was raging as the Human cavalry stymied his force’s advance.

Move! Order undead—there!”

He pointed and a ripple went through the Goblins around him. Goblin [Necromancers] and [Shamans] began pointing and chanting and Osthia saw the undead horde move at last.

Tens of thousands of zombies, some halfway towards skeletons themselves, lurched into motion. They’d been circling the Human army, ignoring the arrows and spells that had cut down their number by the hundreds with each passing minute, and now they advanced on the Humans from the left.

Slowly. Only a few of the zombies were ‘fresh’ enough to run, and only the Goblin Lord could make them do that. A few hundred Ghouls raced out of the ranks of undead and surged towards a group of Humans who’d formed a line to meet them.

The Ghouls lunged into the ranks of Humans, tearing, biting with unnatural speed. They were outnumbered and quickly dispatched, but they’d dragged down quite a number of soldiers before they fell. And they were just the first wave. The zombies met the Humans and died as the soldiers sliced the slower undead apart.

But a second wave was already crawling over the first, grabbing at shields and advancing despite being speared through the chest. They threatened to overwhelm the Humans by sheer numbers, and Osthia saw a giant Crypt Lord belching bile over a group of Humans, making them vomit and fall to the ground—

“Good! Now. Break lines.”

The Goblin Lord was pushing on two fronts. The undead were now threatening Zel Shivertail’s left and he had to pull his forces back. [Archers] and [Mages] began hitting the undead, easing up pressure on the Goblins from the front. Osthia saw the Humans begin to struggle a bit as they fought the Goblins without support. Still, Zel’s Skills were holding the ground and creating a wall of steel the Goblins struggled to break. If that was all—

A Hob was on the front lines, fighting a knot of Humans with pikes. He was unable to break their shields with his large club despite his massive strength and as Osthia watched, a pike pierced the crude black iron armor on his chest. He stumbled backwards, mortally wounded.

The Hob stared at the blood gushing from the wound on his chest and looked up. His eyes flickered—he reached behind him and grabbed something. Osthia saw the Hob lift a small figure onto his back and charged the pikes, roaring.

They speared him halfway. The Hob sagged and Osthia saw the Humans cheering. But that small figure on the Hob’s back was moving. It slipped from his body and stumbled towards the Humans. Osthia saw a Human with a sword turn, puzzled by the tiny Goblin. She shouted, her words lost by distance and the leather restraining her mouth.

No! But it was too late. The Human impaled the Goblin with his sword. No, not the Goblin. The Goblin child. The undead Goblin child.

The undead Goblin exploded. Osthia heard the roar of the blast from her position near the Goblin Lord. She had to look away as the explosion engulfed the Humans and nearby Goblins—when she could see again the entire group of Humans was gone and Goblins were flooding into the gaps.

Exploding undead. The Goblin Lord’s secret weapon, courtesy of Az’kerash. Osthia turned her head and stared at the Goblin Lord with pure hatred. She saw the Goblin Lord staring towards the sight of the blast, claws clenched into fists.

His hands were bleeding. Osthia stared as his claws dug into his flesh, red rivulets of blood dripping down his hands. The Goblin Lord turned, and the pain and fury in his gaze found her. He stared at Osthia for a second and then pointed. His voice was cold.

“Destroy the front lines.”

Osthia turned and saw more explosions. The undead Goblin children were slipping through the ranks of struggling Goblin and Humans and detonating themselves or being killed. They destroyed the Human’s lines, turning them into chaotic battles as Goblins capitalized on the broken formations and charged ahead. Osthia stared in silent despair.

The exploding undead! Zel Shivertail had known about this, surely! He had to have heard the reports—but how could you deal with such a tactic? He couldn’t just retreat, and yet, each time the Goblins detonated his army was thrown into disarray! She saw Zel Shivertail turning, shouting orders as the Humans scattered to reform their lines. And then she saw the first pink [Knight] striding forwards.

“What is that?”

The Goblin Lord’s eyes narrowed as he spotted the first Rose Knight. The armored warrior stepped into place where a Goblin child had detonated. The Goblins were charging into the gap, trying to fill the space before the Humans could replenish their ranks. They ran at the pink knight as he raised a halberd. The [Knight] swung—

And a row of Goblins disappeared in a blaze of flames. Osthia’s eyes widened and the Goblin Lord sat up on his mount. The Rose Knight twirled his halberd and stabbed—flames shot from the blade and burned through a group of Goblins, making them scream and roll on the ground to quench the magical flames. The [Knight] calmly held his ground as regular Human [Soldiers] pushed forwards, resetting their lines.

And across the battlefield, more Rose Knights were on the front. They stood on the front, calmly cutting down the Goblins. Holding the line. Osthia saw one Rose Knight strike down a Goblin and then crush an undead Goblin with his foot. He vanished in an explosion, but when the smoke cleared he was getting back on his feet, stunned, but still alive.

“Pink-armored warriors too strong! Cannot kill!”

The Goblin Lord snarled as a Goblin cried out. He narrowed his eyes as a group of Human [Archers] began sniping at the explosive undead Goblins scattered in his ranks. One shot took an undead Goblin through the throat—the blast eradicated a pair of Hobs and a group of Goblins in the back lines of his army.

“No more undead! Move to left!”

He pointed, and Osthia saw the undead children lurching away, joining the mass of undead. Osthia grinned. His tactics were failing. The Goblin Lord stared at the Rose Knight with the halberd. He was cutting down a Hob, unscathed, his armor painted red with Goblin blood. The Goblin Lord made a sound of outrage. Then he stood up and pointed.

“[Deathbolt].”

 

—-

 

Magnolia was listening to the cheering from the Human army when she saw the black bolt of magic fly across the battlefield and strike the Rose Knight in the chest. She saw the armored man stumble as the magic splashed across his armor, almost like a liquid. He raised his halberd and struck down a nearby Goblin, but his movements were palpably slower. And the Goblin Lord wasn’t done. He pointed and another black bolt flew across the battlefield.

This time the Rose Knight tried to dodge. But a group of Goblins surrounded him and seized him, weighing him down. The black magic struck the Rose Knight twice more in the chest, splashing across the pink armor in quick succession. The [Knight] wavered, stumbled, and as the third spell struck his head he collapsed.

“No!”

Bethal stared in horror as one of her elite [Knights] fell, struck dead by the Goblin Lord’s magic. The Goblins swarmed over his body, cheering, seizing his halberd and using it against the Humans around him.

“Sacra, what was that?”

Magnolia snapped at Sacra. The [Maid] shook her head.

“I know what that was.”

A voice spoke up. The three women turned and saw Reynold, dismounting from Magnolia’s pink carriage. He was breathless—he must have just arrived because the tracks in the mud were still oozing back into place.

“Reynold, do you know—”

“One company of Gold-rank adventurers, the Fire Fingers and a Silver-rank team, Embryion’s Delight agreed to your terms Lady Reinhart. I just dropped them off. They’re fighting the undead.”

Reynold pointed and Magnolia saw a group of Dwarves and [Mages] fighting their way into the undead from the left. She nodded in approval. A few adventurers had been enticed by her offers and Magnolia had quadrupled the gold reward in the last hour. Reynold had been assigned to deliver whomever was willing to fight to the battlefield.

“Thank you, Reynold. Now, what happened to Lady Bethal’s knight?”

“Sir Evimore.”

Bethal whispered through pale lips. Reynold clenched his jaw grimly.

“I’ve seen that spell before. It’s death magic. The Necromancer used a similar one. It’s instant death to anyone below Level 20. That might not be the same spell—maybe a weaker one, but it’s powerful enough. Look, he’s going to continue casting.”

The [Butler]’s face was grave as he pointed. The Goblin Lord was drinking from a bottle and as he downed the last dregs of the mana potion one of the [Archers] shot an arrow at him. The arrow swerved as it neared the Goblin Lord and bounced off his Shield Spider’s carapace. The Goblin Lord turned his head and casually pointed a finger. The black magic shot across the battlefield and the archer and four of his fellows fell over, dead in an instant.

“He’s taking out our high-level soldiers!”

Magnolia exclaimed in horror. The Goblin Lord was casting the [Deathbolt] spell rapidly now, and another Rose Knight found himself under attack. The armored woman was forced to dodge the black magic, which left her open to a Hob. He smashed her across the head with a glowing mace and her helmet bowed in slightly. The Rose Knight stumbled, another [Deathbolt] hit her from the side and she fell.

“Why isn’t that armor working! I thought it was supposed to protect those knights from practically anything!”

Magnolia turned to Lady Bethal. The [Lady] shook her head. Her face was white as a second of her prized [Knights] fell, the second in minutes.

“There’s no armor in the world that will protect against every kind of magic. Magnolia, tell that Drake to pull my knights back before they’re slaughtered!”

She grabbed Magnolia, pointing to Zel as the [General] turned, seeing the effects the Goblin Lord’s magic was having on the battlefield. Magnolia shook her head.

“I am in no position to tell Zel Shivertail anything. He must see the issue—yes, look!”

The Rose Knights were retreating from the front. Faced with this separate threat they were regrouping. A wall of forty or so took up positions on the right flank of the battlefield and Magnolia saw the Goblins backing up fast rather than charge their position. The Goblin Lord pointed and another [Deathbolt] flew, but this time it failed to strike down a Rose Knight.

One of the armored pink knights raised his shield and the magic burst against the shield. He failed to catch the second bolt that struck him in the chest, but as he staggered his fellows dragged him back. They shielded the [Knight] with their bodies as he staggered upright and opened his visor to down a potion. The Rose Knights locked formation, anchoring themselves against further death magic.

“That’s good! We won’t lose any more of them.”

Sacra was approving, but Reynold frowned.

“True, but we’ve just lost our advantage on the front.”

Sure enough, the concentration of Rose Knights on one side of the battlefield meant that the Goblins could now push forwards while they stalled the Rose Knights with expendable infantry and undead. A group of Hobs was rampaging towards the front, through the Soldiers who had lost the benefits of Zel’s Skill or were just too low-level to stop them.

The Hobs were cutting a line straight through the humans, trying to separate an entire group of them to be overrun. Magnolia saw eight Hobs, fighting in step. They turned as the Humans surged against them. Eight—no, was it seven? Magnolia blinked. Seven Hobs, wait, there were only six—

Another Hob fell as she watched. Magnolia gaped, seeing the Hob falling without spotting what had caused his death. Then she saw a shape moving around another Hob with a greataxe. The Hob turned, snarling, but Thomast was too quick. The [Duelist] ran his opponent through from behind, his enchanted rapier spearing the Hobgoblin in an instant. Quick as lightning, Thomast turned and his blade cut the air, wounding two Hobs from afar as they tried to encircle him.

Thomast!

Bethal’s voice made Magnolia’s ears ring. The [Lady] Walchaís was beside herself as her husband took down all eight Hobs and began rallying the Soldiers around him.

“We have the higher-level warriors it seems.”

“We do, but far less numbers. And the Goblin Lord is eager to reduce our count of elites.”

Sacra and Reynold were debating the battle amongst themselves. Magnolia turned her gaze across the battlefield, searching for the Goblin Lord once more. He was pushing to the front, but still entrenched well behind his army. Not yet. She spotted him at the same time Bethal did.

“What is he—no! Thomast! He’s aiming towards you!

The Goblin Lord had spotted Thomast’s heroics on the front and his finger was aimed, black magic swirling around his hands and arm as he carefully targeted Thomast’s location.

Thomast!

Bethal would have run forwards, into the battlefield herself to warn her husband. He was too far away to hear Bethal’s screams as Magnolia and Sacra had to hold her back with their combined strength. It was too late anyways. The Goblin Lord fired another [Deathbolt] as Thomast was fighting on the front.

The black streak of magic was streaking through the air, fast as an arrow, towards Thomast’s back. He was dueling a Hob, and he stepped forwards to pierce the Hob through his unarmored neck.

The Goblin Lord’s spell flashed towards Thomast’s back as he stepped forwards. The Chevalier pierced the Hob’s throat, and then spun out of the way, sidestepping the bolt of magic and letting it pierce the Hobgoblin instead. His foe fell, lifeless and bleeding from a hole in his throat. Thomast flicked his rapier, spraying the Goblin’s blood across another foe’s face and turned towards the Goblin Lord.

He bowed slightly and raised a hand and coolly beckoned to the Goblin Lord across the battlefield. Magnolia saw the black-eyed Goblin’s gaze widen slightly in incredulous anger. Lady Bethal stopped fighting Magnolia and Sacra and made a besmitten sound. Magnolia dropped her.

The Goblin Lord declined to answer Thomast’s challenge and instead turned his magic towards other targets. Again he blasted a group of archers, taking out the unprotected Humans in small knots. They were helpless to defend themselves. However, the Goblin Lord’s spells were only a single factor in a battle where thousands of arrows and spells were flying every minute. If that had been all he would have done nothing. But then he pointed and Magnolia saw a group of eighteen bodies rise where they had fallen. The Humans turned in horror as eighteen Ghouls got up and began tearing into their unguarded ranks.

“Dead gods! He’s starting to reanimate the undead behind our lines! Our archers and mages will be slaughtered!”

Reynold was aghast as he saw the undead begin to stir all across the back ranks of the Human army. Zombies and Ghouls were indeed rising as the Goblin Lord and his own [Necromancers] began to raise the dead. Sacra grabbed Reynold’s arm as he started forwards.

“Calm down! General Shivertail planned for this!”

“How—”

Reynold was pointing at the carnage as the Ghouls began fighting the archers at close range. Then his eyes widened. He saw the flicker of black at the same time Magnolia did. She spotted a shape moving out of the shadows behind a Ghoul, stabbing it in the back, and another, slicing a Ghoul across the neck. Reynold gaped.

“Miss Ressa?”

 

—-

 

The first Ghoul was an easy kill. It didn’t notice Ressa as she stabbed it in the back. Her magical dagger, the Vision of Grasses, went into the undead’s body with ease. It froze up as she pulled the dagger out.

The dagger that she had been given by Regis Reinhart wasn’t meant for combat against the undead, but at least one of the myriad poisons it had been coated with still worked on an undead’s nervous system. The Ghoul fell, paralyzed, and Ressa turned. She slashed across the face of another Ghoul as the archers around her shouted, surprised by both the undead and her appearance.

By her side, a man in black sliced across a Ghoul’s throat. It was a good cut, but the undead was still alive. He had to hack at its neck as it fought to slash him. Only when he’d severed most of its head from its body did it fall.

“This is not how [Assassins] are meant to be used!”

Theofore the luckless [Assassin] screamed at Ressa as he turned his blades, slashing at one of the reanimated Ghouls. She grunted as she slid around another Ghoul and beheaded him with a slice with her dagger. Enchanted weapons were very nice to use. Theofore had to struggle as he repeatedly knifed another Ghoul in the chest.

“None of my Skills work on Ghouls! I can’t poison or paralyze something that’s already dead!”

“Shut up and stab.”

The two turned as more undead began to rise. Ressa moved like a shadow, flicking from target to target as Theofore struggled to keep up. Across the battlefield more disguised [Maids] and [Butlers] appeared. Not all of Magnolia Reinhart’s staff were good at domestic help. True, few of them were [Assassins], but they were high-level and enough to turn the tides.

For now. Ressa’s eyes narrowed as she gazed around the battlefield. She was no [Strategist], but she had a sense of how the battle was going. They weren’t losing, but she wasn’t sure they were pulling that far ahead of the Goblins anymore. And then she heard the Goblin drums begin to beat and heard the shout.

Commander charge!

 

—-

 

Commander charge. It was a term common to this world. It meant at least two [Commander] class leaders were leading a charge. And that mattered because such leaders were always high-level. When they charged a line, they could cut holes right through an enemy army.

And this time the Goblin Lord had sent all of his commanders. Former Goblin Chieftains, now his lieutenants, charged into the Human lines with their personal vanguards. And where they charged, Humans died.

Snapjaw, leading a group of Goblins on horses. Her teeth sank into a Human [Captain]’s throat, bearing him down as her Goblins charged through the broken Human unit. Eater of Spears, towering over the Hobs around him, breaking a group of seasoned [Lancers] as their weapons broke on his tough skin.

A Goblin with no face blasted ranks of Humans with fire as a [Beastmaster] Goblin rode a Shield Spider as large as the Goblin Lord’s mount into battle, his spider snatching up Humans and tossing them screaming into the air. Across the battlefield the Goblin commanders were charging, and the Humans lines began to buckle at last. Snapjaw grinned, raising her bloody head, turning her head to survey the landscape of despairing Human faces. Across from her, Noface was blasting Humans with fire magic. On her other side, Illbreath was leading his Hobs forwards. This massive Hob had once swallowed an artifact that produced poison. Rather than die from ingesting it, he’d begun to breathe poisonous vapors. Now he advanced in a toxic cloud, the Humans ahead of him coughing and gagging, unable to put up a fight.

Push! Push Humans!

Snapjaw raised her sword, her teeth gnashing together. In front of her, the Humans were retreating! They were winning! She saw Goblins pushing forwards. Illbreath’s unit was pursuing a group of fleeing Humans, cutting them down one by one—

And then Snapjaw got a bad feeling. A bad feeling. The kind she only had when death was imminent. Warned by her [Dangersense], the Hobgoblin turned and saw a blur heading her way. She screamed a warning to Illbreath.

Tidebreaker!

He turned. Zel Shivertail charged through the ranks of Goblins, trampling them, ignoring the blades that glanced off his armor and body. He collided with Illbreath in a clash of claws on steel. Snapjaw wheeled her mount, shouting, and saw other Goblin Chieftains running to the Hob’s aid.

There was only thirty feet between her and Illbreath, no distance at all! Snapjaw saw the Hob breathing poison in Zel’s face, raising his mace. The Drake [General] turned his head, coughing, was struck by the mace—

And then he grabbed Illbreath’s head and tore it off his body. Snapjaw froze. Zel tossed the head to one side as Illbreath’s corpse collapsed. He wiped at his eyes, sighed, and then blocked Snapjaw’s sword with one hand.

Casually. Just like that. She screamed at him, lashing at the Drake with her sword, but his arms and claws were harder than steel! He punched her mount and the horse screamed and fell. Snapjaw tumbled off the side, losing her grip on her sword. She saw the Drake [General] appear over her. His claw shot towards her face. She sat up and bit.

Her teeth had bitten through steel, through weak enchanted armor—even through a Wyvern’s hide! Snapjaw’s jaw engulfed Zel Shivertail’s hand with a snap, just like how she’d earned her name. She felt her teeth digging into his scales, piercing the General’s tough hide! Then she heard his voice.

“Ow.”

Zel Shivertail lifted his hand. Snapjaw rose, trying to bite into his tough skin. He punched her so hard her head rang, and then threw her. Snapjaw flew screaming through the air and hit a group of Goblins. She landed on their armor, shields, and a sword. The Hob rolled off the groaning Goblins and reached for the healing potion at her belt, gasping. She downed it and her vision cleared and the wound on her back closed. And then she looked towards Zel Shivertail and saw despair.

He was holding Noface’s head. The Drake [General] raised the faceless Goblin’s head, giving Snapjaw a clear view of the scar tissue that had replaced the Goblin’s entire face, the legacy of an encounter with a Human [Pyromancer]. He showed the Goblins their dead officer and then threw the head to the ground. The Goblins howled at him in rage. Zel waited.

And they did not advance. The Goblins held their ground, screaming, some daring to loose arrows at him or cast spells, but all too afraid to get in range of those deadly claws. Zel Shivertail towered over the Goblins, staring at them. Snapjaw froze in place, fear holding her heart. The Humans were one thing. But this?

The Tidebreaker turned away. He charged into another group of Goblins where the Human lines were faltering and Snapjaw heard her people screaming. The Humans regained ground, shouting. Where the Tidebreaker went Goblins retreated.

He could not be stopped! Snapjaw found another horse, shoving a Goblin out of the saddle. She rode back towards the Goblin Lord, retreating. She had to let him know.

They could not kill Zel Shivertail. So they’d have to kill his army. That was the only way. Then they could surround him, beat him to death. But kill him with smaller numbers, with an army at his back?

Impossible. That knowledge was bitter on Snapjaw’s tongue.

 

—-

 

“They’re pulling back! Look! I think General Shivertail’s taken out another one of their commanders!”

The Humans standing and watching the battle cheered as Zel Shivertail downed another Hob. Where he went, the Human lines surged forwards and the Goblins retreated. He was truly inspiring, and Magnolia understood now how one [General] could defeat any number of [Strategists] or lesser officers. If you couldn’t slay the [General], you couldn’t stop him from tearing apart your army.

And yet, that was also a weakness. Sacra was the first to spot it.

“We’re starting to buckle. Our lines are beginning to collapse.”

“Surely not. We’re winning on the front.”

Magnolia pointed to the spot where Zel was fighting. Sacra nodded.

“Yes we are. And where the Rose Knights are fighting. But everywhere else—Sir Thomast is holding his side with General Shivertail’s support, but our left flank is being overrun by the undead!”

She indicated the left and Magnolia saw for the first time how far they’d been pushed by the undead. The overwhelming tide of bodies was thrusting the Humans back. The zombies didn’t care if their fellows were dying like flies—they’d push past their fallen friends and tear out a Human’s eyes while he was occupied with three more undead. And now some of the highest-level undead were advancing.

A Draug Drake was throwing [Soldiers] around, ignoring the arrows a battalion was sending into his body. He’d taken several cuts to his body, but nothing short of a solid axe blow would slow him. He was a juggernaut, and the other Crypt Lords, Draug, and higher undead were similarly hard to kill. Even the few Gold-rank adventurers were hard pressed to fight with them as undead crowded around from every angle.

“There’s just too many! The Goblins can push us on all sides and we can’t crush them in any one spot for fear of being overrun!”

“But we are winning, yes?”

Magnolia sharply looked at Sacra and the [Maid] nodded slowly, twirling her mace.

“If it’s a count of how many we’ve killed compared to how many they’ve killed, we are. But Lady Reinhart, numbers aren’t everything in a battle. A superior position could reverse all our gains in a moment.”

And as if her words were prophetic, Magnolia saw a disaster unfold right before her eyes.

The Human cavalry, some six thousand horse in total, had been a pivotal part of the battle despite their fewer numbers. The Human cavalry was a famous part of their fighting force, and they had employed their superior mobility to great advantage, circling around the Goblins, striking from the rear and then moving away before they could be caught.

Now the Goblin Lord had focused on them. And Magnolia saw his [Deathbolts] begin to strike the cavalry at the same time two groups of Goblins on horseback and Goblins riding Shield Spiders set out to encircle them.

If they had been free from attack, the cavalry might have been able to make their escape. But a wall of seemingly preoccupied Goblin pikes shifted and revealed a battalion of hidden Goblin [Archers] that cut off one escape route with a deadly hail of arrows. Reynold groaned aloud as he saw the riders being cut down by the hundreds.

“Those idiots! Evade! Don’t they know how to dodge?”

 

—-

 

Incoming fire!

Captain Salvia saw the Goblin Lord’s death magic strike the first group of [Riders] and turned her horse, trying to present as narrow a target as possible. She saw arrows and other magical spells blasting into the riders around her and screamed.

“Break formation! [Scatter Gallop]! Weave and dodge—don’t stay in one place!”

Her unit of [Riders] immediately broke out of their wedge formation and began to scatter, moving in unpredictable ways left and right as they fled. However, the rest of the cavalry had never trained in such techniques and fell prey to the arrows and spells hitting from the side.

And then the Goblins charged into their flank. Salvia saw a Goblin with gleaming metal teeth and another Goblin riding an enormous Shield Spider leading the charge. They began tearing up the lines of her fellow riders, encircling them, threatening to tear their entire force apart!

That couldn’t be allowed to happen. Salvia screamed an order and turned her horse.

“This way! Break up those Goblins! Keep moving! Hurry!

She led her unit back towards the Goblins on horseback, trying to cut a path free. But the Goblins had the riders well and truly encircled now, and they were cutting the helpless riders down by the dozens with each passing second.

 

—-

 

“Those fools! We’re going to lose our horse! If they don’t break out of that encirclement now—where are the [Commanders]? They should know how to escape!”

Reynold groaned aloud as he stared at the entrapped cavalry in the distance. Magnolia’s hands were clenched. She glanced at the two covered wagons and then at the destructive tube artifact.

“Sacra, is there anything we can…?”

“Nothing we have will reach that far Lady Reinhart. And General Shivertail most likely doesn’t have the Skills to help them that far away. I’m afraid they’re lost.”

Sacra’s face was pale as she stared at the slaughter. Reynold turned. Magnolia stared at him anxiously.

“Reynold, you were a [Lieutenant] once. Do you know what they could do?”

“They need to pick a weak spot and break out! There’s ways to slow down a pursuing force while escaping—I could do it myself if I—”

The [Butler]’s hands were clenched helplessly as he stared at the cavalry and then he broke off. His face changed and he turned to Magnolia with a curious, desperate light in his eyes.

“I may be able to save them. Lady Reinhart, may I have your permission to escort these good [Soldiers] to a safe spot? I fear I might place your transportation in jeopardy however.”

Magnolia’s eyes widened. She stared at her carriage.

“Escort them? Go, man! Run!”

He ran. And as he threw himself into the chair and flapped the reins, Magnolia saw the pink carriage shoot across the battlefield. Sacra stared at her mistress, worried.

“Lady Reinhart, is this wise? If we lose the carriage—”

“Sacra. Desperate times call for running people over. With an enchanted carriage.”

Magnolia interrupted her [Maid]. She watched Reynold streak across the battlefield as heads turns and the Goblins noticed him.

“Besides, I’m sure that Reynold will be perfectly civil to the Goblins. He does have a way with monsters. I think we’ve scraped off more [Bandits] from the sides of the carriage since he began driving than we ever did with all my other drivers. He does have a knack.”

 

—-

 

Snapjaw was cutting down Humans on horseback, biting the necks of horses, when she heard a Goblin’s voice.

Fast-fast magic pink death thing coming this way!

That was a loose translation and Snapjaw’s head turned, in confusion. She realized at once what the Goblins meant. The pink carriage of nightmares hurtled towards her group of Goblins and Snapjaw screamed an order.

“Run!”

The Goblins turned too late. The pink carriage moved hundreds of miles per hour, faster than anything else on the battlefield. It splattered the first rank of Goblins and curved through their lines, headed straight for Eggsnatcher, the Goblin [Beastmaster] on top of his giant spider.

The collision between pink carriage and Eggsnatcher’s mount was tremendous. Snapjaw saw several Goblins go flying, thrown by the impact, and then saw the Human [Butler] in the front of the carriage hacking at Eggsnatcher with a gleaming sword. The two traded blows as the carriage turned and sped away. Snapjaw breathed a sigh of relief for all of two seconds until she realized the horrible truth.

The carriage was coming back.

 

—-

 

“This way! Move your mounts you flea-bitten slugs!

Salvia’s head jerked around as she heard the roar of an officer’s voice. But it was coming from the well-dressed [Butler] riding the pink carriage! In any other situation she might have had a few questions to ask, but here the voice of authority was a light in the darkness. She turned her mount and rode desperately.

Behind her the cavalry streamed out of the gap Reynold’s attacks had opened. The [Butler] drover his carriage around the horses, effortlessly weaving the massive vehicle through them, shouting.

Break up! Stop galloping in a cluster or I’ll pull your damned helmets off and feed them to you! Move! I’ve seen wheelbarrows that rolled faster than you worthless sacks of shite!”

The profanity was nonsensical, abusive, exactly what the soldiers needed to hear. They moved, ignoring the Goblin death that was hot on their heels. Captain Salvia saw the [Butler] shift his grip on the reins and then spin the carriage. Quick as a flash he rammed into a group of Goblins that had nearly caught up to her unit and scattered horses and Goblins onto the ground. In pieces.

The impacts had to be taking a toll on the carriage, but the [Butler] kept it moving. He circled the Goblins, hitting the giant spider repeatedly but failing to knock it over. His attacks saved the cavalry, but the Goblins, frustrated by his attacks on them, began to circle the carriage instead.

Salvia was about to order her [Riders] to go back for the [Butler] when she heard him scream a word as he raced away from the Goblins towards an oncoming group of Goblin pikes.

“[Flying Wheels]!”

She turned her head and gaped as the pink carriage began to fly. It soared over the Goblin pikes as they gaped in amazement, up high over the battlefield. It was heading back away from the front lines. Salvia cheered as she saw the pink carriage make its escape, and then saw the Goblin Lord raise his hand.

He pointed, and a midnight bolt struck the [Butler] in the chest. He slumped in his chair and the carriage plummeted into the ground, scattering Humans and Goblins alike as it crashed across the front lines.

 

—-

 

Reynold!

Sacra screamed as Magnolia’s heart stopped. She stared at the [Butler], slumped across the front of the pink carriage as Humans and Goblins alike surged around him.

He wasn’t moving. The Human [Soldiers] were valiantly trying to shield the [Butler] as the Goblins tried to climb onto the carriage. Magnolia’s hands dug into her palms. Was Reynold alive? The Goblin Lord’s spell had hit him squarely in the chest. But he was a high-level warrior and [Butler]! Maybe—

She could see Zel turning towards the [Butler], aware of Reynold’s plight. But the Goblin Lord was closer. And as Magnolia Reinhart watched, he began to move.

“The Goblin Lord is charging!”

A cry went up across the battlefield. The Goblin Lord and his vanguard began charging towards Reynold’s position on the field. Over a thousand Hobs and the Goblin Lord’s personal Shield Spider tore through a group of Humans, overrunning three Rose Knights and burying the Human lines in a sea of green. He was coming for Reynold. He wanted that carriage.

“It’s time.”

Magnolia took a breath. She pointed towards the Goblin Lord and her voice snapped across the battlefield.

In the name of the Reinharts, I order you to slay that Goblin!

To the side, the two covered wagons that had been so curiously abandoned in the mud exploded. Magnolia, Sacra, and Bethal ducked and a [Butler] held a parasol up as chunks of wood rained down around them. And standing in the remains of both wagons, two giants of metal unfolded. A glowing white eye turned to Lady Magnolia and a faceless Golem stood. His hands extended and his ‘fingers’ spread. Five razors splayed out and the War Golem, a full twelve feet of towering magical metal, stormed towards the lines of Goblins and Humans.

Screaming.

Magnolia Reinhart hadn’t been prepared for that. The War Golem emitted a terrifying shrieking sound as it ran—on all fours, like some demented dog—emitting a sound like a hundred shrieking children filled with pain and rage. It drew the Goblin’s attention. And as both Golems rammed into the Goblin’s ranks from the side, they began to fight.

War Golems. Behemoths made from another era. These weren’t Archmage Zelkyr’s personal creations, but they had been made during the same era his Golems had dominated the world stage. They had been made to slaughter enemy armies by the thousands. And that’s what they did.

The first Golem swung a hand full of razors as it crashed into a group of Goblins. It beheaded a group of them and then the glowing white light in its ‘mouth’, the only actual feature on its face turned red. It spat a beam of blazing red light across a rank of Goblins, incinerating everything it touched in an instant. By its side, the other Golem’s body glowed and it began to arc bolts of lightning, which struck nearby Goblins and Humans alike and earthed themselves on their armor.

Goblins fell as the two Golems raced through their lines, straight towards the Goblin Lord. He turned, and Magnolia was glad to see his eyes widen in fear or horror for the first time. He raised a hand and a black [Deathbolt] struck one of the Golems squarely in the chest—

And did nothing. The Golems were neither alive nor dead. They raced towards the Goblin Lord, overrunning even Hobs with their sheer size. He was turning his mount, retreating, but too late. The first Golem was about to leap on him when a gigantic Hob tackled it.

Eater of Spears, one of the Goblin Lords’ lieutenants knocked the first War Golem off-balance. The huge Hob snarled. He was actually shorter than the War Golem was by a few feet! But he began trading blows with the metal behemoth, ignoring the crimson beam that set his body afire. He roared as he fought and the second Golem found itself surrounded by Hobs who beat at the metal monster as it fought to get at the Goblin Lord.

“He’s going to get away!”

Magnolia’s hands clenched. The Goblin Lord was retreating, scattering the Humans who were pursuing him with his black magic as his warriors screened him from the two War Golems. Soon he was well behind enemy lines and Magnolia had to call the War Golems back or risk them becoming overwhelmed in the sea of Goblins. The Goblins weren’t idiots—they were trying to pull the Golems down with ropes and crack their metal bodies with mauls and sledgehammers.

“It looks like General Shivertail’s reached Reynold!”

Sacra cried out as Zel Shivertail reached Reynold’s coach. With the War Golems screening him, the Drake shook Reynold. Magnolia and the others cried out in relief as the [Butler] woke up, looking disoriented. He weakly drank the potion that Zel offered him and then sped away from the battlefield. To Magnolia’s surprise, Zel Shivertail rode with him.

“General! Are you alright?”

Magnolia strode towards Zel, concerned, as Sacra and Bethal helped Reynold down. The [Butler] was very pale, but he was alive, and so Magnolia focused all her attention on Zel.

“I’m fine, Magnolia.”

Zel panted as he wiped sweat and blood from his face. He uncorked a second potion and downed half the bottle, grimacing.

“I’m exhausted. Been fighting—if this goes longer we’ll have to rotate groups, feed the soldiers—but it shouldn’t.”

“How is the battle going?”

Magnolia watched the Drake’s face carefully. Zel turned back towards the battlefield and grimaced. He pointed with one claw.

“It’s still too even for my liking! That damned Goblin Lord—he’s forced us to withdraw those pink [Knights] and he keeps aiming for our high-level warriors! We’re getting pushed too far by the undead—there’s too many of them! [Surge of Strength]! [Scything Arms]!”

He pointed to a group of struggling Soldiers and they began to push forwards, their blades suddenly hacking apart zombies with ease. Zel sighed.

“I’m using my Skills, but it’s a draw so far. I can keep cutting down Goblins all day, but the Goblin Lord’s doing the same and they have more Goblins…those two War Golems are tearing up their flanks, though.”

“I’m ashamed to say I might have used them too early. If I had waited—I was concerned for my [Butler], General Shivertail. I do apologize.”

The Drake shook his head, pouring water over his face and chest as a [Maid] handed him a canteen.

“It was the right call. That carriage was too powerful to fall into their hands. I’d question using it, but your butler saved all our remaining horse—good man. Drop the honorifics, Magnolia. Call me Zel when we’re in the field.”

She smiled, surprised by the sudden change in attitude. Zel looked around, dripping, and his eyes narrowed as he found the Goblin Lord’s form, again entrenched behind his soldiers.

“I don’t like this.”

“We are winning, aren’t we?”

The Drake shrugged.

“We’re cutting down more of them then they are of us…but that doesn’t matter since they outnumber us two to one, does it? I don’t want this to become a battle of attrition, but the Goblin Lord’s realized I’m hunting down his lieutenants. If I can’t get to him or the other important Goblins, this could get ugly.”

He sighed, his eyes focusing on the War Golems as they held a section of the line, tearing up the Goblins around them.

“We should have unleashed the Golems earlier. That was my fault. I didn’t think the Goblin Lord would hesitate to charge in for so long. But if they had gotten him—”

“How do you wish to proceed? Is there a way to corner the Goblin Lord? Or must we simply eradicate his army first?”

“I’m thinking. That trick with the carriage—can you make it fly again?”

Zel addressed Reynold, who had come over. The [Butler] saluted, pale-faced.

“I can, General. But I’m wary of flying it once more—that Goblin Lord is an expert shot. I was attempting to dodge but—”

“I understand. Magnolia, if I propose a dangerous strategy would you lend me Reynold? I can’t guarantee either he or I will survive, but it might end the battle now.”

Magnolia hesitated. She looked at Zel and at Reynold.

“Do you think it will work? Is it worth the risk? What am I saying; it must be if you’re asking. Go! We will support you as best we can!”

“Thank you. Reynold, I need you to drop me off by Thomast’s position first.”

“Yes sir!”

The carriage spun back across the battlefield. Magnolia watched them go and turned to Sacra.

“Do you agree with General Zel’s assessment?”

Sacra ducked her head.

“I do milady. This battle’s had its turns, but neither side is crushing the other. If there’s a way to end it faster, I’d agree with General Shivertail that it’s worth attempting. The longer this goes on the more exhausted our forces become, and the Goblin Lord can start rotating fresh troops in or use his undead. We can’t.”

“I see. Then we must trust—”

Magnolia broke off. There was a group of Goblins approaching her small escort, and she could see more Goblin archers turning towards them.

“Oh dear. It looks like the Goblin Lord has finally noticed us.”

Indeed, Reynolds’s contribution to the battle, not to mention the appearance of the War Golems and Zel Shivertail’s impromptu conference had drawn the ire of the Goblin Lord. His archers sent a shower of arrows flying through the air towards Magnolia’s position. She sighed.

“Bethal? It’s time.”

Both [Ladies] straightened, and as the arrows flew downwards, Magnolia lightly gritted her teeth and whispered a Skill.

“[Deft Hand].”

She reached up and pushed the arrows out of the sky with a flick of her wrist as Bethal used her [Tranquil Skies] Skill to the same effect. It was a thousand times harder than nudging someone across the ballroom or accidentally pushing a [Waiter] so he spilled a drink at the right moment, but Magnolia was a high-level [Lady]. She saw the flight of arrows hit the ground a good twenty paces to her right and sighed in relief.

“Now for the cavalry. Oh, I see we have some of our own coming to our rescue.”

Indeed, a group of riders led by Captain Salvia was racing towards them, but the Goblins would arrive first. Magnolia sighed again, and this time as the Goblins were about to trample over them she raised one hand and flicked it.

“[Polite Deflection]. Shoo.”

The Goblins swerved before colliding with the [Lady] and her escort, much like an unfortunate suitor deflected on the dance floor. Magnolia saw their charge slow, and then her [Maids] and [Butlers] charged into their number with Sacra at their head at the same time the Human [Riders] hit them from behind. The Goblins were routed in a matter of moments and Magnolia enjoyed seeing the Goblin Lord’s baleful stare.

She was a bit disappointed he didn’t try casting magic at her—she’d never reflected a spell with [Deft Hands] before, but she was sure she could send it right back at him with a bit of practice.

“Milady, are you unharmed?”

Sacra returned with blood on her mace and Magnolia gently pushed Sacra back with the tip of her finger before the woman could get blood on her dress. It wasn’t for vanity’s sake either.

“I’m fine Sacra. I know you’d rather have me run around in armor and a shield, but my Skills as a [Lady] only work if I am sufficiently ladylike. And while Bethal may run about in the nude and keep her Skills, I am, alas, a bit more genteel than that.”

“You used to run about naked with me, Magnolia. Don’t act so prim and proper.”

Bethal scowled at Magnolia and both ladies watched the servants push away the corpses of the Goblins with some satisfaction. A [Lady] might be a rose, but a rose had thorns. The Goblins had learned that during the last Antinium War as well.

“Well, enough of this. I want to see what Zel Shivertail has in mind.”

Magnolia turned her head across the battlefield, forgetting about the dead Goblins around her. She spotted Zel as he cut a path towards Thomast. Her eyes narrowed as the two conferred and then Zel headed back towards the carriage.

This was it. Magnolia knew that the Drake was planning something that would end up with the Goblin Lord’s head. It could be a simple ploy or a complex one, but her intuition told her that simple might work far better than complex. Either way, the battle hinged on Zel Shivertail’s ploy.

They were winning. She kept telling herself that. For all his strength, the Goblin Lord had declined to meet Zel Shivertail in battle and none of his best warriors had slowed the Drake [General]. So long as Zel Shivertail remained standing there was hope. No, more than hope, they could win!

So why was she so vaguely uneasy. Magnolia Reinhart didn’t know. She stared at the battlefield as it reached its most critical moment and she edged just slightly to the left. Towards the pedestal with the magical artifact her grandfather had given her on it. A magical tube. It made things explode, or so he’d said. Very dangerous. You could kill a Great Chieftain of the Goblins with it. Or—if need be—

A Goblin Lord. Magnolia waited. It wasn’t as though she had to use it. It was just in case things went south. She just hoped her aim was good. Well, even if it wasn’t it would probably be spectacular.

 


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S02 – The Antinium Wars (Pt.4)

Dear readers, it is not in my nature to exaggerate or lie. I, Krysyl Wordsmith, attempt to tell you the most unbiased of accounts possible. But I cannot suppress my patriotic pride for my people. And the following account of the Siege of Liscor by the Necromancer, Az’kerash, is almost impossible to tell without appreciating the grave odds of the struggle, the desperation, and above all, the hope and courage exhibited by the brave Drakes of Liscor and the hero Zel Shivertail himself.

Consider it, dear readers. Liscor imperiled once more and this time the Necromancer unleashing his undead hordes on the gateway to the southern continent, attempting to succeed where the Antinium had failed nearly a decade ago. And oh, but he was succeeding. Liscor’s defenses had been improved since the last war, their walls built higher and spelled with new enchantments. But the Necromancer had brought an army capable of destroying all but a Walled City, and with every fallen soldier his forces grew.

And what was the Drake high command doing? Nothing! They were fighting the Antinium on every front and now facing a Goblin King’s invasion as well. Who could they send? Who could rally an army strong enough to destroy the Necromancer and break his siege?

The Tidebreaker would. For his late comrade General Sserys, to save his friend’s beloved city he gathered three other Drake armies, each lead by a [General] of the Drake cities. I urge you to imagine it. Four [Generals] marched on the Necromancer. And each one increased the strength of the combined army they led until it was unstoppable.

This technique of ‘stacking’ high-level commanders and leaders has been used to great effect across the world; indeed, in the last Izril-Terandrian war, the Human armies were pathetically crushed by superior Drake forces who sent in multiple [Commander] classes into each battle, allowing them to utilize Skill-based tactics and enhance their army’s fighting quality far beyond the Terandrian armies. (Of course, the individual ability of each Drake soldier over the Human soldiers may have also played a part in such victories.)

Zel Shivertail had created a force capable of wiping out the Necromancer despite his great power. Four [Generals] should have broken the back of his army within a day. But instead the Necromancer slew General Hekiss, Vusso, and then Misa with his fell magics, turning the tides of battle in an instant.

How? How could he slay the pride of the Drakes with such contemptuous ease? It seems that the Drakes, the Humans, and perhaps even the Goblin Lord and Antinium underestimated him. The Necromancer was no mere distraction from the war—he was a side unto himself! He had the magical prowess to destroy enemy armies and [Generals] from afar; shielded by his undead he could fight at his leisure, overrunning cities with ease.

He destroyed every army that he encountered, save for the Goblin King’s army. Even an Antinium army sent north was obliterated, although not made into undead. It appears even the Necromancer has standards for his undead—or that the Antinium made for poor corpses.

Regardless, the hope of salvation for Liscor had turned into a nightmarish situation as the Drake army sent to liberate the city found itself on the brink of being wiped out. And perhaps they would have been. The Necromancer ordered his undead to encircle the army and Liscor, hoping to swell his deathless horde further. But he failed to destroy the Drake army on the third day, and the fourth, and every day after that. For one simple reason:

He could not kill the Tidebreaker.

Not by magic, not by overwhelming numbers or ambush! General Zel Shivertail remained on the battlefield despite Az’kerash’s repeated assaults on him day after day. The famed [General of the Line] refused to retreat, and it was his rallying presence and Skills that kept the Drake armies and the valiant defenders of Liscor from folding under the Necromancer’s devastating attacks.

And yet, dear readers, Zel Shivertail’s weakness became apparent as he failed to dispatch the Necromancer despite charging into enemy lines again and again. The Tidebreaker is known to be the best defensive [General] in Liscor, and indeed, perhaps the world.

Unlike the late General Sserys who was known for his offensive strategies, Zel Shivertail’s Skills mainly revolve around defensive formations and holding the line, despite his exceptional personal combat prowess. Thus, he was unable to launch a decisive strike and corner the Necromancer—when he would charge Az’kerash’s position the Necromancer would screen himself with his undead troops or disappear.

And so the battle became a deadly stalemate, as both armies refused to retreat. So long as the Necromancer lived, the undead would continue rising, empowered by their dark master. And so long as Zel Shivertail refused to fall, the Drakes fought on. And yet, and yet dear reader, the undead began to triumph.

For every Drake that fell at Liscor, an undead zombie or ghoul would rise in its place. And Az’kerash’s own magical mastery allowed him to create a number of greater undead each day. Meanwhile, the people of Liscor and Zel Shivertail’s own army were finite in number. The siege wore on as Zel Shivertail requested urgent reinforcements to defeat the Necromancer. Alas, the Drake high command was once again unable to act.

The Antinium were sweeping down from their Hives, and worse, the Goblin King’s armies had also begun to march. Unlike the Human campaign in the north, Velan the Kind left the strategy in the south to only one of his Goblin Lords, if the mightiest of them.

Tallis the Stormbreaker.

The great [Shaman] of the Goblin armies came late to the war between the Antinium and Drakes. He began by sacking port cities along the western coast, and then slowly moved inland. The Drake armies were no match for his overwhelming magical might, and he routed armies with contemptuous ease. Drakes across the continent despaired hearing of Tallis Stormbreaker’s advance, because the Antinium were already sieging Pallass and Zeres, threatening to once again cut the continent in two.

But here history takes a fortunate turn. Because as luck would have it, the Goblin Lord’s advance sent him perilously close to an Antinium Hive. And the thoughtless, foolish Antinium saw his armies not as a potential ally, but simply as another threat. They sent Xrn, the Small Queen to deal with Tallis Stormbreaker as they had every other army. And here the Antinium suffered their first great defeat of the war. The Stormbreaker annihilated the Antinium army with a single spell within ten minutes of the Antinium charging his army.

 

“That cannot be right.”

Pivr stared at Tersk as the Prognugator of the Armored Antinium paused with the history book in his hands. Tersk didn’t reply. He was staring in shock at the words on the page. He had not known the history of the Second Antinium War in any great detail. To hear of an army destroyed so easily—

“An entire army? Destroyed by a Goblin?”

He looked up and across the campfire at the blue Antinium sitting there. Xrn looked up, her eyes shining with bright orange and red lights that illuminated the dark night like distant stars.

“Prognugator Xrn. Is this true?”

“It cannot be! We cannot have lost to Goblins!

Pivr insisted loudly. He fanned his wings in agitation, moving around the fire and grabbing for the book Tersk was reading from.

“Give me that.”

He snatched the book and read the passage. He recoiled in disbelief and turned to Xrn.

“This book is lying. It must be.”

“Must it? Why must it lie, Pivr? Because you do not like the truth? This Krsysl Wordsmith exaggerates his history and twists the facts to suit his narrative, but he does not make up false events. Tallis Stormbreaker destroyed the first army we sent against him. And the second and third.”

The other Antinium stared at Xrn in horrified silence. Pivr’s wings fanned wide and his mandibles leaked a bit of the acidic bile he had been engineered to produce. Tersk snatched the book back before the acid could land on it.

“That is—we are the Antinium. We cannot be defeated so easily. You were there! This book said you led the first army. How could you have allowed him to triumph?”

The Antinium went still. Xrn sat up slowly and Pivr broke off speaking, realizing he might have erred. He backed up a bit as the warm lights in Xrn’s eyes became cold, turning blue and frosty grey.

“Allowed? I allowed him nothing, Pivr. The Stormbreaker took. That was the might of the Goblin King and his Goblin Lords. They destroyed the army I led against them, and I was helpless to fight back. We underestimated the Goblins, Pivr. We did not know what they could do. As it says in the book, Tallis broke my army with a single spell.”

“How?”

Tersk leaned forwards, his hands shaking on the book. He’d read ahead and seen no details of the battle. Xrn looked at him and the cold lights in her eyes changed. They became a swirling vortex, a mass of colors vanishing into a pinpoint in the center of her eyes. Tersk shuddered and looked away, but Xrn’s voice was kind and sad as she replied.

“Oh, it was very simple. Tallis Stormbreaker was the Goblin King’s personal [Shaman]. He possessed the might of his people and his magic reflected that. When we charged his army he cast one spell. One simple spell, with such a simple effect.”

Xrn looked past the others, into the depths of the fire. The wind began to blow as she continued, her voice lost in the past.

“He opened a hole into the sky.”

 

—-

 

There was a hole in the sky. A hole as small as your hand at first. So small you’d never see it. But then it grew, widening until the clouds were sucked into it, until it became a vortex, a gaping rift that dragged everything upwards, tearing up trees, sucking up rocks and dirt and everything below it.

Xrn saw the spiral appear in the sky as the Antinium army around her surged across the dry flatlands. They charged towards the Goblin army, towards the Goblin [Shaman] whose hands shone like the sun.

So brave. So simple. Xrn screamed at them to stop. She raised her staff and tried to dispel the grand magic overhead. But it was like throwing all her weight against a mountain. The hole in the sky widened and then began to pull.

Antinium Soldiers, racing across the ground in the tens of thousands began to slow as they lost their traction on the ground. And then they lost their footing and began to float. Xrn saw their arms flailing in confusion as the winds blew them upwards. She heard the howl now, a terrible sound that was louder than a tornado and deeper than the roar of the ocean. The sky tore and her army was sucked into that void in space.

Across the battlefield, Tallis Stormbreaker raised his arms and the gyre widened further. Sea and sky became one. Xrn looked up, her magics barely keeping her rooted as Workers and Soldiers were pulled helplessly into the air. Even the Flying Antinium were at the mercy of the winds—they were dragged into the sky hundreds of miles up and hurled into the ground.

The Goblin Lord laughed and his laughter was thunder. Xrn hurled fire at him, but the other Goblin [Shamans] and [Mages] broke her spells and hurled spells at her. She fled as her army fell up.

 

—-

 

There was only horrified silence as Xrn finished her story. The Antinium sat frozen around the campfire as the wind blew in sympathy for Xrn’s tale. The Small Queen looked up and met Tersk’s eyes.

“We did not know of Goblins. We did not know of the Goblin King or what his armies could do. We underestimated them and paid for it.”

“But how? How could they be so strong?”

Tersk’s voice shook as he looked at the book he held. Xrn shrugged; she had no easy answer. She stared at the Prognugator of the Armored Antinium, wondering if her story had broken his spirit. But to her surprise Pivr spoke up.

“If that was the power the Goblin Lords held, how could we defeat them, Prognugator Xrn? For we surely did not retreat. The Antinium do not retreat. How did we fight them? How did we win?”

She looked at Pivr, surprised. The Revalantor of the Flying Antinium fanned his wings, his multi-faceted eyes ablaze with passion. For all his faults he was brave. So Xrn answered him truthfully, drawing her answer from both past and present.

“It was a grand spell that Tallis Stormbreaker used. He could not call upon it the second time we sent an army towards him, nor the third. He still broke our armies with his magics, but he grew more exhausted with each spell he cast. The Antinium could have paid the price that way, taking his life with mountains of our dead. Or if we had more of our great warriors of old, more of our lost technology we could have overwhelmed him with might. As it was, the Grand Queen chose neither option. She looked at the Goblins as a threat and gave her Prognugators three separate orders. Klbkch, Wrymvr and I were ordered to break the Goblin King’s might at any cost.”

“And did you?”

Pivr’s gaze was steady. Xrn’s mandibles opened and lifted. She smiled at him and the other Antinium and nodded at the book.

“Read and find out. But my presence should be all the answer you need.”

 

—-

 

Three armies. Three disastrous defeats, against a single Goblin Lord no less! The Antinium had been humbled, and at last, after three total routs of her forces, the Grand Queen finally reconsidered the mindless tactics her armies had employed. She ceased battling the Goblin Lord’s army in open engagements and instead began harassing the Goblins in the south of Izril, attacking them at night, through tunnels and with her Silent Antinium, wearing them down as her armies kept a stranglehold on the Drake cities on the eastern front.

The Goblins, perhaps unaware of the situation within Izril, must have received a shock to find such a widespread and fearless enemy already vying for control of the continent. In many ways the Antinium resembled the Goblins with their overwhelming numbers, general lack of intelligence, repulsiveness…but any hope of an alliance between the two verminous species was ruined with the first battle with Tallis Stormbreaker. They became enemies, which in turn eased the pressure off the Human and Drakes defenders as these two powers collided.

Much like the Goblin King, Tallis Stormbreaker was too powerful to rout in a single pitched battle, as his command of massive battlefield-wide spells was especially suited to destroying the Antinium. However, by the same token, his armies failed to uproot the Antinium who would flee the Goblin Lord and then destroy lesser Goblin armies with their ceaseless suicidal attacks.

And meanwhile, the Necromancer was occupied at Liscor, battling with Zel Shivertail. The southern continent of Izril was deadlocked, dear readers, which, sadly, forces us to refocus once more on the Human battles with the Goblins to the north.

The Goblin King’s advance had slowed and even been turned away for the first time at the city of First Landing, although at great cost. Now the Goblin King’s forces split up. Unable to take the city, they began burning and pillaging in a wide radius around the continent, attempting to force the Humans into a pitched battle which they might win, or slowly wear the Humans down.

Several of the Goblin Lords marched west, burning a path across the continent. The rest clashed with the Human defenders. The new generation of [Lords] and [Ladies] showed some resistance here, as Lord Tyrion Veltras demonstrated his military competency against the Goblins and Magnolia Reinhart employed numerous artifacts to slow the Goblin’s progress.

But there were too many Goblins and the Humans were unable to slow their progress. It seemed as if the Goblin King’s armies might well destroy the entire continent as they marched east, undeterred by the Humans’ desperate and uncoordinated resistance. But here they ran into yet another obstacle, this time in the shape of a famous ally from across the world. It was as Greydath of Blades was threatening to defeat a small army of Humans on the Plains of Saltes that he appeared on the battlefield, surprising the world at large and Greydath in particular.

Niers Astoragon, the Titan. The small [Strategist] of Baleros reportedly strode onto the battlefield and made his presence known by taking command of the Human army. It is unknown how he arrived so quickly across the world—especially given how he was seen in Baleros one day prior to this battle. Travelling so far and so fast is practically impossible, and yet the Fraerling [Strategist] managed it somehow. For reference, the most world-famous Couriers making use of the fastest ships and artifacts still require at least four days to make the journey across from Baleros to Izril, and that is only the sea voyage.

It is speculated that he must have had a particularly powerful scroll of [Teleportation] or employed the services of some exceptionally powerful mage or group of mages—and it is noted that all of Wistram’s [Mages] deny helping the Titan at this juncture—but whatever the case, the Titan used the surprise his appearance had caused to push Greydath’s army back and win one of the first victories for the Humans.

This was not the only battle Niers Astoragon would win either. The tiny second-in-command of one of the Four Great Companies quickly assumed control of the Human armies in the area and proceeded to win or stalemate the Goblin Lords in the area. This sudden rallying in the east gave the Humans a second wind, despite the obvious irony that they were placing their hopes on such tiny shoulders. Still, this writer supposes that if any shoulders were equal to the burden, it was those of Niers Astoragon, the Titan of Baleros himself.

The Titan is of course famed for having defeated one of the King of Destruction’s Seven, the Gambler of Fates, Queravia, among his other accomplishments, but he rose to greater heights during the Second Antinium War. As one of the highest-level [Strategists] in the world he was able to fight on the same level with the Goblin Lords and his grasp of strategy would see him outmaneuvering the Goblin Lords despite possessing a weaker or less numerous force in the battles he fought.

It is unknown why Niers Astoragon chose to risk his life as he did and fight the Goblin King’s armies head on, especially since Baleros was already in the process of sending armies across the sea to defend Izril. Perhaps it was guilt that prompted the Titan to fight directly against the Goblin King.

After all, it was his company who first agreed to peace with Velan the Kind when he was a Goblin Lord. The Fraerling [Strategist] must have attempted to repay his considerable debt to the people of the world, and it has to be said, his impact on the battlefield was not as minute as his stature. He pushed back the armies of two Goblin Lords at once, fending both off with the skill that prompts some to call him the greatest [Strategist] in the world.

However, as with all non-Drake heroes, it appears Niers Astoragon had a fatal flaw. In this case, it was that of cowardice, for he refused to do battle with the Goblin King. Velan the Kind appeared on battlefields across Izril, pushing his armies east, south, north and west, his armies enjoying victory after victory when he fought among them. And whenever he would appear on the eastern fronts, Niers Astoragon would retreat from battle, allowing the Goblin King to gobble up cities and entire provinces rather than risk any kind of engagement with him.

Shockingly, it appeared that the Titan’s spine was far weaker than that of the lowest-level Drake [Soldier], as he would go on to end the Second Antinium War without ever participating in a battle where the Goblin King was present.

When questioned about his fearful retreat from any actual conflict with the Goblin King, the much-vaunted [Strategist] of Baleros had only this to say:

“I’m not an idiot.”

He then refused to reply to any of the letters this humble [Writer] sent to him, leaving this questionable page in history unfortunately blank. At least Niers Astoragon’s strategy bought time for the Humans, but in the larger scale of things, his retreats allowed the Goblin an equal number of effortless victories, balancing his contributions out on the whole. Whether his aid was truly that monumental is a debate for [Tacticians], but this Drake has his own doubts on the matter.

 

“That clod-footed village-smasher. I told him not to print that!”

Niers Astoragon frowned down at the tiny book in his hands. He considered ripping it up, but books were expensive, and books that were made for Fraerlings were hard to obtain. They were almost twice as expensive in fact—not because of the costs of production, which were minute, but because a Fraerling [Bookbinder] and [Scribe] had to labor hard to copy texts in minutiae.

So he reluctantly put the book down before he tossed it into the burning wax candle that sat next to him. Niers got up and paced about the table, kicking aside a tea bag as he vented his emotions.

A large furry hand reached down and picked up the tea bag. Foliana, sitting at Niers’ table in his quarters, raised the tea bag and began nibbling at it. She had no tea cup. In fact, she had nothing to drink at all. She did have a muffin, which she held in her other hand.

“Mm. He doesn’t like you.”

“Who? The author? He does not. I’ve met petty Drakes, but including all that nonsense because I refused to let him interview me and entertain all his idiotic questions? That’s a new low.”

Niers scowled but tromped back to his miniature armchair, sighing as he picked the book up and sat back in his chair. He looked up at Foliana as she perched on a much larger stool by their table.

It was a custom the two had to sit together and relax when they could. In this case, the relaxing component was debatable, but Niers still thought it was important to keep reading. He grunted as he flipped through the pages, trying to find where he’d last been reading.

“This business with the Goblin Lord has me uneasy, Foliana. There are too many parallels to the past. Zel Shivertail, Magnolia Reinhart…”

“Could be her plans. She did want to involve us.”

“True. I just don’t know…oh come now. ‘Fraerling courage is clearly in short supply?’ He calls himself a writer? This is the most biased, petty—”

Foliana reached down and patted Niers on the head. He shoved her paw away, irritated. She shrugged and went back to consuming the tea bag. After the Fraerling had calmed he looked up at Foliana and sighed.

“He is right on one count, though. We did allow this. If I had any inkling that Velan would have become this, I would have destroyed his tribe when we first met him.”

“Would have been tricky. He was strong back then.”

“And sane. Dead gods, Foliana, what happened to him?”

“Became Goblin King. Went crazy.”

Foliana shrugged, nibbling at the tea grounds. Niers frowned. He stroked at his beard, thinking hard.

“There has to be more to it than that. You met Velan once, Foliana. What did you think of him?”

“Sane. Smart. Kind. Like his name. Cared about his people. Also strong.”

Niers grunted.

“That was my impression as well. He was so calm and intelligent for a Goblin that I found myself taken with him in an instant. His sudden change though…it’s one of the mysteries I intend to unravel.”

“Like chess? And the dungeon?”

“All of it fits together somehow Foliana. I’m sure of it. If I only had time, I’d go to that new dungeon in Liscor, and the old one they found in Terandria. I could put together clues. But there’s never enough time, is there?”

The Titan sighed, and Foliana broke off a piece of her strawberry muffin and offered it to him. He took a crumb the size of his head and chewed on it glumly.

“I suppose it does seem cowardly, doesn’t it? But I knew any battle with Velan would be disastrous, so I did what I could. The army I had to work with was dispirited and lacked unity. I couldn’t see any way to pin down Velan without him tearing a hole in every formation I sent at him. Do you think I was wrong not to try to occupy him?”

Foliana was silent as she sat on her chair. The candle dripped beads of wax slowly until she began to nibble at the candle as well. Niers snapped at her and she abandoned eating the candle and spoke at last.

“Niers, you remember what I told you when all the others were telling us to come fight, don’t you? They wanted us to send our company to Izril. Across the oceans. I said no. I don’t like water and you were there. That was enough.”

“I recall you saying so. You refused to cross to Izril.”

“Mm. And you know why that is?”

“Besides you not liking water?”

“Mhm. But also another reason. Do you know?”

“No. Why didn’t you go?”

Foliana stopped nibbling at her muffin and looked at Niers with her tri-colored eyes.

“I’m not an idiot either. Even if he ate muffins, I would get killed before I scratched him.”

She sat back on her chair. Niers looked thoughtfully at the book in front of him and then frowned.

“This author really is insufferable. Yes, we were in full retreat. But that was in the expectation of reinforcements! Which we received, I might add! You remember, don’t you, Foliana? We were negotiating for every company we could get to cross the seas, and then—”

“I remember. I offered them a muffin if they’d go.”

“I recall that. You need to work on your tact or let our [Emissaries] sort negotiations out, Foliana. I can’t believe you got the companies to actually agree to help. How did you do it? And don’t tell me it was a muffin.”

“It was.”

“They sailed across the sea and fought the Goblin Lord for a muffin?”

“Well, it was made of gold. And I did offer them a few baskets.”

 

—-

 

While the Goblin King’s armies pursued the Humans across the continent, the world was slowly beginning to wake up to his threat. The desperate pleas from the Humans and Drake requests for assistance went largely ignored in Chandrar, who had seen too much death from the King of Destruction already. But Baleros, enraged by the Goblin King’s treachery, had sent countless mercenary companies across the ocean. Rhir sent a small army as well, honoring the treaties as the Blighted King always has, but it was Terandria who was first to act.

The shorter distance between Terandria and Izril and the continent’s own history with the previous Goblin King, Curulac of a Hundred Days, meant that the normally short-sighted [Kings] and [Queens] were aware of the Goblin threat from the start. Thus, an army of two hundred thousand Terandrians landed on the northern shores of Izril at the end of the summer.

They met the Goblin King’s forces right away. Velan the Kind had been caught off-guard by the Human’s arrival and was in the middle of pulling his forces back to face this new threat. To buy time he personally assailed the Terandrians as they were landing ships with five thousand of his Goblin elites.

This writer realizes that the idea of five thousand Goblins attacking a force numbering over two hundred thousand seems ludicrous, but the Goblin King was cut of the same cloth that the King of Destruction, Flos, was made of. Tales of his ability in battle are widespread, and this writer will omit any tedious recitals of his feats in combat. Suffice it to say that the Goblin King was known for defeating enemy [Generals] and [Mages] in combat, and his Goblin elites were similarly powerful.

The vanguard he led into battle was comprised of Hobs who were all as powerful as Gold-rank adventurers. They carried magical weapons and armor into battle and some were reportedly as tall as half-Giants. Whether these rumors are entirely accurate is unknown, but they were certainly a force to be reckoned with, as the Terandrians found to their cost.

The sheer daring of the attack on their ships caught the Terandrians unawares. The Goblin King managed to sink several ships before the Terandrians drove him off, and he successfully beat back the Terandrians in battle after battle, once again proving the futility of placing any kind of hopes on Humans.

However, the Terandrian forces were only the first wave. More fleets began arriving on Izril, all of whom began to come under immediate attack the instant they landed, sometimes before they reached ground. The Goblin King’s armies reformed into a spear that fought off the foreign armies, and the war in the north became a stalemate.

Yes, even with so many continents lending their aid, the battle against the Goblin King had only shifted from a losing battle into one on equal footing. Worse, it was feared that Tallis Stormbreaker would abandon his campaign to the south to support Velan the Kind.

The [Shaman] in the south had broken the Drakes and Antinium forces sent against him. And though the Antinium had stymied his forces, the Goblins would soon strike the larger blow. After a series of Antinium strikes against his forces, the Goblin King personally appeared in the south. He swiftly encircled an Antinium Hive and after wiping all the Antinium on the surface, led his army into the Hive and slew the Queen inside himself.

The fact that the Goblin King had succeeded in the very tactic that had cost so many lives of Drake armies must have shaken the Antinium terribly, for they immediately ceased attacking the Goblin King’s armies and pulled back all their armies to defend their remaining Hives. This cessation of assaults meant that Tallis Stormbreaker was free to maneuver his armies, which in turn gave him the opportunity to move through the High Passes and join the fighting in the north if he so chose.

If the Goblins concentrated all their forces in the north, the continent might be lost entirely, especially because the Necromancer had cut off the only safe land route north. And as the fighting drew into fall, it seemed like the Drakes might lose Liscor for good. No aid had reached the embattled forces of Zel Shivertail—Tallis Stormbreaker’s armies lay in the way, as did the Antinium forces. Zel Shivertail’s urgent missives were met with denials or silence from the Drake cities. Day by day his forces decreased and the Necromancer’s increased.

But still, Liscor fought! Against all odds dear readers, the Siege of Liscor had continued not for days, not for weeks, but for three months by the time they had reached the breaking point! Every adult in Liscor had taken to the walls during this time, and Zel Shivertail’s army continued to assail the Necromancer, holding the battle lines and shielding Liscor from the full brunt of his attacks.

Yes, if there is any battle to commemorate the spirit of Drakes, it would be that one. A single Drake [Spearsman] would stop a charging Draugr that Gold-rank adventurers might struggle to subdue. The Drake civilians, led by the core of their army, fended off wraith attacks and the undead giants with their indomitable spirit.

What courage, what valorous acts must have been seen every day! This writers longs to have been there, to see the heroism of Drakes at our finest. Despite the dark hour, the Necromancer had yet to take the city. And though it seemed like the final blow would be struck any day now, the Drakes still held on. Valiant, undeterred, full of the courage that is such a byword of the Drake species as a whole—

 

“Grandma, you’re grinding your teeth. If you don’t stop I’m taking the book away.”

Selys Shivertail sighed and looked up, unable to take the noise any longer. She didn’t live with her grandmother in the same apartment—that would have been a nightmare—but she visited the elderly Drake often. Selys usually found herself in her grandmother’s home at least once a week.

She told herself it was because she liked her grandmother, Tekshia Shivertail. And that was true, but it was also true that Tekshia Shivertail was the Guildmaster of the Adventurer’s Guild in Liscor. In other words, she was Selys’ boss as well as her grandmother and she wasn’t shy about withholding Selys’ pay unless her granddaughter showed up regularly.

It usually wasn’t a problem, but Selys would rather be out partying on a night like tonight. Instead, she was stuck with her grandmother, listening to the old Drake’s teeth grind and her tail thrashing.

“Stop reading that history book, grandma. You always get mad when you do, and remember what the [Healer] said?”

Tekshia Shivertail looked up. Her scales were grayer and had a lot less luster than Selys’, but she was still spry and quite attractive with her light green coloration. She lashed her tail irritably as she glared at her granddaughter across the table.

“What the [Healer] said? He said I’m in better shape than you are, girl. I’m fit, you’re not. I can still outrun half the Gnolls in this city and you’re too lazy to get out of bed until the sun’s halfway overhead!”

“…Right. But he said that you get angry and that’s a bad thing.”

“For other people maybe!”

Tekshia slammed a fist onto the table and Selys jumped.

“Yeah, and I’m other people, grandma! Remember when you sent that poor Gnoll to the healer’s?”

“What of it? I have a right to be angry, especially when I read this nonsense!”

Tekshia waved the book angrily at Selys. Her granddaughter peered at the book.

“What’s that? The Second History of the Antinium Wars? I thought the author was very complimentary about us.”

“He is. Too much! That idiot’s practically licking our feet and wagging his tail over our ‘heroic sacrifice’. Heroic? There was nothing heroic about the siege and the Necromancer! It was the most miserable, nightmarish three months I’ve ever lived through and I’ve lived a long time! But to hear this Wordsmith fellow tell it, we were all having a grand time! Here, just listen to that.”

Selys’ grandmother read the offending passage out loud and Selys winced.

“Okay, he might not understand how battles work. I don’t think this Drake has ever seen a zombie, much less anything scarier than that.”

Tekshia snorted, her tail curling around the leg of her chair in irritation.

“That’s clear enough. A single Drake [Spearman] stopping a charging Draugr? Hah! Those damn things will run down the length of your spear and gut you before you can blink twice! And fighting off wraiths with swords? What does this [Writer] think we did, yell at them and hurt their feelings?”

“At least he thinks we’re heroes. It could be worse.”

Selys tried to calm her grandmother down, but Tekshia was too incensed to let up. She got up, muttering, and poured herself some tea, angrily spilling some on the book.

“Ancestors take it! Get me a cloth before the ink runs, Selys. Not that one! That’s my good cloth! Yes, that! Bring it over here!”

She dabbed at the pages of the book with the second-best cloth as Selys sighed loudly. Tekshia ignored her and went on.

“Being called heroes is almost as bad as cowards. And he completely neglected to mention how we felt! It’s as if our situation didn’t matter, as if we could hold our ground despite the odds! We were begging for reinforcements. But oh no, he would have everyone thinking we were just too lazy to beat the Necromancer when he was slaughtering us day by day!”

She ground her teeth again, sipping at her tea and making a hissing sound deep in her throat.

“If that coward—this Wordsmith fellow ever dared come here, we’d show him what we think about his ‘history’ book. It’s a shame our army isn’t near his home, or I’d ask a few of the boys to go to his house and teach him a lesson.”

“Grandma!”

Selys shot out of her chair and glared at Tekshia, looking horrified. The older Drake was unapologetic.

“What? A few sticks and rocks and a beating is how we used to settle things! Street justice is swifter than the Watch—and more efficient too! It’s not like I’d ask them to kill him—just break his hands, maybe.”

“That’s just as bad!”

“Is it? He can write what he wants and get away with it and we can’t tell him how we feel? Not while I’m alive. Get me my quill and ink and some parchment, would you, Selys dear?”

“Absolutely not.”

Selys folded her arms. Tekshia eyed the younger Drake balefully, but then relented.

“You’re right. I’ll send a [Message] spell instead. Much quicker. Anyways, at least this Wordsmith fellow got one thing right.”

Tekshia opened the book again, ignoring her granddaughter’s spluttering. She tapped one claw approvingly on a line in the book.

“It was Zel Shivertail who rallied us. Without him we would have been lost. That much is true.”

“Uncle Zel? He never talks about the battle around me. What was it like with him fighting the Necromancer? Was he really as big a hero as everyone says he was?”

Selys leaned over the table, peering at the book. Tekshia tilted the page to show Selys. She sighed, her anger giving way to nostalgia.

“He was a giant. That silly young Drake with his battered armor, fighting on the front lines, surrounded by undead. Taking shots from Az’kerash himself and standing right back up and charging back into the fray—how could we not follow him? I remember when he would visit the city as a child. That hatchling became a fine [General]. So long as he stood, we could keep fighting.”

“It’s so strange. He never mentions any of that to me. He’s just Uncle Zel when he visits. He eats pies, beats up [Thugs]—I can’t ever picture him being a big hero on the battlefield.”

Selys shook her head and Tekshia smacked her niece’s claws before Selys could reach for a fruit tart.

“Those are mine, you thieving little hatchling! If you want a snack then bring me those ‘cookies’ or some of that ‘cake’ you keep bragging about eating! Honestly, if you know this Human [Innkeeper] so well you could at least bring me some of her cooking! And you don’t know how important your uncle is because you’ve never been on any battlefield! If you wanted to know what it was like, why didn’t you ask him when he visited?”

“Uncle Zel never talks about the siege, grandma. He’s too embarrassed whenever people come up to thank him.”

“That hatchling. We’re grateful to him. But he’s just like your father used to be. Embarrassed when people praise him for what he did. It explains why he left without visiting me.”

“He visited you once, grandma.”

Once! Hah! He’s fearless on the battlefield, but he can’t handle me asking him about marriage! I keep telling him to settle down with a nice young Drake or at least have sex—he doesn’t have to marry them! He can make a few hatchlings and then—”

Grandmother!

Selys glared at her grandmother, scandalized. The old Drake flicked her tail at Selys’ face.

“You prudish youngsters! You’re all so timid. What happened to all the real Drakes? The kind who’d never bend their tails for any threat, who’d stand tall no matter what tried to beat them down? Your mother was as brave as could be, and she wasn’t shy about grabbing your father. And I’m sure they would have given me at least one more grandchild if—if—”

Tekshia’s ranting slowed and she stopped, suddenly acutely aware of her audience. Selys’ tail went still and Tekshia cleared her throat, avoiding her eyes.

“I’m sorry dear. I shouldn’t be reading this after all. You’re right. Too many bad memories come up. Especially with the siege. You might be too young to remember, it but—”

“No, I remember.”

Selys closed her eyes. She had been there. She could remember Liscor’s siege. Not the fighting, but the hiding in her house, the screams, the wounded and the stench—her grandmother patted Selys on the knee gently.

“I do talk too much, don’t I? I’ll stop. Let’s talk about happier things.”

She made to close the book, but Selys stopped her.

“No, go on. Keep talking. You hardly ever do and no one else will. Tell me about what it was like?”

“Again?”

Selys gulped. The young Drake woman stared at the book and then at her grandmother.

“Yes. Tell me. Tell me about all of it, and the parts you won’t tell me. Tell me about my parents. And…how they died.”

A flash of pain crossed over Selys’ grandmother’s face. Tekshia Shivertail closed the book and closed her eyes for a second. Selys waited, her heart twisting. She had been young then. But she could still remember her grandmother walking through the door, her armor covered in blood. She remembered asking for her parents and seeing the answer in the tears on her grandmother’s face.

Once. Tekshia looked away, raising a claw to scratch at the greyed scales on her neck.

“I told you, they died on the walls. Most of us did. Hah—the Necromancer couldn’t break our gates, and he could only send waves up the walls. We held him with spears and swords. Axes too. We’d toss rocks at the Draug that climbed up, cut them down before they could get onto clear ground. Because when they did—”

“That’s when it happened?”

The old Drake didn’t reply at first. Her voice was distant when she eventually spoke.

“We didn’t have enough [Mages]. I keep telling those idiots who run the Walled Cities—I say it all the time. We don’t have enough magic-users. Drakes don’t take to magic like other species. We say it’s dishonorable, too easy—not military. So what? If we had as many [Mages] as we had [Sergeants] in the army we would have beaten the Necromancer without help. Instead, our wonderful army of idiots died one by one as Az’kerash sniped them with spells. And on that day he sent the wraiths to harass us.”

Her eyes were distant. Selys remembered the sounds she’d heard from her house. The unearthly screams, the boom of magics, the only thing that could harm the spectral wraiths. And her grandmother’s voice went on, softer.

“They cut us down before Zel could get a [Mage] unit in position to help us blast them away. That gave the Necromancer’s army time to send up, oh, fifteen of the Draugr into one spot.  Fifteen, and one of those giant Carcass Walkers for good measure. It barely needed to climb to get up. I remember seeing it towering over the others and thinking this was the end.”

“But it wasn’t.”

Selys’ grandmother stirred. A bit of anger flashed into her eyes and she sat up.

“Of course not! Your father would never allow it. Your mother either. She was already shooting those Draugr off—using the last of her enchanted arrows. I told her to hold on to them, to wait for a good shot to and put one between the Necromancer’s eyes, but her arrows gave us a chance to rally. That brave idiot. If she’d just held onto one rather than save us, then maybe she would have taken the wraith out. But it got her from behind. And your father—”

Selys’ eyes were dry. She’d heard the story too many times. But her claws scraped at each other as she gripped her hands tightly together. Her grandmother’s eyes were distant, her head turned to the very walls.

“Your father saw the Carcass Walker start tearing us apart. And more undead were coming up the walls. The Necromancer knew we were about to break so he sent everything he had at us. Another minute and the Walker would have cleared us all off. So your father charged into it. He used a Skill—[Ram’s Charge], that silly, silly move. And he knocked it off the walls. And he went over with it.”

“And did he—when he fell, I mean. Was it—”

Selys’ throat closed over the next word. Was it quick? Her heart was twisting like her hands, twisting and twisting until she thought it might snap. But it never did. It just hurt. Tekshia shook her head.

“I don’t know. I was fighting—I couldn’t look around. Your father was brave, strong—I have to imagine he survived. He must have took down a score of them before they overwhelmed him. We never found his body, but he must have—”

Her voice trailed off. For a second she looked so lost. Selys hugged her. Tekshia stiffened, and then came back to reality. She was still for a second and then her voice returned to its usual snappishness.

“Enough sobbing over the past. Your parents died like the heroes they always were, Selys. We might have all died had the siege gone on a day longer. It wasn’t glorious; we fought because we had no choice. We fought and died, and only those of us who were there will ever know what it was like. And no idiotic [Writer] can change that.”

She busied herself around her kitchen, pushing the plate of tarts towards Selys. The young Drake woman took one and chewed it slowly, coming back from those dark times. Tekshia’s mood returned to normal too, and soon she was grousing about incompetent adventurers, who had been stronger, smarter, faster, and cleaner back when she’d been young.

“It’s a disgrace when there’s not one Gold-rank adventurer in Liscor who’s a Drake! Not one! Where did all our adventurers go? And just look at the Human ones who keep coming here! Now we have [Necromancers] walking about the city! I can’t understand why you tolerate that Human one, Selys. You of all people!”

Selys sighed, predicting another argument with her grandmother. She adopted a patient, if slightly strained, tone.

“He saved my life, grandma. During the attack on Liscor by the undead. And before you say anything it wasn’t his fault! He saved me and Erin too and he killed more undead than anyone else I saw that night.”

“So? Thank him and then kick him out of the city, that’s what I say! But no, he’s just a nuisance, not a threat. Ridiculous. At least you could kick him out rather than letting him in the Guild! If your father and mother could see you now, holding tails with a [Necromancer]…”

Grandma! I’m not dating him!”

Selys rolled her eyes and her grandmother grunted. She returned to the book, flipping through pages. And again, the past uncurled and swept through the room, reaching out from the parchment and engulfing the two Drakes. Tekshia’s voice was soft as she spoke to herself and her granddaughter.

“Yes, it felt like it was over that day. We had the wall, but the Necromancer was still pushing, and Zel couldn’t get to us this time. Not enough soldiers. We were going to break, I felt it.”

“Just like that?”

“You say it as if we hadn’t been on the verge for months. This was it. We didn’t have the strength to fight for another day and night without rest Selys. I was thinking of you, thinking of trying to get away with you when the lines fell, get you to Zel and away from the battle if I could. And that’s when we heard the horn calls in the distance. We turned, and saw them.”

Tekshia’s claw closed on her teacup, so hard that the ceramic cracked. She didn’t notice. She stared into the distance and Selys remembered too. The shouting, the screams, and then the cheering.

“There they were, Selys. We thought they were our doom when we first saw them from afar. But then we realized they were our salvation. They came down like the sea itself and broke the Necromancer’s armies. That is why we opened our gates to them. That is why we signed the treaty here. Because they saved us.”

Selys nodded. She stared at the book, which was so complimentary of the Drakes of Liscor and had omitted one of the most important points. Zel Shivertail was a hero of Liscor, true enough. But Liscor had another hero, whose tale was largely untold in this historical narrative. They had broken the siege, delivered the people of Liscor from the Necromancer at the last moment. The most unexpected of allies, those strange invaders from another continent, another world.

“The Antinium.”

 


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4.47

[Lieutenant] Gershal of Vaunt was an unhappy man. He was not an important man, which factored into his present unhappiness. He was a low-level officer from a small city north of Invrisil. He commanded a group of disciplined but fairly low-level [Archers] and [Swordsmen], and he liked to think of himself as a decent soldier, albeit one who hadn’t fought in any wars.

He and his men fought monsters, patrolled, kept the peace, and occasionally went to aid other cities, usually in suppressing a Goblin tribe or dealing with a monster infestation. They had never been levied for one of the annual battles against the Drakes, and Gershal hoped they never would be. When he’d heard about the Goblin Lord he’d been concerned for the other cities of course, but he’d assumed the Goblin threat would be taken care of long before they got close to his city.

What he’d never expected was to be part of the solution. When the levy request had come from Lady Magnolia Reinhart to Vaunt, the city [Mayor] had panicked. When another request came hours later from Lord Tyrion Veltras, Gershal had known there would be trouble. When two important nobles wanted the same thing, appeasing one and not the other could have terrible consequences, and yet, both requests had demanded a large force be sent, making appeasing both an impossibility.

Vaunt had made the logical choice. They’d sent four hundred [Soldiers] to Lord Tyrion Veltras, who, after all, was known as a battle-ready [Lord] and who would probably return most of the soldiers in one piece. They’d sent Gershal with two hundred of his men to Lady Magnolia.

The sacrificial lamb. Gershal strode about the camp he’d been assigned to, nervously tightening his sword belt and eyeing the other soldiers and officers milling about. Lines of orderly tents ran in every direction, each one inhabited by an officer from a different Human city.

“Dead gods, what a hodgepodge collection of units this is. Lady Reinhart wants to stop the Goblin Lord with this?

Gershal groused to himself as he walked past a group of officers dicing and drinking wine together. His throat cried out for a taste, but the [Lieutenant] moved past them. Drinking on duty? That wasn’t a custom in his army.

And that was the thing. Magnolia’s requests had drawn in so many disparate groups of soldiers from across the continent. Gershal was amazed their arrival to the camp just outside of Invrisil hadn’t been a disaster with them all arriving at once. Somehow he’d found there was a space ready for his soldiers to camp and a personal tent. That was something at least. But now he was waiting for orders and impatient with it. So Gershal walked through the camp, looking for anyone he might recognize.

As luck had it, he was recognized first.

“Gershal!”

A woman’s voice made Gershal turn. He saw a woman in armor striding up to him. She raised a fist and Gershal, knowing what was coming, winced as he put up his own.

The sound of two gauntleted fists colliding made several officers look up. Gershal shook out his stinging knuckles and looked at the other officer who’d given him her city’s unique greeting.

“Lieutenant Salvia. I should have known you’d be assigned here. Who did you offend to get this duty?”

“It’s [Captain] Salvia, you dour oaf! I specifically requested to come here—might as well be first to fight the Goblin Lord, eh? How’s Vaunt? Still making cheeses all year? How many soldiers did you send? Two hundred? Three?”

“Two. Half [Archers] and half [Swordsmen].”

“What, you mean those Level 5 [Farmers] who’ve barely trained with a bow more than a month? Poor show!”

“Better than a bunch of [Riders] who spend all their time looking after a bunch of flea-ridden nags all day.”

Gershal and Salvia stared at each other for a second, and then she laughed and clapped him on the shoulder.

“You don’t change, do you? Come on, let’s have a drink!”

“I shouldn’t. We are on duty…”

“Don’t be like that! There’s no commander about and unless Magnolia Reinhart graces us with her presence in person, we’ve nothing to do but talk. I have a bottle of wine in my tent. Let’s take it out and drink something. Pshaw! This weather’s not warming fast enough for my taste!”

In short order, Gershal found himself sitting with Salvia at a table, drinking cheap wine from equally cheap tin cups. It wasn’t what Gershal would have preferred, but he was too polite to say otherwise.

Besides, he knew Salvia. Her city, Nonelmar, was close to his and they’d gotten to know each other over the years. Nonelmar was more prosperous owing to its richer soil which provided it with grazing pastures and bountiful fields alike, but Vaunt could pride itself on producing some of the best cheeses on the continent. In fact, Gershal had some of his city’s famous cheese with him and soon he and Salvia were sharing slices of the spicy cheese known as Peppermort, exceptionally fragrant and long-lasting. It also went well with wine, even cheap wine.

“Good stuff! I can’t tell you how much I miss your city’s cheeses. I tried to buy some in Invrisil as soon as my soldiers settled in, but you wouldn’t believe the prices!”

“They are high right before spring. You’re lucky you met me—I hear some of our cheeses are going for eight silver pieces per pound at the moment.”

Salvia swore and Gershal smiled, although he was slightly jealous. He hadn’t even contemplated a trip into Invrisil, for all it was a few miles away from the officer’s camp. Vaunt couldn’t afford to pay its [Lieutenants] that much, and a [Captain]’s salary allowed for far more luxuries.

Rather than ask how Salvia had gotten her promotion, which would be polite, Gershal looked around the camp.

“You say your soldiers got here yesterday? We only arrived this morning. Do you think we’ll be waiting long to see what Lady Reinhart does with us?”

Salvia bit into a slice of cheese and sipped some wine, shrugging.

“Can’t say. Your group is one of the last to arrive or so it seems. We’re nearly full in the camps, and the soldiers are restless. Could be we’ll just sit here until the Goblin Lord arrives and if he attacks, we’ll do our bits. Otherwise…”

Gershal frowned, worried. He leaned forwards over the low wooden table towards Salvia.

“She won’t order us into battle, would she? Lady Reinhart has to know that a force like this won’t stand up to a regular army—even a Goblin Lord’s. Without a commander of some sort…”

“She might have one. Invrisil has a few [Strategists] and it’s not like she couldn’t send for a [Commander] from one of the larger cities.”

“Be reasonable Salvia. A local [Commander] is no match for a Goblin Lord. If it comes to a battle, I could see our groups holding the line in the city with adventurers. But an offensive is suicide! Lord Tyrion is gathering an army of his own, and it’s going to be twice as large as this one. Let him take care of the Goblin Lord. Not Lady Reinhart, who is, with all respect, not a general.”

Gershal looked around as he said this. It wasn’t wise to badmouth Lady Magnolia, but he had to state his opinions, which were close to fact in this case. Salvia made a face.

“I know. I know. I have orders not to participate in any assaults on the Goblin Lord unless I’m sure I can pull my boys out safely. And I’ll bet half the officers here won’t commit to an assault either. You’re not alone Gershal—just don’t say it anywhere Lady Reinhart’s people might hear.”

“They’re not here, are they?”

The [Lieutenant] looked around, worried. Salvia shook her head and pointed to a pair of [Knights] in pinkish-red armor who were striding through the camp.

“Not her people exactly, but see those two. They’re [Knights] in service to Lady Bethal.”

“Oh.”

Gershal knew that Lady Bethal Walchaís and her house were strongly aligned with the Reinhart family. Still, the two [Knights] did little to strike fear into his heart.

“Aren’t those the Knights of the Flower or something? I’ve heard about them. Arrogant hotheads or so I’ve been led to believe. All the more reason why this army lacks cohesion. If I have to fight with those eyesores—”

Salvia kicked Gershal under the table, making him wince and clutch at his leg. She glared at him, tin cup held tensely in her hand.

“Don’t say that within earshot, you fool! The Knights of the Petal take any insult against their [Lady] or their order to heart. They’ve thrashed officers who’ve laughed at them and they’ll break bones if you insult Lady Bethal.”

Gershal shut up. Salvia put down her cup and reached for the wine bottle to refill it.

“They might dress like pink flowers, but they’re the real deal on the battlefield, Gershal. I hear their armor is all custom-made Dwarf work, enchanted by Wistram mages. They’re nigh-invincible against mundane arms and they all have magical weapons. If there’s any group I’d want to be charging into the Goblin Lord’s ranks, it’s them.”

“Oh.”

Instantly Gershal reevaluated his opinion of the two Rose Knights. Dwarf-made armor? His armor was iron, and not exactly top-rate iron at that. He’d be grateful for some high-quality steel, let alone a piece of armor from the Dwarf forges of Terandria. Yet the presence of Lady Bethal’s knights still didn’t assuage his concerns.

“That’s one elite group. But I don’t see any other notable force. By all accounts Lord Veltras has gathered a far larger army—he called for six thousand horse from the Terland family and they sent it! At least a quarter were [Knights], whereas I can count the number of crests here in the hundreds.”

“Yes, yes. I get what you’re saying Gershal. But we were called here to protect Invrisil from the Goblin Lord.”

“I have no problems with that. But doing it alone—”

Gershal broke off, knowing he was belaboring the point. His heart ached for the villages and towns that had already been destroyed by the Goblin Lord. But he was, if nothing else, a pragmatist. Without a true leader—or twice as many soldiers, he feared that any attempt to do battle with the Goblin Lord would only level up his Goblins and create more undead.

He was worried and unhappy, and unfortunately, the alcohol only made his mood worse. Gershal and Salvia had finished half the bottle and were sharing his cheese and her wine with some other officers they’d met when they heard a horn blowing to the east of camp. Everyone looked up.

“That’s odd. They haven’t announced anyone since Lady Bethal and her escort rode in.”

“Might be a small [Lord] leading his soldiers personally. Poor fellow if he is—I doubt he’ll see much battle on defensive duty.”

“Hang on—listen. There are more horns. This is no local lord.”

Indeed, more horns were blowing, heralding the arrival of someone important. Gershal rose to his feet and saw a man on horseback riding through the camp.

“All officers! Assemble at the center of camp! Lady Magnolia Reinhart has arrived in person! She will be discussing the coming battle against the Goblin Lord!”

“Oh, dead gods.”

Salvia paled and Gershal felt his heart jump in his chest. Coming battle? He looked around at the other officers. They were all looking uneasy.

“We’ll—just have to see what she says. Perhaps she intends to hold the city.”

“No problems there. But he said ‘coming battle’. If she wants us to attack…”

“We’ll just have to tell her it’s not feasible. There’s a few [Captains] and some [Lords] among us—they can say it to her face.”

“Not I.”

Salvia looked pale at the idea, and the officer who’d suggested it paused.

“Well, we’ll just have to say it together. She can’t object to all of us stating the truth.”

Silence followed his words. Gershal stopped himself from pointing out that Lady Magnolia Reinhart could do what she very well pleased. If she grew angry at all of the officers present…he sighed.

“We’d better see what she wants.”

“True.”

The officers began moving in a mass towards the center of the camp, where a wooden stage had been placed. Gershal had wondered what it was for—now he realized it was for the Lady Reinhart. He prayed she wouldn’t make the wrong decision.

“Someone has to destroy the Goblin Lord.”

Salvia muttered to Gershal as they walked. Gershal nodded. He’d wrapped his cheese carefully in wax paper and was tucking it into his armor. Cheese. It was a local superstition among his city. A cheese had once stopped an arrow that had gone through a [Soldier]’s armor. Now all of the young men and women who left Vaunt carried a cheese when they went into battle. It was a good field ration and it reminded them of home.

He wondered what the traditions of the villages and cities around Invrisil were like. Gershal felt a pang as he imagined the Goblin Lord’s army laying waste to them. Someone had to stop the Goblin Lord, indeed. But—

Not this army. Not them. They were too small. Gershal closed his eyes. And then he heard a susurration, saw the ranks of men and women parting, and knew Lady Magnolia Reinhart was approaching. He had never met her before in his life, but Gershal knew the rumors surrounding her. She was cunning, deadly, manipulative, and, it was said, cold-hearted as the snow itself. But she had never been called a fool.

He hoped that today wouldn’t prove the rumors wrong.

 

—-

 

“Lady Reinhart? General Shivertail? We have arrived.”

Reynold’s voice came from the front of the carriage, slightly muffled. He guided the pink magical carriage to a stop as the camp full of officers came into view. It was the smaller camp to the sprawling campgrounds next to it, where the soldiers from each unit were waiting.

The ground was cleared, and the melted snow had revealed wet but sturdy earth. The growing plant life had been trampled by thousands of boots. Now it was muddy, and Ressa wrinkled her nose as she stepped out into the mud.

“You shouldn’t have brought a dress.”

“Nonsense! How will they know it’s me if I don’t wear a dress? Besides, aren’t these enchanted to resist stains?”

“Your legs aren’t. Step carefully and try not to fall on your face.”

Lady Magnolia scoffed and exited the carriage carefully. She took one step into the mud, grimaced, and turned to Ressa.

“Ah. Perhaps the high heels were a mistake. However, we shall endure. General Shivertail, are you ready? I believe the officers have assembled; once we reach the stage it will truly begin in earnest.”

Zel Shivertail sat in Lady Magnolia’s coach and felt his scales tingling. He looked up, and saw Reynold fussing with the carriage. He looked to one side and saw Lady Magnolia Reinhart standing in the mud, peering up at him.

It felt like he was dreaming. Only, as he ducked his head and stepped from the carriage, he knew he wasn’t. He could see Humans in the distance, hundreds of them. All gathered around a wooden platform. They’d seen Lady Magnolia’s carriage of course, and now their faces were turned to him.

Humans. And here he was, a Drake [General], about to lead them. Of course, Zel knew that was the plan. It had been the plan ever since Magnolia had sent him a letter suggesting just that weeks ago. But though he’d replied, though he’d thought of the Necromancer and the Goblin Lord and thought about the need for a Drake-Human alliance…

It still felt like he was dreaming.

“Are you alright, General Shivertail?”

Magnolia might have had a Skill, or else she could see his unease on his face. Zel straightened and felt at his armor. It was light as a feather, yet the fiery-gold metal shone as if internally ablaze. The Heartflame Breastplate made Zel feel warm in the chill air. A relic of his people and he was wearing it.

“I’m fine, Reinhart. Let’s do this.”

She nodded. They began to walk towards the center of the camp, Ressa and Reynold following a few steps behind. Zel scrutinized the closest Humans to him. They looked like officers, sure enough. Soldiers were the same the world over. But this?

It wouldn’t be the first time a Drake had gone north. There were quite a few Drakes who’d decided to live in Human lands, for all they were actively discouraged from doing so by the Drake cities. But while they hadn’t invaded each other in decades, the Humans and Drakes were still nominally at war.

If a Drake [General] led his soldiers past Liscor, or a Human [Lord] moved past the Blood Fields it might be war again. And yet here he was. And already, the Humans had begun to notice him. Some were pointing, others turning.

Zel strode forwards with Lady Magnolia at his side. He spoke to her as he walked, still feeling as though someone else was taking every step. The world felt like it was…echoing…around him. It was a dream.

But it was real, too. Zel’s heart beat faster than it had in years.

“It feels surreal.”

“Oh? What part?”

Magnolia looked up towards Zel. Her face was composed as she walked across the muddy ground. Many eyes were on her too. Waiting. She had to feel the momentous nature of what was occurring. But she looked calm. Zel hoped he did, too.

“All of it. You know that my people won’t accept this. And yours will probably riot as well. The continent could change from this.”

“Of course it will. That is the point, General.”

Zel shivered but kept his head high. Now all the Humans were turning and some had recognized him. He heard muffled exclamations in the crowd. His heart was beating too fast.

“Two days ago I was in a small inn outside of Liscor. I ate, I drank…it was peaceful. I could forget I was a [General], then. Here…”

“Yes?”

Magnolia looked sideways at Zel as they approached the stage in the center of the camp. The Drake was silent for a moment.

“What will happen after I speak, I wonder?”

She shrugged, smilingly slightly.

“I believe I will find out. Spies and so forth. But it depends on what you say. They are waiting for you, General. Are you ready?”

Now all the Humans were looking at him. Zel put his foot on the first wooden step. The wooden stage was simple, but solidly built. Good. That was all he needed. He looked at Magnolia and thought he saw her hands tremble. Just for a second. But then it was gone. She looked him in the eye, fearless. He grinned then, and felt the dream break.

This was reality. Zel offered Magnolia a claw and she took it. They ascended to the top of the stage together. Zel looked over a sea of faces. Human faces. He thought of a young woman named Erin Solstice, of a [Barmaid] named Lyonette. Of an inn. Of a girl named Ryoka Griffin. Of the Necromancer. Zel’s tail curled slightly and then straightened. He nodded.

“Nothing will be the same. Good. Let’s do this.”

This is what the officers saw. Lady Magnolia and a tall Drake wearing shining armor stood on the stage, flanked by a [Maid] and a [Butler]. It was Lady Magnolia Reinhart who spoke first. She took a step forwards and spoke in a loud, cheerful voice.

“Good evening.”

Her words were amplified by a spell she carried, or a Skill because they were clearly audible even in the back of the crowd. The officers waited, some seeing her for the first time.

Magnolia Reinhart was neither tall nor thin and lithe. She was not, by her own admission, a dashing beauty, although she was quite pretty. But she did have a presence that eclipsed her body. When she spoke, every eye was on her.

“I am Magnolia Reinhart. No doubt you all know why you have been called here from your respective cities. A Goblin Lord threatens the north. He marches towards Invrisil as we speak, with an army of tens of thousands. Worse, he raises the undead from each city he destroys. He has slaughtered our people, my people for too long. He must be stopped.”

A sound ran through the crowd. No one dared speak, but there was a sighing, a sense of unease. Stop the Goblin Lord? Magnolia gazed from face to face, hers betraying no fear.

“Yes, Lord Tyrion Veltras is assembling his own forces elsewhere. Yes, the Goblin Lord’s army is considerable. It has destroyed two Drake armies already. However, Invrisil is no plum ripe for the picking. Its people will not be prey to Goblin swords, and nor shall it come under attack while I live. That is why you are here. You will repulse the Goblin Lord and destroy his army.”

Now there were voices of dissent. Murmurs—those speaking feared to do more than groan aloud. Ressa shifted in place, her gaze finding those who made noise and piercing them with her glare. Magnolia raised her hand and there was silence.

“I realize many of you have reservations. Only naturally. The army assembled here is, alas, smaller than I had hoped. You all hail from different cities; it is only natural you would feel concern about going into battle against another army without leadership. I am aware of the problem.”

Magnolia paused and Zel waited. His heart had grown calm in his chest—either that, or he could no longer hear it. He waited, knowing what was to come.

“To that end I have asked a suitable [General] to lead this army against the Goblin Lord. He stands before you now. I present to you your commander who will lead you against the Goblin Lord.”

Lady Magnolia stepped to one side. She gestured simply at Zel. He stood, waiting. For a second there was shock, then silence. And then someone began to shout.

“A Drake?

Faces paled, turned red, or changed into expressions of fury as the officers realized what Magnolia was implying. One, a huge man got to his feet. He was shaking as he pointed at Lady Magnolia.

“You asked for a Drake to lead us? Have you no shame!? Outrageous! How dare—”

He was cut off as his friends dragged him down. But the discontent was evident in the faces of the soldiers and officers alike. Magnolia concealed her inner emotions as she smiled graciously and nodded to Zel. She raised her voice again, cutting over the shouting from the crowd.

“I will let the General speak for himself. And I will have silence until he finishes speaking, is that clear?”

This time her request was not honored. There were still voices sounding off. Magnolia frowned and clapped her hands. The sound her hands made was soft and suddenly there was silence. No one could speak. They stared up at Magnolia. She looked around, eyes glittering dangerously. Then she smiled.

“Thank you. Now, General, I cede the floor to you.”

She bowed ever so slightly, making the Humans blink and shift in surprise. Zel took two steps forwards and took a breath. This was it. He realized now, dimly, that he hadn’t really prepared a speech. Oh well. He knew what to say. He looked over the ranks of outraged, confused, and skeptical Humans and began.

“Many of you may not recognize who I am. I realize all Drakes look alike to most Humans. However, I am no ordinary Drake. I am a [General]. And as Lady Magnolia has said, I am here to lead you against the Goblin Lord.”

The crowd shifted. Zel could see they were resistant, hostile even. He went on, his voice raised. He needed no Skills or spells to speak to the crowd. He had addressed larger armies, shouted over the roar of the battlefield. This? This was easy.

“To those of you who do not know me: I fought in the First Antinium War and the Second, side by side with Human armies, with Gnoll tribes and pushed the Antinium back into their Hives. I battled the Goblin King’s armies. I have fought longer than some of you have been alive. Perhaps my history means little to you, but you may know me for one of my deeds. I fought the Necromancer at Liscor. I slew him.”

He thought he had. Zel remembered grabbing Az’kerash, remembered the sensation of tearing him apart—a lie. But of all his feats, this was the one Humans recognized. The one the world had recognized him for. Now all the eyes on him were filled with comprehension. He could hear murmurs, despite Magnolia’s invocation of silence. Yes, they knew him.

“My name is Zel Shivertail.”

A gasp ran through the crowd. And a cry went up, short and sudden. Some of the officers took a step back, others looked around in disbelief. Some appeared stunned. They had heard his name before, yes, but few had expected to ever meet him. He was a figure from history, someone whose name had been shouted from the rooftops during the first and second Antinium Wars. Zel heard the name shouted again and closed his eyes.

Tidebreaker. The Drake [General] who had broken the Antinium advance. Zel Shivertail, the hero of the Antinium Wars. Here, on Human lands.

Now there was true silence, as everyone stared at Zel, wondering what he would say next. Zel looked across the ranks of faces and nodded.

“I am here at Lady Magnolia Reinhart’s request. To do battle against the Goblin Lord.”

“Why?”

The shout came almost at once. Zel saw a man in poor armor shouting up at him. Of course. He was a Human and Zel was a Drake general, an enemy [General]. It didn’t matter that he was a low-level officer. Humans had their pride, like Drakes. They wouldn’t suffer an enemy [General] leading them, even if Magnolia ordered them. It was Zel’s job to convince them otherwise.

So Zel answered the man simply.

“The Goblin Lord is here. He is coming. Perhaps not for your city, sir, but for Invrisil. He has destroyed villages and towns and cities already. His army grows. You have heard that he defeated two Drake armies? Well, we sent two armies against him, both led by high-level [Generals]. Both were destroyed down to the last [Soldier].”

Silence. Zel looked around.

“I don’t have to tell you all what that means. An army grows from its victories, and the Goblin Lord has only won his battles. He also has an army of the undead that has grown with every slaughter. And he is coming. Why am I here? Because he must be stopped.”

Now Zel’s voice rose. He walked down the wooden stage, looking from face to face.

“I am a Drake. You are Humans. I understand that. But when I looked north, after the Goblin Lord had passed Liscor, I saw no Humans rushing to destroy him. I hear Lord Tyrion Veltras is forming a grand army. If so, that is commendable. But he is too late. And he is too far. He is not here. In a day or two, the Goblin Lord’s army will be upon Invrisil. Will Lord Tyrion wait and watch another Human city destroyed? Will he allow tens, no, hundreds of thousands of civilians to be slaughtered?”

No one responded. Of course, that was what would happen if they didn’t defeat the Goblin Lord here. Invrisil was Magnolia’s holding. If it was attacked she would lose influence and Tyrion would gain. That was politics. And it was shameful. Zel put all the scorn he could into his voice.

“That is not right. It is not acceptable. Drakes defend their own when they are attacked. So do Humans. And when Lady Reinhart asked me to lead the defense of her city, I agreed. Not because I am abandoning my people, or because I will be paid. No. Because it is the right thing to do. This is Human land, yes. But this is my continent. This is our home. And I will defend it to my death.”

Face to face. Zel looked into eyes and saw they were like Drake eyes. Different yes, but his words struck some chord in his audience. He went on.

“Drakes do not run. That was a…favorite saying of a friend of mine. It seems it’s become the expression that defines my people. But from what I’ve seen, Humans don’t run either. When the Goblin King landed on your shores, you didn’t flee his armies. Over a million Goblins invaded Izril and still, your people refused to run. You fought. And you were not alone. From every continent other nations, other people sent their armies to fight. You fought shoulder-to-shoulder with Gnolls, Drakes, half-Elves, Dwarves…together. And when we fought together, Izril was undefeatable! I should know. I saw it all. I was there.”

Memory. The Second Antinium War. Burning skies filled with smoke and flame. Goblins, the undead, the Antinium marching from every corner of the continent. Some of the men and women below had lived through those times, or had grown up in them. He saw them shudder, and then saw the burning in their eyes. Yes, that was what he wanted. Zel stopped and pointed at them. He roared across the crowd, his voice thunder.

“This is your home! This city may not be yours, but every city here was built by Humans. You claimed these lands. You spilled blood for them and held them against Drakes, Goblins, the Antinium, and every other threat that sought to claim them for thousands of years. Now the Goblin Lord marches north, his armies growing with every victory. Will you give him another city, the lives of your people? The Humans I know would not do that! The Humans I know would drive his army into the sea and fight till their dying breaths before they gave ground to their enemy!”

There was a growing momentum in the crowd, a shifting. Backs straightened, eyes locked on Zel’s. He looked at them. Soldiers. That was all. They were all the same.

“Drakes squabble. Human nobility argue. But [Soldiers] fight. We do our duty and then we go home. Well, I am no [Lord]. My own people think I’m troublesome because I think we shouldn’t be at war with your people. I’m no politician; I’m a soldier like you all. And I see the enemy. Now, I don’t know what you think of me, but there’s no Tyrion Veltras here. No other [Lord] or [General]. Just me. And I won’t retreat until the Goblin Lord’s army is shattered and his undead are buried in the ground again! I will fight! But I cannot do it alone! Will you do the same?”

Zel raised one fist and stared across the sea of Humans. He waited. He had given them no grand speech, no rousing promise of victory. He had spoken to them like soldiers and now he waited. What if they said nothing? What if they refused? Would it all fail? Were they too alike? What if—

A voice rose in the crowd. At the back, Zel saw a man in battered iron armor raise his voice. He shouted as heads turned, his eyes blazing with emotion.

“I am [Lieutenant] Gershal of Vaunt! I will fight with you, General Shivertail! We do not run from Goblins! I will protect Invrisil with my men if you will lead us!”

His voice rang out in the silence, proud and alone. It was what Zel had been waiting for. Because on the heels of his declaration came another voice. A woman, standing next to him raised her fists.

“My cavalry will ride with any man, Drake or Gnoll against a common foe! I pledge my unit to your command!”

“And I!”

An officer next to her unsheathed his sword, nearly cutting the man beside him. More Humans spoke up. A [Lord] stood and shouted.

“For Invrisil! I will fight to defend the city! I pledge my warriors to Lady Reinhart’s army!”

“I will follow any [General], Drake or Human to defeat the Goblin Lord!”

And then the voices became a shout. Zel waited, standing atop the podium, as the officers and soldiers gathered began to shout his name.

Shivertail! Shivertail!

Tidebreaker!

And last, but most importantly, a word. Not his name, not a word that represented Zel or Magnolia. The word Zel had been waiting for.

“Izril!”

“Izril! The Dragonlands! The unconquered!”

Izril!

And then there was cheering. Officers shouted, swept up in a fury to defend their homes. Zel stood on the platform, absorbing their energy. This was the key. They had been disunited before. Now they had a common enemy. They were an army, however disparate. He waited until the cheering had settled and then gave orders.

“Prepare for battle. We will engage the Goblin Lord if he comes any closer to the city. If he goes around, we will pursue and drive him into a corner. But I promise you this: he will burn no more villages, despoil no more lands. This army will be his end. Officers, I will begin assembling you into groups within the hour. Prepare yourselves; I will assign commands based on rank and level. When we go into battle, it will be as one united force.”

Zel turned as the cheering began again. That didn’t matter. The fact that they’d accepted his command, that they’d agreed to be led by him was all that mattered. He could sort the rest out later. Now…

He walked towards Magnolia, Ressa, and Reynold. They were applauding him with the others. Zel glanced at Magnolia and she descended the wooden platform with him. They walked through ranks of officers, Zel exchanging words with them, reassuring, standing tall, showing them he was worthy of being followed, until they had a moment to speak.

“I’ll stay here. I’m leading this army now; I’ll stay in the camp.”

“I thought you’d say that. There is a tent waiting and I believe Reynold has a number of lists for you. I will retire to my estate for a while to let you sort things out. Well done, General. Did you use a Skill to impress the crowd so?”

Magnolia paused as she got into her carriage with Ressa driving. Zel shook his head.

“I did not. A Skill might let me drag the army blindly into battle, but it won’t last. I need an army willing to fight, not a bunch of unwilling soldiers.”

“Hm. Interesting. Well, it was quite a rousing speech you gave. Lord Tyrion is not here. I would quite like to see his face when he hears that.”

Magnolia chuckled. Then she paused.

“Still, I do think you could have given a more rousing speech. All the quiet moments and the pauses—I should have liked a bit more vim to it all. A bit of shouting perhaps? What do you think, Ressa? I give it six points.”

Zel stared at Magnolia as she turned to her maid. Ressa tilted her head, thinking. She nodded at Zel as she replied.

“Four out of five. Not the sort of speech you give on the precipice of a battle, but stirring enough.”

Both women looked at Reynold. The [Butler] flushed and stroked his mustache furiously.

“I’d ah, give it a hundred points out of a hundred, milady, Miss Ressa.”

He avoided their accusatory looks with his eyes and bowed slightly to Zel, speaking to the Drake [General].

“You said what they needed to hear. None of the soldiers here want to risk their lives for glory or believe in noble causes. But defending home and family? They understand that. I felt…inspired myself.”

“Typical. I suppose I’d have to be a [Soldier] to appreciate a speech like that. Come on Ressa, let’s leave General Shivertail to his work. I will speak to you tonight, General.”

“I’ll look forward to it.”

Zel lied as he watched the carriage drive away. He turned and saw Reynold waiting for him, as well as a number of officers.

“I never expected to be cheered. I hoped I wouldn’t be shouted off the stage. If this was a Drake army, I’d have been wary about being dragged off were I a Human.”

Reynold smiled at Zel.

“We Humans are a bit more impressed by titles, sir. And you are a hero. When I was younger, I heard of the Tidebreaker slaying the Necromancer in battle. There were celebrations in the streets when it was announced. We remember, sir.”

He coughed, turning a bit red and Zel smiled. Then his smile faded. The Necromancer. The Drake shook his head.

“I’ll try to live up to expectations, Reynold. Now, let’s meet these officers. We have a lot of work to do.”

He strode forwards. And the Humans came to meet him. And even as Magnolia’s coach drove away, rumors were already flying by [Message] spell and people running towards the city. There was a Drake [General] leading Humans. And not just any Drake.

Zel Shivertail, the Tidebreaker.

The world might never be the same.

 

—-

 

Lady Magnolia sat in her carriage, scraping mud off her high heels onto a cushion. Ressa, sitting in the driver’s seat, frowned over her shoulder.

“Stop that. Maids will have to clean all that up.”

“I hate mud, Ressa.”

“Don’t make me come back there.”

Fine. What did you think of General Shivertail’s speech, Ressa? Truly?”

The [Maid] turned back to the road and twitched the reins. The carriage dodged around a convoy of wagons as the [Wagon Driver] in front screamed and raised his hand as if that could stop the oncoming impact.

“Just what I said. It wasn’t a flashy speech, but it did the job.”

“Mm. I still prefer his famous ‘Defiance on the Roshharn Plains’ speech, or the ‘Liscorian Address’. ”

Magnolia was unconvinced. She grumbled to herself as she settled back into her seat. But then she brightened as she glanced over her shoulder.

“I say, there’s a woman on horseback racing towards Invrisil. Do you think they’re already starting to gossip?”

“I imagine so. I saw several using artifacts. Word is probably already spreading about Zel Shivertail’s speech.”

“Oh good. I do so love an enthusiastic audience. Speaking of which…you have the recording?”

“On the cushion. The spell caught most of his words perfectly, although the angle was slightly off.”

Magnolia found the small crystal Ressa had mentioned and touched it. Instantly, a projection of Zel sprang into life, and his voice echoed throughout the carriage. She stopped the magical memory with a finger and sighed happily.

“I think I’ll put this one in my personal collection. After we copy the spell and sell it of course. How much do you think I should tell my agents to charge for it? A thousand gold pieces for each copy?”

“The first one will earn the most.”

“Mm. I wonder who pays most for this sort of information? Ah, well, I suppose any worthwhile [Informant] would sell to multiple sides at once. Hurry up now Ressa; I want to be the first to sell the information about Zel!”

“I’m hurrying. I can’t control this thing as well as Reynold, though. I nearly killed that man on the road just there.”

The coach drove onwards. Magnolia settled back into her seat, already plotting how to disseminate the information about this new alliance in ways that would profit her. But she broke off from her calculations and looked out the window back towards the camp.

She smiled.

“A Drake [General] leading a Human army. Isn’t that something? It’s like a story. Or a dream, I suppose.”

Ressa’s voice was muffled from her position in the front, but it still conveyed a bit of emotion in her words.

“Yes. You did it, Magnolia.”

“At last. We finally took a step. At last.”

Magnolia smiled with genuine happiness. Then she laughed.

“And what will they say about it? Oh Ressa, the world is changing.”

And within the hour, word was spreading by spell and bird and foot. And the world took notice.

 

—-

 

Important events were subjective across the world. Obviously news like the return of the King of Destruction was worthy of worldwide reporting, but even then, the news of his return was not nearly so vital in Rhir as it was in Chandrar. Thus, gossip about the latest marriage between royals or wars won or magical artifacts unearthed travelled at varying speeds depending on how useful it was.

But in certain circles any news of political value was transmitted instantly from nation to nation. The latest developments in the world stage could be worth hundreds or thousands of gold pieces—but of course, such news decreased exponentially in value every minute. And again, few individuals in Baleros were willing to pay for news about Terandrian politics, however dramatic.

But news about a Drake allying with a Human? Much less a Drake whose name was known around the world and a Human woman who could boast the same? That was news worth thousands of gold pieces to some. And Magnolia Reinhart’s informants earned a lion’s share in the hours after Zel had addressed his army.

And as luck would have it, one of those informants spread word to Olesm. Of course he couldn’t afford to pay in gold for the news; he could only afford silver. But he still got the news by [Message] spell, and within ten minutes he’d called an emergency meeting of Liscor’s council.

Watch Captain Zevara strode into the room at the same time as Wall Lord Ilvriss. Olesm was already there, having beaten them by about a minute. He was panting, his eyes wide, and when he turned to them both Drakes knew the news was serious.

“Out with it.”

Ilvriss didn’t wait for the rest of the Council to assemble. He was dressed in armor and looking more alert than Olesm had seen him in days, if slightly hung over. Olesm was grateful for that. The Drake nervously lifted the folded bit of parchment and read out loud from it.

“T-this is the news I just received from Invrisil. It came by one of my informants—I’m sure it’s trustworthy. Here’s what it says. Zel Shivertail, the famous Lineholder General, the Tidebreaker and hero of two Antinium Wars…has formed an alliance with Lady Magnolia Reinhart. He has assumed command of a Human army gathered around Invrisil and is preparing to destroy the Goblin Lord’s army—”

Olesm choked on his words. Ilvriss gaped at him. Zevara went to go sit down and missed her chair. She landed with a crash on the ground. Olesm winced as the Watch Captain stared at him. Then Zevara shouted.

What?

“It’s what it says!”

Olesm flinched as Zevara leapt to her feet. The Watch Captain grabbed the parchment and read it herself. Ilvriss didn’t come over. Instead, he stared at Olesm with a pale face. He seemed almost…calm, which put him at odds with Olesm’s state of near-panic.

“You’re sure of this?”

“I can’t imagine my informant would lie or exaggerate something like this. They’d never be trusted again—the news is everywhere, Wall Lord! That’s what General Shivertail meant when he left—what do we do?”

“Do? He’s gone to the Humans! There’s nothing to do Olesm, he—he’s allied with Magnolia Reinhart? Why would he—just for the Goblin Lord?”

Zevara crumpled the parchment with her fist, looking confused and distraught. Ilvriss looked at her, and then at the first Drakes filing into the room.

“This situation is serious. Olesm, brief the other council members. I am returning to my inn. I need to retrieve a magical artifact.”

“Why? Uh, I mean, why, sir?”

Ilvriss paused, his claw already on the doorframe.

“This requires direct consultation with my peers. And I think, the rest of the continent. Prepare yourself and get me every map and piece of information you can on the Goblin Lord and Reinhart’s forces. This will be a long meeting.”

Then he disappeared out the door. Olesm looked at Zevara, and then he ran for his office.

 

—-

 

“This is Ilvriss. Do you hear me?”

“We hear you…Wall Lord. We have an image of you, but it is unstable. The spell seems to be working however. Proceed.”

Ten minutes later, Wall Lord Ilvriss was standing in the meeting room, speaking into a crystal orb the size of his fist that had been placed on the table. Olesm stood against the wall clutching rolls of parchment. He stared into the orb with wide eyes. The magical ball was reflecting another room, a grand chamber that kept wavering in and out of focus. But what it showed was clear enough.

A room full of sixty or so Drakes were all seated in a round chamber, on benches arranged into a semi-circle. They were all dressed in rich clothing or armor, and each one of them was looking towards Ilvriss. Olesm was scared to even breathe. These were the nobility of Salazsar, the ruling elite of the Walled City. Each one was a Lord of the Wall or a Lady of the Wall, and they were all staring at him. Well, not at him, but at Ilvriss, but the pressure alone was making Olesm nervous.

Ilvriss seemed at ease talking with his peers. Indeed, his voice was the only calm one in the room at the moment. He walked back and forth in front of the orb, speaking loudly.

“There isn’t much else I can elaborate on. Zel Shivertail is gone. I mentioned as much by [Message] spell, and you received the news about his alliance with Magnolia Reinhart before me.”

“But you were with him two days ago, Ilvriss! You have to know why he changed sides!”

The voice that came through the orb was angry, but distorted. Ilvriss grimaced and shifted the orb and the voice warped and warbled. Olesm looked at him and Ilvriss shook his head. Zevara muttered into his ear.

“Bad connection. Looks like the magic spells are faded or there’s some interference. This is as good as we’ll get.”

Magical communication was very tricky. [Message] spells were common, true, but actual real-time conferences were extremely difficult to organize. And while Wistram could devise any number of complex spells to facilitate conversations, everyone else had to get inventive.

The way Ilvriss spoke to the other Lords and Ladies of the Wall in his city of Salazsar was by using a scrying orb. It gave him a view of their conference room while they did the same to him. Both orbs were extremely expensive and it had to be said, annoying to use. Ilvriss already had a headache as he stared into the small orb and saw a distorted, fish-eye view of a room full of Drake nobility staring back at him.

“I can’t speak to Shivertail’s thoughts. You know he came north pursuing information about the Goblin Lord. And he was delayed in Liscor due to the Antinium…situation.”

“Ah yes. Was his departure related to that, do you think?”

Ilvriss paused before he replied. Another issue was that the use of two scrying spells meant that their conversations were completely public if anyone wanted to listen in. Ilvriss kept his replies as devoid of confidential information as possible.

“Our findings with the Antinium were unusual and troubling…but not unduly so. Whatever threat they might pose, it’s clear that General Shivertail thought the Goblin Lord was a far more important threat.”

“I see. But then why would he ally with Humans? And with her of all people?”

“I don’t know. But it seems futile to speculate. These are the facts, Wall Lord Menoss. What we should be focusing on is what will happen next.”

Ilvriss gritted his teeth and kept his tail from lashing. Zel Shivertail’s alliance with Lady Magnolia wasn’t an issue solely important to the Drakes in Salazsar of course. No doubt every Walled City was in a panic right now. And for good reason!

“He really went over to Magnolia Reinhart’s side? This isn’t some—some ruse of hers, is it?”

“All indications are that it is not. Zel Shivertail has decided to ally himself with Humans. He has defected, Wall Lady Rizzia.”

There was a pause from the other end. Ilvriss subtly adjusted the orb and a few Drake faces swam into focus. One spoke up, looking worried.

“He can’t do that. Shivertail’s always been an agitator, but this? We must have him back.”

“Have him back? That traitor?”

“Well, he is a [General]. He’s one of ours, he can’t just—”

“He’s not ours. He’s part of the Trisstral Alliance. I wonder what those cities think of this. If they authorized his departure, they’ll have another thing coming—”

The other Drakes were arguing amongst themselves. Ilvriss ground his teeth together. They were missing the point! He slapped a claw on the table and there was a sudden silence.

“Lords and Ladies, please! Forget about the reasons. Instead of thinking of Zel Shivertail’s actions as a matter of dissent, look at it another way. The highest-level Drake [General] in the entire world has just gone over to the Humans’ side.”

The room—both rooms—fell silent. Ilvriss stared around at the suddenly grey faces and nodded.

“Zel Shivertail has never gotten himself involved in politics. He’s a career soldier and one of the reasons why we can afford to fight amongst ourselves. If he starts leading Human armies or worse, participates in battles on their side—”

“He wouldn’t do that.”

“Wouldn’t he? Why not? He has nothing to lose here! We’ve refused to hear him more times than I can count. What’s stopping him from joining with Humans who will give him an army and backing? Face the facts! We have just lost our best [General]! We shouldn’t be arguing over the politics, but looking to our safety!”

Ilvriss’ words caused a hush. Olesm held his breath, thinking of all the ramifications. True, no one [General] was influential enough to define the Drake cities or weaken them too much in their absence, but on the other hand…if the Antinium attacked or another nation invaded, it was widely assumed Zel Shivertail would be the first to lead Drake armies in defense. More than that, he was a symbol. People felt reassured—he had beaten the Antinium in two wars after all! If he was gone…

Ilvriss was speaking. Olesm wrenched himself back into listening mode. The Wall Lord was the voice of reason today, which was surprising. Had he really changed that much from his time at Erin’s inn?

“Well if anyone could do it, it would be Erin.”

Olesm mumbled to himself and got a jab from Zevara for speaking. Ilvriss went on.

“I suggest we first contact the other Walled Cities to hear their reaction. And then we reach out to General Shivertail. Otherwise he may decide to stay in the north after he’s finished crushing the Goblin Lord.”

There was a pause as the nobles in Salazsar considered his words and then one of the Wall Lords closest to the orbs spoke.

“We shall reach out to the other cities and attempt to begin a larger discussion. Wall Lord Ilvriss, please hold.”

“I will do so.”

The orb went dark and Ilvriss sighed. There was an audible exhaling of breath around the room and Ilvriss looked at Liscor’s city council. They were [Merchants] and low-level officials, and they looked to Olesm like they were going to be sick. Discussions of this level were several grades above them. However, Ilvriss seemed to regard Olesm and Zevara as worthy sources of input. He turned to them.

“Shivertail’s absence is panicking my people. No doubt it will cause trouble elsewhere, but the question is how much damage it will do abroad. Thoughts?”

“No one’s going to invade Izril just because Zel Shivertail is gone. We’re most at risk of trouble coming from the Humans. However, we might be pressured by foreign powers. We need a united front.”

Zevara replied first and Olesm nodded. Ilvriss nodded as well absently and Olesm dared ask the question that was probably bubbling at the top of everyone’s minds.

“Do you know why General Shivertail would work with the Humans, Wall Lord?”

Ilvriss blinked, looked up, and shrugged.

“Why not? That idiot has talked for years about the need for an army to fight the Antinium for a united front with the Humans. It shouldn’t surprise you that he’d do this.”

“But the Humans—he’ll be called a traitor! And he’s a hero! I just can’t see why…”

Olesm trailed off. Ilvriss looked at the young [Tactician] and shook his head.

“A hero. I forget I’m in Liscor. The facts aren’t so straightforward, young Swifttail. True, Zel Shivertail is a hero of the Antinium Wars. No one denies that. But as to his influence among our people…he’s been the target of a number of smear campaigns among the Walled Cities over the years. He’s been called a rabble-rouser, a traitor for opposing the war with the Humans, and more. Not in Liscor; your city would probably hang anyone who spoke a word against him here. But he’s been a target for years by politicians.”

“But that’s just—”

Olesm broke off before he said something that could get him in trouble. Ilvriss smiled bitterly, sensing what Olesm was going to say.

“It’s funny. After all these years, he may be more popular among Humans than he is among Drakes. And now, having lost him, every city in the south is looking over their tails nervously.”

He shook his head and looked back towards the orb. He muttered under his breath, loud enough for Olesm and Zevara to hear.

“What a mess. Periss was right. We can’t keep doing this.”

“Sorry, sir?”

“Nothing.”

Ilvriss looked up, and he was all business again. He nodded to the orb.

“Shivertail’s out of touch for now. I doubt he’ll respond to any [Message] spells at the moment…what we can do is work on things from our own end. Getting idiots to do what we want is a good start. Fear and paranoia move politics far faster than anything else, Swifttail. Give them a few more minutes to stew before you open the communication spell again.”

“Yes sir.”

Olesm busied himself with laying out maps on the table, just in case. Ilvriss sighed, reached for a goblet full of wine, and stopped himself at the last moment. He looked around, found a cup full of water and picked it up. He stared gloomily into it and then turned as the orb flickered into life. He bared his teeth as Olesm backed away from the orb.

“Time to get to work, Swifttail. There’s no room for error or weakness here. The world is watching.”

And indeed, the world was paying attention. Although how each group reacted was a separate matter entirely.

 

—-

 

In Rhir, the news of Zel Shivertail’s alliance with Lady Magnolia hit the court of the Blighted King just past lunch. Most of the diners were in the banquet hall and received the news from the [Herald] with polite amazement or frowns. But a group of Drake [Soldiers] sitting at a table reacted explosively to the news.

“He did what?

One of the Drake [Commanders] leapt up from his table, ignoring the eyes on him. He roared in outrage as the trembling [Herald] repeated the announcement.

“That traitor! He’d ally with Humans? And for what? To stop a Goblin Lord? Let the Humans take care of it! That tailless, backstabbing—”

“Shut up you newt!

A fist smacked the first Drake in the face as another Drake rose. He knocked the first Drake down with a punch and raised his voice.

“General Shivertail’s a hero! If the Tidebreaker’s a traitor than your entire damned Walled City is full of backstabbing worms! Zel Shivertail is doing what he’s always done—protecting our home!”

“Protecting it by siding with the Humans!”

“Yes! Yes! This is what I’ve been saying all along! We need to fight together! The Humans aren’t a threat! If we work together, we can eradicate the Antinium. And a Goblin Lord? Ancestors, does anyone want another Goblin King? Huh? No! Shivertail’s working with Magnolia Reinhart—”

“That traitorous Human can’t be trusted!”

“Better her than the infighting idiots at your city!”

“You take that back!”

“Make me! I’m with the Tidebreaker all the way! He’s got my support!”

The Drake spun and grabbed one of the banners at his table that marked his delegation. He started shouting as he got up on the table and began waving the banner.

“Shivertail! Shivertail! Izril, the greatest continent in the world!”

The rest of the diners in the room stared at the Drake. At the same table Cirille covered her face with her claws.

Across the room, Richard and most of the Humans who’d been summoned to this world sat at a table with some of Rhir’s nobility. They were confused, but the Rhir nobles around them were mainly contemptuous. One [Lord] shook his head as the Drakes shouted across the banquet hall.

“Drakes. They’re so noisy.

“Izril!”

The Drakes argued and fought until they were ejected from the banquet hall. They were all commanders and over two thirds supported Zel Shivertail. As for the rest of Rhir, the news wasn’t as important. Drakes? Humans? They were on another continent. If it meant more aid to Rhir, all the better. Otherwise, it mattered little. On Baleros however, the opinion was sharply different. At least, for one Fraerling.

 

—-

 

“Play it again.”

Niers Astoragon was still in his night clothes, but the messenger had dragged both him and Foliana out of their beds. He scrubbed at his face, willing the fatigue to vanish as he listened to the recording of Zel speaking.

“Dead gods. And this is going out across the world? It will upset the entire balance in Izril. What is that Reinhart woman thinking?”

“Mm. Probably that this is a good idea. Tidebreaker vs Goblins. Bad for Goblin Lord. Good for her.”

Foliana perched on a couch, staring at the image of Zel Shivertail. Niers stared too.

“The Tidebreaker. A [General] like that allied with someone with the Reinhart fortune behind her…that’s a dangerous combination.”

“Only if they do bad things.”

“That’s practically a given, isn’t it? Magnolia Reinhart isn’t known for mercy. But Zel Shivertail agreed to help her? Maybe that means he—”

Niers broke off. He stared around. They were in his room and he was sitting on his desk. Unbidden, his eyes went to the gold-encrusted letter that Magnolia had sent him. Foliana noticed the look.

“Magnolia Reinhart sends me letters every month. Mm. Yesterday she sent me a letter and a muffin.”

The Fraerling [Strategist] looked up sharply.

“You didn’t eat it, did you?”

“Mm…”

Foliana! There are more spells and poisons than we can test for—”

“It had blueberries in it. And lots of sugar. And she sends you letters too.”

“Yes, and I don’t eat my letters!”

“So? You read them. Which is worse?”

Niers choked but couldn’t reply. He stared at the letter and listened to Zel speaking in silence.

“Defending home, huh? Doing the right thing. I’d never expect to hear someone allied with Magnolia Reinhart saying that—no, I suppose that’s exactly what she’d say. Only I believe it, coming from him.”

“Reinhart defends her home. Did it in the last Antinium War.”

“Yes, but that was—she’s not the same as him.”

“No. But they both fight for their home. You did, too.”

Foliana turned vaguely accusing eyes to Niers and he looked away.

“Curiosity. That was all, Foliana.”

“Mm. Well, maybe he was curious.”

“Who?”

Foliana pointed at the tiny Drake standing in the magical crystal on the table.

“Him. Maybe he was curious.”

Niers fell silent. He didn’t see Foliana leaving, but he knew she was gone after a while. The Titan sat on his table, replaying the image of Zel speaking again and again, late into the night.

 

—-

 

On Chandrar, various individuals took note of the politics in Izril, but only a few were in any position to care. One, the Emperor of the Sands, considered that the move was unfortunate for his nation since it had the potential to strengthen Izril.

The other, the King of Destruction, was mainly confused.

“Who?”

“The Tidebreaker, my King.”

Orthenon spoke in front of Flos’ throne. The King of Destruction frowned.

“Tidebreaker? The title seems vaguely familiar, but I cannot place it. This Tidebreaker is a Drake [General]?”

“Yes, a famous one. You may not recognize him because he rose to prominence after your slumber, my liege. He defeated the Antinium during two wars and fought the Goblin King and the Necromancer himself. He is considered to be the highest-level [General] the Drakes possess.”

“Interesting.”

Flos’ eyes lit up and a smile crossed his face.

“He sounds fascinating. I suppose this alliance bodes well for Izril, does it?”

Orthenon paused.

“It could be. On the other hand, it could result in turmoil if the Drakes and Humans enter conflict over his switching allegiances. Either way, I do not think this is fortunate news for us. A [General] of his level allied with Magnolia Reinhart is a considerable threat.”

“I am aware. It seems this Goblin Lord is outmatched. A pity. I always wanted to meet a Goblin King.”

“Do not jest please, your majesty.”

“Who says I’m jesting? Ah, come now Orthenon. I missed the Goblin King and they only appear every few centuries! What a disappointment. Come to think of it…be sure to instruct Trey and Teres about the Goblin King, would you? That is an important battle to remember.”

“I shall, your majesty. Now, while the news is important, I do not predict it will affect the situation locally in any significant way. If General Shivertail strengthens his alliance with Magnolia Reinhart we may run into trouble when coming into conflict with Izril, but that is far enough away to be safely ignored for now. For more pressing concerns, we seem to have rats in one of the granaries. I would not trouble you with the news, but it seems these rats can teleport, so I would request…”

Flos sighed as he leaned back on his throne. Chandrar was safe. The other continents listened to the news from Izril, but with no real alarm. Only interest and sometimes scorn.

 

—-

 

“It would be one of the Reinharts that would agree to such an alliance.”

“Indeed. Allying with a Drake against Goblins? Has she no shame?”

“Then again, the Reinharts have always been a meddlesome family.”

“Indeed. Indeed.”

“I suppose the news is important, however obliquely. I would rather see the Veltras family succeed than the Reinhart house. They at least object to the presence of Drakes.”

“True. An embargo may be called for. Tariffs at the least to express our discontent.”

“It will be a matter for debate. Let us see what the other kingdoms do first.”

“Hm. I suppose.”

In Terandria, scorn was everywhere. Not that it was particularly informed scorn; it was more of a neighborly disdain for everything they regarded as inferior. Teriarch sighed as he cut short the conversation between two Terandrian nobles with a wave of his claw.

It wasn’t hard for the Dragon to intercept communications between mages and magical artifacts, even the encrypted ones. That was the problem with mages of today. They were so, so…complacent. Every spell was the same, which meant all the flaws were the same too.

The Dragon sighed. If he tried, he could actually hear the reports about Zel Shivertail’s alliance with Magnolia passing across the world. So much news and over so little! All he’d done was ally with her. It wasn’t the first time Humans and Drakes had worked together.

“But perhaps it is significant for this age. When was the last time they formed an alliance? A hundred years ago? No. Four hundred? Wait, there was that marriage—hrm. Hmf. I suppose it is important. No wonder Reinhart is bothering me so.”

Teriarch flicked a claw, dismissing the [Message] spells he’d received from Magnolia. He sighed and curled up a bit more in his cave.

“What was it she said? A [General], a [Strategist] and me? Pah. That hatchling’s barely a [General]. I suppose he’s of a decent level, but as for his speeches, I’ll pass. Good speeches have more fire to them. When I was young, I heard some good ones. How did the one with the Human in purple armor go again? Something about eating the tails of their foes? Or did the Gnoll say that? Hm…”

The Dragon trailed off blankly and curled up in his cave. Another [Message] spell appeared and he flicked it away with a twitch of his tail.

“Not yet, girl. Not yet. One isn’t two and besides, I promised nothing. You think you can order Dragons around? We’re…very noble species…unacceptable. Going outside is…quite dull…anyways.”

His voice grew lower and sleepier as Teriarch drifted into a nap. He slept, as the world panicked. He had seen it all before and would see it all again. There were no surprises for immortals. Not for those beyond death.

 

—-

 

“What?”

Az’kerash froze, one hand outstretched over the heap of flesh and bones. Ijvani shuffled her feet, disliking the surprise she saw written over her master’s face.

Zel Shivertail has taken command of an army formed by Magnolia Reinhart, master. He is preparing to defend Invrisil from the Goblin Lord’s attack or pursue his army should the Goblin Lord avoid the city.

“Shivertail? Ally with a Human? Impossible. How can that—”

Az’kerash abandoned the grisly remains on the table and began to pace back and forth. He was visibly shaken by the information, but as he paced, his agitation disappeared and a calculating look passed over his face instead. The black skeleton was relieved to see that. She waited while the Necromancer mused out loud.

“Is this an opportunity or a trap? No—if Shivertail has given me this opportunity, I must seize it no matter how remote the chances of success are. Thank you, Ijvani. Now—”

He flicked a hand and muttered a spell. The air opened up and Ijvani saw Az’kerash speaking to the air.

“My apprentice. Heed my words now.”

 

—-

 

Across the world, the news of Zel’s alliance was heard, but it could be argued it mattered little to most. In Izril, the news sent Lord Tyrion Veltras into a rage and confused a certain blind [Emperor] until the politics of Drakes and Humans were explained to him by a certain Lady Rie Valerund. It reached the ears of Erin Solstice and made her rub them for a while. But the magnitude of what had happened was only understood by a few.

Klbkch of the Antinium and his Queen were silent at the news. They debated what might occur in hushed tones and thought of the past and the future. Ilvriss convinced his people to avoid denouncing Zel Shivertail outright, and to approach him carefully as well.

But that was all politics and it really didn’t matter. For instance, neither Rags and her tribe nor Garen Redfang and Tremborag had any idea of what had occurred. Neither would they have cared, largely. Alliances were all very well, but it was battle that mattered. If an angry Drake [General] was coming their way, no sane Goblin would fight him. They’d just run.

So perhaps the news mattered only to two individuals. A Necromancer and his apprentice. Because as Osthia Blackwing watched the Goblin Lord argue and then kneel in agony to his master, she felt the world change. And as he rose, bitter and furious and tore the map apart, she knew one thing before he turned and spoke.

“We attack Invrisil. We go to slay the one named Zel Shivertail.”

The Goblin Lord spat the words, turning to his lieutenants. The other Goblins stared at him, and Osthia felt her stomach lurch. She spoke and every head turned towards her.

“You won’t defeat him. Not General Shivertail.”

The Goblin Lord looked at her, his black eyes and white pupils dilated with rage. His voice shook—the first real display of emotion she’d seen out of him.

“We are ordered. So we will. Or die.”

And so the world turned. Gossip and rumors floated about, but there was only one certainty. Zel Shivertail sat in his tent and felt the certainty just like the Goblin Lord. He turned his head and the Goblin Lord turned his. Across many miles their gazes locked. And there was only one word on the lips of both.

“Death.”

 


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