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Phase Three – Assault

 

Phase Three – Assault

 

 

The tower could not move.

Currently, the tower was planted in the ground, nestled in the crook of the northern Elm mountain. As per Olatt’an’s idea, they settled down, opened doors, and burrowed deep into the mountain using lesser servants. Arkk wasn’t quite sure how the old orc knew, but the Walking Fortress could be used to create contiguous territory, capable of being claimed just like the land around Fortress Al-Mir. That had expanded Arkk’s awareness, allowed him to teleport troops and materials, and gave him the ability to rescue people who were in trouble by teleporting them out of danger.

It came at a cost. The tower could not move.

“The gold statues breached the western leg!”

Nothing was preventing him from sending the directive to the tower to raise its legs, physically speaking. The legs were intact and operational. But if he did, it would break the connection between the tower’s heart and the land around it. The tunnels would all revert to bare rock and dirt. And, likely, grow unstable without the reinforcing magic. Anyone caught inside might suffer a collapse. It would kill his awareness and severely limit his ability to move around his employees.

“Keep everyone away! Don’t get touched by their blades!”

Not to mention, it would completely cut off Hawkwood and his men—they were not employees of Company Al-Mir and thus could not be moved around like them—as well as the furthest of Arkk’s minions. The tower seemed to have a far smaller area in which he could teleport his minions around. Right now, with tunnels burrowed all the way to Elmshadow, everyone was within reach. But when it was just the tower? He would be lucky if he could recall those who were attacking the near side of the burg.

“The door is holding for now but it is only wood. They broke through one already. They’ll get through this one.”

So, when a horde of those golden statues managed to approach the tower unnoticed until they were already hammering on the doors of the tower’s legs, Arkk couldn’t simply lift the legs and walk away—or, better yet, crush them.

Most of his forces, including the heavy hitters like Agnete, Priscilla, and Dakka were at Elmshadow Burg. Most of the soldiers were out in the tunnels. His spellcasters were positioned throughout the burg, awaiting orders to begin their attacks. The tower, massive though it was, was practically deserted at the moment. And a good thing too. Those golden statues were tearing through the tower.

Arkk had relocated everyone to the upper levels.

Rekk’ar and Olatt’an had geared up, as had Richter. They were accompanied by about a dozen guards of varying species. One of the Protector’s bodies stood hunched in the tall chamber. Beyond them, they had several noncombatants. The scrying team, smiths, and cooks, mostly.

And poor Evelyn. The warrior had been bracing one of the doors with her shoulder when one of those golden blades jammed through a crack in the door. It only nicked her arm but that was enough. Were it not for Olatt’an’s quick reaction in chopping her arm off, she might have become another statue.

“S-Sir… The golden—” A heavy hammering on the command center’s door interrupted Luthor. Splinters of wood exploded inward as one of the planks cracked. “G-golden shield is up.”

“Protector,” Arkk said. “Tell Dakka and Hawkwood that it is time. And Lexa is to aim for the three priority targets.”

Understood.

“Great that we’re continuing but what about us?” Evelyn hissed. Even though Arkk had sealed her arm with the Flesh Weaving spell, she still clutched at the stump like she was trying to staunch bleeding. “We’re running out of floors to evacuate to.”

“I’m awa—” Another battering ram against the door broke part of the wood around the latch. Another good hit would shatter it completely. “I’m aware,” Arkk finished. “The situation is under control.”

Rekk’ar scoffed. Arkk paid him no mind.

“This is my territory. My domain. The audacity of that avatar trying to take me down with anything but a fully powered ray of gold is laughable.”

The battering ram slammed against the door once again, cracking wood and splaying chips across the room. The door swung on its hinges, crashing into the wall.

A golden figure stepped forward. It wasn’t a soldier. It didn’t have the armor of a soldier. It was a woman. Frumpy. Like old lady Emma back in Langleey Village. She wore a simple tunic with a long, handmade apron—all cast in gold. A civilian? One of the citizens of Elmshadow Burg? It had to be.

Arkk’s eyes blazed. “Incendiary Explosio.”

A tiny pinprick of light formed at the level of the statue’s chest. The statue didn’t seem to notice. It stepped forward.

The moment the pinprick of light touched the statue’s reflective gold surface, it exploded into a dazzling inferno. The heat was intense, even from across the room. Arkk and his companions had to shield their faces with their arms. He was able to keep watch, however, using his omnipresence of his own territory.

Despite the ferocity of the flames, the old magic spell he had learned from Priscilla was nothing compared to Agnete’s fire. But it didn’t need to be. He wasn’t trying to melt the statue. Whatever enchantments were in the gold had shrugged off Agnete’s flames when they had first encountered the statues.

They didn’t shrug off the physical effects of the spell. The concussive force of the spell knocked the statue backward. As a pile of heavy gold, it didn’t go far.

“Hold on!” Arkk shouted.

There was a slight panic as everyone scrambled. They had been warned in advance.

The entirety of the tower shifted. Without leaving the ground, half the legs of the tower lifted up. The other half sunk down. The entire fortress tilted. Magic normally kept the interior from feeling like it was moving. He had shut that bit off.

The heavy gold statue, unstable from the explosion, toppled with the tilted floor. Gravity dragged it down toward the wall of the tower. It crashed into another three statues on its way. Lesser servants, clinging to the exterior of the tower, destroyed a section of the wall just as the mass of golden statues hit it.

All four went flying out, sailing down toward the ground far below.

As soon as they were ejected, he ordered the tower to right itself. The jolt from the legs shifting must have been too much for poor Luthor. The chameleon let out a yelp as his grip slipped.

Before Arkk could even think to teleport him back to safety, the Protector reached out and grasped him by the back of his tunic. The fabric stretched and ripped but it stopped his fall long enough for the floor to level out. Luthor dropped to the floor with a nervous chuckle. “Th-thanks,” he mumbled.

Arkk gave the Protector a curt nod of his head before turning. “See? Under control.”

Rekk’ar scoffed again. Arkk, again, paid him no mind. He quickly scanned through all the forces in the field, checking for anything he had missed while busy. “Scrying team, back on the crystal balls,” he barked out as he teleported the bombardment team back into the tower. “Sorry about the delay,” he said, practically growling the words.

He wasn’t upset with the bombardment team. They had done their job well, even managing to defeat several armed knights before he had extracted them.

The problem was further in the city. Dakka’s team was in trouble. Too much trouble to handle? He wasn’t sure yet. Their shadow armor and scythes weren’t tested to their fullest extent.

Agnete was the closest person to them but Dakka was inside the golden dome, Agnete was outside it. The battlecasters were tearing through the streets on the other side of the burg, handling the divided yet larger army well enough. They almost seemed driven by a light of their own, bright against the backdrop of the golden dome. They would have to cross practically the entire city if they were to assist Dakka.

Lexa couldn’t be diverted. He had no method of contacting her now that she was away from her Protector. Hawkwood’s men were on their own, fighting hard against the bulk of Evestani’s army.

Could Dakka’s handle that gold-armored knight on their own?

Or did he need to teleport them out before things went too far?

Arkk bit his lip, watching a moment longer before moving to confer with his advisors.


Dakka let out a barking laugh as she swung her scythe. Awkward weapon to wield aside, it was amazing. Every swing cut through whatever it touched with little more resistance than a blade through a stream of water. It worked better in the darkness—the shadows between buildings and indoors—but even out in the direct light of the sun, it still cut into anything with almost no effort.

“Get back here you—”

Dakka jerked back as three crossbow bolts struck her in the chest, one after another.

She had been somewhat nervous about her mission. She and her relatively small team had effectively been asked to act as an entire division of an army while taking on an entire division of Evestani’s army. There were a dozen of the shadow-armored orcs and several hundred expected opponents. Technically speaking, they had the easier job, cleaning up the Evestani forces who had split off from the main defense to try to deal with Agnete and Priscilla.

Hawkwood was tasked with leading his seven hundred against the majority of the Evestani forces. They didn’t even have many tricks up their sleeves thanks to Arkk, just a few odd magical spells powered by glowstone wands and most of the gorgon for their petrification and venom. Richter’s battlecasters were backing Hawkwood up, using larger-scale magic to ensure that Hawkwood never had to face a sizable force all at once. Dakka didn’t envy their position.

That was the nature of war, she supposed. Nobody’s position was all that enviable.

Still, watching those crossbow bolts simply fall to the ground, leaving naught a mark on the shadow-like metal—metal-like shadow?—gave her a good laugh.

Dare she say it, but she was having fun.

The battle was pure chaos. They had emerged from a tunnel near the western side of the burg. A dozen knights cloaked in darkness ripped through the assembled army. Like scythes through a field of wheat. Her blood pumped. The adrenaline flowed.

Dakka hadn’t much enjoyed her time as a raider. The fights were generally pathetic—a mass of goblins was hard for most to overcome, leaving little for the orcs to actually do—their leader had been an utterly insane witch, and Dakka herself had been the runt of the group with little personal power. Now, clad in fancy armor, leading a team of specialists, and able to properly enjoy the fights?

Dakka charged forward, rearing back the scythe. The line of soldiers had long since broken. Most were attempting to make their way around the Shadow Knights, avoiding them as they tried to regroup in the center of the burg. It was Dakka’s job to ensure that didn’t happen.

That would only make Hawkwood’s job harder.

However, before Dakka could bring down her scythe, the three crossbowmen who had just shot at her locked up for a brief moment. The first, the one closest to Dakka, threw down his crossbow. Both others swiftly followed his example. She figured they were going for their swords—crossbows were easy to use yet difficult to reload—but instead, they dove for the muddy ground, each placing their hands on the backs of their heads.

“Surrender! Surrender!” they cried, the words heavily accented.

Dakka clicked her tongue in annoyance. This wasn’t the first time this had happened. Dakka didn’t exactly blame them. If she had to face herself, she might have been tempted to throw down her arms too.

“Zharja!” Dakka called out. “Three more here.”

The shadows against one of the nearby buildings rippled as a gorgon slithered out into the light. Zharja, wrapped in one of the shadowy cloaks made with the ceremonial dagger, simply formed in their midst. It was a bit disconcerting to watch.

Zharja grasped the sides of one of the crossbowmen’s heads and wrenched him up to meet her gaze. The soldier locked in place as his skin, previously a light tan color, turned to a marble white. They didn’t exactly have a better method of taking prisoners at the moment. Fortress Al-Mir had a fairly sizable prison wing, recently built, but the tower didn’t have more than a few rooms with bars on them.

Predictably, the other soldiers immediately started panicking at the sight of the first being turned to stone. At least, that was presumably what their sudden babble was about. Dakka didn’t speak a word of Evestani.

Dakka swept her scythe down, slashing its black blade through the crossbows, slicing them in clean halves. “You turn to stone or you get cut in half. Which will it be?” She leaned forward, grinning. They couldn’t see her tusks behind her helmet but they should be able to hear her smile. “Don’t worry. We won’t forget to unpetrify you after we’ve taken control of the burg. Probably.”

It took another moment before Zharja was ready, but she grasped the second crossbowman and petrified him.

Taking prisoners would have been faster if they had more gorgon assigned to them, but only Zharja was here. The rest were assisting Hawkwood. Zharja would have been with that group were it not for the injury the gorgon had sustained fighting that man in the golden armor. The bottom portion of her tail had been torn completely off. While Hale had healed her, it wasn’t quite perfect.

It was more like one of Vezta’s tendrils than a proper gorgon tail. It couldn’t form eyes and mouths like Vezta but its prehensility was unmatched. Unfortunately, that came at a slight cost of mobility. Hence her being here with that cloak than in the thick of a proper battle.

“You got the last one?” Dakka asked, already looking around for more targets. She didn’t want to sit around while waiting for the gorgon’s petrification to work again.

Zharja offered a nod. “Yess.”

“Good. I’ll be—”

Something slammed into Dakka’s helmet just as she turned away. It wasn’t anything light, like an arrow. It carried enough force to pick her up and off her feet. Dazed, Dakka flew back, sailing over the downed crossbowmen until her shoulder clipped the corner of a building. Stone and timber splintered with the impact, showering around her as she crashed into the muddy ground.

Rattled and shook, Dakka nonetheless forced herself up, grasping the haft of her scythe as she moved. To remain still was to die. She swung the scythe as she stood, half hoping to randomly catch whatever hit her.

Her head ached. Her eyes felt crossed. She closed her eyes, shook her head, and forced herself to focus.

Zharja was nowhere to be seen. Presumably, she was back in the shadows.

In Zharja’s place, standing on the other side of the downed crossbowmen, a familiar figure glared. A man in bulky, golden armor. He carried no weapon but Dakka knew from experience that he didn’t need one to be a threat.

The golden knight stepped forward. His foot came down on the spine of one of the marble statues. He didn’t even glance down as the petrified person shattered. He just stepped forward completely focused on his target.

“Come for a rematch, have you?” Dakka spat out along with a small globule of blood. It splattered against the inside of her helmet. Ignoring the metallic smell, she grasped her scythe with both hands. She leveled the scythe, bringing it down such that a swing might just cut his head off. “Well… bring it on.”


Lexa swept through Elmshadow Burg, wiping blood from her dagger with a small cloth.

She had to hurry.

The fuse was already lit.

As the guards slumped into puddles of their own blood, Lexa pushed the doors open to the old, ruined church near the keep wall of Elmshadow Burg. A dozen frightened eyes turned toward her. But, with the cloak on, the children’s eyes didn’t fully focus on Lexa. Their eyes went hazy as if they were trying to see through her but couldn’t quite manage.

Lexa threw off the cloak’s hood. “Quickly, children. Gather around,” she hissed, eyes darting back and forth. More guards could show up at any moment. Or, worse, that avatar could make an appearance.

Company Al-Mir didn’t have the ability to handle that avatar at the moment. Arkk had managed a lucky shot on it in Gleeful Burg but everyone doubted it would let its guard down like that again. Not without a significant distraction. Thus, it was her job to ensure that they had to handle that avatar as little as possible.

The children, terrified as they were, did not gather around. Lexa fully expected that. Lacking the time to explain, she just grabbed the nearest child. A young girl. No older than Hale. “This will hurt,” she said, “but it is better than the alternative.”

With that, she uttered the Flesh Weaving spell, pressing her fingers to the crown of the child’s head right where those box-like tattoos had been etched into her skin.

The child started screaming a moment later.

 

 

 

Phase Two – Divide and Provoke

 

Phase Two – Divide and Provoke

 

 

Priscilla circled Elmshadow Burg high over its tallest building. High enough that it would have been difficult to see the burg. However, that wasn’t because of pure distance. Today was an overcast day. The clouds were low and dark. Or so she had heard before departing the tower.

It wasn’t like visibility mattered to Priscilla.

Still, Priscilla wiped at her face, grimacing at the feeling. Although winter was over, it was still chilly out. An ice dragonoid didn’t care about the temperature much but, combined with the moisture from the cloud constantly spraying against her face, Priscilla had to admit some level of discomfort. It reminded her of Umasab, a water dragon who… had died long ago.

The constant spray reminded her of him. His teasing. His casual laugh. His laborious breaths. His blood flowed freely from his heart, ignoring his pitiful attempts at controlling the liquid.

Three times in the past, Priscilla had fought. She had waged wars. The first, immediately following the Calamity, had been a war of aggression and rage, with no focus and no goal aside from inflicting pain upon the perpetrators of the Calamity. She had claimed a [HEART] for herself and, together with dozens of dragonoids and full dragons, cut a burning scar across the world.

There was nothing left of that scar. A thousand years was enough to heal many wounds. Cities had rebuilt. People returned and spread out. Rivers, though rerouted, settled and their new positions became the norm.

Yet, some of hers had perished. They didn’t heal. They didn’t return.

A scant fifty years after, Priscilla, though blinded and confused, had seen the stars shift. The dragon the humans called Gorethorn the Jinx had enacted great magics to bend the reality of the world. Priscilla had rallied her fellows to fight once more.

Only for the combined might of the Light, the Glory, and the Gold to slap them into the ground.

Some of hers had perished once again.

Two hundred years after that, the stars shifted once again. Priscilla had rallied and fought and bled and failed.

How long had it been since then? How long had she sat alone on the mountaintop, waiting and watching for signs of others who might be able to fix this broken world? Five hundred… six hundred… seven hundred years? More? For hundreds of years, she sat in silence.

Now, their numbers had been reduced to… well… to just her. Priscilla knew of at least one other dragonoid still alive, but she had abandoned the call. No one else was here. So either they had ignored the signs or they were dead.

Now, she was working with a human. That rankled. More than once, she had considered just taking his [HEART] for her own. It wouldn’t work. Her heart was cold and dead. Attempting to become a keeper once again would see her destroyed completely. The temptation was there regardless.

Now, things were different. Priscilla hadn’t kept up with the goings on of the world below during her time on the mountaintop, but what little she had seen and heard since her descent spoke volumes. The Light, the Gold, and the Glory were separated and decidedly ununified. In the times since she last fought, the three had fought among themselves. Or their followers had, which was roughly the same thing in the end.

While the current Keeper was an ignorant backwoods hunter, that simple state of the enemy factions alone gave him a far better chance than she had ever had—and thus, gave her a far better chance.

Even if his odds were low, he was still providing this opportunity.

A slight shift in the Stars served as her signal. Whether or not Arkk wanted her to act now wasn’t relevant. Priscilla pulled her wings tight and angled herself downward, sending her into a steep dive.

Opportunities like this were things she couldn’t pass up. For while Priscilla hated humans in general, she detested the ones who worshipped their gods. A whole city full of them?

The elemental crucible in the heart of her chest stirred as Priscilla unhinged her jaw.


“The dragonoid started early,” Rekk’ar grunted, lowering the telescoping lens from his eye. He leaned over one of the scrying pits, squinting at the crystal ball within as if to confirm what he had seen out the window.

Arkk frowned but shrugged. “Well, better than late. Or not starting at all. It wasn’t like we had an effective way of signaling her.”

“Think they’ll fall for it?”

“Don’t think it matters. If dragonoids are half as destructive as I’ve been led to believe, they can’t ignore her. With Evestani having concentrated all their forces on our side of the burg, having her attack from behind is going to force them to withdraw at least some of their soldiers.”

“Unless the avatar deals with her.”

Arkk couldn’t help the wince. “I don’t think that will happen. If it does, we can move in, fully committing knowing that we won’t have to face another of those large blasts or an impenetrable magical shield.”

“At the cost of the dragonoid?”

“Our presence and the threat we represent should keep her safe. If it doesn’t… Priscilla has an odd way of sensing the world around her. If anyone can preemptively move out of the way, it would be her.”

Rekk’ar shrugged and brought the spyglass back to his eye. “No skin off my back, I suppose.”

“I’d be more worried about the man in golden armor. He beat down Priscilla before using just his fists, grabbing her out of the sky when she swooped down to investigate an oddity that the ‘Stars’ warned her about.”

Rekk’ar just grunted an acknowledgment.

“In any case,” Arkk continued, “her starting early isn’t a problem. Tunnels are still being dug but we weren’t going to have people attack immediately. Have to give Evestani a chance to spread their forces thin.”


Agnete shivered despite herself.

Elmshadow Burg reverted a few weeks into the heart of winter. A thick layer of ice and snow ravaged the outer wall of the burg and several of the inner buildings. What had once been farmland, trampled and left untended, was a solid slate of ice. It was a rather impressive showing, in Agnete’s opinion. It would have been more impressive if the brunt of the attack had swept through the center of the burg rather than the fields outside, but she supposed she shouldn’t fault the blind dragonoid for being a little off in her aim.

At least she managed to get the back of the burg instead of the front. Or, worse, miss it entirely.

Agnete cracked her neck back and forth, sending a series of pops echoing off the rocky hills around the south side of the burg.

The signal hadn’t come yet but Agnete started to stride out into the open anyway. It wouldn’t do to be outshone by a glorified winter storm.

This, perhaps, was the first time she ever felt able to go all-out. With the inquisitors, she had been limited, chained almost literally. Joining with Arkk had been freeing but, at the same time, limiting in other ways. There were always people around. Flames and flesh just didn’t mix. She always had to hold herself back.

Being with Arkk brought along the surprise that she was actually able to hold herself back. Something about the magic of Fortress Al-Mir had freed her from the madness of the cleansing flame. Which, she was sure, her newfound allies appreciated to no end.

Today, Agnete stood alone. She was one of the few who had been identified as safe to engage. Relatively speaking. Given her earlier feat of deflecting one of those golden beams, the hope was that she could pull off that trick once again.

Never mind the fact that she had been knocked out entirely for days…

Agnete walked the short distance between the tunnel exit and the burg walls. There was little need to hide. While Priscilla attacked the north-west side of the burg, most eyes would be on her. The few that weren’t wouldn’t be able to react before…

Breathing deep, Agnete let her magic go. Like the bellows of a forge breathing fresh air over a few simmering embers, she let her breath out.

Flames erupted around her. She hadn’t bothered wearing clothes, knowing they would be burned off the moment she acted. All around her, weeds and plants that had survived dormant through the winter turned to ash. A wooden shack, built up against the wall, collapsed in on itself as flames surged forward. The shack didn’t provide even a moment of pause.

The wall itself exploded into the burg as her flames took hold. Bits of burning stone flew into the air, sailing outward. The flames on the normally inflammable bricks and rock only intensified, turning the stone molten and white-hot before they crashed into more buildings inside the burg. Each stone exploded on impact. Fire rippled out from the crash sites, exploding outward as they sent more bits of burning stone through the air.

A wide grin lit up Agnete’s face as she strode further into the burg.


“That flame witch started early too.”

Arkk sighed. “Protector, if you would be so kind as to signal the battlecasters and the bombardment team.”

Understood.


“The golden barrier has gone up!”

“Stop casting!”

Morvin removed his hands from the ritual array, complying with Gretchen’s command. Using the hem of his tunic, he wiped away a good deal of sweat from his forehead. The Prismatic Firestorm ritual had a bit of magical leakage somewhere in its array. Morvin wasn’t knowledgeable enough in ritual construction to identify the faults, but he could feel the effects.

Prismatic Firestorm was a specialty bombardment ritual developed by the Duke’s Grand Guard at the tail end of the last war. It called down a storm of magical fire in a spectrum of colors, each with its own unique property. Red flames burned as normal but blue flames splashed out into a flood of water, white flames froze, green flames corroded, and yellow flames created intense gusts of wind that typically agitated the other colors. It was a chaotic spell that wasn’t particularly discriminatory.

He wasn’t sure if the fault was in their version of the ritual or if it existed in the original, but every time the ritual produced a different color, some slight effect leaked out into the air around the ritual instead of the target location. Luckily, it was a problem they had known about beforehand.

Being surprised by a sudden flame igniting in the middle of the attack would have gone poorly.

“They’re on their way.”

“What?” Morvin glanced up to find Gretchen nervously biting at her lip. “Who?”

Instead of an answer, Gretchen just pointed, handing over a spyglass as she did so.

They were set up in the rocky hills north of Elmshadow Burg, just barely within range of the spell. The rituals weren’t meant to be dismantled and moved like this. The tower was supposed to have been their permanent home. Nevertheless, the new plan called for them to be moved, and, being one of the bombardment engineers, Morvin had to follow.

He felt… undefended. It was just him, Gretchen, and the looming presence of the Protector out here at the mouth of a tunnel that led back to the tower. The ritual required direct access to the sky, so they couldn’t just cast from underground. He understood that much. Still, would it have killed them to send a few guards as backup?

And now, raising the spyglass to his eye, he just about wet himself.

Elmshadow Burg stood in the distance, obviously scarred from the battles it had seen. Both from older battles and the current conflict that was just breaking out. Mostly the ice dragonoid laying on the… ice. Flames erupted in the distance on the other side of the burg. Although some ice and fire had gotten around the edges, the majority of the burg now sported a semi-transparent dome of gold, protecting it from further bombardment.

Although an imposing sight, that was the good news. The golden dome meant no golden rays. Arkk had specifically directed everyone into small groups to make each group less appealing of a target. The golden dome was what they had hoped for.

Horse riders by the dozen were charging forth from the walls of Elmshadow Burg. Absolutely the opposite of what Morvin had hoped for. 

“They figured out where we were this fast?” he hissed, trying to keep his voice steady. He wasn’t sure that he succeeded. “What was the point in setting up behind these trees?”

He turned to find Gretchen crouched over the ritual array. The metal rings, linked in on themselves, turned slightly as she recalibrated the circle.

“Distance?” she called out.

“You’re recalibrating now? We need to get out of here!” They had the tunnel. They could escape. Arkk could teleport them directly in an emergency—and this was sure feeling like an emergency. He could even teleport the ritual circle and glowstones. That was how they got them out here.

“Distance!” Gretchen shouted, not looking up.

Gnawing on the inside of his cheek, Morvin turned back to the burg. He brought up the spyglass and tried to measure. “T… three thousand paces. Maybe?” They were charging. Hard. And they had already been moving before he first spotted them, maybe before the golden dome had even gone up. How fast would it be before they reached them at that rate? Three minutes? One per thousand paces?

Behind him, he heard the grinding of the targeting gears as Gretchen readjusted the ritual circle. It wasn’t meant for such close distances.

“Shout when they’re at a thousand paces.”

“A thousand? If you’re going to attack, do it now! Don’t wait… Oh Light…”

Reaching deep within himself, he felt for that link that connected him to Company Al-Mir. The one that had sprung up when he first joined. Arkk had told them all to tug on that if they were in trouble and this was trouble.

Wrapping a metaphorical hand around it like it was the reins of a horse, he yanked and then braced himself, fully expecting that disorientation that came with a sudden relocation.

None came.

He stood on the hill, near a lone tree, still watching those horses approach. Was Arkk busy? Focused on something else? “Oh Light! We need to—”

“How far?”

“A thousand five hundred… four hundred… three—”

“Close enough!” Gretchen shouted, slamming her hand down on the activation sigil.

The air around them turned humid and then plunged into a sudden chill, followed quickly by a heavy breeze blowing outward from the circle, a sweltering heat, and a rise in humidity. The sensation leaking from the ritual circle swapped back and forth, accompanied by brief flashes from the glowstones powering the array, randomly altering the environment.

Like falling stars, columns of flame crashed down from the sky on the hills ahead of Morvin. The spell couldn’t be targeted precisely. Just focused on a general area about the size of a village marketplace.

The first dozen horse riders charged straight through, clearing the area of effect well in advance of the first column striking the ground. Those behind weren’t so lucky.

A small tide of water covered the ground just before a sheet of ice spread out from the white flames. That alone sent five horses skidding about as they lost their traction. Two more erupted into short-lived flames before the wind threw them from their startled mounts. A third wasn’t so lucky as to have the flames extinguished.

But it wasn’t enough. The riders started evading the falling flames with the majority simply swinging wide around the area of effect to avoid it entirely. Barely a third fell to the siege spell.

It was made for buildings and burgs, not riders.

“Gretchen, we…” He paused, remembering one other thing Arkk mentioned. “Electro Deus!” he shouted, swinging a hand forward.

Blinding blue lightning crackled forward, soaring through the air until it slammed into the leader of the group. Morvin thought he had been aiming for the rider, but at the last moment, it veered down and struck the horse straight in its flat face. The hair burned and the skin blackened in an instant. It took two more steps forward before its knees buckled, skinning itself against the rocky ground as it ejected its rider.

Morvin sagged in sudden exhaustion but forced himself upright. He had been told that he had more magical potential than most, but also that that wasn’t saying much. Still, during training with Zullie before her incident, he had managed a full three lightning bolts before the exhaustion was too much to overcome.

Electro Deus!” Gretchen shouted at his side, flinging forward a bolt of her own. Her bolt caught the shield of one of the armored riders. The crackling electricity jumped from the shield to the armor of the man who held it but, if it affected him, he sure didn’t show it. The horse felt it, though it didn’t fry, it did buck, throwing its rider.

Electro Deus!” Morvin shouted again. This time, he made sure to aim for the horse. If the riders had some kind of magical protection in their armor, getting rid of their horses was their best bet for surviving just a little longer.

It was too late to run. Far too late. He had to hope that Arkk would notice them and help.

Morvin launched another bolt, then one more. Maybe it was the adrenaline or simply knowing that if he didn’t stop the riders, he was a dead man, but he managed a fifth bolt after that. Gretchen managed four before she sagged, panting and sweating.

The Protector moved. Morvin had almost forgotten about it. It normally just stood there, looming and staring without blinking—the creepy thing. But now, with Morvin and Gretchen barely able to move, it used its long legs to step directly over them. Just in time to meet the first rider that made it to them.

The rider leveled his pike at the Protector. The speartip glanced off the hardened carapace.

Morvin could hear the startled shriek as the Protector grasped the rider by the head in one of its four hands, kicking the horse out from under him. The horse crashed into another, sending it and its rider to the ground. All while the Protector swung the man it had grasped at a third rider. The sound of bones breaking filled the air.

Morvin didn’t get to watch the fight any further.

He almost threw up from the sudden relocation. The air changed. It was the comfortably warm air of the Walking Fortress. Gretchen landed on the ground beside him, too exhausted to prop herself up. She did vomit, spilling her last meal on the ground.

“Sorry about the delay,” Arkk said. He looked… angry. Thunderously so. His eyes blazed brighter than Morvin had ever seen. “There were complications.” Morvin waited for more but that was the only explanation he was getting. “You did well. Rest for now,” he said.

Again, the world around Morvin shifted as he popped into the barracks. Everything within was piled up on one side of the room for some reason but Morvin didn’t get a chance to consider why.

The second teleport was too much for him. Exhausted, nerves strained from the attack, and feeling sick from the smell of Gretchen’s vomit, he couldn’t help himself. He emptied his stomach on the floor of the barracks.

 

 

 

Phase One – Reconnaissance and Preparation

 

Phase One – Reconnaissance and Preparation

 

 

Estimates put the number of Evestani forces within Elmshadow Burg upward of seven thousand soldiers. Hawkwood had seven hundred under his command. Arkk had three hundred. They were outnumbered, but that wasn’t a problem.

Everything hinged on the avatar. Without the avatar, Arkk would be able to launch bombardment magic with impunity and the tower could walk right up to the burg’s walls, forcing a surrender. Or, failing to get their surrender, simply bombard them to dust.

For that reason, Lexa stole through the burg’s streets. There was no wind in the air, yet the shadowy cloak Arkk had gifted her billowed around her, fluttering against the stillness. It moved as if it had a mind of its own, melding with the shadows of the buildings she neared and drawing her toward spots that would hide her presence. Combined with her own magics that kept others from noticing her, it was enough to make Lexa burst out laughing. Or, it would have been enough if laughing wouldn’t have ruined the effect.

She felt utterly invisible. Completely undetectable. Not just the kind of unnoticeable that someone not paying all that much attention would ignore.

The crunch of boots against a worn road made Lexa freeze. Caught out between buildings, she had nothing to hide behind but the dilapidated remnants of a market stall. It had been broken and trashed, leaving little more than a few planks of wood standing upright with some torn and ripped cloth limply dangling from where the canopy had been. Even a gremlin of her stature wouldn’t be able to hide behind it.

A patrol of a dozen guards, one of many that she had slipped past so far, marched right past the market stall. A few of the guards even looked directly at her as she stood frozen, only half behind the stall.

Close enough to watch their eyes, Lexa held her breath as they focused on one thing to one side of her then immediately slid their eyes to the other side of her. They didn’t so much as blink. In a moment, the patrol was gone down another street, leaving Lexa stifling laughter.

This thing was amazing.

Arkk had warned her not to test it against the avatar, if at all possible. She could certainly see the reasoning in that. They knew that the avatar could detect some level of planar magic, given that it had attacked Arkk while he had been teleporting people out of Gleeful Burg. They didn’t know if it could detect this shadow magic too.

But right now? Lexa felt she could single-handedly end this war here and now. The avatar might be a worthy foe, but what good would the avatar be if Lexa slit the throats of every single soldier in the burg?

It was a bit difficult to keep a realistic outlook on things with this cloak on. There was no way she would kill more than a hundred before Evestani’s spellcasters or the avatar found some way of detecting her. She had a mission. It had specific parameters. Risking that mission was not acceptable.

Lexa moved on, letting the cloak guide her from spot to spot as she advanced further into Elmshadow Burg.


“Careful with that!” Hakk’ar hissed as clay met stone a little harder than expected.

He ducked down, running his fingers along the outside of the clay pot. Not feeling any cracks or leaking, he let out a small sigh before turning a harsh glare on Livva.

“If the boss didn’t want them broken, he would have made them stronger,” she said, turning aside without the barest hint of shame.

“You fool. You weren’t at Gleeful. You didn’t see what these things can do. If these things go off, we’re dead. Even that little girl’s healing magic won’t be enough to save us.”

Livva huffed but she sent a wary glance at the tall clay pot anyway.

It stood at roughly waist height with two handles on either side of a circular lid. The lid had notches on its surface. Although three large clamps kept the lid from being removed, they did not stop its ability to rotate. Twisting the lid to a certain point would activate some small magical array deep within. Hakk’ar didn’t pretend to understand it.

He just knew not to be anywhere nearby when that magical array started up.

“He’s right,” Joanne said. The human stepped up behind them, carrying her own clay pot along with another human that Hakk’ar didn’t recognize. Company Al-Mir had grown quite a bit since the war’s start and he hadn’t bothered keeping up with every single person who signed on. “If you weren’t listening during the briefing, I don’t need you on my team. You hear me?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Livva said with a slight curl of her lip. Just enough to show off a little extra tooth.

If Joanne saw that as the threat it was, she didn’t make any outward show of it. She brushed by with the other human and set their pot down near the other one.

Both looked relieved to be done with the job, but Joanne didn’t double over panting like the other human. She straightened her back, kept her breathing steady, and glared around the tight corridor.

If Hakk’ar was being honest, he was surprised that a little human woman could carry one of the pots. Joanne was a little over half his size and yet, she had to be hiding some muscle under her gear.

Hakk’ar idly wondered what it would take to get a look under her cloak. Humans were often a little too prudish about that kind of thing. Ask an orc and they would either be happy to go for a toss or simply shut the idea down. No further complications. Humans, Hakk’ar thought, think too much.


Lexa dropped down, cloak billowing about her as it drew the shadows close. She stared into the defaced church with a frown on her face.

On the outside edge of the keep’s inner wall stood a tall church. It had seen better days. Most churches had white-washed walls, keeping them gleaming, and several golden symbols overlaid on top of the bell tower. Today, soot marred more of the walls than not. It wasn’t an intentional thing, just a consequence of Elmshadow having experienced a few fires.

What was intentional was the bell tower’s golden symbols. Normally, there were three distinct symbols. The Luminous Mandela, a complex set of geometric symbols—normally simplified into a series of concentric circles—was said to represent the Light. The other two didn’t have specific names but were said to represent and honor fallen gods.

The Luminous Mandela and one of the other symbols had been blasted off the sides of the church. That left just one set of gold metal in the rough shape of a rectangular, angled spiral with long lines radiating out from the center, joining at the corners of the spiral.

She had never been a pious sort. Some among Katja’s crew were. How could the sun shine every day if not for the Light’s grace, and all that. The world would come to an end if not for the powers above, and so on. Imagine her surprise when Arkk claimed that the gods were real.

Of course, that was still second-hand information. But Arkk didn’t seem all that pious himself. He spoke of the gods more as things that simply existed and could be interacted with rather than almighty beings that existed in an intangible sort of way, passively influencing the world.

Regardless of the status of the gods, Lexa didn’t much care for the defacing of the church. She was much more interested in the interior.

The church had one large room with a high ceiling and rows of wooden pews. Religious iconography adorned practically every surface. Most, except for those geometric spirals, had been defaced along with the exterior.

Although the Abbey of the Light didn’t discuss the other gods all that often, Lexa had a feeling that she knew to whom those rectangular spirals belonged.

The pews had been arranged to make something of a central area. A dozen children sat within, huddled together with nothing but rough, woolen blankets to keep out the cold. Aged between ten and fifteen years of age—probably, Lexa wasn’t the best at judging human ages—not a single one looked happy. They looked downright miserable. Their faces were unwashed and covered in various levels of filth, which just made the tear streaks on their faces all the more obvious.

Every single one of them had their heads shaved with tattoos that were obviously fresh, leaving the skin still raw and red in places. They were… a week old? Give or take. They had probably been applied around the same time as the expanded fog around the city in the scrying balls. The tattoos were rectangular boxes that adorned the crowns of their heads. Now that she saw the symbols around the church, she could easily compare the similarity.

That was it. Lexa hadn’t found the avatar yet but she had more than one objective. This was one of the secondary things Arkk had asked her to look out for.

Guards stood at the doors of the church. They didn’t look like they were protecting the children so much as they were acting as their warden. Which wasn’t what Lexa had expected. These… hosts of the avatar were not volunteers. They weren’t enamored to be here, they weren’t honored for their sacrifice or gifted with lavish rewards for their service.

Lexa ran a gloved thumb against a blade beneath her cloak, biting her lip…


“Disgusting thing.”

“Quiet. What if it hears you?”

“I wouldn’t much care,” Abbess Hannah said, glowering.

A blob of black tar and slime dragged itself down the corridor. Its eyes, small and yellow like miniature stars, bubbled and popped, only to reform and repeat the process. A gap in its side opened up, revealing a row of razor-sharp teeth shaped like the tip of a blade. Tendrils dug into the wall of dirt and rock, breaking it apart with smaller maws before dragging the bulk of the mass down into the void in its side.

Once enough of the wall had been eaten, it slopped to the ground. Tendrils pulled it forward, dragging its mass over the top of itself. The maw that had eaten most of the wall ended up smashed against the floor as the rest of it oozed along the top. That opening sealed shut, returning to the formless mass of the rest of the creature until it came to a stop against the wall of rock. There, it broke down and consumed the wall.

A second of the creatures followed along behind the first, undulating and squirming in a foul dance that, through magics unknown, formed smooth tiles, glowstones, and brickwork in place of the raw earth.

Occasionally, more of the servants would arrive and start digging in a different direction, creating branching paths that seemed far too easy to get lost in.

Continuing in that manner, they carved out a long tunnel beneath the Elm mountains.

Abbess Hannah, despite her revulsion, continued following behind the pair of creatures. Vector and his squad of battlecasters walked alongside her with a large detachment of soldiers spread through the corridor around them.

Ever since following Richter in his idealistic goal of doing what was right rather than what was ordered, Hannah had been somewhat at odds with their leader. Not with what they were doing. Evestani and the heretics of the Golden Order were a blight on the Duchy. It was the methods through which they were accomplishing their goals that Hannah took umbrage with.

“It is quite a fascinating creature,” Vector said. The squat man with perpetually sleepy eyes barely blinked upon first seeing one of the monsters. Rather, it looked like he wanted to try poking it. “Makes you wonder what all exists in this world that you’ve never seen.”

“I don’t think it is a creature of this world at all. It is an invader. An abomination. It scurries in the dark of these tunnels to avoid the wrathful gaze of the Light.”

“No. I don’t think so,” Vector said with a shake of his head. “They were moving all around the tower as we exited it, up on the surface. Didn’t you see?”

Hannah grimaced. Despite having traveled inside it for the last several weeks, she tried her best not to think of that tower. Upon first laying eyes on it, she had urged Richter to abandon this Arkk heretic. But Richter was too blinded by his idealism and desire to be the hero of the Duchy. The one who fended off the Evestani army—or at least played a large part in it—and Company Al-Mir offered him exactly what he wanted to hear.

To be fair, it wasn’t like abandoning Company Al-Mir would have changed anything. That tower would have marched without them. Although sizable in a vacuum, those who followed Richter were too small to make a difference in the end.

Hannah had considered departing on her own. In the end, love for the soldiers she had grown close to during the war kept her where she was. They needed guidance. Especially in times like these, with company like this.

The Abbess closed her eyes as she waited for the creature to consume another section of the earth around them, devouring the very world they lived upon. She flipped through her mental library, seeking an appropriate passage for the situation she found herself in. In these dim corridors, with an approaching battle against heretics with heretics at their side, there had to be something she could say.

She was an abbess. It wasn’t a particularly high rank among the Abbey of the Light. Barely above that of an acolyte. A bishop, oracle, disciple, or adept would know how to bolster the spirits of those around them even while surrounded by monsters. It would come to them naturally, as if granted divine inspiration by the Light Itself. Hannah had studied the holy texts, the history of the Abbey, and the ways of the Light. She just lacked that spark of inspiration.

Then it hit her.

A passage in an old scroll she had discovered.

“Remember the words of the Prophetess Aeliana as she spoke in the Canticles of the Dawning Sun. ’Even in the company of shadows, the Light shall be your shield and your spear. It is not the nature of our ally, but the righteousness of our cause that sanctifies our coming battle.”

Hannah’s voice carried through the corridor. It carried far further than she had anticipated or wanted. She could feel the way the soldiers and battlecasters around her fell into silence, looking at her as if she were about to speak something utterly profound.

Her jaw locked up and nerves bolted her lips closed. She was no stranger to public speaking. She had offered plenty of sermons in the ten years she had served as an abbess. Yet here and now, she swallowed, feeling trapped by her sudden outburst.

These were men who were about to go to war. Not just war, but a battle with the odds stacked against them. She along with them, as their healer and support.

They waited in silence, staring, waiting for inspiration or words of comfort. A blessing for the battle ahead.

Hannah drew in a breath. “We stand on the precipice of a battle that may well decide the fate of our lands. Among us…” She pressed her lips together, narrowing her eyes in the direction of the corridor’s end. Her eyes then flicked over the mass of soldiers to another creature. One creature too tall to fit in the large corridor upright, had all six of its arms spread out. “Creatures of ancient might and magic beyond our ken. Our alliance with these beings, born of necessity, does not tarnish our souls. Nor does it sway our commitment.

“Our enemy is deplorable in the extreme. I have read reports of their so-called Avatar of the Golden Good. A heretic who mutilates children to further their goals…” Hannah suppressed a shudder. If what that scout had said was true, the Golden Order was even worse than the Abbey typically preached. It was possible to be a heretic and still a good man. Even those who didn’t believe in the Light would share their porridge with their neighbor in trying times. But mutilating children to use as disposable bodies? “In this trying time, our faith is tested. But it is also proven! The Light does not abandon its faithful. It will not abandon us! Let your courage be as your shield, your faith as your sword, and your spirit as an unbreakable bond that unites us all in singular purpose—to vanquish the heretics and liberate our people in the name of the Light!”

Hannah let her words hang in the air. Her heart pounded in her chest, nervous and yet… exhilarated. She wasn’t sure that she had said anything coherent at all. If not, it didn’t seem to matter. The soldiers in the corridor pumped their fists, cheering out.

Vector just raised an eyebrow. Of course, he wasn’t one to fall for a ramble of rhetoric. Still, the corner of his lip curled upward.

This… was a good feeling. It was why Hannah stuck around despite the monsters and anathema. She wasn’t some powerful pontiff, she was just an abbess. Her duty was one of guidance and comfort.

Just as she allowed herself a small smile, a sudden hush surged through the crowd of soldiers.

It wasn’t hard to see why.

That creature at the rear of the group crawled forward. It didn’t try to push past the soldiers or battlecasters. Rather, it avoided them entirely by clamping its many limbs into the ceiling, skittering above the soldiers’ heads. Hannah locked up, freezing solid as it came to a stop directly over her. Its head, upside-down and backward, twisted and bent until that false face it wore was at her level.

I have a question,” it spoke, its voice sending tremors through Hannah’s heart.

Hannah didn’t know what to say in response. It wasn’t supposed to speak to her. It was here to provide information, using its foul magics to communicate instantly with other groups in the tower and the city.

“Oh?” Vector asked. “Regarding the Light? Abbess Hannah is well-versed in such matters. I’m sure she would be most pleased to discuss theology.”

Hannah’s eyes widened, flicking over to Vector. He wasn’t implying that she could try to convert this thing to proper worship of the Light, was he?

“But perhaps now isn’t the best time,” Vector finished.

A simple question.” It looked away from Vector, turning those wide, eerie eyes on Hannah. “You spoke of a prophetess. The words used ‘in the company of shadows’. To what does that phrase refer?

Hannah opened her mouth. Her throat, dry and parched, forced her to swallow rather than speak. Vector lightly nudged her in the side, which was just enough encouragement. “I don’t know,” Hannah admitted. Now that the first few words were out, the next came easily. “Prophetess Aeliana’s life is poorly chronicled. Many records of the time have been lost. Even the Canticles of the Dawning Sun are incomplete. She was involved in a war and had allies she obviously didn’t agree with, so the words just popped into my mind. Beyond that, I don’t know.”

I see,” the creature said, accepting her words without doubt. Its hands, gripping the ceiling, started to pull it back where it had come from, only for it to pause and turn to Vector. “I am informed that you are almost in position. Preparations are still ongoing elsewhere. You will not engage immediately.

Vector nodded his head. “Thank you for the notice.”

With that, the creature skittered back over the heads of the soldiers, much to their discomfort. Hannah could only sigh in relief at its vacancy.

“Looks like we have some time,” Vector said. “Perhaps you should speak more of this Aeliana. What little you know, anyway.”

Hannah drew in a breath and nodded, agreeing internally. Better to not leave silence in the air. That would only lead to festering thoughts. “I don’t know of those shadows,” she said, averting her eyes from the creature. “But the battle she was in is said to be one of legend…”


Lexa finished measuring out the distance from the keep to the final primary target. The keep, though ruined, still stood tall enough to poke out above the scrying fog. That meant that it could be used as a reference point to various targets throughout the burg.

As long as her measurements were correct, anyway.

Arkk had dumped several brass items in her lap—courtesy of Hawkwood, apparently—and had given her brief instructions on how to use them to determine distances. It had been a short lesson but Lexa was pretty sure she got the gist of it.

Writing down the last few coordinates, this one pointed at an armory, on a small notebook marked the end of her mission. She had accomplished all her objectives. All except one. There had been no sign of the avatar. Just those poor children.

Night was on its way. Which meant she had to get back. Arkk needed her reconnaissance to finalize all the preparations.

Lexa found her eyes drifting back toward that ruined church.

After she delivered her report…

After…

 

 

 

Return to Elmshadow

 

Return to Elmshadow

 

 

Elmshadow Burg was nestled between two tall mountains. The mountains were somewhat distant from the burg itself, as the burg sat on relatively flat terrain with a river running through it. The surrounding land, mostly farmland, extended in all directions until the ground turned to rocky hills with steep drops and sheer hikes that only goats would enjoy. Even those rocky hills were still not quite at the mountains, though there was a gradual upward slope to their layout. At some point, where the tall trees began growing in force, the land spiked upward. Massive, jutting mounds of land towered over the valley. Those tall mountains and rough terrain stretched in either direction practically slicing the Duchy in two.

The Walking Fortress could handle unsteady terrain. Each of its six legs was the size of a large house. Even if one leg failed to find a good place to plant down, it still had five others as backups. Arkk wasn’t willing to try climbing the Elm mountains in their entirety—not with the tower occupied and in danger of tipping over—but the hills? Those were doable.

For that reason, they weren’t coming to Elmshadow from the center of the valley. It had been Rekk’ar’s suggestion to come in from the north, climbing over the rocky hills while using the tall mountain as a shield against Evestani’s golden magic.

No need to take all the bombardment they would face if they approached in clear view from the horizon.

“Shame the warlock wasn’t able to increase the range of our bombardment magics,” Rekk’ar grumbled. His fingers drummed against the command table as he glared down at the map spread across its surface. “This spot would have been the perfect cover to unload everything we had without facing retaliation,” he said, jamming a finger into a small crook of the mountain.

“Wouldn’t work,” Hawkwood said with a shake of his head. “Arkk tried to repeat his feat at Gleeful here at Elmshadow. The golden dome fended off his spells without trouble. We would waste our supply of glowstones without accomplishing much.”

“Then why bring the bombardment magic at all?”

“Aside from it being yet another tool that will undoubtedly come in handy?” Arkk asked, raising an eyebrow at Rekk’ar. “I’m… I’m hoping we get hit by one of those rays of gold.”

“You think that witch’s idea will work?”

Arkk shrugged. Zullie…

Her reliability had dropped drastically in Arkk’s eyes. It had been just a single mistake. One error in her plans to call upon the power of Xel’atriss. To find that she, even after losing her eyes, hadn’t given up—in fact, she seemed more eager than ever—only filled Arkk with more unease. Yet… She wasn’t wrong. The Heart of Gold’s avatar had such versatility that it made Agnete’s power of flames look mundane in comparison. From what little Arkk had seen of Tybalt, the Jailor of the Void’s avatar, before his death, he doubted that Tybalt would have been any more versatile.

It had to be the status of the [PANTHEON]. The Burning Forge and the Jailer of the Void—though the latter had a statue in the temple—were disconnected from the world in a way that the Heart of Gold and the other traitor gods were not.

Zullie had come up with a solution to those rays of gold. It was planar magic. Magic derived from a combination of the lighting spell she had seen in the Duke’s manor and information she had… Stolen? Gleaned? Been granted? Arkk wasn’t sure. He didn’t know that Zullie was sure. Whatever the case, she now had information following the incident where she lost her eyes that she had lacked before.

From that, she had derived a few new spells.

“Even if our new protections don’t work, the tower is large. Far larger than any instance of those rays. From what we’ve observed, the avatar of gold can and does wear out. Especially after casting those wide rays of gold. It had to resort to casting far narrower beams after the first large one. Thus, we take a hit. The tower is large and the servants are standing by to repair damage. Then, while it is weakened, we can bombard with impunity.”

Richter cleared his throat, looking over the group with a small frown. “Not that I find fault with your grand plan,” he started, looking a little nervous. “Is there an option that does not require us to get hit? I haven’t seen one of these ‘rays of gold’ in person but I have heard of their effects. They don’t sound… pleasant.”

“I’m with the human,” Rekk’ar grunted.

The entire tower lurched as its forward momentum came to a halt. All six legs planted into the ground with a mental command from Arkk. The jolt wasn’t much. It probably should have felt like a minor earthquake. The magic of the mobile [HEART] kept things steady most of the time.

Still, it knocked an empty mug that had been sitting on the edge of the table to the floor where it clattered as wood struck stone.

“Alright. Suggestions,” Arkk said. It felt like this was the thirtieth time he had said those words in the last week. It seemed like they changed their plans for this assault every ten minutes. Sometimes it was because of additions to equipment such as the shadow scythes, other times, it was because new tactics opened up with the addition of magical elements provided by Savren or Zullie. Most times, it felt like nobody was sure how to handle the situation.

Granted, not many treatises on battle tactics had been written with regards to massive walking fortresses stomping around nor regarding avatars of gods. Not even Priscilla’s… experience with walking fortresses could quite apply to the operations of today. Times then, magic then, were far different than that of today. As were the leagues of dragonoids and other now-extinct species that she had had at hand to send into combat. Her tactics had been of the overwhelming firepower variety which, bombardment magic and supply of charged glowstones aside, Arkk lacked.

The discussion at the table carried on long into the night. Elmshadow was a mere half a day’s march away—for the tower. If they had been approaching straight up the valley, they would have been able to see it with the naked eye. Were it not for the change in route to take them alongside the mountain, they likely would have been hit by one of those rays of gold by now.

As it was, Arkk was a little nervous just sitting about. It would be relatively simple for the avatar of gold to take a horse out, charging around the rocky hills and unpleasant terrain. The scrying teams were keeping an eye out but it would be easy to miss a single horse rider at night.

If the avatar did leave the burg, the burg wouldn’t have that golden dome defending them. The tower needed to be in range to strike back if that happened.

So all this sitting around, talking, arguing, and back-and-forth over details that had been discussed to death over the last weeks was grating, to say the least.

Rekk’ar favored a cautious strategy. An attempt to draw the defenders out of their magically defended stronghold.

Hawkwood, were he in charge of the enemy force, would never leave their stronghold. As long as the avatar of gold could keep bombardment magic off their backs, they could hold out indefinitely. Especially now that the strike teams against Evestani’s supply lines were on hold.

Richter wanted to rush in. Send the tower through whatever attacks it could weather up to the walls of the burg. Stomp down any magical defenses with the tower itself, bombard the city once the magic was down, and send in the combined might of White Company, Richter’s men, and the specialists that Company Al-Mir could provide to overwhelm whoever was left after that.

Olatt’an, sitting at the table with his eyes closed, didn’t speak much. The older orc had a thoughtful expression on his face but… Arkk privately thought that he had fallen asleep.

Priscilla sat in her chair, tipped back to the point where two legs were completely off the ground. Her wings, planted on the floor behind the chair, kept her from falling. She was present because of her aforementioned expertise in utilizing mobile towers in combat. Most of the time, she didn’t contribute much to any discussion. The few times she did open her mouth, she tended to favor Richter’s aggressive plans. Much to the chagrin of the more cautious members of the table.

During a lull in the argument, Olatt’an opened his eyes. He swept his eyes over the map once before looking up, sweeping his eyes over each of the others at the table. “Why are we not playing to our strengths?”

“Exactly,” Arkk said. “Magical bombardment from afar—”

“Not that. While you possess great personal magic and the glowstones allow far more castings than should be expected, it isn’t a match for the avatar.”

Arkk pressed his lips together. He didn’t exactly have a way to refute that, so he kept silent and gestured for Olatt’an to proceed.

“Now, I don’t know the way the Duke’s Guard or White Company typically handle things, but Company Al-Mir is at its strongest when we do something unexpected and catch our opponents off guard, that they couldn’t plan for. This tower is something I doubt many could plan for. I’m not quite willing to extend that suspicion to the avatar just yet.

“They know we’re coming, as evidenced by the expanded fog over the entirety of the burg. They’ll have a plan. Maybe it works. Maybe it won’t. But charging in and allowing them to enact their plan is the height of foolishness.”

Arkk let out a small breath, nodding his head. “Yes. I’m aware. I just thought— Never mind. You have an alternative, I presume?”

Olatt’an lightly tapped the map on the table. He pointed to the same spot Rekk’ar had indicated earlier. A little spot nestled in the northern Elm mountain that was close to Elmshadow while still keeping the mountain between them and the burg.

“It is too far away,” Arkk said, shaking his head. They had discussed that spot. Several times. “The range of our bombardment magic is limited. Savren’s new ritual might have worked if we were able to get a direct line of sight but all the spells that don’t require line of sight are too limited.”

“Forget the magic, Arkk,” Olatt’an said, voice turning gruff. “We’re in a massive magical fortress that moves. More importantly, it counts as your territory, does it not?”

“It does.”

Olatt’an curled his lips into a tusk-less smile. “Then it should be simple to begin a battle on our terms. Not theirs.”


Walking Fortress Al-Lavik came to a stop. Six massive legs clamped into the ground, locking into place, before lowering the bulk of the tower. The flat underside sent up a cloud of dirt and dust as it came to a partial rest on the rocky hill. With one final adjustment of the legs to compensate for the uneven terrain, the tower went still.

Lexa watched the tower’s actions from one of the lower levels, peering out from a thin slit in the tower’s walls that was meant for unleashing arrows or spells upon anyone who would dare to approach. Before the dust could settle, dozens of formless figures slithered from the tower’s legs. Horrible slug-like monstrosities with far too many eyes and mouths filled with razor-sharp teeth. They scurried around, dragging their pulsating, bulbous masses along with them. The lesser servants of Fortress Al-Mir got to work.

Their maws gaped, swallowing swaths of dirt and rock here. Over there, they… excreted material. It wasn’t the same rock and stone. It was more of a slurry of gravel and mud. Other lesser servants moved over the top and began a hypnotic gyration. Ugly and worthy of vomiting, Lexa nonetheless found herself unable to look away.

Tiles, like those within the tower or Fortress Al-Mir, formed underneath the dancing servants. However, here, the tiles were more like those within the tower. They possessed a shadowy, smoke-like quality lacking in the maze-like designs that permeated the entirety of Fortress Al-Mir. The only true unification was the violet gemstones that blossomed from the center of each tile.

Lexa wasn’t sure where Arkk had found those creatures. Or Vezta, for that matter. Possessing a sense of self-preservation, she felt it best to not make too many inquiries. They created livable spaces, cleaned up messes, and performed minor maintenance on damaged parts of the fortresses. That was enough for her.

Still, she couldn’t help but wonder what they were up to out there. This stop and construction work hadn’t been in the latest plans she had heard. Having memorized the local map and from observing a little with the scrying teams, she recognized the area they had stopped in. They were about ten minutes of walking out from the burg—for the tower, not for a normal person. The tower wasn’t exactly fast, but it wasn’t slow either. When a single step could carry it half the distance of a village, it ended up able to make quite the pace. Especially once it got going.

It had been something of a shame to leave Katja’s warm bed for the relatively cold halls of Fortress Al-Mir. Gold lured her. It was just a bit more appealing than flesh. Her pockets had been filled, but there was so much more here. True power. Wealth was a way to power for many. Lexa had certainly followed that idea for the majority of her life. But now…

Look at Katja. She might be able to call herself a Lady or a Duchess or whatever she wanted, but when Arkk came knocking, she had to stop and listen.

Lexa was fairly certain she was in a better position than Katja. True, she also had to listen to Arkk when he came around, but that Arkk came around at all was a sign of how good she had it. Not everyone got personal attention from the guy in charge.

If only his attentions were a little more… attentive to her needs.

With a small sigh, Lexa turned from the slit window to find someone who knew what was going on. Only, before she could take a step, she felt that familiar pull. Like someone grabbed hold of her by her shoulders with a massive hand, whisked her through space, and then let her drop down into an entirely new place.

Well, well, well. Speaking of personal attention. After a brief stumble, Lexa found herself looking up to find Arkk glowering at a large window. His eyes, bright red and glowing, flicked back and forth as he started. She had once thought his eyes glowed when he was angry. Which was true, but also wasn’t. It was more like keeping the glow down took concentration. If he was deep in thought—even about mundane ideas—distracted by pressing issues, or just generally not paying attention, his eyes would light up.

Even though the red glared back against the window’s glass, Lexa wasn’t sure that he even noticed.

This was much higher up in the tower. The command room. Olatt’an was back at a large table and the scrying teams were in their little cubby holes, staring into crystal balls. Lexa had been inside a few times but this was the first time she had been invited.

“Sir?”

“I… have a mission for you, Lexa. It will be dangerous.”

Lexa quirked her lips. “Danger is just a spice to enhance a relationship.”

“Good in moderation but bad if it is overwhelming?”

“Everyone has a different taste for spice.” Lexa leaned against him, injecting a little extra breath into her voice. “I like it on the spicy side.”

Arkk drew in a breath, nodding. “This might be of the overwhelming variety,” he said without the slightest acknowledgment of her actions.

He was always like that. She knew he liked taller women—he had said so himself—yet she felt something should get through to him. It was starting to make her feel inadequate.

“We can’t scry directly on Elmshadow,” he continued as if nothing happened. “But we need information from within, to put the final pins in our plan.”

“And I’ve got the skills you need to get some eyes in the city? I understand.”

“I don’t know that you can get in undetected. Normally, I would assume you could without a doubt. But they are expecting us. The avatar has powers we’re not fully aware of. And Evestani in general does things quite a bit differently than around the Duchy. I don’t want to put you in unnecessary danger, on your own, with no support… but knowing is half the battle.”

“Relax. If there is anything I value more than gold, it is my own life. If I think I can’t do it, it might be embarrassing, but I’ll come back and admit failure.”

Arkk looked at her, glowing eyes flicking back and forth. After a moment, he nodded. Some of the tension in his shoulders lessened. He must have been worried. Actually worried.

How sweet.

Lexa grinned. “I suppose I should gather my things. You’ll want me out of here immediately, right?”

“First, I have a gift for you.”

“Oh? You shouldn’t have… Which is not a rejection. I’m a woman who loves men who give me gifts.”

Arkk didn’t react once again, save to hold his hand out.

A flowing black cloak of pure shadow appeared in the air, draping over his extended arm.

“Oh,” Lexa said. “You’ve got my interest…”

 

 

 

Arms Training

 

Arms Training

 

 

The logistics of the Walking Fortress weren’t exactly simple to operate.

A giant mobile fortress wasn’t easy to access while it was on the move. Theoretically, it didn’t need to be accessed. It possessed the same food production and living quarters magic that Fortress Al-Mir had. Yet there were still certain personnel and equipment that needed to move between the fortresses.

The teleportation circles didn’t work with a mobile target and walking up to the legs of the tower to access the interior while it was on the move was utterly impossible. Since he could freely teleport to his territory, and the Walking Fortress was his territory, that left Arkk to do most of the work himself.

It was a bit of a strange feeling.

Arkk was the leader of a free company. He commanded hundreds of men and was seen as an equal to a longstanding company commander. He could cast magic unseen in the world for thousands of years. He worked with an ancient monster, a dragonoid, and some kind of strange hive-mind collective. He dethroned a duke and put a puppet in its place. He had entreated with a god.

And here he was, acting as a simple courier.

Arkk teleported from ritual circle to ritual circle, moving a heavy crate loaded with equipment. A pair of orcs helped him carry the box through the teleportation circles.

Once they got close enough to the tower, he simply teleported all of them onto one of its floors.

Without him, the whole tower would have had to come to a whole stop while everyone carried the boxes up its many, many stairs.

“Thank you, Tell’ir. Penna.” Arkk stretched his back, glad to be out of the somewhat cramped underground chambers where the teleportation circles were hidden. “You are dismissed. There is a canteen two floors below us,” he said, motioning to the door. “Or you can find bunks a floor below that.”

“We don’t get to see these things in action?” Penna asked.

Arkk paused, considered, and then shrugged. “I don’t have a problem with that. I don’t know that there is going to be much to watch, but… Sure.”

Penna grunted a laugh as she nudged her elbow into Tell’ir. “Told you.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

Arkk watched as they moved off to the side of the room. It was a large room, divided roughly in half. One side was open and empty of anything save for a few targets at a far wall, providing an opportunity for archers and crossbowmen to practice their aim. The other side of the room was further divided up into individual sparring areas. Posts in the ground could hold up wooden dummies that would allow melee weapon training without a live opponent.

There were several similar training rooms around Fortress Al-Mir. Besides the gambling dens and fighting pits, they were some of the more popular locales within the fortress. The ones here barely looked used, however.

He wasn’t sure why that was. At the moment, the Walking Fortress housed about six hundred soldiers from White Company, three hundred former soldiers of the Duke’s Grand Guard, and about seventy others. The latter of whom included Larry the butcher heading a few others from the kitchen staff, spellcasters trained to use the bombardment magics and charged glowstones, the scrying team, and Dakka’s specialist team.

Most everyone either stayed in their bunks or ate and drank at the various canteens.

Quickly locating Dakka and her team, Arkk found them lounging much higher in the tower, having taken over one of the upper floors meant for the senior commanders for their own purposes. Which wasn’t something Arkk had opposed. Dakka was a commander, even if her power was generally limited to the field. If she wanted to share the floor with the rest of her team, that was her prerogative.

In the blink of an eye, Arkk teleported Dakka and the ten members of her team directly to the training room. There was a brief moment of disorientation. Everyone had been sitting around, having what looked to have been a fairly serious discussion even as they sat relaxed in the various furniture of Dakka’s quarters. Since Arkk always knew when he was teleporting himself, he had never experienced it himself, but everyone else had to take a second to grapple with suddenly being in a new position, a new orientation, and a new room.

But all of Dakka’s team were experienced members of Company Al-Mir. This wasn’t the first time they had been teleported, nor would it be their last. Feet thumped together as the group reoriented toward Arkk.

“Sir! You’re earlier than you said you’d be,” Dakka said. Nobody in Company Al-Mir saluted save for some of the more recent hires from other mercenary companies or the Duke’s Grand Guard. Dakka nevertheless straightened her back in a show of respect.

It was a bit… much, Arkk felt. Dakka, Rekk’ar, and Olatt’an were easily the three orcs he knew best simply because they were the first three, along with Larry, who had come to him. Of them, he always felt a bit more of a connection with Dakka. Olatt’an was an old man with a lot of experience to share and Rekk’ar was younger and more brash—and clearly didn’t like almost any decision that Arkk made no matter the situation.

Dakka was still fairly casual with him when alone. It was just in front of others. She was setting an example. The others on her team mimed her show of respect. Still, while Arkk now thought of himself far more as a leader and commander, it just felt weird with Dakka and a few of the others he knew well.

“We made good time thanks to Tell’ir and Penna,” he said, gesturing to the side of the room where the two orcs had taken up their position.

With a curt nod of her head, Dakka slowly turned to the stack of crates at Arkk’s side. “So these are…”

“You wanted something to even the scales,” Arkk said, teleporting the lids off the crates.

As he did so, the light in the room seemed to dim ever so slightly. Thin slits in the walls provided fresh sunlight to compliment the glowstones set into the ceiling. Yet a small portion of that light stopped bouncing around the room, absorbed into the darkness within the crates.

One of the crates held freshly forged scythes. The blades were wrapped in cloth made using the ceremonial blade. They had discovered that shadowy cloth to be one of the few things the shadow blades could not cut, which made them the perfect sheathes for when the scythes weren’t in use.

Arkk gripped the sturdy wooden haft of one of the weapons, pulling it from the crate.

“Oh no,” one of the orcs grumbled.

Arkk cocked an eyebrow. He wasn’t quite sure which orc had spoken but, looking over, none looked particularly happy. “Something wrong?”

A few of the orcs glanced at one another before one, Klepp’at, cleared his throat. “Just worried you’re going to have us reaping fields again.”

Arkk blinked. It took him a long second to think all the way back to when he had first strongarmed all the orcs into joining him. The very first task he had assigned them had been to help out with Langleey’s harvest. With a small chuckle, he shook his head. “I don’t doubt that these would be effective in a field. Maybe too effective. Tell’ir, Penna. As long as you’re here, grab one of those training dummies and slot it into the hole here.”

The two not of Dakka’s team looked surprised to be addressed. They got over it quickly enough, moving one of the dummies into place. As they did so, Arkk carefully removed the cloth sheath from the scythe.

Very carefully.

If he was being honest, these scythes frightened him a little. They were almost too dangerous.

“The blade will cut through anything cloaked in shadow,” Arkk said as he readied the weapon. “Since they absorb light around them, that basically means anything.”

With fairly casual ease—the scythes weighed only as much as the wooden staff that served as their hafts—Arkk sliced the wooden dummy clean in two.

Dakka let out a long, slow whistle.

“The only exceptions are other things forged with the Cloak of Shadows’ power and the magically reinforced stone of Fortress Al-Mir. Don’t know how they will fare against that golden armor. Can’t be worse than anything else we tried.”

“Do they have to be scythes?” Raff’el asked.

“For now, yes. Unfortunately, we don’t have the ability to make custom designs in the Shadow Forge yet. We had to make do with the molds already present. The Protector is sending other instances of itself to explore a few of the other temples for more molds but no word back on that just yet.” Arkk carefully placed the cloth back over the scythe’s head and replaced it in the crate before moving over to one of the other crates. “It’s also why the armor we made is something of a one-size-fits-all.”

Arkk lifted a thin slice of shadow from the crate. The front half of a breastplate. It wasn’t as all-encompassing as properly made plate armor, thus it would need to be augmented with regular armor to provide full protection, but it did weigh almost nothing and was practically impervious to normal weapons and most magics that he and Savren had thought to try.

Explaining that to the orcs, Arkk handed out a few of the pieces. They had greaves, cuisses, boots, and gauntlets. No helms, unfortunately. But Arkk had a plan for that.

“They just so happened to have orc-sized equipment in these forges?” Dakka asked as one of the others helped her equip some of the armor.

“You recall what Vezta said? Black Knights—not sure if they were a race or some kind of military order dedicated to the Cloak of Shadows—bore a resemblance to orcs. These Shadow Forges were likely created to serve them.”

“Ah.” Dakka accepted the explanation with a nod of her head.

Arkk wasn’t sure if that was the truth but it made the most sense to him. Humans and even elves would find the armor far too bulky to use. Perhaps someone hulking like Horrik could make use of it but Arkk wasn’t willing to ship this special equipment off to Katja before he had equipped every single one of his orcs. And even then, he wasn’t so sure.

With easy access to only one Shadow Forge near the portal, they were exceedingly limited in how quickly they could produce this equipment. As it was, what they had now was literally every piece that had been produced. The final gauntlet had been finished just this morning. Perr’ok would continue making more but a full set of equipment took over three days to manufacture.

Drastically less time than normal armor in a normal forge—which could take weeks for an average set of armor—but a normal forge could be expanded until every blacksmith was working at once, creating dozens of pieces a day.

As it was, he was just happy they had gotten this much before reaching Elmshadow.

“We don’t have much time to train with this. Keep the sheathes on until you’re sure you aren’t going to smack into each other or anything important. But I want you on this every day until we arrive.”

They had between seven and twelve days, depending on terrain, to get ready.


“Arkk, t-there’s a change in the situation at Elmshadow.”

Slowly, Arkk opened his eyes. He was trying to scrape together every bit of rest he could manage. Unfortunately, it felt like some new problem cropped up every few minutes. Sometimes it was things at the Walking Fortress, which were relatively easy to deal with as he was physically present.

When he felt tugs for his attention over at Fortress Al-Mir, things turned more harried. Ilya was in charge over there, assisted by Vezta. Sometimes, he was able to teleport one of them to the person who called for his attention. Sometimes, Ilya or Vezta was the one calling for him. Everything needed to be in order over there. At the moment, the Walking Fortress could drop a lesser servant to the ground below to dig out a new teleportation chamber to add to the chain, thus allowing him to rush back to deal with problems like Kia and Claire getting a little too vigorously engaged in interrogating some Evestani scout unit the tower had crossed over and subsequently captured. That wouldn’t last once they arrived.

Arkk needed to be fully focused on Elmshadow with no distractions.

He stood from the large chair positioned in the center of the command floor.

The room was one of the few with large, open windows. A balcony before the windows let them stretch both higher and lower than the floor itself, letting him look down at the ground ahead of the tower even from his chair. As one of the highest rooms in the tower, it provided a view that kings wished their castles could provide.

There was enough room to fit all the strategic staff. A large table in the center of the room held a drawn map of Elmshadow and its surrounding terrain. Little models marked out notable locations within, such as the keep and force concentrations. The scrying team updated the map nearly constantly, working in groups. Either side of the map had a lower level, divided by a few steps downward, where the scrying teams worked in groups around the clock. Both crystal balls were here in Al-Lavik, one in either pit.

There were four pits in total. Two were unused at the moment. One major goal was to figure out how to build scrying-capable crystal balls or locate other methods of distant vision. Arkk hadn’t had the time to properly investigate crafting methods or external builders of scrying equipment just yet.

Luthor, the chameleon beastman, stood in one of the pits. They were shallow enough pits that someone standing would be at chest height with the rest of the room. It was just enough to let them have a degree of separation while seated to concentrate on their duties while everyone else in the command room did their work.

“A change?” Arkk asked, fighting down a yawn.

Communication was still a problem. There were magical methods of mimicking an in-person conversation, but they were involved and ritualistic. Nothing that could be used in the heat of combat. Even outside combat, the Duchy’s official military detachments still preferred to use written letters delivered by Swiftwing harpies because the rituals were too complex.

At the moment, Arkk and Savren had devised a series of spells that would light up the exterior of the tower, with different colors warning anyone outside the building of predetermined changes in the situation that the scrying team noticed or simple tactic changes, should that be required. It wasn’t ideal. The tower was likely to be at the backs of their forces. But it was better than nothing.

The Protector—three of it—were in the tower and were willing to facilitate communications. But that was still limited to just those three. They couldn’t be everywhere at once.

Savren had ideas about the Protector’s mental link with its bodies and ways of possibly mimicking that link with an enchanted device. Thus far, that project was purely in the theoretical stage.

“S-Sir. The fog in the crystal balls is c-changing.”

With a slight shake of his head, Arkk refocused on the situation at hand. That fog Evestani used to obscure scrying was one of the bigger banes of his existence. It ranked right below the Heart of Gold’s magic. Any change was likely to be bad for him.

“What are they cooking up now?” Arkk hummed as he descended the few steps into the scrying pit.

Luthor, unnecessarily, waved him over to the crystal ball. Harvey, the flopkin member of the scrying team, sat at the ball itself, holding his hands up to its smooth surface. The scenes inside changed and shifted, roaming over what Arkk easily recognized as Elmshadow Burg.

Much of the burg was hidden in a thick layer of that fog. Much of the fog surrounded the central keep. It was nothing that Arkk hadn’t seen before. Ever since Evestani pulled back to the burg following Gleeful’s fall, they had been hard at work. Much of the burg had been destroyed in fire—some as a result of Hawkwood while the rest came from the after-effects of those rays of gold.

While the keep itself was still missing its top—that poked out of the fog surrounding it—he had been able to watch over the weeks as they rebuilt the rest of the burg. They hadn’t rebuilt it the way it had been. Much of the partially destroyed buildings had been cleared out entirely, the materials of their construction being relocated to form defensive arrangements around the exterior of the burg’s walls. Two large turrets had gone up on the Duchy side of the burg, each of which held a large golden statue that vaguely resembled the one of the Heart of Gold in Al-Mir’s temple. They had expanded the barracks, built and rebuilt storehouses, and took over a few workshops and smithies, the latter of which had been pouring smoke from their chimneys almost constantly. Other areas were marked out as possible ritual sites for bombardment or defensive magics.

“What’s changing?” Arkk asked, only to see it the moment he finished his question. “Ah.”

Harvey shifted the view in response, closing in on the edge of the fog just outside the keep.

The fog had been hovering right around the inner walls, obscuring what Arkk presumed was the center of Evestani’s military operations. Except, it was no longer stopped at the walls. The fog billowed outward, flowing through the streets and over the buildings. It wasn’t exactly fast, but it was spreading out through the rest of the burg all around the central keep.

If it kept up its pace, it would likely encompass the entire city by nightfall.

“I think they know we’re coming, Sir,” Harvey said.

Arkk nodded absently. That was true. They had the map with markers for everything important already. But, if Arkk were in Evestani’s position, he would be using every spare second rearranging the city under the assumption that current targets of interest were compromised. Of course, he had lesser servants to do such work quickly and efficiently. Thus far, he had seen no sign that Evestani used anything other than the labor of their army to rebuild Elmshadow Burg.

With that golden avatar in play, he couldn’t discount anything.

“Keep a constant watch on it anyway,” Arkk said to the scrying team. “Especially the exterior of the burg. I want to know if soldiers leave in any direction.”

“Given that w-we’re still over a week out,” Luthor said, “they might not be able to maintain the spell that long. A circular fog l-like that… if it doubles in size, it quadruples the area. I-I don’t know the c-calculations for how much magic that drains, but I imagine it is considerable. If they’re trying to cover the entire burg, that’s… far, far more than doubling its size. They would have to double its size at least four times.”

Arkk stared at Luthor for a long moment, not having expected that from the chameleon beastman. He wasn’t sure it was perfectly accurate—he would have to check with Savren—but the sentiment was correct. If covering the entire burg had been magically feasible, they would have done so from the start.

“If Evestani wants to wear out their spellcasters this far in advance, I’m not going to complain,” Arkk said. Not that he believed they would do that without a plan. Perhaps they had come up with something similar to the charged glowstones that would let them maintain it without draining their people.

Luthor smiled, nodding his head as his beady eyes shifted back to the crystal ball.

Good that he was in high spirits. Arkk had a feeling they would need all the morale they could get before long.

“Keep me informed. And make sure the other scrying teams are aware that I’ve been informed.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Arkk climbed out of the pit with a larger worry on his mind.

The tower needed to be on high alert from now on. It would be too easy for the avatar of gold to slip out of the city and fire off one of his rays of gold.

Arkk still didn’t know how the tower would handle getting hit by one of those.

Zullie…

Against his better judgment, he had not put a stop to Zullie’s investigation into the Lock and Key’s power. Even blind, now with Hale’s assistance, she was working around the clock. She claimed she wasn’t an avatar and certainly hadn’t demonstrated any abilities resembling that of Agnete or Tybalt. But the ideas she had for magic now…

Arkk teleported to the base of the tower, pausing its movements for just long enough to make his way to the nearest teleportation circle.

 

 

 

Shadow Forge

 

Shadow Forge

 

 

Agnete stood at the center of the Shadow Forge, frowning down into the swirling black mass that pooled within the crucible. She had always considered herself a creative person. During her downtime with the inquisitors, she often found herself left to her own devices. She liked to pass the time creating small sculptures, usually by turning sand to molten glass in her bare hands and then shaping the glass from there.

Since joining with Arkk, she had taken to spending time in the forge. At first, because it was a place where her natural, comfortable temperature went desired rather than shunned. Then she started to consider Arkk’s words regarding the source of her powers. The Burning Forge. A supposed god who had been shut out of this world.

A god of fire, manufacturing, and creativity.

She had joined with the blacksmiths, assisting as she learned the proper techniques of forging and manufacturing. Then she delved into her own projects. Ideas had sprung to her mind, often during dreams. Perhaps following the will of a dream was why none of her projects had yet turned out the way she had hoped. Nevertheless, she had ideas.

Those ideas only blossomed further when Arkk brought her to the Unilluminable Chamber in the Underworld. Just seeing the Shadow Forge was like a burst of inspiration. A thousand different ideas came to mind.

And yet, she found herself at a loss.

In the heart of the Unilluminable Chamber, Perr’ok dipped a ladle into the central crucible. The head blacksmith of Fortress Al-Mir had broad shoulders and hands calloused from years of crafting, but his hands moved with a practiced finesse as he carried the ladle exactly as Agnete had directed him.

She couldn’t help. She couldn’t even get close.

All the ideas in her mind and she couldn’t even get close. The liquid-like shadow did not enjoy the company of heat or light. The Unilluminable Chamber kept it safe from the latter but not the former. If she approached or even lost a little control, the shadow would begin to evaporate, ruining the product.

It was frustrating to watch Perr’ok pour the shadow into the mold they had found within the forge. Could she do it better? Perhaps not. Perr’ok was skilled. He didn’t spill a single drop. But she wouldn’t get the chance to test it for herself.

Perr’ok stepped back and grasped a lever on the wall. With a look to Agnete—she offered him a nod—he pulled the lever down.

The mechanism of the Shadow Forge activated. With a few ratcheting clicks, a hammer slammed down onto the mold. Each pull of the lever brought the thick slab of metal down with astounding force.

The process began. The rhythmic clanging of the hammer, interrupted occasionally to add liquid shadow to the mold, echoed through the chamber like a steady heartbeat. Agnete couldn’t quite comprehend how there were normal shadows in the Unilluminable Room and yet, as the mechanism continued its operation, the shadows of the room drew around the mold. The melding of the tangible and the intangible was a swirling vortex of darkness. Sparks of shadowfire cascaded down around the hammer as the process neared its conclusion.

With a final slam of the hammer, the magic of the room stilled.

Perr’ok reached in. He cracked apart the two halves of the mold. It was a blade. Long and curved, like that of a wheat scythe’s head. Although it bore a resemblance to farm equipment, it was a potent weapon.

He brought it over to Agnete, holding it out in both hands for inspection.

It wasn’t metal. It didn’t gleam with that metallic shine nor did it hold ridges as a more matte alloy might. It was a mass of shadow and material, rippling with an ever-shifting darkness. A darkness that would hold even out of this room and in the light of the sun. Now that it had completed the forging process, Agnete could safely hold it as long as she didn’t turn the heat up too much.

Lips pressed together, she offered a nod. “This would be the best we’ve produced. I can tell just by the trail it leaves behind as it moves.”

Perr’ok split his lips into a wide grin. “Gives new meaning to the term ‘blacksmith’, don’t it?”

Agnete gave him a look. Once upon a time, a purifier like her giving anyone a glare would have sent them running. Even if they didn’t know what she was, glowing eyes meant something was wrong with the one doing the glaring. Perr’ok, whether used to her in specific or used to people with glowing eyes in general, just laughed.

Must be losing my touch, Agnete thought, unable to stop a thin smile from touching her lips.

It was… nice. Compared to her time with the inquisitors, she had… people she could count on. A strange feeling, but not an unwelcome one.

“You wanna see if we can’t get this attached to that staff we made?” he asked.

Perr’ok carried the scythe head over to another station within the Shadow Forge, leaving a trail as he moved that was somehow darker than the rest of the Unilluminable Chamber. Agnete fetched a fairly simple wooden staff, long and narrow with brass caps on either end for a little weight. It could have worked as a simple quarterstaff. But one end held a twisted bit of shadowy material that they had forged earlier.

Holding it steady for him over the second station, Agnete waited while Perr’ok’s hands moved with a seasoned precision. The station came alive, this time with a flexible head that followed Perr’ok’s movements. Thin bolts slid through thin air, which the machine affixed with light whirring noises. In short order, the scythe head curved off the end of the staff like a proper scythe.

Except it didn’t actually touch the head. The shadowy blade hovered just a finger’s width away from the intricately twisted bit of shadowy material.

A strange mechanism. It would nonetheless assist with its usage.

Perr’ok handed over the scythe for Agnete to inspect. Satisfied with its quality, she carried it up and out of the Unilluminable Chamber.

She had to blink her eyes several times as she reemerged into the Underworld’s orange sunlight. It was almost blinding, although it was a far dimmer light compared to the real world’s sun.

In comparison, the blade of the scythe was like a trail of the night, slicing through the very world. The trail it left in its wake was a wound in the very air that took a second to heal.

Wonderous. Most wonderous. Poor Lady Shadows must be pleased to see her techniques once again put to use.

The Protector—one of them—stood out in the open just beyond the ruined and crumbling building that had once been a temple or church. The tall, carapace-covered being turned its head slowly, watching Agnete’s approach with its wide eyes. When she stopped a short distance away, it clasped one pair of its hands together while lowering the other pair to the ground, prostrating itself in front of her.

That made her uncomfortable. Agnete was used to people cowering away from her, looking at her with fear or hatred, or simply fleeing. Never showing such reverence. Even if it was reverence toward the scythe and not her, she couldn’t quite shake the sensation.

Shaking her head, deciding to ignore the Protector for the time being, she focused on the tall straw-stuffed dummies they had set up. A few were in pieces but one was still whole. It had a bit of armor equipped—worn and with a few holes in it from having seen combat.

Agnete stepped one foot forward, bringing the scythe around in a long, sweeping arc that trailed darkness behind its head. With a twist of her grip and a lever action between her arms, she pulled the scythe straight through the stuffed dummy.

The metal armor clanged to the ground in two pieces, the bound straw exploded outward, and the wooden stick holding it all up fell out from the middle.

Whipping it around again, she planted the bottom end in the dirt and stood with it at her side.

Perr’ok started clapping, unable to hold back his excitement at seeing their efforts work out. “The blade is incredibly dangerous,” he said with a wide grin. “I wish we had a more conventional weapon shape—anyone using these is going to have to do a lot of training—but what we’ve got is what we’ve got.”

“The blade is still stable,” Agnete said, looking at the swirling mass. “If we can keep up with this quality, we might be able to produce enough to make it worth training a few of the squads.”

“I’ll get a few of the blacksmith boys learning how to do it now that I’ve got it down. We’ll make plenty to use.”

Agnete pressed her lips together. Perhaps it was for the best that she couldn’t use the Shadow Forge for her projects. Production time was needed for the war.

But after, perhaps Perr’ok might be willing to hear out a few of her ideas.


“Read it back to me once again.”

Zullie sat in complete and total darkness. A darkness of her own making. No matter the spell she used, no matter the alchemical concoction, she couldn’t see the world around her. Her eyes were completely gone. Even Hale, with her strange prowess over the Flesh Weaving spell, could not regrow Zullie’s eyes.

So she sat with Gretchen, now returned from the temple expedition in the Underworld. While Zullie still knew how to write, she had trouble keeping lines of text separated while writing. Unwilling to let a little blindness keep her from publishing results, she had been dictating to Gretchen.

She had such results to publish now.

“Gretchen?” Zullie asked. “Are you there?”

“I am,” came the soft response.

Zullie turned her head to where she thought the sound had come from. She had heard rumors that those without eyes would develop enhanced hearing or even sixth senses for certain things. Thus far, Zullie had not been blessed with such changes. She had plans and spell possibilities for enhanced hearing churning in the back of her mind with everything else, but working on such a mundane problem just felt… unimportant.

“Why are you not reading what I wrote? You are literate, are you not?” Good help was hard to find. More so now that she couldn’t see to confirm that others were carrying out the tasks she assigned.

“I am. I just… Are you certain you are feeling well? Do you need another week of rest, perhaps?”

Zullie leaned back with a scowl. She folded her arms over her chest, drumming her fingers against the crook of her elbow. In the past, she would have narrowed her eyes—a flash of unease coursed through her at the thought. She tried not to think about her eyes. There was this… uncomfortable emptiness there. Like she could still feel her face around her eyes but there was no pressure against her facial muscles and skin. Just a vacancy.

Shaking her head, suppressing a shudder, she affixed her scowl firmly on her face. Rather, in the past, she wouldn’t have been in this position in the first place. This was what relying on others got her.

“Read it back.”

“It just… I admit I may not know as much as you do with regard to spell creation, but I did attend the Cliff Academy for three years. I even sat under some of your lectures. But this does not make sense. It’s such a far cry from the pristine work I’m used to from you that—”

“Stop,” Zullie said, holding up a hand. “You are dismissed.”

“I’m just worried—”

“I said you are dismissed, Gretchen. Leave the dictated transcription—if you even completed that simple task. Do not return. I don’t need an assistant who cannot follow simple directions.”

A long moment of silence followed before Zullie heard the scraping of a chair against the stone floor, a rustling of clothing, and the door to the library swinging open and closed. Letting out a long sigh, Zullie stood and shuffled her way across the library. She kept her feet on the ground, sliding one forward and then the other, all while keeping her hands out in front of her. Reaching the desk, she felt across the top, only to bump the back of her hand against an inkwell.

“Damn it all,” she hissed, feeling the liquid run across the surface of the desk. Gretchen must have left it uncapped.

Now it was all over the desk. If Gretchen had written down Zullie’s notes, they were surely ruined now. Not that it would have mattered. Zullie’s normal spell creation methodology involved writing down everything that popped into her mind so that she could review, add, and remove parts as she needed. Having everything laid out in front of her ensured that she wouldn’t miss something.

Trying to replicate that method with Gretchen was obviously a failure.

She needed a way to review her notes without being questioned over every little thing…

Could undead read and write?

“What is this supposed to do?”

Zullie yelped at the unexpected voice in the room with her. She whirled around to where she thought the voice had come from. One hand clamped against her chest where her heart had started hammering. Her other hand went to the wand she kept in the folds of her robes. Before she could actually grasp the wand, her mind registered a hint of recognition.

“Hale?” she asked. “You’re here?”

“I’ve been here the whole time.”

Letting out a long sigh, Zullie kept patting at her chest. She hadn’t always been this easy to startle. The quiet girl, practically an ever-present fixture of the library, would never have surprised her before. Zullie would have seen her in the corner, filed that away, and gone about her duties. Now…

Zullie ran a hand down her face, taking care to avoid touching near her eyes even as she let out a relieved and exasperated sigh.

“Don’t startle me like that,” she said, feeling a little weak in the knees. Not knowing where the chair was, she forced herself to keep standing.

“I saved your notes,” Hale said. She must have waved them like a fan. Zullie felt the slight breeze from the motion against her face. “I don’t understand them either. What is the Key of Forbidden Knowledge?”

Zullie pressed her lips together. Hale might not be half as educated as Gretchen. Zullie might have to dictate a little more simply or comprehensively, but Hale was probably less likely to stubbornly refuse to respond out of misplaced concerns for her mental wellness.

Fumbling around, Zullie found the chair and quickly took a seat. She didn’t like standing much these days. Even though her sense of balance was still working, she still felt just a little unsteady on her feet.

“It isn’t a literal key, if that is confusing you,” Zullie said as she smoothed down the front of her robes. More of a nervous tick to still her beating heart than because they were wrinkled—she wouldn’t be able to tell if they were messy. “It is a metaphor for a concept I think I’ve come to understand. The Key of Forbidden Knowledge is required to access knowledge that… well, is forbidden.

“You see, I have had an epiphany. Xel’atriss, Lock and Key, is said to be the god of boundaries, barriers, and separation, among a few other minor domains. That’s all well and good until you understand the breadth of her domain over boundaries. Both Arkk and I experienced it. The Lock and Key gave us information by manipulating the boundary between ignorance and knowledge. We mere mortals don’t normally think of something like that as having a boundary and yet I felt it. My knowledge shifted.

“If knowledge and ignorance is just one boundary that the Lock and Key can manipulate, what else might there be?” Zullie said, leaning forward as she got into her explanation. She had hardly seen Arkk—she wasn’t sure if he was upset with her, disappointed with her, or simply too busy with other matters—and discussing such a thing with anyone else in the fortress was… unappealing. “Is there a boundary between Spring and Summer? Inside and outside is a fairly obvious boundary. What about the boundary between youth and age? Between chaos and order? Between life and death?”

“Question,” Hale said. “What does it mean to manipulate the boundary between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’? So if Xel’atriss decides to shift that boundary, what happens?”

“Maybe a hole in the world opens up that allows us to step from here to outside instantly. Like the portal room. Maybe all of reality collapses in on itself. I haven’t the slightest idea!” Zullie said with a laugh. “And who knows what other barriers a god can perceive that our mortal minds can’t begin to comprehend. The Key of Forbidden Knowledge will let us understand so much more.”

“Are you trying to get your mind burnt out along with your eyes?”

Zullie’s mouth clicked shut. “No?”

“It sure sounds like you are. Maybe try something a little smaller?”

Zullie propped an elbow up against the desk, tapping her fingers against the side of her chin. “I suppose you’re full of ideas, aren’t you? You didn’t see what I saw. You don’t know what I know—”

“Maybe not, but of the two of us, I’m the only one who can see how ridiculous you look.”

The tapping stopped as Zullie dropped her hand flat against the table. The elation at speaking her mind quickly died off. Of course, talking with others was, as ever, an exercise in tedium and frustration.

“Instead of some boundary between ignorance and all knowledge that you shouldn’t know, start with something we mere mortals can think of. Like the boundary between seeing and unseeing. Then you could look over your own notes, you’d have a foundation you could build on, and you’d be able to see yourself. The Key of Unseen Knowledge instead of Forbidden Knowledge.”

“Why do I need to see myself?” Zullie asked. She wasn’t sure she liked that idea. It was bad enough thinking about her loose eye sockets.

“Well, you’re—”

Hale stopped speaking as Arkk popped into the room. Zullie wasn’t exactly sure how she knew Arkk was there. Perhaps it was the way air just moved out of the way to make room for him. Perhaps it was those glowing red eyes that, even blind, she could feel turning her way.

“Gretchen said that you’re—” Arkk abruptly stopped. There was a brief beat where some anxiety started to well within Zullie, only for her to jerk back when he burst out laughing.

“What? What’s funny?”

“You’re… You’re covered in ink.”

 

 

 

The Walking Fortress Aftermath

 

The Walking Fortress Aftermath

 

 

“Damn snakes,” Katja said, shaking her head.

The meeting with the Abbey of the Light had been long and trying. As she had consolidated most of the military power inside Cliff City under her banner, they knew that she had the technical capability to throw them out of the city. They also knew that she wouldn’t do that. If she did, another riot might break out in the city, this time with her as its target of ire. The Abbey was too popular.

She needed a way to turn them into villains. Put them against the court of public opinion and have them found guilty. But they were too careful. They were taking special measures against anything that might be seen as negative. For as benevolent as Katja was trying to be, supported in her rule through Arkk’s near-endless resources of both food and gold, some people of the city still fell through the cracks. The Abbey had a preternatural sense for finding and helping those people, giving them far too much goodwill to do anything about.

The general populace didn’t know of the Abbey’s drive to ally with Evestani. The Duke had announced it, not the Pontiff. They came away from that ordeal smelling like roses.

And they hadn’t spoken out against her. Both privately, at these meetings, and publicly, they even seemed to support Katja. It was more likely that they knew just how unpopular the Duke had been in his final days and showing any support for him would have been something she might have been able to use against them.

Just as Katja was plotting against them, she knew they were plotting against her. Behind their smiles and offers of cooperation was a dagger poised to strike at her back the moment they saw an opportunity.

And that opportunity was on its way.

Prince Cedric. Katja had honestly never heard of the man prior to taking over the Duchy. Life as a slave and then as a bandit out on the western edge of the kingdom didn’t make an education in the goings on of the eastern side of the kingdom all that important. But her manor had a large library of historical texts, collected by the Duke—or his predecessors and servants, since Katja didn’t see him doing all that much historical reading in his spare time.

That let her look at some records of his current domain, Vaales. There had been a minor uprising. Rebels against the King. Prince Cedric had been sent in.

The texts had to exaggerate. The way it was written, it was like Prince Cedric had slaughtered everyone in the entire region and resettled it from scratch with loyalists. According to a quote from the Prince, ‘All are complicit. There are no innocents. The rebels are obvious in their guilt but the so-called innocent allowed the rebels to form and failed to put down the treasonous actors. If nothing else, they are guilty of wasting my time.’

And he was coming here.

This was not how they had planned. Katja and Arkk wished for the Duke to be seen as incompetent and a traitor, someone unable to keep the population in line while also courting favors with the invaders. Katja was to be the populist, the one all the people would support. She had sent letters to the King, stating her intent to align with his rule. All she needed was a writ of regency.

Although King Abe had returned letters with cordial words on the paper, his actions in sending his son were… not in line with his statements.

“What to do… What to do?”

If Prince Cedric were to be killed in her lands, she could easily imagine King Abe deciding to dispense with whatever air of pleasantry he had and launch a full assault. Then again, if he were killed by the Evestani, perhaps…

That would cement the Kingdom against Evestani without a doubt. The Abbey of the Light was pushing for an alliance even with her in charge, trying to focus both nations against Arkk in the fear that he was going to destroy the world. She had no doubt that the Abbey was pushing on the King for the same. Yet the King would never overlook their hated neighbors killing his son.

Arkk would like that. More importantly, Katja would very much like to not come face-to-face with Prince Cedric.

But how? She was probably going to have to frame Evestani. Maybe they would kill him on their own if he ventured too close to their holdings. Katja wasn’t the type to leave luck to its own devices. She made her own fate.

It needed to be convincing. Witnesses needed to see the Prince die at the hands of individuals who could not be doubted. She…

“Lady Katja.” Horrik entered the room, ducking slightly to pass through the door. “Sorry to disturb you. We found another.”

Taking a short breath, Katja nodded her head. She stood from the round table—in an attempt to distance her appearance from that of the Duke, she had been neglecting to use his throne room for most meetings. She kept her hair wildly styled and wore attire that left her arms bare, showing off her striped tattoos. No golden rings adorned her fingers. It was important, at least for now, to be a regent for the people, of the people.

She followed Horrik through the manor, heading down into the dungeons. Most of the cells were empty. Troublemakers were held in the garrison, apprehended by the local guard. Her private cells weren’t for anyone so mundane.

At the end of the corridor, with two of her loyal bandits—former bandits—standing guard outside, she found a cell holding one young boy. Fifteen years old at the most. He had brown hair and a pudgy face with familiar features.

Katja had seen that face all over the manor. The Duke apparently loved to look at his own face.

“Do you know why you are here?” Katja asked, stepping inside the cell. Horrik followed behind her. The other two remained outside.

The boy looked at her, eyes widening as his eyes roamed over her arms. Katja well knew that most of the city’s population likely didn’t know what she looked like as far as her face was concerned. Knowledge of the tattoos she bore had become commonplace. So it wasn’t surprising when he narrowed his eyes and spat out, “My father, I presume.”

Katja dipped her head. The Duke had been unwed and had no official children. Unofficial, on the other hand, was another matter entirely. Buried deep in the records room, someone had taken an accounting of mistresses and potential heirs. Many were dead. Many died under suspicious circumstances just before reaching the age of majority. Only one before this boy had been found and… well… the likelihood of that boy being the Duke’s child had drastically gone down.

This boy, aside from being far thinner below his pudgy jowls, was the spitting image of the late Duke.

Reaching into her pocket, Katja withdrew a small box. Removing its lid, she held it out toward the boy.

A brilliant, gold ring encrusted with several gemstones which bore the ducal signet.

“Place this on your finger.”

“Uh. No, thank you.”

Katja put on a grin, leaning forward to put her eyes on his level. “I shall not mince words. Do it or we will kill you. Painfully.”

The boy bit his lip, staring at her. She cocked an eyebrow in turn.

“Do you think I jest?”

“They said you were nice. Kind. Better than my father.”

“No one is one-note. I choose to be kind. I choose to be cruel. Put the ring on and you may see a nicer side of me.”

The boy gnawed at his lip a little more before stretching his hand forward. He took the ring from the box gingerly, as if it were a snake about to bite. An accurate assessment. Nevertheless, he slipped the ring onto his finger.

Nothing happened.

Katja grinned. “Less crispy than the last one,” she said as an aside to Horrik.

“Aye.”

“What—”

“It is an enchanted ring,” Katja said, interrupting the boy’s question. “Only one of Duke Levi Woldair’s blood can don it without consequence. Congratulations, you truly are his bastard.”

He scowled.

“What’s your name, boy?”

“Roland.”

“Well, Roland. Although you seemed to know the truth of your parentage beforehand, now that it has been confirmed, there is a bit of an unfortunate conundrum here. You see, the first thing any competent usurper does upon usurping a position is eliminate anyone else who might have a better claim to the position. For you and me, that means heirs.”

The boy, for his age, was quick in the head. He understood her meaning immediately. His eyes widened again and he backed up against the wall of the dungeon. “I… I don’t want to be a duke.”

Katja put on a smile. “Unfortunately, that doesn’t revoke your claim to the throne. Even if you venture out to the hills and live out your life as a hermit, any children you have will be in line, as will any children they have. It gets messy. Ah, ah. Don’t panic just yet. You see, I wouldn’t be telling you this if I intended to kill you immediately. It’s a waste of breath. I would just kill you and be done with it.

“No. Rather than kill you, I think I could find a few uses for you. For one, there is a vault in this manor that can only be opened by one wearing that enchanted ring.”

“And then you kill me.”

“Not necessarily. I said a few uses for you. I’m trying to legitimize my rule as much as possible, as quickly as possible. You represent a few possible paths to legitimacy.”

Katja doubted that Prince Cedric would care much if she was married to an heir or if she adopted one if even half the rumors of his personality were correct. It was nevertheless a possibility. One she was more than willing to explore. There was little that Katja wouldn’t do if it meant both gaining power and surviving with that power.

“So here is the deal, Roland. You open the vault for me and then we find ways to make you useful to me. You move in here, enjoy a status your position as a bastard would never have normally allowed. It might seem like something of a gilded cage, I’m sure, but at least the meals will be far better than that hovel the Duke shoved you into. And if you play your cards right, there might be plenty of other benefits to a positive relationship with me.”

Katja paused and then added, “Or we kill you right now. Trust me, you are hardly the only bastard our dear Duke had. One of them will be more than happy to take me up on my offer. So. What will it be?”

To his credit, the boy didn’t hesitate for long.


“Hey. Did you guys feel something?”

Milos opened his eyes, disturbed by the sudden voice. He hadn’t really been asleep. Milos was the sort of person who found it difficult to sleep in the wilderness at the best of times. Freezing cold, huddled up as close to the fire in the center of their thin tent, with a heavy cloak failing to stave off the chill, were far from the best of times. He wasn’t sure that he had slept properly since the Sultanate ordered his family to provide a soldier for their campaign.

The others slept easily. He had thought long marches through snow-covered terrain would wear him down to the point where he wouldn’t be able to stand the exhaustion. It never had. He slept just as fitfully as ever.

“Hey? Anyone—”

“For the love of the Golden Good, shut up Jovan,” Zayd snapped, eyes still closed as he tried to keep hold of his sleep. His voice, louder even than Jovan’s, caused stirring among the other members of the Golden Army Pathfinder unit.

The stirring didn’t amount to much. A few weeks ago, when the air had been even colder and the days even more exhausting just trying to keep alive, Milos wouldn’t have been surprised if a brawl had broken out over the lost sleep, thus making the idiots lose even more sleep. Assuming anyone would have worked up the energy for it, anyway. Although the nights were still freezing, the weather was warming to the point where daytime wasn’t so much of a struggle, so a little disturbing of their sleep wasn’t quite as big of a deal.

Milos would still prefer if they were back with the main army. The Pathfinders were scouts and watchers, leaving them out in the cold far in advance of everyone else who enjoyed the blessings of the Golden Order. They could remain warm at night even in the absence of any flame.

When Jovan didn’t speak again, everyone settled back down. Even Milos closed his eyes once more.

It wasn’t sleep. It was just resting his mind. Nevertheless, he settled into a comfortable stillness, taking solace in the heat of the fire against his face. He could almost imagine his mind shutting down enough to call what he was doing ‘sleep’.

Until he felt it.

It was faint. Just a slight strange sensation in the ground. Someone brushing against him in a crowded market would have been more of a shock. Yet someone brushing against him would have been expected to the point where he probably wouldn’t have noticed. Out here in this Gold-forsaken land, he expected the ground to stay put under his feet.

Yet, there it was again. A slight bump.

In an instant, whatever semblances of sleep he managed to grasp hold of escaped as a jolt of adrenaline struck his heart. The light weight in his eyelids vanished, leaving him staring at the fire with wide eyes.

Slowly, he looked up and away from the fire. Of the six men huddled around, only Jovan had his eyes open as well, wide and full of fear. Jovan looked to Milos, looking relieved that someone else was taking note.

It happened again. The flames in the middle of the tent, though small and dim as they needed another log thrown in, jolted to the side. A slight shudder ran through the thin wisps of smoke as they traveled up to the opening in the tall, pointed tent. One log, precariously propped against another, shuddered and fell, sending a small cloud of ash and embers up into the air before it all fell back into the fire pit.

“See?” Jovan hissed. He was trying to be quiet but was too panicked to succeed.

“I swear,” Zayd said, sitting up. “If you don’t—”

“He’s right,” Milos said. “Something is… There. Again. Did you feel it?”

Zayd, eyes open now, just glared. He waited, feeling and thinking, before shaking his head. “Even if it is something, it isn’t anything to worry about. Tarek and Kian are on watch. They’ll wake us if it is important. You two can join them out in the cold and leave us to our sleep if you’re that worried.”

Jovan, for as worried as he was, quickly settled down at the mention of venturing out of the tent. Kian and Tarek had special coins, magically made so that they would keep warm even in the coldest parts of winter. But there weren’t enough of those for everyone, so only those on watch got to hold them.

While Jovan might be unwilling to brave the cold, Milos wasn’t. It wasn’t like he was sleeping anyway. He stood, pulled his cloak a little tighter, and wrapped a scarf around his face. Pulling loose the tent’s flaps, he hurried out, trying to keep as little cold air from invading the warmth of their shelter as possible. No sense in irritating everyone else more than necessary.

He did hear Zayd scoff as he secured the flaps from the outside.

The cold immediately bit at the skin around his eyes. That only served to further his alertness, making the next shallow thump feel all the more intense.

Their unit was currently occupying one of the most forward positions that Evestani held. They weren’t a large group. Just a forward scouting unit that had been dispatched to keep an eye on things after some incident that got everyone in charge all riled up. And that was after the disaster of the falling rocks during Gleeful Burg’s occupation.

Milos had never been enthused with being forced into the army. Yet, up until that moment, he carried a sort of pride in his nation. Led by a living prophet to finally destroy their heretical neighbors? Milos hadn’t known too much about those who occupied Chernlock before joining the army but the stories he had heard since gave him enough of a drive to put his best foot forward in serving his country.

Now, their unstoppable advance had ground to a halt. It was… disappointing. How could an army blessed by the Golden Good have ended up like this?

“Who’s there?”

Milos froze as the pointed tip of a spear dropped in front of his face, barring his way through the thick forest. The spear remained steady only until the next thump—more vibrant than the previous ones—at which point, it fell by the wayside.

Tarek stepped out from behind the tree, shuddering as he let the spear drop to his shoulder. “Sorry about that. Jumpy. What in the fifteen hells is going on here?” he murmured, stepping up to Milos.

“No clue. Jovan woke everyone by freaking out over it. It felt stronger out here.”

He could still feel it, every few seconds another thump. It was enough to make him feel like the ground under his feet was going to give way. He could hear their horses in the distance, tied to a tree with heavy blankets on their backs, going wild with neighing and worrying.

“No,” Kian said, stepping up alongside Tarek. “It’s been getting stronger.”

“Some kind of monster?” Milos asked. “I hear these Light worshippers call on demons occasionally.”

“It better not be or we’re all dead men.”

“It sounds… large,” Tarek said. “I don’t think demons are very big.”

Kian shuffled, looking over at his partner with a frown. “Oh, you would know, would you?”

“I can read.”

“I’ll believe that when I—”

The ground underneath them rocked. Hard. All three men stumbled where they stood. Tarek’s spear fell from his fingers as he grasped hold of a tree for support. Milos mimed his actions with his own tree while poor Kian, standing a short distance from the nearest tree, stumbled hard enough to fall forward onto his hands.

They barely managed to recover before another heavy rumble threw them off the ground. A deep cracking of distant wood breaking and trees falling joined with the rumble in the ground. Shouts from the tent started up and, in a moment, the rest of the Pathfinder unit hurried out into the cold despite their earlier protests.

And not a moment too soon. The repeated quakes dislodged part of the tent. The linen, though treated with an alchemical concoction to avoid catching fire, couldn’t withstand falling directly onto an open flame.

Zayd, the commander of their group, tried to call for a report. Another quake interrupted him, this one strong enough to send everyone to the ground. The tree under Milos’ hand swayed back and forth far enough that he lost his balance and hit the ground. Jovan curled up, huddling in on himself just in time to avoid a broken branch from one of the trees landing right where he had been standing.

All attempts at talking were cut off as gusts of wind started blasting through the trees, each either preceded or followed by more of the quakes in the ground. The sheer noise of both the thumps and the wind forced Milos to cover his ears.

Even still, he heard the cry from one of his fellow Pathfinders.

“Good Gold!”

Milos stared up, unsure exactly what he was looking at. It was like his mind just couldn’t quite process what was going on. For a brief moment, he feared that something had happened to the sky again. Another slice cut out for that false moon to roll overhead.

But no. The night sky had changed. A column of darkness appeared between the tops of the trees, lit only by faint violet lights covering its surface.

The massive column moved. With steady, repeated hammerings in the forest around Milos, it steadily glided forward, passing overhead until he could see nothing but its underside. If he had emerged from his tent, absent all the thumping, and looked up, he might not have noticed a difference between the sky and this thing. At least not at first. Hundreds of tiny violet dots lined its underside, giving it the illusion of a night sky filled with stars. But they were all wrong. The lights were too orderly, too regular. They formed a grid-like pattern on the underside of this thing. And they illuminated too much of it, letting Milos see the maze-like pattern of shadowy material it was made from.

Something slammed into the forest a hundred paces away from Milos, forcing his eyes from the thing overhead. He could barely see it through the forest. A building-sized leg stretched up into the sky, bent back down, and then bent back up into the underside of the thing overhead. The gust of wind that followed the slam kicked up debris into his eyes, forcing him to cover his face and hunker down.

He could do nothing more than hope it would ignore him like he might ignore a single ant under his feet.

More thumping followed. More trees broke, more wind coursed through the forest. Slowly, the sound and the quakes faded.

When he finally opened his eyes and blinked the dust from his vision, he looked up to see just the circular peak of that monstrosity over the tops of the still-standing trees. Even that vanished toward the horizon with a few more repeated thumpings.

Without the wind and loud quakes, Milos could hear the others around him. He heard whimpering, swearing, prayers, and rambling mutters. It took him a long few moments to realize that his mouth was moving, though he couldn’t be sure if he was whimpering or praying. Milos managed to clamp his jaw but he couldn’t stop the trembling in his fingers.

Slowly, the rest of the Pathfinder team calmed down. Nobody spoke to one another, as if worried that proper conversation might draw that thing’s attention. They didn’t need to speak.

Milos could see the fear in their eyes. The uncertainty. The worry. None of them could do a thing about a walking mountain, or whatever that had been.

Yet they all knew one thing.

It was headed directly for the main Evestani army at the captured burg between the two mountains.

“We… We have to warn them…” Milos muttered.

 

 

 

The Trembling Earth

 

 

The Trembling Earth

 

 

They were on a time limit.

Arkk didn’t know exactly when, but this Prince Cedric would be here sooner or later. At that point, Arkk would lose Hawkwood’s help. Worse, he might possibly lose Hawkwood as an ally and, instead, gain an enemy.

Although Arkk had passed on the warning about Prince Cedric to Katja, he was very much hoping that the Prince would be too focused on the Duke’s usurper to concern himself with the goings on out in the middle of the Duchy. In case he wasn’t, they needed to move fast. Fighting off a war on two separate fronts wasn’t going to be pleasant.

That was the whole reason he had taken out the Duke in the first place.

“I still can’t believe that thing can move,” Ilya said, standing alongside him as the Walking Fortress took a step. One massive leg lifted from the ground, trailing small bits of dirt and stone in its wake.

It came back down. The brief instant of silence fell apart as a gust of wind blasted across the surface of the Cursed Forest. Ilya’s long, silver hair whipped up against Arkk’s face, forcing him to turn aside just as the leg hit the ground.

The ground rocked.

Arkk had felt several quakes in the past. Mostly after having contracted with Fortress Al-Mir in the form of enemy attacks—such as Evestani dropping boulders on him. But none could compare to this.

He was thrown clean off his feet. Ilya, by virtue of her elven grace, managed to remain standing. Even she faltered as the fortress slammed down its second leg. Before she could hit the dirt, Arkk teleported both of them down into Fortress Al-Mir.

The fortress still shook, though not as severely. Enough that he wouldn’t want to try running around but not so much that he couldn’t keep upright. A quick check through the fortress showed most people having stopped what they were doing to just weather out the repeated steps. Everyone, including refugees, had been warned, so there wasn’t any panic or alarm. There wasn’t much panic or alarm.

Peeking into the refugee section of the fortress did show a few huddling together with worry riddled across their faces. Mostly the elderly or the young.

“I’m going to adjust its pathing to swing wide around Stone Hearth Burg,” Arkk said.

“Good,” Ilya said with a short sigh. “I was going to say… Not sure you needed all those rituals and trebuchets you put in that thing. If it walks too close to a burg, it’ll shake the buildings to the ground.”

Before winter, Arkk would have agreed. As it was, he fully expected some gold magic to suffuse throughout any target he neared which would render those stomps completely inert. Assuming the avatar of the Golden Order couldn’t just blast it down with one of those rays. That was the biggest worry he had.

“Our goal shouldn’t be to destroy places without regard. I know what I did in Gleeful, but… Targeted strikes which leave most of a burg intact while routing Evestani are better ways of going about things.”

It was something to keep in mind, however. An extra weapon that he hadn’t counted on. If they encountered an army out in the open that, for whatever reason, hadn’t run away upon spotting the approaching tower, the tremors alone would keep the soldiers from being able to move. At that point, they would be at Arkk’s mercy.

“Come. We’ll head to Stone Hearth Burg and let Hawkwood and Richter know that they will have to move further north to meet with the tower.”

Ilya accepted, taking his hand into hers, but frowned. “Probably should wait until it stops moving.”

She… had a point.

Still, he wanted to visit the burg sooner rather than later.

He teleported both of them to the end of the far tunnel leading away from the Cursed Forest. The exit had once been a small hatch, covered in dirt and brush to keep it hidden. Now, he had built a proper structure. Getting a dozen people out by ladder alone was hard enough. Trying to force a few hundred people to enter and exit by ladder was a degree harder.

Steep stairs led up to a hastily constructed hut on the outskirts of Stone Hearth Burg. It was an unassuming building, constructed with worn scrap wood from one of the buildings destroyed in the orcs’ initial raid of Langleey village. That gave it a look like it had been around for a while. Some old farmer’s shed. Nothing notable. It probably didn’t have any valuables. Only the most desperate would look twice at it and even they wouldn’t discover that the floor slid aside.

Arkk and Ilya stepped out, both grimacing at the chill air. It wasn’t dead-of-winter cold. The general trend of the weather was upward. It was still a far cry from the heat of summer or even the warmth of Fortress Al-Mir.

At least the ground wasn’t covered in snow. The trek to Stone Hearth Burg wasn’t far but trudging through snow wasn’t fun.

Walking Fortress Al-Lavik stood tall in the distance, visible clearly across the rocky quarry that extended out from Stone Hearth Burg. It was a dark, shadowy blight against the otherwise bright blue sky. Arkk wasn’t quite sure what had caused that. When he first built the tower, it looked like Fortress Al-Mir, filled with violet glowstones and maze-like patterns everywhere. Over time, the stone had faded and blackened, turning similar to the shadowy blocks that made up the Walking Fortress Istanur in the Underworld.

According to Vezta, it was the [HEART]. There were many such artifacts strewn throughout the various planes. Al-Mir’s was granted to Vezta’s former master by Xel’atriss. If it wasn’t faulty as a result of the Calamity, they could have split it to form a Walking Fortress that would have matched Al-Mir’s aesthetics. The one inside the tower had been gifted to someone by the Cloak of Shadows. Thus, it rewrote its construction materials to match its patron deity.

It wasn’t dangerous. If the [HEART] had rejected him, he would have known it early on.

“You can feel it even out here,” Ilya said.

She was right. It was far fainter. If one wasn’t paying attention, they probably wouldn’t notice. Inside the burg, things could be different. The slight tremors would shake the buildings and items on shelves, and probably disturb any animals. The stables down in Fortress Al-Mir were going a little crazy. All the horses were in a wild panic.

Except for the skeletal horse. It just sat still, awaiting orders.

“We just have to make sure people know that it is here to help, not to attack.”

In truth, Arkk expected little panic inside Stone Hearth Burg. Or Smilesville Burg and Langleey Village, for that matter. When he realized that the tower, even inside the Cursed Forest, was visible from all the nearby settlements, he sent Ilya around to make sure that the people in charge knew nothing was amiss. Of course, being told of a distant construction project and seeing—and feeling—that construction project stomp toward your town was another matter entirely.

With White Company keeping most of their men around Stone Hearth Burg, recovering and recuperating from their part in the war, he hoped the burg felt relatively safe.

The vibrations only grew more intense. As Arkk neared Stone Hearth Burg’s main gate, he could feel each step of the great tower. So could everyone else.

He could hear the alarm of the local abbey’s bells sounding, ringing relentlessly. Guards stood on the burg walls and the main gates were closed.

White Company, as a whole, was arranged in a defensive formation around the outside of Stone Hearth’s walls. Some ushered people toward the burg but most just stood in formation. Even though most of them knew, he could still see nervousness on many of their faces.

“So much for not panicking,” Arkk grumbled.

Thankfully, he wasn’t denied entrance. White Company ushered him along with a few others to the burg walls where he had to wait for a long few minutes, standing in line to be admitted through a smaller side gate. As was typical of a burg like Stone Hearth, when the alarm bells rang, everyone who lived outside the walls was to make their way inside. If bands of raiders or even just a small horde of goblins showed up, the best place to stay safe was behind the guards and their walls.

“Oh Light,” an older woman in line murmured as one of the heavier thumps resounded across the land. She clasped her hands together, turning toward the sun—and, inadvertently, the tower—in prayer. Only for the words of her prayer to get caught in her throat as she saw the dark shadow stretching out from the Cursed Forest.

An older man placed an arm around her shoulders, turning her back toward the burg while lightly rubbing her back. “It’ll be fine, dear,” he mumbled. Despite his words and comforting actions, he clenched and unclenched his other hand repeatedly, a nervous action. “As long as those rowdy hens don’t tear down the coop in their panic.”

“It isn’t heading toward us,” Ilya said. She spoke softly and with a pained look on her face.

“That’s true,” Arkk added. Maybe quelling the fears of one couple wouldn’t mean much in the long run. It was still obviously a bother to Ilya and that did mean something. “We were further out when it started moving. You can see that it’s headed north of here.”

The old man offered a wan, humorless smile. “Mags hasn’t been well since that tower appeared in the Cursed Forest,” he said. He traced a light pattern on the woman’s back. “No. She hasn’t been well since the sky…”

Arkk grimaced, especially when Ilya shot him a glaring look. He had almost forgotten about that. It helped that he hadn’t actually seen it.

“I’m sure it’s nothing to worry over. Nothing bad has happened yet, has it?”

“War. A moving tower. The ground quaking. The chickens losing all their feathers in worry while it’s still winter…”

“Ah… Well…” Arkk wasn’t sure what more to say. He shot a look to Ilya but the elf just gave a light shake of her head. It did seem like they weren’t helping at all, so best to remain silent.

By the time Arkk made it into the burg, the rhythmic steps of the fortress felt like he was standing on a wooden board with someone jumping on the other end. Still nothing too intense but definitely notable.

With a mental directive, he ordered the tower just a little further north than it was, hoping that the intensity of the thumps didn’t increase much more. And maybe help quell the fears of that old couple and their chickens.

The garrison was caught in a whirlwind of activity. Guards hurried this way and that, gearing up and readying arms. Some directed the villagers who had been outside the walls to safe places. Others spent time calming—or trying to calm—a crowd of worried people. It was all the panic that Arkk had hoped to avoid by having Richter and Hawkwood inside the village. That was the whole reason they were here instead of inside the tower.

The course they had plotted through the Duchy to Elmshadow carefully navigated around most large villages and burgs. Plenty had been destroyed or abandoned thanks to Evestani’s push to Gleeful. Those that remained might get spooked when they saw the tower on the horizon, even if it wasn’t headed directly toward them. Stone Hearth Burg, on account of its proximity to the Cursed Forest, would likely be the burg who felt the thumping the most of anyone they passed. And that was after his adjustments to its pathing further north.

He had been planning on sending out scouts in advance to assure the villages that the tower wasn’t coming to stomp on them. But if all his efforts to avoid panic here still wound up like this

Arkk had become something of a well-known figure in Stone Hearth Burg. As such, it didn’t take long to find someone who knew him and could admit him to the garrison.

It turned out, the panic was only on the outside.

There was tension in the waiting soldiers. Every thump of the tower’s slow yet steady march made everyone jump. They weren’t running ragged, as if preparing for a war that wasn’t coming.

“Arkk!”

Hawkwood’s voice carried well over the hushed nervousness in the surrounding whispers. He stood from a table he shared with his adjutant, Neil, Richter, and the head of Stone Hearth’s garrison, a stout young man who went by the name of Harrison.

“What’s all the commotion about?” Arkk asked, looking from Hawkwood to Harrison. “I thought everyone understood the plan?”

“Oh, we understand it,” Hawkwood said, gesturing around the main room of the garrison.

“Keeping a few thousand people from panic is easier said than done,” Harrison said. “So make a show. Put up the guards. Rings the bells. Let people know that we’re taking the suddenly moving tower seriously and, when it passes, everyone will be all the happier for it.”

Arkk wasn’t so sure about that. The old couple who had been waiting for admittance into the burg along with Arkk and Ilya would have probably been happier out trying to keep their chickens calm. Despite that, he could see the logic in it. Make it seem like they knew what was going on and had a defense plan, even if they had nothing of the sort, and people would have a little more trust in the ones in charge of them.

“How soon are we ready to move?” Richter asked, eager. “Not to say that your hospitality hasn’t been adequate, Harrison, just that all my men are ready to evict these godless scum from our lands.”

That got a few cheers from around the garrison. Most from locals rather than Richter’s deserters or White Company. Arkk had a feeling that a few tales had been passed around while Stone Hearth Burg had been playing host to their guests. Maybe a few plots and plans of what the future might bring. Hopefully, nobody had been waxing lyrical about the capabilities or weaknesses of the Walking Fortress.

“There has been a slight change in plans,” Arkk said. He quickly continued to avoid any complaints. “The Al-Lavik will not be approaching the burg as close as we thought. It will instead be trudging through the forest to the north. We’ll have to march up there to meet it.”

“Oh. Well, I suppose the men will be good for a short march if it means not walking all the way to Elmshadow.”

Arkk nodded, grateful for the agreement. “Now that it is moving, I realized that its walking alone is a bit too destructive to bring close to a burg. I’ll shake down the buildings otherwise.”

There was a brief moment of silence as those present processed that fact. Arkk was uncomfortably aware of just how many people were listening in on this impromptu meeting. All the hum of conversation from the garrison guards died out as well.

“Thank you for your consideration,” Harrison said.

“Of course,” Ilya said, sounding mildly offended. “We’re not here to… hurt people. We’re just trying to help.”

“Well,” Richter said with a sly chuckle. “Help our people. Evestani now…” He trailed off to another round of chuckles throughout the room. “But, if we’ve got a longer march than we thought, perhaps it is best if we get the troops moving.” He looked over to Hawkwood as he spoke.

The commander of White Company nodded his head. “Very well. Arkk,” he said, turning fully to Arkk. “Until the Prince has us recalled, we’ll lend you White Company’s blade. I hope we can do some good in the short time we have.”

“As do I,” Arkk said, clasping his hand with Hawkwood’s. “As do I.”

 

 

 

Weapons Testing

 

Weapons Testing

 

 

“Brace. Three. Two. On—”

The floor of the Walking Fortress Al-Lavik shook as a boulder slammed into its side. The slight rocking made Arkk take a step to the side. Beyond that, he barely felt anything. Closing his eyes, he focused on the tower, examining it through the link to its [HEART].

Some of the reinforced stone bricks had taken a slight beating. He could see where the boulder had impacted it. Conjured dirt and stone from the boulder scraped off against the wall, leaving an ugly scar on its side without causing significant structural harm. By the time the boulder fell the rest of the way to the ground, sending up a small column of dirt and dust, Arkk decided that there was no appreciable damage.

As expected. This wasn’t the first boulder he had launched at the Walking Fortress. Just the first he had launched while it was occupied.

“Test c-complete,” Luthor said, almost avoiding his stutter entirely. The chameleon had been rather nervous about meeting with Savren—a sentiment Arkk hadn’t exactly felt different about—but the sessions with the mind mage seemed to have paid off. Given Savren’s extensive research into his own speech issue, it wasn’t a surprise that he could help others. “No damage.”

“That’s… terrifying,” Hawkwood said, gripping the railing that overlooked Al-Lavik’s scrying chamber.

There were two pits on either side of a raised central platform. A large table had been set up. Thanks to John the Carpenter’s efforts, little wooden pegs of varying colors could fit into little holes in the table, allowing Arkk to easily set up a map and pin down important locations. The scrying team, occupying the two pits, would ideally spot points of interest and inform whoever was in charge of the map.

Now that Arkk had the Protector among his ranks, he wasn’t sure that it was necessary to bring the scrying team along with the tower. One Protector could sit back at Fortress Al-Mir while the other was here, either informing those in charge of the map or manipulating it on its own. A slight delay causing reactions to slow too much, communication issues, or someone managing to interfere with the Protector’s linked minds were all potential problems. Arkk hadn’t quite decided whether or not to keep the pits occupied.

For now, they were.

“Everything held up well in the previous tests,” Arkk said, smiling. There was a lot of uncertainty still but Al-Lavik—named after one of the few ancient phrases Vezta could remember which translated to roughly ‘Of the Stars’—was not really a part of that. It felt like everything Vezta had advertised. A device of ultimate offense. “I wouldn’t be inside here if I thought it was a danger. I just wanted to see what it felt like for the tower to get hit.” He paused, then added, “It’s also getting the bombardment team some practice.”

Two levels below, Morvin headed the small squad of spellcasters. Two humans, an orc, and an elf made up the primary bombardment team. The best spellcasters Arkk had available. Not wanting to deplete the glowstones on simple tests, they were using their own magic to conjure the boulders. That was good practice on its own, as was getting used to the ritual and its targeting mechanics.

The large ritual chamber had space for six of the massive boulder-drop ritual circles. Only two had the ritual inscribed on them. Three were blank, awaiting components from the smithy. The last wasn’t a boulder-drop ritual, but rather a newly forged ritual circle whose design had come from the Duchy’s siege magic records. With Katja effectively in charge, Arkk hadn’t run into any trouble digging through the archives for less-publicized magics.

The other three slots would go toward other siege magics. He might even swap one of the two boulder-drop slots for a unique spell. Unfortunately, the Duchy’s siege magics weren’t quite as advanced as Evestani’s. They lacked the modular targeting component, thus requiring them to undergo a bit of reverse engineering to break them down and build them back up. Savren was working on that task.

“It isn’t terrifying,” Richter Porter said, gripping the railing much as Hawkwood was. The captain of the deserters looked more excited, contrasting with Hawkwood’s wariness. “It’s brilliant! Military doctrine states that a counter-siege ritual must be erected as soon as possible anytime a capable company comes to a halt. Non-magically capable companies are too spread out to make for a less appealing target. But all that takes time and severely harms the ability to begin launching our siege magic.

“If the building can take the punishment, spellcasters can begin bombardment as soon as a target comes within range. Whether that be an opposing army or a city.”

“Yes,” Hawkwood said, staring down into the pit where Luthor held his hands above a crystal ball. “Terrifying for anyone opposing.”

“That’s rather the point,” Olatt’an said. The older orc stood at the far end of the room, peering out the large windows—which were reinforced with the same magic that kept the stone of the structure from harm. “Any army who sees this tower on the horizon would do well to surrender.”

“It isn’t quite that easy,” Arkk said with a small sigh. “Unfortunately, rituals don’t like to work while being moved.” The cooling ritual Zullie had designed for the Underworld wouldn’t work here. It relied on the overabundance of magic in the Underworld’s air. “The tower has to plant itself before any bombardment begins. It is surprisingly fast for its size but still visible enough that everyone will have plenty of time to set up defenses or even countermeasures. I’m still not sure if the reinforced stone will hold up against those rays of gold…”

They had no way of testing that short of inviting the avatar over for tea. Somehow, Arkk didn’t think that would go over so well.

“We’re working on countermeasures for that,” Arkk finished firmly. “In any case, the test is finished for now. We’ll perform another few as we finish the siege magic components, which you both will be invited to. Luthor, I’ll send you and the crystal ball back to the usual scrying room for now.”

Richter nodded eagerly, barely taking note as the chameleon vanished from the room. “We’ll finally be in a position to strike back at the invaders. The men will be cheering all night.”

While the young captain looked positively ecstatic as he headed toward the tower’s stairs, Hawkwood didn’t look quite so certain. Neither did Olatt’an.

One would have been concerning enough. Both looking like that? Arkk felt he was missing something. That something started gnawing at his stomach as he followed the three down the stairs. It grew as he dismissed the spellcasting team and grew more as Richter kept extolling the virtues of a massive tower marching across the terrain.

Fortress Al-Mir was divided into roughly four sections at the moment. The core of Fortress Al-Mir, where Arkk and all his direct employees lived and worked. The refugee section, which Arkk was hoping to diminish now that winter was ending—large numbers of people had already started leaving, following an effort set up by Katja to create a new burg not far from Cliff for those displaced by the war. The mass barracks where the deserters stayed and the even larger barracks where Hawkwood and his army were housed—none of whom were actually linked to the [HEART] and were therefore kept at a distance. The latter two groups were by and large the most sizable factions in Fortress Al-Mir. Especially Hawkwood’s army of nearly four thousand.

When Richter split off to his section of the fortress, Arkk held Hawkwood and Olatt’an back. Leading them off toward a smaller less-used room, Arkk teleported in some chairs, a table, and a few drinks.

“So,” Arkk said, taking a seat and propping his elbow up on the table. “What’s the problem?”

Olatt’an and Hawkwood glanced at one another. They didn’t say a word but Arkk got the impression that neither wanted to speak in front of the other. Olatt’an was understandable in that regard, not wanting to question Arkk in front of an outsider. Hawkwood… perhaps recalled that Arkk’s original orc force came from a bunch of barely-reformed raiders.

Whatever their reasons, Arkk didn’t much care for it. “Just spit it out. If there is an issue, especially with the tower, we need to know now so we can work it out.”

Hawkwood opened his mouth only for Olatt’an to beat him to speaking.

“First, let me ask what your is plan when this tower is finished?” the old orc said.

“March it on Elmshadow. That’s Evestani’s largest stronghold at the moment. We force them back, keep following and, once we reach Moonshine Burg, plant the tower there to keep more Evestani from entering the Duchy.” Arkk held up a hand, forestalling the objections he was sure were coming. “That is an oversimplification. I was planning on gathering everyone together for a proper meeting on the topic later. I know it isn’t likely to work out so nicely once we make contact with the enemy, but planting an insurmountable object in the main pass to enter the Duchy seems like the best bet at ending the war now before it drags on for another few decades like the last war.”

A long silence followed Arkk’s explanation. He well knew there were flaws with it. The most glaring of which was the Golden Order. Their war was against him. They wouldn’t give up so easily as long as they still existed. It wasn’t the only flaw, just the biggest of them. For that one, he was hoping that Inquisitrix Astra would come through with countermeasures for the golden magics. There were going to be meetings and discussions about how to fix those other flaws.

The way Olatt’an and Hawkwood glanced at each other again, like they thought his brief summary was the full stop of his plan, had Arkk’s eye twitching.

“I imagine things won’t go well even before Moonshine,” Olatt’an said. “The army holding at Elmshadow has no local loyalty or reason to remain at the burg. It is a strategic location, yes, but not one worth fighting against something like the tower.”

“That’s… part of the plan,” Arkk said, not quite sure what point Olatt’an was aiming for. “Make them retreat.”

“The army there can split in half,” Hawkwood said, smoothing down his trimmed beard. “Some go north and some go south, making their way around the Elm mountains. You can only chase one of them. They might not even need to split up if they’re fast enough.”

Arkk nodded his head. “That works to our advantage as well. If they maneuver around us then the tower will be between them and their supply line. Even if Evestani deploys that golden armored soldier to protect them, the supplies themselves won’t hold up to bombardment magic.”

“It still leaves the rest of the duchy—and us here—vulnerable to that army. They raid and pillage,” Olatt’an said with a small smile. “They’ll keep doing that to support themselves.”

“At that point, it is a problem for the Duke’s Grand… or… Katja’s Grand Guard?” Arkk paused a moment, wondering if the Duchy of Mystakeen was even a Duchy now that they no longer had a duke. He shook his head. The name didn’t matter. “We just need to make it impossible for them to continue their campaign. Even if that means taking the fight all the way to Evestani.”

“That would change things,” Hawkwood said slowly. “No books have been written on fighting with or against one of these towers, so I cannot say with any resolute authority, but the tower isn’t frightening to an army that can move easily.

“Put it up against villages and burgs that cannot simply get up and walk away… Once people become aware of the level of siege magic you can unleash and the futile effects of siege magic on the tower…” Hawkwood pressed his lips into a thin line. “When I first saw that tower, I mentioned that it would get people worried. That was before I realized the true scope of its capabilities.”

“It is a siege weapon unlike any other,” Olatt’an agreed. “It is not a weapon to fight an army with. That’s all we’re trying to say.”

Arkk folded his arms and, for the first time since taking a seat, drank a little of the alcohol that he had poured at the start. It wasn’t the really strong stuff but it did leave a small burn at the back of his throat.

“First of all,” Arkk said, looking to Hawkwood. “I’m not interested in sieging villages and even most burgs. Military targets, yes. Regular people? Absolutely not.”

“Of course. It was just an example.”

“As for fighting an army with the tower… It isn’t impossible, exactly. Even if they split up. Only mounted troops can move faster than the tower. The Walking Fortress can soften any hard target.” Arkk had thought long and hard about the best way to use the tower in combat. He doubted he had the best use of it possible and he was sure he would learn once he engaged the enemy. But from talking with Priscilla and Vezta, he had a fairly good idea of how to use it effectively.

“But don’t forget that it is capable of carrying a small army,” Arkk continued. “There is no line of logistics to protect. The tower acts as a supply point that cannot be depleted, so even at a distance from anywhere, the army can carry on. The same cannot be said for the enemy. The tower’s mere existence shuts down any attempt at resupply. They cannot stop to rest. They cannot raid villages and loot supplies without the tower catching up to them. They will wear out and either surrender or, exhausted and harried, try to fight.

“If an army splits up, they, by definition, become less of a problem. Assuming our estimates are correct regarding the occupiers of Elmshadow, there are ten thousand there. If they split evenly, we chase five thousand and leave the other five alone. If they carry on together, they suffer the problem I just stated. If they split again, then White Company alone—even with the losses you sustained—outnumbers them by almost double. You handle one group, we take the other. Then we can figure out where the other five thousand went and do the same thing to them or leave them for the Duke’s Grand Guard.”

“How long will that take?” Hawkwood asked.

Arkk shrugged. It didn’t matter, in his mind. If it took too long, he could simply leave and head toward Moonshine Burg. A routed and split army, exhausted and without supplies, should be easy to handle even for a lesser force. He could leave Richter and his men to handle that while the Walking Fortress marched.

“Alternatively… we could make it impossible for the enemy to run. Sabotage routes away from Elmshadow. Lay traps and alchemical explosives in their path.”

“Dangerous,” Hawkwood said. “A force that cannot flee will fight to the end.”

Arkk hummed. That was something to consider. He still wasn’t sure that they would flee. Not with the avatar at their backs.

The old orc scowled at his empty glass on the table. After a glance, seeing that Arkk and Hawkwood weren’t drinking, he simply grabbed the whole bottle. “When do we begin our campaign?”

That was another question. Between the avatar and that gold soldier, Arkk didn’t want to send his employees into a fight that they couldn’t win even with the Walking Fortress at their backs. Savren was still updating the siege rituals for relational targeting and pieces of the siege rituals were still under construction at the smithy. Then there was the Shadow Forge to consider.

Agnete was trying to get it working along with one of the Protectors.

Priscilla was going out in the Underworld for another scouting trip in the morning. This time with directions provided by the Protectors that might lead to more useful artifacts and equipment. Those additions might change how he fought entirely if they were powerful enough.

He could sit around forever, constantly waiting until he and his men were just a little stronger.

But Evestani were getting reinforcements from their homeland. After the gold knight fended off the supply line strike team, more and more were headed over. Not just supplies either, but men and equipment. A day ago, Evestani had deployed their scrying fog once again, presumably to transport something that they didn’t want everyone to know about.

Evestani was building up just as he was. They would eventually launch an attack and, when they did, Arkk had no doubt that they would believe in their victory. Whether or not they could actually achieve it was another question. No matter what, he doubted it would be a battle he would enjoy fighting.

Then again, perhaps he should allow them to attack first. With Walking Fortress Al-Lavik and Fortress Al-Mir here, he felt his position was relatively unassailable. If he allowed Evestani to throw themselves upon his blade and then launched the counter-attack, he could sweep across the Duchy all the way to the border without sizeable resistance.

“There is another thing,” Hawkwood said, interrupting Arkk’s thoughts.

There was a reason he had a whole host of advisors. He would put the topic of when to attack on the table. Until then, he neglected to answer Olatt’an’s question in favor of Hawkwood’s interruption.

“A Swiftwing harpy delivered a letter to Stone Hearth Burg yesterday evening.”

“Another of Lady Katja’s attempts at buying your loyalty?”

“No,” Hawkwood started, only to pause and nod. “Well, yes. There was one of those. But no, the letter I’m concerned about bore the stamped seal of King Abe Lafoar. A follow-up to the message I received earlier, if you remember. This one is, however, signed by the King himself.”

Arkk grimaced. He had almost forgotten that there was another faction he had to worry about. One that, in all likelihood, wouldn’t exactly be on friendly terms with him. The Abbey of the Light had pushed the Duke against him. He did not doubt that they were pushing the King as well.

He didn’t know much about the King. Was he a despot as the Duke had been? Corrupt and fat on the people? Or was he just ignorant of how the Duke handled his domain?

“Good news?” Arkk asked. “I’m a little surprised that he sent a direct letter to you.”

“With Lady Katja sitting on the Duke’s chair and many prominent commanders of the Grand Guard missing, dead, or bought out by Katja, I don’t think he has many options. White Company has, through our contract with the Duke, served the Kingdom well for decades.” Hawkwood paused with a frown on his face. “As for what he had to say… Nothing we didn’t already know. He is displeased with the state of affairs. Evestani has ransacked half the land. The Abbey of the Light is arguing for collusion with Evestani to focus on capturing and containing some nobody that has been stirring up trouble in spite of the Abbey’s historical hostility with the Golden Order. His Duke is dead with some upstart in his place. The Grand Guard are scattered and have conflicting loyalties. Etcetera, etcetera. The letter went on for a good three rolls complaining about every little thing.”

Arkk pressed his lips together at the reference to him as a nobody. He thought he had been making a fairly prominent name for himself. Though, maybe it was better that the King saw him as a nobody. “What is he planning on doing about it?” Arkk asked after a moment of pause.

“Prince Cedric Valorian Lafoar, as we know, is on his way to ascertain the truth of what is going on in all this chaos. Prince Cedric will have full authority to act as he sees fit with regard to you, Lady Katja, and Evestani. That means allying with or fighting against any or all of you.”

“So… potentially good if we can ally with him. What are the chances of that, do you think?”

“I would lean more toward unlikely,” Hawkwood said. “King Abe sent his son to Vaales ten years ago to crush a rebellion. I have looked into it a little bit more since we last spoke on the matter. He arrived with an elite guard and dozens of powerful spellcasters on loan from his father and crushed the entire region before rebuilding it as his private fiefdom.” Hawkwood paused, shifting in discomfort. “Utterly crushed it. Practically wiped the realm clean of anyone who would dare put on a look of defiance.”

Olatt’an broke in. “It isn’t said to be a pleasant place to live,” the old orc said. “Doubly so if you’re a demihuman or beastman. Most fled the land for Lockloch, from what I understand.”

“It didn’t used to be like that,” Hawkwood said despite nodding along. “Something happened to his wife many years ago, leaving him with… less than a pleasant demeanor toward non-humans.”

“Let us not mince words,” Olatt’an said with a scoff. “He would hang us all if he got the chance.”

“But,” Hawkwood said. “He won’t be able to do the same thing here. Crushing a few peasants and fighting a war are two vastly different things. It doesn’t matter how elite his guard is or how capable his spellcasters are.”

“A man like that…” Olatt’an trailed off with a frown. “I would have spent the last ten years raising an army loyal to me.”

Hawkwood considered and shrugged. “Whatever the case, the King sent the letter to me personally to ask that I cooperate fully with him, giving him whatever he needs as he takes in the state of the land.”

Arkk waited a moment, taking in all their words. After it all, he couldn’t help but let out a small laugh. At Olatt’an and Hawkwood raising their eyebrows, he could only laugh a little harder.

“You know,” Arkk said as the chuckles died down. “I would really appreciate the chance to solve one problem before another reared up. Just one.”

 

 

 

The Unilluminable Room

 

The Unilluminable Room

 

 

Arkk stared into the darkness, feeling a constant pull in the back of his naval. He stood still. The ground underneath him was perfectly solid. Yet that twisting in his stomach felt like he was climbing a set of stairs only to try to step up one extra stair that didn’t exist.

Behind him, that orange, hazy light that extended throughout the Underworld illuminated Savren and Dakka along with the wide staircase that led beneath the Cloak of Shadows’ temple. The light cut off abruptly at his feet. Beyond… An abyss. It looked like the bottomless pit beneath Fortress Al-Mir’s [HEART]. Except it wasn’t just a pit. The abyss extended outward to infinity and even above as well despite the impossibility of that. The temple was above, after all.

Holding out a hand, Arkk uttered the incantation for a small ball of light. Enough to hopefully shed some light on the room beyond.

For it was a room. The Protector, forced to crawl on all six limbs like an insect because of the height of the stairwell, stood within the abyss ahead. It looked like the Protector was simply floating. Its chitinous face stared at Arkk without discernable expression, patiently waiting.

The light did nothing. Arkk held it out ahead of him, past the threshold of darkness where the orange haze cut off. He could see his hand. He could see the orb of light hovering above his palm. Yet it didn’t seem to cast any light at all. Not back on him in the stairwell. Not ahead on the Protector. Not even on his palm. Rather, the dark abyss in the room encroached. Thin black tendrils wormed their way around the hovering orb, entangling it. The light shrank and, as the darkness encircled it fully, snuffed out entirely.

“Uh…”

The Unilluminable Chamber is land consecrated to our Lady Shadows. It cannot be lit through any means.

“I see,” Arkk said, frowning down at the darkness. Taking a breath, he stepped forward. He didn’t place his weight on his forward foot until he fully felt the firm ground beneath him.

As soon as he crossed the threshold, a chill ran up his spine. Inside the temple, the heat of the wasteland faded somewhat but in here? He might as well have been thrown outside a warm tavern on a cold winter night.

What was more, he found he could see. It wasn’t a large chamber. The rounded walls were adorned with sigils and runes. Even with Zullie’s tutoring, he didn’t recognize a single symbol. All he could tell was that the area immediately around them was somehow darker than the abyss that surrounded him.

What could only be the Shadow Forge stood tall in the center of the room, right next to the Protector. A marvel of mystical engineering. Its design was a fusion of obsidian-like alloys, glowstone crystals that seemed to do the opposite of regular glowstone, and more glyphs that pulsed colors that Arkk had never seen before, nor could he find the words to describe.

At its core, a swirling mass of shadow contained within a crucible mimicked the molten metal that might be found in a regular smithy’s forge.

Parts of it moved. An arm lifted. A hammer crashed down. Gears turned and pistons shifted. All without a hint of sound. It operated autonomously, filling that core with more liquid-like shadows with no clanks of machinery or hisses of steam. The crucible overflowed constantly, spilling the swirling mass. None of the shadows quite reached the ground beneath the forge, however, fading into nothingness well before it could reach.

Knowledge of its operation is lost to us,” the Protector said, still crawling on all six of its limbs as it circled the forge. “There is one within each temple to poor Lady Shadows. One time, they were used to manufacture all manner of items. From simple bowls and spoons for the needy to weapons and armaments in times of war.

With one foot planted on the side of the forge and two hands grasping at some stationary machinery overhead, the Protector dipped a hand into the crucible. The shadows within clung to his fingers like honey, dripping down in long, stretching strands.

The Night Blade you found above was crafted here by the priests and acolytes. Few were permitted to observe their rites.” It tilted its hand, letting the last of the shadows run off back into the crucible. “Now, they are gone. The knowledge lost with them. I do not know what use it may be but, as it once made weapons of war, it may serve you should you discover its secrets.

Arkk pressed his lips into a thin line as he stepped closer, watching as a spigot above dispensed more of the liquefied shadows into the crucible. Gears turned and a piston chugged before more spewed out. It was unlike anything he had ever seen. If it was just a bowl of liquid shadow, it would have been unlike anything he had seen. The machine working entirely on its own…

Autonomously.

“In my employ, I have an avatar of the Burning Forge. The member of the Pantheon who deals with fires, fabrication, creativity, and autonomy.” Agnete had been tinkering in the smithy lately. She had crafted Katt’am’s wheelchair among a few other simple items. Nothing as fancy as this, but she seemed to have a knack for manufacturing.

Agnete had never touched an anvil before Fortress Al-Mir. According to Perr’ok, the orc blacksmith who headed Al-Mir’s foundry, her level of skill was equivalent to someone who had been working a smithy for at least ten years. Arkk suspected that was something to do with her status as an avatar, whether by receiving divine inspiration or having already had an innate talent that led to her being chosen as an avatar. Arkk hadn’t thought too much of it before—he had plenty of smiths after recruiting some of the refugees with more than ten years of experience—but now…

“If anyone can figure out how to get it working, it will be her.”

Arkk wasn’t sure what they would do with it. It depended on what the forge was capable of. That ceremonial blade was clearly magical. If they could arm an entire army—or at least their specialists—with magical weapons… Well, maybe that would help level the playing field. Maybe a shadow sword could penetrate or ignore the gold armor of that knight. That alone would help with so much. Morale, mostly.

“The gadget grimly gazes at gravity, grounded and ungraceful. Gathering a gang to govern its gears shall be a gargantuan game.”

Turning, unsurprised to find that Savren had joined him in the dark room, Arkk nodded. “It doesn’t look very mobile,” he agreed. “You said there were more? Is there one closer to the portal?”

The Protector, now a step away from the forge, nodded. “There are several. The closest would be the village where we initially encountered one another.

“Good,” Arkk said, trying to keep any annoyance at being unable to examine one of these forges earlier out of his tone. “Once we get back, if you would be so kind as to show Agnete the way. Perhaps a few of our other smiths as well.” When the Protector nodded again, Arkk looked back to Savren. “Any input from you on how to work the shadows?”

“I’m a sorcerous scholar, not a smithy savant. Nevertheless, those spellbound symbols on the surfaces…” he said, looking at the eerie runes on the walls of the Unilluminable Chamber. “I’m inclined to intricately inspect those.”

“Very well,” Arkk said, only to pause and look to the Protector. “Uh… if that’s alright with you. It isn’t our intention to commit any sacrilege or blasphemy against the Cloak of Shadows.”

That you have not fallen to darkness already is evidence enough that your presence here is accepted.

Arkk shifted in a sudden discomfort. He tried to avoid glancing downward. “That’s a possibility, is it?”

You stand within land consecrated to the Lady Shadows. Her power is at its highest here.

“That isn’t… frightening at all. I’m glad we’re accepted.” He leaned over, hissing in Savren’s ear. “Be respectful during your examinations.”

“Eminently,” Savren said with half a bow.

“Good,” Arkk said. “I… I’m curious, Protector. What does it take to consecrate land to the Lady Shadows?”

You ask for more lost knowledge. The Lady Shadows is also the Lady Secrets. Her acolytes were not the kind to share their tradecraft with outsiders.

“I see.” The Cloak of Shadows was the god of secrets, shadows, and night. Shame they hadn’t stumbled into someone whose domain involved a little more openness. That said, perhaps Vezta would know. Consecrating land to one god might be similar to all of them. Failing that, the temple back in Fortress Al-Mir was somewhat similar, wasn’t it? Hadn’t she said that the silvery waters were some kind of connection to the realm of the Pantheon?

A few ideas started churning in the back of Arkk’s mind.

Nothing he could act on immediately, however.

“Well, thank you for your willingness to share in any case.”

I revere the Lady Shadows for all she has done and tried to do for the people here. But I was never an acolyte.

Arkk gave the Protector a curt nod of his head. “We’ll spend the night here,” he said. Not that there were nights in the land of the night god. That orange haze outside never faded. “Savren, Dakka, continue looking around for anything that might be useful, provided the Protector permits. We’ll head back in the morning and… introduce everyone to our new ally.”


The temple had an armory nearby. Or the remains of one.

Unfortunately, not much within was usable. The building itself was little more than a few crumbling walls, held up by sheer spite against gravity. Metal had rusted, cloth decayed, and shadows had been exposed to the light overhead for far too long. For normal use, light exposure wasn’t a problem. But having sat around in the light for a thousand years, the weapons and armor made from shadow had faded to faint silhouettes of the items in question.

Arkk still had them collected, carefully wrapping them to preserve them as much as possible. Even if they were useless in combat, they were examples of items manufactured in a Shadow Forge. Their existence could help Agnete and the other smiths figure out how to work one of the enigmatic forges.

He held one of the more intact blades aloft. It weighed little. Like lifting a chicken’s feather despite its unwieldy size. And it was unwieldy. The blade was too long. The grip, too thick. At least for a human.

Although Dakka was the smallest of the orcs in his employ, she was still larger than he was. Passing the sword over to her, he noted that it fit far better in her grip. Vezta had said that orcs resembled one of the former inhabitants of this world. He supposed that made sense. She swung it, hacking through the air as a test. It left a faint trail of shadow in its wake, arcing a dark slice.

While it looked right in Dakka’s grip, her few experimental swings with the weapon left a frown on her face.

“I don’t know,” she said slowly. “It feels flimsy. Weak. It doesn’t have the heft that my axe has. The weight of my axe head helps chop into things I wouldn’t be able to otherwise.”

“Perhaps it has properties that aren’t apparent. Or a freshly made sword would be better.”

Dakka glanced around the room. Not finding what she had been looking for, she set the sword down and removed her helmet. Her face underneath gleamed with small beads of sweat. While the cart had a cooling ritual pumping out chill air in a small radius around it, their exploration into the area around the temple was back in the persistent heat of the Underworld.

She placed the helmet on the ground in front of her before taking up the sword once again.

“Bit of an awkward position for this,” she said, looking down. Even a goblin would have been a larger target. Nevertheless, she raised the sword and brought it down on her helmet with all the force she could.

Arkk wasn’t sure what he expected. Perhaps for the blade to bounce off the armored helm. Or a broken shadow blade.

But something strange happened as the blade drew near the helmet. Covered in small spikes for a fearsome appearance, though designed to break off easily in combat, several little shadows stretched across the top of the helmet. Those lines of shadow cracked and broke when the blade hit, snapping the spikes even though the blade hadn’t touched them.

The helmet itself dented where the blade made contact. It didn’t slice straight through without resistance, instead hitting it as if the sword were any regular metal sword.

“Huh,” Dakka said, pulling the sword back to look it over.

“Huh,” Arkk agreed. “Try stabbing the shadow of the helmet?”

The orange light against the constant haze of the Underworld’s sky wasn’t directly overhead but it was close enough that the helmet didn’t cast a very long shadow. There was still enough of a diffuse darkness for Dakka to grasp the sword in both hands and slam straight down, just to the side of the helmet.

Two things happened at once. The sword, brittle and weak from light exposure, cracked and splintered. Small shards of shadow scattered off into every direction, all but the largest of which faded and vanished. Dakka was left holding nothing but the sword’s handle and the finger-length of shadowy metal sticking out of it.

The helmet, on the other hand, split. Cut straight down the middle, the helmet fell apart, clattering against the dust-covered stone.

For a long moment, Arkk and Dakka simply stared.

“Huh,” Arkk said.

“Huh,” Dakka agreed. “I’m not sure what to think of that.”

“Do you think a normal hit from your axe would have split it down the middle like that?”

Dakka shook her head. “It would have bit into it. Probably killed the guy wearing it—maybe, hitting someone who can fall back is a lot different from hitting a stationary target stuck against the ground—but these helmets aren’t poorly made. It would have left a gash without breaking apart.”

“I see. That’s… interesting? I’m curious to see how it handles something… squishier. Not willing to volunteer for testing, however.”

“Same.” Dakka lifted the handle and turned it over before shaking her head. “It would certainly be a surprise in combat, me slamming a sword down on some guy’s shadow only for his armor to fall off. Assuming it doesn’t slice a guy in half. But at the same time, attacking a shadow seems like it would be awkward in a fight.”

“And what if it is nighttime? Or sufficiently overcast? Or the Golden Order’s avatar produces some light that puts the opponent’s shadow directly behind them.”

“The same works for us, doesn’t it?” Dakka asked, bending to inspect the helmet. She ran her fingers along the cut edge, accidentally slicing part of her glove open. “Toss a glass orb filled with some alchemical solution behind the enemy that lights up when the glass breaks. Their shadow stretches toward us and then we stab it easily.” Her fingers moved to the heavy dent from the first strike against the helmet. “Even if we can’t, they still act like regular weapons it seems. And any little shadow on their body or helmet might cause their armor to break apart.”

“It’s a shame that the Protector never fought with these,” Arkk said with a frown. They were going to have to do a big meeting on just what kind of uses these weapons might have. “There is probably some lost treatise for fighting with and against these kinds of weapons.”

I cannot recall a time before the end.” The Protector stooped, ducking through the remains of a doorway that was not sized for it. “I know I was there, smaller and less… aware. Although there were many wars after the end, I was not an observer or participant. My time came after, just before… I recall the fears of the people as crops died and livestock thinned. I recall the final words of acolytes across the land. ‘And so, we shall ascend, delivered from our burdens by the grace of the Lady Shadows.’

“Ascend,” Arkk said, turning to face the Protector fully. “Into those shadows outside?”

There had been more… gatherings of the shadows than just the procession in front of the temple. Arkk had passed a group that might have been browsing a market, another couple who appeared to stand guard around the armory, and plenty more occupying the shadows of old homes, long since broken and withered away.

The Protector did not answer Arkk’s question. It simply looked around, slowly turning its head from Arkk to Dakka and the broken helmet between them. “Did you find aught of use?

“Just the examples of items from the Shadow Forge as you suggested we would find.”

The Protector nodded. Then, promptly stood aside.

Gretchen stepped into the room, shooting a wary look at the Protector before looking to Arkk. “Cart’s all packed up. We’re ready to move when you are.”

“Thank you,” Arkk said. “We’ll be there shortly.”

Gretchen shot one more look at the Protector before turning on her heel and fleeing back to the safety of the others.

They fear me.

“They’re not used to you,” Arkk said, looking over the chitin-covered monster before him. If this building still had a ceiling, it would have to duck and walk on all six limbs as it had down in the Unilluminable Chamber. It was tall, lithe, and had that uncanny face carved from its carapace. “We… don’t have anything like you back home. If they can get used to Vezta, they can get used to you. I wouldn’t worry.” Arkk said with a shake of his head. He left the statement hanging in the air for a long moment, somewhat expecting a response. When none came, he cleared his throat and asked, “Are you ready to leave?”

I will not leave. I will meet you at your portal.

“You aren’t coming with us? I thought—”

I shall maintain my vigil over the shades. It is the solemn duty I have taken on, to protect the subjects of the Lady Shadows. Fear not, I am already waiting for your arrival near your portal.

Arkk hesitated. A being with multiple bodies was… a strange thing to talk to. One-on-one, it wasn’t so bad. If there were multiple in the same room, what would he do then? Which would he look at when talking to it? Would all of them speak as one or would they take turns?

With a small shake of his head, Arkk looked up at the Protector again and started to nod, only to hesitate as a thought occurred to him. “You are the protector of the shades but… protector from what? We haven’t seen anything in this world apart from you and them. Are there other beings here?”

The Protector didn’t answer right away. It tilted its head up toward the hazy skies, turning slightly to face one of the tall columns of darkness that were scattered across the Underworld. “It has been some time since I last saw others. Perhaps they have gone extinct and only I remain.” It paused a moment before its tone turned to something a little more hostile. “Shadows act differently here compared to memories lifted from your spellcaster. More things interact with them. As I am sure you have noticed,” it said with a gesture toward the broken helmet. “Shadows have developed their own predators.

Arkk shivered, though he wasn’t quite sure why. Something about the Protector’s tone made him think there was more to it than that.

But the Protector turned away, crawling on all fours to pass through the armory’s doorway. Arkk followed slowly, making sure to keep a respectful distance. Dakka followed after him, holding the broken helmet under her arm while carrying the remains of the broken blade in her other hand.

Nevertheless, the Lady Shadows gave me strength and purpose,” the Protector continued. “allowing me to live in this world. I will continue my vigil in turn.

“What would you do if these predators have gone extinct?”

I would change nothing. I can experience things in ways that my memories of your spellcaster cannot. I can explore the world while keeping watch on the shades. I will shortly venture to your world. I imagine it will be a novel experience.

“I’d say we’ll be as hospitable as we can be. The ongoing war might limit that hospitality.”

The Protector didn’t answer again. Arkk wondered just how introspective it was. Had it had any contact with something that wasn’t itself or a predator since the Calamity? Feeding it Savren’s memories had probably been an unimaginable gift, giving it something other than its thoughts.

Farewell, Arkk of Al-Mir. I await your arrival.

With that, the Protector broke off and headed toward the center of the dead city. After glancing at Dakka—and getting a shrug in return—Arkk turned and headed to the outskirts where their cart awaited. It would be a few days back and then…

Then, just how ready were they for the war to resume anew?