By the time I reach Shallowglade, I feel my mana lines reactivating and flowing within my veins again. I fight the urge to race back to Mira and turn my attention to the three manticores assaulting the palisade.
The creatures take notice of me and unleash a bestial roar that makes my hair stand on end.
Luugen and Clem, with Gurk on their backs, glance down from a watchtower. They point behind me where I’d just come from. Another pair of manticores approach slowly. I’m surrounded.
What is the right play here? Freeze the ground? Their claws will keep them from slipping, then I’ll be at a disadvantage. Their manes are highly resistant to fire and lightning. Igni and thundra are out of the question.
One of them lunges forward. I dive right and narrowly avoid the enormous claws. The manticore skids across the dirt and comes to a halt.
I ready myself for another attack, but it simply walks around me, sizing me up.
“Igni vas o’rea!” I swing my staff in a wide arc around me, igniting the grass to create a barrier of fire between me and my foes.
The manticores are briefly startled, but it won’t take long before they know the fire means nothing to them.
Clem signals to me from above. “We’ll come down to distract them—”
“No! Stay inside!” I demand.
There is one way out of this— necromantic magic. It doesn’t follow the same laws as elemental magic, and can easily kill these creatures. While still under the elixir of panacea, this shouldn’t be a problem if I’m affected as well.
The problem is…
I’ll be breaking the oath I made to my covenant. I can already hear Headmaster Anora’s scolding, but that will be the least of my worries. I could lose my authority to practice witchcraft and be branded rogue.
Now isn’t the time for that. Mira bought me time to make it here. I don’t even know if she’s still alive. If I die now, her sacrifice will have been in vain and Shallowglade is doomed. Worse, the whole world follows after if Eudora has her way.
With a lung full of smoke and cinders burning my eyes, I incant the dark words stigmatized by the covenant.
“Forgive me. I wouldn’t wish this pain on anything. Mortis o’rea ventus fenthra!“
Fetid smog billows out from my staff, blackening the verdant ground and extinguishing even the flames around me. The manticores, sensing their imminent death, attempt to flee in haste. Too slow, the cloud of black death latches onto the bristles of their fur.
All at once they collapse, foaming at the mouth and thrashing violently in their death throes. Only a gurgled whimper escapes their mouth as their bodies begin to decay right before my eyes.
I don’t feel any different. If anything, I’m relieved. This taboo school of magic is no different than the others.
But I do sense… an overwhelming dread. Like it pricks at the back of my neck.
The wooden gates burst open and a dozen orcs, including Gurk, pour out. I have to push them back with a wind spell to prevent them from getting too close to the miasma of death.
A dozen pairs of golden eyes retreat from behind the clearing. It seems safe for now.
“Uuuwwaahhh! That was scary!” Esmerelda pops out from the shelter underneath my hat.
“You could’ve helped…” I say, relieved that she’s okay.
“Watcha want me to do? Those things look at me like I’m catnip!”
I join the orcs and women in the safety of Shallowglade’s walls. All of them are all glad to receive me. The familiar faces of Liz and Ana provide some semblance of relief. Unfortunately, our time to rest is short.
Judging by the proximity of the closest tower, and the number of manticores I encountered, it’s only a matter of time before enough of them mass up for an attack. No amount of anoragrathi tentacles will save us from a ravenous pack of flying breasts. Just looking up, one can see a number of wyverns perched behind the canopy, waiting for the right moment to strike.
Gurk runs up to me with Rio and Talos in his hands.
“Stopped moving when we got through portal. Gurk sorry for going ahead…”
I bend down to inspect the familiars.
Their bodies are husks, no trace of mana left inside them. I wave my staff over their bodies, and they begin to stir with life. Rio awakens first, and for the first time in a while rubs his head against my face.
Talos awakens second, but he remains docile. He might be searching for Mira, but if she’s still in the anti-magic zone, he won’t be able to sense her. Until we find her, he’ll have to run on my mana.
“Talos, you’re going to stick with me for now. We’ll find Mira soon enough.”
Talos takes flight and lands on my shoulder while Rio takes the other spot.
What remains of the townsfolk lumber wearily out of their homes. There are less orcs than usual and the younguns appear to outnumber the adults now.
Staying here is no longer an option. Our best chances of survival is to send them towards my great hollow just like the kobolds. Once there, we can form a defensive perimeter against the swarm.
The only issue we face is when those creatures decide we’re not worth their time, and decide instead to go around into Parthun.
There must be another way. Collapsing a tower means going in and destroying the forged world. Doing so, however, seems to leave behind a soul stone which Eudora is no doubt waiting for.
While I’m in my head arguing with myself, the residents are growing more worried by the second. One thing is certain, we’ll need to band together to deal with this problem.
“I know this is going to come very suddenly, but Shallowglade is no longer safe. We have to get everyone packed and moving west, away from the towers. My home at the edge of the forest is the safest place for now.”
None of them seem any eager to up and leave the place they called home.
Clem steps forward from the crowd. “Closer to the human kingdom that wants to kill us?”
“I know this isn’t the best option for many of you, but I see only two choices: take your chances with the humans, or wait here and be a monster’s next meal.”
It’s a hard decision for all of them. They came this deep into the forest to avoid persecution from humanity to begin with.
The other orcs bite back a retort. Their human companions share the same reluctance.
Fortunately, they’re smarter than that, agreeing that staying here is only suicide. Some of the orcs even express relief that humans are easier to kill than beasts.
“I can’t imagine getting to your home will be as simple as the last time.” Roga says uneasily, holding his wife Ana close. “You sensed them, too. There are so many of them, this place reeks with their stench.”
If there are as many as Roga says, why hasn’t Shallowglade been overrun yet? It couldn’t just be the wall.
Miuna’s other half, maybe?
I ask the orcs to take me to Miuna. The setting may be different, but the red slime is still trembling in fear just like the other half. As soon as it sees me, Miuna stretches up and elongates its body with excitement.
“Oh, you really did come! But the scary witch isn’t with you?”
“Mira is… she’ll catch up. How is everything back home?” I ask hesitantly.
Miuna’s body scrunches up in what I can only imagine is a troubled expression. “The weirdest thing happened. A bunch of big lizards invaded! I thought they were going to loot the place, but they’re wandering around twiddling their tails.”
“Thank goodness Kati’s tribe made it. We’re going to have a whole lot more visitors soon.”
“Oh— ooohhh!! So you’re the red slime that’s been living here?” Esmerelda pops out of my hat again dancing around the slime.
“What is that? Ewww! Is that a bug? What is that?!” Miuna exclaims with disgust.
“Oi! That’s rude, you strawberry jelly paste! I’ll show you some respect— uuunngyaa!”
I stuff Esmerelda back into my hat before a fight breaks out. Her flailing around in my hair gives me an idea.
“Exactly how many of your sisters are around here?” I ask the fairy.
She peeks down, pouting. “Five, myself included. Three fairies and two dryads. Why?”
“I want to make good on my promise in saving your orchards. But I have a big favor to ask— can you teleport these villagers to my home?”
“Impossible.” She says curtly. “Our trees are connected to each sister that’s alive.”
It takes a moment for me to process that last word. It confirms my suspicions that Flora is truly gone. So suddenly, and just like that? Did she give me a seed to replant her someday?
“But, we can’t refuse helping you thanks to Flora’s mark. My sisters and I can escort the villagers as far as we can. Our combined magic should be enough to keep them safe, but the rest of the way isn’t in our hands. In return, our orchards better be spotless!”
The residents don’t need any more convincing once they know they’ll be in safe hands. I had Gurk go with them since this is no place for a goblin to fight. Even though he put up some resistance, once I told him I’d reward him when I get home, he was more than happy to comply.
Five forest nymphs are sufficiently strong enough to handle a number of beasts. Being that the forest is their domain, it would take nothing short of a dragon to beat Esmerelda and her sisters. Fortunately, the dragons on the towers haven’t made a move.
Shallowglade is a ghost town now. Not a single soul within the walls. Even Miuna was packed up and sent with the caravan. All that remains are the dozens of creatures skulking around outside.
I still want to go check on Mira, but the anti-magic zone is still in place. I’ll be powerless to fight if something were to follow me to the ridge.
For now, I should head to the orchards. Esmerelda gave me the location, and it is surprisingly close to the nearest tower. The elixir of panacea must be wearing off since I feel the exhaustion kicking in.
I take a deep breath.
On the other side of this gate is likely no less than twenty manticores. Above me, flying in circles like vultures are half a dozen wyverns.
I ready another mortis spell and step out—
The ground is littered with the corpses of manticores not of mine or the nymphs’ doing. Their bestial bodies are ripped to shreds, blood cakes the forest ground around them.
Upon the mangled cadavers are a flock of harpies, digging into the flesh of the slain beasts. They see me exit the settlement and turn their attention to me.
Before I can cast my spell, something strikes me from behind. The last thing I see before losing consciousness is the swarm of harpies diving towards me.