I think I have a concussion. The world is spinning and I want to puke. Then again, maybe that’s just how being thrown across a room by an explosion always feels.
I don’t know. I haven’t had much experience with that up until now. And I hope it never happens again.
I try to move and just sort of flop over. I’m partially covered with bits of fallen masonry, so no one in the room notices me twitching. Which is good in this case, because it’s sort of tense right now.
Lady Magnolia and Ressa are standing in what used to be her sitting room, surrounded by assassins. Excuse me. [Assassins] and one assassin who happens to be a mage. He’s dressed up in colorful yellow robes with green slashes down the sides. He glows with magic. But the [Assassins]—
Shadows, some of them. Others just look like blurs and I’m sure there are more I can’t see. Only a few even look remotely humanoid. Best guess? They’re high level and they’ve got magical items as well.
And they’re all armed. I’m sure of that. They’re backing up the mage, but they haven’t attacked yet. The idiot—the Great Mage Nemor I think is his name—is talking. He’s actually gloating, like a movie villain.
“—Never thought I’d live to see the day when I would finally humble the arrogant Reinharts once and for all.”
“I don’t think you’ll live to see that day either. But one can always hope, I suppose.”
That’s Magnolia for you. Surrounded by death and she’s got more attitude than anyone I’ve ever met. It makes me almost like her.
I look groggily at the scene. Lots of badness over there. That’s my general assessment. I could…use a potion? Smokescreen bag? Flour bomb?
All of my instincts tell me that trying anything will get me instantly killed. So instead of doing anything stupid—like usual—I just lie on the ground and watch things play out*.
*Yeah, not my most heroic moment. But in my defense, I did just get tossed into a wall. It hurt.
“—Arrogance will do you little in the end.”
Oh, they’re still talking? Don’t assassins generally make less noise? But this Nemor guy seems to want to get the final word in. He juts out his chin—he’s got a small goatee which looks immaculately oiled and groomed. It suits his narrow, pointed face. He clearly wants to look like a great mage, but aside from the blowing stuff up part, he doesn’t really look that impressive.
Granted, that last bit does a lot for him, but even so. Words are not his strong point.
“Grovel, Reinhart. If you do, I may make your end quick.”
Magnolia rolls her eyes heavenwards.
“Do us all a favor and shut up, Nemor. You always were insufferable even when you were just casting ward spells for me. If you’re not going to tell me what this Circle of Thorns wants, kindly die without speaking, would you?”
The mage’s face turns red. He opens his mouth—but he never gets a chance to retort. One of the shadows standing in the ruined hallways moves. The [Assassin] charges at Lady Magnolia fast—faster than I could ever move. He’s got a dagger in his hand as he lunges as Magnolia’s chest.
But the blade never touches her. I see a blur, and then Ressa is in the way. She blocks the strike with her own unarmored chest. I nearly shout as I expect to see her body pierced by the thrust.
But that doesn’t happen. Instead, I see the shimmering aura around her body—the magical shield that protected both her and Lady Magnolia—brighten. I hear a man scream, and the [Assassin] suddenly stumbles back, clutching a stump of a hand already spurting blood.
What was that? His hand vanished as it approached Ressa’s body! And now Ressa moves—the unfortunate [Assassin] chokes as her fingers go into his neck. She pulls her hand back and he folds over. I feel my stomach heave as I see what happened. Part of his face is just gone, vaporized by whatever magical shield is on Ressa.
The other [Assassins] move even as the first one dies. Two lunge at Ressa, but she blurs and they retreat as I hear metal clashing. One tosses the remains of a blade to the ground—all but the handle is vaporized. The others attack from a safer distance. Darts, throwing stars, knives—they hurl them at both Ressa and Magnolia. All the projectiles vanish before they touch either woman’s body.
Ressa flicks her hand and I see dark blurs speed at the [Assassins]. At least one hits, but even the blurred shape I see stagger doesn’t fall. They blink backwards as Ressa immediately steps back to Magnolia, guarding her back.
Standoff again. The [Assassins] pause and then wait, as if nothing happened. Nemor stares at them, and his face only now goes red as his mind catches up to what just happened.
“You fools! Hold until I command it! I must bypass her protection spells first!”
He shouts at the others around him, not even seeming bothered by the magical disintegration field. Magnolia sighs calmly, not even ruffled by the sudden burst of violence.
“A proper mage would have done that first rather than sending that poor man to his death. But then again, a proper [Assassin] wouldn’t have attacked so recklessly to begin with.”
She points at one of the shadows, and they shift, as if they’re afraid to be directly addressed by her.
“You have some rather showy magical items and Skills, but none of you are master [Assassins]. Believe me, I can tell the difference. Who sent you to die here?”
No response. I just see the shadows and blurred figures flitting around Magnolia, as if suddenly unsure. She scowls at them, impatient and not afraid.
“Well? Answer me.”
The words come out of one of the shadows unwillingly. I hear a female voice, and then she gurgles as one of her fellows strikes her in the throat. She chokes and falls back, but says no more.
Magnolia scowls again. She points at Nemor, who’s gone red again with rage.
“Who ordered you to work with this fool? I was under the impression your Guild didn’t collaborate with amateurs.”
“Fool!? For the last time, you insult me. Magnolia—”
“Be silent, Nemor.”
I see the man recoil as if struck. Nemor’s hands go up to his throat and his face goes red, then purple. Calmly, Magnolia turns back to the [Assassins].
“Was it your Guildmaster? Or someone else? Tell me who sent you.”
This time they’re ready. I see a few of the [Assassins] shift, but none of them speak. But the idiot—Great Mage, rather—sneers and answers instead. His face is regaining some of his color. Looks like he also shook off the charm spell. Damn. Is it really that easy?
“There are more factions that seek your life than you know, Reinhart.”
She pauses, and looks at him.
“Hm. So that means the Guild didn’t officially sanction this. Well, thank you for telling me, Nemor.”
Never before have I seen a man look so angry and worried at the same time. Nemor’s face turns amazingly maroon with rage. He hisses at Magnolia.
“I will see you suffer before you die.”
“And I see there’s little more to be learned here. Well then, shall we be about the business of the day?”
Magnolia turns to the [Assassins]. Immediately, I see them ready their weapons. But she doesn’t reach for a weapon. Rather, Magnolia folds her hands together. She’s not wearing gloves and her dress probably isn’t concealing a weapon. I just see a few rings on her bare hands. She looks around the room, as if searching for a spot to properly fight.
I tense as her eyes spot me lying on the ground, but Magnolia doesn’t even acknowledge my presence. Her gaze sweeps over me as if I’m not there. Magnolia shakes her head slightly as she turns and speaks casually to Nemor and the [Assassins].
“Not here, I think. There are too many valuable antiques that would need replacing. If you would follow me…?”
She doesn’t move, but her hand turns one of the rings on her fingers. I hear a curse—Nemor raises his hands and several [Assassins] have already thrown more weapons—but it’s too late. Magnolia and Ressa both vanish from sight in an instant.
Nemor exclaims in surprise. I see several shadows streak down the corridor in an instant, but the mage’s shout draws some of them back.
He points at the spot where Magnolia and Ressa have gone, thinking out loud.
“There’s no spell circle. And no one can teleport long distances so quickly. This fast—they must be headed to a prearranged destination. Spread out and find them!”
Way to state the obvious, genius. I get the impression that Nemor’s not actually in charge of these [Assassins], and that’s clearly for good reason. The other shadows just streak down the corridors—two run past me to the exposed opening. I hear another voice, a man’s, from one of the shadows.
I don’t know how, but all of the [Assassin]’s silhouettes immediately return and make a beeline for the exposed opening. They disappear into the night air, leaping or vanishing over the edge. Nemor runs after them, cursing, and I see him jump off the broken ledge as well. His body glows, and he falls much more slowly than gravity should allow.
What’s happening? Is it safe? I don’t know. Part of me wants to stay here, but—I have to see what’s going on. Slowly, painfully, I crawl out of my lovely blanket of broken wall fragments.
Don’t stand. Just crawl. I worm my way over to the void where the wall used to be, exposed by Nemor’s spell. And then I see her again.
She’s standing in the center of her courtyard, bold as you please. She didn’t even teleport more than a hundred feet! Ressa is by her side, and she’s—fighting?
It’s all a blur of motion in the darkness below. I see countless flickers of movement, and see flashes of light. The [Assassins] are going after Magnolia and Ressa with everything they have. Ressa is a blur around Magnolia, deflecting missiles, clashing with the [Assassins]—but there are too many. The only thing keeping both her and Magnolia alive is the bright aura around them that’s shielding them from harm.
But it’s growing weaker. I can see the glow fading, especially now that it’s the only contrast against the darkness outside. Each time a throwing star strikes Ressa’s shield it dims, and the [Assassins] are too smart to go hand-to-hand with Ressa. She catches one of them and kills him by striking his face—when she pulls her hand back half his head is gone. But the others just jump away and keep hurling weapons at her.
I stare down at the courtyard full of blurring shapes in shock. There’s a damn war going on down there! What do I do? I can’t just jump in—I doubt I’d even last a minute. And my potions and alchemist tricks aren’t going to work here.
But if I don’t, Magnolia will die. Right?
She has to be doing something. I see Magnolia’s hands moving in the courtyard, although I can’t tell if she’s holding anything amidst the fast movement. But she seems to be working on something—she doesn’t even look up as an [Assassin] closes on her and Ressa forces the killer back just in time.
What is she doing? Now she looks up. At what? A cloud?
The cloud? That wandering cloud from her garden? It’s right overhead. I stare at it. It’s roughly in the same place as when it rained at me. Magnolia looks up at it. But then her head turns.
Someone is striding across the courtyard, glowing with golden and sapphire light. Nemor’s entire body is wreathed in some kind of fantastic magical shield—it looks like water, filled with gold dust. He doesn’t even seem to notice as Ressa hurls two throwing stars at him—they sink into the barrier around him and disappear, as if they’ve fallen into a sea.
He points at Magnolia as he strides towards her. The [Assassins] charge with him, but Magnolia’s face is cool. She looks back up at the storm cloud and seems to sigh. I see something bright spark amidst the darkness of the cloud overhead.
“Reinhart! You will—”
Lightning strikes Nemor right in the chest. I see the world light up and go blind. I jerk backwards as I hear the thwoom of the sound and feel the impact a moment later. The sound is deafening, and the image of the coruscating bolt of electricity is burned into my retinas.
The rest of my exclamation is drowned out by more flashes, and more thunder. I raise my head and peer over the edge to see lightning bolts shooting out of the rain cloud. And not just one or two.
A crackling storm of lightning blasts the earth around Magnolia and Ressa. They stand perfectly still as the cloud over their head turns from an innocent rain cloud into a flashing avatar of destruction. I see shapes fleeing from Magnolia in every direction, but the lightning is alive. It flashes down and curves towards the retreating [Assassins], blasting them to bits as they try to run.
In seconds, it’s over. All that remains are smouldering corpses, or pieces of them. I stare down at the courtyard as my vision slowly clears, spotting broken stone, scorched spots—and death.
They’re all dead. All, but two.
Nemor slowly stands back up, his magical shield crackling as the last burst of electricity earths itself around him. One of the [Assassins] who took cover behind the mage gets up as well. The shrouded figure—denuded now of it’s shadowy concealment—looks at Magnolia and Ressa. Without a word, it flees back towards the mansion.
“Coward! Come back!”
The mage shouts after the retreating [Assassin], but the figure pays no heed. I can’t blame them, either. After what I just saw, I’d run or surrender rather than fight the sky.
But Nemor stands in front of Magnolia, no longer gloating but not fleeing either. Magic – a kaleidoscope of colors – swirls around his hands as he points at her.
“Your defenses might have killed the fodder sent to assist me. But I did not come here to fail, Reinhart!”
“Oh really? And who else do you have to die with you? More [Assassins]? I do believe I’ve cooked all of them, but I’ll happily do it to a few dozen more.”
I can hear Lady Magnolia’s voice, light and poised, from my position on the second floor. Nemor’s voice is filled with rage, but also confidence.
“Not just [Assassins], fool! Behold! Even your own tools are turned against you!”
He turns and points. I see movement in the darkness. The glint of light off of metal. Out of the darkness, ten Golems, the massive suits of plate armor armed with two-handed greatswords emerge. They take up positions behind Nemor as he laughs wildly.
“See how all is turned against you? The Circle of Thorns has roots in every place, even in your own home!”
“I see. Lightning wouldn’t work so well against them, would it?”
Magnolia sighs as she stares down at the Golems. I see Ressa take a blade out of her skirt, but Magnolia stops her with a hand on one arm.
“You know, those were a present for my sixteenth birthday. I’ll have to get rid of them now; once compromised there’s no trusting them. Couldn’t you have found some other target instead?”
“You seem to think you’ll still survive.”
Nemor sneers up at Magnolia. He raises a hand, and something bright flashes into being. I see a…blue fireball appear in the mage’s hands. It’s blue around the edges, and in the center I see a white-hot flame swirling.
“Your precious shield spell is nearly exhausted. Will it withstand my magic, and the Golems for more than a few seconds?”
“It doesn’t have to. Once you’re dead the Golems will stop attacking as well. It’s very simple, Nemor.”
Magnolia lightly retorts. I see her raise her hands. She’s putting something on her index finger. I can’t see clearly what it is from this far away. Another ring?
Nemor doesn’t give Magnolia a chance to use it. He hurls the blue fireball, and the explosion engulfs the two women. I feel the blast from here—the air blows my hair and makes me cover my eyes. When I dare look again, I see Magnolia and Ressa, standing in the same spot.
What happened? Their shield must have absorbed the spell again. But it’s gone now, and Nemor has two more fireballs in each hand. He’s laughing.
“Well? Will you grovel now?”
“I still don’t see why I should.”
Magnolia’s tone cuts Nemor off. He snarls—and she continues, speaking over him.
“A powerful, if idiotic mage strong enough to bypass my wards, a group of [Assassins] to take down my mage, subverted control spells for my Golems—they even made sure to choose someone I trusted enough to let into my estate. This Circle really did manage to subvert all my outer defenses. For a first attempt, it was quite well done.”
“There won’t be a second time!”
Nemor roars in fury. He hurls another fireball at Magnolia, but this time Ressa moves. She draws something out of her skirt—a mirror?—and holds it up. The fireball is sucked into it. Nemor shouts.
“That cheap trick won’t work more than once!”
He points and the Golems lumber forward. But Ressa runs at them, hurling something onto the ground. Vines sprout up—a tripvine bag? Something like that, but these vines are huge, easily engulfing even the massive Golems and walling off the rest.
“You can’t protect yourself forever!”
The mage’s hands glow and he burns half the vines away in an instant with blue flame. He actually melts one of the Golems with his spell, but he doesn’t seem to care. He tries to catch Ressa, but she dodges backwards to Magnolia’s side.
“Your [Maid] can’t save you, Reinhart! She can’t breach my magics!”
“She doesn’t have to. Nemor, you are a fool.”
Magnolia’s finger glints with crimson light as she points at the mage. A thin line of light shoots from the ring she wears and spears the mage through the chest. My breath catches—but the light doesn’t seem to do anything. And yet—it goes straight through Nemor’s shield and out the back of his body. What is it?
Lady Magnolia’s voice is light and calm. I hear her in the sudden silence.
“If you had begged—no, even if you had, it is far too late. This is the price you pay for overconfidence, Nemor. And betrayal.”
The Great Mage Nemor pauses. For a second I think he didn’t even see the line of red light, so thin is it. But then he spots it and goes still.
He stares down at the thin red line pulsing in his chest. When he looks up at Lady Magnolia all his confidence is gone.
“Please. Have m—”
That’s the only word I hear. What I see is the burning line suddenly expanding. The thin line becomes a beam of burning air—a pillar—Nemor’s form is engulfed in a column of fire and then it flashes—
This time the impact knocks me backwards. I hear more masonry falling around me and instinctively curl up into a ball. Miraculously, Magnolia’s mansion doesn’t fall to bits around me.
My head is spinning. I’m still blind. I slowly uncurl, and gasp, remembering to breathe.
What? What was—
Was that a railgun? No—it was similar, but whatever that burning line was expanded. Some kind of explosion.
I raise my head up, although I really want to keep it down. What I see when I dare look back in the courtyard is simple: I see burning ground, the dark night, fallen bodies.
And Lady Magnolia, standing in the center of the courtyard, still pointing, her finger aimed straight at her enemy’s chest.
And where Nemor once stood? Nothing. A crater of black, smoking ash is all that remains. He is dead, and the Golems stand lifeless, some still tangled in the vines.
For a while, I just lie there, staring down at the courtyard. Lady Magnolia and Ressa look like they’re talking. My eyes are drawn to them—and then the devastation.
Gods. How many people just died down there? A bunch of [Assassins]—even if they weren’t ‘masters’, they had to be high-level. And that Nemor—what level was he?
I don’t know. I can’t even guess. I just witnessed a conflict that I’m far too inexperienced to even guess the magnitude of. It leaves me shaking.
Eventually, though, I stand up. I have to do—something. I wander back towards where the door used to be. I stare down the empty hallway, and then, finally, hear the other sounds.
Sound. It’s such an odd thing. As I lay watching the battle, I could only hear the clash of metal, Nemor’s voice, and the roar and boom of the magical spells. But now I hear other sounds.
Distant shouting. Crying. The voices of people. Who?
[Maids]. [Manservants]. The staff of the house, that’s who. As I slowly walk back into the non-destroyed parts of Magnolia’s estate, I suddenly remember them. And I see them, rushing about, tending to the wounded.
The wounded? Yes—the [Assassins] and Nemor didn’t just attack Magnolia. They struck the servants in her home first. I pass by multiple still bodies, stabbed or burnt practically to ash. But the few casualties of those unfortunate enough to get in the way are nothing compared to the wounded.
Several [Maids] are desperately trying to keep a man lying on the ground alive. He’s stabbed in the stomach—multiple times by the looks of it. But there are three shapes on the ground, all dressed in black clothing.
Assassins? They’re all dead. The servants must have fought them off. The maids look up at me and I—
Stab wound. They took the blade out, which is bad. The bleeding is severe. I grab the nearest cloth I can find—a dead [Maid]’s dress—and press it against the man’s stomach as hard as I can. I ignore his cries and get the other [Maids] to help.
I keep the dressing there, trying to stop blood from flowing, keep the man alive. Somehow, he holds on long enough for one of the [Maids] to dash back with a potion. She pours it on the wound and it heals instantly. The man sits up, gasping.
I stand up and go. My hands are covered with blood, but I pay no attention. I feel like a dreamer, walking through Magnolia’s grand home, now filled with death and destruction.
I give aid one more time, helping bind a tourniquet until a potion can arrive, and then I find the last [Assassin]. The one who ran.
He lies on the ground, a hole in his chest, black clothing still smoking from where something burned away part of his leg. Two people are standing over him, a [Butler] and a [Maid].
I blink at Reynold. He and the maid both hold weapons in their hands. A shortsword and buckler in his hands, and a glowing wand in the [Maid]’s. They stare at me, first wary, then relaxing.
“Miss Ryoka. Are you unharmed?”
I stare down at the [Assassin]. Filled by some unshakeable curiosity, I pull back his hood. I see not a man’s face as I’d assumed from his build, but a Gnoll’s. Dead.
I look back up at Reynold. He looks concerned for me. He moves his hand and I flinch, but he touches my head gently. He shows me…blood. On his fingertips.
“You’re hurt. I have a healing potion—please, hold still.”
I let him pour a bit on my temple. The pounding in my head stops. Huh. I didn’t even realize my head was throbbing until this moment. And I feel—a bit more steady.
I stare back down at the [Assassin]. Then I look back at Reynold. He looks grim, but he’s dealing with the situation better than I am at the moment. I hesitate, and then point at the dead Gnoll, grinning stupidly.
“Does this happen often as well?”
He just stares at me.
“Not in my lifetime. But I have heard stories of attempts made on one of the Five Families’ before.”
“Oh? And what comes next, then? What will Magnolia do?”
He looks at me as if it were obvious.
“She will go to war.”
The problem with winning, Lady Magnolia reflected, was that the winner inevitably had to clean up. Oh, of course some fools might choose to let the dead lie where they were, but that was only an option on the battlefield, and in her experience, most battles took place outside of battlefields.
She stood in what remained of her lovely courtyard, sighing and staring at the dead bodies as Ressa barked orders by her side. Magnolia knew better than to interrupt—Ressa’s control over her staff didn’t have any room for her, so while Ressa coordinated her people, Magnolia chattered. She often did that in times of stress; and every other time as well. She didn’t like silence.
“Not a shred of warning. Not a hint. What good are all my informants and spies if they can’t warn me of an impending attack?”
“I believe that is why it is known as a ‘sneak’ attack.”
Her [Head Maid] paused in the act of ordering a group of servants to race through the mansion to distribute healing potions. Naturally, Magnolia’s estate had many potions and artifacts for emergencies, but it was one thing to be prepared and another to be ready for an actual attack. Magnolia’s heart ached as reports came in of the servants who had gotten in the way of the assassins and Nemor during the attack.
Something would have to be done. They would have to train the staff, not just those experienced in combat—especially if this was a forecast of things to come.
“Even so, the fact that not one person reported anything unusual happening is telling, isn’t it, Ressa? Our spies are compromised.”
Ressa nodded briefly. That much was as obvious to both women as the moon.
“Some will have been caught off-guard. Others were bribed or threatened. More were traitors to begin with. It will take a great deal of work discovering which is which.”
“However, if this is the Circle of Thorns and not some pretenders…this is very serious, Ressa.”
More people rushed up to the two women. Magnolia listened with one ear while she thought quietly. She stopped one maid, though.
“What was that about an [Assassin]? Was the last one found?”
“Reynold and Sacra caught the last one as he was trying to flee. He is dead.”
Magnolia’s tone was irate. She glared at Ressa, ignoring the [Maid] who fled from her presence.
“Couldn’t you have captured that one alive? I want at least one witness to interrogate. What good are dead bodies to me? I don’t know any [Necromancers]—at least, none that I trust!”
She knew she was being petty, but she was in a bad mood. Ressa clicked her tongue disapprovingly as she responded to her mistress.
“That would have been an unnecessary risk. These killers had unknown Skills and magical items. Killing the escaping one quickly was the correct decision for Reynold and Sacra to make and I stand by their decision.”
Magnolia grumbled, but she let the matter drop. She knew it would have probably been pointless anyways—[Assassins] were notorious for dying to protect their client’s secrets. She paused as she heard a voice in her head.
“Oh, Ressa. I hear Teriarch. I’ll have to talk with him.”
Ressa nodded, and stepped away as Magnolia began to speak into the air.
“I’m here, Teriarch.”
The old Dragon’s voice was urgent in her mind.
“Magnolia! I received your signal. Are you—?”
“Fine. There was an attack. Assassins and a mage came to kill me.”
“Assassins? Are you sure you’re safe?”
“I’m fine, old fool.”
Magnolia’s tone was acerbic, but she relented a bit when she heard the genuine concern in Teeriarch’s ‘voice’. She could almost picture the Dragon anxiously fanning his wings.
“If you think they might be around, I could be there in minutes. A spell or—I could fly!”
“You? Fly all the way here?”
The woman snorted, amused by the idea.
“If you want to come I’d welcome you. But Ressa tells me the place is secure, and she would know. I have my own [Mages] and artifacts who will be able to safeguard me, you know that.”
There was a pause as Teriarch considered Magnolia’s reply.
“If Ressa says so…tell me what happened!”
Briefly, Magnolia related the events to Teriarch.
“Will you come or not? I could use you here.”
She held her breath, but not much. Teriarch’s reply was everything she expected.
“Well…if you’re safe, then I hardly need to go out. Other mages can take care of the rest—but you should get rid of the Golems.”
“I know. But it’s such a waste. I got those for my birthday, you know.”
“Nevertheless. If one mage can seize control of them, they cannot be trusted. You need a better Golem anyways—how often have I told you not to rely on these shoddy animated suits of armor?”
“Oh? And what would you propose?”
Magnolia snapped at the empty air. Teriarch’s voice was arch as he replied.
“Any superior construct would do. A Gemstone Golem would have far more utility as you well know. Ivory Golems are too susceptible to interference via death magic of course, but if you would just buy a Magestone Golem—or even a Truestone Golem—”
“Not even you have a Truestone Construct lying around. And besides, I’m fairly certain those were outlawed in several nations.”
“Hmf. Wistram has one.”
“And she is not for sale. Believe me, I’ve asked and she is definite on that subject. Teriarch, I have work to do. If you aren’t coming—”
“Very well. I will contact you later. But if you need help—”
Magnolia’s voice was soft.
“I know. I will ask. But there’s only so much you can do in that cave.”
She heard no reply. Instead, she sensed the magical connection break. Magnolia turned back to Ressa, and found the woman was waiting for her.
“Things are stable for now.”
“Good. Then find me Ryoka Griffin. I only saw the girl sensibly had her head down after Nemor blasted through the wall. Do you know where she is? Is she hurt?”
Ressa shook her head.
“She is alive and mostly unharmed. At the moment she is helping tend to the wounded.”
“Good. There may be some hope for her after all. Take me to her.”
The two began to walk into the mansion. Magnolia sighed as she looked at the injured, but she kept talking to Ressa as they walked.
“It’s begun, Ressa. It’s war, you know that, don’t you?”
“Against the Circle of Thorns?”
“Wherever and whoever they may be. I have an idea of where to start, but—”
“The same problem as before?”
“If my great grandmother’s diary is right, it will be a nightmare. Still, we can’t let them do this again. I think you know what we have to do.”
Ressa waited. Magnolia made a face as she forced herself to say the words out loud.
“I’ll need to gather my flight of attendants. My allies, anyone who can be trusted—do you know where all my attendants are right now?”
“Right where you left them. The Reinhart estate in First Landing.”
“Damn. I hate that place.”
“When should we leave?”
“Tonight. Have Reynold get the coach ready. We can be back soon, but we have to move now.”
“Well, for the moment…”
An hour ago I was talking about the fate of the world with Magnolia. Now I’m standing in the rubble of her mansion, helping pour healing potions on the wounded.
In fairness, there’s not that much rubble and no longer as many wounded. The wards on the Reinhart estate are sturdy, and Nemor only destroyed one room. But the air still feels tense, electric with fear and anxiety.
And grief. I stand up from tending to what used to be one man’s leg and turn to find Lady Magnolia and Ressa. They stare down at the [Manservant] as he tries to get up and fails.
Ressa’s voice is calm and imperious. But she kneels and inspects the man’s stump of a leg with gentle hands. The wound is healed, but his leg is gone. Burnt away. He shudders, but doesn’t cry out like he was doing earlier. He only looks up at Ressa and Lady Magnolia.
“I regret—I’m afraid I won’t be able to wait tables any longer, Miss Ressa.”
“Don’t worry about that. Just rest.”
Ressa lies the man back and more servants come to lift him in a stretcher. I watch them take the man away, and see Ressa’s gaze follow him.
She does care about the other servants. She might act like a general from hell ordering them about, but she cares.
I glance at the other woman. Lady Magnolia Reinhart is standing in the corridor, coolly surveying the devastation. People rush around her, and occasionally she’ll direct someone, but for the most part she just lets Ressa work.
She’s not down there tending to people herself. But she is radiating calm authority like a lighthouse. That’s a type of leadership, and I can see it reassuring the people around her. They look to her.
Now her eyes find me, and I shudder. I can’t take comfort in her presence. Not after what I saw. I nod to her to cover my unease.
“I saw what happened.”
“Hm. Well, I am relieved to see you weren’t hurt. I was almost afraid you’d jump into the fight.”
No fear of that. I stare at the one-legged man as he disappears down the corridor.
“What will happen to him?”
“The man…with the missing leg. What will happen to him after this?”
Magnolia blinks at me, surprised by my question.
“What do you mean?”
“Will he lose his job? He sounded like he was a waiter.”
“Of course he won’t lose his job! I will find a new one for him that he can fulfill with one leg. That is all that will happen. Why, did you think I would fire him?”
I can only shrug. Magnolia scowls. She seems genuinely annoyed with me.
“No one injured in my employ will ever face losing their job. I do not abandon my people.”
I turn my back and stare at the people hurrying around me. I can tell Magnolia is eying me balefully from behind.
“I trust you understand this complicates matters.”
“I kind of got that when all the [Assassins] appeared. What was the mage talking about? Who are the Circle of Thorns?”
Magnolia pretends she didn’t hear my question.
“Sadly, I have suddenly become far too busy to hound you on the matter of inventions from your world. I will do so at a later date, but for now I believe I will have to let you go.”
I turn and meet her eyes.
“Do you think I’m an idiot? I know this isn’t over.”
She rolls hers.
“Of course it isn’t. But by all means, attend to your own business. We are allies, so I shall make sure you meet with the best experts in Invrisil. Tomorrow.”
“Experts? What experts?”
Another eye roll. Magnolia points at my side, at the bag of holding I’m carrying and snaps.
“Magical experts, idiot! I know your adventurer friends uncovered some relics. Well, I will have some meet with you. And then, when I am done attending to this—you and I will talk again.”
Magnolia raises an eyebrow, but that’s all I have to say on the matter. She sighs, loudly.
“You are an obnoxious child sometimes, you know that? You remind me of Ressa when she was young.”
Ahead of her, Ressa turns and glares at Magnolia. I do the same. Magnolia waves her hand at the two of us.
“You will sleep here tonight. Ressa will find you a room.”
And so she does. I stay awake long enough to see the mansion slowly settle back into some kind of normalcy—and then I go to the large, extravagantly adorned room that has been allotted to me. I lie on the bed, but I’m still far too awake to sleep.
I can still see the lightning, still see the line of fire engulf Nemor. I don’t know what it means, and I’m almost afraid to find out. But one thing I do know.
The sky is already beginning to brighten. I try to sleep, willing myself to rest for however long I can. I think I’ll need the energy. I’m not done here. Not by far.
Invrisil, the City of Adventurers, awaits.
A lot can happen in a day. I mean, that’s a fairly obvious statement, but I find myself surprised, sometimes, at how much can happen.
Forty-five days. That’s how long I’ve been in this world. But although I had a lot of amazing, unforgettable experiences in these forty-five days, the last few have seen the most happen.
Especially three days ago. Three days ago I survived my first avalanche. I coordinated a rescue effort; I touched a dead person, and saved a life. More than one for both counts, if I’m honest.
But I choose to remember the living. And I have to keep moving forwards rather than dwell on the past; a lot more rests on my shoulders, now.
It’s a bit…ironic. A few days ago Durene and I were effectively outcasts living on the edge of Riverfarm, barely tolerated for who we were. Well, Durene was barely tolerated; I was more popular. But we were both shunned for our relationship.
And now? Now our little cottage is our hideaway from the rest of the world. At least if we stay there we can sleep in peace.
In three days, I went from being a blind man with an unhealthy obsession with half-Trolls in the eyes of the village to being an [Emperor]. Of course, I was always an [Emperor], but they didn’t know that.
They do now. True, I didn’t exactly advertise the fact, but everyone heard me when I first took control of the village. And word spreads fast.
How would you react to having an Emperor in your village? I’d imagine normally there would be a lot of questions and maybe even suspicion or hostility.
But in this case? There’s none. The villagers saw me running from spot to spot, finding people trapped in the snow. That earns you a lot of trust, not to mention gratitude. I am an [Emperor], and the villagers treat me as such.
Which brings me on to the downside of my current living situation: I’m an [Emperor]. And Riverfarm is now technically under my dominion.
Which, defacto, makes me their ruler. Which also makes me responsible for them. And makes them subservient to me.
And boy, do they take that role seriously.
“Are they still outside, Durene?”
I hear her rustle as she sits up and looks at the window.
“I think Gamel’s still out there.”
Or should I say, ‘already’? I frown as I sit up in bed next to Durene. It’s barely past dawn, and there’s someone out there?
“Did he camp out here?”
“I think so. He’s got a fire and everything.”
“We should have invited him in. Not that there’s space, but…”
I mutter to myself as I put on pants and a shirt and coat. I try to stay low; one of the downsides to being blind is that you can’t really tell where windows are or if doors are open. It means I’m somewhat paranoid about flashing someone by mistake.
“Why is he even out there? I told them I’d be back as soon as I woke up today.”
“I think they wanted to have someone here in case you needed anything.”
Durene answers cautiously as she readies some tea and rekindles the fire. She knows how I feel about suddenly being the ruler of Riverfarm, but I can tell from her voice that she’s pleased.
And can I blame her? She used to be the village laborer, the barely-tolerated half-monster girl. And now she’s the consort of an [Emperor], or my personal servant, or whatever. The point is that even though our relationship isn’t a secret, no one’s throwing rocks at Durene, and everyone treats her with almost as much deference as they treat me.
Part of that might also be her class. Durene is a Level 6 [Paladin] now. She gained the levels from helping save people and working to help the village. True, she didn’t slay monsters, but her doing good deeds fits with the idea of a [Paladin] in modern culture. And for her efforts, she gained not one, but two Skills.
[Weapon Proficiency: Shield] and [Graceful Step]. Now, the first Skill makes sense to me. It sounds like a classic feat out of any fantasy roleplaying game, but [Graceful Step]? Apparently, it allows Durene to move, well, gracefully. If I put it bluntly, she no longer sounds like an earthquake when she moves around her cottage, and she can even sneak up on me now!
It’s quite incredible to me, but it’s also odd. I mean, why would moving silently, or rather, gracefully, be that important to a [Paladin]? Is it because the class is taking from the original idea of a paladin being a member of Charlemagne’s court and being considered dignified characters? Or is it more broadly taken from the fact that paladins are supposed to be champions of justice, respected characters in the eyes of the many?
Perhaps there’s another set of guidelines I don’t know about entirely. All I do know is that Durene—
I wince and hear Durene’s surprised exclamation.
“Oh good. Frostwing’s awake.”
Indeed, the noisy eaglet has awoken, and upon finding both Durene and I are awake, is stridently, nay, angrily demanding we feed her breakfast. I scowl as I find the bowl of half-frozen food by the kitchen counter and shove it at the bird.
“Eat, you ungrateful fowl. Stop complaining—I haven’t even had breakfast yet!”
Happily, Frostwing does just that. She’s gotten even bigger than she was three days ago, and now she can peck at the food herself. I can even feel a few feathers coming in, although I’ve been too preoccupied with the village to attend to her as much as I’d like.
Speaking of which—
As Durene puts some butter in the pan and I delight at hearing it sizzle, I open the door and walk out to Gamel. I know the young man—he’s been following me and Durene around since the day of the avalanche. And I can even ‘see’ him in my mind—he’s camped right at the boundary of where Durene’s cottage ends.
“Emperor Laken, sir!”
I hear his excited voice as I crunch through the snow. I make a face and stop before I’m too close to him.
“I told you, Mister Laken is fine.”
I’d prefer to do away with even that, to be honest. But the villagers insist on calling me something. And that’s way better than ‘Emperor’.
“I’m sorry, Mister Laken.”
He sounds chastened. I sigh.
“Never mind that. Durene and I were about to have breakfast. Can I invite you in?”
“I couldn’t do that!”
He sounds horrified. I sigh again, but I knew Gamel would probably say that.
“Yes sir. I’ve got some porridge and even some smoked bacon right here, sir. A feast!”
“Well, in that case we’ll be out soon. If you’re cold, the door’s open.”
“I won’t be cold. I will be waiting, sir!”
I shake my head to myself as I walk back to the cottage. How did it come to this?
I brighten up a bit when I push open the door and smell meat cooking. Durene’s poking at the pan, and I can tell there are some thick slabs of ham waiting to be eaten.
“It does, doesn’t it?”
Durene sounds just as excited as I am as she flips the dripping slices onto a plate. She and I eat at a table—me ignoring Frostwing’s chirps as she tries to get me to feed her.
“You’re disgusting, you know that?”
“Not you, silly. Frostwing. Didn’t you just eat the entire bowl?”
“I dunno Laken, she looks hungry. She’s getting bigger—what if we gave her some?”
“Maybe later. There’s such a thing as overfeeding her, Durene.”
“…You can feed her that one bit.”
I smile to myself as Frostwing shrieks in delight and then begs for more. Who knew a bird could beg? But then my smile falters a bit as I bite into my own bit of fried ham. Yes, it’s delicious. But the mere fact that Durene and I are feasting on ham for breakfast is a concern.
We’re eating meat. And that might be normal in my world, but in Durene’s, or at least, in her village, that’s a luxury. And it’s happening because all the animals in Riverfarm are dead.
They were all buried in the avalanche, and unlike the people, we didn’t get to them in time. Chickens, pigs, cows—even if you ignore the people that died, this was a disaster in its own right. These animals are what Riverfarm depends on for food and coin, and they were all killed at once.
The one small mercy was that at least their bodies were frozen. It means that the villagers and Durene and I can eat the animals one by one and stretch out our food stocks that way. But still. This would cripple any village and make it that much harder to survive the winter in the best of times.
And after the avalanche, Riverfarm is certainly not going through the best of times. That’s why despite our big and delicious meal, Durene and I are out of the cottage in the next fifteen minutes, and we walk with Gamel trailing in our wake to Riverfarm in good time.
Countless voices greet me as I walk into the village. I smile and wave, and greet people by name. I’m used to the attention by now, at least enough so that I don’t get slowed down and get to the village center in good time. When I’m there, I immediately cast around the village with my [Emperor] senses.
Let’s see. What’s changed since yesterday? Some new houses are excavated—good. Nothing’s collapsed today, which is a relief. The dead animals—
—Are still frozen in the ground. But one of them looks…gnawed at? I frown.
With my senses I can tell the man jumps as I address him directly among the crowd. People still can’t quite believe I can sense things without seeing. But he hurries forwards as I call him.
“Yes, Mister Laken?”
“One of the dead cows—the one buried just past the barn—looks like it’s been partially eaten. Have animals found the body?”
“I don’t know. I’ll have someone check at once!”
Prost’s voice is filled with consternation and I hear him hurry off. In minutes he’s back with news.
“Animals did eat at the body, sir! Looks like foxes or something similar. They ate a good bit.”
“That’s not good.”
I sigh as I hear people around me mutter. Well, I suspected this would happen.
“Looks like wildlife is returning to the area after the avalanche. We’ll need to make sure they don’t get at any more of the dead animals before we can properly smoke them, salt them, or preserve them some other way.”
“That will be hard, sir.”
Prost sounds worried. I nod, but try to look for a better angle. There has to be something…
“What if we set traps for the foragers? We could catch a few animals—maybe more food for the pot?”
“That could work!”
The man brightens up and I hear voices sounding approving around me. Jeez. As if that was some brilliant idea. Any one of them could have come up with it—they’d probably be able to execute it far better than I could since they actually know how all of this works. But they let me do the thinking and deciding, because I am an [Emperor] after all, and don’t I know best?
This is how my day goes now. I coordinate with Prost about getting people to set traps up as Durene goes to help dig. She’s been doing it every day—we’ve nearly gotten all of the houses excavated, but there’s still tons of snow around the village that could be cleared out. And the fields—
“At the very least, we should focus on finding a place to store the dead animals. The barn perhaps. If we could close the doors and put the frozen bodies in the snow there, that might keep a lot of hungry animals at bay.”
“We can do that. Just give the word, Mister Laken.”
“I’m just worried larger predators will smell the dead bodies and come searching.”
“Aye, that’s true. The Emperor has a point. What if a bear scents out the carcasses?”
I hear a murmur of worry.
We’ll have to have eyes on the barn, then. But we can’t just let the bodies rot and keeping them buried is just asking for trouble. Let’s get to it.
Prost takes command of a few villagers, and I choose more people who either volunteer or who I know have good Skills for the job. No one complains. Everyone’s so full of this—this can-do attitude it almost makes my heart hurt.
Here they are, days after an avalanche that killed their family and friends, and they’re putting their lives back together. Without a word of complaint. Helping one another, sharing all they have. All they needed was a little nudge to do it.
“But it isn’t good enough.”
I mutter the words quietly as I sit in Prosts’s house, repurposed to act as a central hub I can work in.
“What’s that, sir?”
I shake my head at Gamel as he leans forwards to pay closer attention. It’s nothing.
Liar. I know what the problem is, and I know I have to address it soon. Today. The villagers are working hard, I know that. They’ve excavated their village, repaired damage, worked together, buried the dead. They’ve performed a small miracle, but—
“But we don’t have enough food to last the winter. Nor are we ready for a monster attack.”
That’s the situation I lay out in front of Prost and the other older villagers later that day. I hear them talking amongst themselves, but they go quiet when I continue.
“We’ve got stores of food of course—plenty, in fact. And the harsh truth of it is that we’re benefited by having fewer mouths to feed. But—even so. We lost all the animals, and a number of cellars where the snow and ice smashed everything to bits. And there are other villages that were hit too—what if relatives come? People seeking aid, who weren’t as fortunate as us? What if there are more mouths to feed? And while we’re struggling to make ends meet, monsters could attack us at any time.”
I’ve never encountered a monster, but Durene and the others have told me stories, and they’re horrific. Monsters, especially smart ones like Goblins, love to attack when people are at their weakest. I’m sure Riverfarm is a lovely target for them, and the other villagers know I’m right.
“What should we do then, Mister Laken? Do you have a plan?”
That’s Prost’s voice again. He seems to speak for a lot of the villagers. I nod at him, trying to project confidence so he won’t be worried. Odd. A few days ago he was trying to tell me what to do. Now—
“I do. If we don’t have enough food here, and we need help, we might as well just buy it.”
“Buy it? You mean—from a city?”
Consternation fills the room. I wait for them to quiet, and then ask for opinions. Again, Prost is first up to bat.
“Pardon me, Mister Laken, but I’m afraid our village doesn’t have the coin to buy enough food—let alone hire adventurers to guard us. We never did. We could buy enough food for a few weeks maybe, or hire a few bronze-rank adventurers for the same amount of time if we pool our coin, but…”
He trails off helplessly. The other villagers mutter their agreement. It’s so—interesting. None of them want to tell me I’m wrong, even when they are telling me just that. It’s like they want to be proven wrong, to know I’ve always got something up my sleeve.
That’s unhealthy. I need to get them to stop thinking like that. Even if…they’re right in this case.
I clear my throat.
“Money will not be an issue, ladies and gentlemen. I happen to have quite enough coin to pay for whatever Riverfarm needs.”
I nod at Mister Prost.
“Remember the gold coin I traded you, Mister Prost? I have hundreds more like it.”
Is it risky telling a bunch of desperate villagers I’m rich? Maybe. And some would say that’s especially true since I’m blind. But I have a good read on these people. They’re honest, hardworking, loyal—even if they are a bit racist. And they look up to me.
My faith in them is not misplaced. If anything, I underestimate their spirit. After the shocked exclamations die down, one of the other villagers, a woman named Teriane, speaks up.
“Mister Laken, we can’t hardly have you paying for all of us! We’d never be able to repay you!”
The others mutter sadly in agreement. I just shake my head.
“Nonsense. No one needs to pay me back anything. I’m your [Emperor], so it’s only natural that I’d take care of my citizens.”
Also, I got the money practically for free. But when the villagers hear this, they’re moved to tears. Literally, in some cases. I feel bad—but I feel worse when they begin to cheer.
“Long live Emperor Laken!”
Oh god. This is too much for me. Eventually I get them all to sit down and shut up, and I keep going with my plan.
“Okay, money isn’t an issue, but what is important is getting to a proper place to spend all of what I have. To that end…I’m going to Invrisil.”
“It’s the only way!”
I talk over their exclamations. I explain as best I can.
“I’ll take Durene—and Frostwing too, I suppose. The three of us can move quickly, and go to the Adventurer’s Guild and marketplace to buy all we need.”
“But sir—you can’t! It’s too dangerous for you and—and especially Durene!”
Prost is the first to speak up. I can tell he’s agitated, and I understand why.
Durene. She’s always wanted to go to a city, and always been too scared of what treatment she might receive. But this—
“Durene is the only person who can guide me properly. I trust her, and she’s strong.”
“Then why not let one of us go instead?”
“Do you really think you’d be safe, Mister Prost? Even if I sent ten people—what if you were attacked by bandits? Or if someone tried to mug you for the gold?”
They can’t reply to that. I nod seriously.
“I’ve been thinking this over. Durene might stand out, but she’s stronger than any thug, and I…I’m an [Emperor]. We’d stand more of a chance, and besides, who would try robbing a blind man and a half-Troll?”
Well, more people would try to rob me than Durene. But the villagers still don’t like the idea.
“What will happen when you’re gone, though? Emperor, sir, we need you!”
“You don’t need me.”
I scowl as I override their objections.
“No, be quiet! You don’t need me. You did perfectly well when I wasn’t here, and I’ll only be gone a few days at the most. And when I return, I’ll have everything we need.”
I can hear part of their fear unspoken in their voices. It’s not just the dangers they worry about. It’s that I might abandon them. I mean, it’s not as if I didn’t think of it. What’s stopping me and Durene from just leaving Riverfarm to their fate?
My duty as an [Emperor], that’s what. And if not that, my soul.
I walk up to the man, and take him by the arm. He starts at my touch, but I look at him. My eyes are closed obviously, but this is as close as I can get to what it would be like if I could see.
“Mister Prost. I will come back. Riverfarm is my home, now. This is my empire. I will return. You have my word as an [Emperor] on it.”
I don’t know what Prost sees in my closed eyelids, but whatever I say, it works. In a moment he changes from arguing against me to arguing for me.
“Trust in Emperor Laken you lot! No—quiet Melpin! You don’t know what you’re talking about. If Emperor Laken say he’ll do it—he’ll do it!”
And that settles that. Oh, of course I had to reassure people and tell the others what was going to happen, but once I got the ball rolling, it couldn’t be stopped.
Not that there weren’t a few alterations, mind. In the end it was decided that we’d take a wagon. Durene would be able to pull me, Frostwing, and the gold and some travel supplies along. I objected of course, but Durene was the one who argued against me the most here.
“I can pull you all, Laken! Honest!”
Against my better judgment, I agreed to it, especially, as it turned out, because we’d be getting company. Gamel was chosen to accompany us—as a sort of helper to Durene and someone who could talk to guards and whatnot.
It made sense, and I couldn’t get the villagers to budge, so I let it all pass. That’s how we found ourselves getting ready long into the night, and I drew up some plans for the villagers to follow while we were gone.
“The cart is loaded?”
“Frostwing’s secure in her nest?”
I hear her shrill cry and nod.
“Durene? Are you sure about this?”
“Positive! Look, I can pull this so easily!”
Durene demonstrates and I wobbled and nearly lose my balance standing on the wagon.
“Oh! Sorry Laken!”
“Nevermind that. Okay, it’s time!”
I turn and wave to the villagers. They cheer and call out my name. Durene pulls the wagon, Gamel shouts and hollers back at his sweetheart, and we set out down the snow-covered road. The villagers worked all night to clear it so we can travel on, and the ride isn’t nearly as bumpy as I thought it would be.
I sit back down in the wagon and feel the comfy, warm blankets around me. The villagers really spared no expense giving me the luxury accommodations.
“Durene, just let me know when you get tired. If you can’t pull us all the way, I’m more than happy to get out and walk.”
“I’m fine, Laken! I could even pull Gamel!”
“That’s fine Durene. I like walking. I could—help pull if you need it.”
“No, I got it!”
We move onwards. I feel the fresh morning air in my face and sigh.
“This is so weird.”
“Isn’t it exciting?”
Durene’s voice is filled with delight and apprehension in equal measures. I can just tell she’s twisting in place as she walks to stare up at me.
“I’m so nervous, Laken! We’re going to a city! Not just a city, the city! The City of Adventurers!”
“I’ve never been there myself. Is it amazing?”
Both Durene and Gamel chorus at the same time. I grin.
“But neither of you have been there before, have you?”
Practically none of the villagers have. Invrisil is a huge city, and the people of Riverfarm trade with the local town rather than go all the way there. But the city is the dream of all young folk.
Including me, I guess.
I can hear the worry in her voice as she pauses before speaking.
“Do you really think it’ll be alright? I mean…for me?”
I take a while before I reply. That was my worry too. But…
“It’ll be okay.”
“There might be some people who just look at you and judge you from first glance, but if there are, I’ll deal with them. I am an [Emperor], after all. And you are my lovely subject.”
“That makes me relieved. I mean, I’m just so nervous! We have a fortune in the wagon! What if someone finds out?”
Durene says it again, but I can tell she’s feeling better. I tease her as we go up a small slope that apparently leads out of the village.
“How will anyone find out? Unless you shout it to them, that is.”
“I’m just saying! There could be bandits, or monsters—”
“You’ll just have to defend me, then.”
“Of course you! You’re my [Paladin], after all, aren’t you?”
“Oh come now. Don’t worry, Durene! What’s the worst that could go wrong?”
Frostwing squawks in my ear, and Durene giggles. I sit back as Gamel starts talking about being an adventurer and maybe even going to Wistram, and Durene excitedly asks him what magic he’d study, and turn my face up to the sky.
I can’t tell whether it’s cloudy or clear skies above me. And maybe that’s a good thing, because I can always imagine that there’s a blue, clear sky overhead and the sun is shining bright. I’ve never seen blue, but I imagine it’s the color of adventure, of a new day.
Of course, I’ve always thought green was a rather hopeful color as well. But who ever heard of a green sky? Ah well, it’s all the same to me.
The wagon rumbles on as I, Laken Godart, [Emperor], prepare to go to Invrisil, the City of Adventurers to save my poor village from starvation and monsters. I lie back, breath in. And at last—
I begin to explore this vast world.