Happiness was a simple thing. It was a strong bed, comfortable food, and hot drink. Or was it a comfortable bed, hot food and a strong drink? Sometimes Zel forgot. He’d slept out in the open, through blizzards with not much more than a sleeping bag, or right behind the front lines as a battle continued into the night too many times to count. He was used to deprivation.
So why was he so grumpy waking up in the morning these days? He had a soft bed with silk sheets of all things, rooms heated with magic runes and a breakfast that had been prepared by a [Chef]. But he didn’t like it. Zel had grown used to waking up to the smell of pancakes cooking, walking downstairs and eating his food while a small white Gnoll peered at him over the table and stole scraps from his plate.
That was happiness. This? This was just a place where he lived at the moment. And yet, Zel knew it was his fault. He couldn’t handle being under the same roof as the Goblins. Was he too old to change? Or perhaps he had taken the easy excuse. Living once again in Peslas’ inn made it all too easy to leave.
Still, he’d miss this city. Zel sighed as he strode towards the city hall for another interminable meeting with Liscor’s Council. Like any good soldier, he was there right when he was supposed to be—early, in fact. The other Drakes lacked military discipline. All except for one.
Ilvriss was reclining in one of the padded chairs he’d insisted be brought in, covering his eyes and rubbing at his forehead. He winced as Zel closed the door with a soft click.
“Shivertail, don’t think so loudly.”
“You’ve been drinking again.”
Zel looked disapprovingly at the Lord of the Wall. Ilvriss only shook his head.
“Incorrect. I hadn’t stopped since we last spoke.”
“That was yesterday.”
“What is your point, precisely?”
The other Drake opened one bloodshot eye. Zel shook his head.
“You have to stop this. I understand your grief, but giving into it isn’t—”
“When I ask for your advice, Shivertail, I will ask.”
Ilvriss turned his head away and closed his eyes. The conversation ended abruptly. Zel sighed to himself, but the [General] didn’t try to continue speaking. What was the point? The Lord of the Wall had reached the end of his quest. He’d found who’d killed his lieutenant, Periss. Ryoka Griffin had told him.
Az’kerash. The [Necromancer]. The thought that he’d survived made Zel clench his fists together. He was a danger. Now he saw more fully the grand plan that had led him to meet Ryoka in the forest, and coincided with her being the target of undead assassins—for that was what they had surely been—in Liscor. Normally, the news would have Ilvriss alert and making plans to defend his beloved Walled City as well. But—
Zel looked over at Ilvriss. The Drake was slumped over in his chair, cradling his head. Gone was the disciplined, arrogant front the Wall Lord had worn at all times. The truth of Periss’ death might have been necessary, but it had snuffed the burning fire in Ilvriss’ heart and left only mourning. He had drunk himself into despondency.
“You truly did love her, it seems.”
The other Drake looked up slowly, not looking at Zel.
“Love her? I would have married her if she didn’t think it was beneath my station.”
That surprised Zel. He would have expected any other confession to come out of Ilvriss’ mouth. He waited as Ilvriss went on, speaking slowly in the silent room.
“I couldn’t believe she’d died. I thought that Runner girl had to have been an [Assassin], one of my enemies plotting against me. I could have believed that she had been killed to hurt me, to hurt my city. But as an accident? She just followed that Human and died because—because I ordered it? Over a petty incident?”
“It wasn’t your fault.”
Empty words. Zel grimaced as he said them. Ilvriss’ glance told him that everyone had said the same thing. The [General] tapped a claw on the table.
“What I mean to say is that her death matters, Ilvriss. We know who the enemy is.”
“Yes. The Necromancer. Holed up in a castle in the middle of nowhere, forming an undead army. Sending his…servants out to eliminate his enemies under disguises.”
Slowly, reassuringly, Ilvriss’ brows came together. He shook his head and winced.
“Pieces, Shivertail. It feels as though I can see part of the spider’s web around me. I’d heard of freak deaths, the disappearance of a good friend—assassinations. All that is usual in our world, but now I think of every one and wonder…”
Zel nodded. Was it Az’kerash, weakening the Drakes? How long had his spies been moving? Looking at the history of Regrika Blackpaw, it truly did seem like she’d sprung out of nowhere a few years back. Everyone had a story of her past exploits, but send a [Message] spell to ask for the source of it and there was no record of her ever being born to the Blackpaw tribe, or of her growing up. He’d already begun to look into her travels and noticed the pattern of deaths or ‘accidents’ following her around.
“We have to spread the word. Carefully. Miss Ryoka Griffin’s life, and the lives of other innocents are at risk if we do not keep the secret. Not to mention we might force the enemy into acting before we are ready.”
“Do not tell me my business, Shivertail. I will reach out to my allies. I have done. Subtly. But also do not presume to lecture me now. I am grieving.”
“Through the bottom of a mug?”
“If I must!”
The two Drakes glared at each other as Ilvriss half-rose out of his chair. The door opened. Olesm walked in, precisely on time, juggling a sheaf of papers.
“I’m sorry, am I late? I was just receiving the latest reports from the Mage’s Guild and the [Scribe] was delayed—”
“Not at all. In fact, no one else has turned up.”
Zel nodded to Ilvriss as Olesm hurried to a seat opposite the two Drakes. Olesm bobbed his head awkwardly to the two of them, looking intimidated at being alone with two famous Drakes. Zel knew better than to try and strike up small chat; instead he leaned over towards Ilvriss and hissed at him under his breath.
“At least keep him out of your drinking sessions. Some of these young Drakes work hard for the future of the city and don’t need you stepping on their tails and holding them back.”
“I care about the next generation, Shivertail. Don’t lecture me—and besides, we were celebrating young Swifttail. He reached Level 28 yesterday!”
“So soon? That’s impressive.”
“I have a mind to recommend his name when I return to Salazsar. He’s wasted here, and if he joins that army of sellswords he’ll languish there as well.”
Zel grimaced at Ilvriss’ jab at Liscor’s army. He had been a close friend and student of General Sserys, former [General] of Liscor and leader of the famed mercenary army. He couldn’t deny that the army had suffered in the decades since then, but it felt disrespectful to his mentor’s memory to agree.
Changing the subject, he glanced at Olesm. The papers he was spreading out could only mean one thing.
“There’s news from Esthelm at last, Olesm?”
Olesm jumped and nearly dropped the papers he was spreading around.
“Yes sir! It came in just as I was checking this morning. I brought it here right away and sent Street Runners to gather the Council. I hope I wasn’t being presumptuous?”
Ilvriss smiled at Olesm and waved a languid claw.
“Not at all. I’m sure that General Shivertail appreciates your forwards thinking and quick action, as do I. But tell us, what is the news? I don’t feel like waiting for the rest of the Council to drag themselves out of their beds.”
He and Zel exchanged a grimace. The Council in Liscor was made up of various Guild heads and what passed for politicians in the city, but given Liscor’s relative isolation, they were hardly a premier group of leaders. Liscor generally trusted to its natural geographical defenses and strong walls as well as its powerful army to deter threats, and hadn’t suffered a real crisis since the last Antinium War. Olesm nodded and glanced towards the windows.
“Zevara, that is to say, the Watch Captain seems to be delayed. I think she got a report and is relaying it to Klbkch, that is to say, the representative of the Hive—”
He coughed, glancing anxiously towards Zel and Ilvriss. Zel suppressed any reaction and nodded mildly.
“I understand. If you don’t mind repeating the message, you can give us the short version now.”
“Certainly. To summarize, we finally received a message from Esthelm…a day and a half since the Goblin Lord was predicted to have passed by its walls. It seems that delay was unavoidable—every tail has been needed to tend to the wounded.”
The two Drakes exchanged a glance. Zel frowned.
“Dire news. But the fact that there are wounded seems to indicate they survived the Goblin Lord’s passing.”
“Yes sir. I have the full report here, but to summarize, the Goblin Lord assailed their walls with a portion of his force as his army marched by, was repulsed, and left Esthelm alone.”
“Intriguing. I wouldn’t have thought he’d leave any city standing, much less one as poorly defended as Esthelm.”
Ilvriss frowned as he accepted a parchment detailing the battle. Zel frowned at it, but nodded slowly.
“No, it falls with what Olesm predicted, Ilvriss. Esthelm’s citizens were ready to fight—nearly all of them have combat classes now, and the Antinium repaired their walls. Add that to the fact that there’s really not much for the Goblin Lord to take a second time, and it’s a fairly unappetizing target.”
Olesm nodded and coughed again.
“It uh, seems that way, General Shivertail. However, Esthelm had to prove that it wasn’t going to be taken so easily. They had to fight off several waves of Goblins and make them pay for each foothold they established before the attacking force dispersed. The casualties…”
“A quarter dead and over half the population wounded in some way. I see.”
Zel closed his eyes, imagining the carnage. The Humans had held their city, kept it, but at a terrible price. He pushed the parchment back and looked at Ilvriss. The Drake was grimacing, rubbing at his temples.
“It seems we’ll have a quick meeting. There’s not much we can do but wait for reinforcements from Liscor’s army and the second suppression force to arrive. And that will take a week at least.”
“You’ll have to repeat that six ways before the Council’s reassured, sir.”
Zel grimaced and Ilvriss growled some very insulting words about ‘spineless slug-like lizards’ under his breath. Meetings with Liscor’s Council were never easy. But then Zel smiled as he thought of his news.
“Well, perhaps the meeting will be long, but I will leave it to you and Ilvriss to sort it out. And I must apologize in advance, because the Council probably will take a great deal of reassuring.”
“And why’s that? If you’re intending to leave, Shivertail—”
“I’m afraid that’s just it, Ilvriss. I received a letter earlier this day through Celum.”
Ilvriss broke off in snapping angrily at Zel. The [General] stood up, and smiled. He controlled the trembling in his claws and tail as he looked casually at Olesm, who was staring at him with wide eyes.
“Please explain it to the Council like this, Olesm. I’m leaving. I have a meeting with someone further north. I’ll be traveling to Celum, and then, hopefully, further north even than that. I’m aware of the dangers of the Goblin Lords and the Humans, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take.”
Both Drakes shot to their feet. Well, Ilvriss. Olesm had already been standing. The Wall Lord stared at Zel in disbelief.
“If you go north, half of those damn Humans will interpret it as an act of war! A Drake [General] hasn’t gone past Liscor since—”
“The last Antinium War. I know.”
Zel looked around the room calmly. He glanced towards the door and saw it open. Watch Captain Zevara strode in, looking breathless. She saluted as she saw Zel Shivertail.
“General Shivertail, I apologize for my delay. Is—is the rest of the Council not here yet?”
She looked incredulous and disgusted.
“I’ll send guardsmen to rouse them at once. My apologies—”
“Thank you, Watch Captain Zevara. But please, you might want to wait a moment. I was just telling the others that I was leaving the city.”
Zel Shivertail smiled and straightened. The other Drakes were staring at him, and his heart was pounding wildly. But now he’d said it. It was too late to turn his tail and make another choice. He looked around the room.
“I’m going. Don’t worry Ilvriss; I’m still concerned with the Goblin Lord’s threat and—other matters. But I’m going to tackle it my way. I’m going north. To meet with someone.”
The room was silent. Ilvriss stared at Zel, and his eyes slowly narrowed.
The Drake [General] grinned at the Lord of the Wall as if he were two decades younger. Zel turned and strode out of the room without replying. The room was silent for two thundering heartbeats after he’d closed the door, and then all three Drakes charged after him. But it was too late. Zel was already running for the gates.
In Liscor, a Drake [General] ran towards an inn and reappeared in a Human city nearly a hundred miles north in moments. That was a small miracle of transportation. However, once in Celum, Zel Shivertail’s ability to travel would be severely reduced. No other city had magical doors from a bygone era lying about, and if he wanted to travel with magic, Zel would find his options severely limited.
If you wanted to move fast, you had a few very improbable choices available to you. It was, in theory, possible to teleport people hundreds or thousands of miles, but only a few very high-level mages could do that. In fact, the most common use of teleportation was sending hand-sized parcels from one continent to another. That was the limit of most mages’ abilities. If you wanted to teleport a person from Chandrar to Terandria for example, you’d need a group of skilled [Mages]. Or an Archmage.
And if you didn’t have access to that many mages, there were only limited and ancient scrolls or magical artifacts that could help you. Scrolls of long distance teleportation were rarer than moon diamonds however, and not to be used lightly. A powerful kingdom might horde such artifacts for the most important of circumstances for generations.
So if there wasn’t magic, how else could one travel? By horseback? Wagon? By air? It was true that there were species that could fly, like the Garuda in Chandrar, but such travel was dangerous and highly impractical for other species. As for horses—yes, a [Rider] with high levels could travel at speed and a [Caravaner] might possess Skills that allowed him to travel at faster speeds, but the stark truth of it was that the size of Izril and indeed, the world, meant that travelling across a continent took weeks or months.
To move faster was an impossibility for almost everyone. Even famous [Mages] and celebrities would travel by carriage, where levels and magical wheels would allow them to reach up to a hundred miles per day. That was the limit of this world. No one could move faster. No one. Why, you’d need a Pegasus to go faster, and they were all extinct! You’d have to ride a Dragon’s back, or cast the [Fly] spell. Or ride a magical carriage.
Far to the north of Celum, hundreds of miles north in fact, a bright pink carriage shot down a small road meant for foot travel. The carriage was large, grandly ornamented with gold and careful woodwork embellished by some long-dead master carpenter, and now, casually painted over with eye-searing pink. Four misty, semi-translucent horses pulled the carriage, running faster than any living horse in existence.
The carriage barreled down the dirt path, weaving to follow the curving road, almost soundless thanks to the magic enchanting it. And there was a lot of magic on the carriage. Without it, the vehicle would never have survived the speed of the journey, or managed to turn as nimbly as it did in response to the driver’s movements.
A young man wheeling a handcart was heading down the road in the opposite direction, pushing a few sacks of produce or something else ahead of him and not looking where he was going. Why should he? Aside from monsters, bandits, or the uncertain nature of causality, he was perfectly safe. After all, there was no such thing as cars in this world.
The magical carriage drifted around a bend in the dirt road, shooting out behind a line of trees, a blur of pink death. The young man had only a moment to look up and see it coming at him, faster than thought. He put up his hands and screamed his last words—
Seconds after the carriage had shot past him, moving off the road for a split-second and continuing its mad course across the countryside. The young man stood where he was, frozen in fear. He would later abandon his cart and suffer reoccurring nightmares and maintain a distinct aversion for all things pink for year afterwards. But he was only one obstacle in the road, one skillfully avoided by the magical carriage’s driver.
And it was notable that this famed carriage, belonging to none other than Magnolia Reinhart, did not routinely run over pedestrians. In fact, it was known for only being decorated with the blood of bandits or monsters. Aside from the heart-stopping fright it generated, people who had seen it travelling reasoned it was safe. After all, who would be so foolish as to enchant a coach to move that fast and not give it the ability to avoid collisions?
“Blood on my grave, that was close.”
Reynold muttered to himself as he turned the coach down the road, shooting past a quiet village. The world blurred around him, and the freezing wind blew hard at him as he sat in the driver’s seat of Magonlia’s pink carriage. Only the magical enchantments kept him from shivering in his butler’s uniform.
“Reynold? We’ve slowed. Is everything alright?”
A voice came from the carriage behind him, and the sliding panel connecting him with the interior slid open a fraction. Reynold coughed and raised his voice to be heard.
“My apologies Lady Reinhart. We’re passing by a village and I must navigate us over a river.”
“Ah, bridges. How tiring. Thank you, I completely understand.”
The panel slid shut. Reynold didn’t have to look behind him to know that it had been Ressa who’d both opened the panel and closed it. The silent [Head Maid] who accompanied her mistress everywhere was quiet as a falling leaf when she wanted to be. In fact, she could be right behind him and Reynold wouldn’t notice. It had happened before.
Part of Reynold wanted to turn his head, but he didn’t dare look away as he guided the coach over a small footbridge that left bare inches on either side for the wheels—all at a speed a bit faster than Ryoka could run. The horses and indeed, wheels of the carriage turned precisely as he adjusted the reins in his hand—moving as much from his mental orders as his physical motions.
Reynold cleared the bridge, scanned the road quickly, and accelerated to a velocity that would have left the average unladen Swallow, European or otherwise, far behind in the dust. The world blurred into a tunnel once again and Reynold could only trust to his Skills and his reflexes to spot obstacles in the road ahead.
The panel slid open as Reynold guided the carriage out of the forest and upwards towards a hill. He cursed as he spotted rocky terrain ahead and whispered a word.
“[Flying Wheels]—yes, Lady Reinhart?”
“I have some delightful chocolates here, and Ressa tells me I’m not allowed to eat them all in one sitting. Would you like one?”
The carriage’s wheels rose off the ground and shot over the rocks in front of them, climbing effortlessly as Reynold tried to find the best incline that wouldn’t send them crashing into the hillside. His knuckles were white on the reins as he sent the coach upwards at dizzying speeds, but his voice was level and only a bit high-pitched as he replied.
“You are most kind Lady Reinhart, but I ah, am quite satisfied at the moment. Thank you.”
“A pity. Ressa will have to eat them I suppose, or my other guests. Oh, we are travelling upwards, aren’t we? Reynold, make us fly, won’t you? I do enjoy that.”
“Yes, Lady Reinhart.”
Reynold nearly screamed. Instead of decelerating as he crested the top of the hill, he willed the carriage to go faster. The pink coach shot over the top of the hill and flew through the air for several heart-stopping seconds. Reynold heard a delighted laugh from the carriage behind him as he spoke a hurried word, activating another enchantment.
Slowly, he saw the world approaching below him. Reynold jerked the reins and the coach smoothly turned left, avoiding a rock and a lake and returning to ground smoothly and finding the road again. He breathed a sigh of relief, and then spoke another word.
There was a slight rumble and increased traction as the wheels met solid earth again. Now they were on a straightaway headed through some flat, lovely, open plains. Reynold could have cried in relief. He turned, and nearly jumped out of his skin as he saw Ressa, standing next to him. The [Maid] had climbed out of the carriage’s door and to the front without him hearing a thing.
“Yes, Miss Ressa?”
Reynold’s eyes jerked ahead of him as Ressa’s low voice spoke in his ears. The [Maid] eyed the road ahead and nodded to the magical horses pulling them ever faster.
“Don’t use the [Flying Wheels] enchantment if Lady Magnolia asks again. It wastes magical energy and we don’t have time to spend recharging the mana stones more than necessary.”
“Yes, Miss Ressa.”
An indignant voice called from within. Reynold breathed a sigh of relief as Ressa turned and pulled herself back into the carriage. He heard them talking for a second.
“We’re close to our destination. It looks like thirty minutes more.”
“Excellent. I’m tired of sitting and I could use a chance to stretch my legs before the next trip. Also, I’d like lunch.”
“It should be ready by the time we arrive. Without tea, this time. You don’t need to have that much sugar and we don’t have time to stop and let you pee every fifteen minutes.”
“That was a poor batch of tea, Ressa. Honestly, it happened once.”
“And it won’t happen again.”
The panel slid shut and Reynold breathed a sigh of relief. He guided the carriage onwards, spraying mud and snow as he travelled across the countryside. Not the roads—even in winter, colliding with an errant traveler was too likely. He kept his head scanning the horizon for threats, points of interest, and to make sure he was going the right way.
This was his job. He was a [Butler], one of the many servants in the Reinhart employ. But he was also one of Lady Magnolia’s personal aides, which meant that he had…other…competencies. One of them was driving this carriage.
No one else could do it at this speed, which is why Reynold had driven north to escort Lady Magnolia wherever she needed to go. Also, Reynold was a long-time servant to Lady Magnolia and Ressa had personally approved his ability to be discrete in all situations. That was a very important quality to have, Reynold knew. Lady Magnolia’s bathroom habits were the least of the secrets he sometimes heard.
The carriage eventually drew close to a large city, and Reynold was relieved to finally slow to something less than death-speed. However, he didn’t have the luxury of driving into the city and being forced to obey the speed of local traffic—no, Magnolia Reinhart was far too busy for that.
She had an estate on the outskirts of this city. She had estates everywhere, but this one was rather small and not meant as a place for her to stay in. Rather, a delegation of [Maids] and other servants was already waiting for the carriage as Reynold stopped it in the middle of the frozen road outside the villa.
“Are we here? Good!”
The door opened and Magnolia hopped out before Ressa or Reynold could open the door or lower the half-step. Magnolia stretched and Reynold carefully dismounted as well, surreptitiously stretching his tense lower back as Ressa emerged.
“Food, fuel. Reynold will handle it. Now, are Lady Bethal and the Chevalier Thomast here? I trust they are being entertained.”
Frightened servants parted like a wave before her, and both women strode into the villa. Reynold sagged for a moment, and then waved at one of the [Maids] hurrying towards him at the head of a small procession. He knew her; his job meant he was acquainted with most of Magnolia’s staff.
“Janica, greetings. Tell me that’s hot bacon I keep smelling? I’m half frozen and I could use a bite to eat. And I think the mana stones on the coach need replacing.”
“You can have it on the road! Not now, you glutton! You need to show me and the others how to replace the stones—I can’t remember how and you’re the only expert.”
The [Maid], Janica, slapped Reynold’s hands away from the basket she was holding. The other servants nodded to Reynold deferentially—he outranked them all as one of Magnolia’s special [Butlers]. The [Manservants], [Porters], and generic [Servants] descended on the coach. Reynold sighed as he walked around to the back of the carriage and pulled out a large key. He unlatched a hidden compartment on the back and turned to Janica. She was an older woman with grey hair, but she peered keenly inside the inner workings of the carriage as if she were a girl seeing her first artifact.
“It always amazes me to see how it works! You say an Archmage invented this?”
“Apparently. It’s all runes and spellcraft to me, but here’s where the mana stones go. Hold on, are these all certified to have the maximum charge?”
The large, hand-sized gems presented to Reynold on a soft pillow were some of the most expensive objects in the world. He tiredly grabbed them and popped the ones in the carriage out of their sockets with an experienced hand. The [Porter] with the pillow trembled as Reynold placed two of the nearly spent mana stones on the pillow. One was a ruby, the other one a perfectly cut emerald.
The process that turned perfect gemstones into vessels for magic made them expensive enough that Gold-rank Adventurers could only afford the smallest of them. The ones that Magnolia Reinhart used for her carriage were beyond the pay grade of most Named Adventurers.
“Have them replenished at the Mage’s Guild. Don’t worry; they know how to do it, although I suspect it will take them a week or more. And these ones will last half a day if I keep travelling. Janica, take pity on me. I’d rather not eat and drive at the same time if I can help it.”
The elderly [Maid] was supervising the loading of the carriage. Reynold could see [Maids] cleaning out any trace of dust or crumbs carefully as platters and neatly-wrapped baskets were placed in the storage compartments above and below where passengers could sit. He coughed.
“Put the written reports under the table. Just there. There’s a compartment. It slides out—hold on, I’ll do it.”
He clambered into the carriage and showed the others where to load some of the supplies. While it was true that Magnolia’s personal carriage ran on mana stones, Reynold personally thought that it ran on two other things as well: food and information.
“You think she’ll have a chance to read all of this while she speaks with her guests?”
Janica frowned as she straightened a pile of papers before placing it inside the hidden drawer under the table in the center of the carriage. Reynold nodded.
“I believe Ressa will pull it out in the first fifteen minutes. You do know that Lady Reinhart eats and catches up with all her informants from here, don’t you?”
“I do…but it’s hardly what one expects of her. I mean, she could spend an hour or two in the villa—”
Reynold shook his head.
“She’d never waste time that way. We can be a hundred miles from here in an hour. Now, about the food?”
The [Maid] sighed.
“Oh, you. Here. Bacon-wrapped pork loin. Careful with the wrapping—you don’t want to get grease on your suit.”
The [Butler] could have cried as she presented him with a piping-hot delicacy. He did indeed take exquisite care to eat it while gripping the wrapping paper tightly, and to Janica’s disapproval, he scarfed it down in minutes.
“Honestly! Do you know how long our [Cook] worked on that, especially when it was requested specially by Lady Reinhart? You should consider yourself privileged that she’s thinking of you, ordering such greasy fare—”
“As I recall, she wanted it for herself Janica. Is that fresh bread I see? And is there a chance of a drink?”
“What do you think? Here, I’ve hot spiced wine—”
She looked taken aback. Reynold smiled at her apologetically.
“I can’t drink while driving.”
“What, not a drop?”
“It makes me slower to react. I’ll have hot milk if you have any. Hot water, otherwise.”
“I’d be a poor [Maid] indeed to let you go off with hot water! You there! Hot milk for Mister Reynold, and be quick about it! I want the coach buffed and polished by the time the [Ladies] return.”
“Don’t bother with that. The first puddle we go through, it won’t matter. And you don’t have time for anything more than the milk I think; Lady Reinhart will be here in minutes, never mind her guest.”
“What? Don’t be silly—”
Just as Reynold had predicted, he barely got a hot flask filled with goat’s milk before Lady Magnolia was striding out of the villa, followed by Lady Bethal and the elegant Chevalier Thomast at her side. Forewarned by Reynold, the other servants were standing at attention and the carriage was ready to go. The [Butler] was already in the driver’s seat.
“Ah, thank you Reynold. Lady Bethal, I’m sure you’ve met my driver before?”
“I have! Reynold, is it? Good day to you, sir. I trust Magnolia isn’t keeping you too busy, what with how she’s been travelling across the continent?”
Lady Bethal was all smiles and delicacy—when she wasn’t thorns and fury. Reynold bobbed his head to her politely, recalling the stories of her famous Rose Knights. Thomast nodded to Reynold but remained silent as ever.
“It’s my privilege to serve Lady Reinhart and you, Lady Bethal. If there is anything I can do, please do not hesitate to ask.”
“Oh, but he is well trained, isn’t he? I could just steal him away to be one of my personal attendants, Magnolia! Perhaps I will!”
Magnolia’s lips quirked up in a smile as Bethal let Thomast help her up into the carriage.
“He is. Well-trained, that is. I’d take it amiss if you stole him, Bethal. He’s one of the few servants I can rely on, the only one who can get me where I want to go fast enough.”
“You say that about all of your servants, Magnolia. But I want a [Butler] who can keep up with me! You seem to have monopolized all the best ones.”
“All the ones with interesting talents, at least. My advice is to train them to be [Butlers], not train [Butlers] to be interesting. Now, let us be off. Reynold, I need you to drop Bethal off by the village of Neunham. You know, the one that was raided by Goblins yesterday? If you need a map, I think we have one. Ressa, where are the maps?”
“There is no need Lady Reinhart. I know the way. We will be there in about two hours by my rough estimation.”
The door slammed shut. Janica barely had time to bow with the other servants before Reynold accelerated the coach out of the villa’s gates and into the snowy plains again. He sipped from his canteen, feeling the warmth in his cold body. With one hand, Reynold put down the canteen and fished around in the wrapped basket next to him. He felt something warm and pulled it up, sniffing at it.
“Hot rolls? With butter? You are a lifesaver, Janica.”
He ate, carefully guiding the coach onwards. It was cold outside, and the food kept him feeling alive. Inside, he could hear the muted buzz of conversation. Ironically, for all the enchantments, there wasn’t a spell of silence within the coach, so Reynold could pick out bits of conversation.
“…had my Rose Knights head out two days ago, and I sent them a [Message] spell to gather at that village. Of course, I hardly want to camp out longer than necessary, so I was relieved you were picking me up.”
That was Lady Bethal. Reynold listened with half an ear as he drove westward and south. One of the things that made him a capable driver was his knowledge of the continent. He could plot a route to Neunham in his head. He heard Lady Magnolia laugh lightly and reply, sounding slightly muffled.
“It is the least I can do, Bethal. Especially since you’re doing me a favor and sorting out that problem. But you don’t have to go with your knights in person.”
“Nonsense! If I’m not there, how will I know if they’ve done their jobs? Besides, it is a mission of gallantry and I wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to see my Thomast fight for anything.”
“As you wish. I have to attend to business, but I will send a carriage to pick you up whenever you are done. Please do stay in touch via [Message] spell, won’t you?”
“Very well. But isn’t that large army you’ve gathered north of here? I’d have thought you would have stayed north to lead them towards the Goblin Lord.”
“I hardly feel the need to lead an army myself. That’s what officers are for. The soldiers are heading this way on their own. I’ll meet them when they arrive, and I have business in Invrisil…”
“Oh? What about?”
“Hmm. I had a report from one of my servants that troubles me. Ressa, do pull out the reports. Anything from Sacra?”
Sacra? Reynold frowned. He knew Sacra—she was one of Magnolia’s special servants, like him. Only her specialty was undercover work. She’d trailed Ryoka back in Invrisil and he hadn’t seen her in the mansion after that, so he’d assumed she was carrying out one of Lady Reinhart’s requests. She was very good both in combat and in disguising herself; she’d been furious that Ryoka had managed to identify her so easily.
“Nothing else, Lady Reinhart. Although there is a report about the ah, adventuring group you’re patronizing and Esthelm—”
“Esthelm? Dead gods Ressa, forget the children. Tell me, is the city standing?”
“Barely. It seems the Goblin Lord was repulsed a day and a half ago, but casualties are high…”
“Send gold and more help through Celum if possible, and add that to my list of things to discuss with Liscor’s Council. I will have to do that today—ah, how infuriating. At least there is the door. Bethal, have you heard about this? Some adventurers found a magical door of all things, and you’ll never guess what it does. It teleports people, so they somehow managed to create a link between Celum and Liscor—”
“My word! And the Drakes allowed it?”
“I don’t believe they had a choice. It’s in an inn, you see, just outside of the city—”
Reynold mumbled to himself around another mouthful of bread. He nearly choked and washed the food down with milk. He drove on, half-listening as the voices talked on of plans. But in time, he stopped listening. There were some things he preferred not to know as a butler, and the rushing world around him was peaceful. Reynold sat as the wind howled silently outside of the carriage, feeling the cold around him, hovering on that delightful edge where warmth and cold made him appreciate every layer he had on.
He felt alive.
An hour and a half later, Reynold slowed and Lady Bethal and Thomast left the carriage in front of a village that had clearly seen fighting. Reynold knew combat, and he could see a story in the way the gates had been smashed open. But there was even more of a story in the dead bodies hanging from the roofs of houses. The villagers had managed to cut some down, but a few bodies remained and the ropes showed how many had been there.
“Troubling. I hope Bethal can sort it out.”
Magnolia murmured to herself as she stared into the village with angry eyes. Ressa looked at her.
“You doubt she can?”
“I think she might grow bored if she can’t find the attackers within the next few days. If she does, they die. If not, we add this group to the list of targets. Reynold, take us away. To Invrisil.”
The [Butler] had been staring at the carnage and remembering the past. He broke out of his trance and grabbed the reins.
“At once, Lady Magnolia.”
Invrisil was a hop and a skip away from Neunham in terms of distance, but the journey was extremely taxing given how many people filled the roads even in the winter, even with Goblins about. Reynold had to slow the coach and work hard on avoiding hitting anything. His driver’s job was mentally and physically exhausting, and so he was very, very grateful when he sped into the grounds of Lady Magnolia’s mansion.
Magnolia was all smiles as she walked up the stairs to her estate. There was no welcoming line of bowing servants as was customary in the main Reinhart estate; Magnolia and Ressa were of the opinion that it wasted time for everyone involved, and was particularly unkind in the cold weather.
Reynold parked the carriage in the stables, rubbing his hands together as the cold caught up with him. He hurried through the back entrance and found one of the stable boys waiting.
“I think the mana stones need replacing, Jefry. They’re fairly new, but if Lady Reinhart has me driving about, I don’t want to have to rely on the spares or hope that we pass by one of her estates.”
“I’m on it.”
The young boy slipped into the cold without fear of the chill, something which the older Reynold envied. He hurried further into the mansion, greeting maids, and heading towards the kitchens. He dearly wanted something hot to drink and something to snack on while he sat and rested. He was exhausted from driving; it took a high toll on his nerves.
He never got there. One of the [Maids] he knew well—a Gnoll named Bekia, was just whispering to him that Sacra had come galloping back towards the mansion with important news she dared not send by [Message] spell a week ago when he heard Magnolia’s voice echoing from her personal sitting room.
“There’s a what living on my continent!?”
Every servant in the halls winced and some ducked. Reynold and Bekia hovered closer to the door Magnolia was shouting from behind. They heard her voice and Sacra’s muffled reply.
“In a small village? Riverfarm? Where is that? How long ago—what’s this about Lady Rie? Why didn’t anyone mention—this morning? How long ago?”
The door burst open. Reynold saw Lady Magnolia striding towards him, Sacra meekly following behind and Ressa following back after both of them. Magnolia snapped at Reynold as he was bowing.
“To Lady Rie Valerund’s estate, Reynold. Quickly!”
Another trip. Reynold groaned inside, but raced out into the stables to get Jefry to prepare the carriage. In minutes he was driving out into the cold again. He hadn’t even gotten a chance to sit down.
“Here we are, Lady Magnolia.”
Reynold was cold and sore from sitting for so long, and very tired despite it being only just past midmorning. But he’d been driving since before dawn, so that was excusable. Magnolia burst out of her carriage and took one look around the destroyed town and then turned towards the mansion at the top of the hill.
“Damaged, but intact. I assume Lady Rie is alive. She had better be, or I will hold every adventurer here accountable.”
There was a large group of Silver and Gold-rank adventurers present, many still on horseback. They had prevented Reynold from getting any closer to the mansion, but as they turned and saw Lady Magnolia, they parted like the sea as she strode through the town.
Reynold followed, after finding a place to park the carriage. Sacra hopped down from the front. At least he’d had company on the drive here, and she’d caught him up with the incredible story of her undercover mission to find out exactly who the stranger that Ryoka had met with was. Reynold could hardly believe it. An [Emperor]? Here?
“You’re sure he’s not some [Lord] or a—an [Earl] or something, right Sacra?”
She glared at him. The woman who called herself Odveig and pretended to be a simple Silver-rank adventurer looked completely different from the austere [Maid] dressed in her uniform who strode after Lady Magnolia. Her voice was waspish as she replied.
“I’m sure. I don’t make mistakes and it’s not like he concealed the fact. Reynold. And you met him as well—didn’t you feel he was special?”
“Yes, but, well, an [Emperor]? Truly?”
Reynold shook his head. He could remember the urge to bow before Laken Godart, but as for the rest…he picked up his pace as he heard Magnolia shout in front of him.
“Where is Lady Rie Valerund?”
Hands pointed. Magnolia strode up to the damaged double doors of the mansion. The enchanted wood that had held back hordes of Goblins parted in an instant before her. Reynold strode inside after her and saw a woman in a gown overseeing her servants. They were packing everything of value in the mansion.
“Lady Rie! A word.”
Magnolia walked towards her and the other [Lady] turned. Servants, curious adventurers, and the guards who had followed her froze in place. They couldn’t help it. Only Reynold, Sacra, Ressa, and Rie herself could move. Magnolia studied the preparations for flight and smiled at Lady Rie.
“My apologies, Lady Rie. I did not receive your message until just now. I am delighted to see you well, but what is all this? You are leaving?”
Rie’s voice was cool, but Reynold had met enough [Lords] and [Ladies] to tell that Lady Rie was pressured by Magnolia’s appearance in person. She was a low-level [Lady] and Magnolia was the biggest shark in the ocean. She gestured to the frozen people around her.
“I regret to say that I no longer consider my home safe after the Goblin attack. I would have been dead but for the intervention of a certain man. Have you ah, heard of an individual known as Laken Godart?”
Lady Magnolia’s smile was sharp and bright.
“I have just now. I would love to hear about him. Why don’t we sit in what is left of your parlor and talk? Ressa, find us some chairs.”
She swept Lady Rie towards the parlor, and only now did the people around her find the ability to move their legs again. Ressa headed after the two [Ladies], but a man broke away from the crowd, seemingly determined to go after them.
“You there. Refrain from interrupting Lady Magnolia.”
Ressa interposed herself between the man and Magnolia in an instant. The big man, who was bald and wearing armor, slowed. He ducked his head.
“Pardon me, Miss, but I am Lady Rie’s Captain of the Guard. I should be with her if—”
He didn’t finish the thought, but left the rest unspoken. If Lady Magnolia, famed for her temper, decided to do something. The Reinharts were feared not only for their power, but for their role as arbiters and enforcers of their law across the continent. Ressa frowned at him and looked towards Reynold and Sacra.
The two servants leapt into motion without a word. Reynold intercepted the Captain of the Guard, adroitly pivoting the big bald man out of Lady Magnolia’s path before the man quite knew what was happening.
“Pardon me sir. May I know your name?”
“Uh, Geram. But I have to—”
“My apologies, Captain Geram. I am Reynold, a [Butler] in employ of Lady Reinhart. I assure you that she intends only to speak with Lady Rie on a number of pressing matters. Such discussions are best left to the nobility however, without personal interference.”
“Why don’t you sit here, Sir?”
Sacra didn’t quite kick the legs out from under Geram, but he found himself sitting, and, suddenly, holding a cup of tea. Reynold and Sacra hovered around him, and the [Maid] whispered to Reynold.
“Reynold, I have to go to Lady Reinhart. She’ll probably want my opinion. Can you handle him?”
He nodded and Sacra briskly stepped into the mansion. The big man, Geram, bit his lip.
“I should be at Lady Rie’s side.”
“Surely not for a simple discussion, sir?”
“She and Lady Magnolia are uh—I’m sure Lady Reinhart is well thought of, but Lady Rie is a bit—bit—”
Frightened of her. And for good reason. But you’d only cause more trouble, going in. Reynold bit his tongue on the rest of the words and smiled politely.
“I am sure Lady Rie will rise to the occasion, Captain Geram. But while I have you, may I ask what transpired here? I see you have fought off an attack. Was this all the doing of Goblins?”
“Goblins? Uh—yes. Yes they were. We would have been got by them surely as I’m sitting here, if not for Emperor Laken.”
Emperor Laken. Reynold winced internally. Lady Magnolia would not be happy about that. And true enough, she wasn’t. In fact, she began shouting.
It took some doing to restrain Geram—Reynold succeeded mainly by getting the man to have a drink and telling him that if he did interfere, Magnolia Reinhart would put him into a box and leave him there. Whether in pieces or intact would probably depend on her worsening mood.
After about an hour’s time, someone came out of the parlor and headed straight for Reynold as he was miserably drinking water while Geram slowly finished a third cup of strong spirits. Reynold stood up at once as Ressa approached him. The [Head Maid] was holding a [Message] scroll and scowling, which never boded well.
“Miss Ressa, is something amiss?”
She nodded curtly.
“We have a problem, Reynold. You will have to take the carriage and head south. Towards Celum.”
Celum? If it hadn’t been for his [Butler] class, Reynold would have groaned aloud. That was a day’s journey and a hard drive even if he was full of energy, which he was not. He was hungry, cold, tired, and his butt hurt. But Ressa was clearly impatient. He hesitated.
“Am I to understand that I will leave you and Lady Magnolia behind?”
“That’s correct. We will send for another form of transport and make the journey back to Invrisil where we will await you.”
“But surely we could send the other carriage—”
Magnolia Reinhart possessed two magical carriages, where most kingdoms didn’t have one. Her personal carriage was maintained at all costs; the other one was powerful, but often suffered from a lack of resources and [Mages] of the caliber needed to fix them. Either one was far, far faster than any other form of transport, however, which is why he was surprised he had to take Magnolia’s personal carriage. But Ressa just shook her head.
“The other carriage refuses to start. There must be something wrong with the enchantments.”
The [Butler]’s heart sank.
“Again? I could drive back and see if I could—”
“No. The carriage was supposed to pick up a very important guest. You need to drive to Celum and pick up the traveler—he will be waiting with a red cloak and you will recognize him on sight.”
“Yes, Miss Ressa. But the trip will take hours. I won’t be back until late in the night and I’ve been driving since this morning. I am…slightly exhausted, Miss Ressa.”
He knew complaining to Ressa was a dangerous idea, but Reynold had to say it. He hesitated as the [Head Maid] glared at him and pushed his luck further.
“Could I not drive back to the estate and switch drivers? I believe it would not take—”
She stared at him and Reynold shut up. Ressa shook her head briskly.
“No. The carriage should have left this morning, and I was not informed until now.”
She gritted her teeth and Reynold cringed and knew that heads would roll when they returned to the mansion. Ressa went on.
“Our guest requires the fastest driver to get him here. Time is of the essence, and the route goes past the area where the Goblin Lord is said to be marching.”
That was true, too. Reynold knew he was the best driver for the job, but the world was swimming and he was just a bit angry. He tried one last time.
“Miss Ressa, I understand, but my condition now—”
Ressa looked at him, and put a hand on Reynold’s arm. She didn’t grip his arm or pull out one of the daggers he knew she carried. It was a soft touch, and so intimate and unlike her that Reynold froze in an instant. Ressa looked into his eyes and lowered her voice.
“Reynold. This is important.”
He fell silent, and realized Ressa was telling him that there was no time to argue, or even switch drivers. After all, the next best driver was Alkran, and he had broken his arm when the assassins had attacked. It still hadn’t healed properly. So Reynold straightened and nodded.
“Please forgive me, Miss Ressa. I will return at all speed.”
“Good. Go. And Reynold—please hurry.”
He had seldom heard Ressa use that tone. Reynold turned and ran for the carriage. In less than a minute he was on the road, and driving as fast as he could. But even going as fast as he dared, it would be six hours to Celum. Well, maybe five if he drove fast enough to really be dangerous.
He did. He drove for hours, until he came across the Goblin Lord’s army. They swept across the landscape like a horde of green locusts, burning and destroying anything without walls in front of them. Reynold drove wide of them, until he saw the people.
This is the despair of [Butlers], the despair of the man who sees all and can do so little. Reynold knew it. He was not a powerful man; he was a servant in employ of a powerful woman. But he could do little more than assist her. That was his role.
So why did he have to see this? The carriage slowed as he saw the scene. It was the same scene you saw on battlefields, from the safety of your home. It was the scene that was universal and yet always unique.
It was tragedy.
They were refugees perhaps, a village that had evacuated in the face of the Goblin Lord’s armies. But this one had moved too slowly, or the Goblins had moved too fast. Whatever the case, the wagons and stream of villagers had been caught by a group of Goblins.
Not just a group. The advance force of the Goblin Lord’s army. Reynold had driven to avoid them, but the Goblins were spread out in a huge wave going north. They filled the horizon, and Reynold shuddered as he’d driven away from them. He was staring at war, a terrible army capable of sacking a city. How many Goblins were there? Tens of thousands.
And part of their force had decided to attack the villagers. A group of Goblins riding Shield Spiders rode ahead of a whooping mass of Goblins, charging at the villagers as they screamed and fled from their wagons, running towards the hills where they might find safety.
But too slowly. The Goblins were closing. Reynold saw it all as he drove past, and knew there was nothing he could do. Nothing. If he tried, he would surely be overwhelmed by the mass of Goblins. Running over a group of [Bandits] was one thing and dangerous enough, but this? There were hundreds of Goblins streaming towards the villagers and thousands more behind them. Tens of thousands behind them.
And yet, the villagers saw him. Some ran towards him, screaming and waving their hands, only to be cut down by arrows. Others were lifting children in their arms, turning, trying to get his attention. Reynold cursed them as he drove. Why were they stopping to get his attention when the Goblins were right on top of them?
“Run, run you idiots!”
It was too late either way. The Goblins were too close. They were already beginning to cut down the villagers from behind. Reynold saw it all so clearly. Even if they got to the hills, it was too late. Even if they had a lead, the Goblins would just track them down. It was too late to help too late—
They were cutting down men and women, children. Laughing. The red eyes of the Goblins turned towards Reynold as he drove past them. Some loosed arrows, but he was going far too fast for them to ever hit him.
It was his duty. He couldn’t risk the carriage or even himself, no matter what. Reynold tried to close his ears to the screaming. He told himself he was doing his job. He was just a [Butler].
A [Combat Butler].
Reynold’s carriage crashed into the first group of Goblins, scattering bodies. The ghostly horses trampled the Goblins in front of him to the ground; others bounced off the sides and front of the carriage. Reynold shouted as he drove towards one of the Goblins who looked like a leader. He was mounted on a Shield Spider. He snarled as Reynold unsheathed the sword he carried everywhere.
A blade flashed and lightning crackled. Reynold’s sword beheaded the Goblin and the electricity earthed itself on the Goblins around him. The [Butler] snarled as he drove into the Goblins and turned the carriage.
He’d lost momentum as he crashed into the Goblins, turning their advance party into a mass of broken bodies. The ghostly horses surged and Reynold felt the carriage regaining traction. The villagers were running, but the Goblins were right behind them. How much time could Reynold buy? A minute? Five?
One was too many. The Goblins were loosing arrows at him. Reynold dodged one and shouted.
The carriage shot out of the mass of Goblins, avoiding the rest of the arrows. Reynold turned the carriage. Not yet. He had to get their attention, buy time! He drove at the Goblins again and they scattered. But his control was precise. Reynold hit another group.
That’s the way. Scatter them. He chopped downwards as he passed by a Hob and felt the shock of his sword cutting into bone. It was the same feeling as being on horseback, of charging the enemy.
He had been a soldier, once. Reynold shouted something as the blood thundered in his ears. He saw an arrow speeding at his chest and twisted. It cut across his side, a line of fire. More Goblins. They were everywhere. How long had it been?
Seconds. Reynold spun the carriage, throwing Goblins off as they tried to climb on. He rode the horses over a Hob as it tried to grab the carriage. A small Goblin landed on the roof and Reynold stabbed it, the electricity shocking the Goblin’s skin, making it let go.
He had to get away. Circle for another charge. There were so many arrows—one hit Reynold’s arm but glanced off the cloth. Bad shot. Another—hit him in the shoulder. Reynold pushed the horses and then saw something black flying at him from the left. He spun the coach and felt it shudder from the impact.
He’d run over Trolls and not felt anything. Reynold turned his head and saw part of the pink carriage’s woodwork was splintered. What had hit him? A spell? Who shot it—
Black eyes. White pupils. A distant face. Reynold’s blood ran cold. He saw a Goblin standing in the distance, raising his hand as black magic swirled around him. The [Butler] shouted.
The carriage vanished. Goblins snarled as they jumped for where he should be, loosing arrows, trying to slow the coach’s momentum with their bodies. Reynold spun away as more black bolts of magic flashed by his head. A Goblin clung to the carriage door—he cut it off. One stabbed him from behind and he threw it off as he fought with the reins. Where were the villagers? Gone?
Reynold burst out of the group of Goblins as more arrows shot after him. He reached for the potion that he kept in the compartment under the carriage. His world was growing dark. He found the bottle, and looked back.
The villagers hadn’t made it to the hills yet. They were nearly there, but the Goblins were reforming, coming after them. Quick! Reynold gritted his teeth. One last time. He turned the coach.
Blood was sticking to its sides, making it visible despite the spell. Reynold drove it onwards. He saw the Goblin with black eyes raising his hand, felt the black bolts of energy make the carriage shudder and groan. He drove into the Goblins. A duty.
He had a duty—
An arrow slammed him back in his seat. Reynold turned and saw a Hob leaping towards him. He raised his sword—
The sun was low in the sky, as a traveler in a red cloak stood by the gates to Celum and waited impatiently. He had waited all day, and it was practically night time already. He was considering leaving—in fact, he’d tried to several times, but something drew him back.
The first was the knowledge that this meeting had been arranged, and that Magnolia Reinhart was not one to break her word. The second was that he knew that it was a meeting worth pursuing. Still, the lack of any vehicles on the horizon had left him worried, and so he was debating stepping inside the city limits for food or a drink and sending another [Message] spell when he saw it.
On the horizon, a shape. Something moving incredibly fast down the road, headed towards him. The traveler stepped forwards in relief as he heard [Guardsmen] call out warning on the battlements above. But that relief turned to alarm as he saw the carriage approaching in more detail.
It was pink, or it had been. But red splatters of blood had dried on the front. The carriage was damaged in multiple places, and the driver—
As the guards on Celum’s walls shouted the alarm, the traveler saw the carriage heading straight towards him. It turned and drifted for a moment before stopping in shower of mud and snow which barely missed the traveler. The driver paused and leaned forwards over his reins as the ghostly horses stood in the cold. He was covered in blood and an arrow was sticking out of his leg. He turned his head towards the traveler, and smiled weakly.
“I presume you are my guest for this trip? I do apologize for the delay.”
“Ancestors, are you alright?”
Reynold pulled an arrow from his thigh and splashed a healing potion onto the wound with shaking hands. He glanced at the traveler as he pulled back his hood and froze.
“You? That is to say, er—I am delighted to be driving such an esteemed personage, uh, sir—”
“You’re sure you’re alright? You look like you’ve been through a war!”
The traveler seemed more concerned with his health. Reynold straightened.
“Not to worry, sir! I merely had a run in with a few thousand Goblins. I assure you, I will be taking an alternate route on the return trip. If you will step into the carriage?”
“You’re sure you don’t need a [Healer] or another healing potion? What happened to you?”
Professionalism. Reynold gave the man his best smile as he sipped from the healing potion.
“Goblins, sir. Nothing to worry about. There is a cheese platter in an overhead compartment, I believe. Please help yourself and accept my deepest apologies for any mess that may have occurred. I would also like to render my sincerest regrets for the delay, which was caused by errors of my colleagues. And for the blood.”
He stared down at the traveler as guardsmen on the walls and gates shouted at him. The traveler hesitated. He looked around and realized that there were only moments before they were surrounded by Humans. He looked up at Reynold.
“Tell me, young…man. Are all of Magnolia Reinhart’s servants like you?”
Reynold grinned a bit manically at the traveler. He laughed, which was a serious breach of etiquette, but given the circumstances, understandable and worth it.
“Only the best of us, sir. Only the best. Shall we go?”
“I suppose. Yes, I supposed there’s no backing out of it now, is there?”
The traveler hesitated at the doors, but eventually stepped in. Reynold heard the carriage doors shut, and turned the carriage. Guardsmen shouted at him, trying to get him to stop. Reynold brushed hands away and flicked the reins. The carriage shot into motion, leaving the shouting people behind.
“I regret to say that our journey may be delayed by an hour or two, sir. Damage to the carriage has reduced our speed, and I must drive out of the way of the Goblin Lord’s army.”
“You mean you’ve seen them?”
“I believe parts of them are still stuck to the undercarriage, sir. May I take this moment to inform you of our wine selection?”
There was no response. Reynold laughed to himself. He was—was a bit disoriented himself. As he sped away from Celum he saw little black spots swimming in his vision, and felt his body swaying. He was…tired.
But he kept driving. He was a [Butler]. And a butler never abandoned his post. He owed Magnolia Reinhart too much for that.
Slowly, one of the wounds that hadn’t completely healed opened up again and spattered blood onto the front of the carriage, mixing with the rest. After a while, Reynold sipped more of the healing potion and the wound closed.
“Dear me. My attire is ruined. I should get that cleaned…as soon as I stop to rest.”
He sighed, and kept his eyes on the road. The last of the daylight burned away, and Reynold felt his body freezing. He was cold. It was dark. He reached for more energy, more fire, and felt himself drifting lower. But that was just his body. At the moment Reynold was full of life. He’d rest when it was over. For now he drove.
And inside the carriage, the traveler watched the driver through the panel. He stared anxiously at the man, but saw Reynold driving without faltering. And perhaps it was the unfamiliar sensation of riding in the carriage, or the instinctual understanding that Reynold wouldn’t stop until he’d completed his duty, but the traveler soon felt himself growing tired.
He slept. And then he dreamed.
It was the past the traveler dreamed of. It was a memory that surfaced in his mind, an old conversation between him and a friend. It was ancient history, decades old, but it came to mind because of what he was about to do. He recalled a tent, the smell of wine, a slightly rough chair, and—company. He sat down, not remembering what the joke he’d just laughed at was, and saw his friend sitting across from him.
His friend. A long-dead face swam into focus in the traveler’s dream, and a voice spoke.
“I think I met a monster today.”
“Oh, really? What kind?”
“Hah. Not a real monster. I was speaking metaphorically. I met a Human girl. A young one. You might know of her. Magnolia Reinhart.”
“I don’t know the first name, but I recognize the last one. Well, well. One of the scions of the Five Families has come to our aid?”
“It seems like it. She’s responsible for that army. And this is the scary part—I’d swear she’s not even seventeen years of age. Maybe less; I don’t know Humans that well.”
“What, all of it? Is she some kind of [Commander]?”
“Hardly. She’s a [Lady]. And she’s certainly no warrior—I caught her throwing up after battle.”
“Why’s she come, then?”
“Because no one else would come to our aid otherwise. She came herself and brought an army capable of ending this war with her.”
“I’ll drink to her, then. Why’d you say you met a monster? Surely she’s not that hideous—”
“Don’t be a hatchling. I was being serious. I thought she was a monster when I met her. Now…I’m convinced.”
“You’ve lost me.”
“Let me say it another way. She’s a…Demon. You know, the ones from Rhir? Or maybe she’s something else. What I’m saying is that she scares me. She’s not like other Humans.”
“So? She must be outstanding to lead an army so young. She’s high level…so what? I’m not following you.”
“Hm. Perhaps I could say it like this. She’s like…a god.”
“The gods are dead.”
“Yes, but you know what I mean, don’t you? She’s like a god, or the opposite of one. Does that make sense?”
“Perhaps…she frightens you and she’s that different from her kind, is she?”
“Yes. Perhaps that’s the easiest way of saying it. It was the look in her eyes. I won’t forget it. She was throwing up when I saw her, but when she finished and turned—she was the one who rallied the Humans. All by herself, I’m sure of it. And they followed her. A coalition army of Humans to rescue we, the Drakes. Do you understand?”
“I think I do. But surely that’s not—”
“Just listen. I had a chance to talk with her. Just a short moment—you know how politics are. But it was when we had a chance that she really frightened me. I asked her what had prompted her to come to our aid when our species have been enemies for so long. And you know what she said?”
“You know I’m no good at guessing. Tell me.”
“It was the same thing they said long ago. The same thing that the Five Families, the original Five Families said that they wanted as they were invading us, driving us back the first time. The same word, and I’ll wager, the same look of conviction.”
“I don’t know that word. So you’re saying she’s some kind of leader? A dangerous one for the future?”
“I don’t know. All I know is that I’m as wary of her as I am of the Antinium. That look in her eye, the way she speaks—it’s not that she’s not charismatic or a natural leader. Other people are—you and I lead. But it was the look, you see? The look and the conviction. She believes wholeheartedly in what she’s doing, and that’s what scares me.”
“Just tell me the damned word already, will you? What does she want?”
Zel Shivertail paused as he sipped from his cup and raised his head incredulously.
“That’s what I said.”
The Drake sitting across from him nodded. General Sserys, hero of the First Antinium War, smiled crookedly.
“A little girl leading an army to fight the Antinium. For peace. To save the world, she said. And you know what? She looked like a child then, with vomit dripping off her chin, but when I asked if it was possible, she just smiled. And then she looked like…I don’t know. Not a [Queen] or a [Lady], but something more. Like the opposite of a god, if they were alive. She stuck out her hand and said that I should join her. Together we could end the war and save the world.”
“And what, did you take it?”
Zel waited. Sserys shook his head.
“I didn’t get the chance. We were interrupted by some other Humans—[Lords], you know. But it stuck with me. Her offer. I felt like she was sucking me in, that she could see something I didn’t. I was afraid, Shivertail, and I won’t ever admit that to anyone else. I was afraid of her peace, of what she saw.”
“Afraid of a little Human girl. General Sserys, [Spear of the Drakes]. Afraid of peace.”
General Sserys looked at him, and Zel Shivertail paused for a second before bursting out laughing. The other Drake grinned in acknowledgement of the joke, and then he filled Zel’s cup. The two Drakes raised their cups in a silent toast and Zel raised it to his lips—
“Reynold? My goodness. Ressa! Get him healing potions and help him off of the carriage, quickly!”
A voice woke Zel Shivertail from his slumbers. He jerked awake in the carriage and realized he’d stopped. And then he realized who was speaking and froze. He sensed people rushing towards the carriage, and heard a sharp voice.
“Was it [Assassins]? How badly are you injured? Is the guest safe?”
“No attack—just Goblins. I do apologize Lady Reinhart—I made a decision to protect a group of travelers—I have also bloodied my uniform Ressa, for which I apologize.”
“Never mind that. Ressa, get the man inside. He’s frozen! Why is he so cold? Are the heating spells on the carriage broken again? And what about—”
The voice stopped as Zel opened the carriage door. The Drake [General] stared out into a dark world illuminated by bright mage lights and blinked down at the figures clustered around the [Butler] who was being held up by two servants. They were all Humans—well, all save for one of the [Maids] who was a Gnoll. And they stared at him with a mixture of awe and fear.
They knew him as a legend. One of the [Maids], a tall woman, moved slowly backwards towards a shorter woman, keeping her eyes on him. It was too dark for Zel to make out details, but the way she held herself, and her voice—he had never met her, and she had never met him.
But they knew each other. Zel Shivertail lowered his head slightly as he stepped from the carriage. Magnolia Reinhart moved past Ressa’s protective body and smiled.
“General Shivertail. I’m glad you decided to come. My apologies for the delay.”
Zel paused and nodded to Reynold. The [Butler] was still on his feet, being fussed over by two [Maids].
“Your man looked like he’d driven through a war and back to get to me. I commend his spirit.”
“Happy to serve.”
Reynold mumbled. Magnolia glanced at him, and then at Zel. Cautiously, slowly, she held out her hand.
“We have never met, but I hope we can speak freely, Zel Shivertail. I have long wanted to meet you, as you are no doubt aware. I hope we can set the issues you put forward in your letter right.”
“I have no doubt we can. But I have one question to ask you first. Something I have to know.”
Zel didn’t take Magnolia’s offered hand. He looked her in the eye and sensed Ressa staring at him warily, felt the prickles on his spines that told him the other servants were dangerous. But it was only Magnolia’s face he searched.
“Tell me why.”
“Why you’ve gone to all this trouble. Why you’re willing to help. Why all the things you promised me. What’s in it for you?”
Magnolia lowered her hands and tapped her lips.
“Nothing, perhaps. But it is my mission, shall we say? My ambition, most definitely. I have one dream, General Shivertail.”
Zel held his breath. The world did. Magnolia Reinhart smiled, and in her eyes was a bright light. She held out her hand once more.
“Peace. To save the world. I will do anything for that goal. Will you help me?”
Zel Shivertail looked into her eyes. For a second he saw what Sserys had, decades ago. That light, that certainty. The other Drake had called it the look of a devil, a monster, or a god. And then he blinked, and saw something different. He hesitated, and then his claws rose. Gingerly, somewhere in the past of what might have been, the Drake [General] shook the Human girl’s hands.
And then they were back in the present, in the now. Zel looked into Magnolia’s eyes and smiled.
“Let’s save the world then, Miss Reinhart. Tell me, where should we begin?”
She laughed lightly, in relief, as Ressa let out a huge breath behind her and Reynold fainted.
“With the Goblins, my dear Zel. With the Goblin Lord first. And then Az’kerash. And then the Antinium.”
She smiled wider.
“We’ll see. Now, shall we discuss this inside? Say, over a cup of tea?”