4.44 M

Chaos reigned at Lady Magnolia’s estate outside of Invrisil. Servants of all stations rushed through the expensive and expansive hallways or gathered together talking urgently in small groups. Such confusion was not normal for any location under Magnolia’s—or rather, Ressa’s—authority, which made the scene all that much worse to behold. But perhaps it was inappropriate to describe the situation that way.

Chaos reined over the Reinhart estate, pulling it out of its carefully controlled environment. If every house had an owner and every household its own ruler, then Magnolia and Ressa were the two monarchs of the estate. One was a tyrant, the other a generally benevolent ruler with a penchant for sweets. However, their rule had been upset, their authority overturned and chaos had gleefully seized the metaphorical reins and driven the household into madness.

Or did chaos as an abstract concept rain over the household? Yes, perhaps that was it. Chaos, that most insidious of forces trickled down from the heavens or whatever nebulous plane of existence it resided in, filling the hearts of the people below with confusion.

It was said that Magnolia’s servants were like her fingers. Some, many, were mundane [Maids] and [Manservants] who actually did what their classes suggested. They cooked, swept, and cleaned her many estates and enjoyed a protected, if sometimes unusual, lifestyle under their mistress’s authority. But as anyone in the know knew, some of Magnolia’s servants had…other functions.

They were assassins, spies, warriors, mages, and occasionally, rude. And when they went out into the world at her command, they resolved her issues. Magnolia’s fingers danced across the continent and sometimes the world, influencing events, securing power, removing obstacles—giving her the reputation of ‘The Deadly Flower Blooming In the North’. That was a rather longwinded way of saying she was a flower, a [Lady], delicate, unsuited to war in her Skills and classes, but nevertheless possessed of thorns.

And she could make her fingers play an exquisite melody if she so chose. So what had let chaos—in any way, shape or form—into her mansion was that the hand that guided said fingers was different today. It was scaly, rather larger, and at the moment, clenching a sheaf of papers as the owner strode about Magnolia Reinhart’s mansion, shouting at people.

It was probably easier to say it that way. There was chaos at Magnolia Reinhart’s household. A simple sentence and easy to grasp. But then, what is chaos without context?

 

—-

 

“Details!”

Zel Shivertail’s voice boomed through the hallways, making two [Maids] jump and nearly drop the trays they were holding. They gingerly approached the huge Drake [General], wincing at the volume of his voice as he shouted loudly enough for half the mansion to hear.

“I want details! Get me every report, every message from every cities that’s sending soldiers to the front! And if they haven’t written down the exact specifications of the soldiers they’re sending—levels, classes, how many per unit, if there are officers leading—send a message back and demand an immediate reply! How hard is it to ask? I don’t care if it’s nightfall—this is a military matter and they should know where their damned soldiers are at all times!”

He whirled and one of the Human [Maids] flinched. Zel stared at her and carefully plucked the single piece of fine white paper off of the tray she held. He looked at it and then bellowed again.

“And stop bringing me reports one at a time! Collect them, organize them, and—in the name of the Ancestors, stop sneaking up on me like that! Raise your voice if you want my attention!”

He turned and the [Maids] both fled at once. Zel raked a hand across the spines on his head and neck, muttering as he read down the short page. He crumpled the delicate and expensive paper with one claw.

“Ridiculous! ‘400 soldiers from the city of Befton will meet at the location provided as requested?’ That’s not a reply! It’s not coded, it’s not specific—what routes are these soldiers taking? Are they [Soldiers] or a militia? Do they have an officer? What are their levels? And when will they arrive? Do Humans not have any sense of organization?

“I believe we do. However, you would not know it to look at my household at the moment. General Shivertail, has it occurred to you that our people do things differently for a reason?”

A calm voice interrupted the [General]’s ranting. Zel Shivertail swung around and pointed a finger at Magnolia Reinhart as she sat in a chair, sipping at a cup of tea. Splayed around her largest sitting room were tables that had been hurriedly carried in and filled with different reports on paper and parchment, communications by [Message] spell across the continent.

It was an impressive sight and being added to every second by servants hurrying into the room. Still, Zel was not happy and so he growled at Magnolia.

“Don’t patronize me, Reinhart. I don’t care if you Humans enjoy dancing around rocks while singing naked in the moonlight—this is a matter of organization and I can’t lead an army if I don’t know where it is or who I’m leading! You promised me an army! This is a nightmare! Don’t you have any [Strategists] or [Lieutenants] or—anyone who could have warned you what a nightmare this was?

Magnolia Reinhart sighed and lowered her cup. Her face was calm and she was sitting still in an elegant dress, but her right foot jiggled—a sign of an impending sugar rush. She put aside her cup and another hand, Ressa’s, took it away before it could be refilled. The [Maid] tilted the cup so she could see the slurry of sugar mixed with tea and grimaced. Magnolia took no notice, but replied quickly and directly, focusing entirely on the Drake.

“While I know many such individuals, I do not, as a rule, consult with them on most matters, General Shivertail. I regret to say that I am woefully ignorant of all military affairs, which is why I sought a [General] worthy of the name to lead the army I was raising. My apologies—I thought simply requesting the soldiers would do. I had no idea coordinating their arrivals were so important.”

Zel Shivertail, the famous Lineholder, hero of two Antinium Wars and feeder of hungry Gnoll cubs everywhere, eyed Lady Magnolia sourly but relented. He nodded curtly and adopted a slightly more civil tone.

“I see. My apologies Lady Reinhart, but this is a critical issue. Your army might actually appear, scattered though it is, but the instant the first group of soldiers arrives they’ll want to have a place to camp, food to eat, orders—and if they don’t have them, it will take days to sort out the disaster that will unfold by the time all of them get there.”

Magnolia winced and sighed.

“I see. Well, you have my support and my staff has a direct line with every city and town on the continent. I suspect we’ll be waking up many from their sleep—”

“They don’t have aides or officers stationed around the clock for calls like these?”

The [General] stared incredulously at Magnolia. She looked at Ressa, and her [Head Maid] shook her head.

“I’m afraid not. Perhaps some cities do, like Invrisil, but there are no laws and it’s very much dependent on the [Mayor] or whatever leadership is in place. Oh dear. I fear we do look rather bad compared to the Drake chain of command, don’t we?”

Zel took a deep breath. Yes, it was true. Humans were disorganized, at least, in general. Or maybe it was Drakes who were too organized and judged other species by too high a standard? Whatever the case, Zel had grown up in the south of Izril, where even in the smallest Drake city-states, there was a clear chain of command at all times, the lines of communication were always open, and there was always order, even if the orders were incredibly stupid. Whereas here…

He looked around. The pink drapes, purple couches, cream colored walls, and deep red-and-violet carpets in the room made him feel like he was sinking into some kind of primeval swamp. He wasn’t used to elegance, had no sense or vocabulary to describe the subtle colors around him, and really didn’t care for the richness of Magnolia Reinhart’s mansion. Oh, he could admit it was pretty in some ways, but her luxuriant lifestyle was at odds with his simpler outlook.

But here he was. A Drake [General] in a Human [Lady]’s mansion. A first, if you didn’t count stories of Drakes burning and destroying Human settlements during war. He was here in the name of peace, or rather, war for peace. He was her ally and she had invited him here, four hundred miles across the border that was marked by Liscor. And he had accepted.

The world might never be the same. Zel shivered at the thought. How many Drakes would call him a traitor once the news was out? How many Humans would be up in arms? But it had to be done. He was here, talking with one of the most dangerous Human women in existence because he needed her help and apparently, she needed his. To lead her armies, if nothing else.

But still, it was odd. Zel had had the most amazing of introductions to one of Lady Magnolia’s servants—Reynold—when the man had driven up to the gates of Celum, late by over half a day, his carriage practically drenched in Goblin blood. However, he’d given Zel a completely uneventful ride to Magnolia Reinhart’s estate, and she had welcomed Zel with open arms—as soon as she’d had her man Reynold pried from the driver’s seat. They had talked briefly, and Zel had jumped on the first issue he’d spotted.

Rudely, he supposed. Zel sighed. He knew this was not how you treated your allies, much less a [Lady], but he was uneasy being around Magnolia and he was a [General], not a [Diplomat]. Zel Shivertail tried to make his tail stop twitching and took stock of the situation again.

“Let’s go over this. You promised me an army. I thought you had one already, but apparently this one is comprised of levies from every city north of Invrisil. And you have delivered if all these [Messages] are to be believed.”

“I do believe they are. It isn’t rare for people to lie to me, but they seldom have the courage to commit it to writing.”

Magnolia inclined her head, smiling slightly and looking around for her tea cup. Zel grunted sourly.

“Well then, I’ll have an army at least forty thousand strong. But I have to warn you—it’s not going to be a good one. I’d rather have half again as many soldiers to take on the Goblin Lord.”

“Really? Why? I thought we had fine numbers. Or is it the quality of the soldiers you’re unhappy with? I can assure you they’re decent. Probably.”

Magnolia sat up with a frown. Zel sighed and shook his head. Civilians. He tried to explain patiently, as if he were talking to…Lyonette. Or Erin. Or Mrsha.

“You have the numbers Lady Reinhart, but that’s not an army. If I had ten thousand young men with swords, would you call that an army? And no, before you speak, it doesn’t matter if they’re all [Soldiers] because they’re all soldiers of different cities. They haven’t trained together, don’t necessarily know the same orders or fight the same way—and I don’t know how many officers there are.”

“And that’s a problem? You are a [General].”

“A [General] without a trained army is like a sharp mind and an unresponsive body, Miss Reinhart.”

“Ah. Oh, I do see now. Oh dear.”

Magnolia frowned. She wasn’t unintelligent, Zel could readily admit. She tapped at her lips and glanced at Zel.

“If it’s a matter of officers…I can see about levying some from more cities. Will that help, or will their unfamiliarity only exacerbate the issue?”

Zel shrugged.

“I don’t know. They could be useful…or not. I’m afraid I don’t know how well you Humans train your soldiers. I’ve seen good leadership and bad on the field of battle, but you don’t standardize your training.”

“While Drakes do. I am familiar with that. Your military chain of command is quite renowned across the world.”

The Drake grunted in response to the compliment. He looked over another sheaf of [Messages], speaking sourly.

“I’d give one of my claws for a few Drake [Lieutenants] or a battalion to fight with. A pity no Drake armies could cross north of Liscor without starting a war.”

“Hm. That’s very true. I did think about it, you know. But of all the mercenary groups in Izril—and there aren’t many—the only one of note was Liscor’s own army. And while they are for hire, I’m sure they wouldn’t respond to my requests and if they did…”

Zel looked up from the reports.

“No.”

“Indeed not.”

The [General] shook his head.

“That army is…not the kind you want if you value peace. I’m sure they’d manage to start a war if they came north. And given the uniqueness of their army, my Skills as a [General] would be least effective leading them.”

“That was my understanding. It is a pity though. They are formidable, for all of their detracting factors.”

Magnolia sighed. She found her teacup at last and wrestled with Ressa briefly before retrieving it. The [Head Maid] reluctantly filled her cup and Magnolia sipped it. She mused out loud.

“How does the saying go again? One Drake’s trouble, two is a fight, and three will burn your house down?”

She glanced at Zel swiftly, but the Drake didn’t react openly to her comment. He kept reading another report in silence and jotting down notes on another piece of parchment. After a minute he looked up.

“What are four Drakes, then?”

“A war, I believe.”

The [General] grunted. It wasn’t quite a laugh. Magnolia watched him cautiously and flicked her eyes up towards Ressa. The [Maid] shrugged and Magnolia pursed her lips. After another short break she spoke lightly but cautiously.

“We have not had a chance to speak long I’m afraid, Mister Shivertail.”

Zel didn’t react to being called Mister either. He turned one eye towards her and flicked his tail slightly.

“We didn’t. My apologies, but I decided to sort this out right away once I realized the issue.”

“Quite, quite. But ah, aside from our commitment to work together, you and I have quite a few issues we should discuss.”

“Really? It seems simple to me. You need a [General], I want to kill the Goblin Lord. And Az’kerash. Who you knew was alive for years and never did anything about.”

His claws tightened slightly on the parchment and Ressa tensed ever so slightly. Magnolia subtly leaned back to pat her friend on the leg and spoke.

“Yes. However, you never gave me a chance to explain my reasoning.”

Zel paused, and looked up. Two [Porters] paused with twin stacks of reports. He nodded approvingly and they hurried over to the table in front of him.

“Good. These are—organized? Excellent.”

The Drake blinked in surprise and began crossing off names on the list he’d compiled, checking estimated arrival times with each city and creating a master list, a big picture of his army for him to look at. He wasn’t good at this kind of work—it was the kind of thing he liked to let [Strategists] sort out—but he could do it in a pinch. He got a rhythm going before he addressed Magnolia again.

“Fine. Tell me why you let him live.”

“A few reasons spring to mind. To begin with, I’m embarrassed to say that I thought he was more your people’s problems than mine and uninclined to start trouble so soon after the last Antinium War.”

Magnolia leaned forwards, speaking crisply despite the late hour. She gestured to the map of the continent that Zel was using as a reference on one of the tables.

“This was the same Necromancer who caused so much harm during the Second Antinium Wars and proved so difficult to defeat—and not even kill, it seems. I knew he must have lost nearly all his undead after his defeat, so I was content to let him go into hiding.”

“And replenish his forces? How long were you willing to wait? Until he appeared and started destroying Drake cities?”

“Hardly. I was more hoping that he would reappear and the Antinium, Drakes, and everyone else in the nearby vicinity would join up to destroy him. You do recall that he made rather fierce enemies of every species on the continent.”

“I do.”

“Yes, well, I decided he could be left alone for those reasons. Additionally—he may be powerful, but he is still only one [Necromancer]. The limits of his powers were rather neatly pointed out in the last Antinium War. He can raise a powerful army—one that can level cities and rout lesser armies true, but only one army of finite size. That’s not as grave a threat as six Antinium Hives or a Goblin King, is it?”

Zel caught himself nodding and stopped with a grimace. Magnolia smiled and went on, watching his reactions.

“Add that to a final consideration, General Shivertail. A [Necromancer] is a powerful mage, but specialized. He can raise armies, but not throw around spells that destroy armies by themselves. He is defined by his creations and while those creations can be terrible, they are linked to him. If the [Necromancer] dies, his army is leaderless, mana-less.”

The pieces clicked. Zel looked up as his brain switched over from corroborating reports to what Magnolia was saying.

“You were going to assassinate him.”

“Indeed.”

Magnolia smiled brightly and sipped at her tea cup. She reached out to grab a sugar cube—Ressa snatched the bowl away.

“My intention was always to kill Az’kerash. Sooner rather than later, but I knew I had only one opportunity, so I wanted to be sure, absolutely sure, of my success. That meant I had a short list of about six individuals who could do the job. I did consider asking an Archmage, but that could be tricky…the problem was that of the six, there were only two I could contract discreetly and be sure of. Neither one accepted my offers, and I did offer quite a lot.”

“Huh. That’s the problem with [Assassins], I suppose.”

Zel raised a magical quill and scribbled on his list, highlighting a discrepancy for later. Magnolia laughed.

“As a matter of fact, only one of the six I was considering for the job was an actual [Assassin]. I wanted the best, General Shivertail, and I don’t underestimate my foes. My first pick for the job would have been the infamous leader of the Forgotten Wing Company, Three-Color Stalker.”

The Drake looked up and his tail twitched in surprise.

Her?

“She is one of, if not the most deadly [Rogues] in existence. And she is more adept at slaying enemy [Commanders] on battlefields than most conventional [Assassins]. Who better to deal with a target that is functionally immune to poison and is no doubt warded with many magical artifacts?”

Magnolia swirled the tea around in her cup. It was minty, although you would never have known that with as much sugar as it held. She lifted her cup.

“Do excuse me, Ressa, but pass me the bowl of sugar or I’ll throw this at you. And I should ask again as a good host—would you like tea, General Shivertail? Something else? A snack, perhaps?”

Zel and Ressa both shuddered, having tasted Magnolia’s tea. The [General] was shaking his head and then paused. He looked up. He was in the mansion of one of the richest [Ladies] in the world, after all.

“If you have it…milk with honey.”

“Milk with honey?”

Magnolia blinked. Zel smiled.

“I recently developed a taste for it. Milk with honey, if you have it. Ashfire Bee honey to be precise. And if you have bacon or sausage, wrap it in dough and fry it a bit.”

“I’m sure my [Chef] can make that. Ressa, see to it, would you? That’s an intriguing dish. What is it called?”

Zel grinned to himself as Magnolia blinked at him, uncomprehending.

“Pigs in the blanket. It’s a Human dish.”

“Not one I know. Ressa? I want some too. Add lots of honey to my milk.”

The [Head Maid] had slipped out the door and whispered briefly with a servant stationed outside. She swiftly returned to Magnolia’s side. Zel eyed Ressa. She was wary of him and he could sense she wasn’t just someone who cleaned around the mansion. Well, whatever. He nodded at Magnolia.

“So Three-Color Stalker denied your request?”

Magnolia sighed loudly.

“I don’t believe she ever read it. She’s an odd individual. I sent her a number of cards and paid the [Couriers] to report back on how she received them. As I understand it, she ate two of them, gold leaf and all.”

“What?”

“That’s what I said. I’m not sure if it was an insult or just her personality. And she has never replied to me. Well, not in words. I believe after my sixteenth letter she sent me a message back by City Runner. I received a badly decomposed muffin that had been in transit for about six months. It had travelled across the sea by boat and was delivered to my house. I thought it was poison when I got it.”

“Huh. That is odd. I’d heard there was something weird about each of the leaders of the Four Great Companies, but…”

Zel frowned as he went back to his reports. A muffin? That was Baleros for you. War-loving freaks. Not that he could really speak as a Drake. He looked up as a thought struck him. It had to be asked.

“…What kind of muffin?”

“What kind?”

“Was it blueberry? Plain? Apple? Insect?”

Magnolia traded a swift glance with Ressa.

“You know, I didn’t think to…that could be a clue. Or something. If Commander Foliana—Ressa? Make a note. Find out if anyone recalls what the muffin looked like.”

“Yes, milady.”

Zel eyed the [Head Maid] as she bowed slightly. He coughed.

“That’s an interesting maid you employ, Miss Reinhart.”

Magnolia laughed.

“Oh, Ressa? Don’t mind her glaring. She is protective of me. And nagging.”

“And armed.”

The [General]’s calm look made Ressa shift, and the impassive woman’s face hardened a bit. Magnolia stopped smiling and glanced at Zel.

“She is my protector, General. Rest assured I didn’t invite you here to kill you. I’d like to think I’m a bit smarter than that.”

“It never crossed my mind.”

Zel lied as he worked his way down the first stack of papers. He glanced at Magnolia and Ressa again and decided to ask another one of the questions that was on his mind.

“Very well. Say you’ve convinced me your intentions were good around the Necromancer. That still doesn’t explain why you wanted me, a Drake, to lead your army against the Goblin Lord. You have capable leaders in the north. Why not let your famous Lord Tyrion Veltras handle the Goblins?”

Magnolia’s face went sour at Tyrion’s name and Zel recalled too late that the Five Families weren’t exactly enamored with each other. He cursed internally. Human politics. Even at his best, he could barely stay aware of what went on in Drake lands.

“I don’t want to give that idiot a chance to shine, General Shivertail. Moreover, I don’t want a [General] for a few weeks or even a year. I had hoped you would see the long-term benefits of working together.”

“So your letter hinted. And what exactly did you have in mind?”

“Well…”

Magnolia sat up and was about to launch into her carefully-planned speech at last when a knock sounded on the door. She slumped and Ressa scowled at the unlucky interrupter.

“Enter.”

“Your pardons, Lady Reinhart.”

Reynold?

Magnolia sat up and Zel turned as Reynold stepped through the door. The [Butler] was wearing a new, pristine suit and his hair had been combed. More to the point, all of his wounds had been healed and he was no longer drenched in blood. He bowed to Magnolia and Zel as a [Maid] stood at his side. Sacra, or as Laken would have known her, Odveig, bowed as well, her eyes flicking to Zel and then to her mistress.

“Reynold, I thought you were asleep! You should be resting—thank you for running over those Goblins, by the way. I received a missive from Wales that you had saved quite a number of people by buying them time, but really! You should be asleep!”

The Lady Reinhart wavered between scolding and praising Reynold by turns. He bowed crisply and spoke carefully, keeping his eyes on Zel as the [General] appraised him and Sacra.

“I do apologize Lady Magnolia, but I was told that General Shivertail was concerned with the state of the levied forces from the cities. As I have experience in that field, I believe I can manage the reports and let the general concern himself with more important issues.”

Zel could tell Reynold and Sacra were both warriors at a glance. The way they stood, the way they looked at him—their uniforms did nothing to hide that from his gaze. He nodded at Reynold as he set down a piece of parchment.

“Thank you for driving me…Reynold, is it? Are you a former [Soldier] of some kind?”

Reynold hesitated and behind him, Magnolia’s eyes flicked to him. But then the [Butler] nodded.

“I was a [Lieutenant], sir. An officer in charge of a cavalry unit. I have…experience in combat. And in war. I fought twice against Drakes in the Bloodfields.”

He waited for Zel’s response as the room went still. The Drake stared at Reynold and saw his companion, the [Maid] called Sacra, tense ever so slightly. He simply nodded.

“I understand. I’d be glad to let you take over, Reynold. And can I assume your companion knows war as well?”

Reynold bowed slightly.

“Miss Sacra is also familiar with military matters, General Shivertail. With your permission, we will tabulate a full list for your appraisal within the next few hours.”

“Excellent! Thank you, Reynold.”

Magnolia shot to her feet, clapping her hands lightly. She looked at Ressa and turned to Zel.

“I forgot Reynold and Sacra could be helpful. Do forgive me. Why don’t we let them take over—Ressa, they’ll need stamina potions, food, drinks, whatever they want. But I want those wrapped bacon snacks myself. General Shivertail, let us retire to another location.”

Zel raised his brows, wondering if he should protest. But one look at Reynold and Sacra as they began poring over his work reassured him they were competent. He let Magnolia steer him out of the room and down a corridor.

The next sitting room he found himself in was more intimate, and would have been familiar to Ryoka and Erin. Zel shifted and wondered why the couch had to be pink. But he had to admit, he was grateful for a chance to relax and by this point the milk and snacks had arrived.

“Oh! What a treat.”

Magnolia was salivating over the crisp, hot rolls of bacon wrapped in dough. She chewed on one, sipped from her honey and milk drink, and promptly ordered another plate made. Ressa took one look at the bits of bacon and cancelled the order.

“Ressa!”

“You don’t need that much food.”

“I can have it if I want. Look at General Shivertail. He’s eating.”

“He’s bigger than you are and a warrior. He can burn the energy. You’ll just get fat. Fatter.”

“How dare you! This dress is very slimming, I’ll have you know.”

“Yes. Too bad it can’t work miracles.”

Zel watched the [Lady] and [Maid] bicker like old friends for a few seconds before coughing. Instantly, both Magnolia and Ressa looked at him, all business.

“So I’m here to help you kill the Goblin Lord, and then the Necromancer. But from what you keep hinting at, you want more than that. Lady Reinhart, it’s time to stop dancing around before we trip on our tails. What do you really want with me?”

Lady Magnolia Reinhart grew still. She sat across from Zel Shivertail and looked him in the eye. Once, Magnolia had sat at this very couch—or one much like it—and bullied and played games with two young women. That was then. Now, she sat and addressed Zel Shivertail as an equal. Her voice was steady and unadorned with any Skill as she spoke.

“I asked you to join me Zel Shivertail, because I want to work with you. I have sent you letters—hounded you, I will freely admit—over the years because I wanted you and none other. Not just to guide my armies, but to form an alliance with me. To defend this sorry continent and deal with the many problems of our world. And if you accept, you will be the first.”

Zel sat in his seat, back straight, not touching the snacks or his drink. He looked at Magnolia and felt the hum of danger in the back of his head. It was distinct, far-off. Danger to him? Or someone else? He sensed that he was facing an important decision and wished he was sure of how he’d respond or what she would say.

“The first? What do you mean by that?”

Lady Magnolia straightened her dress.

“I have sent many letters to many individuals across the world, General Shivertail. But two I have bothered most consistently. It is my hope that if you announce your decision to work with me, the second individual I have contacted will lend his great strength to me. You see, I have a plan that involves you, and you are the first.”

“Who is the second?”

“Niers Astoragon. The Titan.”

The name fell into the room and silenced it. Zel felt his heartbeat accelerate as thunder rumbled in his head and pieces started to fall into place. He felt like he was staring at a picture and was only uncovering it one piece at a time. But the grand scheme of it…he wondered whether Magnolia’s ambitions were what Sserys had feared or what he hoped for.

“The famous strategist of Baleros. Why do you want him?”

“Isn’t it obvious?”

Zel grunted at Magnolia’s disapproving look. He understood what, but not why.

“An army. You want us to lead an army.”

She nodded. Her fingers were laced together, and Ressa was looking from her mistress to Zel. They hid their emotions well, but Zel could tell they were nervous. Magnolia went on.

“It is similar to a thought exercise, General Shivertail. How would you go about creating the most powerful army? I am no [Strategist], so I thought of an answer that involved people. Two. A world-famous [General] and an unbeatable [Strategist]. Two of the highest-level individuals on the planet, men or rather, a Fraerling and Drake that all recognize of sound character and honor. You two could lead any army, and I would give you an army of legends. Magical artifacts, arms, mercenaries…my coffers can fund whatever is needed.”

“That sounds…plausible.”

It sounded insane. Why would Niers Astoragon, a [Strategist] whom Zel had never met in his life, travel from Baleros to Izril? But if Magnolia was serious—and her eyes were purely focused and honest as far as Zel could tell—she had a point. Still, Zel felt compelled to point out an obvious flaw.

“If you’re talking hypothetically about a perfect army, even in the abstract, you only have two parts of the puzzle. A [General] to lead and a [Strategist] to coordinate is a solid combination, but the wildcard that can take an army apart is a [Mage]. Without a powerful spellcaster, there are ways to destroy even the best-equipped army.”

Magnolia smiled.

“I know that. But the [Mage] I already have. I know a…magic user beyond any other. If I had you and Niers, I think he would join too. And there are many more I would reach to, many whom I think would join once they saw what I was attempting to create. So I would have a leader, a planner, and a spellcaster. Three to lead an army.”

“And do what? Carve out an empire?”

“No. To create a resolution to this world’s issues.”

Zel stared. Magnolia steepled her fingers.

“Consider this, Zel Shivertail. In this world of ours, there is war. Always war. From Baleros to Terandria, there is always a conflict going on. And some threaten to destroy entire species. We are threatened by the Antinium, a menace we have never seen before. Twice we have gone to war and twice made peace. But I think you and I know they are planning for a third war. A final war and I am not of the opinion we can be so complacent about them this time.”

Zel thought of Pawn, of Klbkch, Xrn, and nodded slowly.

“No. They are…changing.”

Magnolia nodded.

“And that is only the tip of the iceberg. In Rhir, the Demons fight with the Blighted King. As they have always done, and yet…there was an attempt on the Blighted King’s life last week. Imagine what would have happened had it succeeded? And the King of Destruction stirs from his slumber at last. Meanwhile, a new [Emperor] has emerged in Chandrar, the Emperor of Sands who already controls a good sixth of the continent. Either one could threaten the world.”

“You seem to be listing a lot of problems. But is this hypothetical army of yours a solution?”

“Not a hypothetical army, Zel Shivertail. A very real one that could become reality. Nations and species fight, but we do not have to. If we could resolve the Antinium issue in Izril, make some kind of peace between Drakes and Humans, we could turn our attention to the real issues in this world! But it is the Antinium and the Necromancer I think of now. The Drakes are disunited and we Humans fight each other. We need a powerful force—beyond what one [Lord] or Walled City can raise. A truly powerful force, one made up of every alliance that can be forged. You and I have seen it before.”

“General Sserys’ army.”

Another piece fell into place. Zel walked backwards in time, saw a massive army of Drakes, the hope of the continent. Humans, riding south to fight against a common enemy. Death and silence. A destroyed army and Sserys’ last words.

The past met the present. Magnolia nodded. She had been there too.

“I believe that if we Humans had marched with you, if we had all committed as one or given General Sserys more time, worn down the Antinium by parts rather than risk a final confrontation…perhaps we might be living in a different world. But yes, that is what I refer to. Another army, only this one led by you, Zel Shivertail. One that would either destroy or push the Antinium off this continent for good.”

The idea rocked Zel back in his chair. Not because it was daring, not because it was impossible—but because it was what he had been saying for years. Hadn’t he told those idiots in the Walled Cities and councils the exact same thing? Zel’s words came back to him. Drakes should be uniting against a common foe, forging alliances, focusing on the real threat. He looked at Magnolia and saw her looking at him.

“I have ears throughout the world Zel Shivertail. And what I dreamed of, you shouted. You have been ignored by your people, but I agreed with every word you said. Except that I think the Antinium are only the start.”

“You want to create a force powerful enough to destroy both the Necromancer and the Antinium? And what then, end the war between our species? End that idiocy at the Blood Fields that happens every year?”

Magnolia nodded. Zel shook his head.

“Impossible. Every Drake city would—you’d have to shove peace down their throats while you held a blade in the other hand. And I bet the Humans would be the same.”

“If that is what is necessary, I would do it. We must have peace, General Shivertail. Peace! This war is senseless and it wastes lives. I would end that.”

“How?”

Magnolia’s gaze was steady as she met Zel’s.

“I would open the High Passes and encourage Humans and Drakes to settle in each other’s lands. Peace might not arrive in a year or a decade, but exposure to one another and peace—by whatever means—would bridge old wounds, or so I feel. At the very least, I think the Gnolls would welcome the opportunity to travel the north as well as the south.”

The thought of that—Zel’s mind spun as he imagined the High Passes opened. That would let armies though—but also trade. It would mean war if the Humans and Drakes weren’t already at peace, but if they were…

“And what then? You’ll disband the army?”

Magnolia snorted.

“Hardly. There is far more to do. Far more pressing issues that may well lead to a world war, a conflict between continents. If I could stabilize one continent, I see no reason why I shouldn’t turn my attention to another one.”

“So say you do. What would you fix?”

Slowly, Magnolia Reinhart began to count on her fingers, her voice echoing in the sitting room.

“The Demons of Rhir. The Emperor of Sands in Chandrar. The King of Destruction. Those idiots in Terandria, and the state of war in Baleros. Oh, and those disgusting slavers in Roshal too. Those are the major issues I see in the world.”

It was like she was making wishes on a shooting star. Zel shook his head. Any one of those issues was unsolvable in his eyes. Oh, he could see parts of how to fix the issues—smashing the King of Destruction’s armies and beheading that idiot would solve a lot, but the scope of what Magnolia was proposing was…

A [Strategist] like Niers Astoragon could probably see what she was proposing, though. The Titan? Zel had met two Fraerlings in his life. He wondered what the Titan would say. If they met, would they even be able to work together? A good [General] and [Strategist] were like a married couple. If they didn’t agree—

Ridiculous. It would never happen. But part of Zel wondered. Magnolia was rich. Niers Astoragon was a mercenary, for all he was a commander. And he was renowned for being able to travel vast distances at the drop of a hat, appearing on a battlefield hundreds of miles away from where he had been spotted in a day’s time. He was also open to communication. If she sent him a letter, or if Zel did—

Impossible. But the [General] kept listening.

“An army solves many issues. I have no doubt you and Niers Astoragon could push back the Demon King and rout his armies if you were joined with armies from the other continents. As for Chandrar—the King of Destruction and the Emperor of Sands are already at war. One could destroy the other, but neither can be allowed to overtake the continent. The other issues can be solved with diplomacy, but one must be a world power to make other such powers agree to talk.”

Magnolia was speaking as if it were all set in stone, as if it were all possible. Zel shook his head.

“You’re overestimating me, Reinhart. I may be a high-level [General], but I wouldn’t bet on a battle between me and the King of Destruction, even with the Titan commanding my army. You need more than one army.”

“So I shall have more. Many more. That is why Izril is the start, General Shivertail. Bring peace to Izril, and I can send five, six, eight armies to do battle with the King of Destruction if need be. And other nations will do the same. You see, what I want is peace. And for that, I need an army. Not just one army, but a collective of every nation that wants peace in the world.”

A coalition. Zel shivered. Magnolia went on, her eyes shining with a distant future.

“Imagine it. A centralized peacekeeping force made up of forces from all nations. A governing body that exists beyond [Kings] and has the authority and strength to deal with threats to our world. It could be possible. The Goblin Lord and the Antinium are the first step. Eradicate them, and consolidate a base of power, and more will follow. That is why I need you, Zel Shivertail. You can lead an army. You and I represent a force far greater than our individual strengths.”

And like that, she lost him. Zel looked at Magnolia, suddenly broken out of the trance her words had caused. She was still looking ahead, still staring at that vision—and he remembered what Sserys had said.

Peace.

And Zel understood a bit of what had scared his mentor and friend. He shifted, and Magnolia broke off speaking sharply. The moment of—inspiration—flickered out.

The Drake carefully reached out and snagged one of the pigs in the blanket. He bit into it and chewed. It was cold, but the food was still good. And it was grounding. He took a sip and spoke softly.

“It sounds like an amazing dream, Lady Reinhart. But I’m afraid I don’t quite buy into all of it. I don’t think it will work.”

Magnolia looked at him and the light in her eyes faded a bit.

“Why not?”

“It’s an abstract idea. It’s a plan with a thousand moving parts. It assumes you will get the Titan’s attention, he will come here, that we won’t all be defeated in a battle, that you can make peace…and that I stay after dealing with the Goblin Lord and Az’kerash.”

Zel sipped at his drink, keeping his tail still. Magnolia stared at him.

“I see. But you agree the Antinium are a threat, don’t you? Why would you—”

“I don’t know if I’ll stay. Because I don’t trust you.”

Zel stood up abruptly. He saw Ressa tense, but Magnolia held up a hand. The [General] ignored Ressa and stared down at Magnolia. She looked up at him, fearless, but wary.

“I don’t like you, Human. I don’t mind most Humans, but you I judge from what I’ve heard and seen over the years. I don’t trust you, Magnolia Reinhart. You speak of peace, but you would see it through war.”

“How else?”

Magnolia blinked calmly at Zel, and he lost his momentum.

“How else? What do you mean?”

“How else would you do it, General Shivertail? You must know there are foes that will not be dissuaded by any amount of talking. There are tyrants and monsters who wear flesh like costumes and parade around pretending to civility in this world. They must be ended. How else would you do it besides war?”

“That’s not what I mean. It’s the fact that you’re the one taking charge that I object to.”

Zel shook his head. He felt frustrated—because he partially agreed with what Magnolia had said. And yet—

“No one person can be above others. Drakes have no [Kings] for that reason. If you went about ‘solving’ issues and removing whomever you liked, what would make you better than they are? What would allow people to trust you?”

“Nothing at all. I understand that. I have a reputation for trickery and underhandedness. I understand that General Shivertail. Which is why I need you and Niers Astoragon. I need people who are what I am not. Honorable, trustworthy. And that is why I propose a council, an alliance of people to manage this attempt, this army. I invited you to my estate as an equal, and I propose that you and I find other equals who can balance our opinions and make the right choices.”

The words made sense, but the mouth they came from—Zel shook his head again.

“No. I can’t trust that. I will not. Not alone, at any rate.”

Magnolia rose too, slowly. She was eying him with concern, and he felt like—

A Drake [General] stared at a young Human girl as she held out her hand. Peace. He looked into her eyes and saw war.

“I won’t agree to your plans. It sounds…unreal. And I don’t trust you. I’m sorry, but I came here for aid against Az’kerash. I will help you with the Goblin Lord, and in exchange you’ll help me with the Necromancer. That is why I came here. More than that I won’t promise.”

Magnolia took Zel’s words silently. For a few moments she stared at Zel, face impassive, and then she slowly nodded.

“I see.”

“Don’t mistake me. I think our peoples should work together. But you—I won’t ally myself with you blindly. If I did commit to an alliance, if I even thought about raising an army and tying my name to yours for a greater cause—it would have to be after I talked to the Titan himself. Him and this ‘magic user’ you’re hinting about.”

Magnolia’s eyes widened. Zel turned to her and bared his teeth.

“You have too many secrets, Reinhart. I don’t trust you at all. But I will admit—you make sense. And you have money, which funds armies and wins wars. Given that—if you can introduce me to people I can trust, I might, might come back with them and agree to your insane plan.”

Lady Magnolia Reinhart’s face was completely blank for a second, and then she burst out laughing. It surprised Zel so much he took a step back and nearly tripped onto the couch. Magnolia sat, chuckling, and Zel saw her wipe tears out of her eyes.

“Oh dear. That is the most—Ressa, I hoped for fortune and I received something like it. You want to meet my magic user and the Titan? Well, I can’t promise either, but I will ask! And oh my, if I arranged such a meeting…time to use every carrot and stick I think, Ressa.”

“Indeed, milady.”

Zel glared suspiciously at the two Human women.

“What’s so funny? Who is this magic user?”

Magnolia shook her head and brushed away a tear with a finger.

“Secrets, my dear General Shivertail. I cannot reveal who he is…yet. And I have a few more matters I’d gladly discuss with you and him—perhaps that’s the very key to getting him to agree, Ressa. Bring up the children—I’m sure I could get one of them to give him one of their devices if he’d agree—”

“One of those ‘tablets’, perhaps?”

“Indeed. Why, we could arrange it within the week if we put everything together. After the Goblin Lord of course, but if we sent Reynold to collect one and I sent a [Message]—”

The two were suddenly chatting with each other, talking about the magic user. Zel couldn’t make heads or tails of the conversation though, and cleared his throat. Magnolia broke off and smiled apologetically.

“Do forgive me General Shivertail. But I think I can convince you after all. As for the Titan—I will indeed try to talk to him.”

“I…see. Well, I’m willing to meet with either one.”

Zel wasn’t sure what he was talking himself into, but curiosity had taken hold and…he was already in trouble for coming this far. He might as well have something to show for it. Magnolia nodded briskly, suddenly all business. She looked at Zel—far more concretely now, and with none of the idealism she’d shown when talking about the future.

“For now it seems like we are allies of convenience, General Shivertail. I’ll give you an army—ragtag and disorganized though it may be—and you’ll help me deal with the Goblin Lord. After that, we can discuss Az’kerash.”

She hesitated and raised a finger.

“I may also need you to squish an annoying pest that’s popped up close to my lands. I seem to have a problem with [Emperors], or at least one…”

Zel folded his arms in disgust. One second she was talking about peace, the next…an [Emperor]? How? Wait, hadn’t he heard Erin saying something about an [Emperor] to Ryoka one time? It had been a passing conversation…Zel brushed that aside for the moment.

“I’m not your sword to be pointed at anyone you please, Reinhart. Besides, you’re the scion of a famous house. Why can’t you assassinate them in the middle of the night or crush them yourself?”

Magnolia smiled in embarrassment.

“I ah, seem to have a problem with loyalty and hired killers at the moment. Which is another problem I’d like to discuss—as for dealing with him myself, I was aware of the issue, you know. I had hoped he’d be content with a village or two, but it seems this damnable Goblin situation had sent people rallying to his banners. And while I’m sure our cultures are different, you must agree that attacking a local hero is not generally helpful to one’s reputation.”

“True. So why deal with him at all? You’re afraid he’ll take your lands? Can’t you…talk to him?”

Zel grunted. Magnolia hesitated.

“I don’t like [Emperors]. Every one I’ve met has had a few tricks up their sleeves. Nasty ones. And as a [Lady], I am regrettably disadvantaged when opposing them. Hierarchies and social classes, you know. I prefer not to get near this one if I can. I had a particularly bad experience with the Emperor of Sands in Chandrar. You know, the new one? He was quite objectionable and I had trouble dealing with him. Of course, she was worse now that I think of it…”

That was another odd statement that didn’t make sense unless you knew more about the Emperor of Sands. Zel shook his head.

“[Emperors] are none of my business. Goblin Lord, Necromancer—that’s all I’ll help you with. You want to deal with him, do it yourself.”

“Cheapskate.”

Zel grew exasperated.

“Don’t you have a Skill that controls other people? Use that on him. I’ve heard about you and your charmed words.”

“Believe me, I would if I could, but my Skill is not powerful enough to sway anyone with a powerful class—or strong will. I’ve learned that the hard way recently.”

Magnolia made a face, which surprised Zel.

“I would have thought a high-level [Lady] would have more persuasion Skills than that.”

“Oh, Skills. I have lots of those, but charming others isn’t a vital Skill for me by any means. I have Skills in far more useful areas I’m pleased to say.”

“Such as?”

She clicked her tongue dismissively.

“Skills that boost the welfare and safety of my lands, Skills that help me train servants, protect myself, manage my estates…”

“And your highest-level Skill?”

Magnolia Reinhart hesitated and eyed Zel for a second.

“Why do you want to know?”

He shrugged.

“We are allies. It’s helpful to know what your best Skill is. I’m sure you know mine.”

“Hmm…I suppose so. Very well. My highest-level Skill is [Aegis of Grace].”

“I’m unfamiliar with it.”

“Not surprising. It’s a powerful Skill that extends across my lands. To simplify, it wards off any settlement affiliated with me from attack. Thus, my mansion, Invrisil, and other holdings deter casual [Bandits], monsters and other unsavory groups from attacking them. Attacks do occur of course, but that is one of the reasons why Invrisil had grown so prosperous of late. Adventurers do their bit, but my Skill—and the reputation I have worked so hard to dismay you with—also protects my people.”

Was that a joke? Zel blinked and nodded. Magnolia smiled at him.

“It may not seem like much considering your Skills can literally turn the tide of battle, but I suspect one of the reasons why all these Goblins have been raiding other settlements and cities is due to that Skill. After all, peace brings prosperity and with enough money I can do a great deal.”

“I can appreciate that. Thank you for telling me.”

Zel nodded to Magnolia. She dipped her head graciously, and then put down her empty cup and stood up.

“Well, I do believe that was a profitable little talk. However, I think that you and I have gone over…most of the points we wished to discuss. You aren’t beholden to me, and I am your ally of circumstance. For now.”

Her eyes twinkled and Zel suspected she planned to turn him into an ally for good. But he made no comment, simply rising to his feet.

“I’m fine with that. If you’ll show me the way, I’ll finish assessing my army and sending out instructions—”

“Oh psht. That can wait. Reynold and Sacra are very good at their jobs and I have something for you. I was going to give it to you tomorrow, but I suppose that since we’re tentative allies, now is the best time. You do need to know what you’re working with after all. Follow me.”

Magnolia was either a night owl or she’d had far too much sugar, because she strode towards the doors and down the hallway at a brisk pace. Zel followed, his legs and tail almost asleep. Magnolia led him down a flight of stairs, through a hallway full of [Maids] and [Servants] who stared at Zel, past a Gnoll [Maid]—

“A Gnoll [Maid]?”

Zel had to take a step back to look at that. Magnolia walked back to him as he saw a Gnoll [Maid] serving a plate of food to a man dressed all in black in a small sitting room. Both Gnoll and Human glanced up and froze as they saw Zel peeking in. He turned away and saw Magnolia and Ressa peeking as well.

“Oh, don’t mind her. Bekia’s been in my service for years. As for the rather young and nervous [Assassin] there—that’s Theofore.”

“Theofore?”

Zel looked blankly at the [Assassin], who’d gone pale at the sight of a famous Drake [General]. Zel tried to remember what the open bounty on his head was and forgot. He’d gutted more than one [Assassin] after his life, which was probably why the young man was so afraid. Magnolia nodded sympathetically.

“A young fool. I have some…trouble with the Assassin’s Guild, and he was blindingly unaware of the entire affair. Suffice it to say he’s marked for death by his own guild, which is why I’m letting him stay here. Rather charitable of me I know, but I suppose I’ll need at least one [Assassin] once I’m done cleaning up.”

Both Zel and Theofore eyed Magnolia as she turned away. The [General] followed Magnolia into the main hallway, and then, to his surprise, out of the doors and into the garden.

“Why are we going out here?”

“Oh, don’t worry—I keep my estate’s weather controlled by magic.”

Magnolia reassured Zel without answering the question as she strolled out into a pleasant, cool night that was at odds with the dour wet cold of the fleeing winter outside of her mansion. Zel followed her into a veritable labyrinth of hedges, flowers, and trees staring at a giant cloud floating very low overhead.

“You have a lot of magic in your mansion.”

“Yes, don’t I? I collect it. Mind the ground—looks like the cloud’s just been through. Oh, and Ressa, do make sure it doesn’t shoot lightning by accident, will you? I’d hate for anything to strike our [General], especially as he is wearing armor.”

Zel eyed the passing raincloud warily and walked a few steps away from it. Magnolia was preoccupied however. She walked through a hedge maze, calling out loudly.

“Nalthal! Nalthaliarstrelous! Please don’t make me call your full name again! Where are you?”

There was a rustle and Zel turned and saw a dour-looking old man in dirty robes appear out of the hedges like a dirty, scruffy ghost. Unlike every other servant in Magnolia’s employ, he was not professional, did not bow to her when he appeared, and instead leaned on the hoe he was carrying and glared at Magnolia, Ressa, and Zel all at once.

He made the Drake’s scales prickle. Magnolia smiled as she greeted Nalthal, her [Gardener]. The old man grunted as she approached.

“Nalthal, I do apologize for the late hour, but I was hoping you had my two you-know-what’s around here? In the maze perhaps? And I’ll need the rest of the artifacts my grandfather gave me.”

The old [Gardener] grunted and eyed Zel. The [General] felt his scales prickle again and took two steps backwards. Magnolia frowned.

“Oh please, General. Nalthal doesn’t smell that bad. Although I do agree he is rather…pungent.”

“It’s not that. I’m just getting out of his range.”

Zel folded his arms and stared hard at the ‘gardener’. He noticed Ressa was also standing away from the old man. Nalthal muttered something incomprehensible and scratched at one armpit. Magnolia looked at him and then at Zel and her eyes widened.

“Oh! Warrior’s instincts, is it? Ressa hates standing near Nalthal too. Although that may be the smell again…Nalthal, I do appreciate your display of animosity, but my grandfather’s things?”

He grunted irritably at her. Unperturbed, she poked him and he shuffled off through the hedge maze. Ressa brought up the rear and Zel kept narrowing his eyes at the [Gardener]’s back. There was definitely a field around him that Zel didn’t want to enter. He looked at Ressa as the [Maid] frowned at Nalthal’s back.

“Excuse me. Miss Ressa. That [Gardener] is a warrior, isn’t he?”

Ressa nodded shortly.

“He is. Although he’s no warrior, but rather a mage.”

“Really? What kind?”

“[Druid].”

Zel paused. He looked around at the garden, and realized it was not so much a beautifully tended delight of flowers, but an infestation of greenery just barely curtailed from overgrowing the mansion.

“And she lets him tend her gardens?”

Ressa’s face said it all. Nalthal, the dangerously irritable [Druid] led them through the maze and several twists and turns. It didn’t seem that protected, but Magnolia explained to Zel as he walked.

“You see, I had a break in last month…terrible business and I have some rather powerful artifacts here, so I decided to place them with Nalthal. I do have a treasury, but some of the items are ah, rather large and Nalthal is quite good at his job. I believe his shrubbery ate two [Assassins] when they attacked. Oh, here we are!”

Ancestors!

Zel roared and nearly dove out of the way as he rounded a bend in the maze and came face-to-face with a giant metal monster. A Golem, a monster with knives for hands and a huge metal body inscribed with runes and armored like a Dullahan stared down at him. A glowing white light shone from its mouth—it had no head, just a giant opening which was his mouth and eyes and face all at once.

It was huge. And it was one of a pair. The second battle Golem loomed over Zel, a mass of metal and magic that shone with inactivated spells and deadly intent. The [General] backed up fast from the two Golems, staring at Magnolia.

“Dead gods, are those War Golems? Where did you get these things from?”

“Oh, the Reinhart family vaults of course. I have a grandfather—whom I would very much like to kill if you and Niers do agree to join me—who has a few lying about. I thought they would be a fine addition to the army. They certainly are good at killing things.”

Magnolia twinkled at Zel. She walked over to the hulking War Golems without fear. That was more than Zel could do—his heart was beating out of his chest as he recalled stories of how War Golems would wade through armies leaving a trail of death in their wakes.

Ressa clearly had heard the same stories, because she was eying the huge metal monsters with the same trepidation. Both War Golems were over twelve feet tall and were more than a match for any monster they encountered. Only Nalthal’s overgrown hedge maze could have hidden them. The [Druid] seemed unimpressed with the War Golems as well. He kicked one and walked around it, muttering as Magnolia explained.

“I requisitioned some soldiers from my estate as well. They’re already at the meeting place—oh dear, I hope they have food—well, I’m sure they’ll be fine. They’re [Knights], and [Mages]. A small force and they don’t see combat much, but they are well equipped.”

“And the two War Golems? They’re for me?

Zel stared upwards, scarcely able to believe a relic from the past would be put under his command so easily. If he’d had both of them before, Ilvriss would have thought twice about attacking him. Any army would. A War Golem was worth at least a thousand soldiers used correctly. Ancestors, no wonder Magnolia Reinhart could speak about creating a perfect army! Give him a hundred of the War Golems and he’d take down a Walled City!

Well, maybe not a Walled City, but anything up to that point—Zel’s mind spun with the possibilities of how he’d use them in battle. He wondered what a [Strategist] would make of them.

Magnolia smiled, and then turned as she saw Nalthal dragging something across the ground. She cried out in dismay.

“Oh come now Nalthal! That’s not the way to treat General Shivertail’s armor!”

“My what?”

Zel looked over and saw Magnolia fussing over a huge and clearly magical breastplate. She couldn’t lift it herself, so Ressa and Nalthal had to pick it up. It was dirty, but the dirt couldn’t hide the impressive nature of the armor. The golden-red metal shone in the dark night, and seemed to blaze as if a flickering fire was right in front of the armor. Nalthal sneered at it and nearly dropped his end until Ressa kicked him.

“This is a set of armor from the Reinhart vaults, General Shivertail. I selected it myself. It’s a powerful artifact and—”

“It’s stolen.”

Zel folded his arms. Magnolia blinked and broke off.

“Excuse me?”

The Drake [General] glared at Magnolia and Ressa alike. He pointed to the armor with a trembling claw.

“I recognize that armor! That is the Heartflame Breastplate, one of my people’s national treasures! We thought it was lost after General Ironscales was slaughtered and her corpse disappeared two centuries ago—you Humans had it this entire time?”

“Oh dear. Did we Ressa?”

“Probably.”

The [Maid] shrugged and glared at Nalthal as he dropped his end of the armor and stomped away. She offered it to Zel unapologetically.

“The Reinharts steal everything. Regis Reinhart acquired it and we had no idea it was in his possession until we asked. It’s yours now.”

“Mine?”

Zel stared at Magnolia in disbelief. He lifted the breastplate gingerly in his claws. It was indeed heavy, but if legends were true, it could stop an enchanted lance thrust to the heart without a problem. Magnolia smiled at him as the Drake looked at her in disbelief.

“Of course! The Golems are here to protect you and the breastplate should help you in battle if it’s that famous an artifact. I’m hardly one to be stingy with my wealth General Shivertail, and you deserve to have as many artifacts as one of the Lords of the Wall in your Walled Cities.”

“And wear a hundred rings and amulets at all times? Hardly. But I will take this armor. I don’t need enchanted gear, but this—”

It was like he was a small child again and being given an actual magic sword. Zel’s claws trembled as he unbuckled his breastplate. Once upon a time Sserys had ordered a set of magical armor made for Zel and he had refused. He didn’t need armor thanks to his Skills. But this?

When Zel stood, his armor burned on his chest and he felt warm, stronger. Magnolia clapped her hands in delight and Ressa carefully wiped some dirt off of the gleaming enchanted metal. Zel looked at her and felt conflicted.

“You have a thousand magical artifacts, Reinhart. Countless secrets, powerful servants, and more wealth than I can dream of. How is it that you haven’t taken over this continent already?”

The Deadly Flower of the North smiled at Zel and he thought she looked rueful. Just for a second.

“Honestly? Because money cannot buy everything, Zel Shivertail. I have artifacts, yes. Money, yes. Servants? Oh, they are strong, but they are not champions. The Goblin King swept through these lands because he was mighty. I am a [Lady], not a warrior, General Shivertail. To back up my charming words and wealth, I need a sword, an army. Do you see why I approached you?”

“I do. But I’m sorry to say—”

“Yes, yes. You’re not my sword. Not yet.”

Magnolia waved a hand, looking put out. Zel grinned. He opened a claw and looked up at the War Golems.

“I was going to say that you don’t have a sword. I’m a defensive [General]. If you want offense, get the Titan or bring back Sserys. I hold the line. Occasionally I charge into the enemy and redefine the line, but I’m best suited defending. You have a shield, Reinhart.”

She looked at him, her lips pursed, hands on hips.

“I know that I should appreciate that statement as it is, but a shield hardly sounds useful for dealing with a Goblin Lord.”

“No? You can give me one and I’ll beat him to death with it.”

Zel grinned and flexed his claws. He felt ready for a battle. The Goblin Lord might have an army, but Zel did too. Probably. And he had two Battle Golems, magic armor, and…well, that was about it. He just needed his claws and he’d tear a hole in that Goblin Lord’s chest.

At least, he hoped he would. In the worst case he might have to avoid a battle. It depended on the Goblin Lord’s army and how strong they’d be when Zel’s forces met him. Forty thousand soldiers was good, but the [General] hadn’t lived as long as he had by taking stupid risks. You took stupid risks only when you had no other choice.

“Well, I think I’ve got a few more things to think of. Lady Reinhart, shall we return to your mansion? I have a battle to plan.”

Magnolia smiled at him.

“Call me Magnolia, will you? And I will call you Zel. After all, we are allies and I hope, friends.”

Zel stared at her. Magnolia smiled. He coughed.

“No. We’re not friends.”

“What?”

Her smile vanished. Zel shuffled his feet. Ressa snorted.

“We’re not friends, Reinhart. I still don’t trust you.”

“Oh come now!”

She tried to grab his arm and he walked away. Magnolia sighed loudly.

“We are allies! Comrades-in-arms! I gave you that armor!”

“You can’t even lift my armor.”

“I am trying to be friendly.”

“You don’t have to be. We’re allies, not bedfellows.”

“This is really distressing me, Zel. I felt we had reached an understanding, a connection.”

“Don’t call me that, please.”

“Zel—”

“I’m going back to the mansion.”

“Fine! Unbelievable. Stubborn Drakes. Ressa, let’s go.”

“Okay.”

“Right. We’re off. General Shivertail? Which way are—”

“I don’t know. Which way’s the way out?”

“Of course it’s that—no, I suppose not. Or this way? Hm. Nalthal! Which way is…Nalthal?”

The two Humans and Zel looked around. The [Druid] turned [Gardener] did not reply as Magnolia called his name. They looked around and realized they were lost in the hedge maze, between towering thick walls of greenery that were at least sixteen feet high. Now that Zel really thought about it, you could probably die in a maze. He looked at Magnolia. Ressa looked at Magnolia. Magnolia looked around and sighed.

“I hate my [Gardener].”

 


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77 thoughts on “4.44 M

  1. Hey there! Is this a boring chapter or did it make you laugh? Did it make you groan? Did Magnolia bother you? Did Zel bother you? Are you hungry?

    Dialogue-heavy chapters are always odd for me to write. I feel like people don’t like them as much–or maybe it’s just that they’re harder to do justice to. Regardless, I am interested in how you all find it. I tried to juxtapose two characters with similar viewpoints but different personalities and pasts together. They have a shared connection in a way, and I wanted to nod to that while keeping it all relatively entertaining.

    Hah! Look at me being fancy. Two people talked. That’s all you need for good storytelling so long as you do it right. And I think this chapter had to happen. Skipping it might make sense in some stories, but this is such a big meeting I feel like I had to go on. As for next chapter and the one after that…

    I have a schedule this month. Something’s afoot. I’ll tell you about it next time. For now, thanks for reading!

    • Magnolia is going to find out, that her dream will be harder to came true with her at the top.

      While I believe that there are many reasons for this (such as Teriarch already having an iPhone to amuse him), the main reason why Zel will never help and truest her, is when he finds out that not only Magnolia knew what hardship Lyonette had to suffer through, and she never lifted a finger to help her while knowing that Lyon was seeking for her help, but that Magnolia had wishing that Lyonette had frozen to death as well.

      And this is a mater of time before he hears about it from either Erin or Magnolia herself.

    • This is a lore chapter. Zel and Magnolia are great together. I only wish I could have seen some of this from Lady Reinhardt’s POV. I also can’t wait for Zel to be clued in on the visitors.

    • This chapter made me shiver. I never knew TWI was an alternate universe prequel to 1984. Also?

      “’And do what? Carve out an empire?’
      ‘No. To create a resolution to this world’s issues [with an army].’”
      Someone needs to teach Maggie about synonyms.

    • Pirateaba, I’m a big fan of your work and I’d love to introduce it to a wider audience. With your permission, I’d like to translate The Wandering Inn to Chinese. Are you okay with that?

          • I think the most important one is, that no matter who translates your work with or without your permission, it still stays yours. Not diectly stated by Wildbw but another reader below who appears to base his knowledge on US law.

  2. Leave a typo if you believe every hedge maze contains an angry druid gardener!

    (Druid hedge believers: gueenee, haidbz, Neceros, Grimmend, MrWiggles, Greatgreen109, AVR, grekan)

    • But one look at Reynold and Sacra as they began (poring) over his work reassured him they were competent.

      Pouring

      • I have been assured that poring is the correct form of the word and that ‘pouring’ is the common mispelling. I keep writing ‘pouring’ and being corrected on it in the typos, at any rate.

        • Poring is correct. The verb is “to pore” and it does conjugate to “poring”. If you were using a liquid to cover something it would be pouring since that comes from “to pour”.

    • You have used the words “and so on” in the last 3(?) chapters and it just seems a bit annoying to me.
      They seem a bit lazy and cheap to me? You could describe things a bit better, not go into much detail and so on.
      I think you used the phrase 3 times this chapter. It sounds to me like you started listing things and then just got bored with it.
      It is just something that came up when I read the chapters. I really like your story.

    • Magnolia-or rather, Ressa’s
      Magnolia’s-or rather, Ressa’s

      all the cities that’s
      every city that’s OR all the cities that are

      he was more of your people’s problems
      he was more your people’s problem

      if not the most deadly [Rogues]
      if not the most deadly [Rogue]

      dissuaded from any amount
      dissuaded by any amount

    • “Chaos reined over”
      Just wanted to make sure that’s a deliberate reference to the ‘pulling a horse around using reins’ imagery there? Since you already used ‘reigned’ to start the previous paragraph.

  3. I find it amusing that everyone Magnolia wants to gather under her banner are more inclined to listen Erin/Ryoka than her. Also, it seems Magnolia doesn’t know Teriarch now has an iPhone. This ought to be good.

  4. I’m hungry for a Laken chapter, so that we might figure out his new skill, and see what has come of him defending that lady :3

    • It doesn’t seem unreasonable to me, honestly. Unlike a [King], an [Emperor] is by nature a conqueror. If he’d stuck to Riverfarm, it would be a different story- but as things stand now, it looks from an outside perspective like Laken is in the early stages of conquest.

      • And I don’t think there are even human kings in Izril all the cities being king of like free cities with mayors, lords and ladies.

        If such a state of affair lasted for at least a thousand years, you can guess that the five families probably don’t take kindly to kingdoms and empires on what they consider as their territory…

      • Still, I kind of think that an emperor would be less disruptive to the political landscape of the continent then a king.

        After all, most empires are the regroupement of many nations or free cities with possibly myriad of cultures, languages, etc..

        I could see a political system similar to the Holy Roman Empire developing under Larken’s rule… Heck, in the long run, the five families could even end up in similar roles to the Electors…

    • She is a tyrant who believes herself to be virtuous. If she can’t negotiate with someone then they must die

      • She hasn’t tried to negotiate with Laken, though…OK, so she doesn’t want to come within his aura, but not even a message? Perhaps a polite inquiry about his ambitions?

        I mean, his track record thus far is “became popular by offering protection from goblin attacks”, and beating the goblins is at the top of her to-do list, so it’s not like he’s threatened her.

        She acknowledges that there are things she can’t easily do as a [Lady]. Well, perhaps an [Emperor] could help with some of them.

    • Magnolia wields a lot of power, but she treats it like a hammer. And every problem is a nail that can be solved with smashing.

  5. Great chapter! Well they all are. Except *that* one, but then, it didn’t actually happen. But this, in addition to the engaging narrative and the fun dialog, has Nalthal. A great character, and again, all the characters are great. But this time, you gave us a new character and made him seem fully fleshed out in just a few sentences. The goblins would like him, he’s not the kind to use a sentence when a single grunt will do. And he’s not impressed by Magnolia’s authority, position, or power. Or even her wealth, except to the extent that it provides him with the opportunity to craft his own custom wilderness. When Magnolia holds a garden party, i wonder how many people are willing to try the maze. I bet Ressa makes them sign a waiver first.

  6. Zel really should have brought some cake. He could control this alliance right from the start with that particular bribe.

    It’s fascinating to finally know Magnolia’s intentions. Her short-term goals (the Goblin Lord and the Necromancer) seem quite reasonable, but I have a feeling we’ll see an otherworldly wrench in the works by the time we reach her middle goals (defeating the Antinium, peace on Izril) which will probably complicate her long-term goals (world peace) a great deal. But boy, the idea of Erin as the host for where the Council meets is giving me delightful giggles.

    I, for one, am quite glad to see Theofore again. Perhaps he’ll become another of Magnolia’s servants and a recurring character?

    I hope Magnolia discusses the otherworlders with Zel soon. I really want to see his reaction… and Magnolia’s reaction to hearing everything Zel experienced with Erin.

    …Yeah, I’m still stuck on the idea of the Wandering Inn as the headquarters of the Alliance Council. She’s definitely got everything she needs to draw them there- cake for Magnolia, Mrsha for Zel, chess for Niers…

    • I’ve already called dibs on the inn for the United Nations.

      Magnolia: What do you mean, you can’t buy anymore sugar?

      Ressa: I’m sorry, it appears we are subject to a [Sanction].

      • She’s just been introduced to the concept of a different sweet drink. I suspect honey will be the commodity she’d most hate losing access to any time soon.

  7. I find it very strange that Magnolia doesn’t even have a Basic understanding of Military logistics. She is supposed to have her fingers everywhere and succeds in most of her endeavors, meaning that she has an understanding of many different issues. And her plans to bring Peace involve a monumental military aspect. So I can’t how she could have never even tried to learn such Basic understanding in such an important field. Even if she didn’t try to learn, she should still have absorbed some of that knowledge from interactions with others people or examples she witnessed.

    I’m guessing you wanted to show why Magnolia absolutely needs all of these other people by giving examples of her weaknesses. But given who she is, that example just doesn’t fit.
    Also, it seems strange that Magnolia doesn’t have at least some people with military expertise that have the dedicated task of analysing news and reports from all over the world or something and could be used to take care of the task Zel nowhad to take on. Though maybe they just aren’t located at the estate.

    But aside from that I found this chapter quite good. Just this one strange issue.

    • I had a similar thought, and I wondered if it might not perhaps be a deliberate move on Magnolia’s part. She’s raised at least one army before, after all- in the First Antinium Wars. It’s hard to believe she screwed this one up so completely. But if she was trying to make herself seem less threatening to Zel, being incompetent in military matters is a great place to start.

      By the same token, I’m extremely suspicious of her supposed ignorance regarding the Heartflame Breastplate. Out of all the artifacts and armor in the Reinhart vaults, she “just happened” to pick the one national treasure of the Drakes? I’m calling that bluff. She knows Zel doesn’t use most magical items, and she deliberately picked the one piece of armor that he would wear and which would endear him to her most.

  8. This chapter really points out what is wrong with this planet. Magnolia, who is probably the only native-born person on the continent who desires peace, has a kill list twice the size of the list of people she wants to make peace with.

    • That’s a wonderfully succinct way to explain it!
      I was trying to put my gnawing concerns about Magnolias plan into words and you’ve nailed it. She reminds me of the archtypical civilian political leader that thinks every problem can be solved by military means, mostly because they lack the understanding of the subject to know better. They might have good or bad aims, and the ability to understand intractible problems, but believing war is going to solve more problems than it creates is a tragic flaw.
      Hopefully Magnolia will start to learn that coexistence is possible.

      It will be fun to see Zel’s favorite exclamation be right on target when or if he meets the ‘magic user’ in question.

  9. ”With absolute power, i could make the world better” Aka what goes through peoples head right before they create cambodian killing fields, gulags, cultural revolutions and slaughter millions of innocent people.

    I can’t actually tell if pirate is being foreboding or genuinely hopeful here though.

    • I mean, Magnolia talks about the wholesale extermination of whole races (at the very least the antinium and perhaps the demons) so yeah, “peace” for the people of the thousand years reich…

      • Magnolia ”We need less Antinium in this world”
        Zel ”Fewer, Magnolia”
        Magnolia ” I told you not to call me that in public…. yet”
        I’ll see myself out.

  10. I find magnolias distinct lack of mention of the God in Rhihal that the antinium fled from disturbing… I mean, she talks about destroying the antinium even though she knows that they aren’t the real threat, and she knows that they will likely be incredibly important in the fight against that God.

    Things like that are why I think she will wind up being the final or hidden boss in this story…

    • She doesn’t know about the God in Rhir though. The antinium keep that a secret and Ryoko is the only other person other than the higher antinium that knows abot it.

  11. That organization overseeing the world… Hm. Well, a few centuries it will work, I guess. Until idealists at top are alive, idealistic and sharp. Then it might become corrupted – asassination or phasing out good guys and it might turm to a great tool to invade, steal and plunder – something on the scale and goals of NATO.

  12. Found Magnolia’s goals and behavior a bit bizarre in this chapter and not really fitting her image as a master tactician. This is a world with megacontinents and rapid travel seemingly being very limited, and apparently no history of world conquest, so why would she think anyone would go for a UN style force? In terms of little stuff, while wanting to kill Laken quietly might be logical, why the heck would she blab about that to her choice of general who insists he isn’t her friend? Why would she blab about killing her ancestor’s spirit to someone who can’t help with that when said spirit has his own spy network? Given her military goals, she hasn’t read any basic books on strategy and needs to be told that it will take time and be a logistical nightmare to integrate levies from all over with no existant command structure or common training? How can she not know how many named/gold rank talents are being levied? She came across as a dreaming ditz, not shrewd.

    • Might intend to dispose of Zel once she rules the world through “peace”? You only tell your plans to people if you fully trust them (Ressa) or intend to kill them once they’ve accomplished what you need from them.

    • Well, it was said that she was on a sugar high so it kind of fits that she’d end up being over-enthusiastic and stating her “crazy”goals to someone she saw as a kindred spirit in the moment… Kind of like a drunk talking to much for it’s own good.

  13. Magnolia talks a good game and has a great vision, but -and this is a very common flaw with such plans- she isn’t thinking about incentive systems. If she does achieve the world she wants, she will find it without any incentives in place to ensure the accumulated power is actually used in a way which benefits the world. Consolidated power will be bartered, traded, and concentrated among those who have the power to do so, to their benefit and everyone else’s detriment.

    And it’s not just that her plan relies on the presumed benevolence of the ruling body she makes. It’s that her plan revolves around the cooperation of existing empowered individuals. Individuals who will demand concessions for their cooperation. Individuals who will *have* to be appeased, where appeasal means giving them more than some replacement ruler could give them. Unless Magnolia goes into this with a system in mind to prevent this from happening, power will end up being concentrated in the hands of power-hungry people, few of whom will be benevolent. Her plan, as is, will invariably see many selfish people end up in positions of increase power and authority, whose interests will not necessarily be aligned with continued and lasting peace.

    Nations don’t go to war because no one is talking to one another. That’s just a symptom of a greater problem, which is that rulers of autocratic nations are often *incentivized* to go to war with one another. And when they benefit from going to war, they do so. It’s inherently impossible to get autocratic leaders to establish lasting peace, because you cannot ensure that peace will be in all of their personal best interests. The only way to establish lasting peaces is (at least that modern political science has identified) to make basically everywhere a democracy, as inter-democracy incentives towards cooperation (or at least passive-aggressive memorandum writing) greatly outweigh those for war. And that’s just beyond Magnolia’s imagination. Now to be fair, the solution she is going with is the best she can think of, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still doomed to failure. That is just the fate of all attempted long-term peaces between autocracies.

    Side note: Democratic leaders do have substantial incentives to go to war with autocracies and seed war in autocracies though, and to prevent autocracies from becoming democracies, which is, well, a problem I’m not sure anyone has a good solution for. You still get less net war with democracies in the picture though, and perfect is the enemy of better, so *shrug*.

    • >The only way to establish lasting peaces is (at least that modern political science has identified) to make basically everywhere a democracy, as inter-democracy incentives towards cooperation (or at least passive-aggressive memorandum writing) greatly outweigh those for war

      It’s not so clear-cut. Modern democracy is fueled by capitalism. And where you have capitalism, you have process of concentration of capital. In reality it means birth of organizations that have a goal of amassing wealth by any means possible. (See Microsoft, Apple for example). If it’s profitable to lie, steal, decompose, throw people out of their homes, fire cities worth of employees, sell drugs, weapons, people and organs – it would be done. If it’s profitable to start a war – it will happen. If it’s not profitable, tools and research might be developed to make it profitable.

      A big problem of modern capitalistc world is that you can’t simply expand, for example. It’s too crowded. Goods are produced faster than they are broken – markets are filling up. At the prior days you could go and start colonizing new continent. It would create new market, new slots for people gunning for leadership etc.

      So to make wheel turning, it’s actually incredible interesting for capitalistic democracy to either create a periphery where small wars are forever burning excess of people and goods. Or to make periodic clear-ups of existing countries (targeting most vulnerable and reach as priority) to break goods, homes, kill excessive people, and create new temporary market and slots for people, gunning for leadership.

      Funny thing is is that there is no easy way out. Any govermental system is abusable by process of concentration of power in hands of minority. And there is no cure against this process. Human nature. Only way to fix it – is to change human nature invasively (surgery or gen-mod). Or supersede humanity with designed specie, perhaps completely robotic in nature.

  14. So, the plan is to conquer nations with overwhelming force, then enact social changes that, while hypothetically increasing the overall quality of life, would be seen by the nation as undermining their culture? Yeah, somebody needs to tell Magnolia what happened when Daenerys tried ruling Meereen. I’m going to guess that “no war=trade=prosperity” is not a one-size-fits-all solution for all the lands Magnolia wishes to fix. Even putting aside the cultures that view war as a means for gaining honor and prestige, it’s hard to imagine what some nations would do without it. Rhim fell to pieces while Flos “slept”, and Balero’s culture & economy seems built around it. Level 30 Warriors would be forced to become Level 1 Laborers…or Bandits…or Rebels. But Magnolia’s plan didn’t seem to include finding the best Administrtors or Diplomats. Even if she managed to assemble the Army Avengers, she may win any given war, but she’d lose the peace so fast her head would spin.

  15. So Magnolia’s mentality is this.
    I don’t like this guy (emperor), so I think he’s dangerous, so I must kill him with my best sword! For peace!

  16. Very simply Magnolia and everything already living in the world have been taken in by the dead God.

    Keep killing and create conflict for food etc.

    Erin, Laken, Ryoka, the Doctor, Yellow Splatter, Bird etc want to move the world forward.

    Old vs New.

    Magnolia is already out of date. Peace through killing. Yeah, no one is trying that..

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