Four days after the battle at Invrisil and the death of Zel Shivertail, the Goblin Lord’s army marched. Four days was enough time for the Goblins to finish looting the Human [Soldiers] who had died on the battlefield, to finish eating and for the wounded Goblins to begin healing—or to die.
There had not been enough potions for the Goblin Lord’s army, not nearly enough. However, those Hobs who had been gravely injured had lived thanks to the precious healing liquids, as had the Goblin Lord’s commanders. The injuries that the Goblin Lord himself had taken during his now-infamous duel against Zel Shivertail had been healed within minutes of his victory.
The Goblin Lord. Rumors spread faster than birds could fly of this new and extraordinarily powerful Goblin Lord. He had slain Zel Shivertail, defeated an army backed by Lady Magnolia Reinhart, and managed to destroy a pair of War Golems by himself. He was both [Necromancer] and Goblin Lord. And now he had a name.
Reiss. It was an odd name, a strange name. But then, few Goblins had names at all. Velan had been named in the style of Baleros, and others, such as Greydath and Tremborag, took their names from places they had grown up in, or been given those names for their infamy. Names were names.
But it was a sword that cut doubly deep in Reiss’ case, because his was a Drake name. Not a common one, and perhaps it could have been a Human name as well, but it was close enough to sting, especially in the wake of Zel Shivertail’s death. Some speculated that the Goblin Lord had chosen it to mock the Drakes, or perhaps in recognition of a worthy foe.
Magnolia Reinhart had no time to speculate. She stood on Invrisil’s ramparts four days after her retreat from the battlefield and stared at the approaching Goblin army through an enchanted spyglass. Next to her, the Watch Commander of Invrisil, the [Mayor], and several low-level [Lords] and [Ladies] shifted uneasily, but said nothing.
“It seems the Goblin Lord is coming after all. Watch Captain, hold back your soldiers until he begins attacking the city. I fear it will be a battle in the suburbs after all, unless you mean to cede a third of the city to his forces without issue?”
The Lady Reinhart’s voice was cold and crisp in the morning air. The Watch Captain made no response. His face was pale and green at the same time and he’d disappeared three times already to vomit. Magnolia eyed him and then turned her attention back to the Goblin Lord’s army.
She was in command of the defense of Invrisil, because there was no high-level commander ready or able to accept the burden and because she was the [Lady] of the land. Magnolia was no [General], but she had done all she could. Invrisil’s population had been evacuated behind the walls of the inner city and the army that Zel Shivertail had once led was stationed on the walls and in the suburbs, ready to repel the Goblin Lord’s army.
The army. Magnolia cast her gaze downwards, seeing the dispirited Human troops below her. Their morale was nearly shattered by their retreat from the Goblin Lord’s army. Zel Shivertail’s death had broken their will. But, ironically, there was still over two thirds of the army left intact. They had managed to withdraw quickly and the Goblin Lord’s army had not pursued them at all.
“Still, an army without a [General] is a body without a head. It will be ugly, Ressa.”
Behind Magnolia, the tall [Maid] nodded. She had her enchanted dagger in one hand and the [Mayor] of Invrisil kept glancing at it nervously. Magnolia sighed and refocused on the Goblin Lord’s army.
It would be close if it came to a battle in the city. The Humans had the lay of the land and the streets and buildings could restrict the Goblins. But buildings could be climbed and burned, and Invrisil was not a Drake city. It had been built with walls, but those walls only protected the innermost part of the city—the suburbs had long since grown up around Invrisil, and if the Goblins overran the Humans, it would be a quick siege.
So it would not come to that. Magnolia saw Gold and Silver-rank adventurers in the forces below her. Unlike the battle with the Goblin Lord’s army, adventurers were required by law to aid in the defense of a city against monsters. They could not refuse, and their contributions might well turn the tide of the battle, even if it meant their deaths.
Of course, adventurers were by and large not keen to fight dangerous battles for scant pay, and several groups had tried to slip out the gates in secret in the days prior. They had been caught by the guards and turned back two nights in a row until Magnolia Reinhart issued a public promise. She would personally see to it that any adventurer that fled Invrisil would be found and punished.
She did not specify what that punishment would be, or if it would be survivable. Or short. The adventurers, after a night of debate, stayed put.
So they were ready. Magnolia waited on the walls, her heart pounding. She felt little fear in this moment though; it was almost all fury. The city leaders drew back from her slightly as the cold air heated up around Lady Magnolia. Steam rose around the Lady Reinhart, until it began to obscure her spyglass. She wiped the lens with a cloth, muttering, and then snapped her gaze back at the army.
The Goblin Lord’s army paused before Invrisil. Reiss the Goblin Lord looked out across the vast city, seeing places where Humans in armor had been stationed. He could see the guards on the walls, and also spot the single Human in a pink dress at a distance. He could feel her ire, like a physical thing.
Reiss shifted. He was sitting on a smaller Shield Spider, his former mount having been slain by Zel. His Goblins looked up at him, watching his every move. Waiting. Humans and Goblins held their breaths as Reiss considered Invrisil.
He looked around. The landscape was mud and wetness, and the snow was mostly gone. Winter had ended. And with it, the world was beginning to warm. It was a dark, dismal day. The Goblin Lord stared at the city again and then made up his mind.
He raised his hand. The world grew still for a second, and the Goblin Lord spoke one word.
He pointed, and the Goblins moved. The Humans stirred, but the Goblin Lord’s army marched left, past the city, around it, skirting the Humans as they scrambled to reposition without incident. The Goblin Lord marched past Invrisil, towards a mountain in the distance, deeper into the Human lands. His army left Invrisil in peace.
It was said later that the Goblins were too wary of Invrisil, that they had been too badly damaged by Zel Shivertail’s army. The Drakes laid the credit at their fallen hero’s feet, the Humans declared it was their unflinching resilience in the face of the enemy. But all agreed that the Goblin Lord would have attacked if his army had not been so battered by the recent conflicts.
Goblins were, after all, savage monsters who preyed on anyone they could. They couldn’t think and they had no sense of honor or mercy.
Or so it was said.
In Izril, war was a mixture of politics and self-interest, a product of countless factions and individuals plotting against each other. In Chandrar, those who served in military positions knew better. War was war. You killed your opponent and left them to the sands, and sold off prisoners as slaves. It was simple in that regard.
Unless you had bad orders. Or a bad commander. For Brigadier General Khal of the Empire of Sands, he was experiencing both unfortunate events at the same time. His force of eight thousand men had been sent across the border of the great desert to hunt down an enemy force that had been harassing the empire for the last few months. A force that had eluded pursuit, destroyed small villages and towns, looted, instilled havoc among the empire’s citizens…and routed six other armies sent against them.
The Garuda. It was a tribe of flying bird-people native to Chandrar that was doing the raiding, but that wasn’t what had Khal’s stomach in knots. He’d fought the Garuda before, learned how to combat their kind in the innumerable tribal conflicts that arose as the bird-people migrated and sometimes raided civilized nations. No, what made him afraid was this particular tribe that was led by one famous member of their species.
Takhatres, Lord of the Skies. One of the King of Destruction’s vassals and a sworn enemy of the Empire of Sands, which had declared war with Flos Reimarch not four months ago. His name would make men greater than Khal tremble. And yet here he was, leading an army of eight thousand against Takhatres’ tribe.
It would be a mistake to attempt this even if he outnumbered the Lord of the Skies’ forces with his own. But no matter how many times Khal explained this to his superior he was ignored. But then, his superior was young.
And noble. The Emir Riefel sat astride his camel with obvious experience, but his skin was lighter than Khal’s, not having been tanned by months outdoors. He had a flashy magic scimitar at his belt that the Brigadier General doubted he knew how to use and he wore light cloth, not armor. It was infinitely more preferable in the heat, but not if you were about to go into battle.
And he was an emir, a rich lord of the Empire of Sands. His family had enough influence to appoint him as the head of an army and so he had organized this latest force to fight the Garuda. And it seemed that Brigadier General Khal was the sacrifice being sent to die with him.
If, that was, Khal couldn’t get him to turn around. The man urged his mount closer to the head of the line, bowing his head as he approached Riefel’s guard. There were but five of them and they weren’t so much guards as the man’s drinking buddies. Riefel had a flask in his hand that Khal strongly suspected contained not water but wine, and he waved at Khal as the armored man approached.
“General Khal! Given up your naysaying to ride with us? It is a fine morning for it—if the sun does not scorch my skin off, this plodding camel will grind my family’s heirlooms to dust!”
“What, you haven’t sold them already, Riefel?”
Another man on horseback joked. Riefel laughed and drank from his flask.
“There’s not a [Merchant] with enough coin to buy them in the world! Kfaw! There’s no shade here at all! I’d sooner be at an oasis than riding. Do you think we’ll find the twice-cursed Garuda this morning, Khal? I’d say they’re running scared of us!”
He laughed and drank again. Khal lowered his head as he drew up beside Riefel.
“No sighting of the Garuda yet, highness. If we do see them, it will be when they are on top of us with no time for warnings. But I beg you once again to reconsider this attempt.”
“Agh! Once more, Khal? I am no weak woman to be swayed by hearing the same words over and over!”
Riefel grimaced. Khal bowed again in the saddle. The lordling was drunk! And while on campaign! Still, he went on with his plea, taking a different angle today than he had in the past.
“I do not mean to question your judgment highness, or the worthiness of this expedition. However, I fear your army and my humble self might let you down. We hunt Garuda, but we are few in number and ill-prepared for the task, though it pains me to say it. Sir, with due respect, I am a [Sand Brigadier].”
Riefel’s blank look was as insulting as it was embarrassing. Any proper commander worth his salt would know what that meant! Khal ground his teeth together. But he kept his voice level and as placating as possible as he replied.
“I am specialized in sand combat. Close, infantry fighting, highness. I can hide my armies in the dunes, fight in sandstorms if need be—but my Skills are not specialized towards fighting aerial foes.”
The arrogant young emir cast his head from left to right, taking in the dry, cracked ground and sparse vegetation.
“There seems to be enough sand for you, General Khal. So what if you haven’t the experience to fight the Garuda? I specifically brought along twice as many archers as infantry for that reason.”
“Yes sir. And I advised against it. The Garuda cannot simply be shot from the skies like hunting fowl. They will sweep through our formations after the first volley and cut our archers to bits!”
“Hah! Those birds? They have wings General Khal, and precious little armor! What could they do against warriors wearing steel?”
More than you could imagine, you sun-blasted fool. Khal bit back his retort. A sharp tongue against a superior could see his head removed. Or worse. Why did Riefel have to be a Human?
Khal was Human. A majority of Chandrar was Human, as befitted a race that had spread to all five continents in the world. But in the Empire of Sands another species held predominance. And while their appearance was like Humans, they were far better desert fighters than most Humans. One of them would never make this mistake fighting the Garuda; they would know all too well the danger. But Riefel just laughed again, drunk on youth and alcohol.
“You worry too much, Khal. We shall see the Garuda, vanquish them, and be celebrating with a comely woman in bed by the end of the week!”
He tossed his head, laughing at one of his female companions who made a rude gesture beneath her sand veil. As he did, he tilted his head up just a fraction too high and something caught Khal’s eye. A tiny flesh-colored line of stitching around the base of his neck, covered by the scarf that Riefel wore to protect his face when the sand was blowing.
Stitches? Riefel noticed Khal’s gaze and tilted his head the other way inquisitively. The faint line around his neck was gone so fast that Khal thought he had imagined it. The Brigadier General jerked his gaze away and laughed politely in response to a question. But his mind was whirling. Stitches? But that would mean—
“Garuda! Garuda in the skies to the west!”
Someone screamed. At the same time the horns blew, a wailing siren that echoed across the flat arid ground. Khal cursed and turned, his heart plummeting in his chest. It was too late now. Too late.
“They’re in the skies! The sun devils are coming!”
A panicked voice rose from Khal’s left, and then a scream. The [Brigadier General] looked up and saw a shape. He wrenched his camel left, but the beast fought him. Khal didn’t try to fight—he dove from his saddle in the nick of time. He heard a thump, a gristly impact on flesh, the dull crack of bones and the camel’s death scream. When he rose he saw the camel was lying on the ground.
Its back was caved in, the animal’s bones and flesh torn and ripped from a terrific impact. Khal saw the culprit lying on the ground a few feet away. It was a stone.
Just a stone. Jagged, covered in blood. It couldn’t have been more than ten pounds in weight. But it had been dropped hundreds of feet from overhead. Khal heard more impacts and shouted.
“Spread out! Archers, target the fliers! Everyone else prepare for combat! [Quick Arrows]! Loose, loose damn your hides!”
He heard his army scrambling to react. Khal could see flying shapes above him but knew not to look up. The Garuda were attacking with the sun at their backs, dropping stones on the army, flying out of the skies. But this wasn’t their real attack, not yet. The archers around him began to loose arrows upwards and Khal saw two Garuda fall to the ground with sickening thuds, struck by the quarrels. The rest dispersed as his forces began to counterattack.
A quavering voice spoke behind him. Khal saw Riefel getting to his feet, his face white and pale. Miracle of miracles or perhaps, curse of curses, he and his five companions had survived the Garuda’s rock dropping. Khal grunted at him.
“Garuda. They have found us, highness. I would advise you to armor yourself, but it is too late now. They are coming.”
“But those impacts—one took my mount. How—? Rocks?”
Riefel looked confused. Khal turned, shouting.
“Form into a box! Infantry in front, archers, prepare to loose! Box formation! Protect his highness Riefel! The Garuda are going to charge!”
He turned, his sword already up. Khal was scanning the flat horizon, looking for what must come next. The Garuda fought like this, attacking and retreating, but this tribe was known for launching terrible assaults with their leader. Where was he?
“I see. So it’s to be a fight is it? Well then, the Garuda will taste my steel!”
Riefel unsheathed his sword and took an awkward stance and his five companions did likewise. Khal spared only a grimace for them. Two women and four men, and they looked like they had never killed another person before. They spread out in the center of the box Khal’s army had created, looking around warily. And then Khal saw it.
He roared and all heads turned. Khal had spotted a flash of blue and green, speeding across the ground. It moved unbelievably fast, leaving a trail of dust behind it. Khal’s blood ran cold, though the sun was scorching. A soldier next to him whispered.
“The Lord of the Skies.”
“Takhatres. One of the King’s Seven.”
He was coming. The Garuda raced across the ground towards Khal’s army, and at the same time as he approached Khal heard a cry.
“To our rear! More Garuda!”
He turned and saw hundreds, thousands of flying shapes approaching through the sky. They were spread out at any angle and flying in—but slower than Takahatres. He called out as the soldiers wavered.
“Do not move position! The east flank will prepare to fire! Prepare! The west will fire when the Garuda are in range!”
“It’s just one Garuda. What can he do?”
Riefel’s voice was too loud in the silence as the soldiers turned their attention to their respective fronts. Khal’s hand was slippery on his sword’s hilt. He waited as the blur approached, trying to gauge the timing. As if it mattered.
“The eastern flank will loose!”
Thousands of bows hummed as arrows left the string. The air was filled with a rain of black death that shot towards the Garuda. Khal saw the lone figure turn and run left. The first volley missed him easily as he sped away from them. The second missed too.
Someone groaned. Khal was silent. He hadn’t expected to hit Takhatres, but seeing the speed the Garuda possessed was terrifying in itself. He raised a hand and roared an order as the archers fumbled with a third volley. They wouldn’t have time to fire, he knew.
“Brace yourselves! The fastest warrior on the continent is about to attack!”
The blue and green blur was nearly upon them. Now a shape was visible—a Garuda, wings outstretched, running towards them. His face was a bird’s with a large beak, and his wings were that of a bird’s too, ending with talon-like hands. Yet he stood as a man, and ran like one. He did not fly. He could not fly.
And he was fast! One second he was running, then he was here! The front row of swordsmen cut at him—too slow. The Lord of the Skies turned and ran down the line of warriors, ducking, cutting, a blur, and Khal heard the screams begin. He braced himself, hoping the Garuda would retreat or get tangled up by the press of bodies. He couldn’t fight so many even with his speed! Takhatres turned as the archers trained on him. He ran towards them as arrows flew and leapt.
Khal looked up and saw death land in the center of his formation. Takhatres was lightly armored. He wore cloth, over his body, padded, but nothing more. He had a dagger in each hand and he cut down a soldier with a bow as he landed. Khal’s heart raced, but it was slow compared to the Garuda. There was a moment, just a moment as the Garuda landed that he couldn’t touch the ground, that he was slow. In that moment Khal lunged.
“Lord of the Skies!”
He cut at the Garuda’s chest. Takhatres’ clawed feet touched the ground. Khal’s sword was a foot away from his chest, half a foot, three inches—then the Garuda disappeared. He took five steps back and ran around Khal’s sword, and it was he who cut at Khal as the man stumbled and tried to pull his sword back.
He had small blades in his feathered wings, and daggers on his claws! Khal tried to cut at Takhatres’ unprotected arms, but the Garuda blurred past him. The Brigadier General stumbled, feeling an impact on his side. He raised a hand and felt at the spot and yanked his hand away as something sliced his hand open.
It was from his armor! His armor had cut him! The Garuda’s attack had cut straight through Khal’s steel armor, opening it into a dangerous gash. But the blades had gone further into Khal’s side. He stared into layers of white flesh, only now reddening with blood as it flowed from his body.
The [Sand Brigadier] stared at the bloodless cut for a second and cursed. He grabbed for a healing potion and smashed it over the wound before his body could realize it needed to bleed. Then he turned.
Takhatres was fighting in the center of Khal’s formations, slaughtering the archers while the infantry stood at the outside of the formation, helpless to fight back. And while they were thrown into confusion the rest of his tribe had attacked from the west! The bird people flew down, dropping stones, cutting at Khal’s soldiers from overhead, screeching and sowing fear among his warriors.
It was a disaster. Khal saw the Lord of the Skies cutting his men down like wheat. The Garuda was too fast to catch, too agile to stop! He danced around blades and arrows as if he were the one normal person in a world full of snails. He dashed into a group of soldiers and again and again his arms shot out, cutting here, slashing there, never stopping until he burst out of the group from the other side.
He left a trail of fallen soldiers behind him, bleeding from deep cuts on their bodies. Only a few of the wounds were fatal—the rest left soldiers wounded, demoralized, and in need of healing potions or medical aid.
“What a monster!”
A loud voice made Khal’s head turn. He saw Riefel turning to follow Takhatres, his blade held in his clumsy hands. He did not run as the Garuda rushed towards him. Instead the foolish young man cried out.
“I am here! Come bird man! I will cut your wings off!”
Did Khal see a smile cross Takhatres’ face just for a moment? Perhaps, because the Garuda turned and sped towards him. Riefel paused, surprised, as he realized his taunt had worked. It was a stupid expression to die with on his face. And then Takhatres was charging him—Khal wanted to turn away.
Riefel stared as the Garuda flashed towards him. Still looking dumbfounded, he changed his grip on his sword and slashed.
Khal gaped as the young man’s sword flashed through the air and he saw the blue blur that was Takhatres shift out of the way. The Garuda leapt back and Khal stared, dumbfounded.
[Flash Cut]? A Skill? Yes, Riefel had used it! And his form, his technique! That was no unseasoned nobleman’s cut, but an experienced warrior’s attack. Now Emir Riefel abandoned his awkward posture and stalked towards Takhatres on the balls of his feet, the scimitar held out from his body as he gripped the scabbard in his other hand. Riefel spoke in the sudden hush.
“Lord of the Skies. The Emperor of Sands desires your death.”
His voice was suddenly lower, and his tone calmer. The Garuda stared at him warily, mocking smile gone, and Khal saw five more shapes appear out of the chaos of wounded and fighting soldiers. Five men and women, the same indolent companions that Riefel had been drinking with moved forwards, fast and light on their feet, their weapons held at the ready. They did not wait but attacked at the same time.
A pair of daggers here, a scimitar lashing out here! A pike, tip coated green, and a thrown dagger! The five warriors were a blur of blades as they attacked Takhatres from either side. They charged him as the Garuda blurred. And they missed.
Khal didn’t see the Garuda move. He didn’t see Takhatres weave through the storm of death, parrying blades and dodging the rest. He only saw the end of it, the Garuda moving away, leaping out from the formation, racing across the sands as [Archers] futilely fired at where he had been. Khal saw the six warriors standing where Takhatres had been moments ago, weapons lowered.
One of the six assassins dropped to her knees and Khal saw her clutching at her throat where blood was already spilling to the ground. Emir Riefel grimaced, and Khal saw he’d been cut along the side of his neck. An inch to the left and it would have severed an artery. He ignored it and turned to Khal, his expression suddenly rueful.
“Ah. It seems we are too slow. Humiliating, is it not? All this preparation and waste.”
He indicated the battle, where the Garuda were pulling back, having cut Khal’s western flanks to ribbons. The [Brigadier General] could only stare. He pointed at Riefel, at the man’s bare neck. His scarf had come loose and now Khal could see it.
A faint ring of stitches colored like flesh around his neck. The Stitch-Man bowed to Khal, confirming the man’s suspicions. He spoke casually, his eyes on the Garuda as they retreated, winging into the skies and flying in a huge formation around the skies, like vultures.
“General, sound the retreat. Our assassination attempt has failed. We will hold our ground with some of your men and buy time for the rest of your people to retreat. I doubt the Lord of the Skies will follow for fear of a second attempt on his life.”
“Emir Riefel—you are not coming?”
Khal saw the fake emir grin at him and press one hand to the blood dripping from his neck. By his side the female assassin had bled out. He bowed to Khal once more as a distant shape began running towards the army.
“Tell the Emperor of Sands that Takhatres cannot be slain by any number of [Assassins] of my caliber. Also, tender his Majesty my sincerest apologies that I cannot report in person.”
His Majesty. He had sent the assassins? Khal hesitated, countless questions in his mind. But there was no time. Riefel’s voice was harsh as he turned, scimitar in hand.
“Go. He is coming back.”
Khal turned and shouted the retreat. Horns blared and he fled, finding another camel and riding it as he heard Riefel make his last stand. He heard the Garuda descending, felt one descend behind him and cut it down with his sword. He fled with his shattered army, completely defeated as the Garuda landed to loot their prey.
Defeat. Khal’s heart was filled with fear as he remembered the Lord of the Skies, imagined the Garuda coming after him. He was a nightmare given flesh. And he served the King of Destruction? Khal’s nightmares would be filled with the image of the Garuda. And yet, he dreaded telling the Emperor of Sands the dire news even more.
The voice was loud in the silent room. Too loud for such a spacious chamber, for it echoed. It was masculine, imperious, the voice of youth, but also tinged with a command beyond the speaker’s years. And it was filled with wrath.
“Dead, your Majesty. All, as well as the bulk of my army. The Garuda cut many of us down as we retreated.”
Khal’s voice quavered in the audience hall. He knelt on the cold, cool stone, usually a comfort and respite from the heat of the desert sun. Now he sweated despite the chill and saw a bead of sweat splash onto the black marble beneath him. He prayed the Emperor of Sands would not notice.
“Raise your head. Did Riefel say anything to you before his death, Brigadier General Khal?”
Slowly, Khal looked up. He saw a young man, sitting on a silver throne. His posture was poor, one leg idly hanging over the arm of his throne. He was a young man in the prime of his existence, almost unable to sit still with the burning energy within him. Though his clothes were royal he disdained much of the garments of his station, preferring the light and easy to wear cloth that allowed free movement. And he was angry.
It was in his eyes. They flashed emerald as the Emperor of Sands leaned forwards on his throne. His voice was rough with impatience. Khal could see the stitch-marks around his fingers as the Emperor of Sands made a fist.
“Speak, man. Did Riefel say why the assassination failed? Or did you see it yourself? Did he have time to attack Takhatres or not?”
“He said—he told me, your Majesty—”
Khal licked his lips, trying to recall the exact words. His throat was parched from days and nights of ceaseless riding to return to the capital. The Emperor of Sands saw the movement and motioned impatiently.
“Get him some water or wine! And speak!”
A veiled attendant instantly approached. Whether the servant was man or woman Khal didn’t see—he gratefully accepted a cup and drank a mouthful, feeling it wash down his throat.
“Pardons, Majesty. Emir Riefel said this to me in the moments before his death. ‘The Lord of the Skies cannot be slain by any number of [Assassins] of my caliber.’ He also wished to give his Majesty his apologies that he could not report this in person.”
Khal bowed his head, the cup trembling in his grasp. He heard a faint grunt, dared to look up, and saw the Emperor splayed across his throne. His face was thunderous, bitter.
“So. That is what Riefel believed?”
He eyed Khal but did not give the man the order to speak. The Emperor of Sands shifted position and then stood up. He paced across the dais of his throne and Khal dared to peek around the grand throne room.
This was the audience hall of the Emperor of Sands. One of the lesser audience halls, a more private setting where his court was not expected to gather. Veiled attendants stood around the room, silent, dressed in dark fabrics, but besides them and the shadows that Khal had spotted behind the throne—and on the ceiling—he was alone.
With the Emperor of Sands. The ruler in charge of the largest nation in Chandrar, a monarch who had built his empire in the years after the King of Destruction’s fall. His armies were legion and his reach stretched across much of Chandrar. Though his armies had yet to conquer the great desert that separated east from west, he was poised to sweep across the south and Khal was but one small officer in his armies. He could have Khal beheaded in a second and for that and the rumors Khal had heard of the Emperor, he trembled.
However, the Emperor seemed to have lost all interest in Khal. He paced back and forth on the dais, brushing back his short hair, muttering to himself. His voice was loud in the throne room, too loud, as if the Emperor was used to addressing crowds of thousands and had forgotten what silence was like.
“So my [Assassins] fail. And Riefel was a good one, if not the most capable. None of his caliber would succeed? Does that mean an army would fail to catch the Garuda? Agh! Of all of the King of Destruction’s vassals, why was that the one sent to harry me? How did they cross the desert so quickly? The Garuda are quick, but this mighty in battle? I did not credit it. Now they are destroying villages and looting. Must I recall my armies, chase them down? Must I?”
Khal dared not move as his Emperor paced back and forth. He saw a drop of sweat drip into his cup of wine. Then the Emperor spun.
“Fine then! If the bird flies and screams defiance, let it be so! Send forth my armies! Recall the fourth legion and the fifth! And the eighth! Make war on the Garuda, hunt them down and crush them to dust! While my empire stands no bandit or raider shall know peace! If it is war the Lord of the Skies wants, it will be war and war unrelenting he shall have!”
His eyes blazed, and Khal felt his heart leap as the Emperor of Sands strode down the dais. He seemed ready to go to war at once—until a voice interrupted him from above.
“The Garuda cannot be chased, Emperor. They are like sand flies, disappearing into the desert with every chance footstep and breeze. To hunt them down requires more than just numbers and brute force.”
Khal jumped. He had thought they were alone! He stared up, forgetting himself, but saw no ledges, no place where a person might stand in the audience hall. Yet—someone had spoken. The Emperor of Sands halted and scowled upwards.
“What then? Am I to let this provocation by the King of Destruction go unchecked?”
The voice came from above—yet from a different place. Khal craned his head to see before remembering and lowering it. There was no one up there! They had to be speaking from the walls! Through the walls? He shivered as the disembodied voice continued.
“You are hasty where you should consider. The Garuda are a pest, nipping, hoping to provoke. Tread slowly, deliberate. Rush in and you will jeopardize your plans elsewhere, give the King of Destruction and your enemies time to prepare themselves.”
The Emperor of Sands lowered his head, his youthful features frowning, contemplating the words. When he raised his head it was with resignation.
“Perhaps you are right. I am…impatient. Angry. Things move too slowly! I should not have slain the Architect, provoked Flos so soon. But I am tired of waiting! I am—”
He raised his voice, frustrated, and then paused. Slowly, the Emperor of Sands lowered his hands.
“So then. I require a different perspective. It has been too long.”
“Too long. Too set in your ways.”
“War is not the only tool of empire.”
Voices from overhead. Khal shuddered and the Emperor of Sands closed his eyes. He gestured.
“Let it be so. To me, my attendants. Open the second box. Let it be done now. Khal, you will wait. I suspect I shall have words for you shortly.”
Khal, frozen, confused, stared up at the Emperor of Sands as he walked slowly back to his throne. The veiled servants rushed around him, holding sheets up, creating a wall of cloth between him and his Emperor. Khal saw a male attendant move forwards with a pair of scissors, saw the Emperor of Sands bare his neck. There were black stitches around his neck, like the ones that Riefel had had, but more noticeable. The scissors opened. Khal’s heart raced. He couldn’t be—
Snip. The scissors cut through the stiches around the Emperor of Sands’ neck. His head came loose, the body crumpled. Khal uttered an oath and nearly rose, but his was the only exclamation in the room. The attendants covered the Emperor of Sands’s body with a cloth and spirited it away. More surrounded the head. And the scissors snipped again.
Hair came loose. The Emperor of Sands stared ahead, his head now bald. His eyes stared down at Khal and the Brigadier General was transfixed with awe and horror. And shame. He saw the Emperor of Sands, his head removed from its body, an attendant threading a needle with black string as a second covered body was rushed towards the throne. Yet in that moment before he had a new body the head stared at Khal. He was not the young brash man he had been before. Nor was that face that of a man.
His face was—neither male nor female in that moment, but something that contained elements of both sexes. Or perhaps it was a gender unto itself? The [General] looked away and saw the attendants move forwards, holding bundles wrapped in cloth. He heard rustling for a minute, and then dared look again.
A woman sat on the throne. She was bald, but her hair was already being carefully stitched to her head. Her body was tall, elegant. Each limb looked as though it had been made of flesh far superior to the crude and dirty skin that Khal wore. The Empress was sculpted, perfect in every line. And very naked.
Khal jerked his eyes away, his face flushing with heat. But his eyes strayed back towards the woman sitting on the throne. No command could have stopped him from looking twice. And the veiled attendants made no attempt to block his view. They moved around the woman, clothing her, stitching closed the gap between neck and head. And when they moved back the Emperor of Sands rose. Only it was not he, but she who looked down and touched at the stitches around her neck, on the joints of her fingers and her arms, flexing them. Then she smiled and her voice was low and soft.
“A new perspective. A new line of thought. Khal, stand.”
He did, fighting arousal and shame and fear at the same time. The Emperor of Sands descended her throne. Was it the Empress of Sands now? No—she was still the Emperor. She had always been the Emperor. But now she was different.
The Emperor of Sands in her feminine aspect gazed down at General Khal. Her eyes were as brilliant as sapphires gleaming in the night sand. Just as cold, too. She raised a hand as she descended the dais. Khal stared at it as she stopped in front of him. The Emperor of Sands raised her eyebrows.
“Will you not give your Emperor your assistance, Brigadier General Khal?”
He realized she was waiting for him to offer her his arm. Flushing, Khal did so. The Emperor of Sands took his arm gently and smiled at him. It was a bewitching smile, deep with experience and meaning. Khal turned bright red and stammered.
“Where to, your Majesty?”
“Outside. A chariot will take us through the city. I have it in mind to visit the northeastern section of the capital. Water runs low there and I must attend in person to see the issue rectified. You will accompany me.”
Khal lowered his head and both he and the Emperor walked towards the doors of the audience chamber. They swung open and they left the palace. Perhaps a chariot had not been there before the Emperor had spoken, but since she had spoken it was there and ready to go by the time they left the palace.
The Emperor spoke one word and the chariot driver took off. Khal stood next to her, uneasy, and yet with no desire to be anywhere else in the world. He couldn’t stop staring at her. The Emperor noticed his gaze and smiled. She touched around the black stitches of her neck.
“Surprised, Khal? Surely you knew your Emperor wore many faces.”
“I had heard rumors your Majesty, but—words do not do it justice.”
Khal wrenched his gaze away from the Emperor’s face, remembering etiquette too late. He heard a light laugh.
“So Humans always say. But you have lived in the Empire of Sands and on Chandrar all your life. Surely you know my people now.”
She waved across her city as her chariot sped down the streets. Khal looked out and saw faces rushing by, people turning. There was only one chariot for whom the roads were cleared and they began shouting, cheering on their ruler as she passed. Khal saw Human faces, the faces of a few Garuda in the crowd, some other species, but mainly dark-skinned people. They looked like Humans, but they were not.
“Only partly, your Majesty. We are alike in appearance, but in nature—”
“Ah, in nature we are different. That is true. I cannot fathom what it is like to be Human, to never change your form. If your bones shatter you must heal slowly. If you lose an arm it is gone for good. Whereas I can but unravel the strings of my arm and attach a new one.”
She touched at the black stitches around the joints of her right arm. Khal stared at it, stared at the way the slightest sheen of sweat coated her skin, glistening—he turned his head, shuddering. The people were waving, cheering her—and him. Khal was no [General] in command of one of the Empire of Sand’s legions, but they cheered him nonetheless. Human faces, other species, and those faces that were Human but for the stiches that held their bodies together.
The String People. They who create themselves. This was their continent, and this was one of their greatest empires. The Empire of Sands, whose people were born of cloth, who could replace limbs, eyes, and yes, apparently even bodies at will. Khal had never heard of any Stitch-Person doing so before, but the Emperor of Sands was an exception.
“Yes, my people change. Quicker than any other species, like thought. One day my body may be made of cotton, the next, hemp or other fabrics. For war we change ourselves. For pleasure too. Utility. You see Khal, each body I have grants me different perspective. Male and female, warlike and peaceful. This body was made of silk. You see?”
She raised a hand as the sun lowered. Khal saw her skin, practically luminescent in the sun’s rays. Elegant. Silk. He remembered touching her arm and shuddered again.
“Your Majesty, I throw myself on your mercy. I failed to keep your servants safe and the Garuda—”
“That was not your fault, General. I sent you to do battle against them in ignorance, unprepared, thinking you were the subject of foolish orders to lay a trap. That trap failed. So it falls to me to decide what must come next. But I do not blame you for fulfilling your orders.”
Her voice was soft, lilting. It drew him in—Khal shifted, hoping his arousal was not being made clear. He thought the Emperor knew and grew more embarrassed as she laughed again. She looked free and calm in the breeze, waving to her people, hearing their adoration and returning it with a smile. You could love an Emperor like this with all your heart, just as you could follow the young man she had been into battle in an instant.
The capital of the Empire of Sands was vast, but eventually the chariot did slow. The Empress descended, Khal once again holding her arm. She even smelled different. Khal tried not to breathe as they walked down the street.
The Emperor of Sands stopped and pointed to a spot on the ground. He saw veiled attendants and soldiers rush forwards. The Emperor tilted her head and nodded.
This area of the capital city was far from any wells. As such, it had failed to grow at the same pace as the rest, as people struggled to make the commute of miles for their daily water. The Emperor of Sands spoke to the small crowd of people who flocked around her, drawn by her presence, held back by her guards.
“This spot shall be dug and water will fill the ground two days hence. An oasis shall begin here, and water pure enough to drink from will flow forth without fail. On the eve of the second day, return and break ground. This is my proclamation to you all.”
Her words were greeted with cheers. Khal stared at the Emperor of Sands, but he did not doubt her for a second. She was the ruler of the Empire of Sands, a empire set in one of the driest parts of the world. But she had managed to make her people flourish despite that thanks to her Skill.
[Sanctuary of the Desert]. An empire-wide skill that allowed her to draw from deep aquifers and springs, literally drawing water into dry soil and bringing life to the merciless desert. The Emperor of Sands smiled, waving as her people cheered her and blessed her for the water. Then she turned to Khal.
“Sometimes I forget myself, General. There is more to an [Emperor]’s duties than war. And yet, it is war that Chandrar thrives on, is it not?”
“So it seems, your Majesty.”
Khal ducked his head. The Emperor of Sands smiled.
“And so empire rises and turns to dust, on the weight of the battlefield. Blood is worth less than water here, and so I must be warrior as well as ruler. But perhaps I can be wiser than my younger male self. A good [Emperor] acts, but a better one listens to her subordinates.”
Khal stared at her. The Emperor was looking at him, right at him. She moved closer and whispered in his ears.
“Come to my chambers tonight, General. We shall discuss what your thoughts on the King of Destruction are then. I would hear your insights and—counsel.”
She moved away from him, stepping back to her chariot. Dumbfounded, Khal saw her step up, wave to the cheering crowd, and then depart. Only after she’d left and was no longer in sight did he realize she’d left him there.
As the crowd dispersed, talking eagerly about the new oasis, Khal stumbled back in the direction of his lodgings. His mind was whirling. Tonight? She wanted his input? But she had [Strategists], [Generals] of her own! Did she really think his encounter with Takhatres would give him any insights? Wait—how would he fight the Garuda? Well, if he had the Empire’s resources he might—
My chambers. Tonight. Khal turned beet red and a passing Stitch-Woman eyed him with interest and amusement. He was overthinking things. Wasn’t he? Only, the Emperor of Sands’ conquests in bed as well as in war were legendary. But that had been him, not her. Or were the rumors mixed up?
The Emperor of Sands. Ever-changing, ever shifting like the dunes she reigned over. At once sexual, commanding, frightening—as General Khal thought about tonight, he wondered if she would have changed back into one of her male aspects then, or whether she would remain as she was. He wondered which would be worse. Then he wondered if it made a difference.
Such was Chandrar. Such was the Empire of Sands and its strange ruler. Feared for her—his—their ambitions, yes, but hated and despised too. Not for their policies, or the way they made war and peace as their personalities changed, no. Simply for one reason. A petty one? An important one to some.
Yes, the Empire of Sands was hated. Because they were different. But as the Goblins might have observed if anyone thought to ask them, different did not mean evil. It just meant you were a target.
So then. In Chandrar, war. In Izril, war. It seemed like the world was at war sometimes and the [Kings] and [Queens] and [Lords] and [Ladies] plotted endlessly against each other. And that wasn’t even counting [Emirs] and [Sultans] and [Emperors] of varying sexuality and [Quarasses] and [Sultanas]…
The point was that grand schemes were afoot. And while it might have been entertaining to return to the Emperor of Sands’ private bedchambers that night (and perhaps instructive), such grand schemes were a distant remove from the rest of the world. The schemes of empires moved slowly and impacted the world a bit at a time. Chandrar had its King of Destruction and the Emperor of Sands. They would clash in time.
But some things were more immediate. Some things were above politics. Literally above.
Erin heard a tap on the glass pane of her window as she was polishing a table. She peered at it and saw a streak of water running down the glass. She blinked, and heard another tap.
“Hey, I think it’s going to rain!”
Across the inn, Lyonette and Mrsha looked up. Mrsha was gnawing at a piece of hardtack Erin had cooked up this morning. She had done a good job; such a good job that the hardtack would probably last for years without her inn’s magical preservation field. It would also probably last that long despite or in spite of any attempts to eat it. Mrsha had been gnawing at it for the last fifteen minutes and her sharp teeth hadn’t made any real dent in it.
“Mrsha honey, stop trying to eat that. Erin made it with magic ingredients; you’ll just break your teeth trying to bite it.”
Lyonette absently spoke to Mrsha who rolled away from her with a growl, possessively gnawing the hardtack. The [Princess] gave up and walked over to Erin.
“I think you’re right. It’s going to rain.”
“Yup. Grey skies. I guess that mean’s winter’s over!”
Erin brightened up. There were still a few pockets of very melty snow, but that was only in the deepest valleys where the snow had really fallen. She was looking forwards to some rain and spring—the plains had turned to mud of late and she had stepped in deep puddles that turned out to go up to her thighs more than once.
“Do you think we’ll get a lot of rain? I’d hate to have to walk to Liscor like this. Or in the city, come to think of it.”
Lyonette looked up at the dark clouds a bit apprehensively. Erin shrugged.
“Eh, it’ll be fine. If it’s too wet tomorrow you can go to Celum if you need to shop. If you paid Octavia I bet she’d get you the stuff you wanted herself. And hey, look at it like this! If it rains we can just put some buckets outside! No need for water!”
“True. Speaking of Celum, have you heard anything about…the door?”
Lyonette looked at the door and Erin glanced at it. It was still set against the wall and still technically active. The only difference was that it wasn’t attuned to Pallass’ doorway. Pisces had worked a long time with Moore and Typhenous to figure out a way to make it so Erin could switch the door’s magical portal by tapping a mana stone against it. He’d been really, really upset to learn she’d cut the door off from Pallass, possibly for good.
“Nope. Not a peep. They can’t get in without me reactivating the connection anyways. And I hid it in a special place—far away from where Mrsha can get it.”
Erin smiled proudly. Lyonette nodded dubiously. She glanced at Erin.
“You never did tell me all about what happened in Pallass. Was it really that bad?”
“What, Pallass? Nah. It looked really cool, actually! It’s just…those jerks at the end were really something, weren’t they? Trying to take the magical door on trumped up charges—I’m glad I managed to cut the connection!”
Erin nodded to herself. Lyonette peered at her, choosing her words cautiously.
“So you don’t think there will be trouble? I mean, you did break the laws of the city. And didn’t you get hauled into the Watch Captain’s office? How’d you get out of that?”
“Oh, I talked my way out of it. Don’t worry, it’s cool.”
The [Innkeeper] waved a hand airily. She paused when she saw Mrsha’s head raise to stare at her and Lyonette’s flat look.
“What? Don’t you believe me?”
“Come on! I’m not stupid enough to cause trouble!”
“That’s not what Wall Lord Ilvriss said. He said—”
“That I acted like an idiot?”
Erin folded her arms, smiling slightly. Lyonette paused.
“Uh, well, he was a bit ruder than that. But yes. Erin, you can be a bit aimless. I just think that—”
Erin rolled her eyes.
“Lyonette, that was the point.”
The [Barmaid] stared at Erin. The young woman grinned, spreading her arms out wide.
“Of course I acted like an idiot! We were in huge trouble and there I was, in another city getting yelled at by some very angry—and very heavy—Drakes! I bet you they would have thrown the book at me, but I pretended everything was Ilvriss’ idea and that I had no idea what was going on!”
Erin tapped the side of her nose knowingly.
“You see Lyonette, there’s one good way to make angry people less angry at you and that’s to pretend to be as stupid as they think you are. Like a dumb Human tourist.”
She grinned as Lyonette gaped at her. Then she pitched her voice higher and made her eyes widen innocently.
“Oh, I just happen to have a magical door, [Captain]! What’s that? It’s illegal? Well, no one told me. And hey, you can’t take my door!”
She grinned, abandoning the fake voice.
“And then, while they’re all laughing at you behind your back, you move your knight to F7 and wipe the smug looks off their faces! Hah!”
She punched her fist into her hand and smiled. Erin looked around the inn. Mrsha and Lyonette were staring at her.
“What? I do it all the time. You’re telling me you’ve never seen me acting stupid? Like I did with Ylawes the other day? No? I thought it was obvious!”
Erin looked from face to face. She frowned.
“Wait, don’t tell me you thought I was just being stupid. You don’t think I’m actually dumb enough to do all those things on purpose, right? Right?”
Lyonette avoided her gaze. Mrsha turned around and pretended to be interested in her hardtack. Erin covered her face.
“Aw. Really? Come on!”
“It’s a really good act, Erin. I had no idea.”
It was hard to meet Erin’s eyes, so Lyonette compromised by pretending to be interested in Mrsha’ hardtack. The innkeeper glared in mock outrage at both Lyonette and Mrsha.
“Everyone thinks I’m an idiot, is that it? Well in that case, I guess I’ll pretend to be even dumber!”
She struck a silly pose and waved around, giving Lyonette and Mrsha her most vacant expression. Mrsha started giggling and Lyonette managed to grab the saliva-covered hardtack out of her jaws at last. Erin began walking around, pointing at things and exclaiming.
“Look at me, I’m a stupid Human! I don’t know what things are! Is that a wall? Wow? And hey look, a table! I bet you could eat your dinner off that! Wow, walking is fun. Too bad I’m so dumb I can’t even walk straight. Dum dee dum dee dum—”
She stumbled across the room acting like a drunken zombie. Mrsha was rolling around on the ground laughing silently and Lyonette was grinning. Then the door opened.
Zevara strode through the doorway. Erin froze. The Watch Captain eyed her and sighed.
“Human, we need to talk.”
She stopped in place and eyed Erin as the girl froze with both arms waving. Mrsha sat up and Lyonette turned with the wet sticky mess in her hands. Zevara coughed.
“Am I interrupting something?”
Erin lowered her hands and sighed.
“Just fun. Come on in Watch Captain. Is this the part where you yell at me and call me a stupid Human?”
She ushered Zevara over to a table. The Watch Captain sat, looking serious.
“I’m not here to reprimand you, Miss Solstice. That incident with Pallass was a disaster, but Wall Lord Ilvriss instigated the mess and I can’t hold you responsible for the rest of it. With that said—”
“I know it was bad. I’m sorry.”
Zevara blinked. Erin sighed and she waved at Lyonette.
“Lyon—can you get us some drinks? When you’ve gotten rid of that stuff and washed your hands obviously. Mrsha, no, don’t chase after it. Just let it—I’ll get the drinks.”
She got up and disappeared behind her counter. Zevara blinked as Erin came back with a mug of ale for her and milk for herself.
“You don’t drink?”
“Eh, I have [Alcohol Immunity] or something like that. There’s no point and milk tastes better. Is this good? You want something stronger?”
Zevara peered into her mug and shook her head.
“This is fine…thank you. I’m ah, here today because of the incident in Pallass. Have you heard of the fallout from that encounter?”
“Let me guess. I’m in trouble for throwing a chair at the senators? Or…Hawk’s been arrested? Or is it worse than that?”
Erin looked glum. Zevara shook her head.
“None of that, actually. In fact, we’ve had several exchanges with Pallass. The Assembly of Crafts is not happy at all about what you did, but they’re prepared to let the matter rest…”
“…In exchange for the door.”
“Correct. They say they’d drop all charges and offer you compensation if you agree to sell it to them.”
The Watch Captain saw Erin groan and massage at her head. She coughed.
“I understand that you had reason to defend yourself, and I am on your side in this matter, Miss Solstice.”
“You are? Even though I tried to throw a chair at—”
Zevara nodded. She looked annoyed as she took a draft from her mug.
“I was negotiating with Pallass right up until you arrived. They were prepared to march their troops through the doorway and seize the door regardless of Liscor’s laws. And they told me—and Liscor’s council—that if we didn’t comply with their demands there would be consequences. They began making good on their promise this morning.”
“Wait, what? How?”
The Watch Captain took another drink from her mug.
“So long as the door is not returned to them, we will be subject to a trade embargo. No goods from our city will enter Pallass—which isn’t such a huge loss—but they will cease all exports to our city until their demands are met.”
“That sounds…bad. Is it?”
Zevara nodded grimly.
“Over half of the arms our City Watch uses are made in Pallass. Have you heard of Pallassian steel? You have?”
She blinked, shook her head and went on.
“Well, Pallass exports both weaponry and alchemical goods. We don’t have more than one or two low-level [Alchemists] in Liscor, and if they decide to cut off supplies we suffer. Not to mention, Pallass is on the trading route north to Liscor. They can easily create a trade blockade with their military.”
“Ah. And uh, this is all over the door.”
“The door which you own and which violated their laws once. But they’re claiming that since the doorway can be activated at any time it represents a current and pressing security risk, never mind that they could toss their side of the portal off their walls anytime they choose. It’s become a political matter I’m afraid.”
Zevara finished her mug and Erin went to get her another. She looked tired and frustrated, and Erin could understand the problem. She spread her hands on the table as she sat, thinking hard.
“Okay, so Pallass is making a fuss for no good reason. If they don’t get the door, Liscor suffers. Which isn’t fair.”
“No. You’re not a citizen of the city. They’re essentially telling us to take the door from you and give it to them. And they know they can threaten us because we need their supplies!”
Zevara ground her teeth together.
“Cold-tailed bastards. I always thought we had an amicable relationship with their city, but it turns out that they’re willing to cut us off in an instant for a single magical artifact.”
“To be fair, my door’s really cool.”
The Drake woman glared at Erin and the [Innkeeper] raised a hand.
“Sorry, but that’s sort of how it is, right?”
“You’re not wrong. Moving anyone four hundred miles in an instant is magic on par with something Magnolia Reinhart might own, or, well, another Walled City. It’s a powerful artifact even if it does have limits. They want it and Liscor’s council might cave in rather than suffer a trade war. Our economy can’t handle it.”
Erin was silent for a moment. She could see what was coming. She looked at Zevara.
“So is this the part where you ask me to hand over the door before you have to take it?”
She thought she might give it to the Drake if it came to that. If it came to that—Erin’s heart ached. What could she do? Fight? Let Pallass bully Liscor? Or could she give it away, maybe, get rid of it? But to her surprise the Watch Captain looked incredulous.
“Me? Give in to those thugs? You have my intentions all wrong, Solstice. I’m not here to comply with Pallass’ demands. I’m here to resolve the situation.”
She stood up. Erin stared at her for a second and then stood up too.
“Okay, you have my attention. What’s the plan?”
Zevara walked over to the magical door, the source of all the strife. She tapped it curiously.
“I need you to activate it and open the portal…magic teleportation…whatever, to Pallass. Not Celum.”
“To Pallass? But isn’t that the problem?”
The Watch Captain nodded.
“It is. But I’m only asking you to keep it open for a few seconds. Then someone will come through. You’ll have to let them back out, but if it’s only uh, active for a few moments no one should detect it.”
She waited, her eyes on Erin. The Human hesitated, but then she nodded.
“Okay, I can do that. For a few seconds. Lyonette! Take Mrsha upstairs!”
She went into her kitchen to grab the mana stone. She also carefully put two kitchen knives on the counter and made sure her frying pan was within easy reach. Alchemist’s potions over there…Bird was on the roof. Well then.
Erin walked back out, smiling innocently with mana stone in hand. Zevara stood well back of the door, her eyes on the stone. It was green and glowed in the light. It had been cut from an emerald—gemstones were the basis of mana stones, apparently.
“Do you need to cast a spell or do some sort of—”
Erin stuck the stone on the door. It latched onto place, as if held by a magnet. She turned to Zevara.
“There. All done.”
Zevara stared at the door. She stared at Erin. The young woman smiled.
Slowly, Zevara opened the door. Another wall appeared, the wall of a building in another city. Zevara stared into the alleyway of Pallass, and then looked to one side. Erin saw a shadow in the alleyway, heard a voice. She tensed.
“—hold your positions. I will be back shortly.”
Someone walked towards the door and into view. He hesitated in front of the portal and then stepped through as Zevara stood to one side. Erin stared in shock.
It was Watch Captain Venim! The Drake was wearing his bright yellow armor that made him look like a giant dandelion. Erin gaped for five whole seconds and then swatted at Apista before the Ashfire Bee could fly over. Zevara stood back as Watch Captain Venim stood in Erin’s inn, looking around and touching himself in bemusement. Then he turned to face her. The two Watch Captains sized each other up for a second, and then Venim lowered his head in a nod.
Zevara grasped Venim’s forearms with her gauntleted claws as he did the same to her. It looked like some kind of military greeting, and it seemed to break the ice in a second because the two relaxed and turned to Erin.
“Well then. If you could deactivate this door Miss Erin, we’ll get to it.”
He was carrying a small rucksack over one shoulder. As Erin pried loose the mana stone the Watch Captain set his burden on a table and began taking out pieces of parchment and a quill and ink from the rucksack. She stared at him and Zevara.
“Okay, someone explain this to me. Because I feel like an actual idiot right now. Why is he here?”
She pointed at Venim. Zevara coughed.
“Watch Captain Venim and I have been talking and we’ve come to an understanding, Erin. Or rather, the three Watch Captains of Pallass have all agreed that a trade war and the possibility of an actual war between Liscor and Pallass is unacceptable and we’re attempting to resolve the situation in everyone’s best interests.”
“You’re working together? But how? Does the Assembly of Crafts know about this? What about Liscor’s Council?”
Erin looked from Drake to Drake. Venim coughed as he spread the pieces of parchment out and organized them.
“We have our own means of communication between the cities. Watch Captains keep in touch, and we sometimes act in the best interests of our cities, even if that means bypassing the usual chain of command.”
“This is unusual, but the circumstances demand it. Neither Venim or I are here, and any rumors to the contrary will not be spread. We will deny ever meeting. Is that clear?”
Zevara fixed Erin with a steely gaze. The young woman raised her hands.
“Totally. I get it. No one’s here. Just me and Apista.”
She pointed at the bee, which flew away from her. Venim eyed the Ashfire Bee, opened his mouth, saw Zevara’s resigned shake of the head and didn’t ask. Erin looked at him, her head cocked to one side.
“Okay, war’s bad, but tell me something Watch Captain Venim. Why are you here if you care about your city? It seems like Pallass would win any kind of trade war or actual war with Liscor, am I right? Why would inconveniencing Liscor be a bad thing?”
He looked surprised at her question and peered at her. Erin returned his gaze steadily. The silly [Innkeeper] of yesterday was gone and she looked serious. Well, as serious as a young woman shooing away a giant bee every few seconds could be. Venim cleared his throat.
“Politics are one thing, Miss Erin. But military action—especially against a city as strategically important as Liscor—is another. A war between Liscor and Pallass is not in our people’s best interests, and as for the door, it could be more dangerous for Pallass to possess it than not.”
“I don’t follow.”
Venim nodded to Zevara.
“Wall Lord Ilvriss and his home city of Salazsar have made it quite clear that if Pallass takes this door, there will be a war. And I can’t help but suspect that more Drake cities and other Walled Cities might take Salazsar’s side in the conflict.”
Erin whistled as a few pieces fell into place.
“Ilvriss said that? And his city would go to war because he said so?”
The Watch Captain of Liscor nodded gravely.
“Pallass and Salazsar do not historically get along. The threat of a doorway that could teleport armies about would be serious enough.”
Venim nodded as well. He looked from Zevara to Erin.
“Watch Captains do not want conflict. That is why I’m here. To resolve this issue…quietly.”
He looked at Erin, serious, and she saw his claws were tight on the parchment. She looked at Zevara and Venim. Both of them were taking a risk by being here. Erin took a deep breath.
“Okay. Okay, how are we going to do this then?”
Both Watch Captains visibly relaxed in relief. Venim offered Erin a sheet of parchment with complex writing on it. Erin blinked at it and went slightly cross eyed at the tight writing. She had learned the Drake written language, but this was incomprehensible. She looked at Venim for an explanation.
“The easiest way to resolve the situation is to remove the Assembly of Crafts’ justification to confiscate your door. They claim it’s a security risk and an unsanctioned magical portal, which is highly illegal…and unique. There’s no real precedent for a magical portal being established and the crux of their argument stems from the teleportation spell. Pallass has a law against unauthorized teleportation into its city.”
“Yeah, that’s what you said. So why didn’t Hawk or Ilvriss know that when they entered the city? Well I guess Hawk doesn’t know all the laws, but Ilvriss should have known that! Doesn’t his Walled City have the same laws or do people teleport in and out of that place all the time?”
Venim shook his head.
“It is impossible to teleport into Salazsar. The city has more ward-stones and counter spells than I can count. I imagine that’s part of the reason why they are so alarmed at the idea of Pallass obtaining this doorway. Its magics would probably be countered by the anti-teleportation wards, but if not…”
Zevara rested her claws on the table, nodding to the doorway.
“I imagine Lord Ilvriss intended to conceal the portal’s existence and pretend he had slipped through one of the gates unnoticed. It might have worked too—if we hadn’t been on full alert after General Shivertail’s death, we might have missed it too. It’s not nearly as obvious as a traditional teleportation spell.”
“Okay. That makes sense. And that’s pretty smart of Ilvriss. So how does this thing fix everything?”
Erin waved the parchment at Venim. He smiled.
“Simple. Your doorway is an unauthorized artifact. However, it turns out that in your brief visit to Pallass you had the presence of mind to file all the paperwork needed to authorize your portal and inn as a legal residence in Pallass.”
Erin stared at him. She stared at the parchment. She could pick out a few words from the top. Application…residence…no wait, that read residency…it was a housing permit! She looked back at Venim skeptically.
“You’re telling me that will solve everything? What if the paperwork gets denied?”
Zevara picked up a piece of parchment, studying it, and Venim shook his head.
“Unfortunately a few [Clerks] were processing requests this morning. They ‘accidentally’ signed everything without knowing the current situation. All I have to do is file this and you’re approved. Too late for the Assembly of Crafts to do anything about it.”
He indicated some signatures on the parchment. Zevara nodded as she handed the parchment to Erin.
“It’s not perfect, but it takes away the Assembly’s excuse for pressuring Liscor. Now you’re their problem and technically they’d be breaking the law themselves if they tried to confiscate your door. They might come up with more charges, but it’s an issue between you and them, and Watch Captain Venim assures me that he can talk the senators around given half the chance.”
The two Watch Captains looked at Erin. She studied the documents, a frown on her face. When she looked up it wasn’t with whole-hearted willingness.
“It sounds like I’m a convenient pawn in this situation. I’m the Human with the magic door—so that means Liscor doesn’t get pressured because I’m just a Human who doesn’t know what’s what, and Pallass focuses on me instead.”
Zevara fiddled with her claws and Venim coughed.
“We can’t avoid that. But it stops Liscor from entering the picture and I’ll do my best to convince the senators. Just the idea of trying to transport a magical artifact all the way on foot to Pallass without another force intercepting it is ludicrous. It’s a burden we don’t need and both our cities could benefit from having access to each other, not to mention Celum. I’m sorry Miss Erin, but this is the best we can come up with at the moment.”
Erin stared from face to face and then sighed.
“I get it. With great door teleportation must come great responsibility, huh?”
Zevara and Venim looked blank. Erin scowled.
“No one gets my jokes. I miss home.”
She reached for the quill.
“Okay, where do I sign? And why are there so many pieces of parchment?”
Venim smiled in relief. He stood up and began handing pieces of parchment to Erin as Zevara sat back in her chair.
“There’s no precedent for this, which is why you have these forms here—I’ve filled them out so you’re claiming your doorway as part of your inn. And your inn will be a place of business with a magical artifact that has both a presence in Pallass and outside of it—sign on both these leasing permits, please.”
“Okay. Here and here…whoops, the ink’s getting everywhere. Sorry about that.”
Venim snatched the parchment up and blew on it hurriedly before the ink could blotch some of the writing. He waited until Erin had signed all the pieces of paper and then gathered them up.
“I’ll process them the instant I return. Miss Solstice, you’ve done my city a favor, whether the Assembly of Crafts thinks so or not. We’ll work with your city—take it from me, politicians are one thing but Watch Captains support our own. You won’t regret this.”
Erin massaged her hand. That had been a lot of signatures for so few pieces of parchment. She got up, smiling at Zevara and Venim.
“Well, I did cause some of the mess. And I guess it’s worth it to have a doorway to Pallass, right? Your city is beautiful, Watch Captain Venim.”
He flushed with pride. Then the Watch Captain hesitated, and shifted.
“Unfortunately we have one last issue to resolve, Miss Solstice. I hate to ask it of you, but—”
Venim looked embarrassed.
“There is a fee—twenty gold coins for both leases, not to mention a six gold coin fee for inspection of a premise containing both monsters and magical artifacts. I’d cover it if I could, but our annual salaries are…and neither Watch Captain Zevara nor I can afford to take it out of our city’s pockets. It will appear in the paperwork, you see.”
Watch Captain Zevara shuffled her feet and coughed. She looked the other way as Erin glanced at her, and Venim’s cheeks turned red.
“We can cover some of the costs ourselves, but we’ll have to account for the rest of the coin somewhere. If you need the coin we can cover it installments…”
Erin covered her face.
“Oh, you have got to be kidding me.”