Sweat rolled down the side of his face. It matted his fur, turned it darker. It dripped onto the stone floor. But of course, she couldn’t smell it. She could hear him, but he made no sound as his face lowered towards the ground.
Slowly. His arm compressed and his body—seemingly far too large to be supported by a single arm—followed. For a second Ceria thought he would collapse as his arm shook and his face nearly touched the ground. But his balance was perfect and slowly his body rose.
A pushup. One of many. Ceria had known you could do them one-handed, but she was no [Warrior]. She didn’t like the idea of exercising to begin with. But he was one of those maniacs who trained even out of battle. Yvlon and Ksmvr were like that, actually.
Another pushup. Ceria heard a faint grunt, but that was it. She watched as he adjusted his body, putting his entire weight on his arm. His one arm. The Minotaur’s horns nearly touched the ground of his cell this time as he lowered, then pushed himself up.
“How many do you do each day?”
It was the first thing she’d said in a while. He glanced up. She saw his muscles strain as he levered himself up. All…what, three hundred pounds of him? At least. Calruz was a giant of six foot seven, fairly tall even for Minotaurs, but he didn’t look stretched. His body was solid muscle from years of fighting and training. The idea that he could lift his weight with one arm was ridiculous.
But maybe it was because he only had one arm. Ceria stared at the missing gap on his right shoulder, where the solid muscle and bone just—ended. Calruz had lost his arm a long time ago, to Skinner, and he’d had to learn to fight and survive with just the other one. You probably got a few Skills that made you stronger if that happened, right?
“So. You do this every day now? The guards tell me you’ve been working out nonstop.”
Calruz shrugged as he took a break to take a sip of water. He had some in his cell. The Drakes guarding him weren’t stupid; they’d left buckets of water in the cell, fresh water to keep Calruz from dehydrating and dying of thirst. Ceria wondered if they gave him more food. She wasn’t going to ask.
Which meant she was going to ask, but later. She shook her head.
“Pushups with one arm. What else?”
“Situps. Stretches. Odd—it’s hard to explain. I need to move muscles, but I can’t. So I try different poses. Stretching out.”
The Minotaur’s voice was quiet, but that still meant it was quite loud. Ceria nodded. She stared at Calruz. Absently, her good hand rubbed her right hand. She felt smooth, cool bone. And shuddered because it was her hand, but she couldn’t feel it.
“So. You started working out? Why? You want to look good in jail?”
The Minotaur looked up at her. His dark brown eyes blinked once at Ceria’s face, and then both of them looked away.
“I have to do something or go mad. This is what I know. It makes sense.”
“Yeah? You were having a blast doing the empty stare a while back.”
The Minotaur’s ears twitched. He was so calm now, but Ceria still found ways to needle him.
“I suppose I got tired of that. I couldn’t see the point the fifth time you visited me. I can try doing it again if it helps.”
Ceria snorted. The half-Elf stared past Calruz. She shook her head.
“Parchment and ink, too? What, is this a luxury cell?”
“Hardly. I asked for that. They gave it to me so I could draw maps of the dungeon. And I’m sure they wouldn’t have let me do even that unless you’d intervened.”
Another pause. Ceria bit her lip. Calruz didn’t look at her. He was doing something else now. Sitting against the wall, only without a chair. It looked…strenuous. He wasn’t facing towards her—he spoke while staring at the opposite wall of his cell. That way she didn’t have to meet his eyes. They preferred it that way.
“Yeah, well, you know the other teams aren’t going to trust your maps, right?”
A shrug. Calruz’ hooves stayed planted on the ground, but she could see his legs tense with the effort of keeping his body against the wall.
“They don’t have to. I wouldn’t. Even the Raskghar could get surprised by traps. But the maps are a general layout. As best I know. If they help, or reveal opportunities—even make them aware of the dangers of being cornered—it’s worth it.”
Ceria couldn’t argue with that. A map, even from an enemy, was better than going in blind. And she thought…she thought some of the teams might use the maps. A lot wouldn’t though, but she didn’t tell Calruz that. Her eyes went to the maps. They were meticulously drawn; the Minotaur had labored over them, refusing to waste any parchment or drops of ink.
“So. What after the maps and your exercising?”
“Nothing. I keep exercising. When the maps are done I’ll stop there.”
The Minotaur’s voice was flat. Ceria nodded. She hesitated, stared past Calruz at the bare wall. A magical barrier separated the two, sometimes barely visibly, other times shivering with light as dust motes struck it. But for that, they could have been mere feet apart.
“So. We’re leaving. I mean, all the northern teams. Halfseekers, Griffon Hunt, the Silver Swords…we’re all uh, taking off.”
“With the Raskghar’s treasure. You’ll have to get it exchanged. I don’t know where. I’ve never had a haul like that. I was…dreaming of it. How I’d do it when I got out.”
That made Ceria pause. She stared at Calruz’ face. He looked ahead, a statue but for the sweat dripping off him. She hadn’t told him where they’d found the treasure. He’d just worked it out in between one of their meetings.
She saw him pause and nod.
“Of course. It’s good the other teams are going with you. You won’t be shortchanged.”
Ceria shuffled, scuffing at the ground, although the prison was kept very clean.
“The Silver Swords aren’t part of it. I mean, they weren’t given the treasure. They uh, found out.”
“I see. Will there be trouble?”
“If there is, there is. But Ylawes didn’t seem inclined to press it. I had a chat with Jelaqua and Halrac and we decided we’d give something if they really pressed. But we’re mostly afraid of the other teams finding out. You know, Gemhammer, the Wings of Pallass, and so on?”
“They’re all staying?”
“They didn’t make a huge fortune in the dungeon. Some of them got a bit of the loot—so yeah. They’re staying. I expect we’ll hear more from them. After all, we have Erin’s door.”
Calruz didn’t say much. He’d already commented on the door. He was just sitting there, listening. Ceria knew he was paying attention, though. When the silence drew on too long, the Minotaur spoke.
“Thank you for coming.”
That was it. Out of nowhere. Ceria looked up, but he hadn’t even turned his head. She felt—there weren’t words to describe it. The half-Elf glanced about. The prison was mostly empty, although there were some troublemakers in the far cells near the entrance. Around them was empty, though. She reached for her belt.
“Time for a snack.”
At last, Calruz looked around. He stared at Ceria as she pulled out a Gnoll treat—a salted fish packed with a meaty paste. It lasted quite a while before going bad and it actually tasted pretty good. The Minotaur eyed the snack and shook his head.
“The guards won’t let you give that to me. They make the cell’s field permeable to feed me, but only then. You can’t pass it through.”
The half-Elf stared at the Minotaur.
“Who said anything about you? This is for me.”
She bit into her meal. Calruz stared at her. She knew he probably got prison rations, which again, weren’t as bad as you might get in a prison in Terandria. But hardly tasty food. She saw his cheek twitch. Then he barked a short bit of laughter.
“You always were a pest. I can’t imagine how your new team puts up with you.”
“Go rot your face. I’m a great leader.”
The Minotaur chuckled, the first sound of amusement she’d heard from him.
“If Gerial could see you now—”
He paused, broke off. The amusement flooding his face grew bleak in a moment. Ceria felt the fish snack in her mouth grow less appetizing. She stopped chewing. Swallowed. Calruz stared ahead, breathing slowly.
“Say their names.”
A shuddering breath. The Minotaur spoke harshly.
“Gerial. Hunt. Terr. Coblat. Grimsore. Sostrom. Barr.”
Ceria nodded. After that, there was nothing to say. She put the rest of her snack in her belt pouch. Someone moaned across the prison. A late-night reveler waking up and regretting. Probably the drunk Relc had brought in with a huge lump on his head.
It was early morning. Just past dawn, really. Ceria knew that, and she knew she couldn’t stay. Not that she ever did.
“I’m going to leave. We have to take care of that Ashfire Bee nest.”
“Yeah, whatever. I’ll have the other Gold-rank teams with me. At least Falene, anyways. I’ll be back tomorrow. Look, if you need more parchment, or some new quills, you could do some sketches of—”
“Don’t bother. I’m not going to be here much longer.”
Calruz looked up. He met Ceria’s eyes again.
“They’re going to execute me. I know Drake law. I deserve it, Springwalker.”
“I—know that. What, did you think I’d try to help you out with that?”
No reply. Calruz just met Ceria’s eyes. She turned away. The Minotaur spoke quietly, illuminated by the magical runes surrounding his cell.
“Better to die sane than down there, like a monster.”
She closed her eyes.
“Tell me it wasn’t your fault.”
No reply. She turned.
“Say it. You’re different now. Down there, it was a spell. The water. Or—”
“I can still hear the voices sometimes. I did it. And there was no reaction when they tested me. No magic. It was just me.”
Calruz shook his head. He stopped sitting against the wall. He stood up and faced Ceria.
“It was me.”
His hand pressed flat against the invisible wall in the air. Ceria looked at him. She turned. She couldn’t say anything. Why couldn’t he lie?
She was walking away when Calruz called out after her.
Ceria turned. The Minotaur was staring at her, a frown on his face. He spoke haltingly.
“There was…he was with us, wasn’t he? A part of our team. I forgot his name. What happened to him? I thought you said—when we were below. What of him?”
The half-Elf stared. Calruz was frowning. He still couldn’t remember everything of what had happened below. She forced herself to smile.
“Olesm? He made it. I told you. He’s not adventuring anymore. But he’s fine. Yeah. I think he’s…fine. I’m going to go. But I’ll be back tomorrow.”
That was all Calruz said. He watched as Ceria left, hurrying past the cells, pausing to speak with the guards. Different from his memory. But she’d come every day, if only for a few minutes. Sometimes for hours. To shout at him, annoy, poke, prod, tease. Reminisce.
The Minotaur whispered. He meant that. And he also wished she’d stop. He closed his eyes and sat against the wall. Waiting. For tomorrow or the end.
What had happened to Olesm? That was a good question. And the truth was, ‘nothing much’.
Or rather, Olesm had done well. He was no adventurer, putting his life on the line. He was a [Strategist] now. In a sense, he had made it; becoming a fully-fledged [Strategist] at his age made him a rising star, if anyone was doing constellations. And he had survived a potential war with the Humans. He had helped fight back the monsters and Raskghar plaguing Liscor, and he was due an extra gold piece and six silver per week thanks to his new class.
Yes, everything was on the up and up for Olesm. If you considered his fortunes, he was on a meteoric rise. But again, that assumed people were thinking in stellar terms. And they weren’t. And Olesm wasn’t happy.
If you asked him why, he couldn’t point exactly to the reason. Maybe it was being hit with rotten travel rations yesterday. Or nearly being engulfed by some crazy blue lightning cloud. Or it could be his guilt over the way the Goblin war had ended. But it might have just been that he hadn’t seen Erin Solstice again. And the fact that he was being ripped off.
“How much did you say it would be for your services, Miss Rissa?”
He stared at the female [Scribe] sitting across from him. The Drake woman had faint yellow and blue scales running down her body in a crisscrossing pattern. It made her stand out compared to Olesm’s uniform sky-blue scales. But you’d hardly notice because the [Scribe] was wearing long, concealing clothing that covered her arms, legs, and even her tail.
The effect was something like staring at a mobile pillow. Apparently Miss Rissa grew cold easily, and since she sat in the same place, she’d outfitted herself and her work area to be as comfortable as possible. No stool for her; she had a high-backed chair filled with cushions, a wide writing desk and several magical quills. And she was glaring at Olesm.
“Twelve silver per copy. That’s my final offer.”
“Twelve? I could get the same amount done for eight silver!”
The [Strategist] clutched at his head. He stared at Rissa.
“Last time it was only nine! And I paid that!”
“Well, I’ve heard that these magazine things are valuable. So I want to see some more coin myself. Twelve silver, or you can go to my competitors. And you know I’m the best. You want steady reproductions of these maps and these…whatever they are?”
“Go strategies. They’re sketches of good chess and go games.”
“Go what? You mean that other new game? Either way, it looks like a pain to recreate. So. Twelve silver. That’s my final offer. Don’t make me make it thirteen. That’s an unlucky number, so we’ll skip to fourteen then.”
Olesm sighed. He opened his mouth to object, saw the [Scribe]’s eyes flash, and gave up.
“Twelve silver, then. Can I pay for twenty copies now? I have to get more money.”
“That will do.”
Miss Rissa watched greedily as Olesm slowly placed several gold coins on the table and hunted around for more. He wanted to object, but he wasn’t in the mood to risk alienating the best [Scribe] in the city. Rissa was temperamental, but she was quick.
“I can have at least ten done by the end of the day.”
Coins disappeared as Rissa flipped through Olesm’s latest creation. It was a hefty little package and she wrinkled her nose at all the chess notations Olesm had written down. Then at the maps with scrawls of neat words accompanying them.
“What’s this? It’s not your usual bad handwriting. I thought I’d have to correct it.”
“No, Miss Rissa. I had a copy made—”
The [Scribe] gave Olesm a glare. He raised his hands.
“—just to see how it would look! And the handwriting is better, isn’t it?”
“This is Jeckl’s handwriting, that stupid Gnoll. You’re not giving him my work, are you? Because if you are—you can see his line work isn’t nearly as good as mine. And his inks…”
“Incomparable, truly. You’re my preferred [Scribe], Miss Rissa. I’ll just take that copy—you can get the best notes from my original. Thank you—”
The magazine was really just a sheaf of papers that Rissa thrust rudely at Olesm. He scrambled to put them in order, treating the soft paper very carefully. He’d used paper instead of parchment, and it had cost him a pretty penny (rather more than a copper penny, actually), to write the latest edition of his chess newsletter.
“You didn’t put one of these out last month. Or the month before.”
“I’ve been busy. I’m hoping to make them more regular. Every two weeks, or three. If I can afford it.”
Olesm wished his tail weren’t sulkily curling up. To be fair, he had been busy. There had been no time for stuff like chess and his hobby of noting down Erin’s games and commenting on them when the fate of Liscor was at stake. But recently, he’d had ample time to write.
“You see, I have four of ah, the best games I had recorded written down in notation with some of my commentary. I chose two games sent to me to include with commentary from my special guest, and she—er, my guest also provided some sample games of Go, this new craze sweeping through Baleros. It’s in-depth stuff and she explained a ton of theories, hence all the notes on various strategies. And after that, I have some commentary on Liscor’s siege and my perspective on the Raskghar attacks, not to mention the Face-Eater Moth incident—”
Rissa grew slowly more cross-eyed as she listened to Olesm talk. She shook her head and waved her quill, interrupting him.
“I don’t need a summary. I’ll have to read it myself. Leave me to my work! Gah. You’ve written double-sided? I suppose it saves parchment, but I’ll have to use my lightest inks…come back with the rest of my money and I’ll have the first professional copy ready.”
“Yes, Miss Rissa. Thank you—”
The door nearly hit Olesm on the way out. The [Strategist] glared as Miss Rissa’s long-handled stick adeptly flipped the sign on her tiny shop. From ‘Available’ to ‘Reserved’. He yawned and glared up at the sun. It was barely past dawn; he’d been lucky to get here in time to get her services for the morning.
“Twelve silver? It’s not like I make that much for each magazine. In fact, I don’t! What am I supposed to do, charge a gold piece for each? You’re lucky I need you to send this to Lord Astoragon. Then I’m getting these done cheap at Jeckl. At least he’s not a jerk.”
He glared at the shop, and then stomped down the street. He was hoping to sell at least two hundred copies all told, which would make up for the price of the initial twenty done by Rissa. It had been a while since Olesm had run out an edition of his chess magazine. Heck, it wasn’t long since he’d started making them. But Erin had encouraged him and…well, that was all he’d needed.
“Last time I sold, what? Eighty? They went out to Celum and I think some people took more north. Somehow, one of them reached the Titan himself. If you add that to my dedicated mailing list…if I charge ten silver, and I can get the Runner’s Guild to buy them off me—can I do eleven? Twelve, to make up to Rissa? If I sell two hundred copies—but what if I make too many? Then I’m down…”
The [Strategist] muttered to himself as he tried to do some math on the go. Liscor’s streets were still filling up, but he had a lot of work to do. And it wasn’t even his work day yet. Today and yesterday had been Olesm’s days off and he’d hoped to talk to Erin. Since he hadn’t and had been hit with a bag and nearly blown up, he’d spent last night working on the chess magazine, which was really just a [Strategist] magazine now. Gloomily, Olesm walked down the street.
“I should really have a name. Olesm’s Insights. No. That’s terrible. Chess Monthly? But it’s not chess anymore, is it? Er, the Liscorian Perspective? This is why I need Erin. She’d have a catchy name like—”
The Drake turned. Someone was calling out to him. He saw a tall figure striding down the street, around two elderly Drakes arguing with an old Drake that Olesm recognized. Tekshia, Guildmistress of the Adventurer’s Guild, glanced up at hearing Olesm’s name and then let the tall figure with bunny ears pass. Hawk strode towards Olesm with alarming speed. But that was Couriers for you. Tekshia kept arguing with the other two Drakes, sitting at an outdoor restaurant or maybe a pub. Olesm turned to Hawk.
The Courier of Liscor wore a light vest and nothing else on his upper body. He had long pants on, tailored to fit his rabbit hindquarters. But they were simple clothes, meant for strenuous motion, not fashion. He was clearly working today, but Olesm saw no package in his hands.
“Anything for me?”
“Not just yet. I haven’t run in the last few days. Did a long run to Pallass and got back a bit through that magic doorway a few days ago. I decided to take a holiday for a bit—I’m about to hit the Runner’s Guild for work. I expect there’s at least a few deliveries waiting on me.”
Olesm nodded. Hawk, as the sole Courier living in Liscor, could do deliveries south of Liscor where normal City Runners couldn’t. With the Blood Fields active in the spring—especially after the battle between the Drake armies and Tyrion Veltras’ forces—it was too dangerous for anyone to go south. Which meant that messages and deliveries usually waited on Hawk.
“I imagine they’ll be relieved you’re coming in. But uh, if you’re going to do a trip south, mind waiting for a day? You see, I just got my latest chess magazine done. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it…”
The [Strategist] flushed a bit and trailed off. What was he doing, talking to Hawk about his magazine? But if the Courier went it would be days before Olesm could send a delivery south.
To his surprise, Hawk’s ears perked up. The Rabbit Beastkin gave Olesm an appraising look. They’d rarely talked, but as Liscor’s [Strategist], Olesm had gotten to know Hawk and made a few requests of him in official capacities over the years.
“Your chess thing? I heard about that. Mind if I see?”
“Oh! Of course!”
Flustered, Olesm presented him with the sheaf of papers, Jeckl’s copy that had offended Rissa. The Courier flipped through the pages, blinking at the chess notation. Olesm winced; it definitely wasn’t eye-catching stuff, unless you were a [Strategist]. But he had a growing audience—some people had sent him a lot of gold in donations! And the Titan had read his work! That had to count for something.
“Hefty. And this is going out by the Runner’s Guild?”
“Yes. I’m sending them by way of City Runner to various [Strategists] I know. I can’t copy too many, but…I’m hoping to do two hundred. Uh, I’d only be able to pay you to do eight or so! You can just bring them to Pallass’ Runner’s Guild. It can go to the other recipients from there.”
“Hm. They can’t copy illustrations at the Mage’s Guild. At least, not unless the [Mage] knows a sketching spell or has [Artist] classes. Sounds like it’s worth my while, then. How much for six?”
“O-oh. Well, if it’s only six, wait, at your rates—”
Olesm fumbled, confused. Hawk laughed. He shifted, his wide rabbit’s feet restless as ever.
“I meant six for me to buy. On top of the eight you want sent out. How much are you charging? Two gold pieces per edition? If it’s only two hundred, this is a limited run, right? That drives up the price.”
He reached for his money pouch. Olesm gaped at him.
“Two gold pieces? No, it’s ten silver!”
This time the Rabbit Beastkin recoiled. He stared at Olesm and shook his head.
“For this? And you’re selling only two hundred? Olesm, friend, you’re going to get ripped off that way. How much do you think these things are worth?”
“Uh—not two gold pieces.”
“Well, no. But people will pay for a premium to get a copy first. Once it gets spread about and people make more copies it’ll be worth less. But Olesm—remember that ring and the note I gave you from you know who?”
Hawk waggled his ears at Olesm. The Drake stared at them and jumped.
“You mean from—”
“—ah, no names. Courier’s code an all. But yeah. If he read your copy, you bet it’s popular. I heard some people were making copies in Baleros of your older editions. And this? This is new. So it’s worth me paying for—if you’re not about to spread them via [Message] spell or something.”
Hawk gave Olesm a stern look. He was lecturing, but only slightly, and Olesm listened. You could learn a lot from a successful Courier, and Hawk was rich.
“There are clients in other Walled Cities who made me an offer to get them one of your chess magazines if you come out with one. They’ll pay double for exclusive stuff like this. As long as its exclusive. Don’t let the Mage’s Guild get a hold of one of your copies unless you want to lose all your profits. And don’t trust the City Runners not to sell it to the first Mage’s Guild, or even the one in Liscor. Some might even get it copied by a [Scribe] too.”
“But isn’t it easy for anyone to copy? I mean, I’d expect that…”
Olesm trailed off weakly. Hawk nodded.
“So would I. So the trick is you make a few copies, say, forty? And you send them off and get paid a premium. Then, after four days, you make up a batch—your two hundred—and sell them to the Runner’s Guild and Mage’s Guild in Liscor and Pallass for cheap. That’s what I’d do.”
“Wow. But people will pay that much?”
Hawk gave Olesm a strange look.
“The Titan reads your magazine, Olesm.”
“But—I know that, but—it’s just a small enterprise! I just started a few months ago, I’ve put out like four editions!”
“And the Titan—damn, I said his name twice—reads your magazine. That means every [Strategist] and er, chess lover around the world will want a copy of your magazine. How many do you think there are? Thousands. Tens of thousands. That’s your audience. You won’t reach most of them yourself; your magazine’s going to be copied. But you can have an exclusive list who’ll pay you in gold for early access. Don’t take that for granted. So, about the copies?”
Hawk patted Olesm on the shoulder in a friendly way. The [Strategist] stared at him, mouth agape.
“Well I uh, well, I’m having more copies done. But—but I’ll have some tonight! Definitely! I can contact you—”
“I’ll stop by and delay my run until then. Let me know, alright? And remember, keep them away from [Mages] unless you want to ruin my profit margin—and yours!”
Hawk strode off. Olesm gaped at him. Hawk was delaying his run for some of the chess magazines? The Drake felt a surge of elation and fear. Then he had a thought. He turned and rushed back towards Rissa’s shop.
The Drake [Scribe] snapped as the door flew open. She stared at Olesm and glared.
“What? Do you have more of my money?”
Olesm shook his head, panting. He pointed at the papers on her desk. She was already halfway through one copy. He’d seen Rissa work and she was fast. All those Skills. He coughed and spoke hurriedly.
“Those twelve silver coins—they’re for exclusivity, right? You’re not making anyone else any copies. Right?”
He saw the [Scribe] freeze for a second. She glanced down at the papers and confirmed Olesm’s worst fears.
“Well, I—this is hardly enough money to be exclusive. And you didn’t ask. I have my work to do, but I suppose if anyone asked—”
“You can’t do that! Those are mine! You can’t copy them! What were you going to do, make more copies for the Runner’s Guild? The Mage’s Guild?”
He saw the older Drake woman bristle, but her tail was twitching rapidly.
“That’s highly—what an allegation! What I do with works provided to me is my business. If you wanted me to keep it exclusive, you should have made that clear. And if you want me to avoid making other copies, the price will be sixteen—”
Olesm lunged for the desk. He tore his precious copy of his magazine away. Rissa made a startled noise.
“Give me that! You paid me—”
“And I want my money back! You’re no longer hired!”
“You can’t unhire me!”
The [Scribe] tried to get up, but her padded clothes made her awkward. And she was hardly fit; she swiped for the copy Olesm was stuffing into his belt pouch. He tore frantically at the half-finished copy on her desk, ripping it to shreds.
“They’re mine! Anyone who wants a copy has to pay me! Me! And if you think I’m paying you sixteen silver—”
“You’ll pay me more than that! How dare you! I have every right to make whatever copies I please—”
The door opened. Olesm stopped dancing about, waving his magazine copy over his head. Rissa stopped reaching for it and trying to stab Olesm with a quill. They turned towards the door. Ilvriss, Wall Lord of Salazsar, stared at the two of them and coughed.
Olesm stared and then realized he was still fending Rissa off with one hand. He straightened, blushing fiercely.
“I was uh, just—”
“I believe I heard. Miss Rissa Inkscale?”
“Yes? The best [Scribe] in Liscor at your service, Wall Lord Ilvriss. I was just having an incident with a disagreeable client. How may I serve you?”
Rissa hurried behind her desk, beaming at Ilvriss and giving Olesm a death-glare at the same time. Ilvriss eyed her and then turned to Olesm.
“I have some work I needed copied. Minor sketching. But if you’ve reserved Miss Inkscale’s services, Swifttail, far be it from me—”
“No. No, I was, uh, cancelling my order. And I’ll need my money back.”
Olesm glared at Rissa. The [Scribe] purpled, but she dared not object in front of Ilvriss. The gold coins and silver appeared back on the counter—minus one of the gold coins Olesm had paid her. He gave her a flinty look, but took it anyways. Ilvriss stared at the papers Olesm clutched to his chest.
“Am I to assume you’ve come out with another edition of your…magazine? I recall you telling me about that. General Shivertail made a passing remark on the subject.”
Olesm jumped. Zel Shivertail had read his magazine? He stammered.
“Wh—yes! I did come out with a new edition. But uh, I’m trying to figure out a way to market it. And having it copied—”
“Exclusivity. I quite understand. Well, her work is hardly high-level [Scribe] quality, but if that’s the issue…”
Ilvriss tapped a claw on his chin as he thought. Olesm waited nervously. So did Rissa, who was quite cowed by the Wall Lord’s presence despite this being her shop. Ilvriss just had that effect. He was the picture of a Wall Lord, grand, commanding, and, Olesm had to admit, handsome. Olesm only got called cute by the Drake girls, but Ilvriss was like the [Lords] you heard about in stories. A real Wall Lord of a Walled City in the flesh. In Liscor. And, what was stranger, he knew Olesm’s name and took an interest in Olesm’s life.
The younger [Strategist] had no idea why, but Ilvriss had taken an interest in him and treated him almost like a protégé at times. Like now, in fact. Ilvriss came to a decision and nodded brusquely at Olesm.
“Allow me to lend you my personal assistant. We can discuss a moderate fee for the transaction later, but I think this would be a useful instructive moment. Assuming you don’t object to slightly lower-quality work?”
“What? No, not at all! I’d be honored!”
“Wall Lord! I—”
Rissa cut off as Ilvriss gave her a cool glance. Too cool, in fact. Cold. Olesm wished he could give someone that look on command. Ilvriss snapped his fingers gently.
“Miss Inkscale, I’d like to request your services for a series of prints. Monster sketches, mainly. The copies of which I have…here.”
He placed a sheaf of sketches, all on snow-white paper, on Rissa’s desk. The [Scribe] blinked and Olesm caught a glimpse of several disturbing creatures as she paged through them. They looked like crude illustrations drawn by someone with no talent. Even so, they looked quite disturbing. And undead. Ilvriss tapped the papers.
“I know you’re no [Artist], but I’m told you have the [Illustrator’s Vision] Skill. Are you able to see the intention behind these?”
“I—yes, Wall Lord. Horrific beasts. Still sketches, though. I’m getting imaginative images rather than anything concrete. Whoever made these didn’t see them, only heard them, I’m afraid.”
“That’s what I expected. Nevertheless, if you’d be able to transcribe the internal images, I’d be most grateful. By tonight? I will pay for speed, hard work, and exclusivity.”
Rissa blushed a bit. She straightened and looked at Ilvriss.
“Of course, Wall Lord. It would be my honor. I can have the sketches done by then. In color?”
“I understand there’s very little. Black ink will suffice. My assistant will come by sundown to collect them. Good day. Swifttail? With me.”
Ilvriss gave Rissa a slight bow and a smile that had her blushing. Then he swept out of her shop. Olesm, in awe, watched him go. Then he saw Rissa glance at him.
“Well? What are you standing around here for?”
She snapped at him. He jumped and hurried after Ilvriss out. The Wall Lord was waiting for him. Olesm had to admire that. He’d gone in there, hadn’t haggled, just made his request and left. He wondered if money was even an obstacle for Ilvriss. And would Rissa even overcharge him? A Wall Lord?
“I hope I didn’t interfere too much, Swifttail.”
Ilvriss glanced at Olesm. The [Strategist] blushed again.
“Not at all, Wall Lord. It was my fault. I didn’t realize my magazines were so…”
Valuable? It felt ridiculous to say that to Ilvriss, who had gemstone rings on his claws and wore silk clothing day to day. But the Wall Lord only nodded as if it were reasonable.
“It’s hard to appraise the value of something new. Your magazine is a new commodity, but, I think, gaining in worth. You’re aware the Titan of Baleros praised it? That alone makes its earning potential substantively higher. From what I heard, you’re aware you should be making it exclusive?”
“Yes, yes—I just met with Hawk, actually. And he said…”
Olesm hurried after Ilvriss, talking quickly and summarizing his chat with the Courier. Ilvriss nodded. He was leading Olesm back down the street, towards the City Hall. It was slow going, even though both Drakes knew where they were going. That was because Ilvriss had to stop every few seconds to greet someone.
“Mister Rekil. A pleasure to meet you.”
“Good day, Miss. And who is this young one?”
“Guildmistress Tekshia. An honor.”
The old Drake was still sitting, with her two companions. One of the old male Drakes looked up, munching on some kind of pretzel.
“Is that Wall Lord Ilvriss? Fine fellow! Good job on those Walled Cities, young Drake! I visited Salazar once. Beautiful place. You still mining those gemstones?”
“As always, Mister…?”
The old Drake extended a claw and Ilvriss shook it. The Wall Lord nodded.
“Gemstone mining, magical or not, has always been Salazsar’s greatest source of income. Our mines are actually expanding, in fact. We’re looking into claiming some new areas for forge work. Steel, armor and weapons to go along with our magical productions.”
“Ah, but Pallass has the best steel, or so they say. That was how it always was. Pallass for steel and potions, Salazar for gems. Oteslia was where you ate, and Zeres from where you sailed. You went to Fissival if you wanted to learn magic and not go to Wistram, and Manus to become an expert warrior. But now Salazsar wants gems and steel? That’s risky, that is. You tell the other Wall Lords it’s not easy upsetting history like that.”
Olesm winced. Rudss was an old Drake, one of the retired veterans from Liscor’s army who could live off his savings and pension. He was the kind who sat about and had an opinion on everything. But this was Ilvriss he was jawing off to. But Ilvriss didn’t seem to mind. The Wall Lord smiled a bit as he nodded.
“I’ll be sure to pass that on to my companions, Mister Rudss. And I hope that if you ever come to Salazsar, you find your stay pleasant. Guildmistress Tekshia? A pleasure.”
“Good day, Wall Lord.”
The elderly Drake inclined her head. Ilvriss walked past her. Olesm, following, could hear Rudss talking loudly to the other two.
“See? That was a proper Wall Lord. Always time to talk. Not like those stuck up [Senators] from Pallass. They had their Wall Lords and nobles—still do—but are they running things? Not likely! And look where it’s got Pallass. No, you want a proper city? You let them run things—”
“Is Salazsar looking into investing into arms manufacturing, sir?”
Olesm glanced up at Ilvriss. The Wall Lord smiled slightly.
“It’s been an ongoing topic for the last six years. And it’s a nice topic to bring up, Swifttail. But frankly? We might poach a few [Smiths], but we’re not looking to fight in that area. Panicking Pallass is always worthwhile, however. Because if we wanted to, we could entice some of their best [Smiths] away.”
“Ah. Of course.”
Olesm nodded. It was a known fact that of the six Walled Cities, Salazar was richest by far. Not that any of the Walled Cities were poor, but Oteslia, famed for its agricultural and pastoral harvests, wasn’t nearly as affluent as Salazsar, who provided gemstones to much of the world. Even Pallass, the famed City of Invention couldn’t compete with Salazar’s sheer economic might.
“Frankly, it might be worth doing. They have two high-level [Smiths] in Pallass from last I recall. You wouldn’t happen to recall the names, would you, young Olesm?”
“Hm. Maughin the Dullahan of Baleros and uh, Pelt the Dwarf of Terandria, sir.”
Olesm knew a lot of facts about politics, people of note, and monsters in general. A [Strategist] had to understand not only politics, but remember high-level individuals who could literally turn the tide of battle. And both [Smiths] certainly qualified. Ilvriss snapped his claws.
“Of course. Thank you. Yes, both [Smiths] are quite good. Neither one is world-famous, but I’ve heard Maughin may hit Level 40 within the decade. And as for Pelt…I recall reading a report claiming his Skills indicate he’s at least Level 40 already. Why the Dwarves would have let him go…”
“Probably his habits, sir. He’s a notorious drunk and his work ethic is quite poor.”
“All the more reason why Salazsar could easily poach him. A Level 40 [Blacksmith], even a poor one, is a rare commodity, Olesm. Baleros has a few, and so does Izril, but Chandrar and Terandria both lay claim to more. Dwarven steel still claims a sizable portion of even Pallass’ markets and Chandrar always has some rare pieces, although their [Smiths] are hardly as organized or well-funded. Desert tribes somehow produce unparalleled masterpieces, but they can’t compare with the sheer volume of Pallass’ forges.”
“I’m aware of the disparity, Ilvriss, sir. Are you suggesting we need higher-quality weapons?”
“Mm. No. A Level 10 [Soldier] doesn’t do particularly better with a masterwork spear in his hands. Cheap steel like Pallass provides is more advantageous, and we can equip our soldiers better than the north. But they have their [Knights] who use magical gear that tip the scales. It’s my opinion we need more elites, and not just Oldblood Drakes. Hence my interest in [Smiths].”
“Really? But, Wall Lord, traditionally our elite units have taken a backseat to high-quality standing armies.”
That was the notable difference between Human doctrine and Drake when it came to war. Humans favored elite attack forces and disposable infantry. Their [Knights] were a terror on the battlefield, as were their [Mages] and Gold-rank adventurers, but Drakes had won battles based on their superior general forces and [Generals]. The claim was that a Drake [Soldier] was worth one and a half Human [Soldiers] in a massed battle. But Ilvriss was shaking his head.
“I’ve been…thinking on the subject. And our standing armies need more elite forces, Olesm. To hunt monsters, to battle incredible foes—steel and courage only go so far.”
That was true, but it was still an unusual stance for Ilvriss to take. Olesm hesitated.
“Does that have anything to do with the pictures you gave Miss Rissa, sir?”
He saw Ilvriss give him a sharp glance. The Wall Lord frowned.
“Those? Those were merely sketches, Olesm. Reproductions of…well, monsters I’d heard about. Hardly my concern. I was more speaking to the loss at the Blood Fields.”
“Of course, sir.”
Olesm nodded. But he thought, privately, that Ilvriss had hesitated for a second. Still, the Wall Lord was all cool grace as he swept into the City Hall and Olesm wondered if he’d imagined it. It was hard to read Ilvriss.
The City Hall of Liscor had traditionally been a place to settle complaints, for the Council to meet, and for officials like Olesm to work. It had been a quiet place, for all it occupied a spot in the center of the city. The Council of Liscor, a body of the heads of the Guilds and so on, were happy that way. But of late it had seen a lot of use. And with Ilvriss stranded in Liscor, he’d practically taken over the place.
A pair of Drakes, Ilvriss’ personal guards, stood at the front doors. And the instant the Wall Lord entered, a female Drake hurried down the steps. She was attractive, and had a pair of spectacles on. Olesm had noted that everyone in Ilvriss’ employ tended to some degree of perfection. Whether in beauty, or in the case of his personal guards in his retinue, skill at arms.
“Wall Lord. Orders?”
The female Drake paused before Ilvriss, glancing at Olesm. Ilvriss nodded.
“Welsca, make a note to pick up the sketches at Miss Rissa Inkscale’s at sundown. Until then, I have need of your services. Young Olesm has his latest chess magazine finished. He requires copies. How many, Olesm?”
The [Strategist] cringed as the female Drake, Welsca Crimsonscale, one of Ilvriss’ personal adjutants, glanced at him. She didn’t look exactly hostile, but he had a feeling that she outranked him as the personal aide of Ilvriss. And here he was giving her work.
“Er, I was hoping for sixty copies, Wall Lord. But I’d hate to—”
“Can you have them done, Welsca? The issue is having them copied.”
Welsca pursed her lips.
“I can, Wall Lord. But I’d need to hire at least one [Scribe]. It would be a simple matter if they’re trustworthy. Have you a name I could use, Strategist Olesm?”
“Er, yes, I do. There’s a Gnoll by the name of Jeckl who’s very reasonable—”
“I will see to it, then. May I see the papers?”
The Drake paged through the reports, eyes flicking over the pages busily. Ilvriss glanced at them with some interest.
“Ah. Interesting chess games. Am I right in thinking they come from Miss Solstice, Olesm?”
The [Strategist] coughed hurriedly. He didn’t want anyone to know that Erin was his mysterious chess master, but Ilvriss was bound to know.
“That’s right, sir.”
“I don’t find the game as fascinating as others, but I can admire Skill. I had some notion of Miss Solstice’s skill in the area but…how would you rate her, Welsca? Welsca?”
The Drake jumped. Olesm thought the red scales on her cheeks turned slightly darker for a second, but like Ilvriss her expression was almost instantly neutral.
“Apologies, Wall Lord. These are magnificent games. Truly…and there’s even commentary on this new ‘Go’ game. Which was first released in your last issue, isn’t that so, Strategist Olesm?”
She looked at Olesm. He jumped.
“That’s right! How did you—er, you read the magazines?”
“I believe Welsca is quite good at chess. As for Go—will they sell well, Welsca?”
“Oh yes, Wall Lord. Quite well. Although—the last section is controversial.”
She handed Ilvriss the section with maps. Olesm cringed. That was the last part of his magazine. He’d included chess games, the games of Go and strategies Erin had outlined for him, but the part about Liscor’s siege…he watched as Ilvriss read quickly. The Wall Lord’s brows raised.
“Ah. I see. That is notable. Olesm, you understand this will provoke a reaction?”
Olesm took a deep breath. He’d written about Goblins. His opinions, as well as his insights. He’d made it—well, he’d been honest to how he felt. And if anyone had a problem, it was his magazine, not his stance as Liscor’s [Strategist].
“I do, Wall Lord. But I feel it’s only right. I mean…”
He floundered, but Ilvriss was nodding.
“I can’t say I disagree. A bold choice. Welsca, copy it. Young Swifttail may account for his own words, especially as a [Strategist].”
“By your leave, Wall Lord. Although I will correct some of the spelling errors. And the maneuver employed during the Raskghar battle was a triple flanking maneuver, but the formal term is a triple envelopment.”
Olesm blushed as Welsca pointed out the mistakes. She nodded at him and left with the copy Jeckl had made. Ilvriss had Olesm’s original. He chuckled at the look on Olesm’s face.
“Don’t worry, Swifttail. Welsca is a fan, though she’d hardly admit it. And she is an active [Strategist].”
Olesm twisted to stare at Welsca’s back. Ilvriss nodded calmly.
“A former field officer in Eartiv’s army. I recruited her oh, twelve years back. She’s currently a [Veteran Adjutant], a straight promotion over her [Strategist] class, but perhaps not one with as much room for advancement. Nevertheless, she’s my best staff member in terms of coordination. You’re aware of the [Adjutant] class? Up the stairs to my office.”
Olesm followed Ilvriss up the staircase.
“Vaguely, sir. [Adjutants] are a mix of er, [Secretary] and [Soldier], aren’t they?”
The real phrase Olesm had been thinking of was ‘Combat Secretaries’, although that was more of an insult. Ilvriss nodded.
“Correct. They’re able to fight, but they receive a number of utility Skills that allow them to perform a [Secretary]’s roles. Welsca will be able to get your copies made, and she’s knowledgeable enough to aid in battle. You’re aware the rest of my retinue are former officers as well?”
“Yes, sir. A Wall Lord’s escort is generally considered to be the equivalent of an officer base. A dangerous addition to any army.”
Olesm spoke up, reciting his lesson from memory. He saw Ilvriss smile.
“Well, so long as the Wall Lord is capable. Now, about your magazines…ah. Captain Shieldscale. A moment.”
They were striding along the third floor to the office that Ilvriss now occupied when they met a Drake in armor. Olesm stopped, blinking at the Drake striding towards them. Like him, she had scales, but hers were bright blue, almost too bright. She had the posture of a career soldier, but unlike Embria, she had wings and an acrid odor about her.
Oldblood. Like how Zevara always smelled a bit smoky, Olesm was sure that this Drake was an Oldblood capable of both flight and breathing acid. The rarest of the varieties of Oldblood Drake and highly prized in any city. She stopped in front of Ilvriss, and gave him a crisp salute. She was wearing fresh armor, and unlike Olesm and the Wall Lord, she was armed with a sword and shield and in full battle gear despite being in the City Hall.
“Wall Lord. I was coming to see you as per your instructions. Is there a change in scheduling?”
“Slightly, Captain Shieldscale. I’m assisting young Olesm with an issue. We will be only a few minutes.”
“Yes, sir! I’ll await your call.”
She stepped to one side, opening the door to Ilvriss’ office smartly. Ilvriss nodded at her and strode in. Olesm did likewise, after giving the Captain a longer look. He’d met her once before; she’d turned up after the battle for Liscor. One of the reinforcements sent through from Pallass, maybe.
She was intense. And her scales were very bright. Olesm wondered if she was one of those people who dyed her scales. Maybe she had an unfortunate coloration?
“Uh, is Captain Shieldscale a new addition to your retinue, Wall Lord?”
Ilvriss was rummaging around in his desk. He glanced up and Olesm definitely saw him hesitate.
“Her? Ah, yes. Osth—Osthmissa Shieldscale arrived with a detachment from Pallass. Although our relationship is too formal for personal names. Ahem. She’ll be serving as added security. She’s a quite adept [Captain] of the Oldblood. But I digress. We’re here to ensure your magazines earn their full worth. That means your initial sending will go via Hawk, who is trustworthy, to some of your clientele in the south. But I assume some will go north, too?”
“That’s right. But I don’t know how I can prevent the City Runners from just copying them at Celum and selling them…”
Olesm sighed. Ilvriss smiled slightly.
“Courier Hawk had the right idea. An initial, limited run keeps the price high until you mass-produce copies. Hiring trustworthy Runners and making sure that they understand this is a confidential delivery helps. But to ensure no copies are leaked…”
He was pulling objects out of the desk and setting them on the counter. Olesm saw him pull a piece of wax out that had glittering flakes embedded in it. To his eyes, it looked magical, not to mention expensive. Ilvriss muttered to himself.
“Magical sealing wax and…where’s the flashfire dust? Captain Shieldscale?”
“Top drawer, sir. The sealed box. You have two seconds.”
Ilvriss pulled out a box. Then he looked at Olesm.
“As Welsca will be making more copies, I’ll brief you on how to make these letters and lend you the wax and dust to work at your leisure. Hawk need not take these letters as he is a trustworthy Courier, but for the ones going north…observe.”
He took the loose papers of Olesm’s magazine, inserted them into a large envelope. Then he pointed to the box.
Olesm saw him flip up the lid, scoop up a handful of a strange, red dust, slap the lid shut, and pour it into the envelope. Instantly, Ilvriss sealed the lid. Olesm blinked. There was a trace of powder on Ilvriss’ claws and it turned to smoke after a moment.
“Incinerates in the open after two seconds. Anyone opening the envelope will have it ignite. Be sure to press the envelope flat or the air will ignite the dust. And then the wax…”
There was no licking of the top of the envelope to stick it to the paper like there would be in Erin’s world. Instead, Ilvriss used the wax he’d taken, using a candle to drip it onto the envelope. Ilvriss let the wax harden and then pressed one of his rings into the wax. It left a distinct imprint, and the red wax sprinkled with gold shone as Ilvriss held the envelope out. The Wall Lord studied it with satisfaction, and then blinked at his ring and then laughed.
“I put my seal on it! Force of habit, Swifttail. But you see? The magical seal can’t be removed without destroying it or the envelope. And if they do get the letter open…”
“The dust incinerates it. That’s a lot of expense, though, Sir Ilvriss! And what happens if it gets to my uh, readers? How will they open it? And the cost—I couldn’t possibly pay for—”
Olesm broke off as Ilvriss held up a claw. The Wall Lord smiled somewhat affectionately.
“Nonsense, Swifttail. These are simple tricks of the trade. As a [Strategist], I expect Liscor would want you to understand as much of your job as possible. Possibly they’d send you with their army for field training, but I find [Strategists] who only understand war lack civic training to an alarming degree. You’re familiar with the various countermeasures against spying?”
“Yes, of course. Codes, incomplete messages, and direct delivery versus [Messages]. But this—”
“Consider it a gift. For one of your magazines? Welsca will enjoy reading it. And this should do for the first batch of exclusive sendings. In a few days’ time it will be moot, but until then this will prevent tampering until it reaches the intended owners. Naturally, you’ll need to send them a [Message] spell informing them of the countermeasures—the local Runner’s Guild can extract the documents safely.”
Olesm gulped, but what could he do but nod in the face of Ilvriss’ generosity? Private [Messages] where you pay for privacy, exclusive, trustworthy City Runners…Olesm gulped as he added up the costs. But if Hawk was paying two gold per magazine issue, and if he received the same…would his readers pay the cost? Olesm had no idea.
“Here. Your first letter and the wax and box.”
Ilvriss handed all three to Olesm. The [Strategist] stammered his thanks, but Ilvriss waved it away.
“It’s nothing. A trifle.”
Olesm was sure that was true for Ilvriss. But he thanked him again. Ilvriss smiled, and Olesm thought he seemed genuinely pleased to have helped Olesm. That gave the [Strategist] the courage to ask another question.
“Er, Wall Lord, you’ve been nothing but an asset to Liscor. But I can’t help but notice you’ve stayed here for quite some time. When you and General Shivertail—”
He broke off, the memory of the famed Zel Shivertail still fresh. Ilvriss nodded.
“—When you and General Shivertail got here, you told the Council you’d only stay for a while. And you’ve told me you wish to return to your Walled City. Are your plans changed?”
Ilvriss’ smile twisted. He sat down in his chair.
“Hardly. But I need to get through Pallass, Olesm. I’m sure you’re aware of the difficulties I face any other way now. If I had left earlier during the winter…but now the Blood Fields are active. It was well I stayed, but politics is holding me in Liscor and that is a problem I wish to resolve. Quicker than ever.”
“The Assembly still won’t grant you passage through Pallass?”
Olesm was surprised, but only a bit. Drake politics got petty and Pallass was quite capable of refusing Ilvriss entry. Still, it was hard to imagine they could do this forever, especially since Ilvriss had the credit for helping Liscor repel both the monsters and the Humans. The Wall Lord grimaced.
“They’re exercising their one right in this situation—their right to entry of their city. But that’s about to end. Naturally, I won’t tolerate this state of affairs, Olesm. But Pallass does hold the advantage since I am alone. A rare change of events for them, I’m sure. But not to last much longer.”
That sounded ominous. Olesm gulped.
“Uh, as Liscor’s [Strategist], may I ask what you intend to do, Wall Lord? It’s hardly advantageous for Liscor to be caught between Walled Cities.”
Ilvriss blinked. Then he laughed.
“Don’t worry, Swifttail. I’m hardly about to start a huge incident. Underhanded pettiness requires a reply in kind. Thus, I’m sending Erin Solstice after them, of course. Or haven’t you heard that the Assembly of Crafts is already having to explain a tax on Liscor’s magic doorway?”
Olesm hadn’t. But he gulped anyways. Pallass might be a Walled City, but he imagined Erin was a match for it. Ilvriss grinned predatorily.
“Mail your magazine out, Swifttail. And send Captain Shieldscale with you, would you? I do hope your magazine is well received. How many readers did you say you had?”
“I’m not sure, Wall Lord. I’ll be sending the uh, first sixty to my readers on my list. As for the others…”
Olesm had gotten a lot of mail from people before all this business with the dungeon. He hoped to get more. Apparently a lot of people read his magazine, but his reading list—the people he’d be mailing to, sometimes free of charge, was very short.
There were about forty five names on the list. Friends, [Strategists] and [Tacticians] he knew or who had asked to be put on there—it seemed like the rest had acquired copies of his magazine through other channels. Olesm felt another bit of spite and jealousy rise up in him, thinking of his work being stolen! Stolen without him earning a copper coin!
But the names of two of his readers calmed Olesm down as he left Ilvriss’ office. One of them was a legend. Niers Astoragon, who would be getting a [Message] spell and a physical copy by Courier and damn however much it cost. And one more name. But Olesm was too cowardly to give it to her in person, so he sent it the only other way he could.
Ilvriss, Wall Lord of Salazsar, sat in his office as he watched Olesm leave. He frowned, listening to Olesm speak to Captain Shieldscale outside, and then hurry off. He leaned back in his chair.
He didn’t have long to think on what Olesm had asked him, though. The door opened a beat later.
“Wall Lord? The [Strategist] told me—”
“Come in, Captain Shieldscale.”
Ilvriss called out loudly. He saw the door open fully. Captain Shieldscale, her scales bright blue, her breastplate gleaming, strode into the room and closed the door behind her. Ilvriss nodded. He spoke casually as he twisted a ring on his finger.
“Ah, Captain. You have the report on Liscor’s—”
The ring on Ilvriss’ ring finger twisted all the way around and the turquoise gem flashed. The light wasn’t a single glare though; it seemed to expand in an instant, filling the room until there was a bubble nearly touching the walls. Just for a moment, and then it was gone. Ilvriss sat up, leaving off the last of whatever sentence he’d been about to make up. And ‘Captain Shieldscale’, or rather, Osthia Blackwing, relaxed slightly.
“My ring is active. Unless someone’s capable of piercing a bound Tier 5 [Denial] spell, we should be invisible.”
Osthia Blackwing scratched at her bright blue, artificially colored scales.
“He could do it. I’m sure he could. Reiss—the Goblin Lord was sure that his master could cast at least Tier 7 spells. Probably Tier 8.”
The thought of that made Ilvriss’ insides clench, but he spoke briskly.
“I’m aware. But [Denial of Observation] is a specific spell that can fight off even a higher-level scrying spell. I’m not aware of any spell short of a truly epic magic that can pierce it, and if Az’kerash has such spells, he is already aware of us. Since we’re both still alive, I assume it’s working. Have a seat.”
There was a beat of hesitation, and then Osthia pulled up the chair and sat. Her back was rigid, and her posture military-straight. Ilvriss eyed her. She was nothing like the desperate Drake he’d found running towards Liscor in the hours after the Goblin Lord’s army had been routed. Gone were the shackles on her wings, and her atrophied muscles had bounced right back. Now she looked like what she was—a former officer of Pallass. An Oldblood [Captain] in Pallass’ army, in fact, one of two sent to destroy the Goblin Lord months ago. Her entire army had fallen and her uncle, Thrissiam Blackwing, one of Pallass’ star [Generals], had been slain there. Osthia had never had a chance to avenge him, but she had survived her captivity.
She was different now, of course. They’d dyed her scales blue instead of black, and given her a fake name. She was…damn, what had he told Olesm her name was? Osthmissa Shieldscale. Ilvriss hoped the cover was unnecessary. With luck, Az’kerash would assume she was dead or not remember her. But even so, he double-checked that his ring was still active before he spoke.
“Well? What’s the result of your investigation?”
“I made the inquiries like you asked, Wall Lord. I can trace the origin of Regrika Blackpaw and all the cities she’s visited—and the deaths of notable personages around that time—to every city in the last six years. If I correlate the two, half of the cities she’s visited had a person of note pass away or disappear under dubious circumstances.”
“Ancestors damn it.”
Ilvriss closed his eyes and struck the armrest of his chair. He stared past Osthia, gritting his teeth. Regrika Blackpaw, the fake Named Adventurer. A strange, mysterious murderer that Erin Solstice had revealed to be behind the murder of Brunkr—and then, subsequently, Ulrien of Griffon Hunt. There was a bounty on her head, but Ilvriss was sure no one would ever claim it.
Because, as it turned out, Regrika Blackpaw was no Gnoll after all. She was an undead servant. One of the minions of Az’kerash, the Necromancer. A being thought dead, but who Ilvriss was now completely certain was alive. The same monster behind the Goblin Lord. And behind the death of General Zel Shivertail.
No one knew that he was alive. Everyone had assumed that Az’kerash, the bane of Terandria, a being of incredible power, had been slain at Liscor by Zel Shivertail himself during the Second Antinium Wars. It wasn’t a stretch of an assumption to make either; thousands had seen Zel rip the Necromancer in half. But somehow he’d survived. And he’d been plotting and weakening the Drake cities since then.
“Ill enough news, I suppose. But we knew she’d been killing high-level Drakes already. Shivertail and I had been making inquiries. But what about your second line of investigation?”
Osthia nodded. She pulled something out and placed it on the table.
“This is the second investigation I conducted. A list of every city where an individual known as ‘Perril Chandler’ visited, ostensibly as a [Merchant].”
Ilvriss ran his name down the list.
“And the second list?”
Osthia’s lips tightened.
“Every Drake person of interest who was present in two or more cities at the time of Perril Chandler’s visit.”
The list of names was eight long. Ilvriss wished there were far fewer. His claws tightened on the paper.
“I recognize six of these names. Two of them—two of them I know.”
He could sense Osthia watching him carefully. She was an unknown quantity to him, and, he suspected, he to her. They were allies of convenience, but he was a Wall Lord of Salazsar and she a [Captain] of Pallass. Technically they’d be enemies under some circumstances, but she was dead to her city. And dead to the world if Az’kerash knew she yet lived. He thought he’d killed her, but his apprentice, the Goblin Lord named Reiss, had conspired for her to live. For some reason.
“They could just be coincidental, Wall Lord. But I did check and double-check. All Drake cities keep lists of persons of interest as well as [Merchants] of note who enter, so…”
“Yes, I’m aware. I don’t imagine Az’kerash knows of that protocol, or if he does, he was too arrogant in assuming no one would remember his name. Which no one did—these names. Each one will have to be investigated. Quietly.”
“I’m at your disposal.”
Osthia sat up straighter. She was practically vibrating in her chair. Ilvriss glanced at her. He could feel it too. A boiling fury. An urge to grab his sword, put on his armor and—
But no. No, it wasn’t time. Osthia had a reason to hate Az’kerash, but Ilvriss had just as much reason, if not more. Periss, his second-in-command, was dead. He’d thought Ryoka Griffin had caused it somehow. But the truth was that she’d stumbled onto Az’kerash’s lair. The Necromancer thought he’d disposed of all the evidence. But through Ryoka, through Osthia, Ilvriss knew. So he was biding his time. He had to be patient. And so did she.
“No. Neither you nor I will be making the inquiries personally. And you will stay out of the public eye as much as possible. We return to Salazsar first. And then—then we gather allies. I need to be secure in my estates, though. And that means our objective is to get past damned Pallass and the asinine Assembly of Crafts first.”
He saw Osthia’s eyes flash as he insulted her city to her face. She didn’t say as much to him, though.
“Pallass is a proud Walled City. If you made a humble request—”
“Pallass is as petty as any Drake city on the continent. I won’t beg. For one thing, it’s out of character. For another? The Assembly isn’t a body of Drakes I trust. They might let me into the city, but I have political rivals who wouldn’t hesitate to send [Assassins] if they saw an opportunity. No, I want to be past Pallass and heading to Salazsar without anyone knowing my exact timetable.”
“Then what’s my role? You’ve taken me in, and I’m grateful. But everyone needs to know that Az’kerash—”
“No. A select number of individuals need know. And that number is up to my discretion.”
The two Drakes glared at each other across the desk. Osthia spoke slowly, her voice taut.
“I did not survive my captivity to make this a political issue—”
“This is not politics. This is about victory. If the Assembly of Crafts in Pallass were informed, I guarantee you that within the hour, word would reach Az’kerash. They are not subtle. And it is my belief that Az’kerash would welcome a war.”
“His minions were damaged by Zel Shivertail. One was destroyed! Reiss said—”
“The Goblin Lord may have hated his master, but he is not in possession of all the facts. If Az’kerash were to attack—”
Ilvriss was leaning over his desk, and Osthia was on her feet. The door opened and a Drake hurried in.
“Wall Lord, I’ve made two copies, but I saw fit to let the Gnoll [Scribe] do the rest of the work. It was easy enough to get him to swear to secrecy—”
Welsca paused as she saw Ilvriss and Osthia facing off. She stared sharply at Osthia, who immediately stepped back. Ilvriss sat back down and coughed.
“Welsca. You’re early.”
“Yes, Wall Lord. My scribing Skills aren’t good enough to do illustrations, merely quick writing. I saw fit to delegate. My apologies, I didn’t hear anything—”
Her eyes went to Ilvriss’ glowing ring. The Wall Lord nodded.
“I was just discussing our plan of action with Captain Blackwing. However, your presence reminds me. Summon Veel, please, Welsca. I wish to make this a discussion rather than…now, please.”
“Yes, Wall Lord.”
Osthia sat back down and Ilvriss collected his thoughts and calmed himself. Within the minute, Welsca was back and Veel, a former [Sword Captain] and Ilvriss’ best warrior in his small retinue was in the room. Veel was a Level 26 [Sword Captain], a strong fighter with an enchanted blade, and Welsca was a former [Strategist], as Ilvriss had told Olesm.
Olesm was correct in that a few good adjutants could be the same as an officer core. An asset to any army or in times of peace, very capable help. What the Wall Lord hadn’t said was that a retinue of a Wall Lord was still a retinue. Ilvriss was higher level than all of his subordinates, and capable though they might be in all their fields, none of them was a Zel Shivertail. Or even a Periss. Zel could have torn Veel apart with one claw and he was a better [General] than Ilvriss, even with Welsca’s aid. He had been…extraordinary.
And now he was dead. And one of the few people who could have stopped Az’kerash on equal footing was gone. In his absence, Ilvriss felt vulnerable. And as he explained to Osthia, his caution was not misplaced.
“In this room stands all but one person who knows Az’kerash is alive. Ryoka Griffin is aware, but to my knowledge, no other beings in the world know of Az’kerash’ return. Perhaps there are others and we may have allies, but until we know for certain they aren’t the Necromancer’s pawns, we operate alone.”
“And why aren’t we telling more people? At least Watch Captain Zevara?”
Osthia faced Ilvriss directly, refusing to use his rank. Welsca and Veel shot her dark looks, but Osthia wasn’t Ilvriss’ subordinate, for all she pretended to be. Ilvriss had to convince her, and the Wall Lord did.
“Because I cannot be sure who is trustworthy—completely trustworthy. And second, because each person who knows is a liability that may lead to Az’kerash becoming aware that his cover is gone. And if that happens, we go to war. And that would be a deadly mistake. Isn’t that so, Welsca?”
The former [Strategist] nodded.
“I’m not the right person to make the complete call on this, Wall Lord, Captain Blackwing. But I’ve run the numbers and Az’kerash was capable of fielding at least four hundred thousand undead in a single army. He was routed by the Goblin King, but he still assailed Liscor with a smaller force and nearly won. Against Liscor’s walls with their entire army defending it and Zel Shivertail and three other [Generals] attacking him at the same time.”
“But he’s only one [Necromancer]. If the Walled Cities marched on him—”
“—the Antinium would hit us. It’s not even a question of if, Blackwing. It’s when.”
Ilvriss leaned on his desk. He stared at Osthia, who’d grown pale.
“You might not have fought in the Second Antinium War, but I did. And believe me; the Grand Queen will attack if she thinks there’s a weakness. And the Necromancer is that weakness. Between his armies and the Antinium we could be fighting a losing battle. Our only hope is twofold: that Az’kerash doesn’t think he’s strong enough to triumph yet, and that the Antinium are equally biding their time. But we must be ready for both to keep assailing us, or in the worst case, join forces.”
“So what’s your plan? Hide the fact that Az’kerash exists?”
“From everyone but a select few. And then we find out how many loyal Drakes he’s gotten to. How wide-spread his allies might be. Regrika Blackpaw could not have existed without some corrupt officials covering her. As for killing Az’kerash, we need to figure out a way to do that too. Captain Veel?”
The Drake gulped and saluted. He was older than Osthia by a decade and a half, a seasoned warrior, but he still looked pale.
“I agree with Welsca’s determination, Wall Lord. I…I did some thinking into how I’d take out the Necromancer. Or just his minions based on what Captain Blackwing told me.”
“And…and had I all the resources at my disposal, sir, I’d need a group of Level 30 plus adventurers, [Captains], and so on to take on the Chosen. Preferably around a hundred.”
“A hundred individuals over Level 30, Captain Veel?”
The Drake nodded.
“Yes sir. Or a Zel Shivertail. I tried running the numbers in my head. If I had elites, over Level 20—but a thousand of them might get mowed down by that group. As for the Necromancer? The only way I could think of taking him out would be a massive army. Exhaust his spells, fight off the undead he animates—”
“But he’d keep reanimating from our dead.”
Veel nodded towards Welsca.
“Yes, he would. But unless you can call me three teams of Named Adventurers—and even then, I’d don’t know if they’d risk their lives against the Necromancer, let alone him and all his pets—I can’t think of a way to beat him short of vast numbers. He has to be over Level 60.”
“Reiss thought he was over Level 70 at least. Maybe over Level 80.”
Osthia muttered. The room fell silent. Ilvriss felt his scales tingling.
Over Level 80. He could think of no one, no one in the world who was higher level than that. The Blighted King? The King of Destruction? The Archmages of Wistram? Niers Astoragon? All would be Level 60 to Level 70, but not higher than that.
Individuals capable of shaking the world reached Level 60. The kind of [Kings] who could build an empire the size of a continent, like Flos, the King of Destruction, were around that level. But beyond that?
Niers Astoragon, the Titan of Baleros had become the head of one of the four Great Companies of Baleros, but Ilvriss would bet he wasn’t over Level 70. Past that level were where monsters and legends were born. The kind of old heroes, like Redcal, the Drake hero of legend who’d slain the Minotaur King over a thousand years back.
Or Archmage Zelkyr, the last true [Archmage] of Wistram who’d created an army of Golems that still protected Wistram to this day. They were powerful enough to be called armies on their own. And they could brush away armies of low-level soldiers like trash, even by the hundreds of thousands.
“Zel Shivertail defeated the Necromancer once.”
Osthia spoke quietly. Ilvriss nodded.
“He did. He beat him with the aid of Antinium, in Liscor’s darkest hour. Not a hundred feet from the walls of this city. In close-quarters combat. That was his strength. But the Necromancer is a…[Necromancer]. And that means his servants are his strength. Recall that he had lost a good part of his army to the Goblin King. And he still brought giants of bone to assail Liscor. He could conjure ghosts and wraiths and undead far beyond mere Crypt Lords and Draug. His servants are an indication of his strength.”
Welsca nodded, adjusting her spectacles.
“Indeed. [Necromancer]’s summoned creatures are generally weaker than the Necromancer in question by a substantive margin. The fact that his creation, this…Venitra, could pose as a Named Adventurer speaks to his strength. And troublingly, I’m not sure if she’s stronger than the average Named Adventurer or weaker.”
“And he can make more. Which means every day we’re not attacking him gives him more time!”
Osthia slapped the table. Ilvriss nodded, waving Veel back as the Drake glowered.
“True. But if we did corner Az’kerash, even if we could fight the Antinium, Osthia, what’s to stop him from escaping or faking his death if we corner him again? Remember. Zel Shivertail beat Az’kerash once. And the Necromancer survived and came back. And he killed General Shivertail the second time.”
Silence. The other three Drakes stood with cold sweat on their scales. You couldn’t forget that fact. The Goblin Lord hadn’t killed Zel Shivertail. The Necromancer had. He’d killed Zel and Periss. Two crimes Ilvriss intended him to answer for.
“Realistically, Osthia Blackwing, this is my determination. As it stands, there is no force the Drakes can muster capable of killing the Necromancer. We might beat him in a war, but there is no team, no force who can take out his Chosen, who can beat his undead creations in a battle. There are individuals. Named Adventurers, teams, elites from Walled Cities—but if it came to war, the Necromancer could pick them off, leave us with no one capable of killing him. That’s what he’s been doing all this time.”
Ilvriss walked around from behind his desk. Osthia, Welsca, and Veel followed him with their eyes. All were below Level 30. Ilvriss was below Level 40. He’d always thought he could match Zel with his artifacts. That the other [General]’s strength was nothing to a strong army, proper economic might. Now Ilvriss wondered if Zel were laughing at him from beyond the grave.
No, he’d never laugh. Zel, give me strength. Periss—
“So we need allies. I have a list of Drakes I want to approach. I have a list of Drakes I want to investigate. And I have a third list of artifacts, of old Drake legends. The Heartflame Breastplate appeared after Zel’s death for a reason. It may not have protected him, but with other artifacts, with Drake heroes, we might be able to form a force capable of humbling the Necromancer. And…it pains me to say it, but it won’t just be Drakes.”
The others looked at Ilvriss sharply. The Wall Lord took a breath. He hated to say this out loud, but he had no choice.
“If it comes to it, we’ll recruit from other species. There are…individuals of note. Opportunities. But to start, to be in a position to build a force like that, I need to get back to my city. Captain Blackwing, you and I are on the same side. But make no mistake; I am still a Wall Lord and this is my war to wage. If you object, say so now.”
He waited. She hesitated, but said nothing. Ilvriss nodded.
“Good. In that case, here’s what I intend to do. First, I intend to make sure Liscor stays in a position of power. If we had to fight the damn Humans as well as the Necromancer and Antinium? No, Liscor must stand and it has many individuals of note. Potential, in short.”
“Is that why you’ve been aiding Strategist Olesm, Wall Lord?”
“Partially. He has potential, Welsca. As does Watch Captain Zevara. A straightforward, trustworthy Drake. I’m not sure about Wing Commander Embria, but the Gecko of Liscor actually fought that thing called Venitra for a few seconds. But we can’t recruit them. Liscor needs them, and it needs to grow from the dungeon. But I can lend my aid, which I intend to do.”
“But you’re still stuck here, aren’t you, Wall Lord?”
Osthia stared at Ilvriss. The Drake grinned, but it was mirthlessly.
“Yes, I am. At least, that’s what I’ve been telling Swifttail and the world. I’m still railing against Pallass, aren’t I? But I have at least one asset I intend to make use of. Welsca? Do you have a copy of Olesm’s magazine?”
“Right here, sir. Would you like to discuss it? It’s quite fascinating—”
Ilvriss sighed. Welsca did love chess.
“No, thank you. This isn’t for me. It’s for someone else.”
“Need you an escort, sir?”
Veel straightened. Perhaps he was ashamed of his estimation of Az’kerash’ strength, but Ilvriss waved a claw.
“No. She doesn’t appreciate rank.”
“Ah, you’re visiting her.”
The other two Drakes sighed. Osthia looked confused. Ilvriss made a face that was partly over exaggerated, but he nodded.
“Captain Blackwing, I’ll be back. I need to visit the first of what might be unusual allies. At the very least, she’s thwarted Az’kerash again. Which means that Erin Solstice has the support of Salazsar.”
“The [Innkeeper]? But what can she do?”
Ilvriss turned, his claw on the door. He twisted the ring and the spell went out. He smiled, for once with genuine humor.
“I don’t know. But I imagine that’s why she’s an asset. No one knows what she’ll do next.”
Magazines and chess. Ilvriss didn’t actually like chess. But it occurred to him, finally, to wonder just how good Erin Solstice was. He stared at the young woman as she peered at the pages, oohing at the neat chess notation. She was so engrossed that she completely ignored the Wall Lord. Until he coughed.
“Oh, sorry Ilvriss. This is some good stuff! Okay, a lot of it’s my stuff, but these two chess games are good! And Olesm has a chess puzzle! I can’t wait to solve it. Don’t know about the strategy, but he said…nice things about the Goblins, I guess. Why didn’t he deliver it himself?”
There were a lot of things the Wall Lord could say as he sat at the table near the magic door in Erin’s inn. He could have remarked on the lowered number of guests in her inn, or her repeated use of his name rather than his title. But he declined to do so and replied politely instead.
“I believe young Swifttail is ashamed to visit you. Perhaps owing to his involvement in the defense of Liscor’s walls.”
The happy look on Erin’s face faded.
“He should be.”
“For doing what was asked of him?”
Ilvriss lifted a brow. Erin stared at him.
The Wall Lord considered this and nodded slightly.
“Well, he requested me to bring this to you. Which I did. Perhaps he will work up the courage to visit himself, but for now, I have a small piece of business with you.”
“What have I done this time?”
Erin sighed, putting her hands on her hips. Ilvriss reached for something in his pocket as he glanced towards the far end of the room.
Erin’s [Grand Theatre] Skill was still in effect, and at the far end was the stage. And there were [Actors] on the stage, a motley Human crew with a few Drakes and Gnolls gathered around. Ilvriss nodded at them.
“I take it you are resuming your plays?”
“Yup. They’re holding auditions for a new crew. Why? Wanna join?”
Erin gave Ilvriss a smile that was either teasing or mocking. Or both. The Wall Lord snorted softly.
“Hardly. I see the quality of their acting has dropped markedly. Where’s the young Drake who was there? She at least had a presence.”
“They left. Went north, I think. Better jobs. I’m…well, it’s good for them.”
The slight hurt on Erin’s face was another thing Ilvriss didn’t comment on. He sighed.
“A pity. I might have hired them, if only as a novelty act myself.”
“What, to go to Salazsar? Aren’t you still banned from Pallass?”
“Yes, and I continue to protest the fact. But if I can direct your attention downwards?”
Ilvriss held something up. Erin’s eyes went round.
“One of mine. I assure you. They aren’t hard to come by, especially not for a Wall Lord of Salazsar. Nor is that door of yours hard to understand.”
“But wait. It’s no good unless you have another—”
“Hawk arranged it for me. Or did you think I would have simply hired him for one delivery? Rest assured, it is in a safe place. It only requires your discretion—and permission—for me to activate.”
Erin stared at Ilvriss open-mouthed. Then her eyes narrowed. He wondered if she’d be outraged, or annoyed. Instead, to his surprise, she just grinned.
“You’re sneaky. Like a snake.”
“An unquestionable insult. But I thank you nonetheless. May I assume I have your approval?”
“Sure…but do you need a distraction or something? Because I can do a great distraction.”
“Spare me. Just a moment will suffice. If you’ll allow me? Take the stone off, give me five minutes, and open the door again. I assume you can count?”
Erin nodded. Then she narrowed her eyes and stuck her tongue out at him. Smiling to himself, Ilvriss stood up. Casually, he walked over to the door, placed the black mana stone he’d shown Erin on it, opened the door, and slipped through.
There was no need for a distraction. After all, people used Erin’s door all the time. And so what if the mana stone he had used was black? Who kept track of the colors? The door was open a fraction of a second for Ilvriss to slip through, then he closed it and knew he had five minutes before Erin would put the stone on it again and open the door.
Plenty of time. Ilvriss didn’t know where he was now. It was dark, but he’d made arrangements so when he coughed, there was a spark of light.
“Apologies, Wall Lord.”
The Drake who lit the lantern was neither tall, nor short. Neither fat nor thin. He wasn’t anything in particular, and it was hard to even remember his face. That was the quality of a good [Infiltrator]. Or [Spy]. Ilvriss wasn’t sure which this Drake was, but he knew the name.
“Lawes of Pallass, I take it?”
“Stationed here at your orders, Wall Lord.”
The Drake nodded to Ilvriss. The Wall Lord nodded back politely. He consulted the notes in his head.
“You’re one of our operatives. Six years?”
“Coming on seven come fall. Yes, sir.”
Ilvriss glanced around the room. It was small, made of stone and mortar. A hut? He continued making idle chatter, trying to gauge Lawes. The Drake was trustworthy, or Ilvriss would have walked into a trap, but you could never be too sure of a spy, even an employed one.
“How long have you been waiting?”
The Drake grimaced.
“Four days. I rented this hut in the village on the pretext of needing to get away from the city on some real gambling debts. The Courier dropped off the stone and it took me hours to locate it; a goat had picked up the bag. I assumed that was the reason for the delay.”
“Ah, my apologies. I wasn’t able to access my side of the door until now due to complications with the owner. Can you keep guarding the door?”
“As long as need be, Wall Lord. But I was told to expect allies from your side?”
Lawes looked sharply at Ilvriss. The Wall Lord nodded. He’d said that, but he’d come through first. If there had been a trap, Ilvriss would have wanted to spring it himself. He had enough artifacts to make any would-be ambushers regret it.
“I will send through two of my men shortly. They’ll occupy the hut. Unless people in the village would ask questions?”
“Not if they stay in this room.”
Ilvriss nodded. It would be four of his people, and Veel would lead them.
“In that case, my next task is simple. I need ten horses, ready to go. Fast and with stamina—I intend to head straight for Salazsar when I leave.”
The Drake [Spy] inhaled sharply.
“It won’t be easy to procure them.”
“You have time. Just do it covertly.”
“Hm. I could make it seem like I’m trying to get some horses and sell them to make up for my debts…I’ll have them in a few days.”
Ilvriss nodded. He was counting down in his head and knew he only had a few seconds left.
“In that case, I thank you for your service. My men will see you tonight. And I will commend your service upon my return to Salazsar with some suitable reward.”
The door opened. Lawes bowed his head.
“You’re too kind, Wall Lord.”
Ilvriss stepped back through. Erin blinked at him and then plucked the black mana stone from the door as the Wall Lord shut it. She handed it to him and Ilvriss tucked it into his pocket.
“So, did you have fun? And where did you go?”
“Somewhere convenient. It will take me to Salazsar, assuming my contact isn’t untrustworthy. I’m still unsure, but Captain Veel will ensure that any traps will be dealt with. Should they occur.”
The young woman shook her head as she eyed her shut door. After a second it opened and Numbtongue strolled out, pickaxe in hand. He stopped, staring at Ilvriss. The Wall Lord eyed him and turned back to Erin.
“I only hope you’ll be discreet about this.”
“What? Oh, sure, sure. Hey Numbtongue, how’s it going?”
The Goblin didn’t reply. He was staring at Ilvriss. The Wall Lord glanced at him. He turned back to Erin and the Hobgoblin walked around. Erin stepped back as Numbtongue moved between her and Ilvriss. The Drake stared at him.
“I see you.”
Numbtongue didn’t budge. Ilvriss sighed.
At last the Hobgoblin moved. He looked at the [Innkeeper] and smiled.
“Hi. Got more magic sludge.”
At last, Numbtongue looked at Erin. He lifted a jar which made Ilvriss turn his head and frown, and then wandered off to a table. The Drake blinked at the jar.
“Was that…raw magicore?”
“Yup. Numbtongue mined the stuff. Or…I dunno, scooped it up? Can you mine a liquid?”
“Yes. But how did he—never mind. I’m afraid my stay in Liscor is now limited, Miss Solstice.”
“Well, you’ll be back, won’t you?”
The Wall Lord blinked. He looked at Erin, who was smiling up at him.
“My home is Salazsar, Miss Solstice. My sojourn in Liscor, although surprisingly pleasant, was just that.”
“True. But I have a magic door and you can always visit. Or I’ll make it uh, go farther. Or you could always ride back to Pallass. Don’t be a stranger, right?”
For a second the Wall Lord just blinked at Erin. Then, surprisingly, he laughed.
“Ah, Erin Solstice. Perhaps I will return one day. But until then, I’m afraid I will be going. For quite some time. And I’m not sure whether I should thank you. Your company has been exceedingly unpleasant and, somehow, beneficial.”
She blinked up at him. And she was so young. Ilvriss bent down to her.
“I will leave in three days. With no warning to Liscor’s Council or anyone else. I expect Pallass won’t even notice I’m gone until I appear back in Salazsar. But perhaps, yes, perhaps I will return. The door will stay in place, after all.”
“And I’ll check every day. Or maybe I’ll just wait until you send me a [Message]. But if you need to come back, just let me know.”
Erin looked up at him. Totally ignorant of what it meant to promise a Wall Lord of Salazsar to help him spite Pallass behind their backs. But that was why Ilvriss almost liked her. She didn’t know who he was, even if she had guessed some of it. And he had guessed a lot about her. So, to her surprise and his, he held out a claw.
“Miss Solstice, we won’t see each other until that night. So I bid you farewell.”
Slowly, Erin reached out and took his clawed hand. She shook it gently, and he was surprised to see her tearing up a bit.
“You’re going too? The other adventurers are leaving and…well, good luck. You have to come back, alright?”
And somehow, he meant it. Ilvriss looked around the inn and thought of Liscor. A proper backwater city, notable only for being a border city to the north. Without a hundredth of the grandeur of Salazsar. Constantly imperiled by monsters. If he had thought of it a year ago, he would have sneered at the notion there was much of worth here? Now?
Now, he slowly reached for his left claw. Ilvriss absently tugged on one of his rings as he spoke.
“I imagine Pallass will cause a fuss. But they won’t figure out what was done, obvious though it may be, for quite some time. They have frail imaginations. I expect there will be some fuss, but I am sure you are quite capable of generating more than your fair share to offset the balance.”
“Oh, definitely. Don’t worry. I know you have a job.”
Erin smiled wetly at Ilvriss. He smiled back. And he wished he had more time. But—
“When you come to Salazsar, speak my name and you will be welcomed. Until then, Erin Solstice, consider this a token of repayment. For the city, for hospitality. A sign, if anyone should ask. If you need it. Hide it. Show it when you need it. And never let it be said a Wall Lord isn’t generous.”
He handed her something. Erin blinked down at it. For a second her eyes narrowed, then they widened.
“But—hey! Ilvriss! Hold on—”
But he was already walking through the door again. For once he left her speechless.
Three days later, he was gone. And on the fourth day, Erin Solstice heard a Wall Lord had appeared in his home city. Watch Captain Venim and the Assembly of Pallass were really not happy about that. She had to slam the door on his foot twice and shout a lot. But they had no idea how Ilvriss had gotten through and she could tell them it wasn’t an [Invisibility] spell without lying.
Frail imaginations indeed. After they’d left and the chaos had calmed down, and in the days since, Erin stared down at what Ilvriss had given her. It was a band of metal. Not half as well-adorned as his other rings or signets of his office. It had no gem. It wasn’t even shiny.
It was a ring of copper. Copper. But someone had written on it in gold. And the engraving said one word:
And when Erin looked it, she knew it was more valuable than any of the magical rings with gems. She stared at it, on her index finger where it fit perfectly. Then she shook her head.
“Stupid Ilvriss. I’m not marrying you. You can have it back when we see each other again.”
And she swore, someday, that she’d meet him again.