There was a feeling Yvlon had now and then. One of comprehension. It wasn’t something she could put into words. But if she had to try, it was of her body, the instinctual part of the back of her mind that took over in fights trying to communicate with the rest of her brain.
It said things like: you can win this, if she were eying a monster before they engaged. Or—don’t get overconfident, if say, she was measuring herself against Embria on the practice courts. Sometimes it was a simple warning, like duck, before someone threw a mug at her head and a brawl started. But sometimes, the subconscious part of Yvlon did appraisals. And she could see someone more clearly than she had a few months ago.
Like her brother, Ylawes. He had always been a [Squire], as long as Yvlon could remember. And then a [Knight]. And always better than her in training, to the point where she couldn’t even judge how skillful he was—only that he was far better than she could dream of being at that moment.
But recently, Yvlon had had the feeling in the back of her mind that she could almost judge him in regards to her own Skills. He had powerful defensive Skills and he was a Gold-rank adventurer, but he wasn’t an enigma. If they fought, she could land a few blows, maybe even surprise him. It was a welcome realization. And yet—sometimes Yvlon’s mind told her nothing about her opponent other than that they were too far beyond her.
She remembered each instance. First had been Skinner and the sheer terror of an army of undead bearing down on her. Next had come the Fire Elemental and not knowing what it could do. After that? The mysterious Human [Mage] who’d dropped by to kick her entire team about with Tier 1 and Tier 0 spells. The last instance had been Regrika Blackpaw, the traitorous Named Adventurer. There had been others, but those had been the only ones Yvlon couldn’t understand.
Bevussa. Jelaqua. Relc. Seborn. Embria. Halrac. Any one you wanted to name, Yvlon understood they were better than her, but she could understand their strength relative to hers. And so she understood that she, and her team were far stronger than the Silver Spears had ever been. The Horns might not be Gold-rank yet…! But they were the best of the Silver-ranks, no question. On the cusp of the next level. It was only a matter of time. So they could be a little bit cocky, value themselves a tiny bit. Right?
Yvlon swung with a shout. Her enchanted sword cut the air as she swung two-handed at Grimalkin’s left. He glanced at her as Ksmvr dashed left. The Antinium was moving incredibly fast! The newly-leveled [Skirmisher] ran like a blur thanks to his [Quick Movement] Skill, and when he struck with shortsword, he uttered a Skill.
His shortsword lanced out towards Grimalkin from the left as Yvlon struck from the right. And the [Sinew Magus] saw her, Yvlon knew. But he only glanced at the trajectory of her sword.
The three met in a clash that took a second to happen, but far longer for Yvlon to process. As she lay on her back, she recalled what had happened. She’d swung, Grimalkin had stepped left, blocked Ksmvr’s shortsword with one arm and then turned back and hit—
She sat up, and looked down at her chest plate. It had cushioned the blow, but Yvlon still felt bruised. Had he sent her flying? With a punch? She was wearing plate armor!
But that was Grimalkin. Yvlon got up, teeth gritted, and saw him. He was letting Ksmvr attack him from the side, blocking the shortsword with one claw while the other held back loosely at his side in a fist. Ksmvr’s rapid attack with shortsword slowed and Grimalkin punched. Yvlon saw Ksmvr block and heard a sound like thunder. The Forceshield the Antinium held rippled as the magical protection resisted the blow and he skidded back.
“I am unable to harm Grimalkin. Switching to Flamespread Dagger and arrow. Fleeing in cowardice!”
The Antinium shouted as he turned and ran away, sheathing his shortsword. Grimalkin barked a peal of laughter. He turned as Yvlon rushed at him from behind. Two-handed, the [Wounded Warrior] swung, lashing at Grimalkin’s body, going for speed, not strength. He twisted back, his feet moving across the grass, watching her blade and arms.
Casually. He was so relaxed! Not dismissive; he never took his eyes off her as Yvlon cursed and advanced, slashing faster. But that little part in her head was screaming at her. It was telling Yvlon two things.
One. She could understand Grimalkin, a bit. She could judge his strength, even if he was still in a realm above hers. And because she could, she knew how outclassed she was.
Someone as big as he was had no right to move that quick! But he was, and as he leaned out of the way of another slash, he jumped in and gave her a punch to her midsection that sent her stumbling back. Again, her armor caught the blow—
“Weak enchantment. If I hit it too hard, it’ll dent.”
The Drake’s comment made Yvlon pause. She lowered her sword too slow; he kicked her and she went stumbling backwards. And then she realized she was on the edge of the muddy hill.
Down she tumbled. Yvlon rolled, feeling her arms take the force of the fall. Something creaked—but Pisces’ bone reinforcement held. And she couldn’t feel her arms. The rest of her—hurt. But it was humiliation. And as Yvlon charged up the hill, she saw something else. Ice fragments. A shower of ice.
Yvlon held up her gauntlets, covering her helmet. An unlucky splinter could put an eye out! Only when the sound had faded did she look and see Ceria was running from Grimalkin, firing [Ice Spikes] at him. He was blocking them with a barrier spell of some kind; Yvlon could see the distorted air. Ksmvr was firing arrows at the back of Grimalkin’s head and he was ignoring them too.
“Ceria! Let me!”
The Human woman bellowed as she charged Grimalkin again. This time he pointed at her and she, realizing what was coming, tried to run sideways. The ray of frost hit her right shoulder; Yvlon swore as her right side went numb and heavy. But she ran on.
Her swing hit Grimalkin’s barrier and she felt pressure, then her sword cutting through. The magic exploded with a pop of sound and Grimalkin stepped back. Ceria fired an [Ice Spike] at his chest. Ksmvr loosed an arrow from behind.
“Good! [Steel Hide]!”
The ice shattered on his front. The arrow snapped on his back. Yvlon looked up, raised her sword, and felt a hand grab the hilt. She struggled, but Grimalkin had both hands in one steely claw. He raised a fist and she braced.
“I’ve seen enough. Byres! Out! Antinium! Out! Alright, [Necromancer], Springwalker, show me what you two can do alone.”
He let go. Yvlon stumbled back and saw Ksmvr lower his bow and walk to one side. As Yvlon lowered her sword, panting, she saw a blur of white. Pisces stepped in, his [Flashstep] spell carrying him towards Grimalkin’s chest. He slashed with his flaming rapier and the Drake blinked. The tip of the blade skidded across Grimalkin’s chest.
Pisces stared at the Drake. He disappeared backwards and then, as Yvlon hurried out of the way, stabbed from the side. This time the [Necromancer] stared at the tip of his blade. It was wedged between a pair of scales on Grimalkin’s hand. The Muscle Mage lowered his blocking hand and regarded Pisces.
“Is that your best? Show me—”
Grimalkin looked up and raised one arm. The Warbear Bone Horror slammed both claws down with a silent roar and Yvlon saw Grimalkin stagger. Pisces stepped backwards as a trio of [Ice Spikes] hit Grimalkin on the tail, back, and shoulder. The young man flicked his fingers and shot a stream of fire from them. Grimalkin was engulfed! Yvlon stirred uneasily.
Powerful or not, Grimalkin was a [Mage], and he didn’t have enchanted robes or armor as far as Yvlon could tell. That had to still hurt! She saw the Bone Horror snapping, straining against Grimalkin as he held it off him, but it was unable to crush him. And then—
Yvlon caught the last part of the spell. But she saw Grimalkin step back, hit the Bone Horror, and spray half of its head across the hilltop. The audience watching the training session from the windows and outside the inn ducked. Grimalkin exhaled. His scales were smoking, but he looked annoyed more than anything else. Pisces stared and flicked more fire at him.
A blast of snow extinguished the flames and Pisces blurred out of the way. He stared at Grimalkin. The [Sinew Magus] stared back grimly.
“That’s really your best? Don’t hold back. Where’s your [Fireb—”
An ice spike twice as large as the last two shattered on the back of Grimalkin’s head and he growled. Ceria was peeking around one of her [Ice Walls] as Grimalkin pointed a finger towards her.
The explosion was smaller than a regular fireball, but it still cracked the [Ice Walls]. The half-Elf standing behind them was caught in the impact and went flying. Grimalkin shook his head.
“I’ve seen enough from you, Ceria Springwalker. [Necromancer].”
He turned his head and bent backwards. Pisces missed the tip of Grimalkin’s face with his flaming rapier. He pointed with his free hand.
“[Stone Spray]! [Shock Volt]! [Summon Bone Horror—]”
Yvlon saw Grimalkin twist, and his claws blocked the lightning. He punched out with one fist and Pisces blurred left. But Grimalkin leapt forwards and then he and Pisces were dodging, punching, while the [Necromancer] slashed desperately with his rapier, trying to gain distance—but Grimalkin blocked with his claws and he was just as fast! The two went back and forth, flicking across the grass for five seconds, ten—
And then Pisces jumped back and vanished. Grimalkin paused, looked around, and saw the Bone Horror behind him rising. It was reconfiguring into the strange, tall creature with whip arms. Grimalkin snorted.
He pointed and the Bone Horror fell to pieces. Yvlon heard a quiet curse. She held still as Grimalkin peered around. He sighed, folded his arms, and regarded his audience. A wincing Ceria climbed up the hill; Ksmvr and Yvlon stood in front of a crowd of Drakes, Gnolls, and adventurers who’d come out to see Grimalkin testing them. The [Sinew Magus] nodded.
“That was your best spell yet. I’ve cast [See Invisibility] by the way. It’s good to see you’re able to cast incantationless magic. And you are—there.”
He pointed straight at Yvlon. She didn’t hear anything, but she could still feel Pisces about. She blushed a bit; everyone was staring at her and she had the distinct feeling that Pisces was trying to hide behind her back.
Grimalkin folded his arms. Yvlon jumped as Pisces appeared behind her, looking sour. The [Necromancer]’s voice had a note of complaint in it.
“How did you see me? I was quite sure that even with a spell, I would be invisible—”
“I saw the grass move. What do you expect me to do when you turn invisible? You should have used a jumping spell right away or lost me first. Or both.”
Grimalkin pointed down. Yvlon and everyone else stared at the grass around The Wandering Inn. Pisces turned red.
He stared at Grimalkin. The [Sinew Magus] rubbed the back of his neck where Ceria had hit him, sighing. He folded his arms and regarded the Horns of Hammerad. Somewhat shamefacedly, they looked at him. Yvlon had mud and grass all over her armor, a slight dent around her stomach, and bruises. She wasn’t sure about her arms, but she felt like the skin might be torn and bleeding under her armor.
She looked left and saw Ksmvr was mainly undamaged. Grimalkin hadn’t hit him, but the Antinium’s antennae were twitching with what Yvlon now understood as shame. Pisces was panting a bit, but he looked embarrassed more than anything.
And Ceria? She looked at Yvlon and bit her lip. She was slightly battered and her cheek was swollen. She’d tried to use her [Ice Armor] spell in the first sparring session—right before Grimalkin had punched her.
And Grimalkin was unharmed. He smelled like smoke and he had a bit of wood tangled in his neck spines, but all the Horns had managed to put on him was his irked expression. He looked at them, and Yvlon, flushing, waited for him to saw something cutting. But all he did was nod.
“Good. You’re better than you look. Yvlon Byres, passed. Antinium?”
“I am Ksmvr—”
“Passed. I don’t need to do much to either of you. Ten more levels and or the right gear and you’d both give me trouble.”
Yvlon exchanged a wide-eyed glance with Ksmvr. Grimalkin nodded.
“As [Warriors] go, you’re fine for your levels and equipment. I’ll address that. But my concern is with the [Necromancer]. Pisces, is it?”
He regarded Pisces with an unfriendly look, which Pisces returned. But Grimalkin eventually sighed.
“It’s a single spell. And I’d be satisfied, by and large. There’s always room for improvement, but that’s far better than Erin Solstice had me thinking. And I don’t know necromancy, so there’s that. No…that’s not what I saw.”
Pisces stared. Grimalkin ignored him as he turned his head. He pointed at the last member of their group.
“Yes. You’re the problem, aren’t you?”
Every eye turned to Ceria. She blinked.
“There has to be some mistake, Magus Grimalkin.”
Yvlon protested as the Horns gathered around Grimalkin and the audience filed back indoors. The four adventurers stood with the [Mage] just outside The Wandering Inn, talking in privacy.
Well—moderate privacy—the line for the outhouses was still there, although the Antinium had added in two more spaces so five regular people and one Moore-sized guest could go at once, with comfortable space in between. Naturally, all five were standing well upwind and far from the outhouses. Grimalkin sighed as he dug the tip of one claw in an earhole.
“Didn’t you hear me, Miss Byres? I’m not accustomed to repeating myself! I said, your weak link, your poorest team member is your Captain. Ceria Springwalker.”
He raised his voice a few decibels and Yvlon winced. She looked at Ceria. The half-Elf looked stunned. And embarrassed. Yvlon frowned at Grimalkin.
“Magus Grimalkin. Er—that’s how I should be addressing you, correct?”
“As you wish.”
The Drake waved a claw as he stood impatiently on the balls of his feet. Yvlon nodded. Even standing still, Grimalkin managed to convey both energy and impatience.
“I appreciate you agreeing to help train our team—”
He held up a claw.
“Consult. That’s a better word for it. I have no interest in training your team, but Erin Solstice has expressed a desire for me to help you in her roundabout way. So as long as she provides me with the information I want, I will put aside some of my time to help your team out.”
“How generous of you.”
Pisces sneered as he stood furthest away from Grimalkin. He still looked peeved—no, almost competitive as he stared at Grimalkin. Yvlon assumed his ego was hurt after the beating Grimalkin had just given her team. She shot him a glare and he sullenly looked away. She wasn’t happy either, but this was an experienced [Mage]! The best in Pallass if you believed Grimalkin’s words.
“Were you born with that tone of voice, or do you always sound like a sulking child?”
Grimalkin glanced at Pisces and the [Necromancer] turned red. He opened his mouth and Grimalkin spoke over him.
“I’m just referring to your—”
“Do you think this is free? Or that I should be less than stingy with my time? How valuable do you think my time is, that I can take a few hours out of my day to train any adventuring team? Did you think, when I referred to myself as the ‘greatest [Mage] in Pallass’, I was being hyperbolic? I would be grateful to Miss Solstice for interceding. I would also shut up if I were you, Necromancer Pisces. Because I tolerate snide comments like I tolerate rats in my home.”
Pisces flushed again, but the reply on the tip of his tongue went unsaid. Grimalkin eyed him and went on.
“Good. Now, Yvlon Byres. I’m giving you my frank and professional opinion as someone who regularly consults with and trains [Mages], the elite units of Pallass’ army, and who’s fought in six wars over the course of his life on the front lines. If you have objections to my credentials or my abilities that you witnessed first-hand, feel free to voice them.”
He looked at Yvlon. She hesitated.
“It’s just that—Ceria’s our weakest link?”
She looked at Ceria. The half-Elf nodded hesitantly.
“I know we can all improve, and I know I’m not the best, but I thought that at my level—”
“You misunderstand me. I am saying that at your level, you are by far the weakest of you four. I’m not evaluating you on the merits of your levels or overall current ability, but your potential at this moment. If I was basing my judgment on pure fighting ability, it would go the [Necromancer], you, Miss Byres, then the Antinium.”
The said Antinium interjected helpfully. It was now Yvlon’s turn to blush at the frank appraisal. Ceria hesitated.
“But you don’t even know our levels. Unless Erin—she doesn’t know them exactly. So how do you?”
“I don’t need to know them to make correct assumptions. You. [Necromancer]. Level 30 plus. Ceria, [Cryomancer]. Below Level 30. Upper mid-twenties I’ll guess. Yvlon Byres, same level range. [Warrior], most likely generic. Antinium…”
Grimalkin gave Ksmvr a long and distasteful look.
“[Skirmisher]. Level 20.”
“That is very accurate. How did you know?”
Yvlon nodded, impressed despite herself. That was close! She was a Level 28 [Wounded Warrior], having leveled up once during training with Ksmvr and fighting low-level monsters over the last month. Grimalkin shrugged.
“Your Skills. You fight well, Miss Byres, but you lack any of the powerful moves that one associates with a Level 30 class. That truly is a breakpoint in terms of power; many [Warriors] gain lower-level attack Skills like your footwork Skill, [Lesser Strength], what I assume was a Skill that lightens your armor; you felt lighter when I hit you than you should have been—and was that a cutting Skill?”
“[Keener Edge]. Yes. That’s right—”
“Exactly! If you were Level 30, I would expect you to be a specialized class with a very distinct ability. Such as a [Shieldbreaker Axeman], who develops around level…30 to 35, I think, and has a [Shield Destroyer] Skill. Failing that, you would have at least one passive ability of note. The Antinium is easy as well; he has [Quick Movement] and [Quick Slash], but little else. The [Necromancer] has to be above Level 30 if he can summon Bone Horrors, but he’s a lower-level [Mage]. His spell list includes only one Tier 4 spell. And Miss Springwalker knows only a couple of higher-Tier ice spells. It’s all very basic when you’ve seen as many classes as I have.”
Grimalkin looked around at the Horns. They glanced at each other, impressed. Yvlon wiped at her helmet with a cloth, and looked around. She got a begrudging nod from Pisces, an awkward smile from Ceria, and a wave from Ksmvr. She turned back to Grimalkin.
“Okay then. You’re clearly an expert. But why is Ceria so much worse than the rest of us? She could tie both Ksmvr and me up with her [Ice Wall] spell if she needed to, and her [Ice Spikes] are accurate! We have our holes, but we’re close to Gold-rank.”
“From a certain point of view? Yes. Magical items make a team and you have two—no, three good ones. That enchanted sword, Miss Byres, already qualifies you. The Forceshield is splendid. The Ring of Jumping that Antinium uses is solid. But your [Mages] need work. Springwalker! Front and center!”
Ceria didn’t get a chance to object. Grimalkin grabbed her and yanked her over to stand in front of him. He spoke in a half-bellow.
“You were the weakest member of your team in that mock battle by far! Even the Antinium managed to aim for my eyes! You relied too much on your spells and hunkering behind your [Ice Walls]! And why? Because you’re out of shape!”
He poked her in the stomach. Ceria turned red as Yvlon peered at her stomach.
“Your leg muscles are atrophied! You think you can sit on your fattening ass and cast spells? Your [Ice Wall] is weaker than my toilet paper and you have no dexterity on your feet! Move and cast! That’s what my apprentices learn once they pass my basic physical baselines! The rest of your team can move but you hunker down like my grandmother on her death bed and rely on your magic to protect you. That. Is. Naïve!”
He shouted in Ceria’s face. The half-Elf blinked up at him and silently wiped spit from her face. Grimalkin poked at her chest.
“You lack firepower! I could have stood in front of you and let you hit me with [Ice Spikes] until my enchantment wore off. What can you do besides raise ice walls and cover yourself in ice? Sneeze at me?”
“I—uh—well, I can cast [Fireball]. With a wand.”
Ceria waved her wand weakly. Grimalkin’s eyes popped.
“Then do it! What are you, too good for fire spells? Or is your [Fireball] as weak as your arms?”
“It’s not the greatest around, but—”
“You need stronger magic! Otherwise, you’re filling no role against a stronger enemy other than bait and being a nuisance! Low-level enemies might be stymied by those [Ice Walls], but anything that can smash through them isn’t going to be slowed by an [Ice Spike]! Your team has one [Skirmisher] and he has an enchanted dagger, a Ring of Jumping, and the luxury of being Level 20! What’s your excuse?”
“I uh—well, I don’t have the spellbooks just yet—I’ve been looking into them and—”
“And? I see rapid weight gain here. Here. And here. You smell like alcohol and I saw you drinking and eating twice what I would have fed my apprentices and its lunch. You’re lazy. How many spells did you learn this month? Last month?”
Ceria turned beet red. Yvlon looked at her and remembered. Ceria’s usual routine in The Wandering Inn was to eat, read her spellbook while having a drink or a snack, and usually stop reading and socialize with Erin or the team until she staggered up to her room, very drunk. Even Pisces, for all he was bound to his bouts of laziness, went to his room earlier than everyone else and Yvlon suspected he did a lot of [Necromancer] things in there. Ceria wavered.
“Well, not any spells—I did learn [Ice Armor]!”
“From a spellbook?”
“No…but hold on! Pisces hasn’t learned any spells recently! Right?”
Ceria looked at Pisces. The [Necromancer] avoided her gaze. Grimalkin snorted.
“He’s probably playing with his undead. [Necromancers] don’t need to learn as many spells. They create monsters. And I don’t have to look twice to see that both Bone Horrors he made were optimized. Disgusting, but improved in economy of motion and bone.”
Pisces looked startled, then embarrassed and pleased.
“You saw that? I have been improving them and my primary Bone Horror is twenty percent more eff—”
“Shut up. You are slothful! Miss Byres and the Antinium Ksmvr thing both show evidence of training. You see her face? A lot less baby fat than yours! [Mages] burn energy like [Warriors]—the fact that you’re gaining a paunch tells me you’re slacking. You need to get your head back in shape, stop stuffing your face, and learn some magic!”
When Grimalkin had finished, Ceria finally stopped blocking her ears with the heels of her palms. She was very embarrassed, and as Yvlon unplugged her ears, a guilty silence stole over the Horns. When you put it like that—she couldn’t quite look at her team leader. Grimalkin had hit a nail on the head with all the tact of a hammer. Only Ksmvr looked pleased.
“You remembered my name. I had thought you had trouble remembering.”
Grimalkin glared at him. Then he looked at Ceria and sighed.
“Well then. That’s my reprimand concluded. I hope you take this to heart. I could have been harsher, but you’re not a [Soldier] or one of my apprentices. Now then, shall we discuss how you can improve? Inside the inn, I think. Is the second floor open? I dislike standing outside. Far too humid and it looks like it will rain soon.”
He waved at an errant acid fly glowing and buzzing past him and the cloudy skies. The Horns looked at each other. Yvlon blinked.
It was tough…love. Or just toughness and a good deal of instructorly concern. Because Grimalkin did remind Yvlon of the [Trainer] her father had hired to teach both her and her brother how to fight. He didn’t mince words and upstairs, in Yvlon’s room, he addressed Ceria again, pacing back and forth restlessly, tail swishing on the floorboards behind him.
“With that said, your spells are colder than most [Ice Mages] I’ve met. Or killed. Fast freezing too. Your aim is excellent. Combat-wise, you’re still a cut above most Wistram graduates.”
“Really? Well, we did graduate from Wistram.”
Ceria perked up at that. She was still a bit red around the tips of her pointed ears. Grimalkin paused and looked at her.
“From what program? Are they allowing students to pay to graduate these days?”
Ceria choked on some tea Yvlon had gotten from below. The [Wounded Warrior] glared at Ceria; she was sitting on Yvlon’s bed! Ceria wiped at her mouth.
“No! Pisces and I both graduated. It’s the truth!”
Grimalkin shook his head.
“Wrong. Wistram doesn’t allow their [Mages] to graduate at your level of spellcraft. You could probably fool non-Wistram [Mages], but it’s obvious to me.”
“We did graduate, Magus Grimalkin. You may cast [Detect Lies] if you wish. But it is true. There were extenuating circumstances, but I trust you’ll take us at our word.”
Pisces frowned at Grimalkin. He’d switched back to politeness as he balanced a teacup on four fingers. Grimalkin frowned at him.
“Really? Fine then, I’ll take you at your word, but my point stands. Most [Mages] Wistram churns out know multiple Tier 4 spells after they graduate. At least three to five. Not always combat spells, but I would expect that from you two. With that said, they’re terrible fighters, so you still pass in terms of experience.”
Ceria and Pisces looked pleased at that. Yvlon just frowned. She began to ask—but Ksmvr was already raising his hand. Grimalkin stared at him.
“Excuse me, Magus Grimalkin. What makes Wistram’s Mages inferior despite their advanced spellcasting, which is apparently superior to Comrade Pisces and Captain Ceria’s?”
Grimalkin grunted as Pisces and Ceria shot Ksmvr a dirty look.
“Like I said. Experience. Just…experience. And common sense in battle. Oh, they may be fully-accredited [Mages] with over half a decade’s worth of studying, but that amounts to little field experience in most cases. Sometimes when we have to clash with Humans in the north or fight off a Terandrian fleet, I meet Wistram graduates fresh off the boats. They can cast [Grand Fireball] and link spells in practice, but in an actual battle?”
He scratched absently at his chin.
“The ones who don’t freeze up at the sight of having someone having their spine torn out don’t have any awareness. Generally I wait until they try and cast a huge spell and throw a rock at them from the side. Idiots don’t even use encompassing barrier spells. Or if they do, a second rock does it. That always raises tensions when I visit the academy, of course.”
Yvlon gaped at Grimalkin and burnt her tongue on her tea.
“You make it sound so easy.”
“Well, it’s easier than fighting a veteran [Mage]. This is just comparing Ceria and Pisces to freshly-graduated Wistram [Mages], which they’re around the age of. You are around sixty, aren’t you, Miss Springwalker? Half-Elf bodies get difficult to place after around a hundred years.”
Grimalkin didn’t bother to wait for an answer. He went on, filling a tea cup and sipping it himself as he spoke.
“Wistram may be the premier academy of mages, but they’ve lost all their true craft and magic to the Golems. They’ve neutered themselves for fresh bed sheets, clean-swept floors, and predictability. I told your Archmages that, but none of them besides Amerys and Viltach gave me the passing time of day.”
Pisces looked delighted at the [Sinew Magus]’s words. Ceria just looked shocked. The [Necromancer] leaned forwards eagerly.
“So you agree that Wistram is a shadow of itself, Magus Grimalkin?”
“Of course! Or haven’t you ever visited another academy of magic? Wistram still leads, but the gap is far, far narrower than it used to be. Take my school of learning. Fissival. Our Walled City may not have the illustrious history of the Isle of Mages, but we never lost our artifacts of old or our spellbooks. We train [Mages] for war or academia and in battle, ours tend to survive longer than most Wistram graduates. Although I will admit that academic [Mages] are common wherever you go. At least Fissival allows for [Scholars] and non-spellcasters. But I wasn’t ever a researcher.”
The Drake trailed off again, sighing. Then he looked around sharply and pointed at Ceria. She jumped and slopped more tea onto Yvlon’s bed.
“So. Why are you so half-done? Your foundation is excellent. But you don’t even know [Icy Spear]. If you graduated from Wistram, why did they let you leave? Or—didn’t you have a master? I’ve heard how brutal the academy is on some students. Don’t tell me they made you take basic courses all six years?”
Ceria swallowed hard and paled. She looked at Pisces and shook her head. Yvlon, knowing what was coming, sat back a bit in her chair.
“No. No, we were expelled. By Wistram’s Council of Mages. But we were allowed to graduate because um, Cognita, the Golem declared us graduates. But…”
She trailed off. Pisces lowered his cup and glanced at Ceria, and then quietly closed his eyes. He looked at Grimalkin and the [Mage] glanced quizzically at him.
“It was my fault. I committed an error in judgment. However, I was always planning on leaving. I was…revealed as a [Necromancer]. But to be brief, the entirety of the tale is this. Ceria’s master was—”
“Illphres. Illphres, the [Ice Mage].”
Ceria breathed the words. And the look in her eyes was sad and cold. Grimalkin frowned. He listened, and so did Yvlon. The tale of the days the two had spent in Wistram was one she’d heard from them once, on the ride back from Celum to Liscor. Hearing the abbreviated version again didn’t make it any last tragic.
An academy managed by Golems. Cognita, the Truestone Golem and the test to reach the higher floors. Pisces, the young, popular talent exposed as a [Necromancer]. Illphres, the expert [Ice Mage] who’d taken Ceria in. The test that had claimed the lives of Illphres and four other senior [Mages]. Pisces animating their corpses to rob the grave of Archmage Nekhret. Death. Judgment. Expulsion.
“Montressa. Beatrice—our friends. And Calvaron. He died there too.”
Ceria shook her head, her expression bleak. It was the past. And yet, Yvlon knew all too well, the past could cut you in the present with a knife as sharp as memory. Grimalkin stared at her and Pisces and his impatient expression flickered.
“You two were the students at the heart of that incident? The one with the Specters?”
Ceria and Pisces looked up.
“You’ve heard of us? Wait—you know about that day? The Council and Archmage Feor told people?”
“Know about it? It was the talk of Fissival and the [Mage] community for nearly a year afterwards! An Archmage’s guardian undead, killing twelve students and faculty and leaving fifty three injured? Do you really expect Wistram of all places to be able to keep that secret?”
Ceria bit her lip. Yvlon remembered her talking about the currency of secrets that the academy used.
“Probably not. What did you hear, Mage Grimalkin?”
“Just the basics. I was fascinated—specter-type undead that even the current Archmages struggled against? It was as bad as fighting Ghosts that Az’kerash summoned. Of course, my interest was just theoretical; I wanted to be sure Pallass could stand up against an attack from that kind of threat. But you two were…now I see.”
Grimalkin trailed off. He looked at Ceria’s miserable expression and Pisces’ haunted one. Then he nodded. He sucked in his breath.
Downstairs, Erin heard the shout through the ceiling and jumped. The Shogi piece she was holding went flying and Chaldion winced. The old Drake grumbled as the entire inn looked up.
“That annoying muscle-head is at it again. You set him on that adventuring team, did you? You must either love or hate them, girl.”
Erin winced. She could hear Grimalkin thumping around upstairs and his voice was loud enough to be heard through the floorboards.
“Is he always like this?”
Chaldion gave Erin a long look. He sourly picked up the piece she’d dropped and placed it back on the board.
Ceria’s ears were ringing. Grimalkin’s shout had actually made the windows rattle. He strode down the length of Yvlon’s room and then turned back and pointed at her.
“Testicles! Gonads! Wait, Human females don’t actually have them, do they? I don’t focus on reproductive organs, just muscle. Anyways. Ceria Springwalker! Your master was one of the few [Mages] to take on the so-called ‘test’ Archmage Zelkyr left behind, wasn’t she? I applaud her. She was brave. Truly brave! But foolish. I wish she hadn’t thrown away her life. If she hadn’t, you’d be twice the [Cryomancer] you are today. And she would be alive. But the testicles she must have had—I wish I’d known her.”
“Wh—but—she wasn’t a fool!”
Ceria felt both pleased and angry at Grimalkin’s comments at once. The [Sinew Magus] shook his head.
“She was. Brave! As brave as any [Mage] I’ve met to take on the test! But she was a poor master.”
“Take that back!”
The half-Elf flushed, in true anger this time, not embarrassment. She’d take Grimalkin insulting her all day—he was right, which was why it hurt so much—but badmouthing Illphres? She stood up, hand and skeletal hand clenched. Grimalkin didn’t bat an eye.
“I won’t. She was a fool. Or else, why would she have left her apprentice behind without so much as a spellbook? Any decent master would have arranged for you to get something, or have someone else teach you. She did neither.”
Ceria turned pale.
“She—I wasn’t her apprentice long. She probably forgot and we were expelled before I could ask about her things. But she was a great master! Illphres was—”
“A fool. And I don’t blame Wistram’s [Mages] for not trying the upper levels, even though I think it’s destroyed their potential.”
Grimalkin sighed and pulled a spare chair up. Ceria clenched her fists, but Pisces spoke up.
“I’d hope that you had more respect for the dead, Magus Grimalkin. Illphres and her comrades were trying to restore true magic to the halls of Wistram. Isn’t that a noble deed?”
Ceria breathed out. She looked at Pisces and saw his eyes were sharp on Grimalkin’s face. Not angry, just—looking. Grimalkin nodded.
“The cause is noble. The attempt is suicidal. Let’s be honest, you two former Wistram graduates. I’ve been to Wistram. I visit it every few years. And I’m familiar with Cognita. Moreover, I took a look at the ‘test’ Archmage Zelkyr left behind. Have you?”
He looked pointedly at Ceria. She hesitated and nodded silently. Her stomach was tearing itself into knots. Yvlon looked over from her seat and carefully rested a hand on Ceria’s shoulder. The half-Elf nodded gratefully at her. Grimalkin nodded as well, and his expression was dark.
“The test of Archmage Zelkyr. Defeat his guardians and pass. Four Golems plus your famous Cognita. The Armor Golem isn’t much, although it is exquisitely made. I could take that one down in theory, with the right preparations and some artifacts. But the magma creation? That thing made of metal? That invisible flesh-monster?”
He shook his head. Ceria started, recalling each in turn. Yvlon and Ksmvr just looked silently at her and Pisces and the [Necromancer] shuddered. Grimalkin kept going.
“I’ve seen advanced Golems fight, like the War Golems the Reinharts still use. Have you seen them? They can shoot beams of light, cast spells—no. You know, I thought about challenging the test myself, when I was younger and I thought it would make me a hero.”
Ceria looked up. Grimalkin nodded, smiling ruefully.
“Doesn’t every [Mage] who hears about it? Of course I did. And no disrespect to your master, but I imagine I have at least a few levels on her. If I did it, I thought, I’d bring the best team. One with the greatest [Mages] the world had to offer. From Fissival as well as Wistram. But even if I took the best six [Mages] I know, I’d only give us a one in three chance of victory. And that includes Archmage Amerys and Viltach.”
Ceria swallowed hard. Archmage Amerys? She remembered her as well. And Illphres had said Amerys had more levels…she bit her lip, remembering Illphres’ last words. The way she smiled.
“Someone had to try. Someone—it wasn’t in vain.”
The look in Grimalkin’s eyes softened just a bit. He cleared his throat awkwardly.
“No. But as long as that monster guards Wistram, no [Mage] will pass that test. I guarantee it. The other Golems you could handle, at risk, and at cost. But Cognita? She’s stronger than all four of the others put together.”
“You know Cognita, then, Magus Grimalkin?”
Pisces’ voice was quiet. Grimalkin nodded, baring his teeth.
“Why wouldn’t I know her? Cognita, the Truestone Golem. She was made by a Drake. By one of our Archmages, less than three hundred years ago. Archmage Zelkyr was a genius who transformed the world and his creations live on to this day. Historically, Cognita walked Pallass’ walls. She fought against the Five Families—helped crush the foothold they established on our shores and killed two other Archmages in battle herself. You should look up her history. We have libraries, you know.”
He looked at Pisces and Ceria. The half-Elf shook her head. She didn’t want to think of Cognita. Pisces’ eyes were alight with interest.
“I’m aware of her history, Magus Grimalkin. But I also know that many artifacts belong to the Walled Cities, and in the vaults of the current Archmages. Two Archmages and yourself and you wouldn’t try? Ever? Was it just a matter of logistics or the others refusing?”
“No. I decided not to. Because of Cognita. Let me repeat myself. She killed. Two. Archmages. In battle. Back when Zelkyr walked the earth and [Archmage] was a class, not a title. No disrespect to your former master, Miss Springwalker, but I don’t blame any [Mage] for refusing to fight her. If I took every Gold-rank adventurer in your inn and threw them at her, she would probably finish the fight in less than five minutes.”
Fortunately they weren’t in the common room where everyone could hear. Grimalkin ignored the incredulous look Yvlon was giving him.
“Gold-rank’s nowhere near the level you need to be to hurt something like her. Even Saliss of Lights, our Named Adventurer—well, if he prepped, he might actually do her some damage. But once she caught him, he’d be dead too. I’m just surprised Wistram’s [Mages] are so comfortable walking around with a superior being judging their every move and their petty squabbling for the scraps of power she lets them have.”
Pisces’ eyes lit up. Ksmvr leaned forwards too, excitedly.
“Really? Is this Saliss truly that powerful? More so than you, Magus Grimalkin, by comparison?”
The huge Drake paused and for a moment, looked uncomfortable.
“Well, he’s a Named Adventurer for a reason. And he possesses one of the highest, if limited, combat potentials in the world. He is on my list of people who could kill me—if he took me off-guard. In a fair fight, I’d be prepared of course. But he’s still…”
He broke off, grumbling as he folded his arms. Yvlon frowned.
“You have a list of people who can kill you in a fight?”
“Of course I have a list of everyone who can kill me in combat. Any such individual is a threat to the Walled Cities!”
The Horns exchanged a glance. Ceria knew they were way off-topic, but she couldn’t help but ask.
“Who’s on it? Ellia Arcsinger?”
Grimalkin laughed as he took a tip of tea. Then he frowned.
“Wait, were you serious?”
He eyed Ceria and then shrugged.
“Never mind. We’re missing the point. I see now why you two lack some magical knowledge. Nothing to be done about it. Your master’s dead and you don’t have a master.”
He pointed at Pisces. The [Necromancer] nodded stiffly. Ceria sat up as Grimalkin got up and paced once more.
“As I said, it shows. In Ceria most of all. You lack spells! The rest of your team is solid.”
“I don’t feel solid. I realized how far I have to go. I never touched you in that sparring session! Honestly, aren’t I a big weak link?”
Yvlon shook her head. Grimalkin just laughed.
“You? Miss Byres, if I see a sword enchanted like yours, I avoid it! Moreover, you’re not at Level 30. [Warriors] like you tend to gain a powerful Skill along with a class then—and often in a specific direction. Offensive Skills. Defensive. Or utility, like mobility. Each one has its strengths. Given your fighting style, I’d guess you’ll gain something offensive or mobility-based, but who knows?”
Yvlon blinked as he thrust a claw at her. Ceria looked at her. A Level 30 Skill? She’d been dreaming of what she’d get, but Yvlon? The Muscle Mage went on.
“Either way, if you gained, say, [Hundred-Foot Lunge] or [Whirlwind Cleave], you’d solve your issue of reaching the enemy neatly. Most foes can’t dodge like I can; your sword puts you at Gold-rank, and if you gain a decent Skill at Level 30, I’ll certify you as Gold-rank on the spot. The Antinium needs levels and gear, but for his level he’s the most effective of you. As for you two—”
He pointed at Pisces and Ceria and paused. Reluctantly, frowning, he stared at Pisces.
“Low-level spells. Fast casting with your bare hands. [Fencer]’s footwork and a [Fencer]’s Skills. Your technique…you lack Skills, but [Flashstep] makes up for your agility. Huh.”
He tapped one foot impatiently on the floorboards. Pisces looked somewhat pleased and wary. After a moment, Grimalkin nodded reluctantly.
“[Fireball]. [Lightning Bolt]. [Acid Orb]. [Icy Spear]—well, your half-Elf companion would learn that. What’s the [Necromancer] equivalent? Ah, yes. [Deathbolt]. But that’s a poorer spell. Hm. Fine. [Fireball], [Lightning Bolt], [Acid Orb], and—[Stone Spear]. Take your pick.”
Pisces blinked. Ceria sat up on the tea-spattered bed. Grimalkin sighed.
“Take your pick. I’ll give you a scroll with the spell. They’re Tier 3; if you can master [Invisibility], they shouldn’t take more than a few weeks at most for you. And they’re simple enough that I have copies. I’ll charge Miss Solstice’s account.”
The other Horns sat up. Grimalkin nodded reluctantly at Pisces.
“You pass. Your dodging ability is superior to my apprentices, you have a melee weapon, and you’re practicing fast-casting in the modern style. If you weren’t a [Necromancer], I’d bring you back to have my students learn from your style.”
He paused. Pisces looked delighted and Ceria was sure his ego was expanding like a toad. Grimalkin shook his head.
“As it is, you’re a disgusting waste of potential. Your [Necromancer] class is designed for raising armies of undead. These specialized Bone Horrors are useful as walls, but [Necromancers] specialize in overwhelming their opponents with minions. You need to keep…three high-grade mana potions on your person at all times, and triple the amount of bones you have stockpiled. Then you can raise a small army of skeletons for any given battle. Animal bones? Good. I’d have to hit you if they were Drake, Gnoll, or Human.”
He sighed louder.
“You pass. But either upgrade that rapier and learn more duelist spells or stop using it. It won’t cut my scales; good luck fighting a Wyvern or anything with a tough hide.”
Pisces preened. Yvlon rolled her eyes in disgust as he adjusted his robes and sat up, smiling contentedly.
“I’ll keep that in mind. But ah, Magus Grimalkin, you’re referring to Miss Byres as close to Gold-rank—Ksmvr obviously simply has too few levels—but what did you mean about ‘certifying us’? You mean, giving us a Gold-rank status as adventurers? I assumed that was a matter for Adventurer’s Guilds to take on…”
Grimalkin looked affronted.
“Of course I can certify someone as Gold-rank. I recommended two of my apprentices to the Adventurer’s Guild in Pallass when they graduated from my training. One for Gold-rank, the other for Silver. She hit Gold-rank in four months. Human Adventurer’s Guilds don’t take recommendations? Haven’t you gotten one from a Gold-rank team?”
The Horns went uncomfortably silent. Grimalkin smiled.
“They probably agreed with me. Now, onto Ceria Springwalker.”
He pointed at Ceria. And her heart sank. She raised her flesh and skeletal hand, smiling weakly.
“I get it. Stop eating, start learning from my spellbook…I can do that.”
She noticed Pisces, Yvlon, and Ksmvr all looking at her skeptically. Even Ksmvr, which hurt.
“I can! Honestly! It’s just that I don’t have any more ice spells in that spellbook of Warmage Thresk’s. But I taught myself how to use [Frozen Armor] in the Raskghar den, remember? I just need to put my back to the wall and…we can buy a spellbook, right?”
“Hm. I may be able to help with spellbooks. I have a few duplicates. But your issue is that you need to practice magic. The [Necromancer] can fiddle about with bones, but you need to practice magic. And not just aiming spells or quickening your incantation. Your [Ice Walls] need to be strengthened. You need to improve your mastery of frost; that’s what [Elementalists] do. They specialize.”
Grimalkin drummed his claws on one arm absently. Ceria looked at him blankly.
“How am I supposed to do that? Gain more Skills? I already have [Weak Frost Resistance], [Ice Magic Affinity] and [Frozen Quickshape], but…”
She jumped as Grimalkin thumped his thigh. The [Sinew Magus] glared at her.
“Dead gods! Do you think magic is all about Skills? I’m talking about practice! Honest work! You need a regime. Structure! And this is what I specialize in!”
He snapped his fingers and the pop of sound made the Horns jump. Grimalkin got up in one movement and strode over to Ceria. She found herself standing as he nodded, practically vibrating with energy.
“I’m no [Cryomancer]. I know a few dozen spells involving ice magic, but it’s not my specialty. But I do know how they train. We’re going to have you work on your fundamentals, Springwalker! It’ll be intense! Possibly life-threatening! But. That. Is. Why. It. Works!”
He jabbed her in the chest. Ceria rocked back on her feet with each impact and opened her mouth. He couldn’t mean—she turned red again.
“Hold on! I know what my master talked about having me do, but that’s a bit extreme, right? I can’t even…”
She hesitated. Grimalkin paused as he paced over to the door and came back. Pisces and Yvlon looked interestedly at her.
Ceria hesitated and turned red. She coughed.
“Uh. W-well. She said that when she learned ice magic, she er, went to Terandria and walked in the worst blizzards she could find. Naked.”
Ksmvr stared blankly at Ceria. Pisces on the other hand let out a cackle, and Yvlon covered her face. Grimalkin just looked nonplussed. He shook his head.
“Walking around in a blizzard naked? Why would that help? You’re in your element. No. That’s idiotic. What I have planned is much more efficient. And you can do it without needing inclement weather. I just need one thing…”
He paused. The Horns of Hammerad looked at him expectantly. Grimalkin looked around, frowning, and then he leaned over to Ceria.
“…This inn wouldn’t happen to have a bathtub, would it? I need to borrow it.”
“Aaah! Aaah! It hurts!”
Erin Solstice heard Ceria screaming outside. She stared at Chaldion—they were playing Go at this point to break up the Shogi games. He was new to them, but he’d won three games out of eight. Erin was enjoying herself so much she really didn’t want to look. But after four minutes of Ceria screaming she got up and with a sigh, went outside.
She found Ceria standing in the bathtub. Or rather—lying down in it. It was a nice, round, wooden tub, big enough to hold even Relc if he lay down and submerged in it. Not that he’d ever used it. Erin herself didn’t use it much; Liscor’s bathhouses were much nicer. And it was a pain to fill.
But the bathtub was filled now. With water. In fact, boiling water. And Ceria was lying in it. Grimalkin had set up a raging fire around the bottom of the tub, and, heedless of the way it kept on scorching the sides, was stoking it mercilessly. The only thing that was keeping the tub from burning itself was the water Ceria kept splashing over the sides as she thrashed. But Ksmvr was helping to fill the tub with a bucket. Yvlon and Pisces were just watching.
“What on earth? Ceria!”
Erin was horrified. The half-Elf was going to cook her brains! At the very least scald her skin off! Already the half-Elf’s arms were red and cooked, but Erin realized the tub was blazing with heat! It wasn’t just scald-yourself hot, it was you’ll-actually-die-it’s-that-hot! She looked at Grimalkin in horror. The [Sinew Magus] looked up cheerfully.
“More heat! Come on, [Necromancer], help me with these flames. We’ll probably need a copper tub if this thing keeps burning. Feel the burn, Springwalker! That’s how you know you’re alive!”
He flexed, raising his arms up and roaring encouragement. Ceria just screamed.
“I’m burning alive you monster! It’s too hot! It’s too hot!”
“She’s going to die! Grimalkin, what are you doing!”
Erin had to walk around the fire towards Grimalkin. The Muscle Mage looked at her, beaming.
“Not if she does what she has to! Ah, Erin Solstice, admiring my custom-made course? I told you, I’d deliver! Fancy talking about Parkour? I could try working up something for the [Necromancer], but Miss Springwalker was the one I thought was really—whoops, sorry, it’s getting too cool. Hold on a moment.”
He pointed and shot a bunch of blue flames into the fire. Ceria screamed and Erin panicked.
“Put it out! Why’s she in there? What kind of training needs this?”
She looked around and grabbed a spare bucket, but Grimalkin held her back.
“Ice magic training, of course! Miss Springwalker’s lowering the heat in the water! Or how else would she be alive? This is training her core! Her magical core!”
He pointed. And Erin saw that he was right! Ceria was flailing about and screaming curses at her team, but she wasn’t looking nearly as bad as the fierce heat suggested. She stared at Grimalkin.
“Wh—really? [Mages] have a core too?”
“Well, not really. It’s a good analogy, though. She’s really training her ability to freeze things. The faster and more intense she can do it, the stronger her ice spells will be. Especially the higher-level spells. This is a precursor to her learning more advanced ice magics and it’ll strengthen her [Ice Wall] and [Icy Spear] spell—when she learns it. I’m going to have Ferkr check if I have the spell in my collection. You haven’t seen her around, have you?”
Erin stared at Grimalkin. Then she heard Ceria shout from the tub.
“I can’t do it anymore! Put the fire out! Put it out or I’ll die!”
“Nonsense! You’ve only been in there…eight minutes! Keep going! And you, Pisces, more heat! You need to work, Springwalker, or you’ll never improve! Push those limits! Look at Miss Solstice here. She fought a Goblin Lord—”
“I’m going to kill you!”
“If you have the spare magic for that, I’d welcome the attempt!”
Grimalkin waited. Ceria just stared at him through the steam and started uttering profanities. Erin saw Mrsha, who was padding out to look at what all the fuss was about, promptly be pulled back in by a motherly Lyonette. Grimalkin turned to Erin.
“Anyways, we’ll see what Springwalker’s limit is with this test. I have a few others, but this is actually a very good method to force her to improve. She’s acknowledged she’s become complacent, and her team’s very willing to help her improve. I admire that. Team spirit can force people even further past their limits!”
He gestured at Pisces and Yvlon and Ksmvr. It looked to Erin like they were placing bets on how long Ceria would last as they cursed her. But—Pisces leaned over and said something to Ceria that made her splash boiling water at him. He retreated, howling, but Yvlon was there, and Ksmvr happily waved as he splashed water into Ceria’s tub.
It was madness, but it was their kind of madness. Erin laughed. Then she looked at the tub.
“Huh. Hot tubs.”
She thought about it and then her eyes widened. Erin turned to Grimalkin, who was inspecting the heat and muttering about it being ‘only as hot as a cook fire’.
“Hot tubs! That’s it! Grimalkin, you’re a genius!”
The [Sinew Magus] looked up blankly. Erin danced about excitedly.
“Oh my god. Hey Lyonette! Pawn! Belgrade! Get out here! We need hot tubs for the inn! Can we build…”
She rushed back inside before Grimalkin could blink. He straightened, looking at Erin as the door slammed shut. Ceria, boiling, glared at him from her bath. She was still wearing her robes. Grimalkin pointed at the door.
“Is she always like that?”
“I hate you.”
The Muscle Mage met Ceria’s gaze and shrugged.
“Well, keep freezing. You’re clearly out of practice from when your master trained you. Freeze the hot water! Or do you think you’ll be allowed to skip fighting in the summer? [Cryomancer] generate their own cold or they switch to water magic! But we do need to hydrate you. Drink the water in the tub! Or you’ll sweat to death! Come on, Springwalker! This is barely hot enough to boil my tea in. Do you want to improve, or do you want to improve?”
A strangled scream was his only reply. But Grimalkin saw Ceria thrust herself deeper into the boiling water and he smiled. She had spirit, that half-Elf. Then Grimalkin saw Ksmvr sidling over. The Antinium splashed Ceria with water and conspiratorially leaned over to Grimalkin.
“Magus Grimalkin, I believe there is one more glaring weakness I possess that I would like you to address if you have the time. It is a crucial flaw in my team’s makeup and I believe it is just as pressing as Captain Ceria’s weakness in magic, if not more so.”
The [Mage] regarded Ksmvr with distrust, but also a bit of interest. He folded his arms.
Ksmvr took a deep breath. He looked at Ceria boiling in her bathtub, and then at Grimalkin, and then at Ceria, and came out with it in a rush.
“You see, I have a fear of drowning in water…”
“Because you can’t swim?”
Ksmvr nodded repeatedly.
“Yes. Antinium are incapable of swimming. But I was hoping you could help me.”
“Get over your fear of drowning in water when you’ll die if you enter it.”
Ksmvr waited. Grimalkin stared at him, looked him up and down, and shook his head.
“In your case, I’d stay afraid, Antinium.”
He walked away. Ksmvr stared down at the dregs of water in the bucket he held and nodded. He whispered into the bucket as he solemnly emptied the rest into Ceria’s tub.
“I knew it.”
While Ceria practiced her ice magic outside with Grimalkin, Erin’s attempts to convince Lyonette to install a hot spring in the new inn’s plans were derailed when she saw a familiar, quiet figure sitting in her inn. She stared, and then slapped her head and ran over to a Gnoll happily inspecting a flower in a cup at the bar.
Xif the [Alchemist] looked up warily, but after a moment, went over and went to speak with Octavia. Because Erin had asked him to, up front. He coughed as Octavia doodled on the table with one finger; she’d taken if off her hand by undoing the stitching. She looked up blankly as Xif smiled politely.
“Ah, Miss Octavia. Might I have a word? My name is Xif, and Miss Solstice invited me to chat with you. I understand you’ve had some trouble in your shop? I’d be glad to discuss the matter with you for a few minutes.”
Octavia jumped and blinked up at Xif. And then her eyes were round. She blinked, felt at her eyes, pulled one out, and then put it back in and stared at the Gnoll. She stuttered.
“X-x-x-Xif? As in, Xif the [Alchemist], the one who developed the modern cure-all basic antidote formula?”
He smiled kindly at her.
“I wouldn’t go that far. I just improved the formula. It was quite well-received, though. May I sit?”
“Of course! Please! Take my chair! Take his chair too!”
Octavia shot to her feet and began offering Xif every chair in reach. Numbtongue growled as she reached for a chair at his table, but Xif, chuckling, sat down and beckoned her to sit with him. Octavia did, staring at Xif wide-eyed over her empty cup and plate. She hesitated, and then burst out.
“I would love to exchange notes. Formulas? Apprentice myself to you and cook and clean up after you? Please?”
The Gnoll paused only for a moment before shaking his head.
“I’m afraid not, Miss Octavia. You know how we are with secret formulas and recipes. I don’t take apprentices and if I did—it would have to be someone with a Skillset outside of mine. If you do have any unique Skills, I’d be willing to discuss it. Ah—for reference, I’m specialized in plant work. [Poison Immunity] and [Perfect Reduction] would be some of my focused Skills. And you?”
Octavia hesitated. She lost her sudden burst of energy and looked down at the table, flushing behind her dark, stitched skin.
“[M-Magic-Water Solvent]. And…[Mineral Distillation].”
Numbtongue, listening with one ear to the conversation as he ate an entire plate of macaroni and cheese, heard the embarrassment in her voice. Were they bad Skills for an [Alchemist]? He turned his head and saw Xif smile again. Not condescendingly, but with a knowing look that told Numbtongue his guess was right.
“Ah, of course. Celum’s farm. Rocks and magical liquid. It’s a fine start, Miss Cotton, but I’m afraid it’s not worth my time to teach you. There’s no malice; I hope you understand? Erin Solstice herself couldn’t persuade me to take on an apprentice, not even if she sold me half her flowers. If she has two rare ingredients though…”
“No, I understand. I’m sorry, I just—I’d offer anything to study under a master. I…uh, has Erin talked about my matches? I’m also studying this Haste Potion—I could show it to you—”
Octavia’s hands were fumbling nervously under the table. For a second time, Xif smiled apologetically and shook his furry head.
“I did see them. Fascinating. I’m afraid most [Alchemists] will be able to copy them once they arrive in Pallass, Miss Octavia. I’m…going to be quite busy with this flower, so I’ll forget I saw them for a bit. But—and I do apologize—I don’t wish to owe you a favor. A Haste Potion, you said? I have seen Potions of Quickness before. Haste would be…but are you sure of the effects?”
“I—I think I am. I’m sorry, I’m not trying to push—”
Octavia’s voice was far meeker than Numbtongue remembered too. But Xif was kindly, even if Numbtongue felt like turning around and kicking him in the back. He’d seen everything the Gnoll had done with Erin. He’d taken her flower! Never mind that he left all that gold there—for the Hobgoblin, theft was theft. If Xif took a single mug from Erin’s inn, he, Numbtongue, would happily beat him to deal with it. And then get a new mug. That was how Goblins did things. You didn’t steal. Okay, Goblins had few possessions, but it was like if Numbtongue had taken Shorthilt’s sword—
The Hobgoblin looked down at the steel sword hanging from his side. He only paid attention to the conversation between the two [Alchemists] when he heard Octavia stuttering.
“I—it was my fault, really. I started it—”
“Ah, that sounds like the Chandrarian way. Throwing potions at each other? Insults in public? I miss that. Do they still have alchemy duels between competing shops in the public and huge feuds? They must!”
Xif was laughing. Then he grew serious.
“But really, Miss Cotton. You might have been improper as far as the law’s concerned, but hiring a gang to vandalize your shop? Extorting money? We [Alchemists] in Pallass have our fights, but they never go to that extreme. I would say this Mister Quelm is receiving his just rewards. And with his absence, the remaining [Alchemists] in Celum have less competition, yes?”
He nodded and Octavia nodded as well. She fiddled with a fork nervously.
“There’s only Mabel now that Jeffil’s out of the game. But…my name’s mud with Celum’s City Watch. And that gang could still be hanging around.”
Xif nodded, his eyes alert, considering. He leaned forwards as Drassi brought over a tray with some drinks.
“Now, as I said, I can’t help your shop with recipes or training, Miss Cotton. I don’t know what Miss Solstice had in mind, but I do take Grimalkin’s position. You know what secrets are to [Alchemists]; we’re always stealing each other’s best products.”
Octavia nodded miserably and Xif held up one furry finger.
“However, I’m quite content to talk about how I run my business. And I do remember starting up in a small city—I have travelled abroad and I understand customers. The agony of pricing that accursed stamina potion as well! As humble as it may be, I think I know price points in cities even as far north as Celum—I have a number of [Merchants] who make the journey north of Pallass during the winter. I could recommend your matches to a few, and discuss what I know of the business? If that suits you?”
He looked at Octavia. Numbtongue peeked at her face and saw it turn hopeful.
“I’d—I’d appreciate that very much, Alchemist Xif. Would you mind if I er, took notes?”
“Xif, please. By all means. Let me lend you my quill. It’s magical.”
The two began a heated discussion that Numbtongue stopped following after it began diving into the economics of potions and how much copper you could get away with charging. Lighting? Presentation? The Hobgoblin contented himself with ordering another plate of noodles.
Briefly, yes, briefly, he felt guilty that he wasn’t sharing this with Pyrite. But Numbtongue had a sense that it took…at least eight hours to reuse his Skill to bring Pyrite back. And it was completely different from using Pyrite’s memories too. The other Hobgoblin was there, with his Skills and personality. It was amazing. Incredible.
Painful. Numbtongue resolved that if he could, he’d ‘treat’ Pyrite to at least one meal a day if he could. The Hobgoblin really loved fish; most Goblins did. But Numbtongue was sure he’d love meatloaf. And what might he say to Erin? What might he do? Numbtongue couldn’t wait—but as he was finishing his second plate, he realized Xif had finished with Octavia. And now the [Alchemist] was coming over to his table!
Numbtongue looked up warily. Xif smiled and nodded.
“Er, Numbtongue is it? May I sit?”
Numbtongue thought about it.
Xif hesitated. He was halfway sitting, but he stood up after a moment and forced a smile. He looked at Numbtongue and the Hobgoblin remembered the way he’d recoiled from him when they first met. Of course, most people did that. That young woman named Garia had kicked him. Numbtongue was more embarrassed than anything else about that. But Xif…the Hobgoblin waited.
“I’d ah, like to make you an offer, Numbtongue. You are the first Goblin I’ve encountered, let alone Hobgoblin…forgive me, but would you be willing to part with some nail clippings? I notice yours are quite long and I’d be willing to pay for them.”
Xif nodded to Numbtongue’s hands. Reflexively, the Goblin covered his hand and stared.
“Your fingernails. I’d like to buy them. Toenails too. I know some of my peers have looked into it, but I thought I’d ask since today seems to be a day of windfalls. Would you consider it?”
Xif smiled at Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin thought he looked wary. If he shouted, would Xif run or throw a potion in his face? The Hobgoblin decided to just sit back and fold his arms. Xif sighed.
“I really would like to use them. For potions? It would earn you money as well. How much would you take for them?”
“One million gold pieces.”
Xif blinked. Numbtongue didn’t know if he’d used his Skill or not, but the Gnoll’s face instantly turned rueful. He regarded Numbtongue, and then looked knowingly towards the flowers in the beds on the far wall.
“I see. Well, I would be willing to pay a few gold pieces for your clippings if I could regularly acquire them. Do let me know if you change your mind.”
Numbtongue sneered. Xif hesitated, but in the end, clearly disappointed, he moved away from the table. He sighed, and then brightened.
“Ah! Now where is that Mrsha child? White fur—is it magical, different from Gnoll fur, or just cosmetic? These are the questions.”
Numbtongue watched him hurry off, head turning. The Hobgoblin glared at his back and stuck out his tongue, as Erin sometimes did. It made Numbtongue feel better. He turned in his seat and realized Octavia was staring at him. The Hobgoblin jumped. She jumped too.
He nodded warily. Octavia gulped. She looked at him. Not afraid—how long had she known him? Since all five Redfangs had been here, that’s how long. Numbtongue felt a pang. The [Alchemist] looked like she had pain of her own. Her hands tightened over a few pages of messy, inky notes.
“I uh—I wanted to say thanks—”
Numbtongue looked blank. Octavia hesitated.
“Saving my shop? Chasing off those [Thugs]?”
Numbtongue thought about it. Then he hesitated. What were you supposed to say? He remembered at last.
He stared at Octavia. She stared back. Numbtongue realized that was the first time someone besides Erin or Lyonette had ever thanked him for anything. The sensation felt…odd. But good. Octavia smiled weakly.
“Hey, come to my shop and I’ll treat you to a few potions. On the house. Not that I have much of a career. Lots of…trouble. But I’ll pull myself up. I’m really grateful to Erin. I—”
She broke off. Numbtongue and Octavia looked around as someone started screaming outside. It sounded like…Ceria? Numbtongue grabbed his sword, but no one else was moving. Some people went to the windows and laughed. On the basis of that, the Hobgoblin relaxed a bit. So did the [Alchemist].
“Always something in Erin’s inn.”
Numbtongue nodded absently. He looked at Octavia and then pointed at Xif. The [Alchemist] was bending over, talking to Mrsha.
“Xif? He’s an [Alchemist]. Really high-level. One of the best in…the world? Pallass is known for its alchemy. His potions are leagues beyond anything I could come up with.”
Octavia looked jealously at the Gnoll’s back. Numbtongue grunted.
“I don’t like him.”
He crossed his arms. Octavia glanced at him.
“Why? Because he made Erin sell him a flower? There are a lot nastier ways he could have done it. And he offered you gold for your nails. Why not take it?”
“Because they’re my nails.”
“You know he could get Hobgoblin nails from…”
Octavia trailed off. She cleared her throat.
The [Alchemist] didn’t have anything to say to that. Silently, she and Numbtongue watched as Xif solemnly shook Mrsha’s paw and handed over several gold pieces. Her look was envious. Numbtongue still was fuzzy on the money thing—mainly because he didn’t really care—but he knew that Xif was a lot wealthier than Octavia. More successful. Numbtongue knew how that must feel.
“I should go back to my shop. I won’t get anywhere if I keep running.”
Octavia muttered. She was staring at the notes. Numbtongue nodded. That seemed like a correct statement. He saw the [Alchemist] getting up, staring nervously at the open door to Pallass. Numbtongue had a thought and remembered what she just said. Casually, abandoning the two licked-clean plates, he stood up too. Just in time for Erin to hurry over.
“Hey guys! I’m going to have Pawn and Belgrade build a big hot tub! Want to get in? The water’s fine! Hot, but not as hot as Ceria’s!”
She beamed at them. Numbtongue blinked.
Erin nodded. She had to explain the idea to him, then she turned to Octavia.
“What about it? You’re both invited! Bathing suits of course; no skinny dipping! Want to come, Octavia? Numbtongue?”
“No, I—I might go to my room. Upstairs. I’m thinking about visiting my shop later tonight. If that’s not a bother, Erin?”
Octavia mumbled. Erin shook her head.
“Of course not! Just say when—but we’ll have the Horns or someone go with you! Just in case those jerks come back! You’re sure you and Numbtongue don’t want to try…?”
Erin hesitated as she realized who her audience was. Octavia was a Stitch-Girl, made out of fabric which was flammable and probably didn’t like getting wet. Even if it looked like Skin. And Numbtongue was a Hobgoblin and there were a lot of people outside. Erin nodded.
“Okay, we can work it out later. Hey! Xif! You need a bath!”
She wandered off. Numbtongue and Octavia watched her pull the [Alchemist] towards the door, and then Chaldion, who gladly came with a large tumbler of alcohol, and close the door. After a moment, Numbtongue looked at Octavia. She smiled weakly.
“That’s Erin! I um, I’m going upstairs. Nice talking to you?”
She looked at Numbtongue. He blinked and her and then pointed at the magical door.
“Want to go?”
“What—to Celum? No, I wouldn’t want to trouble Erin. And the door has to be switched…”
“It’s not hard. I can do it.”
Numbtongue puffed out his chest proudly. Octavia hesitated. She looked around the busy inn.
“But the Horns are outside and I wouldn’t want to trouble anyone. If the [Thugs] are there—”
“That’s fine. I’ll go.”
Numbtongue poked his chest with a thumb. Octavia blinked.
She halted as she looked Numbtongue up and down. He had his guitar, strapped to his back, and the steel sword at his side. And that was more than he’d had yesterday by far. After a moment, she nodded.
“Thank you. If you’re okay with it we can ask Lyonette. Uh—or wait for play to end?”
Numbtongue shrugged. Inwardly delighted, he shepherded Octavia over to the door. The citizens of Pallass and Liscor stared at Numbtongue and edged back. The Hobgoblin had a huge smile on his face. He looked around—and then reached out and slammed the door. Instantly, there was a roar of protest from the crowd in the inn, and, Numbtongue liked to imagine, an even louder one on Pallas’ side.
“Numbtongue! What’re you doing?”
Lyonette hurried over in alarm. The Hobgoblin scratched under one armpit casually.
“Going to Celum. With her.”
He pointed at Octavia. Lyonette hesitated. Octavia waved weakly, looking at the outraged faces.
“With her? But-”
Whatever Lyonette was about to say was drowned out by the people demanding the door be reopened. She looked around and grimaced.
“Okay! You have your guitar? And sword? I’ll check in five minutes!”
Numbtongue nodded. He adjusted the dial, opened the door, and walked through, head swiveling. Octavia hurried after him, and the door closed after a pause and went dark. Numbtongue stared around Octavia’s shop. It was dark, empty, the boarded-up windows leaking light, but he hadn’t spotted anyone. He sat down as Octavia looked around and breathed out, slowly.
Numbtongue sat down, still looking around the shop. No matter how many times he saw it, the inner Redfang in him wanted to loot the precious potions off the shelves. They were so valuable! Erin had called Octavia’s potions ‘third-rate’, but to a Goblin, they were a priceless treasure. He pulled his guitar off his back and tuned it absently before glancing outside. The street was empty. But come to think of it, yesterday…
Numbtongue’s eyes narrowed. But he saw no one aside from a few pedestrians. Pyrite did have a thought, though, and Numbtongue agreed. He made a little plan, and was so engrossed in it and strumming a tune, he didn’t realize Octavia was doing something until he heard the clink of glassware behind him. The Hobgoblin turned his head.
Octavia paused as she set up some kind of apparatus behind Numbtongue. She smiled guiltily.
Numbtongue eyed the glowing jelly, the red-green herbs in liquid, powder, herbs, and all the other stuff she was setting up. He pointed.
“What’re you doing?”
Octavia shrugged self-consciously.
“Just—just making a healing potion. Something low-grade. It’s nothing. Not worth anything compared to what Alchemist Xif makes. Sorry. I’ll go back if you’re bored. Do you think Erin would let me bring some of this into her inn?”
Numbtongue shrugged. But his eyes were locked on Octavia’s equipment. She kept setting up after a moment, but she was clearly conscious of the stare. After a second, she coughed.
“Sorry. I’m not used to guests while I work. I had Erin—but she mainly melted holes in my kitchen pot. I er, you heard what Xif said? About [Alchemists] not sharing recipes?”
Numbtongue nodded. Octavia sighed.
“Cloth moths to that. I know it’s all the thing in most continents, but back home we used to share recipes. I mean, everyone had their secret recipe, but I could at least swap tips. I guess Xif really is the top-[Alchemist] of course. But back home any [Alchemist] would stop by to check out my Haste Potion sample, top-tier or not! I hoped—but I got some tips from him. That’s something. Sorry. Anyways, I’m just going to make the potion. Don’t mind the lights. Or smell.”
She lit a burner with a match. It was some kind of magical burner, although Numbtongue saw it was running on coals—heating them up and igniting them. Octavia grinned weakly.
“Magical burner. I paid for it. Helps with the process. Not necessary; I could make healing potions with a few pots and a kitchen fire.”
Numbtongue couldn’t help but ask. Octavia shrugged.
“What? Healing potions? It’s just a small formula. A few Skills. Nothing interesting. I mean—unless you’re actually interested?”
She looked up and blinked. Numbtongue was nodding rapidly. Octavia blinked.
“Really? Most people don’t like [Alchemy]. It stinks and it can be uh, messy. Do Goblins like alchemy? Are there…Goblin [Alchemists]?”
Numbtongue shook his head.
“Goblins don’t make potions. Goblins steal potions. No Goblin knows how to make potions. Not even [Shamans].”
“Really? Do your [Shamans] have special recipes?”
Octavia looked hopeful. Numbtongue considered that.
“Healing paste. You put herbs in mouth and chew. Then spit.”
“Oh. How useful is it?”
“Stops bleeding. Heals a tiny bit.”
Both the Stitch-Girl and Hobgoblin grimaced. Octavia hesitated. She looked thoughtfully at the ingredients.
“Well, I’m just a low-level [Alchemist]. Little better than a [Mixer], really. That’s an apprentice, by the way. Kids get that class. But if you want—”
“Hey! Anyone bullying Numbtongue?”
The door blasted open as Erin appeared. Numbtongue fell out of his chair and Octavia’s jump nearly sent her ingredients flying. Erin looked around and paused, frying pan in hand.
“Oh. Never mind. Hey Numbtongue, Octavia, you want to come back? Just say when!”
She stared at them. They stared back. Numbtongue slowly shook his head.
“Okay! Cool! Check in thirty minutes?”
Another nod. The door slammed shut. Octavia caught her breath after Erin was gone. She stared at Numbtongue and he met her eyes with his wide ones. Then, suddenly, they both started laughing. And that was a connection. After that, Octavia set up and Numbtongue scooted a stool over and learned how to make a potion.
“It’s really very simple. A Goblin could definitely make a potion if he had a few containers. Something clean; cleanliness is very important for alchemy. You never know what’ll react, so a bit of soot or dirt could have explosive effects. Especially with some of the more potent ingredients. That’s why you clean everything. With soap, and then you clean the soap out.”
Octavia explained as Numbtongue sat, watching her set up on one of her counters. The Hobgoblin nodded, committing everything to memory. Octavia was a little put off by the Hobgoblin’s intensity, to be honest. She loved alchemy, despite it all. Gold was a second love to the sheer joy you could have, but Goblins? And yet, Numbtongue took this more seriously than she did. He watched as she set up her ingredients and equipment with long experience and pointed.
“A beaker. I use it to boil stuff. It’s glass.”
“Why’s it look like a triangle?”
“I used to ask my teacher that every day. You know what he told me? To come up with the answer on my own. It took me two years—you want to know what I eventually figured out?”
The Hobgoblin paused. His eyes flickered, and then widened.
“The…steam comes out less from the small opening.”
Octavia nearly dropped the beaker on the floor.
She saw Numbtongue grinning, pleased at his answer. Octavia had to smile herself.
“I was six! But yeah, that’s the reason. Also, because the wide base allows more heat to affect the mixture, see? You can also balance ingredients in some of the beakers—never mind. Here’s the foundation to any healing potion made in the modern day. Memorize it. Love it. Don’t touch it bare-handed unless you’re me and you can take your hand off.”
She placed something on the counter. Numbtongue peered at the jar full of glowing, orange-yellow gel. It had some fragments caught inside. Seeds, or bits of something. He stared. This time Octavia didn’t have to be prompted. She placed one hand on the jar proudly.
“This is Eir Gel. It’s a primary component of healing potions. Well, I say primary, but you can substitute it for a few other things. But Eir Gel’s very effective. And cheap! Older potions, hah, well, they used all kinds of stuff, but modern formulas work fast based on this stuff. It’s also extremely cost-efficient.”
“What’s that mean? Cost-efficient?”
Numbtongue scratched his head. Octavia frowned. He knew almost every word she said, but stuff like that stumped him.
“It means…you can also make a lot of healing potion with comparatively little. Good for selling. You see, a few islands around Baleros practically supply most of the continent with what they need—and there’s such a surplus since it’s so cost-efficient that you can get it even in Celum. Although it’s a lot more expensive since [Merchants] have to bring it inland—but look!”
She pointed. Numbtongue saw she was dabbing only a little into a jar full of water. Octavia had a measuring spoon and she put in one solid spoonful.
“For the effect? Yes. I just mix it with water and I have a mixture. We do need to strain to get rid of the kelp and seeds. Poison needles if they’re in there too. But this is the essential stuff. It’s a base.”
Numbtongue savored the word. Octavia nodded.
“Yes. You see? Potion making works like this, at least at low levels. First, you take a substance that has an effect you want. Like Eir Gel. It helps flesh regenerate quickly. But it’s not nearly as strong as a potion, it has to be applied on a wound to take effect, and it makes some people break out into a rash. It takes days for Eir Gel to work, so the key is making it faster, more effective, and less rashy, right?”
Numbtongue watched as Octavia pulled out a fine-meshed strainer and began sieving the liquid. It was thicker, thanks to the jelly mixed with the water, and she carefully removed all the flecks until it was a pure, orange-yellow color. It still glowed, but it was only noticeable because Stitchworks was so dark. Octavia nodded, checking it for impurities.
“The water’s there just to help me remove the non-Gel. We’re not keeping it this way. Now we put it over the burner—”
“But it’s the wrong beaker. See?”
Numbtongue objected. Octavia was using a cylinder-type beaker, not the narrow-mouthed one with the wide base. She grinned.
“Right! But what if I want it to all evaporate fast?”
The Hobgoblin gave Octavia a very wary look. Why?
For an answer, Octavia lit the burner, grabbed a tool of the trade—a glass tube, bent in a very specific arc downwards—and delicately inserted it into a lid which she placed on top of the cylinder. Then, swiftly, she put the other end of the tube into a second cup, as the Eir Gel base began to boil. She explained to a mystified Numbtongue what it was all about.
“We’re distilling it. The base. See the condensation, er, steam, rising? It becomes a gas, which becomes a liquid that goes through the tube and ends up…”
She pointed at the second cup. Sure enough, a drop of very bright liquid, paler yellow than orange now, was dripping into the cup. Numbtongue stared. Octavia went on, tapping the boiling cylinder.
“The gas becomes a liquid. What’s not boiled away—that powdery stuff—is also a component. I don’t use it for healing potions—but you see, we’ve separated two parts.”
She pointed to the first cylinder, which was indeed developing a layer of powder while all the liquid was transferring to the second cup. Octavia watched the mixture boil like a hawk and at the right moment, she took the burner away—before the precious powder could start to burn. Now she had the powder, which she put away for later, and a very distilled version of the base.
“Why burn it?”
“Boil. It’s a process to make the Eir Gel—look, it changes the mixture a bit. Makes it easier to work with. And also you can get sick from Eir Gel as it is. Burning—I mean, boiling substances is often very important. You can cold-mix potions, but those can get tricky. Believe me. Anyways, look at this.”
Octavia swirled the yellow liquid as Numbtongue stared at it. The cup wasn’t that large compared to the cylinder she’d filled, but the liquid was potent. It also had a smell that made Numbtongue wrinkle his nose.
“Stinks a bit like burnt kelp, doesn’t it? You get used it to it. And this is valuable stuff, Numbtongue! This liquid is the base of our healing potion. But to make a proper potion, we need to enhance its effects.”
The Stitch-Girl happily sloshed the liquid a bit and put it down. She grabbed a few ingredients next and began tossing them into a much, much larger vessel. Numbtongue blinked and asked what each one was. Octavia dutifully answered as she worked.
“Those? Minerals. I don’t know my exact list; I keep them sorted. I’ll show you later, but this is my variety. The important stuff is this.”
Numbtongue stared at the golden syrup Octavia was coating the mixture with. He sniffed, then exclaimed.
“Ashfire Bee honey?”
“Counters the allergic reaction. You see? It’s a simple formula. Base effect plus boosting agent, and extras to counter side effects or add more qualities. The trick is knowing what reacts with what.”
Numbtongue waved aimlessly at the second vessel as Octavia mixed the Eir Gel base with it. She nodded.
“Yup. It’s just to keep you from breaking out into itchy bumps. Also, the honey makes it taste better. I used uh, roach shells and some other stuff instead before Erin sold me all the honey. Anyways, I’ve countered the allergic stuff, and added a few tricks that keep the potion lasting longer—they do go bad, you know. Especially if air gets in.”
The Hobgoblin’s brow darkened.
“I know. Very bad.”
Octavia nodded solemnly.
“Well, that’s all preparatory work. You want to know the real magic behind a potion besides the Eir Gel? It’s your booster.”
Numbtongue looked at Octavia for confirmation. She nodded.
“Booster, Base, Reactor—I don’t use those or anything else on healing potions. Those are simple. Reactors are mixtures you combine with something—to give it a completely new effect. Those are uh, the things that tend to explode. But Eir Gel is so good at healing already, all we need to do is give it more power.”
Numbtongue’s sigh was one of comprehension. Octavia wondered if he really did understand. He was sharp. But she’d never heard of a Goblin [Alchemist]. Then again…how many got the chance? She nodded, and a smile played over her lips.
“This is where most [Alchemists] have their own recipe. Eir Gel’s common, you see? But potions, even basic healing potions, are all different. Because everyone has their best recipe. What’s most cost-efficient, what’s cheapest to buy or easiest—or has the best effect. I bet Xif uses only the most powerful boosters, but this—this is what I can afford.”
So saying, she pulled out the jar of water with the red-green herbs in it. Numbtongue peered at the plant floating in the water. He thought he recognized it vaguely, something he’d seen growing somewhere. So did Pyrite. The red-green herb was long, grass-like. And it was glowing—no, the water itself had a faint luminescence! Octavia smiled proudly.
“This booster is low-grade. It’s cheap—you just need a few ingredients. Sage’s Grass, which is just a slightly magical grass some [Farmers] cultivate in huge amounts—a local [Farmer] guy sells a huge harvest to Celum—sugar water, demi-Newt skins dried and powdered, and, er, roach shells. I use roach shells a lot. That’s my formula, at any rate.”
“And what does it do? The mixture.”
The [Bard] pointed at the jar. Octavia blinked.
“Do? Nothing. It just feeds the Sage’s Grass. The Sage’s Grass is magical already, you see? And if I soak it in this water for a week, or a month—”
“The water gets magic.”
“Exactly. Sugar feeds the Sage’s Grass in the jar. So do the roach shells. The demi-Newts are slightly magical and don’t contribute much in the way of reaction. So it’s a cheap booster to make. And guess what? This stuff might be cheap today, but there was a time when it would have been worth its weight in sapphires. Even a low-grade healing potion would have been golden.”
Octavia sighed. Numbtongue blinked.
“Oh—back in the day, potions weren’t so easy to make. That’s the thing about alchemy. Even if a…super high-level [Alchemist] dies and no one can make Potions of Great Regeneration anymore, they leave behind notes. Often in code, but more importantly, ingredients. It’s why [Mage] empires collapse and all the artifacts can’t be replicated, but why alchemy’s gotten to the point where cheap potions can close a big wound.”
She swirled the jar of magical water as she brought it over to the mixing station.
“Take Sage’s Grass for instance. It was super-rare, worth more than gemstones, and the most powerful ingredient in the world, say, five thousand years back. I don’t actually know. Ten thousand years back, it didn’t exist. That’s because a [Sage], a really powerful one, bred the plant. Hence the name. He died, and [Alchemists] all over the world rejoiced. Because this is cheap, magical, and no one has to kill a Unicorn or milk a magic cow for it.”
She began pouring the magical water into the vessel. Numbtongue at this point had graduated to assistant, and he carefully stirred the honey, minerals, Eir Gel base, and magical water together, watching it mix and gently glow.
“And that’s it? You mix and…?”
“There’s a bit more. But yes. I have an easier time than you will. Careful—I do need to boil it again to help it all come together. It’s uh, yeah, it’s my recipe. But like I said, everyone has a different one. That’s why no potion looks the same.”
“Is it because no one shares?”
Octavia smiled as she worked, stirring the liquid, checking the heat, making sure it was looking how it was supposed to.
“Not just that. Look…alchemy is a very specific thing. It’s not like being a [Warrior] and hitting things with sticks. For a [Warrior], it’s all about flavor, right? I have [Enhanced Strength]! Or I have [Quick Movement]! Either way, you still hit things in the end. But in alchemy, if you have just one thing missing or one thing extra, the result changes. Take this formula for instance. You probably can’t replicate it even if you copied me. You could get the same result eventually, but not exactly the same.”
Octavia pointed down at the glowing, yellow potion taking shape before Numbtongue’s eyes.
“Skills affect an [Alchemist]’s career greatly. What we have or don’t have allows us to make different potions, creations. That’s why Xif asked if I had Skills he didn’t. Each one can help me out a lot. For instance. This simple potion?”
She paused and raised four fingers.
“[Low-Grade Synthesis], [Cleansing Heat], [Mineral Distillation], and [Magic-Water Solvent]. Those are the Skills that went into this recipe as well as the ingredients. Without any one of them, this wouldn’t work.”
Numbtongue was disappointed. But also, elated that alchemy wasn’t that simple. And you could still learn the end result! His eyes focused on the Eir Gel. Maybe a Goblin couldn’t get their hands on that. But the theory of alchemy? A Goblin could do that. Octavia kept chattering as Numbtongue sat next to her.
“[Alchemists] rely on figuring out specific combinations of ingredients, processes, and Skills more than any other class. We create workarounds—like my Sage’s Grass water. It’s cheap around Celum because this Wailant fellow grows it, but it’s harder to get elsewhere, so [Alchemists] have to invent other types of boosters.”
She paused. Octavia had been smiling, energetic near the end of making the potions. Now, as she looked into the bubbling liquid and slowly turned the burner off, she paused and Numbtongue saw her droop.
“That’s why we spend so much time and money getting new ingredients, tools. Why we need money to invent new things, or find out our way of doing what other people do. So if I always seem like I’m trying to get as much money as possible—”
She paused and rubbed at one eye. Then she turned her head, away from the liquid below. Numbtongue heard her voice catch.
“I—I’m not a good [Alchemist]. Low-level, really. The matches were my big success, and Erin’s baking soda, I guess. Does she even use it? I guess in bread. No [Baker] wanted to try it. I leveled both times, faster than I have in…but I’m not nearly as good as one of the Pallassian [Alchemists]. Let alone Xif.”
She sniffed. Numbtongue saw her brush at her face, and then saw her wipe a bit of liquid. She stepped back before it could foul her potion. Octavia’s voice came out painfully now.
“I just want to be better. To improve. But it’s so hard. Sands and silks, I moved from Chandrar to Izril because I thought there’d be less competition. But here I am. In a city with four [Alchemists]. Well, two now. Jeffil’s arms are broken and Quelm’ll be in jail if he’s lucky. So it’s Mabel the Magnificent and I. I guess that’ll make things easier?”
Her voice was desperate and forlorn. And—lonely. Numbtongue sat on his stool, staring at the glowing liquid. He had no answer for Octavia. He couldn’t relate to most of it. Shops, business. Moving from a continent. But something he could say that was honest, that he understood.
“It’s hard not being strong. And getting stronger is hard. Leveling up is hard. Muscles only get so big.”
He thought of Grimalkin.
“Mostly they stop getting big. But it’s hard. Being weaker.”
Octavia sniffed. She plucked out an eye and wiped at the other one furiously. Numbtongue eyed the cloth eye. It was damp with tears. He stared at Octavia. She was very strange. Foreign. If you looked at her wrong, you’d call her a monster.
“Is it…is it good to have rare things? Rocks? Shiny rocks? Glowing rocks? Mana stones?”
He ventured a guess. Octavia laughed as she put her eye back into the socket and it became flesh and blood again.
“Mana stones? Of course! They’re the foundation of powerful potions! It used to be [Alchemists] used only them in potions since it was so hard to find other magical ingredients.”
“So…you used them?”
Numbtongue felt at his side. Octavia shook her head despairingly.
“You think I have the coin to buy mana stones? Well, if I’d kept my control over the matches, maybe.”
“Hm, What about…emeralds? Gold? Ooh, silver.”
Octavia smiled again, not looking at Numbtongue. She checked the healing potion, cutting a tiny part of her wrist and using the potion to heal it.
“Yeah, all of that. I’d rather sell it, but if I had enough money—you can use gold in some potions. Silver—it’s all about reactions. Finding a way to distill ingredients into other forms, mix them. Water, mixed with gold dust is just water and gold dust in the end. But there’s a way to meld the two together. And with that liquid…it doesn’t matter. Too rich for my blood.”
“But you could make a powerful potion.”
“The very best. Or maybe just another weak one. We don’t know. Rare ingredients are rare for that reason. But I’m willing to bet some of them, with the right boosters and combinations? They could make something no one’s seen before.”
Octavia looked longingly at the plain, glowing potion in front of her. With a sigh, she added three drops of coloring and swirled it. The potion became orange and blue, swirling, an enchanted mixture. The Stitch-Girl caught Numbtongue’s eye and smiled weakly.
“For the appeal. I’m a fraud. Honestly, Numbtongue, if you want a good potion, find a way to get it from Xif. Heck, if Erin sells those Faerie Flowers to him, he might cut her an exclusive deal. And then I’m sure I won’t be needed at the inn.”
The Hobgoblin thought Octavia was right. Xif was clearly better. And experienced. And many other things. But in that moment, as Numbtongue looked at the potion that Octavia had walked him through step-by-step, he thought of Xif, and the look on the Gnoll’s face when he saw Numbtongue.
And maybe the Gnoll was nice and Numbtongue hadn’t seen his good side. He’d apologized. But Numbtongue also remembered the [Guards] posted on the door to Pallass. He couldn’t walk around the Walled City. He could barely walk around Liscor. As for Celum…
He looked around Octavia’s shop. Her shop, where she had trusted him to protect her if there were [Thugs]. And then he looked at his pouch and the shiny and, to a Goblin, fairly worthless objects inside.
Octavia was pouring the potion into jars, stoppering them up when she heard the clacking. She turned around. And stared.
“What is—where did you get that?”
Numbtongue paused as he put down a bit of silver next to some mana stones, an emerald, and other collections from the mountain. Some were his. Others had been mined by Pyrite.
“Shiny—do you know what those are? How did you find them? Did you take them from—”
Numbtongue shook his head as she glanced up at him, suddenly worried.
“They’re not hard to get. I—another Goblin used to find them all the time. Mining.”
“You can find these? Mining?”
“Sure. Here. This one makes a good potion, right?”
Numbtongue found a glowing red stone, with pink-red fire. Octavia’s eyes nearly popped back out of her head. She reached for it with a trembling hand, and then stopped.
“But—but—what do you want in return? Money? Gold? I can’t offer you nearly what this is—”
She trailed off, staring at it. And for a second, Numbtongue saw her eyes flicker to him, calculating, assessing. Octavia opened her mouth, reaching for the stone—and then let her hand go limp.
“I can’t pay you what this is worth. But if I could offer you anything in trade? Anything?”
She looked at him hopefully. Numbtongue considered it. He smacked his lips together thoughtfully and nodded.
The Hobgoblin thought. The [Alchemist] was tense.
“Two of those?”
He pointed to the bottled healing potions. Octavia stared. Numbtongue frowned.
The [Alchemist] shook her head.
“You don’t know how valuable these stones are, do you? And my potions are crap compared to—it’s not fair. You know that. You do know that, right?”
She looked up. And Numbtongue’s smile was knowing. He nodded, shrugging casually. A Goblin’s shrug.
“Sure I do. But I want potions. So. Show me how to make them. And make good ones. From these.”
He tapped the mana stone.
“Ones that explode or do good things. Like invisibility. Those are good potions. And give some to me.”
“But the cost—”
“I don’t use shiny rocks. I just throw them at adventurers. To play fetch.”
Numbtongue laughed. Octavia didn’t get the joke. He went on.
“Only other thing is—I eat stones.”
“Yup. Other Goblin did that too. Tasted good too. But sharp. Potions are better. Probably. I tasted good potion once. Invisibility. So you make them. I drink them. Good deal, right?”
Numbtongue smacked his lips, remembering that. Octavia stared at him. Then her eyes welled up with tears.
“You’re just giving them to me? After all I—do you know how much I’d have to fight or bargain for—giving them to me?”
The Hobgoblin was prepared for tears. And the shock. But not the hug. Octavia cried, and then she grabbed the stones, talking about finding out what each one did—then she ran around her shop, grabbing potions and offering them to Numbtongue. He couldn’t fit them on his belt, and said so. After a while Erin opened the door and of course, that never made things quiet.
But it was okay. Numbtongue sat in Stitchworks as Octavia calmed down and looked around. It was very quiet here. Not noisy like Erin’s inn was at all hours. And you know—he wanted to try copying what Octavia had done. That wouldn’t end badly, right?
Thoughtfully, the Goblin thought about the [Thugs]. And other things. And then he looked at Octavia, and Erin, who was wondering if you could make an Eir Gel sandwich.
“You know, I’ve been meaning to up my [Wondrous Fare] game. Hey Numbtongue, you really okay with giving Octavia all the shiny stuff?”
He waved a claw at her. He was lost in his own thoughts. His and Pyrite’s. Imagine if Goblins could be [Alchemists]? Imagine if the Redfangs could have made their own potions instead of hoarding the ones they took from adventurers and raids? Imagine what they might have become?
It was true, what he’d said to Octavia. Numbtongue understood their worth, but shiny stones were shiny stones. But potions? He held up one of the fresh healing potions Octavia had made. It glowed in his claws. This was worth everything. If he could learn this…
After a while, he looked up. He had another thought, and Erin was willing to hear it. She was shocked—so was Octavia at first—and protested. But then she agreed. Because Numbtongue was smiling.
And so, that night, as Erin’s customers learned the pleasures of hot-tub drinking and a very irate Ceria stared at her boiled, pruney fingers while eating greens and Erin played more board games with some of Pallass’ [Strategists] and Chaldion, Numbtongue was not there at the inn. He was in fact, a hundred miles north. Sitting in an [Alchemist]’s shop, guitar in hands, strumming, while Octavia snored upstairs.
The Hobgoblin’s crimson eyes glowed in the darkness. And the sparks that shot from his claws as he played earthed themselves well away from any of Octavia’s goods. And he had a bed. A sleeping bag, really, but the Goblin liked it and Erin vouched for sleeping in the kitchen, where it was installed. Breakfast was at her inn, anyways. He was just here as an employee. Being paid and everything.
And outside, it was raining. The clouds obscured the sky, but if someone were to stand outside Octavia’s boarded-up shop, they’d see a new sign, installed there, the paint freshly-dried and varnished. It read this:
Stitchworks is under the protection of the Redfang Goblins!*
*(Bronze-rank team. Attack the Goblin and he’s allowed to hit you. He can also talk, listen, and see. If you throw rocks, he’ll throw them back.)
That was all. It wouldn’t stop stones or stares, but Numbtongue was good at catching and throwing and he could stare right back. And there he was. A Hobgoblin in a city. It wasn’t Liscor. But it was pretty good.
And as the Hobgoblin played, quietly, sitting in the dark of the night, the person, or rather, people who were in a position to read the sign crept closer. And one of them, a man, drew a long, curved knife, coated in a dark orange substance. He crept towards the shop, and paused. Just in time to hear the faint music playing. Then there was a flash.
A bolt of lightning shot down from the sky. It landed in the city, blasting a hole in the street, waking up Celum’s residents in fear and panic—until they looked to their windows and saw nothing was burning or collapsed and they relaxed. And their gazes missed the black body lying on the cobblestones.
The strike had flung the [Blackguard] across the street. He lay there, as the [Nightstalker] stared at his body in horror and then turned back to the shop. She saw two crimson eyes blinking at her, then a grin. The Sister of Chell backed away, towards her fallen companion.
Numbtongue was a bit miffed that the [Blackguard] was still breathing. His clothing was smoking, and the amulet on his chest was glowing white-hot—but he was alive. And even conscious enough to scramble to his feet after a moment. He looked around for his knife as the rain pelted him, and then stared towards Numbtongue. He looked at his companion as she halted, her own blades pointed warily towards the shop.
The pair stared towards the boarded-up front and the two flickers of red light. They looked up as thunder rumbled in the sky. A charge was building in the sky.
Goblins did not make threats. The two stared at the shop, and then ran into the night.
One last person disturbed the night and Numbtongue’s vigil. But he wasn’t nearly as bad as the first two. He strolled down the street, his hat slanted against the rain, humming a little tune under his breath.
A children’s song.
The man paused before the shop as the Hobgoblin stopped playing, and the two regarded each other for a moment. And then the man tipped his hat ever-so-politely and went on his way.
Numbtongue smiled. Living in a city wasn’t so hard after all. And when the dawn came, he got up, stretched, went into the inn and called on Pyrite. And here they’d both been ready to fight to the death. A shame.
Breakfast was meatloaf, special. And Numbtongue put the glowing, pink-red mana stone on Octavia’s counter. Then he went back to the kitchen while Octavia was puttering about, muttering about new prices and experiments. Numbtongue sighed, stretched out on the sleeping bag—
And he went to sleep.