The Bloodfields waited. Yvlon Byres strode down the street towards The Wandering Inn with her team, following Bevussa Slenderscale, Captain of the Wings of the Pallass. That was, unless the Wings of Pallass were talking to Drakes in a walled city. To the investors and influential Drakes, Issa was in fact the team’s captain and Bevussa was the pretty Garuda, what a wonderful show of inclusivity, my word yes.
But while the Horns of Hammerad left the city, anyone with eyes and the ability to count would note that only three of them were walking together. The fourth member of the current team was conspicuously absent. Pisces, the [Necromancer], wasn’t among the adventurers. Nor, as Erin Solstice discovered, was he in her inn, studying, as was his wont.
In fact, he was walking through Liscor at the same time as his team, albeit removed from them. Pisces was walking next to a shorter Drake, whose light green scales were flashing in the sunlight. She was dressed colorfully, at odds with Pisces’ white, plain robes.
The two were walking together, talking. Arguing, perhaps, but still in each other’s company. They were going shopping.
“I don’t know why you’re so upset. It’s not as if I forced you to leave the inn. We’re on a small outing. It’s a favor to me. Can you not act as though I’m sacrificing your mother?”
Selys’ tone was annoyed as she glanced up at Pisces. He sniffed, a feature which all of his friends were well acquainted with. His tone was far more acerbic than hers.
“Of course. A simple excursion which merited dragging me away from my pressing studies!”
“You could have said no.”
The Drake reminded Pisces sharply. He paused and glowered, but then sullenly turned his head.
“I consider it a favor.”
“Well, then, be pleasant. Ancestors, why do you have to be so snippy? You’re like a child sometimes, you know that, Pisces?”
He inhaled, his cheeks flushing with outrage. The two were moving down the street, drawing amused or annoyed glances—mainly from Gnolls passing them by. The problem with a heated argument was that a Gnoll could follow it for at least a block or two if they didn’t tune it out. This one had been going for five minutes.
But unusually to anyone who knew Pisces, he didn’t respond with a scathing remark or look. Partly because Selys was more than capable of firing back. But partly because, well—he sighed.
“My apologies. I’ve simply been low on sleep these last few days, Selys.”
She nodded, accepting Pisces’ mild look of chagrin. There it was. The Pisces that few people could command to appear. It was like he had two faces, the sneering one he often presented, and the one who could actually apologize. That Pisces only appeared for his friends; everyone else had to work past the first Pisces. Few did. The two stopped arguing and settled down, slowing the pace of their walk.
“More undead construction issues? You kept moaning about how crossbow skeletons are impossible last time we talked.”
“What? Oh, that. That was an experiment. Partially successful I’ll have you know. But my current issues are far more complex. I ah, have two projects going on. Studying, really.”
“Stuck on another spell? It’s like [Mages] have to study all their lives just to use their fancy magic. Worse than [Warriors]. I couldn’t handle it.”
The [Necromancer] sniffed and caught himself. He shrugged awkwardly.
“It’s true that magic is extremely time-intensive, but a spell once learned is there forever, so long as your memory remains. Far better than muscles which turns to fat in no time, or so I feel. I’m not stuck either. On the contrary, I’m on the verge of a breakthrough. The techniques I’m studying are masterful. In a single creation! And there is a spell—but I have yet to master it. I am close! But it takes time and effort, which I am sadly wasting here.”
He glanced sideways at Selys, inviting some form of apology for the imposition. She was unfazed.
“Well, I won’t keep you long. Like I said, you volunteered. I could do this alone, but I don’t know much about magical items. If you really want, I can ask Ceria or maybe Moore—”
“Those two? Let’s not be imprudent. With respect to their talents, I am the most well-versed in enchantments and the economics of magical items.”
Pisces straightened his robes haughtily. Selys rolled her eyes, but she smiled. They were walking down one of the higher-end districts in Liscor, passing into a section far removed from Market Street, the quintessential spot for all your shopping needs. No, if everyone passed through Market Street for some reason or another in the course of a week, this street was reserved for more specific clientele.
It didn’t mean it was deserted; far from it! In fact, even at this time of day, people who weren’t working were gathered around the carts and wagons to browse. But while some would certainly come away with some trinkets, there were only a few big buyers, and the [Merchants] were waiting for each.
“Here we are. Trader’s End. Have you ever been here before?”
“Once or twice.”
Pisces observed the street with interest. Trader’s End was based in a northern section of the city, in a cul de sac that led off from a larger street. It was close to the gates, allowing [Traders], but more usually, [Merchants] to drive in their wagons and caravans for the day, park, conduct business, and then drive off when their work was finished.
However, contrary to the name, this wasn’t a place for mass-produced goods like fruits, or iron ore. It might have been once, but now this was the location to buy exotics. Liscor didn’t get a huge number of traders or merchants from north or south, and so all of them who did public business were here.
Selys could see specific wagons and [Merchants] all calling out, inviting the most well-dressed Gnolls and Drakes to peruse their goods. She’d been here three times now and she knew the score. The [Merchants] would do business with people who had enough coin for a few items—a broach, some cloth, an interesting item here or there—but they really wanted people like…her.
It was an odd thought. She was Selys Shivertail, [Heiress]. Selys still felt like the same old Selys who had to count her coins before going out partying. But now instead of mostly silver in the hidden bag at the back of her cupboard, she had a magical vault storing gold. A lot of gold.
“I take it the Heartflame Armor has continued to earn you revenue?”
Pisces was looking towards a [Merchant] selling books, and another who had magical items on display. Selys fidgeted, uncomfortable at mentioning it within Gnollish earshot.
“It’s not bad. Keldrass and his team rented the armor. I thought they’d stop when he got the Raskghar armor, but he stills pays me to let him wear it. Apparently it’s really helpful if they’re worried about traps.”
“No doubt it is also a matter of vanity.”
“No doubt. And I had gold already; I didn’t spend too much. So…I’m looking for some stuff. Protections, like I told you. I’m getting a bit worried, you know? I mean, I’ve got a vault, but what about me?”
Pisces nodded, glancing at Selys. She wasn’t exactly an adventurer, and she’d had one experience of being kidnapped. More than that, she’d survived any number of disasters around Liscor and she hadn’t decided on this shopping trip lightly. He made a gesture towards the waiting wagons.
“Well then, I suppose my presence is warranted. Have you any specific [Merchant] in mind?”
“Oh yes. He sent a message saying he was in the area. I’ve bought from him before and I think he’s fairly trustworthy. But you’re here to help me get the best deals. He’s right there. I think he sees us, actually. Try to be polite, Pisces.”
“One can attempt even the impossible.”
Selys tried not to smile. She did enjoy Pisces’ comments. Still, she gave him a warning glance and walked forwards. The [Merchant] was already spreading his arms in welcome, and Selys saw a familiar seat had been pulled up. Farri Slightly, the thirty-something year old [Merchant], was smiling as he stepped forwards to greet Selys.
“Miss Selys Shivertail, it is a delight to see you! I’m so glad you had a chance to peruse my wares—come, sit! Is this your friend? Another chair, and a cup! Hello, hello!”
The [Heiress] grinned as the [Merchant] turned to Pisces, giving him a full-toothed smile in the fashion of the Drakes. Pisces hesitated, and then took the proffered hand, shaking it and murmuring his name. Farri had both seated in an instant. He was, to Selys, something of a friend.
“You do make the extra trip to Liscor worth it, Miss Shivertail. It’s all about cost, you know, but one good client makes up for a great number of miles. I hope all the objects I’ve sold you are working well?”
“Very well. I especially liked the cooling charm in my room. It doesn’t work all night, but it’s just enough to get me to sleep.”
Selys leaned back, accepting a glass from a pitcher that Farri poured himself. Pisces blinked as he was offered another goblet. Farri peered at Pisces, smiling still.
“And who is your friend? An adventurer?”
“Oh, this is Pisces. He’s a [Mage], actually. I brought him along because I was hoping to buy some of those protection-type items we were discussing last time, Farri.”
The [Merchant]’s face instantly grew more guarded. He smiled at Pisces; the [Necromancer] gave him a polite smile back.
“Well, I’m charmed! An adventurer, did you say? What rank? Silver? Gold?”
“Silver. I am, in fact, a member of the Horns of Hammerad. Perhaps you’ve heard of our conquest of Albez?”
Selys felt just a twinge of unease. Oh no, he was doing it again. Farri blinked and paused.
“I—can’t say I have. But then, I haven’t heard of the latest adventuring accomplishments. A successful dungeon run, was it? My sincere congratulations.”
“It was in fact a few months—”
Pisces shut up as Selys’ tail flicked over to slap at the back of his legs. Farri paused, and Pisces, flushing, went quiet. Selys sighed.
“I trust his judgment, Farri. Pisces graduated from Wistram. He’s just here to give me advice.”
“Oh? Oh, a Wistram [Mage]? Naturally, that’s the best source. By all means, its small wonder you’d ask for that kind of advice. Well, if its magical protections you’d like, why don’t I bring out a display? Unless you had something in particular in mind?”
Looking only a bit flustered, Farri gestured to one of his helpers selling from the wagon and Selys saw the Drake disappear inside. The [Merchant] smiled at Selys; Pisces was impassive. Selys tried to poke his ankle with her tail, but she missed.
“I’m not sure what the best item is, Farri. Really, I’m just…worried about my protection. And my stuff. I know the vault you gave me is great, but what about me? My home? Not to mention monsters and such. If you had any—any good items, I’d love to know. Pisces, you too.”
The [Necromancer] paused, and Farri’s eyes brightened.
“Well, that is a range of objects. And I see we have some coming out now! Bear in mind that I have a larger stock—I can even ask for some of the very expensive items I don’t dare bring on the road be sent via Courier. I assume you don’t wish to spend too much gold, Miss Selys?”
“Well—I have a bit to spend.”
Selys squirmed. She knew how much Farri charged and how much she had. She didn’t earn a lot of gold even renting out her armor, not by the standards of magical item sales. But Farri was smiling and nodding understandingly.
“Completely understandable! Well, let’s begin with some simple but decisive items. For instance, how about this ring? A standard among adventurers. An Arrowguard Ring. Guaranteed to deflect one arrow before needing time to recharge.”
He offered Selys a little ring and she leaned forwards. Now this was exciting. She’d always come to see magical items like this before, but now she was actually able to buy some. She peered at the little arrow carved into the ring. Pisces inspected it, sipping from his cup. The ring was wooden, but someone had filled the arrow with gemstone, and it sparkled green.
“It’s pretty! But it’s made of wood—is that bad? I know more common materials don’t hold enchantments well.”
She was a [Receptionist] for the Adventurer’s guild, and she’d picked up a few things, even if that wasn’t her forte. Farri dismissed her concerns with a wave of the hand.
“For a powerful enchantment, certainly, but wood augmented with this cat’s eye—see the subtle line in the gem?—is more than adequate. It’s yew, in fact, which actually aids with the sympathetic magic. I don’t pretend to know all the details, but anything short of a Skill-augmented shot or one from point-blank will swerve upon hitting you.”
“Oh, that is good. And it recharges?”
“Only naturally! You can certainly afford this one, Miss Selys. It takes about three days or so to recharge on ambient mana, but that’s more than enough time, unless you’re being shot at regularly, isn’t it?”
She was nodding, but both the Drake and Farri were watching Pisces out of the corner of their eyes. His face was impassive, so Farri went on after the slightest of pauses.
“I can recommend you this ring to start with. It’s low in magical interference, so let’s say you have this ring to start with. And then we’ll add—”
Pisces’ voice interrupted the [Merchant] flatly. Selys felt her tail curl reflexively. Farri stopped. He turned to Pisces, raising his brows politely.
“Ah, you had an objection, Mister Pisces?”
“An objection? You could say so, yes. Or rather, contempt for the farcical nature of offering Selys that bauble with any actual intent of guarding her wellbeing.”
Pisces placed the cup down and leaned forwards. He gave Farri a dismissive look and sniffed. Selys closed her eyes. Damn it. Then she opened them and glared at Pisces warningly.
“Pisces, what are you talking about? The ring looks fine to me! Farri just offered it to begin with—”
“I’m well aware. But it’s still a disingenuous offer, Selys. Allow me to explain.”
The [Necromancer] pointed to the ring as he lifted his own hand. On his fingers sat two rings, both magical. He pointed to one—and Farri winced.
“This is a true Arrowguard ring, Selys. Our estimable [Merchant], Mister Farri, must have missed it on my person. It can deflect multiple arrows, recharges in the span of a day, and has saved my life before. I can well imagine that it would cost you a considerable amount of gold if you were to buy it—which would be a foolish idea. I could lend you the ring, but it would be as useless to you as the ring sitting before you.”
Selys stared at Pisces. His tone was beyond condescending, but it wasn’t aimed at her. Farri was reddening.
Pisces flicked his hand dismissively.
“Simply because Arrowguard Rings aren’t useful to you, Selys. Consider this. You, if you had my ring, could avoid an arrow shot by an average [Bowman]. Or even three or four such arrows! It would protect you from assassination, yes?”
“That’s the point. So?”
“So? How will you avoid the fifth arrow? Let alone fight or avoid this would-be attacker?”
“Well, I’d have another ring, obviously. Right, Farri?”
“Absolutely. I have a number of them, in fact. All complimentary.”
Pisces sneered. He looked at Selys and shook his head.
“Why do you need them, Selys? Consider this: who is out to shoot you? Kidnap you, perhaps. Mug? Yes, again. But how many enemies with bows are going to loose arrows at you in the course of your incredibly dangerous job? And with that said, what will this ring avail you in a combat situation besides saving you from one arrow and nothing more?”
He had a point. But the way he made it was so classically Pisces—Selys bit her tongue and her tail lashed angrily as Farri held up a hand. He looked stiffly at the [Necromancer] as he swept the ring back.
“I can see your point, Mister Pisces. However, I can assure you that this is a precaution many of my clients take—[Assassins] are more frequent in Human lands—”
“Then why one ring which cannot deflect Skill-based shots? If the goal is to protect, that ring is useless for all but the most middling adventurers. Subpar, for any actual protection; I cannot imagine a single client fearful of assassination that would actually buy that particular ring. If you have a better stock, let us see that, or nothing at all.”
The [Merchant] was turning even redder. That was it, Selys stood up before Farri could lose his polite façade or his caravan guards or helpers could jump in. Pisces wasn’t keeping his voice down and Farri’s embarrassment was being broadcasted in a wide arc. The Drake [Receptionist] turned to Pisces and spoke in a tight voice.
“Farri, please excuse me for a moment. Pisces, would you come with me?”
“Certainly, Miss Selys.”
Farri nodded tightly to her. Selys glared at Pisces. He was reaching for his cup, but he got up and followed her down the street. She saw Farri sitting still before she whirled and glared at Pisces.
“What was that? What the hell was that, Pisces?”
He raised his brows.
“Excuse me? I was simply expressing my genuine opinion—”
Selys’ claw poked straight through his robes and into his chest. He yelped in pain and tried to retreat. She advanced, tail lashing.
“Don’t lie. That was the rudest you’ve ever been! Farri is a friend of mine! He helped me the first time I was here—”
“Oh, how altruistic. No doubt he did it out of goodwill—”
“Shut up! Why did you bite his head off with the first ring?”
Pisces raised his hands, glaring back at Selys.
“It was a worthless ring, Selys! The man was clearly trying to offload a semi-worthless ring onto you—”
“So? That’s what [Merchants] do! I wasn’t going to buy it! You’re here to help me make those decisions!”
“Well, I expedited that process. So?”
The young man folded his arms, looking infuriatingly wounded. Selys was so furious she could barely speak. She looked down and stomped—Pisces drew his foot back in time.
“You idiot! You were being the most egg-headed, Ancestors-damned—you know what you did! That wasn’t polite, and that wasn’t fair. Do you just hate Farri? Is that it? Did he slap you when I wasn’t looking? If you used that tone on Erin or insulted her half as much, she’d punch you and kick you out of her inn!”
Pisces turned red. He folded his arms defensively, and his tone became even more arch.
“I’m simply expressing my opinion. Should I mince words? I’ve seen people like your ‘friend’, Farri, Selys. They can be as charming as they want. But I have my opinion and I know I am correct. This is who I am.”
Selys strode forwards and poked Pisces—he retreated again, looking angrier himself.
“Oh yeah? Well, it’s annoying. No one likes it! I know you can be better than that, Pisces. You don’t call me an idiot three times for having a stupid thought or I wouldn’t speak to you!”
“Well, that’s because I respect your opinion. And it was not always that case! Should I be warm and genuine to everyone?”
“It’d help if you tried!”
Selys knew people were watching them argue. She should have taken this further away, but her cheeks were hot and she was close to hissing at him. Pisces looked equally displeased. He sniffed again.
“Would you have me pretend to be someone else? To falsify my true nature?”
The word exploded from Selys’ mouth. That caught him off-guard. Pisces paused and looked sideways at Selys. He opened his mouth, but she poked a claw at him.
“Don’t look at me as if I’ve grown a second tail! Listen to me.”
She took a deep breath, calming herself. When she spoke, she spoke as if she was a [Receptionist], lecturing a new coworker, or an adventurer.
“You’re insufferable. No, be quiet. You are. You know it. I know it. You have the most abrasive personality in the entire world because you do it on purpose. You don’t behave like a person around anyone you don’t like. But guess what? That’s childish. You don’t like acting nice? Everyone acts, Pisces.”
She saw him opening his mouth, but she kept rolling. Give Pisces a moment and he’d derail or deflect. He was very good at that. But Selys had grown up with Tekshia Shivertail and you couldn’t say a word if you didn’t learn how to talk over someone.
“Erin does it, Lyonette—everyone from little Mrsha to my grandmother! You think Erin doesn’t hate some people’s guts, or Mrsha’s always cute and cuddly? She does it to get spoiled and get attention!”
“Erin or Mrsha?”
Selys nearly laughed, but she kept glaring.
“That’s very funny. But don’t change the subject! I act all the time whenever I have to deal with an obnoxious adventurer, or one who keeps sniffing and calling everyone idiots using big words! I know you can be charming, Pisces. I’ve seen you do it! You can be likable if you try!”
She looked at him. He hesitated and uncrossed his arms.
“Well, of course I can be. But this—”
She cut him off again.
“I don’t care. I really don’t, Pisces. You know you’re doing it on purpose and all it makes you is enemies. It might be work. So what? Being your friend is a lot of work, especially right now. Do you understand?”
She looked at him pleadingly. And this time she saw Pisces flush. He looked away, genuinely embarrassed. Selys reached out and grabbed his arm.
“Just try. Be nice. Don’t do it to people you like. Start with likable and just keep going! Please? I’m going back to Farri. You can leave if you want, but I’d appreciate you being there.”
She turned around, heart beating fast, embarrassed, but feeling better for saying it. She began to walk slowly back towards Farri. She was hoping—listening—
After four steps, Pisces caught up with her. He adjusted his robes, face flushed. Selys looked at him. He hesitated, and ducked his head.
“Let me speak first, please. Was—was that a Skill, by any chance?”
He looked at her. She smiled and wagged her tail a bit.
“[Incisive Comment]. Useful for a [Receptionist] getting something into a thick-head’s skull. I do have some Skills, you know.”
He smiled slightly. As Selys returned to Farri, she saw Pisces square his shoulders. For a moment he looked pained, then, as Farri stood up, Pisces strode forwards. He gave Farri a sincere look of regret and bowed.
“Mister Farri, please allow me to apologize.”
The [Merchant] looked as startled as Selys. She watched as Pisces, bowing apologetically, held up his hands.
“I just had a conversation with Selys. I must apologize for my behavior. I mistook you for—well, Selys has explained how much you’ve helped her out. I was concerned on her behalf, and I confess I’ve met too many [Merchants] of bad character before. But I came here ready to pick a fight and—I sincerely beg your forgiveness.”
Farri was taken aback. He looked at Selys, and she closed her mouth and gave him a nod just in time. The [Merchant] blinked, and then smiled slightly.
“No harm done! I was about to apologize myself, Mister Pisces. You had a point—although it was slightly painful. The ring is fairly hard to place, but I offered it to Miss Selys as an opening bid—why don’t we sit? Something else to drink? Let us restart our conversation.”
Pisces nodded and sat down. Selys shot him a glance as she sat too and Farri fussed over their cups. He was sitting forwards, not with that kind of false sincerity you saw in desperate young Gnolls and Drakes on a first date, the kind that reeked of fake attention, but simply alert. If it was an act—
“Well, I have to admit, the rings are a tricky sale. You need multiple complimentary effects to ward against a number of threats. But it’s a tried and tested method for any adventurer. But I can see you are thinking of Miss Selys specifically. And you do know something about enchantments.”
Farri was speaking as he reached for his cup and drank a bit. Selys did too. Pisces nodded. He spread his hands.
“Without disrespect, Merchant Farri—yes. I am a [Mage] of Wistram, as I said. And I studied enchanting; it’s not a false claim to state that I know synergistic uses of enchantments. Selys asked me to accompany her and I accepted; as much to deter her from making a poor purchase. I’m sure you know about the kind of deals a [Merchant] can force with their Skills? I’m not accusing you of using any, but as I said, I was prepared for it.”
The [Merchant] nodded slowly, assessing Pisces. He was watching the young man as carefully as Selys was out of the corner of her eyes. He didn’t quite buy Pisces’ sudden new demeanor as well.
“Fair, fair. And you are her, ah, friend?”
His tone left a huge room for Selys to insert any modifier she choose. The Drake didn’t choose to do so. Pisces nodded.
“A friend, yes. The same one who wants her to spend all the gold she needs on personal protections, but not on her friends. Or me. Or on poor spells or ones where she pays ten times its actual worth.”
He said that with such conviction that even Selys was impressed. And Farri—both Pisces and Selys saw his eyes flick to a ring on his finger. Selys saw nothing, but he apparently did. And from the way he smiled—
But of course Pisces was telling the truth. He had the Horns of Hammerad’s windfall, the same that had given Selys a lot of her money.
“You are fairly wealthy yourself, sir, if my Skills don’t betray me. Still, that’s a sincere statement.”
The [Merchant] was clearly analyzing him as he’d done to Selys the first time and what he saw impressed him. He gestured to his wagons.
“Go on then, Mister Pisces—or may I call you Pisces? My wares are free for your perusal. If you object to the standard protections, what would you say Miss Shivertail requires in the way of security?”
It was a challenge, albeit a polite one. Pisces nodded. He leaned forwards, resting his chin on two fingers and looked at Selys and Farri together.
“I’ll be brief. Selys, you came here for personal protections. My thoughts on the matter are as follows. Firstly, Selys, you don’t need some elaborate ward system on your home. It’s too expensive to install, overkill for a low-level [Thief] and a master will slip through the gaps. And there are always gaps, believe me. Unless you paid for an expert [Wardmaster] or [Enchanter]—it’s pointless. However, that’s actually to your benefit because what you need to protect is so concentrated.”
He raised three fingers and ticked them off.
“You have three things of value you need protecting. Firstly, your gold. I’ve seen your magical vault and there are better versions you could acquire, or more static defenses you could add. Secondly, you need personal enchanted items. But not necessarily rings. Lastly, anti-theft measures for the Heartflame Breastplate. That last will be the most difficult by far, but I see Merchant Farri has all you need in the way of personal protections.”
Selys and Farri both raised their brows. Selys nodded.
“That’s a good point, Pisces. I didn’t think about it, but my home doesn’t have anything too important in it. But if you don’t mean rings, then what?”
The [Necromancer] smiled.
“I may be wrong, but my first instinct is potions and a wand. Perhaps one magical item. Mister Farri, your thoughts?”
The [Merchant] was nodding. Selys wasn’t sure what was so intelligent about what Pisces had said; it seemed obvious to her if not rings, but Farri gave Pisces a friendly smile.
“Single-use or rechargeable? Self-charging?”
Pisces actually laughed, and not in a condescending way. Farri laughed too, and nodded.
“Let me get some. I think I see your point, Pisces.”
He stood up and hurried into his wagon. Selys raised her brows and Pisces shook his head as he leaned over to explain.
“A common misconception. Most people would prefer to buy a rechargeable item that can be used again and again, but such items are vastly more expensive than a single-use item, and if you’re not a [Mage], recharging them is tedious! Far better to buy a single-use invisibility item.”
He gestured back to the wagon. Farri was nodding, and he’d already come back. This time he had a catalogue of neatly written potions and items. He stood next to Pisces as the [Necromancer] showed her the list.
“Given the threats to you, Selys, I would recommend a custom-made potion that turns you invisible or better yet, gives you an armored effect as well as defends you. A simple point-and-use wand would also be appropriate. You don’t need rings. If you’re in danger of assault or another monster attack, you can use the items once and replenish them.”
“Fair enough. So what’s good? And why can’t I get this from Octavia?”
“She doesn’t make the type of advanced potions you would need.”
Farri was nodding.
“I buy from Pallass as well as the best [Alchemists]. Some potions even come from other continents! I personally recommend an invisibility potion. And a stone skin potion?”
Pisces was nodding.
“Given that Miss Selys is sometimes in the company of others, though, I think a Scroll of Lesser Teleport bound to, say, her home would be most useful, Merchant Farri. When I am solvent myself, it will be one of the first items I suggest my team purchase.”
“And for a wand? [Arrow of Light]?”
“Not powerful enough. The Watch is fairly competent in Liscor. If Selys is worried about low-level threats, she should carry a Tripvine bag and a whistle. Or just scream for help. Inexpensive. Given that monsters seem to assail Liscor with distressing frequency—do you have a Wand of [Forcewalls]? Or perhaps a Wand of [Lightning Bolts]?”
Farri inhaled and Selys sat up.
“Those are expensive wands. I have both, as it happens. But isn’t that fairly overkill?”
Pisces smiled grimly.
“Have you heard about Skinner, Merchant Farri? I don’t believe wands are enough of a safeguard myself. Rather, I think what Selys needs is a few of Erin’s acid jars in her bag of holding, all the items I listed—and a wand that will be useful in such situations. For her everyday comfort? Simply a tracking spell woven into her bag of holding if it doesn’t have one already. We must save the most money for her Heartflame Armor; I’m surprised [Thieves] haven’t gone after it already, but Liscor is a poor home for the truly powerful thief gangs. Tell me, are you familiar with Seer’s Lodestone dust? The kind that never fades? Rather than prevent, I would prefer to find if someone takes her possessions.”
The man paused and Selys looked up. Farri nodded slowly. He looked respectful, and Pisces paused to let him reply. The [Merchant] eyed Pisces, and then smiled.
“If I might say so, your spending ability matches Miss Shivertail’s, Mister Pisces. I’m counting—is it a joint fund for your team?”
“Prying, Merchant Farri?”
Pisces seemed amused. Farri smiled and bowed a bit from the waist.
“A [Merchant] does what one must.”
The young man shook his head.
“I’m afraid I cannot spend anything myself. My team does have some money. But we’ve not yet converted it to gold—”
“A task I’m all too willing to handle myself. And if that’s not convenient, we can also witness a very fair deal at the Merchant’s Guild where I issue you, say, twenty percent credit of what I think you’re able to spend?”
The man didn’t wait for Pisces to respond. He clapped his hands and his assistants rushed out. He smiled at Pisces and Selys.
“Ah, but I forget my client! Miss Selys, pardon me. Allow me to bring out some of my rarer potions and outline some you may be interested in. Potions, scrolls—and er, what was this you mentioned about acid jars?”
She still couldn’t tell if he was acting. Selys glanced sideways at Pisces as the two strolled back down the street. Nearly three hours had passed, and they’d passed quickly! Selys’ bladder was a bit full, but she had enjoyed herself. She looked sideways at Pisces as he walked beside her. He wasn’t scowling and he hadn’t dropped the good-natured, neutral expression he’d worn after bidding Farri goodbye.
“He didn’t manage to make you buy anything.”
“No. And I’m quite surprised I got away. Almost as much as he was!”
Pisces chuckled to himself. Selys was impressed too; Farri had his Skills and he’d sold Selys nearly twelve hundred gold’s worth of items, all of which would be delivered to her apartment; he was adding the tracking charm to her bag of holding.
It had been a successful outing. Pisces was nodding to himself, clearly pleased at his efforts. His throat was a bit hoarse, but he walked along, chatting much more lightheartedly than this morning.
“A fair [Merchant], I think. Ultimately self-interested, but fair to his clients. Did you see him glancing at his hand?”
“I did, but I didn’t see a truth stone flashing.”
The [Necromancer] smiled knowingly.
“I believe he painted over one of the gems. The one on his ring finger? He concealed it so it would only shine towards him. Clever.”
He chuckled to himself. Selys had to pause and check her tail. Then she looked at the young man thoughtfully.
“You know, Pisces, you’re very likable when you try to be.”
“I suppose I made an effort today.”
“More than that. I think Farri actually liked talking to you, and that was after your first encounter! Was it an act?”
The [Necromancer] flicked his fingers.
“The best act is genuine emotion, Selys.”
“That doesn’t answer my question. Fine. Be mysterious. But why don’t you do that all the time? You’d be popular if you tried!”
Hadn’t Ceria once mentioned that Pisces had once been that likable? Selys remembered Erin relating some of his history. But the young man just shook his head and some of his cheer faded.
“Not everyone is worth the effort.”
“Maybe more people would be if you tried. You didn’t hate Farri, did you? Be honest. Or do I have to buy a truth ring?”
“I suppose he was a good man. As far as [Merchants] go. I have met poor ones. And he was…decent. Yes. Perhaps I did. But as I said, not everyone…”
They walked out of Trader’s End, moving back towards The Wandering Inn to the eastern gates, but really ambling, talking. The street was lively and Selys saw people going to and from work. Some hunted, others mined the safe deposits at the base of the High Passes…Liscor wasn’t rich and it did have to import at times. But there was wealth to be had here. The Floodplains could feed a large population of animals, mostly wild, and as such, the wary [Hunter] or [Trapper] could feast on Razorbeaks, birds, Corusdeer—so long as they avoided Rock Crabs.
“It’s just that I don’t see the need to put on a front when the act of repelling someone precludes further conversation that would be meaningless. Moreover, it is far simpler for fools to dislike me rather than assume false affection and be twice-scorned and even more vengeful.”
“Then don’t scorn them, Pisces. What’s so hard about that?”
“I cannot abide fools, Selys. And sometimes, the objectionable actions of some halfwits simply pulls it out of me—”
“Every second of the day?”
They passed by a pale-scaled Drake chatting with a Centaur. It was such an odd sight Selys had to look twice. Pisces was still talking and didn’t notice. Selys stared at the Centaur. He had something in his mouth. A tube? No, a cigar. She’d seen some adventurers and rich Drakes smoking the stuff, but it was pricey! And the Watch had a dim view of most drugs; not that Liscor was exactly thriving in the black market. But that might change.
“So you’re going to help Liscor expand the road to Pallass, huh? That’ll mean we get a lot more visitors and trade year-round. As it is, we get lots of traffic from the south during the fall and winter, and sporadic traffic all year from the Humans.”
Pisces sniffed, but lightly as he munched on a Gnoll-treat. Not the hamburgers Erin had introduced like a plague onto the street vendors, but a simple Gnoll treat—different cuts of meat, all cooked to various degrees, cushioned in a bit of wrapping paper. You ate slice by slice or an entire meaty bite; Selys snagged a cut of pork and chewed it happily. Drakes and Gnolls, being mostly carnivorous, didn’t go for bread as much as Humans. Pisces sighed.
“Ceria did mention she was scouting out the Bloodfields. Another activity I’ll be forced to take part in, I suppose. Clearing a trade route to Pallass is a temporary occupation. Needlessly tedious for how much it pays, but it will keep my team busy. In truth, once the Halfseekers finally get to Invrisil we will be spending some time there.”
Selys paused and looked at him.
“That’ll take a bit. But when it happens, it’ll be as far as Pallass, right? Hard to visit.”
Pisces paused, chewing, and shrugged.
“Not too difficult. We can simply charge the door. But yes—I imagine we will attempt to take more requests around Invrisil. There simply isn’t much high-level work around Liscor besides the dungeon.”
“Right. And you’re not going into the dungeon.”
“Well—that’ll be fun. Maybe I’ll visit Invrisil. I’ve been meaning to visit Pallass, but with the mana constraints on the door—”
Pisces blinked, and then nodded a bit.
“Yes. Yes, I’m sure Erin would want to visit too. And it is a notable city to visit. When that day comes, I will certainly suggest the idea. But with the Halfseekers—”
They wandered left, down a street. This time Pisces spotted a Minotaur and nudged Selys. The huge bull-person was studying a display of books, ignoring the looks from Drakes and Gnolls around him. She gasped.
“There’s another Minotaur in Liscor? I had no idea! Do you think he knows about Calruz?”
“She. And one imagines someone has told her by now.”
Selys was incredulous. Pisces coughed, looking amused.
“Note the mammaries?”
It took Selys a moment to figure out what he meant. Then she stared.
“Breasts? Oh. I thought they were just uh, muscles for a second. She looks like Calruz!”
Pisces snorted, averting his gaze as they walked away from the Minotaurs lest she hear. He glanced absently at her.
“Minotaurs are rather statuesque. I gather there’s no physical difference between their genders in terms of body mass. Like Gnolls and Garuda. However, I’m amazed you didn’t notice the obvious.”
She slapped his leg with her tail, grinning.
“That’s not where Drakes look first. We check out the tail. And that’s not a feature most Drakes have like…well, like Humans!”
“But Drakes are mammals. They have live births and ah, the same reproductive basics as Humans to most extents, despite your relationship with Dragons. I always wondered why you called your young ‘hatchlings’.”
The Drake eyed him for a long moment.
“…How do you know that?”
“I study dead bodies for a living, Selys. What would you expect?”
“Well—it’s creepy that you know so much. And we honor our Ancestors or something. What should we call them? Scalelings? Actually…”
Pisces snorted. He’d finished his snack and was absently tucking the bit of trash in his bag of holding. Selys smelled something foreign on the wind. The Centaur she’d seen earlier trotted by her. Still smoking on the whatever-it-was. It smelled almost sweet to her, but the smoke made her wave at her face. Pisces frowned as the Centaur trotted past.
“There’s another thing I didn’t think I’d see. Minotaur, Centaur—all we need now is a Gazer or a Fraerling and we’ve nearly seen all the species if you add in Pallass.”
Selys commented to Pisces, but he wasn’t listening. He sniffed the air as the Centaur passed by. Selys coughed. There was something…foreign about the smell coming from whatever he was smoking. Totally different from wood smoke. Pisces frowned after the Centaur, and then glanced at the pale Drake hurrying after him.
“Hm. A Selphid and a Centaur? I wonder if they’re mercenaries? Both are…[Mages].”
“A Selphid? Are you sure? She could be pale-scaled. It must be a Baleros team or something. Hey, if they appear in the Adventurer’s Guild I’ll tell you about it. Speaking of which—how’s Jelaqua? You said the Halfseekers aren’t making any progress getting to Invrisil. Is it because of her and Maughin?”
Pisces nodded, refocusing on Selys.
“As I understand it, Seborn is taking issue with Jelaqua’s ongoing relationship with Maughin. He dislikes working while she enjoys herself. Rather seriously, it seems.”
“But all they have to do is walk. What’s got his tail in a twist? No, wait. I think I know. It could be because he’s a former [Pirate]. They’re touchy about stuff like that. They’re not [Sailors]. In fact, some crews have tyrannical [Captains], but others will revolt rather than let someone do that to them.”
Pisces blinked as Selys came out with that. He looked at her sideways, much the same way Farri had glanced at him.
“You know a lot about a seafaring class for someone who has never left Liscor.”
“I study up on classes. It’s my job. You’re not the only person with useless trivia.”
“Hardly useless. But I agree—it’s somewhat personal to Seborn. Frankly, I think he simply resents the prospect that it might be serious. And the discord it causes with Moore—”
“Poor Moore. I heard him talking about finding someone.”
“One can hardly miss it, given his natural volume.”
“Don’t you dare let on you know—”
“Do I look like Drassi, pray?”
The two were laughing when Selys paused. She looked around, struck by a thought. Ahead of her, a Drake was walking besides a young woman with a hood thrown up on her head. They were the only people on the street; Selys looked around, frowning. The Drake passed her by, his back straight, and Selys glanced around surreptitiously. But no one was nearby. Even so, she walked a bit closer to Pisces.
“Um, Pisces. When the Horns go to Invrisil, I was thinking. It’s um—about my class. And the breastplate. If you’re heading north—well, it could be south too, or far, far away. But I think it’s on Izril—can we talk in private?”
She hadn’t told anyone this, not even Pisces yet. But he’d helped her with the Heartflame Breastplate. The [Necromancer]’s eyes sharpened and he glanced around like she had to telltale Gnolls. But then he paused.
“We are alone.”
He stopped slowly. And Selys did too. At first she didn’t know what the odd tone in Pisces’ voice was. But then she looked around and realized he was right. The street was empty. Almost completely empty, but for a few people, like the Centaur trotting ahead of them and the two they’d just passed. Selys stared around.
“That’s not right. Where’s everyone gone? You can’t find an empty street in Liscor for gold—oh no, do you think Erin’s done something again?”
Pisces was frowning. He looked around, and then turned to squint ahead. Selys was about to suggest they check on Erin when a voice called out from behind.
Pisces turned his head slightly. Selys saw him glance distractedly at speaker. It was the Drake. Selys paused. And then her eyes widened.
“Did he say—”
Selys saw Pisces’ head whip round. He stared at the Drake who’d spoken. The Drake had turned in the street. He was staring at Pisces. His scales were dark black with a hint of blue in them. His gaze was direct. He bared his teeth as his companion, hooded, stepped back.
“Pisces Jealnet. Son of Padurn Jealnet, [Fencer]. Ex-[Mage] of Wistram. Expelled. Wanted for multiple crimes. Is that you?”
And suddenly, Selys felt a bell ringing in her head. She didn’t have [Dangersense]. But she didn’t need to. She looked around and suddenly saw something. Down the street, the Centaur and Selphid had turned. The Selphid was wearing a female Drake’s body. The Centaur exhaled, the dark smoke trickling upwards. Selys turned back and saw another figure walking around a corner.
The Minotauress. She strode forwards. And her eyes were locked on Pisces.
“Get behind me.”
He whispered. Selys saw his hand reaching for his side. Towards his rapier—she heard a curse.
It was missing. He hadn’t come with her prepared for a fight. And—Selys realized as her own claws drifted towards her belt—her bag of holding was with Farri. She backed up, staring at the Centaur and Selphid behind them.
The street was empty but for Pisces, Selys, and the strangers. There were five of them. Now, they abandoned all pretense. The Drake reached for his side. A bag of holding. He drew a wand, the tip already aflame, the wand made of obsidian. In his other hand he equipped a buckler.
“Do you have any magical items? Anything?”
“I have a belt-knife!”
Another curse. Now Pisces and Selys stared around. And Selys realized something else.
They were all [Mages].
Here they came. A pale-faced Selphid, lifting two wands with both hands. A Minotaur, cracking her neck and knuckles. The Centaur, still smoking whatever was in his mouth. The speaker, a Drake, sneering as he pointed a translucent crystal wand and held up a glimmering buckler. And a hooded—Selys blinked. Where had that one gone?
It wasn’t a mugging. They were all focused on Pisces, not her. Selys’ tail was trying to curl into knots. She saw the Drake approaching with the Minotauress on his left; from the other side, the Centaur and Selphid were doing likewise. They had a confident walk; they knew what they were doing. Her voice squeaked as she tried to shout.
“Hey! This is Liscor! You can’t just—stop right there or I’ll call the Watch! Who are you? What do you want?”
“He knows. Let the Drake go, Pisces Jealnet. Step aside, Miss Drake. You don’t know who you’re standing next to.”
The Minotauress pointed. Selys found a spark of outrage. This wasn’t happening! This couldn’t be happening! Not in Liscor! Not here! Where was everyone? The Watch? Defiantly, she stepped forwards. Pisces hissed at her.
“Who are you people? Answer me! Stop right there! Hey! Hey, I need the Watch—”
Selys began to shout, cupping her claws to her mouth, trying to raise someone’s attention. Anyone! She turned and saw the Centaur flick his joint. He pointed it at her and spoke.
She recoiled, saw Pisces curse, reach for her. And Selys…
Stopped. The female Drake stopped in the street, mid-recoil as Pisces grabbed her arm.
But it was too late. The Drake looked around vacantly. The light, the spark in her eyes, it had all faded. She stood there, swaying, and then looked at Pisces. After a moment she frowned vaguely.
He stared at her, and then whirled as the Centaur spoke again.
Pisces threw up his mental shields, drawing on his magic and circulating it through his body as he bit his lip hard enough to draw blood. He tasted iron and felt a push at his mind. But [Mages] were better able to resist mind spells and Pisces had practice. He turned, hand grasping again for the rapier he did not have. Selys was behind him; she hadn’t reacted; she was just staring ahead blankly.
“Let her go. The Drake’s not part of this.”
The Minotauress called out again. They were surrounding him, two on each side. Pisces looked up. He stared at Selys’ face and then turned. His voice snapped in the silence.
“Who are you? What do you want with me?”
“You know who we are.”
The Drake was watching him. Pisces glanced behind him. Selphid and Centaur. They hadn’t said a word, but the magic hung heavy in the air. The Drake made an impatient gesture.
“Hands behind your head. Kneel down and put your face on the ground. No magic.”
Pisces licked his lips. He took a step back, half-pivoting.
“I am a Silver-rank adventurer—”
“Don’t play games. We know who you are. Wistram wants you.”
The Drake aimed his wand, raising his buckler. The tip of his wand sparked. The Minotauress just shook her head.
“And here I thought he’d be harder to find. More like a rat. No moves, [Necromancer]. We know all your spells.”
“I can assure you—”
The Drake’s eyes narrowed. His wand sparked and a ray of fire shot forwards. Pisces jerked—but the fiery beam went past his left shoulder and struck the cobblestones. The ground turned red and stone cracked.
“Enough talk! The next one goes through your leg. Surrender or we’ll do this the easy way.”
“I have done nothing—”
Pisces flinched from the second ray as it shot past his right leg. The Minotauress glanced at her companion and he nodded. They advanced.
The Drake warned. He was tracking Pisces as the young man moved back. They were closing in. Pisces tensed. Selys was walking to his left. She absently stared around, and then wandered down the street.
“Do I have work? I thought I was…”
Closer and closer. The Selphid and Centaur moved forwards a step, but the Drake and Minotauress were still advancing. Pisces froze. And all of the [Mages] on the street paused. They were eight feet apart. Then six—
And then Pisces turned and leapt for a side alley. The Drake cursed and his wand shot webs. But a bit off-target. Pisces dashed forwards—and the Minotauress caught him. She was quick! She raised one huge hand, swinging. Pisces turned—
“Don’t hurt me!”
He threw up both hands, shrinking down. The Minotauress stopped the blow and the Drake raised his wand, aborting a second spell. He blinked down as Pisces cowered, trembling before the second blow.
“I surrender! No violence! Please! I can assure you, I’ve done nothing wrong—”
“Shut up! Drop your wand.”
“He doesn’t have any, Isceil.”
The Minotauress stared at Pisces. She was still holding him, but now she let go. Pisces fell to his knees. He raised both hands, putting them behind his head. There were tears in his eyes.
“I—I’ve done nothing wrong against Wistram. If there’s some issue, I have gold! Let’s talk this over! Whatever you might have been told, I’m completely reformed. Good magi, a bit of kindness—”
Pisces’ babbling stopped. His eyes were wide as he trembled. The Drake, Isceil, lowered his wand, looking disgusted. He glanced at the Minotauress. She had the same expression on her face. The Selphid and Centaur [Mage] hesitated, but both trotted closer.
“I can’t believe this. Are you sure this is the right one?”
He turned. The Selphid nodded, glancing about. She stared at Pisces as he turned, a terrified expression on his face.
“Wow. He really gave up instantly. I thought he had some spine, based on all the reports.”
“Consider this. If it’s gold you want—”
“Shut up. Ancestors damn it. Well, we got him. Let’s capture this idiot already.”
The Drake folded his arms. Pisces threw himself forwards.
“Hands behind your head!”
The Minotauress snapped. She stepped back and reached for her belt. Pisces immediately got up and put his hands back up. He stared as she pulled something from her belt.
“Whatever Wistram Academy might think of me, I’ve reformed! Truly! If you intend to capture me, my record is clean in Liscor, I swear!”
“Hah. Can you believe this?”
The Selphid looked amused. The Drake just spat. He nodded towards his companion.
“Don’t try to weasel out of this, [Necromancer]. Now, put your hands up and get in the box.”
He looked towards the Minotauress. Pisces froze as she withdrew a black cube from her belt. It was perfectly black, without detail save for a single, etched door drawn in pale silver on one side. His eyes went wide and he leaned back as she aimed it at him.
“It’s a Silent Box. We’re not idiots. Get in.”
The Minotauress leaned forwards. Pisces backed up.
“No! I’m innocent! Please, can’t we negotiate?”
He threw himself to the side, avoiding the front of the cube. The Drake cursed, kicking at him as Pisces scrambled towards him, clutching at his legs.
“Get off! Don’t make me hex you, you little—Beza, just capture this piece of waste already!”
He lifted a leg to kick at Pisces. The Minotauress growled, reaching for Pisces with one hand. And then her eyes widened.
Pisces sprang upwards. He slashed at the Drake’s throat with one hand, snarling, and the Oldblood Drake made a sound. His head jerked backwards. But for Bezha’s warning, the bone blade would have cut his throat. As it was, Pisces slashed the edge and turned. He vanished, fleeing with long steps that blinked him across the ground.
[Bone Shiv]. [Flash Step]. The [Mages] shouted as Pisces dashed down the street. He got five steps, leapt, and vanished in midair. The Drake turned, cursing.
“That bastard! Where’d he—”
The Centaur took the rollup from his mouth and blew a cloud of smoke. Casually, he exhaled it and the smoke turned bright, pink, glittering particles sweeping forwards in a rush of air.
“He’s still here. [Glitterdust Storm].”
The pink shimmering cloud blew forwards and settled across the street. It caught Selys and she blinked, staring at the bright particles that stuck to her.
She muttered. Behind her, the particles stuck to a shape in the air. Pisces reappeared, coughing, as the Centaur pointed at him.
The [Necromancer] looked around wildly. His [Invisibility] spell had been purged! And—he turned, stumbling, and [Flash Stepped] backwards. But somehow, he couldn’t flee down the street. He found himself stumbling backwards, towards the [Mages].
They were aiming at him now. The Drake raised his wand and roared. He blasted a ray of fire and Pisces ducked out of the way. The Drake’s wand ignited, and the Minotauress grabbed his arm.
“You idiot, that Drake’s still in the way!”
“I’ve got her.”
The Selphid dashed forwards and tugged at Selys. Pisces froze. Something was wrong. He turned around. The street swam behind him. He whirled as another ray of magic shot at him and dodged left. The Drake was clutching at his throat. The Minotauress clenched a fist, pulling out a scroll.
“Isceil, do you need a potion? I’ve got him—”
“I’m fine. Don’t you dare, Beza! The rest of you, back off!”
Isceil hissed. His companions looked at him as he advanced, his wand aimed at Pisces’ heart. The Drake’s tail lashed furiously. His throat was still bleeding, but no more than superficially. He narrowed his eyes at Pisces.
“Not bad. If I were twice as slow, you’d have got me. Everyone, stay back. I’ll take him. Alone.”
“Shut up, Beza. You. [Necromancer]. You’re not getting away.”
The Drake aimed his wand at Pisces. The young man paused. His head felt thick. But he still sneered. He raised his hand and a rapier of bone appeared, the bones flowing from his bag of holding.
“Is this a challenge? For a group of Wistram’s cowards, I didn’t expect any honor among them.”
The comment made the female Minotaur’s eyes begin to turn red. She opened her mouth, but the Drake laughed.
“That’s better! I was hoping you’d fight back. Beza, he’s mine.”
He sneered as Pisces flicked his bone rapier. The [Necromancer] walked to one side, rapier raised in a [Fencer]’s position. Isceil had no weapon save for his wand, but he didn’t look concerned. He flicked his wand as he kept his buckler high.
“I heard you were a good duelist back in your day. I’m one of Fissival’s best. If I’d have transferred to Wistram, people wouldn’t remember you at all.”
Pisces’ eyes narrowed.
“So you are from Wistram?”
The Drake looked at him.
“Of course we are. We’re—”
He swore and raised his shield, twisting. Pisces’ lunge carried him across the street. He missed, his rapier deflecting off the Drake’s buckler. Isceil pointed.
He swung the wand fast, an arc of blue flame cutting. Pisces was already gone. He reappeared, panting. The heat of the flames cutting through the air was intense. The Drake spat curses.
He jerked as Pisces dove left. The [Necromancer] blasted fire at his face, spun, [Flash Stepped] around the Drake, and fired a [Stone Dart] at his side. The Drake twisted. The flames he dispelled, but the stone dart shot at him from his wand-side. He twisted—
And the stone dart exploded in midair. Pisces paused. The Drake lifted his wand. The returning spell exploded outwards, a shower of purple missiles that homed in on Pisces. The [Necromancer] leapt backwards, but the missiles pursued him. He vanished, threw up a [Barrier of Air]—the explosion sent him stumbling back a step.
Pisces pointed a finger and lightning, volts of electricity crackled forwards. Again, they vanished before touching the Drake. This time Isceil just sneered. Pisces saw an amulet on his chest flashing. It was absorbing the Tier 2 spells!
“That’s it? You could take on fourth-year students, but not—”
He slashed with his wand. A sword of light cut at the air, but Pisces’ reach was longer. The [Necromancer] leapt forwards, slashing with his rapier, stabbing, vanishing backwards. This time he raised his hand and a bloom of light flashed in the Drake’s eyes. Isceil cursed, spoke a word. Pisces saw the barrier appear and [Flash Stepped] left. He lunged in, saw the Drake pointing his wand behind him, right at Pisces.
This time the fire caught Pisces. He shouted in pain, leaping backwards, his robes and hair burning. Pisces shot frozen air, blasting his skin, ignoring the blisters forming. The Drake crowed, but cursed as he felt at one arm. Pisces had cut him above the arm in the clash on his buckler arm.
Isceil’s companions watched the magical duel calmly. The Minotauress was shouting clenching her hands, watching Pisces warily—the Selphid and Centaur were more casual. The smoking Centaur called out as he watched the Drake raise his buckler.
“Having trouble, Isceil? He’s not bad!”
“Shut your damn mouth, Palt!”
The Drake roared back. He shot a flurry of spells at Pisces, curving them and aiming where Pisces would be. The [Necromancer] disappeared backwards, throwing his own spells, but defensively. The Selphid watched with interest. The Drake’s body the Selphid was wearing held two wands and she was flicking them as she analyzed the duel.
“This Human really is as good as Beatrice said. I never saw him duel, but he’s quick! [Fencer]?”
“Maybe. But Isceil will win.”
The Centaur nodded knowingly. He watched as Pisces retreated backwards. The [Mage] had conjured his [Barrier of Air] again. But the Drake shattered it with a single spell. Pisces fell back, panting. He stared at the Drake, poised, ready to dodge. Isceil aimed at him, eyes narrowed, and the two froze for a second.
Pisces’ mind was whirling as he stared at his opponent. He was good. And the buckler had some kind of spell that was drawing Pisces’ attention and attacks. Every time Pisces lunged—the [Necromancer] glanced at the other three [Mages]. Isceil’s eyes narrowed. His wand shot a scythe of flames horizontally.
“Your opponent’s here!”
“Damn it, Isceil! We’re right here!”
The Selphid leapt forwards and cut the flames in two as they shot. Pisces had already ducked under the fire, but Isceil had been aiming for that. Grinning, the Drake aimed at the crouched [Necromancer]. He saw Pisces flick one hand and a ring flashed. A bolt of magic shot towards Isceil’s face. The overconfident Drake blinked.
The voice that rang out came from the side. Isceil’s eyes widened. He raised his bucker, caught the edge of the [Shatterbolt] on the rim of his shield. His buckler trembled as the magical spell hit it. It glowed, cracked, and exploded. The Drake howled.
His friends cried out in shock. The Drake raised his wand, whipping around wildly for Pisces, but the [Necromancer] was gone. He was—Beza pointed.
“Damn, he’s running! Get him!”
Pisces was dashing at them. The Selphid, Centaur, and Minotaur all reacted. The Selphid leapt backwards, out of the way of a slash. Beza swung barehanded, but Pisces leapt past her. He [Flash Stepped] forwards zipping forwards with each step—
And found himself facing the other way. Pisces stumbled. He was running towards the [Mages] again! He saw the Selphid raising her wands, unguarded, and leapt forwards.
A hail of missiles hit Pisces from the side. It was like being hit by heavy, sharp punches. Pisces staggered. The Centaur!
“I’ve got you covered. [Light Arrow].”
He was pointing at Pisces with both hands. Bolts of light appeared at his fingertips and flew at Pisces. They shot from his fingers as fast as rain. Pisces dodged backwards, but again, he found himself stumbling as he tried to get down the street. At last, his frantic mind connected the dots.
He was under an illusion spell. The [Necromancer] twisted, snarling. The Centaur’s lit joint puffed. And the cloud turned orange as he blew a smoke ring.
“He’s trying to break my illusion. Anyone want to stop him? Anyone?”
“I’ve got this.”
“He’s my prey!”
Isceil was running forwards. But the Minotauress had had enough. She strode forwards. Pisces narrowed his eyes. The Centaur trotted backwards, watching Pisces carefully. The [Necromancer] dodged left and Beza cursed.
She blurred. Now it was her versus Pisces and the Minotaur was fast. Pisces backed up as the female Minotaur came at him. She stepped in—not a blind rush, but a boxer’s stance. She swung, fast and compact, but each swing missed him. He slashed out; she blocked with one arm. His swing didn’t even break her flesh!
“[Steel Body]. Ulinde?”
“Yeah, I’m here.”
The Selphid appeared behind Pisces. Now it was two-on-one. No, three. The [Necromancer] turned. He grabbed his bag of holding and threw it.
Bones spilled from the bag, assembling upwards. A hand reached for the Selphid. She turned, raised her wands.
“No you don’t! [Ray of Force]. [Aerial Burst].”
The Bone Horror exploded as the spells sent the bones flying. They rained down around the street. Pisces stared at the Selphid. They smiled in the Drake’s body and leapt.
“[Flame Scythe]. [Stone Spray]!”
Fire and stone. Pisces dodged backwards. But he was too slow. This time the fragments of stone struck his leg, drawing blood. He stumbled, his skin blistering. The Minotaur raised a hand.
“Ulinde, we want him alive.”
“It’s only Tier 2 spells, Beza—”
“Ulinde, Beza! Back off!”
The Drake bellowed as he aimed at Pisces. The Minotauress turned on him angrily.
“Isceil, finish it if you’re so bothered. But if you can’t catch him—”
“He won’t dodge this.”
Pisces saw the Drake lower his wand. The [Necromancer] leaned on his good leg, ready to dash. He inhaled raggedly. What was coming? If he couldn’t flee, he had to send a message to Ceria, take out the Centaur and—
Isceil inhaled. Pisces whirled. Oldblood Drake. He dodged left, prepared for an attack. But what issued from the Drake’s mouth was a stream of frost. An ice-type? But then Pisces saw the ice was a cloud. An expanding black cloud—
Darkness and ice? The [Necromancer] paused for a crucial second as the cloud curved around him. Too late, he realized it wasn’t aimed at him, but cutting off his back—he tried to dodge left, but the swath of magical bolts caught him. Three stuck him and he stumbled backwards. Freezing ice and sapping darkness from the cloud struck his back.
Burning pain. Pisces’ body spasmed. He cried out; the bolts had torn his flesh. He looked up as the Drake leveled his wand. His body was slowing. Freezing. The four [Mages] watched him.
The Minotauress called out. Pisces coughed. He said nothing. Isceil’s eyes narrowed.
Pisces raised his hand and flicked it at the [Mages]. All four recoiled, but the [Shatterbolt] spell didn’t come. The ring on Pisces’ finger was still recharging. But that opening was all he needed.
Pisces leapt forwards, his rapier extended, aiming straight for the Drake’s open mouth. A [Fencer]’s lunge. He stepped through the cloud, but the magical breath couldn’t touch him for more than a moment. And his bone rapier was aimed straight for the Drake’s open mouth.
It was less than a split second, a [Flash Step]. In that way memory has of catching up to action, Pisces saw the Drake’s eyes widen, him try to move. But it was too late. The rapier’s tip aimed at his mouth—
And Pisces slammed into something. So hard that he felt his arm crack and his rapier skid twisting out of his hands. He recoiled, and then fell backwards, stunned by the impact. He’d hit—
Isceil was cursing. He raised his wand, but his spell struck the magical barrier protecting him and dissipated harmlessly. He whirled.
And the fifth [Mage] stepped forwards, shedding her own [Invisibility] spell. Her voice was low as she moved forwards, the staff in her hands glowing.
“Step back, Isceil. Now.”
“I had that! I—”
The hooded head turned towards him. The Drake swallowed his fury, lowered his wand. Pisces scrambled for his rapier. He tried to get up, but he was winded. He looked up, biding his time. The fifth mage wore a dark hood. But now, she pulled it back and looked down at him.
She had bright red hair, fizzy, fair, Terandrian features. She was young, a bit younger than he was, but only by year or so. Her eyes were pale, saffron and topaz. She stared down at Pisces and spoke. Her voice was lower than he remembered. But so familiar.
“Hello, Pisces. Remember me?”
The [Necromancer] froze. He stared up at her. His eyes widened and his mind went blank for a second. He looked at the young woman as her companions, her team spread out behind her.
Drake. Selphid. Centaur. Minotauress. They all bore the marks of Wistram, but Pisces knew none of them. But her? He knew her. The young [Mage] leaned on her stave.
Her staff was something like marble, a hexagonal base ending with a hoop-like design at the head. Inside the ring hovered a red gemstone. But what drew the eye was the strange, polished orb hovering around the staff. It looked like a ball of…copper? Yet, Pisces had only eyes for her face. He spoke sharply. A pained name. Memory.
The magic flashed from the orb, not the staff. The thunder rolled and broke. The other [Mages] winced, but when the flash and sound cleared, Pisces was trying to get up. He’d shielded himself even from that, but—
Pisces rose. This time a fist swung at his face. He jerked, but it spun him on his back. The Minotauress watched as his head cracked the paving stones. She stood over him. The Drake advanced, aiming a wand down at Pisces. Montressa du Valeross watched.
“Give up. Now.”
The Drake’s foot flashed out and stomped on Pisces’ hand as he reached for his rapier. The [Necromancer] shouted in pain. Now there were three. Selphid, Drake, Minotauress. Beza leaned down. Her horns were capped with an ornamental tip of silver and gemstone. She spoke once.
Pisces stared up at them. The [Mages] waited. He looked past them at Montressa. Right at her. He inhaled once, clutching at his chest. And spoke.
He rose. This time there was no duel. He slashed, a knife of bone appearing in his hands. The Minotauress struck him in the stomach and he folded, gagging. The Selphid knocked his legs out from behind and the Drake [Mage] stepped forwards and kicked him in the face. Pisces stabbed at his leg, drawing blood. Isceil hissed.
He kicked Pisces again. The [Necromancer] slashed at him until Beza ripped the blade from his hands. But he refused to surrender. He snarled, then, biting, clawing, magic swirling and breaking unformed as they interrupted his spellcasting.
Selys Shivertail stood in the street where the Selphid had dragged her. She watched, vaguely, as the three magic users surrounded the young man on the ground. Some part of her was troubled. But the rest of her couldn’t find the words to explain why it hurt. The [Mages] didn’t bother with spells anymore. They just hit Pisces, again and again. The sounds bothered Selys, heavy thumps. Blows. Curses. But her vacant eyes never looked away.
They didn’t stop as long as he was moving. And he refused to stop. The Centaur looked away, inhaling deeply and blowing out smoke. When it was finally over, they stepped back. The Drake’s eyes were alight with fury. The Minotaurs’ disdainful. The Selphid looked disgusted.
And Montressa? She stepped over to the young man, as the Drake wiped off a spatter of blood and spat. And she stared down at him with hatred as she drew the Silent Box. Pisces never moved as Montressa bent.
Hatred and fear.
Yvlon Byres had never been to Wishdrinks, but she’d heard all about the reputation of the bar. And it was well-deserved. For, when she visited it at last, she found it was not only the most popular bar in Liscor, but it had a waiting list.
So the adventurers went to a normal tavern instead. The alcohol was cheap, and they were sitting around, drinking and talking. Humans, mostly. Ksmvr was there, and Ceria, but it was mostly the old adventurers. Stan. Alais. Walt. Kammy, who was ‘Kam’ to everyone. And more. Silver-rank adventurers Yvlon had met once or twice before, or whom she’d heard of.
They were talking, laughing, telling stories, and toasting each other. It was somber and funny. Mostly funny, actually—Yvlon was laughing. She couldn’t help it.
“So then—then I saw Gerial and Ceria trying to drag Calruz up the stairs. They were all too drunk, and so the Minotaur kept on falling backwards and those two idiots weren’t about to pull him up themselves. So they just left him on the stairwell. But here’s the best part: they forgot to clean him up, so he still had all the crap on him. And the tavern’s dog—it must have gotten through the door with some of its buddies, because it began eating all the scraps on him. And then it began puking and crapping on Calruz, so when we got down the next day, we found him covered in—”
A roar of laughter followed Walt’s story. Yvlon snorted, more disgusted than amused, and she saw Ceria bury her head in her hands, blushing. But also laughing.
“Dead gods. This is why we don’t work with your team, Walt! And you’re one to talk. I remember one time we had to find you after you went drinking and we found you in a pigsty, spooning with a pig!”
Kam coughed on her drink and Walt laughed. He was already deeply into his cups, and it wasn’t even near dinner yet. But then—Yvlon’s head was also clouded. They’d been drinking. Talking about the past.
“Those were the good old days. Remember when we were all just out of Bronze-rank? Your team jumped out of it fast, Ceria. That damn bull was too strong and you had those ice shards—”
“Ice spikes. I still have them. Yeah. If only I’d had my [Ice Walls]. That’d have been really useful. In the crypt.”
The other adventurers sobered a bit. Ceria had related the tale, the real tale of what had gone down in the crypt with Yvlon’s help. It hadn’t been easy, hence the drinks. But they weren’t the only ones.
“Undead. They get you. My team and the Ghouls—it was a bad hand. Cervial would’ve never opened that door. That thing—Skinner? It must have come out. It was a trap. I—well, we heard differently.”
Stan leaned on the counter. He hadn’t drunk as much as the others, being the oldest save for Ceria. He looked around and the others nodded. Kam made a disgusted noise.
“I never believed it. I knew Ceria and Calruz and everyone else. You shouldn’t have listened to those other adventurers, Stan. They’re not team captains. You know what Terrica did after I booted her from the team for getting us into that ambush? She complained. Filed a report at the Adventurer’s Guild saying that I cut her out of her fair share. Unjustly.”
Walt missed his mug. Some of the other team leaders nodded.
“She really walked your team into a full ambush?”
“She was either drunk, or she’d been taking some of those powders. Or…I don’t know. I thought I could trust her.”
“I lost two friends on a [Bandit] mission three years back. Just bad luck. I was taking point. That was an honest mistake, but that’s why I resigned as captain. There’s some truth to the folks who’re angry at the Horns. And your team, Kam. But let’s be clear: it was a mistake. Both situations could’ve been avoided, sure. But no one wanted either incident. We’ll correct anyone we hear spreading false rumors.”
Pelico, a [Rogue] adventurer nodded seriously. The other adventurers nodded too. Yvlon had to raise her mug, nodding gratefully.
“I’ll drink to that. And again—that fight in the Adventurer’s Guild? That was my fault.”
“We provoked it. Tempers were hot. It was Albez, really. Pure jealously over that. As well as not hearing anything after Liscor and getting your side of the story.”
Alais muttered into her cup. Stan nodded gravely, and he raised his cup.
“To mistakes. We’ve all made a few.”
The adventurers drank. Yvlon saw Ksmvr drinking quietly; the Antinium had been listening rather than sharing his own stories, of which he had few. Now he rose.
“Excuse me. I must excrete.”
Walt choked on his drink. Yvlon heard laughter from the others.
“Ksmvr! Don’t tell us that!”
The Antinium tilted his head.
“But I will be away for a longer period than normal. The typical toilet is ill-configured to dispose of my waste. I must find a proper receptacle.”
He wandered off. Yvlon heard Walt choking and laughing, but then the other adveturers leaned in. Kam looked at Yvlon and Ceria.
“Alright, since we can ask now—tell me honestly, you two. Is he really okay to have on your team? I couldn’t believe you had an Antinium on your team. I thought they were these mindless killing machines.”
The others nodded. Yvlon looked at Ceria, and spoke up first.
“Ksmvr’s odd. But he’s one of the most loyal teammates I’ve ever had. The Antinium are strange, but some of them are just like us. Just a bit different.”
“Well, he doesn’t understand a lot of things. He lived in the Hive all his life. He’s actually three years old.”
“Dead gods. Seriously?”
“Yes, but listen, Kam, everyone. He’s the kind of teammate you want. Ksmvr’s the most trustworthy friend I know. If anything, we have to take care of him because he’ll put his life on the line before ours. He thinks he’s expendable compared to us; he’d lay his life down in a heartbeat.”
Pelico bit his lip.
“Damn. That’s some loyalty. I’ve had companions like that. They don’t last long.”
“Don’t worry about him. That fellow’s a demon in combat. Did we tell you about the [Bandit] story? He took out an entire group of them. By himself!”
“What? I didn’t hear about this!”
Everyone looked at Stan. He was nodding, looking at Yvlon and Ceria for confirmation.
“I didn’t see it all, but—well, it was after the fight. Yvlon and Ceria here had just been hauled off to the jail—”
“Because they’d brawled with us. That other one too. Pisces?”
Alais muttered, flushing. Yvlon nodded. Kam glanced up sharply.
“The [Necromancer]. Tell us about him. You’re actually working with one? After Liscor?”
“He saved Ceria’s life. Went into the crypt, Kam.”
“Talk about him later! What’s this about the [Bandits]?”
Walt interrupted impatiently. Stan was nodding, and Yvlon was leaning over to whisper with Kam when the [Mages] walked into the tavern. Five of them. At first, no one noticed, but Ceria glanced up muzzily, sensing the magical energy. So did another team captain.
Ulinde, the Selphid, glanced around, and then spotted Ceria at the bar. She pointed the half-Elf out.
“That her, Montressa?”
The Centaur named Palt was lighting a new roll. He sucked on it and blew out more smoke.
“She’s got companions. Want to wait?”
“Adventurers. They look like Silver-ranks. We can handle them. Let’s not waste time.”
Beza snorted. She still looked at Montressa first. The [Mage] nodded and they all walked forwards.
Isceil interrupted Stan’s story at the bar. The adventurers turned, most blinking as they saw the five [Mages]. Ceria looked up. She focused on the Drake’s face first.
“Huh? That’s me. Do I know you?”
“No. But you know her.”
The Drake jerked his head over to the young woman. Ceria turned. Yvlon saw her pause uncertainly. And then Ceria dropped her mug.
She jerked out of her seat, standing up unsteadily. Montressa gave Ceria a flat, long stare.
“That’s me. Hello, Ceria. Is your team here?”
“I—Montressa? How did you get here? Tree rot! Is that you?”
Ceria stared unsteadily at Montressa and then went to pinch herself. Yvlon stared. She’d heard Ceria’s tale of her days in Wistram and she vaguely recalled the name. Alais blinked around. She could sense the [Mages] too. She sat up a bit and her tone was respectful.
“Who’s this Ceria? An old friend?”
The half-Elf blinked uncertainly at Mons. Worriedly, Yvlon thought. But she smiled and gestured around to Yvlon.
“Everyone, this is Montressa. Montressa, it’s good to see you. Yvlon—meet Montressa. You remember me telling you about her? This is Yvlon, one of my teammates. I—”
She paused. Montressa was just staring at Ceria. Looking the half-Elf up and down. And—Yvlon was rapidly sobering—there was absolutely no warmth in her eyes. Much the opposite. The other [Mages] looked equally…
Slowly, the adventurers put down their cups and all turned. They could all feel it in the air. Ceria’s smile faltered.
“Mons? I have a team. The Horns of Hammerad. And…you know who’s on my team?”
“An old friend. I know. Pisces. I just met him. But I never thought you’d be working with him. Looks like you really haven’t changed.”
Montressa spoke quietly. She stared at Ceria. Yvlon felt her skin crawling. Beside her, Kam gave Yvlon a slow nudge.
“What? You met Pisces?”
“I did. My team and I are all [Mages] from Wistram. We’re here on a mission. We just apprehended Pisces for his crimes. He’ll stand trial in Wistram.”
The room froze over. Ceria stared at Montressa, blinking, not quite comprehending. Her smile vanished. She looked at Montressa, then the other four [Mages].
“What? But—hold on, we were kicked out. The Council exiled us. You can’t—wait, where’s Pisces?”
“What did you do with him?”
Yvlon slowly got up. She was still wearing her armor. She stared at the Minotauress. She was big. Taller than Calruz, even. Although Calruz had been burlier. This Minotaur was wearing robes. A Minotaur [Mage]? She still looked stronger than Walt.
“We put him in a Silent Box. He resisted. You’re on his team, Ceria. Wistram’s decided you owe the academy an explanation for why you’re consorting with him. So you’re coming as well. You won’t be a prisoner if you come quietly. Surrender if you know what’s good for you.”
The half-Elf just stared at Montressa. She looked disbelieving for a moment. But the Drake was shifting his weight. The seated adventurers were surreptitiously shifting their weight. Stan called out, his voice friendly, but wary. The [Bartender] had already ducked backwards, away from the bar.
“Hold on here. I don’t know what this is about, but let’s all be reasonable here. You’re all [Mages]? Why don’t we sit down, discuss this—”
“Shut up, Human. All of you adventurers, stay out of this. This is Wistram’s business. Wistram Academy. If we need to, we’ll deal with all of you as well.”
The Drake snapped at him. That was the wrong thing to say. Walt got up.
“Listen, you pissant Drake. I’ve had it up to here with—”
He froze as Isceil drew his wand. Ulinde’s appeared in her hands as well, aiming at the bar of adventurers. Everyone froze.
“Hold on! You can’t start a fight in the middle of the city! The Watch will—”
Kam croaked nervously. Montressa ignored her. She was still staring at Ceria, but now her gaze flicked to Yvlon.
“Is this your teammate? Does she know what you and Pisces did?”
“Don’t call me that. Does she know what Pisces is? What he’s done? How could you work with him?”
Yvlon stepped forwards. The attention of all the [Mages] shifted on her. She settled herself. Her nerves were fizzing. She checked one arm unconsciously as she looked at Montressa.
“I know who Pisces is. He’s a friend. Where is he? Did you hurt him?”
“This doesn’t concern you. Your Captain and the [Necromancer] are criminals. Walk away.”
The Minotauress informed Yvlon, glaring. Yvlon looked at her.
“Where is Pisces. Answer me.”
Montressa shifted her robes and let go of her staff. It stayed upright as she pointed to a little black cube. Yvlon stared at it as Ceria inhaled.
“Let him go. Now.”
Yvlon reached for her sword. Alais said something, but Yvlon’s eyes were locked on Montressa. The Selphid raised her wand warningly.
“Don’t. You’re all out leveled. Let Ceria Springwalker go and she’ll come back with us.”
“This isn’t happening. Montressa, let me explain. Did you talk to Pisces? What happened?”
Ceria was laughing, her eyes wide with disbelief. She looked at Montressa, but the young Human woman never blinked. She stared back at Ceria, and Yvlon’s hand found the hilt of her sword.
“What did you do?”
“We don’t want a fight. Let’s talk this over. Yvlon, this isn’t the Adventurer’s Guild. Ceria.”
Stan’s voice was uncertain. Yvlon hesitated. But Ceria just stared at Montressa. She gulped.
“I know that, Stan. But—Mons? Why is my [Dangersense] going off? What did you do with Pisces?”
The young woman paused. Then she turned her head and nodded at the Drake and Minotaur on her left.
Yvlon drew her sword. Behind his companions, the Centaur grabbed at something.
Yvlon felt her sword hilt vanish. She gaped and saw him holding the blade, half unsheathed. The Drake pointed his wand.
Yvlon dove as a block of stone blasted past her and smashed into the bar. The room exploded into violence. The adventurers surged up from their chairs. Half of them already had weapons in their hands, but the Selphid was faster. Ulinde leapt forwards, pointing both her wands at the adventurers.
Spider webbing, nets of it, shot out and hit most of the adventures where they sat. They cried out, struggling, but the Centaur was pointing calmly from face to face.
“[Black Shroud]. [Sleep]. [Sticky Webs]—”
He and the Selphid struck the adventures in their seats, immobilizing some of them. Walt slumped, his eyes fluttering. Ceria was on her feet.
She raised her wand, pointing with her skeletal hand. Frost shimmering around both, but Isceil pointed his wand at her.
“You’re outmatched, half-Elf. Don’t even try it.”
Ceria hesitated. Yvlon surged to her feet, looking for a weapon. Anything! She turned—and Beza charged her. The Minotauress knocked Yvlon off her feet. The [Wounded Warrior] tumbled backwards, crashing onto the ground. Beza raised a fist.
“No fighting! No fighting! Someone call the W—”
The [Bartender] was halfway towards the door, but there was a shimmering barrier there. The Centaur pointed and the Drake collapsed, eyes rolling up in his head. Ceria looked at Yvlon. From the ground, Yvlon looked up. Montressa looked at Ceria.
A barrier of ice exploded from the ground as she shot a spray of snow into the Drake’s face. He cursed and pointed at the expanding barrier of frozen water.
The wall of ice exploded. Ceria gaped and saw him pointing his wand. She dodged, but too late. The bolt of magic hit her in the chest and slammed her against the bar. She flailed there, breathless. The Drake hit her with a second spell before she could move. Ceria felt the world disappear for a moment. Her ears were ringing. She stared upwards, mouthing wordlessly. She couldn’t breathe.
Montressa stood over her. Yvlon was on her feet, but she’d been caught. Beza had her arm. The Minotauress was twisting it up ruthlessly. Ceria was downed—Isceil was stabbing his wand into her chest and it was draining her of energy. Yvlon cursed as she fought to get free, but Beza had leverage on her. She growled as the other [Mages] looked at Ceria.
“Walk away, Miss Human. Both of your teammates are under arrest. You’re free to go; don’t make us incapacitate you.”
“Let go of Ceria!”
Yvlon wrenched, but her right arm was caught. Beza sighed as she adjusted her grip and looked at Montressa.
“I’ve got this. You can’t get free, Human.”
Yvlon twisted. She was bent over, held at an awkward angle, but she could still hit at Beza. She swung a fist into the Minotaur’s stomach, but it was weak. Beza didn’t even move. She looked embarrassed as she twisted Yvlon’s arm up further.
“Just give up. Even Minotaur [Mages] can outfight your average [Warrior]. And I’m specialized in hand-to-hand combat.”
Ceria croaked weakly. Yvlon saw her friend’s hand jerking as she weakly grasped at the wand. The obsidian was sparking where it touched her chest. Montressa was lifting the black cube, advancing on her. Yvlon Byres saw crimson. She howled in fury and wrenched.
Her arm moved. Yvlon turned and slammed her head into Beza’s chin. The Minotaur stumbled back she looked stunned. Yvlon spun. She kicked, catching the Minotaur in the stomach. It felt like she was hitting a rock! She caught herself, lashed out. Her right arm didn’t move, but her left struck Beza across the face. Her armored fist drew blood this time. Yvlon punched. Her right arm wasn’t moving!
Her friends were raising their wands. Yvlon turned, one of her arms raised. Beza stumbled backwards, but caught herself. She held up a hand. Then she stared at Yvlon. The [Wounded Warrior] turned to her. The Minotauress stared.
“You—you just dislocated your arm.”
Yvlon blinked. She stared down at her left arm. She saw her arm was twisted, the elbow bent in into it poked at her side. She stared at it. She hadn’t felt a thing. Then she looked up.
The Human woman charged the Minotaur. Beza blocked the first punch; Yvlon kneed her in the chest and heard the Minotaur grunt. She swung, catching Beza across the ribs. The Minotaur punched back and hit Yvlon across the face. Yvlon reeled back and hit Beza with all her weight on the left side. The Minotaur reeled back.
“Use [Steel Body]! Don’t just duke it out, you idiot!”
Isceil was shouting at Beza, but she refused to retreat. Yvlon swung again—this time the Minotaur blocked and lashed out. She hit Yvlon on the chest this time; the armor took the impact and Yvlon slid back.
She tried to move her other arm and felt her muscles tearing. But she didn’t feel it. She charged and rammed into the Minotaur. She reached down and yanked at the leg she found. Beza stumbled, cursing, and Yvlon lifted.
The Minotaur went down and Yvlon leapt on her. Beza tried to utter a spell as she raised her hands. Too late. Yvlon was on top of her. One handed, she pounded at the Minotaur’s face. Beza roared.
Behind Yvlon, Montressa pointed her staff. Yvlon jerked as the spell hit her. Ropes appeared and swirled around the [Warrior] as she tried to fight. But then she was struggling, cursing on the ground. Beza rose, eyes red with fury and rounded on Montressa.
“That was my fight!”
“Oh yeah? You did about as well as Isceil. You should have enchanted yourself, Beza. We don’t have time for this.”
The Selphid shook her head. Beza was furious, but she calmed as Montressa glared at her. She turned back to Yvlon.
“I’m sorry about that.”
“You coward. You—”
The Centaur trotted over and waved a hand over Yvlon. She cursed, but her movements grew slower. She resisted the spell for nearly a minute, swearing at Beza, but the Centaur just kept the spores of yellow-green powder drifting down on her and eventually Yvlon slowed.
The [Mages] stood in silence. Ceria was limp, unconscious, as Isceil stepped back. He looked at the adventurers, most of whom were out and then at Beza. She was wiping blood from one nostril.
“Alright, we got the half-Elf. Are we taking the other one too?”
“We have to. But where’s the fourth? Did anyone see the Antinium?”
The [Mages] all shook their heads. Montressa glanced around warily. Ulinde was frowning.
“Well, we don’t have to get anyone besides Pisces and Ceria, right? Maybe we—”
Thunk. Ulinde stopped talking and rocked backwards. A crossbow bolt had appeared in the side of her head, just above her ear. She stumbled backwards. Beza’s eyes went wide. She spun—a crossbow bolt struck her in the chest. She stared at it.
Isceil raised his wand. The third crossbow bolt shattered, cracking the magical barrier that appeared around him. The fourth broke it, but the bolt snapped and only the fragments hit him. He raised his wand and Ksmvr fired the fifth crossbow. It snapped through the Drake’s arm, sending the wand flying. He aimed the sixth one.
He had Crossbow Stan’s bag of holding. Ksmvr stood behind the bar where he’d been hidden and pointed it at Montressa. Straight at her stomach. She was still stunned. He pulled the trigger and the crossbow fired. The bolt sped at Montressa and lodged in the air.
Ksmvr paused. That was a good barrier spell. Montressa jerked, looked at him, and pointed her staff.
The Antinium leapt sideways. He moved unnaturally fast, hopping from his hiding place and bouncing off a wall. He leapt again, landing, and now he had his weapons in hand. He darted at Beza first. His Flamecoat Dagger set her alight and she howled.
“Beza! [Dispel Magic]!”
The flames went out as fast as they’d appeared. Ksmvr saw Montressa pointing her staff and dodged around her. He lunged. Shortsword, Forceshield in his other two hands. He collided with the shield and his enchanted shortsword struck—something. But it didn’t break.
“Damn, the Antinium—”
The Drake pointed his wand. Ksmvr raised his Forceshield and the spell burst. He felt the impact, but smoothly dodged backwards. The Minotaur swung at him and he stabbed her in the side. Yvlon was asleep, the adventurers were incapacitated. The Centaur was rearing back, alarmed. Not used to combat for all his abilities. Hamstring. Ksmvr, darted forwards—
Ulinde caught him. The Selphid stared at Ksmvr, the crossbow bolt still buried to the shaft in her head. Ksmvr stared at her. His mandibles opened.
Oh. He swung his dagger and shortsword. She uttered a word.
The electricity coursed through Ksmvr. He still completed the swing, but he just hacked into dead flesh. The Selphid kept her grip and Ksmvr spasmed. He tried to move, to step back, but then he collapsed. Ulinde put a hand on his chest as Ksmvr fell to the ground of the tavern. He curled up as the electricity kept running through him. The adventurers saw him trying to move. Shaking. Stopping.
“Ulinde! That’s an Antinium! If we kill one—”
“I know! I know.”
The electricity stopped. Ulinde stepped back. She felt at the crossbow bolt and grimaced, then turned to Beza.
“I know. I just hate being shot and that scared me. Are you alight?”
The Minotauress drank a healing potion and growled.
“I’m fine. Where did it come from?”
“It must have been in the back. He nearly got me. That filthy—”
Isceil glared at Ksmvr, his hand witching as he drank his own potion. He nearly lifted his wand, but Montressa stopped him.
“You should have put up a barrier. You too, Beza. It was your own carelessness and both of you nearly died because of it. Be careful. This isn’t Wistram and we’re supposed to be professional! Now, let’s finish what we came here to do.”
She looked around as Isceil fell silent, flushing and lashing his tail. The bar was silent, but some adventurers were still awake. Immobilized. Alais was breathing hard as she fought against the webs. She was afraid to use her lightning magic.
“You can’t do this. They’re adventurers!”
“They’re criminals. Shut up. Montressa, capture the Antinium. It’s making me uneasy.”
Isceil snapped at her. He pointed at the other four [Mages].
“Didn’t you hear where we’re from? Wistram Academy. Don’t worry; we’ll release the Antinium and [Warrior] later. But the two [Mages] are both criminals. They’ve committed a number of crimes, including impersonating real Wistram [Mages].”
“Real…? You still can’t—don’t touch Ceria!”
Alais struggled, but she was held captive. Montressa was lifting the black box and before Alais’ horrified eyes, the half-Elf vanished, turning into motes of black light that flowed into the box and the silver doorway. Ulinde yanked the bolt out of her head, grimacing.
“Barbed? Damn it. Listen, they’ll be fine. It’s just a prison. Look, this is all legal.”
“Legal? You attacked an adventuring team in Liscor! You—”
Ulinde ignored Alais. She looked around impatiently.
“Oh, forget it. Palt?”
The Centaur nodded. He blew some smoke out and raised his hands, pointing at the conscious adventurers.
“[Wave of Vacan—]”
When Alais awoke next, she was lying on the floor. The [Sticky Webs] binding her were gone, and it was nightfall. The [Mages] were all long gone. And so were Ceria, Yvlon, and Ksmvr.
The [Mages] left the bar quietly. The street was still full of pedestrians, but no one had noticed the fight. Indeed, no one even glanced at the tavern; Palt’s spell was still active, distracting attention away from it. The Centaur was first to exit; he waited for the rest of his companions.
Isceil was rubbing his arm, swearing.
“It hurts. Damn it, it got my bone. The healing potion got some, but—”
“Tough it out. That was embarrassing.”
Beza was unsympathetic. Her fur was still singed, but she was looking embarrassed.
“We could have had perfect takedowns. But you nearly got stabbed and you lost your shield. I didn’t expect that Human woman to dislocate her shoulder.”
“He broke it! What was that spell?”
“[Shatterbolt]. That’s a dangerous artifact. Think we can pull it off him?”
Ulinde looked excitedly at Montressa. The young woman was leaning on her staff. She didn’t look happy. Instead, she touched the black cube and looked around.
Palt, Ulinde, Beza, and Isceil. They were all young [Mages] from Wistram, but full [Mages]. Top of their years. And she was their leader. She shook her head and adjusted her hood.
“Later. Palt, where’s the Drake you used [Mind Blank] on?”
“I left her over there. She’s got a veil on her; no one’s bothering her.”
Palt nodded to a Drake standing vacantly to the side. Selys Shivertail was still unfocused. The Centaur eyed her, and then turned to Montressa.
“It’ll wear off in an hour. I hit her with a good one.”
“Any side effects?”
“Besides amnesia? No. You want me to dispel it? And what about the bar? They’ll all wake up in there after an hour or two as well. Want me to hold the concealing enchantments on it?”
Montressa nodded absently. Ulinde looked nervously at her.
“We’re breaking a lot of rules, here, Mons. I know this is personal, but—”
She broke off as Montressa’s head snapped up. The young woman glared at Ulinde. Her arm was shaking as it clutched the staff around which the copper orb was slowly rotating.
“It’s Montressa, Ulinde. Not Mons. Remember that. And we’re within our rights to hunt fugitives from Wistram. Isn’t that what you said, Isceil?”
The Drake grimaced, still rubbing at his wrist.
“We should probably have talked to the Watch Captain of the city. But you insisted we go after the [Necromancer] when we saw him.”
“He was about to notice us. He’s not an idiot. We shouldn’t have approached. But we got him. We got him and it’s done. We can make apologies later and pay for damages. If this was a city up north or in Terandria, we’d be fine, probably. How much different is Liscor, Isceil?”
He shrugged, looking annoyed.
“I don’t know! I grew up in Fissival, far from here. And frankly, Liscor’s always been isolated. It’s a border city; it was out of touch before the Antinium settled a damn Hive here.”
“Well, someone needs to go see the Watch Captain and explain matters. And pay for the bar we trashed.”
Beza, or Bezale, the Minotaur, folded her arms. She was fishing around in her bag of holding and now she produced a few scrolls. She eyed them.
“And I need to scribe another [Steel Body] and [Haste] scroll.”
“Being a [Spellscribe] must suck.”
“Not as much as being an [Oldblood Magus] who lost to a third-year student who was expelled, Isceil. So much for the dueling master.”
The Drake clenched both claws, too furious for a reply. Montressa shook her head.
“I told you he was dangerous. He’s avoided capture from all the other teams who found him for a reason. Enough. We still have work. But someone has to talk to the Watch Captain.”
Beza looked up instantly. Ulinde echoed her. Everyone turned to look at Isceil. He glared.
Palt exhaled; he was still smoking. It was almost perpetual if you knew him.
“You’re a Drake, Isceil.”
“So? Why do I have to talk to some petty Watch Captain? You do it Palt.”
“What? I don’t want to.”
“You didn’t help during the capture.”
“Not my job.”
The Centaur looked affronted, but he sensed Isceil’s mood. He looked at Montressa, and she paused.
“You are the best at negotiations, Palt.”
The Centaur sighed loudly. Ulinde patted him on the flank.
“Just slap on [Arlell’s Articulation] and [Charming Visage]. If she’s got magic detection spells, do something non-magical and charming. You’re the [Illusionist]. I’m a Selphid, there’s that thing with the Minotaur, Isceil’s mad and Mons is the boss. There’s only you.”
“I don’t know why I agreed to come with you all. Fine. Where’s this Watch Captain? Oh, and give me the gold bag, Mons. I might have to pay a lot.”
Palt sighed. Mons handed him a pouch and he took it. Isceil looked around.
“I don’t know where the Watch barracks is. Go ask a [Guardsman] and they’ll point it to you.”
The Centaur snorted and trotted off in a huff. Isceil shouted after his back.
“And put out that stupid roll-up! It’s illegal to have cloudleaf in most Drake cities! Let alone whatever you put in that thing.”
He saw Palt turn his head and glare before marching back. Montressa looked at Beza and the Minotauress shook her head hopelessly. Palt spat the smoking roll from his lips and caught it magically in the air. He glared at Isceil.
“First of all, it’s not a ‘roll-up’. And neither is it a ‘joint’. This is a spliff, hence the tobacco leaves I’ve added to the cloudleaves. It’s quite good.”
“Really? Then I’ll have one.”
Isceil moderated his tone and reached for it. Palt made it vanish and the Drake glared at him.
“No. You want one? Pay up. These aren’t cheap and I can’t buy more ingredients easily in Drake cities. [Alchemists] charge far too much around here.”
“Just get out of here.”
The Drake rudely turned his back. Palt trotted off huffily. His companions watched him go. After a second, Beza snorted.
“Spliff? What is that? Some new concoction?”
“He probably learned it from the guests.”
Ulinde nodded knowingly at the others. Beza paused.
“Oh, right. Them.”
There was a thoughtful pause. Everyone knew something, but the only person who knew a lot was…they all glanced at the young woman. Montressa was still looking at the black cube that now held the Horns of Hammerad. She glanced up as Beza addressed her casually.
“The Ea—I mean, uh, Aaron helped you make your attack orb, right, Montressa?”
Montressa looked up and frowned.
“Yes. But he didn’t say what’s in it and I’m not letting you open it up. It’s experimental. Are you all finished? Let’s go, then.”
She looked around, shoulders hunched. Ulinde exchanged a glance with Isceil and the Drake forgot his ire for a second. Beza looked at her friend, concerned. She paused, and her tone grew softer.
“Montressa, I know you’ve been on edge. But relax. You got him.”
She gestured at the black cube, the Silent Box that she’d passed to Montressa.
“It’s over, Montressa. If you want, I’ll take the box—”
“No. I’ve got it.”
Montressa replied quickly. Her face was taut as she touched the cube and then her hand flew away. Ulinde saw Beza look at her and shrugged helplessly. Isceil grinned.
“Maybe you’ll stop having those nightmares, eh?”
Montressa glared at him along with the other two female [Mages]. Isceil’s smile vanished.
“What? Why are you biting my tail off? We did it! Fine, it was messy, but we got the murderer. And his team. Why’s she still mad?”
He pointed accusingly at Montressa. The young woman paused. She took a deep breath. Then she nodded. She tried to smile.
“Yes. Yes. I did. Thank you. All of you. But we’re not done here. We do have more tasks, remember?”
“Finding ‘L’, investigating the [Emperor]—and getting the magic door from Liscor as well as investigating that report of a…guest. We had to skip the [Emperor] and ‘L’ because of that Oldblood raid. Thank goodness for Wistram’s intelligence.”
Beza nodded briskly. Isceil was nodding too.
“Alright, so the door and this Human. Where is it? I’ll be glad to use the thing; we had to march all the way to Liscor so we didn’t run into—”
He nodded at the cube on Montressa’s belt. She nodded absently and pulled out a folded bit of paper. She studied it.
“Erin Solstice, [Innkeeper]. We’re investigating her and we want the magic door in her inn.”
“Ooh, two for one. Hey, is that the inn people were talking about? The one the [Guards] warned us did weird stuff? And in Celum? And Esthelm?”
Ulinde brightened up. Montressa nodded, smiling a bit. The brooding, anxious mood that had engulfed her the closer they’d come to the source of her fears was lightening, and all her friends were glad to see it. They began walking through the streets, talking.
“I think it’s the eastern gate. That’s what they said, right?”
“Yup. Inn on a hill. I can’t wait to see the magic door. Think the Archmages can disenchant it and copy the spell?”
“Maybe? Archmage Naili thinks she can. Although why we don’t have a teleportation spell like this—”
“Upper floors, probably. She was experimenting with the ones we know, and she’s coming close, but she wants a perfect copy. Imagine having a bunch of them in Wistram?”
“What if the [Innkeeper] really is like…Aaron? I hear she’s crazy. She can spit blood, she kills Shield Spiders with her bare hands, and she took down a gang in Celum all by herself!”
“That’s an exaggeration. But remember the battle with the Face-Eater moths? I want to talk to her.”
Beza was grinning, excited by the idea. Mons smiled.
“If she is, we’ll need to split up, maybe, or ask for retrieval. We still have to investigate the [Emperor] and ‘L’, so don’t relax yet.”
The others nodded, but Ulinde piped up. The Selphid was rubbing her hands together eagerly.
“Okay, we get the door, but we have to stay here a few days, okay? The Halfseekers are around Liscor last I heard. I have to meet Jelaqua Ivirith. Don’t say anything, Isceil! She’s my hero!”
Beza nodded as Isceil rolled his eyes. The Minotauress glanced around darkly, noting the unfriendly stares Gnolls and Drakes were giving her.
“I have some business here too. But let’s visit this inn, first. I’m hungry, and I hear this Erin Solstice serves interesting food.”
“Let me go first, though. And remember—the Horns stayed at her inn. So not a word about them. We need to be careful, so that means you keep your mouth shut, Beza. And you, Isceil. And Ulinde. Palt’s the only one I trust, actually.”
The others laughed, relaxing. They found the magical door and inspected it for a while. There was a queue lined up, mostly Drakes and Gnolls. A few of them recoiled from Beza before they realized she wasn’t Calruz; the Minotauress folded her arms darkly. But then, after less than four minutes of waiting, the door opened.
“Sorry for the delay! Come on in! Anyone travelling to Celum? Esthelm?”
A friendly Drake waved the crowd in. The [Mages] blinked in surprise, but they entered the warm, inviting inn. On the far end of the long room, there were [Actors] setting up on stage. The tables were full of guests, and servers carrying hot food were coming in and out of the kitchen, serving at terrific speed! Montressa smiled and looked around. Then her eye fell on a sign over the bar.
No Killing Goblins. She pointed it out and the [Mages] all blinked. Beza stiffened when she saw the Hobgoblin, but before the [Mages] could wait, a young woman was guiding them to the a table.
“Right here. Table for four? Five? A Centaur?”
Lyonette blinked at Montressa. The [Mage] blinked back. Lyonette’s hair was nearly as red at hers; that was a rarer sight on Izril, as opposed to the old Terandrian bloodlines. But she was too preoccupied with explaining about Palt.
“Not to worry! We can get some pillows and we do have larger chairs for your friend. Miss Minotaur? If you’d like to sit here—Drassi? Where are the chairs we use for Moore? We need one!”
“This is good!”
Despite himself, Isceil looked pleased as they sat and found an appetizer already appearing on their table. He stared at the long tubes of potato.
“What are these?”
“French fries. Complimentary! Try some—this is a small basket, but I can give you a larger portion if you order. With condiments!”
Lyonette smiled. She completely missed the way Montressa and the other [Mages] sat up at the word ‘French’. Ulinde inspected the fries.
“Aw, they look good. I wish my taste buds weren’t half-decayed. Hey, Montressa, I might need to switch it out.”
“Don’t talk to me, Ulinde. I want to eat. I think this is our place, Mons. Where’s the [Innkeeper].”
Beza leaned back and waved at the young woman who was coming back with drinks. Lyonette looked surprised.
“Erin? She’s talking with some of our [Actors]. They’re going to perform in a bit—a classic, Macbeth, but she’s trying to teach them a new performance. Horror. Do you know about our plays?”
Fascinated, the [Mages] shook their heads. Montressa leaned forwards as Lyonette explained that they were now doing a horror-themed lineup, including classics like Psycho, and The Shining. Erin had found new ways to adapt her world’s work into this one and she was monetizing plagiarism.
“Well, if you stay for another night, we’ll have a performance for you to see! I’m afraid we don’t have many rooms open; the inn’s under construction by the Antinium. I don’t want to bother Erin…”
“Would you mind if we talked? I’d like to make—a special order. For the table? We’d be willing to pay d—triple.”
Lyonette’s eyes lit up.
“I’ll see what I can do!”
She hurried off. Montressa sat up a bit. Isceil turned to Beza.
“Ten gold says it’s just a regular Human. Maybe met one of the guests.”
“Ten gold? Are you mad? It’s got to be her.”
“I think it’s too much of a coincidence. I’m playing the long odds. Give me ten-to-one odds.”
The [Mages] waited, munching down on the fries and looking around. A white Gnoll cub was prowling around, trying to steal or beg snacks. And the Hobgoblin was strumming on a guitar. Montressa felt the hair at the back of her neck stir. She turned as a young woman hurried over away from the stage.
“Hi there! My name’s Erin Solstice! Welcome to my inn! Lyonette said you have a special order? Hey, are you all [Mages]?”
She had an infectious smile and a welcoming personality. Even Isceil relaxed. Erin looked at Beza.
“And a Minotaur and a Selphid? Whoa! Cool!”
It put a smile on Beza and Ulinde’s faces. Montressa smiled too. She paused as the others introduced themselves. Erin turned to her.
“And you are? No—wait. Let me get your order first. Lyonette said you wanted something specific?”
Montressa nodded carefully. She’d spotted the menu over the bar and her heart was racing. She was sure. Isceil was an idiot for not having read it. She spoke slowly, looking at Erin. Watching her face.
“I am. I think you might have some of this but—do you have anything like an American cheeseburger? Or perhaps an Indian curry? Anything Chinese?”
She was prepared to go on. But she didn’t need to. Erin was smiling at first, but then she paused. Her eyes widened. Her jaw dropped and she stared at Montressa.
Yes. Montressa knew it. Beza smiled and nudged Ulinde. The Selphid was grinning. Isceil just leaned back, rolling his eyes and cursing as he spotted the menu. He drew a sigil in the air with his wand. A hush enveloped the table as Montressa stood. Erin was gaping at her. But Montressa was used to it. She nodded to Erin, smiling reassuringly.
“Miss Erin Solstice, we’re [Mages] sent by Wistram looking for people from Earth. You are from Earth, aren’t you?”
Erin hesitated, but there was no point denying it. Her shock was proof enough. Montressa nodded. She smiled and reached out.
“We’re here to take you home to the others.”
The Wistram [Mages] all smiled at Erin. And Montressa felt her heart lighten. After the grief and pain of seeing the monster and Ceria—at least this was good. She nodded, glad to be the bearer of good news.
“That’s right. There are others. They’re all at Wistram. Miss Erin Solstice, we’d like to bring you to Wistram. To meet other people from Earth. And not just that. We’re going to help you go home.”