“We’re going to help you go home.”
Erin Solstice stared at the young woman, the Human [Mage] who smiled and held out a hand towards her. Her eyes went wide, and her mind went blank. She felt the veil of silence around them, which cut off all sound. Even the other [Mages] at the table couldn’t hear what Montressa was saying.
And even had she not been stunned, Erin would probably not have noticed the little black cube with the silver door painted on one side that held the Horns of Hammerad. She would not have known what had transpired. She might have guessed, had she known Montressa du Valeross’ name, pieced it together with her knowledge of Pisces and Ceria’s past. But she was distracted. The pretty young woman with bright red hair smiled at her and brought back a memory, a dream.
It was raining in Baleros. Probably. And there were all kinds of nasty insects, monsters—and you had to deal with mercenary armies, companies, and that was where Lizardpeople lived. Not that Zevara bought into the hating them thing. Even so, sometimes she looked at Watch Captain applications for other continents.
Baleros didn’t have Watch Captain as a standard job, but there were parallels. You could get paid well, have respect—it would take a while, but someone with Zevara’s resume might be able to swing it.
Maybe then she wouldn’t have to deal with idiots walking into her office. The Watch Captain glared over her desk at the Centaur. Palt. He’d talked his way in here, but unfortunately, she couldn’t fault the Gnoll on duty down below for letting him up here.
“Let me get this straight. You’re here to tell me—after the fact—that you’re part of a team of [Mages] sent by Wistram to apprehend a wanted criminal? And that you already did catch your quarry in a magical duel in the city? Oh, and that your team is already elsewhere and your team’s leader did not choose to visit me herself?”
The Centaur shuffled his hooves. Palt, the [Illusionist] and subject of Zevara’s wrath, really wished he had something to smoke. Still, he put on his best smile and spread his arms wide, peaceably, trying not to paw the floorboards nervously with a hoof.
“It’s my sincere regret, Watch Captain, but we’ve been hunting this particular criminal for months. It’s been a long journey and my leader would have contacted you at once! But we just arrived and we saw the fugitive with one of your civilians and out of concern—”
“You arrested someone in my city. With, what? A criminal record? I don’t recall any—I don’t recall more than four individuals in this city with outstanding bounties, and none of them are enforceable within Liscor’s walls! None of them recent, either!”
Zevara was reaching for a drawer in her desk, glaring up at Palt. He hesitated. He was under the influence of two charm spells, but all that seemed to be doing was slowing the boil of the Drake’s temper in front of him.
“Watch Captain, the matter is somewhat private. Wistram did not put out a formal bounty on the individual—”
The Drake’s head snapped up.
“You mean, you arrested a civilian with no criminal record?”
Palt subvocalized another spell, [Soothing Presence]. It didn’t seem to work that much, but Zevara’s claws stopped digging into the desk. Verbally, he smiled weakly.
“Not just a civilian, Watch Captain. Not a member of Liscor either. An adventurer, in fact. And they are a known criminal—I can refer you to several cities with an outstanding bounty on their head.”
The Watch Captain stared at Palt. She didn’t know why she hadn’t arrested him or thrown her out one of her windows. She—paused. A thought occurred to her, born out of training and she glanced surreptitiously at her claw. Then she pulled open a desk. Of all the damn times to—
“This is a matter of Wistram Academy’s interests, Watch Captain. And we are extremely sorry to have infringed upon Liscor’s laws, but a [Mage] crime should be solved by [Mages]. Of course, my team and I are fully prepared to recompense the city for any damages caused. There were um, some other incidents regarding a second fugitive by association.”
The Centaur had such a soothing voice. Zevara almost wanted to sit back and let him tell his side of things. She was looking. Let’s see—second drawer down—she pulled out a neatly-folded handkerchief and grimaced. She needed to organize her things, but—Palt was nodding.
“A—small conflict in a bar. We have the rest of the individual’s team in custody, and there was some damage to the bar itself. The patrons might be waking up as we speak.”
Zevara’s head slowly rose.
“You trashed a bar? Where was the Watch?”
“We took ah, magical measures to avoid a larger conflict. And there’s the matter of a civilian we had to pacify—the fugitive we apprehended was in danger of threatening her or taking her hostage. He’s done so in the past.”
Zevara’s claw nudged aside a spare ink pot. There. She pulled something out, stared at it. She hated the stupid thing. Whomever the [Enchanter] had been, they had made the most insanely idiotic little face—Human, even worse, it looked like a fleshy pig smiling at her—and attached it to the charm. She refused to wear it most of the time. Still. She absently wrapped it around her claw, keeping her hands under the desk.
“You…cast a spell on a citizen?”
“Only one to keep her out of trouble! She’s quite safe, I can assure you. She’s downstairs, with your exemplary Watch. You may inspect her as I remove the enchantment. And I will of course, pay for any distress caused—and the damages—and furnish you with a report from Wistram on the individual we apprehended.”
He wasn’t telling her the name. But he sounded so polite…and she was feeling calmer than she had in weeks! Zevara almost smiled as the Centaur gave her a soothing, deferential nod. She glanced down under the table—
And the little, smiling face had turned into a horror-mask of fury. Zevara paused. She looked up at Palt. Her eyes narrowed and silently, she bit her tongue, drawing blood. Below the desk she silently kicked her biggest toe into the side.
The agony made her eyes water. And her head clear. Zevara slowly looked up. Palt was smiling at her. She smiled back, slowly lowering the charm back into the desk drawer.
“Tell me, Mage Palt. And I would like to say, Wistram’s [Mages] are guests of the city—I did call for some help—”
“Which we’re only too willing to provide, Watch Captain!”
Palt sighed in relief. Zevara nodded slowly. She watched him.
“Who is the citizen below? Are you aware? And who was arrested? An adventurer and their team?”
The Centaur paused, but Zevara looked very calm. He gave her another smile just to be sure.
“The individual calls herself Selys Shivertail. She’s quite calm, but I thought this was the place to undo the spell. And ah, we arrested an individual known as Pisces Jealnet. A [Necromancer] who is also responsible for the death of dozens of Wistram’s [Mages]. His team is likewise in our custody, but two of them will be released shortly. You have my—Wistram’s word, Watch Captain Zevara.”
The Drake’s brows shot up. She stared at Palt.
“You know of him?”
“He’s a murderer?”
“Responsible for deaths, certainly. I will be only too happy to ask the academy to list his full crimes, Watch Captain. But my team is waiting—may I ask you to accompany me in soothing the Drake? She will need the matter explained, but I’m only too happy to use a [Calm] spell. And then we can discuss the matter of damages—for your time, we’d be only too willing to make a sizable contribution to the Watch? As a matter of gratitude?”
He smiled again. Zevara paused. She stared at Palt, and then nodded slowly.
“By all means. It is Wistram Academy we’re talking about.”
The [Illusionist] Centaur smiled, relieved, as she stood and gestured for him to follow. At last! If he was lucky, he might get to go to the inn and have something to eat before everyone else was done. They owed him large for this. He wondered if the [Innkeeper], Erin Solstice, really was one of the people they were seeking. His stomach rumbled as he absently twiddled his fingers, undoing a spell.
Below, in the Watch Barracks, Selys Shivertail sat up. Her absent gaze focused, and she sat up fast, nearly head-butting Senior Guardswoman Beilmark, who had been waving a paw in front of her face and asking slow questions. She looked around wildly. And then she began to scream.
In Zevara’s office, Palt winced. He probably should have been down there and used a calming spell first. He began to weave one, for the entire Watch house. He cast it, exhaling hard. But he was a [Fairday Illusionist], and good times were his specialty. If he was smoking something the effect would have been even stronger.
As it was, the scream lowered in intensity. Palt sighed as he turned and Watch Captain Zevara stood.
“I think some explanations are in order, Watch Captain.”
“Oh, certainly, Magus Palt. After you?”
He nodded. Montressa owed him large for this. He was really, really hungry. He trotted for the door—
There were four [Mages] in The Wandering Inn. Well, four real [Mages]. That was an important distinction. Anyone could call themselves a [Mage] or teach themselves magic like the [Hedge Mage] casting poor illusion spells around the [Actors] on stage, but only a few knew how to use magic.
Four such sat here now. They were all full [Mages] of Wistram. Experts in their field of magic and agents of the academy. They did what needed doing, what few others could. And one of those things was this.
“I can’t believe it. There are more people from Earth? In Wistram?”
Erin was speaking to Montressa. Her eyes were wide, and she was standing with the other [Mage] in a small veil of silence. Montressa’s companions, the Selphid Ulinde, Isceil, the Oldblood Drake, and the Minotauress known as Beza all watched. They couldn’t see the entire conversation; it was muted to them too, but they could guess.
They’d seen it before. Erin looked unsteady, so Montressa held out a hand, steadying her. The young woman stared at her. She said something. Ulinde leaned over to Isceil.
“Bet she’s asking how many there are. Or if they know what’s happening back in her wor—”
Isceil’s tail slapped at her and Ulinde shut up. Beza also gave the Selphid a glare and Ulinde cringed.
“Sorry! I’m just rattled from earlier. I still have a hole in my head! It’s letting air in!”
The Selphid raised her claws, pointing at the hole in her skull. Isceil made a disgusted sound and looked away.
“Cover that up. And remember, don’t say anything without a [Hush] spell or greater in effect!”
Then he smirked.
“Still, I do think she’s asking about that. Ancestors, we have to shepherd this Human all the way to a port?”
“Or hire a carriage. In that case we can send two with her while the other three check on someone else. Or ask Wistram to send an escort. It will take some doing, but we have time.”
Beza leaned back, munching on some french fries. Isceil made a face.
“Whatever it takes, I suppose. We should just be grateful this one’s not crying and clinging to us. Speaking of which—”
He glanced around the inn and stared pointedly at the Hobgoblin sitting with his book, the [Actors] on stage, and then the rather lively room of guests being served by an active staff. Isceil hesitated.
“—this inn is fairly prosperous. Do you think this Human runs it? Herself? She has to have gotten it from someone or perhaps she’s getting help.”
“People seemed to think she was in charge, Isceil. What’s wrong? Don’t you like the fries?”
Ulinde reached for some. Isceil shot up.
“Get your claws off my fries. They’re on my plate, Ulinde. See? Mine. And this…‘guest’ is the best we’ve seen so far.”
“Agreed. But some of them have to have done well. I heard there are Terandrian teams searching for one that’s a [Hunter]. And another—the singer, you know?”
Isceil and Ulinde nodded. The Selphid sighed longingly.
“Lucky. I have some of her songs. If it weren’t for us coming here to meet the Halfseekers, I’d have gone to Terandria.”
“Better that than Baleros. Imagine hunting for guests in the jungles? They’re probably all dead. Or eaten by Lizardpeople.”
“What is it with you Drakes and Lizardpeople?”
Beza looked a bit disapproving as she reached for another fry and found they were all gone. Isceil folded his arms; Montressa was blinking as Erin waved her hands about, pointing at the young [Barmaid] who’d served the table, the Hobgoblin, and the little white Gnoll who was being chased off, a meatball in her mouth, from a table of adult Gnolls.
“They’re copycats. And they giggle all the time. They’re idiotic, they insult us, and historically they were on the side of the Dullahans—”
“They live on Baleros! They’re a different species—how are you like them? They’re good natured, they tell jokes about Drakes instead of outright insulting your species like you do to them, and they were against Dragons—”
“They have stupid wing-flaps on their heads! They look like—walking flowers!”
“You mean, neck frills? But they’re so colorful! Besides, you have spines. Isn’t that—”
Ulinde jumped as Isceil brought one fist down.
“It is nothing alike.”
Beza rolled her eyes, but didn’t say anything. Ulinde was smacking her lips; even deteriorated, her taste buds had liked that meal. She eyed Montressa as the [Mage] stepped back and tapped her staff on the ground. The silence enfolding her and Erin faded and the two’s voices faded in.
“Okay. I have to go. But we have to talk! Are you going anywhere? I have empty rooms! You can stay here tonight!”
Montressa was nodding, smiling beneficently as Erin looked around. Some of the [Actors] were waving at her and Temile was hurrying her way.
“Erin! Miss Erin! I hate to bother you, but the [Seamstress] must ask you a few questions.”
“Um, coming, Temile!”
Erin called distractedly to the [Actor]. She turned back to Montressa. Her eyes were still wide.
Montressa ducked her head, smiling.
“Of course. We’ll stay right here. We can discuss staying—as I said, Wistram will find a solution and I will consult with my superiors at once. But perhaps it would be more appropriate to talk in private? After dinner?”
The [Innkeeper] nodded again. She turned and then swiveled around.
“Oh! Right! You want food, right?”
The [Mages] brightened up. Work was one thing, and seeing their good deeds another, but food was food and [Mages] from Wistram loved food.
“Absolutely! We can order from the menu.”
“Sure! Or—you know, I can get you what you wanted. Hamburgers. Cheeseburgers. We have actual curry too. I mean, I have the ingredients, but I’ve never made it.”
All the [Mages] looked interested. Beza nudged Ulinde; she’d heard of the dishes, but they hadn’t been replicated yet—or at least, not for the consumption of people not actively working with the Earthworlders at Wistram.
It was a known secret, although you had to be a full [Mage] of Wistram and fairly well-connected in influence or secrets to know more. Ulinde, Beza, Palt, Isceil, and Montressa all had enough clout to know something, although Montressa probably knew the most.
She was a secret-broker after all, partnered with Beatrice. And fairly high-placed in her faction, the Revivalists. All of the young [Mages] were; they were the best of their years, prodigies. They didn’t think of themselves like that of course, but they were definitely above most of their peers.
“What is this cur-rhee?”
Isceil looked suspiciously at Erin. She smiled, her eyes flicking from face to face. She really was handling the news well. Beza was impressed, but then again, maybe she was in shock. That had happened too, with that young girl they picked up in First Landing…
“Curry? It’s um, well, it’s like…a stew! Except more…you know what? It’s like a thick stew you put over other food. It’s very good—I can make it vegetable, but it usually has meat. It’s spicy generally—”
Isceil’s eyes lit up. He nodded before Erin could continue.
“I’ll have a bowl, then. Or plate.”
“Curry and rice, then. And everyone else?”
Beza looked at Ulinde. She shrugged.
“Can we share a…curry?”
“Sure, I’ll make a big pot. Can I get you appetizers?”
“More of these potato-things.”
“French fries! Sure! And let me get you some condiments. Curry will be a bit since it needs to be actually made—wanna hamburger or pizza or something before it comes out? It’s filling but—”
“We’ll take it. We’re still waiting on Palt, anyways.”
The [Mages] brightened at the assortment of food Erin was describing. They were hungry from spellcasting and with the exception of Beza who regarded fat as a sin and Ulinde, who inhabited anybody she chose, all of them were used to good eating. And they had large appetites; magic-users burned energy like no one’s business. Erin nodded, backing away and calling orders at a passing Gnoll. They watched as she hurried towards the impatient [Actor], still glancing over her shoulder.
“She bolted. How’d she take it, Montressa?”
“Very well. She didn’t panic or anything. We’ll need to convince her to leave the inn, actually.”
Montressa sighed as she placed the staff on the table. The floating copper orb hovering around it slowed and hovered in midair. She nodded at Erin.
“I told her about Aaron and the others. And the safety of Wistram, but—she actually owns this inn.”
Isceil blinked. Montressa nodded.
“Not only that. She told me that little Gnoll’s her ward and she’s employing the staff here—and that the Goblin’s her guest!”
Beza turned and stared at the Hobgoblin darkly. She saw Erin talking to the [Actor], waving her hands and stabbing with a knife, pantomiming something—he was backing away. Ulinde looked concerned.
“That might be a problem. What’d you say, Montressa?”
“That we’d take the Gnoll and her uh, keeper, the [Barmaid]. Even consider the Hobgoblin if it came to it.”
“You can’t be serious.”
The Minotauress’ head turned around. Montressa grimaced.
“She said they were her family! I’ll need to talk to Wistram. Tomorrow. It might be harder to persuade her than we thought.”
“I’m not travelling with a Goblin. Just toss a [Charm] spell on the [Innkeeper] and let’s go. Or have you forgotten we have…”
Isceil’s eyes narrowed as he nodded at the black cube on Montressa’s belt. She adjusted her robes, concealing it.
“I haven’t. But you know our orders. We need to maintain good relationships, and that means we can’t just charm someone. We’ll try diplomacy. And if it comes to it, Palt will be the one casting spells. He can do it subtlety, Isceil.”
Ulinde glanced around the inn. It really was hopping. She saw Erin Solstice talking to the [Actor], and then pausing by the Hobgoblin’s table as the [Barmaid], Lyonette came over. Erin was gesturing at their table.
“Wait, is she telling it about us?”
Beza was instantly alarmed. Montressa waved a hand.
“Don’t worry. She’s probably just reassuring it since you’re here, Beza. She took my warning seriously; she’s desperate to go back home, she said.”
“Well, she’d better leave the Hobgoblin. Did she say if she knew any other guests? That would be a victory for our team.”
Isceil looked at Montressa. The [Mage] shook her head instantly.
“She didn’t know anyone, she said. Pity, but she is fairly well cut off, even with the door. She started this inn, you know. Found it abandoned; fixed it up.”
“I can see that. She’s quite a nice personality. Simple; engaging—perfect for an [Innkeeper]. Not like some of the guests.”
Ulinde smiled. Montressa nodded, relaxed. She waved at Isceil as the Hobgoblin, not even looking at their table, immediately went back to his book.
“Let her be, Isceil. She’s taking it in. And this is a fascinating inn.”
“Did you tell her about the Horns, Montressa?”
A look flashed across Montressa’s face.
“No. And I told her my name was Elenope. We’ll tell her the truth—later. Once she’s decided to come to Wistram. She must not know what…Pisces…was. Or he tricked her. Probably that. He’s always been good at deceiving people.”
Her hand unconsciously went to her staff. Beza patted her on the shoulder.
“Relax, Montressa. I agree with everything you’ve said. Still, an inn, employees—it might be harder to persuade her.”
“We’ll get Palt’s opinion. Tonight, we eat and make a good impression—stay here, perhaps. We’ll sort out the rest later. If we need to stay here longer than a few days, I’ll send this via Courier.”
She tapped the Silent Box. The other three [Mages] nodded slowly. Montressa’s face had tightened. Beza held out a hand.
“I can watch it—”
“I have it.”
That was that. The [Mages] changed topics as the food arrived. Isceil blinked as a pizza appeared, thin-crust, along with more fries and condiments.
“It’s not even been a minute!”
“Sorry about that. We’re busy. Don’t fill up; Erin’s making a huge pot of that orange stuff in the kitchen! Say, I hear a Centaur’s coming, right? Actually, will this be enough food? Between a Centaur and a Minotaur—”
Drassi apologized, then grinned at Beza. The Minotaur didn’t look insulted.
“I could eat half this round thing and have room. And my companions are pigs.”
“Don’t make me transform you. Dead gods, is this all cheese?”
Isceil looked dismayed. Montressa raised a knife and fork, intrigued. Drassi laughed.
“You eat it by claw! And let me know if you want refills!”
“Hah, you couldn’t transform an ant, Isceil. You’re all magical breath and nothing else. Hot air, mostly!”
“I can breathe two elements at once and each one I choose, Beza. What can you do? Read a scroll?”
“Remind me who lost to the exiled disgrace? You said you could take him in less than a minute.”
“I was winning—that [Shatterbolt] would never be used in a duel in the Academy—”
The [Mages] were talking lively. Montressa was exclaiming over the pizza with Ulinde.
“This would go amazingly at one of the room parties. With some ale? And these fries!”
They were stuffing themselves. Ulinde nodded energetically. Then she ducked. Isceil stopped arguing with Beza and froze.
“That’s a damn bee the size of my face hovering next to your head, Beza!”
Reflexively, Beza swatted, then saw Apista and froze. The Ashfire Bee buzzed the table. A voice called out and Lyonette stormed past.
“Apista! Don’t you dare! Sorry about that, everyone. That’s my um, pet. Apista, go over there! Over there!”
She waved and the bee buzzed away, sad as could be. For she was not a bee that was free. Free to eat the delicious fries with their salt! The Wistram [Mages] stared as she alit on a row of flower boxes. Isceil stared.
“What was that?”
Beza rolled her eyes.
“Ashfire Bee, Isceil. Haven’t you ever taken a lesson on monstrous creatures? At least read a book on Izril’s fauna.”
Coursework didn’t stop when you graduated. You could spend eight years and then continue learning as an apprentice to a senior [Mage] and then join a research group where you were just another peer hitting the books or searching for ways to improve your magic. Of course, not everyone did that. Some, like Montressa, had no teacher, or had halted the bulk of their studies after graduation to pursue other activities.
Isceil just looked incredulous.
“A bee, a Hobgoblin—and I’ve never seen a Gnoll with white fur! What’s next, dancing Fraerlings in the attic?”
“Oh, hush. This inn’s got it all. I want to see these [Actors] that Erin mentioned.”
Montressa was smiling to herself. Erin had gone back to work; she looked preoccupied as she talked to the [Actors]. Drassi hurried past the Wistram [Mage]’s table. Beza caught a fragment of her conversation.
“Hey, Ishkr, have you seen the Horns? If you have, send Ceria and Pisces to Erin—”
The Minotauress stiffened, but Montressa didn’t seem to have heard. Beza relaxed as she saw the Gnoll shake her head. Drassi sighed.
“I’d better find them. No, it’s an order…”
The Minotauress cleared her throat to distract Montressa in case she heard. She nodded towards the table with Numbtongue at it as her friends looked at her.
“A damn Hobgoblin. That’s not just a danger or a pet, you know. I can’t believe it.”
“Steady, Beza. It’s just one. There are four—five of us. We’re a Gold-rank team by ourselves.”
Isceil rolled his eyes. Beza glared at him.
“They’re no joke! Izril just had a Goblin Lord. One. I know what I’m talking about when I say you cannot trust Goblins. You don’t know what they’re really like. In the isles—”
The Drake was opening and closing his mouth and right claw, imitating Beza speaking as he rolled his eyes. She swung at him, and not jokingly. He leaned back, swearing. Beza glared at him, and then at the young woman. Erin waved back, smiling; she’d been staring their way. Ulinde laughed.
“She’s terrible at this! Montressa!”
“Don’t. I like her. We’ll have a talk; she’s not going to make any big mistakes, and if she does? Palt can use a memory spell.”
“When we bring Erin Solstice back with us, I’ll need to speak to her about them.”
Beza grumbled as she folded her arms. The other [Mages] sighed, but they went back to finishing the pizza as an opening and soon Isceil was calling for a refill. They were relaxed, and never noticed Erin’s worried looks at them, or Drassi going into Celum to ask Octavia—and then into Liscor.
Erin was worried. Her mind was spinning. People from Wistram were here? They wanted her to come with them? All the way to Wistram? She had no idea what to do! Fortunately, the young [Mage] had let her go, but Erin had to talk to Pisces. Not about more people from Earth existing, maybe, but at least about Wistram! Of all the times for him to be gone! And Ryoka too! She was worried because she didn’t know what to say to the Wistram team.
Even so, it was only partly worry, to Erin. Mostly it was longing. Expectation. Fear. Hope—the Horns of Hammerad didn’t show up as the dinner crowd truly arrived, but the inn was busy and they could be out on the town. They’d be back sometime, and Erin would talk to them then, get some feedback about Wistram. But they were there to take her home. Erin felt her heart beating faster, wondering what she should do.
Home. It called to her, and Erin kept glancing back at the [Mages]. To distract herself, she set about really impressing them and getting that curry ready! She actually had rice, thanks to Lasica and Rufelt! It grew on Baleros, but also, apparently, Oteslia, and the [Chef] had given her a bag.
Erin was boiling it in the kitchen, swearing as she hunted for the spices and all the right stuff that her [Advanced Cooking] told her was essential in a proper curry. She was going to make one plate that was super spicy for the Drake and maybe Minotaur and some regular spice—still very hot—for everyone else. Everyone would love it!
Outside, the [Actors] were getting into their routine. They were doing My Fair Lady followed by Macbeth due to popular demand, but tomorrow they’d be trying horror. They were already booked all morning to have their lead Norman Bates really work up an unhealthy Oedipus-voyeur complex.
Erin couldn’t wait. She smiled as she cooked, trying to think, sticking her head out now and then for a telltale sniff or pointy pair of ears or Antinium with three arms. Yvlon was least distinctive, sadly, even with her lovely hair.
In the common room, the [Mages] were enjoying themselves no end. Barely twenty minutes had passed, but they’d already eaten one pizza and were now drinking before a second course as they snacked on some of Erin’s other treats. Erin had given the staff the intelligence that the Wistram [Mages] were priority guests, and so they were getting fed—and fed well!
“Palt is going to kill us when he realizes what he’s missed. You think he’s done with that Watch Captain yet?”
Isceil burped as he replied to Montressa. The young woman was laughing, in good spirits at last.
“Bah, he’ll be there at least an hour. Watch Captains are jumped up in local cities. Little tyrants. Frankly, it’s easier up north in your Human cities. They’re all corrupt and you can just bribe them.”
“That’s Izril’s cities, Isceil. In Terandria, we get respect. Even help.”
Montressa wagged a finger at Isceil. The Drake rolled his eyes.
“Spare me. I’m not a Revivalist and I’m not a teat-sucking Human.”
“At least you’re not a Libertarian. Imagine one of them on our team?”
“They’d never come. We’re going to Izril, not Terandria, and no one but Montressa’s Human. And she’s better than most of her species.”
“Thank you, Isceil.”
Montressa replied drily. She was drinking when she spotted a tiny white-furred shape prowling around the tables to their left. Mrsha was surprisingly hard to spot thanks to her Skills, but the white-furred Gnoll wasn’t exactly camouflaged.
“Oh! Who’s this?”
Entranced, and not a little bit drunk, Ulinde leaned over her chair and waved at Mrsha. The Gnoll happily trotted over, giving them her ‘I am starving and you had better feed me’ look. She was immediately handed a bit of hamburger and chowed it down. Montressa and Ulinde bent over her, enraptured.
“I forgot how cute kids were! Least of all Gnoll kids! There’s only that baby Dullahan that Council Mage Redelia had and it’s ugly. And I’ve never seen a Gnoll baby!”
“No wonder, with how they get on at Wistram. Boycotting us because only one in ten thousand can cast magic at all. And she’s not a dog, Ulinde. Stop that!”
Beza scolded Ulinde. The Selphid watched as Mrsha leapt and snatched the hamburger bite from her dangling claws with both paws. The Minotauress hesitated.
“Hello little one. I—”
She was hesitating to touch Mrsha, wary of her huge size compared to the small Gnoll. Mrsha didn’t mind; she leapt and snagged a bit of Beza’s hamburger, winning the Minotauress’ instant respect for her audacity. The Gnoll was insatiably curious—about the copper floating orb and Montressa’s staff—and Ulinde’s two wands.
“Whoops! Don’t take those! You could hurt yourself!”
The Selphid batted away Mrsha. The Gnoll looked disappointed. She was sniffing around them, wagging her tail. Lyonette hurried over.
“I’m so sorry. Is Mrsha bothering you? Mrsha! Are you begging scraps, young miss? That is no way for a lady to behave—”
“It’s fine, we like it! Can she not talk?”
Laughing, Montressa and the others assured Lyonette. Even Isceil waved a begrudging hand. Mrsha was signing something with her paws and pointing to Lyonette. Embarrassed, the [Princess] bent, watched carefully, and looked up. The [Mages], curious to a fault, watched.
“Mrsha can’t speak. But she can communicate with her paws. She’s asking—I apologize for her again, she’s not getting a full dinner tonight! She’s asking why you have two wands, Miss Ulinde?”
The Selphid’s eyes brightened. Or something in them brightened. She smiled at Mrsha.
“That’s because I’m a [Spellslinger]. See these wands? I can cast two spells at once! Pew, pew, pew! I can show you—”
“Not in the inn, Ulinde.”
Montressa tugged her friend down. She smiled at Mrsha and explained to both.
“Ulinde’s a [Spellslinger]. Isceil’s an [Oldblood Magus]—he uses the power of his bloodline. Beza’s our [Spellscribe]—completely different, she writes down magic on a scroll and uses it from there. Palt’s our [Illusionist]—he’s still busy—and I’m a [Aegiscaster]. That means I’m specialized in barrier spells.”
Lyonette’s eyes widened. Mrsha was looking up with awe at the group. Isceil’s chest inflated and he smoothed his spines.
“Well, we are Wistram’s [Mages].”
“That’s so many specialized classes. You know, we have two graduates from Wistram here as well. They’re not back yet, but I’ll introduce them, shall I? And Mrsha loves magic. She…”
Lyonette looked at Mrsha and paused. The Wistram [Mages] all glanced at each other fast. Montressa’s face had clouded again. Beza broke into the silence with a smile.
“We’d love to meet them. We don’t know everyone, but when they arrive, send them over, by all means!”
She nodded at the others and mouthed a word as Lyonette smiled. Palt. Definitely Palt. He knew all kinds of spells. Distraction—even memory-altering ones. Montressa nodded back tightly.
Lyonette hadn’t noticed. She was wincing as Erin shouted from the kitchen.
“I need a taste tester! My tongue hurts! Do we have any yogurt?”
“I have to go. Sorry again about Mrsha—do you want anything else? Erin’s still working on the curry—Mrsha, come on!”
“I’m good for the moment. Some more drinks and I’ll be ready to eat.”
Isceil patted his stomach. Montressa nodded. Mrsha was reluctant to go. She dragged at the floor as Lyonette tried to lift her.
“You can leave Mrsha. She’s cute! Hello, little one.”
Montressa waved at Mrsha. The Gnoll smiled and sniffed again.
“And she’s not afraid of Selphids!”
Ulinde was delighted. Lyonette hesitated, but Erin was screaming about a burned tongue so she hurried off after a stern reminder that Mrsha was eating her dinner. The Gnoll let Beza, Montressa, and Ulinde pamper her. Isceil just looked disgusted. He folded his arms.
“Females. I should have gone with Palt.”
“Want me to switch to a male body, Isceil?”
Ulinde laughed at Isceil. Like many Selphids, she changed gender by her body. Isceil looked disgusted.
“That rotting corpse? You need to find another one.”
“I’m running out! Do you know how hard it is to find good bodies anywhere that’s not Baleros?”
“Don’t tell me.”
Mrsha bit at a fry Beza tentatively held out to her. She was circling around Montressa and surreptitiously eying the food. Her nose twitched and she sneezed as Isceil flicked some pepper over the edge of the table. She fled.
Beza punched Isceil on the shoulder. She watched, heartbroken, as Mrsha scurried over to Lyonette, whining a complaint. The [Princess] bent, frowning.
“What’s that? What? Hm…wait—”
She glanced up at their table. Isceil hunched his shoulders as Ulinde and Montressa glared at him.
“It’s just pepper!”
“You don’t throw that at a child! Much less a Gnoll! If she comes over, apologize!”
“Ancestors damn it, quit being so sensitive! She’s fine, see?”
Isceil’s voice was distinctly relieved as Lyonette smiled and patted Mrsha’s head.
“Oh, fine. Tell Erin. Ishkr! Where are you? Did Drassi already leave to go look for…? Well, you’ll have to do. No—no arguments! Listen—”
Beza sighed as she watched Mrsha and Lyonette hurry off. She was feeling at her scroll pouch.
“I still need to scribe two more scrolls.”
“Do it later. You have multiple copies, don’t you?”
“Yes. But it’s the principle of the thing. I can’t cast magic without a scroll. You know my natural magic pool is too low for regular spellcasting.”
Her friends looked up. That was a touchy subject for Beza usually. She hadn’t been blessed with the natural talents her peers had, so she’d developed this class. By infusing a scroll with mana and laboriously writing the spell on it, she could activate a spell fast as—if not faster than other [Mages], but in return she had to provide effort and money to cast a single spell. Ulinde looked sympathetic.
“How much does it cost for proper blank scrolls?”
“Too much. Let alone liquid gemstone for writing or magicore?”
Beza grimaced. She turned hopefully as Mrsha came trotting out of the kitchen. Lyonette hurried over. She called out as they passed the mages’ table.
“Mrsha, come on! We’re going shopping! Erin’s out of—ground beef! Let’s go to the [Butchers] and I’ll buy you a snack!”
The Gnoll brightened up. Montressa glanced at Beza as she watched Lyonette adjust the door. Ishkr went after them—he set the door to yellow—a location they hadn’t seen before. Montressa raised her eyebrows—the label read ‘Pallass’. Then she looked at Beza.
“But don’t you earn a lot for scrolls, Beza? And you can make more! That’s your entire class!”
“There’s still the time cost, the cost of materials, finding the right buyers—especially if the market is oversaturated! People don’t use spell scrolls every day! I might be rich, but it’s work!”
Beza pounded the table, frustrated. Ulinde and Isceil didn’t look sympathetic.
“At least you can sell your spells. Ulinde and I are combat classes. And we’re not adventurers. Yet. My funding is a lot less than…”
“You think you’ll become an adventurer, Isceil?”
“For a bit? To earn some artifacts and gold? Gold-ranks do earn an enticing amount and I could see myself taking a sabbatical for a few years.”
The Drake looked thoughtful as he stroked his chin. Beza laughed.
“Why not? I’m not Silver. The only thing stopping me is having to put up with a bunch of idiots the entire time…”
“Well, we could be an adventuring team.”
Ulinde looked at the others as Montressa raised her brows.
“Why not? It would be fun! Tell you what, on the way back north, I’ll pop into the Adventurer’s Guilds. If I see something that looks fun or profitable—we take it!”
“It could be good training.”
Beza mused. Montressa shrugged.
“We’ll talk about it. Dead gods, is Palt not here yet?”
Half an hour—no, forty minutes had passed. Isceil waved a lazy claw.
“He’s probably just explaining everything. He’ll have to go through the ranks first—after finding the Watch Barracks—he’ll have stopped for a smoke—”
“Well, he’d better not wait too long or I’m not saving him any of this curry. Where is it?”
Erin had been out twenty minutes ago saying it was nearly done and that she was just waiting on the rice. Since then, the inn had grown more quiet. Beza glanced around—and then Ulinde grabbed her. Hard.
“Oh dead gods. Beza!”
“Ulinde, calm down. I’m trying to watch this ‘play’.”
Montressa complained as she stared at the stage. Beza growled agreement, but Ulinde’s eyes were wide. She was pointing past them, at a duo who’d just entered the inn.
“But Beza! That’s Seborn and Moore! Two of the Halfseekers! That must mean Jelaqua Ivirith is somewhere around here!”
All the [Mages] glanced around. Sure enough, a half-Giant and Drowned Man were walking into the inn. They glanced around impassively, then sat at a table close to the Wistram [Mage]’s. Ulinde started trembling.
“I—I have to talk to them. Come with me?”
She looked at her friends. Isceil was patting his stomach, trying to figure out how much more he could eat. Montressa and Beza were watching the [Actors]. They’d begun Macbeth, but a new cast was on stage. The lead, a [General] played by a Drake, was contemplating treason…
“Go yourself Ulinde, I want to watch this.”
“I can’t! I’ll freeze up! Please? Isceil!”
The Drake snorted. He was watching the play now, and glancing towards the kitchen.
“Go yourself, Ulinde. You’re a Wistram [Mage]! That half-Giant’s not even as good as you are. See his magical flow? They should be coming to you! Where’s the curry, already?”
Beza glanced up. She’d been saving room too and the alcohol was making her peckish. She looked around and to her surprise, realized the dinner rush had in fact been a vacuum.
The inn was surprisingly uncrowded. A pair of Gnolls got up and walked towards the door as the [Mages] glanced around.
“Still delayed. Erin’s in the kitchen, still.”
“Maybe dinner’s later around here.”
“Or the inn isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I knew she wasn’t as successful as everyone said. Not for a guest. Late curry—”
“You just ate two meal’s worth. Give Erin time. I bet she has to simmer the curry or something. Now, shush. This is amazing.”
Montressa shook her head. She stared back towards the stage. The Drake there was giving the performance of his life. He held a claw out, staring at a spectral illusion one of the [Mages] behind stage was conjuring. Montressa knew it was an illusion, but the performance still had her watching, spellbound.
“Is this a dagger I see before me, the handle towards my claw? Come, let me touch thee. I have thee not, yet I see thee still. Art thou an illusion of magic sensible to feeling as to sight? Or art thou but a dagger of the mind, a false creation proceeding from heat-oppressed brain? I see thee are not magic but for—”
“He’s quite good. This is a fascinating performance! As good as any [Bards] or [Performers] I’ve ever seen!”
The [Aegiscaster] whispered to Beza. The Minotauress nodded silently. Isceil had to grudgingly agree as Ulinde got up, sat down, and got up again.
“Drake’s as ugly as sin, though.”
“Really? I can’t tell.”
“Take it from me. No wonder he’s betraying his [King]; no one’s going to make him an [Heir].”
Isceil pointed at the Drake’s face and tail. Montressa and Beza couldn’t see it. The Minotauress eyed the Drake appreciatively.
“At least he looks the part. I mean, in body shape. That’s a proper [General]’s build.”
She nodded to his bulging forearms. The Drake was indeed built far better than any other [Actor] on stage. The Wistram [Mages] watched, spellbound, until a growl made Beza look around.
“Excuse me? Excuse me!”
She signaled to Drassi, who’d returned to the inn. The Drake jumped and then came over with a big smile.
“Y-yes? Can I help you?”
“We’re still waiting on the ‘ca-ree’. Is Miss Erin still working on it?”
“What? I’ll ask.”
The Drake blinked. She hurried into the kitchen.
“Curry. Sorry, it’s new and we’re making up a fresh batch. Extra spicy. It should be out in just a moment!”
“We can wait.”
Beza nodded at Isceil. He sighed, loudly, but then Erin poked her head out of the kitchen. She waved at the Wistram [Mages] and they waved back.
“It must be nearly ready. I bet it’ll be too spicy, Isceil.”
“Hah! I’ll eat the entire plate as she serves it, without a drink or anything else. How much?”
“Two small secrets?”
The [Mages] nodded at each other. Erin was talking to Drassi. She was glancing towards the magical door. The Gnoll, Ishkr, was standing by it waved at her and shook his head, holding up four of his paws. After a moment, Erin hurried into the kitchen. The Wistram Mages went back to watching…until they realized ten minutes had come and gone.
“Come on, what’s the hold up? Everyone else is eating.”
Isceil’s tail was lashing the ground. Montressa sighed.
“I think she messed it up.”
“You think? What’s so hard about it? I’m going to complain!”
“You idiot, Isceil! She’s our guest!”
“I’m still hungry!”
He snapped back. Montressa sighed.
“Maybe we should get Palt first. He’ll be mad we started without him and maybe the Watch Captain needs more soothing. How about this? Isceil, you get Palt. Beza, you and Ulinde say hi to the Halfseekers—”
“Oh, yesyesyes, thank you!”
Ulinde jumped up, quivering with nerves. Montressa nodded as she reached for her staff.
“And I’ll ask Erin what’s wrong with the curry. We can always have the rest of her food. And I think she mentioned ice cream? That’s a Terandrian delicacy!”
Her friends nodded. Isceil was only grumbling a tiny bit as he got up and began navigating towards the door. But before they reached the door, Erin Solstice hurried out of the kitchen.
“Alright! Alright, sorry for the wait!”
She had a steaming pot full of curry, and Drassi was carrying one filled with rice. The Drake put the pot on the table and looked at Erin.
“Anything else, Erin?”
“Nope. Go find Lyonette, Drassi. Tell her I’m starting dinner!”
Erin smiled at Drassi, and then she looked at the Wistram [Mages]. Isceil hurried back to the table, Palt forgotten. Montressa looked into the pot; she could smell the spices from here.
“Whoo! Hot! I can still see it bubbling! Miss Erin, give me a full plate. A good helping; it’s spicy, I take it?”
Isceil was impatient. Erin smiled at him, putting down rice first and then a big helping of curry on top. The Drake licked his lips, seeing meat among the thick sauce.
“Can we cool it down? I’m not looking to breathe fire.”
Beza looked warily at the hot curry. Erin smiled.
“Sure! Just one thing before we start.”
She set down the pot before Isceil could dig into his plate. Montressa nearly objected; they hadn’t been served, but Erin was looking at her. She glanced around, but all she saw were a few [Actors] on stage, the two Halfseekers—barely anyone else. The Hobgoblin was lounging against the bar, tuning a guitar, but he was alone. The inn was—
“What is it, Miss Solstice?”
Isceil was practically panting with anticipation. He loved spices. Erin looked at him and then smiled.
“I was just thinking. I have some people from Wistram in my inn. I didn’t tell you because one of them’s a jerk and both of them have a past with the academy.”
Montressa’s face froze. Beza carefully watched her friend, and then put a false smile on her face as she turned to Erin.
“Don’t worry, Miss Solstice, we’re completely fine with any…incidents that might have occurred between your friends. What are their names?”
“Oh, Todam and Shelia. One’s a Human, the other one’s a half-Elf.”
All the Wistram [Mages] looked surprised. Montressa’s eyes flicked up and Beza had the same thought. Aliases, of course. She shook her head, smiling.
“Never heard of them, but I’m sure we’d love to meet them.”
Erin beamed. She moved back as Isceil dug a fork into his plate, too hungry to wait. She reached for the pot and then paused.
“Say, do you know someone named Ceria? Or Pisces, or Yvlon or Ksmvr?”
Beza blinked. She’d relaxed. Too soon, as it turned out, and the moment of surprise ran around the table. Erin watched them. Her bright, happy smile stopped on her face.
And then it vanished. She looked down at them.
“Thought so. Mrsha says you smell like their blood. What did you do with them?”
The [Mages] froze. They looked at Montressa, and she stared at Erin. She took too long to answer. Isceil sneered.
“They got what they deserved. You didn’t know this, but one of them was a [Necromancer]—”
He got no further. Erin grabbed him by the head. She slammed his face into the plate full of curry.
The Drake screamed. He dragged himself back, clawing at his eyes. The curry was hot, physically and in taste. It burned his eyes. Calmly, Erin stepped back. She grabbed the pot and dumped it over him.
Beza pushed herself back. She stood—and Erin hit her with the pot as hard as she could. The Minotaur sat back down.
“What are you doing!?”
“My eyes! That Human bitch—”
Montressa grabbed her staff as Ulinde went for her wands. Beza roared with fury as she stood. She got no further than that.
From the bar, the Hobgoblin abandoned his guitar. He launched himself across the inn. Numbtongue leapt over the table and kicked Beza out of her chair as she rose. The Minotaur crashed to the ground and Numbtongue followed, kicking, punching at her as she tried to rise.
The other three [Mages] shot to their feet. Isceil, howling, pointed a wand at Erin, barely able to see. He roared.
The inn was almost empty. The guests had already left, as had most of the staff. At the back of the room, the [Actors] fled backstage. But the Drake seized a spear that had been lying among the props and leapt to the floor, bellowing.
“Erin! Get back!”
She dodged the spell as a crackling orb of lightning shot past her shoulder. Relc slashed at it and cut the orb in half as he charged.
“Senior Guardsman! Put down your weapons or I’ll put you through that table!”
Montressa pivoted. She called out desperately; Erin was watching Isceil as he tried to aim at her.
“Miss Solstice, we don’t want to fight! We had to apprehend—”
Montressa saw Erin swing at Isceil’s face. The Drake raised an arm to block, snarling. She hit him in the stomach with her other hand.
“Where are they?”
“The Horns are alive! Put down your weapons, now, or we’ll be forced to hurt you!”
Ulinde called out. She looked at the Halfseekers, and then at Relc. He was charging across the inn’s floor, knocking tables and chairs aside. She turned, aiming both wands at him.
Seborn appeared at her back. Ulinde half-turned, but the [Rogue] was faster. He appeared out of the shadow and grabbed the Selphid, yanking them backwards. His blade glowed like fire. With one arm he choked Ulinde, keeping her steady. The other stabbed the dagger through her chest.
Seborn’s dagger plunged in and out of the Selphid’s chest, so fast that his hand was a blur. When he let her go, her chest was perforated, seared by the flaming enchantment. Montressa turned white. Ulinde swayed, and one arm came up.
The explosion hurled Erin and Seborn backwards. She stumbled back and Relc caught her, pulling her away. Seborn flipped backwards, landing next to the half-Giant. Seborn cursed.
“Damn, I missed the real body. Moore!”
“I’m up. Jelaqua isn’t here. The plan?”
“Take the Human!”
“Get back, Erin!”
Relc yanked Erin backwards. Montressa raised her staff, seeing Beza swinging at Numbtongue. This was happening too fast! How had she known? Mrsha?
Isceil wiped curry out of his eyes. He roared as he inhaled.
“Everyone duck! I’m breathing!”
Fire and lightning shot from his maw. The [Oldblood Mage] turned, sweeping his magical breath across the room. The flames and lightning bounced off Montressa’s barrier as the other [Mages] leapt out of the way. Erin shouted as Relc pulled her back, shielding her as he slashed with his spear, cutting the magical fire and lighting.
The Halfseekers dove. Moore groaned and Seborn swore; a bolt of the electricity had hit his side.
“I’m hit! Moore—”
He was already moving. The Wistram [Mages] turned. No more time for words. Beza swung at Numbtongue and he lashed out, striking her across the chest. Seborn lunged at Ulinde and she jumped backwards, firing her spells.
“I’ve got the Drake!”
Relc roared as he leapt sideways, abandoning Erin behind cover. He dodged as Isceil’s spells came after him. Seborn slashed at Ulinde; the Selphid was babbling despite her destroyed chest.
“Oh, no, no, please! I’m a huge fan, we can explain—”
She fired from both wands and Seborn twisted, vanishing with a curse among the shadows. Ulinde sprayed spells, trying to keep him at bay. He lunged in—sliced through a quarter of her throat. It would have killed anyone but a Selphid.
Four versus four—Moore looked down at Montressa.
“Surrender. And tell us what you did with the Horns of Hammerad.”
Montressa du Valeross looked up. Her surprise turned to fury. She raised her staff, the enchanted jewel glowing, contrasting to the plain wooden quarterstaff Moore held.
The half-Giant sighed. He pointed his staff at Montressa.
The spell failed to appear. The half-Giant tried again. Montressa raised her staff and struck the ground.
Moore’s spells failed. He stared at her. Then he swung his staff. It came at Montressa from the side, slower as the half-Giant pulled his blow. Montressa didn’t move.
The quarterstaff hit the air and the air moved, rippling with the impact. Moore stared as the glimmering barrier around Montressa appeared, violet, translucent light. Montressa pointed her staff and Moore raised one hand.
The fiery needles struck the half-Giant. He howled. This time he brought down the staff with all his might. The wood struck the barrier and Montressa saw the magic ripple.
The staff broke. Montressa looked at Moore. He blinked and she pointed her staff.
“[Reduced Lightning Bolt]”
The copper orb hovering around her staff discharged. Moore screamed and Seborn heard. He and Ulinde were dodging around the inn. The Selphid could push her body to move faster than all but Seborn, but she couldn’t lose him. She desperately tried to fire spells from both wands, but the [Rogue] was a shadow, leaping, dodging—
Cutting her. He had cut Ulinde across the face, arms legs—deep blows some severing bones. But nothing to kill a Selphid. Montressa pointed at him.
The leaping shadow hit the shimmering barrier that appeared and Seborn stumbled back. Ulinde took that moment and pointed both wands.
It caught him, but the [Rogue] was already tumbling, flipping sideways with the force of the blast. He began to leap backwards, but Ulinde leapt.
Anyone but a Selphid [Mage] would have been too slow. But Ulinde was Rampaging. The Selphid’s body moved as fast as Seborn, and her second dueling wand touched his chest.
Like Montressa’s spell, the fireball wasn’t as powerful as it could have been. But it still burst with a fiery bloom. Seborn went flying. His armor had soaked up most of the smaller explosion, but he was still thrown across the room. Ulinde pounced on him as he struggled to his feet. She pointed both wands at him.
The magical ropes encircled Seborn. He kept moving, trying to break free. Ulinde shouted at him. He was cursing as the magical ropes tightened around his arms and legs.
“Just stop moving! I’ll have to hurt you otherwise—”
Across the room, Relc dove and Isceil’s breath blasted three tables and the chairs apart. The Drake was spitting lightning and frost now! Relc bellowed as he turned.
“Senior Guardsman! Surrender and lie on the ground with your hands over your head or I’ll—”
Isceil shot a ray of fire at Relc’s chest. The Drake spun his spear and cut the ray with the tip of his spear. It dissipated. Relc’s eyes narrowed. He turned and saw Seborn and Moore, down. His eyes widened as he spotted the half-Giant’s smoking chest. He whirled.
Isceil was panting for breath. He raised his wand as Relc charged.
The Gecko of Liscor slashed once. The thick stone appearing over Isceil’s scales vanished. The Drake stopped. He stared down at the spear and the spreading red slash across his stomach. Relc had pulled the blow, but it had still opened Isceil’s scales.
He tried to raise his wand. Relc’s fist hit him in the face. The bigger Drake drew his head back as Isceil staggered, and then head-butted the [Mage]. Something in Isceil’s face went crack.
Relc waited as the Drake screamed. Isceil was still trying to raise his wand. Relc shrugged, swung fist with all of his weight behind it. The blow lifted Isceil as it hit him right across his cut stomach. The Drake turned white under his scales and passed out. Relc kicked him in the groin and turned.
“Anti-magic spear! He got Isceil!”
Ulinde screamed a warning. Montressa had already seen. The [Mage] raised her staff, retreating as she reinforced her barrier. Relc narrowed his eyes. He glanced at Moore and Seborn.
“You two suck.”
“[Flame Ray]! [Ice Spike]!”
Ulinde took advantage of the moment of distraction. Her spells shot at Relc. He leaned out of the way of the flaming beam and slashed. The [Ice Spike] didn’t even shatter; it just vanished as he cut it in half. Montressa gulped.
“We’re [Mages] of Wi—”
Relc kicked a chair at her face. It shattered against the barrier and she flinched. Relc leapt and his spear jabbed at her stomach. It slashed through the first ward and he cursed as it sank into the second.
“[Ropes of Binding]!”
The Drake jumped backwards as flames roared from Montressa’s staff. He slashed down the four ropes Ulinde shot at him. She leapt to one side and he blurred and kicked her in midair.
Something crunched around her pelvis. Ulinde made a sound and went crashing backwards, but then she was on her feet. Relc groaned.
He turned, raised his spear too late. The [Lightning Bolt] struck him and hurled him over the back of a table. Montressa lowered her staff. She saw the figure curse, leap to his feet, and roar.
Montressa turned pale. The [Guardsman] charged her and she shot another bolt of lightning from her staff. This time, somehow, he blocked the bolt of lightning! Relc ducked behind a table, then leapt, slashing a spell aimed at him as he maneuvered around Ulinde. Montressa backed up, desperately conjuring more protections.
“[Wall of Light]. [Steelcage]. Ulinde, back off! He’s too fast! Beza, get over here!”
The Minotauress was dueling Numbtongue next to the kitchens. She and Numbtongue swung; she had size and weight on him, but he was pressing her back! She stared as he caught a fist and kicked her in the kneecap. She felt something crunch.
The Hobgoblin hit her again, through her raised hands. Montressa’s head snapped back. She roared and grabbed two scrolls on her belt.
“[Steel Body]. [Haste]!”
The enchantments took hold as Numbtongue backed up. Beza charged him, head down. He pirouetted, letting her move past him. His eyes unfocused. Beza turned. She swung at him, her every moment enhanced. And he—
Dodged. The Hobgoblin leaned to one side as her fist passed by his ear. He stepped in and punched her in the stomach. Beza barely felt it. She kicked at him, enraged. He lifted his arm, catching her leg and heaving up.
Down she went. Beza hit the ground, surprised more than stunned, and then tried to get up. She met Numbtongue’s foot as the Hobgoblin kicked her as hard as he could. Beza’s head snapped back and she howled.
The Hobgoblin rubbed at one foot.
Beza got to her feet and lunged. The Hobgoblin made a whuffing sound and swung. Beza’s head snapped back and she went crashing backwards.
[Power Strike]. The Hobgoblin watched her get up and walked around the bar. He came back with two bottles. He smashed one across Beza’s face, the burning liquid searing his eyes. He tried the other one and smacked his lips.
Erin watched from the side, ducking back from the spells Relc was dodging. She pointed at Beza.
“I’ve got her, NumbPyrite! Get her!”
Beza roared. Her eyes were red with fury, but she felt a huge pressure weigh down on her as Pyrite in Numbtongue’s body smashed the second bottle across her face. His claw jabbed towards an eye and she recoiled. She felt sluggish! But she was [Hasted]! How—
Erin pointed at her, concentrating. Beza roared as she came at Erin. Pyrite tripped her. This time he leapt on her back and tried to twist her arm up, but Beza’s [Steel Body] made even that difficult. Annoyed, the Hobgoblin looked around. Beza swung at him as he danced a back. He avoided her every swing as she came at him, keeping her just out of range, just out of range—
Then he flipped up the fallen pot Erin had used for curry and slammed it over Beza’s head. The horns pierced the bottom, and the pot stuck. Beza screamed, but Pyrite was hesitating. He grabbed a chair, smashed it across Beza’s head as she struggled to remove the pot—kicked her in the stomach—and then sighed. He looked at Erin.
“Can’t stop without killing. Acid?”
Beza tore the pot free. She looked down at Pyrite and charged. He jumped out of the way. He punched Beza in the back of the head, tackled her, sending her skidding across the slippery floor—
And his time ran out. One minute. Pyrite cursed—and Numbtongue stumbled. Beza swung and caught him across the ribs. The Hobgoblin stumbled back. Beza turned to Erin and lifted a scroll. The [Innkeeper] froze; her concentration wavered.
“[Arrows of Light]!”
Erin dove as the arrows shredded the table she’d been hiding behind. Beza whirled. Numbtongue rose, looking for his guitar. It was at the bar. He squared himself, narrowing his eyes as he raised his fists. Beza roared, moving impossibly fast—
You? Do you need help?
The Hobgoblin’s head turned. Who had—
Numbtongue went crashing backwards as Beza struck him too quickly for Erin to see. The Hobgoblin struggled to get up—and met a second fist to the chest. He collapsed, and Beza reached for him, strangling him.
She stabbed Beza. The Minotaur felt the searing pain in her side and looked down. Her enchanted body had been pierced! The kitchen knife stuck out of her side, two inches in. She looked up, and her eyes were crimson. Like a Goblin’s eyes. Erin backed up as the Minotaur tore the knife free. The [Innkeeper] raised her fists.
“[Minotaur Punch]! [Minotaur Punch]!”
The first punch hit Beza in the ribs. The second in the stomach. The Minotauress let her have both hits. She stared down at Erin and spat. Saliva and rum from the bottle Pyrite had hit her with. She shook her head.
“That hurts a bit. But it’s just an imitation. Who taught you that?”
“I learned it from a real Minotaur.”
Erin saw Beza’s eyes narrow. She saw the punch and ducked—but too slow. Beza struck Erin across the face and Erin stumbled. Her mouth was bloody. She got back up. Aura? Could she do something other than weigh Beza down? Where was—
The Minotaur grabbed her head with one huge hand. Erin punched at her, but Beza was unmovable.
Erin sagged. She made a sound as Beza let go.
She hit the ground, a sack of bones and flesh, unable to move. Beza turned. She hesitated, looking at the unconscious Numbtongue, and then saw Relc stabbing Ulinde. His spear went right through her stomach, but she kept moving, twisting off it and shooting spells.
“Why the hell won’t you stop moving?”
Beza roared and Relc turned. He blocked another spell from Montressa and shouted.
“You suck too, Numbtongue!”
He whirled his spear and Beza hesitated. She eyed the spear and raised her fists, gesturing.
“Come on, Drake. Drop your spear and let’s see how good you are!”
Relc stared at her.
“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. I’m holding back.”
He spun, pointing the spear at Montressa. She paused. Relc looked around. Ulinde, Beza, Montressa, and he was surrounded. Worse, Isceil was groaning and everyone was unconscious or ensorcelled. Relc sighed.
“Put down your weapons. Or I’ll start killing you instead of holding back.”
The Wistram [Mages] stared at him. Ulinde’s mouth moved incredulously. Beza lost her temper. She roared at Relc, spittle flying.
“Surrender? You have no idea who you’re fighting! I’m the best at hand-to-hand combat in all of Wistram! I’m—”
A presence behind her. The [Spellscribe] whirled. A huge Drake stared up at her. He was a bit shorter, but only big. And he was even more muscular than she was. He shook his head as Erin got up groggily, helped by a pale Raskghar, trembling with fury—
“Wistram’s standards must be even lower than I remember. Grimalkin. Strongest [Mage] in Pallass.”
Beza jerked backwards. The Drake swung. She saw a huge, scaly fist and threw up her guard—
“I’m so glad to have your assistance, Watch Captain. If you’ll follow me?”
Palt trotted from Zevara’s office. She smiled.
“Certainly, Wistram’s representative!”
She followed him down the steps. She had something in her hand. A whistle, made of tin. Palt didn’t notice her as he trotted down the steps, using the handrails for guidance. Zevara put the whistle in her lips and blew it. It made no sound.
“I hope Miss Selys wasn’t too—upset. I trust we can amicably explain the situation. As I said, Wistram is willing to make a very generous donation—and recompense her for her trauma, of course!”
Palt murmured over his shoulder as he slowly reached the bottom of the steps. Zevara gave him a bright smile.
“Let’s go see, shall we?”
The Centaur trotted past the empty receptionist’s desk. He looked around the barracks, straightened his vest—
The Watch hit him as he entered the barracks. Gnolls and Drakes yanked him off his hooves. Beilmark smashed a club across Palt’s face as he fell.
The Centaur didn’t even have time to utter a spell. The Gnolls and Drakes hit him with batons and clubs from both sides. He screamed once before they brought him down. Zevara shouted as the [Guards] made sure the [Mage] was unconscious.
They stopped kicking him. Senior Guardswoman Beilmark growled, her fur standing on end.
“What was it, Watch Captain? He said he was a [Mage] from Wistram—”
“Maybe he was. He cast an enchantment on me. And he attacked—”
“He attacked Pisces!”
Selys pushed her way forwards. She was shouting and crying. Zevara turned to her.
“There were five of them! They—they said they were from Wistram. He wasn’t moving when—they put him in a box! And then they got the others! Ceria, Ksmvr, Yvlon—I saw it all! I was under a spell!”
Zevara had heard enough. She bellowed and Liscor’s Watch looked at her. The Watch Captain turned. Palt’s spell had gone and all that was left was the kind of fury that was so overwhelming it was calm. Zevara turned.
“There are four [Mages] in the city that assaulted Miss Selys Shivertail and took a Silver-rank team hostage! I want the rest of them found now and arrested! Get an anti-mage team, Beilmark! Find Relc, Klbkch—get Jeiss and the other Senior Guards too! There’s no telling what levels they are, but they’re not leaving the city! I want this done quietly, without them getting a chance to loose any more spells—”
“Kill or take alive, Watch Captain?”
Beilmark growled. A Gnoll was growling as the [Guards] grabbed weapons. Another went for a bell.
“Alive unless they threaten you, Senior Guardsman. Belay that bell, guardsman! No alarms! Spread out! I want eyes on the walls—”
A thought hit Zevara. No, a certainty. She strode out of the Watch House. Selys and the Watch followed her. Zevara looked towards the east and cursed.
“Get that squad together, Beilmark. You five! Get to the eastern wall! Run! Check to see if there’s any activity around the inn!”
She ran. Selys stopped only to kick Palt in the face before she was hot on Zevara’s tail.
Beza the Minotauress was lying down. She realized it only when it turned out the wall was floorboards. She blinked.
“Huh? Why am I on the floor?”
That was what she tried to say. But it didn’t come out. Grimalkin squatted down and rolled her over. Beza stared up at him. He inspected her jaw and shrugged.
“Concussion. I didn’t break the jaw. I’m getting better at not doing that. Then again, Minotaur’s jaws are tough. Miss Solstice? [Dispel Magic].”
Erin jerked as the numbness left her. She stood, turning.
“Not hurt. Cracked bones. I’ll see to him. Are there any more?”
Grimalkin nodded at Beza. She was still staring at the ceiling, trying to say something. Erin looked around.
“There’s one in the city—they were going to leave—Seborn! Moore!”
“Alive. The half-Giant’s wounded.”
Grimalkin looked around the inn. His tone was conversational. Montressa was screaming something at Relc as he sliced closer. He was so casual. Erin tried to grab at him, but her arms were still hard to move.
“They were gonna—”
“I heard. You’re lucky I was coming to tutor Miss Springwalker. I got the message from your Gnoll at the same time as Miss Ivirith.”
Ulinde was firing spells, at Relc, screaming as she aimed two at Grimalkin. He blocked them with one claw. She whirled as something moved. A huge, Gnoll-like beast was bent over Moore. It raised its head. Ulinde froze.
No Gnoll looked like that. But what was it? Then she saw the dead eyes. And she knew.
Jelaqua leapt. She caught Ulinde, ignoring the spells that burned holes into her Raskghar body. She snarled. Ulinde screamed.
“I—I’m—I can explain! I’m—I’m a huge fan, Miss Ivirith. B-but—”
The Selphid [Mage] did. She stared at Jelaqua, trembling. The Raskghar’s mouth opened.
“Hey. You know what’s going to happen next?”
The two crashed across the inn. Montressa, spinning, screamed as she saw her friend.
Jelaqua was ramming the younger Selphid’s head into a wall. Two blows and the skull caved in. But there was no brain. The broken face jerked backwards, trying to utter a spell around a shattered jaw. Jelaqua grabbed Ulinde by a leg and swung her into the wall.
Bones broke. The Selphid [Mage] made a sound like a bag of dirt hitting the ground. Again. And again—
A spear at Montressa’s chest. Relc cursed and backed up. Montressa uttered a spell and he cut it as the scythe swung at his chest.
“How many barriers do you have?”
“Stop! We are [Mages] from Wistram! We’re—”
Montressa looked around. Ulinde’s head was gone. She was lying on the ground. Her chest had been torn open and something orange was oozing into her. Another Selphid. Ulinde was screaming with her real body.
The [Aegiscaster] looked around. She saw Beza, struggling to sit up, throwing up. Isceil, bloody, down. And then Grimalkin. He stood up as Erin poured a healing potion on Numbtongue’s jaw.
“You. [Barrier Mage]. Drop the staff.”
Montressa looked around. Then she ran. Relc exclaimed as she fled out the doors. He looked at Erin.
The former [Sergeant] spotted her bloody mouth and his eyes narrowed. He nodded at the [Sinew Magus] as Grimalkin strode towards the door.
“Relc. What is this, a Wistram thief team? Did they try to steal the door?”
“Apparently they got the Horns. There’s blood. No sign of the Horns; Lyonette got me. She was trying to find Klb and more Gold-ranks, but they must’ve been away. I had a heck of a time not killing them. Watch the Human. She’s the best. Lightning spells from that orb-thing. The Drake was Oldblood with two breath attacks.”
Grimalkin nodded. The two walked outside. Montressa was fleeing down the hill. She’d gotten far, but she wasn’t fit. She was gasping as she tried to summit the second slope, running to Liscor.
“Hey! Stop or we’ll break your legs!”
Relc bellowed after Montressa. She whirled with a scream.
Magical arrows shot from her staff and lightning flashed at the inn. Relc spun his spear, but Grimalkin raised a claw, preempting Montressa’s spells.
“[Barrier of Wind].”
The lightning struck the barrier and it exploded. The [Sinew] Magus swatted away an arrow that was flying at his mouth; the rest he ignored. Relc punched one and growled.
“I really want to hit her.”
He leapt down the hill, rushing at Montressa. She went pale and planted her staff in the ground. This time the ruby gemstone flashed illuminating the dark landscape.
“[Five-Fold Arcane Barrier]. [Chain Lightning]!”
Relc’s eyes widened. He dodged, slicing, but this time he was too slow. The layered ward sprang around Montressa at the same time as the orb unleashed something like true lightning. It hit Relc—no, his spear had caught it—Grimalkin saw Relc blur backwards, and then leap backwards. Grimalkin surged down the hill and met him. Relc appeared, clutching at his arm. There was a crater marring his scales. He swore a blue streak.
“I got tagged. I hate Tier 4 spells! What the hell’s that?”
He pointed. Grimalkin eyed the magical wards surrounding Montressa. Grudgingly, Grimalkin uncrossed his arms.
“That’s a Tier 4 spell—layered. I could hit that pretty hard.”
Montressa screamed at the two Drakes, her face pale with exhaustion. She was fumbling for a mana potion and dropped it. Relc laughed, and then grimaced, clutching at a smoking black spot on one arm.
“Amateur! She didn’t even have that in her belt! Ow!”
“How’s your arm?”
Grimalkin looked at Relc. The [Guardsman] growled.
“I got most of it with my spear. Damn, damn—I hate lightning. Hey, I can’t break more than one of those stupid shields at a time. My spear doesn’t go through ‘em all. I could get three with [Triple Thrust], but that—”
Both of them looked up as Montressa pointed her staff. Grimalkin raised his arm.
“Hm. [Resistance to Lightning]. [Force Shield].”
This time the lightning bolts burst on the shield. Arcs of electricity hit Relc and Grimalkin, but the enchantment meant the bolts did little more than tickle. Relc sighed.
“You want to go up there and hit her? I’m fed up with eating spells.”
Grimalkin paused. He was watching Montressa with narrowed eyes.
“That’s a good barrier spell. She must be a specialist.”
He shouted up at Montressa.
“Human. Put down that staff! Release your mana or I will come up there! I am Grimalkin of Pallass and this is the Gecko of Liscor!”
“Aw, don’t say—”
“Don’t come any closer! I’m a [Mage] of Wistram! I’ve done nothing wrong!”
Montressa’s voice was hoarse. Grimalkin raised his brows.
“I’d surrender, Miss [Mage]. I’d prefer not to kill any more [Mages] from Wistram right now. You’ve attacked innocent people in Liscor. Put down your staff now.”
“Yeah! You’re under arrest! You’d better pray the Horns are alright! Surrender and you won’t be harmed!”
He turned to Grimalkin and lowered his voice.
“If they’re dead, we’ll probably feed them to Shield Spiders. If Erin doesn’t kill them.”
Montressa hadn’t heard the last part, but her eyes bulged as Grimalkin began walking casually up towards her. She shrieked at him and Relc.
“For what? We apprehended criminals!”
The Drakes paused. Grimalkin was frowning. He looked at Relc. Montressa desperately seized onto that.
“We explained to your Watch Captain why we’re here! We did nothing wrong!”
Grimalkin glanced back at Relc questioningly. The [Guardsman] paled.
“Oh shit. Did she?”
Erin burst out of The Wandering Inn. She was panting. She pointed down at Montressa and shouted at Relc and Grimalkin.
“They did something to the Horns of Hammerad! Mrsha said she smelled their blood.”
“Wait. You attacked a group of [Mages] just based on that?”
Grimalkin folded his arms. Relc scratched at the back of his head.
“Yeah, sort of shoddy evidence. Oh shit. Maybe—”
“We only captured them! They’re alive! But that monster—that—that murderer! The [Necromancer]! Pisces! He’s a monster!”
Montressa shouted up at Erin. She aimed her staff at the [Innkeeper] and it began to glow. Relc lifted his spear, aiming it. Grimalkin’s brows snapped together.
“Drop the staff. You won’t get a second chance.”
He lifted a fist. Montressa wavered. She looked at Erin. She looked down at Grimalkin. Relc was dodging around the hill, circling as he advanced. Suddenly he looked up. Stared at Liscor’s walls. Then he ran. Grimalkin glanced up as Relc bellowed at him.
“Incoming! Get clear—”
Atop Liscor’s walls, a spell was forming. Magic coalesced, blobbed together, and then shaped itself. A shimmering, purple-white comet tinged with brilliant blue shot down from the heavens. Montressa turned, and her eyes went wide. The spell was huge. She threw up her arms, mouthing a spell—
The explosion and impact of the comet striking the ground next to Montressa’s barriers was followed a second later by a kick that sent Erin stumbling backwards. Relc and Grimalkin didn’t move. The two Drakes braced and Erin looked around wildly. She was half-blind and her ears were ringing from the sound. What happened? What had—
She realized what had happened as she stared at Liscor, and then at the hill where Montressa had been standing. A spell. From atop one of Liscor’s walls. Someone had fired it! She looked down at the hill—
“Direct hit on the hill, Watch Captain!”
Watch Captain Zevara lowered the command scroll tied to the wall’s inbuilt spells. The rest of the Watch stared at her, keeping a respectful distance. She squinted down at the hill.
“Alive, Watch Captain. Her barriers—held the blast.”
A Gnoll gulped as he pointed. Zevara stared at the shimmering shield surrounding Montressa.
“Huh. I should have hit her directly, then. Send a team down, now.”
Grimalkin brushed at dirt from his scales. Relc was swearing, cupping a claw to one of his earholes. Grimalkin stared up at the hilltop. Despite himself, he was impressed.
“Hm. She is one of Wistram’s better [Mages]. That only got four of her barriers. A pure defensive expert; the orb’s got good synergy. You know, I could adapt this tactic. Where are my notes?”
Montressa was lying face-flat on the hilltop. The bombardment spell from Liscor’s walls had knocked her flat, barriers or not. She looked up, nose bloody, and tried to get up. Drakes and Gnolls were advancing from Liscor, running across the uneven terrain. She pointed a staff at Grimalkin and Relc as they climbed.
“[Flame Veil]! Stay back! This isn’t right! I said, stay back! [Chain Lightning]!”
This time Grimalkin caught the spell as Relc raised his spear. The lightning struck both spear and the [Sinew Magus]’s arm; it flared, thundering, and both he and Relc stepped back. Unharmed. It was mostly from curiosity at this point; Montressa was swaying, but both Drakes eyed the orb floating around her staff.
“What the hell is that orb? Some kind of artifact?”
“She’s dual-casting from it. No—the spells are linked to the orb. All lightning-based. Some kind of artifact?”
Montressa swung her staff, aiming at both Drakes. Relc sighed.
“Seriously, drop it. Or I will break something. I’m almost as mad as Captain Z.”
“I’m a Wistram—”
Grimalkin’s eye twitched.
“Young woman. Say that one more time and I will hurt you.”
“Relc, Grimalkin! Watch your backs!”
The two Drakes turned. Relc and Grimalkin saw a shape appear in the door. Jelaqua roared, grabbing what remained of Ulinde’s corpse. She was still grappling with Ulinde, immobilizing her—part of her real body was seeped into the [Mage]’s wrecked corpse and it was twitching, signs of an internal battle. But that meant neither she nor the two immobilized Halfseekers or Numbtongue could stop—
Isceil held a wand to Erin’s face. She was struggling, in the grip of Beza. The Minotaur looked unsteady, but she was holding Erin, ignoring the [Innkeeper] kicking at her and Isceil. The shout stopped the [Guards] rushing towards Montressa. Relc groaned and Grimalkin sighed.
“Should have broken the jaw.”
Isceil’s eyes were wild as Relc began to storm up the hill. Grimalkin held up a claw, catching Relc.
“Relc, hold off the [Barrier Mage]. I’ll stop those two. Let the [Innkeeper] go, [Mages].”
He strode up the hill, ignoring Isceil’s shouts. The Drake’s wand emitted a jet of fire and Erin shouted. Grimalkin stopped. His voice was a roar, as loud as when Erin had first met him.
“I am Grimalkin of Pallass! You—Drake, and you, Minotaur. Let her go or you’ll find yourself on a watch list across all of Izril. And you, Minotauress! Where’s your honor?”
The Drake and Minotaur hesitated. Isceil gritted his teeth as Beza clenched one hand unsteadily. Isceil shouted back.
“Let us go! We’re from Wistram! We have rights—”
“You’re under arrest! Lay down your weapons or we will shoot you! [Archers]!”
Beilmark howled as she arrived. The [Guards] with her leveled their weapons. The [Mages] froze. Beza called out.
“Montressa, tell them! We’re hunting criminals!”
“That changes nothing about this situation. Lay. Down. Your. Weapons.”
Grimalkin was losing patience. Montressa shouted at him.
“We’re from Wistram! What part of that you don’t you understand? The Academy sent us to—”
Someone loosed an arrow. Beilmark jerked. The arrow flew, straight and true. On the hilltop, Montressa, Relc, Grimalkin—and the watching Isceil, Beza, and Erin all saw the arrow fly. Straight at Montressa du Valeross as she looked around.
The arrow went straight through her shoulder. Montressa spun with the impact. Her mouth was wide open, gaping. She stumbled. Isceil’s eyes went wide.
A second arrow sprouted from the arm holding the wand to Erin’s face. He jerked screaming. Beza raised her arm. An arrow appeared in her left shoulder. Then her right. And then one more in her left forearm. She stared down at the arrows as Erin stumbled away from her, ducking reflexively.
Erin heard a soft hiss, and a thunk. Then a scream. The Minotaur stared down at an arrow sticking out of her abdomen. Another arrow hit Isceil in the knee.
What was happening? The [Guards] took cover reflexively, shouting at each other. Relc and Grimalkin stared around, pinpointing the [Archer].
And then—there was a song. A warbling voice, cheerful, singing, accompanied by the flight of arrows. Thock, thock, thock. Erin’s eyes widened.
“La, la, arrow here, arrow there. Should I shoot to kill? Or should I not? This are very complicated thoughts. Shoot, shoot, shot.”
Bird stood on a hill and drew back on his beloved, new bow. He was singing, drawing arrows and loosing with all four arms. Two more arrows shot from his bow. One struck Isceil in the other knee and he dropped. The other hit Montressa’s arm as she raised her wand. She went white and her eyes rolled up in her head. Beza was on her knees. Bird kept firing.
Beilmark howled it, but Bird was still loosing arrows. Grimalkin moved to block the arrow shooting at Beza. Relc was quicker. He slashed with his spear and an arrow snapped in midair.
The rain of arrows obligingly ceased. In the silence, as the [Mages] lay on the ground and everyone, Zevara, the [Guards], Grimalkin, and Relc all stared, Bird marched up the hill.
He had a new bow. And his carapace looked—new. Undamaged with the nicks and damage older Workers and Soldiers accumulated. More than that, he had four arms. Two legs. He was whole. He paused as Erin stared at him. Both of them ignored the [Mages]. After a moment, Bird raised a hand.
“Hello, Erin. I am Bird. Did you forget about me?”
The Worker paused uncertainly.
“Is that a yes? I am Bird. I have a room here. And I used to have a tower. It was exploded by a Goblin. With a sword. May I have it back?”
He pointed up at the roof of the inn, still not finished. Bird paused. And he looked at Erin. His mandibles opened and closed.
“Do you remember me?”
Erin reached out, her eyes filling with tears. She hugged him, laughing. Bird held stock still, and then he patted her on the head with one of his hands.
“Is this a yes? Or a no?”
“Of course I missed you, Bird. I tried to visit! Where were you?”
The Worker stared at Erin. She laughed, and he kicked at the ground. She heard a groan and looked down. Beza’s eyes were nearly rolled up in her head. Bird paused.
“I’m home. Who are these people? Bad people?”
And then the inn was crowded. Zevara slammed out of the door of the inn, having used the magic door. Erin turned as the Watch Captain stared around.
“What in the name of the Ancestors was that? Senior Guardsman Relc? Front and center!”
She bellowed as [Guards] streamed out. They dropped on the [Mages], grabbing wands and their possessions as more trained bows on them. Erin saw Relc jogging up the hill.
“Hi Watch Captain—”
“Senior Guardsman Relc! Explain this before I take that spear and shove it up your tailpipe!”
Zevara bellowed in his face. Erin hadn’t heard her this mad in a long time, and never not at her. Bird looked at her and she hugged him. He sighed.
“I am much cuddled. Are there any birds left? I have missed them.”
“Watch Captain, I uh, was responding to a distress call—”
“Why in the name of the Ancestors was I not informed?”
“It was an emergency, Watch Captain. Lyonette found me first, and then she ran to see you—”
“We were busy dealing with the Centaur situation, Watch Captain.”
One of the [Guards] winced as Zevara rounded on him. She stared at the door—and then as it burst open.
“Move! I heard—by the walls!”
Keldrass and Bevussa burst into the inn. Zevara stared at them and shouted.
“Keep them clear! No—shut up, Relc! Someone find Miss Lyonette before she calls half the city on this inn!”
“Is Lyonette okay? I sent everyone out of the inn! And I tried to tell you all, but it was hard and I was looking for Relc and the Gold-ranks—oh no! There’s one more [Mage]!”
Erin was panting, wiping at her bloody mouth. Beilmark shook her head.
“Miss Lyonette wasn’t in the barracks. She must have missed the excitement. There’s a Centaur in custody.”
“Put all these [Mages] in a magic-warded cell! Patch them up first—[Healers]! And get me Guildmistress Alonna!”
Zevara was roaring, looking for someone to take her fury out on. But the [Mages] weren’t even conscious. Jelaqua dropped what looked like a side of meat in front of the [Guards]. Everyone recoiled.
Jelaqua growled. The Gnolls backed up as the Raskghar-body rolled its shoulders. The…remains of the corpse that was Ulinde was making a sound, but not with any part of the body. It came from inside and sounded a bit like sobbing; a buzzing, bubbling sound.
“I dealt with this one. It’s not causing any more trouble. And I was nice after what they did to my team.”
The Gold-rank Selphid looked around. Moore was sitting up, prodding at his chest, and Seborn was helping him up, supporting one arm. Relc snorted as he saw Numbtongue leaning against the bar.
“That was a terrible fight. Those stupid [Mages] were using spells and I was afraid to hit them too hard. So was everyone else.”
Zevara’s lips compressed. She looked at Erin. The [Innkeeper] was unsteady on her feet.
“Miss Solstice. Explain this to me. I met one of the Wistram [Mages] who informed me he attacked and abducted Pisces, and the rest of his team after enchanting Miss Selys.”
“Selys! Is she alright? The Horns—”
Zevara held up a claw. She was looking around.
The Drake loomed and the Watch respectfully backed up. Grimalkin’s arms were folded and he looked extremely displeased. Zevara nodded to him, modulating her bark.
“Magus Grimalkin, thank you for your help.”
“What I gave. I’m still trying to ascertain what just occurred. Has a crime been committed or not, Watch Captain? I dislike being the first resort for Miss Solstice as well. Miss Erin, Watch Captain Zevara was the first person you should have informed if you suspected danger to your friends.”
Erin hesitated as Grimalkin glared at her. Surprisingly, it was Zevara who came to her aid, shaking her head.
“To my knowledge, it was completely illegal, Magus Grimalkin. They ensorcelled one of Liscor’s citizens and attacked an adventurer team in my city without provocation. They apparently also used a spell on an entire bar! Miss Selys was apparently a witness to it all, but—apathetic until the enchantment was released.”
A furious murmur ran through the Watch. Relc spat, hitting Montressa as someone dragged her past him. Grimalkin’s frown deepened.
“Mind-blanking spells. This is typical Wistram arrogance. Which doesn’t change the fact that they had a reason to go after the Horns of Hammerad, Watch Captain. I’d like to know what that was. Regardless, I’m satisfied on the count of their guilt. Wistram has done this before. Not in Pallass, but elsewhere, certainly.”
He looked at Zevara and she bared her teeth.
“I’m aware of that. But no one casts spells on Liscor’s citizens. Moreover, I want to know what exactly the Horns of Hammerad have done to incur Wistram’s wrath. Casting mass-attack spells like [Chain Lightning] in the vicinity of Liscor around civilians is another felony, although I assume they didn’t start the fight?”
“Are they alive?”
Zevara nodded as Erin looked at them anxiously.
“That’s what I heard. The Centaur mentioned apprehending them, but I don’t see them anywhere. We will find them, Miss Solstice. Now explain to me how you knew they’d attacked the Horns of Hammerad.”
Erin pointed back into the inn.
“Mrsha smelled blood on them. Blood from the Horns of Hammerad.”
“And you believed her?”
One of the Drake [Guards] was skeptical, but all the Gnolls—as well as Zevara and Grimalkin—didn’t seem bothered.
“Junior Guardsman Silt, the ability of Gnolls to detect blood is a recognized aspect of law enforcement. Your colleagues are allowed to make credible investigations into violence based on what they smell. Miss Solstice acted beyond her rights as a…citizen of Liscor, but we’ll discuss that later.”
It looked like it cost Zevara to say that last. Grimalkin raised his brows as she turned to her officers.
“Well, that settles it. Senior Guardswoman Beilmark? Take some Gnolls and track down the Horns with Relc—”
“There won’t be a need for that, Watch Captain. If I’m right, your search would only end up right back here.”
Grimalkin interrupted. He looked at the [Mages]; a [Healer] was seeing to them and cursing at Bird’s arrows. Bird stared at Bevussa and waved. Numbtongue stared at Bird. Bird waved at him too. Grimalkin strode over to Montressa and peered at her belt, then bent and came up with the black cube.
“Ah, I thought so. This team is very typical of the academy.”
He showed the object around. Erin stared at it.
“What is it?”
“A Silent Box. It’s a mage-prison developed by Wistram. A kind of contained space—very old artifacts, similar to Bags of Holding but much, much more advanced. I tried using the same methods myself. This team must have wanted their quarry badly to be sent with one of these.”
“They’re in there?”
Even Zevara looked shocked. Grimalkin nodded, grimacing.
“Simple enough. It’s like a Bag of Holding, not like an actual dimension you can walk into. I just have to release them. It’s fairly intuitive if…”
He touched the door and it shone. Grimalkin reached in—or perhaps the box expanded to fit his hands—and suddenly four figures were lying on the ground. Ceria sat up. Her eyes went wide, refocusing in the dimmer light.
She raised her skeletal hand, ice crystallizing around her finger. Grimalkin jerked her hand up and the [Ice Spike] shot into the air. Zevara swore and recoiled. Yvlon swung muzzily, her arm still twisted. Ksmvr jerked.
“—war. If they are hurt, the Antinium—”
He stopped and stared around. Ceria blinked at Grimalkin and her eyes went wide. The [Sinew Magus] nodded at her and then instantly focused on Yvlon. She was staring around wildly.
“Where are we? What—”
Erin shouted. Everyone, Horns, adventurers, and [Guards] turned. A white mass of robes lay on the ground. But it was deceptive. Pisces’ enchanted robes were the only clean thing about him. The rest—Erin stared down. His face was swollen, and bloody.
He wasn’t moving.
She reached for him. Grimalkin grabbed her hand. He waved an arm and something pushed everyone back. Only the [Healer] and he were close. Grimalkin’s claw hovered over Pisces’ face.
“Still unconscious. He’s badly beaten. I detect bone chips—broken bones here—ruptured blood vessels—”
“Magus Grimalkin, I have localized tonics—”
“Good. You’re familiar with multiple fractures in bones? Right here. Here. There’s blood and swelling here—how localized are your tonics?”
The [Sinew Magus] was calm as could be as he knelt over Pisces. Erin pressed against the barrier, desperate to get closer. It trembled and she fell through. Grimalkin looked up, annoyed.
“Turn off your aura, Miss Solstice. Don’t interfere with my spells. This is a delicate process.”
“My—is he going to be alright?”
“Silent Boxes preserve those who are captured as they were. Time passes very slowly; these injuries are fresh. Stand back and let us work.”
Erin did as Grimalkin bent. Ceria was babbling to Zevara.
“I—we tried to talk! But if we started throwing deadly spells—”
“I’ll send a team to the bar. Was anyone else hurt?”
“No. Just Pisces. The rest of the adventurers were incapacitated. But someone check on Ksmvr.”
Yvlon grabbed Ksmvr. The Worker was still smoking from the electrical burns he’d taken. He shook his head as a second [Healer] looked at him.
“I am functional. Yvlon. Someone must see to you.”
The woman looked at him. Slowly, Zevara pointed.
“Your arm’s dislocated.”
Yvlon looked down. Her armor had been twisted. Ceria gasped as she saw—Yvlon covered the gap as the [Healer] ran over.
“It’s fine. Just dislocated. Swollen. A bit of infection. It’s—”
Erin saw Yvlon being led away. Ksmvr followed her, leaving Ceria behind. She watched as the [Healer] reduced Pisces’ swelling and Grimalkin straightened. He nodded at Erin.
“He should be fine. They left him alive on purpose.”
Erin exhaled, but Ceria was shaking. She pointed at the unconscious four [Mages] and ice began forming around her hand. Grimalkin moved between her and the [Mages]. The half-Elf’s face was white.
“They jumped us. It was Montressa and some [Mages] from Wistram. How dare they? We didn’t do anything! They—”
“You know her?”
Ceria looked up. She nodded in response to Zevara’s question.
“That’s Montressa du Valeross. She was a classmate of ours in Wistram, years ago. She’s…she’s all grown up.”
Erin’s eyes widened. Ceria stared down at Montressa’s face. Zevara cursed.
“So they are official [Mages] from Wistram? Dead gods damn it. This just got a lot more complicated.”
“What are you going to do?”
Erin looked at Zevara. She wanted to—the fight in the inn still hadn’t left her. Her friends had gotten hurt! More of her friends! She wanted to kick the downed [Mages]. Even Bird’s arrows sticking out of them didn’t make her feel better. She was so angry—she could barely remember being this furious before. Zevara glanced at her and the Watch Captain’s tone softened.
“Let the [Healers] see to you. Magus Grimalkin, will you sign off on my report? I need to make an immediate statement and to query Wistram.”
Grimalkin nodded. Ceria stared around as Zevara strode past them, shouting more orders. Now it was silent, Erin could see Seborn drinking from behind the bar. Moore was feeling at his chest as Jelaqua hugged him.
“I was shut down. My magic—”
“It wasn’t you, Moore. I wasn’t there.”
“I should have gone for the kill. You alright, Moore?”
Numbtongue was sitting down, being tended to by Mrsha and Lyonette. The Gnoll was licking him as Lyonette checked him over. Erin stared around her inn. It was trashed; tables and chairs obliterated by spells. Some of the [Actors] were peeking out from behind the backstage.
Like before. It was a familiar scene, but different. Erin shook with anger. This wasn’t right. She looked at Ceria and her mouth worked silently. At last, she pointed to Montressa.
“That’s your friend, Ceria?”
The half-Elf sat down on the floor, watching the [Healer] tend to Pisces. She shook her head and covered her face.
“She was a long time ago.”
Fury. Zevara expelled it in bursts of air. They might have been sentences. Or curses that only happened to sound like words. She was bellowing at a terrified [Scribe], standing in the Mage’s Guild, flanked by an entire squad of her [Guards]. The [Mage] on duty and Guildmistress Alonna were both present, communicating with Liscor. Councilmember or not—Zevara kept bellowing.
“—demand an immediate explanation for this!”
“Yes, Watch Captain, but Wistram—”
Zevara’s fist made the [Scribe] and everything on the counter jump.
“Directly to whomever’s in authority! I don’t care about Wistram’s protocols! This is an assault and a violation of Wistram’s neutrality.”
“Yes, Watch Captain. Wistram says—”
The Watch Captain was in direct communication with Wistram. Or rather, she was still shouting invectives as if they could pass via [Message].
“Wistram had no authority to make an arrest in Liscor! Moreover, they used mind-alteration spells on a citizen of the city—I am charging them with assault on a citizen, use of dangerous magics in a public area and against a member of the Watch, attempted abduction of adventurers—”
The [Scribe]’s voice was loud enough to match Zevara’s, perhaps from sheer self-survival. The Watch Captain paused and stared at the [Scribe]. The female Gnoll cringed, but she lifted a scroll where she’d been transcribing replies.
“Wistram has heard your complaint, Watch Captain. They are taking this very seriously. Archmage Naili has been informed, and one of their Council Mages is sending replies!”
“Oh—well, you may convey to them my extreme displeasure!”
Zevara was caught off-guard for a second. The [Scribe] winced, but she was reading from the [Messages].
“Of course, Watch Captain, but Wistram would like to know—are their [Mages] alive? They would like to communicate with Mage Montressa, or if she is incapacitated—”
“They do not get to set demands! This was an attack! All five [Mages] are under arrest!”
The [Scribe] watched Alonna and the Drake [Mage] sending that. Her quill blurred—she was autocopying a response somehow.
“Watch Captain, Wistram is deeply sorry for the incident. They want you to know that their team was pursuing a fugitive—”
“Pisces? He’s not a threat! He doesn’t have a record! He paid his bounty!”
“—an extremely dangerous individual! Convicted across multiple cities—”
“Petty offences! Where does it say he’s a murderer? I never received that report and believe me, we checked!”
“—Wistram’s own logs—”
“If there’s no bounty, it’s not a damn crime and he’s not a criminal! As far as I’m concerned, this was an adventurer and the Adventurer’s Guild will be informed! Not just Liscor’s—this is a group of Wistram’s [Mages] attacking an adventurer! For reasons they did not deign to inform me, in a city—and then going after his team!”
Zevara hissed. The [Scribe] shut up. Zevara spoke very slowly.
“Tell Wistram this: they had no cause to attack Pisces without public record of crimes and a bounty worthy of this action! They had no right to take the law into their hands in my city without informing me. Their [Mages] are guilty of assault, illicit use of magics—they will be held and charged! Severely! And I will be lodging a formal notice with the Adventurer’s Guilds, as well as sending a copy of my complaints to the Walled Cities, Liscor’s High Command, Liscor’s Council and—”
She couldn’t think of anything else. Zevara finished, pounding the desk.
“Wistram’s [Mages] will be held until their full fine is paid, upon which they will be exiled from Liscor! Is that clear?”
The [Scribe] was cowed. Zevara relaxed, realizing she wasn’t really yelling at the young Gnoll. She was just doing her job. The Watch Captain paused, and cleared her throat.
“Apologies for yelling.”
“No problem, Watch Captain.”
The Gnoll should have won an award for the smile she gave Zevara. She glanced sideways; the two [Mages] were transmitting Zevara’s words. The Watch Captain stepped back. She wanted to pace, or curse.
Ancestors, she knew Pisces was trouble. She was even curious herself what he’d done to make Wistram so mad. But for all the trouble he’d caused, she distinctly remembered him fighting Face-Eater Moths and conjuring the rainstorm. And fighting the Raskghar! And Skinner.
She was angry at Wistram. Zevara had always considered the Academy, well, useful, if an occasional irritant. She didn’t think of them, really. They were just there, like the Mage’s Guild. Sometimes they had requests, but they were always simple enough and their [Mages] had been, until this moment, snooty, expensive, but effective.
Now this? Zevara waited for a response. She was hoping for something deeply apologetic, although nothing could soothe her temper. But that was where she made a mistake.
Because she didn’t know Wistram. She didn’t know it at all. And one of the things Zevara should have, might have needed to know, was this: Wistram Academy was many things. Insular, arrogant, magical, guarded, jealous—any number of things. But what it wasn’t good at was folding.
When Wistram wanted something and something turned out to be a problem, the Academy didn’t back away and beg forgiveness. It doubled down.
“Watch Captain, Wistram has a response.”
After a few minutes the [Scribe] looked up. She was biting one lip as she read. Zevara’s tail lashed the floor impatiently.
“They’ll pay the fine.”
The Gnoll looked up, cringing at Zevara’s expression.
“They’ll pay the fine for Mage Montressa’s team. All of it.”
“I haven’t set a fine!”
“No, Watch Captain. But the [Message] says…they’ll pay it. And they would like Mage Montressa released at your earliest convenience.”
“My earliest…you tell whoever’s sending the [Message] to take that request and ram it so far up their own—”
Like a [Captain] sailing into the heart of a maelstrom, the [Scribe] went on doggedly, determined to see the worst through. She was scribing faster, and she began reading as she wrote.
“Incoming alert! Bounty on Pisces Jealnet. Alive. Full list of crimes incoming. Estimated threat level: Level 26 [Necromancer]. Bounty price—two thousand gold pieces, claimable at any Wistram-directed Mage’s Guild. Bounty being forwarded to all cities across Izril. Description…”
Zevara stared at the [Scribe] in horror.
“Wait, what are you doing? You can’t do that! Countermand that [Message]!”
The Gnoll gave her a wretched look.
“It’s a mass-update to the Mage’s Guilds, Watch Captain. There’s more. A biography on Pisces Jealnet, son of Padurn Jealnet, [Fencer]. Common-born of Terandria; family in service to the House Dultel. Accused of [Necromancy]; fled. Accused of petty thievery and necrophilia. Became [Mage] of Wistram under false pretenses, expelled for grave robbing and related deaths of 46 [Mages]. Status as Wistram graduate not ratified by Wistram’s Council or Archmages…”
It came on and on. Zevara had to take a step back. She stared at the [Scribe]. The Gnoll’s face was pale and tight as she was speaking. Zevara looked around. And then someone tapped her on the shoulder. Zevara turned.
Wing Commander Embria looked unhappily at Zevara as she held up a glowing communication stone. She held it out.
“Watch Captain. High Command wishes to speak to you now.”