“Watch Captain Zevara, are you aware of how many services Wistram provides for Liscor’s army and the city itself?”
Wing Commander Embria knew the voice that snapped out of the speaking stone in Watch Captain Zevara’s claw. She winced and shuffled her feet; she would have looked away, but what would be the point? She stood in the Watch Commander’s office and listened. Wincing.
After the first burst of sound, the voice was quieter, but Watch Captain Zevara’s replies were audible from where Embria stood.
“I—no, ma’am. The situation—no, High Strategist. Yes, but—it was clearly—no. Yes, I understand. I—given the situation—yes. However—yes. I’ll bear the High Command’s wishes—thank you.”
Zevara’s expression said a world, as did her writhing tail, but her tone was deferential. Embria winced as Zevara put down the speaking stone. She handed it to Embria, who silently took the valuable magical item. Wing Commander Embria opened her mouth, noted Zevara’s expression—and the smoke—and fled.
Watch Captain Zevara listened to Embria close the door and pound downstairs at double-time for a few seconds. Then she gave vent to her emotions. She pounded a fist on her desktop and shouted a number of words that brought one of the [Guards] running. They were still on edge, but Watch Captain Zevara’s glare made the [Guardswoman] close the door and wait until Zevara had vented her metaphorical and literal fire.
“Watch Captain, do you have orders?”
“Yes. Come in, Guardswoman.”
Zevara slumped as the female Drake opened the door cautiously. The [Guardswoman] stood to attention and Zevara looked up.
“The [Mage] prisoners from Wistram. Where are they now and what’s their condition?”
“Stable, Watch Captain. They’ve all been treated and healed—the Minotaur has a hairline fracture on her jaw and the Drake and Human both have bone chips from the arrows. The Selphid’s body is uh, destroyed, but it’s been healed. As for the Centaur—a few cracked ribs, but all healing.”
That meant they were practically fine. Healing potions—low grade ones—couldn’t heal bones, but everything else from arrow wounds to gashes would be closed. Zevara nodded grimly.
“Are they awake?”
“Yes, Watch Captain. We have them in the mage cells and we’re still in the process of cataloguing their gear.”
“Fine. Release them.”
The Drake froze. She eyed Zevara as if she suspected her superior were under a spell. But Zevara still had the detection charm on one wrist and the stupid little Human face was smiling, a sign of no mental enchantments on her. Zevara glared and spat the words like poison.
“Release them. That’s an order straight from the High Command. I want their belongings returned, and them marched…damn, here. Get the Horns of Hammerad here, and Miss Solstice and Magus Grimalkin if he’s so inclined. And anyone else! But keep them apart until I return, got it? And make sure Relc and Senior Guardsman Klbkch are there to keep order!”
“Yes, Watch Captain. Where will you be in the meantime?”
The Drake [Guardswoman] saluted reflexively. Zevara got up. The [Guardswoman] stared at her, confused. Zevara shook her head in reply. She stomped towards the door.
“I need to see the Council.”
Liscor’s Council met. In fact, they were already meeting when Zevara strode into the council room. They didn’t waste time. At least, the real Council, the ones who made the decisions, didn’t.
They were Elirr, Raekea, and Krshia, who were in a sense, the Gnollish party. And on the other side were Lism, Jeiss, and Alonna, as well as Tismel and Zalaiss, who represented Drakes. Those were the official battle lines. But there was a third party known as the ‘Council who wants to get things done and resents the really expensive and idiot practices of the previous Councils’ party, which consisted of everyone but Tismel and Zalaiss.
It was a source of much tension, mainly from Tismel and Zalaiss. But both were conspicuously absent today—indeed, they rarely showed up. They lacked the votes to sway all but contentious issues and Zalaiss was either drunk when she arrived, or she and Tismel were with the old Council, relaying the current one’s decisions or trying to think up something that didn’t involve getting past Relc and his fist.
For now, the current Council ruled and they were active. But Watch Captain Zevara’s presence was their concern of the moment. And it had to be said, none of them were happy either.
“They did what in my city?”
Lism’s bellow echoed throughout the conference room. Krshia, Elirr, and Raekea clapped their paws to their ears, glaring. But Lism was furious. Almost as furious as Krshia. She leaned forwards, addressing Zevara.
“And we’re letting them go? All of this was decided without our input? Already?”
“That’s right, Councilmembers. I am simply informing you of my decisions, which were all undertaken under my own authority as Watch Captain.”
Zevara stared straight past Lism’s head, speaking to everyone and no one. Olesm, standing by the door, winced. But he was also staring.
Wistram’s [Mages] had tried to abduct the Horns of Hammerad? Ceria? And they’d done it in public—and hexed Selys and started a fight at Erin’s inn? No, wait—Olesm checked his notes. Erin had started the fight.
Either way, it was a disaster. Not for Liscor, but for Wistram. Or so Olesm had assumed. But Zevara’s next statement had all the Councilmembers staring.
“I have ordered the Wistram team’s immediate release, and their items will be restored to them. They will…not…be banned from Liscor, although they will be under the strictest surveillance. I will personally make that clear to them—”
“But you’re letting them stay? And you’re releasing them from prison? Why in the name of the Ancestors would you do that, Watch Captain?”
Lism’s fist hit the table furiously. He glared at Zevara. Alonna, sitting beside him, was silent, her arms folded. Lism glared at Zevara.
“They ensorcelled Miss Shivertail? That’s illegal! They should be fined, then beaten with sticks, and then exiled for good! Not given a slap on the wrist and—”
“Lism, shut up, you. Let Watch Captain Zevara explain herself. I am sure she has a reason. And I am more curious about this bounty Alonna mentioned, yes?”
Krshia glared at Lism. He opened his mouth, but Olesm cut in. His job, rather than to drag the Council from topic to topic, was to keep them from quarrelling, which was much easier.
“On that note, Councilmembers? I have a record of the bounty from the Mage’s Guild. Here are copies—”
He passed them out, and then stepped back and offered Zevara a copy. She shook her head, lashing her tail. Olesm stepped back and read from his. His stomach twisted in the silence.
“A two thousand coin bounty? That is high.”
Raekea’s brows shot up. She stared at the parchment and then up at the others. Jeiss shook his head absently. The Senior Guardsman muttered.
“Not for an adventurer. Olesm, is this right?”
“Yes, Councilmember Jeiss.”
“I could live on two thousand gold pieces for years!”
Lism croaked faintly. Jeiss shrugged.
“It’s a lot, but I’ve seen ones in the tens of thousands for Gold-ranks. That’s usual. Silver-ranks go from a few hundred to a few thousand—but aside from idiots, this one won’t attract too many [Bounty Hunters] unless they’re in the area.”
“Do we have to worry about that, then?”
“Pisces? This is on Pisces?”
Krshia stared at the parchment. Zevara nodded shortly.
“Allow me to explain. Allegedly, this [Mage] team was sent here to apprehend the adventurer known as Pisces…Jealnet, and his companion, Ceria Springwalker, as criminals to be tried in Wistram.”
Krshia blinked and then focused on Zevara. The other Councilmembers did too. Zevara went on, pacing back and forth.
“Wistram has explained the actions its team took as hunting a fugitive, a criminal. Pisces Jealnet. He has a list of verified crimes, some of which I am aware of, and his team was apprehended when they refused to give him up. I understand Ceria Springwalker, the leader of his team, was also sought by Wistram.”
“Legally? I know Ceria. What has she done?”
Krshia interrupted. Zevara shook her head, looking frustrated.
“The [Message] I received skimmed over Miss Springwalker’s crimes aside from impersonating a [Mage] of Wistram, but I received a rather extensive report on Pisces. He is, as many of you know, a [Necromancer], but he has a long list of minor crimes from many, many Humans cities. Everything from extortion to burglary to blackmail and the usual [Necromancer] crimes. Joining a coven, grave robbing, animation of the undead—”
“And we allowed someone like that to roam free in Liscor? Watch Commander, this individual is an adventurer in Liscor, yes? I thought I saw them at the parade? Why hasn’t our Watch arrested them?”
Raekea looked appalled, as did Lism. Zevara frowned in reply.
“He had several extortion charges around Liscor, but he paid off his debt and was allowed to enter the city. I was not aware of the charges from other cities, or I might have considered barring him from entry, but…”
She hesitated and Jeiss coughed. He looked around the table and explained.
“Councilmembers, those are crimes committed in Human lands. We don’t usually share criminal information aside from major threats because their Watch Captains aren’t as organized as ours. Besides, Drake law allows for some felons to enter a Drake city even if they’ve been convicted in other cities. This Pisces wasn’t a major criminal. We might have watched him and done spot-checks if we suspected him of thievery under truth spell, though.”
“We did. Rigorously. And he passed each one, as well as provided some services for the city, so the Watch didn’t consider him a threat. However, in addition to his petty crimes, there is one of serious concern. Pisces Jealnet was allegedly responsible for the deaths of over sixty [Mages] in Wistram due to a case of rampant necromancy, for which he was expelled.”
“Dead gods. And that’s accurate?”
“Wistram claims so.”
The Council murmured. Lism looked skeptical and angry, Alonna was tracing on the table with one claw—Jeiss just looked at Zevara. The Gnolls did too, waiting for the shoe to drop.
“So, Wistram’s team pursued a fugitive. A former student from their Academy. But why didn’t they apprehended him when he committed this heinous crime? Don’t tell me he evaded all of their [Archmages] and whatnot all this time.”
Raekea looked around, and her gaze settled on the [Strategist] in the room. The rest of the Council turned to Olesm expectantly and Zevara glanced at him. Olesm avoided everyone’s gaze as he stared at the parchment in his claws. He kept his voice steady.
“I investigated that, Councilmembers. According to one of the [Mages] from Wistram—the Centaur, Palt—I was told that he was allowed to go free until he started committing crimes once more. Apparently, Wistram didn’t want to make his trial public knowledge, but his continued activities drew their attention. He did, in fact, have a trial to begin with, but apparently it was a very complicated moment and he was allowed to go free, albeit as an expelled student.”
“Until Wistram decided it wanted him back. Wonderful. So that’s why they’re here. I’m still waiting to hear why they’re suddenly allowed to dance out of prison! We don’t let anyone do that! No one, not even that Human.”
Lism folded his arms furiously. Zevara bit her tongue. She looked up and grudgingly replied.
“Councilmember Lism, I was prepared to let Wistram’s [Mages] rot in prison. And I am still intending to file a public complaint with the Walled Cities! However—it has been made clear to me that it would not be wise to keep Wistram’s team.”
“By who? If they threatened—”
“By the High Command, Councilmember.”
The room fell silent. Zevara looked around. She was breathing hard, her eyes narrowed with helpless anger.
“You may recall that Liscor’s walls are enchanted. And we also rely on a number of services provided by [Mages]. So too does Liscor’s army. High Command informed me of this fact, and gave me specific instructions regarding the treatment of Wistram’s team.”
“But that—wait, High Command spoke to you?”
“Through Wing Commander Embria, yes. Not twenty minutes ago.”
Zevara glanced sideways at Olesm and he winced. He could imagine what that was like. High Command didn’t waste time. And they liked to yell.
The Council looked outraged. Jeiss smacked the desk with his claws.
“They went over our heads? This is a matter for the city, not the army! The City Watch—”
“Answers to the army in military matters. Which this is. Senior Guardsman—I mean, Councilmember Jeiss—our [High Strategist] made it clear that Wistram is threatening to cut off a number of services! Including maintaining the very walls keeping our city from being destroyed during the spring rains!”
And then there was silence. Lism looked to his left and right. Alonna met his gaze, palely, and nodded. The hair on Krshia’s neck was standing up. She looked at Zevara.
“They would do that? They said that?”
“Not in so many words. But the future cooperation with Liscor and so on depend on their team being released. High Command gave me an order. I’m carrying it out because I don’t feel like trying Wistram on the matter of the city’s security over one group of [Mages]. I have their word their team won’t cause more trouble in the city. If they do, I have every intention of arresting them. But—they will be set free.”
Zevara glared around. She looked so frustrated and furious that Olesm felt bad for her. Lism stared at the Watch Captain, and then rounded on the female Drake on his left.
“Alonna, why is your Mage’s Guild working for Wistram? And why in the name of the Ancestors are they putting a bounty on this Pisces person?”
Alonna, who had been silent, drew herself up as everyone looked at her. The Drake [Mage] was flushing slightly, but she kept her voice level as she replied to Lism.
“First of all, we’re Liscor’s guild, but we’re affiliated with Wistram. Every Mage’s Guild is; we can organize ourselves as we want from city to city, but to get information, news, to coordinate a lot of what we do, we have to all go through a central authority. Every Guild does or we’re stuck talking to each other like a long string of…of…”
She clicked her claws, trying to find the words. Elirr raised a paw.
“I was going to say, a string of beads. Or maybe a cobweb? We need a central guild to coordinate [Message] spells and so forth, is my point. And that’s Wistram. I’m not from Wistram, but my Guild does have to distribute information from the academy. Including this.”
Alonna tapped the bounty sheet. Krshia growled under her breath.
“But this is pure vengeance! And it is a bounty after the fact, yes? Necrophilia? Is this true?”
“Bounties generally have to be verified before they’re put up.”
Jeiss muttered uneasily. Olesm cleared his throat.
“Yes. However, Councilmember Jeiss, the group that usually does the verification is…”
Lism finished the sentence flatly. He was catching on. The Council looked at each other. After a moment, Elirr growled.
“This is disgusting, no? I do not know this Pisces’ past, but he fought with Ceria Springwalker against the Raskghar. And against Skinner and the moths!”
“Their team was responsible for the dungeon—”
“That wasn’t their fault! Don’t you dare, Lism.”
To Olesm’s surprise, it wasn’t Krshia who interrupted, but Alonna. She glared at Lism and he subsided. He looked at Zevara.
“This is intimidation, Watch Captain. Intimidation, bypassing Liscor’s laws—and I’ll give you besmirching this Pisces’ name. Even if it’s with the truth. This is unacceptable. Why are we allowing it?”
He looked from Alonna to Zevara. The [Mage] shook her head, looking frustrated.
“Aside from the fact that they have High Command’s earholes, Lism? Let me put it to you this way. I could refuse to distribute the bounty, just like Watch Captain Zevara could refuse to release the Wistram [Mages]. And if we do, one of the things Wistram can do is direct other Mage’s Guilds to ignore Liscor’s guild.”
A pause. Raekea blinked.
“I mean, we can’t communicate with a Mage’s Guild anywhere else. Or our [Messages] get shoved to the bottom of the piles, delivered last.”
“They can’t do that! Can they?”
“Let’s just say that there are nations in which the Mage’s Guild works well and places where they don’t. Wistram’s autonomous, but they have their demands.”
Everyone digested this. Lism’s tail was smacking his chair legs. He stood up, glaring around the conference room.
“First Tiqr, now this. Does anyone else feel like Wistram’s got too much influence? I never thought of it before, but—”
He slapped the table, glaring.
“This is exactly what I’m talking about when I talk about non-Liscorian interference! Liscor has to bow to these jumped-up [Mages]? After they assaulted one of our citizens in our city and started a fight in city limits?”
“Generally, Wistram’s been seen as a positive force worldwide, Uncle. Stabilizing. And just.”
Olesm murmured. Lism gave him an incredulous look. Olesm shrugged.
“I’m not trying to defend them. But I’d like to point out that aside from the threat—which wasn’t communicated to you directly, was it, Watch Captain Zevara?”
“No. High Command didn’t mince words, however.”
Zevara folded her arms. Olesm nodded.
“Then, Wistram can justify itself by claiming that Pisces is a criminal. A murderer, or at least, responsible for a number of crimes. Where they erred was in attacking Liscor’s citizens and going after the rest of his team. But again, they’re using Liscor’s laws against us. They did pay our fines. Instantly. That’s three thousand gold pieces.”
Elirr was sipping from a cup. He choked on his drink. Lism’s head snapped around.
“Say what? You fined them how much, Watch Captain?”
“Captain, misuse of magic and assault plus attack spells and assault on a team would still only be—”
Jeiss was counting up the fine in his own head. Zevara looked a bit embarrassed.
“I levied an appropriate fine for emotional distress and the use of Watch assets, like an attack spell from the walls. They…paid it. Instantly.”
“Three thousand gold pieces?”
“It’s nothing to them. They could have paid ten times that and never blinked.”
Alonna muttered. Krshia saw Lism’s eyes focus.
“Well, in that case—”
He paused and gritted his teeth.
“—Do we have a choice here, Watch Captain Zevara?”
“No sir. I’m simply reporting my actions to the Council.”
Zevara gave Lism an unhappy look. Krshia broke in, looking around.
“Watch Captain Zevara levied a heavy fine, Councilmembers. Wistram paid it without blinking, yes? And all this pressure—does it not bother all of us that they are so willing to manipulate the law for their ends?”
“But what do we do? If there was even a hint they’d refuse to maintain the spells on our walls—damn. Damn, damn, damn—”
Lism began shredding the parchment in front of him. Raekea growled nervously.
“So what is to be done? If this team is free, will they not continue attacking this team?”
“Not in my city. They’ll be under watch, I promise you that, Councilmembers. But I can’t extend my jurisdiction outside of Liscor. Also, none of these adventurers are Liscor’s citizens. And two—at least one of them have committed crimes in other cities, albeit Human ones.”
Watch Captain Zevara looked around. Jeiss looked sick.
“So we get to watch them strut around, Captain Zevara?”
“I don’t like it either, Jeiss. But it seems like that’s what we’re being told.”
Lism’s eyes flashed. He looked around at the Council. Krshia, Elirr, Raekea, Alonna, Jeiss, Olesm, all met his eyes. Zevara was staring down at the floor. Lism’s tail lashed—and then grew still.
“Okay. We let the Wistram [Mages] do what they want. If they keep to our laws, we’ll let this team, the Horns of Hammerad, deal with this mess themselves. We don’t interfere. And maybe we hope that crazy Human makes their heads explode. But Liscor will take Wistram’s money and tuck our tails.”
Everyone stared at him. Krshia opened her mouth and Lism glared at her.
“We’ve been got, Silverfang. I know when to walk away. This is like a Level 50 [Merchant] holding us over a barrel with a bunch of [Thugs] at his back. You want to try another deal?”
She closed her mouth and shook her head after a moment.
“No. No, I agree with that.”
Lism looked around steadily. He raised a claw.
“In that case, I motion to allow Watch Captain Zevara to go back and make whatever preparations she needs. By all means, impress upon Wistram’s team the severity of the laws, Watch Captain. And put them under watch.”
Zevara nodded. She blinked at Lism, and then saluted.
“Councilmembers, thank you for your time.”
Olesm held open the door as she strode out, back towards the Watch House. He stared at Lism. Everyone did. The Drake [Shopkeeper] was too calm. Lism nodded as he carefully arranged the bits of parchment. Then he looked up.
“Well, onto new business. We can put the gold to good use. The Bloodfields project is underway, and I understand the Adventurer’s Guild is already preparing for renovations. I do hope Miss Selys will be well after her incident. And that her grandmother doesn’t try to kill the Wistram team. That would be a crime. Perhaps we should send someone to inform her tactfully of what’s happened?”
“Dead gods, that’s a good point. She’ll murder them. We should stop that.”
Jeiss looked wistful. Lism nodded impatiently.
“But that would be a crime, Jeiss. How shall we do it?”
Krshia was studying Lism. She smiled.
“Send…yes, send our [Negotiator]. Teliv.”
Olesm winced. He felt bad for his friend. Elirr thoughtfully stroked his chin.
“With wine. Or something stronger, yes? Wistram’s fine can pay for that. And give her a cat. She cannot run with a cat. Or dogs. She likes dogs more. Teliv, he can stop at my shop for a puppy or a few for the telling. I have a litter.”
He glanced around at everyone’s expression.
“What? She does.”
Lism nodded. He looked at Olesm, still cool as a [Cryomancer].
“See to it, nephew? Now, onto new business. I motion to send a [Message]—damn. No. Send a City Runner—no, send Hawk to Fissival. With a direct message for the Draconae Scholarium.”
The Councilmembers glanced at him. Olesm looked up as he jotted down notes. Raekea frowned.
Lism’s eyes glinted.
“To ask about having their college replace Wistram’s services, of course. And while we’re at it, Alonna, can we send a covert [Message]—damn, or do we have to use City Runners for all this? Can we ask about if anyone else has had issues with Wistram? I’d put forwards a motion to cosign Watch Captain Zevara’s complaint and make it public. Send it around. In fact, is any other nation or city having our issues? We should open a discussion.”
Zevara left the politics of the Council behind. She stalked through the streets of Liscor, furious. So angry she couldn’t bear it. But she moved quickly, to give vent to her emotions, but also because she knew Wistram’s team would be in the same building as Erin Solstice and the team they’d tried to kidnap.
In retrospect, that had been a stupid decision, but Zevara needed to explain herself. And she felt as embarrassed, as wrong as she ever had been. But that was politics. It overruled what was right and decent. It wasn’t something Zevara thought should be part of the Watch. So she strode back to the Watch barracks.
As it happened, Wistram’s team had already been released from jail. And Erin Solstice, her friends, and the Horns of Hammerad had likewise been summoned. Someone was already screaming as Zevara pushed into the Watch barracks.
It wasn’t Erin or the Horns. They were being kept in Zevara’s office. The Wistram team was on the ground floor. And it was Selys Shivertail who’d found them.
“You filthy eggsucking Creler sacks! You monstrous, disgusting—let go of me! I’ll kill them!”
The Drake was fighting the Gnoll [Guardsman] holding her. Montressa, Palt, Isceil, Ulinde, and Beza were all watching the Drake warily as she fought to swing at them. Selys was shouting, her voice raw, furious. But she was crying too. Zevara stopped for a moment.
“How dare you. How dare—why are they free? I want them executed! I want them tossed in the cells! You—”
She went for something at her side. An expensive bag of holding. Zevara saw Selys draw something out.
The Wistram team reacted in instant alarm as Selys tried to aim it at Palt. Montressa raised her staff and the City Watch instantly aimed their bows at her. She froze and the Gnoll holding Selys grabbed at her arm.
“Don’t, Miss Selys—”
Relc yanked Selys’ arm up. She struggled, but the Drake held her—surprisingly gently. He pulled Selys back.
“Hey, Selys. No casting spells.”
“Let go of me, Relc—let go—”
“Come on. Let’s go upstairs. Erin’s there. Oh, hey, Captain Z.”
Relc paused as he saw Zevara. The Watch Captain saw Selys whirl.
“Zevara? Why are—”
Zevara nodded at her awkwardly. She studied the Wistram [Mages]. They were standing still, surrounded by a bunch of hostile [Guards]. But they didn’t look…nervous. Zevara eyed all five. The Drake looked like simmering fury, as did the Minotaur.
The Human—Montressa du Valeross? A [Lady], then. She looked caught between shock and fear and anger. The Selphid was shivering. She was wearing—Zevara recoiled slightly—a rather decayed Human body. A bad one, too. Whoever the Human had been, he’d been on the south side of unfit and rather unpleasant to look at. Cheap Selphid body. But the Selphid was still shaking.
As for the Centaur, he was smoking something. Zevara stared at it and inhaled the distinctive smell of a narcotic, which Liscor generally defined as anything you could smoke. The Centaur noticed Zevara’s stare and hurriedly snatched the spliff from his lips.
Selys was staring at Watch Captain Zevara. The Drake turned to her.
“Miss Selys. I apologize for the distress you’ve suffered. I want you to know that I am personally keeping an eye on these…[Mages], and they will be arrested and dealt with should they commit another misstep in Liscor. They have been fined and some of that money will go to you.”
“What? But they’re here—”
Zevara couldn’t meet Selys’ eyes. She saw the Drake smirk out of the corner of her vision. She felt the urge to turn her head and cough a fireball. She spoke slowly.
“This team is being…released.”
“What? You can’t do that! That’s not right! They cast a spell on me! I had to watch them beat Pisces! And I couldn’t do a thing! I didn’t even care! How dare you! That’s not right! Zevara! You can’t—”
Selys began to struggle and Relc and the Gnoll gently grabbed her. The Watch Captain looked at Relc. For once, he did all she could ask of him.
“Alright, Selys. Let’s go upstairs. Come on. I know—I know, I wanna blast them too, but—come on. Geils, help me get her up—”
They practically carried Selys upstairs. She was still screaming curses. At Zevara now. The Watch Captain watched her go, and then she turned.
The [Mages] were watching her. The Drake was still smirking. The Centaur kicked him and he stopped, but the entire team—yes, not nervous at all. They were angry or upset, but not at her. They knew they were going free. Zevara gritted her teeth. She strode forwards.
“You. Wistram [Mages]. Your fines have been paid. You’ll be…free to go. But mark my words. If you break even the smallest rule in Liscor, I will arrest you and put you straight back in prison!”
The [Guards] stirred uneasily and looked at Zevara. She glared at the [Mages]. They didn’t look surprised. Montressa bowed slightly. She nearly smiled, but she didn’t quite manage to complete the expression.
“Watch Captain, allow us to apologize profusely for the—the misunderstanding that took place earlier today. I’m deeply pleased that Wistram was able to smooth over this incident—”
“Incident? We were attacked! We should be pressing charges—”
Isceil began, incensed, but the others shushed him. Zevara was twitching. Montressa smiled, insincerely. Her grip was tight on the staff.
“—We will be pressing no charges, of course. But—has Wistram spoken with your High Command regarding the situation around Pisces Jealnet? He is a fugitive. With a bounty at this moment.”
Zevara just stared at the young woman.
“How do you know that?”
“We are in communication with Wistram—”
“You put the bounty on his head?”
“Wistram monitors its teams closely. We are able to correspond regarding issues. Pisces Jealnet is a wanted criminal—”
She shut up as Zevara raised a claw. The Watch Captain spoke slowly.
“The only thing your academy persuaded me to do was let you go. As far as I’m concerned, you are all first-time offenders whose fines were paid. If you break a law in my city, I will arrest you. And if you cast any spells like you did this evening, I will order my [Guards] to use lethal force!”
Zevara saw Isceil open his mouth and pointed at him. Smoke was fuming from her maw, but she kept on going.
“Secondly, I do not accept Wistram’s damn bounty on Pisces Jealnet or any of the allegations against the Horns of Hammerad! If you attack them anywhere within the city or so much as waylay them, I will arrest you! Is that clear?”
“That’s not right!”
The Minotaur burst out. She was taller than anyone else in the room and she reminded Zevara too much of Calruz. Well—there were a number of differences. For one thing, Calruz was honorable. Zevara spun on her.
“This is not a debate! If you lay so much as a claw on Pisces Jealnet or his team, or anyone else in the city, you will be arrested, regardless of what the academy can do! Is that clear?”
“He’s a murderer and a criminal. Do you even know who you’re sheltering?”
Montressa stared at Zevara. Her face was pale; she was unaccustomed to being shouted at. Zevara looked past her dismissively.
“I’ve reviewed his case and interviewed a witness to the actual event. Miss Springwalker swears under truth spell that Pisces J—that the accident in question was truly an accident and not homicide. Since he has paid off his crimes in Liscor, he is protected by our laws. If you attempt to arrest him within the city limits, I will be forced to jail you for unlawful impersonation of the City Watch.”
“But he’s committed other crimes!”
Isceil pointed that out hotly. Zevara looked at him.
“And? He’s paid off his bounty in Liscor.”
“But Wistram has a right to detain international criminals! We are accorded that right in almost every nation in the world!”
Montressa cried out furiously. Zevara looked at her, and then inhaled. Every [Guard] in the room, Drake and Gnoll, were already covering their ears.
“In that case, Wistram should have consulted with Liscor’s City Watch before they attempted to arrest someone!”
The Wistram [Mages] stared at Zevara. She exhaled smoke.
“You have no rights here. I do not recognize Wistram’s authority in my city. So. You’re free to go because Wistram Academy has insisted. But cast a single enchantment on someone—attack anyone—loiter in one square for too long, and you will be arrested. Everyone in or around the city is under my—the Watch’s protection, citizen or not.”
This time Montressa felt Ulinde and Palt both nudge her and fell quiet. Zevara was giving her a happy, bright smile that was triggering a few [Dangersenses] in the room. Even Montressa could sense when it was a bad time to speak. Zevara waited. Then she purred at the group of Wistram [Mages].
“For your information, The Wandering Inn is considered part of Liscor. You and your team are free, Lady Montressa, but in the interest of time, I will be debriefing your victims upstairs. After that, you will all be present to make clear the issue is resolved, and then you will be escorted out of my sight. Thank you for your time, and I hope you have a wonderful time in Liscor.”
She turned, still vibrating with fury. Zevara began to stalk towards the stairs. Palt looked at Montressa and she gripped her staff so hard her knuckles turned white. Her friends were looking at her. Montressa was frustrated, furious—almost as much as Zevara was, but for different reasons. This wasn’t right! This wasn’t fair!
And then she was afraid. She looked at Beza. Upstairs. She could feel him there, a surge of death magic. The Minotauress gripped her shoulder and squeezed it.
Everyone was silent as Zevara conferred with an officer and began to walk upstairs. Montressa stared at the Oldblood Drake’s back. What was wrong with her? What was—she turned her head as Isceil muttered under his breath.
“Stupid, inbred failure of an Oldblood! Can’t even breathe fire, that incompetent, female—”
Palt slapped a hand over his mouth too late. Zevara stopped on the stairs. She turned her head and Montressa saw her look at Isceil. The [Oldblood Magus] saw Zevara inhale and Montressa raised a shield—
Something was burning downstairs. It smelled like smoke. When Erin Solstice, the Horns of Hammerad, Selys, the Halfseekers, and Relc all came back downstairs, following Zevara, they saw the scorched floorboards. The [Guards], cleaning up a few black marks on the walls. Klbkch, standing with two hands on his sword hilts.
And the [Mages]. All five of them. Erin felt a clenching in her stomach, even though Zevara had told her why they were free. She’d told them twenty minutes ago. Upstairs.
There had been some shouting. A lot of it, actually. People had taken turns, Erin included, but Zevara had outshouted them all. The Wistram team was being released and that was that. Outrage over what they’d done, to the Horns, to Pisces especially, apparently it didn’t matter.
Here they stood. Erin’s hands clenched instinctively. They had no right to stare at the people coming down so…so self-righteously. As if they were the victims, or the ones in the right. Erin saw Klbkch straighten.
“Senior Guardsman Klbkch. You just arrived?”
“I apologize for the delay. I had to see to an incident in the Hives. Facestealer.”
Erin felt a chill. Zevara paused.
“Your message mentioned it. Tell me later. Have the criminals given you any trouble?”
“No, Watch Captain.”
Klbkch’s voice was cool. Erin didn’t miss the way the [Mages] stared at him. The Drake was pursing his lips as if to spit, but one look at Zevara and he swallowed instead. And despite Klbkch being Antinium, perhaps he was the only one who could have kept order. The other [Guards] were looking hostile. But Klbkch was calm. He noted the people trooping down the stairs.
“Will we be releasing the criminals, Watch Captain?”
Zevara folded her arms. She was looking upstairs. The Halfseekers and Relc were coming down behind Erin. Ulinde flinched as Seborn stared at him. Jelaqua wasn’t even looking her way. Moore, even Moore, was staring at Montressa. The [Aegiscaster] was flushing, but everyone was waiting for the last team to come down the stairs. Zevara spoke slowly.
“I’ve made the situation clear to both teams. But I want to be sure my orders are understood. Anyone who breaks the law in my city will be arrested. So. These two teams will say whatever they have to say. If they feel like breaking my laws, we’ll find out.”
“Understood, Watch Captain. Guards—fall back. Ranged weapons to that side of the room. Spread out here, here—you eight, return to your duty or sign out. In case of mass-attack spells, fall back and take cover. Relc and I will deal with any eventuality. Aim for the Drake and Centaur first.”
The Wistram [Mages] stared at him as the Antinium calmly motioned to the Watch. With tight grins, some of them dispersed while others took up more tactical positions. Palt paled and Isceil stared at Klbkch. Relc walked over.
“Hey Klb, you missed a hell of a fight.”
“As did you. I believe my opponent was decidedly more dangerous. Relc, how was your day?”
“Well, I got to act. It was all part of Erin’s plan. And I stabbed a few stupid [Mages], but I didn’t get to kill any—psst! Erin! Over here!”
The two Senior Guardsman stood against one wall and chatted. Erin walked over to them, and Klbkch smiled at her.
“Erin. It has been a while.”
“Hi, Klbkch. Yeah. It’s been a heck of a day—”
The Wistram [Mages] stared at the trio, nonplussed. Zevara almost smiled for a moment, but the conversation between the three was background noise. She looked up as the four adventurers came down the stairs, slowly.
The Horns of Hammerad. They were all on their feet. All awake. Night had fallen since they’d been freed from the Silent Box. And their wounds—
Well, they were all whole. Yvlon’s arm had been corrected, Ceria and Ksmvr were healed and Pisces—
He looked fine. Fine, whole. But he was pale. And he came behind his companions. He looked weighed down. As he raised his head though, Erin saw his eyes. And she paused as she leaned on Ksmvr’s shoulder. She shivered.
She had never seen him look like that. Not even at the start. But Erin knew that look. She had seen it in a mirror. Pisces stared down at the Wistram [Mages], and Erin knew he was thinking of how to kill each one exactly.
The [Mages] reacted to the Horns. The Minotaur stared at Ceria, and so did Palt, frowning at Ceria. The half-Elf’s expression was still, but she walked towards Montressa and the others slowly. And she never looked away from her old friend. But then all eyes swung towards Pisces and they stared at him with hostility. Hatred. Rage.
But Montressa froze. Erin turned towards her and she saw the young woman shudder. Erin frowned. But then Ceria spoke.
“Mons. It’s been a long time.”
The young woman’s face went white. Montressa du Valeross looked at Ceria. And then color returned to her face. She glared at Ceria.
“How dare you call me that? How dare—”
She gripped her staff and everyone tensed. Beza and Ulinde grabbed Montressa from either side.
The [Aegiscaster] caught herself. She stared at Ceria. The half-Elf was shaking. She pointed her bone hand at Montressa. Looking at her and the other [Mages].
“Is that really you? After all this time. I—we met for all of five seconds and you put me in a Silent Box? How could you? We were friends! You attacked us! You nearly killed Pisces—”
She pointed at Pisces. Montressa’s face went paler as her eyes flicked to him, and then returned to Ceria. She interrupted, her voice harsh, fingers tightening on the staff.
“After all this time how dare I? How dare you? I knew what you’d done, but I had to see it to believe it!”
She pointed at Ceria, her voice rising with rage.
“How dare you join him? How dare you do it after all he did? He killed Calvaron! He’s responsible for everything! He used your master’s body to unleash the things that killed—how dare you? You’re as evil as he is.”
Again, she looked at Pisces. He didn’t move at the accusation that made Ceria turn white. He was just staring at the ground, silent, pale. Erin worried for him. Ceria pointed at Pisces, her voice trembling.
“I’ve changed! And so has he! That was years ago, when we were young! It was an accident!”
The hiss came from Isceil, but Beza put an arm out. Montressa and Ceria were alone in the world as they argued. She glared at Ceria.
“He killed our friends. Because of him Calvaron’s dead! Beatrice and I never forgot, but you? You leave, and then you decide to join up with him—to pretend to be a Wistram [Mage] when you didn’t even pass your half of the classes—[Mage] of Wistram? You liar!”
Ceria jerked, flinching.
“I earned the right to call myself that!”
“You’re no graduate. You have no right!”
“I have every right! Wistram’s full of cowards who won’t try the test! Illphres knew what the true path to magic was! If the Archmages had any courage, they would have gone with her! Instead, you all hide and pretend you’re not being ruled by Cognita!”
“Better than a monster who uses dead bodies to kill all of his friends and the traitor who chose him over everyone else!”
Montressa’s voice rose until all the Gnolls were covering their ears. Ceria was no less loud. They were screaming at each other. Erin stared at Ceria. Wistram. She knew the story. Relc just looked at Klbkch and the Antinium shrugged. To them it was funny. To Ceria—
“You’re attacking us for leaving? Attacking Pisces? We were allowed to leave! Wistram let both of us go because it was an accident! Why didn’t you throw us both in prison then? I didn’t do anything? I just told that idiotic group of [Mages] with their wands up their asses how I felt!”
“You’re helping the same bastard who killed over three dozen [Mages]! Why shouldn’t we arrest him?”
“He was exiled! The trial finished! You can’t overturn it!”
Ceria shot back at Isceil. Beza folded her arms and retorted.
“That was because a non-[Mage] interfered with the Council’s deliberations.”
“Cognita vouched for him. She asked the Council not to execute Pisces and they did! They can’t change their minds!”
The Wistram team hesitated. Montressa was biting her lip, eyes furious. Ceria was no less mad. Isceil and Beza exchanged a glance; Palt was just watching and chewing on something—Ulinde was still quaking, under the gaze of the Halfseekers. Isceil retorted at last.
“Whatever the case, you two aren’t [Mages] of Wistram and you’ve claimed to be. For that alone, you’ve committed a crime.”
The half-Elf’s eyes blazed. She opened her mouth, and then grew strangely calm. She looked at Isceil.
“Tell that to Cognita. I dare you. She gave us that right. Go on, tell her. Does she know you’re saying that?”
The Drake paled, for reasons only a few people in the room understood. Ceria was looking victorious when Palt raised a hand. As if he were in class, he raised his voice, breaking into the argument.
“Excuse me. I’d like to clarify something. The reasoning Wistram has for going after Pisces Jealnet isn’t due to his expulsion. It’s what he’s done after he left. He’s committed petty crimes, stolen, used Wistram’s name, and broken laws across Izril. His subsequent crimes have put Wistram in a bad light. Anyone claiming to be a graduate of Wistram who behaves as he’s done will be dealt with.”
His calm tone silenced Ceria for a moment. Then she rounded on Montressa.
“That’s your excuse? Because you’re too afraid of Cognita to overturn the exile?”
“We’re not afraid of—”
Beza began to retort, but Zevara bellowed.
The Watch Captain was louder than all the [Mages]. They looked at her. Ceria and Montressa were panting. Zevara shook her head as Beilmark, standing beside her, took her paws off her ears with a sigh. Zevara glared around at both Ceria and the Wistram [Mages].
“Clearly, you all have your own history. I’m not being paid to listen to it. Understand this. Whatever your…issues, you will obey Liscor’s laws. You two can argue for all I care—when it’s not night and in public! But you’ll do no more or I’ll feed you to Rock Crabs. Got it?”
Both Ceria and Montressa looked at Zevara. Ceria hesitated, but then jerked her head away. Montressa nodded. Her eyes darted at Pisces. He was still looking at the ground. Yvlon and Ksmvr, who’d been silent, looked up. Yvlon reached for her sword hilt.
“So we have to take that? They attacked us, Watch Captain Zevara. What did we do?”
Zevara glanced at Yvlon.
“By right, Miss Byres, you’re entitled to part of the fine. It will go to you, and to Mister…to Ksmvr. As well as Miss Selys. But I cannot allow you to seek vengeance.”
Ksmvr tilted his head.
“So, Wistram is able to pay to subvert the law? This is an intriguing piece of information. I did not know Drake cities had such a loophole in their legal system.”
One of the [Guards] began, outraged, as Zevara’s face flushed. Klbkch held up a hand.
The Antinium quivered and Yvlon gave Klbkch a dark look. Zevara shot Klbkch a mixed glance and turned.
“I have been ordered to drop the Wistram case. I will enforce the law as I see fit, which does not allow for bloody feuds! Miss Selys, your part of the fine—”
“I don’t want it. And I don’t want them in Liscor.”
Selys pointed a trembling claw at the Wistram team. A few of them had the grace to look ashamed. Too few by half. One of them was Palt, ironically. Erin narrowed her eyes as Zevara…fidgeted. She looked like she hated everything about her life right now.
“Unfortunately, Miss Selys, I must give them a second chance. Which means Lady du Valeross and her companions are allowed to reside in Liscor. However, if they cast another illicit spell or threaten one of Liscor’s citizens, they will be instantly expelled from Liscor. I’m sorry. That’s all I can do.”
“I get it.”
Selys looked at Zevara with disgust and turned away. She looked at Pisces and then around. She met Erin’s eyes.
“I—I need to go. I can’t stay here. They’re disgusting. I have to go. I have to—”
She was out the door, stumbling. Zevara glanced around.
“You two. Escort Miss Shivertail wherever she needs to go.”
Two [Guards] left. Zevara looked around.
“If that’s all—”
“Just like that? What about our teams? What about Erin’s inn?”
Jelaqua broke into the conversation, furious. She was wearing a Drake body rather than her Raskghar one, but a big one. Zevara turned to face her.
“A portion of the bounty—”
“You can’t just pay this away! Those little punks attacked my team! They’re not walking off when I’m through with them!”
“You will contain yourself, Miss Ivirith. No one is above the law—”
“Except for Wistram, apparently! This isn’t right! I want—”
“I challenge you to a duel.”
The voice came from behind Zevara. She turned. Jelaqua looked past her. Pisces had moved at last. He was still pale. But as he raised his head, Erin saw the same look in his eyes. Montressa moved back a step. Pisces stared past her. He was shaking as he pointed a finger at Isceil.
“I challenge you to a duel. Isceil, is it?”
The Drake blinked. Zevara spun.
She stopped as he looked up. The [Necromancer] stood alone in the Watch barracks. His team was with him, but the way Pisces held himself was aloof. His face was pale. He spoke through bloodless lips, addressing Zevara, the [Mages].
“I have been attacked. Kidnapped. In Liscor, unprovoked. False allegations have been laid against me. And those who committed the crimes walk free because Wistram Academy demands it be so. There is no justice in that. I demand satisfaction. A legal duel.”
Zevara hesitated and stepped back.
“False? We only told the world what you really are. And why should I accept a duel from a filthy [Necromancer]? You’re not worth scraping my boots on.”
Isceil sneered at Pisces, but his actions betrayed his words. He reached for the wand at his side. Palt glanced at Isceil. Montressa was hesitating, but Pisces looked right past her. And Pisces smiled with that terrible look in his eyes.
“A coward who bested you when I was fighting all of your pathetic team. Come, Drake. Let us have a proper duel. One to the death. Seen and witnessed by all present. Come, coward. Or is the ‘best duelist in all of Fissival’ too afraid to battle an exile?”
Isceil’s scales flushed. He drew his wand.
“You fleshbag bastard. I’ll—”
The word came from Ulinde. She—no, he grabbed Isceil’s arm. The older man wrestled with the Drake—his body was an incongruous sight among the younger [Mages].
“Let go of me! I’ll kill him! I’ll settle this now—”
Isceil fought her, cursing, but Montressa whirled as well.
“Don’t be an idiot, Isceil! He has that [Shatterbolt] ring and he’s too quick!”
“I’ll take off my magical items. Come and fight me, you coward. Or you, Minotaur. Or are you only able to do battle when you outnumber me five-to-one?”
Pisces’ voice was taunting. Beza stiffened and hesitated. Palt muttered something to her and her eyes flashed. She looked towards Zevara.
“Are duels legal in Liscor?”
“They’re old, but traditional. I’d allow it.”
Zevara was breathing hard. She looked at Pisces. He was coiled up. Erin saw another figure move.
“In that case, me too. A duel to the death. I challenge any one of you.”
Seborn stepped forwards. The Drowned Man looked ready to kill. Jelaqua and Moore stirred, but the half-Giant didn’t move as Jelaqua shook her head at him. They didn’t stop their friend.
Ironically, Seborn’s words made Isceil pause and Beza check herself. They stared at him, and then at Pisces. The Wistram [Mages] hesitated. Erin had to admit, they weren’t complete idiots. Just almost.
“I can take him—”
Isceil looked between Seborn and Pisces. Beza gritted her teeth. Montressa was whispering and Erin clearly heard one bit from Palt, who was doing the same.
“—Gold-rank [Rogue]. Risking your life on a duel—”
The [Mages] conferred, but Erin saw the answer before Isceil looked up. He tried to scoff as he turned away from Pisces.
“I don’t need to sully myself by dueling a worthless [Necromancer].”
“Nor do you deserve a fair duel. I refuse. I have no quarrel with you either, Drowned Man. Our skirmish was accidental.”
Beza addressed Seborn, her cheeks flushed. The [Rogue]’s eyes narrowed.
Beza’s head jerked and Isceil flushed. But they turned away. Pisces stared at their backs. He was shaking. Yvlon tried to put a hand on his shoulder, but he knocked her arm away. Ksmvr looked at Ceria. She was silent. No one had seen Pisces this furious. His voice was low, piercing.
“I’ve known Lizardpeople with more courage. No wonder Fissival let you leave. And no wonder the House of Minos let such a coward flee their isles!”
Relc whistled. Some of the [Guards] murmured. The Minotaur and Drake whirled as they walked towards the door. They went for Pisces.
“No! I said stop!”
Montressa held up a hand and a barrier shimmered forth, blocking Beza’s charge. She and Isceil hit the barrier that appeared in the air. Not a [Force Wall], all shimmering air, but something amethyst, but thinner. Erin stared at it. It was strong, though; Beza slammed a fist, creating ripples and shouted.
“Let me take him, Montressa!”
“Don’t let him provoke you! Walk away, Beza! That is an order!”
From the side, Relc was nudging Klbkch. The Antinium calmly nodded as he stomped on Relc’s foot.
“Stop poking me, Relc. I see. Ah, ward spells. Your difficulty in apprehending them makes sense.”
“Right? Could you take her out, Klb? I’m definitely going for her first next time.”
The Senior Guardsman shrugged.
“Perhaps. I have some experience in the matter. Tactically….”
Their conversation went unheard amidst the shouting from the [Mages]. Montressa pushed Beza back, and Ulinde had Isceil’s arms as Palt blocked the others. Pisces was watching them. Montressa shoved at Beza and the Minotauress grudgingly stepped back. At last she looked up and met Pisces’ eyes.
She stopped. Her face paled. If she had blazed at Ceria, suddenly she was cold. She stared at Pisces and stepped through her own barrier. He looked at her. There was no nostalgia there. Just hate. And Erin saw that flicker of fear on Montressa’s face again before she pushed it down.
“Montressa du Valeross. It has been a long time.”
Pisces’ voice still quivered. Montressa looked at him.
“You monster. I can’t believe you have the nerve to walk around after what you did. Let alone call yourself an adventurer.”
“Me? As opposed to Wistram, high and mighty and beyond contempt? There is more blood on the Academy’s hands than I could ever spill.”
Pisces’ eyes narrowed. Montressa hesitated. He was better than Ceria.
“Wistram never murdered my friends. You killed Calvaron. With your petty jealousy. By defiling the bodies of the others! You—you disgusting worm. Wistram never should have taken you in. We should have never believed your lies. But that’s what you and all your kind are. Monsters. If you had any decency, you’d surrender rather than drag everyone down with you. But that’s what you always do, isn’t it?”
The young man’s face went pale. Montressa was good at using words like weapons too. He stared at her. And Erin saw him snap.
“Calvaron? That pathetic fool? I barely noticed when he died. And if he perished, it only proves what a worthless mage he was!”
Ceria shouted. Montressa stumbled back. She’d gone dead white. Erin had thought she couldn’t hate Pisces any more. But he wasn’t done.
“You call me a monster. You want to see a monster? I will show you one.”
He advanced. And his voice was growing deeper. He was growing taller. His features were distorting, his face rotting. Erin saw the [Guards] react, raising their weapons, but Palt held up a hand.
“Stop that! That’s illegal under Liscor’s laws! Isn’t it?”
Beza barked. Pisces was looming, and shadows were filling the barracks. Erin remembered this spell. A noxious, rotting scent wafted through the air. Montressa backed up until her back was to the barrier, eyes wide. The Wistram [Mages] lifted their wands, but hesitated, looking towards Zevara. The Watch Captain folded her arms.
“Illusory spells are permitted in public areas of Liscor as well as private ones if the individual owns or has acquired permissions to cast such magics. Public-area illusions are sanctioned if they are not unduly disruptive or provocative. I see no issue, do you, Senior Guardswoman Beilmark?”
She glanced over her shoulder at the Gnoll. Beilmark rubbed at her nose, but then grinned savagely.
“Everyone needs a few undead now and then, Watch Captain.”
“You can’t do that! You—”
Whatever Isceil was shouting was cut off by a sound. It was bestial, no, unearthly. Foreign. Erin saw the looming shape bending over Montressa. It wasn’t Pisces any more. It was a corpse. Some monster, bloated and stretched in death. Rotting flesh. Gaping jaws, flashing through the shadows. Burning eyes. It loomed over Montressa and the smell—she heard several people gagging.
“Really good illusion.”
Relc whispered to Klbkch, covering his face. The Antinium nodded.
“Is this what you want to see?”
Pisces’ voice thundered in the barracks. He reached for Montressa with dripping claws. Blood ran from his sockets. Erin expected Montressa to raise her staff, cast a spell—but the young woman was frozen. She stumbled backwards, through her barrier.
“Stop it. Go away! Stop it!”
“Montressa, it’s only an illusion. Stop this!”
Beza grabbed her friend. Montressa flailed wildly and the Minotauress had to let go. Beza spun and barked at Zevara; the Watch Captain was looking away. Pisces advanced. His claws went through Montressa’s barrier, reaching for her.
She shrieked at him, screaming as loudly as she could. Beza and the others were shouting as well, holding Montressa and Palt was waving a hand, trying to dispel the illusion. Relc jumped forwards and jabbed the Centaur in the flank. Palt jerked back and Relc shouted cheerfully.
“You’re not sanctioned! No spells!”
Beza reached for a scroll. She swung through the illusion, but it was centered on Montressa. She was trying to flee, turning, screaming. Running for the door. The [Guards], and most of the others watching looked satisfied. But Ceria was watching Montressa and Pisces with a horrified look. Erin saw the look on Montressa’s face.
Terror. The young woman stumbled for the door. But clawing hands erupted from the earth. She backed away from the spectral zombies as they reached for her. She turned and Pisces howled at her.
“I will drag you down, Montressa du Valeross. I will show you what a monster I can be.”
Montressa backed up. She’d forgotten the staff in her hands. She stared at Pisces. The thing opened its maw and bent towards her. And Montressa screamed.
It was a real scream, the kind that wasn’t forced. It was raw, pure, terrified—Erin saw Montressa drop the staff. She raised her hands and a barrier appeared. It knocked back her friends, trying to shield her. Three walls of shining light, gold and white appeared as Montressa sank to the floor.
It enveloped her, a pyramid of magic. She curled up in the center of it. Montressa buried her face in her legs as she drew them to her. And Erin heard her began to cry.
She began to sob, sitting on the ground, curled up in the center of the pyramid-shaped barrier spell. Pisces paused. The illusion stopped and the wailing, snarling sounds halted. Montressa’s friends pounded on the barrier. But the young woman heard nothing. She was crying. Tears ran down her face and she curled up in the middle of the spell, oblivious.
Crying. Like a small child, rocking back and forth, closing her eyes so as not to see. It was no act. Erin looked at Montressa sobbing. And whatever she had been feeling turned suddenly to guilt. She had hurt Pisces. But he was—
She looked at the thing he’d conjured. A nightmare, the undead. It scared her too. For a second the thing hovered there.
Then the illusion spell vanished. Pisces stood in the same place he had been. He stared at Montressa. She didn’t even realize the spell had gone. She was still crying as her friends pressed their hands against the barrier, unable to touch her. Calling out to her.
“Montressa, it’s an illusion. You’re safe!”
Isceil was banging on the barrier. Ulinde was jabbing him wand.
“It’s a spell! We’ll protect you!”
“[Dispel Magic]. [Dispel]—it’s no good. It’s her personal emergency spell.”
Palt looked at Beza. She hammered on the barrier.
She looked up. Slowly, she turned around the room. The Watch, the adventurers—some looked vindictive. Others, like Erin, couldn’t revel. But Pisces was still staring. And he met Beza’s eyes. The Minotauress stared at him and her gaze went past him to his team. Beza looked at Pisces again and spat.
He didn’t reply. His hands were clenched. Montressa never moved. She just sat there, rocking and crying. Zevara looked at Beilmark, and then at Pisces. And Erin heard the word unspoken.
At last, Ceria moved. She looked away from Montressa, at her team.
“Come on. Let’s get out of here.”
Slowly, they walked away. The Halfseekers followed. Erin waited, looking back at Montressa. Then she followed Pisces as he stalked out of the barracks. He ignored his team trying to talk to him.
He didn’t look back once.
Az’kerash, Peril Chandler, the Necromancer who defined all of his class, stood alone. He inhabited his castle filled with undead, his creations, some of them sentient. But he too was alone. He stood in his work room, creating.
As was customary, his thoughts were split. Most were aimed at the thing he was working on. A mass of organs and muscle, twisting, perfecting a motion before being grafted to bone just so. But Az’kerash was also aware of the world, if only tangentially. Part of his mind was keeping alert to worldwide events, points of interest. They were like distant lights on the shores of his mind. If one glowed bright enough, more of his thoughts converged.
They did so now. One of Az’kerash’s thoughts caught a mass-transmission from Wistram. It usually meant an emergency. He absently caught one of the [Messages], intercepting it. It wasn’t hard with the right setup. [Message] spells had never been made for secrecy.
“What is the alert? Some calamity? No.”
Az’kerash frowned. Not a calamity. His mind was assailed by countless words. He parsed a few, absently, and shook his head. Most of his concentration was still on the moving tendons, reattaching themselves, configuring for more strength, more durability.
It wasn’t important if it was a bounty. Perhaps some new criminal. The Bloodfeast Raiders adding a new member. If the reward was truly ludicrous—but no, it was miniscule. Not worth his time. Still, it was being sent out across Izril, so Az’kerash absently intoned a spell.
A quill and a bit of paper soared towards him from a distant table. The paper flattened itself on the air, as if on a hard surface and the quill began to write at once, needing no inkpot. The quill danced upon the paper, noting the [Message] spell directly from Az’kerash’s mind. Thus, it would remain without the need for Az’kerash to spend thought on immediately.
There. The Necromancer refocused completely on his work. He was building muscle out of raw flesh, literally shaping muscle fiber and stripping his work of useless features like nerves. It was optimization of the body. Complex, even for him. But once perfected, such creations could be duplicated.
The art of creation lay at the heart of necromancy. It was what few grasped. First came simple animation. Then improvisation of the form. Then—the peak of his art—creating something new, something superior to anything life could dream. Az’kerash focused—and then his eyes caught a word on the paper hovering in front of him.
He stopped. The twisting shape in front of him hovered. The Necromancer’s thoughts refocused. He stared at the bounty poster. He had recognized a name.
Pisces. Where had he—? The Necromancer blinked.
“The young [Necromancer]? A bounty from Wistram?”
He lowered his hands. The paper flew towards him and he took it. He read, and his thoughts converged. Memory began understanding.
Pizza. The undead rat. The Bone Behemoth. And—Az’kerash blinked.
“A bounty. An expelled student from…Wistram? These crimes…what is this?”
He was confused. But only for a moment. At once, Az’kerash began scanning, spreading his thoughts. In the room, a skeletal rat sat up and looked around. But Pisces wasn’t there. Az’kerash frowned.
A figure jumped. Bea was spying on Az’kerash. She hesitated, and then hurried forwards.
“Something is transpiring in Liscor. Yes, most likely Liscor. Send an inquiry through the Mage’s Guild. Masquerade as Elden Veis. Repeat the inquiry through the local [Information Brokers]. I will make my own investigation. Report back at once.”
“Yes, Master. What am I asking about?”
Az’kerash handed her the bounty poster. Bea took it, confused. It was a miniscule bounty. She had seen her master interested in some of the high rewards—he had once ordered her to claim one. But this? She didn’t question though, and rushed off.
It took her thirty minutes to make her inquiries, using the [Message] artifacts to pretend to be a concerned [Merchant] asking about the new bounty. In the meantime, Az’kerash had learned what there was to know.
“A team of [Mages] from Wistram is in Liscor, Master.”
Az’kerash’s eyes flashed. Bea shuddered. Few things could make her master angry, but a mention of his former home was one. Az’kerash reviewed the information she had brought him, adding it to his own.
“So. This Pisces was once a student at Wistram. He suggested as much, but I assumed he had failed to graduate. But this? He broke into the crypt and was expelled? Nekhret’s bones? Even when I was Archmage, I would not have dreamed to…audacious.”
He was reviewing the information, analyzing it. Pisces’ reason for expulsion lay in his head. Bea saw the Necromancer reacting. Looking…excited.
“Master? Did this [Necromancer] break Wistram’s laws?”
“More than that. He tried to rob an Archmage’s tomb! I would have dreamed of doing the same. If I were still a [Mage] of Wistram, that is. It is simply foolhardy, now. Of course her crypt was warded. But I almost admire the audacity! Nekhret. Yes. Her bones would be…useful. Does he still have them?”
Az’kerash tapped his lips. Bea looked up at him innocently. She knew the answer, but she asked anyways.
“The bones of Archmages are valuable, master?”
She luxuriated in the lessons Az’kerash sometimes gave her. Bea could see Venitra peeking in on her and Az’kerash, looking jealous. The Necromancer smiled absently.
“Yes, Bea. However, they are for now…out of reach. Even were I inclined to raise an army and attempt to assail Wistram, I have little wish to battle Zelkyr’s creations. Cognita would be troublesome, especially with the so-called ‘Archmages’ on her side. Wistram’s ancient defenses are more to be feared than the current generation of [Mages], though. But if this Pisces has Nekhret’s bones still—he did not mention them.”
“He is in trouble.”
Bea observed. Az’kerash paused.
“Yes. Wistram has sent one of their hunter teams after him. I am reviewing—[Aegiscaster]. [Spellscribe]? [Spellslinger]. [Oldblood Magus] and [Illusionist]. An odd mixture. Not suited to simple apprehension. Not the [Spellscribe] or the [Oldblood Magus]. Perhaps simple arrogance. Five, though. They could certainly capture him. But they were detained for breaking Liscor’s laws?”
That amused him greatly. Bea smiled along.
“Will you help him, Master? This Pisces?”
Az’kerash paused. He frowned.
“No. He is not my apprentice. It is not necessary or expedient to aid him, especially given Wistram’s interest in him. I simply wish to know why they sent a bounty on him after the fact. Ah—manipulation. But why—Bea, the bounty.”
The plague zombie woman gave him the paper again, pouting a bit. She was going to hoard it, along with all the other things he touched. She had a collection, along with the rest of the Chosen. Az’kerash studied the paper. And then he focused on more details.
“Necrophilia? Pisces Jealnet. Petty thievery—of course. Of course.”
He cast the paper aside. Bea scuttled after it and snatched it up. But when she looked up, her Master was no longer amused. He stood there, staring at nothing. Somewhere in the white pupils, in his deathless gaze and voice, heat emerged. Az’kerash paced. And now he was angry. More information appeared in his mind and his voice grew thunderous.
“A former friend? Classmates. And this—this is a campaign. Sent to every city across Izril? He will have nowhere to hide. A friend.”
Bea trembled. Az’kerash turned. He stared blindly past her. In the inn, the rat appeared in the common room. He saw Pisces, sitting amid his team. The young man’s face was white. Rage, fury, pain—Az’kerash read it and remembered. He clenched his hands. Then his face smoothed. He waved the image away and stood in the dark workroom.
Alone. But he whispered to Pisces.
“I could have told you that this day would come. See how they turn on you, boy. See how they besmirch your name. It is what they do. They will drag you down, as they do with all who don’t fit in. This is only how it begins. Someday, they will all leave you. Your love, your friends. They will show you who they truly are.”
Az’kerash stood there. And Bea saw the pain on his face. She approached, timidly, and offered the bounty poster. The Necromancer looked at it. And the pain—Bea regretted giving it to him at once. Because she saw actual pain on his face. He bowed his head, touching the parchment upon which Pisces Jealnet’s crime and history had been written in ink. And black flame burned from his fingertips, consuming the parchments and ink, turning to ash.
“I know. They did the same to me. Feor. He was a student when I was stripped of my titles. Is he behind it? Or another of those petty children who play at magic?”
Bea fled as Az’kerash stood there. She couldn’t bear to watch her Master’s face. But she lingered at the entrance of his work room. Venitra glared at Bea. But then they both went back to watching their Master.
For a few seconds—an eternity to the Necromancer, who almost never stopped working—he paused. Then he looked up. He stared at his creation in the air. With an irritated wave, he froze it in place. And then he turned.
“What was the rest of his crimes? Who was he? This Montressa du Valeross. Terandrian. Of course. But what—they have to have records. They haven’t forgotten that much.”
Venitra, and Bea, peeking around the corner of his work room, saw an unusual sight. Az’kerash paced back and forth, his eyes flickering. He had halted work, and now, invisible, they sensed him spreading his awareness elsewhere. Seeking knowledge.
He was pursuing the information by puppet, by magic spell, using old systems of magic to retrieve what he wanted through Mage’s Guild, through anonymous [Message]. It did not take Az’kerash long to find what he sought. He had contacts everywhere and he knew Wistram. The Academy that traded on secrets gave everything Az’kerash wanted. Story and rumor. Fact. The Necromancer pursued it all.
An hour later he was reading. Sitting in his quarters. His Chosen were all there. Peeking at him. Kerash, Bea, Venitra, all were entranced. Like flowers, they hated their master’s sorrow and gloom. They raged with him, felt his pain. But other emotions, those rare flashes of amusement or even joy—they were everything to the undead.
And they saw something unique now. Az’kerash read, entirely focused. They heard a laugh and exchanged glances of wonder.
The Necromancer was reading a transcript. Not of the time when Pisces had been expelled. Az’kerash had already read that and laughed at hearing Cognita’s words. No, now he read an earlier speech a young man had given to the Council, defending his use of [Necromancy].
“You spoke my name in front of them? In front of that petty congregation?”
He laughed. The sound was unfamiliar, and unpracticed coming from him. He had almost forgotten how. But it came out now, unbidden. He let the parchment float in front of him, reading it. Laughing again.
“I wish I had been there! ‘Necromancy is the equal of any other magical school!’ To say that before—my Chosen. Stop hiding and read if you will.”
Az’kerash duplicated the paper with a flick of the hand. His Chosen jumped, but they grabbed at the papers eagerly. Bea read the transcript of Pisces’ speech. His defense of necromancy. Her eyes lit on one passage. What he had said of Az’kerash.
He gazed deeper into the heart of magic than any but the greatest [Archmages] before him. Once, a young man had proclaimed that before the gatekeepers of magic. Bea felt…something rise inside of her. She did not know this young man. But for those words alone, for a smile she had never seen, she loved the one who had said it.
“He called you a monster, Master.”
Venitra had focused on something else. Her grip tightened, tearing the soft paper. Az’kerash shook his head. He stared absently at his copy. And his eyes were faraway. Almost longing.
“He did not belong in Wistram. But where would he have gone? I see it all now. Friends. Well liked. A [Fencer]! Until they knew what he was. Did he copy me? Pisces Jealnet. Where were you a hundred years ago?”
Speechless, his Chosen looked at Az’kerash. He was smiling. Until his attention went back to the common room. Pisces was arguing with his friends. Az’kerash saw his pinched face, his hunched shoulders. Saw rage and helpless fury. Pride, broken and bleeding.
The Necromancer stopped smiling. He bowed his head. And suddenly, he was ancient again. His words bitter.
“They will bring you down, Pisces Jealnet. This is their way. This is why we are few. Fetohep. I. So few others. Fewer still worthy of respect. Who see what necromancy could be.”
He cared about this Pisces. Bea traded wondering looks with Kerash. Venitra was still angry about the thing Pisces had said. But her master saw something in the young man. Az’kerash closed his eyes.
“The Wistram team will not stop. This Montressa du Valeross will hunt him down. Unless he kills her first. And Wistram will never cease. His team—Ceria Springwalker? What did she—”
His eyes flickered.
“Her master. Illphres? A peer of the Siren of Savere. Ice magic. She must have been a permanent resident of the academy. But she dared Cognita’s…I see.”
He looked up.
“Brave. Foolish. But she dared it. And her apprentice left. So a [Mage] with the true heart of Wistram dies and her apprentice is forced to leave! This is what Wistram has become! Zelkyr. Is this what you intended?”
The room shook as Az’kerash stood. His Chosen fled. The Necromancer looked around the room. His fury dissipated in a moment.
“But she and he joined the same team. How…odd. She will turn on him too. They will poison her. But…”
He sank back down.
“A team of Wistram’s [Mages]. Does the academy desire Pisces this greatly? Or perhaps this Montressa has a grudge. Even so, this much effort.”
His brows snapped together.
“They’ve sent more teams. What are they doing? I must investigate this.”
The Necromancer traced a finger in the air, writing a note to himself. It followed him, a glimmering magical thought as he turned his head.
“There is no incentive for me to aid the young [Necromancer]. Not with Wistram there. However.”
“Liscor. I wonder. Where is…Ijvani?”
Az’kerash looked around. An old thought resurfaced. Not one he’d bothered committing to note form or pursuing. But now, Az’kerash was reminded.
“Still absent? But Zel Shivertail’s death was months—has she gotten lost? Ijvani.”
He put his fingers to his temples. Across hundreds of miles, his thoughts flew. In a cave, a sulky skeleton sat up. Az’kerash frowned. He spoke crisply.
“Ijvani. Ijvani, why are you sitting in a cave?”
He listened to the babbled response. Bea, creeping back, saw her Master talking. She envied Ijvani, even as she looked at Venitra.
“She’s in trouble.”
Gleefully, the other Chosen nodded. Az’kerash was frowning, a sure sign of his wrath. His voice snapped.
“You—I am not an illusion. What are you holding? Is that…Ijvani, be silent. Good. Now listen to me. You are not to return yet. Remain where you are; I require you to set up a surveillance spell. Carefully. Grimalkin of Pallass among others may detect a lesser spell. Ijvani? Why are there beavers…”
The world moved. In big ways, and small ways. The bounty on Pisces went out across the world. And it was barely a blip in the grand scheme of things. Mage’s Guilds across Izril took note of the bounty, the [Scribes] on duty noting the details, forwarding it to relevant areas, largely unconcerned. Few cared, although some would read the report with disgust. But who would meet this fellow? Few, if any, surely.
It didn’t matter. And yet, it did. To the one the bounty concerned, it mattered greatly. The report went to the Adventurer’s Guild in Liscor. To the Watch. To anyone who wanted to know. It was a poster on the wall of the Mage’s Guild.
It was gleeful, the way they reported it. Pisces Jealnet, son of Padurn Jealnet. Accused of necrophilia, petty thievery—
Erin wanted to tear up the parchment. But she kept reading. The malice, the pure malice in the writing made her put it down after a second. She couldn’t go on. The bounty accused Pisces of necrophilia, theft, petty assault, murder—it made him out to be a criminal. Not even a grand one. But—she looked up and saw him at his table. Reading the same bounty.
What hurt most of all was the name. Jealnet. If you didn’t understand Terandria, or Pisces, it wouldn’t have been so significant. Erin didn’t understand it fully, but Lyonette helped her explain. It was a common name. And the way they wrote of him.
Pisces Jealnet, son of Padurn Jealnet, [Fencer]. Common-born of Terandria; family in service to the House Dultel.
A son of a [Fencer] in the employ of the nobility. Commoner. A nobody. Nobody special. In ink, it tore apart part of Pisces. Erin saw it. Saw it hitting him.
“He could almost pass for nobility. He has some of the styling. He fails in other ways, but I could believe he was a fourth son or something.”
Lyonette murmured as she swept the floor. Erin had reconstructed some of the broken tables and chairs; the rest were waiting for her Skill to recharge. The inn was quiet. Only a few people were there. The Halfseekers, talking quietly, trying to soothe Seborn. A few regulars. The Horns. Mrsha, staring at the Horns.
And the adventurers. They were at the center of silent attention. Everyone in the inn had read the bounty poster. Everyone was not quite watching Pisces. He sat there, at the center of it all.
“He never said his last name. Not ever.”
“Of course not. It would have given him away if you knew anything of Terandria. You could have even placed where he grew up with a few inquiries.”
The [Princess] looked at Pisces. Erin bit her tongue. Did it matter? No. Yes! Pisces loved being enigmatic. He loved pretending to be someone. But this poster laid out his life’s story. It said he was just a petty [Necromancer]. It was wrong. But Wistram had shouted it across all of Izril and put a bounty on Pisces’ head.
It made her hate the Wistram team. But Erin also remembered Montressa weeping. That didn’t dull her anger, but it was something else. Even so.
It sounded wrong. Pisces was Pisces, not…Pisces Jealnet. In a way, Erin knew that hurt Pisces more than any beating could. His cheeks were stained and he was hunched in his seat. As withdrawn as he had been at the start.
“They can’t do this. A bounty?”
Ceria was exclaiming over the poster. She looked furious. She kept glancing at Pisces. He’d said nothing on the way back to the inn, even up till now. She looked at Yvlon.
“We won’t be able to go anywhere! With a two thousand gold bounty? Every idiot will be going after Pisces.”
“Can’t we pay it off? Not that I want to give those damn [Mages] anything. But at least it would solve the issue.”
“No good. Not with Wistram. You can pay off some bounties. Baleros lets you cancel a bounty with coin, and Drake cities let you clear fines, but Wistram won’t accept our gold. Damn them.”
Ceria shook her head. She looked at Pisces again.
“I understand these allegations are false. Are they not, Comrade Pisces? In this case, this is slander unbecoming of the academy.”
Ksmvr waved the parchment at Pisces. The [Necromancer] looked up. Ceria spoke for him.
“It’s false! Mostly, Ksmvr. But Wistram can say whatever they want. Damn, damn—they forced Liscor to let them go!”
“Are you surprised? The Academy does what it wants, Springwalker. This is—typical of them.”
Pisces’ voice grated. He jerked his hand; the parchment dropped to the table. His team stared at him, concerned. Yvlon looked at Pisces.
“Pisces, it’s completely wrong. Anyone who knows you—”
“And what of the countless thousands who don’t? My name is sullied forever. As Wistram pleases! I should have expected this. It matters not. I—I care not for the opinion of the uneducated masses.”
Pisces jerked his chair back. Yvlon reached for his arm.
“We’ll do something about this.”
He snapped at her. Yvlon hesitated.
“We’ll do something. Look, Ksmvr, throw away the posters. We’re all exhausted. Pisces, you’re pale as a sheet. You’re still not recovered. The [Healer] told you to rest.”
“She told us all to rest. You especially, Yvlon.”
The armored woman froze. Ceria looked at her. In the anger of meeting Montressa, she’d all but forgotten. Now, she looked at Yvlon’s arms. At the metal gauntlets covering…
“Yvlon. Take your armor off.”
The [Wounded Warrior] hesitated. She looked at Ceria and glanced at Pisces.
“We don’t need to do this now, Ceria. Pisces is—”
“Yvlon. That’s an order.”
The woman paused. Then she looked back at Ceria and slowly undid the gauntlets on one arm. Ksmvr helped her take off her vambrace, the rest of the metal.
A…smell filled the nearby air. It was mostly medicinal. A thick poultice. But behind that—Ceria stared. She’d seen it before when the [Healer] set Yvlon’s dislocated arm. But now?
Bone stared up at Ceria. Bone anchored into flesh. What flesh there was left. Yvlon’s arm was—Ceria remembered what it had been.
Torn, destroyed in parts by the metal that had melded with her bones. But it had still looked like an arm. Now, bone had been grafted onto the weak arm. Flesh was torn, infected, oozing pus around parts of the place where metal had rubbed against skin. Ceria smelled it, gagged—
Yvlon put the gauntlets back over her skin. She mumbled, avoiding Ceria’s stare. Even Pisces looked shocked by the sight.
“It’s fine. It’s just infected. The [Healer] says the poultice is working and I can use a healing potion once it clears. It’s—”
“What the fuck is that, Yvlon?”
Ceria hit the table as she rose. The half-Elf stared at her friend. Yvlon went still as the entire inn looked at Ceria. She glanced around and everyone pretended to look elsewhere. Ceria lowered herself, shaking.
“You didn’t tell me! Your arm is a mess! I’ve seen better—it doesn’t look like an arm! And that bone! What the hell is—”
She looked at Pisces. He didn’t respond. Yvlon shook her head.
“It’s—to support my bones. Remember how they kept on breaking? Well, this makes it so I can swing a sword. It helps, Ceria Even the [Healer] agreed.”
“When she stopped shouting, yes.”
Both Ceria and Yvlon looked at Ksmvr. Ceria opened her mouth.
“You—you asked Pisces to do that?”
“I did. I asked, Ceria. And I haven’t had a reason to regret it. The infection’s not from the bones. It’s just—there. And I don’t feel it. It’s fine. I can move my arms.”
To demonstrate, Yvlon lifted the shoulder that had been dislocated. Ceria hissed.
“Don’t do that! You couldn’t use a potion! Those muscles are torn!”
“I can’t feel them. Ceria, I’m fine.”
“You’re as far from fine as Pisces is!”
The half-Elf snapped back. She looked at Yvlon. The woman had folded her arms. Ceria stared at Ksmvr and Pisces.
“You didn’t tell me. Why didn’t you tell me? I’m your Captain, Yvlon! Pisces knew. And Ksmvr? Did everyone know about Yvlon’s arms but me?”
Yvlon avoided Ceria’s gaze. Ksmvr raised one hand helpfully.
“I knew because I have an inadequate sense of personal privacy, Captain Ceria. My finding out was unintentional on Yvlon’s part.”
“But you knew. And I didn’t because, what, you don’t trust me?”
“I didn’t tell you because you’d react exactly like this. Ceria, what do you want me to do?”
Yvlon glared at Ceria, her cheeks flushed. The half-Elf folded her arms.
“Get help. You can’t continue like this. We need to find you a [Healer]—”
“To do what? They couldn’t even fix my arms! Pisces did. I don’t need to sit around while the [Healers] tell me there’s nothing else they can do. I’m an adventurer, Ceria.”
“Not with those arms.”
The woman’s hands tightened on the table.
“It’s what I want to do.”
“And I should just let you?”
“It’s my choice.”
“Not if you’re killing yourself—”
“What else should I do, then?”
Ceria rocked back. Yvlon’s raised voice prompted movement. Erin hurried over.
“Hey, guys. Do you need anything…?”
“No, Erin. Sorry. We’re fine.”
“It’s totally cool. I get it. If you need a drink, or food? Anything you want tonight.”
“I’m not hungry. Not right now.”
“Got it. Just say when…”
Erin looked at Pisces and hesitated. But for once the energetic [Innkeeper] didn’t say anything. The Horns watched her retreat and whisper to Lyonette. Ceria buried her head in her hands.
“How did this happen?”
“The Wistram team had been pursuing Comrade Pisces for a long time. I believe they ambushed us in an effective, if ill-considered move. We were saved by their inappropriate understanding of Liscorian law and their arrogance. And Mrsha’s nose and Miss Erin.”
Ksmvr looked around the table. Ceria nodded dully.
“Montressa. Dead gods. I haven’t seen her for years. And that’s what she turned into? She’s completely different than the Mons I knew. And—what has she been doing? Those spells! That staff and orb! I didn’t get a chance to ask.”
“Not much opportunity to ask with her screaming at you.”
Yvlon reached for a mug of water. She gritted her teeth. Ceria looked up.
“Yeah. Yeah. They’re—those bastards got us. Not a second time. And we’re safe in Liscor.”
“But there’s a bounty on my head. And I am sure Montressa will not rest until I am captured.”
Pisces looked up. He had a ghastly smile on his face. Ceria hesitated.
“We’ll do something about it.”
He stared at her. She hesitated.
“We’ll get the bounty overturned. Appeal it! It’s not right. Maybe Watch Captain Zevara can vouch for us?”
Pisces made a disgusted noise and turned away. Ceria looked around desperately. Yvlon was looking at Pisces sympathetically. Ceria had a thought.
“I’ll—I’ll reach out to Falene. She’s a graduate. Maybe she can help.”
“I will speak to someone as well. She will see something is done if anything. But nothing will change the bounty.”
Pisces muttered darkly. Ceria stared at him. She opened her mouth. She wanted to say something.
“About Montressa. She was really—”
Pisces looked up. The half-Elf wavered. She fell silent. Yvlon looked at Ksmvr. He’d opened his mandibles. She slowly nudged him and he closed them and looked at her. The whirling silence grew deeper around the Horns of Hammerad.
Across the inn, Erin twisted her hands in her cooking apron. Lyonette was feeding Mrsha dinner at the bar. The Gnoll cub whined in the back of her throat, but Lyonette was soothing her.
“Not yet, Mrsha dear. They’re busy. Everyone’s a bit—just eat your dinner. You can go cheer up Moore, okay?”
She looked at Erin. The [Innkeeper] hadn’t taken her eyes off the Horns. She longed to go over, to smile—but it wouldn’t have been genuine. Erin wanted to do something. But she knew that she might make things worse. What could she do?
It was like a puzzle, one of the ones where you had a specific shape that could fit in a whole. That was how Erin would have described it. She muttered as she saw Pisces snap something at Ceria.
“Food? No. Cake? Spaghetti? No. Alcohol?”
She paused and eyed the Horns.
“No. Mrsha? No. Faerie flower drink? No.”
Lyonette looked at her. Erin turned her head, blinking. Mrsha looked up quizzically. Erin silently shook her head.
She turned her head back to the Horns. She saw Pisces’ face. But nothing fit. So she just watched.
Ceria was hesitating, biting her lip. Ksmvr had cleared away the posters, but it hung over them. She could see Gnolls and Drakes glancing at Pisces. And his name hung in her head.
Pisces Jealnet. She had never known his name. And she’d been in the academy with him! All this time—she hesitated, clearing her throat.
“Pisces, if you want to talk about it—”
Pisces’ head jerked up. His cheeks were still flushed. He clenched his hands in his robes.
“Talk? About what, pray tell?”
His tone was beyond acerbic. Ceria could feel the hurt in every line of it. She hesitated.
“Look, the bounty’s wrong. We know the academy’s lying. Erin knows it. We all know it. But if you want to talk—about Montressa? About…”
His eyes narrowed dangerously.
“About my name? Or the spurious allegations? Are you wondering if any of them are accurate?”
“No! Not at all! It’s just—”
Ceria raised her hands defensively. Pisces stared at her.
“Look—I know some of it’s not true, but I know you committed some crimes. And we never knew your name. Montressa appearing out of nowhere was a shock. But she—you know she has a reason to—”
“To beat me into unconsciousness? To cast a spell on Selys and kidnap you all?”
The half-Elf wavered. But she had to say it.
He stared at her. Yvlon opened her mouth and Ceria rushed on.
“Not to attack us! But she was there, Pisces. You know what she must have thought. We never got to speak with her. Look, I’m saying she’s wrong. But she had a reason to hate you. I’m absolutely against her. You heard me shouting! But let’s talk about it, okay?”
“What is there to discuss? She is after me. If you would avoid Wistram’s ire—”
“We’re not abandoning you, Pisces. You’re a teammate.”
Yvlon spoke quietly. Pisces looked at her. He half-rose.
“And so I should confess all my sins, is that it?”
“No! Pisces! Just tell us—we just want to know the truth.”
“You can read it. I don’t owe you explanations!”
The [Necromancer] was furious. He got up. Ceria rose with him.
“Pisces, just talk to us—”
“Comrade Pisces, it would be best to share information at this time. The communication of information with your peers will help us better aid you. Captain Ceria is only inquiring about your wellbeing.”
Ksmvr piped up, looking at Pisces. The [Necromancer] flushed. Ceria saw him open his mouth and snap down at Ksmvr.
“My peers? Where are they? If I find anyone worthy of sharing my thoughts with, I will be pleasantly surprised!”
The Antinium flinched. He stared up at Pisces and then looked down.
“Oh. I am sorry for presuming.”
“Pisces! Apologize to Ksmvr!”
Yvlon shot to her feet. She glared at Pisces. He was flushed as he glared at her. The armored woman narrowed her eyes.
“You’re out of line. Who cares if you’re common-born? You’re overreacting. We know the bounty poster is false. You don’t have to take it out on Ksmvr because you’re embarrassed we know you’re not from an aristocratic house! It doesn’t matter!”
It was the wrong thing to say. Pisces’s eyes widened. He stared at Yvlon for one second and then spoke.
“Spoken like a noble child.”
Yvlon’s cheeks went white. She sat down abruptly and said not a word more. Ceria stared at Pisces. Those cutting words. She clenched her fists.
“You jackass! We put ourselves on the line trying to help you! We’re your team! Don’t we deserve at least some answers—”
“Why? So you can lecture me on how wrong I am? Turn up your nose until you have need of my abilities?”
Pisces whirled on Ceria. She took a step back.
“I—you know Montressa has a reason for her fury! You know that, Pisces! I’m angrier than anyone about what she did! But you have to remember what happened! She does! She broke down when she saw the undead illusion! Pisces! Calvaron and all the others—”
“What of them?”
Ceria had to say it.
“It was your fault they died. It was an accident, but they died. You know why Montressa blames you. I’ve forgiven you. But it was still your fault. If you won’t admit that—you’re every bit the monster that Minotauress called you.”
The table went silent. The room went silent. Everyone stared at Ceria. Pisces looked at her. He was shaking. When he opened his mouth, his voice was wavering. But not with guilt. Not with regret. With pure rage.
“I don’t regret it now. Not at all. I meant every word I said. Calvaron? I don’t even recall his face. I only wish that curse had killed all of Wistram! All of them and—”
Ceria punched him in the face. If it was a movie, it should have been a slap. But Ceria was an adventurer. Pisces’ head jerked back and he stumbled, nearly falling into his chair. Ksmvr caught him, but Pisces struck his hand away. Silently, he looked at Ceria.
She was breathing hard, staring at him, appalled by what she’d done.
He whirled and strode away. Ceria saw him storming up the stairs to his room. Erin was frozen at the bar. Lyonette stared at Pisces. Mrsha was gone.
In the silence afterwards, Ceria looked at Yvlon and Ksmvr. She worked her mouth silently.
“I—damn it. Dead gods damn it.”
She sat back down. Why did she say it? Now? But Pisces had been—her team sat around her. And the mood in the air was like filth, like bitterness given form. Ceria wanted to go back and break her fist on Montressa and her team. She hated them. Hated Pisces for being him. She sat there—
Erin saw it all. And still, she hesitated. She could see herself going over to the team, or following Pisces. And…she had seen it before. She remembered a young woman. Ryoka. But this was even worse. She ached for Pisces. And for the Horns. She tried to do something. But nothing fit.
A square peg in a round hole. Or…a complicated mess, that no one shining bullet could solve. Nothing Erin had. She got up, abruptly.
“I’m going out. Lyonette, keep an eye on the inn.”
“Sure. Mrsha? Where’d she go? Mrsha?”
Lyonette looked around distractedly. Her voice was low. Erin walked towards the door. The inn was silent. No one wanted to speak loudly. It was a mood in the air, that even she couldn’t lift. It hung around the Horns of Hammerad, but it hadn’t originated from them.
It spread like rot. They had brought it with them. Wistram’s [Mages]. Montressa’s team. Hatred and anger. Regret. Pain. Suffering. They had brought it out of Ceria and Pisces’ pasts, and what was worst was that there was truth, a reason behind the hatred. Erin walked out of her inn and into Liscor, searching. Feeling it spreading.
The past caught up with the present and brought only misery.
“So. It’s true. I heard you were here, but I had to see it to believe it.”
Calruz of Hammerad jerked to wakefulness at the harsh voice. He sat up in his cell. The one-armed Minotaur looked around, blearily, caught off-guard by the voice. It was deep, female. Not like even the female Gnolls. He looked up, blinking in the light coming from the magical barrier of his cell.
And stared. Bezale, the [Scrollscribe], stared down at Calruz from across the barrier to her cell. She stood proudly, her robes hanging around her muscular form. Few of Minos were unfit; it was considered a mark of disgrace. She was hardly as trained as a true Minotaur [Warrior]; even in his cell, Calruz was stronger. But she was…whole.
Two arms. And a proud bearing. Her horns wore caps of precious metal. And her eyes flashed with disgust. For him. Calruz stared at her and realized he was on his back. The one-armed Minotaur struggled up.
His two rats, Haldagaz, Vanquisher of Foes, almost pure white and male, and Rhata, Trident-Guardian, the grey female one, crawled up his chest and fled into their bucket-home at the unfamiliar intruder. Calruz sat up, pushing himself up with his arm.
His one arm. The right was gone. Torn away, leaving only a stump. The unknown Minotauress stared at it, dismissively. Calruz’ jaw worked. He couldn’t believe it.
His breath caught. He tried again.
“Who are you?”
“Is that how you greet a Minotaur?”
She snapped at him. The words triggered memory. Calruz blinked. Reflexively, he surged to his feet.
“Calruz of Hammerad. Well met, kindred!”
He held an arm out, as if he could reach through the barrier and grab her arm. The Minotauress stared at him. She spoke slowly.
“Bezale of Maweil.”
She did not greet him. Nor did she make any move. Calruz slowly lowered his arm. Now he was awake, he was confused. And…afraid. Confusion came first. He stared at her.
“Bezale of—it’s been so long since I’ve seen one of our kind. Especially around here! Are you a fellow adventurer? What’s a seafarer from Maweil doing in Liscor?”
Beza ignored his questions. She looked Calruz up and down. He wore ragged pants and a rough tunic, fairly dirty despite Calruz’s attempts to keep it clean, worn from constant use. His fur was matted. She snorted, disgust ringing clear in her words.
“I came to arrest a criminal. And see to the execution of justice. I couldn’t believe it when I heard. One of the House of Minos, losing his mind? Betraying his team? Kidnapping civilians? Murdering them?”
Calruz froze. She knew. And she had come here to judge. He opened his mouth.
“Bezale of Maweil. I have—”
“Be silent. You are a disgrace.”
Calruz closed his mouth. Bezale paced back and forth in front of his cell.
“I couldn’t believe it. One of our kind? Reduced to this? Look at you. You’re more pathetic than I could have imagined. Why are you here? You’ve been judged guilty. Why hasn’t Liscor executed you? You’d be dead in any port of Minos within the day for your crimes! Well? Answer!”
The Minotaur spoke slowly. He closed his eyes, trying to breathe. Explain, though part of him agreed with every word.
“I could have been ensorcelled. I am still not sure if I was—”
“You are not.”
He froze. His heart stopped. Beza looked at him and shook her head.
“I cast [Detect Magic] the instant I saw you. There is none about you, save for the magic in the cell.”
“The Watch Captain of this city believes the spell may be more complex than that. She believes I may be innocent.”
Calruz protested. He watched Beza. She twitched when he mentioned Zevara. What was going on? She glared at him and spat. It hit the barrier and fizzled.
“Excuse. You are a coward who fears death!”
“I do not.”
Calruz’ growled. Even as a captive, even as he was, that strung what remained of his pride. Beza sneered at him.
“You’ve been prisoner for months! Any self-respecting warrior would have done what’s right. Ensorcelled? By what? You murdered Gnolls. Children. I heard all about your crimes. Because of you, the people of this city feared me.”
The Minotaur [Prisoner] looked down. He clenched his one hand.
“I have no excuse, kindred. But the Watch Captain refuses to grant me death. She believes in me. So I remain.”
“You have no right to call me kindred. And I know what needs to be done.”
Beza’s voice was very cold. She stared at Calruz. She was taller than he was. She nodded down the length of the prison and then stepped forwards. He looked up as she whispered to him.
“I’ll find a way to smuggle in a knife to you. You do the proper thing.”
He jerked. She glared at him and pounded a fist on the barrier to his cell. The light flashed, but didn’t even waver.
“That’s the honorable thing to do! You should have done it long ago, coward. Look at you, sleeping with rats? What’s next? I’ll get the knife in. Bribe the guards, perhaps. It won’t take me more than a day or two.”
She turned away dismissively. Calruz stared at her back. He couldn’t bear it any longer. He spoke up, angrily.
“I have a question. Are you an arbiter of the isles? You did not announce yourselves as such. Do you have that authority?”
Beza turned. She hesitated, which was answer enough.
“I have the right of every Minos to judge another! I came here because I heard you’d disgraced our kind!”
Calruz’ eyes narrowed. So, not the arbiter he’d feared. Still—a thought occurred to him. He stared at Beza.
“Who did you come here to apprehend?”
She paused. He stared at her.
“Do not make demands of me, traitor.”
She glared at him. But Calruz was unwavering. After a moment, Beza spat.
“A member of your team. Pisces Jealnet. A [Necromancer]. If I thought you could sink no lower, I was wrong. That he claims to be part of a team that calls itself the ‘Horns of Hammerad’? Ludicrous!”
Calruz’s stomach twisted. Pisces? What had he done? No, Ceria had told him something of Pisces’ past. He stepped forwards, towards the magical barrier that kept him caged.
“Did you capture him?”
“We did. But thanks to the laws of this pathetic city he was released. He won’t escape us a second time. Him or the team protecting him.”
Bezale snarled. She was angry. She’d come here angry; Calruz could see it from the red seeping into her eyes. He growled.
“His team? If you touched Ceria Springwalker—”
“You’ll do what?”
Beza stared at Calruz. He didn’t reply. He was breathing hard. Now he understood. Beza spoke slowly.
“I will say this for your honor, Calruz of Hammerad. Kill yourself.”
“No. I do not know that I am guilty. And I will not be judged by you.”
Calruz snarled at her. She’d come for Ceria? Attacking his team? He felt the rage building. Beza snapped at him.
“Coward. You are a coward. Just as much as your team. All of you should have fought to the last in the crypt, instead of fleeing! You, the Antinium, that half-Elf and the broken woman. And the [Necromancer]. All of you are a disgrace.”
The Minotaur saw red. Literally; blood began to fill his gaze. He stepped up to the barrier until he could feel it tingling his muzzle, the fur on his chest. He spoke through the fury building in him.
“Tell me, Bezale of Maweil. How did you win the honor of passage from our home?”
She stared at him.
“I won my right by my skill at magic. By my talent.”
Calruz nodded. Then he reached out. His eyes turned red as he pushed at the magical cell’s barrier with one hand. The magic burned his palm. Beza jerked back. But Calruz didn’t care. The Minotaur raised his voice.
“I won my right by skill at arms! By bravery, by daring! I was an adventurer. And I disgraced myself. I betrayed my team. All this is true. But—”
He stared at her. Calruz gritted his teeth as his palm smoked and burnt.
“But I’d rather sell myself into slavery than take lessons about honor from someone who has no idea what it means to be an adventurer. If you touch Ceria Springwalker, she will break you and whomever you brought with you.”
Beza stared at Calruz, her face twisted with disgust.
“Spoken like the truest of cravens. The House of Minos will hear from me. Hammerad will know their son’s treachery and cowardice!”
She spun. Beza strode from the prison. Calruz bellowed after her, his voice echoing in the prison. The [Guards] rushed forwards, but they stopped when they saw Beza striding away. Calruz stared at Beza until she was out of sight. Then he felt the pain.
His palm was raw, the magic taking it to bits. The Minotaur stopping pushing at the cell wall. He sank to the floor. The pain was there, but it was barely noticeable to him compared to the agony in his heart. He bowed his head.
In the silence, no one made a sound. No one, except for a small, grey shape which crept out of the bucket in the back of the cell. A last Daughter of the Grainsack. The little rat crawled across the floor and up Calruz’s side. She crawled up onto his left arm and sniffed at his raw palm.
The rat wriggled her whiskers as her brother came out of hiding. Calruz stared down at her. He shook his head in silent response to the unspoken query.
“Just a fellow Minotaur, Rhata. She will tell the isles. I wish she had the right to judge. I wish I knew.”
He stroked the little rat’s head. And he refused to listen to the voices that told him to kill it. And his voice, that told him to kill himself.
Palt, the Centaur [Illusionist], hated his life. He trotted through Liscor, aware that he had tails. Not the one on his behind, but [Guards]. Liscor’s Watch was following him, even after he’d split from Montressa and the others. It wasn’t a good time to be around Montressa, anyways.
She was still mostly incoherent after the illusion the [Necromancer], Pisces, had conjured. Palt was impressed himself; it had been an ugly spell. Isceil and Ulinde were keeping Montressa company in the inn they’d rented and Beza had strode off to do something. Palt was by himself, but he wasn’t alone.
He was talking to someone, using a [Communication] spell. It was advanced stuff, but he was a full [Mage] of Wistram and if he wasn’t specialized in combat magic like his peers, he was well-versed in a number of magics. Right now he was giving a report to someone in Wistram. His superiors. He had no doubt Beza and the others were all doing the same and getting chewed out too.
“Yes, well, she’s too focused on Pisces. I know Wistram is stretched thin trying to follow up on all the leads with the guests, but the Revivalists shouldn’t have pushed to put Montressa in charge of this team. She might be best of all of us, but she’s too young.”
The Centaur listened to the response. He winced, and fumbled for a cigar. No dreamleaf or anything stronger; the Watch had also told him he couldn’t smoke anything illegal—which was practically everything—within Liscor’s walls. Grumpily, the Centaur lit up with a flick of his fingers and replied.
“Yes, of course. Yes, I’ll try—I’m certain. One of the guests. It’s all donkey dung now, though. She’s a close friend of the team we attacked. No, I could not stop it! I’ll try. Yes. Please convey my regards to Master [Phantasmal Trickster].”
The person on the other end, another [Illusionist] in her sixth year he knew, replied shortly.
“I’ll do that. But they’re mad, Palt. Liscor’s considered important and having to send out a bounty and getting in trouble after Tiqr—”
“It’s not my fault! I’m not in charge! Take it up with the Revivalists—they put Montressa in charge! What was I supposed to do?”
“You’re representing our interests. Just try not to break any more laws. And don’t smoke anything in Liscor! Got it?”
Palt paused with the cigar in his lips.
“You’re smoking something right now, aren’t you? If you get us in trouble, no one’s bailing you out.”
“I’ve got it! Tell Master [Phantasmal Trickster]—”
“I’ll tell them. Just remember what I said.”
“Got it. Bye.”
Palt fell the magic spell dissipate. Grumpily, he trotted faster, smoking hard and muttering under his breath. He could sense his tails moving faster. Gnolls, probably. He hoped they coughed on his cigar smoke.
The Centaur was angry. Angry at Montressa, at that damn Watch Captain who’d had him kicked and beaten up—and at himself for taking this stupid mission. He’d volunteered! What had he been thinking?
He sighed as he puffed away, trotting for the sheer necessity of moving his body. He ignored the Drakes and Gnolls this late at night. He had to think.
His faction had not been pleased with the news and they’d demanded an explanation of the events. They’d bailed him out of course; Wistram didn’t abandon their own, but there would be consequences. Few for Palt for all he’d been involved; he could only imagine what Montressa’s call had been like. But Palt had been reminded of his duties—to Wistram, yes, but to his faction, Ullsinoi, as well.
Some factions in Wistram were small. More like…well, more like entire schools of magic than ideologies like the Revivalists. Palt belonged to a small one, a little under a hundred members, actually. The Ullsinoi faction wasn’t huge, but they had clout where it mattered.
They were also very secretive, made up almost entirely of the illusion school of magic. It gave their [Mages]…peculiarities, especially in how they interacted. For instance, Palt didn’t even know half of the names of the master [Illusionists] in his faction. You just referred to them by nicknames, or classes, like his own master, Master [Phantasmal Trickster]. Palt didn’t even know the gender of his master, if they even had one. They liked to change their illusion and theirs was so complete Palt still couldn’t see through them.
It was hard being in the Ullsinoi faction—everyone was full of tricks, some of them really stupid, like the name of their faction. You couldn’t even get in if you didn’t figure out the idiotic joke within the first ten minutes of hearing the name. Frankly, that was probably a good bar to set anyways. But they had real interests, ones Palt agreed with. And now he’d have to carry them out. Somehow.
The Centaur gritted his teeth, chewing the cigar. He’d have to help repair the mess Montressa had made. She was obsessed with Pisces. Small wonder for what he’d done, but still. This was a disaster. Now they had the Watch on their tails, the [Innkeeper] they were supposed to make a priority hated their guts and they’d caused trouble for Wistram. What was he supposed to do? Maybe—
The Centaur was so preoccupied he didn’t see the shape making a beeline towards him. He only saw the figure too late and stopped before he ran her over.
He looked down and saw Erin Solstice. She stared up at him. The Centaur dropped his cigar and reared.
“Gyaaah! Don’t hurt me!”
He turned to run. Erin grabbed Palt’s tail as he tried to cast [Invisibility]. He nearly kicked her!
“Hold on, hold on! I’m not gonna stab you!”
“That’s a specific threat! Let go of my tail!”
Palt whirled. Erin let go and he trotted backwards. His watchers had stopped, warily. Palt eyed Erin. He knew what she’d done! She’d stabbed Beza and nearly killed Isceil with a pot of sauce! He backed up, but she followed.
“We’re allowed to be in Liscor! If you attack me—”
“Oh, be shush, you. I’m not gonna hurt you. But if you cast a spell on me, I’ll stab you.”
Erin put a hand on the knife at her belt. Palt raised his hands instantly.
“No magic! I’ve done nothing! I wasn’t even part of the group that attacked your friend! My name’s Palt! I’m sorry for everything! I’m just here to help find you lot.”
He winced. Damn! Gnolls! He cast a [Hush] spell around him and Erin. She stared up at him.
“Yeah. I heard. But you cast a spell on Selys.”
“I—look, Montressa’s my leader. I have to obey her. I know it was bad. But [Mind Blank] doesn’t harm her.”
“Pisces is her friend. She watched you beat him up.”
“I didn’t do a thing.”
“Except cast the spell.”
He looked at her and trotted back a few steps.
“Please don’t stab me. I’ll apologize to her. Really.”
“You’d better. Her grandmother was a Gold-rank adventurer. She’ll kill you.”
Palt paled. Old people with high levels were the worst.
“I’ll do that. Miss Erin, is it? I’m very sorry. On behalf of Wistram, I apologize. My team is filled with idiots. But that Pisces fellow is wanted by Wistram. I was there when the undead came and slaughtered a bunch of [Mages].”
“Yeah. I heard about that. But he was let go. They had a trial. So why’s Wistram after him? Is it just Montressa?”
Palt shuffled his hooves. He stared down at Erin. He had a sense she was high-level. She had a certain intensity about her. He felt a surge of trepidation. And hope. She was speaking to him. So the Centaur made an ingratiating gesture. He rummaged in his saddlebags.
“Miss Solstice? Again, I’m very sorry. If I can make it up to you at all—allow me to introduce myself. I’m Palt, an [Illusionist]. My team was sent to escort you back to Wistram. I realize that holds little weight, but allow me to—may I make you a gift? I have some dreamleaf, which I understand your people call uh, marjinaula.”
“Marijuana? Wait, you mean weed?”
Erin recoiled as he offered her some dried leaves. Palt faltered.
“Wait, are you one of the people who don’t like it?”
“No! Are you a stoner?”
“Damn—er—well, that was an offer of good faith! It’s relaxing! I have tobacco—”
The Centaur realized he was digging himself further in. He stopped and spread his hands.
“Let me try again. Again. Anything you want, Miss Solstice, I can offer. I have a number of uh, aids for my magic. Relaxing. And I’m here to help. Truly. If there’s anything I can do, name it.”
He waited. Erin Solstice looked Palt up and down. He waited. At last, Erin nodded. She looked at Palt and spoke slowly.
“Tell me about…Montressa.”
Pisces slammed into his room, unable to speak properly with fury. He kicked the first pile of bones he saw, scattering them across the room, and then turned and blasted the wall with a few bolts of magic. Erin’s reinforced walls took the spells with little more than scorch marks. Pisces whirled around and bellowed.
“Those idiots. Fools! They were never good enough for my company. I should have never wasted my time on them.”
He tore across the room, looking for something else to break. The Bone Behemoth was gone, as well as the spell that Az’kerash had inscribed on its skull. But the notes of both had been recorded and Pisces had been studying them. Until today. Until his outing with Selys. Pisces stared down at his notes and then threw everything off his desk.
Quill, inkpot, paper, all of it went flying. Pisces strode around the room, shouting and cursing.
“This entire inn can burn. Everything and everyone in it!”
His name! They’d released his name! Those pustulant, arrogant, spineless fools in Wistram! His name. And a bounty—
Pisces pointed a finger. This time electric shots hit the far wall, bouncing off the window. He uttered his fury, wishing he could have stabbed that idiotic Drake through the head. Or the Minotauress. He remembered every kick, how they’d beaten him down. And they’d walked free! He should have killed them. The Centaur, the Selphid—
Montressa. Pisces stopped. He was panting. Her. She dared to come here and—he remembered the look on her face.
“Calvaron. He deserved it. They all did. All of their hidebound…”
Pisces paused. Then he turned his head. He remembered a Centaur, laughing and welcoming him into Wistram. He pushed down the emotion, remembering the others.
Too much. Enough. Pisces was done. He—he felt at his ribs. They were mending. But he still felt the pinpoints of pain if he pressed. He closed his eyes, and his bones began to mend. A [Necromancer] could do that to himself; he couldn’t snap bones at will, because other people had too much inbuilt resistance to those kinds of spells. But he could heal himself. No one else could do that, save for the highest-level [Healers] or spells or potions. He relished the thought of Wistram’s team suffering their fractured bones.
Just another thing they scorned him for. Them, and all the others. Even Ceria. How dare she? And Yvlon? He saw the way the others had looked at him. Necrophilia. They believed it. They were all trash. Worthless. Ceria, Yvlon, Ksmvr—Selys—Erin—
Pisces stopped. But the fury was overwhelming him. He stood in the center of his room, his eyes burning. His breath came in gasps. He hated them. They had ruined his life. It was always so. Always and always. He could trust no one.
Slowly, Pisces spoke. He had run so hot he was now cold. The words came out of him, slowly, bitterly, oozing toxins with every syllable.
“I care nothing for the living. They are all dust to me. I have seen the nature of humanity and it is rotten decay. Petty souls dragging each other down into eternity. Let them all die. Let them—”
The words were a litany. A curse. He had said that once. Az’kerash. When he renounced his humanity during his trial. Pisces had always read those words. Now, he believed them. Pisces searched for the little rat. He raised his arms. Let it all end! He’d leave. He’d leave and show them who he really was. He turned, looking—
And Pisces heard a small sound. A small, tiny whimper. He froze. It wasn’t coming from the rat perched on his dresser. No. It was a living sound, fueled by lungs. And it came from under his bed.
Something was under there. Snuffling. Pisces froze. He bent down and then he saw her.
A white shape. A little Gnoll, staring at him. Mrsha. She’d slunk into his room. Hidden under his bed. She was crying. Pisces stared at her. He opened his mouth. Fury talked for him.
“Get out. Get out! I don’t want to play! I don’t want—”
He pointed towards the door, raising his voice. Mrsha hid her face. Something rolled out in front of her. Pisces was about to shout. Then he saw what she’d been holding.
It was…a stick. Pointed at one end, easily grippable in one hand. Not a stick, in fact. He saw the magic in it. A wand. The wand Mrsha had stolen from him ages ago.
His wand. And tied to it, clumsily, with a Gnoll’s paws, a little yellow flower. Mrsha had been holding it in her paw. Now she sniveled, her nose and eyes running. She hid her face, scooting back under her bed, away from the furious Pisces. The wand was knocked further towards Pisces. The little golden flower was bent, the petals slightly bruised.
The [Necromancer] stared at the wand. He looked at it. And at Mrsha, wiping at her tears. He bent slowly, and she shivered away from him. Crying. She was crying because he’d shouted at her. Because he was shouting in general.
Because of what had happened. Pisces looked down at the wand. He looked at the little Gnoll. And suddenly, the fury went out of him. He was ashamed.
She crawled away from him, to the furthest corner under the bed. Pisces sat down slowly. He was still angry. So angry he would have killed Isceil if the Drake popped into the room this moment. But anger burned hot only so long. Shame—now, shame grew. And Pisces’ conscience finally caught up with his mouth. He remembered what he’d said.
To Ceria. To Yvlon. To Ksmvr. To his team. Pisces stared ahead dully. They’d deserved it. That was what part of him whispered. They doubted him. They never trusted him. Not really. Yvlon had always looked at him with suspicion. Ceria still held his past against him.
But Yvlon had asked him to fix her arms. And Ceria had forgiven him. Pisces tried to be angry. But he couldn’t help but remember as he stared down at the flower, around his room. They had gone through Albez. He had gone into the crypts for her. They were his team.
He hadn’t wanted it! It had been a thing of convenience! But—they’d welcomed him. Erin had. And Ksmvr. Pisces felt his eyes stinging. Of all people, to say that to him. Almost as bad as—
He looked down. Mrsha had put her paws over her eyes and water was trickling down into her white fur. She didn’t move as he slowly got up. Pisces hesitated, knelt, picked up the wand.
“Mrsha. I’m not angry.”
She quivered, her back to him. Her tail didn’t move and she held still. Pisces looked at the wand.
“Is that a gift for me? It’s quite thoughtful. I did not mean to shout at you. Will you come out?”
Not a response. Mrsha was crying. And she’d been the one who knew he and the others were captured. Erin had told him. If it weren’t for her, he might have been in the box. And he’d shouted at her.
Pisces felt a lump in his throat. He opened his mouth, searching for something to coax her out. And the words came out. What he really meant.
Mrsha stopped crying. She turned her head slowly. Pisces looked at her.
“I’m sorry for shouting. I truly am, Mrsha. I didn’t mean it. I was angry. But I should never have shouted at you. Will you come out? Thank you for the flower.”
The Gnoll stared at him. Her eyes were running. She looked at Pisces, and he imagined a cat. Or a dog. But then she shot out of the bed and leapt at him. And she hugged him. No pet could do that.
A child. Pisces sat back as Mrsha rammed into him. She buried her head into his robes. For a moment, he stared at her, but then, gingerly, he put his arms around her. Lifted her into his lap. Patted her head. She began to punch at his side, weakly.
“I’m sorry. I was just—it was the bounty and—I’m sorry. I should never have said that. Forgive me?”
He stopped making excuses. Mrsha wiped her face in his robes. She looked up at him, eyes still overflowing. Pisces rubbed at his eyes. And then he began to cry.
“I knew they’d do this. I knew, but—I’ve been trying. And this is what happens. I tried. I never meant for that! Any of it!”
He tried to stop. But they kept coming out. Frustrated, angry. And hurt. Oh, it hurt. Almost as much as hurting other people. But not enough. Mrsha stared up at Pisces. Then she sat up.
She licked his cheek and hugged him. He stared at her, feeling her feet on his lap. It was such an odd feeling. He’d had…Erin hug him? Or Selys? Maybe? In moments of excitement. But never like this. He gently patted her on the back as she blew her nose on his robes.
“I’m alright. You helped save me, didn’t you? It was brave of you. You are…my heroine.”
She looked up. Pisces saw Mrsha point downstairs. Of course. She’d heard everything. She looked at him, tearful. He didn’t need sign language to know what she meant.
“Yes. I should. I—I said very mean things, didn’t I?”
She stared at him and nearly bit his hand. He snatched his fingers away.
“Bad things. I was angry. I’ll apologize.”
She tried to tug him towards the door. Pisces held still and shook his head.
“In—in twenty minutes. I will go down then. To let tempers cool.”
He was prevaricating. In truth, now Pisces was embarrassed. So incredibly so that he couldn’t face the others. Mrsha stared at Pisces. Then she sat down and stared at him.
That was worse. The Gnoll’s stare went right through Pisces. And he sat there, recalling exactly what he’d said. To Ceria most of all. He tried to wait, to clear his mind.
He couldn’t bear it for more than ten minutes. Pisces got up, and opened his door. Mrsha followed him out into the hallway. Down the steps.
They were all there. The common room looked up as Pisces stopped at the foot of the stairs, and then quickly looked to their drinks. The Horns sat there, looking at Pisces and then away. It felt like an age since he’s shouted at them. Ten minutes? Twenty, including his tantrum? Pisces hesitated.
Then he walked towards them. Mrsha was in his arms. Lyonette hurried over.
“Mrsha! Were you bothering—”
She halted, looking at Pisces. He turned towards her.
“She didn’t bother me. Mrsha—”
He placed Mrsha down on the floor. She watched as he walked over to the table. Ceria was drinking. Yvlon was sitting with Ksmvr, eating. Both looked up silently. Ksmvr looked down at once. Yvlon stared past Pisces, her face completely blank.
And Ceria? She looked at the young man and then turned away. Drinking deeply. Pisces stared down at the table. He took a deep breath. And then another. And another.
On the fourth breath, the words came out in a rush.
“I’m—sorry. Ceria, Yvlon. Ksmvr. I am sorry. I didn’t mean what I said. I spoke in anger.”
“Oh yeah? What a surprise.”
Ceria didn’t look at him. Pisces hesitated. Yvlon looked up. She glanced at Ceria, and then at Ksmvr.
“It was a heated moment. We let things get away from us, Ceria.”
“I forgive you for all my trauma, Comrade Pisces.”
Ksmvr sat up, looking relieved. Pisces almost smiled at him. Almost. Tentatively, he pulled out a chair. Ceria didn’t kick it away from him as he sat, which was good. He saw Yvlon looking at him.
Rare words from him. She nodded slowly. She was still angry, he knew. And Ceria. But the half-Elf was biting her lips.
It was easy, then, for Pisces to imagine saying something and inviting sympathy. In a bit they might talk. In a few days, the incident might be behind them. Tempers had been high. But right now—
His throat constricted. That was what he could do. What Pisces did. But the young man bit his lip. After a moment, he looked around, catching Ceria’s eye, Yvlon’s look. Ksmvr’s stare. Pisces hesitated, and then put his hands on the table. He spoke over the thundering of his heart.
“My name, my true name, is Pisces Jealnet. It’s a commoner’s name. I was born in Terandria. In the Kingdom of Ailendamus. If you know if it, it’s a major nation. Sprawling. I was raised in House Dultel, one of the minor nobility. Not as a noble. My father was a [Fencer] employed by the [Lord]. I grew up in the household, well, around it.”
Ceria’s head snapped up. She turned, wide-eyed, and caught Pisces’ look. Yvlon blinked. Ksmvr began rummaging in his bag for a quill. Pisces looked at his team. He had never said this to anyone. The words came out of him, first slowly, like drawing a splinter, and then faster and faster.
“It’s true. My father was Padurn Jealnet. My mother Enica. They’re both alive, I think. They were when I left. I ran away from home. Because I was a [Necromancer]. I did steal to earn a living—I stole, used magic and sleight of hand to earn enough gold to pay the price of admission to Wistram. All that is true.”
Ceria looked at him. Pisces looked back. He was trembling, with nerves this time. He tried to steady his voice as he usually did. And failed.
“I always tried to hint at having aristocratic roots. Or some past beyond normal. The truth is that there’s not much. I learned to fence from my father, but I hated it. I found I had talent at magic. But my father wanted me to follow in his footsteps. He wasn’t a terrible man. He was strict. But he was a [Fencer]. Not the best, but good. He owned a silver bell, a mark of skill. I stole it when I ran away. I thought I earned it; I bested him when I fled. I used magic, you see. But I never gained the [Fencer] class. I didn’t want to be one.”
“You don’t have to tell us this.”
Yvlon’s voice was sympathetic. She was looking at Pisces. He jerked, shook his head. Ksmvr was taking notes and eating with his free hands.
“Let there be truth. It’s already out. So—here is the truth. You should know.”
He looked at his friends. It was all he could give. They watched him, without judgment. Waiting. So Pisces began from the beginning.
“Once upon a time, I did want to be a [Fencer]. A [Spellsword], at least. I trained every day. You know most children don’t gain their classes until they turn fourteen? Well, it was around that time when I was about to level. I could already fight better than my father’s other students. He was proud of me. And then I met her.”
Pisces traced on the table, conjuring images from his past. He still remembered. And his team listened. Slowly, Erin walked back into the inn. And the young woman inhaled and smiled. Something was lifting. Pisces went on.
“I met a [Necromancer]. And she was beautiful. She had made a work of art. A—a perfect thing. I can’t describe it. It looked like nothing I have ever seen in this world. Not Human, for all she made it out of bone. A creature that nature never envisioned. Disturbing. Captivating. Beautiful and terrible. I spoke to her in the month before she died. And I found that I was gifted in magic. Not just magic, but necromancy. And my life changed.”
When you got down to it, it was a simple tale. Pisces didn’t even need to recite it all to Ceria and Yvlon at least. He did for Ksmvr’s sake. Living a lie, finding his first class—his obsession with the dead, trying to make something like his mentor had. Finding beauty in death. Because there was beauty there! A terrible one, but something alluring.
Death is not any more evil than life; it is what we make of it. She had told him that. And he had watched her die. But she had set him on her path.
Continuing. Beginning to rebel against his father, quarrelling. Revealing his talents as a [Mage] and attracting the approval of the Dultel’s [Lord], being tutored. One day—being found out. Defeating his father.
Fleeing. From there, crime. Learning to read lips, pickpocket. Finding other [Mages], even other [Necromancers], before and after Wistram. But always, always, thinking of himself as apart. Necromancy wasn’t a tool to be used to amass power or conjure servants, to kill. Not just that. It was more. Finding fascination with Az’kerash, the last [Necromancer] of legend who had poisoned the class in the eyes of the world.
And then—Wistram. Meeting Ceria. Finding a true friend. Until she found out who he was. Becoming an outcast once more. In desperation, trying to rob Nekhret’s tomb. Using the very corpses of Ceria’s master and the others to break the wards. Unleashing death on Wistram.
Ceria looked at Pisces as he paused. His throat was parched. He coughed, and someone appeared at their table. Erin Solstice. She handed Pisces a mug.
He took it, gratefully. Erin began to drift away, but Ceria looked at her.
“You can stay, Erin. Right, Pisces?”
Erin hesitated, and then sat down. Pisces drank, coughed, and drank again. He spoke.
“Calvaron was my friend. He never scorned me. Just kept away after everyone found out who I was. He did help me. And he died when I broke the ward on Nekhret’s tomb. It was my fault. And I regret his death. It was my fault.”
That needed to be said. Ceria nodded. She squeezed Pisces’ arm and he looked at her.
“Montressa has a reason to hunt me.”
“Cognita said it best. [Mages] have made worse mistakes and been expelled. The Council held you to the same standard. Her standard. Montressa can hate you. Hate me. But it was a mistake.”
Yvlon and Ksmvr nodded. Pisces stared past them. Erin waved a hand and they all looked at her.
“You know, she has nightmares. Almost every night, unless she uses a [Sleep] spell. Or a [Calm] spell or something. I heard it from Palt.”
“The Centaur. He told me a bit about Montressa.”
The Horns stared at Erin. The [Innkeeper] looked down and twiddled her thumbs. She spoke quietly.
“She watched someone get killed. Right in front of her. She was there. That’s why she…but I bet you knew that.”
She looked at Pisces. He nodded heavily.
“She has a reason.”
“But not enough. If you did it for a reason, that’s one thing. She hated you because you were a [Necromancer]. That’s another.”
Pisces jumped. He looked around. Someone else was listening to his story. He saw a green, light-scaled Drake, listening. Lyonette and Mrsha were standing with her. Pisces stood up unconsciously.
Selys. She looked at Pisces. Her eyes were red too. She reached out and hugged him.
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t do a thing.”
“You couldn’t have done anything.”
Selys was shaking her head. Ceria saw another Drake past her. This one had blue scales. She narrowed her eyes. Then she stood up and went over to him.
Olesm hunched furtively at his table. He was wearing a hat and a coat, but his scales were as obvious as the sun. He looked around.
“Ceria. I uh—”
Ceria stared down at him. The [Strategist] flinched. They had spoken after Lism’s campaign against Calruz. Selys hadn’t noticed him, but Erin had. She shrugged at Selys. Olesm licked his lips nervously. He opened his mouth, and looked at Ceria.
“Look, I know—I know you probably hate my guts. But I had to see if you were okay. Do you need a healing potion? I heard Yvlon’s arms weren’t good. So I bought an anti-infection poultice. It’s better than a potion. And…”
He shut up as Ceria stared down at him. The [Strategist] hung his head.
“I’m sorry too. I thought you should know this. One of the [Mages], the Minotauress, went to see Calruz.”
Ceria turned pale. Olesm raised his claws.
“Don’t worry! He’s fine. She left. I doubled the guard on the prison just to be sure. The cell can’t be pierced by magic anyways. But I—I’ll go. I just wanted—”
Ceria looked down at Olesm. She wanted to say a lot, but in the end she just grabbed his shoulder.
She towed him over to the table. Selys was sitting, and Mrsha was sitting on her lap. Pisces looked up at Ceria and Selys glared. But she let him sit.
And they listened.
“I have joined cults. I have met other [Necromancers]. Stolen. Lied. Killed rarely. And never without cause. But it’s true. I have done much that is wrong, but none more so than in Wistram.”
Pisces looked around the table. Ceria nodded heavily, but her shoulders felt lighter. She heard an exclamation near the door and looked up. Yvlon tensed.
Erin leapt to her feet. The door to Liscor had opened and five familiar faces had entered the inn. Everyone froze as Montressa du Valeross and her team entered.
“Aw, no! Take cover!”
One of the Drake regulars hunkered down behind his table. The rest of the guests began to scatter. Erin glared.
“Oh no. You’re not allowed in here! This is my inn! Lyonette, where’s that death-curry?”
She reached for her knife. Palt raised his hands hurriedly.
“Peace! We just want to speak—”
“Not to me! Get out! This is private property!”
Erin pointed towards the door. The Wistram team paused. Isceil’s eyes flashed, but Pisces got up. He slowly walked towards Montressa.
All of the [Mages] drew their weapons. Erin yanked her knife out. But it was Jelaqua who leaned out from her table.
“If anyone casts a spell, I’ll smash their heads in.”
The Wistram team paused. They lowered their weapons. Montressa stared at Pisces. Her face was pale. Pisces looked at her, and then turned. He addressed her and the room.
“I made a terrible mistake once. And because of it, people died. I never intended it. I just wanted to prove there was a place for me at Wistram. I loved it there. Before people knew who I was. I wish they had not adored my mask so much.”
“What? Is that—”
Isceil’s voice was muffled as Palt pointed a finger at him. Pisces went on. Now he was only looking at Montressa, at her eyes. Hate and fear and hurt. All mixed into one.
“I’ve done many things. I’ve hurt people. Stolen. I’ve lied. To myself most of all. And I will pay for those crimes.”
She blinked. The Wistram [Mages] stared at Pisces. Beza spoke slowly.
“Does that mean you’re surrendering?”
Ceria shot to her feet. Yvlon caught her. Pisces shook his head.
“No. I will not submit to Wistram. Nor will I go back. I was judged, by one who knew the follies of [Mages] more than any other. Rightly or wrongly—I do not wish to rot in a cell or die.”
“You deserve it.”
Montressa whispered. She shook as she stared at Pisces. He hesitated. Then he bowed his head.
“I’m sorry Montressa. I never meant it. Never forgive me. But know that I never meant it.”
He looked at her. Then he turned and walked away. Still as a statue, the Wistram [Mages] watched him go. Erin exhaled. Montressa’s expression had changed not one bit. But around Pisces, in him, she thought she saw something disappear. Something heavy. He still had guilt on him, but it wasn’t an anchor anymore.
“You did the right thing, Pisces. Thanks for telling us who you were. Someday I’ll have to tell you about my life in return.”
Yvlon raised her cup as Pisces sat down. He smiled, shakily.
“Are they still staring at me?”
“Let them. Or kick them out. They might be Wistram, but this is Liscor. And The Wandering Inn! They can’t do anything here!-”
Selys looked savagely at the [Mages]. She turned as Erin zipped past her. The young woman was conferring with Lyonette. Then Erin looked up.
She threw open a trap door and hurried into the basement. The Horns, bemused, but sensing something, heard Erin shouting.
“Hey Numbtongue! What are you doing down there? Practicing your guitar? Help me find that soap Lyonette bought! And come upstairs!”
Erin raced back up, a bunch of powder in one bucket. Lyonette was already dragging a copper tub they used for washing out. Bemused, the crowd in the inn watched.
“Here it comes. Here it comes…”
Relc rubbed his claws at one table. Klbkch drank agreeably.
“I have missed this.”
Erin was mixing up water and the powder. She put a hand in.
“Wow, that’s soapy! No wonder—okay, get a mop! Ishkr!”
The Horns turned back to each other for a moment as Ishkr grabbed a mop and Erin hurried across the floor with it, shouting. It was a familiar scene. But this time Pisces knew it was engineered. That didn’t change what it meant.
“I’m sorry for what I said.”
“I’m sorry for doubting you. I know you’ve changed. And I…should have been a better friend in Wistram. Have I ever said that to you?”
Ceria looked at Pisces. He exhaled. Yvlon looked between them.
“Well, I’m sorry I didn’t talk about my arms. But this team means everything to me. I can’t give it up. I can’t quit.”
She reached out. Ceria put her hand on top of Yvlon’s gauntlet. Pisces reached out and placed it on top of hers. Ksmvr looked around.
“I am sorry I have no significant secrets I have withheld from you all. I am sorry for being substandard.”
“Ksmvr! You’re the best of us.”
The Antinium put two hands on the pile. The Horns looked at each other. Pisces tried to pretend his eyes were only itchy.
“You realize Wistram will keep hunting me. Montressa and her team will not let this rest. I could go.”
All four hands tightened on his. His team looked at him and Yvlon shook her head.
“The Horns of Hammerad don’t abandon their own so easily.”
“You’re not getting away that easily.”
“This is the only place where I belong. Where would I be if you left, Comrade Pisces?”
The [Necromancer] stared around. He bowed slightly.
“It’s an honor.”
They smiled and his heart leapt. And then—here it came. Pisces heard a shout. A strum of music from a guitar. He looked up and saw Erin. She was running down the center of her long common room. Then she leapt, flailing her arms. The momentum carried her forwards, across the slick, soaped floor.
She slid past them on her socks. The Horns stared at Erin.
Laughing, Erin slid past them. Pisces inhaled, recalling. Ceria started laughing. The inn’s patrons stared. Then they saw a Gnoll cub sliding forwards on her belly, like a penguin. An Ashfire Bee clung to her head, fanning her wings for speed desperately.
“It’s like an ice rink! Or something! Watch out, Mrsha! Don’t smack your head!”
Erin laughed as she spun backwards. She tried to spin on one foot like a ballerina, but wiped out. The guests of her inn looked at each other. One of the Drakes nudged his companion.
“What you do you think? I think four out of ten. I expected food.”
“I’m not sliding. I could break a hip!”
The older Gnoll protested. But some of the guests were getting up. Relc was already on his feet.
“Alright! Let me try! Here I go!”
He flung himself across the floor, so fast that he was a blur as he shot past the Horns. He crashed into a wall, but rolled over, laughing. More people were getting on their feet and Erin began warning them not to copy Relc. Mrsha went spinning around on her rear, giggling silently.
Pisces chanced a glance towards the magic door. The Wistram team was still standing there. Staring. He sat back, but then saw someone rising out of the corner of his eye.
“Well, it was fun one time.”
Yvlon rose to her feet. Pisces stared at her. So did Ceria.
“Wait. Here? In front of—whoa! Tree rot!”
Yvlon spun Ceria’s chair out. The floor was so slick that the chair’s legs slid across the smooth floor. Ceria went screaming across the floor, clutching to the chair as people leapt aside. Yvlon looked at Pisces. He stared at her.
“Well? Are you with your team, Pisces?”
He looked at her. Serious Yvlon. Then Pisces shook his head and abandoned what he used to think of as his dignity. He stood up.
“Observe. Ksmvr? A push.”
He balanced on his chair with one leg. The Antinium looked at Pisces, and then heaved.
“Hey! No chairs! Whoa!”
Erin saw Pisces flash past her, balanced on one leg on the chair. Mrsha shot after him. Yvlon and Ksmvr slid past them.
“This inn is full of children!”
Beza stared at the people in the inn. She looked at the Horns, seeing Ceria point and turn the area of the inn even slicker with ice. She slid forwards, followed by Pisces, Ksmvr, Yvlon, Mrsha, Moore—
It was a moment in the inn. Just a single one, late at night. It was stupid, dangerous—and childish. The Horns knew it, but they took part anyways. They slid across the floor, chuckling. And then laughing. Not because they’d forgotten about what had happened or what the future held. But because you had to laugh. Or you’d die.
And the [Mages] from Wistram watched. It wasn’t that the Horns had forgotten them. But they refused to let them dictate their night. Montressa’s hand was tight on her staff. She watched. Isceil looked uncertainly at her, at Relc throwing Klbkch across the floor.
“They’re insane. All of them.”
Ulinde looked at the Halfseekers, heartbroken. At last, Beza turned.
“Come on. Let’s go.”
She turned. The team moved back through the door in silence. They stood outside as Beza closed the door. The laughter from the inn behind them was replaced by silence. The night. Montressa shivered. She looked at the others. Palt, glancing over his shoulder, Isceil, his tail lashing. Beza’s folded arms. Ulinde’s miserable face.
“This isn’t over. We’re capturing both Erin and him. We’ll get them. We’ll—”
Her voice broke. She turned. She looked back at the door. In the distance, past Liscor’s walls, an inn was lit up on a hilltop. And if you listened, you might still hear the laughter. For a moment Montressa remembered a laughing half-Elf and a young man. And her heart hurt. Then she shook her head.
She wiped at her eyes and walked away.
Bird sat on a little tower on top of the inn. The roof was still not completed and the inn’s projected expansions were unfinished. As was his tower. Erin had promised him a new one. But since it wasn’t there yet, he’d built his own.
The Worker happily sat in the small circle of nailed-up boards and stared up at the night sky. The dark-birds were out. They had forgotten he was here. He could hear them squeaking. Erin called them bats. He called them dark-birds. The Worker watched them flit about.
Below, in the inn, he could hear laughter. Partying. Twice now, Erin had come up to ask if he wanted to come down. But he had refused. He sat up in his tower and hummed.
“La, la. I am back. I am home. And home is where I roam. Home. Not alone. I am back and I am happy. For I am Bird and Bird is me.”
He raised his bow and an arrow. With a twang he released and a bat landed on the roof, skewered. The bats above him fled as Bird began loosing arrows.
And lo, the age of peace upon those with wings ended, and the time of great death returned. The hunter of the skies had returned and all who flew trembled at his presence. Bird raised his mandibles.
“It is good to be home.”