“Tell me something, Ylawes. You’re a [Knight], right? In that case, don’t you have an order or society or whatever? They’re all over Terandria, but you’ve never talked about one.”
Dawil twisted on his saddle to address Ylawes. The Dwarf peered at his friend, leader, and junior in years. Ylawes looked up, caught with a mouthful of sandwich.
He was eating a local delicacy. That was to say, toasted baguette-like bread packed with all manner of vegetables—succulent, like roasted butternut squash lathered with actual butter, finely chopped green onions, carrots—all of which were generally roasted or fried in fats. This was because at no point had anyone seen fit to add meat to the bagel, instead trusting to the natural goodness of the warming meal.
It was more like eating a pocket-dinner than your typical sandwich. Dawil watched Ylawes chew and swallow. After a moment, the [Knight] wiped at his mouth; he’d taken off his gauntlets to eat. Then he looked at Dawil.
“Your order, lad! Where’s your knighthood order?”
Ylawes gave Dawil a long and blank look as he fumbled with his water flask. He uncorked it, took a swig, and wiped at his clean shaven jaw.
“I don’t have one. It’s not mandatory, you know.”
“Really? I thought it was.”
The [Knight] gave Dawil a pained look. The two were riding horses. Ylawes rode a proud charger, a properly-trained stallion suited to combat. It wasn’t his personal mount; he’d purchased it at the last town they’d been through from one of the ubiquitous stables that crossed Izril. It was a lucky find; some other [Rider] must have been forced to sell their horse and Ylawes had paid in gold at once to have it.
Dawil was riding a pony. It was a good pony, suited to long-distance travel. Plus, ponies were good for their endurance, intelligence, and they needed less expensive feed than some horses. Plus, they were short which was good because Dawil, as a Dwarf, was short. Not that short; he was still over five feet tall, but it did cut a comical sight, him riding next to Ylawes much higher up.
The [Knight] frowned down at Dawil. Dawil frowned at Ylawes’ lunch. The [Knight] paused.
“Dawil, you’ve known me for what, six years?”
The Dwarf scratched his beard.
“And not once have I ever mentioned my order. Or returned there. And you’ve been to my home. You’ve met my family. And insulted my parents.”
“That was an accident. It could have been a compliment.”
“Asking if my father was taking a new wife is not…”
“Your mother was pleased.”
Ylawes shook his head.
“My point is that not once have I ever mentioned an order.”
“So doesn’t that answer the question already?”
Dawil gave Ylawes a long look. At last, the Dwarf shrugged.
“Okay, why don’t you have an order?”
The [Knight] sighed. But it was a clear day, the road was long and slightly overgrown, and they were done with their latest mission. Ylawes still had a bit of rust on his armor and he frowned at it. He took another bite of his sandwich as he absently tried to find a cloth with his other hand.
They’d been fighting Metalbite Slimes. Not good for adventurers carrying armor, but the slimes had been multiplying in an iron ore mine and the nearby village was desperate to have them gone so their [Miners] could get back to work. And the Silver Swords championed causes like that, even at a cost.
Ylawes was tired from fighting with a quarterstaff—he wasn’t about to risk his sword against Metalbite Slimes, enchanted or not! He rubbed at his armor with the cloth, praying the enchanted metal hadn’t lost too much of its enchantment or metal.
“It’s just not necessary, Dawil. I’ll grant you that I could have joined an order, but I never needed to.”
“What, they let you become a [Knight] just cause you walked up with fancy armor and a shield?”
The Dwarf laughed. He was hunting for his lunch. His pony looked up as he fished a carrot from his saddlebags. The Dwarf stared at it and fed it to the pony. Ylawes shook his head.
“I’m a [Lord]’s son. I practiced with weapons growing up, I have my own vow to defend people where I can—I fulfilled the spirit of my class. I never needed an order. With that said, I’ve had offers.”
“I don’t doubt it. Knight orders were always recruiting back in Terandria. Send your child to become a [Knight]! If they’re talented. And noble. Or just rich.”
Dawil snorted. He came up with a sandwich loaded with bacon. Ylawes eyed it. The Dwarf saw the look.
“My sandwich. You can eat your plants.”
“I don’t want it. But did you have to badger the poor village to kill a pig for you?”
“I paid. And they were only happy to do it! We rid their mines of slimes, Ylawes.”
“They had perfectly good sandwiches. This is delicious.”
Dawil shook his head.
“It’s all vegetables. That’s not a sandwich. That’s bread on a salad. This is a sandwich, like those ones Erin used to make. Truegold and sparksilver, I miss that inn! Those hamburgers and steaks whenever I wanted it?”
He sighed longingly and took a huge bite of his sandwich. Ylawes shook his head.
“We’ll visit again. Maybe if our road takes us towards Celum.”
“Yeah. So you can bother your sister again.”
The armored man frowned at his friend.
“I like to think we did more than that, Dawil. We fought monsters, nearly saw a war—and helped Yvlon and her team.”
“And ate like [Kings]!”
The Dwarf sighed. He nudged his pony back towards the road.
“So, about orders…you’ve never thought of joining one?”
Ylawes raised his brows.
“Should I? The downsides largely outweigh the benefits to me. There are a few on Izril, but you’d know more, coming from Terandria.”
“True! I guess they do tie you down, mostly. How many’re on Izril worth talking about?”
“The Knights of the Petal, the Order of Clairei Fields, the Durengal—not many.”
“Huh. We’ve got like…a hundred.”
Ylawes nearly choked on his sandwich. He coughed and took a drink of water.
“What? It’s a big continent. Why does Izril have so few?”
“Because we don’t live in the era of [Kings] and castles. Izril doesn’t have kingdoms either. Humans may have come to Izril thousands of years ago, but we’re still new to the continent. Well, a bit. Besides, we trust to adventurers and the local nobility to keep the peace. In that sense, they’re probably better here than on Terandria.”
“True. That’s why I moved to Izril. Terandria you have to compete with the Hunter’s Guild and those idiots wearing armor.”
“Of which I’m one.”
“That’s what I said. Anyways, you should give it a thought, Ylawes. Some of the orders have benefits.”
The [Knight] paused.
“Well, have you heard of the Irriven Redbloods?”
“No. Why are they called Redbloods? Wouldn’t it be ‘Bluebloods’?”
The Dwarf grinned as he slurped up some bacon.
“Nope. Redbloods. It’s because they’re made totally of non-noble applicants. In fact, that’s why they formed. A knighthood that provides arms and armor for their members and holds themselves to the highest standard of excellence. Lots of orders have perks. Ancient weapons, support in battle, even men-at-arms to fight with you. If you were one of the big orders like the Redbloods, you could sleep some places free, earn items from your order for completing grand deeds—”
“Except that I’m not in Terandria, I’m actually noble, and knighthood orders demand loyalty and don’t usually let their members roam around freely.”
“True. But some let their members go on crusades. I’m just asking! Ever fancy taking a bit of paint to that armor and joining the Rose Knights?”
Ylawes kept eating.
“No. What’s brought this on, Dawil?”
The Dwarf scratched his head. He’d taken his helmet off and his hair was still a bit damp from the sweat of combat.
“Nostalgia, I guess. It’s been a long time since I went home. I was wondering if you’d ever wanted to visit Terandria.”
The young man blinked, caught off-guard by the suggestion.
The Dwarf nodded complacently.
“Well, we’re a team, aren’t we? I can’t just run off for a few months and leave you with that half-wit. And Terandria’s safer, but there’s always work for Gold-rank teams. We could visit the mountains, maybe buy some new weapons, even visit said half-wit’s home while we’re at it…”
Ylawes winced and glanced ahead. After a moment he paused.
“I’d never thought of it. Certainly, it’s an option…”
“Think on it. I like Izril, but I want to be back on Terandria in the next, oh, five years.”
Ylawes smiled faintly.
“You have my word on that. But that’s still a roundabout way of asking me, with knighthood orders as the premise.”
The Dwarf shrugged.
“Oh, I just like talking about them. They’re like nose hairs, you know? Each one different and in a different place.”
“Well, some are interesting! They all do different things and while some are for one kingdom, a lot are autonomous. [Knights], they have their own culture. They duel each other, get into fights—totally different from Izril! For you, it’s a class, but over there it’s culture.”
Ylawes finished his sandwich and looked at Dawil.
“Really? I’ve met other [Knights], including some of the Order of the Petal, but as you say, it’s just a class here. What happens in Terandria?”
“All kinds of things! Some knighthood orders start wars, or go on grand quests! Surely you’ve heard about the time the Order of the Thirsting Veil quested for thirty years to retrieve the Scepter of Krakens? Or—how about the Order of Seasons participating in Daquin’s game with the Titan of Baleros?”
“I heard about that last one. But as I say, you only hear some stories about other continents. What’s this about the—”
Ylawes and Dawil were chatting animatedly now, and as a consequence, riding a bit faster. Their horse and pony caught up to the rider ahead. She turned in the saddle and the third member of the Silver Swords, who had been listening to their chatter with half a pointed ear, turned her delicate features at last and glared.
“Would you two mind? I’m on a call right now!”
The two other Gold-rank adventurers slowed and gave Falene abashed looks. Well, Ylawes did. Dawil just rolled his eyes.
“You’ve been talking for the last half-hour, Falene Pointyears. Why can’t we talk?”
“Be silent I’m…no, Bashea, I do apologize. My teammates are speaking. Males. And adventurers. Quite ill-mannered. Do forgive me.”
The half-Elf [Battlemage] flicked her fingers at the [Axe Champion] and [Knight]. Ylawes sensed the silence engulf Falene and her horse. He looked at Dawil. The Dwarf cupped his hands to his mouth.
“If you could do that before, why didn’t you, half-Elf? I’ll tell you. It’s because you’re nosy!”
His shout startled several grouse nesting ahead of them. It was so loud in fact, that it must have been audible even through Falene’s weak silence spell. She turned and glared at him. Dawil settled back happily. Ylawes gave him a look.
“Do you have to bother Falene at every opportunity, Dawil?”
“Yes. Because she’ll keep her nose so high in the air she’ll end up smacking her head against her horse’s arse if I don’t.”
Ylawes had to snort and looked away quickly. Dawil nodded. But then Ylawes turned back.
“Still. She’s on an important call.”
Dawil looked at Ylawes sidelong. After a moment he reached out and patted Ylawes’ knee.
“There’s nothing my words can do to ruin whatever Falene’s asking about, lad.”
“Don’t call me lad. You’re thirty. By Dwarf standards, you’re younger than me.”
The Dwarf ignored that.
“The trouble’s dealt with. Miss Springwalker informed us after they got rid of those Wistram [Mages]. Plus, she’s not the one they’re after. Your sister, I mean. She’s fine.”
Ylawes clenched one fist.
“It seems like the Horns can’t catch a break. I understand going after Pisces for…his [Necromancy], but attacking an adventuring team in Liscor? That’s criminal! And my sister? If we weren’t so far away—”
“That’s Wistram for you. Don’t worry about it. Yvlon’s fine.”
“Her arms are still damaged. Ceria didn’t say anything about them.”
Dawil was a good liar. Ylawes made his horse trot a bit faster, restless. The Dwarf opened his mouth, and then closed it.
For a while, the Silver Swords rode in silence. The Human and Dwarf watched Falene speaking in her bubble of silence until at last she finished. They knew she was done because she took a finger from her temple and straightened; beyond that, there was no flicker of visible magic. The sound of Falene’s mare walking abruptly returned to the world as the half-Elf released her spell.
Falene was scowling, a rare open expression of displeasure when she finished speaking with her contact in Wistram. She looked at her companions and shook her head.
“I’ve just completed my discussion with my fellow [Mages] in Wistram, Ylawes.”
“And? Can you reverse this bounty on Pisces? Or do something about this team stalking the Horns of Hammerad?”
The [Knight] leaned over his saddle. Falene just pursed her lips.
“No. And, apparently, my influence isn’t even enough to merit a conversation with someone higher-placed in the Revivalist faction, let alone an Archmage!”
Dawil and Ylawes exchanged a glance. The Revivalist name was foreign to them, but they did know the basics about Wistram.
“What’s the issue?”
“Aside from the fact that Wistram was very reticent to give me any details about Ceria and Pisces until now? Oh, simply a blanket ban on any information regarding this Wistram team! Bashea—my friend—assured me that they were acting in Wistram’s best interests, but she wouldn’t tell me why Wistram had sent five full [Mages] all the way to Liscor! In fact, she kept hinting that I should return to the academy to learn more!”
The half-Elf, always dignified, or at least, invested in keeping up that bit of half-Elven myth, flicked her hands angrily. If it was Ceria, she would have spat or cursed. Dawil raised his brows.
“This Bashea doesn’t trust your spell, Falene?”
“She should! It’s our personal [Message] variant. She and I studied together! We were roommates! She’d tell me anything—but something has her silent. I asked about recent events in Wistram and she kept telling me to come back. Something’s happened in Wistram.”
“Does it involve my sister and her team?”
Ylawes was worried. Falene sighed, turning to him.
“I doubt it, Ylawes. But it frustrates me. Perhaps I should go back. Six years is a short time for so much to change in the academy, but…well, perhaps it would be a worthwhile trip. If you plan on going to Terandria, that is.”
“Aha! I knew you were listening in!”
Falene flicked her fingers and shot a bit of colored smoke into Dawil’s face. He swore and waved it away. Ylawes looked at his two friends.
“Maybe. But it’s my sister I’m worried about, Falene. Ceria contacted you.”
“Yes. By Mage’s Guild, so I cannot even send her a [Message] back directly. She really must learn that spell. But then, she is only a third-year student. Something else Wistram did not tell me the first time!”
Falene gritted her teeth. then she sighed again.
“I’m afraid I cannot help you, Ylawes. Or her. The faction backing Montressa du Valeross’ team is the Revivalists, and they’re at odds with my faction, the Centrists. I put in a few strongly-worded remarks, but I’m afraid that won’t change anything.”
She looked frustrated, and not even Dawil made a crack this time. Ylawes clenched his jaw, helpless. Falene paused. And a slight smile played over her lips. Dawil frowned.
“If it’s any consolation, I might have been unable to help, but apparently there is someone in Wistram who took objection to the treatment of Ceria and Pisces. Amusingly—it had little to do with them being hunted and all with the terminology of the bounty on Pisces.”
Ylawes tried to recall the bounty Yvlon had recited. It had certainly cast Pisces in a bad light, but he couldn’t think what had upset this [Mage] in Wistram. Falene tapped her lips, smiling.
“Have I ever mentioned the…keeper of Wistram? You know that we employ Golems for many menial tasks.”
“Sure. You kept mentioning how one of them would be better than me.”
Dawil grunted. Falene nodded.
“Well, the leader of these Golems is…sentient. And disturbing as she may be, she is invaluable to Wistram. A very troubling figure, but one even the Archmages must treat against. Her name is Cognita.”
“A Golem has a name? And it thinks?”
Ylawes had heard of that, vaguely. Falene nodded. She hesitated, and then smiled.
“The nuance is hard to grasp as I was not there for the incident, but I gather that while Pisces Jealnet and Ceria Springwalker were exiled, Cognita granted them the authority to call themselves graduates. However, the bounty on the two claims both are not, as did Wistram’s team.”
Dawil and Ylawes looked blankly at Falene. Neither one understood the half-Elf’s amusement.
The half-Elf looked from face to face and sighed at her companions.
“So. She apparently objected to the inaccuracy.”
“So? Aren’t the Revivalists led by an Archmage? One of the lizards, right?”
“Archmage Nailihuaile. Yes. And I understand Cognita objected to her. Personally.”
Ylawes began to catch onto Falene’s smile. He looked at the half-Elf.
“What, exactly, did this Golem—this Cognita’s objection entail?”
Aaron Vanwell, known to some as Blackmage, guest of Wistram Academy—first guest that was, since other Earthers had been found and returned to the academy—was working on a new construction. A battery, fueled by both magic and the science of his world.
Magitech. He was using crystals formed of magicore exposed to almost pure mana, worth a fortune, while trying to combine it with the principles of a lead-acid battery, which he’d engineered with some of the other Earther’s help. The breakthrough was one that surpassed both individual technologies.
With the ingenious magic of Wistram’s [Mages] and the superior—vastly superior energy-hoarding qualities of materials from this world, they’d combined it with the technology of batteries, the understanding of electrical polarity to create something that could charge lightning spells.
They’d created an artifact, in fact. Something so powerful even the Archmage who’d helped Aaron make the orb, the Lamia Archmage Nailihuaile, had been impressed. Even given the expensive costs of making so many prototypes!
And that wasn’t all. With more people from Earth, Aaron’s world had opened up. He was no longer a single captive, but one of many. He was working on a plan. An idea to combine more Earth-technology with this world’s resources. He carefully, carefully, began to insert the new battery he’d made—miniaturized from the orb that Montressa had taken for field testing—into the armored glove painted red and gold of course—
The door slammed open. Aaron jumped and the battery went flying. Archmage Nailihuaile, also known as Naili, caught the sealed battery in the air with a wave of her staff. Then she looked at Aaron.
“Hey! I’m gonna borrow your bed, alright?”
“What? Archmage Naili? Is everything ok—”
Aaron blinked as the Lamia, her scales translucent in places, glowing with accumulated magic, slithered over to his bed. In one hand she carried the Serkonian Lance, treasure of the Lizardfolk, which could create a magical field where she could effortlessly link spells, change the very nature of mana in the air, and also fire devastating lances of magic, hence the name. He’d also seen her use it as a backscratcher.
Now Naili tossed the staff under the bed and bend over, wriggling under Aaron’s bed. He stared at her tail.
“I’m not here! Shh! If she knocks, I’m not here!”
The Lamia waved frantically at Aaron. Bemused, he turned towards the door. The Lamia Archmage was by far the most relaxed of the four Archmages in Wistram. Feor and Viltach were older and far more…stately. Naili by contrast was lighthearted, joking that just because she’d grown older and become an Archmage, it didn’t mean she had to be stuck-up and crotchety. It made her popular. By contrast, the fourth Archmage, Amerys—
Someone knocked hard on the door. Aaron jumped and saw the bed jump. He looked at the door and heard a voice.
Deep, smooth. Without hesitation or flaw, like the owner.
“Archmage Nailihuaile. I would speak to you. Aaron Vanwell, will you open the door please?”
Cognita. Aaron looked at his bed. He hesitated. The Truestone Golem, warden or perhaps caretaker of Wistram, one of the most powerful constructs ever built, was standing outside his door. He was fascinated by her. And a little frightened.
He knew what the final test of Zelkyr was. And he had beheld the four guardian Golems, of which Cognita was fifth and most deadly. Even so, he raised his voice.
“Um…she’s not here, Cognita—”
“Aaron Vanwell. Open this door.”
The young man paused. He slowly got up. From under the bed, Naili shouted.
“I’m busy, Cognita! I told you—”
“This matter will not wait. Open the door, Aaron Vanwell. I would dislike damaging it.”
The [Mage]/[Engineer] hesitated. Naili shouted.
“I’m really busy! I’m uh, having sex!”
Aaron stared at the bed. There was silence from outside. And then Cognita punched a hole through the door.
It wasn’t like a movie, where the door exploded outwards. Cognita hit the door so fast and hard her fist went through the wood, sending only a small pocket of wood flying across the room. Aaron jumped—and Cognita’s arm twisted. It gently unlocked the door and pulled it open.
“I didn’t even lock the door!”
Aaron protested. Cognita slowly moved the door open.
“It was enchanted to stay closed unless the lock was turned, Aaron Vanwell. It will be replaced. Please step aside.”
She walked into the room. Aaron did exactly what Cognita said; she had a way with words. Or perhaps it was simply her presence.
To behold Cognita was to see art come to life. Eight feet tall, carved of pure white stone, finer than even marble, Cognita looked like the height of perfection, a statue of a woman made beautiful beyond belief. And yet, she had a quality that went beyond even statues, for she was alive. The folds of her dress, sculpted of stone, moved as she walked, and the stone of her body moved like flesh and cloth.
She was perfection, made by an [Archmage] thought dead to the world. Archmage Zelkyr, who had ordered her to protect Wistram and test every [Mage] who might ascend to the higher floors where he had once gone and never come back from. Cognita had held Wistram thusly for over a century. She was beautiful.
And terrifying. Especially to the [Mages] who knew her test that no one had ever undertaken and lived. She walked towards Aaron’s bed without hesitation.
“Archmage Nailihuaile. We must speak. Now.”
Reluctantly, a scaled hand poked out of the bed. Aaron saw Naili drag herself out, grumbling. She slithered upright, staff in hand and looked at Cognita warily.
“I was busy.”
“This will not wait. As I stated when you fled—”
“I had to go to the bathroom?”
“—when you fled, Pisces and Ceria Springwalker are graduates of Wistram. [Mages] of Wistram. To claim otherwise goes against the authority placed in me. I gave them that right.”
Naili twisted her staff in her hands. She looked at Aaron and he knew he should leave. He backed towards the door, but slowly. He wanted to watch. Secrets were currency in Wistram and this was probably big.
“Montressa and her team made a mistake.”
“Her team attacked the two [Mages] on the pretext that they were not [Mages] of Wistram. That is an error, as is the bounty placed on Pisces. It must be rectified.”
The Lamia looked restless, glancing towards the door and curling up her long, serpentine lower half.
“Really? But that’s so much work. You know, we’d have to send a correction, make a tiny update, and after Tiqr, that’s really not—”
“Archmage Nailihuaile. That was not a request.”
Aaron froze. Cognita’s voice was almost always perfectly level, without the variance in tone that came to people with lungs or mortality. But the calm threat that appeared in her tone was anything but soothing.
He saw Naili look up. Aaron expected the Archmage to…well, he didn’t know. Protest, or deflect. But he saw Naili’s expression change as Cognita looked down at her. Her carefree smile vanished and she stood a bit taller, though she was far shorter than Cognita.
“It was an accident, Cognita. Do you want me to pull Montressa’s team as well?”
“Their pretense is false.”
The Star Lamia shook her head.
“Only the part about them not being Wistram’s [Mages]. They were expelled, after all. And Pisces committed a serious crime.”
“Is Wistram now accustomed to changing sentences passed?”
Cognita’s voice was ominous. Naili looked up at her and bared her teeth.
“No. But Pisces Jealnet committed more crimes since leaving Wistram. Which gives us every right to apprehend him.”
The Truestone Golem looked down at Naili and Aaron swore he saw her raise an eyebrow a fraction. She did not look pleased, but her tone was neutral again.
“That is your reasoning. Which you are entitled too, Archmage. However, Mage Pisces and Mage Ceria are graduates of Wistram. So I have named them. I would request that detail be changed.”
“You want me to make a correction and send it to every Mage’s Guild in Izril? Over something so trivial?”
Cognita nodded once.
“Wistram’s Archmages are within their rights to act how they please in almost any situation. This is not one of them. I am a servant of the academy. And its keeper.”
Archmage Nailihuaile paused. She looked up at Cognita for a long moment. Aaron had seen Naili annoyed, laughing—petty and childish too. But in this moment, she reminded him of Feor, whose faction Aaron had managed to evade. Feor’s faction had custody of some of the Earthers. It wasn’t that Aaron couldn’t talk with them, but it was…complicated.
Naili’s voice grew softer. She looked up at Cognita and then slowly tightened her grip on her staff.
“Out of curiosity, what would happen if I refused to honor your request?”
Aaron saw her eyes narrow. The serpentine pupils contracted and Naili’s posture sunk, as if she was coiling up to strike. Not like a Drake with fury and rage from their distant ancestors. This was cold and calculating. Dangerous.
Cognita stared down at Naili. She did not react, but her tone grew a touch deeper.
“I would be forced to insist. If you wish to voice your objections, Archmage, please do so.”
For a second, the air in the room pressurized. Aaron, sensitive to magic, felt a wave coming off Naili that turned his knees to jelly. For a moment, the Archmage didn’t look playful at all, or afraid. She looked up at Cognita and the Truestone Golem stared back. Waiting.
And then—Naili threw up her arms, laughing.
The magical presence vanished. Aaron stared as she slithered past Cognita, sighing.
“So scary! Jeeze, if I have to do it, I have to do it. Alright, fine. Feor’s going to be so mad at me. Viltach too…but I guess we all know who’s really in charge of Wistram, huh?”
She glanced over her shoulder at Cognita. The Truestone Golem ignored the jibe. She walked after Aaron.
“The [Mages] of Wistram control the academy’s will, Archmage Nailihuaile. I am simply the academy’s protector and test. I object to one issue. The right of Wistram to imprison its own [Mages] is their prerogative. I only ask for consistency in Wistram’s rulings. And acknowledgement of truth.”
Aaron heard a light laugh from Naili as she waved her staff at his door. The wood flew back into place, resealing the door. She turned to Cognita with a big smile.
“You say that, Cognita, but sometimes I wonder if you don’t have those fingers on the scales. All our scales. Admit it, don’t you change what happens sometimes? Why are you working so hard for Pisces? Aren’t you a teensy bit biased?”
This time, Aaron saw Cognita react. The barb must have landed or something else displeased the Golem. Because Cognita’s marble eyes narrowed just a fraction.
“I would appreciate my neutrality remaining unquestioned, Archmage Nailihuaile. That the Golems of Wistram take no sides beyond the covenant we have been given by our creator is to all faction’s advantages. Insinuations to the contrary are troubling.”
“Oh yeah? But how could you prove that I’m wrong?”
Cognita looked down at Naili. After a moment, she spoke.
“If I truly wished to change Wistram as I pleased, I would listen to Archmage Amerys’ requests to free her. I respect the will of the academy. Archmage, please do not test my respect.”
Naili froze. She looked back up at Cognita. Then she silently opened the door and slithered out. Aaron let out a huge breath as he watched Naili go. Cognita turned and nodded to him.
“Aaron Vanwell. I apologize for the disruption.”
“Uh—no problem, Cognita.”
The young man watched Cognita go. Breathless, he stared at her back. Then, slowly, he stared down at the unfinished gauntlet on the table and the battery. He hesitated.
There were four Archmages in Wistram at this moment. Not three. Aaron knew it because he was in Naili’s personal circle in a sense. A guest in one, but privy to knowledge. He understood the significance of this knowledge, even if what he understood was how much he didn’t understand. But he knew Archmage Amerys was present.
He’d met her just once. And she was no Cognita, no ageless Golem who guarded the secrets of magic with death as the consequence of failure. She was just a Human woman. But he had met her.
She scared him greatly. He wondered if a magictech gauntlet, the technology he was developing, would work in the cell where she was being kept. It was just a thought. But Blackmage, Aaron Vanwell, knew he was a prisoner.
Him and all the others. There were eighteen so far. And nine more found and on the way. They were prisoners. Or guests. Well-treated. But he hadn’t been allowed to leave the island. In truth, he wasn’t sure if Naili and her faction were friends. If he agreed with everything Wistram was doing; he and the other Earthers were guests. There had been talk of letting them try to be adventurers, or visit other places—with supervision.
He wondered about the King of Destruction. And whether lightning worked on Cognita. Naili said it didn’t. But she was also asking him to build a lot more than a lightning orb. A projector, for one, so everyone could watch movies. She was addicted to the movies on the Earther’s devices. But she also wanted more. So did Feor, Viltach—all the factions that had ‘claimed’ an Earther.
What was one person to do amid it all? Wait. Learn. And listen. Slowly, Aaron bent over the glove and inserted the battery. He stared at it. And for a moment, all the thoughts that weighted on him vanished. The glove was ready. Contained in one palm was harnessed lightning. Enough to fuel at least one or two spells.
Aaron stared at the bright metal. The power emanating from the magical battery. Then he put it on. He flexed the glove, lifted it up and lightning crackled, arcing through the air where he’d created a magical path for it to follow. He took a deep breath. Intrigue, danger. But this world was still so cool. He looked around, but no one was there.
And you had to say it once.
“I am Iron M—”
The actions in one location rippled to the next. In a way few could ever understand, small actions in one place could affect grand narratives in others. Sometimes, a grain of sand could change the course of history.
Other times it couldn’t. It was just a grain of sand. Actually, in most cases grains of sand didn’t affect much, unless they flew into the eye of conquerors at just the right moment to make him blink and fail to parry a blow, or the edge of the cliff. You couldn’t tell. That was the point. Who knew what grand schemes or petty conflicts would change everything? That was the Butterfly Effect, the terrible truth of causality and the whims of fate.
While running, Ryoka ate a bug. It had nothing to do with anything, except that she’d been asking the wind to blow in her face to cool her down and it had included a bug.
It was a bad bug, though. Ryoka knew the moment it hit her throat that it was alive, big, and wanted out. She paused, gagging, and felt it squirming, fluttering its wings as the moisture in her throat caught it. It scratched at her as she clawed at her mouth and then her waist for water.
By her side, Ryoka’s companion looked at her, worried as the City Runner danced about, half-screaming. The first mouthful of water nearly washed the bug further down Ryoka’s throat and only pissed it off. Ryoka spat, gagging. And swallowed it.
She clutched her stomach. But it was too late. The bug went down and it went down hard. Ryoka debated putting her finger down her throat and making it come back up, but she decided to drink the bug down.
It felt like it fought the entire way to her stomach. Ryoka gulped and gulped as her travel buddy watched her worriedly. At last, Ryoka exhaled, and spat so the awful taste came out of her mouth. It came out with a wing. Ryoka stared at it. Her friend licked her lips and opened her mouth.
“Don’t say a word.”
Ryoka glared at her companion. She got no response, which relieved her. She began running again. After a moment, her companion followed.
That was the most eventful thing that had happened today. Ryoka’s pace slowed as she reached a town, or maybe a city in the distance. She’d come far. And been running for days. She peered ahead and pointed to the gates.
“Looks like this might be a good place for the night. What do you think?”
Her running partner regarded the town. Ryoka waited for a response.
“Fine. I guess it’s good enough.”
She ran towards the gates. Silently, her companion followed. It was an amiable silence, though, and Ryoka had gotten used to it.
It had been a week since Riverfarm. Since Belavierr. Since…everything. Ryoka Griffin still felt like she’d walked out of a fairytale. And why not?
A week ago, she’d met [Witches]. She’d seen a monster. Or perhaps the most Human woman she’d ever met. She’d seen tragedy, met an old friend. Outrun fire.
And made some friends. Given that she’d nearly died several times, been burned terribly, and also added to her list of regrets that would haunt her until her death, Ryoka considered it was a pretty fair trade.
Friends were nice. And perhaps one ran with her now. Ryoka wasn’t decided. It wasn’t that she was biased about other species, but…well…some people could be annoying.
The first inn Ryoka came to was called Salubrious Sleephome. Tickled by either the word or the terrible name, Ryoka went in. To her surprise, she found it was a nice inn, and the [Innkeeper] was on the floor with his staff, who actually had a decent crowd.
Travellers, mainly. The town she’d come to lay to the north of Invrisil and a bit west—it was a good trading route for some trips and so adventurers, [Traders], and so on were stopping here for the night. The [Innkeeper] was a tall man, who greeted the runner girl and her friend warily.
“Miss Runner! I’m delighted to have a City Runner as a guest. But your friend…”
“She’ll mind her manners. I can tie her up if you want.”
Ryoka kept a straight face as her companion expressed pure disdain for the idea. The [Innkeeper] hesitated.
“Well, I think it’ll be fine. If she behaves herself. You two want to eat together? And a room for the night, or are you still running?”
The young Asian woman grimaced.
“I’m done for the day. And I’ll take one room; we’ll share it. What’s on the menu, can I ask? And uh—can I also ask about the name of this inn? The ‘Salubrious Sleephome’? I haven’t seen someone use the word ‘salubrious’…ever.”
The man beamed at her.
“You know the meaning? Pride and fortune, I thought I’d never meet anyone who was so well-read!”
Ryoka ducked her head. She would have deflected or maybe not even engaged a few months ago, but now she smiled.
“I like books.”
“As do I. I’m actually something of a [Reader]. Between you and me, it’s my passion.”
“Really? There’s a [Reader] class?”
The man winked at her, and suddenly they were friends. He escorted Ryoka and her friend to a table near a roaring fire; she was glad of it, despite the heat.
“Only naturally! [Writers] can’t exist without [Readers]. And before you ask, yes, there are benefits to the class! Mainly centered around reading, but the knowledge of books can be surprisingly powerful! I have one Skill that allows me to translate things I’ve read into semi-competent actions!”
“What? You have to be kidding!”
The man’s eyes danced.
“I became an [Innkeeper] after reading a book on cooking. Thirty one, actually! I can’t copy the techniques perfectly, but I can create…oh, a quarter’s worth of the actual thing? And with practice, that’s enough to allow me to cook a great deal! And that’s not all! Fencing, magic—it’s all more accessible thanks to my class! But I will own, it’s not a useful class as say, a pure [Warrior] or [Mage]. But I can live in the pages. They come to life! Have you ever wanted to stand on a battlefield?”
“I did once. But I’ve seen the real thing and I can’t say I want to now.”
The [Innkeeper], who was named Quin, paused for a moment and grew serious.
“Ah, that is true. But a battlefield in stories is different. Incredible to behold! Or—sometimes—a terrible mess. Confused and as impressive as watching children flailing around with sticks. It all depends on the quality of the [Writer], you see. Good writers make the story come to life. Bad ones…but look at me drone on! If you’d like to take a book, I offer them to my guests so long as you treat them with respect.”
Ryoka smiled at Quin. He nodded, and opened his mouth to continue. But at that moment, Ryoka’s companion whined loudly. Runner and [Innkeeper] looked down.
“Sorry about my friend. Shush, you!”
“No, no. I’m being a poor host. Miss…Ryoka, was it? My kitchen is open to you! And I have a large menu! I may be a poorer [Cook], but I can make any dish I’ve read about and I’ve taught my [Cook] all the good recipes. Will you have a menu?”
“I will. Oh—”
Ryoka blinked at the vast menu, and the carefully hand-written words on each. She noted only some of the guests were bothering with the menu; reading might be somewhat universal to an extent, but few took to it like Quin. She eyed the page and pointed.
“What’s the Eldishfish and glossberry sauce taste like?”
“Served with some potatoes and a bit of whatever greens we have on hand this time of year. Eldishfish is rather tough, but flavorful. Glossberries? Vibrant, tart—decently sweet. A good combination.”
“I’ll have that, then.”
“And your companion, Miss Runner?”
Quin might have been the [Innkeeper], but he had a [Cook] and a staff, although he was waiting on Ryoka himself.
“She’s fine. Just give her water and food. Some dried meat? Don’t be worried about her biting.”
Ryoka glanced down at her companion. Said companion looked up at her and whoofed. Quin nodded.
“One moment! I simply must come back and talk to you about books!”
He bustled off and Ryoka stared down at her companion. It was not Charlay. Although her friend did have four legs. And a tail. And she was certainly as fast as Charlay, probably. But Ryoka had to admit, there were some differences. For one, Charlay was a Centaur. And her travel buddy was…
A dog. She was panting and sitting up. Well-trained too; despite the smells in the air, she only sniffed a few times. The wary [Servers] and other guests eyed her, but they were reassured when the dog made no move towards them after a few minutes.
Which was good too, because the dog was huge. Ryoka had seen big dogs before, the ones that looked like they hadn’t forgotten their wolf ancestors. This dog was a match for any one of them. Her tail thwapping the floor and her happy panting on Ryoka’s leg made the runner girl smile despite herself.
“Stop drooling. I’ll feed you. Do you need to go to the bathroom? Toilet? Hm, Mousey?”
Mousey the dog looked up at her. Ryoka realized the [Server] bringing a bowl of water and cup was staring and sat upright, blushing hard. She’d grown used to talking to Mousey on the road.
How Ryoka Griffin had come to be running with a dog was a long story. Or a short one. It wasn’t that long, but context dictated that anyone Ryoka Griffin told the story to be told about her hatred for dogs.
Well, not hatred. She didn’t want them killed, but she didn’t like dogs. Dogs were fast. They bit. And she had used to hate any owner who kept their dog off a leash like anyone who ever ran, let alone ran barefoot did. Dogs could be dangerous.
Ryoka didn’t like dogs. She’d never wanted one. Cats, now cats Ryoka liked. She’d had cats. But, well…
In the days since leaving Riverfarm, Ryoka had run back. Back towards Reizmelt. Away from Laken and the [Witches]. She had seen Belavierr for whom she was. She had talked to Laken, gotten some assurances about the Goblin prisoners. She would return, if only to see what he continued to do, but in truth, she couldn’t stay.
She had spent too long in Riverfarm, in a world that wasn’t hers. She didn’t belong there. She liked parts of Riverfarm. She liked Wiskeria, and Durene, and the [Witches]. Her heart still ached for Nanette. The young [Witch] had said nothing to Ryoka when the girl left. She sat, staring at nothing. And the Goblins—
But Ryoka didn’t know if they knew Erin’s name. She did not know them. And—she had agreed with Laken. Wrong though it was, if they fled, they would die. She would let the [Emperor] try his plan. As for the rest?
She was simply tired. Laken’s world was filled with dangers worthy of an [Emperor]. He had a [Lord]—Yitton Byres—as a travelling buddy! It wasn’t the world for a City Runner. Ryoka had left.
“I forgot to talk to Lord Byres. Well, what would I say? I punched your daughter once and she nearly died in Liscor because…he knows she’s alright. I think.”
Ryoka remarked to Mousey. The dog licked her leg. Ryoka yelped.
“Stop that, you!”
She tried not to smile. She didn’t like Mousey. But the dog had been with her nearly a week. Ryoka had thought it would be such a trial, but the two year-old dog had been a perfect companion. Far better than a Centaur. But Ryoka already missed Charlay.
Charlay had bid Ryoka farewell days earlier. The Centauress had to go too; she’d stayed with Ryoka through fire and fury, but now she was restless.
“Plus, I’m faster than you. I could take Mousey, but Ryoka’s too slow. Isn’t she? Yes she is!”
“Stop talking to me like that. And if you pet my head I’ll bite you.”
The Centauress laughed. She trotted down the crossroads, pointing ahead and circling. She regarded Ryoka with a smile, cocksure and impetuous. Not arrogant so much.
“I’ve gotta go, Ryoka. My city misses me! Who’ll be the top runner without me? Besides, it was fun, but I need a break! You attract trouble. I’ll go do some regular deliveries and find you again in a bit. Or we’ll see each other on the road! Count on it, Pukey!”
The Centauress glared at Ryoka and flipped her off. The young woman waved a dismissive hand. Charlay trotted away. Then she galloped back and gave Ryoka a hug.
“I’ll see you soon. You were pretty brave.”
“You too. I’ll look for you in on the road.”
Despite herself, Ryoka felt her eyes sting. Which was silly. But Charlay was…it was so odd, but Ryoka remembered to hug back. The Centauress sniffed.
“You jerk! You have to cry too! It’s what friends do!”
Friends. The word made Ryoka smile. Strange, but true. She glanced up as the [Server] hurried out.
“I’ve got some meat scraps here. Mostly gristle, but we’ve a few bones. Chicken bones, mainly…”
“Raw? I can’t give her cooked bones. They’ll splinter.”
Ryoka had been told that, along with a lot of other information for the trip. The [Server] nodded.
“Sure. She’ll eat them.”
The [Server] nervously put the bowl on the table and Ryoka put it on the floor. Mousy stood up, practically drooling over the bowl, but she looked to Ryoka first. The young woman gave her a nod.
“Eat, Mousey. Kalde.”
The dog dug her face into the bowl and began devouring the food. Quin came out as the [Server] exclaimed.
“She’s so big. Where did you get her?”
“She’s from Radivaek kennels, isn’t she? There’s no finer place for dogs on the continent. But she’s a mighty specimen even so. Was that a special command you gave her?”
Quin gave Ryoka a knowing look. The City Runner nodded.
“Her name’s Mousey. That’s a signal that means she’s allowed to eat. She won’t eat without.”
Mousey perked up her eats and licked her chops as she stared up. She looked at Ryoka, Quin, and the entranced [Server] and went back down to her bowl. Her tail thumpthumpthumped the ground.
“Can I touch her?”
“Scratch her belly.”
Ryoka smiled as the [Server] bent. Quin made a sound—clearly thinking of hygiene or his customers—but the [Server] was already scratching and Mousey tried to roll over and eat at the same time. She panted, and Ryoka tried not to smile.
Ryoka didn’t like dogs. But she’d found a small place in her heart for her companion. Especially after she’d seen Lord Gralton and the Radivaek lands the Oldblood Drakes had attacked.
Lord Gralton Radivaek had been called more beast than man. Wild, savage, a barbarian compared to many [Lords]. And that he was a [Dog Lord] only added to his image of some neanderthal of a man, rabid, unpredictable. That was what Ryoka had heard of him.
But it was unfair. Rumor had twisted fact and exaggerated truth. For when Ryoka Griffin visited Gralton’s lands after three days of travelling north from Riverfarm with Charlay, she found him in his kennels.
He was kneeling, his head bowed, as he tended to his dogs. She saw his bare shoulders, the rougher, stained clothing. She could smell him as she paused in the kennels and the [Servants] announced her. Charlay was staying away; she’d borne Eloise here when the [Witches] had flown to Gralton’s aide. She didn’t want to return.
She said it was too sad.
Lord Gralton raised his head as he held a dog, a puppy barely a few months old. It was wheezing, coughing as he fed it. Goat’s milk, letting it lap up the liquid a bit at a time and cough.
The [Dog Lord]’s eyes were red. He had been weeping. His voice was rough as he stared at Ryoka.
“You? What do you want?”
“His Majesty sends his regards.”
Ryoka stopped, hesitating. She bowed slightly. She had not bowed to Bethal. Or Magnolia. But it wasn’t Gralton who demanded it. It was the silent dogs. The half-empty kennels.
Lord Radivaek’s grief.
Riverfarm had been ravaged by fire. Though the village itself had been spared, the Oldblood Drake who had infiltrated the area had sown discord, pitted the [Witches] against [Knights] from Terandria, and let loose a firestorm that had destroyed villages, farms, and so much more. It would be years before the area began to recover, but perhaps with Laken it might recover sooner. But that Drake had been but one of many.
They had targeted the nobility’s lands. And while Ryoka and Riverfarm had thwarted the Drake attacking their lands, other areas had not been so lucky. A Drake had come to Lord Gralton’s lands while he had been absent. But it had not spread fire. Instead, the weapon had been plague.
The puppy wheezed again as Lord Gralton stood. He was a big man, and Ryoka saw a bit of that wildness in his eyes. Fury too; no wonder the [Servants] had announced her and fled. But mostly grief. He stared at her.
“You’re that City Runner that Laken said he could trust. Griffin.”
“Ryoka Griffin, Lord Gralton. That’s right. Laken sends his regards. Riverfarm is secure. They have the Drake’s body. He—asks if you need assistance.”
“No. The [Witches] already left. Said there was nothing more they could do. You—you’re not much for someone an [Emperor] trusts. What do you want? Just coming to deliver a message? If so, get—”
Gralton growled, but the puppy in his arms coughed again. Ryoka heard it, deep, wheezing. She saw Gralton lower his head. Instantly, his growing anger changed.
“Does it hurt? Here. More milk?”
He cradled the puppy, offering it more to drink. The puppy whined, a soft sound. Gralton bent his head. Ryoka looked at him as the little dog buried its head into the crook of his arm. Coughing. He rocked it, until it began to breathe slower. Sleeping. Only then did Gralton look up and his fury was extinguished. Wordlessly, he walked over to a little bed and laid the puppy there.
The kennels were like no animal rescue or even shelter Ryoka had ever met. No rows of cages obviously, but Gralton had built a paradise for dogs. Some sections were neatly divided to allow breeds to be cordoned off or allow aggressive or troubled dogs space, but there was also space for dogs to run, toys like leather balls, beds, brushes of all kinds for fur, even an area for training, equipped with well-worn padded armguards and dummies made of straw to be attacked.
The kennel was massive, and it could have housed hundreds of dogs without even crowding them. It had a massive staff too, trained to handle the canines from raising them to caring for their medical needs and training them, whether as shepherds, companions, or for battle.
But while Ryoka was certain the kennel was usually full of life and probably, barking dogs playing or running about, it was deathly silent here. Only a few attendants were present, tending to quiet dogs. And the animals were silent, huddled together.
Death had swept through this place. Gralton turned to Ryoka, wiping roughly at his eyes. Ryoka looked at the puppy, still laboring to breathe.
“That damned Drake. It got the wells. It got the water—put poison in the air—no one noticed. Damn idiots! The dogs knew. But the Drake must’ve flown about. Lost the scent. I got it after Laken told me it was there. But it was too late. Lots of people died. But the dogs. They had no part in this! Those bastard Drakes. I’ll kill them. All of them!”
Gralton’s hands clenched and unclenched. He would have roared, but the dogs in the kennel were watching their master. A few came up and Ryoka uneasily backed away. Gralton gave her a sharp look, noting her unease. Then he bent, smiling, and scratched a dog who came up, panting.
“You don’t like dogs.”
It wasn’t a question. Ryoka shuffled her bare feet.
“I have a history with them. Some have tried to bite me.”
“That’s because they’re poorly trained. Or their owners are worthless. These ones won’t bite unless they think you’re a threat. And they deserve more. I should never have left. Damn Godart and Byres. If I’d rode north without them—!”
One of the dogs flinched back from Gralton’s voice. The [Lord] instantly lowered it.
“I’m sorry. Here. Come here, Mousey.”
The dog leapt into his arms, panting, licking his face. Ryoka stared at Gralton. He was a different man with animals. Her, he stared at, with a lot more intelligence than she’d been led to expect.
“Then again, I’d never have known it was Drakes. Damn thing was invisible.”
“You…got the Drake?”
“My dogs did. Shame I didn’t have a head. But we know. The Drakes will pay.”
Gralton’s eyes narrowed. Ryoka paused. He was patting the dogs, letting them circle around him. Lean in. It was strange. But Ryoka felt like she was at a wake, like the one Riverfarm had held for their dead. The dogs knew what had happened. Just like the people. They were mourning.
“For what? You bring the Drakes? I heard you helped with the [Witches]. And if they hadn’t been here—that other Centauress, she outside?”
“Huh. In that case, stay if you want. Those damn [Witches]—helped. The old one, with the medicines and tea? Lots of the little ones wouldn’t have lived if not for her. They might even last longer, thanks to her brews.”
Some wouldn’t. Ryoka saw that too. Some of the dogs had lived, but barely. Poison and plague had cut lifespans, damaged lungs. But if Gralton was half-beast, the man part of him could be grateful. Or the dog part. And she felt for him. How could you not? After a moment, Ryoka felt a head on her knee and jumped.
One of the dogs—Mousey—was staring up at her. The dog was panting, and she looked interested in Ryoka, but her tail wasn’t wagging. After a moment, the young woman bent. She held a hand out and gingerly reached for the dog’s head to pat it. Mousey stepped back and Gralton snapped.
“Don’t do that!”
Ryoka froze. Gralton glared at her.
“Greet her first. Mousey, seddigore. Let the dog get to know you. She’s battle-trained; don’t scratch her head first off! That’s asserting dominance and warhounds don’t like that. Dead gods, woman, don’t you know anything about dogs?”
“Sorry. What do I do?”
“Hold your hand out. A fist, not an open palm. Hold still. Let her sniff you. There—keep low, don’t stare her in the eyes. If she lets you, pet her belly. And don’t raise your voice.”
The young woman glanced up. Gralton snorted.
“They’re used to me. They understand me. They don’t know you. And you smell like a bunch of things they don’t know about. [Witches], for one.”
Ryoka Griffin glanced up, startled. Gralton just stared at her. Not a dog trapped in a man’s body, oh no. But a man who’d learned something of dogs. She wondered just how good his nose was. She wondered what Skills a [Dog Lord] gained.
“So Laken’s rebuilding?”
“That’s right. Yitton Byres is still there, but he’ll ride towards his estates within the week. Laken is organizing his village. There are a lot of refugees.”
Hundreds already. Possibly thousands. More people were coming to Riverfarm, which had survived the fires. Also because they’d heard there was work. Safety. Despite the [Witches]. Gralton grunted.
“Fine. What about the Goblins?”
He looked sideways at Ryoka, fishing in a belt pouch for a treat. The young woman paused.
“They’re separated from Riverfarm. Laken is having them watched, but they have their own area. They haven’t all run away.”
“So there’s a point to how long we took getting back. Fine.”
The [Dog Lord] sat, scratching a huge—Ryoka had to think it was a wolf, although the dog looked more like a bulldog. But was massive. It came over and Gralton laughed as it walked right up to him. He looked up after a while, and saw Mousey was rolled over as Ryoka scratched her belly.
“You staying? It’s late.”
“If you’ll have us, we’d take a bed. We wouldn’t want to—”
Gralton snorted. Ryoka shut up. After a while, Charlay trotted in. She looked around.
“Oh. They’re better now. Hey, Gralton.”
“Centaur. Watch your hooves.”
Ryoka found herself sitting with Charlay and Gralton as more dogs came over. They were warier of Ryoka than Charlay. There was a bright intelligence in their eyes, more so than even dogs in Ryoka’s world. Gralton just snorted when he saw Ryoka’s surprise.
“I’m a [Dog Lord], woman. You think that’s a pretty name? [Beast Trainers] turn their animals smart. Strong. My hounds think. They remember a friend and they aren’t idiots. See?”
He nodded at Charlay. A bunch of dogs were mobbing her for attention, licking her. The Centauress was giggling.
“Stop that! Stop that! I feel like I’m going to be eaten! Hey, wait—that’s my tail! Back off or I’ll kick!”
Ryoka found herself smiling. Then she looked at Gralton. He almost smiled back. She looked at him, amid his half-empty kennels and the dogs and ducked her head.
“If we’re imposing—”
“Stay. I owe Laken for the [Witches]. You uncomfortable around dogs?”
He jerked his head at her, a challenge. Ryoka hesitated.
“These ones are alright. And I do know a team of adventurers who own dogs.”
“Really? Which ones?”
A light appeared in Gralton’s eyes. Ryoka shrugged.
“The Pithfire Hounds.”
“Never heard of ‘em. Silver-ranks? Bronze?”
“Silver. I ran a delivery for them once. They…lost a dog fighting monsters. Their entire team got hurt. It was just—”
The [Dog Lord] raised his head.
“Did the dogs do the fighting while the adventurers stayed back? Or did they run and let the dogs stay back?”
He stared at Ryoka. Her mouth went dry.
“No. All of them were fighting. And another dog survived. They like dogs. They’ve been grieving their friend. It was an emergency. Wailer Frogs.”
It occurred to Ryoka that whenever she talked, she tended to have a big mouth. Charlay had said as much. Gralton relaxed slightly, listening to the explanation of the battle. He looked at Ryoka again.
“You run emergency deliveries to adventurers. Makes sense why Laken called for you. Here—feed Mousey this. And tell her—kalde. That means she can eat.”
Ryoka did. Much to her surprise, she found herself sitting after an hour, playing with dogs, and then throwing a ball. They didn’t live in the kennels; in fact they often ran outside, hunting or playing. Gralton allowed them to do just that, and after a while, Ryoka realized she was staying the night with Charlay.
Lord Gralton ate there, in the kennels, sharing his meal with any of the dogs who wandered over. He’d barely left it since returning home, apparently. He relished the company of the animals. Not exactly as equals—Ryoka saw him calmly stop an overeager husky who kept trying to jump up on her. He led them as naturally as breathing. And he was kind to them.
Humans not so much. Gralton gave orders like a [Lord] and he ruled—Ryoka heard him snapping about redigging wells that night—but he clearly loved animals more than people. Still, he had a soft spot if you looked.
“You’re still the worst person with dogs I’ve ever seen. You have to be dominant. My hounds will walk all over you.”
He informed Ryoka as he reprimanded another over-aggressive dog. She flushed, but Gralton was looking at her speculatively. And when she left the next day, he gave her a gift.
“So the dog’s yours?”
“I’m just delivering her. Her name’s Mousey, by the way.”
“Mousey? She’s so adorable!”
The dinner with Quin was mostly filled with talk of books—most of which Ryoka had never heard of—and Mousey. The dog attracted attention. And she was trained. Gralton had assured Ryoka she wouldn’t spook or disobey commands, but Ryoka was impressed. If anything, she’d been the one who needed coaching when he let Mousey go with her.
“I’m going north still. Towards Reizmelt.”
“Really? You wouldn’t happen to be willing to carry a delivery north, would you? I have a letter I’ve been meaning to send up towards First Landing…”
Quin looked sideways at Ryoka. It was a common question, so the City Runner just smiled.
“I can drop it off at the Runner’s Guild there if you have it by morning. If anyone else has a delivery north, I can run it that way.”
She slept that night in the Salubrious Sleephome. Mousey curled up on the floor, and after a moment, Ryoka opened one eye.
“You can climb up if you want. Up, Mousey?”
The dog looked up and then leapt onto Ryoka’s bed. The City Runner looked around, embarrassed. It was odd, having an animal with you.
“Don’t get used to it. You’re a delivery. I’m not keeping a pet.”
Then she closed her eyes. She still didn’t like—
Mousey sneezed on Ryoka’s face. The City Runner opened her eyes and the dog licked her face once.
“Don’t push it.”
Reizmelt looked like Ryoka had remembered it. But it was strangely inviting after all this time. The City Runner slowed her pace as she ran through the gates. It had been a long run. She inhaled as Mousey, panting happily, wagged her tail. What neither runner nor dog were prepared for were the shouts from atop the gates.
“Oi! Wind Runner!”
Ryoka glanced up, startled. Some of the [Guards] on duty were waving down at her. She blinked and then raised a hand. They usually never stopped her.
“Nothing wrong! But where’ve you been blowing off to? Haven’t had a breeze like this in a while! And where’d you get the dog?”
The woman on the gates shouted down at Ryoka. The young woman blinked, and then grinned.
“From Lord Gralton! Say, are the Pithfire Hounds in Reizmelt?”
“I saw them just today! Mind blowing us a breeze? It’s getting hotter around here! Summer’s beginning!”
A gust of fresh air hit the battlements of the wall and the [Guard] laughed. Ryoka waved as she ran into the city, bemused, but feeling—good. But that wasn’t the first time people called out to her. Let alone the last!
“Wind Runner! Wind Runner!”
Children who spotted Ryoka went shooting after her, begging for a breeze to go surfing down the streets. A few people Ryoka recognized waved at her and asked about the dog. Ryoka found herself slowing, explaining. So many people seemed to remember her. Mousey panted, letting people pat her or offer her treats.
It took a while for Ryoka to get to the Huntress’ Haven. When she did, she found Mad Madain sitting in his inn. It was empty, as usual. The man was removing meat from the bones of a deer he’d killed on a table. He looked up as Ryoka came in and blinked.
“Well, if it isn’t Miss Windy and—a dog?”
He stared at Mousey. The dog stared back and opened her mouth. Her eyes locked on Madain’s bones and the blood and meat. Ryoka blinked.
“Hi, Madain. I’m back. Don’t worry about the dog. She’s not staying long. Is Fierre here? Alber still around?”
“Yeah, they’re somewhere. What’s with the dog?”
“She’s a delivery.”
Madain stared at Mousey. He looked at the dead deer.
“Is it hungry? Want a bone?”
Ryoka smiled as he picked up a large thighbone and tossed it at Mousey. It hit the floorboards and the dog stared at it, and then at Ryoka.
“Kalde, Mousey. Go on.”
The dog leapt on the bone. Madain blinked. He stared at Ryoka.
“I heard you went on a big delivery. Bunch of crap down south. You alive? Missing any more fingers?”
Good old Madain. Ryoka waggled her right hand at him and then lifted one of her remaining digits. The [Innkeeper]-adventurer stared at her and then laughed.
“Your room’s upstairs. Piss off!”
One of his good days, then. Ryoka nodded and headed upstairs. Mousey followed her with the bone. Ryoka shucked off some of her gear and stared about her room. It was untouched. Madain hadn’t even bothered to change her sheets. She sighed. But then she smiled.
Mousey wagged her tail for emphasis. Ryoka paused and looked at her. Then she smiled.
“Time to complete my delivery, huh, Mousey? Don’t worry, you’ll like them. Come on!”
Levil, Captain of the Pithfire Hounds and [Pyromancer], looked up and gasped when the door to the Adventurer’s Guild in Reizmelt swung open. A few other teams glanced up. They stared at Ryoka. And then at the dog. Then Lamont, their [Warrior], freshly healed, shot to his feet.
“Miss Griffin! Hey, the Wind Runner of Reizmelt’s back!”
The rest of Pithfire Hounds shot to their feet. They came over, Lamont first. The [Warrior] reached out and clasped Ryoka’s hand. She blinked at him.
“That’s right. I still haven’t thanked you for saving my life. Miss Griffin, I owe you everything.”
“You’re back on your feet? But your ribs—”
The last time she had seen him, Lamont’s ribcage had been smashed, courtesy of the Wailer Frogs. The [Warrior] thumped his chest.
“I’m freshly healed—my chest is good as new! If there’s anything I can do—”
He was shoved aside by another adventurer, Bram. The [Beast Tamer] was accompanied by the remaining dog of the Pithfire Hounds.
“Miss Griffin, it’s good to see you back! We’d thought you’d switched towns, you’ve been gone so long! We heard all about your run to Walta. And who is this gorgeous creature?”
He squatted down, looking at Mousey. She sniffed him, but warily. Ryoka bent down.
“Mousey, seddigore. Seddigore.”
That meant ‘friend’. Ally. It was what Gralton had used to introduce Mousey to Ryoka.
The dog wagged her tail as the Pithfire Hounds approached, reassured by the word. Makki, the wolfhound belonging to the adventuring team, went still at the sight of the bigger dog. Levil whistled.
“Dead gods, but it’s good to see you, Ryoka! And that dog’s a beauty!”
“I’ll say. And a proper giant too! Makki’s small compared to her!”
Ulica, Keima, and Tally, the three other members of the group, all came over. Ryoka shook hands as the rest of the adventurers squatted down. They were all dog-people. Makki held back as Bram gently introduced the two. She sniffed Makki warily; the larger dog looked to Ryoka and got another seddigore before she sniffed back.
“What’s her breed, do you know? Oh, and where’ve you been, Ryoka?”
Levil couldn’t take his eyes off Mousey. Ryoka smiled.
“She’s an Aldasian-breed mixed with a Izrilian bulldog. Apparently.”
“Aldasians? Dead gods, those are Mothbear killers! Where’d you buy her, Ryoka? Is she your bodyguard on runs, now? Mind you, she’d be good at it. Mousey, you said her name was?”
Keima exclaimed. She was feeling heavy muscle under Mousey’s fur. The dog happily flopped over as the other adventurers gave her a good scratching. She still looked up, panting at Ryoka as the City Runner inhaled. She looked at Levil and his team.
“She’s from Lord Gralton Radivaek. His personal kennels. She’s not mine, actually. I’m just delivering her. Actually, Levil…everyone. She’s for you.”
The Pithfire Hounds froze. They stared up at Ryoka. Levil blinked.
Ryoka nodded. She looked from face to face, feeling a coil of anxiety in her stomach.
“I know your team was missing a dog after the frogs. And I thought…well, I mentioned it since I was running through Radivaek lands. And I was thinking—”
Too late, Ryoka realized that she hadn’t asked Levil and the others if they wanted another dog. She should have, but it had slipped her mind when Gralton made her the offer! She began to panic.
“Look, I knew that Dassa was really special to you. And I don’t want to replace her! I just wanted to—Lord Gralton heard about your team and—I’m sorry, I should have asked. It was—”
Levil smiled. He stood up and hugged Ryoka. She blinked and relaxed. The [Pyromancer] was beaming.
“Dead gods, Ryoka! Don’t apologize! It’s a wonderful gift. We’ll treasure her. From Lord Gralton’s own kennels? We talked about adding a hound to our team like that!”
His team was nodding. Tally looked stunned. The [Ranger] stared at Mousey.
“From Lord Gralton? But he trains the best dogs in the world! The continent, at least! Hey, everyone! Did you hear that?”
Some more adventurers were coming over. They exclaimed as they heard from Tally about Mousey. Ryoka was blushing, but relieved. Bram was beaming.
“An Aldasian warhound? She’s worth a fortune! And she’s smart! Lord Gralton sent her to us?”
Everyone looked at Ryoka. She flushed.
“He’s a big dog lover. Keep her safe, alright?”
Levil nodded solemnly with the rest of his team.
“We’ll do that. Don’t worry, Ryoka. Dassa was the only dog we ever lost. And it was only because we were on the verge of getting wiped that she was in a position like that.”
Bram nodded as well.
“It’s a dangerous life, like being a hunting dog, Miss Ryoka, but not too much more dangerous. Few dogs are big enough to fight monsters directly, it’s true. And it’s dangerous for them, without armor and whatnot. I hear Carn Wolves can be trained, but those are wolves, with fur like steel. But dogs fight smart. They go for the flanks and they can even dodge spells. It’s not always…safe. But if they get hurt, it’s because we were all in danger of dying. I promise you.”
“I know. And I know she’ll love it.”
“You got Lord Gralton to give us a dog just like that? And you brought her all the way here?”
Ryoka blinked as Keima hugged her fiercely. Levil grabbed Ryoka around the shoulders. Embarrassed, the City Runner tried to flee.
“It was just—well, just something I thought I’d do—”
“We have to buy you a drink! And we’re in your favor again, Miss Wind Runner! Tell us where you’ve been? You can stop, can’t you? You haven’t been in Reizmelt for ages!”
“I’d love to. But I need to make one more stop. Tonight. Why don’t we all go to the Huntress’ Haven? I have to check in at the Runner’s Guild and let them know I’m back for emergency deliveries…”
Ryoka couldn’t handle all the genuine affection being thrown her way. She retreated towards the door. Levil’s team protested, but Levil held them back.
Ryoka nodded. She was about to leave when she noticed something. Mousey was trotting after her, head held high, looking expectant. Ryoka paused.
“Oh. Right. Mousey?”
She squatted down and looked at the dog. Mousey wagged her tail, ready for action. Ryoka hesitated. Gralton had shown her how to do this too.
“Mousey, seddigore. Krakka. Seddigore. Understand?”
She gestured and Levil came over. The adventurer knelt and Ryoka showed Mousey his fist. The dog sniffed it.
But Mousey kept staring at Ryoka. The City Runner hesitated. She looked at Levil.
“She’s yours. Keep her safe. She’s a really…good dog.”
The [Pyromancer] nodded. He watched as Ryoka got up and backed away towards the door. Mousey looked up.
She followed Ryoka. The City Runner froze. She pointed back at the Pithfire Hounds. They were all watching Ryoka, with mixed expressions. Ryoka bent down again and scratched under Mousey’s chin.
“No, Mousey. Sit. Turt. Turt. This is your team, now. Seddigore, see?”
She got up slowly. The dog whined. She followed Ryoka a half-step and then looked at the Pithfire hounds. Ryoka felt a pain in her chest. She turned her back.
“I have to go. They’ll take good care of you.”
She began to walk towards the door and heard a bark. Mousey was never supposed to bark; it was part of her training. She looked back and the dog stared at her. Ryoka pointed.
She kept walking. Mousey stared at her back, and then up at Levil. The [Pyromancer] smiled and the dog stared at him, reassured. But then she stared at Ryoka.
“I have to go. I can’t keep a dog. I don’t even like them.”
The City Runner muttered, avoiding everyone’s gazes. She made her way towards the door. She’d never thought this would be the hard part. But Gralton had warned her not to get attached. And she wasn’t. Slowly, Ryoka walked out of the Adventurer’s Guild and leaned against the door.
“I hate dogs.”
That night, Ryoka Griffin saw Mousey again. The dog looked up at her, and then came over to be petted. But there was separation, of sorts. The Pithfire Hounds were already familiar with her, and Makki and Mousey, the two dogs, were both roaming around the inn.
Mad Madain wasn’t used to the crowd. But he tolerated the people and entertained himself by throwing bones for the dogs to catch. Ryoka Griffin smiled a bit as she saw Mousey’s head go up, watching the bones fly. Levil had to remember to give her the kalde command to eat.
“She’s better-trained than Makki. I hear those dog-commands are so they don’t take wrong orders in the field. We’re going to have to practice with her, but she’s going to be a welcome member of the team. We owe you greatly, Ryoka. And we’ll stop by with Mousey as much as we can.”
Ryoka nodded. She turned away from Mousey for a moment. Alber was eating at one table. She’d seen him plying his [Fistfighter] trade this evening. He looked up and nodded to her.
“Hey, Alber. Anything new happen?”
The young man paused. He shook his head. After a moment, he looked at her.
“Nice to see you.”
He went back to eating. Ryoka smiled. Some things didn’t change, and after all the greetings she’d gotten, this was almost a relief.
But some things had changed. Ryoka looked around. She still hadn’t seen one person in Reizmelt, the person she’d been most eager to meet.
“Is Fierre in the city? Or has she gone home, does anyone know?”
“She’s here. Saw her this morning and she paid for the week. Probably working in her secret job.”
Madain grunted. Ryoka looked at him. Fierre’s status as an opener and broker of secrets was known in the inn—the Pithfire Hounds looked confused.
“Is she still working there, do you think?”
“Probably. Girl has more customers. Should charge her more rent.”
“Maybe I’ll go visit her. Levil, it was great catching up, but…”
The [Pyromancer] was nodding.
“Anytime, Ryoka. You’ve got Runner business?”
“And Fierre’s a—friend.”
Ryoka smiled at him. She nodded towards the door, only a bit unsteady after the three drinks she’d had.
“I’ll just duck out. We’ll come back if she’s done for the day. See you—”
“Hold on, she’s not in her old spot.”
Madain interrupted. The [Innkeeper] looked at Ryoka as she paused. He grinned, and looked at Alber. The [Fistfighter] looked up, not as amused by the secret knowledge they shared.
“It got blown up. Her last spot. Fierre’s in a new place. Don’t know where it is myself. You’ll have to ask around.”
“What? Her door got—by what? Who?”
The former adventurer shrugged.
“Heard it was a bunch of sewing needles. Girl must have pissed off someone. Maybe that [Witch] she was talking about.”
Ryoka stared at Madain, open-mouthed with horror. Then she turned and sprinted out of the inn. Levil looked at Madain.
“But she’s okay. Fierre, I mean?”
“Oh, sure. Right as rain. Probably had some good healing potions. Way I heard it, she has some high-level defensive Skill. But she’s totally fine.”
“You could have told Ryoka that.”
Mad Madain grinned at Levil.
Fierre was working in her new office when there was a pounding at the door. The Vampire girl froze and stared around her room.
It was larger than the previous cubby that had been large enough only for her desk and a cabinet. This new place was located in a less…upstanding part of town, but it was made up for by the thick stone walls, all warded, and the new door.
Twice as thick as the last one and enchanted with more than just protection spells. Even the hail of needles that had gone through the first one would have trouble with this one. Fierre had been organizing her expanded file cabinets. Now she sank back in her chair.
The pounding wasn’t any of her code knocks. Fierre doubted whoever was on the other side could get in, but just in case, she reached for one of her emergency tools. It wasn’t for her; she’d rather get arrested or deal with whoever was on the other side herself. But she had a bag of holding she’d shove her files into and then toss under a concealment charm to keep hidden.
It was a last resort. But for now, Fierre kept silent. She waited, as whomever was pounding on the other side shouted something.
“Fierre? Fierre? It’s me! Ryoka!”
The voice jerked the Vampire girl upright. Ryoka? She stared at the door and rose. But then she hesitated.
It could be a trick. Warily, Fierre stalked over to the door and murmured a word. A porthole appeared in the metal, allowing her to see through the metal. She saw a familiar face, anxiously hammering on the door. Fierre hesitated.
“What’s the password?”
Ryoka paused. Fierre saw her hesitate.
The Vampire girl grinned. She threw open the door.
“Come in! Ryoka!”
The City Runner entered Fierre’s new office and stared about. The Vampire girl hadn’t decorated, so her new office was like the last one—a room to conduct secret business in. Even so, there were some trappings of Fierre’s success.
For one thing, a tiny scrying mirror, secured in a soundproof box when Fierre wasn’t using it. And another—a list of bounties on the wall, for information, items, people. Unofficial and official. But what was most impressive was Fierre’s information network.
She had three huge cabinets, and several maps now, showing everything from the influence of the underworld to trade routes. She had a copy of the Adventurer’s Guild bestiary, a list of every [Mage]’s Guild across Izril—and a bunch of unofficial contacts—and a list of favors owed, to her or to others.
“It’s amazing what gold can get you. I spent over half of it, but this is the result! It’s put me on a new level. Now I have a network and I can actually leverage some influence! I’m a name, Ryoka. And I—”
Fierre caught herself. She was babbling as Ryoka sat in front of her desk, staring at all the papers Fierre had pulled out. The Vampire girl stopped and looked at Ryoka. And her exuberance faded.
“For what? I should be apologizing to you, Fierre. I should never have asked about Belavierr. You nearly died!”
Ryoka looked up. She was still stunned by everything that was new. She hadn’t known about Belavierr’s curse on Fierre. The Vampire girl shook her head.
“No. It was my fault for being careless. Ryoka—the Order of Seasons came because of me.”
The City Runner nodded. She’d worked that out as the two caught up. She inhaled, and bowed her head.
“I know. I wish you hadn’t said anything.”
“I was angry. After I got hit by that curse, I lost my temper and—I’m so sorry.”
Fierre bit her lip. Her pointed teeth dug into her pale flesh. In her room she was more uncovered than anywhere else, so Ryoka could see her pale, bloodless skin. But she had blood; Ryoka had heard at the Runner’s Guild how bad the devastation had been at her office. People were of the opinion that Fierre had barely survived the needles thanks to her door and healing potions and some lucky Skills, but Ryoka knew better.
“I’m sorry. Belavierr was—I’ve seen those needle storms she conjures. Did it—did it hurt?”
The Vampire girl’s pause told Ryoka enough.
“Not much. You know I’m tough. If the needles had been silver, I would have died. But regular metal and wood?”
She tried to shrug casually. It didn’t fool Ryoka. Fierre stared at her friend.
“What about you? You met her. I know the Order of Seasons…failed. And the Drakes! Did you see any of it?”
“All of it. Yeah, I met Belavierr. She was…”
Ryoka hesitated. She searched for words to describe the ringed gaze, the [Witch] who had forgotten how to be Human. In the end she shook her head.
“…A monster. I thought she wasn’t. But she was a monster. The Order of Seasons was right to go after her. I think. I don’t know. If she was anything, it was true to herself. And she did love someone. Her daughter. It’s just that she cares for nothing else. She was—a monster. Not like you or me. In the end, I wanted to like her. But I couldn’t accept what she did.”
Ryoka bowed her head. She looked at Fierre. The Vampire hesitated. You or me. She sat down at her desk.
“I’m still sorry. I wish I’d caught more, quicker. The Drakes. I never expected that. I should have! It came from Manus, the attacks. Retaliation for Liscor.”
“I figured. You know what’ll happen next?”
“Retaliation from the Humans. In time. At the very least, they’ll be sending a bigger army next year to the Bloodfields. They might be too busy with Magnolia Reinhart’s trade war and infighting, but they’re not going to forget this. Then again, the Drakes did a lot of damage economically. It’ll take time to recover.”
“Well, I don’t think Gralton will forget. Or anyone else.”
Fierre nodded. She wanted to ask Ryoka why the girl smelled like dog. And if she really was partners with Dustrider Charlay, like the report coming from Walta claimed. And so much more.
Ryoka wanted to ask too. But she had come a long way. So she sat a moment, sighing. Here, in this office, she could relax. She looked up, and saw two red eyes. Serafierre val Lischelle-Drakle waited. And Ryoka eventually sat up and smiled.
“Some run, huh?”
“Yeah. You know, your ratings have shot up since that run to Walta. Going to Riverfarm didn’t hurt you either, although it’s mostly reputation-based.”
“I have good ratings?”
“Oh yes. You’re getting some attention because you know the fabled [Emperor]. And doing a run for Lord Gralton didn’t hurt either, let alone Lady Bethal. You made your way back here quickly too. Have you…gotten better at using the wind?”
Fierre glanced up at Ryoka. The Wind Runner rested her arms on her knees.
“A bit. How do you know?”
“I have a report claiming you stopped a tornado. Made out of fire.”
Ryoka smiled briefly. Her left foot twitched unconsciously.
“I didn’t stop it. I turned it. I knew I could. Or at least, I thought I could.”
“But if you could do that—did you level up? I mean, I know you don’t. But did you…gain more power?”
The broker watched Ryoka carefully. The City Runner paused.
“Maybe. I don’t level up. But I think I can ask the wind to do more. That’s all. It was a tornado made out of fire, Fierre. I thought it was like hell. There were flames everywhere. And I knew I had to do something. I thought I’d burn up. But I had to try.”
Fierre shuddered. Fire was one of the ways Vampires died. She watched as Ryoka went on. The Asian girl’s face was faraway.
“The wind was different than I’ve ever seen it. Than I could have ever imagined. That’s why I can control it better. Because of what I saw. [Mages] study and try to understand. I guess the secret with me is going out into the world. Witnessing. Experiencing.”
She looked up abruptly and forced a smile. And then—abruptly—stopped forcing it. She leaned back and let out a genuine expletive.
“Fuck. I’ve seen some insane stuff, Fierre!”
The Vampire girl laughed. Because that was Ryoka. Unguarded, the young woman grinned at the Vampire girl. Fierre raised an eyebrow.
“Tell me about it, already! I want to know how bad it was. I visited home and even my father said Belavierr was way too dangerous to mess with. We know about her, you know.”
“Vampires? Why doesn’t that surprise me? Dead gods, Fierre. She was insane. I can’t even describe—”
Ryoka sat forwards, trying to explain what it was like meeting Belavierr the first time. The way she stood so unnaturally and spoke. Fierre listened, jotting down some notes, but mainly hearing Ryoka speak. Talking in her own turn.
“Nothing much’s happened around Reizmelt since you’ve been gone. But you remember those Ogre raids a while back? A band of them coming out of the hills, to the east? Southeast, that is, a good eighty miles. Well, it’s gotten worse. There are multiple bands of them. The bounty’s been upped, but it’s a dangerous area at the moment. I really don’t recommend running there, but there’s gold to be made.”
“Damn. I’ve never seen Ogres. Is it bad?”
“Well, they’re crossing over into Lady Pryde’s domain. Magnolia Reinhart has interests in the region, but the Ogres were hitting unclaimed territory up until now. Some groups got wiped out by adventurers, but there’s two bands you do not want to mess with. Speaking of which—the trade war is biting the lands opposed to Magnolia Reinhart hard. You could earn big money if you can break the Skill she’s got going on.”
“I don’t mess with her, thanks.”
Ryoka spread her arms. Fierre eyed the City Runner for a moment, but she held onto that tidbit and went on, consulting her notes.
“Well, if you don’t like that, I have news from Liscor. A team of Wistram [Mages] got spanked hard. I’ll tell you all about it when I have more solid information—you’re always asking about Liscor, right?”
“I have friends down there. Anyone hurt?”
“No one died. It’s just funny to hear about. Oh, and there’s a bounty, but it’s small sheep, honestly. Wistram had to correct it, which is weird—they sent out a mass-correction. I’ll grab a copy. Let’s see. Some adventurer is killing Goblins too, in the same area as the Ogres. No, wait, a [Knight]. Not just a few; he’s taken out multiple tribes. They call him the Goblin Slayer.”
“Goblin Slayer. Anyways, it’s just a rumor.”
For a second the young woman looked unhappy. But then she shook her head.
“Big? No. I mean, I could go on all day, but that’s all the really interesting stuff. Oh, and one more thing.”
Fierre grinned slightly as she pulled out a piece of paper from the bottom of her file. She presented it to Ryoka with a flourish; she’d been holding onto it.
“I found what you were looking for. I put some money into it.”
Ryoka froze. She stared down at the paper.
“You found them?”
“It wasn’t easy. But they are working as adventurers. And you’re right—they’ve got Magnolia Reinhart backing them. Or some of her staff, I think. I had to tiptoe carefully to get their location but this is it. Semi-permanent; they’ve been seen there the last month.”
Fierre tapped the address she’d written down, and all the other notes. She watched Ryoka’s face change. The young woman inhaled.
“You never said why you wanted them.”
“I—need to meet them. I’d explain, Fierre, but it’s really personal. They’re there?”
“I’d be careful, Ryoka. They’re Magnolia Reinhart’s staff. You said you didn’t mess with her.”
“Yeah. But this is different. I’ll be careful. But…”
Ryoka was staring down at the names. Fierre didn’t understand what her fascination was with a group of Bronze-rank Humans. But then…she waited, watching Ryoka’s face. Hearing her blood flow accelerate. Fierre licked her lips and then caught herself.
At last, Ryoka Griffin looked up. She stared at Fierre, and then put down the paper. She looked at it again, but then slid it over to Fierre.
“Later. I’ll deal with it later. You know, the Pithfire Hounds are at Madain’s inn. And I said I’d try to be back. Fierre, it’s good to see you.”
“You too, Ryoka.”
The Vampire girl grinned. Ryoka smiled and then hesitated. She looked sidelong at Fierre.
“Do you want to go back and have a drink? Talk some more? Can Vampires even get drunk?”
The Vampire girl grinned wickedly.
“Want to find out?”
Then her face fell. She hesitated and Fierre looked towards the door.
“Oh, but I don’t like drinking in crowds. I mean, I would, but with the teeth…”
Ryoka paused. She looked at Fierre as the girl—who was older than her, in fact—sighed. Longingly. Fierre had a wistful look in her eyes. And Ryoka thought of her friends.
Erin. Mrsha. Ceria. Yvlon? Fals. Garia. She had left them all behind. But now, here, she had more friends.
Wiskeria. Alevica? But surely, Charlay. And Levil and his team. Lupp. But her first friend, the person she’d found herself missing because they understood each other sat right here.
Fierre. Ryoka had missed her friend. And she hadn’t known until recently what it was like to miss someone like that. You couldn’t miss what you’d never had. Now, though, she sat back down and put her bare feet up on Fierre’s desk. The Vampire girl stared at them.
“Your feet are incredibly dirty, Ryoka.”
Ryoka didn’t take them down. She grinned at Fierre and gestured around the sealed and warded room.
“You don’t like drinking in public? Let’s drink in your new office, then. That’s got to be the most private place in the world.”
“But I work here!”
“So? You own this place now, right? Why not? Unless Vampires can’t get drunk?”
The broker blinked. But then she grinned wickedly, with all her teeth. It was a smile like a Drake’s, but this one was reassuring.
“Oh, we can. It’s just a bit harder. And I know a good spot. Want to grab a bottle?”
“Sure. And let’s say hi to the Pithfire Hounds. You can meet Mousey. The dog.”
Ryoka stood up. Fierre walked over to the door and held it open. She looked at Ryoka and the City Runner looked around as a cool wind blew in from Reizmelt. She sighed as she looked at Fierre.
“It’s good to be back.”