(A young woman from the Phillipines is a [Fisher] at the end of the world. The Last Tide, a comicbook illustrated by Shane Sandulak will be coming out this summer! Click on this link for more details!)
“Hey! You can’t arrest me! Let go! I’m innocent! I didn’t mean to do it! Put me down! I’ll wriggle! Hey! Hey!”
The Watch House on the 8th Floor of Pallass was one of many of the stations that Pallass’ City Watch operated out of. Again, unlike a smaller, and thus lesser city, Pallass needed multiple areas to allow its law enforcement to operate from.
Almost every floor had a Watch House, positioned so that a patrol was never too far from trouble no matter where it might occur in the city. The one exception was the 9th, and that was only because it was the floor right below the battlements, and thus immediately reinforceable from that spot.
In this case, the 8th Floor’s Watch House on the eastern section of the floor was generally quiet. You got thefts, and fights, and sometimes more serious crimes like armed robbery and so on, but aside from responding to an [Alchemist] causing an incident above, it wasn’t as bad as the lower floors with the bazaar, a hotspot for [Thieves], or the major warehouse districts, the night life…
But there were always surprises. And unfortunately, the Watch Captains on duty today weren’t present in this particular Watch House. Thus, it fell to the Desk Sergeant to manage the building and the patrols coming in.
Desk Sergeant. Different from Senior Guard. One was a rank, the other a position. A Senior Guard could fill that role if need be, and they often did, but a Desk Sergeant was temporary. The one on duty looked up as he heard the female voice shouting. A patrol marched through the doors, shoving a young woman forward. The Drake in charge marched up to the desk and saluted.
“Patrol Leader Medain reporting in, Desk Sergeant! We’ve apprehended the criminal responsible for the disturbance on the 9th! Orders?”
The rest of the patrol fell in behind the Drake, on two sides of their prisoner. Said prisoner stared around the familiar, yet unfamiliar Watch House in Pallass. It was rather like the one in Liscor, really, but just different enough to feel weird. Erin licked her lips nervously, staring at the patrol leader’s back and then at the [Guards] surrounding her. They’d carried her off the 9th floor and then marched her here and she had a bad feeling she was in serious trouble.
“Look, this is all a misunderstanding! Let me explain. I didn’t mean to use the Skill—”
“Silence, Human! You do not have the right to speak!”
One of the [Guards] holding Erin bellowed right in Erin’s ear. Erin opened her mouth, saw the female Drake make a fist, and went still. She was nervous. This wasn’t Liscor’s City Watch and she didn’t know anyone except Watch Captain Venim.
“I uh, know Watch Captain Venim—”
“Silence! You are under arrest for using a mass-effect Skill in public!”
Erin winced. She had done that. But by accident! She opened her mouth, saw the fist swing up again, and fell silent. This wasn’t her world where a beating was in theory, illegal. In this one, as Relc had once explained, punching a criminal wasn’t just part of the job, it was the perk of said job. Of course, that had been him saying it, but Erin wasn’t about to risk her teeth.
The Desk Sergeant was hidden from view. Erin heard the patrol leader snap a reply.
“Minimal. The patrol approached when the Skill ended and managed to successfully retrieve the suspect without resistance. Per orders, the [Smith], Pelt, was not apprehended and his finished masterwork appears to be completed.”
“I’ll send a memo to Watch Captain Qissa about it, confirming it was a success. Patrol leader, is there a report on the quality of the masterwork completed? Tell me it’s at least Gold-rank or all our tails are going to be chewed out by a [Senator] for delaying the arrest.”
The entire squad around Erin winced, but the two holding her arms didn’t let go. She bit her lip as the patrol leader replied.
“Some of the other [Smiths] vouchsafed to me that it was Silver-rank gear, but with enchantments it could be high-gold at least!”
“Let’s call it a win, then. Street Runner—message for Watch Captain Qissa! 5th!”
Erin saw a scaly hand flick something across the desk. Then she saw a young, male Garuda—but a boy, not an annoying teen—dash forwards. The Garuda grabbed the folded bit of parchment and hurtled out the door like a shot.
“Patrol leader, take your squad out and deal with any complaints or disturbances caused by the Skill. Leave two guards for the prisoner.”
“Yes, Desk Sergeant.”
The Drake at the desk saluted. He sounded tired, and he spared a glare for Erin as he passed. The rest of the squad fell in, grumbling complaints. The two holding Erin dragged her forwards.
Erin heard a weary voice. She saw a Drake, head bent, buried in paperwork as he wrote with a quill. His voice sounded vaguely familiar, but the female Drake holding Erin’s right arm spat a reply at once.
“Use of a mass-effect Skill in public, Desk Sergeant! Resisting arrest, public disturbance, public nuisance, and disruption of industry!”
“What? I didn’t do all that!”
Erin protested. The two [Guards] holding her glared and she hesitated.
“I didn’t! And if you hit me, I’ll—I’ll kick you back! I mean it! I know Watch Captain Venim! And Pelt and Maughin can tell you this was all a mistake!”
The Drake [Guardswoman] made a sound. She raised a fist and the Desk Sergeant looked up.
“At ease, Guardswoman.”
The female Drake instantly sprang to stiff attention. Erin breathed a sigh of relief and then did a double-take. The Drake sitting at the desk in front of her had a familiar face. And scales. They were a dull orange, and his narked expression and glare put a name to his face in an instant.
“Kel? Hey, is that Guardsman Kel? Did you get promoted, Kel? Long time no see! I thought you were still on door duty! Hey, so this has been a complete misunderstanding—”
Erin brightened at once. Kel wasn’t the nicest [Guardsman] she knew, but she did know him. She smiled. Desk Sergeant Kel did not.
“Miss Erin Solstice. I have been promoted after the incident with the Creler attack. Two weeks ago, in fact.”
He looked openly proud about that. Erin smiled, and it was genuine, not just desperate; Kel had been the one who believed her when she warned Pallass about the attack.
“Great! So, look, about this—”
She was all set for Kel to tell the [Guards] to let her go, upon which she’d clearly be treating him to a huge bag of cookies the next time she got back to her inn. And a hug. But the Desk Sergeant did not immediately call for Erin’s release. Instead, he sighed and continued writing.
“Miss Solstice, this is your opportunity to explain the incident that occurred for yourself. Do you have any remarks?”
“What? Sure! Let me clear the air. Look, it was an accidental Skill. Pelt—you know Pelt, right? Grumpy Dwarf? Well, there was this thing with him—”
Kel held up a claw and checked something.
“Can you corroborate a report of intimidation and near-battery by the Dwarf on two aggrieved Garuda males?”
“What? Oh, that. They were bothering me. Well, Pelt overreacted, but—it’s a long story.”
“Proceed, then. As clearly as you can be, Miss Solstice.”
Kel looked up, clearly ready to take notes. Erin glanced at the two [Guards] holding her arm. She was still manacled, but after her threat to punch one of them, they weren’t letting go. It was cool, though. Protocol. She tried to give Kel as brief and informative a summary as possible.
“…And because y’know, Pelt was using the flames, I didn’t get a chance to put them out myself. Which I don’t know how to. But no one got hurt, right?”
She looked at Kel. The Drake finished writing, his quill dancing over the paper and only pausing now and then to dip in the inkpot. He looked up and cleared his throat.
“Hm. Thank you, Miss Solstice. You were cleared via truth spell, so I shall list your account as completely accurate. Now—”
The door to the Watch House swung open with a bang. Erin jumped, but a young voice shouted instantly.
“Message for the Desk Sergeant! 9th Floor!”
A young female Gnoll—another Street Runner barged up to the front desk without looking twice at Erin. She thrust a bit of parchment at Kel. He sighed and nodded to her.
“Received. Here. No messages at the moment.”
He flicked a Runner’s seal from a bowl at her and the Gnoll girl caught it and ran out. Kel unfolded the message and sighed as he read it. Erin was busy admiring the system of using Street Runners, but she saw Kel’s forehead crease. Now seemed like a good time.
“So, Kel, buddy. About this incident.”
The two [Guards] holding her, one the female Drake, the other a burly Dullahan, both glowered. The Dullahan, who’d been silent until now looked at Kel.
“Is this the Human, Desk Sergeant?”
“The [Innkeeper], Regil. Yes.”
Kel’s tone and expression made the two [Guards] eye Erin. She didn’t like the look they were giving her and each other. Kel sighed. He put the parchment down and addressed the female Drake.
“Was any [Guardsman] hurt when Miss Solstice resisted arrest, Guardswoman?”
“Nossir! But she squirms like a damn bag of worms, Desk Sergeant!”
The Drake glared at Erin. Erin glared back.
“Hey! You picked me up! I can walk! I—”
She shut up as Kel lifted a claw. The Desk Sergeant’s tone was…well, it was rather like Erin was used to in her previous dealings with Kel. Annoyed and resigned. The Drake sighed as he collected the note and paper he’d written on into a single report.
“Right. Well, all things considered Miss Solstice, I believe you when you say it was an accident. And apparently, I have two dozen [Smiths] already protesting your arrest and standing witness. So it would behoove the Watch to look kindly on the accident.”
“What? Desk Sergeant, it was a mass-Skill that could have been city-wide—”
The [Guardswoman] barked. There was clearly some level of formality to Pallass’ Watch system, because she shut up as Kel glared at her.
“The protesting smiths include Master Maughin and Master Pelt of the Blacksmith’s Guild.”
The female Drake bit her tongue. Erin smiled, but made it vanish as Kel looked at her. The Drake steepled his claws and sighed.
“On the other tail, this incident has upset a large number of Pallass residents. But given your unique relationship with Pallass, I have no doubt once we get it all sorted, Watch Captain Venim or another day-Captain will find you innocent. Or at least, reprimand you to Liscor’s care after paying a fine.”
Erin breathed a sigh of relief as both of the Pallassian [Guards] glowered. She smiled at Kel.
“Thanks, Kel. So I’m not in trouble?”
He nodded at her, and his half-glare didn’t change one bit. Kel paused.
“Not in any serious trouble, Miss Solstice. This is your first offence, and I will speedily convey the details of the situation to my superiors. I imagine they will want to speak with you before you are released. And until that moment, you are under arrest.”
He nodded to the two [Guards].
“Take her to the prison. I’m not having her in lockup.”
Erin’s jaw dropped. The two [Guards] grinned. And then, only then did Kel smile faintly. Erin felt the two arms begin to drag her back. She tried to fight forwards, shouting.
“What? You can’t do that! I thought we were friends, Kel! At least frenemies!”
“Treat Miss Solstice with care, [Guardswoman] Leciss. Unless she resists. Then I’ll authorize force.”
Kel warned the Drake. She looked disappointed, but Erin was furious. She struggled towards Kel’s desk, ignoring the other [Guards] who’d been idly watching her the entire time with urbane amusement.
“You can’t do this! It was an accident!”
The Drake sitting at the desk met Erin’s furious glare. He sighed.
“So you ‘accidentally’ used a Skill that caused sadness in anyone who beheld it? And we should let you go because you ‘didn’t know any better?’ Is that right, Miss Erin?”
She hesitated. Well, when he put it like that…
“But it was an accident. You know that. Right?”
Kel nodded agreeably. The Drake consulted his report.
“Absolutely, Miss Solstice. You were tested under truth spell and we have witnesses all corroborated in the report. Any Watch Captain would agree this was an accident. And I am sure they will when they have time to review your case. That usually occurs each evening before nightfall.”
“But why do I have to be in jail for it?”
The Drake paused. He met Erin’s eyes slowly.
“Why indeed? Miss Erin Solstice, I have over four hundred complaints in the lower Watch houses from people who witnessed your Skill. Distraught victims moved to tears. Families, guests of the city. People celebrating birthdays. Children. All of whom who were affected by your ‘accident’.”
He stared meaningfully at Erin. Her heart fell. And Pelt. She remembered his tears. Maughin’s too. Kel looked at her.
“Should I let you walk free, Miss Solstice? For your accident? That is within my authority as Desk Sergeant. If you believe I should, please, let me know.”
He was being unusually erudite. But Erin saw the glint in the Drake’s eyes. He was enjoying this. She hung her head and muttered.
“…I’ll go quietly.”
Kel the [Guardsman] nodded with great satisfaction. As the other two [Guards] turned Erin around and began leading her out of the Watch House, he called at their backs.
“Put her in the non-magical section. Block—no, put her in our temporary holding area. In the punishment cell.”
Erin hesitated. The Drake grinned.
“As you say, Desk Sergeant! Come on, Human.”
She pulled at Erin. The young woman looked back.
“Kel? Wait. Punishment…Kel?”
She ignored Erin’s protests and dragged her out of the Watch House. Kel listened to Erin shouting until her voice was muffled by the door slamming shut. Then he sat back at his desk and sighed.
“Report to go to Watch Captain Qissa. Anyone headed down?”
“I’ll take it on my patrol.”
One of the Senior Guardswomen offered. A Gnoll trotted over and leaned on the desk. She was a grizzled veteran with a missing ear and scars from her encounters with trouble. She nodded to the door.
“So that’s the Human whose door you had to guard this entire time, Kel?”
“Is she always like that?”
Kel paused. He looked the Senior Guardswoman in the eye.
“That? That was the most pleasant encounter with her I’ve ever had in my life.”
He held the look for a second. Then he went back to his work.
Pallass prison was not a small place. Again, to compare it to a city like Liscor was to fundamentally change some aspects of, well, everything. Liscor was not Pallass. And Pallass, as a Walled City had a far larger criminal problem. And indeed, a different method of dealing with them.
The Walled City’s prisons ran along the 3rd Floor. And they were built into the wall. Not the actual wall, but adjacent, creating a pocket along the floor hidden by enchanted stone. Out of sight and out of mind for most residents. Well, not out of mind; property value didn’t seem to be that great around here, Erin saw. People didn’t want to live next to a prison, even one as well-guarded as Pallass’.
Indeed, the streets might not have been as nice as say, around Tails and Scales, but they were definitely clean and well-patrolled. The Watch was heavily entrenched in this area and for good reason. The prison kept Pallass’ worst elements locked up and the Watch was prepared to house even [Mages] and powerful threats. And apparently, Erin had just been given one of the worst cells in the entire prison.
“Peel my scales and call me a fleshbag. That’s a nasty punishment. Desk Sergeant Kel must hate your guts, Human.”
The female Drake was gloating as she led Erin towards the large prison doors. Erin stared up apprehensively at the prison. The Dullahan was more sympathetic. He looked down at Erin as one of his arms held her shoulder. Separate from his body; the rest of him was walking a few feet to Erin’s right. His detached arm had hold of Erin. It was very creepy.
“It seems harsh.”
The Drake snorted.
“It’s only for a few hours. She’s not gonna die. Anyways, she gave us all this trouble. Why not throw her in with a few criminals for a few minutes?”
She grinned nastily at Erin. The Drake woman paused as they approached the gates.
“If it was up to me, and if you hadn’t given us trouble, maybe I’d have let you off in one of our nicer cells. But you asked for it. You think you can waltz on in from Liscor and do whatever you want? This is Pallass.”
“Yeah, you keep saying that. But it was an accident. Hey, come on. I don’t need punishment. Right? How bad is this…cell?”
The two [Guards] looked at each other. The Dullahan shook his head. The Drake laughed.
“You’ll live. Hey! One for lockup!”
They passed through a double set of gates much like the plans Lyonette had drawn up for Erin’s inn. [Guards] could hold this position against intruders—and, Erin saw—attackers from within. They had to unlock the gates from their post to let the two [Guards] take Erin in. A Gnoll [Warden] called out.
The Gnoll did a double-take as she let the [Guards] and Erin through into the main prison. She stared at Erin.
“Really? What’d she do?”
“Tell you later.”
The Drake marched Erin into the prison. Now, they were closer to Liscor’s prison. Lines of cells, some with narrow steel bars, were the first thing Erin saw. She shuddered, but Pallass’ prison was far from dirty. In fact, it was uncannily clean and well-lit. Magical [Light] spells provided illumination and there wasn’t any smell of sewers or the bugs and stains that sprang to mind when Erin imagined a prison.
But it was far from nice. The [Warden] tossed the female Drake a ring of keys.
“You know the way?”
“You have six minutes. Go.”
She nodded them off. The two [Guards] marched Erin forwards. She passed by cells, and saw the inmates look up as she passed. Some came to the bars. Others called out to the [Guards], asking what Erin was in for.
Erin muttered. She hadn’t believed she’d actually go to jail. Not really. What was she, a criminal? But now she was here, it was starting to sink in.
On they went. The two [Guards] led Erin past steel-barred cells, to the left. The prison wasn’t one big corridor, but separated into blocks. The first block looked like a mass-lockup with steel bars and cells being the sole deterrent. The next area was filled with magical cells. Forcefields made of energy, glowing locks—Erin began to sweat.
Quick! What was the first rule of prisons? Erin hadn’t watched that new show, on TV! She tried to remember the few scraps she was aware of. Like when she and the Hobgoblins had been arrested. But this time it was serious. All of Erin’s jokes—in prison—in prison you attacked the biggest guy first! Or girl! Wait, was this an all-female prison?
Erin had a moment of hope. Right until she looked into one of the cells and saw a Gnoll glaring at her. He was male.
It was mixed prison. Drakes and Gnolls stared out of the bars. Garuda and Dullahan and even this guy with feline features were there too, but other races were rarer. Some looked innocent, or at least, like they were people who’d committed an offense that would land them an overnight sentence, like being drunk or causing a fight.
But some looked like career criminals. And Erin judged that only by the look in their eyes. That impartial, cold look that told you they had seen people die and they could see your death too. Erin had seen that look before. In Relc’s eyes, Klbkch’s…in many of her friends. And in a mirror. They stared at her, some grinning. Others appraising.
She stared back. Erin wasn’t afraid of them. Well, she was, but she wasn’t going to show it and the criminals whose cell she passed appraised her a second time as she met more than one growling Gnoll’s eyes. But Erin was afraid.
She was afraid of what the punishment cell was. Of having to do something to hurt someone. She remembered a Goblin, a pot of boiling oil. She never really forgot.
“Special section. Prisoner for the special cells. In here.”
The Drake and Dullahan stopped at a cell and Erin blinked. They hadn’t gone into any of the blocks. They’d just kept heading left and now they were at a dead end. Erin looked about apprehensively. What was this section?
It looked like just steel cells, like the standard ones. But the Drake and Dullahan were ushering Erin into the last cell in the block. They pushed Erin into the cell.
“Hands out of the bars. We’ll unlock the manacles.”
The Dullahan instructed Erin. Helplessly, the young woman did so. The Drake collected the manacles and keys. Erin stared around the cell they’d put her into.
“Wait, this is the punishment cell?”
The two [Guards] nodded. Erin looked around. The cell was small. Not as small as Calruz’ cell, but still like a box. And it was empty. Erin breathed a sigh of relief. Then she whirled, checking for traps, something horrible in the corner.
“You’ll be here until someone reviews your case. Don’t cause trouble, Human. If you’re in some kind of emergency, shout. [Guards] patrol regularly. But keep shouting and they’ll make you shut up.”
The Dullahan warned Erin kindly. The Drake just turned. They were already walking away. Erin stared at their backs.
“But wait! Why is this the punishment cell?”
“You’ll find out!”
The drake called over her shoulder. Left with that, Erin could only take stock of her surroundings.
Her first instinct was to check for something horrible in the cell or around her. But Erin only saw a slumbering shape in the cell across from hers. She glanced around her cell quickly.
It was bare. Well—there was a bench/cot worked into one side of the cell. Erin could sit on it or sleep there. And the bars were far too thin for her to stretch through and there were horizontal ones as well as vertical. Erin stared around. Then she noticed a hole in one corner. She walked over—and then walked back hurriedly.
“Sewage hole. Ew.”
It didn’t stink too bad. But maybe it really stank after a while! Or overflowed! Erin winced. She did not want to have to use the bathroom here. But…she hesitated.
“It’s really not that bad.”
After a second she even found the cot had a pillow and a blanket, folded, and hopefully, unused. There was a privacy screen Erin could drag out to use the bathroom—it was a nice cell if you weren’t going to live in it. But where was the punishment?
The young woman stared around the cell. Then she heard a sound. A voice rang out, sounding surprised.
“What’s this, what’s this? Looks like I have a guest.”
Erin Solstice froze. She felt her skin crawl. And she had a thought. A premonition. Maybe the punishment wasn’t a thing, but a person.
She turned around slowly. And then she saw him. The occupant of the cell across from her had risen. As Erin swung to face him, she saw the prisoner in the magical lighting. And Erin Solstice realized one thing.
A prison was where bad people went. Sometimes innocent people. Sometimes people who made a single bad mistake, or were desperate. But sometimes the worst of the worst. The kind of people who were more monster than person. Who made you question whether the devil danced behind their eyes, laughing as they did unspeakable things. The kind of people who left scars by their very presence on the earth, who could hurt you just from a single conversation.
A Drake stood in his cell, against the steel bars. His scales were dusky yellow, and his frame was slim. He was tall, and stood quite straight. He looked fine. Like anyone you’d pass in a Drake city, really. Except for one detail that made Erin realize why he was in jail in an instant.
He was completely, absolutely, buck-stark-naked.
Naked. Not a scrap of clothing on him. His scales shone in the magical light and he made no attempt to cover himself up. And the steel bars did not help either. The Drake posed in the magical light.
“Funny. I never get cellmates usually. I wonder why?”
Erin stared at him. He winked at her. She stared at his face. Then, slowly, her gaze travelled down. You couldn’t really help it. Erin stared down, and then her face screwed up into an expression of profound annoyance and disgust. She threw up her hands and shouted.
“Aw! Come on!”
The world was changing. In small and large ways, unknowingly, the world Erin had found herself in was altering itself to mirror Earth. Some of it was intentional, by design of the strangers who found themselves in another world and tried to bring what they knew into this place. But other events were incidental. They occurred because it was a natural evolution.
Like weights. Pallass’ prisons were as yet devoid of sets of weights and the world in general lacked gyms. But in Pallass, at the very moment Erin came face-to-face with Drake nudity, the first weight bar was being lifted by a grunting Gnoll.
Some things were universal. A bar of steel, lead weights on each end. Rounded, naturally, and balanced on either side. Heavy lead weights. It had to be at least three hundred pounds of weight including the bar, and the Gnoll pumping the weight was unused to the exercise.
Her arms strained as she tried to do a bench press. For a second it looked like her arms might give out as she halted halfway, but a roaring voice shouted a few feet above her.
“Lift! Don’t you dare let that bar sink, Ferkr! Lift! Two more times! Push your limits!”
The struggling female Gnoll growled and the bar moved up. Slowly. So slowly. Grimalkin stood over her, bellowing encouragement.
“Don’t let it slide! Balance! That’s right! Up! Up!”
The arms moved—from the force of Grimalkin’s bellowing as much as sheer willpower. The bar rose—and it was up! But there was no place to lock the bar. The Gnoll panted.
“Two more times! That’s right! Down! Slowly—”
The Gnoll gasped as the bar lowered. She was fighting to keep it steady. Because—another thing yet missing from weight training—there was no locking nut on this bar. If Ferkr’s arms let the bar go left or right, the weights would just slide off.
Oh, and there was no spotter. As the bar lowered to her chest, Ferkr groaned. Grimalkin was still shouting.
“Inhale! And exhale as you push! That’s right! Up! One last time! Push!”
“No one will help you on the battlefield or when a spell fails! There is only you! Push! Now—”
One last rep. Ferkr growled, then she howled as the bar lowered—and then rose. It wobbled as it came up and Ferkr’s arms lost their strength. The bar twisted—the weights began to slide and Ferkr’s eyes went wide.
Grimalkin grabbed the bar. Without apparent effort, he lifted the bar up and caught the weights with one claw. He lowered the bar in a perfect squat, and then rose as Ferkr lay on the bench, panting.
“Look at that! Testicles!”
He bellowed and every head in the room swiveled. Grimalkin pointed down at Ferkr.
“Five times! Five lifts at three hundred pounds! Ferkr could barely do one, but she forced herself to do five! She pushed her limits with sheer willpower!”
He punched one fist into his hand. Grimalkin strode past Ferkr as she struggled to sit up. He was a giant compared to her. Not in height, but mass. Grimalkin was almost pure muscle, from head to toe. He was similar to Erin’s notion of a bodybuilder from her world; his arms were twice as large as a normal Drake’s. Three times?
He was also, coincidentally, a [Mage]. The Drake, or rather, [Sinew Magus], pointed at Ferkr and she winced. Grimalkin’s voice was near-bellow inside as he addressed the other occupants of the gym.
“Willpower! That’s all it is. You can force yourself to do what your body protests! If a Selphid can Rampage and unlock a body’s potential, we can do the same! Ferkr, up! To your desk!”
He pointed and the female Gnoll swung herself up with a groan. But she didn’t have time to rest; she slumped her way into a chair and desk. Then she stared at a roll of parchment in front of her. And a quill. And inkpot.
“You have thirty minutes. Begin!”
Grimalkin grabbed a sand timer and turned it over. Ferkr wanted to lie her head down on the desk, but she forced her paw to grab the quill and begin scribbling on the parchment. Her fur was matted with sweat and there was the odor of…workout in the room. Grimalkin paused and his head turned, looking for another victim.
“Terreskil! Stop lazing about and squat! You have fifteen more squats before you get back to your desk!”
He strode over to a Drake trying to do squats with a weight bar on his shoulders. The Drake groaned as Grimalkin stood over him.
“Squat! No, not that low! Do you want to injure yourself?”
“Magus Grimalkin, I can’t—”
“You only think you can’t! And your brain is wrong! Give me another squat! Lift with your legs!”
The smaller, younger Drake tried to rise. But his legs shook and then—he lost his balance. Grimalkin caught the weight bar before the Drake could collapse under it. He stood over Terreskil as the Drake fell to his knees, panting wildly.
“You have to push, Terreskil! Alright. Fifteen minutes of writing. To your desk!”
He hauled the Drake up with a single claw. Terreskil looked like he wanted to protest, but he slumped over to his desk. He lay on it, panting.
“If you do not have at least two pages of writing, I will make you run four laps up and down the stairs! From the walls to the first floor!”
Grimalkin turned and bellowed at the students at their desks and working out. Terreskil looked up, a horrible expression of panic on his brow. He forced himself up on one elbow and began to write—but the effort of concentration was squeezing even more sweat from his scales.
Across from him, Drakes, a pair of Dullahans, and a Garuda were working out. They were lifting weights, and then trudging over to the desks set bare feet from the lifting stations to continue writing their essays.
Desks set next to weights. If that was an odd juxtaposition, well, the room was large enough to accommodate both. And indeed, Grimalkin had cleared this space of his regular equipment. The students were in fact doing their writing on a lovely Chandrarian carpet. Sweating onto it. Grimalkin pointed to a huge sweat stain pooling under Ferkr.
The stain on the carpet vanished. Grimalkin waved one clawed hand and the smell of sweat and body odors vanished from the room. The Drake Magus nodded, satisfied. There was such a thing as cleanliness, especially in his domain.
The students were in Grimalkin’s home. Well, ‘home’ was misleading; they were in his laboratory area of his large estates in Pallass. Normally, that conjured to mind an [Alchemist]’s workshop, or a place like a library, filled with mystical artifacts and magical symbols and so on.
Not for Grimalkin the Fist Mage, self-proclaimed strongest [Mage] in Pallass. His laboratory was filled with weights at this moment. And the plain, marked square of stone he usually practiced new spells or experiments in had been occupied by the weights rather than the protective magical shield spells. On the other side of the room, where the students were frantically writing, they could look up at framed painting and diagrams.
The diagrams were of different species’ bodies, some sourced from other [Artists] fascinated with the body, or darker experiments. Some of them were hand-drawn, by Grimalkin himself, noting different muscle groups.
The portraits were of famous warriors. Heroes, [Martial Artists], all originals and illustrated by the finest [Artists] of their time. They were also all as true-to-life as Grimalkin could find; he had no time for fanciful imaginations.
One particularly vivid portrait of a [Martial Artist] Stitch-Woman had been vividly…perhaps too vividly captured in full scope by some avid [Painter]. It would have been lewd, but for—no, it was lewd. The artist had captured every detail and the [Martial Artist] had been very naked at the time. But Grimalkin kept it around. Prominently featured, in fact, next to one of his personal bookcases of texts.
It would make most people suspect his reasons, but his students knew he only had eyes for the geography of the body. He had one true love, and it was the physical form. He had other nude paintings and diagrams too. And all of his students had learned to ignore them.
Grimalkin of Pallass. To see him shouting or exhorting his students as they worked out was to get an instant snapshot of his personality. But that was only half of him. Now, as all of his students went to their desks, the muscular Drake [Mage] walked down the lines of their desks. And his field-roar became softer. Still loud and commanding, but authoritative rather than shouty.
“Control your breathing. Inhale—move your diaphragm. Wonderful term, that. Expand your chest. Inhale—exhale. Deep, controlled breaths. Don’t pant, Ferkr. Focus your minds as if you’re preparing to cast a spell. Walk on a razor’s edge of concentration. I want those essays as precise as anything I’d read from students in Fissival’s Scholarium.”
His students bowed their heads as Grimalkin walked past them, checking their work. They were writing essays. The apprentices were trading off, some exercising, and then, as they reached maximum fatigue, punishing their brains with magical textbooks or writing essays on their thoughts.
“I don’t see your claw moving, Terreskil.”
Grimalkin glared at a Drake. The Drake jumped.
“I was collecting my thoughts, Master—”
“You were not. I can see your muscles relaxing. Back straight! Think if you must, but don’t lose focus!”
Grimalkin whirled, and his tail slapped Terreskil’s back. The younger Drake—probably only seventeen or so, groaned. And he couldn’t bear it any longer.
“Master! Can’t we rest for a few minutes? We’ve been exercising for nearly an hour!”
The other students winced as his plaintive tone made Grimalkin turn back. The [Sinew Magus]’ brows shot together. He barked at Terreskil.
“Oh, and an hour’s work is enough to fatigue you so much that you can’t put two words together on parchment?”
“No, Master Grimalkin. I only meant—”
“Should we pamper you, Terreskil? Feed you as much food as you want and let you study at your leisure? Are we Wistram [Mages]? Would you like a couch to recline on? Something to drink? Alcoholic or not?”
Grimalkin’s purr was followed by him flicking his claw. A crystal decanter filled with a soft, amber liquid floated over. And a cup. Terreskil hunched his shoulders.
“I didn’t mean—”
“You want a break. Well, I have news for you, Terreskil! When the enemy is charging at you in the heat of battle, you do not get a break!”
Grimalkin roared in Terreskil’s earhole. His students winced as the [Sinew Magus] thumped a huge fist. Everything on Terreskil’s desk jumped, including the Drake.
“This is a crash course, Terreskil. I don’t have nearly a decade to waste on making you a [Mage]! Let alone the inclination! You have one year, two at most to pass my class. And when you do, you will find the rest of life is easy by comparison! Do you want to be a [Mage]?”
“Yes, Magus Grimalkin!”
“Say it louder!”
“Yes, Magus Grimalkin!”
Terreskil shouted. Grimalkin nodded. Then he strode past Terreskil as the Drake bent back to his essay. The [Mage] turned as he faced his class of a dozen students.
“[Mages] write! If you can’t express yourself on parchment and paper, you will leave nothing behind! More to the point—your brain is a muscle! You will use it or it will be as weak as an infant’s! If anyone has finished their essay on Valmira’s spellcasting in history and modern implementation, I want you on the weights! If one set of muscle is tired, work another!”
One of his students rose. A Dullahan. Grimalkin flicked his claw and the finished three pages of notes floated towards him. He read as the Dullahan wearily headed to his next station—a set of barbells—and began doing exercises with his arms.
The [Sinew Magus] read fast and efficiently, his eyes flying down the page. He dismissed the parchment and nodded to the Dullahan.
“Hmf. Not bad, Giren. Pass. I disagree that [Valmira’s Comets] is in fact a powerful Tier 5 spell if used with the proper base of mana—it’s costly and useful only against a massed army. Such as the Antinium. But there are more effective Tier 5 spells. Nevertheless—good.”
“Thank you, Magus.”
The Dullahan panted. Grimalkin nodded at him. The other students, including the sole Gnoll, Ferkr, looked up at Giren briefly. That was the highest praise Grimalkin normally awarded. Giren was his oldest student, nearing two years. He was muscular and, if his performance was any indication, he’d soon be graduated from Grimalkin’s training course.
“Twenty minutes left! Four laps if you fail to turn in an essay of the required length or present a halfway decent argument! That goes for essay structure as well! Push your limits!”
Grimalkin roared. His students worked frantically because he meant every word of what he said. And running four laps up and down Pallass’ stairs would kill them.
Now, why would anyone subject themselves to such intense and abusive training? Any casual onlooker would have conflated Grimalkin’s training with a kind of torture, and it was. His students worked their bodies day and night, collapsing into their beds, and then got up to do it day after day. They tore muscles. They bled. Some of them broke bones, but if they did, Grimalkin just healed them up and made them exercise properly.
It was said that even Pallass’ elite [Soldiers] received training from Grimalkin, and his instruction was feared even by them. Surely no one with a sane mind would ever apprentice themselves to him, master [Mage] or not. But one thing kept the students in Grimalkin’s class at their desks, as sweat beaded their skin, scales, feathers and armor.
His promise. Grimalkin would accept any student in the world, regardless of species or age or gender. All he demanded for his classes was raw talent. In either muscle or magic. His students paid to go through hell, but after only a single year or two, three on the outside, they’d be certified as full [Mages] by Grimalkin himself, capable of casting magic…in his unique way.
When Giren graduated, he could enroll in any magical academy in the world with credentials. Fissival would take Grimalkin’s students and assume they’d completed basic spellcraft theory, combat training, and any number of classes it would take their students four years to master. Belchan’s [Mage] College would likewise regard Grimalkin’s students as competent and ready to move into their advanced spell studies.
Wistram—Wistram would probably laugh at a student applying from Grimalkin’s training course, but not to the student’s face. Because Grimalkin’s students were also rated for combat. Even the worst students were instantly certified at the Silver-rank in the Adventurer’s Guilds and they could also enter Pallass’ army with immediate promotion to a lower officer rank.
That was the allure of Grimalkin’s training. He did not, in his own words, ‘coddle’ his students. Instead, he’d developed the harshest courses a body could endure, designed to bring out a student’s potential in the shortest amount of time.
And it worked. Grimalkin might be ridiculed as the ‘Fist Mage’, but never to his face. He’d killed Adult Crelers on the battlefield, slain enemy [Mages] with his bare fist and spells—he’d even dueled Archmage Feor of Wistram. And lost, it was true, but he’d walked away from the duel.
“Physical magic. Sinew magecraft. The concept of weaving mana throughout the body. Storing it in muscle. If Star Lamias can store it in their scales, and if half-Elf bodies are naturally magically inclined, why can’t any species create natural mana stores in the body? Yours are developing well, Giren. Yes. That’s right. Concentrate the mana in your arms.”
Grimalkin pointed at Giren. The Dullahan was lifting an enormous dumbell—seventy pounds of weight—and curling his left arm with slow, deliberate motions. Grimalkin’s students could see the Dullahan concentrating fiercely. He wasn’t just using his muscle—he was enhancing it with magic to lift the weight. Grimalkin nodded approvingly.
“It is the base of your spellcasting reserves! When you draw on it, you can be as strong as a regular [Warrior] with Skills! And when you need it, you will have deeper mana reserves than most common [Mages]! This is how we surpass more magically-gifted species!”
He flexed one huge arm. His apprentices saw Grimalkin’s body, a mass of magic, flex, demonstrating his very theory in action. It was Grimalkin’s unique way of spellcraft. The Drake was known for his outlandish theories that defied conventional, modern magical theory. He was always trying out something new.
Like this. Weight training with weights, made of steel and lead and iron followed by intensive mental exercise. Grimalkin peered at another essay as his Garuda student rose and handed him his papers.
“Pass! Your spelling needs work, Ekil, but pass. Good! I see this experiment is working. I’ll have to thank Miss Solstice later. And we will be trying out her sparring chess theory later.”
His class groaned as one under their breaths. Grimalkin’s apprentices had not met Erin Solstice except from afar or briefly, but they had learned to curse her name. This latest idea—writing essays after working out—was based on one of the things Erin had taught Grimalkin for his assistance.
“Chess boxing. Or rather, mental and physical exercise in bouts. Fascinating. And I would try this chess boxing, although it sounds highly unproductive. Especially if I were to challenge Chaldion. Still, this is worth trying. Now—”
Grimalkin stepped back and stopped exhorting his class for a second. He eyed Giren and the Drake’s eyes analyzed the Dullahan from top to toe. Grimalkin nodded to himself. He could read a body’s configuration, from the way sinew and bone and tendon moved to the health and strength of a person.
The Drake found his personal journal and opened it. A quill flew up and the Drake began dictating some notes as the quill, devoid of any hand, began transcribing his thoughts.
“Let’s see. Control group is actually progressing less quickly than my new weight-training class. This dedicated lifting with weights is more efficient—if very targeted towards specific muscle groups. But it is far better than full-contact sparring or training with leaded weapons for pure bodybuilding. Incredible.”
This was one of two groups of apprentices Grimalkin had divided up. The other group was partaking of Grimalkin’s traditional course. They ran, sparred, and exercised without the weights. This class was using the newfangled ‘weights’ that Grimalkin had been so taken by. In fact, the weights set he’d ordered from Pallass’ forges had arrived two weeks ago and Grimalkin had put his students through the wringer testing them out to their fullest.
“Magus Grimalkin? I’m finished.”
More students were handing Grimalkin their essays. He read them quickly before sending them to the weights. Three students he failed and gave them ten minutes to correct their errors.
Ferkr was one of them. Grimalkin flicked the parchment back at her.
“Incorrect! I want a thesis, Ferkr, not a history lesson. Give me a point! I’ve taught you the fundamental shape of forming an argument. Rewrite the essay. Twenty minutes!”
The other students looked at Ferkr sympathetically as she slumped at her desk. She was the only Gnoll Grimalkin had ever taught as a potential [Mage]. The huge Drake hovered over Ferkr.
“What is your thesis?”
“That—that Valmira’s magic was powerful for its time, Magus?”
Grimalkin’s bellow made Ferkr clap one paw over her ear. The Magus moderated his tone.
“Ah. I forget Gnoll’s have such good hearing. My apologies. What I meant to say was—unacceptable! That is a bland, empty thesis, Ferkr! Give me something that won’t make me regret reading your essay! What about Valmira can you personally share that I don’t already know?”
“I—I—Valmira’s magic was powerful for its time, Magus, but it was fundamentally flawed? Which is why she perished in her magical duel with Archmage Nekhret?”
Ferkr hesitated. The female Gnoll felt her way forwards carefully.
“She—had tremendous spell-theory, but her magic is fundamentally unshaped. Hence your notes about [Valmira’s Comets] being mana-efficient, but ineffective in how the spell itself is shaped?”
“Not my notes. It’s echoed in any number of analytical texts. Nevertheless, Valmira was so gifted at magical manipulation that the spell is still in use in any number of spellbooks. Good! Here—cite me from Archmage Redovil’s Analysis of Spells in Warfare, a Retrospective, and make me an argument. Twenty minutes!”
Grimalkin strode off. Ferkr sighed, but she got to work. And in twenty minutes, she came back and Grimalkin passed her.
“Good. To your station, Ferkr. Squats. No—deadlifts.”
The Gnoll nodded. She felt better after nearly an hour of writing, although her head hurt instead. She paused as she went over to the weights bar.
“Um. Which lift is this, Magus?”
“Ah. Back muscle. Bend—lift the bar from the front.”
Ferkr bent and tried the back-intensive lift. After a second, Grimalkin stormed over.
“No! Your hips are too low, Ferkr! Keep that back straight! Proper form is essential. You’ll damage your back. Not like that. Like this.”
He demonstrated. Ferkr, blushing, nodded.
Grimalkin shook his head briskly as he maneuvered Ferkr, making sure she was lifting right.
“Not your fault. I’ve been testing you all in too many positions. But there is a proper way to do these lifts. I can see I need some illustrations to go along with these sets. We have healing potions—but what a waste! Besides, healing potions undo all the work we’re trying to do. The low-grade ones, at least.”
He frowned as Ferkr did a proper lift this time.
“It is fascinating. All this potential for improving one’s strength in a relatively safe environment still has inherent risk. I can easily see someone failing to develop the body correctly. Just as Miss Solstice said. I’ll write a manual—the entire body needs to be developed. Upper and lower body. And the core.”
He relished the word. Ferkr grunted. She was keeping her abdominal muscles tight, as Grimalkin had shown her. He’d preached about the strength of the abdomen, but all these new terms like ‘repetition’, ‘core’, and ‘deadlifts’ and so on were a product of his meeting with one Human.
“Good. You’re clearly not at your limit, but this is meant to train the muscle rather than push it. Let’s call it…fifteen sets.”
“Magus, should I use the locking mechanism? I feel like these weights are going to slip off.”
Ferkr pleaded. Grimalkin snorted.
“They might. Which is why I want proper form. I’ll include them in the other sets, but I want you to learn balance, Ferkr. You have a good foundation; Gnolls are physically adept naturally. But I want you to learn control.”
Grimalkin nodded. Ferkr got back to work and Grimalkin supervised his class. After a second he heard a chime.
“Someone at the door? Giren.”
The Dullahan was on his break between workouts. He got up and smartly came back.
“An apprentice to see you, Magus. Smith Tirren?”
“Ah, yes. Show them in.”
Grimalkin turned as a Drake apprentice, his scales smudged with soot, humbly entered Grimalkin’s abode. He bowed—or tried to, but Grimalkin was too busy for formalities.
“Smith Tirren’s latest work is finished?”
“Yes, Magus. Here’s the set of weights you ordered. Smith Tirren wants to assure you he’s used the best steel, so the metal shouldn’t flex like it did before.”
The apprentice offered Grimalkin a bag of holding. The Drake began pulling out metal bars and weights. He nodded, grunting.
“Quality looks good. I may need enchanted bars to hold the weight personally, but the expense—for now, steel. And there’s clearly a weight limit. I’ll add that to my manual. And I’d like to make another order of Tirren’s smithy.”
“Of course, Magus! More sets of weight?”
The apprentice bowed hurriedly. Grimalkin was a good customer and the [Smiths] of Pallass wanted his gold. Grimalkin nodded absently.
“I have enough personal sets with my students and I think I’m ready to send the product out. I’ll need to compose a manual, but the weights themselves are fine. I’ll need bags of holding—I don’t think I have enough. But never mind that. Let’s see. I promised a set to that Human City Runner. Guardsman Relc…hm.”
He counted briskly as the apprentice waited, fishing out a bit of parchment to take Grimalkin’s order. The Magus mused to himself.
“Let’s send a dozen sets to Manus so they can test the equipment thoroughly. I’m sure they can replicate the design once they see the inherent value. A few to the other cities—hm. I’ll take sixty sets in total to be safe. Payment up front.”
The apprentice’s eyes bulged. Grimalkin eyed him.
“Assuming Master Tirrel can handle so many weight sets? I would like all of them in…three days. And twenty by tonight. I can ask another smith to split the difference if—”
“No, no! Master Tirrel will absolutely have the sets done.”
The apprentice fell over himself trying to assure Grimalkin. The Drake nodded.
“Have Master Tirrel contact the Merchant’s Guild regarding payment. I will draft a note to them—here. No doubt they’ll send someone to confirm, but the funds should be immediately released.”
He handed the apprentice a letter after a moment and sighed. The apprentice took it and bowing over himself, hurried out of Grimalkin’s home. No doubt Master Tirrel would have to contract some of his fellow smiths to help with the huge order, but he’d scored a massive sale.
Grimalkin didn’t even think of the gold he’d spent, though. He was already back to coaching Ferkr and his other students. The Gnoll panted as Grimalkin had her doing a hanging leg lift. He’d already come up with the exercise, but now Ferkr had to hold a dumbbell between her feet as she lifted her legs up to waist-level and swung them down.
“Good. Good. I’m impressed; Gnolls do have an easier time by and large with my workouts than Drakes. Well, it is a species difference. I hadn’t appreciated it until now. But then, you are the first of my apprentices in your species. How long have you been studying, Ferkr?”
“Six months, Magus.”
Grimalkin nodded. Ferkr was a special project.
“And the Meeting of the Tribes is coming up. Hm. We’d better begin preparing you for that day. We’ll work in more private spellcraft studying time, although I hate to cut short your physical regimen.”
Ferkr brightened, although Grimalkin’s mental studies were almost as taxing as his physical lessons. But then her face fell.
The female Gnoll hesitated. She bit one lip as she lifted her legs, grunting with the effort of the exercise.
“Am I—ready for the Meeting of the Tribes?”
“You can cast magic.”
“Yes, Magus. But…”
But Grimalkin’s training was as much exercise as it was…magic. And Gnolls couldn’t cast magic like [Mages]. Everyone knew that. Ferkr bit her tongue on all of that; she’d get another shouting lesson. But Grimalkin seemed to read her mind. He sighed, and for once, didn’t bellow.
“If you’re worried about your magical ability, Ferkr, you are capable of casting magic. Drop. Cast [Light] for me. Now.”
She did so. Ferkr held out her paw, and concentrated. After a moment, a ball of yellow light appeared over her paw. It was hard, but as the orb rose, she stared at it.
Magic. The other apprentices eyed Ferkr. A Gnoll casting a [Mage] spell. Grimalkin nodded.
“There. What do you have to worry about? You will go to the Meeting of Tribes and show them you can cast magic.”
“Yes, Magus. But only Tier 1 and Tier 2 spells at best! I’ve been here six months and…”
Ferkr tried not to whine like a Gnoll cub. Grimalkin paused. He took his time in his reply as he eyed Ferkr up and down.
“It is true that you have had more difficulty naturally accessing your internal mana than any other apprentice I’ve ever taught. Which is fascinating, incidentally. In order to cast basic spells, it has taken you—how many months?”
“Longer than most, I will admit. It was a mental block near the end. But Ferkr, listen to me.”
Grimalkin put a claw on Ferkr’s shoulder, squeezing gently. For him. He met his apprentice’s eyes firmly.
“You’ve built up my fundamental basis for mage-muscle magical storage, or ‘magical sinew’. I’m still thinking of a catchy appellation. And it is true, you struggled hard to get to where you are. Are you lagging behind some apprentices in your spellcraft? Of course! I won’t lie to you.”
The Drake nodded, gesturing to Ferkr as he walked around her.
“There is some…strange phenomenon going on with the Gnollish ability to cast magic naturally. But you came to me to learn magic. You wanted to learn it and you had the passion and grit to overcome your limitations! Once you punched through your initial inability, you were able to cast magic! Effectively! Which proves Gnolls only need grit. Determination!”
He clenched a fist, his voice rising with each sentence.
“You will prove to the tribes that Gnolls can cast magic! You have what it takes, Ferkr! Don’t you dare doubt yourself after all you’ve done! You have what it takes! Willpower! Strength of character!”
One of Grimalkin’s apprentices muttered under his breath. Grimalkin’s head turned.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Terreskil. Anyways, I believe in you, Ferkr. And I will not tolerate weak-mindedness!”
Ferkr practically glowed under the rare praise. Grimalkin clapped her shoulder and she staggered. Briskly, he turned.
“It will be a huge discovery. And you and I will go down in modern history for bringing this, Ferkr. I have no doubt. But I’m still looking into this odd phenomenon with the Gnolls. You will certainly prove to all the Gnolls that you can cast magic. But you are not alone.”
The female Gnoll nodded hesitantly. She looked at Grimalkin.
“Is it just perception that makes it so hard for Gnolls to become [Mages], Master Grimalkin?”
“No. I don’t think so. There is some reason behind the lack of magical ability in recent generations of Gnolls. There was a Gnoll apprentice who journeyed to Wistram, forty years ago. Or so I understand. One of their [Shamans]. Wasn’t there a controversy among the Gnoll tribes in sending such a student?”
“Yes, Magus. The tribes have an issue with the academy. They won’t trade with Wistram—”
Grimalkin waved a claw.
“Not that. I know all about the reaction of the tribes. I mean, the decision to send a Gnoll to Wistram at all. There was some controversy in even sending a potential student. And I checked the records via my contact at the academy—no Gnoll had been sent for the last three hundred years before that. Why?”
The young Gnoll shook her head.
“I’m not a Plains Gnoll, Magus. I was born in Pallass.”
“Hm. Well, I can see why this misconception occurred. There was a problem with your ability, Ferkr, but it can be overcome. Gnolls can be [Mages]. You’re proof of that. Not just you, either.”
Grimalkin was rubbing at his chin. He spoke thoughtfully.
“The white Gnoll child—Mrsha—is also utilizing some nature magic. When you present your findings at the Meeting of the Tribes, you may cite her—although given what I understand of white Gnolls, it might prove controversial.”
Ferkr nodded uneasily. Grimalkin went on.
“A white Gnoll cub. I don’t know all of the nuance, but it would be at Miss Solstice’s inn. I must speak with her again. What is she hiding? A second Gnoll who can cast magic, weights, her uncanny—”
He broke off and shook his head. Grimalkin returned his attention to Ferkr.
“You will do fine, Ferkr. There are records of Gnoll [Mages] in history. And yes, a Gnoll [Archmage]! With the class! But that was thousands of years ago. What changed in that time? Why are Gnolls now only [Shamans]? You will go to the Meeting of Tribes, show them what I—we—have uncovered, and find out why this phenomenon exists. I expect a full investigation. You are my student. Do me proud.”
Ferkr nodded. She stood a bit straighter and smiled. Grimalkin did too, just for a second. Then his glare reappeared.
“And before you get there, I will have you half again as strong as you are now and you won’t quit training until you can cast [Fireball]! Back to work! And remember to hydrate yourselves! Hydrate. Where does she…?”
He paused. Then, Grimalkin’s head turned.
“Strange. What am I missing? How could she possibly know all this? Beyond strange. Either her parents were [Martial Artists], or…what?”
Grimalkin of Pallass paused. And his mind wrestled with the outline of an idea so audacious he couldn’t even frame it. But then he shook his head and got back to work. He’d check on Erin Solstice later. But he wouldn’t forget. Grimalkin had a list of important things, truly important things he was focused on like a bolt of lightning and Erin Solstice’s name had made it onto that list. There was something about her.
When she thought about it, really thought about it, it was only fitting. Absurd, maybe. But it fit.
Erin Solstice sat in her cell and thought about what she’d done. Really thought about it.
She knew she could be reckless. Impulsive. And normally, normally that was fine. Erin knew people thought she was crazy, or an idiot. And some of what she put on was an act. But she could be spontaneous. It was fine when she was playing with Mrsha, or in her inn.
But sometimes, Erin just didn’t think. And when she didn’t, she hurt people. By accident, but she hurt them deeply. It felt like she’d done that more often, recently. First Toren, where Erin had come face-to-face with her biggest mistake. Now Pelt.
Erin hadn’t thought about her taking the knife he’d made. Or about the consequences of using her Skill on him. And perhaps it had worked out. But she remembered his tears.
She had done bad things. Erin saw a skeleton’s heart breaking. And her own heart hurt in reply. She’d done a bad thing. Not just to Pelt. Maybe she belonged here. Just for a bit. Erin sat on her cot and drew her knees up to her chest. Maybe she needed punishment.
“Psst. What’d you do to get in here? Come on. I know you’re awake. Hey, Human. I’m over here. Excuse me? Hello?”
And that punishment was sitting across from the most annoying Drake in the entire world. Erin put her hands over her ears. But she could still hear the Drake.
“Hey! Rude! Excuse me if I’m trying to be social. What, are you too good to talk? Typical. You know, this is why people don’t like Humans. You’re giving your species a bad name, you know.”
Erin glared into her knees. Perhaps this was fitting. She turned away from the Drake in the cell opposite hers. There was a pause and Erin’s hands over her ears muffled the Drake’s voice. She breathed a sigh of relief.
Then something bounced off the back of her head. Erin shot to her feet.
“Stop that! And put some clothes on!”
She shook her fist at the Drake standing in the other cell. She tried not to look, but—yes—he was still naked. He folded his arms, satisfied by her reaction.
“You’re not the [Warden], Miss Human. Finally willing to talk?”
“Go away! Turn around!”
The Drake struck another pose, one leg on his cot. He was doing this on purpose! Erin turned red.
Erin mouthed silently. She looked for what he’d thrown at her. It was a little stone. Erin picked it up and hurled it back. It flew through a gap in the cell at the Drake’s—he dodged.
“Hey! That was uncalled for!”
“Cover yourself up! Why are you naked? Aren’t there rules about this? Why don’t the guards make you put on pants!?”
“Miss, no force on earth could make me put on pants.”
The Drake smirked at her. Erin stared at his face. Just at his face.
After five minutes in here, Erin realized why this was called the ‘punishment cell’. She hadn’t really understood it at first, but it was a punishment. More than being locked in a cell with some [Murderer]. You see, that would have been cruelty. Torture. Or just plain old murder since you’d be in the cell with…a [Murderer].
But this? This was punishment. Erin had tried to ignore the Drake when she realized he was naked. But he kept bothering her. And throwing things at her. And refusing to leave her alone. She didn’t want to give him the satisfaction, but…he was annoying.
“You know, you’re being quite rude. Here I am, trying to introduce myself, and you won’t even talk to me. Or look me in the eye.”
The Drake sighed as he leaned against his cell bars. Erin stared at him.
“Me? Rude? You’re the one with no clothes on!”
“And you’re the one looking. So why is this my fault? I’m not trying to offend you.”
The Drake’s voice was reasonable, plaintive. And—Erin heard the note of humor he was suppressing. She glared at him, but she was drawn into this stupid argument already.
“Why—you’re naked! That’s disgusting! You’re all offense! Stop waving that thing at me!”
“What? I’m not waving anything, Miss Human. And whatever offense you might be taking—there’s not much of it to go around! It’s tiny! And it’s not going to get bigger, trust me.”
The Drake gestured. Erin closed her eyes. The pebble bounced off her stomach. She made an inarticulate sound.
“Stop that! Or I’ll throw that through your face!”
“Come on. Let’s talk.”
“Not until you put something on!”
“Okay, okay, fine.”
Erin opened her eyes. She stared at the Drake. And then the pillow covering his crotch. Erin saw him grin.
“Don’t you have any clothes?”
“Put the blanket on!”
“No. I’m making a concession with the pillow. It’s a pain to hold here. I—whoops.”
He dropped the pillow. Erin tried to unsee, but it was too late. The Drake bent and tried to pick the pillow up.
“Hey you’re the one with the problem here. Not me. If you’re so upset, give me your pants! I’ll wear them!”
The Drake waved the pillow at Erin huffily. She stared at him. After a second she covered the lower half of his body with one hand. It wasn’t that Erin wanted to look, but she couldn’t help it.
“I get why this is called the punishment cell. Will you leave me alone?”
“Absolutely not. This is the most fun I’ve had all day. Hey, I have the pillow back on.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“I’m trying! Look, I’ll hold the pillow here. If I lean against the cell—no, wait, there it goes again.”
The Human and Drake stared at each other from their cells. Erin tried to reappraise the Drake. Aside from the obvious…well, he was male. And naked. But Erin couldn’t help but feel like they’d met. What a thought!
But—hold on. Erin vaguely remembered this Drake. Somehow. He was eying her and clearly he had no idea who she was, but—
“Hold on. You’re that nude guy!”
“I am? I mean, I am. I prefer ‘all-natural’, but go on. Have we met?”
“No. Yes. I mean, I was in the bar and you were getting arrested.”
“Ah. That happens a lot. Which time was this?”
“Like…a long time ago. Are you—no—why are you naked? Please tell me that.”
“Well, it just so happens that I was arrested. And the [Guards] didn’t give me any clothes.”
The Drake sighed.
“Well, they offered, but I refused. You know how it is.”
“You got arrested for being naked.”
Erin spoke flatly. The Drake glared at her above her protective hand. He tried to rattle the bars of his cell, but they were too well-made for that.
“It wasn’t my fault! There I was, minding my own business, when suddenly I was arrested!”
“Were you wearing clothes at the time?”
The Drake paused. He scratched at the scales along his cheek.
“I was. But before I knew it, they were gone.”
“How does that even—you took them off!”
“No! Maybe! I have a habit of taking them off whenever. My clothes, I mean.”
The Drake shrugged. He’d clearly dropped his pillow again. Erin’s arm was getting tired, but she kept the hand in place. The Drake put one foot on his cot again, casually speaking to her. It was a pose Erin wouldn’t have minded on anyone but him.
“Just whenever. Clothes go on, I take them off. It’s a habit. Anyways, I got arrested, thrown in here. I’d like to say that it’s rare, but I end up here at least once a week, or so it seems.”
“Really. But it was an accident, I swear!”
Erin bit her tongue. An accident. She saw Kel’s face and glared at the Drake. She wasn’t getting anywhere with her first line of questions, so she tried another tack.
“Why do you take your clothes off? Are you just…a [Stripper]?”
“Nah. I mean, I’m sure it pays well, but that’s not me. It’s just a habit from work.”
“What work? Nude dancing?”
The Drake frowned absently at Erin.
“Again, no. I’ve tried it, but it’s a young person’s game and I never get tips—I’m an [Alchemist], actually.”
Erin’s hand faltered. She saw—the hand went back up. It turned out the Drakes were like Humans in many ways. They had scales, but they weren’t Lizardfolk. Erin had talked with Selys and Krshia about it, actually. But she hadn’t realized—she glared at the Drake.
“An [Alchemist]? You’re lying.”
The Drake looked hurt.
“Absolutely not! I’m a 100% [Alchemist]. And before you ask—yes, normally we wear heavier clothing. I knew a fellow who wore armor when mixing his potions.”
“And you do it naked?”
Erin skeptically eyed the Drake. But now she was looking more closely—she thought she did see some colorful stains on his scales. Xif, the Gnoll [Alchemist] from Pallass had possessed the same stains. And there was a faint odor of chemical coming from the Drake. He shrugged at her.
“Look, think of it this way. Clothing is expensive. It also tends to get stained and messy when you’re mixing up reagents. Or catch fire, evaporate, retain poison—it’s really more hassle than it’s worth, haven’t you found?”
“Um. No. Not at all. And if I spilled a potion on me, I’d probably want clothing on me. Or my skin would do all those things.”
The Drake nodded wisely.
“True, true. Ah, well, perhaps it’s also my Skills. I have a number of them that help me resist effects on my scales, so if I drop something nasty on myself, it usually only affects said clothing. Which is why I’ve gotten in the habit of undressing when I perform alchemy.”
That…actually made sense. In a stupid sort of way. Erin had seen Relc demonstrating his [Iron Scales] Skill and she knew it was possible. She sighed.
“So why do you strip in public? An accident?”
“Oh come on! There are kids out there!”
“Hey! It’s comfortable being naked. Have you not walked around in the nude? Do you remember what it felt like?”
Erin’s cheeks turned red. She snapped back at him.
“I’m not answering that!”
He made a scoffing sound.
“Pssh. Please. Everyone’s been naked. And it’s natural. Anyways, that’s not my only reason. Being naked is actually an act of expression. A protest against society and the shackles of Drake culture. It’s my way of railing against the system.”
He drew himself up, spreading his arms in another pose as his legs opened. Erin refused to lower her hand.
“You’re just a pervert.”
“Hey! Only by society’s standards. Anyways, it’s not sexual. I’ve met weird people who enjoy this. In a sexual way. Disgusting, right?”
“Stop talking to me.”
Erin had to turn away and lower her arm for a second. Something bounced off her back. She swung around with a growl.
“Stop throwing things!”
“Hey, I’m just trying to carry on a conversation.”
The pillow was back in place. The Drake grinned at Erin’s expression. Grudgingly, she folded her arms.
“You’re not going to leave me alone, are you?”
“Nope. It’s rare the [Guards] throw anyone in the cell across from mine. Punishment cell? Now, that hurts my feelings a tiny bit. Anyways, what are you in for, Miss Human?”
He grinned at her. Erin realized she hadn’t gotten his name. She bit her lip.
“Erin. Erin Solstice. I’m in here because I…accidentally used a Skill.”
“Ooh. How many people died?”
The Drake eyed Erin. She glared.
“None! It was an accident!”
“Good. I’d hate to think I was standing across from a murderer. They have a few in here, you know. Nasty types. Good thing you’re stuck with me.”
“I’d rather be stuck across from a murderer.”
“No, you wouldn’t. They’re no fun. Well, do you have a class, Miss Erin? Can I call you Erin?”
“No. And I’m an [Innkeeper].”
The Drake’s gaze sharpened.
“Ah. So you’re the one with the magic door. I’ve been meaning to check it out, but I keep getting arrested. Pleased to meet you, Miss Erin! You know, I heard about you from some friends.”
“Yup. Xif. And Rufelt and Lasica. They keep talking you up and I saw the most fascinating flower Xif had bought from you. Well now, I am pleased to meet you. They call me Saliss, Miss Erin Solstice. Saliss Oliwing. [Alchemist] of Pallass, at your service. I’ll stop annoying you now.”
The Drake bowed slightly, and nearly dropped the pillow again. Erin stared at him.
The name rang a faint bell. But Erin couldn’t have said where she’d heard his name. She distinctly remembered Rufelt and Lasica talking about him, but for what? She tried to remember, and then frowned.
“Wait. You were doing that on purpose?”
Saliss winked at Erin as he held the pillow in place.
“Obviously. It’s fun to mess with people who haven’t met me before. But since you’re a friend of friends, I’ll stop. And I did think you’d committed an actual crime. The Watch really don’t put just anyone across from me. They must really hate your guts. Let’s start this over, shall we?”
Erin stared at Saliss. Then she hunted for the pebble he’d thrown at her. He nimbly dodged it as she hurled it back at him. He was quick! Even with her [Unerring Throw], she couldn’t nail him.
“Hey! I apologize, but you really should have introduced yourself sooner!”
“To a nudist throwing rocks at me?”
“Everyone holds that against me. You know, Gnolls kids run about naked. And all they’ve got is fur! What’s wrong with scales?”
Erin pointed. The pillow was thankfully still in place. Saliss looked offended.
“What, that? Gnolls have them too! The male ones, at any rate. Don’t be vulgar.”
“You’re the naked one!”
Erin shouted back. Their argument had woken some of the inmates in the cells a ways away. Erin heard a chorus of voices and several insults.
“Shut up over there! I’m trying to sleep!”
“Ancestors. Who’s shouting?”
“It’s that freak. Turn around!”
Saliss turned as the other prisoners came to their cells and shouted at him and Erin. He dropped the pillow—Erin recoiled along with the others. But Saliss spread his arms and his legs and angled his body to face the other prisoners.
“Mock me if you will! But don’t pretend I’m anything but honest! Natural! All of you are just prudes! Constrained by clothing! Grow up! Everyone has something!”
Most of the inmates turned away, shouting insults at the Drake [Alchemist]. The male ones were mortally offended and Erin heard more than a few very pithy swear words. Saliss shouted back.
“Hey! There is a young woman over here! Can it! Don’t make me come over there!”
He was…incredibly insane. Erin had never met a Drake like him. She nearly laughed at him and the indignity in his voice as he berated the other prisoners. They eventually shut up as a [Guard] stomped their way, bellowing for silence.
After a few minutes, Erin looked at Saliss again. He had the pillow back in place. She realized his cell was different from hers. He had a desk along one wall—no—it wasn’t a desk. Erin peered at it, but he was in the way. There was a lot in his cell, actually. He had shelves, what looked like an actual toilet built into a modesty wall, a nice bed twice as large as hers…
“Hey! Why is your cell so nice?”
“I’ve been locked up in here so often I got my own cell. It’s still a bit of a pain, but hey, it comes with the territory.”
“You could just wear clothes.”
The [Alchemist] laughed. Erin’s lips twitched, but she glared at him instead. Erin sighed.
“…How do you know Rufelt and Lasica? And Xif? Don’t think you’re friends with me just because you know them! I owe Xif a punch!”
“Ah, yes. Persuaded you to sell the flowers, did he? He’s pushy when he finds something new. But I’m friends with him. We’re both [Alchemists] after all. And Rufelt and Lasica are friends. Although I have to wear clothes when I drink at their bar.”
Saliss nodded wisely. Erin eyed him. That was odd. She knew Tails and Scales, the bar the joint [Chef] and [Bartender] wife and husband ran was exclusive. You couldn’t just walk in unless the two had approved you.
“…So you get arrested often? But you’re friends with Rufelt and Lasica?”
“Yup. And I’ve heard about you. Erin Solstice, owner of The Wanderer’s Inn, now connected to Pallass via a magical door.”
“The Wandering Inn. That’s right.”
The [Alchemist] blinked. Then he slapped one knee, dropping his pillow.
“Hah! Wandering inn? Good one! That’s clever!”
Erin stared at him. He was the first person to ever laugh at her inn’s name. And because it was him, she now regretted it. As Saliss bent to pick up the pillow, Erin averted her eyes and looked up. His nudity wasn’t that offensive anymore. It was rather like a bad smell. After a while…you just forgot it was there. Well, until she looked again.
“So, why are you here?”
Saliss leaned against the bars, looking at Erin. She sighed.
“It’s complicated, alright? I used a Skill. Accidentally.”
“Really? I don’t know many [Innkeepers] in Pallass. Well, sometimes I stay at the Noble’s Fancy. That’s a lovely inn, by the way. The owner’s over Level 30. I know another inn near First Landing that’s run by a Level 50 plus [Innkeeper]. Now that’s a nice place. Have you heard of it?”
“Really? Ah, well, I suppose not all [Innkeepers] know each other. I know some keep in touch, though. And I imagine a Level 40 [Magical Innkeeper] like yourself would have a different background. Interesting class, by the way. Are you a [Mage]?”
Erin’s head shot up. She stared at Saliss. He winked at her.
“How did you…?”
“Oh, I can see a few things, Miss Solstice. Not any Skills, but I can see basic facts about you. So tell me, what did a Level 40 [Innkeeper] do to my poor city? Funny, Rufelt and Lasica were convinced you were Level 30. Don’t worry, I won’t tell them. I keep people’s level secret. But please, tell me how you got here! I could use a good story.”
He put both claws together. Erin didn’t even blink this time. She hesitated. There was something incredibly odd about Saliss, his demeanor aside. He was…refreshingly easy to talk to, compared to a lot of Drakes. Relc-like, but sillier. She hesitated, but there was nowhere to go.
“It was…I used a Skill on this Dwarf guy. The [Blacksmith].”
“Pelt? That old drunkard?”
Saliss’ brows shot up. Erin nodded.
“I made him cry. And I made a bunch of other people cry too, probably.”
“You. Made Pelt cry? And I was in here? Tell me everything!”
The [Alchemist] sounded delighted. But Erin felt her heart sinking in her chest.
“I don’t want to talk about it. It was my fault, really. What a crummy Skill.”
She lowered her head and turned away. Just like Toren. She didn’t think. Erin just wanted to sit and think, like she had at her camp. But Saliss was all-attention now. He jumped up and down.
“What’s that about a Skill? Come on, cellmate! Don’t leave me hanging!”
Erin hesitated. But Saliss was already hunting for something else to throw. She turned and glared at him.
“Fine. I’ll tell you. But turn the other way!”
“Aw. Fine. But you have to tell me. I guess I’ll do some work as I listen.”
The Drake sighed and turned around. Erin stared at his back. He went over to the workbench she’d spotted, absently pulled…a glass vial…off the table, and hunted along the shelves. He didn’t find what he was looking for, so he rummaged through a black bag on the table. A bag of holding. He came out with some grey powder, sprinkled it into the vial, and then stared at the shelves.
“Let’s see. Sage’s Grass water. Sage’s Grass…am I out of Sage’s Grass? Huh. I’d better buy more. Maybe I have some in the bag of holding? Let’s just see.”
He went back over to the black pouch and then glanced at Erin.
“Well? Come on, let’s hear the story! Or do you want me to throw things at you some more? Because I will. Tell you what, I’ll trade you a sip of my potion afterwards. I’m making a tonic. Very soothing. Makes you feel wonderful. Sells for a lot with old folk too. Come on, Erin! I can call you Erin, right?”
She stared at him. Then Erin stared around. She poked her head out of her bars and shouted down the prison.
“What’s going on here!?”
The Wyverns flew towards the huge city in the distance. They had come a long way. Far, and for many hours. The High Passes were distant behind them. And now, as the thousand-some weyr flew, the creatures of the earth and sky fled their approach. They were a vast gathering, gigantic monsters led by the largest Wyvern of them all.
The Wyvern Lord was angry. It had been a bad day for him. Not only had the flight been long, but it was hot! Too hot for a Frost Wyvern who had lived in the reaches of the High Passes. He was far from home and lost. His home in the High Passes called to him.
Home was cold. Home had many places in the tall mountains for Wyverns to make their nests and hunt from. But there just wasn’t enough food at home. The High Passes had an ecosystem, and it could feed more monsters than anyone would expect. But there was so much competition. Go too high, and a Wyvern would die, even with all their strength.
The Weyr had battled other creatures in their habitat, but their growing numbers had led them to clash more often with other species. And there were these incredibly annoying little green things that had brought down a few of their numbers.
The Wyvern Lord had known his clutch needed to expand, so he’d led his entire flight out. The Frost Wyverns had challenged the Dragon whose territory was vast and took many of the spots his weyr would hunt. And they’d lost, so they had to go. There was no more food.
The Wyvern Lord wasn’t happy about it, or his personal defeat. He wasn’t thinking in the conscious way a Human might agonize, with words and thought and ‘what-ifs’, but he was aware that his position was threatened. So he wanted food, and a place to settle, and he wanted it now.
All the places he’d passed so far weren’t good enough. Small places with stone and wood and barely enough to feed his clutch for a day. He was getting hungry and he knew his weyr needed to eat. So he headed towards a landmark, a high spot.
Pallass. The Walled City was made of stone and it called to the Wyvern Lord. He could even sense it from afar. A gathering of magic. Of course, the Wyvern Lord didn’t think of it as magic. It was just something he could sense. But it drew him onwards. He wasn’t afraid of the power there! He was afraid of nothing! Not even that stupid Dragon. In time, the Wyvern Lord would challenge him again. With a weyr twice as large and when the Wyvern Lord was far bigger and older!
Speaking of which—the Wyvern Lord saw something odd as he flew towards Pallass. To the left, there was a vast herd of things moving across an open stretch of ground next to a forest. A lot of moving things. He swooped lower and the Wyverns at the front called out.
Food! Cattle! The Wyvern didn’t recognize the huge, fat beasts, but he recognized easy prey at once. He stared and turned his weyr as one.
Below him, in an open stretch of land were cattle. Thousands of them. And they were helpfully boxed in by some fences. As the Wyverns flew over them, the panicked cows began overrunning the fences in their terror. But the Wyverns were far faster and they circled the cows, shrieking with glee.
The Wyvern Lord salivated as he stared down at the cattle. Now, this was just what he needed. Food! And so easy too! His weyr could gorge on so many of these…things. They could eat, sleep, and find a new home tomorrow. He swooped lower, inspecting the food. It was so easy.
Too easy, as it turned out. From the forest, many, many concealed figures watched as the weyr flew over the terrified cows, herding them as the Wyvern Lord considered whether to dive on them. There was no question he would; it was a free meal, after all. His flock would eat—and then they’d sleep. And that’s when they’d die.
The hidden army in the trees was Pallass’ 4th army. The majority of them were hidden under illusion spells, further back, but a forward edge of watchers was keeping an eye on the Wyverns. They’d moved fast to get this many cows in the way of the Wyverns. As they waited, some of the watchers began speaking excitedly.
“Ancestors, look at the size of that one! There’s nearly a thousand!”
“Odd coloration. They’re not your typical grey. Most like off-white and bluish mixed in. Some rare variant? Frost Wyverns, most likely, if they’re coming from the High Passes.”
The officers in the 4th Army’s command watched, hands on their blades despite their concealed position. One of the Gnolls growled, his fur on end.
“Dead gods. They’d tear apart a smaller city in an hour. Rhir’s hells, if you dropped a thousand Wyverns on an army of twenty thousand…”
“Twenty [Soldiers] to a Wyvern? If you don’t have a good [General] or elites—more like fifty if they’re full adults! If it’s a regular [Soldier] at Level 10, you need at least thirty properly armed…”
One of the [Lieutenants] argued, shifting her weight from claw to claw. The officers buzzed, talking numbers. An older Drake in front with faded green-and-yellow scales raised a claw and spoke shortly.
“That’s why we’re attacking by night, not trying to take them by day. Silence in the ranks.”
And there was. The [General] snorted as he eyed the Wyverns flying overhead.
“Hmpf. Come on and land already, you beasts.”
4th Army’s [General] was a Drake named Edellein Blackwing. A relation—a half-brother to the famed Thrissiam Blackwing. The deceased [General] of Pallass’ 2nd Army who’d fallen in battle against the Goblin Lord last year.
That had been a huge blow. In some ways, it was still recent news, although much had passed since that time. But in the echelons of Pallas’s military, the loss of 2nd Army was keenly felt.
With the death of General Thrissiam Blackwing, Pallass had lost one of their prized [Generals] and replacing him was no easy feat. Even so, the Walled City always kept one standing army and [General] stationed at the city. They never left, although they did rotate out officers and soldiers as needed.
But Thrissiam’s death had been a disaster. He’d lost an entire army to the Goblin Lord. More importantly, he had died in battle, disgracing the Blackwing name. He—and Osthia. Edellein clenched one claw, thinking about it. Thrissiam had managed to lose another promising member of their family!
It still burned at him. The elder [General] was far older than Thrissiam, and he had no wings or magical breath despite being born of the Blackwing family. He had risen to his position through decades of service. And right at this moment, he resented the change in his fortunes that had led him to this point, sitting in a forest and waiting for the Wyverns to attack so his army could clean them up.
4th Army had the job of laying the bait and waiting for the Wyverns to gorge themselves and sleep. Then, and only then would the 1st Army stroll in to help with the night attack. Edellein glowered, imagining that damn Dullahan swooping in and claiming credit for his army’s hard work.
“General Blackwing, the Wyverns don’t seem keen on taking the bait. Do they suspect a trap?”
One of Edellein’s officers whispered at him. The older Drake snorted.
“Wyverns don’t think, [Major]. These ones are clearly distracted by something. But we have our orders. Directly from Pallass.”
His lips twisted sourly. The Day Strategist had given 4th Army the order, another thing Edellein resented. He was a [General]. He commanded [Strategists]! But the ones on the wall could mobilize an entire army. Grudgingly, he had to admit it was a good plan. The weyr would lay waste to the lands Pallass controlled, so they had to be driven off. Still—he looked up.
“Big Wyverns. I’ve hunted them before, but this is a nest and a half. We’ll keep them from getting airborne. [Mages] in first. Put the rest to sleep, then web them up with enough spells and move in. Not a challenge. If they were in the air, we’d have a fight!”
He laughed. The other officers laughed too, reassured by the Drake’s confidence. The Wyverns were outnumbered many times by 4th Army, after all. It was only to minimalize casualties they were taking the ambush approach. Even so…Edellein saw an opportunity as he eyed the Wyvern Lord warily circling above.
“They’d be interesting mounts. Pallass could use some [Wyvern Riders]. Hah! Now there’s a thought. Better than Oteslia’s Pegasi. Prepare me a battalion with nets, hooks, and ropes. And consult with some [Beast Tamers] about Wyvern capture.”
The [General] turned his head impatiently.
“Why not? We might as well get more than meat and hides and talons out of them. And we’ll have enough hide to outfit an entire regiment! Which 4th Company will naturally acquire. We’re the ones doing all the hard work. Let 1st wait it out. As soon as those Wyverns land and start napping, we’ll head in and take them all.”
A muted cheer rose from the command. It would be a scandal, but Edellein could always claim he’d seen an opportunity. The Drake smiled as his underlings rushed to fulfill his orders. Why not ride a Wyvern? It was done—you just needed the right classes to tame it. And that would be a sight for sore eyes!
In a good humor, the Drake waited for the Wyverns to land. He wasn’t worried for the fight. 4th Army could bring down the Wyverns even in a fair fight. If anything, he only felt sorry for the people of Pallass. Beef would be in shorter supply after sacrificing so many cattle, but then, they’d be dining on Wyvern steaks tomorrow! All he had to do was wait.
Overhead, the Wyvern Lord was very tempted by the food. He could hear the younger Wyverns shrieking their hunger, wanting to dive and snatch their prey. But only one thing halted the Wyvern Lord from attacking.
Magic. The Wyvern Lord stared down at the forest. And then at the distant fortress of stone. It was like a small mountain in its own way. And he sensed magic coming from the forest and the city.
There was something in the forest. The Wyvern Lord had no idea what, but his mind sensed a trap. And he didn’t like the Walled City. It had so much magic. In fact, the aura it was giving off reminded him vaguely of…
The Dragon. The Wyvern Lord hissed. He didn’t like it at all. No wonder few monsters strayed near Pallass. The ones that could sense magic surely sensed the same intimidating aura from the Walled City. But he—he was not afraid of Dragons!
Enraged, the Wyvern Lord turned. Enough of the fat things! He wanted a nest first, then food. And that stone mountain had it, he was sure. He changed directions, shrieking to keep his reluctant weyr in line. The Wyvern Lord aimed straight at Pallass. This time—this time he’d win!
On the ground, 4th Army went into a panic as the Wyverns flew away from the cattle. General Edellein swore a blue streak.
“General! The Wyverns are turning! What are our orders?”
For a moment the [General] debated hitting the Wyverns, but 4th Army would take losses fighting that many unprepared. And Pallass had defenses. He shook his head.
“Dead gods damn it. Tell the city the Wyverns are headed their way right now.”
He sighed. No glorious captured Wyverns for him to ride. Oh well. Pallass would have its beef. And some Wyvern meat. If the city left anything large enough to eat. He sighed as the Wyverns headed straight for Pallass. He estimated they had about thirty minutes before they came in range of the walls. Nothing to worry about, though. Pallass had been built to resist Dragon attacks. What could a bunch of Wyverns do?
“I didn’t think it would hurt anyone. Or cause so much trouble, you know?”
“Famous last words. You know, most [Alchemists] have one. They’re generally not very good. ‘I didn’t think it would blow up if I mixed them together’. That’s a common one. Or just—‘Oops’.”
Erin glared at Saliss from her cell.
“I’m being serious.”
He half-turned and raised a single brow, Drakes not being naturally endowed with eyebrows.
“So am I. So your Skill was fire-based, hmm? And it made old Pelt cry?”
Erin sagged onto her cot-bed. She felt tired. And sad.
“I just—I think it helped. But it hurt him. And I didn’t want him to be hurt. I didn’t think about the knife.”
“Or your pet skeleton. Which could apparently think.”
“So—just to be clear, you’re upset about accidentally ignoring your pet skeleton gaining a mind, and accidentally traumatizing an old Dwarf [Blacksmith] with your magical emotional fire that you can conjure into being with the power of memory?”
Erin Solstice paused. She glared at Saliss’ nude backside, which was preferable to his front.
“I’m not lying!”
“Oh, I believe you. I’m just trying to put it all in perspective.”
“It’s not as silly you make it out to be.”
“I’m not saying it was silly. Did I say it was hilarious?”
“It’s in your tone of voice! Are you even listening to me?”
Saliss looked over his shoulder.
“But you’re making potions!”
The Drake shrugged.
“I like to multitask. Go on. Did you get arrested after that? I assume so—the Watch wouldn’t just let you get away with that.”
Erin slumped against her bed. The [Alchemist] half-turned. The vial was bubbling in one claw, but he stopped it neatly with a cork. He put it in a little holder on his workbench and picked up a flask.
“Well, it sounds like you had a rough day, Miss Solstice. And I wish I’d been there to see it! But that’s the problem with the Watch. They’re overzealous. They got me this morning. And there I was! Just minding my own business.”
“What if children saw you naked?”
Erin scowled at Saliss. The Drake eyed her.
“Well, why is that a bad thing?”
“Because you’re naked! They’re kids!”
“And everyone gets naked. Do we have to have this argument again?”
Erin threw up her hands. Saliss nodded.
“Glad you agree. Now, where did I put…? Better mix this up before my vial explodes. One second!”
He picked up a glass jar and flitted to his shelf of ingredients. He was so quick! Erin could barely follow him as he pulled out powders or flasks of liquid and began combining them at rapid speed. They all went into the glass beaker, and Saliss mixed it all up before pouring it into a round container over a small burner.
He had any number of wonky containers, all glass, which did things like leave a thin layer between two liquids, or funnel both down towards a bottom…now Saliss lit a fire under the rounded beaker, and inserted a tube into the vial.
Erin watched the vial begin to bubble up. Since there was nowhere for the liquid to go, she saw it shoot up through the tube into the beaker which was bubbling. The two mixed and Erin backed up.
“What are you doing?”
“Just a little reaction. Want to see?”
Saliss picked up the connected vial and flask and waved it at her. Erin recoiled.
“No! Isn’t that dangerous?”
“Only if I drop it. Oops!”
Saliss dropped both containers. Erin jumped backwards. The Drake caught both containers a foot from the ground.
“Hah! Got you!”
“Don’t do that—if you—I’m going to kill you!”
Erin’s heart was beating way too fast. Saliss rolled his eyes, amused.
“Don’t be worried. Actually, the worst that could happen is that this vial overpressurizes and explodes. But you can’t make anything go ‘boom’ with this mixture. Not really. Everyone thinks that’s so common among [Alchemists] when it’s really just accidentally poisoning yourself with gas. Real explosions don’t happen that often.”
“Well, they do in my shop. But I’m specialized.”
“None of this is reassuring me. And why do you get a workbench—no, why do you get anything in prison? Isn’t the point that you don’t get anything?”
The [Innkeeper] glared across at Saliss. He laughed lightly.
“But then how would I make a tonic for all the poor old people? Some [Senators] buy my tonic, Miss Solstice. Well, that damn Xif has cornered the market on most of the soothing tonics, but this one he hasn’t copied! Nearly done. See? Want a taste?”
The liquid from the vial had migrated over to the flask. Erin watched as he swirled the grey liquid from the vial into the flask. The result was…well, it was a beige-grey liquid. Not appetizing, but she had to admit it didn’t look the worst. More creamy, really. She still backed away as Saliss poured it into a bottle and offered it to her.
“No thank you.”
“Oh come on. It’ll make you feel better. It’s not poison. I’m an [Alchemist]. A professional! I’m part of the Alchemist’s Guild I’ll have you know!”
“And? At least I don’t get fur in my potions. Fine, suit yourself.”
Saliss sniffed. He took a sip from his tonic.
“Ooh, that’s hot. Good thing I didn’t offer it to you. You’d have scorched your tongue.”
It didn’t seem to bother him. The Drake happily bottled the tonic and put it on a rack to cool. Erin saw numerous bottles and ingredients on his shelves. Saliss sighed.
“What next? Another tonic? Or maybe something for hair loss? I could sell a few dozen bottles, maybe. Gnolls buy it up like mad. Say, do you know if Liscor’s got a market for strength potions?”
“What? You mean, strength as in…”
“Muscles. You drink, you lift heavy things. [Woodcutters] and such buy them, but they can’t afford a lot. I’m thinking more of adventurers. Any Gold-ranks in Liscor?”
“We have the Wings of Pallass, the Flamewardens…there are some Gold-ranks there.”
“I guess I could make a few draughts, then. Oh well. Busy work is busy work. So that’s your day, is it?”
Saliss casually found another beaker. Erin stared at him. Who was he? She was convinced he was not your normal prisoner. But she still couldn’t remember where she’d heard his name.
“Yeah. That’s how I got here. By causing trouble.”
She sighed. Saliss nodded agreeably. He was a good listener, which was surprising, but he’d heard Erin’s story out, even when she’d had to explain about Toren. Actually, he’d taken her story about a magical skeleton at face-value. Even someone from this world would have had to ask questions, but Saliss?
Erin eyed him. The Drake was nodding to himself. He turned his head as he dropped a very green root in a mortar and began smashing it up with a pestle.
“I get it. You’ve been making mistakes. But you know something, Erin? No one’s perfect.”
“I know that. And I don’t need a pep talk!”
Erin scowled at him. Saliss chuckled.
“Good. Because I wasn’t going to give you one. I was just going to say—the thing with your skeleton—”
“Toren. His name was Toren.”
“Toren. That’s different from what happened just now with Pelt. I mean, the thing with the skeleton was awful.”
Erin hung her head.
“It had a soul. A heart. And you killed it. All those people are dead because of you.”
The young woman sat heavily, staring at nothing. The Drake went on.
“Dead gods, all those deaths on your conscience? And you could have avoided it all? You’re a monster. If I had a club, I’d go over and smack your brains out.”
“I deserve it.”
“You are walking scum. Scum! I’ve known Crelers who deserved more love than you!”
Erin looked up and glared at him.
“You can stop now. I get the point.”
The [Alchemist] grinned at her.
“Was I saying anything you disagreed with?”
Erin hesitated. Then she shook her head.
“No. People died and I could have stopped it. Toren was my fault. I just never—”
Saliss poured the ground-up root into a container.
“You made a mistake. And I’m no Watch Captain who can tell you how much was your fault. But that one was yours. Still—the thing with Pelt? That’s different. And I think you’re mixing the two up in your head. You used a Skill that got that old Dwarf to make something he was proud of.”
“But he was crying.”
Saliss laughed. Erin’s head shot up angrily. The Drake waved at her.
“Sorry, sorry. I know you’re upset. But Pelt cries when he spills his beer. He’s a terrible drunk! So you made him cry and cause a stir. So what? That Dwarf hasn’t made something he was proud of since he came to Pallass. If all it took was a bit of a stir—hells, I’d have blown up Maughin’s forge too if it meant giving the Dwarf something. So what if you caused a scene? The question is: was it worth the cost?”
He looked at Erin with a grin. The young woman stared. Then she remembered something. Pelt’s last look towards her. His words.
The craft thanks you. She hesitated.
“I don’t know.”
“Fair enough. But I think it was. Your problem, Erin, is that you just don’t know how to control your Skill. You let it get out of control. You don’t know what it does.”
“True. So what do I do?”
“Find out. Obviously.”
Saliss flipped a vial over his shoulder and caught it in the other hand. He waggled his tail in delight. Then he looked at Erin.
“Mind showing me?”
She blinked at him.
“What? Show you my Skill? That’s what got me in here!“
“So show me! How much worse could it get? That’s another famous set of last words. I think I knew a fellow who said that right before he melted his bones.”
The [Alchemist] laughed. Erin blinked at his back. Then she paused.
“It’s just so sad.”
Saliss looked at her. Erin bristled, but the [Alchemist] didn’t blink. He gave Erin a steady look out of the corner of his eye.
“What’s the worst that could happen? Really. All that would happen is that I’d burst into tears, and then I’d stop annoying you.”
Erin’s lips almost twitched at that. He had a point. Reluctantly, she put her hands together. And it wasn’t hard. All she had to do was think of Toren. And Pelt. Her grief and guilt rose. It was all she could think about.
Guilt, and pain. And sorrow.
And there it was again. Erin felt the memory burning. And then there was fire. In her hands. A blue flame licked upwards. Erin stared at it—
“Prisoner using a Skill!”
A bellow rang through the prison. Erin jumped and saw a [Guard] pounding towards her, a huge baton drawn. Erin panicked, but Saliss whirled.
“Shh. Shh. It’s fine.”
He stuck an arm out of his cell. The charging Drake skidded to a stop.
“Sir Saliss? But—”
She looked uncertainly at him, and then at her companions, who had rushed over at her shout. Saliss leaned against his cell and waved at them.
“Hello! Thanks for shouting my earholes off. But I’m fine. This young woman is just showing me a Skill. Go on. Shoo.”
Erin’s jaw dropped as the cluster of [Guards] stared at Saliss. The female Drake with the baton hesitated. Erin waited for her to smack Saliss upside his grinning face, but to her astonishment, the [Guard] nodded. Without a word, she turned around and the [Guards] walked away.
Erin stared at Saliss. He shrugged.
“Well, I can’t let them beat you into a pulp now, can I?”
“But they—you—who are you?”
The [Alchemist] smiled.
“Just a naked Drake in a cell practicing alchemy. Who are you, Erin Solstice? A random Human who’s reached Level 40 before she’s turned thirty? You know, that’s beyond a genius. The King of Destruction pulled off that feat, and he was called a prodigy and a threat to end the world. Who are you?”
Erin had no answer to that. But the blue glow in her cell made her look down.
The flame burned in Erin’s hands, neither hot nor cold, but burning with memory. Guilt and sadness. Erin heard a sound and realized a prisoner eight cells down was staring at her flame. Tears ran from the Gnoll’s eyes and he whirled away. Even the [Guards] had to look back once.
It was a beautiful, terrible fire. Erin waited for it to touch Saliss, but the [Alchemist] just blinked at the blue flame. Thoughtfully, he paused with the beaker in one hand. He looked at the blue flame, and then at Erin.
“Interesting. You’re no ordinary [Innkeeper], are you, Miss Erin? Even for your level, I’ve never seen that Skill. Nor heard of it.”
He gestured to Erin’s hands.
“It’s a beautiful flame. Sorrowful. And I can’t say I know the Skill. But—may I see it?”
He wasn’t crying. But his laughing expression and the humor in his tone had evaporated. He was just thoughtful, now. Serious. Erin looked at him.
“How? I can’t throw it to you. Can I?”
She’d done it once, but she doubted Saliss could catch the cold fire. The Drake grinned.
“No problem. Hold on one moment.”
He put down the beaker on his work station, then trotted over to the cell door. He pushed at the cell door—and it swung open. Erin gaped. Saliss stepped out into the prison and walked over to her cell.
“Alright, hand it over. Actually, maybe I should get a bit of wood. One second.”
He walked back into his cell. Erin gaped at him as he casually swung the door closed after him. She half-shouted as he came back.
“You could walk out the entire time?”
Saliss looked surprised. He waved a claw at his cell as he came back with a length of wood.
“Oh no. I’m still under arrest for general indecency.”
“But the door—”
Saliss rolled his eyes.
“Well, I have to stay in my cell most of the time because it’s the law. I’m under arrest, still. But because it’s me, I get my cell door unlocked and some equipment in my cell so I can work. The open door is nice—I can use the Watch’s bathroom and get snacks. And if there’s an emergency, I don’t need to break the door.”
Erin bit her tongue. She looked at Saliss.
“Who are you? Really?”
His eyes glinted and he smiled. The naked Drake struck a pose.
“Just the most talented [Alchemist] you’ve ever met! And too valuable for the Assembly of Crafts to exile me. Now, your blue flame. May I see it?”
He held out one hand and the length of wood. Erin hesitated, but then she gingerly offered him her cupped palms through the cell door. Saliss peered at the fire.
“Ooh, that is cold. Fascinating. I wonder, is it one thing or is it just…fire? It’s clearly burning off some magical fuel. Your mana? Some facet of your Skill? If I put the torch in here, will it migrate entirely to the torch or just partially?”
Erin blinked at Saliss. The Drake nodded to her.
“The spirit of inquiry. [Alchemists] love playing with new things. And figuring out a new Skill is great! Alright, let’s try the bit of wood.”
He dipped the wood into the flame. Instantly, the fire stuck to the wood. Erin felt a chill and snatched her hands back.
“Aha! We’re learning something already! Once it leaves your hands, the flame is no longer yours! Fascinating. This is cold! But if you look closely, it is feeding off the wood. So it needs a fire source! But is it feeding off ambient mana in the air as well?”
Saliss waved the blue torch around. Erin saw him pointing out the slowly burning wood. It was turning into ash, not an ember. She found herself blinking as he observed things she should have. Would have, if she hadn’t been so down.
“It’s cold, which I’m familiar with, but it’s giving off an emotional aura. Definitely not your average fire.”
“What will you do with it?”
The Drake shrugged.
“I could freeze something with it. I do need to chill some materials, but I can just cool off whatever I want another way. And this flame is depressing. Hey, do you know how to put it out?”
“No. It just went out when there was no more charcoal in Pelt’s forge.”
Saliss brightened up.
“Excellent! Then we can perform some tests! Let’s try water first. Then some other things!”
He rushed into his cell. Erin saw him rummaging about.
“Okay, for test number one. Smothering. If I toss it on the ground and stomp—whoops! There it goes!”
The Drake happily stomped on the torch as he tossed it on the cell floor. Erin saw him stomp twice with a bare, clawed foot and the flames die down. Saliss snatched the torch back up. Erin called out as he nodded, satisfied.
“Isn’t that cold?”
“Not to my Skill! I could bathe in acid! Actually, that’s great for cleaning the scales! Don’t try it if you’re not me. Now, let’s try water.”
Saliss hunted for some liquid and poured it onto the torch. Half of the fire went out with a familiar hiss. The Drake laughed.
“Well, that’s not dangerous at all! Although—look at that!”
He showed Erin the part of the torch he’d extinguished. Rather than being wet and smoking, the water had frozen where it had put out the flame. She blinked. That was different.
“I didn’t know my Skill worked like this.”
“Isn’t it fun?”
The Drake grinned as he waved the torch at Erin. But then he grew serious. The fire was retaking the wood, and the [Alchemist] held it out thoughtfully. Erin expected another laughing comment, but Saliss’ voice was just…calm. He stared into the blue grief of the fire and shook his head.
“If you just hold it, Erin, it’s fire. Sad fire. Cold fire. But worthless. Rather like casting a mass-emotion spell. Like, say, [Complete Grief]. I can see why you were arrested. Who wants someone waving that around?”
He nodded at the torch. Erin hung her head. It was true. She could show Pelt the depths of her honesty, but all she had done was bring him sadness. Saliss regarded Erin.
“But it can be more. And figuring out what it can be is my job. And yours. Look at this flame, Erin. What do you think it can be?”
Erin looked. She tried to think.
“…Making ice cream?”
Saliss nearly dropped the torch as he laughed. He grinned at Erin and nodded.
“That’s thinking like an [Alchemist]! It can cool, which is valuable. And look—”
He gestured at the torch and the stick of wood.
“It burns so slowly. But it does burn, in its way. That can be useful. I know I’d prefer this on a summer’s day to explore a cave. Nice and cooling. Still depressing. But I wonder. Are there other flames you can make?”
He looked at Erin. She blinked.
“Other flames? I don’t know. The Skill is [Like Fire, Memory].”
“Which implies it’s memory that changes the nature of the fire. Can you make a happy flame?”
The Drake looked at Erin. She shook her head.
“No. I can’t. Not right now.”
She looked down. Erin had tried. She’d tried to think of something other than Toren. But even if she smiled, right now she was—Erin wiped at her eyes. She looked up as Saliss made a sound in the cell opposite hers.
“Ah, perfect! I can cool these potions—oops, sorry. Go on. You were crying?”
Erin glared at him. Saliss looked back. He had that smile. It was knowing, annoying, and reminded her of Pisces. If Pisces was a nudist. No—it wasn’t really Pisces. It was…Erin didn’t know how to explain it. Someone knowingly playing up his silliness. Who did that remind her of?
“I’m sorry I can’t be happy, you—you jerk!”
The Drake laughed lightly. He waved the torch at Erin and the pale flame flickered.
“I didn’t say it was a bad thing. But listen. You say sad, but I say you’re wallowing in it. Pigs do that. And I’ll grant you that Humans look closer to pigs than anything but a shaved Gnoll, but cheer up, please! This flame’s bumming me out.”
He produced a clear bottle and poured it on the blue fire and it went out.
“Aha! Got it!”
Saliss tossed the burnt bit of wood aside. He whirled to face Erin and clapped his claws together.
“You’re clearly depressed, and your Skill is causing trouble. It’s my duty to help you out, Erin. So let’s cheer you up!”
“Please don’t. I just want to rest.”
Erin shook her head. Saliss ignored her. He looked around his cell, and then snapped his claws.
“You know what cheers me up? And gets me arrested? Dancing. Watch this!”
He did a little jig. Erin stared at him.
“Stop that. It’s not funny and you’re naked.”
“Well, have you ever seen a naked Drake dancing? No? This not doing it for you? How about this?”
Saliss slid out of his cell. He did a little tap dance on the ground, his claws taking the place of shoes. Erin stared at him.
“I wanted to be a [Performer], you know. Okay, I can see this isn’t entertaining. How about—this?”
Saliss did a twirl in place. Erin stared at him. He looked ridiculous. The Drake poised with one leg up, balancing on his tail. He waggled his brows at her.
She snorted. Erin had to snort, in disbelief as much as anything else. She held up a hand.
“Stop! Really, I appreciate it, but I want you to stop. Don’t you understand words?”
“I understand that I’m not getting to you. Let me try another one. How about Terandrian waltzing? La, la dee da—”
The Drake hummed something like a formal tune and glided across the stone floor. Erin stared at him. She had to say it.
Saliss stopped dancing, looking deeply offended.
“Me? Is it a crime to dance? If it is, lock me away! But watch out! I’m not going to stop! Watch me!”
He leapt forwards. Erin saw him twirl down the length of the prison. Other inmates saw Saliss flash by them. Erin heard their raised voice, shouting in outrage.
“Ancestors! My eyes! Put some clothes on!”
“Oh dead gods, he’s out of his cell! Hey! Prison break! Put him back in! No one wants to see this!”
They began shouting for the [Guards]. Erin poked her head out of the bars as prisoners swore as Saliss danced by. And the [Alchemist] was dancing! He pirouetted, leapt, and then shook his body as he came back towards Erin.
He was good at dancing! It was like watching a performer. Saliss strutted past Erin, and then did a move like a disco dancer. He grinned at her.
The prison was full of shouting. [Prisoners] were hurling things at Saliss, shouting for him to put his clothes on and get back into his cell. They clearly knew him and hated his guts. And so did the [Guards]. Erin saw a group watching Saliss, but they didn’t stop him. Some were rolling their eyes, others looking away.
“Put some clothes on you freak!”
“No one wants to look at you!”
“Speak for yourself. There’s just not much to see!”
That came from a female Gnoll. Saliss ignored the shouts. He swung his tail back and forth as he sidled back over to Erin. He turned.
Erin looked at Saliss, her lips twitching. She couldn’t believe what he was doing! He was mad, completely! And yet—Saliss raised his brows.
“Can’t you dance? Come on, show me what you’ve got.”
He tapped his feet against the ground, did a little spin. And Erin saw him swing his arms and travel back down the prison to more shouting. And he was dancing.
She was no [Dancer]. Erin could sing and she had the class, but even that wasn’t in her purview generally. She was a chess player. She didn’t…dance. Nor had her social life in dancing situations ever ended up with her in the center of the circle of attention.
She could dance, or at least, show Goblins how to do the Gangnam Style dance. But honestly, everyone had tried that one. But what Erin realized now was that dancing was another world and she was an amateur figuring out the board.
She’d seen Lyonette teaching Pawn classic ballroom dances from her world that reminded Erin of dancing from an era with kings and castles, but casual dancing between the people of this world was something Erin had seen only once. When she’d sung from atop her inn, for instance.
They moved. Erin was no [Choreographer] who could speak to the evolution of dancing, but if she was, she might have observed that as the years had drawn on, dancing in her homeland of America for instance had ceased to move about as much.
It wasn’t fair to say it was less technical; indeed, modern dancing had a lot of complex movements that involved every part of the body, but it had grown directional, and in many cases, static, dances you could perform in a confined arena, or, helpfully, captured by a single camera lens. But dancing in this world had never been constrained by the need to put it on video.
It was free, and it travelled. Erin saw Saliss travel halfway across the prison hallway, his feet kicking high, laughing as he danced to an imaginary beat. If Erin could have compared it to anything, it would be swing dancing, or the free, expressive, limbs-akimbo dances from the beginning of the last century.
And somehow, the Drake’s insanity was catchy. Erin felt something rising in her chest as she watched him coming back her way. He paused in front of her chest, expectantly.
“Well? Hey, show me what you’ve got.”
He produced a ring of keys and unlocked Erin’s cell. Her jaw dropped. Saliss winked at her. Then he held out a claw.
“Tell me you can dance. Everyone can dance. Come on. What’s stopping you?”
He winked at Erin. And she couldn’t help it. The ridiculousness of it, the sight of the Drake dancing in the prison amid all the shouting prisoners, it flipped a switch in Erin’s chest. It was so familiar. It was—something she’d do.
And then it happened. Erin started giggling. And then—like magic, she started laughing. But it was no spell, or even a Skill. Saliss needed none of that. He grinned as Erin left her cell.
“Okay. Fine. You’re insane.”
“Takes one to know one.”
He winked. Erin laughed. Then she tried to do a moonwalk. She failed. She couldn’t dance. And she hated that Saliss was actually better nude dancing than she was. By a lot. But Erin knew some moves.
They ended up doing the Cha Cha Slide past a row of cells. Erin was laughing so hard she was crying. The [Guards] were shaking their heads. And the prisoners were rioting.
“Argh! Turn the other way! Turn the other way!”
“Stop waving it around you damn [Alchemist]! Get lost!”
“You can leave the Human. Take your clothes off!”
What a strange world. Erin didn’t quite believe it was happening. But somehow, she found herself laughing, laughing at the strangeness of it all as the [Alchemist] did the hustle while rolling his arms past a cell. He dodged a cup and did a Travolta, pointing out at the sky as he posed.
“See? You’re smiling! I knew I could do it! Show me some more! Come on! Dance! Can we get some music in here?”
He laughed at Erin. And she was giggling too hard to reply. Saliss backed up, doing a grapevine—and someone blew a shrill whistle.
The piercing whistle made even Saliss and Erin pause. A squad of [Guards] marched down the prison on either side, forcing the prisoners back. They ignored Saliss and Erin, although a few glared at the Drake in a familiar way. He waved, and Erin saw a quartet of figures making their way towards her. The inmates went quiet as the patrol swept through the prison. Saliss sighed.
“Ah. I think we’re in trouble.”
Erin stared at him. But the Drake didn’t look worried. He put his hands behind his head as the Gnoll [Warden] stomped towards him.
“Sir Saliss. Please refrain from throwing my prison into chaos at your whim.”
The Gnoll [Warden] snarled at him. The Drake sighed.
“I make no promises. And I was just dancing. But if you insist, [Warden].”
“Asset to the city or not, I could triple your sentence!”
The Gnoll snapped at him. Saliss raised his claws innocently.
“If it has to be that way, I suppose I could stay a while longer.”
The Gnoll stared at Saliss, dismayed, and then glared at Erin.
“And letting a prisoner out of their cell? Those keys are for emergencies only! This is a flagrant disregard for—Strategist, I apologize. Our prisoner is normally well-behaved. This hasn’t happened in over a month—”
She was bowing and addressing a much shorter Drake. Erin saw grey scales, an eye patch—her eyes widened as Chaldion, the aged [Strategist] lifted a claw. The Drake eyed Erin, and then looked at Saliss. He sighed.
“Chaldion! And Rufelt and Lasica! What brings you here? Am I under arrest? Lock me away! I could live here a week! Make it a month!”
The Gnoll [Warden] paled under her fur as Saliss winked at the old Drake. She turned hurriedly to Chaldion as Erin spotted the Gnoll and Drake beyond Chaldion. Rufelt grinned at her—Lasica was covering her eyes. Erin weakly waved.
“Strategist Chaldion! I cannot apologize enough—”
The Drake spoke softly, but the [Warden] shot to attention. Chaldion eyed Saliss again and shook his head.
“I am well aware of Adventurer Saliss’ antics. Given the circumstances, I don’t find any issue here. Except with Saliss himself. Let us pretend this incident never occurred, Warden Grasfur. I will take it from here.”
Relieved, the Warden saluted and retreated. She shot Saliss a glare and the Drake waved at her. Chaldion sighed.
“It was just dancing, Chaldion. But if you insist, I suppose the Assembly can punish me. Kick me out of the city! Go on, I deserve it.”
The Drake spread his arms. Chaldion sighed.
“Why am I not surprised to see you with the very Human I’m here to find?”
Saliss pursed his lips.
“Well, she was put in the cell opposite mine.”
Chaldion looked at Erin. She blinked at him. She knew him too! Erin glanced past him at the Gnoll and Drake couple.
“Rufelt! Lasica! What are you doing here?”
They glared at her. Erin smiled weakly. Lasica, the Drake [Chef], pursed her lips and spoke in an acerbic tone.
“Erin, when I recommended you to Pallass Hunting, it was to keep you from causing trouble in Pallass.”
“I uh—I didn’t mean to cause a problem.”
Rufelt sighed. He looked more amused than his wife; his eyes were twinkling as he looked at Saliss and then the prison.
“And so you got thrown in jail, yes? The 9th floor is still in an uproar. Lucky for you, we’re here to bail you out.”
He winked. Lasica elbowed her husband, glaring.
“And Strategist Chaldion has been exceptionally kind enough to review your case on his time off.”
She half-bowed to the Drake and Chaldion grinned, showing yellowed, but still-sharp teeth. Erin blinked at him.
“He was? I mean—thank you! I wasn’t—it was his idea to let me out. He has keys! And he’s naked!”
She pointed at Saliss. No one had commented on the Drake’s nudity. Indeed, all three adults just gave Saliss a resigned look. Both Rufelt and Chaldion kept their gazes strictly focused upwards. Lasica’s look was the most pointed. She glared at Saliss, and then at Erin.
“It’s quite an imposition, and you should be grateful that Chaldion decided to release you early. Or he was going to.”
“Oh. Thank you! I mean—it was an accident! But I’m extremely sorry—”
Erin gulped. She’d completely forgot about her sentence while she’d been dancing with Saliss. But Chaldion smiled. His tail moved back and forth lazily as he gestured at her.
“I heard a rumor a strange Human female had been causing trouble. I thought it sounded familiar, so I made an inquiry. I’m partial to gambling, so I owe myself a few drinks at Tails and Scales.”
“Which we’d be delighted to treat you to, sir. Our Human friend has been exceptionally disruptive, and we can’t apologize enough.”
Lasica glared again at Erin. The young woman shuffled her feet.
“I didn’t mean—I am sorry.”
“I’m aware. Although, I must ask. Do you remember me, Miss Solstice?”
Erin blinked at Chaldion. He was short, having shrunken with age. She nodded.
“I remember. At my inn. You used that crazy Skill to win. Hey…are you some big shot?”
Lasica and Rufelt both sighed. Chaldion only laughed.
“That’s relative. But I do have the authority to release you. Which I will do. On the condition that we play another game. None of the brats—I mean, whelps Pallass churns out can play a game with me.”
“Really? Just for a game of chess? I mean—thank you!”
Erin saw Lasica’s warning look. Chaldion chuckled to himself and nodded.
“You’re already out of your cell and cuffs. Now, as for you, Saliss…”
He eyed the naked Drake. Saliss folded his arms.
“I was just helping Miss Solstice find her inner [Dancer]. By all means, arrest me! Put me in the stocks—”
Lasica growled at him. The Drake sighed and unfolded his arms. Chaldion gave him a one-eyed look.
“Sir Saliss Oliwing.”
His tone was cold. Erin felt her own back straighten as Chaldion stared at Saliss. There was a familiar tingle in the air. Lasica and Rufelt winced, and Erin felt the distinctive feel of an aura being used. She pushed away the oppressive feeling. But then—it wasn’t aimed at her.
The nude [Alchemist] paused, and his lighthearted look turned into reluctant seriousness. He stared past Chaldion’s head as the [Strategist] looked at him.
“Sir Saliss. Are you simply incapable of keeping yourself out of trouble?”
“Apparently not, [Strategist]. I apologize for the inconvenience to the Watch, and the city.”
Saliss spoke in a flat tone, not meeting Chaldion’s gaze. The old [Strategist] pursed his lips.
“Your rank gives you privilege. Do you have any respect for it?”
There was a glint in Saliss’ eye as he turned his head. he met Erin’s gaze for a moment.
“What good is rank if it’s not used, Strategist?”
Chaldion glared. Erin felt the pressure intensify—and then vanish. Chaldion waved a disgusted claw.
“I’ll consider this part of mitigating your sentence. And if it means restoring order here, it’s a small cost. You’re free to go. Clothed. Get out of my prison.”
“There’s always a catch.”
Saliss relaxed. Chaldion turned.
“You’re a disgrace to Pallass, you know.”
The [Alchemist] paused.
“Well, I’d say in that case it’s a wonder Pallass has to embrace me at all. It was lovely meeting you, Miss Solstice. Rufelt, Lasica, I’ll visit the bar sometime later. When the glorious high-strategist Chaldion’s gone. I need to find a towel.”
Erin didn’t quite see sparks bursting off Saliss and Chaldion as the two Drakes walked past each other. She held her breath—and then Saliss was gone, waving at a [Guard]. The air relaxed. Erin looked at Rufelt. He gave her a knowing nod saying…well, she got it.
Chaldion sighed. He looked at Erin and Lasica intervened. The [Chef] gave a polite smiled and grabbed at Erin’s arm.
“Thank you for your help, Chaldion. And you, Erin, will be coming with us. For a talk about rules in Pallass. Let’s all retire to the bar, shall we?”
She grabbed Erin’s arm with her claws. Erin yelped.
“Ow! Lasica! It was an accident! Ow, ow!”
Chaldion chuckled as the Drake hissed at Erin. He waved a claw as he turned.
“That will be all, Warden.”
He nodded as the quartet walked back towards the entrance of the prison. Erin stared as the prison [Guards] smartly opened both gates to let them out. They treated Chaldion like…she eyed the Drake hurrying out ahead of them with a towel wrapped around his waist. Rufelt and Lasica eyed Saliss from behind, but he did have a covering on.
“Lasica, who is he? I met that guy—Saliss in jail. They threw me in the punishment cell and he—he’s naked and he’s an [Alchemist] and—”
Lasica sighed. Her claws weren’t digging into Erin’s arm anymore. She nodded at Saliss as the Drake spread his arms, his towel perilously close to falling off him. Erin heard him shout.
“That would be our insane Drake. Saliss Oliwing. Everyone in Pallass knows him. I hope he didn’t bother you too much?”
“He didn’t—actually, he was really annoying. But it was also good. Sort of.”
Erin blinked. Somehow, she’d forgotten her funk. She’d laughed for the first time in ages. Lasica gave Erin a side-long glance.
“Well, well. You’re smiling. Maybe it was good the two of you met. He does have that effect on people.”
Erin felt at her face. She blinked.
Chaldion cleared his throat. As the group emerged into the sun, the [Strategist] pointed at Saliss’ back. The old Drake glared as Saliss spread his arms towards the sky.
“Erin Solstice. May I present Saliss Oliwing, the highest-leveled [Alchemist] in all of Pallass. Perhaps the world. He is also a Named Adventurer and Pallass’ only permanent resident Named-rank adventurer in the entire city. He is one of the most powerful Drakes on the continent, known as Saliss of Lights.”
Erin stared. Her jaw dropped. She saw Saliss waving at a pair of Drakes who hurried past him, avoiding his gaze.
She looked at Lasica and Rufelt. The two nodded, resigned. Erin looked at Chaldion. Then at Saliss.
“Our Named Adventurer. He gets arrested every other week for nudity. And he’s completely above the law. The city needs him too badly.”
Lasica muttered, shaking his head. Chaldion just stared.
“Not my law. But the Assembly of Crafts has given him immunities. That hatchling dances about and does what he pleases, even in prison. Don’t let him fool you. He’s dangerous.”
“Not to you. To monsters. But he is a Named Adventurer. A powerful one, even by their standards.”
Rufelt clarified. He nodded at Saliss. Erin just gaped at Saliss. It couldn’t be. But—everything made sense. The Drake was laughing, doing a boogie-dance in the streets.
“But he’s so…random.”
“It’s an act. Mostly.”
Lasica’s lip curled. Her tail moved restlessly as she looked at Erin.
“He aggravates anyone he’s put in a cell across from. And he’ll tangle with even a gang in Pallass and cause a commotion at the drop of a hat. He’s a nuisance—but he’s also generous. He keeps Pallass safe, so he gets a lot of leeway. And he does help people in need quite often. Actually…I think he’s you. Pallass’ crazy Drake [Alchemist]. Which makes you Liscor’s copy.”
Erin’s jaw dropped. She spluttered.
“Hey! I’m nothing like him! I’m not a nudist! Hey! Take that back!”
Lasica refused to. She grinned as Erin turned red and pointed at Saliss’ back. Chaldion and Rufelt laughed as well.
“It’s true! I didn’t think of it that way, but Saliss is like a male Erin. He’s certainly done as much or more than she has.”
“I’m not him! Hey! Hey! Take it back! He’s crazy! I don’t dance about naked! He wouldn’t put on pants! I’m nothing like that!”
The old Drake grinned at her and his one good eye crinkled up as the young woman shouted, and then laughed along with the husband and wife. Erin was outraged, amused—and strangely, happy. As she protested outside of Pallass’ prison, and the Drake [Alchemist] laughed and spun in the sunlight, Erin Solstice remembered.
She could be happy too. And like a bubble bursting in her chest, Erin remembered them. Happier days. Something bright emerged, and blew away the rainclouds that had been hovering over her heart. She blinked. And then she remembered a day in the inn, sitting and watching Mrsha tease Pisces. Feeding the Redfang Goblins. Laughing.
Lasica recoiled away from Erin. The young woman jumped and looked down. A bright flame bloomed in her hands. Rufelt and Chaldion stared. The old [Strategist] blinked.
“Ah. So that is the Skill that caused so much trouble.”
Lasica stared at the flame in Erin’s hands. The young woman blinked.
“I didn’t mean to! I’m sorry. I—”
Her breath caught. Erin stared down at the dancing, bright flame. It wasn’t sad. In fact, it was lively. Small, but burning bright. And not blue, but—
There it was. A fiery, purple flame, turning to pink around the edges. Bright and shining, fading to pink out from the purple core. It was small, but it glowed. Erin stared at it. And she didn’t feel laughter. She just felt…a bit happy.
“Now, isn’t this a lovely color?”
Erin started. Saliss of Lights, the Named Adventurer of Pallass, rested an arm on Erin’s shoulder. He stared down at the flame, grinning.
“I knew it was tied to emotion. Well, well. Happiness is a royal purple for you. Not yellow? But is it my preconceptions or yours? Or just the color the flame takes at this particular moment, or with this set of emotions? And what does this flame do? Let’s find out!”
He touched a tiny length of wood to the flame. Erin jumped and felt a bloom of warmth as the flame leapt onto the torch. Saliss laughed.
“Yoink! Thank you, Miss Solstice! Ooh. What a pleasant warmth.”
“Hey! How did you—? Give that back!”
“Call it a fee for the help! I have to experiment with this! Tell Xif this one’s mine! And away I go!”
Saliss leapt backwards. Erin grabbed for him, but he raced off, charging down the street and laughing. The purple flame bloomed on the torch, small, weak, but radiant. A bit of happiness.
After about fifty feet Saliss’ towel came off. Erin heard shouts. An exclamation. A scream for the Watch. Chaldion stared after Saliss and shook his head. Lasica sighed.
“If he wasn’t a Named Adventurer, I think the Assembly of Crafts would have exiled him years ago, genius or not. But he is unrivaled in what he does. Still, someday…”
She shook her head. Rufelt nodded and Chaldion just pursed his lips. But Erin smiled. She looked after Saliss. He did remind her of…her. Of the act, certainly. But he’d been kind. And somehow—he’d managed to turn her mood upside down. She wondered what the real Saliss was like.
“I like him. He’s free.”
“Of clothing, certainly. Shall we leave him be? Hopefully he just holes himself in his workshop and doesn’t emerge for a week. And I could use a drink I was promised. And a game of chess with this young woman.”
Chaldion snorted. Lasica started and Rufelt, smiling, swept his paw up.
“Of course. To Tails and Scales!”
The group headed out. Erin looked sideways at Chaldion. They’d played only a few games, but she vividly remembered the one-eyed Drake flipping his eye patch up to use the magic embedded in his fake eye. She caught Chaldion looking at her too.
“Um, thanks. Really. I know I caused a fuss, but it was this thing with Pelt and—”
The Drake waved a claw.
“I’ve dealt with far worse. But I am sure you will not cause a fuss like that twice.”
He looked meaningfully at Erin. She shuffled her feet.
“Who me? Of course not! I’ve learned my lesson! I don’t want to go to prison.”
”Good! Because Pallass would be well in its rights to leave you there for at least a day, even for an accident.”
Lasica warned Erin severely. The young woman winced. Chaldion just smiled, though.
“True enough. But on the whole, I believe Miss Erin should thank Guardsman Kel. I understand he ordered her put in the cells near Saliss. Normally we consider that a kind of punishment since our Named Adventurer is quite adept at aggravating his cellmates.”
“Thank him? He told them to put me in jail!”
Erin started, remembering Kel’s order to the [Guards]. Chaldion nodded agreeably.
“Yes. With one of the few individuals in the city able to help you control that Skill of yours. Of course, Magus Grimalkin is another renowned expert, but you did commit a crime. There are consequences.”
He looked at Erin again. She flushed.
“Yeah. That’s true. But—huh.”
“You have to pay for your mistakes. In case Chaldion wasn’t clear, you don’t get another chance.”
Lasica poked Erin in the side. Rufelt put an arm on his wife’s shoulder.
“Now, Lasica. I’m sure Erin is sorry enough. Especially after dealing with Saliss for an entire hour.”
“I just want to make sure she understands this isn’t Liscor! There are serious consequences and we can’t protect her!”
Erin kicked along the street, looking down at her feet. She muttered under her breath.
“But I’m the consequences.”
“Hm? What was that?”
Lasica glared at Erin. She avoided the Drake’s wrathful gaze. And she found herself glancing at Chaldion.
“It was nothing. But I do mean it when I say I want to play a game of chess with you. I’ve been thinking over the last time we played.”
Erin nodded slowly.
“Yeah. I wouldn’t mind that. But—Lasica. I have to go back to my inn. I got sidetracked, but I know it’s open.”
“You owe Chaldion a game. And we owe him some drinks. It would be impolite to go now.”
The Drake had a warning note in her tone. Erin winced, but Chaldion stroked his chin thoughtfully.
“That inn? Very well. I wouldn’t mind drinking there. Assuming there is good alcohol on tap?”
He looked at Erin. Lasica exhaled loudly, but Rufelt grinned.
“Absolutely. Then we shall go with you. Erin has been gone from her inn.”
“You’re spoiling her.”
“I might as well practice!”
The Gnoll laughed again. He pointed to an elevator and Erin smiled, grateful. She inhaled, taking in the air. The stories were true. Everything felt different after prison. Or meeting one crazy nude Drake. She looked at Chaldion, about to ask who he was. She had a feeling—
Erin stopped dead in her tracks. She heard a warning bell, then a siren go off in her head. She saw Chaldion stop too, and his head whip around. Rufelt and Lasica were walking, talking with their heads together about alcohol and the drinks Lasica would be getting. Both stopped.
“Now what is it?”
Erin saw Chaldion look at her sharply. And then she heard a roar. A boom shook the air from atop the walls. Erin Solstice looked up. For a second she only saw dust, a cloud of…mist? No. Frost.
And then she saw it. A huge shape, landing high, high on the battlements of the Walled City. Far away, but massive. First one. Then hundreds. Erin Solstice looked up and stared at the Wyverns as they flew over Pallass, casting a shadow over the Walled City of Invention.
Watch Captain Rekhassha and the Day Strategist already knew the Wyverns were headed their way. They hadn’t taken their eyes off the weyr in the last two hours.
“They’re as large as any adults I’ve seen. Larger.”
All of the hair on Rekhassha’s body was standing up. The ploy with the cattle decoy had failed. For some reason, the Wyverns were headed straight for Pallass. Why?
“Nothing to fear.”
The Day Strategist was standing as tall as he could, although he was still shorter than the female Gnoll. He glared around, projecting his voice as the [Soldiers] and [Guards] on the wall stared at the Wyverns. He was trying to exude confidence, but Rekhassha had gotten the message from 4th Army as fast as he had, and she’d seen him swearing a blue streak.
“Would now be a good time to inform Strategist Chaldion? Or call up a core of the 1st Army?”
Rekhassha stared at the Day Strategist. He glared back.
“We don’t need to cause an alarm! The Wyverns will not reach Pallass’ walls, Watch Captain.”
He sounded sure of himself, but Rekhassha didn’t like the way the Wyverns were flying. They were coming at Pallass.
“I believe we should call an alert. Put everyone indoors—”
“That is not necessary! I’m in charge here! The Assembly of Crafts will have my tail and yours if we cause a false alarm!”
The Day Strategist snapped back. Rekhassha was aware their argument was in plain view of the soldiers. She growled.
“And I am Watch Captain and I say—”
“North wall! West wall! Prepare for aerial engagement!”
The Day Strategist shouted past Rekhassha, using a speaking stone to convey his message. She snarled as he strode past her. [Soldiers] and [Guards] snapped to alertness as the Day Strategist bellowed. The Wyverns were still far off, but closing in fast. Still, they had miles to go, and they were entering into Pallas’s range.
“Ballistae crews, hold! Catapults, load flaming munitions! Trebuchets, aim and fire for the mass of the Wyverns when they reach maximum range!”
The siege weapons atop Pallass’ walls turned, calculating their shots. Rekhassha watched as trebuchets were loaded with enchanted munitions. These were not the smaller-scale, mundane trebuchets that the Humans had somehow managed to acquire at Liscor. Rekhassha had heard a rumor the Humans had [Engineers] who could build them. Ridiculous! Only Pallassian [Engineers] among a few others had the technical prowess!
And they had built massive trebuchets, twice as large as what normal wood and steel could envision. These were magical monsters of siege artillery. They could hit an army from miles away. Now, they turned, and the Day Strategist bellowed. He was calculating the Wyvern’s approach and the maximum range of the trebuchets.
“Hold! Hold! Now! Launch!”
The trebuchet’s arms swung up. Rekhassha saw huge slings filled with giant stones—or smaller payloads of explosive or enchanted munitions—hurl through the air. The sound the trebuchets generated was like thunder. She stared.
Pallass’ trebuchets fired for practice, but this was a rare sight. Huge orbs of magicked brass and giant stones flew at the Wyverns. Rekhassha saw their formation break up—then plumes of light.
The Day Strategist clenched one clawed fist as Wyverns fell out the sky. The entire weyr reacted with visible shock. But still they came on. The Day Strategist bellowed.
“Long-range ballistae! Fire!”
Specialized [Archers] and [Engineers] aimed the rare and deadly Drake war weapons. The Day Strategist bared his teeth as he heard a tremendous snap and tearing of the air as one of the ballistae fired. A bolt, propelled by magic and physics and a Skill shot through the air. It struck a Wyvern impossibly far away, piecing through one—then halfway through another.
“Yes! Reload! Fire for maximum effect! [Archers]! Fire as the Wyverns reach your range!”
Dedicated [Longbow Snipers] raised massive longbows and set enchanted arrows to the strings. The Day Strategist strode back towards Rekhassha. Another trebuchet thumped and the Wyverns dove as a deadly rain of flaming stones tore at their wings.
“I have the keys to the wall spells. Watch Captain Rekhassha, do I have permission to unleash our first grade of spells?”
She stared at him. The Wyverns were breaking up, unsure of what to do in the face of the attacks. And as they kept flying forwards, more and more archers and [Mages] and siege weapons were firing.
Even so—she detested the smug look on the Day Strategist’s face. He was acting too casual. Showing off. Rekhassha growled.
The Day Strategist already had the command scrolls in one hand. He unfurled them as the Wyverns regrouped. They spread out, but they refused to retreat. Rekhassha heard, in the distance, a piercing shriek, incredibly loud and filled with rage. She saw the Wyvern Lord leading the charge. It dodged an enchanted ballista bolt, diving with incredible speed and flew at the walls. But if it thought this was all Pallass could do—it was wrong.
“Activating the first layer of defensive spells! Mark!”
The Day Strategist unfurled a scroll and Rekhassha saw his eyes shine. He grinned, laughing as power coursed through him. And he pointed.
The Wyvern Lord, flying at Pallass’ walls in a rage, sensed the magic surging through the walls. In his vision, the walls lit up, and magical symbols traced themselves in the air. The Wyvern Lord pulled up his flight, alarmed. And he saw a miniature cataclysm blast through the air at his weyr.
Hundreds of fiery orbs appeared and shot like rain towards the distant Wyverns. They streaked through the air, faster than the few arrows being loosed by the longest-range [Archers]. They were tiny, but they exploded in huge blasts of flame.
The Wyverns screamed and dove, but the fireballs flew down, catching them and blasting their scales apart. One couldn’t kill a Wyvern, but it could punch a hole in a wing. And three? Five? Eight? The Wyvern Lord saw a Wyvern explode as twelve hit it from all sides.
Homing [Fireballs]. And—Rekhassha clapped her paws to her ears—lightning. A classic deterrent to everything that flew. Dozens of bolts flashed from Pallass’ walls each second, striking down any Wyvern in range.
Fireballs, lightning—the next wave was an assault of stones, conjured from the sky, but Rekhassha didn’t see them falling. The fireballs and lightning ceased and she saw the Wyverns were in full retreat. Nearly a hundred lay dead as the trebuchets kept thumping and the ballistae fired a last volley of shots.
“There! They’re running scared!”
Someone cheered and the [Soldiers] shouted as they saw the Wyverns flying back, as fast as they could come. Rekhassha saw the Day Strategist’s chest inflate to near-bursting. She glared at him, but she had to admit—the fallen corpses of the Wyverns filled her with pride as much as awe. She and the defenders on the wall saw the lesson that the Wyvern Lord had just learned.
This was Pallass. To get in range of the city, the Wyverns would have to fly through walls of spells and munitions. The Day Strategist hadn’t even activated the most powerful spells yet. And the [Soldiers] could unleash devastating hails of arrows, not just the high-level [Snipers] from afar.
The Drake [Strategist] swaggered back to the Watch Captain, drunk on the power of loosing all those spells. He waved a lazy claw at the weyr, now out of range of even the trebuchets.
“Just as I said, Watch Captain. Nothing to fear. I have the [Cage of Pallass] spell ready for use as well. If the Wyverns somehow make it to the walls, I will activate it. I imagine the Assembly won’t appreciate the mana cost, but the safety of Pallass comes first.”
Rekhassha tried not to meet his smug gaze. She narrowed her eyes and found her spyglass. The Wyverns were regrouping around their leader. He hadn’t fallen. And he was facing Pallass.
“I imagine they’ll scatter. 4th Army will have to hunt them down as they land and rest, but we’ve reduced their numbers by a full tenth. At least. If they come back this way, we’ll settle the matter, but even Wyverns should flee after that lesson.”
The Drake was going on, but Rekhassha tuned him out. Her brown eyes narrowed and she pressed the spyglass closer to her face.
“Day Strategist. Day Strategist! The Wyverns are regrouping. And they’re doing something!”
The Drake broke off. He stared at Rekhassha suspiciously, and then fished out his own seeing glass. He frowned.
The Wyverns were doing something. They were lined up in the air—not a wall, but more like a half-sphere. The Wyvern Lord was in the center. And they were—breathing?
From so far away Rekhassha could only see the white frost as all the Wyverns exhaled. The Day Strategist blinked.
“What is that? Are they breathing frost? They must be uncommon variants.”
“What are they doing?”
Rekhassha didn’t like it one bit. She stared at the Day Strategist. Her [Dangersense] was going off. The Day Strategist wavered. The Wyverns were concentrating their breath into a single point.
“I don’t—those are clearly Frost Wyverns. Maybe they’re trying to stop the spells? That’s a unique behavior. Nevertheless, even if they keep approaching we’ll hit them from angles. There’s nothing to fear, Watch Captain. They’re miles out. And frost breath can’t—”
He broke off. Rekhassha stared.
“It’s—condensing. What’s going on? Day Strategist!”
She pointed and snapped. The Day Strategist stared. His eyes bulged.
A thousand Wyverns breathed at once. The magic, freezing air blasted from their maws, mixing, multiplying the force—
Collecting in the air. The magical frost didn’t dissipate. But it gathered together. Against all logic. But it wasn’t just a biological trait. It was magic. A spinning orb of frozen air was whirling, frost and snow spinning faster and faster as the Wyverns kept exhaling.
“What’s that? In the air?”
One of the [Scouts] pointed. Rekhassha realized what it was.
“It’s some kind of mass-attack spell! Everyone, take cover!”
“There’s no way it can hit us from afar. Our best spells can barely reach—”
The Day Strategist looked around. [Soldiers] were taking cover behind the battlements. The Drake glared at Rekhassha. Then he heard a shriek.
The ball of frost shot forwards from the massed Wyverns. And the air tore around it. Rekhassha’s eyes went round.
“Brace! Activate the shield spells!”
She turned. The Day Strategist stared. The air was moving as the orb shot at Pallass’ walls. At him. It looked like—a ripple in the air.
Snow, and a blast of wind coming at them. Faster than any arrow. It covered a mile in five seconds. It was—
The Drake reached for his key scrolls, clawing for the right one. Rekhassha threw herself behind a barrier of stone. She bellowed, tearing at her own key scrolls.
“Get to cover! Activate the scrolls!”
The Day Strategist gulped.
The Day Strategist never finished the word. Faster than he could move, could speak, faster than sound came the blast of frost. The blizzard covered the entire wall. The orb exploded across the northern wall, and everything froze.
Everything. Across the eastern wall, [Soldiers] screamed as their armor turned frozen in a second. And they were thousands of feet from the blast! Even on the southern wall, the defenders felt the impact and the sudden, biting frost.
A [Lieutenant] Garuda caught herself as the sudden wind nearly blasted her into the air. She stared at the frost on her feathers and the pain suddenly radiating across her body. Like frostbite! But she stared at the wall.
She saw the figures on the northern wall. The distant Day Strategist, Rekhassha. The [Soldiers] and [Guards] in their cover. They were…pale.
White. The Lieutenant raised a speaking stone to her beak.
“Watch Captain Rekhassha? Day Strategist? What was that? Watch Captain? Come in! Anyone?”
There was no response. And as the [Lieutenant] stared—she realized none of the figures were moving. Her eyes went wide. She stared at a [Soldier] getting to his feet. He looked at her, color draining from his face.
Frozen solid. Then came a shockwave, a thundering boom that shattered glass and made the ears of [Soldiers] and [Guards] across the wall ring. It threw the [Lieutenant] through the air. She flipped head over talons, barely avoided snapping her neck on the ground.
“What was—what was that?”
She stared. Then she looked up. A shadow dove at her. The [Lieutenant] looked up, shouted, and a pair of jaws cut her in half. The Wyvern Lord landed, crushing a Dullahan [Soldier] and screamed. He had been barely slower than the sonic boom. Racing in the vacuum created by the onslaught of frost and wind, the Wyvern hit the frozen wall, shattering the frozen forms.
For a moment, the [Soldiers] on the wall were stunned. They couldn’t comprehend what was happening. The Wyverns had retreated. And then—they couldn’t understand the frost attack, or the sonic boom that had hit the walls. What Teriarch had defeated in his duel with the Wyverns had caught the defenders of Pallass off-guard. They had forgotten. Small they might be, and bestial, savage.
But here flew the kin of Dragons. Now the Wyverns flew on the wall. Sucked into the vacuum of their attack, they struck the walls in an instant. For a moment, there was only paralysis. Then a Drake screamed.
“The alarm! Sound the alarm!”
Horns blew. The [Soldiers] scrambled for their weapons. But half were frozen. And the other half—the Wyverns dove. The smallest was thirty-feet long. And their hides were thick enough to shrug off sword blows like rain. They tore and shrieked and the Wyvern Lord roared.
The explosion made every head in Pallass turn. Erin Solstice felt the Wyvern attack moments before it came. She looked up and saw the bloom of frost. Heard the sonic boom. She gaped as the temperature fell several degrees.
And then she saw them. Flying above like pale reflections of their kin.
They flew over the Walled City. And Erin heard them scream. Louder than her [Dangersense]. A full-throated shriek. A scream that told the people of Pallass there was no safe place the world over.
Wyverns. Erin was just staring. But the Wyverns began diving. They flew down, landing on lower floors, diving as fast as eagles, hitting targets with pinpoint precision. It was so sudden. One second the skies were clear, the next, it was snowing.
“What was that?”
Rufelt and Lasica were stumbling. They hadn’t even realized what had happened. They were looking around wildly. Not even looking up yet. Erin just stared. She saw a huge Wyvern spreading its wings.
Chaldion’s voice roused Erin. The old [Strategist] was staring up at the walls. His scales had gone white. He snatched something from his belt.
“Day Strategist! Watch Captain, report in!”
He bellowed, but there was no response. And the Wyverns kept flying. Not just one hundred. Hundreds. They poured over the walls, casting vast shadows below. And their leader raised his head and uttered a triumphant scream.
Prey! He had found it! And he had beaten the Dragon’s magic!
Erin heard a shriek that echoed throughout the Walled City. It reached inside of her and touched a primal part of her. Fear. A predator screamed and across Pallass, people looked up. They froze.
“What’s that? Are those…?”
“It’s an illusion. It has to be. That’s not—”
This wasn’t happening. This could not be real. Not like this. Not to Pallass. Disbelief froze almost everyone in their tracks. The first to move were adventurers. [Soldiers]. The Watch.
“Get inside! Inside!”
“Dead gods! Sound the alarm! Why aren’t the alarms ringing?”
A horn blew. Frantically, from atop the walls. Then it was cut off. Another sounded. And then another. Horns began screaming an alarm across the city. But still, the paralysis lasted another beat. As if this was a bad dream from which you might still wake.
4th Army stared at the Wyverns attacking Pallass. They had seen the frost orb, seen the Wyverns loosing it at the city. Stunned, they stared as the Wyverns sped at the city in the vacuum. They saw the Wyverns flying at the Walled City, diving, taking the walls in the confusion caused by their attack. They stared. And then they ran for their home.
Erin heard the wailing horns. She stared at the Wyverns. Lasica and Rufelt were frozen in shock. As still as statues. It was almost funny. Erin wanted to laugh at their expressions. She looked around. Everyone was frozen, but her. In pure disbelief.
But Erin believed. She looked up at the Wyverns.
“That’s not my fault. Is it?”
“Why would it be yours?”
Chaldion could move. He looked at her. His eyes were wide, but like her, he inhabited this second. This moment, as the Wyverns flew over Pallass, diving. Erin looked at him. They were too calm. Shock raced through one to the other.
“It is no one’s fault. But whoever was on that wall. Run and hide. We must take the walls.”
The [Strategist] was calmly looking up. Erin saw the Wyverns diving. Slowly, so slowly. She felt the [Immortal Moment] shaking around them. Chaldion looked at her.
“Good Skill. Don’t die. This was not your fault.”
He met her eyes. And Erin knew it was true. It was just poor timing. Chance. Maybe fate, but the gods were dead. A Dragon’s meddling.
Slowly, in the breaking [Immortal Moment], Chaldion reached down for his belt. He calmly pulled out a glittering scroll and unfurled it. Erin saw him read. The scroll glowed, and then the Drake spoke.
“Chaldion. By my authority as [Grand Strategist] of Pallass, I am issuing a city-wide alarm. Now.”
Erin felt the air shaking. The Grand Strategist drew himself up. He removed his eye patch, yanked out the azure eyeball and dropped it in his belt pouch. He replaced it with a fiery red gemstone. And when he spoke, his words were like thunder.
“Pallass is under attack.”
Erin heard the Drake’s crackling voice from all around her. It echoed through the entire city. Chaldion spoke.
“Wyverns are attacking Pallass. Get indoors! 1st Army, take the walls! Sound the alarm! Pallass is under attack!”
And it spread. The paralysis broke. Erin felt her [Immortal Moment] shatter. Rufelt grabbed Lasica, his face pale. She shouted in terror. They began to run.
And the Walled City moved. People pointed up and screamed. They fled for their houses. The Wyverns dove, and Drakes, Gnolls, Dullahans, and Garudas fled. Some turned to fight, grabbing weapons. And the word raced around the world.
Pallass is under attack!
The news hit the Blighted King’s courts. It was already being screamed from all five Walled Cities. Az’kerash sat up in his chair. Tyrion Veltras halted his horse, demanding an answer from the City Runner. Magnolia spat out her mouthful of tea.
Teriarch was fast asleep.
In Liscor, Watch Captain Zevara whirled. She abandoned searching the High Passes and stared at the Street Runner.
“Under attack? By what?”
The other [Guards] stared at her. But they already knew the answer.
In The Wandering Inn, the world was frozen. Lyonette, the servers, and the clients were all staring at the little scrying orb. Tersk had pulled it out when it had flashed and shrilled a sound unexpectedly.
Now, the world over, an image appeared. Wistram’s [Mages] caught the spell, throwing it. Lyonette stared at the orb, reflecting a Drake as he ran, and then a sky full of Wyverns. Then she looked at the magical door.
It was open to Pallass. In the center of the room, she saw a street covered with frost. It was snowing. And above—there was shadows. She heard screams, echoed moments later from the orb.
“Sound the alarm! Where’s the army?”
Lyonette looked around. The room was frozen. Klbkch was on his feet. So was Relc. The Drake was staring.
“How’d they get past the walls? No way. Pallass has a million spells—”
Bevussa was staring. Then—in the center of the orb, she saw the running, bobbing view stop.
Someone halted in the magical door. A panting Drake, gasping for air. His view swung around and for a second Lyonette saw herself through the magical door. He was holding up a glittering mirror, and wherever he turned it the view in the scrying orb reflected.
“Pallass is under attack! Ancestors! They’re everywhere—”
Another Drake raced into view, from the door and the scrying orb. He was wearing expensive clothes. He turned, not even seeing the occupants of The Wandering Inn staring at him. He shouted as the first Drake held up the mirror.
“This is Sir Relz of Pallass! We are under attack! Are we broadcasting? Hello? Pallass is under attack! We just saw—Noass! Are you alright?”
The other Drake started. Lyonette saw him jerk—the image jerked and then he was holding the mirror up. The two Drakes crowded into frame.
“I’m fine, Sir Relz. Dead gods! This—this is Noass, your [Commentator]. We’re just—we’re in the middle of an attack! There are Wyverns everywhere!”
“They’re diving out the skies! This is—my [Dangersense] went off a second before—some kind of shockwave in the air—”
“Sound the alarm! Why aren’t the wall spells activating?”
Noass bellowed over his shoulder. He looked around frantically.
“We’re under attack. Ancestors! Someone—”
He stopped. The viewpoint shifted again as he turned the mirror. He stared at the inhabitants of the inn. They stared back. The Drake breathed at them, panting, his voice ragged.
“We’re under attack. This is—this is the inn in Liscor, isn’t it?”
Lyonette stared at him in shock. The Drake nodded. In pure shock. He looked at them. Pleadingly.
He pointed at the sky. Wyverns were flooding into the city. Lyonette looked at him, wide-eyed. And her face was reflected a hundred thousand times, the world over.
Lyonette’s father stared into the scrying basin. But then the viewpoint shifted. A Garuda surged to her feet.
Bevussa Slenderscale stood up. She looked at Pallass through the magical door. Her home. Her voice was a croak. Then a shout.
“Wings of Pallass. Wings. Pallass is under siege.”
Her teammates were still sitting at their table. Bevussa looked at them and then knocked the table over. She leapt towards the door.
“Wings of Pallass! To me!”
She flew. Zassil, Issa, and Kin leapt through the doorway in a second. Shock shattered as Keldrass overturned his table. His voice was a bellow, a scream.
“Get me my Flamewardens! To Pallass! The City of Invention must not fall!”
He charged at the magic door as Bevussa and half her team leapt through. Keldrass tried to follow, but collided with the wall as the magic ran out. He roared for his team, the Heartflame Armor, someone to recharge the door! Kin and Zassil shouting at each other as the Drake [Mage] put her claws on the door.
“Everyone back! Get back!”
Relc roared as he looked for his spear. Lyonette whirled. On the other side, she saw Bevussa and Issa whirling, looking at the magic door. Then the Garuda took wing. The image followed her up as she flew straight up. Issa was behind her.
“There. Go! Go!”
The view swung down. Kin and Zassil flew after. Lyonette saw the door flicker. Go out. Reappear again as another [Mage] in her inn grabbed the door. She saw herself.
And the Wyverns. They flew. And in The Wandering Inn, as Noass and Sir Relz ran, shouting into the scrying orb, the Wings of Pallass flew. And for once, The Wandering Inn was only witness. They stared, as one of the six Walled Cities fell under attack.
In the silence, Lyonette saw Tersk put the scrying orb on the table. Everyone crowded around it. Or the magic door as it recharged. And only one voice was clearly audible in the silence.
“Ooh. Big birds. I am so very envious.”
Bird stared through the magical door. He looked up at the sky full of Wyverns and then at Lyonette’s pale face. He paused.
“I mean…oh no? Oh no. They did not attack Liscor? Oh no…I mean, yes. This is good.”
“I am so jealous.”