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About six days ago.

Trey Atwood liked Venith Crusland. If that was a surprising fact, well, it surprised Trey too.

He was a visitor from another world, a young man who had found himself serving and following Flos Reimarch, the King of Destruction around. Trey Atwood was a young man from London. He was not, in his own estimation, someone cut out to walk with legends. Neither was his sister, although Teres’ estimation of her own abilities was a bit higher than his.

But even when Trey was practicing magic, or watching his sister go through sword practice, he never forgot they were from Earth. A world where such things were foreign and strange.

Everyone around Flos Reimarch was strange. Gazi was strange. Orthenon was intense and strange. Mars—well, she looked like a supermodel crossed with a [Knight]—and that was when she was being modest with her illusions. Takhatres, what Trey had seen of him before he’d left, was a mix between prickly and devoted towards Flos.

The point was that no one was normal. Not even the others Trey had met. Nawalishifra, whom he hung out with and had developed an odd friendship with, had killed her brother within the first thirty minutes of him meeting her. She wore a veil, refused to talk to most men, and hammered metal like a machine.

She was also physically stronger than both him and Teres; he’d tried arm-wrestling her. It had been Teres’ idea, but she’d been put out when she lost after Trey, despite her [Lesser Strength] Skill.

Who else? Who else…well, Trey had a few friends among Flos’ vassals. Not all of them were friends, or even that close; they treated Trey with courtesy and even warmth, but Trey didn’t know them.

If he had to name his friends, it would be Teres, his sister, Flos, to some extent, for all they disagreed on issues, Gazi, in her mentor-student way and as a scary friend, Nawal…

Uh, Ulyse and Mirin of Parasol Stroll were also friends to Trey, at least. They helped teach him magic and Mirin loved showing Trey little illusions. Ulyse was like a cool uncle-grandfather type that everyone wanted, rather than what you got.

Finally, there was Fetohep of Khelt and the Quarass of Germina. Trey added them to the ‘friend’ list because he did know them, to some extent. Teres hung out with Orthenon, and neither twin really knew Mars that well, although Teres did more than Trey. But somehow, Trey Atwood had found himself sharing company with an undead ruler and an immortal soul trapped in a child’s body.

Those were his friends. And. They. Were. All. Weird. In the time since he’d met Fetohep, Trey had found the undead monarch seemed to enjoy showing off his kingdom to Trey. He showed Trey a new marvel or artwork each time—often at least a dozen—and seemed to derive enjoyment by watching Trey eat some magical dish, or amazing Trey with views of the city.

“I do not care for your sister. She reminds me of your [King], Trey Atwood. And even a fragment of his personality is more odious to me than leysvurn.”

“What’s that, your Majesty?”

“Ah, a parasite of the stomach. It grows until it overflows from each orifice. It does not kill the host but by its excessive reproduction. There are some preserved in my bestiary. Inform me if you would care to gaze upon them.”

“…Um, no thank you, your Majesty. I might be sick.”

“Ah, the foibles of flesh. Then let us assume my point has been made. Your sister is arrogant. She challenged my authority.”

“She told me about that, your Majesty. You…let her try to strike you?”

“Yes. It was quite amusing. She is not Mars the Illusionist, or Orthenon.”

And then Fetohep would laugh, and the lights in his sockets would flicker. And he would ask Trey if he truly found the comforts of the flesh so unattractive and Trey would ask him to stop choosing volunteers to visit him at night. Although there were a lot of volunteers, which was…surreal.

It was mostly due to Fetohep’s association with Trey; he was at the top of Khelt’s social pyramid, and they loved social status there. Not that Trey had visited Khelt more than…six times?

The undead monarch liked Trey for some reason. Perhaps, because Trey talked to him about Earth. Because Trey liked history from his world. Alexander the Great, and the exploits of Winston Churchill were fascinations to Fetohep as much as Flos, but the ruler of Khelt had soon delved much deeper, until Trey was recounting the stagnation of the Ottoman Empire and the reign of Caesars in the Roman empire, and Fetohep would make pithy observations about his world.

Trey was a historian, and Fetohep had even observed that he might gain the class if he so choose.

“Although I would caution you to remain in your class as [Mage] and pursue magic, rather than devote levels to history. There are [Ancient Magi], who study history and recover magic of old, but it is a unique class. No doubt that boy will have his own plans for you. In that sense, the Quarass is the true mind to consult. I was a [Warrior] in my life; magic is an art I have learned since my death.”

Friends. Was the Quarass a friend? They were certainly being thrown together. And on the day Trey left Reim as Flos Reimarch marched north to go bother other nations with his small army, Trey realized he had another name to add to the friend list.

Venith Crusland. Trey had known the [Lord] first when he had dueled Flos. Venith had rejected Flos coming out of his slumber, blamed him for abandoning his kingdom. But he had ridden to the King of Destruction’s aid with his wife, Lady Maresar.

Trey’s impression of Venith had been that he was a bit of a battleax at first. His wife, Maresar, was another addition for the weird category; she was a former [Bandit Lord], and she was tall, dark, and mysterious. But Venith was different. He was unflappably loyal once he’d returned to his [King], and Flos had left him in charge of managing Hellios, Reim, and Germina in his absence, taking Orthenon and Mars with him.

But was Venith Crusland like Orthenon? A disciplined, almost obsessively formal fellow who could also slice you in half if you looked at him crosswise? Well…no.

He was to his son, Calac Crusland, but that was more of how he was as a father than anything else. To Trey, he was disarmingly…normal.

“Remember, Lady Pathseeker will be with you, but her attitude is not…hospitable. I fear you must keep them apart.”

Venith walked by Trey as the young man hurried through the palace in Reim. He was sighing and rubbing at his chin. Trey was sighing too.

“Me? But why me?

“Because his Majesty trusts you. And I believe you alone could keep the two from coming to blows. I do not envy you, Trey Atwood. Not at all. It would be like keeping my lady wife and Orthenon apart.”

“Maresar doesn’t like Orthenon?”

He does not like her. And I suppose she has her issues as well. I fall on my wife’s side of course, but she was a [Bandit Lord]. And Orthenon hates criminals of all kind. They have had issues in the past.”

Venith sighed. Trey winced. The two looked at each other. Trey came out with it as he slowed and Venith matched his pace.

“You know, um, Lord Venith—”

“Venith. You are his Majesty’s trusted bodyguards and companions. We are thus of rank. If anything, I should call you Lord Atwood.”

Venith smiled. Trey shook his head hurriedly.

“It’s just—I didn’t expect to meet someone so…well, like you. Sorry, I mean to say—”

“Normal?”

The [Lord] smiled wanly. Trey nodded. He lowered his voice, as if all his other weird friends were around. To his knowledge, only two were left in the castle. So did Venith, although his wife was keeping an eye on Hellios.

Normal. I can speak to you.”

“It is refreshing to say that I can do the same to you, Trey. An odd feeling. I wish I could speak to Calac so, but we are family.”

The man grimaced. He wasn’t wearing armor, but loose, light clothes for the summer heat. Trey on the other hand was fairly bundled, and sweating in the heat. But Gazi and the Quarass had both insisted on it.

“Well, I’ve met Calac and he’s uh, intense. But you’re not like that. I mean—”

Trey realized he was insulting Venith’s son. The [Lord] smiled crookedly.

“I can be more relaxed around you, Trey. As I said, we are of the same rank. And the same temperament. Like you, I find myself a normal man in the company of monsters. If more of his Majesty’s vassals return, I will introduce the saner ones to you.”

“You mean—?”

Venith nodded.

“The ones who feel as if we are walking amidst legends. I am a [Warrior], well I was before I became a [Lord]. Now I am a [Lord of Battle]. Hardly a unique class. I would call myself beyond decent, but I could barely hold back his Majesty when he held a poor steel sword. Against Orthenon? Mars? Lady Gazi herself? I would last less than half a dozen blows. Yet, I am one of his Majesty’s trusted vassals, and he has left three nations under my care. Me.”

He nodded at Trey and Trey nodded back. They had the same look of being so far over their heads they were drowning.

“But you can do it, right? His Majesty told me he wouldn’t leave the kingdom in your hands and Maresar’s if he didn’t trust you.”

Venith Crusland covered his face.

“I suppose I may grow feathers if milord Reimarch wills it. But some days I despair of him throwing me off cliffs. And he uses you scarcely less hard. In fact—I think you might wish to trade with me.”

Trey gulped.

“I uh—well, they’re both nice. In their own way.”

Venith actually laughed. He looked at Trey ruefully.

“You might be the only person to say that of Gazi Pathseeker besides his Majesty, Trey Atwood. And the Quarass? I have known two before her, and they suffer fools less than Gazi. You have my condolences.”

He gestured, and Trey reluctantly went on. They walked through the hallways as servants bowed or just went about their day. And after a few minutes, Venith spoke to Trey out of the side of his mouth.

“I would brace yourself. The Quarass’ citizens will not let her go without one last attempt, and it falls to you. Here comes one of them now. Remember, bow—”

The two stopped. Venith gave a short, small bow, as the appointed regent. Trey’s bow was just as short; he felt it should have been deeper, but Venith had given him tips, and among them was to not bow deeply. As they did, both put forefinger and thumb just below their eyes and lowered their hands.

The woman copied them. Highborn Vaitsha Zectiou was a beautiful, beautiful woman. One of the beauties of Germina, in fact. But Trey kept his eyes fixed on her face. She was white as a sheet and her slight greeting made her wobble a bit. Venith looked just as wary.

“Highborn Vaitsha, may the Quarass watch over you. How may we help you?”

“Lord Crusland. Lord Atwood. I hope you may yet persuade her Majesty to refuse the—the King of Destruction’s request. I do not say it is unwise—never! But as the daughter of Ger, I must protect her, even with my frail wisdom.”

Vaitsha came out with it in a whisper. Both Venith and Trey exchanged a look. Trey shuffled his feet.

“Um, Highborn—it’s not my place to question his Majesty. He and the Quarass—they came up with this. And the Quarass thinks it’s a good idea. Isn’t that enough?”

The pale-faced [Highborn]’s eyes flickered. Her face was pale white, but there were darker shades. Her veins were…blackened. Not black, but darker. They stood out, if you looked at her long. Trey tried to keep his eyes on her face. She was a beautiful woman. Loyal to her ruler.

“The Quarass is wise. But I am a poor subject. I fear for her, Lord Atwood. I do not disobey…”

Her eyes flickered again, and a tinge of nerves entered her tone. Disobedience to the Quarass was a death sentence. And neither she nor the Quarass’ escort who’d been here for two days was disobeying.

At least, not to the Quarass. But they were not happy about Flos’ plan at all. Still, as Trey had noticed, not one dared even express dissatisfaction in the Quarass’ presence. Instead, they went to Trey.

Normally, Trey might have done a lot to accommodate the swaying, pleading woman. But…this was about the umpteenth time she’d come, or one of the Quarass’ bodyguards, or a servant—Trey was as polite as he could be.

“I’m sorry, Highborn, but the Quarass has made up her mind and I can’t convince his Majesty. I…wouldn’t dare try to convince the Quarass, in her wisdom and authority. Right, Venith?”

The [Lord] gave Trey a small nod as he murmured agreement. He nudged Trey. Good move. Vaitsha sighed again.

“No, I see you understand her Majesty’s will better than I. I had not considered…if the King of Destruction is gone…then I shall accompany you.”

“If you feel unwell, Highborn—”

Venith began, but Vaitsha was already sweeping down the corridors ahead of them. [Servants] made way, eying her as warily as Venith.

“I could not rest while the Quarass departs. I shall rest afterwards.”

Trey and the Venith exchanged a glance. When she put it like that—they hurried after Vaitsha.

 

—-

 

It did not take long for Trey and Venith to enter one of the courtyards, following Vaitsha. They’d both been heading that way anyways. Now, they found a small gathering. And there, Trey saw his friend, and mentor, Gazi Pathseeker.

The half-Gazer as always, wore the scale armor of long, segmented bits of brown armor. The long, silver claymore was strapped to her back. And the Gazer’s orange-brown skin made her seem part of her armor, for all it bulked out her thinner frame.

She was a half-Gazer. And her hair was…hair. Dark. But she had four fingers on each hand, oddly segmented, long. And she had five eyes. Four smaller ones, which all moved independently of each other, even rotating back in their sockets, and one main one. Closed.

This was Gazi Pathseeker, one of the King of Destruction’s Seven. She had no nose—she could smell, but her face was smooth and her mouth lay below her central eye. She had pointy teeth.

The half-Gazer [Scout] already knew Trey, Venith, and Vaitsha were there. One of her eyes had followed their progress and the half-Gazer’s head was already turned towards them. But the other gathering, of Humans, was less perceptive.

A cluster of darker-skinned folk stood about a single, small girl and a bundle of something on the ground. There were [Bodyguards], elite [Servants], a trio of [Mages], and, Trey had been told, at least two hidden [Assassins], the specialty of Germina in the Quarass’ private entourage. Right now, all but the [Assassins] were gathered around their ruler.

The Quarass of Germina. A friend. A tanned girl, who might have been nine, or thirteen if she was late to her growth spurt—a child. She had pale yellow eyes and black hair in a widow’s peak.

Yet she wore royal clothes, freshly-tailored, and cut of rich, dyed fabrics. And that was a sign of her wealth; the gold fabric worked into the garments was apparently less expensive than some of the dyes. The Quarass wore four rings on her two hands, and she had a small locket or something around her throat.

Still, she was a child in appearance, albeit a rich one. Until you looked into her eyes. Then—then you saw someone older than Fetohep looking back. Even now, Trey found it unnerving. And yet, at the same time, compelling.

Like Flos, the Quarass had a presence that inspired people to listen to her. To kneel, or bow. She was young, but she was also old. The Quarass of Germina never died. Her body, died, and the…perspective of her living incarnation. But the Quarass’ memories were passed on to the next one. In that way, she had lived longer than almost anyone in the world.

She was the Quarass of Germina, a Dragonslayer, ruler of one of Chandrar’s four Shield Kingdoms. And Trey’s friend. At least—she seemed to tolerate him. And she had agreed to his presence on this trip.

“Great Quarass, Lord Atwood has arrived.”

Vaitsha announced to the crowd and all heads turned to Trey. He saw the young girl look up. And both he and Venith experienced that pause as the Quarass looked at them.

“Yes, Vaitsha. And you have not persuaded them still.”

The Highborn lady went even paler. She opened her mouth, but the Quarass spoke over her. She looked around and her entourage bowed their heads low. Some knelt.

“I have explained myself once. Secrecy is of the utmost importance. Moreover, the carpet moves faster with fewer passengers. No guardian could match Gazi Pathseeker. No one in Ger has the experience to ride a carpet with the proficiency I do. Finally. I will it. Is that not so? Answer me, Vaitsha.”

“It is so, Quarass. This daughter of Ger begs your forgiveness.”

“If the daughter of Ger did not question her Quarass, there would be nothing to forgive.”

The Quarass snapped. Vaitsha shook. Trey interrupted hurriedly.

“I apologize for my delay, Quarass.”

The young Quarass looked at him. Trey felt like she’d shoved an invisible spear through his chest. But she nodded.

“There is no offense from you, Trey Atwood. And this journey is planned. We shall leave now. My double—”

The Quarass gestured. Trey saw a little girl with huge eyes—yellow, and a height and build similar to the Quarass—step forwards. She was shaking—with more awe than anything else. The Quarass was beloved by her people.

“Show my face at least once a day in Ger or Reim. As I have said, but apparently must repeat, Lord Venith Crusland shall manage any disturbances should they appear, as will Vaitsha in my absence.”

The Quarass’ tone made it clear the disturbances would not occur. Her entourage bowed. Vaitsha bowed lowest of all, nearly prostrating herself on the worn stone flagstones of the courtyard. She had tears in her eyes from the sharp words the little Quarass had spoken.

“Your will, Quarass.”

“Yes. Then, we are in readiness. Trey Atwood, come. Pathseeker, are you ready?”

Gazi turned her head. She’d ignored the Quarass and the subjects of Ger, choosing instead to let her eyes roam around. Now, she turned her head as all but one eye still roamed. But one eye was enough—it flitted between Trey and the Quarass.

Then Gazi smiled her scary smile. With lots of teeth. Frankly, most of her smiles were scary, but Trey had learned enough to know when Gazi wanted to unnerve others.

“Yes, Quarass of Germina. Let us go.”

The other Germinans shifted uneasily. They did not like Gazi. They did not like Flos. He had beheaded the last Quarass. But at the order of the new one, they’d sit in bed with a cactus.

“Then let us go.”

That was all the Quarass said. She had no luggage, at least, not any visible stuff. Neither did Trey or Gazi, but for what they were wearing. Gazi wore her armor, the Quarass had light clothing and magic jewelry.

Trey had hot layers covering even most of his head. He lined up behind Gazi and the Quarass as they turned to the bundle sitting next to the Quarass.

It was a carpet. A rolled-up carpet. Trey recognized it as similar to one of those allegedly authentic Persian carpets people liked to show each other in his world. Only…this one was authentic. Someone had woven it, with some kind of fantastically complex pattern. By hand.

It was rolled up, but as the Quarass pointed at it, she spoke one word.

Seter.

And the carpet unrolled in one movement and hung, floating, a foot off the ground. Trey made a sound. It was a cross between a gasp and a squeak.

No one else seemed that impressed. Gazi smiled slightly, and Trey blushed. Venith just gave Trey a nod. Another bloke in a world full of monsters.

Vaip.

The carpet lowered itself. The Quarass walked onto it, and then sat, cross-legged, near the tassels on the ‘front’. Gazi followed her.

It was a large carpet. Another sign that it probably cost a lot of money. Or gold. Aside from the magic itself, that was. Apparently, this carpet had come from Germina’s treasury itself. It was one of the many objects Flos’ armies had looted when they’d taken Ger, the capital. And now the King of Destruction had given it back to the Quarass in exchange for her aid.

Well, that wasn’t the only thing he’d given. Gazi settled down at the back of the carpet on the Quarass’ left. Trey hesitantly walked over and sat in the middle, on the right.

“We go. I shall be gone a week and a half at most. Watch Ger for me.”

The Quarass’ subjects knelt. The Quarass looked back at them just once.

“My faith lies in you all. And you, Vaitsha.”

That was all she said. Then she pulled slightly on one of the tassels and the carpet rose. Trey yelped, but only because he’d expected to feel the sensation of going up and he hadn’t. Unlike an elevator, the carpet felt like Trey was sitting on the ground. He only saw the world descending around him.

Vaitsha looked up as the Quarass bade farewell. Her eyes widened at the little ruler’s last words and she touched her finger and thumb to her eyes. To cover tears, Trey thought.

It was surreal to meet someone who loved their ruler that deeply. Like meeting someone who talked about the Queen all the time and did stuff like—like sing ‘God Save the Queen’ with tears in their eyes. Fair play if you liked the royals, but even if you did—they were just there.

But this was a world where monarchs ruled. As the carpet rose, Trey looked at the Quarass’ back. He stared over the edge of the carpet as Venith lifted one hand in farewell. Gazi sat with her back straight as the Quarass angled the carpet up slightly.

Trey was braced to feel as though he was sliding, but again—it was like an aeroplane without even that slight pressure from acceleration. The carpet flew out of Reim’s palace, out of the city.

Higher and higher. Until Trey was high overhead the arid land of Chandrar. Until—well, he was familiar with flying. But this?

This was surreal. Trey could look over the side of the carpet and look down, down all the way to the ground. It was not like being in an airplane. It was in fact, terrifying. The carpet was large—a rectangle of oh, thirteen by eighteen feet. You could walk around on it if you wanted, safely.

Trey did not want. In fact, he might have screamed. Just a bit.

Aaaah! Oh my god—

And that was how he began his journey with the Quarass of Germina and Gazi Pathseeker. Neither stopped Trey from screaming. In fact, he saw Gazi smirk. The Quarass was manipulating the carpet by tugging on the front of it in some secret manner—but Trey was sure she was smiling too.

For some reason, their amusement helped. Trey stopped screaming and stared down at the moving landscape beneath him. Good thing he had a head for heights these days. And there was something incredible about seeing this. No plane could be this real. The wind was blowing in Trey’s face as the carpet rose.

First it was hot, and sand had blown against Trey’s clothing as they rose. But then—the air grew clearer, and the rushing wind made Trey very grateful for the heavy clothing. He marveled as the carpet rose yet higher.

This was Reim. And to the north, Trey knew, Flos Reimarch was marching north with Teres, the Nomads of the Sky, and countless more [Soldiers] and Mars and Orthenon. He wanted to train his armies, and he had told Trey his instincts called him north, whatever that meant. But there was another motive behind him going north. And that was the carpet ride Trey and Gazi and the Quarass were on. They had arranged it. Trey was just there to keep the peace, but—

“Whoops.”

A gauntleted hand pushed Trey. He screamed and clung to the carpet. Gazi laughed softly as Trey crawled into the center of the carpet.

Don’t do that! Gazi, you monster!

The half-Gazer laughed as Trey shrieked at her.

“You’ve never called me a monster yet. Have I earned it?”

“Yes! Don’t do that again! Please!

The wind didn’t snatch away Trey’s words as much as could be expected. The carpet really did feel like a confined space, although Trey couldn’t see the magical field yet. He lay, belly facing the carpet, spread-eagled and panting wildly. After a few seconds, Trey raised his head.

“Um, Quarass?”

“Be silent. I am still adjusting to this carpet. I have not flown in forty two years.”

The Quarass’ calm voice made Trey shut up at once. He stared at Gazi. She was turning her head left and right. Trey nearly sat up—but he was still having a near heart-attack.

“Gazi, do you see Flos? Teres?”

“Mm. I see something to the north. But my smaller eyes do not see far enough.”

Gazi pointed and Trey stared into the distance. He saw nothing, save for the rising ground that led towards Hellios, and in the distance, hills and more mountainous terrain. Trey looked back and marveled.

Reim was a small kingdom, and its city, which resembled a crown, was hardly a metropolis. It had been, in ages past, but the surrounding city had fallen into disrepair and dust. Reim had smaller settlements, but the land was barren.

Or had been. But Flos Reimarch had issued his [Edict of Bloom] and the rains had come. Trey had seen the dry ground blossom. From above, he gasped.

“It’s amazing.

Green ran throughout the kingdom, mixing with the earth. It was already drying in places; the rains had stopped, but Trey could see paved roads, tiny people, marching down them. Small houses, so unlike the steel and glass of his world.

But what a wonder, to look on it from above. A world so unlike his own. A sight unlike his own! Trey sat up.

Gazi pushed him again. This time he grabbed her hard armor.

Stop! I’m begging you!

“If you cannot move about without screaming, Trey Atwood, it will be a noisy ride. You should get used to this much. What if you fight at heights like these?”

“If I do, I’ll manage! Just don’t push me!”

“It is your training!”

No!

Trey shouted at Gazi. But he knew that meant she’d be pushing him like that all trip. She was—evil.

Not evil, evil. Not like Gazi the Omniscient, ruthless counter-assassin and butcher that the legends made her out to be. But she trained Trey ruthlessly. To teach him spells like [Featherfall], she’d thrown him out a window multiple times, and then started doing it when he wasn’t paying attention!

To be fair, she caught him if he failed, but try telling Trey’s bladder that. Yes, he’d wet himself a bit. Twice! He’d told a laughing Teres to try falling face-first towards the ground from a four-story drop and walk away with clean pants.

Also in fairness, Gazi’s methods worked. Trey could cast magic, he’d put on a lot of muscle, and he was capable of casting spells even after being kicked in the nuts. And yes—they’d practiced that too. Gazi’s teachings were harsh, but Trey didn’t begrudge her it—usually. He knew she wanted him to live, and he’d seen the dangers this world had to offer.

Like Wyverns. Thinking of that, Trey glanced around, but the skies were clear. The clouds were high, high overhead. The sky felt more vast than in Earth—Trey and Teres had estimated that this world had a larger sky, although how gravity worked if that was true was beyond him. Still, there were no Wyverns…

“Bird flock.”

Gazi pointed. The Quarass turned her head as Trey’s head snapped around. Instantly, the ruler of Germina took the carpet down in a short dive. Trey felt that. Just a bit. But his stomach dropped a tiny bit with the sudden deceleration and they missed a flock of—

Trey saw them flash by. They were like small bluebirds. Except they were brown. And that was the extent of Trey’s bird knowledge. They scattered, peeping, as the Quarass flew past them.

“The warning is appreciated.”

The Quarass’ voice was cool, unperturbed. Trey was imagining what would happen if one of the small birds—even a tiny one!—hit him at the speed they were travelling. He was no expert, but this felt like a very, very fast car. Not an airplane, but still, amazingly fast.

Magic. Gazi seemed to be considering the same thing, although she had her unbreakable armor.

“Does this carpet have anti-collision magic?”

“Doubtful for a flock. Bugs, perhaps. Although sand may wear it down. Alert me of any other birds.”

“Very well.”

The two didn’t turn their heads to look at each other, and their voices were cool. Polite. Trey…wondered if they didn’t like each other, like Venith had warned. He shifted uncomfortably. Then Trey remembered something at last and fumbled his iPhone out of his pocket. Gazi and the Quarass watched as he tried to take a video.

“This is us in the air! If you’re seeing this later, me, your Majesty, Teres, it’s not that windy! It is a bit cold, but we’re not flying too fast! There’s Gazi—”

He turned the phone. Gazi inclined her head.

“Your Majesty.”

“And here’s the Quarass!”

She stared at the camera, unblinking for a second. Trey hesitated. He swept the view across the ground, pointing out Flos’ palace in the background, already distant, and trying to find the flock they’d nearly run into. Trey closed after a minute or two of blathering to himself; the other two passengers were just staring at him.

“That’s all from me! I’ll take another video if we see something interesting!”

He turned off the video and saved the file. Only then did Gazi relax and the Quarass turn fully back to the front. Trey forgot how seriously people in this world took videos.

Silence. After a while, Trey spoke up. He was fairly certain the other two wouldn’t, and making small chat with unbelievable folk was a talent of his. He cleared his throat.

“So—um, Quarass.”

“Yes, Trey Atwood? We are apart from my subjects. Speak your mind.”

The Quarass turned her head, regarding Trey intently. They were friends. Of sorts. She had accompanied him to Khelt, where he’d gotten to know her, and they’d talked since then.

“I wouldn’t want to bother you. If you still need to learn the carpet.”

“I have mastered it to my satisfaction. What do you wish?”

The Quarass was still unnerving to Trey, but she seemed to not mind explaining things to him. That was why Flos had insisted Trey go with her. For perspective as much as anything else. And…Trey rolled his shoulders.

“Um—I was just wondering if Vaitsha was alright?”

She had been very pale. The Quarass shrugged as she turned to look at Trey, keeping the carpet moving ahead.

“The poison is running through her. I have told you of this.”

“Right. Right. But, er, is she doing okay?”

“She must take a numbing medicine—another poison—to stay sane. She is weak, faint. In another few days she will not be able to stand. By the time I return, she will be bedridden, and must be hand-fed. At the end, perhaps when I return, or just after, she will not be conscious. Then, she will be force-fed and she will live or die. Perhaps, all before I return. Does that answer your question?”

The Quarass’ gaze bored a hole through Trey’s skull and implanted a silent message that he was being an idiot in his brain. Still, he went on.

“Can’t—can’t she reduce the dosage?”

“No.”

“But if she might die—

The Quarass clicked her tongue.

“It was her choice. As is Khalid’s. For power and her new class, Vaitsha is risking her life. Would you deny her that right?”

Trey bit his tongue.

“No. No…well, maybe I would. Does she have to risk her life? Isn’t there another class?”

He looked at the Quarass. She had the memories of countless lifetimes in her head. And she knew more about classes and levels and the secrets of this world than anyone, even Fetohep. The Quarass smiled.

“Of course. But this is a class that suits Vaitsha. It is more powerful than many I could easily transform her into. And the swiftest. Germina needs champions. Vaitsha has taken the risk. Her chances of death are low.”

“How—”

“One in sixty.”

Trey fell silent. That…wasn’t as bad as one in ten. Or one in twenty, like he’d been thinking. Still…

“So, how’s Khalid doing?”

The little [Street Tough] was a boy from Ger who had pledged to be the Quarass’ protector, like Vaitsha. And Flos. But Trey hadn’t seen him when the Quarass had come to Reim the last two visits. The little Quarass shrugged.

“He is training his body. Learning the art of war. It will be years before he is able to serve as my protector and champion. But I have laid the groundwork. Each day, he imbibes tinctures and medicines, and soaks in baths designed to improve his body.”

“Really? Really? All that helps a lot? Tinctures?”

“Yes. Pills, made of ingredients and in processes I know. They will improve the quality of his muscles. By the time he grows in height, he will have twice a normal man’s strength without a Skill, among other qualities.”

Trey blinked. Gazi turned her head back to stare at the Quarass for a second.

“Bird.”

The Quarass turned them left. Trey kept talking. It wasn’t hard. Everything about this world was beyond fascinating.

“Wait, you can do that? Eat something and get powerful? Does it wear off?”

“No. You are thinking of potions, substances with short-term effects. What Khalid eats will change his very nature. Slowly.”

The Quarass calmly stared at a large albatross-like bird with dark feathers flying past. It made a strange, warbling sound—Trey saw it had teeth. It tried to turn—the carpet outraced it.

“So—so—by the way, this is an amazing carpet!”

“Your praise is unneeded. The carpet is average. Ask your questions.”

Trey wilted.

“Okay. So about these substances? How is it possible? Gazi, did you know—?”

He looked at Gazi. She shook her head. For the first time, the Quarass looked at Gazi directly.

“These are secrets I know. Gazi Pathseeker, travelled though she is, does not know much of this world.”

Gazi grinned with all her teeth. Trey winced. Venith had warned him! The half-Gazer looked at the Quarass and inclined her head ever-so-slightly.

“Apparently so. If it is not a secret, may I ask how this is possible? I know of enchantments that may last indefinitely. But you say it changes the nature of this boy. How?”

“Any aspect of the body and even qualities like the mind or natural flow of mana can be improved to some extent. The people of Drath know this; they are experts at this refinement and produce pills, liquids, and other methods of cultivating their form. I studied their methods in several lifetimes.”

Really? So you can make them stronger?”

The Quarass smiled a bit, pleased by Trey’s wide-eyed fascination. And Trey wasn’t disassembling! …Too much. You had to entertain people like Flos and Fetohep. The key was to genuinely be interested. And this was amazing.

“Of course it is possible. This is what is happening to Vaitsha now. She drinks poison and antidote until her blood itself is venom. Soon, she will become [Viperborn]—or a [Serpent Lady], or a number of classes depending on some factors outside my control.”

Trey shuddered.

“And Khalid?”

“Strength of body, fitness of form. It is a simple thing with him; slower. I rely on Vaitsha’s class; not so with Khalid. His strength will come from body and class. It is said on Drath, that their perfect warriors had blood which circulates the body ten times for every one of ours, that they are lighter, swifter, stronger, with eyes like birds and flawless skin and the ability to consume poison like water. But the ones I poisoned certainly did not have that latter quality.”

The young man’s face fell slack as the Quarass smiled. Gazi grinned too. The Quarass raised a finger as Trey opened his mouth.

“You are about to ask me why I do not offer this to other subjects, or why I did not do this to myself. Or why the world over does not practice this.”

“Yes.”

The Quarass let go of the carpet. Trey experienced a moment of panic, but the flying magical carpet just flew straight ahead. The Quarass pulled out a tiny bottle in a sealed clay flask. It was nondescript, and she yanked on the cork. Twice. She dug her fingernails under the cap, glared at it, and then handed it to Trey.

Without a word, he pulled at the cork. It took him a few seconds, but he opened it and carefully handed it back. The Quarass instantly took a swig and made a face. She went on as if nothing had happened.

“Three reasons. Firstly, because it often creates a class of its own. Secondly, the process takes years, often difficult or painful as one internalizes foreign substances and the body adapts. It is also best done in conjunction with training and adolescence; it would be immeasurably harder for you, for instance.”

She prodded Trey lightly in the chest with one finger. He winced. The Quarass finished drinking her tincture and sighed, grimacing.

“And finally, to develop even my body with the fullness of such techniques would cost more than Germina’s coffers could withstand. The cost is astronomical for the most impressive of such recipes; this is relatively cheap and effective for its cost. I will be able to cast magic well in a few years’ time with this.

She tossed the clay bottle over the side of the carpet. Trey instantly watched it disappear. He carefully looked over the edge, but they were flying across the edge of Zeikhal by now, along Khelt’s borders. Sand began to overtake even arid land.

Endless sand. Zeikhal had apparently engulfed countless kingdoms. It had been settled by great empires and they had turned to dust. It was the Great Desert of Chandrar, larger than continents from Trey’s world. They were flying along the border, southwest.

“So that’s…”

“Concentrated mana potion. I must drink it daily, and monitor myself closely. Too much and I will poison myself. But if I manage it—and my changing flow of magic—I will become more attuned to magic itself. Are you taking notes, Pathseeker?”

Trey jumped. Gazi, who hadn’t moved from her cross-legged position, just smiled.

“His Majesty has no need of enhancing his magic, nor I mine. Will this work with Amerys? Trey?”

“As I said. If the King of Destruction wishes to pay a fortune for comparatively small reward, he may request my knowledge. I have agreed to help you, and Trey Atwood. But I do not believe he will benefit from this process.”

The Quarass flicked her fingers. Gazi shrugged and relaxed. Trey looked at the Quarass.

“Why did you agree to help us, your Majesty?”

The Quarass turned and looked at him. Trey really wished she’d stare ahead, but Gazi was keeping at least three eyes out, which was reassuring.

“Besides the fact that I have tied Germina to Reim, Trey Atwood? Besides the fact that I have bargained with the King of Destruction for the return of some of my treasures in exchange for my aid? This is my carpet. And these are my rings.”

She touched two of the rings on each finger. Trey winced. Flos had gone through some of the artifacts looted from Hellios and Germina and spread the wealth. Some had gone back to the Quarass indeed, but Mars had walked off with two swords. Teres had a magic ring, and Trey had…

“The staff of Deliqen. You have it with you?”

Trey jumped. The very staff of the [Geomancer] the previous Quarass had sent to kill Flos with was in Trey’s bag of holding. Guiltily, he nodded.

“It’s uh—”

“It was lost in battle. You will become worthy of it. It is a powerful artifact, which I shall instruct you in the usage in. Among other tasks. It will be at least three days of non-stop flight to reach our destination, even as fast as this carpet can go. A day of conference. Three days to return.”

“Right. Right, and um. My role is to take videos. And Gazi—”

“To provide mana for this carpet. Among other tasks.”

Gazi smiled, looking with two eyes at the Quarass. The girl nodded.

“Among other tasks. And she is a useful guardian. One who can see scrying spells, among other things.”

“Oh. Oh. So that’s why his Majesty was so certain…”

“My departure will be noted, perhaps even my arrival. The key is not whether we are spotted, in the end, but whether we are ambushed. There is little chance of that, I believe.”

“And if we are? Are you prepared to fight, Quarass? I cannot guard Trey, myself, and you with perfection with my wounded eye.”

Gazi indicated her closed eyelid. Someone had poked her eye out. Or in. A girl named Erin Solstice. Trey had seen her, thrice now. The Quarass inclined her head.

“If it should pass—I am adept at using a magical carpet. I will evade pursuers by air. If we fall to the ground, your life is in the most danger, Pathseeker.”

“True.”

One of Gazi’s eyes swiveled to Trey. He hesitated.

“Did his Majesty say…?”

“To protect you, Trey. Although if we are surrounded, you two should surrender. I will not be a prisoner.”

The half-Gazer calmly nodded at the Quarass. The ruler of Germina tapped her fingers together. A bug bounced off her face. She blinked; Trey was certain it would have splattered or hurt at the speed they were going, but one of her rings flashed. She brushed at a leg caught in her hair.

“True. And if it comes to it, I may well die.”

She and Gazi stared at each other. Trey looked at the Quarass.

“Die?”

She shrugged.

“If I die, I die. The King of Destruction will owe me a debt. And if I die, it is no great loss. I have already selected my successor, and Germina will not suffer the loss of a high-level Quarass.”

“But that’s awful! You can’t think of death like—that’s not right!”

Trey was genuinely horrified. He was used to people talking about death, but even this was cavalier. The Quarass slowly turned her gaze towards Trey. Her eyes narrowed.

“You look at me as I appear. A child. Do not let my appearance deceive you, Trey Atwood. Yes, I am a child in parts, but I am also ancient. Death is not something worse for me than anyone else. In fact, it is a lighter thing for me than you, since I shall live again—”

“Insect swarm. Locusts.”

The Quarass spun. The carpet went nearly totally perpendicular in a moment. Trey saw a huge cloud of bugs, a long, swarming group of them headed south. He hung on as the Quarass took them away. Then she turned back and stared at Trey. Hard.

“By all means, sympathize with the circumstances to which I am thrust into. Grieve for the girl who became the Quarass if you must. But do not pity me. The next time you treat me like what I am not, I will disabuse you of the notion.”

Trey couldn’t say anything to that. He knew the Quarass was old. He knew she had died—he’d seen her headless corpse and that was something that had given him nightmares. But to look at her…

The child ruler clearly knew what Trey was thinking. She glowered her eyes flashing, and got angry for the second time Trey could remember seeing her. The first had been trying to mount a really tall camel without help.

Sand-blinded boy! I have slept with more women than you have in your life, you arrogant virgin! I have eaten the hearts of my dead foes, and watched nations fall! I am not one to be coddled or made light of! I am the Quarass of Germina!”

She pointed a finger at Trey’s face. He turned crimson.

“I’m not a—”

Gazi looked at him. The Quarass looked at him. Trey turned pale.

“I’m not! Neither is Teres! No, wait. She is. She is, I’m not!”

“She’s not. You are.”

What?

“We can read your aura.”

Trey went pale.

“But Teres said—that’s a lie about the aura. Right? I mean, you can’t tell…

The Quarass rolled her eyes, as Trey tried to explain or justify. She turned back to the carpet and made a slashing motion with one hand—Trey’s mouth shut instantly.

The carpet was quiet for a while. Trey fell silent, more from the heat in his face than anything else. At last, the Quarass spoke, and it was softly, facing ahead. She gripped the edge of the carpet as she stared across the open sky.

“Many lifetimes ago, I was a [Carpet Racer]—a [Skyrider of Ger]. I may not have the Skills or levels of my incarnations, but carpets need neither muscle nor supreme reflexes, Even in this body I can control it well. Your [King] believes carpets are dangerous. Well and so, he is right. But I remember living in times when many soared through the skies as we do now. How else to travel across Chandrar?”

“There is a magical carriage in Izril owned by a [Lady]. It moves as fast as this, or faster.”

Gazi offered noncommittally. The Quarass scoffed.

“Pah, can it ride across the sands of Chandrar? Even if it can—what is a carriage to flight? This is magic.

“And death. Even with safety spells, I am told most carpet riders die within a month.”

The Quarass looked back at Gazi and Trey. She paused, blank-faced.

“I lived for thirty eight years. I did die on a carpet. But I flew it into a Dragon’s maw. And the lack of courage to fly is why this world wanes.”

“W-well, we’re flying, aren’t we?”

Trey tried to edge between the two. Gazi nodded, smiling with that edge of hers. She looked at the Quarass challengingly.

“So we are.”

The little girl laughed.

“You call this flying? This is not flying! This is flying.”

With that, she flipped the carpet upside down. It happened in an instant. Trey saw the ground below him. He stared at it as his entire stomach dropped straight towards his throat. Then he felt his bottom leave the carpet—

The Quarass flipped the carpet again. Gravity pulled Trey down—into the carpet. He stared ahead, white-faced. And then he started screaming.

Aaah! Aaaaaaaaah!

Gazi was holding onto the carpet, staring at the Quarass. The little ruler was smiling. She turned to Trey.

“Stop panicking. Even poor carpets have some level of anchoring for the rider. This is a poor gravity spell woven into the threads. Besides which—both you and Pathseeker are capable of casting [Featherfall]. What are you worried about?”

Don’t do it again!

Trey shouted at the Quarass. She smirked. And in that moment, Trey realized she shared one tendency with Gazi—no one could make her stop when she wanted to do something. The Quarass grabbed the carpet.

“Do not—”

Gazi’s voice was swept away as the carpet dove. This time the g-forces kicked in hard, pulling Trey upwards. Not off the carpet—just an inch or two. He clung to the carpet, screaming as the carpet dove towards the ground.

The Quarass took them down and then across the ground, inches from the sand. Then she tilted the carpet nearly seventy-degrees to the left! Trey felt himself sliding towards the ground—he scrabbled for purchase as Gazi, pale-faced, hung onto the right edge.

Stop! Stop, stop, stop, stopstopstopstop—

Then the Quarass started doing barrel rolls. Actually, the correct term was aileron roll, as the maneuver of rotating entirely around in a 360-degree axis was confused with a barrel roll—

We’re gonna die! We’re gonna die!

They were a foot off the ground! They followed a dune up, went screaming down a valley, and Trey saw the Quarass pull up as the ground rose—

Inside loop. And then an outside loop, a trick performed by fliers in Trey’s world. The Quarass flew with her two screaming passengers behind her, taking them through incredible aerodynamic feats. The carpet danced in the air, and the Quarass only stopped after about fifteen minutes of flying.

Trey was panting when they flew level again. He’d stopped screaming after minute five. After that, it had been the most incredible roller coaster he’d ever had. He was terrified, breathless, but he clung to the carpet and looked at the Quarass with awe.

Gazi lay on the carpet, spread-eagled like Trey had been, with a death’s grip. And she had kept screaming even after five minutes. Now, she stopped and Trey heard another sound.

Laughter. The Quarass was sitting up, with a huge smile on her face. She let the wind blow through her hair and she laughed, as she let the carpet fly ahead. And Trey saw a new emotion on her young face. Like her wrath, he saw her smile.

Her laughter. And Trey realized, as the Quarass flew ahead, that for the first time since she had become the Quarass, she was apart from her subjects.

She was free.

 

—-

 

Even monarchs were people. Yes, even them. They were not normal people, if anyone was normal. They were different. They were rich, powerful, famous at the very least by virtue of their royalty.

And yet, even those who were immortal, ancient of days, were people. People with egos like the sun, who believed the world revolved around them. Who trampled over others to get what they wanted.

Sometimes it made your hands itch for an axe. But in this world, what they faced was the reason why they were needed. Monsters, calamity—a nation needed a leader who could not only lead, but stare down Dragons. That was why they existed.

That night, Trey found not a campfire and bed, or a tent as he had envisioned, but the carpet. As in, they would be sleeping on it, through the night as it flew onwards.

Trey objected. He objected strenuously, and at length. The Quarass silenced him with three remarks.

“You may put a pillow to stop you from rolling. The carpet is large enough for all three of us to sleep. And Gazi Pathseeker will watch during our sleep and sleep in the day. If there are any obstacles in the air or if you sleepwalk, she will notice.”

Trey still didn’t like it, but Gazi just nodded. She was not happy with the Quarass, even after all day of flying. But the three had a quite pleasant meal of unleavened bread mixed with pots of curries, lentils, and other side dishes. The Quarass had sleeping gear, food, and any number of items in her bag of holding.

Trey had brought his iPhone, changes of clothes, and so on. When he asked about bathroom breaks during the night, the Quarass just looked at him. She’d stopped three times that day for that purpose and Trey supposed she wasn’t waking up at night for a fourth.

That was the first night, where Trey found himself sleeping, waking in a panic, and sleeping in the middle of the carpet as Gazi sat in her same spot, eyes moving in the darkness. The Quarass slept in roughly the same spot. Twice she rolled over into Trey. The third time she actually rolled towards the edge. Trey and Gazi woke her up.

“This body seems to wish to move in its sleep. Unfortunate.”

The Quarass yawned and went back to sleep. Trey slept fitfully until he found himself waking up mid-morning; he’d been asleep well past dawn and Gazi was sleeping on her back where the Quarass had been. Trey looked around and saw the Quarass. She was brushing her teeth after having eaten breakfast.

“Teeth rot. That is something both your world and my memories agree on. Tell me more about this toothpaste. I have many compounds, but they are all foul to me.”

That was the first day of Trey’s flight across Chandrar. It was better than an airplane in some ways, many ways, actually. Food, ability to stand up and walk about—

Bugs smacking into you at high velocity was a downside, and the chill and spending longer than an actual airplane were downsides. The biggest though was probably Gazi and the Quarass’ frosty attitudes to each other. Trey had to ask when Gazi had woken up for lunch why that was.

“Why don’t you two like each other?”

Gazi and the Quarass looked at each other. The sleepy Gazi, who’d really woken up just to nosh, focused all four smaller eyes on Trey. A curious inversion of a normal unfocused look. The Quarass answered as she finished the last of a spicy Yellat-curry.

“She is too observant. And she reports to her [King].”

“She is the Quarass. We are wary of each other.”

Gazi nodded as she reached for some spinach-cheese dip. She ate as Trey helped himself to the last of the wonderfully delicious beef slices. This was a meal prepared for the Quarass, and even if it was travel-food, it was delicious.

Without hesitation, both the Quarass and Gazi reached over and plucked the meat from his flatbread. Trey stared at them as they chewed. After a moment, he went on.

“But we’re on the same side.”

“For now.”

Gazi murmured. The Quarass nodded. They both caught themselves in agreement and exchanged a look. And then they gave each other respectful nods. They might have to kill each other, or be at odds in time. It was just how it was.

Mystifying.

 

—-

 

They were headed towards a Shield Kingdom. Another Shield Kingdom, rather. Trey had forgotten that there were four, and Germina was one of them. People had made something of a fuss over that, he recalled, but he didn’t know why.

He did after the Quarass’ lessons. Part of her agreement with Flos had been to teach Trey while they flew together. Part of that was magic. Part was history.

“Show me your arrows. Conjure them as fast and as many as possible.”

Rain down on my foes, arrows of light! Illuminate the sky and strike with profusion!

Trey chanted the mnemonic aid to casting the spell. It actually did make a difference, but you had to cast it by chanting each time. But with it, he could fire fifteen magical arrows over the course of ten seconds, then fifteen again. The glowing yellow-white arrows flew past the carpet, and all thirty missed a very angry bird which flew out of their way, honking.

Trey managed eight more before he had to stop. The Quarass nodded to the slumbering Gazi.

“Pathseeker taught you to do that?”

“Yeah…she said it was a good, basic spell.”

“She is correct. That you learned to cast that within a few months of training is impressive.”

“Really? But they’re Tier 1—”

“I counted thirty eight. [Light Arrow] is less powerful than an actual arrow, because it is a blunt impact, but it has the same force. The next step would be to harden the light. If you have a Skill or the knowledge, that would be a rain of thirty-eight arrows.”

“Oh! Well, I know a few more.”

“Yes. Show me your barrier.”

“[Sand Wall]!”

Some of the sand blew directly over the carpet and all three passengers. The Quarass stopped the carpet as Gazi woke up. And then the Quarass pushed Trey over the edge of the carpet and he demonstrated [Featherfall].

“You are a [Sand Mage]?”

“Yes.”

Trey was Level 16, thanks to Gazi’s relentless tutoring. That was apparently good, although Teres was Level 19.

“You both level exceedingly fast. But [Mages] are said to be more difficult to level than other classes. By and large, that is true. The Archmages of Wistram have ever suffered because to reach the highest level, one must not only study, but practice magic of great power. A [Warrior] must simply challenge ever-greater foes.”

The Quarass lectured Trey as he, sweating, showed off more spells. She corrected him twice, informing him where his control of mana was sloppy. That was a big thing with Gazi, Ulyse, Mirin, and the Quarass.

“Perfecting the art of casting any spell is more important than quantity at this point. Conserving your mana, making each spell work with utmost efficiency—that will put you ahead of other magic-users in time. King Reimarch intends for me to help you shape your class. Do you have any other talents?”

“Um—um—[Mana Reserve], and [Eidetic Spell Memory], and [Magic Thought], and—”

Trey rattled off a list of basic Skills that were to a [Mage] what [Lesser Strength] and [Weapon Proficiency: Sword] was to Teres. The Quarass nodded, informing Trey he needed more mana well Skills, and then paused as he listed one of his actually original Skills.

“What was that?”

“[Basic Golem Shaping].”

“Show me.”

Trey blushed. Gazi had had words with him when she’d discovered that he’d become a Level 15 [Sand Mage] and gained that Skill on leveling up. She hadn’t minded [Sand Mage], but…

“Well, they’re sort of silly. I just do them for fun—”

Show me. And if you blow sand in my eyes, I will make you regret it.”

Gingerly, Trey conjured a bit of sand up and began to form it. Now he had a Skill, he could make one as tall as his knee in less than a minute. Trey had tried one his height, but it was very difficult and no one among Parasol Stroll was a golem-expert.

The Quarass stared at the cute bobble-headed version of Gazi that waved a sword aimlessly and charged her lower half. She blocked it with one hand.

“…Why does it look so?”

“It’s—well, it’s just something silly from my world. I think they look cute like that.”

Trey mumbled. He showed the Quarass more, his little collection of mini-Dragons, [Knights], a tiny Wyvern—they duked it out in the carpet, shedding sand as they smacked each other lightly.

They weren’t strong. Trey had the thought that he was doing their creation wrong—he was using sand, since he was sort of good at it [Magical Specialization: Sand] was one of his Skills, which was very specific, but even when he tried to make their weapons hard, they were only fairly stiff.

Trey had once tried to ambush Teres with three chest-sized Sand Golems, which was the limit of his ability. They’d looked good, and she’d had trouble cutting them in half, even with her enchanted sword, but all they did was slow her down until she eventually hacked them to death. Flos had laughed his beard off with Mars at the scene.

Gazi had not been pleased, especially since Teres had gained [Shadow Cut] as her latest unique Skill. Orthenon and Gazi seemed to be competing through them on who could raise the best twin.

Trey was prepared to be berated by the Quarass, but she was mostly just intrigued.

“Your passion is your passion. And Sand Golems are not meant to replace wood, or stone, or any other material. Has Pathseeker informed you how best to use them?”

“Yeah. Blind people, make them engulf people or use them as shields—I can make a big one, but it’s really slow and it’s not useful at the moment. Um—use them as spies or to deliver things once I can see or control them at range—”

“As traps, buried in the ground. They have utility. But there are ways to make them stronger yet. To make sand harder.”

“Really?”

Trey looked up as one of his mini-Wyverns roared silently and charged a group of the brave sand-Drakes, recreating a scene from Pallass. Sand Golems were slow, but he was getting the trick of making them faster. The problem was they were so malleable. If they were hard, he was certain he could get them to run.

“Yes. I know of a few sand-based specializations. I will consider which one to attempt to give you. Now, for Pathseeker.”

The young man stared as the Quarass turned towards Gazi. The half-Gazer, Gazi Pathseeker, Named Adventurer and [Scout], turned in the midst of removing some grit from her armor.

“Me, Quarass?”

“Your [King] asked me if there was anything I could give you, half-Gazer. I promised him to try.”

The Quarass looked down her nose at Gazi. The half-Gazer bared her teeth.

“Well then. What would you like to know?”

“Your Level. And your exact class?”

Trey held his breath. He was beginning to understand just how much information like that mattered. Gazi stared for a long moment at the Quarass. Then she shifted.

“[War Scout]. Level 45. [Mage]. Level 12. [Silent Commander]. Level 18.”

Trey exhaled hard. Gazi looked at him with one eye.

“Least of the Seven. I told you, Trey.”

“But you’re level—”

“She has two low-level classes. I assume you hoped they would consolidate?”

The half-Gazer folded her arms, uncomfortable as Trey had known her.

“The [War Scout] class is a product of my [Infiltrator], [Fighter], [Rider], and [Archer] classes over time. But it has been so since Level 30. It is not…unique.”

She stopped, looking at the Quarass. The ruler of Germina pursed her lips.

“It is unusual. I know Mars is over Level 60. The other Seven…”

“Were all above Level 50. At least. More than that I will not say.”

Gazi bared her teeth. The Quarass nodded, her eyes flickering.

“I knew as much. But you—interesting. You should have gained a more powerful class by your deeds. You fought and slew your enemies in great number as your [King] rode to battle. I wonder.”

She stood up and paced back and forth, eying the half-Gazer. Trey had so many questions, but Gazi was waiting. At last, the Quarass came back and pointed.

“Your armor and blade. I heard a rumor of it. Several, and I have known of its durability in battle. Tell me, Pathseeker. Where did it come from?”

This time Gazi hesitated for a long while. The Quarass stared at her.

“We are allies now, Pathseeker. You have already given the ransom of queens away.”

The [Scout] bared her teeth.

“Very well. It was given to his Majesty by the Dwarves. In exchange for an order gone wrong. His Majesty had requested arms and armor fit for an entire army. Something went wrong. It was never said what, but the Dwarves failed to deliver anything but this.”

She touched the brown scale-armor and sword. It was a complete set that covered every part of her body up to her neck. Trey had sometimes wondered why Gazi never took it off. Nor was her blade or armor enchanted. But he had never seen Gazi repairing it or even doing more than cleaning it, either.

“Ah.”

The Quarass’ sigh was that of someone piecing together a secret. Gazi looked at her sharply.

“Well?”

“Did you or your lord ever discover who made the armor, Pathseeker? Or why the Dwarves thought it was worth an army’s worth of weaponry?”

The half-Gazer paused. She unsheathed her claymore and Trey saw the metal was silver, almost white, different from steel. He stared at it; it was in fact, blank, even after polishing. No reflection.

“No. The Dwarves refused to answer, save to claim there had been an error. They asked if milord was satisfied with the armor. He tested it with warhammer, with spell. He dragged it a hundred miles behind a horse, then ordered it put before a wagon loaded as heavy as could be. He had it run over and then declared he was satisfied. The blade was no less sharp, the armor never dented.”

Trey whistled quietly. The Quarass only nodded.

“I heard a rumor that an incident had occurred in the home of Dwarves. That the best of their [Forgemasters] and [Smiths] were exiled. Some disappeared. Others went to major cities. I tried to entice them myself.”

“Do you know what the armor is made of? I mean, who made it?”

Trey looked at Gazi. The half-Gazer shook her head slowly.

“No Dwarf I have met has ever spoken of it. Many do not know. Two, I met in war who knew…something. Even with spell and…torture. They refused to speak.”

In the silence, the Quarass nodded.

“I know something.”

“What?”

The Quarass turned her head slowly and shook her head, never taking her eyes off Gazi.

“It is not worth the price your [King] paid to tell you. Nor any price I would give that even Fetohep could match. But it explains your armor. It was made by a true master.”

In the silence, Gazi looked as though she was weighing the odds of…something. In the end, she stayed silent, the claymore on her knees. The Quarass slowly went on.

“Dwarves. That explains why your level is lower than the other Seven. Your armor and blade are a crutch.”

She pointed at Gazi. The half-Gazer slowly nodded.

“I see.”

“If you wish to gain a stronger class, throw yourself into battle without your armor. You may die. If you wish to merge the other classes—fight with the armor on and wait. By Level 60, both of the other classes will merge. But you will be far longer in reaching it, and forced to face greater foes than you will find in common armies.”

And that was all. Gazi nodded slowly. She was weighing the Quarass’ words, not with surprise, but as if she’d confirmed something she’d known all along.

“Do you have any specialty classes?”

The Quarass raised her brows.

“From [War Scout]? One or two. Carry rot and drink poison until it is in your blood. Slaughter your foes. [Deathbringer Scout]. But I do not think you would wish it. It is not a class meant for peace.”

“No. Others?”

“[Scout Commander] or variations that give [Commander] a higher class.”

“No.”

Both women chorused it at the same time. The Quarass went on.

“[Warmage Scout], [Shadowworld Wanderer], [Spectral Scoutlord]—all tie more heavily into your [Mage] class. And they are powerful. But you would have to be able to cast magic from something other than your eyes to gain such classes. And that armor blocks your spellcasting, doesn’t it?”

Gazi froze. The Quarass smiled. This time there was a triumphant note in her voice. Slowly Gazi looked up and nodded.

“That is correct.”

She was not happy. Trey felt a nervous sweat break out across his body. The Quarass paused, unconcerned, and flicked her fingers.

“Then that is where the matter lies. Use wands if you must. Your gaze, once healed, is powerful. But it will never level your specific [Mage] class. A pity. But for the armor you might have been a decent spellsword.”

“So my lord believes. Thank you for your help. Quarass.”

“I will consider my work done with you. Now, Trey Atwood. Attend to me. You will practice your aim while you learn of this world.”

 

—-

 

The Quarass of Germina could use magic. She did so while she taught Trey history. She also made him aim at passing birds and informed him that if she didn’t have fresh meat by tonight, he would not eat.

Gazi was generous by comparison. Sweating, Trey kept his eyes peeled for poor birds. He liked animals! But he was also aware the Quarass meant what she said. She wanted him to curve and shoot his projectiles faster. Fundamentals.

The Quarass was also aware of Trey and Teres’ ignorance of this world, so this journey was also a history lesson. At least, on the Shield Kingdoms.

“There are four. One lies in the eastern section of Chandrar, Germina. Another lies south-west. A’ctelios Salash, our destination. Another further west. Qualvekkaras.”

“Um—”

“In the desert of Zeikhal lies the last. Merreid. The city is far north, to the west of the Claiven Earth, almost halfway across the continent, but nearer the topmost edge of the Great Desert. Is sits as a trading route.”

“So what are the Shield Kingdoms?”

Gazi was napping again; the light was fading, and she’d take night-watch. The Quarass flicked her fingers, delicately ahead.

“You ask this—as easy to say, ‘what is the history of Chandrar’? I will be brief. But the Shield Kingdoms are as much tale as they are history. I am part of that history. Listen, judge. This is what is said.”

She conjured up a flash of red. Trey gasped as a miniature Dragon, a beautiful and awesome creature flew past them. It was small, for the Quarass was weak in magic, but it was so vivid. But she had seen them.

Dragons.

The Quarass’ voice was low, almost hypnotic as she began to intone slowly, the wind rushing past the two on the carpet.

“Chandrar has always been Chandrar. Dry, and of the deserts. Nations come, and bring rain, or try to tame the deserts. What came before Germina, I do not know. My memories stretch only as far back to the first Quarass. And she was born in an age when Dragons came to rule Chandrar.”

“Rule? How?”

The Dragon alighted on a fortress made of stone. It reached down and with one claw, dexterously picked up a struggling shape. A Garuda. The Dragon squeezed. Trey turned white. The Quarass nodded.

“With force. Dragons are scarce in these years. They have almost left the earth, like Giants and Djinni. And they were never plentiful, but once there were enough to rule. They did so. But they were overthrown. That is a common story. The world over they were overthrown, chased back to their Walled Cities and then exiled from even those places by their children, the Drakes. But where Chandrar’s story begins is in the Shield Kingdoms.”

The view changed. A woman strode forwards and threw a spear. The Dragon laughed until the spear lodged in its scales. Then it fell backwards, as black rot engulfed it. The woman turned her head, just a tiny figure. The girl nodded to her.

“The first Quarass. She was powerful. So powerful she created a kingdom. She had a class and level beyond any Quarass since her. And she came to create the class—Quarass—and her legacy, that should Dragons ever fly in the sky again, Germina, her kingdom, would never be without protection.”

She held up a hand, though Trey was spellbound, watching as the illusion matched the Quarass’ words, revealing an aged woman, lying on a bed, and then a new Quarass, being surrounded by her people.

“No, do not ask me her level or class. That is an utmost secret. But she created Germina. What was known as a Shield Kingdom. To shield against the tyrants’ return. Each nation who did battle with Dragons took on the name, and the duty. They formed a bond—that no Shield Kingdom would ever march to war on another!”

She smiled ruefully. The Quarass fished out something from her bag of holding. A little pipe. Trey opened his mouth and she shot him a look as she ignited it with a spark. She puffed on it, then exhaled slowly.

“Vices never change. And I remember them all. This will not corrode my lungs, boy. Where was I? Ah, a pledge not to declare war. Hah, well, that oath failed within a decade, but a greater alliance was made; that even if a Shield Kingdom should oppose another, they should not perish. Each Shield Kingdom should at least endeavor to keep the others alive. That some might be left when Dragons return.”

She sighed. Trey looked at her.

“And did they?”

“Oh, yes. Twice. And the Shield Kingdoms have rallied for other causes. The Crelers, for one. When the world was crawling with them, the Shield Kingdoms stood. We must stand, and endure. That is why Chandrar worried when I was slain. Not because Germina fell; that was my predecessor’s folly. But even King Reimarch acknowledges this fact: the Shield Kingdom of Germina must endure. The Quarass must live.

In the twilight, the Quarass’ eyes flashed. Trey nodded slowly.

“But what makes a Shield Kingdom unique? Germina, Merreid, uh, Quel—Qualve—”

“Germina, Merreid, Qualvekkaras, and A’ctelios Salash. We go to A’ctelios, but the leaders of Merreid and Qualvekkaras will meet us there. Each Shield Kingdom is different, Trey Atwood. But what makes them unique is a common feature. They were all founded with the intent to stand forever. Khelt may have well been one had it existed in that time—perhaps the Shield Kingdoms will grow if it endures another millennia. Perhaps. But what binds us from that age is—”

Bird!

Trey pointed his wand. A bird squawked. Trey pumped a fist and the Quarass gave him the longest, most silently peeved look imaginable.

As I was saying. What binds our four nations is—trust.”

“Trust?”

Trey looked at the Quarass, abashed. She didn’t turn back for the bird, which he thought was a bit of a waste. She nodded.

“Trust, indeed. Listen. The Shield Kingdom furthest west sits on a mountain. An entire nation occupies the mountain, from its roosts, growing, repopulating. It is the pride of the Garuda, a nation which can command the wandering tribes by its authority. For it has never been taken. Qualvekkaras.”

She conjured an image for Trey, a city of wild heights, with flying Garuda of every color who had built their tall, open homes across a mountain. And at the summit was a city filled with buildings, but no walkways. A city made for Garuda.

Next, a Garuda with white feathers appeared, flecked with gold around her wingtips. The Quarass sighed.

“The Garuda of Qualvekkaras do not have immortal rulers. None of the other four Shield Kingdoms do. Their rulers come and go, unlike Fetohep and I. However, the royal bloodline of Qualvekkaras is strong. But as I told you, trust made each Shield Kingdom. And Qualvekkaras has a protection far greater than one person.”

The view of the mountain drew back. And now—on the carpet sat a mountain, and surrounding it was a colossal sandstorm, whipping winds that blew in a cyclone around the mountain. Trey saw the Quarass gesture to it. For a moment the winds stilled, but then they howled again. There was even lightning in the magical storm.

“The Garuda trusted to magic and weather. That Dragons could control the skies, but not the very sands and world forever.”

“So it—it’s a magical storm? Magical weather? But how can it last so long? Has it been blowing since—”

“Since the day Qualvekkaras was founded. Yes. The Garuda shall not die so long as Qualvekkaras stands. And it has never fallen, but it has knelt. Onto Merreid.”

The image vanished. Trey saw a different city next, one of sweeping, polished stone, an oddity in the dusty continent. In fact, the city was flawless and the walls—

The walls were insanely high. Not as high as a Walled City, but the city was built of the stone. And it was magical. Shifting! Trey saw the view change and realized he was staring down at a labyrinth of a city that moved.

“Merreid is but a single city, but it has more in it than many people would experience in their lifetimes. The builders of Merreid trusted to craft, to stone and metal and gem and thing, brought together with will and law to create something larger than any person. Dragons fought from atop Walled Cities and even the ancient Drake fortress-cities could not stop their ancestor’s wrath. But they never took Merreid, because it was built to last an eternity.”

The Quarass smiled fondly, gesturing. Trey saw the image change, perhaps to a memory. A street full of wonders, someone swallowing fire and belching it for coins—and then—a flying figure. A laughing face, made of magic and cloud, changing to become a lion’s head. Trey pointed.

What is that?

Djinni. Do you not know Djinni?

“I know genies—I mean, djinni. But I thought they were rare!”

There were hundreds that the Quarass was showing him! The little ruler shrugged.

“They are bound, as I say. They were given an order to maintain and defend the city before the first Quarass was born. Not long before, but still. They have continued to carry out that order. And no force will release them. They will die defending this city; no ruler of Merreid can command them to do battle.”

“Oh.”

Trey looked again at the flying shapes, the changing figures. He hesitated.

“Forever? But I thought they couldn’t be bound like that. Don’t you get three wishes?”

The Quarass gave Trey an odd look.

“Of course. But you can wish for anything. Including that they carry out a task forever. It is a waste of a djinni, and there are few left, but Merreid was founded when Djinni and their half-mortal kin, the Jinn were both plentiful. The Jinn have died and the Djinni are slaves. Powerful, dangerous. If you find one of their vessels, be wary of the wishes you make.”

“But how powerful are they?”

The Quarass puffed for a bit.

“Some were as powerful as [Archmages]. Others are not. It varies, as with all people. What is true is that Djinni are exceedingly useful. Even your [King] would desire one, and to face a Djinni is a dangerous feat. They are almost pure magic, so to slay one you must use spells. I think that is why your [King] laughs at your world, Trey. He thinks a single djinn could conquer it. Well, he is a fool, but he is right that…”

The Quarass lapsed into thoughtful silence. She had been told of Earth, and Trey didn’t like knowing that she knew. But it had made her an ally. For now.

“U-um, Quarass. I know you want to talk about Merreid, but I want to know about djinn, please. You have three wishes? And they grant each one?”

“Within their power. It is an ancient geas, from when each was bound. It makes them servants, but rebellious ones. You must word your desires carefully, for they will turn on you if they have a slightest chance.”

Trey felt something hot in his stomach.

“Then they’re not servants. They’re—”

“Slaves.”

Gazi opened one of her eyes. The half-Gazer raised her head a fraction. The Quarass turned.

“Yes.”

That was all. After a moment, the Quarass went on.

“But you seem to be making a mistake, Trey Atwood. Depending on the binding spell, they are indeed compelled to grant the asker’s desire. Sometimes it is one wish, or three, or even as many as thirteen, or a hundred.”

A hundred—

“Depending on the enchantment of the bottle. But why would you risk it? Every first wish someone who comes across a djinn-bottle makes is for more wishes. Ah—but be careful. If you use up your last wish for more without wording it right, a djinn may free themselves between your next wish. Normally, the first wish is so lengthy one spends hours uttering it, to ensure the djinni cannot alter the wish in any way and you are protected from all harms by it. However—”

The Quarass was going on, but Trey waved an urgent hand in her face.

“Wait! You can’t ask for more wishes! Isn’t that—illegal?”

The Quarass stopped smoking. Gazi raised her head. Both gave Trey a nonplussed look.

“Why would it be illegal?”

“Because—isn’t it unfair?”

“To whom? The djinn? Those who enslaved them didn’t care. Ask for more wishes. Why would you…? Many ask for the djinn to be lifelong protectors and servants. They must only restrict the djinn’s power immensely, less they break their word-bonds and slay their masters. But of course their masters have infinite wishes. They just must be very careful not to leave loopholes. Illegal? Nonsense.”

The Quarass snorted. She tapped her pipe over the side of the carpet and refilled it. Trey opened his mouth.

“So—”

“Merreid. I will not discuss djinn all night. And you must learn etiquette.”

The Quarass ignored Trey. She pointed down at the city.

“Merreid is a safe haven. Its bazaars are truly neutral; no one may break the laws of Merreid, not even its ‘rulers’. The djinn are its servants. And the city thinks.”

She nodded at Trey’s sharp look.

“The [Architects] who created the city and wrote the laws which shape the city’s will and magic were much like the deceased one of your King’s Seven, Drevish. They did not trust mortal weakness. Sensible. Which is why Merreid has endured.”

“In that case, why are Merreid’s rulers allowed to meet with the other nation’s rulers? That’s why we’re going to A’ctelios, right?”

Trey saw the Quarass’ lips curve into a slight smile at the question.

“Well, Merreid’s rulers control the people. Not the djinn, who only defend the city. They can manage trade and other qualities. It is still worth entertaining them. But yes, they are less influential. Still, each Shield Kingdom serves a purpose. Qualvekkaras leads Garuda to some extents. A’ctelios, like Merreid, is a place of trade. Even if A’ctelios is more dangerous than Merreid.”

“And Germina? What does it do?”

The Quarass blinked.

“In the past? Before my predecessor ruined its reputation? Germina was a place of wisdom. Rulers, [Mages]—many would come from far and wide to seek my knowledge in exchange for gifts, favors.”

“Of…course.”

Trey tried to nod seriously. The little Quarass glared out of her child’s body.

“My predecessor was a fool. She slew her own mother, a matricide, and was forced to know of her mother, the Quarass-before-her’s true contempt for her daughter in her last moments. She was forced to live through slaying herself, and trapped by her class. She was a fool. But yes, Quarasses have been great and poor. I will be one of the greatest.”

She lit her pipe again. Trey just nodded. The Quarass puffed and sighed.

“Before you ask—yes. There were more. Once, there were seventeen Shield Kingdoms. They fell apart, were destroyed by calamity or simple foolishness—their protections turned out to be less than perfect. We four are the last who remain, by chance as much as trust.”

She looked terribly sad and old as she said that. Trey hated to see it, so he searched for questions.

“Why seventeen?”

She shrugged.

“Because only seventeen nations had the will to resist Dragons in that ancient time. It could have been a hundred.”

“And what did the people of Germina trust when they made their kingdom?”

The young man looked at the Quarass. Her pipe’s small glow was the only light now, as they rushed on through the desert. Gazi was sitting up, her back to them as she opened their prepared dinner, but she was watching, listening. The little Quarass smiled ruefully.

“They trusted to the one who had founded their nation to guide them forevermore. That a single soul could bring down a Dragon. That even time could not break her will.”

The group on the carpet paused for dinner, then, and Trey ate heartily, savoring sweet rice from Baleros, rolled up into little balls and seasoned with bits of nuts, or fruit, like candy. Among other dishes. The Quarass related the final Shield Kingdom as they ate.

“A’ctelios Salash? The Tomb-Dwellers trusted no one thing or person or creation. They simply trusted that they had killed worse than Dragons. We head there now, and it will be easier to see than explain. I caution you before we enter: eat nothing within the city save that you bring in. To be safe, eat nothing at all. Drink nothing. Is that clear?”

Trey felt the back of his hair prickle. He was reminded of the old legends, old tales like faeries and whatnot. Like never looking back as you left the underworld. He’d always thought that sounded incredibly hard and that poor Orpheus had gotten a raw deal.

“Why not eat anything in A’ctelios? Can I see an illusion?”

The Quarass paused. And two of Gazi’s eyes swung towards Trey. The girl chewed and swallowed.

“No. Have you been there, Pathseeker?”

“I have stepped within one of the outer places. Briefly. I know the rules.”

The Quarass nodded. She looked at Trey.

“To see it is a terrible thing. Not all the Shield Kingdoms were made of virtue, Trey Atwood. And A’ctelios, like Qualvekkaras, has never been taken by force. But its protection is simply the people and the…city…itself.”

“How?”

She refused to answer him. The Quarass looked ahead, as if counting the time to the city.

“We shall arrive the day after tomorrow. We shall camp early tomorrow, arrive at dawn. When we do—I have little fear you will give offense. It is hard to offend those in A’ctelios Salash, even should you scorn everything offered. But it was a risk, bringing you and Pathseeker here. One your [King] is willing to take. And I must meet my fellow Shield Kingdoms. However, I fear for you more than Pathseeker, Atwood.”

“Fear…what?”

The little Quarass looked at Trey.

“I fear that we will lose you to the Carven City, Trey Atwood. Germina is the Throne of Ger, protected by the Quarass who lives forever. Qualvekkaras is the Kingdom of the Winds, the last bastion of the Garuda. Merreid is the Labyrinth City, the Bazaar of Fables, the city that thinks.”

She paused, and her eyes glittered darkly by starlight.

“A’ctelios Salash is the Carven City. Tombhome. The Shield Kingdom which rots.”

 

—-

 

As promised, they reached A’ctelios Salash on the fourth day, after sleeping a night on the ground on the third. That was a relief to Trey, because despite the more easy company of Gazi and the Quarass, their close proximity began to wear on each other.

Trey especially; after three days, he was beginning to smell a bit in his clothing. Gazi and the Quarass made him sit downwind. Before they camped for the third night and he was able to rinse himself with magical water, they would snap at him.

Cease passing gas!

“I will kick you off the carpet, Trey. You are worse than Mars.”

“Stop feeding me beans! It’s not my fault!

Tensions eased that night with solid ground, a warm fire, and the ability to walk about instead of the permanent carpet. The Quarass made Trey practice a few bows and gestures, for each Shield Kingdom; Qualvekkaras, was the only one that demanded specific gestures, like Germina.

And she talked more with Trey about the history of the other Shield Kingdoms, of Chandrar which was poor yet wealthy in equal measures. Poor in arable dirt, land which could support pastures or livestock like the other nations, but which had buried treasures, resources and more untapped treasure from old days than any other continent.

“After all, Naq-Alrama steel has been forged by Clan Tannousin and others in Chandrar. And it is a substance beyond most metals in this world. Yet a travelling clan may forge it where [Blacksmiths] in Terandria fail. Because Chandrar holds minerals and substances of great worth in its sands.”

The Quarass was an excellent teacher since she had lived through almost anything you cared to ask her. She was not shy about admitting the limits of her power either; most of her stories involved her death, whether by incompetence, accident, or disaster. She seldom died of old age.

“The Shield Kingdoms are powerful in their way, Trey Atwood. But do not mistake our might; it is not to conquer and shake this world. All four nations are mighty, and A’ctelios, Merreid, and Qualvekkaras are difficult to assail. But our strength lies in our ability to endure. Qualvekkaras has often been starved of resources and forced to capitulate. Merreid’s mortal rulers are susceptible to corruption.”

“And A’ctelios? What about it?”

The Quarass refused to answer.

“You will see. It is easier to let you see. Remember what I told you.”

Her comments were foreboding, and Trey slept somewhat unwell that night. In the morning, he boarded the carpet, yawning, and they flew towards the Carven City.

 

—-

 

At first, Trey did not know what he was looking at. A’ctelios lay on the horizon, an inky, misshapen thing, like one of the countless dunes which had taken on a blackness of color, and solidified. From afar, it was but a strange hill with five bright points of strange color, sitting in the sands.

The road to A’ctelios was windswept, and sand covered many portions of it. Six roads led in, all old of time, laid and then half-buried by the shifting deserts. Even the city seemed to be close to burial; sand had built up high around it.

The young man did not see it for what it was, first. He did not know why Gazi tensed, and all four smaller eyes stared ahead, unblinking, or why the Quarass’ shoulders hunched. But he caught what they thought and understood something of A’ctelios from afar.

Yet the truth only revealed itself as the carpet flew onwards. The city was silent, and Trey saw only a handful of travellers on the road.

“I thought A’ctelios was a trading place.”

“It is. But its traders do not stray far. And those who trade with the Carven City know better than to travel by day. The suns scorch, Trey Atwood. I wondered if we might see delegations from the other two Shield Kingdoms. They have likely already arrived.”

The Quarass took them down. Now, the Shield Kingdom rose up. Trey saw it was in fact, massive. But he did not understand its curious geography.

“Is it—a hill? No. Is that stone?”

Neither woman answered. Trey stared. There were five, rounded things attached to each hill. It was a complete structure, but lumpen, irregular of form save for the five spheres. Each one was odd, not quite ringed, but with a spiral in the center of sorts, a curious pattern that drew inwards again and again, until it reached an inevitable center from which the light shone.

Trey did not understand. The Quarass slowed her flight, pointing towards the middle-most structure.

“That is our destination. Boy. Do you see what it is?”

Trey hesitated. Something tickled at his mind, but it was unable to, reluctant to make the connection. He looked uncertainly at Gazi. And she stared back.

“Look, Trey. What do you see?”

“Five entrances? That’s not very defensible, is it?”

Trey tried to joke, pointing at the five spheres connected to the—he stared again. Strange, now he saw it. No [Architect] would have envisioned such uneven shape. It had no purpose, in the logic of construction or even art. It was—

And then Trey looked at Gazi. At her. The half-Gazer stared at Trey. He beheld her face. Four eyes, staring at him and the shape waiting in the distance. And her fifth, closed eye. Slowly, his head turned. And he saw.

Five eyes stared outwards, living pupils and long dead-flesh. They waited, in the gloaming, casting a shadow that ate away at the sun. The misshapen head lay buried in the sand, and from the depths of the eyes twisted a madness not made of any symmetry nature envisioned. They stared at Trey, and he screamed. For he was never meant to see such eyes, or the form that held them—

Trey! Trey Atwood! Look at me!

The voice stopped the scream. Trey’s throat was hoarse. He coughed, tasting iron, and turned. The Quarass’ bright yellowed gaze kept hold of his. Two round irises, two normal eyes, for all they were immortal. Trey realized he was panting.

“Look at me. Do not look away. I command you.”

The Quarass’ voice was sharp. Trey held still, shuddering. It was still there. Staring at him.

No—ahead. The blank gaze of the thing was fixed on nothing but forever, which lay beyond the recumbent form that lay sleeping. Or dreaming? Trey’s eyes began to move.

“Look at me. Wait. It is not alive, Trey. It is dead. Look at me.”

Trey kept his eyes on the Quarass. Slowly, ever so slowly, she let go. He realized her fingers had dug into his skin. His throat—Trey began to cough. How long had he been staring?

“You did well. Sometimes those who gaze on A’ctelios Salash and understand its nature are lost for far longer. Look. Follow my finger, but slowly.”

The Quarass pointed. Trey followed her finger. He flinched—

And saw the Carven City for what it was. A monstrous, no, eldritch head stared at him. Just the top of it. And five eyes stared outwards. Five eyes. And Trey realized they were hollow.

“The light. The light. They’re inside it! How can anyone—”

He moaned. The Quarass blocked his gaze for one moment.

“Focus on that eye. There. You can see them in it. Do not behold it as a whole. It is dead, Trey. They have hollowed it.”

What is it?

Gazi rose, slightly. Her hand clutched the hilt of her claymore, but her voice was very calm. Too calm.

“The Carven City. A’ctelios trusted they had killed worse than Dragons, is that not the legend, Quarass?”

“Yes. This is what they slew. And they live in it to this day. Behold, Trey. Look into the eye.”

Trey saw. The line of the thing’s…eye twisted and curved, like a magical sigil gone wrong. The Quarass stopped him again, made him look for the single hole in the center. The iris.

It was open. Light shone from within, the only light on the shrouded body. It was a portal. All five eyes had been hollowed.

“Why? But why?

Who would do such a thing? Trey shuddered. He wanted to be sick, or faint. The Quarass spoke levelly, but even she did not stare long at A’ctelios Salash.

“In an age before the Dragons ruled, something came from beyond the edge of the world. It must have destroyed nations. But here it fell. And A’ctelios Salash was the nation that sprang from its corpse. Even when Dragons ruled, they did not take this place. And the people of A’ctelios first sheltered in its eyes. Then, over millennia, dug deeper.”

“They live there?”

“Oh yes. The children live in there. They seldom leave. It still feeds them. Still rots to this day, if decay touches it at all. The eyes are filled with structure; they dig deeper.”

Trey shuddered. The Quarass slowly moved the carpet forwards. Trey reached out.

“I can’t go inside!”

“You must. It is not as bad inside, Trey Atwood.”

“No, I can’t. That thing—it’s from my world! I know what it is! It’s not a normal monster. It’s—”

Both Gazi and the Quarass looked at Trey. The Quarass listened. She shook her head.

“It is not that, Trey. Just a thing from the world’s end. The people of Drath hunt them. I have seen others. This one was simply the largest.”

It’s not dead.

Trey spoke with utter conviction. The Quarass shook her head.

“It’s brain is hollow, Trey. I have lived countless lifetimes and visited A’ctelios Salash countless thousands of instances. Each time it is deeper. They hollowed the eyes first, then the head. Now they dig lower. It is dead; nothing lives. It is true the flesh does not rot, but then—neither does Dragonflesh. It is made of magic and time and it is disturbing. But you will be safe with me.”

The carpet flew onwards. Trey shuddered and averted his gaze as they flew towards the central eye.

“What kind of people live in there?”

“The kind you expect.”

Gazi’s voice was low. Trey looked at her.

“Did his M—did Flos see this?”

“He conquered Chandrar. Of course he did. I have walked A’ctelios once before, Trey Atwood. It is terrible, but few realize what it is as you did. And it is a place to trade. With…limitations.”

The Quarass nodded. Trey saw tiny shapes, moving from within the center eye. They had been spotted. There were no doors, nothing to stop visitors. He did not think that mattered. Who would attack such a place?

“Did—did his Majesty conquer A’ctelios? You said it was never taken by force, Quarass. Then…”

She nodded slowly.

“The Carven City’s folk are much like Merreid’s guardians. Strong to defend. They do not emerge from their Shield Kingdom often. I think they would be a terrible force. But flawed. I am told Flos Reimarch vassalized A’ctelios in a single day as his armies marched past.”

She glanced at Gazi. The half-Gazer’s four eyes were staring ahead. She nodded slowly.

“My lord looked upon the tomb-kingdom and desired nothing of what it held. He only lamented that the age of A’ctelios’ glories were past. Although even he agreed that it was a mercy not to fight such a thing.”

“Gazi. It looks like…”

Trey couldn’t stop looking at her face. It was not the same. All five eyes were the same size. But Gazi’s face—she glanced at him.

“Yes. Milord noticed it too. I feel nothing but unease, Trey. I do not know what died here.”

The Quarass tapped her lips thoughtfully.

“Even for one such as I, Gazers are a rare species that seldom visited Chandrar. It is said they may have come of A’ctelios, or rather, another such beast in ages past. But that is a rumor.”

She glanced at Gazi. The half-Gazer bared her teeth.

“You would have to ask my kin in Baleros that. I have never been there.”

“True. Ah, we are approaching. Remember what I said, Trey Atwood. Forget everything if you must, but remember—do not eat in A’ctelios.”

“What will happen if I do?”

There were people in the entryway. The Quarass flew upwards, slowly, slowly. The eye had been hollowed indeed, and you would have to rise by climbing that flesh—if it was—Trey stared down and his stomach gibbered like his mind.

“If you wish to gain a gift by gambling your nature, partake of the rotless food they offer you. If you wish to stay forever, continue to eat.”

The Quarass’ voice was soft. She took the carpet up, forgoing the long ascent. Trey saw two dozen forms waiting near the top. They looked…Human. But his skin crawled. He felt hot and cold, chilled like he was having a fever. His head became light. And he felt himself pass through the spirals of the eye.

Bright light shone from within. Brighter than torchlight, but deeper than artificial light. The entryway was peach, not a perfect sterilized white, but colors altered by deeper, subtle shades. It looked like…stone.

The carpet halted. Trey saw a long tunnel, and then actual doors. He stared around. Peach changed, darkening and faltering, into a color like aged red and purple. It looked like—he closed his eyes.

“We walk here. Trey, take my hand.”

The Quarass made him stand. The ground was hard. Like stone. Trey opened his eyes. But he still beheld it for what it was.

Passages carved in something that did not rot. The narrow tunnel expanded, and they stood there, the people who lived in the Tombhome. Their clothes were long, concealing, their faces yet distant. Behind them rose buildings, places all carved out of the very substance that made the walls, the ceilings.

“Walk with me, Trey. It is no different than the Leviathan-Ships of Drowned Folk. They too live in ancient flesh.”

“It isn’t right. It isn’t…don’t make me come with you. Please.

“Would you prefer to stay here?”

Faced with that—Trey couldn’t respond. The Quarass bent and the carpet vanished into her bag of holding.

“Come, Trey Atwood.”

They walked together, and he clung to the girl. Behind them walked Gazi, a shadow whose armored footsteps did not make any sound as she walked on the foreign ground. But the half-Gazer stood behind Trey, and he could continue forwards.

The tunnel was long to Trey, or they walked slowly at first. The delegation never moved. Before they reached the watchers, Trey heard a sound.

It was a quiet, humming song. The young man nearly stopped and fled, but the sound came from behind him. Gazi was quietly murmuring something, to the tune of a song.

 

I met a traveller walking on a journey

We stopped where shadows met the sand,

He entered the tomb rotting and I held back

I saw him ever waving, but I never took his hand.”

 

The Quarass looked back. And the two dozen people of A’ctelios Salash shifted as Gazi’s song reached them. Trey heard laughter, and it was blessedly normal. Almost merry. He heard someone raise his voice in reply.

 

We met two folk who stopped on a lonesome path

One entered full of willing, the other did not stay,

A single soul found comfort in our ancient home

He is one of many, and the other slipped away.

 

The two parties met. And Trey saw two dozen people. Just people. Humans, like him.

It was such a shock. He had expected—well, he had expected abominations, twisted by the very thing that this city was built of. But here were people. Humans in every way. They wore long, leathery clothing, and the colors were all muted, all variations of dark red or browns or blacks, with purple hues or oranges—but never any colors like green or blue—and they looked…subterranean.

Not like the people of Ger, who wore freeing clothing. This was a pale group, who lived without sunlight. Not without light, for there was plenty of it in this place. Trey realized the whitish substance they’d walked on was responsible for the glow. Inside, the city of A’ctelios Salash was less bright, and mortal fire or magic lit things.

And the leaders of the city greeted them. The first was a man. He bowed, touching his finger and thumb just below his pale brown eyes.

“Quarass, I greet you and rejoice at your coming. The Dragonslayer of Ger lives again!”

“She lives again.”

The other murmured. They too bowed, copying the greeting. The Quarass inclined her head.

“Baosar Yeothrix. You have changed little since my last visit. I greet the people of A’ctelios Salash once more. I live again, and together we stand.”

“Together we stand. The Shield Kingdoms shall not fall.”

The two stepped forwards. Baosar was in his forties, perhaps. He had little grey, and pale he might be, but he was fairly hearty. He was so—so normal. Right up until he smiled and Trey saw points on his teeth.

His hand clasped the Quarass’ as Trey froze. Baosar turned and bowed.

“And I see one who knows the old visitor’s song.”

“I did not know A’ctelios sang a different one. I am Gazi Pathseeker.”

Baosar’s gaze sharpened and those behind him murmured once, repeating a name. Reim. But the leader of the Carven City only bowed as he offered a hand in greeting.

“We see the old choice differently, Lady Pathseeker. I greet you. Do you come on Reim’s business?”

Gazi did not take the proffered hand. She simply inclined her head, two of her four eyes on Baosar’s face.

“No. I escort the Quarass.”

“I see. And this one? A servant? Or a companion?”

He looked at Trey. And the young man shuddered because Baosar was so normal—but Trey could see the points of his teeth each time the man smiled. They were not like Gazi’s, which were her own, a carnivore’s designed mouth, but a Human’s teeth that had somehow shaped into points over time. It was unnatural.

“This child is a companion of mine. A servant for my purposes. He has never walked the Carven City, Baosar.”

The Quarass’ voice was cool. Trey found himself taking the man’s hand. They did not shake hands, but rather, squeeze, as the Quarass had told Trey. It was a familiar, warm grip. Trey let go as fast as possible and tried not to wipe his hand.

The leader of A’ctelios smiled.

“Ah, a stranger. He sees our home for what it is.”

“I—I greet you, Baosar of A’ctelios.”

Trey stammered. The man smiled. Then he turned to the Quarass.

“Are they all who come? What of your escort? Germina’s shadows?”

“Unneeded. Pathseeker is my guardian. You know Germina allies with Reim.”

Baosar angled his head. The people behind him were still. Trey felt eyes moving from him, to Gazi, to the Quarass.

“I have heard of its fall. But that is a matter to discuss. The Sapki of Qualvekkaras has arrived, as has the Keeper of Merreid. They await to discuss and meet. Shall we go, Quarass?”

“Yes.”

And that was that. Trey saw Baosar turn and gesture. The escort of the hooded, tall people fell in around them. Silently. Trey looked at Gazi, but she just nodded. And the Quarass walked beside Baosar.

And they entered further into the rotting kingdom of A’ctelios Salash.

 

—-

 

It was just a city. Trey tried to tell himself that. If you ignored the strange floor, the enclosed space, it was much like a city.

Walkways had been built inside the city. Homes lay in residential districts. There were shops—places to work, drink, eat—everything in another city.

But the color was off. And the entire world of A’ctelios was enclosed. First, Trey walked through the eye. It was a gateway, vast, domed, as he had seen from afar. Within, it seemed even larger. But it was only the exterior of the Carven City.

“In times long past, we settled in the eyes. But A’ctelios is far vaster than it was in the past, Trey Atwood. Now, we have built into the head, and we dig deeper with each year. We are halfway through the torso, and the appendages will be next.”

As they walked, one of the escorts spoke to Trey. He was tall, like the rest of A’ctelios’ folk, and his eyes were also pale. He too had pointed teeth, but he was a young man, lively, fascinated by the visitors. His name was Athal and seemed amused and also used to Trey’s nervousness.

“There is nothing to fear! I know what you must think, but this city is like any other. See—we pass into the head. Witness the first layer of A’ctelios! For you, it is where business is done with outsiders, and where your beloved Quarass will meet the other Shield Kingdom representatives!”

He thrust out his hand as they passed below a large archway, through another tunnel. And Trey gasped.

“Reim isn’t this big!”

The city of A’ctelios made you forget that it was inside something at first. It could have been night, but forever night, without stars. The city was set on multiple levels, and walkways and bridges made up the inner city.

Stone, too. It was almost a relief to see stone and wood mixed with the dark material. And it was a further relief to see an incredibly vast trading area, and normal people.

That was to say, outsiders. Athal explained as he stopped with Trey for a moment; Gazi and the Quarass had halted to the side, on a balcony from which stairs led up and down. Athal pointed.

“See? This is the main part of A’ctelios. The head. Isn’t it magnificent? It would be a wonder of the world on any list! Many have called it such.”

“It’s so…huge.”

The city was so vast that Trey couldn’t even really see the end of it. What had died here had been large beyond comprehension. So large a single eye could hold a small city’s population, as they built as much vertically and horizontally. And the head—

The city was dark. That was the thing. There was plenty of light on every floor. But no sunlight entered this place. So while it was bright as could be where magic light or lanterns shone, Trey still felt like the morning was just a memory.

“How many people live here, Athal?”

“Many people. We do not count. But if you are asking if they are all of A’ctelios—no. This is the Trade Quarter. See? Many of your folk stay here, temporarily.”

The young man pointed and grinned toothily. Trey saw more formal stone and wooden structures, and again to his relief, ordinary people. They did not wear the leathery cloth of A’ctelios. Stitch-folk, Garuda, Humans with normal teeth—were trading, mingling. They were indeed trading; almost all were investigating shops which sold magical items. Like the bazaar that the King of Destruction had visited, but permanent.

“See? Outlander shops and homes. A’ctelios, like Merreid, lets those who wish to sell and buy enter freely. It makes our city rich.”

Trey looked at Athal.

“What does A’ctelios sell?”

The young man smiled.

“Meat, although few will buy it. Mostly leather. We have as much of it as we care for, or bone. An arrow of Salash-bone will cut as sharply as steel, and there are other uses. Do you wish for a bone-flute? Or something else?”

“No, no, I—”

Trey raised his hands, and then saw another stall down below.

There was even food. Trey remembered the Quarass’ warning and stared, but the Garuda was hungrily eating some dried meat she bought from a vendor. Trey was about to ask Athal if she lived here—when he saw something on the sign of the vendor’s stall.

 

Outsider food for sale only. Bird meat, dried.

 

The ‘only’ part was underlined. Trey glanced at Athal.

“Outsider food?”

“Ah, of course you know the rules of A’ctelios? Well, your outsider rules. Come, come. I will show you.”

The young man made a dismissive gesture. He led Trey down a bit and into the street. Then he pointed.

“That is one of your outlander stalls, with food brought from the outside. But this is meat of A’ctelios. See?”

He pointed to a [Butcher]. It was like any meat-slicing counter Trey had seen. The person in charge had gloves, a knife, and cuts of meat on display. Although…it was without air-conditioning or any other method of preservation.

But what meat. Trey saw a carnivore’s dream on display. Glistening cuts of meat, some sliced thin, others literal blocks of flesh. Some hung in sausages, others were made into dried strips…

Trey stared. It looked like…meat. Just normal meat. It smelled like it too, and he could see a shop opposite this one—without an outlander sign—cooking said meat. It smelled good. His mouth watered. Athal was proud and smiling as he showed Trey.

“Look at the price.”

Trey did. He stared.

Four coppers for—

He pointed at enough thick cuts of meat for a family to have a steak dinner with. Back home that would have cost far, far more! Trey wasn’t perfect on the economics of this world, but meat was being priced at the same value as Yellats in Reim, or flour! Athal smirked at Trey’s expression, then he drifted closer to the shop selling the raw meat. The [Butcher] glanced up and smiled at Trey. Ignoring the teeth, they were so normal…

“No one starves in A’ctelios. And we cook well! I can show you the best tenderloins—or perhaps you enjoy a different cut? If you wish it—”

“No one will eat. They are guests, Athal. This is the Quarass’ servant.”

Suddenly, Baosar appeared besides Athal. He frowned disapprovingly. Trey jumped. He realized he’d left the others. Athal looked put out.

“Father, I was only—”

“The Quarass awaits her servant, Athal.”

The ruler emphasized ‘her servant’. And Trey saw Athal bow his head.

“Apologies.”

Baosar gestured and swept back up the stairs. When he was out of sight, Athal winked at Trey. He laughed and smiled and shrugged ruefully, as if to say ‘too bad’. Trey stared at him as they followed Baosar. He didn’t ask about the meat.

“Athal, does your city have uh, crime? A City Watch?”

The young man paused as he ushered Trey upwards. A pair of Garuda dressed in leather nodded to Athal. Trey—stared at them. They were of A’ctelios, he guessed. Athal nodded back and then gave Trey a strange look.

“Of course we have crime. And incidents—quarrels, and so on. We do not have your Watch, but we do have appointed peacekeepers. What must you think of our city, Trey Atwood?”

“I don’t know. I only know a bit.”

“Your Quarass did not tell you much of our Shield City?”

“Well, I know it was mighty. But no—not much. I thought, well…”

Trey trailed off awkwardly. Athal’s perplexed stare was bothering him.

“Have you lived here all your life?”

“Of course. And I will die here. We go up this way, across the bridge.”

The bridge had guardrails, but it was long and arched. The…not-stone it was made of must have been incredibly strong. Perhaps it was bone. Trey glanced at Athal.

“You never wanted to leave? There’s a world out there.”

“Why would I want to see it? I have all I want here, Trey Atwood. Beautiful girls, sights, and you outlanders bring me all I want. The outside is dangerous, isn’t it? Sometimes our guardians at the eyes fight with monsters. And there are wars. That Lady Pathseeker, she is of the King of Destruction, is she not? Once his armies marched past A’ctelios, before I was born.”

“Yes, but—”

Trey really didn’t know what to say. Athal looked so content. He didn’t even pause when he claimed there was nothing for him outside. Trey decided to fish around in his pockets instead. He pulled out his iPhone; there was too much to see all at once and Teres needed to see this…place. He didn’t know if he should take a picture of the outside, though.

“What is that?

Fascinated, Athal stopped again on the walkway. Ahead of them, Trey saw a pair of giggling children poke out their heads and stare at the outsider. There were even children here. Perhaps…?

No. Trey lamely tried to explain as he took a slow video of the street and the [Butcher] below, Athal, the city stretching out into the distance…

“This is a uh, recording device. Magical.”

Ah. Like the scrying orbs? They are in high demand. Several [Merchants] have come through selling them in the last two weeks. But of course, this entertainment is worth it! If only it was not so pricey! Even now, scrying devices cost too much, eh?”

Athal was fascinated, but too polite to interrupt as Trey did a slow circle. He had to hurry Trey along to catch up with the others. Trey kept recording as he walked with Athal.

“So does A’ctelios have any problems? I mean, Reim has a food shortage and water problem at times…”

“We have an issue with disease. There are so many, that sometimes we grow sick. But that is the worst of it. Ah—hold on. You distract me so much we go the wrong way! We’ll take a shortcut. Down this street.”

Athal pointed. The two young men hurried through a residential district. Trey saw children running about, playing, insulting each other—they instantly surrounded Trey and his fascinating iPhone, but Athal kept them back.

“Scatter! Shoo! Trey Atwood, I would hold onto that artifact. Little children would pry it away in an instant and even my father would have trouble finding it.”

“Right, sorry.”

Trey apologized and put away the iPhone, in his bag of holding. They passed by a closed pair of windows and Trey heard a baby crying. It was a high-pitched, warbling wail.

Not a baby crying. There was a curious inflection in the voice. A—

Athal stared at the shutters and pushed at Trey hurriedly.

“Move, move. I should not have taken you here. Move, please.”

Trey hurried. His skin crawled again. When they were in a main street, he turned back.

“What was—”

“Nothing. Do not tell my father I took you there, please. I will be in a lot of trouble.”

The other young man was pale, as if he’d done something wrong. Trey stared backwards.

“That baby sounded—”

“It was born with illness. Do not ask—the shapers will fix it. Please, Trey Atwood. I ask you not to repeat what you heard.”

Trey nodded slowly. Every second he relaxed, this city reminded him—perhaps because he knew what it was. Would another visitor have known? Perhaps. Perhaps not. A’ctelios was fine, until you saw the cracks.

It occurred to Trey, then, that he had not seen a single fly around the [Butcher]’s meat shop. Not one. Trey paused, but Athal was hurrying him on.

“We go to the meeting spot! It is a privilege for you, of course. Outsiders do not travel below the first layer. Come, this way!”

He led Trey down the main road. And he and Trey passed through a checkpoint of sorts. Warriors armed in bone armor and with bone weapons let them pass, along with the other natives of the city, but no other outsider remained after that.

“Peacekeepers. Come, come. We’ll be late and my father will send me below for cutting for an entire cycle if we’re too late!”

The young man practically jogged with Trey. They were moving so fast to catch up with the Quarass and the others that they nearly smacked into a group of—things.

Disaa! Pakeil! Back up, Trey Atwood!”

Athal exclaimed. Trey saw a group of four huge—beasts. He instantly took out his iPhone.

What the hell—

They barked, straining at the harnesses as Trey jumped back, behind Athal. But the word was all wrong for them. The sound was not ‘bark’. It was…a whuffing, moaning call. Warbling. Trey saw them turning their heads towards him. The group of men forcing them onwards beat at them with long-handled whips with multiple tails and the pakeil subsided.

They were like dogs in that they were quadrupeds. But again, it was wrong to call them anything like that. They were hunched, misshapen, fleshy folds running along what Trey assumed was a buried head, but he couldn’t see amid all the—he fought back a wave of revulsion.

They made that sound again, and one of them strained at Trey. It was bound by a leather harness, and the owner, or master, beat at it until it made a sound and subsided.

“Apologies, outsider! They are restless! Move along, quickly!”

“Athal, what is—”

“Move, move. They are pakeil. Burden-beasts, Trey. Like your horses, but we do not ride them! Very strong. These ones are going below, to help with the cutting and lifting.”

“But what—”

Trey saw the animals go wild as he tried to take an image of them. Athal didn’t mind that, but the annoyed masters of the animals made him hurry Trey off. The young man stared at the animals. They looked like exactly what he expected from this place. But they weren’t killing anyone. They were in fact, docile after being disciplined. Still—

His skin was crawling when he caught up to the Quarass. She, Baosar, and Gazi and the others had halted in front of a large building when Athal and Trey caught up. Baosar glared at his son. The Quarass glared at Trey.

“We did not come here to sightsee. Do not fall behind, Trey Atwood.”

“I’m sorry.”

Trey bowed his head. He hadn’t wanted to see A’ctelios. No, that was a lie. He had wanted to see it, but only to see the horror and then flee it. But the horror wasn’t there. It was hinted at, but this was no eldritch place of dark ritual. It was just a city. Trey had seen a man picking his nose industriously and it was hard to conflate that with summoning horrors from another plane.

The people of A’ctelios were people. But there was a secret here. Trey was glad to fall in behind the Quarass and Gazi. He knew the half-Gazer had been watching him, so he’d never felt too afraid. But he was conscious of the cracks in the pleasant reality.

He was standing inside of it. But Trey found his mind hurrying away from that reality. Believe the walls were just painted. They were cut or shaped smooth, after all, like stone. Believe Athal’s sharp-toothed grin and guilty look as he evaded his father’s questions was just another bloke, deep down.

Believe the pakeil were normal animals, just differently formed. Trey believed as strongly as he could. It was that or panic. Later, he would ask the Quarass. When he was far from the Carven City as possible. That was wisdom.

Trey’s glimpse of the Carven City ended there. He entered the tall, oblong building and found normality once again waiting inside. Baosar, after apologizing for his wayward son, led the party to the reception.

“We will dine and discuss, Quarass. After you.”

He threw open the doors and let the others enter first. It was a private dining room, intimate, but with a table long enough for all the other guests. And to Trey’s relief, he saw there were as many visitors from the other Shield Kingdoms as people of A’ctelios.

“The Quarass of Germina, may she live forever! We gather now, the four Shield Kingdoms! Let those who accompany the protectors of Chandrar await!”

Baosar announced as he swept into the room. Every eye fell on the Quarass. She stood there, a moment, and Trey beheld a small gathering.

It was no throne room in Reim, with the King of Destruction and all his vassals. This was, Trey realized, a rather informal gathering of all four nations. No one blew trumpets, and but for Baosar’s speech, there was no loud proclamation. The ruler of A’ctelios simply walked with the Quarass over to the other two rulers who had been waiting by the side. Trey looked at Gazi. She paused, and Athal came over.

“Eat! Drink! While father and your beloved Quarass discuss, Trey Atwood, we must linger. Come! The table has food—even outlander food!”

“Oh, no, I’m fine—”

Trey began to refuse, but the other A’ctelios folk dragged him over. Gazi followed quietly, and Trey found himself sitting at a table strewn with food. Mostly meat. There was some food he thought was normal—grapes, pastries—but true to the Quarass’ promise, he refused even drinks Athal offered. And as he sat, the other delegations sat or spoke and mingled, waiting for the four rulers to finish.

One delegation was of Garuda. Most were bodyguards, muscular, male Garuda with swords or spears who refused to chatter with the other delegations. They too did not eat, but watched their leader with every moment.

Their ruler, the Sapki, was a female Garuda, young, in her late twenties. Her feathers were white, but for gold on the tips, as Trey had seen in the illusion.

“Sapki Mekhita, I greet you once more. I am the Quarass, who lives again.”

The Quarass greeted the Sapki first. The Garuda ruler did the Germina greeting of forefinger and thumb, and the Quarass raised both arms in an ‘x’ just above her chest, two fingers extended, as she bowed. The Sapki murmured her greetings and the Quarass turned.

“Keeper Ulree. Once more we meet. I am the Quarass once more.”

The second ruler and his delegation were Human. The Keeper Ulree was a man. Human, but with colored hair. Artificially colored; bright yellow ran into his natural black hair and the man dressed more fashionably than any of the other rulers. He was a lively man, who bowed over the Quarass and exclaimed.

“Quarass! What a young body you have taken! Do you truly mean to reign a century this time! Ah, but we heard of your last incarnation’s death. Come, come. Baosar, Mekhita, we all have little time for long discussions. My djinni must bear me back north tonight and I wish to make the most of the conversation!”

That was all Trey heard. The Keeper Ulree sounded friendly, and his delegation was chatting noisily. Not eating either, of course. Athal introduced Trey to a pair of well-dressed young people their age—Trey understood they were relatives of the Keeper.

“What are we doing, Athal? Hello, I’m Trey.”

“Well met, Trey! Are you of the Quarass’ people? I mean—may she live forever! I am Beshaid. I came with Keeper Ulree—I am his second-nephew by way of his brother, but this is my first meeting of the Shield Kingdoms. I was told to eat nothing, but am I simply dressing on this delegation?”

One of the other young men from Merreid looked as confused as Trey. Athal was not.

“This is not a royal banquet, or some fancy affair! The Shield Kingdoms are informal; I have seen this happen once before! We sit and converse. We need not mingle, but it is enjoyable, yes?”

He laughed. Gazi nodded by Trey’s side. Her arms were folded, her eyes moving in all directions. She murmured to Trey as Athal tried to press Beshaid with wine. It seemed to be a game among A’ctelios’ people to get their guests to try something, even ‘outlander food’.

“Our presence is simply to protect and wait, Trey. Wait for the Quarass to finish her tasks. Do not eat.”

“Even the wine? Are you sure the meat’s bad, Gazi?”

It looked really, really good. And it smelled good too. That was the disconcerting thing. Trey wasn’t going to try it, but he did wonder. That was a steak! It looked like a steak, Athal was eating it like a steak in front of the others, taunting some of the other young Garuda and Humans—Gazi nodded.

“You were warned. Don’t err.”

“But aren’t you curious? I’m not trying, but don’t you want to know what it’s like? Just a bit?”

Trey knew, but a [Chef] had clearly prepared this food because it was appetizing and it was nearly lunch. His mouth watered. Gazi looked at him with two of her eyes.

“Not at all. Because I can see what it was made of.”

Trey looked at Gazi’s eyes, and then the ravenous feasters from A’ctelios. He suddenly lost all appetite.

The wait was long for the Quarass. Trey could see the four rulers greeting each other, but rather to his disappointment, he wasn’t allowed to go near or hear that august meeting. He supposed it was silly to assume he’d get to hear what they were saying, but he was a bit let-down. In the meantime, Athal and some of the other younger folk mingled and chatted.

“Trey Atwood, tell us of Germina. How fares it after the King of Destruction conquered?”

Beshaid nodded at Trey, hungry for gossip if he couldn’t have any food. Trey found himself in a small knot of similarly-aged people; the older delegates kept to their own groups or were more recumbent, or simply refused all hospitality like Gazi, but youth bridged the four nation’s divide. A trio of Garuda and four others from Merreid joined six from A’ctelios, including Athal.

“Well, uh, Germina’s well. The Quarass lives again, so all is well. Until that point, there was unrest—”

Trey tried to lie, and to his relief, Beshaid and most of the others rolled their eyes.

“You and your Quarass! I mean—may she live forever, but tell us something! Something interesting! Did you see the King of Destruction? Is that really Gazi the Omniscient here?”

“Yes, and yes—”

Trey found himself besieged by wide-eyed questions. No one dared approach Gazi, but everyone wanted to know what she was like, or the King of Destruction. Trey gave evasive answers, and the others were happy just to hear of Flos’ public exploits.

In time, the other entourages began to mingle as well. The Garuda bodyguards and Gazi still refused to talk, but the others met and mingled, gossiping. Trey feared he’d be lost and reveal himself, but the others were only too happy to gossip about the battle at Pallass and the other broadcasts, like Daquin, which was a relief.

“Scrying orbs. It is the fashion the world over! It is so entertaining! I wish I had one—”

“They say there will be a permanent—broadcast? Yes, broadcast from Wistram. Imagine!”

Trey could and did imagine. He nearly took a cup of water from Athal, then glared at the young man. As Trey went to put it back on the banquet table, he saw the Quarass and the other rulers.

They paused where Trey was standing, and he heard them talking.

“…thought you might be influenced by the last Quarass. Forgive our hesitance.”

“Your memories are too short. You know that I am eternal. My predecessor was a fool, that I admit. But I was chosen of Ger. I am not she, and I regret the path she took Germina down.”

The Quarass’ voice was sharp, even with the other rulers. The Keeper shrugged and Trey, pretending to inspect the goblets, saw the Sapki Mekhita dip her head.

“I met the previous Quarass, but only for the last four years of her life. I am new to my role. I hope we will be allies.”

She smiled shyly and Baosar agreed.

“It is good to meet a reasonable Quarass again. The last one was not. But then, a kinkiller much less a matricide was a poor Quarass. You have more will than she, at least.”

The Quarass only nodded slowly, not seeming to take offense.

“I have much to mend and repair, but I trust I will prove myself again with deed. It was good I died before more could be ruined.”

The other rulers nodded. They were reserved, at first. And Trey began to understand why—an insight from seeing the Quarass with Fetohep.

They did not know this Quarass. They knew the Quarass, but each one differed. Now that they had an impression of this Quarass, they seemed relieved. Trey did have to wonder what the last one was like. Vindictive, he’d been told and apparently, prone to decisions based in fury or spite rather than cool-headed logic like the one he knew.

“Well then, Quarass, let us speak of unpleasant things. Reim and Germina. Are your nations allied, or is that simply the pretense of the King of Destruction?”

Keeper Ulree swept his hand towards Gazi. Trey edged sideways, pretending to really be thinking about some cheese. Would that make him…? Absolutely no way he was eating it.

The Quarass sighed.

“I speak for the King of Destruction, and I will intercede on his behalf with you all. But I am not his subject. Still, Germina was felled by him and I am an ally so that the Shield Kingdom might remain. I came here with his protection; let that be proof that Germina is not an expendable pawn, at least.”

“By his will or your own? What did he offer Germina? Quarass, I mean no disrespect in this, but the King of Destruction brings…destruction. If you must support him, you must, but tell us in this secure place if you believe he is truly worth allowing to rise once more. I have had many discussions about him, and I fear his actions.”

The Sapki was unhappy. The Quarass paused, and Keeper Ulree rubbed his hands together.

“No force could compel the Quarass here. So. Ger backs Reim? For what reason, unless it is simply naked ambition?”

The Quarass sniffed. She glanced at Trey but gave no sign she’d seen him. She did raise her voice a tiny bit, though.

“I will be a Quarass greater than any predecessor in a thousand years. My incarnation is weak of magic and body, but she has time. I will bring Germina to glory, and what better way than with a [King] who could unite Chandrar twice?”

“And if she falls with the King of Destruction?”

Baosar’s eyes narrowed. He was sharpest of the other three, Trey thought to himself. The Quarass turned her head.

“Germina need not fall with Reim, only rise with it. Whether he succeeds or fails, I shall use the King of Destruction to make Germina stronger. I shall surpass my previous incarnations.”

Her bold speech only made Baosar smile. He was oldest of the other three. Trey had realized that too. He and Ulree seemed of age, but Ulree was treating Baosar like a superior—the Quarass being eldest of all.

“So say all Quarasses. But what can she offer A’ctelios now? Why should we ignore the King of Destruction? That is costly, politically. If we resist for our pact with Ger, what will Reim bring us other than servitude once more? Why would a continent under Flos Reimarch be better than now?”

The Quarass paused a moment, and replied swiftly.

“A’ctelios may never fall to siege or war. But it may well die but for medicine. Is that not so?”

The ruler grimaced.

“It is so, Quarass. But trade is plentiful.”

“I say to you then, Baosar, Keeper, Sapki—do not make Reim your enemy and trade shall flow, even if the King of Destruction rises higher. For I am his ally, and while I am, he will remember the value of the Shield Kingdoms.”

“But what if he brings chaos? What if other nations see our neutrality as aid to the enemy? Germina already throws our nations into question.”

The Sapki’s wing-arms flutters as she spoke, nervously. Ulree laughed.

“Are we not Shield Kingdoms? But for Germina, all our nations are difficult to invade. Still—this seems to favor Germina and Reim. Do you truly counsel this in our best interests, Quarass?”

He looked at the Quarass with an easy smile. She nodded without missing a beat.

“Neutrality. The Empire of Sands is a greater threat to my mind. I am the Quarass; I would not endanger the Shield Kingdoms with false oaths.”

“Unless the current Quarass has incarnated into one of true corruption or weakness of will.”

Baosar murmured. The small Quarass’ head snapped around. Her brow darkened.

“Do you believe that?”

“Peace, Quarass. I only suggest it.”

The ruler of A’ctelios Salash bowed slightly. The Sapki ruffled her feathers. She walked past the other three and they followed.

“I do not like it. But if you say so, Quarass—can you assure us? An oath by truth spell—”

“Truth spells are evadable. You must trust my memory and will.”

“But the last Quarass—”

“Let me prove it then by my deed! I only ask patience—”

The others broke off, drifting across the room as the restless Sapki carried them elsewhere. Trey slid across the floor and saw Beshaid and some others doing the same. The young man winked at Trey.

“You want to hear too?”

Trey blushed, but the two hurried over, pretending to be talking. Trey caught the end of the conversation. Keeper Ulree was nodding.

“We abide, Quarass. Let Germina rise or fall with little Reim. Better to have one whisper in the King of Destruction’s ear lest he succeed. But only one, so that three of the Shield Kingdoms might disavow him should he fail.”

He turned. Trey and Beshaid instantly whirled around. The Keeper paused, and then his voice clearly spoke from behind them.

“And I think our escorts tire of their mingling. Let us remain here and all the other young leave.”

His words hit Trey like a physical prod in the back. The two young men, ashamed, hurried over to the banquet, along with the other eavesdroppers. Beshaid looked embarrassed.

“So much for the dignity of Merreid! I will not hear the end of this!”

“Neither will I. Were you expecting this outcome?”

“Ah, well, the Keeper said as much. It is rare the Shield Kingdoms take huge action themselves. But rumors such as these are worth much for small people like we, eh?”

Beshaid grinned at Trey. The young man ducked his head. He could have probably asked the Quarass all of it later. Or Gazi. She was sitting at the table. But Trey was fairly certain she was reading lips. And he was certain the Quarass knew that. Perhaps this entire conversation was pointless.

But that was not the reason they’d come here. Not the whole reason.

And that was it. The meeting took another two hours, but Trey thought it was more about gossip and the other rulers appraising the Quarass than any important decisions. He spent the rest of that time showing the other guests his sand-golems, politely refusing anything to eat, and asking questions about the other Shield Kingdoms.

“Qualvekkaras, it is not like A’ctelios. Each Shield Kingdom hosts every four years when the rulers meet—or earlier if one asks it. Should you have the privilege of coming to Qualvekkaras you will see our heights. A’ctelios Salash is…well enough.”

One of the Garuda bodyguards stiffly spoke near at the end of the gathering, the only time he’d said a word. Trey nodded.

“I hope to.”

“Good. The Sapki has flown long to meet the new Quarass. It is good she is pleased, for the journey is worthwhile. If Germina is an ally in the future, let us meet and share clear skies.”

That was all he said. He stood instantly when his Sapki left the gathering of rulers. Trey turned back, and then realized all four were breaking up. The Keeper swept towards the folk of Merreid—Baosar motioned and the people A’ctelios began to clear the tables of food.

“I am finished.”

The Quarass walked over to Gazi and Trey. The half-Gazer stood smoothly. Trey cricked his back and neck.

“So soon?”

He meant it as a joke, but he’d actually expected the meeting to take all day, behind closed doors with secret words and whatnot. But the Quarass just shook her head.

“We discussed most of what was needed quickly. The rest is unneeded. I have made my impression, and now we go. Should we waste each other’s time?”

“No, but—”

Trey shrugged. The Quarass sighed.

“We did not convene for any reason but for me to convince the Shield Kingdoms of what they had already set upon, and for me to present myself. If we convene for a more serious decision, it will be of note. Now, we return. This way.”

She led the other two apart as the other delegations began to depart. The Sapki and the Keeper both bade farewell to the Quarass, but Trey noticed neither promised an alliance. As they’d said, they were just going to watch for now.

“Fair-weather friends.”

The Quarass shrugged. She seemed contented by the results.

“The Shield Kingdoms of Chandrar are ancient. They must be political, to keep from being destroyed. I expected no more or less.”

“So, we’re going?”

Trey itched to be gone of A’ctelios. It was becoming too normal to him, and he had to remind himself of what it was. The Quarass looked at him.

“Not yet. Baosar.”

She nodded as the man swept back towards her. He gave a pointed smile.

“Ah, Quarass. I have summoned our finest expert which you requested. He awaits in a private room. Athal will show you the way.”

It was such a casual thing. The Quarass nodded and Trey nodded too, suppressing the leap in his chest. Gazi’s face was blank—she even looked bored as she nodded. And Athal led them to the private room with vague interest and nothing more.

“He awaits inside, Quarass. Tell me but when you are finished and I will take you elsewhere.”

He mouthed at Trey. And don’t take too long, please! The Quarass ignored him and the wink, and walked into the room. Gazi was next, and Trey followed.

 

—-

 

A man in a leather robe sat in a chair in the room, at a desk carved of bone. Trey’s first impression of him was of a rather hunched form—until he saw the man straighten. And then he gasped.

A wrinkled face and huge eyes stared at him. Unnaturally large eyes—larger than an eye should be. The man’s arms were long, sinewy. And his flesh was old.

He had hair, but it was long and tangled. The man looked dirty, and he smelled like the [Butcher]’s shop. But he was hale of body, even if his skin betrayed his age.

Unnaturally hale, in fact. As he stood and bowed, he had a fluidness of motion that Trey didn’t expect. He reminded Trey of Flos Reimarch, in fact.

The King of Destruction was in his forties, past his physical prime, but he had not one grey hair. He refused to let age touch him, in fact. He looked like he was a decade younger and he was in better shape than Trey and Teres combined.

In the same way, this man was probably in his eighties, but while he had grey hair and wrinkled skin, he had not a single liver spot, and his head was full of hair, not prone to balding. And his physique! It wasn’t that he had muscle. In fact, he wasn’t nearly as muscular as Flos. But he didn’t move with any hint of pain or wear on his body.

That was the unnatural bit. But as soon as the man spoke, it all became clear to Trey.

“Quarass, I greet you. Baosar informed me I was needed. My name is Sainath. I am a [Fleshchosen Formshaper].”

The words echoed in the small room. Trey instantly looked around for the Quarass. This was her plan? A—[Formshaper]?

He saw the Quarass incline her head.

“Greetings to you, Sainath. I have an ailment I am told you may fix. First, however—Trey Atwood, stop gawping. You are giving offense.”

The Quarass pointed a finger. Trey jumped as she addressed him directly. Sainath laughed.

“I take none, Quarass. And if it pleases you, I will answer any questions this young man clearly has.”

“Very well. Gazi, you must take off your armor. It will interfere with Sainath’s magic.”

Sainath’s eyes darted to Gazi. The half-Gazer stared at the Quarass. Slowly, she nodded and turned her back. She began to adjust parts of her armor, removing her gauntlets first as Sainath turned to Trey.

“Have you never seen a [Formshaper], Trey Atwood?”

“No. What are you—I mean, I’m terribly sorry. But what was your class?”

The old man smiled.

“All of us are fleshchosen. But [Formshaper] is my class. I am a—well, I suppose the crude word for it is [Flesh Mage].

The word echoed in the room. Trey shuddered.

‘It was born with illness. Do not ask—the shapers will fix it.’

Athal’s words. Trey found another piece of the puzzle and stared. The Quarass’ voice was calm.

“It is a rarer class, not often practiced. But the shapers of A’ctelios Salash are well-known. Among some. They move flesh at will, to heal or…change. It is a dangerous process, however, and [Healers] are far more trusted. More efficient. But a [Formshaper] may do what no potion can, or at least, more easily.”

She nodded at Sainath and he bowed.

“Your words praise me, Quarass. This humble [Formshaper] will do what he can to aid the Dragonslayer of Ger.”

Trey glanced at Gazi. Then at the Quarass.

“His Majesty didn’t think of this?”

“No. I did.”

The Quarass turned to stared at Gazi. The half-Gazer had clothes on underneath her armor, and she had shed half of the pieces already. Sainath glanced at her, and then at Trey.

“Your Quarass is right, young man. I work with living bodies like [Necromancers] work with the dead. Skin and muscle are my projects. I can alter form and improve it—but my specialty is restoring. Healing.”

Trey nodded. He hesitated as Gazi took off her greaves.

“What does fleshchosen mean? Does it give you some aspect in your class?”

Sainath laughed. The Quarass’ eyes flickered and she shook her head slightly. So did the [Formshaper].

“It is what all those who are part of A’ctelios are granted, young man. And as for what it gives—comfort.”

He smiled. Trey opened his mouth, but the Quarass slashed with one hand behind Sainath’s head. He closed it.

“Well, Quarass, who am I seeing to? And how many? I must tell you I am not able to heal all ailments. Indeed, bone eludes me. Better to find a [Necromancer] for that.”

“I am aware. Your patient is not me, or him. But her.”

“Lady Pathseeker.”

Sainath turned smoothly to Gazi. Outside of her armor, she was slimmer, shorter. She seemed naked to Trey without her sword. Gazi glanced at the Quarass. And Trey looked at her closed eye.

Sometimes, great events took place by chance. Other times, they were by design. Sometimes, what everyone thought was the most important thing was in fact, a ruse.

The Quarass’ meeting with the other Shield Kingdoms. The King of Destruction at Jecrass. All of it was fake. Trey knew it, but he hadn’t known exactly why they had come. Now he did, and he saw the simplicity of it all.

For this, Flos Reimarch had given Gazi and Trey to the Quarass on her journey. For this, he had marched an army north, to distract the world’s eyes. For other reasons too, like the King of Destruction wanting a new horse, to level his army, so the Quarass could meet the others.

But this was a reason beyond all others. Gazi slowly sat in front of Sainath.

“My eye is wounded, [Formshaper]. I was told you might be able to heal it.”

“Ah.”

The old man sighed. His body shifted as he leaned forwards.

“I thought as much. Lady Pathseeker, is it? But I admit—I wondered. Rumors reach even A’ctelios Salash. But few think of my class. And I confess—I am not as skilled as some of my predecessors.”

He gestured at his body.

“My body is without flaw, but I keep my old skin to remind myself of what I am. Imperfect. So I warn you, Lady Pathseeker, I will do all in my power to aid you. But it may not be enough, and if I err—”

He paused, waiting. Gazi’s eyes locked on him, flickered to the Quarass. One looked at Trey.

“I am prepared to take that risk, [Formshaper].”

He nodded.

“Then, Lady Pathseeker, open your eye and show me your injury.”

Gazi paused. Trey, Sainath, even the Quarass edged around the table to see. Slowly, the half-Gazer opened her main eyelid, her huge central eye that Trey had never seen. He stared

And gasped.

“Gazi!”

The eyeball moved. Trey saw a dark pupil contract, slowly. Beautifully; her eye was many times his size. He saw the cornea move—and then saw the wound.

Ah. Lady Pathseeker, you have been sorely wounded.”

Sainath’s sigh was different. He inspected the eye as it swung back towards him. He slowly bent forwards and Trey saw.

Gazi’s main eye was damaged. Trey had known it, had seen the weeping eyelid in the first few days when Gazi had returned—but he had never seen her eye itself. Gazi had opened it only once, to show Flos. She had kept it closed the rest of the time. Been crippled by its absence.

For she was Gazi the Omniscient, and her lesser four eyes were but a shadow of her main one. Now, Trey saw.

Gazi’s large, central eye was healed. It was—the eye was not deflated, or torn, or any of the things Trey had imagined. Even an eye could recover, it seemed. The whites were clear, in fact there were no red blood vessels in her eye, and it was able to rotate at will in her socket.

But the damage had come along the iris, the colored section of her eye. The color of Gazi’s main eye was yellow, but of a depth and scope even the Quarass’ eyes lacked.

Deep yellow in the center, but changing to blue and green and darker reds along the entire circumference. It was not one color, or even one pattern. It glowed, and the colors seemed to shift subtly as Trey watched. It should have been a perfect circle, followed by a black mote of a pupil in the center.

But it was not. Part of Gazi’s iris had—bled. A cracked line along the center of it indicated the old wound, and it had spilled out into the whites of her eyes. A scratch ran along her eye, and it had ruined—beauty.

Trey stared at Gazi and his heart hurt. Her eye was beautiful, but damaged. The Quarass simply nodded and stood back.

“Can you see, Lady Pathseeker?”

“Yes.”

Gazi’s voice was low, almost without emotion. But look into her eye, see her clenched hands. Trey dared not speak as Sainath leaned forwards. Gazi’s eye moved slightly—then held still.

“I can see with it. Not perfectly, but I see. I dare not pour magic through my eye.”

She meant use the powers she had been born with, that of Gazers. Sainath nodded.

“I see, I see. Gazer eyes must be perfect, or the magic will warp. Damage the eye further. You were wise to wait. Lady Pathseeker—I must touch your eye. If you feel any discomfort tell me. But—”

“Do it.”

Slowly, gently, the man moved his hands forwards. He was rather unclean, but his hands were spotless, Trey was relieved to say. Gazi’s eye shivered as he gently touched a finger to it. Trey blinked for Gazi.

“Hm. Yes. I feel exactly the damage. Yes.”

Sainath put his hands on the side of Gazi’s central eye, closing his own eyes. Like hers, they were larger than normal. Had he changed himself to be like that? Gazi waited. The Quarass spoke slowly.

“Can it be restored? Money is no object.”

The [Formshaper] paused. He chewed on one lip, inspecting Gazi’s wound. Then he turned to face the child-ruler.

“Money is not my issue, Quarass of Germina. I think—yes, I think it can be done.”

Trey exhaled in a rush. Gazi blinked and she rubbed at her own eye as Sainath stepped back.

“You can?”

Sainath turned to Gazi.

“It is a small amount of damage. You must have treated it with a potion?”

“No. My eye responds poorly to magic. I feared it might warp my healing. It was naturally.”

“Wise, wise. And the injury—it does not run deep. Not into what lies behind your eye. It was not magical either, which is what I feared. What caused it, may I ask, Lady Pathseeker?”

“Someone poked a finger into my eye.”

Ah.

The Quarass and Sainath paused. Both looked surprised. Trey just winced. Sainath wasted no time, though.

“I can perform the repair now. If you are willing?”

“Do you not need anything else? Any tools? Preparations? This must be done with utmost care.”

The Quarass’ voice was sharp. Sainath shook his head.

“Lady Pathseeker’s eye is whole, Quarass. All that need be done is move what was altered into the right places. It will not take long. Nor will it be as dangerous. But I will need to concentrate. Lady Gazi, I will touch your eye. Please do not move it at all, or blink, or use any magic.”

“Of course.”

Sainath nodded. Trey and the Quarass backed away. And Sainath placed his hands on Gazi’s eye when she told him she was ready.

And he moved magic.

 

—-

 

To Trey, the process was like watching someone perform surgery with a needle the size of a thread. He could see magic, thanks to Gazi’s tutoring, but he had never witnessed such fine control as he saw Sainath doing with Gazi’s eye. An almost imperceptible wisp of magic was entering Gazi’s eye—itself glowing in Trey’s sight with power. He couldn’t even grasp what Sainath was doing, but he assumed it was slowly moving the contents of her eye.

“He does it well. With the skill of previous [Formshapers].”

“You honor me, Quarass.”

The little ruler watched as Trey waited in a corner. Gazi held perfectly still, unmoving, not even speaking. The Quarass went on.

“Do you change other bodies, [Formshaper]? You claim you are not skilled, but you stand well among your peers.”

“Honor, Quarass. I have worked all my life as a shaper. Of course, I tend to the people of A’ctelios Salash, but I have repaired. Seldom altered. That is…a dangerous road.”

“Indeed. I am glad the shapers of A’ctelios remember. Betimes they forget.”

“Quarass. Shouldn’t you let him work in peace?”

Trey nearly begged the girl to stop distracting Sainath. The Quarass turned towards him.

“Sainath has control over his magic, Trey. Speaking will not impede him. Is that not so, Sainath?”

“No, Quarass. I will ask for silence if it is needed.”

Trey still didn’t like it. He wanted to pace, or say something to Gazi, but he was afraid to so much as breathe. He knew what this meant to her.

The Quarass had no such compunctions. She eyed Sainath’s back.

“[Formshaper]. Can you heal more than simply an eye? What of limbs? Surely that would make you prized elsewhere. Or does A’ctelios call you?”

Sainath’s voice was light, amused.

“I will never leave my home, Quarass. I doubt any shaper would, and few ever come to apprentice here that leave over our long history. Yes, I am even able to reattach a limb—if it is not rotted beyond belief. I have fixed holes or imperfect alignments in the body that are invisible from the exterior. I may even craft new limbs…although that is only for the people of A’ctelios. For I need material to work with.”

Trey shivered. He could only imagine. The Quarass was nodding.

“Still, you may close a wound without using raw material?”

“A simple task, Quarass. Closing a wound is just moving flesh. To create, I must take or…harvest what is needed elsewhere.”

“Of course. Then I am satisfied. Well, I shall continue fulfilling my obligations. Trey Atwood.”

She turned to him. He jumped.

“Yes? Quarass?”

“Trey, make a Golem for me. There. Out of sand.”

She pointed at the floor just ahead of them. Trey hesitated.

“Now? Can’t it wait for—”

Now.

The Quarass glared. Trey still hesitated. Sainath didn’t move, but he spoke up.

“So long as the sand goes nowhere near Lady Pathseeker or I, young man, cast your magic.”

Trey did so, as carefully as could be. A mini-Gazi, eye and all, rose from the ground as he poured a tiny bit of sand out of his bag of holding. It glared up at the Quarass. She glared back.

“Larger. At least to my waist. Yes.”

The sand-Gazi rose higher. The Quarass studied it, and then walked around it. She inspected Trey, and then glanced at Sainath.

“Good. Healing potions also work, but it would not do to err. Trey, stand here. Just above the golem.”

“To do what?”

Trey reluctantly shuffled in front of the golem. He made the little Gazi frown and cross her arms. He thought the real Gazi smiled for a second. The Quarass was not smiling. She reached up, pushed Trey’s head back a bit.

“To be in the right place. Thank you. Siv.

She brushed her left hand across Trey’s throat. He heard the word, saw a tiny bit of magic—

And felt his throat open up. Trey felt blood spilling from his cut throat. He stared at Gazi. Then he began to choke.

Quarass.

Gazi froze. Sainath’s hands froze too. Both turned to look at the Quarass, but they were frozen together. Trey raised his hands. Blood was running down his clothes, onto the golem. It was coming from his throat.

It was slashed open. The Quarass flicked one finger. Trey saw a short, glowing blade of light protruding from one of her magical rings.

“This is a ring-blade. Used by the [Assassins] of Germina. Flos Reimarch has forbidden the use of child-assassins, but adults may use the ring just as well. It is difficult to avoid or predict at low-levels, and as you can see—sharp.”

She gestured at Trey. He sank to his knees. Blood was pouring from his throat.

He was clutching at the gaping wound, trying to stop—

The little girl kicked away Trey’s hands from his belt as he reached for a potion. She yanked his arm up—blood ran onto the frozen Golem, the floor.

Quarass.

Gazi had not moved as the [Fleshshaper] held his fingers to her eye. But her other four eyes were staring at the Quarass. The little ruler ignored her.

“Move, Pathseeker, and your eye is forfeit. Hold. Trey Atwood.”

Her voice came from far away. Trey felt like he was disappearing. But the Quarass’ voice burned in his head.

“Trey Atwood. Move the golem covered in your blood. Sand and blood. Mix the two and move it.”

Help me. He tried to plead with her, but she thrust his head down. Towards the blood-covered Gazi. Covered in his blood.

Do it or you will die.

Trey pushed. He had to; he couldn’t move with his arms locked by the Quarass’ grip. The little Gazi stirred. It was sand. But he felt it.

Blood. It was diluting his control over the Golem. But—it was his blood. And it had to move. He had to move it—

Dark red sand rose. It crystalized and the little Golem moved. It rushed at the Quarass, slashing with a tiny claymore. It hit the Quarass hard.

The Quarass let go of Trey. He fell limp, unable to move his hands. The Quarass struck the golem-Gazi with her palm, and the dark sand refused to crumble. It rocked backwards instead, fell still.

Trey was lying on the floor. The Quarass reached for her belt as she inspected the red Golem.

“Good. This is lifesand. Made of blood and sand. It will be your foundation for golems.”

No answer. Gazi was staring. Just staring. Sainath was sweating as he concentrated. Trey’s blood ran, but it was nearly out.

The Quarass moved fast. She uncorked the vial, bent over Trey, and thrust him over. She poured the healing potion onto his cut throat. Instantly, the wound cleared.

Trey gasped. He wasn’t thinking, wasn’t—the Quarass pressed the bottle to his mouth. Liquid went in and Trey woke up.

“Drink. You must replenish your lost blood.”

Trey flailed. He felt energy rush through him, life, as the powerful potion restored him. He swayed—the Quarass caught him.

“What—what was that?”

It was two minutes before Trey could speak. Then he just clutched his throat, staring at the little blood-sand Golem. At the Quarass. She had called it ‘lifesand’.

The girl stood over Trey, tsking at the blood on her sandals. She pointed at Trey’s throat, and then the golem.

“Training. I told you I would make your golems stronger. You have learned to make lifesand. That—”

Trey shouted. He rose, and leapt at the little girl. He punched wildly—the Quarass flipped him.

“You—”

Sainath kept working as the Quarass slammed Trey down, in a perfect throw. Trey was winded; she grabbed his arm and twisted it up. He shouted in pain, unable to move without wrenching it out of his socket. The Quarass stared down at him, dispassionately.

“Are you done?”

You nearly killed me!

“I ensured you’d be safe. Attack me again and I will throw you. Pathseeker is still being healed, Trey Atwood.”

She let go. Trey, panting, stared up at the Quarass. She was not a person. She was like Flos. Someone who used people like toys!

“You—you—”

She waited. Trey curled up, clutching at his throat. He remembered dying. Tears sprang into his eyes. The sixteen-year old boy rolled over, facing a wall, in the blood. His blood on the floor.

“I hate you. I want to leave.”

The Quarass sighed.

“When Pathseeker is healed. Sainath?”

It was another ten minutes before the [Formshaper] finished. Trey just shook in a corner, clutching at his throat. The Quarass waited. And then the old man took his hands away from Gazi’s eye with a sigh. She blinked, and he exhaled slowly.

Sweat was beading his brow. Sainath looked at the Quarass, Trey on the floor, and then Gazi. He wearily nodded.

“It may be done. I have joined everything as seamlessly as I am able. I detect no flaw. However…your eye was new to me. I would caution you to work magic into it slowly. Carefully. Do you feel it is done, Lady Pathseeker?”

Gazi nodded. She slowly moved her eye, blinking.

“I think so, Sainath of A’ctelios. You have my utmost gratitude. Name your price.”

“What could you pay a child of A’ctelios, Pathseeker? Baosar will give me what I wish for.”

The old man smiled. Gazi hesitated, and then bowed. She stood up slowly, and her eye—her whole eye—swiveled in its socket.

Even Trey looked up from his fetal position to see it. Gazi’s eye looked whole, beautiful. But she seemed…nervous. The Quarass inspected her and nodded slowly.

“If I have succeeded, the King of Destruction is twice in my debt. Let us go and test Pathseeker’s eye later. Come, Trey Atwood. Now we leave.”

She swept towards the door. Trey didn’t move. Sainath stared at Trey and then hurried after the Quarass. Gazi looked at Trey. The young man was curled up.

“Trey.”

“I hate her.”

The half-Gazer walked over to Trey. She hesitated, and then knelt and put a hand on his shoulder.

“The Quarass is unkind.”

“You’re evil too. Sometimes.”

Trey was crying a bit. He’d died. He was sure of it. He had never felt that terrified, thinking the Quarass was killing him, betraying Gazi. He looked at her.

“Did you think—?”

“For a moment. I was worried for you. Had she let you die—I would have slain her. But I could not move. My eye—it was a perfect trap. If she had been false.”

The half-Gazer looked at Trey. She lowly reached down and took one bloody arm.

“Come, Trey Atwood.”

She helped him up. Trey leaned on her weakly as they followed the Quarass out of the room. His head was still spinning.

Outside, Athal stared at Trey’s blood-soaked clothing. The young man’s cheerfulness drained as he glanced between Gazi and the Quarass. He didn’t even notice the half-Gazer’s open eye.

“All went well? Baosar wished you to be availed of every courtesy, Quarass—”

“I am pleased. Inform Baosar I am soon departing. I would like to express my gratitude before leaving.”

The Quarass spoke brusquely. Athal bowed and practically ran away. It did Trey some good seeing how even A’ctelios’ people were nervous around the Quarass.

He’d forgotten what she was. Now, Trey remembered and glared at her. The Quarass looked back at him.

“It does not work if you are told exactly what will occur. Magic is part inspiration. You must learn it in the moment, or by ages of work.”

“I don’t care. I hate it. This isn’t worth it. Vaitsha doesn’t deserve to suffer like this either. You use people like—like pawns.”

She didn’t blink, just nodded.

“Yes. I pushed you, Trey Atwood. I maneuvered you. How else would you become strong? I have seen that few are strong enough to push themselves to their fullest potential.”

Trey opened and shut his mouth. He couldn’t do anything but glare. It was Gazi who spoke up in his place. Her central, healed eye focused on the Quarass.

“You make your subjects and allies strong, Quarass. But I wonder if you have forgotten what it means to be mortal.”

The Quarass’ lips thinned. She stared at Gazi, and then turned her back. Athal was coming back.

“Let us meet Baosar.”

She strode out of the meeting hall. Athal led them swiftly back, heading towards the eyes in the distance. As they went, they passed by shafts, circular stairwells leading deeper, past the first layer. Down from the head.

Trey barely noticed. Gazi was helping him and while he was getting stronger with each step, his head still spun. People who saw him gasped, and stared.

The Quarass paid no mind to any of it. She walked calmly, past one of the descending stairwell and turned her head.

“A calm day. Quite pleasant, for a visit to A’ctelios Salash.”

Gazi and Trey glared at the Quarass. She ignored them. Trey had to stop for a second by one of the shafts. He raised a hand.

“Let me take one more video before we leave.”

Gazi waited as Trey fished out his iPhone. He turned it on, stared at his image in the video, and then gestured at his throat. There wasn’t even a scar, but blood had soaked his clothing.

“Hey, this is Trey. I just had my throat cut by the Quarass because she’s helping me. Also, Gazi met someone who helped her out. This is A’ctelios Salash, by the way.”

He angled the iPhone to the Quarass. She stared at him. And then Trey saw the same beast as he’d seen before, dragging a huge chunk of…meat…across the ground.

Literally just meat. A block of it, cut into a huge square. The beast was tethered with leather, made of this place. It was huffing, dragging the huge thing while some [Laborers] pushed. But as Trey filmed the Quarass, the creature raised what was its head and turned. It uttered another wailing sound.

Then it tore forwards, breaking the leather harness. It charged at Trey, tearing loose of its captors. The young man stared.

Trey! Dodge!

Gazi flung Trey to one side. She drew her sword and cut. Trey saw the Quarass lifting something, a flash—a scream. But the pakeil came on. It fell, skidding, and slammed into Trey.

He shouted, scrambling for his bag of holding. Out came the magical staff, and he shoved backwards. A magical arrow hit the pakeil as Gazi’s sword flashed again.

Lady Pathseeker! Stop! It is stopped, stopped!

Athal’s voice. Trey was on his feet, panting. He stared down at the fleshy beast of burden. It was bleeding red—Gazi had cut it twice, and the Quarass had put a scorched hole in its side. But it was still alive.

And it was still trying to get to Trey. He stared at it.

“Why did it charge him?”

The Quarass demanded sharply. Someone stammered an explanation. Trey backed away as Gazi looked around. Her central eyelid was closed once more, but her four eyes spun.

Blood ran down her blade.

Red blood.

Trey…paused. He didn’t expect red blood from a creature like this. But this was A’ctelios. Which had been built of a monster that had died in Chandrar and been buried. They ate it here. But whatever horror lurked in the Carven City, Trey had not seen it openly.

Oh, the buildings made of dried flesh and bone. The warnings about the food. The people with their teeth, the baby—but he had not seen it directly. Even this beast—Trey shuddered as it moved weakly. Even it was less horrific than what was unknown, what he feared. It just bled red, not green or yellow or black or whatever blood some eldritch thing would bleed.

Red, seeping around the layers of flesh staining the blue and black fabric—

Trey’s breath caught in his chest. Slowly, he stooped. Someone tried to stop him but Trey knocked the hands aside. He stared down at the…strap. Of fabric, caught in the layers of the pakeil’s body.

It was not the leather harness. It was something else. Trey pulled at it, ignoring the beast moving. He moved aside mottled flesh, his stomach heaving. But he had to know. His mind had a supposition. A piece of a story, if you imagined what might be in a place like this. And he had to—

Something was buried around its flesh. It came undone as Trey found a buckle. He lifted it clear and stared at it. Below, the thing of flesh writhed, and its voice warbled and twisted as its heaving shape was secured by ropes. Yet the thing Trey held was not of flesh.

It was…a backpack. Trey stared at the blood-stained, filthy fabric. His hands shook.

“What is that? It should have been removed—Trey Atwood—”

Athal backed away as Gazi’s sword shifted, aiming at his face. She stared at Trey. Three of her eyes, and her closed central one. He looked at her.

“Trey.”

He opened it. And fished out the first thing he saw with shaking hands. A thing of plastic. A dark screen. Metal around the rim. Trey nearly dropped it. He looked at Gazi.

A camera.

Slowly, so slowly, Trey turned to look at the pakeil. That was what Athal had called it. The others were securing it with ropes, lashing it with their whips. It was not a person. But it had worn the backpack.

Do not eat—

Trey was holding the magic staff. The Quarass had seen the camera. She spun.

Baosar!

Her words rumbled and those around her fell back, but for Gazi. Yet even her voice was distant. Trey was trembling, looking down at the thing.

Its face was obscured by folds of flesh. He wondered if it could even see. He thought he saw an eye. One. Something looking up at him.

“[Light Spear].”

Trey murmured a spell. The tip of his staff erupted into a blade of solid, yellow light. It was a spell to make a weapon. The magical tip was sharp. Trey stared at the pakeil. The transformed Human.

He raised his staff, then brought the magical blade down. Trey drove the staff through the thing’s head. It didn’t die immediately, but made a sound like a sigh. Trey stabbed again and again.

“—ey—rey—TreyTrey!”

Someone grabbed him. Trey jolted. He spun—Gazi was holding him with one arm. The other held the claymore. The Gazer’s main eye was shut, but all four smaller ones were looking at him.

“Trey. It is dead.”

The young man stared down at what remained of the pakeil—no, the person’s head. Whomever it was, it was dead. Completely. It was destroyed, and everyone was staring at him.

“What is the meaning of this? Quarass, has someone given offense? Athal! Why is a dead pakeil here? They are not to be seen by outsiders!”

Baosar arrived at last. He took in the scene and rounded on his son. Athal protested.

“I did not mean it, father! He killed one of the pakeil! But it did attack him first!”

He pointed at Trey. Baosar saw Trey. Saw the young man reaching for the backpack. Trey stared at Baosar, the glowing staff and magical [Light Spear] in his other hand.

“They’re people.”

A sigh ran through the gathered crowd, all of A’ctelios. Athal raised his hands, trying to smile.

“Not people, Trey Atwood. Outsiders. Those who eat too much, or whom—”

He froze as the Quarass and Gazi looked at him. The Quarass stared at the backpack, and then at Baosar. She made a sound and slashed with her hand as she whirled to confront him.

Disaa! How has this come to be? I know these possessions and these children were not souls who sought A’ctelios’ mercy or gifts! Were they given a choice?”

“Quarass, please. These are not new pakeil—”

When were they changed? How were they offered A’ctelios’ food? I cannot believe they would have chosen this willingly! And they are all pakeil? Are any alive? Tell me how many! Where!”

“Please, Quarass—”

Gazi had sheathed her blade. She pulled Trey back. He saw the Quarass arguing furiously with Baosar as he sought answers. In the end, all he could do was shake his head.

“A dozen or so children. Those who wandered to us. They made their choice, Quarass. What more is to say?”

“And all became pakeil? Do not take me for a fool, Baosar. I have known A’ctelios longer than you or your kin have lived! This was not an accident. Nor would these children have taken the risk had they known. They were tricked.

The Quarass hissed at the man. Baosar’s eyes flickered. He looked around, and then spread his hands. And his smile was apologetic and nothing more.

“Sometimes a choice is given without the words being spoken outright, Quarass. Times change.”

The little girl froze. She pointed a finger, advancing on him.

“That is not the way your forebears agreed to! I hold that treaty in my memories!”

Baosar looked down on her. He was a tall man and she was a child. For once, the Quarass seemed to realize the difference. Baosar’s voice lost its respect by turns as he replied.

“Quarass. This is my kingdom. And these are my rules. You are a guest. We have acceded to Germina’s plea for Reim. But do not overstep. I apologize for the incident. Of course, had we known these ones mattered to…is it your servant? Or the King of Destruction’s?”

The Quarass’ lips tightened. Baosar moved past her. He approached Trey. Smiling. The young man stared at Baosar’s normal face. He was not some cultist, and he spoke eloquently, without evil. But that was worst of all. Monsters, pretending to be people.

“I apologize deeply, Trey Atwood. Did you know these people? Some do not join A’ctelios. But it is a risk for all outsiders. Many become part of our kingdom. But in this case, I will make amends. What is that bag you carry? I think some more objects such as these fell into our hands, but none worked. Perhaps—”

Trey lifted the staff in his hand. He stabbed Baosar in the center of his chest with the glowing spear of light. The ruler of A’ctelios recoiled, but it was too late. The staff and the spear stuck halfway through Baosar’s chest. He stumbled back, off the glowing blade.

He has attacked Baosar!

Athal screamed. Instantly, the peacekeepers of A’ctelios drew their weapons. They stopped when Baosar, stumbling backwards, raised a hand.

He was bleeding profusely from his chest. Trey had thrust deep. But—the young man saw Baosar catch himself. The blade should have damaged the area around his heart, severed ribs. Should have left Baosar screaming, on the floor, as he should be.

But the man only laughed. He laughed at Trey as the blood flow stopped, and his flesh began to knit even as Trey watched. The wound in his chest closed.

“What are you?”

Baosar laughed, and his teeth were sharp.

“Fleshchosen, little boy. In our home, we are mighty, little traveller. And you have given offense.”

He pointed. Warriors surrounded Trey, armed with bone blades. Gazi whirled, hand on her claymore. The Quarass shouted.

“Stop! Baosar, stand back!”

She strode forwards. Someone was blowing one of the warbling horns, and more of A’ctelios’ soldiers were appearing. They poured across bridges, down the carven streets without ceasing, an army of them. They surrounded the Quarass and Trey and Gazi.

Stand back. This child is under my aegis, and that of the King of Destruction.”

The Quarass’ voice was like striking lightning, and those around her fell back. But Baosar pointed at her carelessly, unafraid.

“The Quarass will not impede our right to claim him. This is A’ctelios, not Germina. And our friendship and alliance of old runs only so far, Quarass. Give him to us.”

He gestured at Trey. The young man held his staff and the backpack, shaking. Gazi looked around, hand on her claymore. The warriors knew who she was, but they were numberless.

The Quarass stared at Baosar. She looked around.

“And if I refuse, Baosar?”

The man stared at the Quarass and smiled, clenching his teeth together.

“The Quarass will accede. Or she will live in A’ctelios forever.”

The little Quarass looked at him. She hesitated, and Gazi stepped forwards.

“Better men than you have battled with the Quarass of Germina, Baosar of A’ctelios. By order of the King of Destruction, beg forgiveness and let us pass.”

Baosar stared at her.

“Half-Gazer, you are far from home and outnumbered. We have done you a boon for the Quarass. But do not think—”

Gazi drew her claymore. Her sword flashed once. Baosar flinched—and his head toppled from his shoulders. Body and head fell to the ground in the silence.

Someone choked. Gazi Pathseeker kicked the head carelessly. Then she turned and looked around at the silent, stunned people of A’ctelios. She grinned. And her teeth were sharper than Baosar’s.

“A petty gift for the Carven City to offer, if it cannot stop mere metal from claiming your lives. Trey, Quarass, stand behind me.”

The warrior’s paralysis broke. The Quarass ran and Trey, backed up. He saw something running at him from the side—

Gazi’s sword went through a man skull, helmet and all. She cut up and whirled her sword, slashed through a torso and cut through another axe and arm. She was a whirlwind!

The warriors came at her in a mob. There were too many! The Quarass aimed her wand and shot a hole through another warrior. Trey summoned a wall of sand shielding him and her. But there were too many! Even for Gazi!

But the half-Gazer strode forwards. And as the hordes of A’ctelios fell on her, she laughed. And then—

She opened her eye.

Light burst from Gazi’s yellow iris. Just light. A pure beam of it, as bright and full of life as sunlight, streamed upwards. The dwellers of the Tombhome flinched backwards, crying out at the unwelcome brightness. The beam fell on them as Gazi’s eye turned. Trey saw a flash, and then the half-Gazer, the [Scout], Gazi the Omniscient moved.

 

—-

 

The people of A’ctelios had given up their freedom, even their bodies for the gift of their rotting home. They had power here, in their city. They would never leave it, but they were strong enough to have never fallen to siege. It was not worth the cost. So they were strong.

But for a moment, they died. The half-Gazer slashed left and right, wielding her claymore in two hands. The white-silver blade cut the bone armor and weapons of her foes, and her armor blocked every weapon.

Even when they struck her with an axe from behind. Even when a spell burst on her chest. Her armor was invincible, and the only part of the half-Gazer uncovered was her head. And—

She could see. No blade reached Gazi’s head. Her sword blocked and parried and she cut down everything around her.

Laughing, slashing. She had been powerful with her armor and Skills before. Now, Trey saw why she was one of Flos’ Seven. As A’ctelios’ warriors tried to surround her, her eye moved, and the iris and pupil shifted, calling on magic.

Her pupil widened and a group of the warriors burst into flame. Gazi blocked an arrow coming at her head—she ignored the blows on her armor, cutting, her claymore slashing through armor and flesh without rest. Her eye turned as she cut down another foe—a group collided with an invisible wall.

The eye was casting spells. Another foe froze as she tried to stab at Trey. The young man backed up, and the Quarass’ wand shot a hole in the warrior. Gazi’s eye turned again. This time, more flames. All her eyes were spinning, seeing everything, predicting every attack—

A minute passed. The attackers halted, staring. Trey couldn’t even count how many dozens Gazi had killed. They lay dead around her, blood and body parts lying in the Carven City. Gazi cut the last two apart as they slowed, caught by her main eye. They fell to the ground and blood ran around Trey’s feet. He stared down at Baosar’s head, numbly.

“I owe A’ctelios a favor.”

Gazi’s voice was slow. The warriors stared as she lifted her claymore, grinning. The half-Gazer looked around.

“I owe the Carven City a great favor. But you have given offense first. These two are under the protection of the King of Destruction. As were the children you tricked. This blood alone will not wash away your guilt.”

She raised her blade and pointed around. And no one could meet her gaze. Gazi smiled.

“If you would stop our departure—come, then. Show me the might of the Carven City. And I will make Tombhome more than but a name.”

 

—-

 

A’ctelios Salash, the Shield Kingdom which rots, screamed. The outsiders not of the city fled—but it was not them that the city raged against.

Every corner of the city borne of death was shaking. Children, adults—everyone had gone insane. They charged, tens of thousands pouring from every passage. Pursuing three running figures. A child, a young man, and a half-Gazer.

The half-Gazer was fastest. She cut apart her pursuers, her eye taking down her attackers as the young girl fumbled with her bag of holding. The young man was casting spells as he ran towards the exit.

The three leapt on the carpet that appeared at the girl’s feet and flew towards the entrance-eye they had come from, as the entire Carven City roared behind them. Trey saw people racing after the carpet, trying to catch it, unnaturally fast.

Rain down on my foes, arrows of light! Illuminate the sky and strike with profusion!

He shouted and his [Light Arrows] shot from the staff. Gazi was behind him, her blade still whirling.

The magical arrows blasted the pursuers back, knocking them down. Trey heard shouts of pain—Gazi’s main eye moved and a group about to leap off a walkway slowed. Her eye flitted right, and a flight of arrows snapped in midair. Trey whirled and saw a shape bounding down from above.

Athal, hands outstretched, leaping for them, snarling. Trey blasted him away with three [Light Arrows]. Gazi cut down two more clinging to the carpet.

Hold on!

The Quarass snapped and did an aileron roll. The others trying to climb on went flying, and a group leaping down from above bounced off the carpet’s bottom. The Quarass angled the carpet, tilted it sideway, and shot down a narrow passage.

“The entrance!”

Trey screamed as he flung more arrows. The Quarass shot towards it. Faster and faster—Trey saw light from outside, sand—

They burst out of the Carven City as Gazi blocked the last spells and arrows flying after them. The half-Gazer’s armor was covered in blood, and scorched in places from spells—but she had taken no wounds.

Neither had Trey or the Quarass. The young man, clutching the backpack and the staff in one hand, heard the city shrieking behind him. People poured out of the eye as the Quarass took them up and away—he saw them scrambling back inside.

“Oh god. It was—oh—”

Trey sat back on the carpet. It too was stained with blood. He just stared at Gazi, and then the Quarass.

The half-Gazer was smiling. Her central eye was open wide, and it was turning, glowing, as she looked back. She looked at Trey.

“I am whole. I am sorry for the children, Trey. I did not realize until you did. A’ctelios hides its darkness in the shadows.”

He just stared at her. The Quarass turned from her seat. She was not smiling. The little ruler was furious.

“The King of Destruction owes me a great debt. A’ctelios will not bear this lightly! Nor will the other Shield Kingdoms! Although they may understand if—”

She made a disgusted sound. Trey looked at her. The Quarass’ eyes lingered on the backpack he still held. He hesitated.

“Quarass, I—”

She held up one small palm towards him. The Quarass breathed in and out, slowly.

“Do not speak to me, Trey Atwood. Your anger was not misplaced, but your deed and Pathseeker’s was unwise. We risked more than death. And I am full of wrath at you.”

Trey nodded. Then he hesitated. He stared back at the Carven City and froze. Gazi’s smile slipped.

“Quarass—”

“I said, do not speak.

Quarass, look.

The ruler of Germina turned back. She, like Trey and Gazi, beheld A’ctelios Salash from afar. The city built into the dead creature. So vast and huge that it held countless lives, and yet only the head stuck up from the sands.

The head, and the five eyes, gateways into the rotten city of corruption. Five eyes, staring blankly ahead. Or, they had been.

Four eyes stared straight ahead, but for the one they’d left. The last, its strange pattern traced into the eye, the glowing light from within, had moved. Turned.

It was staring at them. Trey froze. It was impossible. This thing was dead. It had been hollowed out! Had A’ctelios’ people done it somehow? He turned to the Quarass.

She paled, and her eyes went wide with fear. A third new emotion in her. Trey stared at her. The Quarass looked at the staring eye. Then at Trey. She turned around.

“Fly onwards. And never look back. Leave A’ctelios to its madness. When the day comes when Dragons fly and ruin stalks the earth, even insanity is a weapon to be borne against the tyrant.”

That was all she said. Trey turned his back on A’ctelios. It was that or stare. He was grateful when it was covered in the distance by the dunes.

They flew onwards. Trey was breathing hard. He stared at the backpack. Tears entered his eyes. And Gazi knelt. She was still bloody, but she had sheathed her sword after cleaning it. She looked at him, her central eye meeting one of his.

“Brave little [Mage]. You understand what it means to fight. Not for bloodlust or victory alone. But for this. A cause.”

Trey sobbed. He hugged the backpack to him. Someone had died there. A dozen! He’d killed them, and it was a mercy.

“I’ll never forgive them. Never. Ever. I’ll come back and burn it to the ground.”

Trey whispered it out loud. His grief was mixed with his disgust, his horror. His fury. From ahead, the Quarass looked at him, but Trey met her eyes. And it was she who looked away first.

“Yes.”

Gazi knelt by Trey. Her eyes were intent. And she nodded as she rested a hand on his shoulder.

“When that day comes, his Majesty will be there.”

No one said anything after that. The Quarass spoke in a clipped voice as she angled the carpet north and east.

“We fly back to Reim. The King of Destruction has tweaked the world by the nose at Jecrass. Lest he cause offense, we should move at haste.”

“Yes. And we may begin my plan.”

Gazi stood. She looked at Trey, the Quarass. And the ruler of Germina looked back at her, narrow-eyed. But the half-Gazer’s eye shone as the sun set and Trey left the Shield Kingdom of horrors behind. Perhaps he travelled with something just as terrible—or two of them. But Trey—looked at the Quarass. Then Gazi. She sat next to him, cleaning her armor.

Trey wiped his eyes and leaned against her, too exhausted to care or fear for the future. He slept, as the King of Destruction met with Gnolls. Before they landed, among others, A’ctelios Salash had declared war.

 

[Sand Mage Level 18!]

[Skill – Create Lifesand Golems obtained!]

[Spell – Karas Duststorm obtained!]

 


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186 thoughts on “7.09 K

  1. It’s been a bit of a week. And a chapter. The part of my life I want to share is this: I’m going to a physical therapist for the hands.

    Because…I type a lot. I did write half of this chapter last night and the other half tonight, but as you may notice, I still write a lot. But I think the exercise helped a bit! Still, I’m going to keep going to learn how…not…to kill my hands.

    But I love to write, and parts of this darn world and entire stories unto themselves, like the Shield Kingdoms! I hope you enjoy; I may have written a lot, but I’m actually keeping to my schedule!

    That’s all from me for now. Look forwards to another chapter, perhaps a bit shorter, next time! The Wandering Inn has drama, heartbreak, slice of life, happy moments, and sad. And horror. But I hope you enjoy it whichever comes. I could probably add more happy, though. I’ll think about it. Thanks for reading!

    PS: There is MORE Gazi art, this time by LeChat and Tilman! It’s almost like people like Gazi or something!


    • Hey PLEASE don’t hurt yourself.
      Take it easy on yourself or even consider sometime off.
      You deserve a break!
      You can even hire people to type for you for a more permanent solution.

      The story is AMAZING but you’re worth so much more to us! So please be careful with your health!

    • I like these darker stories, because they make the world more complete. A fictional world without some elements of the grim is dull and unrealistic.

      The realities of war, the madness of Rhir, a city built inside the head of an eldritch horror, and a young Doctor having her illusions shattered as she learns the harsh realities of battlefield medicine, these add balance and realism to the story.

      Thank you for giving us more details on the world, and not letting TWI turn into some annoying cheeseball anime for middle school children. Keep ’em coming!

    • Wow. They really have everything here. Even the Old Gods. Very well done. Love raft himself would be impressed. I really liked this one. It immediately reminded me of Dagon’s village.

    • I had severe carpal tunnel syndrome that was cured by an expert acupuncturist. I’ve made my living on a keyboard for 40 years, including transcribing medical reports – 8 solid hours of typing daily for decades. You haven’t said exactly what the problem is, I’m just making a wild ass guess from your symptoms. I went to her twice a week for a month. The swelling and pain were reduced by 75% after two visits. That was 20 years ago. The only change I made afterwards was using an ergonomic keyboard.

      I love your writing and it makes me so sad to think of the pain you’re enduring to give all of us this wonderful world.

      • If PirateAba said that you have a good idea and that they needed to do that, they would have a hundred keyboards and enough treatments for 10 years from her fans the next week.

      • Hmm. I’ve read in one of the chapters that people tried to make armor from crelers but it wasn’t feasible since even their chitin had eggs burrowed in them. So I’m a bit doubtful about that theory.

    • I type a lot for work. I find it helps to work my wrists out more because it helps build up strength as I use my wrists in different ways. Then instead of 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, I get 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and although it averages out the same the increase in variety seems to help. That’s my opinion. :)

    • Hey, check out Alexander Technique! It’s a great supplement to physio. If you’re getting hurt, you’re moving wrong in some way, and physio tends not to address what’s needed to change those habits and move freely.

      And great chapter! One twist after another! Very exciting

    • Thank You for the Chapter! This was a really Enjoyably, and it also Answered a lot of Questions, as well as showing incredible and horrifying moments. Again Thank You.

      As for the physical therapist for your hands, I hope it goes well.
      Have you ever thought of hiring a Ghostwriter? I know that there are some problems with this, like finding one that is able to write like you, but think about it.

      Also I know that you said that you will start to take a break every 3 Months but seeing how much you wrote in only these 2 Months, I think you can take a break now. (If you can, Please don’t leave us on a Cliff Hanging!)

    • There was a Lovecraftian horror feel to this chapter, both in pacing and content. I liked it.

      As for you hands, I’ve had similar issues. A few things that worked for me are below. Feel free to ignore, free advice is worth what you paid for it.
      – Wrapping my wrists before typing using martial arts sparing wraps. They provide support and a bit of gentle pressure, plus they’re machine washable.
      – Switching to a two finger typing style. It’s slightly slower, but only slightly (as long as you aren’t a stenographer or something similar). When only using two fingers it cuts down on the wear-and-tear on your tendons.
      -Get a chair/desk that supports your arms properly. It doesn’t look like it should do anything, but it really helps.

    • Adrenaline pumped through my veins as I read that ending. The shear horror has left me in tears and LITERALLY sent shivers down my spine. Your mind??? like how does it come up with this stuff? amazing.

    • I understand that it is said that the unknown is what we fear.
      But I found it annoying/ confusing when it came to the titan.
      I think most writings on the eldritch use more description, just anything but what it is.
      A lot of people have fun with it, they take something like wool & brake it down into it’s 5 senses of description, and then some even brake those down & do it again to those.
      The beast part payed off.
      But I think the unthinkable location of it all did not because it was left so non descriptive, if your planning of ever taking this story under the sea, you may have to think about this more.

  2. Leave a typo for the Shield Kingdoms! Which one would you like to visit if you had a choice? Hint–don’t pick A’ctelios.

    (Visitor typos: Stephen, Solopath, belthanyl, LostAndContent, Douglas, Aoxz, LostAndContent, CarpDM, FrenchCowboy, dradford, Aoxz, lhans, LostAndContent, MrWiggles, sorenknightblog, Maladal, Gyoshi, Drakorise, AVR, Tanfgnissle, Vento, Big I, Iking, Tarun Elankath, zombieno53, afkcuzbookiscool, Gecko13, Qwiliman)

  3. Damn. That sucks. But also, what the hell is the city made of? The only thing I could think of would be a Gazer, but those already exist.

      • The Quarass said it came from worlds end, so it’s unlikely that it’s a god. Cthulhu doesn’t have five eyes I think, but it is described as eldritch so maybe along those lines?

        • They say the world is flat and nothing is past the edge… Yet it did not come from this world as it moves across the land. It may not have been a good of old… But ancient things that stir past death are not worshiped because they are divine, but because they are powerful.

          This one still stirs as something unseen has struck it when most never thought it was possible before.

          • The world is flat and has an edge. Nothing we know of stops things from living on the other side though.
            I am curious where this creature exists in the cosmology compared to the things that grabbed Ryoka’s scarf at the Solstice though.

            • At this point I’m pretty sure Inn World sits at a crossroad of all ideas and mythologies. It’s very… D&D at it’s 2nd Ed most complete. It’s got gods that may not be dead, sleeping gods, dead gods, maybe newborn gods?, at one point it had space travel, fey who cross the multiverse/planes/both, and now we’re into Lovecraft. I don’t think there strictly is a direct compare and contrast. I think we’re into the territory of universe wide and local powers with a web of treaties and contracts from before history. I’ve thought that for awhile actually. Some of what the Fey and Teriarch said doesn’t make sense otherwise.

              • Yeah there is a lot of myth in this world. That whole Drath cultivation bit- there are a lot of Asian webnovels just about that, with arrogant masters, magical beasts, ancient medicines, complex martial arts, and mystical lands. I can’t wait for Innworld’s version of exploring all that!

            • It’s all but confirmed at this point that the Dead Things who walk abroad on the solstice are the shadows of the Dead Gods — they are the Gods who did die, but remain on the egde of reality, trying ot gather strength and revive themselves. They are disitnct from the Sleeping God in Rhir, who never died, though he was weakened.

              A’ctelios, if that is indeed the name of the creature, seems to be something else. Something from beyond the age of the world — perhaps alien to InnWorld entirely, a god from another universe, perhaps?

          • The closest thing that I can think of is the Argus from Greek mythology. It’s not particularly eldritch but it is a giant with what is described as between 5 and 100 eyes.

                  • Because Trey probably went and called it an Outer God from the Cthulhu Mythos. The Quarass’s response would of course be “No, it is not a God. It’s just a monster from beyond the edge of the world.” Because the Gods are dead in the Innworld and probably she does not conceive them as something that mortals can kill.

                    Also, what made Trey think of the Eldritch Abominations in the stories of our world was not the fact that it had 5 eyes like a Gazer, but the fact that it made him made and scream his throat raw until it bled just from beholding its whole face.

        • None of the old ones from the mythos really fit the bill. Or all of them can in some capacity since shape is more of a suggestion. I’d say if you are to pick a popular one its going to be Shub-Niggurath.

        • If we are going for a Lovecraftian monster, Elder Things are supposed to have five eyes; and in The Mountains of the Madness, they do the whole “be mostly dead, but not really” thing too. But I’m not sure they fit, particularly because they are not *that* recognizable…

    • Trey said he recognized it from his world, so some kind of Lovecraftian horror? That’s pretty much synonymous with eldritch. But I haven’t read Lovecraft myself and I don’t get any likely hits from Google Image Search for any five-eyed eldritch beings.

      • Elder Things are a possibility; but they are not supposed to be that huge, and I’m not really sure they fit what little description we have…

    • Drakes are descended of Dragons. Gazers could be descended from this creature.
      Trey did say that he recognized it, I am just wondering how many chapters I will have to wait for the reveal.

      My thoughts though turn to the question of; What is on the other side of the world?
      and
      How many children from Earth ended up there?

      • Remember in rhir they said the hero summoning ritual would summon 10% of the number of unborn children sacrificed. Perhapse it only summons 10% at the ritual site and the rest are spread throughout the world. What will happen when the blighted king brings the planned million people here?

        • Would create a greater mess… But the blighted king had a clue with Erin’s Oh my God to Bird in Palass. I wonder what he will do about that

      • I think is what Gazers in the part of the world that has been swallowed by Void are eventually TURNED INTO. There will likely be [Void Beast Corruptions] for other species too.

        The world is not really flat – just a portion of it now remains. This is a super world and only a part of it remains.

    • It’s a Lovecraftian eldritch horror. I assume it’s a shoggoth. It could also be one of the offspring of Shub-Niggurath, an eldritch god (the Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young). Heck, it could theoretically be the Black Goat.

    • I tried searching it online, the setting of it is very similar to the Eldritch monster called Amon-Gorloth, what with entombed under sand and cultists that Trey mentioned.

      But it’s appearance might fit or mix with other types of monsters such as Cthylla or Kthaw’keth or many other grotesque looking Eldritch monsters

  4. Don’t they make computer programs that type what you are saying. I am sure if you found one that would work with your tech stuff you could ask for extra donations to help pay for it. In an effort to keep you churning out the stuff that keeps us all going!!!!! Just a thought.

    • There are a few programs that do this. I have heard that they take some getting used to and do not work for some people. That being said, if it will help with planning, rough drafts or the final draft go for it, anything to ease the strain on the hands and wrists is a good thing. As Cheryl stated, I am sure you would have plenty of readers wanting to provide assistance.

      Kind regards,

  5. You made me shed actual tears from horror when Trey found that out. Not a lot, but some.

    Well done.

    I hope we have something good happen soon, though.

    • Earthers have a history of dying horribly in Innworld. Not a surprise, with sudden abduction and zero preparation, not that I’m sure there’s really any way to prepare.

    • I expect it can be, but it requires an true master or an strong skill, he made an golem so that is the skill he got. Also an golem can be anything including an wall. It’s just how he is able to use the skill. So with a lot of training the skill might be enough.

    • I’d assume it’s possible, but considering it uses your actual blood/life to make it it’s probably not super efficient for most sand spells, which are generally more temporary constructs. It would be cool to see a mage who just chugs life potions in one hand and abuses the hell out of lifesand with the other.

    • Blood magic requires blood. He would bleed himself dry in seconds throwing lifesand everywhere in each spell. He is level 18 give him time and pray he doesnt become someone he hates.

  6. Looking back on the story I saw the clues about the mindset of the Leaders of Tombhome. (You should not tar every citizen of Tombhome with the same brush.) I felt that Trey was very true to form in his actions and his vow at the end, and felt that it was a path that is needed to remove a threat, even if that threat is a deterrent to larger enemies (literally).

    Thank you Pirateaba for rousing my emotions to clash with my logic.
    Though I think it started when the Quarass cut Treys throat to short cut his obstacles to power.

    Kind regards,

    • If the creature is what it seems to be then yes you really *need* to tar everything foolish enough to eat its flesh with the same brush. Whatever it is it’s downright Lovecraftian and every single person living there has been corrupted by it.

    • It’s not really a threat though because the inhabitants never leave. They are evil corrupting people but they are up front about it and are not the most evil thing in this world.

      • They never leave ‘for now’, but I have massive doubts they’re in any way in control of that city. Notice the zerg rush that tried to kill them at the end, something’s pulling the strings and if it’s Lovecraftian as it seems the only reason it hasn’t attacked yet is that it’s taking the long view… what’s a few tens of thousands of years to an immortal?

      • They never leave, but sooner or later they will run out of meat. After all “We are halfway through the torso, and the appendages will be next.”

    • Well Trey does demonstrate his youth with his impulsiveness and poor self-control, which works in our favor in that our questions get answered, and the characters get into life-threatening situations that advance the plot. Way to go Trey. You rock.

  7. Flying carpet road trip!
    Quarass is pitiful
    Gazi Love
    Quarass is scary
    Not as scary as people trying to feed you Meat, though. Much horror.
    And yeah Trey you crazy bastard, let’s just go ahead and stab the leader of Cthulhu City in the chest, shall we?

  8. Wow, now that’s horror writing. I hope we get some answers as to what that city actually is. Despite Trey being able to recognize it so quickly, I can’t think of what it could be besides some sort of Lovecraft monster. It’s a shame so many people will probably skip this because its a K chapter though.

  9. I appreciate that at the end the others have a chance to see that Trey was right in his initial assessment. It’s not dead. It’s still alive.

    A god? Less? More?

    Either way, not yet fully ended. But that brings my personal pseudo-divinity count up to a full three.

    • If it is a god wonder if its eye moving has to do with Trey believing it wasn’t dead yet. Honestly sounds very Creler like with the whole even death doesn’t truly stop them and Dead God like with the whole don’t speak about it.

      It is definitely some type of Lovecraft Old One though. The smaller ones that get hunted are probably just more shoggoth spawn like.

    • It’s not dead. That doesn’t mean it’s alive. The unexplainable couplet applies, I suspect: That is not dead which can eternal lie, / And with strange aeons even death may die.

  10. Dam, Pirate. Stuff like this is why I don’t get people that dislike the Flos chapters!
    I’m wondering if the big group of Slavers (name escapes me at the moment) have any ties to a Cthulhu-City? The [Horror] type Skills certainly seem like a Lovecraftian being has twisted the work of the Gods.
    Good to see Trey beginning to develop, will he perhaps figure out how to create sandstone/”Lifestone” by progressing down the Geomancy route?
    And please take care of your precious hands Pirate! It would be a grave injustice to rob the world of this story.

    • I wouldn’t call this a Flos chapter, he is only mentioned sometimes. I for one don’t like his chapters because i just dont understand him, his motivation is just lets conquer the world cause its fun… Theres not enough depth to him. Also his personality is somehow off… Doesn’t fit. Dunno. I think most people don’t like him for the same reasons. He is somehow too bland for his ambitions. He is portrayed as some unchalant (mostly) nice guy who nonetheless wants to conquer everything, just because why not.

      • I would not say i dislike Flos as such, i find him incredibly selfish and immoral, but that does not stop me from enjoying characters, Flos is charismatic and well written so reading about him is decent enough way to pass the time.

        I would prefer to focus on Erin, or failing that, the Goblins or Niers.

      • His motivation is “the world sucks. It shouldn’t suck. Someone should do something about it. I’m someone.” This time around he’s so acutely aware of the cost that he’s hesitant to try again. He’s been pretty clear about that in earlier chapters, and if that’s not enough, his grand ideals of liberation and justice contrasted with the human cost were explicitly discussed by Raelt and Jecaina in their previous chapter.

        • Nah. His only motivation was: I AM KING! I WILL CONQUER.

          What was he trying to do by attacking Izril ? Liberating the Drakes from their own walled cities ? Thep poor Drakes have only half a continent left for themselves. Humans have nearly all of Terandria and are present on all other continents.

          If he attacked the Human North Side of Izril and ‘liberated’ the people from incompetent lords such as Tyrion Veltras, I would give him points.

          If he freed all the slaves under the [Slave Lords], that would be liberation.

          If he freed R’hir from incompetent and murderous leadership, that would be liberation.

          Hell, I would give him a pass, if he attacked Terandria and consolidated his rule over humans.

          Instead he attacks Baleros and Izril…

          • This is what i dislike about Flos.
            He has no grand plan, no endgame. He goes to war, for his own amusement.
            Not to protect his people, not to improve their lot, not to aid those he conquers or protect others from them, but for his amusement.
            Thousands, tens of thousands, dead or enslaved, because one man wanted to go out and get an adrenaline rush.

          • “What was he trying to do by attacking Izril ?”

            Preempt the grand coalition that was coming to kill him. Niers said that explicitly. The whole world was going to war with Flos, and Flos decided he’d rather fight that war on their turf than on his. The Walled Cities and the Great Companies are the most powerful individual polities we’ve seen by a fair margin; knock them out before they can consolidate and you make your life much, much easier.

            • Well, considering that the grand coalition had only formed out of fear that Flos would invade *their* lands…
              No-one bothers about a ruler on another continent who just rules their country or at most goes to war with the neighbours. Flos was already a would-be world conqueror, prompting the formation of the coalition.

        • This is absolutely my reading of Flos too – he’s the King od Destruction for a reason, and that reason is to destroy the power structures of the world. He’s a revolutionary, in essence, which is also why he has such total loyalty from his followers – they don’t believe in him alone, they believe in what he represents and fights for.

      • Ever play Crusader Kings? It’s not about WHY you conquer the world, but how well you can do it; proving just how well you can manage fluctuating loyalties while growing in power. Power is another point – how better to grind for levels than in a constant all-out war against all comers?

    • I don’t like the King of Destruction because he’s full of himself.

      I already don’t like senseless violence, but if you have to do it, do it right. He just got bored and let everything fall to pieces…

      High King Kallor on the other hand conquered and enslaved his entire continent, before killing every single living thing on said continent before the elder gods of his world even had the chance to stop him. Now that’s a king of destruction.

      • I think he stopped because of the death of Kerravia the Gambler of Fates whom he loved. It made him realise how cruel is the death of so precious

  11. This chapter was scary! I REALLY thought Trey should have prayed to God as he cast his [Light Arrows] for extra effect. Though I walk through the Shadow of Death…

    I DO NOT believe that [A’ctelios Salash] is any sort of bloody [Shield Kingdom]. It merely pretends to be one by standing against Dragons. It clearly a creature that is remaking itself by growing its brood and a danger to all of Chandrar.

    Dragons don’t look like any threat to the world compared to the corrupt God that sleeps underneath R’hir and the darkness that has devoured most of this world and laps at its edges.

    Trey has the right idea. Burn the city to ashes with [ArchSpell: Radiant Nuclear Fission Blast]. It’s people don’t think anything of melding outsiders into beasts of burden. I suspect poor Terrans were captured, starved and forced to eat meat until they turned. And that awful screaming – it was likely the sound of someone in awful agony as they were forcibly turned…

    And if something like this was revealed just on the surface level, only the Void knows what is happening on the lower levels.

    • I have a pet theory that creelers are radioactive and using a nuke would cause a huge population spike as the fallout spread. Also demons are supposedly made by tainting normal creatures somehow, which sounds suspiciously like 1950’s style fantasies about the magical powers of radiation to create mutants. Being a [tragic king], the Blighted King may be getting ready to unleash the Blight worldwide with his bomb plan.

      • Doesn’t fit any evidence. If Crelers were radioactive, folks would sicken and die after battling them. The Horns would all be suffering from ARS and dying within a few days.

        Crelers are clearly a self-propagating biological weapon, but they spread through devouring any and all organic material , followed by gargantuan egg laying cycle, birth and rapid growth. Once they reach [Adult] status, they are also gifted with a portion of power from the dreams of the corrupted god that created them.

        • Except that Crelers have been explicitly said to sicken things by being around them? Their chitin when made into weapons causes sickness. And certainly nobody is eating them.

          • That probably has to do with the poison and the eggs in the chitlin. When poison is continually excreted by the shell it will affect the individual

    • It’s stated that crelers are the musings of a sleeping god given form, it’s malice incarnate. Personally I think they were meant to wipe the slate clean So the gods can just restart everything

    • In D&D, Beholders are creatures of dreams. Their own dreams. Literally. They… reproduce by dreaming a new Beholder into existence while they are asleep. Gazers are basically misformed babies, and treasured by their parents as a whole.

      If this were Faerun, I would be fairly confident this thing is waiting until it has enough sleepers to dream itself awake.

  12. Oh, PLEASE take care of your hands. Please attempt to use Speech-to-Text translator software. There are good paid ones like Otter, Verbit, Dragon Professional/Dragon Home, etc. There are several others in the free tier too. You can try out the trial editions to see which ones suit you.

    I really think you should stop typing so many words with your fingers.

  13. “If you wish to gain a gift by gambling your nature, partake of the rotless food they offer you. If you wish to stay forever, continue to eat.”

    So Gazers might be people that were ate the food and changed but were still able to leave. There could also be a similar one in Baleros. The whole similarity of eyes and teeth with Gazi is uncanny though.

  14. I might read too far into it but the one thing I started to wonder early on in the visit of A’ctelios and still do is: WHERE IS THE GOD DARN WASTE
    If it is not just omitted by Pirateaba it may just be the most worrying part. Let me explain why I find this weird.

    they essentially live in a great big cave and have done so for a very long time. such a society need to treat their waste removal very seriously.

    There is not a great pile of waste or mountain of sand that have been moved or sign of burial ground for waste or body outside the city/corpse. There should be, the city is old, truly old and big even with no need to produce food and the repair spell it still should produce a significant volume of garbage. While I am willing to believe that they keep their dead in a corner of their city if not a creepier option. that still leave magical waste that cannot be repair and thing too cheap or broken to be repair and living people waste. Again, the city is old and don’t practice agriculture, the best recycling engine for living people waste there should be a looot of it. Compost only made sense if you make thing grow. They can’t really bury it inside the corpse because that would made digging in it to be basically rocket science. Burning it, all should have left sign, like smoke while they where coming, or one of the eyes to be clearly use for this purpose or a spot outside. shoving it in bag of holding run in problem fast. and taking it all too far away to be see while flying is too much trouble for troglodyte. There not a convenient body of water to throw everything. A massive city like that to put it bluntly produce a lot of crap in a day. Where do it all go?

    Secondary preciously few things go outside the city, leather, bone and a few bits of meat. while the removal of bone and leather liberate space. that leave a lot of meat, many mountains of meat that do not rot. I a not confidant that even a large city can eat through all of that. they certainly can’t eat as fast as they are digging or if they can it is all sort of worrying. so, unless they are sitting on the biggest stockpile of bag of holding in the world, and if that was the case, they should be known to sell those, there something else weird going on.

    I lack proof ok fact to truly made hypothesis and again I may be seeing ghost. But if not, we may have see only the surface of the madness.

      • That is one of the possibilities that could work. But for it to work the stomach would need to be actively producing acid and digesting. Acid do not make matter disappear, it breaks them apart, even a big lac of acid would eventually get filled and lost is potency. and while the stomach is without a doubt big, unless if most of the monster is stomach it can’t contain so much meat converted in crap. Also, if that was the case, I would expect at least some bug, but there was none anywhere. So, an active stomach that process food and absorb matter. Get why I find this particularly creepy?

        That not even the most worrisome possible solution I can think.

    • You’re right, I think we’re looking at the tip of a Lovecraftian iceberg. Trey noticed there were no flies around the meat but it was never explained. The place is also called the “city that rots” but the meat being sold in the markets and served at the banquets looked fresh. Also, Trey knew *for sure* that the Old One was still alive on the way in, but acts shocked at seeing proof when he was *leaving*. All of that points to evidence that the abomination is engaged in weaving illusions and altering the thoughts of visitors. But what happens when someone uses a completely non-magical recording device to take pictures? It may not be able to affect machines with its magic because devices were never alive, so the visitors from Earth with their cameras could well have taken pictures with proof of the city’s true nature under the illusion, which would be plenty of reason for the locals to want them all dropped in a dark hole and forgotten. I expect Trey’s video to reveal a lot more than Trey expects when he shows it to Flos.

    • It could be something sinister like you think, or just a slight oversight by pirate. But I’m in camp “this abomination isn’t dead and something F#!ked up is going to happen”. To quote lovecraft “that is not dead which can eternal lie. And over strange aeons even death may day”

      • Where do you get that most of the world do that? The drake city has all sewers. Human city too. the city in Baleros use waste tank. Pretty sure Lyon had mentioned Terandria using sewer. That make three Continents that I can remember being mentioned using complex system to take care of their waste. The other do too I am sure, but unsurprisingly crap is not along the first thing mentioned when they are represented. In any case, if a walled city can’t, probably nobody but a dragon can magic it away. The only thing that we saw that came close was Erin and her acid. Pitateaba is careful with their world building, it usually makes sense and this don’t, so it made it weird.

  15. Amazing chapter that ended full of emotions. Lots of comments on gazi, the city/monster, and monsters in the city, but I want to go back to a quick comment about Gazi’s armor. Don’t know if someone has brought it up in the past, but an excited Dwarven master? Connections?

    • Clearly Palt got over-excited, forgot the actual order, created her armour/sword and is beating himself over it.

      Looks like Gazi’s sword is Adamantium – a magical Tungsten alloy.

      • I was under the impression that what Palt and his crew had tried to do went a bit deeper than just making a magical alloy. The way he talks about it implies there was a moral issue in there somewhere, like using spirits or blood or some other such substance. I wonder what horrors there are deep underground where the Dwarves mine?

        • It’s those little side comments, unrelated to the chapter’s main plot, that really get me, like fiinding an easter egg.

          I don’t know if PA has plot mapped out on a wall at home, with red threads connecting A to B to G to double Z, but if she has, I’m guessing it has exploded into three dimensions and you could clothesline yourself crossing through it.

  16. “That is not dead which can eternal lie. And over strange aeons, even death may die”
    So the city that rots isn’t truly rotting, but allowing the… things to live in its body. It chose to drop on the sands, to let it’s body be hollowed out, and I’m guessing that it’s going to move again when It chooses to and then the world will bleed.

  17. The illustrations of Gazi are nice!
    The thing I always think of when reading about her are IG-86 Sentinel Droids. She’d just have to be a kinda meaty variant of those :D

  18. This chapter reminds me so much of Sunless Sea, and I love it. I’m not sure why, but your style can really capture this type of creeping horror unlike anything I’ve read before. As much as I love the slice of life and shenanigans that always occur, skinner, snatcher, stitch witches, and eldritch corpses are what bring this world and story into focus. I hope The Last Tide can keep this type of tale going!

    • On the magic carpet ride back it would be great if Trey could talk the Quarass into a repeat of the rollercoaster ride so he could get a video of a screaming Gazi. He owes her some payback for all the times she shoved him out the window. Trey could get all kinds of mileage from it, especially with Flos, Mars and Orthenon laughing their butts off. It would be even better if she eats a bug while she’s distracted. Thanks so much for the stories. I love what you do PirateAba

  19. That was great, I kind of hope that Trey never articulates which particular horror he recognized as the rotting city.

    For fear of the unknown is much more terrifying than any described horror.

    Still, if the dead gods are some kind of Old Ones from beyond the void…

  20. I was enjoying the horror and creepiness of this chapter until Trey sudden impulsive moment at the wrong timing ruined it for me. Yeah, it might push the story forward and yeah it’s bad that the city tricked the children to turning into monsters. Especially when Trey is not a person known to suddenly try to kill people, maybe punching the guy out of frustration but not that.

    But at least he should curb his impulses and come back with an army at later time to destroy the city. While still being able to get more info and the rest of the other possessions back.

    It felt to me like it’s how he’ll react by trying to kill Magnolia if he knows that she tricked the children into being adventurers to get them killed.

    Well, generally in medieval fantasy stories many people considered the one being tricked to be at fault or at least by reading many fantasy light novels and mangas I know people would not kill someone over the point of someone else, be it from the world they’re from for getting tricked and turned into monsters.

    • Magnolia never tricked them, they wanted to do it themselves, the quickly gave up after they realized how dangerous it was. It was after that she just dumped them in one of her houses to torment the staff.

  21. Wow… how does Pirateaba come up with this stuff?
    Baffles me, but keep it coming!
    Although I’m seriously disturbed now, and not hungry any more….

    One thing I don’t understand though, is how Trey, a 16 year old boy from London, can recognise what the THING is…?
    I’m 47, and read A LOT, always have, and I still don’t recognise what the THING is.
    Even with googling, and looking in my mythology dictionary…. how does Trey recognise it, and I don’t have a clue!
    I mean, he is so damn sure too!
    I’m even from England too, not London, but close enough that if it was anything just a Brit would recognise, then I should know what the THING is!!!
    Yeah, it’s baffeling… and driving me a bit bonkers, not knowing 🤦🏻‍♀️
    Can anybody put me out of my misery?
    Please…?

    • One of the things about Lovecraftian horror is how the protagonist comes to realizations. They make intuitive leaps, brought on by the minor hints of the horror that takes place around them. Sometimes they are stark realizations, other times they are slow and creeping, like a spider just beneath your eye.

      The internet is a less creepy explanation, as you suggested, but it is vast and full of terrors. Trey might have done some late night Googling into things best left unsearched. All you need to do is look up things in certain paths. Considering the Google Search Algorithm (another eldritch horror), you will get results skewed based on what you have previously looked for.

      Also, if you look up Cthulhu images, there are probably two dozen interpretations on the first few pages alone. I figure the general view of the place from above at that height snapped something into place in his head. A picture was close enough to fit in the category of what he had previously seen.

      • Thanks for responding. I get what you mean, being bilingual, I have, over the years, noticed a big difference between searches on google UK and google Germany. I started to use both sites, the .de search in German, and the .co.uk site in English many years ago, after noticing that I get different results for the exact same search. I was surprised at the discovery, as I didn’t expect it, I thought google was so interconnected, that you’d always end up getting the same results no matter what language, or country of search.
        But, I know I have absolutely minimal knowledge of the internet and tech – just enough to get by, and to be frustrated sometimes, knowing there is more info out there, if only I was more tech savvy etc.
        I expect a 16 year old boy, in our day and age, to definately be more tech savvy than me.
        But it still surprises me, that he was convinced he knew exactly what the THING is, where I’m like…. yeah, I suppose it COULD be …xyz… but definately still really uncertain.
        So, I’ll just have to wait and read… see where the story takes us, and if we’ll ever know for sure (and not just have hints).

        • Same here… clueless.
          I googled some of the names suggested here in the comments but none of the results convinced me.
          Maybe I should try UK or US Google? 😉
          But… we know so little about Trey’s (former) hobbies and interests. Maybe he actually was into lovecraftian horror games / literature / movies (?) and his brain “clicked” faster than ours. 😮

    • I had the same feeling. I wrote the precursor to Call of Cthulhu and then play tested CoC with Sandy. I’m relatively familiar with the mythos and a lot more besides.

      I’m expecting a “doh” moment when the reveal happens —and even came back to read more comments to see if someone else had figured it out.

      I liked a lot of the touches here.

      That the City violated the contract to entrap all the children they got—and mutated all of them into the slave forms.

      There is something going on there.

      Just a great deal going on.

      So many parts all moving at once, down to all the waste being consumed and recycled by the undying body of the thing they are living in.

  22. I love the writing here… The scope & imagination is outstanding.

    However I’m sorry, but I personally find Lovecraft horror stories are just… flatly repellent.

    From the comments, obviously many people like it. I cannot fathom why, but more power to them.

    If the overall story is moving in that direction, and there isn’t some warning, well… crap.

    A disclaimer or a special postfix indicating a dark chapter would be considerate.

    For now… Sorry, I’m going to stop visiting for a while.

    • I mean, if one half of a chapter in a secondary plotline (probably less than 0,1% of the story so far) ruffles you so much…

      The story (and innworld) so far is very varied, so yeah, there are eldrich horrors… But there are also plenty of wonderful and magical people and things. And even the inhabitants of the corpse of an Old One need be wary of people like the KoD.

      As for a disclaimer, I can see where you come from, but it would kind of spoil it for everyone else thus lowering the impact of the chapter… Plus, we’ve had plenty of unsettling/terrifying chapters before.

  23. If only there was a piece of garment that one can wear that can provide huge amounts of blood at a moments notice without and is constantly refilling itself with blood. hmm..if only…

    *cough..cloak..cough*

  24. With gaining classes, it seems like someone should try to become a [god] class. Laken did it just by declaring himself emperor and then got the skills to help him act the part. Something like that would certainly apply to a [god] right?

    • Just be cautious what you wish for… you might just get it.

      Trying to become a god might have unforseen consequences, just ask Karsus.

  25. I always love the K chapters, and I feel a little sorry for those who skip them because this has to go up there as amongst the very best in the whole series. I’m in a bit of shock.

  26. It still blows my mind when a sequence that would be an entire book unto itself in another epic is a subarc of a chapter in The Wandering Inn.

    But that said, of that’s at the expense of your health, *please* take things easier on yourself.

  27. Hey Pirate, Please take care. I hope the physio therapist helps. You’re amazing, fantastic and a lot of other adjectives at storytelling but we don’t want that at the expense of your health.

    This chapter was crazy :)

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