It was a love story for the ages. A young [Lord] and [Lady], specifically, Lord Bein of the Terland family, and Lady Dealia of the minor house of the Zolde nobility. A scandalous matchup perhaps, but one that was sanctioned through love and touched the hearts of everyone with the sophistication to appreciate such modern-day romances that defied social convention.
If you lacked the sophistication to really appreciate the nuance of that event, or didn’t keep up with the trends of nobility in Izril, well, it was one of the topics of discussion in certain circles.
The average layperson…might not know about the pairing, but then again, people liked to keep track of such things, like those who obsessively followed marriages and courtly dramas in Terandrian monarchies.
Like—for instance, war brewing between Ailendamus and other nations was actually overshadowed in the circles of gossip by scandalous cheating in bedrooms, or frivolous details. For instance, have you heard that the 6th Princess of Calanfer had refused every single suitor, except for partaking in the most removed of dances? It was speculated that she had a serious suitor, or else…some kind of disease.
Either or. But the point was that such pairings among the nobility were important. They had to be, otherwise what was the point?
Anyways, Lord Bein and Lady Dealia. Scandalous, yes. Because Lord Bein was a member of the Terland family, one of the Five Families of Izril, and thus one of the most powerful nobility in the world. He wasn’t…from the main branch of the family or anything, but even so, they had standards. And Lady Dealia was a member of the Zolde nobility, who had come to Izril just a moment ago—two hundred years back, fleeing unrest in Chandrar.
They were thus, still, ‘Chandrarian’ to many of the nobility. And marrying into their family was something that a wealthy person, or perhaps an adventurer or someone else might do. Or some of the other minor nobles, yes, but a member of the Five Families?
Ah, but it was love. A love story! Like that haute new thing, ‘plays’, sweeping through Invrisil? Have you seen…?
Love indeed. Lord Bein had been head over heels with Lady Dealia and the courtship had occupied the minds of those who spent time dwelling on such things. Of course, her family was delighted by the suggestion and Lord Bein had won over his parents after some wrangling. It had been his mother who’d really disliked the concept, but once Lord Bein had persuaded his father, the good Lord Sheldae Terland, to support the marriage, the engagement had been on.
Love triumphed over social class, that was the lesson here. A young [Lord] of the Five Families could marry a…lesser [Lady] from Chandrar two hundred years back. Believe in love.
Although…it didn’t hurt that Lady Dealia was one of the most beautiful [Ladies] in all of Izril. Blessed by birth, or perhaps Skills, she occupied the list of the top ten [Ladies] to marry, (and yes, there were lists). In fact, she’d been ranked fourth, right below Lady Wuvren. The famous Wuvren had held her position on that list since she’d turned sixteen, for the last fifty years or so.
All this to say that love—and perhaps being extremely attractive—had made Lord Bein leap for the engagement and true love. The engagement had in fact, been going forwards. Albeit with some sabotage by his mother, wrangling by both families—but no more than usual.
It was scheduled next month, and it was certainly going to be a large wedding; the nobility loved good weddings and many would turn up, which would probably begin more romances, intrigues, and so on.
Well and good, well and good. Love, marriage—it would have been perfect, but for one thing. And that thing would be—Lady Hetessana Wellfar.
“You pig! You faithless dog!”
Lord Bein Terland fled the private bedroom of Lady Hetessana Wellfar, one of the most eligible [Dowagers] in all of Izril as she pursued him. Half-naked, and fully in fury. The widowed Hetessana was of the Wellfar family, another of the Five Families of Izril.
Where the Terlands were known mainly for their trade in magical artifacts and having fallen on hard times since their days of glory, the Wellfar family had kept their gold and husbanded it, in husbands, but also the far more practical buisiness of ships and trade. Lady Hetessana had been married to one of the [Ship Lords], and she had inherited a lot of wealth from her husband upon his untimely death at sea.
She had genuinely mourned him, too, and had been known as a [Lady] first mourning the loss of her husband—and then grieving her loneliness. She was in her late fifties, and had not benefitted from Skills that made Lady Wuvren so…eye-catching.
“I can explain!”
“You told me it was an accident! How dare you!”
The older [Lady] shouted as she pursued Lord Bein. Servants poked their heads out as they saw the two nobles quarrelling—and immediately decided they had seen or heard nothing. Both were in a state of undress.
The…relationship between Lady Hetessana and Lord Bein wasn’t well-known by anyone. But Lord Bein had, in fact, prior to falling for Lady Dealia, been seeing the older Lady of the Wellfar family. For about two years, actually. And benefitting from the relationship in more ways than just the purity of romance.
“I gave you everything! Gold, favors—we were to be married at the end of the year and you—you only loved me for my wealth? Is that it?”
Lady Hetessana’s face was a mask of grief. Because she had loved the young [Lord] who had courted her in secret. She had assumed it had been a love story, right up until this moment. The older [Lady] did not keep up with gossip, and the engagement had caught her off-guard.
“Hetessana, I can explain—”
Lord Bein ducked a shoe. He had indeed tried to explain. But he’d clearly failed. Lady Hetessana looked at him.
“You were seduced? In that case—call off the engagement!”
The younger man spread his hands, turning red.
“One can’t just call off an engagement, Hetessana. My hand was forced. I tried to talk my father out of it—”
This time a pot flew and Lord Bein ducked it. He wasn’t quite sure why his carefully-crafted explanations were failing, but perhaps he hadn’t ever run into a situation up till now that had required actual subterfuge. Or the kind of consequences he couldn’t walk away from.
Lady Hetessana sagged as one of her [Handmaids] came out to support her. She was grey in the face, with shock and pain, but she looked at the half-clothed Lord Bein with a kind of grim determination. She pointed and he flinched, but she threw only words now.
“You will pay. For lying to me. And to your young [Lady]. Does she know about us?”
“She doesn’t, does she? Or that you promised to marry me?”
Lord Bein’s eyes flickered. Hetessana laughed.
“She’ll know. Everyone will know! I’ll shout it from the rooftops if I must!”
Her reputation be damned. Lord Bein paled at the implications. Not only might the engagement be called off, this might have consequences in his own family.
“Hetessana, please, let me explain!”
“You’ve lost the right to call me that. Begone from my presence! And you had better pray that the Zolde household doesn’t answer insult with blades! They’re Chandrarian, you know.”
The older [Lady] shook her head. She was turning away. Lord Bein looked at her, and his temper flared.
“Say what you will! I’ll deny everything! This was nothing more than a—a mistake! And I promised you nothing in truth!”
The [Lady] of the Wellfar family flinched. But the love she had felt and he…had pretended had turned to enmity in a moment. She turned her head.
“You shallow, snake of a boy. I’ll swear it on truth spell before anyone who asks!”
But it would be her word against his. Lord Bein laughed. Lady Hetessana colored with fury.
This could not be allowed to stand. But it might not halt an engagement. Not if it were words; after all, the affair had been conducted on her lands, and only her servants could attest to the relationship. How might she tell the truth? How might…?
And then she had it. Quick as could be, Hetessana hurried into the mansion. Lord Bein stared at her, confused, as he tried to pull out a change of clothes out of his bag of holding and put them on. He only saw the [Lady] return after a few minutes. And when she did—
She was holding a pendant. Lord Bein paled.
“Perhaps Lady Dealia will believe this!”
She shook the pendant that should have been around Lord Bein’s neck at the young [Lord]. He felt at the spot where it had been—but of course, he’d taken it off!
It was one of the Terland’s artifacts, passed down through their family. Not relic-class, but one of the priceless amulets that conveyed a number of magical effects. In this case, they grew in strength the more of the amulets there were, but even this one could help thwart an assassination attempt. Lord Bein really shouldn’t have taken it off, but it chafed.
“Lady Hetessana, give that back!”
She stared at him, triumphant at the sudden fear on his face, and anger. And still—heartbroken, because half an hour ago, she had loved him. But this was a real love story.
“I shall not. And the world will know of your infidelity!”
She whirled. Lord Bein made a strangled noise and ran at her. But Hetessana’s [Servants] appeared, blocking him. They dared not do more, and suffered the young [Lord]’s clumsy blows and swearing as he tried to push past them. He was, after all, despite everything, a member of the Terland family.
But Lord Bein was also aware of Hetessana’s power. So he didn’t draw the sword he owned and hack at them, and he couldn’t fight his way past the press of bodies. In the end, after trying to rush left or right past the line of servants, he gave up. Panting, he shouted at Hetessana’s back.
“You’ll never deliver it, Hetessana! I swear!”
He raced off, looking for his horse. Lady Hetessana stared at him as he ran off, and then handed the pendant to one of her handmaidens. Then she sank into her bed and wept.
Perhaps, if she had been faster, the servants might have beaten Lord Bein to his estates. But Lady Hetessana took time for her grief. To her cost.
The first [Thief] came like…a thief in the night. He was intercepted by her guards, but the second and third came within just as many days.
Lord Bein had hired [Thieves] to steal back his pendant, and the proof of their relationship. Faced with that, and knowing that her security couldn’t withstand a high-level attempt for long, Lady Hetessana made a quick decision. She made a public announcement about her relationship with Lord Bein and shattered the illusion of love across Izril’s social gossip circles.
The Terland family instantly denied the allegations. Lord Bein stridently claimed it was Hetessana’s madness and grief and that he had only shown the [Dowager] a short kindness and a relationship that had gone nowhere. Lady Hetessana swore she had proof.
The pendant. It had to go to Lady Dealia, who was obviously troubled by the claims but stood by the man she loved, or Bein’s family. Dealia preferably; the Terlands were standing with Lord Bein and might hush up the truth, even if it was delivered to them.
But Lady Hetessana feared theft or ambush along the long distance north and east, towards the Zolde households. Lord Bein had, through Izril’s underworld, put out a bounty on that pendant. Anyone delivering it, even one of Hetessana’s servants, might be targeted by [Bandits] or anyone seeking the bounty. And it was a hefty price. So, Lady Hetessana sent a [Message] for someone who could deliver the pendant at speed, and without delay or interception.
She sent for a Courier. That had been one day ago.
The [Raiders] saw their mark coming down the road. He was a Courier.
Lacel the Leaper. Not the best of names, but he was a Courier. And he bore Lady Hetessana’s pendant. The [Raiders] were well aware of all this. And they were prepared to cash in on the ten thousand gold coin bounty Lord Bein had put on the pendant.
Unofficially. No Adventurer’s Guild or any other official guild had posted the bounty. But there were unofficial channels for Izril’s underworld, and they had spread words about the bounty to everyone.
The [Raid Leader] was a rough woman used to doing what it took to survive. She’d been banned from over a dozen cities and three times that many towns and villages, but she was tired of life living in fear of the law. This was her and her gang’s big break.
She fired a crossbow as her group burst from their cover along the tall brush they’d been hiding in and charged down towards the trade road Lacel was running down.
The Courier was running fast, nearly as fast as a horse, but he had more endurance Skills than mobility. He jerked and stared up as the [Bandits] raced at him, firing weak spells from wands and shooting arrows.
Some of the travellers on the road panicked at the sight of the [Raiders]. They weren’t expected, not so close to Invrisil! But the [Raiders] were only focusing on Lacel. He instantly blurred and turned into six different figures who all went racing in different directions.
“He’s using a damn illusion! Split up and get him!”
The [Raid Leader] swore and turned her mount, pursuing the one racing for Invrisil’s gates, several miles distant. She blew past a frightened family on the road as the eighteen-some [Raiders] raced past her.
A caravan, a family riding a covered wagon, hid as the [Raiders] streamed past them. A [Trader] with a bag of holding and a pack mule dove for cover, grabbing at his emergency wand, prepared to fight only in self-defense. A group of young people riding a wagon surrounded by hired [Mercenaries] alternatively panicked and stared at the spectacle as the [Guards] swore and closed ranks, more aware of the danger.
“Halt or we’ll cut you down, Courier!”
The [Raid Leader] had seen through Lacel’s illusion. Her gang was pursuing the other five illusions, but who would run away from the safety of Invrisil’s walls? She reloaded her crossbow as she swung her mace out of its holster. Either one would do for the Courier.
Lacel the Leaper looked back at the [Raid Leader] and swore. He was a lanky fellow, with long legs. As the [Raid Leader] closed on him, he ran left, desperately, passing by a bluff of stone rocks leading uphill. The [Raid Leader] swore and angled towards him. But he was too far from the stones! She lifted her mace as she aimed—
And Lacel jumped.
Straight up, into the air. And gravity forgot Lacel existed for a second. The [Raid Leader] stared up, open-mouthed, as the Courier flew.
Ten feet. Then twenty. Thirty—and his back arced as he landed on the top of the hill. The gang stared. Lacel looked around wildly, and then he leapt again. He flew, and the [Raid Leader] turned her horse.
“Get him! He’s only good at jumping! Get him and—”
She ducked as the Courier threw something at her. An explosion; he was throwing damn Alchemist’s Fire! She swore, but her [Raiders] were tasting blood. They raced after him, shooting arrows that swerved as they neared the Courier. And he was jumping, throwing exploding flasks.
It was a running battle and the people on the road hid as the [Raiders] tried to bring down the Courier. But he was a Courier. And not only could he run almost as fast as the horses they rode, he was armed.
And he jumped high. Still, he was making for Invrisil at best speed rather than trying to wipe the [Raiders] out like another Courier might. And as the fighting entered the second minute, the [Raiders] racing after Lacel, the terrified family in the covered wagon was huddled together. And from the back, a figure poked his head out.
Three figures, actually. A yawning Stitch-Woman adjusted the stitches around her neck. A slumbering old [Mage] was still waking up, rather disoriented. The Stitch-Woman, who had a wand in one hand, nodded at the [Raiders] racing past them.
“What’s the word, Halrac? Summons?”
“No. Cover me.”
The voice came from inside the wagon. And the man, the [Veteran Scout], a scruffy, yet-to-be-shaved beard on his face, and an expression that suggested that smiling was a foreign idea to him, pushed out of the wagon’s interior.
The family stared at him. Because the man wasn’t armed. He carried no weapons.
Or rather—it looked like he was carrying nothing. But—why was he holding his hand like that? As if he was pretending to aim a bow. But it was realistic. And he did have a quiver.
One of the two young boys in the family stared as the grim man plucked an arrow from the quiver. He was still…holding nothing but air. But then he did something and the arrow vanished.
The young boy gaped. He saw the [Scout], the Gold-Rank adventurer pause. And then—the shimmering patch of air shifted. The invisible bow and the now-invisible arrow moved.
Tft. The family stared ahead. They saw the galloping [Raiders] rushing forwards. And then—up ahead—the [Raid Leader] fell out of her saddle. Lacel the Leaper stared. He stared at the now-visible arrow buried in the back of her head. Halrac grunted. He drew another arrow, sighted, loosed.
A second [Raider] fell. The gang shouted in panic, staring at Lacel. They thought the arrows were coming from the Courier. They only realized they were being assaulted from behind after two more arrows sent their riders tumbling out of the saddles, screaming.
“I think they saw us.”
“Hm? Are we under attack?”
Typhenous was still waking up. The old [Mage] had white hair and a beard, but he moved surprisingly quickly for someone his age. The two boys in the family’s wagon stared as Typhenous unsheathed a wicked dagger as he lifted his staff.
“You missed it, old man. We’re attacking them. They’re looking this way, Halrac.”
Revi warned the leader of Griffon Hunt. Halrac shrugged.
“What do they see?”
He paused as he lowered his bow. From afar he looked unarmed. And the [Raiders] indeed looked straight past him—until he raised his bow and shot another through the nose. As in—straight through the bridge of the nose and the rest of the woman’s head.
“Ah! Dead gods, Halrac!”
Revi recoiled from the sight. The [Raiders] stared as Halrac aimed again.
“Cover me if they charge, Revi. Typhenous, shields up.”
“Is this an attack? I missed the beginning. [Force Wall]. Just below your chin, Halrac.”
The shimmering barrier appeared as Typhenous cast his spell. The [Raiders] were debating charging or fleeing the threat. But Halrac kept loosing arrows.
Some of them charged. The rest fled. But their arrows and spells hit the [Force Wall]. The barrier was mostly invisible as well, and did indeed cover the entire frightened family in the wagon and Halrac—just up to his chin. He shot over the magical barrier. Revi lifted her wand—but never cast a single spell.
The [Raiders] died on that busy road. The horses, terrified, galloped around until they were captured. And the patrol of Invrisil’s Watch arrived too late.
They’d arrived quickly. Fifteen minutes and they were out on the trade road in force. But they just found the dead [Raiders], a bunch of lined-up horses being shepherded together by glowing, summoned warriors.
And Griffon Hunt. Lacel the Leaper had run on without so much as pausing. But the Gold-rank adventurers were taking their dues.
Applause. And the [Raider]’s horses and gear. Halrac paused in prying the [Raid Leader]’s mace out of her stiff hands as the [Sergeant] on horseback waved at him.
“Excuse me! Are you an adventurer?”
“That’s right. Halrac…Captain of Griffon Hunt.”
The [Scout] paused a second as he gave his title. The [Sergeant] relaxed.
“Well then, you’ve done us a favor. Thank you, sir. Did you see what those [Bandits] were after?”
“Not [Bandits], [Raiders].”
Typhenous corrected the [Sergeant]. He casually yanked a gold tooth out of an open mouth. The [Guards] winced. So did Revi, who was helping.
“It’s gold, Revi. Be a dear and help me with the bag of holding? [Raiders], indeed. You can tell by their armor and style. Bandits operate from a base. [Raiders] are hit-and-run—aha. Another tooth. Silver. Revi, stop fidgeting.”
The [Sergeant] stared as Typhenous bent over the corpse. But that was adventurers for you. He cleared his throat and noticed Revi’s summoned warriors herding the horses together.
“Adventurer Halrac, er, can I assume your team is claiming salvage rights on the [Raiders]?”
“That’s right. We can dispose of the bodies as well.”
“Ah, well then.”
The Watch brightened a bit. So did the [Sergeant].
This was protocol. It might have been alien to the travellers staring as the Gold-rank adventurers, er…looted the dead, but the Watch and the adventurers were used to it.
Salvage rights for the criminal’s possessions. Griffon Hunt was entitled to it, but that meant also disposing of corpses, or paying the Watch for a fee. If you just looted the bodies and left them to rot, well, you could be fined for it. You could get away with that around Celum, maybe.
But this was Invrisil. There were rules, for adventurers and the Watch. And in accordance with the rules, Halrac paused from collecting items he could sell and let the [Sergeant] take down his team’s name.
“It’s Griffon Hunt with a ‘o’. Griffon. As in, the dog. G-r-i-f-f-o-n.”
“Ah, I see. Let me just—Halrac Everam?”
“Yes. Our team used to be led by Ulrien—the records might not have changed.”
“Thank you, sir. Oh. I mean—I’m sorry, if it was a loss—”
Halrac folded his arms, waiting. Flustered, the [Sergeant] recorded the details. Then he thanked Halrac again, went to reassure everyone that everything was under control, and left. Halrac watched him go. Then he sighed and went back to the [Raiders]. There was a nice bit of chainmail on the [Raid Leader] and, unsavory as it was, it would fetch a good price.
Griffon Hunt couldn’t afford to turn down free money. So, tedious as it was, and as much as he’d like to get to Invrisil, Halrac began to strip the dead woman. He’d been on the road a long time, and delayed from reaching Invrisil for ages. He hoped that the magic door was working there, but he hadn’t heard a rumor about that yet. And you would hear rumors if The Wandering Inn reached Invrisil.
It hadn’t been a productive month, by and large. And Halrac was in a bad mood.
But then—what was new?
“I think that’s everything. I’ve got all the bodies lined up. How’re we doing this? Burning? Acid? Valmira’s Comet?”
About twenty minutes later, Revi dusted her palms as she turned to the three-person team that was Griffon Hunt. She was looking at Halrac, their leader, but it was Typhenous who replied.
“Unless you’d like to scatter body parts across a hundred feet, Revi, I think fire will do. Halrac?”
“Do it. Revi, why is that family waiting?”
Halrac gestured at the wagon that they’d been hitching a ride on. Revi squinted.
“I…think they’re waiting for us to come with them?”
“We have the [Raider]’s horses. We’ll ride them to Invrisil. Find a [Hostler]. Let them know.”
“Yes, boss. I’ll endure them thanking you and being grateful so you don’t have to.”
Revi mock-saluted Halrac as she ambled over to the wagon and anxious family. Halrac scowled at her back. Typhenous chuckled. He aimed his staff at the bodies—already beginning to smell a tiny bit in the heat—and shot flames from his staff.
Cremation. Halrac watched impassively. His nose stung with the smoke and smell, but Typhenous didn’t bat an eyelash. Halrac’s face was locked in a scowl as he saw travellers moving past. Some called out, asking what had happened, but the Gold-rank adventurer didn’t respond.
He was in a foul mood. Not from the [Raiders]. But he’d been scowling the last…week. And yes, Halrac, sometimes known as ‘Halrac the Grim’ for that very feature, usually didn’t smile. But his team had learned to tell apart the varying levels of dissatisfaction or non-emotion contained on his face.
“They’re off. And they’d love to thank you in person, Halrac. What with you being a hero to the little boys and everything. But I told them that a big, important adventurer didn’t have time to spend on goodbyes.”
Revi came back. If Halrac’s default mode was dour, hers was probably nettling people. Halrac turned his glare on her.
“If you said that, Revi—”
He almost started back towards the wagon, which was indeed turning back onto the road. Revi threw up her hands.
“I didn’t! It was a joke! Calm down, Halrac.”
The surly adventurer glared at her, but relaxed.
“Don’t lie, then.”
“Don’t take your bad mood out on me. Pshaw! It stinks! Hold on, I’m taking my nose off.”
Revi gagged at the smell. She reached up and began to undo the tiny, invisible stitches on her nose. She pulled off her nose, revealing just blank skin underneath. Halrac and Typhenous ignored her as the bodies burned nicely. They were used to it.
“Give me five minutes and they should be fit to douse with water. Revi, my dear—”
“Don’t call me that, old man. I’ll get you the nicest horse.”
“You know me too well.”
Revi rolled her eyes as she whistled. The glowing apparitions herded the nervous horses closer. Typhenous, still projecting flames from his staff, eyed them.
“Decent horseflesh. I think we could get a good price for some of them. If we don’t keep them.”
“I’d like a horse. That one’s beautiful.”
“Mm. Bad lines, Revi. But indeed, a lovely coat.”
Typhenous studied the horses with a practiced eye. Revi deffered to him with a sigh.
“There’s a nice saddle on that one. You want? And can I ride the lovely one?”
“If we’re not in a hurry, by all means.”
“That’s mine, then. Halrac, you want a horse?”
“I. Don’t. Care. Let’s just get them moving. And we’re selling all but three at the nearest stables.”
Revi and Typhenous exchanged a glance. Their smiles faltered. Silently, they found their horses. By the time Typhenous extinguished the fire with a jet of water, the corpses were mostly destroyed by the fire. The horses were herded by the summons, who ran behind the three adventurers as they travelled down the road.
Towards Invrisil, the City of Adventurers. It was their destination that they’d been heading to for about two weeks. They’d made a detour, taken well over a month to head east first—but now they were on the way.
It had been…wasted time. Time badly spent. And for adventurers, that was a problem.
Time was money. Also, money was money. Artifacts were money. Levels were money. In the end, they really just wanted money. Money, and fame, and levels, and power. That was why adventurers existed. Some lived for the glory of it, or the thrill, or even…because it was necessary and right to fight against monsters. But to most, it was a career choice.
This was Griffon Hunt’s perspective. They weren’t a rag-tag group of unlikely souls, like the Horns of Hammerad, united despite disparate motives. Nor were they the easy-going group of friends and outcasts like the Halfseekers. And they were certainly not altruistic heroes like the Silver Swords.
They were a team of co-workers who adventured for a living. And they had lost their leader, Ulrien. In Liscor, in a fight in an inn against a Named Adventurer who’d turned out to be a murderer, Regrika Blackpaw. They had lost him, and yet, they had also come away with a windfall from the dungeon.
A magical bow, the one Halrac now used. Treasure. Gold, and artifacts, ready to be sold! An adventurer’s dream.
And yet. Griffon Hunt could be said to be down on its luck. Even now. Like the Halfseekers, Griffon Hunt had been larger, once. And if they hadn’t been one of the top Gold-rank teams, somewhat famous north and south of Izril like the Halfseekers had been—they had been larger. Three times as large, almost. Respected for being one of the hunting teams who fought Griffins with…Griffons. Hunting dogs.
Now—they were this. They rode in silence. Halrac in a foul mood, and Revi and Typhenous knew why. Moreover—the two [Mages] exchanged glances. It was Revi, the [Summoner], whose magical apparitions were helping guide the rest of the horses, who brought it up.
Halrac turned his head.
“Don’t call me that.”
“Yes, boss. Leader. Uh—”
“Good one, Typh.”
Halrac just glared. Revi went on after a moment.
“Look, I’m sorry about Elm. But…do you want to talk about it or something? I mean, what do we do?”
She and Typhenous looked at each other again. And there it was.
A bit of distance. Because they weren’t exactly the oldest of pals. Revi and Typhenous were new to Griffon Hunt. Two years old, teammates, but not like Ulrien had been, a fellow [Soldier] Halrac had served with.
Or even the rest of Griffon Hunt. They were new. And they’d stuck with the team after half of its members had upped and quit. After a disaster with Griffins.
Griffon Hunt was still remembered in parts of the north for the plague they’d unleashed to combat a huge influx of migrating Griffins. It had stopped the rampaging Griffins, but the plague had spread and killed…a lot of people.
Their reputation had been tarnished, and the group had nearly disbanded. Four had kept working, including Revi and Typhenous, the newest [Mages] who had been blamed for the incident, Typhenous especially. They had gone south seeking a fortune, a new break.
Three now rode north. And only one was of the old guard, the originals. More still lived. Like Elm, one of the original founders of the team. But he…hadn’t taken meeting his former comrades well.
About a week ago, they’d met Elm. One of the old members of Griffon Hunt who’d left after the plague incident. They’d met him, though, to re-establish their bonds, make amends as Halrac put it.
It had not been a good meeting. There might have been—tension. Perhaps a bit of enmity. In fact, there might have been a fight. That involved Halrac putting Elm, the [Ranger], through a door. Headfirst.
“Hey, at least he didn’t want any of the gold we offered him. That’s something, right? We’re six thousand gold up. And we didn’t even pay for the door.”
Halrac glared. Revi hesitated.
“So…look, I know it was bad. But he said his thing, we said ours. He’s quits. What do we do, Halrac?”
The [Scout] had a way with looks. But as his new role as team captain, he couldn’t get by on glares alone. He replied slowly, his hands clenched on the reins.
“Elm’s not joining us. If he wants the gold, he can get it. We owe that to the old team. And we keep reaching out. Briganda’s meeting us at Invrisil.”
“Right. But if we get into a fight with her—maybe don’t fight with your fists? She’s a [Shield Maiden].”
“I started nothing. Elm was the one who—”
Halrac glanced at Typhenous. The white-haired [Mage] lowered his head slightly, a nod at Halrac. Revi glanced between the two. Tensions had been strained. In the past, and recently.
“Right, right. He deserved it. All I’m saying is—don’t do that with Briganda. Because she could probably trash all three of us in a fight. And if she says no?”
“We reach out to Cassielle. And then we’re done.”
The last member of the original team. Revi nodded.
“Cool. Yeah. Where is he?”
“Riiiiiight…are we going to visit him? Because if we are—”
“He hasn’t sent a [Message] back. But we’ll contact him. We’re making things right. Even if they don’t want it. Any problems?”
“None. No, I agreed. I mean, it’s our treasure from Liscor. Which we fought for. And you know, nearly died for. But hey, let’s give it back.”
Revi grumped. But she subsided after a bit. It was—well, it was just like this. In silence, the three adventurers rode on. And the best word for them was…decent. Good. Competent, well-practiced, a team that could wipe out low-level [Raiders] and handle threats most Silver-rank teams couldn’t.
But understaffed. Still, Revi was in this team down to her threads. And she’d keep this team together if she had to be the anchor, damn it. This was a good team!
“So—[Raiders], huh? That was Lacel the Leaper, you know?”
Halrac might have been responding there. Typhenous on the other hand stroked his beard.
“Ah. Was it? Then we might have interfered with Izrilian drama in the making.”
He winked at Revi. The [Summoner] was nodding, a pleased look on her face. Silence, then. After a second, Halrac turned his head.
“You haven’t heard about Lady Hetessana and Lord Bein? And Lady Dealia? Halrac!”
Revi was shocked. The [Scout] just stared at her.
“What does that have to do with a Courier and…”
“Oh. Some kind of drama?”
Revi had to recount the tale of sordid betrayal for Halrac.
“Of course, they don’t know she’s telling the truth, but I heard that she hired a Courier to take the pendant! And if that was him—her estates are some of the most southern. So…”
“So, Lady Dealia may be receiving a package, Halrac. And if it is the pendant, she will be able to appraise it very quickly. And Lord Bein will be in a lot of trouble.”
Revi grinned happily.
“I hear that Lady Dealia’s promised to call off the engagement if it’s true. And her brothers have sworn to stab Lord Bein through the heart if it is. I can’t wait. And I’m happy I can be part of it. Makes me feel warm inside.”
She poked at her chest for emphasis. Halrac just looked at her, nonplussed.
“Why are you so interested in gossip about the nobility, Revi?”
The Stitch-Girl shrugged.
“Eh. I just really like hearing about the stupid stuff they get up to. Keeps me entertained.”
“And I keep my ear to all sources of information, Halrac. Speaking of which—while I haven’t heard of a magic door in Invrisil, I think there is at least one familiar thing in the City of Adventurers for us.”
“And that would be?”
Halrac eyed Typhenous, and then turned forwards. And there was the City of Adventurers.
Vast, sprawling, guarded by low, ten-foot walls that seemed to be expanding with each passing year, the City of Adventurers was a metropolis, one of the largest cities in the continent, like First Landing in the north. But Invrisil was a hub which connected the heart of the Human’s northern lands.
It was also owned, at least in part, by Magnolia Reinhart. And it was generally safe—from war or [Raiders], or at least, more so than other lands. The Goblin Lord and the [Raiders] of this morning being notable exceptions.
One of the many gates to the city had a queue in front of it. Revi exclaimed as the horses snorted, catching unfamiliar scents. Invrisil was vast, too vast to take in all at once.
“Aha! Culture! I can’t wait to sleep in an actual bed for once!”
“What’s in Invrisil, Typhenous?”
Even Halrac had to relax upon seeing the city, with its abundance of things to see or do. But he eyed Typhenous. The [Plague Mage] raised a soothing hand.
“I wouldn’t want to say until I’m sure. Rumors are rumors…and there was a group of imposters…”
“Impostor what? I don’t want any more surprises, Typhenous.”
Not after the door incident. Halrac’s tone was warning, but Typhenous just stroked his beard.
“Nothing untoward, I promise, glorious Captain.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“As you wish, Sir.”
Halrac Everam glowered. The three adventurers lined up the horses to the side of the gates, or rather, Revi’s summons did. But the three adventurers waited patiently in line with everyone else, slowly moving forwards.
There were [Guards] at the gates, checking cargo or waving people through. And it might have been odd, for a Gold-rank team to wait behind a humble [Trader] or wagons full of produce. But again—they might have been Gold-rank, and that was important, but there were rules.
Of course, there were people the rules didn’t apply to. The three adventurers saw Lacel the Leaper. He’d made it to Invrisil, but had been stalled here at the gates.
Not because the [Guards] wouldn’t let him through. As a Runner, all he had to do was show his seal and he could race past. But he’d stopped…
To shake hands. And talk with the people in line. They were crowded around the Courier for a chance to meet him—and to ask if he was carrying the pendant. Lacel refused to show them the hidden package. Halrac stared at him as the Courier’s voice became audible.
“Runner’s confidentiality, people! But I can promise you, I’m doing my best! Those [Raiders] weren’t much of a threat—there’s always desperate sorts. But low-level [Bandits]?”
He laughed. The people crowded around him laughed too, some looking awed. Halrac just snorted. Revi sighed.
“Ooh. And Lacel the Leaper has a fat head. That’s a shame. If he were a Stitch-Man, we could take some of the stuffing out.”
Typhenous looked extremely interested.
“Nah, I wish. It doesn’t work that way.”
Lacel was smiling, shaking hands. He must have been doing it the last thirty minutes because he was going down the line of people. Revi leaned out of her saddle.
“Hey Lacel! What happens if the Bloodfeast Raiders take that ten thousand gold bounty on the pendant?”
The Courier’s broad smile slipped. He froze, and then saw her.
“Well, Miss—I’d have to weigh my options, wouldn’t I? But a Courier must deliver! Say—aren’t you the adventurers from the ambush?”
He did a double-take and then strode over to them. Everyone turned to Griffon Hunt. Halrac found a hand being thrust up at him. He shook it reluctantly and saw Lacel smiling at him.
“Thank you for the help, sir. Not that I couldn’t deal with the [Raiders], but I prefer to outrun them! I appreciate the help!”
“It wasn’t a problem.”
“Nevertheless! I’ll buy you a drink if you’re staying in the city. I’m staying the night—I’d rather jog from big city to city.”
“You’re not worried about [Thieves]?”
Revi queried, interested. Lacel smiled.
“Footpads? Thieves? Most are too low-level and a good inn keeps them out. No, it’s safer to stick to cities with good lodging. While I’m awake, I can’t be jumped by anyone below my level!”
“So…just adventurers and the Bloodfeast Raiders, then? How do you know we weren’t hired?”
Lacel’s smile slipped. Revi gave him a pleased grin. He coughed.
“Well, I doubt Lord Bein—er, any unscrupulous persons trying to delay my package that is—can persuade adventurers to break their code. To the Adventurer’s Guilds. Er—are you Silver-ranks? Gold, I presume…”
“We’re Griffon Hunt. Gold-ranks!”
Revi snapped. There was a murmur. But—and it was funny—Couriers were more well-known than a lot of Gold-rank teams. After all, some Gold-ranks were seen bringing in a Cyclops’ head, or treasure from the ruins. But they mostly fought in caves, or places where people weren’t likely to be alive. Couriers ran in public.
“Well, thank you again. And I owe you that drink!”
Lacel smiled. He stepped back from the crowd and with a flourish, jogged towards the walls. He accelerated, and then leapt—straight over the heads of the startled [Guards].
Halrac muttered, disapprovingly. Revi nodded.
“I almost hope someone gets him with an arrow. Almost. But I’m on Lady Hetessana’s side. I just can’t believe some arrogant [Lords].”
“Indeed. One fortunate enough to find such a [Lady]? Ah, but if I were ten…twenty years younger, I’d have tried courting her.”
Typhenous nodded sagely. Revi rolled her eyes. The adventurers ignored the people staring at them; they were used to being noticed. Indeed, Halrac heard an excited group at the north-eastern gates chattering ahead of them.
“Did you see that guy jump? That’s a Courier!”
“Is Ryoka a Courier?”
“No, she’s a City Runner. She’s got the wind, but she can’t do that. And that other guy? With the grumpy face? I told you! He’s got the Invisibow! He’s the Invisibow guy!”
The [Veteran Scout] turned his head and saw a group of young men and women chattering. He stared at them. Had he heard…?
The [Summoner] nearly fell out of her saddle laughing. Typhenous hid a smile behind his hand.
“It’s er, a powerful artifact, Halrac. Useful, and it has an enchantment that propels arrows faster and further.”
“I know that. I’m just not used to it. I can’t see my arrows when I aim them.”
“You and your invisibow. Dead gods, that’s hilarious. Let’s hope it has another feature when we get it appraised.”
Revi sniggered. Halrac rubbed at his forehead.
“Revi. Did you hear them say…‘Ryoka’ just now?”
The Stitch-Girl stopped laughing. She sat up and glanced at the young people. From Earth.
“I heard it.”
Typhenous regarded the Earthers, but only with idle curiosity. He didn’t know who they were. And nor did they know who he was—they were staring at Revi’s stitches next, exclaiming over them.
“Hm. Maybe she knows them.”
Halrac paused. But he had gotten no communication about Ryoka. Nor about the Earthers. Because Erin hadn’t contacted Griffon Hunt. The Silver Swords, yes. The Horns of Hammerad, yes, to find Ryoka.
But not Griffon Hunt. They had a connection with Ryoka. After all—Regrika Blackpaw had come for Ryoka. And they might not know it, but Erin did. And so did Ryoka. Enough. Enough had been asked of them.
So the young people from Earth and Griffon Hunt passed each other by. The adventurers got to the gates.
“Yes. Griffon Hunt. Gold-rank.”
The [Guards] eyed the adventurers a second time when they heard that. And the horses. But they directed the Gold-rank team into the city and pointed them to a stables—within a stone’s throw from the outer walls. Halrac, Revi, and Typhenous entered Invrisil, the City of Adventurers. Normally, orderly. And then they got to work.
“We’re here. I’ll send a Street Runner to find Briganda. We’ll meet at the Adventurer’s Guild in an hour if she’s able. I’ll also send a note to…hold on. What’s his name again?”
“Er—the [Enchanter]? Hedault, I think.”
Halrac snapped his fingers.
“Yes, him. We’ll ask if he can fit us into his schedule to appraise what we have and sell everything off. It might take a few days.”
Revi sighed. Halrac shrugged. They were standing with the horses lined up outside the stables. A [Hostler] was waiting for them. Revi and Typhenous were standing in conference.
“I’ll let him know we have something he wants. He’s generally interested in…”
Halrac nodded to the bag of holding he had Griffon Hunt’s share of the treasure in. Revi nodded.
“Man, I hate that guy. He cannot take a joke.”
Her teammates looked at her. Typhenous coughed and Halrac nodded.
“Good point. Revi doesn’t have to come with us when we get everything appraised.”
The Stitch-Girl scowled.
“Thanks, Commander Everam.”
“Stop calling—we have an hour. Everyone’s free to do what they want. Who’s selling horses?”
“I’m gonna relax. Typhenous, you like haggling.”
“I’d prefer to check on my hunch. I’ll meet everyone at the guild in an hour. Best of luck, glorious leader!”
The elderly [Mage] was already edging down the street, with surprising spryness. Halrac opened his mouth, and saw Revi hurrying off. He realized he was now in charge of selling the horses and getting the other three stabled until they found an inn.
And finding an inn. And people wondered why Halrac scowled all the time.
For her part, Revi smirked as she left Halrac with the horses. And then—she smiled. Because she was in Invrisil! And that meant she could relax.
After all, she wasn’t in her job for just the thrill of wading through a swamp at three in the morning and feeling mud bonding with your thread. Revi was an adventurer’s adventurer. And that meant she earned money—
And spent it. Revi wasn’t going to adventure until the day she died. She had dreams. She was going to go home to Chandrar someday. Or—or find a nice place in Izril. Settle down. Have a family. Sew a child with some Stitch-Man.
Or…adopt one. Probably not Humans. Or Drakes. But Revi was thinking of Gnoll cubs these days. Mrsha had been very cute and adorable. Of course, it really depended on who she met. And going to Chandrar was dicey; her homeland of Doran was…well, it had sort of been erased.
Conquered. It was now part of the Empire of Sands. So that made going home sort of awkward. But maybe by the time she got back, Doran would be back again. Chandrar had those sort of moments, not like Izril, with the north and south unchanging. Well, except for the Antinium.
The point was that Revi had a purpose. And in the meantime, well, for all the hard days of riding in cramped wagons and listening to Typhenous smack his mouth as he slept, or Halrac’s scowls, Revi got to live like a [Queen] when she reached civilization.
“Hey. Hey, which way to the Cloth District? Don’t give me that look. Just point. No idea? People like me? Hey, you. Cloth District? That way? Thanks.”
Revi navigated Invrisil much like she navigated life. By finding someone to help her. She was a [Summoner]. That meant she could call upon long-dead Stitch-People to fight for her, her ancestors mostly, summoned through pieces of their life-string embedded in summoning stones that recreated them.
Or she could summon animals. Like a giant Face-Eater moth and…other monsters. Corusdeer, etc. Revi was only limited by her mana pool and will, which allowed her creations to fight.
For some reason, most of the people she stopped stared at her and didn’t give her a straight answer, or just pointed wordlessly. That was helpful, but it was only as Revi was walking past a glass storefront that she realized she’d forgotten to put her nose back on.
“Dead gods damn it, Halrac! Typhenous!”
The Stitch-Girl swore. Her teammates had to have noticed and she’d not realized she hadn’t smelled anything the last little bit. So that was them getting back at her! Annoyed, Revi found a tiny needle and sewed the nose hurriedly back on. She caught the person inside—a [Barber]—staring at her through the window.
“What? Haven’t you ever seen—never mind.”
Revi stomped off. She’d never have gone into the barber’s shop. No matter how nice it looked, or how high-level the hairdresser was. What was the point for her?
No, Revi’s goal was the Cloth District. Many cities with a sizable Stitch-Person population had them and Invrisil was large enough that a good number existed.
The Cloth District. String People. Those who made themselves. Revi sighed as she smelled familiar scents. That of dyes, cloth—and she saw people with stitches on their arms and legs and body.
Sometimes disguised, like the flesh-colored stitches around Revi’s nose, and each Stitch-Person was different. Some were cut from large bits of carefully sewn cloth, such that an entire arm had no seams except for where it connected at the shoulder.
Others, like Revi, had bodies such that every single part was detachable; she could even pull off individual fingers. You needed to do that if you had a hand snagged by a monster and you wanted to detach it and replace it fast. But many preferred to have fewer stitches; it meant less to grow loose or fray over time. Plus…knots.
Also, the binding thread being obvious or camouflaged was its own thing. Very…charged as topics went. You got everyone from people who insisted on bright stitches to make sure people knew they were String People, to people who tried to blend in with Humans. Fleshies, they were called. Traitors to their cloth.
Politics. But it came to the forefront whenever you walked in a Cloth District. Indeed—Revi paused by the first shop she saw, and eyed it carefully.
“The Silken Touch. Huh. How about—Generic Store Name?”
She shook her head. But Revi was more concerned with the clientele and staff. And after a careful peer through the glass, she decided to risk it.
“Hello! Welcome, Miss!”
One of the Stitch-Girls welcomed Revi in. She was a beautiful, petite young woman with incredible features. Just absolutely themed. Eyes, ears, nose, facial structure and her body all complimenting the ‘short and gorgeous’ look, more of a friend’s vibe than someone going for pure, beauteous impact.
Revi didn’t give the young woman a second glance when it came to beauty. For Stitch-People, it mattered, a lot, but…their standards were incredibly high. They could be whomever they wanted, so what impressed the flesh-folk didn’t impress Revi.
But what did matter was the young attendant’s skin—that was to say, her cloth. It looked like skin. Normal skin. Very fine, soft, wonderful skin without cracking or roughness to add to her aesthetic.
But skin. Not some impossibly radiant skin that shone with a hidden glow, or made her look even more inhumanly beautiful. That meant the young woman was of the Cotton-caste.
Revi was Cotton. Her name was Revi Cotton—well, if you were going by Chandrarian address. Which was like saying…Halrac Human. But Cotton mattered.
If you were Hemp, you were born lower than Cotton. And if you were of Silk, you were born with a diamond spoon in your mouth. Or rather, sewn into your body. And oh, the castes did not get along. Silk was on top, but they were resented. And Cottons fought among themselves—Cotton was a general term for their quality of fabric—and everyone hated Hemps.
“Hi, I’m looking for some care and touching up. I’ve got an hour—make it forty minutes? You have time?”
“Of course, Miss…”
“Revi. Adventurer. Gold-rank.”
The word made the other attendants and clients look up. Revi pulled rank. And the woman in charge herself, a [Seamstress], hurried over.
“Miss Revi, we can absolutely fit you in. Would you prefer a private room?”
The adventurer found herself being led by the woman and two attendants into a lovely room. There was a soft, leather sofa-table to lie on, and Revi did just that, on her front.
“My name is Dewlana. I’m the [Seamstress] in charge of The Silken Touch—apologies about the name, but it does pull in clients.”
Revi smirked. She eyed Dewlana carefully. Because this was a woman made of silk.
Silk. When you made a Stitch-Person’s body out of it, they looked…well, unreal. The higher-quality a cloth, the more impressive the result. Dewlana’s body was lithe, supple, and yes, silky, but it seemed to pick up and reflect the light better. And Revi knew—she’d be stronger than regular cloth-folk, tougher, and stronger.
Normally, Revi would have avoided any Stitch-Shop catering to her kind that had Silk-caste in it. Because they would make her experience…a pain. But Dewlana was the only Silk-bodied person in the shop; all her workers were Cotton. Besides…Revi had a thought as she glanced at Dewlana’s face.
“What can we do for you, Miss Revi?”
The [Seamstress]’ tone was very hospitable. And why not? Caste aside, Gold-rank adventurers could toss around money like water. Revi smiled.
“I’d like my stitches redone. All of them. Make it good thread. Actually, make it silk.”
The attendants shivered at the word. Silk. Every Stitch-Person longed to make a body of silk, or even some more costly fabric. Revi’s body was cotton, but silk threads were an upgrade she could pay for.
She’d gotten the money from Liscor’s dungeon, after all. Dewlana smiled wide.
“Of course. Can we upgrade any part of you? Replace any limbs?”
“Mm…no, I just want everything tightened. I don’t want to replace some legs and get mismatched.”
“Naturally. And can we offer you a massage? It’s a specialty; my own design.”
“A massage? Why not?”
Revi didn’t have sore muscles. Stitch-Person, again. But as she lay on her back, the attendants began undoing her threads. And—piece by piece—they took Revi apart.
It was an unnerving experience for most to see. But Revi was made, like everyone else. When the attendants took off Revi’s leg, the flesh turned into cloth at once. A life-sized cloth replica, amazingly detailed—the more detailed it was, the better it functioned—but cloth nonetheless. They hurried it off and came back with delicate spools of silk thread. In the meantime, Dewlana attended to Revi personally.
“My, your back stitches are somewhat haphazard, Miss Revi. And you’ve burst a few stitches.”
“Hazard of the trade. Also, I had to re-stitch myself to play this game. Baseball.”
“I’ve never heard of it. But there’s all sorts of new things coming to Invrisil. Have you heard of the plays?”
“Hm…? Oh, yes. Are they here, then?”
The [Seamstress] looked a bit disappointed as she began to sew Revi back up. The process felt good, reconnecting. Revi felt firm; her limbs fully-bound. The two gossiped as Dewlana worked.
“You’ve been here before, then, Miss Revi?”
“Not in a bit. But they have them in the south. Liscor.”
“That is a long way. I saw them just in the scrying orb a while back. Wait—you wouldn’t happen to have been around when…?”
“You mean, the moths? I was there for that. Goblin Lord? I was on the walls.”
Some of the attendants came back in. Revi enjoyed herself as they begged to hear from her. There was no concept of signing autographs, but Stitch-People had something just as good. Revi’s old threads were taken and made part of the bodies of the other Stitch-People. They’d show it off and say—that was from Revi, Gold-rank adventurer.
After a while, Dewlana shooed the attendants away; this was about Revi, after all. As she sewed, she talked.
“Well, Miss Revi, you’ve been at the center of more things of interest than I! And here most of my clients are talking about the King of Destruction—”
“Right, Chandrar. How many are from home?”
Home was Chandrar, where String People had been created. Dewlana shrugged.
“A fair amount. But I get a number of non-Cloth folk.”
“Really? For what?”
This was a Stitch-Shop, for repairing and maintaining and yes, upgrading bodies. Dewlana’s eyes twinkled.
“Actual massages. We repair your clothes at the same time. We are better at it than most.”
Revi laughed. That was Stitch-People for you. She felt Dewlana moving around her, spooling more silk out to do the more obvious stitches around her waist, shoulders, etc.
“No concealing threads?”
“What am I? A fleshie?”
Revi regretted the comment; Dewlana’s threads were nearly invisible. The [Seamstress] passed it off, though.
“Keep it noticeable. I understand.”
Dewlana got back to work. Revi paused.
“So…home, huh? Are you from…?”
“Oh, wasn’t that—?”
“Eh, you know how it goes. It’ll be back or it won’t. But I don’t miss it too much. Frankly—the only thing I think about sometimes are…Alterkinds.”
The fingers paused in tying a knot.
“You don’t see many, indeed.”
“Yeah. Well, I was in Liscor and I can’t say they’d take kindly to seeing a…Cloth-Drake walking about. But I miss the creativity. No judgment.”
That was important. Revi opened the door and Dewlana walked through. She casually kicked the door shut to prevent spying on their conversation.
“Of course. You know, I knew someone. A friend. He experimented with—wings.”
“Really? Did they…?”
“No. You know how it is. The flesh moves, but he was too heavy.”
“You ever experiment?”
Another pause. Revi felt herself being unlaced at the waist. She was at her most vulnerable in this moment. Anyone could attack her when she was helpless. And yes, it was a concern. But not in this shop, in Invrisil. Any Stitch-Person who preyed on another in this scenario?
They’d be burned, piece by piece.
“…Well, you know.”
“Mhm. What did you try? I did—scales. You know, decoration. And a bit of protection.”
“Really? What kind of cloth…”
“You have to have really hard fabrics. But they have it.”
“Ah. Well—I—this is embarrassing.”
“Spill it. We’re both Cotton.”
Revi twisted her head. And she caught Dewlana mid-nod. The [Seamstress] froze. And then she exhaled. She paused, stepped back, and gave Revi a rueful look.
“What gave me away?”
“Aside from the fact that you employ Cotton-castes? And you’re sewing me up without so much as a sniff? I’m from home. I can see a cloth-craft.”
The [Summoner] nodded at Dewlana’s face. The [Seamstress]’ face looked like the rest of her body. Until you gazed closer and could see the micro-stitching holding the silk onto the original cotton. Dewlana sighed.
“You have no idea how hard it is to reduce your face’s cloth enough to layer silk over it. How obvious am I? No one’s ever commented…”
“Please. I told you, I hung out with Alterkind. They know all the tricks. Did it…”
“Hurt? I can’t remove my head. So it was flesh.”
Revi paused. That meant Dewlana had peeled her skin…she looked at Dewlana a second time.
“Was it worth it?”
“To run a shop as a [Seamstress] and not be stared down by other Silks? Absolutely.”
The woman’s eyes flashed. Revi nodded slowly. [Seamstress] was a prestigious class in Stitch-People society.
“Lips sealed. Don’t sew ‘em up.”
Dewlana relaxed. They were, after all, Cottons, and you had to stick together, even if one was passing for Silk. She spoke after a few minutes of quiet rethreading.
“I had…er…you know Beastkin?”
“Yup. What about them?”
“I…altered my ears. Well, I added ears from other species. Bunny, dog—”
“Once or twice. It was a look. But I grew tired of it. You hear way too much. And frankly—you can make them look awful if you mess them up. And you know, Alterkind—”
Revi laughed and nodded. There were people who didn’t look like ‘normal’ Stitch-People. Like Humans. Some looked like Drakes, or other species until you stared really close. And some were more…experimental still. Sometimes it could be awful.
But mostly it was just a phase for young String People. In some Stitch-Nations it was considered profane, disgusting. But most were tolerant of low-level alterations.
“Well, now that you’ve thoroughly uncovered my secrets, do you want that massage?”
“I mean, sure. I don’t have any pain, though. I could always re-stuff myself. What…ow! Hey!”
Revi felt a sharp ache appear in her shoulders. She looked over.
“What are you doing?”
“Inducing muscular pain, Miss Revi. It will only be for a moment. And then—”
The adventurer sighed as Dewlana began kneading her back hard. She’d induced the pain such that she was now hitting it perfectly. Revi sighed as she felt herself relaxing. And it was better than not having the massage at all.
“That’s so brilliant.”
“It is a hit. The only problem I have are with Humans—mostly Humans—who come in and expect something more than a massage.”
Revi rolled her eyes.
“And you look amazing. I love your stitches. Is the dark skin…?”
“I didn’t change skin colors.”
Revi nodded. They both had darker skin tones than Izrilians. Dewlana sighed.
“It is a problem. Human women always ask me what ointments I’m using.”
Both Revi and Dewlana laughed at the thought. Then Dewlana sighed.
“And I can’t but sit at a Human bar without men falling over themselves.”
“Appearances. They can’t change. I feel it. At least my two teammates don’t have that problem, much. But I’m not exactly changing my appearance for flirting, you know?”
If appearance mattered for Humans and other species…it didn’t as much for Stitch-People. They were the most looks-focused species in the world, and yet, they understood change was only a stitch away.
“Maybe you should sew on some regular cotton. Pretend you’re ordinary, find a good fellow, and then show him what you’re made of. Put on the cat ears when you do.”
Dewlana nearly laughed her own stitches off. By the time the forty minutes were done, Revi felt refreshed, restrung, and good. The silk threads were not cheap, but she felt like they were adding to her structure. And if she could someday pay for a silk body?
…Well, she was attached to her cotton. And that was a struggle many had. Before Revi left, she leaned forwards and whispered to Dewlana.
“Silk body, cotton heart. Keep it together.”
“You too, sister.”
The two parted, smiling. Revi stretched in the sunlight. She smiled. Then her smile slipped.
“Aw. Moths. Now we have to meet the old crew.”
She sighed. If meeting Briganda was as bad as Elm, she’d splurge on a nice, new…arm? Silk? Ooh, it might not match, but imagine how that would feel? Revi converted herself as she went to settle old debts.
After all—it was Typhenous and her fault that Griffon Hunt had split up. Mostly Typhenous’ fault.
But hers too.
The door to the Adventurer’s Guild swung open and Halrac stepped into the room. He was followed by Revi and Typhenous.
The adventurers in the vast, rather plush Guild that was one of, if not the largest in the continent looked up. Some stood at queues at desks tended to by receptionists, others were clustered around the bulletin boards listing bounties.
Normally, an Adventurer’s Guild was smallish, and had a regular cast of teams. Not so in Invrisil. This was one of the spots to be. You could find Gold-rank teams here at any hour. And the guild was open at all times. Even Named Adventurers might walk through these doors. The Guildmaster himself had been part of a Named-rank team.
Not individual himself; there was an important distinction. Teams could be as powerful or more powerful than a Named-rank individual, but the individual members might not be as formidable.
Even so—this was the spot. And Griffon Hunt, seasoned veterans that they were, knew the score.
They casually walked forwards, past Bronze-ranks who were covered in muck after slaying rats in the sewers, or had been gathering [Alchemist] ingredients. Typical errand-work to make ends meet. Past chatting Silver-ranks who looked up, appraising for competition and then looked down.
The Gold-ranks had their own section of the guild. You had to walk through a door. It was just a door; no magic runes, no guards. But if you didn’t fit…you’d be seen.
The second door opened at a touch. Halrac walked through and glanced about.
Slowly. Carefully. There were far fewer adventurers in here. Six teams and a number of individuals. When they looked up, it was as equals, assessing, weighing the new competition that had just come in.
“And here’s the rat race, all over again. I miss Liscor. There we were big names. Until Pallass swanned in.”
Revi grumbled. She was relaxed, standing with her team. But Typhenous, nodding as he bent to murmur to her, Halrac, cool and cold—they were all aware of themselves. They moved deliberately, calmly.
Because they were being watched. Because this was competition and how you presented yourself was important. Especially among Gold-ranks. How you were perceived, favors—it all mattered.
Not all Gold-ranks were equal, of course. Griffon Hunt moved with a confidence that made some of the other Gold-ranks decide not to try hazing them. Indeed, some Gold-ranks were low-level, at least, comparatively. Some were veterans.
Some were near Named-rank and only one thing, or recognition, held them back. But that was gold for you.
Sometimes it was mundane, and duller than you imagined. Other times it was Truegold, with a luster and magic beyond regular minerals.
Other times it was…pyrite.
“Griffon Hunt. I knew I placed you, but without those damn dogs, I never woulda guessed.”
Someone murmured their name. A few of the Gold-rank adventurers snapped their fingers. Placing them. Halrac turned and saw a familiar face.
“That’s Captain Todi to you, Everam. I heard about Ulrien. Sorry about that. Was it true a Named-rank got him?”
Griffon Hunt saw a man in a silk doublet, armed with a club and a wand. Captain Todi was an odd fellow; he dressed much like the Silk-caste of the Stitch-Folk made their bodies. Expensively, and to impress. But he had a wider face, and a nose that had been broken more than once.
Revi murmured to Typhenous. He sub-vocalized a response into her ears with a flick of his fingers.
“I know him by name. Todi, leader of Todi’s Elites. Yes, I know. But his team specializes in magical attacks and rapid movement. Teleport and [Fireball].”
“Oh. That sort.”
Revi rolled her eyebrows. She wasn’t a schooled [Mage]—she’d learned summoning through her family, and neither was Typhenous. But they both knew the sort of Gold-rank that Todi was.
One that relied on artifacts. His team of six all had magical gear. Maybe lesser teleport scrolls, or if they were [Mages], they knew the spell. Maybe an artifact that did the same thing. And their wands? Wands of [Fireball] would mean they could shoot six all at once.
Any Silver-rank team would have trouble matching that kind of firepower. But was it…well, high-Gold?
No. Still, they deserved the rank if they’d gone through enough battles, and Todi looked like he’d been through a war. Halrac introduced him.
“This is Revi and Typhenous. You two—Todi. I knew him in Silver-ranks. He pulled himself out of Bronze all the way to the top.”
“And don’t you forget it, Everam. So this is your crew? Damn. And Ulrien bit it?”
Halrac—paused. Revi had an urge to nudge him before he belted Todi in the face. Because—he looked like he was going to. But to her relief, the [Scout] only nodded.
“Not a Named-rank. A criminal. Regrika Blackpaw. Gnoll.”
“Damn. A criminal? Well, Ulrien always had balls to even try taking one of them on, sideways or not. So you were at Liscor, huh? You should’ve stayed is what I hear. I’m planning on going south myself. Can I get you a drink?”
Halrac paused. He glanced over—there were people serving the adventurers.
“We can sit. I don’t see the person we’re waiting for yet.”
He nodded and Griffon Hunt sat down. Todi waved his team off; they nodded at him. Then he called out.
“Hey! Jewel! Get over here and meet Halrac!”
Another Gold-rank adventurer looked up. She glared, but stood up and broke away from the team she’d been talking with. Jewel, as it turned out, was a Balerosian. Her team came with her. All two of them.
“Everam, meet Jewel. She’s part of…fuck…what was it? Glistening Spear?”
“Glitterblade, Todi. Don’t play games. Well met. Everam?”
“Halrac. Griffon Hunt.”
Jewel was no [Mage], and her entire team were, in fact, [Fighters]. Well, variants on the class, but mobile, comparatively lightly-armored warriors. One was a [Duelist], the other a [Spellblade]—a variant on [Spellsword] that had Skills which enhanced the artifact he carried, a flyssa, and Jewel herself was a [Swashbuckler].
“Nimble as a cat. She made a name for herself fighting the damn Ogres who came out of the hills a while back. Her team’s new to Gold-rank. Four months. Be respectful to Halrac! He’s been in Griffon Hunt at Gold-rank for over two years, Jewel. Longer than me.”
The woman looked resigned at Todi casually ordering about, although her comrades were less than cool with it. But he had seniority, which mattered…up to a point.
“Of course, they used to be a squad of six. And then eight. Rolled about the north hunting Griffins. And they had dogs.”
One of the Glitterblades looked delighted at the play-on-words. Halrac nodded. He was sitting with Todi and the Glitterblades as Revi broke into the conversation.
“Nice team you have, Todi. They don’t want to join us?”
“Captain Todi. And they’re not my crew. Not like Everam and Ulrien. They roll with me, I give them gear, and if we split, we split. No hard feelings.”
Todi’s method was another sort you found sometimes. His team wasn’t a group that stuck with each other through thick-and-thin, just adventurers, almost like mercenaries, fighting for a brief window. It was closer to how Griffon Hunt operated, but even more casually.
“You were a fan of that. You own all the wands and artifacts? It’s been a long time since we saw each other.”
Halrac spoke in a non-committal tone of voice. Todi snorted.
“What, a year? Yeah. But like I kept telling you—artifacts. Bug out if it gets hot. None of your ‘kill em even if you die’ crap. That’s how your team got blacklisted in the north.”
Ears perked up. Jewel hesitated.
“What’s this now?”
“Ah, well, Griffon Hunt used to be the Griffin-slaying team. But during that migration of the things a few years back? Things got out of control and there was a plague—”
“You mean—the Griffin-plague a year and a half back?”
Halrac’s eyes narrowed.
“You can catch them up later, Todi. Why are you here? I thought you operated around First Landing because the contracts were bigger.”
The other man’s eyebrows rose as he swallowed his drink.
“You mean you don’t know? Have you been on the road the last few days?”
“That’s road, Toady. What’s the news?”
Revi smiled as Todi glared at her.
“She’s got a mouth on her, this one. You really—hey! Where’s the Wyvern bounty?”
A few Gold-ranks pointed. Todi adjusted a ring on his finger, flicked his wrist. A bounty flew across the room and he caught the paper.
“Feast your eyes—”
He showed Griffon Hunt the bounty. The team read in silence. Revi choked on her drink.
“Two thousand gold pieces per Wyvern head!? Eighty thousand for—”
“This can’t be real. It’s a prank.”
Halrac tossed the paper down. Todi waved a finger.
“Not so fast. Do you think I’d be here if it was fake? They confirmed it. It’s real. Someone sent the gold to First Landing’s Adventurer’s Guild. Remotely. Via spell transfer.”
“Impossible. There’s no way that’s cost-efficient. Someone must be making some move politically. One of the Walled Cities? But why?”
Typhenous’ eyes narrowed as he tried to consider it. Halrac just stared. Revi gulped. They’d gotten a huge haul from their treasure in Liscor’s dungeon, even split three ways. But 80,000 gold pieces put all that to shame. That—you could think about being a Named-rank adventurers if you had that much gold to outfit yourself with. Or buy one serious artifact.
“And the regular Wyverns are made of gold. Tell you the truth, I thought it was all shit. Like the ‘Golden Goblin’ rumors, you know? But since it’s real—I’m cashing in. I bet you wish you’d stayed at Liscor.”
“It’s the High Passes. Not exactly safe.”
Halrac muttered. Todi just laughed.
“I’ve heard that! But as far as I’m concerned, it’s a race to the High Passes and my team moves out tonight! You want to join in, we can team up. But otherwise, we’ll be taking Wyvern kills. Sorry about Ulrien, again.”
He slapped the table and stood. Halrac murmured a goodbye.
“That guy was made of a donkey and a mule’s ass.”
Revi glared at his back. Jewel snorted.
“Sorry. Is he like that…?”
She glanced at Halrac. The [Scout] focused on her.
“Not all teams. Todi’s just the loudest. Ignore him—except when he’s working. He earned Gold-rank.”
“What’s your thought on the Wyverns? As anti-air specialists.”
Another Gold-rank adventurer chimed in, a solo [Mage]. He wanted to chat now the loud adventurer was gone. Halrac pursed his lips and Typhenous and Revi paused. He was the expert; some might be reluctant to give their opinions, but it depended on the adventurer.
“I’d weigh it against your team. We’re understaffed to hunt Griffins or Wyverns.”
“Even as a group of three?”
Jewel was dismayed. Halrac looked at her.
“They need at least four, preferably five. Monsters that large can kill even someone with artifacts if you don’t anticipate the attacks. A Wyvern drops on their prey. And they weigh…”
The other Gold-ranks murmured.
“Can’t you just shoot them in the eyes? I saw that Antinium-thing doing it.”
“Sure. And if you miss, you’re flatbread. With jam.”
Revi snorted. The Gold-ranks quieted. Halrac nodded.
“The real trick is that the High Passes have other threats. Eater Goats. Gargoyles. Worse monsters. You’ll be under attack while you’re staring up at the skies. And Eater Goats can sneak up on even Named Ranks at night and eat you as you sleep.”
The other adventurers sighed, or shook their heads. A few more were chatting as Halrac gave them tips. Jewel was nodding to him, looking grateful.
“We’ll invest in protective gear, or spells if we hunt them. More than we do normally, I mean. We were worried it was some kind of trick—maybe the Drakes want us to die in the High Passes, but if the gold’s there…thank you for the advice. We don’t get it from most of the teams we meet.”
She shot a glare at Todi’s back. Another solo Gold-rank adventurer nodded.
“It’s nothing. We’re all just sharing tips, and making our gold one monster at a time.”
Revi was feeling generous. It was Typhenous who stroked his beard and nodded around.
“We may work together in the future. It’s good to meet young people in the Gold-ranks.”
That was exactly it. You built connections in case you needed a hand. And in fact—Halrac paused.
“Actually, we’re looking for new Gold-ranks. My team’s meeting an old comrade, but do you know anyone who’s looking for a team?”
The other adventurers glanced at each other. Now, here was a common and uncommon offer. Join a new team. It was tricky, fitting adventurers together who ‘worked’. Many preferred to work alone or changed teams often for that reason.
“Who’s you looking for? I’m a [Hammerer]. And don’t let the class fool you; I’ve consolidated twice. Can I ask about shares and so on? Also, what’s your focus?”
“We’re equal share.”
Revi eyed the bald man who spoke up first. Halrac paused.
“We don’t have a set target in mind, but we do specialize in Griffins.”
The Gold-rank made a face.
“Eh. I haven’t fought ‘em, but I’d be willing to learn. But—I’m looking for a group to fight Wyverns, not much else. There’s pure gold there. If you’re heading south, give me a shout. Otherwise…some other time?”
A few more adventurers came over to test the waters. Revi had only a good feeling about one of them, a young woman who was just new to Gold-rank with a smile. She was a throwing expert.
“She was nice. Good, long-range—if we get Briganda with us, we could get her and another shield-person.”
Halrac shrugged, reserving judgment as always. It was Typhenous who leaned over. And the old [Mage]’s face was serious.
His teammates looked at him.
Halrac frowned. Typhenous eyed the young woman’s back.
“She’s…a [Murderer]. Not just an adventurer. That young lady? She’s killed more people than I have.”
Revi and Halrac looked at Typhenous. The old [Mage] did have his wide and often eclectic sources of information, but Revi had to call him out on this one.
“How do you know that, Typh? And don’t tell me it’s a Skill or something.”
“Hardly. I’m no [Arbiter] or…I was inquiring after the state of affairs in Invrisil. Obviously I asked about people of interest. That young lady is known. She has a history—she’s gone clean now, but she had to pay off a substantial bounty. And that was the one she was convicted of.”
The [Scout] paused.
“Definitely not, then.”
“Humans. You think you know someone…”
Revi shuddered as she stared after the young woman. She turned back to Typhenous.
“Anything else you want to share before I shake another monster’s hands?”
The old man smiled.
“Two things. Firstly, we may not see them here, but there’s a Named Adventurer in the city.”
“Elia Arcsinger herself. The Goblin King Slayer.”
Halrac and Revi both blinked.
“You mean, the—”
“She was the one who helped rout the Goblins in the Dwarfhalls Rest mountain, wasn’t she?”
“Exactly. Her contract expired, but she hasn’t left for the north. Apparently, she and her team have been living it up.”
“Can we meet her? I mean—wait, is her team Named?”
“Just her. And I’m sorry to say that she’s reclusive. I doubt she’d be drinking with Todi.”
The Stitch-Girl nodded, disappointed but understanding. Named-rank adventurers and teams were another level, even with Gold-ranks. Halrac eyed Typhenous.
“What’s the last bit of news? The thing you went out to find? Out with it.”
Typhenous spread his arms, smiling.
“It appears the Players of Celum have arrived at Invrisil. They’re putting on plays in a theatre—and they are the most coveted and famous thing in Invrisil right now.”
The two adventurers stared. And then Revi sat back and laughed. Heads turned as Revi exclaimed.
“No way. That’s incredible! And are they—”
“Jasi and Wesle, the two star [Actors] on stage. I did check. It’s impossible to get a ticket to their shows without waiting for weeks in advance, and apparently, some of the nobility have invited them to do personal performances. The Players of Celum…declined and so the nobility are coming here.”
The [Mage]’s eyes glittered with amusement and delight. Revi was delighted. Even Halrac had a faint smile.
“We have to meet them! I remember Wesle and Jasi! I think! One of them’s a Drake, right?”
Typhenous was nodding.
“We can look into it afterwards. It may be hard to even see them, much less get face-to-face. Apparently, they’re so popular they generate crowds. There was this other acting troupe, but apparently they’ve been disbanded because they were so…inferior. A few have joined the Players, and they’re currently performing almost constantly. They have over a hundred—”
Halrac’s head turned. The [Scout] held out a hand.
“Wait on that, Typhenous. She’s here.”
Griffon Hunt stopped. Revi looked up. And she saw a woman, Human, scarred from a life of battle, in her late thirties, making her way over to them.
A [Shield Maiden]. She wasn’t as burly as Ulrien had been, but she did have muscle. And she had a stocky build, and Revi knew she could block a charging bull—or Griffin. Once. But even without her Skills, Briganda was tough. She’d split more monster’s heads with the enchanted hatchet she carried than Revi could count. That same hand was now leading a little toddler…past the tables…
The team stared. Briganda halted and stared at them. She looked—shocked. Revi felt almost as shocked, seeing her.
That bad night, when Griffon Hunt had disbanded, they’d all parted ways. Now, it was painful to see the old teammates again, especially because she and Typhenous were outsiders. But—
There was also the kid. Briganda smiled after a second. She had violet in her hair. Violet, mixed with brown—a hereditary trait from some magic in her ancestry.
“Here you go. Up!”
She lifted the little boy up. Revi saw a young, young boy, flesh and blood and big eyes, staring at her. He had a head of dark violet hair, deeper than Briganda’s, fair skin—he looked like his mother. He stared at her, wide-eyed. He couldn’t have been more than…four?
“Mom. She has threads in her face.”
He instantly pointed at Revi’s face. The Stitch-Girl blinked. Briganda sighed, affectionately, as she pulled out a chair.
“Don’t point, love. It’s rude. Halrac. Revi, Typhenous. It’s been one hell of a year since we saw each other. Or…two? Closer to two, now.”
She nodded at them. Briganda was at once familiar—and different. The same woman who would unapologetically kick her teammates out of the way to use the bathroom—and a mother. But…Revi had known this.
“Briganda. And—it’s Cabe, right?”
“Right, I knew that. Wow. He got big.”
Cade had been just a tiny boy when she’d seen him last. And he was still a boy. But now he talked.
“I’m Cade. Are you Mom’s friends? Why do you have that in your neck?”
He stared at them. Revi looked at the threads in her neck.
“Why don’t you?”
The boy stared at Revi with a slightly open mouth, trying to figure out what to say. Briganda sighed.
“Cade, I’m going to have a long talk with my team, okay? Can you sit and have fun?”
“Can I have—can I—can I get—the—the—box?”
The boy instantly grew excited. Briganda nodded. Smiling, she handed him a little…box. Revi saw it had hinges and it was clearly magical. Cade reached for it, and slowly, opened the lid.
A Dragon flew out. Cade and Revi’s eyes went round as the tiny Dragon flew around him. He instantly reached for it, missed—but the illusion perched on his hand. He petted at it, and Revi saw the Dragon’s head move. It had substance!
“Remember, no breaking the things that come out or you have to wait a long time for them to come back.”
Briganda cautioned Cade. He nodded slowly.
“Ah, a trick box. Or are they real? A Box of Simulacra. I saw a few on the market—but for practicing a war simulation, not entertainment. I can recharge the magic if it runs out.”
Typhenous chuckled as he stared at Cade stroking the Dragon’s head. Briganda sighed as Cade sat, oblivious to the world, playing with his magical toy.
“Don’t tell him that, or he’ll lose what caution he has. It cost me an arm and a leg to buy, but it was worth it. Nothing else keeps his attention when I’m working.”
“Briganda. It’s good to see you. And Cade. I’d…forgotten.”
Halrac’s voice was strained. Revi had too, although she hadn’t said it. Cade was Briganda’s child. She’d had him in the course of being an adventurer. Somehow, she hadn’t noticed until she was close to delivering him and then the [Healer] had advised her that it might complicate matters if she didn’t have him.
She’d decided to have Cade. And while travelling alongside Griffon Hunt, she’d kept Cade in the care of actual [Carers], [Nursemaids], and so on. Revi remembered seeing a young boy, but this one was different.
“Well, I’ve been Cade’s full-time mother. Mostly. He’s big enough to come along…sometimes. But it’s a hell of a thing. I almost miss the days he was just a baby.”
Briganda smiled tiredly. She nodded at Cade.
“I still can’t believe you never noticed you were pregnant.”
“I told you, I thought I was getting fat. And being a [Fighter] means I don’t have as many symptoms. Well, I never puked in the mornings. Best part of my class.”
The woman shrugged. Revi wanted to roll her eyes, but—Briganda all over again. She’d walk into a trap Casielle had set five minutes ago if you let her.
“…Thanks for meeting us. We weren’t sure you’d agree.”
Halrac seemed to decide he was going to stay on track. He nodded at Briganda. She smiled, but…reserved. She looked Halrac up and down, and then nodded at Revi and Typhenous. She was the original part of Griffon Hunt, though. And so she spoke mainly to him.
“I owed it to you to speak, even if it was just about Ulrien. Named-rank, huh?”
Halrac’s brow darkened. Briganda reached out and grasped his shoulder.
“Regrika Blackpaw. I remembered, but she’s a Gnoll. Still—it shouldn’t have happened. To tell you the truth, I felt guilty about it. So did the others, I think. They’re still mad, Elm especially, but Cassielle’ll want to talk. But he’s in Terandria.”
The [Scout] nodded silently. He paused.
“You keep in touch?”
“Some. Casielle drops in and out; he’s always on long missions, like the old days, and you know how it is at a distance. But Elm messaged me last week.”
Revi and Typhenous winced. Briganda studied Halrac. The man paused.
“I regret that.”
“I don’t blame you. Sounds like Elm said—what Elm said. I can imagine. But he told me something of what happened and what you offered so…here I am. What do you want to say?”
Briganda leaned back, waving for a drink. Cade looked up.
“Can I have a fruit?”
“Can you get one of those fruit drinks for my boy?”
The server nodded. Briganda sipped from her cup as Halrac paused. When the [Scout] spoke, his voice was calm, flat.
“I know we parted on bad terms. I’m not here to make excuses. Or argue about the past. Ulrien—let’s talk about him later. Right now, as Captain of Griffon Hunt, I’m here to tell you that we want to make things right. We can’t undo the past, but we’re offering recompense. After that? We’re fully quits. No grudges held, no old debts.”
“What’s the recompense? Elm said he turned his down.”
Halrac looked at Revi and Typhenous. She felt her stomach twisting—it was almost all of what they’d gotten from the dungeon! But it had to be done.
“Elm can claim his share if he asks. We’re putting it to use if he doesn’t claim it by the time we reach out to Casielle—but its 6,000 gold pieces. To each of you. If you don’t want—”
“I’ll take it.”
Briganda sipped from her mug. Halrac paused.
“Just like that?”
She looked at him. The [Shield Maiden] nodded to her child.
“Halrac, I have Cade, I’m not working as an adventurer these days—and I have no idea who the father is. Nor am I exactly shopping around. Of course I’ll take it. But that’s not all Elm said, was it?”
She looked at Revi. The Stitch-Girl shook her head. So far this was going far better than with Elm. The [Ranger] had tossed his drink in Halrac’s face before they even listed the amount. Revi nodded.
“We’re asking if you want to rejoin Griffon Hunt, Briggy.”
The old nickname made Briganda smile. She looked at Revi and Typhenous.
“The old gang, getting back together? You’re not calling it quits, then, Halrac?”
“We’re recruiting. We don’t stop. Not unless everyone leaves. You and Casielle are first on our lists. If you say yes—we don’t pay you all six thousand gold. You’re part of the team. You get something—but we keep going. As we have. I’ll lead.”
Briganda had to take that all in. Cade was giggling as a bunch of [Knights] trotted out of the box and faced off against the Dragon. They were bravely waving their swords as the Dragon assailed them from above with fiery breath. Then he smacked the Dragon as it picked up a tiny, flailing [Knight].
“Be careful, Cade. Remember, if you break them, even to help out, it’s gone for at least eight hours! That’s until nap time!”
The woman waved at Cade. Halrac hesitated.
“I understand you’ve moved on, Briganda. We can just—”
She held up a hand.
“Hold on, Everam. I didn’t say no. Tell me about rejoining. What do I get and give?”
Halrac paused. Typhenous steepled his fingers as he slyly pointed a finger. Cade giggled as the Dragon flapped away, blown by a stiff little gust of wind. He reached out—Briganda steadied him before he could go over the table.
“I believe our Captain will pay you two thousand gold pieces for personal funds, Briganda. Four thousand of the six goes back into our pool, to be used as needed.”
It would still go to equipment and whatnot, just not necessarily to her. Briganda nodded.
“Sounds fair. Two thousand enlistment? Sweet pot you have there.”
Halrac clarified. Briganda paused.
“Yeah. I’ll take the gold either way. But joining up? I’d…yeah. Let’s do that too.”
She nodded. Revi blinked. But Briganda had never, ever, taken more than a minute deciding anything. That was why she was so good in a fight; she didn’t hesitate. The longest she’d ever taken that Revi had seen was deciding to have Cade.
“Just like—no. In that case, Briganda, we’d be delighted to have you. But your son…”
Halrac caught himself, and then gestured at Cade as Briganda let him watch a marching band. Briganda paused.
“How will you manage him? He’s older now. We might be gone from Invrisil—”
“No. This time I’m taking him on the road with me. I can find someone in most places we stop. And he’s old enough to handle wagon rides. If I join up, he comes with. That’s not an argument.”
The woman made a slashing motion with one hand. Halrac looked at his teammates.
In times past, Briganda had left Cade at safer places, not moving him around except if Griffon Hunt changed their working base. Halrac frowned.
“Surely you can leave him somewhere safe. It’s never entirely secure on the road, Briganda. We had [Raiders] just this morning. We might be able to leave him at an inn. And it’s convenient—”
“No. He goes where I go. He nearly forgot I was his mother, Halrac. I’m not leaving him again.”
Briganda met Halrac’s eyes. She glanced at Revi. The Stitch-Woman felt a pang in her chest.
“How’s it been, Briganda?”
The [Shield Maiden] sighed. She rubbed at her hair, and she looked tired.
“Honestly? I’m jumping at the opportunity. Quitting Griffon Hunt with my name…? No, even if I’d been regular, I forgot how dangerous it is to go solo. It’s hard to find a team, and with Cade, I can’t just walk at an Ogre and not care what happens next. I have to take safe work. Escorting caravans if they let Cade come with, guard duty—I can get work because I’m over Level 30, but I’m always underpaid. You get me?”
She looked at the others. They nodded. It was indeed a sudden change, moving from Gold-rank to any other sort of work, which was always less well-paying. Briganda went on, her voice steady.
“And I can’t afford the gear I need. I found a hole in my chainmail last month and nearly burst into tears. Because I can’t earn enough for maintaining my non-magical gear. So yeah—sign me up.”
“But it’s dangerous. I won’t take a child into the areas we go to.”
Briganda paused, clearly thinking fast.
“It’s dangerous in the city, Everam. Listen—Cade needs a mother. You think I don’t know the dangers? I worry about him all the time and he’s tried to climb off the balcony more’n once. But I’m not going to be the adventurer who runs off and he doesn’t remember me. He goes where I go. That’s the deal breaker.”
Halrac looked—conflicted. He glanced at Revi and Typhenous.
“That’s not what I expected, Briganda. I’m going to have to talk it over with my team.”
“I get that. You want more time or…?”
“Give us a few minutes and we’ll decide if we do.”
The [Shield Maiden] nodded. She stood up, and hesitated. She touched the buckler and hatchet she wore.
“Some of my armor’s worn down, but my magical gear’s all here. I had to pawn a ring, but that’s all. And I’ve leveled once. That’s my best sell. I’d like to rejoin, honestly. Casielle might too, although he has good work. He’ll take the money, at least. Thank you for that. Honestly. No hard feelings either way.”
She nodded at them and then urged Cade to a distant table. Halrac watched her go. And Revi?
She was shaken. A bit. That had sounded a bit like desperation in Briganda’s voice. Revi wanted to remind her she was getting six thousand gold either way. You could live on that! Not like Revi liked to, but still.
Halrac looked at his teammates. Typhenous was peering at Cade. He made a face as the boy stared and Cade laughed. The old man turned to Halrac, smiling, and then replied.
“If you want to decline, don’t wait to do so.”
Cold. Revi stared at him.
“We can’t turn Briganda down! Didn’t you hear…?”
“The road’s no place for a child.”
Halrac sounded uncertain. Typhenous shrugged.
“It’s certainly dangerous. But it’s your choice, Halrac. Briganda isn’t irreplaceable. But she is a good woman. Still—impartially, I can argue both against and for her. Cade will slow us down. And we might be unable to take some contracts. He might be put in danger inadvertently and put us all at risk. That is motherhood, and Briganda is a mother.”
He looked at Halrac. Revi opened her mouth. But Briganda was a teammate!
And yet—there was no room for hesitation or distraction fighting monsters. She paused. Halrac closed his eyes.
“She knows our tactics. She’s got a powerful one-off Skill, and she’s got gear, she’s giving us four thousand back—if we assume we give money to Casielle, but not to Elm that’s…how much is it, Typhenous?”
“We’re estimating our money at around 35,000 when appraised. Hedault will give us a clearer number, but assuming that’s true, we will have 27,000 gold pieces to work with. If Briganda joins us. 23,000 if not.”
And that was a large number. If they paid out to all three…they’d be spending nearly half of the dungeon haul. But this wasn’t about just that. It was about…Revi looked pleadingly at Halrac.
The [Scout] paused. He closed his eyes. He glared—opened his gaze and looked at his teammates.
“Fine. I’ve made my choice. First off, I don’t like being Captain. Ulrien was better at this than I was.”
Revi half-smiled, but she waited, nervous. Typhenous steepled his fingers. Halrac went on.
“Briganda’s everything you two said. I know her. The issue with her child is new. I don’t like putting people at risk and sometimes we can’t protect ourselves. So—the answer is no.”
The Stitch-Girl’s face fell. She stared at Halrac as he motioned Briganda over. He delivered the news and she nodded, heavily.
“Any chance I can change your mind?”
“No. Sorry, Briganda, but your son’s a risk.”
Cade looked at Halrac. The [Scout]’s expression didn’t change. He flicked his gaze to Briganda.
“It’s my decision. Our team is probably going to hunt Wyverns. But the High Passes—there’s nowhere safe anywhere around the mountains. At all. You know that. And there aren’t any big bounties I know of, anywhere else. We’re going to try and increase our funds with that—and we can gear up, maybe take temporary help. Once that’s done, if you’re still in the area—we can talk.”
Briganda had been nodding. She stirred. Revi looked at Halrac.
“Wait—but you said—”
“We can work with Briganda on a…provisional basis. We’ll look at what we’re taking on. If we think we can get there, Briganda can join us. Otherwise…no.”
The [Shield Maiden]’s face lit up. She reached out and punched Halrac on the shoulder.
“You bastard! Whoops, don’t repeat that, Cade. That’s the Halrac I know. Stone-faced and soft as an unboiled egg on the inside. Wish you’d been the father, or Ulrien. Pretty glad it wasn’t Elm. Cassielle? Eh. I’d live with the half-Elf.”
Halrac tried to play it off, but he smiled a bit as Briganda gripped his shoulder. It was Typhenous who had a thought.
“Halrac, perhaps Briganda can sign with us immediately.”
Briganda and Halrac looked at him. The [Mage] rubbed at his chin.
“As I recall, a certain friend may deliver a…transportation method to Invrisil. Not to the High Passes—and it would be a few day’s ride. But Briganda might be satisfied leaving Cade in the area.”
“What? Transportation method?”
The woman narrowed her eyes. She still had an adventurer’s instincts for the important. Halrac hesitated.
“I didn’t think of that. It’s not exactly safe there—that’s where Ulrien…”
“Maybe in the city? But we’d still be using the passageway. Consider it. And if we are waiting for Hedault…”
The [Scout] paused. He looked at Briganda. He looked at Typhenous.
“That’s an excellent point. Briganda—we can catch you up to speed. But if it was—”
“Halrac, I can leave Cade somewhere for a week or two. As long as I’m coming back to him after we get out of the swamp or something. He’s not camping with us near a monster. I’m in. All the way. What’s this you’re telling me?”
Briganda’s eye were shining. Halrac hesitated. Then he reached out.
“I hate leading. I guess I have to rephrase my answer. Briganda—would you rejoin Griffon Hunt?”
The two clasped hands. Revi shot to her feet, eyes shining. She hugged Briganda and Typhenous rose as well. Cade looked confused.
“Mom? Are you crying?”
“It’s good news, Cade. The best. I’m joining up with my old team. My friends. Do you remember them?”
Briganda reassured her worried son. Cade peered at Revi. At Typhenous, who smiled down at him, and Halrac, who tried his best not to be a grim-faced man who could make a child cry at a hundred paces. Cade paused.
They had to have a drink, of course. To celebrate. But even here—Briganda stopped after two cups. She was a mother now, and she had a lot to do. Quit her old job, tell some of her friends, assess her gear…
And her team had to catch her up on everything that had happened. Briganda swore a blue streak before Cade asked her what the words meant when she heard about everything.
Ulrien, the haul from Liscor’s dungeon, Erin Solstice and her inn, Halrac’s bow…and they hadn’t even told her the big things.
Like speculation about Dragons near Liscor. But they’d already moved out of the Gold-rank area; adventurers had long ears.
“Honestly, I don’t like the idea of competing on hunting Wyverns. We’ll be fighting too many dangerous monsters, even if there are hundreds of teams heading to the High Passes. And we’ll foul each other up. And we might get kill-thieves. Actual [Thieves]—even conflicts with other adventurers.”
Halrac was grousing, unable to admit that he was in a good mood. Briganda, clearly trying to get back into full adventurer-mode, was nodding.
“I hear you, Everam. I mean—I’m out of practice, so Revi, Typhenous?”
The two laughed.
“You’ve been in the team longer than we have, Briggy! Speak your mind!”
“It does sound really like a trap. Who put that ridiculous bounty up? And why? I’ve been speculating with some of the old guard. But it’s a chance, and you know us…”
The [Scout] frowned.
“I just don’t like being one of the many. Griffon Hunt took a risk on Liscor and it paid off because we were first. But if there was just one request we could take while everyone focused on the big, obvious score…”
He trailed off. Briganda scratched her head.
“I’ve seen nothing with numbers like that, Halrac. You might as well go after one of the Goblin Chieftains in the north, and that’s a lesser payout by far. There are a few Gold-rank offers, and I can remember one funny one—but nothing that pays anything. Heh. They were offering ‘deferred payment’ in exchange for later rewards. Might as well say we’re adventuring for exposure and fame.”
The other adventurers had to groan or chuckle at that. No indeed. Gold-ranks needed to be paid for their risks. Briganda slapped her thighs as Cade leaned against her, yawning.
“Cade’s sleepy. And I need to tell everyone about this. Can I call on you in a bit?”
“Sure. We’ll have to organize…the situation with Cade. But as I said, we have a route straight back to Liscor. Hopefully we can intercept Erin, and get a few day’s jump on everyone else.”
“Halrac, you delight me. Subterfuge from you?”
Typhenous exclaimed, grinning behind his beard. Briganda had to pace back and forth as she held Cade who was yawning.
“I am so excited for this. It’s been too long! I’ll meet you in…an hour, okay? I can put Cade to bed, get a babysitter—I’ll still be hiring those! Maybe we can even get some with us?”
“It sure beats Erin and her inn. Dead gods, imagine if that skeleton was still about? Best nursemaid. Free.”
Revi muttered. Halrac nearly snorted out his drink. He put down his mug, wiping his mouth.
“It’ll be good to see her. And if the Halfseekers do arrive—we could even intercept them, get the door here faster. I don’t know what’s taken them. But either way, we might beat all but the local teams to the High Passes. Again, I don’t like risking us especially because they’re a Weyr up there. One wrong move and we’re not fighting a few Wyverns, but a Greater Wyvern, and a few hundred Wyverns.”
His team sobered. That was what Griffon Hunt was good at, weighing the odds. Revi nodded slowly.
“We’ll look into it. But for now—we can take some time off, right?”
“Right. We’ll catch Briganda up on the…situation and speculation later. Tonight, we celebrate.”
Griffon Hunt tapped each other’s mugs. Typhenous wiped his mouth and smiled.
“And to do that, I think we should have a night on the town. Perhaps with Cade, although I fear it might be too adult for him.”
Revi eyed her teammate.
“…Do you mean a brothel?”
“No. The theatre, Revi. The Players of Celum are apparently far better than when we knew them! And they have new plays!”
The other two adventurer’s eyes lit up. Halrac paused.
“I thought obtaining tickets was impossible?”
“For tonight? And cheaply? Certainly impossible, Halrac. For anyone but good friends of Jasi and Wesle. I assume they’d remember us. And it might be worth a shot.”
“I would. How good are the plays?”
Halrac had something of an affection for some of the theatre he’d seen. And Revi wouldn’t mind it either—especially to treat Briganda to the plays. Typhenous smiled.
“Good enough to have the entire city demanding more? To have people reselling tickets? Halrac, consider that the [Actors] may have leveled. I think we should try and seek the Players of Celum out while we wait for Briganda to get back to us. Any opposed?”
There were none. And Griffon Hunt marched out of the pub where they’d been drinking to find some…well, free tickets.
It turned out to be harder than they thought. For one thing—while everyone knew where the Players of Celum were now located, the theatre, the Season Theatre, which sounded rather close to ‘Solstice’, or an homage of sorts, was guarded from anyone without a ticket.
And the [Actors] were secluded from their adoring public by guards on an inn which catered only to them. And not even a Gold-rank adventurer could get past the security.
“Everyone knows Miss Jasi or Mister Wesle. If they knew you, they’d say. And forget waiting about to ‘pretend’ to meet them. No exceptions!”
“But we’re in their plays! The Siege of Liscor? We’re Griffon Hunt!”
The man talking to them rolled his eyes.
“Yes, yes. Well done. I’ve heard most of the teams, and all the individuals. Good for memorizing the name—Griffon Hunt’s a four-person team, though.”
“No. It’s wasn’t—well, it was, but it wasn’t and now it is—but our teammate—”
Griffon Hunt stared as the bouncer slammed the door in their faces. And they’d done better than most to get to the door. Typhenous stroked his beard.
“Ah, a challenge.”
“If we can’t meet them, let’s just send a [Message] and wait.”
Halrac suggested. Typhenous looked askance.
“My dear Halrac.”
“Don’t call me dear anything.”
“Captain Everam, how many [Messages] do you think they get each day? Especially from people claiming to know them? No, we’ll get nowhere arguing. Or burning down the inn, Revi.”
The [Summoner] looked offended. She stowed the wand.
“I was just going to use a voice-amplifying spell and shout.”
“Soundproofed walls, Revi. No, we must find a better way to get in touch with them.”
“And you have a plan?”
Typhenous’ eyes glittered.
“As a matter of fact—I know someone who would recognize us. Someone I think we can find, if we know the right people. Follow me. And—be prepared to spend a few gold pieces, Halrac.”
The old [Plague Mage] smiled knowingly. Halrac and Revi looked at each other. But Typhenous, for all his habits, didn’t lie. To them, at least.
“Well, if it means entertainment—lead on. I was going to spend some of my gold on some fabric treatment tonight, but we’ll be here for a bit, right?”
Revi nodded; this sounded like fun, rather than work. Halrac was nodding, but caught himself. As they began to walk he looked at Revi.
“Like what, fabric softener…?”
“It’s like that oil you people rub into your skin, Halrac.”
“…Skin cream? I don’t use it.”
The old man chuckled as Halrac sighed. Typhenous walked down the street, leaning on his staff. And he was old. Old enough to have white hair.
That meant he was a grandfather in Gold-rank teams. Few adventurers reached his age. And—fewer teams would risk taking someone like him with them. Typhenous didn’t look like he could outrun a charging Bicorn. And he probably couldn’t. He slept like a log, had slower reactions than his younger counterparts—
But he had survived this long on more than just reflexes. And it was his utility that had brought him to Griffon Hunt’s attention. It had been helpful in many ways.
And also—it had led to the Griffin plague. It had led to Erin’s door getting stolen. And then retrieved, but Revi had been bothered by the revelation.
Typhenous…had a past. Like everyone, but few people slept with a poisoned dagger on them at all times. And Typhenous, old though he might be, was a surprisingly good infighter if you weren’t watching out for him. And in times like this—
“So what are we doing, Typhenous?”
Halrac’s voice was suspicious. He folded his arms as Typhenous led them down the street, away from the inn. The old [Mage] was looking about.
“Just making inquiries through certain—channels, Halrac. Nothing untoward.”
“You mean…your contacts. I told you, Typhenous. No more of it.”
“Halrac, it is entirely aboveboard. Completely. You can watch the entire affair. This isn’t criminal; it’s just—my world.”
The old man sounded a bit peeved at the allegation of pure criminality. The [Scout] glowered. He had a definite view about anything illegal. Revi was a bit nervous too.
“Your world, Typh?”
“Revi, my dear. I have a history in any number of occupations.”
Which she’d known. But Typhenous’ smile looked more knowing than your average [Mage]’s air of mystery. Especially because Revi could pretend to be wise and powerful too for the plebeians. But here they were. Typhenous led them down the street to his world.
The underworld of crime. The shadowed side of cities and Izril, that you could use when the legal options were out. Revi felt herself growing tense, and regretted agreeing so cheerfully. She checked to make sure her summoning tools and wand were ready for quick use. Halrac was doing the same; his invisible bow was on his back. The adventurers waited as their teammate found his first lead.
Typhenous found the first denizen of darkness, purveyor of misdeeds, by poking the first street urchin he came across with his staff. A passing boy with somewhat ill-kept clothes jerked as he looked up from a game of dice with his pals.
“Watch it, old bugger! What d’you want?”
The kindly old man wearing [Mage]’s robes smiled down at him as Halrac and Revi watched. The other members of the gang stood up—they were young, ranging from eight to just their early teens; some were caught in a growth spurt.
They looked…er…tough. Staring at the adventurers without fear. Revi covered a smile. And she saw Typhenous lean over.
“I beg your pardon, young man. I was just wondering if you could direct me to…Grev. I’m told he’s a face in these parts. You wouldn’t happen to have an in by which my crew and I could do a greeting with? I’d be willing to pay for it.”
The urchin blinked and his eyes narrowed. So did Halrac and Revi—for a second there, in between his polite, mage-like speech, Typhenous had used what sounded like slang. The boy stared up at Typhenous and nodded, warily.
“Grev? Yeah. He’s a face-of-faces, y’know? We’ve talked.”
That was a mark of pride, clearly. The gang nodded. The boy went on.
“We can probably get you a greeting, yeah. But we’d need to run it by our boss.”
“Of course. Can we make the request there?”
Typhenous nodded. The boy rubbed finger and thumb together.
“How about a token for the boss?”
He blinked as the [Mage] flipped him a silver coin. Typhenous had already been expecting it. The boy fumbled catching the coin. He blinked at Typhenous and took a second measure. But then he shrugged.
“Sure. Come on. You running with this crew? Looks like flatfoots to me.”
“Oh, the flattest and straightest of feet. But they’re adventurers. As am I.”
Revi smiled at the boy. He gave her a sideways look.
“Oh yeah? Good fer you. This way.”
Then he and his gang shot down the street, beckoning for the adults to follow. Revi faltered. Typhenous just smiled, stroking his beard.
“You see? Nothing untoward.”
“They’re children, Typhenous.”
“Children know everything in a city. And that’s a gang, Revi. Young they might be, but we’ve paid for an introduction to their leader. Follow me.”
The team hurried after the kids. Halrac was narrowing his eyes as they headed deeper into the city, away from the commercial districts. He kept glancing up and about and Revi knew the [Scout] was assessing everything. He halted as the gang waved them down a street.
Revi blinked. Halrac nodded behind him.
“Someone’s on our rear.”
“More children. The gang. Looks like three. It’s a precaution, Halrac. Don’t worry.”
Typhenous nodded behind him. He walked forwards confidently, into a small intersection in the alleyway. There was indeed a gang of boys and a few girls standing there. They were being led by a teenager—he couldn’t have been more than fifteen.
But he had a knife. He was flipping it, in one of those classic games where the point was to be as dangerous as possible without embarrassing yourself. He was, in fact, sitting at a crude wooden table.
Revi stared. Someone had hung cloth overhead, and wood, and created a miniature fortress in this alley. And as she and Halrac walked forwards—she heard a sound.
“So these are the flatfoots who want to meet Grev? Look like marks to me. All shine and no grit.”
The [Gang Boss] called out. Revi turned her head. Two other gangs of kids were blocking the alleyway. And ‘kids’ began to lose its meaning because some were in their teens. Which meant that while they weren’t full adults—there were a lot of them. And most had some kind of weapon.
A cudgel, made of makeshift wood. A half-brick in a sock, a classic weapon. A knife. Weak weapons for a Gold-rank. But get stabbed by one of those, or hit, and it still…hurt. Revi eyed the gang.
“Hello, young man. We are indeed seeking a meeting with Grev, of the Players of Celum. I was told you could introduce us?”
Typhenous’ voice was smooth, and he seemed blithely unaware of the people boxing them into the alleyway. And he was speaking…eloquently again. Revi and Halrac eyed him.
So did the urchin who’d brought them here. Typhenous smiled, stroking his beard as the [Gang Boss] snorted.
“You’n half the city, old man. Grev don’t have time for anyone who calls. But sure, we can probably arrange it. No promises you’ll get a fancy ticket.”
“Leave that to us. We just desire a rendezvous.”
The boy cocked his head and then laughed. So did his gang, with the kind of fearlessness that told Revi that they thought they had the upper hand. Her skin was crawling a bit. She didn’t want to fight kids, but you heard story about gangs. Still—she didn’t want them to try anything. If she had to summon one of her phantoms, it would tear through a gang like this.
On the other hand, Halrac looked more tense than Revi. He had uncrossed his arms and put his back against a wall. And he was glancing up; Revi saw a figure disappearing from the rooftops. She hesitated. Dropping stones on their heads? Now this was a really good ambush…
But Typhenous was still smiling. The [Gang Leader] heaved himself upright. He flipped the dagger up in the air, twirling it as he came over. The adventurers watched.
“You want to meet Grev? We’re gonna have to talk coin. Gold, right? I hear you’re Gold-ranks.”
More laughter. The young man saw Revi eying the dagger. He grinned.
“Don’t worry, Miss. I don’t mean no harm by this trick.”
He flipped the dagger. Revi reached out and grabbed the blade. She…missed.
Oh, she caught the dagger. But she grabbed it blade-first. Everyone winced as Revi’s hand opened up and the Stitch-Girl grimaced. Red blood ran from her hands from a very deep cut. The young man recoiled in shock.
And Revi smiled.
“What, this? We don’t play these games where I come from. Not much risk.”
She tossed the dagger back. Then she opened her hand. It hurt like hell. That was a stupid move. But she didn’t let it show as she carefully pulled out a needle and stitched closed the flesh. It sealed, with magical speed.
A girl muttered from the back. The [Gang Leader] recovered his poise. He wiped the dagger on his shirt and twirled it back into a sheathe.
“You’re not too bright, Miss. If I had anything on the blade, you’d be regretting it. But let’s talk coin.”
“Indeed. What sort of remuneration did you have in mind?”
Typhenous was smiling. Just—smiling. The [Gang Leader] laughed. He performed the same gesture as the urchin had.
“We’re talking gold to meet Grev. Lotta people need speaking to—we don’t run with him regularly. You want access? It’s gonna cost you. Twenty gold.”
Revi inhaled. That was way too much! Typhenous stroked his beard.
“That’s a high price.”
“Not high for a ticket, which is what you want, right? You want a good one, tonight? They run you higher. And we’re talking meeting with Grev. And he runs with the Players of Celum. You play your cards right, he might introduce you to the cast.”
The young man’s eyes gleamed as he gave Griffon Hunt the upsell. Revi recognized it; he was trying to milk them for coins. She raised her eyebrows. But Typhenous flicked his fingers. He was going to speak.
“This is very true, young man. Mm. But I wonder if we could renegotiate to a lower price? Twenty gold coins is an awful lot of money. And Gold-rank we might be, but we don’t care to spend that much.”
“But you can. That’s my price, old [Mage].”
Typhenous sighed as the [Gang Leader] stepped closer. He looked vaguely around at the kids and teens, who were suddenly looking more…intent. Halrac shifted.
The name made one of the urchins near the back start. But the old [Mage] waved at Halrac.
“Halrac, it’s fine. I don’t intend to spend more gold. As I told you. Perhaps we should find another gang, then.”
“You can’t just talk to the boss and walk off, flatfoot.”
One of the other gangs warned the adventurers from behind. Halrac shifted. He had a shortsword, enchanted, and his bow. But he clearly didn’t want to use it.
Someone was calling out from behind the [Gang Leader]. But he was glowering.
“Listen up, old man. You clearly don’t know how this works. You don’t pay for a meeting and back out.”
“But the price is rather high. Can’t we negotiate?”
The street urchin was fighting forwards. The [Gang Leader]’s eyes narrowed.
“We don’t negotiate with outsiders who don’t know the score, old timer. And we’re not afraid of adventurers. Bring ‘em. Named-rank, or whatever you have. This is our territory. And you—”
He leaned forwards, hand on the dagger. Revi tensed—and Typhenous moved. Quick as a snake, he grabbed the young man as he moved forwards.
A loose tunic. Bad to have something you could snag in a fight. Of course, Typhenous was wearing robes, but they were enchanted. And as the young man’s eyes widened, he tried to pull back—
And froze. The old, kindly [Mage] with a grandfatherly look, posh talk, and not a lot of sense was holding the tip of a dagger right next to the young man’s ear. And he looked…well, mostly as kindly and good-natured as he had before. But when he leaned down amid the frozen children in their gangs, his voice was somehow a bit less…refined. And friendly. Well, he sounded friendly, but you know how it was.
“Young man. I’m no flatfoot or outsider. I’ve run with more gangs than you’ve seen. If I come to this city, people know that I’m neither flash nor builder or viner or whatever low-scores you’ve seen. I’m all score—when I care to be. And no one takes me for a loop.”
Silence. Halrac and Revi stared at Typhenous. The [Gang Leader]’s face was pale as the dagger hovered right in his ear canal; he was trying not to breathe.
“Shitrats, he’s got the boss!”
A girl exclaimed. She had a sling, but she was staring at Typhenous. The rest of the gangs stared too.
“Who’re you, old man?”
The [Gang Leader] whispered. He stared at Typhenous. And the old man answered.
“If you did your work, young man, you’d know the name and the face. I run with Gold-ranks now. Respectable. And this is a favor, all straight and above-board. But if you have to ask—they call me Typhenous. The Plague Mage.”
There was a murmur at this. The [Gang Leader] cast his eyes sideways—the boy who’d recognized Typhenous from his name was waving his hands. Wide-eyed. Revi looked around.
“Let’s try this again. Apologies for the grab; I just feel it pays to make an impression.”
Typhenous let go, sheathing the dagger. The young man stumbled backwards, feeling at his ear. He stared at Typhenous. He laughed, shakily.
“Dead fucking gods, old man! You just had to say your name and we’d’ve changed our tune!”
The Plague Mage smiled. He went back to his lugubrious, innocent manner of speech.
“Ah, but if you were trying to…trick us, that would have been pertinent information. A gang without manners can’t be trusted whoever they deal with.”
“And if we’d been false?”
One of the younger members queried. She looked worried; Revi noticed all the weapons were disappearing, rather quickly. And the kids were backing up from Typhenous.
The Plague Mage. His eyes twinkled. And then stopped shining.
“Well, you know what happens next. I’m willing to pay for a meeting, by all means. At a reasonable rate. But convey to anyone you meet, please, that I’m serious. I’d hate to pay for topsoil.”
The [Gang Leader]’s face paled. His gang members murmured and drew back further. Revi heard Typhenous’ title repeated.
The Plague Mage. She hadn’t given it much thought. Adventurers got nicknames—the Named Ranks all got them. But there was clearly some significance in this world to a name too. And Typhenous had one.
“—We’ll put out some fingers. We have met Grev. We’re not sewn together, but we can get you to him.”
The [Gang Leader] replied after a long break. Typhenous smiled.
“Good. Tell him we’re friends. Griffon Hunt.”
“Right, right. Be one sec. I’ll get my best [Finders] on it. And get you an escort…”
The young man backed up fast. He began ordering his gang around and Typhenous turned to his team. He smiled as they gave him a look akin the other ones he was getting from everyone else.
“As I said. Nothing to worry about. It’s all about how you present yourself.”
Halrac glowered. But he kept his mouth shut until the gang dispersed. The same urchin they’d first met pointed. And his tone was far more respectful as twelve of his fellow members moved out ahead of him, down the alleyway.
“We gotta make some other meetings, Mister Typhenous. Make some palms shine. This way.”
He led the team out of the gang’s hideout. When they were out on the street, the gang began pointing them further into the city. Typhenous nodded for them to lead the way. Only then did Halrac confront him.
“What was that?”
“An introduction. I know, the theatrics. But despite what that young man said, he wouldn’t have taken us seriously unless I demonstrated I knew what was happening. We won’t be paying a ludicrous amount. We will have to give some money, but I think it won’t be much of anything.”
Typhenous nodded to Halrac. The [Scout] opened and closed his mouth. He clenched one fist.
“You scared that boy. To save us gold?”
Rather than apologize, the old [Mage]’s eyes glinted.
“I did what that young man was familiar with, Halrac. He respects a display, nothing else. The gang understands and we have their respect as well. It’s their world and mine. I was one of them, once. I know how it works. I understand your objections, but trust me, Halrac. This is how it is done. It would rather be like me telling you how to hunt.”
Halrac chewed that over and nodded, slowly. He wasn’t entirely an idiot.
Neither was Revi. But she gave Typhenous another sideways look.
“I heard you had connections when you got signed to Griffon Hunt. How much of that was your level, and how much was the other stuff?”
“Ironically, neither Ulrien nor anyone else even cared, apart from my spellcasting ability. I’ve tried to help in small ways to make up for my—errors. To greater or lesser effects.”
Typhenous nodded apologetically at Halrac. The [Scout] grunted.
“I disapprove of it.”
“I know. And I am sorry, but the door incident was going to happen with or without my interference. I mitigated the damage; they were two very good gangs who could have had the door to Invrisil within three days without being caught. And we came up a few thousand gold pieces higher for it.”
“And the consequences you mentioned?”
The Plague Mage paused. A kid was waving at them and another gang of kids—these ones marked by black sashes tied around their arms—was waiting, staring at the Gold-ranks.
“I’ll deal with them as they come up. But we have the door to Liscor. On the whole, I’d say it was worth it.”
That was all the [Scout] said. But he let Typhenous do the rest. And what Revi saw after that, as she met other gangs who seemed to progressively get older was…
A celebrity. Typhenous was conveyed by the same group of kids from the first gang. But they went from place to place in the city, speaking to people who knew where Grev might be, or who had an ‘in’. And the older they got, the more they started as they heard Typhenous’ name.
“The Plague Mage. My da says he knew you when he was running tricks!”
An awed gang boss actually shook Typhenous’ hand; he led a group of [Toughs] and [Thugs]. Typhenous smiled.
“Those days are past me. I’m merely an adventurer now.”
“Yeah, that’s what my da says. He’s a huge admirer. He says if one’ve the Knives can run straight, and a Scorer like you gets to be Gold-rank, anyone can. You want to meet Grev? We’ll do it—and give you the proper discount. Favor, Mister Typhenous. Who’re your people? Your new crew?”
He looked at Halrac and Revi. They blinked as the rest of the gang had to meet Typhenous. They barely looked twice at the other Gold-ranks. Typhenous was smiling, downplaying the accolades. And that was only one gang.
“You were in a gang?”
“Most people who grow up without a proper job or class do. It was nothing special.”
“Sure. And the Knives? What’s a scorer?”
Typhenous’ eyes twinkled. He winked at Revi.
“Just terms from the past. Oh—”
He paused as the young [Tough]’s father himself rushed out to exclaim and shake Typhenous’ hand. Revi looked at the old man. And she realized.
He was a hero. To the people he met. Someone with a history that anyone in the know knew. Or if not a hero—the Stitch-Woman leaned over to Halrac.
“You know anything about this, Halrac?”
“Who’s Typhenous, then?”
“A face. Whatever that means.”
Revi looked at Typhenous. And she saw an old mage, a man with white hair, an adventurer. Walking amid the streets and gangs and the hidden side of a city. He fit—and yet, he had left it all behind a long while ago. He had become a Gold-rank. And Revi began to appreciate what that meant. For someone like Typhenous, to the people who knew where he came from. And he was using his past for his team.
Gangs or adventuring teams—loyalty mattered to both. And it made sense. Griffon Hunt was more mercenary than the other teams like the Silver Swords or the Horns or Halfseekers. But they looked after their own. They had splintered, rather than give up on Typhenous after the mistake. And he remembered that.
Revi wondered if he still felt guilty. She still remembered the plague, when she slept, sometimes.
Everyone had things they regretted.
In the end, Griffon Hunt did end up paying gold to meet Grev. But only four gold pieces, spread out in smaller bribes. Making palms shine. It took them nearly thirty minutes of walking from spot to spot, getting closer and closer to access to Grev himself. And when they found him, it was almost at random.
“Grev? What d’you want? He’s not entertaining any flatfoots—”
The suspicious boy broke off as the guide whispered urgently in his ear. He paused.
“Not even fer a face—alright, alright! I’ll tell him. But he might rat off. He don’t like being bothered.”
“Kindly inform him that Griffon Hunt would like to speak with him, if he has time. Halrac, Revi, Typhenous. From the inn. Those exact words.”
The boy’s mouth moved as he glanced at the adventurers. He nodded.
“Alright. No promises.”
He sidled back through the door he’d been guarding. Revi got the impression it was something like a bar—or another hideout. Only, not one you could get into regularly. And the gang that Grev was hanging out with was a lot better-dressed than the gang Typhenous had asked to help.
Indeed, the Plague Mage handed a few silvers over and made the urchin’s face light up. They disappeared as the adventurers found themselves alone in front of the door.
“I swear, Typh. If this is all a waste of time…”
“They wouldn’t lead us around like that, Revi. There are consequences.”
The [Mage] was relaxed. He took a little sip from a healing potion and then a stamina potion. Halrac and Revi weren’t bothered, but Typhenous smiled after he did that.
“Age, Revi. I should buy a liniment while I’m here. But I find most potions do their job. A shame their effect loses its power the more times you use them. But—ah!”
The door opened. Revi saw a kid, only around thirteen years old, standing in the doorway. He had yet to hit his growth, and he had been scrawny, underfed. But he’d filled out since then, and he was wearing good clothes. Still—he had some of the street on him, and his hair was messy, most likely on purpose.
He had a gap in his teeth as he grinned. The gang behind him looked warily at the adventurers.
“You know these flatfoots, Grev? They say they know you.”
The boy stopped gaping. He grinned. The [Street Rat], Grev Redigal, younger brother of Jasi from Celum, who had once tried to lead Erin Solstice into a mugging laughed in delight.
“Know ‘em? They’re part of the crew! Miss Erin’s crew! They’re all right! Dead gods, the Players’re gonna flip when they see you! That’s Halrac, right?”
The [Scout] nodded. Grev cackled.
“I’d know that scowl everywhere! Guys, I’m gonna rat. These’re friends. They need me for anything, they get it. Just like the rest of the ones I told you about.”
The gang of kids relaxed. The leader, a girl, tapped Grev’s shoulder lightly with a fist. He was clearly with them and yet apart, much like Typhenous.
“You got it, Grev. Favor. Thanks for the tickets. My mum flipped twice when she got them.”
“Anytime. Come on, you three! How’d you find me? They were saying a face was askin’ about me and I got worried. That you, Typhenous? You never said!”
“A [Mage] must have his secrets, Grev. It’s good to see you.”
Revi waved awkwardly. She hadn’t really known Grev from the inn. She remembered him, of course, the kid who’d been with the Players. But Revi had to admit, her contact with the Players of Celum was mostly remote.
And yet—it was like adventuring teams. They knew each other. And ironically, this far from the inn they’d been at, the bond felt stronger. Short it might have been, only a few months—but it felt like years. And The Wandering Inn had left a mark on them all.
“It’s amazing to see you all. Is the door to Liscor open? I’ve been watching, but there’s been no word.”
“We came on foot. We were hoping the door would be active too.”
Grev led them back on the street. He tugged up a hood over his head as he chatted with the adventurers.
“Because of the Wyverns? Right. I’ve been keeping my ear to Liscor. Heard about the Crelers.”
Griffon Hunt started. Grev gave them a wide-eyed look.
“You don’t know? Dead fucking gods kicking rats! You’ve gotta hear about it! But maybe let’s find the Players first! They’ll love to see you. Mind you, it was good you came to me. Smart. Favor for that—respect, I mean—no one can get near the inn with the cast. They’re more famous than…anyone right now. Lots of people want to be their friends.”
“So we noticed. It’s incredible.”
Indeed—there were posters of the Players of Celum on the more populated, commercial districts. Revi had to stare at a full-scale poster, hand-painted by an [Artist]. It depicted Jasi—or rather, a beautiful Drake standing with [Soldiers] in the background, and the heads of Wesle and a Human that Revi didn’t recognize in the background. It looked like some grand story, and the caption just read—‘Elisial, now showing at the Season Theatre’.
Fame. Grev himself was hiding his face. Whereas he was walking with Gold-ranks and chattering away.
“You have no idea. The cast have to wear illusion spells just to go out. They’re signing—you know the autographs? I’m getting more than I can deal with, so I hafta wear a hood. And Jasi—you can’t beat the guys off her with sticks! Myself, I’ve got a few girls…”
Revi rolled her eyes. Halrac just stared at another poster, this time of Wesle and advertising Macbeth.
“Have you heard from Erin?”
“Nah. I mean, I keep up, and we get [Messages] from Temile. New plays, some stuff. She’s out of Celum. They kicked her out and the Players went with her. Dumb as a bag of rocks, that lot. The Players are now in Liscor. And they’ve got Drakes and Gnoll [Actors]. Maybe even Dullahans and Garudas if that door to Pallass works with the magic grass. Dead gods, that’d be something! Emme wants to bring the crew from Liscor over when the door opens. We’d be able to have flying Garuda, Dullahans with detachable body parts for the fight scenes and such…”
“Whoa, hold on. Magic grass? Erin’s out of Celum? What?”
Revi was trying to catch up. Grev cackled at the look on her face.
“You don’t know! This is great! You don’t know about the Horns—dead gods! Did you at least hear about the Wyverns in Pallass?”
Halrac nodded. Grev was leading them back to the Players of Celum’s inn.
“Of course. We didn’t have a scrying orb, but we heard about it. Wait—”
The [Veteran Scout]’s brows crossed together. And he had a…thought. Born purely out of his knowledge of Erin. He looked at Revi. The [Summoner]’s jaw dropped and Typhenous blinked.
“She was there! Miss Erin! And one of the Antinium was in Pallass! You’re gonna flip! Come on, I have to show you! The Players should be in the inn!”
The young boy was overjoyed. And Revi felt her smile growing larger. Erin had been at Pallass? During the Wyvern…? No way. Was she a magnet for trouble or something?
“She’s got magical fire too. Temile said it was glorious. And a garden-thing! That’s how she’s charged up her door—apparently it can take a lot more people to Pallass! We could travel back and forth fairly regularly!”
“Hold on. We have a teammate we want to introduce to the Players. Can we find her first?”
“Sure! Who’s she?”
Briganda was scheduled to meet her team at the same pub. She was already waiting.
“I put Cade to bed. Who’s this? Wait…”
She stared at Grev. None of her teammates had told her about knowing the Players of Celum. They hadn’t put together the significance. But when Briganda heard that they knew the famous [Actors] who’d hit Invrisil like a Tier 8 spell, she flipped three times.
“Dead gods! We’re going to meet the Players of Celum? You’re Grev!”
“That’s right, Miss.”
Briganda looked awed. Revi felt discombobulated. They were all Gold-ranks, but when she heard she could meet Jasi and Wesle, Briganda was like a girl meeting…Gold-ranks.
“I’ve got to buy some paper! For signing! And Cade! I want him to meet them! And you know them, Halrac? You never said!”
“They were just…at the inn.”
Halrac looked as close to stunned as he got by Briganda’s reaction. Grev laughed.
“No problem, Miss. Griffon Hunt’s a friend of the Players! So’re any of the folks who went to The Wandering Inn. Come to that, we have a recruit who was at the inn. Fancy fellow, does our special effects.”
“Let’s go! Now!”
And they did. Griffon Hunt walked towards the Season Theatre. And the inn where the Players were located. There was a crowd. But Grev walked right past them and strode up to the door. The [Bouncer] blinked when he saw Griffon Hunt again.
“You know this lot, Grev?”
“Sure do, Redit. They’re Griffon Hunt. The originals. Is Jasi in?”
“Upstairs. Getting ready for the show. Wait, they’re really…”
He stood aside as Grev walked through. Revi gave him a triumphant look as he stared, wide-eyed at them.
The inn wasn’t The Wandering Inn. But it was run by a Level 30+ [Innkeeper] who knew his stuff. It was three times as large as The Wandering Inn, and it was amazingly fine. And the Players of Celum were the only customers inside, save for the staff and a few very star-struck patrons who paid for the privilege.
“Jasi! Wesle! Emme! Look who I found!”
Grev hollered into the room. Revi, staring at the dozens and dozens of [Actors] and stagehands and people all talking or rehearsing, saw a group in the center look up. A Drake swept to her feet. She looked amazing, in makeup, and when she stood, the room stilled.
“As I live and breathe! Griffon Hunt!”
A man stood as well. Wesle’s voice filled the room as he pointed. And Griffon Hunt, the door still open, heard a roar of surprise from the crowd who’d heard. They turned at the exclamation and then the cheering.
Suddenly, they were in the spotlight. On the stage. The Players of Celum shot to their feet. The ones who were from the inn leapt out of their chairs, half with flamboyant acting, but also genuine pleasure. They strode over, and the Gold-rank adventurers found themselves shaking hands.
“It has been months! Or so it feels! Hello! Revi, isn’t it?”
The Drake leaned over, shaking Revi’s hand. She was taller than Revi, but she felt…larger. Not like Briganda, but with that air of importance. Revi found herself nodding at Jasi.
“Yes—I’m sorry, but we heard you were here, so—”
“Of course! You’re from Erin’s inn! And we’re delighted! Was it hard getting in? Did you come via the door?”
“They came on foot! Found me, they did! And they didn’t know.”
The boy was practically dancing with glee. But Griffon Hunt was overawed by the change in the Players of Celum. They’d rented an inn that the Gold-ranks would have stayed at, permanently. And they had a crowd begging to see them. And yet—the Players were delighted to meet Griffon Hunt. Friends from Liscor!
“You haven’t heard about the Crelers? Oh, Five Families! I was in shock when I heard. But the Horns are Gold-rank! They brought down an Adult Creler! And the inn was attacked by Crelers! Destroyed.”
Halrac sprayed his drink. Revi’s jaw dropped. Briganda was staring at the others in shock.
“Wait—an Adult Creler?”
“When was this? Are they alive? What about Erin?”
Halrac demanded. Typhenous was blinking. Revi’s heart twisted. An Adult…? Those were team-killers! Even Gold-ranks wouldn’t go up against one of them unprepared.
“They survived! Some teams died, but the Horns all lived! Yvlon’s arms changed—Ceria’s eyes too! Dead gods! It’s the kind of tale that we have to perform! But how can you do it justice? Andel tried, but it was fight scenes, not the easiest to turn into a play.”
Wesle rested one foot on the chair, as people fussed over his wardrobe. He nodded to a [Writer] sitting in the corner, in his own booth, bestrewn with paper, snacks, and drinks.
“We have to tell you everything. But later. We’re performing tonight. You must come see us. We want to perform for Erin when she gets here. We’re holding a booth just for her. You know? Phantom of the Opera style? We’re putting that play on. I can’t believe she forgot about it—but it’s wonderful. I need to practice my singing, but we have an actual [Singer] we’ve added to our main roster.”
A half-Dwarven woman was nodding, ordering the [Actors] about. Emme spoke to the adventurers as she snapped at the underlings who were now her crew.
“We perform each night. All day, every day, really. But we have multiple teams to take the load off. Still—you came at a perfect time. We’re doing Lady Macbeth. Jasi’s the lead, and our star team is taking the stage. Hey! Someone find the special tickets! For the Solstice Booth!”
There was a stir among the new [Actors] watching. Kilkran, the [Actor] with a voice like deep honey, laughed.
“It’ll stir up the audience to see you there! Where’re the tickets? Also, you must see—it’s Macbeth, but altered for a female lead. I wasn’t sure about it, but it is immensely popular—Lady Reinhart herself has expressed interest in seeing it!”
“We’ve seen Macbeth—er, but it sounds great. Solstice Booth…?”
Briganda was nodding rapidly at Revi. The Stitch-Girl was overwhelmed. Jasi smiled as she reached for her [Performance Supplies].
“We have to go on stage in the next hour. But after that, you’re invited to the after-party. It’ll take a bit—we do go out and shake hands and sign autographs, but…truly, we’d love to have you. Do you have any more friends? We can get more tickets—”
“Can I bring some of my friends? I saw one of your plays, Miss Jasi. I’d love an autograph.”
Briganda was awestruck. Revi’s jaw dropped as she held out a piece of cardboard for Jasi to sign. The Drake did so with a flourish. Jasi nodded.
“Anyone, by all means. We have tickets reserved—I know they’re valuable, so Emme has to manage them, and the special seating. We’re upgrading the theatre constantly to be bigger and bigger. Some of the nobles want their own sections, and of course everyone wants a ticket. We were performing with Elia Arcsinger’s team in the balconies just last week—”
The Stitch-Girl stared. Her eyes bulged. Her jaw—well, it wasn’t on the floor, but only because her stitching was good. Revi’s mouth was open—and it stayed open as she left the theatre and the crowds lined the streets, shouting at the Players of Celum.
Revi sat, open-mouthed through being led into the Solstice Booth by the security at the theater. As people stared up at her in the packed auditorium. As the Players performed on stage. Jasi strode onto the scene, as Lady Macbeth, and she blew Revi away. The Stitch-Girl said nothing, just watched as the play opened, ran, and closed to a thunderous, standing ovation.
It was nothing like the play she had seen in Erin’s inn, in the background. The Players had special effects! Fight scenes with actual limb cuts, so real Revi felt alarmed. And—they’d improved their craft beyond all recognition.
This was the stage. And it blew the Gold-rank team away. Revi found herself sitting in the inn, with the Players of Celum celebrating after their performance. Only then did her mouth close. And only to swallow the drinks and food.
“We’ve improved a bit.”
Wesle remarked modestly. But his eyes were twinkling. Revi stared at him. And she had a definite sense—that they were close in levels. Which was unreal, for someone who’d gained the [Actor] class just a while ago.
But the Players of Celum were the premier group in Invrisil. Halrac stared at the [Actors], as Briganda alternated between star-struck and delighted. Cade was on her lap, staring at the shining [Actors].
Typhenous, ironically, was most relaxed. He was collecting signatures, talking with the group—fully immersed in the scene. He was enjoying himself as the crew introduced themselves—to legends in turn.
After all, the Siege of Liscor was a play they put on and Griffon Hunt was a part of it. Revi nearly sprayed her drink all over Cade and Briganda when she saw a young Stitch-Girl playing her! Her skin was fair, but she was nearly the spitting image of Revi!
“And here’s our Halrac! Do the face!”
A man roughly Halrac’s size and vaguely like him put on a scowl that was the exact match of the [Scout]’s. Halrac’s eyes bulged and Briganda had to put Cade on the table before she fell out of her seat with laughter.
It felt like a bit of a dream. Revi looked at the changed fortunes of the Players and was glad and amazed. But it was when they recounted what had happened to the inn that she had to stop in amazement.
The Bloodfields. Creler attacks. Erin in Pallass during the Wyvern assault. The magic garden, her fire.
“We missed so much. The Horns are Gold-rank? Yvlon’s arms are fixed?”
“They killed an Adult Creler?”
Halrac just stared as Jasi and Wesle beamed. Grev was laughing at their expressions.
“We may see them. They’re bound for Invrisil. Speaking of which—the Wyvern bounty is insane. Each one is being paid out at an Adult Creler’s rate! Well, not if you add up local bounties on top of Rhir’s payment. But who put it up?”
“Magnolia Reinhart could. But do you think she would…? But we are looking forwards to the door, definitely. Actually, we’re debating linking our theatres with Liscor. Maybe sending money to Temile to build one in Liscor? Or Pallass? But we’ve invitations to go further north still. To First Landing. But we have no shortage of audiences here, so…”
As Jasi, Wesle, and some of the [Actors] were chatting about their ambitions to Halrac and Revi, Grev was introducing the cast to Briganda and Typhenous.
“We’ve got boats of people, so only the best of ‘em get to audition with us. We have multiple teams. Jasi and Wesle are in the first one, obviously. But the rest are being trained up. And we have special effects.”
“Ah, like the mist for your [Witches]. Magnificent thunder effects.”
Typhenous was nodding, delighted as he shook hands. Grev laughed.
“Yeah! You shoulda seen what we had to do before that. But we’ve got a top-level illusionist. Wait, he’s a [Magician]. Eltistiman! Come and meet—”
Typhenous was smiling and looking around when he heard the name. And the [Magician], who had a drink in one hand, was turning to meet the people the Players were excited about.
The younger [Magician], his robes flamboyant and colorful, locked eyes with the older [Mage]. Eltistiman dropped his mug. Typhenous recoiled.
One went for his wand, the other reached for his staff and dagger. Eltistiman pointed, faster on the draw.
The Players turned. The [Magician]’s wand was glowing, aimed at Typhenous’ face. The old [Mage] froze, hand on his staff.
“What’s going on? Eltistiman?”
Jasi turned her head, alarmed.
Revi choked on her food. She remembered the name, too late. The [Magician] that Typhenous had said—the one who’d been there to stop the door from being—and Typhenous had—
“I know this [Mage]. Jasi, Wesle. We have a—history.”
Eltistiman’s wand never moved. Halrac was frozen—a hand on his invisible bow. He could draw and loose in a second—but Eltistiman had the wand aimed at Typhenous.
“Stop that! They’re guests! I don’t know what went down, but lower the wand!”
Emme barked. Eltistiman hesitated. He looked around at the Players of Celum, his friends, and slowly, he did lower the wand. Revi breathed.
“What happened? Eltistiman’s been a part of our troupe for a while now. He helped us—is there some past between you and him?”
Wesle looked at Typhenous, concerned. The older [Mage] was breathing slowly, watching Eltistiman warily.
“We—have had our incidents. I’m sorry. Perhaps we should discuss it? Civilly?”
He looked at Eltistiman, and the [Magician] nodded.
“Civilly. We’re both quits, anyways—it was a scene, Wesle. No hard feelings…”
He stared at Typhenous. And Revi sensed that hidden undercurrent of the street. Typhenous nodded.
He stood up. The Players watched the two walk over to a table. The air blurred around them and sound vanished. Revi looked around. She met Halrac’s gaze. The [Scout] was frowning again.
“What do you think…?”
“I don’t know. But I think we might be entangled again. Damn.”
The [Veteran Scout] drained his drink. Cade nodded solemnly. Briganda sighed.
“It’s never a dull moment. Catch me up. What’re we in for now?”
“Never thought to see you here. Frankly, I’d as soon have kicked you in the ribs, but I’m with the Players of Celum now. So I suppose we can let it lie. You didn’t let them slit my throat.”
Eltistiman eyed Typhenous as the two sat together. Both were…calm. Wary, but not tense. They knew the score. They were both—faces. And they spoke with the same understanding that the Players and Griffon Hunt did. That of people with a shared background.
“I did convince them to leave you. The Sisters weren’t amenable to it, but the Brothers…”
“Dead gods, both of them? Maybe you saved me from a fight.”
Eltistiman grimaced. He took another drink and looked at Typhenous. The old [Mage] nodded carefully.
“You escaped without incident?”
“I woke up in the basement and walked out, invisible, of course. The Flower Lady wasn’t happy, but she understood. It was still a black mark—but I found the Players of Celum. And the door never got stolen. So—let’s call it quits.”
Typhenous relaxed a bit. Words had meaning and a promise, even one not bound by magic or blood, carried weight. He nodded.
“You have my apologies.”
“Frankly, I should have checked the door. That was an amateur’s mistake. But yes. Good job on your victory.”
The [Magician] glowered. But he sighed.
“Still—two big gangs lost some members that night. I feel…I don’t want to ask, because I know you won’t give it to me straight.”
“I’d prefer that.”
Typhenous kept his face straight. And he was wary. Eltistiman nodded.
“I don’t want to know. But…people have been asking questions, you understand? A [Nightstalker] and her guard visited me. And an [Enforcer]. They asked questions on behalf of their people.”
The Plague Mage…paused. He slowly raised his mug.
“I told them what I knew. But they’re not happy. Maybe it was an accident. But I think you’ve got some debts to pay. And if you stick around in Invrisil—well, you’re here, but people saw you in the Solstice Booth. And they heard Wesle saying Griffon Hunt. They know you’re here. Neither one’ll intrude because the Players are here and because this is Reinhart’s territory, but…”
Typhenous saw Eltistiman raise his brows. The [Mage] nodded slowly.
“I have debts. And explanations. I will pay both.”
“You’d better hope they’re accepted. Because the Sisters are irked. The Brothers—might get it. But watch your back. You’re playing a game with more costs than rewards. And for a face as old as yours, it’s odd to see.”
The old man hunched his shoulders at the booth. Typhenous looked up at Eltistiman. The Plague Mage smiled, wearily.
“Perhaps. But some things are worth more gold than you can count. I’m with my team, Eltistiman. And it is my team I owe. If I have debts, I will settle them and not involve them.”
“As you like. Let’s go tell the flatfoots we’re square. But for Grev, they’re good, upstanding folk.”
Typhenous had to smile at that.
“So are my people.”
That night, after Eltistiman and Typhenous rejoined the party, everyone was celebrating. Revi relaxed as Typhenous gave his team the all-clear. They’d discuss it, but Eltistiman wasn’t holding a grudge.
For now, relax. Marvel, and enjoy meeting old friends. New strangers. The stars glowed in the sky and they glowed brighter in the inn, with the Players of Celum. And Griffon Hunt was rubbing shoulders with Invrisil’s most famous.
So famous, in fact, that even a Courier could barely get a spot at their inn. Lacel the Leaper, eating in a corner of the inn, nearly died when he saw Griffon Hunt eating in the center with the Players of Celum.
“You—you were able to reserve a spot at the inn too?”
The Courier, star of the saga with Lady Whatsherface and Lord Whomever stared weakly at Griffon Hunt. Revi blew a mocking kiss at him.
“How’s the run going?”
“I’m going to be travelling far tomorrow. It’s a risky run, but you know how it is…”
The Courier stared as Jasi listened to the entire thing with Lady Hetessana and Lord Bein. And he had a definite…sense of inferiority.
“I think I’ll retire early.”
He stood, and went up to his rooms—not the biggest suite in the inn—annoyed. Miffed. But the Courier did have a job to do, and so he went to his rooms.
He felt unusually tired. He’d had to deal with two [Thieves] trying to go for his bag of holding earlier today. It was an inconvenient request, for all Lady Hetessana was willing to pay. But he’d get the damn pendant there, or he wasn’t Lacel the Leaper…
The Courier practically fell into bed, clothes on. He was tired. He rolled himself into his sheets as, below, the Players of Celum and Griffon Hunt celebrated and talked.
The Courier was dozing, aware something was…off…when the door opened. He opened his eyes, wary, but exhausted. And he saw a figure slip into the room.
“No. How did you…”
Lacel the Leaper, Courier, tried to raise his head. But the sleeping draught was in full effect. He looked up—
And the [Bartender] smiled. Not Typhenous. Or Eltistiman. Just the [Bartender] no one stared twice at in the inn. She reached up and carefully adjusted her mask. She took it off and the artifact which had allowed her to mimic the actual [Bartender]’s face vanished.
“The Guild has a contract on your head, Lacel the Leaper. But don’t worry.”
The Courier tried to reach for any of his items. He was supposed to be safe here! But this wasn’t a regular gang member or [Thief]. How’d she infiltrate such an upstanding inn?
Wait. The Guild. The Courier looked up. And the [Assassin] bent.
“Don’t worry. It’s not your life we want. It’s a message. Magnolia Reinhardt holds no sway over us any longer. So—apologies. But consider this advertising.”
She carefully put a gag over the Courier’s mouth. He tried to scream, but the [Assassin]’s gag was enchanted. She reached into a bag of holding and pulled out…
A hammer. She adjusted Lacel on the bed.
“It’s not just about the pendant. I’m not taking it. When they find you—you can tell them it was the Guild. In fact, we’d prefer it. And the next day? You’ll send Lord Bein the pendant of your own will. Your run ends here. But don’t worry—we’ll make sure this isn’t permanent. Sorry, again. This may hurt.”
He stared as she took aim at his legs. And raised the hammer and brought it down.
“Pst. Eltistiman. Did you see that?”
Typhenous paused in his drink. He was unsteady on his feet, but he had seen the [Bartender] move. And old you might be, but stupid or unobservant people didn’t get old.
“I saw it. You think it’s a face?”
“Can’t be. Grev tells me the Players are beloved in Invrisil by gangs. It would be unwise. An outsider, maybe.”
“Should we check?”
“Mm. Let’s. Halrac.”
The [Scout] looked up. Typhenous pointed.
“There’s a situation.”
The man’s good mood vanished again. Halrac growled.
“If this is another cause of—”
“Don’t be stupid. This is me seeing something. Get the team ready. Someone’s going after Lacel the Leaper.”
The leader of Griffon Hunt stiffened. He grabbed Briganda and Revi. They followed Typhenous and Eltistiman up the stairs, silently.
“Stay behind us. If it’s one of the street, she’ll be fast and good at close-quarters fighting. Maybe a poison expert. What do you think? Ward spells and immobilization?”
Typhenous cautioned the others, none of whom were good at extremely close-quarters fights. Eltistiman nodded.
“There are two of us—plus your team. Let’s go in first. Talk—then cast. Ward spells on us.”
“Thanks for the confidence. Who is it?”
“We don’t know. Someone pursuing the bounty. Now—[Muffle]. And…”
Lacel’s room wasn’t hard to find. The two [Mages] moved in front, and approached the door. Halrac pointed at himself and Briganda, but Typhenous shook his head. He motioned to Eltistiman. The younger man nodded, pushed the door open.
The [Assassin] was waiting for them. She aimed a crossbow at them as the two [Mages] aimed at her with staff and wand. She stood by the open window; they’d caught her just as she was leaving.
Lacel the Leaper lay in the bed. His eyes were bulging but he made no sound behind the cloth wrapped around his face. He was secured to the bed. And a blanket was covering his legs…
It was stained with red. Revi stared. She aimed her wand at the woman.
“Who are you!?”
Halrac aimed his bow at her chest. The woman made a tsking sound. She had a mask on her face, concealing her identity.
“I don’t know if you’re a face, but this is the Player of Celum’s inn. This was unwise. Drop it. And if you go through the window—we’ll catch you.”
Eltistiman’s eyes flashed. His wand was glowing, aimed at her. The woman paused.
“I’m no face. And if I were you, I’d pretend you didn’t see me. Well done on spotting me.”
“And we should just let you go?”
Revi stared at Lacel in horror. Briganda’s hatchet was raised. She looked at Typhenous and Eltistiman. The woman sighed behind her mask.
“I’m sure you could stop me. But—look. This is whom I represent. We’re not abiding by Reinhart’s laws.”
She traced a sigil in the air. It glowed darkly, with black light. Revi didn’t recognize it. But Typhenous and Eltistiman did. They inhaled sharply. And both instantly lowered their weapons.
“The Guild. Halrac, don’t shoot her. You too, Revi.”
Typhenous murmured. The female [Assassin] nodded.
“This is a public statement. No hard feelings. I love the plays. I’d ask for an autograph, but something tells me I’m not welcome. If that’s all—”
She leapt out the window. Halrac swore, but Eltistiman and Typhenous blocked him. The [Scout] rushed to the window, but the woman was gone.
“Hm. Legs are well and truly broken. This is definitely a message. He’s even got his bag of holding, see? Still locked.”
The Plague Mage wearily walked over to inspect Lacel. The Courier was shaking in his bindings. Eltistiman rubbed at his face.
“Yes. Dead gods, I’ll have to tell Emme and the others. They’re in danger. Not that many hate them, but if Reinhart really has lost control over the Guild—I wouldn’t want to be a Runner. She’s kept them off the Runner’s Guild, but this? A Courier?”
He gestured at Lacel. Halrac shouted.
“Typhenous! Who was that?”
“It was the Assassin’s Guild, Halrac. They accepted the bounty on Lacel. No—they did this just to prove they’re willing to accept contracts on Runners, now. And that they’ll operate in Invrisil. We just walked into a massive incident.”
Typhenous sat in a chair. Halrac and Revi and Briganda stared at him. The [Shield Maiden] paled. She looked towards the door, where Cade was slumbering, having fallen asleep early in the night.
“You don’t want to cross them. They have many members. And—well, they used to be under Magnolia Reinhart’s control, or at least, she dictated who they didn’t go after. No longer. I heard rumors…”
The two [Mages] were conferring. Revi just looked at Lacel the Leaper.
A message. She reached for his gag. The Courier inhaled as Revi removed the enchanted cloth. And then he began to scream.
A real drama took place in the Player’s inn that night. The infallibility of Couriers and Magnolia Reinhart’s will was questioned. The [Actors] and staff gathered to see Lacel being brought out of the inn to a [Healer], screaming. He still had the pendant. But his legs were broken and words raced through the city like fire. Dark, frightening flames, like whispers.
The Guild of Assassins. And Magnolia Reinhart’s power was questioned yet again.
That was not the only news that put a dampener on the night. Halrac sat in the inn, drinking with the worried people around him. Now, the [Actors] weren’t stars, just ordinary people. And the Gold-rank adventurer was the one who thought about the [Assassin]. The one who could fight.
But even Gold-ranks didn’t cross the Guild of Assassins. Halrac drank, and glowered. And he had worse news. His face went still as his team sat with him. Briganda was soothing Cade as she talked. He was upset by the screaming and what he hadn’t understood. The mood of the adults. He was falling asleep thanks to a sleeping tincture, very mild.
“I’m sorry, Halrac. I kept an ear out. I did—but it was way back. I thought you might have heard…”
“I don’t get—word from there often. It’s been a long time since I was there. When was it?”
“During the Goblin Lord’s attacks. It was raids from the mountain that did it. I’m sorry. Windrest is gone.”
“That’s where you grew up, wasn’t it, Halrac?”
Revi looked at the [Veteran Scout]. His face was still.
“Yes. It’s a small village. If the Goblins were raiding…they’d have been unable to hire enough adventurers to fight them off.”
“It was fast. I heard most escaped. But there was that, and the fires. They say Drakes started them. That’s the rumor I heard. Even if you’d been at Invrisil and heard about it, you probably wouldn’t have reached them in time.”
Briganda looked at Halrac. His face never moved.
“I know that. The survivors. Where are they? Are there any…?”
He paused. Briganda nodded quickly.
“I think a lot of them did live. Halrac, they’re all at Riverfarm.”
The man stirred. He blinked at Briganda. She nodded.
“Apparently, they all joined the Unseen Empire. That’s what they’re calling it. Some powerful noble—they say an actual [Emperor]—is there.”
“An [Emperor] in Izril? Get out of here.”
Revi snorted. But softly. Briganda shook her head.
“That’s all I heard, Revi. Halrac, I think a lot of Windrest is there. Riverfarm was hit by the Goblins and the fires too, but—they did better than any other area. There was a plague in the Radivaek lands. But…”
“It’s not far to there. We could check on them.”
Revi suggested. Halrac paused.
“I’ll—send a [Message] first. I know someone from the village. Master Helm—the [Blacksmith] and [Village Head]. If he’s alive…but we have careers.”
This was an adventuring team. Everyone nodded, but—family also came first. Home too. Revi didn’t have any stakes in Izril, but if they’d been in Chandrar? Well, she wouldn’t have asked her team to fight in a war.
“You know, there was that interesting job request from Riverfarm. I can find it. I thought it was funny—it was that one that didn’t offer anything but pittance and deferred payment. Hold on.”
Briganda put Cade in Revi’s arms. The Stitch-Woman stared at the boy, curled up, as Briganda got up and looked about. Halrac was just sitting there.
“I think most of them got out, Halrac.”
“Yeah. Thanks for telling me.”
That was all the [Scout] said. And as Revi tried to rock Cade, unsure of what to do, she felt it.
The Players of Celum. Invrisil. The door, coming soon. The Assassin’s Guild on the rise. Riverfarm. A day of fun and relaxation and sudden worry and shock—
Halted. And ceased to matter. Because the adventurers felt it.
Something, running through the city. A chill on Revi’s cloth-skin. She stopped, as Cade yawned. And Halrac and Briganda shot up.
They chorused as one. The Players of Celum looked up as the adventurers shot out of their seats. Eltistiman grabbed his wand, covering the door. Halrac swung his bow up as Revi put Cade on the table.
“Summons out, Revi—”
“No. It’s distant. Something’s—”
A bell began to toll. Everyone in the inn looked up.
“That’s a city-wide alarm. The Watch has felt it.”
Eltistiman breathed. Halrac looked around.
“Jasi! Wesle, take care of Cade.”
“Got it. What are you—”
“Griffon Hunt, with me!”
Halrac ran out of the door. The three adventurers ran after him. Eltistiman stayed with the Players. And Revi looked around.
“Get to the walls! Find the Watch!”
The adventurers ran as everyone else shouted, or panicked or ran for what they thought was safety. But Gold-ranks ran into fire. They saw more adventurers in the streets. Some, Silver-ranks, were hesitating. But Gold-ranks?
The Glitterblades raced out of the Adventurer’s Guild late into the night. They pointed.
Someone was blowing a horn, signaling the area the danger was coming from. Adventurers ran. They passed by the Watch. And Invrisil had a large Watch, well-armed. Not the kind that fought with the criminal underworld, though.
And not prepared..
For this. Revi climbed the eastern walls and stopped. She stared. And Halrac’s [Dangersense]—Briganda’s—no wonder it had gone off.
Her stitches moved. Her cloth-skin crawled. Revi looked up. And she beheld the shadow walking towards Invrisil. A vast thing. A giant.
“Dead gods. What is that?”
Someone breathed. The adventurers looked at each other.
“It’s a giant. An actual Giant or—I can’t see! Halrac!”
They turned to him. The [Scout] was aiming his bow, staring through the darkness.
“It’s some kind of Golem. It’s—made of—flesh.”
Everyone turned to him. And then they stared up at the thing. It had to be at least fifty feet tall. Taller than even the half-Giants. Revi’s skin was crawling.
Halrac drew an arrow and loosed it. The invisible missile sped through the air. Revi saw it detonate.
A flash of flame. From afar, the giant golem appeared. It was made of…flesh. A giant, humanoid figure, walking slowly. Huge stitch-marks were visible. But from afar, Revi could see hair. Arms—what had been bodies. And yes, staring faces.
“The Blighted Kingdom preserve us. What is that? Who made it?”
The thing lumbered at the city. For one purpose. Briganda whispered. Halrac loosed another arrow. Another magical arrowhead exploded.
The thing didn’t even stagger. It just walked through the fire that scorched it. A monster made of—
“Bring it down! As Watch Captain, I am ordering you to join the fight!”
A man was bellowing at the Adventurers. People were blowing horns and the Watch was aiming longbows, wands. But the giant creation was impossibly big. The Gold-rank teams looked at each other. They beheld a monstrosity. So they did what adventurers do.
“Griffon Hunt, forwards!”
Halrac bellowed. His team raced out of Invrisil’s gates, staring up at the huge Flesh Golem. Revi’s glowing warriors raced past her, without fear. But the [Summoner] was afraid.
This wasn’t a Gold-rank threat. It was massive. It could step over the walls and destroy the city if it wasn’t stopped. Her team couldn’t hope to halt it alone; even at full-strength they would have balked at a fight like this.
But they were not alone. More voices bellowed.
“Elites, get fucking ready for a fight! On me!”
Todi strode forwards with his team. Jewel and the Glitterblades raced left.
“We’re flanking it!”
“[Chain Lightning] outgoing! Brace!”
Someone howled from the walls. The adventurers racing below, especially those in armor, ducked. And lightning lit up the night. A Gold-rank team of [Mages] threw lightning and then fire, blasting at the giant colossus.
“Set up a firing spot here! Wailbows, with me—”
“Don’t get near the feet! It’ll crush you!”
“I’m setting up barriers at the gates—cover me—”
Hundreds of adventurers. Gold-rank teams, and Silver-rank teams streamed out the gates. It was like the battle against Crelers. But on a larger scale.
This was the City of Adventurers, Invrisil. And the adventurers lit up the night.
“With me. We’re attacking it from the side.”
Halrac ordered his team left. He drew and loosed in a single motion.
His arrow embedded itself in the flesh-giant’s side, detonated. A bloom of light tore a chunk out of its body. But it was—solid. And it wasn’t a living thing. It stopped, swiping down at the adventurers racing around it. But they dodged.
“It’s got no mobility!”
“It’s solid the entire way through, though! We have to stop it before it gets to the city!”
Revi and Briganda shouted at each other. The colossus’ target was the city; it only attacked those around it, and it kept walking, slowly, crushing ground and everything else in its way.
“Typhenous, use [Valmira’s Comets]. Revi—advance! Send your summoned warriors forwards!”
Revi pointed. Her glowing warriors ran forwards, slashing at the giant’s legs, dodging back. Briganda stared up as Halrac loosed another arrow.
“Engage the legs! Don’t block each other!”
A Gold-rank warrior with an axe cleaved through hardened flesh. But the Golem didn’t even react. Revi shot a bolt of fire and watched it scorch flesh, but—it was so big.
“It’s not going down! It’s—”
“Take down the legs!”
Halrac bellowed at the other teams lighting up the skies with spells. Some heard him and began aiming lower, but there were adventurers in the way.
“Comet outgoing! Dodge!”
Typhenous shouted. Adventurers dodged out of the way as a glowing meteor hit the giant in the left leg. It—paused. But that was all. It bent, aiming a fist at Typhenous.
“Get out of there!”
Revi and Briganda grabbed Typhenous. They fled and the fist shook the ground as it landed. No one could have blocked it. Jewel raced up the arm, copying the famous King of Duels. She began hacking at the head. But this was no half-Giant.
“We have to take it down. Take it to pieces! Use an acid-jar!”
“There’s not enough acid in the world for that thing!”
Griffon Hunt was loosing spells and arrows. Jewel looked up as more spells hit the giant’s head. She jumped, and her fall slowed before she hit the ground.
“Watch your fire!”
“Don’t climb up on the damn thing! Let’s bring it down. Backwards! Elites, aim with me! [Marked Target]!”
A voice from the left. Revi saw a familiar man. Todi aimed a wand, coolly, with Todi’s Elites. He pointed.
Six fireballs shot from the wands. They exploded as one. The flesh giant felt that. It stumbled. Lurching. Part of its leg was destroyed. Todi roared, and his voice was louder than the rest.
“Aim for the fucking left leg you worthless pieces of shit! Bring it down!”
The other adventurers heard him. All of them changed their focus. And the flesh-giant seemed to realize the threat for once.
It moved towards Todi’s team. The Elites launched another volley of [Fireballs] and it stumbled, but it swung an arm down. Horizontally—you couldn’t dodge that and only Lacel could have leapt over it! Three teams screamed as they were hit—Revi saw a man go under, crushed by the arm—
Griffon Hunt had seen the motion and had already moved out of range. Revi spun and shouted at Todi. But his team launched a third set of [Fireballs]. Todi watched the arm sweeping at him.
“Mass-teleport on my mark.”
He paused. The arm swung, like oblivion, crashing through magical walls, obliterating tripvines. Todi nodded.
Revi saw his team vanish. They reappeared behind the giant. Todi pointed.
“Volley. Bring the damn thing down.”
More fire. The flesh-giant hunted for the next victim. It put its foot down, crushing a ground slick with oil or something greasy.
“Don’t try to make it slip you idiots! It’s too heavy!”
Revi howled. She and the other [Mages] were firing. The melee warriors, the brave ones who’d stuck around after the sweep, shouted.
“The leg’s going! Get clear!”
The Flesh Golem stumbled as more explosions tore away it’s body. It fell, one leg snapping. It hit the earth and Revi felt the ground quake. She saw the giant trying to stand. And then sweeping its legs.
“Get around it! Hack it to pieces!”
The adventurers swarmed it. Silver-ranks fought shoulder to shoulder with Golds, ducking out of the way as big spells hit the giant. Briganda blocked a slow punch, saving a bunch of Silver-rank [Mages] who’d frozen at the blow. Halrac blew off a finger with Typhenous’ help.
The walls of Invrisil were filled with adventurers, throwing spells and arrows. The Watch helped, but their arrows were actually more hindrance than not. It did nothing to the giant, and Todi began roaring expletives when the arrows hit one of the adventurers fighting.
They ceased. And the giant kept trying to crawl, kept trying to attack the adventurers. But it was outnumbered by far. And it did not die. It was not alive. Nor would it stop moving until it was completely destroyed.
So that is what they did. Piece by piece, the adventurers vaporized the giant, made of flesh and skin. They hacked it to bits, burnt everything to ash. Until all that remained was the smell and memory.
It was not a battle of heroics. Of desperate last measures and levels. Revi was panting, her clothes and armor smelling of burnt flesh. Nauseating, and almost partially appealing, which was worse.
“What—what was that?”
Halrac’s voice was raw from shouting orders. He stared at the last bloom of fire in the darkness.
“Fucking useless. If we weren’t here, it’d have smashed the city up, but it wouldn’t have gotten there in a million tries with us. What the hell—did someone make that? It was flesh. Where did it come from?”
Todi spat, looking shaken. The other adventurers conferred. Now the blood wasn’t rushing in her ears, Revi could hear more than Halrac and the other adventurer’s words. She leaned on Briganda.
“There were people in it. It was sewn.”
“Children. Families. It came from the east. But—no one reported it until just now. But there were villages…”
The adventurers looked at each other. They stared at what remained.
Bits of skin, like fabric. Black thread, lying amid the ash, unwilling to be burned. The Watch stared. Some—people who had not seen worse, adventurers and guards, vomited.
The smell. The sight. Revi had seen worse things. But not—recently. She looked at her team.
“Who did this?”
She was shaking. And she was not the only one. Jewel was looking at a scrap of…Revi looked away. The adventurers all wanted to know.
“It came from the east. Can anyone raise a [Message] to any of the villages? Anyone?”
The Watch Captain was asking questions, staring. He looked over the walls, the way the thing had come.
East. Dozens of adventuring teams looked at each other.
“Someone made that. I saw the stitch-marks. Let’s get a posse. Any Gold-rank teams. Where’s Arcsinger’s team? Let’s find whoever made that thing! Anyone with me?”
Todi shouted. Instantly, dozens of teams volunteered. The adventurers were shaken. But exhausted? Their horror kept them moving.
“Hold on, we have to wait. Let’s figure out what the hell that was—”
“Damn waiting. Let’s figure it out! Anyone with tracking Skills take the lead! [Scouts] forwards!”
Todi was enraged. He was organizing the teams. He was good at it. Halrac pushed forwards.
“Todi, wait. I’m going to investigate that—”
“With who? I’m finding whatever the fuck made that and putting my fist through its face. We’ve got more Gold-ranks than I can count! Come on!”
The man shook Halrac off. The [Scout] was arguing—and then he stomped away.
“What the hell was that? In the name of Rhir—do they have things like that?”
Revi was still panting. Her cloth felt ill from that. As if something was wriggling in her stitches.
“We have to find out what that was. Where’s the Adventurer’s Guild people?”
They were on the walls, of course. Half of Invrisil was gathered at the gates, staring in horror at what they had seen. It was a mercy the giant had died outside the walls. They asked the adventurers who were coming back what they had seen.
Better not to know. The teams going each moved out, most on horseback. Halrac cursed.
“Where’s the Guildmaster?”
“He’s talking with Adventurer Arcsinger. She’s not joining the hunt—”
“Did she even participate? I didn’t see a powerful blow.”
Revi frowned. She’d expected the Named-rank to have been more obvious. But perhaps she’d missed it? Halrac saw the Guildmaster talking urgently and cursed.
“Find me a [Historian] or [Naturalist] or someone with a bestiary! Now!”
The crowds parted. One of the Adventurer’s Guild staff hurried forwards.
“Here. Adventurer Everam—”
“What was that?”
The man with the Adventurer’s Guild copy of the bestiary hesitated. He held the pages open.
“It—looked like a Flesh Golem. A variant, at least. But the scale of it—”
“Do you have any information on what could make that? How it exists?”
Halrac pushed him aside. The [Scout] whirled.
“Are we going with Todi, Halrac? We can catch up. We’re not letting whatever made that slide, right? If it was a [Necromancer] or…”
Revi was shuddering. She wanted to take out her eyes and nose. But she couldn’t remove her brain, the memory of it. Halrac paused.
“We lack information. Whatever made that had to be Level 40 at the minimum. Level 50—if it was a monster of some kind, a spell?”
“Hold on. We have another source of information. Typhenous. Cast a spell.”
The old [Mage] was panting, sipping from a mana potion. Halrac paused.
“Send it to Terandria. The Hunter’s Guild.”
“I don’t know their location. I’d have to look it up—”
Instantly, Halrac and Briganda turned.
“[Mage]! We need a message-[Mage] now! Mage’s Guild!”
It took them only a moment to get one of the [Mages] normally on duty. The man was frazzled, panting; he’d participated in the battle.
“Adventurers, what can I do for—”
Halrac interrupted him.
“Halrac Everam. Griffon Hunt. To Terandria’s Guild of Hunters. Kingdom of Shade. I don’t remember the name. I need to send a [Message] now, asking for information.”
Halrac looked at Briganda. She nodded.
“Noelictus. Send it to their people. Top priority! They have a [Mage] who can receive. Tell them we need to know what that was. Ask for Cassielle.”
“I’d have to run that by the Guildmaster if it’s top priority—”
The man hesitated. Halrac grabbed him.
“Do it now.”
The [Scout] never shouted, normally. Or raised his voice or changed expression. The [Mage] stared at Halrac the Grim and raised a finger to his temple.
“I have them. One moment. Sending details. Please speak a description of the monster.”
The adventurers spoke over each other.
“Giant—made of flesh—”
“I detected magic from the stitches, which refused to burn—”
“Faces. It was made of faces and arms—someone took apart people and stitched—”
“Fifty feet tall. Solid flesh interior. Enchantment didn’t break until it was nearly completely destroyed.”
The [Mage] tried to send it all. He closed his eyes, reaching for a piece of paper. Revi saw him pause. And his voice became flat, inflectionless.
“Response incoming. Priority to Halrac Everam.”
He wrote, mechanically, on the piece of paper. And then he unfocused. The man slowly handed the paper to Halrac. Revi crowded around with her team. They read. Revi felt her stitches grow cold. The message was short. And it read as followed:
Flesh-Giant confirmed as work of Belavierr, [Stitch Witch]. Aliases—the Spider, the Weaver of Terandria. Threadstealer. Max bounty in excess of 60,000 gold pieces. Named-rank threat. Currently not advised to pursue.
And below that, another message, more personal.
She killed a team of elite [Hunters] and a [Knight]. Equivalent to a Named Adventurer and a Named-rank team. Stay away from her.
Revi felt her threads moving. The name sounded familiar. But…she looked up.
“A Named-rank threat? She killed…”
Briganda paled. She looked at Typhenous. The [Mage] had gone dead white. He looked at his team.
“I’ve heard of Threadstealer. Whispers. I’d rather cross the Assassin’s Guild than her.”
Griffon Hunt looked around. And it was on their leader that they settled. Halrac looked at the note. He silently handed it back to the [Mage].
“Give this to Guildmaster Tealve. Now. I don’t care who he’s talking to. Give this to him. And tell him the adventurers are in pursuit of the Stitch Witch.”
Halrac pushed him. The [Mage] turned and ran. Halrac turned. He checked his quiver.
“Briganda, get us three horses. You’re not coming.”
The woman exclaimed. Revi started. She looked at Halrac.
The man looked at her.
“Todi’s headed straight for her. We have to stop him and the teams who went with them. There are at least eight Gold-rank team’s worth and many Silver-ranks. Briganda, the horses. Move.”
Revi turned to the east. Where no one had raised the alarm over the flesh-giant. And she heard it in Halrac’s voice. They weren’t going to reinforce the other teams.
They were going to prevent a slaughter. Griffon Hunt found four horses waiting for them. They leapt into the saddles and raced out of the city gates, east, pursuing the adventurers who’d rushed to find the perpetrator of this monstrosity.
Briganda refused to stay back. And there was no time to argue. They galloped their horses, as [Messages] were sent, ordering Todi and the others to retreat. But Griffon Hunt went in person. Hoping to catch the other adventurers.
They arrived too late.
In a lonely village stood a woman. She was tall. And her clothes were dark blue, almost black. Like the abyssal depths of the deepest seas. Her hat was pointed. And her eyes were orange, ringed.
She stood still. Like a statue. In the darkest hour before dawn.
The witching hour. Belavierr, the Stitch Witch, didn’t move as the adventurers found her.
In wrath and vengeance. Righteous fury. They surrounded the village. Saw her standing there.
The houses were empty. Not a light flickered in the windows. And no one lived in this village. They should have. It was close to Invrisil.
But it had been emptied. Now, the Stitch Witch waited. She ignored the man roaring his furious questions at her. The adventurers shouting. Her gaze was absent. Far away. The shadows crawled around her, on her dress. And the fury of the adventurers turned cold. They felt a chill that had nothing to do with the warm air.
“Did you do this?”
Todi didn’t know why his voice was shaking. He didn’t hear Griffon Hunt, racing towards the village, shouting at him. The woman in the black dress, the [Witch], seemed to hear at last.
Her head turned. It twisted. She looked at him sideways, and her eyes shone. The rings seemed to draw him in. Todi’s mouth went dry.
“I said—put up your hands. You’re surrounded.”
Multiple teams of adventurers stared at the woman. They hesitated.
“Todi—my [Dangersense] is screaming. It wasn’t going off a second ago. Now it’s—”
One of his teammates whispered. She had gone white. Todi realized the truth. Too late. The [Witch] slowly took a step forwards. The air…groaned. The shadows seemed to nip at the adventurer’s heels.
And the [Witch] whispered.
Just that word. Nothing more. The mortal adventurers stared at her. They searched for the fury they had felt a second ago. But it was extinguished. Slowly, Todi aimed his wand at Belavierr’s face. He saw her lips move, into a wide smile.
The adventurers attacked as one as Griffon Hunt raced into the village. Revi saw arrows flying at the figure. Jewel unsheathed her blade and charged.
Six fireballs flew at Belavierr. The [Witch] turned. She walked through the waves of spells and arrows. And a needle appeared in her hands.
The arrows turned in the air. The fletching screamed and the arrows flickered back to their owners. Screams. Jewel stared. The Stitch-Witch was gone. She had walked in a single step—
There. To the side. Jewel tried to move. And then she realized she couldn’t. She struggled. Little threads were binding her. Her arms slowly moved, back, back.
Snap. Belavierr listened to the scream. She turned. And the [Fireballs] hovered in midair. Todi’s Elites stared as their magic halted. The Stitch Witch tilted her head right and left. And then—Revi saw her reach out and pluck a strand of fire from the first glowing spell.
The fireballs, swirling masses of fire, moved. They became strands of fire. Weaving together, becoming a tangled orb of fire. Belavierr looked at it. And then she pointed.
Todi’s team vanished. The fireball detonated. And the fire—
The flash and heat kicked Revi, even a hundred feet distant. She landed on her back as her horse reared, throwing her. She heard screams. Halrac’s voice.
“Retreat! Fall back!”
Adventurers were screaming. In a second, dozens had been downed. The arrows, the string webs around Belavierr that snapped limbs like twigs—
And the needles. They flashed through the air.
“Behind me! [Shield Wall]!”
Briganda threw up her buckler. Revi saw her shield glow—a hail of needles snapped as they hit the barrier. Briganda grunted.
“Cover me, Typhenous.”
The [Mage] raised his staff as Halrac drew an arrow. Belavierr turned her head as the [Mage] threw an orb at her, a glowing violet ball of energy. She lifted the needle in her hand.
Revi saw the magical ball of power vanish. Typhenous turned pale.
“[Mages] weave magic carelessly. Look. I see a cloth-child.”
Belavierr’s voice was deep. Quiet. Absent. But then she refocused. And she was looking at Revi.
“[Piercing Shot]. [Double Shot].”
Halrac loosed. Two arrows flew. Belavierr lifted her hand. They snapped in midair, as the fletching moved.
“How did she—”
Briganda breathed. Revi lifted her wand, reaching for a summoning stone. Her wand pointed at Belavierr’s chest. And then moved down. Revi stared at her arm. Belavierr looked at her.
“Do you know me, child?”
“Revi, get back!”
Halrac was doing something. He raised another arrow to his string. Typhenous was trying to conjure another spell. But something was wrong.
“I can’t use magic. She’s—unweaving my spells.”
“I can’t move.”
The [Summoner] tried. But her strings, her cloth was—vibrating. Belavierr turned her head left and right.
“Even the String People forget me. Perhaps I have been gone too long. My daughter was right. I forget. So these are adventurers?”
She turned her head. Jewel was lying on the ground. Her arms were broken. Todi aimed a wand at her. This time a bolt of lightning shot at her, fast as thought. It curved up and gently formed a loop. It hit the man on the chest and he went flying. Alive? His amulets—
“Spells don’t work. Nothing with cloth. We have to fight her—”
Typhenous drew his dagger. Belavierr looked at him as he lunged. He was fast—
His robes threw him into the air. Briganda swore. She dove, catching the old [Mage]. She whirled, hatchet raised—
Belavierr reached down and grabbed the [Shield Maiden]’s foot. She stood up. And threw Briganda at a wall.
The Gold-rank adventurer went through the brickwork wall. Revi stared. So did Belavierr.
“So this is Gold-rank now. Intriguing.”
“Fall back! Fall back!”
Someone was screaming the word. Briganda was moving weakly.
“Get back, everyone. Typhenous, grab Revi and go.”
Adventurers were screaming, clawing at needles that stung their bodies. Some were cutting their friends free. But things were moving in the village.
Misshapen things. Golems, made of flesh. Lengths of rope, like snakes, which twined around necks and limbs.
Revi tried to summon her warriors. They were needed. They could buy time—she just had to move her hand to the pouch—
Belavierr was looking at her. The Stitch-Witch seemed fascinated by Revi.
“I have been in Terandria far too long. Tell me, girl. Do you know me?”
Halrac was aiming at Belavierr’s chest. The Stitch-Witch ignored him. Typhenous, clutching at his ribs, grabbed Revi. Then—his robes twisted, choking him.
They were being obliterated. Revi trembled as she saw Briganda trying to sneak up on Belavierr. But her armor—it had thread in it. Belavierr flicked a finger and Briganda went flying again.
They were not prepared for this. Adventurers prepared. They shouldn’t have trusted in numbers. They should have prepared for her.
They should have brought fire. Revi shuddered. Belavierr looked at her.
“Do you know me?”
And now, the words triggered something in her head. Revi went cold. Her stitch-heart beat in her cloth chest. And her lips opened. Because the [Witch] let her.
“You. You—are you—? Are you one of the Threadmakers?”
Once upon a time, someone made the Stitch-Folk. And they had won their freedom. Long ago.
Belavierr smiled and her eyes drew Revi deeper, deeper.
“Close. I did not make you. But I gave your people something. And you have always remembered me. Come here. And let me see what binds you. What you are made of.”
Revi’s legs moved. The Stitch-Witch’s face filled her vision. She began walking to Belavierr. And the [Witch] reached for Revi’s strings.
Halrac loosed his arrow. Belavierr flicked a tip of a finger, dismissively. Revi heard a thunk.
An arrow appeared in Belavierr’s chest. In her heart. The [Witch] blinked. She stared at the arrow shaft.
That was the most normal thing she’d said. Revi felt the control leaving her. She stumbled backwards. Typhenous gasped. Belavierr looked at Halrac, blinking. He loosed another arrow.
This time she flicked her wrist. The arrow went through her neck. The [Witch] made a sound. And Revi realized—
Halrac had stripped his arrows of the fletching. No string. The [Witch] kept moving, though. She wasn’t bleeding. She pointed and Halrac’s armor and clothes moved. He went flying into the air.
He loosed a third arrow, somehow, before he hit the ground. Belavierr staggered and looked at the arrow in her leg.
“Pain. That bow is powerful.”
That was all she said as she pulled the arrow out of her neck. Revi was dragging Typhenous backwards. The [Mage] was gasping, strangled. Briganda was backing up.
They were going to be killed. The Stitch-Witch didn’t even seem slowed by what should have been two mortal wounds. She just sewed both holes in her body shut as she ignored the arrow in her leg. Then she moved.
An arrow stopped, vibrating in her hand. The Stitch-Witch stared at it.
“Without fletching. Can you fire an arrow without?”
Halrac was standing a hundred yards distant. He was aiming at her with his invisible bow. The Stitch Witch looked around.
Adventurers were lying on the street. Few dead. Most immobilized, under assault. She nodded.
She peered around. Todi was running, with his team. Belavierr lifted a finger and the adventurers flew. Revi saw the distant shapes soaring up, ten feet. And then they smacked into the ground.
Like a woman playing with puppets. Belavierr just looked…interested. Her hand moved—it caught another arrow. She paused. And then—nodded. She looked at Revi.
The Stitch Witch nodded.
She lifted her hand—and the shadows stopped moving. The things vanished into the shadows. Belavierr stepped back.
An arrow shot towards her hat. The Stitch Witch made a sound; the arrow detonated. She walked out of the explosion. Her hat and clothing harder than armor for a second. She looked at Halrac.
“Another time. Tell them what you saw.”
That was all. She turned to go. And Revi realized. It was a message. The Stitch Witch began to walk out of the village.
Halrac shouted. The idiot was still loosing arrows. A mundane one snapped on Belavierr’s clothing. The Stitch Witch turned her head.
“Why did you do this? Why?”
The Gold-ranked adventurer aimed at Belavierr’s face. She stared at the glowing arrow tip. And she tilted her head left and right.
Waiting for him to fire. Revi felt her skin crawling.
The Gold-rank adventurer hesitated. Something was flickering in Belavierr’s gaze. The disinterest, that vacant, distant, immortal look was becoming more lucid. And as she came into the world—Revi saw it.
A bit of malice. She looked at the [Veteran Scout]. He paused.
And lowered his bow. The Stitch Witch, the Spider of Terandria, nodded. She spoke one word, an answer.
A word, as abstract as could be. Almost a question. She paused, looking around. And then she turned. Belavierr walked away. A shadow, flickering across the ground.
She was gone. Revi collapsed onto the ground. She felt as though her strings were cut. She looked at her team. The other adventurers, miraculously alive. Because death wasn’t the point. Only the byproduct.
All of this? An empty village? The flesh-giant? It was a [Witch] playing at evil. A symbol, a message.
A mother’s love.
The adventurers. The flesh-golem. Even events now as minor as Lacel the Leaper’s crippling. It had happened, and rumors spread.
Invrisil, the City of Adventurers heard a name that night. A legend, rekindled. The spider scuttled out into the light.
Belavierr. And the Guild of Assassins was for once out-shadowed. But they had sent a message to Izril. Runners could be targeted. And the people who believed in things like ‘pillars of society’, and ‘law’, and ‘justice’ realized the truth. Such things only existed as long as the Stitch Witch decided to obey them.
But her actions were not unnoticed. Nor that of the powerful Assassin’s Guild. Gold-ranks could not stop either. But they were not the only people who opposed such things. Nor even the Hunter’s Guild, or [Knights] alone. There were others.
It had been a bad night. Magnolia Reinhart sipped from a cup of a tea. She had not slept. But the daylight felt false to her.
The shadows were long. And she tasted it, despite the sugar in her drink.
“An old monster has scuttled into my lands, Ressa. And the Assassins are making their move. Something will have to be done.”
“Yes, Lady Magnolia. Should we get brooms and dustpans?”
“Not for a spider, Ressa. Send some [Messages]. The Guild can wait. But this is one large spider. Let the Runner’s Guild handle the [Assassins] for now.”
“Surely they received the [Message].”
The [Lady], Magnolia Reinhart, sighed. She felt the dark presence on her lands. Taunting her. Contemptuous. Magnolia clenched one hand.
“I’m sure they did. But the Guild of Assassins believes too strongly in their myth. They’ve forgotten what Runners are. But Guildmistress Godfrey of First Landing has not. Leave the Runners to her. As for me?”
She paused, tapping her fingers against her teacup. Magnolia Reinhart paused for a long moment.
“Send a [Message], Ressa.”
She sighed as the [Maid] listened, and then bowed. Magnolia Reinhart turned her weary gaze to the sun. How did you slay a dark legend? The Order of Seasons had failed. The [Hunters] and adventurers likewise.
It was easy to believe they were just stories in the light. But a legend was only a story—until it appeared in front of you. Like the King of Destruction. The Necromancer. Or…her.
And here sat a woman. Magnolia Reinhart closed her eyes.
“I hate spiders.”
The second to last chapter before my break. I may be dead a bit. I did write this over two days…but I think I overreached.
As in, that was a lotta words. Some good, some I’d revise if I wasn’t posting just now. But it’s done, and you can’t turn back the clock. Unless you can and you’ve been hiding your ability to do it—I’d love that power, please.
Anyways, time travel aside, I have 1 more chapter left and I think it won’t be the hardest or longest to write…but you know me. After that, I’m taking at least a week off. Possibly two, as I had planned because I need it. I’m close to burning away, or evaporating or whatever happens. Mentally, physically.
Apparently I’ve written over 480,000 words in…less than 3 months. I don’t know if I believe that, but someone said it to me. That’s a lotta words. Is that true? It can’t be true, right? Right?
Anyways, a break is in order, but for now, feast your eyes on some art! There is so much in #fanworks in the Discord right now, and I can’t feature it all, but I’m going to showcase Golems today, done by FlauscheSoeckchen, the same artist as last chapter’s Frostmarrow Behemoth. They are amazingly well-done and the Flesh Golem is accurately horrifying. Second, great art by Chalyon! I love Mrsha and Pisces’ accurate sleep deprivation the most.
These are but two of the artists, and I’ll try to feature two more per chapter until I run out of art! I’m always amazed at how good they are, and this is one of the reasons I write so much. Thanks for supporting the story, and look forwards to my break! I mean, I am. One more chapter! Thanks for reading!
…The ‘R’ stands for GRiffon Hunt. And for Revi. I dunno, but ‘G’ is taken.
Golems by FlauscheSoeckchen
Characters by Chalyon