The irony was that there was nothing malicious in it. If anything, it was just…tiresome. A necessary task, born out of a mother’s love.
She wasn’t even good at her task. Belavierr paused as she strung the glistening red thread made of living sinew through the air. She stepped back to regard her work.
And she saw nothing. No art. No craft. Just—her attempt to capture a word.
The Stitch Witch mused on it. What was evil? How could you know it when you saw it? She knew the world called her evil. But they called everything ‘evil’ in times. Half-Elves, when they ruled. Selphids by their turns. Minotaurs. Human tyrants. It mattered so little. Dragons, Witches—
Everything was evil. So, nothing was. To Belavierr, the word was abstract. She would call herself selfish. Greedy for power. She had given so much to live forever.
But for her daughter, she would learn to define evil. She had made an attempt.
“When they find this, will they call it evil? And will they know it is me? How many hunters will they send? Will they bring their grand armies? And shall I survive?”
The [Witch] wondered. Did she have the strength? She had waxed and waned, with the changing world. She had never been so exposed in thousands of years. Close to mortality.
But perhaps because she was so close, she could understand. Perhaps that was the thing that had led to her becoming a mother. Such a strange thing. Belavierr had held babies before. Too many to count. But only one moved her immortal heart.
For only one she would risk death. To make her powerful.
“Perhaps my name.”
The woman pulled at the thread hanging in the air. And it moved. Glistening red. Entrails, strung across a village. Bodies, unwound. But even this was just—artifice. A copy of a village she had seen long ago, struck by [Pillagers]. Someone had called it evil. Horrific.
“But will they hunt me for it? Cry my name loud enough for her to hear?”
The voice, croaking, strained and raw, came from the side. Belavierr twisted her head and turned. The tall [Witch]’s form paused, at an angle. From beneath her wide hat, her orange, ringed eyes stared. And looked at one of the figures.
He had no legs. No midriff. Or rather—it was only connected to his torso by a single thread. His entrails were the string Belavierr was knitting with. Something had…torn away his lower half.
But he lived. Despite the pain that made his words come between silent screams. But soon—that would cease.
“You are awake. The others are gone. Why do you linger?”
Belavierr regarded the man like a curious insect. She glanced around. The rest of the village was silent. Eyes were open, the unwound bodies…alive. For a given value of it. But the minds behind the staring eyes, the open mouths, were gone. Pain had given way to a kind of terrible relief.
But the man, the [Warrior], clung to life. He stared at her.
“They will send hunters. The Five Families will see you dead. Witch.”
His voice strained with the effort of shaping words. Belavierr caught the other threads, unspoken. Why? Why did you do it? What did our village do? Why are we suffering? Why was I not strong enough?
Why, why, why? And she stopped. She looked at him for a long time. Long enough that he was foaming at the mouth, biting through his lips, struggling. But Belavierr sometimes still walked to an immortal’s time.
“Good. Let them send their warriors.”
She smiled. And something like anticipation, even pleasure, entered her eyes. Because the mortal part of her remembered the thrill of battle. The challenge.
The man looked upon the smiling [Witch]. He whispered, trying to give her fear.
“They’ll send [Knights]. Champions. [Mages] too. They will find you and make you suffer.”
The word made him flinch. Belavierr was smiling. She laughed, then. Mocking his bravado. And she leaned down. He stared into her eyes and saw the forming rings. Many had been broken. But—the lines of her immortality were knitting slowly. He had put a sword through her chest and it had done nothing.
“I cannot be killed with magicless shears. And the great wonders are gone. The last of Giants rot and their descendants grow smaller. The Dragons have fallen from the skies. Send your [Knights]. They have come by the tens of thousands. And they were never enough. The world has forgotten how to kill me.”
She laughed in his face. The man looked up. And if willpower were enough to bridge the gap between them—if you could make a sword out of determination—
His would not be enough. Even so. His eyes grew distant. He never replied. Belavierr straightened. And she looked at him.
“Is that all? Hello?”
She prodded him with a finger. But there was nothing left. He had cut his own strings. And for a second—the Stitch Witch was disappointed. She looked around, lost.
“Even the souls wane. Where are legends now, but in memory?”
She threw open her arms and spoke to the sky, as if it could answer her.
“Send your champions. Show me a burning flame in this waning world! Please. Or else my daughter will be as small as you. And she must live. She must find her power. But you grow so small.”
She looked at the village. At the dead man’s face. And then Belavierr turned away. Another village. Another marker. And—she glanced back.
There, amid the hanging threads made of red. The strewn entrails, the slaughter, was a web crisscrossing the rooftops. And she had signed her name.
Just in case. The Stitch Witch nodded. And she turned. A black horse waited for her at the outskirts of the village. Belavierr slowly mounted it and rode.
To destroy. To commit evil, as best she could. The lands around Invrisil were quiet, filled with terror as small places went silent. But the Stitch Witch continued. There was no one to stop her. The people of this land had grown too small. And the Spider of Terandria was unmatched.
A scuttling, wretched presence in Izril. A creeping shadow, walking in the light unopposed. Foulness, seeping from decay.
[Assassins], reclaiming their throne of fear. Plots in the darkness. But it was not unnoticed. They waned. But still—Izril’s guardians lived.
The study’s doors were vast. Tall, and ashen pale—the wood was not a normal tree’s living fibers. The door looked made of stone.
But the wood had a small bit of warmth that the hall’s temperature clung to. It was not stone. Rather, ironwood. A material made from a tree that had all but passed from the earth.
Yet, this door remained. And it had been carved over nineteen thousand years ago. So long that regular wood, even magicked, would have fallen to dust.
They were slightly open now. The girl quaked as she approached. But the [Lady] who was ushering her and the small crowd of children forwards was…
Well, not that reassuring. She looked more annoyed than anything, but she was trying to hide it by a veneer of vague excitement and kindness. But the children—the perceptive ones—could see straight through it.
“This way, everyone. Remember your manners.”
The children, all dressed in their best clothing, looked up at her solemnly. As if any of them needed to be told. They were standing more or less to attention. And nervous.
They had on their best clothes. And with this group, ‘best’ meant they were attired like a group attending a noble’s ball. Fittingly, in a way, but all the expense that went into each piece of clothing—it was all wasted. The one who waited within cared very little for such things, now.
“Is that you, Desinee? Well, enough dawdling. Send them in, then.”
A crackling voice made the children start. It was familiar to them. But they cast a glance at the [Lady]. And she nodded.
“Right inside. Don’t be worried.”
She was truly bad at being reassuring. But she swung open the ancient doors. Ironwood moved silently. It was a heavy door. And contrary to its name—ironwood was far stronger than iron. It could have withstood a siege. It had in times past. The one sitting in the chair remembered one.
“Come in, children. Let’s see what the current generation is worth.”
Slowly, the children walked into the room. And they found a study. Grand, filled with books. Tomes almost as old as the door. Warmth, too. Almost unbearable.
A woman sat in the chair, by the fire. And she was old. Her hair was white, her skin papery. She sat in a wheelchair.
Not a machined, metal-and-plastic design from another world, but a more—primitive design. One made by people who had paid as much attention to the design and ornamentation of the wheels as movability.
But there was magic woven into the chair as well that kept it light and someone had installed padded cushions to cradle the owner’s back and sides. And then—she had had the chair remodeled to actually fit her comfortably.
It did not move as the children came to a nervous stop. The woman looked at each of them.
“Well? Step forwards. Sit or stand as you like. Let me look at you. My, you’ve all grown.”
The children spilled forwards again. Some hesitated as they looked at the carpet. Sit on that? Without a proper chair? It said something of their heritage that they considered whether it would wrinkle their fancy clothes, even at their young age.
“Zedalien. The door.”
The old woman looked up. The warmth from the room was spilling out.
A figure moved. A man, tall and graceful and handsome, his hair blonde and turning to white, but his features barely lined, slowly closed the heavy doors. The [Lady], Desinee, stepped to one side as he did. She was Human, a [Lady]. But the man’s ears were longer, pointed.
A half-Elf. He bowed slightly. And the old woman sighed. She leaned back, and the chair moved to accommodate the motion. She looked at the young faces staring up at her. And she spoke slowly, searching each one.
“You are all here because it is time. Twelve of you? Enough, enough bowing and curtseying. Sit or stand! But stop blocking the light!”
The children jumped. They moved out of the way of the fireplace. The light was the only illumination in the room. The old woman sighed again.
“Where was I? Ah, yes, the time. You’re all old enough to be here. And I think…this is the last time I’ll have the patience for this. So sit—and listen. You are all little brats. And I don’t have the time to deal with you normally.”
The little brats stared. They weren’t accustomed to being addressed like this either. The old [Lady] continued.
“But I do this for each generation. To ensure you know our history, not just what your parents teach you. If they even bother.”
She snorted, and Desinee stirred. But it was a muted protest; she had been here as well. And she could remember.
“You are to learn the history of the Five Families. The true history, or at least—all that matters. Go read a book if you want to know our entire history. But when you are in my presence, today, I will tell you the truth. Hm? What’s that?”
One of the children was respectfully raising her hand. The old woman looked at her.
“What is it?”
“Lady Irisa, Great-Great Grandmother. I’ve actually been schooled on the history of our family and the other four Founding Families of Izril. I can recite it if you would like me to.”
The young girl, Irisa, had a rather expectant look on her face. The old lady stared at her. Desinee winced. She saw the old woman point.
“That’s the first one. Not a record, more’s the pity. That was that little snot of a boy who wiped his nose on the door. Desinee.”
“Yes. This way, Irisa.”
The [Lady] sighed and beckoned. Irisa started.
“What? But I just—”
The [Lady] frowned and made a motion with one hand. Irisa’s lips snapped shut. She pulled at her lips, and then, white-faced, stumbled over to the side. To listen. But she’d failed. The other children stared wide-eyed at her. And then they turned to face the old woman. She snorted.
“To speak in my presence is a privilege I afford few of your parents. Now, be quiet and listen. This is a lesson. The Five Families. The founding families of Izril, who took this land from the Drakes and Gnolls thousands upon thousands of years ago.”
“My father says we didn’t take it—”
A finger pointed. The boy recoiled as if he’d been slapped. His mouth slammed shut. And the old woman tsked as the half-Elf led him to one side.
“How soon it begins. Listen to me. We claimed this land and it was the Drakes’ and Gnolls’ land. Long before ours. We won it by spell and sword and blood. As far as I’m concerned, that makes it ours. But we took it. And they want it back. Argue over whether they deserve it, but argue with the truth of what happened and I will have Zedalien tan your hides.”
All eyes looked at the half-Elf. He was white-haired, and he had a few signs of age. And in a half-Elf? He had been serving his position before they had been born. Before their parents had been born.
“We took this land. Back when Dragons still backed Drakes. Five of Terandria’s greatest noble houses sailed across the sea with the express purpose of taking this land. And we brought artifacts, armies. And it took us eons, but we fought the Drakes and Gnolls back. Mainly because they were too busy fighting each other. But we took it. That is a fact. Just like how half-Elves ruled Terandria as much as Humans in times past. Like that, Zedalien? They might as well know that too.”
She pointed at the half-Elf and laughed. The half-Elf bowed.
“Your will, Lady El.”
“Yes. Mine. So—listen. I won’t bore you with tales of our glorious victories or history. You only need to know what the Five Families are now. And do you know what that is?”
She looked around, the matriarch of the El family. And the newest descendants of the House of El, one of the Five Families, stirred. They were aware this was a test. So—two raised their hands. The old lady pointed at one.
“We’re the House of El, Great Great Grandmother?”
She stared at him. He stared back, shaking with nerves. The old [Lady] leaned back.
“…Yes. We are. Go stand over there.”
The young boy stood and walked over, flushed with shame. The old lady looked at the girl who had turned pale.
“And your answer?”
This answer made the old woman sit up. She peered at the girl.
“Who told you that was the answer I wanted?”
A pause. The girl turned white.
The old lady snorted. But she didn’t point to the side.
“Well then, you’re right either way. And yes. That is what we are. In decline. But I think of it differently. We—all of the Five Families—have a curse. Each of us, each different. And they have left us in this state today. Faded.”
She lifted a hand. And her thin skin shone in the firelight, exposing veins around spotted flesh. The children looked at her and she smiled.
“This is what age looks like. Afraid? You have many decades to go until this moment, you little brats. But remember it. You do not have forever. Now—listen to what I think ails the Five Families. Including our house. Where shall I start? How about…Wellfar. They’ve been in my ears. Why, Zedalien?”
“The scandal between Lady Dealia and Lord Bein, milady. As well as Lady Hetessana Wellfar’s claim.”
The half-Elf smoothly bowed. The old woman nodded.
“Ah. And the [Assassins]. Yes. Wellfar. Coastal holdings. They control trade, and they are rich. Far richer than our house.”
She chuckled with dark humor and the children shifted uncomfortably. The old lady mused.
“They led our navies to Izril in the first days. And they were always powerful at sea. They still are. But as I said—cursed. Wellfar’s navies are rich still, but their family shrinks with each passing year. Infertile, the lot of them. Also cursed by their holdings; they ruled the seas, but they never expanded far inland. Do you understand?”
She glanced at the kids again. The young nobles hesitated. One seemed to take this as a challenge. She stood up and recited in a loud voice.
“The—the Wellfar family has earned money in trade from sugar and Eir Gel this year. Their profits are 13% up from last year, and they have ordered four new galleon-ships as a result. They—”
A slashing motion from Desinee. The girl tried to keep talking for a good ten seconds after she’d been silenced. The old woman rolled her eyes.
“What idiotic attempts. Thank your parents for disgracing yourself, girl. Hm.”
Her eyes roamed the group of children. And she picked out a dozing boy. This time the matriarch’s eyes narrowed.
The half-Elf smoothly stepped forwards. The awake children jumped as they heard a smack and a howl. The young [Lordling] shot to his feet.
“He hit me!”
“Do it again, Zedalien. Unless he shuts up. And the rest of you—this will not take long. If you can’t stay awake, Zedalien will hit you. And if that doesn’t seem to work, perhaps I should cut the funds to all your houses, hm? The House of El does not have money for idiots who cannot listen for twenty minutes.”
That silenced everyone present, even the howling boy. And he went pale with fear. The old woman looked around.
“Desinee, the fire is growing low. Put more wood on it. The scented stuff.”
The younger [Lady] silently did as the old woman bid. And she manually added a log to the fire, even as Zedalien pulled the sniveling boy to the side. And the old woman nodded. She sat back in her chair. And she couldn’t have stood to give the boy the back of her hand, even if she’d wanted to. Or else she would have done it already, rather than waiting for her servant.
She was old. Not as old as a certain Grand Strategist, but she was as old as her actual age. And her skin was frail, her body failing. But her eyes were sharp. And in them burned the same woman who had lived all this time.
Once, there had been a fire they called a [Lady]. And she had burned like the sun. Now, she sat in the carpeted room as the heat rose. In her magical wheelchair, pointing now and then as she spoke. Dozing or distracted children were made to stand. But the old woman still spoke, because it was important. Because they needed to know, and because she was running out of time.
Her name was Maviola El. And she was the leader of the House of El. When she spoke, it was with authority. And the children were afraid, because she could, at her whim, cut their families off from much of the gold that they so desperately wanted.
Gold flowed through the El family’s coffers, as much as came in these days. But the matriarch or patriarch of the family controlled the distribution of wealth with an iron fist. It was their way. So, each year, every family received a stipend on top of their own funds, and contributed money to the family’s ventures each year as well.
What was given was usually more than what was received. And those with value received the most. Hence the children on their best behavior.
“Where was I, Zedalien?”
“The House of Wellfar, Lady Maviola. You had described their affliction.”
“Ah, infertility and reclusiveness, isolation. For all they’re rich still. You could say they’ve done the best out of all of us. Except for the Terlands, maybe. Well—the Terlands.”
Maviola’s eyes glittered. Not with fond memories either. The Five Families were allies, but not friends.
“The Terlands. Plagued by idiots like their Lord Bein, but more than that? Victims of their success. They did well, settling their lands. Too well. Their descendants keep to mage-towns and spell-castles and the fruits of the past. And they look outwards little. So little. But the same could apply to us all. And they did better than Veltras and Reinhart—what’s that, young man?”
A boy had raised a hand.
“Isn’t Lord Tyrion the leader of the north, Great…Great Grandmother? I mean to say, he lead the armies against the Goblin Lord.”
Maviola’s finger twitched. The boy looked crestfallen.
“Don’t call me Grandmother. You may all call me Lady Maviola, or Lady El. And Tyrion Veltras? That boy? One might as well compare him to Magnolia Reinhart. Two identical children always butting heads. No, they have their own woes. Lord Tyrion? I wouldn’t duel him on a tourney field, but anywhere else he’s nothing much.”
The boys and girls stirred, the boys especially. Everyone knew of one of the most famed [Lords] living, Tyrion Veltras, renowned for his prowess on the battlefield. But Maviola was dismissive as she spoke.
“The Veltras Family is cursed by many things. The Veltras fury, aye, when it crops up, and their land as well. They never quite settled the untamed wildernesses. The vast Forest of Vail. But then—they preferred it back then. They were magnificent [Beastlords] and tamers of the wild. In ages past. But time changed them.”
“How, Lady Maviola?”
A hand. The old lady stared at the young girl who’d passed her question. She narrowed her eyes, but decided to reply.
“They stopped raising as many animals. Turned to war, rather than just hunting and coexisting. Radivaek raises better dogs than Veltras hounds, and it used to be that Radivaek didn’t even exist. The wilds and their holdings mean the Veltras scions learn to fight. They make excellent [Generals] and [Warmasters]—poor leaders of men.”
The children scratched their heads. They didn’t appreciate the difference. Well, most of them. Maviola’s eyes flicked from face to face, seeing which ones were thinking over what she told them, which were just vacuous.
Well, that left only one of the families left, besides their own. Everyone waited as Maviola accepted a drink. Because the last family’s name made some shudder, even in this safe place.
“Reinhart. Richest and most powerful of the families. At the moment. The Reinharts were always snakes. Masters of tricks and poisons. Magnolia Reinhart is the most honest of the lot. She pulled her own fangs. But her family?”
She looked around. The children shivered. You heard stories of Reinharts, even in the other Five Families. They had a…reputation. But what had they been cursed by? Everyone waited. And Maviola smiled bitterly.
“You might think a house like Reinhart would slit each other’s throats, but they’ve always been rather loyal to each other. They play deadly games, but they have few of the faults of other families. Their only curse was Regis Reinhart. He preserved them. But he took from each generation. They should have buried him when he died the first time.”
None of the children knew who that was. But that seemed to be all Maviola wanted to say. She sipped from her drink, paused.
“And that leaves only one family left. The House of El.”
She gestured towards the grand door, the study full of knowledge. The children looked up, awed by their past. And the old woman smiled as they stared at ancient weapons gleaming on racks, tomes of knowledge. The power of one of the Five Families.
“Don’t get sentimental. All the weapons are replicas.”
Heads snapped down. Maviola leaned back in the custom-made chair.
“We are great crafters, artisans of magic. There was a time when we raised [Magelords] and [Spellweavers] who created the artifacts adventurers fought for, armed our armies with magic and sorcery as well as steel. We were mighty. But our curse has left us low. Lower than the other Five Families. And that curse is most pressing. Most dire.”
Silence. The children’s minds raced with apprehension. What could it be? Maviola sighed.
“Our curse…is that we are completely out of money.”
Everyone stared at Maviola. She sipped from her teacup and looked around.
“What? A curse need not be intangible. The House of El is poor. Not destitute, but we have lost almost all of our great artifacts of old. All our investments. Everything. And we have been poor and growing more so over the thousands of years. Remember that, when you beg your parents for a new horse.”
No one said a word. They were all rather uncomfortable, the young scions of the El family, about what was being said. No one had ever spelled it out for them like this. Hence, Maviola. She drummed her fingers on the armrest of her chair.
“No doubt, one of you will ask me why we don’t simply make more money? Well, it has been attempted. But the truth is the Five Families are shadows of what they were. Strong shadows, but we do not have Giants employed as [Mercenaries], for instance. Or [Dragonriders] from the Veltras families, or fleets of twenty thousand of Wellfar’s ships. We had these things. And they faded. Now, the nobility of Izril is in a crisis. We lack leaders. We are fewer than any can remember. Even our best [Lords] and [Ladies] are…”
She flicked one wrist.
“Did I hear one boy who seemed to be a fan of Tyrion Veltras?”
A girl pointed.
“It was Lord Iminel, Lady Maviola.”
The old woman smiled pleasantly at the girl.
“That was a rhetorical question, girl. Stand over there.”
The girl shuffled off, feeling that she’d been tricked. Lady Maviola El sighed.
“Tyrion Veltras and Magnolia Reinhart. A deadly flower with all the thorns in the world and a Wyvern wearing a wolf’s fur. They replaced their parents. And they are fierce. I’d never deny that. Thanks to the two of them, Izril’s north survived the Antinium by aiding the Drakes and fought off the Goblin Lord. But beyond that?”
“They’re two monsters who know war better than peace. Even Magnolia, for all she tries to keep her family and herself in line. When she was a girl she spilled blood to get her way like a [Hydromancer] calls water. She manages her estates well, and her allies. But she has a conscience. And that makes her weak.”
“Comparatively, Lady El?”
Zedalien bowed from the side. The old woman grinned at him.
“Comparatively, Zedalien. Thank you for reminding me. Magnolia Reinhart is the best of the Reinharts today. But listen, you little children. We have had deadlier. Magnolia Reinhart is one of the most dangerous women in the world. Better than her mother and even grandmother. But Salienn Reinhart died eight hundred years ago. And she drank the blood of her enemies and consorted with immortality for over three centuries. She was a Reinhart among Reinharts. But—”
Maviola began to cough. Zedalien hurried over and helped her. The children saw the old woman gasping, and then Maviola sat back, exhausted by the sudden fit. It was a familiar scene.
“Immortality has its price. But so does old age. Did I say Magnolia and Tyrion Veltras were flawed? They’re well enough. But we’ve lost so many of our great leaders. During the Antinium Wars.”
The Antinium Wars. They echoed still, as the children shifted. The House of El remembered those days. They had anniversaries, death dates.
The March of Flowers was remembered. Was still fresh. Maviola was nodding. Her eyes flashed bitterly as she recited names.
“Fulviolo El. Petria Terland and her sister, Ulva. My brother and the Terland twins would have been magnificent leaders. But losing Petria broke Ulva in half. So now there is me. And two children who snap at each other while the other families take sides. The family of El cannot duel the other four families like we used to. And there are too few of us left. The nobility of Izril. Too few to manage all the land.”
“Something can surely be done, Lady Maviola.”
It was Desinee who offered that. She was hardly immune to the dire talk coming from the House of El’s matriarch. The old woman glanced at the [Lady]. She snapped, irritably.
“You want to fix it, Desinee? Go to your husband, lie in bed with a fertility potion, and give birth to a child a year.”
The [Lady] recoiled. Maviola laughed.
“Don’t like that, do you? None of the new [Ladies] do. Pryde, Magnolia, even that harlot, Bethal, and all the others like Ieka don’t want to birth eight children. Which is what we used to demand! But that’s what’s needed.”
She looked pensively into the fire, which was fading again. And Maviola’s voice was cracked with loss.
“We lost too many during the Sacrifice of Roses. Too many. Not just that our families decline. The Goblin King took a terrible toll.”
This the children understood. Missing links of a family tree, that ended suddenly could be traced back to one day, or to one year. Izril’s nobility had lost too many and had yet to rebuild their numbers.
But what could be done? The new generation waited as Maviola looked about. Perhaps, perhaps, the future lay with them. They would become the hope of their House, rebuild it to glory. The children looked at each other.
And then—realized something. All of them were standing. They had been disqualified during the little history lecture. Silenced and made to wait by one side.
Only one of them was left. And she sat in front of Maviola. The old woman nodded.
“One made it? Better than last time. Have the other children go back to their families, Desinee. I’ll speak to…this one alone.”
The other children were herded out of the room. The double doors slammed shut and the girl got to her feet. She stood very properly in front of Maviola. The old woman eyed her, sardonically.
“So, just you, girl? Your parents tell me you are a prodigy. They shout it, rather. Zeci, isn’t it?”
“Yes, Lady Maviola.”
The answer came at once. The old woman studied Zeci and the girl braced herself for any question in the world. But the one that came at her still caught her unawares.
“Do you enjoy your studies, Zeci? Horseback riding, calligraphy, finances—your parents have you studying at all hours, don’t they?”
“I enjoy it, Lady Maviola.”
The girl replied after a moment’s hesitation. The old woman looked at her and rolled her eyes. It was a gesture that indicated complete disbelief.
“Really. You enjoy your studies? And all these costly [Tutors] and such?”
“…Yes, Lady Maviola. I enjoy learning.”
“Hm. Interesting. Approach me, Zeci.”
The young [Lady] did so, tentatively. She stared up at Maviola’s face, but without letting the imperious look deter her. The old woman smiled. Then she lifted a hand.
And there was fire. Brilliant, white fire. It rested in the hand of the old [Lady]. And she looked at Zeci’s wide eyes. There was no heat, but the flame was intense.
“Do you know what they called me, girl?”
Once, there had been a fire—Zeci gulped. She stared at the fire and then at the woman’s face. Only her eyes burned with the same radiance.
“Y-yes, Grandmother. I mean…”
“Fire. Look at it. Isn’t it beautiful?”
It was. But—Zeci was also afraid. The matriarch of the House of El had lived for a long time. And—she had not always lived kindly. She spoke as she leaned down in her chair.
“I have a Skill that tells apart little girls who lie to me. Even if their parents give her tricks to avoid truth spells. Put your hand in the fire, Zeci El.”
The girl stared at the flames, terrified, and then at Maviola. The matriarch grinned.
“It will only burn you if you lie, or try to lie. If you are truthful, you will feel nothing. But lie? And you will mourn that hand for your entire life. Like so.”
She lifted her other hand. And Zeci saw an old, old scar that travelled down Maviola’s hand, all the way up to her upper arm. The girl recoiled, but the old woman pushed the flame towards her.
“Go on. Put your hand in the fire and swear that you enjoy your studies. Do it now.”
The girl flinched away. She reached for the fire with her left hand, stared at it, and then, abruptly, burst into tears.
“I lied! I don’t want to study all day! Don’t make me touch the fire, Great Grandmother!”
The old woman sat back. Abruptly, the fire winked out. She looked at Zeci.
“Did your parents make you study?”
“Yes. They told me it would be good for our family. And they told me to say—”
The girl, tearful, confessed everything in a rush. Only after she had let it all out did Zeci realize it might spell trouble for her family. She choked on her tears.
“Do not be worried, Zeci. I will deal with your parents. And they will not be rendered entirely poor this year. But your lessons will cease and I believe you will take only the ones you enjoy—and perhaps some that are necessary.”
“Thank you, Grandmother!”
The girl threw her arms carefully around the old woman. Maviola patted her on the head.
“There, there. And remember—do not lie to me!”
She pinched a cheek and Zeci nodded obediently. Maviola waved a hand and a shadow moved. Zedalien led the girl towards the door. Only when he had escorted her outside did he return.
And only then did he address Maviola more casually, as the two sat in silence.
“Tormenting children with illusionary fire, Lady Maviola?”
She laughed, tiredly.
“Someone must. It keeps them honest. Well, I’ve hopefully put some wisdom into their heads, which is a fine day’s work. Take me to the workshops, Zedalien. Let’s hope we have good news to go along with resolving little Zeci’s ridiculous situation.”
“Yes, Lady El.”
The wheelchair moved softly across the carpet as the half-Elf pushed Maviola’s chair. She drew the shawl around her body as they left the warm study. Maviola saw Zedalien glancing at her as they left.
“Don’t mind me, Zedalien. I don’t need to be coddled for long. I plan to announce my retirement…within the week. Sooner, if I can do it with one last triumph.”
The half-Elf’s face was eternally youthful. Beautiful, with an immortal’s features. Otherworldly as well. But he was older than Maviola. For all that—she was the more aged of the two, in body and in soul. Yet the half-Elf was the one who ducked his head.
“So soon, Maviola?”
“I can’t do this another year. Or a month. My bones hurt. I could cough and break my ribs again. I’m tired, Zedalien. It’s time.”
The woman’s voice was frank. The half-Elf looked as though he weakened with each step.
“And yet—your predecessor, before Lord Fulviolo if you will pardon my lapse, Lady El—she felt strongly enough to continue into her ninety-eighth year…”
“My body gave out before my spirit, Zedalien. That’s all there is to it.”
“My apologies, Lady El. I—forget myself.”
Zedalien shook his head. With effort, he took a firmer grip of the chair as they moved down the hallway. The old woman continued, almost cheerfully.
“Forget? You remember everything, Zedalien. And you—don’t age. Half-Elves. Half-Elves were the finest idea we had, employing your people as aides. You remember. I am counting on you to teach the next leader. Which will likely be Deilan, for all the girls think I’ll favor them. He’s pretentious. But cautious. He’ll do, until someone with the will takes over.”
The two nodded. They’d discussed this. Even so, Zedalien looked wan. He closed his eyes as they reached another set of fortified ironwood doors. The keep that had been built for the House of El had been fashioned as a grand living space, fortification, and workshop.
Master crafters and artisans that had rivaled the Dwarves. Some of that remained. But so little. The half-Elf, who had been hired in the tradition of the El family—hiring half-Elves for their personal aides and servants—looked at the third head of the House of the El he had served. And he knew it was her time.
“I believe I will tender my resignation, once Lord Deilan is comfortable in his office, Lady Maviola. It has been an honor. Until that moment…I hope to serve you as faithfully as my father.”
That was all he said. The old lady snorted as he opened the workshop doors. But fondly. Sadly. She reached out and touched his hand as he paused to bend and bow.
“Half-Elves. Hearts like glass. But loyal, so loyal. You should have never stayed to watch me grow old.”
The doors opened as the half-Elf straightened. And he silently wheeled Lady Maviola into the workshop.
It was empty for the moment. The artisans employed and [Mages] were not needed. Their work was finished. A [Lord] stood in the room. But he had on a workman’s vest. And he was holding a curious stick. A rod, rather, with a curious little button on the side. When he saw Maviola and Zedalien, he bowed.
“Deilan. The products are finished. How goes the negotiations?”
The old woman sat up in her wheelchair, looking at the [Lord]. Lord Deilan was a member of the House of El, but he kept to their old ways. He was a [Lord], but an [Artisan] as well, one who worked with magic and material. It was the reason he was going to be the next leader of the House of El. He was thirty six years old.
And he was a bit pretentious. A bit…enamored with the House of El’s legacy. But he did know the work. And as he straightened, Maviola saw his expression darken. No platitudes about the craftsmanship of their goods from him now.
“…Poorly, Maviola. There is no interest.”
The old woman took the news with steady acceptance. Just a grimace.
“Wistram fell through? And the Iron Vanguard? And…?”
“It seems the [Mages] have something to occupy their interests, Lady Maviola. I was in negotiations with Archmage Nailihuaile just last week, but suddenly—she’s no longer interested. And the other buyers…the same.”
“But why? Two hundred blades we made. And no one will buy a one?”
Pained, the elderly woman gestured at the object that Deilan was holding. He handed it to her and she held it carefully. She pressed on the side.
There was a click. The blade was attached to a bit of spring-loaded metal. It shot out from the concealed hiding spot. A rod of metal, rather than a blade, even. But as it extended, there was a flash of light.
A glittering, red-green blade made of magic, transparent at the edges, appeared. Lady Maviola regarded it.
A glowing, magical edge, shaped like a sword’s blade. But light! Light enough even for her!
“Kaalblades. Artifacts, crafted artifacts from another era. We put all our resources into it. All we could spare. It’s a weapon fit for—and they said no?”
Deilan shook his head. He regarded another of the finished Kaalblades. He activated it and carefully cut the air.
“This could cut through most mundane metals, and even weaker enchantments! Not as smooth as butter, but the sharpness of the blade! If only it didn’t run out of power…”
Lady Maviola looked at Deilan.
“You told me, Deilan. So the individual adventurers? [Merchants] wouldn’t buy because…”
“Adventurers don’t want to pay for mana stones, Lady Maviola. If they were cheaper on the market, perhaps—but as it stood, no [Merchant] would pay our prices. And I went as low as you would allow…”
Maviola disengaged the magical blade. She bowed her head as Zedalien gently took the weapon. Or tried to. The old lady hung on. When she raised her gaze, her eyes were shimmering.
With tears. It was so unexpected that both the half-Elf and [Lord] averted their gaze. But Maviola just brushed at the tears, as if surprised they were there.
“I’ve failed you, Deilan. I hoped I could leave you with the profits from something. But it’s just another venture…Fulviolo had a gift for knowing what would sell. I do not. I’ve made your job harder, when I should have left alone. My arrogance.”
“Lady M—Great Aunt. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Lord Deilan sank to one knee in the workshop. The old woman smiled at him.
“You lie well, Deilan. But let’s not lie; this was an old [Lady]’s last folly. Keep them, Deilan. Hold onto them until you can find a buyer. Don’t sell them cheaply, mind. We can afford to tighten our belts another generation if need be. Or rather, you can.”
The [Lord]’s gentle grip on Maviola’s hands tightened for a moment. He blinked at her, around the grime on his face.
“It is not official. I may announce it later this week. But it is time. You will be the next patriarch of the House of El. Zedalien is my witness. Has been for months now, despite the squabbling. I am done, Deilan. It is time.”
The old woman reached out. The [Lord]’s grip was tight—before he remembered and released. Slight bruises were already appearing on Maviola’s hands, and he turned red with shame. But Zedalien was already opening a healing potion. And Maviola took no notice. She reached out.
“Do well, Deilan. Listen to Zedalien. And try to avoid Goblin Kings. You’re a bit arrogant. But that’s good. Just lead us well.”
His eyes were shining with tears.
“Great Aunt, I will. I swear it.”
A smile. And for a moment, she was young again.
“Good. Time enough for ceremony later. I don’t know how I’ll do it. Part of me wants to just—vanish. Keep the idiots guessing and let you fight to take charge. But I won’t, I think. Stop crying, young man. I’ve been planning my end for over a decade. Stubbornness kept me around.”
“And now I’m to be…”
The [Lord] stared, suddenly aware of his burdens, for all he had coveted the power. And like that, the drama involving the House of El’s succession came to a close. Maviola El smiled.
“Why do you think I’ve had you negotiating and taking my job for the last two years, Deilan? Ah, well, we will discuss the rest before I go. Not much to say, really; Zedalien knows my job. And he will be with you for a year or two.”
Deilan looked at Zedalien. The half-Elf bowed slightly.
“I plan to retire myself with Lady Maviola’s…retirement, Lord Deilan. I have not the heart for another generation. But I will accompany you until my replacement is ready and you are secure in your post.”
“Of course. Of course. You have my thanks. And—”
Deilan looked at the old woman. And it struck him. There went Maviola El. And Zedalien. Two of the House of El’s oldest members. And here he saw. He trembled. But his spine straightened. And Maviola saw and approved.
Not just yet would the Five Families slip away. Not yet.
“Lady El. A [Message] from Lady Magnolia Reinhart.”
Later, as Lord Deilan was sitting in the study with Maviola, asking what questions needed asking, and avoiding discussion of what came next for her…the old woman looked up. Zedalien had a [Message] spell in his hands.
“Hm? It must be urgent. She’s not normally so direct otherwise. Let me see. Ah—”
Maviola’s brow wrinkled. Deilan looked at her.
“Great Aunt? Is something…?”
A troubled look crossed the matriarch’s brow, and then vanished. In fact, Maviola’s gaze almost looked—relieved. Or happy? She nodded at Deilan.
“Nothing that need concern you, Deilan. A [Lady]’s business. Just like you [Lords] and your clubs. Magnolia has an issue. And of course, she’s decided to take the lead on…”
She paused, drumming her fingers on the armrest.
“Reinhart. And what did the other [Ladies] say? No—Ulva Terland wouldn’t accede no matter what. Veltras’ get are terrified of Tyrion, although some might…Wellfar?”
She looked at Zedalien. The half-Elf bowed.
“Refusals, Lady El. At least to move in concert. So Lady Magnolia has come to you.”
“Does she think I won’t survive the trip? Well—I might not. But for this? Yes. Ulva is a proud idiot.”
Maviola winced at the brutal acknowledgement. Briskly, she shook her head. Then she paused again.
“It should be done. I can send…no. It’s very fitting. Tell Magnolia I will accede. But not without something in return.”
She looked directly at Zedalien. The half-Elf paused.
“What should I relay to Lady Magnolia?”
The old woman felt at her side. For…three objects. She clutched them urgently, as she sometimes did. Only, now?
Now. She felt a specter at her back. Not yet. Not yet. The fire was dim. And Lord Deilan, heir to the House of El, looked at the old woman as she bared her teeth. She stared at Zedalien.
“Tell her…tell her I have a price. As the El family has always done, we serve our clients and our interests. Let her give it to me. And Deilan?”
“Yes, Great Aunt?”
The old woman smiled at him.
“Let’s make the most of today. Because when you become our House’s leader, I will not be there.”
And he saw her breathing shallowly. The effort of even telling a story had taken a toll on her. And the [Lord] bowed his head and spent his last hours with Maviola El well.
Some people said that all roads led to Invrisil. And those people were idiots because that was just geographically untrue. But it was true that Invrisil occupied a bit of prime real estate when it came to trade routes. So the City of Adventurers was a meeting point for people on the road, adventurers going on an…adventure, and so on.
All sorts went to Invrisil. Literally everyone, from peasants to [Lords]. Although only people in some kingdoms in Terandria got the [Peasant] class. But so many people were heading that way, or arriving, leaving.
A Runner jogged north on the road to Invrisil. They moved quickly, faster on average than the wagons or other modes of transport. They were slower than a horse, but they could go off-road and with potions, even a relatively fit Human could hope to outdistance a horse over time.
As they ran, they passed by a number of sights. Overturned wagons with people shouting about a sudden [Bandit] attack. An entire family moving north after their home had been burned due to a freak accident.
Some [Wagon Driver] in a wagon, grumbling about an obnoxious group he’d hauled down south to Invrisil as a favor. A group of adventurers, arguing.
“Don’t eat half-cooked eggs!”
Two of them were lying on the ground. One of them, an Antinium, was perfectly healthy thanks to his anti-food poisoning amulet. The other two had been throwing up all day. An exasperated woman with silver arms was berating them. The Antinium was debating taking off the amulet so he could get food poisoning in solidarity. But they still had a ways to go.
And the Runner was faster than all the rest. People stared as he flashed past them. Some waved or called out. After all, it wasn’t often you saw someone like him.
A Courier. But also—a Beastkin. A Rabbit Beastkin. He had rabbit ears. A furry body. Muscles. He was in fact—
Hawk. He paused to stare at the Horns of Hammerad, but he was on the job and he couldn’t take time to socialize. Further north he ran, stopping only occasionally, with the attacked wagons, and then only promising to relay word to the nearest patrol or settlement. Which he did.
But he ran. And he was quick. The average Runner could hope to outdistance a horse with some cheap stamina potions over a day. Hawk could outrun most horses on the gallop without trying. And he was a Courier. One of the best.
“Courier on delivery!”
The familiar bellow came from the Rabbitman’s mouth as he neared the gates of Invrisil. The [Guards] at the gate had an option as they saw Hawk approaching. They could stop him. Or—wave him through. Hawk had all the identification he needed in case they made a random stop. But that seldom happened.
No one stopped him in this case. Hawk raced past the [Guards], shouting.
“Wagon back sixteen miles south! [Bandit] attack!”
The [Sergeant] on duty bellowed back. She scrambled for a quill as she remarked to her companion.
“Sixteen miles? He says it like it’s easy.”
“Couriers. You ever get a delivery from one of them?”
“Yup. Placed an order and it appeared like that. All the way from First Landing! Costs more’n I’d care to ever spend, though.”
The [Sergeant] looked at her comrade.
“So why’d you buy anything?”
He waggled a finger.
“Wedding ring. Custom-made. Courier service.”
“Ah. For Miski.”
“I’d have been happy with a silver band.”
“[Sergeant], we’re on duty—”
Drama. Hawk picked up the last of that conversation and really wished he’d stuck around to hear the rest. Not that you had to guess. But it would have been great gossip material for Selys when he got back to Liscor.
The Rabbit [Courier] was humming to himself. And that was his class. Delivery was his specialty. He was conscious of the looks he got even as he entered Invrisil, but he weaved through the crowd with practiced grace. If he’d been in a real hurry, he might have shouted; Couriers could actually demand people get out of the way sometimes.
But he wasn’t in a rush, rush. He’d only run, oh, the last two hundred miles at a decent pace. Even so, he’d beaten almost any conceivable mode of transport to get here.
“Courier delivery! I have a bag of holding and items from Pallass!”
The Rabbit Beastkin announced as he entered Invrisil’s Runner’s Guild. It was one of the largest in the nation and they had a separate section for Couriers. A [Receptionist] raced over.
“Hawk of Liscor?”
“That’s me. I have some Courier-letters, two priority sendings—one bound for the Players of Celum from…er, the Players of Celum in Liscor. Paper, fragile. This container here. I have eight other items…”
Each one properly accounted for in his bag of holding. Each one Hawk signed for and got a receipt for; Courier-class deliveries were not lost in the system. The [Receptionist] was good at his job. Although he did pause.
“A delivery to the Players of Celum? You mean, the Players?”
“The [Actors]? Yeah.”
Hawk gave the Human man a blank look. He’d been to Invrisil and obviously knew the buzz about them, but he’d seen enough plays back in Liscor. But the man’s reaction made Hawk do a double-take.
“It’s marked as urgent, but they’re not paying for in-person delivery. Just bulk transit. Is a regular runner okay?”
The [Receptionist] hesitated and chewed it over. Hawk glanced around and noticed the other Runners in the guild were staring at him.
Well, he was a Courier, but it wasn’t a rare sight to see a Courier in the Runner’s Guild in Invrisil. Another city, yes. But they were staring at the bundles of paper. Hawk hesitated.
“The—a City Runner or Street Runner would have to go with an escort to get it to the Players of Celum, I think, Courier Hawk. Are those…new plays?”
“Maybe. I didn’t ask.”
Hawk saw the [Receptionist]’s face light up.
“Really? They’re all the rage. I can call for an escort! And go myself! I’m a huge fan of—did you say there’s another group of the Players of Celum? Why in Liscor?”
The man reached for the papers, but Hawk grabbed them.
“…I may deliver this one in person rather than entrust it to a Street Runner, then. I’ll take directions to the Players of Celum if you know where they are?”
The disappointed man gave them to Hawk. He tried to ask about the Players of Celum in Liscor, and why were plays coming here? And wouldn’t Hawk consider an escort of his own? But Hawk ignored the questions as he backed up, stowing the papers and plotting a route towards the inn.
He didn’t gossip on the job. That was unprofessional. As he trotted towards the door with long strides, someone came over.
“Hawk the Courier? I could take the papers for—”
The City Runner hesitated. He ran after Hawk.
“I’m a huge fan of Miss Jasi. If we could say we went together, I could pay—”
How popular were these [Actors]? Hawk accelerated, but the City Runner kept pace with him. He had a running Skill too. In fact—more Runners were following his lead.
“Mister Hawk! I’m Divee! We met once—”
“Hello? Hawk? Hello. I know you. We’re from the same city. Sort of. I’m from Celum. The name is Pers—”
“Got to go! Get lost, City Runners!”
Hawk accelerated. The Runners were left almost literally in a cloud of dust. They couldn’t keep up with the Beastkin’s agility. And Hawk was double-timing it now.
“Courier on delivery! Watch out!”
He warned people as he ran and literally leapt over a group of people. All of Hawk’s instincts had been triggered by that scene in the guild. He just bet someone would have intercepted him to take this apparently ultra-precious cargo if he’d dallied.
Fortunately, the inn wasn’t that far away. Hawk made it there in a flash. The [Bouncer] at the door stared at the Rabbit Beastkin, but he blocked the door when Hawk pounded on it. There was actually a crowd outside the inn!
“No one’s allowed inside but—”
“Courier on delivery! For the Players of Celum! It says—Wesle, Jasi, or Emme.”
Hawk bellowed it in his ears and for the benefit of anyone inside. The [Bouncer] backed up. Someone exclaimed from inside and Hawk found a somewhat familiar half-Dwarf woman staring at him.
“Hawk? A Courier delivery? Oh—dead gods, it’s Miss Erin’s notes and that new play she remembered! Or is it the adaptation of…? Come in! Let him in, Redit!”
The [Bouncer] was hurried out of the way. Hawk found Emme gesturing to him to put the papers on the table. Hawk did so.
“Emme, right? I can use that in my receipt to the Runner’s Guild. Does everything check out to you? Everything you expected is in order?”
“Oh, yes, absolutely. Temile’s, hah, even included his new roster! Levels and names and all! Even species! He’s got a Garuda? We have to get that door active! Did you have a hard time getting here, Hawk? How’s Erin? How’s Liscor?”
“Fine. But I didn’t know everyone and their dog would want to see the papers. You need to request in-person delivery, Emme.”
The [Producer] blinked.
“We do? I mean, it was cheaper this way—”
She saw an annoyed furry face and furry finger pointing at her.
“I could have left it at the Runner’s Guild and my job would have been done. Then you’d have had to gamble on someone else taking it here. City or Street Runners and I guarantee you that it would have been intercepted.”
“Oh, I’m sorry—I had no idea! We’ve never done anything like Courier delivery before—can I get you a drink? Something to eat?”
“Well, it’s fine. Consider it a one-time service, but you got lucky.”
Mollified, Hawk accepted a drink. He was thirsty. Emme fussed around.
“We’re really very grateful. Can I offer you some of these? As thanks? We have a whole set.”
She produced a set of signed pieces of colorful cardboard. Some were white, with gilding around the edges, others were more stylized. Black, with a white signature. Or gold. Hawk blinked at them.
“What are these?”
“Signatures of the Players of Celum. Go on, take them. They’re worth a bit, actually. They’re performing right now, but Wesle and the others would love to see you. They’d clear their schedules for it, absolutely!”
Hawk…hadn’t really ever talked to the Players of Celum. He had only visited The Wandering Inn a few times. And it was somewhat odd—Emme was inviting him as if it were her doing a Courier a favor.
“I’ll uh, think about it. I’m heading back south Liscor’s way anyways. This is just a short trip.”
So I can see Selys again. The Rabbitman was happy just thinking about it. Back together with Selys! She was always nice. And now she was a [Heiress], they were really connecting. They could go out to some places in Pallass, and Erin had that amazing carrot-stuff…life was good. Hawk wasn’t poor by any means, and he’d rather just do easy deliveries and get back to Selys—it was too soon to think about rings, by far, but he liked Selys—
“Really? Well—did you see the Horns of Hammerad on the road? Because they have the magical door to Invrisil.”
Hawk choked on his drink, breaking out of his thoughts. He listened as Emme explained.
“I saw them on the road thirty miles back. Throwing up. They’re close—although the two [Mages] looked pretty dead. Stuff might have been coming out both ends, if you know what I mean.”
“Ew. What from?”
“Bad eggs. I think. If they’re bringing the door here…damn, that might cut into my route and take.”
Hawk was frowning. This might actually be a problem. More so than Pallass to Liscor. Because Hawk was fine with losing money to avoid the Bloodfields. He’d have to have a word with Erin about it…Emme was trying to explain.
“No, it’s fine, Hawk. The door won’t be able to take more than one or two people, like Pallass.”
“Yes it will. Erin’s added a Sage’s Grass field and the door can ferry as many as twenty people pretty quickly. It recharges fast.”
The Rabbit Beastkin explained as much as he could. He grimaced.
“I…could get the Horns. Or pick up the door, I guess. But…maybe not. I’m going to have to talk to Erin. This could hurt Runners across Izril.”
The half-Dwarf woman sighed.
“That’s fair. But the Horns are close by the sounds of it. Meanwhile, we could pay you for an uh, direct-delivery to The Players of Celum in Liscor. We have a few of Andel’s new plays and the Mage’s Guild charges far too much to copy them properly.”
“Sure. How much is it?”
“…There’s a difference between delivery on-the-way and a custom order. I could give you on-the-way fares since I’m headed back to Liscor, but it would be at least six gold and eight silver? More if it’s a lot or cumbersome.”
The price was well outside the range of most people’s budgets, but Emme didn’t blink twice.
“We can do that. When are you headed back?”
Hawk perked up. This sounded good! Regular clients, or ones you had a personal relationship with were the bread and butter of every Courier’s income. Then again—the door. Damn. He’d just have to ask Erin…well, maybe this was a matter for the Runner’s Guild.
The Rabbit Beastkin was of two opinions about the magical door. But he accepted the signatures. And the free drink. And he was looking forwards to a paid return trip—even if it was only one delivery—as he jogged back to the Runner’s Guild.
“Players of Celum are delivered to.”
The [Receptionist] gave Hawk a betrayed look. But he glumly signed Hawk off and gave the Rabbit Beastkin the money.
“So…you delivered to the Players? Did they give you any signatures? Do you have one of Jasi? Because I’ll pay for them.”
Hawk wondered just how much the pieces of cardboard were worth. But his senses were tingling that he had something valuable, so he just feigned ignorance.
“I dropped off the delivery. That’s my job.”
“Oh, well then. Here’s your money.”
The Rabbitman was just stowing the money when he saw a few Runners gathered about. They usually wanted to talk. Hawk gave them a wave.
“Sorry about losing you. But you know how it is. Runner’s Code.”
They nodded, although in Hawk’s experience, the Runner’s code of conduct was a malleable thing. Still, each person had their standards.
“Excuse me. You’re Hawk, right? I’m a huge fan. Persua. I think we’ve met?”
Hawk blinked at a young woman with a rather large smile which he was going to categorize as slightly insincere staring up at him. But she looked friendly and he nodded.
“Persua? I think I’ve heard of you.”
He couldn’t remember from where, though. The young woman smiled wider.
“Actually, I’m from the south too. Celum. I’m a City Runner of course, but I’m in-training to become a Courier.”
That made Hawk give her a second look. Any City Runner could become a Courier, but some were earmarked for the position because of the Skills they had, or natural talent, etc. She didn’t look particularly athletic, so he guessed she had a Skill.
“Well, I hope you make it. It’s a bit dicey around here.”
“Absolutely. Did you hear about Lacel the Leaper? He was intercepted while running a delivery to Lady Dealia! In the Player of Celum’s inn!”
Hawk’s fur stood up, although Persua didn’t actually seem that bothered.
“I heard. Legs broken, right? I should pay a visit to him.”
“Oh, he left the city. Wouldn’t stay. But the package for Lady Dealia is still here.”
“Really? The Assassin’s Guild didn’t get it?”
No, it was to send a message. Hawk remembered that a beat before Persua informed him of that fact. The word was all over Izril, especially the Runner’s circles. The Guild of Assassins was back. Well, they’d never left, but now they were accepting contracts on Runners. And they’d done it in Magnolia Reinhart’s own city. To a Courier.
I’d better not sleep before I deliver the damn plays or whatever they are. Hawk resolved to himself as Persua cozied up to him. He reflexively stepped back.
“Too bad about Lacel. But he’s only good when he’s on the move. I’d love to chat, Miss Persua—”
“Can’t you stay? I’d love to get a drink, together. Ask about the Courier’s lifestyle?”
Hawk hesitated. He eyed Persua, searching for the most amenable way out of the conversation. Did Persua know Ryoka? Or…Valceif? Hawk’s stomach twisted. Poor fellow. He was about to ask when someone spoke up.
“Hawk? Good timing! The lady said you’d be here! I need a word!”
A loud voice. Hawk turned and saw another Courier striding his way. A Balerosian, at least in skin-tone, although Hawk happened to know this fellow was all-Izrilian to the core. The new speaker spread his arms wide.
“Hawk! Don’t hide! I’d recognize those ears anywhere!”
“And the fur? Good to see you Trit.”
Hawk greeted Trit, or Tritel, was a stocky fellow. Short, rather good-natured, and surprisingly aggressive for his height. He was a small fellow compared to Hawk, but he stomped on up and punched Hawk in the side.
“You giant inconsiderate rabbit! I haven’t seen you in ages! Where’ve you been? Around Liscor still?”
“That’s where I live.”
Hawk wasn’t one of the more dramatic of personalities that made up a Courier. But Tritel…was. He had a very flatfooted walk, surprising among a runner, and he wasn’t dressed in the loose clothing they liked. He had on boots, heavier clothing, and even wore a hat. He was also very short for a Runner, but it fit the way he travelled.
He was also a Courier. And he grabbed hold of Hawk’s arm with surprising strength.
“You’re coming with me. I need a word.”
“No buts! I’ll buy you a drink! Actually, I was just going to meet Salamani too. You heard about Lacel, right?”
“Yeah. Salamani’s here?”
Hawk was distracted. It was rare to find multiple Couriers, even in the city like Invrisil. They were always on the move. Tritel nodded.
“He’s here. On the same business as me. Come on, we’re at this bar I like. So’s Ci.”
“Ci? They let her in there?”
“It’s my favorite bar. Come on.”
“Excuse me. I was talking with Hawk. Who are you?”
Persua blocked Tritel as he steered Hawk towards the door. The shorter man stared at Persua.
“Sorry, Miss. Who’re you? City Runner? Must be if I don’t know your name. This is Courier’s business. One side.”
With that, he put a hand on her midriff since her shoulder was too high and shoved her out of the way. The outraged squawk didn’t even make Tritel break stride as they left the Guild.
“Was that someone you were interested in, Hawk? You could do better either way.”
“No. Not my type. Also, I have someone I’m seeing. I want to get her a gift, Trit. If this is going to take long…”
“Relax, relax. I forgot. Nothing without scales for my fur-friend. I know Invrisil. I’ll help you get her the best gift before we go. There’s these new song-crystals that are all the rage. From Terandria.”
“Before we go?”
Hawk didn’t miss that. He narrowed his eyes, but Tritel had a grip on him.
“Come on, it won’t take long to explain.”
He led the Rabbitman down the street. Hawk sighed, but he followed Tritel—you had to trust fellow Couriers. Well, some of them. And Tritel was good, if pushy. As the two walked on, they heard a group arguing. Young men and women.
“What do you mean, we’re out of money?”
Rose was shouting at Joseph. He flung up his hands.
“I don’t know! She said it would last until Liscor! It’s not my fault you all kept buying snacks! And tipping!”
“You have to tip people! What do we do? Send her a [Message]?”
“Kids these days.”
Tritel shook his head as he led Hawk past. The Rabbitman felt a bit sympathetic; it was a common scene, kids coming to Invrisil and losing all their money. He wasn’t about to give them any, anyways. But even so…
The bar that Tritel liked so much wasn’t…the best. It wasn’t bad, but it had that ‘live and let live’ attitude towards its clientele. Drinks were cheap, and the owner accommodating.
Very accommodating. Hawk spotted Ci and Salamani by the bar. He would have recognized them at once.
Salamani because the Human was a fellow Courier. Only—his clothing was silk, and had the embellishments most [Mages] loved to put on everything. As he turned to greet the other two Couriers, part of his heritage became obvious.
Salamani was descended from a Lizardman and a Human woman. Fertility spells made the cross-species birth work, but as often happened, there was a bit of mixing of genetics. In this case—Salamani’s only nod to his other half was his eyes.
They were vertical slits, like a lizard’s. But the man was normal in every respect.
“Hawk! Tritel said you’d be coming.”
“Coming? For what?”
“I didn’t say. Hi, Salamani. Thanks for keeping my place, Ci.”
Tritel greeted the fourth person at the bar. He got a snort in reply. Hawk glanced over at Ci, whom he was also familiar with. And…part of the ‘live and let live’ atmosphere of the bar was added to by Ci’s presence.
She was a horse. A white mare, some exquisite Terandrian breed. Hawk didn’t know horses well, but even he could tell Ci was a horse among horses. She was also standing at the bar and drinking out of a bowl.
“…Is that alcohol?”
“Of course. You think Ci’s drinking water?”
Tritel gave Hawk an odd look. The Rabbit Beastkin was doing the same, but that was Tritel. The short man was one of the mounted Couriers. And he and Ci were a pair.
“What’s this about, you two?”
“Sit down. Have a drink. But nothing stiff.”
Hawk didn’t like the friendly way the other two Couriers were glancing at him. Tritel had a stiffer drink than the other two, but then—he didn’t run. And Salamani was drinking milk. Hawk’s senses began to tingle.
“So—Lacel the Leaper got his legs broken. That fat idiot probably thought no one would stop him at night in a fancy inn. Thing is, the Assassin’s Guild is off Reinhart’s leash. And Lacel didn’t even get the damn amulet that may or may not be Lord Bein’s stolen.”
Tritel spoke cheerfully, not bothering to lower his voice. The two Couriers listened. Hawk ordered some juice. Ci gave him a sideways look with one of her eyes. He waved at her. Tritel got mad if you didn’t.
“It was a message. The Assassin’s Guild is back. We’ve all got to start sleeping with one eye open again.”
Salamani grumbled. Hawk nodded. It wasn’t good, but prices would go up with the danger. It was life. Tritel was nodding.
“Yeah, but the thing is—the delivery could still be done. In fact, some people reckon it ought to be done. Because the Assassin’s Guild might be back—but that was a Courier’s job. And we don’t fail. Not even if all the Demons in hell were chasing us.”
He gave the other two a sideways look. Hawk instantly stood up.
“That sounds great. But you know what? I uh, have the important delivery I have to do. For the Players of Celum.”
“The Players of Celum? You wouldn’t happen to know them, would you? I’d pay for a signature!”
Salamani perked up. Hawk reached for one of the monogrammed autographs.
“Take it, Salamani. I’m going to—”
“Not so fast, Hawk.”
The Rabbitman stared at the hoof in front of his chest. He stared at Ci. To his relief, he realized it was Tritel who’d spoken. The [Rider] was motioning him to sit back down.
“This is a matter of pride. The Assassin’s Guild made its mark. We make ours. Runners will deliver that package to Lady Dealia, even if Lord Bein puts a hundred thousand gold piece bounty on our heads.”
“Not if Lady Hetessana doesn’t pay us. And that’s a personal choice. Excuse me, Ci—”
The mare snorted and gave Hawk a look. He hesitated. Tritel had a [Beast Tamer] class, or something close. And Ci was as intelligent as animals got. He slowly backed away to his seat.
“I know, it’s about money. But this is different, Hawk. Hetessana’s raised the price of delivery.”
“Three of us are going to deliver the package. And if the fee’s not enough for you, it’s being doubled. To send a message. And you know who’s doubling it?”
Hawk hesitated. He had a bad feeling. He glanced over the bar. He could jump over it, burst out the back door, and be gone even if Ci and Salamani tried to stop him. Hawk was a cautious Courier, as they went. He did not risk his life. Not with the Goblin Lord’s army, not with anything else. He tensed.
“I’m sorry, Tritel. But even for twice that, or four times—”
“Guildmistress Godfrey wants it done, Hawk.”
Salamani spoke up for the first time. He was lovingly staring at the autograph that had some of Jasi’s lipstick and signature on it. Hawk paused.
“That’s right. Mihaela herself. And she knew you were coming north, Hawk. You’re in on the delivery. All three of us going together. It’ll be safer. Not even hard with three of us. But you’re in it. Or you get to explain yourself to First Landing’s Guildmistress. And you know her.”
Hawk did. He hesitated. If it had been Tritel or Salamani asking him, he’d already be running for the gates. But…
Mihaela Godfrey. One of the most famous Couriers to ever run across Izril. Guildmistress and rarely active Courier of First Landing’s Runner’s Guild.
Mother of Valceif Godfrey. Tritel raised his glass.
“She’s not in a good mood, Hawk. You know how she’s normally? Double that, and then double that. You can run off and we’ll do it alone. But she’ll pull off your ears and tail if you get within a hundred miles of First Landing.”
The Rabbit Beastkin hesitated. He had a healthy self-respect for his life. He wasn’t an adventurer. Being a Courier was dangerous, but he didn’t take suicide missions. He weighed the dangers of going against the Assassin’s Guild to deliver the amulet with Tritel and Salamani versus Mihaela Godfrey’s wrath.
“I hate you both.”
He sat back down. Tritel grinned and raised his cup before draining it.
“Do you think she gave us a choice?”
“Soonest done, soonest ended. The Assassin’s Guild has rules. We get the amulet to Lady Dealia, they lay off.”
“And if they don’t?”
“Then all bets are off and it’s war. And I bet even the [Assassins] will think twice before going up against all the Couriers in Izril. Or Mihaela. She’s squashed a hundred times more Ants than I have [Bandits].”
Salamani drained his cup. Tritel nodded. He slapped Ci on the side.
“Drink up, girl. We’re about to do some work.”
The mare snorted alcoholic fumes all over Tritel. He laughed. Hawk pushed back his drink. He shouldn’t have come to Invrisil. Damn, damn—
The amulet of Lord Bein’s sat in the Runner’s Guild. Lord Bein was on the way himself to pick it up. Not that it was actually his amulet! More like a clever fake!
Lady Hetessana’s claim of her relationship with Lord Bein was in jeopardy. Lady Dealia had sworn vengeance if it turned out Lord Bein had been unfaithful.
And the concrete ‘proof’ of all this lay in Invrisil’s Runner’s Guild. Hawk grumbled as the three Couriers walked through the doors.
“Can’t they make Lord Bein swear on a truth spell?”
“Ah, but that would be dishonorable and crap. Or he might refuse. This is how the nobles play, Hawk.”
Tritel laughed. Ci trotted through the doors after him, ignoring the looks she got. Tritel strode up towards the counter where the [Receptionist] was giving him a very long look.
“Hey. We’re here for the amulet of Lord Bein. Or Lady Hetessana’s delivery. Whatever. You know what it is.”
The words provoked a silence around the guild. Everyone turned to look. Hawk wondered if there were any [Assassins] here. There had to be. Informants at least. He looked around nervously. But he was committed.
“The—the amulet? You three are…?”
The [Receptionist]’s eyes went round. Someone immediately ran out the side doors. Hawk turned.
Salamani looked relaxed as he limbered up. The [Mage], who was also a [Runner], nodded. As Tritel leaned over the counter.
“You got word from First Landing. The amulet. Give it.”
“You’re a [Receptionist]. We’re the Couriers. Hand it over. Or—Ci?”
Tritel was too short to reach over the counter. So Ci, the horse, leaned over and clicked her teeth in front of the [Receptionist]’s face. The man backed up.
“I’ll—I’ll get it.”
“Good. Did someone spread the word, Hawk?”
“There’s a crowd gathering. Tritel…”
“Don’t worry. Salamani’s going to cast on us before we leave the doors. I doubt they’ll get us before we leave the city. If they do—improvise. I’ll take it. Unless one of you want it?”
Tritel nodded. He patted Ci’s flank as the mare snorted. She could sense the mood in the room.
“Anyways, Mihaela wants a crowd. There’s the amulet. Let’s roll.”
The [Receptionist] had it in a box. He unlocked it with a secret passphrase and key as the Couriers waited. Hawk was dancing from foot to foot.
“Are we doing this now?”
“You want to take a nap like Lacel? Yep, here it is. Nice looking, right?”
Tritel dangled the locket at the other two. Salamani leaned in.
“…Looks genuine. There’ll be hell to pay once we deliver it.”
“If. You mean, if.”
“Hawk, you’re the most terrified giant rabbit I’ve ever met. Relax. You’re a Courier. Let’s do this.”
Three Couriers walked out of Invrisil’s Runner’s Guild into a crowd. Everyone in earshot had rushed to see them when they’d heard. Tritel waved as he mounted onto Ci’s saddle. Salamani produced a wand and bowed with a flourish. He’d already cast some spells on Hawk and Ci, to Hawk’s relief.
“Hey everyone! We’re delivering Lord Bein’s damn amulet! Or Lady Hetessana’s gift! Fuck, it might be fake! But we’re doing it and no [Assassins] are going to stop us! Because we’re Couriers!”
Tritel bellowed. The crowd cheered. The Guild of Assassins produced worried looks and stares, but most just cheered. And even Hawk stopped his nervous pacing to wave.
Because it was true. He’d realized the same thing the other Couriers had. The Assassins’ Guild had a choice. If they went after Couriers on the run, it was one thing. But if they made it personal, it was war. Hawk, Salamani, and Tritel just had to believe that they were out of the crosshairs once they delivered the amulet.
So it was a contest. One with the Courier’s lives on the line and the finish line was Lady Dealia. Until then? All bets were off.
But that was how they lived.
Three—no, four of Izril’s fastest Runners walked towards the gates. And—if the Players of Celum were famous, their fame was newly-won. A fad that might become permanent. But here were Couriers. And even the Players were in the crowd that followed them out of the city.
Invrisil’s people followed the four. And they began to shout. Because the first, the original celebrities of Izril weren’t just adventurers. In fact—you saw these ones more often.
Hawk. The Rabbit Beastkin was trembling with nerves. But the people were shouting his name.
“Hawk! Hawk the Hare! The Hare of Liscor!”
“I hate that name!”
Hawk shouted back. Salamani laughed. He raised a wand, flicking it out of a wrist-holster. And the [Mage Runner] got his own cheer.
“Salamani the Haste Mage!”
Last was Ci. Also, Tritel was riding her. He adjusted the strings holding his hat to his head. And the short man flicked out a crossbow. A newfangled weapon, not as good as bows. Or as honorable. And Ci reared and he laughed.
Tritel the Moonlight Rider, and Ci, the Silver Mare of Izril.
Tritel grinned, with that wild adrenaline coursing through his veins. Hawk nodded tightly. Salamani whispered.
“[Haste]. Let’s do this.”
“Alright. One, two, three, go!”
The Couriers exploded out of the gates to wild cheers from the crowd behind them. They ran. Hawk’s arms and legs were pumping and Salamani was right next to him. The [Mage] was whispering spells as he ran. One of Wistram’s graduates had taken to running. And Tritel and Ci?
They stormed ahead. Ci’s silver mane and tail flashed in the sun as she accelerated. Tritel was laughing and riding low along her back. Hawk saw them gaining away and increased his pace.
“Move it, you slow rats!”
The four shot down the road like an arrow, and they weren’t even at full speed yet. Heads turned on the road as they shot north and east. People began to move out of the way, but the Couriers surged right, off the road.
“We’re not stopping until we get to Lady Dealia! She’s north and east of here! We’ll go by Reizmelt’s way!”
Tritel was the only one with breath to bellow. The wind snatched away his voice as he pointed. Hawk just ran. Faster and faster, gulping oxygen, feeling his muscles explode with energy. And he saw Salamani grinning as the [Mage] ran. Hawk couldn’t resist a smile. After all, they were Runners. And Hawk liked his job.
Three Couriers were taking on the contract. Word spread from Invrisil like wildfire. But it was barely faster than they were, even with [Message] spell and the speed of drama. In fact—Lord Bein and his escort were riding towards Invrisil when they got the news.
From the north, heading south. After trying to reassure Lady Dealia that this was all a complete misunderstanding, the young [Lord] had been making haste to recover the item in question. But he was too slow.
The young man gave one of his family’s retainers an incredulous look. He was riding with a large escort, as befitted a member of the Terland family. The [Captain of Horse] winced as the young Lord Bein raised his voice.
“Yes, Lord Terland. Three of them have taken the contract. They’re headed north. Hawk of Liscor, Salamani the Mage, and Tritel the Moonlight Rider.”
On the very same trade route as Lord Bein. The young [Lord]’s mouth opened and closed.
“But there’s a bounty on their heads. The Assassin’s Guild got Lacel the Leaper! Didn’t they receive the—the message?”
“Yes, Lord Bein. But—they’re Couriers. I believe the Runner’s Guild is sending a message.”
“They can’t do that!”
The [Captain] bit his tongue on the fact that they could and were. And at that moment—one of his [Riders] pelted down the road.
“Lord Bein! The Couriers are headed this way!”
“What? No—that’s excellent! [Captain], marshal your men! We’ll force them to stop. With me!”
Lord Bein reached for a sword and the [Captain] panicked. Because he knew Couriers.
“Lord Bein, I would not advise that!”
But the [Lordling] was already shouting at the escort. They were sizable in number; to fight off attacks and possible kidnapping attempts, nearly a hundred of Terland’s private guards were accompanying Lord Bein. They were also of a decent level and armed with good steel. They looked up as Lord Bein shouted.
“Spread out! Block the road! No one goes around!”
The escort spread out slowly. The other travellers on the road, already forced wide of the Terland group, were forced to stop as the [Soldiers] deployed with efficiency. Travellers backed up. But the [Captain] was arguing with Lord Bein, urgently.
“Lord Bein. My job is to keep you safe and to obey your orders!”
“I cannot keep you safe if we attempt to stop the Couriers! Not three of them!”
“Keep me safe?”
The young man looked astonished. Then he saw the [Captain] nervously glancing down the road. And there they were.
The first thing Lord Bein saw was a distant cloud. No—a dust cloud, chained to the earth. It was rippling their way, against the wind. And then he realized. It was following the Couriers.
They were just specks in the distance. Lord Bein stared. So did the people on the road. Some began to cheer. Because three Couriers running at max speed was a sight you only got to see once in a year.
“Captain! Stop them! You, Couriers! Halt!”
Lord Bein grasped at a voice-amplifying stone. His voice cracked across the open trade road. Loud; the [Soldiers] around him were deafened and clasped their hands to their helmets, swearing. But the distant figures didn’t even stop.
“I am Lord Bein Terland! By the House of Terland, I order you to halt and turn over my—turn over your illegal cargo! If you resist, my men will use force!”
The [Lord] howled. And he saw one of the distant Runners raise something.
Salamani the [Mage]. Lord Bein saw a flash of light. And then a spear of light shot at him. It blasted about ten feet over his head. The [Lord] ducked as his horse reared. The [Soldiers] stared as Lord Bein galloped behind their lines.
“Brace! Apprehend the Runners!”
The [Horse Captain] was swearing and sweating. Lord Bein stared at him.
“They’re not stopping!”
“They’re Couriers, Lord Bein! They answer to no one on a delivery! Not even the Assassin’s Guild!”
The [Captain] snapped, not in the mood to argue. Lord Bein turned pale.
“What? But they promised me—stop them!”
Lord Bein shouted desperately. His escort braced. They had [Riders]. [Pikemen], who were laying down their long spears, ready to impale the Runners. But—the Couriers were just running at them, followed by that giant cloud of dust generated by the speed of their passage.
“Halt in the name of Lord Bein Terland!”
One of the [Soldiers] shouted desperately. The Couriers might have heard him, but they didn’t stop. Instead, they sped up.
“Here we go! Let’s not kill any of the escort!”
Tritel laughed as the three Couriers ran at the blockade. All three Runners saw the [Riders] racing around the lines of spears and infantry, moving to intercept. No [Archers] though, or [Mages] aiming at them; the [Captain of the Horse] was making a half-hearted effort.
So the Couriers replied in kind. The [Mage] raised his wand.
“[Invisibility]. [Flash Step]!”
Salamani vanished. Hawk saw a small explosion of dust as the [Mage] kicked off. The [Soldiers] lost him in an instant, unable to stop the invisible, hasted Runner. They looked around, shouting. And then saw Tritel and Ci riding at them.
He was just one rider, on a horse. And they were behind a line of pikes. But Tritel never slowed. Ci raced along the ground, running silver, like her name. The Moonlight Rider had one hand on his hat and he was aiming straight at Lord Bein.
“Brace! [Pikewall Formation]!”
The [Captain] was covering Lord Bein as he saw the [Rider] shooting towards the line of pikes. And still—Tritel didn’t adjust his course. He was going to ride into the pikes with Ci! The [Soldiers] stared.
And then, just before he reached the wall of pikes, the [Rider] pointed up.
“Ci! [Gazelle’s Leap]!”
Tritel roared. Ci leapt as the first ranks of spears approached. The [Soldiers] stared as the horse flew up, up overhead. Tritel waved his hat in one hand, laughing. The horse cleared the escort, Lord Bein, and then Ci was landing, running, scattering clods of dirt. One hit Lord Bein in the head, just missing the young man’s open mouth.
The second Courier cleared the blockade. Tritel was laughing as Ci landed and shot forwards again. Salamani reappeared with a flourish, leaping over a stationary wagon. He front-flipped through the air, winking at the travellers stopped on the road. They went wild, cheering as the two Couriers flashed past the stunned Lord Bein.
Showoffs. But that was a Courier. And as for Hawk?
He just ran around the [Soldiers] blocking the road. A dozen [Riders] tried to catch him, but he ran past them and the slower horses couldn’t even turn fast enough to catch him. It was a blockade of a hundred soldiers. Just run left for a few seconds and you were clear.
But it was a show. The Couriers rejoined their formation as they ran down the road. People were shouting, waving. And the Couriers kept going.
“Did you see his face? Hah!”
“That was just the easy bit! Don’t get a stuffed head!”
Hawk shouted back at Tritel. The [Rider] laughed and nodded. The hard part was to come. Because word was spreading. The Couriers were on the run.
Two hours later, the real action began. Two hours was enough for the news to spread. From Invrisil, from the tweaking of Lord Bein’s nose—the three Courier’s delivery was making headlines. Or rather—it was appearing in scrying orbs.
“They’re headed this way!”
Every Runner in Reizmelt had heard about the run. They were clustered around the Mage’s Guild’s scrying orb, staring at the projection. It was an aerial view of the three Runners.
“It appears that three Couriers are attempting to complete the request. From Invrisil to—this is a Human drama, so we’re not too up to date on the facts, folks. Lord Bein Terland? Who’s that?”
Noass was trying to cover the story, but the Drake was woefully out of touch. But everyone in the north knew the score. And one of them stared at the Rabbitman who was racing alongside a…[Mage] and a man on horseback.
“Dead gods. Is that—Hawk?”
Ryoka Griffin stared into the scrying orb at the three Runners. Well—for a moment. Even the spell was having trouble keeping up with their speed.
“Hawk the Hare! There’s three Couriers taking the delivery? Is it that dangerous?”
Melodie was excitedly pointing into the scrying orb with all the City Runners. They were clustered around the orb, but a crowd was gathered, demanding to see. This was the kind of drama that occupied Izril’s consciousness.
“Who’re the other two?”
The other City Runners stared at Ryoka. Todel blinked.
“Ryoka, you don’t know them? That’s Salamani, the [Haste] Mage! And Tritel and Ci! The Moonlight Duo! The Moonlight Rider?”
Ryoka gave him a blank look.
“Sorry, I know Hawk, but the others don’t come near Celum.”
“Not often, but they’re Couriers!”
“And they’re passing by Reizmelt! They have to be if they’re heading north—this is the most direct route! Look! They’re nearly here! We might be able to see them! Let’s go and see!”
Caawl shouted excitedly. The other City Runners ran for the doors. So did Ryoka. She had to see this herself. And she saw the dust cloud headed towards Reizmelt. Ryoka stopped and stared. Even the wind was taking notice. She saw the City Runners milling about the southern gates and then heading towards the eastern ones. There was a blockade around the south gates. And—Ryoka ran out of the city. She saw the Couriers.
“Holy cow. They’re moving!”
She had seen Charlay running. And other City Runners. But this? Ryoka ran, the wind at her back. She never caught up.
The Couriers saw Reizmelt in the distance. They were tiring. Two hours of running at full speed was taking some of the wind out of their sails. But—they had stamina potions and mana potions in Salamani’s case. Hawk pointed.
“Reizmelt! A break?”
“You tired, Hawk?”
Tritel laughed. Which was sort of unfair since Ci was doing all the hard work. The mare was running without looking fatigued at all. Hawk gave Tritel a hand-gesture and the man laughed.
“Straight through Reizmelt?”
The Couriers agreed. This was a show, after all. But as they approached the south gates—Salamani wavered. People were streaming out of the city from all the gates, waving. Other City Runners, shouting, trying to keep up. Most couldn’t even catch the Couriers, let alone keep pace. Hawk saw a young woman with black hair he thought he recognized. But then—
“[Dangersense]! Go around!”
Salamani bellowed as he reappeared. Instantly, the three Couriers changed course, avoiding Reizmelt’s gates. Hawk thought he saw a figure in black standing at the south gates. They were invitingly open. But the instant the [Mage] shouted, the Couriers made tracks.
“What is it?”
“Assassins! They’re on to us! Get ready!”
Salamani was pointing. Hawk saw the motionless figure for a moment as the Couriers ran right, going wide of the city. They shot towards the road heading northeast out of Reizmelt. And Hawk felt it too.
Danger. But the Couriers had avoided whoever that was. They kept running. And in Reizmelt, Ryoka slowed, panting. She wondered why the Couriers had suddenly changed course. She looked over her shoulder and saw—
The southern gates had been blocked and the City Runners hadn’t been able to leave through them. And someone was standing there. Ryoka felt goose bumps erupting on her skin as she saw someone shrouded from head to toe in black. He was staring after the Couriers.
“Damn. They noticed. One of them must have perception Skills or spells. Perhaps Salamani. Tell the Guildmaster I’m done.”
The [Assassin] sighed. He pulled at one of the thin, invisible strands of steel he’d webbed the southern gates with. Sharp and thin enough to decapitate anyone moving at speed through the gates. If the Couriers had come through…
But they hadn’t. And the [Assassin], the master of wires and traps, wasn’t really in this assignment. It was all show. He spoke to one of the disguised [Guards] who’d maintained the blockade to prevent anyone from killing themselves going through the gates.
“Pack it up. I’m done.”
“You won’t follow them?”
The fake [Guard], one of the junior members of the Guild, looked startled, but knew better than to question a master. The [Trapmaster] yawned.
Even he couldn’t catch up with Couriers that fast. The [Assassin] lazily wound up the steel wires. He’d rather fight Magnolia Reinhart’s servants than try to catch a Courier. They were the worst kind of prey.
[Dangersense] and the speed and reflexes to instantly run away from trouble. How did you catch that? Well—he’d made some effort. The [Assassin] spoke curtly.
“I’m done. Fighting three Couriers is too much for anyone but a master. So. Send in the fodder. Maybe they’ll get lucky.”
He walked off, taking off his signature clothing. Silly politics. He’d enjoy taking down one of the Couriers if someone posted a personal bounty. Later. You didn’t rush a proper assassination. He saw the junior [Assassins] scrambling. As numerous as flies. The [Trapmaster Assassin] shook his head.
Well, that was the purpose of rookies. At least it would be interesting to watch. He wondered if he could find a scrying orb. He liked the Wistram broadcasts.
The Couriers had only a few minutes of relief after avoiding Reizmelt. They were headed north, halfway towards their destination when the real ambush began. It started with an unsettling empty patch of road. On a trade route, no less.
The Couriers looked at each other. That almost never happened except when something was up. They glanced ahead as Salamani’s magically enhanced vision spotted something.
“Carriages incoming! From ahead!”
“Here they come. Damn, damn, damn—”
Hawk saw nearly a dozen dark coaches speeding down the road. Tritel gritted his teeth.
“Salamani, escape or go through?”
“My [Dangersense] isn’t tingling hard. Looks like lower-level enemies. Split up. We’ll make it out the other side.”
The Couriers nodded at each other. They split, Hawk going right, Salamani left. Tritel continued down the road. And here came the first wave of [Assassins].
In carriages. Not the legendary pink coach of Magnolia Reinhart, but clearly enchanted. Panting horses were flinging them across the ground, towards the Couriers. Some were approaching from the rear as well!
One pulled up from behind as the Couriers began to split up. Hawk saw Tritel pull out a crossbow.
“Courier on delivery! Back off!”
He had to shout that. But the painted coach just gained in speed. Definitely enchanted.
The carriage doors opened, revealing dark-clothed figures all holding glittering metal. Crossbows. Also, throwing weapons. They fired and threw their poisoned darts.
It was a good ambush. More [Riders] on horseback with movement Skills were circling, trying to cut at the Couriers. And the coaches were coming from both directions. The [Assassins] had wands, and were firing lightning bolts, homing arrows—
It was a good ambush. The kind that would get a City Runner, even the best of them. But a seasoned Courier? The [Assassins] were aiming at Ci, thinking to take the rider off his mount. But Tritel was a high-level Rider. And he had a Skill.
[Mount and Rider: Shared Skills]. The short man’s teeth flashed as he howled.
“[Flicker Dodge]! [Blinding Flash]!”
The horse flickered. She reappeared to the left, neatly dodging all the projectiles. And then—Hawk was far enough to see only a flash. But it was bright enough to make him shade his eyes.
Ci’s horseshoes and the metal on his clothing lit up. The [Assassins] went blind, and cursed as even the horse and drivers lost their vision for a few crucial seconds. By the time they recovered, the Moonlight Mare and her rider were gone.
The other [Assassins] chasing Salamani saw the [Mage Runner] had unsheathed his wand. He was using a [Haste] spell, and he’d turned [Invisible]. But some of them could see the invisibility, or track him through the grass and they surged towards his location. But the [Mage] wasn’t just trying to hide.
“Arrows of Light, come to me in gathering storm!”
The Courier shouted as he raised his wand. He reappeared and lights flashed into existence around him.
Magical [Light Arrows], a Tier 1 spell began appearing around Salamani. But dozens with each second. They flew after the [Mage], like a vast cloud of light, spinning, weaving together. One hundred, two hundred, three…
The [Assassins] wavered. And they understood too late why a master-assassin hadn’t tried to stop all three Couriers. Beyond their speed, and disinterest in the contract—
It was really hard. Salamani charged with hundreds of magical arrows following in his wake. He ran towards a carriage and pointed. The [Light Arrow] storm engulfed the coach. Black shapes, horses, wood, all were struck hundreds of times by the spell. The coach exploded and the other [Assassins] peeled back, avoiding the deadly hail of magic.
Salamani vanished again as the spell conjured more of the arrows. He was loosing more in every direction, exchanging fire with the [Assassins]. And a magical barrier was deflecting every crossbow bolt and poisoned dart that reached him.
“Hurry up, Ci! They’re on us!”
Tritel was being pursued by more [Assassins] on horseback. He’d dodged most of the coaches, but a few of the [Assassins] were able to catch up for a few seconds. One had a sabre and was riding hard at him. The [Rider] saw Ci accelerate and reached for his side. His turn.
The man flicked a long, enchanted rope out of his saddlebags. The [Assassin] wasn’t prepared for that. They slashed wildly, but the rope twisted through the air.
Tritel snagged one of the riding [Assassins] by the leg. He yanked them off their horse as Ci outdistanced the others. The [Assassin] hit the ground and was dragged behind Ci at insane speeds. He—no—she thrashed wildly for the first hundred feet, trying to cut the enchanted rope. After that, nothing.
After three hundred feet, Tritel undid the knot. There wasn’t much left of the [Assassin] as the corpse rolled to a stop.
There was one last group of [Assassins] riding at him. Tritel ducked as a crossbow bolt flew past him. He swore as another hit him in the shoulder. But it didn’t penetrate his enchanted clothing.
“Bastards! You alright, Ci?”
The mare snorted. Her sides had deflected a few projectiles. Worried, Tritel checked her. She had an [Enhanced Hide] Skill, but she was bleeding. The [Rider] shouted in fury as he looked ahead at the [Riders] shooting at them.
He pulled out a crossbow and fired once. The enchanted bolt detonated and blew a group of riders to bits.
“That was a hundred gold bolt you bastards!”
He shouted as he and Ci raced past. And they were clear. So was Salamani, whose magical arrow cloud had fought off his pursuers. And again—that only left—
He was still just running along. He hadn’t slowed to fight and instead had just sped up. The other [Assassins] on wagon or horseback were having trouble even catching him. The Courier leapt over rocks and other obstacles, like, well, a rabbit. He was maneuvering, keeping them from drawing close.
But you could only run so long. The [Assassins] chasing him suddenly stopped. A pair of carriages moved forwards, blocking his route. [Riders] from the left, closing in—and the carriages were opening, disgorging black-clad figures ahead. They were clambering on top of the roof, aiming weapons at him.
Hawk tried to swerve, but he was being boxed in. He saw [Riders] to the left, a group aiming wands with [Lightning Bolt] to the right—and the [Assassins] in the wagons ahead of him.
He screamed as the bolts flew and the [Assassins] rode through their own fire to strike at him. Left—right—ahead—the Rabbit [Courier] shouted as he ran at the wagons.
The [Assassins] saw him blur. The ones braced blinked. He was coming even faster. Twice as fast—
Hawk leapt into the first coach, a blur. [Assassins] drew their weapons. The others raced around, to trap—
The Courier exploded out of the other side in less than a second. The destroyed coach and [Assassins] with broken bones crashed to the ground around him. He hit the ground. And ran around a horse, an extended blade—
The world was in slow motion compared to the Beastkin Runner. He hit the ground and sprinted past the carriage. For a second, five, ten, he was racing faster than anything around him. He caught up to Ci and Tritel as Salamani used [Flash Step] to close the gap.
“Bleeding hells, Hawk! You don’t mess around! Did you get tagged? Ci’s hurt!”
“One of them scorched my ass! I’m going to kill you, Tritel!”
Hawk shouted at Tritel. Salamani was swearing.
“I think I’m poisoned! Hand me an antidote!”
“Slap some potion on Ci!”
The three Couriers tossed potions and vials at each other on the run. They were nearly clear.
The [Assassins] made one last attempt. The fastest coach rocketed forwards. It was on a collision course! The Couriers stared at the wagon. Hawk raised a fist. Salamani pointed his wand and Tritel turned Ci after Hawk.
The wagon exploded. The three Couriers raced forwards as debris landed around them. Tritel was shouting at the others as he took lead again.
“[Wild Gallop]! We’re nearly in the clear! Let’s go!”
They left the [Assassins] behind. Salamani panted.
“They didn’t send a master? We got lucky! We must have avoided the one I saw at Reizmelt.”
“Let’s go off-road! We can’t run another encounter! I’m already a hundred gold down plus the potions!”
Tritel pointed. They were headed towards the hills. That way led to monsters, rougher terrain. The Couriers didn’t even think.
“Off-road! Salamani, lose whatever scrying spells are on us.”
“I’m trying! I think it’s Wistram! Let me send a [Message] spell. Hey, cut it out! You’re giving away our positions you—”
“—inbred, half–baked [Seers] with all the sense of a slug! I’m a [Mage] of Wistram and your hedge-mage brains are getting me and my fellow Couriers ambushed! If you don’t cancel that spell now, I’ll run back to the Academy, find the idiot who thought it was a good idea to put a damned scrying spell on us when we have [Assassins] up our asses and rip their lungs out! Cancel that spell now you worthless, worm-addled—”
The stream of invectives didn’t slow for a good minute. The [Seer] receiving the spell kept wincing and looked at the [Diviner] in charge of the broadcast.
“Um—cancel the scrying spell. And cut off Mage Salamani. He’s made his point.”
The man in charge coughed a few times. Salamani’s oaths cut off. So was the image of the three Couriers, much to the disappointment of the viewers who instantly began sending Noass angry [Message] spells.
But the point had been made. The Couriers had broken through one ambush. The Assassins’ Guild had made a good attempt, but—not their best. Better to make the effort than do their best and still fail. The delivery was going to succeed. Unless…one of the master-assassins was willing to intercept?
…No. They had a problem with being on the scrying orb. Besides, some of them got deliveries from Couriers. You didn’t kill your favorite Runner.
Three Couriers. They kept running, and without any eyes on them, they could slow down. It was still a long way north. But they only took one break, once they’d reached the hills. They drank more stamina potions, bandaged wounds, excreted—and they were on the run.
It wasn’t pretty. In fact, apart from the adrenaline-inducing fights, their run was still long. Exhausting, hard—with moments of extreme danger.
But they ran. And finally, they reached the city of Weisel. By that point, the scrying spell had been reinstated, due to popular demand. Salamani was swearing a blue streak, but they were in range of the city.
“Couriers on delivery! Where’s Lady Dealia?”
Tritel raced forwards on Ci, shouting at the [Guards]. They stared wide-eyed at the panting Couriers. One pointed.
“She’s in the city, that way—are you the Moonlight Rider?”
“You see anyone else with a better horse? We’re nearly there, lads! And Ci! Let’s go!”
The three Couriers raced through the gates. Hawk was at the end of his rope. He’d been running for—he didn’t know how many hours. And he was full of nerves. Nearly there, nearly—
The streets were full of people. Weisel’s inhabitants. They turned to stare as Tritel rode Ci down the road, ignoring traffic laws. The other two Couriers were hot on Ci’s hooves. Hawk stared at the crowd.
“Couriers on delivery! Clear the damn roads!”
Hawk screamed at max volume. People turned, stared, and obeyed. The three Couriers raced down the street shouting.
“Lady Dealia! Where is she?”
Tritel looked around. Some people pointed. Salamani leapt up onto a roof and turned.
“Tritel, Hawk! Over there!”
The two Couriers turned. They raced down a street, pelted right. Towards the frozen convoy of minor nobles. Lady Dealia and her house stared as the Couriers ran at her.
The [Lady] of House Zolde stared as the three Couriers bore down on her. Her two brothers and their bodyguards reacted, reaching for their weapons. But Tritel rode down on all of them, full of lather and adrenaline.
“Are you Lady Dealia Zolde?”
“I am. Are you—the Couriers?”
Lady Dealia’s eyes were wide, darkened with shadow. She was indeed one of the most beautiful [Ladies] of Izril and her makeup accented her Chandrarian features. Her brothers looked at Hawk with wide eyes.
The nobles had been sitting around a table with a scrying orb on it. Hawk glanced at the image. Tritel was dismounting as Ci panted. The horse walked over to a cup one of the Zolde [Lords] had been drinking from and stuck out her tongue. He stared as she lapped up the water.
“Delivery for you. From Lady Hetessana. If you have a seal, we’ll take it. Otherwise—here. Direct delivery. Apologies for the delay. Some idiot got his legs broken. What?”
The [Lady] was staring at Tritel.
“You—you’re on the scrying orb. You’re still running—we’ve been watching your progress.”
She pointed weakly at the orb. Hawk saw that he was being shown on the orb, running. Some Drake—Noass—was commentating in the corner.
“…Looks like they’re nearly to their destination. I understand this will be very unfortunate for Lord Bein, but I don’t think anyone will stop the Couriers at this point. This is of course, hah, all Human politics. But er…not that we have anything against Humans. Salt of the earth. Good if they don’t steal your cities, all that…”
“They must have delayed the spell.”
Salamani jogged up. He wiped at his forehead as the nobility stared. Lady Dealia saw the short man thrust the little locket at her.
“Your delivery, Lady. Will you take it?”
She hesitated. And the dramatis personae of this event, the tired Couriers, the crowd who realized they were going to be on the scrying orb and began waving at the sky—all of them had forgotten.
At the heart of it all was a love story. One of those classic ones. Lady Dealia’s eyes shone as she inspected the amulet. One of her brothers uttered a quiet oath.
“Sands take us. A Terland amulet.”
“Do you need to have it tested?”
The other brother, the eldest, looked at his younger sister. Dealia shook her head silently.
“I—I know it’s real. It’s Bein’s.”
Hawk saw her bow her head. And he realized the young [Lady] was truly heartbroken. Tritel stepped back. He elbowed Ci and the mare stopped lapping water from the cup. Everyone turned to Dealia.
“So it’s true. Lord Bein was unfaithful.”
The older of the Zolde brothers leaned on the table. Dealia nodded silently. Her younger brother, who might have been seventeen, stood up abruptly. He took the locket from Dealia and hurled it onto the ground. He stomped on it—but the amulet was an artifact. With a curse, the [Lord] kicked it across the street, into the crowd.
“Hey. We delivered that.”
Hawk protested weakly. Salamani elbowed him and whispered.
“We’re done. Watch the show.”
“Lord Qiam! Lady Dealia! Do you have anything to say about this delivery? We’ve been following the entire affair—I’m with Wistram! Excuse me, let me through!”
A voice in the crowd. A [Mage] from the local guild was holding a scrying mirror over her head. Noass was shouting through the mirror, at the nobles.
They stared as the Drake addressed them. And then they became part of the entertainment. They weren’t used to it. Television, being broadcast. So—their reactions were genuine. The younger brother, Qiam, addressed the mirror stiffly.
“The engagement’s off! And this filthy Terland rat—who thinks he can play games with my sister’s heart? He owes us a blood debt and our family won’t rest until it’s met!”
The crowd erupted into shouts, mainly in support of the heartbroken Dealia.
“You heard it here first, folks! The Zolde and Terland Houses are at war! Lord Bein’s unfaithfulness has provoked a conflict between Izril’s nobility!”
“Wait, we didn’t say war—”
Alarmed, the older [Lord] of House Zolde tried to speak. Dealia herself said nothing. The [Lady] was in tears. Noass kept shouting, mainly recounting the lurid details of the affair within earshot of Dealia herself.
Hawk glanced at Salamani. The [Mage] poked Tritel. The [Rider] elbowed Ci. The mare snorted and nodded. They backed away as Noass and the crowd and the Zolde family became the center of another drama. Because that was news, right?
The Couriers had done their job. Suddenly, they were out of the public eye. Forgotten. But that was how it worked. Hawk examined his feet. He elbowed Salamani.
“I’m never doing that again.”
“Come on, Hawk. It’s good exposure.”
“I don’t work for attention. I want gold.”
“Well, we’ve got that. Drinks are on me, lads. Let’s find a good inn and sleep with our ears to the doors. We’ll have to find a place where Ci can eat with us too.”
Hawk rolled his eyes. But he walked off with the other Runners. And from their run, Lord Bein was outed as a treacherous philanderer, the Zolde family and the Terland House were at war.
And the Runner’s Guild pushed back on the Guild of Assassins. They may be threatened. But they did their deliveries, come rain or shine or poisoned blades in the night. You could stop a City Runner. But one of Izril’s best? You were taking a risk.
Couriers. Selys Shivertail gazed into Rufelt’s mirror. She shivered, as for a second, the image focused on Hawk and the other Couriers. She stared at Hawk. The silly, affable Rabbitman who wooed Drakes in Liscor with carrot-related foods. Who had smashed through a carriage of [Assassins] with his bare fists and feet.
She looked around. People were watching the broadcast. The Drake [Heiress] leaned over.
“You know, I’m actually dating him.”
The Gnoll [Bartender] gave Selys a blank look.
“Congratulations. I serve him drinks.”
That night, Hawk was one of the talks of the city. The three Couriers…well, four counting Ci, were feasted. And no [Assassins] came to kill them. Or if they were poisoned, it was so subtly none of them could tell.
Lady Dealia’s heartbroken grief was almost overshadowed by the drama of everything. The Couriers were stars, that shone for at least a little while. Hawk himself received a number of offers for companionship that night which he declined; he had a special someone.
Salamani was another case. He certainly enjoyed the attention. But Tritel was, like Hawk, taken. Ci had to approve any female companionship. And she did not, by and large.
And Lord Bein was in a lot of trouble. And that was what this all about, wasn’t it? A love story. The world had focused on the matter of [Assassins], the pride of Couriers, the private drama of a young [Lady]’s heartbreak with lurid fascination.
Because it was the most important, topical thing in the world. More than the King of Destruction’s ongoing war with Jecrass. More than any other major event, like possible conflict with the Kingdom of Ailendamus, the eternal struggle of the Blighted Kingdom.
This was the most important thing. Because people were focused on it. Ergo, it was important. Right? Noass and his broadcast illuminated what mattered. That was how it worked.
At the same time as Ci was stealing food from Hawk’s dinner plate, a completely unimportant person was watching Noass through the scrying orb. Her head twisted right, left. As if trying to understand.
Belavierr looked at Noass. Her immortal eyes narrowed on his face. Noass shivered for a second in the broadcast—after a ten minute delay. But he kept talking.
“…wonders what will become of the drama. Obviously, this is a scandalous affair. Also in the news, we have a wedding between one of Calanfer’s [Princesses] and a [Baron] of some other Terandrian Kingdom. I’ll find the names in a moment. Hopefully the planned nuptials won’t be disrupted by another bout of infidelity. Males, cover your tails! Ha, ha…that was a joke…”
The Stitch Witch looked at the scrying orb. Here was…importance. Weight. And yet—this Drake wasn’t talking about the village that had been slaughtered. He was focused on a spat between lovers.
Not her…evil. The Stitch Witch stared.
“Strange. Is this what matters in this era?”
Something in her spoke. It has always been so. Always. This is just another way, another version of the same.
She could slaughter a city. But would it matter? The Stitch Witch thought. And thought. And then—she smiled.
She had seen them. Running about. High-level for who they were. But they had been on the scrying orb. They were thus…important.
The [Witch]’s logic was very simple. If this was what the world cared about, then doing something to them would attract attention. There would be consequences. But she had accepted them. For her daughter, she would dare death.
So she stood. That unimportant, unremarked upon person. Who had never featured in one of Noass’ broadcasts, or Sir Relz’s snappy commentaries. They might not even know she existed. Might not even know her name. That unimportant [Stitch Witch]. Whose level was higher than any two of the Courier’s put together. Who had existed for time immemorial.
They told stories of her in Chandrar. They refused to speak her name in Terandria. She had laid low armies, made terrible pacts. She crept in and out of myth and legend. The [Witch] the hero went to. The dark thread that laid low dynasties by their hubris and greed, through dark magic.
She was not Az’kerash, who dominated the world’s stage. She was the Spider, whose talent was laying webs. Surviving. But such an old spider. And the world was so small these days.
The Stitch Witch smiled.
She began to walk. Or ride her dark horse, stitched together of midnight. Was it both? Neither?
A shadow crossed Izril. A traveller on the road turned his head, and saw an old woman walking past him. He nearly called out. But fear chilled his tongue as he saw the tall shape. The moving shadows. He looked into her ringed gaze. And he beheld his mortality.
For a moment. Then he blinked and she was gone. But the memory stayed with him. On dark nights. He remembered that gaze and knew with certainty he would one day die. And his bones and flesh would rot in the ground.
A silence descended in a forest. The creatures of the night stopped making sound. Stopped moving. A rabbit’s heart burst as it hid in its den. Because it had seen a passing thing that scared it out of its mind.
A [Witch] walked and brought the old world with her. Old evil, which remembered lost glories.
Evil, crawling across Izril. But—Belavierr herself didn’t realize it. Something funny was happening. Her steps…curved. And her voyage through the darkness was twisted. She did not notice it at first, so confident was she. But it was happening.
Somehow, she was going the wrong way.
The evening was almost given way to pure darkness. The clouds were out. A fitting day for it. Lady Ieka Imarris stared pensively out of the coach’s windows as she rode. The [Mage Lady] rode in her personal spell-coach.
Again, not the famous pink carriage of Magnolia Reinhart. But she wasn’t the only one with magic. This wasn’t as fast as the legendary carriage, but so what? It was comfortable, shielded. Protected.
And Ieka’s bodyguard rode with the coach. Armored bodyguards, wearing spelled plate armor that she had enchanted herself. Ieka would have trusted them to go up against a group of [Knights]. And if it came to it, she herself would cast magic.
She was a [Mage Lady], one of the [Ladies] you would have to list if you named Izril’s most influential. Not the best in say, beauty. Lady Wuvren would have to take that spot, for all she was over sixty.
Not the most famously passionate either. Lady Bethal or Lady Pryde came to mind, even though Ieka was known for her temper as well. But those two…grandstanding [Ladies] were somehow more iconic.
And Ieka was not considered the most powerful, despite her talent for magic, amplified by her noble class. Point to Lady Magnolia Reinhart herself for that. Or the aged Zanthia.
Ieka ground her teeth together. She was not the first ‘anything’. And that made her bitter. Not that it mattered. It was just the will of the masses. Social gossip.
But it also did matter. She bore Magnolia Reinhart a grudge. So deeply that Ieka was opposed to her. In public, and private.
She was part of a group known as the Circle of Thorns. In daylight, she was also an ally of Tyrion Veltras—the Imarris family was a traditional ally of the Veltras family, but Ieka was even more so. She was influential and had connections beyond those simply afforded to her by her station.
She had graduated from Wistram. She knew their world as well. She could, at her whim, use her power. And Ieka was generous with her allies. She valued magic, resourcefulness.
And she disliked Magnolia Reinhart. Not just because the other woman was famous; that was just a quibble. Magnolia Reinhart, to Ieka, was shallow, manipulative, controlling. Izril did not need her. Most importantly, though, Ieka truly wanted a better future for Izril. She had fought the Goblin King. She had lost her sister at the Sacrifice of Roses.
Everyone had lost something. That day lingered in the mind of Izril’s nobility. A terrible day and night. When they had marched against the Goblin King. A decade past and still. Ieka could close her eyes and remember.
They marched out of the city dressed like a field of flowers. Bright clothing, while the men wore armor and clashed with the Goblins. Outnumbered. Outnumbered by Goblins and outmatched.
The Goblin King himself took to the field after the long siege. His Goblin Lords assailed the defenders of First Landing mercilessly. Slaughtering. Even the champions of Izril were too few.
So the nobility walked, dressed for a ball. Because armor would have stifled their abilities. [Ladies], on procession. Shielded by nothing but their Skills and flimsy lines of [Soldiers]. Turning the tide.
They threw the Goblins back. Again, and again. The Goblin King himself fought their wills. They had power, the [Ladies] in their fine dresses. But he had another sort. So he rode into their lines and cut down the flowers by the dozens. Until he was finally hurled away. They halted the Goblin King’s advance that day. But the ground ran with the blood of the flowers of Izril.
She could remember it if she closed her eyes. Lady Ieka felt her eyes stinging. Tears, unshed. Everyone had lost something.
Perhaps none more so than the woman who sat across from her. Lady Rie Valerund, last of her name. More than one noble house had died that day. And those that remained…
“The bidding war is over, Ieka.”
For a moment, the [Mage Lady] did not know what was being said. She was still there. Drenched in gore, holding her wand, looking around for her sister as the [Soldiers] pushed back the Goblins. Hearing the screams of the dying nobility and the Goblins’ war drums.
Then she was back.
“The bidding for the Potion of Youth? Who won, then?”
Lady Rie Valerund was consulting a scroll that Ieka used to follow the bidding of valuable items. She hadn’t bothered even making a bid for the Potion of Youth. For one thing, she hadn’t needed it. Her star had yet to fade. But the item’s purchaser was another matter.
Lady Rie’s face told Ieka everything. The other [Lady] paused.
“What does Reinhart need with another potion?”
“Leverage, no doubt. Any number of [Lords] might jump for it. Lord Pellmia, for instance. Ieka—are you certain this is wise?”
The [Mage Lady] returned to looking out the window. She had been in the carriage all day. It was a difficult business, travelling fast in Izril. Couriers, even Couriers took days to travel the continent. Damn Magnolia’s carriage, with all its ancient magical enchantments. It was yet another thing the Lady Reinhart had over her enemies.
Ieka had also made a stop to pick Lady Rie up. She was living in Riverfarm of all places. In a terribly tiny house. But Ieka understood the sacrifice.
“Some things are more important than…differences, Rie. You know it. As do I. The Circle opposes Reinhart in so much. But this?”
Lady Rie bit her lip. If Ieka hated Magnolia, Lady Rie Valerund blamed Magnolia Reinhart for so much more. And yet…
“I understand. I communicated the necessity. But we are risking our lives.”
“And? This is the very thing the Circle was made of. The old ways. Not Magnolia’s new ideas. Peace with the Drakes? But she is right in this.”
Lady Ieka’s eyes flashed. She did not like this any more than Rie. And she was more powerful than Rie, in every sense. The other [Lady] sat back.
Silence. The carriage rolled on. Until it stopped. Then—one of the armored bodyguards, [Spellarmor Warriors]—a weaker class than Ieka wanted, she would have preferred [Mage Knights]—rapped on the glass window.
“Lady Imarris. We have arrived.”
The voice behind the helmet was female. And all of the [Riders] were. Men would have not been appropriate tonight. Ieka rose, her legs sore from inactivity.
“It is time. Keep your forces back, Celaene. Unless we signal.”
“Yes, Lady Imarris.”
The leader of Ieka’s bodyguard was restless. Rightly so. But the two [Ladies] were controlled. That was what being a [Lady] was. Grace, even in the face of death. To Ieka, that was what it was. Other people had different ideas.
The other [Lady] exited the coach. And Lady Ieka found herself standing in a field.
A wheat field, perhaps. Recently cleared for harvest. It did not jive with her shoes at all. Ieka frowned; Rie had a much more sensible shoe on. But both [Ladies] wore dresses.
They made their way towards a group not far distant as the [Bodyguards] retreated. And there, standing in the splintered rays of moonlight and under cloud was a gathering.
[Ladies] turned their heads as Rie and Ieka approached. Just…around three dozen [Ladies]. More than Ieka expected. All of them she knew on sight. And the ones in the center made Ieka’s jaw tighten. But she turned her head, looking about.
The [Ladies] had brought their own escorts. Bodyguards, small groups like Ieka’s elites. The [Mage Lady] saw groups of female [Guards]. Higher-level individuals. Personal aides—a group of [Maids] standing by one pink carriage.
And to the side—[Knights]. Dressed in flamboyant pink armor. The Knights of the Petal. Ieka scowled at them. And she stared at the [Lady] who had always claimed her elites were better than Ieka’s.
Lady Bethal Walchaís stood in the center of the circle of [Ladies] in their dresses, in the field. Well—she was not wearing a dress. Contrarian as always, she had on riding clothes. But for once, her husband was nowhere to be seen.
She was not the only one. There, standing next to her was arrogance personified. Pride, embodied in Pryde. Never more suitable a name existed. The [Lady]’s eyes flashed imperiously as she turned her head, but she would never have acknowledged Ieka first.
Next to her, a woman in her twenties, in full youthful bloom. Or—she might be a woman in her thirties, next. Older, younger—Lady Wuvren, the most beautiful [Lady] in all of Izril had an appearance which always belied her age. And she too was not surrounded by her suitors. Her male suitors, at any rate. Ieka nearly sneered at Wuvren’s clothing. But then she saw a face that did give her pause.
Lady Zanthia was the only one there for whom Ieka had any respect. And the old woman was unchanged. Dignified, standing in the loose soil and fallen stems of wheat like she stood in the most noble of receptions. She nodded slowly towards Ieka.
And in the center of them all was her. A shorter woman than Ieka, by a bit. A bit plumper too. But then—her sweet tooth was legendary. And her smile and expression was welcoming, open. But the most deadly of the flowers of Izril did not fool Ieka one whit.
“Lady Ieka. I’m so glad you could make it. And Lady Rie as well.”
“Magnolia. And I see the others have gathered as well. I was delayed in gathering Lady Rie.”
Ieka inclined her head slowly. Stiffly. The other [Ladies] smiled or nodded, but Bethal didn’t give even that pretense. She just stared.
So did Rie. The Lady Valerund had turned into a statue upon seeing Magnolia. Ieka looked at her. Well, they did not have to stand together. But Ieka drifted forwards as Rie sketched the most rudimentary of curtsies and held back, among the outer circle.
“Lady Ieka. I was most gratified to hear your response. And that you came. Despite our…differences.”
That we’d stab each other to death on any other day. Ieka nodded at Magnolia.
“Special circumstances. Do you want to say something, Bethal?”
The other [Lady]’s gaze was burning a hole in the side of Ieka’s head. The [Mage Lady] turned her gaze and acknowledged Bethal at last. The Lady Walchaís spoke slowly.
“I received a flower.”
Ah, the black flower. Ieka had sent it with others a while ago. But Bethal would not forget. The black flower of cowardice, a symbol sent to those who had not been at the Sacrifice of Roses.
But Bethal had. Ieka felt something of a pang of guilt. But the gesture had been calculated. And they had sabotaged Tyrion’s conquest of Liscor. But for them and the south of Izril would have been opened. All that work, money spent, time, for nothing.
“How dare you? We were both there. I can understand the other cowards, but you? Have you forgotten your own sister?”
Bethal’s voice was low, a hiss. And the air around her was jagged, like thorns. Ieka’s head jerked, as if she’d been struck. And she might have been—
Their auras clashed in the night. The other [Ladies] didn’t draw back, but guarded themselves. Bethal’s was thorns, almost physical. They could cut and tear flesh.
Ieka’s? Hers was magic. Power. It made the air charged, and spellcraft more potent around her. Now, she clashed with Bethal.
“Forget? You forget yourself, Bethal.”
Magnolia’s voice was a brisk snap. And she clapped her hands. Both Bethal and Ieka felt a third presence bearing down on them. Neither one stopped pushing—Magnolia was strong, but she couldn’t overpower Ieka so easily.
A shift. Ieka’s [Bodyguards] sensed the conflict. How not, when two [Ladies] were clashing this fiercely? They were all women too—that mattered. Bethal’s female [Knights] moved, regarding their counterparts. And amid the carriages, one of the [Maids], the most powerful of the lot, practically a [Lady] among the common folk—moved.
Magnolia stopped Ressa with a hand. It was Zanthia who spoke, and her aura cut the other auras down to size like a precise blade.
“Bethal. We can quarrel later. But we do not fight here.”
The [Lady of Thorns] stopped. Her cheeks flamed with fury and righteous outrage, but her [Aura of Thorns] that gave her such fame, subsided. Ieka relaxed as well.
“Thank you, Zanthia. [Ladies], all present. We have our differences. But those of you who have laid aside your grudges, I thank you. For our purpose is above squabbles.”
Ieka herself nodded as Magnolia called out to the other [Ladies], some in their own circles. Even she agreed.
“We are fewer than I would like, Magnolia. And if we are not allowing our retainers to enter battle…”
Wuvren’s voice was charm incarnate. But Pryde spoke, harshly.
“If we were, you would have been better served bringing that Troll of yours, Wuvren.”
“The Baron? Yes indeed. But I was informed to bring only female bodyguards if any. And Magnolia sent her carriage for me…”
The [Eternal Beauty] sighed, smiling mischievously at Pryde. The other woman had her arms crossed. She was even more competitive than Ieka. She also had a grudge with most of the [Ladies] present. Bethal, for winning Thomast, Wuvren for her title as most beautiful…but Pryde was a girl still. Defined by one attribute.
It was to Zanthia that Ieka listened, and Magnolia herself, however grudgingly. And Zanthia spoke.
“Men are not welcome here. Not for this purpose.”
“They were when we pushed back the Goblin King.”
“They interfered. They were necessary, but this is not a combat, Bethal. Not in the same way. Our retainers will stay back, unless they are needed. And they are only needed if we have lost.”
Magnolia cautioned Bethal. The [Lady] considered this.
“…I will speak to Truvia.”
She stomped away from the circle, brushing past two other [Ladies]. The inner circle stood, with Ieka as the outsider. But Ieka Imarris refused to leave. She was one of the most high-level [Ladies] here. And she counted. Including Bethal…Pryde, Wuvren, Zanthia, Magnolia, herself.
“Six? Wouldn’t seven be more appropriate to confront directly?”
“Six will do, Ieka. As I said, the plan does not require direct victory. We will follow the plan. And seven might play into her hands. Numbers matter.”
Magnolia smiled, but tensely. Ieka nodded. True enough. Still…she cast her eyes over the three dozen or so [Ladies].
“Soon. I invited her, and she is coming. Whether she wills it or not. Take your places, [Ladies].”
The group changed. The retainers moved back, to the edges. The younger [Ladies]—and they were all of their majority here—stood behind the older, higher-level ones. And Magnolia and the circle of five…six as Bethal came hurrying back…were in front.
A semi-circle. Awaiting something. Zanthia stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Wuvren and Ieka. Magnolia was in the center. Fittingly enough, although that irked Ieka. She put it out of her mind. There was no room for dissension here.
No scrying orb portrayed the [Ladies] gathered here. Noass had no idea it was happening. Few people did. So this event—with many of Izril’s foremost [Ladies], each one some of the most powerful individuals on the continent—was not important. Not at all.
And neither was the dark shadow who walked out of the night. Slowly, quickly, taking singular steps but travelling far with each one.
Belavierr paused as she came to the open field. She looked around. This was not where she had intended to go. But her footsteps carried her forwards. Towards the waiting [Ladies] in their dresses.
“Ah. I was summoned.”
That was all she said to herself. She studied the [Ladies] in the center, noting each one. Dismissing them. The noblewomen stared back. Bethal through narrowed eyes, breathing heavily. Pryde appraising and dismissing the [Witch]. Wuvren frowning, troubled. Ieka watchful.
Zanthia gave Belavierr a singular nod. From one enemy to another. And Magnolia smiled.
“Ah, there is our guest of the hour. A spider crawling through my domain. Through Izril. Welcome, Belavierr. Or do you prefer another name? Also—and I hate to be a bother. But would you kindly end yourself? That would save us all some trouble.”
The [Lady] extended a hand. Those gathered here, all female, stirred. And a word ran through them unspoken.
Witch. Old power, older even than theirs. Belavierr tilted her head. She regarded Magnolia Reinhart.
“You called me here. Summoned me to this place. Someone here remembers the old ways. But has forgotten caution.”
She stepped forwards. First a shadow, distant. Then—Ieka felt her heart jolt.
The Stitch Witch stared down at her. She was tall. Her hat impossibly wide. Her eyes orange, glowing, ringed. Her clothes were not black. Black was passé, clichéd. Her clothes were dark blue. So dark you might have assumed they were black. But dark as the abyss in the sea.
“Why have you brought me here, children of Izril?”
The Stitch Witch’s voice made the [Ladies] stir. There was not one ounce of acknowledgement of their station. Or even comprehension of their nobility. It was flat. Not disinterested. But…perhaps superior was the word.
Bethal’s eyes narrowed. But Magnolia spoke, cheerfully. She was in charge of the…negotiations.
“I couldn’t help but notice the slaughtered villages in my lands. The flesh giant you sent towards my city was most unwelcome, Miss Belavierr. And you have not stopped. You do not seem to realize there is law. Surely you did not think you could do as you pleased without repercussions?”
The [Witch] glanced at Magnolia. Then she stared at Zanthia’s face. Wuvren’s.
“I know you two. Do I not? Of old.”
“Not as allies. Hello. Belavierr, was it? I never got your name the first time. I’m quite displeased to meet you again.”
Wuvren smiled, but with effort. Zanthia just met Belavierr’s eyes.
“I warned you the last time we met. Izril has no place for your kind.”
“But I have been here longer than you. I do know you.”
Belavierr’s voice was low. And something—changed in her. An awareness. Immortal distance vanishing. Something else stared at Zanthia. And the old [Lady] closed her eyes. As something peeked out of Belavierr’s face. The Stitch Witch looked at the two and Wuvren shuddered. She nearly took a step back, but Pryde and Bethal steadied her.
“You both refused. But here you stand. And I have no offers to make. Just darkness. Evil.”
Her body twisted. Hunched. Her hands reached out, towards Wuvren. The [Lady] recoiled and Ieka felt herself being sucked into those rings. That smile—she fought, but the [Witch] was laughing in her head—
Magnolia snapped her fingers under Belavierr’s nose. The Stitch Witch recoiled slightly. Ieka felt her presence lessen. And she felt it in the air.
Something like a slap, only done without sight or sound. But a slap nevertheless. One comprised purely of presence. Aura. The Stitch Witch backed up as Magnolia smiled at her.
“I was told you were quite rude. I didn’t imagine how much.”
Belavierr’s head twisted from side to side. Ieka saw Wuvren draw closer and the other [Ladies] watched, appraising. It hadn’t even moved the Stitch Witch. In Ieka’s head, she wondered if someone else would have actually been sent flying. She shuddered. Suddenly, all her reservations about aiding Magnolia were gone.
“What do you want? Woman.”
Belavierr looked at Magnolia. A tall spectre. The [Lady] stood there, in her pink dress, and smiled coldly. Her eyes flashed as the other five [Ladies] held their ground next to her. Giving her their authority.
“You are not welcome in Izril, Belavierr the Stitch Witch. You will not haunt my lands any longer. I demand you gone, as Lady Magnolia Reinhart. These are my lands, Witch. Not yours.”
The words cracked the air. Ieka felt a push and joined in. Belavierr rocked backwards. Her heels dug into the ground, as if resisting something. All the [Ladies] pushed, but the Stitch Witch held her ground.
On Magnolia’s territory no less. Ieka felt sweat beading down her back. That was…the Stitch Witch eyed Magnolia. And she seemed to wake up even more.
“Banishment. You cannot exile me, girl. You are too small.”
“I eat too much sugar, according to my maid. And I have every intention of tossing you out like the trash you are. Do you wish to make this difficult? Because I could spank you like a girl if it helps change your mind.”
Magnolia’s smile was flinty. She taunted the [Witch]. And Belavierr’s eyes narrowed. She did not like the insults, silly as they were. Ieka felt the presence deepen around her. She looked down and wished she hadn’t. Her shadows were crawling. As if something was moving in them.
The moonlight vanished from the sky. Belavierr seemed to grow taller. Her voice…changed.
“I have met [Ladies] before. Those who grasped immortality. Those who stood against monarchs. You are neither. You overestimate your power.”
She flicked her hand. And a needle flashed across the distance. It shot at Magnolia’s face. And snapped in midair.
Magnolia lowered her hand. She’d crooked a finger. Belavierr stared at the broken needle. Then she shrugged. She reached out towards Magnolia’s face. Her hand made it halfway.
Then it twisted. Gravity snapped it down. Invisible thorns pierced it. Something cracked it backwards. The [Witch]’s hand moved back. For a second Ieka thought she saw broken skin, twisted bone and—
It was the same hand, unharmed. Belavierr regarded it. She looked past Magnolia.
Bethal, Pryde, and Ieka stared at her. The [Lady of Thorns] was vibrating. She opened her mouth, eyes flashing, but Pryde beat her to it. Lady Pryde Ulta sniffed, and shook her head.
“How ancient, Temptress. And yet, you’re quite weak for someone so old. I am disappointed. All this time and effort for what?”
She tossed her head. Belavierr looked at her. Pryde met her gaze with a small smile on her lips.
“Ah. Pride. And passion. Beauty? Magic. And you?”
Belavierr looked from face to face. Pryde, Bethal, Wuvren, Ieka, and then Zanthia. The old woman narrowed her eyes and folded her arms.
“I am not a word, Spider. Begone.”
“Nor I. Begone.”
Ieka murmured. She held a wand in her hand, though this was not a duel like in Wistram. Magic hummed in her very veins. Wuvren nodded.
“We refuse you, Belavierr.”
“Walk away now, [Witch]. We threw back the Goblin King and his armies at First Landing. We will do so again.”
Bethal’s voice hummed in the air. Belavierr looked at her.
“You are unguarded, child. You should have brought armies. Champions.”
The shadows moved behind her. Needles of every shape and size flew out of her robes. The [Ladies] flicked their hands. The needles bounced off Ieka’s barrier, snapped in the air. Pryde’s Skill, [Pride is Weight], broke the others.
But more than that—the magical needles were ineffective. Weaker. Belavierr paused.
“Ah. This is formality.”
She glanced around, as if staring at something. Magnolia smiled.
“You are giving offense, Belavierr. But your presence is already one. I say again: begone.”
Both sides stared at each other. Belavierr was breaking a rule. Neither side struck at each other. They were…
[Ladies]. And this was their place. This was their power. The same force that had thrown back the Goblin King.
Not just First Landing’s armies. They had thrown him back, forced him to order the retreat. But they had been fighting too. And because of that—because of his strength, he had walked among them, cutting them down with his blades.
Belavierr was the same. Ieka was trying to push, but it was like moving…her eyes flickered to the High Passes in the distance. Like the Goblin Lord.
Bethal was biting her lip hard enough to draw blood. It was Belavierr who laughed.
“Weaker? You do not even know what I am. And you are too few.”
She laughed at the other [Ladies] behind the six. Three dozen. A fraction of a fraction of those who had died at the Sacrifice of Roses, let alone all who had stood there. Belavierr turned her head, counting. She looked at Lady Rie for a moment and smiled. The [Lady] was frozen, her face a mask of defiance and concentration.
It was to Magnolia that Belavierr looked at again. The [Lady] was smiling slightly. But an invisible blade was trying to drive itself through Belavierr’s head. Still, the Stitch Witch resisted. The shadows were roiling. And then she began to whisper.
“Your thread is mixed. Part woven by ancient fire. Yet you stand here. There is no one to protect you. And I remember when your family first stepped onto this land. You are unguarded, girl.”
The words made Ieka start. They meant something. Magnolia’s eyes narrowed.
“I do not need outsiders to oust you, Belavierr. For armies, I trust to [Generals]. For other threats, I hire or find those to do the job. But for a spider in my house? We need no other.”
No man. No outsiders. The [Ladies] pushed. And Belavierr laughed. She was gathering her strength. Ieka felt sweat sliding down her back, now, and beading on her forehead. Composure. She could not lose it. She could not be the weakest one! She refused!
“It will be your death. I make no bargains tonight. I have only one will in my heart. And that is—evil.”
What a ridiculous word, coming from her. The very incarnation of it. But she said it like it was a mystery. A children’s word. Magnolia spoke, enunciating each word.
“We are the [Ladies] of Izril. And we need no other save for ourselves to deal with threats like you. The day we do, this land is lost to our people. And if it is evil you seek—end us now, Belavierr. And doom the north.”
It was an invitation. A challenge. The six [Ladies] and those behind them stood, locked in a silent battle of wills. And the Stitch Witch waited. She counted their numbers. And then—
Under the obscured moon and stars, they fought. And the darkness moved. First, only the air rippled. Then, high above, the clouds began to swirl. Echoing the forces clashing below.
On one side, the [Ladies]. They held their ground at first, and then began to move. Not in retreat, but graceful steps. As if they danced among the empty field. Their dresses rustled, and they shone.
Like fireflies in the night. Flaring, fading. Flowers in bloom before they wilted.
And on the other side was the Stitch Witch. She smiled, a Spider who had woven her immortality out of threads made of life and time. She too moved slowly. Bound by the rules of the engagement.
The night began to change. Shadows grew and rose. Along the edges of the field, figures began to stir. Trying to break the dance. They were unwelcome, and they suffered the breaking of the rules. But still they moved.
“What level is she? She is ancient of years.”
Wuvren’s voice trembled with the strain as the [Ladies] circled the [Witch]. She was reaching for them, slowly, and they were stepping out of the way. Dancing. And invisible, in the sky, the forces collided.
“Old. She is breaking the rules of hospitality and still she remains. Hold her. Our escorts will keep the circle.”
Magnolia’s voice was calm. She watched, as along the edge of the fields, a pink carriage began to move. [Maids] walked at the shadows which revealed figures, sewn into shapes that ridiculed reality.
“They cannot do so alone. Leave the interlopers to him.”
A whisper. It came from Zanthia. And out of the darkness stepped a man with a blade. Ieka hissed. But it was not Bethal’s husband. If it had been, they would have been damned.
Yet it was a he. A glowing figure, stepping out of forever. As Lady Zanthia danced, gracefully amid the moonlight, he appeared.
[The Eternal Partner]. He bowed and she nodded to him. Smoothly, the Stitch-Man stepped into the shadows. And they parted at the touch of his sword.
“You cannot kill me with memory alone.”
A whisper. The [Ladies] turned their heads. The Stitch Witch stood at the center of the dance. And she refused to move. She laughed at Zanthia, mockingly. Her voice was a scratching in the head, a worming whisper, trying to undermine their wills.
“You fade. You will die and be forgotten.”
“That may be so. But I crave nothing you offer.”
Zanthia replied. Her will was beyond steel. She looked at Belavierr, unafraid of anything the Stitch Witch held. She flicked her hand and Belavierr staggered. The [Witch] narrowed her eyes, seeking another target.
“Beauty is fleeting. You disguise your age. Time will unravel you.”
An older woman flinched. For a moment, Ieka saw a lined face, white hair. Flaw. And then Wuvren smiled, gracefully.
“I am very vain, it is true. But do not mistake my vanity for weakness. I have refused you once. And you are quite rude. Begone, please?”
She pointed. Belavierr’s foot moved. She looked past Wuvren, frustrated. Her eyes alighted on Bethal.
“Passion burns out. Your love will abandon you.”
Bethal’s head jerked. She faltered in her steps.
“Not so long as my heart remains true. And it is I who choose to love. Go away, Witch. I have faced true monsters.”
“The Goblin King is only one threat. The others will snuff your second heart out. You cannot protect him or yourself.”
Bethal’s footsteps changed. She began walking towards Belavierr. Fury burned in her.
Ieka tried to warn Bethal. She raised her wand, straining. Pointing it at Belavierr—
No. No magic. She instead conjured a wall of glass. It rose to Bethal’s midriff, blocking her. The [Lady] looked at Ieka. But then she moved back.
“Your magic is so weak, little [Mage]. I could give you true power. It is all locked away. You know how weak you are.”
Belavierr was in her head. Ieka closed her eyes, trying to resist it. The worst part was that she knew it was true. She tried—but the whispers were in her.
“You will never know the magic of old. But I have lived it.”
“I refuse your—I will not—”
She was drawing closer to Belavierr. Ieka saw the other [Ladies] looking at her. No! She tried to resist, tell herself it was a flawed offer. But the allure.
Power. Ieka looked at Belavierr. And she knew. She wanted to take the Stitch Witch’s offer. Even for the cost.
True magic. Ieka was drawn towards those eyes. Into that smile. She saw Magnolia raising a hand, calling out—
And then—a woman stood in front of Belavierr. Standing tall. Her hair was black. Her eyes orange, like Belavierr’s. But burning orange, not the unearthly glow.
Pryde. And she looked up at Belavierr as the Stitch Witch stared down. Pryde’s eyes were contemptuous.
“I have had enough of your whispers, creature. Begone.”
She raised a hand. And slapped Belavierr across the face.
Ieka stumbled. Belavierr’s influence on her faded and she stepped back. But Pryde—had broken one of the rules.
She stood there, the picture of arrogance. Pride made flesh. Belavierr stumbled. The blow had knocked her backwards. The [Ladies] paused uncertainly. And the Stitch Witch laughed.
Mockingly. She stood over Pryde. And the Lady Ulta’s vainglorious ego faltered for a second as Belavierr spoke.
“Pride is fleeting. It dies. And you? You do not even know how small you are.”
One of her hands swung downwards. A blow. Pryde braced herself, using her greatest Skill.
[Pride is Unbreak—
The blow drove her down. Into the earth. She lay there.
“She’s alive. The idiot. Wuvren.”
Zanthia swept forwards. They lifted the [Lady]. Pryde’s head was lolling. Her ego—extinguished. And the six were five.
That was enough. Belavierr smiled. And she seemed to grow taller still. Until she was far, far too large for her mortal frame. A dark giant staring down at them. The [Ladies] backed up and the darkness closed in.
Magnolia was the last. She stared up as Belavierr leaned down.
“You walk with those who would live forever. But you cannot follow our paths. Take my hand. And you will know no fear from time.”
The woman stared at the hand reaching towards her. And her hand twitched. But then she sighed. A bit ruefully, and smiled.
“Belavierr. You are indeed powerful. But you are a constant. You do not change because you know nothing. You lose nothing and gain nothing. I would prefer to live, rather than to never die. However brief I may have, it is my time.”
She stepped back. The Stitch Witch’s eyes narrowed.
She raised a hand, as tall as the heavens. Ieka looked up. And Magnolia nodded. She glanced past Ieka and nodded.
Now. The [Ladies] turned and beckoned. Ieka called out and felt that she was heard.
The jaws of the trap swung shut. Magnolia spoke as Belavierr’s head turned. Too late, the Stitch Witch sensed…something. She looked down as Magnolia waved at her politely.
“Belavierr. You are many things. But first and foremost. You are arrogant. We are small compared to you. But that is our strength. We do not stand alone.”
The shadows moved. The clouds opened and moonlight shone down. The Stitch Witch turned her head. And out of the darkness rolled…
A carriage. First one, and then two. And then dozens. Led by horses, stopping, opening. But no [Assassins] burst from them. Instead, came figures in dresses.
Tall and short. Young and old. Rich and…richer.
[Ladies]. Ieka turned and saw a young girl, walking with her peers. Lady Eliasor of House Melissar. Last of her line, like Rie. The girl stared at Belavierr, and then Lady Zanthia. The regal old [Lady] nodded, smiling.
One of many. The coaches let out more and more [Ladies]. Over a hundred, and then two hundred. Minor houses. And major.
The last coach to stop and the last passenger was the oldest. A wheelchair moved across the bumpy ground. And the [Lady] was exhausted from her trip. Dying.
But her eyes blazed. As Desinee pushed her, the matriarch of the House of El, Lady Maviola El, looked up at Belavierr. And only now did the Spider realize she had been tricked. She had walked into someone else’s web.
“Why do you come here? There is only death here for you.”
A woman, a [Witch], but no giant, stood in the center of the gathering of [Ladies] as they spread out around her. Encircling her. Staring at the [Witch]. She raised her hand, threw needles. They broke in midair from a dozen different angles. She looked around.
Lady Maviola smiled. She saw Magnolia nod to her. And she inclined her head in return. She spoke, in a voice as soft as a whisper, but carried across the field.
“The Five Families stand united when we must. For Goblin Kings. For war. And threats of your ilk. You are not welcome here, Spider.”
And now Belavierr knew. Her eyes narrowed and she cast about. Searching for a crack, a weakness to use. She spoke, as some of the youngest girls stared at her in horror. At the oldest of the [Ladies]. At them all.
“This is Izril’s might? It is a wilted radiance. Dying. All things fade. You are fragments and wisps of the [Lords] and [Ladies] who claimed this land. They walked with Giants and slew Dragons. What are you to them? Children of a faded dream. You will wither and your families turn to dust. But I could give you power.”
She reached out. [Ladies] drew back. And none took her hand. They looked at her. Afraid, wrathful, fearful—
But contemptuously. Refusing her. The Stitch Witch’s face was changing. Her contempt for them was bared. A twisted expression of distaste, mirrored across both classes.
Lady Zanthia spoke, her voice ringing across the field, reaching all of the women gathered there.
“Ladies of Izril. Behold the Temptress. She will come to you as you age. Each and every one of you. And she will offer you immortality, beauty. But what she asks is your very soul. We remember those who have fallen into her web. So we call her. So all races name her, the wretched creature creeping around legends and time. Temptress.”
Bethal stared at Belavierr, her eyes blazing.
Ieka whispered. And Magnolia Reinhart smiled. With all the gestures of welcome and none of the feeling.
“Belavierr, we are young to you. But the flowers of Izril still bloom. And we stand united. It is you who forget; you have trespassed and given offense on our lands. You are not welcome here. Begone.”
The other [Ladies] echoed her.
The whisper picked up. Eliasor spoke the word. Ieka said it. Rie whispered, staring in hate at Belavierr’s face. The Stitch Witch’s form…trembled.
From her resting place, Lady Pryde coughed. She stared at the [Witch] and mustered some defiance.
“I have seen more impressive sights. Begone.”
“You have nothing we wish for. Begone.”
Zanthia’s voice was steady. Maviola El gazed at Belavierr.
“You are withered in turn, Belavierr. Begone.”
The Stitch Witch threw her head back and shrieked in fury. The sound made some of the [Ladies] start. But it did nothing. Bethal raised her head and pointed.
“You are not the Goblin King. Begone.”
Magnolia Reinhart’s eyes bored into Belavierr’s.
“Begone from my lands.”
She raised her hand, and the Ladies of Izril pointed as one. They spoke a word.
Belavierr trembled. And then the air broke. The clouds split. The word rang and the Stitch Witch howled.
The shadows fled. Belavierr’s own shadow flickered, banished, fleeing southwards. Thrown by the word. But the Stitch Witch remained.
For a second, she lingered there. Refusing to leave, clutching at the ground. Her eyes blazed and her face twisted. But then—she couldn’t hold on.
Slowly, unwillingly, the [Witch] straightened. And she turned. Without a word, she began to walk. Away. Not just out of Invrisil’s lands, but further still. Helpless. Her hatred raged against them. But it was done.
Lady Ieka collapsed onto the ground for a second, breathless, covered in sweat. She felt the dirt that had crept under her dress, her tired legs—all of it suddenly. The other [Ladies] rocked back, feeling the backlash as well.
“Did we—did we do it?”
Bethal was panting. Lady Zanthia nodded, tiredly.
“It is done. She will not haunt Izril’s north for months. Perhaps longer. We threw the Goblin King and his armies back from First Landing, but she is just one monster.”
“One? But as terrible as he was.”
Wuvren murmured. The others nodded silently. Even so, it was done. Wherever a [Lady] or [Lord] of Izril claimed land, Belavierr was unwelcome. There were more powerful deterrents. But few as complete.
She had been vanquished. But not slain. The irony of that was clear to Ieka as she glanced around. The [Ladies] of Izril had thrown her back—with less effort once they had gathered in their true numbers. But only that. So many women, who had come so far at Magnolia Reinhart’s request.
But then—this mattered. Threats like Belavierr were what the [Ladies] of Izril gathered for. And…the most notable guest slowly approached Magnolia.
Lady Maviola El did not look too tired from the act of banishing Belavierr. But perhaps that was because she had little left to give. Her breathing was slow as she raised her head. Magnolia came towards her.
“Lady Maviola, you do me a great honor. But for you bringing so many, we might not have triumphed as easily.”
The old woman nodded. Just that. She did not look at Magnolia with fondness—but not with open distaste, either. Just…tiredness.
“We do not stand in agreement often, Magnolia Reinhart. For this the House of El walks with you.”
Magnolia took it as simply that. She curtsied slightly. And the old woman inclined her head. She was grand, Maviola El. Ieka had heard stories of her youth, which had promised to outstrip even Bethal and Pryde’s exploits. But she also recalled Belavierr’s words and looked at Maviola with sadness.
“You did not need to come yourself. Although I appreciate the gesture.”
Magnolia looked at the old woman with concern. And she heard a laugh in reply.
“I wanted to see the Spider in person myself. A second time.”
Ieka started. She looked at Zanthia and Wuvren. The two older [Ladies] nodded, their eyes glinting. And their words ceased to become hyperbole.
She will come to every one of you. In time. Ieka shuddered, remembering the temptation of Belavierr’s offer. How many had taken her bargains?
But Maviola—it was she upon whom all the [Ladies] looked. Because they sensed it. So too had Maviola, at the beginning of it. The end of it. She spoke, raising her hand weakly to her chest as she looked at Magnolia, around at the others.
“I will not live to repel another such monster. I have made arrangements. The House of El will endure. But I…will not.”
The [Lady] behind Maviola, Desinee El, stared at her grandmother. And her eyes filled with tears. Magnolia’s face was grave. Maviola looked at her, urgently.
“Do you have what I asked for?”
“Of course. I would not betray our bargain.”
“Hah! An honest Reinhart. Will the world survive such a thing?”
The woman’s laugh was mocking. But her eyes fixed with longing on the vial Magnolia withdrew. It had been sent by Courier. Won in an auction.
Ieka saw viridian light. A small vial. And she gasped, knowing what it was.
Bethal started. She realized too. Pryde, wincing, but rapidly regaining her massive ego, stood.
“What is that, Bethal?”
“The…Potion of Youth. I bid on that.”
The other [Ladies] looked at her. Exasperated, forgetting the moment, Ieka snapped at the woman.
“What do you need it for, Bethal?”
The [Lady of Thorns] met Ieka’s gaze challengingly, and smiled.
“Ten years, Pryde. It would have been a fine time, with Thomast and I younger than when we first met. I’ve always regretted not knowing him in his youth. Besides, it would last for ages with us.”
The other [Ladies] sighed. Bethal Walchaís.
Maviola for her part ignored the chatter in the background. She took the potion as Magnolia carefully offered it to her. And she smiled. Magnolia carefully spoke.
“You know it cannot reverse anything. It is temporary. If you wanted a potion to reverse your age, I could find something…”
Maviola cut her off with a shake of her head.
“The El family lacks the coin to pursue a mad dream of immortality, Lady Magnolia. Nor am I worth the cost, even if we could pay it. I am not like your old ghost of an ancestor. I know when I must exit the floor, and I intend to do it on my terms.”
She eyed Magnolia, and almost all the [Ladies] knew exactly what she meant. Magnolia nodded after a beat. Her lips quirked slightly.
“I will tell Regis that. It is like him to cling to life. And his wife gracefully left the stage.”
The two women exchanged a look of understanding, at least in this. Maviola regarded the potion. And for a moment there was genuine regret in her eyes.
“Ah, but the potions that Drake makes do work. And yet it is just youth. If he could make Potions of Reverse Aging…perhaps. But how many years would it reverse? Three years? Four? Even if he could make one that took ten years away, he is just one. This world has lost the ability to make powerful artifacts. And we lost our Mirror of Eternal Vitality. One wonders if Regis Reinhart keeps it. Do you know yourself, Magnolia?”
“If he does, he won’t share it.”
Magnolia remarked drily. Maviola laughed.
“Your curse is a troublesome one! Ah, but we all have our curses. Belavierr is Terandria’s. So many nightmares come from that land. And the ‘perfect’ kingdoms we left. But enough. I say: enough. I am done. I do not wish the Stitch Witch’s cursed life forever. It is time. Desinee. Bear witness.”
The old woman looked at her descendant. And the other [Ladies] drew back. Lady Zanthia found Eliasor and the young girls under her tutelage. She spoke, as she watched Maviola. And Eliasor saw Zanthia’s face. Longing, and afraid.
“Look at her, Eliasor, young [Ladies]. And hope that you have half her grace as you pass. I do. And remember. Those who enter into a covenant with the Temptress are not worthy of walking in her shadow.”
Maviola sat alone in her wheelchair. The old woman’s fingers slipped on the cork of the vial as she tried to open it. At last, Desinee helped her. Maviola grunted, irritably. Then she looked around.
“I have been planning my end a long time. I do not have the will to cling to life. Nor the interest to spend my years waning. I have lived. Made mistakes. I have many regrets. But it ends as it should, with time. I did not know it would be today. I did not know how I would die. I still do not. But I do not intend to waste away. To die quietly.”
She raised the vial with a trembling hand. The women looked as Maviola brought it closer to her lips. She spoke, quietly.
“I am Lady Maviola El. And this is the death I choose.”
She drank the entire vial down. A full potion’s dose. Ieka gasped. And she saw the old woman change. Her features shifted. In a moment.
One second, an old woman sat in the chair. The next—Ieka blinked. And she saw a woman standing there, regarding her dress. Someone else.
A young woman with sparkling orange hair, like embers, mixed with black. She had a smile made of mischief and passion, and her eyes blazed. She turned, and Desinee was the older of the two.
A laughter, infectious, crackling with humor. The young woman stretched.
“That’s only what you call me, Desinee. But all my life? I’ve been Maviola. And—I’ve forgotten how it feels to stand. Look at me.”
With some dismay she looked at her body.
“My clothes don’t fit. That I forgot to prepare for. But enough, enough. I have my bag of holding. And that is enough.”
She twirled. And the [Ladies] looked at her. Magnolia Reinhart blinked. Bethal nudged Pryde.
“I did not expect that. I thought she was going to sell it. Isn’t that a waste of money?”
The [Lady] smiled. She looked at Bethal and turned around.
“This is my selfishness. I told you, I’ve prepared for this day for decades. With my own funds. Look. Magnolia, you were only one more piece to my ending. And for that, I thank you. Even the Stitch Witch in her way. But I have been prepared.”
She reached for her side. And pulled out the three objects she always carried with her. And Ieka’s jaw dropped. Because she saw three glowing vials. Each the same color.
Three potions. Each the same as the last. Even Magnolia blinked.
“Saliss of Lights sells his potions rarely. But he does sell a number of them. I used only the money I had. Nothing remains but this.”
Maviola El looked at the three vials. Each one a Potion of Youth. Temporary Youth. She looked around.
“Each one will last a week. And after that?”
She spread her arms. And she smiled.
“That is all. But it is my ending. Youth, a dream. Now, look at me, Desinee. Magnolia Reinhart, you [Ladies] of Izril. I am Lady Maviola El. And I relinquish my position as leader of the House of El. I give it to Lord Deilan El.”
A gasp from Desinee. And the [Ladies] stirred. Maviola turned her head. Looking around. Staring at the ground, the sky, as if it was all new again. She turned.
“What will you do with your time? My estates are open, and my carriage, if you have any wish.”
Magnolia looked at Maviola respectfully. The [Lady] laughed, younger than Magnolia by half. Almost scornfully.
“I don’t need wealth. I want something else. Something new. I will not trouble any of you. I am no longer of the House of El. I will be just Maviola. I will be…”
“I had a name, once. A nickname. ‘Lady Firestarter’. That was what they called me, when I was a girl. But only I remember why. Yet, for a moment, let me be her again. Goodbye, all of you. I hope you live the lives you want.”
Nothing more. She turned and began walking out of the field. And the [Ladies] of Izril—knelt.
They curtsied, or bowed, some of them. And they knelt as the young woman passed them by. To age, to the passing of the House of El’s scion.
To her. And a word that Ieka held in her house, that chased away Belavierr’s whispers.
Grace. Maviola El walked. She left her years behind. And she strode over to a hitched, waiting horse, and mounted it as nimbly as could be. It had no saddle; the horse danced as she steadied it. Then she began to ride away.
South. Smiling and laughing in the night. The [Ladies] watched. In silence, in awe, in mourning.
Only one voice broke the silence. And it was Bethal’s. She started. And exclaimed.
“Oh. She stole my horse.”
On Maviola rode, on burning, magical time. To find her death. Leaving her life behind. South.
She rode like fire, her hair, black and orange, waving in the wind. Lady Firestarter. Lady El. A figure from an old tale, another era, riding into the night. Out of her story and into another for one last time.
She passed a shadow in the night. A walking monster. A [Witch]. The banished figure turned her head. And she whispered. Her voice rose as shadows circled Maviola.
“You have left your lands. You are dying. I can let you live forever.”
A nightmare’s voice. Reaching hands. An immortal stare. Maviola turned her head. And in the midnight’s darkness, she raised her hand.
Fire blooming in the night. Belavierr screamed as the magical fire, made of memory shot into the sky. And Maviola El laughed.
She rode on, then. A glowing ember blazing against the wind. Burning brightest in the night before the dawn. And it wasn’t the end.
Author’s Note: The end. But not really. Hope you enjoyed this chapter. This was longer than I thought, and it was certainly…ambitious. But I felt passionately about it. Maviola El was…one of the characters who just strolls into your head and sits down. I didn’t know it could happen, but a few characters have been like that.
I hope you’re enjoying yourselves, cooped up indoors! I’ve been streaming these chapters live. And I don’t know if they are good or better for it, but it’s something new. This is all from me for now. I do hope I did it justice.
For today, I am featuring one artist: pkay, who I cannot link to since they do a lot of NSFW stuff. But also a lot of amazing art for the story! They’ve drawn Magnolia, Yvlon—and Belavierr herself!
I’m linking all their new art below. It is amazing! Thanks for all the hard work, truly. This chapter is for a lot of things. Running, politics, love…but also grace. Fire. And youth, no matter how old you get. Thanks for reading!