Interlude – The Gecko of Illusions

To those who knew him, Archmage Viltach was known as ‘The Archmage of Terandria’. A curious title—but people would refer to him as the Terandrian Archmage and others would know what they meant.

Not the ‘Human Archmage’, because there were three out of the seven. Six now, and only two Humans if you took into account…current events.

Traditionally, the numbers of Archmages mattered little. Sometimes there was one. Other times they were counted only as the actual [Archmages]. And sometimes it didn’t matter because who ruled Wistram wasn’t the Archmages at all.

But the title remained. And there were seven—wait—six great [Mages] who had ascended to such lofty titles. One from each continent, in theory, but Rhir hadn’t produced an [Archmage]—or at least, a [Mage] of that caliber who had graduated through Wistram—in centuries.

As it stood, the numbers ran thusly: Terandria had two. Izril had one, and scarcely tied to her home at that. Chandrar had produced one. Baleros had three living Archmages.

Archmage Amerys was no longer numbered among them. And three of the six weren’t always at the academy; one had ties to the Iron Vanguard in no small way; despite being Human, he had been raised by Dullahans. The other, well, he was flighty and powerful. More closely linked to the Maelstrom’s Howling Great Company, but only by species.

Izril’s sole Archmagus lived on an island and seldom interfered in her home’s affairs. All three were what you could call classic, selfish Archmages. They had their hand in politics, but they were keenly obsessed with their own affairs.

…Well, you could count Archmagus Verdan Blackwood—the Human raised by Dullahans—as a politicker. But he was old, and didn’t have the stamina to fight it out constantly in Wistram with his peers. He was in effect, retired, and though he could wield sufficient power—

It was the three in Wistram Academy at this moment who made waves. Ones to watch. The other Archmages might not even have known about the Earthers.

Nailihuaile, the Lamia and head of her Revivalist Faction, did.

So did Archmage Feor, the old half-Elf who led the Centrists.

And Viltach? The Terandrian Archmage? Well…he and his Libertarians were known for their links to Terandria. And Viltach was especially political in that sense.

People said of Viltach that he never backed the losing horse. And that went for gambling as well as the affairs of his home continent. And if it turned out that a losing nation was, in fact, the one that would win a conflict? They had been the winning horse all along.

That was how the Archmagus operated. And how Wistram Academy liked to conduct a lot of affairs. There were exceptions—like the King of Destruction whom they opposed, but they generally liked to nudge things. Collect what was valuable. Avoid direct, messy intervention. Unless they had to. Which they didn’t do at all. Well—sometimes.

It was complicated. In many ways, Wistram was a giant of multiple intentions. Peer under the unified front, and you’d see a mess of factions. Each one vying for superiority, magical knowledge, power…

In this particular case, the upcoming conflict with Ailendamus and the southern realms was worrying any number of people. So far it was looking to be Ailendamus versus the traditional bulwark of Calanfer, Kaliv, and Gaiil-Drome. The Dawn Concordat as they were known, was known for having broken any number of nations sent against them. But Ailendamus had swelled of recent years, and their ruler, King Itorin II, was looking for easy victories.

The preparations for the conflict had begun interfering with sea trade. Ailendamus warships had clashed twice with Pheislant vessels and were blockading trade to the Dawn Concordat. Any goods headed their way? Well, those ships were ‘accidentally’ intercepted by Ailendamus’ peacekeeping force. Confiscated, or just ‘lost’ during routine searches.

It wasn’t exactly a stealthy maneuver. But it worked well against all three landlocked nations. They didn’t rely on continental trade, but their trade goods and luxuries were being clamped down on.

Just another precursor to the war everyone knew was coming. Now, it didn’t matter to Wistram except that this was a matter of international sovereignty on the waters. And Wistram Academy was—split—on what should be done.

Ailendamus would win. That was Viltach’s belief. He had a strong connection with King Itorin and he preferred to keep it that way by doing…nothing.

The other two Archmages disagreed.

“They can’t block trade! That makes us look bad if we don’t condemn them, even in words.”

Nailihuaile argued for opposition to the Ailendamus fleet’s actions. Only that. Feor was more direct.

“No nation rules the oceans. Ailendamus’ actions cannot be tolerated. Wistram does not take sides.

That statement was so false that all three Archmages had to pause. Naili snorted, Viltach’s lips quirked, and even Feor paused in acknowledgement of what he’d said. Nevertheless—that was what the Academy said.

“I believe Ailendamus is within its rights. Or will Wistram oppose the nation?”

Viltach looked around challengingly. Naili grumbled, and Feor glanced at her. It came down to a vote in the Council. Nailihuaile mustered her Revivalists who held seats and pushed for a strongly-worded letter of condemnation. Feor tried to use his Centrists, one of the largest factions, to persuade Wistram to go a step beyond, unifying the other coastal nations to oppose Ailendamus and force a cessation to the blockage.

Archmage Viltach threw his Libertarians beside the Revivalists. The two factions hated each other usually, but this was politics. In exchange for his votes on a referendum inviting Chandrarian bazaars to hawk their goods at Wistram in an upcoming fair…Feor lost. Wistram sent words against Ailendamus, conveying their dislike of the blockade. The matter rested.

The ships still sailed the waters, ready to seize anything bound for Terandria. They had truth spells to check even the most tricksome of [Merchants], [Mages] of their own. The warships had fast counterparts who would destroy any would-be blockade runners or smugglers…perhaps some Drowned Ships got through, or the most elusive of [Merchants], but so what? It was working.

That was politics in Wistram. They had, through much arguing over three days, accomplished exactly nothing about the blockade, but done it in such a way that much clout had been expended and gathered. Feor was unhappy, but the fate of the Dawn Concordat wasn’t the highest on his list of priorities. More time to interfere when the war began, if need be.

And that was that. The end. The Academy had spoken, the Council of Mages had voted, and there was nothing more to be said.

…Except of course that there were some people who didn’t obey the rules. They were not Archmages. They had no desire to be that public. And they viewed a nosy bunch of warships interdicting all ships as bad for business. [Smugglers] already had to dodge [Harbormasters] and inspections at the ports. So one faction happily set sail even before the votes had been cast.

They were an Elusive Lot.

 

—-

 

The warship looked like one of Ailendamus’ grandest vessels. And the insignia read—Itorin’s Pride.

“Dead gods. But that’s the flagship. We didn’t receive word, did we?”

The [Admiral] lowered his spyglass as the navy, spread out in their blockade, hailed the oncoming warship. He heard a curse from one of his junior officers.

Lord Admiral! I regret to inform you that we did receive several [Messages]!”

“What?”

“The contact, sir! This must be it.”

The [Admiral] of The Foehammer, a good warship, paled. He’d gotten several coded contacts yesterday through the [Message] system. Obviously, since you could intercept messages, Ailendamus had its own system of codes. It had told him to look for a message or persons today. But Itorin’s Pride?

“Are we going to war already? No—if the Pride is joining us, we might be sailing against Pheislant’s harbors. Dead gods. Make ready! I’ll greet our visitors myself.”

The [Admiral] checked his uniform, and saw the other ship hailing them through a complicated signal of [Light] spells. The deck was very busy, but to his surprise, the [Admiral] saw that they were signaling to come aboard his ship rather than the other way around.

Odd. But the [Admiral] saw the gangplank being lowered and hastily stepped forwards to greet…

Admiral Dakelos! How the hell are you, my man?

A giant of a man—not an actual Giant, but still—strode across the decks. He grabbed Dakelos in a bear-hug slapped him on the shoulders. The smaller man squeaked.

The [Commander]—no—[General] by his rank on his uniform was a bear of a man. A powerful nose broken twice, scars lining his arms—he had hair like it was made of iron—and a huge, booming smile.

He also smelled a bit of wine. He was clearly not at home on the rolling decks.

“Do I—know you? Sir?”

The man looked hurt.

“Dakelos! We met when you were barely a [Captain]. Back when you were sailing at sea? You don’t remember me? Yerzhen? Ah, but we had a grand time. Finished a barrel of…no?”

The [Admiral] blinked a few times, then blushed. He had a poor way with drink, and if he had met the man (and how could you forget a fellow like this?), he’d forgotten.

“I’m terribly sorry…was it Yerzhen? Er—[General]…?”

Belatedly, he saw one of his [Fleet Mages] coming forwards. It was a bit embarrassing, but the [Mage] began casting a truth spell at once. On both Yerzhen and Dakelos. The [Admiral] waved him back, but the unsteady [General] didn’t seem to notice.

“These damn boats. I hate them. Don’t know how you can stand them, Dakelos. What were you saying? Ah, right!”

He waved a stern finger at Dakelos.

“Don’t call me General Yerzhen. That was my father’s title. Let’s not stand on formality, Dakelos. Two old drinking-partners shouldn’t, eh?”

The truth spell flashed behind the man. All the statements were true. Dakelos, a bit miffed but more convinced than ever, saw Itorin’s Pride sailing past his flagship.

“Er—as you say, Gen—I mean, Yerzhen. What is the Pride doing?”

“Ah—that. You’ll want to follow. I was supposed to go ahead in one of our skiffs and spoken to you earlier today, but you know me—had to drink or I’d die at sea. How many [Soldiers] do you have under your command?”

Dakelos’ brows creased and his heart began to pound.

“I have a number of sailors, s—I mean, Gener—Yerzhen. But what is this…?”

“His Majesty will kill me if we’re late. Hurry up and turn the ship! I’ll explain on the way. You got the coded [Messages], yes?”

“Yes—but—”

Dakelos waved a hand at his officers. Wide-eyed, they began to call out.

“Raise the anchor!”

“The entire fleet, yes. We can spare a few ships if you think it’s wise, but we need to be landing in Nadel by nightfall, Dakelos.”

Nadel? But that’s the territory of Lord Belchaus!”

Dakelos nearly fell over himself. And his voice was too loud; [Sailors] looked up and gaped. Was Ailendamus going to war against Lord Belchaus Meron, the Lord of the Dance? His harbors were practically unassailable! Even with the entire navy at his back, Dakelos wouldn’t like fighting there.

But Yerzhen just growled at him.

“Not so loud, man! I’ll tell you when we get to the cabin! But take the fleet! I’ll need to borrow half your [Sailors]—those who can fight on land. Should have told you earlier. Don’t tell his Majesty or I’ll be on the chopping block. Again!

His voice was no less quiet, for all he was trying to growl. Dakelos hurried into his cabin and the [General] yanked the door shut.

“Get the fleet moving. I’ve got the Pride loaded with as many of our elites as we can. Dead gods, even the Thirsting Veil has committed sixty of its [Knights].”

Sixty? Then this is an assault? We can’t take Nadel with our fleet, Yerzhen. Not even if we had three times our numbers…”

“Admiral? Do you still need me?”

The [Fleet Mage] called from outside the office. Distracted, Dakelos saw Yerzhen drawing a line across his throat.

“No lower-ranks, Dakelos. Can’t risk word spreading.”

“Of course. You’re dismissed! Man your stations!”

The Admiral called out. Now that they were alone, and discussing war, he saw the [General] straighten and look a lot more reassuring…solid. Stumbling he might have been across the decks, but Yerzhen’s voice was like a rock.

“We’re not assaulting Nadel, Dakelos. The opposite. Lord Belchaus is allowing our ships to land. He’s not happy about it, but he’s given us a window. From there—my troops and your [Sailors] will disembark and move westwards. We will set up camp and prepare to flank the Dawn Concordat when the war begins. In six days.”

Dakelos’ jaw dropped.

“But Lord Belchaus has always been neutral…”

Infamously so, in fact. The [General] winked at him.

“His Majesty knew that. But even the Lord of the Dance or whatever he’s called can see the way the wind is blowing. There were a lot of [Diplomats], contracts—none of my business. I’m just to take my men and yours and prepare for an attack when Calanfer commits its forces northwards. We play this right and we’ll take the capital on the seventh day and be sipping wine in a week!”

It could work. The [General] was flipping through the maps, tracing a route overland from Nadel to Calanfer. Dakelos couldn’t believe it.

“So this interdiction of smuggled goods—”

“Just to get you boys out here. You think we were going to have you sit here for months?

That was what the [Admiral] had thought. But—what genius. And getting the Lord of the Dance? He felt the ship turning. The entire navy was following Itorin’s Pride.

Something did bug Dakelos, though. He’d thought the Pride was actually much further north. And it was moving so fast—he looked warily at the [General].

“I’m sorry, General Yertzhen. But this is just so sudden. Shouldn’t we send at least an affirmative back to the capital…?”

The [General] looked askance.

“Are you mad, man? Why do you think you only got the barest code-signs we were coming? This is secret. Do you know how hard it was to smuggle Itorin’s Pride all this way? We had to use illusions! This is beyond top-secret. But mark me. If I pull this off, his Majesty has assured me personally that he will make me a [Great General] of Ailendamus. And if I reach that position—I’ll be calling for you to become [High Admiral]. How’s that sound, Dakelos, eh?”

He pulled the other man into a one-armed hug. The [Admiral] grinned in disbelief.

“That would be—excellent! Gener—I mean, Yerzhen.”

“Exactly! Now, the Lord of the Dance is going to probably put up a fuss for the show of it, but he’ll pull back his ships once we clash a few times. That’s the politics of it—he’s going to pretend he gave up. So we’ll discuss how we want to orchestrate the thing. I think a few salvos of [Fireball] spells…but then we’ll have to rush my [Soldiers] to disembark, got it?”

“Of course….”

“Not to worry, man! The hard part is mine, keeping the [Soldiers] hidden. You have the easy part, shepherding us here and just play-fighting. Here—let’s grab a drink while we discuss landing points and such. I had a location—here?”

He pointed to the map as he investigated the cabinet with expensive liquors. Before Dakelos knew it, the [Admiral] was seated and the [General] was pouring him a drink. He tried to refuse, but Yerzhen insisted.

“Come on, man! Nothing like a drink to steady the nerves. We’ll toast to Ailendamus! May it conquer all of Terandria—no! the world! And to his Majesty’s health!”

You had to drink to that. Nervously, Dakelos did. Just a sip. His crew wouldn’t notice…

 

—-

 

The [General] emerged from the cabin with a somewhat intoxicated Admiral Dakelos an hour later. Plans all set. Together, they gave a speech to the crew, informing them of the sudden plans. It was of course—riotous, but the [General] strode up and down the decks, stumbling a bit, but roaring his intent to break the Dawn Concordat in a single, stealthy strike.

Itorin’s Pride was filled with cheering [Soldiers], even the stern-faced Order of the Thirsting Veil, saluting the sky. The rest of the navy took heart from it and sailed at full-speed, the [Fleet Mages] pouring all the wind they could into the sails.

They reached Nadel’s waters in record time after only nine hours, thanks to the currents and high morale. Admiral Dakelos was there as he saw, in the distance, patrolling ships react like they’d been struck at the sight of an Ailendamus fleet bearing down on them.

Nadel was not that far east of Calanfer. Somewhere near the middle of Terandria’s southern coastline, it was a safe-zone where no fleet save the Lord of the Dance’s was welcome. It allowed safe trade and it had fought off any number of navies.

On any other day Dakelos wouldn’t have put even a foot over the invisible borders of Nadel, but today he was drunk on courage, dreams of glory and promotion—and just drunk. General Yerzhen chuckled.

“See them spooking off? Probably screaming the alarm. I bet you the Lord of the Dance didn’t even tell them. Makes it authentic.”

“Er—of course, Yerzhen. What do we do? Start throwing [Fireballs]?”

They had a routine all set up. The [General] winked.

“I say we begin with a speech. I’ll give you the honors, shall I?”

“If you like.”

Boldly, the [Admiral] swaggered up to the front of the decks. In the distance, Nadel was a dot. But the harbors would already be boiling with the Lord of the Dance’s ships, as planned for the staged attack. His fleet would attack, and the Lord of the Dance would ‘fight’ for a few rounds before retreating.

“Admiral! The Lord of the Dance himself is setting out towards us with Nadel’s entire fleet!”

An hour later, the panicked, but excited shout came up the command deck. Dakelos felt a twinge of fear as he saw the huge fleet—dwarfing his own—but Yerzhen just tapped the side of his huge nose.

“Here we go. Just as planned. I’ll tell the Pride to begin moving for the shoreline. They need to do the most work.”

“Of course. And my speech—where are the notes?”

“Here.”

The [General] offered the inky notes to him. Admiral Dakelos focused on them and began to shout through a voice-amplifying spell as the enemy fleet came close.

Attention, ships of Nadel! By order of His Majesty, King Itorin II, I demand you give us passage to the harbor! Ailendamus will not be stopped by any nation in this world! If you do not move your ships, we will immediately attack!

Fiery words. He and Yerzhen had laughed over them an hour ago. They felt…wrong to say aloud, but Dakelos was shaking with excitement. He heard an answering voice a moment later.

The Lord of the Dance.

Nadel bows to no other nation. I am Lord Belchaus Meron. If you advance further, we will destroy your fleet.”

The Admiral…sobered a bit. That was a terrifying threat. The Lord of the Dance himself was crewing his flagship and they could outmaneuver and out-fight his smaller fleet. He turned to the [General], but Yerzhen bellowed.

“All part of the act! Send the [Fireballs]!”

The Admiral nodded. He croaked around a lump in his throat and felt the wrongness—but he was too far gone.

“—[Mages]! Throw [Fireballs] at the flagship! Aim to miss!”

The [Mages] did. Dozens of [Fireballs] blasted across the gap between the closing navies. Dakelos saw them go wide, or explode too early. But Nadel’s navy reacted as if a hive had been struck.

They’re closing! Starboard side! Dead gods—

A shout from the side. Admiral Dakelos turned his head just in time to see Lord Bel’s flagship shoot forwards. It slammed into The Wrath of Sel, a twin of Dakelos’ own warship. The Lord of the Dance didn’t waste time on an engagement at a distance. He leapt aboard the ship, holding a sword, and his retinue followed. Dakelos saw him landing in front of the surprised [Captain].

“That’s a bit much for an act, don’t you think, General—?”

Lord Belchaus beheaded the man. Then he stepped across the deck, as if he was on a dance floor, and killed the [First Mate]. His crew followed, moving in graceful patterns, but deadly as could be.

The blood ran onto the decks as Ailendamus’ navy slowly stopped and stared. But more ships were crashing into theirs, boarding—

General! I don’t think the Lord of the Dance is acting! General?

Admiral Dakelos whirled. But the [General] was gone. Yerzhen, that bear of a man, was missing. And—

Admiral! The Itorin’s Pride has vanished!

What?

The [Admiral] rushed to the railing. But it was true. The giant warship, that had sailed through the waters, making noise, crewed by thousands—had even toasted to them and called jests for nine hours—was gone.

In its place was a floating…Dakelos stared down at it. It looked like a tiny trading boat, barely big enough to hold sixty people. He slowly looked up. The thought occurred to him, amidst the shock, the sudden fear—and the incomprehension at his situation made worse by the drink. It occurred to him that he might have been tricked.

 

—-

 

General Yerzhen chuckled as he skimmed across the waters towards the invisible ship from which he could watch the disaster unfold. He was [Water Walking]—although he was actually running.

And moving damn fast for a man of his size. He raced towards the ship, leapt, and landed on an invisible deck.

Then everything turned visible. The ship was shrouded, so once you got onto it you could see. That bear of a man, that huge [General] who had been so false straightened and saw—

Admiral Dakelos. The man turned, tears in his eyes.

General! How could you? I trusted you! What is this? Why have you abducted me?”

The [General] paused only for a moment.

“I’m sorry, Dakelos. It was nothing personal. Just—I really had to use the toilet and I can’t shit at sea. Forgive me.”

He bowed, slightly. The [Admiral] stared at him through red-rimmed eyes and Yerzhen heard a snort.

The illusion of the [Admiral] faded. A Lizardgirl rolled around on the decks, clutching her sides and howling with mirth. There was more laughter and the rest of the [Mages] shed their [Invisibility] spells.

Dead gods, Yerzhen! Another great line! I nearly laughed off my [Silence] spell when I heard your first one! ‘Don’t call me General…?’ Did you see their faces?”

“No. What’s happening?”

Yerzhen strode back down the decks. He didn’t look as tall or as grand as he did a second ago. His voice was more causal, less bass—but he still wore the [General]’s disguise. The Lizardgirl leapt to her feet as a Selphid, wearing the dead body of a Human man, pointed.

“They’re already surrendering. That [Admiral]’s no idiot. He’s practically screaming he was duped.”

“Aw, shame. Did Belchaus sink any ships?”

“Not for want of trying. What’re the odds he takes them all prisoner?”

“Five hundred gold says he lets them go but on less ships than they came with.”

“Bet.”

The [Mages] chortled and ‘Yerzhen’ and the Selphid clasped hands. The others crowded around, chortling at the fake [General]’s lines.

“I love your speech. Did you write it yourself?”

The Lizardgirl glanced at Yerzhen. She couldn’t have been more than fifteen, but appearances were deceiving here. Yerzhen winked.

“With some help from the [Admiral] himself. What did you think of my first introduction?”

Good!

The others chorused. The Selphid looked at Yerzhen.

“Was your father really a [General]?”

“Ah, well. You have to be honest for some of the truth spells. I’d have lied to the man about meeting him if the [Mage] had been there from the start, but that’s why I wanted him off-guard.”

Yerzhen winked. He did not look like his appearance, a big bear of a man. Nor—was he necessarily Human. What was true was that his name was Yerzhen; he’d used it to pass the truth spell. And that his father had apparently been a [General], or called that so he could pass the truth spell.

Nothing more. And the rest of the Elusive Lot—were just as mysterious.

It wasn’t all of them, of course. But six had been needed to keep up the mass-illusion of the ship. And Yerzhen made seven. The [Mages] all chortled as they sailed back towards Wistram.

“That does it for that blockade. Tell our associates they have a window to smuggle everything they want through. They owe us large for this.”

But that went without saying. The others nodded appreciatively.

This was the Ullsinoi Faction of Wistram. And this…was the Elusive Lot.

Possibly. Or it might have just been Yerzhen there. He poked the Lizardgirl.

“Taxiela, is that you?”

“Guilty as charged. Although I prefer Galei sometimes.”

The Lizardwoman sprang up and suddenly she was a Centaur. He tossed his head. And it might have been that it was Galei there the entire time or he just changed his illusion.

No one knew. But Taxiela/Galei was Palt’s master. As well as a member of the Elusive Lot. If they were even here.

It could be that Yerzhen was alone and these were all fakes. Or that he himself had created them all, or some of them and was pretending to have a conversation with Galei at this moment to fool the others.

Things got confusing really quickly around [Illusionists]. And the Elusive Lot were the leaders of the Ullsinoi faction who were made up of well, [Illusionists]. [Tricksters]. [Diviners], [Seers] too, and [Mages] who dabbled on the illicit side of life…

You could get all sorts of factions in Wistram. Not all were huge, political movements like the Revivalists or Libertarians. Some were specialized.

For instance, Bezale’s faction were the Scriptel faction—small, but in possession of a wealth of knowledge. Most of it written by their members. And numbers were also a fool’s game.

“Off we go! Back to Wistram, then! Unless anyone has business on the mainland?”

“One of us jumped ship.”

A Gnoll volunteered that. She grinned as the others chorused.

Did not!

Yerzhen took it at face value. Maybe someone had left, but the Elusive Lot would drive you crazy if you tried to find the truth. No one knew how many there were. There was no command structure lower-members of the Ullsinoi faction like Palt could understand, and even knowing who was a member of the Elusive Lot was hard. Palt thought his master, Galei, was part of their number, but he wasn’t sure.

He didn’t even know if Galei was his master or if different members of the Elusive Lot kept taking turns to impersonate his master.

Oh, the world was a grand game. Get your head around that and you were set. The Elusive Lot sailed back towards Wistram, chattering away. Yerzhen looked at Galei and the Selphid—who’d failed to use a name the entire time they had been together—as he talked.

“What’s back at Wistram?”

“Naili’s trying to corner us. Feor too. About Palt’s little prank.”

“Oh, that. Wonderfully done! Are they ours?”

“The inn’s ours. The rest? Let’s pretend they are, shall we?”

Naturally. Should we let ourselves be caught?”

Of course, after the game of soccer, the Archmages had demanded explanations of the Ullsinoi faction. All they’d caught however were lower-ranked members. Cornering the Elusive Lot was like herding invisible cats with wings. The others shrugged or merrily ate snacks while reading [Message] spells on the fallout of their prank.

“I don’t care. So long as Palt can deliver, we’ve got a magical door in Liscor. Have the gangs heard?”

“Heard and are interested, but it’s too hot for them right now with all the eyes. Anyways, I hear the Gentlemen Callers are at the inn. On assignment.

“Oho. Any idea who?”

“None. But you know how boring they can get. Bets that it’s got to do with the [Innkeeper]?”

No takers. The Elusive Lot swapped thoughts around willy-nilly. After a moment, one of them, Yerzhen again, raised a hand.

“While we’re on the topic…I call for seriousness. One minute.”

The laughing [Mages] subsided. Two of them vanished as if they’d never been here, and Yerzhen couldn’t detect them with any of their scrying spells. The rest, five now, gathered closer. Galei made his smiling face into one of seriousness by passing a hand down his features.

“Serious talk. What does Yerzhen want to say?”

“The Golden Triangle.”

The Elusive Lot paused. And even the hint of a smile vanished from the rest of their faces.

They were, by their own words, pranksters, tricksters, unrepentantly annoying—but not evil or good. They did as they pleased, which was generally to help Wistram as they saw fit. People who interfered too hard didn’t belong with them.

And the Ullsinoi faction loved tricks. Life was meant to be enjoyed, not wrangled over like the Archmages loved to do. Better to make allies than enemies. Better to laugh and enjoy life than try to be the biggest dog in the kennel.

But they did know things. Dark secrets. They did have…enemies. People on their bad list. And for all their lack of scruples at provoking a huge incident between Ailendamus and Nadel—the Elusive Lot was on the side of the Dawn Concordat. But the Golden Triangle was another thing.

What the Elusive Lot knew was that there was such a thing as poor humor. And the ‘Golden Triangle’ was a bad joke. People would die ere the punch line. And the Elusive Lot weren’t going to laugh.

“I’ve spoken to one of the Earthers.”

“Blackmage?”

The query came from Galei. Yerzhen shook his head.

“Another one. They all know it’s a—pyramid scheme. It’s obvious. You’ve seen the numbers and how it ends.”

“Not funny.”

That came from the Selphid. And that was the biggest indictment you could get. The others nodded.

“What will the Council do?”

“Denounce it, probably. Make everyone aware. The Archmages already know. But listen—I heard a rumor that says that Viltach and Feor both want the scheme to continue. Other groups, big groups, get into debt—helps Wistram.”

“And while they do that, many innocent small folk die! That’s their money being stolen!

Galei stood up, cheeks flushed as he walked back and forth. It could be an act. The Elusive Lot was silent, thinking.

“Wistram sent Montressa and Bezale after the clues. They have all they need to explain what’s happened. I say—we take a first step. Any gang who we’re cordial with—any friends—we warn them. Wistram will move after us if word spreads.”

The other [Mages] murmured. Yerzhen went on.

“Guard our assets. The Walled Cities, at least are the center of the scheme. Let’s cut down the circulation of this game. How much gold is in the air?”

“Over a hundred thousand pieces. At least.”

All of it sent through the ‘Golden Triangle’. If it got bigger, it might well bleed the pockets of many dry. Yerzhen nodded.

“Vote: leak information of the Golden Triangle to…Pallass. He looks into who’s behind the center of it all.”

“Palt’s not good enough.”

Galei opined.

“He could get lucky. The Revivalists and the Scriptels won’t ever trace that mischief—let alone convince the Walled Cities of the danger. Send Palt. He knows how to explain the danger. Apparently he has a connection with Grand Strategist Chaldion? And Magus Grimalkin. Have him use them. I’ll contact him now if we agree. Hands?”

The others deferred to Palt’s master. The vote went up. Three to—seventeen. Dozens of hands popped around the other [Mages] and Galei counted them dutifully. The Selphid made three illusory hands. You never knew who was here. And the hands were more of a sign of…how passionate the other felt.

“Done. And we’ll send word to other agents. No Golden Triangle. Find the biggest sellers and…”

Quite calmly, Yerzhen drew a finger across his throat. The others saw his skin open and blood and viscera through the cut his finger had made. They nodded.

“Spread the word.”

 

—-

 

They called him the Gecko of Liscor. When they wanted to make him mad. To most people, he was just ‘Relc’.

Senior Guardsman Relc if you wanted to be fancy. ‘That idiot’ if you were Zevara.

But just—Relc. And he swung around Liscor, a familiar face known by almost all. That huge, sometimes bombastic Drake. Ugly; objectionable face and tail, but damned good with a spear.

A former [Sergeant] in the army. The Watch’s best fighter. That is who he’d been for…over a decade. Nearly two, now.

You didn’t need to summarize him with much. You could do it in a paragraph. Relc was a big, sometimes dumb Drake with a spear who was sometimes childish, sometimes bigoted, but was really a good guy.

That was actually a sentence. But it was Relc. If you wanted details, you had to go beyond him. He had a daughter called Embria who he was partly estranged with but who still admired her father. He had a friend called Erin Solstice who you’d have to write a million words about—oh.

And he’d had a partner named Klbkch. Until a day when he didn’t. And that was a tragedy. Not only because the Watch lost their link to the Hive, but because Klbkch was…solid. Reliable, or he had been. The only person who could really rein Relc in.

His partner. The Watch was already trying to fill his boots. The Watch Captain was searching for replacements. And what would they do with Relc? Well, at least he was here. That idiot would cause trouble without Klbkch. He was always there, always irritably reliable, the same. He was…

 

—-

 

Relc Grasstongue sat up in his bed. He blinked a few times, but he was awake.

At dawn. It was a habit so engrained in him from his days as a [Soldier] that he couldn’t stop it, unless he’d had duty the night before. He had not. Today was his day off.

“Grr. Stupid brain. Stupid army. Where’s food? Food?”

Relc muttered to himself. He fumbled around in the near-darkness.

He had candles, and matches. Even a lantern he was supposed to wear at work which he often forgot. The problem was that Relc’s room was anything but tidy. He found none of these things.

What he did find was some moldy bread. He sniffed it. Licked it a few times, and found some cheese under his bed.

“Huh. How’d that get down here?”

In the darkness, the Drake ate a snack. Not proper breakfast. He was still hungry after he smacked his lips.

“Hmm.”

The [Guardsman] sat in the darkness, reflective. He reached out and grabbed his spear.

He always knew where his spear was. Another habit from the army, one he didn’t resent. He slept next to his spear.

“Practice time.”

In his small apartment, the Drake carefully lifted his spear. He spun it around; the long weapon was in danger of hitting both floor, ceiling, and the walls. But Relc knew how long it was exactly. He could measure anything with it—but only thought in terms of the spear-lengths.

He hit nothing. The Drake ran through a training drill he’d mastered long ago. Oh—that was another thing about Relc.

He was a [Spearmaster]. A class as recognized as a [Fencer] with a bell. The Drake warmed up, as he always did, working until he was just about to sweat. His muscles warm, he relaxed.

He had made some sound, but his neighbors had long ago learned to ignore Relc in the mornings or had moved out. Now, the Drake sat down.

“I drank too much.”

He said that to no one in particular. Females of any species didn’t really visit his small, cramped apartment. The affairs he had with them were usually at their places, which were generally nicer, or in inns. Or other establishments.

Only one female person visited him. And that was his daughter. She was usually mildly appalled at the disaster of books with their spines broken, little knickknacks, food, clothing, and so on scattered around his room, but Embria was a [Soldier]. She was used to it.

It was still dark, even after his warm-up. It took longer for dawn, and dusk came sooner thanks to the High Passes. So Relc just sat there. He felt around and came up with something.

Aha. Wire puzzle with the boar’s head. My old friend.”

The Drake had something in his claws. Invisible in the darkness, he nevertheless knew it inside and out. It was a blacksmith’s puzzle. A metal contraption in the shape of a boar’s head. And—a piece of bendy wire. The goal was to fit the wire through the boar’s head and out the other side without having to bend it. The wire was specially made—you could only bend certain sections.

Well—most people couldn’t bend the other sections. Relc could in theory ‘cheat’ due to his prodigious strength, but he took care not to. He carefully straightened the wire—then bent it into a pattern with his claws. Gently. From memory, in the darkness.

Then he inserted it into the boar’s head. Relc felt the wire snag on hidden tumblers. Then it was out the other side. He twisted and with a little snick, the boar’s head fell open.

“Gotcha! And you were so hard to begin with.”

Smugly, the Drake re-locked the head and tossed it aside. He had spent…how long? Three weeks figuring that one out? And ruined the wire part six times. It really was devilishly hard because you had to bend part of the wire back on itself to make it fit…

That was another thing about Relc. He rummaged around and found another little object.

“Hello? Are you Mr. Metal Block puzzle?”

He had a hobby of solving blacksmith’s puzzles. Wire puzzles, where you had to pull interlocking pieces apart, wooden matrixes that needed unscrambling…Relc spent a lot of his money on them. They were all over his apartment floor.

He enjoyed it. But you could count the people who knew this fact on two claws. Silently, Relc wrestled with the cube, which had multiple compartments you could unlatch and twist and turn or push in…

“Grr. Who makes these things?”

Relc wasn’t a genius at solving these puzzles. He was good, of course, and could solve basic ones—even ones he hadn’t seen—in minutes, but that was only by virtue of experience. There were…harder puzzles. And this was one of them.

“Oh? Oh? Aha!”

Relc shouted. He heard a thump from the wall to his right and apologetically knocked on the wall. But he’d found a combination of buttons when pressed…

The cube lit up. It was one of his magical puzzles. And magical puzzles could be anything. Relc saw a glowing font trace itself across the metal. Little, scrawled letters wrote something for him.

Well done. The Ullsinoi of Wistram present: The Cube of Galei.

“Oooh!”

The Drake stared at the cube. It was glowing now, the lines intersecting and meeting in the metal. And—he squinted.

“What is this?”

A second, illusory section of cube had appeared. Relc reached out and twisted in the air. The magical pieces moved. As they did, the glowing lines shifted to match. So you had to complete the top puzzle and…

The Drake smiled to himself. He bent over the puzzle as the sun rose, poking, fiddling, memorizing what he’d done and not done. He knew he’d have to leave soon enough. He was a Senior Guardsman after all. He had…

 

—-

 

Four hours later, Relc felt his stomach growling. The burly Drake looked up.

“Huh?”

Sunlight blinded him from the window. It had risen and, with the grace and tact of a [Thug], smacked him with its rays of light. Relc shaded his eyes. He checked the position of the sun and then swore.

“Ancestors, I’m late! Why didn’t that idiot get me?”

He shot to his feet and in a panic, looked for his clothes. His gear was at the barracks, ready for him to sign in. But Klbkch hadn’t gotten him! He always—

For the nineteenth day in a row, Relc caught himself. His beating heart slowed as he remembered something.

“Oh. It’s my day off.”

And then on top of that…

“Klb’s on vacation.”

Slowly, the Drake sat down. He looked around, blinking in the sunlight. Klbkch always got Relc before their shift started. In fact—the pair had been working together for nearly a decade. So much so that Klbkch would, on his days off, come to Relc’s door.

“Relc, we do not have work together today. Please do not bother me. It is my time off.”

That was what he’d say. Other times it was—

Relc. It is time to go and sign in. We are late.

Or—

“Relc, I have already signed in. I am attempting to wake you up for the fifth time. I will soon leave without you.”

Stuff like that, if Relc had gone back to sleep after his dawn wakeup. But he was gone.

Relc raised one scarred fist and looked at it as he lay on his back in his apartment. He could hear other people getting up, murmuring…it was a disconcerting experience. He was usually first out the door, thanks to Klbkch.

He could still remember punching his friend. Asking, pleading with him to stop. And Klbkch, angrier than Relc had ever seen him, refusing to stay down. Until he’d risen and—

“Klbkch has moves.”

The [Guardsman] felt his chest. He could remember being punched, too. He’d thought he was the best [Guard] on the Watch bar none. But Klbkch had put him and a group of Liscor’s [Soldiers] on the ground.

“Skills.”

The Drake stared up at the ceiling. After a while, he got his magical box and began to play with it without looking at it. Well, now Klb was gone. He’d come back. Relc had gotten used to him, though. And…

The Drake wondered if Embria was on-duty. She usually synced her time off with his. Otherwise, she was training 4th company; they had some new recruits to fill their losses. Or patrolling the Floodplains, helping out in Liscor…

“She must be bored out of her mind. 4th Company too. I’d be giving my [Wing Commander] all kinds of crap.”

The Drake thought about that. But Embria was tough. She’d handle it. She had the voice of authority. You had to have that. You couldn’t just get promoted on time served. Not in Liscor’s army. She’d be fine.

And she’d pick him up at any minute. Relc sighed, imagining her nagging him to get changed into something clean for their father-daughter time. Maybe they could visit The Wandering Inn? She didn’t mind it there. He brightened at the thought.

“Yup, yup. And maybe I can visit Invrisil. That’d be great. After all, I’ve got gold!”

He smiled as he thought of his other, newer job. The Drake bent his head over the puzzle and devoted his attention to it. He kept working, as the sun rose and everyone else went to their jobs.

It was only after two more hours that Relc realized that Embria hadn’t come. He looked up, feeling a bit woebegone. But she must have had to work. He sat there. As the morning came.

But if Klbkch and Embria didn’t come to get him, no one else would. No one but the [Landlord]. No one else from the Watch; Relc’s few friends in the city didn’t pay social calls.

He was alone. But for them. So the Drake slowly stood. He stretched. Found his money pouch, his belt, took his spear as always and walked out the door. He looked around, blinking in the sun. What did Senior Guardsman Relc do with his time?

Well…of late…he saw a Gnoll passing in the street. Relc smoothed his neck-spines, smiled at the female Gnoll, and hurried over.

“Hello, Miss! Have you heard about the Golden Triangle? I’m Relc, by the way. Senior Guardsman…”

 

—-

 

At the same time, a Centaur was taking his ease outside of an inn. Palt, the Centaur, smoked from a joint. He was always smoking. It was a habit. A way of life.

He was a [Smoker]. As well as an [Illusionist]. His name was Palt. And he got along with people.

“Yes, Master. Really? Really? This isn’t a prank? I’m asking because the last time you sent me on a mission—no, I understand. Yes. And yes. And no. I’m not doing Liscor. Or Pallass. I’ll pass along…no, I won’t. We’re already in hot water. Get someone else…okay. Thank you. Yes! Yes, I’m fine.

No one could hear the conversation but him, and Palt was deliberately being vague. As he took a lungful of dreamleaf, that delightful substance that made your mood relaxed and your dreams very nice, he passed the smoking joint left.

Lyonette nearly fumbled it, owing to her inexperience with the entire scene. She brought it up to her mouth, inhaled—and began coughing. Palt grinned as he kept talking. Lyonette determinedly had another experience as she puffed on the joint—then she handed it left again.

Pawn was trying to figure out how to smoke the joint as Palt continued.

“No, I haven’t…Master, that’s my business. My romantic—thank you for asking. I’m fine. What? Warships? What did you—okay. Fine. I’ll check for it in the news. Yes, I’m sure! I’ll meet with Magus Grimalkin and Grand Strategist—as soon as I can. The Grand Strategist might take longer, but today! Thank you! Goodbye!”

“Puff. Puff.”

“Pawn, you don’t have to say that.”

“I am trying to get into the mood, Lyonette.”

Palt ended the communication spell. He grinned as he saw Pawn and Lyonette trying to waft the smoke into his…mouth. Palt rummaged in his bag of holding as he produced something.

“I thought that might be an issue. Here. Try this.”

He offered Pawn something. The Antinium and Lyonette stared at a square of…toffee.

“What is this?”

“Chewable dreamleaf. It’s…stronger, so maybe only have a bit. But it also works. I make and sell it as well as the rest, but I don’t use them that much.”

Palt shrugged. He liked smoking. Pawn on the other hand took the bit of toffee. Lyonette eyed it dubiously.

“It’s so…small.”

“You don’t need a lot. Like I said, try it—”

Palt retrieved his cigar as Pawn popped the entire thing into his mouth and chewed.

“Nom, Nom.”

“Pawn. You don’t have to say that either.”

Lyonette sighed. The Antinium raised one finger as he masticated. Then he replied.

“But Erin says that too, sometimes.”

“Erin is a silly…”

The Centaur handed Lyonette the joint.

“Go ahead and finish this if you want, Lyonette. I’ve got to go.”

“Oh. Thank you! I don’t feel…happy?”

“You might not the first time. Just don’t overthink things. You’ll just feel…calmer.”

The Centaur gave the advice he gave all first-timers. Lyonette nodded and kept puffing away. Pawn stared ahead.

“I feel nothing.”

“It takes time. Look, I have a job to do. Tell Erin I won’t be able to help cook.”

“Sure! Thank you for this and…”

Lyonette waved her hands. To mean everything, really. Palt had stayed at The Wandering Inn for a good time now. And he had ingratiated himself to everyone as much as possible. That meant handing out his goods to the Earthers, Ceria—Pisces had refused his goods, claiming he liked drinking more—and Pawn and Lyonette now.

Helping Erin out in the kitchen, too. The Centaur saw this as his duty for multiple reasons. First—Erin was an ally. You helped allies out. Second, he owed her. Montressa and company had tried to kidnap the Horns, had gotten into a fight at Erin’s inn. Debts weren’t a one-and-done thing.

And finally—he rather liked Erin. She was, in Palt’s words, cute. Attractive in more ways than just physical. The Centaur also knew that Erin was as hard to nail down as the Elusive Lot. But that was part of her charm.

“I’m going to Pallass!”

He called out as he trotted back into The Wandering Inn. He had been out the back, to pursue the semi-illicit experience of smoking. Palt already had a cigar in his mouth, though. He conjured a bit of fire to light the end and—

Palt! How many times have I told you not to smoke indoors?”

An angry voice made Palt wince. He hadn’t even registered putting the cigar in his mouth. It was automatic, the way other people breathed.

The Centaur turned and ducked his head as he snatched the cigar out of his mouth.

“Sorry, Erin. It’s a habit.”

“It’s a bad one! How many times do I have to tell you? Smoking kills!”

“Er…it does?”

Erin Solstice hesitated.

“Yeah. It totally does. It makes your lungs all black and icky, right, Ryoka? Tobacco is evil!”

“But this is dreamleaf.”

The Centaur pointed to his cigar. Erin wavered again, and then wagged one finger.

“It’s secondhand smoke. That’s what’s bad! You’ll get kids high!”

“But if I funnel it out a window or contain the smoke…I’m only harming myself.”

Palt knew it was a losing argument. Erin didn’t like smoking. It was, perhaps, one of the biggest challenges facing getting to know her. He sighed, and then heard a voice as a taller Human came up beside Erin.

“Why not let him smoke if the smoke can be negated, Erin? It’s…not exactly the worst of drugs.”

Palt blinked at this unexpected ally. Erin turned and looked at Ryoka Griffin, surprised.

“Ryoka! But it’s bad! Weed is bad, right?”

“Uh. No. What century are you living in?”

“This one! Wait a second, Ryoka. Do you mean you’ve done…the stuff?

“Which stuff?”

Palt smirked as he saw Erin’s jaw drop. The Centaur turned his head and pretended to cough. Erin looked indignant.

“But weed—”

“Erin. It’s not worse than alcohol.”

“N—yeah but—wait a second…”

Erin opened and closed her mouth. Palt looked at his rescuer and slowly put the cigar in his mouth. Erin eyed him with wroth, but she said nothing as the stream of smoke floated into a bubble around Palt’s head. The City Runner smiled and he nodded to her.

“A fellow connoisseur?”

“A dabbler. Hi. Ryoka.”

“We’ve met.”

Briefly. The two eyed each other up and down. Palt was sure Ryoka was from Earth. Beyond that? He was very curious. Could she be the legendary ‘batman’ for whom every Wistram mage had been instructed to look for? Perhaps. And knowing Erin? Palt would have put money on it.

“Is it…I mean, we have a similar substance. Is dreamleaf…like that, do you know? You were at Wistram.”

Ryoka Griffin’s voice was very cautious as she referred to the fact that Wistram had any number of Earthers as their guests. Palt smiled around his cigar. Now here was someone who might fit into the Ullsinoi faction. Or at least knew how to keep a reserve.

“I’ve heard it described, Miss. But dreamleaf looks very different to your—weeds. Different effects too, or so I gather.”

“Really?”

“Oh yes. It’s minutiae, but dreamleaf provokes…dreams. The more you take, the more vivid the dreams. And the more relaxed you get. I hear you get paranoid on the other stuff?”

“You know it. This doesn’t make you paranoid? Any negative effects?”

“I get hungry. And lazy.”

Ryoka grinned.

“Wait, no side effects?”

Palt winked at her.

“Miss, what kind of [Gardener] grows a plant with side effects? It’s magical. Cities don’t like it because, well, it does impair your work ethic and it’ll demotivate you for hours, but it’s not bad for you.”

“I might have to try it, then. Do you sell…any of it? I have a friend who told me she could get some, but I wasn’t interested at the time. I could bring some back to her, though.”

“Well, if you do, I can set you up with a sample as a friend of Miss Solstice. And if you don’t like smoking…”

Hey!

Erin stomped on the ground. Ryoka broke off from reaching for her money pouch. The young woman waved her fist at the two of them. She pointed at Palt’s cigar.

“No weed in my inn. Palt, you can smoke if I never smell it. Got it?”

One small victory. Palt exhaled and the smoke flew up into the bubble overhead. He smiled gratefully at Erin and Ryoka.

“Your words are law, Miss Solstice. Speaking of which—I’m going into Pallass. I don’t suppose Magus Grimalkin will be…attracted here, will he? Or Chaldion? I could use that. I need to talk to them about something important.”

The two young women exchanged a glance. Well—Ryoka glanced at Erin and the young woman scratched at the back of her head vaguely.

“…No? I mean, I’m not gonna do anything.”

“Could you get them here if you wanted to?”

Ryoka was genuinely curious. She was still at The Wandering Inn. She had to leave. Soon. And she had to create a miracle before the summer’s solstice. But for one more day, she was here. It wasn’t about her, anyways.

Erin frowned.

“Well, yeah. Obviously. I could get them if I needed to. Like—scream through to Pallass and get Chaldion or Grimalkin? That’s easy.

The Centaur and City Runner exchanged a glance. The [Innkeeper] who claimed to be able to summon the [Grand Strategist] of all of Pallass…

“How, Erin? You could just shout something and Grimalkin comes running?”

“Yep.”

Ryoka opened and closed her mouth. The worst part was that she believed it.

“…Give me an example. Please?”

The [Innkeeper] frowned for a moment.

“Um—okay. I open the door and scream ‘dead gods! I’ve got so many muscles! That new soup really does work! I’d better give this to all the Antinium and see what happens!’ And then I shut the door. It’ll probably work, right?”

Palt nearly dropped the cigar as he covered his stomach, laughing. Ryoka laughed too, holding the table. A giggling little Gnoll stopped creeping up on her from behind.

That was why he’d fallen a bit in love. That madness. Like one of the Elusive Lot, but without the need to prank and infuriate everyone in sight. The Centaur looked wistfully at Erin.

“You’re an inspiration to tricksters everywhere, Miss Erin. I salute you. And if you’d like to ever try my illicit drugs—please know that they’re all sincerely for people’s relaxation and state of mind. I sell nothing dangerous. And I’d be happy to show you how they work.”

Erin blinked at him. She smiled and laughed as Ryoka gave her a look from behind Palt.

“Oh—maybe sometime, Palt. I dunno, it’s not my thing. Uh—why are you going to meet Grimalkin and Chaldion? Is something wrong?”

An excellent deflection. Palt sighed. Was she even aware of how he felt? Well…business awaited. The Centaur turned.

“Just something unpleasant on the wind. I don’t know if you two know of it. It might be connected to…your people.”

Perhaps naively, he was unprepared for the way the two young women focused on him.

What? What thing? Is it Joseph?”

Erin danced around Palt, looking suddenly worried. Ryoka stared at Palt. He hesitated.

“No, no. It’s not even confirmed. I’m going to do some digging, that’s all. And warn both Chaldion and Magus Grimalkin about—some of your friends in Wistram noticed this—it’s this phenomenon known as ‘the Golden Triangle’. Have you heard about it?”

“Noooo…”

Erin frowned as Ryoka’s head rose and her eyes sharpened further. Palt sighed as he scrubbed at his hair.

“It’s this concept where you give money to someone else. This group—and they invest it in adventurers, [Mages], and so on. Only—we’re not sure, Wistram, that is—that the organization or adventurers exists. We can’t find any records of them anywhere. And the people who give money are encouraged to get other people to join, and they get more money if they do on top of money for their investment…”

He trailed off. Ryoka looked pale. Erin was frowning, as if listening to something far distant, trying to recall something.

“That sounds like…a golden triangle. T-Triforce? No, wait. Illuminati? Um…Pyramids? No, it starts with a ‘P’. P—p—”

Ponzi scheme, Erin. It’s a fucking Ponzi Scheme. No, wait. It’s more like a pyramid marketing…golden triangle my ass.

Ryoka Griffin snapped. Palt’s saw her shoulder slump. He took the cigar out of his mouth.

“You know what it is?”

“Of course.”

The Centaur and City Runner turned to Erin. The [Innkeeper] blinked a few times. Then she remembered what the word meant. Her face fell. She closed her eyes and said another phrase that would have gotten Grimalkin and Chaldion to come running.

“Oh, shit.

 

—-

 

Relc bought a new puzzle with the money he’d earned from the Golden Triangle. He felt good about it too; he could afford the best magical puzzles with his new revenue source.

“You’re flush with gold today. You can usually afford only the cheap stuff. Even the magic wires?”

The [Trader] gave Relc a pleased grin. The Drake gave him a smug grin in return.

“You know it. I’m part of The Golden Triangle. In fact, I’m a Diamond-backer. That’s a special rank. I get gold per month and more of a cut if I sign people up. Have you heard of it…?”

The Human man snorted.

“Have I heard of it? Of course! I’m a backer too. Gold.”

“Ooh, you got on it quick! How much have you turned into a profit?”

The man jingled his coin pouch with a pleased grin.

“A good amount. I’m going to put a hundred gold into it next month, though. Unlike you I have to pay to move up in ranks.”

“Hey! I enlisted at least a thousand people! Probably more, since they started enlisting other people too. Look at my coins!”

The Drake [Guardsman] slapped gold onto the trader’s counter for his money, not hiding the fact that he had lots more. The [Trader] inhaled, his eyes shining.

“Dead gods. All that from Diamond-rank?”

“Hard work. I get a larger cut than Golds too. If I’m lucky, I’ll move up to Platinum. And you know why? Because I signed people up. Everyone knows Senior Guardsman Relc is onto a good thing, right?”

Relc grinned. It had been part of his success. He knew and met everyone as a [Guardsman]. The [Trader] sighed.

“I was too late. But I’ll put that hundred gold down—sooner if you pay for something else.”

“Nah. I’ve got what I want. And I need to buy my kid a gift. A new saddle, maybe. She likes horses.”

The big Drake chortled as he scooped up puzzle after puzzle and put it in his belt pouch. The last was a wire puzzle, infinitely complex. The two wires were tangled together, even fused together in places, seemingly. You had to pull them apart by performing infinitely complex tricks—even putting them in water to get them to separate.

“Ooh. Magic. I wanted this for ages. Hey, how hard is it?”

“Ullsinoi, the creators, rate it at Tier 8 out of 10. You’re not solving this in a month, Relc. And you can’t brute-force it like the other puzzles.”

The Drake gave the [Trader] an arch look.

“I never do. Although…I bet I could break the puzzle if I felt like it.”

“Yeah, sure. And I’m…”

The Human eyed Relc’s arms and decided not to push the point. The Drake waved to the man.

“Thanks! Come next month! I’ll have more money and so will you!”

“If I’m not Platinum and retired? Sure!”

The two laughed as they walked off. Relc hummed as he tried to undo the wire puzzle, walking down the street. This was his first stop after signing that Gnoll woman up. She’d been interested in his sales pitch—not so much his best pickup lines.

Oh well. Embria still hadn’t found him so she was working. The Drake paused for a moment.

He’d solve the puzzles later. Right now…he was hungry. And he wanted to talk to someone. So he went to the only place he thought of these days.

The Wandering Inn.

 

—-

 

Ponzi schemes. Pyramid, multi-level marketing. The concept was simple. Money was shuffled around and for a while, it looked like the system worked. But like all flawed things—it collapsed.

It had to. These things were designed to go down like a fireball. And the masterminds would scurry away with the money while everyone else got hurt.

Oh, you could profit off of it. If you were on the ground floor, you’d make lots of money. That was why it worked. The illusion lasted just long enough to make it appealing.

But it was really a gamble. Someone had organized this. Someone was gambling that they could take everything and run before it fell to ruin. And when it did—people would lose everything.

It put a black taste in Palt’s mouth, even as he smoked and talked with people in Pallass. The Centaur was affable, sharing out joints, talking to…people.

“The Golden Triangle? My friend, I was one of the first people in Pallass. I’m not Platinum-rank or even Mithril-rank. I’m Orichalcum. The next is Adamantine.”

The Gnoll puffed out his chest as he took a joint. Palt exhaled a plume of smoke and it swirled around the fellow.

“And after that? I assume there’s an even higher rank?”

The well-bedecked Gnoll with a new, fancy suit, multiple magical rings on his person and stars in his eyes, blinked. He was new to wealth—he had been a common [Sigilist] before. Someone who carved runes into stone. He had not done the enchanting, lacking a [Mage] class, but he’d made good money.

Now he was rich. One of the highest ranks in the Golden Triangle. The Gnoll hesitantly smoked on his dreamleaf cigar. Palt blew more smoke out of his lips. It was…orange-pink.

“Nice cigar. Is it magical?”

“Actually, it’s one of my more expensive items. Dozens of gold per each. Want a puff?”

Palt offered it. The Gnoll greedily took it.

“I could afford a case, you know. And I’m just Orichalcum—yeah. Between you and me, I hear there’s a rank higher than Adamantine. But good luck getting to it. I’m willing to put down thousands of gold—and I earned it all through the Golden Triangle—but for higher ranks? Some of the nobility are willing to pay that much for…I hear it’s called Dragonscale-rank.

Dragonscale. Palt kept his face straight as the Gnoll whispered the words. It was just a name. Meaningless. But the Golden Triangle had all the makings of a cult. Give to the Triangle and you would ascend the steps. And you would receiveth.

It made him sick. But he kept up his friendly smile as the Gnoll inhaled the magical smoke and coughed. And it made him more talkative.

“Truth is—I know the first person in Pallass who was part of the Triangle. Now—if you were to ask about it, you could go to her. She’s Adamantite. You hear me?”

“Impressive!”

Palt exclaimed. The Gnoll nodded a few times.

“She’s a Dullahan. Still signing people up. She doesn’t show off her money—she put it all back into the Triangle since she’s trying for Dragonscale-rank. Now me, I want to live a bit. But she’ll be richer than I…it’s confidential, you understand?”

Of course.

The Centaur’s fingers twitched. More of the smoke whirled around the two. The Gnoll didn’t notice. He was inhaling both dreamleaf and Palt’s cigar.

The [Illusionist] had not told Erin a lie. He did not sell any dangerous drugs. But that didn’t mean he didn’t have any. People knew Palt was a [Smoker]. But so few wondered what that class could do.

This. The smoke was addling the Gnoll’s senses and mind. Making him friendly. Talkative. Palt was deliberately not inhaling his cigar’s fumes. He took a draft as the Gnoll passed it back, held it in his lungs—but he had a [Smoker’s Lungs] Skill that allowed him to just exhale the cloud.

“Phew. That’s something. I love it. Could you sell me…a few of them?”

The Gnoll was glassy-eyed. Palt eyed him.

“For you, friend? I can sell you a few of my special items.”

And he did. Passing dreamleaf cigars off as the ‘special’ stuff. He charged only his normal rates, pretending it was a massive discount. It was a trick, but Palt didn’t sell his special cigars.

He had a few. Like the ones he’d used on Pisces. The one he was smoking now was designed to make friends. The Centaur let the Gnoll go—he patted the Gnoll on the shoulder and murmured something.

“Might want to clear the smoke. You know how Pallass is. [Brisk Breeze]—and take one of these to do something about your breath. Free of charge for a friend.”

The smoke blew away and the Gnoll blinked as Palt handed him a near-translucent cigar. He grinned as the Centaur lit it for him.

It would detoxify his system fast. The Centaur trotted off as the Gnoll began to puff it. The [Illusionist] made tracks in case the Gnoll figured out he’d been under the influence and called the Watch. But Palt doubted it would come to that.

He was on the hunt. His Master, one of the Elusive Lot, had told him to try and find out where the Golden Triangle had originated from. Palt was motivated because it was an important assignment—

And because he’d talked with Erin and Ryoka. The Golden Triangle made him sick. He liked pranks as much as anyone else. But this? This was too large. Ryoka Griffin—who he regarded as a prize for his faction as big as Erin—had spoken about the kind of devastation this scheme could bring. Rich people? Well, they’d lose money and that was terrible and all that. But poor people would lose everything.

It could devastate an economy like a Walled City. And Pallass was an early adopter of the Golden Triangle. It was on everyone’s lips. Palt picked up the pace. He hurried to find the Adamantine-level member of the Golden Triangle, the only one in the city. This was where he excelled. Subterfuge, making connections.

Palt was a mediocre duelist in straight-up combat. But who fought in duels these days? He put a second cigar in his mouth and began to chain-smoke two. He was going to need to be very persuasive to get this Dullahan to talk. They hated smoking.

 

—–

 

At the same time as Palt moved and a Drake ambled towards The Wandering Inn, a Gnoll was in distress. Or rather—she was angry and that put those around her in distress.

Bearclaw snarled from one of the safe houses Mr. Soot owned. The Gnoll woman—a specimen of physical danger even by Gnoll standards—paced back and forth as she clenched her paws.

Who are the Gentlemen Callers? Why are they guarding the damn inn?

She snarled at Soot. The Drake was pale. His bodyguards shifted as they stood behind him, but the Drake kept his seat. He never visited Bearclaw without at least eight bodyguards these days.

She wasn’t alone. She had a gang, comprised of Liscor’s most violent criminals. And Bearclaw was a lion among cats even then. They waited for their boss’ orders. She had taught them a new level of violence. She’d killed two Senior Guardsman within a week of visiting Liscor. Now she was hiding out, avoiding attracting the Watch’s attention since she was tailed whenever she left the safe houses.

But you couldn’t keep a thing like Bearclaw caged for long. She had a mission. Abduct the white Gnoll child, Mrsha. Kill the Crazy Human of Liscor—or kidnap her as well. Erin Solstice. Steal the magic door…

The bounties through the underworld had been enough to attract Bearclaw’s attention. And the money offered for each was going up over time, not down. All things being equal, she should have been happy about that.

However. There was a point at which any [Gambler] knew it was time to make a choice. Where the betting pool got too high and you grabbed what you could—or you waited a moment longer for a bigger reward.

But wait too long and you’d get nothing at all. Bearclaw did not like how much attention The Wandering Inn was getting.

“That’s four, five Gold-rank teams, even if they’re not all there. Plus any number of high-level irregulars. A [Grand Mage]? We should call this off—”

He flinched as Bearclaw spun on him. Her steel claws and her actual claws were both out.

No one scares me off. I’ve killed Gold-ranks before. Tell these—these Gentlemen to back off.”

“Bearclaw, please. No one tells the Gentlemen Callers—

The Gnoll woman slammed her fists on the table. The thick wood cracked. The [Bodyguards] tensed, reaching for their weapons as Mr. Soot recoiled. The Drake [Mastermind Criminal] stared at Bearclaw.

“Tell. Them. They get in the way and I’ll deal with them personally. I’m Bearclaw. You think my gang is afraid of a Human gang from the north?”

She straightened.

“We’re running out of time. I’m not sticking around for the inn to get even hotter. We’re acting.”

“I thought you were going to wait—”

The Drake put up his claws as Bearclaw pointed at him.

I changed my mind. Listen up! I want you to put together a big raid. On the inn. They get that door. It’s just sitting there. I’ll handle the other targets.”

“What—what will you do?”

The Gnoll woman smiled unpleasantly.

“I don’t have to get them all. The Gnoll child is ‘kidnap’. The Human? You can arrange her death if I can’t grab her. I even know where she plays. So listen. When I give the signal…”

She was growling at Mr. Soot. And he was seeing his tenure as a gang leader in Liscor reaching its end. Because if they went after Erin Solstice, who had ties to Liscor’s new Council—if they went after Mrsha, or stole the magic door that was making Liscor so famous? Zevara would have his head.

“Bearclaw, can’t we wait? Let’s look for an opportunity…”

Mr. Soot saw the Gnoll woman’s eyes narrow. As if she could see his second thoughts. But she only smiled then, hugely, with all her teeth. She reached out and grabbed his shoulder. Soot felt the bodyguards stir, but he signaled them with his tail. He was holding his concealed wand very tightly as Bearclaw leaned in. He could smell her last meal—meat.

“Soot, you and I are partners. We do this and I’ll cut you in on the profits. Who needs Liscor after this? You can set up in another city, and live like a [Prince] off the money. We’re not going to risk anything. It’s a nice mission—”

“Mr. Soot. A [Message]. Big news from the Invisibles.”

The Gnoll woman broke off. Mr. Soot looked up, grateful for the reprieve. One of his assistants was staring wide-eyed at a [Message] scroll.

“They’re putting out a…big offer. They want anyone connected with the Golden Triangle taken out. And they have a list. Ancestors.”

“What is it?”

The Gnoll woman saw Mr. Soot reaching for the scroll. He blinked, swore, and then showed it to her.

“The Academy—a faction of them deals with us, Bearclaw. They’re offering lots of money to take out these targets.”

There were only four names for Liscor. But one of them made Mr. Soot just shake his head.

“They must not know the levels of their targets. We can do the other three…but that one?”

Senior Guardsman Relc Grasstongue. Bearclaw’s eyes widened. She looked up—then she smiled.

“Why not?”

Mr. Soot and the others froze. One of them began.

“He’s a Senior Guardsman—”

Then he remembered who Bearclaw had killed. The Gnoll fell silent. Bearclaw looked at Mr. Soot.

“I remember him. Big Drake. Spear?”

“A [Spearmaster]. Bearclaw, he’s the Watch’s finest. It wouldn’t be wise to—”

Mr. Soot saw the dangerous look in Bearclaw’s eyes. He paused. And then—something went off in his head. The [Mastermind] steepled his claws and gave her a worried look.

“It wouldn’t be wise to tangle with him. Not worth the effort. He could hurt even you—”

“You think he could beat me? Me?

The Gnoll snarled. Mr. Soot suppressed an inner smile.

“I didn’t say that! I just said—”

“I remember him. Him and that Ant-monster. He challenged me. And the Ant-thing’s gone, right?”

Bearclaw checked the reward again. But the number didn’t matter. She was smiling, now.

“Change of plans. Soot, I’ll send my people after the other targets. But this? I’ll do this for fun.

She waved the contract at Soot. The Drake hesitated. The other targets.

“Shouldn’t we wait for—?”

And then he realized he’d made a mistake. Because Bearclaw put one huge paw on his shoulder.

“No, Soot. We’re doing this together. Just in case you have any doubts. You’re going to wait right here while this all goes down. So if we fail—we do it together. The door, the Gnoll, the Human. And this Relc. I want them all.”

She smiled hugely. And Soot cursed. Because Bearclaw was insane. But he also couldn’t run. She was holding his shoulder. So when you were this deep in the water and air was running out—you kept diving. Hoping there was a pocket of air below.

The problem was that Soot felt like Bearclaw was a big fish. Bigger than he was, certainly. But she still came from a lake. Liscor was a pond, a puddle. But some things swam in the sea.

 

—-

 

The Wandering Inn put a smile on Relc’s face. It always did. He liked it here.

“Hey! It’s me! Did anyone miss me?”

He shouted into the common room as he entered. It was one of his lines and unlike some pubs or bars where they’d groan and put away the expensive breakables, here he got a smile.

Relc!

Erin Solstice looked up from a table where she was sitting with Ryoka. Relc grinned and walked over to her. It was a good day, a great day. Money jingled in his coin pouch and he was in the mood to eat, drink, watch plays…

He was so glad he’d been allowed back here. The Drake could remember the time he’d been banned. Actually—he remembered that Relc. The one who’d killed some Goblins because of course he did.

Strange. He felt guilty about it now. Even though he’d killed more Goblins than he could count in war. But…

The Drake passed by a table where a Hobgoblin was drinking and sharing lunch with Bird. They were both having a chicken. Relc paused and nodded.

“Hey, Numbtongue.”

“Hey.”

The [Bard] grunted back. Relc extended a fist and the Hobgoblin touched it with his. Just that. But Relc grinned and walked past him. He’d made an effort, again.

He still felt guilty. It was—so hard to wrap his mind around. Goblins. The same ones who were monsters in Liscor’s army’s handbook. In his. They’d killed his parents. They were monsters.

Except some of them weren’t. He’d been so angry at Erin, a long time ago, it felt. But he’d changed. The Drake walked on. He’d had to change. Erin had helped him with that. He owed her a lot.

As Relc walked, waving at people, at Menolit, who was a fellow ex-[Soldier], slapping Ishkr’s shoulder and nearly making the Gnoll lose control of his tray—he passed by Lyonette and Pawn. The [Princess] was sitting with the Antinium.

“Pawn, here’s some food. Are you…okay?”

Lyonette stared at Pawn anxiously. The Antinium looked at her.

“Hello…I am Pawn. But you know this. Hello, Lyonette.”

“Hello, Pawn. I think you had too much of that stuff Palt gave you. Here. Eat food. He said that helps.”

Lyonette worriedly offered Pawn some of Garry’s special acidfly-bread. The Antinium nibbled at it and then looked around.

“I feel good. Is this…what Heaven feels like? Whee…I feel as though I am flying…”

He waved his arms lethargically. Bird looked around instantly. Lyonette sighed. But she felt fairly mellow too.

Relc just grinned. He saw dreamleaf’s effects on Pawn—heck, he could smell it coming off Lyonette from the times he’d had to confiscate the stuff. And he didn’t care.

There was being a [Guardsman] like Klbkch did it, and being a [Guard]. You had to let things slide for friends. Relc understood that. He followed the law. But you could…finagle things. Like a wire puzzle. He waved at Erin as she smiled at him.

“Hey Erin, what’s happening?”

“Relc! Well—it’s been sort of a quiet day. I was just chatting with Palt about this thing—come on, sit down. Do you want anything to eat?”

“I haven’t eaten much today. What do you have?”

“Uh—uh—howzabout some stir-fry rice stuff? Ryoka made it.”

“Because you had rice, Erin. I need to take some with me when I go north.”

Ryoka Griffin was sitting with Mrsha. The Gnoll was happily noshing on the rice dish Ryoka had insisted on making upon discovering that rice existed and that Erin had acquired some through Palt and Lasica. Ryoka fed Mrsha another spoonful as Relc brightened.

“I like both those words. Stir and fry, huh? Isn’t rice that chewy stuff? Let’s have it! And some—some ice cream?”

“Ice cream for lunch?”

Erin raised her brows, smiling. But she was already flagging Ishkr down. Relc chortled.

“And blue juice! I can pay for it all, Erin. I’m rolling in the coins today!”

“Wow! Did Zevara pay you more or something? Ishkr, the stir fry, a big plate, ice cream…”

The Drake snorted.

“Captain Z? She never increases my pay. No, it’s this great thing—but wait. How’ve you been?”

Normally, when Erin asked what was happening, Relc didn’t have much to say. He did his job. New blacksmith puzzles weren’t interesting. He could complain about Klbkch, or talk about interesting little events in his job. But his life was just that. Erin was usually the person with new stuff.

“Well…work in Celum is continuing. But Magnolia sent like…tons of people to help. So Liscor isn’t as needed. I suppose she’s good at that. Joseph is teaching people how to play soccer—football. They’re actually outside of Liscor. Ekirra’s part of the kids team. I think Kevin’s helping with that. Uh—uh—oh! There was that thing with Palt! Some jerks are making this evil scheme…right, Ryoka? Hey, you know Relc, right?”

Erin twisted in her seat as Ryoka looked up dourly. Relc vaguely recognized her. He waved.

“I think I’ve seen you around. Did I arrest you or something?”

She actually looked like someone he’d tried one of his world-class pickup lines on. But Relc hoped that wasn’t the case. Because he was fairly sure she’d shot him down if that was the case. He’d never impressed a Human—what few of them had come to Liscor before Erin.

Ryoka stared at Relc.

“No, you raced me. Ryoka Griffin.”

Relc’s eyes widened.

“Hey, that’s right! And you were with that crazy adventurer! Uh—Regrika! She was tough…”

He saw Ryoka flinch. Erin hesitated and Relc caught himself.

“—good to see you again. Yeah.”

“Yeah.”

The young woman gave him a strained smile. Relc nodded awkwardly. Now, Klbkch would probably say ‘don’t bring that up again’. So he wouldn’t. Relc turned back to Erin.

“Big stuff. But it’s all cool now, right? It was fun playing that kick-the-ball game! Think Liscor will put me on the team?”

Erin grinned. Relc was aware he was fast—but the fine art of control where you kicked the ball was beyond him.

“If you want to, Relc. I think they’re accepting applications. It could be a cool hobby, right?”

“Well, I have one. Listen—I’ve got a lot of money now—”

Erin saw Relc reaching for his belt pouch. She called out distractedly as she noticed the position of the sun.

“Ryoka! Is Mrsha done with her lunch? She’s got a play date with Ekirra and Visma at the park!”

“Got it. Am I taking her?”

Mrsha nodded eagerly as Ryoka turned to her. Erin smiled.

“Actually…that’s Drassi’s job. But you can go with her.”

“I will. Mrsha, let’s finish your lunch and then we can—no, not like that!”

The Gnoll began to gobble with her paws instead of her spoon. Ryoka, exasperated, tried to stop her. Relc grinned. But he was impatiently fishing something out of his belt pouch.

“—As I was saying, Erin.”

“Oh, sorry. What is it?”

“It’s this new thing. I didn’t get a chance to talk to you about it—but—wait, let me give you the speech. I’ve been making a ton of money off it. My side job, really. Here. I’ve memorized it. So you can read while I talk. Look at how much gold I have! It’s all because I’ve been part of this grand investment thing…”

Ryoka Griffin was picking up Mrsha. But she slowed as Relc plunked his bulging coin pouch on the table and handed Erin a folded up bit of paper. She opened the crinkled paper and saw…

A golden triangle. A pyramid, really. Her face froze. Relc leaned back in his chair.

“It’s called The Golden Triangle. Have you heard of it? It’s the newest thing and everyone’s making money off of it. The way it works is—have you heard of investment?

He was smiling with excitement, ready to help Erin make a fortune. Of course, she’d only be Copper-rank, not Diamond like him. But in time and if she signed people up…he was so caught up in the speech that he didn’t see Erin putting down the paper.

“…for a small fee, you can join. And you get dividends, which means—”

“Relc.”

“—it’s a return each month, and you get more profits for everyone you sign up. I bet with your door you could get thousands of signups. Tens of thousands! I’ve got a thousand so far, but I get credit for all the people you sign up, you see. And there are ranks—”

Relc!

The big Drake stopped. He looked down at the tone in Erin’s voice. She was staring at him, pale-faced. The Drake hesitated.

“What? Erin?”

The [Innkeeper] slowly looked at the paper. Then at Ryoka. She looked at Relc and shook her head.

“Oh no. Relc…”

The Senior Guardsman saw it in Erin’s eyes first. He smiled, uncertainly.

“What? Erin, have you heard about it? I bet not. I practically brought it to Liscor. It’s most common in the Walled Cities—well, a lot of Merchant’s Guilds are on top of it. Big cities have lots of signups. But I—Erin?”

It was in her eyes. The same look as when she’d seen him with the Goblin heads. The Drake felt the world sliding. Desperately, he held onto the table. Pretended gravity still worked.

“It’s made me lots of money. It’s great, really. I—what’s wrong?”

Such a good day. But he knew. As soon as the young woman opened her mouth, the world turned upside down. Again. And like when he’d quit the army, when Embria had run away to join up, when Klbkch had left, when he’d been banned from the inn—

The Drake was falling through an upside down world. And everything that should be—

Wasn’t.

 

—-

 

It took Erin twenty minutes to explain. Ryoka Griffin stood there, seeing the Drake. He was a big guy. Not as big as Grimalkin—who looked like what every bodybuilder dreamed of becoming, too muscular.

No, Relc was just huge. He looked like the kind of guy—Drake—who was a natural fit for heavy-contact activities. Put him in a ring with a pair of gloves and he’d do well.

He was apparently a Senior Guardsman. Also—ugly. According to Drassi. Ryoka didn’t see it herself. She didn’t know Relc, except that he’d raced her twice and he was fast. Unfairly fast. Erin said he was a good guy, despite issues with Goblins.

What Ryoka saw was cracks. At first Relc didn’t believe.

“No, listen, Erin. I’ve been with them for over a month now. It’s solid. Look at this! Gold!”

The young woman shook her head, ignoring the gold coins he slapped on the table.

“Relc. That’s how it works. You’re making money because you were first. It’s a scam.”

“No it’s not. They have investments. See, there are these adventurers and [Mages]—the money goes to them and it comes back when they make big discoveries.”

“Which adventurers? What [Mages]? Relc, they’re made up.”

The Drake pounded a fist on the table. Desperately. Ryoka saw it in his face.

“No! It’s not! I have names! See? This is one of the Marshland Riders team. They’re Gold-ranks.

“Right. Do they exist?”

“Do they exist? Erin, I have reports! I get them each month on what they did! They killed a bunch of Trolls last month!”

“But that could be a lie. Who are these [Mages]? Have you heard about them before the Golden Triangle?”

“N-no. But—listen, Erin. I don’t know what Palt says. What does he know? He’s just a—an [Illusionist]. Look, this is real money. Everyone I know has been getting it.”

Ryoka Griffin broke in, then.

“Does everyone get money? People who just signed up don’t get much, right?”

And the Drake hesitated. He looked up, slowly.

“Not yet. But they will. They just need to…”

“…sign up more people. Right? They get the profits. That’s why you have money, Relc. But what about all the people you sign up?”

Erin reached out and touched Relc’s claw. He jerked, as if the touch were electrified. The Drake looked around, holding onto the money pouch as if it solved everything.

“W-well. They just have to sign up more people. It works, Erin. I don’t see how that’s…”

“Relc. How many people are in Liscor? If you signed up a thousand…and all those people need to sign up a thousand—that’s already ten times Liscor’s entire population. And what happens to the people they sign up?”

The Drake opened his mouth. He hadn’t thought of that. He lifted a gold coin in a shaking claw.

“But the investment…that makes more money. Right?”

“It doesn’t exist, Relc. The entire thing is the money people get from signing more people up. It’s…just words.”

Cracking. Mrsha was looking at Relc. Ryoka slowly motioned for Drassi to take her away. She didn’t notice the watchers. She was focused on Relc.

It was—familiar to her. Like when she had run south, to the Bloodfields. The same look in the Drake. He shook the coins at Erin, desperately.

“How can it be fake? Merchant’s Guilds are in on this, Erin! Nobles!”

“I’m sure they are. It just means they were all tricked. It’s happened before.”

Erin and Relc looked up at Ryoka. She spoke from experience. It had happened in Earth. So many smart people, allegedly smart people, had joined up to these schemes. Because what was sold wasn’t the idea itself in pure, logical form. What was sold was…the allure of it. That was how a con worked.

And Relc was at the heart of it. The Drake shook his head as Erin and Ryoka spoke.

“No. It’s—you’re wrong. It can’t be. Why would I get gold if it was fake?”

“You were lucky, Relc. You were first. But it’s going to fall apart. Please. You have to stop. Tell people it’s not real.”

“It is real! It has to be!”

The Drake stood up. Ryoka felt a twinge of alarm. Relc pushed down on the table.

“Don’t say it’s fake! That can’t be true!”

“Why? Why not?”

“Because it can’t be—”

That was all he had. The Drake looked around. Erin stared at the gold coins.

“Relc—”

No!

He brought his fists down on the table. Ryoka saw the entire table jump. The wood itself cracked. Erin stood up, backing away from the table as the other guests looked around. Relc’s fists tightened.

“I didn’t come here to—it was a great thing. It’s not true. You’re mistaken.”

He looked up, shaking. Ryoka felt sick to her stomach. Relc had signed up one thousand people. And they had all probably tried to sign up their friends. You didn’t have to pay gold to enter The Golden Triangle, but it was encouraged. You got to start at a higher…rank if you did. But the bare minimum was just silver.

How many people were signed up? Why hadn’t Erin heard of it? It was spreading like rot through Liscor, and all the cities. That was why.

“Relc. Listen to me. You can stop this. You have to spread the word. We—we need to speak to the Council. Erin, people have to know.

Ryoka spoke urgently. The Drake was shaking his head. Erin looked up.

“Tell the Council?”

“Yes. Everyone has to know. Where’s Montressa and Beza? If Palt knows—does Wistram know?”

Ryoka had been avoiding them. But this was different. She felt—she knew this was the work of someone from Earth. It had to be. Someone had invented a Ponzi scheme and unleashed it.

“I’ll get in touch with Krshia. I think she’s working. We can tell her about it. Relc—”

Shut up!

The Drake hit the table again. This time it cracked. Ryoka flinched as the wood itself gave way before the [Spearmaster]’s fury. Relc stood there, panting. Ryoka reached for Erin. She had seen this, felt that rage.

But Erin Solstice didn’t back away. She looked at Relc. And Ryoka felt—she withdrew her hand.

“Relc.”

The aura of the inn was heavy around Erin. Not pushing on anyone. But Relc looked up. The young woman stood there. Staring at him gravely.

Not without kindness. That was the hardest part. The [Innkeeper] hesitated. But then she spoke.

“It’s not real. The Golden Triangle is fake. Relc—I know you put so much time into it. But it is going to fall apart. Ryoka and I know it. Because of…where we come from.”

His eyes widened. Ryoka opened her mouth, but Erin went on.

“Believe us. Believe me. I know it’s not real. Someone’s done something cruel. And I can’t force you to take my words. But Relc. It is bad. And if you keep selling the Golden Triangle…you can’t be in this inn. I’m sorry.”

An ultimatum. Ryoka felt the wrongness of it. She tensed.

“Erin—”

It was her way or nothing. That was Erin Solstice. Relc inhaled, heavily. His fists were clenched, his eyes hot.

“Is that it?”

“No. It’s not. Erin, don’t ban him. Keep talking.

“But it’s wrong, Ryoka.”

The [Innkeeper] glared at Ryoka. And the City Runner felt a hot flash. This was Palt and drugs. If Erin hated something—she opposed it with all her might. She was as stubborn as—as—

Ryoka. But Erin Solstice didn’t know what it was like to feel everything falling apart. And that was what was happening to Relc. The table began to reassemble itself, thanks to Erin’s Skill. But the Drake was alone.

“Relc. I know it’s hard to accept. Listen to me. It’s no one’s fault. We only know because—”

The Drake moved. Ryoka paused as she reached for him. He looked at her for a second, and then at Erin.

“So that’s it? I’m banned if I keep doing this?”

“No.”

“Yes. I’m sorry, Relc. But I know it’s bad.”

Erin’s voice was level. Ryoka hissed. Relc glanced at her. His claws were tight. Ryoka expected him to take a swing—perhaps not at Erin, but at the table, maybe. It was what she would have done. The worst part was that Erin had no proof. It was so hard to convince someone in the thick of a scam that it was false. Ryoka searched for words…

And Relc nodded. His shoulder slumped.

“Feels familiar.”

The two young women stared at him. So did the other guests. Relc looked around. It was easy to describe Guardsman Relc. He was…

“I did this once, didn’t I? About the Goblins. I got kicked out and then—turns out I was wrong.”

The Drake reflected to no one at all. He looked at Erin.

“You were right about that. Looks like I’m always the idiot. That sounds right. More than anything else.”

Erin’s face fell.

“I didn’t mean that, Relc—I’m just worried about—listen—”

She reached out. Relc backed away. He reached for the money pouch, the gold coins. And then he looked at Ryoka, helplessly.

“It’s all fake? Every bit of it?”

She could almost feel him spinning, falling in his head. The City Runner’s throat constricted.

“It is. Listen…you didn’t know. Sit down. Relax. You didn’t know.”

“You have to—”

“Erin, shut up.

Ryoka turned on the [Innkeeper]. How was she not seeing Relc’s pain? But the Drake just turned away as Erin blinked and Ryoka grabbed at her.

“Nah. I get it already. It’s gotta be true. I keep doing this. Klb would have warned me. Let’s see…”

He stared blankly out a window. Ryoka turned to him.

“Listen, Relc…”

“I’ve got to go.”

He spoke dreamily. The Drake began walking for the door. Erin and Ryoka both followed.

“Relc! Wait! I’m not mad at you. I just—come sit back down. Let’s talk about what to do.”

Erin reached for him, but the Drake was speeding up. He walked out of the common room. Towards the magic door. Drassi disappeared through it with Mrsha. The Gnoll waved excitedly at Ryoka and the City Runner had almost forgotten about the park. She saw a figure disappear through the doorway after the two. But that wasn’t important.

“Relc—”

The Drake paused at the door. He looked back at Erin. In complete darkness, falling again and again…that was what Ryoka thought he must be feeling. But she—did not know him.

“Erin.”

The [Guard] spoke. He leaned on the door, looking very tired. The [Innkeeper] halted.

“Relc?”

“If you’re right…I’ve got to fix this. Save my seat. I’ll make it right. You’ll see.”

His claw tightened on the doorframe. Then the Drake slowly walked into Liscor. Ryoka Griffin stood there. She blinked, once. Erin turned to her.

“What does that mean?”

It meant—Ryoka thought. She saw Relc walking through the city, tail dragging, shoulder slumped. Holding his bag of coins. She breathed a word.

“Oh.”

 

—-

 

It meant he was going to do the right thing. Relc was indeed spinning. The world turned upside down and kept throwing him about. He hated it.

Spear—his spear that he always carried was familiar. He knew it. Everything else? He hated how nothing else made sense.

It was such a good thing. It couldn’t be true, could it? But Relc trusted Erin. She had been right. She was—a friend.

You had to stand by friends. 1000%. He had been wrong once. That was Relc. Good old Relc, [Sergeant] Relc, the idiot. Now that he thought about it—it made sense.

“Why would I be doing well in the Golden Triangle if it was real, huh? Me?”

The Drake laughed to himself as he leaned on a wall. He still felt dizzy. Aimlessly, he looked around. Where did he start? They were everywhere.

Start at the last place you were. In the battlefield, you fought the enemy in front of you. Relc clung to that. He began to run.

He ran back through the city, towards his apartment. The bag of gold, his profits from the Golden Triangle in one claw. The gold was real. But it was fake. The Drake, panting, stopped by an apartment next to his house. He hammered on the door.

Eventually, a Gnoll woman opened it. She blinked at Relc.

“Senior Guardsman? Is this about the Golden Triangle? Do you need more money? I haven’t gotten my certificate…”

Relc felt in the coin pouch. With shaking hands, he produced ten silver coins. And looked at them. The Gnoll woman’s enlistment fee. And that was the minimum.

For a long time, the Senior Guardsman stood there. Head bowed. So much so that the Gnoll woman grew nervous. But eventually, he looked up.

The thing about Guardsman Relc…in a sentence…was this. He was still a Senior Guardsman. He didn’t enforce the law like Klbkch. But he had earned his rank. He had spread the Golden Triangle through Liscor because he was Relc. To the same people who had voted to give him the rank. The Drake clenched his hand on the bag of money. Then he shook his head.

“No. No. Miss—there’s been a terrible misunderstanding. Listen. The Golden Triangle…is a scam.”

He didn’t believe it himself. Part of him hoped he was wrong. But the Gnoll woman’s eyes widened. And Relc felt the illusion fading. Like a magic curse on him, only one made of lies and words. Hopes and dreams. He breathed out.

“Here’s your money back. Spread the word. It’s fake. Don’t give money to it. Listen—”

That was the first house he visited. The first house was easy. Relc held the little bag of coins. Then he went into his apartment and got the rest. At first the pouch jingled. Then it was thin.

Empty. But there were more houses. The Drake walked. And never saw the shadows creeping up on him from behind.

 

—-

 

“This is a disaster.”

He believed. It did not take him long. Palt had given the speech to Grimalkin and talked for nearly forty minutes before the Drake saw the enormity of the problem and gotten him an audience.

But Chaldion believed in ten minutes. Not because he was better with numbers, but because he believed in the worst. That was a [Strategist]’s job. And when he believed—he acted.

“Magus Grimalkin? Send word. I need a [Senator]. And the Watch Captains on duty. Every one of them. Call for an emergency meeting of the Assembly of Crafts, on my authority. The Watch Captains will arrest these high-ranking members of the Golden Triangle at once.”

Palt stood in the [Healer]’s clinic as Chaldion tried to rise. She came in.

“Grand Strategist, you cannot leave. You need to recover…”

“My leg is nearly healed. I’ll address the Assembly from this bed if I must!”

The Drake snapped at her. He struggled to get up, but the Gnoll woman pushed him down with one paw. Grimalkin nodded.

“I can present the information, Strategist. I’ll be back.”

He was muttering a [Haste] spell even as he left. Palt saw him flash out the door. The Centaur shuffled his hooves.

“Can I assume Pallass will take action, Grand Strategist?”

“At once. You have my word. The other Walled Cities will need persuading. I can just see some of those idiots in Salazsar refusing to believe…but this Golden Triangle dies in Pallass today.”

The Drake snapped. He lay back in bed as the [Healer] fussed around him. The Drake looked up at Palt.

“So Wistram knows?”

“…The Academy might. But my Master sent me specifically. My…faction is privy to a lot of information the rest of Wistram does not have, so I was sent immediately, Grand Strategist. I have no doubt the Academy is combatting this situation as best they can…”

Palt smoked from his cigar—until the [Healer] snatched it from his lips. He sighed. He had to be cagey in representing Wistram. Chaldion just looked at him.

“I am sure they are. Well, you have my thanks for your faction.”

His tone made it clear it only went that far. Palt nodded.

“My investigation is complete, Grand Strategist, and I have made my report to my master. Er…as much as I was able to discover.”

“You don’t know who is behind this fraud?”

Palt winced.

“No, Grand Strategist.”

The trail had gone cold from the Adamantium-rank Dullahan. He had persuaded her to tell him how she’d gotten wind of the scheme—but it was just coincidence.

“The originating member of the triangle in Pallass knew someone in Oteslia who joined before she did. As far as I can tell…the Golden Triangle has roots in the Walled Cities. Everyone points to that. But Oteslia or another Walled City—I don’t know which. Not Pallass.”

“We shall uncover that. It’s enough to go on. Stay here. I need to address this situation. Now.”

Palt did. The Watch Captains came hurrying into the room, panting. The [Senators] soon thereafter. When Grand Strategist Chaldion summoned them, they came.

“This is the situation. There is a trick at work in Pallass—The Golden Triangle. Some of you may be aware of it. I do not care. It is a scam, meant to take money and then collapse. On my authority as Grand Strategist, I demand it end. Today.”

They argued, of course. Two of the [Senators] had given funds to it. High-ranking members of Pallass had too! How was he certain—Chaldion shouted at them until the [Healer] made him quiet down.

That was the scam. The brilliance of it. You didn’t know for certain it was a scam. And so long as you could cling to that, you were ensnared. It took force of will, experience, or just a streak of pessimism as deep as Chaldion’s to believe.

And he did. Chaldion did not play games. Within twenty minutes, the Watch Captains were sending their [Guards] after the people Palt had interviewed. The Assembly would be addressed by Magus Grimalkin and the nature of the scam hammered into their brains. Chaldion had sent a priority-[Message] to the other Walled Cities and incredulity was already flooding in.

Palt stood there, listening, explaining for Chaldion when the old Drake grew tired. Saliss poked his head into the clinic and no one stopped him. He listened—and believed quickly too. Pessimism ran in the family.

Trouble emerged when the numbers started coming in. Chaldion looked up.

“…How many are part of the Golden Triangle?”

“Sir. I was just on the 6th floor and did a quick headcount. Even just the [Guards] and people I talked to—that’s already three thousand and counting. It wasn’t even the entire 6th.”

Watch Captain Venim’s face was pale. Palt did the math. Even if they all gave the bare minimum, that was already 1,500 gold pieces in circulation. And he just bet they’d given more. If you assumed all 9 floors had that at a minimum—and that was just a sparse headcount…

“Pallass might have as many as 50,000 people at least. The numbers could be double, triple that or even higher. Which would mean at least 25,000 gold pieces in this fraud. Again—the number could be exponentially higher.”

Chaldion nodded tightly.

Arrest the largest members of the Golden Triangle. And issue a warning that no money is to be given out! Tell the Mage’s Guild they are to refuse any transactions of that nature.”

“Sir, the Mage’s Guild is autonomous—”

The Drake slapped the armrest of his magical bed.

Do it. Or I will arrest every [Mage] in the damned Guilds! What is Wistram doing?”

“Perhaps if Pallass were to issue an official complaint, sir?”

Chaldion glared at Palt. But he exhaled.

“I will draft one. Perhaps that will lead the Academy to act as well as your faction?”

The Elusive Lot might have planned this very occurrence. Palt felt a shiver. Chaldion was a trusted voice. He nodded.

“I assume so, Grand Strategist. However—”

Grand Strategist!

A [Guard] raced towards the clinic. He was nearly thrown back by the security in front of it.

“Allow him to enter! What is it?”

Chaldion looked up. The [Guard] was pale-faced. Palt felt an uneasy stir on his neck.

“Sir. The Gnoll we were meant to arrest is dead. His throat was slit. The Dullahan woman has…disappeared.”

Slowly, the Grand Strategist and Venim turned. They looked at Palt. The Centaur went pale.

“Mage Palt. Explain this.”

“I—I had no idea.”

But Palt did. The Elusive Lot did not play games. They were pranksters. Tricksters. But when they stopped laughing, they were scary. Chaldion slowly looked around.

“Change of orders. Venim, find those people. Take them into protective custody. Mage Palt?”

“Yes, Grand Strategist?”

The Centaur was weak-kneed. The Grand Strategist looked at him.

“Your faction has now interfered in Pallass. I will speak to them. Now. As for my goodwill…you are not arrested. Yet. Your master will speak to me immediately.”

“Yes, sir.”

Palt was sweating as he raised a finger to his temple. Damn them. Then he had a thought.

“Oh no. That means—it’s happening everywhere.”

Chaldion’s good eye opened. He bellowed after Venim.

Send a [Message] spell to the cities!

It was also a lesson about Wistram that both Chaldion and Palt knew. They fought amongst themselves. They could be petty, fractured, terribly inefficient. But they were also Wistram Academy. They had more money than The Golden Triangle could have dreamed of, and the reach…

 

—-

 

People were dying. But only a few in each city. The gangs were aware. And they had been part of The Golden Triangle, or aware of it. The Elusive Lot had ties everywhere, and if they worried about their actions—well, it curried favor among the underworld.

No one liked being taken for a ride. And who would know the Elusive Lot was behind it? Only Palt, Chaldion, people who had ties with gangs. For the rest of the world—news of The Golden Triangle was spreading. Slowly. Too slowly.

The scheme had already run through Liscor. Not as badly as other cities, perhaps. But enough money had been taken. Relc’s coin pouch was empty. His little stash of coins—all but depleted. And it only covered a fraction of what had been spent.

He saw it now. The Drake walked down a street, body aching. People had shouted at him—or not believed. He’d handed out coins, sometimes to bemusement, and seen that they were just going to invest it into the Triangle. They thought he was mad.

That was the worst part. Seeing what Erin had surely seen in him. The Drake hurt.

Perhaps that was why he walked into the ambush. He should have seen it coming. He did, actually. The empty street, the warning of his [Dangersense]—it gave him precious seconds of warning.

Still—it was too late. Eighteen figures moved out on either side of the street. And one of them was huge.

Bearclaw grinned at Relc. She didn’t need to say a word. The Drake chilled as he saw the figures. He didn’t need to ask. He swung his spear up.

Damn.

Not now. He was off-duty. He wasn’t wearing his armor. Klbkch wasn’t here. The Drake’s body came alive as he looked around. Nine in front, nine in back. [Thugs], [Rogues]—each one armed. Swords, daggers, mainly. Few bigger weapons like spears. A club—

Bearclaw had her steel claws. She grinned at him.

“You mocked me. Hello, Senior Guardsman Relc. You’re in a lot of trouble.”

“I’m always in trouble. Back off. It’s been a really bad day, alright?”

The Drake snarled. He looked around, putting his back to a wall. He reached with one claw for his belt. His whistle—

He didn’t have it. He only put it on when he was on-duty. Relc bellowed.

Guardsman in trouble! Call the Watch!

The others chuckled. Relc was pretty sure he was out of earshot. Or if a Gnoll could hear him—they might have been silenced by fear.

“No one’s coming. And no one’s going to find you until I’m away from the city. You shouldn’t have bothered me, Drake.”

The Gnoll woman had a big smile. Relc looked at her. She looked like a big, thug of a woman. Overconfident…until you looked at her.

And saw how many people she’d killed. New [Soldiers] now—Relc had seen them freeze up on the battlefield. Even trained, a [Soldier] who’d never had to hack an opponent apart would hesitate.

Not her. And not him. The Drake said nothing as both sides closed in. Bearclaw was mocking him. The gang she’d pulled together was wary. They knew Relc. And the Drake was just…silent.

“Not going to say anything, Relc? You had a big mouth when you arrested me last time.”

One of the [Thugs] licked his lips nervously. The Drake holding the long dagger saw the [Guardsman] look at him. His eyes flicked to the dagger.

“Breint?”

The Drake jumped. Relc glanced at the dagger and at his face.

“You’re not going to sneer at me again. Liscor is ours after this.”

The Drake vowed. Some of the gang muttered nervously. If they’d killed someone—it was one or two, in fury and the heat of the moment. They had no idea. No idea what it was like to wake up and know you were going to kill someone.

Bearclaw knew. Relc saw three others with that—look. He marked them.

“Breint. Didn’t I laugh at you?”

“Yeah. Are you laughing now, Relc?”

The other Drake lifted his dagger. The [Sergeant] looked at him. Slowly, the Drake shook his head.

“Not today. Last time I laughed because you were under arrest. Today? I’m going to kill you, Breint. Walk away.

The [Thug] wavered. So did the others. This wasn’t the Relc they knew.

Bearclaw halted. She was no idiot. She recognized Relc. Her eyes narrowed. She nodded to the others and snarled.

Enough. Take him.

A window moved. A Drake with a magical wand who had been pointing at Relc unleashed a spell. A beam of light flashed down. The Drake had seen it. He was already moving.

He charged at Breint. The Drake put his dagger up. An idiot. What use was a dagger on the battlefield? It was good in alleyways, close quarters. But Relc had a spear. Longer than a sword, versatile. A weapon that could halt a charging horse, attack from a distance—

The spear went through Breint’s throat. Relc twisted, and the enchanted tip swept clear. Half of Breint’s head sagged as he went down. He spun, and Bearclaw’s paws deflected a slash. She snarled.

The gang was frozen for a second as the Drake collapsed, blood littering the ground. They looked at Relc.

“But you’re a Senior Guardsman.”

One of them said. Relc looked around. The Gecko of Liscor twirled his spear. He ducked another flash of light. Then he disappeared. A Gnoll found a spear’s tip in his gut. Bearclaw snarled as the street devolved into chaos. Before that moment, Relc’s words echoed.

“I’m off-duty.”

 

—-

 

At the same time, a Gnoll girl was running around Liscor’s playground. Laughing. She was having fun. Ryoka wasn’t here. But Mrsha and Ekirra and Visma were playing. The Gnoll boy was babbling about the soccer lessons he was taking.

Mrsha had no concerns. Some of the adults watching the kids play in the enchanted playground grumbled, bored.

“Did you hear about the Golden Triangle? I heard it was fake.”

“Can’t be. I got silver from it. And I gave money just the other day. I haven’t recouped but—my entire family’s in it.”

“I heard The Wandering Inn is saying it’s fake. You know? The Crazy Human swears it.”

“Well—she’s crazy. Um. Did she actually say that?”

“People are saying Senior Guardsman Relc was going around giving money back. It’s got them worried, all I’m saying.”

Relc said that? No way.”

“I’m telling you—this city’s getting weirder. Faugh. First a Lizardperson [Architect]—now this game of football? At least he can fix the sewers.”

The Drake talking with the other adults looked confused.

“They’ve been clearer than ever. What’s your problem?”

The Gnoll woman held her nose.

“It’s been smelling lately. Can’t you smell it?”

The Drakes, and some of the Gnolls shook their heads. The Gnoll woman grumbled.

“Anyways, I’m just saying. I might get out of the Golden Triangle. Give no more money—maybe ask for a refund. What do you all think?”

So caught up were the adults that they didn’t notice the gang moving up the street. Drakes and Gnolls, walking casually. But their eyes were locked on Mrsha. The white Gnoll was racing higher, with Ekirra’s ball in an impromptu game of ‘capture the flag’. She giggled as Drassi entered the gossip.

“I’m telling you all. The Golden Triangle is bad news. I heard it from Erin myself. And Ryoka. You want to get out—they were telling Relc about it—”

She too didn’t notice the gang. They were coming up the street, murmuring.

“Get to the safe house. Whoever grabs…the rest split up. They’ll be smelling, so throw down scent-destroying vials. Don’t let the kid howl. [Silence] spells. Got it?”

The others nodded. They squared their shoulders, relieved they weren’t the ones selected to go after Relc, or the inn. They walked forwards, hands disappearing into pockets or their sides.

At a time like this, there was no Ryoka Griffin. She was out, looking for Relc. Erin Solstice was in her inn. And a second gang was lingering outside the magic door, peeking inside at her. The Horns of Hammerad were in Invrisil. Griffon Hunt was preparing to journey away. The other teams weren’t there.

No magic, no heroes. No miracles, either. There were only the [Thugs]. They looked at each other. Then, one with a hat adjusted it.

“Before we begin, gentlemen, I wonder if we’d have a quick chat insofar as it came to the kidnapping of little Gnolls.”

The others stopped. The posh voice and the hat didn’t match them. And the Gnoll looked at them.

No miracles. Just…a serendipitous meeting. Not for them, either. They recoiled. The [Thug] had stolen among them like a shadow.

“Who are you? Soot didn’t send you!”

One of them backed away. Wilovan smiled. He was tall. And he had a polished club of his own at his side. He tipped a hat to them.

“Gentlemen. You can call me an interested friend. And my job is to safeguard a few good folk. That child isn’t one of my priorities, but she is a child as it were. And my partner and I agree—there is good business and bad. And this is bad business, sirs. Kidnapping a child? For shame.”

He was so polite. The gang shifted uncomfortably. One of them reached for a wand.

“Back off.”

There was one of him and eleven of them. Wilovan sighed. He adjusted his hat.

“Sirs. Let’s not cause a fuss. Why don’t we walk into the alleyway over there and talk things out? I represent The Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings. Surely we can come to an arrangement?”

“We’re with Mr. Soot.”

One of them snarled. Another jumped, knowing the name. Wilovan saw them eying each other, faces set. He sighed.

“The alleyway, gentlemen.”

He gestured. The gang followed him. They spread out, two watching for others. Wilovan slowly removed his hat. He looked at the others as they filed into the alleyway. And the [Dangersenses] began to go off. But it was too late. The Gnoll looked around.

“I am extremely disappointed in you all, gentlemen.”

Two backed away. The ones standing watch turned their heads and jerked away. One took five steps.

No one on the street noticed. After ten minutes, Wilovan came strolling out the alleyway. He adjusted his hat as he placed it on his head. He was humming, under his breath. A children’s song.

 

“The night’s been long and the bodies are wet,

But don’t you fret; be quick and ain’t not a guard who’ll be upset.”

 

In The Wandering Inn, Ratici stood by the door. He opened it for Erin Solstice as she hurried through.

“Miss.”

“Thanks, uh—”

“Ratici, Miss. A pleasure indeed.”

Erin smiled at him. Then she ran off, to look for Ryoka and Relc. The [Gentleman Thief] closed the door, as politely as could be. Then he looked at the other gang.

“I believe we have an understanding, as it were, gentlemen?”

They nodded, palely. One of them had known who Ratici was. In that sense, they were smarter. They filed out the door as Ratici pointed.

“I trust your good man, Mr. Soot will take the warning. Some things are below even criminality, sirs.”

Of course. Absolutely. They filed out the door. Disarmed, as it were. They hadn’t even noticed him plucking their weapons out of their very hands. The Drake leaned against the door. Humming the same song that Wilovan sang under his breath.

 

The good folk are rising, and we’re off to our beds.

 The smart thieves away with the loot and the slow ones are dead.

 

The Gentlemen Callers agreed on one thing with the Elusive Lot, although they didn’t work together. There was good business and bad business. A man had to have standards. Or he was no gentleman. But they had not interfered with Bearclaw. She hadn’t gone after Erin or the child.

She had gone after Relc.

 

—-

 

He knew the steel claws were poisoned when they raked across his face. He knew Bearclaw had a Skill because they opened up his scales and flesh.

[Iron Scales]. [Thick Skin]. Relc turned as the Gnoll woman charged him, slashing. His spear blocked a sword-thrust, dissipated a beam of black energy coming at him from the side.

He kicked Bearclaw off him. She was big—but Relc was strong. He struck.

[Triple Thrust]. He said nothing in the shouting clash of steel that was one sound in the street. He could hear nothing above the roaring in his head.

Three strikes. Two sank into Bearclaw, stomach and shoulder. Deep. But she was too big. That damn fur was like armor. No wonder she’d killed the others. High-level. Above 30—

The third spear went through a Drake’s chest. He blinked and fell over. Relc felt a stab to his back.

Dagger. He spun. The Drake blinked at the dagger that had gone only partway through Relc’s side.

[Pierce Thrust]. The blow went through the Drake’s leather-coated stomach and into the Gnoll behind him. Both cried out. Relc wrenched the spear free. He should have used it on Bearclaw. But she was retreating, howling with fury and healing up. That was the problem.

If he had someone to watch his back he’d have ended her. But they were around him. As Relc kicked the dying Drake off his spear, he saw a flash.

[Whirlwind Dodge]. The Drake moved around the spell and it struck the other attackers. He pulled his spear out. How many Skills did he have left? Two. He used neither as he changed his grip on the spear.

The Gnoll with the wand probably thought he was out of reach. Eight feet away? But Relc tossed the spear as he extended one claw and took a step, caught it by the very end. He stared into a mess of a face and pulled the spear back.

Someone hit him from behind. The Drake staggered slightly and his spear moved again.

[Spear Dance: The Fish Leap]. His spear swept upwards around him, forming a deadly pattern of magical steel. He cut someone, he was sure of it. How many were dead?

Relc looked around. Blood seeped into one eye. He reached for a potion, drank it in a blur. The poison burned his face, side. The other wounds healed.

One eye was free. The Drake looked around. Bearclaw had healed completely. Damn. He’d killed five. But there had been more in the windows.

Take him.

The Gnoll howled. She waited as the others moved forwards. Looking for an opportunity.

Relc spun his spear, deflecting a sword thrust. He slashed as he parried, cutting the sword-arm and a Drake coming at him from the right. A spear could parry and attack! It had reach—those idiots looked at fighting like you had to do one at a time. A spear was art. When he had been a [Soldier]—

Someone shot a crossbow through his shoulder from behind. Relc felt the impact throw him forwards. He turned, and the shooter ducked behind his comrades. The bolt had gone through Relc’s shoulder. He heard a snarl.

When he had been in the army, he hadn’t been alone. Klbkch had his back in the [Guard]. Where was he?

“Klb—”

Bearclaw charged him. This time she swept him off his feet. The Drake went down. He was holding his spear—but Bearclaw had her claws. She slashed at him. Snarling, victorious. She bit him and he howled.

The Gecko of Liscor struggled to toss the Gnoll off. But she was heavy and this was how she killed. A [Brawler]. They didn’t exist on the battlefield often. The Drake let go of his spear. Someone kicked it away.

He was so tired. Relc felt another flash of pain across his head. Another searing flash of poison. Blood was in both of his eyes. He reached down. Spears. He always carried his spear but he’d dropped it. You’d be disciplined in the army for that.

Bearclaw opened her mouth blood dripping from her maw. Relc looked up. The Gecko of Liscor sighed as she raised her steel claws to rake his skull.

He planted the dagger hilt-deep in her stomach and began to twist. Bearclaw choked. Relc kept stabbing, his claws a blur. Standard.

“[Flurry Strikes].”

The Drake told her that, calmly. The Gnoll was trying to get off him now. Who carried one weapon? She rolled away, clutching her ruined stomach.

Relc got up. Someone hit him—he turned, shoved the dagger to the hilt and watched the Gnoll fall over. The others backed up.

The Drake looked about. Spear, spear—one of them was holding it. The Gnoll jabbed at Relc. The Drake took his spear back. He broke something to get it. Not his bones.

“Gecko of Liscor. Gecko of Liscor!

He screamed it at them. The same shout as if he was on the battlefield. Pride and shame. The Gecko ran. That was why they called him that.

He didn’t run today. He advanced, the spear jabbing. They backed up.

“—crazy—”

Not paid enough for—

Extend his reach. The Drake swung the spear with both hands, and the enchanted tip sheared through a chest. He heard a scream.

Come and get me.

He roared. The gang was no battalion. And their leader was howling. She was drinking another potion.

“You—”

Bearclaw saw the Drake charge her. She dropped the potion, reached out.

She slashed across his chest, shoulders. He impaled her through the stomach.

The spear went deep. The Gnoll’s eyes went wide. They backed into the wall, and the spear went into the brickwork. But she held onto him. The Drake was yanking the spear sideways. But Bearclaw held onto the spear.

“Kill. Him.”

She growled. Relc felt something hit his back.

A spell. [Life Leech]. Or something. Worse than a bolt of energy. He grunted, dragging the spear through Bearclaw’s guts. She would die if he wrestled the spear free. But she was so strong—

Someone was stabbing him from the side. A second crossbow bolt hit him in the lower back.

Should have—killed the crossbow—

He was blacking out. The Drake heaved. He heard the Gnoll screaming. Where was Klb? No, he was gone. Embria? At work.

He was alone. The Drake sighed. He felt another hammer’s blow from behind. Slowly—he let go of his spear. He turned and saw the [Crossbowman] aiming at his face.

Relc blinked.

 

—-

 

Watch Captain Zevara sat in her office. Wearily, she reviewed all the things she had to do.

Expand the Watch, source better gear, work with 4th Company, monitor the Antinium…

An endless list. And that wasn’t even with detailing security for the new city. She needed all these things. More artifacts, especially. She wondered if she could get more funding…

No. She needed to go beyond Liscor. You could train new recruits, but other cities had [Guards] she could poach. With the right incentives, you could hire others. The new road south and the door to Pallass was ideal. This was her chance to make Liscor’s Watch a true force, not reliant on the army or adventurers.

At the moment, though, she was trying to fill a void. Klbkch was gone. And she hadn’t realized how important he’d been until then.

Klbkch and Relc. A duo that gave her headaches, mainly because of Relc. But they were her best team for trouble. Even Jeiss, their sword expert, couldn’t boast a better combat record with Beilmark.

Who could rein Relc in? Who could be that useful, practical officer? Well…Zevara shuffled her papers. She looked up and stared at another potential recruit.

“So…you’re applying to fill Klbkch’s position? We don’t…appoint Senior Guards. Erm. However, this is a unique case. We could certainly use another representative of the Hive…um. Yellow Splatters, was it?”

“Correct.”

The Soldier sat in front of Zevara. She stared at him.

“…Why do you want the position?”

“To foster respect with the Antinium. To replace Revalantor Klbkch. I am a Prognugator of the Free Antinium. I am also a Soldier.”

“Yes.”

That was all Zevara could say. She looked at Yellow Splatters.

“Er…but do you think you are suitable for the Watch?”

She meant it more…but Yellow Splatters took it literally.

“I am capable of fighting after sustaining large amounts of damage. My carapace is equivalent to chainmail without Skills. I am able to communicate with both Antinium and other species. With your permission, other Soldiers will also participate in Watch duties.”

“I see. Good points. But they can’t speak…”

“A Worker will translate for them. Or I.”

The Watch Captain shuffled her papers.

“Good points. Well, I can certainly see you working on a…provisional basis. Klbkch was a credit to the Watch. Um…it’s highly irregular. But I can see…”

The Walled Cities were going to have a fit, but they’d want her to say yes. Yellow Splatters stood up. Zevara blinked, but he saluted.

“When do I report for duty?”

“Oh—well—”

The Watch Captain was spared by a shout from the door. Beilmark threw it open.

Watch Captain!

“Yes?”

The Drake jumped, relieved. She shot to her feet. Beilmark was panting. It must be serious if she abandoned her desk. The Gnoll was wide-eyed.

“It’s Relc.”

Zevara’s relief turned to annoyance in a heartbeat.

“Oh, Ancestors. What did that idiot do this—”

She stopped when she saw Beilmark’s face. The Gnoll spoke slowly.

“Bearclaw and a gang jumped him. He’s—”

She trailed off. Yellow Splatters looked at the two. Zevara was already running, vaulting her desk.

 

—-

 

They found Relc in the empty street. [Guards] were holding back crowds. The first thing Zevara saw were the bodies.

Nine dead members of Mr. Soot—no—Bearclaw’s gang. They had died fast, some with a single thrust to the heart. The work of a [Spearmaster]. And he had been fighting all of them at once.

Wing Commander Embria was already there. Kneeling, her crimson scales white. Zevara walked through it in a trance.

Bearclaw is still at large. I want her found and arrested. Send squads of twenty!

Jeiss was giving orders. Zevara just walked around a dead [Thug] with his throat slashed in half. She looked past Embria.

“Relc…?”

She saw a bloody mass of cuts across his face. The Drake’s face had been shredded by the poisoned claws. So had his arms, his shoulders. He’d been stabbed multiple times, and though the blades hadn’t gone deep through his scales—

The crossbow bolts had. There had been three shots. The first went through a shoulder. The second into his back. The third—

Part of his cheek was missing. The [Healer] was frantically applying antidotes. But the Drake was breathing.

“Watch Captain.”

That was all Relc said. Zevara looked down. Relc held a sword. Not his spear. The spear was lying in a puddle of gore. The Drake had—taken a sword from one of the thugs. The last three had been hacked down.

“What happened?”

“Ambush.”

That was all the other said. Bearclaw was on the run. Zevara looked at Relc. He gasped.

“Damn Klb—should have—woken me up.”

“Be quiet. He’s lost a lot of blood, Watch Captain.”

“That won’t kill him. I need my [Spearmaster].”

Zevara swore she saw Relc grin. Then he closed his eyes. She looked at the [Healer].

“Keep him alive. Jeiss. Beilmark.”

They looked at her. Zevara inhaled, shaking. Now she saw Relc—she looked around. And fire and smoke began to leak from her jaws.

Bearclaw did this? Find her. Orders are to take her alive.”

Watch Captain—

Both protested. Wing Commander Embria was just looking at her father. The healing potion wasn’t working right. The poison was scarring over, rather than just knitting his wounds, even with the antivenoms. She looked up as Zevara snapped.

Alive! That is the law, Senior Guardsman!

She saw them salute. Slowly. The Watch Commander saw Erin Solstice pushing through the crowd.

Relc! Relc! Pawn, get over here!

She ignored Erin. The Watch Captain was suddenly focused. She spoke.

“Take every [Guard] not on the walls. Find Bearclaw. And Mr. Soot. Orders are to take them alive. Is that clear? And if one of them so much as throws a punch—you have authority to use lethal force.”

She saw both Senior Guards nod. Zevara looked around.

“Wing Commander? Wing Commander Embria!”

The Drake looked away from her father at last. She blinked at his spear, lying in the blood. Zevara spoke as Embria gently picked it up.

“We could use 4th Company’s assistance in—”

The Drake Wing Commander interrupted Zevara.

“We’ll do it. 4th Company will find this Bearclaw.”

She hesitated. Then she bent to say something to her father. Zevara looked away, shouting orders. Sending trackers to hunt down Bearclaw. When Embria rose, she stalked past Zevara. And if she found Bearclaw first—the Gnoll would die. Zevara didn’t care.

 

—-

 

The best laid plans of Gnolls and Drakes went astray. And this had hardly been the best of plans.

Bearclaw snarled as she dragged herself back to the safe house. She was bleeding. Even after drinking the potions, the enchanted spear had done too much damage to her guts. The Drake had nearly torn it through her midsection.

But she was alive. The gang had splintered, fled after Bearclaw had run, rather than fight the Drake who refused to die. Bearclaw snarled as she reached for the door. It stank. Her blood, the Drake’s blood, death, and gore plus the damned sewer stench—she pushed the door open.

Soot, you bastard! You tricked me! You never said he was—

The Gnoll roared inside, weakly. She was going to kill Soot, then run. He had better have the door or the Gnoll. If he’d run—

He was inside. He hadn’t fled. The Drake was sitting where she’d left him. Bearclaw smelled blood. Her blood. It was in her nose, and the stink—she snarled.

Where’s the Gnoll?

He didn’t reply. Soot just stared at her. Dull-eyed. Bearclaw snarled as she stalked forwards, into the safe house.

What happened?

“Close the door.”

The voice came from Soot. No—from behind him. Bearclaw stiffened. One of the bodyguards? Then—she saw something odd.

The room was shadowed. The bodyguards were gone. Mr. Soot, the Drake [Mastermind], just…sat there. Staring at Bearclaw.

No—staring ahead. Bearclaw looked around. And she saw a shadow in the room.

Someone closed the door behind Bearclaw. She spun. And a huge figure shut the door. Bearclaw reached for her steel claws. A Gnoll?

No. The—thing—was too big for a Gnoll. It towered over her. It looked like her. Vaguely. But something was wrong.

If Bearclaw was a Gnoll. This was—was—a not-Gnoll. Like some bestial version of the Gnoll. Longer claws. Huge, corded muscle, rank, dark fur.

She smelled blood. And the stench—first masked by the reek of sewers—finally revealed that alien, bestial scent. The figure stared at her. Eyes both sharp and alive and dull of intelligence.

Someone coughed. Bearclaw whirled. A figure stood behind the corpse of Mr. Soot. And Bearclaw saw at last.

His head sat on his shoulders. But someone had made a parting in his skin. They’d put the head back after they’d taken it off. But bodies—were so fragile.

The culprit was a huge figure. Bigger than the other Raskghar. She coughed again, a deep, wet sound. Bearclaw looked around. There were more of them in the room.

“Who are you? What did you do with Soot?”

As if she didn’t know. But the figure just laughed. Then coughed again.

“I. Am Nokha.

Her voice was deep. The words unfamiliar on her tongue. But she did speak them. Bearclaw’s fur was standing on end. She heard more coughing—from the side.

The other not-Gnolls were…sick. Now Bearclaw saw them, she saw the marks of disease on one, fur fallen out, sickness in their open sores. Others were coughing, or missing teeth.

“What are you? Why did you kill Soot?”

Bearclaw licked her lips. The figure—Nokha—grinned. She gestured at the dead Drake.

“Mr. Soot? Yes. He said many things. Gave us potions. Didn’t make us better.

She pointed. In a shadowed corner, Bearclaw made out a figure.

Several figures. The dead bodyguards. And among them—one of the Raskghar. Another one of the…giant not-Gnolls. He was dead. Infection had consumed his corpse. Bearclaw could smell it now, rank.

They were all sick. But the one—Nokha—looked healthiest of them all. She grinned as Bearclaw looked around.

“Potions not work. But other things do.”

The bodyguards. Soot’s bodyguards were mangled. Had they been eating them? Even in the tribes, that was madness. Bearclaw looked around, licking her lips. Then her eyes, adjusting to the darkness saw something else.

The Gnoll’s chests were torn open. Their hearts were missing. Nokha coughed again. Expectorating. But she smiled.

“I was sick. Now, I am better. But it took too many…prey.”

“I—my gang is coming.”

Bearclaw’s words were desperate. But the insane—beast—ignored her. She hadn’t been keen on listening to Bearclaw anyways. The Gnoll woman backed up towards the door. But two Raskghar were there. They looked down at her. Bearclaw was huge. She wasn’t used to being smaller, but they were all bigger than she was.

Prey.

Nokha muttered as the two grabbed Bearclaw. The fight was short. They held her down as she screamed. The Raskghar moved forwards.

“You are strong. Good. Strength is better.”

Her voice made it clear as to what the purpose was. Bearclaw was pleading now, trying to break free. But it was too late. Nokha looked around.

“Her heart makes two. I want a pack-sister. Then we do things.”

The other Raskghar grumbled. They wanted more hearts. They were all…sick. Nokha had eaten every heart. Only she was Awakened. But the female Raskghar lashed out, striking one of the dissenters.

No more hearts. These only! The city is too watchful. Too many noses! Obey.

She snarled. The others backed away as the Gnoll flexed her limbs. She felt better. Months of being sick had made her weak. But this? Soot had had five Gnoll bodyguards. Five rituals. Nokha smiled.

“Two true Raskghar are enough. We cannot fight them.”

She spoke half to Bearclaw. The criminal was begging for her life. But the Raskghar didn’t care. She smiled down at Bearclaw and patted her head. Like she would a Gnoll cub. A child of a species only related to hers. She spoke, clearly.

“We are all sick. You understand? You made us like this. Surface-people. Light-walkers. Too smart. You are so smart. I, Nokha, understand this.”

She tapped her head.

“We must learn from you. You have so much to give us.”

She heard a whimper. Nokha looked around. She pointed at her favorite Raskghar. The female Raskghar smiled and bared her teeth. Nokha nodded at the others. They could still feast. They were so hungry. Those few of them who had managed to enter the sewers were the strongest of the Raskghar—the others were in hiding. Sick.

But not for long.

As the others gathered around Bearclaw, Nokha went back to investigating Soot’s corpse. So interesting. She called out, once, amid the screams.

“Save her skin. I want to wear it.”

Then—she had another thought. The Raskghar looked up and her mouth opened in a big smile.

“And save her skull. I want to know how she thinks.

She had so much to learn. About herself. And—Gnolls. Awakening was only the start. Nokha felt the power. And smiled.

By the time the Watch found the safe-house, only Mr. Soot was left.

 

—-

 

Mr. Soot…was dead. His plans had been foiled. Bearclaw was on the run. She had probably left the city. All in all, it was a victory. Because no one had died. That was how it worked, right?

If you counted like that, sure. It took nothing else into account. Nothing…

Like the Drake, sitting in his apartment in the darkness. Relc Grasstongue was alive. Healed, in fact.

Healing potions worked like that. Once you got rid of the poison, you were…healed. The [Healer] had been touch-and-go, but she had saved his life.

It was a miracle, really. A small miracle. Perhaps Pawn had been part of it. If so—he wasn’t telling. The poison had been purged from Relc and now he was healed.

But he would have scars. Bearclaw had left her marks. The poisonous bite of her claws had been reduced by the [Healer]’s ministrations and potions, but they were still there.

Raking marks on his face. Shoulders—well, at least the shoulders looked cool. But his face—the crossbow bolt had left another scar. Scales were missing, the raw flesh healed, but the scars lingered.

“Hey. It’s not like I can get uglier, right? Women love scars.”

The Drake muttered to himself. He laughed. It sounded like a sob. He didn’t look in a mirror.

He just sat there. He’d walked out of the clinic himself. He didn’t want to stay there.

Alone, Relc sat in his room. His coin pouch was empty. And he was tired.

No one knocked on the door. The city was in uproar. But no one was coming. The Drake sat there. And so he was quite surprised when he heard the knock.

“Hello? Are you in there? Can I come in?”

Relc looked up. The voice wasn’t familiar to him at first. He shrugged.

“Come in.”

Slowly, the door opened. And Ryoka Griffin entered the apartment. She saw Relc, sitting on the floor.

Around him were his puzzles. Magical puzzles, thrown around the room. His room was a mess. So was the Drake. Scars ran across his healed face. And his expression—

Ryoka Griffin looked down. A little magical puzzle was lying on the ground. Two bits of enchanted wire. You were supposed to tease them apart over months of work.

The Drake had torn the puzzle into two pieces. Slowly, Ryoka Griffin hesitated in the doorway.

“I…sorry.”

“For what? Come in. Shut the door.”

Ryoka did. The Drake didn’t move. Relc glanced around at the messy room.

“Sorry, I wasn’t expecting company.”

“I—no one?”

The young woman saw the Drake smile.

“My buddy’s gone. I didn’t think you’d come here…Ryoka? Right?”

“Yeah. Uh—no one?”

“Let’s see. It’s not rent day. The Watch thinks I’m at the [Healer]’s. The kid’s probably out—and Erin—that’s it.”

The Drake counted on his claws. He got to four and gave up. Ryoka Griffin slowly sat. She didn’t know if she belonged here. But…

“Um. Well…they’re all concerned. Your daughter is overturning the entire city to look for that Gnoll. Erin’s doing the same—the others are holding her back. She’s got everyone in the inn looking out…they think you’re in the clinic.”

Relc felt at his healed flesh. He laughed, shortly.

“Why? I don’t need to be. Potions’re easy. Not the first time I got into a fight. Back in the army, they slap you and tell you to go dig latrines even if you were just speared in the gut.”

“Sounds tough.”

“Yeah.”

The two sat in silence. Ryoka wasn’t Erin. She couldn’t fill the silence. She saw the Drake just looking ahead, blankly.

“I gave the money back. As much as I had. If I get more from the Triangle, I’ll give it to people. Tell Erin that.”

“I will. You—gave it all away?”

Every coin. Relc stared ahead. It had been such a good day. Could you turn back time? He doubted it. If it was that easy, every [Mage] would be a [Chronomancer].

“I’m fine. You can go back and tell Erin that.”

“Sure. I mean…no.”

Ryoka cleared her throat. She saw Relc looking up at her. The Drake blinked, slowly.

“No? Why are you here?”

“I just…wanted to check up on you. Sit here awhile, if that’s okay.”

“Why? I’m fine. See? Look at this.”

Relc flexed one arm, listlessly. Ryoka looked at him.

“I know. But—I think it hasn’t been a fun day.”

She heard a snort. She went on, quietly.

“And I know that if I was here, I’d want someone to check on me.”

The Drake looked at her. Slowly, Ryoka folded her legs into a cross-legged position. She didn’t understand. But she did, at the same time. Even more than Erin, who was so sympathetic. But not always empathetic. And there was a difference. She would be here in a heartbeat if she’d thought Relc wasn’t sleeping.

But here was Ryoka. The Drake turned his head.

“Well, feel free to pull up some floorboards. But don’t do that literally. I get in trouble for that.”

The City Runner smile-laughed. She saw the Drake look at her. And she wasn’t giving a speech. She wasn’t good at that. But she was here. And sometimes that was infinitely more preferable to being alone.

“Sorry about the scars. I know I have an ugly mug. Maybe they help.”

The Drake went on, staring ahead. Ryoka glanced at him.

“They look—good. War wounds.”

“Hah.”

“No. Really. You don’t look bad to me.”

“It’s all my tail, really.”

“I can’t tell.”

The Drake half-smiled.

“Yeah, that’s the nice thing about Gnolls. Look, I’m fine, really.”

“Sure you are. And I’m a [Queen].”

The Drake snorted. He saw Ryoka stretch out. After a while, she opened her mouth. Then she closed it.

Silence wore on. After…twenty minutes, the young woman looked around. There was a little boar’s head lying on the floor near her. She picked it up.

“Is this a puzzle?”

“Yup.”

“Mind if I…?”

The Drake nodded. He watched, out of the corner of his eyes, as Ryoka found the little wire, and investigated the puzzle. After a while, he saw her frown.

“Tricky, right?”

Ryoka Griffin glanced up. She met his eyes for a moment and nodded.

“Yeah. You…collect these? I had no idea.”

“It’s just a hobby.”

He shrugged. But he watched as Ryoka bent the wire and frowned over the puzzle.

That was all. Relc kept expecting Ryoka to say something. But if so—he overestimated her ability to think of anything to say. She just sat there. Fiddling with the puzzle. After a while she asked him to pass another, easier puzzle over.

He did. The Drake sat there. In time, he ventured a comment on how the Golden Triangle was probably going to collapse soon. Ryoka agreed.

At some point, the Drake asked how he looked. Really. Ryoka glanced up. Gave her honest opinion. He nodded. Unconvinced.

By the end of the second hour, Ryoka had solved one of his puzzles. He showed her the cube. She puzzled over it. They talked. Relc began talking about other bad times he had nearly died. Ryoka Griffin listened. When he was done, she told him about the rubix cube, which she thought he might like.

Stomachs began rumbling after the third hour. The Drake saw Ryoka Griffin glance at the door.

“Erin’s inn has food. Why don’t you go there? It might be good.”

He looked at her. Then slowly, got up. He might have ended up there anyways. Embria had found Mr. Soot’s corpse long ago and hadn’t found Bearclaw. She would have gotten her father.

Or Erin would have, after discovering the clinic didn’t hold him. Or Relc might have gone himself. But Ryoka Griffin had. She said only one thing, as Relc got up and left his flat, carrying some of his puzzles.

He was tired. His illusions about the Golden Triangle shattered. Scarred. It had been truly a terrible day. And sometimes you had them. That, Ryoka Griffin knew. And she had no Erin-words that could redeem even the worst days.

So she just said one thing, and they were the right words. The words she wanted to hear.

“You did the right thing.”

The Drake looked up. He paused. And then Relc Grasstongue grinned. The [Sergeant] rolled his shoulders. The [Spearmaster] looked around for his spear, and realized Embria had it. The [Guardsman] felt at his scars. And the Gecko of Liscor walked out of his apartment with the City Runner.

Relc looked at Ryoka. And then he nodded.

“Yeah. I did, didn’t I?”

He felt just a bit good about that.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: This was an interlude. I realized the side-story poll was going to end too late for me to begin work on the Wistram chapter, which I assume won. I don’t actually know.

So I wrote two complimentary plot points into a single chapter. I hope it worked. It was one of those chapters where the villain dies, and no one else, so everything is fine and nothing really happened. Right?

Anyways, that’s all from me. Side story next chapter? I don’t know. The world is unpredictable. But I’ll leave you with this and some art. Let me know how you liked it!

For today, the artists are a pixel art of Ryoka by Eris, Yellow Splatters in figurine form by Mr Momo! And finally, yashKetchum did a series, including Relc! And for some reason, Yoda-Mrsha. I can’t make this stuff up. Give them all praise!

 

Ryoka by Eris

Ryoka by Eris

 

Yellow Splatters by MrMomo

 

Relc and others by yashKetchum

Characters by yashKetchum

 


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139 thoughts on “Interlude – The Gecko of Illusions

  1. Leave a typo for tricks and secrets! Life is never what you expect. I think.

    (Tricksy readers: Gunzelin, Gorexn, Pwnster7757, medd, vudude, nick smith, MrWiggles, delta201, Vento, Aoxz, Gdloeckchen, Venefikus, Gunzelin, Chatterbox)

    • Yeah it’s gone now, can we get it back? I liked that bit, levels and Relc and Ryoka sleeping together was well done.

    • “Nadel bows to no other nation. I am Lord Belchaus Meron. If you advance further, we will destroy your fleet.”
      Lack of italics intentional?

      “I love your speech.
      loved

    • She’d killed two Senior Guardsman within a week of visiting Liscor. -> Guardsmen

      Wow, what an awesome chapter! I really sympathize with Relc. Sometimes what you need is just a quiet ear.

    • >Relc’s words echoed,
      >“I’m off-duty.”

      I’m commenting at this point in the story. I swear on all things free proofreading, I shall have to denounce your epic greatness (#sadface) if Relc dies. Slightly less upset if he ends up a cripple. But he’s the fucking GECKO OF LISCOR. He’s a One Man Army, Hitman, Neo, Transporter, Masterchief, Terminator (this is a non-exhaustive list regarding how fucking badass Relc is). BUT, on top of THAT, he just expressed instant humility. His karmacreditscore is nowhere near, “dies to some fucking bum in an alley.”

      #RelcsLifeMatters

    • “Palt’s saw her shoulder slump.”
      Palt’s -> Palt

      “Yeah, that’s the nice thing about Gnolls. Look, I’m fine, really.”
      Not so much a typo as I see Relc is attempting banter but I-the-reader don’t quite understand what Relc is referring to. I get that Drakes focus on tails for innuendo, but where/how do Gnolls come into it at all?

    • Relc is great. He has many flaws, but he wants to do the right thing. he just does not always know what the right thing is.

    • Relc’s manliness is certainly up there. He needs a strong controlling wife to civilize him. Too bad he’s prolly still too in love with his spouse to get one. And too bad women don’t see his redeeming qualities. Such a hero this chapter.

  2. Am i the only one wondering how the name brothers of serendipitous meetings came about since the word serendipitous comes from an old story the three princes of serendip with serendip being an old name for sri lanka

  3. Awesome chapter. Relc is super cool. I feel sad that he’s so lonely though. But there’s a thing I didn’t quite understand: why would the Elusive Lot want to kill people who were basically victims of the scam (even if they profited quite well from it)? Maybe give them a chance? I would understand killing the figureheads, or those that understood it was a scam but did it anyway. But those in the dark? It shouldn’t be their style… It would make more sense if the person at the top of the pyramid would go around “severing the connections” so it cannot be traced back to them.

    • Some points
      1) Even with the message spell and even back on earth it is very hard to get a boots on the ground view of a situation
      2) They might have decided to take the simplistic view that the good of the many was the worth the lives of the few.
      3) they might of assumed that anyone higher up the ladder of the Ponzi scheme had already twigged to what was going on. Look up the South’s sea bubble and other similar operations there are always some people who figure these thing out or get in deep and just decided to stay rich. I mean Relc is not that bright but you have to figure that there are others that have to figured it out.

      Regardless it is a cold act without a doubt

      • There is also the idea that killing the people on the ground floor of the pyramid scheme will make any future schemes far less likely. Ponzi Scheme’s were first named as such a century ago and they still happen. There are pyramid schemes still going on today. If participating in a pyramid scheme means you might be killed by a gang then a lot fewer people would ever do so.

    • Could be a gamble, once the scam is found the guilty party would run or hide very quickly. The best time to get them is while they are making a lot of money. They don’t really know who or how many are the mastermind, just that they would be filthy rich from the triangle. so, striking blindly at all the most successful member is a fairly effective way to get them. A morally bankrupt one, but a ratter safe bet.

      • I think the reason they are getting rid of the people on the ground, is simply because they were the first people to become part of the scam, it wasn’t a massive thing from the get go, and there is the possibility that the perpetrators of the scam did the recruiting themselves.. so they killed off the first ones backers to ensure they couldn’t identify them

        • I think there more that one reason. Even if the Elusive Lot was part of the scam, it unlikely that they all were. So, if guilty there would be some that are erasing their track, some that are making a message, some that would want to make sure that nobody else can know what they know ect…

          There probably not a single simple answer.
          Could even be one that is just piss because they were caught in the scam.

    • Might not even be the Elusive lot. Could be the starter realized an investigation got started (yay Skills) and decided to cut all leads.

      The EL would be smart enough not to take out everyone who might have some info, or just go after whomever they already know is behind it.

  4. Anyone else laugh at this?

    He had a friend called Erin Solstice who you’d have to write a million words about—oh

  5. ok, I think I got it. they went to the wandering in. end scene.

    next scene he wakes up next to R

    I bet no one shipped this lot before today!

    • I definitely didn’t. Ryoka has seemed as almost as asexual as Erin. Will be cool to see if they stay in any kind of relationship together.

  6. The very last line seems to imply that they are sleeping in the same bed, and I can’t imagine a reason outside the obvious one. At least, that’s how I read it.

  7. Oh man,
    Those Rashkar are approaching Stephen king levels of creepiness . That last scene with those (And I don’t feel this is over dramatized) monsters had me genuinely scared. The most worst kind of scared too, the kind were you feel nauseous and unsettled but your brain is still working through all the horrible implications.

    Hat off to you Pirate Aba. Not a lot of people can hit the emotional range you can in their writing

    • I kind of pity them more than anything. Especially Nockta, she gains sapience only to see her whole species dying.

    • Their situation is especially sad since [Remove Curse] is only a 3rd level spell.

      But then, here can be no level 20 [Cleerics] in a world without gods to give them power.

  8. Thanks again story still great ! I missed my change to thank you last chapter for the Star Wars viewing party with Teriarch, satisfying stuff !
    And now we’ve got Relc continuing his climb back into the light.
    Always a delight, thanks!

  9. It will be interesting to see what Erin’s reaction will be when she finds out the reason Relc almost died is because the Wistram faction she is allied with put a hit out on him.

    • Same, I even felt a little nauseous from fear that relc might have died. Very relieved when he was still breathing.

  10. Yeah definitely slept together. Also think Relc was testing that [Eyes In The Back] Skill with those last two lines.

    • Probably, probably not. Bearclaw did not reveal the existence of a bounty on Relc’s head, instead they made it seem like it was payback for the humiliation. Chaldion and other big brains know, but how likely is it that they will reveal the truth? The only way I see Erin learning about this is if Palt tells her, which is not likely at all since it would damage their relationship. There’s always the possibility of learning the truth by chance or the Brother’s informing her to fuck with the Elusive Lot, but it’s stil very unlikely.

      • are you sure it was the ulsinoi faction giving the underworld bounty on Relc and so on? i dont think so. It is more likely to be ordered by the perpetrators themselves in order to cut the links in the contact chain used to backtrack the origin to them.

      • I think Palt might do it regardless of whether he’ll damage the relationship with his faction in order to build personal trust with Erin. It would be a harder battle to fight and might give a legitimate reason for Erin to like-like him. If not then it seems like he’ll lose the contract he has with her when she finds out. Alternatively of course, Erin might have to stay despite her personal disgust for Palt’s faction because the Ulsinoi are the best options as her allies regardless of morals. It’ll be another frustrating moment for her, I’ll bet, if she has to suck it up and take it as is. Alternatively it might bring out some character development for Lyon to help Erin deal with dangerous allies like these ones.

        • Agreed. If Palt doesn’t tell her and she finds out later, any possible friendship between them (Let alone reciprocation of the sort of romantic feelings Palt has for her) would cease to be a possibility. Erin isn’t the sort of person who could forgive that. She *might* forgive him personally about what happened, because he didn’t know, but if he doesn’t tell her the truth once he realizes… She won’t forgive that.

  11. Poor Erin was nerfed in EQ here – in the first 4 chapters, she was full of EQ and even until recently she could feel anyone in pain in her Inn and comfort. Erin was ALL about empathy earlier. She felt the pain of goblins and other folks in her Inn. But Ryoka needed an upgrade here for initiating the RyokaRelc relationship and Erin needed to be downgraded to achieve it.

    Bearclaw was devoured by her replacement. She didn’t last all that long considering the hype. Looks like the Raskghar are making a comeback. I really hope the bunch of murdering creeps are put down and out for permanent this time. But Nokha is now Bearclaw 2.0 so I guess it might mean another major battle with Inn 4.0 coming out of the ashes.

    • Erin was always like that, she gives people a second chance but is prepared to put the hammer if need be, she told him if he contiunues to sell he would be banned, those goblins that she offered food? if they didn’t take the food she would have killed them, like she killed the baby spider that bit her after she rescued him from a fire.

      erin is all about second chances but if you fail them she has no problems going to extreme

    • I’m curious if Pirate change their mind about Bearclaw. If a different arc was the idea when she was presented. It does seem odd to put her out there like that then sacrifice her when any gnoll would do.

      But the most important thing to remember about Bearclaw is, at the end, she died groveling for her miserable life.

    • This chapter just sticks in my craw with regards to Erin.

      You’re telling me that the Erin who made peace with goblins trying to drown Pebblesnatch didn’t have even a little bit of compassion for Relc?

      She’s known Relc for a few months now. Relc may be thoughtless but he’s not malicious. And Erin has to ban him from the inn?!? The same Erin who didn’t turn away Pisces even after he tried to extort her?

      Why is Erin’s character regressing?????

      • Agreed. Erin’s being used as a prop to make Ryoka look better here. Unnecessary and a shame. It’s not even necessary: Ryoka being able to put herself in Relc’s shoes better than Erin is not unrealistic, so the same thing could have been achieved without the jarring way in which Erin denounced Relc.

      • I think Maviola hinted at this character regression after Erin had her angry flame incident and started bribing Salliss with flowers to make new alliances down the line. I believe Maviola mentioned that Erin is turning into another Magnolia. To this end, I don’t think Erin was concerned about Relc’s maliciousness. It seemed to me that Relc was hinting at continuing to get other people to join the scam if he was not properly convinced. As he kept disbelieving Erin’s statements, Erin saw possible harm to others and wanted to prevent that because of the incident with the ants and Magnolia and used what power she could to prevent it. Her admission to the inn was the strongest card she could play to establish her feelings on the matter, she would probably let him back in if he realized the harm he was committing even if circumstances prevented him from leaving the Triangle.

  12. Laken doesn’t know combat. As an [Emperor], he has chosen to focus on being a [Seer], [and a [Beastmaster] and an [Educator] as [Lords] and other superior classes can get skills in several focuses – not merely one like lower ranked classes. As as an [Emperor], he should stay away from combat – his job is to rule effectively, not get killed at the front-lines. Needs to really get rid of Rae though.

    Tom is more of a skirmisher as a [Clown] than a pure combat class. He survives mainly on tricks. Even his epic fight was against another [Fool].

    But you are forgetting that there is at-least a level 30+ Terran [Knight] in Rhir – who is a pure melee combat guy who has diligently fought Demons. He is probably the highest level melee combat guy amongst the Terrans.

    And the bushrangers are a hybrid of ranged/melee/scout combat. And we have the [Mixed Martial Artist]’s who joined Pomle. I suspect there are several otherTerrans/Earthers who know combat. And Teresa is shaping out to be a [Swordswoman] too who has probably already reached [Level 20] by now at 16 years of age.

    Regarding mages, we have Teres – who at 16 is deemed as talented by both Quarass and the Khelt King and is now committed to fighting where he was unsure earlier.

    I suspect a lot of Terrans will be kicking butt in the future. The ones who have managed to live till now now have been tested at survival and passed.

    • Don’t forget the [Murderer] that serves the Griffon Prince in Terandria. That one surely has some skill in the art of combat. And, you know, rides a Griffon into battle.

      • Ahh..yes, forgot that one. She has a bone to pick with Wisteria due to [Blind Loyalty], so I guess she will make her way to Izril sometime in the future. Not confident about her future though. Will probably become Belavierr’s [Patsy].

  13. Oh not that it matters. But I am really, really glad Pirateaba recognizes the [Spear] as the [Ultimate] weapon in [Melee Combat].

    [Real Warriors] like Relc use the [Spear]. Hell even Orthenon uses the [Spear] most of the time in battle. [Rapier] and [Dagger] wielders are heavily outclassed by [Spear] wields when it comes to life and death. When the Levels are the same, the [Spear] beats the [Sword].

    Swords and Daggers are for [Ponsies].

    • Unless you were expecting to fight lightly armored foes, swords were mostly secondary weapon. Because they fared poorly there. Also, their reach was not that great compared to let say spear. in many cases the primary weapon was something else, or some sort of specialized sword. Like a two handle long sword.The reason ordinary sword was so common can mostly be summarized as: It was a straightforward weapon with a lot of versatility so relatively easy to train people at using it and an okays’ish weapon in nearly all situation. Ease of transportation, for all its quality the spear is a pain to move with. Easy to make, a cheap sword is really simple to forge. A morning star or a war hammer, not so much. Not a lot of weapons have all three quality, but that do not make it the holiest of weapon that some media made it out to be. If you could afford to have something else as your main weapon, you likely would.

      I don’t think rapier were used in war as this rarely allowed a lot of finesse. [Skill] kind of allows people to bullshit their way around a mass of enemy so it makes them somewhat viable in this setting.

      Historically, daggers were mostly sidearm, to use like presented when you lost your main weapon. Or to use as a precision tool to strike at the weak spot in an armor of a preferably distracted enemy. Seborn use them as main weapon, but he literally disappears from view during fight, so I give him a pass.

      Honestly, I am very please at how weaponry is presented in the inn world. I would maybe have done a few things differently but otherwise it is one of the most logically sound fantasy on that subject I have found, with a lot of different weapon being used.

      Also, yes spears are awesome. Not as awesome as halberd but still do not have the spotlight they rightfully deserve.

      Sorry for that, I do love the subject.

    • The only true way to fight is with a Staunch line of spears, bows are for pansies.

      You really disrespect the elven race when you don’t use a staunch line of spears.

    • No way, if you’re not a [Horse Archer], a [Mage], or [That Cunt With The Ballista] you’re not taking it seriously. Polearm is just best choice for the dudes dying young from dysentery

  14. The Relc-Ryoka pairing is what I actually call a [Good Match]. They would actually fit well together, even if Relc is technically double Ryoka’s age.

    Many of the pairings in the wandering inn were eye-rolling in comparison. Pawn and Lyonette was [Utterly Ridiculous].

  15. Awesome Interlude! I’m glad to see that the Raskgar still have a role to play in the story, even if I truly hate their guts. From the way they are portrayed in this chapter I can guess that their mayor conflict will take place later on, once they have grown strong and healthy enough to steamroll everyone in their way. I would assume Liscor’s gonna suffer a wave of mysterious murders all over the place as the bad doggos power up. Maybe they’ll attack at the Gnollmoot? It seems that they can steal memories from Gnoll corpses, so I’d assume the Meeting would be the perfect place to strike once they know about it.

    I was really worried Relc might die in this chapter. I am relieved to see that Pirate did not kil him off like George R.R. Martin did with a certain beloved King that was also introduced in his saga’s first volume. I’m honestly disappointed that Relc did not meet/join the Ullsinoi or something. That was what this chapter’s title hinted at, and the puzzles felt like a great way of hiding an invitation to Winstram or something, like the letter to attend Hogwarts. Instead he got a bounty and almost died, although Bearclaw would have probably tried to kill him regardless. Really good fight scene too.

    • Well a Gnoll did say the sewers were smelling awful, the architect is supposed to renovate the sewers, and Pisces might try and use Bone Horrors to go after whatever is smelling, meaning they’ll probably confront the Raskgar sooner rather than later. If they start spreading their sickness Octavia can swoop in with her penicillin.

      Maybe Relc will join later. The Elusive Lot did just interfere with the politics of a lot of Drakes including putting a hit out for Liscor’s best guard. Although I see Relc being accepted as member, now is probably not the best time for it.

      • I liked the foreshadowing of the sewers starting to smell again. Going to be a bad day for Pisces if he goes down alone to see what happened to the mini bone horrors.

        Typhenous seemed confident in being able to cure folks with the disease.

        • Maybe Selys will join Pisces in a sewer escapade again. It would help mend them relationship wise and she does have a ton of self-defence magical trinkets now so Pisces wouldn’t be completely screwed.

          Didn’t Typhenous start the plague on the Raskgar? If he did while I can see him being able to cure the disease it might run out of control like his plague on griffins. Maybe that famous Healer of Tenbault and/or Izril Archmage will make an appearance soon.

          • If was explicitly mentioned that he used different spells this time.
            5.40
            ““I didn’t use the same spells as…previously. This spell spreads by contact. The Raskghar will rot from within and convey the sickness to anything that touches their infected parts. Unless they’re close to the Gnolls, they should be fine. The disease takes days to kill. If we reach the prisoners, we can cure them”

  16. It could just be sex noting more. Relc have done it with more than one of screen charater. One problem is Ryoka herself. But at the same time Relc is easy there are no messy feelings just a bit of fun and comfort. Did I see it comming? No, do I have problems beliving it, no. Ryoka likes those that are strong. And looks like a scar is an mark of beauty considering he did not belive her assessment of his looks.

  17. Did not think the criminal underground would go out that easily… But then again I did not expect the Ruskar to break into the sewers and sneak into the city… Or anyone would be foolish enough to sell them potions.

    The plants may have weakened them… But they have grown a lot more frightening and deadlier. For they now know the value of a high INT score… And what sounds like a vengeful grudge.

    They are now within the city acting with careful precision instead of the regular violence they were used to employing. Smart monster are far worse than normal ones.

    Especially since the talk about the sewers smell means they have been moving around in the background without anyone noticing them.

        • 1- No they dont.
          2- If was his town she was disrupting.
          3- He’s a [Mastermind] for goodness sake, he could cover his tracks.

      • I agree, she wanted to kick an anthill of truly epic proportion and was too arrogant to do it smartly. But the weird thing is that he still would have die here, as I doubt Nokha presence here was due to Bearclaw in particular, it looked like they wanted Soot.

        • I figure it was the presence of five Gnolls that wouldn’t be missed.

          On a side note, any gnoll investigating the crime scene should be able to smell the Rashkar right?

          • I though that at first but it would hardly make sense. Gnoll live in community and family so a group of five or more gnoll would likely not be that hard to find. So why one that contain that many drakes and was armed? Liscor was not that long ago running out of place, so it would be very surprising that the safe house was pick because it was isolated. It could be because it was likely soundproofed but how the hell, they could scout houses that accurately while staying hidden?

            No, I think that they managed to grab a or some lone person in an allay or in the sewer. Those likely would be some form of criminal, that they would proceed to interrogate before killing and eating them. They would likely tell them all they want including how crime and law work, including who and where is Soot. A criminal [Mastermind] is something they would be extremely interested in learning from.

            Why? Because they are dying, and their only remedy is a large supply of gnolls. They can’t leave the dungeon, that group was their most healthy and barely made it to the city. There are few gnolls adventurers, and they are dangerous, they can’t fight directly the city. So, their only real option (from their point of view) is to sneak and grab the city gnolls without being found. Nokha is not a moron and know that she knows nothing of city. It would be a question of time before being found and being slaughtered. So, she needed to learn from a pro at going unnoticed in a city like she learned leadership from Calruz.

            I came at that conclusion because of how Nokha was speaking and that very ominous sentence:
            By the time the Watch found the safe-house, only Mr. Soot was left.
            There was battle, literal gnolls sacrifice here, by virtue of quantity alone blood should be mentioned. The sentence leaves me thinking that there was no blood or smell, they cleaned it. The action of criminal or infiltrator, at odd with a community that lived in a dungeon. They learned how to use odor erasing potion and likely all sort of nasty trick from Soot. It was their plan all along, Bearclaw and gnoll were just a nice bonus.

            Of course, that just my theory

  18. I hate to say it, but honestly I wonder if the Pyramid scheme is actually being run by someone high up in the Ulsinoi faction who learned about it from a human there, and the kill order was to get rid of the cut outs.

    • I’m actually worried it is being run by some Earthers alone, who naively think that they can get away with these kinds of scams like professional con artists do in our world. It would be rather interesting to get a pov of said scammers panicking after they realised their scheme drew way too much attention.

      Think about it, here you run the scheme and disappear to some fiscal paradise while using the funds to hire top-of-the-line lawyers to bury the case against them. In Innworld the powers that were wronged will just raise an army and execute them.

        • Yeah but there has not been any challenge to it. It was just making some shit up and letting people go at it. Now if people were already aware of the scams and they got away with it that would shoot them up in level but just telling people that you can make them money and shuffling around the funds to make it appear as such would probably not be the type of thing to get you a bunch of levels.

    • I had the same thought.

      Wistram was set up as shady from the get-go, but I still kind of wanted to like them. Then they turned out to be an evil multinational corporation, but when Erin allied with one faction, it was like, “Okay, maybe they’re not terrible if you can work with them.” But then there’s this chapter, and nope, they disgust me.

  19. Piratabea posted on patreon that this part had been moved a chapter or two down the road to not interfere with the current mood of the chapter.

  20. Really great chapter.

    The moment Relc realized what was happening was fantastic even though Erin’s deadline felt a bit out of character.

    During the chapter I could really feel Relcs insecurities and the ending with Ryoka was fantastic as well. Tears :)

    Also Relc is such a good guy :), I would have been very sad if he had died, but that would have been cool too.

  21. Two things

    Who put the order out to kidnap Mrsha and get the door, and why Mrsha?

    Penicillin might make it to Baleros via the Titan en he visits.

    And Erin’s threat of blacklisting was a bit heavy handed and over the top

    • Mrsha got white fur, sadly that is sufficient reason to an alarming number of people, for all kind of reason.

    • I believe Bearclaw said Mrsha’s bounty was made by other Gnolls specifically other white furred Gnolls wanting her for their outcast group/gang.

      As for the door, who knows at this point. The door has been seen multiple times worldwide so people are going to want it even without knowing the door’s limitations.

    • I doubt it. Surely Bearclaw isn’t nearly in the same league as Relc, [Spearmaster] and army hero. That’s like claiming a mid level boss is enough to give XP to a guy who’s already cleared endgame fights.

    • Okay am i crazy? Because i read this chapter right after it got posted and Relc DID level? He got [recall weapon: spear]??

      But now rereading this I don’t see that part anywhere in chapter. Anyone else read that part???

  22. So now Liscor have one more opening to the dungeon to worry about, or not as the Ruskar may not have got in the sewers directly. But I don’t think they could have got in via the ordinary exit as this must be watched, to prevent the city to be easily taken.

    I am not sure how they could make sufficient reconnaissance to identify soot as the perfect target he was. Considering that most of them are stupid. Probably they already caught a few Gnolls to get their knowledge, in doing so identifying him as a person they definitely need to learn from.

    The lack of odor when they got to Soot house that that sentence:
    By the time the Watch found the safe-house, only Mr. Soot was left.
    seem to imply is all kind of worrying. It would mean that they figured out how and why to use odor erasing potion. We have Ruskar criminal people.

    I can only hope that Bearclaw thoughts and knowledge will poison them with rashness and impatience. Possibly the new awakened will start to plot again Nokha as I can’t imagine even the essence of Bearclaw is ok playing second violin.

    Also what the hell the antinium listener are doing, they should at least realize that there are a few dozen of big sick talking creature in an otherwise calm sewer. It passed time they become story relevant.

    I wonder what the criminal world will do, Liscor is expending rater massively and gaining importance. Now there even a vacuum of criminal with two major city with their own underworld just a door away. The brothers are the only one with a sort of claim but I doubt that would stop the rest to try to settle in. The thing that could make them hesitate is the apparent fate of criminal in close proximity to the inn.

    • I immediately wondered about the ant listeners, also. At first, that seemed to be a plothole to me,, except…

      With Klbch absent, there isn’t a liaison, resulting in a broken line of communication. Of course, we just coincidentally have a small scene of Yellow Splatters interviewing for a job with the Guard, something that was totally unrelated to all the other events of this chapter.

      My point? Second-guessing Pirate is a risky venture.

      • Chapter 6.29 which apparently introduced the Listeners, mentioned that their methods of mass-surveillance are good but not perfect. Your point with Klbkch’s absence makes even more sense.

  23. It occurs to me, whoever started the pyramid scheme probably got a class for it, and given that it was probably an earther with little/no other levels, there’s a pretty good chance they’re now some crazy high level for starting such a massive scam and attaining crazy amounts of profit, which is how classes like merchants level. If they have skills to avoid getting caught and not just ones to make it easier to scam people, they might be nigh impossible to track down.

    Nokha coming back was interesting, I’d assumed she was dead. I don’t really understand how they’ve survived this long to be honest, you’d think the Plague Mage would know his stuff. And presumably they can’t use healing potions any more, so they should be at a pretty huge disadvantage in the dungeon. Also, now that she’s smart, you’d think Nokha would have realized Liscor isn’t worth messing with and she ought to head out into the wilderness to rebuild her tribe. I suppose they have an affinity for the underground, but still. I’m sure they could find a cave to expand or something.

    I really liked Ryoka/Relc’s interaction. More signs of Ryoka’s growth as a person, being able to understand what other people are going through. She’s a good foil for Erin, who is sympathetic towards people without really understanding them. Going to be really sad if she gets put on the back burner again.

    • Maybe but it is through adversity that you level and there really has not been any push back from the world against the triangle at this point. There has been no real difficulty for putting it up at this point so that was basically all free money. Unlike an [heiress] you basically do not level from people giving you shit.

      • Levelling through adversity isn’t an ironclad rule though, I mean, there’re classes like Layabout and Gossip. It seems tailored to what the person wants/intends to do. For adventurers (and Erin) that’s going to include overcoming adversity, but I think for a [Con Artist] it’d just be getting rich and either becoming famous or remaining hidden. I think your goals would include avoiding adversity, rather than overcoming it. A con artist that tries to convince a difficult mark… is just being a bad con artist.

        • Adversity causing leveling is an ironclad rule, not that adversity is the only way to level. Although the type of adversity you need to face/overcome depends on your Class.

          Imagine how much harder it would be being a [Layabout] on Rhir compared to Liscor. Or how robbing a [King] or Walled City blind makes a great, high level [Con Artist] while one stuck robbing [Farmers] and villages is probably never going to make it past lvl 30.

          Remember the higher level you get the less the system rewards you for just being ‘good’ at your Class and you have to become something more to keep leveling. Liscor’s Drake [Inkeeper], Peslas, is a good example of this. Peslas hasn’t leveled in [Innkeeper] in a decade since hitting lvl 30 because he was the best around and decided his inn was ‘good’ enough.

          • I really do wonder how you’d reach a high level as a [Layabout]. Getting the class all you need to do is lay about a while, but at what point do you start facing adversity? Is it when people nag you to do stuff? When you manage to layabout even when you’re starving for not having any money or your friends are getting eaten by Crellers? Or is it instead when you manage to achieve something of merit while laying about? Would you eventually get skills that let you ignore distractions, or skills that improved your ability to get stuff done?

  24. My first thought was that the people running the pyramid scheme was killing the higher ups so save them lots of money paying them.

    And while I have always liked Relc today I have truly loved him. Simple characters may not be the main character of a story but they are just as important in a story.

  25. So much hype and build up around bearclaw, then she’s killed off after one fight? C’mon, that’s stupid. I know was going to die, but bigging her up over a few chapters, giving her an intense fight, only to have the rashkgar kill her is lame. A few more action scenes to justify her reputation and the fear would have been a loot better.

    • She never looked that much like a menace to me, if she has been smart and careful maybe, but she was not. She much appeared like described here, a big fish in a pond. Dangerous sure, but she picked as a target somebody that regularly foil the plan of some of the biggest player of the worlds without realizing it. That is also constantly the center of interest many major powers. That have the kind of people that only the best of the underworld could hope to cross successfully, as guess/friend. She never really stood a chance, particularly when she attacked Relc that needed to be nerfed to give her a chance. At worst, I expected her to hurt or kill a member of the inn by ambushing them on a shopping trip or something similar and then getting buried under the ensuing apocalypse.

      I find this far, far more interesting. This can go anywhere.

      Also look at some of my other comment, I have a theory that make those bit on Liscor underworld pertinent when it comes to this new/old enemy.

      rashkgar criminal.

    • Bearclaw was always presented as being overconfident and unaware of how dangerous her targets really were. An unceremonious death wasn’t really a surprise for me, although I didn’t expect the final cause.

    • to me she played her role story wise well, when she was introduced she was some new tenor of criminality, mixed with rumors of high level and a looming unknown level of threat. then the deaths of senior guardsmen etc. if you regard her all alone maybe it feels like too much hype, but regarding the feelings inspired in our actors, Erin etc who had standoffs with her, it was quite intense and served all the “screentime” well. our Relc is a big fish so to me everything seems just right.

  26. So, is anyone else rather suspicious of the kill order on all the big sellers? It makes absolutely no sense to kill off victims/witnesses if you actually want to get to the bottom of the scheme. If however you control said scheme killing the last few links to yourself would have been part of the plan from the beginning.

    As such, my money is on Yerzhen having started the scheme after hearing of it from the earthers and he is now managing its collapse because people have started to take notice.

    • But we are made to believe that the Ilusive lot is a good bunch with standards!
      so i think the kill reward for high ranks of the golden triangle came from whoever else the real instigator is. Maybe it was someone in Terandria or actually someone in Wistram. I dont think we know the actor who is behind that yet.

  27. From the headline i really expected something about Relc getting some role in the players of liscor working together with the inns illusionist and maybe getting some illusion skill thing in a level up… not about the delusion of the ponzi scheme that Relc ran afoul of and other Illusions of what people percieve is going on. well played

    awesome chapter! do i see some ryoka Relc ship sailing on the horizon somewhere?

    Ryoka the consultant of depressed people. She made quite some character development. The story is so long that it is quite hard to track where what change occured in her. i kinda want to reread only all the ryoka chapters now… whew that would be hard to single out, at some point the chapter numeration with the main character letters got woozy cause of intermingling plot lines

  28. Thank you for this great chapter. Please keep writing for at least 10 more years. I was truly concerned that Relc had died and I wasn’t sure how this story would be without him. He was one of the first characters to meet Erin and , in my opinion, a very important character.

    If I may ask a question…. How do you keep track of all the various characters activities and story lines? I can barely keep track and I’m only reading.

  29. This is the first time i have heard of a pyramid scheme that doesn’t use products. The ones that i’ve been to always had some products to sell so that the bottom investors could still make money even if they don’t get to sign up anyone.

    • Originally I think most if not all pyramid schemes did not have products, it was only after they were declared illegal that organizers introduced products to disguise the nature of the scam or get by on technicalities. What is described in the story seems to be more of a Ponzi scheme with its “returns” on fictitious investments, but with pyramid-style marketing.

  30. What a twist! I did not expect the reappearance of those horrible furballs!
    But that’s what Pirateaba does to us sometimes… some heartstopping twists and turns!
    So sad for Relc, I miss him and Klb, and he’s definately missing Klb 😔
    I’m not sure of Erin wanting to ban him from the inn again, that doesn’t sit right with me. And it seems that Erin is being made ‘worse’ to show Ryoka looking better… why can’t they both shine?
    And imagine what they could achieve, if they really worked together, instead of just reacting, after the fact?
    I miss the old Erin.
    I was expecting/hoping for her to become even more awesome, but she seems to be stagnating, or even going backwards 😕
    Surely now, with her levels and skills, her inn and everything that entails, she should not be ‘just reacting’ to circumstances any more? She has reached a level of comfort and competance (all the staff and help she has), that she should be really coming into her own…?
    Not just ‘shining’ when the really bad stuff happens.
    Anyway, I’m so glad Relc didn’t die, my heart stopped a few times though!
    And I am glad, that Ryoka is growing, I’m so glad of that! But not to the detriment of Erin, that just makes me sad.
    And for some reason, Lynette is starting to p*ss me off 🙄 not quite sure why yet… I think it might be her growing sense of entitlement with the inn. So what, that she’s the ‘manager’? She seems to have forgotten, how Erin literally saved her life, taking her in, and put up with her bad attitude. It’s Erins inn! She now has a home, a ‘family’, money and standing, which she never would have had, if Erin hadn’t taken her in.
    Yeah, that might be it 🤷🏻‍♀️

    And now I have to mentally prepare myself, because we just know there’s something bad coming again… I’m just really worried that Relc is still gonna get it… this chapter seems like a prelude to his death for me… oh, he’ll be a hero and everything, but ultimately, in the horrible fight/battle that is coming, he will be our big loss… 😩… I really hope this won’t be the case! I want him to find some love and be happy, and not feel worthless and stupid and ugly, that just makes me so sad, reading that…
    Fingers crossed, Relc’s not our heartrenching ‘sacrifice’ like Zel was 🤞🏻

  31. One of the earths worst scams wiggle its way to that world as well. I hope they capture the guy who is responsible before too much damage is done.
    ‘Legendary Batman’ ? O-kay. What happened to L ( laken) ? He also get a legendary title? Lol

  32. First time posting but have been reading forever it seems like. I love it all!!

    BUT, I really don’t like the Raskghar, especially Nokha. They just seem evil for evil sake, I hate that….sooo, they seem to be interested in Gnolls, especially strong ones. So could we have them meet a certain ‘Gnoll adventure’ like maybe Regrika Blackpaw? I would love to see how that turns out for them!! It would make me smile to see ‘her’ finish them off for good!

  33. No-one seems to care that not only was Ryoka’s fairly unlikeable character given a boost in empathy at the expense of Erin but Lyonette has been tossed aside in favour of Ryoka as far as Mrsha goes as well. Neither of those two things make sense to me. Mrsha spent 10 minutes being grumpy with Ryoka sure, but Lyonette should be really annoyed as the only one to have mothered the kid.

    • What’s your problem with Ryoka? At least she feels remorse and tries to better herself. Erin’s been on a high horse preaching at people since day one, and Lyonette seems to be returning to her old ways (presumably from her class consolidation and levels) of putting on airs and blaming people around her, even while abandoning her own people. Neither of them are worrying about Azkerash or an Earther based apocalypse. Ryoka’s the most noble character of the three. She saved Mrsha’s life multiple times when they were still total strangers and shared a terrible tragedy together. Of course they love each other and Mrsha wants to be near her while she can.

  34. I try to be eloquent, I try and make my words meaningful and not crass. I was, however, pretty worried for Relc, and kept saying to myself “If Relc dies, in an INTERLUDE NO LESS, I will lose my shit!!!” That is all.

  35. Erin’s hypothetical Grimalkin/Chaldion lure was the hardest I’ve laughed at this story. Thank you for that.

    …Erin’s kind of a crappy friend, though! Not even trying to talk things out with Relc, jeez.

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