(The Last Tide is available for preorder! It comes out in August! Check it out here!)
(One of our subreddit mods, Akrasia, is putting on a poll for TWI-readers, like last year! Consider filling it out!)
It began with letters. A letter day—although they weren’t red. Nor did they come in envelopes—mostly.
You had to pay extra for envelopes and the ‘presentation’. Which was silly since a [Mage]-[Scribe] would copy out the letter anyways so why bother with postage and envelopes? Ryoka Griffin learned that you could even pay for different qualities of paper, handwriting styles—
Since it sounded like a pain, and because she could, she ended up going through Bezale. The Minotauress had offered the service when she’d heard Ryoka wanted to send messages back.
To The Wandering Inn. The City Runner had gone far away. But she had promised to return and one sign of this was the letters. She would not leave without letting those who cared about her know where she was, and how she was doing.
“Erin. This is for you.”
One day, Erin Solstice woke up to find Bezale holding a neatly-written letter. The [Spellscribe] saw the young woman’s blank look and explained.
“A letter. From Miss Ryoka Griffin.”
“What? A letter?”
Erin’s voice attracted Lyonette’s attention. Erin exclaimed over it.
“But how? I mean—is it a [Message]? Ryoka said she only knew a few spells.”
The Minotauress huffed as she handed the piece of paper over.
“The Mage’s Guild sent it through me. I am a [Spellscribe]. I don’t usually do cheap work, but it’s a favor.”
“Thank you! Did Ryoka say—”
“I just got the contents of the message, Erin. Read the letter.”
Bezale’s expression was a bit pained. She walked back to her table and Erin stared at the neat letter. And far to the north, Ryoka Griffin exhaled.
“Dear Mrsha…hey, wait a second! This isn’t addressed to me!”
It was, in a way. But Ryoka had decided to write to Mrsha. Erin blinked at the letter as Lyonette read over her shoulder. The [Princess] snorted.
“At least she’s sending letters now.”
Erin smiled. She began to fold up the paper to read with Mrsha, but Lyonette took it and began to read. The [Innkeeper] gestured at the paper.
“She promised she would. I’ll go get Mrsha. Where is she?”
“In the garden. Numbtongue’s playing. And she had better write letters or I’d have to stab her.”
Erin chuckled, but Lyonette’s face didn’t move. The [Princess] vetted the Ryoka-letter while Erin went to find Mrsha.
The door to the [Garden of Sanctuary] opened to a screaming guitar solo. Erin blinked. On the grassy hilltop, she saw a Hobgoblin playing as electricity grounded itself around him. He was grinning as he played and someone was slamming on the drums.
Kevin. There was also accompanying music—horns and other music coming from a laptop.
The two-man band had an audience. A little Gnoll and her two friends were waving their arms and bobbing their heads in the best traditions of the crowd.
Erin had to shout when Numbtongue slowed down. The little Gnoll ran up to her, excited, as the Hobgoblin [Bard] wiped at his forehead. His guitar, always electric, now had a resonance to match. Hedault’s first pass through the inn had ended up enchanting the guitar—mostly because the concept had fascinated him.
“Sorry to interrupt, Numbtongue. But there’s a letter for you, Mrsha. From Ryoka.”
The Gnoll’s ears perked up. Her eyes went round and she dashed into the common room. Numbtongue nodded at Kevin as Ekirra and Visma waved to Erin—the band began their second practice performance for the stage Erin had promised them.
New guitar, new inn. Well, sort of. Erin passed by the kitchen and saw Ishkr gingerly heating up a pot of soup on a heating rune. All you had to do was say the word ‘ignis’ and it would ignite. In theory. But there had been complications.
A jet of flame shot up and the Gnoll swore and grabbed at the pot. Erin winced.
“Hedault will fix that, Ishkr!”
The problem was that Erin’s inn had too much mana in it. Hedault had been trying to limit the ‘draw’ of the runes with Montressa. He’d gotten several basic enchantments in place, but some, like the kitchen, were a matter of fine-tuning the spells.
“Hello, Mrsha. Here’s Ryoka’s letter. Do you want to read it now or…?”
Lyonette sighed as Mrsha tried to leap for the letter and grab it. Excitedly, Mrsha ran around, signing for Erin to read the letter now.
“Maybe we should make Mrsha read it, to test her reading skills?”
The [Princess] was clearly not as enthused as Mrsha and Erin about the letter. The [Innkeeper] laughed.
“We can let Mrsha do that later! Okay, Mrsha. I’ll read it if you sit on my lap and don’t bounce.”
The Gnoll and young woman ended up sitting by the fire as they read. Ryoka’s letter was beautifully written—Bezale had excellent penmanship.
I hope this reaches you well. I think it’s going through Bezale, assuming she’s in the inn. I tried to send it to her, so if it fails you won’t see this.
I’m in Reizmelt. It’s been a mostly uneventful trip. I’ve uh, been kidnapped once, but Erin sorted that out. I don’t know if you heard about that.
Mrsha gave Erin a long look. The [Innkeeper] blushed.
“I forgot, okay?”
The two settled back. Some things were left unsaid. Ryoka had warned them about the Mage’s Guild. So the two imagined what was said in the letter.
I’ve gone back to the inn I was staying at. Mad Madain’s inn. He’s as insane as usual—he brought in a bear he killed the night I returned. Alber, Fierre, and I all ate there. And the Silver Swords, the ones who kidnapped me. It’s been, uh—
“I’m terribly sorry, again, Miss Griffin.”
“It’s fine. Please stop mentioning it.”
Ylawes was about to continue, but Dawil elbowed him as he reached for another helping of bear.
Actual bear. Ryoka stared at the cuts of meat. It was…not as good as you might think. Gamey. But the Dwarf was shoveling it down, in great spirits.
“All’s well that ends well! Say, this is great stuff. Come on, lad. And you too, Pointy! No sense in turning down dinner!”
He smirked; a decidedly green half-Elf was poking at her bloody meat. Falene looked around again, but Madain was preparing another cut of meat.
“I don’t suppose there’s—any side dishes?”
“Side dishes? Go to a fancy restaurant or tavern if you want that. In my inn, you eat what you get! Hey! Anyone want a raw cut?”
Dawil and Fierre both raised their hands. They stared at each other. The Dwarf grinned as he wiped at his beard. Ryoka winced. So did Ylawes. Fierre tried to hide.
“There are such things as parasites in meat, you know, Dawil.”
The armored man took another bite of his medium-rare meat. Ryoka nodded. She was sitting awkwardly with the Silver Swords, who’d insisted on buying dinner after the…debacle. It was a painful meal. Not because there wasn’t something fascinating about the trio of Gold-ranks.
No, it was because Fierre was trying to hide behind Alber every time Ylawes looked her way. Ylawes of House Byres.
Vampire hunters. Ryoka wished she’d chosen somewhere else to dine, but they’d followed her. Ylawes coughed and leaned over.
“I don’t think your friend likes us, Miss Griffin.”
“She’s shy. And sick.”
He nodded, smiling in Fierre’s direction. She looked ready to throw up. The man looked disconcerted; Ryoka got the impression he wasn’t used to provoking that reaction in young women.
“You’re putting her off, lad. Eat up! Anyways, tell us more about yourself, Miss Ryoka. We’ve heard of you, but we missed you all the time we were at The Wandering Inn. You’re a City Runner? I heard you bailed the Horns of Hammerad out once.”
“Um. That’s right. I do emergency runs for adventurers.”
“Well, that is noble of you. Few Runners do that, Miss Griffin. ”
Falene smiled, carefully levitating the meat off her plate and onto Dawil’s meat-bowl. Ryoka chewed on her bite. Really, it wasn’t bad. Just…carnivorous. She waved away the compliment.
“It’s nothing…well, I’ve been saved by adventurers. I couldn’t not run, if that makes sense.”
“Well, we appreciate it. And if we’re ever in need, we’ll ask for you.”
“Thank you. Uh—so Ylawes, I’ve met your sister…”
The [Knight] smiled.
“Yvlon? She’s doing well. I was worried for her, hence us going south towards Liscor. But she’s leveled.”
“Yeah. I saw her. Her new arms are amazing. I’m relieved that her class healed her arms, especially since—”
The [Knight] choked on his drink. Falene and Dawil stopped, food in their mouths and turned to Ryoka.
“Her class? What are you talking about?”
Ylawes stared. Ryoka opened and closed her mouth.
“Uh—she’s a [Silversteel Armsmistress]. And Ceria changed classes too.”
“They did what?”
It turned out that not only did her older brother not know about her new class, the Horns of Hammerad had neglected to mention a lot. Ylawes listened and then sat back. He looked relieved, exasperated, and melancholy all at the same time.
“She’s always been like this since she started her own team. She never tells me—I need to send a [Message] to the family at once. Falene, after dinner…”
Ryoka Griffin sat there, massaging her forehead. She saw Fierre glaring at her, clearly wanting Ryoka to get rid of the Silver Swords so they could chat. Ryoka had heard her sneezing; she thought Ylawes’ silver armor was provoking an allergic reaction in her. The City Runner felt at her bag of holding, which held the panacea.
The problem was…
I think they like me. They’ve been staying at the inn and seem to want to make Reizmelt their temporary base. I have to thank Erin for that. Fierre loves them. Alber’s just doing Alber, but he’s practicing boxing with me.
Erin nudged Mrsha, who nudged her back. Vampires. The [Innkeeper] winced as she thought about Ylawes and Dawil and Falene. But Ryoka wasn’t done. She described the bear-meat, and some things about Reizmelt, like the Pithfire Hounds and their dogs, but it was a short letter. She concluded with an enigmatic tone, out of necessity.
I’ve been taking care of some things here. But I have to go on my big assignment for Lady Ieka. Funny thing, actually—
Ryoka knew time was running out. But [Seamstresses] took time, and she needed to stock up.
“The Archmage of Izril? No one’s seen her in a decade. The island’s all the way to the north, in First Landing. Even if you take the overnight carriages, it’ll take days. Ryoka…if you’re trying to get all the nobles to attend the Summer Solstice—”
“I know. I know, Fierre. But what else can I do? I need to keep prepping. Can you get me that Scroll of Dispel Magic?”
“It’ll arrive by tomorrow. None of this is cheap—I’ll cover it. So…so…about this.”
They sat together, after Ylawes had left Ryoka alone to shout the news about Yvlon and bother his sister. In Fierre’s office, behind the enforced door. And even then—they huddled around the little vial.
“Do…you want to take it now?”
The Vampire girl hesitated. She eyed Teriarch’s panacea. She reached for it, hesitated again. Then looked at Ryoka.
“You won’t tell me who it’s from. Or how you paid for it. Despite rumors of Grand Mage Eldavin appearing for the first time in years as well. Decades, even.”
Ryoka kept her face straight, although the Vampire’s knowing look made her want to laugh. If only she knew…
“I can’t say, Fierre. But this is real.”
“It can cure me of everything that’s making me sick. Everything…that’s harming me as a Vampire.”
“Yes. But I was told—there may be other reasons contributing to your sickness. I don’t know what. It was just a hint.”
Something is making them sick apart from…what? Teriarch had let slip that the panacea would cure all, but only the symptoms, not the underlying cause. Ryoka wanted to investigate. But she had no time.
“I’m leaving tomorrow. I just need to send a letter—to Mrsha. Fierre. You can trust me.”
“I know that. I just—”
The Vampire girl smiled and then stared at the panacea. Her eyes flicked to Ryoka.
“How? And are you sure? It’s so…I mean, it looks real. But there’s only one dose? And—”
She gestured at the glowing vial. Her gaze flickered again and Ryoka realized.
She didn’t believe it was real. Why would she? And if it was real…Fierre was thinking of her family. They sat there, staring at the vial. Fierre’s hands twitched towards it. She coughed, muffling the cough with her sleeve. She looked more terrified of the cure than anything else Ryoka had seen. Even Ylawes.
—it’s been endlessly busy over here. I’m about to go on my big delivery, so wish me luck. I’m sending this letter to you the day before I go. So—I’ll be back soon. Tell Erin and Lyonette that I’m going forwards with the plan.
Love you and see you soon,
It was a letter that said a lot and nothing at all. Exasperating. Which fit Ryoka. Erin sighed when she finished it, but Mrsha was smiling. Something was better than nothing.
Letters. Erin saw the longing look on Mrsha’s face. And then she had a thought and asked Mrsha something. Something that changed it all. Or at least—made a little Gnoll smile.
“Mrsha. Would you like to send Ryoka a letter?”
Ryoka Griffin was sitting in the Huntress’ Haven when she got the letter back from the Mage’s Guild. It had taken three hours for a reply and she was double-checking the supplies on the table.
“Scrolls…yes. Potions…yes. Rope—”
“It’s like she’s going on an adventure of her own.”
Ylawes commented as he wiped down his armor. The Silver Swords had made the inn their base, much to Fierre’s displeasure. But it was cheap, and the owner, Mad Madain, seemed to like the Gold-rank adventurers. Well, he had been one himself.
“Hah. She’s always doing shit like that. Crazy as a loon. Hey—you lot doing another mission?”
“We’re hunting a colony of Wailer Frogs. Apparently there’s a lot more and they’ve been breeding, Master Madain.”
The [Knight] bowed slightly to Madain. The former adventurer grinned.
“Fucking frogs. You know, Ryoka bailed out a team of Silver-ranks who got attacked by them? Idiots didn’t know how to handle them. But I know the marshes—can’t stand eating frogs, but I’d be down for some slaying. For old time’s sake. Why don’t I come along and show you rookies—”
He slung an arm around Ylawes’ shoulder as the [Knight] wore a pained smile. Dawil and Falene were coming up with a plan-of-action to rid Reizmelt of all local monsters. Fierre was sitting in a corner, grimacing at Ylawes. Alber was eating lunch.
“Miss Ryoka! Letter for you!”
A Street Runner gleefully skidded into the inn. It always amused Runners to deliver packages for each other. Ryoka looked up.
“Yup. There’s two, actually. One from an ‘Erin Solstice’, and the other from a ‘Mrsha’.”
Ylawes glanced up. Ryoka blinked.
The two letters were passed over and Ryoka tipped well. The Street Runner disappeared with a grin on her face. And Ryoka read the letters with hands that shook a bit.
Erin’s letter was short and cheerful. The handwriting was clean, and it looked dictated. Mrsha’s letter was…different.
“Ooh. They must have paid to copy the handwriting. That’s pricey.”
Fierre peeked over Ryoka’s shoulder. The City Runner chased her away. She wanted to read this privately. Mrsha’s first letter? Ryoka read Erin’s first.
Hey Ryoka, it’s Erin! Bezale offered to send our messages through the Mage’s Guild in Reizmelt, so I paid for it! Mrsha wrote her own letter, and she worked so hard on it, so we had it copied! That’s like—something [Scribes] can do, apparently. Cool, right?
I’m good over here! We’re working on the you-know-what for the thing with my name.
Ryoka covered her face. Erin’s version of subtlety was banging two pots together without explaining why. But then she focused on the letter.
I’ve found the second person you want. So that’s two out of three! You won’t believe it, but it’s true! She was actually there when you were, but you never noticed her. Neither did I, until recently!
“Two? That’s impossible!”
Ryoka stared at the letter. She thought over everyone she’d met. But there was no one…her heart began to pound. Was this happening? Was Erin’s effect enough to warp reality?
Anyways, I talked it over with her and there are…complications. She might not make it…but we are trying everything. She’s a great person and I want to help out.
If she had time. Maviola El sat in The Wandering Inn, thinking. The [Lady Firestarter] was trying to digest a magical ritual, the fae—who were actually Winter Sprites—and the fact that Izril had a damned [Emperor] gallivanting about to the north.
“I don’t have enough time.”
Maviola El had made her peace with her end. But ironically, now—she had so much more to do.
She had one vial left. She’d just taken her second-to-last potion. It was time to…talk.
She was writing a letter of her own. The [Lady] was working hard on it.
If you’re reading this, I’ve left. I owe you an explanation…
She didn’t want to do it like that. Maviola El would rather talk to the Drake, whom she had grown attached to. This was just in case. The [Lady] was conflicted, though. Perhaps it was better not to let him know at all. That was cruel—but what was cruel was sometimes best.
“Where do I go?”
Two weeks. She could linger one week more, perhaps. But soon—she had to go. Liscor was a beautiful place. A wondrous place. She could die here, loved, content.
But she was Maviola El. She wanted more. She wanted to see this meeting of the fae. But two weeks wasn’t long enough to reach the Solstice. More than that—before she died she had greater goals. The [Emperor] was tempting. Very tempting, to go north and see what manner of royal fool had trespassed on her continent.
Yet—the Antinium Hives called her. Ere she died, Maviola wanted to see all that could be seen. And bring a scrying orb with her. There were Antinium here. Were they the same as the ones who had brought war to the Drakes?
“Not enough time.”
The [Lady] pushed Olesm’s letter aside. She didn’t have to do that one—yet. She was working on a second letter. Insurance. And maybe a third to Magnolia? If only to tell her to smarten up and stop making Erin Solstice her enemy.
Oh, letters. They were such useful things. Messages that endured when she would not. But words on paper couldn’t convey everything. The [Lady] was so focused she barely noticed the Drake sliding into the seat opposite her.
“Hey, beautiful. Can I buy you a drink?”
“I’m spoken for.”
Maviola barely glanced up. The Drake grinned with that wide, wide smile of their species.
“Oh, come on. After we’ve done so much business together? Not that we’ve ever met in person.”
The [Lady] looked up. And she saw Saliss of Lights smiling at her.
Maviola dropped her quill. She caught herself, and tried to smile naturally.
“I’m sorry, Adventurer Saliss, but I don’t think—”
“Hey, Erin! Can I get a drink?”
“Get one from Drassi, Saliss! I’m busy helping Mrsha! And put your box on!”
The Drake glanced towards the bar as he looked around for his box with the ‘small nuts’ message he found so hilarious. Erin was busy writing her letter while Mrsha laboriously wrote with a quill, encouraged by Lyonette.
“Drassi’s gone! She’s working for Wistram, remember?”
Erin got up and stomped around the bar. She came back as Saliss shouted an order.
“Firebreath Whiskey for you, Maviola, and Rxlvn for you, Saliss. Um. Are you sure?”
“Super-sure. I love it.”
The [Innkeeper] dubiously slid over the black drink for the [Alchemist]. She eyed Maviola.
“If he’s bothering you—”
“No, not at all.”
The [Lady] gave Erin a forced smile. Erin nodded to Saliss.
“Nothing much. Working with your flowers. I’ve found something, but I need more testing. Just hanging out.”
“Cool. Don’t bother people.”
Erin walked off. Saliss waited until Erin was gone, and then he looked at Maviola.
“For one thing, Lady El—you didn’t change your name. Any idiot knows red hair is rare among Humans. And I have this.”
He tapped one eye. Maviola blushed; it was a rookie mistake. She took a breath. Well, it wasn’t as if it was trouble if people knew…
“What do you want, Adventurer Saliss?”
“Nothing much. I just wanted to ask how many you have left. I count one or two vials left—but you bought my earlier work and the latest one. That’s about four weeks.”
The Named Adventurer sipped from his drink, proving that the concentrated Antinium alcohol really was potent if even he had to take it slow. Maviola took a sip from the fiery drink and coughed.
“…One left. I just took the other.”
“I see. You know—I’m glad you bought it. Too many middle-aged men of every species want to use the Potions of Youth for a week of fun. If I’d known—well, I’d still have auctioned them off. Money is money. But I’m glad to see it works.”
The Drake looked at her, and Maviola wasn’t fooled by the grin. There was a keen intelligence in Saliss’ eyes. Named Adventurers might be insane, but they were generally far from stupid. And she’d heard of Pallass’ famous alchemist. He had changed geography itself with his potions.
“I’m grateful, Adventurer Saliss. But I’d prefer not to make a fuss.”
Saliss nearly snorted his drink out his nose.
“Maviola El. Not make a fuss? I looked you up, Lady El. And your entire life has been fuss. I’m a huge fan, actually.”
Maviola had to laugh.
“Well, I have something planned. But it really is…”
The end. She looked at her arms, her smooth skin. And Saliss of Lights looked at her. He took a deeper drink from the black liquid permanently staining the wood of the mug and muttered.
“Two weeks is a short time.”
“It’s enough. I’d have settled for a day.”
The [Lady] had known this was how she wanted to die. Standing, running. If she died in an Antinium Hive or anywhere else—she vowed her last spark would be one the world saw. She only regretted the lack of time.
Perhaps Saliss did too. He looked at Maviola, leaning forwards on the table and glanced at Erin.
“You know, Maviola—I’m going to call you Maviola since I hate titles—I’ve been experimenting with magical flames. Erin’s got some that have useful…effects.”
Maviola glanced up sharply. [Like Fire, Memory]? Erin was too careless. The Named Adventurer was looking at her.
“I know you have a lot yourself.”
“They’re not for sale.”
She snapped at him. The Drake raised his brows.
“Not even for another Potion of Youth? Or two?”
The [Lady]’s eyes went wide. Saliss looked around and lowered his voice. He’d sprinkled something around the table, Maviola saw. Some kind of dust—without her even noticing.
“Sorry. Just need to be confidential. Think about it. I’m…having a few landmark breakthroughs of late. And Potions of Youth—well, they could bankrupt me if I tried to produce them wholesale, even with auctions.”
They were insanely expensive, Maviola knew. She doubted her fire, even if she gave him every flame she could make, was worth even a quarter of one. But Saliss was looking at her. And the [Lady] felt her heart beating faster. She hesitated and the letters unsent crinkled in her hands.
Saliss of Lights looked at Maviola El. He had a letter too. They came from Pallass, for people in his profession.
‘Please, won’t you make this antidote?’
‘Consider this offer—’
With pain, he ignored those. Sometimes, he did charity work. But the Mage’s Guild knew better than to send those unsolicited messages to him. But after running screaming out his laboratory demanding more of Erin’s flowers—he’d used nearly half of her supply—he had sent one to Oteslia.
One had arrived for him. And Xif. The idiot [Gardener] who’d sent it had assumed they were working together, and Saliss had nearly had to deck the older Gnoll [Alchemist] after they’d gotten it.
To Alchemists Xif and Saliss of Pallass:
Initial cuttings of the flowers are germinating—with great difficulty. We would appreciate additional samples if possible for experimentation. We suspect the plant has an adult form not harnessed yet—
Saliss glanced at Erin as she finished her letter and Mrsha wiped ink into her furry cheek. He’d webbed Xif with a potion, and the other [Alchemist] was currently stuck to the side of the street which was why he wasn’t in the inn. The Drake looked at Maviola El and smiled.
Erin’s letter went on.
You do your delivery. I’ll try and figure out this ‘big E dude’ and see what I can do to help. Everything is good here! Pelt—he’s the grumpy Dwarf [Smith]—moved to Esthelm and Numbtongue loves his new sword. He practices with it all the time. Sometimes with accidents.
The scream went through the entire inn.
The Hobgoblin was hiding in the basement. Erin and Lyonette had just found the gigantic cut in the wall he’d made by accident. Bird waved at Erin through the gap.
“Hello, Erin. I have a new roommate.”
Recriminations were had later, especially since [Partial Reconstruction] didn’t fix holes in the wall.
…And Bezale’s really helping, along with Montressa! Yeah, you’re cool, Beza, if you’re reading this. Anyways, the others from home are settled in and I’m running out of room on this page, so that’s all from me. Send us more letters when you get back and good luck with the thing!
A nice letter. Erin had a way with words—not necessarily written ones, but she made the letters happy, fun to read. Ryoka realized she’d mostly been just…describing. Not writing for Mrsha.
She’d do better next time. But Mrsha’s letter awaited. It was, as Erin had said, hand-transcribed, which meant that some poor [Scribe] had written exactly as Mrsha had—minus the blotches. Well, Skills made it easier.
Mrsha’s letter. Somehow—it surprised Ryoka and it shouldn’t. Mrsha was mute, nothing else. Ryoka knew that Erin and Lyonette had been teaching Mrsha. Even Bird and Numbtongue.
“If it flies, it can probably die. Probably. With enough arrows. Give me a big enough bow and I can probably kill it.”
–Bird’s Observations on Hunting Birds, Lesson #8.
…To dubious effect. Ryoka had listened in on that particular gem, and Bird showing Mrsha how to aim a loaded crossbow. He’d gotten in trouble with everyone for that stunt.
But Mrsha had learned how to write. The first line of the letter brought a huge smile to Ryoka’s face, much to Fierre’s suspicion and the other’s surprise.
Dear Ryoka, hello. This is Mrsha.
She had written it in cursive, which existed in this world for some godforsaken reason. Well, it was a sign the gods were dead for no loving god would have allowed it to exist.
Ryoka smiled though; the clumsy, laborious cursive had made ‘hello’ look like ‘hewo’. She tried to imagine Mrsha’s voice as if it had existed. Young, excited—or would it be shy? Higher pitched, growling as she wrote—
The days have pressed on, and one finds oneself wan of late. My dearest companions, Visma and Ekirra (of whom I have vouchsafed to you before), are passing well. I am currently recumbent in the inn, and my breaking of the fast has been quite fine.
Ryoka fell out of her chair. Mrsha’s letter continued as the City Runner pulled herself onto the table—Alber and Fierre were staring—now in an older, posh English tone of some man in his fifties.
I have just recently been quite entertained by Numbtongue, whose musical stylings are, as ever, delightful to the ear. Lyonette does not find herself so enamored, but one supposes taste is a matter of preference…
Erin was reading Mrsha’s copy of the letter to Ryoka for the first time after Bezale had sent it. The Minotauress was giving the Gnoll cub a very odd look. Erin looked around.
“Lyonette? Why do you teach Mrsha to write like this?”
“It’s proper form, Erin! You could send that to anyone in Terandria!”
The [Princess] was quite pleased; she’d helped Mrsha with the letter. Erin blinked at the next section.
It has come to my attention of late that my studies have allowed me to communicate in the written fashion. This first letter is addressed to you as I hold you in great esteem. It is still difficult to write, what with the difficulties of paws, but I know how and will continue to correspond with you as time allows. Please, continue to send more updates to The Wandering Inn, as I earnestly await your missives.
Ryoka wondered if she was having a stroke. She felt at her pulse. Nope, steady heartbeat, if elevated. The worst part—well, sort of—was that while she could see where a certain [Princess] had helped Mrsha with the flowery wording, the Gnoll had done a lot of the sentences herself.
“Dead gods. Erin, you have to do something about this.”
The City Runner shook her head. But the ending of the letter caught her eye.
Please come home soon. I miss you very much.
And instead of her name, Mrsha had put her paw in ink and pressed it to the paper. The scribe had done his best to replicate it. Ryoka smiled. She folded the letter and carefully put it in her bag of holding. Then she stood up to run.
Letters. Words. Lyonette and Erin were arguing about teaching Mrsha to write ‘like a weirdo’, according to Erin. Mrsha’s paw hurt from holding the quill for so long. It had taken her three hours and she hadn’t been able to write everything, even with Lyonette helping.
But she’d done it. The Gnoll looked around and felt…satisfied. Someone had heard her. She had put quill to paper and written her voice out.
It changed only a little.
It changed everything.
The Wandering Inn was better than it ever had been, to Mrsha. She was a better Mrsha. Older. S-slightly more responsible. But look. There was Maviola, talking to Saliss, who had the box on.
There was Belgrade, happily playing chess against Olesm, who’d come to pick Maviola up. He was allowed back in the inn and things were okay.
And there—was him.
Grand Mage Eldavin looked down as Mrsha leapt onto his table. He immediately pointed.
An invisible hand flicked Mrsha off the table, but slowed her before she could land head-first onto the ground. Undeterred, the Gnoll leapt onto the table again.
Teriarch eyed her and sighed.
“What do you want this time? Begone. I am busy.”
He was leaving soon. And unlike the others, the Dragon didn’t waste time on anything.
Magnolia, I have enjoyed my forays, but they are quite tiring. I am going back to rest. Don’t bother me.
No signature—the Dragon made the letter vanish and appear in the collection zone for letters in Magnolia’s estates. He hadn’t lied, either.
He was tired. Being outside had been both entertaining and…the Dragon yawned. Well, he’d just walk outside until his simulacra was out of sight and dissolve it. Simple. He just had to get rid of the Gnoll first.
“I’m leaving now.”
The Dragon informed the girl sitting on the table. She waved at him, showing him her ink-stained paws. Teriarch saw her sign something and glared.
“That’s not proper language. Learn how to hand-sign correctly or don’t do it at all. I’m not in the mood to learn another language. Or write down what you have to say.”
That was the funny thing. The Dragon, even more than Lyonette, Erin—the people who loved and knew Mrsha most—always acted as if Mrsha had something to say. He didn’t forget. Mrsha blinked at him.
Write it down? It was so obvious. She sat, poleaxed, as the Dragon harrumphed and walked off. He collected thirty pounds of food from the kitchen, left the exact fee, and walked out of the inn. He might return…in a year or two. But for now—he left.
Still, even leaving, the Dragon changed everything.
Mrsha laboriously scribbled on the piece of paper. Visma and Ekirra peered over her shoulder as, at last, Mrsha wiped more ink onto her forehead and shuffled the bits of paper. Eldavin had shown her the way.
Writing. Oh, what a convenient thing! Mrsha hadn’t known how to write or read—much—before she’d come to the inn. She’d been young, and Urksh had taught her sparingly. She could read basic things and do numbers, but Plains Gnolls didn’t need to read many books. It was something they learned if they wanted to.
Lyonette had changed all that. To the [Princess], reading and writing were facets of life. They facilitated so much about her class and way of living that she’d been horrified to learn that no one had begun Mrsha’s education already. Erin had agreed, and the two had created in Mrsha a very good writer for someone her age—especially given how Lyonette thought you were supposed to write.
“I’m just saying, it looks weird.”
“How would you know? You’re from another world!”
The two were still at it as Mrsha trotted out of her shared room with her two friends. She made a beeline for the kitchen where Ishkr and a female Gnoll—Merrisha—were fearfully staring at the heating rune.
“Hello Mrsha! Do you want something?”
Merrisha was a Gnoll with dark blonde fur. She was one of the ‘new’ hires, and of course, she’d been properly interviewed by Lyonette. One of the requirements for Gnolls was liking Mrsha. The female Gnoll bent down and smiled at Mrsha.
She was nice. Ishkr just kept trying to remove soot-marks from the ceiling. Mrsha looked at Visma and Ekirra.
“Is there something you need? Lyonette’s said no snacks without her approval.”
Merrisha warned the other two. But the normally chatty Ekirra and Visma pointed at Mrsha. The [Waitress] blinked.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t know Mrsha-language yet. Um—oh!”
She blinked at the piece of paper that Mrsha handed up to her. Ishkr blinked. Merrisha unfolded the paper, and read slowly.
“‘I am Mrsha the Great and Terrible, Bane of All Things. I hereby request a ransom of cookies, or I will forthwith deliver unto you great vengeance.’ Oh my, I think she’s serious. We had better do what she says, right, Ishkr?”
The [Waitress] laughed, looking at Ishkr. The [Head Waiter] looked at Mrsha and went back to cleaning the ceiling.
That was a bust. Ishkr was too responsible. Drassi, now—Drassi would have given them the cookies. Disappointed, Mrsha led the others back into the inn and stared at something.
A scrying orb. Erin had placed it on one table with a little container so it was unlikely to be knocked over. Some people were watching as always. More than most, actually.
“Oh, look! It’s our girl!”
Drassi’s mother, a Drake whom Mrsha had never met, hugged another male Drake as they stared into the orb. And there was Drassi. Mrsha peeked over the table.
“Is this on? Oh, right—this is Drassi! I’m filling in for Sir Relz and Noass as your [Commentator] today! This is the news. First off, it looks like another battle in Chandrar. The King of Destruction versus the King of Duels. We’ll bring you the coverage as it happens.”
For a second, the view in the smaller mirror in the shot flashed to two armies maneuvering at a distance. Drassi went on as a Gnoll nervously held up a sign behind Drassi for the viewers.
King of Destruction forces – 56,000. Jecrass – 82,000.
The first version of the news ticker pioneered behind Drassi as she went on, speaking fast, but as clearly as she could. She looked nervous, but excited as could be.
“Next—Yellow Rivers. We’re talking to some [Healers] in Zeres who have a different view of the outbreak, and then Baleros and Chandrar and Terandria to see what it looks like in port cities across the world…”
Mrsha was proud of Drassi. But the Drake was doing her own thing. Mrsha had her little sheaf of notes in the bag of holding she’d gotten for her birthday, and she intended to use them.
She got her first chance as she was playing in the garden with Visma and Ekirra. They were doing handstands. It was hardest for Visma since her tail threw her off; Ekirra applauded as Mrsha walked on her front paws.
So did Erin. The [Innkeeper] bounded over and joined the applause.
“Go, Mrsha! You’re so amazing! Yes you are! Yes you are!”
The little Gnoll heard the cheering and rolled onto her back. Then she scrambled up and fumbled for her bag of holding in excitement. Erin blinked as Mrsha handed her a scrap of parchment.
“What’s this? A note? Oh, how sm—”
She froze as she read Mrsha’s words.
Your mockery of me is hurtful and uncalled for. Desist at once.
Erin’s face fell. Mrsha waved a paw and Erin slowly handed back the parchment.
“I wasn’t mocking, Mrsha.”
A pause. Mrsha shuffled through the parchment.
The [Innkeeper] was stunned. She watched as Mrsha snatched her words back and marched off huffily. Ekirra joined her after giving Erin a long look.
The young woman from Michigan was the first casualty. She was not the last. Mrsha wandered into the common room later just in time for Rose to come in. She was aglow; soccer practice had given her money to spend and she’d just been in Invrisil shopping.
“Hello, Mrsha! How are—”
Mrsha preempted Rose by handing her a piece of parchment. The young woman from Earth read it, and blinked. Kevin read the note too and whistled.
Erin didn’t get to see what was read, but from the way Mrsha hastily shuffled it into her pre-written notes, she guessed it was exceptionally rude.
“Mrsha, I’m so glad you’re using your words, but there’s such a thing as being rude. Rose, what did she say?”
Mrsha gave Rose a flat look and the young woman hesitated. Both recalled the centipedes incident. Without a word, Rose walked off. Kevin drew a line across his throat as Erin turned to him.
The [Innkeeper] narrowed her eyes. Mrsha was going around the inn, and suddenly—she had things to say to everyone. She handed a little card to Olesm, who blinked.
“What? A ransom? Oh sh—uh…here.”
He offered Mrsha a single fry. She narrowed her eyes, but the Drake glared at her, unwilling to part with his food. She grabbed a handful—he shot to his feet.
“Olesm! I’ll get you a refill. On the house. Mrsha!”
The little Gnoll ignored her. The next person she saw was Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin was resting his fingers and throat after a jam session. Worried now, Erin hurried after Mrsha as the Gnoll waved for the Hobgoblin’s attention and then began to select a proper response.
She shuffled through her cards and Erin peeked over the little Gnoll’s shoulder.
My vengeance will be swift.
You are stupid.
Give me food, pwease!
I am sorry.
I cannot reach that.
You are boring.
Upon reflection, I have never met anyone as insipid as you.
At last, she found the one she wanted. Erin sighed in relief as she read it.
I approve of this.
She slapped it on the table. Numbtongue picked up the card and read it. The Hobgoblin smiled and propped it up with his drink glass.
He was spared her wrath. Few others were. When people realized Mrsha had learned another form of communication, they all wanted to get a card. At first. Selys hurried over, beaming.
“Can I get one, Mrsha?”
The Gnoll girl held up one paw. After a second, Mrsha handed Selys a card.
Mrsha walked off as Erin saw Selys’ jaw drop.
“But I thought she loved me!”
By the end of the day, people had learned that Mrsha’s actions did not match her internal thoughts—or at least, the thoughts they prescribed to her. Correspondingly—Mrsha learned that a cute face and sour tongue lost you your appeal. Or sour paw, as the case might be.
It culminated in a scene with Maviola.
You are in my way.
Please stop annoying me.
The [Lady] stared at the pair of cards; she’d been sitting in Mrsha’s favorite chair. She frowned as Erin explained.
“Oh, I’m in your chair, am I?”
Mrsha nodded, self-importantly. She failed to see how even Erin’s generosity had run out. Erin had received a ‘you smell bad’ card just an hour ago.
“Well, I would hate to bother such an important person. Please—”
Maviola stood up. Mrsha leapt into the chair with a haughty sniff. Maviola smiled at her. Then she grabbed Mrsha.
“Excuse me for one moment, Erin. Someone needs a lesson about watching their tongue.”
The [Druid]’s eyes went round. She struggled—then tried to get her wand, but Maviola was too quick. Ignoring the wiggling, biting Gnoll child, she walked into the kitchen. Ishkr paused as Maviola went over to the water buckets that were used for everything from drinking water to cooking. She dunked Mrsha’s head into the water.
The Gnoll came up, spluttering and making howling sounds. Maviola did it again. Then she put Mrsha on the ground.
“Hit me and you’ll regret it. Let that be a lesson to you: kindness opens more doors than rudeness.”
Mrsha hesitated as she raised a paw-fist. Maviola smiled at her. The Gnoll looked around for adult-support.
She got none. Lyonette held up a card and handed it to Mrsha. The Gnoll read her own handwriting.
You could do better.
Everyone walked off as Mrsha gloomily added nicer cards to her lineup. But the words…she had words now.
Letters were good. Letters changed things. For good or ill. It just took a simple message.
“They’re coming! They’re coming!”
Lism raced into the Council’s meeting room. He was waving a brief, formally delivered missive that had just come by [Messenger]. The others, minus Elirr and Jeiss, had received his summons.
Krshia frowned, somewhat annoyed at being called from her shop. He could have told them all what was happening later. But she didn’t snap like usual.
Things were different. You could smell it in the air. Hexel was going around Liscor, designing the city—Elirr was often acting as liaison with him. People were coming to Liscor—
And now Lism was smiling.
“It’s our first guests, you idiot, Silverfang! Hectval is sending a delegation to Liscor!”
The others looked up. Hectval, the nearest city past the Bloodfields. Krshia sat up.
“That is good, you fool, Lism, you. When are they arriving?”
“Tomorrow. It’s not that far now the road’s done. They can ride towards Liscor quickly. Hah! They’re sending some of their city’s leaders! Their version of the Council. We have to prepare! This is the start of something grand! We should—have a soccer game? And show off some of our new accomplishments. Hide the [Architect]…they are a Drake city…it’ll be nice to have cultured guests for once! Those snobs from Pallass still haven’t visited—”
Krshia smiled as the Council burst into a furious debate. Things were changing. And—she glanced at Raekea.
The Meeting of Tribes was also coming. They’d have to leave soon if they wanted to arrive by the solstice. And that would be a gathering to remember.
Shriekblade received another kind of letter. Well, it wasn’t the kind someone just wrote down and handed to you. And it went through no Mage’s Guild.
She saw the black letters tracing themselves on her arm. Her scales tingled. The Drake read slowly. Not that there was much to read.
It was just a few things. Target, location, bounty. This one mentioned working together, but the words were brief.
It always was from the Assassin’s Guild. The cold, calm, clinical part of her mind noted they must be after a big target if they were reaching out to her. Normally, they left the Named Adventurer alone.
Shriekblade might have been interested another time. It was a lot of what she wanted. But she was calm.
Beyond calm. She had drank too many of the potions. She stood at perfect attention, waiting for orders. Silently, she drew a black stone and touched it. The lodestone flashed and she spoke.
“I am working. No.”
That was all. She wasn’t part of it. From other parts of Izril however—other high-ranking members received the message. In other forms. They read, thought about the difficulty of this target.
And said ‘yes’. There were bounties too dangerous to take. Too inconvenient, or risky. But [Assassins] seldom fought fair. They began to mobilize. This wasn’t a job for the Ranks, the expendable low-level members of the guild.
This time the professionals had a contract.
Letters. Letters were worthless.
King Raelt Leysars knew this to be true. He wrote and received letters day by day. While bleeding, exhausted from fighting and riding. Head in his hands as he listened to them being read out.
You couldn’t call them mere [Messages]. The monarchs of each nation did not ‘chat’. They corresponded. There was etiquette to each one.
To King Leysars of Jecrass,
by Sovereign Right, Horselord of the Plains,
Defender of Belchan,
Sir My Brother
And that was just the establishing address. ‘Sir My Brother’ was a rare form of address used for monarchs. That he was addressed so was an honor. Or so he was meant to infer. ‘Defender of Belchan’ was meaningless, but a nice touch. He supposed he’d been granted the title.
Our Esteemed Friend,
We have been most dismayed by the pressing war of which we have all been closely watching. Your valiant struggle has not been in vain and we hope what small aid we have given has been of some help.
Our deepest sympathies lie with the people of Jecrass and Belchan first and foremost, who must endure depravity and tyranny by turns. Though our counselors and advisors suggest against such immediate action as Declarations of War or similar measures as you yourself have suggested, we are not blind to the Great Foe which assails you.
Whereupon this correspondence reaches you, we trust the extent of our support will be made most clear. While it is not yet possible for direct—
At this point Raelt crumpled up the delicate parchment and tossed it aside.
The nervous Courier saw the [King] sitting there.
“Tell Queen Yisame her message is received. Thank you.”
The Courier stared at the letter, now lying on the ground. A letter from Queen Yisame of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, one of the largest and most powerful nations in the world. The King of Jecrass, now known as ‘the King of Duels’, looked at the silk Stitch-person.
“The letter has been received.”
The messenger bowed nervously and retreated. He had found Raelt in the war camp less than an hour before…the battle.
Another battle. Raelt stared blankly at the crumpled letter. After a moment he cursed and opened it. He skimmed what he’d read in different variations a thousand times.
“…Twelve thousand mercenaries? They’ll be dead in a week.”
The [King] was tired. Tired of letters. Tired of—piecemeal help. He had no doubt that Yisame’s letter had been accompanied by a donation via the Merchant’s Guild into his coffers. Thousands of gold pieces. And she was hiring mercenaries, anyone she could scoop up and sending them towards Jecrass.
So what? It was useless. Most of the [Mercenaries] had heard about the slaughter or just knew the King of Destruction’s reputation and were refusing to fight. Those that did come—well, they retreated if Flos so much as sneezed at them.
This was not their war. King Raelt scrubbed a hand through his hair. He recalled the letter he had worked on so hard to send to her. After the lengthy list of her royal titles, he had written the rest himself, swearing over the delicate handwriting.
Your Exalted Majesty, Jecrass cannot long endure alone. While we shall not forget your tireless generosity and aid, of which has allowed us to stave off our Great Foe, Jecrass is in need of support from Nerrhavia’s exemplary legions, of whom we must request immediate aid.
Nothing less will stop Jecrass’ defeat. If, in your wisdom…
On and on, of course. There were rules, with Yisame. Raelt had never been one for international correspondence. He’d been used to Lyfelt—
Lyfelt. Raelt closed his eyes. No, he had to focus.
—Lyfelt, who had been at home with straight talk. But Yisame required the royal ‘we’. She was also peculiar in language. She—or the people dictating and reading the letters to her—did not like to mention battles. Raelt had learned that quickly. Yisame did not like numbers, or concrete details.
Even the King of Destruction was only referenced as ‘our Great Foe’, or some such. Never outright, never openly. Again, probably just in case Raelt used the letters against her.
Which he had only contemplated a dozen times. It wouldn’t work. Yisame had sent a few thousand of her good [Charioteers] with the first outswelling of aid. She had subsequently watched Orthenon hack them to pieces and hired mercenaries instead.
She was afraid of Reim. Even though it was still far smaller than Nerrhavia even with three nations mostly added to it. Raelt…couldn’t blame her.
Flos Reimarch was winning.
Army by army. Battle by battle. Whenever they clashed, Jecrass lost far more. It was Orthenon, Mars, Flos—Zamea and the damned half-Giants and Parasol Stroll. His elites were veterans of countless wars. Raelt had numbers. Flos had experience, morale—
Especially morale. His armies seemed to grow emboldened after each bloody conflict. They thrived on it. Raelt’s troops—
No. Jecrass’ sons and daughters fought more bravely than anyone could have asked, defending their homes. But they couldn’t handle charging into a slaughter so many times.
So Raelt asked for aid. He begged for it. Yisame—she respected civility. Others were less flowers. More direct. Raelt read another letter he’d received yesterday.
King Perric to Raelt Leysars:
Regarding your request for aid, we believe Jecrass is insufficiently utilizing your forces. If your forces see fit to use our adventurer-companies in their proper capacity, Flos Reimarch should be slowed.
Enclosed is a map of our tactical targets. We advise you in no small measure to seek and destroy Reim’s weaker targets. Some reinforcements should be enroute.
Dealing with Mars the Illusionist, your [Trick Riders] have found some advantage. However, we suggest using the Farlight Raiders to engage her from afar as she has employed using Scatterblades to deal with your riders…
His Majesty, Perric of the Thalassocracy of Medain was direct. Not refreshingly direct, just direct. He gave Raelt orders—the [King] hadn’t missed that Perric addressed no one by their royal titles but himself.
Raelt had met Perric—fought against the man when he’d tried to seize land. Perric’s ego was something Raelt had learned to detest. He had sent maps, and his vision of how Raelt should fight a war.
Never mind that his ‘adventurer companies’ ran faster than mercenaries when they thought they were in danger. Raelt sat there.
To The King of Duels,
We regret that the loss of our [Archers] is a toll too high for the Claiven Earth. We will send scrolls—enchanted munitions. No more lives.
That was from the Claiven Earth, after Mars had assailed their half-Elven [Archers] and killed them.
Regarding your defeat of the half-Giant in battle, the Halls of Kilden-sel has voted to grant you…
A bounty for killing the half-Giant, with a suggestion that he aim for them. Perric had sent a sword as ‘congratulations’. Even Yisame had made reference to ‘your personal acts of valor and bravery’.
It made him sick. That had not been a proud day. But the monarchs revealed themselves. Each nation’s personalities. Claiven Earth hadn’t referenced the ‘victory’. Other nations had reveled in it, especially the Siren of Savere who’d sent him nothing but a congratulations note.
Of course, Raelt was no fool. He knew what the other nations knew by now. War with Reim had raged on for weeks, and then over a month.
They were going to lose. Jecrass was being reinforced by gold, supplies, mercenaries, even soldiers from other nations. But only to keep the war going. To allow them to bleed Reim as much as possible before they were defeated.
It was a smart move. If Raelt killed another half-Giant, or wore down Flos’ elites—that was good. What was unacceptable was his kingdom letting Flos build momentum and levels. That was why each nation was pushing him to fight hard. To do more damage than gain for the King of Destruction.
But they weren’t going to make themselves the next target of the King of Destruction. Not when he could use his [Army of the King].
Raelt Leysars sat in his tent, listening to an army moving. He had over eighty thousand soldiers. He was about to clash with Flos Reimarch, who had a little more than half of his forces by his [Scout]’s count.
It wasn’t a battle Raelt would have taken a month ago. He’d have gone in with three times Flos’ numbers. But this was…it.
“Your Majesty. It’s time.”
Warden Winta bowed as Raelt left his tent. She looked at him with worry in her eyes. But still—he saw it.
“The King of Duels!”
They cheered him as he walked from his tent. The [King] raised a fist because they wanted him to and they shouted his name. For him—his army rode to war. For him, his people fought.
“Warden Winta. Is Jecaina at the palace?”
“No, your Majesty—”
Raelt spun. Winta clarified hurriedly.
“In the capital. She is tending to the people. With care and grace. Her presence reassures them.”
She smiled. Raelt did not. He passed a hand over his face.
“…Good. Good. You don’t have to do this, Warden Winta.”
“I know, your Majesty.”
He looked at her, and the other two River Wardens who’d come with him. Emile and Sekirst. He’d despised them so. Now—they were riding into battle with him, knowing the likely outcome.
“What is Jecaina doing, Winta?”
As they mounted up, Raelt spoke to her. He wasn’t leading the army like a [General]. He wasn’t that good. He knew his role—he’d insisted on it. Winta bowed in the saddle.
“Tending to disputes. Ah—enforcing the law.”
Her carefully worded reply told Raelt everything. The problem was the foreigners. Mercenaries, adventurers—especially Perric’s damned adventurers. Even if Jecrass received aid, supplies, it had to be coordinated. It was a mess of supply lines—just last week, Reim had hit a caravan from Nerrhavia and stolen enough food to keep their bellies full for a month.
Raelt couldn’t deal with that. He had to stay on the front. He’d left Geril to try and manage it. And Jecaina had…grown. She was apparently much beloved for her efforts in restoring order. Raelt wished he could see it. He’d forbidden her to go towards the front.
And today—well—Raelt Leysars rode towards the King of Destruction. They’d arrayed themselves in the open plains. Zamea and four half-Giants waited, along with the Rustängmarder, the Serpent Hunters—and Mars. Orthenon was fighting with Parasol Stroll to the south, against General Lael.
It was not a good fight. Raelt had a hodgepodge of forces, not just Jecrass’ mobile cavalry. He had ‘only’ thirty thousand troops over Flos and he’d learned it was impossible to break through the King of Destruction’s lines without a concerted effort. Simply outflanking the King of Destruction was impossible; Flos would retreat if he thought he would be at too much of a disadvantage.
And he relished a relatively equal fight. Raelt had known he would take the bait and fight here, despite the plains favoring Jecrass’ cavalry. Perhaps—perhaps it looked like any other battle from afar.
The Drake [Reporter] shuffled her notes. She was excited. You could hear it in her voice. Drassi Tewing spoke into the ‘camera’, wondering where the term had come from. She was gesturing at the battle below.
“—it looks like both [Kings] are about to clash for the fourth time during this war. King Leysars has been on the back foot, so to speak, but we’re rooting for him, right! Wait, we are, right?”
She looked sideways and got a desperate nod. Drassi was less formal than Sir Relz and Noass had been. But ever since they’d been ‘temporarily relieved’, her commentary had been widely liked. She squinted down at the battle, going off-script for a second.
“You know, this King of Destruction is not someone I’m a fan of. Just a warmonger. At my job, of course, there are Gnolls rooting for him and that’s fair. But he started this war with Jecrass over wanting to kill Belchan’s [Prime Minister] and all the elected officials. I mean—come on. At this point it’s just an excuse, am I right? I think I’m right. The duel was amazing, though.”
She craned her neck as another view of the battle came on, with a map held to the side for clarity.
“Let’s see…well, the odds aren’t great for King Raelt, but we’re all hoping he pulls through! He does have his famous [Flicker Charge] and that’s broken the King of Destruction’s lines before…but Reim’s forces are staggered so that’ll only entrap them if they use it carelessly…”
Raelt was tired. But when he rode in front of his soldiers and the King of Destruction did the same, both men shouted. Flos’ voice was even louder, but Raelt had a spell on the amulet and he did his best. He knew the other nations were watching. Yisame, Perric…he didn’t give his forces another rousing speech this time. He wondered if Jecaina was watching.
“People of Jecrass. Warriors of Chandrar. This is it.”
They stirred. The [Mercenaries] looked nervous. The adventuring teams already began to check their teleportation scrolls. Raelt ignored them.
“The King of Destruction has fought us time and again. Well—I’m tired of this battle. Aren’t you?”
The army chuckled. They looked at him. And in Jecrass warriors, he saw fear. But also trust. The [King of Challenges] squared his shoulders.
“Today. Today, my citizens—we will bring all our wrath down on him. Today. It cannot be tomorrow, or a week from now. I am tired. Let’s end it in one battle.”
They fell silent. Waiting for something more. But Raelt just turned his horse. He heard a cheer begin. But it faded away. The [King] rode forwards slowly. He could practically hear the worthless letters, [Messages] shooting out across the world, wondering what he meant.
To the King of Destruction himself, perhaps. It didn’t matter. Raelt rode forwards as the three River Wardens took their positions. He drew his rapier. The King of Destruction turned on his horse; he had been making a longer speech. Raelt saw Zamea frown as he rode forwards.
“Jecrass, to me!”
Raelt rode forwards and went deaf as his army roared. He rode forwards. Looking for the red-gold hair. His foe.
“Um. I just heard that apparently King Raelt intends to make this the final battle. Wait, is that report correct?”
Drassi stared at the bit of parchment she’d been handed. Her eyes widened as she saw Jecrass’ army charging.
“Wow. They’re going in—”
His army vanished and reappeared a dozen paces ahead. They crashed through the first line of Reim’s forces and hit the second. They were surrounded in a moment.
It caught the King of Destruction off-guard. His half-Giants moving to flank hesitated, as friend-and-foe milled around. Half of Jecrass’ army was now in a mill against Reim.
It meant retreat would be far more difficult. Raelt had never pushed this far in. It was fine. He had no intention of quitting the field until he was done.
His blood should have been boiling. The sound of his soldiers dying as they crashed against the Rustängmarder, the elite vanguard, chilled him.
But he was just cold. And tired. Raelt rode forwards. Not in the first rank. He was waiting.
Warden Emile was pushing left. Warden Winta and Sekirst right. They were leading their elites forwards.
“Mars the Illusionist!”
A voice from the side. Raelt turned. He heard the screaming before he saw her. The flicker of magic in the air.
She was coming. The [Vanguard] charged and the close-knit forces died where the King’s Champion attacked. Raelt looked around.
“[Trick Riders]. Buy me five minutes.”
One of his [Captains of the Horse] raised his sword and saluted Raelt. The [King] watched him plunge towards Mars, trying to capture her with ropes, slow her.
Raelt whispered. He turned and saw it.
The Rustängmarder were holding the ground. The elite infantry could survive lance-strikes to their chests and they rose after death. Jecrass had few [Lancers] anyways—but the Rustängmarder were still only a hundred strong. Even if they didn’t die—
You could still make an opening. The King of Destruction was fighting on his horse, surrounded by a royal bodyguard. As Warden Emile crashed against the Rustängmarder, Raelt saw it. He pointed.
He rode forwards. The remaining [Trick Riders] shot through the press of bodies. Their mounts did impossible stunts, leaping, sliding through gaps—travelling.
The King of Destruction saw him, of course. Flos Reimarch was laughing as he fought. He threw an axe—
Raelt slid sideways. Behind him, one of his [Trick Riders] disappeared. Raelt saw the Rustängmarder react to the danger.
“Close ranks around his Majesty! [Steel Curtain Formation]!”
Commander Ytol roared. The Rustängmarder seemed to merge. Emile’s forces slammed into them, unable to get past.
“My turn. [Trick Riders]—now. Warden Winta!”
The River Warden raised her wand. She aimed it up. The Rustängmarder braced, ready to block or even deflect a [Fireball]. But it wasn’t that. She pointed. And shouted a word as the [Trick Riders] abandoned their [King].
“[Step of Light]!”
Raelt Leysars of Jecrass saw the foothold appear in midair. He stood on his horse’s back as it was about to hit the press of bodies. And leapt.
The [King of Challenges] landed on the platform in the air. He vanished. Flos Reimarch’s head twisted.
Past the wall of the Rustängmarder, Raelt landed. Amid [Soldiers]. They twisted, seeing the [King]. He stabbed a [Soldier] through the face.
“Defend his Majesty!”
Both sides shouted it. Raelt heard a whoop and saw a [Trick Rider] land.
The [Soldiers] went flying as more [Trick Riders] landed past the Rustängmarder, creating an opening. The [Soldiers] closed in; the elite [Riders] went down to thrusting spears. Raelt saw a woman slash around her with a spear, clearing a gap before they ran her through.
Dying, dying. To create an opening. Raelt saw it appear and dodged the slashing blades. He wove left, vanishing, blurring. [Evasive Leap] carried him left—
And there he was. The King of Destruction looked down at the King of Duels.
“Raelt of Jecrass. You’ve pushed too far in. You are alone.”
The King of Destruction’s bodyguards pushed forwards. Raelt nodded. He saw the River Wardens fighting forwards, trying to reach him. The [King of Challenges] flicked his rapier up and aimed it at Flos.
“I’m aware. But I’m tired. I’d rather like to finish this, Flos of Reim.”
“I’m not in the mood for a duel. I think you cheat.”
The King of Destruction’s eyes glinted. He motioned his bodyguard to the sides, moving to encircle Raelt.
“Although I’d be interested in taking you alive, I’m rather more practical than that. If you were hoping for a duel, Raelt—”
He stopped as Raelt dodged a sudden thrust from the side. He ran the Rustängmarder [Death Soldier] through the gap in his visor. Raelt pulled the blade back. His parrying dagger was in the other hand. He looked at the King of Destruction.
Something chimed softly in the battle. A golden bell. The [Fencer] stood, looking left and right at the King of Destruction’s bodyguard. Flos Reimarch stared. And then he laughed.
He rode forwards as Raelt Leysars bowed.
“Oh wow. Oh wow.”
Drassi was so distracted she forgot she was on air. She was peering at the picture with everyone else. She jumped as someone coughed.
“I-I think this is it. The King of Duels has now engaged the King of Destruction and his bodyguard in combat. Ancestors. He’s going to die—”
She watched Raelt stagger as someone tried to run him through. Only his enchanted armor saved him. He turned, hacking, as the King of Destruction turned his mount for another pass. He had an axe and shield up. Drassi looked around desperately.
“Are we recording this? Are we recording this? Someone tell everyone!”
Her shouting was audible in The Wandering Inn. Mrsha looked up from her ‘grand apology and niceness tour’. Maviola El stood up and strode for the scrying orb and crowd. Erin Solstice drifted over. She hadn’t really seen the King of Destruction before. War wasn’t something she wanted to watch. She heard an exclamation.
Now, he felt alive. He had been a poor [King]. But a [Fencer]—Raelt spun, slashing, parrying blows. He wove among the bodyguard as they tried to stop him. Their numbers worked against them. For a moment.
The blow hammered him down. The [King of Challenges] saw the world black out. He slashed at the horse, scoring a scream of pain. Flos moved back to heal his mount.
So close. It ended here. One way or an—
A blow to the helmet. Raelt fell forwards and someone hit him from the front so he ended up back on his feet.
Someone shouted it at him. Flos? His people? The [King of Challenges] aimed again.
Eyeguard. He struck with his parrying dagger and lost it. It was all about—about—
He turned and saw the King of Destruction. The King of Jecrass charged. His bodyguard, his [Trick Riders] were dead. They had bought him this opening. His forces were encircled. All for his vanity. And he was too slow. Too many people in the way.
He should have thought of that. Raelt ran into a group of Rustängmarder. They advanced. He had forgotten. He had lost the duel. He had tried to redeem himself.
A voice. Warden Emile rode down on the wall of steel. Raelt had forgotten—the River Warden broke through the vanguard. He raised a ring and a bolt of lightning struck the [Soldiers] in front of Raelt.
The River Warden ran onto the blades, cutting down at the [Death Soldiers]. Another pointed her wand. Warden Winta. She blasted one of the [Soldiers] off his horse.
Emile died as Raelt ran past him. The King of Destruction was there. His bodyguards were knocked back by another spell from Winta’s wand.
“Flos of Reim!”
Raelt bellowed. The King of Destruction dropped the healing potion he’d been uncorking. He’d let go of his shield. He raised the axe, calculating, shielding his heart. Grinning at Raelt.
His warhorse reared. Neither man expected that. The poor animal, in pain, reared up, hooves flailing at Raelt. The [Fencer] saw the axe shift. He lunged, felt a blow knock him flat.
The King of Duels had lost his rapier. He scrambled around for it, bracing—and looked up.
Flos Reimarch, the King of Destruction, stared down at the rapier’s blade in his chest. The bloody tip of the blade stood out in his back.
It had gone through his heart. He stared at Raelt. At a loss for words.
The battlefield slowed. Fell…silent. The [Soldiers] in Reim’s army turned. They felt it.
The King of Destruction sat frozen in his saddle. Warden Winta shouted, blood running down her face.
“The King of Destruction is dead! Rally to his Majesty!”
Jecrass’ forces advanced. Reim’s army was frozen apart. Mars turned.
Zamea—Teres, standing next to Ytol —the world stopped for them.
Drassi, sitting at her desk, stared at the scrying orb. She looked around.
“Uh. D-did we just see the King of Destruction die? Is that—that—”
Maviola whispered. She stared at the silent figure on the horse. The King of Duels was being dragged away, out of the frozen army. The King of Destruction had been stabbed through the heart.
A lucky blow. Changed everything. His rapier had gone through the armor. Raelt felt someone pulling at him.
“Your Majesty, retreat! To me!”
Warden Winta ordered one of the [Trick Riders] to pull Raelt back. The King of Duels was frozen. But the River Warden was leading a second charge. Reim’s forces barely put up any resistance. They were staring at their [King].
He hadn’t moved. Raelt had seen the place where the King of Destruction had been struck. It was his heart.
“The King of Destruction is dead. Lay down your arms.”
The River Warden rode at Flos’ body. She was aiming her wand, seeking a target. The [King] of Reim wasn’t breathing. She saw his hand on the rapier’s hilt. Warden Winta frowned. Had he—
The King of Destruction pulled the rapier out of his heart. Winta looked at him. He wasn’t breathing. She lifted her wand.
He ran her through with Raelt’s rapier. Let go. The King of Destruction’s face was dead white. He didn’t breathe. Jerkily—he reached for his belt.
Healing potion. He smashed the bottle into the hole in his chest. The potion and glass shards mixed with the oozing blood.
And the flesh began to heal. Raelt of Jecrass stared.
The King of Destruction watched his chest close. Then—at last—he took one breath and fell from his horse.
“To his Majesty!”
Someone roared. Reim’s armies moved. The King of Destruction’s army began to fight. Desperately, as Jecrass’ momentum faltered. Both sides were watching that spot. And then—the King of Destruction regained his mount. In a circle of bodyguards, he inhaled a second time, coughing. He raised a hand. And his army roared.
“But that’s not fair.”
That was all Drassi said. She looked at the King of Destruction, as he dismounted.
“I cannot die that easily. Next time, aim for my head. Still, but for healing potions, I’d have died a thousand times over.”
The King of Destruction managed enough air after three minutes for that. Half of his army was clustered around him. The other side fought—but Jecrass was retreating.
“I will not die. Not—not that easily.”
The King of Destruction grinned. Blood ran around his mouth as his forces stared at him. He gestured at his heart.
“Still—it was a relief the potion worked. It was close. A heartless [King] would be a poor thing, eh?”
Laughter. He laughed, and Shepherd Zamea, Mars, laughed as if it was the funniest thing in the world. The Rustängmarder did not. They were kneeling.
“Your Majesty, we have failed our charge. Our deaths are yours.”
Commander Ytol knelt with help. The King of Destruction looked at the [Death Commander], mystified. He shook his head.
“I’d rather your life, Ytol. I should have expected that. The King of Duels earned his name again. But if you want to repay me—”
“Give me one second. I need to catch my breath.”
For a minute, two, then six, he rested. Joking weakly, standing next to his horse more by force of will than anything else. For his army to see. Then he turned to his Rustängmarder. They rose as he beckoned them.
“You can offer your deaths if I die. But since I live—keep up.”
He grabbed his shield and a sword. The [Soldiers] started. The King of Destruction eyed the retreating infantry.
“A blade for a blade. To me!”
Flos ran, pushing aside [Soldiers]. At first, they were stunned. Then the momentum turned. The army began flooding across the field in a full-blown charge. Jecrass’ forces fled, the rearguard cut to pieces as the King of Destruction fought at the front of his army.
A warrior-king fit for his legend. He added to it that day. Jecrass’ army fled. And Raelt of Jecrass was alive.
Emile was dead. Winta was dead.
He should have used poison. That would have done it.
But for one coating. One…Raelt didn’t hear the voices. Sekirst and the other officers took charge. The others helped him ride, helped him dismount. He found himself sitting in his tent.
The King of Duels sat there for a while. Then he rose. And when he did—he said only one thing.
“Let’s go home.”
They didn’t know what he meant, at first. But then…Jecrass’ army fell back. They abandoned their borders. General Lael abandoned her front and the armies of Reim advanced unimpeded. They only stopped due to the King of Destruction’s wounds and to fortify their hold.
“According to these maps and the [Strategist] consultation um…Jecrass just lost twenty percent of the entire nation. It’s…a good move? I mean, Jecrass’ main army just lost a lot of soldiers. And they can fight closer to their main cities. That’s according to the [Strategist].”
Drassi spoke awkwardly to the viewers. She hesitated, looked around. No one was giving her any good cues.
“Folks, I guess what we’ve learned today is that it’s really hard to kill high-level [Kings]. Or [Warriors] in general.”
It would take more days to see the battle lines established. Control was more than a map. But the King of Destruction’s armies marched fast and moreover—it was clear Raelt of Jecrass was just leaving the borders, evacuating everyone who hadn’t already gone.
“Abandon the front. I don’t care what Lael says. We’re not fighting him again. We’re just throwing lives away.”
Raelt rode ahead of his army. Abandoning it. He had to go home. He could still see his blade in the King of Destruction’s chest.
Unfair. No—he just hadn’t done his job right. And now—Raelt was returning to face his mistakes.
The group met him on the road. The [King] stopped, staring. He should have known. He thought he had longer. But—Warden Emile’s lands were closer to Belchan’s border. And the war had not yet forced the evacuation.
It would now. But the River Warden would not oversee the defense of his lands. He was dead.
And his son had yet to be told.
The boy was sitting on his mount, staring at the silent [Riders] passing by his party. His escort looked pale and wan.
They knew. A River Warden would ride with Raelt. Sekirst was the only one left. But Emile’s son—what was his name?—was just a lad.
Raelt had slowed when he’d seen the boy. The young River Warden rode up to him, eyes scanning the men and women around his [King].
“My f—River Warden Emile isn’t with you?”
He knew too. There was a silent dread in his eyes. A nightmare a child dreamed of once or twice if they were lucky. Suddenly—reality.
Raelt guessed. The boy shifted.
“It’s Canrel, your Majesty. My father?”
The [King of Challenges] closed his eyes.
“I’m sorry, Canrel. Your father—fell in battle. He helped me break through to duel the King of Destruction…”
He saw the boy’s face go white. A moan rose among the followers. Canrel swayed in the saddle. Raelt reached out, fearing he’d fall. But Canrel caught himself. He gulped.
“Did—is the King of Destruction dead?”
He clenched his hands on the reins. Raelt looked past him.
“No. I stabbed him through the heart, but—”
Those were excuses. The [King] shook his head. He looked at the young [Lord] and tried to figure out what to say. Canrel looked at Raelt, and realized the [King] was at a loss for words. He hesitated.
“Did my father—w-was he brave?”
Someone made a sound. Raelt looked at Canrel.
“Yes. Of course. He charged the King of Destruction’s vanguard alone. But for him, Warden Winta—I would never have made it.”
“I see. Thank you, your Majesty. I—”
The young River Warden was holding himself upright. Raelt realized he was sagging on his saddle. He wondered who was more the child now. He slowly raised his shoulders.
“I’m sorry, River Warden Canrel. Your father died a hero of Jecrass. He will be honored.”
Empty words. Canrel nodded. He was in shock. Raelt remembered when he’d learned his father had died, and that had been of natural causes. He tried to say something. That Emile had fought the Rustängmarder on his own? That he’d been so close? But for a single potion and the King of Destruction would have died?
It was all insufficient. He saw Canrel fumbling at his saddle, trying to dismount.
“Warden Canrel. Sire—your Majesty. What do we do now?”
A teary-eyed retainer of Warden Emile rode forwards. Raelt shook his head.
“Evacuate Warden Emile’s lands. We are—retreating. We’ll fight along the rivers. Dig in—we’re bound for the capital. I’ll send—take charge for now.”
The man bowed painfully.
“Yes, your Majesty.”
Canrel had dismounted. He ignored the others, trying to come to him. The boy looked up at Raelt. Then—abruptly—he knelt in the wild grass, at the side of the road.
“Your Majesty, I have a request.”
Raelt stirred. He looked down at Canrel. The retainers looked alarmed. They dismounted. So did Raelt.
“Yes, Warden Canrel?”
The boy was about…eleven. He looked up at Raelt, fumbling for the dagger at his side. He unsheathed it after two tries and held the blade up with both hands.
“Your Majesty, I will fight the King of Destruction. Please let me join your army.”
The [King] stared down at the boy. Canrel’s arms shook. His face was still devoid of color. He had yet to weep.
“Please, your Majesty. I would like to take my father’s place in your army. I will avenge my father’s death. I swear it. In blood!”
He tried to cut his palm—the old retainer grabbed the blade.
“Let go of me! Your Majesty, allow me to serve!”
The boy fought his escort. Raelt just stood there. Canrel was looking at him.
“You’re too young, Canrel of Desta.”
The young River Warden’s chin rose. He looked at Raelt, his eyes shining.
“With respect, your Majesty, I am a River Warden now. Not a boy. I must fight. My lands are being invaded. Please. Let me fight.”
Brave little boys. Wanting to fight like men. Raelt looked at Canrel. He saw the King of Destruction pulling the sword out of his chest. And the King of Jecrass tasted bitter despair.
The mortal man’s knees buckled. Raelt Leysars of Jecrass began to kneel, to weep. To break down.
His knees locked before he could topple over. The [King] refused to fall.
Never. Never, in front of the boy who looked at him to make meaning of his parent’s deaths. Though the sky weighed on his shoulders—he raised his head.
“River Warden Canrel. Your father’s bravery did me the greatest honor I could ask for as ruler of Jecrass. I would take a thousand such men again, if only they lived. Do you seek to take his place?”
The boy and his followers looked up. The retainers paled. But Canrel raised his head.
“I do, your Majesty.”
“Then I accept your service.”
Raelt looked at the man who’d spoken and there was silence. The [King] looked at Canrel.
“Your lands must be evacuated, Warden Canrel. The people made safe. I put you in charge of overseeing the exodus.”
Canrel’s eyes widened, and then he flushed with anger.
“But your Majesty—I wish to fight.”
“I know. But you are too young, River Warden Canrel. There will be another war. For now—serve your people and the crown. I need every hand, and yours is best used here. Your father was a brave man. A good man. I would not be able to forgive myself if I let his son die. Do you understand?”
The boy whispered. Raelt reached down and clasped a tiny shoulder. He felt it shake.
Even then—the boy only cried when the [King] had left. Raelt knew it because he heard the sound before he rode away.
“Your Majesty. Your daughter is riding towards you. The other River Wardens—General Lael—”
They were all looking towards him for a miracle. The same one he’d pulled fighting the King of Destruction. And he’d done his best. But Raelt—he shook his head.
“Let them come. Bring me…bring me paper. A quill. And a [Mage].”
He let them fetch all three. The [King] took the quill, wrote while riding. His handwriting was poor, and the message brief. He sent his own letter, as he rode back. Enough of diplomacy.
“Send this to every nation who has contacted us. Now.”
The [Mage] bowed and took it. And the letter that was more than empty words and promises found its way to Queen Yisame, King Perric—the other monarchs. It was two lines.
I intend to sue for peace at any cost by nightfall. Respond if you wish.
–Raelt of Jecrass
The letter moved thrones. Queen Yisame paled and broke off from her court of entertainment. She excused herself amid the flurry of Silk Stitchfolk.
“Send a [Message]. No—find someone who can communicate face to face! We must talk to King Raelt and convince him…”
The Siren of Savere spat contemptuously, but her fingers drummed nervously as she checked the map. Nations lay between her and Reim. She turned.
“Someone send a [Message] to my sister. Tell her to visit me.”
But Rasea Zecrew, younger sister of the Siren of Savere and captain of the Illuminary, read few letters from her sister.
Some monarchs took the news stoically, having planned it into their designs. Others made contact with Raelt, or just panicked. But the nearest [King] to Jecrass read the short message and his brows darkened.
“Unacceptable. Put me in contact with Raelt of Jecrass immediately. He must continue his war.”
King Perric of Medain rose from his throne. He ordered his [Mages], but they had to wait. Yisame was already entreating Raelt. And the [King] had little time for the Adventurer King of Medain.
Letters. They were all sorts. News from friends. Updates. Important news, both terrible and good.
Rhir sent many letters on the same day as King Raelt sued for peace. Notices of death. As if the ghosts who had walked across the world had not been letter enough. Demands for aid.
The Deathless of the Demon King had returned.
Some days were truly like that. Dark. When it rained, it poured.
But as some people might have told you, rain wasn’t always a bad thing. Erin Solstice stood in her [Garden of Sanctuary] and looked up.
“Bird. What are you doing?”
On the hill, in the center of the dome, the [Bird Hunter] was standing in the rain. It poured through the opening that showed the state of the sky. It was raining, a brisk summer storm.
Bird stood in the rain, all four arms extended, as if trying to catch the rain. He looked at Erin.
“Waiting for water birds. They must be in the clouds.”
“Silly Bird. You’re going to catch your death!”
She laughed at him. Erin stood there, as water ran off Bird’s carapace.
“The rain is fun. So long as I do not drown, I will not die.”
He calmly replied. Erin had to own, that made sense. The [Innkeeper] hesitated. Then she walked up the hill and poked a hand into the shower coming down through the dome.
“Ooh, it’s warm!”
Bird smiled at her.
“Yes. And I am certain the little worms will like the rain.”
The young woman tilted her head.
“I didn’t know you care about worms, Bird.”
“I do not. But the earliest of birds eat the worms which love the rain. Therefore, I am happy the worms like the rain. The worms also make good snacks.”
“Ah. Of course. Um. D-don’t bring the worms into the inn, okay, Bird?”
“…I would never do that. No. Never.”
Erin peered suspiciously at Bird. He turned around so his back was to her. She edged around the rainy spot.
“There will be no worms if you check tonight, Erin.”
“Yeah, there had better not be. I sensed your ‘secret hiding spot’ under your floorboards.”
“…I do not know what you mean.”
The [Innkeeper] sighed. But then she eyed the warm rain and decided it was fine. She hesitated, and then jumped into the shower.
“Aah! Oh, wait. This feels nice.”
“Erin. What are you doing?”
Lyonette saw Erin and Bird welcoming the rain. The [Innkeeper] laughed as she waved at her little inn’s family.
“Hey! It’s warm!”
Mrsha went racing up the hill to join them. Lyonette folded her arms, but Numbtongue decided he could use a shower. He stopped swinging his sword near the arid area of the gardens and walked into the rainstorm. He opened his mouth for a drink as Mrsha waved at Lyonette.
The [Princess] blew out her cheeks. But her exasperation was short-lived. She looked around for watchers and then ran up the hill.
“Oh fine. But you’re getting a proper bath after this, Mrsha!”
“Stop shoving, Mrsha! I’m going to fall! Hey, we need water guns! I should reinvent those!”
Erin was laughing as Mrsha ran about, trying to knock the adults down. Numbtongue and Bird decided to help and Erin went tumbling down the hill. She charged back up and knocked Numbtongue down.
“Hey, that looks like fun. Anyone got a bucket?”
The Earthers poked their heads into the garden. Mrsha looked put out—but only until Kevin charged up the hill with a bucket of water. Rose shrieked as Troy and Leon tossed a bucket of water over her and Joseph. The [Kicker] shoulder-charged Leon into the pond and a few beavers decided to retreat to their dam while the damn Humans played.
It was a moment in the rain. The only person who didn’t join in was Apista. The bee sensibly buzzed around the dry, safe parts of the garden while the idiots got wet. Wings did not mix well with water.
“This place has so much potential. Hey Erin, what if you, like, built a water slide into the dome that leads into the pond?”
Erin turned around to stare at Galina. Mrsha’s ears perked up.
“That’s a genius idea—”
“Oh no. I don’t like the sound of that.”
Lyonette scowled, looking up at the tall dome, even without reference to amusement parks. Erin was trying to explain how water slides weren’t as dangerous as, say, roller coasters, when the last letter addressed to her found its way into the inn at last.
“Erin. [Message] for you.”
Bezale stood at the door. She could have walked in, but the [Spellscribe] was trying to be polite. Erin, sopping wet, stumbled towards the Minotauress.
“Is it those [Lords]? Or Zevara? I’m busy uh, having fun!”
“No. I thought you’d want to see this. Here.”
Erin’s wet hand closed over the transcribed message. It was short. She expected it to be from Geneva after a second thought, or maybe Ryoka with some Ryoka-problem. But this little note made her smile.
“Oh wow. That’s great news!”
“Who is it this time, Erin?”
The [Innkeeper] waved the little message and smiled up at the others as they turned, curious.
“It’s our favorite adventuring team!”
Mrsha, Bird, Lyonette, all looked at each other. Numbtongue scratched at his head.
“…Which one is that?”
Erin threw a clump of dirt at him.
They were a team of four. Adventurers. Two male, two female. And they were on their way to a distress call.
It wasn’t really a letter—more like an all-call to anyone in the area. A monster swarm had been spotted and it was bearing down on a village. A nest had been disturbed, or it was a migration—the point was that people were in danger and adventurers were needed now.
Of course, there was always the militia, a local [Lord]’s army, a traveller—any number of other groups that could fight if need be. But adventurers were generally the first ones asked. They were more mobile than most forces.
The village was known as Yissirain’s Rest and it was under attack. Or soon to be. A swarm of Face-Eater Moths was assailing the village. The damned things multiplied like crazy and produced these kinds of swarms.
“I heard it was from Liscor. Those monsters got everywhere. Damned Drakes. Can’t even kill monsters properly.”
The leader of the team grumbled as he led his group down the road. They were all mounted. They were a good team of adventurers. Silver-ranks. Soon to be Gold, really. They just needed their break and this could be it.
Skylark’s Hubris was a ranged-team, each of them armed with bows. Hybrid-fighters. They could cast magic as well as use bows.
“Boss. There are apparently a lot of Face-Eater moths. Hundreds. And you know how big those things get. We’re not going in without a plan, are we?”
“Relax, Hexi. This is an all-call. There’ll be other teams there. We just need to beat them to the punch. I think I’ll use my fire arrows first—we’ve got good sunlight for the fight. You just try to berserk the biggest moth.”
Their fearless leader, a [Weather Ranger] who had Skills that allowed him to take advantage of most types of weather waved at their [Mage], who ironically specialized in hexes. Their dedicated close-quarters expert, a [Switchblade Warrior] with bow-Skills, raised his hand.
“If we don’t have reinforcements, I think we should set up some nets so we can shoot the moths. The trouble will be the small ones. If we get swarmed by them we’ll get torn up fast. Maybe we should have our Fire Cloak scrolls on standby…”
“I like that plan, Illsul. If there’s a good choke point, we could take on most of the swarm. This could be our biggest battle yet! Let’s have that escape route ready, though, Olphela.”
The Silver-rank team nodded to each other. Their [Rogue] nodded; she had smoke and dust-bombs which had saved their bacon more than once. The Silver-rank team picked up the pace. The challenge of fighting so many Face-Eater moths was great, but with risks came glory—
They were closing in on the village and could see the distant flying shapes now. The villagers were locked in their homes as the moths tried to dig through the roofs, assailing everything outside. The people were safe, having even rescued pets and a number of animals, but some of the moths were big. As large as horses. And there were hundreds of them.
Skylark’s Hubris gulped. Their leader held up his hand, eyes darting around.
“Not too fast now! Looks like we’re first on the scene. Let’s find a good vantage point and prepare to engage—”
The team was slowing when they heard a shout from behind them. The four Silver-ranks turned. They saw something heading their way. It was…
“Is that a chariot?”
It was. Someone had taken a wagon and modified it to hold a small group comfortably. And pulling it…Hexi turned pale.
A pair of undead horses were pulling the chariot. The horrified Silver-ranks reached for their weapons. But they saw the chariot turn and go off-road. Their leader stared. There was a young man in white robes driving the vehicle. A [Necromancer]?
Someone shouted at them. They saw a half-Elf waving her skeletal hand. She pointed at the distant swarm.
“Hey. You heading to this Face-Eater Moth raid too?”
The chariot slowed, but Skylark’s Hubris had to accelerate to keep pace. The adventurers saw a woman with silver arms calmly sitting at the back of the chariot. And next to her—
“What is that?”
A huge bug-man waved at them. The half-Elf grinned. Frost coated the place where she was holding the chariot. The leader of Skylark’s Hubris shouted at her.
“We are, but what is—who is—”
“Sorry, can’t talk! That village is in trouble! We’ll get things started! Back us up!”
“Wait! What do you mean? We haven’t prepared—”
The adventurers saw the chariot accelerate. Their horses reared rather than get close to the skeletal horses dragging the chariot forwards. Illsul paled.
“Oh, dead gods. They just charged in.”
“Stick to the plan—stick to—”
The undead chariot shot across the ground. Skylark’s Hubris nearly collided with each other in their panic. The other team was headed straight into the center of the village and the Face-Eater Moths sensed the prey. They turned in a huge storm. They were going to die—they were—
The Horns of Hammerad. The chariot didn’t slow or turn as the moths flew at them. In fact, it picked up even more speed.
The half-Elf shouted at the others and got nods.
The [Necromancer] was standing at the prow, resting one foot on the front of the chariot, robes blowing in the headwind. A woman wearing silver armor with metal arms dragged him back down.
“Stop that, you idiot. You’ll fall off if we hit a stone. Again.”
“It’s about the image, Yvlon—”
The two began fighting as the first moths dove. The half-Elf pointed.
“Now! Ksmvr! Covering fire, Pisces! [Ice Lance]!”
A huge javelin of ice shot from her wand and struck the first moth in the chest. Skylark’s Hubris saw the monster crash to the ground, dead. They stared as the Antinium leapt.
“Jumping. I am a target! [Focus of Ire]! Attack me, you snacks!”
Ksmvr flew upwards, Forceshield raised. He slashed with his dagger and shortsword as the swarm turned on him. He landed on a moth, crushing its back, leapt again. He landed and ran left, dodging the moths swarming around him.
“[Acid Orb]. Yvlon—now!”
Pisces hit the swarm converging on Ksmvr with a brown-yellow orb of acid. The moths dropped out of the air, writhing as their carapaces smoked. But the largest moths were still after Ksmvr.
The [Skirmisher] dodged back towards the chariot. The moths flew after him, single-minded. And the woman with silver arms leapt from the back of the vehicle. She planted her feet.
The Antinium leapt past her. Yvlon Byres set herself and raised the repaired Sword of Weight. She tensed—
“[Sword Art: Curve of the Moon].”
The Silver-rank team saw the glittering arc cut through dozens of moths. The [Silversteel Armsmistress] plunged forwards after her Skill activated. She swung her sword two-handed, cutting down the largest moths. Another landed on her shoulder, trying to bite the metallic flesh—she grimaced, flexed one arm—
A spike of metal rammed through the moth’s midsection. Her skin had morphed in reaction to the attacker.
“Pisces! I said go around the village! Around! [Ice Wall]! [Ice Wall]!”
The half-Elf was shouting at the [Necromancer]. He was bellowing back.
“You try steering and aiming! [Deathbolt]!”
The walls of ice rose around Ksmvr and Yvlon, as well as a ceiling, funneling the moths who were still pursuing Ksmvr with his target-Skill active. Pisces unleashed a black bolt of magic that dropped a group of tiny moths. Ceria pointed.
“That way! No, watch out for the—”
They hit a rock. Skylark’s Hubris saw the chariot crash into a house. Two [Mages] emerged, swearing at each other. Ceria raised a wall of ice, stopping the moths ramming into each other. Pisces stabbed a moth with a flaming rapier.
“Arise, my Warbear!”
He pointed and bones rose. A huge skeletal bear tore into the swarm. Ceria gave up arguing. A moth landed on her back and she panicked.
“Get it off, get it off—”
“Relax, it can’t bite you.”
Pisces blasted it off with a pinpoint [Stone Dart] spell. Ceria felt at her back, but her new, snazzy enchanted robes had shrugged off the monster trying to bite her. She scowled at Pisces.
“This wouldn’t happen if you steered properly!”
“Well, maybe if you didn’t nag—”
“Shut up you two!”
Yvlon’s helmet flashed. The Sparkhelm blinded the moths around her as she cut down another. Ksmvr ran out of a clump of flaming moths, waving his Flamecoat Dagger.
“I believe we are winning! Let us not celebrate prematurely!”
He slashed a moth in half and calmly bit another with his mandibles before it could bite him. Ksmvr chewed and spat out what was left.
“Dead gods. They have to be a Gold-rank team.”
Skylark’s Hubris realized they were just staring. Lamely, they began loosing arrows. But the moths were focused entirely on the four adventurers taking them to pieces.
“Okay, ice aura! Activate!”
Ceria shouted. Pisces vanished, swearing, as the moths besieging Ceria suddenly flew off.
“I’m in your radius, Springwalker!”
He had frost on his robes. The [Necromancer] blurred over to a house, put his back to the wall, and promptly raised a wall of bones to take cover behind.
“Dawncallers, to the rescue! Ready for b—”
Skylark’s Hubris turned as another Silver-rank team they often competed with charged down the road. The light-based team stopped and stared.
The Face-Eater Moths were fleeing. Ceria shot [Ice Spikes] rapid-fire after them, and Pisces hit two more with [Deathbolt]. Ksmvr was aiming his enchanted bow at the fleeing moths, but Yvlon caught his arm.
“Not the magic arrows, Ksmvr.”
“Yes, Yvlon. Taste unenchanted steel, monsters!”
The Antinium switched to regular arrows and shot a moth before they were out of range. He could have used his crossbows—but each one was pre-loaded with a magical bolt and that was a waste of gold.
The Horns of Hammerad stood, panting in the village. Ceria clapped her hands to her head.
It was a cracked mess. And the undead horses were, well, powdered bones. Pisces sniffed as he picked around the wreck.
“The ah, horses are easy to fix. But the wagon…”
“What if I freeze the pieces together? We can fix it up—”
“I’m not getting frostbite again, Ceria. Maybe someone in the village is a [Carpenter]. Hello? It’s safe!”
Yvlon turned and called out. She saw a cracked window open further. The villagers of Yissirain’s Rest had seen the battle of course. They emerged, staring at dying moths and at the four adventurers.
“You have our deepest thanks, adventurers! We thought it would be at least another half an hour before someone arrived with such a large swarm…but who are you? And that—”
The [Headman] of the village emerged. He stared fearfully at Ksmvr; there were also eyes for Pisces, who was disassembling his Warbear, Ceria’s skeletal hand, and Yvlon’s metal arms. The half-Elf smiled as she strode forwards.
Skylark’s Hubris, who had approached with the Dawncallers, saw the captain of the Horns of Hammerad shaking the village head’s hand and giving him a quick speech.
“Sorry about the cold. I’m Ceria. Ceria Springwalker. This is Ksmvr. Yes, he’s an Antinium—”
“A registered Gold-rank adventurer. Yes, Pisces is a [Necromancer]. All undead under full control. Also Gold-rank.”
“My hand’s not undead. I just lost all the skin. Yvlon’s arms are a Skill. We’re happy to clear up the moths. Even look for the nest, although that might be a job for another team. All good? Ksmvr, say hello and don’t frighten the people.”
“Hello. I am Ksmvr. Perfectly harmless.”
There was a practiced feel to the way the Horns of Hammerad introduced themselves. They did it so fast that the stunned villagers didn’t really have a chance to object. They were kicking the moth bodies into a pile—the Silver-ranked teams jumped and grabbed at their weapons as they saw a few skeletons piling up the bodies.
“Undead! He’s using people’s bodies!”
A villager cried out in horror. She pointed at Pisces. The [Necromancer]’s sniff was loud and pointed.
“[Bandit] bodies, Miss. Perfectly acceptable.”
The clear indignation in the young man’s voice made the villagers hesitate long enough for Ceria to speak over any objections.
“We need to burn the moths. There are always eggs and stuff. We need wood—if we don’t get that, we have to freeze them. Which I can do, but then you have a lot of dead moths lying about.”
“W-we have wood. Adventurer Springwalker, we can’t thank you enough. About the bounty…”
The [Headman] was still staring at the undead and Ksmvr, but he was now counting the dead moths, terrified of the cost of so many bounties. Ceria waved it off.
“We can talk that over. The Adventurer’s Guild has a bounty on monster attacks anyways. Actually—does anyone here know how to uh, repair wagons? Ours is busted.”
She looked around. The Silver-rank teams, villagers, all had the stunned look Ceria had learned to expect. She smiled as the [Headsman] looked at her.
“Excuse me. Miss Springwalker. But who are you?”
The half-Elf slapped her forehead.
“I always forget something. We’re a Gold-rank team. I doubt you’ve heard of us, but—”
She gestured to Pisces, relaxing while his undead did all the work. Yvlon, dragging a huge moth corpse towards the pile as Ksmvr snacked on one and carried an armful. The half-Elf grinned, and her pale blue-grey eyes shone in the sunlight.
“…We’re the Horns of Hammerad. Nice to meet you.”
“Whew. I think we did a good job.”
Ceria Springwalker watched the burning pyre of moth bodies twenty minutes later. Cleanup hadn’t been hard once she’d gotten the village to help out. Pisces had even deactivated his undead; now he was enjoying a drink. He’d bullied someone into opening a keg for him.
“Good job? Our plan fell apart, Ceria. You two nearly broke your necks.”
A scowling woman in armor walked over. Yvlon Byres had washed the gore off her armor, but that didn’t change her disapproving expression.
“That wasn’t our fault. We hit a rock, and Pisces was driving—”
“Perhaps, then, our foe was so unimpressive that our mediocre tactics are still sufficient?”
Ksmvr smiled brightly. The Antinium looked content—and full. Ceria eyed the Antinium.
“You have moth stuff on your cheek, Ksmvr.”
“Pardon me, Captain Ceria.”
Pisces wandered over with a mug of something. He had two more and offered them to Ceria and Ksmvr—Yvlon didn’t like drinking. The half-Elf accepted the mug gratefully.
“Thanks, Pisces. Ooh. This is nice.”
“Stop making them serve you, Pisces.”
The [Armsmistress] scowled at the [Necromancer]. He gave her an indignant look.
“Yvlon Byres. We have saved this village. Surely some remuneration—”
“It doesn’t mean you get to order them around like servants.”
Someone started, but neither adventurer noticed. The two were about to begin bickering when someone nervously approached them.
“Uh. Excuse me.”
The Horns of Hammerad turned. They saw a group of adventurers all staring at them. Ceria smiled at Skylark’s Hubris.
“Hi. Thanks for the assist! Sorry we didn’t introduce ourselves beforehand—there was no time. I’m Ceria Springwalker. And you are…?”
“Idell. Captain of Skylark’s Hubris. This is uh, Omel, Captain of the Dawncallers, and…”
Ceria’s brows rose. Six Silver-rank teams had converged on the sudden moth attack, ready for danger and glory. All but two had arrived too late.
“Oh wow. You all were here for the raid? Um. Sorry for…”
She waved at the burning moths. The Silver-rank teams stared at the Horns of Hammerad, who’d nearly single-handedly disposed of the entire swarm.
Idell gave Ceria a pained and clearly fake smile.
“Not at all. Its first-come, first-kill, of course…we didn’t know Gold-ranks were in the area.”
“We’re new to the area. Just passing through.”
“I see. Er—any plans on staying? That is—where are you from? I haven’t heard of the Horns of Hammerad before…”
“Ah, well, we worked further east and then around Liscor for a while.”
“Really? Really? Were you at the dungeon, by any chance? I heard one opened up.”
The adventurers saw the Horns laugh or shake their heads ruefully. Ceria explained.
“We were there when it first opened. Believe me, that’s a dangerous dungeon.”
“You were first in? Any treasure?”
The other teams crowded a bit closer. A few stared at Ksmvr, but they were adventurers. Pisces got the most distrustful looks. But Ceria was friendly as could be.
“A bit. But mostly monsters. We fought a Face-Eater Moth swarm way bigger than this one. Nearly took down the entire city. Are you all local teams?”
By that, she meant teams who had a set area they took requests in. She got nods from all but one team. The Silver-rank Captains asked Ceria about Liscor while the others hung back.
“So Liscor’s dungeon is…Gold-rank?”
“Is that an Antinium? I thought there were no Antinium-adventurers.”
“You just took apart that swarm. Are you a [Cryomancer]? We have a [Curse Mage]. If you’d like to swap spells…”
Pisces hung back with Yvlon as Ksmvr walked around, shaking hands and unnerving the other Silver-ranks. But they were too polite to say anything. Or rather—the [Necromancer] distinctly heard them whispering.
“Bastards could have left us a few moths. There’s only tracking duty left now…”
“Gold-ranks. Just went charging in. No plan. Could have gone south…”
He eyed the speaker and opened his mouth. Someone smacked him on the back of the head. Lightly—but her metal finger still hurt. Yvlon looked at Pisces.
“Leave it. They’re just grousing. Can you blame them?”
The young man sniffed. He looked about to snap back, but then shook his head. He actually smiled, ruefully.
“Were we ever like that?”
“Yes. Don’t pretend we’ve been Gold-ranks forever.”
She nudged him. Ceria excused herself from the crowd of Silver-ranks.
“We’re actually just passing through. Don’t know how long we’ll be here. If one of you wants to take the moth nest—be our guests. Just watch out—there’s always more of ‘em. If you have the ability to make rain, I’d use that. Takes them right out of the sky.”
“Thank you, Captain Springwalker.”
Some of them sounded halfway genuine. The others were just sycophantic. But that was adventurer politics for you. A Gold-rank team among Silver-ranks was a lion among uh, cats. Or something like that.
The Horns of Hammerad walked into the village where a group of villagers were hard at work. The [Headsman] hurried over.
“Captain Ceria, we’ve nearly finished your chariot. You have our deepest thanks. Please—we have some gifts for you.”
“Oh, there’s no need…”
Ceria began, but the man was already gesturing. The villagers offered the Horns a keg, food products—the [Headsman] explained.
“We can’t pay the full bounty, but this is just a token of gratitude. Please, we insist.”
“We had better take them up on the offer, Ceria.”
Pisces murmured, eying a chain of sausages. Ceria gave in. The Horns had done a number of monster-extermination requests and they’d learned the same lesson as the Silver Swords. You could insist on full payment, or give discounts and get gratitude, which was sometimes empty, or other times expressed like this.
“At least we’ll have a housewarming present, right Yvlon? Ksmvr, stop eating the bread. That’s for dinner.”
The Antinium looked up as a frightened [Baker] offered him loafs of his favorite food. He began loading the chariot and putting some of the foodstuffs into his bag of holding. Pisces walked over with his bag of holding open for the keg of spiced mead. The other Silver-ranks watched enviously, which made Ceria flush slightly. She felt bad—and she’d been on their side of things.
“Maybe we should ask if they want to have a snack, Yvlon? Or share some of the money? It’s not much—”
“Do you think we’d have been grateful? Let’s just leave it, Ceria.”
The woman whispered back and Ceria nodded. There really was no help for it; they hadn’t been able to slow down and let the other teams take partial credit. Not with an emergency attack. She was just about to thank the [Headsman] and check out their patched-up chariot when the man’s eyes widened.
“Excuse me, Miss. Did I hear…your name was Yvlon? As in, Yvlon of House Byres?”
Yvlon’s shoulders hunched. She slowly turned back and smiled.
The man’s eyes widened.
“I knew it! Your hair—but your arms! You’re Lady Yvlon! We heard you were far from here! And wounded!”
His raised voice attracted the village’s attention. They turned and exclaimed. Suddenly, Yvlon was surrounded. All the reserve of Yissirain’s Rest turned into sudden adoration. Ceria blinked as her team was forgotten.
“Lady Byres, you should have said! Of course it was one of House Byres who came to our rescue! Your brother slew a pair of Mothbears when he was just a Silver-rank adventurer, oh, years back! I still remember it. And here you are! And your arms!”
“I’m just—no, we were just passing through. It was coincidence, really.”
“Are you visiting your family? Of course you are! We must send word!”
“No, please don’t.”
The [Armsmistress] looked desperately at Ceria. The half-Elf sighed.
Yissirain’s Rest was one of the villages in the domain of House Byres. The Horns of Hammerad had been travelling towards Yvlon’s home. The sudden call for help had been a surprise. And to Yvlon—an unwelcome one.
“I really must go. Of course, I’ll tell my father to make sure the Face-Eater Moths are destroyed. But there’s no need for thanks, truly.”
“House Byres has always protected us, milady. It’s an honor. We’ll send thanks, surely!”
The entire village waved the Horns of Hammerad off nearly ten minutes later, when Yvlon finally managed to tear herself away. Yvlon practically leapt into the chariot being pulled by Pisces’ horses. Even that didn’t dissuade most of the villagers from crowding around her.
“Get us out of here, Pisces.”
The [Necromancer] drove them off with a smirk at Yvlon. He opened his mouth and Ceria elbowed him warningly. When they were a good minute away from the village—the people were still waving and cheering her—Ceria turned in her seat.
“We’ll have to go home straight away. Or they’ll send a thank-you gift to the house and wonder why I haven’t shown up.”
Yvlon’s face was, while not exactly gloomy, exasperated. She had declined to mention why, but none of her teammates had failed to notice a few things. They all sat back in the chariot. Ceria elbowed Pisces. He looked at Ksmvr and the Antinium happily committed the faux pas.
“I notice, Yvlon, that you have not informed your family of your new class or return home. Is this one of the ‘good surprises’ I have heard so much about?”
The woman glowered at Pisces and Ceria who innocently avoided her looks. She sat against the chariot and sighed.
“I didn’t tell Ylawes because he’d make a beeline for me and insist on…I don’t know. My father and mother for the same reason. Since we’re in the area, I thought we could just arrive and get it over with. Now, I guess we have no choice.”
“They’ll be happy, surely.”
“I’d have preferred not for anyone to recognize me. Especially—this.”
She gestured at her arms. The woman was taking off her armor. And putting on a long-sleeved shirt.
“Maybe if we make it fast—pick up the pace, Pisces. We can beat the messenger and they might not even mention anything besides our heroic rescue.”
“Yvlon. You’re not going to pretend to—”
Ceria saw the [Silversteel Armsmistress] cover her metal skin as she put on some long gloves. Yvlon gave her a look.
“It’s easier this way. I don’t want to make—a scene.”
The half-Elf looked at the [Necromancer] who studiously kept his eyes on the road. Yvlon didn’t like talking about her arms to most people. And this only confirmed their suspicions.
As always, Ksmvr broke the awkward silence. He might have learned more tact, but he was more than willing to ignore all his social graces.
“I am looking forward to meeting Yvlon’s family in pleasant circumstances. I believe her father was last laying siege to Liscor, but I was unable to greet him at that time.”
“Yes. That. I have to have some words with father about that, too. Let’s just get this over with.”
It was a new experience. They had been a Gold-rank team for a while now. But it still felt new. And after reaching Invrisil—at last—they were going to Yvlon’s home. After that? Face-Eater Moth swarms weren’t a threat any longer.
They were ready for the real missions. The big bounties. Ceria was excited. They had one quest already set for them—the Village of the Dead. Pisces hadn’t said why, aside from his usual cryptic hints, but Ceria was willing to try it.
They were Gold-ranks. Of course, they had yet to really push themselves and they had a surplus of new abilities and items and hadn’t worked out their battle plan perfectly. As that last fight had shown. Hedault had provided new gear like Yvlon’s helmet, repaired old items, and the team was ready for anything. Again…they just hadn’t found the quest yet.
It was a bit odd. They’d taken every monster assignment they’d run across, but Ceria had forgotten that not everywhere had a pressing monster attack or some great dungeon to explore. The reason they were headed to Yvlon’s family’s estate was because they hadn’t been able to figure what else to do on the road north.
Well, meeting Yvlon’s family was enticement enough. As they approached House Byres, Ceria saw that Yvlon’s family really was a noble one.
“Ksmvr, all that you see is Yvlon’s property.”
“Ooh. What about those trees?”
Yvlon pinched both of her teammates, looking amused and vexed.
“I don’t own it. I’m the third child of House Byres. And we don’t own the villages.”
Ksmvr nodded agreeably.
“They just pay you tribute. I understand the concept of nobility, Yvlon. You still have a claim to that tree. May I have it?”
He pointed at a few trees set into the low foothills. Yvlon sighed.
“Ksmvr. Well, why not? Anyways, I’m hardly a model [Lady]. I wanted to be an adventurer—that’s as good as renouncing my claim. My sister is the real heir. But we’re a small house. Poor. House Byres mines silver. See?”
She pointed towards the foothills, which were apparently ideal silver mines. Pisces snorted.
“And silver is such a worthless metal.”
“It was worth more a while ago. Being responsible for so much land takes money, Pisces. Look, my parents are very traditional. My father especially. My mother married into the family, so she’s actually more likely to accept you. Just don’t do anything too provocative until I can explain to father that you’re a [Necromancer], please?”
“Very well. But you should tell that to Ksmvr.”
“I am a model of good behavior, Pisces.”
Ceria snorted and Ksmvr gave her a hurt look.
“Sorry, Ksmvr. Oh look! Is that your home, Yvlon?”
The woman sighed.
House Byres’ estates were not located in the largest town in their lands, which the Horns had passed by. Rather, it was a keep set near the foothills and one of the mines.
“It’s our ancestral home. Fortified, back when we had more enemies. There’s a tiny village around it—Pisces, go through the front. There’s a moat—see how it ties into the river?”
Indeed, the river itself flowed around the Byres family’s keep, splitting into two sides in a moat. Yvlon made them stop about a mile out and had Pisces turn his horses into bones.
“We’re walking. I’m not riding home on an undead horse. Now remember—no one talk about my arms. Pisces, no undead. Ksmvr, don’t talk about the Hives or declare war. The last thing we need is that.”
Everyone shuddered. They’d seen and heard about the Pallass incident. Ksmvr nodded.
“I will not start an international incident if it can be avoided, Yvlon.”
“What do I not do, Yvlon?”
The half-Elf grinned at Pisces and Ksmvr. Her smug look faded when Yvlon turned to her.
“Don’t shake any hands. Your aura still freezes everything when you don’t concentrate.”
Pisces smirked at her. The half-Elf aimed a kick at them and Yvlon sighed. She led the way towards the village and keep.
“Is that Lady Yvlon?”
They were spotted within less than a minute of walking. A group returning from the mines stared as they carted ore back to the village. Yvlon raised her hand. And she was smiling.
“Hello! Is that Gerrif? [Foreman] Gerrif?”
The [Miners] broke into a run. Ceria saw them waver when they saw Ksmvr, but Yvlon strode ahead.
“This is my team…are my father and mother here? Ylawes? Ysara?”
“Lord and Lady Byres are, Lady Yvlon! And—dead gods, but you look older! This is your team? I thought the Silver Spears were all-female. And I heard…”
Yvlon’s smile slipped. Ceria winced. But the [Armsmistress] recovered quickly.
“You know adventuring, Gerrif. I’m just back to visit the family for a day or two.”
“Lord Yitton won’t hear of it, milady! There’ll be a celebration! If you haven’t sent word—hey! You two! Run and tell the keep Lady Yvlon is returning!”
Yvlon opened her mouth, but it was too late. Two of the younger [Miners] ran towards the village. And Foreman Gerrif abandoned the carts of ore to escort Yvlon and the Horns to the keep.
It was a mark of how popular Yvlon was that they accepted Ksmvr’s existence. Although Ceria had noticed it was ignorance as much as Ksmvr’s status as an adventurer that kept mobs from turning on him.
He was simply as foreign as a Selphid, or Garuda. Northern Izril had fought the Antinium, but they had never instilled the loathing or fear as among Drakes or Gnolls. It would be like seeing a Demon, whatever they looked like, for Ceria.
As the Horns of Hammerad approached the village and keep, the doors were thrown open. Someone came across the bridge as the village turned out.
It was like being hailed as heroes, only this time the celebration was only for Yvlon. She looked surprised by the greetings; this was her home. She went around, shaking hands, trading gentle hugs in her case, exclaiming over people she’d met, or shy children.
No one noticed or commented on Yvlon’s long-sleeved shirt and gloves, despite the warm summer weather. Indeed, Ceria’s one-handed glove drew more looks, and that was just from one person.
The half-Elf hung back with Pisces. Ksmvr was shaking hands, three at a time sometimes. The [Mage] was more interested in Yvlon’s parents.
“Aha. So that is the [Lord] of House Byres. And [Lady].”
Pisces pointed. The crowds parted and Ceria saw Yvlon’s head turn.
There they were. Yitton Byres was somewhat like Ceria had imagined him. Grey-brown hair and beard, a solid build, in good shape for his age of early fifties. He looked somewhat stern, but more serious than anything. Someone who had raised Ylawes, who valued honor and virtue.
Human. To Ceria, he was what she had expected. Yvlon’s mother on the other hand, was different.
Yvlon was enfolded by a hug from the amber-haired woman. But what surprised Ceria was that the woman had ink-stained fingers. Also—a Terandrian accent, greatly faded, but recognizable to Ceria and Pisces at once.
“Yvlon. It’s so good to see you again. You didn’t tell us you were on your way! We haven’t heard from you for months!”
The [Armsmistress] had a guilty look on her face as her mother put her hands on Yvlon’s cheeks and looked her up and down, gently.
“I’m sorry, mother. Father—”
“Yvlon. It’s good to see you. Is this your team?”
Yitton Byres was staring at Ksmvr, Ceria, and Pisces. His eyes flicked to his daughter’s covered arms. And Yvlon’s mother was glancing at Yvlon’s shirt. She blinked at Ksmvr.
“Yes—let me introduce everyone. Mother, father, this is my team. The Horns of Hammerad. This is Ceria Springwalker, my captain, Ksmvr, and Pisces. They’re trusted companions.”
Ceria bowed, and Pisces swept an elegant bow of his own. Ksmvr held out a hand to Yitton. The man stared at him. The Antinium smiled.
“Hello. I am Ksmvr. I understand you are Yvlon’s father? I have no frame of reference for fathers.”
That stumped Yitton sufficiently that he just shook Ksmvr’s hand. The Antinium turned to Yvlon’s mother.
“And you are Yvlon’s mother. Hello.”
“This is Shallel Byres, Ksmvr.”
Shallel? Then Ceria remembered. Yvlon had said her mother married into the family.
“How do you do? Yvlon has written about her new team. It’s a pleasure.”
Shallel Byres was made of stern stuff, because she just smiled at Ksmvr’s open mandibles. She turned to Ceria and Pisces.
“Are you from Terandria, Lady Shallel? I mean, Lady Byres?”
“Shallel will do. I am. From a minor house—I was Guildmistress of the Scrivener’s Guild before I met Yitton. I apologize for the ink-stains.”
Shallel was a lot different from Ceria’s vision of her. She gave Pisces a firm handshake, asking where he was from, and then turned to Yvlon. The young woman was gently hugging her father.
“You didn’t tell us you were coming, Yvlon. We would have prepared a proper reception for your team.”
There was a note of reproach in Yitton’s voice. Yvlon sighed, furtively tugging her gloves more snugly over her hands.
“I…it was just a spur of the moment. I wanted to just say hi. I won’t trouble you.”
“Nonsense. You need to stay and tell us everything that’s happened. Ylawes said he left you injured.”
“He didn’t have to come, Mother—it was an over exaggeration, really. I uh—parted ways with him a while back.”
Shallel gave Yvlon a smile. She walked over to her daughter and Ceria had a moment of intuition.
“Oh, we’ve heard from Ylawes recently, Yvlon. He’s in Reizmelt for some reason.”
“That was our fault, Lady Shallel.”
“Well, Ylawes may do what he wants. He’s been Gold-rank for years now. But I would have liked to know my own daughter had reached Gold-rank. Much less been hurt.”
“Mother, I’m sorry. I’d be happy to tell you everything. Really. I just forgot…”
Yvlon was raising her gloved hands and smiling. Shallel was quick. The former [Scribe] pinched the tip of Yvlon’s glove and pulled.
“And would you explain this, young lady?”
One of her silver-flesh hands appeared. There was a gasp from the crowd. Yvlon paled.
Yitton Byres looked at his daughter, his eyes wide.
“Ylawes told us you’d changed. Oh, Yvlon. What happened?”
Shallel stared at her daughter’s changed skin and then hugged her daughter fiercely. Yvlon hesitated. She looked embarrassed, ashamed—but she embraced her mother.
“I’m sorry, it’s just—”
“Why don’t we talk inside? We have a lot to catch up on. You and your team. And no objections, young woman. Come with me.”
The Horns of Hammerad saw Yvlon Byres’ mother pinch her daughter’s fleshy ear. She pulled and Yvlon yelped as she was dragged towards the keep. She probably could have ignored the pain, but her mother would still have walked off with her ear. Pisces, Ceria, and Ksmvr saw Yitton Byres studying them. Ksmvr looked around and smiled again.
“I quite enjoy Yvlon’s home. Oh, Lord Byres. Thank you for the tree.”
Lord Yitton Byres stared at the Antinium.
That was when Ceria sent the [Message] to Erin telling her friend where they were. It looked like the beginning of an adventure. Or at the very least—a lot of fun watching Yvlon getting mothered by her mother. Ceria would settle for that.
And so, letters were sent. Letters arrived. Bearing all kinds of useful and useless information. You could get sick of it.
But it was a full-time job delivering them for some people, magic aside. In Riverfarm, Emperor Laken Godart stopped his argument with Master Helm about procuring the Unseen Empire’s own metal supply as someone galloped towards him.
“Delivery for Emperor Laken! Hey, it’s me! Your favorite Centaur—”
Dustrider Charlay had a letter for Laken. She’d born it personally, for two reasons. Firstly—it was a copper for every ten words by [Message] spell if you didn’t get a discount on big letters, on top of the sending fee.
Secondly, some things needed to be confidential. So Ryoka had endured Charlay joking about Ryoka needing the ‘better runner’ to deliver her letters.
“This is from Ryoka?”
Laken would have blinked if he kept his eyes open all the time. Since he didn’t, he just looked surprised. Charlay nodded.
“No idea what it is, but she said it was urgent.”
Ryoka had a way of adding to Laken’s list of burdens. And this letter certainly did just that as Prost read it for the [Emperor]. It took nearly thirty minutes for Laken to get through the very long letter. And when he did, the Unseen Emperor of Riverfarm had to massage his forehead.
“If I didn’t owe Ryoka Griffin a favor, I would pay Charlay to kick her into the nearest bush of thorns.”
He muttered. And then began to incorporate Ryoka’s plans into his own.
But that was as far as letters went. They were good at laying plans, starting things—but at some point you had to stop writing letters. The world turned on.
Ryoka Griffin sat in the overnight carriage ready to take her north at speed. This was no regular carriage—she’d paid gold to hire one. And the driver was…special.
An underworld contact. They had their own ways of getting places fast. So for a fee, and if you knew the right people, you could ask for someone to get you across Izril faster than normal. Ryoka had paid for all of that.
The Archmage of Izril awaited. The curious thing to Ryoka was that she’d sent all her letters.
So…why was Fierre sitting across from her in the carriage? The Vampire girl glanced at Ryoka and adjusted her huge hat.
“I’m going with you, of course. I’ve had enough of being left behind while you go on an adventure.”
The City Runner protested, glancing at the closed panel for the driver. He was moving the carriage already. He hadn’t asked questions, just driven up and waited for her to get in. She didn’t even know if it was a ‘he’—the driver was wearing dark clothing from top to bottom with a single white scarf breaking up the color scheme.
“It’s not safe, Fierre. I know you’re—capable. But I’ve been in some dicey situations.”
“I know. But do you think I’m safer in Reizmelt? Remember Belavierr? I distinctly recall the needles.”
Fierre glowered. Ryoka bit her lip.
“Even so. What about your job? Your family?”
The girl shrugged.
“I can take time off. And I left them a note. Ryoka. I’m coming with you. I have a bag of holding full of useful items and my notes. And I think it’ll be interesting.”
She gave Ryoka a pointed grin. And then her expression changed.
“Besides. I want to see…what happens.”
Letters. Letters were good at starting things, conveying information. But they were a tool for prolonging events. You had to read letters before you could do anything about them.
But at some point, you had to act.
The Vampire girl took out the glowing vial. It was so small. Just a mouthful. It glowed viridian. The color lit up the inside the carriage. Ryoka’s objections went silent as her mouth opened.
“I thought about it. We could try copying it. But if you didn’t think Saliss of Lights could—I thought about my father. Or mother. But…I guess I’m a bit of a monster. I wanted to know.”
The Vampire looked at Ryoka, longingly. Slowly, with one hand, she removed the cork. Ryoka made a sound.
“I want to know. I trust you, Ryoka.”
Fierre locked her eyes with Ryoka’s. She tilted the vial up and let the liquid slide out of the vial. It left not a drop. Fierre swished the liquid once, swallowed.
“Hey, it tastes—”
Her expression went blank. Ryoka leaned forwards. She waved a hand in Fierre’s face. The Vampire girl didn’t blink. She sat there, motionless, eyes wide.
“Fierre? Hey, driver, stop the carriage—”
The coach slowed. Fierre sat there as Ryoka reached for her. She couldn’t open the door. It was still light out.
“Fierre? Is something—”
The girl opened her mouth as something within her activated. The flash of light sent Ryoka slamming against the coach’s walls.
The coachwoman roared. Ryoka, pulling herself upright, saw the door fly open. The driver floated in the air, hovering off the ground. Her garb had been knocked aside. The bound Djinn stared at Ryoka, her hands and eyes crackling with fury.
“Those who attack the Unmarked Coach die—”
She hesitated, seeing Ryoka lying there. The City Runner threw her hands up.
“It wasn’t me! It was a healing potion!”
The Djinn stared at Fierre. Ryoka’s head turned as well. The Vampire girl lay in the coach. The driver hesitated. She adjusted her clothing, landed on the ground. Both Runner and spirit stared.
Fierre’s pupils shone crimson as she opened her eyes in the dark confines of the coach. She sat up. And there was something fluid about the way she moved. As if, suddenly, the world around her was submerged in water. Ryoka had seen that kind of speed before. Relc—Gazi—
“Ryoka? I feel…”
The Vampire whispered. She looked at Ryoka. The driver. Then she moved. She snatched something up. Her bag of holding. Fierre opened it. Then—
Puked. Ryoka saw the Vampire girl vomit straight into her bag of holding. Fierre emitted a huge stream of dark liquid. Both the City Runner and driver recoiled. Fierre tried to say something and a second stream of vomit came out of her mouth and nose.
Ryoka made a sound of disgust.
The Djinn driver stared at Ryoka. She looked at the puking Vampire, at Ryoka—and then slammed the door. She started the carriage again, grumbling.
“I hate my job.”
Author’s Note: Today apparently marks the 4-year anniversary of The Wandering Inn. And we’re back from break. Oh, and The Last Tide is available for preorder. Check the link at the top of the page and consider doing the survey!
So much is happening. When I think of when I started TWI, it was quiet and uneventful. I just wrote my story. Now look at us.
Puking Vampires. We’ve done it! But more seriously, I have you all to thank. I hope you enjoyed the first chapter back—the monthly break might feel long, but it is helping me, so if you can tolerate it, that’s great.
We have amazing stuff. You might notice there are new banners on the site, courtesy of Raoul! We also have art of The Wandering Inn commissioned by Reverend Carl, the [Generous Frog] of Discord and drawn by Enuryn! I’m featuring both today—give them all the love in the world!
Thanks so much for reading. Look forwards to next chapter. I know there’s nothing interesting going on, but I’m sure I can pick some…plotline to follow. Until then!
(Banner images designed by Raoul at corellastudios.com)
New Banners by Raoul!
The Wandering Inn’s Common Room by Enuryn—Commissioned by Carl!