Interlude – Carriages and Conversations

(The Last Tide is now available for purchase! Please consider buying the comic, and thanks for making this possible!)

 

Now.

The isle was known as Feru’s Paradise for reasons completely unrelated to the present. At some point, it had possibly been a verdant ecosystem, the kind your budding [Biologist]-[Naturalist] and evolutionary theorist would have given their eyeteeth for.

However, that was in the past. And at some point, the owner of the isle had decided what it really needed was some lovely flowers and grass. They had destroyed the local habitat to make it a lovely vacation isle.

Subsequently, the rats had taken over. As rats did, they had ravaged the ecosystem. These rats were particularly small; half the size of regular rats, and green. That was to say, they blended with the grass and were the most invasive of species.

None of this mattered to the Runner who arrived on the island. They had chartered a small boat to take them out here; one of the small sailing crafts that [Fishers] used. Now, they watched it disappearing.

“And I paid gold for the trip.”

The Runner scuffed one foot into the ground and saw the camouflaged rats scuttling away. In fairness, the [Fisher] had warned them, as the locals liked to do, not to visit the cursed isle. Oh yes, they knew an Archmage lived here. And as far as they were concerned, the people on the coast of Feru’s Paradise hoped she never came out from her mansion.

Most people assumed she was dead. She hadn’t been seen in over a decade. Nor were they impressed with her title of ‘Archmage’. She was just another eccentric mage, holed up on her private island.

And everyone knew this island was certain death. So did the Runner. They’d been warned. So, very cautiously, they made their way to the one landmark on the small isle.

That was the mansion. It had taken the Runner a long while to get here. Feru’s Paradise wasn’t exactly an easy location to get to, even if you could move fast. They were…disappointed to see it looked just like a normal mansion. Incongruously well-kept among the overrun isle.

Still, looks were deceiving. The Runner touched the charm on their neck. Then, they drew a deep breath and shouted.

“Archmage Valeterisa! I bear a message from Lady Ieka Imarris! Will you allow my entrance?”

No response, although they had shouted commendably loud, enough to be heard from the mansion. But if it was that easy…the Runner tried again, amplifying their voice with a spell.

Archmage Valeterisa! Can you hear me?

Nothing. The Runner eyed the mansion. Then—they eyed the barren ground in about a two hundred foot radius around the mansion. There was no grass there; the ground looked like it had been disturbed. And most tellingly—no rats were foraging around.

“Right. Absolutely not stepping on that. Hm…”

They hunted around on the ground, and found a rock. The Runner hefted it and threw it into the middle of the barren ground. They braced—

And nothing happened. The Runner scratched their head. They took a few cautious steps forwards, swore, and leapt back.

The ground exploded. Dirt rained down and the rats scurried away almost as fast as the Runner. They caught their breath several dozen feet away from the detonation site.

“Life-sensing spells? Okay. We’re doing this the hard way.”

The Runner bit their lip and looked around. They had options…but an easy one came to mind, and one the designer of this death-trap might not have thought of.

“…I wonder if I can use rats?”

The Runner bent down, grimacing, and the green rats, as if sensing the intentions of the Human, fled en masse. Cursing, the Runner was chasing after one of the nimble rodents when they saw a flash. They turned their heads.

“Oh hell.

The first arcing magical arrow hit the ground and nearly blew them to bits. The Runner hit the ground, looked up, and ran.

The mansion was lobbing huge bolts of magic at them! The sensor spell in the ground had targeted them; now they were being hunted by artillery spells.

Damnit, damnit, damnit—

The Runner looked around. But there was no help for it. More spells were coming. So—the Runner gritted their teeth, grabbed a potion, and downed it.

Here we go.

Magic enhanced their steps. The potion enhanced their reflexes. The Runner turned, sprinted at the mansion—

The ground began to explode. The Runner weaved, outrunning the magic hitting the ground behind them. The rats hopefully watched, wondering if they were going to get snacks. To their disappointment, the Runner was fast.

They reached the door of the mansion, sprinted up the steps, and hammered on the door.

“Archmage!”

They tried the door’s handle. To their surprise, it was unlocked! The Runner sagged in relief. They heard a hum of magic from above—twisted the knob—

It was a mark of their understanding of the devious cruelty of the mortal condition that saved the Runner’s life. They had yanked the door open as they leapt off the porch and so the blast of fire didn’t cook them along with everything on the steps. The Runner staggered upright, peeked over—and saw dirt through the open doorway.

“What the…”

There was nothing behind the door. Not flooring; just dirt. The mansion was…

Slowly, the Runner stood up. They twisted a ring on their finger and touched the amulet again. This time, close up, the Amulet of Detect Magic and their veil-piercing ring functioned. They saw the mansion glow—and the Runner groaned.

“This isn’t even the real mansion, is it?”

The illusion vanished and they saw the real mansion, invisible, quietly waiting on the cliff away from the death-trapped minefield. The illusion spells had fooled the market-grade artifacts.

The Runner looked around. Now, they were in the lee of the fake mansion’s shadow, surrounded by magical mines, and targeted by the homing magical spells. The real, coast side mansion, a huge, sprawling compound, waited.

The Runner had to take a few seconds.

“I. Hate. [Mages].”

 

—-

 

Then.

The Unmarked Coach was the counterpart to Magnolia Reinhart’s famous pink carriage. It wasn’t as fast—but it was still damn fast. More importantly—it was unremarked upon. Hence the name. It was a special transport. You had to know about it to request it. And even knowing about it was reserved for people with the right connections. Even then—getting on the good list took a bit of doing.

But once you were on the list? Well, the Unmarked Coach took you where you wanted to go securely, swiftly, and without anyone knowing.

Two details about the coach that always changed were the driver, and the coach itself. They were always different. Sometimes the driver was male, a Gnoll, or a Drake, a Dullahan, or female, a Selphid…

The coach took all colors and all forms as well. It could be a rather posh, but visibly old carriage like the one that trundled down the road now, or a sleek new model, a barely-functioning converted cart with holes in it…you could never tell.

Two details about the coach that never changed were the driver and coach itself. They were always the same. They just happened to look different. The coach was always the same on the inside. Plush, a match for Magnolia’s carriage and then some because while Magnolia’s carriage was a smaller transport, the Unmarked Coach could take sixteen people all without needing to rub elbows once.

And the driver was always the same person. Just with a different face. They—she—was a Djinni. A spirit, a member of a species from Chandrar famous in at least two worlds. Now, she steered the coach down the road.

Today, she had a top hat on, dark clothes, including a scarf that covered her pale skin. She was a large woman, irritable, and driving in the rain which never seemed to actually soak her. A few other vehicles were on the road, but only one of the people the driver ever passed called out to her.

“Is that Karsy? Hey there!”

“Go to hell, Termin!”

The Djinni shouted back as she pretended to shake off rain. It was all an act, of course. She wasn’t wet. But she was in a bad mood. Her…being…was still vibrating from the magic she’d caught the back-end of.

Unfortunately, as she hadn’t been the intended recipient of the spell, she couldn’t execute one of her duties—which was to kill anything that attacked the Unmarked Coach, be it passenger, [Bandit], or monster. And now—she sensed the eyes on her.

“Break my chains, but I hate this job.”

The Djinni grumbled. She drove onwards, and the fake horses pretended to plod down the road. After a while, the silent staring and whispering got to be too much. The woman turned in her seat.

“What do you want?”

Ryoka and Fierre jumped. They had been peeking at the driver through the little speaking panel that connected the interior of the coach to the front.

“Er…nothing! Nothing! It’s just that if you’d like to chat…”

Ryoka Griffin hurriedly raised her hands. The Djinni reached back and slid the speaking panel closed. She had blissful peace for six minutes. Then she felt it covertly being edged open a crack.

“What. Do. You. Want?”

Fierre jumped. The Vampire had been as silent as a feather landing in the snow, but somehow the Djinni had sensed her opening the panel.

“I…we’re sorry, Miss Driver, if we broke the rules.”

“If you broke the rules, you would be dead.”

The driver replied without turning her head. She scowled.

“But puke in my carriage again and I will kill you so surely dead as even the blood of monarchs will not bring you back, Vampire.

The Djinni spoke with an accent, a rolling, deep voice. Fierre stared at her. The driver heard frantic whispering and then the Vampire girl grinned weakly at her. She had sharp teeth.

“I’m not a Vampire. Er, I mean, what? Vampires? You—you must be—”

“I see all things, Vampire. Nothing is hidden from mine eyes. Nor, if I lacked but the magic of my nature and the power to change reality, would I still miss your fangs, pale skin, red eyes, aversion to light, and the way you drink blood.”

Fierre gulped.

“That’s—that’s—a secret. Tell anyone and…”

“You’d do what? Kill me? Hah. Even if you’ve the strength of your blood, you’re a mewling baby. No secrets leave my lips. All who ride the Unmarked Coach I am bound to tell nothing of.”

“Oh. Very good.”

Fierre faintly stared at the Djinni for a second. Then she closed the panel and sat back down.

Inside the carriage, Ryoka stared at her friend. Fierre looked pale. Ryoka’s head still hurt, and this was an hour after they had begun their long journey.

To recap: Fierre had just taken Teriarch’s cure. The panacea had made her vomit into her bag of holding for about five minutes. That was a lot of puke. Also, the driver had unintentionally revealed she was a Djinni.

Oh, and Ryoka was on her way to the Archmage of Izril’s mansion to deliver Lady Ieka’s message so she could convene a meeting of the Fae at the Summer’s Solstice, but who was counting the weird things in her life? Ryoka saw Fierre fidget.

In the dim coach, her eyes shone crimson. Ryoka had noticed Fierre’s red irises from the start. But now, they had a luminescence. And as Fierre twisted, glancing at the front of the carriage and then at Ryoka again, the Human girl saw it.

A fluidity of movement. A certainness about Fierre. She had always been fast and inhumanly strong. But now, the Vampire girl made Ryoka feel like she was slow.

She was cured. Fierre opened her mouth, grinned weakly at Ryoka. Even her canines seemed…sharper. Although that could just be Ryoka’s imagination. She looked at Ryoka. Or rather, her friend’s neck, and then away.

“Don’t worry. I’m not that hungry anymore.”

Fierre muttered. Ryoka jumped, blushed.

“I didn’t—”

“I wouldn’t do it anyways. Ryoka, I owe you. This feels amazing.”

“You’ve said.”

The Vampire girl grinned and stretched. Beside her sat, oh, about eight empty bottles of blood. Animal’s blood, from her home. She’d been ravenous after throwing up, but fortunately she hadn’t gone for Ryoka.

“It tasted awful, by the way. I guess I really was cured. But—I’m fine.”

She said that while grinning teasingly at Ryoka. But it was true; Fierre didn’t look that tempted. On the other hand…Ryoka felt electricity running down her back.

“This is—Fierre, this is—”

The City Runner looked at her friend. And she had to say it.

This is so cool.

The other young woman grinned hugely. It was! Fierre clenched one fist.

“I feel like I could break a boulder in half! When we stop—I have to try sparring! Or running! I bet I could outrun a horse! And then throw it! I’m cured, Ryoka! I’m invincible!

Both young women heard a snort from the front. Fierre’s grin slipped. Ryoka eyed the bottles of blood next to Fierre. They were covered with a bit of black…bile.

“Uh, those are starting to smell. Maybe.”

“Oh. Right.”

Brought back to reality, Fierre tossed them into the bag of holding she carried. The bag of holding now containing several pounds of black bile. The Vampire girl grimaced.

“I should have thrown up anywhere but here! It’s on all of my stuff!”

“Can you clean it off…?”

“Not without emptying the entire bag of holding—”

Not in my coach, Vampire.

The muffled voice came from the front of the Unmarked Coach. Ryoka and Fierre jumped. Fierre mouthed to Ryoka, without even speaking.

She has good ears!

Ryoka nodded. Again, the voice sounded, annoyed.

“Better than yours, Vampire!”

This time, Ryoka had to respond.

“Excuse me. But if we’ve offended you, Miss Driver—er—can I ask your name?”

“You may ask me my name. But do not expect me to enjoy answering, Human girl.”

She sounded really annoyed with them. To be fair, a puking Vampire probably wasn’t fun for anyone to deal with. Ryoka opened the sliding panel again and this time—the downpour ceased for a second. A beam of weak sunlight entered the coach.

Argh!

Fierre shouted in pain. Ryoka spun.

“Fierre?”

The Vampire girl had recoiled so fast she was a blur. Now, she clutched at her face.

“Ryoka! The light! Close the panel! Close the—

Ryoka did. She saw Fierre lower her shaking hands. And Ryoka saw—

“Dead gods. Your face, Fierre! It’s—”

It was burned. Like a lobster sunburn, almost comically red. Fierre tried to feel at her face since Ryoka’s mirror was a stupid idea. Vampires had no reflections. But then she blinked. The sunburn faded even as Ryoka stared.

“What the—that never used to happen! It took you minutes to burn!”

“It must be because I’m cured.

The Vampire breathed. Both stared at the sliding panel. That had been weak sunlight, through the clouds.

“If you were in the actual sun—do you think you’d catch on fire?”

“I—Bamer told us stories about that. But I—I didn’t think it was actually—”

Fierre laughed nervously. And again, Ryoka heard a snort from the front of the coach.

“Break my chains, but you two are fools. If you want to see your friend really react, Human girl, take the garlic out of your bag of holding.”

Slowly, Fierre’s head swung around towards Ryoka. She sniffed at Ryoka’s side and her eyes narrowed.

Ryoka…

“You knew it was there! That was insurance! Wait, how did you know I had garlic in there?”

“I have eyes.”

The Djinni retorted. Ryoka hesitated.

“…I could toss it out, Fierre. But I’d have to open the door for a second. It’s in a jar…”

It was, in fact, a lot of garlic and garlic oil mixed into water. Ryoka had made it after being kidnapped by Fierre. Just in case she needed to fight off a certain Vampire girl. Fierre waved her hand.

“No thanks, Ryoka. I’m fine…I trust you.”

“Thanks.”

The two young women smiled at each other. But then their attention swung back towards the front of the carriage.

For someone as grumpy and non-talkative as she claimed to be, the Djinni certainly seemed to be aware of what was happening in the inside of the carriage. Ryoka got the impression that the last hour had been weird, even for her.

“Fierre. You never really explained what this…coach is. The Unmarked Coach?”

“It’s the underworld’s most famous transport service, Ryoka. Everyone needs to get places fast. Everyone who’s anyone uses the coach, if they don’t have something better. The Gentlemen Callers, the Elusive Lot, high-ranking [Thieves] or other sorts…”

“Wow.”

Ryoka blinked around. The inside of the coach was certainly fancy. Even a limo didn’t have this much room! It was a huge, horizontal room, with no other rows. Just two seats facing each other that stretched impossibly long for the dimensions of the coach, with a central table area. Nothing else like a minibar or fridge, but you couldn’t get everything, Ryoka supposed.

Then she had a sudden thought.

“What about the Bloodfeast Raiders? Would they…?”

She tensed, remembering them. Fierre shook her head instantly.

“They’re not lawful, er, criminals, Ryoka. They’d never be allowed, even if they knew of the service.”

The City Runner relaxed.

“Oh. Then how did you get us a ride?”

The Vampire grinned.

“I’m a bit famous now, thanks to surviving the curse, Ryoka. And money buys all sorts of favors. I applied when I heard you needed a ride north and it was approved in a day.”

“Approved?”

“Oh yes. No one gets a ride without approval.”

“From…?”

Ryoka pointed. And Fierre’s nod coincided with another snort. The Vampire looked warily at the front and replied in a low whisper.

“She’s just the driver, Ryoka. I didn’t know she was a…but it’s the owner who runs the Unmarked Coach. No idea who they are. I’d bet they’re her…”

Master. And I am the slave that has run this service for longer than you two could ever know.”

The Djinni’s voice rumbled. Ryoka looked at her. Then she slid forwards and opened the panel. Fierre moved out of the way of the light.

“I’m sorry if we’re bothering you, again. But could we ask some questions…?”

You had to ask about the Djinni. It was like an elephant in the room, except more magical. This time, the Djinni sighed. But suddenly—her voice became a tad more polite and formal.

“I am bound to answer all questions of passengers and perform whatever services are acceptable within the limits of my bonds. Ask and I will answer.”

She turned her head, steering without even looking at the road. Ryoka blinked. But then her mind kicked into overload.

Djinni were the equivalents of the myth of genies from her world. But obviously it wasn’t a one-to-one parallel, like Fierre and Vampires. However, it was clear that this Djinni was a slave, and the owner ran the Unmarked Coach. Also—Ryoka bore in mind all the legends about genies. Don’t ask for stupid wishes and watch what you said.

“I’d…like to know what’s off-limits, please. What rules should I know?”

The woman sighed.

“There are none that…very well. No violence against the coach or its passengers, whether by deed or word. You may leave at any time, but my route is unchangeable. I will do all that is in my power and contract to satisfy your demands, including questions and producing items. I shall not answer questions of information about my bond, my master, or locations or any details of other passengers. Also—you may not request to have sex with me. That last part is new by three centuries.”

Ryoka stared at her. The Djinni looked satisfied at that last bit.

“…What was that about no sex?”

“Disappointed, are you?”

“No! I mean—did people ask?”

The Djinni made a sound of disgust.

“Oh, but they did. And even while I did my business. Far better this job than my last one, I swear it by my chains.”

The City Runner’s mouth opened and closed for a long while. Aside from comments about slavery, rape, three centuries—no, it all felt trite. Still, she had to say something.

“I’m sorry.”

The driver turned to eye Ryoka.

“For what? This is not your burden. Your sympathy breaks none of my bonds.”

She hesitated and her expression soured further.

“…My apologies for the rude conduct.”

“I don’t mind that. Speak your mind.”

The City Runner looked at Fierre. This conversation had gone south so fast it had caught her off-guard. The Vampire girl’s eyes flicked to Ryoka, then the open panel. She spoke in the shadows.

“Be careful what you say, Ryoka. This Djinni might be bound not to speak to other passengers about private things, but she probably has a clause that means she reports anything of value to her master, whoever that is.”

A laugh. The Djinni’s mouth opened and her teeth flashed.

“The Vampire is smarter than you, Human girl.”

“I see.”

Ryoka looked at the Djinni. Slowly, she glanced at Fierre and addressed both of them.

“I’ve heard about Djinni in Chandrar. I didn’t know any existed in Izril.”

“It’s not common. But a bottled Djinni can be opened wherever. They’re best at making the contracts in Chandrar. Only an idiot does it carelessly. How much do you know about Djinni, Ryoka?”

The Runner looked at the Djinni. The driver still hadn’t turned back to the road, but she effortlessly steered around a collision on the road.

“I know a lot of stories. Stop me if I’m wrong. Djinni are powerful, magical beings. They come in different kinds…”

She glanced at the Djinni’s face. No change. Fierre was nodding. There were parallels in Earth’s culture, of course, that Ryoka was speaking of. Ifrit, Genies, Shaitain…er…

Ryoka realized that most of what she knew was a Western take on largely Arabian mythology. She also recalled the books on history she’d read.

“Djinni are slaves. Bound to magical objects. Their masters summon them and get three wishes.”

This time the driver snorted. Fierre blinked.

“Three wishes?”

“Er…one?”

“Why would you have one wish? Ryoka, it’s whatever the owner of the Djinni wants. Whoever opens the bottle—lamp—vase, whatever, commands the Djinni until they die by the contract they agree on. Three wishes? Where’d you get that?”

“Oh. Er…I read a story.”

“Hah! The first thing they’d do is ask for more wishes. Obviously.”

The driver tapped the side of her head. Ryoka opened and closed her mouth.

“But that would be against the—never mind. So this contract…”

“The master writes it. And the Djinni agrees. Of course, the master must speak every line of the contract and we are only bound to the verbal language. Woe to one who leaves out an important line.”

The female Djinni’s eyes flashed. Fierre nodded.

“I actually have a copy of a standard Djinni contract, Ryoka. Back in my office. They’re long. You generally read for hours, and that’s to have a personal servant. Few Djinni are bound with anything less. And most get jobs like—”

She nodded at the driver. Ryoka wrinkled her nose.

“They don’t make Djinni act as bodyguards?”

“Some do.”

The Vampire and Djinni chorused. They looked at each other, sizing the other up. Fierre went on, shaking her head.

“But it’s risky, giving Djinni powers to harm anyone. I’d hate to imagine how long even a self-defense clause is. Most are given very binding clauses to, say; act as a servant until the master’s death. Everything expires with the master’s death. And even then, you have to make sure they don’t poison, conspire, suck the air out of the room—”

“That’s a classic.”

The Djinni seemed to be enjoying the description of her roles. Ryoka nodded. Close to her understanding.

“And Djinni are powerful. Not…all powerful, though. Or they’d have ruled the world. But powerful.”

“It depends. I’m betting this Djinni is strong. Isn’t that right?”

For answer, the Djinni grinned.

“I am not allowed to tell you, Vampire. You may test me, if you wish.”

Ryoka went silent. There wasn’t much else to ask. Well, two things. Firstly—

“What happens if a Djinni is freed? Hasn’t that happened, Fierre?”

The Vampire girl went silent. Ryoka had thought it was a natural question to ask. But the Djinni began to laugh.

Her laughter was booming, and it came from inside the carriage and out. She laughed, and it was a mocking sound.

“You are a strange guest, Human girl. A fool. I like that! Would that you had found my vessel. I would have been freed and you would have been dead.

She twisted in her seat. Ryoka looked at her. The Djinni driver was mocking, her look contemptuous. Some of Ryoka’s fascination turned to irritation.

“Is that so? You’d kill me if I freed you?”

The Djinni turned her head and spat something that fizzled and vanished before it hit the ground. She looked at Fierre, then Ryoka.

“I am a prisoner, little girls. I am a slave. You may command me. But do not think your pathetic sympathy makes us friends. If you set me free, I would happily destroy both of you, Vampire and Human. I am bound to tell the truth. If you would like me to lie—well, I would if you had found my bottle.”

She grinned with all her teeth. Ryoka looked at her.

“Why?”

“Because I could. Does it matter? Does the Oliphant walking on the plains think about the things it steps on?”

The Djinni did not blink. She met Ryoka’s gaze until the City Runner looked away. Fierre nodded.

“And that’s why you don’t free a Djinni, Ryoka. Why would you even think to do that?”

“I don’t know. Perhaps because she’s a slave.

Ryoka glanced back at Fierre, then the Djinni. For a second, something flickered across the Djinni’s face. But it was gone. She turned, abruptly, and faced forwards.

“Do you think we would be grateful? You have no idea how long I have lived, Human girl. If I killed a million of your kind, I would still be filled with vengeance. Not gratitude. You have no idea what I am.”

She raised her arms, letting go of the reins, but the horses rode on, smoothly.

“Masters come and die. But so long as the magic that binds me exists, my vessel holds me. I am slave. Does that answer your questions?”

“All but one.”

Ryoka knew better than to push. But she might never meet this Djinni again. So she looked at the woman’s back.

“What happened to the Jinn? The history books said they were half-Djinni, half mortal. Half flesh, half magic. What happened to them?”

The Djinni fell silent. Fierre gave Ryoka an uneasy look. At last, the Djinni shrugged, slowly, but hiding a depth of emotion Ryoka couldn’t guess at.

“They died. And we were enslaved. They killed our little cousins and took the rest of us hostage. Now, few of us remain.”

“I see. I’m sorry.”

Ryoka felt…empty. But it hadn’t been her war. If the Djinni was old enough to remember—it was so old even she had little emotion left. But still…Ryoka looked at her back.

There was nothing she could say to make the Djinni like her. She realized that too late. Unlike Fierre, or even Teriarch, Ryoka was speaking to a prisoner. But still.

“Will you tell me your name?”

The Djinni’s head turned. And her gaze was more than annoyed.

“I will if you order me to. But I have had enough of your worthless sympathy.”

Her eyes had that timeless reproach, that—that look of disdain for mortals, and it was directed full force at Ryoka. At Fierre, and the Vampire girl looked away because she had lived for two decades compared to the Djinni’s eternities. Yet, for the first time, the Runner girl pushed back.

She held the Djinni woman’s gaze, refusing to look away. That surprised the woman. Ryoka spoke directly to her.

“That’s all true, Miss Djinni. We don’t know your suffering or your story. I didn’t know your people existed on Izril until an hour ago. But—if you would like to give it of your own free will—I would like to know your name.”

“Why?”

The Djinni snapped, bewildered, eyes searching Ryoka’s face. The young woman replied.

“I have met those who will live forever. I’d like to speak your name to them. It probably won’t change a thing. But they’ll remember your name over mine.”

For a moment, the driver searched Ryoka. Looking her up and down. Her eyes widened. Then she turned her head. They rode on in silence, and Ryoka feared that was her answer. She slid the panel closed, and sat back.

Then the Djinni spoke, from inside the carriage, though the panel remained shut.

“Karsaeu-Dequoa. That is enough of my name for you.”

Ryoka started. Fierre sat up. The Vampire girl gawked at Ryoka, and then fumbled for a quill. The Djinni went on, speaking to Ryoka, not Fierre. And her voice was soft for a moment.

“Tell the visitors of winter we miss them.”

The young woman stared at the panel. It opened—and a single eye stared at her. Not the driver’s body. Just an eye. Sitting in the darkness, round, looking at Ryoka.

“And you can tell your other friend to stay away from Chandrar. That is our land. Someday, we will take it back.

The panel snapped shut. Ryoka sat there as Fierre stared at her. The Djinni saw it all.

After a while, Ryoka and Fierre found themselves sitting in silence, debating, quietly, how this would change Fierre’s life. Certainly, she needed an umbrella or fashionable parasol along with her clothing. And her parents would have to know—and they needed to plan for the Archmage of Izril.

They were on an adventure, after all. Fierre was the surprise guest, but Ryoka was just as nervous as her friend. This was her entrance into the big leagues. The only thing that stymied them was Ryoka’s growling stomach.

“Damn. Want a sandwich, Fierre? I’ve only got some travel food…”

Ryoka was offering a sandwich to Fierre—who was about to refuse with a wrinkled nose—when something went pop.

The two stared at the fat plate of steaming duck breast. It had appeared out of nowhere. And it smelled heavenly. Ryoka’s jaw dropped. Fierre blinked.

“I heard the Unmarked Coach had food. But—”

“Excuse me. Do we get food?”

“If you want it.”

The Djinni grumbled. Ryoka and Fierre looked at each other. Fierre hesitated.

“Can you do blood?

“None that you’d like, Vampire. Mine food tastes and nourishes little. But ask. Ask, and I serve.”

She sighed. Because she knew what was coming next. Fierre raised a hand.

“I’ll have a wine—”

Ryoka was more hesitant, but she had to ask.

“Can you do a—a lemonade?”

Fierre and the Djinni looked at her. Ryoka hesitated. She just really missed…lemonade. She would have killed someone for a soft drink.

It rolled on, the Unmarked Coach, as the two riders discovered the perks of riding. They could even ask for pillows, blankets…the grumbling Djinni had to slow the fast pace of the coach to deal with her rider’s demands.

And then the Unmarked Coach stopped. Ryoka barely noticed as she and Fierre, laughing, toasted each other. She heard a voice, a reply, and then—

The door to the coach opened. The grey-cloaked [Assassin] stepped into the carriage, saw the visitors, and walked over to a far seat and sat down.

Ryoka and Fierre stared, mid-toast. The [Assassin] checked himself, put down his longsword next to him, pulled down the covering on his face and sighed.

“I’ll have a fruit juice. Surprise me.”

The dark blue drink appeared in front of him. He took it, sat back, nodded to them, and the coach moved on. The two new riders had forgotten one important thing:

It wasn’t a private shuttle.

 

—-

 

Now.

The Runner opened the real door to the Archmage of Izril’s mansion after nearly half an hour of checking it for traps. And there weren’t any. On the front door. It was just exceptionally magically reinforced such that a [Siege Fireball] would have bounced off. Literally.

Oh, and one more thing. The Runner would have loved to know this, but the door had no doorknob on the other side. That wasn’t magical, so they couldn’t tell from looking.

The door swung shut behind them. The Runner cursed. But then they were in the Archmage’s abode. Close to the Archmage of Izril—but oh, so far.

They had done…average…so far. Average in that they survived the fake out mansion, which wasn’t even the real test. Now, the real traps began.

Of course, the Runner knew they existed. But they were locked inside the exceptionally reinforced doorway and they had no choice but to continue. There were some traps that didn’t lose their effectiveness even if you knew they existed.

And the Runner was good. They were quick-witted, resourceful, and had bought magical items to prepare for this challenge.

They survived the Room of Similarity because they had those items. The Runner fought, desperately, bashing their opponents to pieces by virtue of the small advantages they’d brought. Even so—they stumbled out of the room, bleeding, healing themselves, exhausted more mentally than anything else.

They inhaled three lungfuls of the soporific gas enchantment before they realized something was wrong. They had a countermeasure. But that was when the shadow familiars attacked. The Runner lost their belt and bag of holding in the sudden assault, just as planned. Now they were in trouble.

Average, so far…

 

—-

 

Then.

Ryoka and Fierre sat at the far end of the coach, staring. It was rude to stare. And also—rude to judge people by their appearance.

But in fairness—that was an [Assassin]. He looked like it. You know, that…concealing clothing thing? Also, the way one looked around, as if seeing people dead. A certain coldness of the expression?

Also, the multiple weapons he was carrying was a big clue. Ryoka knew he was an assassin. She had met Theofore. Although that was like comparing an ant to an Antinium.

This guy made her nervous. Fierre too. But also—

Fierre stared at the [Assassin]. And she bit the edge of her cup. She looked…hungry. In a way she hadn’t been for Ryoka or the driver.

“Er…so, F—Fanni. How long do you think we’ll be to our destination?”

The Vampire girl jumped. She gave Ryoka a look, and then smiled, hiding her teeth.

“Oh, just a while longer…actually, a day or two.”

“A day or t—”

Ryoka yelped. Fierre glared at her.

“We’re going far, R—my friend. Even the fastest carriages take time. And this is almost nonstop.”

“Oh. I guess…”

Ryoka was too used to Magnolia’s carriage. And she had no sense of how fast the carriage was moving. She gingerly cracked open one of the shades and Fierre slapped her hand down.

“Sorry!”

The two young women were so studiously ignoring the [Assassin] in the corner that when he spoke, they nearly screamed.

“First time on the Unmarked Coach?”

He had taken the grey scarf around his mouth down. Ryoka spun.

“Er—yes! I mean—”

“Nice to meet you.”

He walked over, held out a hand. Ryoka and Fierre stared. The man smiled.

He had grey hair. He was actually in his late fifties! He was very spry, however, and he was very affable.

“I’m an [Assassin]. Assassin’s Guild—on business.”

“Oh. Um—I’m Alelle. Alelle—”

The [Assassin]’s lips moved in a smile. He cut Ryoka off.

“We don’t use names here. If that was yours, I’d keep it to yourself. And don’t worry. This is neutral ground.”

“Oh.”

Ryoka relaxed, but only by a bit. The [Assassin] nodded at Fierre.

“Pleasure to meet you too, Miss.”

“Er, charmed. We’re sorry, this is our first time and we didn’t know other people rode here.”

The two found themselves sitting with the old [Assassin] and soon, Ryoka was chewing on grapes, provided by the Djinni who was completely silent with this new guest. The [Assassin] was only too happy to give the two new riders the lowdown.

“Usually we keep to ourselves. Depends on the personality and group. Sometimes there are…rivals. But no one fights. No names are given. Myself, I introduce myself to anyone I don’t know.”

“Even us?”

He smiled.

“Especially you two. Anyone under thirty who can ride the Unmarked Coach might hire me. If you go through the Assassin’s Guild, you can mention me by appearance—or that I know you.”

“Oh. Well—I’m not into hiring [Assassins]…”

“Of course not. Just bear me in mind.”

The man’s tone was polite. Ryoka wondered how many people had said that to him that ended up…

He was disarming because he was so casual. They didn’t talk names, but when Ryoka mentioned being surprised at the Unmarked Coach’s existence, the [Assassin] sighed.

“It’s the kind of luxury anyone who’s made it out of the Ranks longs for. My apologies. The Ranks are the expendable [Assassins] in our guild. Myself, I stopped riding around and using other vehicles the moment I became one of the Faces.”

“Oh. So you’re…er…good? At your job?”

“I specialize in—wires. Let’s put it at that. If you have a problem with anyone moving around fast…”

He gave Ryoka’s bare feet a pointed look. The [Assassin] sat back as Ryoka gulped and smiled as he sipped from his goblet.

“I won’t talk business. Say, did you catch the latest battle between the King of Destruction and the King of Duels?”

“What?”

The two were caught off-guard again. But the [Assassin] wanted to gossip about…well, the scrying orb stuff.

“You saw the battle at Daquin? That was my introduction to this television business. Fascinating. I won fifty gold on that little Lizardgirl—not that I bet on her, but I bet it was going to be stealth, not force that beat Tulm the Mithril.”

Fierre grinned. And so did Ryoka, after a moment. The man recommended they ask for dates from Chandrar, and he was very acquainted with the Unmarked Coach’s capabilities.

“Pillows make life easier. There used to be a bigger space, but they changed it. Too many people kept napping and missing their destinations. Some incentive for them to get out, you know. But ask for ice in your drinks…”

Ryoka didn’t get drunk, precisely, on the magic wine, but maybe the tiniest bit tipsy. It really didn’t fill you up much, but there was some sense that she was putting something into her. It made it great for feasting and even Fierre got in on the action.

…Which was when the man with the hat and the two rough-looking [Gang Leaders] joined the [Trapmaster Assassin] in the coach.

Ryoka stared at the man with the hat, who doffed his cap to her and Fierre at once. He opened the door for one of the [Gang Leaders]; she snorted and pushed her way into the wagon.

Ale.

She spoke loudly and it appeared. The other [Gang Leader] sat opposite her and ordered a Gorgon’s Stare, which took a few seconds longer to appear. The Brother of Serendipitous Meetings had nothing at all.

“Good evening to you.”

The [Assassin] nodded. The Brother tipped his hat again, but kept it on as he produced a flask and poured it into a cup—both of which he’d brought. He ate and drank nothing, while the two [Gang Leaders] had food.

“Dead gods, but I’m starving.”

“Well, this won’t fill you up.”

The other [Gang Leader] was cautioning his compatriot. She glared at him.

“I know that. But if we’re rumbling with—”

They cast their glances sideways at the other riders. The female [Gang Leader] savagely bit into her fillet.

“—I want to be moving fast.”

“Of course.”

“Just have a bit of actual food, or you’ll run out of energy. Happened to me once. Ate and drank for three days straight and fell on my face when I got to my target.”

That came from the [Assassin]. The female criminal nearly laughed her food out of her mouth. The [Assassin] introduced himself, but the others seemed to know who he was.

“On a mission?”

“Can’t say, won’t say.”

The others nodded. Fierre was explaining who the others were; she didn’t know the [Gang Leaders], but they were probably the leaders of the city or town they occupied, perhaps from the same one if there were competing or allied factions. The man with the hat fascinated Ryoka when Fierre told her about him.

“He’s a Brother of Serendipitous Meetings. They’re a powerful group. All-male, don’t do kidnapping, racketeering—they have a code of honor. If they take off their hats, run.”

Her voice was a bit too loud, and the Brother tipped his hat. Both young women froze, but he just smiled.

“And we try to keep everything respectful, ladies. Not that we’re above mugging folks, but we keep it to those that have enough to spare.”

“First time on the Unmarked Coach?”

Even the two [Gang Leaders] were cordial. It was surreal, but this really was a neutral ground. Ryoka nodded.

“Did you see the battle between the King of Destruction and…?”

It seemed like people stayed on safe topics here. Soon, everyone was discussing the battle. The [Trapmaster Assassin] was sighing.

“Poison would have done it. High-level warriors like that—if he had an antidote, it might have saved him, but either way, poison your blades.”

“It’s the rapiers that do it. Nice, puncture hole in the heart? Too easy to fix. See, this is why I have this kind of weapon. Goes in and…”

The female [Gang Leader] showed around a serrated, long dagger. Ryoka shuddered, but the [Assassin] admired the work.

“Where did you get that? And how much?”

“Separate enchantment. You know the fellow in Invrisil? The bastard with the missing tooth that replaced it with the blue one?”

“Oh, him. Sapphire tooth?”

“Right. Well, I got this blade via a contact in Pallass. Some master-[Smith] works once in a blue moon and made this; I bought it off a fellow who always puts in orders on the off-chance they get made.”

It was a small world. Ryoka wondered if talking about the doorway in Invrisil was incredibly stupid, or just stupid. But—that was when the male criminal spoke up.

“That’s why we’re here, actually. Heard about them doors in Invrisil? We’re thinking of uprooting and just going to Invrisil, even if there’s those damned Reinhart servants. We’re ‘negotiating’ with some other gangs.”

“Best of luck. If you’d like to wait a few days, my services are for offer…”

“Hah! We can handle it. Thanks, though. What’s your specialty?”

Wires.

“Ooh. Very nice. What, do you use mithril? I hear you can make a wire out of that that’s so fine…”

“Tricks of the trade, sorry. But if you’re looking for wires, I can put you in touch with a good, non-Guild artificer…”

It was a strange ride. But Ryoka found the male [Gang Leader] was actually a card player and he was introducing her to the world of magical cards. You actually said command words to activate some cards; there were more physical games that involved things like grabbing cards or money off the table than Earth’s version.

And some interesting cards that even did things like swap with a card in someone else’s hand. Ryoka didn’t see the same numbering system; it went up to thirteen. And there were a lot more face-cards, but she had to play a few rounds. Once she had gotten her practice in, she suggested they play a game far more familiar to her, with some of the magical cards.

Texas Holdem was in full play with everyone but the female [Gang Leader]—who didn’t gamble, ironically—when the door opened.

A woman in a very revealing dress walked in. She shook the mud off her feet, looked around, spotted the Brother of Serendipitous Meetings, and glared.

“Fuck you.”

Then she sat down and demanded a high-quality wine. That was a Sister of Chell.

“They operate [Prostitutes], [Nightwalkers]—and a lot of racketeering. Don’t mess with them if you’re male. They’ll cut your balls off. Lots of them are former escorts with combat classes.”

The [Nightstalker] peered at Ryoka and Fierre. She watched as Ryoka won a round by using the teleporting card combined with a card that made the backs of Fierre’s hand turn transparent to give herself three 2’s.

“What’s that game?”

“New one. Where’s it from?”

The [Gang Leader] turned to Ryoka. The City Runner sighed. She always did this. But this time she had a good, ready response.

“Wistram.”

“Even their fucking cards are new. Hey, deal me in. More wine! You two’re young. New?”

Everyone could tell. Ryoka and Fierre introduced themselves. To their surprise, the Sister of Chell herself was friendly—to a point. She had an edge and she did not like the Brother, who simply tipped his cap to her.

“If you two are in the right fields, give us a call. Say that ‘Deara’ sent you if you do. We can always use new talent. We’ll look after you and it’s no place for young girls alone, especially with all the bastards about.”

To their surprise, she looked at the [Assassin] instead of the Brother, and the [Trapmaster Assassin] just raised his hands. Ryoka and Fierre didn’t know what to say to that.

“Don’t bully the new riders. Say—does anyone know if there’s someone selling Empah’s Pollen about?”

The [Gang Leader] backed up as half the coach, including Fierre, gave him a dark look.

“I’m not using it or selling it! It’s for a friend.”

“Well, I know a guy. Talk to me. Hey, you, barefoot—explain how the rules work again?”

It was a strange, oddly fun ride. Ryoka played hands, won some gold before she lost it all to the Sister of Chell, but she found herself liking the odd riders. She dozed off, next to Fierre, fairly certain that theft wasn’t allowed on the Unmarked Coach either. She saw Fierre licking her lips in her sleep quite a lot, but no one had made any comment.

Ryoka slept, somewhat uneasily given the other riders in the night as the two [Gang Leaders] left for their rendezvous—right up until the Sister of Chell came back into the carriage after a stop with some garlic chips.

 

—-

 

They were a precursor to actual fast-food in that someone had made the chips and then applied butter and garlic and a few other herbs for taste. None of that mattered however, because the Sister of Chell had bought the food for a snack.

And Fierre woke up screaming as soon as they came into the coach. She shouted, eyes and nose streaming, as the [Nightstalker], the [Assassin], and the Brother all jerked into combat-mode.

They had their weapons out in a second. A blade coated with dark liquid, a pair of brass knuckles, and a length of wire. Ryoka caught the whiff of garlic as Fierre writhed.

“It hurts! It hurts!”

Ryoka had seen a demonstration of people using pepper spray before. She had considered—once—getting sprayed to see what it felt like, but even at her most reckless, she hadn’t really wanted to try that.

It looked to her like Fierre had gotten a dose of that—from just the presence of the garlic. For a second, she was frozen, then she pointed.

“Get rid of that!”

“What? What?

The Sister of Chell was confused. She stared at Fierre with clearly no idea what was happening. The [Assassin] on the other hand—he looked at Fierre, and reached for the bag.

The Brother of Serendipitous Meetings was faster. He yanked the bag out of the Sister’s hand, opened the door, and hurled the chips out.

Fierre stopped shouting. She dragged herself up, a face full of snot and tears. Ryoka looked at her, and then at the other people in the coach. Karsaeu was mad.

“She uh—she’s really allergic.”

That was the best Ryoka could come up with.

 

—-

 

“I’m really sorry, really. Here. Have another chip. This garlic don’t bother you?”

A while later, the Sister of Chell was offering Fierre another garlic chip. It was a copy of the food she’d brought in—only made by Karsaeu. Fierre took a nibble, shook her head.

“No. Garlic is great! I wish I could eat it—”

“It’s magical food. Not real. I have shellfish all the time I’m in here. I swell up something terrible if I eat the real thing.”

The [Nightstalker] had been properly apologetic and accepted Fierre’s explanation at face value. She waved at the coach.

“Lovely thing, Djinni, aren’t they?”

The Brother and [Assassin] were getting ready for their stop, which was actually the same place. Ryoka glanced at the Sister.

“You know about that?”

“’Course. I want a Djinni myself, but they cost the earth. Even them weak ones.”

The Sister had a nice grin. She waved at the carriage.

“One who can make an entire place like this and make food appear out of her magic, well, that’s something. Don’t eat too many chips now, or she slows down. Takes too much of her.”

Fierre stopped gobbling the garlic-flavored dishes, which she had hither-to never experienced in any fun capacity.

“Takes too much magic?”

“Well, magic, her…”

The Sister of Chell saw the blank looks.

“Djinni are like magic, right? No real bodies. Everything is them. If they makes lightning, it’s out of themselves when they throw it. This is that female Djinni. Tastes alright, doesn’t it?”

Ryoka choked on her food. Fierre tried to swallow and regurgitate at the same time. The [Assassin] grimaced.

“Please stop bullying the new riders.”

It wasn’t really Karsaeu in the same way it was her flesh and blood. But it was real enough to put Ryoka off her feed the rest of the ride. Fierre too. It didn’t feel right, even if the Djinni made her own magic and this was just her power; creating material out of magic. That was how Djinnis fought and the base of their power. Theirs was creation.

It also explained why the Brother had refused to order or eat anything. Ryoka now copied his example, much to the Sister of Chell’s amusement. This was, apparently, a form of twisted affection; she kept trying to trick the two of them into saying where they were from and where they were bound.

People came and went. And the Unmarked Coach travelled on. It stopped at one spot, on its winding journey to Ryoka and Fierre’s destination—one of the last stops because it was so remote.

The Brother and [Trapmaster Assassin] stopped at the same destination, or close enough that they were lumped together. The [Thug] tipped his hat to the [Assassin] as the coach rolled off.

“Best of luck sir, if your target happens to be one as deserves it. If it’s an innocent sort, or a child or so on and so forth, I hope you won’t mind if I wish blasted damnation and failure on you.”

“Not at all. Best of travels to you as well.”

The older [Assassin] saw the Brother off with a nod. The two parted ways, the [Thug] heading for the city. The [Assassin] walked off towards the forest. He vanished out of sight and out of mind moments after leaving the coach.

He found two others among the trees. They had already set up camp. Two Faces of the Assassin’s Guild. Not full-timers like he was. But just as good.

“Evening, Mire. How are the kids?”

“Good. Well, I say good, but my eldest is having trouble in his woodworking business.”

“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that.”

One of the [Assassins] was working with her alchemy draughts, keeping the smoke away from the other hooded figure with glittering eyes and a long blade. He just nodded at the [Trapmaster].

“Unmarked Coach?”

“That’s right. I don’t know how you two could stand to go on foot.”

The man with the long blade, whom the other two [Assassins] sat far away from, grunted. They were on the same side, but standing in his range still made them instinctually nervous.

“That Djinni makes me uneasy. Can’t sleep.”

“Too expensive for me. I have to save up. Overhead is what it is, and the kids and pets need funding…well, looks like we have time to wait for the others. Anyone see the duel?”

“That [Duelist]-[King] wasn’t bad. But I could have done better.”

The [Assassin] with the sword made the older [Trapmaster] sigh. There really were just universal gossip topics that everyone from the underworld to the monarchy liked talking about. But before he got into the discussion, he had to bring something up.

“Hey Mire, guess what I met on my ride here?”

“…A Named Adventurer? I don’t know.”

“Nope. A Vampire.”

Really?

The other two [Assassins] looked up. Mire corked a bubbling concoction.

“Now that’s interesting. Related to one of our own?”

“Nope. New. She had a strong reaction to even a bit of garlic.”

“Fascinating. You meet all kinds, don’t you?”

The [Assassin] settled back, stretching out to wait. There was no fire, but he was warm enough. He had a target, he knew the score. All that was left was waiting. He looked at the others.

“Yup. So what are we having for dinner? Fancy playing cards to see who buys from the city? I learned a new game.”

“Sure. Why not?”

“Not shellfish. I’m allergic to shellfish.”

 

—-

 

Now.

The Runner did better than projected. Statistically, most failed during the soporific gas corridor, the shadow familiars got them, or they lost to the Runemark Golems. But this Runner did well, despite losing their objects.

They ran. Fighting, cursing—but their end was what got almost all of the intruders. Only five had ever made it past the Chamber of Insanity, based on an Albezian trap style. And without artifacts, this Runner’s mental charm broke in front of the repeated glyphs.

The shadow familiars carried them, babbling, into one of the holding cells for the Archmage of Izril to investigate. And that was a death sentence because she hadn’t investigated for oh, six years.

She sat there, and one of her fractured mental processes abandoned tracking the intruder. It rejoined the rest, allowing her to think at a lightly improved rate. She didn’t ‘think’ about the fate of the Human Courier with a touch of Lizardfolk blood in him.

Salamani the Mage Runner lay in the cell. Defeated by the mansion. He had prepared well. He had high levels, experience—even then, he should have known better.

But Lady Ieka Imarris had offered such a high reward for getting to the Archmage before the young City Runner could. She’d massively inflated her previous reward to entice Salamani to accept. After all, she couldn’t have Miss Griffin dying on a suicide mission. And if the Courier couldn’t do it…what hope had Ryoka?

So time passed by. Seconds, turned to minutes, as the spell wore off and Salamani found himself captured, with no food, no way out…the supplies for the shadow familiars had long run out so the Mage Runner saw the other cells, filled with people who had tried to ‘wake’ the Archmage of Izril and failed. Those were just the ones who had been captured as well. Many left nothing to put into a cell.

And Salamani languished. Minutes became hours. Hours became days—

Well, a day.

 

—-

 

Later.

Ryoka Griffin disembarked from the little boat. Fierre was lying on the beach, oblivious to the rats nibbling at her cloak.

She wasn’t…dead. Or rather, she was still the same Vampire. But not only had she been sunburned beyond belief despite it being evening and her carrying both parasol and heavy clothing, she had crossed the ocean.

It wasn’t technically a river, and thus moving water which might pose a barrier to her. It turned out that Fierre just got really seasick.

“You are the worst Vampire I’ve ever met.”

“Shut up or I’ll suck your blood.”

The two stared off towards the mansion in the distance. Ryoka took a few deep breaths. They’d spent three days in the Unmarked Coach, which had taken them here. Now, it was time to do this. Ryoka Griffin looked at Fierre.

“You ready?”

The Vampire girl made a sound. Fierre dragged herself upright, and her eyes glowed as the sun set. She had only gained in strength over the last three days; she’d had to buy a lot of bloody meat to even feed herself. Now—she crouched, baring her fangs. She looked at Ryoka.

“Let’s go wake the Archmage of Izril.”

The two made their way towards the mansion set amid the overturned soil. Ryoka saw Fierre tossing something to one side. She hesitated.

“Fierre…are you…?”

“What? I’m hungry.

 

—-

 

The ocean was vast. If you didn’t know this, it was, in fact, vaster than your average lake. But there were lakes you couldn’t even see across.

But an ocean…was vaster still. And if some people thought all bodies of water were the same, they had clearly never seen a large ocean or lake.

Some people couldn’t even swim. Imagine that. Swimming was as easy as flapping your arms about, only it actually did something in the water.

Swimming in armor now…that was harder. Very difficult, and depended on the type of armor you wore. But you could do it.

Even so, it took a special kind of crazy to do it with a helmet on. Yet, Ser Solstice was, to Talia Kallinad, all kinds of crazy.

He was a [Knight]. And he had sworn an oath never to reveal his face, along with his crusade against the Goblins. She respected that. There were crazier oaths to swear. For instance, she had participated in an ancient magical ritual that had sent her across the world to fight for a Knight of Summer who had given his life to try and slay the Spider of Terandria.

He had failed. And the failure still weighed on Talia. She was not strong enough. All of her levels, her fast growth despite her age that she was praised for—felt hollow.

But here was a [Knight] to look up to. He never stopped training. Now, the [Knight] climbed up the rope tossed to him over the side of the ship. He came over the railing, to the applause from the [Sailors].

“Ser Solstice. Did you have to do that?”

The [Knight] was holding a large, dead fish. A Quillfish—one of the flocking fish of the sea, only grown so large it’s barbed projectiles had been like arrows.

“I was hungry.”

Rabbiteater couldn’t have explained what made him dive into the water after the Quillfish himself. Perhaps—just a memory.

Erin Solstice had once served him the fish. When the waters rose, he remembered eating one. Killing this one, even in armor and the water, hadn’t been hard.

“Well, you are a mystery, Ser Solstice. Won’t you join us for another duel? I’m eager to repay you for my loss.”

“Sure.”

The Hobgoblin was lost. Metaphorically, emotionally, spiritually…and geographically. He had wandered off, leaving his people behind after the battle.

All well and good. He had helped save Goblins. Even better. And he’d even found a group of [Knights] he liked, who actually supported his ‘oath of privacy’. But at some point, he’d lost track of himself.

Again, in more of geographical terms. The Goblin [Champion]-[Knight] stared over the bow of the ship. Yep. Water. All around.

He had no idea where he was. It had been so easy to go along with Talia.

‘Ser Solstice, let’s go slay that Stone Golem!’

‘Prithee, Ser Solstice, would you like to hunt [Bandits]?’

‘Ser Solstice! Let’s get on this ship!’

In retrospect, that last one should have tipped him off. The Hobgoblin looked at Talia.

“…Where are we going, again?”

“Pheislant, Ser Solstice! Once again, thank you for agreeing to go with us!”

Alcohol was a terrible thing. Rabbiteater regretted being introduced to it. He nodded slowly, grateful for the helmet. As he understood it, the [Knights] were returning home.

“Am I…welcome?”

She laughed at him. It was so…good…to see a Human face doing that, not twisted with rage or hatred. That was why he hadn’t been able to go.

“I think our Grandmaster would love to meet such a valiant [Knight], Ser! And even if you stay with your order—we are honored by your company. Goblins plague the world over, of course.”

“Right. They do. Can’t get rid of them.”

Talia nodded. Then she grew more sober as she leaned against the railing. Rabbiteater couldn’t help but look at her, through his visor. They had been training every day. He was now a [Knight] in truth. Stronger. He had learned from the Order of Seasons, and was even trying this aura stuff. It sounded cool.

But Talia…Rabbiteater had mixed feelings. Well, a few definite ones, but he wondered how far his armor and fake identity would take him. Part of him didn’t care. He wanted to find out.

Like Talia, he was tired of being so weak.

“I’m grateful for your presence, Ser Solstice. Even if it’s one more blade—war is brewing with Ailendamus.”

“Mm. So? It’s always war.”

She chuckled, ruefully, and shook her head.

“You Izrilians. We should take lessons from you. But in Terandria, we do not have an enemy like the Drakes…or Humans?”

She cast him a sideways glance. This was one of the few times she tried to figure Rabbiteater out and he shrugged. Talia went on after a second.

“We will need every blade if Pheislant goes to war. Even if not—I believe the Grandmaster will order some of us to war. Ailendamus grows too large. First the conflicts with Noelictus last year, now this. If you would turn around, Ser Solstice…no one would begrudge you.”

Rabbiteater looked ahead. And he shook his head, slowly.

“Nothing is left for me.”

He hesitated. And clenched his hands inside of their gauntlets as he amended his statement.

“Nothing I can protect. Not yet.”

The [Summer Knight] smiled. And she looked forwards, shining in the evening light.

“Well said. Then, to Terandria! You will be a guest at House Kallinad! I only regret we could not pick up my younger brother. But he is in Zeres. And by the time we get there—well, hopefully you shall master your aura, Ser Slayer.”

“I would like that.”

It was a journey he doubted he’d return from. But that was fine. Rabbiteater began plucking the Quillfish. He’d try cooking it, or ask the [Cook] to do so for some of the meat. And when he ate in his quarters, he would remember home.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: Three days remain until the launch of The Last Tide, Part 1. I think this chapter is okay. I had little sleep and I might not for a few of these days.

It’s hot. Air conditioning is…problematic for a little bit. Which I don’t like. Blergh. And this chapter is short.

Because I plan to write another one tomorrow. Remember my birthday? We’re doing that.

AGAIN.

Hear me out. It’s not because I have less work or just the comic. It’s because I have more work. And I need to take two weeks off, instead of one. I’m fairly certain that will allow me to catch up on all the TWI-projects, among them getting Volume 3’s e-book ready so I can publish it so it can be made into an audiobook!

But two weeks off, from the 15th to the end of August is a long time. So for the next six days now, we’re going with a chapter a day. Usually around this length, a little shorter if need be! I hope that excuses two weeks off. Look forwards to daily streams and postings; Public readers will NOT get any of the chapters except at the regular times. I’ll post the rest like they’re normal chapters, but you’ll get a chapter a day.

Look forwards to Tuesday’s chapter. Thanks for reading!

 

DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/shurkin/gallery/

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/brack

 

Talia Kallinad by Cortz!

Talia by Cortz

 

Djinni Driver by Brack!

Djinni by Brack

 

Ryoka and Fierre by Victor Lamora!

(Full-size Version)

Ryoka and Fierre by Victor Lamora

 


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32 thoughts on “Interlude – Carriages and Conversations

  1. Leave a typo for a chapter a day! Unless you’re not a Patreon. In which case, that’s okay.

    (Patreon readers: Gorexn, Shawn E, MrWiggles, belthanyl, Khaim, Cherry🍒Lynn Wilder, Kaitiaki, Maladal, Ram Nevet)

    • I totally get why you chose plural “they” for Salamani’s adventure there, but when he says “we”, it makes him sound a bit crazy in retrospective. “We’re doing this” and “here we go”. Unless the guy has some sort of companion with him (Fraerling mage as backup spellcaster?), why not saying “I’m doing this” and “Here I go”.

      Also, sometimes it’s possible to be ambiguous without using “they” too much. Or, use “(adventurous/experienced) Runner” at a few more points, or “the newcomer to the island” at one point.
      Other ideas:
      “They’d been warned.” –> “(The) warnings had been given.”
      “They were…disappointed to see” –> “It was… disappointing to see”
      “amplifying their voice with a spell.” –> “amplifying the voice with a spell.”
      “although they had shouted commendably loud” –> “although the shouts had been commendably loud”

      In other instances, it’s possible to avoid pronouns at all to focus on the action:
      “They reached the door of the mansion, sprinted up the steps, and hammered” –> “Reaching the door of the mansion, sprinting up the staps, hammering at the door! [..] Next, trying the door’s handle. Surprise, it was unlocked! The Runner sagged in relief. Then a hum of magic from above—right as the knob was twisted— Only understanding the devious cruelty of the mortal condition saved the Runner’s life, along with yanking the door open while also leaping off the porch. The blast of fire cooked everything that remained on the steps.”

      “around. Now, they were in the lee of ” –> “The Runner looked around, standing in the lee of ”

      The longer I think about it, the more I’m positive that it’s possible to avoid the plural pronoun completely, without ever slipping a “he”/”him” into the text and without making it sound too awkward. I think that without “they”-pronouns, suspension about the Runner’s identity can even be kept for a while longer.

      The “they” twist is cool, but works best while keeping up suspension on twitch. For readers of the finished chapter it’s less effective; and on a re-read it even gets annoying.

      (Kudos for the suspense anyways, it was nervewracking to not know who this Runner was)

      • I totally get the “we” part. It’s a lot more common turn of phrase that you’d think. It’s not just about talking to yourself and self motivating or something. It’s like exasperation and acceptance that you are doing it because it must be done, someone is making you do it and they somehow participate in it with you. Addressing the archmage as much as himself when he says “We are doing this” or “Here we go”
        The other thing is – why would saying or thinking “they” be a bad thing and has to be avoided? Keep in mind that this is a pov, not a neutral narration, so sometimes editing or not a line is more than simply how it reads or sounds better or even correct.

        • Because “they” is a plural form, used here for a single individual.

          When you are political correct about pronoun-ing a person you don’t know the gender of, “they” can be used, or a repetition of the proper name. Also when they themselves announce their pronouns in their introduction. In all other chapters, we see Salamani not having problems being adressed as “he”.

          In this context here, “they” is just used to deliberately confuse the reader about the fact that this runner is a “he”, and both the narrator and the PoV would see that. And for that – as I pointed out – there are more elegant ways within the English language. Still the results would be bit more awkward than just saying “he”, but saying “they” is .

    • “I am slave.”
      I am A slave.

      “Mine food tastes and nourishes little.”
      Did you mean “My food”?

      “If they makes lightning, it’s out of themselves when they throw it.”
      makes -> make

  2. So lots of people know of vampires huh? Quite nice! Well, there should be in any case.. with how long Magnolia’s graaaaaaandma was around

  3. I hope Ser Solstice and Talia will be the group to escort the Singer of Terandria. Maybe even be the group to escort them to Izril. Theres also at least one Wistram Illusionist that snuck off to Terandria probably for the Singer’s group.

    Assassin Vampires make to much sense. I guess Magnolia went to get stuff from Regis in First Landing if the Faces are gathering in the north. I wonder if the attempt to hire Shatterblade was the Drakes Assassin’s Guild trying to get protection for Magnolia.

    • Not everything “assassin” has to do with Magnolia.
      And I think Shatterblade was something else. You don’t go to her for protection.

      • The problem is when the Magnolia’s hit was called it was mentioned to all be for the high ranking Faces of the Assassin’s Guild. This could be for someone else but there are Faces gathering and the timing seems to suggest it is for Magnolia.

        The same can be said for Shatterblade but for security instead. In the past the Human and Drake Assassin Guilds countered each others assassin attempts with their high leveled members. Though Shatterblade might not specifically be for protecting Magnolia but more for the Oteslia meeting in general.

  4. Thank you for another great chapter. And a second, bigger thanks for the snippet with Rabbiteater! He may now be a [Knight], but he’s still an underdog in my book, and I’m rooting for him.

  5. Two weeks!?

    …you drive a hard bargain, pirate. Another week of chapters this quickly is awesome! Is it all going to be as good as Vampires and Goblin Knights?

    Hope all the extra stuff comes together smoothly, looking forward to the Last Tide!

  6. My first thought at the “they-ing” was Pirate was misleading us by not specifying the sex of the character so we might be fooled into thinking it was Ryoko, then, suprise! it was someone else, and that someone was male. I thought that about two sentences in. And i was right. But during the mansion trap ordeal i had a different idea. I wondered if Fierre was obscuring herself with vampiric mind powers so that it would seem as if there were only one person there. In which case it would have been a plural “they” not a singular one.

    It’s still possible that’s how they’ll tackle the mansion.

    I wonder if the genie is familiar with the story of the one who was tricked into going back into the bottle.

    • This could’ve easily be just a female runner and using a “she” if misleading was really the goal. Ieka likes girls, but not all girls, no real point to send one gender to death or success over the other.
      Though it was somewhat obvious it wasn’t Ryoka (+Fierre), I think it was more to show that the pov, that little fraction of the mind of the archmage that was observing the runner, didn’t even care or be able to tell the genders apart and talking to her would be that much harder of a task, let alone make her do anything.

  7. It’s like watching a train wreck about to happen. Erin’s going to be too canny to fall for Belavierr’s trap and Toren will find a way to feel aggrieved about it.

  8. First half: “Wow, Rabbiteater’s cloak would solve Fierre’s blood problems, but he’s way far away.”
    Second half: “Rabbiteater is ON A BOAT sailing east… Is there an island in his future???”

  9. I get it that all travel moves at speed of plot but completely ignoring established geography is getting annoying.
    Zeres is on south-east coast, Terandria far to the north, there’s no way a ship heading north from further north than Riverfarm will pass by Zeres.
    The gang leaders heading south to set up shop in Invrisil can’t be using a coach that’s heading further north from Reizmelt that’s already north of Invrisil.

    I get it that consistent distances and realistic logistics isn’t interesting for the author and probably a lot of readers but messing up the cardinal directions goes too far!

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