“It’s working. It’s…working.”
Geneva Scala closed her eyes as the first [Message] reached her. The [Doctor] sagged in her chair, as if someone had drained the energy from her. Relief meant that exhaustion took over.
It was actually Idis that got her up to deliver the news. And of course, they had to make sure they were delivering the full dose of the penicillin-substitute. Geneva went through a back-and-forth with the Zeres [Healer] who had given her the status update on the nearly two-dozen patients she’d been trialing the mold with.
There was so much to do. Finding success here wasn’t the end of the battle, merely the beginning. Now, growing the mold a thousand times over mattered even more. Apparently it germinated on some kinds of vegetables best.
“Pumpkins? And we need to name it.”
That was actually the trickiest part. Occillium was not a good name, as Geneva wrote back the Stitchgirl [Alchemist]. Or was it? Geneva wanted to name it according to the mold, which, in fact, had no Latin root name. Nor, as it turned out, did the [Alchemist] even know what mold she’d isolated.
But it was happening. And it was almost funny—reading the [Messages].
If Occillium—working name—is viable, how much of a market price should I sell it for? Have a few samples in the store…most still enroute. Now on ship, according to Courier.
How funny. The [Alchemist] understood, but she didn’t know. Yellow Rivers had yet to even hit Liscor, let alone Pallass. The [Doctor] wrote her back.
Name the mold or identify if it’s been found before. Derived substance should be named after the mold. It will become famous.
Soon, they would all know her name. Octavia Cotton, the [Alchemist] from Liscor. Once Geneva got the Occillium—damn, she was already using the name—they could announce that a cure existed. Then…she could relax for a day or two. The [Doctor] sighed.
That morning, Lyonette du Marquin realized something important. It was as she was combing Mrsha’s fur. Mrsha of course had helped with Lyonette’s hair; the two helped prepare each other for the day.
“Mrsha, I forgot that my [Boon of the Princess] Skill is still in effect. I should change that.”
Mrsha glanced up and her eyes sharpened.
[Boon of the Princess]. Oho!
Lyonette’s new, Level 20 Skill was a powerful one. Hither to, Lyonette had used it on a grand total of two people. First Mrsha, then, on a whim—
The effects of her boon Skill were unprecedented to everyone but Lyonette. When she bestowed it, not only did a mark of her royal house appear—visible only to the recipient and Lyonette, and possibly other royals if it worked like her father’s Skill—it gave them two temporary Skills.
Madness! Egad! Can I have it? Pwease?
Lyonette read the little card Mrsha handed to her. The [Princess] frowned.
“Is Erin teaching you these expressions, Mrsha?”
The little Gnoll nodded. Lyonette rolled her eyes.
“Don’t say ‘egad’. What—what does that even mean? And spell properly, Mrsha. A young lady has good diction. And maybe you can have the boon. But I can’t just bestow it at random. Let’s go find Octavia.”
The two headed downstairs amid the bustle of another day. Guests were already in the inn, and Lyonette reflected that her [Boon of the Princess] Skill would have made her father flip. If he knew she had it.
It was unique—unprecedented—to the peons and common folk of the world. But monarchs had always had Skills like this. The King of Calanfer, for instance, Lyonette’s father, had [Favor of the King]. A more powerful version of her boon.
Lyonette had not known all the intricacies of one of Calanfer’s best, and secret, tools, but she knew their Kingdom’s champion benefitted from it. Hence his powerful aura. Also—the boon affected more than just Skills. Under it, Calanfer’s Champion of the Dawn was stronger, faster than normal…
Well, the Skill would upgrade with time. Lyonette couldn’t wait. She almost rubbed her hands together, imagining what it might become. Certainly, it had paid off in dividends already.
“Octavia? Are you decent? Is anything about to explode?”
“Come in! I’m decent! And nothing’s exploding yet!”
The [Princess] cautiously pushed open the door. She saw Octavia, hovering around a sample of fungi in jars. Lyonette wrinkled her nose.
“What is this? More of your cure, Octavia?”
The [Alchemist] jumped.
“Oh no. Mrsha, stay back. The uh, spores should be safe according to Master Saliss, but you don’t want more of this growing at random. Or in your fur. I’m working with more molds, see?”
She proudly pointed to a glowing jar she’d been ‘feeding’ with some Sage’s Grass water. Lyonette saw Mrsha peek at the red-yellow fungi, which had created small beams across the jar, like some natural architecture.
“What—what do they do?”
The [Princess] tried not to recoil at the sight. She regarded molds as an undesirable thing in any situation, and was still mystified by the idea that they could be helpful or cure disease. Octavia beamed.
“This stuff? It’s a good anti-toxin, according to Master Saliss. And this is Occillium. Name pending.”
She proudly showed the others the mold she’d cultivated to create the penicillin-equivalent. It was, well, indigo. Lyonette peered at the jar, keeping Mrsha back.
“I’m thinking of calling it Octavia’s Mold, to justify the name. Or—if we want to get fancy, maybe Octalius? What do you think?”
The [Princess] thought that she was double-banning Mrsha from Octavia’s shop. She sighed. The [Alchemist] had done a good job.
“It sounds lovely, Octavia. Look, I hope your shop is doing well—”
“Business is picking up. But I’m closed most of the time; I’m working with Master Saliss. But he’ll let me try out my new recipes and selling stuff soon. He’ll be going on adventures.”
Octavia emphasized ‘Master Saliss’. She was so proud of her apprenticeship with the insane Named Adventurer. The [Princess] nodded.
“Excellent. Well, Octavia, we have breakfast…”
“What? Is it morning? I thought it was midnight—”
The [Alchemist] jumped. She’d closed all the curtains in her shop so the sunlight peeking through the cracks hadn’t been obvious. Lyonette shook her head. She spoke slowly, used to Octavia’s befuddled states.
“If you want food…we have food. Okay? I’m just here to tell you I’m cancelling my [Boon] Skill.”
Lyonette hadn’t told Octavia she was a [Princess]. She had just asked if Octavia wanted to try her ‘new Skill’ she’d gotten as Erin’s [Manager].
The sleepy [Alchemist] was nodding along until that last bit. Then her eyes opened wide.
“What? Lyonette! No! Please! I need it!”
“You’ve had it for weeks, Octavia. Honestly, I forgot about it—if you ate with us more often, I’d have noticed—remove boon. There. Sorry, Octavia, but I want to test it out more. I’ll just be—”
“I need it! I can’t do my fungoid research without it! Lyonette, I’ll pay you!”
The [Alchemist] grabbed at Lyonette as the [Princess] tried to escape. Lyonette didn’t need to be close to Octavia to cancel the boon, or even bestow it, but she had told Octavia to be polite.
She regretted it now. Octavia tried to drag her back.
“Please, Lyonette? Listen—I got [Fungoid Harvester] and [Lesser Wisdom] with your boon! I can’t work without it! Do you know how useful those Skills are?”
Two new Skills. Lyonette hadn’t known [Fungoid Harvester] existed, but the use of the Skill wasn’t hard to figure out. It was how Octavia had finally managed to isolate different molds. [Lesser Wisdom] now—that was like [Lesser Strength], but rarer. Far more useful for an [Alchemist]’s need to comprehend and innovate, too.
“I’m sorry, Octavia—let go! I want to experiment—Mrsha!”
The little Gnoll punched her fist into her paw. Octavia wanted to play rough? The [Druid]’s eyes glowed as she drew her wand. [Fur of the Fortress]!
Octavia yelped as a huge, hairy ball of fur tackled her from behind. She went down and Lyonette bounded away.
“Lyonette! Please! I’ll pay you per hour! No—per day? Wait—”
A triumphant Mrsha hurried after Lyonette, shedding mounds of white fur which vanished after a few seconds. Lyonette sighed.
Another day in The Wandering Inn. But now she had her [Boon] Skill—who would benefit from it now? She couldn’t use it on herself, but…Pawn? Mrsha? No, wait, not Mrsha. [Barkfur] and [Lesser Strength] just meant she caused more trouble.
Breakfast in The Wandering Inn was a chaotic affair at the best of times. The inn now had permanent guests, like the Players of Celum.
“Just something light today, please. Some of those berries mixed in a small bowl of yogurt? We’re performing this morning. The Council’s having us do a larger performance.”
Temile and the [Actors] were excited, as was Galina, who’d joined their group. Across from them, Hexel was already on his way out. His three Lizardfolk apprentices had been delivered food in their room; they were still afraid of Drakes.
There were Drakes and Gnolls serving the tables. Ishkr wasn’t; he was in charge, leaving Lyonette and Erin to enjoy breakfast unmolested. Well, that didn’t stop Erin from calling out to other people.
“You don’t want breakfast, Hexel? Something to eat as you go?”
The Lamia grinned.
“I’m fine, Miss Solstice! Must slither off; lots of work to do as usual. I’m breakfasting with Councilman Elirr!”
“Oh, cool! See? I told you that some of Liscor’s people were cool with Lizardfolk, Numbtongue.”
“Mm. Not Drakes. Pass the sauce.”
“Here you go.”
“Octavia, we’re having breakfast. Does anyone want more eggs?”
“I would like more unborn b—I mean, eggs.”
“Here you are, Bird. Octavia. Stop rubbing my shoulders.”
“Nice to see you, Octavia. You’re normally in your shop so much we have to send people to give you food before you starve to death. Uh…what’s this about?”
The merry conversation was taking place at one table where Bird, Mrsha, Numbtongue, Lyonette, Erin, and a rare addition, Octavia, sat. It was their customary group.
Sometimes there were additions, like Pawn, Belgrade, Yellow Splatters, or other friends like Moore, Selys, and so on. But the core group was this.
Around the inn were other regulars. A Gnoll and Drake with their hats on. They were sighing as they tucked into their food.
“I rather feel as though we’re being fattened up on feed, Ratici. Not that I mind free money, but one has to feel we’ve gotten rusty from all this sitting around. Check my midsection. Do I detect a bulge?”
“Not yet Wilovan. Still, you read my mind. But the Tallman’s paying…should we take rooms here?”
“I rather think that [Innkeeper] might sense us, Ratici. I’ve no desire to explain the accoutrements of various and somewhat illegal to very illegal natures on my person, do you?”
“I don’t think so, Wilovan. But if we fail our charge at night…”
“What are we, [Bodyguards]? Good sleep is essential, Wilovan. I won’t be staking out this inn every night until we’re done. Even in shifts!”
An exclamation made Wilovan raise a furry finger. Octavia had just brought up the [Boon] Skill that Lyonette had used. The Gnoll’s ears twitched and Ratici went to eating a hard-boiled egg.
The conversation, to any interested Gnolls or those good of hearing, went like this.
“—two of them! Free! I have to use them! Maybe, maybe I get them if I level up, but both of them helped me with my breakthrough. I’m begging you, Lyonette. Use your [Boon] Skill on m—”
Lyonette kicked Octavia. The [Alchemist] collapsed onto the table, grabbing at her shin.
“I told you, keep it quiet. Let’s continue this in the garden, if we have to.”
The [Princess] was wary. She was about the only one. Well, all that told most idle listeners was that Lyonette had a [Boon] Skill. But those in the know…well, Wilovan was a member of the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings. Untoward actions did not befit him.
But it was something to note. The [Thug] relayed the knowledge to Ratici, whose brows shot up.
“A [Boon] Skill? I can count the number of classes that get Skills like that on one claw, Wilovan. Or is it two?”
“Something to look into, Ratici. Something to look into. Now, we may be fattened layabouts, but I’m rather interested in that weights room. And the darts board…”
The two Gentlemen Callers reflected that at least The Wandering Inn had amenities to occupy them day by day. They were rather taken with the new games Erin was introducing. They had already earned a reputation as two of the best dart-board champions.
Gnolls had good ears. And as the breakfast crowd cleared up, you could hear a lot of important stuff if you were listening. Some people were intelligent and always took precautions, like Palt giving Montressa and Bezale the plans for the skateboard as part of his sharing agreement. His conversation and even the objects he was holding were blurry if you tried to focus in on them.
However, there were snippets, like Octavia’s broken-off conversation with Lyonette that a spy could pick up on. If there were any in The Wandering Inn, of course.
Well, one of them was miserable. Ferris, one of Manus’ top agents, sat at his table and wondered if going back empty-pawed would be worth Rafaema incinerating him.
He was a Gnoll. Also, an expert in covert operations, infiltration, combat, and any number of activities that the City of War needed done. Ferris had come to The Wandering Inn under the guise of a member of Izril’s Wonders, a travelling company that actually did exist. He actually had a charter with them.
None of it had prepared him for this assignment. Or rather, Erin Solstice.
“Miss Solstice! Ferris here. Er—Ferris Seftpaw? You wouldn’t happen to have given the offer some thought, would you?”
The Gnoll intercepted Erin on the way to the [Garden]. The [Innkeeper] blinked at him and his nervous-but-amiable expression. It was a perfect guise that had fooled countless people into believing the inept but well-intentioned Gnoll was just ‘doing his best’. She hesitated, guileless, and then slapped her forehead.
“Oh no. Oh man. Ferris! I completely forgot!”
Ferris could detect truth in three different ways. He had a Skill, an artifact that helped him read people, and he had been trained in the detection of lies across multiple species. His heart sank because none of that helped with Erin Solstice.
Because she was telling the truth.
“Er—Miss Solstice, let me refresh your memory. An all-expenses paid tour to the Walled Cities for some promotion! Maybe a deal with your door? We can hammer the agreement down—and the Walled Cities are lovely to tour in the summer!”
“That’s right! You know, Ferris, I did think about it. Before I forgot…and it’s a great idea. But it’s like, a lot. You know?”
Erin patted the Gnoll on the shoulder. He stared at her.
“But the…deal? It’s good money, Miss Solstice. See here, we’d be willing to offer you gold for…”
He saw her eyes glaze over slightly as he tried to get her interest in the very generous deal. But numbers and Erin Solstice and business contracts went together about as well as Shield Spiders and Beavers. You had to really get lucky.
“Why don’t you talk to Lyonette?”
Ferris hesitated. He had—but he needed Erin Solstice to go on a tour. He gave her a weak grin.
“I surely will, Miss Solstice. But as I said—we’d love to have you visit the other Walled Cities. In fact, the reason I came here is to offer you that tour? You mentioned how much you liked Pallass?”
“Hm? Oh yeah. Pallass is cool. But I can’t just go off for like, a week.”
“—We could get you to Manus in three days, Miss Solstice. One of our fastest rides?”
“That’s a lot of time. I mean, Manus is cool—it sounds cool, Ferris—but three days is a lot of time to just travel about. And I should stay with the inn! Really, I’m good.”
Erin gave him a thumbs-up and a smile. Ferris stared at her. Three days to visit one of the six Walled Cities of Izril? A free ride there and back, and luxury accommodations?
He hadn’t been prepared for Erin Solstice, who viewed the longest acceptable travel times as sixteen hours by plane. And who was a homebody. And…
Ferris slunk back to his seat and put his head down. He stared at the [Message] spells waiting for him on the two-way scroll with Rafaema. She was not happy.
“Just kill me.”
The Gnoll groaned. He saw another of the inn’s spies yawning, looking perfectly happy with her lot in life. Of course, Ferris had noted some of the other infiltrators here. Not all of them were grand agents. A few were hired by Liscor’s [Cooks] to see if Erin made anything new.
This was a weird inn.
Inside the Garden of Sanctuary, Lyonette had decided who the lucky winner was.
“You’ve all made great cases. Just, great. But I have to make a decision. And I choose…”
The [Princess] walked past the contestants—her friends and family. They had all made good points. She passed by Octavia, who drooped—she had gotten the Skill already! If Octavia needed it for more Occillium—but she didn’t.
She passed by Erin, whose face fell.
Erin was a great candidate, but just…couldn’t keep a secret. If she got two new Skills, everyone would be asking how. And Erin would probably tell them. A [Boon] Skill was the kind of thing people kidnapped [Princesses] over.
Then there was Kevin, who was here for some reason, having been playing games on his laptop. The new [Tinkerer]-[Boarder]. Two new classes! The star of Pallass, already arrested once!
Lyonette passed him by. She didn’t know why he’d thought it was an option. He didn’t even know she was a [Princess].
Mrsha, Bird, and Numbtongue waited expectantly. Lyonette looked at them. She passed by Mrsha, who glared. Mrsha had already gotten the Skill and she became arrogant. Last time she had it, she had refused to go to bed, put on a cape, and become Super Mrsha until she was grounded.
That left Numbtongue and Bird. Lyonette looked between the two of them.
“Both of you might be really good recipients. And I like both of your potentials. But ultimately, I’m going to have to go with…”
Everyone leaned forwards. Lyonette waited a beat and then spoke.
The [Goblin Soulbard] pumped a fist. Bird sighed.
“I shall never hunt the elusive water bird, then. Alas.”
“I’ll give you the boon tomorrow, Bird. I think that’s the minimum amount of time I have to wait. It might be a few days, actually. Mrsha had it for a while. It’s not a Skill you can just toss about.”
“Oh. Then I am happy.”
The Hobgoblin grinned as Lyonette turned to him. The Terandrian [Princess] took the Hobgoblin’s hands in hers. She smiled at him.
Her friend. Family. The [Princess] gave him her blessing.
[Temporary Skill – Directional Sound obtained!]
[Temporary Skill – Soul’s Armaments: Mundane obtained!]
At the same time as the contest was happening, Maviola El was talking to Olesm.
“I can’t tell you where I’m going. Because you’d follow me.”
“You can’t just…leave. Are you in trouble? If you are, we can do something about it. Erin’s inn can’t be taken with an army and I can use my position—”
She halted him with a touch. The anxious younger Drake looked up at them as they sat together.
“Olesm. It’s not yet. But it will be soon. I’ve made arrangements. I…I might be able to stay. But I told you; I’m on a time limit.”
He looked at her. It was the logical conclusion. Maviola El smiled gently.
“Something like that. Olesm Swifttail, I know you. If you truly wanted to know who I was, I know you would have found it by now.”
“I don’t want to know. Can’t you stay? This is the happiest I’ve ever been. Truly.”
The [Lady]’s smile flickered out. She sat there, her black-and-orange hair glimmering in the sun.
“I’m sorry. I’ve been happy too. I wish…well, if I had one wish I wouldn’t spend it on us. But if I had a few, I wish we could have more time. Perhaps we will. But…”
One vial left. Maviola El had made all the preparations necessary. Regardless of whether Saliss of Lights made good on his offer or not…she had done what had to be done.
Olesm was the hardest part. And the only thing she couldn’t arrange. The Drake looked at her, miserably.
“Is it me? You came when I was at my lowest. Is it because it was just to…help me?”
She kissed him, gently.
“Never that. And it’s not you. I’m just out of time, Olesm. And sometimes that’s okay. Everything has to end.”
He pulled away from her, suddenly.
“No. Don’t say that! You, of all people? Nothing has to end. Fight it! Even if it’s death, diseases—you taught me that, Maviola! Burn! Blaze! Don’t—don’t quietly go out.”
Her eyes widened. It sounded like something she would have said if she was as young as she looked. For a second—Maviola El touched her breast. And she felt her heart beating faster.
She wanted to live. But oh—Maviola’s desire was tempered by knowledge. The bright flame of life was beautiful and pure. Yet it could so easily be corrupted. She had seen that. She knew who waited down that twisted road.
Maviola didn’t realize she’d spoken aloud. She jumped. Her eyes flicked to Olesm.
“A dark woman. If you ever meet someone by that name—give her nothing, Olesm. Believe me. There’s evil in this world that you can’t yet imagine.”
He slowly nodded. She had taught him many things. Not just about strategy or organizing on the level of one of the Five Families—she had knowledge of other places. Of artifacts, Skills—
She wished she could stay here. After a while, Maviola El smiled.
It took one week of riding fast to get to the Hivelands. If that was her destination. She didn’t know anymore.
A lot had changed, even now. Maviola El stood up.
“Let’s go for a walk, Olesm. I don’t know…maybe I can stay. Until the end.”
He stood up too. The blue-scaled Drake met Maviola’s eyes.
“You had better. Because I won’t let you ride off. I’ll follow you until…until.”
She was going to have to slip him a sleeping potion. Maviola smiled at Olesm. He was the kind of person she wished had existed decades ago. Maybe then.
“How did we ever come to hate each other? Humans, Drakes. I feel I’ve wasted so much time and energy fighting your people, Olesm.”
“I don’t know. It’s politics. And…deaths. I don’t hate Humans, Maviola. I owe almost everything to Humans.”
She nodded. They left Olesm’s apartment. And walked through the streets of Liscor.
It was another day. But how much changed in a day? Maviola El had been resolved, yesterday, to end her life by riding upon the Hives. To see the Antinium that had plagued her home for the last two decades and make an ending there, for better or worse.
To blaze brighter than the sun itself before she died.
It would have been a fine death. And it might have started a war depending on what she did. Now though…she wasn’t certain.
A lot could change in a day. As Maviola El walked the city of Liscor, she felt it in her bones. In the faces, the conversations. The Wandering Inn wasn’t rocked by it. But then—Erin Solstice was Human. She had no context for it.
But here—look at them. A word hung in the air. A name.
The greatest [General] of Liscor. The hero of the First Antinium War. A legend, an old hero, like a family’s heirloom. Just a story.
But an Antinium had dragged his name into the present. Made him more than just a name to rally around or quote.
Anand had built Sserys a memorial. Maviola El had been there.
“He may have been the enemy of the Antinium. However, he was also a hero of my home. Liscor. I would like to honor his memory, Olesm. That is why I built this. It is a small thing. But I believe it matters.”
That was what Anand had said. And he had shown them a cairn, a bit of metal.
It had changed everything. Even now—people were talking about it.
“They’re Antinium. How do we know there will be a statue? They killed General Sserys.”
“Yes, and our Antinium made the statue. There are Antinium…and that was our Antinium. Anand. I played chess with him one time, I think. Or was that the other one? The point is…”
Maviola wondered what effect the announcement was having in other places. Pallass, for instance. She and Olesm walked towards The Wandering Inn. And one of the spies ducked back. The Human, now not as rare in Liscor with the influx of Celum’s refugees, whispered into a speaking stone.
“It’s her. Maviola El confirmed. Tell her ladyship!”
He stepped back just in time to see the second spy whispering into the stone.
“Lady El is here! I’m sure of—”
She broke off. The two Human [Spies] stared at each other.
It would not have surprised Maviola El to know that Pallass had suppressed the news of General Sserys’ memorial.
Grand Strategist Chaldion was speaking to General Edellein and General Duln, of 4th and 1st Armies respectively. The Assembly of Crafts had put a silence order on the news.
After all, an Antinium performing an act of…honor…went against the entire narrative about them. The Assembly was debating putting out some kind of announcement.
As Grand Strategist, Chaldion had the option of enforcing or vetoing that kind of command as a matter of security regardless of what the [Senators] decided. He had not, either way.
He too was conflicted.
“Grand Strategist, does this prove anything? Sserys’ legacy aside…one little gesture does not change our state of war.”
General Edellein hadn’t been moved by the gesture. The Drake’s arms were folded and his expression was annoyed at best. The Grand Strategist looked at him.
“General Edellein, your personal thoughts aside, an Antinium [Strategist] has decided to honor General Sserys. This is an act unprecedented to our understanding of Antinium. It matters.”
The [General] hesitated and ducked his head stiffly, flushing beneath his scales at the reprimand. General Dulm was concerned, but for different reasons.
“Liscor is under no gag order, Grand Strategist. Word is already spreading.”
“I know. The Assembly can’t keep this secret. The question is—do we frame this in a way that makes Liscor’s Antinium positive, or just leave it as it is?”
Chaldion drummed his claws on the table. The news that had been sent covertly to him by an unmarked message had annoyed him. Someone—and that someone was almost definitely Wistram—had intelligence they’d passed onto him, including details about the Antinium like Anand’s class.
What did they know? The Grand Strategist decided a visit to The Wandering Inn might help things. But Grimalkin was pursuing his own leads…and his news made even the memorial look like peas compared to pumpkins.
His head hurt. And it hurt more when the old Drake heard a crunching sound. Dulm and Edellein, looked sideways.
Saliss, completely nude, was snacking on popcorn. They were in Chaldion’s home, and the Drake had occupied a couch that Chaldion was now going to have cleaned.
“I mean, look, guys. Who cares? Sserys got a statue. Yay!”
A few popcorn kernels went flying. Saliss lowered his claws. He balanced the bowl on his stomach as he lay, front facing up. Edellein turned away instantly, as did Duln.
“So what? Sserys is dead. Yay, our old war hero got a memorial! So what?”
“Not everyone is as unpatriotic as you, brat.”
Chaldion glared at Saliss. The [Alchemist] had let himself in—probably knowing this secret conference was happening. Ironically, Chaldion trusted Saliss’ discretion. And that was about the only thing Chaldion trusted. He had been raised to defend the Walled Cities, including Pallass. If only…
“Generals, I propose we make the announcement crediting the memorial to Liscor’s Antinium. If nothing else, this proves there is a difference of opinion between Antinium.”
“You’re sure, Grand Strategist?”
Oh yes, the note had been very clear that the Hives competed with each other. Chaldion nodded, his eyes flicking to Saliss. That meant something. Even if the Slayer was back to strength…infighting was something Drakes knew more than any other species.
“Make the announcement. I’ll deal with the Assembly of Crafts. We’ll throw a day of celebrations in three days, even. All crediting the Free Antinium. Spin it on Liscor.”
Numbtongue raised his arms and shouted. To Mrsha’s disappointment, there wasn’t any cool music or a flash of light like Erin had taught her to expect. Mrsha had decided she wasn’t going to be a [Wizard] and maybe not even a [Druid] when she grew up.
She was going to be a super-cool, transforming warrior like the ones from Erin’s world.
By the power of the tribes! She just needed a cool sword like Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin loved his crystal blade. He never let Mrsha touch it.
Now, instead of a transformation scene, Numbtongue created…
A pickaxe. It was half-transparent. The colors were like Pyrite’s favorite pickaxe—just transparent. A weapon from the soul’s past.
Numbtongue wasn’t channeling Pyrite. The hobgoblin experimentally swung the pickaxe. It dug into the ground. It was as good as a regular pickaxe. And it lasted…
Three minutes. Then it blinked out. Numbtongue sighed.
“Can’t replace normal pickaxe. Good for fighting, though.”
He was experimenting with his new Skills. He could also call Pyrite’s battleaxe into life—but it had no enchantment.
Mundane armaments. Even so, Numbtongue wasn’t about to look down at a free battleaxe. He liked the free Skills. And his other new Skill was quite fun.
[Directional Sound]. The Hobgoblin took out his enchanted guitar. Hedault had enchanted it so it could go loud. The Hobgoblin wailed on it, and the guitar solo screamed. Kevin covered his ears.
“Oh god I can’t hear anything.”
“I can’t hear a thing. Awesome. Hey Lyonette! Now Numbtongue won’t wake anyone up!”
Erin gave Numbtongue a thumbs-up. She was standing to Kevin’s left; the only people who could hear Numbtongue were in a narrow cone. Kevin hurried out of the way—Mrsha poked her head in and out, excited.
“Directional sound. Bird, grab Mrsha.”
The Goblin had already found a utility for it. He spoke normally, but only Bird heard. He obligingly walked over and sneak-grabbed Mrsha. Numbtongue grinned. Now that was how you used it in combat! Imagine shouting orders only a few people could hear?
Well, that was the excitement for the day. Numbtongue shouldered his guitar. The crew dispersed.
“I’m going to Pallass. Everyone wants to check out the skateboard and I’m going to see if we can make some without needing Hedault and Pelt. See you guys!”
Kevin left, rubbing his ears. Lyonette sighed.
“And I have to talk to Ferris about the possibility of a deal—but he really wants you as an ambassador, Erin.”
“Pass! I’m gonna make billiards. I think the table I ordered is almost done.”
Everyone looked at Erin. She waved her hands.
“No one’s gonna die! It’s just a game! I’ll show you later if I can find felt! Maybe I can grow a moss? Nah, nah…but maybe.”
That left Mrsha, Numbtongue, and Bird. Mrsha sighed through her nose. No Ekirra or Visma today. Ekirra had football practice with Joseph and Visma was sick with a summer cold. Well, it wasn’t as bad as before. She had two big minders who liked to play games!
Let’s play tag!
She held up a card. Numbtongue took it, thought about it, and held up a claw. He glanced around in a way the other two had gotten to know. And the third co-conspirator of the Bee Rescue Team buzzed down. Bird was the new recruit.
Numbtongue glanced around.
“I have a better idea. Found a good spot. Outside. Let’s go fishing.”
Mrsha looked up excitedly. She ran for the fishing poles. Bird tilted his head.
The garden had a pond, but the Fortress Beavers made fishing harder since they tended to eat the fish or get tangled in your hooks. Numbtongue had enjoyed fishing for a little while before the Beavers had been added. Now, he’d found another spot.
The Hobgoblin prepared for the trip by first finding Ishkr. The Gnoll was showing a new hire the ropes. The Drake jumped when he saw Numbtongue, but the Gnoll just looked up.
“Numbtongue. What is it?”
“Ishkr. Going on trip. Have the door set to my stone by default, please.”
“It will be done.”
The Gnoll [Head Waiter] nodded. Numbtongue walked off. Mrsha stealthily padded towards the hallway with Apista on her head and Bird followed with his bow and fishing rods.
Good thing Ishkr had been there. Drassi or Erin or Lyonette asked questions. Ishkr raised his voice as the B-Team headed for Numbtongue’s door.
They froze. The Hobgoblin turned back. Ishkr gestured around the inn.
“We need to hire a few new people. If you see Lyonette or Erin, can you let them know to talk to me? Erin ran out looking for something and Lyonette is negotiating.”
The Hobgoblin gave the Gnoll a thumbs-up.
The plan wasn’t compromised. The team strolled for the doors, as calm as could be. Numbtongue cracked the door open and they filed through.
They found themselves high, high above Liscor. In the lower reaches of the High Passes. Numbtongue’s explorations had led him ever-higher as he spelunked in caves and mined. And he had found, quite coincidentally, a pond at higher altitudes.
The water actually led downwards, but this pond had a small population of fish. Fish with huge teeth and a curious body type. Erin had dubbed them ‘flatfish’ and they had nearly eaten her way back when she’d first come to Liscor.
“Saw this when hiking. Here. Mrsha and Apista, stay back.”
Numbtongue passed out rods and Bird helped bait the hooks with a dead bird and some worms—maggots—he’d cultivated. Mrsha cast her line into the pond from afar.
They were fishing. Mrsha got the first bite and the Hobgoblin and Antinium had to help her reel the fish in before it dragged her into the pond. But it was fishing.
Not all adventures had to be disastrous tales of adventure and woe. Sometimes you just went fishing. Mrsha energetically helped Bird beat the flatfish to death as it flopped around, trying to bite or get back into the water. It would make a great lunch. Apista kept watch for Eater Goats, giant centipedes, Stone Starers, Gargoyles, or anything else. Numbtongue played some music while they fished.
And in that way, the B-Team completely missed the drama with Maviola El.
They found her right before she got to The Wandering Inn. Maviola El and Olesm had elected to walk rather than wait the customary five minutes for the door to be checked. Of course, progress being what it was, some people now complained about having to wait five minutes to visit Celum, or Pallass, or Invrisil.
Inside the inn, Erin was trying to explain the billiards table to the people in the rec room. It had just been dragged in by Antinium after being made by a [Carpenter]. Of course, the Antinium had decided the best way was just to remove the outside wall of the rec room, carry in the pool table, and rebuild the wall. Now, guests were clustered around, sensing something interesting. Among them, Wilovan and Ratici.
“Have we met? Well, this is a billiards table. See—it’s the right shape. I’m just missing felt.”
The Gnoll and Drake glanced at each other, then at the sticks, balls, and the table with carved sockets. Erin nodded.
“Okay, the felt slows the balls and makes it—I dunno—atmospheric. I also put chalk on the tips—I’m going to try other stuff. But how you play the game is like this. You ‘rack’ the balls like this…”
There was an ale in Menolit’s claw. And he watched as Erin played a game with the two Gentlemen Callers. The [Veteran] watched as she showed them the point—to get the balls into the corners while the opponent tried to do the same while avoiding the eight-ball.
“That looks like fun.”
Something about the game called to the day-drinking, relaxed guests. And Erin just needed felt? Wilovan glanced at Ratici.
“We know someone who could get you felt, Miss Solstice.”
“Really? Wow! I was gonna go into Liscor and ask Krshia or someone. That’d be great. You know a felt-guy?”
“That’s right, Miss Solstice. We’d be happy to reach out to them. What, do you need it just layered on top? That’s a quick job.”
“Ooh. Can you make it…either green, or blue. Really fine stuff, too. Thanks! What’s your name?”
The Drake with the cap and odd way of speaking offered a claw and Erin shook it. He grinned at her.
“Ratici, Miss. And this is my companion, Wilovan, as he is. We’re exceptionally pleased to make your acquaintance. We’ve met before.”
“Oh, really? Actually…I’m so sorry I forgot! Wow! Nice to meet you again, Ratici. So you like this game?”
“It has a charm, Miss Solstice.”
“Call me Erin. And I was going to do a ping pong table too, even though I suck at it—”
“A what now?”
Olesm was walking up the hill with Maviola. Erin was talking to the two Gentlemen Callers, getting to know them and reflecting that she might need multiple tables. Multiple game rooms; ping pong was a travelling game, especially when you hit the ball, after all. She’d been holding back on ping pong since the balls were plastic, but that was why Hedault existed, right?
And that was when the carriage screeched to a halt. It was an expensive one, and it had turned to follow the Drake and [Lady]. A woman, dressed in fine clothes and accompanied by the bodyguards surrounding the carriage leapt out.
Lady Desinee wasn’t Maviola El’s actual granddaughter. She was, in fact, a niece. But ‘Grandmother’ applied to the House of El’s former matriarch as well as anything else. Maviola El turned her head.
“We found you at last! Grandmother! You didn’t even tell us! And you went to Liscor? You can’t die!”
Olesm looked at Maviola. He stared at the [Lady] trying to climb up the grassy hill in her expensive shoes and dress, flanked by bodyguards wearing the colors of the House of El. Yellow, red, and silver.
The Drake’s brow wrinkled as his mind struggled to present the logical conclusion through his redefining reality. Maviola was scowling.
“Desinee, I made my choice. You were there! Get back in your carriage and go home. That is an order.”
But her niece refused to budge. Maviola wasn’t the matriarch of House El anymore. Desinee shook her head.
“Made your choice? Without telling anyone but Deilan? Or me? You—you just rode off! Everyone’s been searching for you! Zedalien is going to quit and—grandmother, you have to come back! Even if it’s just for a few days. You can rest with your family!”
Olesm looked at Maviola. He looked at Desinee. The [Lady] was staring at him as her guards helped her up the hill. Maviola groaned.
“This is why I never had children. Olesm—”
She turned to him. And whatever Maviola might have been able to say before Olesm fainted was forestalled by the second vehicle abandoning the road. Only, this one wasn’t a carriage.
It was a chariot. A proper, Chandrarian chariot. And it shot up the hill as the two warhorses surged up the slope. The driver had a Skill that let the horses drag the chariot uphill at speed.
Oh, and the driver also had a long spear. She swung it as Maviola’s head whirled.
“Maviola El, I have you now!”
The [Lady Firestarter] saw the swing as everyone on the hill dove out of the way. The chariot thundered past them as Maviola hit the ground hard. The spear barely missed her and the white-haired grandmother pulled on the reins, cursing.
“What’s happening? What’s happening?”
Lady Desinee shrieked as the [Riders] following the chariot-driving spear-wielder surged up the hill. They halted as House El’s [Guards] drew their blades.
“Hey, did you hear anything?”
Erin Solstice was trying to show Wilovan what a paddle looked like as she drew on a piece of parchment. The Gnoll glanced up.
“Sounds like shouting. Ratici—”
The [Innkeeper] heard the scream and then the cries. Her eyes went round.
“Uh oh. Mrsha! Numbtongue! Bird!”
She ran, Ratici cursed. The two Gentlemen Callers surged down the hallway after Erin. They were prepared to drag her back—
Bird reeled in his fish. Numbtongue and Mrsha applauded.
“It’s the damn inn again! Sound the alarm!”
A scream from the walls of Liscor. Someone blew the inn-alarm.
The chariot turned and Maviola leapt, avoiding the old woman’s second slash. For someone that old, she was spry! Olesm had taken cover with Lady Desinee and her bodyguards by the carriage. House El and the woman’s own guards were in a standoff as Maviola dodged the circling chariot and horses.
Erin Solstice was at the door to the inn, being held back by both Gentlemen Callers, looking around for Bird. Liscor’s walls were sounding an alarm, but the core of the action was Maviola and the mysterious old woman. Now, Maviola conjured a ball of fire and threw it.
The chariot swerved, dodging the fire. Olesm stared. Maviola hadn’t used [Fast Fireball], which would have killed the horses. He fumbled for his sword.
“Who is that?”
Lady Desinee was the only person he could ask. The [Lady] of House El was staring, her mouth agape. She jumped as she stared at a Drake, but replied fearfully.
“That’s—the [Harbormistress] of First Landing! Lady Gresaria of House Wellfar!”
Her statement was confirmed a second later as Maviola screamed a curse.
“Gresaria, you salty bitch! I’ll burn your face off! You had to have one last shot at me, did you? You couldn’t just die in peace?!”
“Maviola! You cowardly little fire salamander! I’ll kill you!”
Gresaria was old. But she had to have at least half a dozen combat Skills, because the war chariot was maneuvering with commendable agility. Now, she stabbed at Maviola.
The flame-haired younger woman raised a hand.
“You made a mistake, Gresaria! [Fast Fireball]!”
The flash of fire made everyone duck. But Olesm saw the old woman shift her grip, until she held the very end of the spear. She swung it in a wide arc—
She hit the fireball with the spear and it bounced. Everyone threw themselves down as the first fireball fastball blasted past Rose and the baseball team in training. It blew up in the air and the baseball players ran screaming.
The two [Ladies] were panting. Maviola stared at Gresaria and raised her hand.
“I forgot you could do that.”
“I have—artifacts—anyways—Maviola. Now, I’ll cut that stupid head off your shoulders…”
The old woman was gasping for air. She lifted the spear as the warhorses turned. Maviola braced—
And Lady Gresaria collapsed. The old woman’s eyes went wide and she fell back into her chariot.
Her retainers thundered up the hill. The old woman was white under her tanned skin. Olesm, Lady Desinee, Erin—all stared. Then they rushed forwards.
Maviola El was fastest of all. She vaulted into the chariot. Lady Gresaria was breathing faintly.
Maviola bent down. She was fumbling for something. A glowing vial. But a wrinkled hand shot up and grabbed her arm in a grip that was still steel after a century.
“Just—lost—my breath. Don’t you dare.”
Lady Gresaria looked up at Maviola El. The two women stared at each other. One, Maviola El, young, in her prime of life. The other, Gresaria Wellfar.
Their shared look went back a hundred years, ten thousand meetings. Maviola El felt the grip relax. Gresaria smiled.
“You’re looking well, Maviola.”
“And you look terrible, Gresaria.”
The two looked at each other. Then Gresaria began laughing. She waved away the anxious bodyguards, swearing like a [Sailor] as she dragged herself upright.
“Enough of this. I’m tired. Get me a chair. In that…inn. And a drink! Maviola, run off and I’ll ride you down and put this spear through your back.”
She waved the spear weakly. Maviola smiled. She turned to the audience. Erin scratched her head. She looked around at Zevara, who’d come running with a squad.
“…What is going on?”
The Watch Captain gave Erin a long look. The madness was spreading.
A while later, with explanations, or at least, a few, Maviola El sat with Lady Gresaria. The [Harbormistress] watched as one of her retainers paid a very steep fine. She didn’t even blink.
She did grin as she downed half the stiff drink. People were watching the old woman with awed looks. After all, here was the [Harbormistress] of First Landing.
It was a prestigious role and you had to have influence to get such a position. Of course, it paid well in money and influence.
She was here. Lady Gresaria, who was known for riding that war chariot around rather than a horse. Who had once sworn to die in her role rather than retire. She’d fought battles defending First Landing and the northern coast from sea raids.
And she’d come here, pursuing the same person as Lady Desinee.
“Is that her? Dead gods. I’ve seen her a handful of times. Tough as the tar, that woman. Horrible. Always found smuggled goods.”
Wailant Strongheart had come from his farm the instant he’d heard. He’d joined a group of people staring at her. Uncaring, Gresaria downed a second drink and belched. She wiped her mouth and looked up.
Maviola El stood there. She’d explained—to Erin, Zevara, and the others as much as she could. Really…Olesm had covered for her. He knew, now. And that was a conversation for later.
But Gresaria wouldn’t wait. The old woman was still panting. She looked—worn—from the short encounter. Maviola recalled a time when Gresaria had ridden eight days and nights in the saddle just to show up at a ball and burn Maviola’s dress.
Good times. Old times. A world apart from the Izril of now. Maviola slowly sat down.
“Gresaria, why did you come here? To finish things?”
The old woman laughed. She hadn’t really been aiming for Maviola or she would have taken Maviola’s head off with that first pass, age or not. In the same way—Maviola wouldn’t have killed her, even with a [Fireball] to the chest.
“Maviola El. You look beautiful. Like a vision of our past.”
The [Harbormistress] coughed. She took a little healing potion and sipped at it with trembling fingers.
“Damned age. You know, it took me ages to travel here? Had to ride in a carriage like some invalid. My guards wouldn’t even let me use the chariot. Then again—it’s harder to ride through rain and mud. Not that you’d know about that anymore.”
The two were speaking in silence. Maviola had activated a privacy charm. She grimaced as she took a mug, sipped from it.
“Watch it. But for the potion and I’d be using my wheelchair.”
“Right. Hard to imagine seeing you now. Well, I made a four hundred mile trip from Invrisil rather than use that new door just so I could see your face when I rode at you in the chariot.”
“Was it worth it?”
Lady Gresaria bared her teeth, showing Maviola the gaps and places where she’d replaced enamel with gold.
“Are you joking with me, Maviola? It was worth every miserable mile! The look on your face made me three decades younger, I’ll swear. It reminded me of the time we attacked that little pissant, Adeis. Remember?”
“When we joined forces? Of course.”
Maviola laughed. She remembered that moment too. Gresaria laughed too, until she coughed. She thumped on her chest.
“Figures you’d need a potion before I did, Maviola. You were always soft.”
“Here we go again. A [Sea Lady] can outrun a soft land-lady—I recall I won a footrace against you.”
“On land. Look who needed a Potion of Youth just to walk about.”
That was true. Maviola raised a fist, but decided not to punch Gresaria. Even now—the old lady could probably beat her.
“Who are they?”
“Lady Gresaria of the House of Wellfar, and Maviola El of the House of El. Two members of the Five Families. Maviola El was the matriarch of the House of El before she retired. Both of them are over a century old.”
Lyonette du Marquin rubbed at one ear. Mrsha’s jaw dropped. She, Numbtongue, Bird, and Apista had come back with a bag of fish. Lyonette turned to Lady Desinee.
“Could you repeat that? I think I’ve gone deaf and stupid.”
Erin Solstice said nothing. She had known. But seeing Lady Gresaria there…she just watched. One young woman, one old. In body. But in spirit…
The fire burned. An [Immortal Moment] showed Erin two young women. One, with green hair mixed with a brown like Erin’s. Definitely more muscular than Maviola. The two were arguing, at each other’s throats—until the one with green hair grabbed her spear and Maviola ran for it, throwing fire…
The secret was out. Maviola El looked at Gresaria and felt her age in full. It was easy to forget when she was away from Invrisil, Liscor. But Gresaria—
“You’ve lost all your green, Gresaria.”
“Eh. I had a few hairs last I checked.”
The woman’s skin was still tanned, but lines had changed her. She was thinner, had lost most of the muscle of her youth. In her prime—at the same age as Maviola, she had been a force.
Now—Gresaria took another sip of the healing potion and grimaced.
“They just don’t make them like they used to. Or…I’ve grown too resistant. Scars hurt. Including a few burns you gave me.”
She looked at Maviola, but there was no real rancor in Gresaria’s gaze. The delight and nostalgia that had swept through the two of them for a little while had turned into something else.
“I suppose you heard about my stunt.”
The [Harbormistress] nodded.
“Of course I did. I started looking for you the moment I did. You just off and leaving—well, you were always headstrong like that. A hundred years hasn’t changed you, Maviola.”
The old woman snorted. She glanced at Maviola.
“You always knew how to piss me off. All this time and you can just up and leave your family. Never mind your replacement—well. I’ll give you credit for one thing. You do look beautiful.”
Maviola didn’t know what to say to that. Gresaria looked her up and down and shook her head.
“When I die—I would like to do it like that. Sometime within the decade. Perhaps sooner.”
The two [Ladies] sat together. Suddenly, Maviola felt a weight on her shoulders. The shoulders of her soul. She looked at Gresaria.
“Soon? But you look…”
The white-haired [Lady] slapped one shoulder, scratching at an itch and winced.
“That’s just combat Skills. I’ll drop dead in public sometime. That’s how my father went. Just—at random. Probably some ceremony. Now wouldn’t that be funny.”
She laughed. Maviola tried to, but it was too hard. Gresaria eyed Maviola.
“Then again, I could do what you’re doing. Before I turn senile, like my aunt. Remember how she went? Forgot everything? I—I’ve been doing that now and then. Even with the intellect-potions. Forget a ship’s coming in. Or go for a walk and forget why I’m standing outside.”
“So this is how you’re going to die, is it? How long do you have?”
Maviola’s old enemy looked at her, searchingly. Maviola didn’t hedge.
“About twelve days. Unless something happens.”
Gresaria’s eyes flickered.
“You have a connection to Pallass. What, got another fortune tucked away to hire Saliss of Lights?”
“I don’t. But it might happen.”
The cracked lips parted. They were in good shape for two old women. Magic slowed age a lot compared to someone without the money to pay for spells. Even so—
“Huh. If you get a spare potion, give one to me. I’d like to end things like you do. It’s so elegant. I applauded you when I heard about it, Maviola.”
The [Harbormistress] took another sip, then pushed her drink away. Maviola blinked. That was only a mug and three quarters. Even the weakest ale? Gresaria, who had once out-drunk a Minotaur?
“I don’t know if I will, though. I have children and grandchildren and the thought of them surrounding me is appealing in itself. Some proper mourning? Maybe a few tears. I could abide by that kind of ending. But you…that didn’t appeal?”
Maviola El sat there for a while. She smiled.
“Not particularly. Fulviolo had children. I didn’t. I’m sure the family would mourn me—but it’s not as appealing.”
“How depressing. You should have married someone good.”
The younger [Lady] laughed and then slapped the table in outrage. She pointed at Gresaria.
“You stole Regein’s heart from me. Don’t complain about the consequences. There’s still time to give him back.”
“Bah, you’d kill him. He’s not long for it either. Not the right Skills, Maviola. He’s too weak to leave bed and he’s forgotten his children.”
“Oh. Your letters said that. Gresaria…”
The two trailed off. Gresaria sighed. And then smiled.
“Enough about us. What have you done with yourself, Maviola El? I thought you’d go further than Liscor. That’s farther than either of us ever went, I’ll grant you. But—was that a fine young Drake I saw?”
She grinned again. Maviola laughed.
“Let me tell you, then, Gresaria…and what I plan to do before I go.”
They sat there for a while. Talking. Gresaria laughed, snorted out her drink, scowled, and asked questions. She glanced at Erin Solstice once. But after the sun had moved across the skies, she stood up.
It had been hours. But it felt too short. Like bare minutes. Yet—that was it. The old [Harbormistress] stood.
“Good. Good. If you have a chance—take it. That’s what I say. Anything but the Temptress. I tried to throw her overboard when she came for me. I’ll wait to hear of you. Don’t you dare die quietly, Maviola. But that’s it for me.”
Maviola looked at Gresaria. The old woman nodded.
“I’m exhausted. I’m going to First Landing. I just wanted to see you one last time as you were. An old woman’s nostalgia. Not that you would know anything about that, you fire-addled brat.”
She turned away, shouting for her retainers with a voice that could quell a harbor front. Maviola sat there, lost. Until Gresaria turned. The two women looked at each other. Maviola wished she could give Gresaria just a sip of the Potion of Youth, to see her friend again.
But then—Gresaria reached out and drew Maviola into a long hug.
“Go well, Maviola El.”
Tears stood out in her eyes as she let go. The old woman walked out of the inn, towards the chariot. She looked back once, raised her spear.
“Back home! Maviola El—we’ll consider that my victory, shall we?”
She rode off before Maviola could shout after her. The [Lady] managed something anyways and heard a distant laugh.
Here, gone—just like her. Maviola had to go back into the inn and sit down. The strength in her legs had gone out. She felt—
Everyone was looking at her. It was Erin Solstice who came over.
“Was that your friend, Maviola? She came all the way here to see you?”
Maviola blinked. She looked back towards the door and half-shook her head.
“Gresaria? We hated each other all our lives.. She was a [Sea Lady]—the Wellfar family is known for their ships. I tried to kill her in earnest at least…twice.”
She hesitated. Looked at the spot Gresaria had been. Shook her head.
“We hated each other all our lives. She attended Fulviolo—my brother’s funeral. I couldn’t attend her father’s. Aside from that, we fought across Izril. I think I have a scar from where she stabbed me once. Here.”
She pointed at her shoulder, moving cloth to show Erin. The [Innkeeper] winced.
“When did you two stop hating each other?”
“Just now. And a long time ago, I think.”
The [Lady Firestarter] sat there for a while. Then she felt the eyes on her and looked up.
She hadn’t really said goodbye, had she? She wasn’t going back. But—her niece looked at her with tears in her eyes. Maviola El felt old. She had run from that feeling. But Gresaria—damn her—had aged so well.
Would it have been so poor, to die beloved and surrounded? Maviola didn’t know anymore. She…rose. And walked over to the girl she had known from the moment she had appeared in this world as a squalling baby.
To say goodbye properly.
Their rivalry, their friendship was the stuff of stories. The [Sea Lady] of the ocean, nicknamed the Duchess of Waves—or the Duchess of Salt—versus Lady Firestarter.
They had been enemies, allies, in love, politics—all so long ago that only they and a few others remembered it. There were still stories. But they were just…
Stories. Maviola and Gresaria had lived those times. To be the last two, when all the other friends and enemies had fallen away—they understood that kind of pain the young couldn’t dream of.
And what it was like to sense an ending. Not a sudden, quick thrust of the knife, the feeling of slipping, falling—or a sudden pain in the chest. But something you could see approaching. Something you could even put a number on.
They had not fled that knowledge. And if there was one thing the two old [Ladies], the pair that disagreed so strongly would have agreed on, it was that they would have called the kind of creature that fled their ending at any cost cowards.
It was right to search for another day, another week, to fight and cry and struggle for another second. But there were some costs that were too much.
Of course—those that remembered the turn of more than one century would beg to disagree. One of them was young. ‘Barely’ twice as old as Maviola and Gresaria.
Still old enough to recall his beating heart. The other was so old—she had once forgotten how to smile. But she was a bit more mortal now.
It did not make her kinder. She watched as the woman made out of bone advanced on her. The [Witch] was playing with a bit of string.
The undead woman charged across the stone floor with a roar. Her body was ivory. Her burning eyes filled with malice. Her sword, her shield, also made of bone, enchanted.
The [Stitch Witch], the Spider, twisted her fingers.
A loop of rope as black as midnight, a noose, slithered out of the shadows and wrapped around Venitra’s foot. The mad charge of the Chosen stopped as the dark rope dragged her back.
And then up. Venitra flailed, slashing, her magic sword trying to slash at the rope that rose upwards. She hung from the ceiling, helpless. More tendrils moved as Belavierr’s fingers twitched, reaching for Venitra, trying to pull her apart as she fought…
Az’kerash voice was displeased. The former Archmage of Wistram saw Belavierr move a finger.
All the bindings vanished. Venitra fell about fifty feet and hit the ground so hard she cracked the ground. Her body held. It was solid bone.
“You have lost, Venitra.”
The Necromancer’s white pupils and black eyes found Venitra. The bone woman slowly sank to one knee. And her carven face was ashamed.
“I—I did, Master.”
“Again. You charged Belavierr. With your enchantments active.”
“Yes, Master. I thought—she would attack me.”
Az’kerash rubbed at his temples. The other watchers, all three of them, stirred. Belavierr was just continuing whatever she was doing with the strings, ignoring Venitra.
“Venitra. Belavierr is a [Witch]. She would never allow you to close with her so easily. You had time to prepare.”
The bone woman’s head lowered. She heard a sound from the side.
Laughter. It came from two watchers. Ijvani and Bea. They were watching her, reveling in her defeat. Kerash just appraised Belavierr. It was his turn next.
“Venitra, only a fool charges in. You are no fool. You trust in your construction too much. I have instructed you as to how Cognita fought. And you are modeled after her—”
The Necromancer was having a new challenge in his existence. And that was teaching. He had been a fabulous teacher in the academy. But he had never taught children.
And the Chosen were his children. His creations. Now, four of them waited, learning how to fight. They were all below Level 10.
But they were leveling. The Necromancer had found the key to granting creations the ability to level. True sapience as the world understood it.
That he owed that revelation to an apprentice less than half his levels was one of those embarrassing secrets of history. But now—his existing Chosen had been granted the ability to level and they were learning from Az’kerash as his true children.
It…wasn’t going well. Venitra sulked as she sat with the others in the bleachers. She watched as Kerash went at Belavierr.
He lost, of course. The [Witch] didn’t even move. She used the binding spells to tear the Gnoll’s arm off, despite his attempts to flank her, confuse her spell among the pillars.
If Klbkchhezeim of the Antinium had been in the same room as Az’kerash the Necromancer, and the two didn’t instantly try to kill each other, they would have found a bit of common ground to stand on. And that was because the error in the Chosen’s mentalities were similar to the Prognugators not of the Free Antinium.
“Venitra. Kerash. Both of you have attempted to defeat Belavierr with your weapons and the abilities I have granted you. But you have ample time to prepare. Fifteen minutes before Belavierr attacks. You both attack within less than a minute of studying her. Do you…have any improvements you would like to make on your strategies?”
The Necromancer looked around the empty ballroom where the training session was being conducted. Kerash and Venitra looked at each other. After a moment, Venitra raised her hand.
“I could throw a rock at Belavierr, Master.”
Peril Chandler stared at his creation. Venitra hesitated.
“A large one?”
“I—could attempt to use a teleportation spell to get close with her, Master, like Venitra was attempting and then—”
A slash of the hand and the skeleton mage stopped talking. Az’kerash turned.
“…Plague spores, master?”
The [Necromancer] put his head in his hands. He realized, too late, that his Chosen were single-minded. Of course—he had made them that way. He looked up, eyes glittering.
“What about…the artifacts?”
The Chosen glanced at the table piled with magical items. Just a sample of the rings, wands, pieces of armor, even scrolls and other expendables taken from the Necromancer’s collection.
“But you have given us weapons, Master. They are the most suited to us. Why would we use lesser objects?”
Ijvani raised her staff and the other three Chosen nodded. The Necromancer looked at Belavierr. The Stitch Witch glanced up. And she said only one thing to Az’kerash.
“You gave them arrogance.”
The [Necromancer] met the orange, ringed glow of Belavierr’s eyes. He stiffened, and then nodded slowly.
“I did. That was an error. My Chosen were not made with the capacity for—independence—in mind. They would always be monitored.”
“Make the others better. And dispose of these ones?”
The Chosen shuddered as Belavierr’s gaze swept across them. They had learned to fear her. Az’kerash spoke curtly.
“No. Belavierr, have you anything to add? Some insight?”
He waited. Belavierr tapped at her lips. And that mortal insight she had gained since losing her immortality made her smile.
“The skeleton is smarter than all of the others.”
That made the Chosen’s eyes flash. And the Stitch Witch smiled. Az’kerash shook his head.
“Perhaps seeing him fight you would be instructive, Belavierr. Ijvani, where is Toren?”
“I do not know, master. Sweeping?”
“Sweeping the hallways.”
“Hm. Find him and—”
A whisper ran through the ruined ballroom. Belavierr’s head turned. The Chosen went silent. And Az’kerash’s head turned. The Necromancer smiled.
“Devail. Have you completed your exercises?”
“Yes, Creator. Am I to learn to fight?”
And there it was. Something stepped out of the corridors. Not one of the old Chosen. Not Toren. The four undead stared with…hatred…at the new figure.
A new Chosen. A new undead.
Devail was unlike the others. An experimental undead. But made with his potential in mind.
Az’kerash had taken only flesh to make Devail. Flesh and scale, and no bone. It should have meant that the tall figure holding the rapier had no structure whatsoever. It did mean he was far lighter. But magic meant that all he had was muscle and skin.
He was so light he could leap across the ballroom and touch the ceiling. He was fast—
And he carried the rapier. The Necromancer smiled.
“Creator, I have studied the books. The style of Albezian war mages. Am I to learn to fight?”
“Yes. I will duel you in that fashion. My Chosen—Devail will practice with me. Reflect on your failures. Think of—”
Az’kerash, distracted, turned to his Chosen and they did not miss his exasperation.
“Think of what you currently lack. Emulate Toren. Devail, to me.”
And the Necromancer drew his rapier, the one he had begun to carry. The new Chosen moved forwards, gliding to practice with his creator. He was a [Fencer] already. Still low-level, barely created.
The first of many. Belavierr watched with interest. Her head turned to follow the four Chosen as they left. Az’kerash dueled Devail as the undead attacked with a speed and ferocity other species could never match. An agility too—he could reconfigure his body in any number of ways.
He would become the ultimate fencer. But right now he had to learn the styles—and then adapt. He was simple—for now.
The Necromancer was no expert in creating minds. Just bodies. That was his weakness for now. But he was experimenting, trying to teach.
And he had brought an expert here. Offered her lodging. So far, Belavierr had been content to watch. But she had come because for her assistance with his Chosen, with his projects—
Az’kerash had promised to give her one of his new undead. So the Stitch Witch waited. Her plans were inscrutable for now. But she smiled.
She had said one thing. And the effects bore themselves out in the angry Chosen.
Toren the Skeleton heard the angry tromp of Venitra’s body echoing. He dropped the broom he’d made and ran. He ran fast, arms and legs pumping.
It didn’t matter. They caught him in moments.
Venitra grabbed Toren and smashed the smaller skeleton into a wall. His bones went flying. Ijvani conjured fire. Bea hit him with her fists. There was less the Plague Zombie could do to Toren, but she kicked his skull.
Kerash slashed the skeleton’s bones. The Chosen watched as the skeleton slowly—slowly reformed himself. Without the magical Archmage’s bones, it was slow. Difficult. The first time he had been broken, Toren had nearly died in truth.
But he had lived. Now—the skeleton reformed himself and Venitra raised a foot.
“We are more than you.”
She stomped and the ribcage broke. The Chosen attacked again, viciously venting frustration. Only when Toren was close to losing all the mana he’d gathered did they leave him.
If he ‘died’, their master would be furious. Indeed, Ijvani made sure Az’kerash was fully occupied. He would have been wrathful—if he knew what they did. Or if Toren told him.
But the skeleton was too afraid to. The Chosen left him to pull himself together, mend his powdered bones. Toren couldn’t with a number of bones. So he dragged himself down the corridor until he found one of the storage rooms.
Femur, femur—Toren grabbed a femur and replaced it. Now he had a working leg. Then two. The skeleton clumsily reassembled himself.
Then he went to hide before they found him again. The Chosen were always in a bad mood after their failures. And oh boy did they fail. The only thing that would make them angrier was if Az’kerash asked Toren to demonstrate how to fight Belavierr. Like, for instance, trying to blow her up with bags of flour. Toren had done that once. Shortly after that, the Chosen’s bullying had begun.
Things had changed for Toren again. Now—he no longer wished to be heard. He wished to be invisible. To never be found.
But no longer to die, for all he was tormented. Nor could he; Az’kerash had altered his spell matrices.
“This should allow you to live, although I have need of those bones.”
He had told Toren before imbuing him with [Limited Regeneration]. The skeleton had learned it as a Skill. He had gained several things from Az’kerash’s tinkering when he wasn’t teaching or creating new Chosen.
Among them, the ability to do this. A metatarsal that Toren needed was on a high shelf. So he tossed his arm up and grabbed it. His arm returned to his body. Like a Dullahan’s.
Improvements. But with it, with impressing the Necromancer with his intelligence, tenacity—Toren had kept trying to kill Az’kerash that first week—had come the Chosen’s ire. And they expressed it in simple ways.
They were like him. Toren understood that now. What Az’kerash was learning was what Toren had lived through. The Chosen were children and the [Skeleton Knight] saw that they had the same flaw he did.
The Chosen could think. They could feel. But they had to learn these things.
Love, caring—those were harder things to comprehend than anger, hatred. And originality? The capacity to innovate?
Far, far harder. Toren had learned that over months of being the skeleton that just took orders at Erin’s inn. No wonder the Chosen, who had been even more strictly-controlled than he, were unable to even think about using different weapons. They had learned malice far more easily; undead knew malice.
But love? Az’kerash had read them stories. Hoping to instill the capacity for kindness in them, he had encouraged they try raising pets. He treated them like children.
They had killed the pets. What had he expected? They were undead. The desire to kill was in their natures. Az’kerash had a long way to go. He knew that, and knew them. Ijvani’s pets, for instance, had always died.
So the Necromancer split his time between working on new Chosen, training the old ones, and managing his affairs in the world. He was exasperated—but content in the knowledge that he had time. This was a long-term project and when he was done, he’d have his undead generals.
In time. And so far, Toren had been miserable.
Once his body was remade, the skeleton slunk around the corners. He was hiding from them. They all hated him. Ijvani and Venitra the most because he was made of bone. Fortunately, Az’kerash’s castle was big. The skeleton hurried back to his broom and found—
“What is this?”
Toren froze. Devail stood there, rapier in hand. The…fencing Chosen looked at Toren. Devail was mystified by the broom.
A broom, for sweeping. Devail’s head twisted left and right; it had no bone so it could move however Devail pleased. He could even fit into incredibly narrow spots because his ‘body’ was just enchanted flesh. He could collapse to be as thin as a hand. It was gross.
“Cleaning makes no sense. I will ask the Creator. Skeleton, do you wish to fight?”
Toren shook his head. Devail turned away.
Fighting maniac. Toren made a rude gesture at Devail’s back, conveniently forgetting he had once been like that. Devail was better than the old Chosen because he was just an idiot. But Toren wasn’t here to fight.
He investigated what he’d been sweeping up. Dust. Some dirt. A bunch of detritus. Toren swept because he missed being in the inn. But also…
There. The skeleton bent down. After a few seconds, he tossed the dirt and other dust out the window. He opened his mouth, and tossed the bit of Sage’s Grass, some of the other alchemical supplies and scraps from what Belavierr had been using into his ‘mouth’. Toren had altered his jaw to make it hold whatever he put in there.
The skeleton’s purples eyes burned. He looked around, then ran off with his broom before the other Chosen could come back to bully him.
Toren was so sad. So…sad. He had done wrong things. He had hated. And look where he was now?
His ‘life’ was miserable. Being beaten into bone dust didn’t hurt, but the Chosen’s wrath was unpleasant. And he was stuck in the castle; Az’kerash wouldn’t let him leave. He…Toren should have longed for death.
But he didn’t. As the skeleton hurried back to his room—which was secret, and not, in fact, his room since the undead didn’t need rooms or to sleep—the skeleton gathered a few more scraps.
A bit of Sage’s Grass. Some oil from the kitchens. Some actual grass from outside. Other alchemical pieces, powdered gemstone. All of it went in his mouth. They weren’t for him.
Ijvani was the one Az’kerash had possessed the most hopes for since the Chosen had actually owned pets before becoming fully sapient. However—they died. She had collected slimes like Oom, other ‘pets’.
She always forgot they needed sustenance. Az’kerash had not been pleased when he recalled the Healing Slime and found it had expired like the rest. But he had put it down to a learning experience, if Ijvani learned anything.
As Toren crept to the little room, which might have been a broom closet, he regurgitated all the ingredients he’d gathered. It had taken him all day. But it was worth it.
Inside the dark room, something hid as he opened the door. Toren found a little nest of salvaged fabrics, a spare enchanted lantern for light—even a few books. He doubted his friend could read, but it was a person thing.
And the little slime rolled forwards when it saw Toren. It was far smaller than it had been—and it had been tiny. Toren had been forced to remove half its mass to fake the slime’s death.
That had been hard. But the slime was growing again. It rolled forwards to investigate the skeleton’s haul. It consumed everything but the oil and then regarded Toren.
He had changed his bones. The skeleton tapped the new ones and the slime investigated. It rolled up his arms, sensing the changes. It tried to heal him. But of course—he was dead.
Toren held the little slime in his arms. Once upon a time, the skeleton had realized something as he killed Erin Solstice.
He could not love. He had possessed no empathy for other things. Death to him was a pleasure. But he had…felt something towards Erin and it had broken him apart. Because it had not been pure. Because she had been thoughtlessly cruel.
He had not known how to care. And in the time since—the skeleton had not learned much. He had not leveled much. But he had learned one thing.
Fear. He feared the Chosen. He was unhappy. He had hid from them one day and found something else, trembling, lost and afraid.
They had found each other. Now, the skeleton hid in his room with the slime and they hugged each other. For the little slime—Toren went out into the castle. They could not speak to each other.
But they were friends. The first each had really known. Alone, in the castle of the Necromancer, they embraced each other. Learning a lesson that Az’kerash would have given anything to teach his creations.
As she wove with her threads, the Stitch Witch saw the desperate, bright emotion. She took it, and the fear from the skeleton and wove it into her magic. She smiled.
Waiting. The Spider wove her web, waiting for her catch.
Author’s Note: Five more days. Five more chapters. And The Last Tide is only two days away. Once again, I wrote the first part longer than I intended. And it’s also a long chapter. I’ll write shorter ones! And be more experimental. But these fast chapters give me time to write, well, points of view that have been a long time coming but haven’t fit into the chapters so far.
Are you enjoying them? It’s still hot! Hope you enjoyed this chapter. Look forwards to one tomorrow! And the day after that…and the day after that…and then nothing more for the month! Is it better? Hm. Well, let me know what you think!
Thanks for reading!
Numbtongue, Pisces, Relc comic and more by Bunny!
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Hug by Dragonrise!