Ryoka Griffin didn’t know if she liked the Archmage of Izril or was disappointed. Because when she realized how many prisoners had died in those cells—how many intruders…she looked guilty.
“I forgot to task myself with monitoring them. Oh no. What an error. And they…starved to death? They would have—without food—oh no. Did I forget? What do I do? Were some of them important? I—I—”
A look of genuine distress flashed across her face. But—rather than moral anguish over the deaths she’d caused—it was more like someone realizing that the pets they were supposed to housesit had all starved to death. Serious—but not like actual death.
Even so. Her reaction was mortal. Unguarded. For a moment. The Archmage of Izril panicked as she floated down to the ground. She put a hand to her temples.
Then her expression went unsettlingly calm. Her hysteria subsided. Valeterisa spoke in an inflectionless voice.
“That was clearly an error. Moving on—it seems my experimentation was flawed. I was caught in a mental paradox; being too close yet unable to solve the conclusion. In totality—your presence was beneficial. You will be rewarded, Runners.”
Ryoka Griffin, Salamani, Fierre—looked at the Archmage of Izril. Valeterisa’s expression was cold before it flitted back to tired, rueful emotion.
“I’ve made a mistake. But I’m close. Yet it was good I woke up. There is so much I have to do. Come with me.”
She beckoned them. And Ryoka Griffin realized—she had done it. There was more to settle, but she had accomplished an impossible delivery. She had won her reward.
One more noble for the Summer Solstice party. Only a few more impossible tasks to do. Then she could meet her friend who had died.
It was a fitting quest.
Lady Ieka Imarris was annoyed. She was pulling strings, and still—Lady Rie demanded more little favors for this [Emperor]. It was everything from nudging a [Merchant] to adjust his course to trade concessions, arranging salt from an allied [Lord] to be sold to Riverfarm, thus benefitting both groups and breaking the House Ulta salt monopoly.
She had the power to do that as a higher-ranking member of the Circle of Thorns. Even so, it grated on Ieka’s nerves.
Yet, if she was upset over the [Emperor] situation that she had no control over—her mood changed the moment she got the [Message].
“Lady Imarris, priority [Message] for you from Salamani the Courier!”
“What? Give it to me at once!”
The [Lady] snatched the slip of paper with shaking hands. She had been certain Salamani had a chance. But could it really be…? She read the note from the Mage Runner and gasped, blinked twice, and read it again, slower.
The Archmage of Izril is awake. I cede credit for the delivery to Ryoka Griffin. Requesting agreed-upon hazard pay.
“Ryoka Griffin? But I thought—”
Before Ieka could [Message] Salamani back and demand a proper explanation, her [Maid] arrived, panting.
“Lady Ieka—another [Message]. From—from Archmage Valeterisa.”
Ieka dropped the first note. The second one was just as short. Wide-eyed the [Maid] retreated as Ieka read it.
I am not pleased. But I will speak with you at earliest convenience. Your Runners burned my isle down. Was that intentional? We will meet shortly.
–Valeterisa, Archmage of Wistram.
Ieka Imarris felt…unsteady. She massaged her temple.
“Burned part of her…? What did they do?”
She was about to send a [Message] spell herself, blasting Salamani for allowing Ryoka to be endangered and angering the Archmage, but then Ieka caught herself. Even when she’d hired Salamani, the odds had been low he’d succeed where other Couriers had failed or given up. A Named Adventurer had quit the assignment.
“This—this is an excellent day. Beyond excellent. With Valeterisa out of seclusion—dead gods. And Ryoka did it?”
That was what the message had said. Ieka remembered the City Runner and could scarcely credit it. No wonder Ryoka had been so confident! She must have been furious to know about the Courier being hired after her. How had it happened?
Ieka would find out. And she’d make a proper apology to Ryoka. With gold! Oh yes. And perhaps a private dinner…?
No, no. Ieka caught herself. Subtlety. But Ryoka Griffin’s exploits would not go unrewarded or unmentioned. Oh no. If no one was considering her as a potential Courier—well, this all but cemented her recommendation.
And what had Ryoka requested aside from gold? Oh yes, the poor girl had wanted a party. In Riverfarm? Ieka blinked as she put together Lady Rie and the [Emperor] with…
Well, she would get her party. Ieka had connections. Lots of them. For Miss Griffin, she would lean as hard as she could to get the girl whatever party she wanted. Entertainment? Ieka could supply the mage-illusions herself, she was so exuberant!
Fantastic news. Just—Ieka sat down to plan and send her own flurry of [Messages]. The Archmage of Izril had returned. It was fantastic news.
She was busy—until the third priority-[Message] reached her just past midday. And if she had thought the other two were important…
It was one of those fine summer days. Hot, yes, but with enough of a breeze to make it feel comfortable rather than just hot.
The smartly-dressed [Messenger] who rode up to the keep’s gates was rarer than Runners. But his class still existed; a sort of private messenger you could afford between the nobility.
“I have a personal statement for Lord Veltras. May I speak to his lordship at his convenience?”
The man’s demeanor, dress, and refined manners all spoke to his nature as a high-class servant of some house. Possibly, even one of the Five Families.
However, the [Majordomo] of House Veltras, Ullim, informed the [Messenger] that a meeting wouldn’t be immediate.
“His Lordship is riding. He will return within the hour. If you have a missive, it can be left here.”
“Ah, then I will wait. The message is confidential—verbal only. At Lord Tyrion’s convenience.”
The servant smiled. Ullim did not.
“His Lordship will return and see to you in time. You may be waiting for longer.”
That, the [Messenger] did not like.
“I—see. But if you would inform his lordship my master would appreciate a swift request—”
“If your master does not announce themselves, Lord Veltras will take their message at his convenience.”
With that, the [Majordomo] had the [Messenger] escorted to a guest room where he was watered and fed—with about that much delicacy. The food was closer to a rider’s rations than something elegant.
It rather put the man off. He was thus annoyed when it turned out that Lord Tyrion, after a two hour morning ride, returned to his study but did not immediately see the [Messenger]. He took his sweet time about it and the old [Majordomo] would not be convinced to persuade his master. The [Messenger] was really annoyed—especially because he had a time limit to deliver his missive. It was all about timing.
Lord Tyrion Veltras was not in a good mood, either. True, that was not a rare occurrence, but today he was genuinely irked.
Over Terandria. Anyone with an eye towards continental politics was aware of the Ailendamus war threatening the Dawn Concordat of three kingdoms. Like many Terandrian conflicts, this was a war about politics as much as actual conflict, so a lot of maneuvering had been going on.
Ailendamus had been encroaching on Kaliv’s lands, threatening other kingdoms, building up an excuse, casus belli, for war. Trade blockades, convincing other kingdoms to abandon the three smaller kingdoms so they’d be weakened when war actually began—
The larger empire was a giant, having swallowed other nations’ territory and won several wars in the two decades since King Itorin II had come to power. They were set to roll over the Dawn Concordat if Pheislant, Noelictus, or another nation with an axe to grind didn’t decide to help out. Even then—Ailendamus just wasn’t a fun nation to fight. If it halted wars with the other nations and focused on you…well, then you were in trouble.
Politics. Tyrion understood most of what was going on and he wasn’t even directly invested in the war. It was far from Izril’s shores. He just liked to keep up on such things, like the King of Destruction’s conquests and Balerosian battles, as well.
Ailendamus had taken a bloody nose in that incident with the Lord of the Dance. They’d lost an entire fleet and suffered diplomatically as well, for all they screamed it had been a trick.
Still—if Ailendamus went to war, the Dawn Concordat was in trouble as it was. Lord Tyrion had evaluated their armies and, in his mind, the outcome was a defensive victory with significant casualties and unavoidable losses of territory on the Dawn Concordat’s side at best. And that relied on the strength of their warriors and expertise of their generals—never a given thing.
But those nations knew that too. So each one was reaching out for allies. And as it happened—Izril had a history of interfering in Terandrian conflicts and vice versa. Of course, King Itorin knew that the Dawn Concordat knew that so…they had reached out to Tyrion Veltras.
The Lord of House Veltras had received two offers, one from Ailendamus via their [Emissaries], and another from Calanfer, the most political of the three members of the Dawn Concordat. What they wanted was simple: when war began, House Veltras would send aid to their side, in form of troops, resources, and perhaps even Lord Tyrion himself.
It was a smart move. Lord Tyrion had one of the most elite standing armies and his House could threaten either side just by allying. And if he pulled in another of the Five Families? It could swing the entire war.
So—Ailendamus was eager to prevent that, or get him on their side. But Calanfer was far more desperate. Both had reached out to Tyrion and offered a traditional method of incentive, which had troubled the Lord Veltras this day and the entire week. It had put him off hunting and his training.
Ailendamus had offered the hand of a [Baroness] to Hethon, Lord Veltras’ older son, or an arranged marriage with a noble of similar rank for his noninterference.
Lord Tyrion had been insulted at once. A [Baroness], marrying the heir to House Veltras? It spoke to Ailendamus’ overinflated egos, as well as their disdain for Izrilian nobilities, their ‘uncultured cousins’. Tyrion had sent an instant refusal and made a counteroffer.
“Princess Ozena’s hand would be acceptable.”
He had mentioned that—without being truly serious; she was a decade older than Hethon. But the response had been…infuriating. The [Emissary] had politely stated that there was no way King Itorin would ever marry his daughter off to a ‘distant noble house of such standing’.
King Itorin II didn’t seem to know or care how infuriating that was to Lord Tyrion. The [Lord] remembered such grudges. Nor was he afraid of Ailendamus; the Terandrian nation might be a giant among other nations where it stood, but it did not rule Izril.
By contrast, Calanfer proved its reputation for good politics, even if it wasn’t nearly as adept at military matters. They had approached Tyrion after his exchange, possibly having heard of it, with a much more flattering approach. The Lord of House Veltras had ignored that, of course, but their offer had been direct and meant to strike a contrast.
For his aid, they would offer no less than arranged marriage between Hethon or Sammial and a [Princess] of Calanfer. One of the many [Princesses], true, and thus a distant chance that the [Lord] would ever become [King]—but the benefits were still enormous.
And troublesome. Tyrion had thought it over for a long while. Either it would be an existing, unmarried [Princess], or, if the royal family had another heir, a [Princess] newly born, a marriage when both were of age.
In either case, there was an age imbalance. And that troubled the [Lord] greatly. He wasn’t sure what to do.
His marriage had been arranged when he was a boy. It had turned out for the best, since there had been love there. But Tyrion was aware of arranged marriages that ended poorly; the majority, in fact.
He…wanted the best for Hethon and Sammial. But was that irresponsible young love or…marrying into Terandrian royalty, however distantly?
“They should have better lives than mine. Hethon would be a [Prince] by marriage. If he took the house—he would be royalty, the first—no, second—Izril had known in ages. Or Sammial could inherit…”
He had to consider it. But in diplomacy, one could move forwards while still leaving room to back out. Tyrion had considered the options frankly. Of the current [Princesses], there were two of Calanfer who were eligible. The 4th and 6th Princesses…er…Seraphel and Lyonette, according to his information.
The 4th Princess was even older than Ozena. And married multiple times, a widow at least once. Tyrion grimaced.
“The 4th Princess is not acceptable. I would…consider the 6th Princess of Calanfer.”
She was about five to six years older than Hethon. That was…possible. And for such negotiations, this was a first step.
Calanfer was far more amenable than Ailendamus. Jericha brought back an immediate reply; their [Diplomats] were always prompt and ready to reply or take a response back from their [King]. That was true soft power. And they also made their statement in a refreshingly straight-forward way, calculated to appeal to House Veltras’ leader. Tyrion read the offer grimly.
They wanted him to vouch for another of the Five House’s support—or two. That would be significant. The communiques practically stated that if he brought two more Houses against Ailendamus overtly—the marriage was as good as done.
He had to think about this. The war with Ailendamus didn’t concern Tyrion; that was almost an upside. Even if House Veltras went to war, they wouldn’t overcommit and with the right strategy, they could efficiently level and inflict losses on the enemy. He would relish that.
But marriage…the [Lord] wished his wife were here. Salva would have known what to say. Actually—she might have encouraged him to go to war with Ailendamus and damn the marriage. Insults like that were not to be tolerated. But…
It was telling that Lord Tyrion didn’t discuss the matter with Hethon or Sammial. It would have never occurred to him; he was thinking of consulting others, and he would have gone to Jericha, Ullim, or even another [Lord] like Pellmia, or one of the other Five Family’s leaders before his sons.
The [Lord]’s musings would have to wait, though. He was aware of the [Messenger] who declined to give his house of origin. So the [Lord] had kept him waiting—but since the puzzle of politics was so aggravating, he finally told Ullim to send the man in.
When the [Messenger] walked into the room, Tyrion was looking at a map of Terandria. But the instant the smartly dressed man entered the room, the [Lord] turned.
Tyrion Veltras was no fan of great diplomacy. He had been described as an honorable man—or to his detractors, straightforward as a blade, without bend or give. But for all his faults—
He was a seasoned warrior, commander, and leader. When he felt the [Messenger] enter his room, the [Lord] turned and put his hand on his sword.
“Who are you?”
The [Messenger] was surprised. The [Lord] had seen him through in a moment. Slowly, the man bowed. And he smiled.
“Lord Tyrion Veltras. I am a [Messenger] with an offer on behalf of my masters.”
“You are no [Messenger]. You are an [Assassin].”
Tyrion spoke flatly. He saw the man’s eyes flicker.
It was a thousand little signs. From the concealed blades, to the sense the [Lord] had of the other man’s aura. A killer trained. Couriers could fight—this man killed. Even the way he stood was light, like someone who was ready to spring or move suddenly—not like a [Soldier] at all.
“Reach for any of your weapons and I will kill you. Who sent you? This is a poor attempt on my life.”
The [Lord] had a hand on his longsword. He was searching his keep, trying to detect a hidden killer. He had a thought.
If they were after Sammial or Hethon—
He raised his voice. Instantly, his [Mage] and first assistant rushed into the room. She gave the [Messenger] a quick, troubled look.
“Find Hethon and Sammial. Now. Place them under an elite guard, and have Ullim do the same.”
“Lord Veltras, I can assure you I came alone—”
Jericha’s eyes snapped towards the [Assassin], who was smiling. He looked…charming. Blonde haired, sable-eyed, youthful—nothing like his nature. But a killer had a presence Tyrion had learned to notice. Jericha had a finger to her temples, sending out a [Message].
“Go. I will be safe.”
Tyrion was armed. He didn’t have his armor on, but he could equip it in less than a minute. And he never took off his other artifacts. His sword was an heirloom of House Veltras. He was more dangerous in the saddle, but he could have killed the [Assassin] in a moment.
Still—the impudent intruder didn’t seem afraid. Just…annoyed. His eyes flicked to Jericha as she exited the room. And he bowed, slightly, keeping his hands slightly raised and to his sides.
“Lord Veltras, my masters did not send me with anything but goodwill in mind. Please hear me out. I am a [Messenger]. Of the Circle of Thorns. They have been watching you. Now—they would like to make you an invitation.”
The Circle of Thorns? Tyrion knew that name. An old group that most nobles knew of—but he had assumed they were long extinct, if he had ever given them a thought. He didn’t remove his hand from his sword’s hilt. But after a moment, he gestured curtly.
“Stand there. My warning applies. Speak your message.”
The [Assassin] sighed. He looked at this over-proud [Lord] with all his bravado. But he was a leader of one of the Five Families. He gave Lord Tyrion his most charming smile and bowed; he did have social-Skills to use for his infiltrations.
“Very well, Lord Veltras. Let me be clear and frank. The Circle of Thorns is not a rumor. Perhaps you have heard of my masters. Well—they exist. And they have existed for ages as a body that does what is necessary for Izril’s survival.”
“Plots and schemes.”
Lord Veltras was not impressed. The [Assassin]’s lips twitched before he could stop them.
“More than schemes, Lord Veltras. When you called for aid—the Circle of Thorns backed you. Part of the reason why so many flocked to your banner and not Magnolia Reinhart was that we believed in your cause. Indeed—we have seen many reasons to favor you over…other…great nobles of Izril.”
He had switched to ‘we’. Tyrion was aware that Magnolia had lost control of the Assassin’s Guild. He had wondered to whom. Now…pieces were connecting.
“And how powerful is your master’s organization?”
“We have many influential nobles and other members. The Assassin’s Guild belongs to the Circle of Thorns. Lord Veltras, the Circle would like to put their assets behind you.”
“I do not like [Assassins].”
Salva. Lord Veltras stared at the man until he grew nervous. The [Assassin] was used to at least some nerves from people who knew he was a trained killer. Tyrion Veltras looked at the [Assassin] as if calculating exactly how many ways he could kill him. The [Assassin] didn’t like the sensation. He was supposed to do that.
“My Guild is only one part of the Circle, Lord Veltras. There are countless assets the Circle can bring to its allies. Or…members. You have proven your commitment to driving the Drakes back and claiming Izril, as well as your integrity to the true Izril. Compared to traitors to the realm, you are the Circle’s champion. They would make you that in title and reality.”
They wanted him. The [Assassin] spoke slowly as Tyrion’s eyes flickered.
“The Circle of Thorns has many ranks. We would make you the commander of the Circle’s assets. The First of Thorns. But let me speak more of the Circle’s ranks. Of how it operates. This is an honor, Lord Veltras.”
“What if I refuse?”
The [Lord] finally took his hand off the hilt of his sword. The [Assassin] relaxed slightly. Lord Veltras strode over to his desk and checked a glowing scroll; his sons were secure, as was Ullim. No other intruders detected, so far. He glanced at the [Assassin].
“I do not intend to be coerced into allying with any side. Despite your ‘honor’. What if I told your masters no?”
The [Assassin] gritted his teeth. He hadn’t wanted this assignment. Tyrion Veltras was as stubborn as they said.
“Then, they would ask you keep the Circle’s secrets, Lord Veltras. Nothing more. My masters work for the good of Izril. One can be a silent ally of the other, or at least, tolerate its existence.”
“And if I do not wish to do that either? Out of curiosity. What would your masters try to do to me?”
The [Lord] stood there, eyes never leaving the [Assassin]’s face. The man bared his teeth.
“Well, Lord Veltras, it is not my intention to make any threat towards you. As I said, the Circle values you. But my masters will not let Izril fall to ruin. Today, in fact, one of Izril’s greatest traitors will suffer for her transgressions. Against you as well as others. I believe you know her?”
Tyrion looked up. The [Assassin] smiled beatifically. This was the fun part. He watched Tyrion’s expression as he let him in on the secret.
“Today, a scion of the Five Families meets her end. Magnolia Reinhart is about to die. Would you like to watch?”
“Lady Ieka Imarris. Another priority [Message] for you. No sender.”
Ieka looked up. Not from Salamani or Valeterisa? Actually—she might forget. She waved a hand.
“Well, send it in.”
The note was short, and unsigned. But when she saw it—Ieka froze.
Order a scrying spell at the following coordinates…
Slowly she rose.
“Get me a scrying orb.”
She reached for the artifact her [Maids] hurried to bring her. The [Lady] stared at an open stretch of road somewhere she couldn’t place. North of Invrisil a good ways, on the road to First Landing…
She waited. Then she saw a pink carriage. And then—
Magnolia Reinhart sat in her carriage, reaching for another cube of sugar. Ressa slapped it out of her hand without looking.
“Ressa! Please, if I must be cooped up in here, at least give me the dignity of sugar.”
“There’s nothing dignified about it. We won’t be much longer. Read a book or something.”
The [Lady] sighed.
“Even the fastest coach in Izril is arduous on the posterior, Ressa. How much further to First Landing?”
“At least three more hours at our speed.”
Lady Magnolia pursed her lips. The ability to cross Izril like, well, the fastest thing on land wasn’t something she liked to complain about normally. But it took her precious time even with her repaired carriage. Teriarch had reinforced the spells. Still—Izril was vast.
The carriage was moving at its classic, faster-than-anything speeds. Reynold was watching birds look at his carriage as he zoomed past them.
They were headed to First Landing. Magnolia sighed as she looked around the carriage, but she didn’t try to toss sugar at Ressa or something like that. She was aware of Sacra and the two other [Maids] riding with her.
“Lady Aerta had better be serious about this entire affair, or I might strangle her.”
Magnolia pursed her lips. She hadn’t intended to go to First Landing today. She was preparing, almost prepared to visit Oteslia. It had consumed her, finding gifts, arranging matters, security, dragging the things she wanted out of Regis’ grasp—
But something had come up. Lady Aerta, someone Magnolia was distantly acquainted with, a product of intermarriage with the Wellfar and Terandrian noble houses, had reached out to Magnolia with a very interesting request.
She had somehow gotten word about the meeting in Oteslia. And, surprises abounded, wanted to accompany Magnolia.
That—was too much to pass up. Magnolia wanted to know how Aerta knew, and if she was serious—consider the offer. Pryde, Bethal, Wuvren, Zanthia—Magnolia had considered all of them, but the invitation had been for her alone and she didn’t want to alarm the Drakes.
Still…Magnolia glanced at Sacra and the two other [Maids]. It could also be a ploy, so Ressa had ordered the other [Maids] to accompany them. Which was silly; if Lady Aerta had some kind of trap, it was going to be of a social design. Attacking a noble member of the Five Families in First Landing was tantamount to suicide.
“I believe I shall have a nap. Inform me about this—this detail about a fire with Archmage Valeterisa’s isle. If she’s gone and blown herself up, we’ll have to deal with that.”
Magnolia sat back and closed her eyes. She did do a lot of organization in the carriage, but it was more tedious. Ressa signed and consulted her informants who had told her about the strange events on the isle.
As they rode, the one man in the carriage—or rather, driving it—was bored. Reynold Ferusdam had to keep alert, though; even going slightly off the road, a collision at this speed spelled death for whomever he hit.
He noticed that the dirt road they were taking that ran along the city of Celical was rather empty for the last stretch. Perhaps a monster attack? He was reaching for a Scroll of Messages to check; Lady Reinhart liked to be appraised of such things when he saw, fast-approaching—two wooden posts in the ground.
They were…just wooden posts. Hammered into the ground. But something about them made the former [Cavalry Lieutenant]’s instincts shrill.
Something—Reynold was a veteran of wars and numerous battles even before he’d come to Magnolia’s service. He didn’t ask for Ressa’s opinion or hesitate. He instantly turned the reins. The carriage shot left, turning with incredible speed. At the same time, Reynold snapped towards the carriage.
“Lady Magnolia, something might be happening. I think—”
The infamous pink carriage swerved left, still at the insane speeds few things in the world could match. It avoided the two posts with the invisible wires strung between them. And—hit the second layer placed to the left and right at top speed.
The magical carriage struck the wires. And the [Trapmaster Assassin] saw and felt his wires take the incredible force of impact. And—hold.
The pink vehicle flipped. It crashed into the ground as the [Butler] went flying. The carriage hit the ground as the ghostly horses vanished and rolled for nearly a hundred feet. It came to a stop, wheels spinning upside down.
“Told you it would work. Let’s get to work.”
The [Trapmaster Assassin] left the cover. And four more [Assassins] walked with him. They strolled over to the pink carriage.
They were being watched. Lady Ieka Imarris stared at the downed carriage, a wheel still spinning comically as she adjusted the scrying spell she’d cast.
She—couldn’t believe it. That was Magnolia’s carriage. They’d stopped it. She saw the black-clad figures walking towards it, slowly.
“Four…five? Five? They sent five?”
She had seen the Assassin’s Guild attacking the Couriers. Ieka thought they needed at least a few hundred to make sure they did the job. Then…she looked at the downed carriage.
They had sent their best. This time—the Assassin’s Guild had sent their Faces. No Ranks. No expendable [Assassins]. Just five of them. One had taken out the carriage. Now, they spread out. One conjured a [Fireball] and blasted the carriage.
The enchanted wood held. The [Assassins] seemed to confer—then one of them approached, with a long sword.
Lady Ieka watched. And she was not the only one who had been told to observe.
They watched, in silence. Countless nobles, using magic and the coded message’s coordinates to observe. Some had been told directly, like Ieka. Others stopped at parties, told by a friend or a friend of a friend. Some had just been told to watch, like Lord Emile, Lord Gralton, or other influential [Lords] and [Ladies].
Lord Tyrion Veltras had been told. The Circle of Thorns had decided to kill Lady Magnolia Reinhart. Unlike the Couriers—they wanted her well and truly dead.
The [Assassin] with the blade never got to the carriage to begin taking it apart. One of the doors blew open. He leapt backwards as the [Assassins] braced. One threw a dart which exploded—but Ressa blocked the projectile. She leapt out, a blur, slashing with the deadly, poisoned dagger, the Vision of Grasses, as the other [Assassins] spread out. Behind her were the two [Maids]—Magnolia Reinhart remained, at least for a moment.
Ieka watched the [Maid] slashing at the first [Assassin]. She was flinging objects down. Scrolls, magical artifacts—anything and everything she had.
“Watch out. She used to be a Face.”
There were five of them. The [Trapmaster Assassin], the white-haired man that Ryoka and Fierre had met, was one. He eyed Ressa, then withdrew glittering lines of metal.
Wires. He flung them into the air as the [Assassins] held their ground, appraising Ressa’s dance with their [Blademaster]. Five of them. They were cautious; mostly of the blade or artifacts. And they were waiting for the [Trapmaster] to give them an advantage.
The wires were mithril. They were long and the oldest of the [Assassins] threw them far, anchoring them to the ground, points in the very air. And then he spoke his great Skill.
“[Create Field: The Steelthread Web].”
The world changed. If the grass and road was the world they knew—the [Trapmaster] created a world within it. A place guarded by razor-sharp wires, preventing escape. Set too with invisible threads, ready to slice his enemies apart.
Invisible to all but his allies. He stepped back, guarded in his lair, and loaded a crossbow.
Mire had changed. The woman—was still female. But her body had shifted with the draught she had taken. Now, a Minotauress clenched a fist.
“I don’t like that artifact. Combo Skill?”
“Wait until she sets up.”
Ressa dodged backwards as the [Blademaster Assassin] slashed at her. She’d taken three cuts, but none of them had missed how the enchanted blade failed to leave a mark on her maid’s uniform.
“High-grade artifact. And here come the summons.”
They stepped back as Ressa threw summoning talismans from Drath, calling every artifact she had. The other [Maids] were opening scrolls, no doubt calling for help, buffing themselves—
“…That’s a Hydra.”
A huge monster roared upwards as multiple heads flashed from the most powerful talisman. The [Trapmaster] saw it rise higher—then crash into the wires he’d set up. It was hampered, although the wires couldn’t slice it apart.
“Looks like a lot of high-grade monster summons.”
He calmly shot an emerging monster through the head and the magical summon vanished before it even fully formed.
Five of them. The [Blademaster] was pursuing Ressa as agreed, a single-minded duelist. Another of them moved now.
“I’ll down that Hydra. One of you kill the [Lady].”
“That’s Mire. Who wants the maids?”
One of them was armed with a huge cloak which shifted as he threw more magical darts. The two [Maids] and Sacra took cover, using wands to attack back as the [Assassin] locked them down. That left just Mire and the [Assassin] who had cast the [Fireball]. She pointed at the Hydra trying to attack the enemies.
A bolt of lightning as powerful as the kind that struck from the heavens hit the Hydra. The [Trapmaster] shielded his eyes; when he looked, one of the Hydra’s heads was a smoldering ruin. The monster reeled as the [Mage Assassin] shook his head.
He conjured a fiery form that flew at the Hydra. The [Trapmaster] shot his crossbow again. He was watching Mire.
Ressa was tangled by the wires and the [Blademaster]. The [Maids] locked down. Mire charged the carriage, her Minotaur-form rampaging forwards.
Magnolia Reinhart lay there, on her front, disoriented. She wasn’t…hurt. The powerful protective ring had worked. But she couldn’t understand—
They were under attack. It was a trap. The [Lady] slowly reached for her earring. She had to—to—Ressa had told her to stay put. Sensible. But she had to—
“Teriarch? We’re under attack…”
She whispered. And got no response.
The Dragon lay sleeping.
The [Lady] looked up as the Minotauress wrenched open the carriage door. She fumbled for the artifacts she carried—Mire dragged her out. The clients wanted this done in the open. Magnolia was reaching for her hand—something—
Mire dragged Magnolia up. The [Lady] fought—but the [Alchemist]-[Martial Artist] was impossibly strong even without her form. She held Magnolia there, turned her—
The [Trapmaster] fired his crossbow straight into Magnolia’s chest. He saw the enchanted quarrel strike the [Lady] just above the bosom of her pink dress.
And bounce off. Mire stared at the quarrel, lying on the ground. The [Trapmaster] blinked.
“That’s some powerful ring. Mire—”
“Off of me, please. [Deft—”
Mire went flying. The [Lady] looked around. She twisted a second ring on her finger, looking around. The [Trapmaster] felt his [Dangersense] go insane.
“Relic-class artifact! Mire!”
Magnolia Reinhart was not unguarded. Teriarch had given her his ring. And she had another artifact.
The glowing, crimson beam of light shot from her ring. The same artifact that had killed the ‘Great Mage’ Nemor. She lifted her ring, choosing her target—the [Blademaster] after Ressa. The [Maid] knew to dodge away—
The Minotauress grabbed Magnolia’s hand. The [Lady] jerked; and the Minotauress twisted her arms up effortlessly. The ring glowed. The beam of magic locked into the air as the [Assassins] took cover. The Minotauress leapt away—
The air caught fire. The crimson explosion and flash of light shot into the sky like a beacon, visible for miles. And it hit—no one. Magnolia blinked in shock. Then she saw the Minotauress running at her. This time, Magnolia was a touch too slow.
Mire hit the [Lady] in the chest with an open palm. The [Trapmaster] saw the [Lady] go flying.
Like a doll. She hit the wires and he winced, waiting to see pieces of her landing. But the [Lady] just bounced off the wires and lay on the ground, stunned.
“What caliber of protection ring is that? I want it.”
“I’ll take that attack-ring.”
Mire had leapt back as Ressa forced the [Blademaster] back. Like her mistress, her ring had shrugged off every attack and she’d used that to score a slash on his arm. The three [Assassins] moved back.
The [Blademaster] looked at the venom spreading impossibly fast over his arm. The [Trapmaster] sighed.
“Relic blade too. I’ll stop the poison. Thesil—stop Ressa.”
The [Mage Assassin] turned and began throwing spells at the [Head Maid]. Mire grimaced.
“You know what to do. Give me five minutes. Hold still. If the toxin spreads within one minute, cut your arm off.”
The [Blademaster] nodded tightly; his arm was already wrapped in mithril wires to stop the blood flow. The [Trapmaster] rapidly took out potions and antidotes.
Magnolia Reinhart lay on the ground. Stunned. She was protected—but not prepared for combat. She tried to stand, reach for another artifact.
Mire walked over and struck her.
[Tremor Fist]. Down the [Lady] went again. Again—unharmed. But Mire dragged her up and threw her into the carriage.
It was easy. The ring had to run out of power sometime. The [Lady] kept trying to use her Skills. But this wasn’t a ballroom, or even a battlefield. The [Martial Artist] walked through her attempts to use her aura and struck her again. The ring’s glow flickered.
“Damn you! [Lesser Teleport]!”
The [Mage] screamed as Ressa leapt at him. Unlike Magnolia, the [Assassin]-[Maid] knew how to use her ring. She ignored his spells and went for the kill. He vanished and the [Trapmaster] looked up as Ressa advanced on them.
“I have her. Thanks.”
The [Blademaster]’s arm was still green, but the poison had stopped. Now he lifted his enchanted sword.
“[Sword Art: Four Singing Stars]!”
Ressa took two cuts that sent her stumbling back. Ring or not—she was taking hits. And the artifacts were running out of magic.
But the servants were getting in the way. The two [Maids] had wounded the [Assassin] throwing his arsenal of weapons. Sacra had dealt him a crushing blow to one arm, nearly breaking his damn bones before he fought her back. The [Thrower Assassin] snarled. He drank a potion and was fine—
Until the [Butler] leapt on him.
Reynold was wounded. He’d broken something in the fall. But he had artifacts too. Now he leapt with a roar, his sword aimed for the [Assassin]’s back.
The man screamed as Reynold penetrated his back. But not far enough. The [Assassin] tore away and ran; Reynold hadn’t run him through. Both sides had defensive artifacts.
The [Combat Butler] cursed. He saw Lady Magnolia; the Minotauress was grabbing her neck and trying to twist it off, but her ring was still active.
He charged. Mire leapt away with an oath as Magnolia produced a glittering dagger and Reynold attacked her.
“Hey Sithorn, this isn’t going well! Those damn rings are bad enough, but the servants—”
“I see them.”
The [Trapmaster] watched as Ressa pushed back the [Blademaster] again, and the [Mage] at the same time. He looked at Mire. Their clients weren’t happy about this, he was sure. Still—this was the job.
“Let’s change the battlefield. Sacrifice my field. The carriage is upside down, anyways.”
“Got it. Back up.”
At Mire’s voice, the other [Assassins]…ran. They jumped, teleported, or just ran for the wire walls of the field, ducking through the openings only they could see. Magnolia Reinhart’s servants regrouped.
“Lady Reinhart! Teleport!”
“I’ve been trying! None of the scrolls are working!”
Magnolia stared at the [Mage] among the [Assassins]. Ressa whirled.
“Reynold, Sacra, get that coach upright. You two, cover me—”
She saw the other five assassins standing outside the net of wires. And two of them—Ressa saw old Sithorn, the [Trapmaster] she had known, standing with Mire. Her eyes widened.
“No. Get inside the c—”
They moved too slowly.
“[Combination Skill: The Web Closes].”
Mire stood next to Sithorn. The [Trapmaster] had given her the wires and a glove. It was a combination Skill. Something that took two experts working together to perform.
It was a simple Skill. The Minotauress grabbed the wires and pulled. They snapped through the air. Closing inwards in a single moment.
The wires snapped together, wrapping around the carriage before falling to the ground. Magnolia was wrapped by them for one moment—but Teriarch’s ring saved her. It was fit for an [Empress]; meant to be worn into battle against leveled opponents higher than those known to the world today.
It was still running out of mana. But it saved her again. She fell to the ground as the wires sagged, the field the [Assassin] had set up sacrificed for the Skill.
Then…she saw the blood.
Her two maids, Imina and Fini—were dead. They had been cut to—Magnolia’s stomach lurched.
Ressa was alive. She staggered upright. Magnolia’s head moved around, searching.
Reynold answered her slowly. He was halfway inside the carriage. He had been shoved inside. That had saved him. She had been too slow, though.
Sacra lay halfway across the inside, on his lap. Reynold looked down at her. He looked at her blank eyes. The [Butler] rose, slowly.
“Reynold? Reynold, they’re coming. Protect Magnolia.”
Ressa spoke to him over the static in his ears. The [Combat Butler] looked up. Ressa’s face was pale.
“Try to—protect her. Help has to be coming. Someone…”
She whirled. The bolt of lightning illuminated the world. When the blindness and ringing were gone—Reynold saw Ressa.
The [Mage], the throwing expert, and the [Martial Artist] all surrounded her. They were attacking in tandem, dodging her dagger and wearing her down.
That left the trap expert and blade master. The [Trapmaster] was speaking calmly.
“Hold the [Lady] down and stab her to death. Pull her ring off if you have to. I’ll stop her from running.”
“Give me a minute.”
The [Blademaster] walked at the Butler. His blade shone, part glass, part metal. Some work of art, with the reach of a greatsword, but only one edge.
“[Butler]. Leave. You’re not our target.”
The man with the sword addressed Reynold curtly. He pointed with his blade, indicating the open road. Reynold saw Magnolia backing up as the [Trapmaster] ducked out of the way of the wand she held.
Reynold looked at the [Assassin] with the sword. The man nodded.
“You don’t have to die here. This is your one chance. What will it be?”
He waited, a mockery of honor as he held his sword at the ready. Reynold looked down at Sacra. Gently, he lowered her to the ground. The [Butler] drew his sword. He wiped at his eyes so he could see.
“Run? Never. To the death, you worthless bastards.”
He advanced, his sword held between both hands. The [Blademaster] sighed. Reynold heard Magnolia make a sound of pain. Ressa was faltering as the [Martial Artist] kicked her into another bolt of lightning.
“[Double Slash]! [Evasive St—]”
The [Assassin] whirled. His sword lashed out.
Reynold fell down. He tried to get back up. But something was wrong. He looked back and saw the problem.
His legs were gone. Severed. The [Butler] stared. Then he tried to crawl forwards. He slashed at the [Assassin]’s legs with a wordless cry.
The man walked past him. Magnolia was pinned. The [Trapmaster], exasperated, fired a crossbow point-blank into her neck.
“Who gave you that ring?”
She didn’t answer him. She looked up. The [Trapmaster] nodded to the [Blademaster].
The other man lifted his sword overhead. He looked up, for the invisible watchers. His eyes flickered down to Magnolia.
Lord Tyrion Veltras ran him through the stomach. The [Lord] turned; the [Trapmaster]’s eyes widened.
The [Lord] bellowed. The watchers stared.
“Lady Magnolia Reinhart?”
Tyrion Veltras stared at the place the [Assassin] had indicated. His hand drummed on the table. He looked at the [Assassin]. At the spot.
“By midday, perhaps a bit later. Then—”
Tyrion Veltras drew his sword. He strode past the [Assassin] and roared one word.
She came running. But she was too slow; the [Lord] was racing out of the stables before the [Assassin]’s body collapsed. His head lay on the floor. Tyrion Veltras left Jericha and the frantic soldiers behind. He rode faster—faster—
“What is he doing? That—that fool! That idiot!”
Ieka screamed at the scrying orb. She wasn’t the only one. The watchers of the noble houses saw the [Lord] of House Veltras strike at the [Trapmaster], scoring a deep slash before whirling. He rode down on the other three surprised [Assassins].
The [Blademaster] was alive—but he’d been gored through the stomach and thanks to the poison, the healing potion wasn’t working properly. He was screaming as Tyrion struck with his lance, breaking up the three around Ressa.
But what was he doing? She heard an [Assassin] speaking.
“Leave. Or we will kill you.”
There were five. The [Lord] of Veltras stared at the wounded [Blademaster]; but the [Assassin] had stopped the bleeding with a Skill. He was crouching behind the others.
But all five were standing there. They hadn’t fled. They had not been prepared for him.
[Messages] were screaming towards the [Lord], but he could not hear them. Nor did he respond to the [Trapmaster].
“Keep them off me.”
He looked at Ressa. She blinked up at him, and then bared her teeth.
“[Pure Acceleration]. [Shadow Doppelganger]. [Whirlwind of Blades]!”
She leapt at them and the [Assassins] dove away with a cry as a second, shadow-Ressa appeared and was skewered on the [Blademaster]’s sword. Tyrion Veltras accelerated.
He had taught Hethon how to strike with a lance. The world became a single charge. And at the end of his lance tip—trying to evade—
Mire had consumed dozens of potions. The [Trapmaster], Sithorn, threw a desperate loop of wire. Tyrion knocked it away with his shield.
He stabbed Mire with his lance at the same time as his first strike hit her in the shoulder. Off-target.
She lost her arm and shoulder. The [Lord] saw her fall, grabbing at a healing potion. She healed herself; he frowned. But her arm was gone.
“Call him off or give us a second target.”
Sithorn hissed into a speaking stone. He listened, then bellowed at Tyrion as Mire backed up, muffling her howl of pain.
“Lord of House Veltras. Why are you helping a traitor to Izril?”
Not his words. But if they worked—Lord Tyrion lifted his lance. He charged again, wordlessly.
This time he was foiled—the [Thrower] snarled.
“[Full Power Throw]! [Hail of Projectiles]!”
She threw nearly thirty enchanted darts which exploded and forced the [Lord] to evade and block. He rode out of the cloud of dust, unharmed. He slapped a vial of healing potion onto his wounded mount as he rode, lance raised.
As if he was on the tilting grounds. The [Lord] calmly spoke as the [Assassins] pivoted towards him. Magnolia was kneeling besides Reynold, empty bottles in her hands. The [Lord] looked up and addressed the invisible watchers.
“I am not Magnolia Reinhart’s ally. I do not agree with her. I detest how she rules her lands and her philosophy is antithetical to mine. If she comes against me, I will oppose her, even if it should mean one of our deaths. However.”
He lowered the lance. Magnolia looked up at him and Tyrion gave her a cold look. Then he nodded.
“However. If I let her die to treachery, to the true traitors of Izril, slain by cowardice, by [Assassins]? The day I allowed such a thing, that day, the House of Veltras is no more. We are the Five Families of Izril. Silent cowards have no right to slay us.”
His army was coming. Slower, far slower than the [Lord]. But they were coming. And—as the [Assassins] waited for orders, Ressa limped backwards towards Magnolia. She was kneeling.
“Reynold. Stay with me. Reynold.”
He looked up at her.
“I believe I’ve lost something, Lady Reinhart. Go on without me. I regret that I cannot drive.”
“Be silent. Ressa—”
“I have to fight with him. Stay in the carriage. Lock yourselves in—”
The [Maid] was coughing. The north watched. And then—Magnolia Reinhart’s eyes widened. She raised her head.
She vanished. The [Assassins], Ressa—even Tyrion stared.
“But I had the teleportation spells locked! Even [Greater Teleport] should have been slowed by—”
The [Mage] cried out as the others whirled on her. Suddenly—their calm professionalism turned to uneasiness. Ressa looked around.
“No. Wait, w—”
She vanished. Reynold was grinning, coughing—he vanished too.
Tyrion Veltras stared at where they had been. He didn’t comprehend what spell could have done that. Then he whirled.
The [Martial Artist] slammed into his shield. The [Lord]’s shield absorbed the entire blow. Yet—his horse grunted at the strain. Then—from the side, the [Thrower] screamed.
He unloaded everything. Tyrion whirled—too slow—the [Mage] fired into the cloud.
“[True Lightning]! [Siege Fireball]! Damn you! You—”
The [Lord] galloped out of the haze. His warhorse stumbled. He saw the wire too late—the invisible edge caught the horse. It didn’t go through the enchanted armor, but it blocked his retreat.
The [Blademaster] was standing there, still with a hole in his stomach. The whites of his eyes were showing. But he spoke.
“[Walk Forwards Unto Death, Or Victory].”
He advanced, his sword swinging and tracing patterns in the air. Tyrion Veltras touched his mount once.
The warhorse went down. The [Lord] threw himself to safety. He rose, blocking a spell and dart. Suddenly—the [Assassins] had turned their fury and shock on him. He met the Minotauress and blocked her punch.
“Do we kill him or not? We can bring the [Lord] down.”
Sithorn was speaking into the stone. The [Lord] rammed his shield into Mire’s chest.
[Retribution of the Shield]. The stored energy sent the Minotauress flying so far she landed in a forest. She might be dead. The [Lord] pivoted.
The [Trapmaster] ducked with an oath. The [Blademaster] parried the incredibly long and wide strike. Tyrion raised his blade.
“[Might of Four].”
He brought his sword down as the throwing expert lunged at him and drove the other man into the ground.
…But he was a [Lord]. And a [Lord] alone was weaker. The [Assassins] got back up. Mire howled. She had transformed into a larger, hulking figure. Her arm was still gone, but the rest of her injuries…
They were Faces. The [Lord]’s eyes widened fractionally. He was used to battlefields. He had never conceived of five opponents like this. The [Assassins] advanced.
“Bring him down. [Wire Noose].”
The [Trapmaster] snagged an arm. He tossed the wire to Mire and she grabbed it with her left arm and screamed in fury. Tyrion tried to plant himself; with her enhanced strength she threw him into the air. And a spell.
The [Lord] blocked the spell mid-flight. Barely. He landed, shaking his head, ears ringing, and then the [Blademaster] was on top of him as the throwing-expert tossed a bolas.
“Well? Does he die or not?”
Sithorn aimed his crossbow at the [Lord]’s head. He could practically sense the elites of House Veltras bearing down on them. He waited—and at last, the babble of voices resolved itself.
“No. Izril cannot lose its most powerful [Lord]. Leave. Now.”
The [Assassin] threw the stone down and cursed.
The Faces looked at him in disgust. Tyrion Veltras, shield raised, saw them leap away. He looked around.
The dead [Maids]. The broken carriage. His mount.
When Tyrion Veltras’ bodyguard finally caught up, he stood alone. Alone…his deed of saving Magnolia Reinhart seen by his peers. And Magnolia Reinhart?
She was nowhere to be found.
“Why did he do it? He hates her.”
“She even left him during the battle. He’s a fool. An idiot. Veltras honor.”
“The Faces are outraged—”
“Let them. This was not acceptable. You. You decided to approach Tyrion.”
The sound cut off. The Circle of Thorns went silent. After a long, long pause, someone spoke.
“What do we do now?”
One voice spoke. Calmly. Suppressing the fury of it all.
“He will suffer for this. Tyrion Veltras has proven himself to be a feral hound, not an ally…he will be brought to heel. He is a fool. And he will see just how far our reach extends. When he swears himself to the Circle—he will do so as servant to the cause, not ally. Now, begone.”
The meeting ended. The Circle of Thorns broke up.
They had failed to kill Lady Magnolia Reinhart. Lord Tyrion, at no benefit to himself, had done the unthinkable. The Circle had made its one mistake in him.
What a fool. The Lord of House Veltras slowly rode back to his lands. He had no reward. He was injured. He’d lost his horse, and Magnolia Reinhart was gone; if she had thanks for him, well.
He hadn’t done it for her.
“Milord? Why did you ride to her defense? You could have…died?”
Tyrion did not like to admit that himself. But he had not…known…how strong the [Assassins] were. They had nearly brought him down, armed with his best artifacts, on the charge. He looked at Jericha.
“Why, Jericha? Was it not clear?”
His tone was surprised, as if it was written clear as day on his face. Jericha hesitated.
“I know the honor of the situation demanded it, but even so, the risk to yourself—”
“Not just that.”
The [Lord] slashed with his lance. He was riding a spare mount. He looked ahead, tiredly. Back towards home, far away. He rode ahead of Jericha.
“It was just…Hethon and Sammial. If I let her die, how could I raise them with anything like integrity? Assassins? We are better than that, Jericha. We must be.”
She looked at his back. The [Lord] rode home. And Izril changed for that moment.
Magnolia Reinhart left the north three days later.
Author’s Note: Thus ends seven days of writing. I had planned the ending with the beginning. I don’t know if I did it proper justice; I wish I was certain.
It’s been tiring. In seven days, The Last Tide came out. I lived without air conditioning in the summer’s heat. I killed three spiders and a lotta moths.
Oh, and I wrote a lot of words. I hope you enjoyed this, whenever you read this. I will now take off the rest of the month to rest and work on other TWI-related projects. Thank you for reading and understanding.
That’s all from me. See you in a bit.
Headscratcher’s Death, by Lire