(A Wandering Inn reader has written their own story, Melas on RoyalRoad! Check it out here and congratulations to hitting the Top 10 on trending, delta201! )
Thereafter. These were the headlines spoken and written in large font across the world.
From Wistram News Network and their subsidiary, the Pallassian Times, the Liscorian Gazette, Chandrar International, the Terandrian Tribunal—
That last one was very interesting. Now there were three international newspapers in circulation. The headline and bylines from Chandrar International, as written by the Editor-in-Chief, Rémi Canada, read as follows:
Clash at Medain.
Reim’s armies in retreat; 5 warships return to the House of Minos; [Pirate Captain] Rasea Zecrew sails under Savere’s flag; 17 nations and counting declare war on the King of Destruction; King of Duels captured.
It was the kind of title that had multiple subheadings and required the entire newspaper (aside from the business, magical news, and funnies sections) to explain fully.
Interestingly, as the internal sales figures per-newspaper, per new reader went, Chandrar International happened to have the weakest initial sales within the first five hours of printing. The Terandrian Tribunal, and the Pallassian Times were both more well-known and circulated.
But by the end of the day, people were requesting Rémi Canada’s newspaper from Runner’s Guilds, who were printing and providing copies as part of their service. The reasons cited by customers were the layout of the [Journalist]’s newspaper, more impartial reporting, attention to detail, and the fame of the Editor-in-Chief himself.
And, lest it be unremarked upon, the income of that many sales of newspapers across the world was no small thing. The larger two continental newspapers, already with competition in Liscor in Izril’s case, had large backers. But Rémi’s newspaper had already paid for itself and the equipment and salaries of its employees by the time the day ended.
Of course—the war of media was not the most important thing happening, except to the organizations involved. There was, after all—
A war. Multiple ones. Seventeen nations had declared when Rémi finalized the newspaper. Twenty by the time he began the second day’s first draft.
“Yet, as any keen observer will note, a state of war has existed within Chandrar already. The declarations by nations such as Nerrhavia’s Fallen cannot surprise anyone, least of all the [King] of Reim himself. It is a sign that each nation believes Reim’s aura of invincibility has finally faded.
Time will reveal whether this is correct. What is true is that the [Army of the King] has been used and for the first time, Reim’s armies have tasted a true defeat at the hands of the House of Minos and one [Pirate Captain]’s intervention…a timely, perhaps incredibly coordinated series of events.”
They weren’t the most scorching of words. Rather, Rémi had laid out the battle piece by piece without the victorious tones of the other two newspapers. Impartial, reasoned—it was why his newspaper was doing better.
Teresa Atwood wouldn’t have minded it, even though she was on the losing side. But the fact that someone was reading it over her shoulder was sending chills up her spine.
The King of Destruction waited for Teres to turn the page. She didn’t want to.
“Go on, Teres. It’s certainly the most objective take so far. Or are you still reading?”
Flos Reimarch was calmer today. Scarce hours had passed and dawn had just turned into morning. The King of Destruction had stopped raging.
Now, he sat, weary in his saddle, as his army rode from Medain’s borders. They had not halted to rest beyond healing injuries even though they had just fought the battle that the newspapers were reporting on.
They had too far to go to rest. Nerrhavia’s Fallen, the Claiven Earth, Medain, and nations as distant as Savere and A’ctelios had declared war. But—some like A’ctelios had already declared war.
The difference was that they were marching. Reim had its spies and informants, and Orthenon had reported that A’ctelios had sent its war band from the Carven City; Nerrhavia’s Fallen was mobilizing armies in the plural…
“…‘a moment to test the legend of the King of Destruction.’ Well written, that fellow. Another of your Earth-folk.”
“I think so, your Majesty.”
Teres was nervous. Flos just nodded.
“It will be defense, now. As he says. The last time so many nations declared war on me was when I had unified most of Chandrar. Then—it was multiple continents. The Walled Cities, Balerosian companies, half of Terandria…well, they had tried to stymie me before but with less unity. A time to test the legend indeed.”
Teres just nodded. She was nervous. Flos was too calm, now. He looked to the side.
His army was silent on the march. Last time, after Jecrass, he had invigorated them with a speech. Today though, it seemed as though Flos had no bright spot to find.
They had been defeated. By a [Pirate], by the armies of Minos…and the great Skill of the King of Destruction had been wasted, in a sense. Oh, General Ozem and his armies were dead or fleeing back across the sea. But Rasea Zecrew had killed Ulyse, stopped Reim’s army from seizing Medain and the King of Duels.
“You only call me ‘your Majesty’ when you want something or you’re nervous of me, Teres. You needn’t be. I have been humbled. But I know where to direct my wrath.”
Teres saw Flos’ head turn towards her. She nodded tightly.
“Then—what happens next?”
“A few things. While we ride, a few things. It’s been long enough. Let’s check on Orthenon.”
The two turned slightly back. The [Steward] was sitting in one of the wagons. No horse for him; he could ride, but the [Healer] and [Necromancer] had been in agreement. He needed to keep his hand as steady as possible.
“Will your fingers keep their strength and dexterity, my steward?”
“I think so, your Majesty. They’re already rejoined. [Death Keeper]?”
The Rustängmarder’s [Necromancer] and specialist bowed as he sat with the [Steward].
“The tissue has not rotted. The bones have not been destroyed. I will check the muscle again—but it is not my specialty. The [Healer] has done all she can.”
“Do so, then. Orthenon, I have need of you.”
The [Steward] nodded and held out his arm. Teres watched uneasily as the [Death Keeper] ran his hands along the place where two of Orthenon’s fingers had been severed by Rasea. The Rustängmarder’s [Necromancer] had reattached it. It was one of the reasons their mercenary company was so dangerous; they could reattach limbs with death magic.
“Be careful. If you feel any pain or stiffness, this may require an expert beyond either of us.”
That was all he said to Orthenon. The [Steward] nodded and stood.
“Your will, my [King]?”
The [Steward] was easier to read than the King of Destruction at the moment. He was angry. Teres saw it in his expressionless face. Knowing Orthenon—he might have felt responsible for failing to stop Rasea, or predict her attack.
The King of Destruction nodded.
“With me. Mars.”
He didn’t have to raise his voice for the Illusionist to appear. She wore the defeat differently than Orthenon. Her eyes were a bit red. Tears of frustration. She’d shed them for failing to stop Ozem and failing to kill or capture the High King.
Flos regarded both of them levelly and nodded.
“We ride ahead.”
They moved forwards a bit. No one protested. Ytol was managing the army’s retreat; he had already sent [Riders] ahead to link up with the rest of the army and split. They had to defend the parts of Belchan they’d taken, Hellios, Germina, Reim…
Too many spots. And Medain was hostile too; the High King had declared war as soon as he’d retreated to his capital. No one had attacked the army yet; wounded or not, they had just fought an intense battle and leveled. And Mars and Orthenon were here, along with Zamea and the battered elites.
Ulyse was dead. Two half-Giants had fallen. Zamea’s leg was broken; she was audibly cursing as she hobbled to keep up with the army. The Rustängmarder, Flos’ vanguard and hammer, were down to twelve.
Disaster. Flos himself did not belabor the point.
“Mars, open your personal armory. Any weapon you can do without—place it with Ytol. We need the Sorcelled Blades. Every officer and magical blade we can spare will go to that unit.”
Mars nodded. Orthenon looked at Flos.
“Where will they fight?”
“With you. I’ll have you lead just them, Orthenon. We’ll need the cavalry in other spots; you’ll take that unit and move from battlefield to battlefield. Don’t lose a single one. Attack, keep moving and keep the enemy guessing. You’ll need anti-divination spells. Take one of Parasol Stroll’s [Mages].”
“About that, sire. With Ulyse gone…who leads them? Mirin? She’s with Trey. And Esiela is under blood-oath. But can she be trusted?”
Mars looked concerned. Flos glanced backwards.
“Place her with me. The Nomads of the Sky I will give to Ytol. He will move to Reim to reinforce Venith and Maresar at once. You’ll stay in the north, Mars. Hold back the Claiven Earth and Medain. I cannot trust anyone else to fight the adventurers and [Archers].”
They’d kill half-Giants, who were too large targets. Mars just nodded.
“Very well. And yourself, your Majesty?”
The King of Destruction looked around.
“I…will stay in the north with Ytol. We will need to fight here. Once we reach Jecrass’ lands, we will split, Ytol and I. Before that—I will lead our armies on Jecrass’ capital and take it.”
The others stirred. Teres’ mouth fell open.
“You still want to fight?”
Flos looked at her.
“I swore to avenge the Gnolls. That [Prime Minister], Lyfelt, still lives. Since Raelt of Jecrass is no longer free, I will offer his daughter one chance to fulfill his terms. Otherwise—I will finish the war in Jecrass if I can. Fall back otherwise and continue fighting. Either way—I complete my vow.”
“But we’re at war with every other nation in Chandrar around us! You want to fight Jecrass? They’ll be at war with Medain!”
It made sense not to fight the one nation they could probably make peace with. The King of Destruction had a different opinion, though.
“I swore a mighty oath, Teres. I swore it by the dead, who had come for my protection. I did not make war on Belchan and then Jecrass solely for politics. Lyfelt will die. And if the Gnoll tribes demand it—I will fulfill my promise for a thousand heads for every one that was slain. I made them a promise.”
He had already killed so many of Belchan’s people. And he’d just fought the Minotaurs a day ago in the bloodiest engagement Teres had ever seen. Flos Reimarch met her gaze, and turned his head.
“Since High King Perric decided to declare war before we’d left his borders, we’ll strike him. Mars—Orthenon—the border city ahead of us. Trevlt? Take it.”
The King’s Steward and the Illusionist looked up. They nodded, almost relaxing.
“Don’t kill civilians. Rout the defenders; the Nomads will help sack the city with two thousand horse. Go.”
“Your will, your Majesty!”
Mars’ eyes glittered. Orthenon bowed, a thin, bitter smile on his face. Teres opened and closed her mouth. She saw them turn, riding north towards a city on the horizon.
“It won’t have more than a dozen Level 30 individuals. If it has someone unexpected, they’ll fall back. Mars could—and has—taken a city herself. They can’t hurt her. And Orthenon is too intelligent to put himself in jeopardy. Moreover—it will relieve their failures.”
The King of Destruction looked ahead. He dismissed the city as if it were already burning.
“Come, Teres. We have to ride faster if we’re yet to assault Jecrass before they have time to spirit that damned [Prime Minister] away. Enough moping.”
He rode faster. Teres shouted after his back.
“Haven’t you had enough?”
Flos of Reim looked at her. He cast a glance back towards the battlefield, and shook his head.
“What should I do now? Give up? Sue for peace with my enemies baying for my blood? Teresa. It is time to turn the borders to blood and fire. And when I reach the House of Minos and Savere—I will repay yesterday a thousand times over.”
Such different worlds. Teres slowed down as she saw that difference more plainly, at last. He had seen greater battles, bloodier, more devastating. The events of yesterday had affected the King of Destruction least. But everyone else had watched and seen.
Their reactions were more telling.
The King of Destruction’s war with the House of Minos was revealing on several levels. Firstly—if you were in the Titan’s class, it was, as he pointed out, an example of levels versus numbers.
“The Minotaurs just gave the King of Destruction his first real defeat. They did it with an incredibly small force, but high-leveled veterans and incredibly powerful siege weapons. It proves that the King of Destruction’s army is still fundamentally flawed. He has some of his old vassals but his army is full of holes. Miss Angelica, one flaw. Five seconds to respond.”
He pointed. The [Princess] gulped and blurted the first thing that came to mind.
The Titan nodded and she relaxed.
“Good. No [Mages]. He has a few; not enough to shield his army, let alone Amerys of the Seven. Another flaw. You.”
A student flinched.
“People die when a [Strategist] takes too long, Mister Iril! You! Flaw!”
“Good! We didn’t see those. These are the easy ones. Next?”
“Um—Garuda? Takhatres of the Seven was fighting the Empress…”
“Yes. The Minotaurs would have never tried that with an army of Garuda in the skies. They’d have destroyed the artillery. But General Ozem would have never landed if he’d thought there was even a whiff of Garuda in the air. This is what I keep telling you all: pick your battles. And make sure the enemy can’t!”
The Titan was expounding on the battle and aftermath with unusual vigor, even for him. He was…restless. They called him Professor, here. But one look at him reminded his students that Niers Astoragon was first a [Strategist]. Like the King of Destruction—he saw battle and it lit something up in him.
Synergy. At least, between those two. A…sympathetic reaction across the world. The consequence of the live coverage via scrying spells. When people watched—what had occurred in that one place in Chandrar suddenly affected events the world over.
For some—it was a conversation topic, a lesson, a moment’s entertainment. But the effect was more dramatic in other places.
“Incredible. The Order of Seasons might well crusade to Chandrar. The Grandmaster might have ordered us already if it weren’t for the situation with Ailendamus.”
Talia exhaled slowly and the [Knights] around her began murmuring. Rabbiteater just shook his head.
A massive battle. Far larger than the ones even Redfangs could have conceived of. And powerful weapons. He felt full of nervous energy just seeing it.
That was his comment to Talia. She smiled at him.
“That’s all you have to say, Ser Solstice?”
He shrugged, embarrassed.
“[Pirates] were the most clever. Good tactics.”
Hit-and-run. The Redfangs fought like that. Talia pursed her lips. She thought it was dishonorable. But the [Pirates] had lost, what, three people total? It made sense to hit the enemy where they couldn’t hit you back. In a fight with unarmored enemies, every single Redfang went for a groin-kick against male opponents. Or stab.
“Want to practice fighting?”
Just like the others, Rabbiteater was restless. Talia nodded, and they found an open space on the deck to practice. In that, the [Knights] and Redfangs were very much alike.
The theory was known as the ‘domino effect’ on Earth. The battle and subsequent declarations of war had…eased a pressure on the world. The looming threat of the King of Destruction in the background. So many nations suddenly going to war was like a mental cascade. A catalyst.
It had unexpected consequences. Rabbiteater was hefting a practice axe; he still needed to master Headscratcher’s gold-jade battleaxe. Talia was warming up when her head turned.
“Ship to port! No—ships!”
The watcher on the crow’s nest shouted down. The [Captain] of the vessel, and some of the crew and [Knights] went to the railing. Rabbiteater was focused—until he heard a shout.
“That flag. Those are Ailendamus’ ships!”
Talia and Rabbiteater looked sideways. The Hobgoblin saw, waving from one ship, a…bow. Some kind of stylized bow with a lance instead of an arrow. Then he heard a shout.
“They’re moving to intercept—”
“Starboard! Raise our colors! This is a transport ship, not a—”
Rabbiteater saw a flicker in the air. He jumped forwards and thrust the axe out. Talia recoiled and heard a thunk.
The first arrow stuck in the wooden practice weapon. The Goblin whirled. Two of Ailendamus’ ships were coming from the port side.
“This is a peaceful vessel! We are not Pheislant’s or a Terandrian nation! Do you hear me?”
The [Captain] roared. But a second volley of arrows was coming. The crew and [Knights] took cover. And then Rabbiteater heard a roar from one of the [Knights of the Spring].
“Talia! Ailendamus has crossed the border of Kilav. It’s war!”
The [Summer Knight]’s head swung around. It was too soon! Grandmaster Calirn hadn’t predicted war for another month, at least! But Ailendamus had struck before even they were perhaps ready, much less their enemies.
Ailendamus declared war on the Dawn Concordat as its armies marched over the border of Kilav and its ships began to blockade nations such as Pheislant.
Rabbiteater decided he actually wanted to go back home.
Magus-Crafter Femithain was found half the time enjoying a civilized brew of stamina-potion in his cup in the open terrace of his personal quarters in Delicrel, the temporary ‘capital’ of the Illivere League. That was because it was made up of smaller crafter-states, who elected their Magus-Crafter periodically.
Femithain had been in power for a long time, which was a sign of confidence in the other crafter-states. In more contentious times, they might replace the Magus-Crafter every six months. But Femithain had kept everything running smoothly.
Like clockwork. Which was how the Illivere League liked it. In truth—there wasn’t as much politicking as in, say, Belchan.
Which was why half the time Femithain drank straight stamina-potion instead of tea or a lesser product to start his day. The other half of the time, he could be found face-down on a desk, having fallen unconscious after drafting new designs for Golems in his workshop all night long.
There was a copy of Chandrar International on his table on the veranda. Appropriate, since he’d been one of the financiers. Femithain picked it up and read.
He nearly fell out of his seat.
“The King of Destruction lost a battle?”
He hadn’t known. He’d been working on his personal bodyguard-Golems last night for hours after midnight. He read quickly, nearly forgetting to drink the stamina potion.
“Yes. Even with his [Army of the King]. Savere intervened. The Siren’s sister.”
Femithain realized he had a guest. Or…prisoner of war, if you wanted to be accurate.
She was certainly a prisoner. You could tell by…Femithain eyed Nsiia’s clothing for a second and was distracted, but kept reading as he reached for whatever the staff had placed in front of him for sustenance.
Definitely a prisoner. Savere had asked. Nerrhavia had asked. The [Empress of Beasts] was 100% a prisoner and you couldn’t go higher than that, could you?
You could tell. She had her own private quarters—she lived under house arrest. Housekeeping—er, jailors—kept a close eye on her in case she was hungry or something.
This was clearly a jailbreak. Like last time. Nsiia had probably overwhelmed the guard-Golems by walking past them, or cunningly hopped over her terraced porch to visit Femithain in the morning.
He was probably in fear of his life. Femithain realized there was half an ostrich’s egg in front of him.
“What is this?”
He eyed the fat omelette. Nsiia shrugged.
“I asked for one so your [Chef] made it for both of us. Have you read everything?”
She was aware Femithain liked to have a full possession of the facts before deciding anything. The man adjusted his spectacles.
“Almost. Would you like a towel? I assume you’ve been swimming.”
She’d jumped in the Magus-Crafter’s pools, a luxury he himself availed himself of…once a year.
Illivere was not a paradise, even if they’d applied for the position to…whomever decided such things. It was simply a nation based on Golem-labor, which meant that they had, like Khelt, done away with most menial tasks.
Golems tilled the fields and [Farmers] only had to harvest and manage the areas since harvesting was hard for all but Golems with fine dexterity. Golems hauled water, provided ‘free’ transportation, labor, and so on.
It wasn’t perfect. If you didn’t own a Golem, you were almost certainly poor. However, Femithain and wise Magus-Crafters before him had concluded that rebellions of the poor were bad for business and health and so on. So there were institutions in place such that anyone could have cheap food, a place to sleep, guaranteed work, and so on.
The lower classes, with the Golems, provided the true elites—the [Golem Artisans], Crafter-Magi, and so on, time to create more servants and perfect their craft. Live in opulence too. But most of the hereditary families were…interesting.
A few did tend towards excess, but the ones like Femithain were just Golem-addicts. Whether by breeding or culture, Illivere had created within their elite the drive to improve their nation, even if it was only in the production of more high-end Golems.
Anyways…definitely-a-prisoner Nsiia was here for breakfast. She sat in front of Femithain, waiting for him to put down the newspaper.
“The King of Destruction is at war with…Nerrhavia, Savere, Medain…ah.”
The ah was a realization on Femithain’s part. This was bad for Reim. Also—it explained another thing.
He lowered the newspaper. Nsiia nodded as she leaned on the table, her skin glistening from the water in his pools, drying in the sun’s heat.
“Flos Reimarch and Reim go to war with so many nations. He has allies. Such as Savere was. But we are too scattered. Too weak. He needs support.”
Something else needed structural support. The former [Empress] was, in fact, topless. Femithain looked at her. And then he raised the newspaper and checked the count of nations.
“And Illivere would be a timely ally. I see, I see. So no towel, then?”
Nsiia scowled. She’d tried this before. Femithain was completely immune as far as she could tell. He might have the self-control and force of will she had respected in him during the war. Or—he might have only been interested if she was five feet taller and made out of obsidian, or jade, or some other Golem-material.
She wasn’t sure yet.
“You won’t consider it? Eat your food. Your servants worry about you.”
Femithain lifted a finger as he continued reading.
“Staff, actually. They’re employed. Different from [Servants]. They seem happy you’re around.”
“Because I make sure you’re not starving in your workshop. And because they have someone to pamper.”
The Magus-Crafter didn’t respond to that. He did, however, begin eating when she pushed the plate in front of him. Nsiia left at some point; she’d interrupt him when she wanted or he’d get back to her after he had calculated how Illivere fell into this situation.
“Not war with Reim.”
Femithain heard a sigh from Nsiia. She had climbed onto the crossed beams that formed a ‘roof’ over the veranda. Purely ornamental; the spells kept out rain.
Ordinarily, during her harsh captivity full of deprivations, sadistic torture, like having to fill her own water pitcher at night, and indignities on the parts of her captors—being ignored by Femithain—Nsiia prowled around like, well, the [Empress of Beasts] of Tiqr.
She was a captive. And even if the other bits were exaggerated to placate the Siren of Savere—she couldn’t leave. She was guarded—for her protection. The Siren wanted her enemy, and the other nations would have happily disposed of the leader of Tiqr, who continued to resist even after being conquered.
“No war with Reim. Is this bias?”
Femithain continued thinking from below. He was aware his budding friendship with Nsiia might influence his decisions. However—after analyzing his own decision, he concluded that was a safe decision.
Illivere did not need to declare war. The other nations might pressure them to, but Reim was far away. A war declaration could be made at need and ignored, but there was no need to do so just to follow suit. Moreover, war with Reim would keep the other nations from bothering with Illivere.
And…if Reim did come out ahead, there was a decided importance to not being on the King of Destruction’s bad side.
“That does not mean we will help Reim now, no matter what you request, Nsiia.”
The former [Empress] sunbathed above him. She had caused quite a stir. At least three dozen younger [Crafters] had dedicated Golems to her, made in her image and the warrior-queen had her own admirers of both male and females alike.
She struck a chord with the restless young. Femithain heard Nsiia moving.
“And I have nothing to persuade you with?”
He considered this.
“Not in any immediate sense, no.”
He heard a sigh from above. Nsiia sat up. Femithain listened. She was dangerously intelligent; he’d lost more than one board game against her despite being ranked among the Top 100 in his nation consistently. She was a polite, even amenable guest so far. But he still had her watched.
“You know, we won’t sit idly. I waited for him to rise faster. He let me down. But if I had my nation, I would still follow him over all these other nations. The others won’t rest now, either.”
“His allies. The King of Destruction has not a tenth of the vassals I think are loyal to him. The Mad Ones…the full strength of the Rustängmarder…this may force them to move.”
“We shall see.”
The Magus-Crafter had an enchantment which allowed his spectacles to reflect more than they should have. He pretended to read while he watched the reflection of her above him. Nsiia spoke to the skies.
“Illivere stands at a crossroads, Femithain. They will force you in the end, as they did me.”
Words of caution. Femithain did not forget. Nor did he take Nsiia lightly.
“That may be, [Empress]. But I work for my nation. For now—Illivere has little to gain and everything to lose from allying with Reim.”
He saw her shift and glanced away for her modesty, not his. Perhaps that was why she employed the tactic.
“Golems are Illivere’s blood, like the animals of Tiqr. I understand this now. Your nation pursues these…creations more than gold or blood or power.”
“They are all to us, Nsiia. They are art and purpose.”
“If you could be a Golem—would you?”
The question threw Femithain. Nsiia looked down at him, her eyes sharp. He was off-guard, and the reply slipped out of him.
“Not if it were the ones I make.”
Her eyes narrowed. She said nothing more as Femithain rose.
“I need to call together the Crafters. We will need to make a public statement at the very least. Empress…”
He looked around. She was gone. That worried Femithain, a bit. He had stopped Nsiia’s covert attempts to suborn his staff into helping her contact her people—by telling them to stop and confronting her directly. But she was a caged beast. And like any animal in a menagerie—she wanted to be free.
Femithain liked and respected Nsiia. But Illivere was his responsibility. He hoped she would not force his hand. For now—he rose, leaving the omelette half-finished.
Therein lay his mistake. When he was gone, Nsiia swung herself up onto the balcony again. She had climbed all over her palace as a girl and she used to ride her beloved friend, Thef. She missed him every day. Wept for him still.
But the former [Empress] could not lie about forever. Nor…was she a fool.
“Here. Here, Teska.”
She raised her hand and a bird fluttered down. A red bird, related to a finch. The Largebeaked Marraw was her friend. She had trained him for the last month in secret. She rubbed at his head. Then she carefully tied the little bit of parchment onto his claw.
“Go, go. Find Vasraf.”
Maybe he’d make it. But Femithain was savvy enough to watch the skies. Either way—Nsiia had learned from playing board games with Femithain that you always had a backup plan. A second layer.
So, knowing full well the Magus-Crafter was gone and his servants would never dare enter his workshop, Nsiia padded barefoot into his private area. She looked around.
Her eyes glowed, capable of dark vision like an animal. Nsiia moved around some objects. Femithain was tidy and untidy; in his inspiration he…forgot things. Didn’t keep the perfect inventory until he sorted and requested more.
He’d find himself missing some enchanted stone, a pair of the premade control inscriptions. Bits and pieces he’d never notice; Nsiia carried them off. She was quite smart. It was new to her, but she was feeding off the most accomplished [Golem Artificer] in all of Illivere.
Anyways, the Empress had to hope the King of Destruction survived. But at least she was leveling.
Nsiia of Tiqr. [Golem Maker], Level 14.
Behind the scenes. Unimportant. Ailendamus’ declaration of war was so sudden that Wistram News Network was still covering two issues after the battle.
“So—so you’re saying your attack on the King of Destruction was purely your decision, Captain Rasea Zecrew?”
The very nervous Wistram [Mage] had been hauled up in a skiff. And it was surprising—but totally in the nature of her character that Rasea Zecrew had instantly agreed to an interview.
“That’s right. It was my idea! If there’s a foe for the Illuminary to fight, why not go after the King of Destruction himself? All my idea.”
She winked into the camera. The Drake [Mage] opened and closed his mouth a few times.
“And uh—you’re not worried about reprisals? For your ship or Savere? You are related to the Siren. And the King of Destruction is known for his long memory.”
“If he can catch the Illuminary, he can object to my face! As for my sister—she can take care of herself! I’m a [Pirate]; my business is loot and glory! And that’s why—I’m saying if there’s any brave soul out there, seek us out! The Illuminary is always looking for new crew!”
Rasea laughed. Her glowing eye flashed again.
She kept striking poses, using a crate to plant her foot and brandish her sword. The [Mage] swished his tail.
“But Captain Rasea, it seems as though your attack was quite premeditated. Will you swear by truth spell—hey! Get your claws off the scrying mirror. Hey. Hey—”
Something was thrust in front of the [Mage]. It was—a flier. Or perhaps a poster, the same as the ones the crew and friends of the Illuminary were putting up in ports.
Looking for mayhem? Treasure? Glorious death? Join Rasea Zecrew and the legendary crew of the Illuminary*!
*Applicants must be at least Level 30 or higher. Survival not guaranteed.
It had a stylized image of Rasea with her sword, smiling winsomely at the viewer. The audience heard the [Mage] arguing with the [Pirates], who were thrusting the poster at the viewer. There was a shout.
“And we’re better than those snotty Bloodtear Pirates or the Underseas Crews! Join us and—”
The image cut out. One of the Drakes in the broadcasting studio coughed. Sir Relz cleared his throat.
“Well—I think that’s all we’ll get from Captain Rasea. Enigmatic motives…we certainly don’t endorse that poster. [Pirates], eh, er, Miss Drassi?”
“Absolutely, Sir Relz. Absolutely.”
The other Drake was threatening Noass and Sir Relz’s duo. People writing in found Drassi and the other Drakes more entertaining than both of the [Commentators]. Speaking of which…Sir Relz looked at Drassi.
“I think since we’ve lost our ah, [Mage] with Captain Rasea—I hope the fellow is alright—we should move to a complaint lodged against our broadcast yesterday. Miss Drassi? I will see what this news from Terandria is—”
He stood up. The view panned to Drassi. She cleared her throat.
“Right. Hi, everyone! This is Drassi from Liscor, your favorite female [Reporter]! Because I’m the only one regularly employed. So…listen. I try to say things like I see them. And yesterday, during our coverage of the huge war with the King of Destruction, I made some comments about the kidnapping of Princess Jecaina of Jecrass and Medain.”
The view flashed to a few scenes in the corner of the screen, reminding readers of the events. It had been one comment among many. The clip was helpfully replayed for the audience as Drassi scowled at the kidnapping in progress.
“That’s right. Here’s what we know. This rat—”
“High King Perric.”
“Yeah. This rat-king kidnaps the [King] of Jecrass’ daughter. And now Raelt is in hot pursuit.”
In the present, Drassi cleared her throat and sat up.
“Medain’s launched a formal complaint with Wistram News Network over my language.”
Oh yes. Among all of what had happened, High King Perric had, in his wisdom, found the time to object to that singular moment.
A lesser ruler might not have cared. A weaker [King] might have ignored the slight, or dismissed it. But a [High King] demanded an apology. That was what set apart the men from the children.
Drassi sat in front of the scrying mirror and folded her claws as she looked sincerely into the camera.
“I’d just like to address the audience now. Firstly—I’d like to apologize to Medain and the [High King] Perric and you viewers out there. I used inappropriate language in the heat of the moment. Upon reflection…”
She took a deep breath. Her eyes were glittering, and you might be able to mistake it for tears of remorse if you didn’t see her violently lashing tail under the desk. But Wistram had been adamant. Drassi saw Noass glaring at her from the side. She took another breath.
“…Upon reflection, my phrasing and…and conduct was unprofessional. I apologize for that. I should have said ‘that rat bastard is kidnapping a [Princess], not rat-king’.”
Noass’ face froze. Drassi leaned forwards. He tried to cut the feed, but was stopped by the production crew who were getting a sense for good drama. Drassi leaned forwards.
“I’m supposed to apologize to this [High King]? Why? Listen—they told me I have to say sorry so we don’t ‘offend Medain’. Offend them for what? Speaking the truth? That’s why I got my position! I’m going to put my tail on the line when I say this: kidnapping is bad. I know that’s a hard position to take, but someone’s got to say it. Medain kidnapped Jecrass’ [Princess]. Everything else aside—that was a pretty rat-bastard move, right? Am I going to apologize for it? No! And if this [High King] objects—”
Noass dove onto the screen and tried to shove Drassi off. A pushing war ensued and two assistants appeared on screen and finally dragged both off. Furious arguments could be heard in the background until the view cut to Ailendamus’ ruler, King Itorin II, who was sitting while one of his subjects read a formal declaration of war.
“The news gets weirder and weirder every day, I swear.”
Erin Solstice looked away from the scrying orb at last. She wondered if this meant Drassi wasn’t going to make the night-shift. She didn’t even know why Drassi worked two jobs—the [Gossip] claimed it was to keep abreast of the fun stuff.
The Wandering Inn had a TV installed. It was functionally one of those diners that always had a television with a sports game. Which Erin found ironic, because it already had the Players of Celum. She looked around at the rapt audience now watching the war in Ailendamus.
It made Erin’s stomach hurt a bit. Well, she and everyone else had watched the battle with the King of Destruction. And while it hadn’t made Erin want to grab a hammer and hit someone…it had affected her as well.
“So this is how art gets replaced with television, huh? Not on my watch! Palt—we’re moving the mirror! Turn off the spell!”
The huge, six-foot mirror turned blank. It wasn’t perfect glass; it would have been really expensive if Erin had bought one of those. The glass was warped in places and had bubbles from the cooling process. But it was still good enough to turn into a scrying mirror.
A temporary one. Erin had a small, permanently-enchanted mirror, but even with Wistram making more, they cost too much! So Palt, being Palt, had come up with a great suggestion.
Enchant a mirror with the [Scrying] spell. Oh, it would wear off, but if you had, say, an [Illusionist] around, you had a free feature-size broadcast!
Boos came from around the common room as the mirror went dark. Erin saw someone raise a fist and shake it at her threateningly. She glared at Mrsha.
“It’s not off! Someone help me take it to the rec-room. No—no, wait! One of the spares! We’ll have that be the TV room. And we’ll put in like…couches. Blankets! Popcorn half-off! But not here! The Players of Celum are putting on a show!”
She pointed at the stage. Temile waved at her, mouthing a ‘thank you’; he had indeed been competing with the scrying mirror these last few days.
And in fact, Erin didn’t have to lift the mirror down from the wall. Ishkr was already standing on a table. He nodded to the staff.
“You three, help me carry this.”
Erin gave the Gnoll a thumbs-up. He nodded to her as they carried the mirror past. Erin had a prescient thought and looked around.
“No running around near the mirror!”
Mrsha stopped mid-run after Ekirra. The two Gnolls watched the mirror go past and Erin folded her arms.
“Someone looks like she has a lot of energy!”
The little Gnoll nodded rapidly. She hadn’t been allowed to watch the gory broadcast in its entirety, but she’d caught the mood of the room. Erin’s heart was still pounding.
Minotaurs. [Pirates]. She…took a breath.
“Okay. Mrsha? Why don’t you go into the Garden and…”
She whispered into the Gnoll’s ear. Mrsha’s eyes turned round. She looked up at Erin.
She held up a card. Erin nodded.
“They’re nearly ready. You can go…and so can Ekirra, I guess.”
He wasn’t going to figure out what it was. And his parents or others would just assume it was Erin being…Erin. The [Innkeeper] nodded.
Synchronicity. It had been a simple idea. She’d gotten it while watching the King of Destruction’s battle. She wasn’t the only one who’d been—inspired.
As Erin walked towards the Garden of Sanctuary, she saw Embria and some of 4th Company sitting together.
“Hey…Embria. What’s up?”
The Drake hesitated, but ducked her head. Some of her command were sitting around. They looked just as amped by the scene as she was.
“…oh sure, destructive, but you try that on Pallass’ walls against emplaced siege weapons and see what happens. What stood out to me was that damn ship. All the Skills and enchantments on it? How do you fight that?”
“Lightbridge and fight on the deck. Duh. You tell me what you can’t solve with lightbridge—oh, hello, Miss Solstice.”
The [Soldiers] looked at Erin. She waved at Embria.
“Uh…just saying hi. You all good? Want some more food?”
“We could use a few drinks—”
A Gnoll elbowed one of the Drakes in the side.
“Stow it, Lieutenant. We’re patrolling tomorrow, remember?”
“We’re fine, Miss Erin. Thank you.”
Erin nodded. Cool, cool. She kept the smile on her face. Embria was perfectly normal with her, even if the two weren’t exactly bloviating all the time. But there was some awkwardness, still.
“Uh huh. Great, great. Um…any word from Relc yet?”
The young Drake hesitated.
“Not…yet. But he’s probably still travelling. Without Skills or a dedicated…”
“Ah. Cool. Well, I haven’t heard anything. Just let me know. And let Ishkr know if you want anything! Play tonight! Uh…”
Erin backed up. She looked around. Not many people were in the inn.
Well, that wasn’t right. Not many people she counted as friends or acquaintances were in the inn. There were plenty of guests…
But the other Earthers, Selys, some of the Antinium, and now Maviola were in Area 51. That was what Erin was calling it.
Or maybe ‘the safe zone’. Or—or—she ran out of cool names for it. It wasn’t a Skill. It was just an idea she’d had.
Something big. Erin walked into the Garden of Sanctuary, leaving only a few of her ‘special’ guests in the common room. Few people even looked twice; they knew they weren’t allowed into the [Garden]. Lyonette had considered paid tours, but Erin had shot it down. A few watched Erin, though.
A pair of gentlemen with hats. Three of the food-spies. And…Ferris.
The Gnoll had a thought. And it was this.
“Is it actually her?”
He didn’t vocalize that. Not entirely. But the [Infiltrator] was coming to another conclusion after time at The Wandering Inn.
He had been sent to obtain Erin Solstice. A task he had not realized would be so arduous. She was as stubborn as a rock. Or a Dragon. And unfortunately, she was so well-connected that spiriting her away was an impossible venture.
No, despite Rafaema’s growing impatience, Ferris had seen no way. But he was beginning to think his failure was a good thing. Because—Ferris now believed Erin Solstice was not the mastermind behind The Wandering Inn and the events in Liscor.
His eyes turned past her, towards someone who was busily signing for packages.
“…Cleared to go through Invrisil. And you—Silveran—please put up a sign on that room? The one with the mirror? Um, ‘Viewing Room’. Yes, write that there and put it up. Thank you.”
She turned to a timid Worker. A Worker Antinium with silver antennae—hence the nickname, Silveran. An employee of the inn.
Ferris’ eyes almost narrowed, but he kept his face blank and friendly. Look at her. There…
Was a [Princess].
It was beyond obvious to an expert like Ferris. Her demeanor, accent, and the fact that she lacked an anti-appraisal ring all told him that. [Princess].
In fact, the 6th Princess of Calanfer. Right here. Lyonette kept staring at the news about Ailendamus. She’d hidden her reaction well. But he’d seen the worry and fear on her face as it broke.
She was behind The Wandering Inn. Erin? She was a mascot.
It all made sense to Ferris. Think of it. What had he seen Erin do? A number of insane things. But she didn’t run her inn. Lyonette? She’d negotiated with him on behalf of his company. She was the one who organized everything.
The power behind the throne. No, the power of the throne. Aha! The Gnoll was changing targets.
And to be fair, it was an obvious conclusion. The amazing part was that the Gnoll wasn’t completely right, and instead, half-wrong.
He followed Lyonette as the [Princess] looked around, realized she was free for half a second, and hurried after Erin into the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Alas, Ferris had tried to enter a dozen different ways and the Skill had foiled him. It was a top-grade Skill. And if Ferris had been even better at his job, or more specialized in a different class, he would have noticed something else.
But he didn’t.
Inside the [Garden of Sanctuary], Lyonette du Marquin found Numbtongue and Bird and Mrsha.
“In her secret spot.”
Numbtongue answered shortly. He was practicing with his sword. Lyonette was now a regular disciple of Zevara’s, and she recognized good swordsmanship when she saw it.
He was performing a complex set of maneuvers, cutting the grass with tight, elegant swings. Nothing big and fancy; that was what an amateur did and it got you killed.
Numbtongue was also smiling. It might have been him—or the ghost who was delighting over his blade. Lyonette didn’t know about that of course. Nor did she see Reiss grumpily sitting on the grass, watching.
“You’re in a good mood. I’m going after Erin. You don’t want to come?”
“No. Too much repeating. Will go later. More fun, here.”
The Hobgoblin grunted at the [Princess]. Oddly, he didn’t use Numbtongue’s good grammar and diction. He sounded like—
Shorthilt. But Lyonette was too distracted to ask why. The Hobgoblin smiled as the sword flashed through the air. He was so artful that even Mrsha had stopped for a moment to admire—although she was not allowed anywhere near the glittering blade, of course.
Someone else sat in the [Garden], immune to the lures of the secret Erin had been working on. He rose now as Lyonette hurried in.
“Lyonette. Lyonette! I have a request!”
The [Princess] looked up. Bird ran down the hill and nearly tumbled down the slope.
“Bird! What are you doing here?”
“I am creating bird-nests. You see?”
He showed her something. Lyonette stared at the little nest of twigs he’d made. And then one of the birdhouses.
“You. You, Bird, are making bird-houses?”
“Yes. To cultivate more birds so they are not all dead. The [Druids] have shown me the way. I must kill birds and allow more birds to reproduce. Otherwise—there will one day be no birds.”
The Worker solemnly placed one of his nests back in the pile. Lyonette opened and closed her mouth.
“That’s very intelligent of you, Bird. What did you want? Help putting your nests up?”
“Oh, no. I can do that myself and the other Workers will help me. No, Lyonette. I would like you to buy something for me. Please?”
“You have an allowance, Bird.”
The [Princess] smiled. The Worker waved his antennae as he gestured at the coin pouch at his side.
“I know. I cannot find it in the market. And I am not allowed in Pallass, which I am sure has them for sale. If I give you money, can you buy it for me?”
“Yes, of course. I’ll put it on the list. What is it?”
At least he was being responsible now. Bird smiled broadly.
“I would like a ballista. Like the one on the scrying orb. Thank you!”
The [Princess]’s head slowly turned back to him.
“Yes! It does not have to have enchanted ammunition; that would destroy the birds. But with one like the ones the Minotaurs have, I can probably hunt the scale-birds.”
“Yes! How much more money do I need?”
Bird showed Lyonette the money in his pouch. Lyonette stared at him and heard a snort. Shorthilt’s time was up and Numbtongue was silently cracking up as he clutched at his stomach.
“Bird…you cannot have a ballista. We can’t even buy one.”
“What? Why not?”
“They’re too expensive. What am I saying? We are not mounting a ballista on the inn!”
Zevara would kill her. Bird looked at Lyonette, antennae quivering. Then he sat down, lay on his shelled back, and began to wave his arms and legs.
“I want a ballista! Waaah! Waaaah! Am I being annoying? I will do this until I get one! I want a ballista!”
“Bird. Stop that!”
Lyonette snapped at Bird. He didn’t stop. Lyonette closed her eyes. Think, think…aha! Bird-logic!
“Bird, we cannot buy a ballista because they are not for sale! Pallass does not sell them! They’re too uh, valuable!”
Bird stopped flailing and crying. He sat up.
“Are you sure? You are not lying, are you, Lyonette? I would be hurt if you were.”
“I’m not, Bird. Swear on a truth spell. We can’t get a ballista. And if we could—I would still say no. Because it’s dangerous, and it’s a siege weapon, and what am I doing arguing about this? The answer is no.”
Lyonette pointed down at him. Bird folded all four arms sullenly.
“Is that clear, Bird? No going into Pallass and asking.”
“I will not.”
“What was that?”
“I will not go into Pallass, Lyonette.”
The [Princess] sighed. Then she heard the giggling and looked to one side. Mrsha and Numbtongue were lying on the ground, pounding it with their fists, laughing their butts off.
“Very funny. Well, Miss Mrsha, if it’s so funny, maybe you don’t need to visit Erin’s secret place with the others? I hear they’re having lots of fun, but if someone would rather be here…”
Mrsha leapt up in alarm. She ran to grab Ekirra—who was sniffing the cocoa tree for more chocolate—and tugged him back towards the door. Lyonette nodded to Numbtongue.
“We’ll be gone for a bit. Let us know if anything comes up.”
“Sure. Will do.”
The Hobgoblin lay down in the grass, still chuckling. Bird was muttering to himself as Lyonette, Mrsha, and Ekirra vanished through the door. For a moment there was music—Numbtongue’s ears perked up. He began to sit up.
“…ballista would be useful for defense. Everyone needs a ballista. It is very unfair that Pallass will not share…”
Numbtongue pointed towards the wall. Bird didn’t answer. Numbtongue left him to sulk. He walked down the hill and heard a small voice from the [Bird Hunter].
“Fine then. I will build one myself.”
Numbtongue looked backwards. It was the most ominous thing he had ever heard Bird say. He hesitated. But—he would really have liked a ballista too. So he pretended he didn’t hear it and walked through the door.
Lyonette, Mrsha, Ekirra and then Numbtongue all walked through the Garden of Sanctuary’s door. They reappeared back in The Wandering Inn, as Erin had done. But they were not…accessible…to the other guests.
Erin Solstice’s new secret. Obviously—the people who’d helped her with it knew. And her guests. But it had been ferreted out by some of her semi-permanent guests.
Ferris hadn’t noticed. But there was an expert, as it were, among even those intelligent sorts. Grimalkin, Saliss, Ferris…they were good.
Ratici though, he’d seen it at once. He had left the rec room, and since there was no Numbtongue, and Miss Erin had vanished into the safe Garden of Sanctuary, Wilovan went to find his friend.
“Ratici. What are you doing?”
The [Thief] looked around as Wilovan stood next to him. The shorter Drake adjusted his cap.
“Wilovan, if I were to vouchsafe a theory to you, would you consider it?”
“Naturally, dear fellow.”
“Well then, allow me to make a few…well, what would you think of this wall?”
The Drake gestured to a blank wall in the hallway. Wilovan eyed it, knocked on the wood, and sniffed. It was just a wall. Ratici kept staring at it.
“…Not immediately hollow. I smell and hear nothing, and given the condition of my senses over yours, I would be inclined to say it is just a wall, Ratici, if I were not given to trust your Skills over mine.”
“Right, right. The thing is, Wilovan, I have noticed a few things. The first thing is that there’s no door here.”
“…Customary of walls, Ratici.”
The Drake nodded. He scratched at his chin.
“But there was. Two days ago, there was a door here.”
The Gnoll had been distracted, wondering if this was some long analogy towards the power of the nobility vis-a-vis the working class. Now—his eyes sharpened.
“Ah. You recall that quite clearly, Ratici?”
“Force of habit, Wilovan. Force of habit. And I can’t help but notice something else. There is no door or window, but my understanding of the layout of the inn—and my Skills are telling there is a space beyond there, Wilovan.”
“There are spaces we cannot see, Ratici.”
The Gnoll said this, but he was mostly teasing. Ratici gave him an irritated look.
“Yes, Wilovan. But I mean there are no entryways into here. Not from above. Or below. Or any other way.”
“Oh. My, oh my.”
“Reminds you of a few tricks of the trade, doesn’t it, Wilovan?”
“Indeed it does, Ratici. Indeed it does.”
Typhenous and Griffon Hunt would have been familiar with the idea Ratici was floating as well. Both Gnoll and Drake gave each other a significant look.
“You hear nothing?”
“Something…vibrations if I use the Longear’s Charm. But I’ve been rather casual.”
“It’s not our place to…pry. The Tallman’s order is just defensive, Ratici, and he’s hinting that we’ll be relieved soon.”
The [Thief] nodded. Wilovan adjusted his jacket. Neither one said it. Of course, it was just an observation. Of course they weren’t being paid to investigate. But they were [Thief] and [Thug].
They really, really wanted to know what was inside.
As Wilovan, Ratici, and people with secrets over the years had observed, it was nothing new Erin Solstice had come up with. She’d just put her own take on it.
There were no doors here. No windows. The hallway connecting three semi-spacious rooms together was part of a new part of the inn. Now—closed off. To a purpose.
No door existed but when you asked for it. And only the truest friends, the trusted companions of the inn could open the door. You could try to break a wall of course—but good luck. The inn was stronger than the first two versions. Even Moore would have trouble just breaking down a wall.
Of course, a master-[Thief] could just teleport in with the right Skill or scroll, or use a few other tricks to gain entry. But it was an impressive blockade. And thanks to a certain [Innkeeper]—even Ratici wasn’t willing to risk detection.
Not even all of the people who were allowed in the [Garden of Sanctuary] had been told this place existed, so they themselves couldn’t enter. Olesm, for one, was someone without knowledge. And what lay in that room? What…secrets?
Well, among other things, at the moment…one of the few guests who was allowed in here, who had been asked to come, was Selys Shivertail. And Maviola El. They stood together, a drink in hand. And they saw…
Erin, Rose, Galina, Numbtongue, and Kevin all sauntered down the hallway, singing. Music blasted from the laptop on the chair. Erin and Kevin knew the song; Troy and Leon didn’t. Joseph had refused to participate even after hearing it twice.
They were lip-synching the song. Well—Numbtongue was singing along with Erin. Selys had paused with a mouthful of blue fruit juice. Maviola was laughing.
Mrsha was trying to copy them. The first song ended and the group broke off laughing. Instantly—a second song began to play. Mrsha’s ears perked up. She began waving her arms and dancing.
We Didn’t Start the Fire by Billy Joel was blasting from Kevin’s bad speakers on his laptop. The female Drake watched as Numbtongue flawlessly sang along to the song. Erin got two verses in and gave up.
This…was Erin’s secret rooms. And in it, there was one rule which she had bent and jumped over that was finally broken. Palt trotted out into the hallway; he was prohibited from smoking here where there were no windows. But he’d been working with Troy on a project. The young man had been very helpful. And they had finally, with colored clay, made a proper model.
“Aha! See? This is a proper model. This is Earth, Mrsha. And this is the sun—see how it’s bigger? Thanks, Troy!”
Erin led Mrsha into the room where the miniature solar system was set up. Mrsha stared suspiciously at the huge yellow ball. Troy took a picture on his smartphone as he wiped his clay-covered hands.
“No problem, Erin.”
The three rooms didn’t have a purpose yet. They were to keep the various artifacts that helped explain…things. Like a model of the solar system. A world map. Not of this world, but home. Erin Solstice stood in her secret area, a clubhouse—
For Earth. And the first two inductees who hadn’t figured it all out or known already—looked at Erin Solstice.
Selys and Maviola. Palt didn’t count. Maviola sorta didn’t count, but this was it.
Earth. And Kevin came back and played the first song again. Another classic, playing on the speakers.
The Longest Time. And back the lip-synching group came, dancing down the hall. Mrsha was clapping her paws excitedly, equally amused and entertained. She didn’t know why, but she really liked the idea of lip-synching.
Selys stared at the glowing laptop. Then at the models of…she looked at a world map that was completely inaccurate to her understanding of how maps looked, as well as the basic shapes of continents.
It was classic of Erin that her idea of easing Selys and Maviola into the idea of Earth was singing pop songs and letting them figure it out while she threw a little party.
With—Earth foods. Ekirra was licking from a little milkshake and dancing along; he didn’t care as long as he got free food. But here was some popcorn, a pizza—and all the Earthers were here.
“This is a great idea. We kept on getting in trouble for playing music or games in the inn—even in our rooms. All of Hexel’s Lizardfolk keep asking what we’re doing. But this is perfect!”
Leon exclaimed. He was taking a few pictures on his smartphone too. This was a group project, after all. Erin had asked Rose to help draw the world map, and even the collaborative ‘knowledge board’ was ironically neither Troy nor Leon’s idea. It had lists of nations on Earth, famous mathematical equations, scientific factoids…
The question was: how long until the penny dropped? And it was a penny, in this place. Selys was practically cross-eyed as she stared around, trying to piece it together.
Maviola El knew. She would have known the instant the second song played, singing about a hundred events and people and places that she had no reference on. She should have known the moment she saw one of the little devices the young people carried. Material, products, machinery that she, the leader of House El, had never seen before.
“Okay! Let’s do a dance from home! Who can moonwalk? Kevin, didn’t you say you could?”
“That’s Joseph! Go on, show them, Joseph!”
The young man from Spain looked around. He really didn’t want to. But he reluctantly did it past the world map. He’d marked his home country there, with a golden pin.
Home. Maviola looked at it. There was even one of those helpful little scales that approximated distance—and then proceeded to convert miles to kilometers.
Palt was watching her, Maviola knew. Selys was shaking her head.
“I…wait a second. Wait a second…”
Maviola looked around as Erin tried to start a conga line and half of her guests refused. She was acting extra-silly, even by her standards. And she kept glancing at Selys and Maviola. The [Lady Firestarter] felt Erin’s thoughts, as if she were speaking them aloud.
Do you see? Can you figure it out?
“Okay, who wants to play games?”
Kevin turned off the music as it became apparent no one wanted to copy Erin’s silly dances. The others began eating or talking about what else they could add to the room. After all; the marveling was done for the Earthers.
Erin had closed off this section and begun the ‘Earth zone’ project yesterday. After the battle with the King of Destruction had been broadcast.
Resonance. Maviola El felt it in her bones too.
“I’m running out of time.”
She should have left. But two things kept her here. Things worth dying for.
A chance. Saliss of Lights had promised her a chance and she was needed for the Summer Solstice. There was too much yet to do.
“So…this is Earth.”
She wandered over to the orb of clay and bent down, then looked at the world map.
“It’s blue and green?”
“That’s what it looks like.”
Maviola gave Erin a long stare. The young woman nibbled on a carrot stick.
“You couldn’t possibly know that, Erin.”
“Can too. We have pictures.”
It was impossible for Maviola to wrap her mind around. Not only did the orb mystify her, but the fact that Earth could be rendered into a picture?
“If that’s land—it is covered in grass? How do you know it’s green? Why aren’t your skins all green. Is the soil green?”
“No! It’s like—from above, all the stuff looks green. I mean, the picture is more real. Hey Kevin! Kevin, stop playing Halo with Numbtongue! Show Maviola the picture of Earth!”
Erin broke up the video-gaming and demanded a picture of Earth. Maviola El saw a rotating orb. She made a sound, as a composite Earth, brought to life from software and images taken from afar appeared on screen.
That was all she said. Selys stared at the image. She put a claw to her head.
“What…what am I looking at, Erin? Is this it? This?”
She stared at the knowledge-board.
Below it were bits and pieces. The young people hadn’t laid it out perfectly; they’d tried, but none of them were prepared to organize all the understanding and history of Earth. Especially not to outsiders.
E = mc2. ‘E’ stands for energy. ‘m’ is mass. ‘c’ is the speed of light.
Gravity is AROUND 10 meters per second.
–You’re an idiot. It’s 9.8, and meters per second per second. Rose.
The Human body has 206 bones.
Speed is relative.
–That’s what the formula says. Kevin.
And so on. It was infighting, arguments about what people remembered correctly, crossing’s out, revisions…there was another section simply titled ‘Religion’. Selys read from the list.
It was dawning on her, slowly. An inescapable realization. Selys put her head in her claws. Mrsha was looking at sketches Imani and Galina had done of famous images from home.
Maviola El looked at Palt. His eyes were glittering. It was larger than she had imagined.
She had seen it in Erin’s memories. Knowledge of who Erin was, her past. But the entirety of it…
At the end of her lifespan, the old woman looked up and felt like a child finally realizing there was something beyond the clouds. Beyond the sky.
She didn’t want to die.
“I thought—I—this is a joke, right? I thought Erin was just from one of the paradises. A—she was actually the daughter of someone rich. This—why is it round?”
“Ah, that’s because of gravity. You see, gravity works like…”
Troy began to helpfully explain. He had practice. Selys stared at him as he tried to show her how tiny she was compared to the model of Earth. Less than a speck of dust.
She began to hyperventilate. Erin edged over.
“Selys? You okay?”
She had expected her friend to react strongly. But—Erin had assumed some of her friends knew. Now though, Selys began to giggle. Then laugh hysterically. She threw up her claws and screamed.
Then she ran for the door. Erin followed her.
Maviola felt like a bit of hysterical laughter was called for herself. She looked down at Mrsha. The little Gnoll girl was so calm. Children could accept this more easily—or perhaps she didn’t understand, fully.
Palt had been told before. He was just watching Troy and Leon working with Galina and Joseph on a periodic table, arguing about what went where. They were more motivated by Erin than Magnolia to do this. This was a legacy of their knowledge. Home.
Numbtongue? The Hobgoblin had already known. And besides—he was a Goblin. Able to adapt, fully willing to believe that there were things he hadn’t been told.
Lyonette du Marquin walked over.
“Maviola? Are you…alright? Do you want to sit down?”
“I may need to. But I will kindly refuse.”
She was not going to faint or run screaming. Maviola locked her knees and took a few breaths. Then she looked at Lyonette.
“What else is there to see? Something…else?”
The [Princess]’ eyes flickered. She pointed to the third room.
“Come with me. This room is for…ideas. The big ones. It’s the one you should see.”
She led Maviola past the room with science, history, across from the other room with maps, globes, some of Kevin’s blueprints. One held concrete information, the other, physical representations.
The last was simply pictures. Well-drawn, by those with talent or crude, some of the pictures Erin used to teach Mrsha with. A few were copied from electronic devices, hand-traced. The last few—rendered in astonishing detail. Maviola recognized a [Mage]’s ability to illustrate a scene from memory. Palt had copied a few scenes the others had shown him.
What she saw here was Earth’s achievements. Not the knowledge that made up their world, but the end result. The things that were so commonplace to Erin and the others.
A plane flew in blue skies, surrounded by poofy clouds over the land. Erin had made a little model out of clay.
An elevator, like the ones of Pallass, had been drawn up by Leon and Troy, who had asked the others for help figuring out how the entire system worked.
A car, driving. Outrunning a horse and horse-drawn buggy with speeds it could reach listed.
A depiction of how the internet worked—next to a crude battery. ‘Doesn’t work like that’ had been scrawled on the side by Leon.
Helicopters, surgical tools, microscopes, computers, Maviola walked across the wall. Then she stopped where Lyonette was.
She looked up at a diagram labeled ‘Tank’. Next to an illustration of a ‘Gun’. She tried to understand it. Then—Erin had drawn this. It looked like a mushroom. Or a cloud. Maviola read the little illustration.
She tried to imagine something like that. What grade of spell? Tier…Tier 8? Tier 7…a few Tier 7…
“A crossbow that can shoot further, faster, without needing to reload. It can hurl bits of metal through armor, hundreds of ‘shots’ per second. The big ones can apparently destroy castle walls in a single shot. That thing? It can fly and shoot those things. So fast it breaks the air or something.”
Lyonette whispered as she looked up at a fighter jet. Maviola El nodded solemnly. At last—she understood.
So this was another world. She abruptly sat down.
“I…I could use that chair, Lyonette.”
Erin got Selys back after five minutes. Which was a good thing; she had created her secret rooms to educate her friends, contain knowledge. But it did have one weakness, and Maviola had realized it after she grew lightheaded—not just because of the realization of Earth.
There was no air if the [Garden of Sanctuary] wasn’t open.
Everyone gasped for air as Erin led Selys back in. The [Innkeeper] realized she’d been keeping the door under her control.
“Ooh. Um. Maybe we need a window or two, Lyonette?”
“I think so. Or just some vents. I’ll ask Belgrade to adjust the rooms later. We could have a door…just locked. Maybe a secret one?”
“That’d be great.”
Leon kicked Troy covertly. Maviola’s eyes flickered left, but she was distracted. Mrsha led Ekirra out of the secret rooms; he was still licking his milkshake cup, oblivious.
But there it was. Selys was still breathing hard.
“I’m sorry, Selys. I thought you knew almost all of it. I think…some of the others do. The Halfseekers know everything but what Earth is…and the Horns do—or Pisces and Ceria do. Especially Pisces. Can’t trust that invisible dude. And then there’s Eldavin…Krshia…Klbkch? I have no idea if Relc knows. Olesm knows something, but he’s not allowed in here, Maviola.”
The [Lady] looked at Erin. Selys was gulping for air.
“I’m going to throw up. I’m—I’m—”
She looked around, eyes wide. Imani saw and came over to Selys. She held the Drake’s clawed hand gently.
“I think she’s having a panic attack. Palt?”
“[Calm]. Good idea, Imani.”
The [Illusionist] trotted over. Erin smiled briefly.
“…And Wistram knows. Montressa and Bezale. And…there are more of us.”
“More of you? Where?”
There was another map of this world with a few tentative pins. Like all lost peoples, the Earthers were trying to find each other. One pin in Wistram labeled ‘Blackmage and Others’. Another in Terandria. The Singer. A pin for ‘Geneva and Friends’. One in Chandrar labeled ‘Rémi Canada’. There were a few more pins, from Rose’s memory of the text chat.
Ryoka in Reizmelt. Erin stared at the map. She had one pin she could add. But the [Emperor] was a secret for now. Palt knew about Geneva and the others already.
Selys was calming down. Mrsha climbed into her lap and gave her a hug. Not everything from Earth was huge. Erin had had the right idea, only she’d executed too much of it at once. Mrsha showed Selys a toy.
It was a hand copter. A little helicopter’s blades attached to a wooden pole. The kind you spun with friction and watched sail away. Kevin had thought it up and somehow gotten Pelt to help make one during one of their collaboration sessions.
Ekirra was playing with one and Bird was chasing after it, screaming about flying in the Garden. Selys saw Mrsha spin it and stared as it took off. Kevin looked proud as the Gnoll leapt off to chase after her new favorite toy.
She calmed down a bit more. Maviola was calmer, too. She took it all in. It would take her more processing. But right now—one question weighed large on her mind.
“Why now? Why today?”
She looked at Erin. The [Innkeeper] sat next to Maviola.
“Well, Selys knew something. And so do a lot of people. I thought it’d be good to tell them at last.”
Maviola raised an eyebrow. Erin stared ahead as she swung her legs on a bench.
“Okay, maybe it had something to do with that [King] and the war we just saw. I get…nervous. When I see big armies and people killing each other.”
Her hand clenched reflexively. Maviola looked at the [Innkeeper], who had fought in a battle. Seen more combat than many [Soldiers] her age.
“I can well understand that. But telling me? Telling your friends? What is the purpose, Erin?”
The young woman looked up.
“It’s one of those things. Dangerous things. Ryoka might kill me for this. But…you should know. I thought guns and stuff were really bad. But after I saw that I realized: this inn can’t stop an army. I thought it could, this time. But a real army? The walls would fall down, even after all the hard work Lyonette’s put into them.”
“Mm. But that’s true of any wall. First Landing was nearly broken by the Goblin King. There is no wall that cannot be broken. Even the Blighted King knows this.”
Maviola had seen her sieges. She understood the fear. Erin nodded.
“That’s why you probably stop the army before it gets there. I…made this room for people I can trust. Right now, that’s Krshia, when she can get here, you, Selys. Pawn. Belgrade, Bird, Numbtongue…”
She hesitated over a finger or two. Then closed her hand.
“There are others. Like Saliss. Or…Klbkch. I’d like to show them this room. But—you saw the scary room.”
“I did. Thank you for trusting me.”
“Well, we did share magical fire and stuff. I think that’s a good reason to trust each other.”
Erin smiled. Maviola laughed. Then she looked around.
It did make sense. There sat Selys. Still shaking a bit with comprehension. But as much an aunt to Mrsha as anyone. Her grandmother was Tekshia Shivertail. Selys herself was rich. A fine ally.
Numbtongue? The Hobgoblin had depth. The curious Bird, Pawn, Palt…
Fine protectors and allies, all. Maviola nodded approvingly. If anyone, she stood out. Erin looked sideways at the fiery [Lady] and then came out with it.
“So…is there anyone else like you? That I could even think of showing this room to?”
“Me? What do you mean by that?”
Maviola tilted her head, eyes thoughtful. Erin hesitated. She bit her tongue and spoke carefully.
“A…someone who tries to help other people?”
“You mean, like you. Not like me.”
The [Innkeeper] raised one eyebrow at Maviola. She got a serious look in return.
“Erin Solstice. This isn’t who Maviola El was in many stages of her life. If we had met and I knew your secret forty years ago—I would have used it to make my family stronger. Like Saliss of Lights or Klbkch the Slayer might do. Or anyone else.”
The [Lady] wanted to impress the danger onto Erin. She saw Erin meet her gaze and realize—she didn’t need to.
“I know that. But I know you now. I wouldn’t have risked it otherwise.”
Maviola sighed. Then she thought of Erin’s question.
“People like me? Allies you could trust to be…? There are a few. A while ago—I’d have been surer and given you a decent list. With this Circle of Thorns business…and this world has shifted.”
“What’s the Circle of Thorns?”
The [Lady Firestarter]’s eyes went wide. She turned to Erin.
“Oh. You have no idea. Magnolia…they nearly killed her.”
It took the time for Selys to stand up, shakily wander into the ‘scary room’, and go back to sit down for Maviola to explain. Numbtongue was playing on the laptop as Mrsha begged for a chance. She kept shaking his arm to throw off his aim and the Hobgoblin was, for once, vexed with her as he swatted at the Gnoll.
“No way. There are people like that out there?”
Erin’s expression was taut. Maviola nodded.
“It’s an old group. But they’ve grown like a weed. It makes…me giving you names harder. And I don’t know the children as well as I knew their parents. For instance, oh, thirty years back I’d have said House Byres would always be your ally. But Yitton is not his father or mother. He’s a bit more hidebound. His offspring are very decent sorts. Yet House Byres isn’t as powerful as it was. But a list…”
She had to think. Maviola El closed her eyes.
“I’ll have to write another letter. Keep it somewhere safe. And if ever you need it—House El will honor it.”
That was what Erin wanted. Maviola nodded.
“You can’t trust all of my family. Fulviolo was a good man—my brother. I think Deilan—the new patriarch—has some of his spirit. But he is leader first, good man second. That is how it is with most of the Five Families. But good folk…if you are in fear of your life, go to Tyrion Veltras.”
Maviola raised a hand, cutting Erin off.
“That fool would put himself between death to do the ‘right thing’ as he sees it. What that ‘right thing’ is, though…if you fear for your life, Erin Solstice. And he will use your knowledge like a weapon. It’s all he knows. Now, if it’s less than that…go to Soloun Veltras. A relative of the main family. He’s a recluse—but your little [Druid] is the sort he hangs out with. Another trustworthy name? Hm. Of the Five Families—there’s a good Wellfar in Hetessana. You may hear about her failed romances, but she is still kindly. Lonely, but…”
Erin had a piece of paper. She wrote down the names and locations of the people Maviola told her about. And Selys slowly looked around at the other Earthers. Rose came to sit by her, and Imani stood with Palt, ready to swoop in, talking about home.
Perhaps it was a little thing. But if you looked at Erin Solstice—the fact that she had decided to do this of her own volition was the extraordinary bit. She looked north, writing down names of powerful people. She had seen the King of Destruction. Her reaction was not to go to war, but to safeguard. Yet, she did react.
It was a smaller Drake city, bordering one of the Gnoll plains whose walls were tall. And the defenders were actually relatively experienced, like Liscor’s Watch.
They had a [Fort General], who shouted down to the milling shapes below. They were out of bow and spell-range. He sneered down at them as his tail lashed.
“You savages! We’ve thrown back your tribes year after year! You still want to fight? We made peace with your tribe three years back! Do contracts mean nothing to you?”
He heard growling from beyond. And the Chieftain of the Woven Bladegrass tribe, new, younger, howled her answer back.
“You do not tell us when to make peace, Drake! The tribes are gathering!”
And they would make a gift worthy of it. The Woven Bladegrass tribe had watched the war in Chandrar. The [Fort General] was inhaling to reply. Then he saw a group of thirty charging the walls.
“You barbarians! Fill them with arrows!”
The [Archers] loosed one volley, then two. But the huge figures—not one fell. The [Fort General] heard howling. His eyes focused on their armor and he swore.
“Keep them from the walls! Keep them—”
He should have been watching the Gnoll [Warriors]. It was still a lucky shot. But the javelin flew hundreds of feet, struck the Drake, and carried him backwards. The Drakes along the wall felt the Skills boosting them vanish.
Little events like that. It was like…brushfire. Sparks, given life by a larger battle. What it was, was people turning to one another and saying ‘did you see that?’
An ant could live happily forever, unless it learned of the mountain. Of course—Az’kerash had long known of the heights of the mountains. Even as an Archmage of Wistram, he had beheld greater foes. Heights even he and his friend has failed to reach.
“Of mortal men, he might be one of the most dangerous. Of mortal men. The Deaths of Rhir are greater threats. Yet that mortal man…Shivertail was one such.”
And how did you defeat foes like that? To the [Necromancer], it was only by patience. He paused a moment, waiting for a reply. But both of his Chosen had nothing to say. Bea and Ijvani were still…as he had made them.
His new Chosen might exceed them since he would give them the desire to learn and understand. He hoped they could learn from the curious Toren. Az’kerash sighed.
His other guest did not respond. The Necromancer watched her.
“Have you challenged such before, Witch Belavierr?”
Only then did she look up from her sewing. Az’kerash saw her knitting death magic. It was another great work. Collaboration between the two. She spoke, briefly.
Then she went back to her work. Az’kerash sat there, parts of him mentally counting the declarations of war.
The Woven Bladegrass tribe has attacked…sacked the city of Lequiss. War with Ailendamus—unprovoked attacks on vessels friendly to Pheislant, Calanfer…
Belavierr was a poor conversationalist. And despite his…situation, Az’kerash had been a remarkable conversationalist. Immortality and isolation had helped him forget. But the man had remembered himself so he was a bit disappointed. His apprentice, perhaps…
“Have you any thoughts at all, Belavierr?”
She raised her hatted head and stared ahead blankly. Her fingers never stopped dancing, creating a web of magic and thread that even Az’kerash could not entangle.
“I know which creation I would like.”
That surprised him. The Necromancer hesitated and cast his eyes over his Chosen. They shifted.
“Speak, then, Belavierr. As our agreement goes. We may…negotiate.”
She looked at him and he was reminded of pacts with [Witches]. Belavierr smiled.
“I will tell you what I want when the moment is right. You ask of slaying great [Kings] and foes, [Necromancer]?”
The two looked at each other. Belavierr’s smile grew as the rings in her eyes seemed to expand, revealing another depth, another layer.
“Wait. Wait to strike.”
There was another meaning behind her words. He considered the meaning grimly. Then rose to attend to other business, elsewhere. His Chosen followed him and Belavierr was left alone to work.
The problem with finding his heart…was that it beat so loudly he could not pass the years away.
A similar sentiment was espoused by Archmage Nailihuaile in a public debate with Archmage Feor. It had been called in a semi-public setting and the two Archmages spoke as Wistram’s [Mages] listened in.
It was the talk of the academy. Feor had not accused Archmage Nailihuaile of…anything in particular. Certainly not hiring Rasea Zecrew to attack the King of Destruction.
This debate was simply over Wistram’s unity. And unity being the theme—he had the opportunity to censor the Archmage. And she the opportunity to defend herself.
The academy listened as Feor made his case. The half-Elf concluded with a ringing refutation of…disunity.
“The academy is made up of countless individuals, Archmage Nailihuaile. But when the world hears the name ‘Wistram’, they know we act in unity. Without haste or infighting. Just as no linked spell can be performed alone, the Academy must be in unity.”
He stared down at the shorter Lamia as his supporters and the listeners murmured agreement. Some were palpably nervous.
Archmage Naili was not. And when she drew herself up, she smiled with a predator’s grin.
“Archmage Feor. I appreciate your candor. But if I might rebut one point: if we’re talking about unity, I quite agree that a united front is necessary. However—I can’t think of anything I’ve done to ruin the unity of the academy.”
Scandalous! The murmur ran through the auditorium before Feor spoke. He looked at the Lamia.
“Not at all.”
She met his eyes. Then the Lamia smiled brightly, and gave an almost childish laugh.
“Oh, wait. Do you mean that little incident? I wouldn’t call that—dissidence, Feor. I really wouldn’t.”
The half-Elf was ready to pounce. But he should have been watching Naili closer. Because the Lamia was coiled up and anyone who knew serpents knew she was ready to strike. And now she did.
“Feor. Let’s talk about something other than ‘unity’. Let’s talk about—enemies. Let me tell you about how I grew up. I grew up as a little Lizardgirl in a swamp-village. Not rich, not with mentors or help. I had no idea how to cast magic. I had to buy my first spellbook with the money I earned.”
She gave a pointed look at Feor, who came from a half-Elf village, and Viltach in the audience. The Human man, a son of a noble family, scowled at her.
A susurration ran through the audience.
“Is this necessary, Archmage? We are all aware—”
Feor sighed, but Naili cut him off.
“The point was, Feor, I used to earn money trapping young Hydras. That was how I became a Lamia. I hunted them with traps and fire, then magic. And I learned something, before I came to Wistram. Enemies. When you have an enemy, if it’s an animal, a monster, or someone else—you don’t wait for them to regenerate. You don’t wait for them to grow, or attack first. You attack your enemy when they’re weak. When they’re sleeping, bleeding, off-balance. And you go for the kill.”
Her serpentine eyes narrowed and she stood taller. The audience murmured and Feor realized some of Wistram’s more militant [Mages] or the ones opposed to the King of Destruction were looking her way.
“That does not excuse your actions, Archmagus.”
“But it is not disloyal to Wistram, Feor. Which is why we’re debating. Unless…there’s another reason you’d like to call me to order?”
Naili fluttered her eyes at him and the half-Elf glared at her. She knew exactly what she was doing. The Star Lamia went on.
“As far as I’m concerned, Wistram is united in its opposition to…enemies. And I capitalized on information to aid the academy at no cost to ourselves! We know exactly where the enemy is. We know what they’re doing. Wistram need not go to war. But when they show a weak spot—strike. Strike again! Or do we wait and let the ‘hydra’ grow another head, like last time?”
Silence—then applause. Feor grimly considered his next point. Wistram was famous for being opposed, not actively engaged in conflicts. He longed to ask her: if this is how she viewed fighting the King of Destruction, striking him with Wistram’s coverage and influence…did she think fighting the Antinium, Rhir, would work in this way?
But he couldn’t bring that up in this public forum. And Naili’s scales were glowing. She was riding a wave of support. After all—she had helped defeat the King of Destruction. It was a secret only to idiots. And now they’d seen him bleed, Wistram Academy was wondering how many more knives they could bring to bear.
Feor should have been more concerned for his own reputation than Naili’s. The King of Destruction had risen to power while he was Archmage—and then Wistram had done nothing at all.
The tide was turning.
War and strategy. That was most of what the battle produced. In a few—preparation, safeguarding. Because what you saw depended on whom you were.
For some—it was not the humbling of the King of Destruction, the opportunity, or even the might of other nations that stood out. But the sacrifice.
The honor. Integrity.
A good death.
Watch Captain Zevara stormed back into her office so fast the desk-sergeant didn’t see her face. Which was well. The Watch Captain was not supposed to have red eyes. She was furious—but not at herself. At a fool, rather.
He sat in his cell. They had different viewpoints, that was all. And they had cut each other with arguments, both equally right and wrong. She cared more for his life than he did.
“Somehow, she still thinks I’m innocent. But you understand, don’t you?”
Calruz spoke to Haldagaz. The male rat nibbled on his fingernails. Rhata was more understanding. She perched on his knee, as she liked to do, standing up on two legs, even. She’d do that unless he was doing pushups or gone on one of his monster-slaying tasks.
He was grateful to Zevara. But she was wrong.
“The only thing wrong with me—is me. And the longer I sit here, the longer we are all trapped. Look at you two. You deserve better.”
If the Children of the Grain Sack could have answered the one-armed Minotaur, perhaps, perhaps they might have said he was what had kept them from death. They might have said that to them, this cell with food and a kind hand was all they needed.
But rats were not Minotaurs. And he had seen General Ozem and the House of Minos stand and fight. And die, for that word.
Zevara didn’t understand. She thought—had said in fury—that Minotaurs clung to the word like antiquated [Knights] of old. That it was something killing them, not worth dying for.
“It’s not that, Rhata. Honor is an ideal. Something to pursue. It is not worth dying for. It is worth living by. Ozem, the King of Minotaurs, looked at the King of Destruction and saw the death he brings. For that, they fought against him. Even died. Perhaps—perhaps Ozem was less than altruistic. He was one of our kind who lived for battle. But he found a way to channel his life to a deed that was done in service of the world. All of that is what we summarize by a single word. ‘Honor’. Valor.”
The rat nibbled at his fur, licking at the salt of his sweat. Calruz petted her head. She nuzzled his hand. The words came more easily now that he wasn’t arguing.
Like always, they came better after the hot words had been exchanged. He could finally explain when it was too late.
“I do not want to die. No—that isn’t true. I feel…I feel as though I have not been punished. I have committed great crimes. And imprisonment? It does not match my crime. Perhaps if I was a Drake or Gnoll, I could accept it. But I was raised by the House of Minos’ rules. I have asked to be punished as we sentence each other. I know it is an irony to ask that. But…”
He looked around and shook his head.
“Perhaps this is the greater punishment.”
“Except for you and Haldagaz. Greater and lesser, Rhata.”
Calruz amended his statement. He sat there.
“But I wish to perform a deed like that. I could enter the heart of the dungeon. Fight to my last against…anything. I would walk the Bloodfields until my death and delay the growth of that blight another second. Another inch. But let me die like that. Don’t let me—drag her down with me.”
He sat there, head bowed. Rhata crawled up his arm and sat on his shoulder. She pooped on his fur. It could have been a sign of solidarity.
After a while, Calruz received another visitor. She stood in front of his cell. He looked up at her.
“I regret showing it to you, Calruz of Hammerad. I did not mean to torture you with that knowledge.”
Beza looked past Calruz. He rose, and looked at her.
“It was neither torture nor injustice, Bezale of Maweil. It was an honor to see.”
The two stood there, Bezale awkwardly. She always remembered her first conversation with him. But now…
“I spoke with the Watch Captain. She will not let me do as General Ozem did with the criminals of Minos.”
“She said the same thing to me.”
Calruz hadn’t been aware Bezale had petitioned Zevara. Perhaps that was why she had snapped at him so quickly when he’d brought it up. They stood there.
Beza didn’t know what to say. She had tested the Minotaur and he had no magic in him that would have made him insane. But somehow—she was beginning to doubt that his dishonor had come from himself alone. She was starting to believe the Drake.
Nevertheless, the proof was in the past. And as Calruz had said—there was no other evidence. Just a Drake’s…affection. A regard for his innocence.
“Bezale. Would you do me a service?”
The [Spellscribe] started.
“Perhaps. What is it?”
Calruz looked at her. Then he stood straighter.
“You have done me a service by showing me the House of Minos’ stand against the King of Destruction. And Zevara has…allowed me to see the world passing as well. Perhaps there is a way to resolve this. I would ask that you send a [Message] for me.”
The Minotauress’ eyes sharpened.
“The House of Minos is far away, Calruz. To whom would you send it?”
“Someone with the right to judge. Which neither you nor I have.”
The [Spellscribe] realized what he meant. She sighed. Then she nodded to him, almost a bow.
“Yes, Calruz of Hammerad. I will take your letter.”
So he spoke, and she wrote. And the letter was sent.
Calruz fed Rhata a grape.
Venaz of Hammerad put down the letter he had received. The news was good and bad.
“There is a cure!”
The others were celebrating. And the Minotaur himself was smiling. Yet—the cure was not easy.
“It needs to be applied in doses. Yerra’s too small to take the antitoxin. And it needs to be made. They’re asking the best [Alchemist] in Pallass to make it up. That’s either…Xif the Multicolored or Saliss of Lights.”
“Try for Saliss.”
Wil was sleep-deprived; he had been frantic these last few days. But at last, he might be able to rest. The battle was far from over; they had private rooms in Oteslia that were warded and guarded, but the Diamond Swords of Serept were still a target. And the medicine was costly.
“This…this is excellent news. How long will the antidote take?”
“Depends on the alchemist. I will ask my tribe to help petition Saliss of Lights. He would be better at antidotes as an adventurer and have more Skills that ensure it works and give it potency. But we did it, yes?”
Feshi was grinning. Even Yerra’s cries were silent; she was sleeping thanks to the draught the [Healers] had made for a Selphid.
Venaz smiled. He saw Merrik and Peki high-fiving. They were all still energized by the battle. Venaz himself had had to run three laps around Oteslia before he stopped shouting and challenging everyone in sight to a sparring match he knew would end poorly.
His blood still boiled. He would have liked to be there. Ozem might have been able to save some of the army if he had.
If they had gone to Chandrar first…but Yerra mattered more. And now—Merrik saw Venaz fold the letter up.
“What’s that? Bad news?”
“Not…really. A member of the House of Minos has written to me, Merrik. The letter was—impressive. I think I am needed, as a representative of Hammerad. An arbiter.”
The Minotaur struggled to put the missive into words. The others looked at him.
“One who metes out justice.”
Wil explained to Peki. Venaz nodded slowly.
Calruz of Hammerad.
“It may be that I need to go to Pallass.”
“We could go there directly. Some of the ingredients from Oteslia are needed though…and Yerra’s too sick to move. If one of the [Alchemists] makes the cure for the first few doses, we can go north for the full batch. What does this Minotaur want you to do, Venaz?”
The [Strategist] clenched his fist and turned away. It was a magnificent plea, from one son of Hammerad to another. The sender, Bezale, had added her own words. He had to go there, see the whole truth. But if the letter was accurate—Venaz took a long breath.
“He wants me to help him die.”
One last group was powerfully affected by the news from Chandrar. Or rather—one last one that took direct action.
Everyone saw it. Everyone from the Death of Magic, who watched and laughed, to the Seer of Steel, to Emir Yazdil, the Grand Magus, Magnolia Reinhart as she sat on the famed warship and evacuated her staff away from danger…
But this last people saw and moved because of what they had seen.
“So those two armies could be considered among the best this world has to offer. What do you think, Wrymvr? Could you kill the Illusionist?”
The Slayer stood with the vast Antinium in the auspices of the Twisted Hive. Not with Anand; the [Strategist] and the Painted Antinium feared this place. Klbkch saw their reasons. But here was a second Centenium and a Queen who had given everything for victory.
Wrymvr’s answer came not in words, but in the link they shared, the three of them.
Klbkchhezeim raised his mandibles and opened them. He laughed, a fluttering sound.
It was a joke. Also—certainty there. He had missed that.
“We have been here too long. Look how these other nations grow stronger. An entire continent—three could reinforce Izril. We have been stalemated here. Had we taken Izril, I would be content.”
The Slayer rejoined the council of war with Wrymvr and the Twisted Queen. And he received nothing but affirmation from the two of them.
“What. You say is all. We. Have concluded. Klbkchhezeim.”
The words came painfully from the Twisted Queen’s mandibles. At the same time, her sending was far more eloquent, betraying the intact mind in the ruined body.
(Yet we lack a way to cross the sea. We are landlocked and of every nation in the world, the Walled Cities are among the most unassailable.)
“We should have landed on Terandria.”
That was the plan. Of course—any continent would have worked if not for the damn water.
(Minotaurs. Dangerous weapons for ships. Not on land.)
Wrymvr projected an image of their enchanted weapons destroying countless, fragile wooden vessels. Klbkch nodded. That was where they’d be strongest. An army of True Antinium…wouldn’t fear the artillery barrage as much as other species. If linked, they’d just dodge each shell with a thousand eyes and minds working at once.
[Army of the King] bothered Klbkch more. And the [Pirate]’s ship.
“The Illuminary puts a hole in Xrn’s plans and ours. It is clear that ship could destroy any vessel we seize. So even if we sailed from First Landing after stealing a craft…any high-level [Captain] could sink our vessel.”
(True. There is no way to win at sea against experts. Only Wrymvr has survived the depths.)
“Have there been attempts to create water-capable Antinium?”
Klbkch knew the answer even as the Twisted Queen lowered her one free mandible.
“Mine have all. Failed. However the. Other Queens may have attempted it. If. So. They failed likewise.”
The Slayer nodded. He stalked back and forth.
“Perhaps, then, we must either hire a [Pirate] of Rasea’s caliber—or threaten them—or obtain these scrolls. Greater Teleportation.”
They’d never been able to find them, despite finally learning of a relic with that grade of magic. Wrymvr echoed Klbkch’s frustration.
(You will be alone. Magic cannot steal me.)
“Xrn and I could move faster. But we would need at least…five. Or three, if we sent just me.”
(Xrn is stronger. We would send her if we had three.)
Klbkch smacked Wrymvr in one of his glowing eyes. It hurt Klbkch’s hand; the eyes were shielded.
(You have picked up odd habits, Klbkchhezeim.)
“I learned it from Relc.”
“What is. A Relc?”
A similar conversation was happening elsewhere. In other Hives, that was. Xrn was excited. She had a longer view than Klbkch and Wrymvr.
“I will try a Tier 4 spell next.”
“Prognugator Xrn. I do not feel safe!”
“Just stand there! You are perfectly warded! You should survive even if your Skill fails!”
Xrn happily called out. Pawn shook as he raised his staff. His miracle created a barrier in the air.
“Skills. The Antinium will not lose so easily next time.”
They were stress-testing his Skills. The [Holy Barrier] made Xrn very happy. She lifted her staff.
“Ready? I will use a standard spell. One, two…”
“Prognugator Xrn, I am very—”
She was an optimist. Pawn’s barrier actually held. But it winked out a moment after the blast and the fire raining down still made Pawn run screaming in terror. In fairness—she had been throwing spells straight at him for the last five minutes.
Other Queens were less sanguine about the whole ‘extremely powerful Human [King] and Minotaur army’ thing. The Grand Queen had called one of her conferences to debate the issue. The Free Queen, Flying Queen and Silent Queen were all invited to discuss the issue.
For once, the Armored Queen had declined. She sat, largest of the Queens, painfully recumbent with Anand and a number of the Painted Antinium. Of course, she had seen the battle; so had Anand.
He was still vibrating with the battle. He wanted those siege weapons. He wanted Skills like those! He wanted a boat with the same level of reinforcement as Miss Erin’s inn! It was almost like the image Belgrade had drawn up, of putting the inn on wheels and using it as a mobile fortress.
But he was aware of the danger. These were the enemy’s weapons, and the Antinium Queens beheld the army the House of Minos could send against them and were rightly wary. Like the King of Destruction, much of their army was low-level fighters, overwhelming in number, but helpless against enemies like Mars or high-level veterans.
In this case, the sight had sent all the Antinium into heavy-planning modalities. Except for the Armored Queen. She was with the Painted Antinium. Anand kept glancing up at her and since she was kind—he had ranked her #1 on the kindness factor among the other Queens, with the Twisted Queen receiving #6—he dared to ask a question.
“Should you not be in conversation with the Grand Queen, Armored Queen?”
“The discussion is pointless, Strategist Anand. I am familiar with such meetings. They are unproductive. The enemy has shown their strength. This is more valuable.”
The Armored Queen watched as her Workers scurried around one of the Painted Antinium. Goat, one of the Soldiers, was holding out his arms.
He was being fitted with armor. Of course, he was the same size as all the others, but this was a custom-job. The best steel for the Painted Soldiers; more imperfect iron or even wood, stone, and other suits went to more expendable Armored Antinium.
The Grand Queen still reserved her enchanted pieces for her Prognugators, but Anand was touched at the gesture.
“Is it suitable? Does it clash with…the nature of this Soldier’s paint?”
The Armored Queen was pleased as Goat flexed his armored body and hopped up and down. The other Painted Antinium clustered around him, patting at the armor, visibly impressed. Anand studied Goat’s reaction.
“If Goat has permission to paint the armor, I believe he will be quite pleased. Is that not so, Goat?”
The Soldier looked up and he radiated approval with his four thumbs-up. He could do another goat! It was like a second shell! The Armored Queen nodded.
“This is well. I will issue you your own armor. Chainmail, I think. Enchanted. Assets of your nature must be protected, Anand.”
“Thank you, my Queen!”
The [Strategist] was touched by the gesture. The Armored Queen nodded. She had a collection of enchanted gear, traded for with the other Hives. It was either bought from [Merchants] daring to trade with Antinium—and there were some!—or taken from enemies killed in combat.
“Klbkchhezeim has furnished you with some gear. However, this should aid your survivability. It is regrettable there is only one Xrn. Her enchantments would double the Armored Antinium’s strength. But the Grand Queen used her for her project.”
The Armored Queen lamented as Anand tried on some chainmail. It only marginally increased his weight and he was quite pleased by it. He nodded a few times.
“I quite admired the Armored Antinium’s production, my Queen. An army of Armored Antinium is a significant battle threat.”
“It has been a long labor. Creation of steel is…difficult. Many failures were born. However, we have created steel. Would that my Prognugators had your innovation.”
The Armored Queen bent. She did not lower her voice. Anand saw the other Armored Prognugators staring at him. Not…enviously. Just with a keen understanding that they lacked what he had. He felt badly, for some reason.
But then, Anand consoled himself that Klbkch was proud of him. He stood taller. It had been some good days. Despite all the hurtful things some Drakes had said about his memorial. The Queens had been upset too.
Still—if the [Strategist]’s triumphs had pleased her, the Armored Queen now sat bitterly. She rubbed her palps together, her voice low.
“Manufacturing. Armor has been made. But what use is a superior force that cannot strike against the enemy? The sea is an impossible barricade. It will allow for reinforcements to arrive continuously and the enemy remains unassailable.”
It was a problem. Anand nodded a few times. He’d read the book on the Antinium Wars by Krsysl Wordsmith and other commentaries as well.
“The sea is a significant weakness, my Queen. Have you attempted to circumnavigate the issue?”
“Yes. Many attempts were made by every Hive. We have all failed. A Shaper Queen might have been able to create an Antinium—I recall ones who were able to survive and operate in water, but we kept few of them. There was no need.”
“Really, Armored Queen?”
The huge Queen nodded.
“It is a lack of Skill in the current Queens, not an insurmountable barrier. But it is beyond our skill levels. It is possible, but it is like placing hopes in the Flying Queen creating actual flight-capable Antinium.”
“Ah. So the only method is ships.”
“Yes. And ships…we are not a water-based species. We seized the fleet from Rhir because we knew they had them. But how will we return to Rhir or fight at sea?”
The Armored Queen struck the ground in ponderous fury. Her Prognugators tried to soothe her helpless fury. Anand on the other hand just thought about it.
“Well, we could teleport over the sea. Miss Erin’s door lacks the range, but perhaps there are more powerful teleportation objects.”
The Armored Queen looked up. Anand spoke as if he were an eager student and she, the [Teacher] who had assigned him the question with extra credit, rather than an issue haunting their entire species.
“Teleportation will not carry armies.”
“I see, I see. Well then, flight carries the same issue, but there are flying carpets. And Bird may one day gain a Skill that allows him to fly. But in regards to vast transport, it does seem like the ocean must be crossed. Perhaps freezing the water with ice magic like Miss Ceria? But boats are the most expedient answer.”
“We have no boats.”
The Armored Queen’s voice was a touch…petulant. She did not like Anand’s optimism. She had borne this weight for decades! She almost wanted his soul to be crushed like hers.
Anand looked around. And then he clasped two hands together.
“Well then. Let’s make some.”
The [Strategist] gave the Armored Queen a blank look.
“You have created steel, my Queen. Why not create a ship?”
She opened and closed her mandibles.
“The Hivelands are not near any open body of water. The Drakes destroyed all the lakes and rivers to drown us. There is a coast to the west, but it was retaken by Drake cities after the peace.”
“But there is water?”
Even Antinium needed it. The Armored Queen hesitated.
“Excellent, excellent. And you can fill up a bag of holding with water. I once heard Pisces tell Miss Erin that he once stole water out of a well doing that. And we have wood. And metal. Surely your forges can make nails? Or Miss Erin’s screwies?”
“This is all possible, Strategist Anand. But how would we make ships? We are on land.”
The Armored Queen was bewildered. Anand just smiled up at her.
“Experiment, my Queen. Would you like me to explain my idea? I wouldn’t even need much. Just a thousand Workers and perhaps a hundred Soldiers for a day and some of your Hive’s space as well as the use of two forges and your lumber reserves. Er…that is a lot, actually.”
He hesitated. But this was the difference between Klbkch and the Armored Queen. She regarded Anand, then leaned down and spoke with her huge mandibles.
Klbkch was going over one of the hypothetical plans the Twisted Queen and Wrymvr had come up with. It was beyond audacious.
He liked it. But the fact remained that the issue was always the sea. He was going down the list of options—all of which led to a conflict the Antinium did not necessarily want yet—
When he heard the news.
(Your [Strategist] is causing a commotion, Klbkchhezeim. The other Queens are in uproar.)
The Twisted Queen had picked up on the other Queens talking. Klbkch groaned. He strode up from the Hive, already gnashing his mandibles.
“What is Anand doing?”
Klbkch didn’t bother checking with the mirror. He just ran from the Twisted Hive to the other Hives. He could cover the vast distance quickly and besides, the Antinium had dug almost the entire area of the Hivelands. That they had not expanded further was due to subterranean threats and their treaties.
Klbkch slowed down from the blur that had shot across the dry ground five minutes later. Wrymvr caught up and landed with a screech in front of Klbkch.
(Get on. You are slow.)
Klbkch leapt onto his back and hung on as Wrymvr took off.
(If I had my own body, you’d never have caught me.)
(I didn’t die.)
Klbkch tried to stab Wrymvr in one of his wings. The huge Antinium spun upside down and Klbkch had to hang on or drop.
They landed at one of the entrances to the Armored Hive thirty minutes later. Klbkch jumped down and Wrymvr landed with another screech.
Armored Antinium scurried around in a panic as two of the Centenium strode down the vast tunnels. Klbkch was ready to apologize, scold Anand, or…
His mind went blank as, finally, he and Wrymvr emerged in a low, deep underground level of the Armored Hive and he saw what Anand had wrought.
“It is madness! Madness! Tell him to stop! He will drown us all!”
“It will not work. Surely. This is not a replication. Is it? There is a difference in salinity content among—”
“Strategist Anand. What are you doing?”
The Antinium looked up. He stood at the other end of the…underground basin. Klbkch would have run over to him. But a vast pool of death lay in the way.
Water. The [Strategist] had tapped one of the groundwater aquifers. Now—he had created a huge, hollow area with a very deep area. A…makeshift sea.
The Antinium around him were clearly terrified. And the [Strategist] himself was trembling. But he had a rope tied around his waist—multiple ropes in fact, held by teams of Painted Antinium ready to drag him back if he fell in. Now, he spoke to the irate Queens.
“My Queens. This is an experiment. I have permission of the Armored Queen. Watch.”
He had worked on this while Klbkch and Wrymvr made their way here. Now—the [Strategist] pushed something out onto the vast reservoir of dark water.
It was too small for Klbkch to see at first. And true—it was no saltwater ocean, but some of the Antinium began fanning the water to simulate waves.
And now—came the tiny object, bobbing, splashed a bit by the water. But failing to sink. Klbkch and Wrymvr saw it floating across Anand’s testing ground.
“This will be the first of many. We will attempt larger versions. But this falls in line with the Armored Antinium’s methods, Armored Queen. It can be done. We just need to practice. See?”
Anand pointed. The Armored Queen had dragged herself down to see this. She ignored the pain in her torn abdomen and saw what Klbkch did.
A little, bobbing ship, carved out of wood. It had some terrified black dots on it.
Actual ants. The ship touched Klbkch’s side of the reservoir as the fanning stopped. He looked down at the ship. He picked it up. An ant ran up his arm and he flicked it off, absently. Water dripped from the boat.
Klbkch stared at Anand. The [Strategist] waved at him. Did I do good? Klbkch looked up at Wrymvr. The Centenium regarded the boat.
(Too small for me.)
Only an Antinium capable of individual thought could make new things like this. And no Queen would have the time or insanity to try it, not after they had seen their species die at sea. But Anand? He excitedly hopped up and down and nearly fell into the drink. Klbkch saw the Painted Antinium haul him back frantically.
He might dare it. Klbkch looked at Anand. He looked at the boat in his hand. Slowly, conscious that Xrn was probably watching through the mirror, he held up a hand.
He gave Anand a slow thumbs-up.
“Very…well done, Anand. Continue with this project. Please.”
Anand beamed like the sun. Klbkch took the boat to stare at it with Wrymvr. This…changed things. Meanwhile, Anand happily had two of the Armored Antinium’s Prognugators and crews of Workers help him with his first prototypes. The other Queens announced they were sending their Prognugators, at least one per Hive, for this project.
Boats. Ships. It was, when you got down to it, a bit of sticky stuff, some cloth, wood, and metal to make a floating thing. Anand had books. He had a place to experiment. He also had all of Liscor to draw upon; he could probably ask Belgrade to buy one of the spring fishing-boats and send it here. Anand was confident. Klbkch had told him it was a good idea.
How hard could it be?
Author’s Note: Another chapter where we see what happened the day after! Like—after all those big movie battles, someone has to pick up the severed limbs, right?
Right. Anyways, I’m still recovering from the big chapter, but I hope you enjoyed this one! My week-off is coming up, but I think we’ve got a few more chapters until then. I don’t know what else there is to say for me.
There are intense chapters, and relaxing chapters. I could—perhaps I SHOULD write a chapter just about Nsiia’s captivity. That short break you got was part of what her side story that I occasionally offered would be. I can write it of my own volition! It just doesn’t always make sense to do every perspective, as fun as they can be.
I’m spoiled for choice and some chapters are never written because they run out of time. And that’s fine. I have to make the call of what to linger on and what moves forwards the story. Let me know what you like, and as always, thanks for reading!
Today’s art is the last Chandrar-themed piece, once again by Enuryn! It’s the Carven City, A’ctelios! I’d say this is the days of grandeur, not as dark as it can be. But A’ctelios Salash as the Quarass knew it. Still uh…not the best vacation spot. Unless you like lots of meat. Give Enuryn lots of praise!
A’ctelios, the Carven City by Enuryn the [Naturalist]!