(I am taking my monthly 2-update break and will be back on the 3rd of October for Patreons, and the 6th for regular readers!)
The skies, as if enraged as the world was, opened up. Rain began to fall. First in showers, then, with the suddenness of weather, vast downpours.
To Mrsha, it looked as if the world were drowning once more, just like during the spring. She stood on her tiptoes, solemnly peering out a window. Then she gave the little purple-berry flowers a bit of water. She patted one on its head and looked around.
Apista buzzed over, clearly nervous, and clung to Mrsha’s head. The two stared out the window again.
“Wow. That’s one big storm.”
Erin whistled as she wiped the sleep out of her eyes. She looked at the downpour, and then at Mrsha. Patiently, the [Innkeeper] waited for Mrsha to hand her a card.
Erin turned it over blankly. Mrsha waved an impatient paw to have it back. Then she went over to stare out at the rain again.
Erin Solstice felt moved to continue the conversation. Apista and Mrsha stared up at her. The water was running down the grass and floodplains, trickling into the valleys and buffeting the walls of Liscor. Mrsha saw the wind blow so hard that the [Guards] on the wall had to brace against the sudden wall of air and water.
It was that sort of day. It had not been a terrible one when Mrsha woke up. Nor was it a ‘bad’ day now. Just…solemn. It was not a day to wake up with by leaping on Numbtongue’s stomach and having him chase you downstairs.
Rainy days were important. Mrsha felt it in the air. She looked up and thought—
This was a big storm.
At the same time that morning, Octavia Cotton was returning home from Pallass. She’d been hard at work under her master, Saliss of Lights. He’d actually called her in, like an actual apprentice to help him.
“You. Hands. Make this.”
That was essentially what the sleep-deprived Drake had said, but it had been more garbled. She’d figured out what he wanted; much like the master-alchemists of Nerrhavia, the Drake had forgotten actual words and impatiently pointed and screamed until she helped him.
In this case—she’d been managing nearly two dozen burners, each with a distilled liquid. Saliss had been mass-isolating one of his ingredients, preparing dozens of base liquids for experimentation. He was on to something; the feverish way he was working told Octavia that.
And he’d been using little, yellow flowers. Octavia had been given a specialized mask as well; Saliss had created a heavy helmet with glass lenses instead of a visor. It had another unusual feature at the mouth. A jar had been attached, or rather, soldered into place.
It was an old adventuring reliable; the Jar of Air which was really a compressed spell like a Bag of Holding. They used it to explore areas with noxious gases.
She’d helped for six hours before Saliss had waved her off. Octavia was now stumbling out of Pallass when the Drake found her.
She was yawning. The Drake was one of Pallass’ bureaucracy. One of those nice-smiling [Negotiators], or [Administrators]…he had a suit. Octavia saw him striding over as he hurriedly shuffled his documents.
“Miss Cotton, I’m relieved I caught you. My name is Wispel. I’m here on behalf of the Assembly of Crafts. I’m quite pleased to tell you: your workshop is ready.”
The Stitchgirl [Alchemist] blinked at the Drake. He smiled.
“Your personal laboratory, Miss Cotton. It was just fast-tracked through our application queue. We have a four-year contract here. As our records show…you applied six years ago.”
“I did? I did.”
Octavia’s eyes widened. She thought she’d been turned down, or ignored. Wispel nodded.
“At the time, you were rejected, Miss Cotton. But pending our yearly evaluation of talented young [Alchemists]—you have been selected for our honorary Alchemium Scholaris place. That’s a fully-stocked laboratory and home in the City of Inventions. Rent free on both. You will also receive a monthly stipend, discounts on all alchemical supplies, and a grant budget of—let me see—3,200 gold pieces per year.”
Octavia’s jaw dropped. She wanted to pull off her ears and clean them, and she would have if she wasn’t outside.
“I? Me? But that’s—”
It was huge. The Drake was smiling; he might have been expecting her to burst into tears. When she did not, he coughed.
“I have the entire contract here. Just sign, Miss Octavia, and we’ll go through the formalization process. There’s a few steps; magical contracts and all, but—”
“Wait. This is a huge honor, really.”
Octavia had to hold up a hand. Her head was spinning. But this wasn’t her first day on the job. Saliss had told her about stuff like this. And she was from Nerrhavia.
“Is that a mage-contract?”
“Yes…just to ensure you’ll be a registered Alchemist of Pallass.”
Alchemist of—oh. Now, Octavia blinked. She remembered a similar discussion among other junior [Alchemists]; she had never been offered one, but she knew exactly what this was.
“You want me to move to Pallass? And sell everything through the city?”
Wispel’s smile didn’t change.
“Your achievements have won you a place, Miss Cotton. Our highest prize for young [Alchemists].”
It was, too. Octavia knew all the awards Pallass gave. Not their highest—Saliss had a far larger budget and so on. But for someone her age? Her level?
She would have jumped for joy, or stuffed her legs and spine so she could do a backflip a year ago. Today? Octavia was still tempted. She looked over her shoulder and bit her lip.
“This is a huge honor. But—it might not be right for me?”
Wispel was still smiling. But it had taken on that waxy sheen of someone who had run into an unexpected issue. Like someone who found an invisible brick right where they liked to put their head every morning.
“I’m hugely honored. But I actually just moved to a new shop in Liscor. The Wandering Inn, actually. And the benefits…”
The young [Alchemist] spread her arms. Wispel stuttered.
“But Miss—Miss Octavia, this is a Pallassian grant. The City of Inventions is the dream of countless [Alchemists]! The Alchemium—”
He saw Octavia step forwards. She clasped his hands, giving her best sales-smile.
“Huge. Honor. But I’ve had so many breakthroughs in Celum and…Liscor. Tell you what. Let me think about it. The offer is really generous. A lab and a home? But I already have a room and a shop in The Wandering Inn. And three thousand gold per year—”
“With a stipend!”
“—still sort of low. Thank you so much—”
The skies opened up over Pallass, drowning out the rest of Octavia’s words. Wispel shielded the valuable papers.
“But—wait! Miss Octavia!”
“Thank you! I’ll consider any counteroffers! Must go! Don’t slip!”
The [Alchemist] hurried off as everyone in the streets shot under awnings. She was beaming as she ran and Wispel was left standing in the downpour. Just—beaming. Part of her wanted to go back and accept it. But—look at her now. In a position to turn down the City of Inventions?
Why now, though? That was interesting. Octavia got her answer as soon as she returned to the inn and found a [Message] waiting for her. No—half a dozen. She stumbled into the inn.
“Hot milk! Since we’re out of chocolate! Hot milk with—regular honey. Wow. We’ve lost so much good stuff.”
Erin sighed and shook her head as she welcomed her guests with mugs of free milk, warmed by the fire. Octavia gulped at hers.
“Have a towel.”
The [Innkeeper] smiled. Octavia wiped at her hair and shoulders. More guests were coming through, all wet and soaked. They smiled as hot towels were offered and the merry fires in the fireplaces offered drying heat.
“How was Pallass? You didn’t come back for dinner. Did you starve again? What about Saliss? Do I have to throw something at his door?”
Erin had a vaguely accusing look on her face. Octavia bit her lip.
“I’m fine, Erin! I ate! And I’m sure Master Saliss…I think…he might actually need food. But I ate l—dinner!”
“Uh huh. Numbtongue! Octavia’s dying!”
The Hobgoblin looked up from the fire. He’d been outside, training, when the skies had been unkind enough to dump on him. He waved at Octavia and jerked a thumb at the kitchen.
“Breakfast. Something hot?”
“Oh—Numbtongue. Sure? I mean—I guess I could eat.”
The Hobgoblin nodded. He got up, walked into the kitchen, and came out a minute later. Imani had chased him out from his regular purloining of whatever he found in the cupboards.
“Imani will make food. Something hot. Spicy.”
“Sounds really good. Hey—the funniest thing happened in Pallass just now.”
“Imani! Can I get something for Saliss? I’m going to kick his door until he takes it! Thanks!”
Erin shouted into the kitchen. She was distracted, and found Octavia telling Numbtongue about the encounter.
“Wait, you aren’t going, are you? You’ll die. Seriously. Without us to feed you.”
The [Bard] half-grinned, but he was watching Octavia. The [Alchemist] wiped water out of her eyes as she shook her head.
“I’m not that shallow, Erin—I mean, it’s tempting. But I wouldn’t just up and leave. Not after all you’ve done for me.”
“Aw. Thank you, Octavia.”
Numbtongue smiled and nodded. Octavia was a bit embarrassed; it hadn’t always been like this. She went on as Ishkr put a pair of bowls in front of her and Numbtongue.
“From Imani. She calls it…b—b—I have to ask again. Apologies, Miss Erin. Would you like one?”
“No problem, Ishkr. What is it?”
Erin peered at the bowl of…it looked at first like porridge, but it was clearly at least a bit oily. It looked to her like a giant bowl of dip. Imani and Palt had both taken over the kitchens from her.
“It’s beans. Very finely mixed. Lots of spices. Imani made it for me last shift. She says it’s good for cold weather.”
“Huh. Well, whatdya know? I’m good, Ishkr. I ate with Mrsha and Lyonette.”
Numbtongue dipped a spoon into the bowl and began to eat. He chewed, swallowed, and smiled. True, his palate was a Goblin’s, but he had grown a bit pickier of late. Octavia followed him with goodwill. The hot food warmed her up.
“You know, I bet those jerks are gonna copy this. Well, good luck because I didn’t make it!”
Erin looked around triumphantly; sure enough, a number of the bowls of bessara were going around to each table. Although that might have just been people ordering Chef’s Choice or the Meal of the Hour.
“Huh. They never ordered Chef’s Choice when I was around.”
The [Innkeeper] grumped off as Imani shouted that the Saliss-order was ready. She vanished through the door to the hallway as Octavia ate.
“Why did Pallass want you today?”
Numbtongue asked after both had eaten enough to stave off their initial famine. Octavia looked around for a napkin, then showed him the [Messages].
“Look at this. Remember my fungus?”
“Well—it’s finally gotten to Zeres and they tested it and its working.”
He raised his brows, smiling. It was huge—distant news. Yellow Rivers had never hit Liscor. But it was one of the issues Drassi’s new segment talked about; the growing epidemic affecting coastal nations, mainly.
“What about the medicine to…Baleros?”
Octavia sorted through the messages.
“No word yet—oh! They want more of it! This—I can’t even fulfill it! Oh wow. Oh wow. This—this is from their [Admiral of Supply]. That’s—that’s the biggest official in Zeres!”
“Mhm. Congratulations. Is there hot pepper?”
Numbtongue looked around for the bowl of dried hot flakes. He didn’t get it. Octavia saw the order and the prices Zeres was willing to pay per pound…her head spun. She got up.
“I have to—”
Numbtongue caught her arm. The [Alchemist] protested.
“Eat first. Fight later.”
The sage advice calmed Octavia down. She sat, mind racing. She was going to level from this! She was going to be rich! And famous! And she owed it to…
The Stitchgirl looked around for Erin, but the [Innkeeper] was gone. Octavia sat there—and then read the other [Messages].
“Grower’s License for Oteslia—stuff me with satin! I—oh. Oh. That’s not good.”
The Hobgoblin looked up. He was trying to figure out if he should say ‘effusive’ in congratulating Octavia. He wasn’t quite sure how to use it after reading it in a book.
‘You did effusively well?’ Just…wasn’t quite right. He’d have to ask Kevin what it meant.
“The…shipment to Baleros? To this Geneva?”
“Mhm? Something happen to the Courier?”
Octavia read slowly.
“Not to him…but this is…”
She looked out the window. Mrsha was outside. People were staring out the windows. The little Gnoll was standing just outside the inn, arms stretched high into the sky as the rain pelted her. She was laughing, silently, ignoring Lyonette calling her in.
To her, it was a wondrous sight. Neither good nor evil, but impressive. The rain fell harder and Numbtongue waited.
“It’s run into trouble. I need to tell Erin—or Lyonette. And—it says a copy of this was sent to Geneva.”
The Hobgoblin stood. Octavia distractedly pointed.
“Trouble at sea. Everyone wants the medicine. But Tritel’s writing—it’s the weather.”
She pointed to the window. Numbtongue looked up. It was raining here and in Pallass. But so what? He glanced at the windows as Bird joined Mrsha, praying for water birds. And the rain fell harder.
The first shipment of Octavia’s Occillium product had reached Zeres. The name had stuck, despite efforts to change it. The fungus, an equivalent to Penicillin, possibly even broader than its Earth-equivalent, was a cure.
To what extent was unknown. But it was a broad-spectrum antibacterial cure.
It was what people suffering from Yellow Rivers needed. It could be grown; Zeres and Oteslia were already cultivating as much as they could. On pumpkins…other legumes, which was what the mold took to.
All good news. And thanks to The Wandering Inn and Erin Solstice—or ‘Joseph’—the medicine had been carried at top-speed by Tritel and Ci, the Moonlight Rider to the nearest port. There, surely, it would reach Talenqual so the Last Light of Baleros could fully develop guidelines for its use with [Healers] across the world, right? Surely it was that easy?
What an insult to the sea. The land-voyage might have been plagued by monsters, [Bandits], and other hazards for the Moonlight Rider. But the sea…[Pirates] and monsters aside, the greatest threat of the sea could be just…
The winds were picking up outside The Wandering Inn as Erin asked for Palt to charm the second mirror she’d bought in the common room for some temporary news.
They were gales outside of the United Nations headquarters as Geneva Scala stared into the mirror one of the Selphids had produced. The same weather—only more wind and less rain here.
Everyone was taking cover. There was a real danger of the more poorly-built wooden structures of Talenqual—not exactly the stone city of Drakes—blowing away. And flying debris traveling at that speed? Well, no one wanted their cause of death to be ‘roof shingles’.
The cure. Geneva was—distraught. Despite Idis’ best attempts to soothe her. She’d been tracking their progress. And the latest [Message] from the Moonlight Rider was devastating.
From Tritel and Ci:
Regarding delivery of Yellow Rivers Cure to Talenqual, Baleros from Liscor, Izril.
No Couriers at port-city of Altvil willing to take delivery/present.
Entrusted three samples to three [Captains].
Two vessels impounded, one traveling past Pheislant, the other towards Chandrar to avoid storms at sea.
One vessel currently still at sea after passing Wistram. The Waverider’s Wake making for nearest Balerosian harbor.
Worsening weather putting delivery in jeopardy. Storm at sea. [Harbormaster] fears possibility of magical storm.
Attempting to send more samples securely. Possibly by magic.
It was a choppy [Message]. Geneva didn’t understand why until the Selphid [Mage] explained.
“It had to be resent nearly two dozen times, Doctor Scala.”
“The spell? Why?”
“The—spells were lost. Parts arrived fragmented. There is some interference at sea; other magical events have been known to cause this.”
Lost? Geneva hadn’t heard the [Message] spell could be lost. And indeed—she saw the scrying orb was flickering.
“Oh come on. Bad reception in this world? That was the one thing we didn’t have to deal with!”
Dawson shouted over the comments of the rest of the company. Everyone was indoors; work was cancelled due to the storm.
The [Doctor] turned. Daly was standing there. They both hesitated, but the Bushranger’s Captain nodded at the transcribed [Message].
“Two of the ships didn’t make it. Or they’re—impounded.”
Geneva handed Daly the letter. He read it and looked up sharply.
“Impounded? Why’s it written like that?”
It wasn’t clear to Geneva at first. But she had a sinking suspicion. And her answer came as the scrying orb flickered to life. Because today’s topic—even more than the war progressing against Reim was overshadowed. When the patchy image finally appeared, a familiar newscaster was sitting at the desk with Noass.
“—errors, we apologize. Our broadc—ference. We are attempting to stabilize—unavoidable.”
The image cleared up a bit and Drassi swam into view. Geneva watched her, anxiously. Somehow that Drake was connected to ‘Joseph’. She looked into the camera as she read down the day’s top stories.
“I’m Drassi from Liscor. With me is Noass from Pallass. War in Chandrar is mounting as dozens, yes, dozens of armies are marching on Reim. Important news regarding a cure for the Yellow Rivers disease coming from trials in Zeres!”
“Geneva! That’s the mold!”
The [Doctor] felt a leap in her chest. It was working? She clenched her hands. But that was Zeres. There was no cure in…Drassi continued.
“…Ailendamus’ formal announcement of war and reports of attacks on neutral ships at sea. We’ll get to all this soon. But first? The weather.”
Ryoka Griffin stood outside, staring up at the sky as Mrsha had done. But unlike the little Gnoll, she was…listening. Or rather, staring at something.
Fierre’s family was in the process of…cleansing. Their well was being dismantled. They were checking everything, trying to source new groundwater. Thinking about where they might go.
But like good [Farmers] and [Herders], they had stopped immediately once the winds and rains began to make sure their animals were safe. Fierre was grabbing Fluffles the Sixth when she saw Ryoka standing in the open field.
“Ryoka! Get inside! The wind’s picking up!”
Reizmelt, Talenqual, and Liscor. No—it was weakest in Reizmelt, far inland. But because it was Ryoka, it mattered. She was staring far to the west. And she sensed it.
It was an angry wind. Ryoka felt it—like the edges of some vast, terrifying being on the edge of consciousness.
“What’s…? Why are you so…?”
She was murmuring to the wind, trying to understand. Ryoka felt powerful winds high above; it was merely ‘really windy’ at ground level. And the wind—sensed her. Ryoka was standing in the field, and she had forgotten Ivolethe’s warning.
The wind was not always her friend.
Fierre felt the wind howl. She whirled—and heard a shout. Ryoka was snatched off the ground as if the hand of an invisible giant had come down.
Ryoka flailed. But the wind had suddenly focused on her. It blew her off the ground like—like a leaf. She was snatched up into the air with terrifying speed.
She might have gone soaring into the skies, but Fierre and Rivel were already leaping with the reactions only a Vampire could have. They seized her, dragging her down at the legs. As it was—they only slowed a bit before the winds pulled.
Himilt saw them. He looked around for a rope, and saw the wind change. One second it was trying to snatch Ryoka up—then it swung them down.
The wind cracked all three into the ground like the end of a whip. Himilt raced towards the impact. He heard a cry of pain—Ryoka was lying with his son and daughter.
Rivel’s face was a grimace. His arm had gone first, twisting and snapping. He wrenched it around and it began to knit. Fierre had a gash on her arm from landing on a stone.
The Vampire father stopped. Ryoka was gasping.
“I think—my ribs—”
She was wheezing. Ryoka listened for the telltale whistle—there wasn’t any. But something felt damaged. She lay there—until Himilt grabbed her.
“You can’t stay out here. That was either a freak gale or this is a storm to be remembered. Inside the keep, all of you!”
They carried her in. When Ryoka had her breath, she shook her head at last.
“The storm’s not here. It’s far away. It was just me. I tried to talk to the wind. It—it’s pissed.”
Fierre looked at Ryoka. Her friend’s face was practically white. Ryoka looked up at the storm through an open window before Colfa closed the shutters.
She had never felt the wind so angry. Once—it had been raging in Riverfarm, fed by the blazes. She had dared it to chase her in a fiery vortex. But this time—it was all-consuming.
“I don’t know. Something…someone pissed off the wind. Can you do that?”
Fierre traded looks with her family. From anyone but Ryoka, she would have suspected a head-injury. But then—their neighbor, another [Farmer], made it to the keep with his entire family of eleven. Ryoka was stunned and wary—until she realized that Himilt had invited them.
“There’s nowhere safe! The winds’ll pick up even stronger. Everything’s lashed down, but this is better than the root cellar. My thanks, Himilt.”
The [Farmer] slapped the Vampire on the shoulder. Himilt just nodded. Colfa helped lift some of the crying children off the wagon, soothing them with their mother and the older children.
“Get your family in, Menam. Anyone hurt? We nearly lost Miss Ryoka to the winds.”
“Dead gods! That must have been some gale! Nothing as bad—damn magic. Here—you know that broadcast from Pallass? I have a scrying mirror. Tiny—but it works. Take a look!”
The man showed Himilt, Ryoka, and the others the very same thing that was playing out on scrying mirrors worldwide.
Drassi spoke slowly into the camera. The Drake [Reporter] was unusually somber.
“This storm is High Magic, as well as a Sympathetic storm. Everyone near a coast—any coast—is advised to seek shelter. I’m sorry—it’s not even a storm. It’s a—what’s the word, Noass?”
“Typhoon, Drassi. This is a Magical Typhoon. Wistram has named it Typhoon Erannda. All indications are that it originated from deep waters just off the shores of Terandria. Unfortunately, as they tend to do, it’s centered on Wistram. We’re projecting its path; it’s going to cut right down the trade-routes connecting each continent.”
The Drakes were tracing the swirling vortex down the map with magical illusions. The typhoon was passing towards the center of all the continents—deep water, where only one notable structure existed.
Wistram Academy. Also—the fastest way from Izril to Baleros or Chandrar to Terandria.
“A magical typhoon? I’ve never heard the word, Noass. Can we explain to the viewers what this is?”
The older Drake nodded.
“To put it simply, Miss Drassi, a typhoon is an…enhanced storm. Think of it as this giant spiral of weather. It’s most common around Baleros; its extreme winds and water and the continent of Baleros’ humidity helps create the conditions where they occur. Well—it is the hottest time of year. Warm waters, strong winds—this is what happens.”
“But magical typhoon? Sympathetic storm?”
The [Commentator] cast one eye towards the side.
“It means this storm has picked up magic, Drassi. To the viewers at home—it is raining in Pallass at the moment despite the Walled City being inland almost as far as you can get. That’s because the magical resonance is triggering downpours around the world. You’ve heard of a storm that comes once a century? That’s a sympathetic storm with high magic. When mana enters the storm, we can see everything a normal typhoon has…intensify.”
“That…doesn’t sound great, Noass.”
“It isn’t, Drassi. Fortunately, those inland won’t see more than sympathetic rains—then clear skies. But at sea? [Sailors] beware. Come to that—I don’t think anyone will be putting out to sea.”
The former-[Gossip] nodded.
“Let’s talk about how big this storm is and how it happened. According to my information here…”
She shuffled her notes.
“The monsoon season in Baleros has only added to the storm’s fury. It’s picking up now…and growing at alarming speed. Experts are saying that [Clear Skies] spells employed by ships during their exodus from Baleros have added to the typhoon’s fury by suppressing localized rains and winds. This entire month and early spring—ships use the spell to ensure they travel easily. We saw a few big, mundane storms, but the mana in the air apparently led to the conditions for a magical typhoon. Noass, is that irresponsible on the part of the ship’s [Captains] and [Weather Mages]?”
In The Wandering Inn, both Wailant Strongheart and Seborn Sailwinds grimaced.
The Drowned Man nodded to the [Pirate]-[Farmer]’s comment. Erin looked at them; a soaked Mrsha was lying in front of the fire. Half-drowned on land.
“What does that mean, Wailant?”
“Too many idiots cast [Clear Skies]—that just delays the storm. Makes it worse when it does hit. Your Antinium could tell you that. Too many idiots called the rain and now their entire area’s dry as a beached whale.”
The [Farmer] growled. Seborn agreed. The Halfseekers had stopped in the inn. On business, apparently.
“They should have known better. It’s the same for landfolk. It’s like stopping fires in forests. Deadwood builds up and then the next big fire wipes out everything.”
Erin knew about that. She turned back to the oceanic equivalent. Jelaqua was wiping water out of her hair.
“Of all the days! Right when we were visiting the [Seamstress] in Invrisil! Think she’ll be able to book us?”
“I think so, Jelaqua. It’ll be fine. [Seamstresses] work indoors. Usually.”
Ulinde soothed her captain and fellow Selphid. Erin blinked. Jelaqua seemed…unusually high-strung today for the laid-back adventurer.
“Hey, Jelaqua, what’s the matter? I thought an [Iron Tempest] would like rain, right?”
“It’s [Steel Tempest], thanks. I upgraded my class.”
Moore let Mrsha climb onto his shoulder and drip. She gave him a kiss on the cheek and the half-Giant smiled.
“Hello Mrsha. I’m sorry we haven’t visited. We’ve been busy. Jelaqua is upset because we need suits and a dress adjusted for the ball two days from now.”
“Ball? What ball? I haven’t heard of a ball!”
Lyonette looked around. Seborn rolled his eyes. Ulinde explained.
“It’s a Pallassian thing. I’m not surprised you haven’t heard, Lyonette. It’s a Dullahan’s ball. Or rather…gathering?”
“Ball. And Maughin’s going to be there. And so am I, if I have to swim! We’re going! Erin, I need your door!”
Jelaqua hauled herself upright. Seborn sighed.
“I’ll catch up after a few dr—”
The Selphid dragged him out of his chair.
“Oh no you don’t! We’re not missing our appointment! Come on!”
Erin watched them go. Moore put Mrsha down and tapped her on the forehead with a finger; all the water fell off her fur and she smiled up at him. Then he left with his team.
It was just a reminder that not everyone cared about…this kind of thing. And Jelaqua had leveled? Erin made a note to bake her a cake. Or rather, get Imani to bake a cake. She was a [Cook] already; Erin was just…lazy.
Back to the news, Noass was giving a defense of the practice of weather spells.
“…no formalized body, you see, Drassi. Wistram has had its guidelines, but since each ship claims a different nation, not all of whom recognize the Weatherspell Pact—”
He coughed into a fist as someone off-screen directed him to get back to the point. The Drake pointed at the map.
“Magical Typhoon Erannda is now…affecting a thousand miles of sea, and is expected to keep growing. It’s bearing down directly on Wistram Academy, homing in on the magic. The—the academy’s shielding spells should weather the storm, but we have no idea where it’ll bounce next. Magical storms are feeding both off wind and so on, as well as magic.”
“We’ll keep you updated as we go to other stories. Remember—if you’re in a coastal region, stay in shelter! Speaking of which—the coastal kingdom of Medain, run by that rat-king—”
“Oh, fine. Medain’s lost three cities. Apparently—they’ve been sacked by the Illusionist and the Steward, Orthenon. Even as the King of Destruction’s armies are falling back…”
The topic turned away from the typhoon. But it concerned Erin. Especially because…she looked at the message she’d gotten from Tritel and Ci.
“That explains why he’s so worried about the delivery. But it doesn’t explain ‘impounded ships’. What’s this about?”
“I think I know, Erin.”
Lyonette came over with an unhappy expression. Drassi and Noass had yet to get to that segment. But the [Princess] explained as Geneva Scala was informed of the same.
News coverage was a funny thing. Drassi’s takedown of Noass and Sir Relz on the Yellow Rivers was news in itself. Journalism fighting journalism.
Yet now, there was a cure. Occillium—Octavia nearly fainted into Numbtongue’s arms when she saw her mold featured by [Healers] in Zeres who had cured patients using it.
However—they had overdosed. Wasted their supply. They weren’t [Doctors]; there were no standardized measurements or application procedure. Half had just fed the mold to their patients before trying the topical application as Geneva recommended.
They had mismanaged a limited supply. So they were desperate for more, even as it was being grown with the Walled City’s resources. And to be fair—they proved that the Occillium worked.
It still gave Geneva ulcers, or it would have if Idis wasn’t on stomach-patrol. And the worst part was that the triumphant news about the ‘cure’…missed some important facts.
Firstly, that only Zeres and Drake cities and a few Human ones had access to the mold. And that the disease had not originated in Izril. It was getting worse in Terandria, Chandrar…and especially Baleros. They were far, far more desperate for the mold.
Hence the impounded ships. Two [Captains] had taken their cargo across the safer routes north and south of Izril, moving along the coast and passing by Terandria and Rhir, or across Chandrar and up to Baleros.
Neither ship had made it. They had not been sunk—but their cargos had been searched and the mold seized.
By Ailendamus and Medain, respectively. Both nations’ rulers had seized it. Medain’s out of desperation; Yellow Rivers ran in its ports. Ailendamus to deny it to Pheislant and other coastal nations.
Drassi reported on the segment. There was ‘worldwide outrage’. But the long and short of it was that every nation wanted that medicine. Worse—the coverage announced that fact.
Occillium was now worth many times its weight in gold. Since…it was a mold. And didn’t weigh a lot.
An inevitable response followed. Geneva wrote back desperately to both Joseph and the Moonlight Rider. The [Message] was choppy; the [Mage] had to resend it over thirty times. The magical storm could, apparently, destroy spells that tried to go through it, or twist them.
We are in desperate need of Occillium mold samples. Even a single case that can be cultivated.
It must reach Baleros. We are waiting on The Waverider’s Wake. Please arrange more transport.
Urgent. The Yellow Rivers disease is mutating and patients are dying as symptoms intensify.
She saw it in her clinics now, more than ever. There were now two in Talenqual. One, a mass-treatment and isolation facility, a burgeoning two-story building staffed by Selphid [Nurses] and volunteers like the helpful Lizardgirl who’d become one of the managers.
The second…was intensive care, for the most seriously ill or those showing secondary symptoms. Geneva’s work was being picked up by other [Healers] on the front; they wrote in every day now, and unlike Zeres’ [Healers], they followed her guidelines to the letter.
They were all desperate for the mold. In the meantime—Geneva tried to steal as many seconds as she could.
“Doctor. One of our serious patients is a Dullahan.”
“Where’s the information?”
It was something Umina saw that impressed her. She had not come up with the system of writing down each patient’s information, everything from gender to weight to symptoms—it was organization and most [Healers] did not employ it.
That Geneva Scala had insisted on it, implemented it with perfect understanding spoke to Umina of someone who treated countless patients. It was so…polished. She didn’t even need to be here as Geneva read from the clipboard. But she stayed. This was important.
The [Doctor] passed a hand across her face.
“This…this is a child. He didn’t contract the disease via intercourse or even contact?”
“Not what his family claims.”
“What if they lied? Did you subject them to a truth crystal—oh.”
Geneva saw the checked box. She looked at Umina.
“Thank you. Urrexa?”
Umina forgot which fake-name she was using. She kept switching them and Geneva was so tired she didn’t seem to notice. The Dullahan family had sworn by truth crystal that the boy—and he was very young, barely more than seven—had contracted the disease without touching or being more intimate with anyone who was sick.
Given how widespread knowledge of the epidemic was and how sudden and severe the symptoms—Umina had believed them without the crystal.
Geneva read the details—twice. She began to feel sick again. No other family members showing symptoms. That might rule out water supply…she would have to ask for more details. She looked up at Umina.
“Alright. I want protective gear on everyone who treats this Dullahan. This—this could be airborne.”
The Lizardgirl gulped. That was the worst-case possibility for Geneva. The Yellow Rivers disease was already highly contagious by liquid, hence the gear that each [Nurse] needed. And they were still falling sick. But if it got worse?
The Dullahan boy was armored in steel. Beautiful steel, worked by a master.
He looked solemnly up at her as his head rested on a stand. He was coughing and—Geneva read from the clipboard—he had pus-filled sores on his body. It wasn’t visible because he was still wearing his armor—but the armor had to come off and he needed treatment.
Over 70% of Dullahans were dying because they refused to have their armor removed and the infection dressed.
The disease was mutating. His family had all wanted to be there, but only the two parents were allowed to wait in a room separate from this quarantined one. Geneva had asked them repeated questions. Like their son, they were armored in fine, decorative steel. Rich, in short.
Geneva hadn’t wanted to know any of that from them. She’d just quizzed them to make sure the young Dullahan had not directly interacted with anyone other than possible airborne contamination or some water source she hadn’t uncovered yet.
With the boy she was kinder.
“Hello. Seql, isn’t it? I am Geneva Scala. A [Doctor].”
“I know, Doctor Scala. They call you the Last Light of Baleros.”
He looked solemnly up towards her. So much unlike Human children—and like some of them as well. A child. He knew how sick he was.
Slowly, Geneva sat down.
“Some people call me that, Seql. But I can’t work miracles. I wish…I could. Do you know why you’re here?”
“I have Yellow Rivers.”
“Seql. I know this might be hard—but I’m going to have to ask you to take off your armor. And I might have to ask you some personal questions. It’s very important you answer me truthfully, do you understand?”
She had a little truth-stone. Seql nodded.
“I know. I didn’t touch anyone, [Doctor]. I promise.”
The stone glowed white. That was ‘truth’ for this stone.
“You can’t think of anything, Seql?”
Her visor was in the way. She must have looked like some huge, helmeted monster with only part of her face showing. But perhaps that was more reassuring to a Dullahan boy. He lay still; his parents had told Geneva he was in a great deal of pain. She’d already asked Umina to bring painkillers and anesthesia.
“I…I can’t. I went for a walk. Someone was coughing and our [Bodyguards] told me we had to return. That was…”
That was it. That was what the boy believed. Geneva nodded. She’d press him later for more clues. But if it was…
“Let’s take off that armor, Seql. I can help you. Let me know if I’m hurting you…”
She made no sound as the armor came away. But inside of her, Idis did.
The Yellow Rivers disease was moving faster. The boy had pus-filled sores in clumps. He was coughing—at least his head was separate from his body. It was very bad.
The first patients Geneva had treated were just weakened from the disease, which could kill without proper rest, water, attention to the infected areas. This? This would kill a healthy adult, let alone a child.
The [Doctor] had experience, though. More experience than anyone else in this world. So she worked. Seql made very little sounds as she gave him a painkilling tonic and got to work. He was being brave.
“Doctor. Am I going to die?”
She knew he would ask. And she had been bracing for it. Geneva took a deep breath.
“I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure that doesn’t happen, Seql. I, and everyone working here. Your parents as well.”
His brow creased.
“Is that a ‘yes’?”
Geneva sat there for a moment, the antiseptic liquids drying on her gloves. She had cleaned his injuries. She could slow the disease by sitting with him, sleeping in this place. But some patients died because even with the bacteria halted, their systems were simply so compromised.
“I am going to do my best, Seql. But the odds of you surviving are low. I want you to understand there is a cure.”
There was hope in his eyes. Geneva nodded slowly.
“…But it’s taking time in getting here. I’m going to make you as well as I can until it arrives. But I need it.”
“My…parents said they’ll help. They brought me here because everyone said you were the best.”
The boy informed her. Geneva nodded slowly.
“I’m going to turn your body over. We need to get at your back, Seql. Where are you from?”
He made a slight sound.
“Oh? I don’t know that city. What do your parents do, Seql?”
“They own the city.”
The [Doctor]’s hands stopped moving for a moment.
Seql watched his own treatment and closed his eyes.
“They own the city. They’re part of the Iron Vanguard. We came from up north. Very far, Doctor Geneva. What should I tell them?”
The [Doctor] paused, then gently applied more of the poultice to his injuries.
“I’ll talk to them. Just know, Seql—that you should say anything you want to say to them. I will do my best.”
He nodded. His eyes were full of tears. Geneva gently turned his head away so he could cry in peace. When she stepped out of the room, and cleaned herself, and removed the armor, the two parents were there.
“I cannot do anything other than slow the Yellow Rivers disease in Seql. I will be in this unit day and night. But we need the cure.”
The father and mother were very reserved. Not uncaring—they stood together, in their armor that had failed to protect them against the smallest foe. The mother looked at Geneva.
“I am told, Doctor Geneva, that there is a complication in procuring this…medicine..”
“Yes, Miss Rederr. I do not have it. It is being sent from Izril—but the ships have encountered delays.”
“Ships? If you need ships—we are of the Iron Vanguard. Please, tell us what we can do.”
Geneva looked up at the desperate parents. For their son—they listened as she gave them the port-city and Tritel’s name.
The next message, sent within an hour from Tritel, was reported on by Drassi twenty minutes later. Because she had been in The Wandering Inn during her break and she’d heard Erin reading it.
From Tritel and Ci:
Regarding delivery of Yellow Rivers Cure to Talenqual, Baleros.
Iron Vanguard, Forgotten Wing, Maelstrom’s Howling, have all posted bounty on delivery of cure.
Samples being sent by way of Terandria and Chandrar while news awaited of Waverider’s progress.
Counter-bounties raised by Khelt, Pheislant, and five other nations for medicine as well. Samples sent to other nations already may be at risk.
Attempting to secure other means of transport.
So Geneva slept, waiting for more news. Not because she wanted to, but because Idis flooded her mind with impulses lulling her to sleep as she had for the last few days. She rested, as above her, the sick patients, including Seql, waited.
It was Idis who woke her. The Selphid quietly waited for Geneva; she had been piloting Geneva’s body as the [Doctor] slept.
When Geneva’s mind took over, she saw a single [Message] waiting for her.
Report. The Waverider’s Wake has gone down with all hands at sea. Wistram reports scrying ship’s demise.
Unable to send medicine by magic or air.
Sending more samples around typhoon.
Requesting Sea Couriers.
The cure reached Terandria and Chandrar. Or rather—ships already in-progress were intercepted at sea, their cargos seized.
Tritel had been canny. He had deliberately given each [Captain] a single crate, promising payment only when the delivery had been made—and a generous sum. Each delivery was noted by the Seafarer’s Guild, the arm of the [Storm Captain] fleets and alliances of navies and nations.
However. Some [Captains] still sold their valuable cargo. Others were loyal and true, for all the good it did.
“…ships known to frequent Savere’s ports have seized the third shipment. The Siren denies involvement, but samples are already appearing on the black markets…Roshal…cultivating their own…Khelt…Ailendamus’ blockade continues as…”
The other nations had their hands on the cure. Some paid [Pirates] or Undersea Crews or even [Storm Captains] willing to be privateers to acquire the medicine.
For instance, Fetohep of Khelt had obtained a sample of the cure. Former citizens of Khelt—one family—had begged to return home. He had granted their plea and obtained the valuable medicine for their single family.
And because of his love of his subjects, Balerosians were dying. Not one sample had made it along either coast; Baleros was directly opposite Izril and the only way aside from a coastal route was through the eye of Typhoon Erannda.
What a name. Wistram had begun a practice of naming the typhoons, a new practice they had picked up from…somewhere. Now—they braced as the typhoon came at them, drawn to the magic of the academy.
Already, the winds had battered the bubble of calm around Wistram. Inside was a placid harbor, the sun shining, clear air for hundreds of feet around the citadel of [Mages]. Beyond the bubble?
Archmage Feor saw a wave crashing down, hundreds of feet high. The water was blown far, far above the still waters around the Academy, protected by the magical bubble. The wind was blowing so fiercely waterspouts and even shoals of fish were moving around the edges of the field.
That was all from afar, nearly a hundred miles away. His [Raven Eyes] spell showed him that, along with a scrying mirror for another viewing angle. The waves around the academy were storm-lashed—but survivable. For now.
The Typhoon had yet to unleash its full fury. Even if it did—Wistram would be safe. The [Weather Mages] who had created the spell had designed it to withstand anything in the world, even a hundred tsunamis.
However. There was a problem. The [Archmage] glanced to the south. There—somewhere out there—was a ship.
“How soon until the Emerald Signet reaches the isle?”
“Eighteen minutes, the [Captain] claims.”
“They’re moving too slowly.”
Three Archmages stood on one of the highest balconies [Mages] could still walk on. Above them, the academy’s heights lay shrouded in mists. Feor looked south. A single ship had continued on as the others, full of potential applicants, turned back. He could even see and hear the ship as it fought forwards thanks to the scrying spell.
Trey and Flynn were below, braced as the ship rocked, threatening to throw anyone not bolted down. The young man heard Flynn praying; he just held onto his staff.
“You’re not shitting yourself in this storm, mate?”
Trey shouted back. Flynn’s eyes were wide and he was holding the whimpering Pointy, his dog, to his chest, despite her occasionally stabbing him with her quills.
But Trey was—calmer. Not calm. But he kept fingering a scar on his throat. Remembering a backpack. He still had the camera.
“I won’t die here. Not until I burn their city to the ground.”
“You said it!”
Flynn shouted back. Trey nodded. It wasn’t his moment. Above—the [Storm Sailors] were fighting a battle against the enemy they feared most.
“Cap’n! We’re going to be destroyed! I just saw a wave ten times the size of our ship! We’ll be flying if we continue on!”
Inky was screaming at Captain Lasc. It was not hyperbole, for once. The winds were picking up. Ahead of them—she saw a distant waterspout. But between the vast waves was a shining bubble, daylight.
The Isle of Mages.
“We have to turn back, Captain!”
The [Storm Captain] finally roared a response. He had tied himself to the wheel and was fighting. Fighting to keep his ship moving forwards.
“We’ll either get there or the storm’ll tear us to bits before we’re halfway to land! We never had a choice, Second Mate! Full ahead! Until Krakens fly! Each one of you will be a [Storm Sailor] come dawn!”
The crew of the Emerald Signet roared as they fought for every second, keeping the ship upright. A wave slammed them down and the entire ship groaned. Inky stared ahead at the glowing bubble in the sea.
They weren’t going to make it. So the academy’s Archmages determined. The distant ship was already in danger of capsizing with every second.
“There’s more mana swirling around in that vortex than every [Mage] in Wistram could produce.”
Archmage Viltach stared at the distant storm, opposite the Emerald Signet. Feor nodded. Nature humbled. He felt the mana in the air—streaming away from him even as he conjured some around him. The storm was eating it all up.
And using it. Magical lightning—not the natural kind, but bolts of every color—struck. There was a waterspout reaching to the sky flashing with internal lightning, electrocuting any hapless creature sucked into it.
“Amerys would fly into the center of it to harness the power.”
Nailihuaile commented as she stared at the storm. Feor glared at her. The Lamia shrugged.
“Well, she would. Are we doing this or not?”
Feor curtly extended a wand. The Star Lamia lowered her staff and touched the tip of her relic, the Serkonian Lance, to it. Viltach lowered his wand.
The typhoon was moving so fast. It was going to hit the academy and then ‘bounce’. A crude word for saying that it would be deflected by the spell protecting Wistram and go spinning into an unknown direction. It was something…Wistram’s [Mages] didn’t like talking about and the news coverage had been short on explaining.
But the ship had two children from another world. So Feor closed his eyes. Below—more [Mages] were joining hands or catalysts, adding their magic to the flow in the citadel.
“Link! Reinforce the Weatherward! Extend it!”
The Archmage drew upon the spell. He might not have the class—but he was still Archmage of Wistram.
The bubble twisted in the air as the magical typhoon’s full fury hit Wistram. And the bubble—collapsed. In front of Feor, the protection spell retreated until the storm and lashing waves were a hundred feet in front of the isle. Fifty.
“We’re pulling the Weatherward in too close! Stop, you fool!”
Viltach howled. But Feor was extending the bubble of calm southwards, trying to catch the Emerald Signet.
Lightning struck at the bubble of peace. Now—the furthest edge of the typhoon struck the edge of Wistram’s isle. Feor saw the very edge of the isle vanish. He strained.
The ship was nearly in the bubble. Nearly—Feor saw the veil in front of him thinning.
“Uh…do we back up?”
Nailihuaile tried to step back. But they were linked. The Weatherward was stretched to its maximum, creating a corridor of safety nearly three miles southwards. The Emerald Signet sailed forwards, their crew cheering.
But the first edge of the typhoon was hitting Wistram. And the lightning—the magical lightning was threatening to pierce the Weatherward in its thinnest place. Feor saw the lightning striking, once, twice—hundreds of times at him, as if the storm knew he was the focus point of the magic! It was going to—
He was about to pull the Weatherward back and risk the Emerald Signet when he saw the figure striding along an empty balcony that extended into the storm. A giant. No—a woman.
Cognita. Her body was first that plain white marble. Flawless ivory. Then—Feor saw her change.
The Truestone Golem walked into the edge of the storm, just past the Weatherward’s boundaries. But she did not go flying. She anchored herself. And her body turned into a brilliant, golden crystal.
He had seen that crystal once before. During the incident with the undead—Feor saw the lightning sparking from the material that was now Cognita. Then—
For a moment the magic pulsed. And the magical lightning struck one point with a blinding flash.
Cognita’s body flashed. For a moment, the Truestone absorbed the entirety of the magical lightning. Feor saw it travelling inside of her, condensing into a spark like the sun. Cognita pointed her finger. The Archmages were silent, watching. Spellbound. What was Cognita pointing at?
There. In the heart of the magical typhoon. Something—moved. Feor and Viltach recoiled. Nailihuaile braced.
Something…flew past Wistram, through the rain and winds. It could have been a fish, swept up by the gales that could pick up ships and trees and hurl them around. But—
Feor saw wings.
Cognita aimed her finger at whatever it was. He heard her voice, even through the howling.
“Begone from this place.”
She discharged the bound energies she had just absorbed. The flash and thunder was deafening. The bolt of raw electricity-mana cut a hole through the storm.
The shape vanished. Whether Cognita had even hit it or scared it off or killed it—Feor couldn’t have said. He turned his head.
The Emerald Signet sailed slowly into Wistram’s harbor. With it, the Weatherward reverted to its usual shape. The typhoon roared around the isle. But then—it was moving away. Rebounding off the Weatherward. It moved out into sea—towards…
“Baleros. Moving slower. But that’s ill-luck.”
Viltach calmly checked his sextant and shook his head. Feor was breathing hard; the spell had taken its toll. He watched Cognita turn. She met his eyes once—then strode down the balcony.
To greet the new students.
The Moonlight Rider to the Last Light of Baleros:
Wistram cannot send samples via magic. No flying carpets are available from Chandrar.
All ships sent with samples so far have been intercepted. Running out of cure.
No conventional ship has a chance of passing Typhoon Erannda.
Seeking Couriers to brave the journey.
They had expressed their sympathies. But Wistram could barely send a [Message] or scrying spell through the storm, much less teleport a package. The odds of interference were too great.
Similarly, other magical means were doomed. A Djinni, for instance, immune to almost all conventional attacks, would risk true death in the storm and no owner would risk their servant thusly.
Geneva Scala despaired. The other nations had snatched the cure. They promised to send it to Baleros—when they were done with their samples and had more to send or sell. Either way.
Magical Typhoon Erannda was closing on Baleros. Slowly—but it was grounding even the Iron Vanguard’s best ships, which might have tried to escort more samples to Baleros or make the trip themselves.
Their only hope was Couriers. Not one had volunteered to take the delivery. They were Couriers who crossed the sea—but Sea Couriers were rarer than land-couriers, given how many ships could perform the same task. And it was either brave interception by navies of other nations, a suicide run, or go through the storm.
Death either way. Some still tried because of the need. Geneva’s heart had leapt at this morning’s message.
[Storm Captain] Oresta has agreed to deliver cure. Braving magical typhoon. Watch for Izril’s Splendid Stars.
Izril’s Splendid Stars has gone down at sea. All hands but two lost.
No ordinary ship could brave that storm. The [Storm Captain] had done her best; the wind had seized her ship, even with the sails furled and stowed, and thrown it like a toy.
“Could a Drowned Ship make it?”
“The sea has to be as dangerous below as above. The currents are impossibly strong. The magical typhoon is creating whirlpools, waterspouts—even an underwater ship would be destroyed if it ran into either one.”
The others’ quiet discussions filled her with nothing but despair. And it wasn’t for her that Geneva grieved.
The Drake’s commentary was frank.
“This storm is going to last at least a week. Possibly weeks, or as long as a month! The longest typhoon on record was a magical giant—the storm which marked the end of the Faertrade Era—which landed on Chandrar and changed the climate and landscape for six months! All our experts claim this one isn’t nearly as powerful, but if there is any high-level [Mage] or unsecured artifact or mana spot, we are asking everyone to avoid leaking mana into the storm! Meanwhile, there is no immediate cure bound for Baleros…we are making an appeal for all you other nations to stop stealing the damn cure. Couriers! If there is anyone—let go of me!”
Drassi was pulled off-camera.
Only one person seemed…hopeful. That was Seql himself. Geneva gave him the news. The boy was lying in bed; she had slept the night and stayed as close as she could to the extremely sick, but her aura could only go so far. But he had time…just not enough time to wait out the storm.
But he refused to give up hope like some of the others. Despite the news filtering in. He lay in his bed as Geneva delivered the bad news.
“I know someone who can take the cure, Doctor Geneva.”
“My friend. He’s the best Runner in the world. And my friend. He’s probably coming to deliver the cure and hasn’t gotten here yet. I will wait for him.”
The Last Light of Baleros looked at Seql. Two parts of her warred; the part that wanted to give him hope, and the part of her that did not want to lie to her patients.
“I’m sure he’ll try, Seql.”
That was what she came out with at the end. The Dullahan boy looked at her, calmly. He began coughing.
“He will. He is my friend. He—”
He had to pause as the coughing rendered him unable to breathe. Geneva had a Jar of Air—there were no inhalers. But Seql stopped and after he’d caught his breath, he gasped.
“He made me a promise when I was first sick to find a medicine and cure me. He’ll come.”
Geneva said nothing. She didn’t want to lie. She left Seql there, and had to step outside. Just for a moment. It all seemed so…bleak. After two days of the storm—no, all the pettiness. It should have been here already. But nations and rulers had done what the storm had not.
The [Doctor] was sitting there, unable to do anything but go in and halt the spread of the disease when she heard a shout.
It was Daly. He ran down the street, waving something.
“Geneva! We got a [Message] through the storm! Look! Look!”
It was in his voice. Geneva looked up. She saw the hastily-scribbled lines as she grabbed at the [Message] from Tritel. They burned across her vision. She read with shaky hands.
The Hundredfriends Courier has accepted delivery of the cure to Baleros.
The Waterbear of Cerun has pledged to deliver medicine.
Shellbazaar and The Four Winds of Teral will brave the storm.
Sea Couriers outbound.
Geneva looked up. She shouted up at the closed window, loud enough for him to hear, and she heard, faintly, Seql’s laughter.
She should have believed. It was true—there were petty people. Selfish people. But there were also—brave people. Friends and heroes.
They were coming. Not around the storm, risking interception or delays, but straight through it.
It was raining in Liscor. Hard. Mrsha saw the Floodplains beginning to fill again, after the second day.
She stared solemnly upwards, hoping it would stop. Because—because—the storm was wonderful here. But it was doing bad things at sea.
Very bad things. Erin was worried. But Couriers were making the delivery.
“Who are they?”
“Two are ships. Shellbazaar and The Four Winds of Teral are. But I don’t know the rest. Where’s Wailant? He or Seborn would know. Where’s Seborn?”
“Preparing for that fancy ball. They’re learning how to dance.”
The little Gnoll stared upwards. Then she went to go watch the scrying orb. But the Wistram broadcast had refused to cover even the fact that four Couriers were outbound. News might have leaked—but they could all be scried—if they escaped the storm, that was.
Not even a [Scrying] spell could penetrate the magical typhoon.
Two guests came to The Wandering Inn that day to remember. Three if you counted Maviola. But she was a friend.
And her time was over halfway up. The [Lady] stared out at the rain. She stood there, wondering. Now? Today? She—her hands shook and she clasped them to make them calm.
She had to go. The [Lady Firestarter] turned. The rains had made the world dark. One last spark. It was a madness within her. She could count the sand falling…
She could delay as long as she wanted, lulled by this beautiful place and moment. But time was not so kind. She turned—
And Saliss booped her on the nose. The Named Adventurer swayed as Maviola did; only he nearly fell down.
Maviola stared at him. So did Erin, Mrsha, even Nalthaliarstrelous, eyebrows raised. Some of Pallass’ [Guard] had even come after Saliss, they were so worried. A first-level alarm had been sounded in the Walled City and for once, it wasn’t Erin’s fault.
Saliss was wearing pants.
To be more accurate—workpants. Clearly enchanted, stained pants, the kind the [Alchemist] used when even his natural Skills weren’t enough.
Saliss picked himself back up. He swayed. His eyes were beyond bloodshot. There was more bloodshot than eyeball.
“Master Saliss! Master Saliss—”
Someone was hurrying around him, trying to get his attention. Saliss swiped at the Drake—one of the sales-experts he actually worked with and who helped manage his finances.
“What? Go away! I told you—its work pants! Even I have them! Stop freaking—hey, you.”
He fell down again. The Drake tried to pick him up.
“Master Saliss, you need rest. And also—consider the antidote, please! It would raise your reputation—”
The Drake tried to shove the other Drake and managed to push himself off his feet. He growled at the ceiling.
“Don’t bother me with stuff like that. Xif can make antidotes! I’m—working on something.”
“The client is offering—”
The broker-Drake looked around and whispered into Saliss’ earhole. The Named Adventurer had been taking a quick nap; he cracked one eye open.
“Huh. That’s not bad, actually. Blowfish poison? Drowned Folk? What Selphid? Oh, those children?”
He sat up, rubbing at his face. Then flopped over and went to sleep again. Maviola just stared at him.
It was not the moment. Not her story at this moment, anyways. It belonged to the sea. The storm. And perhaps Saliss himself knew that. Because all he did was pat her on the shoulder.
“…Hi. Okay. Where’s a bed?”
“You can uh—use one upstairs.”
“Heck, I’d sleep in the [Garden]. Ooh! Let me sleep in the garden! In the sun!”
“Whatever. I won’t drown.”
Erin stared at the Drake’s trousers. Saliss’ head lolled. He let Erin help him into the garden; she paused to boot the sycophant-Drake when he tried to follow.
When he was gone, Nalthaliarstrelous turned to Mrsha.
“Little land friend. I came to check on the Shield Spiders. Soon—this place will be fit for wildlife again. A terrible deed I did. But one that gives life and takes it. Are you well?”
Mrsha handed him a card. The [Druid] read it.
The cards were…shorter than her sign language. But he didn’t need to read her paws or the card. They were [Druids]. The old man’s face crinkled into a smile. Then he frowned.
“You are worried. Why? Sea?”
He glanced dismissively at the scrying orb.
“Oh, the cure.”
The [Druid] paused.
“The cure. So petty nations are squabbling over it, eh? And the brave go against a storm any [Druid] would run from? That is typical. But our kind will grow more in Oteslia.”
Mrsha nodded sadly. But the poor people in Baleros! Nalthaliarstrelous’ brow wrinkled. It was wrong to say he cared only about animals; he just weighed them the same as people. Higher—in cases where people had the power to be good or mean and they were mean.
“I see, I see. Well, perhaps there is something I can do. There are [Druids] everywhere, you know. If you need a sample…come with me, little one. We’ll look at nests. Then I shall see what may be done.”
She looked up hopefully. He nodded to her. Lyonette tackled Mrsha before she managed to get out the door and slammed it in Nalthaliarstrelous’ face.
When she was sure, sure everyone was looking elsewhere, like at the [Princess] facing off against the [Druid] for custody of her child, Maviola El took a step back. She put a hand over her rapidly-beating heart. She had been convinced it would stop. For the first time since she’d taken the Potion of Youth—she feared her body would betray her again.
She went to one of the unused private dining rooms and slipped a hand into her pocket. Then she pulled out the thing Saliss had put there.
The glow was not yellow or gold. Certainly not viridian. It just looked like—
Liquid sunshine. The [Lady] stared at it. The Drake had written one thing on the label, in a sloppy scrawl.
In the Garden of Sanctuary, Saliss straightened. He was no less tired. No less bloodshot. But he looked at Erin and stood up.
“I need every flower you can give me, Erin. And I need to grow more.”
“What? What about the—”
He kicked past her.
“Damn the pants! Where are the flowers?”
The [Alchemist] was shaking with energy. He hadn’t slept since before the typhoon had begun. Stamina potions and energy tonics were his blood. He turned to Erin.
“Don’t give Xif another one. You want a friend? Give me those flowers. And I’ll help Maviola and you.”
He took a few frantic breaths.
“They’re…where did you get them?”
She looked at him. It was just…Erin’s mind ran over what she was about to think. Just flowers that could look like gold coins? Or put to sleep an entire hive of Ashfire Bees? That made you see things when you drank them?
“Where are they from? Erin? This is important. Where? They’re not even fully-grown.”
She looked at Saliss.
The [Innkeeper] felt her heart racing. The little flowers waved as the storm battered them. A field of gold. From…Saliss stared at her.
“What do they do?”
Maviola raised the potion to her lips. She hesitated—and drank.
That was one story. In the Garden, the rain fell in a torrent unending.
The storm was getting worse.
Sea Couriers outbound.
They called him the Hundredfriends Courier. As if he only had a hundred. His tiny craft crested the first wave and he felt the impact as it broke. But he was braced. His hands were on the wheel, but the waves were already growing larger than the last one.
The man called out. His skin shone for a second. Then a form broke through the waters ahead. An intelligent eye, a massive shape. He raised a scroll and the giant figure glowed for a moment.
“[Haste]. Go, Arveil!”
The glowing Nelgaunt surged through the waves. It seized the tethers and pulled the Courier’s ship along. The great beast—friend of ships—was named Arveil. It had come from the Courier’s arm, where he had been resting.
His name was Seve-Alrelious. His skin was dark, from the suns on his homeland of Chandrar. But he had left the sands long ago. Now—shining from the magical ink drawn on his body were—tattoos. Some were glowing ink, stationary, showing the places he had been, people he had met.
But some moved. They changed position on his skin, animals, six dolphins swimming across his leg. A staring monkey. Living beings.
Each one a friend, a companion met at sea. Given life by magic. They moved on his skin, protected from the predators and lashing rains that even they feared.
The Nelgaunt took the ship forwards, guiding it more surely than Seve could. Through the waves. It was what had given him his name, and power. Each friend had been made ink, that they might not die, in the Empire of Drath.
He was the Courier they spoke of, who was never alone. [Worldtraveller Inkfriend], a class of his own.
He had three crates of the cure. The last samples had been entrusted to them. Now, Seve looked ahead. The Nelgaunt did not fear the waves which were already thirty feet tall. Nor did Seve. But his journey would lead him straight through the magical typhoon. He was moving across the ocean fast, fighting to travel by memory; there were no stars yet and the sun was invisible in the rain-lashed clouds.
He was heading for Igawiz’s Jet—or the Idiot’s Jet as it was known. The Hundredfriends Courier had to reach Baleros quickest and this was the only way.
Igawiz’ Jet was infamous to anyone who travelled the sea. The vast ocean that lay between continents meant that unenchanted ships could take months to cross the ocean. Enchanted ships with canny [Captains] and Skills could do it in under a week, but trade was never easy. Monsters, [Pirates]…the fastest routes were invaluable.
So, in antiquity, the Archmage Igawiz had been longsighted enough to actually permanently alter the ocean’s geography such that an incredibly powerful current shot boats across the current. In places they would travel at over a hundred miles per hour with the water alone.
However. That meant the wind would crack your sails if it was moving slower than the boat. At that speed, even the flying surf was like arrows.
Igawiz had learned that in the first attempted crossing. Now—only the extremely confident used that current.
Or Couriers. With it even a non-Skill, unenchanted—ship could cross the Baleros-Izril route in a fraction of the time it took. If the sheer speed of their travel and monsters didn’t kill them.
Baleros to Izril this way wouldn’t take long. But it was perilous even without storms or enemies. Seve’s record in the crossing was two days by the jet. With his enchanted sailboat, wind spells, and his companions pulling him under the effects of spells, he would outdistance almost all land-Couriers over the course of a day.
And as luck might have it, he was moving even faster thanks to the weather. Typhoon Erannda was moving in a vortex and the Courier had plotted a path that dragged him with the storm. He just had to move away from the edge and he’d slingshot.
The storm would only intensify the closer he got to the jungle-continent. Yet, Seve was going through it, rather than around. Speed was of the essence. He would make the delivery or perish in the crossing.
They had sworn it. The Waterbear had come with Seve; and two more Courier-ships as well. She had not done it for glory; neither had Seve.
The great Bearkin Courier of Baleros had sworn to deliver the cure for those of the Beastkin tribes who had fallen sick or die trying. And nothing had killed her in this world yet. Not even an Adult Creler at sea.
Seve had not faced Creler nests at sea more than once. Between the storm and those nests…well, he’d prefer the nests.
Crelers could not drag you down into a whirlpool to the very depths of the sea and hold you there. Seve feared that, or waterspouts, the tornados that could snatch up his craft. He might survive falling from the sky—but not the lightning bolts that would cook him in the boiling water.
He was going around the center of the storm where those horrors lay. Even so—the waves were picking up.
“Arveil! Take us on the edge of the jet! The waves will crack the ship at top speed!”
The Nelgaunt heard and adjusted his course. Seve fought the wheel. Then—he saw a valley suddenly appear ahead of them.
Seve-Alrelious looked up. The next wave looked like one of the Walled Cities, appearing out of the darkness.
“By the c—”
He reached for a gem at his side as Arveil made a deep sound of alarm. The wave was crashing down on the tiny vessel. The World’s Pact disappeared under a shadow. The Courier raised the glowing, green gem and shouted.
The bound spell burst from the gemstone a second before the wave hit the World’s Pact. The tiny vessel rocked and Seve-Alrelious felt the barrier-stone explode and the shards pepper his enchanted skin.
Water cascaded down the ship. One wave down. The Nelgaunt strove to take the ship up with the waves, to prevent another such impact.
“Don’t worry about us, Arveil! I’ll protect the ship! Just take us forwards! We cannot falter here. We promised them the cure!”
Seve called out to the Nelgaunt and felt the creature accelerate, churning through the waves under the [Haste] spell. Once more, they plunged forwards. The Courier gritted his teeth. Then—from afar he heard and felt the first roar in the waters.
His blood ran cold. The Nelgaunt froze and turned its head towards him. Without a word—the Hundredfriends Courier raised his arm. The Nelgaunt vanished and a glowing tattoo of Arveil appeared on his arm.
The Courier was suddenly fighting alone. Just in time; he saw a huge form break the surface a moment before he heard a second roar. A vast, sinuous body, many times longer than a warship, if not as wide—a huge head, razor teeth—
Sea Serpents were hunting amid the storm. They might be feasting on whales or other creatures. Seve swore; it was an entire nest of them! Then—he heard another cry. A shriek in the waters. And he realized something that made him go still.
The Sea Serpents weren’t hunting. They were fleeing—
It broke the waves in half. Seve saw it—something impossibly vast. It shot across the waters, changing the ocean as it caught one of the fleeing serpents. The tendril dragged the screaming monster down. The thing was so huge—Seve didn’t know how far away the main body was. How deep.
“Guardians of the Sea, shield us.”
The Sea Serpents scattered, evading the one predator which they didn’t dare even fight. The glowing animals were silent, even their glow fading on the Hundredfriends Courier.
The waves bobbed his ship, tossing it. But Seve dared use no magic. No Skills. He looked down and felt something moving in the storm. He whispered.
“Stay quiet, the Deeps. Lower the sail. So Krakens come—beware.”
His fingers reached for a [Message] scroll. The Courier sent a single burst through the storm, burning through a dozen scrolls to get the words through.
Hundredfriends Courier to Talenqual—Krakens have awakened. The delivery is in jeopardy. Proceeding by sail alone. All craft: beware. Krakens at sea.
The other Couriers received the [Message]. Krakens at sea. Still, they continued. They carried a cargo worth its weight in lives. Beyond value.
Their journey was being watched. Others picked up the [Message], its destination and recipients.
They traced the [Message] spell and began to close in as well.
Another day of rain. Mrsha solemnly clasped her paws in front of her and prayed for rain to stop.
Pawn had taught her how. He said sometimes it didn’t work, sometimes it might. But he said it mattered either way. It made Mrsha feel better.
Krakens at sea. The Couriers had all entered the storm with the last of the cure. Tritel had done his job; gone above and beyond, really. He was leaving.
Moore was arguing with Jelaqua about going to a stupid ball. Mrsha had heard Lyonette trying to get an invitation, but Pawn wouldn’t have ever been invited so she’d given up. It was for Dullahans, anyways.
The little Gnoll hoped the Couriers would do well. She had written a letter to Ryoka telling her about everything. They could have used Ryoka’s magic. But Krakens were huge. Palt had scared her, telling her how big they were. Like…the High Passes.
Mrsha hadn’t slept until she’d crawled into Erin’s bed. The [Innkeeper] had hugged her to sleep, then thrown a pillow at Palt the next day.
Magic. Things were happening in the inn too. Big stories, small ones. But Mrsha was hoping the Couriers got through.
Behind her, something interrupted her from her staring at the rain. Mrsha turned her head and blinked.
A baby crawled across the inn’s floor. Mrsha stared at it. The baby was Human, tiny, and had red…hair…
“Whose baby is that?”
Maviola El stared at the crawling infant. Mrsha looked up. Oh. The [Lady] looked around as the baby crawled past her.
She looked—different. Mrsha stared at Maviola, then the baby. She narrowed her eyes at Maviola. Was she…? Mrsha sniffed a few times and Maviola winked at her.
“There you are! How did you get so fast?”
The mother hurried after the baby and Mrsha hopped off the windowsill to scold her. A baby? In her inn? Didn’t this mother know what happened around here?
That evening, Mrsha watched the coverage of the delivery with everyone else. It was news.
But there was no word from any of the ships at sea save for a single scrying spell that managed to get through the storm. Wistram had an image of one of the Couriers; the Waterbear, for all of eleven seconds.
The viewers saw a huge figure, a Bearkin, larger than even a Raskghar, fighting at the helm of her vessel. Her fur was drenched and they saw a flash of light as a spell activated. The ship shot forwards—then stopped.
It began to rise out of the water. The Waterbear looked back. She looked around, but no turning of the wheel or trick of sails could stop what was happening next.
Her ship was moving up into the sky as the waterspout bore down on her. The image saw her ship rising higher, disappearing into a whirlwind of water. Then—nothing.
They were encountering danger at sea.
The Hundredfriends Courier hadn’t slept for an entire day. He looked over his shoulder. Six dolphins were dragging his ship ahead; larger than the rest of their kind, even armored with a lightweight scaling.
His head swiveled as he heard a roar from underwater. It was echoed; Seve-Alrelious swore. He looked ahead. But he had lost his way in the pursuit. There was only the clouded skies, the tossing sea. Another wave nearly knocked him off his feet as he raised his arm.
One of the magical tattoos glowed. The Courier screamed as the image of a little, waving suit of armor and face moved.
“[Steelfriend’s Pact]! Take us there!”
The light moved. Seve pointed.
The Dolphins surged forwards, pulling the World’s Pact ahead. The Courier heard another roar from behind. His pursuer had seen the light. He turned as more of his friends swam to guard their rear. The pact with Seql was still shining bright. The Courier took a deep breath.
“Tombhome, take me back one day.”
He saw a long form cutting through the water. The Courier raised the arm and the Steelfriend’s tattoo unleashed its magic.
“Skin like steel!”
The first Sea Serpent broke through the wave, maw opened wide. The dolphins dragged the ship onwards as a Nelgaunt and smaller serpent turned to fight. Seve lifted a hunting spear, the rope fastened around his waist and leapt into the waves as the glowing monkey, Erek—took the wheel. The World’s Pact fled even as the Hundredfriends fought, returning to the ship as blood colored the waters. Theirs and the serpent’s.
A dire thing. Seve hauled himself back in the boat as the first serpent writhed, too injured to dare attacking again. But it was one of many. He called for speed.
More were coming.
Another day passed. Silence from all four Couriers—no—three. Geneva had to oversee the cremation of two in the intensive-care facility. Seql refused to give up hope. He had a scrying orb in his room and he watched it all hours.
“He will come. I just have to wait, so I don’t let him down.”
He was growing weaker. Geneva had placed him in one of the two healing crystal beds, and it was the only thing keeping his strength up.
Three days since the Couriers had passed ended in silence. Just—Geneva listening to the coughing from her patients. The Iron Vanguard was patrolling along the coast, but they could not go to sea as the magical typhoon was still oncoming. And they had reported other ships in the waters.
[Pirates]. Drowned Ships? Geneva Scala performed her rounds.
On the fourth day—a ball took place in Pallass. The Halfseekers attended.
It was a Dullahan’s formality; a ball on one of their holidays—not a universally-recognized one, and not a Pallassian vacation. Nevertheless—Dullahans across the city took a break on that day. And many attended this ball.
“It’s not a ball. Stop calling it that, Seborn.”
“We dance, eat, and mingle. It’s a damned ball.”
“Stop swearing! We’re guests of honor!”
Jelaqua would have punched Seborn, but for the fact that she was wearing a dress, long arm-length gloves that had come straight from the best [Seamstress] in Invrisil, and she didn’t want to disturb one part of her costly outfit. Plus, Seborn would have dodged.
Yes, the Couriers were now four days at sea and there was no word of them. Yes, the magical typhoon was still ongoing. Yes, Yellow Rivers was still plaguing many cities.
But the event was still taking place. Was it as important as life-saving medicine being transported through the worst storm in decades?
No…but both things still occurred.
“If it’s not a ball, what is it, Jelaqua?”
Seborn irritably adjusted the suit, tailored specifically for his human and crab-half. He looked sharp, and Moore and Ulinde were both outfitted in suits of their own. Ulinde had taken the body of a male Drake. Jelaqua…had been more calculating.
“A Walking-Waltz of Baleros. It is a Dullahan tradition, Seborn. You should be respectful.”
Moore kept his voice low as they entered the vast room booked for the occasion. Hundreds of Dullahans were present, all armored in their best attire. Most gleamed in steel suits with decoration; some had more expensive alloys, or, rarely, cloth armor or some other material instead.
“Remember, speak to the most expensive Dullahan first. Don’t make any rude comments—don’t slap them on the back!”
Jelaqua was fretful. Seborn rolled his eyes. Only she did that. He didn’t want to be here.
The Halfseekers were guests for two reasons: firstly, Jelaqua was from Baleros. They might have actually been invited just for that and their status as adventurers. Other Gold-rank teams were present too. But the second was simpler.
“Oh! Look at that. There’s Maughin.”
Jelaqua jumped. She stared ahead. The giant [Blacksmith] stood with a group of important Dullahans, his self-forged armor gleaming. He stood taller than anyone else in the room but Moore; a few of the Dullahans were taller than average, but no War Walkers were present.
The Selphid gulped. She had prepared for this event for over a week, fretted over it. That was why their attendance mattered.
Heads turned as the Halfseekers were quietly announced; unlike some Human events, there was no shouting here.
There was, however, music. It was very much like a ball. With some…changes.
Seborn saw Moore start and elbowed him. The half-Giant’s surprise was understandable. The Dullahan bodies were dancing, or getting food. Meanwhile, their heads rested in social circles, talking to each other on padded cushions.
It was the kind of thing only Dullahans could do.
“I’m—I’m going to Maughin. You all behave. Alright?”
Jelaqua walked forwards slowly as her team watched her go. This wasn’t their big event. But it was for her. Dullahans were turning their heads across the floor to look at her.
A Selphid. And Maughin politely took his head from the social circle he was in. Both body and head went to meet Jelaqua and they smiled at each other.
They were still together, after all this time. That was the…cause of the attention. Seborn glowered about. It had not been easy for Jelaqua or Maughin. Many Dullahans had assumed the fling would be that. And today, well, the relationship was on trial in this public event.
“This was a mistake. Jelaqua looks like she’s going to vomit.”
“Well, it’s fine. We don’t throw up much.”
Ulinde missed the point. She looked around, more relaxed than Seborn. Certainly more than Moore.
“Should we—find something to eat? We’re just standing here. Or do we join one of the…”
He eyed the Dullahan’s heads. They would definitely be outsiders there. Ulinde shrugged.
“We can’t socialize the same as Dullahans. I could remove my head, but it won’t talk—”
“Shut up, both of you. Let’s find a drink.”
Seborn led them away, towards one of the tables set up with food. He was watching Jelaqua as she greeted Maughin. Here—she was playing by the Dullahan’s rules. No kissing. No overt displays of affection—certainly not her hugging the Dullahan or chattering as she used to. It had annoyed Seborn on other days. Today, he was hoping she impressed the Dullahans.
“I wish I were back at sea. Then we could just sink the bastards.”
He muttered. Seborn thought he’d been so quiet only his team would hear, but Moore made a sound and looked past him.
“I wouldn’t say that around other Dullahans if I were you, Seborn.”
The [Rogue] whirled. He saw a four-legged [Mage] standing there, sipping from a cocktail. Palt winked at Seborn.
“Palt? You’re here?”
Ulinde was astonished. The Centaur [Illusionist] nodded.
“Ulinde—I’m from Baleros. Of course I got the invitation. I decided to attend. I er—brought a guest too. Not sure we’ll do much dancing, but she asked to come with when Erin—”
He coughed. The Halfseekers looked past him at Imani. The girl was staring around, and shuffling towards Palt. It surprised them to see her there, but the two were in the foreigner’s group, on the outside of the actual socialization.
Moore gave her a smile as he looked around. Imani looked relieved as she nodded to him, very Dullahan-like. The Halfseekers were on display as well. Palt was most at home here—he had lived among Dullahans before.
“Well, now that we’re here. We should dance a few times. I’ve got four left hooves—but that’s never stopped me.”
“Is it complex, Palt? Jelaqua had us memorizing dances…”
The Centaur laughed quietly and waved it away.
“Ulinde, this is a walking-waltz, not a Terandrian thing. Dullahans made it so you can dance in armor. It’s not hard. See?”
He nodded across the room. There was Jelaqua and Maughin. After a moment, they’d gone onto the floor to share the first dance, as couples should. Her team watched.
Jelaqua and Maughin. The [Blacksmith] looked used to the attention. Indeed, he was one of the more important Dullahans in Pallass. He could do little wrong among his people. Jelaqua?
The opposite. If silent hostility was a spell—it was about Tier 5 and directed on the Selphid. Palt watched Jelaqua sympathetically. This was her test.
“Jelaqua Ivirith. It is good to see you. Your attire is lovely.”
“It’s hardly armor. Thanks, Maughin.”
Her lips moved very little as she smiled up at him. The giant Dullahan and Selphid walked along the slow-moving pairs; the music was indeed meant for a very slow kind of dance. A harpsichord was playing along with the stringed instruments Balerosian and Dullahan music was known for. The cellist who had played for Tails and Scales was among the Dullahan performers.
Eyes were on Jelaqua, judging her for her performance here. That was why the Selphid had worked so hard on the last few days. She had even had to choose which body to wear.
It would have been a travesty to wear a Dullahan’s body, especially since it could no longer magically separate. The same went for a Raskghar, for all that made her tall and almost comparable to Maughin. In the end, Jelaqua had mulled it over and taken a female Human’s body, one of the few she had kept.
From the Siege of Liscor. It was an outsider’s form. That she acknowledged it openly won her some slow nods from Dullahans for the honestly of it. She’d chosen the tallest Human she could, but she was still mismatched with Maughin. He carried his head lower so they could talk, but it was still…
Jelaqua was afraid. Fear gripped her, a mortal terror, in the Gold-rank adventurer. It was so easy to kill monsters or risk her life. This was far scarier to her. Far harder. After all—she was a Selphid, unwanted among other species, especially as a partner.
She kept her chin raised, but she couldn’t suppress the faint orange blush in her skin. It glowed beneath the magical makeup that gave her skin a living flush.
Maughin made no comment on that. But, like Jelaqua, he was aware his words and actions were being watched.
“You look full of life, Jelaqua.”
She blushed deeper at the compliment.
“It’s just the makeup. S-shall we?”
The [Smith] nodded. He put his head on his shoulders, fastening it tight. Jelaqua saw he was the only Dullahan who was actually fully on the ballroom floor. The others were all able to socialize.
“Sorry. Let’s make it a quick dance.”
“These things shouldn’t be rushed, Jelaqua.”
He was right. That would just make them look bad if they didn’t take their time. Jelaqua flushed deeper. All eyes on her, she stepped out with Maughin, following the slow flow on the floor.
This was how the walking waltz took place between partners. They took each other’s arms gently, walking in a slow circle first, and then joined the slow procession. There was eloquence to it, but it was hardly the swift rotation, the complex pivots of Terandrian, Human waltzes. No one was about to try lifting each other into the air when both sides wore metal armor.
It was indeed something that didn’t take practice. Once you were in it, the pattern of the slow dance was obvious.
“So—so, is there anyone in particular I should meet? I’ve talked with your friends—maybe the [Diplomat] from the Iron Vanguard?”
“There’s no obligation, Jelaqua. You’re…trembling.”
“Am I? I’m just excited. Panicked? I never said that.”
The Selphid tried not to chatter. Their voices were low, as the headless bodies moved around them. They completed a circuit of the room; the inner pairs moved counterclockwise to the outside flow.
“You have nothing to worry about, Jelaqua Ivirith. Have you not attended the walking waltzes in Baleros? At least once or twice, surely.”
“Once or twice. But never as…a partner. Only a guest of honor. I don’t want to make a mistake, Maughin. I could ruin your reputation.”
The Selphid whispered. The Dullahan calmly looked around the room. Other Dullahans pretended to be engrossed in conversation, or eating.
“I see. Is that why you haven’t come to the forge the last four days?”
“We shouldn’t see each other before the walking-waltz.”
“That’s an old tradition, Jelaqua. No one observes it in Pallass. Who told you that?”
“I…just wanted to be traditional. Look, Maughin. I think we’re done. We can go mingle now. I’ll go to the other adventurers.”
The Dullahan’s head-platforms were, by design or unhappy coincidence, below the average head-level. It was…physically awkward to stand there and chat with the heads as a non-Dullahan. Jelaqua looked at the Halfseekers, standing by the food tables. She turned to leave the waltz.
Maughin stopped her. The [Smith] saw Jelaqua look back up at him. Her inner body was still faintly orange, running in lines through the pale body she wore.
“Jelaqua. There is no need for you to excuse yourself.”
“But your head should be…”
Maughin was conspicuously absent from the socialization. Kept, by his Selphid partner. The disapproving looks were obvious to both. The [Smith] looked around and shook his head.
He took her hands, gently.
“This event is for couples, Jelaqua. I never intended to socialize alone. They may wait until we are done.”
He lead her into another circuit of the dance. The Dullahans stirred, seeing Maughin keeping his head in place. Jelaqua could have danced with his torso, but he ignored the carrier who offered him a pillow to remove his head to be borne to the others.
“Wait? For how long?”
“As long as we take. Metal does not hurry, and neither shall we.”
Maughin ignored the stares. He remained there, with Jelaqua. For one movement around the room, and then the slow drift the other way as the music changed.
Twice, the carrier came to suggest Maughin join the social circles. Twice he refused. After ten minutes—it became obvious the [Smith] wasn’t going to leave Jelaqua. She stared up at him and he smiled.
Palt whistled. The Centaur saw the other Dullahans hesitating. It could have gone either way for the [Smith].
Could have—until another Dullahan [Smith]’s body walked over to the circle and excused himself. He placed his head on his shoulders and joined the dance as a whole. Someone else copied him.
Lorent, the [Sharpener]. He moved over to speak with Jelaqua and Maughin with his partner as they circulated the room. That precipitated a rush. Well—a slow movement. Soon, the Dullahans were dancing like…
Humans. Or any other species. Jelaqua looked up at Maughin with wondering eyes. He winked at her. She quietly laughed. And then—took his hand.
“I think our legs are tired. Come on.”
Fearlessly now, she took his hand and led him forwards to another group who had been standing apart.
Bevussa and the other adventurers. Maughin was reserved as the adventurers immediately bowed to the famed smith. But Jelaqua elbowed Bevussa and Keldrass with a laugh before she caught herself.
“Enough bowing! You all know Maughin. We’re here to have a grand time. Let us in. Don’t act all stiff—Maughin’s a Dullahan. He won’t tell your embarrassing secrets. Who’s shedding scales? Feathers, Bevussa?”
The Dullahan, standing among three Gold-rank teams, was at first quiet. Jelaqua was the one who drew him out of his armor. He smiled, even removed his head to chuckle and speak at head-height for the others.
Soon, she and the teams were laughing and talking before they rejoined the dance floor, Dullahans and non-Dullahans. When they stood together thereafter, it was relaxed. Jelaqua smiling, Maughin nodding to friends, introducing her, talking.
The solemn confidence of Dullahans, the goodwill of Selphids. They made a wonderful pair.
Moore turned away. It hurt to see, as happy as he was for Jelaqua. He was envious of…he looked at Maughin. And then down at the others in the room.
“I guess we’ve got no excuse not to dance.”
Seborn growled. He was standing with the adventurers, but more and more were entering the fray, so to speak. Palt and Imani were already on the very edge, trying to make his four legs work to limited success.
Normally, a Dullahan’s head would go to another and ask for the dance and their bodies would link up. Since both were attached in this moment—Seborn saw several pairs sharing a circuit of the room.
Two female Dullahans and an adventurer asked Seborn. With ill-grace but a certain elegance of footwork, he accepted. He came back to see Moore miserably standing like a statue.
“Moore. Ask someone to dance with you.”
The [Rogue] whispered to Moore. The half-Giant shook his head.
“I can’t, Seborn. I’ll stand out.”
“Don’t be an idiot. Maughin is right there. And he’s wearing damn armor. Tell you what. I’ll ask the next person who bothers me to—”
Moore nearly raised his voice. He looked mortified by the idea. Seborn snapped his claw quietly in irritation. This was the brothel-conversation all over again.
“I’ll dance with you, Moore.”
Ulinde offered. The Selphid had danced with six partners already. Seborn and Moore looked at Ulinde. The Selphid was in a male Drake’s body, wearing a suit. Moore’s face said it all.
“Thank you, but I’m not good at dancing, anyways. You should have fun, Ulinde. I’ll just…”
“Magus Moore? Would you care to walk the floor with this Dullahan?”
The adventurers turned. A female Dullahan wearing one of the ceramic armors that were all-decoration had approached with a friend. The other one invited Ulinde. Moore turned white.
He looked at Seborn. The [Rogue] nodded with a smile to the Dullahan and whispered out of the corner of his mouth.
“Go. Or I’ll have to dance with you.”
The half-Giant [Green Mage] hesitated. But he bowed, hesitantly. And followed the Dullahan onto the floor.
“It’s not hard. Don’t trip, Moore. You’ve danced over trap runes. Don’t trip…”
Seborn muttered under his breath as he watched Moore with considerably more anxiety than Jelaqua. Moore looked as though he’d forgotten how his legs worked. But it was not hard. The Dullahan girl was very graceful in her own way. They entered the floor and Jelaqua turned, seeing her friend.
Moore began stumbling along. He regained his footing—walked slowly. But his face, first white, had started turning red as the fires of an undersea volcano. The [Rogue] saw the half-Giant turning his head, seeing the smaller dancers…then snapping back to his partner.
He was distracted. Increasingly more distraught. Seborn watched, internally and externally cursing as the half-Giant radiated uncertainly.
Moore got halfway across the circuit when he bumped into another partner. Just the tiniest of nudges. He immediately whirled and began apologizing. Which not only slowed the dancers behind but—
Seborn saw Moore moving back from the confused Dullahan he was dancing with. He stepped away, shaking his head, face flushed.
“Moore! You didn’t do anything wrong. It’s fine—”
Jelaqua and Maughin followed Moore off the floor. The half-Giant looked like he was trying to cast [Invisibility].
“I shouldn’t dance, Jelaqua! I’m far too large. I’ll just stand here. Please—tell Miss Xerca I’m sorry and—”
He saw the Dullahan coming and froze up. Seborn stepped forwards—to kick Moore or help him apologize, he wasn’t sure. His friend looked miserable. About to burst into tears.
It was Maughin who turned to Moore and placed an armored hand on his shoulder. Moore started as the [Smith], the only person his size, looked Moore in the eye.
“Friend Moore, you are too self-conscious. Jelaqua and I dance together. Why should you stand alone?”
The Dullahan shook his head. He gestured towards the floor. The dancers were spreading out. Some were even waving at Moore. The half-Giant saw a Centaur moving around the room, murmuring to them.
“This dance was meant for War Walkers to spend time with the smallest of their kindred. We grow into our armor. You are not overtall here, friend. It would be an honor to dance with Jelaqua’s team. Join us.”
Maughin solemnly placed a hand on Moore’s shoulder. Jelaqua took Maughin’s arm. Ulinde had his partner—Seborn saw Bevussa flutter over. She winked at him as Palt and Imani joined.
“Adventurer Moore? Would you care to continue our walk?”
The female Dullahan walked over. Moore looked around.
“We’ll be around you. If you trip, you’ll fall on one of us. I’ve got your back, Moore.”
Bevussa nodded. Seborn saw the half-Giant take a deep breath. He bowed, shakily to the Dullahan.
“I…will, Miss Xerca.”
The four pairs entered the slow waltz. Moore was shaking, but Palt was waiting. The [Illusionist] had a merry look in his eyes. He and Imani were standing together—the spaced-out dancers calmed Moore down. But he was still a giant with Maughin and that bothered him most.
He looked around—and his friends stood around him. The [Green Mage] hesitated, and then he took a slow, steadying breath. He raised his arm and gently took the Dullahan’s.
Seborn exhaled softly. And he saw Palt smile. The Centaur [Illusionist] raised his wand and flicked it.
“A spell for courage, half-Giant.”
The [Rogue] saw—Bevussa staring at him. And he suddenly felt larger. He looked around, blinking. Suddenly—the dancers were all as tall as Maughin and Moore. The half-Giant looked around. There was laughing, brief applause. Palt took a bow and held out an arm to Imani.
“Well? You’re looking normal to us.”
Moore didn’t reply. He just blinked misty eyes and turned. The half-Giant danced, average among his peers.
The Walking-Waltz of Pallass’ Dullahans lasted for hours. Moore danced sixteen more times. It was, all things considered, a success that left most attending in good spirits.
It had nothing to do with the Couriers at sea except that it happened around the same time.
Seve-Alrelious watched his enchanted spear go down with the serpent. His palms were torn by the struggle.
The magic of his tattoos was fading. Four of his comrades lay dark against his skin. Not dead, but resting.
When he died, they would be freed. They might perish in this storm. Or to the hunters.
The clutch of Sea Serpents brought down Arveil. The Nelgaunt, a cross between a catfish and a whale in appearance, fought the lashing shapes as the serpents wrapped around the smaller creature, biting, constricting him. But the tearing jaws and snapping teeth found only air as Arveil vanished.
It made the Sea Serpents even angrier. They were hungry, having been chased from their hunting by the Kraken. They tore at the Armershed Dolphins. The pod fought, diving and leaping until they were defeated.
Sixteen. The Hundredfriends Courier fired a single spell into the storm, heedless of the danger it might attract. Half the serpents pursued the illusion he conjured, finding purchase in the fake ship’s hull. The Tier 5 spell distracted them, even scratched their scaly hides. But it vanished all too soon.
“The cure must reach Talenqual. We have sworn it, Erek.”
The ape stared at Seve, and nodded solemnly. The Courier looked at the lashing shapes pursuing the World’s Pact. Soon—the [Gale Winds] spell would run out. They’d been forced off Igawiz’s Jet after two days of encounters with the increasingly vicious nest.
They were so close. Seve looked at the glowing primate, who had steered the ship as he fought. Then he slowly removed the cure from the bag of holding.
“…If it comes to it, Erek, cling to Arveil’s back. He might flee.”
The ape made a sound as he watched Seve working. The Courier was taking the watertight crates filled with the precious mold. Tying them to…
An anchor. It would sink. And the second object he added to the tight nets was a beacon—a mana stone enchanted to be as obvious as possible to anyone who sensed mana.
It might attract a monster. But they would hopefully sense nothing edible. Seve made it ready. He looked behind him.
The wind spell ran out. The World’s Pact slowed. Seve drew the enchanted dagger he carried as a backup. Erek made a hooting sound and slapped his chest as the serpents roared.
“Tombhome guide me back one day.”
Seve-Alrelious thought of his city. He waited, as the waves grew taller. The last of his companions—some not suited for combat in water at all, leapt from his skin. A lion with glowing fangs. A trio of birds, each with feathers like jewels.
An angry ape, a Human from A’ctelios Salash armed with a dagger. The sea serpents closed in.
Seve heard a howl running through the waters. He braced—and a huge head emerged from the waters. Huge jaws of ivory snapped. Massive, ancient teeth tearing, biting.
The Hundredfriends Courier saw the—fish?—burst out of the water. A Sea Serpent’s neck in its jaws. The serpent was writhing, screaming as its purple-red blood stained the waters.
The Courier raised an arm as the two shapes landed and the water created another wave that swept his ship. Erek twisted the wheel; Seve felt them cresting a wave. He saw the serpent fighting—and then a second bone-fish emerge from the waves. It rammed into another serpent.
“What manner of monster is that?”
The first thought Seve had was that it was some kind of shark-whale with bone armor. Then he had a darker thought.
A giant undead mega-shark? He saw the thing surface again—and now, glimpsed a glowing light in the eyes.
Seve’s despair was a second behind a realization. That wasn’t a burning flame of the undead. It was a gentler light. The thing was—
The giant bone-ship snapped again and the serpent it was biting screamed and writhed out of its jaws at last. The ship turned, moving like a fish, the bones and…ancient hide of the ship moving like it had in life. Its eyes glowed—but not with death magic. Seve saw the flicker of magic.
The water boiled around the other serpents, forcing them back. There were two ships, attacking with the jaws of a long-dead giant predator. And from inside the vessels came more spells. The water boiled—one of the serpents was blasted back by a geyser. And then came lightning, forking down from the skies. It struck the serpents, driving them back.
The Hundredfriends Courier saw the serpents fleeing. Neither ship pursued; they cut towards him. But of course—he was laughing now—they wouldn’t have killed the serpents.
They were [Druids].
The first ship of the [Sea Druids] rose out of the water, like a Drowned Ship. The jaws opened and he saw a figure standing in the entrance. The Drowned Man had a trident instead of a staff. He was a huge figure and he bellowed at Seve.
“Courier. We have heard of your mission. The Sea’s Shepherds will escort you to land.”
Who had called them? The Courier didn’t know. But he and his companions were celebrating. Erek actually jumped ship to swing himself up onto the [Druid]’s bone-ship, with his endless curiosity. The two ships flanked the World’s Pact as they conjured a current to speed them forwards.
“Why did you come, friends of the Guardians of the Sea?”
Seve was honestly confused. He had expected other ships. But not the [Sea Druids]. Their leader gave him a grave look as he examined Erek’s opened mouth; the ape had a toothache.
“We are guardians of all life. Not just animals, but people. One of our order on land alerted us to your cause. You have them to thank.”
“One of you? But who?”
Nalthaliarstrelous visited the inn himself. Mrsha sat up as he looked at her. Then she leapt up and jumped on his chest to give him a hug. It took the two longer to explain to the others why she was so happy.
And then—they broke through the typhoon. Wistram’s reception was still poor and the flickering image on the scrying orb was poor despite the academy being out of the storm’s center.
But there they were. Sailing through still-raging waters, ahead of the slow-moving typhoon. Two ships of bone, flanking the small World’s Pact. Racing for Talenqual.
Geneva shouted. Daly held the scrying orb higher, as if trying to get a better reception. The Hundredfriends Courier had made it. A Courier had braved the storm.
And—it was not one, but four. Ryoka Griffin and Fierre stopped the cleanup of the Lischelle-Drakle farm to see.
Two more ships emerged from the storm within hours of the Hundredfriends Courier.
A four-masted ship, each one blown by the winds harnessed by the Four Winds of Teral, the faithful ship that had delivered for two centuries, in war and peace. And—next to it, an undersea vessel, surfacing, pulled by the giant Cerobster—the Courier and trading vessel of the Drowned Folk—Shellbazaar.
They had gone together, sheltering each other in the storm. Now—they raced towards the Iron Vanguard’s escort, daring a trio of ships which had been circling the storm to come after them. The Saverian [Pirates] hesitated.
The [Captain] of the Four Winds was a Selphid. She bellowed a message as her ship aimed spells and bows at the [Pirates] peeling away.
“We are coming. Make ports ready for cure.”
The Drowned Man [Captain] of Shellbazaar nodded and saluted her. His ship launched a harpoon through one of the [Pirate]’s sails from the single ballista they carried. The giant Cerobster snapped its claws as it swam, aided by the headwind.
“Let nothing in the world stop this delivery.”
Four Couriers. Two ships, one, the Hundredfriends Courier escorted by the [Sea Druids]. The last—was the Waterbear of Cerun.
She was alive. Ryoka saw her doggedly paddling through waves, keeping her head above the water as the [Scrying] spells found her. The Iron Vanguard was on an intercept course—but so were dozens of ships.
Four ships bearing a [Pirate]’s flag reached her first. Ryoka’s hands were clenched as Noass identified them.
The Bloodtear Pirates. Famed for their ruthlessness to their enemies. The Waterbear snapped and growled as they came closer. Ryoka saw the [Pirates] slinging down ropes, nets. She saw them haul the Courier up. And what they did to her—
The Siren of Savere watched the Bloodtear [Pirates] and the Waterbear. They were…toasting her with drinks until the waterlogged Courier was nearly sick. The Bloodtear Pirates turned their ships, aiming for the nearest port. They were cheering on the Courier as they chased Savere’s warships out of the way.
“Those damn idiots. I forgot that they’re as insane as my sister! That’s gold!”
The Bloodtear Pirates didn’t care. They admired those who did the impossible. The Waterbear finally knocked a mug out of one of the [Captain]’s hands and leapt into the water. She swam into the harbor as the [Pirates] fled.
They had made it. The first to Talenqual’s port was the Hundredfriends Courier himself. He leapt onto the docks as the [Sea Druids] turned their ships. Geneva was waiting in her clinic. Smiling. Luan and Daly helped clear the way for the Courier to run up the harbor and through the city.
Ryoka Griffin watched the other three Couriers making for major ports with their precious cargo. Some would go to the sick—the rest would be grown as fast as possible.
“That’s what it means to be a Courier.”
Her heart was still racing. Ryoka looked at Fierre. That was a Courier. Not just speed. Not just levels or equipment. It was the kind of delivery she respected. More than waking the Archmage of Izril—doing the impossible for a cause.
Geneva Scala met Seql’s friend. He was exhausted, wounded. But he had come, just as he promised. She still made him wait, despite him wanting to go in to his friend. So he shouted and the Dullahan boy looked up.
It was…a lesson, for Geneva. A bit of hope. When good people worked together—in this world—they could make miracles. Perhaps in any world. The [Doctor] slowly measured the first dosage of the cure, documenting methodology, doses, instructing the other [Healers] across Baleros to do the same.
The disease was not cured. But there was hope. Geneva Scala let out a breath she’d been holding for a long time. After a while—she relaxed, and went to sleep.
The Erannda Delivery, as it was dubbed by Wistram, was one for the history books. Sensational news, a real feel-good story. A testament to working together, even by [Pirates] and [Druids]. The earned reputation of Couriers, especially Sea Couriers.
The cure had reached Baleros. It was not an instant-fix, like a magical panacea—and even they had a few flaws sometimes—but the Last Light of Baleros could begin fighting back. She, with her Skills, had been able to stalemate the bacteria. Now, she could eradicate it.
Tyrion Veltras had no cure. The news and coverage of a continent’s woes was bitter to him. His sons were sick. The medicine, the antidote to what left them weaker day by day—he knew what could save them. But obtaining it was…
Good people working together could create miracles. So the opposite was true. He stood in his keep, looking at the Circle of Thorn’s message.
Twenty six [Alchemist] and [Healers]’ heads had been sent to him. The rest answered his calls with only silence. The Lord of House Veltras called for aid.
And heard only silence.
Author’s Note: I’ve been running low on steam. Time for my usual break!
Interestingly…I had another chapter planned for this. A much easier one. This was me going for broke. Because the concept grabbed me. Not just the desperate delivery amid a storm, but the ball. The two…in the same chapter?
Because they go together, obviously. I’m quite mentally tired. But I’ll be back to full-strength—hopefully—after the break. And get Volume 3 done as an e-book! Sheesh!
But I hope you enjoyed it. As always. The risk with web serials is that you really only get one chance with the readers who are following along. Revisions can make it better, but each chapter is a first-take. Probably not the best for a lot of writing. But it is…immediate. Still, we all get to wait for two updates. And that’s to make sure quality doesn’t slip too much! Like pants.
I’m going to rest for a bit. See you next time!
We have two amazing artists to feature today! pkay and mg! Both of them have created a lot of art which I feature on stream, but have shamefully neglected to feature in after-chapter thoughts because of all the different artists! Here’s the art they’ve come up with since their last feature! Much love to them!
[Minotaur Punch], Excalibur?, lightning Goblins and more by pkay!
Walled Cities, [Minotaur Punch], Goblins, card games, and Crelers by Mg!