(The Wandering Inn, Volume 3 – Part 1 is up on Amazon! It took a little bit to get through the review process, but it’s for sale right now! And the audiobook will hopefully begin work in January! Remember, this is Part 1 of Volume 3, not the entire Volume! Look for Author’s Notes for why that is and thanks for reading!)
Sometimes, you just had to wake up in the middle of the night to pee. It was a common phenomenon that varied in regularity depending on the bladder strength and deepness of sleep between people. But almost everyone experienced the need to get up and urinate, especially if they’d had too much liquid and not enough pre-sleep restroom time.
This was not normally a problem. However, exceptions occurred, such as being camped on the edge of a mountain’s cliff, sleeping in close proximity to a monster or group of people hunting for you, and so on. This was where the danger quotient of nightly urination came in.
In a certain Centaur’s case, the problem with night-peeing was stairs.
Stairs, the bane of four-legged beings such as himself, especially when said stairs were made for two-legged people. It bothered Palt.
“Moore gets a custom outhouse and chairs and tables, and no one can build a damn ramp?”
The Centaur kept his voice low as he tried to navigate down the stairs, sometime between dawn and midnight. He wished, for a moment, that he had Erin’s affinity with the [Garden of Sanctuary]. He was allowed in, but…
But he didn’t have the ability to sprint at a wall, leap through, and come hurtling back out into any destination without fear of snapping his neck. Like Mrsha, Erin, and a few others had. Palt thought it was about trust—how much you were ‘part’ of the inn—and so on. It would have really been helpful for moments like these.
In fact, Palt had a small inn-secret on that topic, value uncertain, which was that Numbtongue didn’t even use the garden as a shortcut down to the outhouse if the nightly urge struck him. He just walked into the garden and peed there, usually in the jungle biome. A fact Erin Solstice might not appreciate…
Palt nearly slipped going down the stairs and caught himself on the handrails—at least the inn had them—with a muffled curse. This was not fun. And he had no desire to be found in a tangle of broken legs and perhaps a broken neck the next morning, or wake up half the inn by falling down. Everyone still gave him grief over falling on Erin. As if he wasn’t mortified.
Of course, it was ironic that a talented, accomplished [Illusionist] and [Mage] of Wistram had so many problems emptying his bladder. In theory, Palt had a lot of ways to accomplish this without navigating stairs.
Teleport yourself outside? Magically empty your bladder? Fly out the window?
You see, the thing about laypeople was they thought magic worked like that. All those ideas were stupid—Palt knew because he’d thought over each one in times like this before.
Firstly—Palt clung to a railing as he gingerly felt with his front left hoof for a good spot to lower himself onto—teleportation took a lot of concentration and magical-math. You had to know your coordinates, calculate—a single wrong spell and you’d end up twenty feet up in the air. Or try to teleport twenty feet into the ground.
Well, modern teleportation spells were good about preventing that, but trying to cast [Lesser Teleport] while distracted, sleepy, and so on wasn’t fun and it was a lot of work. Still a good desperation move, but…Palt would rather pee into a chamber pot first.
Emptying your bladder with magic was even dumber. Firstly, Palt was not confident enough to teleport a liquid out of his body. Or siphon it? And what would he do with it, shoot it out the window? Just get a damn chamber pot! Again—Palt needed to buy one. He was not about to ruin his bag of holding over—
Someone was awake downstairs. The Centaur’s rant about how he couldn’t cast [Levitation] and how would he fit through a window came to a stop as his sleep-addled mind focused on someone sitting in The Wandering Inn’s common room.
The Human [Aegiscaster] was sitting in a chair next to a table. She…was sitting by a candle. Nothing magical, no [Light] spell. She didn’t really react as Palt finally got to the floor and trotted over.
“It’s late. I didn’t expect to see you up.”
“Is that you, Palt?”
Montressa finally turned her head and stared at him, sounding very far away. Palt stopped in front of her. He recognized her vacant look at once. Also—the smell.
“Have you been smoking? That’s not one of my cigars.”
The young woman blinked at Palt.
“…Are you here, Palt?”
The Centaur [Illusionist] stared at Montressa. He felt at his face.
He just wanted to go to the outhouse. But that kind of question deserved some kind of answer.
“Yes, Montressa. Is something the matter?”
The [Mage] nodded slowly. Then hesitated—and nodded again. Hesitated—nodded once more…
“Did I nod?”
“Yes. Three times.”
“Really? I don’t think I did. Did I?”
The Centaur looked around. He did a little dance on his hooves, and then sighed.
“I can see this is going to take a moment. Give me five—give me one minute. I need to pee.”
The Centaur hurried out of the common room. Lesson #1 of Palt Crisis Management: go pee first. You never knew when things would get hairy and how long you’d be caught up.
“I don’t believe…tomorrow is real. Or yesterday. It’s a huge problem, Pelt.”
Montressa stared blankly at the Centaur. She spoke, very determinedly, trying to get something across to him.
He was feeling more relaxed, less urgent. Now, Palt could decipher why one of his friends was sitting in the common room, looking—well—stratospheric at the moment.
“You don’t believe what’s real, Montressa?”
“Everything. Is—am I a [Mage] of Wistram?”
“Yes…are you doubting that?”
The [Mage] nodded seriously and gave Palt a wide-eyed look.
“I don’t believe it’s real. I know it should be! But—did I really meet this [Necromancer] character who got kicked out of school? And a half-Elf? And…and…and…is Wistram really ruled by Golems? That’s…not real, is it?”
“According to most people, yes. What have you been smoking?”
Palt liked to think he knew drugs. You could even call him a bit of an expert on the subject. And this looked like a Grade-A bad high to him. He checked Montressa’s eyes, the way she was unsteady as she tried to track him with her entire body…
“Not Dreamleaf, then. Same family, though. Might be Arrowsmoke. Montressa, this is important. What were you smoking? Eating? Where’s Bezale?”
It bothered him Montressa had clearly been in touch with something strong and chemical—and it hadn’t come from him! What was the point of travelling with Palt if you weren’t going to make him your source of cigars, edibles, and so on? Disloyalty, that was what it was. And here was the result.
“She’s…somewhere. I think. Is she real?”
The Centaur resisted the urge to smack his friend. It might help, though. Him, at least. He raised a fist and then sighed.
“Montressa, who gave you this? It wasn’t me. Eaten, drunk? Some other method of ingestion?”
His rollups and so forth were calibrated to avoid this scenario. He didn’t usually sell anything this strong to clientele. If it was…edibles as opposed to his usual smoking merchandise, it was to a discerning customer.
“Smoking. I mean…we thought it’d be fun. Look, Pelt.”
“Palt. I will hit you.”
“We were trying to have fun. It’s just—it was him. We were coming back from Pallass and he said…him said…”
The Centaur thought of the one person who might conceivably have the semi-illegal drug—especially in the Walled Cities. He groaned as it all made sense.
“Oh, no. You don’t mean…Saliss?”
“I’m almost certain he’s not real. I mean, he was pretty real, but who’d believe a naked Drake is the Named Adventurer of Pallass?”
The Centaur put his head in his hands.
“There are others. Saliss is just the most permanent. Dead gods damnit, Montressa! Are you insane? I wouldn’t smoke anything Saliss handed me!”
“It was just a…puff? Only a few.”
Montressa tried to defend herself. The Centaur decided Montressa needed her head dunked in some cold water, food, and company. Not necessarily in that order. He also needed to find Bezale. He stood up and shook his head at Montressa. Talk about stupid ideas.
“You smoked something that an [Alchemist], Saliss of Lights, personally uses for his enjoyment. And you thought nothing would happen?”
“Palt…Palt…it wasn’t just me. Bezale thought it was a good idea too. I think she was there.”
The Centaur closed his eyes.
“I know. Was anyone else with you?”
“Oh, slap a saddle on me—where is she?”
“I’m—doing the same thing over. I just did that. Didn’t I?”
Octavia Cotton, [Alchemist] and Stitchgirl, looked blankly at the rows of glowing potions. A Minotauress, half-unconscious, jerked a bit.
That was all she really said. Octavia stared blearily at her shop’s rows of potions behind glass.
She was counting and recounting the ingredients in her stocks. Going down the inventory, then checking again because she didn’t believe she’d actually done it. She was aware…she’d done this about twenty two times. But she couldn’t stop.
At her level of narcotic intake, reality became fiction. Also—time slowed down. It wasn’t that Octavia moved faster, it was that the world was on a loop. She felt like she’d been sitting here for years. And yet she didn’t believe she was sitting down. Or that her name was Octavia. Or…
Palt delivered all of this in a whisper into Erin’s ear as the [Innkeeper] stared at the two victims sitting in the dark shop.
“We should get them into light, get them something to do. Stare at leaves in your garden, maybe.”
“And they’re high.”
“They’re…intoxicated. A drug, smoked, ingested, alcohol or anything else is a foreign substance, Erin.”
“Is this what people enjoy?”
The [Innkeeper] put her hands on her hips. The [Illusionist] sighed. He had two clear cigars which would sober up people—except they’d only halved Montressa’s high. Whatever Saliss had given them was a grade above what Palt sold. He hoped they still had the cigar lying about.
“Not to this extent. I think Saliss er—forgot that his relaxatives aren’t what normal people would enjoy. Or even casual users like Bezale and Montressa.”
Erin blinked a few times as Octavia tried to count the line of potions again. She rubbed at her sleepy eyes, then raised a fist.
“If I hit you, will this make my problems go away?”
Palt nervously sidled away from the fist.
“Not my fault! It was Saliss—”
“This is what comes of having drugses in my inn! Is she going to be okay?”
“In a day or two at most, yes.”
“A day or—where is Saliss? I’m gonna kill him!”
“Let’s see. A bushel to a solid ounce is…dead gods, I hate math. If I buy two point four bushels…let’s call that two point four six, and divide it into solid ounces…multiply the gold, silver is twenty per one gold piece…that’s a profit of…divide per hour…and here’s my math.”
Saliss of Lights removed the purple cigar from his lips as he worked with an abacus on a math problem. He was trying to calculate the most profitable potion to mass-produce in the next few days, and deriving gold-per-hour equations rather than just what each potion sold for.
It was the level of math which required advanced mathematical knowledge because not only were there unit conversions involved, but each alchemical ingredient had a cost, potions tended to devalue themselves the more you made of them, oh, and you had to remember that it was ten copper or bronze coins per silver coin, but twenty of them per gold piece.
And [Merchants] gave discounts in bulk. Saliss flicked a few beads on the abacus and scribbled down the number in the column. He puffed again and exhaled.
The same cigar that had downed two [Mages] and his apprentice [Alchemist] was nearly out. Saliss was pleasantly content to do something as tedious as math; not impaired yet.
Neither was the Drake rolling his eyes and puffing on the same brand of cigar. Not because he was more intoxicated than Saliss; long years of experience had given Mirn a level of toxicity resistance that even other [Alchemists] lacked—to this particular brand of drug, at least.
“Math, Saliss, is a chore. I don’t know how you can stand doing all those numbers.”
“Years of keeping books. Apprentice yourself to an [Alchemist], Mirn. The smart ones keep track of their numbers. The stupid ones don’t know how much they have or where everything’s kept.”
“And yet, some of the stupid ones create miracle potions.”
The [Alchemist] exhaled a plume of purple particles that hung in the air in the dive bar they were eating a…meal in. Breakfast? Dinner? It was the pre-dawn food those who kept odd shifts or no schedule at all knew.
“Those are the same [Alchemists] who can’t figure out how they made said miracle potion and spend the next decade trying to replicate it because they didn’t take notes, Mirn.”
Mirn settled back and contented himself with a few more puffs. It was rare, for him and Saliss to be in the same place.
Onieva, now, Mirn knew. Onieva was a friend, a regular client/confidant who usually came by to get drunk, complain, and help…the cause. Mirn’s moving bar, which had no name, no set location, and no clients. If you asked about who came to the bar that was already a sign for Mirn to get a club ready to bash your brains in.
It was a place for nobody. Especially people that Pallass officially didn’t have.
Turnscales. That was Mirn’s job. But Saliss…
Well, it wasn’t Saliss who was sitting across from Mirn right now. Not the obvious, yellow-scaled [Alchemist] and Named Adventurer, Saliss of Lights, Saliss the Naked, the Insane [Alchemist] of Pallass.
This Drake was portly, having a lot of extra weight, middle-aged, with dark green scales, and a long coat, opened for the night’s heat, and clothing. Not Saliss at all. But because it wasn’t Onieva, he was still Saliss.
Onieva was only one person. Anyways, the reason the two were sitting together was because Saliss was business. Mirn had a bag stuffed with gold burning a hole in his side. Funds—and sixteen potions he wouldn’t have had access to in Pallass’ army, even if he’d been promoted three ranks.
“Everything going well with the potions game? I don’t check in.”
“It’s fine. I’m on a breakthrough. Just trying to fund it.”
The Named Adventurer spoke briefly, grimacing and crossing out a potential potion. Mirn raised his brows. It had to be something if Saliss was counting coins.
“I haven’t seen Onieva around.”
Only then did Saliss look up. And Mirn—for a second their eyes met.
Old friends. Mirn had known his old friend before Saliss had gone to Chandrar to study abroad. Onieva had come back. Saliss, to quote Onieva, was the adventurer, the [Alchemist].
The unhappy one. The one who was Pallass. Oh, people talked about how Saliss of Lights was a public nuisance, a nudist, a disgrace…but they’d not have tolerated the Named Adventurer if they were really all that.
Other cities had Named Adventurers who were proper, entire disgraces like Shriekblade. No one talked about them. They were managed, and not given the free lease Saliss was.
Saliss of Lights was both annoyance and hero at times. The Wyvern attack had been the last big proof of that. Anyways, the thing was…
Mirn looked away. Old friends they were, but Saliss scared the daylights out of Mirn sometimes. Onieva told him stories about what Saliss did that kept Mirn up at night.
“Anything else you need, Mirn?”
“That magic door in Liscor?”
The [Alchemist] smiled.
“Not for sale. Not even old Xif could get ahold of that.”
“Pity. You know what we could do with a door like that…?”
“You mean, not a bar a thousand feet underground that—”
Saliss looked up and sighed. He leaned on one claw, a pudgy, alchemically-wrought face suddenly serious.
“Nothing, Mirn. Because Pallass can tell where teleportation spells are. Liscor—you could hide for a while. Pallass? You’d be painting a huge target on your back.”
Mirn felt an unpleasant chill run down his scales. He scratched at one arm to settle the sensation.
“Ancestors. You didn’t think to mention that?”
“You’ve never tried it before. Onieva would have brought it up.”
Back to the numbers Saliss went. Mirn shifted.
Neither one was going to do anything as social as bring up the past. What had been said—again, Onieva was the social one who’d complain or cry or rage. Mirn picked at the wyvern steak—rather cheap and plentiful even so long after the attack thanks to storehouses that preserved the meat. He looked around, a habit, for watching eyes.
The dive bar they were in was cheap, unobtrusive, and both Drakes were used to making sure no one was following them. And even if there was some kind of [Spy] in the room?
They…might be in trouble. Saliss saw a glassy-eyed [Server] leaning against a wall. Two customers were talking in that space-out way about…the future…
“I think we’ve just contaminated this entire bar.”
Mirn exhaled another plume of glittering haze. Second-hand it might be, but it was enough to affect everyone else. Saliss copied him.
“Good point. Let’s split. Onieva will get in touch. Where now?”
“4th Floor. Unless we have to move twice.”
They left it at that. Mirn walked out and vanished into Pallass. The other Drake remained a while. He left a large tip; enough to delight the disoriented [Server]. Then he too walked out.
It was an unfriendly goodbye. Saliss dwelled on that for a little while as he gulped down a potion and felt his body shift.
The issue was not that Mirn was any less…Mirn when Saliss was Saliss. But it was just—different. Worse, really.
Saliss felt worse in his scales when he was around Mirn and it wasn’t his friend’s fault. Only that Saliss knew who he should be and it was never stronger then.
Well—a few moments later, a Drake emerged from an alleyway. He took a few breaths, then stretched.
“Ancestors, I’m tired!”
The Drake strode down the street, with considerably more energy than before. Being a pudgy Drake slowed you down. He hopped through a radius of light coming from a magical streetlamp, feeling lighter.
The streets of the City of Invention were never entirely empty. A few passersby hurried about their business—not with fear, but with that instinctual reluctance some species had to attract attention at this point in the day.
Saliss had no such inhibitions. He strode forwards. At one point he passed by a trio on patrol.
They reacted to Saliss warily. One Garuda muttered.
“Nak—oh. Alchemist Saliss.”
Their faces changed from bored tiredness to wariness at the nudist approaching them to wary resignation. ‘Please don’t make our lives any harder’, was the impression they were desperately trying to send Saliss.
The Drake considered it. But it was late, and even Saliss needed to sleep. So he just pointed two finger-claws at the [Guards].
“Keep guarding stuff, [Guards]!”
They stared at the finger-guns Saliss had picked up from Erin. He chortled and gyrated into the night. Saliss did have fun, contrary to what Mirn believed.
For instance, just half an hour later, Watch Captain Qissa paused in the beginning of her day-shift and looked up at the Drake posing in the doorway. She closed her eyes.
“No. Get out. Please?”
“Don’t be like that, Qissa! Aren’t we friends? You arrest me, I dance naked in public—we have a relationship!”
Saliss slid through the doorway. The Watch Captain saw the desk-sergeant giving her a hopeless look. In theory, 6th Floor’s Watch could have stopped or arrested Saliss. But they only did that now and then and the [Alchemist] was one of Pallass’ assets.
The desk sergeant and other [Guards] left the sacrificial Watch Captain to her fate. Qissa resigned herself to a long day. If there were omens for how your shift was going to go—a naked Named Adventurer before dawn was a bad one.
“Alchemist Saliss, please tell me you haven’t melted something.”
“Destroyed public property?”
“Offended a foreign dignitary? Killed or discovered a monster? Caused a public disturbance?”
Qissa brightened up as Saliss shook his head to the most-common reasons he’d appear in her office. She saw the Drake dig around in a belt pouch.
“Actually, Qissa, the reason I came here was…tada!”
He slapped something on the table. The Watch Captain craned her neck to see…rows of numbers and little names of potions. Saliss half-crawled onto the desk and looked pleadingly up at her. She resisted the urge to shove him off.
“Please check my math? I’m bored. Also, the Merchant’s Guild is closed.”
Qissa, resigned, looked at the Drake lying on her desk. Out of all the Watch Captains in Pallass—why her?
She knew why. Pallass was many times larger than Liscor and had multiple Watch Captains per day/night cycle. There were at least four on duty at any given time and Pallass had a Watch Commander. However, Saliss of Lights had different relationships with each one and he ‘liked’ Qissa.
It was advantageous to have the Naked Drake of Pallass as a friendly figure, not an unfriendly one. Saliss could be uncooperative if he chose to be. So, Qissa reached for the list with a sigh. And like so many of Saliss’ antics, she saw the method behind the annoyance.
“Potions? Potion of Blaze, Potion of Barkskin, Potion of—”
They were combat potions. Saliss’ specialty. The Drake stared at the [Alchemist]. He was now lying face-down on the floor.
“I’m tired. What?”
“Alchemist, what are these numbers?”
The Watch Captain picked up an empty inkwell, threw it at Saliss, and watched with resignation as he rolled and it missed him. She decided to get her answers from the paper and went down the columns. After a moment, she reached for her abacus and a quill.
“The numbers…look right.”
Five minutes later, Qissa concluded that it was sound math. And—based on the numbers, the [Alchemist] was about to make a thousand such potions. Or more! That was the sum he was using to calculate, though.
“Thanks, Qissa. They’re good numbers. Which one earns the most?”
According to his calculations, the most cost-effective was the Potion of Arrowshield. Qissa knew that one. You took a drink, and you had a second ‘skin’ or shield that would deflect some arrows. It wasn’t as great as it sounded; if you tried to walk through a volley of arrows you’d still get stuck, just less.
“All of these potions are lower-grade, Alchemist. Are you intending to sell them to Pallass? The Watch?”
The Drake had been sleeping—or just resting on his face. Now, he swiveled and like some nude model, propped his chin on one elbow as he posed on the floor, facing her with a grin. Qissa didn’t even blink. The nudity you got used to.
“Do you think I can get a larger fee for one of them?”
Ah. So that was why he was here. The Watch Captain blinked. Then she reviewed the lists.
“We…could really use Potions of Barkskin. Potions of Blaze would be army-only. Not that it wouldn’t sell four thousand—”
She shuddered. Imagine fighting Pallass’ 2nd with four thousand potions tossed at you by [Slingers]? Well, they did have heavy alchemical support. Saliss winked at her.
“But would I get more for Potions of Barkskin?”
Qissa hesitated. She pushed the paper back across the desk and the Drake rolled over until he could sit up and snatch it.
“I’d consider it a bonus for the Watch, Adventurer Saliss.”
She tried to speak to the Drake currently lying right below the eye line of the desk. It was certainly true. The Watch had to handle local monsters in conjunction with the 1st Army—and it was just as often a luckless [Guard] who had to fight a sewer monster instead of the army, which tackled bigger local threats. A quality Potion of Barkskin, the kind Saliss could make rather than a Level 16 [Alchemist] who’d just learned the recipe?
Incomparable. An [Alchemist]’s brews got stronger with their levels, and a Potion of Barkskin made by Saliss was as good as a lesser [Alchemist]’s Potion of Ironscales. Well—close.
“Interesting. Interesting. I’ll give it some thought! Thanks for checking my numbers, Qissa. Ooh! I got the prices on Potions of Arrowshields wrong? This is why you’re the Watch Captain.”
Qissa said nothing. If she rose to the bait—any of it—he’d just stick around to annoy her. She watched the Drake roll across the floor, still refusing to get up. He opened the door, slithered out on his front. Then he shuffled around—rolled down the hallway.
Thwap, thwap. Qissa heard his tail slapping the floorboards with each rotation. Then Saliss went down the stairs, thumping…it sounded like he rolled out the door of the Watch House.
The Watch Captain sat back. She wrote down a message to the other Day Captains, telling them to hold off buying Potions of Barkskin in the near future, and to the Watch Commander, advising him there might be an opportunity to buy some quality potions if the Watch was willing to invest their potions budget for the next few months into the buy. She called for a Street Runner, and sat back with a sigh.
All in all—that had been one of the best Saliss-visits to date. Even so, she stretched as the sun rose and she walked over to the little bulletin with a sigh. She crossed out the hopeful tally—which had been ‘eighteen’, and marked it to ‘zero’.
Days since a Saliss incident: 0
Watch Captain Zevara and Liscor might think their insane Human was the worst. But Pallass had the original.
Saliss got bored of rolling after about three hundred feet and got up. He rubbed at his back, stretched, and laughed.
Life was good right now. Or rather, it had the potentiality to be good. Amazing. New potion ingredients, a fun inn…for Saliss, it was as good as it got.
Day by day, that was the most Saliss asked for. Not fame, artifacts—perhaps fortune—but this was as close to an ideal as the [Alchemist] wanted. Because he was an [Alchemist]. An adventurer sought more artifacts because that was how they got stronger. A [Warrior] could train, but they really leveled by hitting things. Saliss lived to experiment and create.
Anyways, they were exciting times. A door to Invrisil, that interesting Human and her friend—neither of whom had levels—that Saliss had briefly seen, a Courier, and Erin Solstice herself. The [Alchemist] hummed as he skipped up towards the 9th floor and his shop. He used the grand staircase; it was good exercise.
Someone passed by Saliss at speed as the [Alchemist] climbed. He registered a screaming Gnoll clinging to a rather large board with four wheels crash on the 7th floor and wipe out, taking half a dozen pedestrians with him. Saliss heard the Watch rush to the scene, saw the Gnoll flee—he had been wearing a padded helmet and armor—and his friends cheering him on before running as well.
“I really want to try that.”
The Named Adventurer grinned. Oh yes, life was even better of late for all the fun things happening. He’d ask about it when he visited the inn—he did so at least every other day, now. He felt like he was missing out if he didn’t check at least that often. Just a quick nap and then…
“Alchemist, Alchemist Saliss!”
The [Alchemist] sighed. And here came a Drake he knew well.
The [Salesman] looked hurt. Saliss gave him a patient smile.
“What does the Merchant’s Guild want this time, Chesy?”
The younger Drake was the newest victim appointed to his position. Saliss, as an [Alchemist], had all kinds of people who wanted to sell things…that he’d made. Chesri was the latest in the line of many liaisons to Saliss on behalf of [Merchants], [Auctioneers], and so on, who inevitably quit. Mainly because you had to first find Saliss to convince him to do something and that sometimes meant camping outside of his laboratory for weeks on end.
Which Chesri had done. The Drake was persistent—and as always, he had something that would make his masters and perhaps Saliss a lot of money.
“Alchemist, I am so glad I caught you. This business in Oteslia—”
“The [Strategists], Alchemist! The ones from Baleros? The Titan’s students?”
“Um…doesn’t ring a bell.”
Saliss lied. Of course he knew. Chesri hurried after him and Saliss picked up the pace. Time to get to his laboratory and shut the door while he napped.
“Alchemist Saliss! Please, just hear it out. It’s fantastic publicity for Pallass—and a handsome sum for the cure! The students have been getting other [Alchemists] to attempt the cure, and they have had some success, but if you consented to perfecting the antidote—”
“I don’t wanna.”
“Alchemist, you are the leading figure in the city! We’re projecting an income of—”
Saliss started running. Chesri ran, panting figures after Saliss. The Named Adventurer shouted over his shoulder.
“I told you no the first five times, Chesri! Get Xif to do it! He’s great at boring jobs!”
His voice might have woken up people—if the [Alchemists] of the 9th floor ever slept. Saliss raced for his secret laboratory’s entrance as Chesri ‘tripped’ on a pebble someone threw under his foot. He sprawled.
“We approached him, Alchemist! But if you’d—”
The door shut and Saliss breathed a sigh of relief. Vultures! At least it was only Chesri. Sometimes you could get eleven of them following you about; the young Drake was new and thus persistent. Why did they want multiple cures, anyways? Maybe…ah.
“Multiple cure-alls for Drowned People’s blowfish poison probably sell really well at sea. Or they can charge premium for the best one. Or they want me and Xif out of the way and competing…”
The [Alchemist] sighed. He stretched in his laboratory’s ‘living room’, where he kept stores of snacks, the more fragile objects not stored in his blast-proofed working environs, and other important paraphernalia. He tossed the spreadsheet onto a bench. Potions of Barkskin it was. He’d put in the order later today. As for the cure—
“Someone else can make it.”
It wasn’t as if they needed perfection. If they knew the formula, you could get dozens of Pallass’ [Alchemists] to make it. Chesri and his employers just wanted the attention. Saliss sighed.
“Now what do I do? Make the second Potion of Reverse Aging and see if the first has worn off? Have another go at the Potion of Youth with the flowers? Harass Erin’s new friends? Wait…did Octavia and those two [Mages] who wanted me to sell my stuff in Liscor have one of my cigars?”
Saliss vaguely remembered that. He wondered if something entertaining had happened and rubbed his claws together. He could do all of that! And but for the Potion of Reverse Aging, Octavia’s shop had all the tools he needed too!
The Wandering Inn was the place to be. The Drake liked it there. Saliss liked it there. Humming, he looked around for something interesting. He always had his supplies of potions in his custom-made belt, but…Ryoka Griffin was interesting. Was she just like the Admiral of Supply in Zeres? Or…had she beaten his [Eyes of Appraisal] like that strange Antinium?
The Drake wandered past the single chair he liked to doze in, next to an empty bag of chocolate and a glowing piece of parchment. He rummaged around for some extra gold—then backtracked.
Glowing piece of parchment? That—wasn’t supposed to be there. Saliss stared at it.
His smile vanished.
Saliss’ laboratory was harder to get into than most places in Pallass. Grimalkin’s home was probably easier to break into. Especially because the [Sinew Magus] considered that magical protections were amply backed up by a punch from him.
Grimalkin couldn’t have broken in here in the time Saliss had been gone. The [Alchemist] did not play games with his secret formulas and recipes. Octavia couldn’t have gotten back in, even though she was his apprentice. That master-[Thief] that kept hanging around Erin’s inn, even though he had a ring that kept Saliss from seeing his exact level?
None of them could have gotten in. Only one other person had free access to enter and leave this place. And that was…the reason he’d have walked in here…
Saliss stared at the glowing piece of parchment. He did not want to read it. He knew what it meant. But he did read it anyways. He read the note, wished he hadn’t, and then abandoned his plans.
Determinedly, Saliss found a white cigar in a special box—to prevent it from actively decaying when exposed to regular air. He took it, lit it with a breath of oxygen, and then found Firebreath Whiskey. An entire bottle. He looked at the note—a summons, really, with a date and time. Then he did his damnedest to forget he’d ever seen it. It was calling for Saliss. Not the [Alchemist], not Saliss the Nude.
Saliss, the Adventurer.
It was time for something exciting. A big event. Something dramatic, that would change things. If that was vague, it was because the idea, if not the minutiae, was spreading across multiple factions at the same time.
Look at where we are now. Look at all this potential. Time to do something about it, y’know?
…Well, ironically, one of the people who didn’t feel this way was Erin Solstice. Saliss also qualified—that feeling of ‘it is time’ was for those who were discontent with the way things were.
The Archmage of Izril was awake, the door was connecting cities. It was today. The reasons differed.
For instance, the blue Antinium hiking out of the Free Antinium’s Hive had her own reasons for taking a walk. She had a slice of pie she was nibbling at.
“Pie. We did not have pie. We should bring this back.”
She was going on a little walk. An outing. That was remarkable in itself because Xrn did not normally do such things. But it was today.
Also—someone had arrived that Xrn had been waiting for. Oh, for a while. A short time, compared to the long time she had waited. But with some impatience.
The sun was still rising as the Small Queen walked up the hill towards the inn. She saw a Worker happily singing to birds, luring them in, and smiled.
After an interesting encounter with a white Gnoll, the Small Queen walked upstairs. She scared the hell out of an [Architect], and found the right door with magic. She walked in.
“Mrsha, I’m really t—”
Ryoka Griffin looked up and saw a giant blue bug smiling at her. She froze.
“Ryoka Griffin. Hello. My name is Xrn.”
The City Runner stared at the Centenium as Xrn walked forwards. She tensed up, opened her mouth—
Xrn tapped her on the head. Ryoka felt her heart skip a beat—
Mrsha raced into the room, determined to find the fascinating Antinium and find out what she was up to! She looked around.
…Where did Ryoka and Xrn go?
The Small Queen stood on the grass, and looked back at the inn in the distance. Ryoka, sitting in the exact same position as she’d been on her bed, started. She scrambled to her feet.
“Let us go for a walk, Ryoka Griffin.”
The Wandering Inn was busy as the sun rose. Of course, Erin wasn’t in the middle of serving guests. She and Palt had spent all night helping Montressa, Octavia, and Bezale detox from the Saliss cigar incident. Now, she was yawning.
An hour’s sleep would be two hours. So…two hours would be four. Was two hours good? Erin was trudging upstairs when Mrsha ran over to her, panting and signing rapidly.
“What is it, Mrsha? Is Ryoka not feeling well?”
Erin blinked as Mrsha told her multiple things.
“Blue Antinium…Xrn? And Ryoka’s gone?”
The [Innkeeper] blinked. Of course, Ryoka could have just gone for a morning run or something. But Mrsha was insistent. Xrn had come into the inn and Mrsha had maybe tried to steal a morsel and been glued to the ceiling—
And then—the little Gnoll waved her paws to get Erin on track of what really mattered—and then she’d followed Xrn after the spell had worn off and Xrn had been in Ryoka’s room, she was sure of it! Mrsha had been hot on her heels but both were gone!
Erin sensed shenanigans. She narrowed her eyes. Neither Xrn nor Ryoka were in the inn—and Erin’s [Dangersense] wasn’t going off, but she knew the Small Queen.
“Xrn’s pushy. Can you tell where Ryoka went?”
No. Mrsha shook her head. Ryoka’s scent had vanished. As if she’d disappeared. Erin rubbed at her head.
“Okay. Okay, let’s get Palt. And maybe Bird has seen something? And Pawn, or another Antinium…”
She hoped it was just Xrn doing something silly-but-not-serious. Because Erin was not in the mood for more drama!
And unfortunately, both Montressa and Bezale were down for the count so Palt was the only accomplished [Mage] who could help Erin. He was only too ready to help—right up until he heard ‘Xrn’ and ‘find Xrn’ in the same sentence.
“Um. Erin. You mean the—Small Queen of the Antinium?”
Erin was briskly arming herself with her standard ‘in case of anything’ gear. Frying pan, knife, acid jar. Mrsha was inspecting her gear too—Erin saw Lyonette sneak up and grab her.
“Oh no. Not this time.”
Mrsha the Ryoka-Rescuer fought valiantly by squirming and protesting as Lyonette dragged her away. Palt was still blanching.
“Erin, I couldn’t scry Xrn even if Montressa and Bezale weren’t comatose! And—that’s the Small Queen. She eats [Mages] like me for breakfast!”
“Don’t be silly. She’s n—she’s c—she’s probably not homicidal. To us. I need help! Can you find Ryoka, at least?”
Palt actually made a whining sound. He danced on his hooves—but his refusal was marred by Fierre and Salamani.
“Have you seen Ryoka, Erin? I checked on her, but she’s already gone.”
The [Innkeeper] brightened up. Reinforcements! And a Courier-[Mage] and a Vampire! Palt closed his eyes as Erin told them about the possible abduction.
“I can try to scry Ryoka.”
Salamani volunteered. He immediately failed of course, which prompted Fierre and Palt to take immense interest in the issue. Meanwhile, Erin went looking for more reinforcements.
The Honorable Hatmen still hadn’t come down for food yet, but they were bound to be up soon for breakfast. Erin had been meaning to talk to them anyways. In the meanwhile, she decided a visual search would be best.
“Bird? Bird, I need your help. Have you seen R—”
Erin opened the door to Bird’s tower. There she found Bird, the [Bird Hunter], standing in his tower.
And a naked Drake, flapping his arms and clinging to the tower-in-progress. Erin stared at Saliss. He was demonstrating to Bird a flapping technique no actual bird in history had ever employed.
“But have you really tried to fly? Like this, see? Dare me to jump! I’ll do it! It won’t even hurt!”
The Drake was trying to cajole Bird…Erin’s head slowly turned to the Worker. Bird had crossed all four arms and he looked, well, peeved.
“Please get off my tower.”
The [Innkeeper] rubbed her eyes. Suddenly, Saliss was here. He turned to her.
“Oh, hey Erin. Do you think I can fly if I flap really hard? I know that Gnoll keeps trying it. But does he believe? Believe I can fly. Go on! I’ll do it!”
He flapped energetically. Erin stared at him. He was naked. Yup. And he was here. Yup. And very intoxicated if the fact that he couldn’t even stay upright was any clue. And she did not have time for this.
She wondered if this was how Zevara felt about her. Erin resolved to bake her a cookie tray. Once she got more chocolate. Or oatmeal.
Saliss of Lights was higher than…something really high. Also, drunk. He had finished the bottle of Firebreath Whiskey—or put enough of it away that he didn’t remember where the rest was.
If he had any objections, it was that he was still conscious. But this worked and it was extremely hard to give Saliss enough of anything to knock him out. Moreover…he had a thing about being put to sleep from adventuring.
So this worked. Erin Solstice was here! Saliss tried to get her to do something amazing for him. But she was busy and left after telling him to stop giving people cigars.
“Spoilsport. You and me, Bird. We know how to have fun, right?”
Saliss threw an arm around Bird. The Worker pushed his arm off.
“Please get off my tower. This is the sixth time I have asked. You are disrupting my hunting.”
Saliss giggled to himself.
“Buddy! Don’t be like that! You and me—I like you, you see? You annoyed all of Pallass. All of it. I’ve only done that like…”
He tried to count and gave up. Bird sighted down his bow, looking around for Ryoka. He saw a blue figure and called out.
“Ah, that is X—”
Saliss grabbed Bird urgently.
“Listen. I’m annoying, I know.”
“Please let go of me. I must tell Miss Erin—let go. Now.”
The Worker struggled as Saliss held onto his shoulders. Bird tried to hurry downstairs as Saliss clung to his legs.
“I’m sorry for being annoying! It’s my default! I do it because being serious is…stupid! Look, I really wanted to talk! What’s it like being Antinium? Is it—are you really people? Because if you are, that’s a problem. For me. Not for you. For me.”
He was speaking to the ceiling. At some point Bird had shaken him free. A white Gnoll stared solemnly down at Saliss. He hiccupped.
“Hi, Mrsha. Is that Goblin around?”
A second face crowded into view, above Mrsha. Numbtongue. Saliss raised a thumb in greeting.
“Hey. You going to kill me today?”
The adventurer laughed. Goblins. Goblins—they got it. But Antinium?
Bird was heading upstairs as Erin led her posse outside—and was promptly sent back inside.
“You can’t exile me! I’m Erin!”
“We don’t need trouble with Xrn, Erin. Anyways, it’s dangerous. Fierre?”
“Let’s go get Ryoka.”
“Hey! You need me! Hey! Oh, hey Ratici. Good timing…”
Saliss got up and followed after Bird as Mrsha wavered, torn between great options, and scampered after the Ryoka rescue team. Numbtongue went after Erin; he didn’t fully trust the hat men, for all they played cards well.
And Bird? He stood in his tower as Saliss tried to explain.
“Look, I’m drunk. Also, I had this cigar I make to really knock myself for a loop.”
“I am aware. Your breath is a color. The birds are staying away from you. Please leave.”
Saliss stared at the fugue he was emitting. He sat down.
“But I need to talk. Look—when I’m this high, I don’t feel like me. And that’s important, you see? I can’t stop rhyming.”
Bird considered this. Some of Saliss’ breath was still floating from when he’d come up about forty minutes ago to harass Bird. A rather large cardinal had flown through it by accident and was now on the ground, staring at the sky with wings folded.
Bird aimed at it, and then lowered his bow because it wasn’t that fair. He shot the Shield Spider creeping up on it instead, then reluctantly acknowledged Saliss on the basis that this might make the Drake go away.
“I rhyme. That is how I sing. What do you wish to talk about?”
“Antinium. Are you people?”
Bird considered this.
“And if you are—does it matter? Because if it was Gnolls…no, that would make a difference. But you’re the Black Tide that came from Rhir. Enemies.”
“That is true. May I shoot you?”
Bird turned his bow and aimed one of his hunting arrows at Saliss’ arms. The Drake laughed.
“You could try. But I’m an adventurer. It’s too e—”
The Worker loosed an arrow. He saw and heard it thunk into the wood. Not Saliss’ arm. The Drake poked at the quivering arrow shaft. He had moved about a foot away from the arrow in the time it took to strike the floor of Bird’s tower.
Bird looked at Saliss. He checked his bow, then the arrow.
“I see. You are dangerous.”
“Yup. And I’d really like not to exist right now.”
Saliss tottered upright. He leaned against the balcony of Bird’s tower. He waited for Bird to say or do something, but the Worker went back to protecting the drugged-out cardinal from the Shield Spider nest.
“If Antinium are people…do you cry? When an Antinium dies, you mourn it, right?”
The Worker said nothing. Saliss watched him take down thirty two spiders, of various sizes. Teensy tiny ones that the cardinal was trying to flap away from. And the Worker did it, lancing them all with arrows on a whim.
“Hey. Are you listening? I said—do Antinium feel bad?”
Saliss waited. At last, as the cardinal managed to take to the skies again, Bird looked at Saliss.
“Does my answer matter?”
The [Alchemist] blinked. He looked at Bird. The Worker tilted his head back and forth.
“You asked Numbtongue the same question of Goblins.”
“How do you know that?”
“He told me.”
The Drake blinked. Goblins and Antinium. Bird took aim at another bird, not the cardinal, and shot it from hundreds of feet away. He produced a small bag and opened the trap door to go retrieve it.
“I do not believe I have an answer to your question that matters, Alchemist Saliss.”
“Oh, come on. I’m dying to know.”
The Worker looked up.
“If I answer you, will it change anything?”
And to that, the Drake said nothing. Bird nodded to himself.
“Yes, that is true. Xrn told me about you.”
Saliss’ eyes focused on Bird. He sat up a bit.
“The Small Queen talks to you, does she.”
“Yes. I am going to pick up my bird, now. Goodbye. Please go away.”
The Worker opened the trapdoor. Saliss reached for his belt.
“You like to hunt birds because you want to fly, don’t you?”
“Yes. I have flown once before.”
“I was flown by Miss Viceria Strongheart and other mages. I will someday fly again. I have been promised.”
“Well, Bird, what would you say if I told you anyone can fly for a while? If they have the right potions.”
“I would say that is correct. However, potions are expensive.”
“You don’t say?”
“That is my understanding, yes. If you would like to prove this to me by flying, I do not wish to see it, thank you. You are not a person I would enjoy watching fly.”
Saliss laughed. He patted Bird on the shoulder.
“I wish I enjoyed flying as much as you.”
The Worker brushed the claw off his shoulder. It seemed Saliss had actually succeeded in annoying him, and that Bird was truly annoyed by Saliss. Or perhaps that he found nothing about Saliss funny.
…He’d never let go of his bow once while Saliss was there. And he always had a second arrow ready to shoot. Perhaps that was just Bird. Or perhaps—well, he was certainly smart.
Bird was climbing downstairs when he noticed something was wrong. He was moving his legs, but he wasn’t going down. Mystified, he stared down.
“My feet are not touching the ground.”
The Drake gave him a huge wink. Bird tried to pull himself down. Then—he realized what was happening, panicked, dropped his bow, flailed for it, and one hand knocked against the side of his tower.
Bird overbalanced and went over the railing. Saliss saw him dip in the air, but he was floating a few feet off it, even as he ‘fell’ onto his back.
“Aaah. Aaaaah! Aaaaaaaaa—I am flying!”
Saliss saw the Worker float down off the roof, to the amazement of some of the Worker Antinium marching up the hill. They parted as Bird floated down past them. The Drake chuckled, then guffawed.
He laughed, to see the Worker levitating just off the ground, waving all appendages and screaming happily at the top of his lungs.
A Potion of Levitation. Not flight—Saliss didn’t make those potions. Couldn’t rather. He’d never been too interested anyways, so he hadn’t looked into the recipe.
But this—well, it was a few hundred gold pieces down the drain for about ten minutes of levitation. Worth it, to hear the Worker exclaiming. Saliss laughed at his little prank.
He could laugh, genuinely laugh, when he was like this. It wasn’t because he’d done ‘a good deed.’ It was entirely selfish, as Saliss would happily have admitted. But it did make him feel better.
…The feeling didn’t last long at all.
Erin Solstice was having a weird day. Ryoka Griffin was found—at least, Xrn hadn’t blasted Fierre, Salamani, or Palt, but she was still out with Xrn. The Honorable Hatmen duo were playing cards with Numbtongue, and she had informed them she did not need them to help take on the Small Queen of the Antinium today.
Her problem was Saliss. She thought he’d left after using a potion that had made Bird levitate around for ten minutes. Certainly, she hadn’t seen him for another hour. But two things had happened.
Firstly, a Drake had come asking about Saliss. Well—six Drakes. In the last hour. Each one had come from Pallass despite there being a ban on everyone but immediate friends of the inn.
“No, Saliss isn’t here! I think! And no, you can’t come through!”
“Miss Solstice, this is a matter of Pallassian—”
Erin shut the door on Drake #6. All the other five had wanted to come through, but Erin was adamant. It was only the second day of her Pallass ban and look at all these people trying to get through!
But while they could demand to see her when the door was checked for the few people who could enter, like the Halfseekers, Maughin, and so on, they could not physically step through the doorway, much to their chagrin.
“Are we sure Saliss isn’t here, Erin?”
Lyonette looked worried. Erin hesitated. It was possible.
“I can check. Let me use my innsense.”
“Your—you can’t call it that, Erin. Your [Aura of the Inn], you mean.”
“[Inn’s Aura]. What’s wrong with innsense? I came around to the word. You will too!”
“It’s stupid. And why don’t you know?”
“Finding specific people is hard, okay? I need to concentrate! I’m not Maviola! Hold on. Saliss! Finding Saliss…beep, beep, beep…”
Lyonette folded her arms. Erin stopped because she felt silly and because Ishkr’s sister was cracking up at the two’s argument. She did wonder what was with Saliss. She’d been busy with Xrn, but she’d caught a hint of the Drake’s emotions. If he was still h—
Erin’s eyes shot open. Lyonette sighed.
“He’s here, isn’t he? Where?”
“He can’t be—hold on. That jerk’s gonna—and just after my mistake too!”
Erin hurried down the hallway. She missed the smirking Gnoll, Liska, Ishkr’s sister, open the door to Pallass and blink as someone pushed past her. Erin was already in the common room.
“Imani! I’m coming in! Don’t be alarmed, okay?”
“Erin, I’m fine. And don’t come in here and start rummaging around! Tell me what you need! I’m making that fondue you wanted to try!”
Imani scowled at Erin and blocked the [Innkeeper]. The [Cook] was ruler of her kitchen, but Erin still pushed past her.
“It’s not me rummaging, Imani. I just have to—why don’t you step away from the stove?”
Imani looked at Lyonette. The [Princess] stared as Erin peered at a cupboard and beckoned Imani. The [Cook] stepped back. Erin opened the thin cupboard—
Saliss stared at Erin, folded up into the cupboard.
“Hey, shut the door will you? I’m trying to hide.”
The [Cook] screamed and leapt back. Erin recoiled just as fast.
“Saliss! How did you get in there?”
The Drake didn’t answer. But his posture was answer enough.
If you removed the wooden panels in the cupboard, it was possible, if you were very nimble and flexible, to squeeze yourself in there. Even then—Relc would never have had a chance. Saliss had managed it despite Erin’s compartment Skill not working on living matter.
“I—I didn’t even see him—”
“He makes potions of invisibility. Saliss! You would have given Imani a heart attack! Get out!”
Erin grabbed at Saliss’ tail, one of the more acceptable appendages to grab, and tugged. Saliss tumbled out of the cupboard and onto the kitchen floor. He immediately curled up into a ball and rolled into a corner.
“I’m invisible. Pretend I’m invisible, please, or I’ll have to use a potion.”
The [Innkeeper] had had enough. She swatted at Saliss—and punched the edge of the kitchen counter. Erin danced around, waving her hand in agony. Lyonette grabbed at Saliss and Imani poked with a broom. Somehow—they missed.
“Why are you doing this, Saliss?”
Erin reached for him. This time—since it wasn’t a blow, she actually touched him. Lyonette saw the [Innkeeper] recoil as if she’d been shocked.
“Can’t I hide?”
He uncurled. Erin looked at him, then around.
“…Let’s go to the [Garden]. If you do need to hide—sorry, Imani. Saliss—”
The Drake obediently followed her into the magical garden. He stood, looking around at the grass and plants…
“You know, I wonder who had this garden last. If it was me, I’d have turned it into an alchemical garden. But you just found it with plants, didn’t you?”
Erin was inspecting Saliss. The Drake nodded.
“…Probably not the King’s Gardener, then. You’ve heard of Tottenval?”
It was an odd conversation topic to suddenly bring up. But Erin was willing to entertain Saliss right now. He looked blankly past her.
“He would have turned this place into a farm. To feed people. I met him, on Chandrar. He was a good person. Never took a single life. Grew food to feed people. I thought—that was a good person. But he served the King of Destruction. This was back when I was just an apprentice, by the way. A long, long time ago.”
“He does sound good. He just fed people? That’s…important.”
Saliss nodded. He stared around the dome, at the vines on the walls, the circular opening which admitted sunlight. Then he looked at Erin. Straight at her.
“But you know—when he died, people celebrated it. Because he fed the King of Destruction’s armies. The Walled Cities were happy that the first of the Seven had fallen. So was he a good person or not?”
“Mm…I never met him. But he did good things it sounds like, doesn’t it?”
The Drake looked at Erin. He smiled briefly, ruefully.
“That’s a good way of looking at it. Well, sorry about scaring your [Cook]. I was just playing at hiding, anyways. I’ll sit here until I have to go.”
“Who’s coming for you, Saliss? Is something wrong?”
For answer—the Drake put his claws over his eyes and sat down. He sat there, in that curious pose, with his back to the dome’s walls. Erin hesitated, but Saliss spoke before she could ask.
“I once saw a Drake girl do this, you know. She was as young as that little Visma. Sit in a corner and do just this.”
The [Innkeeper] stared at Saliss. He seemed to be as random and silly as people thought he was in this moment. Certainly, drunk and intoxicated. But she knew something of Saliss because she…liked him and felt a connection. So she listened as she sat down too.
“Why was a Drake girl sitting like that, Saliss?”
The Drake didn’t lower his claws.
“She was hiding from a monster.”
He peeked at her. Erin felt her skin grow cold. The Drake lowered his claws.
“A monster killed everything in her town. It left her—not because it missed her, but because it wasn’t hungry. She was just sitting like this. I nearly missed her. That’s the kind of thing you see when you adventure, you know.”
It was a familiar story. A horrible story. Imani—Erin looked at Saliss.
“You saved her, though? And you got the monster.”
He nodded after a moment.
“I killed it. It was…you know those half-things? Crawlers? Armored Crawlers, that’s right. It was a whole one. An Archmage’s experiment. If they eat enough, they complete. And it—had been complete before it attacked. Went right over the walls. It ate everything and began dividing itself.”
“What did you do?”
He bared his teeth.
“I killed it. That’s not the hard part.”
“I don’t remember. I burnt it away. Melted it. Froze it, and blasted the pieces. And the little ones. I killed it dead—but the town was gone.”
“And the girl? What happened to the Drake?”
The [Alchemist] sat there. Erin was aware of voices coming through the door to the [Garden of Sanctuary], talking, arguing. Saliss looked past her.
“I took her to safety. I…don’t know what happened after that. There are lots of them, I’ve saved. Allegedly ‘saved’. Then I saw her again.”
“Where? Is she okay?”
The Drake didn’t answer.
“Zel Shivertail would know where she went at first. He saved a bunch of Gnoll children—like that little Mrsha. There are more of her tribe out there, probably. I’ve been meaning to tell you. They would have been given to other tribes—but white fur? Drake cities, like that little Drake girl.”
Erin Solstice froze.
“Others? More of Mrsha’s tribe…?”
“I heard there were more. I did ask once I met her. Other cities. But I never heard where they ended up. You’ll have to do the rest.”
The Drake trailed off. Like Montressa and the others, he was in multiple places at once. He focused on Erin.
“Sorry. I know you’d never have thought of it. But I could ask. Just couldn’t—didn’t find them. In case I…forget I wanted to bring it up. I’ll keep looking.”
“Saliss, what’s wrong?”
For something surely was. The Drake exhaled, slowly.
“Stop me, Erin. Can I tell you a great secret? I want to.”
“If you think I should hear it…”
The Drake looked at her, searchingly. Then he laughed.
“Are you…? No, it’s not about being a good person, is it? I know a lot of good people. Or people who do good things but—never mind. Never mind. I’ll just sleep. Wake me when it’s time.”
“Saliss. What’s the matter?”
The Drake gave her a self-aware look for a moment. Then he exhaled and closed his eyes.
“I have to go to work, Erin. I don’t want to. That’s all.”
He was still under the influence when he woke up. Of course—that didn’t matter. And he knew, when he opened his eyes, it was time.
And who the old man had sent was obviously the right choice. A [Path to Victory]—well, he didn’t need it, did he?
Arguments had clearly ensued whilst the Drake had slept in the Garden. But for once, the [Innkeeper] had lost.
Fundamentally. She had not prevented the figure from appearing here. But cleverly—neither had the intruder offered physical resistance or made threats. She had simply appealed for this chance.
The door was open. Saliss saw the figure walk through as the [Innkeeper] followed.
“You get one shot, alright? Then you have to leave.”
“Yes, Miss Solstice. Adventurer Saliss?”
“Go away. I’m not here.”
The Drake nearly put his claws over his eyes—then jerked them down and sobered up. He heard a breath—and then saw a pair of boots. Saliss opened his eyes.
A young Drake was standing there. Young—well, older than Erin. She stared straight ahead as she saluted him. Her armor was polished, enchanted. Saliss read her name and level and Skills.
“Adventurer Saliss. I’ve come to escort you to your briefing, sir. Please come with me.”
“Saliss, I tried to make her go away, but she says Chaldion’ll come after this and it’s actually really important.”
Erin was upset. The [Alchemist] sighed.
“He probably will. So you’re the luckless Drake come to get me?”
“Yes sir. High Command is waiting, Adventurer Saliss. Please, allow me to escort you to them.”
For a while, the Drake sat there, head bowed. Then he looked up.
“And who are you, exactly?”
The Drake maintained her perfect salute.
“General Shirka, 3rd Army of Pallass. Blackwing’s Gold. An honor, Adventurer Saliss. I believe we met once before. At—”
“Right. I’m coming.”
The Drake picked himself up slowly. Erin hesitated.
“What’s ‘Blackwing’s Gold’? Is that your title or something, G-General?”
She peered at the female Drake. Shirka turned to her and put her hands behind her back, standing at parade rest.
“New designation, ma’am. Formerly we were known as the ‘Pallass’ Gold’. After General Thrissiam fell…”
Someone else fell down. Saliss lay on the ground.
“Oh no. I’ve fallen and I can’t get up. You should tell High Command I can’t make it. Do that, will you, please, General?”
Erin eyed Shirka. Even she had the urge to toss a bit of dirt at Saliss. But of everyone so far—the Drake was the most patient. She turned back to Saliss at once and threw another salute.
“Adventurer. The City of Invention has need of you. Won’t you answer them again?”
She was so patient with the Drake. Erin looked at General Shirka. At Saliss. The Drake refused to look at Shirka.
Her eyes widened. The Drake [General], Shirka, was the youngest Erin had ever met. And that was extraordinary because, well, she was like Embria. And since one was a [Wing Commander] and somewhat famed for that—
On a hunch, Erin looked at Saliss as he slowly got up, brushing dirt from his scales. He muttered.
“I’m coming. Give me one second.”
“Are you sure, Saliss? If you don’t want to, I can—”
Erin made a punching gesture and Shirka coughed into her claws. It looked like she was covering a smile. Saliss hesitated. Erin meant it. But he waved a claw.
“Nah. They’ll just send the old man. And if you punch him, he’ll probably die.”
“I could challenge him to a chess game. He’d lose.”
Saliss laughed. Genuinely laughed at that. He stood up, shaking his head.
“No, he wouldn’t give up. Fine. Let’s go, General. Let me just…thingy…”
He was sighing and checking his belt. Erin saw Shirka step back. The [Innkeeper] followed her. It was a hunch that made her ask the next question.
“Where did you come from, General Shirka?”
“I rose up from one of the allied cities to Pallass, ma’am. I was offered a position in the City of Inventions a year after receiving my [General] class and took it.”
The Drake was so polite. Unlike Grimalkin or the [Senators]—and rather like Chaldion—she had entered Erin’s inn to ask if she could speak to Saliss once, to do her job. It was hard to refuse that.
“One of the allied cities?”
“Allied with Pallass, ma’am.”
Shirka watched as Saliss, muttering, brushed dirt off his tail. Erin studied her face.
“Do you…know Saliss? From before coming to Pallass, I mean?”
The Drake gave her a sidelong look. She didn’t need to answer this time. And her voice wasn’t as crisp as she replied.
“I…did know Adventurer Saliss in his earlier years. As a girl, in fact.”
Erin looked at Saliss. The Drake threw up his claws.
“I’m older than I look. Stop judging me! And I was young. A proper, decent adventurer.”
“Oh, I get it.”
Erin softly remarked. She watched as Shirka escorted Saliss to the door. He didn’t protest—much.
“What is Saliss supposed to do?”
“Confidential, Miss Solstice. A job for the Walled Cities is all I can divulge. Thank you for your cooperation.”
“Is it that bad?”
Erin stopped by the door to Pallass with Saliss. He was still clearly the worse for wear, but he was going. He shrugged.
“It’s not going to be fun.”
“But—no, never mind. I guess it’s hard, huh? At least—maybe you’ll be able to beat an Armored Crawler this time. Faster, right, General Shirka?”
That was all Erin could think to say. It wasn’t the most—tactful—of things to say. But if Saliss was afraid or reluctant…
“Armored Crawler, Miss Solstice?”
The [General] turned her head and gave Erin a blank look. She saw one of Saliss’ closed eyes open. Erin looked at him.
“Not an Armored Crawler?”
“It must have been a different monster.”
Shirka looked sharply at Saliss. Then she nodded once and thrust open the door.
“Excuse us, Miss Solstice. Two to Pallass! Open the checkpoint for Adventurer Saliss!”
They disappeared. Erin stared at Saliss’ tail. It could have just been a mistake. But…every other detail appeared to be correct. She wondered why that was off. And then she got nervous. But that was all.
Saliss of Lights was not Erin Solstice. As he stumbled through Pallass, ignoring the dirty looks and playing up his miserable state, he harassed Shirka. But mildly. It didn’t seem to be working and besides…
“You don’t know how I adventure. I used to be like those silly adventurers. I went to other continents. On Chandrar—I was a proper, crazy adventurer. These days, I’m here.”
“Yes sir. It’s not for me to say, sir.”
He scowled at General Shirka. The sunlight was hurting Saliss’ eyes.
“If I were doing actual adventuring, they wouldn’t send you. I’m not going to find any of you, there.”
She twitched at that.
“Not for this mission, sir. But you did find me.”
What was he supposed to say to that? The [Alchemist] said nothing more. Damn the old man. He would have happily kicked General Edellein into the pond.
High Command had been waiting for forty minutes. They were behind schedule and very upset. That alone was enough to make the [Alchemist] smile as he walked—naked—into the war room. He threw a perfect salute, and was rewarded with a glare from none other than the [General] he had been thinking of.
General Edellein of 4th Army, General Duln of 1st Army, General Shirka of 3rd, were exactly half of the room. The other half were Chaldion, one senior [Strategist] who was probably here to learn, despite being in his fifties, and a [Mage].
Not Grimalkin. But one of the senior [War Mages] nonetheless. They all turned to Saliss with some level of glower.
Except for Chaldion. He just regarded Saliss. And it was Chaldion that Saliss ignored; everyone else he could get a rise from. So with his salute, he barked in an approximation of a [Soldier] reporting for duty.
“Assassin Saliss, here at your disposal, High Command! Or is it exterminator this time? Give me my orders!”
“[Alchemist] Oliwing. You are late. And is that alcohol I smell?”
General Edellein snapped. Saliss happily saluted.
“Yessir. I call it a Potion of Alcohol. I think it’ll change the world. Anyone want a try?”
He heard a snort from the [War Mage], who immediately covered his mouth. General Duln turned his head—Shirka was behind Saliss, but he heard nothing from her.
Edellein’s scowl deepened. Before he could say anything though, Saliss was already lurching over to the table.
He knew the map well. It was of foothills. Elevated terrain. Only—three dimensional. After all, the enemy wasn’t just limited to surface encampments. It was more detailed this time.
“Your orders, Alchemist Saliss, are to proceed to the following coordinates. As last time, your equipment is provided here—”
Edellein tried to launch into the briefing. But Saliss—well, they’d done this song and dance before. The Drake grabbed a scroll and heard a sound of outrage from the older Drake. Saliss eyed the magical scroll, reading the label.
“Yeah, yeah. [Earthquake]? [Lesser Teleport]…mhm, I get it.”
“Alchemist, you are to listen to the—”
Saliss turned away from the [General] and looked around the room.
“So how many Queens am I killing? If I get into the right spot, I can probably blow up a Hive. Sounds good? One Adventurer for a Hive.”
And suddenly the amusement drained away. High Command looked at each other. General Duln put his head on his shoulders, suddenly grave.
“Those are not your orders, Adventurer Saliss.”
The Drake waved the scroll at Duln. The Dullahan was cooler in temper than Edellein; he didn’t even blink as Saliss pointed at it.
“So I’m supposed to damage a Hive and not kill a Queen, huh? Kill thousands of Antinium but no Queen because that’s a step too far.”
“Would you listen to the briefing, you nude idiot?”
Edellein snarled. Saliss turned his head; the other [General] was visibly flushed under his scales. Saliss considered this.
“Go eat your tail, Edellein.”
He lifted a claw for emphasis. The [General] left his seat in a moment. His hand was on his sword—but he hesitated as Saliss put up his fists.
“Someone stop him! Before I kick him off Pallass’ walls! Because I will! Come on, slash me!”
He hopped in place, swaying, making weak jabs into the air. Daring Edellein to actually draw his sword.
“General. Sit down.”
Chaldion spoke for the first time thus far. Edellein was breathing hard. But yet again—the [Grand Strategist]’s fake eye flashed and the Drake sat down.
Saliss was disappointed. But not by much.
“What’s the stupid mission, old man? And would it kill you to provide snacks?”
He flopped into a chair as Shirka took a seat. Chaldion ignored that.
“This is not like other assignments, Adventurer Saliss—”
The younger [Strategist] stared at Saliss.
The [Alchemist] flexed his claw impatiently.
“If I had a silver coin for every time I heard that…gold coin. Give. It’s always ‘not the same as all the others’. Why would this one be different? I go in, I destroy things and—”
“They’ve developed a new type of Antinium.”
The Named Adventurer paused, mid-rant. He looked back at Chaldion. Sat up a bit. Shirka saw Saliss’ claw flash.
She was fast. But even she barely saw the way he flicked a bit of tonic onto his bare scales from a belt pouch in—well, fractions of a second. Duln nudged her.
[Memo] Skill. Shirka nodded slowly. Saliss ignored that as he looked at the venerable [Grand Strategist].
“So what? That’s what they do.”
“This breed is greatly concerning to the Walled Cities. Read your report.”
There were documents Saliss had been ignoring. For the first time, the Drake picked them up and read. There were illustrations too. Chaldion continued.
“Giants. Wistram caught a glimpse of them in the Armored Antinium’s Hive in conjunction with the Free Antinium delegation. Temporary name—‘Steelclads’, as designated by the Armored Queen. There are at least two dozen confirmed active and hundreds allegedly in development.”
“So you want me to wipe them out. How did Wistram learn about this? The scrying orbs you were screaming about?”
The [Generals] shifted. Chaldion had indeed made them aware of the issue; the Walled Cities had all had a conniption over the intelligence.
“We’ve switched to artifacts that can block attempts to take control of them. The Antinium have no such defenses. To our understanding, Wistram has eyes into three of the six Hives; the others must be using more advanced artifacts.”
“This is a lot of detail for a scrying object.”
This time, the [Alchemist] looked up and the [War Mage] and [Strategist] blinked. You could be fooled by the act. Chaldion smiled mirthlessly. He tapped the highlighted area of map.
“This is the area the growing sacs are forming in, according to our intelligence. Manus and Fissival have been using dedicated [Scrying] spells based on the coordinates Wistram gave us. Thanks to them, we have intelligence of specific locations in the Hives, where we were unable to find…anything before, even with magic. Which is why you are going to hit it and we will monitor the results.”
Saliss’ eyes narrowed. He snapped his claws and sat up.
“Ah. So I blow up this extremely valuable growing site and we get to see how accurate the data Wistram gave us is. And overhear more intelligence! That’s…why you’re [Grand Strategist], hmm? And my job is just to walk in there, cast a spell, and walk out, right?”
He put his feet up on the war table. There was a growl.
“That scroll is to be used in conjunction, not alone, Adventurer. We would not trust—or risk a Named Adventurer on this mission alone. Your job is support. You’re moving out in five minutes. We’re already delayed and Pallass will not be the Walled City that—”
The [Alchemist] spoke to the ceiling. Edellein nearly choked on his own spit.
“I am not Pallass’ weapon of war. There are Antinium in that inn I like. I refuse this time.”
High Command didn’t exactly susurrate. They weren’t the susurrating type. But they did exchange significant looks. Chaldion sighed.
“High Command, we will recess for five minutes.”
The others didn’t need to be told twice. Well, Duln did nudge Edellein before the [General] heaved himself out of the room. Saliss was staring up at the ceiling.
“You can’t make me this time.”
Chaldion didn’t immediately reply. Both of them knew how this worked.
“Six and three months is my offer.”
The Drake stared upwards.
“It’s not a give and take.”
But of course—it was. No one had to say ‘or else’. Chaldion leaned on his staff.
“Three months. I’ll have the entire City Watch devoted to other matters. You cannot refuse this time, Saliss. The [Generals] will not stand for it.”
“They can eat my tail. I can always leave the city.”
That was an empty threat. Chaldion shook his head.
“Six Drakes on the wanted lists, three months.”
“You couldn’t order them to stop, could you? But I forget—‘you can’t do everything, even as Grand Strategist.’ Eat your tail, old man.”
Saliss flashed Chaldion a bitter look.
“That is the most I can do without making it overt, Saliss.”
The [Grand Strategist] saw the Drake make a few gestures at him.
“I hate you, old man.”
“That is fine with me. Stay at that inn. Make friends with the Antinium. They are not the same ones as the Hivelands produces. You are not being ordered to attack the [Strategist], Anand, for that reason. Or the other individuals in Liscor.”
“That would be—”
“I vetoed those suggestions.”
“The Antinium are not a united threat. Liscor has always been the wildcard Hive. These Steelclads are a threat—if only to morale.”
The [Alchemist] stared up at the ceiling. When he did speak, it was without looking at Chaldion.
“Why don’t you have the guts to order me to destroy the Grand Hive? Because I could. I could probably get a Queen. Even if one of the Prognugators is there.”
The old Drake sat there. His eyes flickered. Cold—and terribly intelligent. Saliss did not like Chaldion and the feeling was mutual. But they were both aware of what the other could do.
“The Walled Cities will need Saliss of Lights in the decades after I am dead. Even more than they need to destroy the Antinium’s Hives. You are Pallass’ pride and greatest [Soldier]. And their greatest disgrace. Try to act like the hero some of our citizens believe you to be.”
The Drake twisted in his seat. He fixed two burning eyes on Chaldion.
“My name is not Saliss. You know that. Say my name, Chaldion.”
The [Alchemist] fell out of his seat. When he got up—Chaldion was watching him.
No hesitation, no waffling at that moment. If there had been a ‘…Onieva’, a hint of scorn—Saliss might have destroyed the entire command room and slapped General Blackwing silly. But Chaldion was smart. That was why he could handle Erin when [Senators] were too prideful.
He’d been dealing with Saliss for too long to be a fool—at least in doing what they wanted to get his way. Saliss hesitated. But Bird had been right from the start.
If it mattered—Saliss probably wouldn’t have asked. He had his price. So—
Saliss of Lights stood on Pallass’ battlements. Not all of it was siege weapons and war. There were some areas designed for unusual purposes. He stood there, calmly, bitterly too.
“Once, I was an actual adventurer.”
The group of [Soldiers] was just there for show. And of course, they’d seen Saliss since they lived in Pallass. That joke. That nudist [Alchemist]. Until you remembered he was also—
A Named Adventurer. Saliss made it easy to forget, though, right up until he reminded you.
The other Drake—far harder. She stood with her mount, wings folded. Her wings made even other Oldblood Drakes stare at them in awe. She was another Named Adventurer, but not of Pallass. She had been waiting for Saliss for forty minutes—well, fifty by the time he arrived.
They were behind schedule. Still, certain rituals had to be observed.
In times past, there had been more. But Oteslia and Fissival still had winged mounts along with the Oldblood fliers. And in this case—the Pegasus was moody as she pawed the ground.
“Concealment spells are nearly complete. Your flight route is the same you came in on, Adventurer Mivifa.”
The Named Adventurer nodded. Saliss strolled over. The Pegasus was smarter than your average horse—a lot dumber than your average unicorn. She snorted at Saliss. He waved at both.
“The Oldblood of Feathers. Hey Mivi, how’s it be?”
Mivifa, the [Pegasus Flier] of Oteslia and her companion, Feathi, or her ‘official’ name, Erafeathithius since the Walled Cities didn’t want to acknowledge the cute name Mivifa had given her friend, both regarded the [Alchemist] with a critical eye.
“Saliss, have you been drinking?”
“What? Me? On an important day like this?”
“…There’s vomit on your tail.”
“Oh. I had to purge myself.”
The Drake scrubbed at his tail, completely unabashed. Pallass [Soldiers]—again, ornamental—shifted. He made their city look so bad compared to the female Drake, the Oldblood of Feathers, Mivifa.
And her feathered wings. She had not been born with them. But such was the bond between her and her Pegasus that she’d grown them.
Another interesting facet about Mivifa was this: she was in her forties. Not unusual for Named Adventurers, and not rare either, necessarily. Unlike Gold-ranks, Named Adventurers were aberrations, each and every one.
But quirk of quirks—she was one of Saliss’ clients for Potions of Youth—at a discount, and illusion spells so she looked…eighteen?
It was personal. Saliss didn’t ask. Nor did Mivifa treat him with scorn. Like Shirka—she knew Saliss.
“We’re about to fly. Mind supplying the potions, Saliss?”
The Drake shrugged.
“If you supply the wings.”
He hopped on Feathi’s back with Mivifa. The Drake tossed a vial to Mivifa, who in turn offered it to her mount. The Pegasus snorted, but took it after a huge lump of sugar before—and after. Bribes. She whinnied—then took off.
It was true, what they said. You couldn’t go across the continent easily. From Invrisil to Reizmelt, heck, from Liscor to Celum alone was a hundred damn miles. But it was also true that there were exceptions.
Pegasi and Saliss were those exceptions. The [Alchemist] threw his arms up.
Feathi flew. She vanished almost the second her hooves left the ground thanks to the concealment spells. But you could feel her wake as the wind blasted across the walls. The [Guards], reminded of the Frost Wyverns, shuddered.
But they were flying. The two Named Adventurers sped towards their destination. They spoke little. Not because they were focused with grim concentration. Mostly…because it was really windy all the way up there. Also—cold.
Speed. Few people could make it across even a small section of a continent in a week’s time. Oh, industry could do it. Organization—teams of horses, carriage services, magic and so on if you had the coin, manpower and motivation.
But people? Those you counted. Kept track of. In the past, they had been the insane, closer to [Explorers] who would battle monsters. Take months to arrive in the most bygone areas. In time, over a long period, they organized. Changed.
Today they were called Couriers. But if you read a book—the [Trapmaster Assassin] closed his. His name was—Ferin.
Not an important name. The kind of name he could replace. Tomorrow he might be Damocle, or Even. Names—didn’t matter.
[Assassins] now—if you read the right books, the secret histories that few [Historians] knew or would dare to record—you’d know something about [Assassins].
The [Trapmaster] listened. He heard shouts of pain. A scream.
Black-clad figures rushed past him like a stream. Countless bodies, flooding across the ground. The [Trapmaster] held back. What had they said, now? That famous line.
Couriers outbound. But the thing about bragging, announcing it meant that everyone knew where you were.
First Landing. Well, eighty miles away from it. It was depressing. They’d been going down the roads. Maybe they thought it was a numbers game.
Well—countless [Assassins] were pouring towards their targets. And dying. Ferin could see bodies flying around, the flashes of light. But the Ranks, the expendable [Assassins], didn’t stop.
What you read about in the Guild’s annals, and what was common—Ferin checked his annotations on the worn book of the guild’s history.
Complacency – Arrogance – Decay. Ferin, [Trapmaster Assassin] of Izril.
Just a little note for the future [Assassin] who might check out the book. He didn’t dare write anything more. Certainly not the essays from [Assassins] who had possessed this book a thousand years ago.
Ferin twisted the book sideways, opened up the attached sheaf of folded parchment someone had actually added to one passage.
…I have slain Dragons with my blades and I will be known as the greatest name of the Guild for tens of thousands of years. I am [Dragonslayer]. I am almighty. My name is…
Well, that part was harder to figure out because someone else had scratched it out. As Ferin had noted—so he hoped that in the future, some great [Assassin] would look at Ferin’s short observations and say ‘that was a smart [Assassin].’
You could hope for nothing more. And as the [Trapmaster] closed the book—he heard a voice.
“Lancel…Lancel, run. Don’t look back.”
Ahead of him, six Couriers were fighting. Trying to run.
Couriers outbound. They knew the Guild would try to stop them. So they’d taken twice as many Couriers as last time. And notably—the legend herself.
Mihaela Godfrey. She was…choking. Gasping for air. Perhaps because of the poison gas. Ferin adjusted his cloth mask. Enchanted.
One Courier down from the explosive tripwire trap. If they were dead—but if they were alive, they might stay alive if they were wise enough to surrender. The remaining five were running. And the Courier who’d accepted the contract, the one with a ‘bone to pick’ with the Guild, Lancel the Leaper, was running.
Into another world. Even Ferin felt a slight chill as he saw the gateway opening, admitting four of the Couriers. The last—Mihaela—blocked the way.
Lightning. Ferin held back and he saw the Guildmistress and every figure around her for thirty feet vanish. But they were the Ranks.
As for the [Assassins] holding back like Ferin—six.
Six Faces for six Couriers. Seemed fair? Ferin watched as more of the lesser [Assassins] ran towards their deaths. And after the Couriers. The remaining Faces moved forwards to deal with the Guildmistress.
“We warned you, Guildmistress. This time—the contract matters.”
It wasn’t fun killing Couriers. The Garuda threw a dart which exploded before it reached Mihaela. She didn’t bother with a retort. She would have charged forwards, but there were too many bodies in the way.
“They keep coming!”
A voice from the closing portal. [The Courier’s Last Road]. A Skill with few flaws. But one was—you could follow a Courier into it. At a cost, of course.
The Ranks were charging into the doorway. And dying. Mihaela backed up. She stared as someone flung an explosive and the [Assassins] at the entrance of the portal were torn apart. And still the others charged, flinging their dying comrades aside.
She coughed. Ferin shook his head. He adjusted the mithril strands in his left hand, nodded to the others.
“You should have studied the Guild, Guildmistress. The Ranks do not fear death.”
She stared at him. The white-haired [Assassin] was bare-headed despite the mask he wore for protection. A mark of pride. He was old enough to have white hair.
“Do you know how much an [Assassin] of this level costs? Four gold coins. Equipment is extra. A lot—and a little. You can buy one of us in bulk if you know who to ask. The issue isn’t cost, for that matter. It’s supply and demand.”
More Ranks, pouring out of carriages that were more expensive than they were. How many had the Guild decided to spend? For this many Couriers…
“They could become one of us. Rise out of the Ranks to become a Face. All they have to do—is kill a Courier. It’s that or die.”
They poured after her, into a world without oxygen or light—for them.
“The Runner’s Guild will not bow to [Assassins]. You never—Reinhart owned your Guild. Why did you stop?”
Mihaela gasped for air. The Faces watched her, not without sympathy. She was gathering her strength. They were waiting for her failing lungs to weaken her further. Ferin shook his head.
“You should have never stopped running, Godfrey. You lost your edge. We’re [Assassins]. We live to kill.”
It was all the answer she’d get. Mihaela moved, leaping for the portal. The [Trapmaster] flung the mithril thread as the others opened up.
The Assassin’s Guild had a new master now. Also—it was under new management. The old Guildmaster was dead. No one knew that outside of the Guild.
As for why? History. [Assassins] learned from the past. And the lesson that played itself was the same.
That was what Magnolia Reinhart hadn’t realized. She’d tried to tame the Guild by overfeeding the Guildmaster, by making [Assassins] fat and dull their teeth. It had been well done. If they had let her—she would have killed them with peace within a single generation, made them inept, redundant.
But a scorpion lived to sting, a wolf to hunt. She was too used to the breed of [Assassin] like Ressa. For all she had become a Face during her time at the Guild, she was a ‘volunteer’. Ferin and the Ranks hadn’t been asked, or even offered training. Death by peace did not appeal to them.
The Couriers ran. What they should have remembered, though, was that an [Assassin] was diametrically opposed to their way of life. Couriers were usually spontaneous, brave, quick. [Assassins] laid traps. They had seen this group of Couriers coming. The rest was easy.
Saliss of Lights walked towards the rally point, at the edge of the Hivelands. The last few miles he had to hike with Mivifa and Feathi. Cover and all that.
“Would you stop drinking?”
“I’ll sober up.”
That might be true, but it didn’t stop Mivifa’s glare. Saliss kept complaining.
“We keep getting jobs like this. I bet Human adventurers or…or Garuda adventurers don’t have to do this.”
“They’re not part of the Walled Cities. And no adventurer is completely autonomous.”
The winged Drake deflected a bit. It was certainly true that other adventurers were hardly apolitical. Some fought in wars, everyone took sides…but adventurers who came from the Walled Cities were different. Sometimes they were assigned missions by the High Command.
“Well, this sucks. I’m bored. My actual adventures don’t take this long.”
That was also true. Saliss of Lights, Named Adventurer of Pallass—had the most boring encounters of any adventurer.
“Did you have any recently?”
“Just last week.”
“I didn’t hear about it.”
“Eh. It was those angry freak-things. Bulls with snake heads. And bitey teeth, you know?”
Saliss pointed at the other Drake. It was late night—they’d been flying for hours, even with his [Haste] potions. He nearly tripped over a rock.
“Yes! Whoa! That! A herd of them! Attacking people on the roads outside of Pallass.”
“How long did it take?”
“To get there or finish the job? Uh…three hours all around.”
The encounter had probably lasted all of five minutes. Mivifa shook her head. Saliss had a motto, which was ‘acid is a solution to 90% of all my problems’. A joke so bad it had gotten him booed out of both the Alchemist and Adventurer’s Guilds multiple times.
A true statement, though. Most of Saliss’ monster-extermination jobs ended within seconds of him tossing a vial at the problem. And most monsters weren’t acid-proof, or at least not against his specialized acids.
It was when he had to toss more vials that it got interesting. People told stories about those adventures.
No one would tell stories about this mission. Nor was it happening. Mivifa was not here. Saliss was not here. Everyone was so ‘not here’ in fact that all the Walled Cities would shout you were a liar and toss you in prison if you dared to spew such falsehoods.
Mivifa was used to it. So was Saliss. So, as Named Adventurers did, they began talking about work as they drew close to the meeting site. No fear of being attacked; not yet.
“Took you longer than normal. What, trouble with Chaldion again?”
“I hate him. Let’s not talk about Chaldion. How’s Oteslia?”
“Buzzing about those [Strategist] kids. Lots of trouble; people keep trying to steal those artifacts from Khelt. The First Gardener is in a state about it.”
“Bleh. I had a job offer about that. ‘Make a cure!’ As if every two-bit Level 30 [Alchemist] couldn’t whip up a blowfish poison antidote.”
Mivifa shook her head. ‘Two-bit Level 30 [Alchemist]’ was a phrase only Saliss could use.
“On that note…rumor is that you’ve got an apprentice. Tell me it’s not true so I can collect all the bet money.”
Feathi nudged Mivifa with a wing. Not because she was smart enough to…well, she was very smart. And magical cats and dogs could understand most conversations. And pick locks, some of them. The Drake stared at Saliss.
“Why? You told me you would never do it!”
“It was a favor. Are we there yet?”
The Drake ignored that. And if you didn’t rise to the bait…Saliss sighed after a moment.
“She’s a good kid. It’s nice to have an extra pair of hands, anyways. I’m doing a lot of experiments, she needed a bit of help—don’t make a big deal about it. She’s got a lot of potential. You know the plague?”
“The Yellow Rivers? It just reached Oteslia and it caused a huge uproar. I visited Zeres and it was bad before the cure arrived. Still is, but…what about it?”
“She made the cure.”
“Oh! That is something! No wonder you made her your apprentice!”
“Well, that and other reasons. It’s this entire thing…there’s this cool place I’ll introduce you to if you come to Pallass, and it annoyed Xif and…let’s change the subject. I don’t want to talk about it because the Old Man’s involved like he always is.”
The Oldblood of Feathers eyed Saliss, but she didn’t pursue that line of conversation. Some things you didn’t talk about. For instance—Saliss didn’t ask about why she was obsessed with her appearance. Nor had she volunteered that one of the reasons she could leave Oteslia for this mission—and that the First Gardener was willing to send her—was that Cire was happily occupied with the celebrities from Baleros.
“Lots of new experiments? Anything noteworthy and not confidential?”
Saliss brightened up after a second.
“I can talk about one of them, actually. You know the Potion of Haste you and your giant bird-horse drink like water?”
He waved the Potion of Haste at Mivifa—which only Saliss could supply in the quantities to keep Feathi flying nonstop to the Hivelands from Pallass. Mivifa nodded as Feathi glared at Saliss.
“Yes. What about them? Have you reduced the cost? Because if you have—please don’t sell them to adventurers. You’ll make every jumped-up Silver-rank try to compete with our bounties.”
Saliss looked hurt.
“I would never! I have my profit margins to think of. Besides, the army would buy my entire supply and then the Old Man would try to conquer everything. No, no, this is only for Named Ranks. You’re going to be the only ones who’ll afford it, I mean.”
The [Alchemist] waggled the glowing vial at Mivifa excitedly.
“You know, this isn’t a real Potion of Haste. Or rather…I’m working on a Potion of Greater Haste. Maybe…a Potion of Extremespeed? A Potion of Time Acceleration? It’s really unclear, but it’s just Named-grade stuff. Beautiful.”
“Sign me up for one of them! Can I put a down payment on it?”
The Drake grew excited at the thought. That was your emergency-tool right there. The thing you pulled out when you were about to die—or you needed to kill something now. She began fumbling for her belt pouch, but Saliss waved a claw.
“I’m still reverse-analyzing it. Slow progress.”
“Oh. But when you do get it made…”
He smiled wanly.
“It’ll be a while, Mivi. I’m really busy. Making Potions of Youth. And other stuff.”
Oh. His big projects. Mivifa became somber. She had once thought that if Saliss hadn’t invested most of his budget and time into his greatest work—he’d have been an unparalleled [Alchemist]. Instead, he’d used his talents to create a relic-class potion. For the same Drake who’d sent him here and who caused Saliss so much anguish.
“If you want to talk about it—”
“Nope! I’m not listening! I don’t need motivation! I’m here of my own free will and nothing is wrong!”
Saliss put his claws over his earholes. Mivifa heard him humming loudly for a moment. She said nothing. After a moment, Saliss lowered his claws.
He shook his head tiredly.
“Sure. I don’t ask, you don’t tell. Everyone’s got problems. It comes with being a Named-rank. We’re just broken people, Mivi.”
She looked at him. Mivifa hesitated and could have left it at that. She opened her wings and flapped them once, then had to say it.
“You might be. And some of the Named Adventurers are. But I’m not.”
The [Alchemist] looked at the [Flier]. And he grinned once.
“Well, that’s fine too. We can wait for you to join us.”
Organization. The north had…concentrations of power. In individuals and Houses, different from the Walled Cities. The Walled Cities could cooperate and get Saliss to Manus via Pegasi supplied by Oteslia and coordinate attacks on the Hives.
Magnolia Reinhart could send her pink carriage anywhere she wanted. Or—she had. In the same way, the group waiting for Mivifa and Saliss had come here at effort and expense, but they were all here, and all on-time.
…Except for Saliss. He wobbled into the fortified ‘camp’ and counted.
Two faces he recognized, four teams, a bunch of [Mages], [Soldiers] under the command of an [Ambush Commander]—yep, the gang was all here. Also—largely silent, since they were on the bleeding edge of the border of the Hivelands. Professionalism, silence, readiness—
“I’m here! Sorry I’m late! Is that Shriekblade I see? Long time no stab!”
Half the [Soldiers] went for their weapons as Saliss shouted joyously. The Gold-ranks stared. Those who knew Saliss scowled. He strode over to a figure standing apart.
“Shriekblade! Killed anyone recently?”
Saliss would have patted her on the shoulder, but she would have stabbed him. Or…would have if the short Drake with many scars didn’t turn an expressionless face to Saliss and nod once.
“We are on duty, Adventurer Saliss. Command is silence and readiness.”
The [Alchemist]’s face fell.
“Well, hi to you too.”
Shriekblade’s face didn’t change. Saliss lowered his shoulder-slapping claw and sighed. Drugged into perfect compliance-mode, then. Made sense for this mission. He didn’t like to see it.
Named Adventurers knew each other. More than others sometimes, but you tended to know names. The other adventurer was glaring at Saliss, so the [Alchemist] turned and spread his arms wide. The Drake with a huge sword on his back stared at the nudity and grimaced.
A perfect target.
“Is that Sixswords? Hi! How’s it going, buddy?”
The Drake actually tried to move away as Saliss bounded over.
“We’re keeping quiet, Saliss—”
“Isn’t there a [Silence] spell on the camp? Who cares if we shout? Heck, let’s all dance around naked! Haven’t seen you in ages. How is Manus? Didn’t you get married? Want a drink?”
The other Named Adventurer tried to fend Saliss off as the Gold-rank teams and [Soldiers]—provided by Manus for the mission, mainly as escort and backup if they had to run—stared in horror at the display of laxity by Saliss.
The Swordsman of Six, a Named Adventurer of Manus. Famed for his six unique swords which he could switch out at a moment’s notice, etc. etc…the least interesting Named Adventurer of the lot.
Mivifa and Feathi, the Oldblood of Feathers, Oteslia’s flier.
Shriekblade, infamous killer and unpredictable Named Adventurer of Salazsar, reinforcements and the Walled City’s contribution to the effort.
A squadron of Manus’ best [Soldiers] and a [Commander] to provide backup. For magical support—Fissival. Since no one from Zeres was here, Saliss bet it had been too far and the City of Waves was just providing financial support or some other contribution.
Three Named-ranks, and four Gold-rank teams all ready to deploy. Oh, and a stumbling [Alchemist], wandering around slapping people on the back.
“Adventurers. Adventurers, your teleportation target is right over the target. Barring any mistakes, High Command expects you to be able to evacuate within twenty minutes to this spot again, upon which time we’ll all use the second teleportation spell to move us away. If anyone is unclear as to their [Lesser Teleportation] jumps, or any aspect of the plan—”
The [Ambush Commander] and [Link Mage] were doing their best. Everyone else was listening seriously, with the heightened nerves of those before a fight. The four Gold-ranks were adjusting their gear, muttering reassurance, preparing themselves.
They were about to piss off the Antinium. This—was the kind of mission their Walled Cities asked for volunteers for. The enemy, the Black Tide owned the lands beyond here. They might die. But for their homes, the glory of—
“Yeah, yeah. We go in, we cast scroll, we run. Can we go?”
Saliss tossed down another gulp of whatever he was drinking. This time the Swordsman of Six couldn’t contain his annoyance. He spoke to the group at large, with an amazing display of passive-aggressive morale boosting.
“This is a group effort by the Walled Cities. I do not know you all—but my name is Zeter of Manus. I pledge to do my utmost to leave no one behind. However, we will only survive if everyone is disciplined and follows the plan.”
Mivifa saw her Pegasus mount put a wing over her face. Mivifa felt like doing the same. Zeter—or Sixswords as Saliss had dubbed him, and that was going to stick as a nickname, wasn’t the right personality type to gel with Saliss. The [Alchemist]’s head slowly rotated around on his neck with incredibly—unsettling—delight on his features.
He sauntered over and peered up at Sixswords. The [Swordsmaster] was wearing armor and taller than Saliss; the Drake peered up at Sixswords with a huge smile on his face that struck Mivifa and the others watching as sinister.
“Hey, Sixswords. Want to say that to my face, huh, huh? Why don’t you all go and launch this assault yourselves?”
Saliss poked the Drake in the armor. Sixswords glowered.
“No, I get it. I’ll foul you up. Tell you what. I’ll cover you all running out, howsaboutthat, huh? You all go in. Three Named Adventurers and Creler-fodder?”
The Gold-ranks stirred. Was that them? Sixswords visibly hesitated.
The [Ambush Commander] was not having a good time. Saliss looked at him.
“No, shush. You know why that’s not going to happen? Because you need me.”
He jabbed a thumb claw into his chest, overbalanced, and fell on his back. The Drake spoke to the sky as everyone stared at him.
“Because I’m Saliss of Lights. And all of you cowards are backing me up. But there’s no one stupid enough to attack the Hives on their own. Me? Give me the scrolls and I’ll do it myself. Go on.”
He waved a claw at Sixswords. The Named Adventurer said nothing. Saliss slowly got up, swearing, and grinned at the affronted Gold-rank teams.
“This is what it means to be Named Rank, you Golds. It’s not about being good at your job. Look at Shriekblade, over there! She’ll run into the Hivelands naked!”
“Is that the mission?”
Saliss laughed so hard he fell over again. Mivifa felt compelled to intercede at this point; it was that or let Saliss continue. And entertainingly painful as that might be—they were on a time limit.
“Saliss. Enough. We know the plan. We’re ready to teleport, [Mages].”
“Very well. Group One will begin casting immediately after teleport. After the spell finishes—your scrolls will warp our magic. Adventurer Saliss, with Group One, please.”
“On my way!”
The Drake rolled over the ground without bothering to get up. The Fissival [Mages] stared as he lay in the teleportation circle pre-programmed to the coordinates. Mivifa sighed.
Something must have gone really wrong in Pallass. She hadn’t seen Saliss in this mood for a long time and she’d known him since he returned from Chandrar. But he’d already been the top solo Gold-rank and then…
The Antinium Wars had turned him into Saliss of Lights.
Three [Earthquake] scrolls had been provided for the purpose of damaging the Antinium’s project. Shriekblade, Saliss, and Mivifa were all entrusted with one scroll each. They were Group One.
The plan was simple. Group One teleported in and began casting. The Antinium had no spellcasting might of their own and Xrn was confirmed in Liscor. Therefore, Group One would begin the [Earthquake] spell. Almost right after that, Group Two, with Sixswords and the Gold-rank teams would teleport away from Group One and cause a diversion.
Both sides would retreat the moment the Tier 6 spell activated. They’d reach the waiting camp, here, and teleport further way.
It wasn’t new to Mivifa. Or the Antinium. The Hives and the Walled Cities were at ‘peace’. But raids crossing the border like this were common. Killing a Queen or destroying a city—well, both sides had danced on the edge of war before. One mistake and it could be the Third Antinium War.
And even if not—the adventurers were pawns in this conflict. They could die and they wouldn’t have been here. No wonder everyone but Saliss was tense.
The Gold-ranks were muttering. They knew they were the diversion and the three Named-ranks were the real attack and thus the ones most at risk when the Antinium got angry. But Saliss was not great at making friends when he was being his most annoying.
“He shows up late, he’s drunk, and disrespects all our cities? Pallass for you. Do you think he’ll even throw straight when the Black Tide marches?”
Another Gold-rank snorted as he adjusted the glowing javelins ready to throw.
“We would have been better served by a [Slinger] with his potions. Just because he can make high-quality potions—”
It was just nervous-talk, and Saliss had certainly earned some ire. But as Group One’s teleportation circle lit up and they waited to be sent to their destination, someone felt compelled to speak up.
And that was the Drake with the huge greatsword on his back. He leaned over.
“Hey rookies. Shut the hell up.”
It took the Gold-ranks a moment to realize the Swordsman of Six was referring to them. They also then realized—the Swordsman of Six was glaring. He nodded at Saliss, giggling as the [Mages] snapped at him to lie still.
“Saliss is the most annoying Named Adventurer on the con—one of the most annoying. If he mouths off, ignore him or do something about it, but don’t speak ill of his fighting abilities. That’s Chaldion’s grandson. [Grand Strategist] Chaldion of Pallass.”
The others hesitated. There was a name. An old name, from before the Antinium Wars, even. Sixswords nodded as the light became blinding.
“That old Drake taught his kids to be first-class [Generals] and [Warriors]. When the Black Tide comes for us—you’ll want that damn Drake in front of you.”
The Gold-ranks stared at the Swordsman of Six. Some nodded respectfully. Say what you will, but Zeter was willing to acknowledge Saliss’ abilities. It was the [Alchemist] who seemed determined to hold a grudge. Discord between Named Adventurers? Well—it made sense. But he’d doled out lavish praise there for Saliss.
He just…really…shouldn’t have said that part about Chaldion. Mivifa looked down at Saliss. The Drake had been lying there, eyes closed, ready to do his job—however reluctantly. But at Sixsword’s words, his eyes snapped open. His head rose.
The Drake began to stand, but one of the [Mages] shouted.
“Stay still, you are about to teleport, you idiot!”
Saliss didn’t get up. But he called out to Group Two and Sixswords.
“Hey Sixswords? You’re an idiot.”
The Named Adventurer swung around. Saliss pointed at the second group.
“The Black Tide comes for us? We’re on a stealth mission. We’re casting one spell and running away. We’re not heroes. You know what the difference between us is? I’d run over the border naked if they asked me. You need a bunch of teams backing you up. If you want to be a real Named-rank, why don’t you walk through the Bloodfields a few t—”
They winked out of existence as the first [Long-range Teleportation] spell activated. The [Mages] staggered, and began casting the second.
In the unpleasant silence that followed, someone whistled under their breath. They’d heard Saliss could be annoying, but not tetchy. What crawled under his scales?
Then the second group teleported out. And the mission began.
Chaldion, [Grand Strategist] of Pallass, was monitoring the events as they unfolded in real-time. They had [Scrying] spells, after all, and unlike most modern enemies, their foes were magically deficient. It should have been ridiculously easy to win against a foe that couldn’t resist a basic [Sleep] spell.
But the Antinium—you didn’t underestimate them. The Drake watched as both groups appeared in flashes of light. And he knew their progress was being monitored.
“All six Walled Cities are online in real-time communication. Manus, you have speech.”
A voice was speaking in the background. Fissival was in charge of the magical communications network. Chaldion listened as a female voice replied.
“Both teams are in position. Distraction commencing. No irregularities so far aside from minor time delay.”
That was Dragonspeaker Luciva herself. Chaldion smiled. She would not normally be in charge of reporting the call. But any good operation had multiple outcomes.
In this case—they were testing the strength of their inter-city communications as well as the information Wistram had provided. How much could the Academy ‘hear’? How good was their intelligence?
Yet that was secondary to the action below. Chaldion was watching.
Saliss of Lights, Mivifa the Oldblood of Feathers, and Shriekblade had spread out. They were casting and however the [Alchemist] had been behaving—he’d teleported in on his back—he was all business now.
It was just a triangle, backs to each other, spread out as the [Earthquake] scrolls activated. Saliss was ready to throw potions, Mivifa and Feathi were ready to take to the skies—to evacuate both Named Ranks if need be. As for Shriekblade—she had her daggers out and was crouched.
Three Named Ranks. And on the other orb, Chaldion saw the diversion beginning.
“Set up trap spells! [Tremor]!”
One of the [Mages] cast a lesser spell by striking the ground with his staff. A second Gold-rank produced a custom-made chest and opened it—tipping the contents into one of the Antinium’s covert entrances.
Tonnes of water spilled outwards in a second. The custom-made Chest of Holding was filled with seawater. Meanwhile, the other [Mages] and [Archers] began bombarding the ground with explosive spells and munitions. They were trying to grab the Antinium’s attention from the Grand Hive—
And it worked. Within less than a minute, the first Soldier appeared. It charged out of the tunnels, the first of hundreds.
An arrow blew it to bits. Chaldion watched as the report came in, with barely a second’s delay.
“Contact. Soldiers are emerging.”
“Let’s see if we pinpointed all the tunnels. Mark them.”
Chaldion murmured to one of the younger [Strategists] who was on the job at once. He watched.
“Formation holding. Request—[Grand Strategist] use terrain changing Skill when—”
“I am aware, Manus. Let’s see how the adventurers do.”
Silence. The adventurers were set up and Sixswords had one of the paths.
They were funneling the Antinium. In the first war, the Drakes hadn’t known how to fight. This time—it was a tested strategy. Chaldion had come up with it.
[Wall of Steel]—no lesser spell. Fortification spells on the ground to prevent the Antinium from simply tunneling under the feet. A group of high-level fighters could hold the Antinium—so long as they could fight off the press of Soldiers.
This group of adventurers had left three avenues for the Antinium to attack from. The Grand Hive had the largest number of Prognugators and every variety of Antinium—but Antinium were Antinium.
Low-level. Unable to break through the whirling blades around the Swordsman of Six. Two of his blades were dancing in the air, covering him as he swung and cut down Soldiers charging at him. The other Gold-rank teams were casting spells and loosing arrows—and the Antinium couldn’t close. They were running into a wall of fire, reminiscent of the Couriers fighting [Assassins].
However. Like the Couriers, the Gold-ranks couldn’t sustain this forever, or even long. Soon, their magical reserves and ammunition and Skills would run low. They’d start taking wounds—one of the [Warriors] in front was already staggering back, struck by an arrow.
“Workers with bows. Adventurer Hesil is healing. Formation sustained.”
Chaldion nodded. He didn’t budge. He’d seen the Antinium break this formation. General Sserys must have employed it when he attacked the Grand Hive. He had still fallen.
When the Gold-ranks began to tire, the flow of ‘ordinary’ Soldiers would get nasty. Stealthed Silent Antinium, acid-spitting Flying Antinium, and Armored Antinium would enter to break the lines.
And Prognugators. They’d be in reserve, coordinating the attack. They would emerge to deal the final blow. Killing one of them would be a bonus.
“Status of Gold Ranks?”
An urgent voice from Oteslia. The First Gardener. She was here to ‘attract’ Wistram’s eyes if they were listening in. It still annoyed Chaldion.
She had eyes. She could see they were still just casting the spells, on the lookout but unmolested as of yet. The Antinium had very few detection capabilities if the adventurers kept silent and didn’t move. Oteslia’s precious Mivifa was fine.
“Wounded, Adventurer Shekris. Worker with bows.”
Chaldion frowned. Two Gold-ranks? Those were fast wounds compared to those on record.
“Someone’s coordinating their attack. And those weren’t regular arrows. That was a Skill.”
“Analysis suggests [Piercing Arrow].”
“Zeres confirms, [Piercing Arrow]. Worker in excess of Level 10? Speculation: Free Antinium.”
Free Antinium. Chaldion twitched. They were a wildcard. Skills…the Antinium were dangerous enough without Skills.
“Manus, suggestion: search and destroy higher-level Worker? Swordsman of Six—”
“Denied. Hold formation. There is a [Strategist] among the Antinium.”
Chaldion overruled it. They weren’t here to take risks. Manus was getting bloodthirsty, seeing the Workers turned to ash or cut down. How many had fallen? Four hundred?
It was nothing. That was how they lost Gold-rank teams and perhaps even a Named Adventurer. They grew overconfident. Antinium could throw themselves into battle for ages. Chaldion was counting.
“Pallass. Spell activation in one minute. Be prepared.”
He didn’t see the [Strategist] who’d made the statue to General Sserys. Just Antinium pouring out of the tunnels. Regular Soldiers…the Hives were treating this like another raid. They weren’t risking valuable assets. They might be aware, but—
The scrolls activated on the second scrying orb just ahead of Chaldion’s internal countdown. He saw the second image shake, and shouts from the others.
“Let’s go, Mivi, Shrieky!”
Saliss leapt into the air impossibly high. Potion of Jumping. He’d been prepared; Mivifa was already flying upwards. Her Pegasus caught Saliss and then Shriekblade as the two rose.
The earthquake’s tremors were felt even in the other orb, if far less this far away from the concentrated area of impact. The adventurers looked up.
“That’s the spell! Wait for confirm—we’re clear! Go, go!”
The communication spell was a mess of chatter; Chaldion was listening to the adventurers’ communications at the same time as the [Strategists] barked at the adventurers to retreat now.
The Gold-ranks were only too happy to oblige. They grabbed [Lesser Teleport] scrolls or cast the spell and blinked out of their formation. The Swordsman of Six was last. He vanished as he speared a Soldier through. They covered the scene at once, but the adventurers were gone.
“Move the [Scrying] spell to Evac Point A!”
One of the [Strategists] shouted. A [Mage] was already calibrating the orb. Both flickered—and the adventurers appeared again. Chaldion saw Saliss, Shriekblade, and Mivifa in one orb, flying towards the border under a [Haste] potion. In the other orb, the adventurers had appeared, teleporting a short distance away from the Hives.
“[Haste] spells active on Group Two. [Expeditious Retreat]!”
A [Strategist] used a Skill and the adventurers sped up. Not all [Strategists] could use their Skills at range; but obviously the Walled Cities had all kinds of specialists. The second group with the Swordsman of Six ran. And Antinium were already moving, pouring out of more tunnels to catch them.
Flying Antinium, now. Chaldion’s eyes narrowed as he saw them emerge from their Hive and the Grand Queen’s Hive in other views. But they were still slower than adventurers under multiple effects. Group Two was running—they’d teleport again, leapfrogging their way back towards the evacuation point where a long-range [Teleportation] spell would take them into Manus’ aegis.
“Flying Antinium are pursuing Group One. Unable to reach fighting altitudes. Monitoring…”
The Flying Antinium were leaping from cliffs, beating their wings but gliding downwards, trying to attack the Oldblood of Feathers as she flew south. It was comical—until you saw how many Flying Antinium were gathered below.
One bowshot, one fall and several thousand would swarm you in the first seconds. And more were coming out, furious at the attack on one of the Hives. Worse—
“The Flying Antinium are employing leapfrog strategy. Be advised—Group One is coming under attack.”
They were smart enough to bypass the Flying Antinium’s inability to actually fly.
The mass of insects below rose up like a wave. This time they leapt, a first wave launching into the air with powerful wing beats and legs. And a second wave, perfectly coordinated behind them, and the third…
The first wave dropped after flying their maximum height. But the second wave landed on them and shoved off. They leapt a second time gaining in height—and successive waves added to their height. Chaldion watched several hundred reach the altitude Feathi was flying at. The Pegasus was straining for more height with two riders. The Flying Antinium opened their maws to spit acid or tear—
“Contact. Saliss of Lights intercepting.”
Chaldion closed his eye of flesh as he saw the flash. The first group of Flying Antinium fell to earth as lightning flashed across them. A lone Drake stood up as he clung to the Pegasus’ stirrups. Mivifa and Shriekblade were waiting, ready to fight; Mivifa was shooting arrows from an enchanted bow.
But it was Saliss of Lights who threw potions, snaring the Flying Antinium in webs. Glowing bottles exploding in fire or lightning.
They couldn’t get close. The Named Adventurer hurled a bottle downwards and the Flying Antinium split up too late. Fire bloomed below.
“Casualties among the Flying Antinium mounting. Count: two hundred and rising…”
Satisfaction in the speaker’s voice. It came from Fissival. Chaldion heard murmurs as well. Antinium were dying.
He did not smile. He watched as the Flying Antinium’s attempts to reach the fliers slowed. They milled about below, and then drew back as Saliss tossed more potions down. He set himself, not overconfident, not careless—
Just like he’d been taught. He was not smiling either. Chaldion had taught Saliss himself, in the days before the Drake had gone off to Chandrar. And though too much had passed since then—they both felt it.
“Pallass. Grand Strategist Chaldion speaking. Something is wrong.”
“This is too easy.”
“What? What’s wrong?”
Mivifa screamed around the howling wind of their passage through the night sky. Saliss shouted back.
“This. Is. Too. Easy! Something’s wrong! Be alert!”
She stared at him, but then nodded.
“Feathi, follow me! We’re meeting with Group Two early!”
The Named Rank broke off from their assigned course. Shriekblade adjusted her posture and Saliss looked around, scanning everywhere for…something.
They were adventurers. Moreover, Saliss had done this more times than he could count. This was going far, far too well. Plans never worked like you wanted them to. Something was wrong.
Or maybe it wasn’t. Sometimes plans worked so well you hoped something little would go wrong because you didn’t believe it was this perfect. Either way—Saliss was ready.
He saw the Flying Antinium following at a distance. Saliss debated tossing another potion to make them retreat.
Lightning in a bottle. He could throw something a lot farther and faster than anyone expected. And a lot at once. It was like he was made to kill Antinium.
How many was that, then? Two hundred? Four hundred? Let’s see. Four hundred Birds…what would they say? What would Erin say?
Did it matter? No, not really. Bird was right. Saliss just wanted to feel bad. But he…didn’t.
From up here they were too far away. Too different, too strange and monstrous as they flew up, trying to kill the people he knew. Too alien.
They were enemies. Bird—Bird would be hard because he had a name. These were soldiers. Drones. The species who’d overrun cities and slaughtered people.
The Black Tide. Saliss had killed Human [Soldiers]. He’d killed Antinium. Presumably, Humans had families, loved ones, hopes and dreams.
War meant you killed them and thought about it after. Saliss was here to destroy Antinium so they wouldn’t turn Izril into the Hivelands, slaughter millions.
He wished he felt guiltier about it, even so.
“I see Group Two! They’re right below us!”
Mivifa screamed. Saliss jerked. How long had he been in a trance? He swore, checked all around. Group Two! Were they—
Fine? They were racing across the ground, right on schedule. Saliss blinked. No casualties—wait.
“Potion of Eagle’s Eye.”
He flicked it into his mouth too fast to see. Saliss squinted.
Arrow wounds? Looks like someone chewed them up. Anand? Specialist archers?
But they’d escaped. Saliss sat back. And he got more worried.
Was it really just a perfect plan that the Antinium couldn’t counter? True, they had minutes of warning at best. Or perhaps—how much damage had they done to the Armored Hive? Saliss was counting in his head. They were moving fast, having teleported in and [Haste]-speed and teleportation spells carrying them back to the evac point.
Time to escape? Six minutes.
A whole lot of time for things to go wrong in.
Anand, known to some as ‘Anand the [Strategist]’, was a [Strike Strategist]. An expert in rapid attacks and retreats. But in this moment, here—
He had to admit he was still just a juvenile learner on a larger chess board. A pawn piece, who had yet to be promoted to a higher level to make an Erin-analogy. Then again…Pawn would have been very helpful.
Confusing, that. Anand picked his way across the Hive towards the Grand Queen. The first rush of adrenaline and chaos was over. Soldiers were dead.
So many dead, so fast. He had seen the adventurers destroying them like—like—nothing. Anand had tried, he had. But the few Free Antinium had barely scratched them even with Anand coordinating their arrows.
Also—he had feared to send in the Painted Soldiers. Feared that they would die without doing anything. They weren’t that high-level.
Guilt tore at Anand. He had been so relieved when the other Queens told him not to send his people in. But they were all his people.
“Armored Queen. Your status?”
The Grand Queen was speaking into a mirror. The other Queens were speaking at once. Calmly.
“My Antinium are still following—we can attack the adventurers, but that Drake, Saliss, is destroying any cluster larger than six from above…”
“Stalking them, but their speed eclipses my fastest Silent Antinium.”
“My Hive…is intact, Grand Queen. However—my Steelclad project has been greatly damaged. I calculate…53% of the Birther sacs damaged and the rest disrupted…”
Great damage. Anand thought of the giant Antinium the Armored Queen had called her greatest folly. She herself—looked injured.
“You are bleeding.”
The Grand Queen observed. The Armored Queen felt at her sides; Workers were rushing to her with potions.
“Superficial injuries. My Hive’s progress has been set back greatly. Some of the forges were also damaged…”
A vicious blow. Anand felt for the Armored Queen as she visibly struggled to contain the chaos. How had they known? The Grand Queen was moving her feelers rapidly.
“Your position may be in jeopardy, Armored Queen. All of ours are. [Scrying] spells may have penetrated our Hives. I order all Queens to move their position.”
The Queens were frightened. Anand felt that too and that frightened him. And it wasn’t unjustified—that was a precision strike to the Armored Hive’s secret project. How had the Drakes known?
The [Strategist] thought and a few obvious answers came to him. Among them was the truth. But—he was working at a disadvantage. He had no way to know that there were [Mages] celebrating and toasting each other as they watched through the Grand Queen’s large mirror. Or Drakes who had the same intelligence. He could only suspect.
As the Grand Queen began moving towards a secondary chamber and the Wistram [Mages] began taking notes, Anand surveyed the other Queens. Two were coordinating attacks with the Grand Queen on the fleeing adventurer groups, albeit without much hope.
The Silent Queen and Flying Queen were occupied with that. The Armored Queen was refusing to move her position, devoting her every energy to saving one more Birther sac, one more forge…
And of course, that left two more Queens.
“Anand. You are safe and the Free Antinium delegation unharmed?”
The Free Queen spoke directly to him. Anand nodded.
“Yes, my Queen. We did not participate in the defense aside from attacks at range. I regret to say none of the…enemy were slain.”
Adventurers. No, the enemy. Here they were the enemy. In Liscor—they were adventurers. Like the Halfseekers or Griffon Hunt or the Horns…
The Free Queen seemed to understand Anand’s suddenly complicated thoughts. She nodded.
“Remain safe. You are an asset. Twisted Queen, is your Hive safe?”
She and Anand turned to the last mirror. The Twisted Queen sat there, unmoved throughout everything. When she spoke—she terrified Anand. He had had…nightmares…of her about to drop him in the Birther sac.
“My. Hive. Is most removed. No casualties. No. Disturbance.”
“I see. Then where is Klbkchhezeim? Anand?”
The Free Queen turned away from the Twisted Queen, as if speaking overlong to her bothered her as much as Anand. He hesitated.
“I do not know, my Queen.”
The Free Queen stopped.
“He would surely be first to defend the Hives. Was he injured in the attack? Find him.”
It was all happening so fast. Less than twenty minutes had passed since the attack. Anand nodded. He’d gather the Free Antinium, find Klbkch…he saw the Twisted Queen lift a feeler.
“No. That. Is not necessary. My Queen.”
She addressed the Grand Queen, who was reaching for the mirror as she prepared to move with a full-guard of Custodium around her. The Grand queen paused, and the other Queens looked up. The Twisted Queen smiled with her half of a mandible.
“I request a link.”
Klbkchhezeim of the Centenium sat with an old friend.
It was nostalgic. He was not the same as he had been in those old days. In either form or spirit or…strength.
But at times like this, he remembered. More closely with Wrymvr than Xrn. They were more alike, in some ways.
“The Twisted Queen is informing the others?”
Only, it wasn’t verbal words, but a mental word. Wrymvr had not been given the ability to speak in the same way as the other Antinium. He could—but that was an adaptation. It was far easier for him to speak like all True Antinium did.
The Antinium rose to his feet. The two familiar swords in his hands. They were rather like silver swords. A strange metal, Relc had once remarked. The Custodium bore copies of them. Only…well, you could call it metal if you wanted to.
They came from Rhir, and forges so strange to the sensibilities of other species. Klbkch lifted them now, feeling they were lighter than before. But still heavy. Once, they had been effortless to swing.
An appendage blocked his path. Wrymvr. The giant Centenium spoke.
“Are. You. Prepared?”
Klbkch started. A smaller mouth in one of Wrymvr’s maws. The…eyes…winked at him as the vast Antinium regarded Klbkch.
“Of course I am, Wrymvr.”
“You do not seem to be.”
Klbkch was astonished by the statement. Then—he saw what Wrymvr saw.
A slight, unique Antinium with considerable alterations to the standard Worker build. Bearing two swords. Not nearly as impressive as Wrymvr or Xrn’s forms. So different from when they had left home.
And also—the dissonance in how Wrymvr saw Klbkch. Form, without substance. Like an empty shell. That was how the Centenium thought of it.
That was the blessing of the True Antinium and what had stopped the war between the first Hives of proto-Antinium before the First Queen had unified them.
See through my eyes. See my perspective. It made them closer than individuals trying to explain with faulty words what language had no expressions for. A people.
“I see what you mean. One moment.”
Klbkch stood there a moment. He had indeed been off. Though he had not realized it himself. Klbkch—it had been exceedingly odd to fight representatives of the Walled Cities. For Senior Guardsman Klbkch, that was.
The Slayer had no such qualms.
The Centenium turned.
“Ready. Stick to the plan. Try not to die, Wrymvr.”
The other Antinium laughed as they emerged.
“Everything’s going too well.”
Saliss looked around. Sixswords didn’t answer him. The other adventurers, Gold-rank and Named, slowed.
They were crossing towards the border of the Hivelands. Saliss’ scales were prickling. It wasn’t a Skill, but intuition. [Dangersense]—was little use here. The Hivelands were danger.
They’d nearly made it. The Antinium were pursuing, but as anyone could have told you, they’d fallen behind the Skills and spells and potions increasing the adventurers’ speed. Saliss shook his head.
He hadn’t stopped running as he repeated himself. Sixswords adjusted his grip. He looked up at Mivifa flying overhead with Feathi. They were flying past some large cumulonimbus clouds in the sky.
“Stick to the plan.”
“I could have run in there myself, blown everything to bits and run away. But no…you’re all so fragile.”
Saliss grumbled. He was the only nudist here; even Feathi wore custom armor made for Pegasi. But he felt like most of the others were naked.
“[Ambush Commander] reports all’s in readiness. Let’s go.”
One of the Gold-rank Captains snapped, coming off a brief exchange with the camp. Saliss gritted his teeth.
“Just get ready, alright?”
He ran with the group of adventurers as they surged ahead. Above them, Mivifa and Feathi were looking ahead. They flew into the large clouds above. Saliss’ head snapped up.
She vanished. The Drake stopped in his tracks. His claws blurred.
Damn. Potion of Jumping, Potion of Levitation could give him—
Sixswords and Shriekblade halted. Saliss drew two glowing potions from his belt.
Lightning. It was so damn hard to fight in the skies. Damn, damn, damn—they should have made Shriekblade or Saliss ride with Mivifa!
“Up there! Aim up—”
He pointed towards the cloud. The others whirled. Bows rose, wands pointed. Mivifa—
…Emerged from the clouds. She saw the adventurers braced, and swooped down.
“Oh. I thought—something was lurking up there.”
Saliss lowered the potions he’d been about to quaff. The [Flier] gave him a long look as the other adventurers relaxed, swearing.
“I send tracer spells into each cloud, Saliss. It was empty.”
“Sorry. I was just thinking of something that could fly.”
Sixsword’s grip tightened on his sword hilt. The others stopped. And Saliss felt a little surge of anticipation. If there was anyone he wanted to meet—
Sorry, Saliss wanted to say. He’d say it later. It was just a thought. The adventurers ran on. Just over twenty minutes to the evacuation spot. Twenty one minutes of fighting since they’d been teleported out. Saliss had been ready to meet…
He’d told Erin one lie. It hadn’t been an ‘Armored Crawler’ in Shirka’s village. Those were bad. But that day, Saliss hadn’t killed the monster. He’d just saved a little girl. Barely escaped, really.
The temporary fortifications appeared in the distance. Sixsword shouted.
“Prepared to teleport out! Activate barrier spells as soon as the Antinium close within four hundred f—”
He stopped. The adventurers skidded to a halt. The camp, the glowing teleportation sigils set up, emplacements for barrier spells, was occupied. The people within it turned.
An Antinium with two swords turned and something spread its wings. Soldiers, misshapen, and little scurrying things turned. Saliss saw them clearly with his alchemy-enhanced vision.
Ah, so that was where they were. The worst Antinium to fight. The most active ones who raided Drakes for every attack on their Hives.
Twisted Antinium. They filled the camp. Of the Drakes, the [Mages]—nothing.
“But I just talked to the [Ambush…”
“Back! Form a defensive line! Manus, our escape route is cut off!”
The Swordsman of Six roared into a speaking stone. The Twisted Antinium moved forwards as one. They charged the stunned adventurers—
The first fireball blasted them apart. The Gold-rank [Mage] lowered her staff. Shriekblade threw a dagger, which split into seven. Antinium fell.
The two Centenium watched from the back. There were hundreds of Twisted Antinium and they didn’t fall into the neat classification. Worker, Soldier—
A bloated Worker lunged and Mivifa shot it before it could detonate.
“Twisted Antinium explode! [Archers], bring them down first!”
The adventurers were retreating. A wall of metal rose from the ground, and a barrier spell appeared. Defend—it was instinctual to them. The Walled Cities were sending fliers, reserves to their position.
Hold out and defend. Then escape. The Twisted Antinium charged. And again—they were obliterated.
An enchanted arrow blew apart a cluster of Soldiers enhanced with the Creler-derived armor. They were sturdy—not that sturdy. The Twisted Queen felt them die; they were close enough to her position for her to coordinate them.
But one Queen was as effective as a [Strategist]. A Gold-rank adventurer was simply too strong.
Watch. She saw a Soldier punch a shield helplessly until the Drake brought the mace down and struck it. Some of the adventurers could literally be struck all day and night by the Soldier’s fists and it wouldn’t be enough.
Well…in another time. In another place, the Antinium would have blades to cut through magic. Speed unparalleled. And yes, flight. They had none of these things now among their forces, just remnants.
However, one thing remained. The Twisted Queen felt someone tug on her. Not physically. It was like a nudge. She smiled. And reached out.
Twisted Queen is here.
Silent Queen joins.
Grand Queen wills it.
Flying Queen participating.
Unistasis Network activated.
Four of six. Then—the individual voices were lost. The Twisted Queen ceased to be ‘her’.
Her body was there. But her mind was part of a whole and thus incomprehensible from the rest. A body was a piece, a vessel of knowledge that was ‘the Twisted Queen’. But the combined mind of four was superior to the parts.
Alas! For a moment, the network of minds spared, as it always did, regret. Because four Queens was such a small number!
But it was possible with two, or more of the True Antinium, to join together. To share information, understanding across distance. And when a Unistasis Network formed…
The mind refocused on the battle with the Twisted Antinium, and the other Antinium now coming at the adventurers from the other side. Now—it wasn’t as chaotic. Everything was slower, easier to process. And the Antinium—
Twitched. Mivifa saw a Soldier dodge an arrow by moving its head left. The Antinium kept running. She put another arrow to her shortbow, loosed it.
Too fast to dodge. So the Antinium just ran into the arrow as it detonated. Good! But that movement—
The [Shieldbearer] with the mace had been clubbing down the Twisted Soldiers as they came at him. Suddenly, though, two came at him from either side.
Still an easy fight. Only, these two dodged his swinging mace. They weren’t physically faster, but they reacted incomparably quickly. One struck the Drake between the eyes. The other grabbed his arms. They were going to throw him out of formation—
“[Sword Art: Serpent Dance]! [Mages], Forcewall! Buy us time!”
A sword flickered around the Drake screaming for help and cut both Twisted Antinium down. Mivifa lowered her bow and saw one of the dancing, hovering swords of the Swordsman of Six return to him. He bellowed and the [Mages] threw up [Forcewalls].
Instantly, the Antinium rushed at them, battering at the barriers as the [Mages] groaned and poured more mana into the spell. Mivifa saw the Antinium moving—no longer crashing into each other, but moving like a dance.
“Ancestor’s blood. They’re being led by Queens! We need to get out of here now!”
Even the few Antinium with bows were aiming like Level 23 [Marksmen]. Mivifa shouted.
“Feathi, stay high! Stay out of reach!”
The Pegasus stopped dive-bombing the Flying Antinium in the skies. Sixswords looked around.
“Shriekblade, take our flank! Do whatever it takes to keep them off us! Mivifa—get to the air!”
“But you need me—”
“Just keep them from landing on us! Rally to me! Manus, we need to get out of here! Where’s Saliss?”
Saliss? The other adventurers looked around. Mivifa realized—in these first minutes of fighting for her life—she hadn’t heard or seen the systematic explosions that was Saliss of Lights. The Antinium closed in as Sixswords took the front.
“Saliss? Keep an eye on the Prognugators! Saliss?”
Shriekblade was fighting with the same perfect grace and lack of emotion as the Twisted Antinium on the flanks. Mivifa launched herself up, diving past a Flying Antinium as she readied the lance she carried. Damn, damn—
Wrymvr the Deathless leapt. The Centenium had been still after the first encounter, like the Slayer. Now, he launched. Straight at Mivifa.
“Mivifa! Get down!”
Zeter turned as he saw the Centenium launch. The Oldblood of Feathers twisted. She lifted her lance, but what did she even hit? The thing was huge. It looked like the Antinium version of an Adult Creler. Feathi dove, as Mivifa tried to climb. She was going to d—
It took twenty bottles at least, each one with a lightning charge, and an amplifier that increased the magnetic pull of electricity to you at least. Of course, he’d tossed more than that.
[Combination Attack: Lightning Tempest]. It was rare for someone to be able to pull a combination Skill off by themselves. But this was a bit different.
Saliss was rewarded by a bolt of lightning hitting the huge Centenium midair, and countless more striking the huge shape. At the same time, multiple Potions of Fireblast hammered the Antinium from all sides. [Delayed Throw], [Curved Arc], and so on were your friends for that trick.
The impact threw Mivifa, but Saliss spotted her climbing higher. And Wrymvr the Deathless?
The Centenium had hit the ground hard. But it seemed only stunned. It looked around as Saliss watched.
Same as last time. That same Skill had made the Greater Wyvern blink at least. Saliss jogged away as the Antinium around Wrymvr rushed forwards, creating a shield.
Adventurers were nice and protected. But the Antinium were assaulting from all sides. Saliss flicked a claw. You didn’t have to speak Skills. He had no idea why people did it, then. Just to show off?
[Remote Explosion]. The bottles he’d tossed on the ground began to detonate, blowing the encircling Antinium to bits. They might be fast—but even led by Queens, regular Antinium couldn’t dodge an exploding cask packed with bits of iron and propelled by a fiery explosion.
The adventurers were shouting—but fighting on as the Antinium milled about then refocused. That idiot, Sixswords, was shouting for Saliss.
Meanwhile, the [Alchemist], Saliss of Lights, peered at Wrymvr from behind a stunted tree on the edge of the Hivelands. Let’s see now…
The Centenium was shaking itself, casting around for him. The damn bastard. He didn’t even look hurt. Just a bit stunned and wary. Credit to the Gold-rank teams; they were throwing up every barrier they had, as if it was an Adult Creler. And sure enough, Wrymvr surged forwards, crashing through two walls of thick steel.
Saliss hurled a potion. The little bottle arced up, up, and down. It struck Wrymvr as he tore at a [Threefold Barrier] spell and reduced it to shreds. Saliss saw a little crack of splintering glass in the darkness with his night vision…
Instantly, the Centenium whirled. Saliss saw smoke rising from the top of the Centenium’s body, where the liquid had struck. He frowned. It was smoking, smoking, which was what you wanted to see—then after six seconds, the acid stopped dissolving the carapace.
Stitch my smile, what the hell was that? That was his most potent acid, three times as strong as when he’d met the Centenium the first time. He knew he could burn the thing’s outer shell! But his best acid…
Saliss tossed a few more bottles as he thought. He saw them curve up and down, landing in impossible arcs among the Antinium. They had no idea where they were coming from; the bottles detonated and broke up the attack on the adventurers. The Antinium cast around for Saliss, but they didn’t attack him as he watched Wrymvr trying to do the same.
Incidentally, Saliss was [Invisible] at the moment. Not just invisible, but rather chilly too. His scales were coated with a gel that suppressed his body’s heat. One of the scent-destroying potions that Gnolls loved…
He’d applied it instantly, the moment he’d realized the Twisted Antinium were here. If it hadn’t been for the two Centenium, and Wrymvr especially, Saliss would have just gone out potions blazing and blown up everything in a mile’s radius.
But it hadn’t worked the last time they’d met. Saliss glared at Wrymvr. Did it think like Bird? Was it a person like Erin’s Antinium?
Did it remember—
The Drake girl was very brave and silent. Saliss was panting and trying not to breathe. The Jar of Air he carried took his exhaled breath; he held it to the Drake girl’s mouth and she inhaled, exhaled.
Invisible. Odorless. But somehow the thing had seen him. Saliss used his good arm to transfer the Jar of Air to himself, then the girl as he watched the shadow the giant Centenium was casting.
His other arm was shredded. Even with his [Resistance: Acid] Skill, his scales had been burned by the acid the Antinium had spat. What the hell was that thing?
The Antinium Wars, as they were being called, had begun three months ago. The Old Man and Pallass were under siege. And this—for a moment, Saliss had thought it was a regular monster. But it was the Antinium that was wiping out settlement after settlement way behind the battle lines.
He had to move. The Drake gave the girl the Bottle of Air. He crept out, moving around the Antinium. Acid had scored its armor. He just had to get around it and hit it in the eyes—he thought the tiny holes in its body were eyes? He was sneaking up from the side when it turned and he realized it had been watching him—
Heat vision. Saliss had researched after that fight and concluded it was heat vision, or the ability to ‘sense’ the area around it like some animals had. But Wrymvr had tracked him even when flying, so he thought a tremor sense was unlikely.
Then again—it could be like damn bats. [Invisibility] spells didn’t work on bats. Fun fact. Bats did something where they could tell you were there even when you weren’t there.
Which was why Saliss was hiding behind a tree. Let’s see. Explosions? Failed. Lightning? Failed. Acid? Failed. He’d tried snap freezing Wrymvr the first time…but he had a lot more levels since then.
Could go Grimalkin on it. How thick is that armor? Plan: See if I can overheat it with enough gels. Test how invisible I am…
The other Antinium clearly couldn’t find Saliss. They’d passed this tree twice, so that meant Wrymvr was the wildcard. Saliss had a gel which, when applied, rapidly ignited because the gel itself got far beyond oxygen’s level of combustion. Pelt had demanded it for his forge.
The adventurers were fighting, perhaps dying, certainly taking wounds. But Saliss refused to rush out. He had only one enemy who had to die.
Wait. Wasn’t it two? The Drake ducked.
The silvery sword passed through the trunk of the tree. Klbkch slashed one of the jars in half, but it detonated anyways. He leapt out of the cloud of smoke and saw half a dozen jars crack in midair.
Saliss crouched, motionless, as the Slayer emerged from the second detonation area. Damn, double damn. He was quick.
Worse, that was an adventurer’s trick. The Slayer had dodged the first explosion on pure speed, but he hadn’t even needed to use whatever Skill he’d demonstrated in Liscor. Saliss read it now.
[Recaptured Sublimity]. Oh, dead Ancestors. It was unique. The Old Man was going to throw ten kinds of shit. And it sounded…
“Saliss of Lights.”
Klbkch the Slayer spoke. Saliss refused to move; the Centenium was scanning around. He whirled the thing that had saved him from the second explosion.
A cloak. Enchanted, probably blast-proof; he’d tossed it up and blocked everything. Antinium should not be allowed to have artifacts. They hadn’t used it in the First Antinium War!
…They hadn’t thought they needed to or they didn’t have any? Saliss was a statue. He didn’t move his head, or his body. Klbkch looked around. His antennae twitched and Wrymvr stopped moving towards their position.
Telepathy. Another win for the Old Man. The two Prognugators were clearly communicating. Wrymvr launched into the air and Mivifa and Feathi fled. Saliss had to help them. He just had to—
Klbkch tossed something at Saliss. Straight at him. The Drake dodged and threw the contained lightning bottle back. Up came the cloak—but the tiny vials of acid Saliss had thrown went wide and burst behind the barrier.
Saliss was on his feet, standing perfectly still behind another tree. His only exposed part was his head—so he could see.
The Slayer made a sound. His carapace was smoking, the acid eating away at him! Yes! Y—
His swords whirled. Saliss saw him slash parts of his body off where the spray had caught him. Blood ran, but the Slayer had already broken a potion. He’d cut off part of his shoulder.
The Antinium picked up the cloak after sheathing one of his swords. Saliss glared. The acid had done nothing to the silvery blade. It was actually eating away the scabbard—not the sword. Klbkch noticed and tsked.
“That scabbard is enchanted.”
And my acid should eat away mithril. Saliss saw the Slayer looking around. But—could he see Saliss or had that been a lucky guess?
The Slayer’s voice was so calm. Saliss didn’t like it. Calm meant that he was prepared, not unsettled. Experienced. Calm meant he thought he was winning.
“You…don’t appear to be trying to kill me as badly as Wrymvr. Despite being able to.”
The Slayer was looking around. He…couldn’t see Saliss? No, don’t fall for that. The Drake held still. He was working on another trick. It was just annoying since you had to coat each potion in the invisibility juice…then toss them…
“In the Antinium Wars, they gave you your name—Saliss of Lights. You destroyed an army of Antinium as your city was locked under siege.”
Klbkch was still turning, calling out. In the distance, Saliss saw a flash. Teleportation. Reinforcements or adventurers falling back? Didn’t matter. Being alone meant he could fight without worrying about catching them in a poison gas cloud.
The Slayer was still talking. Saliss tossed another bottle as the wind blew; it slowed and hovered in the air with a bit of the Potion of Levitation. Invisible, stationary. Silly Bird. You used that potion on things, not people.
“When you were young, you earned your name slaying a nest of Sandworms alone. An [Alchemist] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen who halted a monster attack on a town and killed Gold-rank monsters—survived being eaten and acid burns of over eighty percent of your body.”
Why did he know so much about Saliss? And his history? The Drake saw Klbkch turn, frown.
Mivifa dove out of the clouds, howling as a rain of acid broke over her. Adventurers cried out—Saliss held still. They had anti-acid preparations because of the Flying Antinium.
“You killed more monsters than a Gold-rank team your first year. When you returned to Izril, you were considered one of the best solo Gold-rank adventurers as well as an accomplished [Alchemist]. Just in time for the First Antinium W—”
Shut up. Saliss detonated all eighteen jars of compacted spiderweb serum at once. The liquid expanded as it shot into the air, and filled the entire radius with the sticky adhesive.
Some of the jars had been behind Klbkch, others to the sides, forming a rough circle. Saliss leapt out, a jar in hand—
He dove backwards and disappeared into the exploding jar of acid as Klbkch lashed at him. The Antinium had evaded the webs! No—
Saliss leapt into the nest of webs, panting. Klbkch halted, warily. Pieces of web were adhered to his armor. Saliss saw, at last, what was allowing him to move so fast. The Slayer reached for a bottle, downed it—
“That’s a damn Potion of Haste. You’re not allowed to use them! The files say you don’t use anything but healing potions and stamina potions!”
“Potions are for sale to everyone. True, I have never needed to use them before. Guarding Liscor is not very challenging.”
The Antinium calmly retorted. He still had the cloak, ready to block whatever Saliss threw. He eyed the Drake as Saliss checked himself in the nest of webs.
The Spidersilk serum had created a thick coating of the super-sticky stuff on the ground. But Saliss could have danced on it without a problem—so long as he was naked. Similarly, the acid which he’d leapt through to stop Klbkch did not burn his scales.
The Drake and Slayer eyed each other. Saliss slowly spread his arms, glistening with acid.
“Want a hug?”
The Antinium smiled. He looked at Saliss, and then continued in a conversational tone of voice.
“Since your involvement in the Antinium Wars, where you survived an encounter with Wrymvr and achieved your Named Rank status, you have continued to adventure sporadically, but most of your employment outside your profession of [Alchemist] has been undertaking missions on behalf of the Walled Cities, from raids on the Hive to dealing with particularly dangerous monsters.”
Saliss threw a jar of lightning at the Antinium. Klbkch blocked it with the cloak. It fell down onto the ground, the glass perfectly intact.
Fun fact. No one, not Erin or anyone else, could just throw one of Saliss’ jars like the Gold-rank adventurers had assumed. You could toss one at a wall and it’d probably stay intact. The glass was strong and expensive. To make them break, Saliss used [Remote Detonation]—
The jar exploded at Klbkch’s feet. He blocked the lightning with his cloak. Damn, but he was fast with that Potion of Haste!
The two stood there for another moment. Klbkch opened his mandibles.
“Recently, I understand you have been frequenting The Wandering Inn at Liscor. Hence my investigation into you.”
Saliss glared. This was a different kind of annoying than Wrymvr. One didn’t bother to dodge or block Saliss’ attacks. Klbkch struck Saliss as the kind of enemy that would die in one good hit—if you got that hit.
“Why are you telling me what I did? Come on, fight me! I’ll take you on, barehanded!”
He made two fists and jabbed—Klbkch swatted the invisible jar back at Saliss and the Drake ducked with an oath. It exploded behind them and set some of the webbing on fire.
The two stared at the flames in silence. Saliss turned back to Klbkch.
“That’s alchemy-boxing. Completely legal.”
Again, the smile. But Klbkch didn’t lower his guard.
“To answer your question—I am telling you because I want you to try and kill me. Wrymvr thinks you are dangerous. However, you seem surprisingly unmotivated.”
Saliss tossed an explosive at Klbkch. The Slayer vanished and leapt lightly out of the way. He paused, waiting.
“If I was Wrymvr, you would have thrown dozens more potions at me.”
That was true. Saliss threw up his claws.
“Will you let me fight him? I’m not interested in you.”
That was true for two reasons. Firstly—Saliss felt like fighting Klbkch would waste his inventory, and he needed every potion to take on that monster, that damn—
And secondly, he couldn’t conjure the same hatred against Klbkch the Slayer as Wrymvr. A month ago? Saliss would happily have burned the Antinium’s face off.
Erin. What would he say to her? Bird?
“I’m getting soft. This is your last chance. I’ll kill you. I’m just taking it easy on you because I don’t want to explain why I killed you to a certain [Innkeeper].”
Klbkch wavered. It was just a tiny flicker—and Saliss tossed the bottle down. Aha!
A huge plume of smoke erupted from the vial. Not everything Saliss made was designed to kill. Just…most things. Saliss shuffled across the web, drinking a Potion of Muffle. Klbkch’s voice echoed from the smoke.
“I left Liscor, but somehow she followed me even to war with Drakes. But Erin Solstice helped me reclaim my strength. If you won’t fight me—”
Something lanced out of the clouds. Saliss twisted, but his [Greater Dodge] Skill failed him for the first time so far. He felt at the burning line on his scales. Enchanted dagger. His eyes narrowed.
“Answer me one question.”
The Slayer stood in front of him, sword raised. Saliss bit back an oath.
“How did you find me?”
The smokescreen was absolute and he was sure Klbkch had been finding him based on the grass, or other context clues! The Slayer smiled.
“You are fighting on the Hivelands. Like your evacuation team—we listen.”
“I’ll pass on the message.”
Saliss held very still. He had a Potion of Haste in him too and [Greater Dodge]—but Klbkch had just scored him. Saliss was prepared to use one of his escape tricks and the detonation would force Klbkch to retreat—but if he used [Recaptured Sublimity] now…
“What’s the question?”
The Antinium didn’t move, save for his mandibles.
“They call you one of the Walled City’s best adventurers, even among Named Ranks. I am inclined to agree based on what I have seen. But why did an [Alchemist] become an adventurer after that first encounter?”
“I had to earn money somehow.”
Klbkch stepped in like a [Fencer]. Saliss dodged, cursing, jumped away. Klbkch cut through the smoke again and halted. Saliss had a pile of glass jars at his feet.
“Come over here and I’ll whisper a secret.”
He beckoned. Klbkch tilted his head back and forth.
“If you won’t answer—you will not get a chance to slay Wrymvr. He will kill your friend, the Oldblood of Feathers. She cannot dodge his acid forever.”
Saliss’ eyes locked onto Klbkch through the smoke separating them.
“You’d let me go and kill him?”
“I would let you try. Tell me—why did you volunteer for this mission? I heard you. You would run across the border yourself and challenge the Hives alone. Why do you fight the way you do?”
He seemed genuinely curious. Saliss bit his lip. Then he spread his arms, and laughed.
“There’s an easy answer. I didn’t care about this body getting hurt.”
It was a relief to tell someone. And his enemy? Saliss kicked the potions ahead as he walked at Klbkch. Go on, swing. Neither of us will be left.
The Antinium held still. Saliss passed him. He tapped his chest and grinned.
“This is just a vessel for me. It’s all fake.”
What irony, that he could tell an Antinium that before anyone else. Saliss was braced as he sauntered past Klbkch. For that movement, he’d detonate half of his supply—
Klbkch didn’t swing. Saliss walked on and the Slayer called out after him with a fluttering sound. Laughter? Saliss stopped as Klbkch spoke.
“Then we are two of a kind. I thought so.”
Saliss whirled. The Slayer looked right through him. Right into him, like—
The jars on the ground exploded.
The last Gold-rank adventurer vanished. Shriekblade stabbed an Antinium through the face and swept her blades around.
“Shriekblade. Retreat. That is an order.”
The Swordsman of Six, Zeter, gasped. Shriekblade saluted, touched a bound spell, and vanished.
All the adventurers on the ground had escaped, save for him. Zeter stood amid chaos. Spells were detonating around him.
Artillery. [Mages] were throwing spells from vast distances and—he looked up—they’d gotten the adventurers to a safe place.
The last [Wyvern Rider] of Fissival caught Shriekblade as she appeared two hundred feet up, outside the range of all but one Antinium. Instantly, the flier wheeled and sped away.
“Adventurer Zeter, one minute!”
“Acknowledged! Where is Mivifa?”
“Engaged with Wrymvr to buy the evacuees time!”
Above, another rain of acid drifted down. Too weak to go through the ring Zeter had worn just for this occasion. But he had heard Mivifa fighting Wrymvr.
Really—dodging the Centenium to distract it. But Zeter feared—he had heard her cry out more than once. Wrymvr the Deathless spat more than liquid poison. Gas…
He whirled his sword as an Antinium charged at him. Some vast, scuttling thing. One of the Flying Antinium’s line breakers! He lanced it four times—once with his sword, another with a phantom copy of one of his blades, and the two dancing swords he carried.
“Adventurer Zeter, hold your ground! Forty seconds or less to Wyvern evacuation!”
“Where is Saliss of Lights? I won’t evacuate without—”
Thwoom. Zeter whirled. He’d felt that.
Even amid the other bombardments, the giant explosion tore a hundred foot radius of sound and space apart. Zeter saw the nearest Antinium—and those in the air—go flying as the shockwave knocked them to pieces.
A Drake stomped out of the cloud of dust. He tossed a few bottles and the confused Antinium in front of him vanished. Zeter stared as Saliss walked past him. The [Alchemist] looked up and narrowed his eyes.
“Excuse me. I’m going to kill that Antinium.”
He pointed up. Then leapt. Zeter called out for him.
He spun. The Slayer lanced out of the darkness with two swords drawn. Zeter saw him knock aside one of the dancing blades, slash with his other sword as he blocked—
The Drake twisted before the sword cut more than the tip of his armor. Enchanted gear—he dropped the greatsword and it vanished. Change to—
The shortsword and shield wasn’t what the Swordsman of Six used often. It was, however, gear he used for killing enemy [Duelists]. He slashed and his two dancing blades cut where his shortsword didn’t.
The Slayer’s blades moved in a whirl. He was slower than Zeter! Still fast—but both had [Haste] spells on them and unlike Saliss, Zeter was a [Warrior], a [Bladesmaster]. He charged, shield raised.
Strike it, strike it, strike it—the shield would deliver a lethal retort if Klbkch did. The Slayer refused and slashed at Zeter’s stomach. Again, his sword cut armor before Zeter slashed with a roar.
He caught the Slayer! The Antinium staggered. He regarded the cut on his arm, touched it, shrugged.
“Poison is ineffective.”
The Swordsman of Six had forgotten that. He gritted his teeth. No time to change to the other swords. Time to use his best Skill.
[Sixblade Slash]! The Swordsman of Six blocked a slash and lashed out. Six swords—but the Antinium was moving out of range.
All six strikes cut the air as Klbkch stepped out of range. Zeter stared. The Antinium had just…no, wait. Klbkch flexed one arm.
The giant scimitar and the Drathian blade had caught him just at the edges. Lacerated his carapace despite the leather armor he was wearing. The Slayer must not have been able to guess how fast the scimitar cut or the invisible cutting radius around the delicate, single-edged blade from the Drathian isles.
“Hm. Deficient, still. You have the edge on me, Swordsman of Six, Zeter. Speed, equipment—not skill. I wonder about strength?”
He brought a sword up and down. Zeter raised his shield, and realized it was a feint. The Named Adventurer deflected the second sword with his shortsword with an oath.
Strong! The Antinium wasn’t as strong as Zeter either—Klbkch flexed one arm, visibly disappointed.
“Stronger than my Worker form by far. About…three times? I was quite slow. Goblins could stab me. When I let them.”
Zeter heard someone shouting in his ear. He ignored it. This was his chance! He raised his sword. [Sixblade Slash] was a variant of [Grand Slash]! He could use it more than once!
The Swordsman of Six raised his shield and tried to back up too late. He screamed.
“[Perfect Parry]—Manus, teleport me now!”
Klbkch’s blade cut him. The first blow struck the shield and activated the explosive retort. Klbkch wasn’t there to receive it. And the second—Zeter twisted desperately, trying to readjust—
Klbkch ran him through halfway. The Swordsman of Six slashed, screaming, and Klbkch vanished with his swords again. Zeter broke a potion against his side.
The Slayer reappeared, looking annoyed. Then he vanished again.
“Full bombardment! Target the Slayer!”
Arrow-spells were hitting the ground around Zeter. They were trying to cast [Lesser Teleport] to get him up! If he dared reach for a scroll—Zeter was turning, watching as the Slayer kept vanishing and reappearing, dodging spells.
“Countdown! Twenty one, twenty, nineteen—”
The Slayer lashed out, but Zeter caught the first blade, took a non-mortal wound. Heal up! Heal up! He smashed the bottles against his scales, inside his armor.
The Slayer looked annoyed. Then he seemed to have a thought.
“I wonder if I can use my Skills.”
He raised his sword. Zeter shouted into the speaking stone.
“[Silver Illusion: Whirlwind of Blades].”
The Antinium blurred. He leapt—and crashed, nearly headfirst into the ground as Zeter vanished with a scream of terror. Klbkch lay there for a second. Then he got up. He dusted himself up, and looked around.
The adventurers on the ground were gone. However…Klbkch thought this was fine. Most of the Twisted Antinium in ambush were pursuing the other Drakes in the area as the Queens directed them onwards. Everything was still fine. He waited for Wrymvr to finish his fight. Or die.
Mivifa and Feathi were melting. They dove, as the Centenium closed in. Wrymvr was not fast. Or rather—he had little agility in the air. He could go fast in a straight line, but the Pegasus and her rider were too agile for him to catch.
But—the acid. The Centenium kept spitting it. Gas, acid—too much to dodge. And Mivifa’s weapons hadn’t left a mark. Now—they were dying and it was closing in.
Wrymvr the Deathless flew at them, spitting from half a dozen orifices the nearly-invisible liquid in the night sky. Then he exploded.
Saliss landed as the fireball encapsulated the Centenium. Wrymvr fell from the sky. Mivifa halted, aborting the dive with effort.
He hit her in the face with a splash of liquid. The strongest base he had, as if she’d been doused by Acid Fly acid. Feathi too.
“Get out of here, you two!”
They took off, silently. After a second—Mivifa winked out of existence with her mount. Saliss hoped Manus had a [Toxin Healer] ready to help her. In the old days—
He was coughing. His lungs were burned. The [Healers] were trying to apply potions to him—Saliss tossed a vial down and knocked them aside as the smoke cloud covered him.
His potions. His treatments. And his lungs—unlike Mihaela Godfrey and so many other’s—survived. He had the right resistance, the right treatment. They based future cures against the Flying Antinium and Wrymvr’s toxins on his research.
Too late to do anything to Mihaela’s lungs, though. It had melted vital parts of her breathing organs, and the toxins were etched into her body. Saliss had thought as he recuperated, his broken bones mended—
“It’s an [Alchemist] who’s best to kill you. And you would be our worst nightmare. Or the biggest challenge.”
Wrymvr the Deathless rose from the ground. Unharmed by the hundred foot fall, despite the small crater it had created.
It, he? Klbkch had said ‘he’. Could the Centenium reproduce? Magical Antinium now—
Magmagel, my entire supply. Saliss hurled it all at Wrymvr. This time the Antinium seemed to try to block it. It lanced out with appendages, so much like a damn Creler, but the gel burst and covered it. It roared, multiples mouths opening, and charged at Saliss. He tossed a vial down.
Pressurized Bottle of Air—
Thwoom. Saliss landed on the ground and posed. Tada! Wrymvr turned towards him as the jars Saliss had used [Delayed Throw] to toss into the air hit the charging Centenium.
Fire. The Centenium turned into a fireball. The Magmagel, the Potions of Blaze, everything—Saliss saw an inferno consume the Centenium in a moment. And Wrymvr screamed.
For a moment. Then Saliss saw a burning shape turn towards him. He saw a flicker—
“Burn my stitches!”
Another curse from his second home. Saliss dodged whatever projectile Wrymvr had just shot at him. Exactly like an Adult Creler! But an Adult Creler—
—Would have died. Wrymvr? Charged. And now Saliss was running from an angry Centenium that was on fire.
“Would you die?”
The Drake unloaded a second arsenal of potions, mainly to slow the Centenium down as Wrymvr took off. Lightning, fire, boom!
The Centenium was knocked out of the air again. So Saliss could stop it from flying! He turned, a jar in hand—
Klbkch the Slayer stood to his left. The Drake froze.
The adventurers were gone. Oh shit. Wrymvr was getting up. Saliss whirled—
“I am not fighting.”
The Slayer walked away. The [Alchemist] stared at him. And then he felt it again.
Something was wr—
Wrymvr lunged across a hundred feet like an oncoming missile. Saliss exploded another vial of air to blow himself away. This time he used up his entire supply of spiderweb vials. That cost over a thousand gold pieces even with my discounts! Slow down, you damn—
The Centenium tore through the webs after about ten seconds. Unstoppable, unstoppable. Saliss didn’t see a damn scratch on it. However—his mind was shrilling at him.
Something was off. He should be dead! Unless—
Again, Wrymvr came for him. Saliss turned—and began running in the opposite direction. [Haste], Potion of the Gecko, Windcutter’s Gel. He zoomed in the opposite direction, turned back.
Wrymvr shrieked as he came at Saliss. He was…slow. And—Saliss narrowed his eyes. He’d barely gotten Mivifa after all that time. Was the Centenium taking it easy? He looked for the Slayer. Maybe. But also, maybe…
Was the Centenium not really that strong? It could destroy armies. But Saliss—remembered—
He’d gotten away from the Antinium. Saliss, panting, clutched the crying Drake girl.
“[Message]. Emergency. Adventurer Oliwing—emergency. Antinium has destroyed…”
Somehow, he’d survived. The thing had nearly killed him after finding him. But he’d gotten away. Had it let him go? Or was it off to destroy another town?
He kept wondering as the Pegasi found him, coughing and trying to neutralize the acid in him. Acid, crushing strength—but he’d managed to keep his distance. If he’d gotten close for a second—
“Okay. You’re…a Zel Shivertail, aren’t you?”
Saliss straightened. Ah, it made sense now. It wasn’t like the Slayer at all. How silly to think so. It really was like the Tidebreaker.
Nearly invulnerable, incredibly deadly up close—dodgeable. Probably able to chase you forever, unstoppable.
“Let’s see just how unstoppable.”
The Drake pulled out a vial. It was custom-made, and he regarded it as Wrymvr closed the gap. He’d even put a label on it. This was…well, an angry bull-man, drawn on it. Saliss closed his eyes.
They called him Saliss of Lights. As if that was his specialty as an [Alchemist]. He was good at battle potions. Explosives. But that wasn’t his main focus. His greatest achievements, his passions, all of it—
That was transmutation. The Drake downed the first potion. Then more. Wrymvr slowed as Saliss drank them down. Klbkch watched.
Saliss felt his body burning. His scales moved. His flesh bulged. Rearranging. No! Yes. No, yes—
He hated this.
This was how she’d found herself.
But it wasn’t Onieva who appeared. His true self. Remember that. Remember—
Potion of Haste. Draught of Giant’s Strength. Shapechanger’s Tincture: Scaled Minotaur. Potion of Steelscales. Overdrive Formula—
The Drake was growing taller. Klbkch and Wrymvr slowed. The form was changing into something halfway recognizable. But no species they knew.
Minotaur in form. But—scales? It was like armor. The two Centenium halted as…Saliss…opened his eyes. And for a moment, Klbkch’s mandibles opened.
As close to an Antinium Shaper Queen as he had ever seen. Of all the alchemy Klbkch had known—this drew something like admiration from him.
From Wrymvr too. The Centenium was curious. It waited as the figure turned. Klbkch hesitated.
Was the Minotaur-Drake hybrid…bleeding?
Overload. The [Alchemist] felt his body burning, wanting to dissolve. Blood was running from his mouth instead of saliva.
“[Vessel of Alchemy].”
Time limit. The bombardment resumed as Wrymvr moved. Saliss charged.
Spells landed around them as Saliss found the closest part of Wrymvr and hit it. He was no [Martial Artist]! But strong? And fast—he grabbed the mandibles of one of Wrymvr’s maws. They were trying to close on his armored arms. The magic might as well have been water on Wrymvr’s shell!
“Ancestors, just die!”
He ripped the mandibles off the Centenium. Wrymvr screamed. It spat acid on Saliss—but it couldn’t burn him! Saliss grabbed another appendage. He fought—and tore it off.
Green blood spurted from both wounds for a moment. Saliss punched again. He felt the Centenium trying to grab him, tear him apart. He heaved—Wrymvr moved back.
Pull it apart! Like a bug! Saliss wrenched at a jaw. He felt the shell cracking. Then—resistance! He heaved again and Wrymvr shrieked.
Something stabbed into Saliss’ side. He leapt away. Break the shell! He was stronger than the Centenium! He knocked aside a scythe-like blade, severed the arm. Hit Wrymvr in the side. Crack! Saliss heard it!
The Centenium threw him back. Saliss skidded. He made a sound. Like a roar and hiss at the same time. He could do it! He could—
Someone grabbed his shoulder. Saliss felt a familiar claw drag him back. He whirled. For a second he thought he saw a glowing eye.
Chaldion. The Drake looked at Saliss. It was like a cooling splash on the Drake’s head. He saw the Skill fade—and looked back.
Wrymvr was waiting. Coiled up, bleeding. But—Saliss focused on something.
Were closing. As soon as he’d damaged the armor, it was closed. Where had he ripped off the mandibles? The Centenium wasn’t even bleeding anymore. Saliss wavered as a second wave of spells hit the ground around the Centenium. And he realized what Chaldion was trying to tell him.
I can’t kill it—
Saliss reached for a potion. He put it into his mouth—and everything exploded out of him.
From every orifice, nasty as that was. Saliss vomited and fell to his knees.
Potion of Complete Purge. The overload of alchemical effects left him—worse than poison. Saliss gasped as he got up.
“How much time did that take off…?”
Wrymvr advanced. Saliss flicked a Potion of Haste into his mouth again. A second Antinium landed lightly on the ground.
“You were right, Wrymvr. Of them, this was the best one.”
“It was not enough.”
The Centenium spoke. Saliss jerked. Wrymvr the Deathless was watching him. And—Saliss saw—
Healing. It was regrowing the limbs he’d torn off. Not just closing the wounds.
Of course. Saliss closed his eyes.
“Whew. Well, you got me. Congrats!”
He applauded them. Klbkch and Wrymvr studied the Drake. Saliss spread his arms.
“You know what, I know when I’m beaten. Why don’t you just eat me? Fair’s fair. I did my best, I lost. So I’ll just roll myself up, slather myself with butter, and—die, would you?”
The [Alchemist] threw his potions. How many? As many as he could grab, as fast as he could. Magnetic attraction! Bottles of lightning! Potions of Blast! Cyclones of wind! Just blow the damn Antinium and all of Izril into ash and fire!
[Combination Attack: Lightning Tempest]. [Combination Attack: A Thousand Fireflies]. [Combination Attack: Winter’s Freeze]—
If it could regenerate, he’d blow it to bits! Destroy it so fast it wouldn’t have time to recover! No quarter, no mercy!
He was Saliss of L—
The Drake stopped, bottles in hand as the continuous explosions kept echoing for another ten seconds. He advanced—the two Antinium retreated.
“Get back here.”
They were a hundred feet away. Watching him. Wrymvr was much slower than Klbkch; its armor was torn. But they were moving away as Saliss advanced. The [Alchemist] pointed at the ground.
“Get back here and fight.”
“Do you have enough potions to kill Wrymvr, Saliss of Lights?”
Klbkch stood at a remove. Saliss bared his teeth.
“I still have potions. Enough. I’ll bill Manus later. If they can afford it. Come over here and let’s find out which one of us is dying.”
He waited. Wrymvr was making a sound. Ice and fire and lightning and acid and…so many effects that it had taken its mark. But the damage was healing. And then…
And then the Centenium spoke.
“[Body of Change: Alter Resistances]. [Threefold Elemental Body] [Greater Resistance: Acid], [Greater Resistance: Fire], [Greater Resistance: Electricity].”
Saliss dropped a potion. He picked it up, then looked at Wrymvr. The Centenium fluttered its wings. And it started laughing at him.
Wrymvr the Deathless. Centenium had levels. You just didn’t…
…need to speak Skills to use them.
Klbkch did not expect Saliss to crumble. But neither would he have been surprised if the Named Adventurer did. But Saliss of Lights—proved again why Wrymvr had remembered him from their encounter. He swore, put the potions away, and then raised a single claw.
“That just means I need four elements. Come over here and let me experiment. Kill me if you can, Antinium.”
He spread his arms wide, nude, panting and injured. Klbkch looked at him. Wrymvr laughed again. But neither drew closer.
“That one could kill you, Wrymvr.”
“Perhaps. If I was careless.”
“Wrymvr, Klbkchhezeim. Our link has ended. There is a second group of Drakes approaching. It is time.”
The two Centenium turned. The Twisted Queen’s warning was followed moments later by Wyverns and Pegasi, riders on foot.
Reinforcements. To evacuate Saliss? Or finish…? Klbkch saw the Swordsman of Six, as well as Shriekblade.
“I wonder if that is what the other Antinium seem to the Walled Cities, Wrymvr? Where as we are like…”
Klbkch nodded at Saliss. They were trying to get him to run. The Drake was watching them. He wanted to kill Wrymvr.
Wrymvr the Deathless and Klbkch the Slayer faced the small army of Drakes. They were standing off. Neither one wanted to speak. If they did—this was clearly more than an ‘accident’. If they did, this was not war.
And Klbkch did not want war any more than the Walled Cities did yet. He shook his head.
“Wrymvr. The willpower of the last of the Centenium—has worn thin after thousands of years. These last few decades more than our struggle, more than the time since She died.”
Klbkch punched Wrymvr in one of his ‘faces’. The Drakes stopped their tense standoff to watch. The Antinium spoke again.
“I mean that even so, I still see something admirable in the best of Izril’s warriors. If that Drake lives and dies ten more times, perhaps he would understand what it is to be us. Certainly—he is stronger than me.”
Wrymvr nodded at that. Klbkch rubbed at his wounds. Even with his Skill, fighting one Named Adventurer was hard enough. Wrymvr had his old body and his Skills. Klbkch had needed to focus to avoid dying every moment of the engagement, even with Saliss not doing his best to kill Klbkch. The difference…was clear.
“Antinium. This exchange has cost both sides. Will you let us collect our dead and leave or will it be further hostilities?”
One of the Drakes called out. The Centenium nearly laughed again. What rules these other species came up with. Klbkch stepped forwards and the group tensed.
Gold-ranks. High-level warriors. Commanders and support from afar. And on the other side?
Klbkch the Slayer.
Wrymvr the Deathless.
“Would you fight with us? Who are you, Drakes?”
The [Commander] bared his teeth.
“The Walled City’s finest. Enough to kill even you, Centenium.”
Klkbch and Wrymvr exchanged one more look. Klbkch shrugged and sheathed his blades. Then he remembered and took off the belt. He looped it, and his swords, around one of Wrymvr’s appendages.
“That sounds appropriately fearsome. Wrymv—”
The jaws closed with a snap. At first—Saliss just stared. Half of the Slayer’s body crumpled as his upper half clung to the bloody mandibles.
The Drakes started. Was it an accident? The—Wrymvr the Deathless had just bisected—
Klbkch’s mandibles moved. Wrymvr opened his maw. He spat part of his comrade’s body at the feet of the stunned Drakes. They had no idea what was going on.
“It seems I’ve been mortally wounded. Time to flee.”
The giant Antinium gently grabbed Klbkch’s upper half with its pincers and leapt. Everyone braced, but the Centenium was turning—turning—Klbkch fumbled for a potion.
Wrymvr had to concentrate hard to stop from laughing and dropping him.
The scream was echoed across multiple voices. The Hives were in disarray. The Antinium refocused as the Drakes saw thousands of Antinium coming at them in a sudden, maddening fury. They fled, not knowing what had happened.
Neither had the other Queens. They had only known when Klbkch took a mortal wound—until then, his vague location.
Except for one. The Twisted Queen sat upright, listening as a flurry of panicked voices broke out.
“Accidental injury? Report the damage.”
“Stay calm. He is not deceased. Stay calm—”
“We must immediately repair his body! The upgrades were not enough, not enough—”
The other four Queens were panicking, to say nothing of the Free Queen of Liscor. The Twisted Queen added her words of fear, resolve, and so on.
The Free Queen was gifted. But she was one Queen. Even if he asked, they might have bickered or held something back. Anyways, upgrading was harder than remaking from scratch.
Well, well. She waited until Klbkch was safely in the Silent Queen’s Hive and then sat back. Drake raids. The damage to the Armored Antinium’s Hive was a problem, but it was…resources. She had been more concerned with the lives of both Centenium.
Let the Walled Cities be confused. The fallacy of their thinking was that they thought this war was about resources, the lives of many. They had won their victory.
So had the Antinium.
“The end. We all win.”
The best of all scenarios. The Twisted Queen, in her twisted way, hoped the Drakes were happy while it lasted.
Saliss of Lights was…tired. Just tired.
He didn’t pay attention to the debriefing. Or speculation, recriminations, thanks or apologies. He just sat there.
Later. Later, he’d get angry. Or try to find out how to beat a monster that could resist three elements at once and heal. And figure out how much gold he’d just lost—even if the Walled Cities were going to recompense him.
Hint? They would not. Maybe 70% at best. And that remaining 30% was suddenly a lot more than his actual payment.
At the moment—he was too tired to care. Just exhausted, really. The Drake walked away from the [Wyvern Rider] who dropped him off. Mivifa would live. Whether she would have permanently scarred lungs or complications from the toxins…he’d given them all of what he had to help.
He wasn’t even mad that it was ‘unfair’. Unfair? The word was the kind of thing children said. Saliss didn’t use it. Chaldion had taught him not to use it.
And the Old Man was smart enough not to greet him or…do anything. No one picked him up from the battlements. Which was what Saliss wanted. They were probably all being very afraid and anxious and making plans, anyways.
He was just…tired of it. Saliss was. This unending war. Duty to the Walled Cities. Days where you threw everything you had at a problem and it laughed in your face.
Then we are two of a kind.
“Did you hear the news?”
Someone was babbling as Saliss pushed down the staircase on the 8th Floor. Anxious people. More bad news. He listened, for a moment, after he heard a familiar name.
Oh, they were watching one of the scrying orbs. Wistram News Network. It was Noass. No—monocle. Sir Relz. Whatever. Since Drassi wasn’t here he was reading the news. The Drake looked into the scrying orb gravely.
“This just in: news from northern Izril. Our latest report is confirmed—Mihaela Godfrey…was intercepted a hundred miles out of First Landing with five other Couriers by the Guild of Assassins. They…lost the battle. Two Couriers are dead. Lancel the Leaper and the Firedrake of—”
Someone shouted. That was a Drake Courier. The person was shushed and Saliss heard the rest.
“—tress Godfrey injured badly. Both legs broken, but…the ah, [Lord] of House Veltras made an open appeal shortly after the news broke for a cure for his sons, who are believed to be poisoned…”
That was a different kind of evil. Wrymvr—you could look at it and see something that should die. It had been made like Crelers. It was Antinium—Saliss wondered if Shirka remembered.
This? Just another thing he’d erase off the earth. If it were that easy.
The Drake was just so tired, though. Saliss watched as Tyrion Veltras’ appeal was broadcast and shook his head. Then he walked on.
Not to his lab. It was a lonely place. The [Alchemist] walked a bit. Walked into a gate. Waited by a door. Walked through the door and tossed some gold coins into a jar since someone said you had to, these days.
A naked Drake sat in a chair at a table in the corner of the room. An [Innkeeper] peeked at him.
“Hey, buddy…you seem sort of down. Everything…everything okay? Should I hit Chaldion gently or something for you?”
Why were they so alike? The Drake didn’t look up as Erin Solstice peered anxiously at his face. He was just tired. Drinking water, nibbling at fries.
The little Gnoll had come over to steal them, taken one look at Saliss, put the fries back on the plate, and gone to get Erin. Of course—she’d already been here.
“Is something wrong, Saliss? I’d like to help, if I can.”
“Can you make a multi-elemental explosive?”
He almost smiled. But he was frustrated. So—upset. The Drake’s head rose. He tried not to, but he snapped.
“I do it because I’m an adventurer. Supposedly the ‘hope of the Walled Cities’. But what about you? How do you do it?”
Erin blinked uneasily at Saliss.
The Drake looked at Erin. He shook his head. And had the guilty pleasure of watching hers wink out for a bit.
“Why are you still smiling after all the bad things that have happened?”
The [Innkeeper] sat there. And like Chaldion—like and unlike—she seemed to know that a trite answer would mean Saliss tossing the glass of water in her face. So she gave it some serious thought.
“Maybe—maybe because if I smile, other people are more likely to, right?”
“That’s a good theory. It works.”
Erin waited. Saliss smiled mirthlessly and looked up.
“There’s just one flaw in your formula. Someday. Someday, you’ll have too much bad in your life to smile. A mountain’s worth of crap for every good moment. Will you still smile then?”
In this moment, Saliss knew his words were prophetic. He looked at Erin. And his eyes said, ‘look at me. You think you’ve had enough bad days? They will come again and again. Will you be like me?’
They were rather alike after all. He was just older. So more had happened. And it had worn him down. Erin met Saliss’ gaze and shivered.
One Siege of Liscor? One Skinner attack? One skeleton and Creler nest? The Drake looked at her, daring to play the numbers game. Because he could probably name two for every one of hers. Ten?
That wasn’t the point. Erin closed her eyes again. It was also tempting to try to cheat. Give the [Alchemist] a Faerie Flower drink. A shot of glorious fire, happiness, if it was on tap.
But those were shortcuts, style that came from substance. Besides, he had a high tolerance for alcohol. So the [Innkeeper] replied.
“I choose to remember the happy days. I think I’d do that too, if I could. After all—the bad days suck. But that’s why I have happy days too, right?”
He looked up. Erin went on, spreading her hands on the table restlessly. She handed the plate of fries down to Mrsha; they were in the way.
“Back home—I had ‘happy’ days. But not as happy as when I came here. Because I never had days that super sucked. Well—a few. Still, I think it’s like that. I might have a lot of bad days in the future. I don’t want ‘em, but…”
She closed her eyes.
“My happy days don’t go away. They’re happier because of the bad days. That’s how it works. It’s like…d-diamonds in poo? No, wait. Diamonds aren’t actually that great. Daffodils in mud? Hold on…”
Saliss started laughing. It wasn’t complete, everything-is-well laughter. But it was laughter.
“That is the worst analogy I’ve ever heard.”
Erin looked embarrassed. But relieved. Saliss shook his head. He didn’t entirely agree. There could be lots of bad days. Enough to drown little flowers.
But when you were covered by it, you dug an irrigation canal and grew faerie flowers in muck. Or something. He’d work on the motivational quote. That wasn’t the point.
The point was…Saliss grabbed a handful of fries from the little Gnoll and noshed them down. Then he stretched, produced a potion, and poured it on the Gnoll.
“Thank you, Miss Solstice. For the advice.”
Mrsha the Floating wobbled past him, screaming silently. Erin almost laughed, but she was watching Saliss.
“Are you okay? I can get you more fries—you don’t have to go—”
He did the claw-guns thing at her.
“I have work to do! I’ll be back in a bit. Just—”
He was just tired. Of that kind of pointless day he’d had. Saliss stretched as he entered Pallass. Daylight fell on his scales and he realized—he’d gone all the way back into the morning.
“I have not slept in ages. What a night, huh?”
He addressed a female Dullahan going for a jog. She stared at the nude, dirty, disheveled Drake with the huge grin, and turned her head all the way away and jogged off.
Oh well. Saliss kicked into the Merchant’s Guild as it was opening. He spread his arms—looked around, and then climbed onto the [Receptionist]’s desk.
Horrified, they stared up—and immediately stared down. Saliss turned to the crowd who stared in resignation at their city’s crazy Drake.
“Excuse me! I have an announcement to make! Where’s good old Chesy, huh? Have him come out here!”
The Merchant’s Guild looked for the young Drake, who was currently hiding for fear of…everything. But Saliss was beaming. He spread his arms, and legs, and with everyone determinedly not looking up at him, he shouted.
“I, Saliss of Lights, condescend to make the antidote for the [Strategists] from Baleros! I will be accepting their plea for aid. You may now applaud!”
Since no one would do it for him, he did it for himself.
Later that day, one of the [Guards] on duty…in Liscor…had a horrible feeling. He nudged his companion.
“Tkrn. Tkrn. I have a question.”
The other Gnoll [Guard] looked up.
The Drake gravely pointed up at something.
“Is that…Saliss of Lights dancing naked on top of our gates?”
Tkrn looked up. He shaded his eyes, then immediately looked away.
“Hm. Ew. Yes.”
The two stared not-quite-at the dancing Drake, who had a new audience trying to get him down. And throwing things. Tkrn rubbed at his face.
“Now there are two. Better get Watch Captain Zevara.”
Watch Captain Qissa had cause to bring over a fine vintage of wine from Pallass, a special exception that Erin Solstice agreed to. Pricey to buy, but the Watch Captains had had a whip-round so she could break the news gently to Watch Captain Zevara. It felt like the decent thing to do.
Someday, there would be no reason to cry. Rain wouldn’t have to hide a thing. If you believed, that someday could take you through tomorrow and next month and…
After a while, Erin Solstice found a Drake waving at her from a table. She seemed friendly, and the inn wasn’t too busy. So Erin walked over.
“Hi, can I help you?”
“I don’t know, but I’d love to say ‘hello’! My name is Onieva. Hello, stranger! I hear you’ve met my weird cousin. And that he caused another scene. I’m here to pay his fine—if he has one.”
Erin’s brows shot all the way up.
“Your cousin? Waitaminute. You don’t mean…him? No way. He never mentioned—”
The Drake winked at Erin.
“I love Saliss. He’s high-level, famous, important—even if he can’t find a pair of pants to save his tail. But I’d never want to be him. Nor would he want to be me. Hi, I’m the family layabout who lives off of Saliss and Chaldion’s money. I heard this was a fun place to be, so here I am at last!”
At last indeed. Erin was confused by Onieva. Puzzled. Confuzzled. She seemed so familiar and yet…Erin was sure this was the first time she’d ever met Onieva.
Well—the Drake seemed a bit exhausted from running after Saliss. And Erin had to investigate a shortage of lumber that was suddenly plaguing the inn. Lots of wood going missing…only, the staff claimed it had been used by one of the Antinium. Not sure which one…Detective Erin was on the case. And Detective Mrsha, whose sidekick was Erin, obviously.
Onieva ate, and drank, and introduced herself to people with that bright cheeriness right before you passed out like one of the dead. After a while, someone came by to say ‘hello’.
“What are you doing here, Miss?”
Maviola El sat across from Onieva. The Drake blinked a few times at her. Ah. That was one of the reasons why she didn’t come here. The [Lady] smiled, resting her head in her hands. She looked…well, decades older.
And young at the same time. Onieva decided Saliss could guess what the duration was. She took another long drink of wine and exhaled.
“I just want to sit here and for the world to make perfect sense. Is that too much to ask?”
She waved around at the comfy inn. It was almost perfect. Almost. Montressa was sitting, staring at some potted flowers as Apista buzzed about. She’d been staring at them for the last three hours and hadn’t gotten bored.
Maviola followed Onieva’s gaze, and then gave her a nod. Tired, but in her own way. She brushed a hand across her face and looked at Onieva directly.
“Sometimes. But we have to go at some point.”
Onieva paused with a fork to her lips. Ah. Maviola rested on her hands. The Drake lowered her fork—then raised a claw.
“Up yours, Human. No one’s making me leave.”
Maviola El laughed and the two chuckled and talked for a while. Then—Onieva decided she was very tired. So she put her head down for a second.
She slept more restfully on a table amid the hubbub and in her body than she ever had in his bed.
Author’s Note: I’m back. I wrote words. And let me tell you—
I forgot to fully finalize Volume 3. It is going up as of posting and hopefully it’ll be available for sale! It’s Volume 3 – Part 1, ending at 3.25. The other half will have the rest of Volume 3 and all of Wistram Days!
Two parts isn’t me wanting more money, just so you know. It wasn’t my plan at first, but it’s mostly to cut up the e-books as they get long and allow Podium to make an audiobook without taking…Andrea’s life. This is still around 300,000 words, which I hope is enough!
That’s the news! It will be at the top of the page when the link goes live! Secondly—this was a long chapter. Was it good? I hope so! Of all three side story options—this was the longest, and what do you know? You chose it!
I don’t have much to say. Uploading Volume 3 right after this! Thank you for reading, and enduring my break! I will leave you with art and a promise to release the 2nd part of Volume 3 soon! Maybe before the year ends! M-maybe.
Thanks for reading!
Today’s art is by Cortz, who did an entire month of Inktober and deserves to be featured! Also, amazingly cute pictures of the inn and other characters by JackEnza, and a portrait of Greydath of Blades…being a cool, totally harmless old Goblin by ArtsyNada, again commissioned! Give them lots of praise!
Inktober of The Wandering Inn by Cortz!
The Crazy Human, the [Emperor], the Runner, and Salamani by JackEnza!
Greydath the Harmless by ArtsyNada!