Memento mori. It meant, in the way of such odd phrases that remained in the common tongue, ‘remember death’. It could be art, a symbol, an event—
To Lady Bethal Walchaís, it had been the sight of the famous pink carriage, overturned, broken. That was when she had known the Guild of Assassins was a true threat.
Who had invented the phrase? Why did it lie in the language that [Mages] sometimes claimed for spellcasting?
And why—Lady Bethal’s hands clenched and the [Lady of Thorn]’s gorge and temper rose—
Why was this being allowed to continue?
It was the question she’d asked herself time and again. Why was this petty Circle and the Guild allowed to attack nobles of Izril? Hold children, children for ransom?
This was the kind of thing she and the other [Ladies] of Magnolia Reinhart’s alliance fought against. But Magnolia was gone. And in her absence…
Pryde had expressed similar sentiments in their weekly chat. But like Bethal—like many, even the [Lady of Pride] had expressed uncertainty. Were they to go to Tyrion Veltras’ aid? Alone? Ironically, the campaign against Magnolia from Tyrion and his allies had robbed him of the one woman who might intervene and had the necessary tools to fight the Guild.
But the truth of it was—it was just Izril. Bethal sat there.
“Rats, dear Thomast. Isn’t that what Terandria called us?”
“I was never one of the nobility, Bethal.”
Her husband reminded her. Bethal shook her head. It was—a nickname for the original Houses who had left Terandria to colonize Izril.
The ‘Rats of Izril’, rather than flowers. Rats, fleeing a sinking ship. And it was sometimes fitting. Like now—instead of allying, the houses were fighting each other, terrified of a single threat, disorganized.
But Bethal thought—flowers made more sense. They had always been called the Flowers of Izril—and if you knew flowers, the analogy still held.
A lovely bed of flowers was each bloom in competition. Each one straining ever upwards for the sky, whilst their roots fought for space and food.
“Say what you will about the Drakes. But they do band together when someone attacks them, for all they infight. What do we do?”
This? Bethal shook her head. She stared into the orb, watching. Waiting. A member of the audience of the drama now playing out. And Bethal was no wallflower at a dance.
Nevertheless—a Drake stood in the scrying orb.
“This is Drassi of Liscor, reporting live from Invrisil. The Named Adventurer, Saliss of Lights, has just delivered the cure sought by Tyrion Veltras to the Runner’s Guild and is holding off the [Assassins] in the city and challenging, yes, challenging any Runner brave enough to deliver it—”
What arrogance. What gall! What insanity was this? Pallass was in uproar, but Pallass was far from where Saliss of Lights stood with two potions raised. A smoldering corpse lay on the Runner’s Guild floor. The Runners, [Receptionist], even the Guildmaster, were all spectators.
So were the figures outside. Saliss waved the potions.
“Anyone else want to try that?”
For a moment—no one did. Saliss did not relax. He leaned back against the counter, but that was just an affectation.
Watch your shadow. The [Assassins] had all kinds of tricks. But Saliss—was Saliss. And he had placed the vial on the desk of the Guild. Now—it was in an enchanted vault, right behind him.
“I wonder how mad the Old Man is?”
He wished he could see Chaldion’s face. The Drake sighed. He checked himself, claws sliding downwards and holstering one of the potions. Was this where he died? That would be so stupid, after fighting that damn Antinium—
His shadow moved. The Drake felt it and spun.
It was easy. He sprayed the pressurized acid into the shadow. Just a flick of the wrist. It killed most things dead.
But the [Assassin]’s coverings were acid-proof. Saliss saw a blade flash at his leg. He hissed.
Fire bloomed. The [Assassin] made a sound as he or she vanished into the shadow again, fleeing. Good luck extinguishing that fire, though. It would burn even if you smothered it. And it would set water aflame. Saliss didn’t rejoice, though. He staggered. Felt at his leg.
“Oh no. I’m bleeding.”
The Guild stared at the narrow cut running down his leg. Saliss felt at the blood. And then—the slight, discolored trail that burned and hissed as it touched the air.
Venom. He leaned backwards, sagging against the counter. Someone made a sound.
Somewhere—the second [Assassin] died. But Saliss’ face had grown pale. Damn. He was fast, but sneak attacks…he gasped.
“And poisoned. I might as well say my last words before I die. To the Walled Cities I love…hold on.”
He produced a little jar, rubbed a bit of paste on the cut. It healed, seamlessly. His audience stared. Saliss put a claw to his forehead.
“There we go. Oh, the Walled Cities! My one love!”
“It didn’t work?”
A Runner blinked at the naked Drake. Saliss rolled his eyes. He winked at some shadows in the glass windows. They vanished and Saliss raised his voice.
“I’m not a little Human kid. You’re going to need to work a little harder on me.”
This was the standoff. Saliss waited. But everyone was waiting. He ground his teeth.
Damn Xif. It would have been so much easier if—
“Saliss! Saliss—excuse me, Drassi, [Reporter] coming through. Please don’t kill me.”
A Drake pushed into the Guild. Saliss raised his brows.
“And here I thought I was crazy.”
The [Reporter] entered the Guild. Amazingly—no one had planted a dagger in her back, despite the Guild being surrounded by both gangs and [Assassins]. Actually…they’d mostly gotten in the way of the scrying orb.
Everyone loved to be on TV. Saliss made sure Drassi got his good side. The Drake adjusted the orb, introducing the first privacy screen with her claw out of sheer necessity.
“Um. Saliss of Lights—Wistram News Network. The world is watching. Can I ask why you’re here?”
“Oh, am I live? Hi! I want to say ‘hi’ to General Edellein Blackwing. A personal friend. The worst [General] in all of Pallass. And to Chaldion and his bad hip. And my personal friend, old Sixswords and his kid…”
The [Alchemist] lived for moments like this. He was keeping an eye out in every direction for anything coming at him. But he couldn’t help running his mouth. Drassi interrupted Saliss.
“Alchemist Saliss, why are you doing this?”
Because I’m so tired of—
“For the gold, of course. Haven’t you heard what Tyrion Veltras is posting as a bounty? I’m running low on gold and there’s a huge bounty on a cure!”
Saliss beamed at Drassi. She stared at him.
“Just for that?”
The [Alchemist] leaned back. He’d downed a tonic that was letting him see through the Guild’s walls. It was very disconcerting, but he used it to watch for incoming attackers. At least, the visible [Assassins]. Ignore the low-level ones. It was the high-level ones he had to watch for.
The Drake raised one claw. Drassi blinked.
“That’s how long I’m willing to wait. I expect my gold in the Merchant’s Guild, by the way. But two hours. That’s how long I’ll guard my cure. So—brave Couriers. City Runners. Come and get it.”
Saliss spread his arms, looking at the scrying orb with a huge smile.
“I know, I know. You’re welcome. And don’t worry. A Drake might have had to deliver the cure for you Humans, but one of your Runners has to bring it. Or a [Knight], an adventurer, whatever. I’m not picky, but I will check to make sure they’re not an [Assassin]. Anyone else comes in here, they get a faceful of acid. Two hours. And if your entire half of the continent is too cowardly for anyone to pick it up, I guess that’s that.”
The Runner’s Guild stirred. Saliss had the feeling his every word was being sent across the world. Probably on repeat. He beamed wider.
“Really, I just felt bad because this would never happen in the Walled Cities. Embarrassing, but hey, I’m not a Human. Watch Captain Qissa, hi! I’m on the news!”
He was actually waving. That cheeky Drake. Unpredictable. Who could have seen it coming?
The Circle of Thorns, the Guild of Assassins—were not having fun with the news. But neither were they panicking.
Yet. In fact, the Thorns of Death were talking to each other. Their conversations, full of confidence, or the seeming of it, were terse.
“A ploy from the Walled Cities or is that Drake on his own?”
“It does not matter. This is an opportunity. He is a Named Adventurer of the Drakes. Slay him.”
“Are there enough [Assassins] in the city? It is Saliss of Lights—”
An authoritative voice spoke up, silencing the others.
“He has no defenses. He is a glass wand—hit him hard enough and he’ll shatter in a single blow. Nor can he dodge what he can’t see. Deploy a Deathslayer Arrow with the Guild’s best [Archer]. Send the Faces.”
Everyone liked that idea. One of Rhir’s deadliest arrows, and an [Archer] to fit. The Faces were moving.
Even Saliss of Lights couldn’t stop the inevitable. But the Guild weren’t sitting on their laurels either.
“Deploy every [Assassin] in the area to Invrisil. That cure does not leave the city. Mark the Runners.”
The orders were coming in fast, sometimes overlapping, contradicting themselves. The trick was…Ferin the [Trapmaster] settled back and chewed on some of the dried jerky. He could have asked for better, but the Djinni driver was prioritizing speed over comfort.
Four shapes sat in the coach—two had just entered. The Unmarked Coach sped south. They had been deployed at First Landing. Now—they were moving towards the newest threat.
“I don’t understand. Why would this Drake risk it? And why are the employers panicking? Even this ride can’t get to Invrisil before the Drake’s deadline expires. The pink carriage Reinhart used would take hours and there’s nothing faster.”
One of the [Assassins] was grousing. Ferin raised his brows.
“We might have to destroy the cure if the Guild makes a stand. There are Couriers in the city.”
“Damn. I don’t want to kill my favorite.”
Someone else muttered. The coach fell silent. After a moment, one of them, a [Mage] who had helped attack Reinhart’s coach, looked straight at Ferin.
“You think this is a mixup? Maybe the special target we’re not supposed to go after?”
“Can’t be. It’s not a Drake.”
“Huh. Then this is just a crazy Named Adventurer?”
“Ever met one that wasn’t?”
Quiet chuckles. But then more orders snapped through the carriage and the Faces sat up. One sighed and produced a ledger.
“Time to work. Let’s see…here. It was a pain getting this before I got on the coach. Take it, make notes. We’ll pass it on.”
He passed the sheaf of papers to Ferin. The oldest [Assassin] in the coach looked at a list of names. And…profiles.
“Any Runner that might go after the bounty? Any to watch and mark? This is every Runner in Invrisil, Celum, Liscor, Pallass—we’ll watch them.”
The [Trapmaster] nodded. It was standard work. Mark the dangerous targets, the ones who might actually try to grab the cure. He looked down—and one of the names near the top, since the list was organized according to the ranking—caught his eye.
He murmured it quietly. It was a familiar face.
Oh. So that’s who you were, young woman. Regrettable, really.
Ferin stared down at Ryoka Griffin; it was an illustration rather than a picture, but still good enough to capture her likeness. He wavered with the quill in his hand. He had rather liked her. But…his loyalty to the Guild was one thing. Marking her another. She was surely not that kind of fool, was she? He debated for a brief minute.
One of the other Faces leaned over in the Unmarked Coach. She peered at the entry Ferin was dithering over, bared her teeth.
“The Wind Runner of Reizmelt? I hope you marked her. That’s the one who woke the Archmage of Izril, isn’t she?”
The [Assassin] who’d handed Ferin the list started.
“What? Oh, she’s already marked. Cross her off the list. Sorry.”
Ferin did so. He moved down the list, circling a certain Emergency City Runner whom he’d heard was known for a short temper. Then he passed on the dossier. He sat back.
Don’t try it, Miss Ryoka Griffin.
The [Assassin] had little other than his short meeting with her to go off of. And a rational person would never assume someone would risk it. Not a City Runner, not with every eye on the Runner’s Guild.
He did not know Ryoka Griffin. But the Wind Runner’s friends—did.
Ryoka Griffin felt like it was snowing outside. Like the air was freezing, the sky dark, instead of bright. A blizzard was coming. She heard distant howls.
She felt her skin chilling. Then—she heard the clash of weapons, felt her heart beating—the Necromancer’s castle lay ahead.
She had a map. Just a map. With lovely roads and cities and…it was a long way. She traced her finger. She’d have to go off-road. They couldn’t scry her. That was huge.
“One hundred miles, two…”
An urge to giggle overtook her. She was mad. She was crazy. She…felt at her bag of holding. She checked the gear she wore.
Armor would slow her down. But maybe she should beg for the enchanted leather armor she’d sold to Hedault? Her finger trembled.
Vail Forest. You’d cut through that if you went along this route. Looked like hell. Sticks and stones for countless miles. But could someone find you in there? Well, just to reach it…
Her heart was thundering. Her mind…was calm. It kept trying to race, and part of Ryoka kept silencing it.
Memento mori. She had one of her own. The little figurine of ice sat on the table, freezing and condensing the air. Ryoka kept looking at it.
What else could she get? There were a few things. Just a few. She had a Courier’s gear. She just needed…
Ryoka walked out of her room and saw the little Gnoll staring up at her. Mrsha sat there, in the hallway. The Wind Runner stopped.
She couldn’t bring herself to say it. Mrsha turned and fled. Ryoka watched her run down the stairs. She shook herself. Later.
She had two hours. A bit less, now. Ryoka was moving slow and fast. The air was trying to hold her back. But the wind—when she called, the wind would have to blow so hard—
But first, Ryoka walked downstairs. The inn was silent. Like Invrisil, like the continent, perhaps, people were watching the news. Saliss had come through here. They were silent. Uncertain. Afraid or just spellbound.
“Kevin. Where’s the bike?”
The [Mechanic] nearly fell out of his seat. He spun, saw Ryoka. His jaw dropped.
“Ryoka? The bike?”
Joseph looked up from his table. Rose twisted. Galina, Troy, Leon, even Imani, looked up at her. Ryoka tried to smile.
“I just need to borrow it. I’ll bring it back. Is it in the—rooms?”
Kevin hesitated. He looked up at Ryoka, and then around.
Troy nudged Leon hard. Joseph raised a fist to punch him. Ryoka turned.
“Ryoka, wait. You’re not going to—”
The Wind Runner looked back. Rose opened and closed her mouth.
“I just need to borrow the bike. Nothing else.”
Ryoka gave the young woman a huge smile. A warning one. Three [Assassins] had been in the inn. Saliss had killed them. But there could be more.
Rose visibly hesitated. Ryoka turned and hurried for the Garden. Rose looked at her friends, then they all stood up.
The Wind Runner didn’t see where they went. She strode through the garden. Bike. It was good insurance. You could move faster on a bike. Ryoka the City Runner would admit that anytime.
Kevin had leaned it up in the Earth rooms. Ryoka fit it into her bag of holding. It always fascinated her, how the bag seemed to stretch for a moment, improbably wide, so the bike slowly pushed in. But then the tiny bag was there.
Less-powerful ones actually needed larger openings or nothing could come in or out that was too big. But Teriarch…Ryoka looked at it.
“Damn. If I had two days—”
Or just one, she’d risk it. She shook her head. Focus on what she had.
She sidled out of the rooms, head on a swivel. The plan worked best if she could use the door to House Sanito. She’d lose most of her pursuers. But—if they followed her into the inn—better to just…
“Delanay. I need a moment.”
The Emergency Runner turned. He’d been staring at a duo quietly talking.
Numbtongue was showing Badarrow his sword. But what he was really showing—he stood differently, his face changed, his voice a bit lower. And his friend was leaning on him, at a loss for words.
Shorthilt. Delanay turned.
“I need a favor.”
The City Runner saw Delanay d’Artien’s face change the moment she asked. He looked her up and down and his features were troubled.
“What makes me think saying ‘yes’, isn’t the wisest move?”
He knew. Little rocks with moss on them knew. At this moment, at this time, why would you think anything else? Ryoka gritted her teeth. She kept looking around for…
“I thought you were an Emergency Runner.”
“I thought you were a City Runner. I might risk my life, but I happen to have few enough friends that I wouldn’t want a new one to disappear.”
It was that easy? Or maybe Delanay was just the type. Ryoka almost smiled. She grabbed his shoulder.
“Get me into the Guild and out of it. I just need a minute’s head start. And I’ll bet it all on my one trick. It might even work.”
The Emergency Runner adjusted his hat. He shook his head.
“Just in and out of the Runner’s Guild with a sea of watchers.”
“Don’t give me that. Even in would work. I know the Runner’s Guild has secret entrances. I have a scroll of [Lesser Teleport], for that matter. Three of them.”
She had more gear than she had thought she could need. Now—Ryoka wished she hadn’t sold as much as she had. Delanay shook his head again.
“Can you help? I’ll try something else if—”
“I can help. I think. When…?”
“An hour and a half.”
He nodded slowly. He was giving Ryoka a slow, measuring look. It was Delanay though—he did not ask if she was serious, or ask her again, for that matter.
“Fine. I need to get to Invrisil. Meet me at the Player’s Retreat then.”
“Thank you, Delanay. I’ll repay…”
“Don’t thank me. I think you’re mad. But I also—”
Delanay grimaced. He didn’t finish the sentence, but left the inn. Ryoka exhaled. She looked around. Now, just—just a letter. No—
Fierre stood behind her. Ryoka froze. She backed up—and Fierre grabbed her arm. The Vampire was gentle—but her hand was a vice.
“Ryoka. What are you doing?”
Salamani was there too. The Mage Runner looked at Ryoka. And both of them saw what was obvious.
“Nothing, Fierre. I mean—listen. I have to—”
The Vampire’s grip tightened on Ryoka’s arm. She wanted to drag Ryoka back, but Salamani stopped her.
“This is not a good idea, Ryoka. Give it up.”
She looked at him. The Mage Runner, normally smiling, was serious. His two serpentine eyes locked on hers.
“You can’t do this.”
“I have…a secret card.”
“Does it make you arrow proof? Can it block lightning?”
“Maybe? If I get a head start…”
Fierre looked sharply at Ryoka. The City Runner’s pulse was racing through her arm. Fierre could feel the warm blood. But now was not the time. She bared her teeth.
“This is madness, Ryoka!”
“No. It’s the right thing to do!”
The City Runner snapped. She looked at Fierre and the Vampire recoiled at the intensity in the gaze. This time—Ryoka looked at Salamani and Fierre.
“I have a chance. All I need to do is get in and out without being spotted. Give me an hour’s head start and they won’t stop me.”
Salamani cursed. There was real heat in his eyes. Ryoka and Fierre started as he pointed at the scrying mirror.
“You can’t beat that, Ryoka!”
“I can if they don’t know I’m coming. I need to get in secretly and out. Then—then they won’t be able to scry me.”
“What about combing the entire continent for you?”
The Courier was furious. He was prepared to bind Ryoka to a chair and let Fierre stand guard—that was their actual plan, but Ryoka suddenly went cool. She looked at him, and there was a strange confidence in her eyes.
“They’ll never find me. And if I get my head start—they won’t catch me.”
The Courier blinked at her. Fierre’s eyes widened.
“They could catch Salamani—”
“Maybe. But I don’t think anyone will expect what I’m trying. It’s the wind, Fierre. Salamani. The wind…”
Ryoka shifted. The thing in her bag of holding that she’d had made in Reizmelt felt like it was burning. She’d thought she’d use it at Valeterisa’s mansion, but it wouldn’t have been that useful. Here? Now?
This was when it was needed. Ryoka told her friends what it was. They stared at her. Fierre stirred.
“That’s impossible. It’s not enchanted?”
“It doesn’t need to be.”
“You’re mad. It’ll never work!”
“I know it will. I’ve seen it work, Fierre.”
The broker opened and closed her mouth. Ryoka wasn’t lying. She had seen it. On Earth. Salamani rubbed at his eyes.
“It—they could easily spot you. But there’s a chance.”
Fierre rounded on him. The Mage Runner looked at her.
“I’m being honest. I wouldn’t expect that. Say Ryoka gets her hour and the [Assassins] don’t realize she’s got the cure. We—we make a [Doppelganger], for instance. I can do illusions. It could work. I’m still only giving her four in ten, even if everything worked perfectly.”
“But there’s a shot. I could eclipse your speed, Salamani. Please. I have to try. If it doesn’t go to plan—I’ll call it off. But let me try.”
Ryoka argued with her friends. She didn’t know what she said, exactly. Only that she convinced them.
Of course she did. They were like her. And—they had met like this. Saving Fierre as she lay sick. Delivering for the Archmage of Izril. They wanted to stop Ryoka. But they understood, especially Salamani.
“The Player’s Inn. Delanay has a way in.”
“I think I know what it is. I’ll find him. Get some other Runners, maybe. Ryoka—not a word to anyone else.”
Ryoka nodded. They were in her room, having gone there for a warded space. Fierre looked helplessly at Ryoka.
“This is madness. I know the Guild has secret passages for big deliveries. And if I know, the Guild of Assassins knows, Ryoka.”
“Just a head start, Fierre. Thirty minutes—ten would do. I just need to get…”
Up. It was easy to persuade Fierre. Well, easy as Salamani. She was no Courier. But she was a Vampire. She believed Ryoka when she heard about the plan. Believed there was a chance.
“I’m coming too. No arguments. Or I’ll suck out all your blood and make you stay.”
Fierre bared her teeth. Ryoka smiled. Tremulously. Nervously. But her friend impulsively hugged her and then…
And then Ryoka saw Fierre rising. She was going to find a better route for Ryoka. The City Runner strode for the door. She just needed—
It was true that Ryoka Griffin’s two friends from Reizmelt she could argue into it. Salamani and Fierre. An immortal who had lived with poison in her veins and a Courier who had done runs just as crazy—or close. Perhaps because they still didn’t know Ryoka perfectly, and they’d bought the line about calling it off if things went south.
Yet, as Ryoka opened the door, she saw something. A little, furry figure. A girl, with white hair. A child of a different species, but a child nonetheless.
Mrsha. She was crying. And holding onto someone’s hand. She had run to get her. Because she knew Ryoka. And—Ryoka looked up.
Lyonette du Marquin stood there. The [Princess] of Calanfer met Ryoka’s eyes slowly. With real dislike there. Accusation. Ryoka stopped.
“Lyonette. Mrsha. I—”
“Ryoka Griffin. We need to talk. Come with me.”
Erin Solstice also knew Ryoka. Mrsha had run to get Lyonette. Rose and the others had gone to inform Erin.
“That girl is a fool. I have to go to Invrisil to meet with someone, Erin. Don’t let her kill herself.”
Maviola snapped, eyes flashing. She strode for the door. The [Innkeeper] stood there.
She had said it, hadn’t she? Ryoka would try. Good thing there was no cure. Now—Erin turned to Rose.
“I’ll stop her. Where is she?”
“In her room, I think. Salamani and Fierre were trying to talk her out of it—”
They would fail. Erin was sure. They were cut from the same cloth as Ryoka. And that was a crazy cloth.
Slowly, Erin ascended the stairs. Trying to think of what to say. She checked her belt. Pull out a frying pan from her bag of holding and bop Ryoka’s brains out?
…That sounded most effective. Erin balled her fist. If she had to, she’d punch Ryoka and tie her down. This was beyond—
Someone had gotten to Ryoka first. Erin paused with her hand on the door to Ryoka’s room as she heard the Wind Runner’s familiar voice coming…from Lyonette and Mrsha’s room? Erin turned.
She put her ear to the door.
Lyonette du Marquin and Ryoka Griffin sat across from each other in silence for a long while. Below, they could hear faint voices coming from the inn.
Everyone was there. Watching. From Menolit to Pawn, some with popcorn, others anxiety. Well, would you look at this? What’s going to happen, eh? With sympathy, perhaps, or anger, but still just watching.
Ryoka was not like them, a bystander to the event. She had inserted herself into the problem. She just had to leave the inn and…Lyonette wouldn’t stop her. Erin—Erin was trickier. But Ryoka…
“What are you doing, Ryoka?”
Lyonette looked up at last. Ryoka hesitated.
Lyonette was eighteen. Nineteen? Closer to that, but she was younger than Ryoka. Yet she had definitely given off mom-vibes with the full name a moment ago.
“I’m…going to deliver the cure to Tyrion Veltras’ sons. I can do it, Lyonette, Mrsha. I know it’s risky, but I have to try.”
There. She’d said it. Pluck the thorn right away. Her leg was jiggling with nerves. Lyonette’s eyes, bright blue, were piercing as they locked on Ryoka.
It was not a friendly look. Ryoka was reminded of yesterday, and their…spat? They’d never talked about that. Nor was this the time.
But it was happening. Lyonette took a breath.
“I see. So you’re going to run. Defy the Circle of Thorns and the Guild of Assassins.”
“And you’re going to do it after what, leaving us a letter?”
Mrsha was curled up silently next to Lyonette, not even staring at Ryoka. It was unlike her. Ryoka was sitting in the chair, Lyonette on the bed. Ryoka flushed. She had considered that.
“No, I was going to say something.”
“I see. So you were going to tell us. But, obviously, we don’t have any input into this. ‘Don’t stop me, I have to do this.’ Is that about right?”
The City Runner mimicked a goldfish for a few seconds.
“…It’s the right thing to do. I’m not going to be an idiot about it. I have artifacts, a plan—”
“I get it. So you’re all set and that guarantees you’ll survive.”
But I have to try. Lyonette du Marquin shook her head. She looked up at Ryoka, seriously.
“Don’t. If you care for this inn, Ryoka. If you care for Mrsha—or Erin, or anyone else, don’t do this. You’re going to die. You can’t do this. Not again.”
The words hit Ryoka right where she’d been afraid they would. Mrsha twitched. Ryoka saw her look up, and then down.
“I—there’s a big chance, Lyonette.”
“No, there’s not.”
“I have a secret—”
The [Princess] slapped her knee. Her head jerked upwards.
“They’ll kill you! There are hundreds of miles between here and House Veltras’ lands. This isn’t a few hours, or even a day. Not at your speed, Ryoka! Every [Assassin] on the continent will be hunting you and you have no levels! You’ll die! Don’t do this! I’m begging you!”
She looked at Ryoka; the Wind Runner didn’t meet her eyes.
“What—what am I supposed to do? Just let two kids die?”
“They won’t die.”
“Listen to me, you idiot. They won’t die.”
Lyonette snapped. Ryoka looked at her. The [Princess] was shaking.
“Lord Tyrion just needs to acquiesce. Maybe it’s gold or some ransom, but this Circle won’t actually kill his sons. That would make him an enemy for life. This—this is pageantry and politics. Let it go.”
“But he’s the Lord of House Veltras. I need him for—”
“Is it worth risking your life? Dead gods, Ryoka, there’s no party to bring back Ivolethe if you’re dead! And the odds of that have never been higher! They took down six Couriers running together. They broke Mihaela Godfrey’s legs. And you think you have a shot where they don’t?”
Yes. But she didn’t say that. Lyonette peered at Ryoka.
“You do. Because, why? You have a secret weapon that trumps everything? Or because it’s you? I thought monarchs had huge egos. But Runners take everything.”
Ryoka felt her temper stir. But—she kept it clamped down. She tried to make her voice reasonable. Lyonette had the temper; don’t match it.
“Lyonette, you know the party is coming up. This is my last chance. Maviola already told me I wasn’t prepared.”
The [Princess] pointed at Ryoka.
“Wait till winter. Give up on the party for the Summer Solstice. Is there a time limit?”
“Then wait. It’s not hard. Let it go. Ryoka. Let go of your ego. You can’t do this.”
The Wind Runner stirred.
“But it’s wrong—”
Lyonette threw a pillow at Ryoka. The Wind Runner dodged. She almost laughed, but the [Princess] was on her feet, truly furious. It still felt serious.
“No! Stop making light of this! Stop pretending like there’s not nine in ten odds you die! I could run you through with a sword. You think you can outrun arrows?”
“You don’t know what I have planned!”
Ryoka wasn’t able to stop the flash of anger this time. She stood up as well. Lyonette advanced.
“I should get Garia to stop you. She has a better shot and she wouldn’t dream of it. You are the most selfish person I’ve met, Ryoka Griffin! Don’t you even think about other people?”
She had such good aim with her words. Ryoka flinched. Then she snapped.
“Don’t talk to me about thinking about other people! Don’t you care about those two kids?”
“You don’t even know their names.”
Ryoka ground her teeth. She didn’t have to! It burned her. It had infuriated her the moment she’d heard of it!
Children. Poison. Cowards, taking lives like they didn’t matter. Causing suffering to win. Just like her world.
“I’m going. And you don’t have the right to stop me.”
“Right? You just don’t understand, do you? How are you so blind—”
Lyonette grabbed Ryoka. The City Runner felt a flash of heat. If Lyonette tried to stop her, like Numbtongue, Ryoka would put her in an arm-bar again. She understood why Numbtongue—
A furry cannonball hit Ryoka in the leg. Once more—just like yesterday—Mrsha intervened. She pushed at them.
The two young women broke up. Ryoka stepped back, clenching her right hand. How dare Lyonette say any of that? She—
She looked down. Mrsha was crying.
The anger in Ryoka vanished. She bent down.
“Mrsha, it’s okay. It’s okay. We’re not going to fight—”
She shot a look up at Lyonette. Some of the hostility had faded. The [Princess] was watching. Mrsha held something up as Ryoka reached to pick her up and hug her. She pushed aside Ryoka’s arms.
It was a little note. Ryoka blinked at the piece of paper. She took it. Mrsha went back to Lyonette’s arms. She wiped her face on Lyonette’s dress.
Ryoka looked at Mrsha. Then, she read the card. The handwriting was messy, the ink stained, unlike Mrsha’s other meticulously written notes. But she had written it, because Ryoka had not understood her any other way.
Don’t go, Ryoka. I don’t want you to die.
The City Runner’s body froze up. She raised her head. And there was Mrsha, crying. Lyonette held her gently.
“You don’t think you’ll die. I’ve seen [Knights] and [Generals]—everyone says the same thing before a battle or quest. Don’t do it. Mrsha needs you. We need you.”
Ryoka’s throat constricted. Lyonette looked at her. Then—she stood.
“Mrsha. Go to Selys, or Bird, or Numbtongue, or Erin. Okay?”
Mrsha didn’t want to. She clung to Lyonette, pointing at Ryoka, signing. Lyonette murmured to her.
“I need to say some things to Ryoka, alone. Don’t listen. Please? Mrsha.”
The Gnoll let Lyonette carry her to the door. Lyonette opened it, regarded something just outside, then closed the door. Ryoka didn’t see. She was still sitting, staring at the blotchy card.
When the [Princess] sat down, she was calmer. She looked at Ryoka. Lyonette composed her breathing, checked herself. When Ryoka looked up, the [Princess] spoke slowly.
“When we first met—truly met, not me being an ungrateful child after Erin rescued me—I liked you. I hated Erin, at the time. Remember? With Maran and Safry?”
“You listened to me—you discovered a [Princess]. You were kind. I liked you. But then you left.”
“Yes. And—you left Mrsha behind.”
“You were looking for Erin. But you left her behind after Regrika. I know Ivolethe died. But you still left. And you didn’t write until months had gone by. We wondered if you were dead.”
Ryoka hung her head. Lyonette pointed towards the door Mrsha had gone through.
“Do you know how many nights she cried for you? For you, the person who’d rescued her. And you were gone. I hated you for that.”
So did Ryoka. She shrank in her seat. Lyonette regarded her, and then went on.
“But then you came back. I was jealous because Mrsha loved you. She’s my daughter, you understand? I was jealous and that wasn’t fair.”
“No. It’s—Erin told me of what you’ve done. You deserve to call yourself her mother. You are, I mean.”
The [Princess] nodded.
“That’s not why I hate you. Not all of it. It’s a lot of things, honestly. Part of it is jealousy, I can admit that. But part of it—you run here, you run there, but whenever you come to the inn, you just dump your troubles on us. First Mrsha—but then the Earthers. Then you run off. And you’re so—so arrogant. You act like you’re the only person who thinks about the future, but you’re terrible at committing to a plan. Like with Xrn.”
Barbs and needles and thorns in her skin. Ryoka waited. Lyonette was unloading all the things she hadn’t said before. The [Princess] exhaled.
“Even then. I could look past all of that. But you’re just so damned selfish. You don’t get to run off and risk your life whenever you feel like it. You have people who depend on you. You have a responsibility.”
She pointed at the door, at where Mrsha had been. Ryoka looked up at her. Lyonette’s finger began to shake. The [Princess] gulped down another breath.
“I’m not saying you’re wrong. You saved Mrsha. And you woke the Archmage of Izril—you’ve done amazing things. No one could deny that. But—I don’t want Mrsha to love you anymore.”
She sniffed. The [Princess]’s eyes were filling up. She looked at Ryoka.
“I wish she didn’t love you. I wish you’d never come back and she grieved and cried but forgot about you. Because someday, someone is going to have to tell her that you’re dead. It won’t be decades from now. It might not even be years. And that person will be me, or Erin.”
The Wind Runner’s stomach dropped. Her body felt cold. Lyonette was wiping at her eyes.
“It could be tomorrow. You care about everyone. Everyone but yourself. You’re going to die on one of these runs and I don’t know what will happen to Mrsha. Why do you have to do this?”
Ryoka wiped her eyes. They were stinging. So that—
“I didn’t think of that.”
“I know. But we do. Mrsha does. I do. Erin does—the inn is dangerous enough. But that’s not like this. This—you don’t have to do this. This isn’t a monster coming after us. This is your choice. Please don’t do this. Why do you feel like you have to?”
She’d said her piece. And Ryoka got it, now. Lyonette’s furious despair over…Ryoka. Someone who was there, and not. A lovely aunt for Mrsha, a friend, a good person to have—
Until she was dead. And Ryoka had seen death too many times. Valeterisa’s mansion? The High Passes? She danced with it. She…
“There’s a reason I feel like I have to do it. I know—it’s not someone I know. And Tyrion Veltras—but I’d try it even if it wasn’t him, and it didn’t help with the party. I’d want to.”
“Why? If it was Mrsha, I’d understand. But why for this?”
The Wind Runner sat back and stared at the ceiling. Her next words were slow, recited not from any one quote, but many.
“…It’s not my fight. It’s not my responsibility. Someone else will do what’s right. They won’t get away with this—but I’m not going to be the one to stop them.”
Lyonette looked up. Ryoka stared at her.
“We have a Guild…and a mysterious group of…people. Who are poisoning little kids to threaten a [Lord]. I don’t know the politics. I don’t care. I know what Tyrion Veltras did to Liscor. But that? That’s…”
Her pulse quickened. Her throat tried to close. Ryoka whispered.
“There’s evil. As clear as I’ve ever seen it. Am I supposed to walk away? If someone doesn’t fight that—they win. Why me? Because it’s happening. Everyone watches someone dying, someone doing something evil. And no one raises a hand.”
She shuddered, but the words were spilling out nonstop. Trying to contextualize who she had been, who she was. Make sense of it all.
“Earth is ruled by such things, Lyonette. We built empire on the bones of innocent people. There is so much happening in my world, every second I lived and breathed. Genocides taking place while people ignored it or claimed there were rules. People being murdered. Dying of starvation when someone could have fed them. Rapists and thieves who were protected. Criminals who used our laws. Petty and monstrously large alike. I could never do anything about it. I never properly tried. I just used it as an excuse to be angry and hit things.”
Erin Solstice sat outside, her head in her hands. Ryoka Griffin’s voice was rougher. Urgent.
“I felt helpless on Earth. But in this world, even without levels—I can try. I have a chance. I’ve done it before.”
The [Princess] said nothing. She and Ryoka were both shedding tears. It felt—too raw. Lyonette took a shuddering breath.
“I understand. And it might be wrong. But even if—can’t you let them die? Because I don’t want you to die. Do you understand that? You’re too important to us.”
The Wind Runner shuddered. She looked back. A Drake proudly raised her blade as the undead closed in. She saw a Courier, offering her a charm.
A laughing faerie.
She shook her head.
“The Ryoka Griffin who risked her life was the same one who ran to get a lost girl. I don’t want to become someone else. I’ll change everything. I’ll be a better person. But I want to be brave.”
The [Princess] choked.
“You already are. Bravery isn’t running to your death. Please.”
Ryoka had nothing left to say. Lyonette finished crying. She just sat there. Looking at Ryoka.
They understood each other better. So much more than ten minutes ago. The [Princess] wiped at her face.
“I could never do anything, either. I was a [Princess] without anything. I hated that. So I ran away. Now—I almost wish I was that old Lyonette. Because she was helpless. And she didn’t care. She didn’t have a child and she didn’t worry every night—I could stop you.”
“I could. I’d have Pawn and the Antinium hold you captive. But that wouldn’t change who you are. Or why Mrsha loves you. In the end—I won’t get in your way.”
Lyonette looked towards the door. Then she rose. She strode over to Ryoka—and kissed her.
On the forehead. Ryoka Griffin blinked.
That was unexpected. She shoved Lyonette off, lightly. The [Princess] frowned.
“It didn’t work. Hold on—”
She tried again. This time Ryoka struggled.
“What are you doing?”
“Giving you my boon! It’s a Skill! If you’re going to—why isn’t it working? Please don’t tell me I have to kiss anywhere else. I don’t even think—what’s wrong?”
Ryoka spluttered. She got Lyonette off her.
“What? A boon? Lyonette—I don’t think it’ll work. I’m not really part of…the leveling system.”
The [Princess] gave up. She looked at Ryoka. The two stared at each other—then started chuckling. Lyonette shook her head.
“I’ve ruined the moment. Go. If you have to go—promise me you’ll come back. For all of us. And say goodbye to Mrsha.”
“I promise. I swear.”
Ryoka looked up. Lyonette smiled. Then she left.
For a few minutes, Ryoka sat there, wiping saliva off her forehead. She felt teary, stupid—why hadn’t she thought of how much it would wreck Mrsha, thinking she was going to die?—and still, resolute.
But shakily. It could break. It might break. Ryoka took a breath.
“Erin? Do you have anything else to add?”
Someone opened the door. Erin was even tearier than Lyonette and Ryoka had been. She blew her nose.
“One seconb. I’b stuffy.”
Ryoka waited as Erin cleaned her face. The [Innkeeper] had been listening. When she came into the room, she looked at Ryoka.
“I was—going to hit you and tie you up in the basement.”
“Please don’t. I have to do this.”
Erin sat down. She tried to speak coherently, but it was hard. She was hiccupping, now.
“If—Ryoka. If you die—why do you—have to—?”
Ryoka smiled slightly. It was time to explain. And to Erin—it was a different explanation. She had told Lyonette the truth. That was why Ryoka Griffin had been such an angry young woman. Part of it, anyways. But there was another reason.
“Erin. I want to see Ivolethe again. Because she has something I need. The wind. I regret giving up my levels, Erin. My classes.”
“Can’t you w—”
“No I can’t. Not for the winter. Not another year. Everything’s happening too fast, Erin. Earthers in this world, war—I can’t.”
Ryoka met Erin’s eyes. The [Innkeeper] stared at her through a red-rimmed gaze. Ryoka went on, slowly.
“We cannot wait for better days. The ability to change the world—I would do almost anything for it short of losing myself. It’s one thing to try to be good. But good intentions are nothing without power. And that’s why I need to meet Ivolethe. Also—because it’s the right thing. But also because of that. So I can do this run. Other runs, without endangering my life like this time.”
It was a circular thing. Risk your life to get stronger so you didn’t risk your life. But wasn’t that how leveling worked? Erin shook her head.
“You want levels?”
“I do. I should have become a [Runner]. Because look at you, Erin. You can do so much. If we got into a fight—you would probably win. Your inn is a fortress. You have so many Skills—I want that power.”
Erin’s face was troubled.
“Ryoka. That’s not why I leveled up. Power corrupts. Absolute power—”
Ryoka cut her off, shaking her head rapidly.
“No. Don’t say that, Erin. It’s something people say and it drives me crazy. Like ‘the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over’. That’s not what insanity is. And Einstein didn’t say it. It’s a stupid quote, like ‘power corrupts’.”
“But it’s true, right?”
Erin saw her friend snort gently. Ryoka rolled her shoulder, stretching out one arm.
“A man called Lord Acton said that nearly two hundred years ago. He said that, and that is factual. But you know what? He could be wrong. He lived in a time unlike ours. And he made those observations as a generalization. Does power always corrupt? Did it corrupt you? Zevara? Magnolia—okay, that’s debatable. Saliss?”
The [Innkeeper] thought of the naked Drake with the power to kill. She bit her lip.
“But…isn’t there something true in it?”
“There is. I believe that, Erin. But listen to this. A lot later than Lord Acton, closer to now, a man named Robert Caro said something else of our leaders. ‘Power always reveals’. I like that a lot more. We need to pursue power. Saying the right thing is meaningless in either world. Have power, and do—”
It was philosophy. Ryoka broke off.
“I wish I had the power to do more. Because I would. I don’t have time to wait until the winter. Not with all that will happen. I can’t. And none of that really matters. I just have to run, Erin. I have to run. Am I insane for feeling that way? Please—tell me. Maybe Lyonette’s right. Maybe I am…some vain, egotistical person who thinks the world revolves around me. Definitely. Probably. Maybe. Am I…wrong?”
The [Innkeeper] shook her head. Erin Solstice wasn’t one for what Ryoka had gone into. Ethics—if they were over a game of chess, maybe. But it was simpler for her. She had been ready to stop Ryoka. Now?
She looked at her friend.
“I’ve always been jealous of you.”
Ryoka blinked. She glanced at Erin. Smiled, shaking her head.
“That’s my line. But I never expected you to say that about me.”
Erin was caught off-guard.
“What, me? Why?”
Ryoka eyed Erin and sighed. She didn’t see it. Ryoka pointed around the inn.
“Where could I start? You—you can do the things I talk about. You lead people. You’re not afraid to fight. You—can create miracles. Real, miracles.”
The [Innkeeper] shook her head, troubled.
“I don’t. People say they’re miracles but—they’re not.”
“I know that. I know how much it costs. I still think you can make them.”
Ryoka leaned forwards. Erin blinked at her, uncomprehending. Ryoka went on.
“A miracle. Like stopping the Goblin Lord—or killing that thing called Skinner. A proper one. I know how much it took. Lives.”
The hill in the garden. Erin’s eyes widened.
“That’s not a miracle.”
“Isn’t it? That’s what everyone wants. A miracle you don’t have to work for. But I don’t really see those. Usually—it’s someone else making it work. And that costs a lot, sometimes. You do it, though. You changed people’s minds. Stopped an army. I wished I could do that. I…wish I had your ability to make friends. Like people.”
Ryoka studied her knuckles. She touched them as Erin searched for a reply to that. Ryoka mumbled.
“Laken Godart is his name. I told you about him. And you might not like him. I—punched him and ran off the last time we met. I regret that.”
“I punch things.”
The [Innkeeper] waved her hand. Ryoka half-smiled.
“But you don’t run. You’d stay and…persuade him. I? Lyonette was right. I half-solve a problem. I rescue a Gnoll, collect some Earthers, and then I dump them in your lap. You’re the one who helped make a home for Mrsha. You turned the others into amazing people. Kevin and his bike. Joseph, playing soccer instead of drinking.”
“He still drinks. But he’s working on it.”
The two smiled for a moment. Ryoka closed her eyes.
“Laken. We met on a cold winter, when his village was starving for food and aid. Ivolethe helped me deliver it. It was one strange run, there and back. But I was never prouder of myself. I thought—that was the most important thing I can do with my life. Worth risking my life for. This—I thought it was the same. But is it?”
She looked up. Her green eyes meeting Erin’s.
“I’m afraid of the future, Erin. And I don’t know what to do. What do you think I should do?”
She was asking. And in that moment, the [Innkeeper] looked at her friend. And she felt her heart sink. And rise. And—
The [Innkeeper] stood up. She turned away from Ryoka. Scuffed the floorboards with one foot.
“Hey, have you met my weird friend? She’s a City Runner. Her name’s Ryoka.”
Ryoka smiled. She opened her mouth, then let Erin continue.
“I’ve helped her before. Picked up pieces after she ran. She’s always doing weird stuff. Running here, going into the High Passes. She’s not a great person. She’s good, but not super-great. Really. She has a bad temper, she gets depressed, she can’t even be a proper person, let alone look after friends…”
Erin trailed off, looked at Ryoka. The City Runner smiled bitterly. No objections here. Erin went on.
“…But she always seems to be trying to do the right thing. And that’s why I help her, even if she asks for crazy stuff. Because I admire her. I admire her being brave, even when she’s terrified.”
She looked at the City Runner and saw uncertainty in Ryoka’s face. Erin Solstice saw Ryoka Griffin much like Lyonette had.
This was Ryoka. She looked like one thing. Tall, leggy, confident, certainly with good running form. Brave, intelligent. And she was many of these things. But also—if you knew her—
Ryoka Griffin was a very anxious person.
She planned for the future and didn’t plan for the future.
She talked a big game, but she was no killer, or even cruel.
She wasn’t as fast as she thought she was.
But she was rather kind. She did care about good and evil. And today—Erin Solstice shook her head. She wiped at her eyes.
“Do you have to go?”
“I guess I do.”
Ryoka stood up, slowly. Erin went over to her friend. She hugged her tightly. Like she had in Celum, not wanting to let go.
For a second they stood there. Then a minute. Then…eternity. When she let go, her friend might die. Time would resume. She could hold on forever, like this.
—But she had to let go. She could stop Ryoka. But she could not stop time. And Erin had listened and chosen.
“I’ll try to help if I can. At least a bit.”
Erin snuffled. Ryoka shook her head.
“You don’t need to—it’s the inn I’m worried about.”
“Dummy. I have Skills. You have bare feet and toe fungus.”
“I do not.”
Ryoka Griffin was shaky after that. Erin saw her visibly collect herself as they went into the hallway. But suddenly—it was Erin who was busy and Ryoka who just had to wait.
“One hour and…thirty minutes. Thereabouts. I’ll…I’ll find Mrsha. I need to plot my journey with Fierre. Beyond that? I could practice…no. I’d give it away. I’ll…eat something or something.”
“Right. Don’t go without saying goodbye.”
Erin wiped her face again. Ryoka backed into her room. The two stared at each other for a moment. Nothing more to say? Ryoka turned. Fierre glanced up from her map.
“Have you been crying?”
“Shut up, Fierre.”
The [Innkeeper] smiled as Ryoka closed the door. Then she turned.
Snapjaw was staring at Erin. The [Innkeeper] threw up her arms. The [Big Eater] put a finger to her lips.
Where had she come from? Well, that was obvious. She’d been in Numbtongue’s room, listening with the door ajar! The Hobgoblin was considerably more stealthy than Erin had been.
“Snapjaw! Um—can I help you? Were you—”
“Listening. Crying Humans waste water.”
Erin blinked. The Goblin tapped one pointed ear and waggled it.
“I hear more than Humans think. I listen. Goblin Lord taught me that.”
Snapjaw eyed Erin. Then she poked a finger at the closed door to Ryoka’s room.
“She do something stupid-dangerous. Die running-death?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. I need to—”
“Help her. You going to ask Numbtongue, Badarrow?”
The female Hob stopped Erin. The [Innkeeper] hesitated. Snapjaw went on. She pulled out a boiled egg, brushed some lint off from her belt pouch, and bit it in half. She spoke, while chewing.
“Those two like you. If you say ‘help me’, they will. And they will die. Two Hobs—Redfangs—will die. Like last time.”
She looked meaningfully at Erin. They had both been there. The [Innkeeper] hadn’t brought it up.
“Do you…hate me for that, Snapjaw?”
“Hate. Hate? Goblin Lord told us to fight. Humans made us go to Liscor. Not you. You helped Goblins fight. So more Goblins died. But you feed Redfangs. Badarrow say you save his life, make them happy. You make Chieftain happy, teach her, save her.”
Snapjaw mused. She looked at Erin.
“I do not hate you. Nor love you. But do not make Goblins die. Please?”
She looked at Erin with a pleading look. The [Innkeeper] felt her heart lurch. Don’t let him die. That was all Snapjaw wanted. She reached out and touched Snapjaw’s arm. The Hob looked at it. Erin nodded.
“I’m not asking them. I know they’re not enough. In fact—I’m counting on you to make sure they don’t do anything stupid.”
Snapjaw studied Erin to see if she was lying. Then she nodded, gratefully. Erin walked past her. The Goblins had given enough. Too much. She would honor that request. Besides—they were not enough.
Maviola El was right. They needed an army. One Runner—was she sending Ryoka to her death? If…Erin was wrong, she would never forgive herself. But she hadn’t had the courage to stop Ryoka.
She would get Ryoka out of the city. She could do that.
Erin Solstice went for a walk. Ryoka planned, and her friends made preparations. Time—if there was a [Chronomancer], they’d probably sense time crawl, then jump forwards.
Mrsha refused to let go. Ryoka finally got free and Lyonette held Mrsha back. She looked at Ryoka and the Wind Runner remembered her promise.
Saliss of Lights was really bored. But two hours slowly passed with five more bodies. Just low-level [Assassins]. It was about time for him to leave the vial behind.
“You’re really disappointing me, you know. All of you suck. But I guess a promise is a promise. Alright, I’m leaving. Good luck guarding that vault on your own.”
The Drake’s comments were, of course, being broadcast on Wistram News Network. He turned to the Guildmaster, who was pale with nerves.
The Watch had been summoned to guard the Guild. They had…failed to mobilize. The way it looked was that the [Assassins] could walk in after Saliss left and just demand the key to the vault and it would be provided.
The Drake grumbled as he watched sand trickling out of the hourglass he’d produced.
Then—it was time.
Ryoka Griffin met Delanay and eighteen Runners in the Player’s Retreat. Fierre blinked. Salamani was there. And—six [Mages].
“I called in some favors.”
“So did I. You’re not the only Runner who’s sick of this.”
Delanay introduced the others to Ryoka briefly. She forgot their names; she was vibrating with nerves.
“This is the Runner? How fast are you, Miss?”
One of the City Runners looked dubiously at Ryoka. She bared her teeth.
“We’ll find out, right?”
Some people chuckled. Others just grimly checked themselves. Invrisil’s City Runners went armed. Two had crossbows like Delanay, good weapons to pull out, fire, and run. The [Mages] were murmuring.
“Here’s the plan. The Runner’s Guild has a sewer entrance as well as two exits they use if a Runner needs to slip out for a big delivery. But I’m sure the Guild has them all marked. So, we’re going to cause a distraction. Me, the [Mages], and four of the Runners are going to the sewers and pretending to try to enter the guild. We’ll use [Doppelgangers], cause a huge fuss. Run, the instant the [Assassins] come for us. Meanwhile—Delanay, Ryoka, Fierre, you all take one of the secret entrances.”
“What, a classic diversion? The second tunnel will be watched.”
“You said, ‘get Ryoka into the Guild’. Saliss of Lights has it covered. She’ll teleport out. Maybe the [Assassins] can trace it—but we’re meeting right back here. Ryoka will hop through the door and I’ll drop decoys, illusion spells—buy her an hour’s lead if we can.”
It was a plan. It was shakier than Ryoka liked, but they’d had two hours to throw it together. She nodded.
“I just need a clear spot—hell, I could do it from Invrisil if I have to. I just need the vial in my hand and a few minutes’ head start. Got it? No one risk their lives. Just run for it if they come for you.”
Everyone nodded. Ryoka sighed. She looked back, over her shoulder—and saw Redit talking with someone in the inn.
“Someone wants to go through, Innkeeper Veeid.”
“Well, wait for the door to open.”
“It’s…been off-and-on. Hold on. Can we send a [Message]…?”
Ryoka’s head turned as she felt a premonition. Apparently, the door did get activated because there was a void.
“Where is she? Where—”
“Oh no. No—”
Ryoka turned. She tried to push past Fierre to block the door, but too late. Fierre, Salamani, the Runners, and [Mages] saw the door open. And there was…
Garia Strongheart and Fals. Ryoka Griffin pointed at them.
“Absolutely not. Turn around, go back through the door—”
“You can’t stop us, Ryoka. We heard about your crazy plan. You think we’re not coming too?”
Garia was smiling. Fals looked terrified. He stared at Salamani and the other City Runners.
“We’ve had enough of being left out. We’ll help with this diversion.”
“No. You’re not—”
What, City Runners? Delanay raised his brows as he adjusted his hat.
“Your friends are welcome to join us, Ryoka. The more hands we have, the likelier it is we all live.”
Ryoka Griffin took a breath. But they were her friends! And she realized, too late, that she was being a complete hypocrite. That was what Lyonette, Erin, everyone had said to her.
“Just be careful, alright?”
“Will do. Now—”
“Excuse me. There was a queue and Erin was using the door to—sorry, are we late? I heard you needed some [Mages], Salamani. To cast some distraction spells?”
Once more, Ryoka heard a familiar voice. She turned. And there was Montressa, Palt, and Bezale. The Minotauress was cracking her knuckles.
“Not you all too.”
“Well, we figured it was join up or have Erin screaming at us when things go south. Salamani.”
The two nodded at each other. Montressa waved at the other [Mages]. Beza stomped forwards. Ryoka opened her mouth—
“I fucking knew it. Brave as a [Depth Hunter] and not half the sense. Good thing we caught her! Oi, you, out of the way!”
Someone kicked Redit as the [Bouncer] tried to block them. Ryoka saw the door thrust open and—Garia covered her face.
“Dad. Mom! Get back to the inn!”
Wailant and Viceria. Wailant was alternatively beaming and scowling. Viceria was nothing but worried, but she looked relieved to see the other [Mages].
“Mister Strongheart? Why are you—?”
“We knew our daughter would be here. What kind of humble [Farmers] would we be if we let her risk her neck! Don’t worry, we’ll keep back. Just to make sure our little City Runner stays safe!”
“I have classes! Go home!”
“Nonsense. We both outlevel you, young woman. And we’re not alone.”
Ryoka’s head snapped up. She saw more people behind the farming couple. They had arranged this. Surely, they had. Or how would Wesle, Jasi, Kilkran, Temile, Jelaqua, Moore, Seborn—her jaw dropped.
“What are you all doing?”
“We’ve done this before. At the riots in Invrisil. Oh, you missed that. Grand fight.”
“Hey Ryoka. You made Mrsha cry. I’m going to beat you with a chair—after we get you out of Invrisil!”
Jelaqua brightly waved. Ulinde joined her old friends from Wistram. They were coming through. The inn’s guests. People like—
Like Ryoka. Or Delanay. Or Fierre, for that matter, who was staring at Wesle. The former [Guardsman] was checking the enchanted sword.
“Nothing like it to cause a scene, is there? I hope that gives us some immunity.”
Kilkran beamed. Jasi shook her head.
“We’re going to cause a distraction. None of you are fighting. Hell, I’ll throw free autographs and tickets at the [Assassins] if it works. So what’s the plan? I assume there is one?”
They were all here. Ryoka felt weak at the knees. So worried. But—
The wind blew down the street, tugging at her hair. The City Runner’s heart stirred. She smiled.
“I don’t know how to thank you—”
“Then don’t bother. We’re wasting time. Just—give us something to boast about, huh? Deliver the cure, Wind Runner. We’ll get you to the Guild.”
Wailant laughed. Ryoka looked around. No Antinium or Goblins. Badarrow and Numbtongue were missing, as was Snapjaw. More than she could ask for. But—she took a breath. Then sighed.
The Wind Runner and her friends moved towards the secret tunnel’s entrance, a street away from the inn. The others began moving for the sewer entrance they’d have to jog down to assail the Guild and cause the distraction from below.
And yet—Mrsha was sniffling. No. No. She was afraid. And she knew there was reason to be afraid. Because—
“Let us out.”
Numbtongue was banging on the door to the Garden of Sanctuary. Mrsha clung to his legs. Badarrow was trying to get Snapjaw to help him climb through the dome’s opening. A few Fortress Beavers were watching, mystified, and Apista was buzzing around, nervously.
Lyonette had shut them in. She’d told the Goblins that Erin needed their help and then closed the door. Erin must have put her up to it because the door would not open for the Goblins or Mrsha.
Badarrow was scowling, growling at Snapjaw. But she just looked…Mrsha clung to Numbtongue. Don’t go. She had seen Wailant, the Halfseekers—but don’t go. She was so afraid. This wasn’t like last time. It wasn’t monsters or rioters.
It was [Assassins]. And more…
“We’re nearly there. It’s through a [Cobbler]’s shop. Wait for the sounds of explosions and then—”
Delanay wasn’t trying to be stealthy. His red jacket and striking clothing weren’t good at stealthy, anyways. But he was being casual as he led Ryoka, Fierre, and Ulinde to the secret tunnel.
They’d added Ulinde because she was a [Spellslinger] and good backup. Salamani had offered to come, but he was too notable. Most of the [Assassins] would be drawn off by the diversion, anyways. Ryoka looked ahead towards the innocuous shop. A street away from the Guild…she nodded.
“It’s probably being watched. Let’s sit down at that café. The instant we hear…”
The four turned, walking casually down the street. Ryoka felt like hundreds of eyes were on her. She tried to seem natural. The air felt too still, too constricting. Soon, she’d need it to blow hard. But it was so hard to keep her cover.
Delanay was doing a great job—Fierre, less. Ulinde looked nervous and pale—Ryoka really didn’t know her that well. But she had volunteered.
The street was fairly empty. A group of gossiping young women at one table, some people excitedly watching an orb from a safe distance. A half-staffed café. But no one wanted to be near the Runner’s Guild.
Time was nearly up. There were fifteen minutes left—and Saliss was busy telling bad alchemy jokes to Drassi, who had plugged her earholes. Ryoka would have about ten minutes. Five minutes until the diversion. Probably a bit sooner. It would be like ten kinds of hell opening up under Invrisil’s streets. Bezale had been talking about caving in part of the sewer system.
“Anything to eat, Miss? Drink?”
A smiling [Waitress] came over. Ryoka jumped. She’d forgotten they had to eat something.
“…What flavor, Miss? We have a list.”
The [Waitress] gave Ryoka a long look. The City Runner hesitated.
“Um. Can I see the list?”
Fierre covered her face. Delanay chuckled as Ryoka turned beet red. Ulinde grinned.
“I can recommend the mossy teas, Miss Ryoka. Excuse me, do you h—”
The [Waitress] swung the dagger up and slashed through Ulinde’s throat. Ryoka stared blankly as the Selphid [Spellslinger] recoiled, jerked back—and went over with three bolts in her chest.
Fierre jerked. She slumped over. The dagger was in her back and two more crossbow bolts stood out in her shoulders. The [Waitress] eyed her.
“Damn. I didn’t think I killed her. Someone get the Selphid!”
Ryoka tried to rise, but she couldn’t. She tried to move—but something held her down. She could barely turn her head, croak…
She heard a weak sound. The bolts hadn’t gone through his old, enchanted leather armor, but it had clearly done some damage. Broken bones—he was trying to pull his crossbow out.
The ‘[Waitress]’ stomped on his hand. Ryoka heard a crunch. She kicked him and then turned.
“Taken out. Sorry about your friend.”
She pushed Fierre out of the chair. The Vampire girl’s eyes were wide. She wasn’t breathing—and there was so little blood. She landed on the floor. Someone else was holding down Ulinde, who was struggling as her head flopped.
“We are the Sisters of Chell. And other idiots.”
The café—the gossiping young women—they were holding crossbows. The diners, some male, stood in their own group. They weren’t…Ryoka struggled. The wind!
—Did not come. She strained to call it, but felt only dead air on her face. The air in the street was—still. Too still! What was happening?
“You’re a gang?”
“Hired by the Guild. Do you think they would have put it just down to their [Assassins]? Or that they wouldn’t be watching for idiots? You are marked, Wind Runner. Hey, [Assassin], this good or do you want help in the sewers?”
“We have it.”
Someone appeared out of one of the shadows in the café. A proper [Assassin], female, peering at Ryoka. The Sister of Chell nodded. She gave Ryoka an almost-pitying look.
“You City Runners are as dumb as lizards. This is the third attempt we’ve stopped. Mind you, we’re doing this for your own good. Come with us.”
She seized Ryoka and began to drag her from the table. Ryoka tried to fight.
A tsk. Another [Rogue] sauntered over. He was the one who’d put a crossbow bolt in Delanay and Fierre. He shook his head.
“[Clear Weather]. [Elemental Suppression: Air]. You really thought we couldn’t deal with someone like you?”
He squatted down as the Sister growled.
“Hey, someone give us a hand! Grab the poor kid. Did they put up a fight in the sewers?”
The [Assassin]—Ryoka’s world was one of increasing horror. She saw the [Rogue] grinning at her.
“Don’t worry, Miss Runner. You won’t die. If your friends in the sewer didn’t put up a fight, they’re probably only wounded. You’ll get to sit until that Drake adventurer’s taken care of. Won’t be long.”
He nodded in the direction of the Runner’s Guild. The man tapped Ryoka on the stomach with a foot.
“You’ll learn a little lesson. Nothing permanent. Just something for cheek. Don’t try and make it worse.”
“Hey. Get lost. We have this one.”
The Sister snapped. The [Rogue] growled, looking at her. It was the [Assassin] who slipped over, regarding Ryoka.
“Neither of you claim this one. She’s known to Magnolia Reinhart. We have questions for her. Leave her with me.”
Both criminals hesitated. But then the Sister let go and the [Rogue] stomped off.
“Tough luck, Miss.”
The Sister backed off, glaring at the [Assassin]. Ryoka looked up. Fierre. Fierre. They were dragging her and the other two away. It was all going wrong. Don’t be dead. But don’t do anything, Fierre. They’d seen everything coming.
Maviola El was right. Lyonette was right. The [Assassin] leaned down and Ryoka—
She wanted to live.
“We have a question for you, Miss Griffin. For your sake, I advise you to answer truthfully.”
Lady Ieka Imarris received word about Ryoka Griffin too late. She dropped her teacup.
“The Guild is going to interrogate her, Lady Imarris. She and her accomplices are in custody. Both groups. One casualty.”
Ieka didn’t care about that. She rose.
“Countermand that order.”
“Lady Imarris, the Guild—”
The [Assassin] saw the [Mage Lady] point a finger at her. And the glowing spell made the black-clad figure hesitate.
“On my authority, do nothing to Miss Griffin and her friends. Bring her—yes, bring her here. To the storehouse nearby, that is. I have to prepare—”
The [Assassin] hesitated. But Ieka was already preparing an illusion spell.
“I am the Circle of Thorns’ agent in Invrisil. Do it now.”
That foolish girl. Brave, but…there was no point! Ieka would get whatever the Circle wanted from her. She just needed a disguise. She was pondering what to do or say. She had her own agenda, and Valeterisa might have good questions to ask.
“Aunt—something’s just occurred. Don’t ask why, but I’m in a position to ask that Runner you were interested in some questions under truth spell she cannot refuse. Do you—”
“I told you to bring her—”
The [Lady] turned. But it wasn’t the [Assassin] who’d slipped out the window, but a [Maid]. The young woman cringed, and Ieka mollified her tone.
“Shadsi, what is it? I am rather busy.”
“I know, Lady Imarris. It is only—Lady Maviola El has announced herself to the guard. She wishes to speak to you. At your convenience?”
Maviola—Ieka’s jaw dropped. She hesitated.
“Admit her. Give her all refreshments. I will speak to her…very shortly.”
What on earth did Lady Maviola El want now? Ieka had thought she was nearly dead. And Ryoka Griffin—
The Archmage of Izril had questions.
They’d killed the wind with their Skills and magic. That—that wasn’t fair. Ryoka Griffin struggled to move. But the [Assassin] was having two [Thugs] drag her down the street. They grunted; she certainly wasn’t helping and lifting bodies was hard work.
Foolish. Ryoka was praying the others were alive. That they’d surrendered. Oh, gods. Ulinde was dead. Wait—did that Sister of Chell say Selphid?
It was falling apart. She had known the Guild had employed the gangs. But now Ryoka saw it.
Half of Izril’s underworld and countless members of the expendable ranks, like Theofore had been. It was an army in Invrisil, in other cities.
She hadn’t had a chance. The Sister of Chell was tsking as she investigated Fierre’s body. She frowned.
“Wait, maybe she’s alive. My heartbeat Skill is picking up something…did you bastards use poison or can I heal her?”
Professional killers versus Runners. Different mentality, different style. They’d taken the wind.
Arrogant. Lyonette was right. Ryoka heard the other gangs laughing and calling out in the street.
“Think we’ll bag a Courier?”
“We’ll let the [Assassins] take them on. What about the Drake?”
“You want to fuck with a Named Adventurer? He’s alone, anyways. And about to leave. Let him go, I say. Oi—company.”
The procession paused. The [Assassin] turned, but relaxed. The Sister of Chell looked up. Ryoka, with great effort, raised her head. The [Rogue] who was leading his gang blinked, then scowled.
“Look who’s here to join the party. The hat bastards.”
“New orders. We’re taking this one elsewhere. With me.”
The [Assassin] had just received a [Message] on a scroll. The two [Thugs] grumbled, but changed directions. They headed back the way they’d come. The [Rogue] shouted as the other gangs jeered.
“Here for a job? Get lost, you idiots! This is our job, and no one wanted to hire you prissy bastards!”
The others on the street jeered as they resumed their posts. The [Waitress]-Sister hesitated.
“Hold up. Hey. Why are you lot…that’s a lot of them.”
She muttered to herself. Ryoka stared ahead.
A line of men was strolling down the street. About…thirty of them. Each one wearing some kind of cap.
There were tricorns, top hats, or close enough, simple caps, even a fez—it was a world unknown to Ryoka. Who liked hats that much?
These men. And they were…walking slowly. Chatting. But Ryoka had a sudden flash of insight.
The Sister of Chell had one at the exact same time. The others were jeering, laughing. But the Sister murmured.
“Oh. Rhir’s hells.”
She raised a hand and clenched it into a fist. The other Sisters looked up and stopped laughing.
The [Rogue] was less perspicacious. And he should have been. But he was sauntering forwards with the crossbow in his hands.
“Hey. This is our street. Why’re you here?”
He called out, a bit warily. And one of the men walking in front—a Gnoll, the only one in the group, turned to a Drake.
“We’re going for a walk, gentlemen. Just a group of fellows on a walkabout, as any honest and enterprising citizen is entitled to, surely.”
The other gangs deciphered that, then looked at each other. The Brothers had their stupid way of talking. But the Drake’s voice was just as light as he replied. And they knew those two.
“There’s no law against a fellow walking about, is there?”
The [Rogue] counted heads. And suddenly he stopped in the street. Someone muttered; the [Assassin] looked up as she caught the sudden susurration.
“Boss? My [Dangersense] just went off.”
“Hey now. Hey, whatever’s the matter—”
The [Rogue] put up his hands. The Sisters were backing up down the street. Ratici sighed. He looked at Ryoka’s fallen friends. He turned to his companion.
“Wilovan, I feel overdressed in situations like this, don’t you?”
“Ratici, you read my mind.”
But it was too late. As one, the line of Brothers…took off their hats. They dropped them in the street, tossing them behind. The hats they took so much care of.
“What did that mean?”
The [Assassin] turned to look at the two [Thugs]. But she only saw Ryoka, on her hands and knees. The [Thugs] had let go and drawn a dagger and mace. And they were backing up.
“You must be mad! There are four gangs on this street! The Guild paid us to—arms up!”
The [Rogue] was retreating backwards. He looked around and saw three gangs. The Sisters of Chell were legging it. And then the [Rogue] looked ahead and he realized—
They were serious. Someone began to hum as they walked forwards. A young man, Teor, next to Crimshaw, following the Gentlemen Callers. He sang a children’s song, a nursery rhyme. And the others picked it up. Not all sang it well. But the haunting tone moved down the street.
“The night’s been long and the bodies are wet,
But don’t you fret; be quick and ain’t not a guard who’ll be upset
The good folk are rising, and we’re off to our beds,
The smart thieves away with the loot and the slow ones are dead.”
The other gangs were panicking. The [Assassin] just stared, transfixed. She might have heard the rumors. But some gave them no credence.
The Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings walked without their hats.
But why were they here? The answer was simple, as so many things were:
Someone had asked them to come. She had given them a choice. Presented the odds, the risks, and the rewards, which weren’t things you could hold. You couldn’t say fairer than that, could you? They had talked it over. And come to a simpler conclusion.
A gentleman did not let a lady cry.
“Hold those barriers! Hold ‘em or we’re dead!”
Wailant Strongheart speared an [Assassin] by throwing his cutlass. The fellow—or lass—hadn’t expected that. He grabbed the blade, yanked it out of the body as it collapsed, and retreated behind the glowing walls of magic. Yet there were so damn many. He’d heard the Guild of Assassins had more bodies than a fly’s nest—but they were coming nonstop, firing arrows, loosing enchanted pellets from slings—
People were fighting around him. Runners, [Mages], and the guests of The Wandering Inn. Palt was blowing a cloud of fumes that choked the [Assassins]. But the small group was pinned down.
They were in a defensive battle, under siege in the sewers. Montressa, Salamani, and the other [Mages] had up barriers and they were fighting with the [Assassins].
“It was a damned ambush! We have to retreat! Viceria, teleport!”
Wailant roared at his wife, who’d conjured vines out of the sewer’s muck to drag [Assassins] down. She was being sheltered by the half-Giant. Arrows stood out in Moore’s arm from the first volley. Viceria refused to budge.
“Not yet! Ryoka’s out there—”
“We’re about to be overrun! There’s some bastards out there—Faces—”
Someone was fighting past the barriers. Jelaqua Ivirith was Rampaging, tossing the [Assassins] around with every swing of her flail in her Raskghar’s form. But Wailant saw a figure step out of one of the dying [Assassin]’s shadows. He carried a longsword. And as Jelaqua twisted—
Snick. Her head fell off. The slice was that fast. Her body staggered, began swinging the flail in every direction. Selphid. But the [Assassin] was already stepping out of a shadow well out of range. And this was the sewers. Shadows were everywhere.
“That’s a Face.”
The [Mages], Runners, and others stopped fighting for a moment as Jelaqua slowed. The [Shadowmaster Assassin] stepped forwards. He pointed his sword at the group.
“[Beheading Slice]. Give up before someone actually dies. You don’t want this to go further and we don’t want to waste Skills and bodies on you.”
The others looked at each other. That one could go straight through the barriers. Wailant grabbed Viceria’s arm. Teleport. She pointed.
Garia was breathing hard, covering Fals—she’d knocked several [Assassins] into the sewer’s sludge with punches and kicks, but she wasn’t prepared for this. It was supposed to be a diversion.
“What do we do? Salamani?”
The [Mage] was aiming his wand at the largest group of [Assassins].
“Ryoka’s group might have been ambushed. You. [Assassin]. We’ll walk away if you do—”
“No. Surrender and we guarantee you won’t be harmed. But you won’t interfere. By the Guild, I promise that.”
“You trust their word?”
Montressa hissed. Wailant looked behind them.
“We’re surrounded, Mage Montressa. We might have to trust it.”
More shadows from the other side. The others wavered. Seborn spat.
“They’re going to shadow-step in. I can’t stop them all. It’ll be a massacre. Throw down your weapons. Unless you can stop that?”
“I can try—but it’s an advanced—”
The [Assassin] was losing his patience.
“There will be no second quarter. I said—”
Thump. The sewers shook. Wailant saw mortar and stone shifting, dust and muck showering down. Everyone tensed.
“What in the depths was that?”
The [Shadowmaster Assassin] didn’t know either. He gestured to one of the others.
“Find out what that was. The rest of you—”
Thwoom. Or—some other sound. Wailant didn’t really know. He went deaf as the street imploded above the [Assassins], showering them with rubble and masonry. The surface collapsed into the sewers!
The faster [Assassins] escaped, jumping away, using Skills—but a quarter of them went down with screams. The [Shadowmaster] leapt out of another shadow.
“What was th—”
Seborn emerged from his shadow. The [Shadowmaster] screamed as the [Rogue] slashed him four times. He vanished and reappeared, away from Seborn.
He jerked. Wailant saw a shower of fletched bolts appear in the [Shadowmaster]. The Face dropped without a sound. Seborn recoiled. Everyone fell silent.
They looked up. The other [Assassins] stared upwards as the voice shouted again.
“Reload. Aim. Volley!”
A second flight of arrows. The [Assassins] dove for cover. Wailant stared up through the clouds of dust. What in the name of Selphid’s tits was going on up—
Then he saw the first Drake [Crossbowman], kneeling in rank formation. And the blue-scaled Drake pointing downwards.
Palt’s cigar dropped out of his mouth. Why was he—?
Something was happening. Bethal had watched the standoff and the Drake—Saliss of Lights—telling jokes for nearly two hours. Well, not directly. The two [Commentators] were talking about the standoff. It seemed like Saliss’ cure would go to waste despite it all.
But now—she heard shouting. Drassi, who had been sitting with her earholes plugged, looked up.
“I think—something just happened. Scrying orb with me.”
“Aw. But I was going to tell the joke about—huh.”
Saliss looked up. The viewpoint changed. Drassi hurried to the window of the Runner’s Guild. The street, which Bethal had seen full of the hired thugs and shadowy figures, was suddenly changed. She saw them flitting backwards, away from…
“What am I seeing, Thomast?”
Her husband made no immediate reply. He was staring at the banners. And the people—men and women, marching forwards. They were…Human? Then Lady Bethal’s eyes widened.
“It can’t be…”
Why were they here? It was simple. Someone had asked them to come.
“Lord Sanito—yes. Straight through. She wanted to speak with you—here, milord.”
The [Guard] showed Lord Sanito to the place where he’d installed the magic door. Alman of House Sanito was annoyed; he hadn’t scheduled a delivery. But someone rather than something had come through the door.
He saw her standing there. A familiar young woman. Not tall or as impressive as some people you never forgot, not a [Warrior]. Just a young, Human woman. An [Innkeeper]. But because it was her, he would never have forgotten her face.
“Miss Erin Solstice? Is something wrong?”
The [Lord] stopped. And he stared, because something was wrong. Surely.
She was crying, a bit. Standing there, looking at his mansion, at him, as he slowed. Her cheeks were wet. Tears trickling down her face. But she ignored them. As if there were nothing wrong with her tears.
It unnerved the man. Tears were not something Alman was familiar with. From his wife, perhaps. But himself?
Lord Alman Sanito had told his son not to weep when he was four. It made a man weak, or so Alman’s father had told him at the same age. As if, young Alman had thought, tears were a crack in the stone that your courage could leak from.
“Miss Solstice. Is something the matter?”
That was all he could think to say. The [Innkeeper]’s head rose. She looked at him.
“I forgot you had a family, Lord Sanito. Not you, then. But I need your help. I don’t have much time. We don’t have much time.”
He blinked, uncomprehending. The [Innkeeper] walked forwards.
She had ignored the guards he’d sensibly posted on the door. Or talked them into letting her pass. The old [Lord] listened, of course. She had more than earned that despite the impropriety.
“Time, Miss Solstice?”
Her next words scared him terribly. She looked him in the eye. Her eyes were still red.
“Lord Toldos. Do you have any regrets?”
The last heir to House Everight, old Lord Toldos Everight, stirred in his seat. Erin looked at him. She went on.
“Zevara. Is there such a thing as right and wrong?”
The Watch Captain’s scales were tingling. She pushed herself back from her desk.
“What do you want, Erin Solstice?”
His arms were folded. He would have thrown her out but for her question.
“Do you believe in good and evil, Grimalkin?”
His eyes narrowed.
He knew. They knew. But still—he waited for her to convince him.
“Do you believe in debts? Chaldion?”
“I do. But I don’t know if you have the kind you need to call on now, Miss Erin.”
She stood there. Smiling. Crying. It was hard to tell which was which. And she shook her head and surprised the [Grand Strategist].
The Brothers listened. The [Innkeeper] looked around their home that was never quite a home, but close.
“I’ve come to ask you to fight. Maybe to die, far from your home, for someone you don’t know.”
“And we owe you a debt?”
Crimshaw murmured. Erin shook her head.
“No. The exact opposite. Whatever I’ve done—this isn’t the kind of thing you owe me. I’d be in debt. I don’t have the right. And I have every right. I—am not asking you for a favor. I can’t repay that kind of favor. I will try. But I will never succeed.”
She pointed at the old [Lord] and his retainers. Her eyes were clear, now. And Lord Toldos almost flinched from the finger.
“Lord Toldos. I am calling you to arms.”
He hesitated. And he said—
“—You do not have that authority. Nor are we allies, Miss Solstice. We are not on friendly terms. Why should I risk my life for your cause?”
Grimalkin of Pallass looked at her, recalling how they had last parted. She met his gaze.
“It’s not about whether we like each other, Grimalkin. It’s because I need your help. And because when you need me, I will be there so long as I’m alive. And you are one of the few people who can help. And because…”
She looked around at them.
“…It is the right thing to do. And you are men who believe that right and wrong exist, aren’t you?”
She saw them chuckling. Laughing. She had them there, you had to admit it.
Chaldion’s eye gleamed.
“For someone you don’t even know?”
“For my friend. She’ll die. And I’m selfish. Just like her.”
Erin was crying again. She shook her head.
“It’s so easy for Ryoka. She might die, but it’s harder to ask people to fight for you. That’s the only thing I’ll ever say. Because I’m a monster. I was too cowardly to become a [General]. But I’ll ask again. Again—I don’t want my friends to die. But my guests, my inn, isn’t enough. I need—an army. So I am asking you.”
She raised her hand. Both she and Chaldion stared at it. Erin held her glowing, golden ring up. The [Grand Strategist]’s eyes widened.
“My ring is glowing. Do you know what it means?”
He inhaled once. How had he missed it?
“Yes. How did you get that? No—”
He looked at her.
“Who were you?”
Who were you before you came here? She only smiled. It was not who she was. It was who she became.
The same smile. The same person. It still brought her to tears. Selys rested her head on her friend’s shoulder.
“Why you? Why her? Why me? Why us, Erin? Every time?”
Selys’ eyes were filled with tears. Erin looked at her friend. She hugged Selys tight.
“Because we don’t run away. Stay safe.”
She walked through her door, changing the position of the stones. She asked them, each and every one.
After Chaldion, she returned to her room and took the ring off her finger. Erin regarded it, then put it on top of her dresser, in her room. So that was what it did. She didn’t need it for what came next.
Not this time.
The [Innkeeper] walked out of her inn. People were waiting. She saw Wailant storm through the door and looked past him. She nodded.
Olesm stood there, adjusting his armor. He nodded back.
“I’ll see you in a moment.”
She walked through the door. To Invrisil.
Now, the [Innkeeper] heard the first explosion. She saw the [Guardsman] start.
“I—I should check that out, shouldn’t I? I’ll be right back, Miss Emme—”
He was no Zevara. He was one of Invrisil’s Watch Captains. Erin saw the Dwarf woman, who had been plying him with autographs and tickets and a bit of wine, glance up. Erin was sitting in the Watch Captain’s office. She nodded.
“It might be the Guild of Assassins. Better to leave it, right?”
The man hesitated. His look was guilty.
“Er…yes. Perhaps. My lads are brave, but—there’s that and death, right, Miss…Miss Solstice? Miss Emme?”
Death. Erin nodded. She strolled over to something in the man’s office.
“So you’re a Watch Captain—not the Watch Commander. But you can raise the alarm, huh? With this horn? Is it a signal or just one thing?”
“Oh, you’d blow it four times. But please don’t touch—”
Erin picked up the enchanted horn. The Watch Captain hesitated as she lifted it to her lips. Then she looked around.
“Miss. Miss, what are you—”
Erin blew the horn before he could get out of his chair. Four times. It was loud. Emme clapped her hands to her ears. It rang throughout the city. Citizens looked up. That was—they began to run for the nearest door.
To help them out, Erin leaned out of the window. She’d asked Emme what was appropriate.
“A Flesh Giant is attacking the city! Five of them! Get inside!”
Someone in the streets looked up in horror. They stopped, stared at Erin, and then ran, screaming. Then she turned.
The Watch Captain was frozen with sheer horror. Also, an internal vision of his job evaporating. She handed the horn to him. He moved to grab her.
Erin drew her knife. The man recoiled. She plucked a jar of acid from her belt.
“Stay here, Emme. It’s time.”
The [Innkeeper] walked down the stairs.
The Brothers dropped their hats. They stopped humming the rhyme. The other gangs stared, transfixed. They couldn’t be serious. But you know what they said about the Brothers. They were properly mad.
Wilovan brought up his club. The [Rogue] raised his crossbow like a shield.
The Gnoll brought down the club. The broken crossbow fell. So did what remained of the man.
The [Assassin] snapped into a speaking stone. She drew her blade as Ryoka struggled up to her feet. The gangs were split. Half were fighting, the other half running. The Brothers advanced. Crimshaw and another man grabbed one of the [Thugs] and ran him into a shop’s glass window. Then they shoved him onto the broken glass.
“Thirty of them! I need Faces! Get me—”
The [Assassin] dodged Ryoka’s punch. She slashed back as Ryoka threw a handful of sand and caltrops in her face. Ryoka fumbled for a wand as the [Assassin] flipped backwards. She landed as one of the [Thugs] whirled, bringing a crossbow up.
Delanay fired first as he struggled free of his captors. The man went over sideways. Ryoka aimed her wand. The [Assassin] was slashing wildly, half-blinded.
“[Arrow of Fire]!”
The jet of searing light flashed forwards. The [Assassin] twisted.
[Automatic Dodge]. Ryoka’s jaw dropped. The woman leapt, cutting—
She vanished. Fierre tackled her out of the air and they crashed onto the street. The [Assassin] shouted in surprise. She stabbed Fierre three times. The Vampire girl threw her through a wall. Not glass. Brick. She jumped after her.
Ryoka looked around. And she heard more shouting.
“[Detect Life]. [Quake] spell. Good city-fighting tactics.”
Grimalkin made a note. Olesm pointed. The [Assassins] below were trying to regroup. The Drakes kneeling with crossbows were reloading too slowly. He bellowed.
A second wave of arrows lanced downwards, perfectly striking a dozen [Assassins]. They stared down at the phantom arrows, ghosts of the bolts. The Drakes looked up as the [Strategist] pointed.
“Mark your targets! Aim! Volley!”
They loosed. The guests of the inn looked up as the Drake force reloaded, and then moved back. Olesm looked around.
“Who is the ranking officer here?”
“That would be me and Commander Relun.”
Grimalkin spoke. The Sinew Magus and a Dullahan stood with Olesm. The Pallassian officer threw a salute.
“1st Army of Pallass, 4th Battalion. Alchemy’s Arbalests at your service, Strategist Olesm. Grand Strategist Chaldion has placed us under your command.”
Olesm nodded. He stared past the battalion.
“You—moved through an entire battalion?”
“Mana is not an object to a Walled City. You have six hundred lives at your disposal, Strategist. Miss Solstice bought them, somehow. Do not waste them. Or die. The [Assassins] will target officers.”
He eyed the second group mixing with the professional Pallassian [Soldiers].
“Is that Liscor’s Watch?”
“And Esthelm’s militia. And Celum’s…will you take command, Magus?”
Grimalkin shook his head.
“I’ll ambush the [Assassins]. Hold this street. And be warned—I am counting hundreds of hostiles. [Superior Camouflage]. [Perfect Muffle]. [Invisibility]—”
He vanished. Olesm turned.
“Begin fortifying the street! I want anti-magic barricades and staggered formation! Commander—our job is to get a City Runner out of the city.”
“They have the streets leading up to the Guild. Are we digging in here before advancing?”
“Yes. We’re not alone.”
“Drakes. In Invrisil. An army of them.”
“Lord Toldos—please retreat behind the van.”
The Human [Soldiers] and [Knights] were fighting down the street. Lord Toldos saw House Sanito’s retainers fighting alongside his men and three other Houses. No Lord Alman. The [Innkeeper] had told him she had asked only for men.
Lord Alman had a family. The old [Lord] refused to move.
“House Everight ends with me. And I will not cower or flee Invrisil twice. Advance!”
He plunged forwards. Ahead of the Drakes, ignoring his retainer’s cries to stop. The [Lord] slashed down a fleeing shadow. The Guild was so close—
The street erupted in fire. An [Assassin] with a staff pointed down at the [Lord]. Toldos raised his sword. He hacked down more [Assassins] as they leapt from cover. His retainers shouted. They tried to advance under a sudden crossfire.
Lord Toldos felt something strike him in the chest, piercing through his armor. He clutched at the shaft. Ah. So that was why she had been weeping. And still—he lifted his sword.
Wilovan clutched at his side. One street clear. The city was erupting into violence. He stared down at the dead gang. And then looked around.
The Brothers had lost members. Some were wounded. Others…
“Teor? Where did you go? T—”
He had been right behind Wilovan. The Gnoll turned. He saw a young man, lying face-down on the street. Wilovan reached down.
He looked into glassy, empty eyes. In the first minute—Wilovan straightened.
“The good folk are rising, and we’re off to our beds. The smart thieves away with the loot and the slow ones are dead.”
There was nothing to say. She had asked. There were more gangs than he had imagined, that was all. The Guild had sent their [Assassins] into the city in force.
“Next street. Where’s Miss Griffin? Ratici?”
“With us. I think—there are [Soldiers] falling back. Their first assault went south.”
“We’ll see if we can’t finesse it, then. Lads? Anyone who can move, with me.”
“What are you doing?”
The City Runner stared at Wilovan. Ratici joined his companion. Wilovan gave her a nod. He didn’t pick up his hat. Crimshaw appeared, limping. He had the tricorne. Teor’s. He placed it over the young man’s head.
They left him behind. Wilovan walked on.
“Going for a walk, Miss Griffin. Let’s set you on your way.”
“This is madness. They’re killers.”
So are we. But it was true—the [Assassins] were ready to die. Wilovan reached for the hat and felt the lightness on his head.
“Sometimes a man has to do certain things, Miss Griffin. I’ll wager the other fellows feel the same. It’s a bad business. And it cannot—will not continue. We’ll do our part. Will you do yours?”
Ryoka looked around. Fierre—Delanay was on his knees, talking to Ulinde. He looked up.
She went. Ryoka Griffin had made her choice. And so had Erin Solstice.
“That idiot. I told him to wait for us to flank—”
Olesm heard the first, nigh-suicidal charge had failed. The [Lord] had ignored the Drake. They were not allies—or if they were, they were bound by a single person.
But it was not for Erin alone he was here. It was because there was right and wrong and—Liscor’s [Guards] cried out.
“Behind the barricades!”
Olesm saw the first [Assassins] popping up, firing spells from a long ways away at the entrenched forces. They weren’t idiots and they had gear. The enchanted barricades absorbed the explosions, but some [Guards] were thrown back even so.
The battalion’s [Commander] was roaring. They were in the thick of it. Olesm tried to use his [Instantaneous Barrage] Skill—but it wasn’t ready to be used yet.
“There’s a group coming from the north, Strategist. Forty of them. They’ll blast your lines apart, even with the barricades. Collapse the buildings on you.”
Olesm whirled, sword raised. He saw the Drakes aiming—
“Hold fire! Earl?”
Earl Altestiel strode forwards. He looked around, as if he and his group were taking a stroll. His [Knights] and escort were fully armed, though. Altestiel was wearing his cloth armor—but it was probably better than Olesm’s enchanted leather.
“What are you doing here, Knight Marshal?”
“I had a feeling something was going to happen. I did not expect this. Move away from those buildings. The [Assassins] care nothing for collateral damage. And they’ve hired gangs. You might face a force comparable to yours if you advance. Invrisil can field thousands of disreputable criminals. Although their morale will probably break if enough die.”
Olesm saw the Drake hesitating. He nodded.
“Do it! Earl—”
The man was staring ahead. Peering upwards.
“Fascinating. There is a story I heard of that [Innkeeper], Strategist Olesm. Of a chess club.”
The Drake stared blankly at him. Then his eyes sharpened. He nodded. That was one of the reasons why he was here.
“They died for her. Because she gave them everything. The ones who lived became legends among their kind.”
The Earl smiled. He adjusted his clothing. Then he looked at Olesm and shook his head. He turned.
“What an extraordinary person. Soldiers of Desonis prepare for combat. Strategist, move those barricades. Strategist Kiish, watch the flank on the left. Block any area of attack spells coming our way.”
Olesm’s jaw dropped. He saw the two [Knights] striding forwards, bringing up huge shields.
The first drop of rain hit the back of his head. The Earl looked at him.
“I simply wouldn’t want a worthy teacher to die. I leveled, you know. Me. Are we advancing?”
“I—I told Lord Toldos not to. Erin said there was one more group. There are the Brothers, the Drakes, Magus Grimalkin. But she said that wasn’t enough.”
He hadn’t believed it when he saw Pallass’ 4th Battalion. But he would have taken a regiment, after seeing the [Assassins]. They fought like—
[Assassins]. Another [Lightning Bolt] blew apart Lord Toldos’ [Soldiers] in their doomed assault. They were fleeing, bearing the [Lord] backwards. Idiot. Fool.
A brave fool. But the [Assassins] didn’t fight fair. They had poisoned bolts. They refused to fight in a standing battle. And—
Eight rushed past the dead [Bouncer]. They leapt through the door as the inn’s patrons screamed. The kill order on the [Innkeeper] was a priority. She was behind it.
They emerged through the door into The Wandering Inn. Sloppy! The [Assassins] looked around, and then charged down the long hallway.
Odd. One of them had a flicker of apprehension. The hallway was—
The crossbows snapped. Two assassins went down, screaming, but not dead. The other six leapt, avoiding the bolts with inhuman agility. One went onto the ceiling—screamed.
Acid doused him and he fell. Another twisted, deflecting another crossbow bolt! This was a trap! She ran for the door—
The explosion blew all but one to pieces. The last tried to run, stumbling, and a second wave of bolts cut him down.
It was fast aiming. Shots meant to kill. The inn’s staff were dedicated—but not that dedicated to their job. Just as well they were only backing up the group casually aiming through the arrow slits.
Todi lowered his smoking wand with a sigh.
“Alright. Change the door’s dial and prepare for more while we hide the bodies! Make sure they’re dead!”
Todi’s Elites moved out of their hiding spots. Selys was watching as Todi barked orders. The Gold-rank was in fine fettle. And why not?
This was a perfect vantage. Nigh-unbreakable walls, a death trap? And being able to choose when he let [Assassins] through? The Gold-rank Captain was nodding. He might have refused, even so.
But, well, he had believed Selys when she told him her truism. [Everything Has a Price]. He adjusted his position.
“Alright. Open the door! And check if they need reinforcements! Damned idiots got through, right?”
The Gold-rank grunted. He set himself. This was where his team was happiest. Let the crazies—
Fly. Bevussa dove. Someone had taken another shot at her.
“Their aim is too good! Get down! Down!”
She landed hard. Keldrass looked up from where the Gold-rank teams were slowly advancing.
“Olesm just sent a Runner. Move up.”
“Damn, damn. They’re throwing [Fireballs] at us.”
“Then get behind Keldrass!”
Bevussa snapped at the third Gold-rank team—hired by Chaldion from the groups in Liscor. She pointed ahead.
The Flamewardens were moving down the street, scorching figures assailing them. Keldrass wore the Heartflame Breastplate.
And still—they were fighting for their lives. Erin had made a mistake, or so Bevussa felt. She twisted as another arrow bent around a street’s corner and tried to hit her.
She had asked for fighters. People willing to die. Not her guests. In fact—she’d trapped the Goblins, made sure her friends and family were safe. Even some of them who might have come—she hadn’t even known about Wailant, Viceria, and the others.
In a distant city, far from Liscor or Invrisil, a Dwarf was smashing his hammer on a closed door.
“Open it up!”
Pelt struggled with his apprentices. The door had not opened. She had not asked him, that damned—he looked at the orb. He could see the Gold-ranks under fire.
Chaos and madness. Erin had made one mistake and it was underestimating the [Assassins]. Even with Gold-rank teams, an army—Bevussa and Pelt shared the same thought.
The entire Guild was fighting. Every [Assassin] they’d spared had come to Invrisil at the danger. It was do-or-die. If the cure was delivered…their reputation and power would be broken. The Circle, similarly…
Olesm’s forces were the only real hammer in terms of numbers. Bevussa’s group was trying to advance from where the magic door had let them out. But the [Assassins] had the numbers to fight on every front! How many Faces were there? How many Gold-ranks, or Grimalkins? The [Assassins] had dug into this city, fortified for an attack, if not on this level.
It was like the worst siege attacks Bevussa had known.
“We’re pinned down! Keldrass, don’t advance too far! They have us marked!”
She saw a distant window down the entire street flicker. Four hundred feet away, an [Assassin] with a bow put an enchanted arrow to the string. Bevussa swore as he took aim at the vulnerable [Mages] in the Lifwail Blades.
“Reinforce your barriers! You’re going to—”
The [Assassin] jerked. The arrow dropped from his grip and fell down. Bevussa saw it detonate on the street as the body hung from the window. She stared ahead. Her keen eyes saw…an arrow in his chest.
Olesm was hunkering down as [Assassins] on the rooftops exchanged fire with the [Arbalests] at long-range. They were firing beyond what an un-Skilled [Archer] could attack from! The Earl was moving better on his street; rain and winds were assailing the [Assassins] who couldn’t see, while the group he’d taken charge of fought as if it were sunshine.
“Rotate out! [Instantaneous—”
Olesm was prepared to loose all forty long-range shots in the hopes of making the [Assassins] take cover or wounding one—but they kept dodging—and he popped out of cover with three decoys.
No crossbow bolt or arrow took his life. He looked up.
Three [Assassins] were lying on the street. The rest were fleeing. Someone was loosing arrows at them! But who—Olesm’s head turned. And then he saw and felt the battlefield shifting.
“They’re drawing back.”
Wailant’s group had joined the Brothers as they made for the Guild. The [Assassins] stood in force there, a proper army. Even the Brothers had failed to advance—Wilovan pulled an arrow out of his shoulder.
“Poisoned. Would someone check if they have an antidote before I expire? I do have six hours, mind. No matter how deadly that was. No rush if anyone else is in a spot of bother.”
High-level. Wailant raised his brows. But the Gentlemen Callers, Grimalkin, and perhaps some of the Gold-ranks were few and far between. And that had been a near-instantaneous arrow-hit from one of the Faces over a thousand paces away.
“Something’s happening. They’re moving. Why?”
Montressa squinted at the [Assassins]. They’d been pushing back everyone. But now—they were moving down the street. Reacting to some new threat. Palt’s head slowly rose.
“Do you…feel that? Bezale? Mons? That can’t be real, can it?”
The other two Wistram [Mages] looked up. Montressa’s eyes went round. She’d been loosing lightning from her brass orb. Now—her jaw dropped.
Wailant saw the sky change color. He looked up—and the sky turned grey.
Ryoka Griffin, crouching with them, got no further. The sky split. And a hundred bolts of lightning struck a part of the city in the distance.
Everyone looked up. Palt dropped his cigar again. Montressa breathed.
“That has to be—”
Xrn. The Small Queen floated in the air over the desolation. Black bodies lay around her. She raised her staff higher.
Belgrade remembered to speak after a moment.
“Loose. [Mark Target]. Reload. Aim. Loose. [Mark Target]. Reload—”
Archery Squads A to D stood on the rooftop, loosing arrows. The Workers were shooting rapidly. But the [Archer] who’d shot down the [Assassins] at extreme range was even higher up.
Bird took aim from the top of his new tower. He saw a distant shape, loosed—the arrow curved as it homed in on the [Assassin], flying improbably far.
The figure dodged, cartwheeling. But the second and third arrows were already landing. Bird had calculated how far they dodged with their basic dodge Skill and put two arrows to the left and right; they didn’t like dodging forwards or backwards as much.
If you relied on Skills—he watched the figure crumble, the arrow in its belly. Bird sighed.
“Birds are harder.”
The [Assassins] looked up. The Small Queen floated in the air. Next to the Worker. At first, the group hadn’t been noticed as they set up. They were the last to arrive.
They made the largest impact.
The [Assassins], the Circle of Thorns, the watchers—Drassi pointed up with a shaking claw.
“Bird the [Hunter]!”
The cry went up from Invrisil. People hiding in their homes looked up and saw the Prognugator of the Free Antinium! How they had seen him on Pallass’ walls. The nobles of Izril, watchers staring into the orb heard the second name. Quietly uttered, this time in disbelief.
“The Small Queen. Xrn.”
She hovered there. Her staff glowed with the same magic as her eyes. When she spoke—her voice was perfectly amplified so that everyone heard it without her having to shout.
“Hello, Humans. My name is Xrniavxxel. You call me the Small Queen of the Antinium.”
The Thorns of Death ordered it without hesitation. The [Assassins] changed targets. They streamed towards her.
Dozens of lightning bolts flashed down from the sky. They left…fire…where they impacted. They were red. Burning lightning. The [Thaumaturge] smiled.
“This is an act of war! Is it war, Antinium?”
One of the [Assassins] shouted up at her, brandishing a buckler which had absorbed one of the lightning bolts. Xrn looked down at him, interested.
“I am simply doing a good deed. I am allowed to break rules to do a good deed. I did not know this, but it seems acceptable.”
“No Human will accept that. This land is ours! Return to your Hive!”
The [Assassin] raised his buckler. Xrn tilted her head back and forth. It was sound logic. Well, darn. If she couldn’t break the rules even to do a good deed—if the Antinium were the one exception—
“Very well, then. It is war.”
The Humans looked up. The Small Queen rotated in the air. She looked into the distant orb.
“I am telling you so you don’t have to ask. It. Is. War. War on your Guild of Assassins. The Antinium are at war. So—advance.”
She pointed. Below her, a tide of figures moved. Antinium. Soldiers and Workers, painted. A giant led them, a few inches taller than the others.
Yellow Splatters. His voice boomed as they moved at the [Assassins]. Above—Xrn was engaging an entire flank. Soldiers thundered forwards. Workers with bows provided local cover.
They were here to fight and die. Because they had been asked. Was that enough? Perhaps not. Perhaps it was unfair. But they had been asked by her.
And she was there. How could they not try to protect her? Erin Solstice raised one of the spare knives at the back of the first wave of Antinium.
She threw the knife. It went through one of the black forms fighting in the streets. She took a breath, raised a jar, and threw it. Someone fell, screaming, burning.
Erin Solstice killed someone else. She could not—would not stay in hiding while she asked them to die. Nor would they die so easily.
The [Assassins] charged, enchanted blades cutting the air. They shot spells, [Fireballs], acid orbs of their own, [Lightning Bolts] at the Antinium who had no counter to—
The spells vanished. Exploded on shimmering air. The [Assassins] in the melee smacked into something.
“Forwards. Advance without fear. We will protect each other.”
A Worker with a staff and censer walked forwards. The [Assassins] launched a second barrage and their weapons failed to reach their targets. The [Priest] held his staff high, praying with two of his hands as he walked.
[Holy Barrier]. Their weapons hung in the air and then dropped. The air pressed them back, a physical barrier of light. But it did not touch the Antinium who marched under its aegis. They loosed arrows through the glowing light, felling [Assassin] and [Thug] alike.
“What kind of barrier spell is that?”
One of the [Assassins] pointed at the moving barrier. He snapped at the ranks.
“Break it! Dispel it!”
“It’s not magic! It’s not—”
Six glowing meteors blew their fortifications apart. Xrn was humming as she turned. She saw more [Assassins] coming.
“Ah. You are strong. Well then—”
Four Faces emerged from the ranks. They stepped over corpses; it was pointless to throw the Ranks at this enemy. So—here was a second foe on the level of Saliss of Lights. They were still the Guild of Assassins.
Xrn beamed. Time to reduce the war strength of humanity. She raised her staff.
“[Magical Field: The Somber World of Blue].”
A radius of…blue…engulfed a thousand feet around her. The [Assassins] dodged back. They looked at each other, tested the barrier. They couldn’t tell—
[Shadowstep]. [Hundredfold Stab]. [Antimagic Blade].
The first [Assassin] was a mage-killer. He appeared on Xrn’s back and his blade struck her. A hundred damn times.
She actually turned and knocked a few thrusts away. She was fast! But the blade got her! It sank into her chitin. She made a sound—
The Face exploded as the bolts of lightning struck him. Xrn righted herself and floated a bit lower. The other three Faces stared.
“He got her…”
Another drew an arrow, loosed it. Xrn didn’t even try to dodge. The arrow shot towards her—bounced off her chest.
That same arrow could kill an armored [Knight] in low-grade magical armor in a single shot. The [Thaumaturge] shook her head.
“Wrong color. [Blue Ray of Lesser Disintegration].”
Blue? Bl—one of the [Assassins] clutched at his leg, vaporized up to the knee and screamed.
“That’s not magic. That’s not fair.”
“Yes. So you [Mages] like to say before you die.”
Xrn pointed her staff.
The Free Queen watched another [Assassin] vanish. She rubbed her palps together. It was silly to delight in it. But see how her Painted Antinium were doing? See—the fruits of her labor?
“More food, Garry.”
The Hives were in uproar. Wistram was in uproar. They were panicking. The Grand Queen’s voice snapped to the Free Queen.
“Xrn has declared war. This—is this so, Free Queen? Is there reason to go to war? Now?”
The Free Queen’s head rotated. She looked at the other Queens. And after a moment—she nodded. She chose each word with exacting care.
“Yes. As I chose my name—Bessachidia—I swear to you, Grand Queen. It is war. 109% war. Completely, without equivocation, war.”
The other Queens stirred. The Flying Queen’s mandibles opened. Oh.
“Ah. I see. Then we must march the Hives north. Prepare the armies. We will invade north Izril at once.”
The Armored Queen rumbled. The Silent Queen nodded.
“Let us make peace with the Drakes. To war.”
The Free Queen nodded. She posed there, like one of the portraits of Human leaders. She hoped Wistram Academy got her good side.
Hellfire. Ryoka Griffin ran. The [Assassins] were in full retreat. The Brothers were advancing. Pressing them back with Xrn killing their best. And—a huge Drake had just appeared and killed an entire squad of them.
Grimalkin barked at Ryoka. He was making notes. Testing out his new camouflage-attack spell pattern. It was working well. He saw the Wind Runner making for the Guild. The Sinew Magus stared up at Xrn.
He was tempted to take his shot. But it wasn’t worth the risk.
“She unleashed the Black Tide on Invrisil. That damn—”
He turned, vanishing. The others saw Ryoka run for the Guild.
“Protect her! [Arrows of Light]!”
Palt, Montressa, Salamani, and every [Mage] present unloaded their spells to keep the [Assassins] under cover. Ryoka dove for the door. An [Assassin] leapt for her—
“Acid in the face!”
Saliss sprayed him, grabbed Ryoka, and yanked her into the Guild. Ryoka landed. She stared up at a nude Drake. He was gazing out the window as Drassi frantically commentated—
“Xrn in the skies, and it looks like Pallass as well as Celum, Liscor, Esthelm—”
“I didn’t think anyone was stupid enough to actually grab the cure. What is Erin thinking? She did this, didn’t she? I should have told her the plan! That damn Xif. I will burn down his shop and shave him naked for—oh. Don’t I know you?”
The Drake blinked at Ryoka. She stared up at him.
“The vial. The cure. I’ve come for—”
Saliss of Lights looked down at Ryoka. She saw the petrified Runner’s Guild, mostly in hiding, on the other side of the room. Two dozen [Assassins] were dead, neatly piled against the wall of the Guild. Saliss eyed Ryoka as she scrambled for the vault. The key was on the counter; the [Receptionist] had refused to even touch it.
“I’ve got it. I’ve—”
Ryoka turned the key and swung the vault door open. She reached for the vial—
Saliss caught her arm. Ryoka started. The Drake looked at her, sighed.
“No. Get lost. You suck. I want someone else.”
Ryoka stuttered. Saliss looked at her and shook his head.
“It’d be awkward if you died. Don’t do this. It’s a trap, you know? I thought you were smart—okay, I thought someone would stop you. Why did you go for the vial? You know it’s a trap. Mrsha would know it’s a trap.”
“I had to—please, let me take it. Everyone’s fighting because of—”
Saliss threw up his claws. Ryoka seized the vial.
“I’m supposed to be the crazy one! I didn’t think Erin would—was that the Small Queen? She actually got an Antinium army to invade Invrisil. She. Is. Insane.”
He looked at Ryoka, like so many before. She just stared back, with much the same look in her eyes. Erin Solstice. One had made the cure. The other sought to deliver it. Erin—
Invrisil was at war.
“I have to try. I didn’t ask her to do this.”
Ryoka whispered. Saliss’ eyes flickered.
“You’re a good kid. Dumb as Edellein, but a good kid.”
He sighed, rubbing a claw against his snout.
“Okay. Okay. Damn. This is not how it was supposed to go. I’ll walk with you down one street. Can’t promise more than that. Honestly—you’d better start running the moment we get out of the door, Miss Griffin. And—surrender when they try to kill you, okay?”
He turned. Drassi half-swung the orb around. Then she clapped a claw towards it.
“This is Drassi. We’ve experienced technical difficulties on our end of the broadcast.”
“Drassi? What’s wrong? Is that your claw? Someone entered the Guild, didn’t they? Drassi!”
Noass was demanding from the other end of the broadcast. Drassi looked at Ryoka and Saliss. She waved her on, and mumbled.
“Technical difficulties. Stand by…let me just polish the scrying orb…”
The Circle of Thorns, watching, felt the first real fear amid the surprise.
“Someone has the cure? Where are all the high-level [Assassins]! Kill that Antinium! Kill those Drakes!”
One smashed a fist on an armrest. Others, more cool-headed, were trying to figure out who it was.
“Saliss of Lights has left the Guild. Get me a scrying spell. It’s…the Wind Runner of Reizmelt? Ryoka Griffin. Stop her from leaving the city. Why can’t we lock onto her?”
“Who cares? Kill her.”
But it was getting harder by the second.
Lord Tyrion Veltras watched. Jericha had brought the orb to him. He saw fighting in the streets. Lord Toldos was dead.
But Humans were fighting alongside Drakes. Antinium were in the city.
One was on the tallest tower in the city, loosing arrows and…singing. The [Assassins] were trying to kill him almost as much as Xrn and the Drakes. They were climbing the tower like roaches. Bird shot arrows down at them.
“Uh oh. Uh oh. I need covering fire. I have attracted their ire. Will I die? La—uh oh.”
Belgrade was trying to pick them off, but they were moving to the side of the tower his [Archers] couldn’t hit.
“Bird! Jump! Do you have a ring? Bird! Bird!”
The [Bird Hunter] drew a dagger with his free hand. He saw an [Assassin] flicking a dagger up to throw at him as she clung to the brickwork.
He loosed an arrow first, hit her. But more daggers, spells, were flying up. Bird saw a wand pointing.
An arrow sprouted from the [Assassin]’s head. Bird saw him drop off the tower and take two of his friends. Bird regarded his bow as he loosed another arrow.
“Did I do that? No. Then—”
He saw another arrow take an [Assassin] down. Then another. They weren’t as fast as Bird’s shots, but they were perfectly placed. Bird traced their trajectories. He saw the figure, crouching, protected by the two Hobs.
Badarrow. The [Sniper] was aiming.
“[Zone of Interception Fire].”
He had Bird under his protection. The [Sniper] loosed fast, striking the unprotected [Assassins]. Bird obligingly shot an [Assassin] coming at the Hobs. Numbtongue was standing with Snapjaw.
“Stop shooting them! Let me cut them!”
He swore—he hadn’t gotten to kill anything yet! They’d only now managed to climb out of the [Garden of Sanctuary] through the hole in the roof. Stupid Erin, trying to keep him safe! He reached for his guitar.
Time for lightning.
Ryoka Griffin tried to summon the air. But it was still dead. Whatever they’d done, they’d hit her with enough spells to silence the air. And it was already being changed by the [Mages] in the city.
…The lightning bolts flying from the sky would kill her anyways. She couldn’t execute her plan. There was no plan, frankly.
“Alright, go! Give up when they corner you! For the Walled Cities! Try and kill me!”
Saliss let her go after one street. He charged at the [Assassins], who fled him as he threw potions nonstop. Ryoka deployed her backup plan.
“Ryoka—did you get—”
Delanay skidded to a stop. One of his arms was in a sling, hand braced. He saw Ryoka speeding towards him.
“Five Families! What is th—”
Ryoka shot past him. The Emergency Runner turned. Ryoka turned, desperately, and passed by a gang locked in combat with Wilovan, Ratici, and the Brothers. Both sides had to stare. What was she riding?
A…bike. Ryoka Griffin pumped the pedals, turning desperately. But the bike Kevin had made was a dream, and handled even the bumpy roads of Invrisil. She shot past [Assassins], fleeing pedestrians, a squad of Drakes who pointed at her—
Ryoka Griffin had never tried to get to max speed on the bike before. She’d stopped, afraid, after she’d hit what she thought was close to the unaided limit. At this speed, she was moving so fast that—
She hit a pothole. Ryoka Griffin went flying. She hit the ground thirty feet ahead of the pothole. Sat up.
Hedault’s ring flashed on her finger. Ring of Falling. Or…preventing falling. The same one Kevin had used with the skateboard. Ryoka got up, ran back for the bike, mounted it.
“Ryoka! Ryoka, do you have it?”
The City Runner’s head snapped up. She saw, ahead of her, a group of Antinium spilling forwards, pursuing some screaming [Toughs]. Human they might be—but the criminals weren’t going to fight the Black Tide. Or the crazy [Innkeeper] with the jars of acid.
“I have it!”
Erin pointed. Ryoka looked at her friend. Erin hadn’t told her. Told her that to help Ryoka—save her life—she’d bring an army to Invrisil.
Did you regret it? Erin’s eyes were red. But she was fighting. Pawn laid his hands on a Soldier and some gashes closed.
Some things you believed in. Erin pointed.
She’d get Ryoka out of Invrisil. After that—
Lady Ieka Imarris stared into the orb. Her head was filled with incoming [Message] spells. Panicked orders. And she was watching the broadcast.
“Oh no. No, Ryoka. Don’t do this.”
The Wind Runner was making for the outskirts of the city. On—she couldn’t even tell what it was. Some kind of metal steed with wheels.
But it was not enough. Lady Ieka Imarris saw, at last, a Runner with the cure leave Invrisil. Behind, the city was still locked in combat. But the Guild of Assassins was fleeing the city. They couldn’t stand up to a proper army, let alone three. Invrisil’s Watch had joined the Humans from the [Lords], sensing the wind changing. Liscor and Pallass’ forces were routing [Assassins]. And the Antinium—
Well done. Good job, thou good and brave warriors. Ieka could have applauded it. But look.
The City Runner slowed on her bicycle. The wind was still dead. She looked ahead, down the long, empty road.
She had finally, with the aid of countless individuals, left Invrisil. And now—
House Veltras lay hundreds of miles away. How fast was that device? The Circle was regrouping. And they had a single order:
Kill Ryoka Griffin. Kill the Wind Runner. Every Face on the continent would be after her.
“I have to stop her. That fool. She cannot make it. Summon my guards! My horse! No, a carriage, enchanted!”
Ieka rose. She needed to get Ryoka Griffin to safety. Smash the cure! Let that Persua deliver it. Ryoka could not outrun the Guild. She saw the Wind Runner hesitate.
…And then I see the open road, out of the gates. Erin started a war for me. I stop, panting, the sweat running down my back. I’m already winded, just leaving Invrisil.
I look ahead. And see the road stretching out to the horizon. And I remember how far it is.
I try to reach for the wind. But they took it away from me. If they can do that once—
I am afraid.
Ryoka Griffin hung her head. She tried to find the will she had used to convince Lyonette and Erin. But she was afraid. The Guild was fleeing the city, regrouping. They had horses, artifacts, hundreds of members still, probably.
She had an enchanted bike and her wind—if it came back to her. It had to be done, though. Someone had to try.
Ryoka pedaled forwards. She felt her mortality now, now that she had seen people dying. But she would—just let her feel the wind. Let her fly—
“I warned you. I should have warned Erin. But even I didn’t think she was capable of this. Not yet.”
Someone spoke up. Ryoka slowed—then accelerated.
Maviola El kicked the bike as it passed her. Ryoka crashed again. The [Lady Firestarter] saw Ryoka struggling upwards, swearing.
She had been waiting here, for Ryoka. Tracking her—it was hardly difficult. The [Lady] saw Ryoka grab for the bike.
“I have it! Don’t try to stop me—”
Ryoka righted the bike. Maviola slapped her. Ryoka’s head jerked. She spun, fist clenched as Maviola grabbed the handlebars. The [Lady] looked at Ryoka, shaking her head. Her look was part admiration, part envy, part incredulity. And a sprinkling of anger.
“You simple idiot. You gigantic fool. You courageous child.”
She spoke to Ryoka. The Wind Runner tried to drag the bike away, but the old [Lady] held firm. This was not the time for a long chat.
“Don’t stop me, Maviola! I know I might die. I have to try. They fought for me. Erin fought for me. I have the cure—”
Ryoka brandished the clear vial at Maviola. The [Lady] sighed.
“Ryoka Griffin. That’s not the cure. That’s a vial of water.”
The Wind Runner froze. Maviola stared at the vial.
“Did you even check to see if there was magic in it?”
“That can’t be right. Saliss—”
Had been going to leave the vial behind. Ryoka’s head slowly rose. Maviola sighed.
“Who would have gone into the Runner’s Guild if Erin had not set fire to half the city? He said two hours. Then he would have let them smash the vial. He did not expect you to be so brave or foolhardy. See?”
She pointed. Ryoka’s head turned. She saw someone blurring down the street. Moving as fast as only a Potion of [Haste] could take him.
Saliss of Lights halted. It wasn’t surprising they all reached the same gate. It was the closest one from the Runner’s Guild heading north and west.
“Oh, hey. Listen, Ryoka. About the cure. Couldn’t say it in the Guild, but—”
Ryoka pointed at him.
“You. You have the cure.”
Saliss blinked. He eyed Maviola and Ryoka and gave them a sly grin.
“Ah. Well…I didn’t expect anyone to try and get it. Old Xif made a mess of everything. As usual. Was going to hire you to be my decoy, anyways. What about it?”
“You’re going to deliver the cure? Give it to me. You’re not a Runner.”
The Drake rolled his eyes.
“I’m a Named Adventurer. I could outrun you, Miss Griffin. Look, I don’t have time for this.”
He tried to jog around Ryoka. She grabbed for him and Saliss swayed back.
“You tricked me!”
The [Alchemist] gave her a side-eye.
“I am Saliss of Lights. Did you think I’d trust this kind of thing to a half-baked City Runner?”
Ryoka was shaking. What was all her resolve for? Saliss threw up his claws.
“Maybe I’m tired of being told who my enemies are. Maybe I don’t like [Assassins]. Maybe I’m just bored and want to go for a jog.”
“The entire north is going to stop you. Not just the Circle. You’re a Drake. From Pallass. The enemy!”
The Drake snorted. He looked ahead.
“They could try. I’m Saliss of Lights. My ego is better at fighting than the two of you put together.”
“I have to do it. I can’t just turn back now. Give me—”
The two fought as Ryoka tried to grab for Saliss’ belt pouch. He backed up. Maviola stepped between them.
“You two are both fools. Brave—resourceful. Erin Solstice took you out of this city. But that is as far as her power goes. She cannot ward you the entire way across Izril. And it is far to House Veltras. Neither of you could make it.”
Saliss pointed down the open road. He snapped, properly vexed. They were burning his head start!
“I have a better shot than anyone else here! Or what were you planning to do?”
Maviola El looked at Saliss. She glanced at Ryoka.
“Go with you, of course.”
Lady Ieka stared at the trio outside Invrisil.
“Maviola? I thought—wait. Wasn’t she coming to visit me? Where did she go?”
She turned for one of her [Maids]. A tremulous young woman answered.
“Lady El was here, milady. But she—only stayed for a moment. And when we led her into the parlor and took our eyes off her, she—she—”
“She stole your horse, Lady Ieka.”
Maviola El mounted the horse. She pointed at Ryoka.
“Get in whatever that is. Saliss, potions.”
“You must be crazy. I’m better alone.”
“You don’t know these roads. And you need us. Or me, at least. Erin Solstice got you out of Invrisil. She mustered an army. But she is still young. That is all she could do.”
Maviola began riding forwards. Saliss began running. He tossed something at Ryoka. She caught it, fumbling. A Potion of Haste. Maviola offered it to the mare and the well-trained animal took it. She drank one herself.
They sped up. Behind them, Erin Solstice slowed, panting.
She had brought Xrn, Pallass’ army, the Brothers to bear on Invrisil. She had made no mistakes in her campaign to save her friend. If she had made the mistake, it was the same one Ryoka had.
It was assuming only Ryoka wanted to do what was right. Saliss looked at the two.
“I can’t protect you.”
“We did not come here for protection. We came to do the right thing.”
They were speeding up. But they slowed as someone ran after them, shouting with her loud voice.
“Maviola! What are you doing?”
The [Lady] turned. She smiled. Ryoka was looking at Saliss. He eyed her and nodded. Just that. She nodded back.
“Erin Solstice! You will someday find your path! You will find your own flame. But today—I will do what you cannot. Look upon me and see what my life was, my heir of fire!”
Maviola raised a clenched hand. Erin shouted something. But the [Lady] was riding.
Smiling. Saliss was grumbling.
“We have a Runner who can call the wind and a [Lady] who makes flames, and a naked Drake. And what does the Guild have? Knives. Hooray. You two are going to die. Last chance.”
Maviola ignored him. Ryoka gritted her teeth. They began moving faster.
Faster. Ryoka felt the world slowing down around her. Not as much as when she’d drunk Teriarch’s potion, but—she moved faster on the bicycle. Saliss was running at full tilt. Maviola galloping.
Down the road. The Guild was reforming. Ryoka saw riders bursting from other gates, pursuing her.
“I hope you can fight as much as you talk!”
Saliss lobbed a potion an incredible distance. It blew apart, missing a clump of riders. He cursed.
“I am going to be impoverished after this.”
“I forgot something, you know, you two.”
Maviola spoke as she rode. Ryoka heard her—she was aiming a wand as she rode. This was not the time. But the [Lady]’s hair was blowing behind her. She rode high in the saddle, ignoring the [Assassins]. Looking up.
The world was ever watching. Maviola went on, for Saliss and Ryoka alone. For herself.
“I forgot something. At some point, I grew old. And I thought, ‘this is the way the world is.’ Do what I can. Keep my House alive, but cease trying to change. Of course, the young woman was a fool. She thought you could burn it all down and build something out of ash. Have you ever tried that? Neither old nor young is entirely right. But one needs both.”
“Is this going somewhere? Where to—”
“Left! That road!”
Ryoka led the way. Maviola rode on after them, laughing to herself. More [Assassins] were following. Black carriages. Crossbows loosing bolts that went far astray. Higher levels would be here, soon.
“You brave, sad Drake. You gloriously foolish girl. I told you, you need an army. But how would you know? Neither of you were born of the north. I have the knowledge—all I lack is the will. The audacity.”
Something was in her hand. A golden vial. Saliss’ head turned. Maviola drank the Potion of Time’s Return. She threw back her head. Her eyes opened.
And she rode faster. Ryoka felt the wind suddenly surge about her. She looked at Saliss. If she had the vial now—but she couldn’t take her eyes off Maviola. The [Lady] was suddenly—younger. Her eyes blazed. She laughed, a full-throated guffaw.
“Erin Solstice broke the traps of Invrisil! But her reach ends here. Now—let us make our way across my home.”
“Easier said than done! Do either of you have a Level 50 Skill? No? Just me? Either shut up or move faster!”
Saliss bellowed. The [Assassins] were closing, despite their [Haste] speed. Moving with desperation. Maviola drew something from her bag of holding. It snapped at once in the air.
She held it aloft. Ryoka saw a long pole, made of wood. And behind it—her eyes widened.
Maviola had stolen something from Erin Solstice. A banner. Made of white.
It did not even slow the [Assassins]. They respected it not at all. But the [Lady] hoisted it higher.
The world—she looked at Ryoka and Saliss as they turned.
“The Five Families have not yet waned to the point that we would bow to threats from a group of cowards. They just have to be reminded of that fact. Now, watch. This is how you do a delivery, Drake, girl.”
She lifted the banner higher, riding ahead of the two.
“That’s…Maviola of the House of El. I heard she was dead. Or…”
Sir Relz stared. The [Lady] rose from her saddle, riding high in the stirrups. The [Assassins] were following in a huge mass. But every eye was on her.
Deilan El stared at Maviola’s face. So did the rest of the House of El. And not just the House of El.
At this time, they were all watching. Magnolia from her ship, seeing the city she had left in flames. Tyrion Veltras.
The House of Wellfar. Gresaria, from First Landing, seeing her old friend laughing wildly. The [Harbormistress] felt something move in her old chest. Maviola El cried out, shouting at the skies and the watchers.
At Bethal, Pryde, Laken, Rie, Ieka, Yitton—and so many others. Traitors and the Flowers of Izril! Cowards! She shamed them, riding there.
“My name is Maviola El!”
The [Lady] cried. She held the banner aloft. A flag of white, peace. Behind her came the Guild of Assassins, shadows. The [Lady] pointed a finger as a group tried to cut her off.
A ball of fire flashed from her finger and blew them off their horses. [Fast Fireball]. Maviola drew something in her other hand. It ignited, burning the air with magic.
A Kaalblade. She swung the sword as she passed one of the dehorsed [Assassins]. Like a cavalry veteran, she beheaded the figure. Ryoka rode after her.
“That’s…a bike. And that’s…batman.”
Aaron stared at Ryoka. He had heard her voice. And remembered. The [Mages] turned. Ryoka’s hair streamed behind her. Saliss of Lights ran behind them as Maviola’s voice sang out again.
“I have given my life for Izril! My brother fell defending our home and I have carried his memory in me! I burned our foes to ash! My House has given its lives a hundred, a thousand thousand times to defend this land! I did not spend every year and second of my life to see my home fall to rot and cowardice!”
Her words stirred her listeners. Maviola raised the banner higher. Her hair, her eyes, were igniting. The banner was glowing. Maviola shouted.
“Rise, for the House of El! Wake, stone! Rage, listeners! For pride and justice!”
The banner burst into flame. It burned like gold. Like a dying life. Maviola lifted it.
“To arms! Deliver the cure to the House of Veltras! I call you to take up arms! Rally, for the honor of the Five Families! For Izril, ride with me!”
Her words rang. Ryoka’s head rose. She saw Saliss laughing. Erin Solstice looked after Maviola as her gold fire burned. Her glory.
Erin Solstice had known every person she had summoned. Every guest of her inn, however temporary. She had called them all, and begged every favor she couldn’t repay. Now—Maviola was doing the same.
And she had lived a century on these lands. Her enemies and friends heard her cry. And the Circle’s spell of [Fear]—
Ryoka Griffin rode with Maviola El and Saliss. The [Assassins] poured down the road, striving to keep up with the three. [Haste] spells allowed them to match the speed of the others.
“Not for long.”
Saliss tossed a potion behind him coated with a levitation tonic. It hovered, like a landmine in the air—detonated.
The [Assassins] dodged out of the way. The [Alchemist] cursed.
“I hate dodgers! Get ready—”
The first Face aimed a bow as he rode at Ryoka. She conjured the wind and a whirlwind of sand out of her bag of holding. It covered the [Assassins] and they choked, swearing.
Saliss tossed three potions. They didn’t dodge these ones.
“Ahead! Watch the front!”
Maviola threw fire—but the coach’s walls resisted the glowing blue fire. Ryoka turned her bike. Saliss took aim. They would not stop! They would not fail to deliver this cure.
Not one was a Courier. Couriers had failed. But—the [Alchemist] webbed the wheels of the first coach and it skidded to a stop. Ryoka dumped caltrops in the way of the [Assassins] trying to follow on foot. Maviola ignited the grass behind them, leaving a trail of fire.
The entire Guild was after them. The Circle of Thorns, fighting to hold onto Izril’s heart.
But Ryoka Griffin was not alone. Saliss, Maviola—the Wind Runner looked ahead.
“They’re gaining again! They must be overdosing on [Haste] potions or using Skills! They’ll tear their muscles off their bones. Right after they kill us!”
Saliss cursed. Ryoka shouted.
“They’re about to get us!”
The Drake turned. He ran past a braced figure on the ground. The Drake met the Human’s eyes for a moment.
Ylawes burst upwards. His shield caught a charging [Assassin] on horseback. The figure went flying.
Dawil hurled an axe through the wheels of a carriage; the blade didn’t stop until it was embedded in the earth. He lifted his hammer.
“[Acid Orb], [Lightning Bolt], [Arrows of Stone], [Forcewall]—”
The [Battlemage] unleashed her best volley of spells.
Ryoka turned in her seat. The [Knight] raised his sword.
“The House of Byres! Go, Lady El!”
Maviola lifted her banner. Behind her, the Gold-rank adventurers engaged the wave of [Assassins]. Those insane—
“On! You can’t help them! We have countless leagues to go! Saliss—”
“I’m on foot! [Double Potency]—”
The Drake grimaced as he downed another Potion of Haste. He sped up, leaving Ryoka behind. Maviola’s mare accelerated and Ryoka felt the bike jump as she tried to keep up. How fast were they moving?
How far did they have to go?
“Marvelous. Now that is a [Lady] of Izril. Can we not support them in some way?”
They were all watching. Knight-Commander Calirn looked up. The Fall’s Sentinel pursed his lips.
“We could invoke the grand ritual, Knight-Commander, but it may be too soon. And the cost—”
“Have we no agents in Izril? Send for any [Knight] of our Order! Of Terandria’s orders! If only Dame Talia were still there—”
The [Knight-Commander] saw the trio racing across the landscape. Who was that [Knight] who had stopped them with two comrades? An adventurer?
“They’ve been running for an hour.”
“And Fierre? Where is she?”
Colfa Lischelle-Drakle didn’t know. She was watching with Himilt, Bamer—everyone was gathered around the scrying orb in Reizmelt’s Runner’s Guild. The Pithfire Hounds and some of the adventurers had gone racing for horses—as if they were even close to Invrisil.
But the sight of the Wind Runner had lit a spark in them all. Himilt shook his head.
“I didn’t see her. But she is probably safe.”
“Hey—is there a scrying orb here?”
Someone pushed into the Runner’s Guild. An old man fought to get through the crowd. He was panting.
“I know her! That’s the Wind Runner? Isn’t it? Is it—”
[Farmer] Lupp pushed forwards. He saw Ryoka as Himilt moved forwards to let him through.
“Aren’t you Lupp? Ryoka mentioned you.”
The [Farmer] halted. He was out of place in this crowd. His face was ashen; he was panting.
“I rode here. One of my neighbors told me Miss Ryoka was—is she alive?”
“Alive. They’ve been running for an hour.”
“They have too far to go. Himilt—”
“That’s a Named Adventurer they’ve got, Colfa. Miss Ryoka has a chance. They’re moving at Courier speed. Top speed. But the [Assassins] are slowing ‘em down.”
“Here—why can we see them? They’re giving their positions away!”
Colfa’s eyes widened as Lupp pointed out the obvious. The Drakes were commentating, but no one was listening to Noass and Sir Relz.
“Everyone’s scrying them, Master Lupp. But you’re right. They keep dodging traps. The Guild’s blocking the roads. See—”
Bamer was pointing. The trio was running across a field, cutting through some farmer’s recently-harvested wheat. They had abandoned the road. Lupp’s fingers twisted in his straw cap, a copy of a scarecrow’s.
“Are they—Miss Griffin’s no great fighter. She told me so herself.”
“That Drake is. And that’s Lady Maviola El. I thought she was dead. She looks…alive. Young.”
Someone else murmured. Colfa reassured Lupp.
“Himilt, get some water for the poor man. Master Lupp, sit down. You’re about to pass out. They are fighting. But they’re running—they fought only twice. And they have a better shot.”
Lupp sat down slowly, some color coming back into his face as the others made room. Colfa nodded.
“Yes. They aren’t alone.”
“Hey, I take it back. This is really nice, except for my tail nearly getting caught in the wheels. I—oh hells.”
Saliss stopped pedaling, overbalanced. Ryoka, on foot, whirled. It had been an hour and a half since the Silver Swords had bailed them out. They were still running.
The Guild was closing in again. The Drake tumbled from the bike, rolled—and Ryoka ran back for it.
Nonstop flight for nearly an hour and a half should have left Ryoka a mess, especially at a sprint—or a mad ride. But Saliss’ potions were varied and effective. She was burning with energy.
Unfortunately, the Guild was coming again.
“Looks like three dozen. Fast ones.”
They were flitting across the forest, shadowing the three. Maviola slowed.
“You idiots! Get on that bike and move!”
“Easy for you to say! You’re on a horse! I get tired!”
Saliss bellowed back. He lobbed a potion and watched in resignation as they dodged it.
They were far west of Invrisil, having cut that way rather than northwest, where all the roads were blockaded. Ryoka gritted her teeth as she leapt onto the bike.
“Here we go! I’m running out of caltrops, but I can blow them—”
“Just give me wind! I’ll burn the forest down!”
“Are you crazy?”
Maviola El was baring her teeth. Ryoka cursed as she rode forwards. Saliss was muttering.
“Lightning? Let’s see them dodge lightning…”
A ragged howl cut through the air. Ryoka jerked and Maviola looked up. She held up a hand as the three prepared to fight.
“Hold on. I think—”
The [Assassins] turned. And Ryoka saw the first bounding shape leap through the forest. The [Assassin] slashed wildly, and the dog howled, but the second and third grabbed the man and bore him down. And more—
Suddenly, there were dozens of dogs for every [Assassin]. A hundred throats howled and a huge, furred shape crashed after them.
They were on House Radivaek’s lands. Saliss whistled.
“And here I thought Gnolls only lived in the south.”
Ryoka saw the [Dog Lord] racing on all fours after his pack. The dogs tore the [Assassins] to pieces. They followed a half-man, half—
“[Beastform]. Lord Gralton!”
Maviola lifted the still-burning banner of glory. The [Lord] howled and his pack howled too. Ryoka saw the [Lord] looking at her. For Maviola? Or a delivery of aid?
She raised a hand and ran.
After the second hour, the King of Destruction was made aware of the run. He roused himself from his nap.
The war in Chandrar was a background to this. After two hours—he stared at the replay of the events, a summation, and the three, continuing onwards.
Gralton’s dogs had raced with them to the edge of his lands, but even they couldn’t keep up. Flos Reimarch’s eyes narrowed.
“The Lady of the House of El? What a fine [Bannerlady] she would be. I think I met her. Fearless. Old, I thought…a Potion of Youth?”
“Yes, my King.”
Venith stood with Flos in the palace. Nerrhavia’s armies were pushing the border, but their slower-moving infantry had yet to support the marauding chariots. Soon—Flos Reimarch’s eyes narrowed.
“Is that Drake…naked?”
He was incredibly naked, and the broadcast kept zooming in on the trio. Almost reflexively, Az’kerash cast a spell as they paused.
They were reapplying [Haste] spells. He saw the panting horse perk up as the [Alchemist] offered it a stamina potion. But too many and the steed would drop dead. The Humans were better—but he still saw Ryoka Griffin gulping down water.
A blur engulfed the Drake’s nether regions.
“Master, why is that Drake naked?”
“Saliss of Lights is…a unique individual.”
Az’kerash turned to Bea. He had no desire to explain the complexities of whatever Saliss was to them. But he was watching. He had been alerted despite the distractions of teaching his Chosen and working on his newest creation.
Ryoka Griffin. She should not die. Or else his plans…the [Necromancer] studied her. And so did the [Witch].
“What is this?”
She peered at the two Drakes commentating. Drassi had entered Pallass to shove Noass out of the booth. They were talking about the three. After a fifteen second delay—Drassi shuddered.
“—sorry, Noass. Felt like someone was walking on my tail for a second there. Weird.”
Az’kerash glanced at Belavierr. But her eyes were suddenly locked on the screen.
“I know that young woman.”
“She…is friends with my daughter.”
The Necromancer’s head slowly turned. Now that was a coincidence too grand to be…
“I see. It would be inconvenient if the Circle of Thorns were to slay her. I am…endeavoring to ensure that does not happen.”
“Ah. Are you also a member?”
The Witch’s head turned. Az’kerash—blinked.
“You are a member of the Circle of Thorns?”
Belavierr’s ringed gaze met the white pupils and black eyes.
“And you are not.”
A clumsy error. Az’kerash was unused to the politics of wordplay after so long. He paused.
“I had considered it. But my agents are not…in the upper echelons of that society. And you?”
“I was. This seems to be a different Circle. I assume most of the members are dead after so many years.”
“How many years ago?”
Az’kerash nodded slowly as Bea looked at the [Witch].
“One would assume so.”
“Some members might live. I know that Runner. And that other one. That…fire…”
The [Stitch Witch]’s eyes widened fractionally.
It was the first name she had spoken in all the time she had been with Az’kerash. That Belavierr remembered the name—Az’kerash looked into the orb.
“So she lives. I had thought her dead.”
“Her string is nearing its end. But she would burn rather than fade. So there you are.”
Belavierr’s eyes were shifting. Her fingers twitched. Suddenly—they were full of thread. Az’kerash could hardly have missed the magic. He whirled.
“Witch Belavierr. What are you doing?”
She looked up at him blankly. He reached out to stop her. Too late.
“We’re not resting. If you can’t keep up—”
Saliss was panting as he ran. Ryoka looked at him.
“You’re the one out of breath.”
“I…was…going to…stealth…my way there! You’re the damned idiots who blew my plan up! And Xif! I’m going to shave him bald!”
“I will help. If we survive—”
Maviola El was chatting to them as they ran. The [Assassins] had lost them after Lord Gralton’s lands. No doubt they were regrouping. But the three could at least manage a rushed conversation.
“Maybe I’ll buy that bike-thing. It just needs a tail-cover! Hold up—something’s coming.”
Saliss’ head rotated. His [Eyes of Appraisal] had saved them more than once and he was using multiple potions to enhance his body. His one flaw was that he was no Runner and was tiring. Ryoka slowed.
The first storm of needles looked like black cloth and blood. They had gone through an ambush-squad of [Assassins], and the trees. Saliss’ eyes went round. Maviola and Ryoka screamed at the same time.
“Needle storm! That damned [Witch]—”
“Belavierr! Take cover!”
They looked at each other and then whirled. Maviola conjured a wall of fire. Saliss tossed potions and the needles exploded. But there were hundreds! Possibly thousands! Ryoka reached for her belt.
“[Wall of Stone]! Get behind me!”
A wall rose as she triggered one of the scrolls she’d kept. The other two dove behind it. Maviola forced her horse’s head down as the needles, some melting from the heat, hit the thick stone.
It sounded like gunfire. Saliss crouched.
“What in the name of the Ancestors is that? It’s like some kind of miniature [Steel Arrow] spell!”
“It’s Belavierr! The Stitch Witch! But why is she attacking—”
Ryoka had no doubt who it was. Maviola seized her.
“You have met the Temptress? Where? Did you accept her offer?”
“No! You know her?”
“I burned her!”
“Oh sh—they’re coming around!”
“Not for long. Gah, this is going to hurt!”
Saliss downed a potion. And then he rose—Maviola and Ryoka stared as a Minotaur with scales like armor rose. He posed like Grimalkin—
And the needles swinging around the barrier swept into Saliss. He bellowed as the needles broke.
“[Stoneskin Potion]! Ah! Ahh! That hurts so damn much!”
The needles fell from his skin as the first hail ceased. Ryoka scrambled upwards.
“We need to get to cover! She’s not going to stop!”
She ran with Maviola as the [Lady] grabbed some of Ryoka’s scrolls and sorted through them. The second rain of needles shot from straight above. Saliss swore as he tossed potions at them.
“[Wyvernhide Potions]! Split it with the horse! They’re thousands of gold each! Damn, damn—I’m going to kill that [Witch]!”
The second hail fell around Ryoka and she felt impacts striking her skin—but Saliss’ potion made them feel like pellets. She felt the force of them which caused the mare to rear, but the metal just bounced off, becoming inert.
“How long do we have?”
“I can set up a wall of fire, but it will just shower us with molten metal.”
“Then don’t do that! Do you have any skill other than burning things?”
Saliss howled at Maviola. Ryoka was fumbling.
“We’ll put up walls of stone! From all sides! Let’s—”
She paused. Saliss looked up and stopped screaming. Maviola turned.
“I said, enough. I want her alive.”
Az’kerash held Belavierr’s hand. The [Witch] stared at him.
The air was thrumming. Toren fled and Bea held still, ready to touch Belavierr. Venitra, Kerash, Bea, and the two new Chosen waited.
“…Very well. I was only irked.”
After a moment of glancing at the Chosen, Belavierr let go of the strings she had been twisting. Az’kerash let her go.
“Why do you hold a grudge for Maviola El?”
“She spurned me twice. And burned me. I am remembering how to hold grudges. But that other Runner is a friend of my daughter’s. I forgot myself.”
The [Witch]’s eyes glittered. She focused as the image of the three vanished.
“—Think that was a long-range hex. We—er—Wistram News Network is going to cease coverage for a moment. Wistram Academy had been attempting to block long-range hexes, but this one—”
Az’kerash focused on the Drake. He shook his head, relaxing slightly.
“Blocking hexes? Ah—do you sense it?”
“A net from Wistram. Crude.”
The Witch and Necromancer could agree on that.
“What was that hex? It just blew through our long-range wards!”
One of the [Diviners] was staring in horror at an elaborate web—much like a dream catcher charm—that had just exploded. Elena watched from afar.
Wistram was trying to protect Ryoka—and their reputations. But that last attack had just proven that the Circle was capable of outmatching the Academy—at least at range.
“Cut the coverage. What level was that spellcaster?”
Viltach ordered, looking shaken. He’d helped set up that spell himself! Elena heard a babble as they communicated with the Pallass team, and fielded the onslaught of angry messages.
“And you’re sure that’s the same ‘batman’ that was talking to you with this ‘L’ character.”
Aaron was looking at Elena—but he could hardly escape the cluster of [Mages] who’d descended on him after that comment. He hesitated—then focused on Feor.
“She knows more than anyone else, I’ll bet, Archmage. And she was smart enough to pick out the imposter. You need to save her.”
“We are doing our best, young Aaron. Our [Mages] will try to help, but—”
They were too slow. The three were moving across Izril at an insane pace.
And they still had far to go. Elena traced their journey on the map. They were maybe a tenth of the way to House Veltras even running for two hours and a half at max speed. They needed help.
What could she do? Besides supporting the academy…Elena bit her lip. She looked around.
She needed…to get a message to the Singer of Terandria.
“Okay. Okay—maybe she got bored and stopped.”
“Or we’re going to have needles everywhere. And I don’t appreciate that. At least Wistram’s stopped broadcasting us! I think.”
Saliss growled as the three peeked out of cover. Even the horse was lying down. He was holding a private scrying orb. After all—they could watch their coverage of themselves.
“Belavierr does not give up. But perhaps she decided it wasn’t worth the effort. We cannot hide forever. But perhaps this is an opportunity.”
Maviola’s eyes glittered. Saliss and Ryoka looked up. The [Lady] was looking at Saliss.
“You…are a shape changer, Master Saliss.”
The Drake looked away. He’d reverted to the Drake form after a minute. Maviola eyed him.
“Of course. But perhaps—if Wistram is not scrying us—I have a ring that protects me against scrying. We ran from our cover; they would have to move the [Scrying] spell and that is difficult.”
“I’m protected too. But someone doesn’t have our gear.”
Saliss rolled his eyes and pointed at Ryoka. She raised her palms.
“They can’t scry me.”
Maviola’s eyes narrowed. She looked at Ryoka. Then, thoughtfully, at Saliss.
“In that case—we might have an opportunity. Master Saliss—how long do those potions last at most?”
“Er…well, I could get it to half a day. Not that I need to specialize in long transformations. Combat [Alchemist], that’s me. Why?”
Saliss shifted. Maviola looked at Ryoka. The City Runner raised her eyebrows.
“Ah. I get it.”
The Drake looked from Human to Human. He coughed.
Ten minutes later, Sir Relz spoke.
“…We think our protections are established. Again—we are trying to bring news without putting these brave individuals at risk. If magical interference is detected, we will cut the broadcast. Let’s see—huh.”
The view reappeared, showing the hollow where the three had been. Sir Relz peered at the image.
“…It appears the three have vanished. We’ll attempt to find them. One moment, please.”
They were gone. The Circle was demanding their own [Scryers] find them. But the three had vanished. And try as they might, the [Mages] moving their [Scrying] spells from spot to spot found nothing.
If they had been looking, they might have noticed a very bemused horse running off. Following…three more horses.
“I’m going to vomit. This is so disorienting.”
“Shut up and run!”
“How? Do you practice being a horse?”
The three were arguing. The first horse, which was moving a lot faster than the other two, rolled one eye.
“Of course. Do you think it’s easy, transforming into someone with four legs?”
“I feel naked.”
Ryoka actually tried to throw up, but horses had a tough time doing it. And they had eyes on the other sides of their head! She wanted to puke, but didn’t quite manage it. Saliss-horse snorted.
“Now you know why I run around naked all the time. Good practice.”
Maviola had found her hooves faster than Ryoka. Saliss hesitated.
“…Nah. Now, hurry up. We have two hours with this potion. They’re not entirely stupid. And you had better pray we get a head start and run before they find us. Because if you turn back to Human, you’re going to be naked. Which again—not my problem.”
Erin Solstice was glad and terrified that the broadcast couldn’t find them. She was watching. Ryoka had far to go.
But she was going. With…Maviola? Olesm was glued to the screen, despite the bandages on his chest and arm.
The inn was quiet. Some people were weeping. Others silent.
Invrisil had been liberated of the Guild. But not without cost. Lord Toldos was dead. He’d charged in first. Perhaps if he hadn’t—more would have died. But Erin, between crying for him, had heard Olesm bitterly lamenting.
If. If he’d held back. If—
Teor was dead. Redit had tried to help and gotten killed. Todi had killed the [Assassins], but brave people were dead.
Let it not be them. Let this be the only ones.
Erin could only watch. She had done all she could. She bowed her head. But then let it rise.
“Everyone—free food, free drinks. Thank you. Let’s watch. Anyone needs to sleep—go upstairs. Thank you, I can’t repay you.”
That was all she said. Her guests looked at her. Some, like the Earl, were taking their first measure of Erin, seeing her fully for the first time.
Others just nodded. Snapjaw punched Badarrow again—she was still mad he’d gone and risked his neck.
But he lived. So did brave Bird, and many of the Antinium. Erin had…traded the lives of her friends for people like Lord Toldos.
The Brothers sat in her inn. They would always be welcome here. Erin would thank them later. Grimalkin leaned back in his seat, talking to the Pallassian [Commander] and some of the [Soldiers], perhaps happy with all the Human [Assassins] they’d killed.
Different people. Different perspectives. Xrn was delighted. Not only had Wistram issued an all-alert they’d had to retract about the Hives, she’d killed countless [Assassins] and her Antinium had suffered few casualties.
They would level. Pawn was holding hands with Lyonette. Mrsha sat between them, anxiously seeking their comforting words as she waited.
Ryoka Griffin ran north. Erin closed her eyes. Sat up.
“Go to sleep, Erin. We’ll wake you when we find her.”
Selys was yawning as she sat with Krshia. Montressa was talking to Bezale, who had a concussion. But she was alive, so was Palt…
“Any word of Salamani? Fierre?”
They were missing. Delanay grimaced as the [Healer] tended to his broken hand.
“They’re still looking. We’ll find them.”
Erin turned. She got up to help lead the search; the Players had helped restore order. But she wobbled and nearly fell on her face. Someone caught her.
“Rest, Erin. It’ll be okay.”
She looked up at Olesm. The two smiled at the lie. The [Strategist] transferred Erin to Lyonette as Erin protested, feebly. They put her in her room. Erin saw the board was arranged—someone had a question for her. Someone had seen her.
She was too tired. Ryoka—
Erin’s head hit the pillow. Her friend ran on.
She still heard the voice as she slept, dreaming of blood and death. And hope.
[Magical Innkeeper Level 45!]
[Inn: Skill – Boon of the Guest obtained!]
[Inn – Famous Name: The Wandering Inn obtained!]
Someone else leveled that night. Well, many people did. They heard that impartial voice in their heads, announcing their levels.
A few, like the Antinium, heard it directly. Sleep being different for them. Or…conditions. Different.
Yet someone heard the voice for the first time. And it startled…her.
The [Assassin]’s legs kicked slowly, amid the rubble. The Vampire’s eyes glowed crimson. She drank—
It felt good. For both. The [Assassin] had stopped struggling. She was melting…fading…the Vampire felt something entering her. Something she had craved.
Delicious, so delicious. She was so hungry. The kicking slowed. Fierre drank. And drank. And then—the voice sounded for the third time over the hour.
[Assassin Level 3!]
[Skill – Bloodform Blades obtained!]
[Skill – Lesser Dexterity siphoned.]
Three. Since gaining her class. The Vampire adjusted her grip. And she realized—
The kicking had stopped. She bared her fangs—but there was no more blood. She looked down. A blank stare met hers.
Fierre dropped the body. She crawled away, in horror, for a second. Then she licked her lips.
That was how it was.
Author’s Notes: We didn’t get to the end of the…run. Lots of stuff happened! Again, the conversation with Lyonette at the top of the chapter (remember that), was supposed to be in last chapter, which would have allowed…
Well, it’s fine. Maybe. We’ll see. Thank you for reading!
I watched the end of the Unus Annus channel yesterday. Which if you don’t know about, it’s too late. Some things end. It’s more valuable because it ends.
Memento Mori. I’ll see you next chapter. We’ll see how it goes. We’re either .5 chapters ahead, or .5 behind. But why don’t I think that’ll be too much of a problem in terms of chapter length? Maybe a short one after all?
See you then. Today’s art is Enuryn’s Sea Shepherd ship, brought to you from the tales of another Courier! And a great Ryoka and Mrsha by Pontastic and a Fierre by Chalyon! Give them a thumbs up! Wait–you can’t do that. Leave a comment!
Sea [Druid] Ships by Enuryn the [Naturalist]
Ryoka and Mrshas by Pontastic!
Fierre by Chalyon!