They had four hours, in the night, before they were found again. Two precious hours, snatched by the transformation, and then two more after that.
They had made slower progress as horses, ironically. They had to act like…horses. And they were slow because Ryoka threw up about fifty times over the course of the first hour before her mind adjusted to four hooves and an equine’s perspective. And horses couldn’t vomit so it was fifty miserable failed attempts.
Shapeshifting was not easy. Oh, Ryoka would have a lot to think of after this. About being a horse, about the possibilities of such potions and spells. If she lived. If Saliss lived.
Two more hours before the [Scrying] spells located them. It was, Ryoka learned from Saliss and Maviola, a very annoying type of spell to manage. Scrying spells in Ryoka’s mind were as simple as panning an aerial shot to follow something.
In reality, the problem with a [Scrying] spell not bound to a person—and no one could scry the three directly—was that you had to move it in every axis. Up, down, left, right—even managing the coordinate system meant an entire class of [Diviner], [Seer], [Scrier], had to manage one spell.
And they had lost the three. So—for four hours, under darkness, they ran. They did not stop to rest. They did not sleep. But nor did they sprint.
They were husbanding their strength for when they were found. Odd word. Husbanding. Why not wifeing? Aside from how stupid that sounded.
Ryoka knew she should have been thinking of the run. The long ways yet to go, even as Saliss’ potions sped them and kept them moving fast. She pedaled, stowing the bike for uphill climbs and places where the terrain didn’t fit. Running alongside the Drake and the horse carrying Maviola El.
But all that filled her mind were silly questions like the etymology of the word ‘husbanding’. Anything, it seemed, to distract her from reality.
The sun would rise before they reached House Veltras. It was inevitable at the speed they were moving. A Potion of Haste practically doubled their speed. Tripled it, in some ways. They needed neither to rest nor eat with potions.
…But it was a long run. And when the sun rose, they’d be easier to spot. The Guild of Assassins and Circle of Thorns was after them.
They had the cure.
They found the three after four hours. But between then. The end of her run, what happened next, and the time she had left Invrisil—that brief span when they had been able to relax just a hair and talk instead of watch for Belavierr’s hexes, enemy [Assassins]—
She would not forget or trade that time away.
“Oh. I leveled up.”
Ryoka heard a slight gasp as she rode ahead, scanning for potholes or rocks in the dark. She jerked up. She had trailed off from their last conversation. Saliss twisted as he ran. The two saw Maviola El open her eyes. They looked at each other, the three with the cure.
Then Saliss threw an empty potion bottle at Maviola. Ryoka swore and tossed some sand at the [Lady]. She very nearly moved her bike over to try and swat at Maviola El.
“I knew it! You were dozing on that horse! While we were running all damn night—”
“I was just napping for a second! Respect your elders and betters, brat!”
Maviola swatted back with her inactive Kaalblade. Saliss beaned her with an empty vial and Maviola loosed a stream of curses.
“I’ve been running…for hours. I don’t run! I make potions! Get off the horse! It’s my turn!”
It had been almost four hours since they’d lost Wistram’s eyes and the Guild after Belavierr’s needle attack. The three had been on the alert, but Saliss had the scrying orb tuned to the Wistram News Network—a secured line so they couldn’t reverse-hack his artifact—and they hadn’t found the three. Yet.
“…the search continues. But I feel strongly that if they had been found, we would know. Isn’t that right, Sir Relz?”
“Exactly, Drassi. Let’s replay the dramatic footage from this evening. Again—we are receiving countless impressions, first-hand accounts from people who were there. The Black Tide, invading Invrisil—”
“I don’t know if invading is the right word. They were clearly helping fight the Guild.”
“Drassi—the Antinium? Really?”
“I don’t think you know what you’re talking about, Sir Relz. One of us lives in Liscor. And let me tell you—”
The orb shut off. They still had time. Ryoka looked up at Maviola. The [Lady Firestarter]’s eyes were shining. Or…was she still a [Lady Firestarter]?
“Your class changed.”
It wasn’t a question. Maviola El’s eyes sparkled.
“I have reached my Time of Grandeur. I did not think I would. And now? How this world likes to play tricks! But I have never been more a [Lady] than now.”
“A name the nobility of Izril and Terandria came up with. It just means Level 50. They like to call everything stupid names.”
Saliss whispered to Ryoka. The City Runner nodded. Maviola scowled at them.
“It is the level at which everything changes. Beyond here—few living trod this path.”
The two looked up at her. Saliss nodded. Ryoka looked at Maviola and felt a tinge of envy.
Power. And at the end of her life, too. On this run? She nodded.
The three knew each other, now. It was the fastest of bonds, like that of the Horns with Ryoka, but even stronger. Three people, with the same mission. How could they not feel a connection?
“Was it a good Skill?”
Saliss looked up at Maviola. Her eyes burned.
“Yes. I think so, at least.”
He laughed. She looked at him with a nod that was almost deferential. He had reached Level 50 before her. The [Alchemist] looked at Ryoka. The teasing had turned to respect in the Drake’s gaze, as it had for Ryoka. But quick as a flash, he grinned again.
“So that’s two Level 50 Skills. Where’s yours, huh? Huh? Someone’s the Creler-fodder here. And it’s not the horse.”
He pointed at Lady Ieka’s mare, who had indeed bore Maviola through the storm of attacks.
Ryoka was almost tempted to blow Saliss into a tree. They were using the outskirts of a forest as cover; it slowed them, but it made them a lot harder to spot from overhead. Then, she knew he was right. Her head lowered. Ryoka looked at the other two.
“…You’re right. I’m the weakest one here. If anything happens—you two go ahead. That’ll be the plan.”
Saliss’ smile faded. Maviola looked at Ryoka. The Wind Runner took a gulp of air.
“I’ll pretend to have the cure and leave you two behind. You have the best chance. I’ll lure them off. So—”
Her throat closed at the thought. She had barely made it out of Invrisil. Her silly plan had only worked because Erin had called an army in to fight the others. Saliss—Maviola—both of them had laid better plans. They had a better shot.
The Named Adventurer and the [Lady] of House El looked at each other gravely. They exchanged something unspoken. Then they nodded at each other.
“She is so cute.”
“She is. I see it now. I thought she was aggravating, but how adorable.”
Ryoka’s head jerked around. Saliss jogged over. Maviola laughed, as did Saliss.
“Look at you, being so brave!”
Saliss pinched Ryoka’s cheek gently. She punched at him as they ran, but he just stepped away. Ryoka turned beet red.
“I mean it!”
“I know you do. Which makes it all the more precious.”
Maviola drawled as she leaned on her horse’s saddle, resting despite the fast-moving mare. Saliss was chortling.
“Doesn’t it remind you of—‘no, keep going! I’ll hold them off! Don’t worry about me!’”
He looked at Maviola. This time the [Lady] nearly fell off her horse, she was laughing so hard. Ryoka opened and shut her mouth, turning from beet to lobster to tomato in order of embarrassment.
They weren’t taking her seriously! No—no, the problem was, they were. But they were like her. Saliss rolled his eyes at Ryoka.
“I said something like that the first time I was in a situation like this, oh—twenty years ago. I was just a kid and there I was, potion in my claw—”
He laughed. Maviola nodded.
“A battalion of Drakes, for me. Gresaria and I were arguing about who’d stay back to hold the lines.”
They laughed. Ryoka stared at them. They’d done it before. That was why they laughed. Saliss’ head turned and he grinned at her with all his teeth.
“We’re not mocking you, Ryoka. Not too much. We’re going to live. Or die. But you’re the kid who thinks the world revolves around her. Who thinks she’s the only hero. And the truth is, it’s actually me.”
He spread his arms wide, raising them, running like a marathon runner finishing first. Self-absorbed—Maviola was guffawing. Arrogant.
They had done this kind of thing before. Ryoka was the junior. They were teasing her. And it was a terrible combination.
One was a grandmother, a great grandmother, the worst of all when she was affectionate. The other was Saliss.
“A delightful child.”
Maviola El was chortling. Ryoka would have given anything for a [Witch] to appear and attack them right now. Then she looked at Ryoka, the mirth fading.
“I called you many names, Ryoka. You were a silly girl for how you did it. But the why? The courage to do so?”
She dipped her head, straining. And then she was the [Lady] who had conjured fire, called the Five Houses to arms. The banner she had carried lay spent, the cloth long burned away. But it would ignite before the end.
“I understand everything about why you ran.”
That was all she said. But it was so much more. She looked at Ryoka, the Wind Runner. I know you, Maviola’s eyes told the younger woman. I know your fears, why you had to do it.
We are alike.
Ryoka could barely meet the gaze. This was a different Maviola El. Not the young woman of Ryoka’s age. But neither the woman at the end of her life. Some blend of the two.
Saliss nodded. He looked at Ryoka and shook his head.
“Don’t talk about who’s dying first, Ryoka. That means it’s you. Think on how to live. Believe it—or you’ll be too slow when the moment comes. I’ve been in this kind of situation more than once. Until the moment when you die—believe you’re going to make it.”
He looked ahead, embarrassed himself to be that genuine. Ryoka saw Maviola El gazing ahead as Saliss checked the orb. Speculating on their next route.
“Vail Forest is how we should cut to House Veltras. Scrying spells will fail if we can make it into the deeper areas where the magic is still strong.”
“Never been. Think we can stop for ingredients?”
“On the way back. Try not to burn it down.”
“Look who’s talking.”
“I tried, once—I misspeak. Not tried—”
Ryoka saw them looking ahead, pointing. Talking with a mix of bravado and hope. Not fearless, but…
In that moment, Ryoka realized something. She looked after them as she let herself slow, just a tiny bit so she could see them running ahead.
They were what she wanted to be. Her admiration for them in this moment, at this time—Ryoka wanted to turn into someone like them.
…A pyromaniac old woman who had sex with Drakes way younger than her and an annoying exhibitionist streaker. Yes! No, wait.
What they really were, and revealed only when they were needed. When the chips were down and the world was ending.
A moment. The wind blew across Ryoka, and she felt not the exhaustion in her body, or fear. She looked ahead as they broke from the forest.
Then the first arrow thunked into the ground two dozen paces ahead. The three looked up.
“Sell me to Salazsar! Break’s over! They’ve found us!”
Saliss threw a potion before Ryoka had even processed the figures ahead of her. They hadn’t expected his reaction. Nor the speed at which the potion travelled, as fast as the bolts. And the range—
[Remote Detonation]. The flask bloomed ahead of Ryoka and Maviola as they turned left. Then saw—there was no need.
The group of six had been stationed as a sort of checkpoint on the road ahead, a vantage point, sighting for the three. Saliss’ explosion of yellow covered the group of [Assassins] in the tower of stone. Ryoka saw them tumbling off the fortification.
“What did you hit them with?”
“Spores! Don’t run that way! Blow the wind the other way!”
Ryoka raised her hand. The wind blew the yellow cloud away as Maviola ignited her Kaalblade again, pointing a finger to use her [Fast Fireball] spell—
None of the figures got up. They lay, twitching. Ryoka stared at Saliss. He was looking around, upwards, as if trying to find scrying spells.
“That’s torn it. They’ll notice the dead [Assassins] fast—especially if they had lifestones on them. Let’s move. Ryoka?”
“On it. Maviola—”
She tossed the scroll from her belt. The [Lady] caught it, unfurled it.
“[Minute of Speed]—”
The wind blew at their backs, changing from the ordinary weather patterns and the gentle breeze. The three accelerated, under the effects of potions and Skills. They had to beat the closing net as the Circle reacted.
The scrying orb in Saliss’ claw lit up.
“Magic detected! They’ve found them!”
Lyonette’s head jerked up from dozing. Palt was shouting. The [Princess] heard the common room come alive. The vigil broken.
Someone tumbled out of her room and clashed down the stairs. A Gnoll, who’d fallen asleep with the help of a [Sleep] spell, woke, and raced after Erin.
The broadcast by Wistram revealed the three again. Saliss, Maviola, Ryoka—Drassi and Sir Relz weren’t even talking. They were just watching with everyone else.
“They found them!”
The [Scrying] spell was watching from above. Wistram must have decided that they weren’t endangering the three. And it was easy to see why—
Another bloom of light, from a [Fireball]. Maviola El pointed and blew some [Riders] away. More flashes—
Saliss’ potions. He was scattering them at the distant figures, who were reluctant to approach. You couldn’t have missed it. The Guild was homing in on them again.
“Oh no. They found them!”
Erin saw Ryoka running, aiming a wand and shooting arrows of magic at the [Assassins].
“How’d they find them?”
“They must have run into them by accident. Can they get away?”
“—sorry, everyone. We’re watching the Guild of Assassins and the three—Runners—they’ve just been intercepted!”
Drassi’s voice broke through the silence. She looked around and Sir Relz sat up.
“Y-yes. They appear to have been caught out after nearly four hours of silence. We didn’t reveal them—it looks like the Guild is deploying every [Assassin] they have. That’s…a lot of them.”
[Riders]. People in those unmarked carriages. Erin’s hands tightened. The Guild was coming after the three. [Assassins] were firing crossbows, shooting spells back, but Saliss was keeping them all back by the sheer firepower the Drake was laying out. Anything that tried to get closer than four hundred feet was almost instantly blown apart.
But he didn’t have unlimited potions. Erin’s hands clenched.
“Can nothing be done?”
Pawn was standing with Lyonette. He was praying, but he was looking around. Lyonette was mumbling.
“I tried to give her my—”
Erin stepped forwards. She put her hand on the mirror.
“Hey! Stop blocking the screen!”
Someone shouted. Mrsha ran over to punch whoever it was. Erin ignored them. She looked at Ryoka, tossing the spent wand and grabbing another one.
“[Boon of the Guest].”
The other guests turned. Montressa jerked upright. Lyonette swung around.
Ryoka kept running. Erin saw her stumble, point—an [Assassin] was blown off her horse by a sudden jet of wind. Ryoka ran ahead, pumping her arms and legs—
Erin didn’t see anything different. She shook her head. She hadn’t felt the sense she got with Skills, either, like when she threw a [Minotaur Punch].
“I must be too far away. Or there’s something—”
“That’s a new Skill.”
The [Innkeeper] didn’t even look at Lyonette. She clenched her fists. She felt helpless. And everyone here—she looked around.
Palt, Montressa, Bezale, Ulinde and Jelaqua, who had changed bodies—Fierre, who had reappeared after being buried by rubble, staring at her friend, leaving only Salamani missing—Menolit, Pawn, Yellow Splatters, Xrn, Olesm, Grimalkin—
“If they were in the south, the Walled Cities could do more. Long-range casting—Fissival is out of range. Spells have their limits. So do Skills—unless there’s a connection.”
The [Sinew Magus] was conferring with the others. Erin saw, with a slight shock, he was talking with a man she knew. A new guest of the inn. But a friend, almost certainly.
Earl Altestiel nodded.
“My storm skill only extends to, well, a hundred miles around me at the furthest I could ‘throw it’. And they would have to be in my army for my Skills or those of my [Strategists]. A hundred miles. I never thought that would be too short range.”
“What about the door? Could we overcharge the enchantment? We have more mana—”
“You cannot simply overcharge a spell. You are talking about the limitation of the bindings, not a lack of mana.”
Hedault interrupted Selys. The Drake looked around helplessly.
“Well, we have to do something! Let’s go raid Magnolia Reinhart’s mansion—see if she has a spare carriage!”
“She took it. Even if someone could shapeshift into a bird—they wouldn’t catch up in time to help. Hope they run into Vail Forest, little land friend, Mrsha. There is a Circle there.”
Nalthaliarstrelous. Even he was here. Erin saw a Gold-rank team talking with Todi’s Elites. Jewel, a Gold-rank Captain who had joined the fighting in Invrisil—
People had helped fight the [Assassins] that even Erin hadn’t seen. People she hadn’t asked. The [Druid] had crushed an entire part of the city by himself. So many, here for the same reason.
Watching. Lord Alman Sanito and his wife stared at Numbtongue, who was whispering with Badarrow. They had come to bury Lord Toldos.
“…how many? Big? Can they fly…?”
“Too slow. Fat, heavy. Good for carrying—not good catching.”
The [Bard] looked up. Erin’s head turned. So many people here. All feeling what she was feeling.
What Izril was feeling. Look at her. Maviola’s banner was aflame again. Kaalblade in her hand, banner in the other.
“That’s a lightsaber, isn’t it? Not as cool, but—she never told us. Think I can buy one?”
Kevin muttered to Rose. She made no reply. She, like the rest, was watching. Helpless. But they wanted to help. Erin tightened her grip.
It was enough. She had not called an army to Izril unbidden. Lord Toldos had not died alone. Poor Redit, Teor—
They had not fought for her alone. It was too much.
This could not continue any longer. That was what Izril felt, surely. Erin only wished—she looked up as the luck began to run out.
It was inevitable. Saliss was a Named Adventurer. But he had a limit on his potions. They were moving fast, high-level, burning artifacts. But you couldn’t expect to run through a gunfight without being shot. Let alone so many encounters.
The first arrow struck Maviola in the shoulder. She cried out. And a second one hit her in the back.
Long-range shots. They didn’t go through. She yanked them out, grabbing for a potion.
“Damn. Drink this!”
Saliss flipped a potion at her. A glowing cure-all. Maviola drank it, coughed—Ryoka saw some of the color return. Then a healing potion.
“[Volley: Venom Flight]!”
“Get out of range!”
Saliss threw a potion up. It blew most of the arrows apart, but more were landing. The [Assassins] had mobilized and they were using Skills.
They weren’t idiots. They were attacking further than Saliss or the other two could easily hit them. Crossbows, bows—Ryoka saw a flicker.
A [Longbow Assassin] forced the coach to stop as he drew an arrow. He was aiming at her. She blew at him and the wind rocked the coach. But too far away for her to control. He checked himself—loosed—
The scroll in her hand glowed. Ryoka saw the barrier appear. The arrow blew through it. [Piercing Arrow], [Longrange Shot], and—
Someone tossed a vial on her. Ryoka jerked—
The arrow struck her in the chest. The spinning tip dug into her flesh, lodged—Ryoka yanked the arrow out. Stared at it. Then she whirled.
Saliss lowered the vial as Maviola pulled herself upright.
“[Alchemy: Shortened Span] for [Doubled Efficacy]. I’m out of defensive toughening potions. No more [Ironscales], [Barkskin]—I knew I should have kept some instead of selling them all at once.”
Maviola gasped. The [Longbow Assassin] was reloading. Ryoka ran.
He’d wasted his supply of potions on her and Maviola. Alone, the Drake wouldn’t have burned through his stash.
“Nah. I was already low. Just don’t get hit. The potion’s already worn off.”
It was true. And the [Archers]…Ryoka gritted her teeth.
“Blow, wind! Please!”
She emptied her bag of holding. The group of archers looked ahead and saw the three vanish for a second. A cloud of dirt and sand and caltrops shot at them. Horses and the unguarded figures screamed as the whirlwind engulfed them.
Ryoka pointed ahead. All of her tricks, all of the other’s…this wasn’t a sprint, or a covert run.
It was a marathon. And the trouble with marathons was that you got tired. You had to manage your strength for the entire run. If they stumbled at any point in this run—
Maviola El looked at the cloud of dust. She snapped her fingers. Ryoka saw a jet of red fire, bright red, unnaturally—
Thump. The detonation was a dust-cloud explosion. It didn’t kill all the [Assassins], but—Ryoka looked at Maviola as they ran.
Together, they were stronger than the parts. Well—perhaps Saliss was better on his own. But she wasn’t useless!
“Lake! Around or over? Saliss?”
Maviola pointed ahead. Past the open grassland by the forest was a lake. They were avoiding the road which the [Assassins] were flooding down. The [Alchemist] didn’t hesitate.
“Around! You idiots don’t know how to [Waterwalk] even if I splash you!”
“That’s something you have to practice too?”
Ryoka shouted. The milling archery group was stymied behind them and she had a moment of relief. Another encounter down. How many more to go?
“Of course! You think you can just walk on water? It’s slippery when wet! And it’s always—”
“To the right. They’ve flanked us.”
Maviola’s voice stopped Saliss and Ryoka. They turned. A group had emerged from the lake they were moving around.
They hadn’t walked on water. They had disguised themselves, hiding under the surface to bait the three into passing close by. Now—they shook water from themselves, took aim.
“Ah. Get behind m—”
Saliss was reaching for a tonic. Ryoka heard the twang.
The second flight of bolts hit the Drake for the first time. He’d thrown himself in front of the young woman.
“He’s immune to poisons! Saliss of Lights is not downed—he’s on his feet! Running—but—”
Sir Relz’s voice faltered. Cara saw the young Human woman yanking him up, onto the back of the [Lady]’s horse as the Drake yanked the arrows out of his scales. The horse slowed, and the Wind Runner pointed back. The wind blew the second volley off-target. She rode—the metal-and-wood vehicle’s wheels flashing.
“That’s a bike.”
The Singer of Terandria looked at Ryoka Griffin from her trailer in distant Terandria. She felt like she hadn’t blinked or looked away from the orb since being roused by an urgent [Message] from Wistram.
She hadn’t said that. One of the others in the room, the silent audience of Earthers, had muttered that. Cara didn’t need to say ‘that was a bike’. She had eyes. But she thought—
She had never talked to the person that Aaron, Blackmage, had referenced in their chats. Like Cara—the other had learned to distrust Wistram’s involvement. But there she was, apparently. There was some trust, something between her and Aaron. The Singer of Terandria saw her fighting.
Brave. Stupid. Some mix of the two, or something else.
“They’re in trouble. They’re out of buffs.”
“Shut up, Greg. This isn’t a game.”
Thien rounded on the guitarist. Cara said nothing. So—this was the Wind Runner of Reizmelt? It was a good post for someone from Earth. And this was where she was.
“Add her to the list, Abebi.”
“Is she going to make it? They’re being attacked—”
Rae looked worriedly at the image. Cara had a moment’s thought. Any Earther who saw this—would know Ryoka Griffin’s name. Even more than they knew the Singer. A bike. She had to be desperate.
Well. Cara had thought that Ryoka—‘batman’—was a secretive, even paranoid sort. But then, it fit the description of a crazy person who ran around in a bat-costume punching people.
“Turn that off, Abebi. The rest of you—with me.”
Cara sighed. The others looked at her.
“Cara! You’re not going to watch?”
“Watching does nothing. Thien, get your drums. Greg, guitar. Everyone, get set up.”
The band looked at Cara. It was night! Not that they couldn’t conjure an audience; the crowds followed them everywhere. But…Abebi looked at Cara.
“What’s up, Cara?”
The [Popstar] walked outside.
“Hey! Set up the stage! Hurry!”
She bellowed, and the caravan woke up. The [Singer] looked around. Makeup, dress—
“What are you going to do, Cara?”
Some of them were uncomprehending. But some of them who’d been with her looked up sharply. Cara focused on the orb in Abebi’s hands. She let one of the [Clothiers] present her with a selection of outfits.
“That one. Hurry up. Just cover any mistakes. And—let me think.”
Thien looked at her sharply. Rae was still uncomprehending. Cara bit her lip.
“Something action-packed. Just find one. It’s not the song that matters. I’m trying to…if I were closer, I could summon aid. But…”
“You’re going to sing? But Cara, they’re a continent away! Even the [Strategists] were saying—”
Cara looked at Rae. She snorted.
“There’s nowhere my voice can’t reach. Tell Aaron I need a favor.”
Someone started playing a song out of the scrying orb. Ryoka saw Saliss twist.
“Ancestor’s tails, what—”
The Singer of Terandria appeared on the screen, in a corner of the broadcast. Erin nearly broke the glass.
“What? What? This isn’t the time for—”
“This one goes out to the Wind Runner of Reizmelt, the [Alchemist] of Pallass, Lady El and whoever believes in doing the right thing!”
The Popstar of Terandria began to sing. Erin’s jaw dropped. She saw Drassi and Sir Relz reacting, asking furious questions—no one had told them either! But then—
Ryoka sped up. She felt her body, shaking with nervous adrenaline and the potions, relax. Something like actual rest replaced the magic and alchemy. Maviola’s flagging mare perked her head up and snorted.
“That’s a [Singer]’s Skills.”
Saliss looked at the orb. Then he grinned. The [Assassins] behind them were covering their ears. Ryoka heard a pop song—was it that loud and objectionable?
[Banshee’s Voice]. [Melody of Speed]. [Song of Rejuvenation]—
Saliss leapt off Maviola’s back. They were coming down the road, the three forced back. He raised a potion and lobbed it ahead of him.
“Damn, I need to ration these—”
The Potion of Firespark Blast flew through the air. Ryoka saw it flying ahead as the group of oncoming [Riders] split into two. They knew how to dodge the [Alchemist] by now. The potion curved, trying to tag the left group—but too slowly.
Then it split in midair. Two potions landed. Ryoka flinched as two fiery explosions laced with sparks obliterated the leftmost group. The other group of [Assassins] instantly peeled back.
She stared at Saliss. He could duplicate his potions? The Drake was staring at his own throw with wide eyes. Then he looked up.
“The Old Man.”
She didn’t know what he meant at first. Saliss strode forwards. Suddenly—he was lobbing potions fast. They split in midair, curving with unnatural speed. And he was moving like—
“[Army: Duplicate Projectiles]. [Path to Victory]. [Battalion: Arcs of the Swallow].”
Chaldion of Pallass’ eye glowed. He sat in the war room, alone. He had dismissed the lesser [Strategists], the [Generals].
His Skill did not affect the other two. One was a [Lady]. The other…an entry on Grimalkin’s lists. But the last was his family.
Saliss. And he would not die here. The [Strategist] was watching the projection. The [Singer]’s voice, which was like a shriek to the [Assassins], was aiding the three. Her voice could reach around the world so long as there was Wistram to send it.
Clever. Was it enough? Chaldion was using an hourglass, managing his Skills. Saliss had taken advantage of the increase in his already nigh-unstoppable firepower. The [Assassins] had backed off.
But those arrows. Chaldion had a few Skills that would protect Saliss, but the Named Adventurer had dodged almost everything. The ones who needed it were—
Arrows. They were landing around her. Ryoka felt a pressure on her head! No—it was squeezing her. Maviola was suffering from the same.
Saliss cursed. Ryoka felt the ring Hedault had given her glowing, burning her finger as it fought them off. There were [Mages] throwing their own clouds of darkness, trying to slow them. And the arrows!
“Forwards! My Skill! I have to use it! [S—”
Maviola cried out. So did her mare. More arrows were falling. Ryoka cried out. A cloud of black fog was flying towards them.
“I’ll stop that cloud! Grab her! Potion of Dispel! No? Damn! Get the cloud, Ryoka!”
Saliss lobbed more vials as Ryoka went for Maviola. She looked up as another volley was called. No—
“[Volley: Blacksteel Rain]! [Instantaneous Reload]! Kill them!”
Everyone got Skills. Ryoka raised her hand. The arrows and the fog were coming. And one was death. She blew the fog away. And two clouds of bolts and arrows, loosed so fast they were one storm, fell towards them.
Her ears popped. The pressure on her head—Maviola’s head was turning.
“Not the hex—”
Ryoka’s ring had stopped burning. Yet she still felt like something—someone was grasping her. Her—shoulder?
“Well, we can’t have this, can we?”
Someone spoke in her ear. Ryoka felt the pressure intensify. The poisoned arrows flew downwards—and the voice spoke again.
“[Greater Blessing of Armor].”
The arrows—bounced off Ryoka’s skin. Maviola straightened. Ryoka felt something—she looked around.
“Who was that?”
Venith Crusland stared at the King of Destruction. Flos Reimarch had a sheen of sweat on his face. He’d struggled for the last ten minutes. But at last—
“Your Majesty? How did you…?”
“I’m tired of watching such entertaining events unfolding. I thought I could do it and went for it. You may have to adjust your battle plans, Venith.”
The [King] grinned. His eyes sparked as he saw the three moving through the arrows, past the confused [Assassins].
“Confirmed, [Blessing of Armor]. But who could have used—”
The King of Destruction laughed. He straightened. “I am the King of Destruction. If I want to bless them, I will. [Rapid March]. [Induction: The King’s S—”
He hesitated, lowered his hand. Flos scratched at the back of his head and chuckled.
“Well, not yet. I got carried away there. Hah! But wouldn’t it be funny if—Venith? Don’t look at me like that.”
The King of Destruction. Pandemonium. Chaos. Just the kind of thing that Flos Reimarch lived for.
The Archmage of Terandria ignored the screaming Drakes in the scrying orb with gritted teeth as best he could.
“Silence them! I need to concentrate!”
He ordered the others. The linked group of [Mages] agreed. Archmage Viltach focused the magic in Wistram to his will.
His eyes were on the three, fleeing the [Assassins] still. They had switched to spells while the blessing was in effect.
One of them was from Earth. For that alone—Viltach inhaled, exhaled. He was no [Archmage]. Not yet. But he was not one of the greatest [Mages] of Wistram for nothing.
“[Greater Far Cast]. [Concentrate Mana]. I need to overload this spell. Someone use the [Indirect Hex] Skill! [Area of Diffusion]—”
The [Mages] were murmuring Skills, using their magic to target a spot so far out of range of Wistram—it took fourteen of them of Viltach’s circle, linked with him. But still—
“[Greater Lightning Bolt].”
The orb was on a five second delay. But Viltach hadn’t been using it as anything more than an aid. The bolt targeted the nearest warm bodies. Blew apart one of the oncoming coaches. The [Assassins] once again scattered. You could almost hear them screaming ‘where had that come from?’
“Someone’s boosting them!”
The Ranks were trying to get the three. But everything in existence was getting in their way! Spells out of nowhere, Skills activated—
They didn’t belong to the King of Destruction. But still—Saliss split into three, and two doppelgangers took arrows and thrown daggers meant for him. The Drake screamed at the sky.
“Stop using your damn Skills! I feel like I’m going to hurl!”
The pressure on Ryoka relaxed a bit. It was like—multiple people fighting to lean on her. If she didn’t will it—
But they were trying to help. Ryoka heard the [Popstar] singing, more voices—
A certain [King of Archers] rose to his feet, incensed. The Terandrian [King] looked at Flos Reimarch, who was giving an interview as the [Assassins] broke off to regroup. Too many Skills, activating too fast. He bellowed, incensed, as surely other rulers were doing upon seeing that smug bastard.
“If he’s going to interfere, so shall I! Bring me my bow and the Arrow of a Thousand Leagues!”
He tried to shoot from his throne. His people held him back, frantic.
“Still out of range, your Majesty. Please, do not—someone hold his Majesty back!”
They tried to stop him from using one of the relics of his kingdom. And succeeded, thank Avel.
So many people, trying to help. Getting in each other’s way. Doing it for so many reasons. Attention. The righteousness of it. For fun.
How must it feel to be on the other side of so much ire? So much hatred?
It felt—the Guild was panicking. Well, the administrators. The Ranks, perhaps. The Circle of Thorns, certainly.
This…this was falling apart. The members of the Guild’s best lay dead, countless Ranks—even if they were expendable—killed and their gear lost! This was a disaster!
“Heard they killed Art.”
“The Art of Daggers.”
A voice amid the silent shapes. That had been the self-styled nickname of one of the best Faces in the Guild. The bearer of the [Hundredfold Stab] Skill. Of all the Faces in Invrisil—and there had been a few—he was the best by far.
“Who got him?”
“The Small Queen.”
“Ah. Well, that’s just too bad. I thought he’d have had a chance on paper. He owed me money.”
Ferin made a note in the book. He looked up.
The Faces of the Guild sat in the Unmarked Coach. Not all of them. But the ones coming from other parts on the continent. The Djinni’s vehicle had adjusted its direction, picking them up, moving after…
Her. Them. The Guild was worried. The Faces sat silently.
No one here had suggested giving up, or surrendering, or changing tactics. Opinion was turned against them. Multiple leaders from outside of Izril were helping the three.
So they had to kill them. Let the world back the Wind Runner, Saliss of Lights, the Lady of House El. The Guild just had to prove they could kill their targets even with the King of Destruction’s aid.
They had gone far too far to turn back, anyways.
“Looks like they moved past the archer groups. Stupid idea, anyways. That [Alchemist] is blowing them to bits.”
“One less potion for us.”
Laughter. Ferin turned. There—was Mire. One-armed. Still adjusting to the change. Still furious.
[Blademaster]. [High Mage]. The [Trapmaster] saw all the same faces who had been with him for Magnolia Reinhart’s ambush. And more.
“How much longer? We can move faster than this damned coach. Some of us, at any rate.”
The Djinni driver didn’t respond to that. The other [Assassins] murmured. Ferin saw one of them check the map.
“We’ll make it. They’re nearly halfway, though. We lost them for too long in the night.”
“So? They’re about to run into the reserves.”
Ryoka Griffin was waiting for the sun. But it had yet to rise, for hours, perhaps. Less?
The Skills were wearing off. She had been under the effects of nearly a dozen and Saliss had been right—so many with overlapping effects had made her nauseous.
They were headed down the road. They could have gone off road—but they were passing by some foothills. Rocks, outcroppings—perfect ambush areas.
Ryoka remembered the [Assassin] with wires. The road was dangerous—but had less chokepoints.
“I see something ahead of us, I think.”
Maviola frowned. There was a rise up the road. She kept seeing something peeking over the edge.
“Turn into the hills? Another way?”
“We’re…not going to be able to turn back.”
Shadows at their rear. Keeping far, far out of range. But their pursuers were still behind them. The [Hasted] trio were outrunning them. Once they’d fought free of the ambush, Saliss’ superior potions and their speed were keeping them safe.
But they could not find another path or slow or they’d lose that lead. Foothills, something ahead, behind their pursuers—
“We could go east?”
“…The exact opposite direction of House Veltras?”
Ryoka said nothing. Saliss shook his head.
“Let’s see what it is. Get behind me.”
The Wind Runner nodded. She and Maviola kept pace, one on horseback, the other pedaling the magic bike; Ryoka felt like there was something wrong. The blasts from the magic, perhaps. The spells? It felt more…like a normal bike. The enchantments damaged, perhaps?
She could still race along a lot faster than on foot. Saliss jogged over the ridge, a beat before Maviola’s mare clattered over the slight incline. Ryoka was next. She felt confident. The [Popstar] had stopped singing, probably having used up her Skills for the moment, but there were people helping. They could do it! She raised her head—
The Guild of Assassins was waiting for them by the river. The foothills to the west, a natural barricade. The bridge ahead blocked. It was one of the natural chokepoints. A good place to try and stop some annoying Runners.
Run into the hills. Run over the river. Turn, and find another route. All these were valid options. But what stopped the three, made even Maviola’s blazing confidence flicker—were the numbers.
Saliss breathed out. He turned to Maviola and Ryoka in the sudden silence. He nodded ahead.
“The flaw with Plan: Horse? It gave them time to prepare for us.”
An army of figures waited for them at the crossing. Ryoka saw…ranks of the Ranks. Actual formations. Set up, entrenched.
Towers conjured by Skills or magic. Fortified ground. And…thousands of [Assassins].
“That has to be…three thousand of them. At least.”
Maviola El faltered. Ryoka breathed.
“Bullshit. There can’t be this many. Not after how many we killed.”
Saliss of Lights was counting too. He looked over his shoulder. Ryoka twisted and saw the pursuers—suddenly a speck compared to the force waiting to turn them into paste.
He shrugged at her.
“The Guild for an entire continent? I’d bet they had at least ten thousand members. So—a third of them? Here’s a tip, Ryoka. Never underestimate how much you can piss off your enemies.”
The Drake squinted. The scrying orb had gone silent. The commentators quiet. Or he’d turned off the orb. Ryoka only heard the Named Adventurer’s voice. He was studying the group, looking over his shoulders.
“Yep. They’re coming from behind. Bet you they trapped the foothills once they planned our route. Here’s some good news: that’s not three thousand. I think.”
The other two looked at him. The [Alchemist] squinted, shading his eyes with his claws. He drank a vial, his gaze sharpening.
“Not all of them are real. I see illusions—and probably more I can’t detect. And some are using [Invisibility]. So—run at the illusions, not the invisible ones or the ones who’re really there.”
Ryoka laughed. It had a note of despair in it. Maviola shook her head.
“My Skill…I—I don’t think it’s enough for this. If we were being pursued? But we would have to break through.”
Ryoka looked towards flatter land, descending downwards, back towards the forest and lake. Saliss stared ahead.
The [Assassins] were just waiting. Their friends were catching up from behind. They weren’t going to budge. Try to get past us. If they ran—the army would just pivot and hem them in again.
Ryoka was breathing fast. Even if half of them were fake. Even if—she counted prowling figures mixed with the [Assassins] and realized—not all of them were Human.
“Monsters. Some are leashed, others summoned. Typical.”
Maviola seemed resigned. She had seen armies before. Saliss nodded.
“They’ll be as fast as the [Assassins]…teleport? Just throwing it out there.”
“How much do you want to bet they’ll force the spell to teleport us into their ranks? We aren’t [Mages]…”
Ringing in her ears. Ryoka was panting. It was time. But they’d fill her with arrows before she could—
Saliss clapped his claws together, briskly. Bringing Ryoka out of the trance. The Named Adventurer stretched, nude, flexing, in front of the Guild. The figures stirred at a distance. Saliss sprang to his feet, clapped his claws again.
“Alright! Here’s the plan. We go through them. Maviola, you take a thousand on the left, I’ll take two thousand on the right, Ryoka, you take that one over there.”
He pointed at an [Assassin] with a sword just off-center. Ryoka and Maviola looked at Saliss.
The Drake was smiling. Ryoka started.
“Are y—Saliss. We have to, to—”
He clapped her on the shoulder, cheerfully. Ryoka’s eyes widened. She felt a claw—and something in her hand.
The vial. She nearly looked down, but Saliss’ grip tightened on her arm. Maviola was looking at them. She pointed and a [Fireball] flashed past them, slowing their pursuers. But they were ambling too. They knew the three had nowhere to go.
Saliss though—the Drake whispered to Ryoka and Maviola.
“Take it. Don’t drink it, obviously. Glass is reinforced, but put it in the bag of holding. One vial cures ten kids. You just need a spoonful. It should blast the toxin out of them. Get them out of the room where they’re sick, though. It was a gas. Pretty sure.”
Ryoka felt her stomach lurch as she looked at him. The Named Adventurer was just smiling. And he was…
“Someone’s got to get you two through that mess. And that someone is me. You two suck at fighting. Really—you’ve been slowing me down the entire time. But you’re probably faster. My thighs are chafed.”
The Drake grinned at Ryoka. She heard a hum underneath his tone. Saliss looked ahead.
“We’ll go around. Don’t—”
“They’re expecting us to try. But look ahead. Look at that. Thousands of [Assassins]. Summoned monsters. All…so close together. When I hit you two—run. You’ll have ten minutes.”
Ryoka tried to say something. Saliss ignored her. He was looking at Maviola. She said nothing. Nothing—for a long moment she looked at Saliss. Then nodded.
“Don’t die, Saliss. Ryoka—put away your bike. I think it will complicate matters.”
“Good point! Bike away. Brush yourself off—aren’t you glad we weren’t horses up till here? You’d be naked. On television.”
Saliss laughed lightly, brushing at Ryoka’s shoulders. He saw her looking at him.
“I work better alone. I’ve been holding back because I didn’t want to harm you two. Keep going. I might not get their best. Okay? Good.”
He turned. Ryoka reached for him. Maviola rode between them. Saliss of Lights checked his belt. He looked over his shoulders—spun. Threw, like a baseball pitcher.
A glass orb blew apart some [Assassins] creeping up the road. They stopped again. The Named Adventurer nodded to the other two.
“Ladies. Shall we go?”
The Drake walked forwards alone. The other two were behind him. Giving him distance. But they weren’t breaking right or left, or turning. The ranks of [Assassins] stirred.
Both of them had a trick left. But one would not save the three. And the other—wouldn’t have been enough.
An army. So the Named Adventurer walked onwards.
Naked. Grinning like a madman. His arms spread wide, as if they were at a party and he had just seen them and was going to make himself a nuisance.
The Mad Drake of Pallass. Saliss the Naked. That Insane [Alchemist]. Pallass’ Number One Nuisance.
Oh, they had many names for him. Some of them even hurtful.
Turnscale. One they did not know, but spoke. And it still hurt him more than his other titles. Hurt her.
Saliss beamed. He was relaxed, ready to move. Calculating velocities—preparing his order of potions. His mind was calm.
What had he told Klbkch the Slayer?
This body is a vessel. A cocoon, perhaps. And one day, I will be set free.
Why do you hide your true form, girl?
You couldn’t go back after that. Some things changed the world forever. Saliss walked forwards. The [Alchemist] saw the Guild of Assassins, their imposing army, begin to shift.
Was he just going to walk at them? They had their weapons ready. An arrow of death from Rhir was nocked on her string. She stood in the back, amid the Ranks.
Yet the Drake just walked. Ryoka and Maviola were waiting. Saliss stopped. He looked at the army and raised one claw.
“Hi. Thanks for coming all the way out here. But the Runners you were actually seeking are on the other bridge.”
The [Assassins] stared at him silently. One actually looked the way Saliss was pointing. The Drake sighed. It was worth a shot.
He raised his voice as he resumed his walk. Arrows were drawn back. Crossbows leveled. But they were waiting. Listening, spellbound by audacity.
“You know, my old man once told me that the Humans were our enemies. But I’ve never fought them since coming back from Chandrar. I lost an uncle in battles with them. Yet Pallass never asked me to join in. And you know why? Because everyone was afraid I’d start the real war by killing them all at your cute little Bloodfields skirmish. Once, I even thought he was right. Imagine that.”
Saliss waited for laughter. But it was a tough crowd. He looked over his shoulder. That cute little Runner was staring at him. He smiled at her, marking her position. A vial slipped into his claw. Damn. Three for all of them. He nearly forgot the horse. His entire stock. One less weapon, then.
Okay. It was okay. The Drake looked at the [Assassins].
“I know you don’t know why I came north. Or made the cure. I cared and didn’t about those Human kids. I could say I wanted to win a victory. Do something right. But the truth is…I just really want to kill something. I have to be honest.”
The Drake flicked his wrists. The [Assassins] stirred—but the three vials hit Maviola, Ryoka, and the horse. They vanished.
[Invisibility]? Hah! The [Assassins] turned to their experts with [See Invisibility], [Heatsense], and…the senior Faces hesitated.
They were gone. Saliss of Lights bared his teeth.
[Greater Invisibility]. You low-level idiots. His only doses. A Named-Rank’s equipment. He really did need to shave Xif when he got back. It would have been so easy.
But here they were. The Drake spread his arms. And he had a potion in both claws. The [Assassins] were milling. Some barking orders.
“Find them! Comb each spot by hand if you have t—”
The first group of horses and riders vanished. The army wavered as Saliss advanced. The Drake was suddenly growing taller. Changing. He looked down on them all and they stared at a better, more experienced killer than any of them.
“I’m not going anywhere. And neither are you. I told you: I wanted to kill something. Now, tell me. Are you those things?”
For just a second, their morale looked like it might break. Then—the first hail of arrows flew. The first rank charged. Saliss threw vials. Not one from each claw, but a spray. Eight, clutched between both his claw’s fingers. Then eight again. Scattering them like a [Farmer] sowed seeds.
People vanished. Monsters died. Spells collided with bound magic and warped. The Drake spun.
Faster. He tracked where the other three were fleeing, running forwards. His scales were like iron. Chaldion was trying to protect him. The Drake felt something break the scales on his back.
No Minotaur-Drake hybrid this time. No Grimalkin-proxy. The [Assassins] looked up as a figure rose. From his back, one of the [Alchemist]’s tentacles, like an octopus, hurled a vial which bloomed into deadly gas.
The Named Adventurer felt the first arrows bounce off his amphibian skin. Someone lanced his leg with a glowing blade. He aimed at nothing and no one. He just scattered his potions to the winds and destroyed everything around him. Couldn’t do that with the two Humans, could you?
They came for his life. Attacking the figure made of flesh and bone as if it mattered. They drew blood, cut and burned and stabbed. But so what?
It was just Saliss.
The Drake was fighting. Ryoka ran, deafened by the explosions. Invisible, thanks to his gift.
Maviola rode ahead, but Ryoka kept looking back.
They were killing him. Too many arrows, too many Skills and spells. For every potion he threw, there were a dozen counterattacks.
He stood in the center of their army and destroyed them. But he had overplayed his power from the start. Killed too many.
They were prepared.
“[Resist Element: Acid]. [Flame Salamander’s Skin]! Potion of Lightning’s Bane! Go, go!”
One of the [Assassin] groups was protecting themselves as Ryoka ran past them. The wind was howling, but the [Alchemist] was changing both the landscape and weather, unleashing bound lightning and fire. Yet the figures leapt through the blaze.
Acid, lightning, fire—some were tangled in webs. Others ran into poison. But too many fought past it, even if they would die soon, to plant a blade on him. Mark him.
A hundred feet. Two hundred. Ryoka was running underwater, held down by chains. If they made it far enough, Saliss could run. But with every step, the Drake bled.
An [Archer] was taking slow aim. Saliss’ head turned. He had to see it.
The glowing relic of the Blighted Kingdom, stolen or bought. A weapon meant to kill the Deathless of the Demon King. Ryoka felt her body weakening around it. Maviola clutched at her heart.
The Face saw them. Perhaps with the arrow, even the potion weakened. For a moment the bow swung—but then she looked back towards the Drake.
Saliss. The [Alchemist] was advancing. A soldier of Pallass. Their greatest adventurer.
“Well? Come on! Show me what Izril fears! Show me, Humans!”
His voice was distorted by the shape changing potions. His body twisted again—into the Scaled Minotaur’s form, healing some of the wounds. He stumbled.
Saliss! But she could not scream it out loud. Maviola was racing ahead. Ryoka looked back as the Drake was borne down by a mass of bodies.
A bloom of fire that scorched himself. The [Alchemist] screamed as even his scales were set alight by the liquid fire that refused to go out. He blew acid that scorched his own scales as one of the Faces reflected the liquid with a Skill.
But he was laughing. The [Archer] lifted her bow, and Saliss looked past her. At Ryoka, perhaps. His lips moved. He was speaking to her.
“So slow. Finally. Finally—what took you?”
That was what he seemed to be saying to her. The Wind Runner saw Saliss’ claw moving, slowly. The [Archer] took aim at his chest. She looked back as she kept running and realized what he meant.
At last, you slow little Runner. You brave kid. At last—
You’re out of range.
Six hundred feet, past the army. Over the bridge, now. Ryoka saw the [Alchemist] turn out the precious belt from which he’d drawn his arsenal. Spent now, so much gold.
But look what I had left. The first rank of [Assassins] stared at the pile of bottles, vials, tinctures, draughts, in every shape and size. Glass orbs, long tubes, jars like the ones Erin used, metal containers or enchanted materials to contain what lay within.
Everything. The [Archer] with the Deathslayer Arrow hesitated. She looked at the Named Adventurer. Then she lowered the relic and turned.
The Ranks saw the Faces backing up. Too slow. They turned to flee, and the army of [Assassins] looked at the laughing Drake. Their courage left them.
He was as mad as they were.
Shadowed figures leapt away. Running. Too late. Ryoka and Maviola looked back. The [Lady] was dragging at Ryoka as the Wind Runner screamed, ignoring the invisibility spell. The Drake was looking at Ryoka, shaking his head.
He spread his arms wide, posing for a moment. A thousand feet away now—more—Saliss of Lights opened one vial. It sparked. He poured the substance out. One second. The liquid tumbled through the air. Towards the ground.
Reaction. Alchemy was all about reactions. Science now—that was different. What would happen when the explosive liquid ignited all his potions? Potions meant to heal, to harm—hundreds, all at once?
Even he didn’t know.
Saliss looked up at Ryoka. She saw him relax. In the moment as the crimson-gold liquid splashed downwards, she saw him smile. Wave.
She tried to hang on, turn and run. But she had no [Immortal Moment]. Saliss closed his eyes.
“I never told you, did I? My real name…”
The liquid struck the ground. The Drake’s eyes opened. There he stood, as the Guild of Assassins fled his ire.
Saliss of Lights.
A whisper floated to Ryoka on the breeze. The Drake’s voice, borne somehow, just for her.
“…I’ll tell you some other time. [Disable Friendly Fire].”
Ryoka’s eyes went round. She saw the Drake wink. He’d said it, hadn’t he?
A Level 50 Sk—
The world behind me—vanishes. I see a thousand explosions joining into one wall of sound and light. Amid it all is a laughing Drake, tearing the sky apart. Maviola is laughing wildly too; I can see her. And…so am I?
The army vanishes. The impact kicks me into the air. Maviola too. And the horse. Even at this range—
They’re all screaming. Through the scrying orb. Erin, everyone else. I just know it. I land—and I’m still laughing, even without breath.
The cloud of alchemical explosions is going off even as I rise.
Maviola El is laughing. Somehow—she heard it too. That mad Drake. That cunning—
We run. And I know he’s alive. Until he’s not. He’ll live. And so will I. Right up until the moment…
And then there were two of us left.
The Guild of Assassins was broken. Ferin dismounted from the Unmarked Coach. He stared in shock.
The geography had changed. He dared not even get close to the place where the [Alchemist]’s detonation had gone off.
“…They’re dead. Not one got out.”
Mire stared back the way they’d come.
“Has to be dead. No sign. We can’t even investigate.”
“Kill the other two, then. One of them has the cure. Summon the last of the Ranks.”
The Faces looked at each other. Their confidence was gone. Shaken beyond belief. And yet—they still did not say anything else.
All or nothing. They’d invested too much into this gambit. For the first time though—Ferin did not know if there would be a future after this, either way.
So, then. All the more reason. He drew a loop of wire out, grimly. No longer for pride. Not just for their reputation. Now—they went for vengeance.
Death, death, death.
Saliss of Lights was gone. Possibly dead. The silence that had descended on Pallass’ broadcast was a mortal thing. Fragile, uncertain.
Perhaps he lived. Either way—his part in the delivery now consuming the world’s oft-fleeting attention was over.
He had broken the back of the Guild. But they were a multi-headed thing. They had long served Izril as tools.
Tools…of the nobility, frankly. Clandestine operatives a [Lord] or [Lady] could pay to threaten a [Merchant]. Sometimes equalizers the other way, but the shameful truth was that before Magnolia Reinhart had tried to take their teeth, they had been a way for the Flowers of Izril to cull dissent whilst denying what they were doing.
Now—the Guild had been ravaged as they overstretched. But they were made of their killers.
The Faces remained.
They killed Maviola’s horse.
The enchanted dagger flew like the arrow of death from Rhir that had never been used, borne by Skills and magic despite the distance between Ryoka and Maviola and the Faces. It sang through the air, death for the Lady of House El.
It missed. The flying dagger had curved and taken the brave mare down.
After all it had raced through, after so long—dead. The mare fell without a scream, and Maviola cried out for it, falling. She was on her feet in a moment. Running. She looked back only once, for the brave creature.
How? The answer lay on the mare’s back.
Gresaria Wellfar murmured as she watched her old nemesis, her friend.
“It had a Companion’s Saddle. Lady Ieka’s. That damned horse thief must have chosen it for that. She’s stolen more horses over her life…mine included.”
Horse before rider. Another cruelty born out of necessity. Like a [Captain] that sacrificed his ship at sea. It should not happen except for when there was no other choice.
Onwards, then, on foot. Maviola ran, Ryoka urging her on. But they were slowing. Saliss had given them his Potions of Haste so they could use them by themselves and they had stamina potions of their own.
But the Faces were fresh and fast. The lead was shrinking. Even as unseen rulers and leaders swatted down some of the longest-range attacks. Another bolt of magic appeared, but an [Assassin] cut it in half with his sword, weathering the detonation and arcing electricity with no more than a wince.
It burned Gresaria to see that, like one of Maviola’s flames of memory. The world was shaming the Humans of Izril! Even now, the Five Families and Izril cowered while the King of Destruction and fools from afar had more bravery!
Some had been brave, like Gralton Radivaek. But Invrisil had been filled with few Humans and more outsiders. Drakes had fought to do the right thing.
The Harbormistress of First Landing would have jumped on her chariot and ridden herself with her guards to battle. But—she was in First Landing. Even if she had a week, she might miss the desperate chase.
She felt old, watching Maviola run, as young as she had been a lifetime ago. Gresaria also understood why Izril had lain silent for so long, why they still teetered on the edge. Let the King of Destruction weigh in, other, distant rulers.
…They were not in danger. Gresaria understood that well enough. Bravery from a distant armchair was not bravery at all. Those who stood up here would fight the Guild at their most desperate.
Death. Maviola had stirred the will of the Five Families. But like always, she was a flighty rush, all hot air, sometimes lacking substance. The [Harbormistress] leaned on her desk, in her office in the harbor of the greatest city of the north.
“All fire and no dignity. That’s Maviola. You need to give them a push along with the speech. Idiot.”
She spoke almost fondly to Maviola. Slowly, Gresaria rose. She used the spear she carried like a walking staff. She left the office, and stepped into the light.
The harbor of First Landing was a grand place. Hundreds of ships could dock at once. The city was more fortified than any but a Walled City, especially after the Goblin King’s ravages.
The ancient seat of power for the Five Families. Even now—most of their people lived to the north, where they had first settled. Invrisil was a newer bed of power for those like Magnolia.
Gresaria blinked in the light. How long had she been [Harbormistress]? After winning Regein from Maviola—after settling down from being a young [Lady], always galloping around, causing trouble, her position as a member of House Wellfar—however distant—had meant she obtained the job.
True, she had Skills to match. But no [Harbormistress] was chosen of common stock. It was a prestigious job. When she talked—the touchy [Captains] from around the world, on ships glorious and humble, listened. She controlled who came in and out. She made sure illicit cargo was not let into her home, or taken out.
When criminals tried to flee at sea, it was the [Harbormistress] who locked the gates to the harbor. When siege came by sea—enemy armies from other continents, she stood against them.
“What a boring job.”
Compared to her youth? Gresaria laughed. But she had children. She had a husband, and that was more than Maviola had ever settled for. Alas. And yet Maviola had been happy.
Sometimes, these days, Gresaria forgot herself. She forgot a ship coming in, and that was an unforgivable mistake. Her aides were well-trained and pointed out the error. But Gresaria had known it was time to retire, perhaps years ago.
Stubbornness had let her cling on. Like Regein—take away her post, and what would she have? Children, but she had raised them to take care of themselves. She feared losing part of herself, growing confused as he.
In her heart, she knew why Maviola had decided to deliver a cure. It was grandiose, attention-seeking. But it was also worthy.
A fitting end to it all. Gresaria walked along the docks, slowly. [Captains] looked up, fearing, perhaps, an inspection. But the harbor was quiet. They too were probably watching scrying orbs.
“Harbormistress. Any words we should be listening to?”
“In a bit, man. Not for you specifically! Sit down and let me walk in peace!”
She pointed at a [Captain] from far north. He laughed and saluted her in a complex gesture from his homeland. She grinned. You had to be salt and steel to deal with this lot.
Ah, well. To the south, Maviola El burned. Gresaria’s head turned. Her white hair, only bearing traces of the green of her youth, her tanned skin, and thicker clothing against the sea’s sometimes merciless breeze, even in summer—that was Gresaria Wellfar.
She walked for only a minute more. Then turned.
One of her aides had been sneaking up behind her. An assistant. Always fretting.
The assistant jumped. She flinched, fearing Gresaria’s infamous tongue. But the [Harbormistress] only leaned on her spear.
“Fetch me my chariot. And ring the Bell of First Landing.”
The girl’s eyes went round. ‘Girl’, and she was older than Maviola’s body was.
“Did I misplace my tongue, port-rat?”
The [Harbormistress]’ roar cut the silence on the docks. The silence holding First Landing captive, indeed. The [Assistant] went round-eyed and ran.
Soon—the Bell of First Landing rang. A peal you could not ignore, even in sleep. The [Captains] at the docks, their crew, dropped whatever they were doing. Even watching the events on television. Even preparing to sail.
When the [Harbormistress] called—everyone listened. And yes—even the Five Families, perhaps. The bell rang for attack, for great visitations, and little else.
Her chariot awaited. A Chandrarian war vehicle, lauded by some as a relic, no longer useful. Those who liked to say that had never seen an enchanted chariot bearing down on them with scything blades, or sowing magical spells in the midst of the enemy.
Gresaria had bought it on a whim a long time ago. She ran a hand fondly down the worn, battered sides, lovingly maintained. Then she mounted it.
Two stallions tossed their heads, waiting for her to take the reins. She did so now, in one hand. A practiced [Charioteer] in her own right.
“Harbormistress? Why does the bell ring?”
Again, they called out to her. Warily, standing on their ships. Gresaria saw some noble families, looking up at her.
She rode down the docks, now. And her voice became the bellow you could hear over storms, over the clash of arms. Gresaria had no potion. But she had memory and will.
The Harbormistress of First Landing shouted to the ships. To Houses Veltras, Wellfar, Reinhart, El, and Terland, some of whose nobility lived here. To Ulva Terland, who hid in her estates even now.
“You ask why the bell rings? Are you blind, man? Are your ears filled with foam and seaweed? A damned pig stuck in a barrel at sea would know why they ring!”
Laughter from the docks. [Sailors] guffawing in mirth. Offended looks from some of the nobility. Gresaria smiled. She rode past them.
“The bell rings for attack! For war! For treachery and cowardice in our midst! It should have been rung the moment House Veltras’ sons were poisoned. It should have rung when the House of El called for aid! But it did not, and damn me for cowardice. Damn the Five Families for the same!”
Only they and she could ring that bell. The watchers stirred. [Captains] looked past Gresaria, tracing her slow route. The nobility shifted uneasily.
She was moving towards a part of the city where no noble would ever make their homes. One of the poorer sections, true. But it had a charmed fear of its own. A mythos.
The Guild of Assassins. They were here. They were always here. You couldn’t just walk in. But everyone knew that they had a base in First Landing.
When had that been normal? For as long as Gresaria had lived, they’d been there, unspoken. A [Lord] and his friends might dare to ride there, seeking them. And he would live because he was ignored.
Never before in Gresaria’s memory had [Assassins] warred with the Flowers of Izril. They had been tools, the dog you fed to hunt your enemies until someone had taken them. This Circle, using it against their old masters.
It was a disgrace, either way.
Gresaria ignored one of the others behind her. Voices. One of her assistants. A [Lord]. She lifted her spear, and it was harder these days. But kept it steady as an arrow. Pointing down those plain streets towards their land. Even now—fear like a spell hung over the city.
“I am Gresaria Wellfar! Harbormistress of First Landing! And I say there is a rot in our city! By the Five Families, it has been here too long! Cowards and traitors all! Enough. I say enough. Who will stand with me and root this infection out of our homes?”
She raised the spear. Looking around. The [Captains] were silent. Their crews watchful.
The Flowers of Izril stirred in the breeze. Salt and steel! They looked at each other, waiting for the other to move. House Wellfar, ship-builders, owners of navies, her people were represented most strongly here.
Gresaria’s gaze swept across them like thunder at sea and they flinched and looked away. They felt it too.
“Harbormistress. The Guild will not allow your actions. Enough.”
A voice in the air, like the shadows he materialized from. A figure on a rooftop. The nobles flinched. Gresaria looked up. Her eyes narrowed.
“Am I supposed to fear your threats, shadow? I am of House Wellfar. One of the Five Families! Does the Harbormistress flinch before steel or poison?”
It came from the ships. The [Assassin] the Guild had sent looked down at her.
“Flinch or not, Harbormistress. But do not do this. The Guild does not wish to spill more of the Five Families’ blood.”
The nobility turned pale. They backed away. As if they had not guards! As if they had not armies! But Gresaria understood why. She saw mothers and fathers grabbing at children. Looking up at the brazen display.
The first one to stand was killed. The first [Soldier] to charge ever met his end.
Yet—enough. Enough! Maviola El, her companion, her old foe, held a banner and called the North to war. Gresaria raised her spear higher.
“Do you see anyone behind me, assassin? It seems the Five Families’ blood runs thin of late. Alone, then. And alone I would defy you to the last! I bow to no petty blades in the dark.”
“You have been warned.”
He vanished. Grimly, Gresaria set herself. The streets were clearing. Someone was calling her name. Trying to get her to stop.
She swatted him back. Pointed her spear.
“Stay back. Unless you want to ride with me, Etril.”
Like he had as a boy. The [Lord] struggled. He reached for the reins, the chariot. But too late. Gresaria snapped the reins and the stallions broke into a trot. And then a gallop. He ran after her. Gresaria listened, but kept her eyes ahead.
Courage. And fury. The [Captains] aboard their vessels stirred. The Harbormistress was riding her chariot down the streets. Alone. Towards the place where the Guild of Assassins made their lair.
“Children of Wellfar. Let me show you what courage you’ve forgotten—”
Gresaria’s shout cut off. She tried to turn. But the first arrow struck true.
One of her horses screamed and collapsed. The other a second later, destroyed by the ray of gray-brown light. The chariot skidded; Gresaria leapt clear before it could overturn.
The nobility of Izril stared in horror. The [Harbormistress] landed. She whirled her spear up, blocked an arrow.
A cry from the docks. The [Captains] were shouting at her now, with the crews. Retreat!
Gresaria refused. She advanced. A second arrow landed—striking her in the shoulder. Her skin, tough as armor, caught the arrow. She blocked the spell instead. Her spear’s magic screamed as the enchantment resisted the spell.
“Wellfar! Wellfar and Iz—”
He appeared like a sigh. The same figure who had warned her, for all his face and body were covered by shadowy armor. She knew it.
A shortsword in his hand. Gresaria lanced out with her spear.
She stopped. A shortsword in his hand. It lodged in her heart. The old [Harbormistress] felt it stop.
What a beautiful blow. What Skill. She could almost admire—
The moan rose from the docks. From the streets. A cry of loss. Gresaria did not reach for the blade. She felt the cold steel in her chest. Felt her body freezing.
Not yet. She had fought too long to die. Not before—
Gresaria raised her spear, trying to bring it down. The [Assassin] moved. He twisted the blade and withdrew it from her chest.
The spear was frozen in her grip. The Harbormistress tried to bring it down.
And the [Assassin] walked away. Out of range. She staggered, trying to advance. Blood ran down her front. Then stopped.
Gresaria Wellfar halted. She forced the words out.
“Maviola. My Regein. My children. My House. I wanted…”
The spear fell from fingers that could not hold them. Bitterly, without a blow struck, the woman sagged. But her eyes still blazed defiance as she sank to the ground.
The whisper ran through First Landing. They had all seen it. Gresaria, old Gresaria, the—
Frozen in horror, looking at the [Assassin]. The shadows appearing on rooftops. Look at us, they seemed to say. Try it.
A voice broke the silence. Eyes locked on the fallen woman turned upwards. Quivering words.
“The [Harbormistress] of First Landing is dead.”
A man standing on a ship lined with hides moved. Like someone waking from a terrible dream. He looked around. Then, slowly, bent down.
He was a [Captain] of a distant Kingdom of Terandria, the cold land of Cenidau. His helmet was a particular, simple design. A spangenhelm. His armor was thick hide, worn even in these warm lands.
This was not his home. But he had seen Gresaria fall. Now—he seized an enchanted javelin and hurled it.
The spear flashed across the distance. At the [Assassin] who had slain the [Lady] of House Wellfar. The figure deflected it, sacrificing his blade as the javelin exploded. But the second one struck his leg and ploughed through, earthing itself in the street.
The enraged [Captain] lifted another spear and a buckler. He ran down the ship. His words a bellow.
“The Harbormistress is dead!”
Someone else took up the cry. A Balerosian [Captain] swung herself off the decks, a Dullahan reaching for her blades.
[Sailors] leapt from their berths. They left the taverns and bars. The [Assassins] turned, seeing an unexpected threat. Sailors? But now another [Captain] from distant Drath had landed. He drew his swords.
Arrows flew from one ship. The first [Captain] to move bellowed at the others.
“To arms! For the pride of the Harbormistress! Every hand, to the blades! To death and the end of the world!”
His crew leapt off the decks, screaming. The [Assassins] looked up, aghast. But then every ship was moving.
They flooded off the ships. [Sailors] and [Pirates]. The Undersea Crews, [Storm Sailors]—for the [Harbormistress].
The pride of the sea. But before they reached the [Assassins]—someone else cried out.
“House Terland, to arms! To arms! Summon the war golems! Eradicate them! Enough!”
A [Lady] cried. Enough! She was as young as Gresaria had been, an age ago. She twisted a ring upon her finger. And her guard-Golems surged forwards.
It was like a breaking wave. The Guild saw nobles turning in the streets. Ordering their guards forwards. Some with blades drew them.
The first Golem of House Terland died, blown apart by dozens of defensive spells. But more were coming. And a distant light flashed.
“The Watcher of First Landing! Kill them!”
House Terland’s golem upon the lighthouse flashed. A beam of light vaporized one of the figures from miles away.
“Summon the armies. Root them out of every city!”
Five Houses were demanding the same thing. And they died.
They did die. [Sailors], [Captains], some of the nobility, going down in the street with arrows or spells tearing at them. [Assassins] leaping into noble houses, trying to reassert the terror.
Too late. Gresaria had tipped the scales already set swaying by Maviola.
No more. The Guild unleashed their spells, tearing apart their foes. They had prepared for this kind of day for centuries. They would not fall to the soft Flowers of Izril. Not without reaping—
A humming sound broke even the battle’s sounds. Men and women looked up, back towards the harbor.
Regein Wellfar stood on the Pride of the Wellfar, the greatest ship of Izril. His rheumy eyes were clear. His body shook, but he had left the bed where he had been confined, lost in memory and time.
He had a keyspell in his hands. The old [Lord] twisted it. He saw arrows twisting towards him, seeking his life. Too late, though.
The great ship of House Wellfar unleashed its stored magic. The Guild of Assassins, a building concealed by spells and Skills—appeared for the first time.
Ancient, dark stone shuddered. [Assassins] hunkered inside the killing zones looked up.
For a second—the Guild held.
The first spell was blocked. But they were falling out of the sky. Meteors of light. And then—the great capital ship launched a volley of light. Ten thousand magical arrows and a spell that split the skies. A beam of light pierced the defenses of the Guild of Assassins.
It exploded into a shower of debris, raining down. The figures on the ground looked back—and then ahead. The harbor swarmed with [Sailors] and crew. They gave no quarter.
A dozen of the Flowers of Izril lay dead as the Guild in First Landing was obliterated. Among them, Gresaria and Regein Wellfar. Say it again, as the Five Families’ wrath finally, finally came to bear.
Maviola El’s head turned blindly as they ran. For a moment, stumbling, running, she whispered.
Her heart. Her pulse, thudding in her veins. Blood, iron in her mouth. Her heart—
Breaking. Who had ever said miracles were easy to make possible? Ryoka ran ahead of Maviola. She turned.
The [Lady] just wasn’t as fast as her, potions or not. Maviola forced herself to run faster, trying to copy Ryoka’s stride. Behind them—Saliss’ detonation still hung in the air. A cloud visible, alchemical fumes creating something no one could predict as it settled upon the land and creatures.
Of such things new species might be born, or naught but desolation. But right now—
A carriage thundered after them. Another damned one! How many were there? This one looked—stolen. Not the Guild’s signature color. Just some poor traveller—killed so the [Assassins] could catch up.
An arrow flew; Ryoka called the wind and it snapped in the air. She tried to blow the coach off-target, but it was too heavy. Maviola turned.
Kaalblade. She was aiming for the wheels. The driver was trying to run her over.
Ryoka grabbed for a wand. She saw a flash from behind her and threw herself sideways. Another carriage! No, no—and the Faces were closing—
“Stay low! [Impact Reflection]!”
The [Driver] bellowed. Ryoka saw Maviola’s eyes widen as the [Assassin]’s carriage turned, desperately.
Too late. The second carriage smashed into the first, but all the force of the impact was thrown back—Ryoka saw the [Assassin]’s vehicle crumple, figures, wood—pulped and thrown like toys.
“Lords of Flame!”
Maviola El shouted. She whirled, glowing weapon in hand. But the carriage was turning.
“Wind Runner, Lady El! Heard you needed a ride!”
The [Driver] bellowed. Ryoka looked up.
No. She had no idea who the woman was. She stared for a second, aiming her wand uncertainly.
“Overnight Carriages, Miss! You getting in or what?”
Ryoka looked at Maviola. The [Lady] was laughing. And weeping for her friend. She grabbed the opened doors, swung herself up.
“Go! To House Veltras!”
The Wind Runner leapt as the [Driver] urged the carriage into motion. She climbed on.
Because they were watching. Because Gresaria Wellfar had helped light the spark. Because—they were tired too.
Any reason you wanted. They all counted. The Faces saw the carriage departing, moving with frantic speed.
Frustrated, the [Mage] among them loosed a spell at the carriage’s back. The spell blasted through the wood, but only ripped the back open of the carriage. Ferin saw a familiar face.
“Who is that? The overnight carriage service? We’ll kill every damn one of them!”
“And who’ll take us to our jobs? They’re all turning against us!”
Mire looked around. No one answered. A [Fireball] came shooting out of the carriage’s back. The Faces dodged it, and pursued.
Falling apart. They felt helpless, and they were the Faces of the Guild of Assassins! They could not stop the fire engulfing Izril, even as desperate [Messages] told them to come back, guard the Guild’s assets—
The headquarters in First Landing was gone. Their gold, gone! Artifacts, new recruits—
All they could do was kill. So they tried to do just that, with impotent rage. If they wanted to be heroes—
“[Seeking Arrow]. [Blink Shaft].”
An [Archer] loosed an arrow. It curved up and then down—flickered through the roof of the carriage. The [Driver] died.
The Runner cried out. The [Lady] just seized the reigns, severed them, and leapt onto one of the horse’s backs.
“Shoot the horses you idiot! On them!”
The [Blademaster] surged forwards in a charge. Ferin felt someone trying to slow him from a great distance. He snarled, fighting off the hand of some distant figure. Mire was gasping for air.
She fell to her knees. Two more Faces slowed. One was shouting, insects suddenly swarming over him. The other for no apparent reason.
They were target-practice for long-ranged Skills and spells! This wasn’t how the Guild fought! Damn the Circle! Damn this contract!
The [Blademaster]’s sword was angling, prepared to slash the air as Ryoka and Maviola fled.
Wind cutting! Ryoka felt the blade of air slashing towards them. She whirled.
The scythe of air exploded as the wind obeyed. The [Blademaster Assassin] stared at her. Then he growled and slashed again.
“I know. I’ll—”
Maviola was turning as she rode the second stallion. Ryoka raced after her, ducking—the deadly arc of air flashed over her head and then dissipated fifty paces ahead of her. The wrong Skill to use on her.
But the others—
“Kill these [Assassins]!”
A howl. The Faces reacted at the same time as Maviola and Ryoka. Where—not from behind, or ahead.
Above? Ryoka saw someone drop out of the skies.
A figure on a flying carpet. Ryoka’s eyes went wide. Fear seized her. No, not them! Not—
A [Lord] flung down an object which detonated, and then a second which conjured a furious Manticore. The Faces cursed as the rider—Ryoka saw his sharp beard, flashing, imperious eyes, darker skin—
She blinked. She saw him. Then—the second carpet. And third. Guards, and a second [Lord], assailing the [Assassins] from above.
Reinforcements. The Houses of Izril. She heard a voice.
The first [Lord] ignored the younger man. He raised his blade, hacking at an [Assassin].
“The House of Zolde stands with the House of El and Veltras! With me, Siroi!”
The Lord of House Zolde, who had recently benefitted from a Courier himself, attacked the [Assassins] with more courage than sense, followed by the small band of his house’s guards into battle. They nearly killed him in the first moment—but his brother swooped down and deflected a blade meant for his older sibling. He actually cut the [Assassin] in a whirl of blades and the Faces split.
“Ignore them! Get those two!”
One of them ordered. White-haired behind his mask…he met Ryoka’s eyes.
A rider on a carpet. Ryoka spared one more look. The older [Lord] fought, flying upwards as the Faces redirected their wrath on him and his escort.
His younger brother was the better fighter. He looked at Ryoka—then spun, scimitar flashing. Another moment. Minutes paid for in blood. Ryoka and Maviola ran onwards.
House Zolde was forced to retreat after only three minutes. But that widened the lead between the two desperate people and the Faces too much. Ferin cursed as he saw the older brother spirited away, face white as one of his household guards steered the carpet.
Mire had poisoned him. He might live—but the younger brother had prevented the Faces from wiping the entire group out.
“Madness. Move on. Strike them. How many Ranks have we left?”
“They’re coming from ahead. The last of them…damned worthless bodies.”
One of the Faces spat. He was nursing a cut, healing it. They were going to level; these fights were taxing them, unlike Magnolia Reinhart’s ambush.
“Move out! Use a movement Skill—[Haste] us again—”
Ferin pointed at one of the [Assassins]. Only for one of the Faces to step out of the formation.
The other Faces turned to him. Half raised their blades at once.
He wasn’t one of the…non-recruits. A volunteer, if a Face. The [Assassin] adjusted his hood. He wore no mask. His eyes were red and he looked straight at Ferin, then ahead.
“I can’t do it. I have a favor to fulfill.”
“This is betrayal. The Guild—”
“Try and kill me, then. But you’ll lose your prey.”
The [Assassin] snapped. The others looked at each other. With a curse, they abandoned their comrade. They‘d settle it later. But they were being shaken.
They caught up again. Ryoka looked back, in despair. Less than an hour and she was running at top speed.
Layering Skills and spells. Fourteen of them. Dead gods.
Maviola mumbled. She looked ahead—and Ryoka saw more shapes waiting on horseback.
Ranks. How many more? Probably every one they could spare. Less than eighty, though. The Guild was running out. Yet each one had a horse. And they were blocking the way.
Maviola El slowed. She lifted the Kaalblade and met Ryoka’s eyes. The Wind Runner shook her head.
“Before the end. You have a way to escape, don’t you?”
“Maybe. But not—”
Not this. The Faces, Maviola—Ryoka saw the [Lady] steel herself.
“I wish I had a Potion of Invisibility to give you. Just run.”
“Take the Wind Runner first.”
A shout from behind. Ryoka saw Maviola curse. Ryoka saw the riders galloping at her. She reached for a scroll.
[Lesser Teleport]. They winked out of existence. The [Assassins] whirled—Ryoka and Maviola landed past their lines. They began to run, disoriented. The riders turned their horses.
“Have you more?”
No more scrolls! Ryoka reached for potions, a wand—any of the gear she’d had in such profusion. She was almost out of everything. Except her secret weapon, and Maviola could not come with her. She looked over her shoulder.
Someone blew a horn. Ryoka’s head snapped up.
Maviola El’s eyes flashed with exasperated horror. Ryoka looked ahead.
“No. No! Run!”
She urged Maviola onwards. The [Lady] was uncomprehending, but Ryoka had spied something she hadn’t. The [Lady] looked forwards. And then she saw it.
A flash of…pink. Riding towards them. The [Assassins] slowed. What was this now? They saw dozens upon dozens of figures. All mounted, like them. But not reinforcements for their side. They were—
“[Knights]. Which Order is that?”
Calirn did not know the almost egregiously pink mail and armor. The Fall’s Sentinel murmured.
“The Knights of the Petal.”
Lady Bethal Walchaís’ personal, elite Order. But not just hers. Calirn saw a Knight of the Clairei Fields. Their coat of arms, wheat like swords, their chest plates bright green and sapphire blue.
He saw two [Knights] bearing colors and sigils unique to them. [Knights], advancing in a long line. Calirn drew his sword as the Order of Seasons cheered their brethren on.
They had ridden far from Walchaís’ lands. And they were here at their [Lady]’s bidding. The Rose Knights of Izril halted. One of them rode forwards. She nodded as Ryoka and Maviola ran past them. The [Assassins] were slowing; only the Faces continued onwards, joining their ranks and cursing the lesser [Assassins] to move forwards.
Dame Truvia would have sent some with the others, but there was no time. She lifted her sword. Calling to the ranks of Izril’s warriors.
“Advance at a trot.”
They did. Lances lowered. [Knights] secured visors, lifted shields. The Guild of Assassins once again wavered. This was an open field. This was not how they fought.
The bellow made the horses pick up speed. Truvia felt her heartbeat roaring in her ears.
“Gallop! [Knights] of Izril! Honor your vows this day!”
The Faces snarled. The [Assassins] began to break up, trying to circle, draw the [Knights] into terrain that favored them. Their quarry was getting away.
“Charge! Charge, for the Five Families and the honor of Izril!”
What a glorious sight. The rank of steel met shadows. The first [Assassins] were obliterated by the charge. Taken to pieces by lances, blades—their weapons and poison failing on armor. Truvia laughed. She spun her sword up.
Ferin beheaded her. The mithril loop took off the [Knight]’s head. It snapped—and cut through enchanted armor. Three other [Knights] went down. A Knight of the Clairei Fields ran into his wires at full tilt and the Skill-enhanced threads tore him to pieces.
“Kill them all!”
The [Trapmaster Assassin] had lost his temper. He threw the deadly wires, dragging another [Knight] off the horse.
Minotaur-form. Mire brought one down, ignoring the blow to her chest. The [Blademaster] had brought down two in combat. Lightning boomed.
The Faces punched through the line of [Knights]. Enough. They had nearly slain Magnolia Reinhart! They had humbled Tyrion Veltras. The Ranks died.
“Secure our backs.”
The throwing expert unleashed a barrage of projectiles that fouled the [Knights] as they tried to return the charge. Sir Kerrig, bellowing, restored order.
Eight Faces and thirty Ranks burst past the [Knights]. The rest were dead or fighting, holding off the armored warriors.
Still, they ran. They were approaching the two thirds mark of their journey. But look how much they had sacrificed to get there. And—a third left?
Too far. Too far. The [Knights] of Izril had failed to slow the Faces. Forgetting, perhaps, that unlike lesser monsters, [Assassins] had tools that went through their vaunted plate armor.
Forget them. Look at them.
The Wind Runner, desperate, her feet in shreds but for the healing potion she was forced to apply.
Lady Maviola El, galloping, burning at the end of a century of time.
He…tried to stop it. He was caught off-guard by the emotions. The sudden welling of feeling. But he couldn’t help it.
They were being aided by everyone who could raise their hand. Everyone who cared.
Pryde Ulta stopped one of the Faces. Seven left. She had barely caught up to them, running a horse to death with her house’s guard. She—like Bethal Walchaís—had begun to intervene the instant they had heard Maviola’s cry.
Magnolia Reinhart’s circle. The [Lady] pointed and squashed an [Assassin] over a thousand feet away.
“[Extended Aura: Gravity Well]. A powerful [Lady].”
He identified the Skill. Pryde was too slow to catch the others. Her guard pursued the immobilized [Assassin]. Made short work of them.
They were all trying. Once again, the feelings welled up.
The [Stitch Witch] watched as Az’kerash, the Necromancer of Terandria, watched Ryoka Griffin and Maviola El’s flight. There was passion there. She was old, but he was barely more than twice Maviola’s age.
He remembered. He—had been cut of the same cloth as they. Had he not defied armies to become the Undying Shield of Calanfer? Had he not—?
“Master? Is something wrong?”
His Chosen looked upon their master. Uncomprehending of his emotions, but they felt them. Az’kerash whispered.
“My Chosen. Do you see anything of value in this moment? In these—two? In what is happening?”
The Chosen stirred. Kerash—who in life would have known what was meant—shook his head and looked at Venitra. The armored woman made of bone—like a [Knight]—had none of the sentiments she had been modeled after.
The two new Chosen? Nothing.
“Superior agility, Master?”
One of them ventured. A skeleton slapped his face from where he was peeking in. Not Ijvani. She was blank. The [Skeleton Mage] saw Bea’s lips moving.
But she had nothing. Az’kerash looked at his Chosen with a kind of despair that was terrible for them to behold.
“This is one of the most important things you must learn, my children. Have you nothing?”
A flaw in their creation. Belavierr looked at the Necromancer. She was interested in how he had framed that. It spoke to his…desires. A different Necromancer than the one of a decade ago, even.
How were they so blind? Even Belavierr could give the answer, and she was an immortal monster. But it was that immortality, perhaps, that made the undead blind.
In that room, three people knew the answer. Hah. Even the Healing Slime could have given it, if it had lips. Az’kerash, Belavierr.
And Toren. He looked at the Runner with objectionable bone structure. And despite that—he felt it.
Glorious. His eyes locked on the [Lady] who called flame. Made of the same moments as he had once seen in a place far from here.
He understood. It was so obvious the skeleton wanted to shout it. But he had no voice. Nor any desire to attract the evil [Witch]’s attention, much less the others. Seeing the Chosen, though, looking like guilty students trying to crib the answer off each other and realizing no one knew what it was—he was still shouting in his soul.
Ijvani. Az’kerash’s head snapped around. The skeleton flinched. She looked past him. She had heard, of course. And like any cheating student, glancing at someone else’s test—
She feared she was wrong, but Az’kerash’s disappointment had made her desperate. She was rewarded with the Necromancer’s smile.
“Yes, Ijvani! Come here. You understand?”
She lied. Az’kerash was too preoccupied to notice. But she advanced and stood there, the Necromancer’s favorite. The Chosen looked upon Ijvani with envy unmatched. Then—slowly—their heads turned.
The skeleton was already fleeing, arms waving. But an idea was circulating among the Chosen. They had no idea what their Master wanted. What emotions he craved.
But someone did.
Belavierr was highly interested. Yet—her eyes were caught again by the scrying orb. An end was coming. She felt it, threads of fate. Her eyes narrowed.
Maviola El slowed. She was pointing ahead.
This was how they ended it. Seven Faces and thirty [Assassins] were still following. Catching up again. Ryoka saw no [Knights], no [Lords] on carpet. No brave carriage drivers.
“I’m slowing you down, aren’t I?”
Maviola El slowed her horse. It was no champion like Ieka’s steed. A carriage-horse, not used to this level of galloping. And they were out of Potions of Haste. Out of scrolls.
She looked at Ryoka. The Wind Runner gulped for air. Her hands shook as she reached for a stamina potion.
“You can make it. But they will cut you out of the air. Look at them.”
The [Assassins]. Maviola shook her head.
“This is where I stop. One of us must go onwards. And I see a glorious end waiting for me.”
“Maviola, don’t do this.”
Ryoka reached for her. The [Lady] laughed. She looked at Ryoka. What a cute thing. Then she shook her head.
“Oh, brave girl, you are too kind for this. Ryoka. Carry us with you forever. I hope you meet your friend. Now—run.”
She pushed Ryoka, a burning hand touching the Wind Runner’s arm. They locked eyes and Maviola turned.
“Run, Ryoka Griffin! Deliver Izril’s honor back to it! Deliver life! Run, and don’t look back!”
But of course, I do.
Maviola El wheeled her horse. There was no time left for goodbyes. Ryoka ran with a sound like a scream of frustration and grief.
The [Lady] reached for her side. A burned staff of wood, nothing like the white flag she had borrowed. Well, stolen. She would give it back, but Erin might as well make a new one.
The wood burst into flame. Her horse reared, but the banner of fire did not burn it. It burned with gold. Maviola urged her horse to take a path nearly perpendicular to Ryoka.
Glory. The [Assassins] slowed. It was not a light they enjoyed. They looked past Maviola, at Ryoka. Which one had the cure?
“This is my death! You come for me, shadows of Izril! Yet I am Izril’s fire, today! You cannot put me out.”
Maviola cried out. She lifted her banner higher and rode. The [Assassins] looked between her and Ryoka as they raced forwards. Still time yet to choose one path or the other.
She would make sure they followed her. The [Lady]’s teeth bared. Saliss had given them war. She would show them—
“[Path of Flames]. I am Izril’s fire.”
Her horse’s hoofmarks caught fire. In every color imaginable and some that had no name. The [Assassins] saw memory, like fire, burning in Maviola’s wake.
Glory! Sorrow! Rage! Hope! It was a lifetime of flames. And they spread, eating the grass, consuming stone and dirt and magic itself.
The fire raced after her. A sea of glowing flames of every color. It was not like the fires that had tried to consume Riverfarm. A mindless, raging destructive thing.
A sea of fire, stymying the [Assassins]. But honestly—if that had been all her Skills were at Level 50—
She would have been so sorely disappointed.
This was only half of it. Maviola raised the standard higher. For Gresaria! The House of El! She cried out.
“Ride for the House of El! Wake, stones! Fight, children of Izril, for your honor! For your dignity! For the land where we die!”
She pointed. And the flames came together. Rising. No longer a mindless, burning thing. Maviola whispered.
“[Summon Flame Elemental].”
A figure moved in the flames. It snatched at an [Assassin] and the figure turned in horror. Maviola El laughed. An army of fire stirred.
[Bannerlady of Memory’s Flame], Maviola El. She looked and saw Ryoka disappearing amid the trees. What a wonderful forest. Not the Vail Forest, but large enough. She bared her teeth.
“Carry our pride onwards, Runner. Bring hope to those children. Restore our honor. Now, follow me, you shadows.”
She charged, the beings born of flame coming into existence, fighting for her will. For Izril! And the [Assassins] came after her.
They followed her like moths to the brightest light in the world. Unable to even look away. Let alone believe she didn’t hold the cure, the answer, the hope blazing bright across her form.
Maviola El raced into the forest. Her horse fell. She tumbled from the saddle, as the fire engulfed the land around her. Only then did she plant the standard, draw her weapon. Too late—the [Assassins] realized they were trapped by the flames. She smiled as it engulfed them all.
One left. One remained. The [Lady] of House El made her last stand amid glorious flame. Ryoka Griffin was crying.
Four Faces left. Three had rushed into the flames, unable to stop themselves. The Ranks perished, fighting beings made of fire.
The last four had struggled with all their will not to rush after Maviola El. At last, though, they’d caught up.
Ryoka Griffin had stopped. Her feet were a ragged mess. And Ferin realized—
She was out of healing potions. She was panting. Had she given up?
No. The [Trapmaster] knew it. But why had she slowed? He looked at his companions.
Four of them. Ferin, the [Mage], the [Blademaster], and one last one. Mire and the others had stayed behind to fight the [Knights]. Others had died.
The Guild…would not recover from this. They would have to be remade, if they lived at all. Perhaps another Guild. Another continent.
Roshal—Ferin shook his head and looked up. Never there. He would rather…
“Stop, Ryoka Griffin. You can still stop.”
She flinched. The [Assassins] were spreading out. The [Blademaster] moved forwards—hesitated.
His nerves had been broken by watching so many of his companions die. The invincible Guild’s mythos—gone. Ferin motioned him forwards, but the [Mage] and fourth were circling. Ensnaring Ryoka before the end from all sides if she tried to make a break for it.
“…Is that you, [Trapmaster]?”
Ryoka looked up. She was preoccupied with something in her bag of holding. The air was still. Ferin nodded.
“It will not end with your death, Miss Griffin. Everyone you love will die. That is the Guild’s promise to you. Unless you stop.”
He looked at the [Blademaster] again. The idiot was afraid. Afraid of a death like Saliss of Lights or Maviola El’s burning fury. He would never be an [Assassin] again.
“You can’t escape us, Ryoka. You’re not that quick.”
It was true. Ryoka exhaled. It had always been true.
If she were a Courier like Mihaela. If she had levels. If she had been smarter. If Xif hadn’t had such a big fucking mouth.
If, if, if. But this was where she was. She had made so many decisions to get here. Some good, some bad.
…Yet that was the beauty of this world. Of any world. Ryoka looked up. She had not come here unchanged.
“I have one last thing.”
“The wind? It’s not yours alone, Runner.”
The [Mage]-[Assassin] sneered. Ryoka nodded. She could feel magic keeping the wind still. But—it was just a spell. The wind was surely more powerful than one [Mage]. She just had to ask it.
The Wind Runner looked back at Ferin. The old [Assassin] she had met just once on a ride to another delivery that might have been her death. There was something of her in him. But they were—different. She shook her head. He drew the loop of wire. Ryoka sighed.
“Tell me, stranger. Do you know how to fly?”
The [Assassins] looked at each other. One lifted his wand. And the [Blademaster] hesitated again. Too late. Ferin threw as Ryoka’s words reached him.
“It’s easy. I’ve been so afraid to try. But all you have to do is step into—”
Something unfolded. His wire struck it, bounced off instead of looping around her. Ferin cursed. He saw wings unfolding. Then the wind howled. The [Mage] cried out. Ferin lunged forwards with the others. And saw Ryoka lift upwards Into—
The other [Assassins]—even the fourth—stared in dumbfounded shock for a second. A Scroll of Flying? But those were wings.
Yet not Ryoka’s. It was…a contraption like the bicycle. Something she had asked to be made in Reizmelt before meeting the Archmage of Izril, even.
It was simple. Simple and hard. You needed some good fabric for it. An expert [Seamstress]. Wood—even enchanted, especially to withstand the strain. But Ryoka had tested it, paid in gold.
The hang glider’s wings spread outwards. Wood locked into place. She clung to the bars as the wind grabbed thick sails of fabric and dragged it up.
After all—it was on her side. Ferin stared up in awe for a moment. It was neither magic nor a Skill. It was just…physics. Wood and fabric.
The achievements of a world apart, where no magic or levels existed, yet Humans had dreamed of it. Flight.
The wind blew. Erin saw—she had to rub at her eyes. The Wind Runner of Reizmelt had left the ground. The first, almost explosive gust had snapped the glider, sent her up so fast she nearly let go.
A hundred feet in a moment. Erin’s jaw dropped.
“That’s not a flying carpet.”
Palt murmured. There wasn’t as much awe as you might expect. After all—there were spells that allowed you to fly. Flying Carpets. Garuda did it for free.
But look at her. The inn was silent. The audience of the world watched.
The Wind Runner was flying.
She was struggling to clip herself to the glider. She had been putting on a belt, harness—she could not hold on with hands alone! The [Assassins] looked up after her. Erin heard Mrsha howling. Somewhere, the Flying Gnoll of Pallass was screaming.
Bird had fainted again. Erin’s heart soared. Then—she saw the [Assassin] with the wires point up.
“Strike the skies. [Arrows of Lightning].”
Ferin drew a scroll and unfurled it. Ryoka jerked as arrows made of lightning shot up after her. The others broke from their reverie.
“[Grand Tempest]! You can’t escape!”
The [Mage] howled after her. It was true. So what if she could fly? They were [Assassins]! They had arrows, spells—Ryoka was struggling. The wind threw her and the glider through the air to avoid the spells. She crashed against the frame of her glider.
She couldn’t control it! It was just as she’d feared. In her experiments—the wind was far less easy to control in the air! She had been practicing in secret—but she had no mastery and she needed mastery.
The [Grand Tempest] spell turned the air into lightning and wind. The glider’s wings snapped—the wood held, but the impact sent Ryoka into a nosedive.
She hit the ground ahead of the [Assassins], so hard they actually stopped loosing spells. Had she just killed herself?
Ryoka’s scream answered them. Hedault’s ring had saved her from being pulped—barely. She scrambled up and the [Blademaster] charged at her. Just in time, the wind snapped her aloft again.
“Before she gets out of range! Icoln! Kill her!”
The Wind Runner was rising, half-stunned by the blow. Hedault’s ring was dead. Another one—but the wind was obeying her request, carrying her up at dizzying speed. All she had to do was get out of range, ask the wind to land her close to House Veltras.
The flaws in her plan, and they had always been there, were spells to control the wind. Arrows from below. Ryoka’s own lack of skill in manipulating the wind when she could hit the ground at a hundred miles per hour with a single mistake.
Flight was not invulnerability. If it was—every Oldblood Drake and Garuda would have been a Courier. And one more thing.
The fourth [Assassin] stared up at Ryoka Griffin as she flew upwards. The [Mage] was still trying to tag her with spells. But he was trying to hit a rapidly-moving target. She was going to—
The Garuda shed his disguise. He leapt into the air after her. Ryoka looked back.
Did you really think we had no fliers in our Guild? We kill everything. The Garuda danced upwards, daggers in both wing-talons.
Nimbler than she was. Faster, as the capricious wind ignored Ryoka and obeyed at times.
“No. No—get him—”
The Garuda was buffeted by a gale. But he caught himself. He tore through the wind in a cone of his own, defying the winds. Ryoka looked at him.
Then she gritted her teeth and reached for a knife. Something—not after all this! The Garuda saw her draw a dagger.
He snorted, highly amused. It wasn’t even enchanted! He swooped around Ryoka with ease. The Garuda took aim.
The crossbow bolt punched through one of his wings. Ryoka heard a scream of pain. The [Assassin] twisted in midair. What? What? Neither one knew. Where had that bolt come from? But wait—it had come from—above—
Alevica the Witch Runner hurtled out of the skies and loosed a second crossbow bolt. She clung to her broom as it brought her down in a spiral. She drew a blade and cut at the [Assassin] Garuda before moving away.
The Witch Runner cried out like the Garuda as he broke off. Ferin, on the ground, lost his last scraps of patience.
“Where did that [Witch] come from?”
“She won’t be there for long! [Homing Spell]. [Hundred Arrows of—]”
The [Mage] was drawing breath. Then—someone picked him up. He screamed. A huge beak descended, and tore off his head. Ferin whirled. Wings flapped around him. Black feathers.
Mavika the Crow launched herself up into the air. She screamed as the Garuda turned.
“Vengeance a thousand times for my coven’s lives!”
“Alevica! What are you doing?”
Ryoka screamed as the wind bore her higher. The Witch Runner was fighting the Face. She was outclassed—the Garuda was dangerous. But she refused to let him attack Ryoka. She screamed back as she lobbed a vial which nearly caught the [Assassin].
“I hate owing debts!”
Four figures in the sky. The [Emperor] listened. He could sense none of it. Far from Ryoka—and his senses were limited upwards as downwards.
“Mavika made it?”
“She did, your Majesty—”
“Is Ryoka alright?”
Gamel relayed the moment to the [Emperor] as he leaned forwards.
The Garuda was being fought by two [Witches] in the air. [Witches]! The enemy the Circle of Thorns had so carelessly made! Ryoka felt the wind carrying her up as the [Assassin] came after her.
He was single-minded. Using explosive spells to down the crows trying to peck at him, avoiding the huge primordial avian that was Mavika fused with her raven familiar. Alevica shot upwards, clinging to her broom—but she was burning magic.
“Get higher, Ryoka! Go!”
Ryoka could barely talk as the wind passed her. She saw the Garuda lancing up—the wind blew them both left.
More wind! Help me, please! Ryoka called to the air. Below them, the Faces were launching more spells, using scrolls. And she felt malign magic in the air.
“They are summoning spells to kill you. Alevica, eat the hexes!”
Mavika dropped away from a grappling blow with the Garuda. He had stabbed her a dozen times in the chest. She bled—but the giant bird screamed and resumed the attack. She had taken his left leg in vengeance.
Still upwards. The Circle was—casting something. Ryoka felt them trying to drag her down. She fought them.
The wind! Come to me, please! After all that has happened! All that has been sacrificed!
Other [Mages] were warring for the wind. Magic from Wistram, even Fissival! Fighting for control as the Wind Runner beseeched the wind in a way magic could not. She saw a bolt of lightning arc towards her out of the skies—then away.
They were twisting nature against itself. And nature abhorred it. Ryoka felt the pressure building. The Garuda flew up towards her. The Wind Runner felt the pressure—like when the King of Destruction had been giving her the blessing.
Only a thousand times stronger. Even than a mortal [King]. The wind—the atmosphere—was furious. Too much magic. Bottled up as more mana was pumped into this place.
She just had to—Ryoka unleashed the building storm.
A cyclone of air blew Mavika and Alevica to earth. Alevica was in free fall—she poured every bit of mana she had into her broom. Every bit of power.
Her broom—snapped. But it stopped her fall. Enough that when she hit the ground—she was bruised instead of splattered. The [Witch] cursed as she got up.
Mavika hit the ground with a crunch. But she too lived. The [Witch] stared at a broken leg, hissing with pain. Her ribs too—her flock was fleeing the unnatural storm.
“That fool! She just unleashed every bit of w—”
Whumph. Both [Witches] turned as something hit the ground ten times harder than they had.
The Garuda. Alevica stared at…what was left. She stared upwards.
“Ryoka did that?”
No, she hadn’t. She’d just unleashed…the Wind Runner was going higher. So high she was a speck.
“She’s lost control. Alevica, we must flee.”
Alevica whirled. But they weren’t interested in the [Witches]. They still wanted Ryoka dead. And that wasn’t what Mavika meant. She looked at Alevica.
“You feel it.”
At last, she did. The Witch Runner paled. And above her—the morning sky turned into something like a glimpse of armageddon. The rains began to fall. The wind picked up.
“Report! Something’s happening at sea!”
A [Weather Mage] burst into the room full of [Mages] fighting for control of the sky in Wistram. He shoved past the others, ignoring their outrage as he ran for the Archmages. Feor turned. He’d felt it too.
“What is it?”
“Magical Typhoon Erandus is dissipating! No, it’s reforming—”
Feor’s head slowly turned to the orb. It suddenly went dark.
Grand Magus Eldavin felt his ship rock as the magical typhoon which had been blocking Baleros off—teleported. He had sensed the magical war in the skies, even if he hadn’t been interested in why.
Up till now. Had they no idea? So much magic in the air with a magical event like that—he looked up. Suddenly, gale-force winds were blowing off Izril’s shores and he’d just gotten in this boat!
“I’ll have to reinforce the hull. I’d hate to swim. Damn idiots and weather magic…”
He left his bunk, walking calmly onto the deck. Even [Storm Sailors] were panicking. The [Captain] stared as the Grand Mage began casting magic.
Eldavin, Teriarch, paused for a second as the hull glowed, ignoring the wind suddenly, if not the choppy waves. He looked around. And then up.
“It can’t be. Is that—”
The scrying spell was dead. The wind—Erin ran outside. She looked far north. Beyond even the High Passes. Suddenly—she didn’t know what was happening.
No one did.
“We’re losing track of her. She’s too high up, moving too fast.”
The Circle waited. The world waited. But no one knew where Ryoka Griffin was. The Thorns of Death—they looked at each other.
“Then cover the ground! If she doesn’t die—that typhoon won’t last. Teleporting used up most of its magic. It will dissipate within hours. I have seen it before.”
One of the Circle’s members spoke. The others stirred. How did they—? They ordered every agent they had. Not just [Assassins]. As they had decided. All or nothing.
But they had not prepared for the [Innkeeper] of Liscor. The Wind Runner of Reizmelt. Maviola of House El. Saliss of Lights. Their agents raced into place. And—
The adventurers were fighting a running battle with [Assassins]. They’d been headed for the Wind Runner, in pursuit. But they were caught.
It was a Silver-rank team, who’d ambushed the group of three carriages of the Ranks. Not just them—a chariot raced ahead, with a second team in the center of the fight. The Silver-ranks loosed arrows, trying to catch up to the running battle.
Adventurers across the continent were fighting [Assassins]. This group had been racing north and west since the moment they had seen their friend.
The Horns of Hammerad. Pisces adjusted their course as Ceria blasted one of the coaches with ice magic.
“Dodge them, Pisces!”
“Do you think a chariot can turn that fast?”
The undead horses galloped without rest, but they couldn’t exceed themselves either. The [Assassins] were speeding up.
The [Armsmistress] launched herself from the chariot. She hit the ground, caught herself, and brought up the sword.
“[Sword Art: Curve of the Moon]!”
The [Assassins] in the coach ahead of her were too slow—the arc of her blade smashed through the front of the coach. The coach stopped as the horses were knocked free of the vehicle. The Ranks, stunned, tried to exit the vehicle.
They ran into Yvlon. She blocked a sword thrust with one arm and her hand became spikes that pierced the [Assassin]’s arm. He screamed.
Ceria shouted at Pisces.
“Yvlon’s back there!”
“She jumped! I’ll animate the bodies! Keep—”
The crossbows thumped. Pisces and Ceria took cover. She raised an ice barrier around them, but it slowed the chariot. Two more coaches left. [Assassins] with crossbows leaned out of the doors as they drew alongside the three Horns of Hammerad. Aiming—
Ksmvr stood up. The [Assassins] had crossbows.
He had three. Each arm held one and the Ranks saw the Antinium open up his mandibles.
Instantly, one threw himself out of the carriage with a scream.
What a great Skill. He might have been Level 20 if he was super lucky, or Level 30? Ksmvr saw the [Assassin] catch himself on the ground.
Huh? There had been no bolt—
Ksmvr shot him in the chest. The [Assassin] went down. Ksmvr sighed.
Everyone could say a Skill. He took aim.
The other [Assassins] had taken cover. Now—they hesitated. Was he bl—
Two crossbows fired. Ksmvr missed one [Assassin], tagged the other in the thigh. He sat back down and pulled more crossbows out of his bag of holding. Then happily stood up and fired again. Crossbow Stan’s tactics. Ceria popped up.
Another carriage down. The Horns circled back for Yvlon. The last coach turned to flee—Pisces pointed.
He hit the wheels. The Horns regrouped and turned. They were too far away. But they were coming.
“Hold on, Ryoka.”
Ceria muttered. She looked up. In the distance—
The typhoon was creating a vortex in the skies.
The world dropped away below her. Ryoka gasped.
They were gone. Maviola, Saliss. The Guild of Assassins, Alevica, Mavika—
Everything. At the end of it all, just as she’d told Lyonette and Erin…it did end this way. How would she deliver the cure to Tyrion Veltras?
Fly. She had known from the start that it wouldn’t be this easy. But neither had she expected the magical typhoon to unleash itself here.
Lightning was striking the ground for countless miles around. Illuminating the world in moments of light. Everything else was dark. Rain soaked Ryoka in an instant, freezing her. The wind wasn’t smashing her against the glider—yet.
She refused to let go. Her harness creaked. Ryoka searched for some landmark to steer towards. But the world was a howling oblivion.
“The ground…oh no.”
The rain intensified. And Ryoka—suddenly—lost track of the ground. It became a dark, rainy abyss below her. She had no idea where she was. And the wind refused to let her down.
“Closer to the ground? Please? Pl—”
Up. Everything she had ever feared. She had done shorter glides—but anything over fifty feet and the wind changed. It grew wilder. And—
Suddenly, a gust hit the fragile glider and Human. The wind slammed into her. It was fierce, unrestricted. Not kind, up here. She felt her grip slipping and held on for her life.
“No, no, put me down, put me—”
She flew higher. Above the magic trying to strike her far below. The wind carried her up, delighting in her, toying with the little craft in its skies.
There was both malice and innocence there. But it did not see her as—a fragile mortal. She had called it as the fae did. And it bore her upwards.
—too high too fast—
A mile in a second. Too fast. Too—her ears popped again. Ryoka left her mind thousands of feet behind her. The wind was pulling at her. What a strange intruder in its skies! It listened to her will—ignored it.
She couldn’t breathe. Frost was chilling the glider and her—hands—the grip loosened and it was only the belt and straps keeping her attached—
She woke up when she dropped. Down again. Following some current. Now—she was afraid. Ryoka tried to push at the wind, then persuade.
“Listen to me. Please—”
The typhoon wrapped around her, blowing her at speeds that strained her vessel’s ability to move. Ryoka couldn’t even inhale the rushing wind.
Suddenly—the air was angry. She felt its wrath, like a voice thundering in the void.
How dare you order me around? The wind is not your toy or thing to be commanded. How dare you, insignificant speck. I could splatter you—
Or was it even listening? Had she any command over it? She could speak to the wind. Not give it orders. Why had she ever—
Another snap of the winds that hurled her through the air. Limply, Ryoka clung to the glider with one hand. She was reaching for something. She had to—
She thought she heard laughter. Not hers. Something in the storm?
What was that shape? Larger than clouds.
Were they laughing at her?
Something around her. Ryoka gasped for air. Was that snow? No—
She drew the little figurine from her belt pouch. For a moment, the wind seemed to calm. Ryoka clutched at it.
And her fingers, wet with rain, slipped. The icy figurine vanished from her fingers. Ryoka cried out. No!
The tiny statuette fell, glittering. She reached for it, as the blackness creeping around her vision made everything but that statuette a void.
Not that. Please! She saw—
The statuette stopped in the air. It came back to her, borne by a gentle breeze amid the storm. Ryoka grabbed at it. How…?
The cold burned her skin. And she realized—the wind had heard her. Her desperation. She looked around, and her eyes cleared.
She felt them still. Like distant lighthouses amid the sea in the sky. Wistram, Fissival, this Circle, countless more. Wrestling with each other, trying to tame the magical typhoon. Grand [Mages] and fools with weather scrolls. And the wind was fighting them.
Fighting—fighting magic, fighting the mortals that tried to control it. No wonder it was so mad. Even Ryoka. You couldn’t demand things, even if you said please.
She thought she said it. Ryoka held onto the figurine. Then she put it away. She stopped trying to force the wind. She trusted to it—
And the gales stopped. The wind that buffeted her, resisting her commands saying, ‘go here, go there, slow me, send me up, send me down’, relaxed.
She had no right to be up here, flying, and expect it to treat her like a mortal who needed not to be sent at the speed the wind always travelled. She did not know these winds, which blew at speeds unseen faster than anything else.
She was the breeze of the ground. So—if you would kindly forgive my mistake—
The wind was a capricious, gracious host. Its fury relented. And like that—the typhoon slowed. The magic caught in it evaporated. Ryoka felt the rains stop. The charge in the air dissipated.
Gently—she fell to earth. She thought—
I thought I heard her voice, up there. In between slipping in and out of the world. Perhaps it was all in my mind. Or the truth lies between faith and magic.
My feet are bloody as the ground comes towards me. My body too tired for me to feel it. It doesn’t matter. The run has to be completed.
The delivery. I hold the figurine for a moment. Wondering if she’ll speak to me again.
“I will see you soon.”
Then I touch the ground. I stumble, as I land. The wrecked glider lands around me and I let it lie. I feel like a stranger, rooted to the earth as I stumble forwards.
I don’t know where I am. I could have been blown all the way to the east of Izril. I could be in Drake lands. I could be on Earth.
The grass pricks my feet. Unpleasant, painful. I ignore it, the blood. The bike…
I’m setting it up as they find me. So fast. I turn, raising my hands. Not fair! Not…
A sheep stares at me. It goes ‘bah’. I sit down.
A voice speaks. I look around as the sun edges out more. And I realize—
I’m in a pasture. A gate’s open. And a man, a [Shepherd], is staring at me with wide eyes. I try to speak, and croak.
“Where—where am I?”
The stunned man and his herd of curious sheep surround me. The fellow scratches at his head. Then he looks at me. Clears his throat.
“Six miles outside of House Veltras’ lands, Miss. The Forest of Vail lies ahead. If you go around it—you’ll reach your destination.”
“My…how do you know that?”
I’m afraid, for one second, that I’m being toyed with by some sinister [Sheep Assassin]. But the [Shepherd] just shakes his head.
“All of Izril knows of you, Miss Wind Runner. Hurry. Do you need—”
He reached for a potion, but I’m already on the bike. The end of my journey waits for me. Just a bit longer, Ivolethe.
“They don’t know where the Runner is, milord.”
A voice pierced the boy’s mind. Coming from far away. He heard the sounds of despair in a voice that had never held it for him.
His father’s. Hethon Veltras lay in a bed far too hot. He was…dying. It was not slow, or silent.
He was coughing so hard he couldn’t inhale. A [Healer] was desperately trying to get him to breathe. Sammy—Sammial was worse.
“They have no time. Lord Veltras—”
The [Lord] was turning, trying to do something. But the typhoon had obscured hope once more. Hethon struggled to say it, through his swollen throat. Just for a moment, he’d felt it. The burning that had consumed him—had been relieved.
No one heard him. But Sammy—Hethon’s closed eyes roamed, searching. He tried to tell them, but he was too tired.
The wind was coming. They babbled, and Ullim buried his head in his hands, in despair. He didn’t understand. Hethon closed his eyes. He had heard it, felt it for a second, on his cheek.
The wind was blowing his way. He begged it to come quicker.
At the end of her run, Ryoka Griffin was tired. Just tired.
Glory had come and gone, fleeting.
Tragedy had struck. She would weep more for it later.
She had seen bravery, grand deeds. Endings and continuations and magnificent trickery.
Now—she was exhausted. Let it be over. For better or worse, give her rest.
Surely they felt the same, her hunters. On either side—let us make an end to this.
But the trick to the run was that you didn’t get to quit when you felt like it. A mile cared nothing for how you felt. You ran the mile, and then the next.
She left the glorious, magical bike behind, stumbling on. Something had damaged it; it had grown harder to pedal. Then, perhaps from the landing, all the fighting—
The chain had snapped. Ironically, she had no replacement. No magically forged links easy-at-hand, and no way to repair the enchanted metal.
She would have gone back, taken the few seconds to put it in her bag of holding. But she had no more time. Not a single second, anymore.
Her fate had led her across Izril, defying death with help and luck. Perhaps as some vengeance, it had led them here. A bit of fairness the other way.
Three [Assassins] followed her. One was a [Trapmaster], withdrawing an enchanted crossbow. The second, a [Blademaster]. The last, an [Alchemist] with one arm who had caught up after escaping the [Knights].
They had no idea where the others were. Luck had seen them spot the distant figure, landing. It didn’t matter. The world could be nothing more than this road, with the Runner on it. With no more contracts, no Guild, no future. And they would still hunt her down for bringing their Guild to ruin.
For pride of the job. All they had in this world.
The Wind Runner looked back one last time. Ferin fired the crossbow. The first bolt went wide; he was no [Marksman]. It hit the dirt a dozen feet to her left. He reloaded as he ran after her. The quarry was exhausted.
But too close. Far too close to her destination.
No more speeches. This was the end of the run.
It ended with the most fitting of things. A footrace to the finish line. A delivery. [Assassins]. A Runner.
And a Courier.
Salamani the Mage Runner stopped as he saw the three ahead of him. He was panting, at the end of his own endurance.
He had run from Invrisil to this point. A Courier’s speed. Ryoka and her friends had run fast—but they had been dogged the entire way by the Guild. He had clashed with them twice.
The Courier drew his wand. The Faces turned, sensing him behind them. The Courier fell into step. He had been searching so hard for Ryoka.
Not just for her cure. He could have broken past them, perhaps, grabbed the cure—and she surely would have given it to him—and finished the run.
But then she would die. A harder package to deliver safely. The hardest delivery he had run yet.
Just a minute. That was all he needed. Salamani saluted the distant City Runner. Then the Courier looked around.
Someone else was coming their way. A figure. No—two.
The Moonlight Rider stopped next to Salamani. He was panting.
“How they hell are you here?”
“How are you two…?”
“We were doing the delivery from the port. You were at Invrisil.”
“I ran. She’s not exactly faster than we are.”
Tritel shook his head. He drew a crossbow slowly.
“Three of ‘em. They’re not the ones we got past, are they?”
“No. You can always ride away, Tritel.”
“I have a booth with my name on it. I don’t think I’ll get to use it if…and besides. What kind of Courier lets a City Runner do their run for them?”
Ci snorted. Salamani looked at Tritel.
“You softhearted liar.”
“Shut up, Salamani. Besides—if you think I’m the stupid one, you’re not going to believe what’s going to happen next.”
The Mage Runner looked around.
“No way. He wouldn’t ever—”
A pair of bunny ears. A third Courier slowed. Salamani stared at Hawk. It was impossible. Hawk the Hare? Hawk the Coward?
The Courier’s eyes were still red. Coward indeed, the Drake had named him. Coward, too afraid to do the right thing.
Heartbreak was a terrible curse. It made fools out of everyone.
The Courier walked past them.
Ferin looked back, then ahead at Ryoka. Why now? Why…
Justice for the first run they’d done. The Couriers said nothing more. They moved forwards. So before, now.
The [Assassins] turned towards them.
“Bastards. Kill them. We’re the Guild. They’re—”
Couriers. The Moonlight Rider urged his mare into a gallop. His crossbow sang at the same time as Ferin’s. The Mage Runner of Wistram drew his magic out of the sky, arrows of light.
Hawk the Hare of Liscor ran forwards. He attacked Mire with a shout.
Ryoka Griffin looked back and saw the battle. Tritel was riding, firing his crossbow and slashing with a sword. Salamani was fighting the [Alchemist] as Hawk dodged the [Blademaster].
But they were buying her—she pumped her legs. Her head rose. Her body moved, and Ryoka ignored whatever was telling her she had to stop.
Behind her, the Couriers fell back. No easy Ranks falling to their Skills. Hawk blurred around the [Blademaster]. He kicked and the man cried out, his sword wavering.
Salamani shot one at near point-blank range. Somehow, the [Blademaster] cut it in half. Mire knocked him a dozen feet onto the ground. Stunned—he saw Hawk deal the [Alchemist] a blow that sent her sprawling. The [Blademaster] stabbed Hawk in the back. The Courier screamed once.
Before the [Blademaster] could twist the blade and take the Beastkin’s life, Tritel abandoned his duel with the [Trapmaster].
She leapt. Up, upwards. The Moonlight Rider abandoned sword. He drew his crossbow, aimed straight down.
Thunk. The [Blademaster] fell. Mire stared at the bolt protruding from the peerless swordsman’s right eye socket. Her nerve broke. She ran.
Tritel landed. The [Blademaster], who had never given Ferin his name, who had been just a class—staggered. He had let go of his sword. He drew a dagger—threw it.
It was the act of a [Warrior] who refused to die even when dealt a death-blow. Hawk lay on the ground, bleeding. Salamani screamed as the dagger went through his shoulder and nailed him to the earth. He struggled to get up, but the blade was burning him, setting his robes alight.
The Moonlight Rider turned as the [Blademaster] collapsed at last, his last effort gone. He looked around.
Snap. The wires clashed together. Salamani saw them go through Tritel and Ci. He made a sound.
The [Trapmaster]. Ferin was running after Ryoka, abandoning his wires, his comrades, dead and fleeing. He had a crossbow in hand. He never even looked back.
Tritel and Ci. The Moonlight Rider actually stayed…together…for a heartbeat. Blood—his body had been severed in countless places, in countless ways. So had Ci.
A period of space shorter than a second in time. A moment. As immortal as the death coming for both of them. Tritel, short, stocky, a [Hostler] who had become a Courier, looked down at his mare, his friend.
Ci, the Moonlight Horse. Sinking. As perfect as he was not. The Moonlight Rider—spoke. One last Skill.
“[One Dies Before The Other]. I’m sorry, Ci.”
Salamani, trying to rise, heard the Courier’s voice. He looked up.
Blood on the ground. Someone rose on shaky legs.
Ci. The horse snorted, amazed. Then looked around for her friend. He was lying there. A smile on his face. The kind of Skill you saved for the end.
So she ran. And they both had that thought.
They might have been friends. For a moment, they had liked each other. Now? They hated each other more than anything else.
Ryoka did not. Ferin took aim. This time, he did not miss.
The first bolt went through her shoulder and out the other side. She stumbled, but kept going. The armor-piercing bolt was too powerful. Ryoka’s body didn’t even slow it. Cursing, the [Trapmaster] reloaded.
She was running faster than she ever had. Without magic. Without the wind. But still faster, her form perfect. But she was just Human.
He shot her through the lower back, just missing the spine. This time she fell. But she got back up.
As if there were any point for either of them? He reloaded. Fired again.
Artery. Her leg was pinned. She kept moving.
Even if I crawl. The [Assassin] reached for the final bolt. He aimed at her from afar. Then, he adjusted his aim.
Fired. The bolt flew through the air, a deadly missile. But of course—the [Lord] knocked it out of the air.
How far were they from their destination? It didn’t matter anymore. The Couriers, the wind—
Salamani the [Mage] Runner had finished his delivery first. And it was just words. Coordinates.
Lord Tyrion Veltras rode towards the [Assassin]. Ryoka Griffin didn’t even see him. She was crawling, thinking the last bolt was coming for her.
Ferin could have shot her. But for a moment, he’d been flawed. An imperfect weapon.
He’d wanted to live. What a blunder.
He had left his wires behind. The [Assassin] drew a long dagger, slowly. The lance—he called out as the [Lord] rode at him.
The Banner of House Veltras flew in the winds. Jericha held it aloft as she surged behind Lord Tyrion. Behind her lay chaos and bloodshed. But only on one side.
“The House of Veltras has mobilized its army. They’ve killed every agent around the manor! All of them in a hundred miles!”
The Circle of Thorns listened. They felt the winds shift.
Ullim stood with a sword bared, over the two young [Lords]. He looked towards the window, watchful.
“Hurry, my lord.”
Ryoka Griffin was trying to run. Then crawl. She didn’t stop. She pulled herself forwards—until she met a foot.
A metal boot, rather. Since it was an aberration, she stopped.
“Take—take it to House Veltras. Lord Tyrion.”
She mumbled. Someone knelt.
“I am Lord Tyrion Veltras.”
Ryoka tried to raise her head. She saw the outline of a stern face. Felt cold liquid on her back, amid the void of emptiness. She feared…the man’s face changed.
“Delivery. Delivery for Lord Veltras. Do you have a seal?”
The Wind Runner giggled. The [Lord] knelt. Beyond him, a figure wrapped in dark clothing waited. An army was coming down the road. But for a moment, he spoke and listened.
“What is your name, Courier?”
“Just Runner. City Runner.”
“Then—what is it?”
He knew. But she gasped it anyways.
The [Lord] nodded. He looked down at her. The wound refusing to quite heal despite the magical liquid. He spoke, slowly, memorizing her face.
“I will remember it forever. Do you have it?”
It was covered in her blood. The vial shook as she tried to lift it.
“Here. A spoonful…”
“[Healer]! Lord Veltras, she’s lost too much blood—surround the killer!”
Jericha leapt from her saddle with a second healing potion. Tyrion held up a hand.
“I will deal with that one myself. Take the cure, Jericha.”
“Yes, my lord!”
Galloping hooves. Ryoka lay there, relaxing. Was it done? Yet, the [Lord] remained a moment.
“Ryoka Griffin. Why did you take the cure to me against all these odds? For money? Fame?”
He sounded…baffled. Curious. Ryoka tried to speak. It was all…hazy.
“I need you to come to…help me. Party…”
It was really hard to explain. Tyrion’s face shifted. Grew more distant.
“Of course. Whatever it is…”
He began to rise. Ryoka murmured into the dust as people surrounded her.
The Lord of House Veltras paused. He leaned back down. Ryoka spoke that singular truth about her. Maddening. Yet—her.
“—It was the right thing to do. Please. Take it. Save them.”
Tyrion looked at her. Then he knelt and bowed his head. He took her hand a moment.
“…Thank you. I will repay this debt.”
He rose as Ryoka Griffin closed her eyes and sighed.
It was done.
The last Face of the Guild stood with arms spread. His white hair, a mark of pride, ruffled in the wind. The [Lord] had stopped to see to the Runner lying on the ground.
His soldiers waited behind him, cutting off the [Assassin]’s escape. But he had not tried to. There would be no point. Not with the [Lord] standing in front of him.
Lord Tyrion Veltras did not mount his horse. He slowly drew his sword as the limp City Runner was taken away. Or perhaps only her body?
It mattered not. The old [Assassin] called out, as the [Lord] advanced, slowly.
“I—am Ferin the Threadbearer. [Assassin] of Izril! A Face of the Guild of Assassins!”
He met the [Lord] with the lone dagger in hand. Tyrion Veltras walked forwards, lifting sword and shield. Too late, the [Assassin] realized. It was not a mark of respect. The [Lord] walked forwards.
“I have no intention of remembering your name.”
He swung his sword once. Someone handed him a bit of cloth and he tossed it down. When he turned, a nameless body lay on the ground. Blood soaking a book until the ink and parchment were useless.
It took them longer to know what happened. And when it did—it was just Drassi. She stood there, as the connection cleared.
“The run is over. The Wind Runner of Reizmelt has delivered the cure to House Veltras. The Circle of Thorns and Guild of Assassins have been declared the enemy of the Five Families and all of Izril. North and south. The Moonlight Rider, Tritel, is dead. His horse, Ci, has survived. At the end of it…three Couriers stood against the Guild of Assassins to allow the Wind Runner to reach her destination. Salamani the Mage Runner, Tritel the Moonlight Rider, and Hawk the Hare.”
Selys stared at Drassi’s face. The Drake went on, soberly.
“Salamani and Hawk are alive. But injured. As for Miss Ryoka—we do not know. House Veltras reports she is in a [Healer]’s care, but she lost an…an egregious amount of blood. She has not woken up. Many people’s fates are unknown. Maviola El. Saliss of Lights…there are confirmed deaths from the fighting. The Harbormistress of First Landing, Gresaria Wellfar. The [Lord] and sole heir of House Everight, Lord Toldos…”
On the cast went. No more action. Just Drassi, listing names. The cost.
Erin sat there. How many of her friends had fallen? Ryoka? Mrsha was crying and being hugged. The others were murmuring as they finally counted the costs.
But the delivery was done. And—not all of them had fallen. Not all. Born of the wind that had rushed from Invrisil to House Veltras were deaths, tragedy, brave acts. They died and some continued.
Ser Kerrig raised his head as he stood over Dame Truvia. The [Knights] of Izril had borne a bloody cost from this one battle.
“There should have been ten times our number. A hundred.”
He spoke to a silent [Knight] of the Clairei Fields, the only one to survive of her Order. The woman nodded silently.
There would be. Knight-Commander Calirn looked at Izril, at the brave souls. For the first time, he removed the tome in his Order’s hallowed library. To consult their laws on the establishing of a new branch, a new headquarters of his order. Or perhaps—another?
“She replaced me. Bethal. Pryde. All of them moved for her. She left a trail of blood to do it.”
“Not what you would have done?”
Magnolia Reinhart shook her head.
“I would have let one man suffer. Two children die if it came to that. The Flowers of Izril—at least two dozen lie dead. The Guild is in ruins. And the Circle…”
She turned away.
“Perhaps I lacked her courage for such things. I…”
She trailed off. What else could be said? She disagreed. She disagreed with Erin. But she had left. So she turned back.
“I cede it to Erin Solstice and Ryoka Griffin. Let us go to Oteslia, Ressa.”
She looked at a stranger, who sat there in the mirror. A girl with a white flag—Magnolia had never been that. But the person upon whom Izril had once turned? Magnolia Reinhart looked away.
Life. Damned life. Flourishing like a weed, despite the vines and shadows trying to choke it. To what end? Why, when so many had died and they had tried to be the ones to pay the price that had to be paid?
Why, fate? She stood amid the ashes, howling upwards at the sky. A burned landscape of ash around her.
“Not here? Not yet? Where am I supposed to die?”
The [Lady] wept. For her friend. For uncertainty and the future. For power—how was she supposed to spend it, if not here? Was there a plan?
Rain fell in other places. Born up by completely natural cycles. Evaporating, condensing, emitting drops from the heavens. Not made of magic; no more tampering with the heavens today.
The river had been diverted by the massive explosion that had consumed the area. Already—a lake was forming. A trench, carved of the forces wrought here.
It had changed the world in no small way. In later days, they would go on to call it ‘Saliss’ Wake’. After the Named Adventurer who had created it.
A Drake’s touch in Human lands. But for now, the waters rushed into the gap in the ground as most of the alchemical elements dispersed—or, troublingly—sunk to the bottom of the new body of water. Then moved on, streaming downriver.
The rain fell. Drizzling, rather than pouring. It carried debris, bodies downriver, another hazard. Casualty of war.
A body floated in the water. After a while, it spat out some of the water. Saliss of Lights floated downstream.
“…Water is wet.”
He made no effort to swim. Just floated downriver until someone found him. He felt sort of relaxed after all that.
Some lived, some died. But the run of it, ah. Mihaela Godfrey was short of breath. She had dragged herself out of her bed, despite her broken legs. The Runner’s Guild of First Landing had reclaimed a fraction of its pride in the fight for the city.
…But the Couriers at the end had done almost all of it. Still, she looked at the Couriers and Runners in her Guild. Her voice rasped.
“You all saw it. You saw them. Her. No City Runner could have made that run. Not even a Courier alone. And no City Runner made that run. Did she?”
The Couriers answered her. Mihaela nodded. You poor girl. Too much like Valceif for your own good. But it was done.
Courier was just a word. It was an artificial ranking. It had meant more and less in other times. Just call them ‘Runner’. It could be a word, like Todi opined, for a profession. Or it could mean bravery, selflessness, something more than a job description.
A City Runner could do what a Courier could not. Deliver Izril’s pride unto itself. Yes, a City Runner, unseen, but brave and swift…
She jogged towards the distant manor. Hero? Well, if you wanted to call her that. The City Runner moved swiftly, confident, but watchful.
She could have arrived two hours earlier, but she’d stopped for a nap and to make herself properly presentable. Change of clothes, a wash, some subtle makeup…
It had rained like hell so she’d gotten out of that. No sense risking your neck to being impaled by a branch. The City Runner was tired, but triumphant. She had done it.
She hadn’t been near a scrying orb or civilization for the last two days since beginning her run. Even so, she’d dodged two [Assassins], had to actually fight to escape one. And a monster!
Still, it was wise to be humble. Legends grew in the retelling. The truth was she’d done her run properly.
In secret. After all, what kind of fool would have done an open run, especially with how much time it would take? She had made it fast, and the cure was secure in her bag of holding.
Persua knew this last stretch would be the most deadly. She…paused as she saw House Veltras was surrounded by an army of [Soldiers].
What was happening? Perhaps Lord Tyrion’s patience had snapped. Urgently, she ran for the keep—
“Halt! What is your business with House Veltras?”
Five squads converged on her. Persua threw up her arms, but with confidence as she halted.
“Let me through! And please—guard me to the keep! I have the cure for Lord Tyrion!”
The [Soldiers] stared at her. Persua reached for the vial, a dagger in her other hand. She waited for the Guild to make its attempt. But she’d fight through! She—
She looked at their incredulous faces. Which was…what you expected. Incredulity at the bravery of…but something was wrong. Persua faltered.
“The—the cure? I have it? Hello?”
Events both insignificant and important. Too many to count. Fallout.
Erin Solstice sat in her inn at the end of it. No, not the end. She spoke to Mrsha, softly.
“She’ll be okay.”
Mrsha looked up at the [Innkeeper]. She hadn’t stopped crying. But Erin did what the others couldn’t. She clarified her words.
“Maybe not fine. But Ryoka won’t die. She’s too Ryoka for that. You know her.”
The Gnoll child hesitated. Something about that reassured her. Or gave her enough to stop crying. Erin Solstice rose, patting Mrsha.
“You need to sleep.”
Mrsha protested, but Lyonette gathered her into her arms. Erin herself yawned. She had not really rested. And oh, but it was over. Yet there would be more after this. There always was.
The Wandering Inn. The Wind Runner. Maviola El. Saliss of Lights.
Burn them into your memory.
“They won’t forget what you did here.”
For a moment, Erin thought it was Maviola speaking. But it was Olesm. The [Strategist] looked at her. He was waiting for news of Maviola. So was Erin. He feared the worst. To distract himself, he looked at Erin.
“You need to take precautions. No one will forget…this.”
He waved at the scrying mirror, recapping events again and again, getting perspectives. Like Menolit, speaking to Noass on the streets of Liscor.
I was there. I fought! Erin smiled briefly. Newsworthy. She looked back at Olesm and smiled a bit. Not with happiness. But resolve.
“That’s fine. Because I’ll do it again. Again, and again. Only next time—I’ll do it better. I’ll build a bigger inn. Find more people. Get stronger. Make sure no one has to die next time.”
He nodded slowly. Olesm looked at Erin, as so many tended to do now and then. Now and then.
“No one could have done that alone. Not Saliss, or Maviola, or Ryoka or…”
He gestured at her. Erin sighed. Why did everyone give her so much credit?
“And I didn’t do all of it. Not by a long shot! Who were those [Witches]? I didn’t ask the Couriers—The Wandering Inn isn’t capable of making miracles.”
He clearly didn’t agree with that. Erin paused. The [Innkeeper] went on, after a moment.
“…Alone. What I mean is…that wasn’t my run. I wasn’t Ryoka. But here—”
She looked around. At her guests, towards the future, and then back at Olesm. The [Innkeeper] pointed down at her feet.
“Here. The adventure begins here.”
Author’s Note: I think that’ll do. More to come. More events after this one. But here we are.
Longer than I thought. 5-8,000 words longer, honestly. I thought there wasn’t much more to write. But drama…
Well, I hope it was satisfactory. Not happy, since that’s not exactly what I was going for. But complete. Fulfilling even if you’re upset.
Thus…might end the long chapters. For now. You can see why I put so much into them. And perhaps I can rest myself. I’m tired.
This is not the end of Volume 7. Not yet. But…we’ll see. Thanks for reading.
The art for this chapter is going to be nostalgic. The Necromancer and a certain trio on patrol by Anna! Also, Ryoka Griffin by Juliette Taka. Finally, and perhaps inappropriately? The Horns of Hammerad by Seenkay for their critical part in the chapter! Give them all lots of love!
On Patrol and the [Necromancer] by Anna Stearnling!
Ryoka by Juliette Taka!
The Horns of Hammerad by Seenkay!