Wall Lord Ilvriss collapsed during a routine inspection of Mining Shaft #4 currently in the possession of the Gemscale family of Salazsar.
It was, to all present, sudden. One second he was upright, frowning over the adamantine ore recently discovered in this valuable seam. He put a claw to his head, as if with a sudden migraine and then just folded up.
One of the Gnoll [Foremen] caught him before he fell over. The next second there was chaos. Half the people present went running for a [Healer] or grabbed emergency potions—tried to drag Ilvriss to a safe place.
Within minutes, there was a crowd as all work halted. And rumor shot through the city faster than someone could run. People were saying that there was gas in the mining shaft—or that Ilvriss had been poisoned.
Shriekblade, the Named Adventurer currently employed by Ilvriss, didn’t make things any better. She materialized as if springing from a shadow, and drew her enchanted daggers on the Gnoll trying to check for Ilvriss’ pulse.
Until a [Healer] arrived from the Gemscale family and another new adjutant, Captain Shieldscale formerly of Pallass, no one could so much as touch Ilvriss. Shriekblade refused to let even a potion touch him.
Wall Lord Ilvriss came around barely ten minutes later to the huge commotion. The [Healer] didn’t detect either poison or malign magic, but she administered a healing-stamina tonic and he was back on his feet within a minute despite the offers to bear him by litter to the Gemscale family tower.
“I will accept a palanquin when I’ve lost a leg, Foreman Graer, thank you.”
The Wall Lord’s words, and the incident, were all the talk in Salazsar for the rest of the day. Ilvriss himself arrived at the most reputable [Healer] in Salazsar within thirty minutes, taking the time to reassure people he was well and walk at a measured pace.
It didn’t end there, of course.
It never did.
“Extreme stress and fatigue. When did you last get a full night’s sleep, Wall Lord?”
The [Renowned Tincturist], Merla Topaz, removed her Spectacles of Identification and put them securely in the padded case. She took a seat as the Wall Lord sat up.
“You must be joking, Healer Merla.”
She frowned at him as she went around her cabinets, removing a little paper envelope and slipping some bright, transparent purple pills into it.
“I never do when it comes to medicine, Wall Lord. Stress. Fatigue. I’ve seen it before. Your father never had it, but your grandfather did and countless Wall Lords and Ladies have suffered from the same. Stress, overwork—I wouldn’t have expected you to come down with it. Normally it manifests when a company is failing. And it’s rarer among younger males of any species, but I am not wrong.”
The purple-scaled Drake took a minute to sit there and process it. He couldn’t believe it. Stress? Of all the things…
It was both ignoble and embarrassing. He didn’t even remember fainting, just feeling weak for a moment and then—
“You’re quite sure?”
“Absolutely, Wall Lord.”
“It’s not poison gas? Lack of oxygen? It gets harder to breathe sometimes in the mining shafts…”
The old Drake, who had greying scales but a remarkably healthy body for her age of 80+, sighed. She could have passed for someone twenty years younger, a product of Skills, no doubt.
“If you’d like me to say so, Wall Lord, I will. This is of course confidential, but the city does like to gossip…”
“…No. No, Healer Merla. Thank you for the consideration, but no.”
Wall Lord Ilvriss had to struggle for a second before saying that. He was tempted to say ‘yes’, but understood in a moment that trying to cover the real reason for his fainting was a pointless endeavor that would probably backfire in time.
Stress. He stared at himself in the large mirror, which was an antique artifact used to diagnose patients. Merla had used Spectacles of Identification for bad spells, her own Skills and knowledge, and a Mirror of Wellness to confirm.
The Mirror showed Ilvriss as he was, but also a faint fugue about him, dark, like fog. If he had been sick or poisoned, it would have marked parts of him beset by his ailments.
It was a wonderful relic for a [Healer] of her level and reputation. Ilvriss wondered if it could show whether you were alive or not. Then again—a good spy would never let themselves be taken to a [Healer] of Merla’s standing.
Unless she was undead. But that was another Waisrabbit hole you could get stuck down—especially since the damned animals tended to collapse their burrows such that only a teleporting creature could ‘hop’ from section to section.
“…What, Healer Merla?”
“How long since you had a good night’s sleep, Wall Lord?”
The Drake woman repeated herself patiently. Ilvriss frowned.
“I slept every day this week.”
“For how long?”
“…S—F—Three hours last night. But I took breaks throughout the day.”
He admitted reluctantly. Merla raised an eyebrow.
“And the rest of the week? Similar? You know stamina potions do not replace sleep, Wall Lord? And unless you were sleeping under the effects of a Skill, that seems too low, even for [Twofold Rest].”
Ilvriss rubbed at his face. He had not been using Skills. It sounded bad when you said it outright, too. Glumly, he looked at the other Drake, with her faded rose-grey scales.
“I suppose the only cure is…?”
“Rest, of course. Here are pills for two weeks. Take them—sleep at least eight hours each night. They should keep you down and out.”
He accepted the envelope and sighed.
“I will, Healer. It’s just that…”
She pointedly folded her arms and Ilvriss hesitated. Of course, he was a Wall Lord, one of the richest families in Salazsar and the ruling class, since Salazsar was made up of only the Walled Families and had no higher power.
And Merla, despite being a [Healer], was a citizen. However, she had also tended to his family since he was a squalling Drake baby and you did not simply talk back to her.
“We all must rest, Wall Lord. I can’t do more than give you pills—although that will keep you rested—but there are ways to relieve stress or anxiety besides Calming Tonics…I can make up a list if you’d like.”
She waited. Ilvriss shook his head after a moment and forced a smile.
“That won’t be necessary, Healer. I know the root of my—weakness. I will deal with it and get proper rest, thank you.”
She saw him off. No one spoke of payment; she’d bill his family.
There was a crowd outside, but Captain Shieldscale, or Osthia Blackwing as he knew her, had a carriage drawn.
“To your tower, Wall Lord?”
“Yes, Captain. Thank you.”
He nodded at her; the bright blue-scaled Drake was more than capable after a few months in Salazsar. He noted a shadow detach herself from the clinic.
Shriekblade. The observers drew back slightly as the blank-faced Named Adventurer walked forwards.
They were an odd comparison. Wall Lord Ilvriss was a handsome Drake, one of the most eligible bachelors in the city, even if he’d never really been a target for seduction of late, but still, tall, lean, and thought of as an example for the modern Drake to emulate. His corporation of the Gemscale family was flourishing, he could and had led armies, and was thus good at both economy and war, the two things Salazsar prized.
He had royal purple scales crossed with dark red, and while not being Oldblood, was fairly ideal in most ways.
On the other claw? Shriekblade was shorter, and had more scars than you could count on the visible parts of her body. She was a Named Adventurer and thus famous—but she herself was infamous for being uncontrollable, completely mercenary, willing to switch employers for better pay, and essentially being a walking weapon you pointed at monsters or your enemies.
“Tessa. Is that you?”
Healer Merla stopped in the doorway of her clinic. Shriekblade paused a moment in climbing into the carriage.
“Hello, Healer Merla. I am Tessa.”
Her voice was inflectionless. So much so it made some of the Drakes and Gnolls watching shudder. But Merla just looked concerned.
“You’ve taken too many potions again. When did you last come in for a checkup?”
“Five months ago.”
“Why don’t you stop by tonight?”
“I am employed.”
“Shriek—Adventurer Tessa. I believe Healer Merla should do a routine checkup. I will send her by tonight, Healer.”
“Thank you, Wall Lord.”
Shriekblade didn’t react as she climbed into the carriage. Ilvriss sat as Captain Shieldscale ordered the driver to get the carriage moving. They’d have to climb the tower on foot, but this separated them from the gossip and crowd for a moment.
He sat, Shriekblade sitting across from him, and felt the prickle on his scales even now. Here was danger. Danger under his employ, but still—Shriekblade was a superlative blade expert. He had seen her fight.
“You know Healer Merla and make use of her services, Adventurer Tessa?”
She nodded, once, looking at him then scanning the area for threats, even in the carriage. Shieldscale was riding with the driver.
“She has attempted to treat me. I do not go to her anymore. She cannot help me.”
The female Drake did not respond further. Ilvriss sat back.
He was aware Shriekblade—or Tessa, her infrequently used actual name—was not…well. Well, it was obvious. When she was not stone-faced and impassive, obeying orders with perfect detachment and disinterest, she was moody, dangerous, and nigh-uncontrollable. Her contract actually stipulated Ilvriss provide or pay for numerous Calming Tonics, Draughts of Serenity, Scrolls of Blank Mind, and so on.
But she then took too many and became…this. Well, Ilvriss preferred that to the female Drake who might stab her employer as she had done on six occasions, but neither was ideal.
He cleared his throat for a topic of conversation.
“Your remuneration, Shriekblade…”
“Your pay. I assume it will go straight to the Healer of Tenbault?”
Shriekblade considered this and nodded.
“Yes. I will go to her soon. When I have enough money. She will make me…better.”
A note of some actual emotion flickered in her voice at this. Longing. Ilvriss nodded.
It was all public knowledge to anyone who would ever hire her. Shriekblade charged extortionate fees, but she was afraid of nothing. And when she had saved up a small fortune, she visited the Healer of Tenbault, in the north.
“The…Healer. She seems to cure what ails you, Adventurer. But not permanently.”
“No. But she makes me all better.”
“May I ask how long this treatment lasts?”
Shriekblade looked past him, uncomfortable for once. Ilvriss nodded. Something the Healer could do fixed Shriekblade, but not permanently.
Well, it was not his business so he rode in silence, letting himself think of his collapse. An embarrassment. Shriekblade was content with the silence. He was paying her fees.
If Ilvriss had one talent in this world, it was not his acumen with a blade. Shriekblade could be said to have a ‘talent with the blade’, and if she was talented, everyone else was a clod playing with magical sticks.
Similarly, Ilvriss was not a strategic genius, an inspiring [General], nor political master, which all ran together sometimes. He could do all of these things, but it wasn’t where he stood out above all others.
If he had one talent, it was making money. His power was the ability to fork over more gold than you could make in a lifetime. And to be fair, that was a pretty great power.
Except if you were fighting the Necromancer of Izril in secret. Except if you remembered that gold, money, is an indirect way of applying influence. Power is the knife in your claws.
In that sense, Shriekblade was entirely more powerful than Ilvriss. Take away her armor and gear, and she was still deadly. He couldn’t even carry all his gold around, not even with the best bags of holding.
It had never really bothered him before. Money paid for lessons, armies, bodyguards, artifacts! However, he was keenly aware of it now, where every passing person might be the Necromancer’s agents.
Where…he closed his eyes and his head rested against the back of the carriage. He was tired. He hadn’t realized it until he’d passed out.
It wasn’t as if the world had imploded. It had already done that. It was just…he’d forgotten, that was all.
He had met Zel Shivertail, hated the Drake, thought all the rumors about him were true. A disgrace of a former war hero. Then he had learned to respect both the Tidebreaker’s personal battle prowess and him as a person.
Then he had died. And like him—Ilvriss had made the same mistake twice.
He had thought, believed in the myth of Erin Solstice. And there was something to believe. But neither she nor Zel were immortal.
They died. Good people he counted on died, and it felt like Ilvriss’ personal tower, like the many rising, vast skyscrapers of the mountain-city, the Walled City of Salazsar—it felt like each time they died, another support was lost.
Wall Lady Navine Gemscale, younger sister of Ilvriss, found herself in rare company as she paced in the Gemscale family residence at the top of their tower.
That was to say, she stood with both Zail and Helessia, her father and mother, present. They rarely met.
Both were old. And both were—assisted. Although it was interesting to see in which way they chose to rely on help.
Zail had hired help, loyal Gemscale Drakes who helped him when he was lost, guarded him—until he escaped them. Also, artifacts.
He stood tall, but wounds and age had worn at him. There was a huge scar on his chest that his clothes only partly hid. On his head, more noticeable, an indentation practically devoid of scales. A place where he had been struck in battle that had never quite healed.
Helessia on the other hand was physically unmarked—save by sickness that kept her bedridden. Her bed actually floated, and it had been escorted here. Similarly, she had her own attendants, mostly who helped administer medicines.
Time had driven the couple apart, and there was a definite split in the Gemscale family. There had been for a long time.
Navine controlled her own company, less successful than the main Gemscale holdings, but profitable. Liberal, just as her policies were, or so her detractors claimed. She and Helessia were in a pro-Human movement—which was to say they opposed continual war with Humans. That was pro-Human sentiments among the Drakes, as extreme as you got.
Zail on the other hand was a traditionalist who believed in the power of Salazsar. And until recently, Ilvriss had been a loyal follower of his father’s ideals.
Well…he still probably was. Navine did not get along with Ilvriss, even if he was less grating than before. His sojourn abroad had changed him more than any of his other military expeditions or trips.
She was here, though. Because they were family despite it all and Drakes stuck together. She lashed her tail as her two parents made small talk.
“Poison in the mines. It must be. Good Wall Lords have died to that before. He shouldn’t go in person. No need.”
Zail was talking, having repeated himself twice in the last twenty minutes. Helessia sighed.
“The mines should be safe, Zail. I wonder what it is. Captain Shieldscale said he is on his way.”
“His new assistant, Zail. He’s introduced you before.”
A moment of confusion—then guilt—crossed Zail’s face.
“Of course I recall her.”
Navine wondered if Ilvriss was bedding this new Drake. It fit his old ways; she knew about his relationship with the late Periss, his second-in-command. But she somehow doubted it. Shieldscale and Ilvriss were too…familiar, if that made sense. Familiar, and yet not intimate.
Another mystery of why he’d bother scouting a Pallassian [Captain] anyways. She wasn’t high-level, just decent.
Besides which, Navine had thought she’d known why Ilvriss had changed. It came down to Liscor. And the reason for his collapse? The same.
Humans. It was always Humans, one way or the other. Even so—Navine wouldn’t have believed it. But it fit. And as Ilvriss strode into the apartments and stopped as he saw his entire immediate family present, she solidified that hint in her mind.
Helessia looked appalled. Zail, horrified. To him, there could be nothing more embarrassing than being brought low by something as weak as stress.
“It was a bad display, father, mother. I will make another inspection, tour the mines and thank them for their help.”
“Tomorrow. You must rest if stress has eaten you up.”
Helessia insisted. Ilvriss nodded. Zail peered at Ilvriss.
“Lack of sleep did this?”
“A week or two of it, father. I—recalled that I’d barely slept more than three or four hours the entire week.”
Helessia made a dismayed sound. Zail blinked a few times.
“You were never insomniac. Is it—”
He caught himself. Navine nodded and poured some wine for herself.
Ancestors. She hadn’t believed it. But he really had fallen for a female Human in Liscor. Given her his ring and everything! He kept claiming it was a gesture of respect, not romantic bonds, but everyone knew the modern customs.
And more—she knew the Human was dead. She even knew her name, now.
Erin Solstice. An [Innkeeper]. Ilvriss kept talking to his family, glancing at her, but she only told him she’d been concerned. He thanked her, stiffly. And they went on with their lives.
It was not as if Erin Solstice alone had laid the Wall Lord low. Indeed, weeks had passed since the news of her death. A Summer Solstice that had brought tragedy even to Salazsar…
A hundred and twelve miscarriages. People were wearing white armbands, still. Salazsar had joined the Drakes of Izril in sending more aid, more reinforcements to Rhir. And more to come. But they were debating that.
Ilvriss had been working, before and after the news came. And it had not been him throwing himself into his work either that did it.
But he was burning his candle at all ends, including the middle. He worked for almost all of his day when not exercising, eating, or, increasingly seldom, sleeping.
He worked in his company with Alrric, his Gnoll [Administrator], making sure they were making a profit. Then he visited his secret task force authorized by Salazsar, training new [Soldiers], equipping them in secret.
And then—unbeknownst to all, he would join Osthia Blackwing in poring over records, details, trying to track suspicious payments, links to Regrika Blackpaw or a certain location—looking into mysterious absences or strange breaks in other important Drakes’ past lives over the last two decades—or more!
Some time in between all of this, and his frequent conversations with his father, Zail, or entertaining his closest friends, Ilvriss would find time to fit in sword practice, or do research into other cities’ battle tactics. Historical records and stories about wars with undead of old.
He had done this since he had come back. Work, work, and for a change, intense work. And perhaps that had been taking its invisible toll the entire time.
But it seemed more to those that knew Ilvriss that the news of two weeks ago had simply…removed something that had been keeping it all from overwhelming him.
Wall Lord Ilvriss took a purple pill early in the night, after assuring his family he was well, sending word to Alrric to pass out some puffers or a good vintage to the mining crew he’d been with as an apology, reschedule all his appointments, send word to his well-wishers and friends…
He sat in his bed, popped the pill Healer Merla had given into his mouth, put his head back—
And woke up with the sun shining down on his face.
“What did she give me?”
The Wall Lord blinked and struggled out of his bed. He felt…well, a bit more alive, but groggy, as his body began to protest getting more sleep than it was used to.
“Wall Lord? Do you wish breakfast? It’s two hours past your usual time…”
One of the employed Drakes—not servants, Drakes were particular about that—greeted Ilvriss as he strode out of his room in some robes. He rubbed at his face.
“Yes, thank you. I’ll take it in the dining room. And please send Captain Shieldscale to me—tell Master Zelir I will be delayed, with apologies.”
“Of course, Wall Lord.”
He had a speedy breakfast of Solin Chop—a rather fancy take on a classic dish. Wherein you took a tomato, a large one, in this case a Veil Tomato from Noelictus, chewier, more succulent, and hollowed it. You re-filled it with, well, a meat and/or grain mixture. Gave it the obvious spice and toppings, which could be cheese, a gravy in this case, and surrounded it with appetizers.
It was a good meal and Ilvriss sped through it, despite the hard work of the [Chef] his family employed.
Osthia appeared halfway through the meal.
She bowed, although Ilvriss had told her in private to drop the need for formalities. But the staff were hovering; no doubt worried about him. So he greeted her in their coded parlance which was second nature by now.
“Captain Shieldscale. Anything to report today?”
“Nothing of note, sir. Although we were going to speak on Gemscale’s standing forces. If you’d like to delay that…”
“No, I’ll meet you in the evening. Thank you, Captain. I’ll leave you to your duties until then.”
She nodded as Ilvriss sighed. Nothing of note meant she hadn’t uncovered another potential spy by the Necromancer—or identified someone they had to get on the secret task force’s side. She also looked for artifacts, through the histories, just like he did.
“Excellent breakfast. My apologies for the rush, but I must be about my day. I’ll take my lunch while working. Please tell my father I might not have time to meet today.”
“Of course, sir.”
They nodded to him and he left. The Wall Lord strode out of his tower and across the interconnected bridges that crisscrossed the spires of Salazsar.
Built into the mountain. Built out of the mountain, where the Drakes and Gnolls dug and added to the city constantly. Salazsar, founded on the richest gem and mineral seam in the world. And Ilvriss, at the top of the world.
He descended to a lower point as the tower widened. Sky-terraces were common, and each spire contained the upper classes; the bottom of the city was manufacturing, public residences, and so on.
The training court was about eighty feet down, and he took a side staircase to avoid people asking if he was well. No doubt gossip would have him repeating the events and assuring people all week.
Not that the Drake he was going to visit didn’t bring it up.
“Stress, eh? I told you to rest, Ilvriss!”
Master-Trainer Zelir, a high-level [Weapon Trainer], struck at Ilvriss cautiously to test him. Ilvriss parried and riposted.
“You did, Master Zelir. I should have taken your advice. Thank you for waiting.”
“Ah, well. My best student says he wants to improve? What am I to do?”
The Drake was old. Not as old as Merla, but Ilvriss was noting how many pivotal Drakes in his life were old.
The ones who were younger were dead.
His blade faltered and the other Drake flicked his sword through the gap. Ilvriss leaned back, with a curse. The tip caught his practice armor.
“Sloppy. If I was carrying an enchanted blade, you’d be bleeding. And if I was a [Duelist], that would be enchanted with Evercut and poison. So I walk away and…you’re dead.”
Zelir demonstrated, stepping back and spreading his arm and training sword. Ilvriss sighed, and nodded.
“My attention’s lacking.”
“Well, you did collapse. The body can’t just recover in a day. But we train to fight at our worst. So—concentrate!”
Zelir was a mix of encouraging and stern. He had been Ilvriss’ weapon instructor since the Drake was a boy. Zail had hired him and the old mentor had been the one to make Ilvriss a fine duelist.
Among the Drake nobility. But Ilvriss had brought his trusted Coldedge Longsword to a duel with Zel Shivertail and the [General] had taken him to pieces without his elite escort.
Fair was fair—that was a Drake war hero, but Ilvriss recounted the moment to Zelir during a break.
“Did I ever tell you how Zel Shivertail beat me in our battle, Master Zelir?”
The old Drake’s eyes sparked with interest. He wasn’t too old compared to Ilvriss; he had about ten or fifteen years at most, and his Skills kept him fresh.
“Tell me. You kept your guard up, I hope? Wasn’t over in a flash? I’m told he just charges in and has most enemies to rights in seconds. His claws…”
“Yes. He used both, obviously, so it was me keeping him back and trying to score decisive strikes while he blocked and kept closing. He didn’t charge—not after the first encounter. He actually parried a lot of my blows.”
Zelir had always been a fan of Zel Shivertail, not least because they had the same name root. He leaned on his practice sword as Ilvriss demonstrated.
“Well, he knew my sword was leeching his strength with every cut. Frost and Torpor enchantments.”
“Smart. He’s no [Duelist]…was no [Duelist]…how did he take you down, then? It sounds like it was your battle to lose. Yes, he has two claws for one sword, but you have a longsword’s reach and enchantment.”
“That’s what I thought. I touched him about eight times. Guess what he did? He baited me into thinking he was slowing more than I thought. I was wary of course, but then he knocked my blade down. I was ready for him to kick or slash at me. He feinted a kick—then hurled snow into my face with his tail. Next thing I know, he has my sword arm and…well, you can imagine how well I did after that.”
He’d been a training dummy for the next three minutes. He’d refused to let go of his sword, but Zel Shivertail had refused to let go of his arm. Zelir laughed until he caught himself.
“Really? That’s how he got you?”
Ilvriss gave him a wry grin.
“I was furious at the time, as I recall. I refused to surrender. I think I told the Tidebreaker to his face that ‘a [General] does not brawl’.”
“There you are, then. But you’re wiser than you were then. Or you wouldn’t put it like that. And if you did—I’d set you straight.”
Zelir swished his blade. Ilvriss nodded and set himself. They exchanged more blows, pivoting for strikes, and Ilvriss scored a point. He was about matched with Zelir without Skills, but of course, the Drake was more than just his individual ability with the blade.
“Hm. Practice is done. Now, let’s get to actual work.”
The [Weapon Trainer] adjusted his stance. Ilvriss copied him. First the Drake performed a slow strike, then let Ilvriss watch him from the side. The Wall Lord tried to copy the new movement. He moved through the different motions of attack and defense, while Zelir watched, critically.
“You’re progressing through the Llevian school quickly. But you’re going to have to switch and start practicing only in that style soon.”
“How long until then?”
“Mm. One more week. Are you doing those sword cuts…? No, I shouldn’t tell you to do that if you’ve been pushing yourself.”
“I practice at least a hundred times when I can. I won’t slack. Not when it’s my neck on the line.”
Zelir nodded approvingly.
The Llevian school was a sword-style invented by Drakes. It had a completely different approach to combat than, well, the traditionalist methods of attack and defense.
Sword schools, blade arts, were generally Skills one picked up. Deliberately learning and mastering an entire school of fighting wasn’t done. For instance, Zelir hadn’t taught Ilvriss to do that; he’d grounded Ilvriss like he would any basic [Warrior].
It was practicality; the young Wall Lord hadn’t had an entire lifetime to devote to the sword school, which was sometimes what you needed. Why learn to parry this exact way when you could learn to cut, thrust, for whichever method suited the occasion?
Two reasons. The first was that a sword school, a good one, gave you a defense and attack for every occasion. Even so, the polyglot fighting style of most [Warriors] trumped specialization with its strengths and weaknesses.
Except that a master in a particular fighting style would unlock its unique Skills and abilities. Ilvriss focused on the two-handed blade style of the Llevian School, which actually drew from axe-style downward sweeps. You tried to ground your opponent’s blade by parrying in one direction, and capitalize in that moment.
It was an unusual style and Zelir had been surprised when Ilvriss brought out old Gemscale teaching manuals. But he’d been willing to teach Ilvriss the style.
It was one suited for fighting opponents armed with axes, revolving around nimble, graceful strikes. Footwork was as important as parrying.
And it was also good against oversized opponents like undead. Ilvriss didn’t mention that.
“The fact that you wanted to learn an entire school of swordsmanship…did you feel like your training wasn’t good enough? That’s on me, although even I wouldn’t expect my best student to take on the Tidebreaker.”
Zelir commented from the side. Ilvriss grunted as his muscles adjusted, trying to work the new attack pattern into his body and subconscious.
“Not you, Zelir. Rather—I just felt like I was relying on my artifacts too much.”
“That’s fine for a Wall Lord.”
“I want to be better.”
“Hm. Well, I can’t fault that. You’re moving too slowly, even for practice in the Denial of Action. Try again.”
Ilvriss did. This was an old school that Drakes had invented, and as such also taught you how to guard your tail in combat. Also—unpleasantly or practically—it had a number of strikes designed to de-tail your opponent. He’d declined to learn those.
His enemy was Human and used the bodies of all species.
The practice took an hour and Ilvriss was sore afterwards. He refused to use a healing potion though; it erased your hard work. Zelir nodded.
“Same time tomorrow, then? So you can sleep properly.”
“A moment, Master Zelir? I wanted to consult with you.”
The Drake paused. He looked to the door of the outdoor training court, dizzyingly high up—although protected with enchantments. Still…there were no guard rails so you could walk over the edge of the training grounds. The spells would catch you, but Ilvriss had no fear of heights after many sessions sparring on the edge of the training court. A Salazsarian bladesman could fight you on the edge of a cliff.
They sat together, dangling their legs over the edge of the training court. Below them, people were specks or walking on far distant bridges below. Ilvriss smiled.
“You used to make me do this all the time for our talks.”
Zelir had advised a young, sometimes moody or frustrated Ilvriss, growing up. The old trainer grinned.
“Times never change. How can I help you?”
Ilvriss glanced sideways. Now, here was a Drake with better swordsmanship than his. Solid, reliable. He wasn’t the highest-leveled Drake in the city, but he was over Level 30. Yes, he wouldn’t be as large an asset as Shriekblade…but you could trust Zelir.
Why not him? Ilvriss had a list. It was only in his head. But it had Osthia, himself, and tentatively, Shriekblade for things she could do that she wouldn’t ask questions about.
It was time to expand that list. He’d dithered and wavered and tried to be sure but—the Summer Solstice and the events just before that had shown him time was running out.
I should have hired bodyguards. I should have put money into the inn. I could have hired a Gold-rank team to guard the place every hour of the day. Why didn’t I?
“You had a question, Ilvriss?”
Zelir prompted Ilvriss. The Wall Lord looked up.
“I’m…hunting for high-level people, Zelir. In Salazsar. This is confidential to the Walled Families…”
The [Weapon Trainer] gave a serious nod. Ilvriss’ cover was the anti-Antinium task force, and even this was secret to Zelir. Ilvriss briefly explained and the Drake whistled.
“And you need some high-level Drakes to fight…? Well, if you wanted my sword, I’m afraid I’m not the best! Not that I wouldn’t mind having more students.”
He gave Ilvriss a sideways glance. The Wall Lord smiled at the testing look.
“I am, actually. But Zelir—beyond you. I’ve looked around the city and…why are there so few high-level Drakes in Salazsar? It feels like there’s no one exceptional I can call on in our standing forces. Excellent soldiers and companies, don’t get me wrong. But high-level [Warriors]? Shriekblade is an exception, but—do you see my point?”
“I do indeed, lad. That is—Wall Lord.”
Ilvriss ignored the reflexive name. Zelir went on after a moment.
“It’s common to Drake cities. We have high-level [Commanders], a few heroes, extraordinary adventurers like Saliss of Lights, Shriekblade…but we do have less outstanding individuals in our armed forces. It’s mostly to do with our military style compared to Humans. Do you understand what I mean?”
Ilvriss tilted his head as he watched a bird fly past and give the two Drakes a side-eye.
“You mean, the fact that our [Soldiers] aren’t Human militias?”
Drakes kept larger standing armies and drilled their [Soldiers] more extensively than the north’s conscripted armies, which each [Lord] had. Their City Watches, for instance, were tied into the army’s strength. Zelir nodded.
“Yes. Efficiency. Nothing like a Drake spear wall to hold a line. It’s what we’re known for…even small cities have organized and drilled [Soldiers], especially compared to the Humans. Our Watch gets funding and training while theirs can be corrupt or good or bad. We have standards. It occurs to me we might have gone too far.”
The Drake smoothed his neck spines as he tried to explain.
“Let’s say there’s a monster attack. Who sorts it out? The Watch in the south as much as adventurers. So we have less adventurers. Let’s say there’s a battle and a spear group is faltering. We pull them back—because we can, because they’re trained to fall back—and throw in a new one. We don’t abandon them.”
“Of course not.”
The Drake nodded.
“Human armies though…sometimes they gamble. Here’s a group of conscripts with swords and shields and a month’s practice. Throw them in, bail them out with a [Knight] charge if you can. Sure, many die. But the ones who survive level. They have [Knights] and poor infantry.”
Ilvriss got it.
“So they’re creating ways for individuals to excel.”
“Exactly. And between you and me, lad. Drakes make it so that everyone can perform to standard. But we sometimes make it harder to stand out because of that. Not that it’s a bad thing to do it this way, but it does change how levels work. Everyone’s a bit higher…and less people are highest.”
Zelir gave Ilvriss a long look. What he said in privacy might be seditious—in other companies, in another city. Ilvriss just sighed.
“That’s what I’ve observed.”
He had scoured the ranks of Salazsar’s command for people he could snap up that wouldn’t be missed. He couldn’t take their best [General] to go running around fighting secret wars. But it meant that everyone below wasn’t much better than Osthia. And she was good…
But he needed exceptionalism.
“Thank you, Master Zelir. I’ll see you tomorrow. Same time?”
“So long as you sleep in.”
The Drake chuckled as he rose. Ilvriss nodded to him. Tomorrow, he’d ask Zelir to join his army of three. The old Drake might not be young or as high-level, but Ilvriss would arm him in artifacts. That would help.
The problem of high-level individuals Ilvriss brought up to Alrric again, as he visited the company.
“I’ll visit the mining crews and not faint this time.”
“If you like, Wall Lord. But if you do faint a second time, I’m going to have to ban you from doing inspections. Our current seam is giving us adamantium along with gems and I can’t have you holding us up.”
Ilvriss smiled at that and Alrric grinned for a moment. It was a jest at Ilvriss’ expense, and a sign of the new working relationship. Alrric had been wary at first, but now he seemed more at home—and they had worked together for a long time.
“How is the family doing? I hope I didn’t hold you up with my collapse.”
“Well. And I got back to them on time. My daughter, Sidinel, is getting to be a handful. She wants to travel about.”
“Herself, her friends, with us—young Gnolls, no, young people.”
Alrric sighed. Ilvriss nodded without any personal experience into the matter, as non-parents did when told about parent-things.
“So, about one of my requests, Alrric.”
“Which one? Sourcing the Potion of Regeneration or high-level recruits?”
He had received Lyonette’s [Message] when Erin was hurt. On that day, in that very hour, he had opened the Gemscale vaults and inspected every inch of it.
They had hoarded gold, gemstones, and artifacts. More than you thought. Less than Ilvriss would have liked, to be honest. The problem was that Drakes did use artifacts throughout the years and a Potion of Regeneration?
If they had had one, Zail would have used it. They had none.
And getting one was tricky.
“Does anyone else have one in their vaults?”
Alrric put down his quill. He scrubbed at some ink on his brown fur, then stopped.
“I made inquiries, Ilvriss. Few Walled Families are willing to even give me a straight answer, but Wall Lord Meiss is the only one who has one—”
“And he won’t sell.”
Ilvriss nodded. He’d tried. But who was going to sell an heirloom artifact that couldn’t be produced in this world? Ten thousand gold pieces? Go stuff it up your tail. A hundred thousand, even? Not even close.
A million? Well, that might be enough to turn a head, but it was still a priceless relic. And there were limits to even Ilvriss’ largess.
He put that aside.
“High-leveled individuals. Anyone? I was talking with Master Zelir—my [Weapon Trainer]—about the issue.”
Alrric consulted his notes. That was the power of an [Administrator]. He took the need, found people who could do the job, and had it done and waiting the next day.
“Let’s see. High-level. High-level…no one new in military matters, I’m afraid. You know every Level 40+ combat-rated individual in all of Salazsar. I’m sorry, Ilvriss. But at that level you pretty much have to hire them. A [General] bounces between cities, or [Swordsmasters]…”
Ilvriss was well familiar with how Drake cities enticed good warriors and leaders. Every nation did it. Pallass had stolen Pelt when he’d been on the market, for instance. And he didn’t want the public bidding war that always ensued. He didn’t want mercenaries.
“Well, that’s it.”
He grumpily sat back, putting down his signed documents for filing. He felt like he was chasing his own tail. Day in, day out, it was all incremental progress. He needed action. He needed…to do something. Now.
Alrric cleared his throat.
“If it helps, Ilvriss—this problem isn’t unique to Salazsar’s military. Your instructor? What did he say about Drakes and leveling?”
Ilvriss repeated the contents of the conversation and Alrric nodded. He sighed.
“Ah, that’s true. ‘No exceptions, just exceptional averageness.’ Your instructor’s take strikes me as eminently correct.”
“That sounds like a quote.”
The purple-scaled drake raised one eyebrow. Alrric blinked.
“It is. Have you heard of the tale of Salii the [Secretary]?”
The name was familiar. Ilvriss sat forwards.
“Wasn’t she responsible for the Ruby Run…six years back? Practically quadrupled the holdings of her company.”
“Not just from that. Yes, she was as good as they came. Better than me, although I wasn’t as good as I am at the time. The highest-leveled [Secretary] in all of Salazsar.”
“But she’s not here. Didn’t she go to another city?”
The Gnoll licked his finger pad and flicked a piece of paper over.
“Nope. She went to Chandrar. Pomle.”
“…The training ground for [Martial Artists]? Why?”
Alrric looked up with a grin.
“She said it was to improve herself. To challenge herself and keep leveling. Did you know that along with Salazsar, she worked in Manus, Zeres, and Fissival? All for only a year or two. She came in, took the hardest jobs at low pay, and when she had things running right, she quit and left. Right when she succeeded. Right when it got easy.”
Ilvriss sat back. His mouth opened and his tail stirred.
“To level up. That’s…extraordinary.”
“She left a mark. Even now, someone says they ‘got a Salii’ when they get a diamond in the rough. If you wanted to improve anything, you should get her. Although I doubt she wants to return to Salazsar.”
Ilvriss grimaced. Recruiting from other cities was hard enough. Other continents?
“See if you can get in touch with her. Do they even have [Mages] over there?”
“She has a Scroll of [Messages]. I’ll have it linked to you for later. Speaking of which, I have a shortlist of unique individuals you could grab from around Izril’s south. Nothing special. Level 30+, all of them. A [Spearmaster], a [Master Archer], a [Lancer]…”
“I’ll look it over later. Thank you.”
Ilvriss sat back with a sigh. Salii the [Secretary]. There was something to it. But a [Secretary] wouldn’t be useful against the Necromancer.
Ilvriss visited Osthia after concluding his work with Alrric. He didn’t waste time as he entered the private work rooms he’d sequestered to plan his countering the Necromancer.
“I’m going to add some standing forces to your command, Osthia.”
She looked up. Her blue-dyed scales itched, but she could scratch here, stretch, and so on.
“How so, Ilvriss? Also—Shriekblade’s gone missing. I think she’s off her potions.”
Ilvriss stopped. He looked around and realized Shriekblade hadn’t stopped outside the rooms like normal.
“I was walking around and didn’t even notice her.”
Osthia grimaced. Shriekblade was Ilvriss’ bodyguard as well as an agent in their war, but she was normally Ilvriss’ shadow.
“She didn’t report this morning. I think she’s…erratic. I’ll check on her tomorrow.”
Hiding in her room, threatening to kill Osthia if she entered. Stuff like that. Ilvriss rubbed at his forehead.
“See to that, thank you. And I’ll get you more subordinates. Not ones you can tell the secret to—but ones under your direct command.”
“Who? More Gemscale soldiers? Your sister already wants to know why I have a hundred for being your bodyguard.”
The Gemscale family had their own standing forces, but Ilvriss shook his head.
“My family doesn’t employ high-level [Guards] or [Warriors]. If they were—they’d find other work. No, we’re going to get an elite group—so you can at least take down monsters, and other threats. I wanted you to come with me so they know who to report to. It won’t take more than thirty minutes…”
Elite group? Osthia hesitated. She tried not to roll her eyes—then remembered she and Ilvriss weren’t subordinate and commander in the same sense as in the army. She coughed into a claw and Ilvriss looked at her as he went for the door.
“Not to offend Salazsar or this group, Ilvriss, but we have a saying in Pallass. ‘Every unit’s elite until we kick their tails in.’ If this is like one of Pallass’ elite groups—every army has them. I…don’t know if it’s going to be that helpful compared to the one you have in training.”
And that one would take months more of drilling, for all most had [Enhanced Strength] or [Greater Toughness]. They had potential, but no battle experience and training.
Far from being offended at the insinuation, Ilvriss only smiled.
“Specialized infantry, then, Osthia. And I think they might meet your standards. Here. Follow me.”
Curious, she rose and followed.
Ilvriss took her down through his tower and into one of the central ones. A shared spire, for the power of the Walled Families.
“It is true that ‘elite’ gets tossed around a lot, Captain Shieldscale. But unlike other groups, the Walled Families of Salazsar don’t keep individual standing forces of renown. Rather, we pool our strength. So we have a different system…here we are.”
They had entered one of the military areas of Salazsar. Their city wasn’t as proactive as say, Pallass’, and had fewer armies, but they were still good. Strong.
And they answered to Ilvriss.
“Wall Lord! Can I assist you today?”
A [Lieutenant] on desk-dusty straightened and saluted as Ilvriss and Osthia approached. She glanced at ‘Captain Shieldscale’, but she seemed perfectly at home with Ilvriss’ rank, somewhere around [General]. He could, after all, call upon an army if he wished.
How strange other cities were. Osthia listened.
“Lieutenant, I’d like to buy into one of our Gem Regiments. I’d like one battalion-strength group of the Occum Swords if they’re available.”
The Drake grimaced as Osthia listened, bewildered.
“I’d have to consult my notes, but I am almost certain they’re on deployment with our 1st Army, Wall Lord.”
“Pity. Then—are the Erchirite Spears available?”
“At battalion-strength? Certainly. And what will you need them for? Duration?”
“Indefinite, and I will pay for four months if that is acceptable. Guard duty and perhaps monster-slaying, without ruling out fighting. No plans for full-scale engagements.”
The Drake didn’t even blink as she noted all this down.
“…Here’s my figure for the payment, Wall Lord.”
Ilvriss glanced at the number on the piece of paper. Osthia gulped. He nodded.
“Done. Send it to Alrric in my company. Also, I’d like—”
“Wall Lord Ilvriss, please excuse me, but what is going on?”
Osthia burst out, bewildered. The [Lieutenant]’s brows shot up, but both she and Ilvriss smiled.
“Simple. I’m hiring an ‘elite’ group, Captain Shieldscale. Or rather, the specially armed Gem Regiments of Salazsar. Surely you’ve heard of them?”
“Yes, sir. But—you can just hire them?”
“They are paid for by all of the Walled Families. It costs more to hire them, and Salazsar can recall them if need be, but it allows for some level of equipment. Exceptional averageness I suppose.”
Ilvriss sighed, and Osthia didn’t get that part. But then he was looking around.
“Is one of the [Battle Captains] on duty, Lieutenant? Perhaps Captain Shieldscale can see the Drakes she’ll be leading.”
“Of course, sir. I have a Captain Presz on duty. I will have him called up and the Erchirite Spears assembled directly.”
“I’d also like to draw on…sixteen Rubirel Guard. Same duration. Bodyguard duty. Both forces report to Captain Shieldscale.”
“Of course, Wall Lord.”
The Erchirite Spears were elite. And Osthia wouldn’t be disparaging the four hundred Ilvriss had paid for. They were lined up, ready to do whatever needed doing.
Made of [Veteran Soldiers] who won the right to enlist in the safer, much more well-paid Gem Regiments. Also?
Enchanted armor, enchanted weapons. Osthia stared in envy at what money could buy you from the richest Walled City in Izril.
Captain Presz saluted her, and then showed her his spear.
“Each one’s expensive as they get, Captain Shieldscale. Hence our small regiments. Take a look. Mithril-alloy shafts, and the tip is…”
He indicated the topaz-like mineral stuck to the top. Only, it was charged and Osthia knew better than to touch it. It wasn’t as transparent as topaz, but had an inner sparkle.
“Echirite. Stores and releases electricity when struck. Without protection, a full unleash from one of our units is like a [Chain Lightning] spell in battle.”
The Drake grinned as the [Soldiers] stood to attention. Osthia imagined what it was like to charge into that group—or suffer a spear-charge.
“I take it back, Wall Lord. That’s a fine fighting force.”
“Under your command. Battle Captain, Captain Shieldscale is my commanding officer. I don’t expect you’ll be doing more than relaxing for the short interim, but she has my full authority.”
The [Battle Captain] saluted.
“A pleasure, Captain Shieldscale.”
“I won’t interfere in tactical decisions until I know your unit, Captain Presz. And I’ll try to listen to the expert in the field.”
She hastened to assure him and the Drake smiled.
“Thank you, Captain. It’s a tossup on who we get commanding us. And I understand you’ll be taking the Rubirel Guard, Wall Lord?”
“Sixteen. They’re heavily-armored, Captain Shieldscale.”
They were indeed. The Drakes were like the Flamewardens of Pallass, a former group of heavy-infantry Oldbloods that Osthia had once known.
But rather than relying on Oldbloods, the Rubirel Guard exchanged the ability to breathe fire for the ability to survive…anything.
“Enclosed helmets with sight spells. Internal air reservoirs. No [Snipers] putting an arrow through the arrowslits. Heavy—but we can still swing battleaxes. Toss us into fighting, Captain. Toss some [Poison Cloud] spells in too; we don’t mind.”
“Just don’t make us sprint.”
One of them joked around. Osthia nodded, impressed.
This is the kind of force I want to take against the Necromancer. If they had ten thousand of them—she’d be talking about when to siege his castle. But they were expensive and hard to field. There were fewer than a thousand among all of Salazsar’s army, mostly as shock troopers or bodyguards.
The high-powered Gem Regiments he’d paid for made Ilvriss feel like he’d done something. But he didn’t have a target to hit; the instant he went after the Necromancer, he suffered.
At least they’d get some battle experience. Alrric and Osthia would use them to kill monsters that appeared while the mining teams worked. He almost pitied even Crelers running up against the Rubirel Guard. Almost. Actually—not at all.
But the problem of high-level, trustworthy people remained. So frustrating. Once you had good people, you could have them do work, like Ilvriss was trusting Osthia. But he had even relegated his old adjutants to other duties because he wasn’t sure, and he couldn’t watch them all without first having his good, core team.
Zelir would be the first. So why…did Ilvriss feel as though his mentor wasn’t enough?
Perhaps because this battle isn’t one you can win with a fancy sword art.
He was rubbing at his head and debating taking a purple pill so he could work early tomorrow when someone called upon him.
“Ilvriss! Ilvriss—we’ve come to kidnap you!”
The Wall Lord nearly drew his sword before he recognized the familiar, jovial tone.
Tasilt and Brilm, the two Wall Lords that Ilvriss had known growing up and were around his age, were waiting for him in the foyer of the Gemscale residence.
Tasilt and Brilm. Alike and not. Both enjoyed, well, fine things as most people of money did. Brilm loved novelty, curios from afar like the song-gems he’d invested in and were making a big profit.
Tasilt? He was more into wine, libations, enjoying himself.
But Brilm, a bit pudgy for a Drake, was far more conservative than Tasilt, who had married a Gnoll and scandalized Salazsar. Tasilt by comparison had put Ilvriss onto hiring Alrric and was an easygoing, good-natured Drake.
Of the two, Ilvriss trusted Tasilt to be honest and moral. He trusted Brilm to show him something interesting.
He liked both of them, even if he had little time to be a friend at the moment.
“What did you say, Tasilt?”
The Drake winked, without realizing why that had alarmed Ilvriss. Brilm chuckled.
“To be more precise—we’re the two who are going to save you. From yourself. Don’t try and resist! We’re armed!”
Ilvriss eyed Brilm’s side, knowing the Drake could barely use the enchanted sword. Tasilt was better, but neither had studied the sword as much as he did. Then again—Tasilt had been in bar brawls with Ilvriss as a young Drake and he was good with his fists.
“And what am I being kidnapped for? I have [Healer]’s orders to rest up. Stress.”
“Yes, yes. Stress. As if overwork could lay low the mighty Ilvriss!”
Brilm’s tone was mocking and teasing. Tasilt just looked at Ilvriss, brows raised.
“You’ve been overdoing it. If you try to resist, we’ll have to use force.”
“We’ll tell your mother that you’re overworking yourself.”
Ilvriss knew it was only Tasilt who could come up with a threat like that. It would never occur to Brilm, but Tasilt knew Ilvriss and Helessia. Also, that his mother would fuss and worry about it.
“A low blow, Tasilt. And what am I supposed to be kidnapped to?”
“You’ll see. Brilm?”
The Wall Lord gave Ilvriss a wink that Ilvriss didn’t like at all. The Wall Lord thought as they shepherded him from the residence, laughing with the staff and promising to have Ilvriss back before his bedtime.
They were headed down the tower. Ilvriss suddenly began to really think about the number of things that would take Brilm…Tasilt…
“Listen, you two. I’m happy to rest up. In fact, I was about to sleep. I have medication…”
Brilm waggled a claw in front of his friend’s face.
“Oh no, Ilvriss. We heard the diagnosis. Stress. And you don’t just need sleep! A Drake needs…”
He glanced at Tasilt and the other Drake coughed.
“We know it may have been—difficult of late, Ilvriss. Everyone heard about it.”
Oh no. Ilvriss closed his eyes. Tasilt was referring to the alarm when Erin had gone to Invrisil. But they had never heard the one when she was hurt. She must have taken off the ring? Why did she…?
And if they were talking about that, they had the wrong idea. Ilvriss turned.
“I think you’re mistaken.”
His two ‘friends’ grabbed him under the arm.
“Ilvriss, it’s for your own good. We know an excellent place. I go there all the time. Tasilt, vouch for me.”
“I’m married, Brilm.”
“Oh. Right. Well, even so. Before that.”
Ilvriss began to struggle. The two Drakes refused to let go. He could have forced them to stop—but then Tasilt threatened to tell Zail and his mother.
The…place…was known as The Drake’s Pearl, and it was a brothel. But a high-class one, the kind where you didn’t have denominations below ‘gold pieces’.
It was also private…insofar as you could stealthily arrive and disappear if you chose.
Some did choose. Others did not, and strode in there like Brilm every week. He knew the staff by name.
But privacy of the clientele only extended to the gossipers and people who poo-poohed The Drake’s Pearl and all establishments of its kind.
The people who worked there knew all the names, even if the Drakes came in hooded, cloaked, or [Invisible]. After all—it was hard to be invisible when doing the deed. Although that was something you could pay for.
Also, contrary to the name, there were more than just Drakes working here. After all, Salazsar’s lonely bachelors—or married Drakes—had a number of desires that could not be expressed in polite company.
Bachelors. Even here, female Drakes did not just walk into a brothel, much less ask for the entirely-female [Escorts] and so on. They had different methods. If, say, Navine Gemscale wanted to meet someone in the same industry, well, she could ask for a house call as it were. Or go there herself.
The Drake sitting down knew all about the secrets. It was a community, after all, so she knew the dirty little secrets only an idiot would ever try to cash in on. She had started in far worse places than this, in fact. Here she took breaks, waiting for the expensive, expensive clientele to come in. You earned gold per assignation, and if you had people who liked you, gifts of valuable perfumes and gemstones were the least of what you’d get.
“Perfume. As if it’s all we want. And I have to wear the scent each time he visits! I keep getting them confused!”
A female Gnoll—Aranna—was grousing. She was young, beautiful, and had made the smart move of dying her fur such that she looked, well, like some exotic Gnoll [Shaman] from the plains. She’d even added touches to her costume. She was fretting about a recent gift. The Drake leaned over.
“Are your preferred clients Drakes or Gnolls, Aranna?”
The Gnoll huffed.
“Drakes, Xesci. You think Gnolls want to see me pretend to be a ‘wild Gnoll who needs to be tamed’?”
Xesci snorted. Oh yes, it was an act. And exotic…she sighed.
‘Exotic’. She hated that word. But she nodded to Aranna as the younger Gnoll held out the perfume bottle of extreme expense.
“I know someone who resells stuff like that. I’ll introduce you. My advice? Sell it.”
“But the perfume—”
“He’ll give you cheap ones. Get some that smell a bit like the one they gave you. You could even use the same one. I knew a Gnoll who used the same scent, every time. Told each of her clients that it was theirs and they bought it.”
The Gnoll laughed and Xesci smiled. She sat back as Aranna nodded.
“Thanks, Aranna. I—”
She coughed. Someone was smoking on a puffer. The Gnoll glared at another person sitting in the back rooms.
“Do you mind? It sticks to my fur!”
“Say it’s part of your tribal rituals. Dance about a fire. It’ll get them excited.”
A female Human, Shakra, rolled her eyes. Aranna huffed, but left to go store the gift instead.
“She’s sensitive to smoke. Put that out.”
“I got it as a present. I’ll trade you a puff.”
“No thank you.”
Xesci didn’t put down what was between her claws. She was, in fact, knitting. Shakra glanced at it.
“You have the weirdest hobbies for someone in our line of work.”
“It beats drinking or smoking. I do that when I’m not about to lie on my back for an hour.”
“An hour? I never lie there for more than five minutes.”
Human, Drake, Dullahan, Gnoll—they had even had Garuda and Selphids in. Any species you wanted. Any look. They could cast magic, sweet-talk you—or go exactly the other way.
Xesci was not a…specialist in those areas. Certainly, she wasn’t one of the older Gnolls, who, unlike the ‘exotic Plains Gnoll’ of Aranna, instead was quite mean to her clients.
Mostly Drake clients, incidentally. Gnolls just didn’t have as much money—and, perhaps, there was less of a culture of coming to these establishments in groups. Wall Lords on the other hand…
“Everyone, tails up! We’ve got three Wall Lords in the lobby! And one of them’s new!”
Someone hissed through the back rooms. All the women inside looked around.
“Really? Who’re they?”
Secrets, as noted, were not kept except from the outside.
“That’s my cue. Unless he wants Aranna or Medroniaria.”
Shakra doused the puffer. Aranna and ‘Medroniaria’, the half-Elf [Courtesan] who dressed like one of Terandria’s nobility in an odd mix of fetishes, both looked interested.
Brilm was a familiar face. The other two? Xesci listened.
“Who’s the other Drake? He’s been here.”
“Yes…but not recently. Not for years, apparently. Tasilt?”
“What? He’s married. I know his wife! She’s like a hero to me!”
Aranna looked dismayed. The [Prostitute] spying for everyone reported back.
“Don’t worry. He’s only here to take the third one.”
“Oh, thank goodness.”
The Gnoll sighed, and, surprisingly, so did the other two Gnolls, all of whom wanted to believe in the one Wall Lord who had married a Gnoll. Shakra on the other hand, looked disappointed and relit her puffer.
“If Tasilt is here, Brilm’s going to ask for you, Aranna. He always does every time he hangs out with that Wall Lord.”
Aranna began fussing with the perfume bottle she’d been showing around. Shakra grimaced.
“Want to bet on it? Who’s the last Drake? Maybe they’re in the mood for Human?”
The Gnoll spying with her enhanced hearing looked around. And she looked uncharacteristically…
“Maybe, Shakra. You’d actually better get ready. He’s new, but he might ask for you. Brilm is, um, recommending you?”
“What? No one comes here on first go and asks for a Human—”
The back room fell silent. Everyone looked around. Oh.
Gossip went around the city, and especially in places like this. Xesci stirred.
“You must be joking. Menorra?”
“It’s Wall Lord Ilvriss.”
The entire back room went into a flurry as everyone tried to win one of the most eligible Wall Lord’s attentions. In the lobby, he was arguing with his fellow Wall Lords—in fact, more had secretly come to er, support him in his hour of stress. And to do business here.
But. Xesci knew that he hadn’t come here—recently—because he had been off the market so to speak for a while. And if recent events were any guide…she shook her head.
Then she went to dress up.
Ilvriss was a bit irked. Ilvriss was a bit narked. Ilvriss was a bit upset, but he tried to explain why to Brilm and Tasilt.
“Brilm. This is not the cure for my overwork of late. This will not make me feel…better.”
He was angry. Mostly at Tasilt, even though Brilm had instigated the idea. Tasilt should have known better than to suggest something so…asinine.
However, it was Brilm who countered Ilvriss.
“Have you checked?”
“Have you checked if it helps, Ilvriss? Be honest. Have you visited such a fine establishment—or found yourself in company once in the last month?”
“That is entirely—”
“I think, Ilvriss, that it is.”
Tasilt spoke up. He was having a drink, since he would not avail himself of this place’s services. Ilvriss gave him a long look.
“You must be joking, Tasilt.”
“Everyone has needs, Ilvriss. It may be indecorous, but Brilm brought up a fair point. Sometimes you just need…something. And since my plan of dragging you to a bar and getting into a fight didn’t fly, Brilm wins.”
The other Wall Lord shook his head.
“I will not be getting my groin kicked or be stomped on—although I hear you can pay for that here.”
Ilvriss closed his eyes. He did not need to hear that. He looked around.
“And you really want me to…?”
“Well, we’re not going to watch so it’s up to you, Ilvriss. But loneliness is a terrible thing. At least you can pay for company after…”
Tasilt stomped on Brilm’s foot. Ilvriss’ head swiveled around and the Wall Lord coughed and headed off.
“That was rude, even for Brilm. Sorry, Ilvriss. He doesn’t know how to deal with this.”
“And this was your best foot forwards, Tasilt?”
Ilvriss glowered at his friend. Tasilt exhaled.
“I suggest you avail yourself of this place. Or drink one of those Orgasm Potions I heard were banned in Pallass.”
“Why? In the name of the Ancestors, what has gotten into you, Tasilt?”
Ilvriss demanded hotly, enough that some of the other inconspicuous guests in their own partitioned space—some with disguises on—looked around. Tasilt just met his gaze levelly.
“Because it does help, Ilvriss. I can go home and hold my wife after a tragedy. Sometimes you just need—distraction. Brilm’s right when he’s right.”
He was that. It was impossible to say ‘Brilm was always wrong’ because right when he told you about the most idiotic investment opportunity, something happened and he made up all his other losses and came out way ahead. Ilvriss hesitated.
And he was never going to get out that door anyways. The employees of The Drake’s Pearl knew money when they saw it. Also? Getting Ilvriss in, even if he denied everything, was a lot of…street cred? Reputation? Something like that.
“Wall Lord, please at least let us show you around. We have a very fine selection of talented people here. Your friend Brilm has paid for everything and we cannot just refund the fee…”
It was probably a Skill like, ‘[No Pulling Out]’, which might have double entendre uses, especially here. Ilvriss felt like he was a young Drake on an outing with his friends again, daring themselves in here.
It was wrong to come here, even if Tasilt and Brilm thought it was about the Human in Liscor he was missing.
However, Ilvriss had to admit—he did laugh for the first time in a while upon entering the ‘selection room’, where you could meet and socialize with the women currently working, or inspect, well, a catalogue of people and arrange other visits, sometimes privately.
The Drake’s Pearl had private rooms, rooms for all kinds of things, like ‘rescuing’ a damsel from a monster—actual monsters like slimes cost extra since you got to kill them—themed rooms, even full suites complete with hot baths and so on.
It was, after all, the best such establishment in Salazsar. But that didn’t make Ilvriss laugh. What made him laugh, involuntarily, was the hall of fame on the wall.
There were actual pictures of guests who’d agreed to have their faces up—or just names or aliases. Brilm was there. But what made Ilvriss laugh was the ‘longest period of consummation award’.
Four hours, eight minutes, fifty one seconds.
“That poor woman.”
Tasilt sighed. Ilvriss stifled his laughter, staring at the picture. It was, apparently, a record held by ‘Mister Superior’, a Drake of unknown origin. Date listed.
“Who was the other half of the event?”
The female Drake trying to show them to the women turned.
“Excuse me, Wall Lord?”
Ilvriss pointed to the hall of fame record.
“The other partner. It takes two.”
“Oh—I’m not sure.”
Tasilt shook his head.
“Someone give her a plaque. Unless it was only ‘Mister Superior’ by himself. Wait a second. If that’s how you break the record, I’ll do it myself and go for twenty hours! For the record, of course. You can even have my name and face up.”
Ilvriss snorted. Brilm, who was already flirting, gave them both a resigned look. But then Ilvriss sobered. And felt…apprehension.
Xesci was not out with the others. She had declined to line up, as the others were surely doing. But she was listening from the back room. It was very quiet. She’d smiled herself as Ilvriss pointed out the plaque. But now…
It was a bad idea. That was her opinion. But it was how [Soldiers] did it. Someone lost a friend? They tossed them in here and perhaps it did help. She had held more than one adventurer or warrior afterwards.
“I—I am flattered by the attention. But I really don’t feel interested—nor is your company helping, frankly, Brilm, Tasilt.”
“Oh, fine. And I understand that part. Tasilt?”
“I’m going to break the record, Brilm. By myself. Is there any way you can confirm it’s just me on the plaque? So my wife doesn’t kill me.”
They left Ilvriss alone. And now the Wall Lord was a…small fish around big fish.
Xesci didn’t know fish.
She heard murmurs. Flirtatious voices—or however the ‘ladies of the night’ were scouting out Ilvriss. They’d be tossing charm Skills and other similar abilities out, but Xesci wondered if Ilvriss might be a hard opponent.
He was a strong [Lord] and his aura could probably take most of what they could use on him. Unless he was willing. She listened.
“Are you interested in something more…wild, Wall Lord?”
That was Aranna, straight to the point. Ilvriss backed up.
“Fancy a night, sir?”
Shakra. Xesci was curious, but Ilvriss replied distinctly.
“No—thank you, Miss. But no. Not Humans. No one, preferably, but—I apologize.”
That surprised and disappointed the people. Xesci just nodded.
Who thought he wanted to see a Human face right now?
“You. If you want me, I will have you crawl on hands and knees, yes. No?”
…And that established what Ilvriss was not interested in. Xesci listened as he practically jumped across the room. He kept turning down people, and she knew he was using his aura. She felt it in the air—command, pure and simple. It meant no one would be seducing him past his senses.
“Ilvriss, you’re being unreasonable. I—er—have to go, but I’m not going to let it drop until you’re at least in the same room with one of these women. They’re amazing conversationalists! Really! Do you think I’m just in and out in five minutes?”
“Brilm, I can’t do this. I don’t even know what I want, but I don’t think it’s here, with respect to all these beautiful women, of course.”
That sparked a challenge among the people here, although Ilvriss couldn’t have known it. Did they enjoy their jobs? Well, did you enjoy your job in any profession all the time? It was just work. But it was well-paid work and there was still pride in what you did.
Unless people told you to be ashamed. Xesci had heard it all. Brilm exhaled—and then paused.
“Hold on. If you don’t know…”
In the back room, the Drake saw the other workers look around. And Brilm was speaking to the desk manager.
“I know someone who’ll fit. Is Xesci…?”
And that was how they met.
Xesci had not been among the young women of every species in the meeting room. Ilvriss felt like there was something significant about her, though.
Everyone had seemed to know what Brilm meant when he said there was no one else to choose in response to…Ilvriss denying he was interested?
Well, he was forced into at least meeting the woman. She was already in a private ‘apartment’ where you could do anything from cook to sleep to…well, there was one point and one alone in the end.
Wasn’t that so? He hesitated. It had felt like a long time since he’d come into a place like this. He had met Periss and before that…assignations with other members of the Walled Families, mostly.
But Periss had been so long and now? He would not be doing anything more than Tasilt—less than the other Drake, who had apparently asked if he could set a ‘personal consummation time record’, or upset Mister Superior.
This was a silly place. For the laugh alone, and his friend’s clear, if totally incomprehensible method of helping, he would have thanked them.
But no. It would be a betrayal of…
“Excuse me, Miss Xesci?”
He pushed the door open and it closed behind him. Someone was waiting on the rather overdone bed with copious sheets and pillows. The entire room had a…chartreuse color theme. Padded.
There sat a Drake with two needles in her claws. Ilvriss instantly hesitated.
If this is like that Gnoll who threatened to put a collar on my neck and take me for a walk, I will stab Brilm. He eyed the needles—
But they were, in fact, knitting needles. And the Drake was knitting a…sock?
It was a sock. A nice, thick one for cold weather or stomping around in mud. She was making it out of a rather nice wool, too. Something properly expensive, not thick and cheap.
There was even the beginning of decoration on it. Also—a Drake sock, so one tailored around their clawed toes. You tightened socks rather than jam a foot into them like Human ones. So they were more like foot-wraps that you laced around your foot. So much better than socks that had only one method of being put on.
…Why was she knitting a sock?
“I’m sorry, Wall Lord. I didn’t think you’d be too interested in me.”
The Drake stood up, putting down the needles, yarn, and unfinished sock and apologizing. Ilvriss blinked.
Xesci was a female Drake. That much had been obvious from the ‘catalogue’. But unlike every other person on the list, she had not had a picture illustration.
She was dressed fairly skimpily, but with clothing you could actually wear on a warm day. A violet dress with black hemline, not transparent, but simply ‘nice’. And the Drake herself looked…
There was no way for Ilvriss to say this politely, even in the confines of his head. But he was taken aback because she was plain.
Completely ordinary, that was. Which was fine. But every female [Concubine] or so on in that room back there had been surpassingly beautiful, as you might expect in a place like this. Some were older, others young and vibrant, but Xesci was…
Average. Completely. She looked like she was in her early…thirties? Ilvriss couldn’t tell. Her scales were a light green, one of the most common colors.
Every part of her face was ordinary. Not perfectly symmetrical, or flawless. Just amazingly ordinary. You could pass her ten million times on the street and never notice.
“I…er…well, thank you. You are Miss Xesci?”
“Yes, Wall Lord. I’m quite happy to let you sit here for…twenty minutes and then refund you. I think your companions would accept that.”
The Drake got up and nodded at him. Just nodded. No bow, not that Drakes tended to do that. But she seemed—Ilvriss was off-put.
But also relieved.
“You seem to understand my situation, Miss Xesci. Thank you for that.”
He looked around; there was a padded seat he cautiously inserted himself into. She sat back on the side of the bed, grimacing.
“These things make you sink into them…you could probably suffocate with enough blankets and pillows.”
He smiled despite himself.
“This is ah—the typical bed you might use when—”
He stumbled over his words. Now, Xesci smiled.
“You don’t need to be so formal, Ilvriss. And you may call me Xesci. Yes, when I have sex. It can get quite taxing on the back. I’ve asked them for a harder mattress for years now.”
He sat there, completely ill at ease…for about five minutes. Then he began talking to her like another person.
“And they don’t oblige you? I imagine for a place this…well patronized, it wouldn’t be too expensive.”
“You think that. But they do love to reuse everything. Also, you have to get stain-proof enchantments on everything so I understood the expense.”
She smiled. Despite himself, Ilvriss had to grin. The Drake went on with a sigh as she picked up the knitting needles.
“But I got them to install one in one of the rooms.”
“Oh. So what was the problem? It was—uncomfortable?”
The Drake looked blank.
“No. It’s that everyone wants to use it. I get to use it once every two weeks, if I’m lucky. So it goes. Pardon me—I’m just knitting socks for a friend. It’s a hobby. I wouldn’t have brought out the needles if I thought…again.”
She was knitting as she talked, with that ability some people had to knit without really thinking about it. That told you they were the hardcore, real knitters, not the posers.
“So you work here. And this job is…well, I have visited places like this before. Never here, but I ah, was reluctant to do so. My companions seem to think it will help.”
He couldn’t think of anything else to say. Xesci nodded.
“I know. Word travels fast around here. It might, if you wanted it. I’m happy to be charming—but I don’t think that’s you.”
“And you know me?”
She raised her brows.
“I seem to. I’m very good at knowing people.”
Click, click, went the needles. Ilvriss had to admit she was right. He sighed.
“Well…I apologize then. If there is anything to apologize for. I will pay the fee. Or I’ll make Brilm do it for bringing me here.”
She smiled and nodded.
“Thank you. Well, that’s three minutes. Seventeen to go. While you wait, would you like to talk or just sit? Or you can sleep in the bed. Don’t worry—they clean it every time.”
“No thank you. And—talk?”
“Oh yes. You thought your friend was lying, didn’t you?”
“Brilm? He actually talks here?”
She smiled at him and he felt rather foolish.
“Of course we talk. All the time. You must have last come here as a young man. They—do not tend to talk. Most gulp stamina potions and ask me questions about how they’re doing sometimes.”
Ilvriss shifted uncomfortably. This was not a subject of conversation one brought up in polite society. Ever. But this place was one of those areas not technically…Drake. It existed and they let it exist because it was better to have it than make it a crime, but they did not talk about it.
Xesci looked at him as if reading his mind.
“I apologize. I forget this isn’t comfortable talk.”
“It—is perfectly fine with me. So, Brilm comes here? He has his face on the wall.”
“Yes. He’s quite well-liked, you know. He’s generous, doesn’t act…out of turn. And he does talk with his favorite women. Shakra—I think she, no it was Aranna, actually—she told him about the Singer of Terandria, you know.”
“What? You mean those song-crystals he made a fortune on—”
“He’s good at listening too.”
Ilvriss’ opinion of The Drake’s Pearl did not change markedly. But despite himself, twenty minutes later, he found himself asking questions like someone just discovering an entirely new culture or field of work.
Which is what Xesci’s life was, really. He had never thought to ask.
“It’s fine work. If there’s protection. Other cities have none and it creates…danger. Far better to have rules and guards and so on.”
“Other cities don’t do that?”
“Human cities. Zeres banned it for nearly a decade when the Serpentine Matriarch, in her great wisdom, objected to it. One of the Admirals got her to reverse it, which was good. It was criminals and [Sailors] fighting and…”
“You were there, personally?”
She looked surprised.
“Zeres? Only for a year. Then I left. I’ve been to Pallass, Zeres—Salazsar is the best for me. I came from the north.”
“Drakes live there. I was born in the north. I learned my trade from Human women. In safety, actually. I left to find my people, but this is my job. Maybe I’ll go north after earning enough.”
“Do you know the Gangs, Wall Lord? I was a part of the Sisters of Chell’s business. They’re an all-female gang that protects my sort of person. In exchange for fees, of course.”
“Really. But there must be danger with a criminal underworld…”
“There is. And they can be…nearly as bad as any other gang. But if you’re honest with them, it’s almost always fine. You know they’re [Nightstalkers] and such? A kind of [Rogue] mixed with [Temptress]. Many of them were in my profession, but learned to defend themselves after being attacked. Or they were recruited. They know what it’s like and they respect you, which is rare.”
He had no idea. Before he knew it, he was chatting about Izrilian gangs, and how many places Xesci had been. They were talking about Pallass, and Zeres, both places which he’d visited—and the vastly different experiences of each when Xesci glanced up.
“Oh no. It’s been forty minutes already.”
“So, your friends are going to get the wrong idea. Unless that’s fine? I don’t want to take up your time, Wall Lord.”
She looked at him. Ilvriss hesitated.
“I’m quite relaxed. Although—is this normally how it goes?”
He gestured awkwardly around. She smiled.
“For a first client who’s nervous? Maybe it’s even their first time? Yes, actually. I might be more…flirtatious. But at this point I might subtly suggest we be more intimate. Offer to get you something. Sit closer. Move my tail like…”
She made a gesture. Ilvriss coughed.
“Ah. Thank you for your consideration.”
She nodded. Incidentally—Ilvriss was not more attracted to her now than he had been when first entering the brothel. He did like her more, that was certain.
“You were so confident I wouldn’t be interested, though. Were you at all interested?”
He pressed her in time. She smiled. Ilvriss was curious. It wasn’t as if he was…without an ego.
The female Drake eyed him. Then she smiled and chuckled.
“Wall Lord. If I wanted to entice you, this is exactly how I’d do it. Play disinterested and then slowly warm to you. Claim I was entirely fine with not having sex and then let you make me admit how interested I really am.”
He blinked at her. Then flushed red under his scales.
I didn’t mean that. But he’d fallen into the trap!
Or not a trap? She was shaking her head. And she’d told him this would have been a trap, proving she wasn’t trying to seduce him, or was this a gambit to actually make him drop his guard twice in order to…
Abruptly, Ilvriss realized he was overthinking this again. If she wanted to seduce him, she could. Mainly because this was a brothel. He sighed.
“I must be tired. I’m…I suppose Tasilt had a point, Miss Xesci. It has been a while. But I—don’t wish to do anything. I think I am tempted, though.”
“Most people are. There is nothing wrong with it. But Wall Lord…I am sure you don’t want me. In that, your friend Brilm was the most wrong.”
He looked at her.
“How do you mean, Xesci?”
“I mean, Wall Lord, that if I am right, you would have been better served with the receptionist—who is, in fact, the third-most requested person here. Or anyone else before me, even Shakra, the Human woman you met.”
“Oh yes. Do you think the first thing most returning customers ask isn’t ‘and what about you, Miss’? The management is sometimes clever.”
He smiled again. But he was curious now. And he felt the same niggling feeling at the back of his mind.
There was something…here.
“What would be so wrong with you, Miss Xesci? And if this is a trap to fully seduce me, please let me know.”
She shook her head, looking at him.
“It is not. But I see how I’ve stabbed myself in the leg. Damn. This is why I should watch myself. I’m so conniving when I knit—”
She tossed down the needles, surprising Ilvriss. For a moment her voice changed. He looked at her.
“What do you mean?”
“Curiosity. How did that strange woman put it? ‘Curiosity drives my customers to me. The rest is the truth of what I offer.’ I can see where this is going, Wall Lord. Very well. Since there’s no help for it…please don’t be alarmed. Or do. I…am going to show you something that might upset you.”
He stirred as Xesci got up. She turned, fiddling with her dress, and he uneasily stood.
“Miss Xesci, you needn’t undress. Wait. Are you a Selphid?”
She looked back at him and smiled.
“It would be very amusing if I was, wouldn’t it? No. And don’t…worry…”
The dress came off. Ilvriss saw a bare back and hesitated. He made to avert his gaze from her tail, at least, but nothing amazingly different made itself known in the brief glimpse his mind now had on auto-replay in his mind. Nor did Xesci turn around.
“Wall Lord—this is why I am the most requested here. Also, why you don’t want me.”
The Drake clapped her claws and the room went dark. The magical light spell was programmed to turn off when someone did that, apparently.
Ilvriss’ claw was on his sword when he heard the two claps again. He was tensed, his other claw ready to trigger a spell from one of his rings.
If this had been a trap—
But she would have gotten him naked without his rings or equipment if it was, surely. He looked around—but the Drake was alone.
Standing where she had been. But not the same. She was facing him. He hesitated, but she was clothed. She wore…
…Armor. The Wall Lord saw what might have been enchanted leather. Snug, secure. Not enchanted. But it should have been.
Her scales had changed color. The Drake was taller. Her scales were light blue. She had a scar on her forearm.
He knew that. He looked up.
She was younger. She was no longer ordinary, indistinguishable from a thousand faces. He knew this face. He knew this Drake.
She stared at him, then at her body. Her arms were muscular. A [Soldier]’s arms. She had once killed a Wyvern by herself.
It was Periss. The Drake looked exactly like her.
It was Periss, down to every line of her. But the armor wasn’t enchanted. She carried no weapon. But it was P—
Ilvriss drew his sword. The Drake backed up.
“What did you do? What did you do?”
The fake Periss backed up. Ilvriss stared at her. That was her. Every inch of her. Every bit of her he remembered, the parts he had started to forget, realized in perfect detail.
But it was not her.
“Has someone drawn a weapon in the room? Our sensor went off. Excuse us, Wall L—”
The door burst open. The Drake’s Pearl had a security system in place. The bouncer and fake receptionist stopped as they saw Ilvriss.
“Oh no. Not again. Xesci—”
“Wall Lord, please lower the sword.”
“Wall Lord Ilvriss, put your b—”
Ilvriss pointed the sword at the [Bouncer]’s face. The Gnoll was probably good. But Ilvriss was wearing his full equipment and his sword—both of them stopped.
“What. Did. You. Do? An illusion no—what are you doing? Stop it! Undo—”
He was beginning to shout as more people gathered, more of the staff hurried forwards. But before he could—the voices shouting in his head—
Periss, Xesci, stepped forwards and grabbed his arm. With the other hand she grabbed his ring-hand. Then—she head-butted him.
Ilvriss hadn’t been expecting that. His head rang as the Drake let go. He hadn’t let go of the sword, but she pointed down at him as he tensed.
“Get ahold of yourself, Wall Lord! This is a Skill! Or have you taken leave of your senses?”
She snapped. He froze.
It was her voice. And that instinctive reaction to—he looked up. The Drake folded her arms.
“Drop the sword and I’ll explain. If you’re too addled to think, the staff will have to beat you down and tie you up until you listen. And it won’t be the tenth time either.”
She looked at him. The voice, mannerisms—Ilvriss dropped the sword.
“I am a [Courtesan of Change]. High-level. Each time, I become someone either I or my client has met. It affects my personality too, so please excuse me.”
The Drake sat in a chair, military-straight. Unlike the plain Drake of before, Periss—
No, Xesci was direct, forthright, even aggressive. This was how Periss treated subordinates—or idiots. It wasn’t the relationship she’d had with Ilvriss in private.
He was almost grateful of that. Because she was so much like Periss it hurt.
“Can you—can you change to another?”
“Not for a while. Sorry. Also, not very sorry. You asked. I know the knitting Xesci was manipulating you—or doing it without realizing it even—but you did ask.”
The [Courtesan] sighed. Ilvriss was trying to wrap his head around it.
“What is your true form?”
“I don’t know. I’ve forgotten.”
He stared at her. The Drake woman gave him a weary sigh.
“My class changed me. At first—I was good at mimicking other people. It helps you in the business to put on an act. Soon—it became what I was good at. Some are good at sex itself. Some? Charming, or addictive. I…become.”
Like the [Actors] that Erin had made. No—this was the class that had existed before them. This…woman…
“Are you even a Drake?”
“Yes I was. But I don’t have to be.”
His head spun. This was beyond Selphid levels of alteration. Xesci saw his expression and clarified.
“Don’t think I can become a Minotauress. I can’t. I can alter my height and become anyone within two feet of my original height. It used to be only an inch.”
“But you become them. You wore armor—”
“It disappears if I take it off. And it’s probably not as strong as actual armor. Wall Lord. It may be hard for you to understand, but this is a class. A high-level class. No more.”
He looked at her.
“You’re over Level 40. At least. No…Level 50?”
She didn’t answer. Nor was she appraisable by a spell. Periss-Xesci sighed.
“I’m sorry for doing this. I like being the knitting Drake because she’s so…un-sexual. I thought it would help and look what happened. I met her once—she was a strange person. But she knits like a genius…”
To say that it was an incident was no joke. Brilm had emerged to find Ilvriss talking with Xesci, after having nearly gotten expelled for drawing a blade on one of the workers here.
But Ilvriss…he couldn’t look away. His throat felt tight.
“You…do you know who you look like right now?”
“I can guess. I’m sorry. It was the first…person in your mind. Far and above the young woman.”
She gave him a sympathetic look. He started.
“You can tell?”
“Vaguely. I know who you might love…or find too real. As I said, I know my job. If I’m bothering you—”
“No. Please stay.”
She nodded. She knew what he wanted. Of course. She sat there and he looked at Periss again.
It was like the faerie drink all over again. But it hurt more, now, seeing the not-Periss.
More. And less. Because the wound was healing, Ilvriss realized. It might have torn open now—but if he had seen her months ago, he might have well gone mad.
The Wall Lord’s head was in his claws. Xesci hesitated, but when he looked up, he was clear-eyed.
He had not wept. Ilvriss looked at her and nodded.
“Thank you, Miss Xesci. I…understand, now, your reservations. I apologize for my reaction.”
“Many have it. I should have just said as much from the start. But the knitting-Drake…she never says anything completely straight.”
He nodded again. The Wall Lord stood up. Xesci waited.
This was the moment he would ask, and she would be reluctant, very reluctant if he did. But he just turned away.
“I regret asking, Miss Xesci. And yet—may I request a visit with you tomorrow? Yes…tomorrow.”
Her head sunk. Then her eyes flashed. Whoever this was had a temper. She controlled her tongue—and her instinct to kick his ass, this might be good if she was ever in a fight like some Gnolls she’d met—and sighed.
She had better get used to this body, then. She had mixed feelings about it, but this is why they came back. Again, again…
“Of course, Wall Lord. And this is all discreet. I will only take this form when we’re together and never speak of…”
He looked at her. The [Courtesan], for all the confidence this body gave her, felt her tongue dry up in her mouth. Ilvriss spoke.
“I would like to talk, Miss Xesci. Not…whatever you might be thinking. I mean that truthfully, without artifice. Never take her shape again.”
He met her gaze. Slowly, the Drake nodded.
“I won’t. Very well…Ilvriss.”
The Drake stood. He walked towards the door, looking as pale as if he’d collapsed again. But definitely vigorous. Full of emotion, for better or worse. He had the door half open when he looked back at her.
“Her name was Periss.”
She nodded. He opened the door and strode out.
Ghosts. The Wall Lord was haunted—no, accompanied by them.
Not Ghosts, the malignant specters that were monsters summoned by dark magic. He meant…spirits.
…All those were undead subtypes. The Wall Lord walked back to his tower unsteadily. Brilm and Tasilt hadn’t understood what had happened, but Brilm had been upset he’d failed to help. Tasilt was engaged in setting records, apparently.
Ilvriss walked by evening in the lower part of Salazsar. He really wanted a drink. And he knew why that would not happen.
Dead people, then. Not zombies. Just…memories. They followed him around. Pushing him, reminding him.
Zel Shivertail, to follow.
Periss, to avenge.
And Erin Solstice now.
There were more. Friends he’d had who suffered accidents, companions in war. Teachers.
If he looked behind him, would he see them clinging to his shoulders? Ilvriss looked—but all he saw was a group of Gnoll children racing about, young, in one of those little packs of children.
He shook his head. And he didn’t feel…as if they were dragging him down.
Remember the dead. Because of Periss, he wasn’t drowning in a bottle.
Xesci. She had shaken him. He was still—angry. Confused. Shaken.
However, his mind was racing.
Hers was a class and level beyond any he’d seen recently. Beyond his, really. The ability to change your form without magic?
He rubbed at his forehead.
“…On the other wing, that wasn’t what Periss could do.”
If she—the real Periss—had really head-butted him, she might have cracked his forehead without a protective Skill or enchantment. So Xesci was only borrowing form, perhaps native ability. Not Skills.
Little potential in war, then. Even if you planted her as a—a—[Saboteur]-type individual, without that class she wouldn’t manage to assassinate a [General]. A [Strategist], maybe.
But to dismiss her was a narrow-minded way of thinking. Ilvriss considered how useful she could be as a [Spy]. As…
He shook his head. Ridiculous. A night worker?
However. He was reminded of another comparison, the one Alrric had made.
She travelled from city to city, even went from the north to the south. She definitely doesn’t fit into classic Drake society.
This meeting had opened up possibilities, and helped him, despite what Brilm and Tasilt may have intended. Ilvriss walked on.
Then he paused.
The lower city of Salazsar was far more crowded. But Salazsar, home to millions, one of the largest cities in the world, still had space. It was ever-expanding. Someday, it would absorb the entire mountain it was built out of.
Thus—you could find yourself alone from time to time. And it seemed he was walking down a street devoid of people.
…His aura had obliterated something. Ilvriss narrowed his eyes. He was a [Lord], and he had been fending off the advances of the people in the brothel. He’d subconsciously broken through some sort of keep-away Skill. He felt the slight urge to walk off and not go down this street.
Reflexively, he checked himself. Nothing to his rear—none of his rings or amulets was buzzing for hostile magic. The Drake put his claw near his sword—then slowly moved it away.
If it came to it, he’d point his Ring of Greater Fireball and activate it. No one expected a [Fireball] to the face.
The street was empty. He looked ahead and found…
Well, a lone person hurrying down the street. Had they seen Ilvriss? They were cloaked, and he saw a long tail. Drake. Ilvriss saw them glance around—then hurry around the corner.
They hadn’t realized someone had broken through their Skill. What had they been doing? Ilvriss looked past them and saw…
Interesting. He came across a giant…painting on the side of one of the apartment-complexes in the lower residences. The paint was drying even now. And it was, er…
Ilvriss stepped back. It was startlingly good. Accurate to life, even scaled up. Splendid coloration—a bit more vivid than reality, so it popped along the slightly dirty stonework. The artist had also given it a faint grey background to canvas the Gnoll hanging onto the windowsill.
Yes, a Gnoll—a [Miner] if ever Ilvriss saw one, in the traditional gear, his pickaxe holstered at his waist. He was holding onto the windowsill of the apartment—the artist had incorporated the natural scenery.
He had a desperate look on his face. Clearly, he was trying to climb up. But the problem in the painting, the motif if you will, the subtle message in the art…
…Was the pair of Drakes currently engaged in trying to push him out as they held huge gemstones and bags of gold in their claws. They were uh, cartoonishly sneering down at the Gnoll.
The problem, if Ilvriss would have critiqued this art in a gallery, was that this painting had painted the every-Gnoll, without specific detail on his fur. But the two Drakes?
He knew them. The distinct speckle-pattern of gold on the female Drake’s blue scales she loved belonged to Wall Lady Gisha—and her brother didn’t paint his scales gold, but that had to be Wall Lord Rellmel, with that streak of green across one arm, mixing with the onyx scales.
The entire painting stood out to Ilvriss. Bits of gold dropping as the two Drakes tried to kill the [Miner]—or at least make him drop off the windowsill. Excellent art. Provocative message.
Ilvriss looked at it for about four minutes, admired the art, and went on his way.
He had more important things to do.
The next day, Ilvriss awoke after purple-pilling himself into oblivion. He had a breakfast on time, asked Osthia how her training was going.
“I think the Gem Regiments are well suited for—strike missions, Wall Lord. The Rubirel Guard are especially impressive. I couldn’t even scratch their armor. I only have one concern…”
“What if someone [Dispels] their armor? They have entirely enclosed armor, but it seems weak to enchantment attacks—”
“A casual [Dispel] won’t break their armor, Captain Shieldscale. And if the enemy decides to field an [Enchanter] of that strength, every artifact is in danger. I think if the Rubirel Guard did lose their enchantments, they’d…remove their helmets.”
“Good point, Wall Lord. I was just concerned about fighting high-level spellcasters.”
Ilvriss had nodded.
“For now, they’ll be excellent against anything short of that unlikely scenario, Captain.”
After that, training with Zelir. Ilvriss was walking out of his tower when Shriekblade appeared.
She stood in front of him as the doors to the Gemscale residence opened. Ilvriss blinked.
The female Drake wore the kind of expression he’d seen [Soldiers] with incredible hangovers wear. Sullen, angry, and also annoyed. Toss in boredom to that—it was an amazing stew of emotion.
“Adventurer Shriekblade. You didn’t report yesterday.”
She said nothing else. Ilvriss eyed her.
“Are you in need of more potions or scrolls?”
“I don’t want them. Can I kill something?”
He hesitated. Osthia paused and eyed the Named Adventurer.
“Do you want me to handle…?”
Shriekblade gave her a look and Ilvriss recalled the issues with her before. He sighed. This had happened multiple times.
“Call me Shriekblade. Everyone does.”
“Very well. Shriekblade. If you are fit to work, accompany me for the day. I don’t envision fighting. But I will tell Captain Shieldscale to contact you if any monsters arise in the mines.”
“Fine. Yay. Standing around. Kill me now.”
She stomped after him, making no effort to resume her professional, if eerie, normal shadowing. As she was now, she was talkative, had a personality—but a foul one.
Case in point, halfway to his appointment with Zelir, Ilvriss heard a small sound. He saw Shriekblade puffing away on a huge cigar.
“…Is that Dreamleaf? That is contraband in Salazsar.”
“Who cares? I’m a Named Adventurer. I can defend you drunk. Can I get a drink?”
Ilvriss dropped it. Zelir was no less interested by Shriekblade’s new attitude today. He eyed her—and the cigar—disapprovingly. She was lounging against one wall, watching them, incredibly bored, but alternating between puffing and watching people in the city below.
“I never noticed the…Miss Shriekblade before, Wall Lord.”
“She has been here on many occasions, Zelir. I’ve hired her to take care of combat issues. Monsters and so on.”
“I see. You’re not in fear of your life?”
“Not at all.”
Ilvriss lied. Zelir had never detected Shriekblade before. But the [Weapon Trainer] quickly dismissed her.
“Did you want to discuss something with me, Wall Lord?”
“After our training, I think.”
Ilvriss had decided to make Zelir part of his mission, for all the reasons he’d thought of yesterday. They began to warm up, first sparring—then Ilvriss trying out the new sword style.
“Not bad, not bad…but you won’t ever get to your old level of fighting prowess without constant practice.”
The older Drake was approving. Ilvriss felt annoyed at the new style. However, he knew he had to make his body learn to parry the new way.
“Why don’t you try using your Skills while we fight, lad? It might help you learn a new style.”
“As you like. Careful, though—[Flurry Strikes]!”
Zelir and Ilvriss’ practice swords flashed at each other. Ilvriss had fewer combat Skills—but he was a strong [Lord]. Even so, not one of the nine fast strikes hit Zelir. He knocked down seven blows perfectly—then the other more clumsily, but took himself out of range of the last one with a [Fast Backstep].
“What’s that? Seven charges?”
The [Weapon Trainer] smiled. He had [Parry Blade]—but a spin on the Skill. [Parry Blade — Sevenfold Reserve], which meant in layman terms that he could parry an incoming blow seven times, then it ran out. It would ‘recharge’ in time.
“You’ve gotten too good with your Skill, lad. Time was you could only do four strikes. You might get me one of these days!”
“That would be a shame, if I someday managed to win more spars than I lost. Too bad I—[Reaching Slash]!”
Zelir cursed and used his Skill to duck it. The two Drakes went back and forth, as Ilvriss began to warm to the new style. It was only halfway through the serious spar as both used their Skills that his tunnel vision and hearing made him realize Shriekblade was making a sound.
She was…sniggering. He hesitated, and saw Zelir glance to the side.
“Something wrong, Miss Adventurer?”
“This is so stupid.”
She flicked the butt of her cigar over the edge of the training grounds. Ilvriss eyed her, feeling a spark of real annoyance in his chest. He and Zelir had been going at it for about thirty minutes by now.
“Do you have an objection to our training methods, Adventurer?”
She shrugged insolently at Zelir’s clear ire.
“If the Wall Lord wants to learn how to fight, he should ask me. You two fight like you’re on the sparring courts.”
The two male Drakes looked at each other.
“Yeah. I didn’t see one of you kick dirt in the others’ faces. No body blows, no one coming from behind with a knife. That won’t work on a battlefield. The sword style, maybe. But you—you’re not doing more than teaching him how to hold the sword.”
She pointed at Zelir. Ilvriss saw the [Weapon Trainer] bristle. He put down his practice sword and looked at Shriekblade.
“Master Zelir is an old family friend and mentor, Adventurer. Watch your tongue.”
She shut her mouth and folded her arms. Zelir nodded to Ilvriss. They tried to get back to it, but Shriekblade’s words had soured the entire affair. Zelir pressed Ilvriss—hard. Fighting aggressively, testing Ilvriss, as if to prove Shriekblade wrong.
She rolled her eyes. She said nothing, but she was so pointedly dismissive that Ilvriss began pushing at Zelir, so his back was to Shriekblade.
Even so—Drakes had tempers and Zelir was proud of his skill. When he tried to parry Ilvriss and got a score on the arm, Shriekblade might have snorted. The [Weapon Trainer] rounded on her.
“If you think this is a game, Adventurer, pick up a practice blade and show me you can do better!”
She stopped lounging against the wall. Ilvriss put up his blade.
“Master Zelir. This isn’t a good—”
Zelir rounded on him. He was normally polite, but Ilvriss remembered his temper. He snapped at the Wall Lord.
“There are things I can stand, lad, and things I can’t. This is swordsmanship, not a street fight! This Adventurer can show me she can back her talk up, or she can wait elsewhere.”
“I can use a sword. Better than both of you combined. I’m a Named Adventurer. You’re old and you make money training people outside of battlefields. I’ll take you on with one hand and no Skills if you stop bugging me. How about it, Wall Lord?”
Shriekblade waved a claw at him. Zelir bristled.
“Pick up a sword!”
“Don’t argue with me, Ilvriss! I’m still the instructor here. Now—”
She broke his arm. It took her four minutes in the savage duel that unfolded. True to her promise, she used no Skills. And Zelir pressed her hard, at first. He didn’t use Skills either. It was down to the ability with the blade—the strength of each one’s body—and fighting style.
At first, Shriekblade just danced around Zelir, moving faster than even the [Weapon Trainer], who often did the same to Ilvriss. She blocked, parrying his angry thrusts and strikes. Ilvriss watched, ready to jump in, uneasy.
She let Zelir tire himself and show her his fighting style for a minute. Then she began raining down fast blows towards his head. She scored him twice, but light blows. He went in harder, and touched her on the shoulder. Just a touch—
That was when she lost her temper. She struck from above, then, as his sword was parrying and riposting towards her face, kicked him in the stomach.
He didn’t expect that. And then Shriekblade hit him—one handed. Ilvriss stopped her, but it was too late.
“Arm’s broken. Maybe the wrist, too.”
The [Healer] pronounced the injury as Zelir was lifted to a clinic. Merla’s. He was lying there. Possibly from the vicious blows that had broken said arm—possibly just from shame.
“Please treat him. I will check on him as soon as possible. I have to deal with…”
Shriekblade was standing on the edge of the training grounds. She looked over her shoulder and then sullenly turned to face him as he stalked over.
“Master Zelir’s healing costs will come out of your wages, Adventurer.”
“What? He challenged me.”
“You were taunting him. And you could have beaten him without breaking his arm. Let alone dueling him. You will not do so again, is that clear?”
The Wall Lord snapped. Shriekblade glowered. Then she looked at the sky, past his head.
“Fine. I hate everything. I’m sorry.”
She rolled her eyes. Ilvriss resisted the urge to say or do something—mainly because she was a Named Adventurer. But this? He was going to insist that she medicate herself from now on.
To calm himself, he took a few steps away and stood at the end of the training grounds. You could look almost entirely straight down, until the tower widened and you saw more expansions below. A pool of water, in this case.
The enchantments, as noted, saved people from falling. Every tower had them—but there were always accidents. Drakes falling and bouncing off the tower and…well, you either learned how to deal with, enjoy heights, or you didn’t live in Salazsar. Ilvriss stared down at his city below. So far down. The people like small insects, millions moving around, going about their lives, doing good work. A city he was proud of, that was his home. That he loved and would defend…
“Jump. Kill yourself.”
Someone whispered behind him. Ilvriss did not jump. He slowly turned his head.
“Adventurer. What did you just say to me?”
Shriekblade looked around, blankly. And he realized—she hadn’t been talking to him. The Wall Lord’s imminent wrath hesitated.
“Hm? Oh. Don’t you feel like jumping?”
He stared at her. Then down below.
“No. What are you thinking of? You mean the enchantments?”
“No. I forgot this place has them. And there’s a pool so you wouldn’t die. Here’s probably better. You jump from here and—bam. You’re dead.”
She walked around to the side. Ilvriss stared at her back. She tilted her head down.
“Don’t you feel like it, when you stand up here?”
The young adventuress turned to him.
“You don’t hear a voice in your head telling you to do that?”
“No. You…hear a voice?”
“It’s just me. Merla says it’s my problem. You really don’t ever hear it? A little voice saying—‘kill yourself’? All the time?”
Ilvriss stared down over the edge of the training grounds. Well, now he did. He looked at her.
“I do not. Is this why y—”
“Well, I guess it’s just me, then. Sorry I broke your Master’s arm. Sorry I’m here.”
She stalked away from him, quickly. Scowling. Fumbling for something she began chewing hard. Ilvriss looked at her back. He came to two quick decisions.
She stopped and turned to face him, sullenly.
“You will report to Captain Shieldscale and she will deploy you to the mining tunnels to perform monster-slaying duties. If there are none in the Gemscale operations, you will assist other companies.”
It was unorthodox, but Shriekblade brightened up.
“Yay. Alright. What else?”
He met her gaze.
“Report to my quarters tonight. We have more to discuss, then.”
Her face…flickered. Fell. She looked at him, then nodded and turned.
The Shriekblade incident aside, today, Ilvriss was fully-prepared to deal with conversations about his collapse and the brothel incident. He assumed it was the talk of the city.
He was wrong. He had a brunch with his mother and Navine. Uncomfortable, but they tried to at least be civil.
“We’ll be going to Oteslia. I’m almost sad I don’t get to see all of the drama here.”
“Around me? Navine, I’m sure it will all blow over soon. And nothing happened. It was a misunderstanding…”
Helessia and Navine blinked at him.
“What are you talking about, Ilvriss? You? You mean you collapsing? No one’s talking about that today. We might have—but everyone’s talking about—haven’t you heard? Sellme did another painting!”
The two Drakes exchanged a look. Navine shook her head.
“No—Sellme. The street artist? She did a painting last night of the Emera family. You know? That stuck up Rellmel and his awful sister, Gisha? You do know who Sellme is, don’t you? Wait. Ancestors. You’ve been gone on that campaign against Zel Shivertail and you were in Liscor…mother, he doesn’t know!”
Ilvriss blinked. It seemed even Helessia knew, from the way the two Drakes exchanged excited looks.
“Who—or what is this Sellme? I know about the Emera family’s company, of course…”
They weren’t doing so well as Gemscale, but they’d hit a profitable seam, or so Alrric said. Rellmel had never been Ilvriss’ friend, although they were around the same age. And Navine had a terrible opinion of Gisha, who, Ilvriss understood, was the one who really called the shots, despite Rellmel being the head of the company.
As usual however, his take was not Navine’s. She glared at him, her tail curling up under the table.
“That’s just the—business of it, Ilvriss. You don’t think about the people. You do know that the Emera company is firing all the [Miners] they had for the last six years and replacing them with new hires, each?”
“Why would they do that? They’ll lose all their experienced workers.”
Ilvriss blinked. Navine rolled her eyes.
“Because the mining teams had an agreement that if they struck a payload, they’d get a share of the total profits. The Emera corporation agreed since they thought all they had was silver and a few minor gemstones in that shaft. But when they hit magical stones…”
It all came together. The mining dispute was one of the classic fights between a company and the workers. And in this case, the Emera corporation had terminated all their workers in this shaft rather than honor the agreement. They had managed to use a loophole in their contract and it was a bad look.
However, no one could really stop them. And that was where Sellme had come in with the painting on the wall.
“They want to take it down. But the apartment complex is owned by the Geirscale family and they hate Emera, so they refuse to. That’s what Sellme does.”
“She. It’s probably a she. No one knows, but I think it is. She’s an [Artist] who puts up pictures, usually pointing something out. Sometimes for fun, but she started a bit after you left on your glorious campaign.”
Ilvriss sat back. Huh. ‘Sellme’ was clearly an alias, and they had a clear grudge against the Walled Families. Navine disputed that.
“Just about corruption, arrogance, Ilvriss. Sellme targets people like the Emera group.”
“Hm. Until she goes after you or I.”
“Why would she? I run my company without issues like that.”
She glowered at him. Ilvriss opened his mouth—and then decided not to engage. He could have said that even Navine’s ‘equitable’ company still had her at the top and that she was supporting this artist until they went after her, but he did not.
“It’s Wall Lord Rellmel, Ilvriss. What?”
Alrric glanced at Ilvriss. The Drake rubbed at his head.
“That’s the second time I’ve heard his name come up today.”
“Ah. The Sellme painting.”
“Does everyone know about it but me?”
Alrric smiled slightly.
“It’s already made that apartment go up nearly a thousand percent in value. People will want to live there—if someone doesn’t steal the wall.”
“Steal the wall. I saw it last night. It was forty feet high, Alrric.”
“Really? You must have seen it as it was made, then! Did you see Sellme? No, of course you didn’t…”
The [Administrator] looked up. He went on as Ilvriss looked over the reports. Their mining seam was turning up more adamantine and people wanted it bad. Pelt of…Esthelm? Ah, yes. Terandria, Chandrar—
He hesitated, and then authorized a sale to Esthelm. He could have held onto it, but the Dwarf wanted less than other nations. Alrric frowned over it, but didn’t comment. It was still money in the vaults.
“They steal the wall if they can. An entire wall was knocked down and stolen overnight when Sellme did a picture for a neighborhood. Tragic. But they’re amazingly popular. There are replicas—everyone loves them.”
“And they just appeared last year?”
“Oh, no. You don’t get a reputation like that overnight. But I think they came to Salazsar recently. They lampooned their way from Fissival and city-to-city until they got here.”
Ilvriss looked up.
“They were in Fissival?”
“That’s where it first started. Making fun of the Scholarium’s magic-bias. I think it got too dangerous for them, so they headed off. Speaking of Fissival…no, wait. I was doing my check for artifacts you could snap up, and I thought I had something…wait. I do have a note on a high-level individual who I can add to your lists.”
“Never mind that now, Alrric. But I do need to consult you on some other matters. Tell me why you brought up Rellmel and we’ll get to that.”
Ilvriss was thinking of Xesci. Poor Zelir was out of the picture, now. Alrric nodded.
“Sorry. Slipped my mind. Rellmel owns the Potion of Regeneration. But he’s not selling.”
The Wall Lord sat back.
And here it was again. One of his ghosts…wasn’t dead. Maybe. There was a chance.
“Did you ask him what he might consider…?”
“I went from four hundred thousand gold pieces, Ilvriss, and went up. I went to one million and the Emera family’s representative didn’t even blink. They’re not selling.”
Ilvriss exhaled. A million gold was…but he slowly nodded.
“We hang on to artifacts like that.”
“Especially if you lose a leg in an accident or…I’m sorry, Ilvriss. I can try, but it’s not in my purview. It might not be impossible, though. Nerul is back. And he has success to report.”
Ilvriss glanced up.
“He is? Excellent. How did he do?”
“Wall Lord, please. You’ll hurt his feelings. We have a contract.”
The Drake had been on the hunt for individuals who could help him. And even his family had trouble recruiting, finding them. But they did have one, if you didn’t count Navine, Helessia, Zail, Ilvriss, or Alrric.
A shame he wasn’t a [Warrior], or he might have given Shriekblade a real opponent. But Nerul was no combat Drake.
He was a [Diplomat].
The Trisstral Alliance was a collection of cities that had banded together to safeguard interests, secure borders, and trade. You needed alliances, like the Hectval…something alliance. If only to resist larger cities.
Like the Walled Cities. The Trisstral Alliance had in fact been relatively happy to trade with Fissival and Salazsar for decades, but their relationship had turned less-than-amicable of late.
They had strong agriculture and food industries, which Salazsar and Fissival prized, being farther from Oteslia. If they fought with Oteslia, or were on the outs, they needed food, since neither Walled City was particularly good at making it.
Trisstral supplied it, cheaper, faster, but they’d pointed out that the two Walled Cities were importing the food at losses for their economy. They’d asked to renegotiate, as well as impose tarrifs of their own on goods from each city, which passed through their cities without a copper earned. Gemstones and magic.
Fissival had agreed, Salazsar had refused. In response, the Trisstral Alliance decided to trade with Fissival. Salazsar demanded they resume trade. Trisstral asked to renegotiate. Salazsar threatened them instead. Trisstral told them to shove their tails up their behinds.
Salazsar went to war.
…That was old history. That was why Zel Shivertail, who had been appointed [General] of the Trisstral Alliance, took the fight to Ilvriss’ forces. He beat one army—then had to fall back, back, as Ilvriss tried to corner his forces and force the Trisstral Alliance to sign some bad terms for their cities.
Then they met past the Bloodfields, in the winter, after a grueling campaign where Zel kept ahead of Ilvriss, but the Wall Lord refused to stop chasing him.
Then Ilvriss and Zel ran into the Goblin Lord, and went to Liscor.
Then Zel Shivertail fell and then…
But the original fight was still there, even if so many things had happened. Salazsar needed food. Trisstral was hopping mad, still. But neither side wanted war after so much loss.
That was when Nerul had arrived. He’d swept into the city, walked into the negotiating room where the angry Council of the city of Dellek was waiting, representatives from the rest of the alliance, and spoken.
“Ladies and gentledrakes, I am Nerul, [Diplomat] of the Gemscale family and officially designated representative of the Walled City of Salazsar in regards to the war between the Trisstral Alliance and Salazsar. Both sides want peace, and an amicable solution if one can be arranged. Let’s work this out.”
The Drakes—and Gnolls—in the room had bristled at first. They expected an arrogant Drake from Salazsar to sweep in and say how it was going to be. But Nerul caught them off guard. He stood there in their first meeting, looked around, and identified the head of Dellek’s Council. He inclined his head to him.
“First Scale of Dellek, Councilmembers—I assume you’re speaking on behalf of the alliance? Please correct me if I’m wrong. What does Trisstral want?”
They blinked, looked at each other. What did they want? Well—the First Scale had risen, eyes flashing.
“An end to the war! A ceasefire, and agreement to no hostilities! Reparations for the dead, including General Zel Shivertail who fell because of this long damned war that took him into the path of a Goblin Lord! The fair trade terms we wanted from the start!”
Nerul nodded to each point as the Drake shouted at him.
“Yes, of course. Do you have numbers, a contract? I can review it now—and I am authorized to sign on behalf of all of Salazsar. I don’t need to talk to the Walled Families unless there’s something outside of my authority.”
The Council hesitated. One of them stared suspiciously at Nerul.
“This is a trick.”
He shook his head at her.
“Not at all, Councilmember. Salazsar mourns the death of Zel Shivertail. It acknowledges the waste of a war—and the act of aggression made. Or at least, the families that voted in majority to. I am here to end this conflict without a single life lost. And I’m willing to do so fairly. Now. What numbers are we talking about?”
He’d caught them off-guard, and they actually had to recess to pull up actual figures. The caving of what they’d thought they’d have to fight over caught them unawares.
And of course, when they did come back with exact terms and a contract, the real negotiations began.
It took Nerul three months. At first, the entire Council and many representatives, including other Councilmembers, even a Watch Captain, sat in on the talks. But they quickly found that what they wanted, they got.
“I’d like the ceasefire signed today, if possible. We can talk about the reparations later.”
“If we sign a ceasefire, how are we to assume Salazsar will honor the rest once the threat has ended?”
The [Diplomat] shook his head patiently as the Watch Captain snapped back.
“Trisstral has all the agriculture that Salazsar desires, Watch Captain Cells. But a ceasefire means we can all relax. Can we agree to that?”
The cease fire was signed the next day. Thereafter, the real arguments began. It was mostly over numbers. The Trisstral Alliance wanted Salazsar to pay through the nose holes for every dead [Soldier] and General Shivertail. They wanted non-aggression contracts for four—no, six decades, a guarantee of no tariffs, and so on.
That was unreasonable, and Nerul pointed out that no Drake cities had contracts over two decades—and if they did, they were broken. Salazsar couldn’t justify that length.
They argued for nearly four days—Nerul being polite—on the issue of length. Soon, only designated representatives were hammering out terms with the [Diplomat]. The Council had to do more than sit in.
Which was what the [Diplomat] wanted, of course. After he’d established the main negotiators, he talked with them, catching them after the official negotiations. He unveiled some of the cargo his small team had brought.
Gifts. He didn’t press them on the negotiators, nor did he offer them to just them; it was to the Council.
Obviously they were wary. But Nerul was polite, friendly, and after the grueling negotiations, he made a point of visiting the attractions in the city. He asked the negotiators for tips on places to visit—since he was here for a while.
In time, he ended up drinking with them at a bar after they were done, or being invited over to a home. Even visiting other cities.
The thing was, Nerul was representing the Walled Families, Salazsar. He had a lot of sympathy for Trisstral, and there were things he couldn’t agree to—that they would refuse to accept.
“I can do a ten year peace treaty. But twenty? I won’t be a [Diplomat] the next day. And we can offer the open borders to Dellek because it’s closer. But not the other cities. You understand my point, Councilmember?”
That was one noticeable conversation with the Dellek representative, who did have to put her city’s interests with that of the alliance in general. Nerul visited the city of Selmis the next day and spent two weeks there being hosted by the negotiator there, who he had grown friendly with. Which of course made Dellek a bit nervous…
Gifts, friendliness—even charm—a reasonable attitude and someone who never actually got mad or rose to jibes, and was certainly willing to acknowledge fault, and most importantly, honesty.
Nerul never promised anything he didn’t mean. Nor did he try to play cities against each other; the negotiators did check. But he was completely willing to take a six-hour-tour with a negotiator, and rack up several thousand gold pieces on the Gemscale family bill with gifts, money spent while drinking or talking with the others…
The trick was that Nerul bent over backwards—did backflips—if he had to. Personal concessions for ones on the actual peace treaty he eventually signed on behalf of Salazsar and had sent to the Walled City to be further signed by all the Walled Families. When he left Trisstral, the negotiators threw him a farewell party.
And whilst the cities ended up with less than they wanted, their image of Salazsar had turned from ‘a city we wouldn’t mind tossing Creler eggs over the walls at’, to ‘a city we dislike because of all the stupid stuff they’ve done, but there was Nerul and we have a trading contract with our neighbors, even peace terms in case Fissival tries something, since they’ve done that too’.
It was called being a [Diplomat]. And Nerul was good at his job.
“Nephew! How is my favorite troublemaker? Start any more wars for me to fix?”
Nerul Gemscale had a luncheon with Ilvriss. His first comment to his nephew before the huge bear hug essentially continued every interaction he’d had with the younger Wall Lord.
Nerul was a different sort of Drake. For instance, he wasn’t at all close to succeeding the Gemscale family. He had achieved success in other ways and established his value—but he was no [Lord].
If Brilm was a pudgy sort of Drake, well, Nerul was, er, big. He had already begun lunch in a fine restaurant; it was customary for him to dine at the one of his choosing after coming back from a sojourn abroad.
“Uncle Nerul, you’ve bailed me out again.”
“And this is the first time you’ve ever thanked me for it. Something’s changed. Wait—less Zail, not necessarily more Helessia.”
Nerul’s eyes bounced up and down as he studied Ilvriss. He was eating with some of his ‘team’, lesser [Negotiators] and assistants. Ilvriss nodded.
Nerul was—or had been—something of a black sheep in the family, mainly because Zail and Ilvriss had not approved of a Drake who came in after the fighting was done.
“Are you drinking with us?”
“Really? You continue to upset me, nephew. I’ll have his drink, then.”
Nerul spoke to the [Server]. He could and had drunk every person in the room under the table. He sat back as he and Ilvriss caught up.
“The Trisstral Alliance is at peace, and we’ll stop seeing those huge increases on the price of…food. Which is a relief. And I have been three months out there.”
“It amazes me it takes so long.”
The larger Drake snorted, and wiped at his pale purple scales; some wine had been splashed around.
“If you had won the war, let alone captured General Shivertail, I would have had a different response, nephew. Three months? Thank the Ancestors it wasn’t eight! I would have had to stall, but I have results. Peace and more than just the word of it.”
He sat back, eying Ilvriss. Normally Ilvriss wouldn’t have even joined the meal. Now, the Wall Lord sat back.
“Tell me. I’ve never appreciated the other truces you’ve hammered out.”
Nerul’s eyes bounced again. He did that—he appraised people fast. He patted at his mouth with a napkin.
“Well, we have peace. Trade. But more importantly, if you were to walk into one of the cities of the Trisstral Alliance and, say, order something from a shop? Instead of reaching for a knife to stab you, the [Shopkeeper] will give you the time of day. I have made friends with each city’s High Command. And the people are more kindly disposed. There will not be ambushes on our people. They will not raid us, or instantly go to war if, say, we should become rivals with Fissival and the lines are drawn. I have changed the mood of the city, where they were ready to kill every person in Salazsar for the war and General Shivertail’s death, as they saw it.”
Ilvriss nodded. That was the power of the top [Diplomat] that Salazsar could field.
“Your Skill, wasn’t it?”
Nerul tapped a ring on his finger with a practiced air. In the silent bubble, he leaned over.
“[A Gradual Change of Disposition]. My capstone Skill. City-wide. If I had to, I’d stay a year. But peace is all we need. Be grateful it was three months.”
Ilvriss nodded. The bubble burst.
“Does it last?”
“Does anything last?”
His uncle returned. He drummed his claws on the table.
“It doesn’t work on all. It’s about practicing what you preach, nephew. I went around and talked with the widows. I apologized. I flung myself on the mercy of the people—and sometimes smacked the ground. At least they laughed at that.”
The Wall Lord nodded.
“And if I had won?”
Nerul lowered the cup. He looked at Ilvriss and then drank.
“I would have marched through their gates with two dozen of the Rubirel Guard and given their alliance a week to surrender with thunder and fury. There is a time for action, a time to build ties. I can do both. Why? Are you starting another unnecessary war? We’re running out of war heroes, you know.”
That was why Ilvriss had disliked him. Nerul was not a [Diplomat] among his family.
“Not at all, uncle. I just came to thank you—and speak to you about levels.”
The Drake lowered his cup.
“Intriguing. What happened to you when you fought Zel Shivertail? No—don’t answer that. What happened afterwards?”
Ilvriss bit his tongue. He evaded the question, but Nerul was happy to discuss levels. He sighed.
“Ah, Ilvriss. A [Courtesan]—and Sellme made another painting? Are you surprised?”
“Why? Look around, Ilvriss. The highest-leveled Drakes in our society are all oddballs. Me included.”
“That’s not a hard and fast rule. Our High Command—”
“War is the exception. Battle is adversity. I’m talking outside of that. Listen.”
Nerul waved a claw.
“Saliss of Lights. Naked. Nice as you like, but mad as a loon. Salii the Secretary, learning how to punch holes through rocks in Chandrar. Zel Shivertail—a hero of the Antinium Wars—and a public pariah until he became a universally loved hero in death. Sellme, someone who paints pictures of dissent. Your [Courtesan], who isn’t fit for polite society.”
He waved a claw around the restaurant.
“Yes, we have high-level military leaders. So what? War and battle are adversity unto themselves and are exceptions to this phenomenon, which people use in bad-faith arguments to go against the truth. Look around, Ilvriss. There’s a Human saying about how the highest nail gets hammered down first. Well—in our culture, Drakes swing the hammer twice as hard and twice as fast.”
He sat back and ordered dessert. Ilvriss stayed a while telling him the more easy things to talk about in Liscor.
“And you didn’t bring me back a cake? Or how to make this gelato? Ice cream?”
The Drake was outraged. Ilvriss found himself more at ease with Nerul—he remembered hating the Drake’s guts. He could see why.
The Ilvriss of today smiled.
“I’ll have my [Chef] send over both recipes to yours, Uncle. Also—mayonnaise.”
“Young Ilvriss, if I thought people could never change for the better, you’ve proved me wrong.”
Nerul seized his claw and smiled. They parted like that.
Warily, Ilvriss thought. Nerul was exceptionally clever. He made you think you were his best friend, regardless of what he felt. He had to be wondering what had inspired Ilvriss to change.
Ilvriss just wondered if a [Diplomat] of his level had more tricks Ilvriss—who had thought in terms of armies and military strength or economic—had never thought of.
It was an extraordinarily soft bed after all. Ilvriss poked it gingerly. Then he sat.
“I—hope I haven’t disturbed The Drake’s Pearl too much, Miss Xesci?”
“It was an incident, but no one was hurt or bothered. They’re more curious about why you came back. They think—well, you can imagine.”
She nodded to the closed door. Ilvriss nodded. He began to speak, but she went first.
“I think I have to apologize to you, Wall Lord. I…acted in bad faith yesterday. I didn’t realize how manipulative the knitting-Drake was. She was a creepy bitch. Sorry. It’s the new body.”
The [Courtesan] was different today. Feet up on the second chair; it was why he had the bed. Lounging in a chair.
“And you are…?”
She scratched at her neck-spines and sighed.
“A coworker. She’s a bit—prickly. I was trying her out, but I don’t think it fits. Better than yesterday, though. That other Drake had a temper.”
Periss always did. Ilvriss nodded warily.
“These…forms. They influence your personality?”
“Oh yes. And it can be bad.”
The Drake sighed and sat forwards, resting her elbows on her knees, hunched over, a completely different posture than the other two people she’d been.
“Well? You saw how I was getting into playing mind games with you. That’s an extreme example; but each personality is different. Most people are the same, but some are…unexpected. Even to me. I might be overly timid—or aggressive. Or worse. You can imagine.”
Ilvriss thought of Shriekblade and nodded slowly.
“You have an extraordinary class, Miss Xesci. I suppose I’ve come back to talk more. Process…yesterday.”
“I’m sorry, again. And I will be more honest.”
She nodded at him. He adjusted his seat; he felt like the bed was trying to swallow him rear-first.
“About your ability. You said you can mimic people within two feet of your height. And you saw Periss in me. Can you…see more faces?”
The woman hesitated. She glanced at the door and then Ilvriss.
“Wall Lord, normally I assure you that nothing said or done here is leaked. No watch-spells, no peep holes. And I keep my mouth shut. Can I ask you to do the same?”
He inclined his head. She waited.
Xesci exhaled. She ran a claw through her neck spines again.
“The trouble with being a loudmouth is…argh. Fine. I blame Reta’s poor impulse-control. Yes, I see other faces. If I look at you? I can see old flames. Not your mother. Or your sister. I know you have them; I can’t tell. It’s about…interest.”
“Sexual. I note who you’ve at least had sexual encounters with, or even desire—”
“Yes, thank you.”
“Just making sure you can tell.”
Ilvriss folded his arms, feeling defensive.
“It’s just impulse, though.”
“Of course. That’s very revealing…and disturbing, sometimes. But I don’t see much wrong with you. That Drake is like a beacon, but there’s also other Drakes. First loves; childhood crushes don’t really count.”
“Er…close to black fur, a spot on the shoulder—”
Ilvriss turned red under his scales. He knew exactly who that was. Xesci watched with a slight smile. She tried to cover it, but then—
“Will you tell me? If I’ve told you this…”
He struggled, but she had been honest. At last, Ilvriss hung his head.
“I was a young man, and she was one of the staff in our employ. Always getting on my case about tracking mud in. I must have been…nineteen…”
He hadn’t even realized how attracted he was until she brought it up and the older Drake recalled the younger one’s viewpoint. She laughed.
“It’s always like that. And people ask for me to check.”
He took a deep breath.
“You’ll forgive me if I say that’s strange. Not—wrong—but strange.”
“That is fair. Two Gnolls, then.”
He knew the other one. He’d been curious. Ilvriss sat back.
“And anyone else?”
“One Human. But that’s another odd case.”
Her eyes flicked to his. He kept his face straight.
“If you want…?”
The Drake wondered how accurate her Skill was. Or whether it was…it wasn’t like that. But he supposed it was.
He sat there for a while. But then he came to the real reason he’d come.
“Miss Xesci. Can you take on other…forms? Besides female, I mean. Can you become a male Drake? If you chose to?”
She froze. The [Courtesan] carefully eyed Ilvriss.
“If you are asking if I could…or have…Wall Lord, I would have to decline to comment.”
He glanced at the door at the same time as she did. This felt—wrong to discuss.
“I am not interested in any details, Miss Xesci. I am just asking if it is possible.”
She folded her arms. Which was an answer enough for him. He nodded.
“Let us change the subject, then. I wanted to know because…are there people you can’t sense anything from?”
The [Courtesan] hesitated. She narrowed her eyes, trying to figure out where he was going. But no offense to her co-worker—but the Drake didn’t seem as cunning as the knitting-Drake had been.
“I…have met people like that. Odd ones. They love no one and nothing. From time to time—I don’t use this on everyone, you understand. But I met an adventurer like that. He only wanted me to be the most beautiful person I could be. Then the next. And there have been—others. Why do you ask?”
Because, Miss Xesci, I need your help. The Wall Lord smiled thinly.
“Curiosity, Miss Xesci. Thank you. Would you describe the Human? Before I go. Just…”
She did. He listened. Then he left, paying her fee in full. The Wall Lord stood outside for a while.
A wedding ring.
“I’m sorry, Ilvriss. But it’s not a good time right now. That damned seditious [Painter] and their lies. Have you heard…?”
“Not at all, Wall Lord Rellmel. But let me assure you, I can pay whatever fee we can agree on. Up front.”
The Wall Lord’s eyes flickered, but he was shaking his head, even during the sit-down meeting with Ilvriss, Wall Lord to Wall Lord.
“I really can’t be selling artifacts, Ilvriss. I’m tempted, as a favor between fellow Wall Lords, but…my sister would throw ten kinds of fits. I’m sorry.”
“What would it take for Gisha?”
“Honestly, Ilvriss? Too much to imagine. She’s paranoid about needing it. Well, it’s a Potion of—you know.”
Rellmel looked around the tall restaurant in one of the highest points of the towers. He patted at his mouth then fetched a toothpick.
“And she’s not in the mood. All the slander about us…do you have any idea who this ‘Sellme’ is? We can’t even get it taken down. We’re putting a bounty out—they’ve gone too far.”
Ilvriss wondered if the [Painter] would be alright. They had a decent Skill that had kept everyone but him away. He sighed.
“Thank you, then, Rellmel. Are you sure? One million. By the end of the week. In your vaults.”
The Drake gulped. He stayed there a long time as Ilvriss leaned on the table. Then he shook his head.
“Ancestors, but no. I’m sorry, Ilvriss. You know, we should go drinking. You have to tell about Liscor. Should I buy some land there? I hear…?”
But Ilvriss was gone.
He nearly forgot his appointment with Shriekblade in the evening. Ilvriss had some personal [Messages] that had been screened by Alrric or someone in the company; everyone wanted to talk to a Wall Lord, obviously, and few people did.
‘Wasn’t sure. –Alrric.’
An appended note to one of the notes. Ilvriss walked into the Gemscale residence and his part of it, looking around.
He talked to the Gnoll with black fur and a white spot on her shoulder blade. The [Head of Household] grinned at him.
“No, Wall Lord. Were you expecting her?”
Ilvriss jerked his eyes away from the white patch of fur.
“Not at all, Miss Yern. Er—that is—I suppose she declined to come.”
He sighed. Temperamental adventurers. He was rethinking his contract with her. After all—he wasn’t moving on any huge engagement yet. Finding Az’kerash’s minions was harder than it seemed. Maybe he’d terminate it at the end of the month.
Ilvriss was sorting through the [Messages]. Some were interesting.
‘Regarding your search—representative of Wall Lord Dragial of Fissival?’ Interesting. ‘Regretfully decline…’
He was reaching for the one Alrric hadn’t been sure about when he entered his personal chambers. He swung the door closed, glanced up—and dropped the letter.
Shriekblade was in his bedroom. The adventurer had slipped in undetected, worrying, but she did have the keystone that passed her through his security enchantments.
…That was about all she was wearing. She was naked.
“Adventurer Shriekblade reporting, Wall Lord. What would you like me to do?”
Her voice had regained some of the flatness of how she was when she was using mind-altering substances. Halfway between her true personality and this. Ilvriss stared at her.
“What are you doing?”
She looked at him, with a half-clouded look of annoyance. She gestured at the bed.
“What d—no. That is not why I invited you here!”
She blinked at him.
“You told me to come here this night. You’re telling me you had other plans?”
He swung around.
“Yes. I wanted you to show me your swordsmanship—what is wrong with you? Put on your clothes, now!”
The Drake heard silence from behind him. Then a shuffling sound. He didn’t look around. After a moment’s hesitation, he strode to the door, opened it, and stormed out.
“Shriekblade is present. Get me—a drink. Something stiff.”
He’d told the staff not to give him anything. But Ilvriss—he found himself sitting as a cup of Firebreath Whiskey was handed to him. He stared at the liquid in the glass, tilted his head up—
He was feeling the same as when he’d collapsed in the mines. A sense of…of frustration. Everything not turning out how it had to. That idiotic adventurer. If people had begun to gossip, his reputation—
At first he was angry. He looked at the drink in the cup. He’d promised. But damn it, it was one drink. He just wished it were different.
A bit of faerie flower in the cup…
The liquid stopped against his pressed lips. He felt like a ghost was holding them closed.
It was so easy to believe Xesci’s lies. Not the one she’d told him, but her changing form. To believe for a moment and let yourself…be. Even if they were gone. Even if it had never happened.
He felt a hand on his shoulder. Was it a claw or Human fingers? He tried to listen.
Shriekblade. What would she have said if he’d related that event to her, while sitting at a table? She would have said…
No. Wait. She would never have said that. What would she have said? Have done?
He did not know her. But he tried to be like Xesci.
Ilvriss stared at his claw as it carefully set down the tumbler.
Erin Solstice carefully tugged away the glass of the bad juice from Wall Lord Ilvriss. She put it on the table—pushed it to the edge—then turned to face him. She put her hands on her hips. And then…
The Drake saw the same claw rise. And—
Yern was telling the other Drake staff to shut up.
“No one will be blabbing about that Drake in his quarters. He stormed out—nothing happened, no? And if one of you lies, I know it will be one of you and I will dangle you out of the tower by your tails.”
Chastened, they nodded. Yern sighed. Then she heard a sound.
She glanced back into the sitting room.
He was lying half sprawled out of his chair. He rubbed at his cheek.
“That will be all, Miss Yern. I slipped.”
She stared at him and nodded slowly. The loss of Miss Perris had really taken a toll.
Now he was punching himself?
Okay, maybe too much channeling Erin Solstice. Ilvriss rubbed at his face. And he wasn’t sure if she would have done that.
But now—thinking of her—he regretted what he’d snapped at Shriekblade.
What is wrong with you?
What was wrong with the people who’d employed her? He slowly stood up.
“Miss Shriekblade. Are you decent?”
He took a chance and opened the doors. She was hiding in a corner, facing the wall, curled up onto her knees.
“I guess I’m wrong again.”
“I…apologize, Miss Shriekblade. For what I said earlier.”
She half-glanced at him.
“What was that?”
“I—shouldn’t have insulted you. Nor was I aware other employers of yours had acted so…wrongly. Criminally, perhaps.”
“They paid me. I do anything.”
“Yes. You should not.”
“I just want money. I’ll leave now.”
She stood to go. Ilvriss hesitated.
“Adventurer Shriekblade. I called you here to ask if you were willing to…replace Master Zelir. Or at least test me without breaking my arm and show me what a real ambush or battle would be like.”
She looked at him. Either the Calming Tonic was wearing off, or the moment had snapped her out of her former state. She spoke, incredulously.
“You want me to hit you? With swords, knives, needles?”
“Not…fatally. But I need to improve. So, if you were willing to—”
“I would get to hit my employer?”
“Without doing permanent damage.”
He stressed that. Shriekblade nodded.
“But I’d get to hit you?”
“Under controlled situations…”
She stared at him. Then she nodded. Ilvriss felt like he’d made a mistake already. But he stopped her as they began to leave.
“Adventurer Shriekblade…Miss Tessa. That incident in the bedroom. I do mean what I said. You should not have been put in that situation, your…willingness aside. Nor do I think, in light of that, it is wise for you to rely on those potions.”
She looked at him.
“I’m a better adventurer when I take them. I follow orders. I don’t like doing this when I’m not on them.”
“Even so. Would you consider refraining from taking them unless needed?”
The Drake stared at Ilvriss. She actually walked around him, peering at him. Eventually, she nodded.
“You’re strange. Alright. When we spar, I can’t hurt you permanently. But I can hit you.”
“I think I will specify ways we might fight. For instance, bare-claws. Or you could simulate a…rapier.”
“I can use that.”
“Captain Shieldscale may want to learn, if one can learn.”
He was going to find out how he’d fare against a real high-level opponent without artifacts or backup. Ilvriss’ stomach began to hurt. He hoped he’d level. Shriekblade’s eyes flickered.
“I can hit her too?”
“Got it, got it. Can I bite?”
The next morning, Ilvriss lay in bed as the sun rose.
He was….physically…healed. But his ego and body had taken a beating. He shuddered.
You could dislocate someone’s arm and that was not permanent damage if an expert did it to you. Allegedly.
Was there a point to it? He was already trying to rationalize why another sparring session was a bad idea. But the problem was…Shriekblade was an expert.
“You have a gap—here.”
Then she kicked him in the groin. He curled up at the memory. She’d spotted a weakness in his guard. One that maybe Zelir had spotted or pointed out. Either way?
Ilvriss would never make the same mistake after Shriekblade pointed it out.
And yet, she seemed almost happy. How did he know?
“You not getting up?”
“No. Please close the door.”
The Named Adventurer was having breakfast in his residence. Ilvriss lay there.
“Never again. It’s just self-flagellation. I don’t need to do it.”
He muttered to himself. The hard part—the difficult part was—
He’d damn well leveled up last night. The Drake moaned internally. It was probably mending ties with his uncle, or progressing his understanding of Xesci’s class. Levels were cumulative effort over time! You couldn’t attribute it to the final day of—
The door opened.
“I get to spar with you tonight?”
“Yes. Captain Shieldscale first.”
He hid under the blankets as the door closed again. He was at least glad that someone was happy. What would Erin say?
…She’d be laughing too hard to talk about now. But he thought she would also have approved, even if she hadn’t worded it this way. Shriekblade…he felt for the Named Adventurer. She was not Xesci, who, despite everything, seemed in control of herself.
Ilvriss was wondering if he could justify wearing armor—or at least, a codpiece—when he noticed something on his bedroom floor. He must have forgotten it after Shriekblade dumped him in his home and he crawled into bed.
The [Message]. Ilvriss slowly exited the bed, feeling phantom pain with every step. He crawled on the floor to the [Message], picked it up, and read it. It was all so—
Shriekblade felt good today. It was such a rare feeling when she hadn’t recently been to the Healer of Tenbault she kept expecting it to go away. She had an appetite and everything, even if the Gnoll serving her kept glaring at her.
She got to punch her employer, and he hadn’t even told her to sleep with him. This was a good job. And that annoying blue Drake. She was looking forwards to that, even if the day was going to be dead b—
Ilvriss kicked the door to his bedroom open and strode out.
“Shriekblade! With me!”
The Named Adventurer was already on her feet. Ilvriss was striding across the room.
“Wall Lord? Is everything alright? Breakfast—”
“Send it to the company headquarters!”
He was already halfway down the stairs and storming for the door. The [Message] was in his claws. It was a simple one. A request for aid, like many sent to him. But this one had not been sent to Ilvriss. It was one of the [Messages] Alrric had dutifully copied that were sent to the city of Liscor. Public notices.
This one was from the Horns of Hammerad. Ilvriss was in his office as a blinking Alrric found he’d been beaten to work.
“The Village of the Dead. What do you know about it, Alrric?”
The [Administrator] had to look it up over tea. He had all kinds of encyclopedias and almanacs. It was Shriekblade who answered, visible, and uncharacteristically talkative.
“Designation—Named-rank threat. Death zone. Uncleared. Passive. Undead-type threat.”
“Those are adventurer terms. Explain it.”
Ilvriss snapped. Shriekblade shrugged.
“It means only a Named-rank Adventurer should even go near it. Death zone means that it’s a place where you die if you go. Like…Rhir. And uncleared means no one’s found out what lies inside. Passive means it isn’t expanding. Like Creler nests. Undead-type means…”
“I have it, Wall Lord. A Human village to the north. A known threat. It appeared, well, thousands of years ago and has never been erased or destroyed.”
“That’s not like the Humans.”
Alrric nodded. He wondered—no, it had to be the [Message] he’d copied over. But he didn’t see why Ilvriss was galvanized. The pieces were there. He tried to recall it. It was a bit lengthy, but the key parts might have been…
…may have something that can be traded or help her. We, the Horns of Hammerad, intend to assault the Village of Death in two week’s time. We are calling in every team associated with The Wandering Inn to join us if possible. To any adventurer, we are offering full shares after a first pick of any item and compensation at market value if not. We know it’s dangerous. Come anyways, for the [Innkeeper] of Liscor.
“There have been attempts. The Five Families sent armies into the Village of Death.”
The Wall Lord looked up. Alrric frowned at the book, closed it abruptly. He shook his head.
“The Village grew. The armies retreated after being overwhelmed by the undead, who seemed to regenerate even from near-complete destruction, or pushed into the village and were lost to observers. With more bodies…lost, the village’s radius expanded. The area was attempted by Named-rank adventurers. Two. One a team, one a solo member. The team fell back. The solo adventurer was presumed lost. The area was declared a death zone.”
“And a Gold-rank team is going in there? Crazy. Sounds like fun. If they paid me, I’d go. How much are they offering?”
Ilvriss showed Shriekblade the [Message]. The Drake glanced at the missive, looking for a number.
“Compensation? For that? Pass.”
“What would it take for you to join in the fighting?”
Alrric and Shriekblade did a double-take.
The Named Adventurer thought. Then she smiled.
“I’ll fight until they retreat for two hundred.”
“Two hundred gold?”
Alrric choked on his morning tea. Ilvriss frowned.
“That’s exorbitant, even for you, Shriekblade.”
“It’s a death zone.”
She shrugged. But she looked excited at the idea. Ilvriss drummed his claws on the table.
“The problem is the destination. If you could get to Liscor, you can jump to Invrisil. But this is…Ancestors damn it. Three days old. You’d barely make it to Pallass, let alone Invrisil. I’d have to clear you for Pegasus-flight direct if Oteslia even acknowledges it.”
The Wall Lord closed his eyes.
“Of course you are. Fine, then. I don’t know if you’d even make it on time. Alrric—send a [Message] to Ceria Springwalker. Ask her if she will delay the assault. Meanwhile—get me…”
He was writing furiously. Alrric nodded for an assistant to take over as he went to clean the tea from his fur. Shriekblade pointed.
“I know those names. Some of them. Gold-ranks.”
“Yes. These are adventurers to contact. Tell them I have a job offer for them in regards to the Horns of Hammerad’s [Message]—get me a [Mage], as well as [Message] scrolls. I’ll have the contents in ten minutes. And I need a list of teams in Invrisil or the region. Inquire, will you?”
“Yes, Wall Lord.”
The Drake took the list and rushed off. Ilvriss sat forwards. He began to write a [Message]. It was short, brief, and the first one he sent to Keldrass of the Flamewardens.
He would have sent one to Bevussa, but she was on contract. Ilvriss went down the list. First—Gold-ranks. He received a flurry of [Messages] and replied briefly. Then he went to Silver.
“Keldrass of the Flamewardens. I would like you to participate in the Horns of Hammerad’s request for a joint-assault on the Village of Death. I am prepared to offer your team compensation for joining in the effort, regardless of success or failure. Pending your agreement with the Adventurer’s Guild, I will transfer twenty thousand gold pieces into your account at the Merchant’s Guild.”
Alrric stared at the [Message] he’d just read out. He shook his head. Then he began authorizing payments from Ilvriss’ personal account. The Wall Lord was spending money on this assault. Shriekblade was waiting on a response from the Horns of Hammerad…
And Ilvriss couldn’t sit still. Saliss of Lights wasn’t in Pallass and besides, he was out of his arsenal. Other big Named Adventurers in the areas refused—to leave their posts, to go north, or just because they were engaged.
Crowdcaller Merdon and Elia Arcsinger had already declined, and some were in contract to the Five Families for instance.
But he could hire teams from Pallass, Liscor, Invrisil—he stopped pacing.
“And here is your bill, Wall Lord. I’ve taken it from your account.”
“Hm. Thank you, Alrric.”
Ilvriss glanced at the figure. It was more than what Shriekblade would charge, although it would double again if she agreed and could make it.
It did not matter. He thought of that inn. This—this was something.
Something. The feeling in his veins felt like—satisfaction. Progress. Ilvriss turned.
“Alrric, is Nerul unoccupied?”
“I can check.”
“I’d like to meet him now. After that—I need Captain Shieldscale. I am going to visit The Drake’s Pearl shortly after that.”
The Gnoll hesitated. One did not normally announce that last bit in a loud voice. But the Wall Lord didn’t seem to care that half his staff in the office had recognized the name and were staring at him sidelong.
“Is everything alright, Ilvriss?”
The Drake came to a stop. He looked at Alrric.
“No. But I intend to set it right. Time to take risks. Throw frying pans.”
“Is…that an expression?”
Ilvriss didn’t bother replying. He walked into his office.
“Shriekblade. I have a mission for you.”
“Besides going to that Village of Death? What do you want?”
He told her. She blinked.
“Really? That sounds like fun. What do I do? Kill?”
“No, find. I want it done before I leave The Drake’s Pearl. That will be…”
“How long does it take? Ten minutes? Five? Two?”
Ilvriss ignored that.
“Let’s call it evening. Succeed by then and you’ll have a bonus.”
“Really? I’ll find them.”
Nerul was next, and Captain Shieldscale. Ilvriss stood up.
“Nephew, what’s this about? Your Gnoll said it was urgent. I have a hangover, though. Started any wars? Disputes you want me to end?”
The portly Drake looked reproachful. Ilvriss stood up.
“Uncle, I have a request. I want you to help me and I am prepared to compensate you. It’s a personal favor, not a Gemscale family one.”
The Drake blinked. Ilvriss told him what he wanted. The Drake inhaled.
“That’s a two-year project if ever I heard of one. But I can do it in my off-time.”
“No. It’s a today-project.”
The [Diplomat] stopped in his tracks.
“You must be joking. No…this isn’t playing around, Ilvriss. It’s unfriendly. It could lead to conflict. Have you cleared this with Zail?”
“No, and I don’t intend to. I want it done. I am the acting head of the Gemscale family. And you can name your price.”
Nerul licked his lips.
“Well. I have to admit, it would be the kind of thing that I like doing now and then. And it’s a leveling opportunity. Hm. Hmm…it’s not any scales off my tail, Ilvriss. Are you sure?”
He met his uncle’s gaze.
The [Diplomat] sighed, rubbed at the back of his neck and his neck-spines, and nodded.
“There was too much conviction there for my liking. It must be needed. Very well. I can do it tonight. It is going to be unpleasant and you are going to have to let me do all the talking first, understand? No going out of line or it fails. Let me gather a group. I need down payments—”
“Very well. I’ll set it up. What has gotten into you today, Ilvriss?”
The Wall Lord stood there, adjusting his clothing, which he’d donned in a hurry. He knew this would damage Gemscale’s reputation. Much less what he was going to do. He didn’t care.
“I have to hurry, Uncle. I’m tired of sitting around.”
He looked at the Drake. Nerul nodded.
Xesci was engaged when Wall Lord Ilvriss stormed into The Drake’s Pearl for the third day.
“He must be obsessed. He wants to see you right now.”
The [Manager] told Xesci when she had emerged. The Drake frowned.
“Not with me in the way you’re thinking. I wonder what he wants.”
This time, she was wearing a shorter Gnoll’s body. A sweetheart. And she was certainly smiling, if bewildered, as Ilvriss walked into the room.
“Wall Lord. How can I help you?”
He sat down abruptly. The air around him had changed. Before, when they had first met, he had been reluctant, even tired. Now—he was almost unable to sit still. He met her gaze.
“Miss Xesci. When we first spoke, you mentioned that one of your dreams was to return to the north in time, perhaps after having saved up enough. Was that true or an exaggeration?”
“I…it wasn’t untruthful. I’d like to retire. Wouldn’t we all? I don’t know where I’d settle, but yes, I would at least visit.”
“I see. And do you enjoy your job or would you retire if you had the choice?”
She rested her chin on her hands.
“You mean, would I continue working here? Wall Lord—it’s a job. Sometimes it’s enjoyable, sometimes not. But it’s not a passion. Especially if you’re the only expert in the room.”
The woman grinned at him, inviting him to share the joke. He did not.
“In that case, Miss Xesci, I have a proposition for you. I would like to hire you to work for me in an unusual capacity. Not as a [Courtesan], but as an…agent. I cannot go into details here, but I would be prepared to offer you enough gold to retire on after your work is completed. A year—two at most.”
She stared at him. Then she rubbed at one ear.
The Wall Lord repeated himself. The woman stared.
“What could I possibly offer…is this an exceptionally personal matter, Wall Lord?”
She’d heard of contracts like this. She wasn’t opposed, but Ilvriss denied it again.
“I am not asking you to…bed me. I won’t rule it out, but I don’t think it’s necessary. And it will never be me. I am not willing to go into details. Only that I would like to know if you would accept the request.”
“Wall Lord, I’m working in the best brothel in all of Salazsar. I don’t know how much you think I earn, but—”
“Four hundred thousand gold pieces for one year.”
She nearly fell out of bed. Er…she slowly looked at him.
“You are serious.”
“Yes I am. One year. A formal, magical contract.”
Wall Lord Ilvriss waited as she thought, blinking. This…was a lot, even for him. He couldn’t just throw money around.
No, wait. Yes he could.
Ilvriss had one power, and it was making money. But it wasn’t a power unless you used it, and the Wall Lord was dumping gold like it was going out of style. He could afford this.
“I have to know what it’s about.”
“Then I will meet you at this location in the Gemscale Spire…tomorrow. I may be busy today, Miss Xesci. Here is the exact floor…please come alone. You are obviously assured of your safety, but I can swear on a truth stone now if you would like. However, this is a confidential affair for my family and I, and I cannot risk speaking of it here.”
She nodded. He could only imagine what intrigues she was thinking of—but the sum persuaded her.
“I may refuse, Wall Lord?”
But he hoped she would not. And he felt as though the truth was…enough. Ilvriss stood up, and walked out of the room. Xesci stared after his back.
What did he need her for? To seduce some Human [Lord]? Uncover an infidelity plot in the Walled Families?
What she didn’t realize was that it wasn’t just her.
Ilvriss wanted talent. Talent was hard to get. But there were individuals in this city who exceeded all the others.
The best. Literally. Not ‘second-best’, but indisputable masters. And there was one in every city.
Saliss of Lights, for instance, a name people knew in a city of millions.
But there was the thing. Even if you knew them, even if they were your friends, it was hard to get them to do something for you. You would either have to be a charismatic, charming [Innkeeper] with the ability to create miracles and who befriended such people to help her as the need arose…
Or you were a Wall Lord of Salazsar who would drown you in gold pieces. Someone with the kind of power and willingness to expend parts of what he’d hoarded for his entire life in one moment.
The famous artist known as ‘Sellme’ ran through the streets of Salazsar, pushing past people. Disaster!
They were running for the gates. One of the walls to the city. Anywhere. Their tenure in Salazsar was done. They’d made a name for themselves and had finally begun really stabbing the Walled Families where it hurt—their ego and flaws.
However, the City of Gems had gone on the offensive too fast. Way too fast. And it was a bit of bad luck, but really, it was also the fact that a Named Adventurer had been deployed to end Sellme.
Shriekblade the killer. She was after Sellme, and not only did she have the advantage of all her contacts in the city, Ilvriss had given her a useful piece of advice.
You’re looking for a Drake.
He’d even seen Sellme’s tail color. But the reason Sellme had been found was really Ilvriss knowing how the elusive [Painter] did their work. Shriekblade had gone hunting for streets where Skills were keeping people away and found the [Painter] doing one of their pieces—another lampoon against Rellmel’s ongoing treatment of [Miners].
The Drake’s head turned. The fearsome Named Adventurer had slowed in the crowd, but more bodies were charging after them. An azure Drake with clearly-dyed scales to the [Painter]’s eyes was leading dozens of Drakes in Gemscale family colors.
“Erchirite Spears! On the business of a Wall Lord of Salazsar! Clear a path!”
A voice bellowed. The [Painter] sprinted left—then tried to slow, turn around. They yanked their hood down. In the crowd, they’d be lost. Drakes and Gnolls looked around, irritated or confused. But the [Painter] smiled, shook their heads. Blended in.
They’d lost some of the good paints! Damn…but they had to run. This city was too hot. They just needed to slip the—
Wall Lord Ilvriss of Salazsar strode down the street with a hundred of the Erchirite Spears. People stared at the display of force as the group blocked one end of the street. The [Painter] froze.
“I am Wall Lord Ilvriss! Please remain calm—we are looking for an individual hiding among you! Captain Shieldscale, the [Appraisal] Skills. Shriekblade—”
“There, there, there, there! Those four can’t be read.”
The [Painter]’s blood ran cold. The Named Adventurer was looking at them, materializing on a balcony. They had used the anti-Appraisal ring against them!
“It’s that one! The painter! With the white scales!”
She pointed at them.
People’s heads turned as Ilvriss and half of Gemscale’s family guard and his hired forces thundered after the [Painter], blockading the street. He saw a white, scaled face, a Drake—with colored scales, yellow and green speckled in. Unusual pattern.
“The painter? Sellme? They’re going after—”
The crowd reacted to Shriekblade’s loud voice. They turned, saw the fleeing figure, and came to the obvious conclusion.
“They’re silencing Sellme! Stop them! That’s Shriekblade!”
They began pushing at the Erchirite Spears and Gemscale [Guards]. Ilvriss cursed.
“We are not arresting that [Painter]! I just want to—Shriekblade, apprehend, do not harm!”
“But that’s not what I’m good at—”
She leapt after the Drake. Ilvriss saw Osthia slowed by the crowd, who turned their wrath on the Drakes.
“No violence! I’m going after them! [Haste]!”
He twisted a ring and blurred past the people.
Oh yes. A Wall Lord had resources. He cursed Shriekblade’s methods, though. He’d told her to identify the Drake, not grab! But she’d wanted a bigger bonus so she’d tried to get Sellme before Osthia and Ilvriss arrived.
She’d misunderstood what he wanted to do. But the fact that Sellme had actually evaded the Named Adventurer, even if she wasn’t allowed to harm, was impressive.
In truth, the reason Ilvriss had wanted Sellme had more to do with wanting to know what they could do rather than what he had an idea for. Unlike Xesci, they were an unknown quantity.
But they were high-level. And there was always a use for…
Ilvriss caught up to Shriekblade, who’d cornered Sellme against an alleyway.
“Stay back! I’m a citizen of the Walled Cities! You’re not allowed to kill me!”
A surprisingly young voice shouted. Male. Ilvriss saw a frightened Drake as Shriekblade advanced, tensed.
“I’m not going to kill you. I’m not allowed to. But I will break your legs if you do that again! You got paint in my eyes!”
She hissed. Ilvriss skidded to a halt.
“Shriekblade, enough. Sellme—I want to talk. I am Wall Lord Ilvriss—”
“I won’t be silenced! Salazsar is corrupt!”
The [Painter] drew forth—Ilvriss tensed, but it was a brush. Coated in paint. They turned their back to him and he motioned.
“You stay back. Stop them if they run, but no harming them. I wanted to talk!”
“Oh. You’re not breaking their legs and handing them over to Lord Rellmel? But you said to that [Diplomat]—”
“That was an unrelated issue! Painter Sellme—”
Ilvriss saw a flicker. He turned just in time to see the younger [Painter] leap into the doorway at the end of the alleyway and scramble down the street. He started. Shriekblade blinked. They charged after the Drake as one, cursing. Ilvriss was so confused.
That hadn’t been—
Wham. They ran into the painted doorway as Shriekblade hit the brick wall and then Ilvriss collided with her. It was so realistic that neither one had realized that the Drake had drawn it while they were arguing!
Ilvriss stared up at the paint now on his face and armor. Shriekblade cursed.
“He did it again! He threw paint at me the first time—I ran into it in the air! It’s a [Magical Painter] or something!”
Ilvriss stared at the doorway. He’d broken the paint—it had been showing the street beyond. He stood up as Osthia, battered, with the contents of a chamber pot on her armor, skidded into the alleyway.
“Wall Lord. Did you get—”
“They escaped. They can paint doors, Captain. After them! I need their talents.”
Ilvriss got to his feet. Shriekblade was already running, mad as hell.
But Sellme was gone. They were out of the city before Shriekblade found the hole in the wall of Salazsar, an artfully drawn ramp that had carried them to safety.
Wall Lord Rellmel was celebrating the disappearance of the acclaimed [Painter], Sellme, with his sister, Wall Lady Grisa. That was the ruling elite’s mood; the city was sullen.
People blamed Wall Lord Ilvriss for the incident on the streets, and rumors were already flying that he had deployed no less than Shriekblade to silence Sellme before his secrets could be leaked.
What that was, was unclear. Rellmel had a different opinion.
“I bet you he wanted to get Sellme to sweeten the deal, Grisa. He really wanted the Potion of you-know-what.”
His sister glanced around the restaurant, one of the fanciest in all of Salazsar, with a commanding view. Rellmel hated being here. It was too expensive, but she always wanted to take her boyfriend here. And she was always interfering with the company that was his job to run.
Case in point. A million gold pieces? They could live off that alone for…four years! Three! But she refused. She was paranoid about safety; her Amulet of Protection glinted conspicuously as she glowered at him, waiting for the handsome Drake to get back from the bathroom—her date.
“Absolutely not. That’s our heirloom. A million’s too low! If he went ten million, I’d think about it.”
“No one can afford that for one potion, Grisa.”
“Fetohep of Khelt, might.”
She tossed her head. His jaw dropped.
“You want to sell to a skeleton?”
“Business is business.”
“But Ilvriss went after Sellme—”
“Maybe it was because his company has problems. If he caught Sellme—so what?”
“The pictures of us—”
“They’re gone, so we don’t owe Ilvriss anything, Rellmel. Now, I want a happy dinner. Understand?”
He folded his arms as his sister glowered. The Wall Lord was discontent, but he felt like trying his luck at the bar now that Sellme was gone and his reputation would be cleared. This—unpleasantness with the [Miners] would be forgotten, and business was booming even without.
“Wall Lord Ilvriss.”
Rellmel looked up from studying the menu. Grisa was already ordering. She looked around as Rellmel’s personal bodyguard, a Gnoll, urgently whispered to him.
“Lord Rellmel, Wall Lord Ilvriss is approaching the restaurant! We’re moving to intercept, but he has caught the Emera family off-guard! We have to evacuate you now!”
For a second, the Drake didn’t even understand what he was hearing.
“Evacuate me? Ilvriss? Here? What are you talking…”
Grisa was on her feet. Rellmel saw an Emera-family hire, old Vidam, arrive, panting, clutching at his side. And two more he recognized, both Drakes.
All with the same class. The bodyguard was speaking urgently, trying to get Rellmel to understand.
“We thought it was a possibility but—Lord Nerul returned yesterday and he was seen hiring a full negotiation squad. He is coming, Wall Lord—”
Rellmel’s eyes widened as Grisa shot out of her chair past her date.
“Ancestors! Rellmel! He’s gone mad! He’s going to force a negotiation! We have to go—”
The Wall Lord was struggling out of his seat as the three top [Diplomats] and [Emissaries] of House Emera moved towards them. The [Bodyguard] and the other members of the staff present closed ranks as they looked for an exit. But it was too late.
The doors to The Ancestor’s View were already open, so Nerul had them closed so he could kick them open. It was about style.
Also, shock value. The [Diplomat] strode into the restaurant as people got to their feet. And with him, he had a team of hit-Drakes.
The most dangerous, the most deadly infighters in all of Salazsar were at his back. Each one dangerous alone. With Nerul? House Emera had seen trouble the instant three of them gathered in one place.
Mister Grerre, a contract scroll in hand, more bundled in his arms. Weressna ‘The Sealer’, hobbling along on her cane. Mister Superior, the only Gnoll of the bunch, almost as overweight as Nerul.
The most dangerous posse, yes.
…Not in a fistfight, although Nerul was surprisingly good at fighting and he knew Weressna had a sword-cane, but in their chosen field.
They were [Negotiators]. [Diplomats]. [Contract Sealers].
The class of soft power. The people you sent instead of swords or arrows to use words instead.
People laughed—until they saw what high-level experts with dedicated Skills did.
They didn’t laugh in Salazsar. This was a raid. This was an assault, and as close to war between the Walled Families as it got.
“House Gemscale greets House Emera! Excuse me, Wall Lord Rellmel, Wall Lady Grisa, but we’d like to come to the table regarding an item for sale.”
Nerul bellowed into the silence. He saw the two noble Drakes, trying to get out the back door. The [Bodyguard] tried to block the group of six [Negotiators], but he was useless. He had an enchanted axe, a shield that could have stopped a Grand Elephant on the charge.
The [Diplomat] raised a claw as the Gnoll drew his axe.
“Not one step further or I strike!”
“[Peacekeeper’s Pass]. Sorry, young man. But you’re not going to stop us.”
The [Diplomat] walked past the Gnoll [Bodyguard]. He saw the Gnoll move to strike—with the butt of the axe—
And his arm didn’t move. The group walked past him and the other guards. They had the Skills that [Ladies] had learned, but yet to master. The abilities that [Innkeepers], [Kings], even [Strategists] and [Generals] got—but they were all of their class.
So long as I do no harm, you cannot harm me. Nerul focused on his real opponents. There were three of them.
Old Vidam. Nerul cracked his knuckles and winced.
“Out the doors—hurry—”
The [Silvertongue Emissary] was trying to force the Drakes down the steps. Nerul smiled.
“Not so fast. Wall Lord Rellmel, we have a negotiation to get to and I insist you [Come to the Table].”
The Wall Lord froze, his hand on the doorknob. He tried to fight—but he wasn’t Ilvriss. He began to pivot when Vidam blocked Nerul’s way.
“[Request Denied]. Lord Rellmel has said his piece and no Skills or unlawful persuasion will force him otherwise!”
The Drake woman tsked. Weressna shook her head as Videl freed Rellmel.
“Oh come on, Vidam. [Think About It].”
One of the younger Drakes from the Emera family barked. Nerul raised his brows. No style, no substance. And it was three versus six.
The Drake with scrolls moved at Nerul’s nod.
“[Let’s Make a Deal]. We have vast funds, Lord and Lady of the Walls. You haven’t heard all of what House Gemscale and Lord Ilvriss have to offer.”
“[Clear Minds]! That’s not a valid offer. Wall Lord Rellmel has refused the offers on the table!”
“Let’s [Sweeten the Deal], then.”
Nerul crooned. Vidam was already sweating. He was trying to deny the multiple Skills attacking his clients, but he was outnumbered and outplayed. One of the Drakes croaked.
“[Future Negotiation]. We—we will do this—”
“We will do this now.”
The [Diplomat] broke the Skill in half without even needing to waste his own. The weaker [Negotiator] reeled. Nerul turned to Vidam.
“I was always the better [Diplomat]. I’m afraid this is going to turn into a sit-down, Vidam. Bring whoever you want. But you’re going to lose.”
He turned, wiped the sweat from his brow, and pointed.
“Let’s see. That table will do nicely. Let’s clear the restaurant. Where’s the manager? We’ll need food, scrolls—”
“And I’ve talked to the manager.”
Mister Superior emerged from the back room and nodded to Nerul. The Drake grinned. He nodded to the Drake and group he’d told to wait at the doorway. Ilvriss entered the room as the two members of House Emera sat, furious, but helpless, at the negotiation table.
Nerul sat. Oh, they made fun of him. The black sheep of House Gemscale. The white Gnoll, in other parlances. [Diplomat]. What a useless class. What could it do that a [Lord], a [Warrior] could not?
Well, he could pry a potion out of the hands of even the most stubborn Drakes. And all without drawing a weapon. He grinned, cracked his fingers again, winced, and got down to work.
Ilvriss recalled that Erin Solstice had once been furious when Xif the [Alchemist] had forced her to sell one of her faerie flowers. He didn’t recall if he had been there for that, or just heard the news from keeping tabs on Liscor.
Well, Xif had one Skill in Nerul’s field. Nerul had many. And what Xif could do to an [Innkeeper]? A [Negotiator] lived to do this.
…Some of them. The negotiation-raid was a known tactic in Salazsar, who relied on contracts and companies. It beat bloodshed, but it was not employed normally.
It was to aggression what kicking down the door with a group of [Thugs] was. And even if you got what you wanted—
“There will be consequences! We won’t let this lie!”
Grisa hissed at him. The turn of phrase made Ilvriss pause, but he just shook his head.
“Maybe so, Wall Lady. But I insist.”
“And we are right to believe your number is above eight hundred thousand, but below one million. Let’s call it nine hundred thousand gold pieces, hm?”
“My client…is not willing…to sell a value-less item for that much.”
The old Drake, Vidam, was fighting Nerul and the five top-level [Negotiators] with a squad of seven. They’d actually waited for the others to arrive, but Nerul had called on his best friends—including the legendary Mister Superior.
Alrric was sitting next to Ilvriss, as a representative of his company. Vidam was sweating, but Nerul was merciless.
“Nine hundred thousand gold pieces. In your vaults tomorrow. What do you say, Wall Lord Rellmel? You have to know we can’t just walk off. And that’s…nine hundred thousand gold pieces now. Rather than ‘someday’. [Think About It].”
They had used dozens of Skills with overlapping effects. [Everything Has a Price], [See it My Way], [Sweeter Deal]—
“Do we have confirmation this is a genuine Potion of Regeneration? Excuse me, I’d like a [Fact Check] here.”
Mister Superior was taking on two Drakes at another table. They gulped and Grisa blurted out before anyone could stop her.
“Of course we have one! It’s only one third full, but—”
Ilvriss stirred. Vidam snapped his claw and Grisa’s mouth shut, but it was too late. Nerul stirred.
“I think that just kicked down the value to…three hundred thousand gold pieces. And you know that even if you’ve stored it properly, a third isn’t enough, Wall Lord. We’re talking damaged goods, here. You want to sit on that? Or a nice…three hundred thousand? You could live like a [King] for an entire year on that. You and your sister. And this all can end.”
Rellmel was sweating. It was also the pressure that got to you at this table. Ilvriss had known hard Drakes, who lived and died fighting.
Even so. There was something unnerving about someone who refused to blink, or stop staring at you. Yes, you could try to win the staring contest.
You would lose. Weressna was blowing smoke into a younger Drake’s face; the [Mediator] actually had tears in her eyes.
Nerul was playing nice. Some of his cohort were just staring down the lesser [Negotiators] and winning the battle of wills.
As he said, sometimes he spent three months sweet-talking, sometimes he strode in with fire and thunder.
There would be consequences. And Ilvriss, at that moment, as he saw Rellmel’s mouth open and Grisa whirl, decided to step in. Nerul had said not to, but it was time.
“Five—six hundred thousand.”
Nerul glanced up. He shot Ilvriss a warning look and poked him with his tail.
“Ilvriss, I can get—”
“I know, Uncle. But I want to at least try to make this…less painful. Six hundred thousand for a third-full Potion of Regeneration. Well, Rellmel?”
He looked across the table. Vidam rose, swaying.
“[A Moment of R—]”
Weressna tapped her cane on the ground and stopped his Skill with hers silently. Rellmel gasped.
“Yes. Fine! Damn the potion!”
Ilvriss exhaled. He saw Nerul nod, and Vidam collapsed on the table, ashen-grey. His people surged around him. Grisa stared at Ilvriss as the Drake with contracts unfurled the scroll. He had just written the number in magical ink.
“And we are ready to sign. Wall Lord?”
He offered it to Ilvriss, then Rellmel. The Drake wrote with a shaking claw as Ilvriss sighed. Alrric exhaled.
“It will be sent tonight. I have the sum prepared.”
It was done. Grisa never looked away from Ilvriss as Nerul and the other [Negotiators] rose to raid the bar, already congratulating each other.
“You have made a terrible mistake.”
“Perhaps so, Lady Grisa. But I need it.”
“For what? You’re not hurt. Unless—Zail? Helessia?”
He met her gaze without replying. He rose, as Rellmel sat back, white under his scales. Wall Lord Ilvriss stepped back, and spoke to Alrric.
“Cover the costs of this for the restaurant. My deepest apologies. The food used—tips for the staff. All generous. And my Uncle and his friends drink whatever they want tonight. On me.”
“That’s a mighty tab, Ilvriss.”
The Gnoll murmured. Ilvriss nodded.
“Less than what I spent on the potion.”
“True. And what do I do with that?”
Ilvriss straightened. He felt light. He left Grisa behind, ignoring her threats. He walked with Alrric.
“Send word to Lyonette in Liscor. To the Horns of Hammerad. Tell them to wait. And tell them—I have what they want.”
It would cost him. It had cost him. But if it was just payment…he was Wall Lord Ilvriss.
He’d settle the bill.
He had done what he could for Erin Solstice. The Potion of Regeneration was away within the hour, with a full escort. Not Shriekblade—she was with him, but happy since she’d thrashed both him and Captain Shieldscale and gotten to cause chaos and watch it unfold.
The Horns might not even need to dare a death zone. Ilvriss hoped it would do what was needed.
But it was the Necromancer who remained. He stood, with Captain Shieldscale, no, Osthia Blackwing, in front of Xesci.
“[Detect Life] is the easiest check. But you can fool even [Detect Lies] or [Detect Truth]. If you are a high-enough level [Mage]. Isn’t that so?”
“Yes. Ancestors and dead fucking gods, but I could do that. But this?”
The magical artifact draped over Xesci’s head changed colors with her mood, with the truth. A more advanced ‘crown’ that revealed a complexity of meaning. Ilvriss hoped it was enough to ‘tell’ whether a person was real, or a puppet.
“You are not an agent of any power, or controlled by an influence besides your own, Xesci. Is that true?”
He had asked a dozen times, a dozen different ways.
Ilvriss and Osthia studied the lights. She pointed to one.
“There’s something here.”
The [Courtesan] shivered. Shriekblade twitched. Ilvriss held his breath. They’d tested Shriekblade, Osthia, himself, and the last of the members in this room of five. The five who would form the heart of this operation. If any of them owed allegiance to someone else—they were dead.
Shriekblade had been the biggest gamble, really. But Nerul had told Ilvriss he could stop her from attacking long enough to raise the alarm.
It was ingenious. Send a [Diplomat] at an [Assassin] and you could actually stall even her. For a time.
“I….have ties to the Sisters of Chell, I suppose? No one else.”
Ilvriss watched the colors light up. Truth. A slight hesitation—
“No one else besides individuals or friends, yes?”
Truth, more accurately reflected.
“I think she’s good, Wall Lord.”
Osthia exhaled. Ilvriss nodded at last and the [Courtesan of Change] sagged. He helped her remove the diadem.
“That’s it then.”
The portly Drake stood. Nerul. He looked sick.
“Az’kerash lives. And he’s got agents…”
“Named Adventurers. Regrika Blackpaw was one. Anyone could be under his sway. We don’t know his forces. We don’t know his preparations. What I do know is that he’s alive and he killed Zel Shivertail. And Periss.”
The room was silent. Shriekblade scratched at one earhole.
“Huh. Am I supposed to know this?”
He looked at her, then Xesci. The Drake woman nodded and licked her lips.
“Why are you telling us?”
The Wall Lord slowly walked around the room. He met everyone’s eyes, Osthia, Nerul, Shriekblade—no, Tessa, and Xesci.
“Because we have a duty to stop him. And right now—there are five people in this world we can be sure of that aren’t his agents. He is, possibly, a Level 70 [Necromancer]. Possibly Level 80.”
Nerul muttered. Ilvriss nodded.
“Only Zel Shivertail and an army of the Antinium attacking together beat him. And the Goblin King. Beyond that? He has destroyed Terandrian kingdoms. And I believe he has grown stronger since then. He is our enemy. And right now, we are all that can be trusted.”
There was Ryoka Griffin. There had been Erin…and others. But they could have been subverted. Replaced. Ilvriss felt his scales crawling.
“You are all Drakes. Members of the Walled Cities. Of Izril. I believe you all have a talent and the will to fight back. So.”
He sat back, tired, but feeling the tingle in his veins.
“Let’s hunt the Necromancer. We have my resources. We have an army in training. And we have leads. Now I can actually rely on people—”
He nodded at Nerul, who could actually organize things with authority.
“—I can begin pursuing some of the ones outside of Salazsar.”
The [Diplomat]’s eyes were sharp. Shriekblade tilted her head back and forth. Xesci was just staring around, slightly overwhelmed.
“Magnolia Reinhart once said something that made me think she knew he was alive. Either she is aware and opposing him—or she is concealing the information but hinting at it—or…”
Ilvriss trailed off.
She was his. Nerul muttered.
“Ah. So you’re on the move?”
Osthia looked blank. Ilvriss glanced at her, and Nerul elaborated.
“Magnolia Reinhart is going to Oteslia. It seems only fitting that if you were going to approach her in confidence to find out one way or the other, you’d go there. It’s an event, which is even more cover. Isn’t that so, neph—Wall Lord?”
He looked at Ilvriss. The Drake nodded.
“We may have an ally—if an untrustworthy one—with sources of information. I won’t rule out Human help, or any species or nation. But we have to know, and avoid tipping our hand. That’s why Xesci is here. Nerul helps us reach out, gives us cover and excuses. Xesci can identify them—or so I hope. Either way, she can act as a perfect [Spy].”
“What if she is—wrong? What will you do then?”
The [Courtesan] licked her lips. Ilvriss met her gaze. Then his head slowly turned. Shriekblade had been fiddling with a knife. Then she blinked at him and grinned.
“That’s why Shriekblade is coming too. To Oteslia.”
He made his plans. And the potion went to Erin Solstice.
Hope in a bottle.
After Chapter Notes: There were some parts I didn’t get to write! Alas! But a big chapter!
…Too big? I could have split it, but the ‘action’ was near the end. So it goes. I’m back off my break and hope you enjoyed! Now I am much tired and will soon rest.
But here’s your poll chapter. Here’s Ilvriss. Was it what you expected? Is it what you wanted? Do you have regrets? The Aba-bets for this month are null and void!
…But we might get chapters anyways. Just the ones I think fit. I hope you enjoyed and we’ll see what comes next. Thanks for reading and remember—[Diplomats] are scary. Or something. Night!
The Horns of Hammerad by Miguel!
Facestealer or Headsnatcher by Enuryn.
Erin by Adventurer!