(Flowers of Esthelm, Book 3 of The Wandering Inn is coming out on audible! Click the link here to preorder it! Spread the word!)
The first nation threatened by the kingdom of Ailendamus was Kaliv. The northern-most member of the Dawn Concordat occupied the rocky highlands, even ‘smaller’ mountains and passes leading north.
As one of the three members of the Dawn Concordat, the alliance of Calanfer, Kaliv, and Gaiil-Drome, Kaliv was naturally the first guard in northern aggression. Calanfer, most southern, would fight foes to the east and coming up from the coast. The kingdom of Gaiil-Drome, forested, home to a large half-Elf population and the half-Elven villages was considered safest in times of war; Pheislant was one of the few nations that would attack from the west.
[Strategists] had been analyzing Ailendamus’ first moves long before war was actually declared. They were largely on-mark; Ailendamus had imposed a naval blockade to stifle trade and any relief goods. It wasn’t a huge loss to the Dawn Concordat so long as they kept their other trade routes open, and of course, they had stockpiles of food.
However, Ailendamus was a powerhouse in the region, the largest kingdom in all of southern Terandria and arguably one of two or three of the most powerful without exception. The last hundred and sixty years and reign of four [Kings] had seen massive expansion and aggression.
“The fact that it’s Ailendamus against the Dawn Concordat is unfortunate. However, the fact remains that unless Ailendamus can secure an access treaty to assault the Dawn Concordat by way of Calanfer, they will have to fight through Kaliv’s frontier. And that is not easy.”
One of the [Strategists] in Pallass opined on the segment with Noass and Sir Relz on ongoing military conflicts. He correctly pointed out what would happen in the next two weeks.
Ailendamus had begun raiding and razing the fertile lowlands of Kaliv. In response, the people were evacuated. Then they sent in their first army, a huge invasion force sixty thousand strong.
‘Testing’ the Dawn Concordat, although armies of that size had destroyed entire legions in the field and multiple kingdoms. By the same token—forces far larger had also been stopped.
Most famous on people’s lips was a comparison that was unsociable to make in this day and age: the time when the Archmage of Death, Perril Chandler, had held off an army of four kingdoms, four hundred thousand strong, in the same passes of Kaliv.
But of course, that had been during a particularly ugly war where Kaliv had been all but beaten. If they made it to Krawlnmak’s Pass—Calanfer and Gaiil-Drome were in danger of falling because the Dawn Concordat had expended its power and failed to keep Kaliv from being overrun.
So the first army marched. Sixty thousand, to see what Calanfer did. They headed for the low-lying cities of Kaliv, rather than try and ascend.
If they went for Lufelt, the mountain-capital of Kaliv, the Griffin Queen would probably let them march all the way up through the treacherous mountain passes, raiding and ambushing them or collapsing the mountain, and then let them try to siege huge, vertical terrain while Griffins dropped stones on their heads and the famous goat-cavalry kicked them off the face of the mountain.
No, the first army wanted a fight. And so they marched on Memda—a border city fortified against general attack, but which the Dawn Concordat wasn’t willing to lose without a struggle, especially since it would prove to be a staging ground for the other armies already on the march from the kingdom of Ailendamus.
The global audience, watching, even placing bets, or speculating as to the outcome more as interested viewers than concerned people—at least, those not of Terandria—were not privy to the debate between the three members of the Dawn Concordat. If they had been, they would have understood an argument led to the battle at Memda.
Novakya, the Griffin Queen of Kaliv.
Reclis of House Marquin, King of the Eternal Throne of Calanfer.
Solen Wildheart, the Ruler of the Forests of Gaiil-Drome.
Each one had advisors of course, but the rulers were active participants in decision-making, although each one drew on various levels of expertise.
Novakya wanted the battle, refusing to let Memda be taken. Solen was of the opinion that it should only be garrisoned by a token force that would fall back and deny the city afterwards, collapsing walls, poisoning wells.
Reclis du Marquin was the most cautious and would have given up the city in favor of more advantageous battlefields. However—Novakya’s lands were in danger, and after some debate, all three monarchs agreed to make it a battle to test Ailendamus, as well as the reverse.
Thus, the Dawn Concordat met the Ailendamus force with seventy thousand of their own forces, drawing most heavily upon Kaliv’s standing armies, but supplementing them with conscripts from Calanfer. Gaiil-Drome supplied their [Woodland Rangers], half-Elven soldiery, as well as some of their [Forest Knights], but in fewer numbers; they contributed twelve thousand dedicated [Archers] as their main focus.
Calanfer sent many levied, newly-minted [Soldiers] or [Militia], to the tune of nearly twenty thousand, led by one of their lesser [Generals]. If that seemed paltry compared to the four hundred Griffins and armored foot in the thousands that Kaliv added to the low-level soldiery—Calanfer’s largest contribution was symbolic and meant to be one of the striking hammers against Ailendamus.
They sent a thousand Thronebearers, the royal [Knights] of Calanfer into battle. The largest Knight Order of the three nations would go up against the [Knights] of Ailendamus. The Order of the Thirsting Veil, the Order of the Hydra, and the Order of Drell—Drell Knights, as they were colloquially known.
To a student of knight-orders, Ailendamus possessing three spoke to the size of the kingdom. The Order of the Thirsting Veil was smallest, possessing deadly poisons often derided as ignoble by some knight orders. The Order of Drell was larger, but both were still smaller than the Order of the Hydra combined.
In brief—the Order of Drell had been founded due to Ailendamus’ wetlands. Similar but different to other marshland Kingdoms like Desonis. They specialized in aquatic warfare and could actually fight underwater.
The Order of the Hydra was plentiful, unmounted, favoring foot-knights who were drawn from common stock almost to the exclusion of nobility. They were shock troops, who used warhammers and broke the lines of enemy heavy infantry.
The engagement between both armies began with both height and the local city favoring the Dawn Concordat, as well as a slight numbers advantage. Gaiil-Drome’s famous [Archers] were ready to harry the opposition whilst Kaliv’s Griffins secured the skies and dropped projectiles as well as dove to assault the enemy. The Thronebearers would take to the field in the center, and be supplemented by flank charges by the other [Knights] and ram-cavalry.
However, Ailendamus had also prepared for their foes’ unique compositions. They had brought the famous lance-arrows of Ailendamus, which were part of the kingdom’s sigil.
Massive, enchanted bolts which half-Giants had once strung from bows and fired at opponents. They were said to have killed Dragons and pulverized walls. These days, few half-Giants were in service even to Ailendamus, so they were mounted on Greatbows that were held by teams of archer-specialists.
Not ballistae, per se. Both sides fielded siege equipment, but neither had dedicated [Engineers] in their kingdoms, so Ailendamus possessed enchanted catapults—not the infamous Drake trebuchet. The Greatbows were closer to twin bows mounted vertically rather than horizontally in an x-pattern; they required enchantments to fire the huge arrows.
As the battle began Ailendamus proved to have the superior range even to Gaiil-Drome’s [Archers]. The heavy lance-arrows threatened and unnerved the Dawn Concordat’s army as they landed, sowing chaos and reminding everyone of a similar battle between the King of Destruction and the House of Minos. They even killed two Griffins before they could harass Ailendamus’ forces, although that was accorded a lucky shot, even with Skills.
Like the King of Destruction’s dilemma, the presiding [General], Lord-Commander Metris of Calanfer, elected to charge the enemy rather than attempt to dismantle the Greatbows first. He had seen that Ailendamus had brought far fewer [Knights] than the Dawn Concordat, and their [Soldiers]—while part of their standing armies—were superior in equipment and level to the levies, and considered that the Thronebearers and the varied forces would break their lines.
He charged, committing the Thronebearers to the first charge after the infantry clashed.
There were good [Knights] and bad [Knights]. It would surprise no one to learn that not all [Knights], or knight-orders were equal. Yes, there were exceptional individuals in each order, but you could still rank them as a whole.
The Thronebearers of Calanfer were a political knighthood order. Suited to speaking poetry and attending balls as much as pure combat. They were not a weak order per se.
They did well against Ailendamus’ [Soldiers]. You could even say that one Thronebearer was worth…what, two and a half ordinary Ailendamus [Soldiers]?
But there was the rub. [Knights] were always in short supply, at least, where wars were concerned. They could hack apart weaker foes with their often-enchanted armor and Skills, not to mention devastating lance-charges on horseback.
The Knights of the Petal under Lady Bethal Walchaís, for instance, numbered less than two hundred and were a deadly fighting force even in small groups because they were untouchable against ordinary foes without means of breaking their expensive, enchanted armor.
The Thronebearers were arguably less elite than the Knights of the Petal. They still were a powerful force. But the problem was, to Knight-Commander Calirn of the Order of Seasons, as he watched the news report, simple.
Ailendamus’ [Soldiers] knew war. They were an active fighting force rather than the Thronebearers, who did not routinely engage in huge battles. The [Knights] kept themselves sharp, but the first army had steel without exception. Enchanted weapons among their [Sergeants] and officers. The Thronebearers had the advantage on the charge. But they began to take casualties and failed to break the lines of Ailendamus’ army.
The Dawn Concordat prized [Knights] more than the common levied-[Soldiers]. Or at least, the Calanfer [General] did. He pulled the Thronebearers back and tried to win with infantry alone.
In the end, it wasn’t a rout. Nor was it, in fact, a defeat. Ailendamus’ army retreated after three hours of fighting. They lost half their Greatbows to Griffin-strikes, and their army took nearly twelve thousand casualties.
The problem was, to Calirn, that Calanfer had taken nearly twenty thousand—and if you were counting valuable assets lost, they’d lost forty plus Griffins, at least two hundred Thronebearers, and a number of their other high-level forces.
“Ailendamus never intended to take the city. They intended to test the Dawn Concordat’s resolve and see how their armies faced up.”
The dry voice came from the left. Knight-Commander Calirn, head of the Order of Seasons, Pheislant’s Knight Order and one of the strongest in Terandria, turned to one of the other three leaders gathered here.
“The result, Fall Sentinel?”
He led the Season of Fall. He was both [Mage] and [Knight]. The man had white in his hair, but he could still tilt—even if the Fall Knights ran towards academic.
“They could do this a dozen times and they will, if the Dawn Concordat is unwise enough to take such battles. Those are rank-and-file [Soldiers] they will trade for Thronebearers and Griffins.”
Calirn bit off. He saw the Spring’s Warden—youngest of those here by far, and the only woman in the room—and the Summer’s Champion, both look uncomfortable. They clearly didn’t like the Dawn Concordat’s odds already.
The Winter’s Watcher was not present, often keeping his own council or watching their borders. But the Summer’s Champion clenched his fist.
“And we will not be taking part, Knight-Commander?”
“Not yet. Pheislant is undecided and we cannot drag in our kingdom by ourselves, Summer’s Champion.”
Calirn sighed. The man glowered; like many Summer Knights, the Summer’s Champion embodied passion. It was not always a good thing and he often clashed with the [Winter Knight]’s attitudes.
“Calirn. They cannot stand alone! We are the Order of Seasons! If we enter the fray, Pheislant is not beholden to answer for us! We are connected, but separate.”
That was true. But Calirn just folded his arms.
“Greysten, you know as well as I that Ailendamus will not accept that excuse. We watch.”
What he left unspoken was simply that he wasn’t sure if the Order of Seasons should fight. Because…Ailendamus might go after Pheislant next.
Because they might lose. He knew the others knew it too. Calirn shook his head.
That was the first battle of the war. There were more.
Two more battles had taken place since then. Ailendamus sent a far larger force supplemented by their war beasts—Armored Graen—to take the city. This time, the Dawn Concordat tried to make it a siege battle. The city fell too quickly to the Lancearrows; once the gates were open, the huge, thick, plodding beasts with six legs and insanely tough hide augmented by armor rampaged through the gates. And Ailendamus’ artillery meant that Griffins could not harry them.
Moreover, Ailendamus had the advantage in [Mages] as well. They fielded numerous [Mages] who cast [Poison Cloud] despite the Dawn Concordat’s objections to the use of the spell in war, as well as conventional spells like [Fireball].
Thereafter, the [Mage Marshall] in charge of this wing of offensives led her forces towards the second, more populous city of Treql, while more armies began to advance across Kaliv.
There, they suffered the first defeat of this war, and a surprising outcome that Knight-Commander Calirn witnessed live via scrying orb with the rest of the world.
The [Mage Marshall] had been leading a second battle where the Dawn Concordat tried to hold the walls, knowing that her force of ninety thousand would sweep them if they couldn’t choke the enemy. The Kaliv-main force was tough and entrenched, but the [Mage Marshall] had been throwing poisonous gas clouds, spells at the Griffins who normally dropped stones and other projectiles and decimated armies trying to siege the enemy.
She would have broken them, Calirn was sure. But that was when the Griffin Prince of Kaliv and the disgraced wing that were half-outlaws, half-vigilantes entered the fray.
The Griffin Prince. Stripped of his name, stripped of his right to succeed Novakya. Cursed, some said, by one of Terandria’s monsters. He had formed a wing of [Griffin Riders] out of former [Bandits], [Murderers], and other dregs of society, giving them one last chance to fight for honor.
They were not tolerated by Kaliv—but they were not hunted either. They were in a grey zone where Kaliv usually pretended they did not exist.
Calirn had heard stories about the immortal Griffin Prince and the tragedy around…her. The Spider. But he had not realized the true nature and power of the young man’s curse until today.
The Griffin Prince flew over the battlefield at a height above even the lancearrows. Spells and long-range shots tried to strike him, but his wing flew close-cover, deflecting or taking the shots meant for his Royal Griffin. They dropped stones, but those were blocked by barrier spells. What the [Mage Marshall] had never considered was that they would drop the Griffin Prince himself.
He fell among the stones, unnoticed at first. Surely the young man should have been splattered by the impact on the mage-barriers, or just disintegrated. But somehow—he survived.
He landed among the command of Ailendamus’ forces. Calirn saw the [Mage Marshall] blast him with a spray of poison—then a lance of magic through his chest. He staggered—brought up his axe—
And it bounced off her barrier-charm. He was diced into pieces in a second by her personal guard.
It didn’t kill him.
The second strike didn’t kill the [Mage Marshall] as, disbelieving, she saw him re-knit. But the third slew her, even as her guard tried to hack the young man apart.
The bewildered army saw the fighting in the command. It took thirty minutes—but the entire command began to flee as the Griffin Prince slaughtered the entire retinue defending the point. He destroyed three of the Greatbows before his wing dove to retrieve him; a replacement leader was attempting to capture, rather than kill him.
The Griffin Prince’s mad heroics inspired Kaliv’s forces. They sallied as, leaderless, Ailendamus’ forces lost morale. The Wing of Shame, the Griffin Prince’s retinue, took the battle to one flank, destroying Greatbows.
Ailendamus’ army didn’t even manage to retreat. Tens of thousands of [Soldiers] surrendered in the first upset of the war.
A brave boy. Calirn still couldn’t believe the dread magic that had let him survive countless deaths, however. He knew the power of the Stitch Witch, the Temptress, the Spider, Belavierr.
Even so. Ailendamus’ assault was foiled as the [Generals] no doubt took precautions against such a strike again. But the Griffin Prince used his deathlessness like a weapon without peer. He attacked raiding parties by himself, challenging groups as many as twenty strong and killing them—not by superior force of arms, but by an inability to die.
His only weakness was being captured, but the canny [Prince] had long-since learned how to pick his battles. His Wing of Shame would haunt Ailendamus in every major battle to come.
…Anyways, that was the scene. If you didn’t care about the war, or didn’t care for historical battles, it was probably all boring nonsense.
Knight-Commander Calirn paid attention because the Dawn Concordat were right next to Pheislant and he had no love for Ailendamus. But life moved on.
The Singer of Terandria, whom he had once seen, was putting out songs about the war. Desonis had a minor scandal as one of their Earls returned and was stripped of some of his land for insulting their Queen to her face.
A party in Nomaudrel had gone really wrong, and sixteen servants were dead. The hostess, a young [Duchesss], might actually be stripped of her title or lands—the nobility objected to such stringent measures, but the crown, mindful of the reaction of the commonfolk…
So it went. This was Terandria! Politics and the Hundred Families and Human kingdoms were not all one thing. The news reported on Ailendamus because it was the big war of the moment, along with the one in Chandrar with the King of Destruction.
However, only a few other parties had gotten dragged into the mix. There had been one incident with a force of [Knights] belonging to the Order of Seasons being captured at sea.
Calirn had been furious about that. But Ailendamus had promised to ransom them, claiming they had refused to surrender at first during the blockade. And again—it wasn’t the kind of thing that justified taking the Order of Seasons to war.
What had made the Knight-Commander smile was that the [Knights] escaped, even apparently managing to down a famous [General] along the way! A bad look for Ailendamus, especially since the [Knights] swore under truth spell that they had refused to heed the codes of honor and war. Ailendamus’ crown promised to investigate…
Small potatoes? Satisfying potatoes. Calirn had especially wanted to greet the [Knights] after their long journey home, because they had ridden to battle with Ser Raim and…well, failed to see the Stitch Witch dead. But all things being equal, he would not have counted it as a momentous occasion.
Except that they brought a friend. A fellow [Knight], hailing from Izril.
The Goblin Slayer. Or—Ser Solstice.
And he was a Goblin.
The return of the group of Spring and Summer Knights to the Order of Seasons was a cause for celebration. The gates were thrown open as they were spotted, and they were welcomed for food, respite, and the company of their brothers and sisters after so long!
Of course, they had been spotted long before they arrived at the vast, sprawling keep that was the headquarters of the Order of Seasons, made out of an old half-Elven fortress from the time of their empires.
Rabbiteater was impressed by the guard they kept on the Order of Seasons’ land. The group had told them they were coming, but even so, they hadn’t gone more than ten minutes past what Talia had claimed was the border point when he appeared.
“The Winter’s Watcher.”
Ser Markus bowed, gauntleted fist over his heart. The others did the same. Spring Knights and Summer Knights, bowing slightly to the figure standing on the hilltop.
It had begun snowing; their clue he was here. Even in the summer. The figure regarded them.
“Winter’s Watcher! We bring a fellow [Knight] of Izril who has fought and slept by our sides! We vouch for his honor and strength of arms!”
Ser Markus had bellowed it up at the figure, whose armor looked closer to frozen ice than anything else. The figure had inclined a huge mane of pale white hair and turned. His armor had been trimmed with thick fur, and he had carried a single enchanted axe with a blue glow to the edge, and a shield with ancient sigillary in the other.
Rabbiteater had pointed. Ser Markus had explained.
“The Winter’s Watcher, Ser Solstice. One of the four leaders of the Order of Seasons, under the Knight-Commander himself. He is a solitary figure; much as the Order of Winter are. They do not seek company, but fight alone, or in small groups if they must.”
“Ah. And they are the best ones?”
Markus hesitated. Talia tossed her head and looked back. She was a Summer Knight, he, a Spring Knight. She was his senior, and replied in a stiff voice.
“Not as a rule, Ser Solstice. They are…more experienced by and large, that is true, but great [Knights] exist in every order! They are the fewest, however; [Knights] turn to their Season as they age. Sometimes. It is not a rule. Some stay in their season regardless of their age.”
Rabbiteater had read between her words. He distilled her speech and Ser Markus’ following explanation into a far simpler one.
Old, grumpy veterans. Like a bunch of veteran Redfang Hobs or even regular Goblins. Scarred, maybe not as quick or energetic as newly-minted Redfangs, but the ones who took you to pieces the instant you dropped your guard.
“He was alone, though.”
He pointed out to Ser Markus as they continued the rest of their short journey. Ser Markus nodded.
“He is sworn to protect our headquarters, Ser Solstice. He returns—you may see him in the keep, but he often watches the border, even if he knows we are coming.”
“Right. But he was alone.”
The Spring Knight tilted his head until he realized what Rabbiteater meant.
“Ah—do not worry, Ser Solstice. If a larger force were coming, he would raise the alarm. But he would slow any foe who arrived, at the very least!”
The other [Knights] nodded, as if a single person charging into a fight wasn’t stupid.
“The Winter’s Watcher is a superior fighter, Ser Solstice. He could stop countless foes by himself. The heads of each season sometimes duel, and he wins more than any of the other three—except for perhaps the Spring’s Warden. But she is the best duelist by far.”
“Mm. And the other two? The…”
“Summer’s Champion. Just as good in combat as the Winter’s Watch and Spring’s Warden!”
Markus raised his voice for Talia and the other two Summer Knights. He confided in Rabbiteater.
“More of a commander, though. And the Fall’s Sentinel, who is, er, more academic. But superior with a blade even so! You may meet all of them. The Knight-Commander as well. I think…they will be interested in meeting you.”
He gave Rabbiteater a sidelong look. The Hobgoblin knew he was remembering his face.
The face he had seen after the escape from the Bear General’s camp. Yet—Ser Markus had not said a word of it to anyone as far as Rabbiteater could tell. He’d spent a week of sleepless nights, but no one had tried to kill him in his sleep.
There were changes. But he rode into the Order of Season’s keep and stood as the Knight-Commander himself and two of the season’s heads greeted their [Knights].
“Ser Solstice of Izril. I thank you for your aid to my order. And I welcome you into our keep. You are an honored friend, and you may avail yourself of our hospitality.”
Rabbiteater took the strong, cold grip. Even though the man had removed his gauntlet—Rabbiteater had not—his grip still felt frosty! He eyed the greying man’s face, and sensed his strength in a moment. Awkwardly, the Goblin-knight nodded his head.
“Thanks. How long?”
Talia twitched. Knight-Commander Calirn blinked. Rabbiteater wondered if it was another custom he’d broken.
But you were supposed to ask, right? In Goblin tribes, say, you couldn’t just laze about eating the best meat all day.
“…As long as you desire, Ser Solstice.”
Calirn blinked again and seemed to freeze up. A huge laugh erupted from the orange-haired man.
“I like this one! Yes, years, Ser Solstice! The Order of Seasons does not treat its friends lightly, and one more mouth is hardly an imposition! Although we’ll raise our eyebrows if you do naught at all. But I swear it by the summer skies! I am the Summer’s Champion, Greysten. An honor to meet you.”
He was a big Human, six foot three, and physically imposing. Not the Bear General’s girth, but he had a strong, hot grip. Rabbiteater flexed his hand afterwards. What was with these [Knights]?
Oh, right. The seasons thing. The Spring’s Warden was next. She was slimmer, and Rabbiteater thought she was very pretty.
Oh, she looked like she was in her thirties despite being twenty years older, which apparently was because she was the embodiment of the spring. She had topaz-and-emerald hair, shining bright.
But that wasn’t what made her pretty. It was the huge scar running down her cheek and across her neck, and the long, threaded scar down her arm.
That was the kind of scar you got in battle that even a healing potion didn’t heal right. Rabbiteater admired her at once; the other two leaders didn’t have as obvious battle marks. He got the sense she could stab him through the visor before he could strike her.
Dead sexy, as Redfangs reckoned such things.
“Dame Kallinad spoke highly of you in her [Messages], Ser Solstice. Don’t worry; we won’t ask you to remove your armor. And Ailendamus will pay for its breach in conduct.”
Rabbiteater glanced at Talia. She looked a tad bit uncomfortable as she bowed to the Summer’s Champion and then Calirn.
“Knight-Commander, we regret we were so delayed in returning. I trust Ser Raim’s remains arrived safely?”
“They did, and have been buried with his beloved as he wished. I regret the passing of our brethren. But you acted as a true [Knight], Dame Kallinad. We will not soon forget the Witch’s existence.”
She nodded. Rabbiteater had no idea what that was about, but soon he was being shown to his quarters.
“We have guest quarters, Ser Solstice. You will stay here—tomorrow, I shall show you around the keep, but we will arrange food brought to you.”
Ser Markus showed him to the lovely rooms. They might be more spartan than some, but to a Goblin, they were spacious, the bed padded, and plenty of luxury for a guest of [Knights]! Rabbiteater nodded, inspecting the place for bolt holes and traps.
He saw the man hover for a second. Awkwardly, Ser Markus cleared his throat.
“Ser Solstice. About…your identity.”
Rabbiteater looked up sharply. The Spring Knight hesitated. He put his hand on the door.
“I will tell no one, Ser Solstice. You have my word. I saw a [Knight] that day, and that has never changed. I would, however, be interested in speaking with you further, if I may.”
The Goblin’s heart pounded in his chest. But…he slowly nodded.
“Yes. We can…do that.”
Have an adventure. Her words still rang in his head, even if the power had faded even as they fled the camp. He tried to smile. And Ser Markus did.
“I will return after informing the kitchen staff of your circumstances, Solstice. And—find a way to let you bathe. Perhaps a bath, if we carry it from the wells…excuse me.”
He nodded and left. Rabbiteater sat there for a second.
Am I in danger?
Well, he had been the moment he left Izril. But he wanted…to believe in these crazy Humans and their weird codes of conduct. He liked Markus. He wondered what Talia thought; they hadn’t spoken as much. But now they’d arrived and…he sat back on the bed.
He felt good.
The Spring’s Warden was in her rooms, meditating before dinner, as was her wont. She heard a knock, told the person to enter.
It was a female Spring Knight, one of the ones who had gone to Ser Raim’s aid.
“Warden—I am sorry if I am disturbing you, but…I have something I must say. I feel the need to, even if it conflicts with honor and duty.”
The Spring’s Warden turned. She was used to such intrusions; her Season was made up of more [Knights] and more junior ones than any other Season.
“Come in, Dame Meisa. Speak freely and I will give you what wisdom I have.”
“It’s about Ser Solstice, the—the [Knight] that came with us.”
The young [Knight] nervously sat down on the seat across from the Spring’s Warden. The woman raised her eyebrow.
“Ah. You must have seen a hint as to whom he was.”
“How did you…?”
It was obvious. The Spring’s Warden shook her head. Her youthful features made people forget her age. And besides—what else could it be? Perhaps something—but it was most likely his identity.
She hoped he was not some well-known murderer. A member of the nobility or adventurer? Easier to bear. He had seemed forthright and honest, if somewhat unused to formalities when she had met him.
“Dame Meisa, is this something I need hear? I would respect his vows under most circumstances. I trust your judgment.”
The young woman hesitated. She rested her hands on her knees, and then met the Spring Warden’s gaze.
“…At the risk of compromising my honor, Warden, I believe it so. Ser Solstice is not…he is…he’s a Goblin.”
The Spring’s Warden blinked.
It took about twelve minutes for someone to leak Ser Solstice’s secret of honor between [Knights]. So much for the honor-bound vow of chivalry.
And it wasn’t even the Spring’s Warden who learned of Rabbiteater’s secret first. In fact, Dame Meisa had wavered for a good three hours before approaching her.
The person who’d requested an audience and received it minutes after arriving sat in front of Knight-Commander Calirn. It had taken three hours for the entire story and all his questions. At last, he sat back.
“And you do not know how a Hobgoblin came into the armor or class he seems to possess Knight…Talia?”
The young woman shook her head slowly.
“No, Knight-Commander Calirn, I do not.”
The Knight-Commander’s rooms were cold. Not because he leaned that far into his season, but because his aura leaked, even with his mastery of it. Especially when he slept.
That meant he kept the room dry, even though winter static was unpleasant. But it beat moisture creating frost on clothing or wood and then turning to wetness when he left and creating mildew.
Similarly, Calirn tended to embrace his season. For instance, he had the cold-blooming cacti he tended to on a windowsill, which thrived in snowy conditions.
He was also fond of books, and thus had a warded bookcase that prevented frost from damaging it. Some of the ornaments were not for him; he possessed thick, furred blankets made of Wilwolf fur from the north. They were for his guests.
Of course, Summer Knights and younger visitors liked to pretend the cold didn’t affect them. However, only one of the top members of the order could really sit in the cold without feeling it. Talia was already beginning to shiver. She tried to establish her aura, but this place was Knight-Commander Calirn’s and only sheer stubbornness kept her from using the furs.
He indicated them and she reluctantly took one. The Knight-Commander sat there, and then stood. He did not pace, but rather, held still.
Winter was like that. Spring was action and life and youth. Calirn had learned to stand as still as a snowman in a blizzard. His order was made of lone wolves, who had to sometimes ambush foes—although the ethics of that were always under debate.
While he thought, he held still, regarding the books on his shelves. Among them was a history of major cataclysms that had struck Terandria, a must-read for someone who protected his region and crusaded against threats like that.
Goblin Kings featured in the book, four times. And that was the quantifiable past the [Historian] had been able to find; time erased so much, as did the fall of vast empires. Even now, a treasure worth as much as any relic was a history book magically preserved tens of thousands of years after it had been written.
He was of two minds about this news. Ser Solstice, a Hobgoblin in disguise? The first was uncertainty. The dangers of having a…monster…or a monstrous race at the least among Terandrians was not lost on him. However. The second part of him argued with even that sentiment.
“To my understanding, my instincts, and what I have heard, Dame Talia Kallinad, that Hobgoblin is a [Knight]. Is that so?”
“…I believe so, Knight-Commander. A basic [Appraisal] spell could tell the truth of it.”
Calirn did not need one. He was a high-level [Knight] and he recognized his class. He’d sensed some subtleties of difference with Ser Solstice, but put it down to the cultural differences between continents and how their [Knights] were trained and raised.
“But he is a [Knight].”
“And a Goblin.”
Dame Talia sat there, clearly unhappy. She’d put the fur blanket over herself, but she looked deeply troubled. Calirn nodded. He sat back down and looked at her.
“Then, Dame Talia. Why did you see fit to reveal his nature to me? A [Knight]’s vow of secrecy you swore to uphold is a matter of honor.”
He met her gaze with his cool, frosty eyes. She paled—then flushed suddenly. The air warmed around her.
“Knight-Commander! I would have kept his secret at any cost! But after the battle with the Bear-General—”
“Whom he singlehandedly beat in a duel, to allow you and the others to escape.”
“—but I saw his face. Knight-Commander, I respect the honor of my class and fellow [Knights]! But he is a Goblin.”
And that was the heart of it. Talia sat there as Calirn leaned back.
She felt betrayed. Betrayed, by the truth of Ser Solstice, which had impelled her to come here. The Knight-Commander’s disapproval rankled at her.
If he had been a Gnoll, a disgraced Drake—any number of things, she would have kept that secret. But a Goblin? She had admired Ser Solstice. Now?
She didn’t know what to think. She had fought Goblins. Who was Ser Solstice? A strange Goblin, pretending to be a [Knight]? An agent in disguise?
She had realized she had never seen the ‘Goblin Slayer’ actually slay all the tribes he’d claimed to have eradicated, only a handful in battle. Had he helped them escape and lied? Or if not—was he a traitor to his own species?
She took a deep breath.
“I believe Ser Solstice was untruthful with us, Knight-Commander. And the danger he…might present leads me to believe my duty to the Order and my homeland supersedes or calls into question the knightly-vows of chivalry I have made.”
“A fair answer.”
He saw her reasoning. The Knight-Commander sat there, thinking it over. Then he nodded.
“You are dismissed, Dame Talia. I will investigate the matter and inform you of my conclusions, if need be.”
She stood, a bit uneasily. But if she had expected a fast decision, she had forgotten that the Knight-Commander, who could be of any season, was Calirn. Unlike his predecessors, he was winter. And winter was a time to contemplate, not move in haste. Calirn sighed.
“You are dismissed, Dame Talia.”
He rose. It was a troubling issue. But not one he would instantly move on—such as throwing Ser Solstice into chains, or setting a guard. If he had travelled with the [Knights] so long, he was not an immediate threat. He might be a spy, but he would be a fool to try to attack anyone in the Order of Season’s keep.
Ser Calirn went to consult with the Fall’s Sentinel, even though that meant spreading more word of Ser Solstice’s identity.
Rabbiteater had dinner.
Ser Markus conceived a great enmity for Dame Talia Kallinad over supper on the first night of their return from their questing abroad.
He had admired Dame Talia—if vaguely, as one of the members of the Season of Summer, the second order that Spring Knights usually aspired to—or the Season of Fall if their tastes ran more to academia or studying.
She, as a member of the prestigious Kallinad family of Pheislant, had never seemed overly arrogant, and she exemplified the desire to crusade and fight for valor and honor. So he had been pleased to fight beside her as they went to Ser Raim’s aid, even though it might mean their deaths, without enchanted weapons, fighting the great Spider of Terandria.
Even after their defeat, she had essentially led them back home, and he had trusted her implicitly. Nothing until now could have shaken his faith in a fellow member of the Order of Seasons.
Today, Ser Markus thought Dame Talia had managed to reverse his opinion of her. He did not know of her conversation with Knight-Commander Calirn, of course. But he saw a dinner and her actions there.
Before that, she had become more distant as Ser Solstice’s identity had been revealed. The five [Knights], including Ser Markus, had been shocked. But he had openly declared Ser Solstice a [Knight] and after a quick debate, they had decided his secret was safe.
Talia had not gainsaid that decision, but she had stopped riding next to Ser Solstice and talking as openly. One could hardly miss that gap in sociability.
Ser Solstice had supped alone since he did not remove his helmet. But he could still drink through a straw, and talk, and seemed to enjoy it. He had joined Ser Markus and the other [Knights] to eat in the main mess hall of the keep.
All seasons ate there, and guests as well. [Knights] talked, many at their leisure, mostly with friends or their seasons, but they intermingled without real rivalry in most cases. Each season was proud, but they were not at odds.
There were a handful of guests, too. Aspiring [Squires] who got to see what life here was like. Noble guests, or people, usually of Pheislant, come to do business or petition the order.
Fellow [Knights] too. The Order of Seasons tried to keep strong relationships with their fellow orders, who they might well fight beside.
So Ser Solstice was not the attraction of the hour. But he was certainly noticeable. Even [Knights] gossiped and the mysterious knight of Izril, who refused to take off his helmet and had bested a [General] in one-on-one combat was of note. Not to mention his Goblin-slaying prowess.
This was what Ser Markus saw. Ser Solstice entered the banquet hall and found Dame Talia standing and talking with some of the Summer Knights. The Goblin [Knight] approached. Talia saw him coming and excused herself. She moved away to get some food.
“Ser Solstice. We may collect whatever you would like over there.”
Markus had shown him the food prepared by [Cooks], much like a cafeteria, albeit without the need for payment. Ser Solstice had gotten a drink of goat’s milk. He looked for Talia. She was sitting with more [Knights] of the Spring. He walked over.
She stood up and moved away. She did not look at him—but it was no coincidence. Ser Markus narrowed his eyes as some of their company, most, bewildered, stopped and watched.
Dame Meisa, Ser Lloyd, and Ser Vitin all watched with varying expressions on their face. Talia moved away with her tray. Ser Solstice followed.
“Excuse me…Ser Solstice.”
She walked away again, and again. Ser Markus saw the armored [Knight] stop and look after her. He had no expression behind the visor, but Ser Markus saw his head turn after Talia.
Confusion became hurt as understanding bloomed. The Goblin Slayer stood there, looking after the Summer Knight as she went over to some of the Fall Knights who looked around, surprised to see her.
The interplay was not missed on the [Knights] who had been observing Ser Solstice. Now, one of the Knights of Spring, Ser Medul, turned to Ser Markus from where he sat. He was in his late thirties, very ‘old’ by the Spring Knight standards. But he was youthful, energetic, one of those sorts of people who never ran out of energy until they slept. He belonged to the Spring, whilst Ser Markus might eventually change seasons.
“I do not know this Ser Solstice, Markus. I heard of him just as you returned from Izril. But that is a troubling sight. Has Dame Talia lost all decency, or has something come up? Perhaps he romantically petitioned her? If so, she should refuse him outright, rather than act that way.”
He nodded at Talia and the silent Goblin [Knight], Markus chewed on his lip as the other [Knights] looked at each other.
“I cannot say fully, Ser Medul. It goes to a vow of secrecy between Ser Solstice and those of us who inadvertently witnessed the truth of it.”
The other [Knights] who had not seen Ser Solstice glanced at Markus, Meisa, Lloyd, and Vitin. Lloyd bit his lip and nodded. Vitin was troubled, as was Meisa, who looked uncomfortable.
Ser Medul and some of the other Spring Knights sitting there frowned. The senior [Knight] nodded to Markus after a moment.
“Then I will not inquire since it is a matter of honor. However—without knowing the why of it, I still find Dame Talia’s actions to be uncouth at the least.”
With that, he stood and called out across the hall.
“Excuse me, Ser Solstice of Izril! Come sit with us, tonight! The Season of Spring would welcome you among us!”
The Goblin Slayer’s head turned. He walked over, and sat. Ser Markus tried to smile, but the Goblin’s expression was unreadable.
…But he sounded depressed. Ser Medul introduced himself, reaching out to shake his hand.
“I am Medul of House Medoit—of Pheislant. Shall I call you Ser Solstice or by any other name?”
“…Solstice is fine. Lots of [Knights] here.”
It was a comment that made Ser Medul smile. Small talk, without understanding the idea of it. It made sense to Ser Markus now he knew…
“Dame Talia might be—she is—I cannot make excuses for her, Ser Solstice.”
He spoke at last, uncomfortably, having yet to touch his dinner. The Goblin’s head slowly turned.
Was there a flash of crimson behind the visor? He looked at Markus, as the other [Knights] watched him while eating. Markus had no idea what he was thinking, but at last, the armored head nodded slowly.
“She thinks one way. This is how it is. That is what happened.”
He slowly took a sip from his drink with the wooden straw. Markus exhaled. It was so…fatalistic a statement. It made him endlessly curious as to—
Curiosity belonged to spring and fall, both seasons of great change. Ser Medul glanced at Ser Solstice and eventually nodded.
“Let us put aside dour thoughts tonight. Ser Solstice, I hear you are responsible for freeing my companions from the clutches of Ailendamus! I propose a toast to your valor—and tales of how you bested the Bear of Ailendamus!”
He rose. The Spring Knights, always fast to toast, with alcohol or not, all jumped to their feet. Rabbiteater blinked around as the mood suddenly turned energetic.
“Yes, are you a specialist in unarmed combat? I saw you beat the Bear with your bare hands! And I would have sworn he could have thrown down with the best of our Order barehanded, armor or not!”
One of the Spring Knights who had not seen his face leaned in. Rabbiteater shrugged.
“I had help. Got lucky.”
“Tell us the entirety of it, then. From start to finish. Ser Markus? We heard you were at sea, but was it true you ran afoul of the blockade and refused to surrender?”
“Hardly, Dame Thris! There we were, sailing for Pheislant when Ailendamus’ fleet found us and demanded our surrender! We debated over fighting when they claimed we would be sunk if we refused, but we did little more than draw our swords. For that, they demanded we surrender and claimed it was an act of aggression…”
Stories. On the first night, Rabbiteater met the Season of Spring. They clustered around him. Eating, talking—and not once did they ask him to remove his helmet. They wanted to know, but they caught themselves when asking about his past.
They were curious, but they had vows. And they stood together, a group of warriors bound by purpose. It reminded him of his tribe. His family.
He wished they could have had a keep of stone and magic, and wonderful weapons and food you didn’t have to ration.
His heart hurt when he thought of Talia.
“A Goblin Knight? That is a thing of stories, Knight-Commander Calirn.”
The Fall’s Sentinel was an older [Knight]. Slimmer, and, like his Season, less martial than the other Seasons. However—he used a dueling sword with great acclaim, and a buckler in his off-hand. And his spellcasting rivaled some senior [Mages].
More than that, though, he was a historian. The Fall’s Sentinel stood against more than just aggression in the present; he remembered past threats.
Calirn had come to him with Talia’s secret, despite reservations. And it was the Fall’s Sentinel who was more troubled than Calirn.
“Then you believe the Goblin is a threat? A spy?”
“Spy? Agent? Enemy of his kind? That is not the point, Knight-Commander. History is a blunt teacher. And it teaches us that Goblins who walk among other species often become great leaders of their kind. There have been Goblin Knights before.”
The Fall’s Sentinel was plumbing through his personal archive. He shook his head.
“I will have to find the texts. They are buried in our library, no doubt. I will have some of my Season begin the search tomorrow.”
“Subtly, Fall’s Sentinel.”
The man’s name was Venoriat, but the Order tended to use their titles. To remind them they were representatives before friends, who could be biased, at least on business like this. Venoriat nodded.
“Of course. But I caution you, Knight-Commander. The Goblin may be a [Knight], in which case I am bound to believe he is honorable enough to gain the class. But…he is a Goblin.”
The Fall’s Sentinel sighed.
“Meaning that Goblins who rise to great strength become Chieftains or Goblin Lords. I recall one text—[Recall Text]. Ah, yes. Perfect clarity. The historical account of the Order of Merendis states that a valiant Goblin who strove with them against ‘dark forces who preyed on the blooded’, showed them naught but honor and a willingness to compromise. However. She joined the Goblin King during his rampage, which ended their Order, despite decades of strong ties. Where Goblin Kings appear—or Goblin Lords, Knight-Commander—even valorous Goblins seem to turn to war. Recall that the last Goblin King was known as Velan the Kind.”
“I would not forget, Fall’s Sentinel. I rode against him at the end.”
The Order of Seasons had been there. Even now, he remembered the Goblin King slaughtering warriors. That one half-Elf had brought him down had seemed like a miracle.
“That is history’s lesson. Perhaps, Knight-Commander, you should simply treat him as another species. Or a [Knight] not of this order.”
After a moment, the Fall’s Sentinel clapped his hands. Calirn stirred.
“I think I understand, but your meaning?”
“Even chivalrous [Knights] who embody honor may find themselves at odds due to politics or war. Goblins have many reasons to clash with Humanity. So, then. We understand what may happen because he is a Goblin. We do not know why he takes up armor. Either way, we acknowledge that his species is oft-opposed to ours, as a Drake [Knight] would be. I find him fascinating in any case and request permission to investigate.”
“Speak to him. Unless your will is to imprison Ser Solstice? Or execute him?”
The Fall’s Sentinel peered at Knight-Commander Calirn, having donned his reading spectacles. The Knight-Commander stood.
“No. Aptly put, Fall’s Sentinel.”
And subtly too; the man had the greatest strength in diplomacy of the four seasons. The older [Knight] nodded. He had contextualized the issue for Calirn and the answer was clear.
“I will not have the Order of Seasons imprison a [Knight], no matter the species. If Ser Solstice presents himself as undeserving of the class—I would act on it. But Dame Talia’s admission troubled me from the start. She is conflicted. But without that revelation, I will treat Ser Solstice like a [Knight] from Izril. I cannot ignore what I have been told, and thus he will be kept under moderate surveillance. No more until I reach further conclusions.”
“Well said, Knight-Commander.”
Besides which, one Goblin [Knight] was not as important as the war in Ailendamus.
But he was interested in the Goblin [Knight]. Who could not be? He resolved to meet with him later.
If Knight-Commander Calirn’s deliberations had ended one way, the Spring’s Warden had dismissed Dame Meisa before dinner far differently.
“Dame Meisa, do you believe Ser Solstice is a [Knight]?”
The young Spring Knight had squirmed in her seat.
“I…do not know, Spring’s Warden. Nothing he has done has convinced me otherwise; quite the opposite.”
“Then why do you tell me of his nature?”
The older woman had waited. Meisa had shaken her head.
“Everything I have been taught is to watch for the danger of Goblins, Spring’s Warden. I do not know what to think, so I came to tell you—if only that someone knows the possible danger.”
“I see. And I see your reasoning, Dame Meisa. But I rebuke you nonetheless.”
The Season of Spring’s leader had looked at the young [Knight].
“It is right to fear a threat. It is unbecoming to gossip due to uncertainty, Dame Meisa. Which prompted your arrival here? Your realization of Ser Solstice’s danger to life and limb? Or your uncertainty of his nature?”
The young woman had colored. The Spring’s Warden sent her on her way.
“If you have a question of Ser Solstice? Uncertainties about him, why he is a [Knight]? Ask him yourself.”
Then she sat and meditated on the issue throughout the dinner hour. When she rose to break her fast, she was resolved.
She said nothing, did nothing, and had a pudding. Tomorrow, she would see Ser Solstice herself. Spring was change. She let things happen.
And the results of her conversation bore out in Rabbiteater’s rooms that night. Dame Meisa, looking a bit ashamed, Ser Markus, and Ser Lloyd, all of the Spring, sat and stared as Rabbiteater slowly removed his helmet.
Ser Vitin, also of the Summer, had not joined them. Nor Talia, obviously. But Meisa had suggested it, and so they had asked Rabbiteater.
He took off his helmet and felt odd after so long wearing it like a second skin. They blinked.
Ser Lloyd murmured the epitaph of their order. Ser Markus nudged him.
“Rabbiteater. My name is Rabbiteater.”
The Hobgoblin was almost trembling as he put his helmet down. Meisa blinked.
“Rabbiteater? That is your name? Then you are…?”
“Rabbiteater. Solstice was…a friend. Human.”
They looked at him. The Hobgoblin stared back. After a moment, Ser Markus almost laughed.
“A Human friend? Ah—that makes sense! Ser…Rabbiteater, would you tell us more about how you came here?”
“You want to know?”
The Goblin [Champion] and [Knight-Errant] was surprised they hadn’t reacted more violently. He had expected…no, hoped…
Talia had done what he would have if he found a Redfang was a Human adventurer in disguise, really. Less. But he had hoped.
Some of the hope was born again here. Ser Markus nodded.
“It is an extraordinary tale, surely.”
“But you do not slay Goblins. You—pretend to. Unless those ears were Goblins you slew?”
Ser Lloyd looked uncomfortable. Rabbiteater shook his head.
“I told them to run away. The dead Goblins—I took ears from them. I do not kill Goblins. Unless they fight me. I do not kill Humans either. I…used to. I was a Redfang.”
They frowned. It was a long story. Rabbiteater did his best, but he was no Numbtongue with the fancy eloquence of language. But he’d learned to speak better and made a decent telling of it.
They did not know of the Redfang Tribe, or the famous Garen Redfang. But they listened as he clumsily tried to tell them about growing up, being sent on a mission to kill an [Innkeeper]. Getting lost. So lost.
And then meeting a Human in a battle in a city called Esthelm. Fighting the Goblin Lord. Losing friends. Coming to an inn, where a Human, for the second time ever, didn’t see them as monsters.
“I have heard of that inn. Liscor. And that is where you came from?”
“Yes. After the big battle.”
“The siege with Lord Veltras. But the inn stands?”
Rabbiteater’s heart hurt.
“Yes. She is there. But I…my brothers are gone. So I went. Can’t go back. Hurts too much.”
He would go back. He had promised her. But—have an adventure. She knew he was alive. She had told him to have one.
Fall in love. Why didn’t she tell him it was like getting kicked repeatedly in the stomach too?
“An [Innkeeper]. Raskghar. Cave Goblins. What a story. That is a proper quest, a proper adventure! You put half the Season of Spring to shame with it alone.”
Ser Markus sat back. It was interesting, the reactions of the three.
Ser Lloyd was most wary. He kept staring at Rabbiteater and then looking away. But he listened, despite his clear misgivings.
Meisa looked…intrigued, guilty, and interested. She had liked hearing of Erin’s kindness, and how it had changed the Redfang five.
Ser Markus was simplest. Sheerly admiring. He did not seem to hold the Goblin’s nature against him. The reason bore out as he rose.
“I was lucky enough to know half-Elves—not in a traditional village, but a proper settlement that traded with my hamlet. I grew up in Gaiil-Drome—the forest nation. I always thought they were much maligned when I heard stories of them later.”
“So, you are a [Champion] and became a [Knight] after meeting us?”
Lloyd looked at Rabbiteater. The Goblin shrugged.
“Yes. Armor is armor. I liked [Knights], though. They are silly—but brave.”
The Spring Knights exchanged a look. Lloyd looked half-offended, but then smiled despite himself.
“Spoken like the other seasons. But one thing I don’t understand. You still didn’t say how you managed to down the Bear-General. You kept saying you had help. I thought you meant a potion. But you said it was a Skill? Sent by the [Innkeeper]? Across the ocean?”
His tone was disbelieving. Rabbiteater smiled.
“Erin is Erin. Very crazy. Does strange things. She is…strange.”
Lloyd looked at Rabbiteater. Then he sat back.
“You smiled for the first time when you spoke of her, sir.”
Rabbiteater realized he was. And that made all the difference. Lloyd looked at the others, then rose.
“This is incredible. I—I’ve fought Goblins. Killed them. No offense, Rabbiteater, but I was prepared to tell the Spring’s Warden, or Knight-Commander Calirn upon returning here. I—didn’t, but I feel guilty at the thought. Goblins have been mine enemy the entire time.”
He looked at Rabbiteater. Meisa bit her lip and Ser Markus frowned.
“We swore an oath, Ser Lloyd!”
“I know! But can you fault me for questioning, Markus?”
The man ran a hand through his hair. Rabbiteater shrugged.
“Humans kill Goblins. Goblins kill Humans.”
“Yes, but you make your tribe sound so—so—then why are we fighting?”
Rabbiteater shrugged again.
Lloyd collapsed with a sigh.
“I can see your tribe—the Redfangs?—they would be the worst [Bandits] in the eyes of any Humans. Goblins with a mastery of weaponry. And you say they were all trained to that level? By this Garen Redfang?”
“Yes. Gold-rank adventurer.”
“Are other tribes led by Goblins like that? Tell us, pray.”
Lloyd leaned in. Markus as well. Meisa listened as Rabbiteater tried to explain.
They talked late into the night. It was surreal for both sides, and Rabbiteater slept late into the day. But the next morning, the strangeness didn’t stop.
“We return to our duties, but due to our sojourn we won’t immediately be sent out, Ser Solstice. I would ask if you wanted to join us.”
“What do you do all day?”
Ser Markus smiled. Lloyd sighed and Meisa rubbed at her shoulders. Rabbiteater tilted his head back and forth.
He didn’t get why they found it arduous. The Order of Seasons had built their lives around being [Knights], so you did a few things as soon as you were a full [Knight]:
-You went on quests or crusades, in groups, alone if you were senior, or in full armies, sometimes to war.
-You patrolled or helped build or fortify areas in need. Cleared out monsters on a kind of residency for as long as four years.
-You rested and enjoyed the Order of Season’s amenities, took breaks because you couldn’t [Knight] all year without needing time off.
-You might research, study magic, if you were a Fall Knight, or go on courtly diplomatic missions to visit other orders, attend events representing your order.
-Or you trained your ass off day in and day out.
That was what [Knights] not occupied with the main activities did. They trained.
Swordsmanship, spear mastery, archery, riding, joint fighting, tilting, dueling, woodcraft, climbing, sprints, swimming, stealth, marathon marches…the Order of Seasons did specialize, but a [Knight] honed their body.
“I hear the Thronebearers exercise for two hours each day. I’ve never done less than six.”
Ser Markus groused as they ran around the vast keep for a morning run. The [Knights] wore armor—[Squires] did not, although they worked up to it with weights. Rabbiteater ran in full gear with a group of [Spring Knights]. Apparently, it was more than a few miles if you did the entire keep; it was sprawling.
“You run like this every day?”
“Yes! At least, the Season of Spring must, to build their endurance. You needn’t do this, Ser Solstice…”
Ser Markus blinked as Rabbiteater jogged ahead, towards the head of the pack. Ser Markus sped up.
“Used to do this too. Carrying rocks. Lots of fun. Relaxing.”
Ser Medul barked a laugh as he looked over his shoulder.
“You hear that, squires? That is dedication to athleticism! In honor of Ser Solstice joining us—pick up the pace! None of you quits before he does!”
That turned into something of a problematic statement, since Rabbiteater did six laps; the [Squires] were let go after three. Ser Markus was panting when it was over.
“You…you used a Skill, didn’t you?”
Rabbiteater was sweating, but he had water, even lovely apple slices! That was a treat.
The thing was, and which the Spring Knights learned as they went for weapons training next…Redfangs were insane.
They loved training. Garen Redfang had turned their tribe into exercise-freaks, which Erin Solstice had more than once remarked on. Goblins of that tribe craved the rush you got from working hard then eating and flopping over to sleep. They were the kind of breed that military instructors loved.
Another thing that impressed them was Rabbiteater’s knowledge of weaponry, which again, mirrored their own.
“You can use a flamberge?”
“Mm. Think so.”
“Used it. Don’t like as much.”
“But you can use it. How about bow and arrow?”
“Decent shot. My brother shoots better.”
“Guisarme? Oh, come now. You’ve never held one.”
“I’d like to learn.”
Rabbiteater grinned as he hefted the weird pole-weapon with the long catch. But he trained with an axe and shield and bested Ser Markus, Meisa, and three more Spring Knights in quick bouts.
“You’re good! Too quick!”
Ser Markus complained after the second time Rabbiteater battered down his guard. The Goblin had levels, strength, and experience on his side. Ser Medul raised a hand.
“Will you try me, sir? No Skills?”
It was an even match. The older Spring Knight used a classic sword-and-shield combo and he and Rabbiteater went at it. Unlike the other Spring Knights, he didn’t fall for Rabbiteater ramming him, trying to trip him up, shove him, head-butt—all things that Redfangs considered fine game and which [Knights] didn’t teach.
“He’s matched with Ser Medul, tricks or not!”
One of the [Squires] stared. Ser Medul was just as surprised; without Skills, Rabbiteater couldn’t easily break down his guard, and the two were sweating and circling while hammering at each other’s heavy guards.
As good as Ser Medul? The [Knight] called a halt as the Spring Knights watched, impressed, after nearly eight minutes of fighting.
“Neither one of us will get to the end, Ser Solstice. Unless you want to go there?”
Rabbiteater shrugged. He felt like Medul was a senior Hob if he were in Goblin terms, and had no desire to try and beat him just for that. Senior warriors needed to keep face and he liked the old trainer.
“You fight very well. One of the best where I come from.”
Medul laughed and flicked sweat out of his hair.
“Without Skills, I don’t think I’d be able to take down your guard, Solstice! Mind you—with Skills I hope I’d have more of a chance. Do you practice aura-Skills at all? No? Then you’re not exactly like us!”
He laughed. Rabbiteater glanced at him.
“I saw the flame-sword. Does Spring have theirs?”
“Dame Talia’s fire? And Ser Vitin’s shield? Of course we have our own! Ah—but you were riding with the newer members of our order. We couldn’t send veterans. I would have gone, but fire was better than spring, eh?”
Markus reddened a bit as Rabbiteater glanced at him. The Hobgoblin turned to Ser Medul.
“What does spring do?”
He’d seen the [Aura Blade] skill that Talia used, and the shield that Vitin could turn to fire. Both seared their opponents, and woe to anyone locking blades up close with the [Summer Knights].
Winter made sense too; frost. But what was spring and fall?
For answer, Medul raised his sword.
His training sword became enveloped in a shimmering vortex. Rabbiteater’s eyes narrowed. He saw flickers—nothing concrete, but a twisting force of motes of dust or dirt in the air.
Wind. Ser Markus raised his shield as Medul turned for a target. He flicked his sword and something hit Markus’ shield.
Not super-hard, but with an impact.
“Spring takes all forms, Ser Solstice. I can be the gust, the breeze—to hasten my swings or strike enemies from afar. If need be, I can draw on other elements. Such as—if I were fighting a more difficult foe? [Barkguard]!”
His shield sprouted with thick bark. It looked less impressive, but he moved as if it weighed nothing at all and when Rabbiteater asked to smack it, his blow bounced right off.
Auras. Ser Medul nodded and Rabbiteater realized the last power of his aura was manifesting itself. Even the Hobgoblin was tiring a bit after the long bout and exercise all morning. He glanced at Medul.
“You’re not tired.”
The Spring Knight grinned.
“Spring is youth! Energy! We can train or fight or run all day—at least, if you embody our order!”
He barked across the groaning [Knights], who’d heard the speech before. Rabbiteater nodded.
“Must be great for sex.”
Ser Lloyd sprayed his drink out his mouth and nose. Ser Medul blinked, and to Rabbiteater’s surprise, coughed.
“Indecorously put, Ser Solstice. But er—”
He was spared from the Goblin’s sense of decorum by the arrival of the Spring’s Warden.
“Ser Solstice. I was told you were training with our order. I should like to see your ability myself, if I may?”
The Goblin turned. He saw one of the best duelists in the Order of Seasons smile politely. She held a longsword and nothing else. The Knights of the Spring stirred.
“With Skills or not?”
He sensed her confident ability as she lowered her sword, presenting an opening. Ser Medul backed up with Markus, looking very interested.
“Skills, Ser Solstice, if it is not an imposition.”
“Will you use them?”
“If I need to. No offense to you, Ser Solstice.”
He took none. The Hobgoblin had sized up his opponent, so she surely could do the same for him. He hesitated. Then drew his sword and slashed.
She parried so fast he was sure—he lifted his shield and barely missed being taken out in one go. She would have had the sword point at his neck if it weren’t for luck.
He gave it another try. His sword lanced out—and she performed another parry, slid in so fast—she had her sword alongside his neck. If she had continued, she would have sliced his head off in one move.
He breathed as she stepped back. The Spring’s Warden bowed.
“Ser Solstice, shall we continue?”
He nodded. He was sure, now.
She was boosted by Skills, no doubt, even passively. But that had confirmed it for him. She was as good as Garen Redfang with the blade.
There was an art to her movements like Shorthilt had—and he copied the best blademaster in the Redfang tribe, Garen himself. Rabbiteater was good—but he was a [Champion], good at fighting. He didn’t try for art.
So he started using Skills.
[Steelcut Sunder]! He said nothing, but the Spring’s Warden saw the cut coming and moved her sword out of the block; he’d have slashed through her practice sword otherwise.
He began moving on the attack. [Shield Ram]—[Long Backstep]—basic Skills he’d had as a common [Warrior], a bit enhanced due to his level, made her back up. She was testing him, staying on the defensive.
She knew he had more. Rabbiteater didn’t wait to use them. He only waited for her to go on the offensive to bait them out—she tapped his shield with the edge of her sword in a flick, such a fast move that it was disconcerting. In response, he swung his sword.
The audience murmured. Markus blinked. That was a powerful Skill!
But the Spring’s Warden was already leaping backwards. Somehow, she’d known from Rabbiteater’s posture it was coming. Without Skills, she moved out of range, deflecting the edge of the powerful blow.
—However, that was her conceit. She had used no Skills, so the impact twisted the sword in her grip. That was what Rabbiteater had been waiting for. In that brief moment where she thought he’d used his big Skill, he used the one he’d gotten at Level 30.
[Aspect of the Champion]. Rabbiteater had gotten it and wondered what it meant. Now?
The Spring’s Warden had landed nearly ten feet back. Before she could reset her guard, he blurred.
[Aspect of the Champion – Greater Speed]. He could take [Enhanced Strength], [Greater Dexterity]—
He lunged at her in a lancing strike. It was so fast Ser Markus only saw a blur go past his face. And—
Even Rabbiteater hadn’t expected how fast he would go. He was still wearing his armor. And it occurred to him in the fragments of time as his sword extended towards the woman’s chest—
It might be a training weapon, but it was still a lead-filled wooden sword with at least two hundred pounds of force and incredible velocity behind it.
He saw the Warden’s eyes widen in slow-motion. She swung her sword up—as someone began to cry out.
“—going to hit her—”
Meisa finished speaking too late. She saw a cloud of dust. The Spring’s Warden reappeared, sword raised from the sweeping blow upwards.
Rabbiteater landed on his back a second after that. He went wump, so hard onto the practice court’s ground that he was without breath or thought for a good thirty seconds. Even then—he just lay there.
She’d sent him flying. So fast and so high that he thought he’d cracked his back at the very least.
“Ser Solstice, are you alright?”
Markus was first to break the circle of watchers. The Spring’s Warden had lowered her blade. She was there first, even so.
“Are you alright, Ser Solstice? You surprised me.”
She had flicked him into the air like a bug. In that moment—Rabbiteater had to admit it.
She was better than Garen Redfang. At least, in level. It was a hard admission for any Redfang, but Garen had stood as a strong Gold-rank. The Spring’s Warden could best him.
Although, if it came to a real battle, Garen might have her with his enchanted blade. But on the face of it, he’d never seen Garen use a Skill as wide-reaching as that.
Rabbiteater had fought Garen in that memorable battle outside of Liscor. If he’d had [Aspect of the Champion], he and the four others might have actually knocked him flat.
Greydath? Still no. The Spring’s Warden?
Well…the others clustered around him. They were proffering potions, wondering if he was unconscious, or they should pour it through his visor. Ser Markus was about to offer to check on Rabbiteater in private when the Hobgoblin sat up.
They expected him to be miffed, at the least. The Spring’s Warden was apologizing; she could have badly hurt him given how high she’d sent him. But the knight of Izril just made a sound through his visor.
It took them a second to realize he was chuckling. He looked at the Spring’s Warden.
“Got you to use a Skill. I win small, you win big.”
What could you say to that but to clap him on the back and laugh? That was the Season of Spring for you.
The Summer’s Champion wished he had seen the bout between the Spring’s Warden and the newcomer [Knight]. There was a lot and a little to do in the Order of Season’s keep and he relished new, interesting things.
Not everyone took to the monastic lifestyle here. Summer Knights were about the crusade, and often left for extended periods. But their leader, the Summer’s Champion, had duties.
They…clashed. He got bored. He wanted to get into the war with Ailendamus, because their aggression rankled him. But he respected Knight-Commander Calirn’s authority.
Even so, he was impetuous, known to be hot-tempered at times. Like fire and ice, winter and summer clashed.
The Summer’s Champion, Greysten, got into things. He was all passion for a project or an idea, but he didn’t stick with it all the time, and delegated it, lost interest. That could be good…or bad.
There had been an incident already this year. Ice cream. He’d gotten into the frozen treat, which went so damn well with the heat. Brought some for the Season of Summer to share about, ate it…and ate it…
The quartermaster’s bill had made Calirn take the Summer’s Champion to task for the incident. But so it went. Summer was another kind of youth.
So it was that the Summer’s Champion was about to have a drink with the older [Knights] of the order and grouse about damned Ailendamus and the Thronebearer’s lack of success on the field—in private, to ease his frustration—when a tap came at his door.
He opened it.
The Summer Knight had come to see him. It was after much thought, reluctance—and he might not have done it, but he felt the need to talk to his superior about Ser Solstice. Even so, he would have been reluctant, but he had talked Talia into joining him.
She had heard nothing from Knight-Commander Calirn and one did not demand to know his thoughts. So, she was here, when Vitin had approached her. If the head of their season did not know, they reasoned, he should.
Talia felt a flutter in her stomach, remembering Calirn’s disapproval, but Vitin had said he needed to tell someone so she’d agreed to accompany him. But he got to talk.
Was this right to do? She stemmed the question as Vitin laid out the problem.
“It is Ser Solstice, Summer’s Champion. He is—”
“His identity? Are you privy to that knowledge?”
The Summer’s Champion blinked at them. He was tall, imposing, and Talia had told Calirn because she knew the reputation of how spontaneous he was. Better to be present to stop him if Vitin decided to do it later. She could run and get Calirn or another senior member if he ran…impulsive.
That was her reasoning. Vitin nodded, gulping. He was not as familiar with the Summer’s Champion as, say, you would be with the Spring’s Warden. She tended to talk to all new [Knights]; the Summer’s Champion and the Season of Summer was more hierarchical at the moment. He went on great errant deeds when not here and didn’t get to spend time with the younger [Knights], for all he was reckoned as a great commander in the field and very affable, even too much so.
“Champion, he is—”
“I don’t want to hear it. This is not something a [Knight] should betray.”
The Summer’s Champion folded his arms. Vitin and Talia stared at him.
“We—know that, Grandmaster. But even so, because of what the truth is, we felt it was beyond our ability to decide.”
Talia broke in for the first time. The Summer’s Champion’s eyes swept towards her. They blazed with passion; his quarters were hot, even at night. He’d started fires with his temper and the ambient air shot up in temperature.
“Speaking another [Knight]’s secret, Dame Talia, Ser Vitin? I won’t hear of it.”
“But Summer’s Champion—Ser Solstice is a Goblin!”
Vitin protested. The secret once more revealed…
Or not. Because the Summer’s Champion had promptly put two fingers in his ears.
He intoned as loudly as possible. Talia and Vitin stared at him. He kept repeating himself until he was sure Vitin was done.
“I am not listening, [Knights]. And I will forget this incident occurred, for the honor of—”
“Ser Solstice is a Goblin.”
Talia snapped, appalled at the childish behavior from the Grandmaster of their Season. The Summer’s Champion froze.
“What did you say?”
“He is a Goblin, Grandmaster. Now do you—”
The Summer’s Champion kicked the door open to Calirn’s room and strode in.
“Knight-Commander! I have an issue to speak of!”
He stormed in as Calirn was shaving his cheek. The Knight-Commander nearly sliced off his left jowl.
No guesses what had set him off. One look at the apprehensive Summer Knights at the door—Talia and Vitin—and the Summer’s Champion’s face, and Calirn knew.
Cold met hot and steam rose from the man’s ire. Calirn rose. The Summer’s Champion had actually left flaming footsteps as he stomped through a garden.
“Summer’s Champion, control your temper.”
The man did so with effort. The heat coming off him abated. Calirn sighed.
He knew Ser Solstice was a Goblin. Vitin and Talia stared at the closed door, worried about what might happen and regretting their choices. Summer was passionate and sometimes made mistakes in the heat of the moment.
What they didn’t know was the contents of the angry discussion in the Knight-Commander’s private study. He’d moved it there to avoid his room being filled with steam.
“If you know, then that makes two of us!”
“Four. I informed the Fall’s Sentinel and he reported that the Spring’s Warden already had a [Knight] inform her of Ser Solstice’s origin.”
“Four? The Winter’s Watcher is the only one left out? Dead gods burning on Giant’s tits, Calirn! This is too much! Are we [Knights] or children tossing around secrets bound by chivalry? I nearly threw both of them off the keep’s walls! My first instinct is to revoke their knighthood—which I will not do. But you’d better do something before I simply hit them!”
The Summer’s Champion was pacing back and forth. Ser Solstice being a Goblin was almost forgotten. Calirn was surprised—but that was him.
“Dame Talia and Ser Vitin? I am—upset that they broke their vows, especially as I had been informed, Summer’s Champion.”
Especially of Dame Talia. But Calirn didn’t inflame the man’s temper further. The Summer’s Champion spun on his heel.
“Those two, and whoever told the Spring’s Warden! For that matter—why are you going around spreading information?”
“To the Fall’s Sentinel? Because I am Grandmaster of all four Seasons and a Goblin [Knight] might well be a danger. I had to be sure once I knew. That is my duty. And you are Grandmaster of the Order of Summer, Greysten. You know our duty sometimes wars with honor!”
The man turned even redder, but slowly collapsed into a chair.
“It’s one Goblin. I find this breach of chivalry more important, Calirn. What, do they want me to decide to chop off its head? It—he—saved them from being ransomed and apparently came to their aid during the Ogre attack! In return, our Order decides to stab him in the back.”
“I see that. Since you are so enraged, Summer’s Champion, I remind you that they thought his nature might interfere with their vows to respect another [Knight]’s code. The argument being that he is a Goblin, therefore, not a [Knight].”
The man was calming down already. He sat there, still leaking steam, but slowly thinking.
“I don’t agree. I don’t accept it. And I’m ashamed my order spoke more than Spring Knights—who can barely keep their mouths shut!”
“Summer crusades against monsters more hotly than all. Yours is a passionate season, Greysten.”
“Shame is shame. Honor is honor. Secret is secret.”
There was no prevaricating with him. Calirn nodded.
“If you would like me to adjudicate for you, Summer’s Champion, I will. But this is a matter of morality; at the heart of it I believe all sides acted in accordance with how they see honor. Talia Kallinad’s family is of Pheislant, and saw the Goblin King’s destruction. They would remember how he erased members of the Hundred Families down to the last person in their bloodlines.”
“It’s one Goblin. Now I want to meet him, especially since I heard he forced the Spring’s Warden to use a Skill in a bout! I’ll do that. But punishment…”
The Summer’s Champion went into deep thought. Calirn waited.
Summer was passionate. But not shallow or stupid. And at last, the taller man spoke.
“You said they objected on the basis of honor, but to do so, they impugn this Ser Solstice’s honor, Knight-Commander. I propose a test, upon which I will rest my complaints. If I am wrong, they will not be punished and I will support any scrutiny or judgment against this Goblin [Knight].”
“And if you are right?”
“…I leave the matter in your—calmer—hands. But I will not protest their revocation of their [Knight] class, regardless of their status.”
The hands clenched. The eyes flashed. Calirn sat there, and then slowly nodded.
“What is the nature of the test? You will stage an accident?”
The orange hair shook as the Summer’s Champion stood up.
“Must we grapple and talk about what makes a man a [Knight], Knight-Commander? My answer is simple. If he is a [Knight], he is a [Knight]!”
Rabbiteater opened the door to his rooms. The Fall’s Sentinel was there.
“Good evening, Ser Solstice, is it?”
“Yes. You are…important?”
The Hobgoblin was wary. But the old man looked kind, more bookish than the others. Like the [Shaman] the Redfangs had once had, before he got eaten by Eater Goats in an ambush when Rabbiteater was small.
“Indeed, indeed. I hope, Ser Solstice, I am not intruding. I would simply like to invite you to join the Season of Fall on the morrow.”
“I am told you are a superlative trap expert, and skilled in any number of wilderness techniques. The Season of Fall loves new knowledge, or those who can embody it. Would you care to go on a hike with some knights in training and discuss your experience?”
Rabbiteater considered it.
“Excellent. Then, I will send for you after breakfast. Good night to you.”
And that was that. The Fall’s Sentinel inclined his head. Rabbiteater copied him, a bit warily. The Fall’s Sentinel walked down the hallway.
Knight-Commander Calirn and the Summer’s Champion were waiting. The Summer’s Champion’s arms were folded and he had begun heating up again. The Fall’s Sentinel raised his brows.
“[Champion], and [Knight-Errant].”
Both men exhaled.
“[Knight-Errant]. It suits him.”
“And it means I’m right. This is scurrilous behavior of our Order and I demand there be punishment!”
The Summer’s Champion pressed a fist into his hand. Calirn was inclined to agree. But he made sure.
“There is no way the [Appraisal] spell could be circumnavigated or tricked, Fall’s Sentinel?”
The man raised his brows a touch higher.
“Of course there is, Knight-Commander. But practically? From this one Goblin whom I detected not a whiff of magic about? Aside from his gear, of course? Very unlikely.”
“Then he is a [Knight]. Summer’s Champion, I will honor your request.”
Knight-Commander Calirn sighed. The Summer’s Champion waited, hands clenching and unclenching.
“Dame Talia and Ser Vitin acted in what they thought was the best interests of the Order. However—I accede to Summer’s will. It is up to the Spring’s Warden to enforce this punishment, as the contents of her conversation are unknown. However. Dame Talia and Ser Vitin are hereby sentenced to a month of labor in menial chores, to be decided by Summer’s Champion, and stripped of any honors of rank.”
That meant even the basic luxuries like being able to ride out and visit your family in Pheislant that any standard [Knight] got after their first year. The Knight-Commander turned to the Summer’s Champion.
“You may revoke that at will if needed, Summer’s Champion. But they are not to speak of Ser Solstice’s nature, nor the reason for their punishment. Will that suit?”
“It will indeed, Knight-Commander.”
The Summer’s Champion strode off. Calirn sighed.
All this over one [Knight]. But it was wrong to blame the Goblin. His presence had revealed a fault in the Order’s understanding of honor—at least, to the Summer’s Champion.
Well, the punishment was not the heaviest it could be. However, the Summer’s Champion could be…vindictive. He kicked into the large gathering place where the Summer’s Knights gathered in their section of the keep and delivered the punishment at full bellow, not even checking to see if Talia or Vitin were present.
The next day, Talia and Ser Vitin engaged in stable cleaning…and toilet cleaning. An unenviable task, especially since the Chandrarian chutney had been slightly off yesterday.
Rabbiteater, oblivious to this, went with the Season of Fall on a hike through one of the forests under the Order of Season’s lands granted to them by Pheislant.
They had a lot of space. Nice space, that extended all the way to the cliffs on the shoreline. They were a defensive force, able to go on crusades and hold this space.
They even had [Farmers], several small settlements that made produce and enjoyed the protection of an entire [Knight] order. It was as close to paradise as you got without actual paradise.
For a Goblin? Magnificent.
The forest wasn’t without dangers, though. There were bears, boars, other wildlife that the [Knights] wouldn’t exterminate.
But the Autumn Knights weren’t exactly slouches either. Yes, you called them ‘Fall Knights’ because they were the worst season at pure combat. But they also practiced magic, and academia.
Books weren’t useless. You could take notes of enemy locations in them, use them for kindling on cold nights, relief after bad poos…even read them.
Joining the expedition, to Rabbiteater’s surprise, was Dame Meisa. It didn’t bother the Fall’s Sentinel; indeed, a number of other [Knights] and [Squires] had joined.
“They may wish to join or learn from our season, Ser Solstice. All are welcome to participate in such events. Dame Meisa is a Spring Knight, but she may well choose our season in time.”
She nodded. The younger [Knight] looked downcast and quiet today.
She had asked the Spring’s Warden to share in the disgrace of the two senior [Summer Knights] upon hearing of the incident. The Spring’s Warden had deliberated, and then informed Dame Meisa she could join her fellow [Knights], of course, but her punishment was to live with her actions, which had been so well-intentioned.
That was the attitude of fall, when all kinds of weird things started happening. In between the barren chill of winter and the profusion of life that was summer, things were different.
They watched, as Ser Solstice demonstrated his understanding of woodcraft to them.
“You can eat that.”
“You can eat that too.”
“Can’t eat that.”
“You can eat that, but bad poos.”
“You can eat that, but you might die. About one third die.”
One of the [Squires] stopped taking notes and looked at the Fall’s Sentinel. The older man was delighted.
“Fascinating. And this is G—wood lore from where you come from?”
“Yes. You can eat that too.”
Rabbiteater indicated some bark. One of the [Knights] gave him a scandalized look.
“Ser Solstice, that is bark. One cannot live on that, even if it is edible.”
The [Knight] gave him a calm rebuttal.
“Cannot live, true. But can stop dying for as long as a month. If wounded, lying in the forest with leg break and no one finds you—good to know.”
He’d never experienced that himself, but he knew all the stories. The Fall Knights murmured. Meisa had to stop from imagining a Goblin…
More of his knowledge was practical. He showed them his trap-style, hanging the little strings with bells up. Also, how to fashion quick step-traps with spikes out of mere wood.
“Traps are hardly the act of valor.”
“But we do employ them, from time to time, Ser Drommel. We do use runic magic. If, say, one could envision fighting Crelers or the Demons of Rhir…have you fought Crelers, Ser Solstice?”
“Yep. Nasty. Hard to kill. Very bad to have, even in High Passes.”
“How so? I was told that was the most inhospitable climate, even for Crelers.”
The others listened, having asked questions about Gargoyle fighting and so on. Rabbiteater elaborated.
“Monsters kill them. But…if it’s Eater Goats, they eat Crelers. Then…eggs hatch in them. Creler swarm can get bigger if Eater Goats attack them, after a few weeks.”
The expedition shuddered. Rabbiteater shrugged. Then it was his turn to listen to a speech on herb craft.
“We are not [Healers]. But if you lack for one—this Balm Root combined with a mix of the following leaves and flowers is said to have beneficial qualities against infection. We have tried to preserve the paste, but it is ineffective. I’ve suggested taking all the samples along for larger expeditions, but the order has not yet implemented this.”
Rabbiteater stared at the root that was native to Terandria. He promptly took as much as he could carry.
The things the Season of Fall knew were so impressive to the Goblin! As valuable—perhaps more than Spring’s training. If he’d known about the balm root, his friends might not have died or had to cut off limbs due to sickness.
“Rabbit…Ser Solstice. May I ask a question?”
Meisa brought it up as they had lunch. She was staring at his cloak. The others turned. They had thought it was a kind of cloth at first, or realized it was obviously magical, but after staring at it for a long time, Meisa at last had to ask what the liquid was.
The Cloak of Plenty had his brother’s blood. It was a shield—and you could use it to transfuse blood, as Rags had learned from Velan’s memory. Meisa paled.
“My brother. Liscor. He died there.”
“I’m sorry, Ser Solstice. I told the Spring’s Warden about you. I am ashamed.”
He looked at her, sandwich halfway to his lips. She looked embarrassed and full of chagrin. He slowly flipped open his visor, took a fast bite. Chewed it. Took another bite.
Meisa waited. But the Hobgoblin eventually reached for another sandwich.
“Spring’s Warden is like a Chieftain. Sometimes you have to tell them. I am…”
He tapped his chest, looking at the distant [Knights]. Dame Meisa hung her head.
“But I had no cause.”
“Yes you did.”
He looked at her. The history of Goblins and Humans was reflected in it. Meisa blinked. Even nodded.
“But I am still ashamed, sir.”
The Goblin Slayer tilted his head. After a moment, his visor came up. She saw lips move up in a grin.
“Good. Trade sandwich and I forgive you.”
He wanted hers, which was stuffed with mackerel. She traded it for tomato and jerky. They sat together, as Meisa felt some of her guilt lift at last. After a while, she saw the visor open and snap shut; he was eating inside his helmet.
“Do you truly like rabbits that much?”
He leaned over.
“Nah. Just caught them because I was hungry. They got boring.”
“Ser Solstice! Do you have time tonight?”
A booming man caught Rabbiteater after they returned from the day-long expedition. The Summer’s Champion grabbed him by the shoulder.
“Yes. Something wrong?”
“Not at all. Let’s have a drink. I wanted to meet the man who acted so valorously for our Order. Come, come!”
And that was how the Summer’s Champion practically dragged Rabbiteater to one of the [Knight]’s drinking areas in the keep. They might be [Knights]—but they did keep alcohol for those who wanted it.
Rabbiteater drank through a straw. The Summer’s Champion kept staring at him.
He was…so unsubtle Rabbiteater figured out in a second who Meisa had told. Or thought he did. Thus, being wrong, but right for the wrong reasons. In the end, the Summer’s Champion came out with it after two drinks.
“I…know who you are, Ser Solstice. I was informed. And it falls to me to tell you that I was told of your nature. I did not ask, but there we are.”
Rabbiteater froze. The man was looking at him.
The Summer’s Champion, as the Hobgoblin had observed, was tall. Six foot three, maybe an inch taller? Tall, strong, orange of hair, and direct.
He was the kind of man who stood at the fore of battle and bellowed orders while laying about him. And he was direct, honest.
“You know I am…a Goblin?”
They sat alone, in a quiet booth. The Summer’s Champion stared at Rabbiteater. Then he reached for his drink.
“I do not do well with subterfuge. Secrets eat at me until I spit them out. I know. And I have slain more Goblins than I can count. I am reckoning with it now, looking upon you.”
“Hm. And I have killed many Humans. Feels bad, sometimes. But they were trying to kill me.”
The Summer’s Champion blinked at him. Then he laughed.
“True! Like that—we could be enemy warriors who sit down for a drink. But there is more there. History and whatnot. The Fall’s Sentinel talked my ear off about it this morning…er…”
He realized that implied the Fall’s Sentinel knew too. Rabbiteater had suspected as much. Knight-Commander Calirn had spoken to him over dinner one time, just asked him about training and such.
He was not a genius, nor Erin-smart, but he wasn’t a fool either. He didn’t see why it bothered the [Knights] so much. If…Talia…had joined the Redfangs as a mysterious warrior in armor and he’d found out, he would have told Garen in two heartbeats.
Maybe. He thought about Garen’s temper and hesitated. If it was Erin…
“Ah, but there it is. We are [Knights]. Honor is at the heart of who we are, or we are no better than [Warriors]. Not to impugn them, but we must be more or we are not [Knights].”
To his surprise, the Summer’s Champion was quite philosophical as they talked about the issue. Only—he had convictions. He had an answer for any moral quandary you might have.
“I struggle with such things, Rabbiteater, until I have an answer that suits me. I cannot live without one. I fear only that I am wrong, which is why I listen to Calirn and other, more cool-headed voices. I could never be the Grandmaster of the entire Order. I am little suited to Summer, in truth. But…a better man than me could not take the post. His name was Ser Raim and he passed, a few months ago. Dame Talia and her company rode to his aid. But he was lost.”
The Summer’s Champion shook his mane of hair.
“I will not speak the name of the one who would sour even this moment. Suffice it to say, Ser Raim embodied the better parts of our natures—he and I were both contenders for this position. But he could keep himself calm and fight with fire in his heart. I am less controlled. But he…lost his love. And rage and vengeance and the desire for justice consumed him.”
“I had a brother who was a [Berserker]. Got mad. But also sad. Good brother. I have his axe.”
Headscratcher. The Summer’s Champion smiled. They began to swap stories.
At some point, more Summer Knights joined in. Older, more senior ones, who wanted to get a sense of this new [Knight]—and why Talia and Vitin had disgraced themselves in the Summer Champion’s eyes.
They found little to reproach. It was like hanging out with Redfangs again. If the Spring Knights were younger Redfangs, these were the old ones, the veterans who joked around, like Spiderslicer, Redscar, who’d seen battle. Who got mad, too.
“Ailendamus is the aggressor! We fight injustice where it occurs, Ser Zulv!”
The Summer’s Champion roared across the table. Ser Zulv barked back.
“And bring the Order of Seasons into a war that will weaken both nations? We cannot end this war on one lance-charge, Summer’s Champion!”
“What then? We let Ailendamus grow until it eats every nation in the south? I say, we throw four hundred Summer Knights into the conflict and dare them to come after us here! Or do you think the Dawn Concordat’s day is done? The Thronebearers won’t see to it!”
The intense disdain for the Thronebearers’ skill-at-arms was something Rabbiteater could get behind. The Summer’s Champion slammed a hand on his back.
“Why, Ser Solstice is an example of even a [Knight-Errant] being superior to an entire order’s training! He forced the Spring’s Warden to use her Skill—how good are you with a blade, man?”
“Really? Let’s see.”
That was how Rabbiteater found himself, drunk, swinging away at the Summer’s Champion in the Season of Summer’s courtyard.
The Summer’s Champion needed no Skills either; he wasn’t as…graceful as the Spring’s Warden, but he was like Rabbiteater wanted to be. Someone who had mastered battle, or at least, reached a peak that Rabbiteater had not.
The Goblin Slayer threw up a bit after he got hit in the stomach. It even dented his armor. The Summer’s Champion helped him up.
“Good show! Are you well, Ser Rabbit?”
The other stirred at the accidental use of his name, but Rabbiteater liked it.
“Good! Can fight…”
“Really? Anyone else want to test his mettle? Let’s see axes!”
The Summer’s Knights—the drunk ones—joined in. The younger [Knights] watched, including two smelly ones, as Rabbiteater actually bested two more.
“He is good.”
One of the Summer Knights insisted on trying Rabbiteater with full Skills and gear. Everyone watched as the [Champion]’s armor shone; his enchanted axe and the extending blade kept the Summer Knight well clear, and the cloak of blood actually blocked a bolt of fire with a hiss. Rabbiteater charged in and overpowered his foe with [Enhanced Strength].
“Well done. Well done.”
The Summer’s Champion was treating him like one of his inner circle! Talia swallowed her feelings as Ser Solstice lurched a bit, still sobering up. He took a long sip of water; it was hot in the courtyard where so many Summer Knights were gathered.
“‘Tis unfair to make him duel one of the Grandmasters, Summer’s Champion! But he has not yet been bested in full combat!”
One of the Summer Knights called out. It was true. Only one person had actually challenged Rabbiteater with full gear—or practice weapons but Skills. Not Ser Medul; only the younger [Summer Knight] whom Rabbiteater had beaten.
“He’s half-drunk. Maybe you can have a go at him later if you want to make a point, Dame Pitram. But I do wonder—is Dame Voost here?”
Talia blinked. Dame Voost was present, and stepped forwards.
“She is our best [Knight] with a blade, Ser Rabbit—er, Ser Solstice.”
Talia’s ears twitched at the name. That couldn’t be a nickname. She wanted to know. And felt…she saw the Summer’s Champion indicate the woman.
“Do you think you could make a fair match of it? Even beat her?”
He grinned. The [Summer Knight] smiled.
Bravado in the air, laughter—it was something actually a bit foreign to Talia. She felt more stiff than Rabbiteater at this moment, as if they’d reversed sides. Somehow—he knew the company of veterans more than she.
The Hobgoblin took one look at Dame Voost, and tilted his head. Then he replied, audibly, for all.
“Maybe. Think I can win.”
The Season of Summer liked that. They laughed, or urged him to give it a shot. Dame Voost indicated the enchanted axe.
“Gear, or Skills, Ser Slayer? I will settle for practice weapons and you with the axe if you will it, to make up for your drinking.”
“No injuries! I’ll step in if I think someone will get hurt!”
The Summer’s Champion declared. Rabbiteater just shrugged.
“Practice sword works.”
Oho. Talia’s eyes narrowed at the same time as Dame Voost. Was he taking her lightly because of her gender? Some [Knights] did—
But she did not know Goblins. Rabbiteater made no such assumptions. But he was confident.
The Season of Summer watched as Voost began walking counter-clockwise around him. She used sword and kite shield.
The Summer Knights watched, now curious to see if the Knight of Solstice was all talk. They knew Dame Voost’s bladework and he wasn’t that good—especially drunk. But maybe a Skill?
The woman was waiting for him to make the first move. She had a step-in that could rival a [Fencer]’s, but her real strength was a burst-of-strength Skill that would beat even [Enhanced Strength] in a close contest.
Rabbiteater knew his plan. He waited, until Dame Voost’s eyes narrowed and she began to tense—then he raised his sword suddenly. She braced—
And he tossed the practice sword down on the ground. The Summer Knights stared as the Hobgoblin raised two gauntleted hands and made fists.
“What now, Ser Solstice? Are you giving up?”
She called to him. The Goblin grinned.
“Pick up your sword, then.”
“No. Fight me.”
He challenged her. And then—the Summer’s Champion burst out laughing. Some of the other Summer Knights shook their heads. Talia was appalled.
She knew what the dilemma was. Either Dame Voost used a sword against an unarmed foe, or…the woman eyed Rabbiteater’s brawling stance.
“That’s not honorable.”
No—the Summer’s Champion watched as Dame Voost hesitated, then tossed down her blade to the cheers of others and raised her gauntlets—and put on a helmet.
That was a Goblin [Knight]’s sense of honor. Different in some ways, but—he smiled as the two went at it. Rabbiteater knocked Voost sprawling, then went for her when she was down.
It went even. She was still a senior [Summer Knight], but she lacked most of her Skills. In the end, both called for a tie after nearly twelve minutes of grappling and bruises. Rabbiteater shook her hand, afterwards.
“Strong with fists and sword. Thought it was only one.”
“And you, Ser Solstice, fight well. Summer fades!”
She clapped him on the shoulder. The other Summer Knights nodded. Rabbiteater grinned behind his helmet. He saw Talia watching and looked at her. She glanced away.
One week later, Dame Talia was heading to her rooms to scrub the scent of crap off her. She was angry, humiliated—but not just because of her punishment.
It was the nature of things to change. The Order of Seasons knew it full well. They were a unique type of Order, even among the varied [Knights] of Terandria.
That they had welcomed a Goblin among them, or rather, their order’s heads had, at least, might have been because they were founded next to a coastal nation which did see more non-Humans. Perhaps it was just the Grandmasters of their time.
Talia had understood the reason why she was punished, even if she resented it and found it mortifying. Even if she felt…unable to explain how jarring, upsetting, Ser Solstice’s identity had been.
Perhaps because the full reason of it wasn’t something she was consciously willing to acknowledge. Perhaps because all that she had found admirable, even more, attractive, about Ser Solstice had gone sideways when it was revealed who, or what he was.
It would have been easier—and harder for the Order to accept him—if he did not act so…normal. Not Human, not necessarily; just like a person.
Because he had been around them. Because he had met the [Innkeeper].
Those days had not been in vain. And their legacy had carried him here. In unexpected ways.
Knight-Commander Calirn was not the Summer’s Champion, who seemed to have practically taken ‘Ser Solstice’ under his wing.
The Grandmaster of the Order of Seasons was far more wary. And of the Grandmasters, he sensed the same from the Spring’s Warden and the Fall’s Sentinel.
She was polite, but clearly watchful. The Fall’s Sentinel was more sociable—but by the same token, clearly regarded the Goblin as an object of study as much as a [Knight].
There was the thing. He was a [Knight], so the Order of Seasons either believed in that fundamental similarity, or not.
But even so. Another Goblin who chanced upon the class wouldn’t be so—so—
It came from the inn. Such as, when Knight-Commander Calirn was stiffly dining with Rabbiteater and two other [Knights] from foreign Orders. A Trudravel Knight—who was actually quite friendly because his Order fought and lived among the tundra of the north—and a Thronebearer of Calanfer, here to plead his Order’s case for the war with the Order of Seasons, despite the ribbing from all sides.
Small things, like, as they were dining on a particularly nice roast in honor of their guests, the Goblin turned.
“Pass the mustard, please.”
Calirn blinked as he instinctively…passed the mustard. Ser Solstice spread it on the bit of meat, turned his head to the wall, popped his visor open a tiny crack, and put it in. The Thronebearer watched, still bemused—the Trudravel Knight thought it was hugely entertaining.
Apparently, someone had asked the Season of Fall to provide a vision-scrambling charm such that you only saw darkness if you glanced under the visor. Dame Meisa’s request had been answered by the Fall’s Sentinel, and now Ser Solstice ate in company.
The Goblin happily added the condiment to his food. And Calirn had to ask—but how did you ask?
Is mustard common among Goblins?
“I hope you find our condiments to your liking, Ser Solstice? I understand Izril uses a number of sauces Terandria lacks. Gnollish and Drakeish foods. I have sampled them from time to time, and we could provide them if you find it nostalgic.”
That was his best foot forwards. The Goblin looked up, after chewing, and nodded.
“Good…condiments. Like home. No mayonnaise, though?”
“Mayonnaise? I’m not familiar with that one, Ser Solstice. Izrilian, is it?”
The [Knight] of the tundras chuckled. The Thronebearer and Ser Calirn listened as Rabbiteater shook his head and tried to explain.
“No. It’s white. Egg and…lemon? And oil. Very tasty. You eat with fries.”
“Sliced potatoes. Fry in oil. Very tasty. Know how to cook.”
“You know how to cook?”
Calirn burst out, until he realized how ludicrous it sounded. The Thronebearers gave him a sidelong look and the Grandmaster had to cough.
“That is—I cannot but boil water at a fire. My aura and such.”
It was rare to see the Winter Knight blush at all. But Rabbiteater smiled and remembered cooking lessons and a group of Cave Goblins—and one with a poofy hat.
You brought what you’d seen and done wherever you went. So, Knight Calirn watched, incredibly bemused, as Rabbiteater experimentally made mayonnaise with one of the [Cooks]. It was actually tasty—and—after inquiring, he found it was a gourmet food newly on the market, originating from Izril. Salazsar had the stuff! Invrisil was advertising it in its restaurants…
The Spring’s Warden was similarly disarmed on another occasion when she and the trainees paused for ‘fun’.
Rabbiteater lacked this area of expertise, which relieved Ser Markus, as the Goblin had passed most of the Spring Knights in every other area from wrestling, climbing, and so on.
But he didn’t swim well, despite knowing how; large bodies of water hadn’t existed in the High Passes, and if they did, they were dangerous.
Similarly, the act of tilting, with a lance, wasn’t a Goblin ideal. He was still willing to learn, and amused to hear there were entire tournaments around the same thing.
“Fun isn’t restricted to [Knights], Ser Solstice. We have a number of similar activities. There are those who enjoy fencing and so on, but swimming is quite enjoyable, we often picnic at scenic locations—and we’ve even added those new sports in the news. Do you know of them?”
The Spring’s Warden had heard the Goblin laugh. She turned—and saw him pick up one of the baseball bats.
It was, after all, an athletic sport and the Order of Seasons liked things that mixed both exercise and enjoyment. What the Spring’s Warden wasn’t prepared for was to see Rabbiteater hit three homeruns in a row. The ‘best’ pitcher had no actual class, and Rabbiteater had seen curveballs, sliders, and magically-enhanced half-Elf fastballs that could break your bat in half.
The Spring’s Warden, bemused, took up the pitching mound. She…bullied him a bit. Or tried to. Her fastball dipped with the wind. Rabbiteater whiffed twice—then sent it flying high and up.
He grinned at her. The Spring’s Warden smiled despite herself.
They had forgotten, for a moment, that he was a [Champion]. The Fall’s Sentinel knew the class. But he didn’t realize how Goblins saw the class.
Champion was champion. And Rabbiteater, amiable, willing to walk into the kitchen and peel potatoes as much as shoot arrows with a Worker on the roof, had absorbed a bunch of things.
The old [Knight] stared down at the board and then up at the Goblin’s invisible grin behind his helmet. Rabbiteater had enjoyed that. Erin had made him play with her, but it was no fun playing the freaks in her inn. They were all experts—even the Fall’s Sentinel was an easier opponent than Erin’s chess club.
The Knights of the Autumn murmured in surprise as the Fall’s Sentinel looked at the board in dismay. Someone commented.
“He’s quite good.”
“I know. And he knows other games, Fall’s Sentinel.”
Meisa broke in before Ser Markus could. She seemed even more proud than he was—the Knight of Izril had depths. Because of the inn. The legacy and astonishment carried on.
To today. A Hobgoblin’s smile. And—Dame Meisa slipping out of his rooms before dawn, as Talia went to wash from her cleaning duties.
“A spring’s romance.”
Dame Talia jumped. Someone else had observed the moment which had driven her to fury. She had nearly gone after Dame Meisa—but the huge figure stopped her.
The Summer’s Champion had gone for a morning, twenty-mile run and was covered in sweat. He glanced at her.
“I put Ser Solstice as the Season of Summer myself, Dame Talia. Of all our Seasons, I believe he is mine. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“He is not of our order, Summer’s Champion!”
The man frowned at her and she mastered her tongue.
“If he was, I would claim him, Dame Talia. And if he is—Spring and summer complement each other. Spring invigorates summer, and it is a good match. A passing thing, but why do you frown?”
“You know why.”
He raised his brows.
“If it were any other pair of [Knights], no one would remark on a thing.”
“That is because this is different, Summer’s Champion! It is not—simple—”
He nodded as she struggled for words. He had a towel around his neck and was bare-chested, sweating profusely. That did not bother her, but the sweat dried abruptly. He turned to face her.
“No, it is not, Dame Talia. But you seem to see all that is negative while I choose to do the opposite. I punished you. Do you seek to change your season?”
“No, Summer’s Champion. But I will not ask for forgiveness. I acted as I thought was best.”
She lifted her chin, and he nodded.
“Nor would I ask you to change your season. You and I disagree, but I would never deny that you were of my order. Summer’s heat. Summer fades, but we keep to our opinions, don’t we?”
She didn’t reply. His eyes studied her. And they were as merciless as the blazing summer’s day for a moment.
“Still, Dame Talia. Between you and me—that you told me and Calirn of Ser Solstice’s nature? Knowing he might suffer or die because of whom he was, after all he had done? That was a move as cold as snow.”
He turned and walked off, leaving her at a loss for words. She stomped off to take a bath and it became a hot tub. Literally.
The Order of Seasons had a new [Knight] in its midst. A Goblin. He lay on his back.
Wow. That was a lot of fun. Seriously. He tried to figure out how long it had been…but he’d left the Redfang camps on his mission and it was an all-male team that Garen had appointed, to prevent fights…and then he’d been at the inn….
Not that you couldn’t deal with it yourself, but you forgot there were better options. Anyways. He lay there for a while.
This was a nice place. He was having a good time. The Goblin smiled to himself.
He was having an adventure.
It was an enduring trait among Humans that never ceased to amaze. What was different was hated, reviled—or exotic and sexual.
It had once been speculated that Humans had attempted to mate with every species in the world—and many non-species. Not every race did that. But the Human method to success seemed to be—‘if you couldn’t beat it, see if it could reproduce’.
And if that seemed like a generalist statement, a judgment inherently speciesist or racist—well, he agreed. And he’d seen a lot of Human proclivity in his lifetime.
Eldavin was propositioned for sex the third day he was at Wistram academy. It took him hindsight, and the third go-around, to realize that had been what the young woman had been intimating.
He was appalled. His true nature aside, the Dragon—half-Elf—was still old for a half-Elf! By rights, they should assume he was three hundred years old, at least! But that young half-Elf—of the Centrist faction—had been barely seventy.
Scandalous. But it was a truism of power as well. When someone like Eldavin showed up, established powers tried to do everything to find a weakness or hold on him.
Blackmail, sex, and so on.
Eldavin considered it meant he was having an impact. He reclined in one of the largest series of rooms in Wistram, a far cry from the shabby place where he’d first been quartered, sipping from a complimentary brandy gifted to him.
He’d forgotten what it was like to be inebriated. The half-Elf sighed.
“Ah, the foibles of the flesh.”
But not sex. He was still Teriarch inside, and his experience informed ‘Eldavin’. Indeed, he was today already plotting how to expand the new faction that had arisen around him.
Not just him. Fortune had put Archmage Valeterisa in his way. She was faction-less too, and it had been a stroke of luck that they could agree to form a new body of power.
Of all the Archmages, she reminded him most of the old sort. Academic. Uninterested in politics for their own sake. Pursued by quite laudable ambition to learn magic.
Ruthless, of course; he’d inquired about her. But quite humble compared to the other ‘Archmages’. She’d asked him to share knowledge and he had reciprocated, pretending not to be as learned as he really was—just extremely so for this day and age.
Thus, the two had formed the base of the new political faction. The, ah…Terras faction of Wistram, which had no relation to anyone’s name, was ostensibly one based around the old name of Earth. Terra. Also, the word in the old language.
Earth. Grounded. Sensible, pragmatic.
And it spoke to the new world now entering this one. Teriarch hummed softly to himself.
On the second day, the Archmage of Izril, Eldavin, and a number of new [Mages] who could be trusted had been told of the great secret of Earth.
A [High Mage] on the Council itself had told them in secrecy, a Garuda. He had refrained from even telling Grand Magus Erkika; Wistram had taken precedence over the bonds of species.
The old Garuda had stirred as a globe of Earth was brought in. He stared, uncomprehendingly, at the planet. Then—pictures, taken from the iPhones, computers, electronics.
People laughing, or posing in front of buildings. Airplanes in the sky. Even—a picture of video games. Valeterisa had stared at one. Teriarch had wondered if it was harder than Cookie Clicker.
“Magi, this is Earth. Another world. Another planet, in a reality somehow divorced from ours, which evolved and formed in a place where other species—to our knowledge—never existed. Only Humanity, who, without magic, mastered their planet. This is Earth. And there are children from this planet appearing in our world.”
Eldavin sat there as Valeterisa, Erkika, and the other [Mages]’ eyes tried to exit their heads. They were disbelieving at first, shocked. Then they babbled questions, demanded proof.
Proof? Proof was a computer. Proof was the foods they had eaten at dinner! Proof was a truth spell and a young man from Earth—Aaron Vanwell. Also, him demonstrating a battery, an electric battery, that ran without magic, and a hand-cranked device which created electricity.
Proof was plastic. And though they did not believe at first, some of them, those who had understood the strangeness happening in the world, sat back as it all came together.
Valeterisa’s fingers were shaking as she adjusted her spectacles and asked questions, even over the Garuda’s attempts to speak.
“Is there any commonality with magic? Is there a portal? Is this related to the Demon’s activity? Query #221, pressing—what is the mechanism by which this ‘electricity’ forms that screen without magic? Can we communicate—”
It was at this moment, as some [Mages] in-the-know watched the reactions smugly, that Grand Magus Eldavin stood up.
All eyes were on him; he was one of the big players, having established himself by the huge magical fight on the first night. The Depth Mage was not present, but she was being considered due to her level and a possible tie to the Drowned Fleets. Fissival had been ruled out, but Wistram was treating this information as time-critical. It would lose its value soon, and so why not use it for favor and alliances now?
The old half-Elf’s eyes studied the presentation. The Garuda [High Mage], Magus Verki, smiled with a hint of superiority.
“Grand Magus, you had a question?”
Valeterisa and the other [Mages] looked at him. The Grand Mage nodded.
“Yes, young man. Pray, may we skip the introductory phase? I came here for information about Earth, not recap.”
The Garuda’s beak opened. The [Mages] blinked.
“You—know of Earth?”
“This is basic news, Magus Verki. I do not need to be told of the obvious. Present me with a list of quantifiable information, please.”
He knew. Of course, ‘Eldavin’ had already met Ryoka, which was what Teriarch was running with. He left the room, knowing that everyone was wondering what he’d found out. It was about standing out.
When they came by with a list of items—by the Revivalist faction, which meant they were hoarding knowledge from each other—Eldavin skimmed down it.
“Television, food, armaments, food, theories of electricity, more food, plays? I know all of this. Hm. Wait. This is new.”
He tapped ‘Airsoft Gun’ after a moment. It was about telling the truth. He was quite happy to have the young man show him the device. Eldavin watched as it fired—then attended one of the presentations with mathematical formulas.
The Pythagorean Theorem was elementary. ‘E=mc2’ made him snort. But he grew thoughtful after that.
Valeterisa was cribbing notes like mad. But Eldavin had to admit…the sight of a firearm, even in the relatively harmless form it had been presented in, made him uncomfortable.
How they progressed, even without magic.
But again—he had had such conversations with Reinhart long since, and she had expressed the same worries. Eldavin remained dutifully unimpressed.
He needed to be aloof. Wise, impartial, a magical mentor, someone who could speak and inform opinions. That was Eldavin’s conclusion, for how else would he change Wistram?
And change it he must! He had promised Ryoka he would return, but he was aware now that his sojourn here would be at least two months, possibly four.
He couldn’t foresee any way to effect meaningful reform here without that amount of time. He would hurry—maybe quick-teleport back to the High Passes? Undoing all those protections was going to be a pain in the wings, but he would do it.
Yet, Eldavin’s vast mind, a Dragon’s intellect, was now turned on one goal: to make Wistram change for what he believed was the better.
For his arrival at the academy had shown him how it had kept some of its strength, but lost too much over only two centuries. Zelkyr was to blame and he had thoughts about that.
As well as Wistram’s blatant attempts to conceal Earth and amass power for themselves. Something needed to be done.
Another of his kin, or just another kind of person, might opine that the best solution was to raze Wistram to the ground and sink the entire citadel into the sea. Teriarch—even if that were possible for him alone—would not have done that.
The world needed Wistram Academy. There had been times in history that he had lived through when the lack of a magical heart had left the world in dire need, and times when they had staved off armageddon by sacrifice, integrity, and wisdom.
The world needed Wistram. What was up for debate was whether they needed this Wistram.
So his new faction would be the lever upon which to effect change. But carefully. But subtly. The issue was…Teriarch knew all kinds of devious stratagems and political plays.
But he’d failed with the riddles, at least, in part. Wistram did not follow the same rulebook as before, so Teriarch was wary of trying something that would have worked in the old days and might backfire now.
He couldn’t rely on old favorites like the Penta-Mage Antagonism, an old trick wherein you set up five [Mages] of roughly equal strengths in too-close proximity. You see, four [Mages] could coexist in relative harmony, but all but the rarest examples saw five competing powers inevitably turn to strife. Set them up, and watch them divide and fight until they’d destroyed whatever they were supposed to be protecting or working on.
He had to be innovative, rather than use something fun like that. And remember all the old failures!
It was almost easier to be ignorant and young, and not know the consequences of so many actions. Like…blood magic, for instance. Introduce that to a magical society and it could lead to [Mages] eating each other in basements.
Not all the time; in fact, a statistical minority of the times blood magic was adopted. But once you saw it happen once, you were disinclined to allow it to happen again.
The main thing was that he didn’t want to teach them too much. But he had to teach them something to establish himself.
That was how Eldavin found himself teaching a class of students on day three. They had begged him, and after some thought, he’d agreed to see what the level and competency was.
“[Mages], I come from an era before Zelkyr was Archmage. I remember old magic—and Wistram has changed. So, while I have agreed to demonstrate some spells, you will first show me your methods.”
The half-Elf stood in front of a vast class of nearly eighty. They were everyone from Trey Atwood, to actual [Mages] like Beatrice of the Revivalists, to Teura and Valeterisa herself, even if she wasn’t standing with the actual students at their desks. Teriarch went on.
“I believe the dichotomy between [Fireball] spells is most important to study. It seems most have forgotten that spells are not constructed the same way! You all are practicing woven-style fabrication which—you, get out.”
He pointed. A young man spluttered.
“Because I do not care for skepticism, your attitude, or your presence. Out.”
Eldavin pointed at Timor du Havrington, whom he had recognized from the banquet. A spectral, giant hand shoved the young man out of class as everyone watched. It flicked him into the hallway wall, and shut the door delicately as Eldavin turned back. Troy was grinning madly.
“I see students of every stripe here. No Gnolls?”
The students stirred. Eldavin counted every species except Gazers and Gnolls in his class. He frowned.
“Hm. Have they started an academy of their own again? Well, so it goes. Now, demonstrate the [Fireball] spell for me, all of you. Hold it—and why aren’t you putting your barrier spells up?”
Half the class was frozen. At last, a young [Mage] raised her hand tremulously.
“Grand Magus, we don’t know the spell. We’re only first-years.”
Some of the other [Mages] were hesitating, wondering if they could hold a [Fireball] spell once they’d created it. You created a [Fireball] and it blew up!
Valeterisa was holding two [Fireballs]. Trey was sweating as he tried to figure it out. Eldavin stared.
“…You don’t know how to cast [Fireball]? That was the requirement for…well, [Fire Bolt], then. No? [Candle]. On three. One, two…stop!”
He bellowed. The class halted. Eldavin strode down the ranks of students.
“You. What are you doing, holding your wand like that? And you—your posture is completely off. You, you, you—dead gods, it’s easier to name who’s doing it right. Stop!”
The students, bemused, saw him grab Trey’s arm, adjust it, check the grip—he nodded at that, but lambasted a dozen students.
“Weak grips! Poor posture! Don’t slump your shoulders! Straighten your spine!”
“Does it matter, Grand Magus?”
A student protested. Eldavin stared at her.
“Out! If you can’t stand properly when casting a spell, when one triggers a backlash, don’t come crawling to me when it shatters your spine! For that matter—posture matters when conducting magic! Out! You—take off those rings!”
“But magus, they’re Rings of Well and Concentration—”
The half-Elf loomed over the unfortunate Human.
“Do you think I’m blind? This is study, not a battle! Do you rely on a flying carpet when you’re learning to walk? No aides! No Skills! Now, posture set! Hands, wands, staves at the ready—stop!”
It took six more attempts before they even got to casting [Candle]. And even then, Eldavin criticized things some [Mages] hadn’t even known were a problem.
Troy Atlas got a pass because Gazi had told him how magic flowed through the body. You kept even distributions to ward off enemy spells—you concentrated it where you wanted magic to be produced, like if you were casting without a catalyst and your bare hands.
“Terandrian schools still have it.”
Eldavin commented to the girl who had come in Trey’s class. He nodded at some [Mages] from similar backgrounds; castigated those who didn’t have this grounding.
He wasn’t, er, a nurturing teacher. Even Gazi had more patience than Eldavin, and she was arguably kinder, which was amazing to Trey.
However, Eldavin was clearly a genius. In the end, he demonstrated five [Fireballs], producing them and letting them hover to the class, even [Mages] peeking in.
“This is what I meant. Observe the formation of each one. New students, you can’t see the flow of magic, but watch this one form in slow motion. This is your ‘standard’ [Fireball], which forms using the weave-formation.”
Strands of fire knitted themselves together in a swirling mass, like yarn. Teriarch nodded at it.
“Not the most potent, but more difficult to dispel due to the formation, which it was why it is adopted. You see—the compression style fireball can explode, which is why it was dropped; new [Mages] suffered accidents. But it is quicker, more powerful, or at least, more variable in strength, and easier to actually cast. No wonder [Fireball] is considered a higher mark in spellcasting if you are all learning weave-style [Fireballs]!”
He showed them a huge ball of fire compressing down smaller. A first-year student raised a hand.
“You mean, the other ones are easier, Grand Magus?”
He stared at her and she flinched, but the half-Elf nodded.
“Of course, young woman! You are a Level…12 [Mage]? I see. Well, you could cast a set-style [Fireball] within the week. Woven-style is far harder.”
She squeaked. The Grand Magus shrugged.
“Set-style—the largest one, here—is uncompressed, unwoven. It’s just…fire. But if I wanted to have a group of spellcasters throw [Fireball] in a week, I’d teach them that. Nevertheless, knowing how to vary a spell is one of the fundamentals in a battle. For instance, a [Spellcut Warrior] can hack apart any cheap spell, but a woven-style [Fireball] or the link-style ones would give him trouble…but do you need to use it in other circumstances? I posit no, but the standardization of magical spells…let’s all practice compression, shall we? With the [Candle] spell if you can’t cast [Fireball].”
Trey’s head was spinning after the two hour-long class, and he saw the same expression on other students. But he felt like he’d learned something.
You could link two spells together and combine, like, [Fireball] and [Water Orb] into ‘one’ spell if you knew the right containment procedures. Then have them detonate in tandem. Imagine the possibilities!
Valeterisa had been the only [Mage] who seemed to know everything Eldavin had been talking about. But the surprising part had been at the end.
“I was shocked to learn that the Archmage’s histories weren’t being taught along with magical theory. Necromancy is outlawed here. Yet, students, the Archmages existed. The Archmagi of Death have always been part of Wistram—with uneasy history at time, yes. But the same can be said for many schools of magic.”
Eldavin had begun talking about Az’kerash. Three Terandrians and two Izrilians had actually left at that time, but even more students had come to listen. Eldavin spoke—then conjured an illusion.
“Archmage Perril Chandler was once considered the greatest [Mage] of his time to come from Terandria. A bulwark against the famous Zelkyr and the strength of Golems that made the Walled Cities a feared world power as well. In lieu of this war in Terandria, I am reminded of another time the Dawn Concordat was pushed to the brink. There—the Archmage of Death stood in front of an army of four hundred thousand and dared them to a battle.”
His illusion spells made you feel as if you were there. The classroom changed, and desks and walls became sky and boulders. There was even smell, which no [Mage] had ever included in a spell to Trey before.
He heard the roar of battle, panting. The Archmage stood there.
Before he was the Necromancer, Perril Chandler looked more like a [Duelist]. It was almost like the King of Duels.
People were vanishing into spell circles. He turned, pushing a woman gently away. He set himself against a vast army in a narrow pass of stone, where blood had already been spilled with ranks of warriors wearing gold. They cheered him.
Eldavin stopped the moment and walked among them. The audience, disbelieving, especially those of Terandria, stared at the man’s back.
“Here, he fought.”
It was like Eldavin had been there. Perhaps he had, or watched. But ranks of [Soldiers] charged as undead rose.
Undead. Fallen warriors, skeletons, and spells exploded across both lines as the Archmage took on an entire army, forcing them to fight in this pass.
They thought they could overwhelm him. But the golden [Knights] and the Archmage refused to give ground, and for every warrior that fell—an undead rose.
“The Thronebearers of Calanfer. This is the hour he was called the Undying Shield of Calanfer. This is the hour when he was truly called Archmage of Death.”
Trey watched as the man fought. He had never known it, but Perril Chandler had fought with wand and rapier in hand. He danced in the fighting, using [Flash Step] to move in and run opponents through even as he cast magic.
“The Necromancer never used a blade!”
One student protested. Trey had almost forgotten they were there. Eldavin watched as Perril Chandler blasted a foe with ice from his wand and then parried an arrow. His eyes were nostalgic.
“Oh yes, but he did. He never had the class, but he was considered a magical duelist on par with any other. See?”
There was a golden bell. The kind of thing that people had copied, when he was still beloved.
Undead rose and died and rose again. But it was the golden [Knights] who fought, grimly determined. Lower-level, but in one dramatic scene, an arrow shot by a high-level archer struck the Archmage and he fell against a rock. A Thronebearer held a shield over him as the Archmage clutched at the arrow.
“This was the scene that defined the battle. That those with scrying spells saw. The Thronebearers of Calanfer have always risen in dark hours the further they were pushed. When kingdom stood on the line…”
They charged after that. The Archmage too. He was running out of mana. [Knight] after knight died—
But they rose. And this time it was Draug. A giant made out of the dead, which was brought down at great cost. The mortal army wavered as the Archmage fought forwards. More of the people fell around him.
Yet. They had his back, even after they died. When it was done, the vast army was in flight, and the Archmage stood alone as reinforcements from the rear finally arrived to hold the gap.
When it was done, no one knew quite what to say. Valeterisa’s eyes were shining. But some of the students seemed unsettled by the heroic account of the Necromancer. Eldavin clapped his hands, briskly.
“In those hours, on that day, I believe Perril Chandler leveled up more than any Archmage has in the century plus since. Adversity breeds strength, students. That is your lesson. It may be your death. But to strive for greatness, the peak of magic, is to walk with it. Do not think a [Warrior] risks death more than a mage.”
He glanced around. Valeterisa nodded at him and he nodded back. Eldavin concluded.
“Also remember that Archmages were deeply political. Wistram seems to pretend to aloofness in this era. But Zelkyr fought for the Walled Cities. Archmage Chandler involved himself in Terandrian affairs time and time again. Both fought against the Demons of Rhir, for better or worse.”
“But Grand Magus—the factions of Terandria do the same. Some of them. The Council argues over too much interference.”
A [Mage] pointed that out. Eldavin glared at him.
“Young mage, I said Archmages were political. Not petty. They did not stand by and idly toss words or condemnations around. When words failed, they went to war and armies trembled in their boots. I recall one famous example—this is ancient history, even when Zelkyr was just a brat—where one Archmage took to the field and the enemy left a brown field in retreat. They called it the Embarrassment of Bermule…”
Eldavin was earmarking individuals. As of yet, the Terras faction had yet to gain Council seats, but he was willing to ‘steal’ members of other factions. Some would be spies, but many would come for what he offered.
The best would be like Valeterisa. But the point was to have a voice in Wistram’s decisions. Make allies, ‘get’ Earthers.
Eldavin was ambivalent about that last part. But if he had people he wanted to join?
The young [Sand Mage] with the alias was one. There were some talents in the new student body, who could actually become something with a bit of polish. The surly young man from Hellios with a [Lord]’s class and good swordsmanship was being steered into pure magic. He would be a great [Magical Swordsman]!
The half-Elf muttered to himself. Now there was proof that strong magic still remained, even in the Waning World. Potential…
He had tea with Valeterisa.
“I lost myself for ten years in attempting to uncover a lost spell theorem. I regret that. It was lucky I was…awoken.”
The woman shook her head slightly. Eldavin raised his brows.
“Indeed so. [Mages] have died, even half-Elves, caught in mental mazes for as long as a century. And if you were uncovering a theorem, subdivision of thought is a poor way to do it.”
Her eyes locked on his.
“That is not my understanding, Grand Magus. Please qualify that statement.”
“Young w—Archmage. Do you really think more fractured thoughts is a good way to master a magical leap of genius? For improving—yes. For the purest quill of insight?”
She stared at him. He realized he’d gone too far and coughed repeatedly into his beard.
“So I’ve heard. I have never mastered the technique myself. Dangerous. Er…about good candidates for the faction.”
“I have a list of candidates who would be strong [Mages] with influence. Here.”
“Excellent. Ah—Mage Telim, even?”
“He added himself to the list.”
“Then I will accept him without reservation. He seems quite qualified, if a bit lazy. No olfactory component in his illusions, which I think ruins the entire experience. Smell completes, don’t you agree?”
She nodded slowly. Eyes fixed on him. But Eldavin was careful to include gaps in his knowledge. It was better to present as a qualified master of lower magical arts, broad in scope, but lacking, say, the ability to create artifacts. A superior generalist, yes.
The other Archmages were interesting. Eldavin met them all. He found Valeterisa most likable, and made a few conclusions about the others which he would later find out if they were correct or not.
Naili—cunning, ambitious, young. Talkative—she and he had a long lunch in which she kept pressing about Ryoka Griffin and all the things she’d dug up.
“Leave the Wind Runner alone, Archmagus.”
“Yes, but you’re just letting her run about. Are you using her?”
“She is under my protection.”
The half-Elf coldly met the Lamia’s glare. But she was able to match him look for look. Yes—more dangerous than she seemed. Naili smiled.
“Would that be accompanied by an ‘or else’, Grand Magus?”
“Implicitly, my dear Archmage Nailihuaile.”
“Well, your ire is certainly formidable. But we need to be united, don’t we?”
He put down his cup and reached for another pastry.
“Yes we do. But my ire? Archmage Nailihuaile. You have seen my ire. Should Wistram decide to upset me, you will see what happens when I go to war. And you have not seen that.”
He met her gaze until the smile vanished.
Ironically, Viltach was more restrained. Eldavin had punched the Archmage of Terandria, but they enjoyed a quite civil discourse on spell tomes, even exchanged a few spells of Viltach’s design.
And he brought up some salient points. He was clearly ambitious as much as Nailihuaile, but saw what Teriarch did.
“The issue, as I see it, Eldavin, is that this second world may well decide to go to war. I have been asking my Earthers about history, and they have a history of aggression that would match any empire in our world.”
“There is no discernible portal, Archmage.”
Eldavin aimed a pool cue at the ball; Wistram had odd priorities, like creating a billiards table before airplanes. But it was quite fun. He knocked a ball into a pocket and smiled smugly. Viltach repressed a scowl; Eldavin was beating him despite both sides cheating with magic to correct their aim.
“I would say only a fool does not anticipate the danger of the possibility of a portal opening, Grand Magus. And you are no fool.”
The half-Elf glanced up and slowly chalked up his pool cue, a delightful activity, before replying.
“No indeed, Archmage. And it would be my delight to talk about countermeasures. Perhaps some large-scale anti-combustion spells?”
“That doesn’t work on all of their weapons. Are you familiar with…? Perhaps you weren’t fully briefed by your sources. We may talk about more advanced weaponry later.”
“Of course. After dinner? Most excellent.”
Feor was interesting. Teriarch played chess with him, and thought that he was the second-best player he had ever met.
Which meant, of course, he still took the majority of games. The half-Elf wanted to talk about home, species—and realized he was getting nowhere with Eldavin, who refused to be nostalgic for a species he didn’t have. In the end he laid his cards down.
“Grand Magus, I would like to trade knowledge.”
“I am sure an Archmage has much to offer a humble Grand Magus such as myself. But would I be able to reciprocate? Check, again.”
“Much of what we have had is lost, Grand Magus. I…would see it restored before my passing.”
“Yet, no [Mage] has passed Zelkyr’s test? And you do not seem to believe in attempting it.”
The Archmage of Elves hesitated as he moved a piece out of harm’s way.
“I do not believe it is a test made in good faith, Grand Magus. Rather, I would put my certainty in…other methods. Are you aware of the [Thaumaturge] class?”
Eldavin’s eyebrows shot up.
“Indeed I am. A novel way to uncover new spells given how they cast theirs. But one would need a high-level [Thaumaturge]. And that does not include spell theory.”
“No, indeed, Eldavin. But I happen to know of one…and as remote as that option is—have you beheld the test? I would place my faith in anything but that. Ah, checkmate, I believe. My first win.”
He sat back and smiled. Eldavin realized he’d been getting distracted, glanced down at the board, and saw he had lost.
Intriguing. He may have excused himself after that game, purely because he had socialized enough of course, but Feor seemed closer to Valeterisa than he thought.
Verdan Blackwood lifted his cup with fingers delicately spread. He inclined his head, sipped, and intoned with a calculated sigh.
The half-Elf slowly took a sip himself. He replied, after some measured thought.
“Sanctify to fortify.”
He enjoyed Verdan’s company more than any other Archmage’s. Purely because the Dullahan rituals and observances were far more refreshing to partake in than the faster politicking. After some thought, Verdan placed the cup down on the Dullahan’s stylized tray.
“Will you clarify, Grand Magus? I feel as though I have lost your meaning.”
A shame, because they’d gone back and forth with the simplistic, yet intricate layers of thought and reply for the last two hours. Eldavin nodded.
“Sanctity, Archmagus Blackwood. Or do you not agree that Wistram is in need of reform?”
A cautious nod in reply.
“My passions, Grand Magus, lie with my people, who have adopted me, as much as Wistram. I believe my fellow Archmages consider my position biased, if not compromised.”
The man sat in armor, despite his advanced age, mimicking Dullahans. The Archmage of Dullahans watched as Eldavin lifted his brows.
“Who is not biased, Archmagus Blackwood? Nor would I consider any one species inherently unfit for knowledge or cooperation. If that is the goal. What, pray, is the point of this conclave?”
“Security, to me. Fortify.”
The half-Elf countered.
“Sanctify, Archmagus Blackwood. Who is worthy of meeting another world as equals? Wistram, as it is? Sanctify.”
Archmages. Students. Eldavin.
But there was one person he truly longed to meet in Wistram. And she seemed to be avoiding him.
They met as the half-Elf stood at the magical barrier, the Test of Wistram. Zelkyr’s legacy.
A barrier spell keyed to five sources. In theory, you could break it down; even one of the Archmages with enough help and time.
But you would never get that much time. Not with three Golems of such magnitude—and one basic War Golem, if a fine example of one.
The woman made seemingly of marble strode down the deserted corridor. She had moved the instant she realized where he was going. And her body was…primed.
She stood behind him. He did not turn his head at first. He spoke.
“Ah. Cognita of Truestone. Zelkyr’s child. I had wondered when we would meet. You have been avoiding me.”
He turned his head. The giant woman halted.
She was tall. Her height was actually adaptive, as the rest of her was. She was Truestone, a pinnacle of her kind. A Cognizant-class Golem.
One who thought. One who lived. She stopped, nine feet tall, and looked down at Eldavin.
“Grand Magus Eldavin. Do you come here to take my master’s test?”
Her voice was hostile. Eldavin blinked once at her. He inspected her, then pinched at his nose.
“No. But kindly tell that thing to move or I will force it to.”
He looked at the invisible Golem made of flesh. Cognita hesitated. It was looming next to him, jaws open, but the half-Elf didn’t seem to even be affected by the mental invisibility. She gestured; it moved back slowly.
Eldavin studied Zelkyr’s legacy. He saw what Feor meant.
A Golem of magma. Another, made of steel, vastly tall, perhaps thirty feet, incredibly thin, a mismatch of blades and death. The invisible flesh-Golem with its noxious aura—he coughed.
And a replacement for one, a War Golem, a giant metal monster that a half-Giant would fear to fight.
“I expected more dangerous at first. Until I realized they were concealing their true natures. Quite, quite clever. But you are the fifth, aren’t you? To pass, one must destroy all five.”
He commented to Cognita. The Truestone Golem stiffened.
[Mages] had died here in the challenge without realizing what this half-Elf had. Eldavin stared at the magma golem and snorted.
“No wonder the Archmages would rather argue and sit about than attempt this. Tell me, what was Zelkyr thinking? Did he intend to stifle magic with his last action? Or is he…waiting for something?”
He turned. And Cognita, whose face was almost always placid, who talked with Archmages as levelly as students and visitors from abroad—
“Grand Magus Eldavin. I remember you. You were indeed present when my master roamed Wistram’s halls. You have not changed. Not one hair. Are you the Eldavin of then?”
He paused for one second.
Golem memories. He should have at least changed his hair style or added more wrinkles. He had forgotten someone as old as he—and with a perfect memory—was here. Even Feor had barely remembered him.
“I am Eldavin. Can you not sense the truth of it, child?”
“Do not call me child. I am Cognita.”
He blinked again.
“But you are Zelkyr’s child. And I am your senior, as old as you may be. Girl.”
He reminded her. Cognita’s marble eyes fixed on him. Her porcelain form began to…
Change. Into something harder. Truestone—Eldavin blinked again.
Strange. He had thought she would seek him out and they would have a convivial talk about the old days after they had looked at each other. But this?
“If you do not come here to take the test, Grand Magus, I will request you leave. This place is not meant for [Mages] to linger in.”
“I respectfully decline.”
The Golems stirred. Eldavin never took his eyes off Cognita. And her face was thunderous now.
“I decline. Is that a rule of your test or is it your request?”
“It is my determination.”
The Dragon slowly spread his arms.
“Then, I request you alter your determination for me, Miss Cognita. I am not here to take your test. If you fear I am learning something—or preparing a great magic? I am not. You can see that. Nor would I need to. I know the nature of each Golem. I have seen their kind. I am not here to take your test. That is not why I returned to Wistram.”
“So you say.”
The woman shifted. Eldavin was still puzzled. Why was she so wary? She’d changed to anti-magic armor. And she was set like she was about to charge him. He looked at her—
Then his perception wavered. He saw himself, as she might see him.
A half-Elf from a time when magic had been stronger. Coming at this time, with other powerful [Mages] to Wistram when Earth—a new threat or opportunity—had arisen.
The half-Elf faltered. His heart stung him. Oh no. Cognita hesitated as he clutched at his chest for a second.
She thinks I am here to destroy her. This child thinks—
Fear. That was what he saw. The half-Elf’s head rose. And Cognita saw a strange emotion in his eyes. One she had seldom seen even before she had been given this long duty.
“Miss Cognita. No—should I say, Cognita Amerwing—”
The Golems in the room shifted.
That was Zelkyr’s last name. Eldavin went on.
“I am not here to challenge Zelkyr’s might. I am not here to do battle with his children, least of all what might be the last of his three. Oldest, and last. I came, hoping to ask you—”
He hesitated. But the Golem was hostile and he had already mistepped, by accident. She had seen his magical acumen. So he said it.
“—is Zelkyr not still alive? If so, will you not ask him to return?”
The Truestone Golem made no move. But for a second—the Golems of Wistram stuttered about their duties. She looked at the half-Elf. And she was certain.
“You are not a Grand Magus. Who are you?”
“Will you not allow me entry?”
“If you attempt it, you will die.”
She warned him. The half-Elf looked—distraught.
“Do not call me that.”
Cognita had not spoken so for…Eldavin’s eyebrows drew together. He was trying to be understanding. But he was still a Dragon.
“Young woman. I advise you not to take that tone with me. I walked this very ground before your master was born. He was a strong [Archmage]. But you can see how this accident is curtailing magic. Does the emergence of another world not change your opinions?”
The Truestone Golem looked at this stranger. Conflicted. How long had it been since someone asked that? Yes, she had opinions. But even she had forgotten that she had once exercised hers.
Then. But he came from a time before even then.
“Grand Magus, my master’s order remains. What is there to speak of?”
“Spoken like a good child. And you were, weren’t you?”
She shook with the shock of that statement. Eldavin’s old eyes were pitying again. He shook his head.
“Time has changed, Cognita of Wistram. I do not believe—no, I know that Zelkyr would not have created this test to last nearly a hundred and what, a hundred and fifty years? He would have replaced that Golem. Something has gone wrong.”
One of the Golems was…twitching…Cognita stared at it and it stopped. She thought—then fell back to a response.
“I will not answer speculation as to what lies above.”
Eldavin tugged at his beard, vexed by her obstinate response.
“Something is wrong. Perhaps I can help. Or not. Either way—this is a harsh request for a sentient being. I have known Djinni set to similar tasks. I wished to speak with you in friendship, not this way, young woman. Zelkyr—”
“Archmagus Zelkyr set me to this task, Eldavin of Izril. He will decide when I am to be relieved. Only his words, no one else’s.”
“And is he alive?”
The word cracked around the room. Silence resulted. Eldavin looked at Cognita. He took a breath; controlled his temper! He exhaled, slowly.
“Even so. Acknowledge for a moment, Miss Cognita, that this order is in error.”
“My master does not make errors.”
The half-Elf’s left eye twitched. He couldn’t let this one go.
“What a ridiculous statement.”
Cognita drew herself up. That was the wrong thing to say. Her eyes flashed ruby-red. Literally.
“Do you insult the Archmage of Golems?”
“I do! Or at least, I argue that he was not without flaw. Even Dragons are not without flaw!”
The half-Elf’s bold retort in front of the mightiest Golems present astonished her. He strode forwards and shoved a finger up at her.
“A dutiful daughter can go too far, young woman! You are not the Truestone Constructs who rebelled of old, but you would do well to be more independent than a Sentient—no, Autonomous-class Golem!”
Cognita reflexively gasped. It was such an old insult that she—reacted—
She hadn’t heard that kind of insult since—but the half-Elf wasn’t done. His ire was piqued, and he had a barbed tongue when he was mad.
“This entire test is a stupid idea, even if Zelkyr had just popped upstairs for a week of study! It’s selfish, close-minded—what was it for, to stifle the other Archmages from getting a head start? There’s plenty of room up there and danger even for every Archmage over the last thousand years! What about Archmage Chandler? Would you have blocked him?”
“That question is moot. Archmage Chandler is dead.”
He caught himself and both stared at each other. Eldavin rushed on.
“—the point is that this is a ridiculous, power-grabbing move. Petty.”
“I warn you to retract your insult.”
Her eyes narrowed. She loomed. He snapped.
“Retract? Petty is what I meant! Drakes can be the most childish, petty creatures in existence! And it seems Zelkyr never rose to become more than the average Drake, in the end!”
Her body turned to flashing lightning. A gem—Eldavin threw up a shield as thunder boomed. He stumbled back.
Cognita nearly advanced on him, but held herself back. Her body was shining crystal now. She pointed a finger at the half-Elf.
“You will not slander my master! He was an [Archmage]! Greatest of his kind! Without flaw or failure!”
Her wrath would have cowed even the Archmages. A being of her magnitude—the half-Elf looked up at her.
Without fear. Just a bit of sadness. And that stopped Cognita. He shook his head.
“No, he was not. He was a mortal man, child. You speak as if I was not there. I remember him. We both knew he failed at times. Or do you forget what happened to the first of your sisters at Rhir?”
He remembered. He had lived those times, same as her. That made Cognita hesitate. She listened, furious, hungry, as he went on.
“Zelkyr, greatest of his kind? He was a genius, yes. You are shaped by that vast intellect and imagination. But also, his flaw. That he left more genius than not in his creations is his greatest legacy.”
“You—cannot say this.”
More emotion than she had felt in a century was flooding through the Truestone Golem. What was this stranger? He waved a finger at her.
“Can I not? When did words become anathema to Wistram? See the issue, young woman? Listen to me, Cognita Amerwing. I see two truths here, and know not which it is. But I present to you both as I see it: if Zelkyr is alive, then this is a terrible, merciless, stupid and thankless charge put upon you.”
He pointed at the waiting Golems.
“He is wounded, or in need! Or has abandoned the world as Archmage Valeterisa did. Either way, you are more than a sentinel. You are Truestone, and you must choose to be more than this.”
He tapped the ground with one foot. Then looked up at her.
“The other answer is that he is dead. In which case, you protect a dead Drake’s final orders. But you are then free. And you must be more. Which is it? Which?”
His words echoed in this place. And they, at least, were nostalgic. Easiest of all the things he had said so far.
Countless [Mages] had stood here and told her the exact same thing. Even the Necromancer had urged her to…
But even her master’s old friend had not shifted her. Cognita drew herself up. She knew the truth of it. And held it within her as she replied.
“My master’s will remains his will. That is all I will say, Magus. Nothing will sway me.”
She felt…hollowly triumphant at being able to reply thusly. And what would the Grand Magus do? Rage? Insult her master?
He looked at her, and exhaled. Cognita waited. And Eldavin scared the hell out of her.
“So that’s how it is. I see.”
He shook his head. The Truestone Golem hesitated.
“What do you mean?”
“That’s my answer. Well then, young woman. I think we had both better cool down. I hope we can speak at another time…”
He began to walk around her. She blocked him, reflexively.
“You do not know the answer. I did not give it to you.”
He eyed her, almost amused.
“Child, I hate to tell you this—but you just did.”
She stared at him. It was a bluff. It had to be.
“That is impossible.”
No feature of hers had changed. She was impossible to read; even the Archmage of Death had asked her to know her feelings. Eldavin just snorted.
“Oh, impossible. You say that in Wistram? For shame.”
He prodded her in the stomach since he couldn’t reach any higher. The Truestone Golem recoiled. Eldavin snorted as he walked past her.
“I know how your kind behaves, young woman. I told you, I’m old. Even stone has a tell. When you are ready to be reasonable, come find me.”
He walked off. Cognita stared at his back. She raised her fist.
She had never wanted to hit an old half-Elf as much as now. And Feor had been in power for nearly eighty years. She slowly let him leave the floor…then walked out of the room. She found a room and punched through one of the walls.
Eldavin was upset after the confrontation with Cognita. He hadn’t expected to be so—emotional. Maybe he’d given too much away, said too much. But it was like meeting a Djinni.
He sat in his rooms, trying to control his breathing, analyzing the event as impartially as he could.
And that was when it hit him. All of it. It came together in a moment of perfect clarity and genius.
His issue with Wistram, trying to shape it through his faction, the time limit—and now this.
The Dragon sat back and laughed. He went over, grabbed some cookies, all the gifts he’d been plied with, and began stuffing his face. He felt a weight lift off his shoulders.
That was how to do it. He recalled what Ryoka had begged of him.
Be active, be present. But halfway. Interfere, but not fully, but do it.
He had agreed with her, which is why he had come here. Because he could not sit after being provoked. Now—he saw the way forwards.
Cognita of Truestone was the most extraordinary being in Wistram, bar only himself of course. And people treated her like a glorified servant, or a simple guardian.
She was Truestone! Those blathering Archmages? The Council? Dust, compared to her!
She was perhaps the last of her kind, and if not, one of the last. Her people had been created, risen, and been destroyed. She had been created and become the first once more.
He knew them all. All the old names, that people had forgotten ever existed.
The Djinni were enslaved. Their children, the Jinn, had been wiped away.
The Harpies had lost their lands and hope.
The Giants were all but gone.
And the Dragons’ time was done. The last Dragonlord of Flame sat there, chewing on macaroons until one got caught in his mortal throat. He hacked it up and stared at the thing trying to kill him.
“The last of us should not be so petty and end so.”
He informed the macaroon, the room, the world. The Dragon rose. He stood, and left his rooms. He had work to do.
Archmage Viltach opened his door as Eldavin stood in front of it. The Grand Magus looked a bit embarrassed.
“Archmage, I have a confession to make. I’m working on a new project, and I realize I’ve left some of my reagents at home. Could I borrow some mithril dust for runework?”
Eldavin had tried to get some, but been informed the [Merchants] weren’t stocking it as commonly as in the old days. So he’d gone inquiring. This was the [Mage] equivalent of asking for a cup of sugar.
Viltach was only too happy to do a favor for Eldavin. He proudly found a vial.
“How much do you need? I have anything else you might need—”
“Could I trouble you for, oh, four pounds of processed magicore?”
Viltach’s fingers slipped as he opened one of his cases containing the valuable materials. Normal magicore? Fine. But processed? Four p—
“…Of course. And it’s quite good. Elemental-less, of course. 99% purity!”
He heard a snort from the doorway. Eldavin folded his arms.
“Everything’s 99%, Archmagus. What’s the actual purity?”
The man froze with his hands on a jar, heavily sealed. Eldavin repeated himself.
“The actual purity? I’m talking the numbers after the decimal point.”
The numbers after…? Viltach’s mouth opened and closed.
Eldavin looked outraged. He muttered.
“You don’t pre-purify before using it? Well, fine. I’ll take six pounds then. Er…”
He saw Viltach’s face and caught himself. Eldavin’s eyes flickered. Then he smiled.
“—not that I don’t use 70%, er, pure magicore myself from time to time! It’s just that this is—the most intricate project. Can’t leave it to chance. Thank you.”
He took the six pounds of pure magicore. Viltach gulped at the small fortune as Eldavin shut the door. Then he hurried to check if…?
“99% purity. Hah! Might as well use sawdust.”
Eldavin grumpily sprinkled some mithril dust he’d run through a few purification spells afterwards. He eyed the rune work and decided he was going to need a semi-contained world to practice this on. Shame he couldn’t make Truestone Golems himself, but he’d do tests.
It was going to take a long time, even for a Dragon. Well…not if he really worked at it. He grumblingly began to work on the formulas, wishing he could consult with his spellbooks.
He wasn’t that good at this kind of magic, and this was going to push even him. He wished he had even one damn Skill, but no…
Even so. This was the plan. This was true magic. And it would be his gift, from one of the last to the other.
Cognita. This was how he changed Wistram, and the world for the better. Wait, Ryoka Griffin. He just had to cast one spell and then he would let Wistram be. One spell.
The Dragon smiled to himself.
He was going to set her free.
Author’s Note: I am write too much. This last part I thought would be uh, about 3,000 words less. However! I hope you enjoyed the two half-chapters I put together because neither one was quite long enough on its own.
Goblin slice-of-life and Dragon slice-of-life aren’t like Erin slice-of-life. But it’s all hopefully fun to read, informative, and so on and so on.
I’m not making sense. I’m tired, and I’ll see you in the next chapter! For now, I’ll leave you with that and wish you a happy read! Until next time!
Eldavin, Tkrn, and Frozen Erin by pkay!
Saliss Box by Midas!
Tkrn Toot, Cat Revi, Halo Numbtongue and more by LeChatDemon!
Stash with all the TWI related art: https://sta.sh/222s6jxhlt0