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The great king raised his hand and spoke a single word.
Legions moved. Tens of thousands of bodies, pouring forwards across the ground, heedless of arrows and spells raining down around them.
The Golden Ranks of Medain along with the army proper unleashed enough spell and firepower to vaporize the ground itself. Plumes of smoke rose from volleys of [Fireballs], bolts of lightning which crisscrossed the sky and left afterimages.
They charged through smoke, towards the walls glowing with magic. A thousand must have died in the first volley alone.
But they feared nothing. And their king ruled beyond death itself.
Even so, the undead wave of Khelt looked as though it would break on the walls, for siege ladders or more sophisticated gear was missing. Would they, like undead, simply climb on top of each other until they reached the top? But the walls were twenty feet high and filled with strong defenders on every foot of space.
“Now. Swarm the gap. Commanders of Khelt, lead your forces in only after the ranged defenses are down. I shall join the vanguard.”
The living members of Khelt’s army looked at Fetohep of Khelt, not understanding. Each one had a semi-autonomous force; Fetohep commanded the army as a whole, but he entrusted the living with their own forces that they might level and handle events he could not foresee. But they were young and did not have the undead’s intrinsic connection with their ruler.
What gap? The walls of Medain’s border fortress were unyielding. What g—
The Jaw of Zeikhal, the great beast, charged. The defenders, who had confidently seen the first wave of undead disappear, began to fire spells at it. Trying to stop it. They had known they had to bring down the great beast.
But it had stayed well clear of the undead. They would let the creatures mass to destroy this one titan. They were Gold-rank adventurers. They knew their business. And besides. The thing had so far to run, into spells and projectiles. It couldn’t dodge; it was arguably larger than the fort itself!
Few living beings had ever seen one of the Jaws of the Great Desert move. The giant creature of chitin and bone began to move as fast as someone jogged. Then—the speed of a horse. Then—the air itself left a vacuum in its wake.
It hit the wall and broke through enchanted masonry in an explosion of sound and debris. Fetohep motioned it back; he was already riding at the gap with the undead massing. Screams from the living, confusion.
The construct was already pulling back. The spells had damaged its armor, but it would be repaired. And the undead—
Skeletal warriors charged through the gap. The stunned forces of Medain found themselves locking blades and shields with a force that fought with skill, unlike mundane skeletons that knew only to attack and defend. They fought in ranks! They ran—they had actual armor—
Then a golden light, among the glowing flames in the eye sockets. The King of Khelt rode through the lines of undead. An adventurer raised a bow and aimed an arrow.
“[Seeking Shots]! [Double Shot]! [Sonic Arrow]—”
The arrows cut the air and exploded, too fast for the naked eye to fully track.
Fetohep had leaned out of the way of the arrows before they had been shot. They tried to curve, even so; he twisted around them and they were unable to hit him and detonated in the ranks of the undead.
Fetohep lifted his halberd. The group of Golden Ranks presented a wall of shields and weapons. He raised the halberd high and brought it down.
He was probably thirty feet away. The Golden Ranks braced for the enchanted halberd to activate.
The halberd’s blade descended through the [Archer]’s head and helmet. The Golden Ranks turned their heads and saw the weapon appear from behind them. A chosen angle, and location.
Fetohep rode down on them in the moment of distraction. He was grinning, the light of battle in his glowing eyes. And several undead followed him. An [Archer] put an arrow into one of the Golden Ranks; another followed Fetohep with a single-edged blade, curved, and a buckler.
His companions of old. The King of Khelt broke the lines of the border fort. Where he fought, battle was a combination of incredible artifacts, levels, Skills that the Revenant undead possessed in life, unmatchable.
Where his army fought, Medain’s forces found themselves surrounded, hemmed in by undead. They saw undead swarm around them, until they could not even clear space to swing a sword. [Pikemen] looked up and saw undead giants crashing towards them.
Those that did not surrender died. Those that surrendered were spared, and the undead flowed past them.
The border fort fell within the hour. Morale broke before the soldiers; they surrendered, rather than fight the undead and fall back into the keep.
Fetohep’s army marched on almost without pause. His display of personal battle prowess, his army, seldom-seen in battle, the giant and unique undead his kingdom possessed—for many it was the first time seeing such war. And Khelt’s name was repeated.
“I had always known such a place existed, I suppose. No—there are many nations in this world. I am…aware necromancy is practiced by Rhir, for example, but I do not like to think often of it. It is a mark of their desperation, and the situation that we have seldom raised the issue. But this?”
The Summer’s Champion watched the live coverage of the battle and aftermath with a look of disgust on his face.
It was mirrored across all of the [Knights] present, even the [Squires]. A horror for the continent of Terandria, not just historically, but culturally.
Necromancy. A kingdom ruled by undead? To say they were horrified was an understatement.
“That anyone could suffer such is…incredible.”
One of the [Summer Knights] remarked. The Summer’s Champion nodded. He clenched a fist.
“I know there have been crusades against such evil before. Not just Khelt—but to see such brazen abhorrence—if it were not for Ailendamus, I would petition the Knight-Commander to consider such a thing! But watch, then, even if naught can be done at this hour. Look upon how such things fight. As long as your stomach holds.”
The members of the Order of Seasons gathered in this room nodded grimly. Foes came and went and could be of any species or nation—but here was a certain one. They looked at Fetohep with disdain, horror, contempt, even fear.
Undead! Revenant, worst of all! A horror pretending to still have true thought and emotion. A pestilence upon the living, a threat made more cunning by its intelligence—
A sexy beast of war.
That thought came from a certain Ser Solstice in the room. Rabbiteater was watching the King of Khelt fight. He thought that the King of Khelt had all the Redfang qualities of attractiveness. Imagine how good he must have been when he was alive? Well—you didn’t have to.
He’d vouchsafe that to Meisa, later. This didn’t seem like the time to air such thoughts. But the Goblin approved. That undead king was handling the halberd like a true weapons-expert. Frankly, better than the Summer’s Champion was with his weapons. Rabbiteater decided that if he ever had to choose another place to go after Terandria, maybe Chandrar would be on the list.
It seemed like a fun place to be. But Fetohep had appeared on television and there was no unseeing the King of Khelt. Many did react as the [Knights]. Some—like Rabbiteater.
After repeat viewings of the highlight reel—and nearly 17 hours of watching Fetohep of Khelt being amazing, Toren decided he wanted to become Fetohep when he grew up.
That statement was so…inaccurate…that Az’kerash actually had to process it for a few seconds. The Necromancer blinked at Toren, tried to figure out where to start, and then let Toren go.
He had enough teaching problems to try to untangle that one.
However, if enemies or people with a morbid fascination or love of war were watching Fetohep many hours of the day, Az’kerash watched them all the hours.
Literally. He did not sleep, and the Necromancer had actually used the various scrying devices and enchanted eight mirrors, that the broadcast of Pallass News Network would be playing throughout the castle.
Also, to say he was in a ‘a good mood’ after seeing Khelt and Fetohep was to be as inaccurate as Toren’s beliefs. Az’kerash, the Necromancer of Terandria, Perril Chandler, Archmage Chandler, was in a disgustingly exuberant mood. If there was merchandise of Fetohep, he would have bought a thousand copies.
As it was, he had been smiling all day, and his Chosen were very much alarmed when the Necromancer walked about, humming, or complimenting mundane actions—or dispensing Khelt-facts at random.
It was so obnoxious, that Belavierr had actually left the castle rather than be around Az’kerash after the second day. The Stitch Witch could handle threats, bodily harm, extreme passive-aggressiveness and the pallor of undeath. Az’kerash being jovial was the step too far, apparently.
That suited Toren just fine. He hated and feared the Stitch Witch. He was just happy there was something to watch.
For instance, after the meeting where the rulers had argued about killing one person for hours, a shift in understandings had taken place. A fad, a trend—
Copying. To limited degrees of success.
“Hello, hello, are we ‘live’? I am King Ahrmal of—”
“Excuse us, but we believe we were first. We, the Radiance of Lomal, deign to join this judgment of—”
“IS THIS THING WORKING? Hello? Hello—”
“Monarchs, apologies for the volume, I believe the King of Taimaguros is ah, having connection issues. If we can introduce ourselves in order of arrival.”
“Quite so. I am King Ahrmal of—”
“We will not be introduced after a Chandrarian [King]!”
The ensuing argument took up the entire hour timeslot. Noass never even got to introduce the criminal case of a murder; the four monarchs who had applied bickered the entire time about who would be introduced first; with the exception of Taimaguros’ [King], who had to be muted due to issues with connection.
He didn’t care for that. But Az’kerash kept all of Pallass News Network on, despite some sections being boring.
It was for his enjoyment, but also…for the Chosen. Because here was something…interesting…that separated Toren’s reaction from that of the now seven-strong Chosen.
Kerash the Gnoll Draugr.
Bea, the Plague Zombie.
Ijvani the Skeleton [Mage].
Venitra, the Armored Bone [Warrior].
They had been the original four, along with Oom who had died. Now, more joined their number. Three Chosen had been created.
Toren saw them wandering about. He was less likely to run from them than the original four; they didn’t smash him in an instant for being there.
Devail had been first of the new. A…meat undead? All sinew, no bone. No flesh, so you couldn’t call him a Flesh Golem; he carried a rapier and could slither through cracks in a wall.
And perform inhuman stunts while fencing. Az’kerash was teaching him, personally.
Next had been a unique creation, even for Az’kerash. Born out of…conversations, or so Toren understood. Conversation with who? The skeleton didn’t ask. He just swept up and had heard Az’kerash mention this while looking for rats to feed Healing Slime. Not that Toren was sure the slime really liked rats, but he was always looking for more foods for his friend.
The second undead was called Wesixa; she was a combination of two creators. Belavierr and Az’kerash, as per their deal. But she was the Necromancer’s. And she was…
Chitinous. Not spider-like, although Toren understood she was compounded out of that; she was rather…unique. Toren understood that Az’kerash had told Wesixa that she would have to ‘upgrade herself’.
“You are based on this skeleton, Wesixa, in theory. Your chitin was not the sublime material I forged Venitra out of, for example. I have not stockpiled such; I did not animate arachnids or insects as a rule.”
“Then, am I inferior, father?”
The undead creature had appeared distressed. She had lots of ‘eyes’ in her body. Which were more like…empty holes from which a kind of light shone. And uh, she was held together with thread—connecting her individual parts. Belavierr’s magic, but Wesixa produced her own thread.
She rearranged herself, that more eyes might track Az’kerash. He reached out and gently touched her…Toren noted that her ‘head’ could move from midsection upwards. That, at least, was somewhat insectile.
Puppet-Arachnid Golem thing. Toren edged away and put some Sage’s Grass into his skull cavity as Az’kerash addressed his child.
“You are inferior to nothing, Wesixa. Rather, I hope you will grow in more than just level. You will create yourself, and I hope you will be one of the proudest of my creations.”
“Then I will try, father.”
The new Chosen called Az’kerash ‘father’. Well—two of them did. The old ones had trouble with it. And all of them had trouble with…well, it was Fetohep who had revealed it.
After the revelation of Jecrass’ deal, Fetohep’s appearance, Az’kerash had looked at Toren. The skeleton had flinched; he’d crept out of hiding because he’d been so entranced.
But the Necromancer read his thoughts. He could find Toren anywhere, even the time Toren had stolen an [Invisibility] scroll. And he could read Toren’s thoughts.
Toren had nodded repeatedly. The Necromancer smiled.
The Chosen did not. Wesixa and Devail looked confused. The Chosen…
“I do not understand, Master. That undead is not your creation. It was once living and has the mind of the living thing it was. Why do you approve?”
Az’kerash’s brow furrowed. He turned to the bone woman, who had stomped Toren’s skull in yesterday. Toren hid behind him and made gestures at Venitra, despite knowing she didn’t understand what they meant and would hunt him later. He was getting better at running away.
“I admire Fetohep of Khelt greatly, Venitra. I have always done so. To see him thus liberated is…rewarding. Do you see nothing to admire? Ijvani, Bea, Kerash, Wesixa, Devail?”
Venitra, the Chosen, stared at Fetohep. The six Chosen out of the seven all hesitated. The four originals stared at Toren.
Accusingly. He flinched; now they were angry at him because…they couldn’t make him tell them what to say that would earn their master’s approval.
“Is it because he is undead, master? And thus more undead means more enemies of the living?”
After a long thought, Ijvani raised one hand. Az’kerash was dismayed.
“Not just that, Ijvani. That is the…least accurate of the answers, although it is one. Do you see nothing grand? Nothing…?”
He looked at their blank faces and sighed.
The Necromancer was no fool. Toren had been ‘helping’ the Chosen to impress him, but Az’kerash was intelligent. Oblivious at times, changed by death and immortality, yes.
But he began picking up a…flaw in his children.
It might have been time. Toren was the oldest leveling undead by far. They were newborns if you ranked them that way, and they had been created and raised in different conditions.
Nature and nurture. Az’kerash had confirmed his hunches by replaying something that he also had watched on repeat.
The King of Duels’ first match with the King of Destruction. Toren liked that one too. That plucky Human [King], being thrown around but stabbing that other one—he liked the agile Human, having a lot of sympathy for Raelt’s dilemma versus the tougher, stronger, King of Destruction.
Toren saw the point. Az’kerash hopefully turned to Ijvani this time.
“Ijvani. Let us not talk about whether you enjoyed the duel. But give me your honest opinion. In that battle, who—no, what would be your preferred outcome?”
Clever. Toren watched as Ijvani thought, her eyes glowing with uncertainty. He would have preferred if Raelt won. Az’kerash too, it seemed, because he smiled when Ijvani began with that.
“I would have preferred at the last exchange, Master, if the blade had struck true and the other [King] died.”
“Ah! Yes! A victory for the King of Duels?”
Ijvani, encouraged, smiled. Her eyes lit up.
“Yes, at first, master! And then—the King of Destruction, with his last breath, smashes the King of Duel’s skull in.”
Toren and Az’kerash stopped getting excited. Ijvani wasn’t even done, though. She began gesturing.
“And at that moment, a fissure opens and all of the armies fall into it! Then a volcano erupts and the city is destroyed!”
“That is a good ending!”
Venitra pounded a fist into her palm, excitedly. Toren had suggested the more animated gesture, and she kept employing it, hoping Az’kerash would keep praising her.
The Necromancer stared at his creations.
He looked at Toren. And the skeleton saw his eyes flicker to his creations; even Wesixa and Devail seemed more enthused by Ijvani’s ending.
That he had work to do did not fill the Necromancer with dread, but a kind of resolve. He locked himself in his study, pondering the issue.
And…trying to figure out a conundrum.
Toren cared not for Az’kerash. He was willing to admit the Necromancer was…interesting. He was really good with the pointy, flexy-swords. Rapiers and such. Better than Toren, actually.
And Az’kerash knew what Toren thought. He, unlike every other person, could understand Toren, sometimes asked what the skeleton thought.
The problem was his damn kids, four of whom delighted in bullying and breaking Toren’s bones. He would have put Az’kerash squarely in the ‘sort of nice to have around’ camp, otherwise.
That was one new thing about Toren. He no longer had two states of mind about…everything…which had been ‘kill’ and ‘not-kill’. And most things had been in the ‘kill’ category, even if it was ‘kill later’.
Now, he thought about Liscor. He missed Liscor. It would be so nice if he could go back. Start over, not stab Erin—
Because Liscor was better than this. He wanted more than this. But he could not leave the castle.
The reason he felt so different wasn’t because he’d come to an epiphany about his actions. The reason was…he had a friend. And his friend thought nicer things, so Toren stopped vouchsafing that it was better to kill Mrsha and so on because it made his friend, Healing Slime, upset.
He fed Healing Slime the stolen Sage’s Grass and the little slime plopped in Toren’s chest cavity. It felt safe behind his ribs. And it was a bit bigger thanks to Toren finding food for it; it had been tiny due to Ijvani’s neglect.
Toren liked being in their secret hideaway rooms from the Chosen. He only came out when they or Az’kerash went looking for him; they could not discover Healing Slime.
Healing Slime was the only good thing in this castle. Healing Slime was a friend. Toren had found Healing Slime when they were both…despairing. And that was why he had purpose, now. He was going to do all the things Erin did for her weird guests. Feed, protect…
He was a skeleton with a mission.
A Level 7 [Carer].
One of his Skills was [Enriched Recipes]. It meant that if Toren found the right ingredients, he could make Healing Slime a ‘meal’ better than just the component parts.
So he kept one of the Sage Grass leaves, and tried to find something else for the mishmash of alchemical ingredients that made the Healing Slime light up. That, or a potion—but the Potion of Frenzy he’d stolen for Healing Slime hadn’t…reacted…as well as either of them hoped.
Healing Slime could be Speed Slime if it wanted to. Both from potions. But when Toren had tried to give it the third potion, the Healing Slime had greedily sucked it up—
Then exploded. Toren had barely saved its life, putting the mana core in a jar of water with as much of it as he could gather.
Something was wrong—and neither he nor Healing Slime wanted to try that again. Toren had a hunch Healing Slime hadn’t been able to ‘contain’ all three potion’s effects, much like his skeleton couldn’t contain all the magic sometimes, especially without the Archmage’s bones which were going to a new Chosen.
So he was feeding Healing Slime back up. Some rat bones here, Sage’s Grass there, glowing mold scraped off the walls, and you had a right proper meal. For a slime.
Toren was busy doing that when Venitra came to exact her revenge.
“Stay still, skeleton!”
She wanted to smash him to powder. Toren fled, arms waving in the air. This was dangerous. He could die! Only Az’kerash’s castle steeped in death magic saved him from the bad beatings; if he was crushed to powder, especially his skull, he feared without the Archmage’s bones—he would die a skeleton’s death.
If he was lucky, Venitra would give up or get bored after doing less damage—or he’d find Az’kerash. Or Belavierr, if she had been here. Neither suffered the Chosen’s wrath upon Toren.
Az’kerash because he respected Toren or something weird like that. Belavierr because she wanted Toren alive for reasons that made the skeleton think it might be better to be dead.
He was rounding a corner when Ijvani caught him with a spell. Toren flailed in the air as Venitra stopped.
“Master always prefers your thoughts. Stop thinking them!”
The skeleton held a burning hand near Toren’s skull. He struggled as Venitra smiled.
“This time burn his skull until it turns to ash, Ijvani.”
“I will. I—”
The two stopped. Toren stopped struggling in the holding spell.
Something was walking towards them. Both Chosen and Toren stopped. Ijvani dropped Toren, abruptly.
The last of the new Chosen stopped and stared. It—she—smiled.
“Hello. I am Maviola. Do you know where my mother, Belavierr, is?”
Toren slowly got up. Ijvani, Venitra, both stared at Belavierr’s price for her work. They slowly shook their heads.
“Your…creator…has left the castle.”
“She has? I did not know that.”
‘Maviola’ looked—Toren slowly got up and backed down the corridor. He kept facing the last Chosen. Ijvani, Venitra, hesitated, but they were loath to go after them.
Even the Chosen felt uneasy in the presence of what Belavierr had wanted. Toren fled. Belavierr had a few steps on Az’kerash in some ways.
Her creation called her ‘mother’. And she called it—her—her beloved daughter.
Toren had never called himself evil. He just liked killing things. He had admired the [Lady] of flame when he saw her—and shortly before her death. Bravery—he had never thought himself as bad, until the end with Erin.
But the Stitch Witch had shown him evil.
Az’kerash himself did not like to think of…what had been done by Belavierr. But they were allies of convenience. Then she would leave.
The issue of her was temporary. The issue of teaching his Chosen…less so. He had time. But now he worried about them. After all—he would never uncreate his children. Not now they were people.
You only got one chance. What had all the parents he’d met said? He tried to recall a lifetime’s memories in death.
His companions had been little help. Archmages made for poor parental units, what few of them had children. [Mages]…well, some were decent.
But Perril Chandler’s immediate friends hadn’t been parents, by and large. One or two…he clenched a hand as anger, even a hundred and fifty years later, struck him.
Forget that. His thoughts went searching and found another applicable parent, especially to this situation.
But had Zelkyr been a good father?
“No. If they had been flesh and blood—no. Far from it. I will not do what he did, not part or the whole of it.”
The Necromancer sat there. It was hard to parent alone.
Also, he had so many things to do. A working parent with undead children. His servants and puppets moved, he had dealings in the world, he needed to watch his enemies like Reinhart and Teriarch…
And he had promised that young [Necromancer]. For some reason, that ate most at Az’kerash, driving his thoughts. Of all the things…he did not want to be found out to have lied to Pisces.
He was still stymied. Although—it wasn’t his field. Healing and ice magic. Not exactly high on his areas of expertise. In truth, Az’kerash was moving into searching his collection and the world for spells or artifacts to aid the conundrum he was facing.
“Stasis…a kind of enhanced stasis? I need an artifact not from the [Mage]-schools of magic. Something different. Perhaps—”
As he sat in his rooms, an alarm-thought began pulsing. One of his split minds had detected something; any number of things he monitored for.
[Messages] with ‘Az’kerash’ in them, not encrypted.
People inquiring into undead extermination.
Key phrases with any of the local landmarks or geographical locations in them.
‘Tier 7’, ‘Tier 8’, ‘Tier 9’, ‘Death of Magic’, ‘Named Adventurer’, ‘Relic-class artifact’…oh, the list went on.
In this case, the reason his mind had picked up on it was because of the connections made. Content. He devoted two more ‘selves’ to analyzing it as he read a book and tried to alter a [Preservation] spell.
Hoarding and Hostility: How to Deal With Negative Traits, by Kassi the [Carer].
It was a Drake book, but it was surprisingly hard to get ahold of literature for adults raising children. Books weren’t that commonplace.
More mini-Az’s came back with a trace of the first [Message] spell in this ‘chain’ of conversation and all asides. They reviewed the findings to see if it actually mattered, then began kicking his mind, so to speak. Az’kerash focused his full mind on—
(Delivery Details) – To Lyonette du Marquin of The Wandering Inn, from Wall Lord Ilvriss of Salazsar, copy to Ceria Springwalker, Horns of Hammerad.
(Content) – Miss Marquin, I have obtained a partial Potion of Regeneration and am sending it to Liscor with all haste. I have hired my own security and escort with Salazsar’s transport rather than entrusting it to a Courier; they will arrive at Liscor in three days or less unless there are delays in changing mounts. I hope that it will aid Miss Solstice.
–Wall Lord Ilvriss of Salazsar, sent by Alrric, [Administrator].
(Additional Notes) – 1st-rate delivery requested, City Runner for immediate delivery, replies paid in full, unlimited content. Maximum confidentiality.
The Necromancer blinked. He stripped the superfluous details and checked—yes, there was a reply! What was the date on this?
Two days ago. Az’kerash frowned. There were two replies. One from the north…the other from coordinates precise enough that he could almost be certain it was coming from Oteslia.
Ceria to Lyonette and Ilvriss, did you really get it? We’re holding off on the Village of the Dead. Please tell us if there’s anything we can do. I can arrive if you need ice-magic!
Lyonette to all, I am not at Liscor. However, I have sent immediate word to the inn and [Mages] Palt, Bezale, or Montressa will be there to receive the potion. Thank you, Wall Lord Ilvriss. Ceria, I will tell you if you are needed. I am preparing to return home if news is good. Thank you again.
He went over and confirmed—yes, a [Message] spell to ‘Palt’…the Necromancer kept blinking.
A few thoughts ran through his head.
Ilvriss, a Wall Lord of Salazsar paid for a Potion of Regeneration?
Calculating the cost, even at market value would be exorbitant, even for a Wall Lord
He was with Zel Shivertail. Danger?
None shown; under scrutiny. Remember this.
Oteslia? Why would that young woman—
Ah, antidotes, logical.
Odds of antidote low, however.
Reinhart is at Oteslia.
I wonder if there are good books on child rearing in Oteslia? Manus and Pallass’ markets have not been as useful.
Manus does not surprise me.
The Village of the Dead is dangerous.
His eyes snapped open. Az’kerash terminated the parallel thoughts speaking and refining themselves before he was caught in a thought-trap. Left alone, they’d list every salient fact until he was recalling market figures in Oteslia from decades ago.
“A Potion of Regeneration.”
The Necromancer sat there. He began to stretch his magical connections and mental ones out. Monitoring Liscor’s [Message] spells. Extrapolating. Was there a chance a potion might…?
In a cave, bones assembled. Something crept out, ignoring the remainder of the Shield Spiders, betrayers of the ancient alliance of oaths, now replenishing their numbers in treachery. It left the Defenders of the Cave’s broken sanctuary.
Two Shield Spiders objected to the creation of death. They tried to kill the bone-beaver. The glowing, green eyes in the sockets flashed.
Az’kerash had no time to waste on pests. His creation rapidly raced past the fragments of chitin and twisted legs. It zipped across the Floodplains, invisible, camouflaged.
It was just in time to witness the Drakes arriving via door from Pallass. The Wall Lord’s representative; it kept well clear of three Drakes armed in full gemstone plate—the Rubirel Guard? It watched as the potion was delivered. The people clustered around.
They were going to try to use it. Az’kerash observed, listening to the commentary about…a [Doctor]? A multi-phase process…yes. He wished he could steal whatever notes they were discussing. But the debate was about using the potion now. It was a Potion of Regeneration! If they warmed her around the frozen bolts…
Desperation and hope. The magical bottle—Az’kerash frowned. There were a lot of powerful auras in this inn. People had gathered. Master Pelt of Pallass—no, Esthelm. Hedault the [Enchanter] of Invrisil, a strange young woman who had no…appraisable level…
The beaver crept around the outside of the inn, watching, as a group of [Mages] talked with friends. They decided it must be done. Attempted, at least.
They brought the frozen girl out into the inn. A little, white Gnoll was kept back, but clung to a Drake’s claw. She watched as they all did. Ice began to melt. Az’kerash watched.
He knew it before they began, in truth. But even so, they all watched the potion drip onto wounds—fail to react, and splatter onto the floor. Only a few drops; but what a waste.
Grief a second time. Sorrow. The Necromancer knew it had been desperation that drove them to that. The young woman was refrozen. The Drake delivered the news.
His magic could not heal frozen flesh; similarly, this potion was incapable of it. All that had been done was to waste…
Well, the bone beaver disintegrated then and there. Az’kerash opened his eyes. He wondered, perhaps, if they had done more damage unfreezing and refreezing—although the [Enchanter] leading them had used the ice magic fairly well.
To no effect, the Wall Lord had spent all this effort and time. To no point.
Except one. The [Message] spell went out. The Necromancer read it, as it was sent to multiple sources.
We tried it. The potion failed.
Replies, from the Wall Lord, Lyonette—formality hiding true emotion, resolve to find an antidote and way of—
And one that mattered to him.
Ceria to Palt. We understand. We’re assaulting the Village of the Dead in two days’ time. Wish us luck.
Wall Lord Ilvriss to the Horns of Hammerad. Will you wait for a week or two for additional adventurers from Salazsar?
Ceria to Wall Lord Ilvriss. No, thank you, Wall Lord.
Az’kerash whispered. Youth and haste and mortality and—desperation. The kind of madness he had once known. To defy an army by himself. To do battle against any odds.
But the Village of the Dead? He closed his eyes.
When he had first come to Izril, he had tried to claim them.
He had failed and declined to press further than the true interior. He wanted to tell the young man to stop his team.
But would they? The Necromancer remembered the Crelers. He hesitated.
Such moments made legends.
After a long pause of racing thoughts—he turned to the frozen corpses. And got back to work.
The Wandering Inn was a mix of emotions that day. As it usually was.
First there had been a kind of…peace. Not happiness. Not exactly. But a bit of something.
The [Shaman] did not mourn someone she had never known. So, she had danced around the laptop in the secret rooms, excited.
Watching a movie. She clapped her clawed hands, delighted, laughing, scarfing down snacks. She’d raided the inn’s pantry liberally.
Mrsha ate a loaded baked potato skin, filled with an assortment of toppings. Was she happy? No. But she was a kind of satisfied, watching the Hobgoblin’s face.
She and Ulvama had made peace. Even an alliance of sorts, to look after Numbtongue. Mostly because Ulvama was willing to treat Mrsha like a sort of equal.
You scratch my back, I’ll smack you. Similarly—you help me, I help you. The Hobgoblin [Shaman] was interesting. She had little power like Palt did.
The Centaur had enchanted something—the air, not exactly the laptop itself since no one wanted to risk the device—to magnify the screen to be larger than the tiny laptop screen itself. Thus, Mrsha didn’t have to crowd around it. He could also do the same for the speakers.
Simple magnification spells, he’d called them. Ulvama couldn’t do that. She was a [Shaman], and her magic was less…technical than a [Mage]’s.
“Too much think magic. Stupid. You—you have magic like mine. Magic that comes from here, not here.”
She poked Mrsha’s heart rather than her head. Her magic was different. For instance, Ulvama had not been able to do much with the device of metal and electricity and plastic beyond use it, much to her disappointment.
…But she could reignite Erin’s fire. And, crucially?
Five faerie flowers were blooming in a bowl of water. They lay dead in vast patches in the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Mrsha had wept about her hard work when she’d had the thought to look for them.
But Ulvama had brought them back. She put some in water, mashed up some Sage’s Grass and mixed it in, and cast some spells, muttering, when she saw how sad Mrsha was.
A fraction had bloomed yellow the next day. The smug [Shaman] had shown Mrsha.
“[Renew Plants]. You give more good things, I teach.”
Thus, movies. Mrsha thought Ulvama would be nicer for a while. She thought the Hobgoblin was stingy though; she’d only brought back five flowers! What she didn’t know was that Ulvama had nearly burnt her entire mana supply on five and was seriously debating burning the flowers the Gnoll prized so much.
She knew a dangerous plant when she saw it. Although it was debatable what kind of danger it was—perhaps, like Sage’s Grass, it was more of a danger to itself and those who grew it. Either way, she was watching Humans on the silver screen and really enjoying it. The little Gnoll-child seemed happy too.
And then had come the Drakes. People flooded into the inn. Hedault, Pelt, Selys—Mrsha saw them all, and hoped. They brought Erin into the inn, fearing the [Garden of Sanctuary] might interfere in some way—and Ilvriss’ representative refused to give the Potion of Regeneration to anyone, even for a second.
Mrsha hid in the basement, crawling under a sack of potatoes to be nothing-Mrsha. The others, above, left, rebroken by the moment. Some stayed; Ulvama let the Selys-Drake try to comfort Mrsha. Since she did a bad job, the Hobgoblin grabbed Mrsha, dragged her out, and gave her to the Fortress Beavers. The beaver gang cuddled her, at least.
And then…well, Ulvama went back to watching movies for the rest of the day. She had her priorities straight. Let everyone else worry about how to fix the frozen Human. It looked annoying and complicated to her.
The failed Potion of Regeneration had no lasting effect whatsoever. No, none at all.
It wasn’t as if the image of the frozen young woman was traumatizing, or hope, reignited and then snuffed out, affected someone.
The Horns were marching on the Village of the Dead. They had told everyone who was able to make it to hurry.
Some would not make it. Wall Lord Ilvriss, exasperated, argued with Ceria. But she did not budge on the timeline.
Even so, it caused arguments. Not least because the Silver Swords were ready to turn around.
“We are two days from the port! Ylawes, we will not make it. Believe me—there is something going on at Wistram.”
“Is it worth more than our friends’ lives? My sister is taking part in that raid. And that threat is Named-rank, Falene!”
Ylawes Byres and Falene Skystrall were arguing fiercely; they had stopped in the road. It was an unusual sight. Normally they were quite able to resolve all differences.
But Falene was dragging them to Wistram. And Ylawes wanted to go to the Village of the Dead.
The call had been put out, but they were far from the Village of the Dead, having gone west to a port-city, rather than northeast, past Invrisil to the landmark of death.
“We need to be there.”
“We will not make it. If Ceria has any sense, she won’t try that place—or if she does, she is capable of retreating, as is your sister, Ylawes. And unless you have a Scroll of Greater Teleport…”
Dawil Ironbreaker tugged at his beard. The [Knight] and [Battlemage] were glaring at each other. Ylawes and Falene turned to him, almost at the same time.
“Dawil, help me convince Falene we must go back!”
“Dawil, tell Ylawes he is being unreasonable.”
The Dwarf sighed. He scratched at his chin and spoke.
“We won’t make it to the Village of the Dead before the Horns go in, lad. If Ceria’s willing to wait, we’ll turn back, sure enough. Ask her, Falene. You too, lad. Otherwise, we’re Wistram-bound.”
The [Knight] and half-Elf looked at each other. Neither was pleased, but both nodded.
“Let me compose the [Message] to Ceria, Falene.”
Exasperated, the half-Elf acquiesced. Dawil got off his pony to stretch his legs. They were probably camped for the day.
He sat by himself. Erin Solstice remained dead, then. He wondered if it was all futile.
Dawil tugged hard at his beard. It wasn’t for him to decide. They were bound in Falene’s plans. They could go questing for a cure…but Wistram was good as anywhere else for that, actually.
And she had a hunch Wistram related to Erin and…Dawil had agreed, which was why he was expecting to continue on his journey after Ylawes failed to convince his sister.
She, he, and the Horns in general were as stubborn as Ylawes could be. Which meant no one was shifting the other. The Dwarf sat back. Unconsciously, he pulled out a little axe.
He was an [Axe Champion], after all. Despite favoring the hammer he used. But the little throwing axe glinted in the light. He never touched the edge, and the sheath itself was designed not to rub against the blade.
A beautiful tool. He wondered how much it was worth to an Archmage. He had never considered selling it. Not once. He knew some of his people would actually hunt him down and murder him if he did.
He had met one such in Liscor. Briefly.
“Master Pelt? I was hoping we could commission some armor or weapons for—”
The Dwarf slammed the door in Ylawes’ face.
“I’m not accepting orders! Begone!”
The [Knight] turned to his team. They had stopped here, after returning to see Erin. The moment had shaken the Silver Swords.
Pelt, likewise, was in no mood for anything. Ylawes would have left it there and gone to Falene, but Dawil nudged him.
“Why don’t you let me take over, lad? Maybe I can talk to Master Pelt, between Dwarves. You find Pointy Ears.”
The [Knight] eyed Dawil, but nodded. He had reason to doubt Dawil would get to Pelt with the bonds of species; Dasha of Vuliel Drae, among other Dwarves or part-Dwarves, had tried to coax Master Pelt into giving them a discount or taking their orders.
He treated Dwarves with more disdain than other species and threw them out. But Dawil was confident, so Ylawes left him to find Falene.
“If you don’t leave, I will break your feet.”
The voice inside was thick with emotion. Dawil couldn’t credit it; he’d heard Pelt had gone to Pallass, but from what he’d understood, the Dwarf was a drunk, a shadow of himself.
Someone had brought him back. Given him his pride. And she was dead.
Dawil knew Pelt. Hah! Any Dwarf raised in Deríthal-Vel, the home of Dwarves, knew Pelt’s infamous story. Disgraced…Dawil spoke up.
“I’m Dawil Ironbreaker, from home, Master Pelt. I hope we can talk—”
“I said begone! You—”
Pelt’s roar ended abruptly. Dawil heard a scuffling sound.
The name registered. Dawil had been poised on the balls of his feet—to run like spit if Pelt came after him with a hammer. The Dwarf had been an amazing [Smith] and they had swings that could kill even Gold-rank adventurers.
But Pelt knew his name, too. The door abruptly opened. Pelt wasn’t red-eyed; but he was drunk. He looked at Dawil. His eyes passed over the Dwarf’s face, and right to his side.
“It is you. Get in if you want to speak.”
He jerked the door open. Dawil eyed Pelt.
To say he had mixed feelings about the [Smith] was an understatement. Dawil had heard the story; it had happened oh, what, over two decades ago? He’d been a boy, so it had shaken him; he wasn’t as old as Falene.
But Dwarves still aged slower. Pelt, to Dawil, was older by far. Still strong, but he would have been venerated, and Dawil respectful.
If his failure wasn’t known. Dawil nodded and stepped into the Dwarf’s home.
That was all Pelt demanded. He didn’t offer Dawil anything; the [Axe Champion] hesitated. And then slowly unhooked the axe he treasured and carried everywhere and placed it on the table.
Pelt gently removed it from the sheath. His breath caught in his throat as he beheld the beautiful metal blade, a single, balanced piece of metal.
He balanced it on one finger; Dawil had known how perfect it was to throw. If you put too much oil on one spot, or got enough blood on the tip, it actually changed the balance ever-so-slightly. He had once ascertained the perfect spot of balance and put it on a little wedge in his room overnight.
When he woke up, it had stayed there; only a thump from Ylawes dropping his armor had unbalanced it.
The blade of the axe was ornate. Oh, the edge was straight, but it had some ornamentation; Deríthal-Vel insignia, old runes of hearth and home on the head where it met the metal handle. The metal was…odd. A jasper color, amid the tint of coral blue and brass, rather than gold.
But it was not brass, or any other metal Dawil could name. And he was a Dwarf who could at least identify Mithril from fake silver-alloys with alchemical treatments.
Pelt sounded like a Dwarf drinking after decades of thirst. He held the blade, running his fingers along it, inspecting it for…
“Flawless as the day it was forged.”
Dawil volunteered when the silence grew long and he was fidgeting from minutes of silence.
“Of course it is!”
Pelt snapped at him. He stopped lovingly admiring it and fixed the throwing axe with a more critical eye.
“A flaw? A crack, or dulled edge? Watch your tongue, boy. Do you even know what an honor it is to have won the right to carry this? It’s not even the best work…which one made this?”
“I don’t know, Master Pelt. About my companion’s request. Would you find the time to take an armor or blade order? We needn’t have it now, but upon our return. It can even be sent…”
The younger Dwarf held his temper. Pelt glanced at him.
“For a [Knight]? Pah. I don’t feel like making armor good enough to do the fighting for fools who don’t deserve it.”
He actually spat. Dawil glowered.
“That man is Ylawes Byres, my friend and team captain. Do you think I’d travel with an amateur, Master Pelt? I won this axe. Does the craftsmanship not inspire you? Isn’t it worth your smithing?”
Pelt brought his fist down, upsetting the five bottles on his tables.
“Craftsmanship? You want to talk craft? You? You won this in a tournament—you don’t know how it was made! Hah! This isn’t even fine work—not by their standards. Not by far. I could crack this myself! They put adamantium into it—but it’s not made that strong. I could—”
He raised the axe and Dawil tensed. But then Pelt slowly lowered it and placed it almost reverentially on the table. He looked at it. And Dawil saw tears in his eyes.
Dawil took the axe, carefully putting it in the sheath.
“Leave your order and get out. Don’t you dare lose that axe, Dawil Ironbreaker.”
Dawil hadn’t told Ylawes how he’d secured the order. Now, he looked at the axe.
Oh yes. Pelt would murder him. But—Dawil flipped it up and caught it. A risky maneuver; you could lose all the fingers on your hand. He broke off reminiscing and saw Ylawes throwing up his hands and cursing. Another rare sight.
If it came to it, would Pelt be happier Erin lived—or the axe was gone? Dawil sighed. The Horns were on the move. And so were the Silver Swords.
The other Dwarf thought of the axe then.
Probably because he had replicated the conditions under how Dawil had met him. Drunk, Pelt was laughing.
“Potions of Regeneration. Ignorant bastards. Getting hopes up—”
He threw a bottle at a wall and cracked the wall. The glass sprayed across the room, but much of it powdered on impact.
Pelt was a [Smith]. He knew there was a process! This—this was like beating on unheated metal. They’d crack Erin’s body, thawing and freezing her.
Or would they? He was no [Healer]. Pelt sat.
Just like this, when he’d laid eyes on another masterpiece. He recalled that brat—Dawil—and the way he’d looked at Pelt. Contempt and awe.
Well, Pelt deserved both! He would never deny it! Pelt looked for more alcohol and wobbled around his home.
Esthelm. Esthelm had built this place and it was far from being as nice as Pallass’ apartment. But he’d trashed the one in Pallass, so Esthelm still won.
“Petty mining city. No skill here. No craft, but for me. Goblins sacked it. Not as damned bad as the places some of us went into exile, but—”
Far from where Taxus had gone. Pelt snorted to himself. He hadn’t believed in penance. They would never recover their honor, or so he’d thought.
But he had his pride. Somehow. The Dwarf stumbled out of Esthelm to find more drink.
He came upon the statue of the [Florist] amid people nodding to him. The drunk Dwarf stared up at it.
Flowers. They put flowers here. Grew them, rather, in a little garden around the [Florist]’s feet. Someone had worked hard on this, replacing Skills with effort.
The hero of Esthelm, who had apparently saved the city. Along with Goblins. Even the sculptor hadn’t added Goblins in. But the names were here. Somehow, found.
That…those ones had been here. Pelt saw the connection.
His fingers touched carven stone. There was the name. And he recalled the blade he’d made.
“Fat lot of good it did. Should have made armor. Beautiful stuff. Scale mail—no, something lighter. Mithril woven fibers. An apron of the stuff. Hah! Hahaha—she would have worn that. Now that…that would have been a masterpiece.”
His Drake apprentice, Emessa, found the old Dwarf giggling to himself, lying amid the flowers.
“Master Pelt—Master Pelt, people are staring. This is a statue—”
“I’m just resting. Why are you here? The forge is empty!”
The Dwarf swiped at her. The apprentice carefully dodged; he was fearsomely strong and wouldn’t hurt her on purpose, but he forgot his strength. He could probably uproot the statue by himself.
“Master Pelt, let’s get you home. I’ll get you whatever you want. But please, have some water? Something to eat? Have you eaten?”
“Mithril apron. No, something more subtle. Dye it. Infuse a flexible alloy so it looks like a damned apron. Miniature runes on the inside. That’s what you’d need. And it wouldn’t stop an arrow to the face. That would be craft, though. Beyond me. I’m not a damn [Seamstress]. But it would be something, eh?”
She didn’t know what he was babbling about.
“Yes, Master Pelt. Master Pelt…”
He sat in the kitchen as she ran to get food from an inn. Pelt sat there.
“Wasn’t even a great blade for the Hobgoblin. Good—solid Dragonblood crystal. Cuts beautifully, but it won’t last a decade. Weapon for a Goblin, really. It’ll keep cutting as it breaks off. But I could do better.”
“Yes, Master Pelt.”
He was still babbling when she came back. Extremely drunk—she offered him some soup. He gulped it down and exhaled.
“I used to make great blades.”
“You are, Master Pelt. Tomorrow we have to get to work.”
“Yes. Tomorrow. But I used to make even better blades. I’m teaching you the secrets of Mithril. ‘Dwarfsteel’, you fools call it. What did that boy, Kevin, call it? Titanium? He knew some metals…but there is craft beyond that.”
The Drake stopped. She looked at him. He grinned at her hungry expression.
“Yes. There is. Is the adamantium here?”
Slowly, Emessa put down the food.
“The Drakes from Salazsar actually brought some, Master Pelt. But you’re drunk—”
The Dwarf wasn’t listening. His eyes were far away.
“There was a time I never touched drink. When I aspired to best what that brat, Dawil, held. But it wasn’t just me. Pallass…is Maughin still working?”
“He’s done good work, Master Pelt. But he misses you.”
Emessa had visited her home quite often thanks to the door. Pelt shook his head.
“He’s young. Good, but alone. No competition. The ‘best’ in Pallass without me. They must be looking for another smith.”
“They are, Master Pelt. Will you have some fries? You do like them…”
She offered the snack food. Pelt munched, talking as she plied him with water.
“Maughin now. He has potential. But I’d never make him my apprentice. Even though he asked. Four times.”
Emessa’s claws nearly slipped as she handled a knife, cutting up some fresh vegetables. Dangerous in Pelt’s home; everything he owned he’d made and they were all sharp.
“Yes. But why would I teach someone like him? He has ambition. Pushes himself. Not like you.”
Emessa’s head sank.
“But you’re the expert, Master. It’s…terrifying, not knowing how to improve yourself. Smithing mithril, Dwarfsteel—there’s so much we’ve lost.”
“Yes. I did learn from my masters, didn’t I? Reminds me…damn idiots with that potion. Wasting my…”
He was drifting off to sleep. Emessa wavered, with fresh vegetables, more food. Should she let him sleep? Drag him into a bed, or just put him on the floor and put a blanket over him?
She slowly put down the bowl of vegetables and began to nibble on them, wondering if this would set back their work tomorrow. If it caused him to spiral back to his old self—could she handle that, seeing him at his best, now?
She munched on a carrot. Crunch, crunch—
Pelt’s eyes opened. The Dwarf snapped upright.
He screamed in Emessa’s face. The Drake apprentice fell out of her chair. Pelt was out the door before she could blink.
“Master Pelt! Master Pelt, please! Go back and rest!”
Emessa and the Dwarf smith attracted his apprentices, the new [Smiths] learning from the Dwarf. They had understood that the potion—the [Innkeeper]—had meant a surprise vacation, which wasn’t that unpleasant.
Pelt worked them hard. He made them do 95% of all work, which meant they did level and learn the craft by his excruciating standards—but it wasn’t fun. He intended to wear them down for a year, maybe two. He got their hard work, and when it was done, they would be far better [Smiths] than when they started.
A fair exchange. An ideal apprenticeship, in some ways. The Dwarf knew how to run a team, which was the thing. Not all [Smiths] were team players, but to everyone’s surprise, Pelt was good at it—or rather, he had been part of one and knew the components.
“Where’s the adamantium?”
“Here, Master. But you told me once that our anvils couldn’t even handle the force to shape them—”
“Of course they can’t. Neither heat nor…good stuff.”
He was sniffing it. The Dwarf stared at the powdery rock; strata mixed in with stone. No solid lumps; you could mistake adamantium for weak rock. Unless you noticed that some of the dust you’d get from breaking it up was the hardest stuff in…
“Ah. Teaching. This reminds me of how it was. Apprentice—isn’t there a good, open space somewhere outside of Esthelm? Find me one. A thousand feet of cleared space. Nothing woody or even plants around. Stone. I don’t care if it’s high-up.”
“Outside the city?”
“Go! You—where’s our worst anvil with a flat surface?”
Pelt pointed at a [Smith]. The man jumped.
“Er—the worn ones?”
“Yes. Grab it and come with me. Apprentice, where’s my spot?”
Pelt was not a fun master. Perhaps because he had learned that if you kept shouting, you got results. Niceness was not only optional, but detrimental to getting things done as fast as possible.
“Master, there’s a good spot down the road. But—what are we—doing?”
The Dwarf was lifting one half of the anvil while a team of [Smiths] dragged the other half of the insanely heavy object. He grunted, still drunk. Still…
“Teaching. Come. Come!”
He’d brought some of his canisters of materials. From her understanding, Emessa recognized the mithril canister, some actual billets they were supposed to be using for swords tomorrow—and to her great surprise, an amulet.
She’d always wondered why Pelt had enchanted items like the amulet in his possession. She knew it was magical, but the Dwarf never used it. He tossed it all on the road, then looked around.
“A damned road, apprentice? Well, fine. You—you lot, stand there. A thousand paces that way. You—that way. No one goes past. This won’t take more than an hour. If they have to, they can climb all the way…”
He indicated a vast circle around him. The [Smiths] exchanged looks. Some of Esthelm’s residents were coming out, watching.
What was he doing? The Dwarf had half of the adamantium sample with him. Was he actually going to…? Emessa looked at him.
“Master? What is this for?”
“Teaching. Apprentice—you can watch, I suppose. Hands help. But when I tell you to—go with the others.”
The [Smith] didn’t mean teaching her, Emessa realized. He was setting up. Anvil. His personal hammer…tongs…
Few tools compared to what he normally used. No forge, nothing. Just the worst anvil, with a stress-fracture already in it, in the middle of the road. Some people were standing closer.
Pelt threw his hammer and missed an onlooker by a foot. He called it back to him as the woman fled.
“Anyone comes closer than a thousand feet and I will break their toes! And it will be a kindness!”
He bellowed. The audience moved back; even Emessa hadn’t been sure that had been an intentional miss. The [Smith] began laying out the materials.
“Master? What are you making? A blade?”
The Dwarf looked up. He stared at Emessa until she turned red.
“Apprentice, do I look like I have a crucible of metal? Do I look like I have any material? What is this?”
He pointed. She squirmed.
“Adamantium, master. I just meant—”
“Adamantium ore! Adamantium dust! What, are you expecting me to squeeze it into a metal? Put some water in it and make a brick out of it? What do we do, apprentice?”
“Smelt, then forge.”
“And what is the basis of any tool?”
He screamed at her.
“The quality of the metal, Master Pelt! I apologize!”
She screamed back, exasperated despite knowing him. He calmed down.
“Good. Then what we are making is a teaching tool. Pass me the mithril. We’re lacing this with the following…watch. Because I cannot do this twice if I fail.”
He brought out the billets. Pure mithril, without impurity. And then—Emessa saw the other components come out of the canisters.
Grasgil. The cold metal. And—her eyes spotted one of the conductive metals of magic. Vetil, an ore used in artifacts.
“Master. Do you need a fire?”
“Fire. We’re constructing the big forge. But even then—even with Hedault—it wouldn’t be enough, you know. Because we’re using flame spells. Burning damned charcoal. You know adamantium is one of the greatest metals of [Smiths]?”
“Yes, Master. An achievement that makes you world-renowned.”
The young Drake’s eyes were hungrily set on the stuff. Pelt snorted.
“And you can forge it. But it’s easier to forge it with tools. That’s why artifacts for the stuff are fought over by [Smiths]. But that’s not craft. The craft is knowing every moment of it. Adamantium. You know, when they teach us this, the best of us—they make us forge a little bit. A ring. A cup, a fork or dagger. Something trivial. And then you know what they do?”
He was spreading it all out. Pelt was ready. He left the adamantium in a pile next to the anvil; it was the components, the mithril, Grasgil and such that he was staring at.
“They toss it into a volcano. Or burning rock. Magma. You know the stuff? They toss it in—and then retrieve it. If it’s whole, you did your job right. Any weakness and the adamantium wasn’t forged right. You think you can get hotter than that in a forge?”
“Then…how? You don’t even have a forge fire, Master Pelt.”
He looked at her. His eyes shimmered—no, was the air around him—? Emessa felt the heat first. It radiated outwards, as the mithril began to glow in his grip.
“I am the great [Smith] of Deríthal-vel, my apprentice Emessa. Did you think you had seen my Skills? Now, watch. Those Human women are not the only ones who know flame. And mine burns hotter still.”
The metal was hot. His hands alone might have melted it, but Emessa realized he was holding something. He put it at the end of his anvil. The iron began to catch fire and deform from the heat—then stopped. Pelt put the first glowing mithril bars on the anvil and hammered them down.
“An alloy of mithril. Grasgil! Vetil—stand back. Toss me what I demand.”
She did. It was already growing hot. But she had felt the heat to cook mithril on her scales. She had [Resistance to Fire], as many [Smiths] did.
“First mithril! Into every inch of it, the Grasgil must be infused! Until it practically melts—”
He was taking the mithril to that temperature. Undoing the metal to turn it into an alloy. Mithril was no steel; it was a pure metal. Then, letting it rapidly cool away from the fire. Turning it into a billet. Then…
It was going to be a single thing. Made in two pieces, she realized. But this was no sword. Mithril, Grasgil, and Vetil went together. The clear metal of Vetil along one side; the bottom?
No, top. The two sides came up. The fire roared, and Emessa felt it begin to sting her, despite her Skill.
“Now toss me the amulet!”
Pelt was roaring as his hammer sang. Like all his work, he moved so fast that even mithril flowed around the way he wanted it. Emessa did.
“What is it, master? Do you need it?”
He looked at her. The Dwarf began laughing.
“I already have what it does. Don’t you know, apprentice? This—is an artifact I bought from Gold-ranks too stupid to realize what it was. What it could be. This is an Amulet of Greater Fire Resistance.”
He held up the glowing locket, forged like a burning flame itself, bright red. He tore the chain off the amulet. And then—pressed it into the Vetil heart of the glowing…
Emessa saw what it was as the smith took his hand away.
Two parts. Both like bowls…but identical, save for one with the amulet buried in what would be the top. And both sides had grooves carved into the mithril alloy. Put them together and twist and they would lock.
A canister. A container. Pelt did so now, as the metal cooled. He had created…a mithril box.
Or, the Drake realized, the most flameproof container she had ever seen. The glowing amulet fixed in the mithril container—the Grasgil forged into mithril—
“Apprentice. You must know what this is. Tell me now, or throw away your hammer.”
Pelt looked at her. Emessa gulped. But she spoke, almost without thinking.
“It’s…a crucible, master?”
He smiled. And it was a rare smile from master to student.
“A [Smith] without my Skills will make his own forge. Make his own anvil. Even his tools. Look—did you know I made this hammer myself?”
He held it out to her. She studied the dull metal, covered by soot. And she saw Pelt shake his head.
“When they cast me out, I broke every hammer I had owned myself. We all did. They took my anvil and cast it in lead, then buried it so deep it would never be found. But I never forgot. Every tool I used to first make new metal, I made myself. But I was given one thing when I learned to make adamantium. This. From one [Smith] to another—the great challenge. A first step. Because we work on the foundations of those before us. Now—apprentice. Put the canisters into your bag of holding. All the tools. I only need the hammer, the tongs, and this.”
He hefted the mithril crucible. Emessa scrambled to put away his materials. There was just the anvil, the road—people were watching from a distance. An impatient caravan had pulled up, but even they were watching.
Pelt was piling the adamantium ore into the crucible. She knew what was happening now. And if the fire he had called was hot before—it had gone now. Emessa was trembling.
The Dwarf had all the crucible could fit. He looked up at her. And smiled again. With the joy of creation in his eyes, Pelt spoke.
“Emessa. You may watch for the first ten seconds. Listen. Learn. Some day you may pick up this hammer. Ten seconds. Then—run. Understand?”
She nodded. The [Smith] picked up his hammer. A strange tool for smelting. But then—
The air caught fire.
The blast of flame was like a [Flame Geyser] spell. Emessa threw her arms up with a cry. The air ignited.
The dirt of the road cracked. Sand turned to glass; dirt scorched itself away.
The wave of fire cooked Emessa’s scales in an instant. Her resistance to fire—she felt her clothes catch fire.
“Apprentice! Run! Look upon me once and run!”
Pelt was laughing. Something was burning around the smith. Flame. Not the flame of memory. But pure heat. Emessa looked at him, at the culmination of her desire and craft. Then she ran.
Behind her, the crucible was heating up. The lesser rock mixed with the adamantium was turning molten. Pelt’s hammer struck the glowing mass of liquid stone. He hammered down the liquid and forced the heaviest metal to the bottom.
Molten stone splashed his beard and sprayed into the air. Worthless to Pelt; he waited as it heated up. He just wanted the most precious metal of all. It wasn’t even glowing yet. He added more ore, repeated the process. Separating that which felt the heat from that which did not.
The road was catching fire around him; weeds and the few plants incinerating. And the heat was spreading in moments. Emessa ran arms and legs pumping as those at the thousand-yard circle ran back further, all those except the [Smiths] or with Skills like her.
She heard him roar at last. His great Skills. The exiled [Smith].
No—she had heard his true class once before. She looked over her shoulder as he sang.
[Hammer of a Hundred Metals].
The Dwarf roared. And his voice was triumphant. He hammered and sang. His Skills were more than words. They were…
“[I Forged in the Greatest Fire I Have Known]!”
It was melting the ground around him. He was sinking amid molten stone, a pillar of smoke and steam. Yet the anvil remained. His hammer, the tongs by which he was holding the crucible as he forced more adamantium down—all held.
“[My Tools Were Unbroken].”
Liquid rock struck Pelt. And he wiped it away. The last of the adamantium shed the lesser rock; powder and fragments. Now—it began to heat up.
And the Dwarf himself began to burn. His clothes, like Emessa’s, were catching fire. Emessa turned back, staring as the heat baked her a thousand feet away. She heard the last Skill, with the other two. Advanced, a culmination of ability. A song, a boast.
“[I Forged in the Greatest Fire I Have Known]/[My Tools Were Unbroken]/[I Fear No Flame].”
The Skill that Dragons had once feared, but a [Smith]’s Skill. Now, the Dwarf sang. The adamantium was…melting. He was breaking the impurity away with hammer blows that shook the world. The onlookers could feel the vibrations.
Then—Pelt took the crucible and closed it. He held it, in the burning pit, as the anvil melted away. He held his hammer as the tongs evaporated. He let the burning fire engulf it, and him, completing the smelting. Then he just sang. And Emessa heard the only song the Dwarf had ever sung, from his craft, from his home.
When he had been legend.
“Look, now, and recall my tale!
I forged in the greatest fire I have known.
Yet my tools were unbroken!
I feared no flame! Remember that, metal!
Know who made you, who wrought you—
For there is no substance I cannot tame!
As I turn you into purity, by my hammer, by my craft,
Remember my name!”
He was lost amid the smoke. Emessa and the others retreated as it grew too toxic to breathe. The people of Esthelm stared from their walls.
It was a long time before the Dwarf reappeared. When he did—Emessa saw the road was gone.
A huge pit had formed where the dirt road had been. A depression formed as if a meteor or object had struck it.
All was ash and fire around the area Pelt had forged.
Yet two things remained.
The first was the Dwarf. He was naked. Not that you could see anything out of the ash and grit caking his body. He climbed out, coughing, the stuff flaking off him.
The second was the crucible he had made. It was glowing hot, even now. But it was done. And inside…was a billet of dark red and brown. A glorious color though, a color unto itself. The great metal—
Adamantium. Pelt looked at it. He smiled at her, wearily.
This was the story of Pelt in his mastery. It did not end there, though.
For the very hour as word spread, as Wistram lamented not having been there—for Pelt had not told them! As if he cared nothing for their fame!—and the [Smiths] of Pallass stopped working, wondering at the tale, someone appeared on the 9th floor.
Emessa. She walked past the forges. Past [Smiths]. Her arms burned from the short journey. Her scales were singed. The [Smiths] stopped talking to stare after her.
Then—followed. Because they saw what she held.
Maughin the [Armorer] stood at his forge, staring down at the armor he was working on for a Dullahan. All he had made in inspiration, even love—and his worry over seeing off Jelaqua—had been erased temporarily from his mind by the tale of craft.
“What is this I am working on? What paltry—”
He was about to toss the armor aside, for all it had his own, patented alloy with yes, some mithril in it. The Dullahan turned in disgust.
And there was Emessa.
He stopped. The huge [Armorer] looked down.
“Maughin. I have something for you.”
The Drake apprentice’s voice trembled. Slowly, she stepped forwards. Maughin’s fellow [Smiths], his team—looked and recoiled in shock.
For she held the crucible. And—with it—a single, perfectly solid, incredibly dense metal. She placed both on an unused anvil and bowed.
“What? What is th—”
Maughin didn’t believe it at first, for all the story was fresh in his ears. He looked down at the adamantium. The crucible.
“Master Pelt sends it.”
There was no note. No instructions. No tools beyond the crucible and metal. That was the point.
Teaching. A Blacksmith’s Puzzle to end all puzzles. And the reward was—
Maughin dropped his hammer. And he had not done so since he was a boy learning his craft. The great Dwarf [Smith] had passed down a challenge.
To a worthy smith. He saw Emessa turning away. He called out after her. But then she was running, laughing, giddy.
It was the day a potion had failed to do a thing for Erin Solstice. And had no consequences. Whatsoever.
Pelt, the Hammer of Deríthal-Vel. His name echoed for a moment. Adamantium smith. Master craftsman.
A passed era of greatness. But one that might see a second dawning, if not so brilliant. A [Smith] did not lose their talents with time.
…Less so for those in professions that took harsher tolls.
The Couriers of Izril had diminished over the events of the spring and summer. Four had died, a harsh number. In other times, it might be taken as a sign that the Runner’s Guild was lowering its standards.
Some people did say that. For, Mihaela Godfrey had been bested by the Assassin’s Guild and Lacel the Leaper had perished, as well as the Firedrake. The Courier of the Antinium Wars had lost her edge. She was a Guildmistress, no longer the Courier to inspire.
So some people said. For proof, why not look at her son, Valceif Godfrey, who had perished at the hands of common [Bandits]?
Of course, they did not say this around other Couriers or anywhere near First Landing. But that was three.
And the last, Tritel, the Moonlight Rider—well, he had made the Courier’s mistake of thinking he was an adventurer, hadn’t he? Three Couriers versus three [Assassins] of high, possibly roughly-equal levels. What did you think would happen?
Four dead, when it was rare for two Couriers to be certified in a year. Was this a referendum on the Runner’s Guild? A sign of Izril’s complacency?
Or was it just talk from people who had no idea what they were saying? Couriers—try running the places they went and then complain.
The truth was simply that running deliveries was not a job for the old. That change happened all too quickly. Couriers rose and fell. And…changed.
They said two new Couriers had emerged from the deaths of the old. One was familiar—but different.
Salamani, the Mage Runner, had inherited Tritel’s last will and legacy. His partner, Ci, rather. They called him the Mage Rider—and whether it was a partnership that would last was unknown.
And—there was one new Courier whose name people still remembered. The Wind Runner of Reizmelt.
A [Bandit] group waiting in ambush was looking for a juicy target. They were watching caravans, passing up the heavily-guarded [Merchant] with thirty [Mercenaries]. A lone [Trader], a City Runner who might be carrying something good—they had a [Stalker] with an arrow trained on the road.
“Anything? What about that one?”
“I’m lining up a shot. Shut up.”
He was sighting down the arrow at a carriage. The [Bandit Leader] was a former [Warrior], a hard fighter who ruled the group by force.
“What do you see?”
The man grumbled.
“[Mark’s Eye] says they’re as poor as shit. We could still take the horses—”
“We go after someone and the road’s dead all day. Wait. There’s a Runner. That one?”
They saw a young woman running down the road at a good clip. The [Stalker] brightened.
“There’s something nice on her. Might be jewelry. Not the best mark, but—”
“It’s better than anything we’ve got. Get ready—we get her and the horses.”
The [Bandit Leader] called to the others in the underbrush. The group of twelve readied themselves. The [Stalker] grumbled as he changed the position of his bow, tracking the possible City Runner.
“Well? Hurry up!”
One of the [Raiders] whispered loudly, already on horseback with a spear. He scratched at his hair; he had lice to the [Stalker]’s keen eyes. Disgusted, the man snapped back.
“Give me a moment! It’s not easy hitting a moving target! I just need—”
He drew back, calculating range, the environment. He felt a moment of regret, but he aimed for her chest, not legs. No taking chances. He held his breath for a moment—
And the wind changed. The [Stalker] cursed and shifted his aim. Just a bit—he felt the wind growing stronger. Stronger—
“Dead gods damn it, is this a gale or what?”
He snapped. The [Stalker] relaxed slightly. And he heard a muffled curse.
The man with the bow looked up as the [Bandits] stared up. He saw a strange thing in the sky. A triangle? His first reaction was to fear a wild Griffin. But no—not a bird or monster. It was…a person. She flew overhead.
And she was looking at him. The [Stalker] and the woman holding onto the glider locked eyes. He cursed, swinging his bow up—
The dust cloud blasted over the [Bandits]. The Courier—the Wind Runner of Reizmelt tilted her glider and spun down.
“Bandits in the brush! Run!”
She shouted over the scream of the wind and curses of the ambush group. The City Runner did a double-take. She turned and sprinted back the way she’d come. So did the couple in the carriage and people on the road.
Sand and grit was whipping around the [Bandits], blasting them in the eyes. The [Stalker] cursed, but he was aiming at the shape as she swooped up.
“I’ll kill her. I’ll—”
A vice of iron pulled his arms down. The [Stalker]’s shot went wide.
“Are you mad? That’s a Courier! We have minutes before someone’s on us. Get moving! Everyone in the saddle! We’re running!”
The [Bandit Leader] bellowed. Cursing, the [Stalker] shouted an insult at the Wind Runner, already flying past them. He went running for his horse as the [Bandit Leader] shielded her face with her arm.
To herself, she watched Ryoka Griffin soar off. The former [Warrior] grinned.
“Besides. I saw her on the scrying orb. And it was a damn good run.”
She watched as the Wind Runner flew on.
Ryoka Griffin had weird fans.
The Wind Runner, the Courier, flew her first delivery as an actual Courier and it was the strangest feeling ever.
For one thing, she flew. Ryoka was still amazed she could actually do that.
But it had been a smooth flight. She’d taken off from Riverfarm, and found the ‘right’ breeze in the sky, going the right way. Well—she’d had the sense of where the wind was blowing from the start.
She could have burned her own mana for her personal wind, and she did twice when the wind changed, going up or down to find the right breeze, but Ryoka found that her travel was now…holding onto the glider and watching the world go by.
Was this less taxing, less athletic, than running? Was it cool as all heck? Yes to both accounts. Ryoka covered the distance from Riverfarm to her destination in…a fifth of the time it would take on foot? And that was taking regular shots of stamina potion with the wind at her back already. Even with Boots of Speed or whatever—no comparison.
And that was with her landing twice to stretch out her arms; they got tired, as did her body in the gliding position for such a long time. She wondered if she could just strap herself into the glider and not have to hold it.
Well, it was an uneventful first leg of the journey aside from the [Bandits]. Ryoka had wavered when she saw them, but who else sat in a thicket near the road? She’d dumped sand out of her bag of holding and warned the City Runner.
Ryoka circled twice, but saw the [Bandits] break towards the hills rather than the road. So she flew on, and landed at one of the towns along her route.
Not in the city, but just outside the gates. Ryoka shook out her arms, hopped up and down to pump some blood into her legs, and then stowed the glider in her bag of holding. She had to disassemble parts of it; it didn’t fit in one go, but it was relatively painless. She jogged up to the gates.
“City Runner on delivery!”
The [Guards] stared at her. Ryoka Griffin waved her seal. After a second, one of the [Town Guards] leaned down.
“Isn’t that Courier? Dead gods, Miss! You just flew here? You’re—the Wind Runner of Reizmelt!”
Ryoka blinked. She’d forgotten her new designation. And she saw the [Town Guards] all abandon their gates.
“That was amazing! What’s that thing you were flying?”
“I saw you on the scrying orb! Could—could I try flying with that thing?”
“Hey, will you sign my helmet? An auto-graph? Here—someone get some parchment!”
It was not the first such encounter she’d have that day. Indeed, Ryoka took almost as long getting to the Runner’s Guild in the small town as she had flying there; everyone wanted to see the Wind Runner.
The adults were caught between amazement, the thrill of seeing a Courier, and horrified fascination at the idea of flying. Some wanted to try it, others just wanted to ask how Ryoka did it.
But Ryoka’s real, hardcore fans, the ones who’d been there from the start, flocked around her without reservation, begging for just one flight.
Children. Ryoka’s biggest fans were either children or types like adventurers, thrill-seekers, teens who had been like her. The Wind Runner, overwhelmed by it all, refused everyone a turn on the glider. The wind liked her, but even she couldn’t guarantee it wouldn’t try to flip her in the air for ‘fun’. She could survive that; a random person, no.
However, she did provide some amusement. A spare parachute and children were taking turns being ‘flown’ in a little basket. They screamed with delight and the adults looked on, some trying to hide their jealousy; they were too heavy, by and large. And it was beneath their dignity or something.
Ryoka smiled at that, as the [Mayor]’s son went screaming past her, pursued by the anxious woman herself, who wasn’t convinced he was quite safe. She stayed nearly two hours, then practically begged to deliver the sheaf of letters and several parcels from Riverfarm.
“I really must go. I’m sorry, but I’m trying to get to Reizmelt by evening—excuse me, I’ll take any correspondence that way.”
“All of it, Miss? We’ve got a lot you could take if your bag of holding’s big enough…”
Ryoka saw the [Receptionist] at the Runner’s Guild hesitate. Some of the City Runners and Street Runners who’d queued up to shake her hand and say what an amazing run they’d seen looked dismayed.
So, Ryoka caught herself and, mindful of the other Couriers she’d met, amended her statement.
“—Er, sorry. I mean, any priority mail or packages. Nothing local. Anything over two or three towns or which needs to get there fast.”
“Ah, very good, Miss Griffin. We’ve got…seven items.”
The Runners relaxed.
“Thanks, Miss Wind Runner.”
One nodded gratefully at Ryoka and she nodded back.
Runner’s etiquette, like Fals had taught her one time. It was all there. Lessons past and present. The Wind Runner collected her packages, assembled her glider as the crowd watched in the street, and, intensely embarrassed, flew up into the air to wild cheering.
The next city Ryoka came to she ran into the gates—and had ‘run’ all the way there after landing while out of sight of the town.
She did it to avoid causing another scene—and to try out her second mode of transport. She could glide or wingsuit fly to her destinations—but the wingsuit was scary as hell, and less controllable than the glider. Also, frankly, a bit more embarrassing since people would stare up at Flying Squirrel Ryoka as she sped past them.
That was what she felt like. But Ryoka had an alternate use for the wingsuit—which people kept thinking was ‘windsuit’, since they had no reference for it.
She ran across the ground and leapt over a hill. Ryoka’s jump carried her forty feet; she landed lightly and ran past a [Farmer]’s son in the fields. He stared at her, hoe raised.
The young man of about fifteen waved back. He stared at Ryoka as she leapt again, a fifteen foot jump which shattered all world records on Earth. How was she doing that?
Windsuit! Ryoka was barely even ‘running’; the wind was picking up the loose cloth in her wingsuit and blowing her forwards. It was like when the wind was so strong you could barely fight against it—but it was all behind her. She could leap like a frog, and she was running almost as fast as the wind was blowing.
“This is so cool!”
Ryoka actually enjoyed the sensation of effortlessly leaping around more than flying for a bit. Because this—this was like having super powers.
The city of Onononno—had a weird name. Ryoka had chosen it on her route just to see why it was named that.
…Well, there was a confusing statue in the square. Ryoka stared at the [Slime Rider] for a long time; the man riding a giant slime, which had been called Onononno, and the founder of the city.
It just went to show there was something unique everywhere you went. [Slime Riders].
She had thought her running into the city would attract less attention, but one look at her garb and her features and the same thing happened again. The [City Watch] turned out, people wanted to talk to her, children flew about—
And so did their pets. Onononno had few cats or dogs or any other ‘regular’ pet. Rather, they owned slimes. Ryoka saw one gelatinous blob and girl flying past her in the parachute-ride and decided this was a cool place.
The parachute ride was a good idea to let kids play with. Sammial and Hethon had been the ones to suggest making it, and they had both been crushed when Ryoka said she had to leave.
But…it was inevitable, surely. It had been a strange goodbye.
Laken had been—off. He’d refused to talk about the future, only talking about what he would do. He’d refused to hear Ryoka out…why? Either his ego as an [Emperor] was finally inflating or…
What had been stranger was Tyrion Veltras. He hadn’t shaken her hand like Prost and some of the others, but his family had been one of the last to leave Riverfarm. The nobles were going back home, the Solstice party done with.
But he had remained, perhaps because his two sons had enjoyed Riverfarm too much. They both threw tantrums, although Hethon’s was more complaining. Sammial had demanded Ryoka stay and be fun.
“I trust this event has aided you in some way, Miss Griffin. I still owe you a debt for your service to House Veltras.”
“Oh, no—you’ve done more than enough.”
“That is not what I believe.”
Lord Tyrion was a strange [Lord]. He refused to settle their debt, and he had done so much already. Pride and stiff honor. Ryoka wished she could have actually disliked him. She knew what he had done to Liscor. But she couldn’t help but feel like they were a bit similar.
A bit. She wished she didn’t, though, honestly. But Lord Tyrion had raced her while flying, even suggested seeing who was faster. It turned out he was, unless there was a faster wind. He’d laughed and…
Well, it’s just a connection of Runner and client. Perhaps I’ll meet him again. Ryoka thought of all the Veltras group, Jericha was somewhat glad to see her back. She’d kept asking about Eldavin after the call.
He had promised to help Erin. Ryoka tried to run, leaving Onononno behind. Wait. There was no better way than the Dragon. Even distant Ailendamus which had a ‘surefire thing’ or the ‘best thing’ according to Ivolethe and the powers of the fae, wasn’t as good as a Dragon.
He had promised. So Ryoka went back to her job, if only to see how flying worked. She ran out of Onononno—well, slipped, really, the streets were a bit slimey—and continued on her way.
If Ryoka Griffin got used to the attention her arrival caused after the fifth Runner’s Guild delivery, she still tried not to let it get to her head.
She wasn’t a real Courier yet. She had the speed—not the Skills. She still remembered how fast Mihaela could go, or Salamani being able to conjure arrow-swarms of attack spells, cast [Haste], [Invisibility] as a matter of course…
She was a new, ‘low-level’ Courier. Even so, she resigned herself to being famous until the novelty wore out. She visited eight Runner’s Guilds on her route north over two days; she kept losing hours to people, rather than the road.
And she was still unprepared for Reizmelt. The entire city threw her a celebration when they saw her flying in.
“Miss Wind Runner, Miss Griffin, you’ve put Reizmelt on the map, even more than it was! You’re a credit to our city. It is an honor—please, accept this honorary citizenship. A key to your new home, and—”
Ryoka Griffin shook hands with each of the Councilmembers in turn. She smiled as people cheered, looked at her new, complimentary home as well as a citizenship in Reizmelt…and decided not to tell anyone she had been planning on getting ‘Wind Runner of Reizmelt’ changed to a different title. Wind Runner of Liscor, maybe.
“I’m—so honored. I feel like I haven’t been in Reizmelt long, but you’ve taken me in and I’m just…”
Super overwhelmed. Ryoka gave a speech, shook hands, let kids play with the parachute-basket, and then hid inside her home until they left.
They’d decorated it with flowers. Furniture! Ryoka stared at the house they’d given her.
Oh no. How was she going to tell them that…she was not staying in Reizmelt? She’d rather stay in Liscor. She had to go there. To The Wandering Inn. To Mrsha and…see Erin.
“Don’t worry. No one expects you to stay. But if you can just keep letting us call you the Wind Runner of Reizmelt? It means something.”
Alime, the [Receptionist] at the Runner’s Guild, actually hugged Ryoka when she came in. But she was the most reassuring. Ryoka exhaled.
“That’s good to know. I um—this is a lot.”
Everything was different. She had done a two day run to Reizmelt from Riverfarm. Wind speed? Alime was over the moon about it.
“You’re one of the faster Couriers in Izril based on those speeds, Ryoka. I imagine there are limits.”
“Yeah. Like flying monsters. I’m not taking deliveries anywhere with Wyverns or Griffins.”
Ryoka shuddered. She’d ran afoul of some damn geese on the second day. They were aggressive, pecking bastards.
“I imagine you’re also grounded when it’s raining or thundering?”
“Yep. On foot for that.”
“I can actually add a note for prospective clients. Have you taken any private orders?”
Alime’s eyes glittered with mirth.
“Has anyone told you there are people asking for you?”
Ryoka stared. Couriers did get private orders; City Runners were rarer, but Couriers would get private requests all the time. And she had sixty eight—
“You don’t have to answer any of them. You’re popular and your name is out there, so everyone wants you. Would you like to see them?”
“I’ll have to get them—[Receptionists] will have to request the details, for privacy’s sake. I won’t even be able to open them; you’ll get it from our in-house [Mage] or the Mage’s Guild for your eyes only. Also, there is a fee to have all of them scribed. Sixty eight would be a bit.”
“I…see. Um—uh—I’ll tell you what. Can you write out…six? And I’ll look at them. I’m going to visit a friend.”
Lupp the [Corn Farmer] was arguably one of Ryoka’s few friends. An interesting friendship, to be sure. But one that had helped both.
Ryoka had gotten corn that had…impressed…even the fae. Lupp? Well, he’d gotten famous.
“[Famed Sweetcorn Farmer]?”
Ryoka Griffin exclaimed in the man’s homey kitchen. Lupp tried to keep from smiling too much. He modestly scratched at his head.
“Not my doing. I owe it all to you, Miss Ryoka. And to Eldert. You two kept talking me up, and I suppose it was why I was leveling out of nowhere. Got some nice Skills too.”
“Such as? Thank you so much, by the way, Miss Ryoka. Father, show her your new corn!”
Lupp’s daughter was present. She had visited her father, perhaps because of the news, and Ryoka found Lupp’s farmhouse more crowded than it had ever been.
…As in, there were about six people present. Lupp looked overwhelmed at the number of people, frankly. But two of the House of El’s security forces were still watching his farm for trouble. Ryoka had been aghast to learn about the close call on his life and apologized—Lupp seemed to take it in stride.
Or at least, he hadn’t said anything with his daughter and the two [Soldiers] around. As for the last member…Lupp’s daughter, Kamine, and Ryoka, and the House of El’s guards, were all trading glances at…
Eldertuin the Fortress. The Named Adventurer had visited Lupp and Ryoka had knocked to find him opening the door.
Named Adventurer! Eldertuin Terland! In service to Ulva Terland herself as a [Bodyguard]!
Ryoka kept those screaming thoughts inside. She smiled at the veteran adventurer.
“Eldert. You arrived an hour before Ryoka—I was going to show you—fancy digging a bit and see if your Skills still work?”
Lupp smiled at his former neighbor-turned-adventurer. Kamine was scandalized.
“Father! Adventurer Eldertuin is…a Named Adventurer! You can’t say that!”
“He was Eldert to me. Fancy names don’t change who he was. Used to be able to hoe a section of ground in half the time I did. What about it?”
“Argh. And I thought I’d never hold a hoe again. Fine, Lupp. But only for you.”
Eldert, in the company of Lupp, was almost as down-to-earth as Lupp. Although Ryoka had a sense it was him coming back to his roots; he had been more ‘official’ as Ulva’s bodyguard.
But she saw how he had been a [Farmer]. He had a cologne, amazing armor and the tower shield and mace, both enchanted, emblazoned with the Terland family sigils, and someone even styled his hair, by the looks of it. He wasn’t as old as Lupp, so instead of white hair, he had a magnificent blonde-green, perhaps natural, but definitely augmented with alchemical items.
Lupp had the right idea, though, and it was treating Eldert like an old friend. The two talked and Ryoka found herself hovering awkwardly as they caught up. In truth, she didn’t mind; it was the first time the two had seen each other in a long time.
“You stopped writing.”
“You never seemed interested to get my letters. And I felt…odd, sending them to you.”
“I liked them. I never said? Well, they were hard years, after you left.”
“I know. I should have come by for the…funeral. I’m sorry. May I visit her grave?”
“’Course. You have to tell me too, how you met Miss Ryoka. Strange meetings, and that you both came by.”
Eldert glanced at Ryoka. She ducked her head.
“He helped me in a tough spot, Lupp. Actually fought someone for my sake.”
Lupp hadn’t heard about the Solstice party. Eldert just waved it off.
“It wasn’t easy—but I don’t think I was in danger. But that [Knight] or whomever it was…I haven’t felt my arm shake like that in a long time.”
He flexed it, and looked at Ryoka. She preempted his question.
“They’re…outsiders. Strong ones. If you went toe-to-toe with them—well, they’re the best in the world.”
Their world. Eldert nodded slowly.
“I felt like it was a test. And I haven’t felt that young since I became an adventurer.”
“Started at thirty. Old! But you were never a good [Farmer]—for all you grew things well. I’m glad. But what’s with the name? Eldertuin Terland.”
Lupp teased the man as he handed him a hoe. The Named Adventurer sighed as he hefted it.
“I married into the Terland family for my service to Ulva Terland, Lupp. I have a family.”
“Really? You never said!”
The Named Adventurer looked troubled for a moment. Ryoka and Lupp exchanged a look. Perhaps a former [Farmer] didn’t enjoy being a Terland…well, they dropped the subject.
“Just cut a new furrow, there, and there. Now, if you’ve forgotten how it goes, you swing your hoe up and—”
Eldert swung the hoe down and a rift of dirt, straight as an arrow, exploded up from the ground. Ryoka and Lupp blinked in the downpour of soil.
“[Farmer] Skills can become a [Warrior]’s Skills. You want me to do it again?”
The Named Adventurer hefted the hoe. He looked at Lupp. After a second, the [Corn Farmer] spat out some dirt and laughed. He slapped Eldert on the back, and he and Ryoka stood back as the Named Adventurer did it again. Then they looked at his new corn.
“[Pepper Corn]? Seriously?”
“You get fancy Skills like swinging a sword and cutting the air, or new spells. I get new corn. I can even grow ‘em in patterns, see? This one’s just for fun. Mind you, even I’ll take a week or two more till the first harvest, but look!”
Lupp proudly showed them his new Skills. Ryoka stared at a corn that had a weird checkered pattern.
Red, brilliant carmine kernels, mixed with a slight blue tint to them.
“What’s the blue part taste like?”
“Sugar—sweet. So that’d be a hot mouthful and sweet one. Not sure who’d buy it, but I want to taste it first. These new ones take a bit more richness in the soil, and water, or so it feels. But they’ll be good. Lady Bethal is already asking to have the first harvest sent to her.”
“Have you considered selling to another family? Lady Ulva herself complimented the corn. And she is…peculiar about trusting food. She might offer you a better deal.”
Lupp looked worried. He actually had to sit down and have some calming tea.
“I…don’t do business decisions like that, Eldert. I just sell my corn. Thinking about money—I can’t refuse Lady Bethal after she’s been so generous.”
“She wouldn’t mind. Well, she might, but she knows it’s business.”
But Ryoka knew it was Lupp’s personality that made the thought of negotiating the sale of his corn so nerve-wracking. Eldert didn’t push the matter, although he did ask Lupp to send him some corn when it was done. Ryoka, likewise.
“If you had any of the sweet-corn, I’d take it with me. I’m going to Liscor so I might not see you for a while…”
“Ah, you can always fly by. Just visit me in a month or two—I’m busy enough. And I have something for you. Nothing full-grown, but…it’s another Skill. Here, take these.”
Lupp was understanding. And he handed Ryoka…she blinked at the baby-corn, all blue, and sweet as candy. He grinned at her expression.
“You have a sweet tooth for the stuff?”
“I know a little Gnoll girl who might change her tune about corn. Well—she likes it anyways, but she’d gobble this. Thanks, Lupp.”
He also handed her some baby corn of the spice variety. It was like eating a hot pepper spice on corn—except it was all hot. Ryoka’s eyes watered.
“Damn. Fuck, that’s spicy—it’d be good if you mixed it with regular corn.”
“That’s what I thought. Good for the children, though. They love it. The village’s kids came begging for it; I’ve been giving it out, the little ones at least.”
Lupp smiled as his daughter fussed around, scolding him for giving out his hard work as always. Ryoka wondered, honestly, if she’d done him a disservice.
His farm was crowded and he looked a bit overwhelmed by the company. But as Eldert bade her farewell for the night, she saw he and Lupp were going to sit, perhaps on the porch, with a drink.
That was nostalgic. And Ryoka thought that made up for any inconvenience of fame. Lupp’s house didn’t seem so empty. The old [Farmer] looked at Ryoka and their conversations about bad days were unspoken.
“Hard to sit by yourself when there are so many people you like about, right?”
“Ah, just so long as you like them. Stop on by again if you’re staying longer. Thank you, Ryoka.”
He winked at her. She grinned and left, spirits light.
Ironically, it was Ryoka who was down after meeting Lupp. He was doing well. But was this life?
Was she going to forget Erin was dead and do deliveries? Visit Liscor and tell Mrsha and the others to wait?
That was the sensible thing to do which normal-Ryoka would not do. And was thus the thing Ryoka should do.
…But she wanted to fly to First Landing, get on a ship, and raid Ailendamus’ vaults. She wanted to move now.
And she knew she shouldn’t risk herself. She was not immortal. She had thought Erin might be, but Ryoka would never assume she could survive…
She stared at her missing fingers when she needed a reminder of that. Or felt at the scars on her back where crossbow bolts had nearly ended her for good.
Crossbows. Ryoka was starting to develop a thing about them.
She was planning on making one last visit before she slept and headed south. She wasn’t even actually planning on staying the night at Reizmelt—she was pretty sure the Lischelle-Drakle household would be up all night and they’d give her some space.
She hadn’t checked in on Fierre. Ryoka went back, took the six sample requests she’d asked to see, and got a list of names for the others. She went through them, and to the Mage’s Guild.
“You have eight hundred and twenty one [Messages]. Would you like them all printed?”
The [Scribe] gave Ryoka a sunshine smile, behind which lurked the suggestion that if Ryoka said ‘yes’, this late at night, she would get a quill stuck in her forehead.
After a while, he stared at Ryoka’s open mouth and went on.
“The Mage’s Guild does offer a service to ah, individuals of note to screen unnecessary [Message] spells. We only refer you to established clients such as [Merchants] of good repute, and so on. It cuts down on this. It’s a small, yearly fee—quite affordable for a Courier. Oh, and we can also take a list of people who should always be included.”
“Yes, please. Can we do that now?”
“Certainly, Miss Griffin. Who would you like to include? I can take names or cities as well…”
“Liscor. Um, Lyonette, Palt—no, wait, that’s all Liscor. Liscor, Celum, Players of Celum, Lupp—”
Ryoka spent the next thirty minutes setting up a spam filter for [Messages], paying the fee for the service, and collected a lot fewer [Messages].
The first was from Fierre. Ryoka read, anxiously, aware she had left her friend to go do this party.
“…am establishing a business in Invrisil. See me soon—there’s big stuff happening. Well, that doesn’t sound ominous at all.”
Ryoka sighed. She wondered how Fierre’s de-toxified life was going. She was definitely going to Invrisil as soon as—
The next letter was from Lyonette, informing her about the Potion of Regeneration. Ryoka dropped it, fumbled, and picked it up with shaking fingers. She read, heart pounding—then saw a [Message] from Palt.
“The Potion failed.”
Surprise, fear, shock—it hit her all together so she wasn’t as fully torn as she might have been if she had been able to get her hopes up. Ryoka lowered the letters.
The potion was worthless. No—they just hadn’t done it right. There was something else. Teriarch would know. Teriarch would know.
She wasn’t in the mood to visit the Lischelle-Drakle family all of a sudden. So, Ryoka trudged out of the Mage’s Guild, sorting through the remaining letters slowly. It was too dark to read, so, without realizing it, she found herself pushing open a door into…
The Huntress’ Haven. It was…
Ryoka blinked at the noise, light, and voices in the inn where she had stayed. She saw a group of people glance up—and then an exclamation.
“There you are! Hah! I knew you’d come by!”
Mad Madain, [Innkeeper] and former adventurer, bellowed as he pushed himself back from a table where he was drinking. A serving man was passing out stew from a kettle, there was a lot of alcohol in the air—
Ryoka was back.
She’d uh, forgotten about Mad Madain. Which was amazing since he was hard to forget. But Alber and Fierre had both gone to Invrisil.
But the [Innkeeper] had his inn. Ryoka might have expected it to be empty and Madain in a bad way as he sometimes got, but the inn was crowded.
“Obviously, because the Wind Runner stays here! I’m famous. So’s your room. I heard you got a house so I didn’t keep it—also, someone bought everything where you stayed. Pillows, mattress—even went sweeping up for your hair.”
Ryoka nearly spat out the meat stew and drink.
“And you let them have it?”
The [Innkeeper] shrugged, unconcerned with the sale.
“It was good money. And she was what, a [Mage] or something. Weird woman.”
Stalker-creeps didn’t get better by gender! Ryoka was about to protest when she had a sinking suspicion she knew which…she…had bought all that stuff.
Well, that was fun. Madain grinned at her.
“I also squashed some [Assassin] bastards. You can pay me for it later. Even those…Pithfire kids. Yeah, they’ve come by a lot. Although they’re headed south on an adventure. Damned thing.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t see them. How are they? How’re the dogs? How’re you, Madain?”
This was fine. Ryoka was sorting through letters as she talked, and Madain wasn’t that much into the conversation. He just wanted to know about the battle. Saliss of Lights—he had an admiring note when he talked about the Drake. Ryoka supposed the former adventurer had respect, even for a Drake Named adventurer.
“Ah, well, I have actual guests who want service, so I hired that bastard to serve and clean up. Not like the [Fistfighter] and Fierre. They were easy, like you. What’s his name?”
“Alber. He’s in Invrisil.”
Madain was refreshingly straightforward—at least at this moment. He was talking.
“Anyways, since business is good, I’ve bought a scrying orb. That’s fun all day, and getting adventurer-types in. Did you hear what the Pithfire Hounds are going for? Idiots. They’re going to get hurt or killed.”
Ryoka was distracted. She’d just seen a [Message] from…Madain snorted.
“Some fools—the Horns of Hammerad are going after the Village of the Dead. Better teams than theirs have died trying. I don’t even know their name. Ever heard of them?”
The Wind Runner of Reizmelt stared at the [Messages] compiled from Ceria Springwalker. She looked up at Madain.
“They went because they knew you were connected with those…Horns? I told them it was stupid. They got puffed heads because they sent a few [Assassins] running. Idiots.”
An hour later in the dead of night, Madain was talking to Eldert and Lupp. And wasn’t that a weird meeting?
Ryoka had actually dragged him down to Lupp’s farm. Madain could move quite fast on horseback. She’d asked him to, so she could consult with the man who knew about the Horn’s crazy plan—and a Named Adventurer.
Eldert and Lupp had been surprised to see Ryoka, but they’d stopped talking on the porch to let them in. Madain was chewing on the spicy baby corn as he finished telling them the setup.
“The Village of the Dead. That’s…madness.”
Eldertuin the Fortress looked at Madain and the former Gold-rank nodded. Ryoka’s stomach twisted.
Fool. She had been worried about what she, Ryoka, might do impulsively, especially given the Potion of Regeneration failing. The desire to see Erin again…
She had forgotten other people wanted to see her just as bad. And they would risk anything—no, more than Ryoka. They were adventurers. She was a Runner.
“Are you sure?”
“Of course we are. That’s death. It’s a safe zone—doesn’t attack you, doesn’t get larger or send waves—but it’s still death. No one lives there. But it takes a real fool to try and attack it knowing how many attempts have been made.”
Madain was disgusted. Eldert looked at Ryoka.
“Let me put it this way, Miss Griffin. I have a team of adventurers I would join with if I were raiding a dungeon or particular area I thought was worthwhile. I wouldn’t try the Village of the Dead with them. I wouldn’t try it if there were three times our numbers. You would need an army to fight that many undead, especially how fast they regenerate. Nothing kills them permanently.”
“You know? You’ve been there?”
Madain spat. Lupp looked offended at the spot on his floor. Eldert looked at Madain.
They both had.
“Everyone tries it, well, most teams. Everyone thinks there’s a way in, or that it’s exaggeration. I nearly lost a teammate. Bitten down to her bones.”
“A similar experience. It’s not even a place to train. The undead move too fast. They’re too deadly—we tried to kill a single zombie for good. Held it down, burned it until it was ash and tried to destroy the ash. It still came back. You have to tell this team to stop. If they’re wise, they’ll fall back. But so many teams—and Silver-ranks? They might push in too far.”
Ryoka’s heart was pounding. She knew they were right. But why the Village of the Dead? Unless—Pisces knew there was something that could help Erin?
“I think my friends have tried to talk them out of it. I—I can make it there tomorrow. But what if I can’t?”
“Then you’d better hope every Gold-rank team and Named Adventurer in the north joined their call.”
Madain drained his drink. He put it down and looked at Ryoka, serious for once.
“But I think it’ll be them and half a dozen idiots like the Hounds. No one who’s smart will read that and join in if they’ve got half a brain. And the ones without…who’d go there for a share of the loot? There’s no gold, no glory. It’s a stupid request. For an [Innkeeper]? Hah! I couldn’t get a Gold-rank team to risk their lives for me.”
He said that. But Ryoka just looked at him. And she saw another [Innkeeper]. For her? She slowly pushed herself up.
“They might have an army, though. Even if it’s not enough.”
Eldert and Madain stared at her, disbelieving.
The Village of the Dead lay far north of Invrisil. Not as far as Reizmelt. So—if you left now, you could make it in three days.
“Hey, Jewel. You going to the Village of the Dead?”
In the Gold-rank+ back rooms of the Adventurer’s Guild in Invrisil, one of the local Gold-rank adventurers leaned out of his chair and called across the room.
Laughter followed his remark. Jewel, leader of the Glitterblade, ignored Samung’s comment. But she was sitting there—rather than making plans to go.
“I can’t believe anyone is going. Or that someone would post a raid call that stupid.”
Samung, a member of Oblivion’s Call, a Gold-rank team with a name that was arguably cooler than they were, was pushing the envelope.
Jewel had laughed a bit with her team and shaken her head when she saw the request. But she had met the Horns.
“They’re Hell’s Wardens, Samung. Maybe they think they have a shot.”
Another Gold-rank had his feet up on the table. Invrisil was actually quite crowded at the moment.
Lots of Gold-rank teams had returned from the High Passes and the Wyvern hunt. They were in the mood to spend gold, and the City of Adventurers was the place to do it.
Jewel was annoyed because she’d missed the rush—and some teams had earned over ten thousand gold. Three had earned over twenty thousand! Easy money!
“Hey—is this table taken?”
The veteran Gold-rank glanced up. He had his legs on one table, and he and his team—Waterborn Raiders—were occupying the other. A new Gold-rank team, rookies, were looking around and the crowded back room had nothing but standing room, which a number of teams were using.
“My feet need rest. Who’re you?”
Hazing again. Jewel, another relatively new team, was sick of it. But Todi wasn’t here. The Gold-rank adventurer murmured.
“We’re, uh, Ten Razors.”
“Ten Razors? Then why are there eight of you?”
The teammates of the adventurer flushed. The answer was that the founding group had taken casualties. One of them looked at the Waterborn Raider.
“Can we use this table?”
“Sorry, my feet need rest.”
The Gold-rank veteran stared at them. He grinned unpleasantly, testing them. The Ten Razors knew the score. Two glowered, but the rest stood.
Respect for seniority. Alternatively, older adventurers bullying younger ones.
“It’s almost tempting. If they offered money, I’d give it a shot.”
One of Jewel’s teammates muttered after a while. Jewel half-nodded. Tempting. But…
“Hey, aren’t the Horns one of the Silver-ranked teams that got wiped in Liscor’s dungeons? They reformed—but is anyone going to follow them into another death-zone?”
The noisy adventurer got another muted round of laughs as he went on, studying the appeal.
For the [Innkeeper] of Liscor. If there was one reason Jewel would have been interested, it was that. But she wasn’t about to speak up.
“He’s being disrespectful. Why do we even hang out back here? We saw that [Innkeeper]—she commanded the Black Tide. There’s something there, Jewel.”
Jewel’s friend muttered. He turned to the Gold-rank Captain and [Swashbuckler]. She nodded.
“Let’s go to the main room. At least we don’t have to listen.”
Glitterblade was getting up. They had looked around—as some teams had done—when the Horns’ contract was brought up.
Because, despite what the Waterborn Raider said—there was interest. But adventurers watched each other. Some took risks, but calculated ones.
The Horns had taken huge losses at Liscor—but they’d also won at Albez. That sort of squared their record. And they were Hell’s Wardens—a title even Gold-ranks respected.
And the [Innkeeper]…but no one had said they were going, so Invrisil’s adventurers expected the Horns to not raid the Village of the Dead.
Or…do it alone? But that would be madness. Even the Village of the Dead—
Wasn’t that what Gold-ranks did?
Jewel was conflicted. Then—the door opened. Heads swung around. There was a shout.
“Hey! That’s a face I haven’t seen in a while! Is that you, Seborn?”
Jewel turned and saw another Gold-rank team enter the room.
“Who’s that? I know that name.”
She turned to a friendlier team. An old [Mage], a member of the Distinguished Staves of Invrisil, a [Wizard], chuckled.
“Oh, Jewel, that’s the Halfseekers. They’ve been in the south for a while—you know them?”
Jewel kicked her teammate so fast that the word never came out. The older [Wizard] smiled and nudged one of her sleeping companions; her trio of three were all over fifty. [Mages] who walked to easy requests, blasted it with spells, and thus earned decent pay.
“You’ll like them. Their leader, Jelaqua, is quite friendly. And there’s Moore, such a sweetheart. They’re all friendly—except for Seborn, at times. They had a rough patch…but I hear they took on a new member. Oh, there she is.”
The Gold-ranks were surrounding a new team coming in. Greeting them, exchanging news—Jewel saw one figure’s head rise. She blinked.
A half-Giant. Old Geni waved her hat gently.
“Jelaqua! Moore! Over here!”
They didn’t appear to hear her. The half-Giant was frowning; he didn’t look as friendly as described, but perhaps he was worried about standing on someone’s foot. He did move through the room slowly, looking for a table.
He saw the only one with the Waterborn’s Raider resting his feet there. The half-Giant pointed.
“Excuse me. We need to use this table.”
A nervous Gnoll approached. That had to be the new member; there was a grinning Drake with a flail over her shoulder. Jewel realized both were Selphids. There was a Drowned Man—half crab or maybe lobster—
“Sorry, I’m resting my feet.”
The Waterborn Raider smirked. Ulinde hesitated.
“Look, we need this table. You’re not using it.”
“Hey! Let our teammate rest his feet!”
The other Waterborn Raiders turned. They were apparently former [Raiders] in actuality, hence their nature. They sniggered as Ulinde turned to the [Rogue].
“You’re not using the table. Feet up.”
The [Rogue] appeared and addressed the annoying adventurer. Jewel saw the man’s eyes narrow.
“Oh yeah? I don’t take order from the half-Freaks.”
She held her breath. Seborn’s Human eye narrowed. The Waterborn Raiders turned in their seats. There was a potential in the air. The other Gold-ranks leaned in or out depending on their natures.
“Seborn, there’s no need for that. Sit with us.”
Geni called out, but her voice was still lost. The Gold-rank adventurer looked at Seborn. Then…a shadow fell over him. He looked up and his grin faded.
Moore loomed over the man. Jewel blinked.
That didn’t look like a friendly half-Giant. He had a scar running across his chin. And…nope. She didn’t see any nice qualities. The [Rogue] looked like a ray of beaming sunshine compared to the [Green Mage]’s face.
Unfortunately or fortunately for the Waterborn Raider, he knew Moore. So he recovered from the moment of chagrin and sneered.
“Nice try. Why don’t you go coddle flies, Moore? Have Jelaqua come over, greet our team Captain, and then—”
Moore reached down. He picked the man up—and tossed him over the table.
It was so fast. It was like Jewel flicking a bug off her knee. She stared, open-mouthed, as the man shouted and then went thump.
The other Waterborn Raiders stared. They had ducked when he went sailing over their heads. Two got up.
Moore reached out and grabbed a head. His hand—gently covered the top of the adventurer’s head.
Now, the guild was silent. The Waterborn Raiders looked up. And finally began to realize that Moore had…changed.
“Why don’t we all…sit down? Sorry about the trouble.”
The leader of the Waterborn Raiders suggested slowly. Jelaqua Ivirith appeared.
“Moore? What’s the problem?”
“Nothing. We’ve got a table.”
Moore turned. The Waterborn Raider he’d let go of slowly sat back down and then shuffled his chair around. Everyone stared at the half-Giant.
“Whoa. That’s nice?”
One of Jewel’s teammates whispered. Old Geni was just staring. Jewel looked at Moore, appraisingly. Nice or not, he’d impressed her.
Moore sat there, cross-legged on the ground, as the other Halfseekers sat down. They didn’t smile long. Jelaqua greeted Geni, but she was transparent with why they’d come.
“We’re seeing who else is heading north. We need to move today if we’re getting to the Village of the Dead.”
The Gold-ranks turned in their seats. Geni gasped.
“The Village of the Dead? You can’t be serious, my dear! We all thought it wasn’t worth even considering. There have been jokes told all week.”
Seborn was grinning. He turned to the Waterborn Raiders. They didn’t look around.
One of them muttered. Jelaqua’s eyes were steady.
“You don’t have to take your team, Geni. It’s going to be dangerous. No doubt about that. But we’re going.”
“Jelaqua, you’ve never been…this reckless. Are you sure?”
Geni chose her words carefully. The Selphid looked at her.
“Sometimes, we have to go in. We’re going. And we’ve been getting ready. We’re armed up.”
She gestured. And Jewel saw that under their travelling cloaks—the Halfseekers were wearing armor. It wasn’t unusual, so she’d barely noticed.
Even Moore? Yes, the half-Giant was wearing a kind of leather-and-steel composite. Leather covering plates of metal. It was probably as thick as plate mail, but made for someone his size.
And—Seborn pulled back his dark clothing to reveal shining chainmail.
“Lightweight stuff. Custom-made by Maughin of Pallass.”
He told the other admiring adventurers. One whistled; even Ulinde and Jelaqua had armor. Light for the Selphid [Spellslinger]. Jelaqua?
Jelaqua had plate armor. Her lover had not sent her without all the help he could muster.
“We’re going to the Village of the Dead. Any team who wants to join us—we can ride together. We’ll hire the carriages.”
Jelaqua announced to the room. The Gold-rank teams hesitated. Jewel bit her tongue. It was still reckless.
“Even if it’s two teams, you’re outnumbered.”
One of the newer Gold-rank adventurers pointed out. Moore shifted in his seat. The female adventurer gulped.
“I just meant—”
Jelaqua put a hand on his arm. The half-Giant looked away. Jelaqua replied with a smile. Not a happy one but—just a smile.
“We’re adventurers. The Horns say this place has something special—we’re going in. For the [Innkeeper] of Liscor. And you’re wrong, friend. We’re not going alone.”
There were voices from the guild’s main hall. Jewel rose as another team entered. To the surprise of Invrisil’s adventurers, they saw…
Drakes. In armor. The heavy-armored group marched in.
“Are those—Drake adventurers?”
“Flamewardens. That’s Pallass’ Gold-rank team.”
Someone muttered. Jewel saw Keldrass remove his helmet and look around.
“Shame we can’t stay here. So this is Invrisil’s Guild? Are we sitting here? The other teams can’t get in.”
“We could ask for an exception.”
Other teams? Jewel craned her head. Then—more Drakes appeared.
Lifwail Blades. Another Gold-rank team. The Wings of Pallass weren’t present. But a Wall Lord had spoken. So more teams were waiting behind them.
“Gemhammer, The Pride of Kelia, Pithfire Hounds—Silver-ranks. The Silver Swords would join us if they weren’t so far away. All but two teams in Liscor are coming through. Now—who’s coming from Invrisil?”
Jelaqua put her foot on a stool and looked around.
Ceria had put out the call. The Horns, though…they were new. New to their rank. But Jelaqua? She had led teams before. She turned her head, waiting. It just took one—she needed a force to bring to Ceria. She had promised.
The southern teams waited, stares challenging. The Gold-ranks hesitated. To say it now was to not be able to go back. Not here.
Then, someone spoke.
“We’re going too.”
The Selphid turned. She saw a team, fresh off their horses, stride into the guild. She blinked—then smiled.
“There you are.”
“Why are you waiting around?”
Halrac stopped next to her. Revi, Typhenous, and Briganda entered the room. Jelaqua grinned.
“We were just leaving. Who’s with us?”
Jewel pushed back her chair at the same time as half a dozen adventurers. And that was the first moment. She felt her heart beating.
Reckless. Dangerous. She began ordering her teammates to stock up on gear.
Because they were going to the Village of the Dead.
To the north, it was a dead zone. Even grass died the closer you came to the Village of the Dead. Only one group of people were in the area; animals fled, as did people.
They had camped there for days now. And they were as yet alone. They might go in alone.
But their friends had promised to come.
“We could still wait. That is the strategic move. Wall Lord Ilvriss, Ylawes, they have promised to send aid or come.”
“We’re not waiting, Ksmvr. The Potion failed. Who knows if she can be frozen forever? We’re going in. If the other teams arrive, they won’t wait for weeks.”
Yvlon was polishing her sword. Checking the edge, though it was enchanted. Ksmvr nodded. She looked up.
The village was silent. Apparently, empty. To her left, she saw a flash of light. A shout.
The magic around Ceria combusted and a flash of light blasted Yvlon and Ksmvr with air.
The half-Elf came stomping over.
“A bit. Did I get you with anything?”
“What is it you are failing at, Ceria?”
Ksmvr peered at what had been intricate drawings in the ground. The half-Elf blew out her cheeks.
“Spell circles. It’s the next step in my [Mage] learning. Probably. I don’t know. Illphres sort of outlined her process, and long-term spells—fields of magic—were what she said I should master. Control the battlefield. Greater spells require stuff like that. But I’m not going to master it before…”
She looked ahead. Cold air swirled around her. She was visibly nervous. But she calmed herself and her aura of ice cleared. Yvlon nodded. She couldn’t do more than train with her blade—and she didn’t want to injure herself, or Ksmvr, so they weren’t sparring hard. She turned her head.
“What about you, Pisces? What’s your next step?”
The [Necromancer] glanced up.
“Something else that won’t be ready in time.”
He went back to using a needle to…Yvlon frowned.
“Are you…making another undead?”
“A permanent one.”
Ceria blinked. She looked at him for confirmation. The [Necromancer] replied absently.
“The barest beginnings, yes. It will take months…but I thought it was time. I failed once. But it occurred to me one would be needed. Like Ceria, it will not be ready. We could prepare a year, Ksmvr. But that might become a decade, until we level. Alas. I do not believe we are that patient.”
Yvlon rose. She left their camp and walked to the edge of a bluff facing the Village of the Dead. It looked so…empty. But every instinct she had, no Skills needed, told her what would happen when they approached it.
They hadn’t. Not yet, in case they woke something. She remembered the dungeon of Liscor and folded her arms.
It will be different this time. It had to be. This was not for glory, but Erin. Pisces told them that if they recovered just one Relic-class artifact…
Her silver-steel arms glinted in the light. The grim [Armsmistress] stood there, contemplating the odds and seeing no reason to turn back. Not for her. But her team…
Ksmvr joined her. He glanced at Yvlon, then folded both arms and his third arm over that. She smiled at him.
Someone put his foot on the bluff. Pisces. He…folded his arms and struck a pose, chin raised. Yvlon stopped smiling at Ksmvr and glared at him. He grinned at her.
“What are we doing, posing? Let me in.”
Ceria joined them, arms folded, standing sideways. Both of them sniggered at Yvlon. She debated kicking them down the short incline.
Then they stopped. The Horns looked at each other. Then at the Village of the Dead. Pisces sighed.
“How does it go? Our team motto? Death before dishonor?”
“Something like that. Calruz said it. I prefer ‘let’s not die, and get lots of loot’.”
“That is a very admirable statement, Captain Ceria. I find many practical elements in it.”
Yvlon smiled. She looked at them. Then the Horns stared ahead.
“Three days. That’s how long this place has to remain standing.”
“For the [Innkeeper] of Liscor.”
Pisces agreed. He looked ahead, and Yvlon thought he looked more noble the less he pretended towards it. Ceria smiled. She sat down and dangled her legs over the edge. Ksmvr looked at Yvlon.
“Let us not die and get lots of loot.”
He suggested. They laughed. The Village of the Dead waited.
The Horns of Hammerad laughed at it and went to have lunch.
Author’s Note: A thousand words over 20,000. I did my best. Short…shorter.
The last chapter really tired me out. But I have one more chapter after this before my break, and let’s hope it’s a good one. Big announcement coming for the last chapter of the month. So stay tuned and hopefully there was something good in this shorter chapter!
…I have nothing more to say. Thanks for reading! I’m going to eat food.
The Wandering Inn Crosswords!
(Created by: Kadraginn, Gorexn, and Mr. Wiggles. Contributors: Richi, tt, Linnet_Melody, MoMo, Tomeo, Tnoz, Tacit Condor, Qwiliman, Kalmia, Vondeklompz, Me, AndromedaStar, and Igneel)
Ilvriss by Auspicious Octopi!
Mrsha, Mrsha, and…me? by Pontastic!