Interlude – The [Rower] and the [Bartender]

(Trigger Warning. Click here for details.)

 

“You should have taken my hand.”

He heard it again. Again, and again as he fell.

Sinking into the depths. Something denser, deeper, darker than the waters engulfing him.

Things in the murk, tugging at him. Whispering.

On the Summer Solstice, Luan Khumalo met a stranger. He was offered a choice.

He refused.

The [Rower] from Earth, the Olympian, saw the flash of fire again. He heard his own voice, a scream. Burning followed by the cold embrace of liquid.

And darkness. Until only the voice remained.

A petulant ___, enacting vengeance. Luan struggled, but he was sinking deeper. And he was not alone.

Shadows circled him. They swam around his mouth, his nose, wriggling. Trying to get in. Speaking in tongues he could not hear. Frustrated, they dragged him further down.

This was death. He knew that. And death would be a kinder thing than being lost, consumed by the half-things, little reflections of what the man had been. They were the same. But where the stranger had been…intact…they were only fragments.

They terrified him, even so. So he did not breathe. For a little while, he waited to drown.

And then he realized he did not need to breathe. Because there was not only a lack of air here, there was a lack of need for it. Whatever surrounded him was made of the same thing as the Summer Solstice.

A time out of time. So he had hope. But he was still…

…falling…

The further down he went, the stronger they became. They were trying to burrow under his skin. He struggled, keeping them away from him. But his motions faded. His limbs grew weak.

There was no point to his strength. The body he had built out of hard work, his knowledge, acquired over countless years of practice, his ambitions, levels, Skills, all of it…was worthless.

He was vanishing down here. They all were. Luan realized it. That was why they wanted him. This was oblivion for everything.

But he was vanishing so much faster than they were. Luan looked up and had not the strength to climb. There was not even a single shaft of sunlight.

—Still, there was one last flash of color. Something followed him into the depths.

A flicker of gold.

He saw it shining as he stopped moving. His eyes fixed on the words. And there were only two.

 

Nandi, Lubanzi

 

Written on his arm. The man stared at it. And he remembered.

He had met her while training and dismissed her as someone who was chasing fame. After all, she had never so much as picked up a set of oars. She had no idea what sculling was, so he had thought she was disingenuous.

When they suggested joining him in kayaks, he had played along right until he lost his patience with his team flirting. He had set them onto a long trip, far longer than amateurs could handle.

Sure enough, everyone else had fallen away, giving up. But when he’d looked back, there she’d been. Determinedly paddling after him.

She followed him even here. He looked at her name. She would have jumped after him, like the time he had accidentally struck his head and been drowning, underwater, disoriented, having flipped over.

Two names. Dimly, the man heard a voice. It was his own. Coming to a slow conclusion.

 

I never got to hold my son before I left.

 

He hadn’t known. If he had…he’d been in the airport, heading back after an overseas training trip with his team. The South African hopefuls for the Olympics.

When he had come to the other world, he’d forgotten them both. Forgotten, as if war or the shock of another world was an excuse.

Never again. Luan stared at the glowing, magical ink of the tattoo on his arm. Lubanzi.

 

He wasn’t old enough to walk.

 

Something—whispered to him. Shadows tried to obscure the light. Give it all to us. Abandon this vessel.

No. The [Rower] moved. He flailed his arms. If he died here—

 

I will never hear him speak.

 

He began to climb. No—swim. How long he had drifted in oblivion, he did not know. But as he began to struggle, this otherness began to recede.

Cold liquid surrounded him. Suddenly, he did need to breathe. He felt water, pressing in, terrifying in the actual darkness, but reassuring because it was real.

Still, the shadows tried to pull him back. Luan swam upwards, lungs bursting. Light. He needed…

His world began to deteriorate again. Not because of the nothingness, but because of the real lack of oxygen. Luan realized he was deep underwater.

Deep. So far that while there was now the hint of light, it was so far above. Hundreds of feet. And he had no air.

He began to choke, swimming with all the strength in his arms. Bubbles passed him, but his limbs were leaden. An Olympian. The only one from Earth—but what use was that kind of ability without air?

Air. So sweet. Luan kicked his legs and couldn’t bear the pressure in him anymore. He opened his mouth.

Saltwater entered his lungs. He began to choke. At the same time, his ascent was making him dizzy. Nauseous. He was—

Flicker.

His consciousness shut off for a second. He had seconds left. He forced himself up another dozen feet. And then began to drown.

No. Not like this. Not—

His desperate flailing had no sense anymore. He’d lost track of direction. Luan’s last thoughts were that he was letting the golden light down.

And then he heard a real voice in the darkness. Louder than the whispers. Louder than his fading thoughts. It whispered to him.

“You are dying.”

This was so. The man couldn’t respond even if he wanted to. But suddenly—he inhaled. And thought resumed.

Yet his lungs were still filled with water. He flailed, but something…soothed him. The voice, not quite words, continued. And he realized it was a single message.

You are dying. Accept salvation from the sea.

He realized something was on his face. Circling his throat. Piercing his skin—but the pain was a lesser thing.

Join us. Breathe the depths.

The [Rower] felt something moving across his face. Half his body. Something had—found him—as he was drowning.

He knew what this was. The last gift to the drowning [Sailor]. The choice presented to the lucky at sea, or made voluntarily.

The Gift of the Drowned Folk.

Something was on his face, his throat, acting as gills. Some…creature…was trying to meld with him. Turning him into one of the Drowned Folk.

Half man, half sea creature.

Luan looked up towards the light. So far away. He began moving his arms and legs again as sense returned to his oxygen-deprived mind. He swam upwards—but the voice grew insistent.

Don’t move. He was causing the other distress and they had to be one thing.

Luan kept moving, ignoring the instinct to remain still. He felt pain. A shock as something suffered.

Stop!

If the connection failed, both would die. Luan would drown, certainly. Yet—the man kept moving. He felt the water in his lungs turning to death again. What was he doing?

Didn’t he want to live?

The answer was yes. Yes, of course. But Luan kept swimming. He would have accepted any help rather than die. But a thought kept pressing at his head. Even now—the gold spoke to him.

Nandi. And my son. I never got to hear him speak.

“Stay. Live. Breathe the depths.”

I want to. I want to live. But if I do—he will never know my face. Will he even recognize me?

And the voice had no answer to that. So Luan swam. Ignoring the pain. It was just pain. The voice was begging, pleading, now.

Join us.

No. I want to be me.

Rage, then. Suddenly, the thing disconnected from his throat. He caught the last thought as he began to choke again.

Then die.”

Never.

Alone, the man swam higher. And the light was growing. He had been given a second chance. He felt hands dragging him below. They had followed him.

He swam higher, though his lungs had long emptied of air. Shadows clutched at him. They whispered in his ears, half-remembered words. Broken pleas.

“I was your g…”

“…ship me…”

“…remember…please…”

They would rather he drown than go without him. And they had a pull. Luan fought, but he could not swim and resist them at the same time.

He was beginning to despair when one of the half-remembered things whispered in his ears.

“…regret…my blessing…”

Luan did not know what it said. But suddenly the grip of the shadows abated. And he left them behind, kicking, rising. Then at last, finally—

His head broke the surface of the dark waters. Luan vomited water, he coughed, drew breath. He breathed.

He lived.

The man treaded water for minutes, just breathing. Just…he looked around as the crash of waves drew his attention. One nearly engulfed his head. And he realized—

He was at sea. And his scull was nowhere to be seen. The damned [Bounty Hunters] who’d accidentally hit him with the [Fireball] spell? Nowhere to be seen.

And neither was the coast. Luan slowly turned in the waters. And he realized he didn’t see…Baleros.

His skin chilled. The [Expert Rower] looked around. Compared to the meeting during the Summer Solstice…the dark promises below, this was still better.

But only just.

How far at sea was he? Luan gasped for air, panicking. But then he had an idea. Now that he was able to do more than struggle for the surface, he kicked while his hands searched downwards.

Clothing—no oar, none of the items in the scull—but—

Yes.

He gasped with relief as his hands found the bag of holding. The most precious item in this moment to him. He reached into it, holding it above the surface. The waves were large, but they didn’t have the crest of deadly force of a storm.

Small blessings. And another was…he fished out the glowing compass, holding it so tight that the edges cut into his fingers.

A nautical compass. The friend of any [Captain] or person who ever risked the sea. He had never had to use one before. But he was no fool. Luan opened the compass and saw the needle swing.

There were no directions. No ‘North’, ‘South’, or any other superfluous icons. This was a compass enchanted to one purpose.

Land. It was meant to take someone only to the nearest body of land. In case he was ever blown out to sea or had to evade pursuers…Luan had never used it. He held his breath.

The needle swung as the magic activated. Searching…it pointed to the side. Held steady. Luan’s head turned hopefully.

There wasn’t anything on the horizon. Not even a shadow.

Despair engulfed him for a second. Still, he had escaped death. He had refused the gifts of the Drowned. He had refused the offer made on the Summer Solstice.

Oceans be damned if he would give up now.

Luan began to swim, following the compass.

 

—-

 

The first hour was easy. Luan Khumalo was a rower. He had trained for it and while swimming was not rowing, you tended to need one with the other. He could swim for as long as need be.

Or so he’d thought. Luan had never dreamed he’d be this far out to sea. He knew what other people had done, clung to rubbish or even buoys to survive.

But his scull was gone. There was nothing to hold onto and besides…if exposure didn’t kill him, the ocean’s predators would.

This wasn’t Earth. Sharks were a lesser concern to the hundreds, thousands of species that could kill a man. Luan swam. But he had one advantage and that was his bag of holding.

Inside of it, Luan had any number of things to stay alive with. Not least of which, after the first hour, he knew he had to ration:

Food. He had dried ‘energy bar’ substitutes he’d made up with Kirana’s help in the United Nations headquarters. Water, too! He gulped greedily from the canteen, then forced himself to stop.

Stamina potions? Even a few healing potions. And best of all—a flotation device.

Not an actual life-jacket. Luan had been going to invest in a ring to do the same, or best of all, a Ring of Waterbreathing which solved most problems. So he had no actual jacket. But as night fell, he improvised.

A waterproof blanket and pillow were some of the things he put in the bag of holding so he could sleep anywhere he wanted. He tied a knot with all four corners to make a rough sphere, catching air in the blanket, creating a buoy which he could cling to when he got tired.

He hoped he didn’t have to use it. But as the daylight faded, Luan had swum for five hours by his reckoning.

And he couldn’t tell if he’d made any progress. Nothing appeared on the horizon. Luan realized he needed the makeshift buoy.

The water grew cold. Luan, buffeted by waves and trying to cling to the buoy, did not really ‘sleep’. But he did pass out and wake. He began swimming as soon as he had energy left. Following the compass.

He did not despair the first day. Or the second.

Or the first week.

 

—-

 

He was rationing his food and water. It rained twice during the first two weeks, and he held up all the containers, even the bag of holding, his mouth open.

The waves grew stronger during the storms, though. Twice, they threw him about, threatening to drag him into the depths again.

He swam through it, clinging to the blanket at need. It gained two holes over the first week, which he desperately tried to plug.

Land never appeared. A vast shadow passed over him, once. Something tried to take a bite out of him three times. He fought them off by kicking and thrashing twice.

One time something appeared out of the water with barbs for a face and savaged him. It was half his size, but dense, and tore chunks out of him with each thrashing movement.

Luan killed it with the backup knife in his bag of holding. All but one of the healing potions went into that battle and he left the water bloody behind him.

Two weeks of swimming passed. Still, he followed the compass, despair on his tongue as his body weakened with each passing day of decreasing food, sleep, and water.

He might have truly given up, or at least, lost all hope. But Luan stared at the names on his arm. And though he saw no land, saw no relief day after day, there was one thing that gave him some hope.

 

[Swimmer Level 5!]

 

The first day, he gained the class.

 

[Swimmer Level 9!]

 

By the fourth day, he was able to lie on his back and rest. [Indefinite Flotation] was the Skill that let him ‘rest’, though a wave could still wake him with water engulfing him.

Two weeks. Then, as the third dawned, Luan heard the voice.

 

[Athlete Level 14!]

 

The [Swimmer] class had changed at Level 10.

Luan swam. Cutting through the water faster, tiring slower. His body was shriveled from ceaseless contact with the water. His beard, hair, salt-crusted, unkempt. A scar around his throat from where he had rejected the sea’s gift.

But the Olympian refused to give up. And then, at last—

He spotted land in the distance.

 

—-

 

It was a simple tale that engulfed Noa. A tale to break up the mundanity—and sometimes terrifying danger—of her watch duty.

Similar to many stories she’d heard. But it was better, realer, because it was happening. It was the story of a Human too stubborn to die.

She was sure of it after the third day of staring through her spyglass. And her superior finally admitted she was right after the tiny, tiny disturbance became clearer to both. He breathed out at last.

“Dead gods. It is a Human out there. Same as you saw last week.”

He grudgingly passed the spyglass back. Noa smirked, but hid it as he glared at her. Ekrn didn’t like being wrong.

“He’s been swimming towards the coast for a week, you said?”

She nodded, eyes on the horizon. You couldn’t even see the tiny Human without help of the spyglass.

“That’s right. He must be a survivor of a shipwreck or something.”

Ekrn grunted, tapping his foot on the ground. Noa wanted to know what had been the accident; her immediate superior was less enamored by the idea of the Human doggedly coming their way.

“Wonder how he survived. Bag of holding and luck that nothing ate him?”

“Maybe. Or fish. It rained as well, so that’s water, food…”

As he mused, Noa danced from foot to foot. Her nice, new crocodile-skin boots, a copy of his, made her feel wonderfully secure.

“So what’s the plan, Ekrn?”

“Plan?”

He gave her a blank look. Noa wanted to know if they were going to send out a rescue party. Of course…his look told her that was a stupid idea. Of course they wouldn’t do that.

“Keep an eye on the Human. If he lives or dies, that’s up to him. Odds are a hundred thousand to one he doesn’t come this way of all the places he could land up. If he even makes it to shore. If he does…”

His expression was not a kindly one. Crestfallen, Noa watched Ekrn stomp off. She turned and kept watching the Human.

 

—-

 

Two weeks. Four by Luan’s count, when he finally neared the shores. He was moving faster now, and Noa’s sentry post wasn’t the only one that had called him in.

She was dancing as Ekrn watched, grimly, the Human coming to shore.

“Crazy bastard must have leveled. He’s moving faster than he has any right to without Skills.”

“He’s entering into the inlet. Ekrn.”

There was a river pouring out to sea; they had made their home along it, although further inland than was comfortable for access to the water. But that was out of necessity. Ekrn shook his head as he adjusted the bow on his back.

“Bad idea. If he had any sense, he’d circle in either direction.”

Noa bit her lip. She wanted to say that this Human had been at sea for at least two weeks, trying to reach shore. He had to be starving, and taking a few hours’ detour wouldn’t occur to him.

But Ekrn was right.

“Boss—can’t we do something?”

“No.”

“But he—”

“He’s a Human. You have your orders. Hold position. Let’s see what he does.”

It was callous. But it was survival. Even so, Ekrn himself looked a bit…disgruntled. This Human had survived what few did, swimming to their continent on his own power. And now—he was going to die.

Because he would have been well served staying clear of the river. The river of Baleros’ jungles was freshwater. And all manner of predators lurked there.

Carnivorous fish. Crocodiles. Magical crocodiles. Invisible leeches…saltwater was safer than freshwater in Baleros, so long as you weren’t in the range of the ocean’s worst predators. The oceans had far bigger monsters, but less density.

And the waters from the river? They watched as the Human sped towards shore, doing a breaststroke. Which switched into a desperate freestyle as he encountered what they knew was lurking there.

Piranhas. Or, to be more accurate, poisonous piranhas. Not a super-deadly toxin, but they made larger mammals swell up while being deadlier to amphibians around their size.

“Damn. He went right into a school.”

Ekrn had forbidden Noa from even shouting a warning, and she might have if she was alone. Grimly, they watched. The Human swam like a madman for the shore as they tore at him.

“He’s getting eaten alive! He’ll never survive!”

Noa danced, distressed. Ekrn’s eyes widened as he trained his spyglass on the Human, shouting, going for the overgrown beach.

“No, he is! Crazy Human. He’s chugging a potion as they tear him apart! He’s going to make it!

Sure enough, the dark-skinned man stumbled onto shore, tossing the fish, some still biting him, onto the ground. He collapsed there. Noa was biting her fist, also newly-gloved in the crocodile skin.

Speaking of which…the man had all of a minute to rest. He looked back towards the water, uttered an oath both could hear even from their perch, and got up to run.

A crocodile twice his length followed him a second later. And it could move fast. It wasn’t the leaping kind that haunted Chandrar’s waters. This one was a Speed Croc. Which sounded cuter than it was. It could move under the effects of what was functionally a [Speed] spell for a few seconds and kill almost anything it got its jaws around.

It chased the man now, moving fast as it went after the bleeding prey. The man ran. Somehow, even after so long in the water, he had the energy to sprint for the forest.

Noa and Ekrn watched, amazed at the Human’s vitality. Right up until Ekrn began to curse. It wasn’t hard to chart the Human’s desperate course.

Step on me, he’s coming this way! I’m taking the shot.”

“What? Ekrn? No!

Appalled, Noa saw the [Sentry Leader] draw his bow and put an enchanted arrow to the string. She knew it had to be done with other species. But this Human?

He’d swum for two weeks! Despite knowing her duty, she grabbed his wrist.

“Are you mad? Let go! This is our job—

“You can’t just kill him! It’s not an animal or monster—”

The two wrestled for the bow as Ekrn cursed her. He tore free and rose to his feet. But too late.

Crash. The Human ran through a border-trap. He shouted in pain as the tripwires unleashed one of the deadly traps. Noa had forgotten about them. She saw a tree explode, bark showering the man with splinters as the tree—one of the rare explosive varieties—detonated.

He survived even that. But he crashed to the ground, lying on the forest floor.

Ekrn and Noa stared down at him from their elevated perch. Noa was horrified. Ekrn rounded on her. The croc had lost the Human, but now a greater problem was facing the two.

“Well, great. He’s bleeding and attracting every hungry animal in a mile. Sound the rally-call! We’re in for trouble! I’ll have your Signim for this!”

He was leaping down even as Noa shakily raised a horn and blew the alarm. Yes, what had she done? The man was innocent. But if he drew Baleros’ predators—she drew her own bow and leapt down towards the man on the ground as the other sentries raced to her position.

 

—-

 

Luan heard shouting. The roar of battle.

It had to be a dream, of the first few horrific months of being on Baleros. When he’d met Ken, Aiko, Daly.

Geneva. It beat the roar of the ocean. And for all the pain…he felt solid ground underneath him. He could have slept happily. But the shouting grew louder.

Then, the first steel-toed boot struck him in the jaw.

Get up! Now!

A voice barked in Luan’s ear. He grimaced. The boot swung again. A vicious kick!

…It tickled. Which was odd, for steel-toed boots. It had hit him in the jaw, and the voice was loud. But there was one thing off.

Luan opened his eyes and saw the tiny boot swing back for a third kick. It was…about the size of the tip of his finger? He looked up as the man kicked him.

A tiny man, one foot high, bellowed at Luan with a voice that would have fit a man six times his size. He had a bow in one hand, and was blowing a horn in the other.

Tallguard of Feiland! To me! You, Human, get up!”

He snarled at Luan. The man stared. He had to be dreaming. But no—the shouting grew louder. Luan looked around and saw dozens, nearly a hundred tiny people on the ground.

They were perched in tree branches, raising small shields or swords, many loosing arrows as the rest fought in clusters. And they were fighting…

A huge centipede, the kind that could take off one of Luan’s toes with a single bite, was slithering towards the bleeding man. Luan recoiled; it was a nasty bug!

To the Fraerlings, it was a gigantic beast, many times longer than they were, capable of sawing a man or woman apart at the waist with a single bite. They were loosing little arrows on its position; a Fraerling with an axe was hacking legs off.

That wasn’t the only one. A female Fraerling next to the one who had woken Luan up loosed an arrow.

A Scavenger Toad, all teeth, capable of a nasty bite and not a threat normally unless they tried to eat you when you slept by the hundreds, was hit by the glowing arrow. It shot into the huge, gaping mouth, and blew out its stomach as it tried to swallow the projectile.

Countless jungle predators were trying to eat Luan, following the blood. The Fraerlings were fighting a war in the underbrush. Luan tried to push himself up, but he couldn’t find any strength in his arms.

After the swim, the damned fish—and the crocodile, he’d spent everything he had. Then the tree had…exploded…

Get up! Get out of here!

Ekrn swore up at the Human, but he could see how injured Luan was.

“Sentry Master! Incoming from the flanks!”

A Fraerling on over watch barked. Ekrn raised the speaking stone and turned. He bellowed.

“[Clear Position]! Fall back!

Fraerlings ran as the creature emerged from the undergrowth. The largest predator yet. Luan was fumbling for a potion—anything—but he was out of both. And he felt pain in every part of his body…he heard the frantic scream as Fraerlings spotted the creature. Noa lowered her bow, turning white. Oh no. One of the worst predators of her people had come calling. Ekrn took one look at the familiar, sinuous body, the long fur, the sharp teeth, tufted ears and tail, and shouted.

“Cat. Cat!

This was no house-cat, but a smaller predator than a leopard—if only just. A scavenger-predator, who preyed on scavengers around dead creatures. Just like this scenario.

It’s fur was dark green-brown, perfect cover in this climate. Fraerlings took up defensive positions as Ekrn shouted.

“Hold your ground and take cover! Permission granted to use enchanted ammunition without limit! Prepare to use your Signim!

The cat was tensed. It was able to pounce and it would tear dozens of Fraerlings apart each minute. Worse, it was fast, hugely protected, and it killed for sport. The first hail of arrows made it hiss. It dodged a tiny [Fireball], and then leapt.

It covered nearly a dozen feet and grabbed Noa. She swung her sword, screaming, as it tossed her up to bite in half or swallow with a single m—

Ekrn was aiming his bow at the cat-monster’s throat, enchanted quarrel ready to save—or mercifully kill—his junior. He heard a sound like thunder right next to his ear. Deafening. The force of air made him stumble.

Tschak!

The crossbow bolt went through the hungry cat-thing’s lower hindquarters. Luan lowered the bow as the animal yowled, and recoiled. Noa fell to earth, landing lightly given her size.

The cat bounded away, limping. The lesser scavengers scattered as the Human rose.

High—higher. Six times as large as the Fraerlings. They backed away, wary. One step could kill them.

“Take aim—”

Ekrn held up a hand. Luan looked around. At last, he spoke. Blood ran down his arms and legs from wounds. He was malnourished, parched.

“Fraerlings? I need…help. I’m…a Runner…”

“We don’t protect Runners or the tallfolk! Go! Leave our borders in peace, Human!”

Ekrn bellowed up at the man. He cursed. The Human had somehow stumbled onto one of the ‘Fraerling Villages’, the rare, hidden Fraerling settlements that few ever encountered. Of all the bad luck!

Luan tried to back up, but nearly fell over. Fraerlings darted out of the way.

“He’ll never make it, Ekrn! At least give him a potion!”

Noa. She was on her feet, arguing with her superior again. The [Sentry Master] cursed. He eyed Luan, half of a mind to demand potions, and shook his head. He pointed; Luan’s leg and arm.

Telltale signs of infection on both. Ekrn spat with a warrior’s cold confidence.

“Looks like the potions just accelerated the infection through him. He’s dead if he uses another. You hear that, Human? Get lost and find somewhere else to die.

“I need…help…”

Luan rasped. He took a step and the Fraerlings raised their bows. Five shot arrows; he felt the sting of pain in his right leg.

Hold fire! Aim for the eyes, but hold your fire unless it attacks, you idiots!”

Ekrn berated the younger Fraerlings. He pointed up.

“Human. We will kill you unless you leave. Keep our secret and we’ll let you go in peace.”

He was lying. Noa knew it. Ekrn expected the Human to drop dead within half an hour and wanted him far from the settlement of Feiland. She plucked at his arm.

“Can’t we at least try to tend his wounds, Ekrn? Bandage them, at least?”

“No. If he dies—can you imagine what a corpse would be like, so close to the city? Human…”

Luan was swaying. He could barely think. But he knew he’d never make it. Still—the Fraerlings would kill him if he didn’t go. Trapped, desperate, after all he’d gone through, the man did the only thing he could think of.

He began to stumble forwards. Ekrn bellowed.

“No, no—the other way! The way you came! Right, not left! Not that right! The other right!

Luan heard him. But he turned left, nonetheless. The other Fraerlings began to shout.

Not ahead, you large-footed idiot! Behind! Turn around! Turn around or—

The man stumbled forwards, and they moved rather than be squashed. Too late, Ekrn realized what he was doing. He’d heard them and—

Shut up! Don’t give him directions! He’s going to—

Too late. Luan collapsed in front of the huge, oak tree that a double-wall of Fraerlings were guarding. He saw, at last, the tiny lights from the countless windows. The smoke coming out of some cunningly-concealed vents. The passageways in and out, and the tiny bridges far above in the foliage.

A Fraerling Village.

He passed out in front of the entrance. Ekrn was beside himself. He looked at Luan, at Noa, at the entrance to Feiland…and gave up. He threw his helmet onto the forest floor, ordered the Fraerling [Rangers] and [Sentries] to stand down, and began to shout orders.

Cats and Crelers take it all! Get me an [Infection Healer] before he expires and we have to cart him out in bags of holding! Scent bombs! Someone get a [Hydromancer] for all this blood before we get an ant-colony on our asses! And get me the Bordermaster. He’s not going to like this one bit.”

He looked, almost admiringly, at the Human who’d called their bluff. And that was how Luan survived the Summer Solstice. When he woke, he was in another story.

Hostage? Prisoner? Guest? Of Baleros’ most elusive species, even more than Gazers. Tiny legends, only one of which had ever been known to the larger world.

Little people.

Fraerlings.

 

—-

 

Not Drowned.

Not consumed by shadows.

Not lost at sea, or eaten by animals.

Yes, he had help. Advantages. A whispered kindness. Luck, coincidence. Even so, Luan Khumalo lived. Because he was the great athlete of Earth, and this world recognized that.

However, just as much as his Skills, from [Greater Endurance] to [Body: Water Retention], [Mana Conversion – Sustenance], and magical potions, there was something simpler at work.

He had something to fight for. Something, someone to fight for. Tattooed onto his skin in golden ink. His wife.

And his son.

It did not make any of it easier. The ‘magic of parenthood’ didn’t end the sunburn of weeks at sea, the crippling thirst, burning muscles.

But it was a reason never to give up. With it, he could live. Fight.

That was what a parent, a father, was supposed to do. In war, in times of crisis, provide, protect. Even if it cost themselves everything.

…It was easier to do that. Not easy, but easier. But what if—?

What if you couldn’t protect them? What if it was out of your hands? Your paws? All that you had, all that you could do—made worthless? Snatched away by fate, by chance?

By magic?

It would have been so easy if there was something to fight. Anything. Not just a monster. If there was a cost to be paid, he would have paid it in a moment.

Cruelty was a lack of something to hit. A lack of choice. Helplessness. That was far, far worse.

Rufelt, co-owner of Tails and Scales, one of the best bars in Pallass, had not opened his establishment in over a month. The noise of his carefully curated guests, laughter, arguments of a reasonable level, the smells of cooking, alcohol—memories.

He wished he were on Rhir and back in time. If he was, maybe he could have done something. If you gave Rufelt, a [Bartender] who had never served in any army, a stick and a choice to challenge all the Demons or suffer this present timeline? He would have taken his chances.

Because a father’s nightmare was Rufelt’s reality. He knew—they all told him the same thing.

You couldn’t have done a thing, Ruf.

Don’t blame yourself. If Chaldion and all of Pallass’ protections couldn’t stop it—

You two will get through this. If there is anything I can do to…

It felt to him like wading through a swamp of worthless platitudes, encouragement, sympathies. All useless, no matter how well-meaning, no matter who it came from.

The few voices that came through to him were from people who had been…where he was. He and Lasica. People who had lost children.

The Demon’s spell had attacked the entire world. Killing children. Not just Pallass. Every major city in the world. Sometimes only one person, chosen by…what, luck?

The Gnoll believed there was some greater, sinister plan at play. He had listened to one of the other parents trying to connect the dots. There had to be. Or else…what?

What was he supposed to do?

For him, there was nothing to fight. He had sent money to Rhir. But would he now grab a spear and enlist?

No. There was Lasica. He was no warrior, and the worst had happened. The future had been destroyed and there was nothing to protect besides her.

These dark days. They told him they would end.

The ones who knew told him the truth. It would not get better. But it would get further away. As if he wanted that. As if that would make it alright.

The comments that had driven Rufelt nearly into a homicidal rage had been the ignorant ones. Well, she wasn’t nearing delivery. What about that city that was overrun by Crelers?

If he had been able to calmly articulate a response, Rufelt would have said those kinds of statements were disingenuous to begin with. Of course he was not the only one suffering. Of course tragedy occurred every day. Yes, miscarriages happened for other reasons.

But never say that to me. Or I’ll kill you.

…He had Lasica. Remember that. Rufelt tried. He tried to not leave her to wallow like he would, made sure they had food, tried to…

Something was wrong. It was nothing he had done. Failed to do? He didn’t know. But their relationship, which had possessed ups and downs, rocks and smooth sailing like anyone else’s, but had been so good? An invisible wedge had been inserted into it.

Worse still, it was nothing she blamed him for. Not out loud, or even implicitly. It was just that everything had been shaken up. And suddenly they weren’t on the same page.

She was distant. When he wanted to talk, she did not. She sought other people’s confidences—her female friends, other mothers. But Rufelt wasn’t with her. And when he was, it lingered, unspoken. Or if he tried…

One month. One month, and Rufelt counted the days between shock, grief, fury at some of his ‘friends’ or well-wishers. Trying not to meet others. Sitting alone. Sitting with Lasica. Listening to the news.

Watching, angry without reason, as the world moved on. Resenting laughter. Attending strategy meetings, trying to make sense of the spell.

He should have been doing something. They were losing money. But neither he nor Lasica could bear to open the bar.

By the same token, he should be doing something. Making money, acting with a purpose for…

There were people that were recommended to him.

[Thought Healers]. Rufelt hadn’t really known the class existed. But this variation on [Carer], [Healer], was there for people who’d seen battle, adventurers. And parents.

He tried to get Lasica to go to one with him. He was terrified to go alone. But she resisted. She did not want to talk about…

And then had come the night when he’d found her burning all of the toys and things they would have used. He, Rufelt, would have saved each one. They’d fought, bitterly.

Now, today? It had been two days since Lasica stormed out of their home over the bar. Rufelt kept sitting at the bar. Waiting for her to come back.

He’d looked for her, but his nose wasn’t that good. He was sure she had money; she was probably staying with a friend. He’d asked one of the Watch Captains—Venim—to keep an eye out and the Watch Captain had told him this morning he’d checked on Lasica. But he’d refused to tell Rufelt where she was. Let her be, was the implicit statement in the Watch Captain’s words.

They should be together, though. At least he knew she was safe. Rufelt had some…some ability to affect his life, still. He slowly mixed together a drink.

That was what he knew. That was what he was good at. The Chaldion’s Eye? That was his invention. He put together four liquids, mixed them up.

Floating, pink little bubbles containing sour whiskey. He stared as they bounced in the cup. Then he threw the cup across the bar.

It didn’t even have the decency to shatter; everything was enchanted. Rufelt slammed his paws down on the wood, raised the [Bartender]’s aid—a club he’d never had to use in this bar.

He went to the shelves of alcohol to smash something. But he couldn’t bring himself to ruin his hard-earned collection. He wanted to, though.

The bar was so dark. But lighting anything was beyond him. Rufelt slunk around it, a shadow, waiting for Lasica.

In the end, he couldn’t bear to stay and left. Was that why Lasica wasn’t coming back?

 

—-

 

Outside was just as bad. Pallass could be dark since sunlight did not reach the lower floors in the shadow of the upper ones. But magical lights ensured that it was never dark enough. Rufelt felt everyone staring at him.

Everyone knew. He hurried away as some people called out to him. Their condolences made everything worse, didn’t those bastards understand that?

He didn’t know where to go. So he roamed the streets, looking around. Pallass, his home, had never seemed more like a cage to the Gnoll [Bartender].

Dully, Rufelt observed the City of Inventions. Always something new was going on. He had once said to a client that he would never grow tired of his city because he didn’t have to go anywhere to see what was happening!

It was still true, but it brought him no joy. Everything made him angry.

Go, Renan, go!

A cheering voice. A Dullahan sped down one of the grand staircases, on a skateboard. Cheering Drakes and Gnolls, the teen’s friends, poured after him. Rufelt had the urge to snatch the wooden skateboard, break it, and tell the Watch to arrest all of them. Or he’d do it with his paws!

Those idiots! Didn’t they think about what that skateboard could do if it hit someone? If that Dullahan idiot hit something at that speed? He started after them, but the [Guards] were already chasing the teens when he reached the staircase. The Assembly of Crafts had banned the ‘skateboards’, which of course only led the younger citizens to embrace it all the more.

He stood there, with more anger with nowhere to go. Then he heard a shout.

Come see the Players of Pallass! Performing Elisial in the Crafter’s Theatre tonight!

A [Crier] was passing out fliers with the new acting team that Pallass had assembled, trying to attract attention. He passed Rufelt one as the Gnoll walked past. Rufelt stared at it and saw two underlined names.

The Players of Liscor’s [Actors], who had moved to Pallass after being enticed to found this, with the Players of Celum’s blessing. He looked at the flier, crumpled it up.

How dare everyone be moving on with their lives. It seemed like just yesterday everyone was wearing white, and you couldn’t see another color on clothing. How quickly they all decided the mourning time was over.

Rufelt could have done this all day. Walked around, purely angry, looking for a confrontation. He’d done it last week.

He didn’t want to. He wanted to make a first step towards the future. But the [Thought Healer] had told Rufelt he needed Lasica to be part of that when he’d gone to her, shamefaced, alone.

Where was she? Rufelt sniffed the air, but he didn’t detect her smell. He wandered the 5th Floor, then the 6th, wondering if he should go to all of her close friends.

Venim wouldn’t tell him. Maybe the Watch Captain had been told by Lasica that she didn’t want to see Rufelt after the fight. Maybe…this was it? How could this be it? What had he done wrong?

Nothing. Everything.

In his quest for something to distract him, or meaning, Rufelt found himself going to one of the elevators.

“What floor, sir?”

“Eighth.”

He spoke quietly. He saw the Drake attendant glancing at him sidelong. Rufelt stared at the city as the elevator ascended. He had a thought.

The checkpoint to Liscor and The Wandering Inn didn’t see much use anymore. Everyone knew…

It had been such a tragedy. Rufelt had wept for Erin Solstice, the [Innkeeper], and thought it was the worst thing that could have happened. Then the Summer Solstice had occurred and he had been proven wrong.

He stood in front of the checkpoint, realizing he wasn’t on the list. But to hell with it. He approached the [Guards].

“I’d like to go to Liscor. Is…have you seen my wife, Lasica? The [Chef] of Tails and Scales?”

He had come up with the idea that Lasica had gone to Liscor, having anticipated he might look for her. The [Guards] didn’t know.

“We rotate by day, sir. You’re not on the list…”

“May I go through?”

Rufelt didn’t normally like to lean on any favors he had due to his fame or success. Today? He couldn’t care less. The Pallassian [Guards] exchanged a glance. They knew him. They had a quick conference, and the [Sergeant] gave the nod.

“We don’t know when the door will be open, Mister Rufelt. We could ask them to hold it—but you might be waiting for a long time. The inn is…”

Kel, the [Guard Sergeant], trailed off. Rufelt replied, face blank.

“That’s fine. I’ll wait.”

He stood there for nearly forty minutes, ignoring the looks. Lasica was beyond it. He was sure. There was an image playing out in Rufelt’s head.

A scene, a hope. Like a play of its own, he’d find her at Erin’s…grave. They’d make up. It would be better once he found her. He would find some closure with Erin, some hope in her, that she could come back and they could…

When the door opened, Rufelt started. He stepped through slowly.

“I…excuse me. Mister Rufelt, isn’t it?”

The Gnoll was younger. Ishkr. He’d opened the door to Pallass, but hadn’t expected anyone to come through. Rufelt looked at him.

He knew, too. Rufelt nodded slowly.

“Yes. Yes. Ishkr, right? Have you seen my wife? Lasica?”

“No, Mister Rufelt.”

The dream fell apart. As it did again and again. Rufelt looked around.

“Oh. Thank you.”

“I’m sorry. Can I offer you…the inn isn’t open, but we have something to eat, to drink?”

Rufelt realized Ishkr was eying him. He wondered what he looked like. He hadn’t bathed or combed his fur or…

“No. No. I’m fine, thank you. How’s the inn? Is anything…?”

“No, sir. Not much has changed since the Potion of Regeneration failed.”

“The potion of…?”

Rufelt hadn’t even heard about that. He listened dully, as Ishkr explained. Something in the younger Gnoll’s tone betrayed what he must have suffered. Hope lost again.

It was somehow comforting to know someone else was suffering. A bitter tonic. Rufelt hesitated. But since he was here—

“I’ll…check on Erin Solstice. If I may. Pay my respects.”

“Of course, Mister Rufelt. Do you need me to call the door?”

“No. I’ll take a walk and—I know how to get it.”

Rufelt’s vision had changed to him finding some inspiration and sharing it with Lasica. That was what was so wrong about hope. He kept having it, and losing it. Better if he didn’t believe things could be better.

And better if he had never come here. Rufelt did not realize his mistake at first. But the Gnoll had forgotten. He was in the main room of The Wandering Inn, taking something from the vast emptiness of the [Grand Theatre], almost relieved to be alone in a place like this that was not his bar. He was going over to the bar to…

…When he heard the scampering paws. Rufelt froze.

He saw a flash of white. Then, the little Gnoll raced around the corner of the hallway, panting, smiling.

Mrsha was running, fleeing the rolling, magical ball which was set to ‘tag’ mode. Selys’ present to her. She was having fun.

It was not her fault. But Rufelt took one look at her and recoiled.

Mrsha stopped when she saw Rufelt. She didn’t even realize why the Gnoll turned pale under his fur. Why he had to sit down. She stopped, grabbing the ball with her paws. She only realized why after a while. She’d forgotten about Rufelt. Then—she ran and hid.

Thoughts of visiting Erin fled Rufelt’s mind. He lurched to his feet. To go. He brushed past Ishkr and went for the door to Pallass. He never met the [Shaman]; he fled The Wandering Inn and went back to Pallass. There was no magic for him here. No relief.

 

—-

 

In the days after her miscarriage—well, the weeks after—Lasica Feltail visited her mother. She visited her sister.

Rufelt would have been wrong to assume his wife was visiting her friends. Lasica was not embarking on a ‘wine and gossip’ night, or whatever her husband imagined. She, like he, had no time for people who had no idea what she was going through.

She did seek out people, female friends, family, to talk to. That she could cry with, take hope from. Reassurance that something would change, that this was not the end of the world.

It might be a Drake thing. Or a personality thing. Or just her family in general. Her sister was matter-of-fact about it.

“It’s a miscarriage, Lasica. A magical attack. But women go through it. Get over it and stop your husband from drowning himself in his own tears.”

Lasica had promptly thrown her cup of wine in her sister’s face. They’d fought, but tough love was still a type of love. In theory. Her sister had gone through it, too.

She was trying to put it in perspective. Rufelt…Rufelt wanted to process it together. Lasica needed to be alone, sometimes. That was why it was hard and he wasn’t helping. He did not understand.

…She supposed she was to blame, too. She wasn’t communicating. The fight—well.

She didn’t want to go to this [Thought Healer]. They’d get through this together. Lasica was going to go back tonight. They’d reopen the bar. It wouldn’t be easy—the first week would probably be hell. But the work would give both of them a direction.

They could cry into their work. This was not the end.

Lasica kept saying that. Pushing—perhaps too fast—to move along. What else was there to do? She and Rufelt grieved differently. Everyone did. It did not mean one or the other was right.

Herself? After the fight, Lasica had prevailed on her mother for a second time. She’d gone out and gotten properly wasted on rotgut drink Rufelt would have turned his nose up at, with two friends. It did not make her feel better, but she’d stayed at an inn for a night.

Not The Wandering Inn, but Pallass’ ritzy inn, The Noble’s Fancy. She would never, ever have gone to The Wandering Inn, even if it was…cheerful…to stay as a guest. She’d seen Erin Solstice’s idea of customer service and tasted her cooking. Now, she was heading back to her bar. Wondering if Rufelt had stayed there all three days.

That was Rufelt and Lasica. Not united; going through the same thing, differently. Trying to deal with something that nothing in their lives would ever have prepared them for. Searching for a solution to something that no one had ever solved easily if at all.

Perhaps both had forgotten the objective truth. That both loved the other. Or if they knew it, it seemed like a distant, uncertain truth. Shaken by themselves as much as anything.

It did not change the fact that Rufelt would have followed Lasica wherever she would have gone. Waited for her.

And that she would have never abandoned him. If they could have been certain of that, if they could just connect for a moment.

Perhaps it might be alright someday.

Hope for those days again. Lasica had a hood on, and cloak. Some of the [Guards] gave her looks of curiosity, but their Skills didn’t reveal criminality. She didn’t want to attract attention or false friends. She was walking down the grand staircase on the southern side; the 5th Floor, home to Tails and Scales, was her destination.

But the wrong side of Pallass. And there was at yet no horizontal elevator to take you across the city. Yet. The [Engineers] were talking about some kind of movable walkway, but that was just hypotheticals. They were surprisingly…confident…that it could be made, though.

Lasica could have used it now. She briskly walked, trying to think about buying groceries, what to say to Rufelt. Just—tell him to get to work. Just—don’t get engaged in talking about the fight. Move on, keep moving.

Someone called out to her, beyond the [Hawkers], [Shopkeepers], the [Crier] still trying to attract attention for the play tonight…Lasica had no time for any of it. She could brush all of them off, even Skills meant to entice her—as if any of them would work on her now—but the person’s voice was more insistent.

“You are Lasica, aren’t you? The [Chef]?”

“I am. Excuse me, I’m in a hurry. Not interested in shaking your hand or buying anything, good day.”

Lasica replied without even looking around. Unlike Rufelt, she was happy to be aggressively rude. But the person just followed her.

“I understand that. If I could have a few words?”

“Here’s a few; I’m not interested.

The Drake still ignored the person. But this super-[Hawker] or…Lasica heard the voice again.

“I understand you’ve suffered a loss. I wanted to extend my condolences.”

This time, the [Chef]’s eyes widened. She swung around and confronted the person.

Thank you, but I don’t want your—”

Her angry words were going to be accompanied by the verbal lashing of this woman’s life. Not physical; Lasica didn’t wave around kitchen knives, for all she had a few nasty cutting Skills. But she was not sparing with her tongue.

She halted, though. Because something was strange about the person who’d accosted her.

It was a woman. Gnollish, taller than Lasica, older, with grey in her sable fur. Beyond that? Lasica hesitated, because there was something so…average…about the woman that it was disconcerting. She was like a composite of Gnolls. No scars, no peculiarities at all to make her stand out in memory. No coloration of fur…

If this same Gnoll had gone to the city of Salazsar, a particular [Consort of Change], Xesci, would have recognized her. For all she was no Drake. The Gnoll smiled.

Or her lips moved.

“My condolences. I am told you suffered a terrible accident. Dark magic. You lost your child.”

“That’s…none of your business.”

The Gnoll tilted her head. There was something uncanny. All the words were there. But her condolence was more like a slap to Lasica.

“I believe it is. Such a terrible thing that happened. Your unborn child. Gone. Demons took it. You are grieving.”

“How dare you.”

Lasica whispered. That? That—hurt. Her claw drifted downwards, then balled into a fist.

The Gnoll was still…not exactly smiling. She kept tilting her head, regarding Lasica. And then, the [Chef] noticed something.

The street she was walking down was deserted, an oddity in Pallass, home to millions. Second? The Gnoll woman had sought her out. She knew Lasica’s name.

The scales on Lasica’s arms began to tingle. She took a slow step back.

“What do you want? Actually—I don’t care. I’m busy. Leave me be, or I’ll call the Watch.”

The Drake looked over her shoulder. The Gnoll woman spoke.

“I heard of your loss. I thought I should approach you. It is so, so very difficult for parents after a loss. I know it hurts.”

“Get away from me.”

Lasica stumbled away. Where were other pedestrians? The Watch? She looked up, and saw a Garuda in mid-flight. Flapping her wings as the Street Runner traversed Pallass in the distance.

But she was caught in the air. She was moving fast, but it seemed as though Lasica could watch her forever and the Garuda would still never reach her destination.

“I will not take your time. But I thought you should know, Lasica Feltail, that there are people who can help you in this dire hour.”

“If you’re talking about [Thought Healers], I don’t want any. Thank you, but if you’re using Skills—”

“I am not talking about them.”

Lasica knew it. She turned to face the female Gnoll. The woman spoke.

“There is someone who can make your pain go away, Lasica. Not help you deal with it. Not offer you potions or temporary relief. All your agony can be gone. And your husband, likewise. You two can be happy again. And. Your child can return to you.”

This time Lasica recoiled. She fumbled for her side. The wand Rufelt made her carry around out of overzealousness—she dropped it. She picked it up, cursing the woman.

“How dare you!”

“I am not lying.”

The Gnoll woman didn’t flinch as Lasica raised the wand. Lasica uttered the activation command—an impact spell struck the Gnoll in the chest.

She went stumbling backwards. But not flying as a normal person or [Thug] should have been. Lasica saw the Gnoll’s arms flail. Like a rag doll, she went over backwards. Then…got up.

The entire impact, stumbling fall, and return to her legs unnerved Lasica. The Gnoll woman picked herself up without pushing herself off the ground. Her legs planted on the ground; her waist and torso rose with incredible strength.

As if pulled up by strings.

“What—what—”

“I have come here to tell you this, Lasica. For you and all the other grieving parents in Pallass. But you are…extraordinary. One of the best [Chefs] in Pallass. The woman I speak of can help you. And for you, Lasica, she can deliver true happiness.”

“Woman? Who—who are you? Don’t get any closer! I’ll summon the Watch!”

The Gnoll woman did not advance. The half-smile on her face hadn’t changed even after the spell had hit her.

“No. I will not. I am not here to force you to do anything, Lasica. Just listen. She can help you. And if you summon her, she will restore all you have lost. Your child. Your relationship. Even the memory of loss, if you will it. As if it never happened.”

“No one can bring back the dead. My child is gone. Tell me that again and I’ll gut you like a fish.”

Lasica spoke, harsher than she intended. To this, the Gnoll…woman…only tilted her head again.

“Everything is possible for the right price, Lasica Feltail. Ask yourself only this: what would you do if it were possible to truly bring your child back? To have another chance? For you, I think she would work all her craft.”

“Who? Who is this person who can apparently do all this?”

The Gnoll woman watched Lasica backing away. She did not move. Lasica was feeling behind her, for the edge of this spell, this Skill. There had to be one.

“Look up her name. Look at history. You will find her if you want to. Her name is Belavierr. Think on it, Lasica. Whatever you wish—”

Lasica turned and ran. She burst out of the barrier and time resumed. The Garuda winged onwards. She whirled, panting, as a gaggle of Drakes came around the corner.

“And then I said—whoa!”

They recoiled at the drawn wand. Lasica turned, ignoring them, and aimed back the way she’d come.

At—

Nothing. The street was empty.

The Gnoll was gone.

 

—-

 

Of course she had vanished. And of course, Lasica reported it to the Watch.

She was not a fool. They took her seriously as well. Rufelt rushed into the Watch House as Lasica was making the report.

“Lasica! What happened?”

“Just a stranger. Rufelt. I…”

He embraced her without a word. And all of this should have been the first step. A scare—but Lasica’s refusal. Rufelt running to get her, them eating an actual meal in their home, around their table.

“You’re filthy. Have you eaten anything since I was gone?”

She whipped up a fast meal on the few items they had left. He grinned at her, looking lightheaded from hunger. She fed him, that silly Gnoll, and he agreed to talk tomorrow, about the bar. About…

Lasica was not an idiot. Strangers approaching you out of nowhere and offering you everything you wanted? She knew all the warning signs.

But that was the insidious thing. It was probably one of the worst sales pitches out there. And yes, Lasica knew the stories. And she had a strong will. And she’d told the Watch.

However. Curiosity was like hope. It gnawed on you.

She had to know, if only to refuse.

 

—-

 

The next day, Rufelt was running around, restocking the bar. Shopping for Lasica. Calling in their workers. Finding clients. Exasperated, she let him do it.

He was clearly glad to have a purpose. So was she. Normally, she would have told him to let her get all the good ingredients and stop hogging the workload.

But she let him do most of it. Because Lasica had to make one stop in her day. Rufelt didn’t notice, preoccupying himself with work. He did walk her to her destination, but he thought she had another purpose.

Looking up new recipes. And while it was true that Pallass’ Grand Library had them…

Lasica walked down lines of shelves. Telling herself this was stupid. But she had to see it. Then she could put aside the strange offer. Because nothing would change her mind.

Nothing…

There were many history books. She feared she’d have to search. But the name she’d withheld from the Watch, which she’d give them right after this, was easy to search.

Belavierr. The Stitch Witch of Terandria. Spider. Temptress. Threadbreaker. The Mistress of Strands.

She had so many names. Lasica’s scales tingled as she pulled out the historical book on one of the old monsters of this world.

The [Chef] ran the tip of her claw down stories about her. Sightings. Her list of crimes was legion. Lasica read, and the more she read, the more she was convinced.

A powerful [Witch]. A powerful, dangerous [Witch], considered immortal, responsible for war and atrocity. But still, a [Witch].

Not to be trusted. That was the point. The history book was clear. The [Historian] was no fool. He or she spelled it out: Belavierr made deals of a terrible nature. By contact alone she caused other people’s schemes to fail.

That was what Lasica had needed to see. Because she didn’t want…

“Puppet-children? Spells cast upon bereaved lovers?”

She shuddered. No. No, no false simulacra, no half-measures, terrifying, too-costly fake dreams. Never. The history book just reinforced her decision, quashing curiosity.

Belavierr had nothing Lasica wanted. Except maybe extreme spinal strength. Lasica rubbed her lower back after an hour of reading. She moved to close the book.

And then her eyes travelled a bit too far down the page. And an excerpt stood out to her.

 

…brought back to life…

 

Like a magnet, a spell, the Drake looked back. And she read the entry again.

 

The tribunal of the City of Zeres’ ruling was unanimous, if contentious. Whereupon it was confirmed that the Child, Meree Sailclaw, was brought back to life such that the best [Healer] could not claim she was a puppet, artificial life, and had indeed been subject to formal resurrection at cost to the Wall Lord and Wall Lady Me’na and Merul Sailclaw, the tribunal decided a formal execution of the Stitch Witch’s magic could not be carried out, for the child was innocent.

However, the Serpentine Matriarch of Zeres overruled the tribunal’s findings and ordered the execution of all three. The Admiralty of Zeres was forced to oppose her; martial law was declared and the Serpentine Matriarch ordered Zeres’ army to enforce her orders.

In the ensuing battle, Meree Sailclaw disappeared, along with Lady Me’na. Merul Sailclaw was apprehended. However, he did not live to face judgment. He expired in front of the [Soldiers] sent to capture him. With his dying breath, Merul claimed he had made a second pact with the Spider and ensured his family’s safety.

That Meree Sailclaw was brought to life was the subject of debate for decades. But the evidence is clear: to the confirmation of the Archmages of Wistram, multiple [Healers], and [Sage] Yinelt of the era, she was revived at great cost.

Meree Sailclaw returned to Zeres once to lay a final proof to the bargain for her life. She returned to visit her father’s grave sixty years since the inciting incident. The new Serpentine Matriarch ordered her executed, and it was carried out publically. The Stitch Witch’s warrant is still extant.

 

There was more. More cautionary tales. More words. Lasica sat there, not bothering to read more. Head blank. If she had not read that section. If she had closed the book a minute earlier, she would have been able to go on with her life.

But now she was caught in the Spider’s web. For all the [Historian] had tried, they had played into Belavierr’s plans by recording…history. Fact.

Now it was there. Lasica searched. She found, of course, all the other entries. It was far, far rarer. But she had done it more than once. It was no fluke.

She was shaking. The [Chef] felt it, now. A second wound, torn open. She had moved past it. Yet the hand dragged her back. Right to that night. Right back to hope and despair.

The book lay in front of her, enchanted pages resisting the tears. It had to be enchanted to survive so long. To faithfully tell those who wanted to know the truth.

Slowly, a hand closed the book. It replaced it on the shelf. Lasica stared at the table. The dark blue cloth. She looked up.

Belavierr stood in front of her. Her vast hat left her face in shadows. But her eyes—the orange and dark rings caught Lasica’s eyes.

The Stitch Witch looked down. And then she did smile.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: I was revising 8.11 E. So this chapter was written after revising over two days. It is not long. But it has something.

Interlude – The [Rower] and the [Bartender] I think I’ll call it, rather than 8.13 since it’s not a full chapter. The full chapter will be on Tuesday, and I’ll release the revised 8.11 E as well. If you’ve been waiting, I apologize, but the revision has been good. I think I spent 6 hours revising and it was taxing.

But I noticed some of my problems, like starting sentences with ‘but’ and using ‘and’ too much too. I’m working on it. For now, I hope you enjoy the revised chapter when it comes out. This chapter? I don’t necessarily expect enjoyment. But the story continues.

If you wanted more, you should have voted for either. Now…you still get it, so if you didn’t want that, it’s coming when you least expect it. Like Belavierr. Thanks for reading. Look forwards to Tuesday.

 

Meetings, Erin’s Speech, Pawn, and Blues Ants by flingering!

 

Vigil by kapilkk!

 

Faces of Klbkch, Mrsha, and Flowers by Jennannkane!

 


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40 thoughts on “Interlude – The [Rower] and the [Bartender]

    • Compelling to read as always.
      Do not doubt yourself in that *you* are as much a writer as Erin is a pivotal character, as any of your story threads show the warp and weft on the loom of creation.
      There is a significant cadre of readers with well rounded palates of writing styles – to say we are hooked is akin to say we jumped into the boat to get the next chapter!
      I might be a fan…

    • > A tiny man, one foot high, bellowed at Luan with a voice that would have fit a man six times his size. He had a bow in one hand, and was blowing a horn in the other.

      one foot high -> half a foot high

    • Oh man glad Luan is alive but wtf Lasica. You might get your baby back but either you or Rufelt are definitely gonna die I’d you take that deal. The Stich Witch is worse than the Necromancer.

      • I don’t blame Lasica, Belavierr is insidious. But, dead gods, do I hate the Witch. This is going to cause even more suffering for those parents.

        • She isn’t evil per say… Just lacking in morality with a heavy investment in self interest.

          If it was anyone else I would have said she planted the book to plant false hope at a cruel bargain. For these two?

          It is worse. The Spider is making her harvest across the lands, weaving, bargaining, and preparing for something large. She moves to make bargains yet did not make one for Erin when many were willing to bargain?

          I fear that the reason for this is due to the PRICE of her offer… And the end results of her OFFER. All that is left is to see how the dice roll… And what it may cost them.

          • ”She isn’t evil per say… Just lacking in morality with a heavy investment in self interest.”

            That was before her daugther witchcraft became justice. After that, Belavierr swore to become the greatest evil to give her daugther purpose. Now she is making pacts with The Necromancer and aiming to create as much destruction she can so that her daughter can advance her witchcraft by fighting her.

      • Not a parent, are you? I think very few parents would be able to refuse even a slight possibility that the offer could be real. Even knowing in advance one of them would certainly die, most parents, at least even slightly decent ones, would happily pay that price. I wouldn’t hesitate. I imagine this is now Bel’s bread and butter, likely no shortage of clients for her craft. She is likely reaping massive rewards and power since the solstice. It would be inhuman to fault any of the parents their chance either.

        • I doubt the price will be anything so straightforward as offering up their own lives. Belavier gathers debts and cashes them in as needed to prolong her own life and further her craft. The real question is how much Lasica’s relationship with her child would be tainted by the knowledge of whatever she has to do to get her child back. It could very easily cause a strain in the relationship before she even gets to see the child.

  1. Thanks for hammering this out. I saw these on the voting poll and was interested in both but hard to compete against lectures from a dragon. Still, I feel this chapter was just the right length and you never cease to give a cool twist to each vignette. Fraerlings and Witches… I was not expecting either, and yet they work so well.

    Luan is jumping up in my list of favorite characters. That intense swim left me screaming at the screen: “For the love of ___, get that man a bottle of water!”

    Thanks for a great chapter.

  2. This was a really good chapter, even if it was shorter than normal. I liked the Luan bit especially, it was very powerful.

  3. I’ll admit I thought Luan would take the gods hand when sinking, and hoped that if not he would take the seas bargain and explore the deapths of the oceans where no earther has gone.

    But as usual, few plotlines are at all predictable in TWI, Fraelings? Sounds like it will be fun! I’m certainly more interested in Luans plotline after this than I’ve been since they arrived at Talenqual.

    • While grammatically correct, it’s certainly frowned upon and starting a sentence with a conjunction is considered immature writing. Most editors follow the same rule books as your high school English teacher, and there are certain writing functions that most consider only acceptable to a child’s writing, certainly not college level.
      Starting a sentence with any conjunction, splitting infinitives, ending a sentence with a preposition are all similar. Granted, English as a language is undergoing devolution, “proper writing” is undergoing a simplification, and text-speak is leading the charge, so these unwritten rules are not being upheld like any previous time. Slang, jargon, abbreviations and the like are becoming the norm, sounding intelligent and educated seems to not be very important anymore. Pride in annunciation, high literacy levels, minimizing foul language and effective word usage, less so.
      Just read any discussions today and compare from written discussions from even only 30 years ago. Just looking at the usage of they’re, their and there or too, and to. It was rare to see those incorrectly used in publications, discussions, and in letters. Today? It seems to rare to go long without seeing it used incorrectly, and when a correction is suggested, there is pushback, anger and terms like grammar Nazi used instead of accepting you made a mistake and going back to correct it.

      So starting a sentence with a conjunction is the least of our problems. It is grammatically correct, but it is not considered proper writing and really should be avoided. It sounds like the way ignorant or immature people would speak. In the context of personalities of characters, it would be appropriate to portray an immature or uneducated persons way of speaking though, so contextually it would make sense to do from certain characters speech, but only when spoken from one of these characters perspective. All characters would not speak that way, so it wouldn’t make sense to use often, but I could see certain character sheets saying as a point “rough, slang heavy speaker. Starts sentences with conjunctions a lot” and then do so with that one character. Just do not make everyone speak that way, it wouldn’t feel like a character trait but would make the overall writing seem less polished.

      • I would disagree with your analysis that the average quality of language is deproving. Language as a form of communication has always changed based on what the users of said language think the language should be like. Old english explosively changed multiple times during periods of cultural shift, where english stole grammar and vocabulary from multiple languages, some not even of the same linguistic roots. Middle english as written lacked a proper standardisation of spelling until the late 1600-1700s. You’ll find that most languages follow the same trend, even though it’s especially pronounced in english due to it being a bastard language. Therefore, to argue that there is both one single form of english and one idealised form of english is akin to arguing that repairing Thesus’s ship would be tantamount to tarnishing its originality, despite the fact that the entire ship had been replaced several centuries earlier.

        Extending this to our current cultural situation, this means several changes to english are absolutely acceptable, such as ‘literally’ being used figuratively, starting a sentence with a conjunction, and many other simplifications. You may call it a ‘devolution’, as is your right as someone with the autonomy of free speech, but that doesn’t change the fact that neither you, me, nor, in my opinion, anyone who ever lived, is living or will live in the future has the authority to declare what ‘proper english’ is.

  4. I loved the first half. More fraerlings are always welcome!
    Second half, good writing as always. Hard to say it was enjoyed, though. These last few weeks have been tough. I miss the [Innkeeper’s] antics.

  5. I understand that the traumatic part about this chapter is supposed to be about the death of a child, and it is I dont deny that. But personally I just find Luan situation worse because of personal experience. As someone who was out at sea for almost a day clinging to broken boat pieces Luans experience hits close to home.

  6. “The ones who knew told him the truth. It would not get better. But it would get further away. “

    This hit me like a hammer. Thanks for the feels this Sunday morning Pirate.

  7. Luan being able to survive was both surprising and fantastic especially at how he struggled to survive. Avoided the [parasite god] pact which would have been worse than the deep sea pact. Avoided dying by sea, and river only to come across the least expected (reluctant) ally before passing out.

    As for The Spider?

    So many people who lost children and left alone suffering… Willing to bargain… Such a bountiful harvest for her to reap as she builds a new nest within Drake Lands. Even if one of our favorite couples do not make the bargain…. How many other people had accepted the bargain?

    And what is The Spider making from each Pact she weaves? Just a puppet child who took years from a widow in grief could prevent someone from dying to a fireball.

    How costly would this Pact be… And what does The Spider make from these pacts is what I fear.

    Also ironically this still makes The Spider still a better person to make Pacts and Bargain with than the “gods” of In world. Mostly due to her giving something in exchange and letting people make the choice instead of forcing them into it.

    Twisted, wretched, warped perhaps… But it is their choice… For better… Or for worse.

  8. I should have seen that encounter coming. It was so obvious in hindsight. Belavierr’s character is so consistent and so well done. Chills are going down my spine.

  9. I disagree that you need an editor. You have amazing talent. I wouldnt let anyone else touch your stories…no one else is worthy.

  10. Loved Luan’s story and seeing his interactions with the Fraerlings.

    I really hope Lascia doesn’t make an idiotic decision in her grief. This volume is already depressing enough with Erin in stasis.

    • Ever since Lasica first swept Erin into her inn to comfort her it made me think that she is a strong innkeeper role model for Erin to follow. I feel that she would be one of the people to refuse even in grief because of how strong she can be to help others in grief like Erin.

  11. Noooo that stitch witch bITCH! Too many people to take advantage of. She’s got a new foothold in the south now I guess.

  12. But I noticed some of my problems, like starting sentences with ‘but’ and using ‘and’ too much too.

    Very clever pirate

  13. So Belavierr is capable of perfect resurrection? That puts her way above Perril Chandler and even the Putrid One. Kinda ironic that even the legendary necromancers aren’t any good at it.

    Lots of tragedy inbound: the problem with Belavierr’s price is that it’s not just a sacrifice on the part the one doing the bargain, thousands of innocents who have nothing to do with it are collateral damage. Just think on the Griffin Prince, supposedly his immortality was a gift for the love interest of her beloved daughter yet in the end it was entirely to Belavierr’s advantage to have his kingdom bound to protect her life.

  14. “had been such a tragedy. Rufelt had wept for Erin Solstice, the [Innkeeper], and thought it was the worst thing that could have happened. Then the Summer Solstice had occurred and he had been proven wrong.” Ah ur telling me an unborn life matters more than a dear friend? So if you were a chicken, an unhatched egg would mean more than a friend that makes you smile? A little bit of an overreaction over the death of a child that isnt even really alive, you are grieving a concept, not something real. But each to their own.

  15. “She was shaking. The [Chef] felt it, now. A second wound, torn open. She had moved past it. Yet the hand dragged her back. Right to that night. Right back to hope and despair.”

    Really, it’s not even an actual living being, you would do anything to revive something that never even existed? That’s literally a concept, an ideal, grieving like there is no tomorrow based on imagination. Call it love, I call it delusion. But then again this is the abortion arguments isnt it.

    • But it has to be an actual living being, otherwise it wouldn’t have paid the cost of the summoning spell. The price was in lives. Unvorn lives perhaps, but lives all the same.

  16. You tell a great story and I always look forward to the next chapter. But we all need a break and if you need more of a break, my suggestion is – take it. Every chapter you end with saying you wrote too much, you are tired, you need a break, and I get it ..,,, it’s a lot of pressure to create a storyline week after week. I want to follow the lives of these people you have created and I care about – so take care of yourself first and if that means you take months away, please do that – you are not the victim but the creator of this story line. You are privileged to be creative and to make a living from it. I love this story – all the very best with it, whatever you do. Niers is my hero 😊x

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