Interlude – Paradigm Shift (Pt. 1)

(Enuryn the [Naturalist] has opened an online store and you can now commission him to make amazing arts here! https://enuryndraws.art/)

 

The act of welcoming someone else into your home was a gesture with as much possibility and nuance as any other event that might occur in a social engagement. Not that overthought was always conducive to impressing a guest or making one feel welcome.

The incautious host who threw open the door with arms spread wide could be a thousand times more genial and impressive at once than a display of grandeur. Especially one that felt forced.

Thusly, the small group of Drakes waiting in the anteroom took note of the gesture. Mainly because they knew to look for it. It was as much their culture as anyone else’s, yet in this case, Navine Gemscale had read heavily from the ‘enemy’s’ playbook as much as she drew from her own.

Enemy. Not in this moment, though. Perhaps, if things went well, not at all. She had to remind herself of that as she adjusted the fashionable gown inset with gemstones, a Salazsarian style that never went out of fashion.

Overtures of Exceeding Conduct by Lady Sevfia El was the book in question that Navine had read. Despite being over two thousand years old, it was still in circulation, and it had endured to the modern day as one of the classic guides to etiquette.

Among Humans, of course. So she was keenly aware of the rich mansion in Oteslia, turning her head to regard the décor, the two impassive [Butlers] who had ushered the guests in, and even timing how long they were kept waiting.

She hasn’t redecorated the Oteslian mansion much. Navine noted that the interior of the mansion-for-rent was kept in the Oteslian style—that was to say, au naturel. The wood floor was smoothed, grown, not cut out of floorboards, and an interior garden of carefully tended plants replaced other vanities.

It made the antechamber feel quite fresh, if, sometimes, uncannily giving those within the feeling that they’d gone back outdoors by accident.

Indeed, the fresco along the double-staircase leading upwards and meeting at the middle still bore a Drake motif, one of the founding scenes of Oteslia, that of a Dragon helping sow ground…or perhaps genially overseeing Drakes and Gnolls planting the land.

Ancestors. Navine felt that Magnolia Reinhart keeping everything so might be an indication of her intent. I shall not overstep my arrival. I do not intend to challenge Drake tradition.

Then again, it could have just as well been a gesture to the contrary; if the gifts she had brought were any indication, Magnolia Reinhart intended to buy as much support as she could, and it was certainly possible given Drakes were the species she had come to woo.

Perhaps, then, the message was: I need not concern myself with lesser displays or redecoration, as the wealth of Humanity, the Five Families of the north, is clear.

As Navine thought, her mother exhaled slowly. Helessia Gemscale still hovered in the air, unable to leave her bed without pain. Yet her frail body had been carefully propped upright, so she sat in a kind of floating bed.

The two Gemscales were among a group of five Drakes who had come for the first congenial visit. Of course, Magnolia Reinhart had been in Oteslia for a while now. She had called on others, though, attended several modest events with the First Gardener.

More were coming to meet Magnolia Reinhart. Navine adjusted the neckline of the dress again. She frowned as she recalled that Manus had yet to send one dignitary, and the fighting had been fierce when others realized some of their people wanted to meet Magnolia Reinhart.

Literal fighting in some cases, not just political sniping. Even meeting a Reinhart was a betrayal of all that was good and Drake.

Navine and her mother had pushed for it, against Zail’s protests. Surprisingly, Ilvriss had not objected. They were here now, so all that remained was to find out the measure of Magnolia Reinhart. Her reputation was varied, painting her as everything from the heroine from the Antinium Wars to a bloodthirsty tyrant, to a buffoon to—

Excuse me.

A voice made the five Drakes start. Navine, jerked out of her thoughts, looked up with Helessia, a Wall Lord and Lady from Oteslia, and a Fissival [Sorcerer] from one of the Walled Families, and saw a [Maid] appear at the stair’s head.

Ressa bowed smoothly, her face blank and politely gestured. Two lines of servants headed down the stairs.

“Thank you for waiting, esteemed guests. Lady Reinhart awaits you all in the parlor. If you would follow me?”

The five Drakes glanced at each other. They had not brought entourages of their own; their [Guards] had stayed outside. That was their big concession to Magnolia, a show of trust. The [Sorcerer] handed his staff to one of the servants. The Wall Lord divested himself of his longsword.

Navine thought that was why they were here, but she realized the [Servants] kept pace, offering a small bevy of refreshments and snacks even before the group had reached the parlor. The mansion was large, but servants filled it.

“Lady Navine Gemscale. May I inquire as to your preference for tonight’s dining? We have a choice of main dishes, although the [Chef] will of course adhere to any preferences or any dietary needs.”

A man bowed, murmuring as Navine strode up the steps, her mother following and speaking to a [Maid].

“Er—I’ll have whatever Reinh—Lady Magnolia is having.”

“Very good, Lady Gemscale. That would be the Zeresian salmon, prepared with a number of fresh selections from Oteslia’s gardens, including Veil Tomatoes, Somarrots…”

Navine half-listened, eying the corridors for any new additions, the servants for some naturalistic alteration to the way they stood, their behavior for one of the thousand signals indicated in Overtures of Exceeding Conduct.

…She found none. And as she entered the parlor, she felt rattled. The lack of subterfuge only convinced her there was more. But before Navine could talk to her mother about clues she might have missed, or the other three guests—

There she was. Magnolia Reinhart turned, a smile on her face that contrived to be welcoming and slightly impish.

“Ah, my guests! How good of you to prevail on me! I do hope you enjoy tonight’s refreshments.”

She stood there, in the pink dress and stylish hat and curiously-cut, almost simplistic pink clothing that Navine had seen her wear when she entered Pallass. Navine stopped as the other Drakes nodded, the [Sorcerer] going as far as to bow, and her mother inclined her head with difficulty.

Magnolia Reinhart wore pink like a splash of vibrancy in any setting. Her blonde hair shone, and her skin had no visible flaw, although for anyone with any money, that was not hard. She was far from being as tall as Navine, who was of a height with Ilvriss, and she didn’t look like a [Warrior].

You could mistake her for an eager [Socialite] with a penchant for pink. Her sparkling, interested eyes even suggested that. Yet she could alternate between the woman who seemed younger than her age, spritely, to a far more intimidating woman.

The [Lady] swept towards the Drakes, arms outstretched. To Navine’s astonishment, she took Helessia’s hand and shook it delicately. Then she did the same to the other three Drakes, ignoring the awkwardness of the Fissival [Sorcerer] and beaming all around.

Aha! Before she came to Navine, the Drake knew what she’d done. It was a classic, disarming play of the genial host, honest and bluff as could be. Only, who would buy that with Magnolia Reinhart?

“Come, sit. I have a tea table ready—do you take sugar with your tea? Ressa, six cubes for me. A favorite flavor? I am delighted to meet you all. Lady Helessia—and this is Lady Navine, isn’t it? I’ve heard so much about your company in Salazsar. A delight.”

She came to Navine. The Drake thought quickly. It was time to show Magnolia how much she was aware of these games of subterfuge. So—as Magnolia held out a hand to shake, Navine instead stepped back, and performed the Izrilian Court-bow.

So named because it was one of the six acceptable bows to be made to other nobles of similar or greater status between different continents that did not adhere to noble rank. Izrilians performed it in Terandrian courts, even to monarchs at times, although this was a slight depending on the situation.

Left hand to chest, four fingers slightly splayed—or claws in Navine’s case, with the pinky tucked in—right hand out and behind, but rotated palm towards the other person, unlike many [Courtier]’s bows. The retreating leg did not stick out too far, nor did one kneel as deeply. Instead of sinking forwards, it was more of a graceful draw downwards, head tilted as well.

All performed splendidly, if Navine thought so herself. Magnolia’s eyebrows shot up and her mouth opened in surprise.

“My! The Izrilian Court-bow?”

“A pleasure to meet you, Lady Reinhart. In the name of House Gemscale, I greet you.”

Navine even replaced the Gemscale family with an Izrilian title. Magnolia hesitated, as even Helessia blinked at Navine’s complicated greeting. Navine watched Magnolia’s face carefully, as Ressa and two [Maids] circulated with the tea cups.

Magnolia Reinhart’s face was blank for a moment. With shock? Her eyes studied Navine. Then—she nodded to herself. Navine waited…

Overtures of Exceeding Conduct, isn’t it? Chapter Six: Polite Unsettlement and Formal Intrigue.

Navine nearly tripped as she rose. Magnolia Reinhart laughed at the younger Drake’s expression, then covered her mouth.

“Excuse me. I’ve read the book cover-to-cover. My tutor, Lady Zanthia, forced all of her young wards to read it. I have no doubt the latest generation of [Ladies] is still suffering from the thing.”

“You don’t adhere to it yourself, Lady Reinhart? I was given to understand it was a staple in Izril’s north.”

“Oh, it is. Do forgive me.”

Magnolia’s eyes sparkled with that mirth as she gestured to the couch. She went on as Navine, feeling as if she were losing each conversatitorial bout, as described in Chapter 8, followed her.

“The book is still used by many in the social circles I frequent. However, I don’t often make use of its lessons myself. Nor did I bring it with me to Oteslia. Do forgive me, Lady Gemscale. If you would like, we could engage in some diction. However, I hoped Drakes would be more keen to honest communication than my people often employ.”

Navine blinked as she found herself sitting on a quite comfortable pink couch that clashed with the nature décor in the parlor. She looked at Magnolia, who had happily put three more sugar cubes in her tea cup. Even the china set was pink, and yes, it too clashed.

Either this was all an artful ruse, or she…might have just moved into the mansion, ignored stylistic sensibilities, and put whatever she wanted, like the mess of a parlor. If anything, her maid, Ressa’s face was slightly pained as she set the pink teapot down on the grown-wood table inlaid with carvings of vines.

Without knowing what to say, Navine glanced around at the other Drakes, who were blinking at Magnolia’s statement.

“Well…that would be refreshing, Lady Reinhart.”

“Magnolia, please, Lady Navine. If I might do the same? I hope you will enjoy your visit.”

“Ah, as do we. It is a pleasure to meet a Human willing to make the journey and talk.”

“Quite so for you as well!”

Magnolia beamed. Navine’s mouth opened and closed.

“Well then.”

“Well then. Shall we begin? I thought it would be excellent to talk about business, perhaps. I understand you, Lord and Lady Barkscale, deal in [Green Mages] and ensuring soil fertility. Navine, Lady Helessia? Gemstones, and Magus Tressl, manufacturing of artifacts? How is business these days? Betimes I think that both our species would benefit if trade flowed from north to south, instead of having to go everywhere else. I can think of a number of artisans and nobles who would eat up gemstones, but we buy them at the same rates as overseas groups. If one managed to open the links between north and south, do you see a future in such a project?”

The [Lady]’s eyes twinkled. She spoke more like a [Merchant] or one of Navine’s administrators proposing a new mining shaft than a [Lady]. The Drakes glanced at each other. Navine sipped at her tea.

 

 

Strawberry sweet! Not a hint of bitter! Closer to juice than tea! Her forked tongue almost recoiled at the taste.

She looked at Magnolia. The woman had put nine cubes of sugar into this? She found herself studying Magnolia Reinhart again.

And this was just the first meeting. The banquets and larger gatherings were coming up.

 

—-

 

Magnolia Reinhart met Drakes. In their city. To talk. Not to sign deals. Mainly to talk.

It was just one of the Five Families’ leaders, too. Not a group of Humans. One Human, who half-poisoned her guests with sugary tea.

Who was as welcome in Drake lands as Drakes were in Human ones, especially in old seats of power. Whose visit might come to nothing.

Yet that talking was a betrayal of all that was held good and dear. It was inexcusable, a traitorous act that deserved no consideration beyond branding as such and stigmatization by all good nobles of Izril!

That was Lord Tyrion Veltras’ position, which he painstakingly explained to his sons over breakfast. He had trouble, despite this being a line most nobles were at home with.

Mainly because Sammy kept asking ‘why?’ every few seconds, and Hethon, despite his best efforts, was still too sleepy to give the responses his father wanted.

Because, Sammial Veltras, Drakes have been the enemy of our species as long as our people landed on Izril. Even before then, Dragons and Drakes were long the enemy of Terandria. Our generation owes no less a debt of vengeance against them than our ancestors.”

“Why?”

Lord Veltras’ left eye twitched. Hethon nudged his younger brother under the table, noting all the warning signs. At this point Sammial was doing it on purpose.

Tyrion controlled his temper and took it from another angle with effort. He closed his eyes, then spoke.

“To speak with a Drake is…acceptable. A [Captain], a [Merchant]—none of these things would give me pause. To negotiate with the ruling body of Drakes, however, in any… conciliatory effort is wrong. Does that make sense, Sammial?”

“No. Why is it bad?”

Sammy kicked his legs under the table, glancing around impatiently. There were far, far more interesting things to do than be told what he’d heard a thousand times. He didn’t seem to understand that the more questions he asked, the longer he’d be lectured. He glanced towards the other head of the small table as his father took a breath.

“Drakes are not to be trusted, at least where the interests of our House and that of the north align. They protect their species, as we must ours.”

“So I can’t trust them?”

“No.”

“Why not a nice one?”

Sammial scratched at his nose. His father took a long, long breath. Then another.

“We are—technically—still in a state of war with the Drakes. Thus, each Drake is potentially an enemy, Sammial Veltras. Not in practice, but you should not trust any of them. Is that clear?”

Sammial scowled, but another nudge from Hethon and he might have nodded, just to be done with the conversation. However, at that precise moment, someone else leaned into the conversation, unable to help herself.

“No Drakes at all? What about…Saliss of Lights?”

Ryoka Griffin knew it was a bad idea. She’d improved on her temper, her fat mouth, she really had! Sometimes though…old Ryoka jumped out.

Hethon could kick Sammial under the table, but Jericha, hovering by the small breakfast party, could not. If she could, she probably would have done a running kick straight into Ryoka’s lower back.

Lord Tyrion’s head rotated slowly. He looked about to snap—then seemed to realize that Ryoka was not Sammial. Hethon stared at the Wind Runner as Tyrion had to rapidly reorganize his thoughts.

“I am—aware of my debt to certain individuals, Miss Ryoka. However, I remind you that Saliss of Lights is a Named Adventurer who has fought alongside Pallass’ army.”

“So you wouldn’t trust him at all? Or speak to him?”

Ryoka suppressed a smile as Lord Tyrion hesitated and glanced at his children, whom Saliss of Lights had himself saved. Sammy and Hethon both looked at their father, then at Ryoka. Jericha’s teeth ground together.

“—Magnolia Reinhart is a separate issue from House Veltras. It may be she has some scheme in any case. Just be aware of House Reinhart’s penchant for underhandedness, Hethon, Sammial.”

Lord Tyrion neatly escaped the closing verbal trap and turned to Ryoka.

“Miss Ryoka, would you care to speak with me in the…parlor?”

He glanced around. This was not the keep; they were on another holding of House Veltras, having yet to return home at their far more leisurely pace when Ryoka found them. Ryoka opened her mouth as she nodded, but Hethon and Sammial burst in.

“No fair! She promised she’d let us fly!

“Sammial! Behave yourself!”

Ryoka saw Tyrion glare at his son. However, everyone knew that when Sammial wanted something…Ryoka lifted her left hand.

“I can let the two fly about. Any kids who want to as well. It’s no trouble.”

“If your business is urgent…”

“After, then. I could even kick a soccer ball around with them. From the television? I think I have one or two in my bag of holding. Souvenirs.”

Really?

The two boys were agog. Tyrion himself raised his brows.

“That would be quite acceptable. My sons had been asking Jericha to procure them. Might we purchase one?”

“It would be a gift. Actually, I think they’re signed too. By Joseph.”

Joseph the Football player?

Hethon nearly choked on his drink. Ryoka smiled. She looked at Tyrion, who was blinking.

“You know the young man personally?”

“We’ve met.”

Ironically through Magnolia Reinhart. Ryoka looked at Tyrion.

“It’s a fun game. I can teach you two if you don’t know. Have you ever played, Lord Veltras?”

“I’m sure Lord Veltras is too busy for such…games, Miss Griffin.”

Jericha spoke stiffly. Tyrion blinked.

“I have not. However, if Hethon and Sammial insist, I would not take it amiss, Jericha.”

The aide nodded stiffly. Ryoka smiled. She turned as Hethon and Sammial begged to see the soccer ball and play.

“Just for a bit. I don’t think an hour will make much of a difference. I met Joseph in Liscor, by the way, Lord Tyrion. The ball was made by a Drake, I’m pretty sure. They’re very hospitable. Honorable too, some of them, like every species. You might like them.”

Another smile. She really couldn’t help it. Lord Tyrion turned into a statue as Ryoka produced the Drake-manufactured ball. Sammy grabbed it, and Hethon raced after him. After a second, he nodded and followed them.

“I look forwards to learning this sport. Perhaps it could be an additional source of income for [Leatherworkers] in House Veltras.”

Ryoka was surprised by this. She kept feeling like she was pushing her luck, especially with how touchy Lord Tyrion was known to be. Except he never called her on it. She followed him after a beat, reminding herself not to push too far…

The Courier tripped and went sprawling as she went through the doorway. Jericha withdrew the foot after a second and called out innocently.

“Are you quite alright, Miss Griffin?”

 

—-

 

Lord Tyrion Veltras was not the only person who had gripes with Magnolia Reinhart and the Drakes, of course. However, someone was there to…change his mind.

Or at least, present the counterargument no one else would voice. It was…quite worrying, actually. To someone who didn’t like unknown variables, Ryoka Griffin was one such. They would have been far more worried, of course, if they could have heard the breakfast conversation.

However, that was neither here nor there. To all intents and purposes, everyone ‘knew’ that Lord Tyrion was just taking a break with his sons, no doubt seeing how close he had come to losing them after the poisoning and Circle of Thorns incident. He had attended that strange party, but that had clearly been a favor for the Wind Runner.

Nothing more would come of it. Variables were all accounted for, at least for now. Magnolia Reinhart now…she was a concern.

Yet again, the question was who would place her at the top of their priority list? Oh, every noble might grumble privately about the Drakes and Magnolia, but nothing major had come of it. She was one noble, for all she was head of the Reinhart family. There were bigger fish to explode.

Rhir’s ritual. The King of Destruction. The Death of Magic returning, that damned [Emperor] that had appeared like a mushroom, the war in Ailendamus threatening trade and…of course, the Circle of Thorns.

It seemed like a long time had passed since the Circle had been the unspoken threat, then the visible target. Yet it had only been a month and a half.

The Circle’s power had broken, though. Shattered. Now, the remaining members were fleeing or giving themselves up.

Just yesterday, one of the Isond house had given himself up, forswearing his role in the Circle, claiming he had ‘just been taking part as a social act’, rather than involved in any of the heinous treachery they’d been up to. He disavowed himself publically—especially because the Wellfar Family’s greatest warship, Pride of the Wellfar, had sailed into the harbor with all magical armaments primed to fire, led by the son of Gresaria Wellfar to accuse Lord Atnel Isond of the association.

The sight of one of the last of the three Citadel-class warships aiming enough weapons to turn your home and the entire harbor to dust in your direction—not to mention the crew of thousands who could probably take the entire harbor without needing to use a single of the warship’s weapons—had a remarkably liberating effect on guilty consciences.

Atnel was just one minor headline, of course. While his family disavowed his actions and had to pay penalties, sometimes monetary, and certainly politically, the hunt continued.

Not a [Witch]-hunt incidentally, because few of the Circle of Thorns’ lesser members could fly. Also, many forswore themselves voluntarily rather than stick by the secret society.

The [Assassins] were purged, at least eighteen of the Guild of Assassin’s hideouts having been destroyed and few daring to claim association. The nobility had given themselves up, or gone to ground and it was doubtful any of them would admit to being a member, unless the information was already known.

“The Circle of Thorns is in ruins! The nobles have fled—several have been executed or taken their own lives, the lesser ones, at any rate. The Guild of Assassins, which long shielded Izril against foreign threats for all they were a tool, has also been destroyed. Countless deaths, all of which serve to weaken the north against foreign aggression!”

That was where it stood. In the secret room, where the Thorns of Death had once met, the great secret had been unveiled.

Two thirds of the inner-most ranks of the Circle of Thorns, the appropriately named, if somewhat exaggerated, ‘Thorns of Death’, had actually been foreign agents who’d risen through the ranks, contributing money and power to manipulate the Circle into attacking Izril’s nobles, effectively destroying itself from within.

What an embarrassment. What a disaster. The empty places where the magical projections of each Thorn of Death had been—camouflaged to avoid identification even here—formed a circle, of course. The actual location hadn’t mattered to most; it was just a meeting place, suitably ostentatious and dramatic to make them feel like a proper cult, a way to gain power in secret that they could not directly.

The Circle of Thorns was dead and dying. Its members had died across Izril in vain. The last time this place had been active, it had rung with the contemptuous, raucous applause of the traitors within, laughing at the fools who’d actually believed what they had been doing was anything approaching intelligent or covert.

In the empty room, applause rang once more. Clapping hands. Not the loud effect of many hands clapping. This time…

Just two. Yet, the two glowing images applauded merrily, each other as much as the statement of the Circle of Thorn’s demise.

“What a slaughter! What a disaster!”

One exclaimed, his voice jovial. The other’s was older, and he stopped clapping first, growing tired of the theatrics.

“As miserable a lot as one could imagine. A secret society riddled with infiltrators. They applauded themselves.”

The first figure nodded. He was not, in fact, disguised by a veiling spell. More importantly…the glowing aura around him faded. The semi-translucent effect ended. Revealing a man, brushing at dark, plain travelling clothes that gave little away.

The great magic that the other Thorns of Death had used to communicate live in this way was real. Yet they had never thought to wonder if someone might be tricking them into thinking they weren’t actually in this room. The second glowing figure stepped out of his position in the circle as well.

“It all went exactly as you said it would. I had a hard time keeping from laughing.”

The first man confided in the second. The two were uneven—not completely lopsided, but the first was stouter, shorter, than the second. Not stout or short per se; the second man was tall and thin enough to be willowy, and older by far. He walked with a slight stoop, and his voice echoed slightly as he and the other man walked across the large room.

“The Guild dying was a painful loss. It has been used as a petty tool between ourselves, yet it did frighten our enemies. More than one invading [General] died with their throats cut before they even set foot on this land.”

“True, true. I can see the value, although it strikes me that it was more of a tool for…the nobility. So to Rhir’s hell with the guild, if you don’t mind me saying. I’ve used their services, and I’m a small patriot for my home. But I won’t mourn their loss. They’ll pop back up after a few decades, anyways.”

The second man turned to the first.

“Sooner. We must make certain of that. I said it was regrettable, however necessary. Now, come along. I don’t have much time. If it’s noticed I’ve gone…”

There was certainly a power differential here. The first man trailed after the taller one, stopping well short of him, never interrupting, his voice respectful.

However, neither man was exactly used to subservience. Both talked with authority. Yet the taller, older one clearly knew everything, while the other did not, and the lack of knowledge bothered him.

“Why do you have such a problem with Magnolia Reinhart, though? Of all the issues facing the north—her?”

“Her.”

The taller man was leading them down a staircase. This room was part of a stronghold, typically buried underground. Few places aboveground were so easy to hide such places, and the first man had been surprised by how spacious this headquarters of the Circle of Thorns was.

A proper damn fortress. I’d hate to be subject to poison gas spells down here, but give me a gang and enough arrows and [Mages] and I could hold this place against an army. No wonder the Circle of Thorns existed for so long.

He stretched his legs as he walked; it had been a long ride in the Unmarked Coach, and Karsaeu had been forced to make a few detours for the other travellers. He had been sorely tempted to tell her not to pick up any passengers, but it was a bad look. The Unmarked Coach ran for anyone who needed it—who could pay, of course—and even the owner had to respect that.

The man. At this point, it was probably wrong to think of him just as ‘a man’. He owned the Unmarked Coach, the famous, secret counterpart to Magnolia Reinhart’s coach, the [Lady] of which was the subject of this worry. It was best to think of him, then, as a—[Merchant]. A [Broker]. However, both those ideas suggested someone whose entire job revolved around such things and while he did do both, if he lost his clients, he would not be at a loss.

Rather—he could be thought of by his main class.

[Artifact Collector]. The Djinni’s bottle was still among one of his greatest possessions. Yet the collector of secrets and wealth counted this association nearly as valuable.

The collector glanced up at his companion as they walked further down. The older man still hadn’t shed the magical effect from before, but the other made no comment.

“Why Reinhart? I’ve heard she’s actually not as savvy as one imagines. The Deadly Flower of the North, and all that. Grasp at her and she’ll draw blood. Leave her alone though…? I’ve had little trouble from her. She’s not the subtle manipulator that gives me nightmares at night.”

He pressed the other. He had a number of people he did have nightmares about, and had added the Death of Magic to that list. However, his companion disagreed.

“You don’t believe she’s subtle?”

“I saw her maneuver with the Antinium. I’ll grant you it was sly—but rather like a [Thug] slapping the back of your head with a club when you weren’t looking, as opposed to something artful, if you don’t mind me saying. She’s clever—but not all that.”

The other figure snorted.

“If you think Magnolia Reinhart is anything less than one of the best experts in manipulation and intrigue in all of Izril, you are a fool. What you see as a lack of machinations that manifest into perfect plans that dazzle the mind, I see as true intelligence. Are you in love with stories about architects of politics, cunning [Lords] or rulers who balance enemy intrigues on a needle and let their enemies kill themselves on their own weapons?”

The collector slowed, a bit embarrassed and irked by the needling tone. Of course, he was used to the superior attitude from his companion.

“I do enjoy that kind of thing, yes. What of it? Magnolia Reinhart just doesn’t strike me as that sort.”

“That’s because she’s better than a plotter. Do you know why grand, twisting schemes are stupid? It’s because idiots always ruin something. The more complex a plan, the easier it is to fall apart. And if it succeeds? 99% of people will never figure out what was done unless you tell them. So why bother?”

“Your real foes would take note.”

The collector rejoined, hurt at the affront to elegant machinations. The second snorted.

They descended twisting stairways, much like roots, growing narrower, deeper and deeper. The collector tried to count how many feet they’d gone down. He gave up after four hundred. The second man was deactivating wards and traps, stopping every now and then, so they had plenty of time to talk.

“Let me tell you about a great [Mastermind]. The story was, he was so clever he could manipulate armies into attacking each other. He played his enemies like fiddles, and even the Walled Cities had fallen prey to his schemes. One day, he fixed his sights on a foe known to be just as clever. He enacted a dazzling plan to ensnare the other [Lord] and not only destroy him politically, but tear his allies apart, ruin him until the man would take his own life.”

“Ah. I assume from this story it didn’t go that way?”

The other figure stopped, raising a palm to touch the wall. He stared back at the collector, who was panting from the low oxygen in these places that hadn’t been unsealed for centuries, perhaps longer.

“The man was Lefis Reinhart. At a ball where the two men met, before the [Mastermind]’s great plans would begin to inevitably close, Lefis greeted his opponent on the dance floor. He then drew a dagger, ran the other man through, and walked off. The [Mastermind] died in a pool of blood and few remember he ever existed. Lefis lived for seventy more years.”

“…Am I to be impressed with Lefis? It seemed like the [Lord] got lucky.”

An arched brow, and a sneer. From anyone else, this much continued disrespect would have made the [Artifact Collector] act. Yet he held his growing irritation in check. He knew when to be respectful, even now.

“Really. You think so? The point is this: a master [Assassin] can sneak up behind you as you go about your day, wound you, then heal you and slide away such that you don’t even notice you were hurt until you drop dead a month later. In the meantime, your common [Thug] can knife a hundred foes and spare himself the effort. Magnolia knows when to be direct, and she does it because it works. She forced Tyrion Veltras to hold off taking Liscor, when we wanted him to.”

A finger stabbed at the collector, almost triumphantly.

“That’s how a Reinhart works. When a Reinhart stabs you, they don’t just twist the dagger, they’ve already signed it. Who cares about subtlety when your enemies lie dead?”

“You can’t hold dominion by terror alone. Most accounts I’ve read agree on that.”

The younger man protested. The older snorted.

“So says those who have never done it properly. Terror can last until the tyrant lies dead, and who cares after that? Besides which, the really good tyrants just reanimate their corpses or prolong their life. Be direct. Just blast armies to death. Do it enough times and no one bothers you, I can assure you.”

The collector conceded the point, albeit reluctantly. The two continued their journey down.

“So Magnolia meeting the Drakes…?”

“Bad. Very bad. She’s conspiring with the enemy and she’s doing it directly. Magnolia is a genius, even by Reinhart standards. She’s good at the family tradition.”

“Which is…?”

“Killing people.”

Again, the second figure stopped. He looked back, and his glowing features twisted up into a smile. Which surprised the collector.

“Do you know how many killers her own family sent against her? How bloody the Reinharts were until she took over? Her own father tried to murder her with an army of [Mercenaries] on her fourteenth birthday, and all she had was a single barely-graduated [Assassin]! She walked out of her 20th birthday as head of the Reinhart family with a tame Dragon and all of Izril hailing her as the hero of the Antinium wars.”

Dragon. The first man inhaled, but the second didn’t care. He went on, smiling, fondly…then his features clouded, turned bitter.

“Her fault was she grew soft. She stopped using her talents and used all the other tricks when one solves them all. Look at Izril now. Haunted by Goblin Lords, Antinium—and foreign powers gnawing at us.”

“…And what we’ve done is just eliminate the Circle of Thorns, the one group that was supposed to help protect Izril. Unless I’m wrong? And you’re betraying Magnolia Reinhart, if you don’t mind me pointing it out. Actually, I’ll point it out either way. Will you explain the logic of all this or do I need to get Karsaeu to figure it out for me?”

The eyes of the taller man met his. Contempt, as arrogant as that of Dragons, flashed through his eyes. Old eyes. Older than even the Djinni the [Artifact Collector] possessed.

He had not dropped the magical aura that made him seem like the other projections…because there was no need to. Or rather, he could not. Regis Reinhart sneered down at the mortal man.

“Magnolia Reinhart is my kin. I would have put the Circle behind her if she stayed true to the most basic beliefs of our family. Even now, I would not count her as an enemy. She was the one who threatened to kill me. Me! To have that damned lover of hers plunder my treasures, erase me!”

He snarled. The [Artifact Collector] held up his hands.

Regis Reinhart, in the flesh. Or…the bound spirit of his. He was here, out of his vault. The collector had no idea he’d been able to do that. In their association, made because of their shared passions, the mortal man had slowly become aware of how much power Regis had in secret, in undercurrents. When Regis had told him about the Circle of Thorns…

Well, here they were. Underneath the Reinhart estates, the magical vault lacked for Regis Reinhart. The four [Maids] spoke, talking to each other, holding each other, where they refused to speak while he was there. If anyone had checked…but only Magnolia dared descend so casually.

Regis continued moving after a moment.

“Do you think all of this was an accident, Merlilon? The Circle coming together after being destroyed by Magnolia’s grandmother? Failing so spectacularly?”

Merlilon hesitated. He disliked people using his name, even in this most secret of places.

“You made sure I saw how deliberate it was. I still don’t understand why.

Regis looked back. They had come to the final door. Merlilon’s hair stood up at the thrum of power on the ward, and he moved back, checking his Ring of Protection. That damned girl had taken the lesser one and he wanted it back!

“Two things could have happened. Either the Circle succeeded and gained Tyrion Veltras, and continued to rise in power—or they imploded. Frankly, the latter was always likelier. Secret societies, like your beloved plots, tend to fail because of how ridiculous they are.”

Merlilon bit back a response. He couldn’t hurt Regis anyways, and he was…unsure…if the same held true in reverse. As the door opened, he smelled something familiar below. He hesitated, as Regis beckoned him into the final room.

“Why let the Circle act at all?”

“Because I made it. I created the first gathering. I paid for this place, before I died! I would have used it for my niece too…tell me, Merlilon. You’re clever enough. What is smarter than creating a secret society that can fail and is full of mortal failings—save for one? Especially since I do not always join each iteration?”

The [Artifact Collector] thought it over. The answer came too soon from Regis’ own mouth. Slowly, Merlilon descended and saw the truth.

The answer is simple: even if they fail, they succeed! Create a system by which even fools fall upwards! We can cast a spell to change gravity. So why not channel the power of Izril’s nobility, no matter how pathetic they become?

Regis Reinhart stood in the center of a large, circular room at the bottom of the secret stronghold of the Circle of Thorns. So far down, so hidden, that even other generations of the Circle had never found it.

Here was the real secret of the Circle. As Merlilon descended, holding a glowing wand made of glass, ready to blast this place with the Tier 6 spell contained within and run if this was a trap—he saw it.

This circular room was not just some amphitheater or another conference room. It was a large, vast, rounded…basin.

The walls of stone sloped down the room, to settle at the bottom. Yet Merlilon barely saw the naked stone. Each line of the wall was covered in red.

Runes, as intricate as any he’d ever seen. More intricate than the spell he had used when he had taken command of Karsaeu! They were pulsating. Running—liquid and wet.

With blood. It trickled down with every second, along the patterns of magical lines in the air. That was what he’d smelled which he’d known.

Blood. Blood magic. Merlilon’s stomach heaved. His eyes rolled wildly and his mind swayed in the center of the room. Only experience saved him from madness or…worse. He closed his eyes, looking at the steps, at Regis. The world stopped imploding.

My nose is bleeding. He wiped at it, and saw blood droplets lifting upwards. They floated up—and left—joining the slick walls.

Merlilon had seen a lot of things that would give other people nightmares, and still lingered in his. However, this? This was as bad as it got. He swallowed hard.

“Regis. What am I staring at?”

Old magic. The same [Necromancer] who helped me live made this place with his last great magic. Blood magic. You know what this is?”

“A—mass spell of some kind. A huge radius!”

It had to be. The entire room was given over to some great working of so many parts he couldn’t guess at what it was. He doubted even his Djinni could have. Regis lifted a finger, the eyes of the curious collector of treasures lighting up with glee as he lectured his younger companion.

“Not just that! This is a kind of magic beyond just a single spell of many parts! This—is a ritual spell. A spell with a radius that spans half a continent—although it requires certain components for activation. And do you know what it does?”

The pieces fell into place. Slowly, Merlilon stared at something on his arms.

The Thorns of Death, like all the Circle, had to undergo certain rites. The most junior members got a single mark, but like the Guild of Assassins, as one progressed, they grew more intricate.

Each one swore themselves to the Circle of Thorns. It was…he had assumed, mostly loyalty spells. The significance dug into him now. He looked at the blood.

The Circle’s blood.

“Correct!”

Regis read his mind. He waved at the running walls.

“Each member of the Circle serves a greater calling, even in death. Fail or succeed. Triumph or die—the Circle of Thorns grows. Hence the name.”

Ah. Merlilon understood the joke. Could anyone walk through the Circle of Thorns without paying a blood toll? And like that…he looked down at the basin.

It was far too shallow for how much blood had been spilt. How much blood had been spilt before, accumulating in the center. Nor did it look like…blood. Not blood proper. It was thicker, darker, with a depth in which he thought he saw…

“What happens now? Do you kill me and complete this…this ritual?”

He raised the wand slowly, knowing it was no use. Regis just stared at him. Then laughed.

“Merlilon. Merlilon! Did you not hear a word of what I said? A Reinhart plays no games! If I wanted you dead, I’d have had you murdered! No, this is the start. The start of the true Circle. Of course, we’ll call ourselves something different. The Guild of Assassins was getting complacent, which was why I allowed it to die with the Circle. Both need to be reforged. Something…is happening.”

He frowned, becoming uncertain, like he had when he mentioned the party at the Summer Solstice. Merlilon licked his lips.

“The King of Destruction? Or, you mean the Death of Magic?”

“Neither. I have seen worse. I have seen that Dragon’s kin die screaming! I have survived it all, Merlilon. Something else is happening. It came to a head at the Summer Solstice and I like it not at all. I…feel it. I am afraid. Afraid of death. The Circle must be reborn. So I will use every drop of blood here if I must.”

“What does that basin do? Conjure…something? Cast a Tier 9 spell to wipe out your foes?”

The man was backing up the stairs, unwilling to stare around this room any longer. Regis eyed him, disappointed. He had hoped for better.

“No. No, the Circle and this place was meant to guard Izril. A last resort to be used when too much blood had been shed. In other eras, when the Flowers of Izril died almost as much as the Goblin King’s rampage…I unveiled the Circle. I saved them, by giving some power. Thus—[Assassins] will become a new guild. A better guild. There are still agents of the Circle. They will come here.”

“And do what?

A hysterical note had entered Merlilon’s voice. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the pool of blood. It looked like it was sucking him in, even high as it was. He turned for Regis—no, the door! He’d be damned if he—

Be remade. Better. Go on.”

Regis was behind him. The ghost had gone through the walls. He reached out and pushed Merlilon, gently.

The man fell, screaming. Not towards the ground, but directly into the pool. Somehow—gravity had drawn him into that center. He plunged into the liquid, but there was no splash. He sank deeper, deeper…

Regis sat on the stairs, watching. Waiting.

 

—-

 

Later that day, hours later, Karsaeu-Dequoa was checking her internal clock. Her master, whom she would fain see dead, was smart enough to have ordered her to go after him if enough time had elapsed.

Surely the damned ghost knew it too, yet the time was nearly up. Well, Karsaeu would relish battling a spirit. She drew herself up, eyes narrowed—

When a man emerged from the stronghold. The Djinni stopped. She stared as Merlilon walked out, steps light, smiling widely.

“Master?”

He’d ordered her to call him that. Of Regis, there was no sign. Karseau’s eyes narrowed. She floated back towards the carriage which was her body, albeit disguised, uncertainly. She conjured lightning out of magic, herself, and held her ground.

“Karsy! What’s the matter? Don’t you recognize me?”

“No.”

The Djinni regarded the man warily. She…felt…the same need to obey. The same magical bonds. Yet if she had hair on her body to raise, it would be standing up.

“What are you?”

“Merlilon. Just—better. Come on, open up. We have lots of work to do.”

She shuddered as the door of the Unmarked Coach opened. Merlilon climbed inside. He sat there, humming to himself, all grudges towards Regis forgotten. He had gotten the full treatment of course. Not any half-measures, not for the mortal collaborator to Regis.

Even a Vampire would envy him. He wondered just how strong he was. Not just strong; well, he’d get Karsaeu to help him figure out just what had changed. He laughed, again, picking out names for the best of the Circle of Thorns’ agents. The very best. [Assassins] too. It was a limited resource.

The Djinni was silent as the Unmarked Coach sped away. For once, not needling whatever sat inside of her. She did not know what had happened.

Merlilon smelled like blood.

 

—-

 

Soon, a time of importance would take place. It was not something you had to sense, although anyone with the correct senses would intuit it.

However, a study of astrology would reveal the same. A semi-rare event, although regular, was about to take place.

The twin moons above would soon be full, on the exact same day. A double full-moon, a time of great importance.

Magically, level-wise, but not spiritually. Not anymore.

Eldavin, that was, Teriarch, knew this. Magic was stronger when both moons opened; some kinds of magic. It was a bad time to be an [Umbralmancer], the strict name for the [Dark Mage] class and its derivatives.

On the other hand, lunar magic was at its zenith, if anyone remembered it. Well, he, Teriarch, did.

“Eldavin.”

He corrected himself after a moment. Magical powers would gain strength. Oh—and if you were extremely lucky or savvy, you could gain some of the rare classes. [Lunar Swordsman] and such. For his purposes, well, he wasn’t going to be swinging bits of enchanted metal about.

The point was that all things affected magic. From what you’d eaten to what you were wearing, to where you stood to what time it was. By the same token—you could do whatever the hell you wanted because you were a [Mage]. Or a Dragon.

He had a lot to do, too. Eldavin had spent enough time at Wistram to see it for what it was. He saw the failings, the conceits, and yes, the strengths it had, and weighed it against the Wistrams of old, the ones that had failed, or risen despite themselves.

Eldavin found the academy wanting. Among other things, for better leadership, better morality, and finally—better magic.

It was not doomed, for all that. If he had his way, he would help correct it before going back to heal Erin Solstice. Then take a nap. He was getting tired of having to wake up each day.

Nevertheless, he spent his time cunningly. In between his classes, he assembled what he needed, using his vast array of knowledge that no [Archmage] could equal…probably. However, some spells were beyond him, and he had to work within the confines of what he could do without Skills and this simulacrum.

To that end…he knocked harder on Viltach’s door. At last, the Archmage opened it.

“Grand Magus Eldavin.”

He had a resigned tone to his voice. Eldavin beamed at him.

“Archmage Viltach. I apologize for calling on you at this early hour.”

“It’s just past midnight.”

The man blinked at him.

“And well into the next day! I’m terribly sorry in any case, but could I trouble you for a few more ingredients? I have yet to source mine as you know—I should have brought my stores, but they’re quite inaccessible, and I was hoping for some more magicore. A pinch of high-grade ruby dust, let’s see…a Unicorn horn? No? Well, I can take some mithril and silver. Oh, and aside from the standard stuff, I could really use a Kraken’s eye and about…eight…parts of Crystalline creatures. Bugs, even. I am not exceedingly picky.”

Viltach just stared at him. Eldavin smiled. He wasn’t being unreasonable, he knew. He’d gotten the Hydra parts from Nailihuaile, several powerful tree reagents from Feor—

The trick was to spread around the requests. Each [High Mage] or [Grand Mage] had gotten an Eldavin knocking on their door with a polite request for just a bit of what he knew they had. It was a time-honored tradition of course; leeching from your peers.

Which was why Eldavin was also ready for Viltach to try to close the door on him.

“I’m so sorry, Grand Magus, but it’s a tough time of year and after all the ingredients I already loaned you three times, I’m a bit pinched myself.”

“Completely understandable!”

Eldavin cheerfully grabbed the doorknob and the two wrestled. He spoke rapidly as Viltach tried to retreat into his quarters.

The thing about borrowing was that eventually you had to return the favor. Eldavin had no intention of giving Viltach a quarter of the gold the ingredients were worth, and nor did he wish to trade in any way. Which was why the Dragon happily spoke before the Archmage could shut the door fully.

“I notice you use a suspension-style construction for your wands, Archmage Viltach. Magic gemstones in charged magicore? Very nice sealing spells too. Quite lovely.”

For a Bronze-rank adventurer. Yet Viltach hesitated long enough to eye Eldavin suspiciously.

“Thank you, Grand Magus, but nevertheless, I’m sure you can appreciate how much Magicore it takes. Which I can’t spare just yet—maybe in a month. My wands are considered effective though, thank you for noticing.”

“Cheap, certainly.”

Viltach’s face went slack. Eldavin pressed on, a big smile on his face.

“Have you considered—purely speculating here, your research may have excluded this, or you just don’t care to make them—multi-gem core wands?”

The Archmage’s eyes flickered. He smiled, and didn’t shut the door—but neither did he rush Eldavin into his apartments.

“Grand Magus, of course I’ve thought about it. But it’s quite impossible to do simply.”

The half-Elf’s brows politely rose.

“I think an Archmage of your level could certainly manage it. Don’t let yourself down so easily, Archmage Viltach.”

Another moment of hesitation as Viltach tried to work out if that was…

“I’ve never seen it done outside of an extremely high-level joining spell. Multiple elements, Grand Magus Eldavin? Assuming you’re implying it would be in suspended magicore—how would two cores even co-exist, or if I managed that, allow for a [Mage] to draw on two elements at once rather than a mess of fighting elements?”

There it was. Eldavin pounced, as the cat to the proverbial mouse, or Wyvern to terrified Corusdeer.

“Conflicting elements—that is a problem. However—if we look to nature—slimes manage it, don’t they? The high-level ones, at least. You know, the good old Shockflame Slimes? That sort of thing?”

Viltach blinked. His grip loosened and the door opened wider.

“Slimes? Of course…you’re suggesting their inner mechanisms, some kind of spell—no. Just their inner core must have some kind of inherent conflict-resolver that—”

“Fascinating things, aren’t they? Wonderful to study.

At this point Eldavin’s brows were dancing around on his head like a pair of drunk worms. However, even that wasn’t enough to let himself in.

“Thank you for the tip, Grand Magus. I will look into this. Hopefully it will bear fruit.”

The Archmage bowed quite politely to Eldavin. He waited. The half-Elf smiled.

“Well, I will confess, it was in lieu of this thought that I sought you out, Archmage Viltach. I know it might be presumptuous—but I happen to have a Shockflame Slime just er, sitting in my room. You know how they breed. I was hoping we could perhaps swap a few amiable goods?”

“A Shockflame Slime. You have one in your rooms? As one…does?”

Viltach’s voice had gone flat. Eldavin waved a hand around, contriving to hint at a bit of annoyance.

“They just pop up, you know how it is. I’d be happy to lend it to you indefinitely. I ah, captured it a long while ago. Quite fortuitously…although it would have been a stroke of luck to get a three-elemental slime. Yet those are even rarer. Hard to find ones able to take the strain. This was quite a catch though, and reluctant as I am to part with it…”

Viltach’s eyes widened. He began nodding and opened the door wide. Eldavin beamed.

Of course, he’d just created the Shockflame Slime himself. Viltach was all too willing to believe that Eldavin was trading it from his personal menagerie, though, and if a bit of work got him what he wanted…? Eldavin was soon bustling out of Viltach’s rooms with more of his precious ingredients, and Viltach was staring at the flaming slime which occasionally shot fairly powerful jolts of electricity rolling around in a containment field in his laboratory. He glanced up as he saw the half-Elf close the door.

 

—-

 

They knew that he was hiding something. The [Mages] weren’t stupid, or if they were, they weren’t stupid in that way.

Some thought Eldavin was half-mad and forgot more magic than the Archmages of old knew now. Others wondered if he was some ancient [Mage] who had stayed out of the limelight until now, which was fairly accurate, he had to admit.

In the end though, the results were the same. The [Depth Mage] of the Drowned Fleets welcomed Eldavin into her quarters.

Or rather, all of her did. Her daughters, which were parts of her which had regrown, a kind of birth for the half-starfish woman, all bowed their heads as one.

It was a gesture calculated to unnerve, especially with their identical faces, not to mention when they spoke, greeting him.

Eldavin didn’t bat an eye. He greeted the [Grand Magus], kissing each cheek like they were [Sailors] meeting ship to ship.

“Depth Mage Doroumata, you are a gracious host! Seas take you! Your lovely daughter-apprentices as well. Have you been eating well? I know landfolk food doesn’t sit that well myself. Nothing like a good Invisible Eel in Kelmark sauce, eh? Are the fisheries still working down there or did they all get out again? And who could tell either way?”

He laughed at the bad joke as Doroumata gave him a look of pure surprise. Her daughters were even less subtle, and they began to exhibit different kinds of shock. One’s mouth dropped slightly open like her mother’s, another shifted her skirts, yet another tried to mask…

Ah, so they aren’t sharing a neural link, just the same body-progenitor. Good to know.

Eldavin was Eldavin was Teriarch. He didn’t know everything, far from it. Yet what he did know he used, and soon the [Depth Mage] was treating him like he was the foreign [Mage Captain] of a fellow Drowned Vessel in the deeps, not some foolish landfolk with a bit of magic in him.

Which was eminently the correct thing to do, of course. Eldavin accepted a bowl of some of the larger, dried eggs, not exactly caviar, but a nice snacking food and popped them into his mouth.

“Lovely, lovely.”

“I do apologize. Rations are harder to procure above. I have contented myself with landfolk food, but one who knows the deep water’s bounty…have you crewed with my people before?”

“Now and then, Depth Magus, now and then. Although Depth Magus is such a mouthful—wouldn’t it be more accurate to call you the Shadeward of…I want to say Nombernaught, if I’m guessing cities?”

She jumped and Eldavin hid a smirk behind the bowl.

“You—know the city?”

“As I say. I’ve been around. Of course, the crews I worked with are probably long, long since dead or disbanded, so I wouldn’t be surprised if my name is forgotten.”

He let her chew that over and had no doubt she’d spend a lot of fruitless time trying to figure out how he knew about one of the Drowned People’s secret cities, cloaked by her kind in the depths. Best of luck too! He hadn’t been Eldavin, but a Drowned Folk [Mage] when he’d needed to go below.

She looked at him for a long moment. Like Viltach, he knew he didn’t fool her by playing his cards so close to his chest. Yet that was fine. [Mages] always wanted things. Information, magic…

“How may my daughters and I help you, Grand Magus? I have been told you’ve set a Creler nest—Krakens devour them—in the waters with your trades. What have my people to offer such a knowledgeable [Mage]?”

Eldavin nodded. She was a sensible one. No doubt the Drowned Fleets had picked wisely in choosing her; he wondered who was better, Doroumata or Viltach. You did not become the Shadeward of an entire city unless you could hide them from the vast monsters of the sea—and fight one off if they still came at you.

“In truth, Shadeward Doroumata, I know why you’re here. Before you speak—I am Wistram, and Wistram must keep its secrets. However. I would hate for the Drowned Peoples, who have been allies of the landfolk in times when they are most needed, to take umbrage against the land.”

Her eyes flickered rapidly. One of her daughters glanced around before the others nudged her fiercely behind their long, flowing clothing made of dark magic-infused cloth.

“I do not know if this is excessive flattery, Grand Magus Eldavin. Drowned Fleets are seldom friendly with landfolk or Storm Ships.”

Eldavin’s brisk slap of the knee made them all start, as such sounds did. The underwater crews hated sharp, loud noises, as they attracted fish. He did it anyways, and gave Doroumata a stern look.

Not our friends? Do you refer to the present era, Shadeward? If so, I grant you that. But do not tell me the Drowned Folk forget faster than the landfolk when we stood together? I remember. I was—”

I was there. The half-Elf smoothly went on.

“—raised on stories of the times when land and sea put aside differences! The last time was the Creler Wars, when your people rose from the depths to repel the things devouring all from Rhir! When magic died and your people drowned in the darkness, did our peoples not stand together until the dawn of magic broke again? When tyrants held the sky, did the sea not revolt along with the land, and follow the Treants of Noi into battle?”

Her eyes were wide. Eldavin held her gaze, and realized his hand was shaking. He knew what came next would change things.

So what? He always changed things. Eldavin gestured, pretending to re-cast the powerful magics against eavesdropping he’d already put on the room.

“Lady Doroumata, do you know what has called all of Wistram’s power here? The children?”

She looked at him. Her daughters stirred.

“I know they matter.”

Do you know why?

Another moment of hesitation.

“…No. Only that landfolk have found such, where the Drowned Folk do not. Except for…corpses…”

Eldavin felt a moment of understanding, then pity and sorrow. They appeared in the sea. Even if whatever force was directing them towards civilization—fifteen feet outside a city on land was different than fifteen feet outside an undersea city.

Someone will be held to account. He shook his head.

“Of course not. Yet surely you understand they are appearing…everywhere? Land, sea, perhaps even air, if they are unlucky? These poor, poor children from another world.”

Her eyes went wide behind her veil. He sensed the truth spells probing him from several distant sides.

“That—is—a bold thing to say, Grand Magus.”

“Ah, well, most [Mages] of Wistram know about it. Zealously do they guard their Earthers though—that’s the term for them. I daresay even if you tried spiriting them away, that vessel you probably have parked outside the radius of the academy won’t get far with all of Wistram raining spells down on you. Even if it were a fleet.”

Another safe bet. He knew they wouldn’t leave their Shadeward stranded. The woman sat back, rattled. Yet you didn’t survive that far underwater if you panicked.

“Then what would you suggest, Grand Magus?”

He took his time now, playing up the theatrics, staring at the ceiling, munching the quite nice eggs—they were fertile of course, so you ate the little eel-things live. If some people thought that was barbaric, well, he’d seen how sausages were made. Animals excreted from those things!

“We-ell, if you know where to look, I daresay you’d find the children who stand out, even if they are Human. Wistram also delivers them via boat, which I hate to intimate in any way…I am just speculating, Doroumata.”

She nodded, smiling, enraptured by the half-Elf as he waggled a finger. Not least because the half-Elf had given her the target of her quest.

If Grimalkin of Pallass had not already known from the Drake communications he had hacked into, Eldavin would have told them too. Why did he do it?

A few reasons. One was practical; they were favors to him. The second?

“I mean it, Doroumata. Let the sea rule as it will, but let us also not forget the ties that bind us in the direst hour.”

Eldavin rose. As he did, Doroumata grasped his hands with hers. She dug her nails into his skin, but lightly.

“For you, Grand Magus, we would call you sea-friend even if we forgot all you had done lifetimes ago.”

She met his gaze with her impossibly dark one, that sucked up the light itself. He nodded, bowing slightly, no artifice in taking this compliment.

This was what he had set out here to do. One of the first changes Wistram must make. It was a fool’s errand to enrich only the Academy of Mages.

“I would stay a day or two and wait for someone to insult you.”

He suggested mildly. She nodded. Again, she and her daughters bowed, the daughters making a sign of respect, a touch of the lips and a finger pointed. Words of praise unspoken, for the crews who sailed the depths.

 

—-

 

Then he started asking for favors. Eldavin didn’t need this if everything went well, but they were lots of fun and she’d be able to replenish her stocks. He rubbed his hands together as she produced the things that could help him—underwater ingredients—and added the addendum.

“I was also hoping to take a few Depth Charges if you had any, Doroumata? Handy little things and I’m pressed for time…”

The daughters looked at each other, askance that Eldavin knew to ask for them, let alone wanted one! Yet the Shadeward only hesitated a moment before snapping her fingers.

“Bring one.”

Oho.

Eldavin was careful with the perfectly round sphere of liquid that was nevertheless firm as a rock in his hands. The daughter carefully backed up—not that it would have saved her if he activated it—and he noticed the permanent ward spell around Doroumata grow a bit stronger.

“You…know how to use those?”

Eldavin frowned absently as he inspected the one he’d been handed.

“Of course, of course. One thing…come now, Doroumata, I thought we were friendly! This is only one ton. Pray, might I acquire a stronger one?”

This time Doroumata’s daughters did stir. That was—they looked at their mother. She had decided to give the best one she had to Eldavin, but the [Depth Mage] recovered.

“—Naturally, Grand Magus. However—Wistram. One does not simply walk around with objects of too much danger, do they?”

She lifted a delicate hand. Eldavin nodded slowly. Why was it so reassuring for him to give her a nod, as if he was a [Captain] and she the [Deckhand] just allowed abovedecks?

Naturally. My mistake.”

In that way, Eldavin was fooled, despite his great knowledge. Doroumata saw him off, then turned to plot and communicate with her vessel the import he had brought.

 

—-

 

It was all very well, going around, acquiring his hoar—his necessary items. Eldavin tucked the Depth Charge away securely as he marched down the hallway.

The truth was though, that these factions he was aiding were more for the…the general concept than anything. A rising water drowned all peoples and all that, as the saying went. Similarly, he wanted to help the Drowned Folk as much as give hints to [Mages].

He had a faction, though. It was to that faction his thoughts now turned. For if Eldavin gave hints to his enemies or would-be allies, or simply other people of magic…what would he give to those on his side?

The answer was: all he could. All that was safe. Eldavin had already recalled the incidents of old, the arrogance, and the foolishness of magic unchecked.

He would not make his old mistakes again. He would give what he deemed best, which meant limiting the power of any one side, yet enriching this place, his faction, against what might come if the worst came to the worst.

Which was…a war between worlds. Eldavin was no fool. He’d gone through the laptop, watched the movies, and known where fiction ended and reality begun. Unlike many, he could visualize a gun. Also, contemplate the power to destroy entire cities and poison the earth.

He met with the first of the pupils from his faction as she waited outside the door to his apartments, dancing like a first-year pupil. Valeterisa, Archmage of Izril, nodded to Eldavin and he nodded back, suppressing a sigh.

She was a headache. However, he only smiled.

“Archmage Valeterisa. I hope I have not kept you waiting long? You are, er, forty minutes early to our appointment.”

“I am capable of thought anywhere, Eldavin. I hoped to talk before we resumed our discussion of….”

“Yes—quite. Let’s er, begin.”

 

—-

 

The problem with Valeterisa was her greatest strength. That was what Eldavin had first thought of her:

She was the kind of [Mage] that the Wistram of old was. Driven. Magic is her goal and she will pursue it. For better or worse, she knows politics and influence is a means to an end, yet magic is her love.

That was…good. Because she was intelligent and held magic to be a truth, which was what [Mages] were.

Bad, because it went right up against Eldavin’s ‘don’t give a Bronze-rank adventurer a Tier 8 spell and expect things to work out’ policy. He was sure Valeterisa would manage to break through if he gave her too much of any one magical theory.

Thus, he engaged in a delicate dance of trust and giving her just enough to improve during these ‘collaborative discussions’, which was really him answering questions for her under the guise of ‘magic that had been lost after Zelkyr disappeared’. It was difficult because he had to pretend he did not know the answers, or fuddle around—and she was smart enough to keep testing him to see if he was faking it.

He had to do it, though. Valeterisa was a bit too driven and Eldavin was uncomfortably reminded of [Mages] he had known many times.

Give her the keys, or even a lockpick and she’d throw open the doors to greater magic and drag them all screaming into the aether. Some bastard like that had once ended magic for centuries and Teriarch was not living through that again.

Worse—he politely adjusted the textbook so he avoided looking at her low-cut dress. Valeterisa’s eyes flickered and he doubted she’d try that again. Much like a scientist of Earth, she attempted every method to persuade him to be more forthcoming. She was as direct as Eldavin with that. Bribes, sexual attraction, offers of land, and so on.

I could do this for years, dripping knowledge towards her. My promise to Ryoka matters more, though. The dual full moons are coming up…I have too much to do and not enough time!

Eldavin was worried, but he decided there was no help for it. He cleared his throat as Valeterisa and he hunted for a passage explaining the nuances of spell crafting in the illusion school to include auditory and olfactory senses that he knew was in there in the pile of books (five down, second stack), and spoke.

“Archmage Valeterisa. I was wondering if we might come to an…understanding. In truth, there is a little bit of magical theory that Wistram has lost that I think might be entirely useful. However, it is the culmination of my studies, and I would like to discuss its sharing, even with an Archmage of the faction we both occupy, you understand.”

Her eyes widened. Eldavin sighed, yet he was resolute. This was no time for half-measures anymore.

It was time to throw a Volcano Slime into a forest of Treants, to use an old, and now fairly regrettable saying. Compared to what was coming up—this wasn’t even the big gamble.

“As I have repeatedly stated, I will fully compensate any magical knowledge you can share to the best of my abilities, Eldavin. Note to self: sexual appeal effective? Yes/no? Further testing required.”

She said that last part out loud, and then blinked at him. Eldavin blinked back.

“Assign ‘no’ to that hypothesis, please. I am simply in need of assistance.”

Ah. What do you require, then?”

Valeterisa waited. Unlike Viltach or Doroumata, Teriarch could just say what he wanted. Refreshingly simple. Valeterisa lived like the very same logical circuits that made up the Earther’s computers and technology.

As he spoke, Eldavin got up and walked to the large, very impressive windows and balcony of his new apartments. They overlooked the sea and beyond, the ocean past the bubble of calm. He placed two hands behind his back as Valeterisa watched, keenly interested.

“I believe you have your own information sources in Wistram, Valeterisa. So perhaps you know that a certain High Mage Merzun attempted to acquire some Earthers from an inn in Liscor.”

Valeterisa’s eyes flickered as Eldavin glanced over his shoulder. It was uncanny, really. She used a variation of the same memory spells he employed. It was just smart magic—neatly filing information, splitting her mind. He had heard she ran into the same trap that had killed many [Mages] of course. Ryoka had saved her life. Perhaps it was strange how these connections came about, but Teriarch—Eldavin—had long since learned to see how these patterns naturally came about.

“I recall. A minor incident. The Mage Montressa du Valeross was summarily expelled, Mage Bezale cautioned by her faction; Ullsinoi declined to caution Mage Palt. High Mage Merzun failed to acquire Earthers, citing extraordinary circumstances and dangers of Xrn, Pallass. Ullsinoi lodged formal complaint against Revivalist faction. Issue under debate.”

“Succinctly put. I was only made aware of this incident a few days ago myself. I…consider it emblematic of the problems facing Wistram.”

“Clarify?”

Eldavin nodded.

“Morally fraught, but also politically inexpedient. Moreover, this…squabbling between factions is not conducive to unity or a greater understanding of Earth for all.”

“I would support that statement generally.”

Valeterisa nodded, although the half-Elf wondered if she was bothered by the moral issues. Well, allies did not need to see eye-to-eye, merely respect each other’s positions. He went on, smoothly.

“I have no…strong…attachment to these particular Earthers, but I do consider myself something of a patron to a certain Earther who has made my acquaintance. A Ryoka Griffin. You know her.”

“Courier, involved in—yes. I know her.”

Valeterisa blinked, her eye sharpening, not doing a memory-recall, but actively remembering. She stared keenly at Eldavin.

“You are her patron? Of course. These connections—did you teach her the strange wind magic? Are you aware of the peculiar nature of her acquaintance, a Fierre? Added to that, I would love to compare notes on her physiology—”

“Archmage Valeterisa. Miss Ryoka Griffin is under my protection. Which means I would rather she go about her life unimpeded.”

The stern reprimand made Valeterisa blink, and sit back.

“I see. Is this a warning?”

“Not at all.”

The half-Elf lied smoothly. He turned back to the window.

“Rather, it is an appeal for help. I would prefer our Terras faction to stand rather apart from these acquisitive factions. We do not need to hold Earthers, against their will no less, like political prisoners. Or slaves. However, it seems Archmage Nailihuaile, among others, does not respect the other faction’s boundaries. I sense, as do you, an inevitable conflict that may range beyond the merely political.”

Valeterisa tapped her fingers on the table, and then nodded. She waited now, as Eldavin glanced back at her. Even with her, he still had to dance a bit.

“Which brings me to my point. I cannot be everywhere. As we are both leaders of the Terras faction, and you the technical leader, I hesitate to give you orders. I would consider it a personal favor, however, if you were to take up the mantle if such a situation arose.”

“Interesting. You mean intervention in Izrilian affairs against other factions. What is my incentive for clashing with other Archmages and factions?”

Eldavin lifted a finger.

“Some factions are quite reasonable. Ullsinoi, for instance. I spoke with Magus Gaxiela or whatever they call themselves. Only the factions that do not respect our desires.”

“Izril is quite far from Wistram. I do not see the merit in leaving Wistram. As of yet, our faction has no official members outside the academy, so are you suggesting I leave Wistram?”

“If need be. To that end—my offer. I assure you, the pieces will come together nicely. Tell me, Valeterisa. What do you consider to be the greatest impediment of [Mages] throughout history?”

To her credit, Valeterisa took the question like a student. She pondered it for a good minute, which Eldavin quite approved of, and then responded.

“To simplify the answer: time. [Mages] may level and acquire knowledge indefinitely, yet time impedes even the species with greatest longevity.”

Eldavin nodded.

“A common answer.”

“You object to my reasoning?”

“Not at all. I quite agree. Which is why I am offering a culmination of my knowledge—”

Time delay spells? You know how to create time delay spells? [Time Slow]? No—a miniature universe with a time delay? I could spend all my time efficiently in one of those, even at a .96 time distortion!”

Valeterisa shot out of her chair like an excited girl. Eldavin waved a hand quickly. This. This was why you didn’t give her anything more radical.

“No, no, Archmage. I don’t have anything nearly as potent as that. Merely a piece of the puzzle. Distance, Archmage.”

“Distance?”

She looked disappointed, but rallied quickly. Eldavin stroked his beard.

“Indeed. Distance and time are conflated. Even the children of Earth know this. Recall their statements about relativity? Speed is time is…well, moving past the speed of sound itself is inherently unhealthy.”

She was nodding. The Grand Magus went on.

“Covering distance, especially Wistram to Izril, takes altogether too much time. I myself spent far too long on a fast ship. Whereas, in history, Archmages as recent as Zelkyr did not have to endure such travails. I had considered a faster route—but Wistram was not receptive to the spell queries. They had forgotten. So what I am suggesting—offering, really—is not new, but rather, old. I recall the spells quite well…”

Valeterisa zoomed ahead of Teriarch. Her eyes flickered, the pupils darting around, and she gasped before he did.

You remember long-distance teleport circles?

“Indeed.”

Wistram had teleportation spells. There was still business in mass-teleporting objects across the world. People were considered too dangerous for Fissival’s old magical grids, or Wistram.

“The Academy can teleport individuals. This is not new, Grand Magus.”

After a moment, Valeterisa looked disappointed. Eldavin countered.

“Archmages, at great cost. I believe it takes at least sixty linked [Mages] to provide the magical power and complexity required for the spell. Ridiculous! There is a coordinate-based teleport system far more effective than the one in place here. The very reason the teleportation is so complex in and out of Wistram and every idiot except the Demons of Rhir copy it is because it was designed to go through magical protections. You can use a [Greater Teleport] spell almost as simply as [Lesser Teleport], albeit with higher mana costs and complexity and casting time, but linearly, not exponentially per pound…”

The Dragon stopped ranting, realizing he might have said too much. The Death of Magic knew how to cast teleportation spells. Hence her training actual [Teleportation Mages]. He’d studied some of the battles in recent history.

Valeterisa’s eyes were shining.

“You are willing to share this?”

Eldavin considered the question from all angles. He nodded of course; he had made his mind up already.

“Why don’t we go over my personal teleportation circle? I use it to ah, navigate the High Passes. I was entirely tickled in an unpleasant way to learn Wistram had forgotten.”

There were multiple reasons for him choosing to give this powerful magical technology to Valeterisa. Firstly? It was his faction and they needed to prove Terras had something no other faction had.

Secondly, wasting time on trips was stupid. [Mages] should at least move about. Also, if he wanted Valeterisa to represent him on Izril, there was no better way to aid her in that regard. If an Archmage could teleport to Izril to slap down an uppity [High Mage] whenever she wanted, the other factions would walk more carefully.

Finally, and this was a smaller consideration—it was the door in Liscor. Eldavin had heard the Centrists might be making a grab for it, despite Ullsinoi trying to keep it on lock. If there was a teleportation spell in circulation, the danger to The Wandering Inn was considerably lessened.

That was the kind of layers that went into a Dragon’s plans. Eldavin smugly smiled as Valeterisa goggled at his sample spell circle. This would change things. Yet he was more comfortable with this than finishing Valeterisa’s research. She had been aiming for a powerful bit of spell theory. More dangerous than teleportation spells in the long run.

“It isn’t comparable to true [Greater Teleport] of course. These are just spell circles, not the spell that can let you hop between continents. However, you could hit an effective range of, oh, two hundred miles alone. Easier to hop around if you prepare ahead of time.”

She was nodding rapidly. He’d induced several flaws and inaccuracies in the complex circle to make it harder to use its full potential and waste mana. No doubt that would eventually be corrected. He regarded it as teaching the generations. Plus, it was hilarious to see [Mages] casting a spell that literally fed mana into the void, or siphoned some off to make a small, smelly gas cloud by ‘accident’. You had to enjoy your work.

Eldavin patted the Archmage on the shoulder and wandered off. Next!

 

—-

 

One thing Teriarch and Eldavin didn’t do was make any of this personal. That was why he didn’t rise to Naili’s provocation as they discussed the inn-incident over breakfast the next day.

“I just don’t know what came over High Mage Merzun, Grand Magus. She must not have gotten the information about the Earthers and Ullsinoi. Besides which, they aren’t your faction. No one was removed that did not want to go. A young man is coming to Wistram, but everyone seems satisfied, so what is the issue?”

She smiled in a wide, toothy grin. Calculated to unsettle or annoy.

Eldavin did not rise to the bait. Oh, he would admit he had a small temper at times. Yet in this particular case, he was calm because Naili needling him was rather like a little girl poking at a Giant and expecting to get a rise out of him. He had seen far greater Nagas. So he smiled quite genially, which unsettled her.

“And yet, Archmage Nailihuaile, High Mage Merzun is interfering in another faction’s affairs. The Ullsinoi are lodging a formal complaint.”

“I am so sorry, as I said. We will debate it in the Council and ensure this does not happen again.”

Since my faction is so powerful and the Ullsinoi are not and considered troublemakers, we won’t get more than a slap on the wrist verbally. The Star Lamia’s grin was a bit too self-effacing at this point, so Eldavin sipped from his cup of tea.

His great regret in his association with Magnolia Reinhart was how she had profaned the ways of tea and begun drinking straight sugar. He enjoyed a refined cup himself, and had quietly disintegrated the bowl of sugar cubes one time he’d had tea with Mage Telim and some others.

“Well, I will admit that we must do things as the current Wistram dictates. Or I’m sure Ullsinoi would have pressed their case more…directly. Which would be amusing for all. [Siege Fireballs] in the hallways.”

She hesitated, reminded that this current system was not how the good old days had done it. Before she could counter, Eldavin went on.

“Which is why Terras has lodged a formal complaint alongside Ullsinoi. I believe some stern reprimands are in order for High Mage Merzun’s lack of understanding of the situation. Archmage Valeterisa is calling for the Council to strip her of her rank and demote her back to a basic magus. I believe the measure will pass, and I hope I can persuade you to support the vote, as you seem clearly as passionate about proper conduct as I.”

He twinkled as the Star Lamia spluttered and coughed on her breakfast of one of the more acceptable rodents of Baleros.

“I knew you’d see it my way. Ah—but I’m late for my class! Let us discuss this later! Oh, and Ullsinoi may receive three Earthers from the Revivalists as a measure of recompense. A pleasure to talk to you, Archmage!”

A [Speed] spell on the feet and he was gone. Now, that might have been a bit petty, but it was not as self-interested as any other [Mage] of Wistram might be. If Teriarch, Eldavin, had really wanted to gain power here? Oh, he would be sharing spells left and right, stealing valuable [Mages].

…No. The Dragon’s age and wisdom were enough for him to represent Terras, yet enrich magic as a whole. He still felt spritely as he walked down the corridors, ignoring Naili calling after him.

Eldavin really did feel good. Why was that? He slowed, frowning, and caught sight of himself in a mirror.

A tall half-Elf. A perfect simulacrum. He felt light on his feet, he had a prodigious appetite and…he put a hand to his head for a moment.

His memory was good too. Oh.

“Of course.”

Eldavin murmured. He hadn’t had any difficulty in…recollecting things. Nor bodily aches and pains at all. Because, of course, his simulacrum was perfect, far younger in body than Feor, for all he looked older.

He had ‘left’ many of the unneeded memories in his true body, the superfluous recollections of being a Dragon. Like Valeterisa, he could access them, but the much smaller brain and capacity of the half-Elf’s body meant it had been economical to not include them.

Fine physical conditioning, mental alacrity, and the ability to eat one’s fill without depleting an entire herd of animals. Why didn’t he always stay like this? Eldavin gave himself a miffed look.

Oh, yes. Because he was about as strong as a Halfling compared to a half-Giant due to his inferior body and having to transmit his magical power at a fraction of its true power. Eldavin sighed.

“Also because if I die, I could actually die.”

A passing [Mage] gave him an odd look. Eldavin nodded at him vaguely.

Yes, the dangers of the simulacrum spell were that even if your copy died, the shock of death could kill the spellcaster. Only the messiest of deaths, really. Magical backlash and so on. It was possible, though…he sighed.

Speaking of which, the hour approached. And at the same time…a giant woman walked down the halls of Wistram. [Mages] seeing her slowed or stepped to one side, although she would do the same for them.

Cognita slowed as she saw Eldavin. He looked up towards her face and nodded.

“Cognita.”

“Grand Magus Eldavin. Can I help you?”

[Mages] watching her might have noticed that the normally impassive Truestone Golem’s face was a touch…Eldavin smiled, meeting her eyes, speaking casually. No one else did that, not to the last servant of Zelkyr, the keeper of the test.

“Not particularly. How are you today, Cognita?”

She blinked at him.

“I am a Truestone Golem.”

“Indeed, indeed. Yet that statement is a poor nothing. One has bad days and good regardless of whom one is. I have inquired and it seems you take no actual breaks. Tell me, do you enjoy the ceremony of taking tea? I could invite you to one of High Mage Telim’s little gatherings. It is a convivial gossip session.”

The [Mages] boggling at Eldavin looked at Cognita. A frown appeared on her face.

“I do not socialize, Grand Magus Eldavin.

“Not with that attitude, I see. Very well, if you insist, I won’t press the matter. You know where to find me if you change your mind.”

Cognita stared at Eldavin. A tremor ran through her body. It was apparent to all who listened that Eldavin’s tone was not mocking or comedic…yet it was rather reminiscent of an adult, an older adult, speaking to a far younger person. Grandfatherly.

The Golem did not appreciate that. Eldavin began to walk past her, and then turned, as if recalling something.

“Oh, have you heard about the Sentient-class Golem that was claimed to have been invented in Illivere?”

She visibly wavered this time. Eldavin went on.

“I’ve heard that the Magus-Crafter is quite adept. He might be able to reproduce the phenomenon. Do you recall the competitors of your master, Zelkyr? Wouldn’t you say Femithain of Illivere might echo the [Golem Artificers] right about oh, Zelkyr’s fourth decade?”

“I do not speculate about world affairs—Eldavin. Goodbye.”

She turned. The half-Elf sighed as the Truestone Golem walked through the ranks of [Mages]. Haughty and aloof. As bad a child as Ryoka Griffin.

He’d actually tried to engage her in conversation. Yet with how all of Wistram treated her, no wonder she’d shrugged him off.

It did not occur to Eldavin that Cognita’s refusal might have had to do with more than her status in Wistram, and her attitude towards him in particular. The Dragon pursed his lips, watching her go. It would be so much easier if he could just talk with her, but she was impossible to talk to privately! Too many ears around…politics.

Well. He turned and walked on his way, sighing. He’d made four attempts so far. Eldavin headed to a personal tutoring session with a small group of the students he’d picked up. That young man with the false name—both of them. Calac Crusand and Trey Atwood. Well, the entire group of students was rather extraordinary. Far more promising first-years than the other students years ahead.

Eldavin ran them through the basics, then took aside the young man with the [Warrior] class to show him how to channel spells through the blade. He eyed the upgraded Lifesand Golem and shook his head. One Golem at a time.

After that, he went back to his quarters to prepare. One more day till the double full moons…his carefully-bargained for ingredients went into glowing spell circles, bubbling mixtures, and, in one case, his mouth.

High Mage Telim had excellent snacks.

 

—-

 

It was only full moons. Two of them, a rare astrological event, yet so what? The moons were only bodies of matter that reflected light. They were not special; it was superstition that governed full moons having any auspicious events.

Or else why would it matter that the moons were full at night? They were ‘full’ in the daytime too. You just couldn’t see them.

The naysayers and fools who thought like this had no appreciation for the fact that time and place did matter. The funny thing was that they were right.

When a moon was full, it was always full even if you couldn’t see it.

It was just a matter of perspective.

Still, Dramaw didn’t think of the celestial event, or bother with such childish things. He was sharpening his teeth as he reclined in one of the hiding places his gang had bought.

Dramaw, known for his biting ability. His name and abilities had actually come about after an accident which hadn’t been lucky; someone punching out a number of teeth in a bloody brawl that had left five people dead.

However, the Gnoll [Underworld Mercenary] had been resourceful and turned the bad stroke of luck into an advantage, replacing his teeth with custom, steel teeth. Serrated edges, even poison if need be. When he bit you—you felt it.

He cursed as he nicked a finger in the dim, half-rotten hole of a hiding place. This was not where he’d prefer to be, but this damned Drake city had few amenities. Their criminal underworld had all the depth of a glass of water. Which of course meant that Dramaw and his gang could run amok without the Watch to stop them, and then bail when it got too hot.

However, the prospects of meager earnings were not enticing to the Gnoll. He growled; he was in a bad mood. They’d come all the way up this far north—further still, actually—then had come back this way, barely making any money and wasting time.

His gang was small, but deadly. Dangerous Gnolls, each one capable of walking into a city and turning it on its head. Only Pallass and the best cities had the law enforcement to tangle with them. Recently though—they’d suffered setbacks.

One of their members had died. She had been good, too. The fact that she’d bit it in a no-name, border city like Liscor infuriated Dramaw. Not least because it was all the fat coin down the drain. He snarled, throwing his whetstone at a bug running for a crack in the wall.

That made the following incident all the more curious to Dramaw. One of the two Gnolls who’d come with him spoke via a speaking stone on Dramaw’s table.

“Boss? Boss.”

What?

The Gnoll snarled back. The younger Gnoll, Shank, since he had no good name yet, was breathy. Something had scared him and Dramaw tensed reflexively. Was it the Watch? Bounty hunters?

“Boss. I just saw Bearclaw.”

“What?”

Dramaw sat up. Shank spoke, urgently.

“I was in the tavern and she walked in and signaled me. Bearclaw!”

“You’re mad. There’s no way it was her. Some Senior Guardsman did her in.”

I swear, Boss! You know Bearclaw! You can’t just look like her!”

That was true. Dramaw hesitated. Bearclaw? She had to know they were here; this was one of the cities they’d fallen back to. If she’d survived, if the Watch had been wrong—of course she was here!

“Where is she now?”

“Don’t know. Should I try to find her? I just saw her from across the bar—”

“Yes, damn it! Find her!”

Dramaw sat up. He was going to tear strips off Bearclaw, but her returning was something! If she hadn’t gotten that White Gnoll though…well, it might have been too hot in Liscor after the Senior Guardsman.

He was debating how to respond to her and assert discipline; she’d fight back if he provoked her, but he needed to punish her. Dramaw was getting up when someone knocked on the door, using his gang’s code-sign.

“Dramaw? You there?”

The Gnoll’s head turned.

Bearclaw?

He got up from his desk, slowly. Warily too; he wasn’t an idiot. If this was some Watch trap…the Gnoll walked towards the door.

The gang in this city had poor safe houses, but they weren’t complete idiots. He opened the spyhole, tilting the metal cover, and stared through the plain glass hole. He saw…the Gnoll’s eyes widened.

Bearclaw stood in the dark alleyway, amid the shadows and trash. It was her! There was no mistaking that burly form! He spoke, loud enough to be heard through that door.

“Bearclaw, you bitch! Why didn’t you send word you were alive?”

“Had to keep moving. They were on my tail. Mind letting me in already, Dramaw?”

He nodded, and began to work at the locks. Then—the Gnoll hesitated. He glanced through the peephole again.

It was Bearclaw, wasn’t it? She looked like her. She was standing back, to get into full frame of the spyhole for him. Yet the Gnoll felt a little prickling of unease.

“One second, Bearclaw. Just let me check something. What was the last thing I said to you?”

The big Gnoll paused. She spoke after a moment.

“—‘don’t screw this one up. But get us that bounty and I’ll let you take half of our people and start your own group. Under me.’”

Dramaw relaxed, slightly. That was true. He began to open the door. It budged open a crack and then a chance breeze blew down the alleyway.

The scent of the street, the city, refuse, piss, and Bearclaw blew into the little room. Dramaw sneezed—then coughed. And coughed again. His paw froze on the door.

“Bearclaw? What’s up? You don’t…smell…”

The scent of blood and death filled his nose. Not that he hadn’t smelled that before many times with Bearclaw. Yet this smelled like old death. Underneath it—

‘Bearclaw’ tried the door’s handle and it didn’t move. The door had re-shut. She pulled on the door, gently, then harder.

“Dramaw? What’s wrong?”

There was no answer at first. Then a slight sound as the other Gnoll adjusted the cover of the spyhole again. His voice was muffled from within the safe house.

“…What have you done with Bearclaw?”

The female Gnoll laughed, derisively, and slapped her chest.

“Don’t mess me about, Dramaw! It’s me!”

There was no response. The leader of the gang looked down from behind the now too-thin door. His paws were shaking.

“You’re not the Watch. What in the name of Rhir’s hells are you?”

Bearclaw stepped back. For a second, he thought she’d curse him out and hit the door. Then—the figure began to chuckle. Dramaw stared as, suddenly, Bearclaw—vanished.

Something, someone far taller and bigger than even the Gnoll woman adjusted herself. The cloak she wore, the ragged clothing, shifted as the breeze blew again. Dramaw’s eyes widened as he saw and realized—

That wasn’t a cloak. That was Bearclaw’s…

That was Bearclaw.

He leapt back, scrambling for his speaking stone. Outside, someone began to try the handle, pulling, hard. Yet the enchanted door had enough strength to resist whatever it was.

“Come now, let me in. I didn’t think you were a coward.

Shank, Beilfang, report!

Dramaw was scrambling for his speaking stone. He watched the door, grabbing for his weapons. He heard a muffled sound—then one voice.

“Boss? What is it? Did you find Bearclaw?”

“No! That’s not Bearclaw! Beilfang! I don’t care if you’re shitting or in bed, respond!

There was no response. Dramaw’s fur began to stand up taller. He stared at the door, now rattling as something hit it.

“Boss?”

Shank was worried. Dramaw spoke, rapidly.

“Shanks, that’s not Bearclaw. I don’t know what got her, but get out of the city. She’s right outside the safe room. She wants me—she might have gotten Beilfang.”

The other Gnoll swore. Dramaw shouted.

“Shanks? Get out of the city! Don’t go to any of the safe houses! She knows all of them! Go to where we last were on our way here! Move!”

“Got it!”

The Gnoll was already running, cursing, when the speaking stone’s sounds died. Dramaw crept back to the door. There…he saw her again.

She was standing in the alleyway. Her, and two more. Giants—he rubbed at one eye. They looked like Gnolls. Until you stared at them closely and realized what they were wearing. Until you smelled them.

“What the hell do you want?”

Two moved off, into the street. After Shank. The last—Bearclaw—turned back to him. She grinned, and Dramaw recoiled slowly.

“It’s so hard to find people no one misses. Bad little Gnolls are easiest because no one knows they’re there. Don’t you want to know what happened to your friend?”

Dramaw backed up as Nokha pressed herself against the door, a huge eye peering in at him.

“Get—get—I don’t know what you are, but I’ll find you and you’ll regret this.”

With shaking paws, he slid the cover of the spyhole shut. He heard laughter from outside. The door began to move again, as something huge struck it. It wouldn’t last forever.

Yet Dramaw didn’t wait. He turned, and ran across the room for his belongings, and the secondary bolt-hole. No safe house had just one entrance. He was leaving. Damn this region! He was heading south, away from the Bloodfields and whatever cursed thing had gotten Bearclaw. If Shanks lived—

The secret passage led outside, through another building. It had to be magically unsealed. The door shook behind him. Dramaw undid the magic—and hurtled through the second exit as he heard the door begin to crack behind him.

It only occurred to him then, as the door flew open and he crashed into a huge, furry chest, smelling of the same foul odor as ‘Bearclaw’, that he had made a mistake.

Whatever wore her skin had known everything Bearclaw did. Which meant it also knew about the bolt hole—

The Gnoll screamed once as the Raskghar grabbed him. Then, the predator of Gnolls undid the door and let Nokha in. She shut the door, and grinned. The two full moons shone, giving her kind intelligence and strength beyond compare.

At this point though, it didn’t matter. They didn’t need the full moons anymore.

“Finish up. Hurry up. We have to move south faster.”

She told the Raskghar. She had heard about the Meeting of Tribes. It sounded like exactly the sort of thing she wanted to visit. After all—her kin were going there too. Normally Raskghar wouldn’t be welcome, of course. Yet—Nokha checked the cloak she wore and smiled.

It was just a matter of perspective.

 

—-

 

On the day when two moons shone bright over the world, Lady Rie Valerund cried out. Her skin burned.

Faint, nigh-invisible marks along her arms flared to life. Burning with an agony unmatched.

Then—abruptly—stopped. Yet the pain was replaced by compulsion. Magical and mental.

Come hither.

She knew what was calling her. Lady Rie fought it, gasping, retreating to her home to lie in waking agony. At any other time she would have heeded the call with alacrity.

The Circle of Thorns was broken, though. Which was why she had refused the other, far less onerous summons sent through private means. She had thought the Thorns of Death were dead or disbanded!

At least one lived, she now knew. Or perhaps someone was calling her to a trap to reveal her position? Either way, Lady Rie screamed into a pillow, the marks twisting, calling her, pain vanishing and reigniting over the first hour.

She did not know what to do. If she understood the summoning correctly, it would not end until she went—or she died. Her two loyal subordinates, uncomprehending, thought she was just sick. Lady Rie felt the desire to get up and find a horse, to hurry without rest growing stronger with each minute. The magical markings she had accepted to rise to her position even pointed the way.

Lady Rie was one of a handful that felt the inexorable call. Others did, and the weakest-willed or those hoping to find some purpose obeyed first.

Others did not. When she felt the sting of magic, far weaker given she had never been ranked as highly, Lady Ieka Imarris stabbed her arm with a dagger, killing the malign hex. She begged her aunt for aid and soon was grimly preparing a countermeasure.

In this case, extenuating circumstances changed fate. Before Valeterisa could even reply to begin undoing the hex, Ieka felt the pain subside. Shocked, she gazed at her arm and saw the magic fading, erasing itself.

She did not understand why—until she recalled the words of Melidore.

“Your guilt shall not touch you unless you continue; that is my favor.”

Shaken, relieved, she found herself freed. A luck that did not extend to the others.

More than one individual resisted the call, however. Beckoned by the same power—and she was quite amused by this—a certain [Witch] pulled out a bit of cloth, stitched to look like an arm. Belavierr eyed the twisting runes burning into the skin and actually chuckled for a moment.

Someone else laughed, richly amused by the entire thing, Lady Rie’s suffering notwithstanding. No—amused because of it.

Laken Godart poked the tomato in front of him. Well, tomato sliced and added to a salad. He didn’t touch his plate. It wasn’t a good cut either. A wedge of tomato. Boiled pasta, which was about all you could say for it. Some pumpernickel bread which was quite good, with butter. A few pastries in the pantry—

However, the meal was decidedly lacking. The [Emperor] had tossed it together with about as much enthusiasm as someone shoveling manure. Nevertheless, a number of dishes had been emptied.

The [Emperor] had a guest. The guest laughed, and chuckled, pausing from devouring the food as a starving man, to look up.

“You see? Thus do traitors earn their due. Fools ensure loyalty by fear and pain.”

“Or by trickery and deceit. Not to put too fine a point on it.”

Laken folded his arms. His…guest…had arrived uninvited. He paused, looking irked at the rejoinder. Then smiled.

“The desperate do what they must. This is old magic, Laken.”

“That would be ‘your Majesty’, to you. Peon.”

Instead of rising ire, his comment only elicited a laugh. The other man rose and swept a bow. Laken never opened his eyes obviously, yet he sensed the motion.

He shifted uneasily. He hadn’t been able to do that last time. This time, his guest, Tamaroth, was visible even to his [Emperor]’s senses.

“I don’t suppose that you’ll drop dead of poison?”

“Did you put it in the food?”

No, just an unseemly amount of salt. If he’d had Wiskeria’s poisons to hand, Laken wondered if he would have been able to add it. He sat there, arms folded.

“Will you be leaving soon?”

“Don’t be so hostile, Laken Godart. We are allies. I have come here, at great effort, to help you.”

The man was in a better mood, not as rushed as he had been every other time. Laken raised one brow.

“By emptying my larder?”

“Indulge me my hunger. Now—ah, now—do you know how it is to starve so long you forget what it ever was to be full? Yet time is never unlimited.”

“How terrible. The door is over there.”

Laken indicated it with a nod. Tamaroth chuckled and wiped at his beard.

“Do you really want me to leave, Laken? Lady Rie Valerund screams in agony. She will not resist long, though she has a strong will. Does she leave, you will never see her again. At least, not the woman you knew. What will return, if she does return, will be a weapon forged in blood. You would do well to slaughter her where she stood rather than stand in her presence a minute longer than you must. Tell me—do you want that?”

Laken’s skin crawled. His guest knew. He knew many things. Too much. Yet his advice had proven prophetic before. So Laken listened, unwillingly, but listened.

“Your agenda is not mine…Tam.”

Tam?

The other man echoed the word, incredulous for once. Laken shrugged.

“Call it a pet name.”

He waited for the fury. But again, the man was amused.

“Ah. You do not like me, which I accept. Listen, though; as my strength grows, I remember more of what I am. Before, I gave you only tricks and hints. Now I tell you of what you must know. Close your ears and suffer. Or would you really like to weather the storm unprepared?”

Laken shifted.

“Fine. They’re coming for me, this…group of nobles. I will take your advice under consideration. What about Lady Rie?”

A smile he sensed across the table. The other man began to gulp more food down.

“Yes. Think of it, Laken. They would take her, twist her mind and body and soul as such people do, and turn her into something for them. A method to make perfect servants. I can tell how much distaste you have for that idea. You care for Lady Rie, for all she betrayed your trust. If you saved her, what loyalty might you garner? What secret weapon against your foe?”

“There seems to be a difference between how we regard people, Tam.”

A shrug. Laken started as he realized the table was empty. The side salad gone from the bowl.

“I am so hungry. Do you want to save her or not?”

Laken hesitated. He knew all the stories. Yet that was the kind of deal it always was. Do you want to save her? He sensed Rie writhing in her bed, knew Tamaroth was telling him the truth.

“Tell me. I’ll decide.”

“Of course. All you must do is fight what they intend to do to her. Consider yourself so lucky, Laken. But for me you would not know what was happening or how to prevent it.”

“I say my thanks daily. How, Tam? I don’t have a Skill to fight what you’re describing.”

Another smile. The man sat back, appetite whetted, or at least, understanding there was no food left in the house in Riverfarm.

“Then you must acquire one.”

Laken’s brows would have risen higher, but at that point they would have been in his hair.

“So simple as that?”

“If you know how, yes. This is what you must do. Rise from your seat, hasten to the market. Bring me back something to eat. Then—”

Laughter as Laken scowled.

“—then, summon your man Prost, make excuses. Bring a dagger and potion, for both of you will shed blood. Go to her, Laken Godart. Offer her to swear herself to your service by the means I will tell you. She may refuse.”

“You don’t know?”

Another chuckle.

“Don’t we all have free will?”

“You tell me.”

The guest ignored the question. He went on, voice speculative now, dancing with interest. Excitement, even.

“If she accedes, follow my instructions as to what to do next. Then let her obey the call. If not…or if you choose otherwise…”

“If not what?”

Tamaroth sat there, leaning on the table.

Summon your [Witches]. And when the cord of her life stretches tight against the oaths she has made, there is a chance she will live. Shattered though it might be. It is your choice.”

He laughed, spreading his hands.

“I would rather you gain a servant you can trust. I would rather she lives. I can admire someone who rises after making a terrible mistake. I am not heartless, see? Do you want to know more, or should I go?”

He sat there, indulgently, as Laken Godart glared across the table. After a long moment, the [Emperor] got up. Tamaroth’s expression shifted; Laken could not sense it in enough detail yet, but his voice was alarmed.

“Where are you going?”

The [Emperor] walked over to the door. He opened it, turned, and looked back. Savoring the other’s discomfort. Then he sighed.

“To get a sandwich and a drink.”

Raucous, relieved laughter followed him as he closed the door behind him. Of course, what Tam didn’t know was that Laken Godart was getting both for himself. He came back though.

And listened.

 

—-

 

The schemes and plots of little villains. Foes, both mortal and immortal.

He had known them all. He still had them, despite how many ages had passed. Grave foes. He knew some of them not as enemies that deserved no pity or reason, but simply those who had set themselves against all. Indeed, he might find common ground with some, if they knew he lived.

Others…others deserved naught but fire and damnation. However, most of these he had watched die, sometimes by his own efforts.

His reasoning in his original body came back to him. How many times must I fight? How much must be sacrificed?

A young woman’s reply, the most unique of all the replies he had received to the question asked:

Do what you want. Help—even if it’s half-assed. Half-effort.

He chuckled at that, even now. Perhaps this was a mistake. The day had arrived, though, and he was committed to his course.

He had prepared in sleepless nights. He had studied, him, practiced, worked harder than he had in millennia. All for one moment.

A Dragon’s plans were more than a single moment, though. Eldavin stood, taking a few breaths to calm his beating heart. What he was about to do next was audacious. He well understood the implications. But what was he, Teriarch, if not one for such grand moments?

He had studied for this moment. Bound magic tingled in his fingertips, ready to be activated. Another breath; Eldavin heard voices from beyond. He would have to act quickly. The world would change from what he was about to do, he had no doubt. If he failed?

Do not fail. The half-Elf smiled, baring his teeth like a Dragon. It had been a long time since he faced failure.

 

—-

 

Incidentally, the Dragon’s position and preparations would have unnerved any of his foes, known or unknown to Teriarch himself, had they known of them.

Indeed, the one foe that Eldavin was unaware of was unnerved. He kept craning his neck and turning, breaking off the lesson.

“Er—is something wrong?”

Aaron Vanwell stared at Emerrhain. However, he was rewarded with a glare.

“It…may be. What is that salamander doing? This makes no sense. Why…?”

He was uncertain. Which surprised Aaron. The restless guest who had appeared in his rooms was clearly nervous about something, although what, Aaron could not tell.

 

—-

 

It was time. Eldavin had taken forty three breaths and he was beginning to suffer from hyperventilation. He steadied his nerves, exhaled, and put his hands on the doors.

“Time.”

He threw open the double doors and strode into the room. Magic moved around him, countless pre-prepared spells. Eldavin raised his hands.

The room beyond had only a few people in it. A Golem turned, saw Eldavin. The Grand Magus lifted his hands.

“You there. Shoo, shoo. No, I don’t want a drink. Out of the room. There you go.”

He carefully flapped his hands at the ceramic serving Golem with the tray of drinks. The Golem obeyed, and trotted out of the room.

The other [Mages] turned, blinking.

“Grand Magus Eldavin?”

The half-Elf turned, seeing the spells, the scrying orbs around the room, currently reflecting…he beamed at the other [Mages].

“Good evening, fellow [Mages]. I hate to disturb you, but I am taking charge here. No need to object…get out.”

To the perplexity of the [Mages], and Emerrhain, the half-Elf kicked them out. Then he sealed the door with a spell as they turned and tried to open it, shouting. Eldavin took a breath. Then he began to speak. It took a while for people to realize what he was doing.

Well…until it became obvious to all.

 

—-

 

“—and I just don’t see the point of this new style of dress. Lace? Why lace? If you’re just tuning in, this is Fashion Talks, with Sir Relz and me, Drassi. And I have to just add—I don’t think one of us is qualified to be here.”

“Don’t put yourself down so, Miss Drassi.”

The Drake with the monocle blinked as Drassi eyed him.

“I meant you, Sir Relz.”

Me? I’m up to date on all the latest fashion trends!”

“For rich weirdos wearing monocles. Have you ever been to a popular tavern or bar?”

“I’ve been to the best in—”

Popular, not expensive! You’re the kind of Drake who wears this ridiculous lace stuff. I want another co-host, who understands what it’s like to have a budget of silver, not gold! Lace is stupid, you heard it here first!”

There were surprisingly a lot of viewers on this segment, Fashion Talks, despite many not caring for the dissertation of Terandrian lace-fashion. Drassi had a following. Yet as the Drake and Sir Relz were about to start arguing, the high point of all the segments involving them, the image flickered.

Abruptly—the scrying mirror behind the two Drakes, which allowed them to live-comment on events began flickering. An alert began ringing.

“Hold up—we’re getting a live notification of a Drama-alarm! Wait, we didn’t get anything from Wistram—this must be breaking. Hello? What are we seeing?”

Scrying devices around the world began turning on despite themselves, much to the alarm of many. Not all, but Wistram-manufactured devices especially. Bemused viewers, but keen on seeing something as good as the Arbiter Queen, or even the Joseph soccer games, tuned in excitedly.

What they saw was a half-Elf, blinking down at Drassi and Sir Relz as the Drakes stared up at him. Eldavin.

Magnolia Reinhart at this point nearly died of choking on a scone. Ryoka Griffin would similarly nearly face-plant when she jogged into the Runner’s Guild and saw him.

That was small stuff, though, background. The King of Destruction frowned at the unknown half-Elf. So did Drassi. Then her eyes widened.

“Hold on. Do I know you?”

“Miss Drassi. Whomever you are. Good evening. I apologize for interrupting your broadcast. However, I have decided the moment is opportune.”

The half-Elf calmly addressed the two Drakes, then waved a hand over Sir Relz choking. His image replaced the broadcast studio.

“I am Grand Magus Eldavin of Wistram. You do not know me. However, I have taken it upon myself to pioneer a new event in this…television.”

He spoke fluently, each word precisely enunciated, his features changing to slight distaste at the last word. Viewers wavered, unsure if this was on the same level as Mage Rievan and his magic lessons, which had not been popular. Before they could make up their minds, Eldavin lifted a hand.

“I intend to recount a moment in time, a story if you will. A true one, however, and thus as close to history as it can be, via the biases we all share. With deference to entertainment however, I do not intend to simply monologue. Thus—”

He flicked a finger and activated the first spell. The room vanished. Eldavin stood in a void of darkness. The little illusion changed; he vanished, but for his outstretched hand.

The viewpoint zoomed in as Magnolia was saved from choking by Ressa. Spluttering, she sat up and saw Eldavin’s hand extended. Then, the Grand Magus appeared on his hand.

The smaller Eldavin held a book in one hand, and a few ancillary magical effects added to his appearance. Viewers blinked, leaned in. Now that was interesting.

Eldavin smiled to himself. He had been studying a long time. What had he been studying, he, a Dragon? Well—movies. Television shows from the experts.

Earth. Now, with all the aplomb and magical effects of a multi-million dollar visual effect studio, and the natural stage presence of someone with his ego, he turned. The book levitated from his fingers and flickered, pages of text and pictures opening, fluttering outwards and around him.

“I am Eldavin. Grand Magus and one of the last true spellcasters in this world. Only the Archmages exceed my knowledge. I dare to say that I am among the oldest of the mortal races in this world; even among my kind, I am one of the last of my age.”

His eyes were sorrowful for a second. He looked at the King of Destruction, at Perric of Medain, and he could see them, staring out of their scrying orbs in this room. They believed him, too. Because this was truth.

“I have lived long enough to remember what is now legend. I returned to Wistram to teach what I know—but that is not why I stand before you now. Rather, I have realized that there is much that has been forgotten. Magic and history. So today, I will recount to you a tale that has been butchered and altered by many. A true story.”

He closed his eyes. The pages fluttered around him, born by an invisible wind. Eldavin reached out and plucked one. He held it out, as if to the viewers. It was magical, a beautiful illusion.

It put Ullsinoi to shame. They clustered around the scrying orb, some noting the angry or confused Archmages, the crowd trying to break into the scrying room to no avail.

“He should be one of us. He makes us look bad.”

“Shh. This is art.

Movie magic. Eldavin gently lifted the page. There—stood a man. No, two men. Two…male people. They stood together, smiling, not in any particular grounded moment, but just sharing a chat, as if someone had seen them from afar, at a party or event.

Few recognized the first. Or even the second. Those who did found their breath catching. Eldavin spoke, simply.

“Much has been made of both these great [Mages] since their passing. Both have changed our world by their actions. One now lives in infamy. The other is considered a hero to his people. Their legacies…the stories we tell…I intend to tell you of the truth of it all. So then, this is the history of the man known as Perril Chandler. Archmage Chandler.”

Still, many did not understand. Yet Pisces turned as Ceria nearly dropped the orb.

“Wh—he can’t be serious.”

“Archmage Chandler.”

A man appeared in the mirror, a goatee, Terandrian clothing, a rapier at his side, bowing to a man on a throne, clasping hands with a [Knight], dancing with a beautiful woman—then a Drake, marching along with three giant, statuesque women. Literal statues. Standing on the walls of Pallass, speaking with a number of Drakes and Gnolls. Waving at crowds of thousands.

“The second is a Drake who affects magic to this day. Zelkyr Amerwing of Fissival, later known as Archmage Zelkyr.”

The penny dropped. The King of Destruction’s eyes widened. Slowly, Toren, staring at the orb, heard a crash.

A man with pale white skin and black eyes, white pupils, hair as white as snow, stared at the orb. A reflection of the woman he had just been dancing with—no, the living man—stared at her master, and then the orb. Bea, Ijvani, Venitra, Kerash, and the others—frozen.

Az’kerash looked at Eldavin, uncomprehending.

“The Archmage of Death and the Archmage of Golems, they were known. Archmage Chandler and Archmage Zelkyr, although the world knows of the former by a different name. Az’kerash, the Necromancer of Terandria. As this day marks the time, nigh on a century and a half passed, when both were named as Archmages of Wistram, I feel it is only right to tell their stories fairly. For what you do not know was that they were friends. You do not know how each truly came to be known as legends, both good and ill. The tragedy and glory of both. This is what you shall all learn.”

“Wh—what—”

The Necromancer’s voice was strangled. He reached out as if to stop what was playing on the orb. Yet there was nothing for him to do.

The pictures on the paper grew, the moving shapes growing larger. Eldavin walked into the memory. The moving image.

A movie of the past. He had quite enjoyed making it.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: This is Part 1 of two. The theme is ‘Paradigm Shift’, but it ain’t over.

I wrote this full story, 41,000 words, in one go. It’s split up because that’s too much for any one chapter. So if you’re reading along, bear in mind that the second half completes the side story you voted on.

Anways…if you’re a Patreon, you can just click the next chapter now and see what comes next. Only Public readers for a few days will have to wait. So find out what happens next time on Eldavin’s new broadcasting segment!

 

Mrsha Emotes by Plushie!

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Bobo_Boppins

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/boboplushie

 

Imani Cooking, Visma, and Mrsha Pie by Saladan!

 

Waisrabbit, Fetohep, and Corusdeer by Auspicious Octopi!

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32 thoughts on “Interlude – Paradigm Shift (Pt. 1)

      • Guess one would be place of birth, the other place of formal education.
        Same as many are called “… of Wistram”, although the birth rate in Wistram wouldn’t be very high, i’d imagine ;)

      • It’s possible to be both.

        Fissival is home to the Draconae Scholarium of Fissival, the foremost magical academy among Drakes.

        It’s not inconceivable he started his mage career at Fissival and to be from Salazsar and (later) Wistram at the same time.

        • That raises a good point: why would a dragon be strengthening Wistram and not the dragon-founded, Drake majority academy of Fissival?

  1. How did Ryoka get a ball with Joseph’s signature? I don’t think she’s been back to the Inn since Joseph made it big.

    Older than even the Djinni the [Artifact Collector] possessed.
    Regis is older than a Djinni? Weren’t the Djinni already all imprisoned before the 5 families even set foot on Izril?
    Like, Karsaeu knows the Fae and is implied to have fought Dragons on Chandrar.

    • I assume it’s talking about experience and weight of years, more than just time. The Djinni has presumably spent most of its existence confined to a lamp or something similar.

  2. is Grand Magus Eldavin making the history channel!? cause that awesome! history channel of a fantasy world would have earthers and the world over get an addiction!

    • Well the simulacrum spell clearly has physical components as well as sensory input from the form it creates… I’d hesitate to put it at the level of a simple VR mesh but there clearly are similairties…

  3. Well, this was a great surprise! I thought Teriarch’s great magic would be a ritual to outright break the magical bonds keeping Cognita a slave of Zelkyr. Turns out it’s about breaking her free by showing her the truth, which is so much more satisfying and impressive!

    The Circle of Thorns just being a tool for empowering a blood ritual came out of nowhere, although, it does explain why they were so incompetent: the only true goal was shedding blood, not accomplishing anything else. I’m not a big fan of this plotline and the uber notvampire supersoldiers it sets up but it’s still a neat showcase that every faction has some monstrous plan of last resort. Ironically, the Walled Cities don’t seem so grand anymore despite seemingly being so much greater than the dregs of the Five Families.

    What really has me curious is Nokha’s plan. Seems her IQ really went up if she’s genuinely abandoned Liscor as not worth the effort. But what does she plan to do at Gnollmoot? I doubt she plans a frontal assault or any kind of attack really. Is she going to plead that Raskghar can be useful allies at the “low” price of feeding them “bad” Gnolls?

    • It seems to me like she’s aiming to go there, break her kinsmen free from their inprisonment, and eat a whole lot of Gnoll hearts, then go start a Raskghar tribe somewhere…

      It may even be doable if she doesn’t run into any really high level gnolls that are suspicious of her.

      Guards on the Raskghar at the meeting could be expected not to be super strong except during full-moon, as noone of the millions of gnolls surrounding them has any reason to ever want to release them…

      • the guards have to be strong enough to deter the several hundred (maybe thousand) high level gnolls that either on their own initiative or orders from higher up l would really want to kill the horrible ancient enemies that eat their still beating heart.

        imagine parading a captive hitler on a procession going through Russia and ending in Israel.

        also the whole thing of not wanting the hated ancient enemies to accidentally get loose and even scratch a gnoll kid or whatever because it would shame the entire tribe of anyone involved for at least the next 20 years until the next meeting.

        not like there is any shortage of high level level people to serve as guards.

          • The Silverfang clan (or someone else, but I think it was them) are bringing some of the Raskghar from Pallas Jail to the meeting of tribes for demonstration purposes…
            The meeting of the tribes is looking more and more like a ticking time bomb every time we read something about it.

    • Don’t forget that the five families, by themselves, invaded Izril at its height of power, destroying every single walled city and driving out every single Gnoll tribe that had been in the north, even when both of those things had been far more powerful than they are now. That is, a bunch of humans on boats, without backup or the ability to resupply, had been strong enough to destroy massive, entrenched fortifications built by dragons and logistically linked with each other via teleportation networks. Even if we assume a whole lot of ball dropping on either side, there’s no way people that strong didn’t leave tools behind with the power to change the world.

      • We got some recent hints of what they left behind with the Velistrane. That’s powerful enough that even when it was in the middle of the harbour of the Walled City specialized for naval combat, the Drakes weren’t sure they could sink it before it got away. The original Five Families apparently had lots of ships of that calibre.

        Also, their invasion wasn’t *that* long after the Creler Wars. The Walled Cities probably weathered that as well as anyone, but the Gnoll pastoralists must have been practically wiped out.

  4. I expect after this a lot of failed attempts at other people trying to do this too in wistrum as a sort of new fashion. Illusion magic becoming much more popular but not being able to measure up to the stories he told. Depending on how bad the story is the arch mages may also attempt to brake in to stop the story but i doubt they would be able and that may just lead to a problem that delays him from helping at the inn like it seems like hes been preparing for.

  5. Okay, I really loved this chapter! There were lots of revelations, but I guess there are still more to come!

    I never thought about Regis being the one manipulating The Circle of Thorns, but when you think about it it seems, what can I say obvious? reasonable?

    Oh! and Laken, oh Laken what’s happening to you? Okay I guess he’s always been like this, but seriously he’s actually listening to Tamaroth even after I’m pretty sure he knows that he shouldn’t! And Aaron too!

    I thought Teriarch was going to announce about the Earthers, but yeah he’s doesn’t need to practice for that does he?
    I’ve just realised it but Teriarch really likes telling stories, huh?
    Like all grandparents.

    Thanks for the chapter really love it!

      • That is a valid point, I also think that the way he is manipulating Laken comes from Laken’s own insecurity about facing the unknown. Considering how Laken was tricked into this deal by taking advantage of his momentary blindness I found it fitting that he is swayed by information that would help keep his subjects safe from unknown threats. (He did not know what spell could fix the Circle of Thorns but Tammy did). I also find this situation to be the perfect millstone for someone in a social situation as him since he will now have to overcome someone of considerably higher rank than an Emperor to move forward on his own path.

  6. Oh, wow. The s–t is really gonna hit the fan at Wistram after Eldavin’s broadcast. I do believe that the other mages will not be amused.

    Also – “Some bastard like that had once ended magic for centuries and Teriarch was not living through that again”. That is a very, very interesting little aside he threw out. I cannot imagine the disruption that would cause to the society something akin to if electricity were to stop working on Earth.

    • It was mentioned briefly last chapter, when the dead were interrogating the new arrival for information.

      “Your era was marked by the end of magic for nearly three hundred years, due to the experiments your academy conducted.”

      “That was an accident!”

      “Accident? Countless millions died screaming from what you unleashed! Magic ended.”

      “It came back!”

  7. The first part had me really anxious and I guess that feeling is going to continue. I never imagined Regis would have a greater role. Though now maybe someone can send him off to the land of the dead and save those poor maids trapped with him. Hope that happens soon.

    Pirate I really didn’t like it when you exposed the danger to Teriarch via the simulacrum. Specially with backstabbing bitchy archmages like Nali around.

    Exciting chapter, though it’s left me nervous of the future.

    Thank you for the awesome work as always!

    • I’ve been rather concerned for Teriarch ever since pirate started dropping what I saw as hints that he was the next major character likely to be targeted for death (i.e. Halrac and team looking to hunt a Dragon in the High Passes, the Iron Vanguard wanting to kill another dragon… I think there might have been a couple more I’m not remembering at the moment.)

      • He’s big, he’s powerful, he’s good.

        So of course he has to die. Everything else, while a real threat, would probably end up as being red herrings.

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