8.20

The Horns of Hammerad were dead. Annihilation struck twice.

The world ended. No one had even found their bodies. No one could find them. They had perished, doing exactly what they had promised. An adventurer’s dream, challenging one of the greatest death-zones of this era—a true death-zone, which had defied an army of adventurers and an army in truth, backed up by Skills from world powers.

Until they didn’t return—until hours had passed, until a day—you believed they would emerge, laughing, saying something stupid, and holding a relic beyond imagination.

Like Erin. Until it happened…you didn’t understand what it was like to have the sky fall on you.

The fact that the Horns of Hammerad were actually alive had no impact on the truth of their death. It hit their friends, family, just as hard.

Annihilation. Despair. Comatose…

Mrsha slapped herself on the cheeks. She tried to cry. She pinched herself. She eventually got it to happen, because she was so angry at herself for not crying that she did.

Cry. Cry more! Like when Erin died. She tried. But in truth, all she felt was…numb. It was too much. The sadness, the loss—her heart couldn’t deal with it twice in such short succession, so it gave up.

She would have lain there, attacking herself for not grieving, but like last time, Ulvama would just have bothered her. So this time, Mrsha moved. She stumbled around, not having slept. However, the Goblin had taught her something. A second something.

All three of them had. The inn, in the day after the Horns of Hammerad never returned from the Village of Death, was silent. Mourning.

The rest of the world, uncharitably less so. Word of the Helm of Fire’s recovery spread far and wide, not to mention what people were claiming might be an adamantium sword—or better—along with various treasures adventurers had carried from defeated undead.

The news was all Noass and Sir Relz interviewing adventurers. They struck a sympathetic tone towards the casualties, but the Drakes clearly considered the raid a success, all told. Adventurers died.

It was the inn where those who knew the Horns mourned. However, amid the desolation, the bleak faces of Ishkr, Imani, Palt, Kevin, and the others—

There they were. The three Goblins ate, talked quietly, and got to work. Mrsha watched them.

Rags, the tiny thought-thief and [Chieftain] wearing armor, always looking down on people her height.

Calescent, the portly Hob who smelled of good things and had the death-spice.

And of course, Ulvama, the evil, poking, greedy…[Shaman] who was sometimes nice.

All of them walked and moved, not without care, but more like people walking in spite of a hole in their stomachs. They cut a contrast to Numbtongue. Mrsha understood that in some way, this was ‘Goblin’.

So what did Goblins do? Well, interestingly, it was Ulvama who did what Mrsha understood to be her job: she took care of people.

That meant making sure a certain pair of Drakes didn’t die from choking in their own vomit, among other things. As Mrsha woke up, she saw Ulvama adjusting the passed-out Drake who’d cried and drunk herself insensible. Selys. Joined by Drassi, who had also been emotionally destroyed by covering the battle. Ulvama, wrinkling her nose, kept prodding parts of the sewage and drying it up with the tip of her staff, turning it to scentless powder.

For that, Ulvama was in Ishkr’s good books for the week. Mrsha on the other paw saw Ulvama poking Selys as the Drake woke up, refusing to let her wallow—and taking away the bottle. Mrsha realized what she was doing, and began poking Selys too.

Enough!

The Drake screamed in Mrsha’s face. Mrsha, wide-eyed, scrambled back. Selys’ fury turned to guilt.

“I’m sorry, Mrsha! I didn’t mean—”

Ulvama calmly whacked Selys across the head with her staff. A lot harder than she hit Mrsha, but Selys was an adult. The Drake spent the next five minutes clutching at her head.

Mrsha didn’t leave her. She had to be a big girl. Selys was the Drake in trouble because she had liked Pisces (probably?) and felt guilty because the Horns had gone to the village at her request. She had to help Selys. And because she helped Selys, she thought of that more than…than…sad things.

Part of Mrsha didn’t believe they were dead. How could someone kill Yvlon when she was angry? There were no bodies. They’d be in some coffin, like when Ceria had survived, in Erin and Ryoka’s stories. They might be alive. Eating…eating zombies that Pisces made edible or something.

Believe in that.

 

—-

 

Rags also believed the Horns might be alive. She had been there when they pulled Ceria out of a coffin. If they were dead…

They had made their choice. So she made hers. She walked around The Wandering Inn, feeling odd after having stayed a night in the comfy beds, eating breakfast.

“What is the plan, Chieftain?”

Calescent’s voice was low, but he glanced at Ulvama, ministering to Selys like…well, almost kindly. Rough love, but it was there. She was even letting Mrsha help.

The sight was so at odds with Rags’ impression of Ulvama, it made her reconsider. She had been leaning towards refusing Ulvama’s request to join her in Goblinhome. [Shaman] or not, she had been part of Tremborag’s inner council and Rags had hated the Mountain City Tribe’s ways.

On the other claw…hand…whatever. This. Rags studied Ulvama.

“Maybe her.”

“And him?”

Calescent eyed the garden’s door, beyond which the fourth Goblin had not yet emerged for breakfast. Rags shook her head.

“Doubt it.”

The [Spice Chef] nodded to himself. Numbtongue was an invaluable ally, but neither Goblin missed how—broken—he was. Some of the other Goblins in Goblinhome were like that, after the battle at Liscor. They had seen too many Goblins die.

Even a few Redfangs had gone that way. None had died, because Goblins wouldn’t allow that.

They just weren’t warriors, anymore. They helped make clothing, pottery, learned something else. Those Goblins were done with fighting. Done with death.

It might be kinder to take Numbtongue. Especially if Pyrite is in him. Rags was still shaken by that revelation. However, she thought he might belong here. Same with Ulvama. The only reason Rags might not take her back was because the [Shaman] was more useful here, keeping Numbtongue healthy. She could even, apparently, enter Liscor and shop without being killed on-sight. Maybe they could replace Rabbiteater with her as their shopping liaison?

Then again, Rags had those convenient rings. They would be super-useful. She’d talk with Ulvama, more civilly this time. See what she could get from Liscor; head back to Goblinhome.

She had seen the Horns fail. They had succeeded in a way. They had gotten this ‘Helm of Fire’, which Rags really wanted to see. However, they had failed in another way that they were not here. Dead or missing in action—

How were they going to heal Erin now? Pisces had a plan, or the Horns did. In lieu of their return, the loot was being divided up. Selys actually roused herself for that fight, and it was going to be a fight over the dividing of spoils, identification, and so on.

Not to mention allocating money for the dead. It turned out…that the wills of three of the four Horns of Hammerad were made out to ‘The Wandering Inn’, and ‘Erin Solstice’ or other inhabitants. Pisces had no wish to send money back to his family. Ceria had left her possessions to her teammates or the inn, also far from home. Ksmvr had no family or Hive.

Only Yvlon had bequeathed her possessions to her brother and family. As their wills came in and their shares of the treasure were negotiated…Mrsha kept hugging Selys, burying her face against the Drake’s scales. Because Selys had to be strong.

Rags listened to the quiet talking with one ear as she glanced around the inn.

“…No bodies found. No sign of them.”

Her ears perked up at a conversation between an adventurer and Selys. Bevussa, of all people! The Garuda stared at Rags.

Rags waved back. The Gold-rank Captain turned to answer Selys, stumbling over her words.

“They might be alive. I’ve known adventurers to survive worse, Selys. If they aren’t…[Scrying] spells can’t find…?”

The Drake shook her head, looking sick.

“I asked. It doesn’t work on the…dead. Besides which—magic fails in the Village of the Dead, remember? Someone tried. No luck.”

Which of course was because the [Scrying] spell was out of range. No one knew that, however. The [Scrying] spell could have found the Horns anywhere within a thousand miles of where it was targeted. Who would bother to expand that radius?

The point was for Rags, the raid’s outcome had become a purely non-Goblin matter. As in—no Goblin was getting the loot, her tribe benefitted not at all from the outcomes unless Selys wrangled the Helm of Fire by some miracle from the loot pool.

She had bigger fish to fry. Or rather, Calescent did. She watched him hurry into the kitchen to play with all the cooking tools and recipes Imani had given him. He watched an adventurer raid and his first thought was ‘let’s make some spicy breaded fish’!

Some people. Rags shook her head. She had bigger fish to fry.

And smaller rats to catch. She narrowed her eyes and went prowling back upstairs. Rags opened the door to Erin’s room, stopped, and stared at the chessboard.

“Hm.”

She sat down and inspected the very odd message on the board. Now, this wasn’t a chess game. What did those black-and-white stones spell with the chess pieces?

undrstd. Snding. Kp sfe. What?”

Rags scratched at her head. Just when she picked up the common language, they had to use stupid…she glanced around.

“Hmm.”

 

—-

 

Niers Astoragon swore ten kinds of curses as he hid behind a mug or pot or something on the nightstand. Of all the times for that Goblin to walk in! Not least before he’d been able to erase the messages!

Worse still, she was looking around. Sniffing the air. Then—Rags began casually walking around the room, checking under the bed, patting the sheets…

Looking for him. The Titan cursed and slowly edged around the cup. Had she sensed him using Skills yesterday? That was not a [Strategist]’s regular ability! Then again—she was a Chieftain! Goblins and their damn abilities!

Garden door? Niers looked around. He did not want to have to kill that Goblin. Of course, that was a last resort. However, her spotting him might complicate things. He did not like random variables in a battle, and his secrecy mattered now that everyone knew he was still alive. He saw Rags’ head turn.

“Hmm. Hmm. My imagination?”

She walked towards the window, and Niers saw her check it. Then the Goblin shrugged to herself. She walked past the dresser, whirled—and jumped for him.

Of course, Niers Astoragon had already begun moving. He recognized a feint when he heard one. Cursing, the Goblin missed him as he dove. He fell and she grabbed, but the Chieftain’s crimson eyes widened.

What?

Rags had never seen a Fraerling before. Niers stared at her as he fell, missing her grabbing hands by an inch—

Then he fell through the door that had opened in the floor. Rags stared at the tiny door, jaw open. She hadn’t realized you could change the size of the door! Nor—that you could open it on the ground!

[Strategist].

Niers landed in the [Garden of Sanctuary] and realized he didn’t have time to be smug. Rags would open the door in a second. He could…feel her fighting to open it. But he had control. His will was stronger! The two struggled as Niers surged through the grass, shouting for Apista. He felt his control wavering the further he got from the wall—somehow the Garden knew he didn’t need to really use it!

Rags was reaching for the d—

Mrsha walked into the [Garden of Sanctuary], overriding both authorities. She stopped as she saw Niers.

Hide me! That damn Goblin’s seen me!

The Titan bellowed. Mrsha’s eyes widened.

 

—-

 

By the time Rags managed to get into the garden, swearing, the Titan was gone. She gazed around, suspiciously staring at Mrsha, but she couldn’t tell where the tiny man was!

Tiny people in the inn? Had Erin…shrunk one of her guests? That was weird, even for her. But wait…Rags had heard about these tiny people. Velan had them in her memories.

“You. Mrsha. Where is the tiny man?”

Mrsha stared blankly at Rags, then gave her a look of genuine concern.

Are you alright? Is your brain running?

She held up a piece of paper. Rags glowered at her, then stomped off. She had to regroup, research that memory—and figure out if that was the same person who’d used a Skill during the battle. It looked like the image of that giant overhead. But if that was the case…

Rags would find him again, now she knew he was there.

She never spotted the Titan, hiding in Mrsha’s fur.

 

—-

 

Niers exhaled, slowly. His instincts were right. The Goblin had missed him when he’d hidden with Mrsha!

He had no Ring of [Appraisal], sadly. However, Niers was one of the greatest [Strategists] in the world and you didn’t get to his position without picking up a few tricks.

His aura-manipulation was weak since he wasn’t really a [General] or royalty or whatnot, but he could read it like a champion and resist almost all cases of it.

Fire. That was what Rags’ aura spoke of. So, working backwards and hearing that she was a chess-playing [Strategist] and [Chieftain] as well, it was easy to figure out what Skill she’d used to find him with.

“[Sense Heat]. I’m pretty sure her eyes can see body heat. Maybe even all relative temperatures. Darn!”

He confided in Mrsha. The Gnoll looked at him, wide-eyed.

Rags is not a bad person. Maybe. Just a stinking thief.

Niers laughed as he read that out loud.

“What does that have to do with me keeping secret? Or trusting her? At least she’s a Goblin. Still…”

He sighed. The interlude of safety was already ending. He looked at Mrsha, aware that those adventurers had been special to her. Poor child. They might have been one of the first adventurers she’d known who died like that. He shook his head.

“I need you to help me learn more about that Goblin, Mrsha. Can you do that?”

She nodded, slowly, and glanced towards the inn. Niers directed her as he waved to Apista. Mrsha would be his eyes and ears within The Wandering Inn. He wasn’t going to risk that Goblin finding him with a trick.

“Take me to Liscor, bee. Apista.”

He was going to listen in at the Adventurer’s Guild or Mage’s Guild. There were too many things he couldn’t get from a scrying orb or a child alone.

Apista buzzed angrily, though the Fraerling had no idea why as he impatiently waved at her. The ‘bee’ twitched her antennae.

Some people didn’t know how to say ‘please’.

 

—-

 

The effect of the raid on the Village of the Death went around the world. Literally. However, more than the artifacts gained, the threat of the undead revealed, the broadcast itself made an impact.

It inspired. Yes, the deaths had been horrific. Yes, the adventurers had fled an overwhelming foe. Some people took grief from that, a cautionary tale, a bittersweet victory at most.

Others saw only the very bones of what it was to be an adventurer. To be a story, a legend. Even a hero.

It depended on the personality.

The Summer’s Champion slammed his hands down on the table. All the little flags, carefully-arranged pieces, and the entire map of this region of Terandria jumped.

It had taken their Autumn Knights forty minutes to set it up. One of them made a faint sound in her throat as she saw the pieces land in a mess.

To his credit, Greysten looked a bit abashed as he stared down at the pieces. Then he resumed glaring at his target.

“We have just witnessed the monsters of another time! The greatest minions of a Necromancer, who put even my memory of the Necromancer of Terandria to shame! I have never seen such horrors in reality, brothers and sisters. I take it as an omen, this television, these broadcasts, not to mention the miraculous light which saved those valiant adventurers. This is the time for courage! For great deeds and valor! I say—it is time for war.”

His eyes blazed with the very definition of his spirit. His body tensed, as if ready to run off and find that ‘adventure’, even if he had to climb a mountain.

There was a lot to admire in that mentality. And just as many pitfalls. The voice and person who answered him was as cold as his nature. Logical? That was a reduction of Knight-Commander Calirn’s season. They did not always tout logic as a virtue, but cool-headedness.

“Summer’s Champion, you would have us march to war on an omen? From Izril no less? This is no time to be reckless. Or do you disdain the thousands, tens of thousands, who might die from a mistake?”

The Summer’s Champion narrowed his eyes.

“I disdain nothing, Knight-Commander! Nor would any [Knight]. I put the same question to you. A rebuke! Rebuttal…? I reverse the question on you! How many lives might perish because of our inaction?”

The other [Knights] in the war room watched as the two auras clashed. Heat and cold. Predictably…steam rose in a cloud as two temperatures met. Add a bit of wind and they’d get a proper tornado.

“Ailendamus is coming down Pheislant’s roads to attack the Dawn Concordat from the flank. They have violated Pheislant’s borders. This is an act of aggression.”

“So you would have us make it an act of war, Summer’s Champion?”

The Fall’s Sentinel was older, and struck a more composed tone than the younger seasons. Nevertheless, he had seen more wars than Greysten, and the younger [Knight] inclined his head. Some heads of seasons served for life. Others retired, but it was customary for the two younger seasons of Spring and Summer to appoint younger heads. Of course, they might serve for their entire lives, but it was telling that the average lifespan of the two younger seasons’ heads were also the shortest.

Greysten was their leader of crusades, who might well command in place of Calirn in times of war. He was advocating for just that.

“Let us march on Ailendamus’ army while it is within the borders! His Majesty will surely see the need to check Ailendamus’ power! They must be held before they swallow all of Terandria’s south, Calirn. We are not disagreeing over this, surely?”

Calirn shook his head along with the Spring’s Warden. Even the Fall’s Sentinel looked troubled.

No, no one was blind to the threat Ailendamus posed, nor its increasingly aggressive campaigns. It was just…

“Ailendamus cannot be fought alone, Summer’s Champion. I agree Ailendamus must be checked. However. If Pheislant, or the Order of Seasons itself stands alone, who is to say we will simply not become another casualty in the Dawn Concordat’s war? If we are alone, I believe the results may be dire.”

Silence greeted Calirn’s words. No one said it outright, not even him. However, what he meant was this:

We could lose against Ailendamus, even if Pheislant joins the Dawn Concordat. All four nations weren’t even half of Ailendamus’ size combined.

Ironically, if it were a century ago and Silvaria reigned, the situation might be far easier. However, the area was still recovering from the Necromancer’s desolation.

There were many coastal nations. Desonis. Nadel. Pheislant. Each one with powers like the Lord of the Dance, the Earl of Rains, the Order of Seasons, individuals or groups that made other nations wary.

However, they were all weaker individually than Ailendamus. Even combined, it might be an even battle. Ailendamus was just…big. As big as Nerrhavia’s Fallen, to name another superpower. Destroy one army and they sent ten. Destroy ten and they could raise twenty.

“I do not ignore the cost, Knight-Commander. But I tell you that each time we hesitate and let justice go undone, I feel we have betrayed our knightly-oaths. I know the reasons, but I feel it in my marrow.”

Greysten punctuated the comment with another, weaker, slam on the table. Calirn glared at him as the [Knights] watching the debate of the three Seasons’ heads murmured.

He could have said that in private. Greysten was honest to a fault. Stubborn as a Drake, too.

The two argued, but the main issue was set and the two were just clashing personalities as much as actual debate.

 

—-

 

One did not have to take part in the open war-council to know that Greysten would argue and Calirn would wait. All things being equal, they had time to do something about Ailendamus’ army, which still had ground to cover. A decision was not necessary.

So, the savvy [Knight] privy to the workings of the Order of Seasons might well choose to look at something more interesting.

Like…the least-sad Goblin in the entire world.

Least sad. Yes, Rabbiteater was the least-sad Goblin. Why? Because he was in a safe place, with people who knew he was a Goblin yet welcomed him and treated him as equal. He had enough to eat, he was leveling, had good armor…

Thus, he was the least-sad Goblin ever. So what if people he knew were dead? If Erin…was dead?

Goblins lost people they loved every day. That did not make Rabbiteater special. He dealt with it.

Erin was dead.

He’d just been told. Then, shortly afterwards, the Horns, who he had known—disappeared in the Village of the Dead’s raid. Probably dead too.

What was interesting to an observer was that the Goblin did not, as a Human might, flee to the arms of a lover like Dame Meisa, who rumor had it was in a relationship with him. Nor fall to drink or depression.

How did the least-sad Goblin process any grief? Well…

Ser Solstice! Ser Solstice! Slow down!

The gasping voice came from Ser Markus, followed by Dame Meisa, Ser Vitin, and a few other [Knights] who knew ‘Ser Solstice’. The figure didn’t stop or acknowledge them as he ran.

Ran, in full armor around the keep. The watcher checked the position of the sun. Still rising, and this was lap eight. The keep was not small.

This had been preceded the day before by running up and down stairs until he threw up, swinging weighted swords with more rocks tied around your wrists until the arms puffed up, swimming through the lake—the Goblin had nearly drowned—and over ten thousand sit ups.

If someone thought that last part was not notable, they had never done ten thousand of anything before. Muscle began to tear at a certain point.

Rabbiteater ran on, ignoring the [Knights] entreating him to stop. Some of the Spring Knights had tried to keep up with him after he’d kept running past their usual training time—but they’d given up.

He ran, feeling the pain in his lungs, his body—every piece of him screaming. That was fine. This was fine. If he kept running, he’d forget the other pain.

Rabbiteater was dealing with his loss in a very specific way. Not a Goblin way, per se, but a Redfang way. When they lost comrades, Garen had told them to train. Train! Until they passed out. You didn’t waste water on tears, but you could sweat.

No matter how fast he ran, though—he couldn’t forget.

Erin was…

Rabbiteater saw Ser Markus try to tackle him. The [Spring Knight] missed; Rabbiteater just ran faster. He’d run until he passed out. Run…a sweet oblivion of…

A figure appeared before him in the grass outside the keep’s walls, from which a few [Knights] on guard-duty watched the attempted running-intervention.

Dame Talia, who had been watching Rabbiteater run all day and been struggling with sympathy of her own, stared at the person who’d appeared in a moment.

She hadn’t seen him, despite being vigilant! She would have reached for the bow or horn she carried—but she knew the armored figure, the stern mask, the fur-lined armor.

The Winter’s Watcher stood in front of Rabbiteater, appearing out of a veil of flurrying snowflakes despite the summer heat. The snow began to melt—save for the air around him, which was always frosty. He? held out a gauntleted hand.

Stop.

Rabbiteater promptly ran around him. The Winter’s Watcher’s helm turned as the Goblin sprinted past him.

Ser Sol—Rabbit!”

Dame Meisa cried out, horrified. The [Knight-Errant] ran on.

Two minutes later, the Winter’s Watcher appeared in front of him again, in another flurry of snow. Rabbiteater saw the raised palm, the silent gesture.

He ran around the Winter’s Watcher. The [Knight] stuck out a foot.

Rabbiteater went flying. He crashed to the ground, tumbling, trying to get onto his feet. He was exhausted, but he turned. Set himself to run—

The Winter’s Watcher put a foot on his back and stood on him. Rabbiteater flailed, cursing.

“Get off!”

He shouted at the Winter’s Watcher. The other [Knights] had halted. The silent leader of the Order of Winter looked down at Rabbiteater. Slowly, the Goblin’s flailing grew weaker, even as he tried to shift the foot.

Rabbiteater tried to kick up at the codpiece. But his strength was…

Fading…

Snow fell onto the helmets of both [Knights]. The Winter’s Watcher raised their foot and the aura of cold faded. The soporific, leeching power of his aura had done its work.

He looked towards Ser Markus, Dame Meisa, and the others. Then he nodded and walked away. They hurried forwards to collect the slumbering Goblin-[Knight].

What an interesting Goblin. The Winter’s Watcher decided that the Fall Sentinel and other seasons’ heads were right. Goblin he might be, but [Knight] he was, too.

Perhaps if Velan the Kind had been a [Knight], the world might have changed. The Winter’s Watcher touched their shoulder. Many scars ached, but the Goblin King’s wound…didn’t trouble them so much, even when they looked down at the Goblin called ‘Rabbiteater’.

Maybe that was a sign, too.

 

—-

 

The world was changing. As Ser Greysten stormed out of his meeting with Knight-Commander Calirn, formally chastised for losing his temper and actually subject to a reprimand, other forces were just as unhappy with the way of the world.

More than heroism, seeing a wraith or so many undead giants, not to mention that [Sword Legend] from another time, unsettled those in power. Because it reminded them that they might only be the ‘best’ for a very limited span of time. In a world where so many old artifacts and beings existed, that was an unpleasant thought.

Perhaps that was why Archmage Viltach saw fit to take Trey into his confidence. Of course, there were other factors, one of which was Trey’s proximity to Eldavin. Yet it seemed to Trey—or rather, Troy Atlas, that the Archmage was also showing him one of his secrets in order to…justify it to himself.

Rather like a student sharing a possible answer to get feedback, if only that they were right. He watched as Viltach murmured.

“And, three, two, one…there we are. You see? Right on schedule. It might not be the Village of the Dead’s raid, but they do come back alive.”

Trey blinked at the group of [Mercenaries] and adventurers who filed tiredly into the room. Half looked like they’d seen fighting. One of them blinked at Troy, but the Archmage spoke.

“Your results?”

“Ran into more of those enchanted Ghoul bastards—pardon my language, Archmage. Seeing as how we saw that with the Village—we didn’t pursue. Mapped out more…I’m afraid no artifacts. We did confirm it’s an illusory wall on the sublevel, but we didn’t get through. [Dispel Magic] didn’t work.”

“What about the scroll? The enhanced version?”

The [Mercenary Captain] shifted uncomfortably. One of the [Treasure Seekers] shook their heads.

“Nothing. We tried [Fireball] too, and acid. It’s harder than my aunt’s coin purse.”

“Very well. Very well, Thank you for your efforts. Please, rest with my compliments. The map?”

Viltach accepted the map and Trey watched the [Mercenaries] file out. They were practiced at it. Then—he looked at the door to the antechamber as Viltach resealed it.

It was one of the entrances to the floors below. If Wistram had a lot of upstairs that wasn’t explored, well—the downstairs was just as vast. If not as protected.

And that was why they were here. Viltach gestured as he laid the map on the table and turned from the resealed door, bearing his warding sigil.

“What do you make of it all, Troy? You see what I’m doing, of course?”

Trey nodded.

“You’re sending treasure-hunting teams into the lower levels to find artifacts, books, or secret passages.”

“Correct. It is a risky endeavor, but when I saw the Village of the Dead’s raid…well, I have never seen an expedition quite so costly. The worst case was when four of my hired group ran into…I shouldn’t say. A spell trap. Quite nasty.

Trey eyed the sealed door and shuddered. They were six levels below the lowest point he had gone in his regular duties. The door led to a maze of places lower still.

Catacombs, abandoned wings—Wistram liked to expand by growing, not necessarily making use of all its magical space. Correspondingly, magical creations, undead, and other pests often infested such places.

The [Mages] responded by blasting them to hell and back—or just sealing off areas too dangerous for novices. Then they left it for ten thousand years and got spooked when a giant horror-amalgamation interrupted dinner.

It wasn’t really a threat, since the Golems patrolled the living spaces. However, Viltach had begun delving into the past, as had many [Mages] of old.

“I’ve been charting the lower levels for eighteen years. Before I was an Archmage. Would you believe I got this map from the Archmage before me, who’d been at it all his life?”

Troy blinked. He’d thought the [Mages] were just lazy, but Viltach’s map, which he made scrupulous copies of, had hundreds of passages.

“How can you explore for an entire lifetime, Archmage Viltach?”

The Archmage of Terandria rubbed at his temples.

“Two lifetimes, if my predecessor is to be believed. He got it from his master. So that makes nearly…a hundred and fifty years of hiring treasure seekers at sporadic intervals? The problem, Troy, is that when a [Mage] has access to nigh-unlimited space thanks to dimensional spells, they keep adding on space, and forgetting where the old space was!”

He rolled his eyes in objection to the follies of older [Mages].

“Worse—well, just imagine what foolishness [Mages] get up to in their desire to hide things. Some passages require spell phrases. Others were mazes. Some only appear on certain days of the month, or specific times. I recently learned that one wing higher up only appears when petals bloom in one of the parks. Not least, there are monsters within so one cannot hire a [Cartographer]—unless they want that [Cartographer] to come back as a zombie!”

Trey winced. He understood why Viltach didn’t pay for a dozen teams—and why there weren’t as many takers as there could be.

The raid on the Village of Death had shown the consequences of digging too deep. So had every movie Trey had ever watched with this premise. However, he was game to learn why Viltach had invited him.

“So why show me, Archmagus? I’m very flattered at being shown so much…”

But I’d really love to know where Amerys is, thanks.

Viltach seemed to notice Trey’s inner thoughts. The man smiled.

“Well, Troy, I’ve been considering your other request, but I wondered if, perhaps, you could help me! It was just a thought, mind, but after our creativity-session with Minizi—are you following my train of thought?”

Trey gave him a very blank look. Viltach went on, clearly waiting for Trey to put the pieces together.

“I occasionally tried animals. Once I hired a [Beast Tamer] to train some rats…but that didn’t work well. They escaped. I’ve also tried autonomous creations, well, considered it. Yet Djinni are unpredictable and far too costly to risk, and Golems? Golems…are not widely practiced these days. Much less—privately owned.”

Trey nodded slowly. Then he glanced towards the desk, where a figure had finally struggled its way up a table leg.

Minizi stared down at the map, her actual steel sword on her back. Trey looked at her. Then at Viltach. The Archmage was looking from Minizi to Trey. The [Sand Mage] opened his mouth.

“Oh no. Archmagus—”

The older man interrupted him gently.

“If my research is correct, Lifesand Golems are among the most intelligent and capable Golems one can make of their kind. We have observed Minizi can grow if she receives more sand; the cost simply increases. Consider our upgrades, Troy. Also—consider that Lifesand almost always finds its owner, even if destroyed.”

“You want to send her in? There? That was eighteen mercenaries!”

Minizi looked up, from the young [Mage] to the Archmage. Viltach gestured, looking excited.

“I believe she can reform even if ‘destroyed’, Troy. Moreover, I would pay for any damages incurred! Think of it—you might level from her combat action. I have heard of [Golem Artificers] doing so! Meanwhile, I don’t have to pay for mercenaries to hold back and run at the slightest opportunity! An infinitely regenerating, intelligent Golem that we can adapt to any threat! Why—why it’s genius! It’s like—”

A skeleton walking around a dungeon and getting blown to bits with every trap it stepped on. Of course, Trey had no knowledge of that incident, but he could well imagine the scenarios Minizi might get into. He protectively shielded her—but the bloodthirsty, stupid little Golem had already unsheathed her sword and was waving it about!

She had been half as tall as Trey’s knee. However, with her upgrades she could now reach mid-thigh if she got enough sand. The little ‘bones’ of mithril and so on allowed her to be surprisingly strong, and the mana gems in her body gave her a coordination and ability far beyond her old self—and she was still miles beyond regular sand golems.

Even so! Trey was horrified at his precious creation being destroyed permanently below. Viltach wouldn’t give up, however.

“I happen to know there’re a few zombies in a room two floors up. Damned things; the [Mages] were testing anti-undead spells on them and forgot when I was a boy. What if we tested Minizi against them? We’ll create more Lifesand—”

“That’s my blood!”

“I have healing potions! Just consider it, Troy. Don’t you want to see what your creation is capable of?”

Trey squirmed and argued, but it was true. That was how he found himself watching with Viltach as a waist-high Minizi punched…a zombie in the stomach. It clawed at her, biting with a handful of teeth, and half-fell on her. She struggled underneath it, lifting it up—began stomping on it and trying to stab it with the dagger she’d been given.

Viltach and Trey, standing behind their barrier, looked at…the most uninspiring fight Trey had seen. Not least because the Village of the Dead’s raid was fresh in his mind.

“Er. We may have to stockpile more Lifesand. She’s quite strong! Durable…just too small.”

Trey nodded slowly. Minizi had finally managed to gut the first zombie, and the second was trading punches with her. It was like watching a super-toddler with a knife fight three drunk adults with serious halitosis.

However. The process had begun. Wincing, Trey bled into some sand, preparing it to become Lifesand. Viltach was talking about a proper claymore and promising to track down a weapon for Minizi—who was going to become big-zi soon. Sandzi? Did he have to rename her?

Trey couldn’t help but think of the actual Gazi. What would she say about these developments? Encourage him? Tell him to take advantage of Viltach’s need for his help?

She’d probably say…if he could talk to her…

Hurry up. Trey was almost certain of that.

 

—-

 

Gazi Pathseeker, Gazi of Reim, Gazi the Omniscient, would have indeed told Trey to hurry up if she’d been briefed on Minizi’s forays into the dungeon. She would have probably opined on the mistake in timing, acknowledging the limitations of an infiltrating agent—even more than one—and decided that her time could have been better spent before reaching a point where she could assist.

Since it was not in her nature to say any of that, let alone in as many words, Gazi sat. She was bored.

Not inactive, of course. She was training herself. Since she could not easily train her body, she trained her mind.

There were enough threats where she was to make training her body unnecessary. Staying in this spot indefinitely was difficult. There were any number of variables that could lead to her dying very quickly, very painfully.

Lack of air. Being crushed to a pulp. Being eaten by a monster. Tripping off one of the guardians…oh yes. This was training.

However, it would still be wasted if they returned without something to help the King of Destruction. Gazi knew time was running out. So yes—she would have told Trey to hurry. Hurry, and say that patience was necessary too. If she had to, she could wait months.

…Another month at most and she’d try something. Trey had assured her he was onto Amerys’ lead, and Gazi needed only her location. She didn’t even need to risk anyone else’s life.

Just know where Amerys is. So Gazi waited. It was not comfortable, living in her armor. Being buffeted by the ever-present…liquid. Or the monsters.

Even reading a book was hard. Waterproofing was one thing, but trying to turn a page underwater was ridiculously annoying.

Really, if someone had been able to talk to her for an extended period of time, even the usually-taciturn Gazi might have welcomed the conversation. However, at this particular moment in time, she had only two real thoughts.

If I kill every Drowned Person aboard that ship, would I be able to walk around and stretch my legs? Do they have an on-board toilet and toilet paper?

She balefully eyed her other companion in the deeps, which had not noticed her as of yet for all they held the same duty. Well…they were miles away, further out, and her eye was very good.

However, the compulsion to murder for a proper bathroom was second to the main thought in her mind. She’d had it for the last two weeks and it was driving her insane. She couldn’t check; it was far too close.

Yet she had to know.

Was that a spellbook encased in ice over there?

Didn’t ice float?

 

—-

 

Rabbiteater woke up to find he had company in his private rooms. Someone had removed his helmet and armor, and since he was not dead, he had to assume it was a friend.

Someone else was keeping him company.

Since it was the Summer’s Champion, Greysten, not Dame Meisa, Rabbiteater allowed himself to feel disappointed.

Then he remembered the Winter’s Watcher and their trick. Rabbiteater sat up.

“Ah. Rabbiteater.”

Greysten rose. He had been reading. The Summer’s [Knight] still looked angry. Rabbiteater frowned at him.

“Winter’s Watcher put me to sleep.”

The man just shrugged.

“She does what she feels is best for the Order of Seasons. She has intervened in a [Knight]’s affairs more than once. One of my friends had cause to draw her attention in that way, once. I realize you might think it an imposition, but consider it an honor; a token of her concern.”

Rabbiteater just sat up and swung his feet off the bed. For a few, blissful seconds he forgot why his body hurt all over. Then he remembered.

Erin was d—

“She?”

Greysten saw Rabbiteater’s features close, but the question still came out. You could take off his visor, but the mask was still there. The Summer’s Champion replied.

“It is a longstanding question within the Order of Seasons. This Winter’s Watcher—well, most assume they are a he. I and the Spring’s Warden think she is female. We heard her speak, once. She even removed her helm in company and we were assuredly certain of her gender at that time.”

“Sounds pretty obvious.”

“Yes. Well. It might not have been the Winter’s Watcher. They play games of deception with our enemies, even within our order. I think it is a game, however. A [Winter Knight] is supposed to learn the true identity of the Winter’s Watcher, who might even be one of their own, who walks around unmasked and unarmored regularly. Then they are truly considered to be in the order. Perhaps it’s even Knight-Commander Calirn himself and he tasks others with being the double. It would suit him. That…calculating fellow.”

Greysten was clearly angry about something. Rabbiteater…didn’t care. He sat there, really wishing Meisa had been here rather than Greysten. There were a lot more distracting things than the Summer’s Champion you could preoccupy yourself with.

Well—you probably could with him too, but it wasn’t much fun for Rabbiteater.

“I’m going to eat.”

The Goblin swung himself out of his bed, looking for his armor. The Summer’s Champion let him rearm. However, as Rabbiteater was going for the door, the man stood.

“The thing is! It’s Ailendamus. Which we’ve talked about. The army, the war…”

“Yes.”

Rabbiteater did not want to hear about the politics, the ramifications of if this kingdom fell, etcetera, etcetera. Erin was dead. The Horns were gone!

He didn’t care. And he had not made a knightly-pledge to listen to people talk. Or even be polite. Rabbiteater stomped down the hallway. Then found his feet straining against the ground. His metal boots scraped the hallway—

“I know there’s a time to be patient. But what good is patience when you can be in action! Are we really not cowards for refusing to take part in a war for something as petty as ‘odds’? We are [Knights]!”

The Goblin kept trying to move his feet, but Greysten was dragging him the other way, an arm around his shoulder. A friendly arm, but the man was strong.

“I…think…it’s not my problem.”

“True enough, Ser Solstice! It’s mine. I respect that I took on this burden with my job.”

“Good. Then I’ll—”

The Summer’s Champion sighed, his bare head of orange hair turned to the sky.

“Yet it does weigh on me. Let’s have a drink. It may be early, but some days are like that.”

“I think you should talk to your Order—”

“Nonsense! You’re one of us in spirit, if not class. I’ll pay, of course. Come, come.”

The man just dragged the Goblin off, much to the amusement or chagrin of the other [Knights] and [Squires] and servants who had been on the one-sided end of Greysten when he was in a mood. That was how Rabbiteater found himself having a drink and listening to Greysten complain.

He wondered how much trouble he’d get in for dumping his mug on the man’s head.

 

—-

 

Earlier in the day, a small typhoon had appeared inland. A freak occurrence; not a proper tornado, but a proper raging tempest of rain and water.

It had covered the Village of the Dead, but done little else. The mourning servant of the Putrid One barely noticed as the wind tore around, throwing lesser undead, but unable to reach the magical heart of the village.

The fury of nature would have been followed by a screaming young woman with a magical sword fueled by futuristic technology. However—Ryoka Griffin could not fly into the Village of the Dead to search for her friends.

For the first six hours after waking, Hethon and Sammy stared at Ryoka, who had been trying to return and find the Horns ever since she’d woken up.

She did not, mainly because she was wrapped up like a silkworm by magical binding spells. Jericha had promptly ensnared her when Ryoka tried to fly back in and challenge whatever had gotten them to a fight.

“Jericha. You can let me go now. I’m calm. Thank you for stopping me.”

Ryoka Griffin lay in the tent on the ground, as Sammy poked her in the cheek repeatedly. She ignored him. Jericha just looked at her and went back to working at her boots.

“Jericha. I’m not going to kill myself. Please undo the bindings.”

Poke, poke. Sammial was poking harder, right at the edge of Ryoka’s mouth. She stared at him. He was staring back. He clearly wanted a response and was going to keep doing it until she said something.

The woman did nothing. She didn’t even look up. Ryoka breathed. In. Out.

“I really am not.”

She knew she’d die. When her head had cleared, she had realized—she couldn’t go in after them. What she could do was ask the wind. Check the garden in The Wandering Inn!

They weren’t dead. She would know it. The wind would tell her. However, she had to leave this tent. Hell, she could scry them or something, right? She just had to…

“Jer—”

Sammial began poking her in the nose. Ryoka Griffin snapped. She waited until he went to pinch her nose and then opened her mouth.

Aaah!

Sammial screamed as Ryoka bit. Not hard. Not nearly hard enough to break skin, but she got his finger.

“Lord Sammial, please stop aggravating Miss Griffin.”

Jericha looked up at last. Ryoka wriggled, but she could barely move.

“Jericha—alright. If you’re not letting me out, I’m going to do something, you know.”

The woman gave Ryoka a cold look as Sammial jerked his hand back and ran away from the young woman, staring at her. She bit him! He looked at Jericha, waiting for her outrage, but she and Ryoka were having another battle of wills already, too important for Sammial’s dignity.

“Lord Veltras instructed me to keep you here until he ordered otherwise. Since he has not done so, I am afraid you must remain, Miss Griffin.”

“Really. But Lord Veltras isn’t my [Lord]. I would like to be let go. Now. I have to use the bathroom.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that, Miss Griffin. However, if you would like to talk about your interesting Kaalblade artifact, Lord Veltras is sure to have questions. I could take notes. Privately.”

Jericha glanced at Sammial. Ryoka smiled. Happily.

A pure little smile of contentment and satisfaction, even joy at the world appeared on the young woman’s face.

It was so disturbing Sammial began to edge towards the tent flaps.

“Well, I warned you. Please let me go. Jericha? Jericha? Okay—”

 

—-

 

Lord Tyrion Veltras was still assessing the state of the wounded and dead. Some of his people had died in the night. Far fewer than one might expect for such an engagement.

The magical light had brought wounded back from the brink. Yet far too many for what he had thought he was getting into. Nevertheless, he was striding towards the tent to check on Ryoka Gr—

Tyrion heard a muffled thwoom of sound. He looked up and the tent exploded upwards in a blast of wind. The cloth fabric shot up, then began to float downwards as everyone in camp whirled to see what had happened.

Lord Tyrion strode forwards and found Ryoka Griffin lying on the ground, still bound in spells. She looked completely upset at the magical bindings not vanishing.

Then again—it appeared to be a stalemate, as Jericha was lying flat on her back in the mud about nineteen feet away.

Sammial Veltras was respectfully standing at attention and helping Ryoka to sit up when Lord Tyrion found her like that. He saw Jericha storming up the hill, wand raised—

The woman slowed when she saw the [Lord]. Tyrion raised an eyebrow.

“I would have assumed you stopped her from casting magic, Jericha.”

I did. I—”

Jericha was fuming. The [Lord] however, was calm. He turned back to Ryoka at once.

Interesting. Why was every single thing this Courier did so…odd?

 

—-

 

Ryoka breathed in and out. Calm. She was calm. She stood up, dusted herself off, and turned to Jericha.

“Um. Sorry about that. I lost my temper.”

The woman gave her a flat look. Ryoka felt, intrinsically, that the two hadn’t gotten off to a good start…and every interaction since had not improved matters.

In some ways, it was a personality thing. Jericha struck Ryoka as a straight-laced kind of woman. She was a soldier, rather like Periss. She followed orders…waitaminute. Ryoka’s eyes narrowed.

Ilvriss and Periss had been an encounter she remembered back in the winter, Bloodfield days. Dead gods, how many years ago was that?

…Right, less than a full year. It felt longer. Ryoka still had to master the calendar, but she was almost certain the time scale was off in some way. Probably the number of months in a season.

Did that mean everyone was older than they looked? Or aged slower? She put that aside for the moment.

Jericha. Tyrion. She swung her head back to the [Lord] who had instructed his subordinate to set her free. Hm.

There were definitely parallels in Izril’s hierarchy, between Drakes and Humans no less. Sexism. Also—story tale events, like Vampires in hiding, the [Lord] and the faithful retainer… Ryoka could get into that.

Or she could blackmail Jericha by threatening to expose her probable affection for Tyrion.

Or…she could apologize and not be the nuisance she undoubtedly was.

Ryoka Griffin ducked her head and tried to be a bit more contrite. Jericha was eying her.

“You have a gift with the wind, Miss Griffin. Is it a Skill?”

“Er…”

And she was onto Ryoka’s connection with the wind. The day…couldn’t get worse after the Horns went missing. Somehow, Ryoka just didn’t believe they were dead, though. So she was just in a state of worry. Confusion. Fear.

In short, she was back to normal. Ryoka was spared from having to explain further by Hethon running up.

“What was that? Was it the wind?”

Sammial turned to his older brother. He called out, loudly enough to be heard by the [Soldiers] nearby.

“It was her! Jericha wouldn’t let her go! So the Wind Runner used her powers! It was like…a super fart! It blew the tent away!”

Tyrion, Jericha, and Hethon all turned to look at the boy. Then at Ryoka. The Courier had slowly begun to turn red. Lord Tyrion’s eyes flickered. He coughed, and then, with amazing force of will, pretended that last moment had not happened.

“Miss Griffin. I hope you are not planning on returning to the Village of the Dead? It would be your death.”

He looked at her. Ryoka nodded, breathing in and out. Just a peek? No—even the wind was afraid of that place. Something foul was there.

“I’m fine. Thank you for stopping me, Lord Veltras. And you—Jericha. Sorry about the wind. I’m…they’re my friends. The Horns of Hammerad. They’re alive. I know it.”

Jericha and Tyrion gave her the look all soldiers had. That of someone who had said the same thing. Ryoka ignored it. She had to believe.

 

—-

 

Afterwards, she sat and ate food. Breakfast. You had to do these things, or pass out, and since Ryoka hadn’t eaten since yesterday, she was hungry.

It was odd to eat in the middle of a war camp breaking up. Tyrion was ordering his people to erect a military cordon or blockade around the Village of the Dead. He didn’t trust the death-zone to stay dead any longer.

Nor did Ryoka. Some of his forces would return to their garrisons; the rest would stay here. Ryoka listened with half an ear as Hethon and Sammial ate oatcakes covered with jam, butter, and honey. It was a good meal, especially with some fresh salami and an apple from some local orchard.

Ryoka barely tasted it. She listened, stomach sinking as Tyrion spoke.

“Begin laying the groundwork for a fort. Jericha—either a [Druid] or a [Geomancer] is to arrive by two days’ time at the latest. Have them begin by elevating whatever area is most suitable. Natural walls. A moat.”

“That won’t stop the flying undead, Lord Veltras.”

He nodded, patting his mouth with a napkin.

“Enchanted arrows, one trebuchet—and no less than sixteen dedicated Level 25+ [Soldiers] armed with magical weapons of at least mithril-grade. Prepare…”

He drummed his fingers on the table.

“…Prepare an escape route angled away from the Village of Death. If need be, the soldiers will curtain an advancing force and flee via horseback. We will station as many horses as soldiers.”

Jericha nodded, hovering and fulfilling the role of [Aide] and [Strategist] at the same time.

“Yes, Lord Veltras. I will have magical armaments distributed immediately. It still won’t hold off the magical undead for long.”

“It is what can be spared at the moment, especially if all sixteen artifacts are lost. They might hold or slay a few while we rally—”

“No.”

Ryoka interrupted the two. Tyrion’s head swung around. Jericha looked offended again, but Ryoka caught herself. Tried to bow or duck her head. She head-butted Sammial.

The Lord of House Veltras stared at Ryoka as Sammial began laughing. Jericha looked exasperated; and wouldn’t you know it, but Lord Deilan, two of the House of El and House Terland’s [Lady] with Eldertuin all arrived to join the breakfast. They heard Ryoka stuttering—then talking.

“No. I’m sorry to interrupt, but don’t just give those [Soldiers], um…artifacts. Jericha’s right. Those undead—the wraiths? They can’t be harmed by normal weapons.”

“Which is precisely why artifacts must be spared. Kaalblades, for instance. Lord Deilan. Lady Reikset. Lord Eldertuin. Greetings to you all.”

Tyrion stood, executed a swift, polite bow, and gestured to the table. The company sat. Lord Deilan and the others still looked shaken from the battle.

So did Eldertuin. He sat, gingerly, arm around his midsection, though his wounds had healed. Sammial and Hethon gaped with their mouths full of food at the living legend. Ryoka felt her stomach twist more.

The dead adventurers. Eldertuin had nearly died. So had Tyrion’s people. She forced the words out first. Let them take her to task for the dead after this.

“I know. I know—but there aren’t enough Kaalblades in the world for the undead. Artifacts either. So—put as many soldiers as you see fit in that fort. I’m no [Strategist]. But—give them silver.

The nobility turned. Eldertuin raised his brows. Tyrion’s brow furrowed.

“Silver? You mean like the House of Byres? Why?”

“Silver kills undead and…other things. Yvlon killed a wraith with her arms—they’re made out of silver. Didn’t she?”

Ryoka turned to Eldertuin. The Named Adventurer looked impressed.

“She did. I heard one of the Minotaurs shouting that as we were running. Silver’s an old adventurer trick. I knew a woman who always carried a silver dagger. I didn’t know it was a guaranteed kill on specters…but few fight them, even Named-ranks. Are you certain?”

Ryoka hesitated. She was and she wasn’t. If you asked her for proof, all she had was Yvlon’s example. On the other hand—if she knew stories, and she did, silver was the ticket.

“I am. Surely you’ve heard of silver being used against undead?”

“House Byres used to sell silver-alloyed weapons in bulk. However, it fell out of practice to buy such gear. Even my grandfather didn’t see the need. Perhaps because mundane undead fall to iron or steel just as fast as silver. Ghosts? There haven’t been such threats in quantity for…”

Tyrion trailed off. He looked sideways.

“If this is true, there will be records in House Veltras’ annals. Task Ullim with looking into it, Jericha.”

She nodded, her eyes on Ryoka. The young woman winced, but it was done. She would rather arm them with the truth as she knew it than let an entire fort die to the undead.

Fierre is going to eat me for boosting silver-weaponry sales. The Wind Runner inhaled, then bowed, properly.

“I cannot apologize enough, Lord Tyrion. I…asked you to come here and people died. You too, Eldertuin.”

She looked at him. Both men glanced at each other. Eldertuin was the first to shake his head.

“I agreed to come as an adventurer, Miss Griffin. I had my own score to settle with the Village of the Dead. If I had perished at the hands of that Revenant, I might be more upset.”

He grinned at her. Ryoka almost smiled back. Eldertuin shifted, feeling at his gut again.

“As it is? I’m glad I came. For all it took—we saw the heart of that place. Knowing there was such a threat just sitting there, growing stronger for so long…it chills my marrow.”

The Named Adventurer shuddered. Tyrion nodded as well. He met Ryoka’s gaze.

“There is no need to apologize to me for the fallen either, Miss Ryoka Griffin. I am the commander; the fault for any tactical error is mine.”

“But I asked—”

Lady Desinee raised her brows and the Terland [Lady] looked interested too. Tyrion replied, calmly.

“It was my decision to intervene.”

“I still have the blame for suggesting it all.”

“I am Lord of House Veltras. They are my people. Your guilt is misplaced.”

“But if I’d—”

The two Humans arguing about the guilt of the dead soldiers stopped as they heard a sound. Lord Deilan. He coughed and turned his head, but a faint smile had appeared.

“Perhaps, Lord Veltras, Courier Ryoka, your guilt is well-placed, but assigning it seems a fruitless task.”

Ryoka opened her mouth…and realized he was right. She traded a glance with Tyrion. He almost looked amused. Lady Reikset, the last member of the group that Ryoka didn’t really know, leaned forwards.

She was from the House of Terland, and she was curious. She had apparently come to support Eldertuin, who had married into her family, and her bodyguard-Golems had accompanied her even to this breakfast.

Not just bodyguards, Ryoka realized. The House of Terland was already interesting to her because of Ulva Terland, but she hadn’t realized they had some unique peculiarities of their own genetically.

Like some magical bloodlines or even nations had unique hair-color, it seemed House Terland had inherited, well…a pigmentation of their own. Not to their skin, but fingernails and teeth! There was just the faintest green tinge to both, like a natural dye. Or painted fingernails.

Of course, to cover that, House Terland went further and so Lady Reikset had long, delicately manicured fingernails, each one decorated with little sigils and colors. It wasn’t just one color or three; each one was like a painting.

Ryoka guessed that they were enchanted, or the paint was, to avoid chipping or Lady Reikset regularly maintained them. Or just didn’t touch anything.

It seemed all these things may be true, because a little shape made Sammial choke once more on his food. A little man walked across the table, lifted an oatcake, brought it over on a plate to Lady Reikset, and, with the butter knife, began spreading butter on it. He even managed the jam. Only when he had cut it into little pieces and delicately inserted a toothpick into one did she bother to lift it and nibble, delicately.

Table-Golems? Ryoka’s head turned and she noticed two of the Golems waiting weren’t the war-types, but dressed like servants.

House Terland had a motif. Eldertuin ignored the table-golem trying to serve him as Lady Reikset looked at Ryoka.

“You seem to know much about battling undead, Wind Runner Griffin. However, I would expect little less from a woman who slew no less than sixty Wyverns and undead in the air. Most impressive.”

Ryoka blinked. Reikset’s voice was quiet, breathy.

“Er—thank you, Lady Reikset. It wasn’t—I just got lucky. I had a magic sword and…it was just luck.”

The [Lady]’s brows rose in polite disbelief. Desinee and Lord Marthos El both looked equally incredulous.

“I should hardly say it was luck. That was a magnificent blade you were using. The Windblade, yes? It’s worthy of a Courier! I would love to see it if you would allow it, Miss Griffin.”

The what? Ryoka blinked as Lord Marthos leaned forwards. She realized that while this gathering of the nobility was clearly informal, she had been allowed in by virtue of her rank as Courier. Also—that everyone had seen the futuristic sword. More? They’d given it a name.

“The Windsword of the Wind Runner of Reizmelt. Er…I may have had something to do with the name.”

Lord Deilan El coughed again, looking slightly embarrassed. Ryoka turned to him. He’d named the Faeblade? Why Windsword?

Well, everyone was as interested in it as her exploits from the battle. Ryoka thought Eldertuin the Fortress, who had fought non-stop, was more impressive. Then she realized; he might have been pivotal, but he’d held the lines in the Village of the Dead.

Her exploits from above had been more showy. Embarrassed, Ryoka tried to demur.

“It’s…a gift, Lord Marthos. I don’t know if I can show it around. It did all the fighting, really.”

“Is it a Kaalblade of some kind? It looked like you activated it. You know the House of El specializes in making artifacts? If we could inspect it…”

“I uh—”

“Is it that secret? Surely one look would be acceptable.”

Lady Reikset pressed. She was looking even more curious now it was plain Ryoka was reluctant to share it. Sammial, with dreadful timing, piped up.

“It’s a secret! She wouldn’t show me when I saw it! Ryoka said it’s a super-secret that she got after the party and—”

He hesitated. He recalled, too late, that Ryoka had told him never to speak of it and slowly shut his lips.

The other nobles peered at Ryoka, the light of curiosity in everyone’s eyes now. Ryoka checked to see if she could kick Sammial without anyone noticing under the table.

This is why people hated children.

 

—-

 

Ryoka got away with keeping the Faeblade secret. Or Windsword. She didn’t get away without showing the nobility, but to her relief, the alien-tech had more tricks than even she knew.

For one—it was bio-locked to her, or something. Lord Deilan, then Lord Marthos, then all the nobility tried to activate it after she showed them the glowing blade once. None of them could make it work, even doing the exact same thing she did.

Hah! Ryoka was just a bit smug about that. Crestfallen, Lord Marthos handed it back to Ryoka.

“A valuable artifact indeed, Miss Griffin. I can see its secrets are well-guarded.”

He looked so sad that Ryoka got the impression he’d been longing to chop down a few trees with it. So did Sammial.

“Make it work!”

He waved the handle at her. Ryoka shrugged, smirking slightly at Sammial.

“I’m sorry, Lord Sammial. It doesn’t work for anyone but me. Even if you command it to.”

“I hate it!”

He tossed the handle down on the ground. Instantly, Hethon punched his brother.

“Don’t do that! It’s an artifact, you idiot!”

“Don’t hit me!”

Sammy kicked Hethon in the groin. His older brother crossed his legs and toppled over in the way of young men everywhere.

Hethon and Sammial Veltras. Behave yourselves. You are in front of guests!”

Lord Tyrion’s voice made both boys stiffen. They turned and bowed to Ryoka and the others, muttering apologies at once.

Ryoka saw Tyrion bend. He inspected the handle, noting the odd materials, then handed it to her, having removed the dirt with a handkerchief.

“My apologies, Miss Ryoka. It is a superlative blade. May I see it once more?”

“…Of course.”

At this point in time, Ryoka didn’t feel able to refuse Tyrion’s requests. Guilt or not—he had pulled an army out, and she felt she was in his debt now, past deeds or not. He inspected the blade, keeping his hands well away, as Hethon held Sammial back.

“Remarkable. It is like a Kaalblade. But the edge is so well-defined. Not like a magical charge at all.”

Lord Deilan muttered, coming to inspect it too. Lord Tyrion nodded. He glanced at Ryoka.

“Do you know what the cutting capability of the sword is, Miss Griffin? The strength of it? It appears light as a feather. A handicap, perhaps.”

“It’s sharp as can be. I uh—haven’t tested it on many hard things. I didn’t know it could cut the undead that well. The weight’s not a problem is it?”

“It could be. The handle is the only weight, and if the sword blade has no actual weight, then it becomes unbalanced when you lock blades. All the weight being in the handle means it could twist out of your grip more easily. If I had to use such a weapon, I would lock it to my gauntlets. See? The grooves, here…”

To Ryoka’s astonishment, Lord Tyrion indicated the grooves in the handle. Of course the man was a sword-loving expert. Moreover, he was right. He obviously didn’t know the Faeblade was futuristic plasma tech or hard light, but he had a point!

Come to think of it—that squad had battle armor. And none of them had bare hands. Maybe this is supposed to lock to your gauntlets!

Ryoka blinked at the handle. That would be so smart! She turned to Tyrion, deactivating the sword for safety.

“I—you could be right. I haven’t figured out all the uses myself.”

“Ah, so it is an artifact with undiscovered capabilities? And you got it from…?”

“It was a gift.”

Ryoka met Lord Deilan’s eyes, sweating slightly. Tyrion and Deilan had both been at the party. They looked at her, knowingly.

“Can the sword cut through stone as easily as flesh?”

Lord Tyrion was still on the cutting capabilities. Ryoka nodded.

“Everything—except for magic.”

Except for magic?

The two looked shocked! What kind of a weapon was that? Ryoka explained about Sammial’s dagger incident since that was out in the open. Nothing would do but for them to see it.

The [Lords] and [Ladies] watched as Ryoka swung the Faeblade towards the sizzling edge of a Kaalblade. She halted before she’d cut the artifact, but there was no need.

The Kaalblade sheared her Faeblade in half. The end that was cut splintered and dissipated; Lord Deilan looked at his weapon, shocked and crestfallen.

“I can’t fathom it! That magical artifact seems superior to a Kaalblade in any number of ways! Yet the enchant is as weak as…is it a flaw in the blade? Intentional?”

“Does it do that to armor?”

Tyrion looked just as startled. He offered Ryoka one of his gauntlets. She gave it a try.

One ginger blow and her blade shattered like glass. It didn’t even mark his enchanted armor. Now, all the nobility were looking at Ryoka’s sword as if it were made of crap, instead of wonders.

“I suppose it is a very…versatile weapon. For non-enchanted foes. Monsters, and the like. Very suitable for a Courier.”

Lady Reikset’s polite words made Ryoka want to tell her it was a technology sword and…she didn’t. Grateful for the dwindling attention.

Also, a bit hurt. It was a futuristic blade!

Tyrion was still interested. He watched as Ryoka cut through a rock, the ground, all without issue.

“A marvelous weapon. I am jealous. Weakness to magic or not, it is a superlative edge.”

He confided in her. Ryoka smiled.

“It is. Thank you. I’m glad it could help.”

The Lord of House Veltras nodded.

“Your intervention saved many of my soldiers’ lives. I saw you protect my sons. I am in your debt once again, Miss Ryoka.”

“No—I’m—”

Tyrion ignored her. He studied Ryoka’s face, then the deactivated handle, and seemed to speak the next words with some difficulty.

“…Perhaps as part of that debt, I could arrange for you to learn from a sword expert. I myself have some knowledge there. You—do not appear to have swung a blade before. I would not wish for you to injure yourself by mistake.”

The Courier blinked at Tyrion, then slowly turned red as she realized that was his way of saying she swung the Faeblade like a club.

“I do need practice, Tyrion. I’m sure I can pick something up, though. I don’t intend to be a [Swordswoman].”

“Nevertheless. It would be an injustice to the weapon you carry.”

He pressed. Ryoka held up her hands, a bit defensively. She didn’t have time for that! She had to find the Horns, revive Erin, kill half a dozen damn Gods…

“It does well enough, like you said. It’s an artifact that doesn’t really need practice, Lord Tyrion. I mean, I’m not going to fight all the time. I can’t even cut myself.”

He hesitated. The man chose his next words with care, rubbing at his chin.

“…That…is clearly for the best. As I believe you would have severed a limb already. Improper technique for such a beautiful weapon is an affront, Miss Ryoka. If I may be blunt—I would insist.”

It seemed one of the few things that could really annoy Lord Veltras was watching someone swing magical artifacts around ineptly. However, in this, he had miscalculated. Ryoka folded her arms. A hint of obstinacy at being told she had to learn emerging.

“Well, learning to use a sword doesn’t seem to help that much. I’m a bit busy. I don’t intend to be a [Warrior], Lord Veltras.”

“So you intend to mock the creators of the weapon every time you swing it?”

Ryoka’s mouth opened as Tyrion frowned at her.

“It’s a gift! The owners don’t care how I use it! I killed those Wyverns!”

“Yes…as you said. Luck. Miss Ryoka, watching you swing that sword hurts my eyes, if I may be blunt. I must insist. You don’t even stand correctly. If I may be further blunt—you don’t even breathe correctly while wielding it.”

What?

 

—-

 

Hethon Veltras was perplexed. One might even say he was perturbed, or flummoxed, or…

Amused. That was because he had never seen this.

His stern father, whom he wasn’t always sure about, who wasn’t always there, had spent a lot of time with Hethon and Sammial. Which wasn’t always fun, actually.

However, since the Wind Runner had come, he’d noticed his father acting differently. Or perhaps it was just seeing sides of him that the boy never saw from his father in their family settings.

He had seen Tyrion in battle. He had seen his stern father entertaining the funny, awkward, interesting Wind Runner.

However, this was the day when he saw his father…well, having fun. Or perhaps that was too strong a word.

He had seen Tyrion smiling when he raced after Ryoka, the first day she’d flown. That had been wondrous for Hethon too. This wasn’t as pure as that amazing sight had been.

It was funny, though.

Hah!

Ryoka Griffin shouted as she slashed with her sword. She was poised, trying to integrate her training from self-defense and martial arts classes into holding the sword. She moved quickly, arms and legs working in tandem as she slashed fast at Tyrion’s side, not going for a huge strike, feinting—

She was athletic, coordinated, and she had seen actual fighting and had the wind on her side. Ryoka slashed.

Tyrion brought the tip of his sword down on her head.

Thump. Hethon winced as he heard the blow. Ryoka staggered.

Motherf—

She clutched at her head. Tyrion calmly set himself.

“My point?”

Ryoka’s response was to point. The wind buffeted Tyrion and he nearly staggered. She charged, stabbing—

Thwak! Hethon and Sammial winced as he hit her on the exact same spot.

Lord Tyrion didn’t even try to dodge or parry Ryoka. He didn’t need to. He saw her coming at him and hit her before she could hit him. This time Ryoka dropped her sword and clutched at her forehead, cursing at him.

“You do not know how to wield a sword. I respect your weapon, but I cannot let you claim the same. There is a difference between self-taught and ignorance.”

Lord Tyrion informed Ryoka. Hethon tried to hide a grin as Ryoka picked up her blade.

He had been very polite to her, like a guest. However, it seemed the Wind Runner had finally gotten to a point where even Lord Tyrion’s famed politeness ran its course. And that was the art of blades.

“Allow me to give you a basic lesson.”

Ryoka breathed in and out. A dangerous look was in her eyes, one that Hethon and Sammial didn’t miss. They began nudging each other, grinning. Tyrion hadn’t seen it—mainly because people did not often shout at him. On the other hand, even Lord Deilan, Eldertuin, and the other watchers could see Ryoka Griffin’s off look in her happy smile.

“I would love that, Lord Veltras. Thank you for educating me. I apologize so much for being presumptuous.”

The [Lord] shrugged slightly, lowering the practice sword.

“Your apology is not nec—”

[Flashbang]!

Ryoka hurled the explosion in his face. Hethon cried out as he went deaf and blind. He was far enough away that the flash wasn’t as bad. He saw the dim shape of Ryoka charging in. She’d jumped into a flying kick!

Tyrion Veltras recoiled from the explosion. He lifted his sword—

And whacked Ryoka in the midsection, mid-kick. Straight into the ground. She might be fast, and use tricks. But he was one of the greatest [Lords] in the world in combat.

Ryoka Griffin rolled about, clutching at her stomach. Tyrion stood over her, frowning.

“You—”

She threw the sword at him. He dodged—too late. The sword bounced off his arm. Ryoka went for a leg-sweep, hopping mad. Tyrion brought the hilt down on her head in the same place as the last two blows.

Bonk. Hethon winced as Ryoka went cross-eyed. He knew his father. He was probably not pulling his blows. Ryoka lay back down on the ground. Tyrion opened his mouth.

A gale of wind blew him across the ground. Hethon saw Ryoka get up. His father caught himself, and his boots locked him to the ground. He strode forwards, scowling.

“Enough. This is childish—”

“Catch.”

Ryoka tossed something at him. Tyrion saw the jar flying at him, pivoted, and whirled.

He slashed the jar in half, avoiding the contents, and walked past, striding towards her. The liquid flashed into the air—

And the wind blew it across his back. It still didn’t reach him. Not quite; the liquid splashed against a barrier in the air. Proof against the kind of acid-jar attacks that could easily humble even the greatest adventurers who were careless.

However…the liquid didn’t need to touch him to work. Hethon gagged as the worst stink in the world filled his nose. It splashed around Tyrion and he recoiled, putting a hand to his nose. He looked at Ryoka. She smirked at him. Then—

He brought the sword down on her forehead.

 

—-

 

She was taking sword-lessons. The truth was she probably could use them. However, it was the delivery that had ticked her off.

Well—well—mistakes had been made. Ryoka’s head still hurt, despite the healing potion. Yet she was willing to let bygones be bygones.

She…didn’t quite look at Tyrion Veltras as he stared at her from where Jericha was trying to de-stink his armor. He could be damned stubborn and he’d hit her five times in the same spot!

Ryoka could acknowledge she had gone a bit far in return, though. Showering him with a stink potion and then getting the wind to blow mud around him and onto his pristine armor and clothes? Bit much.

Tossing the Pepperspray Potion as well had probably been the step too far. She’d deserved that last hit.

“Um. I do need to uh, leave for a bit. I’ll come back to take those lessons! I just…need to visit the Mage’s Guild. So I’m going to do that. Sorry about the armor.”

The Lord of House Veltras stared at her. Ryoka began to back up. Several of House Veltras’ soldiers, who did not appreciate watching their liege-lord covered in mud—or the smell or stinging Pepperspray in the air—blocked Ryoka’s path.

However, Lord Tyrion eventually replied.

“If you need to send a [Message], Jericha is more than capable of obliging the request. A Mage’s Guild may relay your words.”

“Oh. I, uh—well, it’s private.”

Tyrion might have given her a polite response. Before the stink bomb. He just folded his arms.

“Jericha is discreet. A Mage’s Guild is more private in how it handles your [Messages]? A [Scribe] will take it down, a [Mage] may read it—copy it and sell it. Whereas Jericha can send a [Message] directly or ensure House Veltras correspondence is kept private.

“…Okay. Good point.”

Ryoka reconsidered. Honestly, she was more impressed that Tyrion wasn’t ordering his people to kick her repeatedly before exiling her from his sight permanently.

She…had not considered the ramifications of stink-bombing one of the leaders of the Five Families. She’d been sort of angry. Sort of stressed. It had been a bad day.

Somehow, Ryoka felt a bit better. The Horns were…the raid had been…

She focused up and sobered as Jericha walked over with a bright, Ryoka-like smile that told Ryoka her sins were rapidly accumulating in Jericha’s eyes.

“I would be delighted to help you however I may, Miss Griffin. What do you need?”

Ryoka smiled uncertainly.

“Um—I was going to pay for a [Scrying] spell for the Horns—”

“Already tried. They cannot be found.”

Jericha saw the Runner hesitate. Ryoka bit her lip.

“Then—a [Message] to—”

“That was tried by their fellow adventurers repeatedly through the night. Also in failure. They may be in a place where the spell does not reach them, but it has already been thought of.”

You idiot. Jericha didn’t say that last bit, but Ryoka heard it all the same. However, the Courier surprised her with the third request.

“Okay. Fine. If they’ve tried all that for the Horns, could you send a [Message] to The Wandering Inn, in Liscor? Um—Mage Montressa du Valeross? I need to ask her something.”

 

—-

 

Tyrion was amazed at his temper. It had not been appropriate, but he’d been outraged by Ryoka’s disregard for the weapon she carried.

He felt, intrinsically, it was a fine warrior’s weapon. It had no ornamentation, it was functional; he admired that more than filigree or flashiness. To see her use it so poorly had annoyed him.

Her response had been—unique. He still smelled that foul odor, despite Jericha’s attempts to disperse it.

Tyrion did not let his servants clean his armor. He did it himself, and quickly washed his skin to remove more of that stink. When Jericha found him, he had re-donned his armor.

“Milord Veltras. I have delivered Miss Griffin’s requests, but she may need to visit a Mage’s Guild after all. I have taken the liberty of contacting the closest guild able to fulfill her requests. They will send a rider to meet her.”

Tyrion turned. That Jericha was unable to do everything surprised her.

“What did she need?”

“Among other things? She requested communication with a Mage Montressa du Valeross in The Wandering Inn in Liscor. She inquired after…statues of her friends, the Horns of Hammerad, hence a desire for more [Scrying] or specific searching spells I do not possess. It appears there may be a way to tell if they are living or dead. She said—”

Jericha.

The aide halted at the tone in Tyrion’s voice. He was looking at her. She hesitated, lowering her notes.

“Lord Veltras? I was only—”

“Jericha, I just informed Miss Griffin you would be more confidential and trustworthy than a Mage’s Guild. I would not gainsay that.”

The woman was crestfallen.

“Yes, Lord Veltras. But she—”

“Enough, Jericha. If it is information that may protect House Veltras or I need to know, tell me. Do not compromise the integrity of House Veltras.”

The woman stared at Tyrion’s back as he turned away. She looked over her shoulder at the opening where Ryoka was poised to fly off and grab what she needed; promising to return. The same woman who had just skunk-sprayed half the camp, gotten House Veltras to commit to a costly engagement, and…

Jericha too snapped. This was not a day of politeness and usual actions. She spoke.

“She requested Mage Montressa to check for the statues in the [Garden of Sanctuary], which exists in The Wandering Inn. There are statues on the hill which will reveal if the Horns are dead by their presence. Furthermore, she decided after that to contact other friends of an ‘Erin Solstice’, a young woman who is apparently neither living nor dead, to aid her.”

Lord Veltras turned back around, slowly. Jericha met his eyes. The Lord hesitated, then folded his arms and took a seat.

“Proceed.”

This was unlike Jericha, so Tyrion listened. Jericha went on.

“I do not know what spell tracked her during the battle, but it was almost certainly Tier 5 or higher, Lord Veltras.”

He’d almost forgotten that eye in the skies. Lord Veltras closed his eyes, frowning.

“Who is she? Does she hail from Drath?”

Jericha snapped her pocket notebook closed. She looked up at him.

“I don’t know, Lord Veltras. However, I can tell you something else interesting, if it isn’t improper?”

“…Proceed.”

Jericha’s eyes flashed.

“That Windsword she carries? It is either an artifact beyond my understanding. Or…it isn’t magic at all.”

Tyrion Veltras sat back. He looked at Jericha, and then thoughtfully turned to his own small collection of armaments he’d been polishing.

Of course, he’d realized that too. Idle curiosity sharpened in his mind. He had some questions for the savior of his children. Questions that had turned from mere gratitude to a feeling he had stumbled onto a mystery.

It was just as well that when they had dismantled the camp, for once, the Wind Runner didn’t fly off. She travelled with them.

 

—-

 

Someone had once explained that ‘drown your sorrows’ didn’t mean sticking your head underwater, but drinking.

Rabbiteater still didn’t get it. Drinking…didn’t stop you from remembering. If anything, it made it worse because now you were drunk and sad.

However, he supposed it was something to do. Maybe the goal was drinking until you passed out? But if that was the case, why not exercise until you did that? Or just hit yourself with a rock?

He might have still found it convivial and soothing—but for the company he kept.

“So, back to Ailendamus. What do you think the Order of Seasons should do?”

Greysten interrupted Rabbiteater’s train of thought. He mentioned the same nation on everyone’s lips. Irked now, Rabbiteater looked up.

Thirty minutes of listening to Greysten grouse about Calirn and the exigencies of war had soured the alcohol. Now, he was being asked for advice.

“I don’t know. Go to war?”

“But what about Calirn’s worries?”

“No clue. Are they good worries?”

The Summer’s Champion heaved a huge sigh.

“They are! But should they halt the Order of Season’s plight?”

I don’t know. Why don’t you stop asking me. This is the twelfth time.”

The Summer’s Champion gave Rabbiteater a hurt look. The Goblin [Knight] didn’t care.

He was rarely in a bad mood. But this was not a nurturing day. Moreover, he was tired of the Summer’s Champion bothering him.

He wanted to be alone. If he couldn’t run, he was going to find a place where not even Greysten or people who wanted to talk could bother him.

The library. Books were soothing. Rabbiteater liked to sleep with them around. Moreover, the Knights of Autumn were a law unto their own. Someone as noisy as Greysten was exiled from their season’s halls.

He was trying to make his escape, but Greysten was insistent.

“I am coming to you for advice, Rab—Solstice! Surely you have some input. I could use it, if only to rebuke Calirn!”

The Goblin shook his head, exasperated.

“I am not a season-knight. Go ask one of them.”

He stood up and began to walk out of the booth. That was the trick. Just walk away from people, even bothersome ones. It was rude, but it would w—

“Oh, come now. I’m asking you for your input. Your…people’s input. Don’t go!”

Rabbiteater kept walking but he couldn’t pull out of Greysten’s friendly grip. Exasperated, Rabbiteater swung around.

“Okay. Fine. You want Goblin advice?”

The Summer’s Champion blinked up at him as Rabbiteater leaned in. The Goblin looked around, flipped up his visor, and glowered at the man.

Stop worrying. Go do it or don’t! Goblins don’t waste time. If the enemy is over there, go over and hit them or ambush them or do something. Or run away! There! Goblin advice given. Goodbye.”

He stomped off. Everyone wanted him for ‘Goblin advice. His people’s perspective. The Fall’s Sentinel was like that; even Ser Markus asked about Goblin techniques. Rabbiteater was starting to think they just saw him as a Goblin, not Rabbiteater. It was sort of rude. He didn’t see Greysten thoughtfully sit back in his booth. If he had seen how much the Summer’s Champion liked the advice—

Rabbiteater might have gotten a bit worried.

 

—-

 

In The Wandering Inn, friends of the Horns of Hammerad were processing their disappearance with all the mortal reactions imaginable.

Denial. Grief. Acceptance in order to function. Refusing to confront the issue fully.

They were dead? They weren’t dead?

Ryoka Griffin’s idea to check the Garden of Sanctuary led to a group of people searching the statues there, trying not to look at the frozen young woman.

Montressa saw Isceil…but no Horns. She cried anyways. From relief, this time.

Hope.

Yet they didn’t know where their friends were. Their fates might well be in jeopardy, hiding in a coffin eating zombies, like Mrsha now firmly believed and began telling everyone was the case.

That was what people did. When they were uncertain, they speculated.

So as it happened, while the people in the inn were processing the event, the Antinium of Liscor were going through a crisis of faith.

Or…the opposite of a crisis. A relaxment of faith? Pawn was uncertain. He didn’t know a lot of things.

However, he believed. His faith wavered, but from time to time he saw the living proof of his belief made manifest.

That—made it all worth it. That gave him faith in Heaven. That he was doing something right.

All the Antinium had seen it. The two holy guardians who had stepped out of the sky. Not raving Aberrations, not the nightmares of what they might sink to. Something else had come, summoned as they prayed.

Workers. Pawn thought he had known them. He thought he had called them.

“Their names were Knight and Bishop. They chose them, as I did, in moments. You have never met them, most of you. They had no markings we could paint on the walls. So: remember their names. They were the first of us. They will not be the last. Nor will they be forgotten. They are in a better place. The best place. Believe in that. What we do matters.”

He gave his sermon to the Antinium. Some knelt in armor, a warrior-caste of their own. Others were changing their beliefs from simple hope in something new, to a truer faith.

[Believer]. [Faithful]. [Faith Seeker]. [Crusader].

His two [Acolytes] roamed the aisles, passing out Garry-bread. Better than mana from the heavens because Antinium weren’t allergic to it.

Believe. Pawn clasped his hands. The Skill in him had shifted. Now he understood.

I am capable of the same wrath as before. I am also able to change.

The Pawn that had cursed Hectval and summoned Aberrations was the same Pawn who had prayed for a miracle and received one. All the Antinium had seen it, and their fear of him had turned back to hope.

He was grateful for that. He was still a [Doomspeaker Priest]—but perhaps that might change the next time his class changed. He had asked for wrath and received it.

I should pray for something to make people better, not a weapon.

Both were useful. Pawn felt the Hive changing around him. Tersk had begun attending these sermons, along with some of the other Hive’s Antinium. They had all witnessed the miracles.

Similarly—just this morning, he had received a [Message] among all the chaos and confusion and pain. Someone had wanted to reach out. To thank him. And ask…to learn of what Pawn was teaching when he returned.

Seborn.

What might that mean for the future? Pawn stood at his podium, thinking. A non-Antinium? He spoke to his congregation.

“The future is uncertain. However, I have spoken with you all. We pray for better things. We hope for it. That Erin will live again—”

Click.

The mandibles of the Antinium clicked together as one. Pawn caught himself.

“—Yes. That she lives. We must believe in that. But we must also realize not all good things come to pass. So, while we will now pray they live, that they are found, that they return to us in good health and better for it, I have accepted the requests of some of you.”

He raised one hand upwards, to the painted ceiling, painted by hundreds of Soldiers and Workers to look like the starry night sky.

“If they fall, if they die—let the Heaven of Antinium hold a place for the Horns of Hammerad. Whenever that day comes, now, or in a hundred years. For our friends, for good people. For little kittens and dogs and kind things—Heaven is not so petty they would not be with us. Let us pray.”

The Antinium bowed their heads once more. This had been the crisis among them, prompted by Erin.

Their world was changing. They slept under a dream of the skies. With the disappearance of Klbkch, who was cruel, had come better times. Pawn, Yellow Splatters. However, each Individual was now changing them.

Garry with his bread and first Antinium shop. Belgrade, who now protected them with traps, so that they did not die day by day. Bird, who was Bird—and also had a newspaper column.

Lastly? The latest Individual. The great Worker who had surpassed everyone’s expectations of him, even Pawn. He who had gone out and carved his own path forwards amidst grief, with soap, dust rags, water, and mops.

Silveran the Cleaner. It was thanks to him that Pawn had included the part about things other than people in his vision of Heaven. The Worker had an apron, and with Xrn’s happy permission, had been granted a license to employ six other Workers in his new occupation with him.

That was not the astonishing thing…mostly. The astonishing thing was the foreign presence in the Hive. The aberration that was not an Aberration.

The first little kitten of the Free Antinium climbed onto a kneeling Worker’s head. Five more ambled about, followed everywhere by a group of Workers who stared at them.

Silveran had found a basket on the streets and brought them back. Of such things were Antinium miracles made. He would not have dared before Klbkch left. Or if he had—only to bring them to be…processed…into food.

Now, the little kittens mewed. Pawn smiled.

Amen. He wondered if there was another word he should use. ‘Erin be with you?’

It was a work in progress.

 

—-

 

The sky was beautiful. The Antinium had learned that, for the ones who had not gone above looked up and saw that vast, limitless expanse reaching heavenwards and realized how wide the world was.

That was probably how religion started. Wonder at something you couldn’t fully grasp. Most people took it for granted, forgetting how a baby or child must feel.

However, the one silver lining was realizing the wonder of such things again. He breathed in and out and looked up.

It was gorgeous. More so than gemstones. More than a gleaming blade. It was pure.

The Minotaur stood under the sky, not the cell that was his home. For a second, he luxuriated in it. Then he turned back to his work.

“I cannot believe you’ve let that monster out of his prison!”

An angry voice made Calruz’s ears twitch. However, the argument was distant; the civilians were kept back. He ignored it as Olesm, red-eyed and too exhausted to argue, just shook his head.

“Keep them back.”

He ignored the angry group that followed Calruz everywhere. They jeered. They called names. They said true things. The Minotaur listened—and did not.

He had burst from his prison when Erin died. That had proven the limits of Liscor’s jails, which Hexel was tasked with redesigning. However, Calruz would have still abided by his prison sentence.

He had been allowed this moment in the sun because Liscor had need of him. As Zevara had said when she argued for using him to clear Shield Spider nests or other hazards—let them make use of him. If his guilt was still in doubt. Even if not—

Strike! One, two, three—shields!”

The Minotaur bellowed. The civilians watched as a rank of Drakes, Gnolls, and Antinium raised their weapons and tried to do as he had shown them. They were naturally upset.

A convicted prisoner? Teaching their Watch—the new army? Outrageous!

However—Olesm had argued with the Council it was needed.

Yes, Embria and her 4th Company were providing their expertise and training. Yes, more companies were heading back to reinforce their city.

But a single group of Liscor’s army wasn’t the same as a master-class instructor. For that matter, he’d uttered heresy of his own.

“Liscor’s army is not the best military force in the world, Councilmembers. If it was, we’d control more than a single city! It is, perhaps, one of the better armies at using Skills en-masse and employing our unique organizational structure. In pure training and military expertise? The House of Minos is known as one of the finest armies in the world. I’m no instructor. But I bet you there’s no better expert in axe-combat in this region than the one sitting in our jail cell.”

Thus, Calruz had been allowed out. The irony was that his students were mostly Antinium. If Embria and 4th Company had agreed to teach the Antinium soldiers…they had not, obviously.

Shields! The instant you finish your third blow, raise your shields because the enemy will strike back!”

He was teaching them a basic attack drill. The kind of shoulder-to-shoulder drill you learned when you were in a press of bodies. No individual fighting; you didn’t have room to dodge or parry. Calruz had seen Level 20 [Warriors] die to a Level 5 [Soldier] because they didn’t know how to deal with that kind of a press.

The Antinium learned fast. The Drakes and Gnolls hadn’t been sure at first—especially given Calruz himself. Training was training, however. The Minotaur breathed in and out, watching his students with a critical eye.

Make the most of it. He would still return to that cell. Two rats perched, clinging to his horns like a weird hat. The Minotaur barked another order and saw the group of soldiers try to rotate out, bringing fresh warriors to bear. He would soon be teaching them to make use of their two extra arms—the Antinium at least. Using four arms in the wall of shields and bodies was actually difficult to integrate. Giving them another axe? Not necessarily the best move.

Now, a crossbow and maybe a second shield to keep over their heads while fighting? That was interesting. Imagine a proper heavy armor formation which fought with perfect unity, could ignore a rain of arrows and shoot you with a crossbow while they used a shield and spear? The only thing they needed was training. Practice.

Time? He had time.

Calruz looked up at the sky again. Smiling, as he waited under the sun.

 

—-

 

The sight of a one-armed Minotaur training Antinium [Soldiers] next to Drakes and Gnolls was…unique.

Even for Izril, where you could see a pink carriage barreling towards a screaming bunch of [Bandits], or a haughty [Lord] riding a Golem-horse, accompanied by more autonomous flunkies.

Or just a field of red and blue corn growing twice as high as your head. These were Izrilian things. Weird.

Terandria had its own sights, of course. But it always struck visitors as a different kind of thing. Each continent had an…atmosphere, of sorts.

Terandria was old. Also—Human. The half-Elves and Dwarves lived there, of course, but the Giants were gone, the Dragons extinguished.

The legacy of kingdoms was Terandria. Whereas Izril was cheerfully without that, filled with the Drakes, Gnolls, and again, Humans.

Chandrar was ancient. Not old. If Terandria remembered, Chandrar forgot, in places, and the ruins of older empires had been lost under the sands upon which newer civilizations were built.

Baleros was overgrown, contested, but humming with that frantic Lizardfolk energy in the jungles, controlled by the haughty Centaurs and silent Dullahans in the far north.

In brief. You could always do the general comparisons of continents. However, it was certainly true that what was normal in one continent was a bit…odd in another.

Like the Antinium. And also…Mrsha, Drassi, and Kevin were helping Selys to the Mage’s Guild to communicate about the treasure. The sniffing Drake, her face a mess of tears and snot and other stuff, was difficult. Mrsha lifted her tail; Drassi and Kevin had her shoulders. They practically had to carry her along.

So whilst the sight of the Minotaur training Antinium went completely unnoticed by the Liscorians, the two armored men staring at the Minotaur and Antinium were a scene unto themselves.

“Look at that. [Knights]. Weird. Wonder what they’re doing here.”

Drassi eyed the two, who were attracting as much attention as Calruz just by…existing. Their armor gleamed as Mrsha turned her head. From the way they stood to their attire, they looked, well, silly.

Perfectly polished armor, as if they spent hours working them with oil and a cloth. Full plate armor, in the summer’s heat? Also—one of them had taken his helmet off, revealing a waxed mustache.

Some of the children were pointing and sniggering at them. The two [Knights] affected not to notice, being more disturbed by the Antinium. Mrsha let Selys’ tail flop onto her head as she slowed.

“Mrsha, hurry up! Selys, please walk. And don’t throw up—we need you to focus!”

Drassi called over her shoulder. Mrsha let go of Selys’ tail, ignoring her. Wait a second.

The little white Gnoll peered at the two [Knights]. They looked…familiar. [Knights] were not common to Izril.

Oh, there was Ylawes, but he was insane. And an adventurer. And there were the Rose Knights of Lady Bethal, but they and she were definitely crazy.

These two weren’t pink. They were gold. They had the flashiest heraldry imaginable, some kind of elaborate, shining motif Mrsha recognized.

It looked like…a throne, etched upon their gold armor. She had seen that a number of times. Whenever Lyonette used her Skill, for instance.

Calanfer?

The Thronebearers of Calanfer were two in number. No—Mrsha corrected herself as two more strode over. Four.

“Thank you, Miss. Calanfer’s blessing be upon you. If you do know the young woman we seek, please, there is a small…bounty…we would offer for finding her.”

One of them, their leader perhaps, bowed, making an elaborate gesture where one arm folded across his chest, the other rose slightly. The Drake eyed him and backed up.

Mrsha edged closer, Selys forgotten.

“Ser Dalimont, these civilians are being uncooperative! They barely give us the time of day! Even the offer of gold barely turns these Drakes’ heads!”

The [Knight] who had used such flowery language turned and whispered to his commander, sounding aggrieved but determined not to show it. Their leader, who had taken off his helmet, sighed.

“Ser Lormel. If you would like to know the time of day, look up. Moreover, a Thronebearer conducts himself with the dignity of Calanfer.”

“Have I not done so with my every word or deed, Ser Dalimont? Did you not observe my conduct as beyond reproach?”

The younger [Knight] looked hurt. The older one looked a bit less nose-uppish than the others. And Mrsha thought she understood where Lyonette got it from with one look at this lot.

The leader, Dalimont, turned to Lormel and the other two, one of them a woman, the other a man.

“We are taught to conduct ourselves with the foremost etiquette, Ser Lormel. Which does not mean our etiquette, but that of wherever we travel. We should have removed our armor and asked more discreetly.”

“Is she even here? Whenever we mention the [Pr—

Dalimont made a slashing motion and Lormel fell quiet. Mrsha’s jaw dropped.

Uh oh. She backed up fast, although the [Knights] spared no attention to another child in the street. They were here at last! The very people Lyonette had been afraid would come! They were going to find her! Take her back!

It was just as well she was in Oteslia. However, now she was here—Mrsha tensed to run. To the inn? No, the Mage’s Guild! She had to send a [Message] now! She began to scamper off when one of the [Knights] spoke.

“Let me try, Ser Dalimont. Excuse me! Good sir! A fine morrow to you. Might I inquire about the location of a young woman we are seeking?”

Dalimont rolled his eyes as another Thronebearer tried to speak like a normal person. A passing Gnoll eyed him, but stopped, a dead Corusdeer on one shoulder. The [Hunter] grunted.

“Sure. Human? Drake? Gnoll?”

The [Knight] hesitated. Already he was on the wrong foot; the need to clarify hadn’t struck him.

“Er—Human. She is a member of our glorious, honored kingdom, Calanfer, the Eternal Throne which shines—”

Dalimont nudged him and the [Knight] caught himself.

“—She would be around nineteen years of age. Human. Her hair would be cut to the nape of her neck if she had not trimmed it. A fiery orange, perhaps more tiger in nature, cut with a hint of carmine, you see. Her skin would be fair as goat’s milk, perhaps shaded by sun to a more bronzed…”

Mrsha’s jaw dropped. She realized that the Thronebearers must have been asking for a while. Liscorian citizens might have liked Lyonette—if they knew her, but not all would have protected the former [Thief].

It seemed what had really stymied the Thronebearers was…the Thronebearers. Ser Dalimont pinched at the bridge of his nose as the Gnoll [Hunter]’s jaw opened. He interrupted the Thronebearer.

“Is this Human made of candy or something? I’ve never seen a carmine…whatever. Sorry, I have to get this to the [Butcher]’s.”

He hurried off. Ser Lormel looked back at Dalimont, gesturing as if it were clearly the Gnoll’s fault.

“You cannot talk to these people, Ser D—”

The other [Knight] slapped his shoulder with a ringing sound.

“Ser Lormel, you are hopeless. Excuse me. Miss? We are looking for a young woman. Human. Red haired. Blue eyes, eighteen years or so. Do you know of her?”

The Drake blinked, and to Mrsha’s relief, shrugged.

“Sorry, I don’t keep track of Humans.”

“Thank you, Miss. Good day to you, and apologies for taking up your time. You see? That’s all you need say.

Dalimont turned to Lormel as the Drake nodded and walked on with her shopping. Ser Lormel and the other three [Knights] looked horrified.

“Such crude descriptors, Ser Dalimont? Without describing her noble profile? Her graces? You do the royal family a disservice!”

“You do our mission a disservice, Ser Lormel! We are on an errand of haste!

This Dalimont fellow seemed more sane than the rest. Mrsha peeked around a barrel at them, narrow-eyed. What was she going to do? Get Niers to…?

No, he’d probably kill them all horribly. Mrsha shuddered. Ulvama? No, she’d tell Lyonette. She just had to know what their plan was. If they were all as stupid as Lormel, she would have felt safe even with them in the city, asking questions like that. But this Dalimont was too…capable of performing basic reasoning for her liking.

It seemed the other Thronebearers had the exact opposite opinion, however. The other three were looking at Dalimont like he was a fool.

“You have changed, Ser Dalimont. Your lack of social graces offends the spirit of our order. I fear your time guarding Princess Seraphel has roughened your elegance.”

“I represent her Highness on this quest, as do you all your respective [Princesses]. Moreover, she gave me the task of seeking Princess Lyonette. I would have hoped you would put her Highness’ well-being above your own sense of decorum!”

The other three [Knights] gasped as if he’d tried to stab them. They began to argue furiously. Mrsha’s ears perked up. Each one came from a different [Princess]? Well, Lyonette was the 6th Princess of Calanfer.

She had sometimes told Mrsha about her family. The little Gnoll tried to recall her tales about her sisters…her face fell.

None of them were charitable. Seraphel. Let’s see. That was the 4th Princess. She was the one who was cursed, right? How many husbands had she killed? Three?

It was better than the [Princess] who was even more hysterical than Lyonette. Which one was the one who kept getting into trouble for being found in the wrong beds? Mrsha was trying to guess which ones had sent representatives to find Lyonette and bring her home when Ser Dalimont turned.

He saw the little, white Gnoll peeking out at them from behind the barrel. His exasperated features…focused. He grabbed Lormel’s arm.

“Ser Lormel—politely shut up. Do you see that?”

Mrsha looked up. All four [Knights] stared down at her. The little white Gnoll. Whom, if you scrubbed back through the broadcasts, was often seen in the company, nay, the very arms of…

Uh oh. Wyvern poo. Mrsha backed up slowly.

“Young…lady. Excuse me a second.”

Ser Lormel stepped forwards. Mrsha waved at him. She smiled and he smiled.

“We were wond—”

Mrsha turned and bolted down the street. The [Knights] cried out.

“Wait! Stop!”

They ran after her, but Mrsha dove past a group of Drakes, leapt under a hamburger stall, and vanished into the city before they could follow her. Uh oh! Uh oh!

She was in big trouble now! Mrsha ran to tell Lyonette. As she did, she had a sinking suspicion the [Knights] had changed quarry from the carmine-haired [Princess] to a much simpler descriptor.

Where was the white Gnoll?

They were not the only ones asking. As Mrsha scampered after Selys, who’d paused to throw up again, a Gnoll dressed in travelling clothes sighed and adjusted his worn hat.

“Hm. There you are.”

 

—-

 

The day after the Horns vanished, life resumed. Informed by what had happened, but already other concerns were making themselves known, interfering with even grief. The luxury of having a day, a week, a month, or years to take events as you pleased…didn’t exist.

The Horns of Hammerad landed across Chandrar. They were found before they woke, all but one of them. Yet they did wake, within a day of their escape from the Village of the Dead at the longest.

Four adventurers appeared in blazes of light, falling, crying out before they lapsed into unconsciousness.

Three were found almost immediately upon appearing. One was not.

Two were recognized almost as quickly. Two more, not for their names and roles in the raid.

Two of the four woke in chains. One in another kind of captivity. The last—perilous freedom.

They were separated, alone, worn from battle and uncertain of the others’ fates. Tired, wounded.

 

—-

 

“—up. Wake up.

Yvlon Byres inhaled something foul and strong and gagged. Her eyes opened wide. She jerked—and the world swam into focus.

The [Armsmistress] jerked moving forwards, and the hand retreated. The self-satisfied man looked alarmed as the woman tried to surge forwards, still thinking she was fighting, or falling.

She was arrested by the chains on her arms, legs. Purely for safety. She was nominally under arrest.

“Wh—what—where—”

Yvlon growled. Her throat was dry. She felt—she yanked at one arm and then the other. Then—looked down.

Her right arm was gone. A jagged stump of metal was all that remained. That—half-Elf monstrosity had torn it off.

The woman’s attention was on her arm for only a second. She noticed her other arm was bound in chains. Her captors had apparently had trouble with one arm since they couldn’t bind two together, but they had cobwebbed it up in links of steel. She herself was bound to a chair.

“There, you see? She wakes! Commend the [Alchemist]. You—ah, you are Yvlon Byres, yes?”

The person who’d woke her was also the leader of the room of mostly men. All but him wore armor. He looked like…Yvlon squinted at him blearily.

“Where am I? What—where’s my team?”

The Stitch-man smiled. It was not a pleasant smile. It was in fact, a rather greedy, rather presumptuous smile.

“The rest of your team? That is the question I ask you. Miss Yvlon Byres of the Horns of Hammerad. You appeared in a spell, in my city. Ah, but we forget our manners. I am Ducaz Satin, ruler of this region. You—you are a guest of the great, glorious empire of Nerrhavia’s Fallen! Fortune be to you that you came to us.”

Yvlon blinked, still unfocused, as the man’s guards all made a gesture. The self-satisfied man, this room…

“Why am I chained up? Where’s…”

Her sword was missing. And—Yvlon realized, so was her armor, and her bag of holding. It was all lying on a table in front of her, she saw. She had clothing; someone had taken off her gear.

“Ah. Yes. Regrettable, very. I am sure perhaps even the royal court of Nerrhavia’s Fallen—perhaps even her exalted majesty will want to see such a notable adventurer! Not least because you hopped across the world in a moment! Yet I would be remiss as manager of this city and region if I did not…inquire first.”

The Stitch-Man’s eyes focused on the table, the bedraggled adventurer. He studied the artifacts lying there.

“You came here with a powerful artifact. They already say the Helm of Fire has been found among the spoils of the fallen. I see…other possessions from this raid are here. No doubt your teammates have similar such items. Where are they?”

Yvlon focused on the objects on the table. Her weapons! And—she growled. She had snatched more than the one scroll from the Putrid One’s altar. Ducaz held one, a relic beyond knowing. He looked at her.

“I would be happy to locate your team, Miss Byres. But I will locate them first—then see to your comfort as guests of Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Where are they?”

Yvlon Byres saw the light of avarice in his eyes. She growled.

“You imprisoned me for my artifacts?”

“You are hardly a slave, Miss Byres. Yet one does not simply toss an emerald that falls out of the sky into one’s lap to one side, do they?”

Ducaz chuckled. So did his bodyguards. Then the Stitch-Man grew serious.

“Tell me and this will be easier, Human.”

Yvlon swore, grimly. She had no idea where the Horns were. If this man hadn’t found them—where were they?

 

—-

 

The second Horn woke in darkness to voices.

How much is it worth?

“If it is still alive? Five thousand gold for rare species at any market. Minimum. That is for rare species. For an…Antinium? Ten times that, perhaps.”

Ksmvr heard the voices. He did not move. He woke, but kept still.

I am not bound? Or am I and not noticing? My weapons are gone.

I did not keep my promise. Where is Yvlon?

Where is Ceria? Pisces?

Where am I?

A mixture of emotions ran through him. He recalled leveling up. He heard the voices, speculating.

“Look at all the artifacts. This—”

Don’t wave that! You’ll kill someone else! Is that bastard…?”

The smell of burnt flesh. Ksmvr put the pieces together. They were inspecting his artifacts. Someone had found the Flamecoat Dagger. Someone else had been immolated.

My gear. They were nearly right on top of him. He didn’t know how long he’d been asleep. Not long enough for them to finish their search.

“What else has it got? Is it dead?”

“Doesn’t matter. We’re all dead.”

“Not if it’s alive! It’s worth money! I told you—get the attention of those bastards. Tell them we’ve got—”

A hand was rummaging for his belt, feeling for any other object on Ksmvr’s body. The searcher was in darkness, as were the others. However, there was enough light to see by in this dark…whatever.

And they didn’t realize Ksmvr was looking at them. He had no eyelids to close or open.

The prone Antinium suddenly sat up. The figure bending over him screamed, jerking back and raising the Forceshield and shortsword he’d taken off Ksmvr’s body.

Too late. The [Skirmisher]’s mandibles closed on his face. The others froze as the jaws closed hard on the man’s head. Not hard enough to bite or crush—but the man held very still.

Ksmvr grabbed the shortsword and Forceshield. He studied the other frozen people.

Ere am I? Ere is ith?

He tried to speak with the man between his mandibles. The others, a motley group of ragged people, backed away in horror. Ksmvr released his mandibles—raised his weapons as the man staggered back, screaming in horror.

The glow of his artifacts lit up this place. Ksmvr looked around and realized.

He was in a cell. So were they. No…some kind of…holding area? The other prisoners saw Ksmvr aim the shortsword at the ones holding his crossbows, bow, dagger, and other weapons.

“Drop them.”

They hesitated—looked at the Antinium—and did. Ksmvr spoke.

“Push them over to me or I will kill you all horribly and eat your bowels and hang your remaining innards up for decoration.”

He was rather pleased his impromptu threat worked. The group of prisoners tossed the weapons down. Ksmvr grabbed them with his free arm, watching them. He was ready for one to attack—but they were all horrified.

“It’s alive! It’s an Antinium!”

One whispered. Ksmvr realized they knew what he was—but not who he was. Curious. He looked at the enchanted bars of the cell. There was a door—yet it was closed with no discernable unlocking mechanism.

“Where am I? What have you done with my teammates?”

The group huddled in darkness had no answer. They looked at each other. At last, one began to laugh.

“You don’t know? You—you just appeared! Here! Of all the ill-luck places! Give us the weapons, Ant-person. We’ll all need ‘em.”

“No. Answer my question. Where is my team?”

Ksmvr aimed a crossbow at him, but the ragged man—the one who’d been speculating about his market value—only grinned, a broken grin of despair.

“No clue. Maybe they’re in the other cells? We’re all dead, anyways. How’d you get here? Let us out—we tried your weapons on the doors, but they’re still too weak.”

Where am I? Answer me.

Ksmvr looked around. Beyond him, he saw a dusty…he strode to the bars, watching the others as they stared at him. A former [Slaver], or someone who’d worked for them. A shifty [Thief]—the one Ksmvr had bitten. What looked like a horrified former [Trader], clothes torn.

The eight people in the cell were all men. Not all Human; but they all had a connection. Ksmvr identified it.

Criminals. He was in some kind of jail. Logic dictated that, of course. He glanced out at the place beyond.

This wasn’t a formal prison, though. What was that sand on the ground? The rounded basin?

Hey! We’ve got an Antinium-thing in here! Let us out! Do you hear? He just appeared! Don’t kill us!

The [Slaver] began to bellow. Two more rushed to the bars, shouting to someone—Ksmvr tried to stop them, but they were desperate. Something…he looked out again. Then he realized.

He was staring out into an arena. There were people in the audience seats, high overhead. They had no idea he was here.

 

—-

 

Ceria Springwalker woke up when something bit her. She shouted, kicked—and got a leg full of needles.

The Needlehound bounded away. Ceria sat up, stared at the dozen needles in her leg, and screamed.

Aaaaaaaaah—

She reached for them, remembered not to yank them out, and looked around.

“Pisces! Ksmvr! Yvlon!”

No one was near her. The Needlehound barked at her; Ceria stared at the dog, then around.

Arid ground, a cluster of bushes over there—some kind of hill over there—she reached for the needles, shouted again.

Gaah! Pisces! Where are you?

She raised her hand, gritted her teeth—then yanked the needles free. Swearing, Ceria reached for her belt. Her healing potion splashed on the wound.

Then she heard more barking. More dogs, oddly spiked fur appeared out of the dry landscape. Ceria looked around.

Dogs. Hungry ones too. Feral and growling. Ceria had no idea where she was, but she recognized danger. She raised her hands in an instant.

“[Ice Wall]!”

Nothing happened. Ceria blinked. The dogs were circling her. They’d jumped back at her shout, but then just gotten angrier. The half-Elf tried again.

“…[Ice Wall]?”

A tiny ring of ice climbed up around her. Ceria gaped at it—then began to cough. She realized her skin was dry. She was parched.

She felt baked. Her skin was red; she must have been lying in the sun! The—Ceria looked up and saw a blue sky. She looked around again and finally realized.

This wasn’t Izril. Unless Izril was a desert. Ceria tried to get up, but she began hacking at the dust in her mouth.

The dogs drew closer, the pack growling. Ceria pointed at the biggest one. [Ice Spike]! She…failed to cast the spell.

There wasn’t any water! An [Ice Mage]’s big weakness. Ceria gulped. Oh no. The dogs were tensing. So the half-Elf coughed, took a swig from the healing potion for liquid, not healing, and used her second tactic.

The half-Elf’s instinctive, magical connection with nature. Ceria spoke to the dogs.

Hey you little bastards! Get lost!

She had the power to speak to beavers too. Like the Fortress Beavers, the dogs flinched. Ceria waved her hands. She danced about, shouting, making herself appear bigger.

Grr! Bark! Bark! Get lost! I’m mad! Piss off!

The dogs looked at each other—then backed up from the angry half-Elf. Good enough. Ceria looked around, swaying. She was nearly out of mana, exhausted, and she had no idea where her team was.

“Pisces?”

She tried to cast the private message spell between them. A glowing spark of light floated up—but nothing else happened.

He was too far away? Or…? Ceria looked around. The pack of dogs had retreated. But it was watching her. Waiting for her to die.

 

—-

 

Lost, alone, each one in peril. The Horns of Hammerad were alone. Weakened.

Yvlon Byres looked at the greedy [Magistrate]. At his guards. She didn’t know where her team was. And she was a captive in chains.

Her arm tensed against the steel holding her. The Stitchfolk laughed.

“We have held you, Miss Byres. Please don’t resist and cooperate. Or you will find the hospitality of Nerrhavia’s F—”

Crack. Ducaz’s little speech ended on a squeak. He saw the first link of enchanted steel—snap as Yvlon’s good arm strained against the chair. Then, it began to bulge.

Yvlon’s silver-steel muscles pulled at the chains. She was just a bit too weak to break them. Normally, that was. Even her enhanced arm couldn’t break the chains—someone with [Enhanced Strength] would fail!

What about Silversteel arms and a berserker’s rage? Yvlon’s face contorted. She didn’t see her arm bulge.

“Stop! Stop—my guards will be forced to injure—”

Grah!

The [Silversteel Armsmistress] tore her arm free of the chains. Ducaz fled backwards as the bodyguards flinched. Bits of broken metal showered across the room as Yvlon reached for her sword.

Stop her!

The [Magistrate] screamed. The Stitchfolk surgedd of [Golem Artificers] forwards. Too late.

Pisces! Ceria! Ksmvr!”

The scream was laced with fury. Ducaz saw the [Guards] hesitate—then slash at her with their weapons.

“Stop, you fools! Don’t kill her!”

He screamed at them. Then—he saw the tip of her sword run through the first [Guard]’s front. Ducaz backed up—then ran for the door.

The [Magistrate] fled out into the open street, out of his private manor, screaming in one of the minor cities of Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Stitchfolk turned as the wailing man fled a Human woman with one arm made of silver and steel. Blood ran down her arms.

Her face was contorted in rage. A [Berserker’s Rage]. The local Watch, the militia, all came running at the [Magistrate]’s screams. They saw Yvlon emerge. She caught sight of them and never hesitated.

Yvlon came out, sword swinging.

 

—-

 

Ceria Springwalker limped towards the hill in the distance. The dogs were still following, but every now and then she would shoot flames or another spell at them, keeping them wide of her.

She was dehydrated and consuming stamina potions. She needed water. She needed…

Hello?

A village had been erected in the shadow of the hill. The people there were used to the crippling heat in the middle of the day.

So they were astonished to see the half-Elf in the distance. One of them pointed and they came out in a nervous cluster, expecting more of the [Bandits] that had been savaging this area. Or the talk of worse monsters.

All they found was a dizzy half-Elf who collapsed half way to them, vomiting stamina potion into the dirt. They looked at each other—then bore her towards their homes to tend to.

 

—-

 

The audience had begun to cheer. Ksmvr stood in the darkness.

Ah. He understood at last where he was. Even if he didn’t know this particular place from the babbling, terrified prisoners who were with him, he was familiar with the vague concept.

Arena. These were prisoners. Criminals. Even two rejected [Slaves] in two other pens, who’d been disobedient or killed their masters.

The audience didn’t care. They were cheering. Waiting for blood.

“We’re dead! We have to tell them—you’re valuable!”

The [Slaver] babbled. He was armed with a single crossbow from Ksmvr’s armory. The Antinium had given similar weapons to the others. Not his best gear.

He considered it necessary. Of course, that meant they were going first.

“We will see. Now—go.”

The doors swung open. The prisoners screamed. Their collars were burning with magic, forcing them out. They stumbled forwards, armed with rusted weapons—and three with Ksmvr’s weapons.

The Antinium stood there for a moment. Where was his team? He was going to find out. He waited in the darkness, looking out into the distant arena at whatever opponents had been sent to slaughter these prisoners.

“Ah. That complicates things.”

Ksmvr’s antennae twitched. He adjusted his Forceshield. Then he stepped into the light.

 

—-

 

Two of the Horns of Hammerad woke into fights for their lives. Another was lost, but found safety in the nick of time.

The last of them woke in chains. He was identified the moment he was found, within minutes of appearing. He opened his eyes to movement, an uncomfortable press of flesh and stink.

Bodies of other people. Pisces felt the metal, magical shackle on his neck and wrists. He realized where he was in the next second, carried in the wagon with the other [Slaves].

Captive, courtesy of the Slave-Merchants of Roshal.

 

—-

 

A day passed. The Horns woke, each alone. Each one separated.

But alive. Alive, whether their friends and allies knew it or not. The days continued. The raid on the Village of the Dead had moved things.

This was the era of great deeds and action. The example of one set others aflame. The King of Destruction rode forth and set another of Nerrhavia’s hordes to flight.

Lyonette du Marquin set another of Mivifa’s private wine bottles to the floor and missed.

Grief and glory each had their place. So, as the next day dawned, the Spring’s Warden strode through the Order of Seasons, angrily marching through the busy Season of Summer. All the knights were preoccupied, bustling about, but they stopped when they saw the head of the Season of Spring.

Greysten!

The Summer’s Champion jumped guiltily and whirled.

“Spring’s Warden?”

The woman marched up to him and glared at the younger leader of his season. Greysten was actually the youngest, despite being well into his forties.

“I heard you accosted Ser Solstice last night!”

“Rabb—yes, and?”

He looked very nervous, and the Fall Knight hurried off along with the other six [Summer Knights] to give them space. The Spring’s Warden was too angry to care.

“You dragged him out to drink and to complain about Calirn? Have you no sense of tact? He has just lost a loved one—not to mention the adventurers he was familiar with!”

A look of chagrin spread across Greysten’s face. He really hadn’t realized.

“I was only seeking his advice. And it was good—”

“Do not make excuses, Summer’s Champion! Summer is harsh, not oblivious! A fellow [Knight] suffers from loss and you bother him with our Order’s politics?”

She had come to take him to task for his poor judgment. Calirn might have, or another of his peers, but the Spring’s Warden was closest to the Summer’s Champion. He hung his head. He shuffled his feet like a guilty child. Then—as if something occurred to him, suddenly Greysten looked up and smiled.

“…You’re absolutely right, Spring’s Warden. I have been neglectful. I must make it up to R—Ser Solstice! I will make amends. Today—no—now! Give me but half an hour…”

The woman blinked, surprised but mollified by the Summer’s Champion’s rapid change of heart. Then again, he was always like that. Honest to a fault, direct…she nodded.

“Well then. See you do. Have a care with his feelings, Greysten.”

“Of course.”

He looked hurt at the suggestion he wouldn’t be. She just sighed. At least he was on Rabbiteater’s side. There were worse places to be. The Summer’s Champion tolerated no enemies within his line of sight. If he had thought Rabbiteater was a danger for being a Goblin, he might have tried to slay him then and there.

 

—-

 

The day after his forced stop by the Winter’s Watcher, Rabbiteater was still…down. Of course he was. His body still hurt from pushing it past its limits and mindful of Markus and the others’ worries, he had held off from forcing it further.

He was thinking of enjoying a hot bath in the Season of Summer, who had such things all the time. However, he groaned when he saw Greysten heading his way and turned around.

Too late.

Ser Solstice! I have come to make amends for my poor behavior yesterday! Let’s go for a ride and we will talk.”

The Summer’s Champion called so loudly there was no chance of pretending you hadn’t heard him. Rabbiteater stopped, wincing, and looked around.

“A ride?”

“A ride. I have been remiss, my friend. Let us ride out, enjoy nature…and talk. The Spring’s Warden took me to task—and rightly so! I have not given your grief due respect, and for that I must sincerely apologize.”

The man bowed to waist-height. Rabbiteater blinked at him. It was so hard—because the Summer’s Champion was like a Redfang in many ways. Almost like Garen in some. It was hard to hate him.

“Oh—fine.”

Rabbiteater gave up on his bath. Maybe later? A ride might be fine. He failed to notice the triumphant gleam in Greysten’s eyes. Normally, he would have, but…

The two were heading to the stables; Greysten had apparently already called for their horses to be saddled, when an angry voice reached them.

Summer’s Champion!

Knight-Commander Calirn strode across the ground, glowering at Greysten.

“Knight-Commander. How may I help you?”

Greysten greeted the cold leader of the Order of Seasons. Rabbiteater nodded at him. Calirn nodded back, catching sight of the Goblin and his expression turning slightly sympathetic. But then he was frowning at Greysten again.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about, Knight-Commander? Taking my friend here for a ride?”

Do not play games, Summer’s Champion. I have given my order as the head of the Order of Seasons and you will not—”

With surprising tact, Greysten drew himself upright and interrupted Calirn.

Knight-Commander. I am sure we can discuss my season’s actions…later? I have already been upbraided by the Spring’s Warden for troubling Ser Solstice with my political talk from yesterday. Pray, let me ride with him for an hour or two—then we can discuss the issue?”

“I—ah.

Calirn glanced at Rabbiteater. He hesitated, visibly glared at the Summer’s Champion, and nodded with an effort. The Knight-Commander turned to Rabbiteater.

“That would be…appropriate. Ser Solstice, I hope you are feeling better? My condolences. I watched the valor of those adventurers. I cannot express my sorrow, but I hope you will visit whichever season can best aid you. We have all experience with loss.”

“Thanks.”

Rabbiteater mumbled. The Knight-Commander hesitated, but mindful of the sad Goblin-[Knight], nodded and glowered at Greysten.

“After you return, we will speak.”

His tone was warning. Greysten just purred a response.

“Of course, Knight-Commander.”

He turned to Rabbiteater as the Knight-Commander stalked off.

“Apologies, Ser Solstice. Shall we?”

 

—-

 

“I really must apologize, Rabbiteater. I too have lost a dear friend in Izril recently.”

“Really? Who?”

“Ser Raim. I believe I spoke to you? He was my friend, an older [Knight] in my season around my time…I know what it is like to lose someone precious. I know what it is like to lose family. I should not have troubled you with my petty reasons, yet here we are. I apologize for more than that.”

The two rode out of the Order of Seasons’ courtyard, through the first layer of gates, then the second. Rabbiteater turned his visor up to the sky without a word.

It was a beautiful day. Such beauty in the sky, nature…it felt at odds with Erin dying. He found it an injustice. It should have been a maelstrom like the world had never seen when she died. Every day since—and for the Horns too.

Sun did not befit death. He and the Summer’s Champion rode along, saddlebags plush with provisions. Rabbiteater didn’t mind; any Goblin who didn’t ride with snacks was a fool.

His warhorse was a gift from the Order of Seasons. Not nearly as wild as a Carn Wolf, and the motion was much smoother. However, Rabbiteater had learned to ride. From Talia.

He felt bad about that. He felt bad about a lot of things.

The ride would do him good. The Summer’s Champion spoke as they passed through the gates.

“Let us talk about those we have lost, Rabbiteater. Drink for their memories. It is all we can do. It is bitter—but we must move on. I am told your [Innkeeper] is not fully dead. Is that so?”

“Maybe. But…”

The Goblin hung his head. The hope had been revealed to him, but it seemed so far away. So nebulous. How could someone bring Erin back from being frozen?

It crushed him. The smiling young woman, who had given him everything after he had found her, lost and alone with his brothers. Who had given him the strength to beat the Bear-[General]!

“The world isn’t fair.”

He muttered. He had known that, but it bore saying again. The Summer’s Champion touched his arm.

“No. It is not, is it? Yet that is why we are here.”

They rode out of the keep. The Summer’s Champion raised his head. His orange hair seemed to burn under the sun. His voice rose, accordingly.

“The world is not fair! We [Knights] fight for ‘goodness’! We try to do what is right. And we fail.

He clenched his hand.

“The greatest of us fall to treachery, fall before dark monsters! This is a truth of the world. The world is not fair—but—that is why we are here. Because, Rabbiteater. You are not alone.”

The Goblin’s head rose. He looked at the man. At last, Rabbiteater smiled. He moved his visor up to let Greysten see it.

“That sounds like something Erin would say.”

“Really? Then I shall say more such platitudes! The Summer’s Champion, departing!

He raised a hand and the [Knights] on the wall saluted him. Him and the Goblin.

What a sight. Rabbiteater turned his head to memorize it. If nothing else…he had this.

More than this. As if Greysten’s words had heralded it, someone on guard-duty cried out, seeing the two riding out.

Hoi there! Is that Ser Solstice?

The two slowed their mounts. Ser Raist, another [Summer Knight] who’d been part of Talia’s group, leaned over the balcony.

“Ser Raist!”

The Summer’s Champion waved up at him, a smile blooming on his face. Ser Raist called down to Rabbiteater.

“I heard of your sadness, sir! Are you riding out, Summer’s Champion? I would be honored to join you.”

“If you can catch us—no, wait. Ser Solstice?”

The Summer’s Champion deferred to Rabbiteater. The Goblin looked up and shrugged.

“Why not?”

Greysten smiled, relieved. Raist smiled, and hurried for the stairs.

“Are you going riding? I shall too, if I may! The Season of Summer should not be alone. Not when one of us mourns.”

Another [Knight] called out. Dame Chise! She smiled down at Rabbiteater.

“The more the merrier. Assuming that’s alright? Come on, then!”

The Summer’s Champion shouted up at the walls. That was how Rabbiteater found the two [Summer Knights] hurrying after him. Then—he realized there were more than two.

“Ser Solstice! Could we trouble you?”

Ser Markus breathlessly rode up, with Meisa, some of the other Spring Knights, and, to Rabbiteater’s gratified surprise, Dame Talia. She nodded at him, looking uncertainly at Greysten.

The Summer’s Champion looked taken aback at Talia, but he slapped Ser Markus on the shoulder.

“Good man. You might belong to my season soon! The more the merrier! Come on now, let’s pick up the pace!”

Nearly ten [Knights] proceeded out of the Order of Seasons. Rabbiteater was talking to Ser Markus, realizing that his private talk with Greysten might be compromised.

Yet there was something good here too, in company. This—this was like riding with a band of Redfangs. He swallowed a lump in his throat. Most didn’t know who he was, but the Season of Summer considered him one of their own.

As the [Knights] came out of the Order of Seasons, they passed a group riding back towards the keep. Greysten halted the sixteen or so [Knights].

“Hey there! Out on a patrol?”

“A morning’s ride, Summer’s Champion. Is that Ser Solstice?”

One of the sixteen spotted the Goblin and nodded at him. Greysten gestured.

“We’re on a ride to cheer him up. Why don’t you join us?”

The other [Knights] called encouragement. Why not? The day was fair! And all sixteen were Summer Knights too. They fell in with the others in good cheer.

Talia and Markus blinked at so many of the same season together. It was actually rare; the seasons liked to mingle. But it might have been a training exercise. They rode with the Summer’s Champion, talking to Rabbiteater, praising the battle, trying to offer sympathies.

It was hard to talk to him! However, the convivial atmosphere was good. Ser Markus realized someone had taken a bunch of hot rolls from the mess hall and was tossing them around.

“They’re made with something called ‘baking soda’! See how good they are? That’s with a baking Skill!”

“Quite good! Ser Solstice, why are you upset?”

Rabbiteater rubbed at his eyes. He tried to explain and the [Knights] listened, riding with him.

Even here, she came. In fluffy bread. He tasted it and it was good.

This was Erin. Not literally, but…he looked at the Season of Summer and thought she would fit right in. The smiling [Knights], Greysten exclaiming over the origin of baking soda…

They were heading down the lovely plateau and forest built around the ruined half-Elven kingdom that was the Order of Season’s special land on Pheislant. To the south lay the cliffs bordering the sea. Ahead?

A group of thirty or so [Knights], dressed in orange and red armor straightened. They were all bending to inspect something, baskets in hand.

“So is this an edible mushroom?”

“No, poisonous. How are you finding these? Please tell me you didn’t just nibble that.”

The Autumn Knight sighed, their more royal purple armor glinting despite the mushroom-foraging duty. All of them turned.

“Summer’s Champion, what are you doing here?”

“Riding! Are you out foraging mushrooms?”

The [Knights] nodded, indicating the few shrooms—mostly horribly poisonous—in the baskets. There were a number of Autumn Knights with them. All in armor. All with horses.

“Why not give up on that and join us for a ride? We can all pick mushrooms when we get back.”

With good humor, the [Knights] looked at each other and agreed. The first one, who had lips that were slowly turning worryingly blue, grinned at Rabbiteater.

“We’re not the right sort to forage, anyways.”

They had barely gone another ten minutes when a group of a dozen burst out of the forest.

“Hold on, that’s not a deer! Summer’s Champion! What’s with this group? Mind if we join you? We can’t find a deer, and hunting them with, er, lances, is hard work!”

The leader exclaimed. He clasped gauntlets with Rabbiteater. The Goblin nodded at him, wondering who was that stupid.

Talia’s eyes had narrowed when she saw the mushroom-gatherers. She stared at Greysten’s back, but the Summer’s Champion just laughed heartily.

“Join us!”

Ser Markus was exceptionally impressed. So many [Knights]? Hunting with lances?

“I had no idea so many of the Season of Summer were so festively-minded today!”

He confided to Dame Meisa and Ser Thaime. The two Spring Knights looked at him like he was a complete idiot.

 

—-

 

Rabbiteater had been too depressed to notice. However, after the fifth rabbit-hunting group happened to see their procession along the forest path and decided to join them spontaneously, even he caught wind of something.

He looked at Greysten. The Summer’s Champion looked innocent as the hundred and sixty plus Summer Knights rode in formation, talking, someone passing around a roasted bit of hare with edible mushrooms.

They emerged from the forest, heading out of the Order of Seasons’ lands. Faster now; they moved at a trot, but someone was using a movement Skill.

“I say, we’re going rather far, aren’t we, Summer’s Champion? Do you always ride this far?”

Ser Markus looked slightly amazed at the distance they’d come with only forty minutes of riding. Dame Meisa’s mouth worked.

“You must be pulling our legs, Ser Markus. Are you serious?”

Rabbiteater was riding at the head of the long train of [Knights]. He slowed his horse and the Summer’s Champion laughed as they began heading down towards Pheislant proper.

“Now, what have we here? Out for a stroll? Fancy that!”

He was really, really bad at lying. Mrsha-bad. The sixty [Knights] innocently put up their lances.

“Just practicing parade-riding, Summer’s Champion. Are you riding out? Why don’t we join you?

Dame Voost winked at Rabbiteater. He frowned at the best bladeswoman in the Season of Summer. Then he turned to the Summer’s Champion.

“I’m beginning to think this isn’t about me.”

“What? No, why would you say that, Ser Solstice? I just…happened to meet all these fine [Knights] from my season. We are here for you. Incidentally, your advice from yesterday was really quite good.”

“Advice? What adv—”

The Goblin’s eyes narrowed. Then he swore and turned his head. Greysten happily offered him a roll.

“Have one of these. They have bits of meat baked into the crust. Very good. Let’s pick up the pace, shall we?

They began to ride faster. Because they could, because it was a fine day. Also—because Knight-Commander Calirn might have noticed the practically-deserted Season of Summer, or seen the huge procession and be in the middle of losing his temper.

They headed down the narrow pass that you could hold an invading army at. The Summer’s Champion halted them for a second and looked up.

We salute the winter! Will you join us on our ride or gainsay it? What say you, Winter’s Watcher?

Apprehensively, the [Knights] looked up. For there, perched high overhead was the solitary figure. The head of the Season of Winter. If anyone was going to stop them—

The frost-covered figure looked down at the Summer’s Champion. Then—they raised their hand. The Summer’s Champion grinned. He saluted the distant figure.

“Onwards, friends! Winter has chosen not to slow us down! Forwards! Er—to comfort Ser Solstice, that is!”

 

—-

 

A hundred and twenty plus [Knights] were riding out of the Order of Seasons when they met a larger group. This time—it was three seasons.

Spring, Summer, and Fall, all camped outside of the Order of Season’s lands. On a training exercise, put together last night by the Summer’s Champion himself. They looked up, and mounted up, calling out to Ser Solstice.

“Wait a second. I’m beginning to think there’s something going on here.”

Ser Markus called out from just behind the head of the army of [Knights] coming down the road. The Summer’s Champion nearly fell out of his saddle laughing. So did most of the others, proving that knightly-valor didn’t mean you didn’t have to have a sense of humor.

Nor that being fast on the uptake was also a requirement. Ser Markus buried his face in his horse’s mane for nearly twenty minutes after he figured it out.

“You know, you were the excuse. I meant what I said. But it might have to wait till later. Or—if we ride together, I will not ask you to join us. This is my decision alone.”

Greysten looked at Rabbiteater. The Goblin [Knight] stared ahead. He looked down the long road and saw the shapes waiting for them ahead. Then he looked at the Summer’s Champion.

Of course he knew what they were about now. The Goblin considered this. Then—he shrugged.

“I don’t care. Sounds like a good distraction.”

The Summer’s Champion and other [Summer Knights] who heard blinked at Rabbiteater. Then they began to guffaw with laughter.

“A distraction? Well said! You’d ride to war with a smile and on a whim?”

Greysten guffawed. Rabbiteater smiled under his helmet.

“You are. The Summer’s Champion rides to war. So—I am the [Champion] of my people too. I should probably join you.”

He knew it was madness. But—it was Redfang madness. Why not? Why join a bunch of crazy [Knights] on a collision course with the greatest kingdom in this area, on a whim? Who would do that?

The same kind of idiot who’d go to battle for a [Florist]. Who’d fight for an [Innkeeper] with a white flag. For that matter—they seemed, in this moment, to be like the same crazy young woman who might defend a Goblin.

Madness. The Goblin rode in the company of his peers. It was a glorious thing. This was what it meant to be a Redfang.

This was what it was to be a [Knight].

The forces waiting on the main highway started forwards before the riding [Knights] had reached them. Hundreds of [Knights] slowed, and many raised their weapons, cheering.

The second force of the Order of Seasons, the one based in Pheislant’s capital, saluted the Summer’s Champion as he rode forwards with Rabbiteater.

Summer’s Champion. We have mustered those willing to defy Ailendamus. With me stands [Castellan] Divorn.”

“Summer’s Champion, his Majesty does not condone war. However—I am pledged to his Highness Evein, and he commanded me to take charge of this force and support our gallant [Knights] in their action.”

The man saluted the Summer’s Champion, looking at Ser Solstice questioningly. The Summer’s Champion threw his arm around the Goblin.

“Well met, Castellan! Do I see House Kallinad’s banners? How many noble houses?”

“Sixteen!”

Good. Then, I will introduce you to my highest-ranking [Knights] as we ride. With us from outside of our order is Ser Solstice of Izril. I trust you will treat him as a [Knight] second only to myself. Now—we ride! Before the Knight-Commander catches us!”

The army that began marching north was a strange one. A mighty one. The Ailendamus army halted when it got news that over eight hundred [Summer Knights] alone were heading towards them. And that was one season, albeit the largest one! They were joined by nearly six thousand of Pheislant’s [Soldiers].

Still, it was a nearly five-to-one difference. Ailendamus’ army began sending reports to the capital, which in turn demanded to know if Pheislant had declared war.

Their answer came from the Season of Summer’s champion. He did not speak for his Order! Though surely Ailendamus would not see it that way.

He did not ride with the [King]’s command—though his army had Pheislant’s standards! He just rode for the dignity of Terandria. The honor of [Knights]. The Summer’s Champion, Greysten, declared a crusade against the kingdom of Ailendamus for their unjust war against the Dawn Concordat.

Knight-Commander Calirn would have throttled Greysten if he could have caught him. It was too late. And in the midst of it all…

A Goblin rode to war for the hell of it.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: This chapter is written after the Horns arc. Which was exhausting. I actually burned 2,000 words of this chapter in the middle of writing because it was terrible.

Poor sleep. Poor sleep and longer-term exhaustion are things a writer has to manage to write their best, especially a web serial author.

However, I’ll write a chapter for Tuesday…then I might have to take 1 update off because I’m getting my vaccine in the middle of that chapter and it might wipe me out.

I will let you know. However, I hope you like this more-scattered, less-prepared chapter. I’ll take a bit to recombobulate after so much effort with the Horns.

But as you can see…you won’t wait long. Oh—and I’ll try to get that Patreon poll up on the 4th so you can vote if I take that chapter off to vaccine-rest…which isn’t rest. So much to do! I’m going to rest and eat, but hope you enjoy! Thanks for reading.

 

Minizi, Atwood Scars, Rat-Niers and more by Brack!

 

Burger [Emperor], Blood Stocks, Rose Knights and more by LeChatDemon!

DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/demoniccriminal

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

Stash with all the TWI related art: https://sta.sh/222s6jxhlt0

 

Elia Arcsinger by Auspicious Octopi!

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/auspiciousoctopi/

DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/auspiciousoctopi

 


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65 thoughts on “8.20

  1. Leave a typo for safe landings! Sleep! And…sleep.

    (Non-sleepy readers: Gorexn, MrWiggles, Quynin, kristoferromanov, Tim, ChronoMager, Jay Dee, Pandapants, Aox, Ignat, Niello, TheOneAndOnlyTrueMe, ricoanthony16, The_Outrider, firewalk, Ben Clark, Jonathan Chapman)

    • Uh, after reading over my last typo, I should probably clarify for… clarity’s sake that in that order, numbers for the knights are 1. given, 2. added to, and 3. given again. While it’s said that sixty join them (2), there is only a 20 knight difference between the given numbers of knights, (1) and (3).

    • no discenable unlocking mechanism.

      My comment is related, the standard practice is to state a locking mechanisim, as a door may not be locked (or latched) if the door is in a closed position while at rest.

      I understand the intension behind the wording and took it as I felt was implied.

      Excellent chapter once again, thanks for the snippets about the horns, I had initially figured that I would have to wait several chapters before they came up.

    • Ok… round two. 160 + 60 =/= 120. (Uh it was changed from 100 + 6 for reference).

      The Summer’s Champion looked innocent as the hundred and sixty plus Summer Knights rode in formation -> as the sixty plus

      A hundred and twenty plus [Knights] were riding out of the Order of Seasons when they met a larger group. ->

      • *Continued here since I apparently submitted the first reply already*
        **Also, 100 + 60, not 100 + 6 for the earlier reply**

        A hundred and twenty plus [Knights] were riding out of the Order of Seasons when they met a larger group. -> Two hundred and twenty.

        Hopefully this is a little more clear than the last time.

    • “The Stitchfolk surgedd of [Golem Artificers] forwards.” Eh, this doesn’t really sound right.

      • It might be “The Stitchfolk surged forwards.” if “d of [Golem Artificers]” had somehow gotten added from elsewhere.

        Others:

        “Stitchfolk turned as the wailing man fled a Human woman with one arm made of silver and steel. Blood ran down her arms.”

        Yvlon is the old “she” around, so “arms” should be “arm”.

        “alright” -> “all right”

    • Unless Izril was a desert.
      Well we know that is Isril is not just a desert…but it may have one.
      So…
      Unless Izril has a desert.
      Which it may have.

  2. Until we find out why one of the two [Mages] in the Horns doesn’t just use a [Message] spell to say they’re alive, I’m just going to keep wondering that instead of appreciating the chapter. Which isn’t a great start, unfortunately.

    I’m not usually interested in reading about grief, but this was interesting. Probably because it focused on the practical parts. (Not that writing about grief is bad writing, of course.)

    Which of course was because the [Scrying] spell was out of range. No one knew that, however. The [Scrying] spell could have found the Horns anywhere within a thousand miles of where it was targeted. Who would bother to expand that radius?
    -Well that’s one question answered.

    I’m happy SOMEONE tried a [Message] spell.

    “If they fall, if they die—let the Heaven of Antinium hold a place for the Horns of Hammerad. Whenever that day comes, now, or in a hundred years. For our friends, for good people. For little kittens and dogs and kind things—Heaven is not so petty they would not be with us. Let us pray.
    -If this has any chance of actually working, it means Pawn is directly challenging the goddess of death. Which is fascinating, exciting, and concerning all at once.

    Ooh, the [Knights] showed up to look for Lyonette!

    Oh, okay. I’m surprised that three of the four were somehow captured immediately.

    Yeah, just as I suspected, there were good reasons why they couldn’t send [Message] spells.

    • Ceria was unconscious, out of mana and dying of thirst. As of this chapter at least. And supposedly sending [message] long distance was somewhat high-cost mana wise.

      Pisces mage-slave-collar probably interferes with spellcasting and reception.

    • Yeah, reasons were given, though those reasons were given now and are different from what we have seen so far in the story. So they end up being like excuses or justifications for the plot added later after the event had been decided, like an afterthought.

      For example, the one thousand miles limit of scrying had never been mentioned before, and every single time it was simply the name of the person that was needed, and they could find people anywhere in the world unless there was magical protection. And we constantly see [Message] spells being sent across the world, with less capable Mages using artifacts just to prevent interception or bypass protections, high-level Mages do it without any assistance, merely creating a complex spell matrix.

      But whatever, what I really, really find weird is that Az’Kerash sent them to Khelt, instead of giving coordinates to something much closer, like Invrisil or Liscor, or just a couple of miles away from the Village of Death.
      Surely he has the coordinates of those places, no? We have even seen him use [Greater Teleport] scrolls before, going to Invrisil’s surrounding area with one to fight Zel and then back, plus he knows Liscor’s coordinates too.

        • I assumed the Necromancer was using his goblin lord minion as a homing beacon as a point for that teleport of his greater minions and the actual method was not described in detail with regards to the spell, also as he was not in direct contact with the Horns when they teleport away it would involve different mechanic s of spell alterations at distance……… anyway great series love it

          • He used a [Greater Teleport] scroll in that instance too, it was explicitly said.

            Also, notice that Az’Kerash used his connection with Pisces to deliver the coordinates to the scroll in order to make it teleport them to Khelt. So that’s not an issue.

            But that’s still not the point.

            The point is, why send them to Khelt when he could have easily used the coordinates of someplace closer? He definitely has them.
            Even if he were to need a beacon for it (which I highly doubt is necessary for the scroll), Az’Kerash has several people under his service like the Duelist Instructor, plus various undead puppets around the continent (and maybe the world) that he could use as beacons for sending the Horns of Hammerad there.

            It just makes no sense that Az’Kerash was left with two options only when it came to giving coordinates to the scroll. It would have been a different story if the scroll was Az’Kerash’s creation and it had a fixed place for the teleport, but that’s not the case here.

            A possible justification for their trip to Khelt would be that the scroll was already set to Khelt from the beginning, as some sort of escape route for the Putrid One. But then the chapter would need to be edited and delete Az’Kerash intervention, as it would be completely unnecessary. Make it so that the Horns took their chances using the scroll to an unknown location (which turns out to be Khelt) instead of having Az’Kerash send them to Khelt.

  3. I’ve said it before. Health first. I love TWI, but take care of yourself first.

    And thanks for the chapter.

  4. The arena managers are about to bankrupt themselves throwing giant beasts and professional gladiators at Ksmvr.

    Another great chapter. Since our world doesn’t have stamina potions, don’t stint on your rest.

    • Oh the sweet levelling opportunities for best ant, Ksvmr. He has been playing catch up to the rest of the Horns (granted he is… 1? 2? years old only) and has a serious inferiority complex because of it.

      Now he can get his montage scene, and honestly of all the Horns, [skirmisher] and [teammate] are the only classes that would be directly applicable.

      • I wonder how they’ll consolidate… Skirmisher Captain, perhaps, given that he’s likely to establish a leadership role among his fellow unwilling gladiators once he’s thoroughly established dominance?

  5. I loved the Antinium story bits! Glad to see Pawn hopeful again and yay for Chess Club Angels! Though we’ve had too much of Knight & Bishop. I hope we see Milner-Barry some time. Will we now be seeing Antinium [Beastmasters]?

    Will the system see the Antinium [Crusaders] as part [Paladins]? They do seem to be closely related in D&D and other RPG media. Manus will lose their minds when Antinium [Crusaders] start laying down Smite and healing spells / Skills.

    I didn’t really like the Order of Seasons bit. I honestly couldn’t care less about Terandrian politics at this point in the story. I really wanted a deeper look at Rabbiteater and his thoughts on losing Erin. That’s the character stuff I’m looking for.

    Where is Ksmvr? Savere? Anand mentions [Gladiators] when he meets the Grand Queen in 7.39A but he doesn’t mention a specific nation. Is Pisces going back to Wistram in chains? He still has a bounty on his head. Does Yvlon basically have T-1000 arms? Does she even need swords with Telescoping Flesh and Razorkind Skills?

    The Gnoll who was there for Mrsha is probably from Salazsar, right? Plains Eye gnolls would have come with a team. I think she’s going to get kidnapped and the Thronebearers will free her. What if the Thronebearers try to force Lyonette to leave with them? I shudder to think what Pawn would summon then because the Black Tide will definitely get involved.

    On a side note, I hope that we will now be seeing more single POV focused chapters. Multi-POV is fine for events like the VotD raid or if it’s only 2-3 POVs. I think there was a little too much head hopping in this chapter especially since each POV was brought in twice or more. It might be great to see this on TV where you want to cover up a lull but its somewhat immersion breaking and unnecessary when reading.

    • Order of Seasons part was good just wish they knew about Ailendamus’ scroll for Erin. That is the real Knight Adventure people are looking forwards to.

      The Gnoll is likely the Wanderer from Salazsar. Now I am wondering if this is going to lead into Calanfer Knights unknowingly going on a different Princess rescue mission (Mrsha). Whatever the case Tersk the Antinium is going to hound them about their armour.

    • Rabbiteater is dealing with Erin’s not-quite-death by doing anything he can not to think about it. That now includes going to war with Ailendamus, which just happens to be the country that has the last remaining lead on something that can wake her up.

      • Also we have seen that the world will give you hints on a quest with The Helm of Fire riddle. I’m betting if Rabbiteater swore a knightly oath or something to bring back Erin he might get a hint of some sort about the scroll.

        • That’s only because of Selys’ specific class. Nobody has gotten hints like that.

          Rabbiteater will find out about the scroll definitely and I think he’ll launch like a 1- Goblin mission to get it back. The Dragon might even forgive him as he’s a Goblin.

  6. But this Dalimont was too…capable of performing basic reasoning for her liking.

    That one killed me.

  7. Interesting that Pisces was the one who was enslaved. I wonder who will get to him first: Wistram, the Emir, or the Necromancer’s Slaver Puppet. My bet is on the Necromancer since he knows about the Greater Teleportation scroll they used.

    Ylvon is about to get a Magistrate demoted for holding one of their Prince’s allies captive. Then again it sounded like that Prince wasn’t in the best of standings in Nerrhavia’s Fallen.

    Not sure where Ksmvr is at. Nerrhavia’s Fallen was mentioned to have coliseums but I highly doubt they are the only ones on Chandrar with them.

    Yay Ceria stuck in the desert for some real Ice Magic training. Also master’s spell tome still exists. Also maybe she’ll find our long lost iPhone call [Prophet] wandering the desert somewhere.

    • Ksmvr and Ylvon stayed together the longest so makes sense if they landed relativley close. However I have no clue about where he actualey is.

      • Savere would be my bet. Arenas where the rich watch petty criminals being torn apart by monsters is the sort of thing you’d only really expect there and in Roshal – Nerrhavia’s elites are far too sophisticated to engage in something so uncouth – and Pisces is already going to Roshal.

        • I was thinking Ceria might be close to Savere. Savere should be next to the desert and that village she showed up in was worried about the increase in [Bandit] activity.

          Also Nerrhavia’s Fallen has their whole class caste system which is basically societal slavery at the bottom, so I wouldn’t put it past them to have executions by coliseums.

        • I get a very ‘Ancient Rome’ vibe from Nerrhavia’s Fallen, from their charioteers and legions to the names of their classes. It would surprise me if they didn’t have gladiator fights, though whether the silk caste watches them or not I won’t try to guess.

          • I was also thinking Nerrhavia’s fallen, especially since Ksmvr and Yvlon held on to each other the longest, so may have landed closest.
            Could also be Savere, or the Empire of Sands, or probably any of a range of other kingdoms, though.

            Overall, Ceria seems to be in the best position to find and rescue the others (assuming Yvlon eventually gets brought down by the combined forces of whatever city she’s in). It seems likely that Ceria might start getting some levels in Mage again alongside Cryomancer levels as the task would need a lot of non-ice spells and she may have difficulty sourcing enough water to really use her ice magic for a while.

  8. “She requested Mage Montressa to check for the statues in the [Garden of Sanctuary], which exists in The Wandering Inn. There are statues on the hill which will reveal if the Horns are dead by their presence. Furthermore, she decided after that to contact other friends of an ‘Erin Solstice’, a young woman who is apparently neither living nor dead, to aid her.”

    I struggle to believe that Ryoka would have been so explanatory in her message. Even if she didn’t believe Jericha would share what she sent, a simple “Check the garden, who’s there?” would have gotten the same information across with a lot fewer words.

    • depression + doubt and most of all… having just dealt with all the emotional baggage and physical strain of having to deal with the last chapter probably made her skip out on how to word things better.

      Especially since she needed them to be in the proper mind to realize the hint. After all they didn’t even cast [Detect Death] as a sure fire spell to tell if somebody had died.

      Little things like that sadly escape people from InnWorld.

      Just look at the Windblade and how many people saw the weapon waved in front of their faces and yet most of them didn’t even seem to realize just how important that thing really was!

      weak against magic, but a lot more hidden functions? My first thought would be that the Wind Runner didn’t know how to change the settings on the magical sword!

      Not that it was less valuable because it was weak against magical enchantments!

      • {Detect Death] would be useless in a place with so many dead (and not even sure how *undead* would affect the spell. I don’t believe it can be keyed in to specific people.

        As for Ryoka’s Windblade, it’s possible that she hasn’t discovered all the settings yet. However, it came from a technology-reliant world with no magic, so it seems more likely that it wasn’t designed with magic in mind.

  9. If they fall, if they die—let the Heaven of Antinium hold a place for the Horns of Hammerad. Whenever that day comes, now, or in a hundred years. For our friends, for good people. For little kittens and dogs and kind things—Heaven is not so petty they would not be with us.

    These words are perhaps the most powerful and the most frightening to the ‘gods’ of Innworld. It would mean less souls that they can try to prey upon since Antinium Heaven seems to have escaped their notice… or has fully escaped their touch since it is not linked to gods.

    How funny that it always starts with the smallest of actions meant with the best of intentions that end up causing the biggest changes.

  10. Antinium Heaven amazes me. Puppies and Kittens, very specifically mammalian. More mammals the Horns, Erin too. Then I think some very unfortunate birds were mentioned as eternal entertainment and food for Bird. Antinium of course. I think I’m missing someone.

    Finally with this chapter Pawn prays directly to Erin. So, Erin will go to Antinium Heaven when she dies, because She let herself in there. Hope she is happy with falling birds… Erin it!

      • Honestly I think that’s where the story is going. Erin “coming back” will actually be as a deity.

        Think about it, she meets all the qualifications.
        1. She has a humble profession (Innkeeper).
        2. She preached love and tolerance.
        3. She has a significant number of “disciples”, at least one of whom is a priest.
        4. She was martyred, and her “death” is complicated. It’s debatable whether she’s alive or dead.
        5. She’s a virgin.

        • I’ve thought about Erin becoming a god way back since she first started talking to Pawn. If not a god then maybe being empowered by the faith of the antinnium to be able to stand up to the gods without being eaten.

          • I think the obvious return was via the doctor and the witch covens, with a little help from an emperor friend of ryoka………

  11. “Amen. He wondered if there was another word he should use. ‘Erin be with you?’”

    Oh. Oh. You… you glorious monster Pirateaba. If this is going where I suddenly have a feeling it’s going… I can’t even argue. Erin would make a pretty good goddess.

    • A hearth goddess, like the greek Hestia or the roman Vesta? Sounds fitting. A keeper of home and hearth, the keeper of a holy fire.

      Admittedly I don’t think, how this will end, but I like the idea

      • Erin becoming like Hestia sounds impressive and cool but Erin is going to become the king of “partially dead” Innkeepers she picked up Excalibur after all…

    • may you live in solstice time depending on context it said~! or solstice bless you!
      that would be a blessing and curse of pawn if it like the saying may you live in interesting times!

  12. [“Look at all the artifacts. This—”

    “Don’t wave that! You’ll kill someone else! Is that bastard…?”

    The smell of burnt flesh. Ksmvr put the pieces together. They were inspecting his artifacts. Someone had found the Flamecoat Dagger. Someone else had been immolated. ]

    This part should be removed or changed, the dagger needs voice command ‘Terith’ to put things on fire. These slaves couldn’t have possibly known about it.

  13. Pretty impressive that so many of these people just saw these folks take on a literal legendary death zone and then see them and immediately decide “hey, this is a good person to try and rob/capture”
    It’s like the scene in The Dark Knight where Fox is like “so you think your client, who is one of the most wealthy and powerful people in the world, spends his free time beating armed criminals to a pulp with his bare hands… and your idea is to blackmail this person?”
    Also wonder if Yvlon’s hidden skill with the blightmetal arms helped break the enchanted chains.

  14. I’m looking forward Ksmvr gaining some team mate levels that sound op! i bet it goes well with his other class fight and boost combo would be devastating!
    are guys are in quite the pickle but new challenge mean new heights of power!

    • he is actually in a very good position to get those teammate levels.

      much easier to get them by carrying a bunch of scrubs to victory then with a gold rank team.

      same principle as the secretary in pomle, doing the class tasks sucssefully while handicapped is worth more.

      (unless his new arena team drop like flies of course, the problem with leveling through handicaps is that you have a handicap now)

  15. Thank you for the chapter!
    Please sleep more and take care of yourself.
    I enjoyed the chapter, it was good considering how much work the last chapter was, and on short notice.
    I just can’t wait to see how strong Erin will become and in which direction. I hope she actually uses hers skills and keeps on practicing them when she’s back, because you know she doesn’t really do that, like with [Wonderous fae] she only mostly used it when she first got it and when Numbtongue kept on urging her.

  16. I feel like it’s obvious folks.. The Horns got slung over to Chandrar because ERIN is there in spirit. At the very least she will start hearing about their exploits to save her when souls start dropping like flies in the inevitable mayhem that swirls around said Horns. Just sayin.

  17. I feel like it’s obvious folks.. The Horns got slung over to Chandrar because ERIN is there in spirit. At the very least she will start hearing about their exploits to save her when souls start dropping like flies in the inevitable mayhem that swirls around said Horns. Just sayin.

  18. “who had given him everything after he had found her, lost and alone with his brothers.”
    Sounds like Erin was with other Redfangs when Rabbiteater found her.

    Better change to “after she had found him, lost and alone with his brothers”

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