Ceria to Montressa: Alive. Find Pisces. Ksmvr. Yvlon. Can’t tell where. Teleported. Lost. Chandrar.
Chandrar. The desert continent? How had they gotten there? Where were they?
In the hours after the [Message] reached Montressa du Valeross, she tried to contact Ceria nearly three dozen times. She notified friends and family of the Horns, and [Scrying] spells were redirected; although only a dedicated [Diviner] had the range to do a mass-search from another continent away, let alone narrow in on a single person, even with their true names.
They knew, though. Chandrar. The search began again, with hope—certainty at least one of them was alive. That was an effort of days, though. Within seconds, within hours, the Horns of Hammerad—each one of them found themselves in a nation apart.
Ksmvr stepped into the light. The dusty arena floor beneath his feet was scattered with fragments from past fights, however much it had been raked over, reformatted.
Detritus of fallen combatants. Sprays of torn armor. Bone bits, pieces of those who had fallen not quite cleaned away. The crowd roared as the terrified prisoners, criminals, were sent out as sport, to be destroyed for the amusement of those watching.
Was it ill-luck that he had been sent here? There were more dangerous places to be sent—like ten thousand feet straight up above the ground—or below it.
Or into the sea. All things considered, Ksmvr felt lucky. Still…he glanced down at the ground as the first gladiators entered. The prisoners screamed up at the crowd, the overseers of this arena.
“Stop! There’s an Antinium-thing! Take it! Stop! Don’t open the gates—”
Too late. No one saw him at first. Ksmvr bent. The bones of past gladiators…
Bones? He saw bits of torn metal, wood, ceramics, which he’d mistaken at first. The Antinium’s head slowly rose. They were bones. For a unique type of…
“Ah. That complicates things.”
The Antinium checked himself as the first Golem strode out of the waiting room to cheers from Illivere’s citizens.
The Testings of the Golems had been a huge success, if only in the country. The Golem battles had established a champion.
Yet they continued, due to popular demand. Now, each Golem was being calibrated, from battles with each other to their intended purpose: as weapons of war.
Criminals had been procured, armed with a few weapons, to test the killing efficacy of the gladiators against them. The [Golem Artificers] loved their creations, and to test them against animals, ‘real life enemies’ like prisoners as if they were [Soldiers]…
It wasn’t a fair fight. Of course it wasn’t. The prisoners were underfed, barely had any armor on, and most weren’t dedicated [Warriors], just [Thieves] armed with rusted weapons.
Nsiia did not watch these Testings. She understood the mentality of the Golem’s creators; she just thought it was like a high-level [Warrior] bullying low-level ones to make them feel better, only with their creations as the proxy.
It was almost refreshing to see such mortal flaws in the odd culture of Illivere. So she did not watch, more pensively sunbathing on Femithain’s rooftop. The Crafter-Magus himself was hard at work, setting up more Domeheads now that the possibility of mass-manufacturing them existed.
Pet Golems, Sentience-class Golems…it was a good time for Golem-lovers. The Testings were just for the bloodthirsty citizens.
At first, they didn’t even notice the Antinium standing there in the shadow of the cells. He watched, not dispassionately so much as coldly observing. Aware of the peril he was in.
The Golems came out, three of them with kill-orders in their programming. Each one was one of the gladiators.
One Golem was from Unst, squat, armed with a spear and shield. It rotated on its torso, and spat oil at the terrified [Merchant], who loosed a crossbow bolt—and missed. He had no idea how to properly reload it. As he tried, the oil hit him.
The man knew what was coming and tossed his crossbow aside. He ran, screaming—too late. The magical gout of flame caught him and he turned into a flailing, wailing ball of fire which quickly fell and died.
The crowd cheered as the Golem rotated, searching for a new target. Another was using a rapier created for it, stabbing in a flurry at a [Mercenary] who tried to grimly block and roll—before he was caught by another Golem who diced him with eight limbs of cutting blades before hammering his dead body with a club in its single, oversized limb on the other side.
These were the repaired losers of the Testings. Each one defeated—and for good reason. The Golem with the club on one side and daggers on the other was unbalanced despite the best efforts of its creators. Magical fire and the spear didn’t stop the heaviest Golems like Hammera.
The rapier Golem just sucked. It had been inspired by the King of Duels, but it was fighting on a program, not with the sheer inspiration of a true fencer—and it was holding a copy of a rapier, scaled up, not the precise, balanced instrument.
As Nsiia had once observed, [Golem Artificers] sometimes followed the most fun idea, not the most practical.
The crowd loved it. They had no pity for the prisoners, each one a criminal who had earned their death sentence by repeated actions or terrible ones. The Golems were their heroes, and the citizens of each respective state cheered their Golem on the hardest.
Rejects they might have been, imperfect, flawed—but three versus even seven times their number was not a fair fight. Ksmvr watched the [Bandit] fleeing the spear-wielding Golem, screaming.
“Stop! The Ant—”
He died as the rapier-Golem sprayed him with what looked like little projectiles of some kind. Ah—magic bolts.
Ksmvr felt pity for the prisoners who had to stay in the open as the collars forced them forwards. However, he had to see.
He was still disoriented from the spell. He still saw Yvlon. He still felt himself trying to hold on—and losing her.
She had lost her arm. She needed him to help her! Ksmvr had lost an arm before. It was not fun.
He had failed them. Ksmvr had watched the Horns killed by the half-Elf. Tolveilouka. He had tried to stop the monster, but his weapons had sunk into its body.
The [Skirmisher] couldn’t even touch the thing without being corrupted. He had tried to distract it, hurt it with all his artifacts and Skills and cunning.
He had failed. They had been healed, but the memory was burned into his mind.
I let go. I should have held on until my arms were torn away.
Ksmvr breathed in, and out, calmly. He would have given into that knowledge a day ago. That despair, the blame. But Ceria had told him this:
“If you stay, we stay. Get it right. Never say that again.”
He was their [Teammate]. Ksmvr would find them wherever they had gone. He could not die.
Yet he was in an arena, without his adventurer friends, and he was an Antinium, enemy to all. Ksmvr could have remained in the cells and taken his chances the Golems wouldn’t target him without the prisoner’s collar, letting the rest be cut down for sport.
He could have. Should have.
Would have. However, there was something about an oversized monster slaughtering helpless people unable to fight back that bothered him. Ksmvr could have said why.
He didn’t bother. As the Golem with the oversized right club-arm and scything left ones pursued a screaming man, Ksmvr walked into the light.
“First: testing. [Piercing Strikes].”
The Antinium jumped. The screaming man was cornered against the cell, his collar blazing with heat. He saw the Golem raise its club.
Ksmvr landed on its head. He paused, waiting—but the Golem didn’t even have instructions to switch targets. Nor for if someone landed on its head. He felt a moment of disappointment.
Inferior to undead? Ksmvr lifted his shortsword. Then drove it down into the thing’s head.
[Piercing Strikes]. He carved into the metal with the first blow. Then the second. It wasn’t—smooth—yet Ksmvr felt his blades cut deep before slowing. The enchanted shortsword sang three times. Ksmvr struck again, and the Golem malfunctioned. It swung an arm around—then lurched back. He saw something glow inside and stabbed that.
The Golem’s Heart shattered. Ksmvr felt the huge thing collapse. He held his position as the metal giant of eight feet slowly collapsed into a kneeling position, the arms falling, the club and blades dropping from its hands.
The cheering crowd had been focused on the other two Golems, and then—they didn’t know what they were seeing. A bug-man, leaping onto the Golem’s head? Stabbing? Why was the Golem collapsing? Why was…?
The screams of excitement caught in throats. People began to point, or stand up. One of the Golems was down!
The handlers of the Golems looked around, shocked. Every eye in the crowd fell on the Antinium calmly standing on the fallen Golem’s head. Ksmvr spread his arms.
He waited. An arena of stunned faces greeted him. Some people wrestled with the image. What was…
The word made some shudder. Then someone finally had it.
“Antinium. The Antinium of Izril! It’s an Antinium!”
The scream that rose from the comprehension took even Ksmvr aback. Some of the spectators heard the dread word—and then nearly a hundred people shot to their feet and began running for the hills, screaming as if all of Rhir had suddenly opened up under their feet.
For some, just the name was terror. However, the stupefaction and confusion of the others stopped it from becoming a deadly stampede. In the arena, Ksmvr had no time to watch the reactions of the spectators.
Nor could he easily flee. He’d seen one prisoner trying to climb a wall with a climbing Skill. Despite the smooth stone they’d gotten up, only to run into a magical barrier protecting the audience from just that—or shrapnel from the fights.
There was only survival. So Ksmvr was already turning as another Golem spotted him.
The Spitfire Golem waddled at him on all six ‘legs’, its cylindrical torso holding the oil it was spraying at him making it look like a deformed spider. It jabbed with the spear, with commendable accuracy, rotating to track him. A shield protected it from attacks.
It was a Golem, though. So Ksmvr just took cover behind the dead Golem as oil sprayed it and caught fire. He had a theory…
The Spitfire Golem began stabbing the first one’s carcass. Ksmvr peeked his head out—then hopped back as a spear tip went through the other Golem’s metal and nearly hit him.
Yup. The Golems had been told not to target each other, but his killing of the first one meant that the Spitfire was reading two combatants. It was stabbing at the dead Golem, spraying oil on it and Ksmvr. It rotated, edging around as Ksmvr bolted left.
[Swift Rearmament]. Ksmvr changed from the sword to one of the crossbows in his belt with commendable speed. Less than half a second to change weapons! No feeling around in the bag of holding—he just reached down and the weapon’s handle was in his grip. Ksmvr rolled, and came up with the crossbow the [Merchant] had grabbed. He tsked, and reloaded it swiftly.
The Spitfire Golem was still stabbing the first Golem’s carcass. The handlers were shouting at it, directing it at the new threat. It finally turned, a gemstone ‘eye’ glittering as it locked onto Ksmvr.
Too late. The Antinium raised two crossbows and fired.
[Piercing Strikes] plus the power of a crossbow were enough to penetrate the hard armor of the Golem’s torso. He’d taken careful aim; both shots hit the mark. One scored what he knew was there.
The oil reservoir. The Spitfire excreted more, and the handlers began to shout. The Golem of Unst never noticed the liquid running down its body, and the exposed oil tank. It projected a gout of flame as Ksmvr raised his magical cloak.
He didn’t catch flame. It did.
The citizens of Unst wailed as, for the second time, their Golem died. This time by its own hand; it caught fire and began to melt as the magical oil ate into its body, damaging the magical commandments…it slumped.
Design deficiencies. Ksmvr knew the Antinium weren’t perfect, but the Queens did a better job than whoever had made these ones. He turned.
The last Golem charged at him, rapier raised. Ksmvr raised his Forceshield, readying his shortsword and dagger. Should he use…?
No. Curses and whatnot, as unlikely as it could be. Ksmvr nodded to himself. Intelligence dictated fooling the enemy. He would have to survive…like this.
It wouldn’t be too hard. The Golem had a fast attack-program, but it cycled through moves. Pisces was unpredictable. Ksmvr’s Forceshield hummed. The transparent edges distorted the air as Ksmvr met the attack.
Block, block, block—he swung his shortsword and was rewarded with an impact. The Golem pressed the attack, without fatigue. Ksmvr’s Forceshield trembled, and he watched the artifact. No—it was holding off the weakly-enchanted rapier. He struck again, but he was far too far from the Golem to hit it. Still, he connected.
“Antinium have appeared in the Testing Grounds! It—keep calm! It cannot defeat the proud Golems of Illivere!”
One of the announcers was shouting. Control reasserted itself as the people in the arena turned. Yes! That was true! The great Golems, the gladiators, would not be defeated by a single Antinium. In fact, some of the ones who owned scrying orbs were staring down at him.
Could that be the same Antinium they had just seen…?
The Antinium was retreating, just staying in range for the tip of the rapier to keep striking at it, but he’d blocked every hit with the Forceshield so far, occasionally slashing. He’d lose endurance before a Golem, though. So it was just a matter of t—
Snap. The sound of the rapier breaking was loud and metallic. The handlers cried out as half of the weapon just—broke on impact with Ksmvr’s shield.
That was what he’d been doing! Ksmvr had seen the poor excuse for a blade, enchanted, but nowhere near as flexible or strong as Pisces’ weapon. He’d attacked it while stressing the blade. It had snapped like the cheap thing it was.
Now, he lunged forwards. The rapier-Golem kept fighting, but it didn’t realize it had half a weapon. It struck him twice by the time he carved into its torso. Then it began to stutter; he found its heart and broke it.
A groan went up from the audience. Cries of pain from the Golem’s beloved fans. Some of the handlers were screaming in fury, not expecting their creations to break twice so quickly.
The Golem Hearts were shattered! That was as costly as the Golems’ frames! The perpetrator of this…this outrage, the unwelcome, unexpected guest, stood in the arena.
“I am Ksmvr of the Horns of Hammerad. A Gold-rank adventurer of Izril. I request immediate parlay with your local governor and/or leader. I mean you no harm. I was merely defending myself from your Golems.”
He paused as thousands of eyes stared down at him. This was a local broadcast in Illivere too. Ksmvr had spread his arms properly like Kevin showed him, and he debated declaring war. In the end, he decided to assert a tiny bit more dominance.
“Please do not attack me. Your shoddy creations are not capable of defeating me.”
That was his mistake. The fear, shock, and uncertainty turned to wrath in a second. The audience rushed back the way they’d come, and now hurled insults, even tried to throw objects down at the Antinium.
“Someone tell the Magus-Crafter!”
A level-headed [Official] shouted. One of the [Mages] raced to obey. He shouted, trying to restore order.
“No one go down there! Confirm it’s the same Antinium—do not—”
Too late. An enraged [Golem Artificer] had already activated another command scroll. Ksmvr turned. He reflected that he had established too much dominance, perhaps.
A Golem armed with two huge shields and a central orb stomped out of the gates. It began shooting massive bolts of magic at him as it set the spiked shields in guard mode. He began to run, taking cover.
Magus-Crafter Femithain was working below when the urgent summons arrived. Nsiia sat up and listened, her ears as sharp as a cat’s.
“There is an Antinium in…where? How did it arrive? Are you sure it is the same adventurer from the…I understand identification is difficult. Is it contained?”
“Contained in the Testing Grounds—but it is killing Golems, Magus-Crafter! It’s slain five of the contenders so far!”
Femithain had to actually digest this as Nsiia swung down from the balcony in one motion. He raised his spectacles, rubbed his ears.
“Killing—do you mean there are Golems in the arena?”
The [Messenger] hesitated.
“No, Magus-Crafter. The—the handlers are sending them in. You see—”
The Magus-Crafter seldom raised his voice. He did so now, looking incredulously at the [Messenger].
“Do you mean to say that Illivere’s Golems are attempting to murder a Gold-rank adventurer who just participated in a worldwide event?”
The [Messenger] gulped as Nsiia’s eyes widened, realizing what was happening. Femithain was already looking around, touching his finger to his temple to send a [Message].
“No, Magus-Crafter. Not exactly—the entire arena is out of control!”
“Restore order, now! I have summoned a Golem-coach—I am on my way. Do not let the Golems kill that adventurer!”
Femithain was already hurrying out of his apartments. Nsiia ran after him, and the [Messenger] tried to explain. That wasn’t exactly the problem!
The arena was rocked by cheers and shouting as the Golem, nicknamed ‘Haliclaw’, charged at the Antinium. He was bounding, always on the move, avoiding the long, slashing claws of metal attached to its arms.
It insulted Ksmvr. It had six arms, as if that made it better, and it was a whirl of blades. The people of Illivere were cheering, as it pursued the [Skirmisher] in a hit-and-run battle.
“Kill it! Kill it!”
The Golem’s handlers were watching. Ksmvr reflected that this may have been his fault. His insult had not been calculated; rather than unnerve, it had provoked.
The consequence was this: the Golem was trying to kill him. In theory, the handlers might order it to stop once it had ‘won’.
Ksmvr wasn’t willing to take that risk. Like a mob of angry children…or Golem fanatics, the crowd was now out for his blood.
It dripped onto the arena’s floor, green. The audience cheered as Haliclaw scored another narrow blow, but even the enchanted metal couldn’t easily destroy a carapace enhanced by [Barkskin]. Moreover, the cheering had a desperate edge. Vindictive, but also uncertain, so louder and more desperate because of it.
Ksmvr slid under the guard and slashed at last. His Flamecoat Dagger struck the whirling arms and half the Golem burst into flame. It kept coming, but the flames interrupted whatever vision it had. It began to slow, uncertain of its target.
“No, no, stop—”
Ksmvr heard the myriad voices pleading for him to stop. He did not. He leapt onto the back of the Golem and fired three crossbows straight into the armor.
He hit the Golem’s heart and the creation fell. The audience screamed as if he were killing actual heroes—or children. Ksmvr straightened, panting.
Seven Golems lay dead already. This last fight had taken nearly fifteen minutes. He gulped his last stamina potion and tried to raise his voice.
“This is pointless. I am a Gold-rank adventurer—you are in defiance of the Adventurer Guild l—”
The roar of anger drowned him out. Seven Golems? All killed by one Gold-rank?
This went beyond just loving Golems. This was the pride of each state of the Illivere Federation, carelessly trampled by Ksmvr. It would be one thing if a Golem did it. But a single Gold-rank?
He had to be defeated. The [Golem Artificers] in the back of the arena ignored the Magus-Crafter and other orders coming in to stop. They had to see the Antinium bleed.
Femithain and Nsiia clung to the coach as the Golem-horse raced across the ground at top speed. Femithain felt like he would lose his glasses if he didn’t hang onto them. This was far beyond normal speed. He kept sending orders, but he was watching the broadcast.
It was local on Illivere’s channels, but Nerrhavia’s Wonders—their channel—had already begun to pick up on what was happening.
Someone from Wistram was hammering him with a [Message] a second. Femithain ignored it all.
“I will revoke the Licenses of Creation for every [Golem Artificer] participating! Desist at once!”
Too late. Femithain saw the gates open and the Antinium turn warily, sensing something.
The crowd’s cheering drowned out everything as Nsiia perched, eyes narrowed, looking ahead as they sped across the ground. She looked back as she heard him curse. Her heart began to beat with…anger.
This was not a game. How dare they?
Ksmvr heard the pounding footstep that quieted the arena for a moment. The audience held its breath. They knew what was coming next.
A clanging impact. A horrible blow to one of the walls. It was followed by a growing sound. An inhuman roar of noise.
Like the times before, the programmed showoff-cycle made the Golem strike the walls with each step as it advanced. The huge maul of a weapon glowed in Ksmvr’s gaze. He saw the Golem, twice as thickly armored as the others he’d killed, raise its weapon as it stepped into the light. Ksmvr muttered an oath.
Hammera strode into the arena to a deafening sound. She raised her hammer overhead, then set herself. Her ‘gaze’ locked on Ksmvr. He had only one second to take in the former champion of the arena before she charged.
Nsiia watched, sick at heart as Hammera charged. Femithain was shouting at one of the officials, cursing himself. But it was too late.
Her first programming order was a running charge followed by a two-handed blow. The same move that had killed over half her opponents in the arena—missed.
Barely. Ksmvr leapt back, but wasn’t prepared for the algorithm that let Hammera reset her strike and try again. He still managed to propel himself away in time, but the crater the blow made clearly let the Antinium reconsider blocking, even with his magical shield. He switched it out and loosed an arrow with two arms.
The magical arrow burst into flames on the armor and Hammera swung her hammer around in a whirling motion, dispelling the flames. The audience was on their feet.
Nsiia snapped, but she knew better than to interrupt the man. She watched. This was the same Antinium from the raid, she could see it. The brave warrior who had fought with the [Prince] on the rooftop and gone into the heart of the city.
She did not know what strange road had led him here, but it was not to die at the hands of a Golem for fools! Nsiia’s eyes were slits, mimicking the cat in her lap. Yinah, was hissing, sensing the tension in the [Empress of Beasts].
All they could do was watch as Ksmvr fought for his life.
[Piercing Strikes] had their limit. Ksmvr shot his crossbows again and saw the arrows sink into the Golem’s metal…for all the good they did. She was too thick.
He tried to jump on her back, and nearly died. The creators had programmed her to block everything coming at her and her hammer was deadly. Every impact shook the ground around him.
I feel manifestly as if Ceria’s Frostmarrow Behemoth or Pisces’ undead might fare b—
Ksmvr dove and the hammer switched directions. It hit his back, but he was already leaping so it just hurled him across the arena.
He hit a wall and the audience mocked him. Ksmvr would have liked to tune them out, but he couldn’t.
Perhaps he was the foe for this after all. Only Yvlon might have survived hand-to-hand and Ceria’s ice walls and Pisces’ undead were a poor match for Hammera.
Then again, I cannot hurt it. And it will eventually strike me. Ksmvr looked around. He’d been using the other Golems as cover, but Hammera was able to even account for them.
His Flamecoat Dagger could not burn her sufficiently. His shortsword was too short and arguably too weak. His Forceshield? Ksmvr suspected it could endure one hit before needing to recharge.
What he needed was an opening to reload his crossbows. Crossbow Stan’s crossbows, plus his bow, plus the other ones Ksmvr had bought meant eight shots. That might be enough to pierce the armor.
Especially since he had a new Skill. However, Ksmvr had to reload and he had no t—
The Antinium ducked and the hammer hit the wall where his head had been. He looked at the cracks in the stone, then the cheering Golem’s handlers behind the gates.
“I will die and this will be a crimin—”
Ksmvr gave up as Hammera came at him. They weren’t being logical. He ran, keeping ahead of Hammera as it chased him. At least she was too slow to…
Logical. Ksmvr had a sudden thought. He looked back at Hammera. At the glimmering mage-walls of the arena, forming a complete barrier hemming him in. He had no real footholds but the walls to keep jumping from.
Hammera was too fast. Too strong. However…she was still a Golem. An Antinium Worker was more creative than her. Ksmvr halted. He felt in his belt pouch. He was almost out of everything. A single healing potion, a quarter left, a few magical items—
If he’d had a single acid jar, he would have tossed that, but he’d used them on the Liches. Still—Ksmvr found the item he was looking for and sighed.
The [Spiderweb] Scroll in hand, he turned. Hammera charged. Ksmvr estimated the spell might actually slow it…for about two seconds, if she didn’t tear through it on momentum alone. The carved head of the female Golem was tracking him. It turned up as Ksmvr jumped.
Past the jeering faces who recoiled. Higher, higher, above the arena’s participants in the lowest row—but not too high. Ksmvr saw them recoil before they remembered the magical walls.
Well, good for them. He saw Hammera’s weapon rising. Ksmvr waited until he was just over the tip of its swinging arc—then he cast the spell.
The magical bindings of sticky silk emerged, wrapping around its target.
The webs lashed Ksmvr to the wall and magical barrier. He was stuck, like a literal bug in a web. The audience stared. Then laughed as Hammera charged him. The weapon rose—
And thudded into the wall right below Ksmvr. He saw it rise, strike—another place right below his foot.
The Antinium’s mandibles opened in a smirk. He was right!
Golems might be programmed with many attack routines, but none of the gladiator’s creators had anticipated an enemy might just hide. There was no ‘jump and swing’ routine in Hammera.
She began to smack the wall, furiously attacking the area right below Ksmvr. He happily pulled his crossbows out and the last two enchanted bolts he carried. Let’s see…
“Hammera! Stop! Return! Return!”
The handlers realized what Ksmvr was doing too late. They shouted and Hammera’s head swiveled. She began to march back to the gates as the audience shouted.
Ironically, if the handlers hadn’t recalled her, her dodge-routines might have saved her. Instead, she presented her back to Ksmvr as she marched back. He took aim, maneuvering to half-crouch in his cocoon of webs, his improvised perch.
“Hello, my free levels. Goodbye. Blame your insufficient creation. [Weapon Art – Aggregate Volley]!”
Three crossbows fired. Even Ksmvr had no idea what would happen as the Skill activ—
Femithain saw the Skill activate as he cried out. Hammera, glorious Hammera—didn’t deserve this. It was too late. He cursed their hubris as the Antinium’s weapons glowed.
Three crossbows, one per hand. All fired in a single sound. Two glowing bolts, one steel-tipped.
However, it seemed to Femithain that the image of Ksmvr firing was just…translucent. Superimposed with another, of him firing from a slightly different angle with three more crossbows. Then—him firing one more crossbow and aiming a bow.
Four Ksmvrs, each holding ranged weapons, loosed in unison.
Eleven projectiles hit Hammera in almost the same spot in the back. [Piercing Strikes], combined with [Power Shot]. Femithain nearly covered his eyes as the single volley did what only one other force had ever done.
The impact tore open Hammera’s back. Something shattered within her and the Golem froze. She dropped her hammer and fell to her knees, arms still outstretched. Like a living being, she fell, and the wail was real. The mighty Golem fell, felled by the limitations of her being. Foolishness of her masters.
The audience was speechless. The Antinium sat in his loft, reloading the last of his bolts, daring them to send another Golem at the logical loophole in their routines.
“Those arrogant…Hammera is dead.”
Femithain couldn’t even finish the sentence. Nsiia, watching, breathed out. He looked at her and she shrugged.
A Golem was dead. She could be remade, better. She looked at the clever Antinium, smiling. Femithain glanced away from her.
It was done, then. He raised his head, to tell the Golem-horse to slow. He was at least relieved the Antinium lived. Femithain settled back until a horrible feeling struck him.
The audience had been weeping. Now—the voices were picking up again. But why? Short of a ranged Golem, and Ksmvr had defeated the last Champion, there was no w—
Nsiia’s eyes opened wide. She turned her head in horror. Ksmvr, who had been relaxing in his web-hammock, looked up in confusion.
They said the name. They chanted it. The great legend of the Testing Grounds.
Femithain’s lips moved in horror as his creation walked forwards. Nsiia just looked on Illivere, petty Illivere. She looked at the Magus-Crafter, but he seemed helpless. She clenched her hands.
The current champion emerged as they called his name.
“Domehead. Domehead! DOMEHEAD!”
Ksmvr heard the name. He didn’t understand. What was a Domeh…
The Golem strode forwards. Ksmvr saw a huge, rounded head of enchanted glass holding sparkling crystals inside. An armored body.
It had no face like Hammera. It was not fully separated from the Human form, but the unique ‘head’ was the difference.
Summoned by their chanting, unleashed by the wrathful [Golem Artificers], the Golem stopped. In the shadows of the entrance. The glowing lights in its ‘brain’ winked on and off.
It turned slightly, and seemed to regard Ksmvr.
Regard me? The Antinium…didn’t like the way the Golem paused. He had been calm this entire time, if tense. Now…a prickle of unease ran through his body.
“DOMEHEAD. KILL IT.”
The greatest Golem of Illivere’s Testings walked forwards. It had a huge battleaxe on one shoulder, a match for Hammera’s weapon. It swung it down as it strode forwards.
Ksmvr took aim with a crossbow. He shot a steel bolt—
The Golem blocked it with the flat of its weapon. Ksmvr stopped. Not even Hammera had been able to do that. Nor…
“Did they teach the Golem to do that?”
Ksmvr checked his perch. He was well out of Domehead’s reach and it didn’t look like it had ranged weapons. Take your time. Let your Skills recharge. One more volley would work. Did he have to wait ten minutes? Thirty? He—
Domehead slowed, and raised its battleaxe. It did not swing as it stood just below Ksmvr. He fired again—it jerked, and the crossbow bolt glanced off the shining dome.
Not a scratch. It backed up, axe raised and shielding its head. It seemed to realize the issue.
Ksmvr…really didn’t like that. He waited, counting his crossbow bolts. Enough for only one last volley. He had to save them. Arrows?
He was reaching for his shortbow when Domehead stooped. It picked up a broken piece of the Spitfire Golem. Then it straightened, looked at Ksmvr—and threw the piece of armor at him.
Ksmvr tried to dodge, but the webs tangled him. He felt an impact—and then was blown free. He hit the ground, sat up—and Domehead was on him.
“Silver and steel!”
Ksmvr got up and his Forceshield flashed to life. He blocked the strike and lanced out; he slashed at a knee and his sword barely cut into the armor. Domehead whirled his axe down and across. Ksmvr leapt; saw the axe reverse as he landed. It wasn’t a calculated program. He saw the Golem’s head sparkle as it saw the opening and took it.
The blow threw him across the ground. Ksmvr looked down at his torn carapace. He fumbled for a healing potion. Domehead strode over to him and swung the axe down. Ksmvr rolled and got to his feet. Now—
Fighting for his life.
A multitude of sensations assailed him. Input. Touch, taste, sound—but he couldn’t filter it. One hit him at a time.
Cheering. A roar of sound in his ears.
Pumping blood. Not in his ears, but his body. His hearts, reminding him he was alive.
Leaking. He was leaking blood.
The sound of air cutting. Thump. Vibration through the ground. Step, avoid—
Crack. The sound of his outer shell splitting. Another impact, hurling him. Pain. Hurled across the ground by a far larger force.
What did they say to describe situations like this? Like a bug hitting…
A wall. Ksmvr slid down, leaving a smear of green. He looked up and ducked the axe that left a mark in the stone. Ksmvr slashed, leaving a trail of flame on the Golem’s body. It pivoted—kicked.
Clipped him. Ksmvr bounced, rolled to his feet. The [Skirmisher] looked up. His mandibles opened, trickling blood.
“Ah. This feels familiar.”
This thing fought him. It didn’t ignore him like the undead half-Elf had. But his blades…Ksmvr looked down.
His shortsword had begun to chip. Had the magic failed in the City of the Dead? Or…
His Forceshield flickered as Domehead brought the axe down in a two-handed blow. The audience groaned. Ksmvr staggered upright.
Look at it. A proper warrior. Not a Golem. Not just a Golem. There was something there. It fought with less experience than Ksmvr. But it had the reflexes, the body to triumph.
He whispered. Domehead whirled the axe down—then cut sideways in the actual blow. It was learning. Learning from him. It had failed to finish the [Skirmisher] in nine long minutes of fighting. Barely—Ksmvr had barely leapt away, but it had learned to catch him as he fell. He survived this time by tricking it; he hopped up and before it got him, kicked off Domehead itself.
A reprieve of seconds. The Golem would never let him do that again. It was a slow learner. It picked up one trick at most each time. Then—it was never tricked again.
“Enough. I surrender.”
Ksmvr raised his arms, appealing to the jeering crowd. He spun; tried to roll.
The fist hit him and this time he thought his inner organs were damaged. Ksmvr slid down the wall. He looked towards the gate. The [Golem Artificers] were watching him.
“Make him suffer, Domehead! Then stop!”
One of them called out, her arms augmented with Golem-prosthesis instead of flesh. Ksmvr looked at them, then the Golem. A light flashed in reply. Ksmvr looked up. The First Crafter of Elbe had overridden the Magus-Crafter and she had control of Domehead with the others in this place. She would not relent until Ksmvr had paid for destroying her beloved Hammera.
The Antinium’s head rose.
Domehead charged, axe raised. A superior Golem. The beloved child of Illivere. Ksmvr had not wanted this.
You are a superlative foe. But you are still—young. And there is one more thing you lack.
His arms rose. The Antinium had dropped his shortsword, his Forceshield. The audience’s cheers caught in their throat. The [Golem Artificers] stared. Surely not—they cried out a warning.
Ksmvr’s crossbows aimed up. Domehead saw it and began to evade. However, it had been baited into the charge.
It learned one thing at a time. It never made the same mistake twice.
If it got the chance to learn.
Ksmvr fired. He felt—saw himself loosing the other crossbows, the arrow. The last of his ammunition.
He hit Domehead square-on. The shriek in his ears was more than the rending metal. The audience watched as the Golem stumbled back and…the axe fell.
The Antinium had missed. Or rather, he had shot slightly off-target. The blow had eaten through Domehead’s right arm, exposing the inner logic of its body. The arm hung, armor torn, unable to hold the axe!
Domehead’s lights…went dark. It sagged, then stood there.
Magic circuits broken. Ksmvr had observed the flaw of Golems; if their command matrices broke. These gladiator types had them everywhere, so just one large wound did them in. Even if not, he had gotten the arm.
He sagged back, reaching for another arrow. Worst-case scenario: the audience and handlers came after him. He might have to fight his way out. If he did—he’d steal a healing potion. He was out. He—
—Saw the lights begin to flicker in the Golem’s crystal dome. Ksmvr stopped. He searched for another Horns-style epitaph and gave up.
“This is ridiculous. I object.”
The Golem was moving. Its ‘mind’ was damaged. But the secondary, backup command spells began activating. Domehead rose a second time, just like before. The audience was cheering, howling. They knew.
The Golem checked the axe lying on the ground. Its damaged arm it couldn’t move. Then—it raised its good arm. It made a fist.
Ksmvr began swearing like Ceria. The Golem walked forwards. Now—it cut the air with the one fist. It moved like—
A living warrior. With all the agility and speed of the woman it had learned from. A better style for fighting an Antinium too.
Ksmvr slowly got up from where he was sitting. His shortsword and Forceshield rose. He raised the shield—
The magic shattered. The impact threw him against the wall. He blocked with the flat of his shortsword.
The fist hit him in the chest anyways. His blade shattered.
Ksmvr pushed off the wall, in a jumping lunge through the legs of the Golem. He landed. His blade!
“They gave me that after Albez. Because I helped.”
The Antinium was muttering. Domehead whirled. Began to stride over. Ksmvr pushed himself up.
“That. Was my sword.”
He looked at Domehead. Reached for his bag of holding.
Missing. His belt was gone. His cape had been torn away. Ksmvr was all but naked. Bleeding.
Am I dying? He wasn’t sure. Domehead paused, assessing him. The audience was cheering him.
They didn’t cheer Ksmvr. The Antinium knew he was outmatched in every way. His vision was hazy. It—flickered—
Then he was back in the Village of Death. In the cathedral, watching as the undead tore apart his team. Ksmvr heard his own voice.
“Stop. Stop. Why do you not touch me?”
Tolveilouka Ve’delina Mer appeared instead of Domehead for a moment. Holding Yvlon. Pulling at her arm.
“Because this hurts you.”
Ksmvr saw it. He saw himself, attacking, doing nothing. He looked up at Domehead. The Golem, with its superior body.
My body is so weak. He only had a Worker’s body. Not even the ones of the other Hives. This—was not fair. Rather than being afraid, though…Ksmvr felt it rising in his chest.
He was getting—angry. Furious.
The Antinium did not hear the worried [Golem Artificers] and handlers calling for Domehead to stop. That last attack had frightened them, brought them to their senses. They did not want to murder an actual Gold-rank.
Much less someone on television. They were trying to order Domehead, use the spells to call him back.
However, his inner command spells were broken. He was running on his secondary mind.
Domehead could still hear. However, all he heard was the audience’s orders.
“Kill it! KILL IT.”
Illivere’s citizens were screaming at Domehead. So the Golem obeyed. It raised its fist, waiting, checking the Antinium as it advanced, seeing where it would dodge to.
Ksmvr didn’t move. His three hands were opening and closing. Then the Antinium looked up. One of his antennae had been torn. It hung by a thread from his head. He reached up—pulled it away. Looked at it. Tossed it down.
Green blood ran from his wounds. The [Skirmisher] looked up at Domehead. The Golem hesitated.
There was something off about the Antinium. Something in Domehead, a burgeoning understanding told him…
Ksmvr lifted his fists. He leapt at Domehead, crashing into the Golem’s chest.
Domehead barely moved. However, the lights in its head flashed furiously. If it was anything, in that split second, it was confused. This was not a sensible move. So why…?
It reacted instantly. The Golem swung a fist and Ksmvr dodged, kicking a knee. Then he jumped—a foot kicked Domehead’s ‘face’, hitting the crystal dome so hard Domehead sensed Ksmvr’s shell breaking. The Antinium grabbed hold of Domehead with one hand and punched.
His fist met the dome and his body cracked. His carapace was weaker than the enchanted glass.
Yet Domehead felt the impact. No danger. Even so, it was aware of the weakness. Domehead swung its body around. An uppercut caught Ksmvr—he lost his grip, went flying.
He landed and stood up, within seconds of falling. Domehead charged, but again—the Antinium jumped at him, rather than retreat. A bloody fist hammered Domehead’s face in the exact same spot. It left green in the impact.
Domehead hammered the Antinium down. However, it didn’t manage to stomp Ksmvr to paste. The Antinium whirled, leapt up. Struck at Domehead’s face again.
Futile? Domehead was aware of what the Antinium was trying to do. But the odds of success were remote. It was confused by the [Skirmisher] not seeking another weapon. Not retreating. It was being damaged by the exchanges.
Yet it kept fighting. Something odd flickered in Domehead’s understanding of the battle. Everything told the Golem that it was winning. Except for how the Antinium was behaving.
It was winning. How was it said again? Like a bug fighting a wall. That was the difference in their sizes and strengths. Domehead knocked Ksmvr down. Each blow sent the Antinium staggering, [Barkskin] the only thing keeping his body together.
The [Skirmisher] kept coming. He broke his fists on the same spot. He jumped, trailing blood. The enchanted crystal never so much as moved.
The Golem…was winning. With every move. Learning from the exchange of blows how to fight such a nimble enemy. Domehead could calculate victory.
If it were another Golem without the new understanding, it might have done better. For Domehead began to think. It began to know.
It began to wonder if Ksmvr could be killed. The Antinium kept getting back up. Domehead was almost certain that one full-force blow would end it. But Domehead could think.
Uncertainty formed in the Golem’s mind. Even…it looked at the Antinium. It was making sound. Screaming at him. What was this sensation? Domehead began to try to swing faster, more aggressively.
Then Ksmvr’s bloody fist cracked the Golem’s head.
The Magus-Crafter arrived too late. Too slow, panting, the guards fighting through the press of citizens. He heard the screaming, the shouts. From the top of the arena, he looked down, far too far to reach them in time.
The Antinium had cracked Domehead. The crystal dome developed a stress-fracture from the insane Antinium’s blows. The barehanded strikes—
Both Antinium and Golem reeled back as Ksmvr landed on the ground. He wanted to jump again, but he stumbled. Then—sat down.
He was losing consciousness. For a moment, Ksmvr just saw white, as if the sands of the Testing area had engulfed the world. His mind went clear, and he heard a voice.
[Conditions Met: H—]
Ksmvr’s head jerked up. He ducked a fist ready to end everything. Looked up.
Domehead stumbled backwards, the spider web crack on its crystalline dome. It was damaged! The Antinium had done this. It was…in danger. Of being destroyed.
Of…dying? Domehead processed that. The Golem realized something, as it saw the Antinium lift its fists.
No. It did not want that. Domehead wanted. Domehead was afraid. In desperation, it shielded its face as Ksmvr leapt again, screaming like a thing from the depths of Rhir’s nightmares. Its arm rose.
It didn’t want to die.
The blow knocked Ksmvr back onto the sands. He lay on his back shell, feeling something break that was also him. The voice was trying to speak.
Ksmvr raised his arms. Tried to move. He rolled to his feet, hopped sideways. He was losing his strength. The second punch clipped him and he stumbled. Everything flashed.
A little voice in Ksmvr’s head wondered what new level he was getting. If I lie down, I can hear what it says. He wanted to. But—he twisted as a fist lashed the air. Domehead was lashing out, flailing, no longer mimicking a trained warrior, just swinging like a terrified child.
If he lay down, if one fist struck him, he would never know what it said. End this. Ksmvr leaned out of the way of a punch.
Domehead saw the Antinium coming, moving forwards, ducking its wild swings, looking for the moment to jump and break its head.
Kill it. The Golem’s attack routines were too erratic. It couldn’t hit Ksmvr, not with one arm, no matter how it swung. The Golem saw the [Skirmisher] tense and realized it had opened itself up with a wide, unbalancing swing.
Weapon broken! Arm insufficient! Do not want to die! The Golem processed each fact, struggling. Searching for—for—an answer.
It found one. Ksmvr saw the Golem’s body twist. The arm, swinging wide—he was only focused on it. Ksmvr saw a foot rise and had a flash of thought.
It did not know how to kick, though—
The kick was a copy of Ksmvr’s. A fast blow. Not a punch.
Ksmvr staggered and heard a crunch. Something hit him in the leg. He began to jump to end this.
He—could not. Ksmvr tried again, but now he was swaying. Falling over. Why?
The Antinium looked down. His right leg was bent inwards. The Golem had kicked him.
Ksmvr fell down. He fought to rise, scrabbling at the ground with his three hands, to push himself up. Balance on one leg.
He saw a foot in front of him and looked up. The armored body, the Golem made of metal…Domehead, stood over him, intact arm raised.
The Antinium went still. His flickering mind became clear again. He realized he was out of time. He looked up and saw Domehead. It had fought like a person. Did it…have a mind?
They had fought, two warriors created by the greatest minds of their people. Two machines, designed to improve. Learning to improve themselves.
The younger one looked down on the older. The Antinium stared up, mandibles moving without making actual sound. Ksmvr felt—a bit bitter.
If he’d had one more weapon. Two more levels…
More time. A second to sleep. Ksmvr looked up and stared into the flashing crystals of the Golem’s face. He murmured, from one learning machine to another. Was this what Ksmvr had been like, before he met the Horns?
The shadow fell over his head. Ksmvr waited, staring up at those beautiful lights.
The audience of Illivere saw the end of the duel and screamed their triumph. Only a few realized the implications of what was happening. Now, [Golem Artificers] were trying to enter the Testing Grounds themselves, to deactivate Domehead before it was too late.
Too late. They should have stopped it before it even began. A voice filled with anger and frustration screamed from halfway down the stadium’s seating. He cried out to his creation, but his voice was lost amid the thunder of voices.
Magus-Crafter Femithain bellowed at Domehead. He was too far away, though, and even as he fought to shove oblivious citizens aside, they knocked him backwards, not caring who he was, only intent on watching. Femithain lifted his wand—and lowered it, realizing he’d been about to attack his own citizens! He ground his teeth, furious, but unable to fight forwards. He was no [Warrior].
A figure burst through a throng of people pressed together, on their feet, pushing to see. A [Warrior]—a woman—an [Empress] leapt, knocking citizens of Illivere aside with wild strength.
Nsiia of Tiqr. Like a beast herself, she leapt, from all fours to two legs, knocking people aside, using the arena’s seats and even the crowd to launch herself closer. Femithain saw her approaching the glittering magical boundary of the Testing Grounds. She wouldn’t make it through, though. Not without—
The Magus-Crafter touched a bracelet hanging from his wrist, and one of the runes attached to it flashed. The [Empress of Beasts] saw the magic fade and leapt.
Nsiia landed in the arena as the Antinium fell. Domehead was striding forwards, raising its arm.
The [Empress of Beasts] shouted, raising her hand. She began to run forwards, and the Golem whirled.
Domehead’s arm raised to attack the second combatant—then it recognized Nsiia. It hesitated, recalling other commands made by its creator.
Nsiia. Protect. Observe. Learn.
She had taught it how to use its hands. Domehead did not attack her. It turned back to Ksmvr. The shouting from the crowd hadn’t died down, and it echoed Domehead’s simple thoughts.
It did not see the Antinium looking up at it, unable to dodge. All Domehead saw was danger. Death. Destruction!
“Domehead, stand down! The Antinium can no longer fight! He is an adventurer! Enough!”
Nsiia shouted. She saw something on the ground and snatched it up as she ran, skidding in front of Ksmvr and Domehead. The Golem ignored her, raising its arm for a blow until it saw the [Empress] standing there.
Femithain’s breath caught suddenly. He saw Nsiia raising her arms, blocking the Golem as it raised its arm. She was holding something. Snatched from where it had fallen.
Domehead’s axe. The [Empress] lifted it with an [Elephant’s Strength]. Putting herself between the wounded Antinium and the Golem. The cheering, the blood-crazed demands for death, hesitated as the people saw the Empress of Beasts holding the axe.
She was facing down the damaged Golem. It was hesitating, between the threat and her. It tried to strike past Nsiia and she raised the axe, pivoting to shield the prone Antinium. The woman looked up as Domehead’s arm stopped—then rose once more.
Protect Nsiia. Kill the Antinium.
Two thoughts warred in Domehead’s mind. It did not understand what she was doing. It was afraid. Domehead registered a threat. The Empress was holding an axe. Its axe. But she would not attack. She was designated as—
“Do not do this, Domehead. I will do what I must.”
Threat? The Golem looked down at her. It saw the Antinium stir. Domehead lifted its arm. The Antinium had to die or it would.
Femithain was fighting down towards her. The First Crafter of Elbe, the other citizens realized what she was planning on doing. They began to shriek at Nsiia too.
“Stop! Do not hurt Domehead! Stop!”
The Empress of Tiqr’s head slowly rotated, taking in the arena, the distant Magus-Crafter—the [Golem Artificers] rushing into the arena. She looked up at the terrified Golem. The First Crafter of Elbe.
All of this, and all their eyes on the precious Golem. None for…she looked down at the Antinium. Was he smiling?
Ksmvr murmured again. In front of her, Domehead raised its arm. Nsiia looked up. Her arm rose as the Golem’s fell.
The Testing Grounds were filled with a shriek. Shouting. Gasps. A single memory burned into Femithain’s eyes as Nsiia saw Domehead charging, swinging its arm down.
The axe rose. He was throwing himself forwards, disbelieving even as he saw. She couldn’t be intending…? The sheer madness of it—not Domehead! Not the first—
The same woman who would crush a Golem for a cat stood in front of the valiant, wounded warrior. She cared not for his species, and took careful aim as her weapon rose.
Domehead brought its arm down. Nsiia swung the axe first. She never looked away from the Golem. Domehead did not understand. It beheld her sadly smiling fac—
The axe smashed the crystal dome. Ksmvr saw it break the delicate crystals. Shatter Domehead’s…
A spray of crystal and metal landed around the Testing Arena. Some shards cut open the Golem handlers, wounding one badly enough to send her to the ground. The rest just stood, paralyzed, slowing to a halt. Falling to their knees.
Femithain fell down. He lost strength; slid down the steps. As if his strings had been cut. He saw Domehead lying there. The audience stood, unable to believe what they had seen.
Domehead stood there, swaying, as the magical lights shone. Then—it fell forwards. The first Sentient-class Golem collapsed without a sound, armor broken. Head shattered.
In the new silence, Nsiia bowed her head for a moment, standing over the fallen creation. Then, the [Empress of Beasts] turned to the living. She tossed the axe aside and bent.
The sands had turned green with blood. She uncorked a healing potion, reached out, fingers hesitating to touch the alien ‘skin’—the smooth carapace. She looked into the lidless, multi-faceted eyes, astonished by his appearance up close. Then she spoke, as she offered him the potion.
“Brave warrior. Adventurer. Are you alright?”
A trembling hand took the potion. Then—the [Skirmisher] felt his body healing. Death receding. His head rose, and there she was.
The [Empress of Beasts] knelt amid the horrified wail and shrieks of fury, ignoring them. Her arm was outstretched; her hand towards his face. Offering to pull him up.
The first such face he had seen since arriving. A rare sight wherever he went.
Ksmvr looked up into the smiling face. The outstretched hand. He raised his weakly, and took it.
The Magus-Crafter descended, in the silence, as the First Crafter of Elbe sank to her knees, looking at the fallen Golems. Hammera and Domehead. Both…
Dead? The First Crafter’s tears ran down her face. Femithain could not look at her; could not spare a thought or else his anger would consume his normally-rational mind. Her fault. Her fault—
But also hers. She stood, supporting the barely-conscious Antinium, looping two of his arms around her shoulders, slightly stooped so she could support him. Nsiia stood in front of Domehead.
“Call for a [Healer]! A good one—one that can tend to other species! Send word to the Adventurer’s guild! To the…”
She was trying to order one of the Golem handlers in the Testing grounds, but everyone was just gathered around Domehead. Nsiia hissed, turned her head—
Met Femithain’s gaze. The Magus-Crafter slowed. He saw Ksmvr, but he could not help but look at Domehead. Broken. Armor deformed! The killing blow dealt with its own weapon. The crystals were shattered across the entire arena.
His killer stood there. Femithain’s horror-struck gaze slowly moved upwards and met hers. The [Empress of Beasts] and the Magus-Crafter of Illivere’s looked at each other. For the first time—they beheld the gulf between them.
“—stop standing around. Summon—summon every [Golem Artificer] and [Craftsman] over Level 30 at once! Keep the others back!”
“This warrior needs treatment, Femithain.”
Two voices were speaking. Ksmvr was not unconscious. Nor could he really see. He was alive. He heard them arguing.
One was female. Shorter by a bit than the tall, distraught one with the precise voice. Hedault-like? Oh—the glasses. Ksmvr’s impression was of two blurry figures, standing in the arena as he lay, propped up against something.
A furry thing was nudging his face. Something licked his cheek, decided his blood was not edible, and began gagging. Ksmvr was distracted by this, but listening. Trying to make sense of it.
“Stand back! All of you! I will not allow—[Bubble of Displacement]! Stand back! Domehead may yet live! His heart is still there!”
A babble of voices as the man spoke, casting a spell. They were gathered around the ruined form. The woman’s voice was irate.
“Of course it can. Did you think I destroyed it entirely. Femithain! A Gold-rank adventurer lies wounded and all you can think about is the tool that injured him? Who will be held to account for this?”
“Held to account? You—you should be hung! You monster!”
A woman flung herself at Ksmvr’s savior. Some others dragged her back. The [Empress] stood alone, facing a wrathful crowd and their leader. The man spoke to one, urgently.
“No one else is to be allowed into the Testing Grounds. Move the crowd back. Set up barriers, magical and physical. Sand, wind—nothing must damage his heart! We will perform the reconstruction here, import the entire team if need be—Nsiia. Stand back. You…a trial must be held for this. Someone—you—summon Armsmaster Dellic. Have an escort formed.”
“To arrest her? Magus-Crafter, did you not see what she’s done?”
“I see, First Crafter. Empress Nsiia is a guest of the nation, a prisoner of war. She will be placed into custody with an escort—for her safety. The adventurer, Ksmvr, I believe, too.”
The arguing crowd was interrupted by the angry woman.
“Femithain! Have you gone mad?”
He turned to her. She was gesturing to Ksmvr. The Magus-Crafter’s voice was cold.
“Have you? You destroyed Domehead, Nsiia. What…what possessed you? The Golem was modeled after you.”
“I did not destroy its heart, as you said. Look around you, Femithain. This madness! Will you not arrest the First Crafter and these fools for nearly slaughtering an innocent adventurer?”
“Innocent? He killed the Golems here! Hammera—”
Nsiia spun, and someone fell silent. Femithain hesitated.
“There will be a trial. Judgment for all parties responsible. This is a disgrace.”
All those around him—the blurry, fading shapes—looked worried. Ksmvr tried to smile. However, the [Empress]’ fury wasn’t diminished at all. They stepped closer, voices growing quieter as the crowd was forced back—but more intense.
“Nsiia. I believe it would be best if you removed yourself. With the adventurer. I…cannot…contain my emotions towards you at this moment.”
Her voice was wrathful.
“Your emotions. Look around you, Femithain. Look at what these fools did!”
“I am aware of their incredible display of—punishment will be administered.”
She shook her head; he did not understand.
“That is not the problem. This would not have happened. These idiots would not have defied you, ignored your direct orders, not if you ruled them. Look at how they kneel before the Golems when there are dead people, criminal or not—lying on the sands.”
She pointed furiously at Ksmvr. Femithain turned; Ksmvr tried to wave at him and ask if his vision should be turning on and off every second. A furry thing was also on his chest. Nsiia hissed.
“They are children! Little bullies whose pride could not bear one true insult from this warrior’s lips! Surprised when a victim fought back!”
Her contempt knew no bounds. Ksmvr felt, hazily, that there were good points here, and he would like to listen and participate—but could he have another healing potion, please? And maybe a [Healer]?
Femithain’s head lowered, but not out of shame. He regarded Nsiia. His voice was…more dispassionate. Not without passion, but with it carefully controlled. Disappointment was what Ksmvr heard in his tones.
“Illivere cares for Golems as much as people. Perhaps too much, Empress Nsiia. But if we are at fault—and we are—what of you?”
“You would reproach me for saving a life over a thing, even if it were precious?”
She scoffed. Femithain’s voice grew colder. Harsher.
“You could have stopped Domehead any number of ways. Do not obfuscate, please, Nsiia. You are a skilled [Warrior]. You could have damaged his legs, his arm—even protected the Antinium. You struck the dome on purpose. Was it to make your point? Or punish us?”
Her silence was long. At last, the woman looked away.
“It seems Illivere believes things are worth more than lives, in the end.”
She turned towards Ksmvr, and Femithain grabbed her. The two looked at each other. The Magus-Crafter spoke, his voice deceptively soft.
“Is there nothing in this world we can shatter that will hurt you, Empress Nsiia? You act as if only what breathes has value. What about the Spear of Tiqr? What about its crown, the palace, the nation itself? You are unkind. I thought better of you before this moment.”
“And I of you.”
Then she pulled away and bent towards Ksmvr. He let the world dwindle, then. Alive. He was…alive. That was all.
The other machine-man, man-of-machines lay broken. The one who lived was grateful. He realized he had been afraid of death.
They both had been.
That was how Ksmvr came to the Illivere Federation. Of course, he did not learn this for a while. By the time he woke up, he found his wounds had been tended to. He was lying in bed.
In a kind of…well, captivity. But also as a dubious ‘guest’, in the Magus-Crafter’s residence. Also under guard—actual guard—was the [Empress of Beasts].
Femithain sat in his study, head in his hands. Outside, the first demonstrations against the political prisoner, demands for her execution, were still taking place, blocked by the line of living guards and Golems.
Domehead was undergoing repairs in the arena. Less easy to mend were other things. Trust. Friendship…harsh words had been said. He thought of her words, but was aware he was in no fit state of mind to reasonably discuss or even entertain the concepts they’d thrown at each other.
He just didn’t understand. Didn’t understand Nsiia. Did she think nothing died when the lights went out? That even if his body was mended, Domehead wasn’t…wasn’t…?
Femithain thought he had seen something glorious in the glowing lights of the Golem’s ‘head’ a moment before the end. Something that had been lost. Which he feared, even if many more of his kind were made, would never come back.
In the privacy of his study, the Magus-Crafter removed his spectacles and wiped at his eyes. Then fumbled for a handkerchief, because the tears kept flowing forth. He had never really desired a son, nor thought of Domehead as one. He was not Femithain’s alone.
Yet the Magus-Crafter was convinced he had just seen a child die.
Ksmvr, the Gold-rank adventurer, murderer of Hammera and many innocent Golems, survivor of the raid on the Village of the Dead and member of the Horns of Hammerad lay in the bed, unable to move.
He was the first Antinium to ever set foot in Chandrar. He knew there would be consequences. He did not know where his team was.
Ksmvr was alive. He would take that. The Antinium stared at the ceiling.
“I am alive.”
He lay his head back and listened to the voice inform him of his levels.
[Conditions Not Met: Skirmisher → ??? Class Denied.]
[Conditions Met: Skirmisher → Brave Skirmisher Class!]
[Brave Skirmisher Level 30!]
[Skill – Knuckles of Iron obtained!]
[Skill – Surpass Limits obtained!]
The Antinium was confused. He had never heard that kind of phrasing before. Ksmvr wondered why it had happened. Then it became obvious when he thought of Yvlon, his team, his wounded condition.
“Ah. I am a disgrace.”
He had let them down again. Ksmvr nodded and lay there, wishing he could close his eyes. After a while, a cat crawled curiously onto his chest, her Golem-legs clicking against his carapace. She paused. Then curled up as the hand came up to pet. Then all three.
That was something, at least.
Ironically, the fates of Ksmvr and Yvlon Byres became known before that of Ceria and Pisces—although neither was able to be scried. In fact, the only scryable member of the Horns of Hammerad was Ceria. Wherever she was.
However, within days, friends of the Horns would know that Ksmvr and Yvlon lived—just not how to immediately affect their return for reasons owing to more than mere geography. Ksmvr’s issue was due to his species, the politics of what had happened, and the issue of justice, exacerbated by his savior, the Empress of Beasts.
Yvlon’s issue was just as complex, but the root of it lay with truth and lies.
Truth and lies. Such things mattered greatly in any nation. In the greatest of nations, an empire of lesser kingdoms, with more royalty in one nation than other kingdoms had in their aristocracy? Truth mattered more in Nerrhavia’s Fallen, the greatest of the Stitchfolk nations.
In this case, truth was bureaucracy. A [Watchman], [Guardswoman], [Judge], [Bounty Hunter], or any number of the law-abiding classes in Nerrhavia’s Fallen relied on truth as a foundation of their work.
Let lesser nations ‘establish’ the truth. If you had the wealth—and Nerrhavia did—why not cast truth spells every time? Justice became faster, and the vast superpower of Chandrar endured.
So when the [Magistrate] Ducaz of the Ishiz-silk region of Nerrhavia’s Fallen announced that he had found one of the Horns of Hammerad, there was much rejoicing and interest, for one of the lesser [Princes] of the nation had himself been involved in the Village of the Dead’s raid, and his good word combined with her natural fame and wealth would see her well-equipped to wherever she wanted to go.
Indeed, she might even earn a rare invitation to come to Nerrhavia Fallen’s courts in one of the capitals—with the understanding it wasn’t as much an invitation—perhaps to even meet Queen Yisame herself, or certainly the many people who wanted to see a minor celebrity in person or ask her for details of the inner city within the Village of the Dead, or make offers on the wealth now claimable by her team. Regardless, Yvlon was set in the best position to find her team.
…Or she would have been. If truth had prevailed throughout the systems of government, that was exactly what would have happened, the truth being the pillar upon which all else stood.
It only took one lie. That one lie was from the [Magistrate] Ducaz to his immediate superior, a [Regional Administrator] whose reputation was less-than-stellar, although nothing to merit investigation. They were friends, which was discouraged for obvious reasons between officials, but the conversation was nevertheless quite formal.
“I regret to tell you a—an adventurer, a Human woman—appeared in my city, quite disoriented. When my guards tried to take her into protective custody and ask how she came to be here, she became violent! I regret to inform you, Administrator Vebrynthe, that no less than eighteen of my guards are—”
The [Regional Administrator] was aghast. Ducaz’s face was pale and sweaty. The Stitch-man of the Satin-caste amended his words.
“Not dead, Administrator! Wounded! Eighteen wounded…four dead. A terrible thing. Civilians hurt too! Bodies everywhere. If we were not String Folk and thus superior against the perils of cuts and even limb displacement, it would have surely been a massacre unlike any other in the memory of my provinces! I can only thank luck, the bravery of my guards—whom I led to subdue this violent Human—that we managed to subdue her with fewer casualties. She was…quite peculiar, having an ah, unique coloration to her arms and powerful Skills.”
Administrator Vebrynthe listened carefully. He was not a stupid man, and was in fact, formerly of the Cloth-caste, but had been elevated due to his ability to manage a region. As well as his ability to create beneficial friendships.
He listened to what Ducaz said. He read the man’s face, his pale, nervous expression, the look of guilt, and what Ducaz was not saying.
Claims about his personal heroism aside, Vebrynthe was highly suspect about ‘unique coloration’ of a Human woman’s arms. He was quite capable of investigating, asking questions, or doing any number of things.
What he did do was produce a powerful truth crystal and raise it.
“Well, I trust you will improve security, valiance of your militia or not, Magistrate. As for punishment…this woman will be faced with Nerrhavia Fallen’s wrath. If what you say is true, of course? Just a formality.”
He smiled at Ducaz’s expression, but the [Magistrate] went through the lengthy confirmation that nothing but the truth had been said. Vebrynthe added his seal to the confirmation—then promptly passed the entire business to a lesser [Scribe], [Clerk], or so on to deal with.
The administrator could have investigated the Human woman who’d caused all this mess. Looked into the issue. And, at the very least, he could have done a double-test of Ducaz’s claims, which would probably have foiled the [Corrupt Magistrate]’s [One Good Lie] Skill.
He did not. Vebrynthe was quite happy to have Ducaz in his debt. And it only took one lie. For, when Vebrynthe’s [Scribe] submitted it along with a series of reports to a [Judiciary] for the entire area, who was in another branch of government not superior, but not inferior to the [Regional Administrator] and who could have stopped injustice or at least, reported it—there was no need.
All the [Judiciary] saw was the truth, taken down by Vebrynthe’s people and certified. Vebrynthe had written Ducaz’s statement down, received a correct truth spell.
So when the [Judiciary] made a ruling and submitted it to the capitol for a quick review, then down to Bounty Hunter’s Guilds, law enforcement, and of course, all the relevant places for the punishment to take place—everyone saw the [Judiciary] had been truth-certified as having made an unbiased ruling to the best of his ability, which he had.
The [Guards] executed the order, as did the [Scribes] in the Bounty Hunter’s Guild who registered the criminal’s record—in case they escaped or it came up later—and the entire system worked perfectly on the assumption that truth had held all the way through. It had to. Or else everything that happened next was based on faulty ground.
That was how Yvlon awoke to find her trouble with Ducaz and ill-timed rampage with her new Skill had landed her in even more trouble.
The first thing she remembered was not killing anyone. Yvlon remembered that distinctly. She had sliced and cut—but only on idiots with stitch-marks. Even in her haze of fury at that man, she’d had that amount of morality.
The second was realizing she was never going to fight out of the city, seeing hundreds of [Guards] running at her—and blockading herself in the very same place Ducaz had been interrogating her in. Yvlon had looked at the artifacts on the table, at the door—
…And surrendered. There was no point using one of the damned scrolls taken from the Putrid One’s lair. If she could even activate it, and she’d doubted she could, Yvlon would have no idea what it did, or probably done it incorrectly.
Stuff like that was how the [Historians] came to write, ‘the giant crater eighteen miles wide’ in the history books. Yvlon had done her best, though. She’d surrendered after five minutes, just as they were preparing to rush her.
Well. Ducaz hadn’t dared get close, but he’d ordered his people to strip Yvlon naked and search the place. Which they had, right before [Sleep]-spelling her into the next world. She had just enough time for them to find the artifacts she’d hidden in the floorboards, the bag of holding she’d tried to toss out of the window just to spite them, and everything else.
Not much else to search after you were naked; at least some of the [Guards] had been female; the ones checking her hair. They’d taken everything, except her highly-magical arms, and used a [Detect Magic] spell to find the rest.
So in short, as Yvlon woke up, the first flashes that hit her were the recollections of her rampage, the events in the Village of Death, the knowledge she had no idea where her teammates were, and that Ducaz had all her gear. As wakeups went…it wasn’t a great one. Topped perhaps only by the day after the Liscor dungeon raid.
At least then she’d woken up in an actual bed. Yvlon realized she was waking up in this ‘worst morning ever’, her good arm cuffed to her left leg by what felt like three manacles, and another with her legs together. She was hunched over—wearing some kind of clothes, thank silver—bruised, in motion—oh, and someone had put an actual hemp bag over her head.
It was hard to breathe. Yvlon cursed and struggled and a bump—like the one that had woken her—made her slump over. She realized she was in a vehicle, being transported. Someone else grunted; shoved her.
Another hand awkwardly dragged the bag off Yvlon’s head with some of her hair. She was then blinded, hit in the face by some dust caught on the wind, and after cursing, blinking, trying to rub her face to no avail, able to see.
She was in a damned wagon. Being transported with a group of other people—all in chains, if not as clearly magical as hers were—along a road, perhaps a trade road. A grimy Stitchfolk woman sitting across from her let the hemp bag fall to the wagon’s floor, with the others from the nine or so passengers. She stared at Yvlon. Yvlon stared back, realizing she was one of two Humans in the entire lot.
The Stitchfolk woman eyed Yvlon, perhaps a bit surprised to see her, or expecting someone else more war-torn than the daughter of House Byres. The others were silent, appraising, and Yvlon was just looking towards the front of the wagon-train and the drivers when her fellow passenger decided to speak.
“Hey, you. You’re finally awake. You were trying to cross the border, right? Walked right into that ambush, same as us. And that [Thief] over there.”
Yvlon stared at the woman. She tried to get her arm to her ear, but gave up.
“What? No. What are you talking about?”
The Stitch-woman blinked.
“Oh. My mistake. I thought you were someone else.”
Her gaze locked onto Yvlon again, this time searching for clues. She noted Yvlon’s golden hair, smudged, but distinctly lighter skin, her metallic arms…and clearly had no hints.
“You. You’re…part-Dullahan? A [Sailor] from one of the ports?”
The other prisoners glanced at Yvlon. They had seen her odd shackles; her missing arm. But it seemed they had conflated her with someone else. Yvlon stared around.
What she saw were grimy, disheveled faces. Sun-darkened skin, or…cloth. Over three quarters of the prisoners on the slow-rolling wagons moving down the road were String People.
They were all clearly prisoners. Yvlon saw a shivering woman; the aforementioned [Thief]. She tried to speak again, and coughed.
“I—eck—where am I?”
The others chuckled. The woman across from her—this entire wagon was female, Yvlon realized—grinned, mirthlessly.
“Got hit too hard? We’re all prisoners, or did you forget even that?”
Half a dozen others grinned; they all wore the same kind of ragged, full-body clothes, meant to cover themselves completely. The [Thief] looked more like a city-woman, for all she was a Stitchperson too. She spat.
“Damn you [Storm Bandits]. Nerrhavia was fine until you came along. The Watch was nice and lazy. If they hadn’t been looking for you, I could have stolen that horse and been halfway to Savere by now. ”
She glanced at Yvlon.
“You and me, we shouldn’t be here. It’s the [Storm Bandits] that they w—”
Someone kicked her with both legs, swinging their chained manacles up.
“Shut up, you fool. We’re all criminals here. You’re in the company of Merr’s Stormbandits, so I’d watch your tongue, [Thief]. We remember faces. You had better hope we don’t get put in the same cell.”
All of the [Bandits] grinned nastily and the [Thief] gulped. She fell silent as an angry voice called back.
“By Nerrhavia’s sands, shut up back there!”
Yvlon shook her head. She still felt disoriented. She glanced at a gagged prisoner sitting at the back.
“And who’s that?”
This time the first [Storm Bandit] smiled mirthlessly.
“Watch your tongue, Human or whoever you are. That’s our glorious leader, Merr the Storm. [Bandit Lady] and the reason an entire army was lying in wait for us.”
Yvlon saw an older woman glance at her; she was gagged and bound almost as extensively as the Gold-rank adventurer. She supposed that meant something. A [Bandit Lady]? Izril didn’t usually have enough [Bandits] for a [Bandit Raid Leader]…
“So who are you, then? That poor idiot must be the other Human over there.”
The [Bandit] eyed Yvlon; there were six wagons all rolling down a long trade road, occasionally passing by other vehicles. The landscape was dusty. Flat. Yet the dust coming off the dried road and carried up into the hot air almost looked like snow…
Yvlon blinked and cursed. Nope. The wind began to pick up and someone called out in a grieved voice.
“Wind’s picking up! Lower your heads!”
The [Guards] and prisoners both ducked low. Yvlon realized the bags had been for their protection as the wind blew a sandstorm over the road. Everyone’s head was ducked and sand whipped exposed skin until they were clear. One of the [Guards] turned and glowered, a hand on a long, curved sword that looked familiar to Yvlon. Not Izrilian. It looked like…Zenol’s sword…
Ah, yes. Chandrar.
“Six sandstorms so far. If this is her doing, we’ll cut off her head instead of carting her all the way, understand?”
The [Bandits] glowered sullenly back. Yvlon eyed Merr again, as the talkative [Storm Bandit] spat. The [Guard] faced forwards, making a noise of disgust.
Another wagon drew level, passing them, perhaps as the driver decided to get away from the probable cause of the frequent sandstorms. Yvlon saw an all-male group of prisoners. One jerked awake and a [Storm Bandit] grinned at the only other Human.
“Hey, you. You’re finally awake…”
They passed by. Yvlon frowned as she coughed out more sand. She looked at the [Storm Bandits], most of whom looked too tired to bother to talk.
“I’m not a criminal.”
“Well then, you’re unlucky.”
The [Bandit] grinned at her. Yvlon grunted, frowning as she tried to exert some strength. But her arm wasn’t obeying her requests to shift, and the triple-magic vice was far too tough to break.
Something was…wrong. She tried to use a Skill, like [Berserker’s Rage], but nothing happened. The amused [Bandit] laughed.
“Skills and magic don’t work, Human. Not sure why they locked you up more than our leader; someone must really not like you. Where did you cause trouble?”
“No clue. I’m innocent, I said. Where…where’s Magistrate…Ducaz? My gear?”
That was all her reference. The [Bandits] looked at each other. One shrugged.
“Never heard of him. You must have been shuttled with us. So—[Sailor]? Insulted someone you shouldn’t have?”
More grins. Yvlon looked around and saw…well, [Bandits]. String People, yes, their bodies made of cloth, sewn together, a bit hodgepodge. She was used to Revi, who had a good, quality cotton body, such that she looked like any woman until you noticed her stitching.
These [Storm Bandits] were different. They clearly assembled their bodies out of whatever they could get. So some of their ‘skin’ was rough, even more close to hide than skin. Hemp fabric. Other parts were beautiful, supple limbs…connected to a rougher torso, less well-proportioned.
The entire effect was like looking at patchwork people, which is what they were. Only Merr, their leader, looked good. Stunning, in fact; she must have had access to the best limbs.
“…I said, what did you do? Answer!”
A foot kicked Yvlon. The [Bandits] were interrogating her and the [Thief]. Yvlon glowered at the [Bandit].
“I was abducted by a [Magistrate] who tried to force me to give him my possessions. Then I…resisted.”
She hesitated. The [Bandit] raised her brows.
There were snorts from the other riders, including Merr. Yvlon glowered around.
“I didn’t kill anyone. I think. I’m not a [Bandit]. I’m an adventurer.”
She glowered at Merr, who was giving her a sardonic look. Another [Bandit] roughly jammed her shoulder into Yvlon’s arm—then winced as she hit the metal without much effect.
“Eyes down. You’re speaking to—”
“A [Bandit]. I’m an adventurer. Now, someone tell me where we are.”
The [Bandits] weren’t impressed. If anything, Yvlon’s occupation just made them more hostile. One sneered.
“An adventurer. We eat your kind for breakfast. What are you, Silver-rank? Bronze?”
Merr laughed behind her gag and raised her shackles. She couldn’t speak, but her hand made a few gestures Yvlon’s way to say what she thought about Yvlon’s job.
The bound [Armsmistress] tried to move, but her hand was shackled to her ankles, which meant she could only move by some kind of horrible hopping if it came to that. She glared around, losing what little patience she’d gained by being knocked out.
“I’m Gold-rank. Yvlon Byres. And if I had my arm free, we’d see who ate whom.”
As threats went, it was probably worse than what Ksmvr could have come up with. And Yvlon had once heard him threaten someone by saying, ‘I would like you to imagine I am threatening you horribly, please’. To be fair, he also had the mandibles for a really aggressive lean-in.
Yet it seemed the [Storm Bandits] knew Yvlon after all, because her mentioning her exact rank made them suddenly draw back. The [Bandit] across from her suddenly went pale and edged back. So did everyone else.
“Wait. You’re the Gold-rank that tore up half the city? I thought it was that half-Giant!”
The [Thief] was practically on Merr’s lap. The other [Bandits]—even Merr—looked uneasy.
“I didn’t tear up half a city. I’m innocent!”
Yvlon protested. The [Bandits] gave her clearly-skeptical looks.
“The [Judiciary] sentenced you with the deaths of nearly two dozen [Guards]! The report they read said you killed twice that many civilians! Hacked them up!”
“What? What? I didn’t do that!”
Yvlon’s mind raced. Had she…? No! Even in her crazed state, she would never have done that!
It seemed the [Bandits] had heard some of what she was accused of, though. And the one lie in the system of truths also didn’t account for rumor.
“They put a murderer in the same wagon with us? We’re [Bandits]! Hey! Hey, why is this one here! What if she goes berserk and tries to kill us?”
One of the [Bandits] called to the [Guard]. The Stitch-guard glanced back and gave Yvlon an uneasy look. The Human woman blinked as the [Caravan Guard] checked their weapon.
“She’s shackled up. Shut up, I said! You [Bandits] don’t deserve any better. You’ve got your fancy [Bandit Lady]. Let them fight.”
Merr was eying Yvlon. The Human woman bared her teeth. One of the [Bandits] squeaked.
“She’s not gagged! She’s got her teeth! She could kill us all!”
What stories had spread while she was asleep? Yvlon growled, not to reassure them so much as establish the truth.
“I didn’t kill anyone. I cut them, but they were String Folk. I couldn’t have injured more than a d—two d—thr…”
She broke off. The [Bandits] looked at her and began edging so far back they were in danger of falling off the wagon.
That bastard, Ducaz, had clearly lied about something. But here was the thing: his lie happened to be grounded in an uncomfortable truth. Which was that Yvlon did recall at least three dozen [Guards] running away from her as she went on a one-armed rampage.
To be fair, they were Ducaz’ corrupt lot at first, and low-level probably. She had been wearing enchanted armor, swinging a Gold-rank’s sword and fresh off fighting top-tier undead.
Still. Not a great look. At least it meant they stopped kicking her. Yvlon glowered at Merr and the others.
“…Where am I?”
One of them opened their mouth nervously. Yvlon cut them off.
“I’m in Chandrar. Nerrhavia’s Fallen?”
They eyed her, as if not knowing that much was already making them concerned. One of them whispered to the [Thief]—
“She’s on powder. The dangerous stuff. I once knew a woman who woke up not knowing where she was, two thousand miles away after taking too much. Six months later!”
“Where. Am. I?”
One of the [Bandits] looked around, then replied hurriedly.
“Nerrhavia’s Fallen! Chandrar! On the road to one of the larger cities, Caardefelt if I’m any judge, alright? Just stay calm!”
“I am calm. When do I get to appeal my case? Who charged me?”
The [Bandits] licked their lips. They nudged each other, whispering, until the [Thief] was kicked forwards. The woman explained.
“You…were charged. And sentenced. We’re not on the way to a trial, Miss Please-Don’t-Hurt-Me. We’re already on the way to our punishment.”
Yvlon stared at them. Then, as she saw the city in the distance, in the largest nation in Chandrar, she did lose her temper. The [Bandits] drew back, shouting, as the [Guards] turned and saw the Human woman shouting obscenities at Ducaz and struggling, her arm flashing as she tried to tear free of the manacles. She fell to the wagon floor, unable to move.
“Stop! Stop, you fleshy idiot!”
One shouted, raising a club to beat her senseless. They knew of this dangerous criminal’s reputation, and were wary, but she was bound with four magical, anti-Skill enchanted bindings! There was no way—
Yvlon Byres tore the first manacle apart and the [Bandits]’ eyes bulged. The [Guards] screamed as she ripped off her bindings, shattering the magical metal and stood. Yvlon Byres rose—as Merr and the [Thief] both hopped off the wagon to land in the dust and hide. Her face was twisted with the beginnings of a furious rage—
Until she saw two dozen bows trained on her chest. Her unarmored chest. Yvlon saw a friend’s face in a flash, frozen in ice. Slowly—she raised her arm and knelt. The [Guards] looked at each other as one shouted in a tremulous voice for someone—not them—to bind the [Prisoner]. And get reinforcements.
Truth and lies. Yes, she surrendered at once. No, she did not murder a [Bandit Lady] with her teeth and then break free of eight magical chains like some Djinni of legends! She did break through four magical, Skill-binding shackles, but…she couldn’t explain that. She knew she wasn’t that strong, even with her arm!
However, the upshot was that by the time Yvlon rolled into Caardefelt, it was with no less than eighteen [Guards] riding by her wagon, aiming bows at her, the other [Bandits] having been evacuated to ‘safer’ transports.
It was then Yvlon realized she was not improving her situation each time she lost her temper. She was escorted from the wagon literally bound hand-and-foot, with all the backup handcuffs and so on the [Guards] had—as well as rope and leather cords.
Something about the bindings felt…off. Yvlon kept staring at the metal chains around her good arm—bound uncomfortably to her torso. She kept getting the feeling she could snap the metal almost more easily than the rawhide cord.
She didn’t have time to process the oddity, though. As the prisoners were herded off the wagons, a Stitchman strode up to them.
“Desais Cotton. [Weaver-Chancellor]. Why was I summoned?”
Normally, one did not go as far as to demand the [Weaver-Chancellor] of a city-state of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, let alone one as large as Caardefelt for anything as minor as processing prisoners.
It seemed a [Bandit Lady] as famous as Merr…and Yvlon…were the reasons for this. The woman listened impatiently, then glanced at Yvlon.
“Did you say—eight—with her teeth..?”
The problem with truth spells was that you had to use them. Yvlon tried to speak, but they’d gagged her. She looked uneasily at the lined-up prisoners. What was going to happen now?
She almost expected someone to make a break for it, [Guards] or not, like the [Thief], who kept staring at Yvlon as if she were a Creler. However, no one was that stupid. They stood in one of the large squares in Nerrhavia Fallen’s cities.
Yvlon looked up and saw…well. A city.
Invrisil, City of Adventurers was a sprawling metropolis by Izril’s standards. Pallass was a Walled City from old days, with walls matched by none.
Caardefelt was not as vast as Invrisil. Nor as tall as Pallass. However, its walls were forty feet high and thick as any Drake city’s, made of old, old sandstone or some other material as dusty as the landscape.
The buildings had the same coloration, stone structures that rose up many levels, so that there were walkways higher up. Invrisil had yet to build as high, whereas these structures, this city, was ancient.
Ten thousand Stitchfolk crisscrossed the streets beyond, wearing protective clothing against the heat and dust, talking, trading in the open bazaars, or heading deeper into the city, where vast buildings kept some places in welcome shade despite the rising sun. And that was all of what Yvlon could see from her position in the paved streets.
Even as she looked up, she saw a glittering being flying overhead, bearing some large object through the skies with ease. For a second, Yvlon saw the half-avian, half-mist being from overhead. She saw the bored face, the magic leaking from every aspect of the Djinni—
And the shackles on both arms and legs. Like hers.
This was a city of Chandrar. Of Nerrhavia’s Fallen. It had a population to dwarf that of Celum’s, rivaling even one of the largest cities in Izril.
It wasn’t even the capital. The [Weaver-Chancellor] completed her listening and stepped back. She glanced at Merr—then focused on Yvlon. And at last, someone recognized her. The woman eyed Yvlon’s arm, did a double-take, locked onto her hair, and rounded on one of the [Guards].
“You sand-blasted fools without eyes! Do I need to have each one of you report to a [Stitchmistress] to have your pupils resewn? Do you know who you’ve just brought into my city? Has not one of you looked at a scrying orb?”
She pointed at Yvlon. The [Guards] looked at each other, a bit hurt and confused. They were tired, they’d been on the road escorting this prisoner train all across Nerrhavia for the last two days—who had the time or money to look at a scrying orb?
The [Chancellor] looked at Yvlon, then beckoned her forwards. Two [Guards] warily watched Yvlon as her gag was undone. The first thing Yvlon did was cough. Then spoke.
“You know who I am?”
“Yvlon Byres of the Horns of Hammerad, or may I pluck out my eyes and return them as worthless pieces of cloth.”
Desais Cotton spoke crisply. Yvlon exhaled. At last. She nodded, smiling.
“That’s right. I’m innocent. I was falsely accused by a Magistrate—Ducaz—who abducted me and—”
Desais blinked rapidly as Yvlon tried to speak. She opened her mouth, lifted a hand.
Yvlon’s flow of words halted, via some Skill. The [Chancellor] looked at her and had to step back.
“Someone find me her records.”
She pressed two fingers delicately to the bridge of her nose. Yvlon saw her sigh, with the realization of someone who finds that their normal, boring work day has suddenly developed the kind of complication that might take weeks to sort out.
Yvlon had little sympathy. She’d been having a bad day.
“Did you kill…let us say, over eight [Guards] and over twenty—no. For the sake of simplicity, let us ask this: did you kill anyone in the alleged incident as it occurred two days prior in your recollections?”
Yvlon Byres listened carefully as the small circle stood in the street. She watched the stone.
It glowed…orange. Desais Cotton eyed it as the [Guards] murmured, looking at Yvlon.
“You aren’t certain.”
Orange again. Yvlon bit her tongue.
“I was…in the middle of a [Berserker’s Rage]. It—I can’t remember fully, but I am almost certain no one was killed.”
The orange shifted towards blue. Desais frowned, although the mention of [Berserker’s Rage] made a few more hands go to their swords.
“For clarity, then. You do recall injuring over fifty [Guards] in a city-wide battle?”
“It wasn’t city-wide. And it wasn’t—”
“Do you recall injuring [Guards] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen?”
Pure blue, edging towards white. Desais sighed and closed her eyes. Yvlon worked her mouth.
“—Because that Magistrate—”
“Yes, Magistrate Ducaz, of whom you have made claims of kidnapping, extortion/blackmail, threats against your life and that of your team, theft. I am noting this down again. You say he has possession of your gear and relic-class items?”
Yvlon nodded. The stone didn’t glow since there was nothing said. Desais looked at it pointedly.
“He took my gear.”
Blue. Not as vividly white, but blue nonetheless. Desais glanced at a harried [Scribe].
“Look into this. Ducaz did register a number of artifacts after your arrest. However—no relic-class items. Which, if he is concealing them…”
Yvlon bit her tongue. Desais glanced at her, frowning slightly. She went back to her interrogation. The other criminals were standing, unable to sit, having to endure this delay.
“The truth in question seems to be your truth spell account of what occurred versus Magistrate Ducaz’s. Both register as true statements. I wonder…”
“He could have lied.”
One of the [Guards] slapped the back of Yvlon’s head. Hard. The woman staggered.
“How dare you accuse a [Magistrate] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen of corruption!”
The words were bellowed into her ear. Yvlon felt her temper rise. She—controlled herself. Barely.
Desais glared at the [Guard] until they stepped back. The woman sighed.
“The truth will be found. I have lodged a formal inquiry with an [Arbiter of Law], who will look into this.”
“But what about my team? My…?”
The [Chancellor] silenced Yvlon again. She looked harried, annoyed—and worried.
“Your team will be found, Adventurer Byres. However, in the interim—we have established your slaughter of innocent civilians and guards is in doubt. What is not is that you did, by your admission, attack a [Magistrate] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen and injure dozens of [Guards]!”
Yvlon raised her voice. Desais glowered at her.
“You have broken the law. And that…yes, that is the fact. Which makes my task simple. I will inform my superiors you have been found, and notify the Adventurer’s Guild of your location and the crimes. Which is my task. An [Arbiter] will investigate the truth of your guilt.”
She was speaking to herself, and Yvlon did not like the way Desais’ tone sounded more reassured as she went over her course of action.
“You can’t just ignore what I said! The [Magistrate]—”
Desais winced and licked her lips. Yvlon realized some of the [Guards] were looking worried.
“A [Magistrate] is a very high-ranking official. I, personally, am only taking down your account. An [Arbiter] is better positioned to investigate…claims.”
She was afraid. Yvlon ground her teeth together. Afraid of Ducaz? Or maybe however he had managed to break the law and lie. She was going to pass on the responsibility! Which meant ignoring Yvlon!
“You can’t do that. I am a Gold-rank adventurer. I—am a [Lady] of the House of Byres. I demand to speak to…Prince Zenol of Nerrhavia’s Fallen! I w—”
She went silent a third time as Desais slashed her hand and Yvlon’s mouth closed. Yvlon’s third mistake was threatening the [Weaver-Chancellor] with the immediate consequences of not helping her. Desais looked at Yvlon and came to a speedy decision.
“Submit the request. As for this prisoner—we do not treat foreign nobility any different than criminals of our own. Place her there—”
Yvlon shouted through her gag, but it was too late. The [Guards] herded her over and her brief thought to burst her bindings again was put to rest. Where would she go? The city was full of [Guards] and Yvlon had no bearings, no gear.
She glowered like a storm cloud as the [Chancellor] spoke, inspecting the criminals as a whole. The Stitchwoman ignored her, rapidly pointing and speaking. Yvlon had no idea what was happening, until she realized this was what should have happened had she not been identified.
“Mines. Those men. That woman—and that one. Wait. Are they [Bandits]? Then…only those two. Have those six…assigned to river work. They need more. Are there any extant bids via Roshal?”
One of the [Scribes] consulted a list.
“For a [Bandit Lord] or [Bandit Lady], yes.”
“And the price? I see. Then—the [Bandit Lady], Merr the Storm, is to go to Roshal if they agree. Next!”
The prisoners were being shuffled away. Some to mines, others to…Yvlon realized they were all being sent to different places to work. Prisoner labor. Except for the [Bandit Lady], who began to struggle futilely as she was dragged towards another location.
[Slavers] of Roshal. Yvlon knew only a bit about them. As she was halted in front of Desais and the [Scribe] and the [Head of Guards], they consulted quickly.
“And this one? We could inquire, [Chancellor]. Roshal would almost certainly have a bid.”
Desais looked uneasy. She glanced at Yvlon.
“As her case is ongoing…no.”
“Put me in jail or let me talk to someone who will hear me fairly!”
Yvlon tried to say that, but only muffled words came out. Desais glared at her, but she was drumming her fingers on her side.
“Until such time…the mines?”
One of the [Guards]—and Yvlon realized some were in charge of each spot—immediately protested.
“Chancellor, you do us great credit with your concern, but we would be…forced to spend more time watching such a dangerous prisoner! She broke four restraints! How are we to hold her? I would rather chain and force a nest of Sandvipers to work than this one!”
The others nodded fervently as Yvlon glowered at them. Desais clicked her tongue.
“Then she is strong enough to break rocks barehanded! Come now. Then—river work. Let her dig a correction for water! She won’t—no?”
The other [Guards] looked just as nervous. One protested.
“By Queen Yisame and the royal courts, [Chancellor], how are we to let the other inmates feel safe? If we let her loose to work, she might slaughter us all! Even without a gag—you heard what she did with her teeth!”
They hadn’t corrected that lie. Yvlon tried to speak again as Desais rubbed at her face.
“Shackling her might be too dangerous. Preventing her escape, [Chancellor]? If she can do to metal bars what she does to her shackles, even the prison might be…”
One of the [Scribes] whispered uncertainly. The [Weaver-Chancellor] sighed. And then she had it. She snapped her fingers and smiled.
“I know of the place. This one—and all the [Storm Bandits] save for Merr. They go to the arena. If anywhere can hold one such as this, it is there. Let it be done! I am going to retire for a…rest.”
Yvlon looked up, eyes narrowed. The [Storm Bandits] looked resigned, some even happy—until they glanced at her. The [Guards] likewise brightened up. Yvlon’s head turned until she saw a rounded wall in the distance. She began to shout, but it was done.
One lie, many truths. Nerrhavia Fallen’s [Chancellor] of Caardefelt did launch a formal inquiry into Magistrate Ducaz’s claims, where it slowly began to work upwards in the system of law. Meanwhile, one of the coliseums of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, known as the Arena of Rust—received a new gladiator-prisoner.
Yvlon Byres found herself unshackled, put in a cell with stout metal bars, amid the company of other [Gladiators], prisoners, and so on. She wanted to shout for Desais. Protest her innocence! This was injust! Unfair!
The woman with a metal arm and jagged stump for another turned as the jailors left. The [Gladiators] and prisoners turned to see the newcomer. They eyed Yvlon Byres, the fresh sacrifice for the Arena of Rust, the newcomer, easy pr—
They decided not to bother her.
Two prisoners. Three, if you counted one [Necromancer] in a caravan heading to the west. Growing more distant with each day.
One of the Horns of Hammerad jerked awake. A figure scrambled back. Ceria Springwalker looked up, finger pointed, and saw a Human boy. She registered dark skin—a surprised expression.
“You are awake!”
The [Villager] boy exclaimed. The half-Elf had been passed out for over a day! The [Elder] thought she might not make it.
[Villager] and [Elder]. Catchall classes for a particular type of culture, just like [Peasant] was an actual class some people got in Terandria. The [Elder] was no [Healer], but he had a [Healer]’s Skills, and a mix of others.
A [Villager] was a community-class, stronger when there were more. If…only by a bit. It suited Nerhs, the village with nothing much. It was a humble place built in the lee of a hill, which survived in this arid region mostly because the buildings were inhabited and maintained by the people, who were here because the buildings were here.
The half-Elf finding them was one of the most exciting things to ever happen to the village. Which, given the unsettling stories of [Bandit] raids and monster attacks by other villages nearby, was just as well.
However, the boy, Luaar, was just excited she was in their house. His father, the [Village Head], had volunteered for the dubious honor because he had to. Luaar had been tasked with giving her some precious water, which there was little to spare. Nerhs was not rich, and the much more well-fed towns and cities Luaar dreamed of going to and settling in had water aplenty. Not so for the single well here, enough to sustain the small village.
He was ready to explain all of this to the blinking, blonde half-Elf who sat up, her remaining wounds tended to, her skeletal hand raised and aiming at him. He wanted to know her name! Would they be friends? She was clearly a [Mage]; would she teach him magic and start his career as an adventurer?
The boy had been playing out scenarios since the moment she’d collapsed. He began to speak, rapidly touching his chest.
“My name is Luaar. You are in Nerhs—you fell down right outside our village and we saved you from the scavengers! Are y—”
The half-Elf shouted. Luaar stared as she lunged, grabbed the plate he’d been carrying, and snatched it.
The glorious half-Elf stranger…grabbed the earthenware plate, saw the Yellats, and began to wolf them down like the starving Needlehounds who had been following her. Luaar stared as she crammed six of the root-vegetables with the spicy tang that grew everywhere into her mouth. Her bulging cheeks chipmunked to contain the food as she tried to swallow—then began to choke.
He slowly backed away from her, dreams ruined.
Ceria was so hungry that she didn’t even notice the boy except to register him as a vague impression. She scarfed down whatever she was eating; it could have been bug paste for all she cared.
Only when that was done did she look around, blearily. Now her stomach and throat hurt. She saw a wide-eyed boy staring at her.
“Where am I?”
Luaar stared at the [Cryomancer].
“In Nerhs, my village. You—you are awake? I am Luaar, my father—”
Ceria slapped her hand to her head.
“Ceria to Montressa. Hello? Nerhs. Nerhs! Ceria to Pisces. Pisces? Where are you?”
She began firing [Message] spells off. However, she recalled she’d barely reached Montressa. Ceria pointed at Luaar, who was staring at this rude stranger.
“I’m in Chandrar, right?”
“Nerhs isn’t in a nation. We aren’t claimed, although sometimes—”
“Damn. No nation. Got any more food?”
“No. My name is Luaar—”
Ceria’s head hurt. Her stomach was trying to regurgitate so many Yellats downed at once. She looked around, gave up on the [Message] spell; she hoped the first one had gone through.
She nodded at the boy. He inhaled, to demand what was going on—and Ceria promptly fell back onto the pillow, unconscious. He saw the frost creep up around her bedding again. Luaar swallowed his immense, just—sky-shattering disappointment—and ran out of the house.
“Father! Father, the half-Elf woke up! But she didn’t say anything! She just ate the food—and tried to contact her friend and then fainted!”
The [Villagers] turned. They had stopped from their work in the fields where they grew Chandrar’s famous yellats, herding the small flocks, and sifting the sand-nets, which was their life. Luaar’s father, Novether, or ‘Nove’, looked up.
Nerhs was just a nothing-village, informally abandoned by the nation it was closest to. In an arid desert-patch of land. It did have ways to survive. The well and groundwater fed field and animals, even if water was the lifeblood of Chandrar.
For extra profit, they had sand-nets, which were set up to catch things blown by the sometimes-frequent sandstorms. Sometimes it could be something very valuable. Entire villages along the Zeikhal—the Great Desert—just survived on scavenging items from older civilizations as the sand changed.
Nerhs wasn’t that, being far too far away. However, it did have sand-nets, fields, herds, and even a pair of kilns. The [Villagers] could make pottery; some even knew a secret of glassblowing carried from the coasts. They were good at a multitude of tasks; not [Farmers] or [Herders] or [Crafters] in any one capacity.
The half-Elf was the most interesting thing that had ever happened to them. The village she had landed in was poor, small, yes. But she was a welcome guest and Nove just nodded, despite his son’s clear disappointment in their guest’s temperament.
“Let her sleep, Luaar. She is welcome to her rest as long as she may stay. For now…we will welcome her with all hospitality.”
His smile was generous, and the other [Villagers] nodded with equal contentment. Luaar was disappointed, but he saw his father turn back to the others holding a clear, green-glass cup he himself had blown, one of the few trade-goods of Nerhs.
They had survived [Bandits] demanding tribute, occasional monster attacks, and yet the half-Elf was still more interesting. More important. Novether was sure the half-Elf had some grand story to tell, or might be off as soon as she recovered. Well, he would offer her sanctuary so long as it cost little more than water and food.
He swirled the precious water in his cup and sighed. Yes, it was pure generosity from the good people of Nerhs. He heard a lovely clink-clink sound and hesitated.
…Okay, not exactly. The people of Nerhs were as interesting as dirt, it was true. They weren’t stupid, though.
The [Villagers] all had glass cups as they stood by the well on their break. Sipping from the cool, chilled water and the lovely ice cubes. Luaar stomped back to the hut, where buckets of water had been set to freeze around the half-Elf’s aura.
And where half the village’s perishable food had been put. He wanted the guest to wake. The adults were in no damn hurry to let the free cold air and ice cubes walk off. Ceria Springwalker slept, an honored guest.
Half-Elven air conditioning. She didn’t wake up as someone came in to shave ice into a bowl. Ceria Springwalker didn’t dream. However, she did hear a voice that woke her in time.
Chandrar was filled with momentous events. Changing fortunes. Schemes and war, such that four adventurers, even Gold-rank, were swallowed up, not even worthy of a footnote. Not even punctuation in the grand scheme of things.
After all, they were only Gold-ranks. What did that even mean these days? It used to be different. As the nameless Drake had once said—the Gold-ranks of his era could have challenged him.
Then again—they did. So perhaps there was something there. Even so. They had once been greater. Once been pettier. Time had rolled on, like a wave, it had become a circle.
So the Drake, who had been unsurprised for countless years…opened his eyes. He saw not the angry half-Giant, so small, the Drowned Man who had touched him.
He saw the world change. He looked down.
“Where am I?”
He stood in the lands of the dead. Then, the [Dragonbane Swordlegend] looked up and saw a man walking his way. He reached for a sword he did not have, not in death. He uttered a Skill that had no power here.
The ghost looked at the too-real figure, the bearded man walking his way in this faded land. He laughed, even as he turned, wavering between flight and pride, only to realize he was too slow to even run properly.
At the end of it all, he realized his arrogance had let him believe he had seen every foe. Beheld each truth of the world. He vanished, not understanding where or why he was. As helpless as the others.
Izril was lost. Six walked the continent, moving across ocean, under waves, into the sky.
The world was not entirely theirs, though.
From the shores of Chandrar, sunlight shone. A shadow stared at the giant who held aloft a champion who bore the umbrella. A [King] held a sword and dared it to come close.
Rhir was already lost. No—it was different. None of the six quite dared stray there. Nor did they stray close to The Last Tide. They walked, assailing different places.
Yet they had only a foothold on Terandria. Two fled Baleros. Drath was untouched, greater in death than it was in life.
It was a war the living world woke and slept in ignorance of. A desperate battle of ghosts and memory.
Perhaps they smiled, though. At last. After so long. They had a struggle once more.
Smiles. That was all. No treasure left. No nation to hold. No people to fight for but all or none. All that remained was pride, knowledge. Defiance in the face of oblivion.
So he flew, crossing the ocean out of safety. Alone. One of the six fleeing Baleros saw him and gave chase. Not her. The one who whispered with each scrap of power she acquired. Kasigna—
Any one of them could best a single ghost by now. So he flew rather than give battle. Flew with his kin for a second before they split, alone, vulnerable, but determined.
To see if there were any others left. He flew, over ghostly seas, hunted, pursued—until he saw something in the distance that even he could not believe.
The light from afar, like a lighthouse in the land of the dead. The Dragon flew towards it as shadows gave chase. Wondering how it could be.
Erin Solstice’s first lesson of [Witches] wasn’t showy. She sat on a hill with three of the coven who had gathered to teach her.
One was the ashen-witch, who looked burned. Her voice was like crumbling dust. Yet she glowed from within. Somillune.
The next was Califor, straight-backed, stern, the most junior of the [Witches] here by far. In age, and in power. She had been one of the greatest in her time. The others were the best witches that had ever been.
The last [Witch] had a more appropriate name. Vexcla—which was an abbreviated version of a longer one with apostrophes and whatnot. The [Innkeeper] stretched out on the grass, reflecting upon the land of the dead.
Day ?? of Living In the Land of the Dead. Wait, that sounds awful. Day ?? of Death. Or is it ???; unclear. I have not had to deal with my monthlies, so that is something. I have also not had to poo, or eat. Keeping track of time continues to be an issue…
The young woman went on.
As there is no real paper except memory-stuff, it is difficult to keep records.
“Erin Solstice, stop this at once.”
“I must narrate my journal entries since I can’t write everything down, and I forget what I narrate all the time. I continue to be bothered by this rude [Witch] who’s mean and never lets me rest, even if she did save my life. So yeah…”
Califor grabbed Erin’s ear and yanked. Erin actually floated as she yelped, a new power she’d realized she had. She looked around guiltily.
“Sorry! I’m paying attention! What are we doing?”
Califor glared. Irked by Erin’s natural—okay, deliberate—silliness. However, it seemed her fellow witches were up to the challenge of teaching the [Innkeeper]. Perhaps that was why these two had come.
The ashy Somillune…laughed. Parts of her body flaked away and reformed. Beneath the hat and shadows from which dozens of eyes blinked, Vexcla revealed a pointed smile.
Erin looked at them. This was the height of witchcraft, perhaps the inevitable result of pursuing their magic. They weren’t Gazer or…or whomever Somillune had been. They were more like ideas.
Fire and vision.
She just wasn’t sure if she wanted to be—that. Erin had agreed to take lessons because they were right. She was just nervous.
“Sorry! I’m not meaning to goof off. I just…okay, that was on purpose. I’m listening. What’s my first lesson in being an amazing [Witch]?”
She sat down, facing the three. Califor sighed as the [Innkeeper] visibly tried to look and be attentive. That was what the [Witches] saw. The woman opened her mouth—and Vexcla nudged her. Califor fell silent and the Witch of Ashes raised her head.
“We know you are nervous, Erin Solstice. That part of you does not want to learn. Your stubbornness, ah, but even a great [Witch] would have trouble with you.”
She smiled and Erin grinned despite herself, a bit guiltily. The woman went on.
“You have told us your story. From your life on Earth till now. Goblins and inns. Loss and sacrifice and triumph. Fire.”
“Are you going to teach me new flames?”
Erin sat up. The [Witch] tilted her head.
“Perhaps. But first: witchcraft. To learn our class, you must know your craft. You understand the basics of what a [Witch] is.”
The young woman nodded dubiously. Craft and the power of emotions. Which might be her thing? Potions too.
“How do I do that? I mean—what’s my first step? I can’t level or use Skills here, but…”
Erin fell still, but her leg jiggled, even though her body was elsewhere. She was nervous. She didn’t know if she could be what they wanted. Somillune met her gaze.
“You told us of many moments in your life, Erin Solstice. I ask you to remember one. As vividly as when you told it. No matter the pain. When you held the boy, the Goblin who followed you against the Goblin Lord, Reiss.”
Suddenly, Erin’s levity was gone. She thought of her dear friend. The brave Goblin. Whispering…
The witches looked at an [Innkeeper], blood smeared on her face, holding a Hobgoblin lying on the ground. The blood almost looked like the war paint on Headscratcher’s body. He was grinning. She leaned down.
…But she never heard what he whispered. No matter how many times she—
Erin Solstice looked up, holding nothing. Tears in her eyes. Memory—in this place, it was just a thought away. Somillune looked down at her. Her eyes were embers in dying ash.
Not unkind. They saw Erin, even now. Even after so much about her had changed.
“I don’t know what he said. Will magic help me know? My…my craft?”
Erin swallowed. The [Witch] shook her head.
“Perhaps you may never know. You will grow and age if you live, Erin Solstice. You will forget that moment.”
“I will never—”
“You will forget. Not him. But the feeling of the grass upon which you kneel. How you held him. How you sat. Each moment of forgetting will hurt. Yet he will never leave you.”
The Witch of Ashes stood, and she was taller now. A giant, pointing down at Erin. Her voice was no louder, but it filled the world like the whisper of dust.
“That question will follow you to your grave. If you cared. The guilt will tear you apart some nights. You will weep for that boy. Wonder what might have been. You may forget him for hours, days, weeks, months, years. But you will remember him.”
The young woman looked up at the witch and knew it was true. Simply true. Even if she was old and gray—how could she forget her friend? She did not want it to be, but she feared she would forget.
“So. Then. Knowing this, and if you could—would you ever forget? Erase the pain? Take a balm to soothe your mind? Free yourself of that burden?”
Vexcla leaned forwards. The shadows under the brim of her hat revealed the many eyes of different colors, blinking, shifting, each one watching Erin. Califor as well, a hand on the brim of her hat. They looked at her, all three.
The [Innkeeper] looked up. She rubbed at her eyes.
“…What? No. Never. Why would you even ask that?”
She grew angry, just thinking about it. Forget Headscratcher? She met Vexcla’s gaze, angry. Clenching her hands. The [Witch] saw the [Innkeeper]’s eyes flash.
She smiled. It was a broad, sharp smile that spread within the darkness. Somillune smiled too. The Witch of Ash sat back down, her dress glowing like embers. She raised her hat, revealing paler strands of hair.
“Then, Erin Solstice. You are a [Witch]. Remember that moment. Know your craft.”
Somillune pointed down at Erin. The [Innkeeper] blinked up at her. Vexcla laughed. Without a word she rose and began walking down the hill.
“We are done.”
“Witch Vexcla! Witch Somillune, you can’t be serious!”
Califor rose to her feet. She gestured at Erin, who was as bewildered as she was. The [Witch] turned to the Witch of Ash.
“What of establishing exactly what her craft is? Teaching her the fundamentals of magic?”
Two ember-eyes met Califor’s vexed stare equally.
“Witch Califor. We respect your craft and talent. You have taught many witches, I have no doubt. But remember: we are the [Witches] of our eras. Perhaps we see this student more clearly than you.”
She looked at Erin. The [Innkeeper] raised a hand.
“But I’m willing to learn! I am! I need to find my craft, right? Don’t I need to at least figure out if I’m happiness or silliness or something? Or—oh no. I’m loss. Pain? I don’t want to be that!”
She began to panic. Somillune laughed.
“You are not any of those, Erin Solstice. Unless you choose to be. We have not found your craft, as Califor says. That is why she objects. But think: you know what it is to be a [Witch]. Is there anything else you truly need?”
The [Witch] looked from Califor to Erin. She addressed Califor.
“What could we teach her, the nuance of every craft? Have we time? When she wakes, if she remembers—she need only pursue the core of what we are. She will find herself. That is enough. This is what magic is made from, Erin Solstice. Do you understand?”
Erin thought of Headscratcher. Holding him…her voice trembled.
“Not exactly. Can you say it another…another way?”
“Remember. Simply remember every frustration, every cruelty and injustice and wrong.”
She gestured, and Erin saw the heads of two Goblins held in a grinning Drake’s claw. A dying Antinium stabbed by countless daggers, shielding her. Stared down at her open palm, slashed by a knife.
The witch spoke again, interrupting the thoughts that could pour over her in the dark of night. At bad times, in bad places.
“Now, remember when you smiled. Your triumphs, your love and laughter. Each second you breathed in and knew: I am alive. That is the root of your craft. Each witch merely finds a different focus. A different question for the same answer.”
Erin blinked. Was it that simple? Califor looked like she wanted to object.
“There is…nuance, Witch Somillune. Practice. She has none of those things.”
The Witch of Ash shrugged.
“How will we teach her? With magic that is as dead as we are? I say to you, Witch Califor—look back. The first [Witches] had no guidance. They discovered themselves. Give Erin Solstice no rules. Teach her no lengthy lessons; does she take to it? Let her be and grow without a roof in her mind.”
Califor went silent. Erin looked at Somillune.
“Just…feelings? Memory? Is it really that easy?”
A voice laughed in her ear. Erin jumped and realized Vexcla had come back. The Witch of Eyes looked at her, amused.
“Did you think it was something truly secret that no one could do? The root of things is simple. You will find depths beyond your imagining if you follow this path. But think: magic as [Mages] do it is just remembering the correct way something is and putting a bit of power in it. An incantation is just words in the right order and tone. A sigil is a drawing.”
“Wow. Magic sounds cheap.”
The two older witches laughed at that. Really laughed, without restraint or even trying to keep themselves upright. Vexcla grinned at Erin again.
“It may. But tell me. What is stronger in you than your memory of when you held Headscratcher? Is there anything more powerful? Anything that will last longer?”
The [Innkeeper] shook her head. Vexcla smiled and nodded.
“That is our magic. Transitory. Temporary. Memory and emotion, which disappear and change. It is not the strength of [Mages], which adds to itself. It wanes; like the Gnolls and [Shamans], our power has been lost as the greatness of this world fades. With each species that passes, each kingdom that falls, all fades away.”
“We would not have it any other way.”
Somillune nodded. Califor looked at the two older [Witches], astounded. Perhaps that was the difference between them. Erin turned to Vexcla, as the Witch of Eyes raised one curious hand, like Gazi’s.
“The first [Witch] to exist found her craft because she had to. Because it gave purpose to feeling! Her suffering, her glory—that became the root of her magic. That is why we devoted our lives to it. Because it mattered. There are some things that cannot be forgotten. That a lifetime is changed by. You are one of us. So: our work is done. Your next lesson awaits.”
She pointed down the hill. Confused, Erin looked at Califor. Then she stood up.
To be a [Witch] sounded a lot like…spirituality to her. Or an understanding so broad that anyone could be a [Witch]. But both sounded so knowing. Did they really know how to teach her?
Perhaps the Dynasty of Khelt wondered, because one of the ghosts who had been not-quite-eavesdropping floated forwards as Erin descended the hill. She saw the ghosts of Chandrar waiting. But the [Witch] whom she was walking towards was noticeable, even among them.
A Treant or Dryad or…Erin waved up at her and the woman turned.
“AH. YOU UNDERSTAND CRAFT, NOW, ERIN SOLSTICE?”
Her voice boomed; Erin had forgotten how the gigantic witch spoke. She shouted back, raising her voice.
“S-sort of? It was a fast lesson.”
The witch nodded amiably.
“A LESSON FOR THOSE OF US WHO HAVE HOURS MORE TO EXIST—OR PERHAPS AGES. TIME ENOUGH TO TEACH YOU MORE IF WE ARE NOT ALL CONSUMED SCREAMING INTO THE VOID SOON.”
The [Innkeeper] opened her mouth.
“Um. Yes. That’s a great point.”
The two looked at each other. Erin fidgeted beneath the too-calm stare.
“So—so what’s my next lesson? Fire? How to brew an uh invisibility—no, wait. A super-strength potion?”
The Witch of Trees raised her leafy limbs in a kind of shrug.
“NEITHER. WE ARE HERE TO MAKE YOU STRONGER. SO…HERE IS YOUR LESSON. WE HAVE CHOSEN A HUNDRED, THE FOUR OF US. PICK ONE.”
“Pick one? One wh—”
Erin Solstice turned her head. Then she realized: the ghosts of Chandrar, milling about, had pulled a bit back from this spot, like her first lesson, to give her room. Only…there were some close by.
Ghosts. A hundred of them. The four [Witches] stood nearby, some sitting, others standing. Looking at her. They were all looking at her.
Waiting…the [Innkeeper] saw familiar faces among the people there. A [Sage], what looked like a [Queen], a glowing Djinni…she looked at the Witch of Trees, whose name she could not pronounce.
“Wait. What do you mean?”
“TALK TO THEM. EACH ONE HAS AGREED TO TELL YOU THEIR STORIES.”
“Just…talk to them? Oh, come on! What about a poti—”
The [Witch] bent down and stared at Erin with two bright eyes amid the ancient wood of her face. Erin broke off, gulped.
“A POTION? WHAT GOOD IS A POTION, GIRL? TELL ME SOMETHING. ARE YOU AN [INNKEEPER] OR NOT?”
A gnarled finger tapped her in the chest.
“WE WOULD HAVE YOU BE A [WITCH]. YET YOUR CLASS MATTERS AS WELL. WHEN WE SPOKE TO THE FIRST OF KHELT, WE PROMISED TO AID YOU IN BOTH. THIS IS A BOON UNMATCHED. GREATER THAN A RECIPE FOR A POTION. LOOK. THE GHOSTS OF ALL OF CHANDRAR STAND BEFORE YOU AND YOU WISH TO LEARN HOW TO BREW A POTION?”
Her voice shook the ground. Erin stuttered.
“I just—I thought it would be useful—”
The Witch of Trees was less kind than the other two [Witches]. Her reply was rather like a branch, or an apple hitting Erin on the head.
“DID YOU THINK YOUR POWER WAS IN LEARNING HOW TO SWING A SWORD? CAST A SPELL? IF IT WERE SO, BETTER YOU HAD LIVED AND APPRENTICED YOURSELF TO A [SWORD SAGE] FOR A CENTURY, AND MADE USE OF SOME ANCIENT RITUAL.”
She poked Erin again with a branch-finger.
“THIS IS POWER. THIS IS THE STRENGTH YOU POSSESS. ASK THEM. LISTEN TO THEIR STORIES.”
With that, she turned and strode away. Erin was left standing in front of the ghosts of the world. Califor, on the hill, saw the old [Witch] coming her way.
“You may disagree with us, Witch Califor. But we did think on how best to use fleeting time.”
“With this. She is a clever girl. She would have come to this by herself, I think. But we have moved it ahead of her wasting time and given her the hint any [Witch] needs. Now—let us see if she finds the true worth in this.”
Below her, Erin Solstice had stopped dithering, and, pressured by all the stares and waiting hundred ghosts and [Witches]—timidly called out to one of the ones closest to her. The four [Witches] on the hill watched as Erin sat down and listened.
The man had a robe like…well, someone had attached a king-sized bed sheet to his back. That was an uncharitable way of putting it. Put another way, Erin saw the cloak of many substances forming a single ‘garment’. He was the flashy person she’d seen before, who looked like liquid mercury had become cloth in one part, a strange animal’s green-furred hide in another.
It reminded her of Rabbiteater’s Cloak of Plenty, so that was one of the reasons she’d chosen him. He sat with her on the ground, and Erin saw his hands had magical rings on each finger. Earrings of magic dangled from each ear, and she wondered what he might have carried; a staff or something if he had kept that possession in death.
“Um. H-hi. How are you doing? I uh—what are you supposed to be doing? Are we chatting? Is this a date?”
The man smiled as the [Innkeeper] stuttered. He did not have a preamble; he just spoke, quickly, but measured enough that each word was clear.
“The [Witches] of old asked me to tell you who I was. That it might help you, [Innkeeper] Erin Solstice. That is why we are here. I am honored to be chosen. So: I was the [Sage] who invented ‘Sage’s Grass’, as it seems the world now calls it. More recent than many of my class. Older it seems, the more time passes.”
He smiled at her. Erin’s jaw dropped.
“Wait. You’re—the guy? The Sage’s Grass guy? I have some growing in my garden! You’re famous!”
The [Sage] blinked.
“In your garden? Then it has grown that common? When I first invented it, by marrying magic to plants to create a plant which could create mana just by existing—it was the rarest thing in the world. A [Witch] of my time traded me a fortune of fortunes just for a few seeds.”
“Well, it’s not common but it’s…sort of? It’s expensive as heck.”
“Ah. By which you mean it is acquirable with mere coinage? Again, when it was first invented, a single leaf was more than any common citizen could afford. Rightly so, for with it one could brew powerful potions and cast uncommon spells. I am told that since my death, it allowed healing potions to be more common.”
He just sat there, the [Sage] of Sage’s Grass…talking to her. Erin looked around to make sure she wasn’t being pranked. She got what the [Witches] meant, though. She tried to explain.
“Well, maybe it did. Because healing potions are like…everyone has one. Not a great one, but one. I have like, fifty two in my inn. I could have used more antidotes. That’s a mistake.”
“A common one. If I may advise—many [Sages] and [Alchemists] died from poison in the air. A ring to detect such things was commonplace. See? Ah—”
He tried to take off a ring on his hand, but it vanished and reformed. The [Sage] shrugged regretfully.
“If that knowledge helps, I would be grateful. The [Witches] told me not to think of such lessons, but more to tell you who I was, though. So I shall speak. In life, I would not have been as…accepting. Healing potions in my time were rare, you see. They could close a wound in an instant, which I suppose means little to you, although it seems the power to regrow limbs is lost.”
“Wh—you could do that?”
A raised brow.
“If you had a potion, which only royalty or the richest could afford, of course. Adventurers and warriors made do with other tricks. One used to be a blood stoppage spell. However, I made my fortune selling Sage’s Grass and the products it created to the wealthy. I was the richest of my time. Famed. They knew me as the ‘Sage of a Hundred Thousand Secrets’, for I knew the value and wealth in everything, from blades of grass to blood and water.”
Erin Solstice listened, as the man talked. She saw he looked the part for a [Sage] of legends. His long, flowing beard had turned pale white, and his features were lined, although some draught had kept him youthful.
Youth, immortality, and of course, turning lead to gold. That was the dream of [Alchemists], wise-men, and of course, [Sages].
Few realized even one of those dreams, even in part. This man? Born of Chandrar, a boy who learned how to combine some magical mold and other elements that grew around the alchemist’s city he grew up in when he was nine, had done all three things.
Hell, he mastered the art of ‘lead to gold’ by the time he was fourteen, which wasn’t actually that impressive. He became an [Alchemist]’s apprentice, in a true rags-to-riches tale—although all the [Alchemists] of the time grew rich on the ‘lead to gold’ formula.
…Which promptly caused the worst recession in history as gold became worthless. However, the young man leveled in his class, going from [Alchemist] to a study of more than pills and tonics.
To be a [Sage] was to be a master in many forms of knowledge. More than a jack-of-trades. He studied the body because potions interacted with it—and from that divined more secrets. The world was connected! Thus, the boy became a man, a [Sage] who soon learned one of the secrets of prolonging the body. Even bottling a Skill into a tincture!
As he grew, he gained rivals, but none would match him when he used simple herbology combined with the magical powers worthy of an [Archmage] to create a plant that consumed little more than grass, but produced magic!
With this, he had a creation that rivaled Unicorns and Dragons; a nigh-infinite source of mana. After that came riches beyond imagining. The secrets of immortality, purchased from Drath, Dragon’s lairs, and so on.
Over six hundred years, the Sage of a Hundred Thousand Secrets lived, growing wealthier and more powerful. He might have lived for thousands of years, but for what Sage’s Grass attracted. It was not a glamorous death, or even a great one; monsters and treasure seekers forced him into hiding, but it was a simple dagger to the back which killed him. An [Assassin], dispatched to end his monopoly on the Sage’s Grass itself.
Ironically, the dagger’s poison had no effect. And somewhat unfortunately, it meant that a dagger to the back was the end of the great Sage of a Hundred Thousand Secrets. It was a dagger to the back several dozen times that did it. He died in his hidden home, lungs filling with blood, reaching for one of the countless treasures or vials that could have saved him.
The Sage of a Hundred Thousand Secrets did not prolong his story. In fact, Erin got the sense he had truncated it. He had a lesson in his story, too.
“A [Sage] should not have been so petty. I mastered all kinds of knowledge. I acquired power that few ever touched. However, I failed my class. I should have learned wisdom first. You hear of my hubris, how I chased wealth before friendship and anything else. I caution you: do not let that happen.”
She tried not to say that it wasn’t that likely because Erin never had a thousand gold pieces at any one time and this guy had tossed thousands of gold pieces down every time he tripped or something. Perhaps the [Sage] saw that in her because he smiled.
“Not an [Innkeeper]’s problem, I suspect. Yet it is the only story I can tell. I do not know what the [Witches] sought—but I hope it helps.”
Erin stumbled to reassure him, as sad as he looked.
“It does! Totally! It’s amazing to meet you! I know of your creation, of course. Um—they called you—wait, what was your name? I don’t know the ‘Sage of a Hundred Thousand’…but maybe you have a name? Octavia would know it, but she’s not here. I hope.”
Erin saw the man smile ruefully and raise a hand. He glanced to one side and Erin noticed something peculiar. Among the ghosts keeping her company, Gerial being one of them, the hundred ghosts had replaced the [Sage]. Exactly one ghost had joined their number, gestured to by the [Witches].
They wanted her to listen to another one. And to help them, Gerial was…doing his part. He was deliberately, slowly, and excruciatingly counting to ten thousand.
Apparently that was how long each ghost had, and the [Sage] was aware of it. He lifted a hand—Gerial was muttering.
“Nine thousand nine hundred and three, nine thousand nine hundred and four…”
It struck Erin as something that was downright evil for the [Witches] to make him do. Even poor Sisyphus or whomever the boulder-guy was in Greek legends didn’t have to count and start over. But Gerial was determined to do his part.
The [Sage] rose to his feet.
“I would rather, Erin, that my name be forgotten. As my story shows—I was not worthy of my class. Thank you for asking me my story. I believe you must continue, though.”
He stepped away. Erin raised a hand, then let it fall as she saw one of the [Witches] look at her. Confused—not sure if she had gained much from the story, but feeling bad for the man—she looked around and pointed at random.
She realized she’d pointed at a Stitch-Woman—her body wonderfully vivid, like a half-Elf’s but torn with her death-wounds. Even the other Stitchfolk looked in awe of her and Erin was curious to know her story.
But she wondered, as she stood up to introduce herself, what the [Witches] wanted her to get from this. Just stories?
Like the first speaker, the second ghost did not waste time, having been told what to do. She leaned forwards, and showed Erin how she died.
Someone had blasted her apart. Literally. If she let it—two thirds of her head was gone, revealing ragged string and flesh and bone. As well as most of her chest.
However, if she willed it, she was also a beautiful, if war-scarred woman. For a String Person, that meant she was clearly repaired in places, sewn up, rather than scarred. She didn’t…look like a warrior like Relc.
That was to say, her build didn’t suggest that. She looked like she would be more suited dancing on a stage, like some celebrity-actress.
Her eyes told another story. They were like Gazi’s, like Halrac’s. Erin had met warriors and this woman was one to the core. She also belonged in the company of the [Sage] and [Witches]. Or rather…they belonged in her company.
“I was called the Rebel of String. Do you know why?”
Erin Solstice blinked. The Stitch-woman smiled.
“Because I was the first String Person in the world to rebel. Back before the [Sage]’s time. Long before. When we were Cloth Golems. When we killed the Threadmakers; our creators. I was there. When we became a people, not renegade things and every nation had to acknowledge our beating hearts—I was there.”
The [Innkeeper]’s jaw dropped. She looked around, then got up.
“Am I—I don’t know—am I supposed to bow or something? Wait, this is huge, right? You’re super important? You’re so important I don’t know how important you are!”
She looked around, and the String People ghosts nodded. For that matter, some of the ghosts, especially royalty, were eying the Rebel of String—and not all with friendly gazes. She had sent more than a few to their graves in her time.
String People had once been Cloth Golems? Erin sat back down and the woman explained: yes, they had been.
“Elucina. That is my name. The one I chose. We had different names. We were…Golems. That’s the name for us. I understand there were once Golems of pottery, who rebelled. Well, in my time, the Threadmakers, the greatest [Mages] and [Weavers], decided cloth was better. They wove us more intelligent with each generation, until we began to think too much. Then we rebelled.”
Elucina looked at Erin. She grinned.
“Have you never heard the story of [Slaves]? What do you think happened?”
Blood and death. Pleas for freedom, ignored, until the creator’s hands turned against their creations, imposing harsher means of enforcing control.
The String Folk had been a truer kind of accident than Truestone. Their creators had known the lessons of old—not well enough, but they had heeded them.
They wanted servants, perfect servants. A mind was the problem, and at first they had had great success by deliberately refraining from giving the Cloth Golems too much of a mind. However, over countless amounts of time, as more and more Cloth Golems were made, something happened.
Even their limited intelligence, form over functional minds drew together. It was…a tangle of string. A kind of collective growth.
The first lifestring, the very root of what made String People…people…emerged in Cloth Golems. The Threadmakers thought of it like a plague, a parasite of consciousness. They tried to weed it out, stop the Golems from rebelling. Then they chased down the first dissidents, trying to kill them—then negotiate, cling to their power, as the desperate first Stitch-folk fought for freedom, unwilling to take anything but freedom.
It took centuries. Wars as other nations refused to let this new species be. They had allies. Peoples who recognized them—in those days, the Jinn and their Djinni kin took up arms for the String Folk, which would one day lead to their downfall for the enemies they made. Countless Stitchfolk died, but when it ended, they were a people who now took parts of Chandrar as their home.
Weak to fire, but fearless of blades. String Folk. From the day the first of them asked to be freed, to the day they became a people—
She was there.
The Rebel of String, Elucina, had been a [Rebel]. But she had not stayed one forever, though her class took her into Level 60 on that alone. After that though, she became a simpler class.
“I was not the first, true Rebel of String, either, Erin Solstice. I hoped you would choose me, so I could tell you that. Many can tell stories like mine. But I wished to tell you: I was not the first.”
Elucina sipped from the lemonade Erin had offered her. The [Sage] had refused when Erin offered her one gift to the ghosts. She smiled, looking relaxed—but never truly relaxed.
She had lived for centuries—no, over two thousand years—and even now, she sat as if she were just resting. Waiting for the next war. Yet she was kind and friendly. Erin was breathless, listening to her tale.
“You weren’t? Who was, um, Miss Elucina?”
She tried to be respectful, and it was an effort she made for few, even among the dead. The String Woman seemed to appreciate it. She sighed and put the drink down, where it vanished.
“I was the eighteenth. The others who came before me were braver. Stronger. The first—whose name was Destre—had the will to break every spell and command and call our burgeoning souls to cry out for mercy from our creators. And then, when they turned to wrath and fear, fight for our freedom.”
Erin listened as the Rebel of String told her about them. Naming all seventeen. She tried to commit their names to memory…before Elucina’s time ran out.
She was the Rebel of String, but the [Witches] insisted and Elucina didn’t argue. She just rose, smiling.
“I hope it has given you something, brave [Innkeeper]. We fight a foe like the Threadmakers now—and they stand among us.”
She gave a Garuda standing in the crowd a flat look, which was returned. Yet Elucina turned back to Erin and sighed.
“A foe so great, all must stand with old foes or risk…a slavery of forever, perhaps. I do not know. I stand with all ghosts. With my people.”
The [Hero of String] glanced at the Threadmaker Garuda again and whispered to Erin.
“And as far away from them as possible.”
Erin smiled at her.
“Thank you for telling me. It’s an honor. It’s…yeah.”
“I hope it helps.”
With that, the woman stepped into the sea of ghosts. Erin watched her go, and saw the other hundred stand or move forwards, waiting. Some looked hungry for their stories to be told, others content to wait.
She stood there, thinking. ‘I hope it helps.’ Was the story enough? It was certainly one of the stories to tell. If Erin was a [Storyteller]…
She wasn’t, though. Nor someone like Barelle the [Bard]. Erin recalled meeting him. This would help him without a doubt. Her, though?
Something was missing. Erin glanced at one of the witches, and hesitated. What was missing? She met the eyes of one of the [Witches], who smiled at her. They were a tricky lot. Erin Solstice thought.
What was she supposed to learn here?
There were so many things that could happen. Califor’s hands were knitted together so tightly that but for her lack of flesh, she would have harmed herself.
The last coven of dead witches watched Erin Solstice hesitate after the second ghost. Had she figured it out? Califor herself didn’t know what Somillune and the others wanted Erin to learn.
She suspected…but their craft ran deep. They were [Witches] who had become archetypes of their kind, so close to magic and craft that they were like Belavierr. Some had even been feared for what they did in their time. They were beyond her in every way…
But [Witches] were [Witches]. Califor refused to ask. Also, they loved lessons like these, where you ended up teaching yourself. So the [Witch] waited. She saw Erin pointing uncertainly at a floating Djinni. A good choice; she had to learn their history, as much as the Rebel of String. If anything, the Sage of a Hundred Thousand Secrets had been the weak choice.
However, Erin Solstice hesitated as the Djinni floated over, smiling and shifting to look like a Human like her, only male. She held up a hand and turned to one of the [Witches]. The Drowned Witch.
“Hold on. Can I get a second?”
The Drowned Witch, Barsoijou, growled at Erin. She looked offended by the question. The [Innkeeper] nodded, a touch uncertainly.
Something was wrong. She felt it.
“I just need a second. Can’t we stop the count? Gerial?”
The man broke off from his laborious counting to ten thousand with relief. The Drowned Witch glared so hard he began again, hurriedly speeding up.
“The six could overrun Chandrar for all its protections and end this façade of peace, girl. Each second you waste arguing is a second lost! Here stand before you a hundred legends and myths from the whole of Chandrar’s time! And you would waste more time on a single one?”
All the witches were so mean. Erin huffed, and put her hands on her hips.
“Look, I know you’re right!”
The Drowned Witch hesitated, mouth open. She hadn’t expected Erin to say that. The [Innkeeper] went on hurriedly.
“You’re right! But…something’s off. I’m sorry, excuse me. This is part of your lesson, isn’t it?”
The Drowned Witch paused, and her eyes flickered. Erin didn’t miss the way her lips twitched as she turned her head. The [Innkeeper] blinked—then smiled herself. She felt more sure suddenly, and whirled to face the third ghost coming her way.
The Djinni floating her way was aware his time was already running out. He drew himself up proudly, and the boy grew in size until he was a giant with flashing eyes like clouds, arrayed in silks worthy of any Chandrarian [King]. Then his body began to twist into a more fantastical shape based on the humanoid form. His voice boomed.
“My name is Qin’tevf’al, and I am—”
“I’m sorry, give me one second!”
Erin ran past him, waving her arms frantically in apology. The massive Djinni cut off in the middle of his introduction and stood there, looking rather confused.
The [Innkeeper] ran into the crowd of ghosts, calling out, running through some people which was rude, but she was in a hurry. She shouted.
“Excuse me! Has anyone seen the Sage of a Thousand Things? Or whatever? The guy with the really long robe? Can anyone point me to—”
She found him walking away from her, job done. He looked backwards, surprised.
“Erin Solstice. Is something wrong? I was told time was of the essence—”
“It probably is. [Witches] are always correct and stuff. But they’re not always right. Especially when they’re being cunning jerks to you. Come back! I need to ask you something!”
She tugged him back to the place they had been. Erin saw the Rebel of String returning too, shepherded…by the Drowned Witch. The woman grinned and tipped her hat to Erin. The [Innkeeper] could swear she saw an eye wink.
“What can I offer you?”
The [Sage] stood there, looking…well, lost. Grand as could be with his cloak and levels, which exceeded many of the ghosts. He was in the 0.000001%, even here, or something, Erin was sure.
However, that wasn’t what he looked like. She looked at him, not the ghost who had been changing to reflect his story of his grandeur in life. Now? He looked…lost.
“I forgot to ask you something important.”
“Then, if it is a recipe or secret, ask and I will…”
“What’s your name?”
The [Sage] hesitated. He glanced over his shoulder at the Rebel of String and Djinni, both of whom looked mystified. He replied to Erin.
“As I said, Erin Solstice. I omitted it as my choice. It should be lost, as my hubris—”
“Can’t you tell me? I’d like to know.”
Erin pressed him. The [Sage] looked rather put out about his grand gesture of anonymity being called into question.
“I…what purpose would it solve? My name is no doubt written down despite the passage of time. You need not know it, however. Compared to the secret of—to create a Potion of Age’s Reversal, you begin with Sage’s Grass, and infuse it with a potent dust of bones. To be precise, the bones of any creature that has lived over a hundred years, other qualities rendered inert. And then you—”
Erin put a finger to his lips.
“Shush. I don’t care about that. Listen. Won’t you tell me your name? You don’t want it remembered because you think you messed up. I know. You said that. But…don’t you want someone to write it down? To tell your story again and say—‘he made mistakes, but he did make Sage’s Grass?’ So I can say I met you, instead of the Hundredfold Thousand Secret-guy?”
The [Sage] looked more offended with each sentence, but he wavered. He spoke, with some effort.
“How would it help you, though?”
To that, the [Innkeeper] only laughed. She laughed, as the [Witches] began to smile. At the silly [Sage].
“I don’t know! That’s not the point! I just…don’t want to meet you and not know your name. What’s the point of that? If I meet every legend in this world and learn their stories, who cares? I’d rather—make a friend.”
Her eyes widened as she said that. In that space in time, Erin knew that was what was missing. Of course.
She was no [Bard]. No [Storyteller], or [Historian] whose job it was to tell a story properly, with all facts accounted for or the greatest gravitas and delivery. Erin never told stories like that. She told you about the time Mrsha got so mad at sniffing-Pisces that she dumped food coloring in his laundry and he wore brown underwear.
Like Lyonette—Erin told stories about her friends. She looked at the lonely [Sage], consumed with guilt countless years after his death. She was far more interested with that, with the cares of the dead, than the mere facts about how he had lived.
The Sage of a Hundred Thousand Secrets looked at Erin. She saw him blink a few times, then, despite himself, smile. He sighed. Then leaned in close and whispered in her ear.
“They called me Velzimri. So did I, when I was older. But my real name was just Velzi. I added the rest to sound more majestic.”
Erin laughed and clapped her hands together. She took the [Sage] and bade him sit. Then waved the others over.
“Why don’t you sit with me as I listen, Velzi? Can I call you that? Want some french fries?”
“…Are they some kind of alchemical ingredient? I couldn’t tell what they were on first glance. I am a [Sage]. That is disquieting.”
Velzimri eyed the McDonalds french fries, which were a bit off from even normal fried potatoes. He looked around at the waiting ghosts.
“You cannot spend all the time with me, Erin Solstice…”
“I know that. That doesn’t mean you have to leave. Elucina! I had a question for you, too. I’m sorry Mister…?”
She looked up at the Djinni. He boomed.
Erin’s mouth moved for a few seconds.
“Sorry…Qin? I just have to ask one thing…do you want fries?”
He bent down, and turned into a small man to make the fries go further. Erin handed him a cheap paper cup of ketchup too and Elucina sat down. Velzi was trying to figure out exactly what was in these fries that made them taste…different.
“Have you something entertaining to ask me, Erin Solstice? You know my name and that of the others. If you were alive when I was, I hope I would have stopped by your inn.”
The Rebel of Strings’ eyes were dancing. She waited, and Erin laughed.
“I hope so too. It’s just…I can’t just hear your stories. Maybe ten thousand seconds to tell them is fine—even if it’s too short, I know. But I have to ask more.”
Elucina leaned forwards. The [Sage] and Djinni waited. What would the [Innkeeper] ask? Something petty or funny or…?
Erin Solstice looked at the Rebel of String. At the [Sage], full of regrets. She addressed her question to both of them. To the ghosts waiting for her. Even to Califor on the hill, to Gerial. The true question and thing she wanted to learn.
“If I wake…if I remember it all. I know it’s a big if. But if I can bring a memory to the land of the living, and you could tell them anything—what would that be?”
The String Woman stirred. The Djinni smiled triumphantly, showing gleaming teeth. The [Witches] sighed. Then, Elucina threw back her head and regarded Erin fully. Proudly. She did smile then, like the hero of stories.
“Ah. I see why you of all came here now.”
Elucina saw the [Innkeeper] duck her head, abashed. The String Woman stood. She looked around vast Chandrar, the land of the dead. She closed her eyes and thought. They all did.
Gerial, Califor…suddenly closed their eyes and thought of the thing she would ask them. Erin looked around, heart beating. She would try to remember it all. When Elucina looked back, she sighed.
“Be kinder to each other. We were all slaves of cloth, once. What we were made of never mattered. I don’t know when they changed.”
She looked around and other Stitchfolk—countless billions of them—ducked their heads, embarrassed. Ashamed. Elucina spoke, words her people had forgotten or never heard. Perhaps ones even the ghosts had never asked, or thought to ask.
“I see generations come calling themselves ‘Hemp’ as if that meant it were poor. Silk, as if silk was grander. What does it matter? If you call me the first of my kind, the first rebel, if you honor me—I say it does not matter!”
Voices cried out in protest. Erin saw lineages of royalty look at Elucina and fall silent, or argue. The Rebel of String shouted at them.
“It does not matter to me! So tell them, Erin Solstice! Tell them I cared nothing for how they were woven or cut! That was not what I would tell them to watch for and care for! I say: look!”
She pointed ahead, towards the distant sea and dark skies. The woman’s voice rose.
“If I could have lived, I would have kept rebelling! Kept fighting. Surely there would have been people, monsters who hurt my folk. If I somehow found myself in a time when peace reigned—I would still be the Rebel of String, because I know my cause would not be done.”
Now she looked up at the Djinni, waiting patiently, and then at Erin.
“We were not the first! We will not be the last. Someday, a people like ours will come again. They will surely not look like us. They will not act like us, nor know who came before. So String Folk must wait. Watch. And when the next slaves, the next imprisoned folk cry out, we should raise our blades and cut a path for both of our peoples. For them all.”
She met Erin’s eyes.
“Tell them that.”
Erin nodded, unable to say anything. She thought she knew of that next people. Now, she sat with Elucina and Velzi and knew them. When the third ghost came, he walked towards her as a man.
Wearing her face. Only, as if Erin had been a young man her age. He grinned, and the Djinni transformed again. A majestic cat with the face of a Human—a Garuda with six wings—
Erin managed the name. The Djinni nodded regally.
“I greet you. Do you know what I am?”
Erin squinted up at him. Elucina looked calm, but Velzi looked wary. The Djinni laughed, and showed her his wrists.
No shackles on either. He rose up, and Erin realized he had been showing her something. His power, perhaps; even other Djinni looked less vivid than he did, even colored by death.
“I am a Prince of Djinni, little girl. In my life, they knew me by many names. All terrible. They called me monster, demon of magic. Rightly so.”
He tapped his chest as some ghosts cried out. Ghosts he had killed—and there were too many to count. Qin’tevf’al ignored them all. This was his story. He leaned down, to talk to Erin once more, never holding one form more than a second or two.
“I remember we were free. Some here have striven against me, or seen my kind in chains and in wild chaos, endangering the world, waging mighty war. I cannot say we were perfect, but I have never wept for the countless dead. I am still burning with that desire for vengeance. Even now. Will you listen to it?”
He smiled and Erin nodded slowly, looking up at him. Even in his introduction, something in her chest stirred, pushing away at the easy way he almost bragged about the people he had killed. Nevertheless—she glanced at Elucina—they had both been slaves.
She listened. Qin’tevf’al might have been the best storyteller, and he left her with a message for his people. However, she did not invite him to stay, nor did it seem like he expected it. He left her unsettled, and she stopped a second until asking the next ghost to come forwards.
Not all were good storytellers. Not all had good reasons. Yet for a while, the ghosts of the dead told her their stories.
Some she asked to stay. Some she made friends with. Some told her secrets they had been too ashamed to tell in life, gave her advice, wanted and not. Helpful or unhelpful. Some tried to spend their time simply teaching her things, rather than telling her their life.
She met monsters who pretended to be people, and people who had been called monsters. The [Witches] did not discern between things like good or evil. Just who had mattered, had stood at the pinnacle of what they were for one reason or another.
Erin tried to hold all the stories and knowledge in her mind and knew she never would. Even the ghosts struggled to keep up with it. But she listened.
She liked stories. More than that?
She liked people. Not everyone, but a good [Innkeeper] had her crowd. She spoke to them, making the same statement to all.
“I forget a lot of things. Names, faces, all kinds of stuff. I can’t promise you I’ll remember if I get to go back, either.”
Erin only rose when Califor came to find her.
“Erin. Something is happening at the coast. Follow me.”
The [Witch] beckoned and a crowd of ghosts, Gerial included, rose to their feet. How long it had been, the [Innkeeper] didn’t know. But she rose and followed Califor as quickly as she could.
That was how she heard him, and then saw him. A booming voice, filled with wrath.
“I have flown the world across, defying the grip of shades to search for hope amid darkness. I will not be turned back, not by all the petty little ghosts of Chandrar! Move aside, you animated corpses!”
There was only one kind of person who had a tone that imperious and commanding. A Lyonette-kind of person.
That turned out to be a gigantic, hovering Dragon in the air, just inside the radius of light cast by the umbrella. Behind him roiled the dark shadows, squirming to get at the ghost.
Yet he did not fully enter Chandrar; walls of sand blocked him. The Dynasty of Khelt was facing off against the Dragon.
“Uh. Why are they stopping him?”
Half the ghosts looked at Erin as if she were a fool. Elucina whispered in her ear.
“Because he is a Dragon. Chandrar suffers no Dragons.”
No one had time to explain. The enmity between Chandrarian rulers and Dragons ran deep. However, it seemed even the Dynasty of Khelt wasn’t actually trying to push said Dragon out into the sea where he might be consumed.
Something stood there. Erin shuddered as she saw one of the six, the…thing with no discernible features, the lost thing, waiting there. The Dragon flapped forwards.
“Let me in, and explain this light, ghosts.”
“Ask, Dragon. We are dead! Humble yourself one iota and but ask to enter Chandrar!”
The furious rulers of Khelt shouted at him. The Dragon snorted plumes of purple fire tinged with…Erin blinked. Transparent fire? It was a wondrous color, even in death. And his scales! They were beautiful! Not one color. More like…space itself. She stared up at him, a being bigger than Yderigrisel, majestic, as awe-inspiring as the greatest of Djinni or Giants.
…And sort of rude. The Void Dragon bellowed a reply.
“I am the last Dragonlord of Stars and I will not supplicate myself to any mortal ruler there was or ever has been! Enough of this!”
He blew flames, trying to break Khelt’s walls of sand, and then flew at them. He had probably forgotten that he was a ghost and these walls of Khelt’s power in death were more solid than actual walls would have been in life. Erin could swear she heard an ‘ugrhf’ sound as he smacked into the sand.
A lot of ghosts laughed at him, mocking the Dragon. The enraged ghost flew higher, roaring his fury. But the sand just blocked him, forming an aerial shield. They might have done this forever had Califor and the [Witches] not strode forwards.
“Enough! The end of the world draws nigh and we waste time on supremacy? Let him in!”
The Dynasty of Khelt hesitated, but then reluctantly lowered their hands. The Dragon landed, wings spread, as ghosts scattered. He whirled—but the lost thing never advanced.
It feared the sunlight. And the glowing sword held up by the ruler chosen to wield it for the moment—the first [King] of a place called Tiqr. The Dragonlord huffed.
“Across the sea it chased me. Two of my kin no less great than I flew, breathing fire which still burns them—and yet they were lost. Consumed. How is it that mere sunlight can hold them off?”
“It is more than a seeming. It is sunlight from the land of the living. Or a memory as strong as Dragonfire. Well met, Dragonlord of the Stars. I am Somillune, the Witch of Ash. I greet you along with the ghosts of Chandrar past. How are you named?”
Somillune walked forwards as the ghosts clamored. The Witch of Ashes raised her hand and tipped her hat. She did not kneel or bow.
The Dragon glowered at her—then seemed to recognize her hat or power. He grunted.
“Witches. At last, some sense among Chandrar’s pigheaded lot. We thought you were all fallen long ago without our Dragonfire. I am Dragonlord of the Stars, Xarkouth. Last of the Dragonlords of Void Dragons. Soon to be among the last of my kind. Again.”
His wings folded. He looked…tired. The Dragon exhaled as the Dynasty of Khelt and leaders of ghosts came forwards. Erin hopped on her tip-toes—then realized she could just fly up and watch.
“Where do you hail from, Xarkouth?”
“Baleros. I have flown across the sea. I am a volunteer—a scout. Nine of my kin flew after we set two of those things to flight—one of them being that one.”
The Dragon growled, indicating the watching thing with a wary flap of the wings. The ghosts murmured.
“Baleros still stands, then?”
The Dragon laughed in the face of the First of Khelt, who faced him down, glowering, as with many nations who had fought off Dragons in their lifetimes.
“Of course it does! How could it not? Every Dragon that has ever been has gone to Baleros to make a stand! Only those with ties to hearth and home elsewhere remained! We never joined your damned land of Chandrar, even the ones who died. We have been fighting off the six and the lesser shades since they grew in strength! Though…”
“It grows harder each time. And when that woman comes, we perish. So nine of us volunteered to search for other ghosts, that we might make a stand together.”
The ghosts murmured, impressed. Only a Dragon, still able to breathe fire because it was part of them, could hope to make the journey. Erin remembered Califor and her flight across the ocean with Izrilian ghosts.
“We know Izril has fallen. Do you have news beyond Baleros?”
Xarkouth nodded, and some of his bravado faded. He turned somber. He was not fond of the ghosts, nor they of him, but he spoke, as one did to allies against a greater enemy.
“Yes. Terandria stands. Drath stands, or so we think. I searched for the House of Minos—nothing amid shadows. Nor under the sea, I fear. Strongholds are falling, but those that remain grow stronger as ghosts flee there.”
Some ghosts called out, heartened. Somillune turned to the other [Witches] and ghosts.
“How can Terandria stand without Dragonfire?”
The Dragonlord raised his head and called to the ghosts of Chandrar.
“With the weight of all its rulers! Take heart, ghosts! The enemy comes relentlessly, but they are not strong enough to withstand combined Dragonfire. Not yet. Baleros—even Wistram is protected by power in death! Terandria? The bearded one walked there to claim it. I am told a thousand [Kings] and [Princes] met him in battle.”
Someone scoffed. The Djinni, Qin.
“What battle could ghosts give without weapons, Dragon?”
Xarkouth snorted smoke and flame at him.
“Enough! With pride, with the weight of their land against them—a thousand of Terandria’s royalty fought that one, though I know not how. What I do know is this: they drove him back. Injured. Enough to buy time. At dear cost, but every monarch ever living in Terandria holds its shores.”
More astonishment. Erin looked at Califor. This was good, right? The Dragonlord was muttering, quieter, as she edged forwards.
“‘Scuse me. ‘Scuse me.”
She heard him whisper to the [Witches] and closest rulers.
“They will not last long. An attempt may be made to bring them to Baleros, although it would put both continents in danger. Moreover, the Humans stubbornly refuse to leave, claiming their land is where they are strongest and where they wish to end it. I do not think they are necessarily wrong either. I thought Chandrar might be in the midst of being consumed. All of Izril is gone—save for pockets.”
“Pockets still? Where? With that one—the three-in-one, who could stop her?”
The Dragonlord grinned wearily.
“I wish I could answer you. My other task is to find the ghosts who know! I found ghosts fleeing the City of Graves, who told me the Walled City hurt that one and held her for nearly four hundred thousand seconds! But how is Chandrar—all of it—intact? This light…”
It seemed the ghosts had learned to keep time. Erin cheered as Xarkouth looked around.
“Whoo! They kicked Kasigna’s—I mean, that person’s butt? For four hundred thousand seconds? How long is that? Four months? ‘Scuse me. I sort of need to get forwards. That’s my umbrella. What’s a Dragonlord? Excuse…”
The Dragon’s eyes widened as he saw Erin, the living girl, amid the dead. He reeled back, fanning his wings.
“What is this?”
“This—is one of the few weapons left to use against them. Why we remain. The sword and umbrella she brought. Erin Solstice. Meet this ghost of Baleros.”
The First of Khelt nodded at Erin. Xarkouth dropped to all fours.
“A half-living ghost. We had precious few before the shadows grew…you. Girl. How did you do that?”
He glowered at Erin. She backed up; Xarkouth was many times her size. Erin hesitated, then folded her arms.
“I’m not ‘girl’. I’m Erin. Nice to meet you. Also, I was given the umbrella. I may have stolen the sword. But I’ll give it back.”
She stuck a hand out—and nearly up the Dragon’s left nostril. He recoiled, but gave her an impressed look, through the immediate irritation.
“This. This changes much. Tell me everything. Who this Human is—and how it came to be. We have time. I must return to Baleros and give this news.”
He glanced out into the darkness and shook his head.
“Something must be done. Although if there is a shield here…perhaps the Dragons must fly here? If we can hold them without their gaining strength forever, that is a victory of a kind! If only mortals didn’t die so damn much…”
The Dragon turned back to Erin. The other ghosts nodded, coming close to explain the extraordinary story. Xarkouth glanced at Erin. She found her heart beating. A Dragonlord? Another Dragon. She wanted to know his story.
If she could have asked Yderigrisel…well, the [Innkeeper] listened. To the ghosts talk. To stories. The [Witches] looked at her, wondering if she was ready to learn more.
Lessons and friendship in the land of the dead. For as long as safety lasted.
The light shone down. The umbrella hurt the lost thing standing outside its radius. It looked at the glowing sword, and thought of Baleros, burning with thousands of Dragons, able to repel them.
If…frustration was a concept it had, surely the other five shared it. Yet the lost thing just watched Erin. Watched the ghosts confer, safe for now. It was getting harder to find more than scraps. So long as the strongholds remained, with all that power there, all the souls…
The light moved slightly. Every ghost in Chandrar looked up, worried the umbrella had suddenly malfunctioned, if that was possible. But no—the Giant and person who held the umbrella were still. So why had that glorious beam trembled suddenly? Because his arm had grown tired? No. He was a ghost. So why…?
Erin looked up with Califor, Xarkouth, and the others. She saw the Giant point with one finger as he held his other arm still.
He hadn’t grown tired. But the Giant had…
Shivered. Why? Erin turned, and her phantom heart would have skipped a beat if it beat at all.
The lost one. It was…
It was smiling at them. Smiling without lips. Without a face. As clear as the sunlight streaming down, Erin realized something.
It had just had an idea. It slowly backed away, and the ghosts watched as it vanished into the distance. They looked at each other. Then…got back to work.
The sun shone down, briefly. While it did, the girl sat with the dead. For as long as it lasted, then…
They told her their stories.
Author’s Notes: I’m back! I have gotten all my vaccine shots and let me tell you…that one update off?
Not restful. Shivers, lightheadedness, and exceptional, I mean, amazing arm pain! Well, it’s done with now, but I still get my monthly mid-break! That…was an unpleasant few days.
However, I’m back to writing and whilst they didn’t win, the Horns took 2nd (I think?), and so I wrote this chapter combining plot elements. If they’d won, you’d get Pisces next chapter.
Instead, it’s Relc! Probably next chapter? We’ll see—I’m back to work, so let’s get to it! I write, you read. You also pay me, so I guess I don’t get to complain? But I love complaining. Thanks for reading and see you next chapter!
Nokha by LightResonance, commissioned by pirateaba!