(The author is taking their monthly break! The Wandering Inn will be back on the 29th! The 1st of June for Public readers!)
Ever since Erin had died, every day was like the last. Not the ‘last’ as in ‘the same as every day’, but like the last days ever. The days after the biggest storm you could imagine. The day after Ryoka Griffin had run away from the Goblin Lord and the Stone Spears Tribe had died, even if some survived.
Like that. It made Mrsha realize that time was a strange thing. Little things were important. Time with people mattered. Things? Things came and went.
The Gnoll girl had always sort of felt that the world would keep on going, things would stay the same. Like that strange ticking thing Kevin had just made.
He called it a ‘metronome’. It went back and forth, this little wand-like hand. Tick, toc, tick, toc…Mrsha’s head followed it left and right.
She had thought the entire world in the Stone Spears tribe would last forever. She knew people died…but the idea that everything could disappear in a single night?
The world was fragile. People were too fragile. So…time mattered. Mrsha wished she’d spent more time with Erin. Maybe asking her questions. She realized it now—now that her time was out.
She wanted it back. Mrsha thought that this revelation about time changed a lot. Why did she waste it on silly things, like getting angry when Ekirra kept telling her how much better at football he was, and proceeded to beat both her and Visma two-on-one?
Mrsha still wanted to beat him up and toss his ball down the well, but she felt it was a waste of time. She was learning…she needed to do things that mattered, just in case she couldn’t. In case she died tomorrow.
It was something the Antinium knew. Mrsha realized that was why they acted like they did. Pawn, Bird, Belgrade, and the rest.
Even Mrsha didn’t run around happily every time she ate eggs. But Bird ate like each one was the first and last meal he’d have. He hadn’t forgotten that once, not too long ago, a certain Worker had never been able to eat such food, and have such delights.
Bird was smart. Mrsha was getting smarter. She thought Bird had it worked out; how to live. Other people like Selys and Olesm and Lyonette worried all the time. Sometimes about important things, but each day, even if they were bad ones, Bird always found something happy. Well—since he had stopped staying in his rooms.
Mrsha the Hugely Introspective sighed as she watched the metronome. She knew that spending fifteen minutes staring at it was probably a waste of time, but she couldn’t look away.
Tick, toc, tick, toc.
“I don’t get it. It’s annoying the hair off me. I want to break it. How does Mrsha stand it? And what’s the point?”
“I told you, it’s Kevin’s prototype. Don’t break it; he worked really hard on it. It’s for keeping the beat. It’s a prototype for a clock.”
Two voices were speaking just behind Mrsha. The first’s was surly.
“Hmph. For singing? You’re telling me you’re fine with that sound?”
A sigh, and then Imani patted Palt on the arm.
“Can’t you cast a [Silence] spell or something to block out the sound? I thought that’s the entire point of being an [Illusionist].”
Palt stopped. Mrsha turned her head and saw the Centaur, unable to come up with a smart response, click his fingers. The sound and image of the metronome apparently vanished, because he said nothing else. Imani smiled.
“And…does that look good? I can’t tell.”
She pushed over some fabric and a piece of paper. Palt glanced at it.
“Ooh! Very nice! If I were you, though, I’d add a symbol on the apron. Right there.”
“Mm. Liscor’s crest? Something stylish. Just so they recognize it’s ‘you’. I have my own logo on my goods. Haven’t you seen them?”
Imani frowned. Palt handed her a cigar with a wounded look. At this point, Mrsha left the metronome instead of winding it back up. She padded over and saw Imani and Palt sitting together, next to the fire.
It was raining. So, Mrsha had learned their planned outing was cancelled. Undeterred, the two had another stupid couple-thing: designing an outfit for Imani and Palt to wear as cooking-instructors.
Both of them liked designing ideas and Palt had found some fabric for reference. They weren’t going for the monochrome white [Chef]’s outfit with the poofy hat from Erin’s stereotypes. Imani wanted something where you didn’t sweat to death in a hot kitchen. Stylish, even.
Palt was showing Imani a copy of the cigar he was smoking; it had a miniature, very stylized horse with a wizard’s hat and wand in the background in a tiny circle.
“See? It’s a stamp…well, I can do a magical tracing. Something like that.”
“You made it yourself? You’re so good with designs!”
“Why, thank you. I had it commissioned.”
Palt looked pleased. He put an arm around Imani’s shoulders and they hugged, both smiling happily. The two paused as Mrsha loudly gagged and made a throwing-up sound.
“Mrsha, don’t you approve of our love? I expected this kind of thing from Lisms and…Lisms, but from you?”
Palt looked wounded. He put a hand over his heart. Mrsha, outraged at being compared to Lism, shook her head violently and began to scribble. Imani began to giggle as Mrsha shoved a notecard towards them. She bent over and read out loud.
“To Palt: Wherefore, and due to my good grace and manners, I will not reply in kind for your dastardly insult in comparing me to that Drake, I still insist you withdraw your scurrilous comment or—pfft—”
She and Palt began laughing so hard they collapsed against each other and Imani nearly fell out of her chair; Palt was just sitting on the ground at the lowered table.
Outraged that her literary acumen was being used as entertainment, Mrsha pounded a fist on the table. She looked at the guffawing two, and decided she’d had enough of them. Mrsha the Serious snatched Palt’s cigar and leapt onto the floor of the inn and began huffing her way towards the closest wall.
“Hey! Mrsha, what are you doing? That’s not for children! Palt, stop her with magic.”
Alarmed, Imani stared at Mrsha, stuffing the cigar into her personal bag of holding. Palt was still chuckling. He glanced at Mrsha.
“I wouldn’t worry.”
A warning tone entered Imani’s voice and the Centaur sat up straight. He clarified, hurriedly.
“I’m sure Mrsha doesn’t actually use them. I think she trades them. Don’t give me that look, Imani. What’s the harm in letting a kid do some good, old-fashioned bartering? I did it when I was her age…”
Mrsha walked into the Garden of Sanctuary. Sure enough, Palt was right. He was rich enough that he let Mrsha walk off with a cigar now and then—especially for ‘services rendered’.
That used to be Mrsha helping smooth things over if he annoyed Erin. Or nudging Lyonette to help him, or distracting her. Or—one time—persuading Nalthaliarstrelous to sell Palt some of the plants in his garden.
Anyways, the point was that when she got her paws on one, a Palt-cigar was worth some serious Mrsha-money.
Not actual gold; Mrsha had little use for actual gold since even the most accepting [Shopkeepers] still asked too many questions if Mrsha wandered up to the counter and tried to pay with five gold coins for a hundred cookies. She’d gotten in real trouble the one time she tried to stand on Visma’s shoulders in a big coat and they’d thought she was a [Thief]…
If she wanted something, Lyonette was the intermediary—or Selys. In fact, mostly Selys because Selys would buy you something if you presented her with an eloquent argument. Like bursting into tears and then hugging her after she caved.
No, Mrsha-money was the real deal. The uncut, straight, drug-equivalent for children.
Mrsha sidled into the [Garden of Sanctuary], looking for a mark. She could usually find one in here, or the city. Her usual fence was buzzing around as usual, but seemed to smell Mrsha had something good today.
Apista the Ashfire Bee made an Apista-line towards Mrsha, eagerly buzzing around her. Mrsha held up a paw—then put it palm-up and made a beckoning motion.
Hold up. What do you have for me?
The bee dithered. Mrsha produced the cigar and Apista buzzed around it, trying to grab it and fly off with it. Mrsha swatted at her gently. She knew Apista would just set it on fire and spend the rest of the day clinging to the ceiling and fanning her wings if she handed it off. She wanted to see what Apista had to offer first.
Apista was a good fence. She had a wide selection of Mrsha-goods, but her availability was the issue. You could trade a third of a cigar for a cookie, filched from the kitchen. Or other snacks! Mrsha had even gotten Apista to secure one of The Wandering Inn’s small cakes for sale one time. It had ‘fallen off the table’ and Erin was none the wiser.
However, it seemed her new job working as bodyguard and taxi for Niers meant Apista was broke today, and Mrsha didn’t offer credit. She stowed her cigar as Apista buzzed around unhappily.
Mrsha the Drug Dealer sauntered onwards. Was this how she wanted to spend her life? Slinging contraband around? Well…it was sort of fun. She went back and gave Apista a big hug—gentle, but big. Apista fanned her wings and her proboscis tickled Mrsha’s arm. Mrsha patted her on the head—but didn’t give her the cigar. Love was love.
Business was business. Well, if Mrsha didn’t have luck on her first client, her second might be more…interesting.
The white Gnoll glanced around, and then shuffled over to one of the people in the Garden of Sanctuary. She shuffled for fifteen feet…then gave up and walked all the way to the jungle-biome. She padded up to a tree, climbed the ladder she’d dragged over, and once she was up high enough, knocked on the little hollow in the tree.
“What is it?”
The Titan of Baleros had been working on something with paper and ink of his own. He blinked as Mrsha offered the cigar. Niers frowned as he stared at Mrsha’s haul.
“What is that? One of that Centaur’s cigars? That damn thing is as big as I am. Is it a gift? Hey!”
The ‘hey’ was because Mrsha jerked it back. She waved the product at Niers meaningfully and went to write down an explanation.
Niers Astoragon saw Mrsha, clinging to the wide branch he was on, fumble for her notepad and quill while her good paw held the cigar. Which left…how many paws to hold onto the branch?
Whump. He winced at the sound and peered over the edge. A minute later, Mrsha sniffed as she climbed back up and held out the card, glaring at him and defying him to comment on the tears in the corners of her eyes. She hadn’t cried!
“What’s this? ‘I’ll give you the cigar for goods and services in kind…?’ Who taught you to write like that?”
Niers eyed Mrsha, somewhat disturbed. The Gnoll tapped the card. He shrugged.
“I could offer you credit once I get back to my company, but I’ve got nothing. What?”
He stared as she pointed.
“No, I’m not trading you my sword for it. Not even loaning it! How much of an addict do you think I am, anyways? You gave me a bit of that Centaur’s stuff. It’s strong and I could smoke one cigar over a month! Two months!”
Mrsha sighed, glared, but descended the ladder. The problem with small clients was that they had limited demands.
Back to the search for a profitable buyer. Mrsha the Palt realized there were some other prospective people in the garden today. She headed out of the jungle, picking burrs off her fur with annoyance, and saw them on the hill.
Ulvama, Rags, Numbtongue, and Calescent were in deep discussion. Well, Rags and Ulvama were. Calescent was more quiet, and Numbtongue was…gloomy. Their conversation was quiet, but audible to anyone in the garden with Gnoll-hearing.
“We are safe. For now. Adventurers know where we are. So? The High Passes are…high. Teams are not as dangerous as armies. Until we give them a reason, they will not come.”
Rags was speaking, holding a council with the two foreign Goblins. Ulvama glanced at Numbtongue. He didn’t reply at first. His head was bowed; he looked comatose. She sneered at Rags.
“So? They will come. They always will.”
Rags met the [Shaman]’s gaze.
“I know. When they do, I will be ready. I told you: right now, two things I care about. Finding a way to help Erin, if Goblins can. And finding the answer of this.”
She held up the thing around her neck. A key on a chain. A simple, ordinary key that was not magical to Ulvama’s gaze. Nevertheless, all four Goblins looked at it. Ulvama’s gaze was greedy—and nervous.
“What do you think?”
Rags turned to Numbtongue. When the Goblin’s head rose, it was his voice that replied, but changed subtly. Pyrite spoke.
“Good plans. Big plans. Like clouds.”
He gestured up at the sky overhead, visible through the garden’s circular opening. Pyrite went on, and even Ulvama listened quietly.
“Clouds are hard to see. Does Chieftain have plans like rocks? What happens tomorrow? What happens now?”
The Flooded Waters Chieftain nodded slowly, appreciating Pyrite’s response. She spoke, slowly.
“I have seen this…adventurer raid fail. Maybe the Horns are alive. Maybe not. We cannot help them. Maybe the other teams will trade that helmet for a cure. Maybe not. After listening, I have a plan. It is dangerous. It may endanger the entire tribe, but if I think it will help—”
She fell silent, the troubled look on her face turning to…irritation. She glanced sideways, and all four Goblins turned.
The little Gnoll girl nudging Ulvama and proffering the cigar froze. She raised her paws, backing up. She wasn’t trying to interrupt! Just strike a good deal!
Ulvama eyed Mrsha with resignation. Rags glowered. Calescent sniffed interestedly. Mrsha saw good business opportunities here. Goblins always had great merchandise.
The trouble was, Numbtongue was out of the game, being mostly depressed and sitting about. Rags? The Goblin Chieftain was on Mrsha’s blacklist, but Ulvama was good.
She had good trades, after learning that if she tried to steal Mrsha’s goods, a certain beaver-gang would pay her a visit in the middle of the night. As in, they’d get into her bed and sit on her. Despite her lack of a job, she did have services to offer.
Mostly, paint. For a cigar or some good snacks, or some intermediary work with Octavia, Selys, and so on, she’d draw on Mrsha’s fur with her odd-smelling paints and enchant the Gnoll for a while.
That was quality Mrsha-goods. Mrsha had become Mrsha the Speedy for a day—and then she’d gotten Ulvama to offer a bulk-discount and she, Ekirra, and Visma had all been the Chameleon Trio in a game of hide-and-seek in the park. Their opponents and detractors had claimed magic was cheating; Mrsha thought they just didn’t know how to leverage connections.
However, it seemed Ulvama didn’t have time for Mrsha because she chased her off, swatting with her staff.
“What about Pebblesnatch? Go to the Unseen Empire. Get more Goblins. A small tribe!”
“So you say again and again. I have been there. Goblins should not die…needlessly.”
Rags folded her arms, beyond reluctant to contemplate fighting that [Emperor] once more, or even risking it.
The debate continued as Mrsha the Hustler groaned internally. Was she going to have to parlay with Kevin or Joseph, or hold onto the goods until she could visit the city? It was a hot item.
…As in, if Imani told Ishkr, he might confiscate the cigar. Or she might take it out of ‘concern’ for Mrsha’s well-being. The law was just an excuse for petty thievery. Mrsha’s eyes narrowed as she thought about how much she’d lost to authority over the…weeks.
Let’s see. Mrsha ran down her client list as she sat, ignoring Rags kicking her towards the edge of the hill.
Kevin would trade you snacks and other nice things, but he had his own supply. Joseph? Not as interested in that as a drink, and Mrsha didn’t want to push his habit. She was a conscientious supplier. A real shame, because a Joseph-autograph was a good commodity these days.
Temile. Ah, if Temile were here, Mrsha could have gotten something nice. Like an [Actor]’s hat or prop-dagger for a day. A real shame. Grev could actually parlay the cigar into gold or other things too, and he had his own autograph collection for trades.
No, no. Who else? Well, among the buyers out there—Hexel and Elirr were one of the city-picks since Krshia was gone. Not that they had much that Mrsha wanted; they were too ‘responsible’. The rest of her clients weren’t into this particular good. Montressa and Bezale could get it direct, Ekirra and Visma weren’t in the market, and so on.
Could she give the cigar to the Antinium? Mrsha felt bad doing that though, because they didn’t have much to sell, and trading a cigar for something that was probably their only possession in life felt…uh…bad.
The only Antinium that Mrsha could realistically trade with were Belgrade for straight up money, Bird for feathers, bird-meat, often rotten, or with Garry. Garry was good. He offered straight, solid desserts and didn’t ask many questions.
…The problem was, you had a 50% chance a Garry-treat had bugs in it and Mrsha didn’t like those odds.
The last group Mrsha could fence the cigar to were the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings. There were always three or four in the hallway, and they were nice. But…Mrsha thought of the encounter on the street.
She wasn’t sure if she was ready for the big leagues. Fencing to Crimshaw was a last-ditch resort.
Mrsha was just considering going back and exchanging her cigar with Palt for a more acceptable, longer-term commodity with less value but more keepability like some Nali-sticks. She had been known to eat her supply and it was nice to have an easily-cashable item like that lying around.
That was when a new client entered the scene. Calescent tapped Mrsha on the shoulder as she was about to roll down the hill.
The [Chef] from the underground caught Mrsha’s eye as she sat up. He reached into a pouch and produced a small bag. Mrsha sniffed it, sneezed hard, and sniffed again.
Oh wow. She’d hit the goldmine! Or rather—spice mines! Calescent was offering her pure, high-quality spices for the cigar.
And that wasn’t a euphemism! Mrsha didn’t have to think. She held out the cigar, took the small pouch, and shook hands with the Goblin. He nodded to her. Mrsha handed him a card. Then she turned.
All four Goblins, even Numbtongue, leaned over to read the card over Calescent’s shoulder.
Nice doing business with you. Remember: we never met. I was never here. Burn the card.
Rags looked over. Mrsha nodded to her once, coolly—then began somersaulting down the hill and giggling.
That was fun. Humble as it may be, Mrsha thought it was a good use of time. If you died tomorrow…at least you could say you had fun.
Plus she’d gotten ahold of a weapon, trading item, and flavor! All in one! She knew that Calescent’s spice-blend came in a few types:
Death spice, which had no flavor besides pain. He coated his weapons with that or tossed it into people’s faces in battle.
Flavor spice, for cooking. Hot! But delicious. Imani had actually bought some in bulk.
This stuff now…Mrsha peeked into the bag and decided it was a variant on flavor-spice. Calescent had obtained ingredients from Octavia and Imani that a Goblin had trouble finding, and was mixing up a new batch of experimental stuff. He could, of course, conjure some spice each day from one of his Skills, but he still had to experience new spices before he could make it his daily bonus.
Spice was worth a lot more than Dreamleaf to Mrsha. She even knew what she was going to do with it! Mrsha the Spicy narrowed her eyes. Life couldn’t all be fun and games. She had enemies. Erin had enemies.
Today…was a reckoning twice-over. As you ate food and suffered—and when you tried to pass it on the toilet. She smiled evilly to herself. Some Gnolls…yes. Some Gnolls just wanted to watch your insides burn.
Liscor was quiet. It was raining. The skies opened up, as if weeping for what could be avoided.
If only Gnolls and other species were kinder. Mrsha shook her head and lit a match. She pretended to puff on the wooden straw, then gave up and blew out the fire because it made her cough too much.
“Mrsha, what’s that about? Is that another story from the inn? A movie? You promised to show me, remember?”
Ekirra whined. He was so innocent. So naïve. Yet innocence could hurt. Mrsha saw he was still wearing his football jersey. The Little Crabs’ star striker. He smiled at her, oblivious to the way his comments about Mrsha and Visma being terrible at football could hurt.
You wound me, my friend. I wish I could be the bigger Gnoll. However. You have only yourself to blame.
Mrsha didn’t reply to Ekirra’s questions about the movies on the laptop and other devices. He went back to licking his lips.
“Thanks for the new sandwich, Mrsha! Imani made it? It smells good!”
He began gobbling it down. Mrsha leaned back against the wall and tugged the hat down over her eyes. She waited.
“It’s…really tasty! Sort of hot.”
Ekirra’s voice changed from excited to puzzled. A strangled tone entered his voice.
“It’s really spicy. Mrsha, do you have any water? It’s hot! It’s so hoth! Wather! Ow! Ow—”
She saw him bolt around, rolling on the ground, pawing at his mouth. Mrsha tilted her head up and stared at the sky as Ekirra howled.
To all those who have hurt me, I’m sorry. For what I’m going to do to you.
That had been just a pinch of Calescent’s new blend. Visma glanced up from where she was making sandcastles as Ekirra ran, crying, to his big sister to beg for water. Poor fool. Water just made it worse.
The Drake girl gave Mrsha a slow nod. Mrsha nodded back. She walked back in the rain, feeling neither proud nor sad. It had to be done. She greeted her bodyguards as they waited for her in the rain.
Palt and Imani stared at Mrsha. Palt’s mouth was hanging open. Imani closed hers.
“Alright. That’s enough movies for you.”
What? No! Mrsha’s face fell and she waved her arms frantically. Imani just shook her head. Palt leaned over.
“Was she copying another of those movies?”
“Scene-for-scene. I am going to kill Joseph and Kevin. That one’s about crime.”
“Ooh. Why don’t we watch it later without kids?”
“Stop it, you. Maybe tonight. Let me see if anyone has it. Who’s cooking?”
Mrsha stomped past the flirting couple, who’d taken her into the city at her request for this mission of not-mercy. She glanced past her two principal bodyguards for the second pair lurking in the street.
Credit where credit was due, Crimshaw and the other Brother of Serendipitous Meetings looked rather disturbed by Mrsha’s reenactment of a scene they probably knew fairly well. She nodded at them and they stared at her as she walked past them. One of them turned to the other.
“Crimshaw, it occurs to me in this moment that we might be a bad influence on the kids, as it were.”
Crimshaw nodded, eying Mrsha. She was already thinking of her next target. Ekirra would live. She’d taken it easy on him; it was just a lesson in manners.
Her real enemies were in this very city. Polluting the air with their breath. They were an infestation, with respect to Antinium of course! They had to be dealt with. Still…it was going to take more work than a casual sandwich-hit. She needed a team. Mrsha strode back to the inn—or would have, but Palt and Imani stopped to admire a rather catchy tune.
“Oh, it’s a song-crystal! That’s from—Palt, that’s from you-know-where! It’s a good song!”
“I’ll buy it for you if they have any in stock. You know they lose their song after a few months at most, though, right? But for you, I could copy it…one moment.”
They paused at the booth by the streets. Mrsha saw Palt trot over, buy one from the [Trader] who was selling song-crystals playing, and present it to Imani with a flourish. From the Singer of Terandria herself.
Mrsha had not realized how cutesy the Palt-Imani couple was. She put her paws on her hips. She needed a better, more dedicated crew to the art of vengeance. Even Selys was better than this! And Drassi!
Well…good for them, Mrsha supposed. They were one of the few couples she knew. Hexel and Elirr, Imani and Palt, Wailant and Viceria—okay, she knew a few.
Jelaqua and Maughin, now…they were just as bad. The adventurers were returning to Pallass or Liscor, some of them, but they weren’t here yet. Mrsha shook her head. A shame. She’d have more clients, more agents to work with. Still, she thought she had a decent team so far.
“You want me to what? Absolutely—wait. Say that again? There are Thronebearers of Calanfer in Liscor? Damn—I need an encyclopedia or something. All my notes are gone!”
Niers Astoragon cursed. He stared at Mrsha, perched on the branch as she scribbled. The Titan of Baleros and Apista both read the card. Niers snorted as Mrsha waited. She had to sell this hit. She had prepared ample recompense and he owed her!
“I do not owe you a prank. I owe you a lot more for helping me out, and feeding me, but this isn’t one of those things.”
The Fraerling countered, having read her card. He eyed the slice of lemon meringue pie that Mrsha had carefully saved from her dessert plate.
“…And tempting as that is, I don’t think angering a bunch of [Knights] is wise. Why are they after your mother? She really is the [Princess] of…? Dead gods.”
Mrsha stared indignantly at the Titan as he rubbed at his face. Niers glanced up and read her card.
“What? No! Of course I didn’t believe you! No offense, but when you tell me a [Princess] of Terandria is your mother, and is also in a dedicated relationship with an Antinium, I tend to raise my eyebrows. Let me get this straight. She’s not your mother biologically or there’s a huge scandal here and a very odd timeline. She is a [Princess], and…dead gods.”
Niers Astoragon sorted out Mrsha’s admittedly somewhat tangled story, and this time had to believe her. There were Thronebearers of Calanfer in the city and while they hadn’t tracked Mrsha down to The Wandering Inn, she feared their collective stupidity could only last so long.
Especially with Ser Dalimont on her trail. Why, he might be doing something as reasonable as stopping the others from directly trying to grab a little Gnoll girl in public! They’d be arrested as [Kidnappers] by the Watch if they tried that. He might be doing something like…asking about Mrsha without causing a scene!
They had to be taken out. Or rather, punished since their quarry wasn’t even in the city! Hence, Mrsha pointed out to Niers, her plan.
The Titan just stared at her.
“I thought my life was strange.”
He muttered and rubbed at the stubble on his face. He sighed…then seemed to take in her first request again. Niers eyed her detailed plan and his lips twitched.
“What do you mean, ‘Calescent’s doom-spice’?”
Mrsha offered him the pouch. Niers took one taste of a fleck of red and his face turned a matching shade.
“Cats and spiders! That’s hot! A Goblin made that? You want to put it…hm. That’s just cruel.”
However—he was grinning. Mrsha’s eyes lit up. She hadn’t been sure, but as the Titan began to laugh, she realized it was true.
He did enjoy a good prank. Niers took her plan note-card and eyed it.
“It’s a risk. Especially if they have detection-Skills. I’d have to go into the city, and that bee—what’s your full plan?”
Mrsha rubbed her paws together and smiled evilly as Apista settled on her head.
So it was that later that day, Mrsha carefully adjusted the hat on her head. She delicately cut into the bloody steak, served rare. High-quality meat.
But bloody, like the blood on my paws. And in their poo if it goes really bad.
“Mrsha, why in the name of the Ancestors did you want to eat at this restaurant so badly?”
Selys looked miffed. Drassi just nudged her friend. She was still a bit hoarse from her screamed-coverage of the Village of Death raid. The [Reporter] was also getting a lot of attention and they’d been seated at a prominent table.
Heck, Drassi’s fame was why they’d gotten the restaurant in such short order. It was one of the better ones in the city. Selys was the reason they could afford it.
“Don’t object, Selys! I’m perfectly happy to let Mrsha choose where she wants to eat.”
“Just because you’re not paying for it. Oh—fine.”
Selys grumbled, but she looked a bit happier than her moping-self ever since she’d gotten the [Message] from Ceria. Mrsha nodded. This served multiple purposes! Cheering up the two Drakes, and—she glanced sideways. Palt and Imani were making eyes together at a separate table. Drassi and Selys nudged each other and laughed.
Mrsha had suggested that too. It was a properly lateral Erin-move. A bit of kindness, and a treat for the two.
It helped assuage the pain in her heart, as if small kindness could make up for what she was about to do.
Mrsha the Penitent patted at her mouth with a napkin, although she had yet to actually take a bite. Selys broke off laughing with Drassi.
“Ignore her. She’s been like that all day.”
Imani stopped talking with Palt long enough to call over. Mrsha ignored all the adults. They were not aware of the situation.
She slunk down in her chair, her hat tugged lower over her features, knowing she was being watched. A group of four [Knights], not in their armor, but still dressed in the same flashy colors and metallic cloth were dining together. She heard their conversation.
“…just sitting there. If that isn’t a sign, Ser Dalimont…”
“…do not stand up. If the girl runs, there will be a scene. We are meant to be covert…!”
The Thronebearers were eating at this fancy restaurant. Little did they know…it would be their last meal. For the day. Maybe for two days if they were really traumatized.
The staff were so enamored of Drassi they didn’t even make Mrsha take off the hat and oversized jacket she’d been wearing around. The [Reporter] had already signed a few autographs, and the owners themselves had come over to talk to her.
Perfect. All was in order. Mrsha closed her eyes. She had no direct link with her agent, but she knew the plan was underway. She waved for one of the [Servers] as she wrote on a notecard. Drassi and Selys were discussing the location of the Horns, the treasure, before trying to have a meal without talking about it…
Unbeknownst to them, her agents were in play. Two of them, moving through the back of the restaurant.
They had investigated the kitchen through the window, and of course, she was working with professionals. Niers Astoragon, the Titan, was no stranger to staying hidden. Of course, the danger was anything that might hurt a Fraerling of his size.
Hence, his backup. Apista the bee, who could deliver him at heights above most dangers. They were her A-team, but the Titan would have never gone for this operation if Mrsha hadn’t been able to persuade him of the safety.
How would he get the pouch of spices into the entrée of soup for the [Knights]? Let them assume he could pinpoint the bowls for the [Knights]—no hard task for a [Strategist] used to keeping track of a battlefield, who could easily manipulate things as well—how would he deliver it without everyone seeing a tiny man or bee buzzing around a kitchen?
Well. Mrsha had a few options, but since Ulvama didn’t know about Niers, one of the easiest ways—getting the [Shaman] to cast a spell—was out. She’d come up with a more convenient solution that Niers had been blown away by.
Something tapped Mrsha on the head and she heard a familiar buzz. So did Selys and Drassi. They looked around.
“Does that sound like a bee to you, Drassi? Reminds me of Apista.”
Selys frowned. She looked around, but Apista was already flying away.
“I heard it too!”
Drassi’s head turned, but the [Reporter] couldn’t see Apista, or Niers. They were already returning to the inn.
Invisible. And it didn’t even take a full invisibility-potion to do it. For people their size? Only a bit.
Oh my, but where could poor little Mrsha get an invisibility potion without having to buy it? Mrsha rubbed her paws under the table, keeping her face straight. How handy of Octavia to have a few of the latest products, courtesy of Saliss of Lights.
Come to think of it, Saliss would have been all on-board with this plan. Mrsha closed her eyes and thanked her spiritual mentor. Niers had participated, for the rest of the invisibility potion. He saw the utility in it, and Octavia’s shop.
Mrsha? Mrsha only saw the dead. She looked at the [Knights] as the [Server] hurried over.
“Can we get something for Miss Mrsha? Another drink? Is the steak not good enough?”
The steak is fine. Please, send this over to that table, directly.
Mrsha held up a notecard. The [Server], bemused, took the object Mrsha handed her. Selys and Drassi frowned and glanced at the table of Humans.
“Do they know you, Mrsha? They’re staring at us.”
“Maybe they’re fans of yours, Mrsha. What was that?”
Mrsha the Studiously Innocent just shrugged, watching as another [Server] came forwards with four bowls of soup. Right on time, she saw her message being delivered as the [Knights] sat with their soup.
“That Gnoll asked me to send this to your table, Sirs, Madams. Please, enjoy.”
Ser Dalimont blinked. The other Thronebearers stared at Mrsha, then the object the [Server] had taken from her serving tray. It was…
A little flower. Not a Faerie Flower; they were dead. This one was white. White as Mrsha’s fur. The Thronebearers blinked.
“What does that mean? It’s flower-language, perhaps? Is it some kind of code? It looks vanilla-white to me. Are any of you up-to-date on flower-language in the courts?”
One of the Thronebearers of Calanfer picked up the flower. Ser Dalimont and Mrsha gave the man a look of incredulity. The others stared at Mrsha.
“We must talk to her. After our meal, Ser Dalimont. But let us not keep food waiting. To glorious Calanfer, and the Dawn Concordat! May it stand against wretched Ailendamus, and we return in glory and success!”
The female [Knight] toasted and the others rose, decisively. Some of the other diners looked around, but they drank, sat, and began to sip from the bowls. Mrsha saw the curiously dark liquid pass into their mouths, and then a few more spoonfuls into the hungry [Knight]’s mouths before their good-natured comments and expressions turned to puzzlement. Then, to horror.
The white Gnoll closed her eyes and sat back in her chair. She sliced another bit of steak and inserted it into her mouth as the cries of pain began, the uproar, the ill-advised drinking of water. Selys and Drassi started, and some of the other diners got up, looking warily at their soup.
Only Drassi, the former-[Gossip] put it together fast enough. And perhaps Ser Dalimont. However, if he could have spoken past his swollen lips, Mrsha would have been impressed. The power of Calescent’s new blend was that it didn’t burn for a little bit. When it did…
Mrsha folded her paws on the table and patted her mouth again. Ah, but it tasted like ashes. Like blood. Can my conscience ever let me enjoy another meal in peace?
She hesitated. No, wait. Mrsha licked her lips. That was really good steak. She began to gobble her food, appetite restored. To the side, the [Knights] collapsed, lips puffed up, eyes streaming with liquid as the staff assured the customers that this—this was some kind of accident! What was wrong with the soup? One tried a spoonful and fell victim too. Another death on Mrsha’s conscience.
It had to be done. Somewhere, the Titan of Baleros was laughing. Mrsha did not laugh. She finished her meal and sat there, in silence, contemplating her sins. Perhaps—yes, perhaps when no one was looking, when the [Healer] had been summoned, the soup disposed of, and two of the [Knights] actually had to be led out of the restaurant, they were so blind—perhaps then she allowed herself a small smile.
One did have to have fun.
Imani and Selys, who had both been watching Mrsha’s expression, silently looked at each other and agreed Mrsha would never be allowed to watch a movie about crime ever again.
When had it been that they realized destiny threw them together? The odd twists of fate that had meant the two would meet, here of all places? So far from home.
Yet from the start, they had too much in common. Such that while it seemed complex, coincidental beyond belief, when you looked back it seemed as if the world had meant for them to be together.
Two star-crossed lovers, united by adversity and their mutual bonds.
…Wait. What did lovers do again? Maybe it wasn’t lovers. Neither one had the class.
Two star-crossed friends, united by adversity and their mutual bonds.
Were they friends? That was a…first. Yet if this was friendship, it was closer than anything either had known. They might have skipped past friendship towards something else. Not lovers, not friends.
The skeleton held the slime in his arms as they sat together in silence. Silence—yet a communion of similar beings. Neither one with proper voices.
Neither one alone.
When was it that they realized both had been created by Erin Solstice? Toren wondered. Of course, he’d ‘technically’ been assembled by that [Necromancer]. Pisces. The person who had made him, accidentally or not, had been Erin.
Like Healing Slime. Did that make them brothers? Siblings? Toren wasn’t sure what he or the slime were.
One was undead, the other was a blob. It didn’t matter. They were here, and they stayed together, like the last two [Sailors] in a shipwreck at the edge of the world. Toren had never cared for anything like Healing Slime before. Not a weapon, not a place, not…
A person? Maybe. Erin Solstice was too complicated, though. Love and hate intermingled too much. The realization she had never seen him, history—
Healing Slime was simpler. The feeling in Toren’s head was strange. He was a [Carer]—but more than that? It was like opening a door. Once the door had been opened, it could never be fully closed. He felt.
Something like the idea of warmth when he held Healing Slime. Something deeper than the fear of death when he thought of the Chosen finding Healing Slime. Toren listened, unsettled of late.
The castle of Az’kerash was…off. Distinctly off. The mindless undead held their positions as always. The semi-conscious ones like Crypt Lords? Well, Az’kerash didn’t generally animate such undead, considering them somewhat annoying.
Those that were present, by natural animation or leftovers from other projects, were in hiding. Eleven had been destroyed. The Chosen were venting their frustrations on lesser undead—and only the ones who could think, were expendable. It was no fun attacking puppets.
Hence, Toren hiding here, in the closet with Healing Slime. He might have taken his chances to find it food—but not today. Not this week. The Chosen were beyond agitated. It did not take a genius to figure out why, but Toren had still had to think for a bit.
“Emiress! Delighted! You know, we haven’t seen each other in years. Don’t flatter me; I just have good makeup. I’d pay for a Potion of Youth if I could afford it—”
“—Just a disgrace. Hrr. Yes. Drakes like that were why we fought. I see no mentions of this on Wistram News Network, yes? But then from the [Mages], what else would w—”
“—checking in for unusual [Slaves] this week—”
Az’kerash sat in his private chambers, dark eyes flickering as over a dozen voices spilled around him. He was stretching himself to his very limits, even for a mind like his. Holding a conversation with so many puppets, keeping each one animated, lifelike?
He was searching. Searching for the whereabouts of the Horns of Hammerad, as he had done since they had vanished.
No—that wasn’t accurate. Az’kerash had already located three. The half-Elf, the Antinium, and the woman with metal arms. Each one he had pinpointed, via listening in on [Message] spells, keeping tabs on the news.
The one he wanted, nay, needed to find was missing. Increasingly, the Necromancer was focusing on Chandrar and his limited networks there. Searching for [Slaves].
He was not the Wistram of today. If he could not locate Pisces Jealnet via his name and Az’kerash’s scrying spells, then something was blocking the spell. Which meant only one thing.
The worst of all scenarios was that. For more reasons than Pisces’ safety alone. He could be compelled—by the right class and level—to say everything. Thus, the Necromancer searched. Purely out of self-interest.
…No. Not even the Chosen believed that. They looked at their master, fearing to disturb him and saw the way he searched. The way he had raged and grown silent. The emotions they had scarcely seen in him, suddenly so common.
Concern for the living. The Chosen, like the children they were, felt the first uncertainty in the truth they held: that they were all that mattered in the world to their master, their parent.
Because they feared, they rampaged. Tearing apart undead, venting their anger in minor ways. Hoping, perhaps…
Toren heard the thunderous pounding of a huge shape. The Healing Slime shivered, then both went still as something—almost certainly Venitra—pounded past.
“Where is the skeleton?”
She was searching for him. Venitra loved nothing more than to bully Toren, who was the most living thing here, apart from rats or birds or the rare, poor animal that wandered into the enchanted forest.
If she caught him, she’d pull his bones off one by one like last time. Or grind them to powder. Toren couldn’t regenerate fast anymore. He was worried he’d die if too much of him was destroyed. And then what would happen to Healing Slime? Even if it turned into Speed Slime, it would never survive.
Toren had his steel longsword in the broom closet. However, he was well aware that the Level 28 [Skeleton Knight] and Level 13 [Sword Dancer] classes would not avail him against Venitra. She had been created to kill Gold-ranks, and she could do that before activating the enchantments on her body.
She was superior undead. Toren patted Healing Slime and felt worried. He needed to feed it soon, but his [Dangersense (Ward)] told him it was too risky. It had been close, some times. Ijvani had been about to find the slime when Toren distracted her.
In fact, the Skill was buzzing again. Toren hesitated. They had to leave the closet. Venitra wasn’t st—she was stupid. However, even an idiot like her realized Toren hid and she’d check the closet eventually.
So Toren opened the door and crept out with sword and slime in his ribcage. It peeked out, the glowing body and core swiveling with Toren’s head for one of the Chosen.
Coast is clear. Go, go, go! Toren sprinted down the hallway. He flattened himself against a wall.
Target secure. Hostiles?
He poked his head around the corner, drew it back. He only needed one look; the undead saw all, heard all.
No Chosen. Move out! He charged down the hallway, ignoring the Bone Crawler on the ceiling; it was just one of the guard-undead. Toren flung open a door and did a flip into the room, landing on his feet—
Healing Slime made a warbling sound as it bounced out of his ribcage. Toren turned back and hurried to help it reform and scoop itself up. It smacked one of his hands gently, upbraiding him for doing the flip.
Sorry! Toren patted it on its ‘head’. He could tell what Healing Slime was thinking, a bit. So could it. Was it the bond of such created beings such as they? His [Limited Telepathy] Skill from his [Carer] class?
One never knew. Toren looked around. At least that [Witch] wasn’t there. He feared the Chosen for their brute maliciousness—Belavierr was different. You could not run or hide from her.
Toren found himself in a dilapidated sitting room, long clogged with dust. He saw old bookshelves, table, couches…some kind of social chamber.
Perfect. Toren just needed a secondary hiding place within this area…he was heading over to the fireplace, hoping there was a working chimney he and Healing Slime could wedge themselves in.
Then something came out from under the door.
The skeleton whirled around. He had wedged a chair under the handle and locked the door! It did little good against this undead.
Nearly flat as paper. Sliding under the crack. Then—unfolding himself, rising.
Devail had no bones. However—he looked like a Drake. He had scales. Skin…sinew. No bone, but the way he had been made meant he could still fight like a [Fencer]. Which is what he was.
One of the newer creations of Az’kerash turned the empty sockets of the Drake-suit it wore towards Toren. Glowing lights appeared in the sockets, mimicking eyes.
“There you are. They are searching for you. Ijvani, Venitra, Kerash, Bea.”
Toren froze. Healing Slime quivered as it fled behind him. Toren lifted the sword. Devail studied him—
Then sprang forwards, drawing a rapier from his bag of holding. The [Skeleton Knight] slashed in alarm. What was—
The tip of the enchanted rapier pierced Toren’s hand and flicked the sword from his grip in the same motion. Devail flashed sideways, stepping with unnatural grace and speed. He saluted the air, a [Fencer]’s motion.
Toren’s longsword clattered to the ground. The skeleton raised a hand, fearing the worst, but Devail just held the posture—then put his rapier away.
“I have disarmed you.”
He informed Toren. The skeleton’s jaw opened and closed.
No kidding? Devail looked pleased with himself.
“I have never failed to disarm a foe other than Az’kerash, our master.”
Good for you. Toren wanted to roll his eye-flames. Devail was new. He lacked the original Chosen’s maliciousness. He studied Toren and the Healing Slime, looking…curious.
“What is that?”
Healing Slime. Toren pointed. Devail tilted his entire body back and forth as Healing Slime peeked around Toren’s feet.
“Is it alive? Should I kill it? I have been told by my…our…creator. Father, that my sword should only be bared for a worthy cause. Even if that is only self-defense. Is this a worthy cause?”
He recited the words without understanding. However, there was curiosity there. Toren waved his hands frantically. No, no! Devail looked at him and to Toren’s relief…nodded.
“I will ask for clarification in my next training spar. I should…not tell the other Chosen where you are?”
Toren nodded. Devail considered this. Then he nodded again.
“A worthy cause. By my sword, I swear.”
He produced the rapier, saluted Toren, and then slithered under the door. The skeleton stopped shaking in his…bony feet.
What a relief. Devail was one of the three reasonable Chosen. The other being Maviola…’s undead copy, and Wesixa.
Well, Wesixa creeped Toren out. She had inherited too much of the spider she was made of, and liked to sit in silk-nests in the ceiling and stare down at you and ask why you were running around.
Stupid kids. Az’kerash and Belavierr were geniuses of magic and creation. Terrible parents. Even Toren could tell that. He began to unwedge the chair from the door, beckoning to Healing Slime. It was curious why he wanted to leave!
Toren’s opinion, which he communicated as best he could to Healing Slime, was that Devail was not to be trusted. Even if he swore, he could let it slip. Besides—Toren threw open the door.
“‘There are better places to hide.’ I told you I could hear it, Kerash.”
A voice spoke Toren’s inner-thoughts. He froze and saw two glowing flames in a skull coated with dark, magical iron. Ijvani and—the giant Draugr-type Gnoll—
Kerash. They stood together in the doorway.
Toren didn’t freeze or start. Those were glandular, living-reactions. In one move he whirled, grabbed up Healing Slime, and charged for the window. He jumped to burst out of it, hoping the fall wouldn’t hurt Healing Sl—
“[Chains of Steel].”
Ijvani pointed and long chains of metal shot forwards. They wrapped around Toren and caught him, mid-jump. The skeleton fell, struggling, pointing. Get to the window! Get to—
Healing Slime wavered. Its glowing form changed purple, into the Potion of Speed. It rolled towards the window, back to Toren, struggling to get free—
Kerash stomped Toren’s head in. The skeleton went limp and the Gnoll nodded in satisfaction.
“It ran from us for three days. Let’s break it into pieces. Call Venitra and Bea, Ijvani. What is this?”
The Draugr’s head swung around. Ijvani glanced at Toren trying to reform its head. She exclaimed.
“That is the slime! I thought it was dead! My slime. This lesser undead stole it!”
Her head rotated on its neck to glare at Toren.
Not yours. Terrible owner. Leave it alone. The skeleton was repairing himself as fast as possible, but it wasn’t the instantaneous process it used to be.
Ijvani listened to Toren, one of the first beings ever to hear him. She heard him out, and then pointed a finger.
She tossed it on Toren, then turned back to Kerash, who was slowly cornering the zippy-slime.
“It is mine, Kerash. Do not break it.”
“You break yours. It is not Oom. It was not created by Master. Therefore, I am bored. Let us see how many times it can divide, like the others.”
“Hm. That would be fun. Ah. Venitra, Bea. We found the skeleton. And look.”
Venitra and Bea appeared in the doorway. They glanced at Toren with malicious satisfaction—only a bit disappointed he was burning, writhing on the floor already dealt with—then looked at the Healing Slime.
“It lives. Is that your slime, Ijvani?”
“Yes. This thing took it.”
Ijvani glanced at Toren. All the skeleton’s nightmares were coming true. Venitra smiled, and it was an ugly expression, as beautiful as Az’kerash had made her features.
“I want to kill it.”
“Not you. You do it too fast. Let me touch it, Ijvani.”
Bea pleaded. Ijvani shook her head. However, not out of an abundance of love for the adopted slime that was ‘hers’.
“Both of you kill things too fast. Master is busy. It should take at least an hour.”
“How? I want to do it, Ijvani.”
Kerash argued. The four Chosen moved, cornering the Speed Slime, enjoying how it raced about frantically.
“I am going to smash it.”
Venitra declared, eying the other Chosen. Instantly, they turned on her, glaring. Venitra, undeterred, strode forwards, raising a fist—
Toren leapt at her. The skeleton slashed with his enchanted longsword.
No! The skeleton slashed and struck Venitra, from her face down her chest.
His Skills. [Sharpened Edge], [Lesser Strength], the basic enchantment on the sword—
…Left not a mark. The sword skated off Venitra’s bone body and she laughed. Then grew angry.
“You dare attack me?”
She swung at him. The skeleton threw himself under the fist. She kicked—and he swerved around her leg.
[Perfect Dodge]! Toren saw Venitra whirl, going for her sword and shield at last. She struck out with a precision blow, and slashed through Toren—
No. The image wavered and vanished. Venitra staggered as the slash went across her arm and torso.
[Mirage Cut]. Toren’s best move. The other Chosen went silent.
A flawless attack! If she had been alive, the Chosen would have been twice cut. If she had been…
Toren saw Venitra stare at the tiny, tiny hairline cut across her body. It began repairing itself even as she looked down. By the time her head rose, a fraction of a second later, it was gone.
However. Venitra’s sword went through Toren’s ribs before he could block. She tore upwards, then began to stomp on him, bellowing.
“You dare to injure me? You worthless little skeleton!”
She was so enraged she had crushed half his body to dust when Ijvani spoke.
“Venitra, the little slime escaped because of you. Leave the worthless undead alone. I want to find my slime! It is alive.”
Venitra whirled. Distracted, the Chosen had let Speed Slime dart past Bea and it was fleeing. It would have stayed, but Toren had told it to run.
It was…the Chosen looked at each other.
“I will kill it first!”
Kerash bounded out the door. Bea, Ijvani, and last of all, Venitra were hot on his heels. She gave Toren’s skull a kick and shattered it across a wall. Toren slowly, slowly reformed.
Healing Slime was going to die. He was helpless. Now they knew, it was going to…
When he finally reformed, five minutes later, Toren knelt, head in his hands. Literally. He stared at himself. No, no. Not this. Not the only other thing that mattered in this damned castle. Why were all his levels not enough? Why was it so unfair?
As unfair as the adventurers fighting the undead. Or vice-versa. Unfair. A word Toren was realizing.
It was unfair because Healing Slime had done nothing wrong and the Chosen were murderous monsters. It was not right.
It should not be. The skeleton remembered another voice.
A Human woman’s words. An [Innkeeper]’s speech for the Goblin, for the Antinium.
His head rose. His purple flames burned bright.
Toren ran. Not for Speed Slime, or to fight the Chosen. He did what he had always done.
He ran away.
It took them twenty minutes to corner the slime. They got in each other’s way. It was a game.
All games ended eventually. They cornered it in the huge ballroom, where the Necromancer had once danced. An echo of Silvaria of old.
Four of them. They trapped the slime with magic. Then…as promised, they began to kill it.
Slowly. A slime could regenerate if it had liquid and whatever it was made of. So, they took pieces away. Saw how long it could keep itself alive.
Cruelty. It was alive, they were dead. There was something in them that longed to kill, but it was their personalities that made them prolong it.
The Healing Slime could not speak. It just made a kind of keening sound as it was sliced up, piece by piece. The Chosen were laughing, arguing. Bea reached down for Healing Slime.
“I want to see if my touch changes it. Please, Ijvani?”
“Oh, very well.”
The [Skeleton Mage] allowed Bea to touch Healing Slime directly at last. Bea tugged the gloves off her hands. The Plague Zombie was rot and pestilence. She reached for the slime, wondering if its body would save it.
A sound from the other end of the ballroom made the Chosen turn. A clank, of metal on stone. More than that? A voice reached across the room. Or rather, a thought.
Get away from Healing Slime, you bag of pus.
The Chosen turned. Healing Slime saw/sensed a figure, standing at the other end of the ballroom.
He had run away as he always did when the going got tough. Run from death.
This time, he had returned.
“Did that little undead just insult you, Bea?”
The Chosen were not impressed. If anything, they were amused. Bea’s eyes narrowed as she turned. Venitra whirled. She was still angry about the cut. She was going to destroy Toren once and for all. She was…
The undead saw a figure walk forwards. They heard…a sound, echo through the ballroom. Not the usual click-clack of Toren’s bony feet. This time?
They heard a clank. Metal on marble. They looked at Toren and didn’t see the slim skeleton. They saw a figure wearing armor that glowed a pale blue over a bronze-color, but far deeper, crossed with red and even violet.
Adamantium armor. Enchanted. On its head sat a helmet made of Wyvern scales, the plume a Phoenix’s feather. His boots left a trail of black flame. His gauntlets were edged with crystal.
The skeleton was carrying a shield as transparent as glass—no, made of a prismatic glass. He had a sword that glowed with anti-light.
The Chosen stared at Toren as the [Skeleton Knight] walked forwards. The only part of him even visible was his skull, and the two burning purple eyes.
He was wearing artifacts. Enchanted weaponry and armor, each one so vividly powerful it made the air around him shimmer. The skeleton was staring at the Chosen with a malevolence they had never sensed from him before. Anger.
“He—that thing—he has taken Master’s artifacts!”
Kerash spoke at last, voice disbelieving. They all knew these weapons.
They were the artifacts in Az’kerash’s vault, in the castle armory! The artifacts the Necromancer had acquired or bought, including the relics he recovered and sometimes sold via his puppets.
Blades his enemies had raised against him, the armor of foes, waiting to be repurposed. Bea shouted, outraged.
“You cannot touch those treasures, you—you worthless undead!”
Toren didn’t reply. He was staring at Healing Slime. The air around him was humming. He felt the buzz in his very bones.
There was no going back. He had taken each treasure from the armory. Now?
The Chosen began to stride towards him, their victim forgotten. Healing Slime rolled around, recollecting the parts of itself. It heard Toren’s voice.
Run. It looked back and saw Venitra charge, snarling, furious. She swung her sword down with the same force that had once killed Ulrien. A killing blow, as fast as lightning with the [Haste] enchantment.
Toren raised his shield. The sword of bone struck the glass shield and—fractured. The glass cracked.
The entire world around Venitra, cracked. Lines of force splintered around her, tearing the ground, her body with the same force. Her blow, crisscrossing and duplicated dozens of times.
The bone woman reeled. Toren grinned. So that was what it did. He whirled.
Kerash raised his axe. Toren swung his sword. They locked blades. His anti-light blade met Kerash’ weapon. Neither one broke, but the shockwave knocked both back a step. Toren saw Kerash whirl the weapon up and activated his helmet. The Wyvern-scale helmet seemed to flex and come alive for a second—
Then the [Skeleton Knight] exhaled a plume of magical fire that covered Kerash. The Gnoll Draugr howled as real pain engulfed his body. He swung his arms and Venitra, still staggering, flinched from the closest copy to the Dragon’s fire she had ever seen.
“Kerash! You—you thing! How dare you! [Chain Lightning]!”
Ijvani blasted Toren. Her spell hit Toren’s adamantium breastplate and bounced. Toren turned as the skeleton ducked the lightning bolts flashing back towards her. He stared left.
Bea touched his arm, and rot and pestilence invaded. Past armor. Transmitted by the air itself, and magic. She…stared at Toren.
The skeleton, fully-dead, stared back. He carefully raised the gauntlets on one arm, lined with crystal, and activated them. They exploded, the embedded crystal shards tearing through her. Bea screamed—then screamed again as he put the sword in her chest.
The world was humming as Toren whirled. He raised the glass shield and blocked another spell. The enchantment didn’t activate; it must only be for melee contact.
The Chosen stumbled away from Toren. Kerash, still burning, howled.
“Kill it! I burn! I feel pain!”
Venitra screamed, her body fractured in places, but healing. Ijvani raised her staff uncertainly. Bea stepped back, gasping.
“He wounded me. Master’s body…”
The Chosen were around Toren, four versus one. The skeleton didn’t care. He opened his jaw, laughing at them.
“Stop…stop that. You are not allowed to mock us. We will kill you. Fear us.”
Ijvani sounded uncertain. Toren just looked past her, at Healing Slime.
The little slime, peeking around one of the grand, open passageways into the battleground. Watching the skeleton.
Devail, Wesixa, and Maviola all peeked in too. They saw the Chosen spread out, aware of the actual threat to them. Toren laughed at them. Then—he reached for his side and plucked the first glowing scroll from the bag of holding.
“You can’t use th—”
Venitra shouted before the first Tier 6 spell went off.
Az’kerash was so preoccupied with his investigation, composing a lengthy apology to the ruler of Khelt and a request, bidding on the items from the Village of Death, that he only noticed the sixth tremor in the room and audio cue.
He glanced up.
“What is that…?”
The roar of a spell going off made the Necromancer refocus on the present. He began cutting puppet connections, moving them to places where he could leave them for a second. A Naga swept herself into a private restroom stall as more parts of Az’kerash refocused.
Archmage Chandler leapt to his feet, mind racing. An attack? He began chanting spells, cursing his negligence. Why hadn’t his Chosen alerted him? No—if it was a strike team. Who? Magnolia Reinhart? Teriarch?
“Arise for me, reaper of souls. Champion of bones, to follow my enemies to their graves…”
A spell-circle appeared and a figure emerged from the ground. A bone-warrior, clutching a reaper’s scythe, which shot after Az’kerash.
He cloaked himself in darkness, binding glittering spells to him, all the while cursing. Belavierr? Had she betrayed him? If not, the lack of her presence….
The Necromancer shot down the hallway, abandoning running to levitate forwards at incredible speed. The undead in each hallway came alive as he found the source of the fighting.
The ballroom. He aimed three dozen spells as he burst into the room, the firepower enough to immolate even a Named Adventurer—
The Necromancer saw the Tier 6 spell at first. Well, one of them.
[Ice Spikes] were shooting down from the ceiling in a constant barrage, like hail. Larger [Ice Spears] also landed, blasting the enchanted marble to pieces. Targeting the four enemies designated.
Well…trying to. One was cowering behind a pillar. Az’kerash recognized Bea, with huge wounds in her chest. She wasn’t dead, obviously, but a glowing javelin was embedded in her stomach, growing barbs into her flesh, nigh-impossible to remove.
Another of his Chosen was staring at her shattered legs, stupefied. A hammer’s blow had cracked the entire floor, caving it in and taking Venitra down.
The last two were fighting—or trying to. Ijvani was casting spells, but the ice-storm was targeting her and someone had taken half her ribs out, melting them with a sword swing. The last, Kerash, was stumbling away from a…skeleton…in armor…
The Necromancer stood there as Toren rampaged. He was winning! The artifacts and scrolls had brought the Chosen low. He heard the shrieking hum in the air, like their voices. It was coming from all the relics he wore, but he had Kerash running! He’d tossed the sword aside, gone for a mace that had shattered Venitra’s legs as it caused a meteor-strike of a blow, and had switched to a hand-axe to fight Kerash.
Revenge for Healing Slime! Justice for skeletons everywhere! No more! Never again! Toren saw Kerash backing up; the hand-axe left glittering cuts in the air that only faded after ten seconds or so. Each one could cut or block blows.
Awestruck, the newer Chosen and Healing Slime saw Toren walking forwards. He raised the axe, to hack Kerash down as the Chosen stumbled. The Draugr looked up, an unfamiliar expression of…panic…in his eyes.
The voice thundered through the ballroom. Toren whirled. He stopped as he saw the Necromancer, Az’kerash, standing there.
Toren quailed. For a second, he looked at Az’kerash, missing the quizzical expression on the man’s face. Toren had known it would come to this. He slowly turned, planting himself, ready to face the final boss. He adjusted his helmet.
I won’t lose! Not for Healing Slime! Fight me, you…fleshsack!
Az’kerash’s mouth moved for a second.
He saw the skeleton advance, hammering the axe on the shield. The Necromancer felt Toren’s defiance. Pride. He refused to let his friend die. He would rather fight. He wouldn’t fail! Couldn’t!
The hum in the air reached a crescendo. Toren felt all his gear vibrating and wondered if that was a new eff—
The skeleton exploded. Healing Slime, Devail, Wesixa, Maviola, Az’kerash, and the other Chosen saw two of the artifacts on his body glow, and then burst as the magical resonance finally broke.
Like all good adventurers learned, so many clashing magical enchantments…Az’kerash threw up his hands reflexively to shield his face. Not that his cloak of darkness let the shrapnel touch him.
He saw Toren’s bones and the remaining relics spray across the room in a flash of light and sound.
When the dust finally cleared, Az’kerash looked around the trashed ballroom. His injured Chosen. He blinked at least two dozen times. Then finally walked over and pointed to a scrap of bone.
It reformed into a skeleton’s head. Two glowing, purple eyes appeared and stared up.
The Necromancer of Terandria looked at Toren. Toren looked back.
Uh oh. Not according to plan. Toren tried to form a fist.
Across the room, a single digit curled up. Toren mentally shrugged.
Well, it was a good try. He waited for the inevitable. Then his eyes brightened.
Oh! He was leveling up into a new class! And he was gaining in [Carer]!
Sweet. Just in time for oblivion.
“If I understand this correctly, you, my Chosen, were slowly killing this slime—Ijvani’s slime—and had been destroying Toren without mercy or reason. Whereupon, at last, he fought back.”
Az’kerash’s voice was not as icy-cold as it could be, the Archmage Chandler’s stinging tone he used to lecture students and fools. It was…
Well, more disappointed. Which was worse. The Chosen stood there, shuffling their feet, looking away.
“And you lost to a single [Skeleton Knight]. No…a [Relic Guardian] now, isn’t it? That a skeleton could reach that level…”
Az’kerash eyed Toren. Only the skeleton’s head and upper torso were repaired. He had been a basic skeleton, a [Skeleton Warrior]. Now? He was a kind of undead that would have fit among the Village of Dead’s elites—if only the lower echelons.
Toren waited, apprehensive. Healing Slime was sitting on a side-table next to Az’kerash. Toren was afraid—but Az’kerash had studied it, produced some Sage’s Grass, and watched it consume that and a healing potion with interest.
“A Potions Slime. Dangerous. Unique. Ijvani, how many of your slimes have you deliberately killed?”
Ijvani had learned to lie. Which was growth…but Az’kerash’s look was displeased.
“He defeated you all. Four of my Chosen.”
He repeated it, with glum tones.
“He had your possessions, Master! He—it was cheating!”
Venitra protested, voice weak. She pointed at Toren accusatorially then flinched as Az’kerash looked her way. The Necromancer looked at Venitra, clearly confused.
“Then, Venitra—why did you not retrieve armaments in kind? You, Kerash, Ijvani, Bea? That would have equalized the odds instantly.”
The Chosen looked at each other, astonished.
“But Master, you gave us all the weapons we need, and our superior forms. Why would we stoop to using other tools?”
Bea replied. Az’kerash stared at her, and then began to massage his forehead with two fingers. He spoke without looking up, as the four wayward Chosen waited uncomfortably.
“…I have neglected your instruction. It is my error. You do not understand…kindness. You must. You are all superlative; not perfect. Even Cognita armed herself when the need arose. Have I really not improved on Zelkyr’s instruction one whit? That is—not a welcome thought—”
Toren was rather liking all this. He grinned—until the Necromancer swung his head around to regard him.
“Ijvani, Bea, Venitra, Kerash, you will all be punished. You must be, but more importantly, taught. I would not punish you for losing a battle, but torture…?”
He stared at the ceiling.
“It is not…no. I would do anything in my battle against the living. That you, unbidden, elected to do this out of a desire for entertainment is…wrong. I will rectify this. However. It seems I have neglected one other too long. Or rather, two.”
He turned to Toren and Healing Slime. The skeleton waited. Healing Slime…he’d done his best. He didn’t flinch from the Necromancer. Az’kerash bent down, looked Toren in his skull’s eye sockets, and nodded.
“My Chosen. If one of you harms either Toren or the slime in any situation outside of practice combat, in any real sense, I will be upset. I am already upset—I will be even more so if either one is hurt. Is that understood?”
All the undead nodded apprehensively. Az’kerash didn’t look away from Toren.
“As for you, Toren. I am minded to give you a purpose, if this is what happens when I neglect you. Your body cannot keep up with your levels. Thus, once repaired, I think…yes. You may be a fine instructor to Devail and Wesixa. Perhaps Maviola too, if Belavierr allows it, and the new Chosen.”
Toren stirred. The Chosen were astonished. Outraged! Hurt?
“Master, am I not a flawless [Duelist] already? I disarmed Toren.”
Devail pointed out, confused. Az’kerash turned to him.
“You are a superior fighter, Devail. However, there is more to battle than mere form. Toren is the living embodiment of that fact. You would do well to learn from it. As for the Potions Slime, well…neither potion is particularly valuable, but it may roam about. They do grow stronger with time, so perhaps after a century and enough nourishment…”
He was sighing as he went to contemplate the damage to his castle. Toren blinked, his flames turning off and on as he stared at the Necromancer’s back. He looked at Healing Slime and the Chosen.
Him? Teach? It was certainly an upgrade to be recognized at last for his amazing qualities! Toren grinned…and kept his thoughts from leaking, for once.
He’d done it. He’d beaten the other Chosen. If he could do that…the Necromancer was locking up his vaults since Toren had ruined at least two artifacts and a number of scrolls.
However, if Toren could do that? He looked at Healing Slime and it peeked back at him. Toren finally began to envision a plan. If he could beat the Chosen, maybe they could escape. He gave the Necromancer a big smile when Az’kerash turned back towards him.
Perril Chandler eyed the innocently-grinning skull. He tapped it on the forehead and attached a tracking spell. He was going to have to find a use for it. Then he sighed, and began trying to raise his children again.
Where was Belavierr? Not that he really wanted her nurturing touch. Az’kerash began to regret that he’d never had a partner in life—not…well, not in a marriage, raising a child. He felt like he needed someone else to help him. Maybe he could make an undead for that…?
Az’kerash wondered if it was a faux pas to ask Fetohep for parenting tips for the undead.
It was an enduring truth that the loudest, the minority, the individuals, defined ‘everyone’ in a group, species, or what have you. It was just something you lived with.
For many, Sir Relz and Noass were the faces of Drakes since they had their news segment. Drassi was the female Drake. Imagine the misconceptions that arose from that? Personalities, viewpoints, and the fact that both male Drakes occupied higher social and economic circles aside…not many Drakes wore monocles.
In the same way, Magnolia Reinhart was not all Reinharts. Which didn’t mean the other Reinharts were better…but this generation was notoriously reclusive, happy to indulge themselves. Magnolia was still synonymous with House Reinhart though, because she was the head of their family.
It didn’t mean they were better or worse necessarily…although you heard things about what the Reinharts got up to in private. However, to extend the analogy was to realize that Lord Tyrion Veltras was not all of the Veltras family.
You just seldom saw the others in the news. In fact, that was because they were somewhat reclusive too, albeit in different ways.
The [Lady] of House Veltras spotted the Courier coming in and watched for the last five minutes of descent. Ryoka Griffin was exceptionally grateful the woman didn’t raise the huge longbow and take aim.
She landed on what could only be described as an actual tree house. As in a house…built onto a tree. It was high off the ground, as were most of the buildings. They had the fabled tree-civilization, although it was mostly Humans.
And the ground, rather than being a pristine forest, was more of a marshland. The trees were like mangroves; huge root structures that allowed the people to build on the impressive plants.
Ryoka had expected a forest-keep or something, but she realized that there wasn’t much need. This area of Veltras lands was pretty safe from monsters and [Bandits]. If they wanted to try and climb up while all the people shot arrows through their heads, they could try. A flying attack was more dangerous, but one look at the [Lady] and her bow and Ryoka doubted she’d have much trouble fending off Wyverns or Griffins.
The Griffin in question landed and the woman continued eating the snack she’d fetched. Some kind of meat-on-a-stick variant. She regarded Ryoka in silence as the Courier caught her breath.
“So you’re that Courier what helped Tyrion, is that right? I thought he’d send word cheap, but I guess this is easier if you’re about, isn’t it?”
That was what she said. However, the drawl that came out of her mouth was so hard to parse that Ryoka took a second. She heard something like:
“So yer tha Courier what helped Tyrion issat righ? I though he’d send word chep, but I guess thisis easier if you’re about innit?”
She had a thick accent, but Ryoka nodded after a second. She bowed.
“Ryoka Griffin, Courier, Lady Buscrei Veltras.”
The woman shrugged.
“If you’re going to bow, be my guest. Not how I do things. Nice flying. Can anyone do it or is it only with a Skill and magic?”
Ryoka hesitated. The woman glanced at the glider, ignoring the usual questions or comments Ryoka got.
“Um—you can glide with my…glider, but you need an updraft to keep flying.”
“Huh. Wouldn’t mind gliding off, even if I have to haul it back. Well, ‘salright. I’m Buscrei Veltras. [Hunting Lady] of…here.”
She waved the stick around to take in the marsh-settlement. Ryoka nodded, hesitating again. Buscrei eyed her.
“You looking for all of us, or is it just letters? Anything important?”
“No—I’m just delivering an uh, update from the Veltras keep?”
“Ah. Regular then. Want a bite? A drink? The rest of the family’s out hunting.”
Buscrei’s nod took in the entire area. The marshlands around the Vail Forest and the ‘city’ of Oswen was to the west and south, where coast intruded into land. It bordered the largest forest in Izril’s north, and thus the people had both sea and land and that medium in between to find any number of ways to make a profit.
Dyes came from here, as well as hunting produce, the staple of House Veltras’ income along with timber and other such goods.
“You’re very kind, Lady Buscrei. I can wait for the rest of your family if you’d like…I’m authorized to take back letters or correspondence to any other of House Veltras on the way back.”
Buscrei’s eyebrows rose.
“Really? Round trip, eh? Well, they won’t be back for hours. They’re out hunting, like I said.”
She pointed again. Ryoka glanced around.
“…Where? I can meet them.”
The [Hunting Lady] gave Ryoka a blank look, then smiled sardonically.
“You’ve never been around here, have you? I’ve no clue. They could be thirty miles that way—or twenty that. I think most’ll come back to eat by nightfall, but it’s as far as I know. If you want to wait, there’s beds and food. Or I can send you off soonest. Which’ll it be?”
Ryoka wasn’t sure, but an impulse and her burgeoning social abilities told her that Buscrei was serious.
“…I’d take something to eat. And drink.”
The [Lady] headed inside and Ryoka followed her to find well, more of a hunting lodge than anything else. This wing of the Veltras family wasn’t Tyrion’s military-style keep. They lived off the land, contributed to House Veltras’ defense, and didn’t bother with continent-wide dramas.
“Let’s see. Nope. All of that orange’s juice we got has gone bad. I have water, purified water, Oyster Juice, beers, wine, Velrusk Claw…and fifteen stronger spirits. Which one?”
Apparently, runes of preservation weren’t everywhere, or some juice had been stored faultily, because the woman came up with a large amphora, opened it, and immediately poured it out the window into the marsh below. Ryoka blinked as she walked onto a lovely fur carpet…a former bear…took in the fine wood, the spacious, comfy place she wouldn’t mind having, and saw the [Hunting Lady] waiting.
She had to ask.
“Uh, what’s Oyster Juice? And purified water? You mean the regular water’s…?”
“Not from the marsh direct if that’s what you’re asking. Do you think we want to drink that? We have wells.”
Buscrei clarified. Ryoka hurried to deny she had been wondering exactly that. The woman found two cups and poured two liquids in, before placing them on a counter. She got something for herself; the purple Gnoll drink, Velrusk Claw.
“There. Oyster’s Juice is a local nickname for some strong stuff. Made with some part of oyster…I think. Tastes better than the name, and it’s cheap.”
Ryoka took one sip and her expression made Buscrei laugh. Sour alcohol was not something Ryoka enjoyed. However, she gamely tried another sip and saw the point.
“Purified water’s pure. More’n magic can do. That’s just…water with nothing in it. This is special stuff. Tastes good, right?”
The purified water tasted very good. It was not ‘spring water’ from actual mountain runoff or whatever Earth’s bottled water companies advertised. This tasted, well, pure. Good. Buscrei grinned.
“Local specialty. We sell a bit to [Merchants] and [Captains] who can transport it, but it goes bad quick. Some dust gets in, or idiots store it in metal tanks or containers or even leather and it’s regular damn water.”
“How do you get it? [Druids]? I just visited um—”
Ryoka nodded as Buscrei named the [Lord] who had local [Druids] in his forest-keep and local town.
“Yes. Lord Setth.”
She’d seen how careful that community was to work with nature. [Druids] helped maintain the orchards and make sure the flocks were healthy and happy, not just farmed out. They still exported some meat as well as animal products; they didn’t cull animals though, only when they were suffering, so it wasn’t high-quality meat.
Still, the [Druids] had a lot of abilities like knowing how to fight infection, purify water, keep bugs away, and so on.
However, Buscrei shook her head. The second family of House Veltras on Ryoka’s journey found some more dried meat—which turned out to be from a crocodile or alligator variant, cooked and spiced on a stick—for both of them as Ryoka sipped the water and Oyster Juice.
It was rather nice, and they went back to the balcony for the unparalleled view. She spoke, instantly familiar and sociable. The exact opposite of Ryoka, in short.
“We don’t have that many [Druids]. Lots of Drowned Folk and they have some [Mages]…nah. It’s from one of Oswen’s treasures. You know we have hot springs?”
Ryoka nodded. She’d tried to do some reading on the fly, but the wind made that impossible. She had still read when she landed to talk to Lord Setth. Oswen, among fishing and hunting opportunities, had famous hot springs.
“Well, among ‘em is the one we let people use once a month. Rest of the time, it’s for bottling the pure water. Unicorn horns in the bath and other purifying stuff.”
In many ways, Oswen paralleled Desonis. However, the [Knight] culture wasn’t there, and the people were right alongside a forest.
If Ryoka had seen them riding crabs around the marshes, she would have really thought this place was uh, a look. That would just be silly, though.
…They rode water-sleds pulled by an otter-dog crossbreed. Ryoka coughed half her mouthful of Oyster Juice over the balcony when she saw that and Buscrei laughed her butt off. The swift-paddling dogs and returning hunting party looked up as she drew her longbow, and loosed an arrow in an explosion of sound.
Ryoka saw a huge goose or some similar bird drop out of the sky near the Humans below as a flock flew across the skies. The [Hunting Lady] didn’t bother to aim for the rest. She bellowed down.
“Grab the bird before the predators get it, you lazy salt-slugs! And get up here! We have a Courier for company! It’s that one that helped Tyrion out!”
Among the many facts about Oswen that Ryoka learned over her night’s stay, they had adapted to hunting from the comfort of their houses quite well. Obviously they didn’t shoot if there was a chance they’d hit the other houses or people, but if they did hit a bird on the wing, who wanted to climb all that way down, grab a bird out of the marsh, and get back up?
It would be lost to giant leeches, scavengers, or any number of things if you were too slow. Hence there were entire jobs that would cater to people like Bird.
Kids in otter-dog sleds raced out to grab prey and deliver it for a small fee. It was just one entertaining thing in this part of Veltras’ lands.
The rest was obviously Buscrei’s family, which was a large, boisterous lot. Exactly the opposite of Tyrion.
“He’s the main head. Life’s no fun. Small wonder his family’s been in charge for the last few generations. We had a family head eighteen generations back. I heard she hated it. Did a good job, though. We’re all [Hunters] so we’re good with bows.”
“Longbows. Short bows, compound, recurve—the only group who’s ever outshot us are Gnolls in competitions, and we win just as often. We train [Archers] too. Don’t tell me Tyrion wants more?”
“No, I uh—”
Ryoka sat among the family at dinner. Nearly two dozen people wanted to talk to her. Buscrei and her husband, their kids, relatives and their partners…
She winced and heard a curse as someone shouted in glee and then there was a scream and noisy splash from outside. Buscrei went to a window.
“If you broke the Wind Runner’s glider, you’re paying for it!”
The [Hunting Lady] bellowed at some of the young adults, who had tried to glide with said device after Ryoka lent it to them.
“It’s fine. I can fly without and get it fixed…”
“Flying. Never was interested in that. Still, you helped out Tyrion in a bad spot. We had to shoot a few [Assassins] threatening us. One of them exploded one of our homes. Bastards.”
Lord Somost, who’d married Buscrei, clapped Ryoka on the back. He was a former [Captain], and fit right in. The others nodded and leaned in, and Ryoka ducked her head—only to be slapped on the shoulder again by the oldest daughter.
“So? Tell us, how’re the kids? Better? Has Tyrion finally unhitched the iron rod from his back, or is it still stuck up his ass—”
Buscrei clocked her daughter with a roll. Ryoka hesitated.
“I have the update here—”
She’d been trying to hand it out the last two hours, but the family was impatient.
“We don’t care about that. That’s just regular updates and news from Tyrion and his lot. As interesting as dirt most of the time. How’re the boys? He never writes about himself or them. Sammial still mouthing off?”
They were fun, rowdy, and Ryoka found herself sharing anecdotes. They wanted to know about the Village of the Dead of course, and her sword she wisely refused showing them, as it wouldn’t work and they’d probably hurt themselves falling over each other to see.
It was a welcome distraction from figuring out how to rescue Ceria and the others. At least they were alive. Except for Pisces—no, he was alive too.
For once, Ryoka was doing her job. Which was delivering the packet of letters from Lord Setth to the others, as well as Tyrion’s update to all his family.
“I’m also going to other members of House Veltras. Next on my list is uh—Lord Swey?”
The group chorused. Buscrei grinned.
“Mountains and climbers. Higher up than we are, even. Nightmare for City Runners to climb that way up; he’s on a plateau and there’s no way down except rope-elevators in one spot. Climb up yourself everywhere else. He’ll love you. You can just fly up! Sure, we have letters. Let us write them if we’re sending them in days instead of weeks. Alright, what’s the boring update?”
They did Tyrion Veltras a disservice, although perhaps it was only in this case. The scattered members of House Veltras usually just got requests for a certain number of [Soldiers] here—updates on casualties, general movements and income lost and gained, acknowledgements for issues in their domains from Tyrion.
Boring stuff, as they said. Very military, and organized—just not personable. House Veltras liked to consolidate power around its leader and let the rest of the family manage their domains without needing to worry about larger affairs.
It was a fair system, but for once Ryoka had news. One of the sons grabbed the sheet and blinked twice at it.
“Gelato? He’s giving us the recipe for that stuff? You hear that? We can sell the damned stuff back to those arrogant [Merchants] on ships! How do you make it? Ice? Damn.”
“What else does he have? Plans for those trebuchets? I’d take a few and put them high up. No?”
“Er, no, L—Buscrei. However, Lord Tyrion is asking who wants the Players of Celum—the [Actors]—to tour through their lands? There’s a roving troupe, not the main ones, and he’s paying for it.”
“We want it!”
Half of the [Lords] and [Ladies] chorused instantly. Buscrei eyed Ryoka.
“Tyrion wouldn’t pay for a [Bard] unless it was to cheer his [Soldiers] up. How’d he get the Players?”
“Well, it’s an offshoot. Jasi, Wesle, the um, main cast is heading north from Invrisil. There’s a theatre there, and one in First Landing maybe. The other group is accepting a route and I—they were talked into touring House Veltras.”
Ryoka may have had a hand in that. Which the [Hunting Lady] realized at once. However, she let that slide, somewhat to Ryoka’s relief. She was sharp, but she also didn’t press.
The Courier spent a night in company, although she was covered by otter-puppies when she woke up. They had apparently decided she was a comfy pillow. The entire group saw her off with hastily-written letters and an entire canteen of Oyster Juice…and one of purified water.
That was fun. It really was. Ryoka didn’t stay for an entire day at every location; she managed to hit three more spots before resting. Most of House Veltras did offer her the opportunity to stay the night or longer.
Lord Swey practically begged her to let him jump off the high plateau, another strategic fortress that an army would have nightmares assailing, and glide into the forest below. She let him do it once, and then his kids—then flew off before she spent the entire day watching them crash into tree canopies, funny as it was. She did need her glider intact!
Not all of House Veltras was like those two. Some were like Tyrion, more formal and silent. They occupied keeps in the forest, along it, the much smaller plains to the south, and of course, coastal fortresses. House Veltras had the Forest of Vail and the west of Izril; where Reinhart had more central holdings and some of the other Five Families stayed in the north, they had become people of this land. Not one didn’t know Ryoka’s name, and most thanked her for her role in the Assassin’s Guild affair.
“No [Healers] of ours could help the lads. They would have tried and we were trying to see if a Drowned Folk [Healer] or someone from abroad would help out. We buried two of ours. Warnings from the Guild. Glad they’re wiped out.”
The more reserved [Lord] of House Veltras was Lord Dereic. A Drowned Man.
Something about sea and salt, or perhaps the fact that they had lonelier, less hunting-friendly keeps on the coast made his branch of the family closer to Tyrion’s in nature.
Lord Dereic was part…well Ryoka thought it was just one of many varieties of fish. He had fish’s scales and gills, and actually had trouble breathing like Sammial in pure air.
However, he was the only Drowned Person in his family; he had embraced the gift of the sea in a catastrophic sea accident. His sons were Human, and if they had been born of a union between a Drowned Person and him, rather than the other way around, their bloodline of succession would have been called into account.
He thanked Ryoka, and showed her the graves of two of House Veltras’ members who’d been killed as warnings. Ryoka bit her lip and didn’t know what to say.
Just a reminder, perhaps, that a lot had happened she hadn’t seen. Ryoka wasn’t sure what she could tell Lord Dereic, especially being a survivor who had no real right to her luck—that so many had died helping to get to the finish line.
Wisdom was, perhaps, in knowing there wasn’t any right thing to say. The man shook Ryoka’s hand as she left, and then stepped into the sea.
It was then she realized he’d come out of the water to talk to her, as much as it pained him. So she was twice-honored.
She covered all of House Veltras’ main members in just a week of flight. Which was amazing if you considered the distances involved. So much flying wore Ryoka out. She had to burn mana to fly if the wind wasn’t right, and she was gaining ‘flight muscle’ as she thought of it. Optimizing her speed, building her endurance.
Ryoka worried she’d lose her actual leg-muscle from flying so much. However, she just couldn’t deny that she was faster in the air than on the ground.
To make up for it, she did a wind-run, letting the wind blow her and running the way back. She loved doing a huge jump with the wind. She could cover sixty feet in a single jump.
That was hugely fun. The only dampener on Ryoka’s mood was a lack of more knowledge about the Horns’ whereabouts—and she checked at every Mage’s Guild—
And thinking of Erin. And Mrsha and the inn.
She had to visit. Now she could fly, there was no excuse not to. That was with the caveat of course that would still take nearly a week to fly to Invrisil, but it was exceptionally fast given how many hundreds of miles that was! Ryoka estimated that if she could fly at full mana-burn, she could get to Invrisil in three or four days from House Veltras’ keep.
That was over two hundred miles a day. The only thing faster was being on a magical bike plus a [Haste] potion. Then you could do a 24-hour run if you also got a maelstrom and gale-force winds for the last bit. Ryoka would pass on the crossbow bolts through the back, though.
She had to visit Mrsha, soon. If Lyonette was gone and Erin…Ryoka was guilty. However, it was her guilt keeping her here too.
The keep of House Veltras did look a bit dour and even small after seeing all the relatives. However, the instant Ryoka landed, the old [Majordomo], Ullim, was already striding out to meet her.
“Finished already, Miss Griffin?”
The old man shook his head, as a few [Servants] hurried forward, offering a towel for Ryoka’s sweaty face, a drink, and on. She awkwardly tried to accept it so they went away faster.
“I should expect nothing less from a Courier. Even so, that’s astonishing. It takes a month sometimes for a letter to reach the family at regular speeds—and that’s with a City Runner to each branch!”
“Oh. Well—happy to help.”
“It is a great help, Miss Griffin. Lord Tyrion did not expect you back so soon—he is performing a tour of the north. I shall send a [Message] at once. Lord Hethon and Lord Sammial are at their lessons, but they would no doubt be delighted to speak to you if you are willing?”
Ullim was a curious man. As self-effacing and considerate as Tyrion and Jericha were…generally not. He was clearly the glue that kept this branch of House Veltras together. Ryoka smiled.
“I’d be happy to. Although…do you need me to send any more correspondence? I can hit a city close by and return by the evening.”
He shook his head instantly.
“You have done more than enough, Miss Griffin. Lord Tyrion has no outstanding messages that require physical delivery—a [Message] will do.”
Not for recipes for ice cream and personal correspondence, of course. Ryoka had done a confidential delivery usually entrusted to good, reliable City Runners or Couriers.
Moreover, she’d done it fast and cheap. It was a favor to House Veltras. Ryoka relaxed, nodding.
Guilt. That was why she was here and Mrsha might understand that. Ryoka did send her a [Message]-letter trying to explain. What had she written?
…very sorry, Mrsha. I will come back as soon as I can, but there’s something I need to check while I’m near a port. Um. Boats and ships and stuff.
I also have to stay because I owe Lord Tyrion and House Veltras a debt. People died in the fighting because I asked him to send an army to fight. I need to repay that if I can, even a bit.
Hence her delivery-run. It was a matter of honor. Mrsha had written back she understood…in her stylistic way.
…Whereupon I find myself disappointed by your pressing need to honor your affairs, Ryoka, I shall await your egress with much anticipation and conduct myself with all due diligence until such time as…
It came to something, Ryoka decided, when a kid could use the word ‘egress’ such that even Ryoka herself didn’t know if it was correctly applied.
The point was, she’d helped. In a small, non-dramatic way. It was so rare that Ryoka gave herself a pat on the back.
Then a bath. No hot-springs with Unicorn horns for her, but Ullim had some water hauled in and heated in a copper bathtub.
Ryoka would have refused for the servant’s sake, but since this was a magical world, it wasn’t the laborious, painful way of doing it in the dark ages—or even until plumbing.
A [Servant] did haul water out of the well, and the bath did need to be heated. However, rather than many buckets and a cauldron of boiling water or even one under the bath, they took a single Bucket of Holding, which Ryoka hadn’t known even existed, tossed it in the bath, and activated a heating rune.
Hot bath. Plus, some alchemical shampoo for a proper bubble bath and Ryoka was sinking into a haze of lovely golden bubbles. It felt great. She hoped she could do Tyrion a few more small favors, then excuse herself to visit Mrsha via Invrisil. That would keep him from making her take sword lessons and Jericha pestering her about…everything that was Ryoka.
They were aware of all Ryoka’s secrets, and only Tyrion’s own sense of propriety stopped Jericha from holding Ryoka upside down and shaking her until the truth fell out. Ryoka was just thinking of a good favor to do—maybe deliver some of his letters to Invrisil? She could combine that with a return to Lady Buscrei, maybe!
Mrsha might love one of the water-sleds. Or—or what about some other souvenir? A little bow? Wait—Lyonette would kill Ryoka if she gave Mrsha that, if Mrsha didn’t do it by accident…
Ryoka sank back further, letting herself drift off in the bath. She was close to napping in the lovely heated tub.
…Which was, of course when Sammial kicked open the door.
“You’re back! I’m bored! Oh—”
He saw Ryoka look up from her thankfully heavy cover of bubbles. Sammial stared at her. Ryoka’s frown returned.
“You’re naked! I’ll come back later!”
Sammial strode out. He didn’t close the door. He shouted into the bathroom.
Ryoka Griffin was beginning to understand why some people hated kids. She groaned.
In fairness, the reason Sammial was fine walking in on Ryoka was probably that he’d do the same to Ullim or Hethon, those being the only two people he regularly interacted with. Ryoka somehow doubted he’d try the same on Jericha…or knowing Sammial, he had.
One female figure in his life, and Jericha was still technically an underling to Lord Sammial. It wasn’t a good relationship.
Ryoka had already observed Sammial did not respect boundaries or privacy or…respect. Heck, Erin would have noticed it straight off.
The problem was that while it was easy to call Sammial an annoying, entitled brat…he reminded Ryoka of herself at his age. Not that she walked into bathrooms all the time, but the similarities were there.
Often-busy parents, being raised by an Ullim and Jericha…no one to stop her or really hold her to account or teach her properly.
As Ryoka cut her bath short, she remembered that Sammial had [Tutors] and both he and Hethon took regular lessons as a [Lord] was supposed to. The problem was…
“Lord Sammial. You cannot walk into a bathroom with a woman—anyone present! You are supposed to be at your lessons!”
Ullim was remonstrating with the boy. However, the [Majordomo], stern as he was, ran up into a problem. Which was Sammial stomping his foot and his eyes flashing with his quick temper.
“I hate my boring lessons! I told my [Tutor] I wanted to see Ryoka! So I did!”
Ullim turned to Ryoka—then the [Tutor], who stepped out of the room, looking harried. The man whispered to Ullim and Ryoka caught it.
“…cannot keep doing this. I’m sorry, Master Ullim, but…”
The old man whispered back, clearly trying to soothe the agitated [Tutor]. Ryoka didn’t understand it—until she realized.
Sammial’s aura. In any other world without magic, you could still discipline a kid—not hit them, but control them and physically stop them from doing something.
In this one? Sammial could actually overpower adults who couldn’t match his aura. A prodigy at a young age. But uncontrolled. It just made things worse.
So, seeing this, and how Sammial walked away from Ullim and towards her, clearly aware he was in trouble but avoiding it until someone—his father—took him to task at last, what was Ryoka Griffin to do?
She saw it all. She saw herself in the issue. She could leave it be. Or…she could be Ryoka. Only—how good was Ryoka at teaching other people in a positive way?
Well, she had history with Sammial. Ryoka nodded to him as the [Lord] stopped, eagerly.
“You’re finally back! I told father I wanted to fly with you! You took too long! Are you staying for a week? Can we have fun?”
His words spilled over themselves in their eagerness to come out. Ryoka bent down.
“I am back, and I don’t think Lord Tyrion wants to risk his son falling out of the skies. I nearly crashed twice. Birds are terrible. I don’t think I’ll stay for a week, but I can have some fun…after you take your lessons.”
Sammial’s face instantly fell and became hostile and grumpy.
“I don’t want to. Lessons are boring and my teachers are stupid. You’re way more fun. What if you teach me?”
The [Tutor] twitched behind him. Sammial had no volume-control. Ryoka sighed. Let’s see. Imagine she was talking to mini-Ryoka. What would Ryoka say…?
I’m going to kick your ass, you entitled brat.
No, wait. Don’t imagine you were talking to yourself or you’d just want to hit yourself. The trouble was…Ryoka tried again.
“Lessons aren’t always fun, are they? But you can’t just walk out of them. They teach you things you need to know.”
“Like what? Math?”
Sammial scoffed. Ryoka bit her lip. Despite all the assurances of her teachers, not once had she actually used calculus to her knowledge, and she was in another world where she was arguably placed to use it the most!
“Look, I’m not going to argue with you about math, Sammial. If you can’t do basic math, you’re not going to have a good time paying for things…let alone keeping a budget. That’s not the point. Remember our conversation about how you can’t push people around. Especially people like me?”
She gave him a meaningful look. Sammial hesitated.
“—but it seems like you’re still doing it. Sometimes we have to do things we don’t like. Especially if it helps us out. What if these were…sword lessons and you refused to learn how to defend yourself?”
He thought about it. Sammial stared doubtfully up at Ryoka.
“…I’d be like you with father?”
Ryoka’s face went slack. Yep. She hated intelligent kids..
“Well…who’s taking lessons because your father was right?”
Sammial’s face twisted up. He opened his mouth, closed it, and grudgingly looked over his shoulder.
“Do I have to go back and learn now?”
Ryoka smiled, breathing out…right up until Ullim winced.
“Your tutor has taken the day off, Lord Sammial. I ah, also cut Lord Hethon’s lessons short…”
Hethon came out of a room and spotted Ryoka and Sammial. The Wind Runner sighed and Ullim looked at her apologetically, albeit impressed. He clearly hadn’t expected her to talk Sammial around.
A muddled victory. Ryoka gave up. She’d talk to the boys. So she jerked a thumb towards the door.
“Alright. Don’t mess with your [Tutors]. That’s my advice, Sammy. Especially if you want to go and have fun with a Courier. Let’s go outside.”
The boys cheered and followed Ryoka outside. Ullim smiled gratefully at Ryoka and she nodded back. She just…well, it was interesting. Mrsha needed her.
It seemed though, that if you thought of Mrsha, you also needed someone for Sammial and Hethon. It was not Ryoka’s job, nor did she know if she had the right to try and help.
…She was going to do it, obviously. She just wasn’t sure.
Lord Tyrion heard Ryoka was back via [Message] spell and cut short his tour of a northern fort.
They’d killed another [Assassin]. The hunt was ongoing, and he had come to commend the [Soldiers]. Contrary to his relatives’ opinions, he had given them all time off and paid for entertainment.
He was good at, well, leading, managing, and training armed forces. A very narrow skill-set compared to all the ones you might hope for in life. Or maybe the problem was in what Lord Tyrion himself prized…
Well, someone came to pay him a visit as he was riding back. Jericha signaled Lord Tyrion and he slowed to join and ride next to the slower group.
“Lord Tyrion! Dead gods, but it’s hard to catch you. I was riding straight ahead, but I realized we’d miss you unless we angled…”
Lord Pellmia puffed from riding hard in the saddle the last few miles. Tyrion nodded to him.
“Lord Pellmia. I apologize; I wasn’t aware you were in the area. How can I help you?”
Direct as always. Formal as always. Pellmia fished for a handkerchief, glancing at Tyrion’s escort.
“Would you mind if we ride—slower—together? In private?”
The other [Lord] instantly nodded. His people fell back, including Jericha, and the two rode in the center of their formation, out of earshot of their guards.
“Tyrion, it may be presumptuous of me, but I heard about the Wind Runner flitting about House Veltras’ lands, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t think…well. Don’t bite my head off, but I assume you’re hosting her as a guest?”
Pellmia came out with it after a moment. Tyrion nodded.
“She has been most helpful. A guest at the keep. My sons respect her, and there is always work for a Courier…”
“Not to mention that damned Kaalblade or whatever it was she was swinging around? I nearly lost my jaw, watching her slay—it must have been sixty Wyverns!”
“Indeed. A magnificent weapon.”
“I would love to see it. And speak to her briefly. One always needs a trusty Courier.”
Pellmia nodded a few times. Tyrion gestured ahead.
“We are riding back. I can send word to Ullim to prepare guest rooms.”
The older [Lord] hesitated. He was clearly torn, but eventually slowed to stare up at the trees. They were passing around one of the smaller forests, grown from the Vail Forest itself.
Sunlight dappled leaves overhead. The breeze was blowing gently, rustling the world around them. The sound of the horse’s hooves, the smell of nature…
It was on days like this a man felt alive. Tyrion looked as relaxed as Pellmia had ever seen him. In his element. It was rare to see him not…so stiff. Even smiling.
They said of him, behind his back, that every time Lord Tyrion smiled, spring was delayed another month. Or that every time he smiled, a Kraken stirred.
…That was cruel. Injust. Lord Pellmia had known Tyrion as a boy, and more as he grew older. He had always been like this, but there had been a time when he smiled more. When he laughed and when he hadn’t been stone. He thought…he had seen that again.
The [Lord] spent so much time looking at the forest trail that Tyrion eventually cleared his throat.
“Pellmia? Will you be staying?”
Pellmia stirred. He glanced at Tyrion, and shook his head.
“I should like to meet the Wind Runner, but I won’t impose. Tell me, Tyrion. What are your impressions of her?”
He listened, carefully, as Tyrion’s brows knitted.
“She is an extraordinary Courier. I’m in her debt. She has been honest and straightforward as one can ask for, and she is certainly fast. Her ability to command the wind is impressive.”
He replied after a moment. Pellmia nodded.
“Not to mention her magic sword. And your sons like her?”
“She…has a way with them. Sammial and Hethon respect her, which is rare. I find her curious. Brave. Refreshing.”
It seemed Tyrion had gone one word too far, because he turned his head slightly and regarded the distant riders. Pellmia sighed, and smiled.
“Striking too. Is she from Baleros, Drath…? Ah, well, that doesn’t matter, does it? It’s a rare sort of woman, whom you take to. It was like that with both my wives. I still miss Eiress.”
His first wife, another casualty of the March of Roses. Tyrion dipped his head silently. He waited for Pellmia to make sense, but the [Lord] just hummed under his breath.
“Tyrion, it’s out of concern, not anything else, you understand.”
“…I’d hardly take offense to you, Lord Pellmia. If I did, I’d state it directly.”
Pellmia waved a hand.
“Consider it advice. I know it has been a while and well, the young man I remember had a certain charm—but all the tact of a lance to the chest. It’s my experience, and that of Keireen—who sends her regards—that you need to make an effort.”
Lord Tyrion’s eyes flickered.
“About…? And how so?”
Pellmia blew out his cheeks. This was harder than he thought. Taking aside a younger [Lord] was easier than a man Tyrion’s age. He wished he’d gotten backup—but imagine six [Lords] all riding together and gossiping like girls? No, no. He pushed on.
“Activities, Tyrion! A Courier is not, well, not like regular women. Some might be impressed by House Veltras’ amenities here, but you must admit, for someone of her means and travel, this area can be quite dull. I’m sure Miss Griffin might appreciate more interesting pursuits?”
“Hm. It’s true we haven’t offered her much as a guest. She’s been working.”
Tyrion nodded to that, since that was the first understandable point Pellmia had made. The [Lord] exhaled.
“Exactly. Well, Keireen was of the opinion that if the Wind Runner was sticking around, that’s already a good sign. Did she take the Courier-jobs for a song?”
His daughter had told him to ask about that. She was very sharp—Tyrion frowned.
“Too cheaply. She felt it was a debt.”
“That’s excellent. Now, you should reciprocate. Dead gods, Tyrion, I’m sure neither of us wants to list off suggestions! What about a visit to one of the larger cities, though? You two can zip across Izril. A tour of one of the islands by ship? It will peter out unless you show her more than your regular façade. Enough people think you’re disinterested. I know you well enough to know when you like someone, but someone who hasn’t your measure doesn’t.”
Tyrion thought about this. Was he coming off as standoffish? He nodded slowly.
“Salient points, Pellmia.”
The [Lord] nodded, relaxing.
“Good, good. Be straightforward. I’d say—just tell her you want her to stay around as well. Straight-off, before she heads away. Keireen told me to tell you—well, be direct so you both know where you stand.”
Lord Tyrion hesitated.
“Surely that’s too much to ask, Pellmia?”
“Not for this! She has to make up her mind. She’s a young woman, but you are Lord Veltras so I’d give you a good shot. I’m on your side. Just be direct—I’m not sure if mentioning how your sons like her would help, but it certainly doesn’t hurt they adore her! That’s all. I’m not speculating into the rest—just set the stage. Tell her you’d rather she hung about. Visited, if a permanent room is too much. Don’t bring out the wedding ring until—”
The [Lord] of House Veltras had been half-nodding, frowning at Pellmia, but listening right until that last bit. Then he stopped dead on the forest trail.
Pellmia was checking the notes Keireen and his daughter had helped him write. Maybe he should just give it to the man; Tyrion liked written instructions.
“I know it’s been a while since Salva, Tyrion. However, you have to consider your sons too. When it’s…just pure luck like this, you need to strike. As I said, I’d offer you both a chance to avail yourself of my House’s entertainment—”
There was a difference between willful ignorance or playing dumb and sheer density. Lord Tyrion was in the rare, authentic case of the latter. All the pieces of the conversation finally fell into place. Lord Pellmia went on. Tyrion had to speak three times to interrupt him.
“Pellmia. Pellmia. I think you’re mistaken. I wasn’t aware this was a conversation about…courting Miss Ryoka. That—was not what I thought we were talking about.”
Lord Pellmia stopped. He stared at Tyrion. He rode on forwards, turning to stare at Tyrion with mouth open for so long his horse walked him into a low-hanging branch. Even after it smacked him in the side, he just kept staring.
Dead gods. It was worse than Pellmia thought. How had the man ever managed to marry Salva? Well—it had been mutual. She must have had to chase him down with a net, poor woman…
“Lord Pellmia. If we are discussing…courtship, I fear you may be misinformed. There is nothing between Miss Griffin and myself, and I have certainly not intimated otherwise. Nor do I typically—seek out advice. If I did, I am certain I would appreciate this information. However…”
Looking exceptionally uncomfortable, Lord Tyrion spoke stiffly. You could actually see him drawing back, visibly growing distant. Pellmia looked at him.
“Tyrion Veltras. I see I have been presumptuous. For that, I apologize.”
The [Lord] nodded, relieved. Lord Pellmia Quellae, of House Quellae, the [Lord of Orchards], who had nevertheless proven himself in war, twice-married, with a son and daughter from his first marriage, respected by his people, friend and supporter of House Veltras, fixed Tyrion with a keen eye.
Like the man was a piece of fruit from the finest trees, which were worthy of royalty. Pellmia spoke slowly.
“I have been presumptuous, Tyrion. So, let me be clear. I am speaking, as I have been speaking this entire time, about Ryoka Griffin, the Courier, the Wind Runner of Reizmelt, and yourself, Lord Tyrion Veltras of House Veltras…and giving you advice about entering a relationship with the young lady, courting her with the intention of marriage if it should prove both you and she care for each other. Marriage, as defined by you marrying her and making her your wife. A relationship, which I would hope stems from mutual attraction and leads to…”
Lord Tyrion had slowly been flushing throughout Pellmia’s speech. He cut Pellmia off.
“Lord Pellmia. Speculating about Miss Ryoka Griffin and myself is not something I would welcome. I appreciate your concern—”
To his astonishment, Pellmia cut him off.
“Tyrion, I have never thought of you as a fool.”
“Except in terms of love and relationships. I grant you that I may have been wrong in where you are if you’ve never considered the Wind Runner…and if you got to her staying under your roof, that’s an incredible amount of misunderstandings which I shall laugh about all the way back to my home. And then for the next month. However, to save you from yourself, I must ask you. Are you certain that there is no chance, not one for all the good reasons we’ve listed, that Ryoka Griffin would ever, ever be someone you’re interested in?”
He waited. Tyrion’s jaw worked. Pellmia just stared at him. You heard rumors about other [Lords]…or [Ladies]. Such as Ieka. They said…well, that was gossip. But Tyrion?
Lord Tyrion’s first response was to excuse himself from Pellmia and his delusions. The man was growing senile. Also, he was being highly rude. He was…
The [Lord] rode in silence as he was about to voice this. He—hesitated. Now he looked at it from the outside, some of Jericha’s comments, not to mention Ullim’s, took on a different light.
Had he been giving off the wrong impression to everyone? The thought was mortifying. Then Tyrion wondered.
Had he been giving the wrong impression to everyone? Or just himself?
He remembered riding after the Wind Runner. It was a single moment, as he stared up at the sky, on her first true flight. He remembered seeing her laughing as the wind blew. His heart…soaring.
In that moment, Tyrion Veltras had met someone faster than he was. Someone who could fly. Savior of his two children.
In all that time, a voice whispered to him, did you really conduct yourself with only impartial respect and admiration for Ryoka Griffin? Truly?
Tyrion Veltras hated lies. Which included the ones he told himself. He looked at Pellmia as the proverbial scales fell from his eyes. And out of his ears.
Salva. Suddenly, Tyrion felt guilty. Suddenly, he was conflicted about his sons, his dead wife. About loyalty to her, about his actions. He would not have been if Pellmia was wrong. Unfortunately, it seemed Lord Tyrion Veltras was interested in Ryoka Griffin.
It was a huge shock. To himself most of all.
Pellmia saw it all in a second. An unguarded look on Tyrion’s face. The [Lord of Orchards] smiled. He turned his head, but Tyrion saw the gesture. The younger [Lord] struggled to speak.
“I…believed you were wrong at first, Lord Pellmia. Which may have been true. Up till now. Perhaps you were simply—forward. I would like to speak further. If we may.”
Lord Pellmia just nodded. He and Tyrion rode along. Speaking more openly. So, there it was.
Jericha lay on her back, eyes open wide. Struck, like a hammer. Well, she had fallen off her horse after riding into a branch.
Of course, that was all just Tyrion. Ryoka Griffin was oblivious to the conversation as she stood with Hethon and Sammial in a field.
An empty field recently harvested of wheat. This was like Earth—only the rows were dug by hand, and they weren’t so packed. It was far smaller than a combine-harvester and mechanized industry could create.
However, Skills and magic made the field beautiful in other ways. Taller wheat, more lovely, of a greater quality.
If there was an analogy for the split between worlds, perhaps that was it. This world had less, but the less could be more special. However, people were still people between them.
Kids were kids.
She had thought, as they walked about, as Sammial and Hethon got on their wind sail-craft and let the wind blow them around, how to tackle this.
The truth was—giving kids a genuine lesson was hard. It was easy to say something high-minded like they had to take lessons and social responsibility and so on. Easy to say—but Ryoka thought of how she’d take it. She would probably look up at her older self, lecturing her about all this, then do a spinning kick to Older Ryoka’s leg.
Kids weren’t idiots. They were young, and maybe less intelligent in some ways, but they didn’t buy bullshit. So, after Sammy and Hethon had tired themselves out a bit, Ryoka walked with them and they found themselves in the field.
“Nice place, isn’t it?”
Ryoka looked around. The glory of nature, a beautifully-harvested field as the wind blew on a summer day. In moments like this, a woman—people—felt alive.
Hethon and Sammial nodded.
The older young lordling hesitated. Ryoka was smiling. She turned her head and he stared up shyly at her. If other people admired Ryoka for many reasons, Hethon’s were maybe simpler in some ways…but that wasn’t the only reason! He tried to stop imagining walking in on her in the bath. Stupid Sammial—he’d kicked his brother hard when he heard about that.
“What is it, Hethon?”
She looked so peaceful, Hethon wasn’t sure if he should say it.
“Um. You know this is a field they’re reseeding, right?”
“Hm? Oh, yeah. Are we not supposed to be on it?”
“No, I don’t think the [Farmer] cares. But they’re reseeding it. So…it’s fertilized. You’re standing in manure.”
Ryoka’s face went slack. She stared at her feet. Her bare feet; Hethon and Sammial had shoes.
Ryoka Griffin began swearing and ran out of the field. Hethon and Sammial had to laugh. This was why the Wind Runner was great. Every second was like this.
At least she didn’t have Nama’s footwraps on. Ryoka sighed. Jericha said they were highly magical. She wiped her feet on the grass for about three dozen yards and then turned to the boys.
Her element of wonder had been partly lost, but the wind blew around them as always. That was beautiful. Ryoka was going to have a second bath later.
Yet in this moment, she turned to the kids. She composed herself, and launched into her speech.
“I need to talk to you guys about the [Tutors]. I know it’s not my job and I’m not Tyrion or Jericha or Ullim, but I have to.”
Hethon and Sammial looked at each other. Hethon glowered at Sammy. What had he done now? Sammy avoided his older brother’s look.
“I know I shouldn’t leave tutoring. I’m sorry, Miss Ryoka. I won’t do it again.”
He recited it by rote. Ryoka knew every line Sammial was spouting off, from the hundreds of times she’d said variants of it, sincerely, insincerely…
Perhaps he even meant it. It didn’t matter, though. Even if Sammial resolved to change his ways and never use his aura on a [Tutor] again, that wasn’t the problem, was it?
Ryoka had thought long and hard about her past, and the problem wasn’t just being tutored in something you didn’t like. She shook her head.
“You know you shouldn’t do that, Sammial. We had a talk and I’m sure you’ll try. But…that’s not the problem, is it?”
Both boys looked at her. Ryoka went on, searching for her words. Speaking to little reflections of herself.
“It’s just—not fun. That’s the problem, isn’t it? Day in, day out, having to take lessons when you could be having fun? Not…getting to enjoy yourself sometimes? Wanting—more.”
They gave her a strange look. For a moment, Ryoka feared she was talking out her butt, that she was completely wrong.
But that wasn’t why Hethon and Sammial stared. To them, it was as if the Wind Runner were staring right through them. She went on, encouraged by their looks.
“Sometimes—I’m sure you get angry. Really angry. Only, you can’t shout at the adults. You get in trouble.”
“I shout at adults. All the time, sometimes.”
Ryoka nodded at Sammy as he vouched that obvious truth.
“Do you feel better? Or do you feel bad? I bet…you don’t feel great, especially if you use your aura on them. I know, because that’s how I felt growing up a lot of the time.”
She closed her eyes, thinking back.
“I remember I wanted more than just being taught lessons and someday growing up and getting a job. I wanted—well, to be special. And I was sure, deep down, I wasn’t. Not really.”
When she looked at them again, the two boys were giving her the same look. It was possible that no grown up, no one ever, had ever spoken to them halfway as deep as this before.
It was uncomfortable to Hethon, hearing the Wind Runner talk like this. Uncomfortable…and appealing. He felt that this was honest; knew it was. Understanding someone? A kind of intoxication of its own.
The Wind Runner looked at him, then at Sammial.
“Sometimes you have to do things that suck. Like learning math, history. Sometimes it’s your teachers that aren’t fun, and sometimes it’s you. Your attitude. I think, though—you can change what’s terrible. Especially you two. If you don’t like a [Tutor], is there someone who’s a better teacher?”
The boys looked at each other.
“Jericha’s more fun to teach magic. And we like her more, but she’s always busy with father. I hate math, but Ullim is better since he lets us help with the budgets. But he’s busy too, so we have [Tutors].”
“We could…ask them to take over. Or your father?”
Hethon and Sammial looked apprehensive.
“But they’re busy.”
That’s probably what they’d been told every day of their lives. Ryoka folded her arms.
“Probably. I bet your father would still think you were worth them spending time teaching you, as much as they can. The problem is he has to know they’re the best. That you need them.”
It was hard to talk to distant parents. Hethon and Sammial looked at their shoes. Ryoka saw them stare at her feet. She shifted them.
“What if I ask for you? Would that help?”
Shyly, Hethon looked up at her and she saw the answer in his eyes. Sammial bit his lip, but then peeked at Hethon, at Ryoka, and nodded.
“That would be better.”
The Wind Runner smiled. She hadn’t actually expected to hear them say they just wanted more time from both adults, but it made sense. She went on.
“There are other things I learned when I was growing up. I took lessons in martial arts.”
“Martial arts? Like punching people?”
“Something like that. There was this school—well, it was good for me to practice something. You don’t have to do that, but it helps. Believe me. I sort of wish I’d played a musical instrument too…”
She had been thinking of all the things that could help two lonely boys. She knew they were destined to be [Lords] and she couldn’t do anything about that. But—kids to play with? They stayed at the keep, even before their father had been protective of them.
“You two shouldn’t stay here all the time. I know it’s House Veltras’ keep, but there’s no one like you. Your age, I mean.”
“There are the servants and city-kids. They play with us sometimes.”
Sammial pointed out, just to be contrary. However, Hethon knew they never acted around Sammial and him like they did when the two weren’t there. He looked at Ryoka, hungrily. How did she know what they wanted?
She met his eyes and he felt a shock. The wind blew around Ryoka, picking up a bit.
“Wouldn’t it be great to have a lot of friends, though? I—don’t know the perfect spot. But there’s one or two I can imagine. I’ll ask your father. What about visiting your relatives, like in the marshes? Lady Buscrei and her family in Oswen?”
“They don’t like us. I hate them.”
Sammial wiped his nose on his sleeve. Ryoka coaxed him.
“I don’t think that’s true. They were asking about you. Give it a shot? You could go sledding with the otter-dogs. Or what about staying in that town with [Druids] and learning from them for a while?”
The two boys imagined that. Their faces lit up. Ryoka looked at them and wondered why Tyrion, Jericha, Ullim, had never envisioned the same.
Perhaps because it was Tyrion. Had he grown up like this? It explained…a lot. Just practice courts, armies, the keep—she shook her head.
“I’ll talk to your father and Jericha and Ullim if you want me to. Okay?”
They nodded. Ryoka smiled. One last thing. She bent over.
“Great. In that case—I’ll give you one last thing along with talking to the adults. A little trick in case you get angry again, or frustrated. It helped me.”
Their eyes brightened. The vision of better education was hard for boys to understand, especially if they only knew this life. But a trick? From the Wind Runner?
“Is it a spell? We can’t cast magic properly yet, but I can use my aura! Hethon can’t!”
Sammy’s older brother shoved him and Sammy shoved back. Before they could escalate, Ryoka put a hand between them and shook her head.
“Nope. It’s just a trick in case you’re really angry and you have to do something. Instead of using your aura or punching someone—has anyone told you if you’re angry, you should punch a pillow?”
Sammy and Hethon eyed Ryoka.
“No…father says take it out on a practice dummy. Jericha says ‘let it go’, but she says stupid things sometimes.”
Sammy retorted. Ryoka exhaled.
“Yeah, neither one worked out for me. I used to go for a run, so that’s like the practice dummy. I went for a long run. But also: if I was ever really angry, I went to a field and screamed. Loud as I could. As long as I wanted, until I felt better.”
Well, not a field, but her room with music on full-blast, somewhere private…the boys looked at her oddly. Maybe anger-management techniques weren’t the best to lay on them. Then Sammy grinned.
“I like that. I can just scream?”
“If it beats hitting someone, yeah. Want to try?”
Sammy thought about it. Hethon was fidgeting. Sammy though—he just inhaled, tilted his head back, and shouted.
“Aaaah! Aaaaah! I HATE MATH!”
Ryoka and Hethon laughed. Sammial shouted until he was red in the face, and he had a fairly prodigious voice.
“I DON’T LIKE YELLATS! I WANT TO RIDE A HORSE! AAAAAAH!”
The Wind Runner laughed, her eyes sparkling. Hethon watched her side-long, as Sammial yelled until he was hoarse. Then his younger brother laughed.
“I feel better! Thanks, Miss Griffin! My throat hurts. I want a healing potion.”
“Er—I can give you some—”
Ryoka fumbled for her potion, but Sammial was already talking again. Hethon envied that.
“If I get Ullim and Jericha to teach me, will Father teach me how to use a sword? And if we visit other places in House Veltras…oh! Look! There’s father! Can I ask him now?”
He whirled. Somehow, incredibly, Sammial pointed into the distance. Ryoka and Hethon’s heads turned. They saw…the open road. Nothing.
Aura. Hethon felt the twinge of jealousy he normally felt and pushed it down. Ryoka blinked. She frowned—looked at Sammial’s confident face and finger, and glanced up.
“Wait one sec.”
So saying, Hethon felt a gust of air and threw his hands up as dirt and debris flew into the air. He saw Ryoka shoot into the sky. Open-mouthed—until he got some dirt in it—Hethon saw her hover, then descend in a swooping arc.
Sammial whooped with delight and Hethon felt as astounded as he had the first time he’d seen it. So amazing. Better than being a [Lord].
“You’re right, Sammial. Your father’s coming. We can talk to him—”
“I’ll tell Ullim first! And that father’s coming!”
Sammial dashed towards the keep. Hethon knew there was no real need; he saw some [Soldiers] detach themselves in the distance and follow Sammial.
They had been there the entire time, watching from a very polite distance, but Tyrion was not about to entrust his son’s wellbeing to any one person, even Ryoka or Jericha or himself.
It saved Ryoka from immediately having to chase after him. She adjusted the wind-suit, and looked at Hethon.
“Hey Hethon, have I said anything wrong? You can tell me if I made a mistake.”
“Um. No, Miss Griffin.”
Hethon mumbled. He felt suddenly shy without Sammial to talk on. He wished he had talked to Ryoka as much as Sammial. Hethon cast around for something to say.
“T-thanks for teaching me about the anger trick and talking with father. Sammy liked it.”
Her green-eyed glance made Hethon shrug. He felt it was too…piercing.
“I’m fine. I’m not as angry as Sammial is.”
Ryoka stared ahead without speaking for a moment. The wind blew around them, carrying the scents of the world to them. She looked at Hethon again.
“Uh huh. You know, Hethon, you both remind me of how I was, growing up. Sammial’s me when I was really young…you remind me of when I was a bit older. You’re not angry at all? Not a little bit?”
“Maybe a little? Sometimes?”
“Sure you don’t want to scream?”
The boy turned redder. Ryoka stared at him—and realized how embarrassing it probably was for someone like her to ask Hethon out of the blue to scream in the middle of a field.
She blushed a bit herself.
“Sorry. I just realized it’s super-awkward to ask.”
“Just a bit. Do you…actually do it?”
Hethon glanced up at her and she grinned despite herself. Ryoka hesitated.
“Well—yes. All the time when I was younger.”
“Do you do it now?”
The Wind Runner was embarrassed to realize she hadn’t. Were there things to make Ryoka angry at this moment? Upset?
Absolutely. She regarded Hethon…and realized she didn’t want to scream with Lord Tyrion about to arrive, the [Soldiers] watching, and him.
“Um. It really is amazing Sammial can do it by himself, isn’t it?”
They both grinned. It was all Sammy.
Well, crap on her feet. Here she was offering advice she wasn’t taking herself. There was a word for that: hypocrite. Also, idiot.
The Courier gazed at the young [Lord], at the empty field, and then at the wind blowing the wheat stalks from the field around and the distant forest too.
She had an idea.
“Hey, Hethon. It’s super-embarrassing to shout when anyone can hear you. But…what if we both agreed to do it? I’ll make the wind howl, so there’s no way anyone can hear us. If I did that—would you feel like trying it?”
The boy—or was it young man, already?—stared up at Ryoka. He hesitated. Then he nodded and grinned.
“How loud will it be?”
“No one will hear a thing, even me. Swear to it. Courier’s honor.”
Ryoka offered tentatively. Hethon nodded again. So the Courier and Hethon faced away from the keep. They took a few deep breaths.
The wind began to pick up. At first, slowly. Then it grew stronger. Hethon heard the wind whipping at his clothes and ears. Then it grew louder. Louder—he glanced up at Ryoka and she was grinning. It was just stupid, but Hethon began laughing as a whirlwind blew around them.
Louder. It became a howl unto itself, the whirlwind even blocking the world out. Now? Hethon looked at Ryoka, shielding his face.
He saw her screaming something into the vortex. He heard not a thing. Hethon’s eyes widened.
No one would hear what he said. In this moment, he would never be heard, and he could be sure of that when he never could before. Thoughts that had only been in his head…he could speak them.
Shout them. There was an amazing sense of relief, desire, he felt at that idea. To say something as loud as you could and know you’d never bother anyone? Never be heard?
In the roar of the wind, the calm, exhilarating eye of this storm, Hethon Veltras opened his mouth and gave voice to something. At first, it was a shout. Words of anger, loss. Longing.
Then it grew louder. He screamed with all the passion in his lungs, and it stopped being words. He was sure Ryoka was doing the same.
They shouted in pure silence, in the maelstrom of noise and wind. Shouted, until they lost their voices. Until they were laughing. Maybe even crying for a second.
No one would know. It was their secret.
Ryoka Griffin screamed for the Horns of Hammerad, about her worries, her guilt. Her loss. For anger, and even childhood. She never heard what Hethon said, but when the wind died, and as they met each other’s gazes again, they were both laughing.
The wind had messed up their hair. They were a bit breathless, exhilarated, hoarse—but Ryoka thought the young man looked at her with newfound familiarity. She stuck out her hand, and he shook it, smiling.
“Miss Courier? Is everything alright?”
A [Soldier] approached. They’d come close, as the maelstrom began. Ryoka started guiltily, but Hethon spoke for her.
“Miss Griffin was showing me a whirlwind. I asked her to.”
“Ah, very good, Lord Veltras.”
The man instantly bowed. Ryoka saw Hethon’s face take on…she shook her head as the bodyguard fell back. Too much power for kids.
However, perhaps she’d helped with his burden. Hethon looked lighter as they walked over to meet Sammial. She nudged him.
“Just ask if you want to do that again. That was a relief for me too. I’ll just do that from now on.”
He nodded shyly. That was how they met Lord Tyrion Veltras.
He was riding in the company of Lord Pellmia, Jericha and the others. He eyed the breathless trio, hair standing in crazy ways. Lord Pellmia glanced at the Wind Runner as she greeted them, abashed. He smiled.
“A pleasure to meet you again, Miss Griffin. We are all in your debt. I don’t know that you’d recall, but we met at the…party in Riverfarm? I am Lord Pellmia of House Quellae.”
The Courier didn’t remember clearly, but the name and face were familiar when he said it. She smiled and was surprised when they shook hands instead of her bowing.
“It’s very nice to meet you again, Lord Pellmia. I’m uh, sorry about the wind, Lord Veltras. Your sons were having fun. I’ve delivered the letters, as requested.”
“Thank you, Miss Ryoka. You have been exceptionally helpful, with both Hethon and Sammial and House Veltras’ affairs.”
Tyrion dismounted, nodding to her. Pellmia was smiling. Good with kids.
The younger [Lord] pointedly ignored the glance. Lord Tyrion inspected Ryoka, and had to reconsider himself in the face of his chat with Pellmia. Sammial was already talking about visiting other places and tutors? Ryoka appeared embarrassed and Hethon kept trying to shut Sammy up and greet Pellmia properly as the older [Lord] laughed.
It was all impropriety. With another guest not as familiar as Pellmia, Tyrion would have been embarrassed. If it wasn’t for Ryoka, he would have upbraided the two boys instantly, or Sammial.
However…it was always worth asking if he was wrong. He had scarcely seen them like this. Not just smiling, but like this.
Breathless, exhilarated, full of too much energy and having spent it already. What was…what was this?
Happy. They seemed rather happy, despite all they had suffered through. Lord Tyrion saw it, and wondered why it was so hard to recognize.
It was so easy to thank Ryoka, to pretend that was all, to think of her presence as being good for Hethon and Sammial.
The thing was, you could never go back. The lance struck its target or missed, and the world changed.
Lord Tyrion Veltras would have had to lie to pretend he didn’t see things differently, and he hated lying. So, he nodded at Ryoka.
“You have been most helpful, Miss Ryoka.”
“Thank you. I—feel like I owe House Veltras. And we’re friends, I mean—Hethon and Sammial.”
She ducked her head, embarrassed and awkward. Far too forward. If she hadn’t saved his sons…but she had. It was hard to stand at a remove when you owed someone like that everything that mattered.
Tyrion thought of this. He nodded as Jericha and the other [Soldiers] got down and Pellmia murmured to Ullim.
“Just an hour or two, Ullim. Nothing long; I won’t tarry for dinner. I must be getting back, but something to knock the dust off? We were hit by flying dirt on the way in. Some kind of freak weather event. Perhaps a bit of a wash?”
Ryoka turned beet-red, but Pellmia neglected to assign specific blame. Sammial was opening his mouth.
Ask her to stay? Tyrion frowned. Lies and perspective. He looked at Ryoka.
“House Veltras stands in your debt, Miss Gr…Ryoka. If there is debt, it is mutual. Friendship, even. Your presence has been welcome for Sammial, Hethon, and I hope you will have time to stay. It is…good to see you.”
Lord Pellmia’s head turned and his eyes lit up. Jericha sighed, and Ullim glanced at his [Lord] with eyes alight. Ryoka wavered, but Tyrion wasn’t done. He met her gaze.
“In fact, I would go as far to say that I, personally, admire your character and abilities.”
Lord Pellmia’s jaw opened. He gaped at Tyrion, and began to speak, but it was too late. Lord Tyrion formally sank to one knee as those around him turned and stared. He stared up at Ryoka, who had frozen.
“It is my…admiration of you, Miss Griffin, that forces me to profess my interest in you in more than a platonic sense. As I cannot meet your parents or guardian, I would formally ask you for permission to court your hand.”
One did not dance with the truth, but held it out. That was the Tyrion Veltras way.
It was also the most horrifying thing Lord Pellmia had ever seen in his entire life. The [Lord] stood there, horror-struck as Ryoka Griffin turned into a statue.
Hethon, Sammial, Jericha, Ullim, Pellmia, the [Soldiers]…even the horses gazed on in silence. Tyrion Veltras just held Ryoka’s eyes. She stared at him.
You could say this for Tyrion—there was no way of misinterpreting his intentions. Not even Erin Solstice could have…Ryoka realized he was waiting for a response. As in—right now.
Lord Pellmia, no, even Hethon and Sammial saw the future. Which was, in two seconds, Ryoka exploding into flight across Izril in a burst of wind. So the [Lord of Orchards] moved. He reached out—grabbed Tyrion—and hauled him to his feet.
With his other hand, he clapped Ryoka on the shoulder. Tyrion turned to face him. Lord Pellmia’s smile was of a man watching a stab-victim.
“What a fine gesture.”
He bellowed desperately.
“Why don’t we all delay that until a more private setting is reached? We can’t rush these things, Tyrion. Ullim? I think I need a room after all. Miss Griffin, I do apologize for—I do apologize, but an old man like me craves a seat.”
Pellmia shot Ullim a look and the two older men hustled everyone towards the keep. Pellmia had never fought so hard to keep a smile on his face. He had once rode pillion with a dear friend after losing his horse in a battle with Drake armies, facing down a [Wyvern Rider].
Lord Pellmia needed to be twice as good as he had been that day. A wing-rider fit to capture the Wind Runner before she flew off. Five Families, he had to save Tyrion from himself.
The [Lord of Orchards] bared his teeth for the most desperate, difficult mission of mercy in his life.
Somewhere, Ryoka Griffin thought she could hear Ivolethe laughing at her.
Even Lord Tyrion Veltras couldn’t match the speed at which the news broke across Izril. First via family—then everyone else because family gossiped.
Within two days, members of House Veltras were leaving their estates, roused by the events. Among them, Lord Setth, Lady Buscrei, and six more relatives all gathered at Oswen to discuss the issue.
Not because they cared about the political implications like some of the family. They just thought it was hilarious. Especially how it had gone down.
Lady Buscrei turned to the rest of her family as they gathered in her hunting-lodge home. She thought of the Wind Runner of Reizmelt and smugly slapped her second-eldest son’s shoulder.
“Told you she’d make a good one of us. And that they were probably in bed.”
The others laughed, but Lord Swey raised an urgent hand, demanding the other’s attention. His brows crossed with real concern.
“If she marries in—d’you think we all get gliders?”
Thoughtfully, the [Lords] and [Ladies] inspected the idea. Then, unanimously, put their support behind love, Ryoka Griffin, and gliders in the upcoming argument.
Author’s Note: I’m on break! Well, it’s time. Energy goes away, and so does quality! I don’t know how I even did it before I took breaks…
That may be why the story gets better. Time off matters! Anyways, I hope you enjoyed this smaller, sort of slice-of-life chapter! I’ll be back ready to write a lot!
See you then!
Erin as a [Witch] by Uni!
Nice-Mrsha by Plushie!
Frozen Erin, Teleporting Horns, Fetohep, and more by Mg!