She was so used to moving, fighting, to the bloody now and the next battle that it was only when she stopped that Teresa Atwood realized how much she’d changed.
The young woman from London had always thought she could live ‘rough’, that she had some kind of innate toughness from experiences in her life. Having to half-raise herself and Trey at times. Dealing with some dicey situations and surviving instances like when the power had been cut for nearly two weeks, one time they’d nearly been mugged, and so on.
That all seemed silly now. She had become used to sleeping in the saddle, cleaning her gear and sword even when she was about to fall over.
Killing people. She had become a [Soldier], or at least, a [Warrior]. It made Teres…a bit glad Trey wasn’t here. The King of Destruction had taught her too well.
He made excellent warriors. In the short time since he had reawoken, he had taken old veterans, poor, impoverished civilians, and the small band of true warriors and created multiple armies, each one as battle-seasoned as any nation in Chandrar could field. They were spread out around Reim’s new territory, half a dozen armies that had seen more combat than many nations’ [Soldiers] would ever see in peace.
That was what he’d done, the King of Destruction. Not to say that he’d left Reim to rot; Teres did see the cities growing, farmlands revitalized with water and more hands. However, it was a product of the war.
Gold from ransoming prisoners or selling them, treasure from other nations, and the need for food, supplies, not to mention the captured territories, were making Reim bloom. It was as the King of Destruction said. He was a [King] who specialized in war, not peace.
War unending, though. War with everyone.
Ever since Nerrhavia Fallen and all the other nations had declared war, Teresa had followed Flos south, to defend Reim’s capital and push back Nerrhavia’s Hordes, as they were known. In the north, Orthenon and Mars took on Medain, the Claiven Earth, and spread out to the east too, to block other armies coming in. Reim’s rapid annexation of nations had stopped—by sheer weight of the other armies.
In fact, it might be that at last Flos Reimarch had met his match. The Minotaurs had shown the world you could beat him with the right strategy, by threatening his army and inflicting more casualties than he was willing to take.
Nerrhavia was putting on a similar show—albeit less impressive. If you could field four armies for every one of Flos’, and replace them if he routed each one, the King of Destruction would be worn down, unable to attack and merely go from battle to battle.
That was how Teres saw it. Wherever Flos went, he won. With Venith and Maresar Crusland, his strongest lieutenants in the south, he had the ability to crush the enemy. Not least because Takhatres would also swoop in with his tribe to pincer an enemy between them. The Lord of the Skies, the fastest Garuda on Chandrar and his tribe were an army without match.
…However, Nerrhavia would just rout, ransom its prisoners, and regroup. And while they were busy smashing one group to pieces, another snuck into Hellios and raised hell. It forced Reim to stay on the defensive, running from spot to spot.
Only Takhatres stopped Nerrhavia from sending thousands of raiding parties in and torching everything they could see; his Garuda were everywhere and they would drop out of the sky and shred smaller forces.
That was Teres’ life for the last month or more. She’d lost count. Fight, level, sleep—and fight again. The toll on her was largely invisible; she had become a [Soldier] so it was just…living. The King of Destruction, Flos himself, seemed to also bear the strain of sustained conflict well.
Perhaps even he had a breaking point though, because today was different.
“Halt the army! We’re done for today.”
Flos Reimarch held up his hand and his [Soldiers] slowed. They had marched through the night towards the army threatening the capital, less than a day away. It was another night-battle, one that actually favored Reim; Nerrhavia’s army and its chariots often hit their own side if they couldn’t see.
Venith Crusland, the [Lord] and one of the best [Warriors] and [Commanders] in the army, raised his eyebrows. He had taken over for Death-Commander Ytol, who was in the north. He looked at the [King], but his wife, Maresar, just nodded. She raised a dark-skinned hand and the [Riders] around her halted. The former [Bandit Lord]—for all she was a woman—turned and began calling orders.
“We’re not going to fight? But they’re just ahead of us. Four more miles! We can do it in an hour, beat them in two, and sleep at least three more before dawn.”
Teresa Atwood protested. It wasn’t hyperbole either; she just wanted to sleep. They’d done this before, but Flos Reimarch just shook his head.
The King of Destruction, gold and red in his hair, had halted suddenly. His warhorse, barded in armor, and his enchanted armor and sword were themselves as disheveled as he was.
Not dirty, but just not pristine. Coated with a bit of dust, grime, or the remnants of blood. He had been fighting in the vanguard of his army for nearly a month, and while his appetite for battle never seemed to wane, the pointless clashes with Nerrhavia had left him simply focused, not beaming or laughing as he had after his first clashes with Jecrass and Raelt.
Teresa had never seen Flos just stop before, though. The King of Destruction was staring up at the clear, starry sky, always beautiful in Chandrar, where clouds were rare.
“Venith, Teres. I’m sure we could wipe out whichever army this is. However—not today.”
Venith and Teres exchanged glances. She wasn’t as friendly with him as Trey was, but Trey made lots of friends. Teres knew Venith mostly in fighting, as the solid leader who made sure Flos didn’t charge in unsupported and issued commands. He looked—uneasy, now. Teres could almost read his thoughts.
“Your Majesty? Are you well?”
Was he tired of battle? Was this the moment the King of Destruction gave up once more and went into his slumber?
Teres felt a flutter of uncertainty again. No, surely not. But why would Flos abandon a battle?
For answer, the King of Destruction merely reached for his belt pouch. He fumbled with it, pulled out a dried piece of jerky, stared at it, and stuck it in his mouth and chewed.
That wasn’t what he was looking for. Flos frowned.
“Not here. Here? No. Venith, do you have a…a…”
He pulled out blade oil, a healing potion, a Scroll of Messages, and grunted as he began to grow annoyed. Venith waited and then cleared his throat.
“Your Majesty, a what?”
“A—calendar. Do you know what day it is today?”
Venith’s eyes sharpened. He felt for his own bag of holding and then smiled.
“I believe it is the day you’re thinking of, your Majesty. Shall I have one of our officers check?”
“Yes. Do that. And have Grand Magus Esiela tell Takhatres to meet me here. He needn’t move his tribe if they’re placed somewhere important. Second—a [Message] to Queen Yisame.”
Teresa looked up as Venith paused, with his own Scroll of Messages drawn. Esiela would have to contact Takhatres separately; Flos didn’t trust to [Messages] with actual orders, as they could be intercepted or faked.
“What will the contents be?”
“Ask her for a ceasefire for today. I’m sure she’ll agree.”
Venith began writing, delicately dipping the quill into an inkpot he held in his free hand. Teres looked from Flos to Venith.
“What? What’s today?”
The King of Destruction grunted as he took off his helmet. He shook out his head, sighing in the cool night air as, behind him, his tired [Soldiers] made quick camp and slept, realizing they weren’t fighting and passing out then and there.
“A holiday. Good timing too. I could use a day off. Get some sleep, Teres.”
She slept so fast she woke up in her bedroll with the sun in her eyes, not even remembering anything after Flos’ words. Teres still got up with the morning, as a [Soldier] did. She stumbled to a latrine, washed her hands with sand and the powder the [Alchemists] made to save on water, and found Flos Reimarch doing the same.
He had a tent of course, and some amenities she didn’t, but the baggage train didn’t contain many servants. Or much of a train; bags of holding let his army move fast.
“Ah, Teres. You could have slept in longer! Although if you’re about, I wouldn’t mind the company.”
The King of Destruction grinned at Teres. She just blinked at him. The [Bladeswoman] and the [King] both looked better for some sleep and Teres realized how tired she’d been. Able to fight—but exhausted.
“It’s a holiday today?”
She repeated stupidly. Flos stroked his beard.
“I need to shave. Teres, do you have an unenchanted belt knife? Nothing I carry isn’t magicked, and I’d be the greatest fool in Chandrar if I cut my head off while trimming my beard.”
Teres fumbled for her side and offered a dagger. Flos sighed in gratitude and, with a small inactive scrying mirror, began to trim his beard. Teres looked around as she tapped her foot, waiting for his reply. He sometimes did that—bounced to another idea and you had to wait for him to return to your question.
The entire camp was acting like Flos. Doing menial things you just put off if you were busy with impending life-or-death scenarios. Teresa saw Maresar sitting around a camp fire, pointedly right next to a harried [Warcamp Cook] who was making her breakfast. She was reading a book, legs crossed, hair unbraided.
“What’s the holiday? What are we celebrating, the death of Dragons? Something you made up? The rain?”
Teres pressed again. Flos blinked.
“Oh…none of those things. Nerrhavia wouldn’t deign to acknowledge one of my holidays, anyways. Did I ever declare a holiday…?”
“You did once. Skipping Stones week. We spent an entire week with the kingdom on holiday so you could try to beat Gazi in skipping stones by the coast.”
Venith approached with a pained look on his face at the memory. Flos smiled.
“I did do that, didn’t I? I never beat her. Gazi and her insane forty-eight skips…”
He grumbled into his beard as flecks fell away. Teres sighed.
“Venith, what’s the holiday?”
He replied instantly, which showed that Teres should have asked him anyways.
“Cinaelu. It’s the greatest holiday for String Folk.”
“Thank you. Dead gods, does everyone forget I’m not native here?”
“I was getting to it!”
Flos looked hurt. He turned as Maresar approached. She had a type of bratwurst and some big eggs made into omelettes; good camp food, and clearly from one of the poultry farms they’d passed by if that was breakfast for the entire army.
“Maresar, that breakfast smells delightful!”
“It’s quite good, your Majesty.”
Flos reached for the plate. Maresar stepped back, put her fork in the sausage, and took a huge bite.
Venith looked scandalized. Flos just gave Maresar a long look. The [Bandit Lord] ignored the muffled indignation from the [Camp Cook] behind her; he’d clearly thought the plate was meant for the King of Destruction.
Teres just grinned. Maresar served herself, as befitted a former criminal. Flos sighed.
“[Bandits]. I will have what she’s eating!”
Then he tried to snatch one of the sausages, but Maresar was too quick and jerked the plate away. Venith went to get Flos’ food, giving his wife a ‘what are you doing?’ look. She calmly looked at him and Teres didn’t get her reply, but she saw Venith sigh and shake his head.
“Cinaelu indeed. I nearly forgot it was upon us. If we’d attacked, I doubt we’d be able to visit the other army. Or that Yisame would agree to a truce.”
Teres had just accepted her plate of food, but she began to choke on her first bite.
“What? Visit the other army?”
“Just the [General] and officers. It’s polite.”
“Aren’t we going to kill them the next day?”
Flos gave Teres a blank look.
“Maybe. But so what? That would be tomorrow and this is today.”
Chandrarian traditions. Teres shook her head and Maresar did the same. Venith seemed to think it was completely normal.
“They don’t honor holidays or particular events on Earth, Lady Teres?”
He glanced at her. Teres bit her lip. Trey knew more, but she answered after a second.
“—I heard that armies took a break during the Great War during Christmas, but I don’t think we do it anymore. And that wasn’t all sides; it only happened that one time, I think.”
“Ah, I wish Trey could confirm that. The Great War…so that’s nearly a century from your modern time, is that right?”
Teres nodded; Flos had been taking lessons on Earth. He snapped his fingers.
“How disappointing. Well, I fully intend to honor the day by not killing anyone. Of course, we might be attacked, but I truly doubt it. Obviously we’ll take precautions—and there he is. Takhatres!”
He waved, and Teresa reflexively looked up—then remembered the Lord of the Skies couldn’t actually fly.
He could still jump pretty high, though. Half the sentries raised bows and someone nearly called an alarm as the Garuda leapt over a dune. He must have reached at least two hundred feet in the air; Teres gaped as Takhatres dropped towards them. Behind him came nearly two hundred flying shapes of every color, but mainly his bright blue and green feather coloration.
Garuda. One of the King’s Seven landed in front of Flos, kneeling, then rose in the same instant. Takhatres reached out and he clasped Flos’ shoulder as the king did the same.
“Flos. We’re taking a break?”
Takhatres was as informal in his way as Maresar; of all the King’s Seven that Teres had met, he used Flos’ name most informally, and stood on little ceremony. He was also direct.
“That’s right. Thank you for joining me. How is your tribe?”
“Nesting. We’ll take the day to rearm and relax. Venith. Maresar. Teres.”
Takhatres’ gaze flicked from person to person. Serious, quick as lightning when he wanted to be, and slightly scary. He’d left to fight the Empire of Sands for most of the time Teres had been in this world, but since his return she’d talked with him.
…About fifty eight words total. Takhatres glanced at her, but aside from listening to information about Earth, he hadn’t approached her like Mars or Orthenon. Flos just beamed, happy to see one of his Seven.
“Don’t be so impatient, Takhatres. For once we can relax and stretch our legs out! Claws, wings, whatever. Sit with Teres. You’ve barely talked to her since returning.”
Takhatres gave Teres another look and she gulped. He walked over, sat down, and stared at her.
“Er—hello, Takhatres. Want some breakfast?”
She would have risen to get him a plate, but the Garuda leapt up. He strode towards the cooking campfire like a blur.
Not even Couriers could match his speed. Garuda flying couldn’t go as fast as Takhatres, and even ‘walking’ he blurred along with multiple movement Skills.
He came back just as fast, sans plate. Takhatres stared accusingly at Flos as the King of Destruction looked up.
“…Are you eating eggs for breakfast?”
Flos checked his plate.
“…Yes? Oh, come now. Don’t make that face!”
The Garuda folded his wing-arms and glowered.
“You knew I was coming. You’re really eating eggs? My entire tribe is here!”
“Come now, Takhatres, they’re chicken eggs! I didn’t think to tell the [Cooks] and we have a surplus that we don’t want to go to waste.”
“You’re still running poultry farms? Gah. I’ll have them make their own food. This is why…”
Takhatres sped off and came back, finishing his sentence.
“…thoughtless. We fought for five months against the Empire of Sands and you try to feed me eggs on a holiday.”
“I apologize. They’re not Garuda eggs!”
Flos rolled his eyes. Takhatres looked at him.
“Do you eat unborn Human…whatever they are? Or humanoids? Why don’t I host you at my camp and feed you half-Elf? Or monkeys?”
Teres interjected helpfully. Takhatres nodded at her. Flos rubbed at his face.
“Do I need to have a second breakfast prepared so we all spare your sensibilities?”
“That would be a good start.”
Not Mars, Orthenon, or Gazi would have taken that tone with Flos. Teres saw the King of Destruction look up, a bite of omelette on one fork. He and Takhatres locked gazes. Flos exhaled, lowered his fork, and then took his plate, snatched the sausage off, and flipped the rest of it over his head.
It turned out that Takhatres and Flos were always like this.
“The Lord of the Skies will argue with his Majesty more than the other Seven—well, those living. Drevish used to do the same, and Amerys would often dispute certain issues. Queravia as well.”
Venith confided in Teres as a second breakfast of porridge was assembled. Unfortunately, it was travel-rations, so no honey and only a few dried dates. Takhatres ate with every sign of satisfaction—although that might be because he’d added Garuda rations to his; dried cicada. He offered it to Flos, but was clearly happy to eat the blander food since it was spiced with the King of Destruction’s glare.
“Do they ever really argue? I mean, really fight? I’ve never known Flos to uh, take being contradicted well.”
The [Lord] glanced at Teres, clearly reminded that she was one of the few people who used Flos’ name informally. She ducked her head, but Venith sighed.
“You, Takhatres, and few others would be those his Majesty suffers to—irk him—from time to time. The Lord of the Skies is a subordinate, but a proud one. He offered to join the King of Destruction; he never surrendered, even when he was beaten in those battles. Thus, there are times when he and his Majesty come to a head and neither one will relent.”
Teres looked at Venith. It was Maresar who grinned and whispered.
“It becomes anything from a year-long grudge to a fight. The last time it happened was when they joined a banquet and Takhatres took the seat his Majesty had been offered because he got there two hours ahead. They nearly came to blows—until the King of Destruction demanded a second table be set up outside and the entire banquet moved around him. Takhatres refused to move, you see. He ended up eating alone in the banquet hall.”
It was so petty that Teres laughed. She looked at Takhatres admiringly. The Lord of the Skies returned her glance.
“So, are we going to greet the other army or are we sitting about?”
He leapt to his feet, already done eating.
“I will rise in my own time, Takhatres.”
Flos ate deliberately slowly to spite the Garuda. By the time he rose for his horse, Takhatres had already checked on his people, summoned an escort, and paced around their campfire twice before stopping to ask about Trey.
“No word. Not from him, Gazi or Calac. We must simply assume they are working hard.”
“Hm. They need to hurry up too. This stalemate is wasting time we need to be expanding in. But if the King of Slow Destruction doesn’t think we’re having a problem—”
“Gah! I’m sorry about the eggs! Dead gods and sands of Chandrar, you don’t but hold a grudge!”
Flos exploded. He seized his bowl, and stomped towards his horse. Teres looked at Takhatres, mouth open. She could make Flos that angry, but Takhatres had beaten her record. To her amazement and delight—she saw him wink at her.
Flos calmed down by the time they were riding to parlay with the other army, and Takhatres had relented enough for the two to be gossiping.
“Yes, it was all Trey. He somehow set in motion Fetohep—I’d wager a Grand Elephant’s worth of gold on it.”
“Not the Arbiter Queen? I need to speak with him again.”
Flos waved a hand in largesse, acknowledging her contribution. The holiday had clearly raised his spirits, and Teres felt it herself. A break was just what they needed.
“I’ll grant you Queen Jecaina might have been part of it. However, what drew Fetohep out of his shell was the power of selfies.”
“…Of what? Are you making up words again?”
“Not at all! It’s the device Teres and Trey got working. You left before they figured it out—Teres, show Takhatres your iPhone! Take a picture; in fact, take one of his tribe! Takhatres, they’re memories. Mage-photos, as many as you want!”
Flos turned, beaming. Then a cunning look appeared in his eyes.
“Yes. Show him all your apps. Like the…Flappy Bird one.”
Venith, Maresar, and Teres all looked apprehensive. The memory of the last time Flos had played a game on her iPhone was fresh in Teres’ mind, but Takhatres was interested.
“Please be careful. It’s not meant for claws…”
Teres hesitated before handing it over. Takhatres inspected the iPhone from every angle, blinking.
“Little dots make up a picture? It’s not magical. And—oh!”
He blinked and flipped out of the saddle of his horse. Teres’ jaw dropped. She looked at her iPhone. He’d actually dodged the flash! She had a image of two blurry talons; his feet.
“What was that?”
Takhatres zoomed over to her, angry. Flos laughed so hard he nearly fell out of the saddle. Teres raised the iPhone.
“A picture! I’m sorry! Look, it’s just taking an image of you.”
“Does it steal your soul? Why the light?”
Takhatres was clearly suspicious, but he let her photograph him; it was still blurry because he kept fidgeting. He stared at the photo.
“Clean. Detailed. I can take as many as I want?”
“Yes. I could lend it to you.”
“I’d like to take pictures of the nestlings. We wouldn’t be able to pay for mage-photos and illustrations are a waste…”
Takhatres looked wistful. Teres blinked, them beamed.
“Oh, that’s a splendid idea. They’re quite cute! Are there many in your tribe right now?”
“A group just hatched. From eggs.”
Flos scowled, but Takhatres was deeply impressed by the iPhone. He listened to her abbreviated spiel about how it worked. Teres had told all of Flos’ trusted people.
It was always interesting hearing what they took away from it. Teres laid out all the iPhone’s functions, but each one of his vassals had latched onto a different function.
For instance, Mars had made Teres take a number of videos and pictures of her ‘best looks’, and that was multiple illusions…and angles…Teres had felt like a modeling photographer by the end of it and covertly deleted most of it. Especially when Trey had asked for copies. Then—over two dozen other [Soldiers] in Reim. The worst part was that Mars had offered to pose without clothing. Teres had dark suspicions on whether Trey had ever taken her up on the offer.
Anyways, that was Mars. Orthenon and Maresar had been most fascinated by the option the iPhone didn’t have working; communication.
“A free [Communication] spell, even visuals would be great if I had a dozen of them and was still raiding.”
Maresar sighed longingly. Venith gave her a disapproving look—he’d actually really liked the calculator. The fact that it could do logarithmic math was not lost on the [Lord] and he’d tried to get Teres to reverse-engineer the mathematical formulas…which she couldn’t do.
Takhatres liked the camera. He just breezed past the phone functionality.
“There aren’t as many communication problems with my tribe. We can fly fast enough. But what’s this…Flappy Bird? Is this another one of his pranks?”
“It’s a game. You see…”
Teres had a terrible feeling about what was going to happen. She remembered Gazi effortlessly beating the game—and Flos failing and raging. She expected Takhatres to ‘win’ the entire thing, actually, given his insane hand-speed.
However…Flos Reimarch just smirked as Takhatres tapped, awkwardly pressing his claws together since the iPhone’s touchscreen didn’t like his claws. Takhatres tapped, watched the little bird fly—and die.
“What? This screen isn’t meant for me. This game is…wait. Let me try again. This is—this is ridiculous!”
He died eight times within seconds. Teres stared at him and realized the bird kept jumping at the wrong time. Takhatres made it ‘jump’ at the last second, and grew increasingly frustrated.
“This thing doesn’t move at all! It’s as slow as an albatross!”
“My record is eighty three. But I suppose we cannot all do well at all games.”
Flos remarked innocently. Takhatres’ head slowly rose. Teres tried to snatch the iPhone back, but it was too late.
The problem wasn’t Takhatres’ dexterity or his eyes, but his speed. It was that he was too fast. He had to adjust to the game which was, frankly, calibrated to Human reflexes. Interestingly, even when he adjusted, he was only Flos-level. The Garuda got impatient playing the repetitive game, and Teres suspected having to perfectly time his presses meant he was just…staring at the slow-moving screen for way too long.
“This is a stupid device!”
After his twenty sixth death and failing to reach even a score of thirty, Takhatres snapped. Flos was laughing his butt off, but the Garuda raised the iPhone and threw it as far as he could.
“No! My phone!”
Teres cried out. However, Takhatres just leapt out his saddle, sprinted after it, and caught it before it hit the ground. Teres stared at him, open-mouthed.
“You had your fun. It’s a fascinating device. If we end the war, I’d like to relax for at least a week.”
The Garuda glowered at Flos as he handed the iPhone back. Flos sobered, nodding.
“If Amerys returns to us, you, Orthenon, Mars, and I might storm Nerrhavia alone. Just like the old days. We could reach the capital with your movement Skills, burst through, kidnap Yisame—I’m working on the plan.”
“What about Gazi and Amerys in that scenario?”
Teres asked. Flos shrugged.
“They’ll guard the capital. Gazi wouldn’t let me have any fun if we broke into Yisame’s palace—come to that, we’ll leave Orthenon behind. Maresar, would you be interested?”
“Hmm. If I can loot their treasury.”
Maresar grinned. Teres looked at Takhatres, who was smiling and Venith, who looked concerned.
“Wait. Is that an actual plan?”
“We did do it a number of times. It works, depending on if they’re expecting us. Narrow hallways, no armies? Gazi, Mars and Orthenon could hold off tens of thousands if they didn’t have magic. They did that one time.”
“Because someone had to reveal themselves when they heard they were being badmouthed.”
Takhatres grumbled. Flos hummed innocently.
Stories of old. Every time they talked, Teres was reminded that this was Flos’ return. All their history? It was the stuff of stories. They were so casual about it here that she forgot.
She saw more of the King of Destruction’s legend in the wary eyes of the Stitchfolk [General]. It was a she this time, and she bowed. Her clothing, like her skin, was silk, perhaps armored silk, or just decoration given the truce.
Nevertheless, both sides had taken only a small retinue each…frankly, even though they were in bowshot of the enemy camp, it was Nerrhavia who was in danger if Flos broke the truce; Takhatres, Flos, Venith, and Maresar were all probably higher-level than the [General] herself.
“King of Destruction. I greet you on this day of Cinaelu. Will you drink with us?”
“Of course, General.”
The King of Destruction smiled, and that was how Teres found herself sitting on a carpet under a canopy spread over the sand, sipping a slightly tart wine, talking awkwardly with some of the String Folk, who were clearly aware of this temporary truce.
However, it was also clear that this was the holiday of holidays for String Folk. The [Soldiers] were exchanging small gifts, all of string, Teres realized, and relaxing. Staring at the King of Destruction too.
It was going to make the next battle harder. However, Flos Reimarch just smiled as he spoke to the [General].
“My companion, General Freivisha, is not of Chandrar.”
“Ah. Then she is new to this day?”
“Exceedingly. Hm. Here you are.”
Flos made to hand it over, but a servant hurriedly bowed, took the small slate, and then transferred it to General Freivisha. The servant, Teres noted, was Cotton. The [General] and all those relaxing were Silk.
Castes and hierarchies. For all that, Teres was tickled pink by the interaction. The [General] blushed slightly as her smooth silk skin turned even darker. She tucked the slate with the King of Destruction’s signature into her bag of holding.
“It would not be seemly to ask otherwise, but on this day of days…I thank you, Lord of the Skies.”
“Perhaps you should consider retreating before nightfall. I don’t believe his Majesty or I would enjoy battling you tomorrow. Nor after exchanging pleasantries.”
Takhatres handed over his autograph as well. Flos nodded. Somehow, autographs had become a common idea in this world—but Teres had no idea who had started it! Maybe that Joseph guy.
“I could never gainsay her Majesty’s orders.”
The [General] replied after a moment’s pause in which all her subordinates glanced slightly her way. Flos nodded, sighing.
“Then let us simply enjoy Cinaelu! A toast!”
“What’s Cinaelu celebrating?”
Teres asked Maresar as she raised her cup. The [Bandit Lord] whispered back.
“The day when the String Folk of Chandrar won their freedom.”
The [General] had overheard. She paused the toast to smile at Teres.
“You see, Lady Atwood, the name comes from our great hero, the first liberator of our kind. This day we won our freedom, and it is named after her.”
The other Stitch Folk laughed and the [General] shook her head.
“An anagram. Apparently, the person it was based on objected to a day named after them—so the legend goes that the people just rearranged her name. Thus, while we call it Cinaelu, we say—”
She turned and Flos lifted his small cup.
“Elucina’s weave be yours.”
“And yours, King of Destruction.”
They drank. Teres did likewise, copying the words. The wine was tart, but good, and obviously not poisoned or Esiela would have pointed it out. The [Grand Mage] was still subdued, but she had joined Parasol Stroll; albeit as the only member present in the south.
“Are there any more holidays I’m not aware of?”
Silly though it was, Teres had never given a thought to the fact that Christmas and so on were not here, and there were obviously different special days. Flos hadn’t helped; he’d happily instituted Christmas at once and dyed his beard white. He’d also smashed three chimneys before giving up on playing Santa.
Maresar and Venith exchanged glances. Venith counted them out on his fingers.
“Derrás Me, the Solstices, Yellat Day—although that one is simply for fun. The Clear Skies Celebrations…not many.”
“I know the Clear Skies Celebrations—that’s the end of the Dragons on Chandrar, right? Derrás Me is the one with the parades across Chandrar? …What’s Yellat Day?”
The King of Destruction glanced at Takhatres, who glanced at the [General]. Everyone in the tent thoughtfully paused to try to explain. Flos eventually shrugged.
“You eat a lot of Yellats.”
Teres supposed she had that one coming. Flos held out his cup for another drink.
“And occasionally you find one that gets up and walks around. That’s lucky.”
The young woman began to choke on her wine.
Cinaelu was a holiday for String People. Such that while Octavia might have hung up a little decoration on her shop door and taken a day off to get together with some String Folk in Invrisil, and Revi likewise celebrated it, it went unnoticed the world over.
It was not news, much to the indignation of an entire species. Wistram News Network was, in that sense, ruder than the King of Destruction, who had put aside war for this day.
Although not everyone appreciated the gesture. More than one person did not see Flos Reimarch’s gesture as at all hospitable. Why should a Human know peace on a day for us?
Ironically, his holiday was the tipping point; a bit of ire on already-bubbling cauldrons of vengeance directed towards him. The unforeseen consequences of that would soon appear—but there was one more interesting non-Stitchfolk person who celebrated the day. Albeit in her way.
They called her…the Gnoll of Stars. Captain of Stargazer’s Promise, the youngest Named Adventurer in living memory!
Lehra Ruinstrider scratched under one armpit. She was not exceptionally heroic at this particular point in time, but hero-ing was a hard job. The Meeting of Tribes was a break for her team, especially since Lord Dragial was still chasing them over the continent.
Actually, she’d been hoping to find someone who could help her here, but none of the [Shamans] she’d talked to knew anything about the artifact on her wrist. The vambrace of beautiful metal, an alloy no one had ever identified, with the huge jewel set in it, that could turn into a weapon, a shield…
The Blade of Mershi. A relic-class artifact, and the last-known treasure of the fabled Walled City of Stars.
Before the Meeting of Tribes ended, Lehra wanted to talk to all the old [Shamans] and see if something could help her. Dragial could not get his claws on the Blade of Mershi or he’d use it against the Tribes to further his ends by finding the lost City of Stars and its treasury of artifacts. To make Fissival the most powerful Walled City. Maybe even to conquer all of Izril. Thus—she had to find it. The Ruinstrider Tribe would benefit. All Gnolls would.
That was Lehra’s great quest. She yawned, and picked at her teeth. Again, heroism took a backseat sometimes.
The thing was…she hadn’t told anyone but her team, but the thing was, the Blade of Mershi was more than just a powerful artifact that could transform, and gave her snazzy Drake-armor when she activated it. It had a secret only Dragial knew about; one of the reasons he was so obsessed. The artifact had chosen her.
It spoke to her. When Lehra Ruinstrider had first picked it up, after Dragial had betrayed her scavenging team who wanted a fair price for it—maybe even to auction it—it had activated. Choosing her over the Wall Lord because she was worthy.
Lehra didn’t know why. Nor could she always ‘talk’ to the Blade of Mershi, but it was a huge secret. Her quest to evade Dragial and find the lost city, her friends she’d made across Izril and her team…
“It’s so magic-girl. I’m telling you. Look at her!”
Inkar stared dubiously at Lehra. The Gnoll burped and glanced around to see if anyone was watching. She didn’t notice Rose and Inkar, which was sort of amazing on its own because Rose was practically dancing with delight.
“She’s a magical-girl! No, a [Magical Warrior]! She even has a transformation sequence? That’s so—so—corny! Hilarous! Amazing!”
Inkar looked at Rose. Her delight over meeting another Human from Earth had not diminished since she’d met Rose. However, she couldn’t track the young Californian woman’s train of thought. They had clearly not watched the same shows growing up.
“I am telling you, Inkar! It’s all stories. Ryoka told me that one; Erin too! Sometimes they’re just stories played straight. Like, I’m sure one of Ryoka’s friends is a V—well, no one else noticed. I do. I love stories like this! Can you introduce me? Are you close? Have you seen her transform?”
“I slept with her.”
Inkar blushed. Rose gave her a quizzical look and decided she’d misheard Inkar.
Rose just beamed. It was worth it. It was worth the entire trip here. She’d been feeling worried about Inkar, worried she’d be like Imani and Rose wouldn’t be able to help. Well, Rose had been feeling depressed ever since she realized what ‘Turnscale’ meant and the culture of Drakes in Izril—maybe people the world over.
She couldn’t be like Galina or Leon and just run off, and she didn’t have a place like Joseph, Imani or even Kevin yet. Rose ignored Troy in her envy of her fellow Earthers.
She couldn’t run around like Ryoka and Erin…well. Rose’s only fantasy up till they heard of Inkar had been taking Fierre aside and asking the exact benefits and disadvantages of Vampirism. Rose liked sunlight, but if you were going to be stuck in a fantasy world…she had still realized that crossbow bolts in the chest would probably kill her, Vampire or not.
This though, this was magic. A gentler story, at least in Rose’s mind. She beamed at Lehra. The Gnoll was just scratching her butt, having decided that some kind of bug was crawling around her fur when it happened.
Lehra sat up. Rose was following Inkar, trying to play it cool. Lehra looked around.
“What? Cinaelu? Who said that?”
Inkar and Rose stopped as she got to her feet. Inkar hesitated.
“I didn’t say that. Honored Lehra, this is my friend from Liscor. Rose—”
“It’s so nice to meet you, Honored—”
Rose didn’t get a chance to practice her Gnoll-greetings. Lehra looked around.
“Today is Cinaelu day.”
The voice sounded like it was right in her ears. Lehra rubbed at one.
“Cinaelu day? Hey…what’s Cinaelu day?”
She looked at Rose and Inkar. The two didn’t know, but Rose had made an ‘O’ expression with her mouth and was gesturing to Lehra. Inkar backed up. If Rose hadn’t explained that Lehra was probably wearing a magical artifact of destiny, she’d have thought Lehra was just slightly insane.
Well, she still thought that. Lehra frowned.
“Cinaelu. Isn’t that what Emper is celebrating? Something about String Folk winning their freedom? Who’s…?”
Then she realized it. She stared down at the Blade of Mershi. The gem was glowing slightly. Lehra’s eyes widened.
The spirit within the Blade of Mershi whispered. Lehra couldn’t make out a form, but she thought she had the first time. The last owner—Lehra thought she felt the voice grow clearer as she mentioned the holiday.
“Cinaelu. It’s Cinaelu day. It’s a holiday. It’s a holiday. I should…”
Rose and Inkar gasped as Lehra’s eyes rolled up in her head. She jerked as the Blade of Mershi glowed. Then—the Armor of Stars covered her body. Lehra lowered her head and looked around. Rose, Inkar, the Gnolls who stopped to turn saw the Star Gnoll begin to walk away.
But something was—off. Lehra was mumbling in a different voice, even walking different.
“Cinaelu. It’s Cinaelu day. I should…”
The last connection with the spirit faded. Lehra felt the wistfulness, the recollection of better times, the innocent holiday, fade. For a second, she felt the other owner’s presence. Lehra tried to call out.
“Who are you? Why did you choose me? Where is the City…?”
Then she opened her eyes and felt pain. Lehra groaned. She looked up.
“It hurts! It hurts! What happened?”
She was lying on her back. Her team was gathered around her. So were Inkar, that other Human, and a bunch of Gnolls. A lot of them looked aghast, or disgusted, or…amused?
Suxhel, the Gazer [Wizard] bent over Lehra with a vexed look on her face. Her eyes focused on Lehra, all of them, and her pointed hat nearly fell off her head. She replied, somewhat annoyed.
“What do you mean ‘what happened’? You walked into the festivities, and ate everything in three food stalls. I saw you stuff yourself at dinner too. What has gotten into you?”
It was only then that Lehra realized she was lying under a small coating of half-eaten pastries, pie tins, and other delectables. She groaned—then her cheeks bulged. Rose knew what was coming and ran with Inkar.
The television always cut before they actually threw up. That was gross.
“So, let me understand this fully.”
A little while later, Emper, the [Monk] Stitch-man, Suxhel the Gazer, and Elgrinna the Dwarf [Warrior] were processing what had happened. Elgrinna tossed more soap at Lehra, who was washing her fur.
“You realized it was Cinaelu, a Stitchfolk holiday, and then you blacked out, decided to eat fourteen panini-things, three pies, and—”
“Don’t say it. I’m going to throw up again!”
Lehra covered her mouth. Her team backed up. Possibly only Lehra’s level and the possession had stopped her stomach from exploding, and it had still all come out. The Gnoll had already apologized—and paid for her carnage, but now they had a mystery on their hands.
“Why would the spirit react to that?”
The [Monk] was crossing his legs, thinking deeply.
“It’s reacted to some things before. Usually in Drake cities, remember? That’s why we’ve been touring. But a Stitchfolk holiday? Lehra, you are certain that the ghost is a Drake, aren’t you?”
Lehra spat and tossed more water on herself. The little raincloud Suxhel was conjuring obligingly poured harder.
“Almost certain! I don’t get it.”
“Perhaps the association is the holiday. A Drake would celebrate String Folk holidays just as a time to eat and have fun.”
Suxhel reasoned with impeccable logic. Emper nodded.
“But Drakes do not normally celebrate other species’ holidays, do they? I think this is a bigger clue.”
“Whaddya mean, Emper?”
Lehra turned, happy to ask the [Monk] who’d taken up her cause after fate had thrown them together. Emper nodded to himself.
“It must mean that whomever owned the Blade of Mershi before you, Lehra, knew many String Folk. Or at least, one. Perhaps that is what we should look into.”
The rest of Stargazer’s Promise murmured. Lehra’s eyes lit up. A clue! She pumped her fist—then covered her mouth again.
“I just wish the spirit didn’t eat so much!”
“I imagine it was the only food she had in millennia. Lehra, maybe we should write to a Stitchfolk nation or…Lehra? Don’t throw up again. Lehra—”
“—And then they’ll find Mershi! I just know it! At the end of the season, they find Mershi, only, Dragial gets there first and maybe he gets access to a second Blade of Mershi. No, wait. That’s season one, probably. Or is this season three? Look, after that, there’ll be a point where Dragial seems to be winning, or they unearth something terrible in Mershi, and that’s when Lehra has to discover the true power of the artifact and connect with the spirit and—”
Krshia Silverfang stared at Rose, a bowl of Gnollish meatballs and dipping sauce forgotten in front of her. She had no idea what Rose was talking about.
“Wait. Hrr. I do not understand. This is…a story you know? But based on a childhood story you were told that isn’t this one, but is alike in every way?”
Chieftain Akrisa of the Silverfang Tribe was just as lost. So were all the Gnolls sitting in the tent. All those who knew the secret of Earth. They had expected much from Rose—but not this.
“No, not exactly. Okay, let me explain. In my world, there are television shows. Like the ones here—the ones Wistram News Network is based off of, but they tell fictional stories, right? Well, a lot of those stories are…real life over here! Because you have actual Dragons and whatnot. I’m not saying it’s one-for-one, but if I’m right, I can predict what Lehra’s going to do…”
It was times like this that Krshia missed Erin. Everything had been simpler when Erin was just a strange Human from another world on her own. Now, Earthers were as common as copper, and they were all as insane as Erin was. They didn’t look like it at first, but they all were.
Rose hadn’t been a known quantity to Krshia. She’d been…one of the Earthers. The most responsible of them, perhaps, but that was all. Interested in plays?
Rose loved stories. This was a fairytale to her, the story she had wanted to find when she had first met Magnolia Reinhart. Her eyes were shining, but the Gnolls were confused.
All but one. Honored Deskie began to laugh and the other three Chieftains and [Shamans] turned to her. The [Magical Weaver] laughed and the old Gnoll took another bite of her snack. Reminded, Krshia did likewise.
“Well, now. This is simple enough. Chieftain Eska, Akrisa, Orelighn. Let me make it simpler. This young woman says she knows the future! That this is a story like Gorah and the Ogre King. She says she can predict what Honored Lehra will go through because it is a story like that!”
The other Gnolls accepted the explanation at once. Rose nodded. But Honored Deskie fixed her with a kindly, if knowing eye.
“So, Rose. If you know what Honored Lehra will do, and the shape of events—what can she do, now, to activate the Blade of Mershi?”
Rose hesitated. Krshia chewed as the young woman thought.
“Well…she needs to find uh, the City of Stars’ ruins…or a sign of the wielder’s old life. Then she’d activate powers and find out more—”
“So search for clues. Which is what she is doing. Could you tell her anything specific?”
“Uh—uh—not anything I can think of. But the story—”
Was a story. And there were a lot of ways you could tell it. Rose’s face fell, but Deskie just smiled.
“Knowing the shape of the final product isn’t knowing how it was woven. Your knowledge is powerful, Rose. If you can help Honored Lehra, the debt of a Named Adventurer and her team would not be small. But I think, we should not focus overly on that.”
Shamefaced, Rose hung her head. Inkar came forwards then.
“Is Lehra in danger if this Lord Dragial will win?”
“It’s—maybe not now. He’s the big villain. I don’t know how you’d stop that.”
“By killing him?”
Akrisa frowned. Rose stared at her, and some of the excitement drained further away.
“What? N-no. And if you did, it would probably be him being replaced by someone else. His best henchmen or a betrayal from a friend…”
“Like our lives.”
Krshia couldn’t help but comment. Beilmark grinned ironically.
“Cut off the head and one grows back. Like a gang.”
Rose hung her head. Was it useless after all? Inkar patted her on the shoulder, and Krshia shook her head.
“Rose’s knowledge is just one thing that we have to bring before Chieftains and Tribes like ours, yes? Let us consider telling Lehra and her tribe—although Lehra is not the most discreet. For now, I think it is time. The Raskghar are here.”
The Gnolls sobered. The Raskghar were under heavy guard, but Pallass had escorted them here. Krshia sighed.
“The first debates will begin to take place. We have to make more allies. Thus, we must risk taking more tribes into confidence, before the final reveal. It is time to buy and sell, and we risk much, but we have much to offer.”
She nodded at Akrisa, hoping she wasn’t overstepping, but this all made sense to her. She was a [Shopkeeper], and this was a bidding war. Akrisa nodded, and so did the other two Chieftains. It was Orelighn who spoke for all three, which made Krshia relieved that it wasn’t Akrisa seeming to show favoritism.
“Honored Krshia. You have brought so much of worth, and we agree—tribes to force a resolution on Doombringers, to unite us with a goal for this other world that is for the best—we need them. Allies. But the right ones, yes?”
Krshia nodded. If they went to, say, Plain’s Eye, they might enter an ‘alliance’, but it would be the bigger tribe that did all the talking and deciding. And they had to be on Erin’s side. Ryoka’s side. They had to also agree on Mrsha. So—then—they had to choose carefully.
“There are a number of tribes we could court. Some will never work together. Steelfur and Woven Bladegrass. I have a list.”
“What shall we tempt them with, if not just knowledge of Earth, sharing of the spellbook? These things…these are our gifts.”
Eska wanted to know. Krshia grinned.
“Our tribes are not weak. To persuade others to follow us, we must make gifts, it is true. Rose and Inkar have knowledge! Liscor has bicycles, technology! And we have the materials of Earth. We still have an airplane.”
Orelighn shifted, but nodded quickly. He coughed into one paw.
“The only issue is, Honored Krshia, that the airplane is wrecked. Much of its true value is lost, if Honored Rose and Inkar are correct. What else have we besides knowledge, good as that is?”
Fair point. Once the bicycles were copied, it was like Erin’s recipes. Value, soon lost if disseminated far. Krshia had been waiting for this. The [Royal Shopkeeper] had made the stakes clear. Now for the pitch. She smiled wide as could be.
“There are some things, Chieftain Orelighn, that cannot be copied. And the value can be…enhanced. Beyond what even other Earthers could offer. Like this.”
Rose and Inkar’s heads snapped up. Krshia withdrew the object she’d been working on, since the moment she had spied out Inkar, before Rose had even arrived.
The young women gasped. Inkar’s eyes went round and Rose looked at her.
“Inkar. Is that…?”
Inkar’s smartphone lay on the cushion Krshia placed before the small circle of Gnolls. Repaired. The spell had worked with all the pieces pressed into place, and the cellphone was recharged, ready to go. Rose had one herself, an iPhone that she’d used to connect to the others with.
However. Something was different. Rose squinted at Inkar’s iPhone, and then hers. She pulled hers out as the Gnolls glanced at it, then hers.
“Wait a second. That’s…Inkar, when did you say you got here? 2017?”
“It was when I left. Why? Honored Krshia. Did you do something to my phone?”
Inkar looked worried. Krshia just smiled. She offered Rose the iPhone without a word as Rose approached. The young woman stared at it. Then turned it on. She investigated something, tapping, and then nearly dropped it.
“Wait a second! That’s impossible! This—this is the newest model! It’s not even out yet!”
The Gnolls stirred, uncomprehendingly. Krshia’s smile only grew wider. Rose whirled.
“What did you do?”
[Appreciate in Value]. The latest model of the iPhone glowed in Rose’s hand, at least a year after either girl had been taken from Earth. What had astonished Krshia, privately, was that while her Skill took a long time, a month to make wine or other objects better, it didn’t seem to gauge the worth of the iPhone the same. She’d been ‘testing’ it on some gold, and the gold had slowly, very slowly, become purer; the iPhone had upgraded itself twice in the same span of time. Perhaps because it was, in the end, made of cheaper things and not magic.
The Gnoll spread her paws.
“We may have to give away one or two objects. But if something is without price or equal…a tribe might move for that alone.”
She grinned widely. Krshia’s blood was humming. Her [Shopkeeper]’s nose was scenting a fortune. This wasn’t supposed to happen. It was like [Strategists] leveling from chess. She sensed…a loophole. An open contract.
Rose stared at Krshia in awe. Then—she looked down at the iPhone and a single problem occurred to her among the amazement. She frowned, inspected it, then showed it to Inkar.
“Wait a second. The headphone port is gone. What happened to that?”
Cinaelu. The holiday of String Folk. Celebrating victory over the Threadmakers and other species who wanted to keep them as slaves. The day named after the Rebel of String.
Yet if she could have spoken to them, what would she have said? She had never asked for a holiday bearing her name. Never wanted it.
Nor, perhaps, what her people had become. The imprisoned Golems had risen and overthrown their masters. They had won freedom, power, and with it, they had in their own turn bought [Slaves]. Silk stood over Hemp and Cotton and the very quality of their fabric dictated how high a Stitch-Person could rise.
The day of Cinaelu was a day of freedom. If it was anything, the [Rebel of String] might have told someone, a young woman, it should be that.
Freedom. Let all those who make chains, of spells, of metal or of the mind quake on this day. Perhaps it had once been that.
It had—but only he remembered it. He, and few others. Fewer. Dwindling.
Once, for a single day, a very few of the captors would have given them free rein. A limited, very narrow set of freedoms. Yet freedom nonetheless. A day to mix and mingle and…
Well. Sometimes, the enslaved would turn the generosity back and use the loopholes in an errant command or order to enact terrible vengeance. So no doubt most wouldn’t have dared, even then. Yet the day had changed. It was now about String Folk, not freedom.
“When they say, ‘Elucina’s weave be yours’, they mean freedom. The freedom to create yourself. Back then, even face and form were not for String Golems to decide. She decided how she would look. She decided who she was.”
The figure skimmed across the ground, flying with ease, though the joy was long since gone from him. There was no fun to be had with flying while chained. He spoke to nothing and no one; he could not linger long enough to let the words last and even if he could—he was forbidden from speaking.
One could play terrible tricks with their voice, simply by uttering truth. Or lies, it was true. ‘I saw your master in bed with that woman.’
That could bring down a household in suspicion and guilt. Thus—he was forbidden from speaking except when needed. Yet he also had to speak when not speaking would endanger his masters.
The Djinni skimmed across the ground, a scythe in his hands. He swept across the field of wheat, harvesting it faster than any [Farmer]. Air whipped the fallen stalks and seeds together in a furious ball of matter in the air. Dead stalks fell to earth, as the threshed and winnowed harvest flew after the Djinni, to be deposited in baskets filled just so with fat, huge grains.
Not a single bug allowed in each. The plants had been watered, the ground sewn, all by his hand. He harvested the field and was letting it lie fallow a while in a fraction of the time even a machine from another world might have done it. The wind bent for this menial task, and he levitated objects without even looking or pointing at them.
Only the highest-leveled [Farmers] could have matched him, and they had to rest. He was not but done with this field when he moved through the air to his next task, never stopping. A cloud like a low-flying thunderstorm streaking across the field.
Other, lesser species, [Slaves], workers, and their masters all stared up at him. Some warily. After all, he could take almost any form. He could do almost anything.
Yet the bindings on him were extensive. This mortal master had hired someone to speak for eighteen hours straight, using spells and potions to ensure they were awake and no word was misspoken. Even so, the requirements overlapped in their protections. So careful.
A Djinni in a bottle. That was what he was. If you found such an artifact, rejoice. Celebrate! But never unleash the Djinni before binding it carefully. After all—you didn’t get one wish. You got as many as you could dream of, as many as they could fulfill.
If you made sure there was no chance at all they would find a way to twist your words and hurt you. Because if they did…you died.
He had long since given up searching for ways out. He had managed to slay scores of masters. Nearly a hundred over his imprisonment, yet he had never managed to break the artifact that bound him. Each time, they worked a little harder, added another careful rule.
In the past, it was simple. ‘Obey my wishes’. ‘Do not harm me’. ‘Do not lie, or twist the truth.’
He’d played merry hell with them, back then. After all—if someone commanded him not to speak unless spoken to, he’d happily give the enemy [Soldiers] all the time to sneak up on them from behind.
‘Safeguard me from all harm’. A fine thought! Only, in what span of time was that harm to be safeguarded in? He had carefully rescued an [Assassin], nursed him back to health, and armed them with the greatest artifacts. Then, when the [Assassin] had raised their blade to his master at that time, the Djinni had done his best. A shame he’d been five miles away.
The good old days. No…the old days. He had still been enslaved. The Djinni thought of that, and the masters he had killed on Cinaelu. String Folk had owned him for almost all of his existence. Generations of them. Some saw the irony. Many did not, and forbade him pointing it out.
Well, these days he could speak if necessary, but only under a number of circumstances. So he talked to himself. Or remembered in silence.
Next came more actual craft. He enjoyed that, and prepared the mortar and brickwork. There was a delight in being good at what you did, and the bricks he made were perfectly symmetrical, hard. He only had to maintain the roads every few years, and only in places. They were one of the reasons trade was so good in this part of Nerrhavia; one did not have to fight through mud or sand.
He dug up damaged parts of the road, inserting the bricks, making sure the mortar was set and dried before he moved on with the right application of air and heat. Ah, but now he remembered once when they hadn’t been as careful in making sure he bore no ill-intent, even in bricks. He’d sown Creler eggs into each one.
Travellers might point up if they saw him, speeding with his tools from spot to spot. They might be nervous, but he offered them no danger. Indeed, if a [Bandit] or monster appeared, he would have slaughtered them.
A little family pointed up as he flew overhead, doing that very thing. He heard their voices.
“Look! There’s the Djinni of Aeresuth!”
Aeresuth, the city that flourished and was so fat with wealth, even among Nerrhavia’s Fallen. There were any number of reasons, of course; good planning in the wells that had enough water to grow and live with. A certain placement that intersected nicely with trade, geography, the local produce and so on.
But also him. Other cities did not have roads so perfectly kept. Other cities could not spare more hands for artisans, since they had guaranteed food, protection, and so forth.
Of course, that meant he took such menial jobs from other people, and his masters, the rulers of this city, did not offer his powers for nothing. Yet the result was that Aeresuth was rich. For some.
That was how it always was. Except…the Djinni wistfully abandoned his tools and flew higher. He changed, and felt his vast magic deplete slightly. His body…transformed.
High overhead, it began to rain. In dry Chandrar, it rained, a shower over the fields that needed it, over the gardens; a decadence in the city. Directed water, such that not a drop hit someone in the street who stared up and saw the curious, funneled showers.
Always the same, except when it wasn’t. The rich and powerful commanded those below. Except sometimes…
The call came for him as he was speeding down, carelessly fast like a bolt of lightning—although he seemed more like half-Roc, half man. To sweep dust and grit from the streets of the inner city.
The Djinni turned, flickered—and appeared in the spell-circle prepared for him. It was just a thought; he knew the spot intimately.
It still impressed the guests. They oohed, and the Djinni bowed.
“You called for me, Master?”
The scion of Aeresuth clapped her hands, smiling. Emira Sulaake turned to her guests.
“My Djinni, the powerful Drenir, has arrived. Shall we retire? Drenir—refreshments, and ward this place that none might listen in.”
He nodded, silently, and began to cast the necessary magics. So that was why she’d called him. Not just to impress.
Casting magic without Skills was harder for him than [Mages], but he could still spare attention enough to inspect her guests. What he found was…interesting. Drenir—an abbreviation of his true name—was neither blind nor stupid. Sometimes Sulaake or her family even consulted with him for his insights, although understandably warily.
What he saw were two groups of Stitchfolk guests—no, three parties. One was by himself, an [Emir] or other dignitary from clothing and bearing. The other two groups of guests were distinct. Both were clearly rich, but you could see that they were different. One seemed smaller, least-wealthy, and the other was represented by three, chief of whom was a rich man who wore the Merchant’s Guild’s emblem.
Emira Sulaake was most powerful of all here, clearly. Yet the Djinni didn’t bother with families or faces. All he cared about were his kin.
“Brother and sister.”
He recognized both. Two Djinni hovered in the air behind their respective owners; both parties. That three Djinni were in one place was astonishing anywhere but the Shield Kingdom of Merreid, or the richest of nations. Nerrhavia was rich enough to qualify, of course, but three masters of Djinni gathering was still…interesting.
“Your servant, Emira Sulaake, is—is beyond impressive. What order of spirit is he? What nature?”
The [Merchant] licked his lips, staring up at Drenir. He could tell that his own Djinni was lesser. Drenir had teleported into the Emira’s home in an instant when summoned; neither Djinni could do that.
One looked like a wisp of shadow at times; at others, a beautiful, if strangely tall and elongated String Folk woman herself. A mimicry of an assassin or bodyguard, from the poorest group, a family of lesser aristocracy. She stared at Drenir, and he nodded to her as he cast the spell. She was shadow, shade, cloud—they would have called her Nightair, as if that meant anything.
“Drenir is of Quiset-majesty. Although his strength waxes and wanes. Shockmist. Although you understand that a being of his nature can change to almost any nature he needs.”
“Oh. Oh, I see.”
The [Merchant] was very impressed. Drenir met the Djinni’s gaze behind the [Merchant]. He saw…a curiously innocent-looking cat, with a little square hat, ‘sitting’ with a floating abacus. It was flicking the beads at speed and noting down its calculations non-stop on a magical scroll.
Clearly, an affectation of the [Merchant]’s. Drenir was not fooled.
If he stood above his kin, the cat-Djinni was stronger than the Nightair Djinni; enough to change his form this markedly, not to mention casual levitation. The cat looked up and twitched an ear at Drenir.
Hello, brother Drenir. Can you believe this one? He is so nervous of me he can’t even stand to have me about unless I look like this.
Drenir heard the thought and grinned. Powerful indeed. Telepathy. He concentrated, and, though it was not his specialty, sent back.
Perhaps we shall talk longer, brother, if time allows. Drenirkesun. A fine Cinaelu to you.
The cat raised its brows, and the abacus’ clicking slowed for a moment.
Cinaelu? A fine one if you want that. Seemutor.
Interesting. Drenir frowned. The voice of the cat-Djinni was younger. In that he didn’t remember why Cinaelu mattered.
Younger. It was a relative term. However, if he didn’t remember the origins of Cinaelu…both were younger. Weaker. If they had time to mingle, Drenir might tell them about it. Or just talk. It was rare they got to do so, and sometimes he envied Merreid’s Djinni.
Sometimes not. They would never escape that city until it was destroyed.
Hope. There was still hope for Drenir, for all his imprisoned kind. Not that the Djinni might come back; their cousins, the Jinn, had died. They would never return, only fade, servant by servant.
However, he might one day be free again. Drenir dreamed of it. Hope existed. Not just that one master might be punished, but true freedom. Perhaps—perhaps hope had died a century ago, but perhaps hope lived. There was a rumor on the winds that hope might be coming back.
At any rate, he accompanied his mistress as she welcomed her guests, listening, performing menial tasks as she showed off. Bored, but interested by his kin’s presence. Drenir listened and realized—
Today would be an interesting Cinaelu day after all.
Emira Sulaake welcomed three guests into her room. First, the noble family of the Escrites—although they were fairly poor for all that. Their spirit was not of a high order, and was used for specific bodyguarding, careful combat, and menial chores. She had neither the talent nor magic to harvest a field in an instant, but she was still a Djinni.
Merchant Almon was different. Newly come to his Djinni, he was clearly leery of it, but its incredible mathematical skills managed his entire growing, network of businesses and deliveries. He was thus accorded less respect—not that he noticed—for all his Djinni was more powerful.
The most important guest was, of course, from far off. A foreign diplomat. From the Empire of Sands.
He smiled most eloquently after all the niceties were done and they were seated. The Stitch-Man of satin-weave and a luxuriant cloth that even Sulaake had never seen was so graceful he made the others speechless.
The other mortals, anyways. The Djinni never looked twice at him, being more concerned with each other or their tasks. The Nightair Djinni kept waggling her brows at Drenir, making faces which he was unable to return, but smiled at.
“Drenir, patrol for invisible spies.”
Sulaake said that after the antics got too annoying. She didn’t think for a second any were there, but he moved about rather than distracting her.
“You honor me with your hospitality, Emira. Merchant Almon, Emira Escrites—a good Cinaelu to you. Elucina’s weave be yours.”
All the other Stitchfolk copied the toast. They drank, and then, hospitalities exchanged, began to talk.
Of course, they’d already met. The [Ambassador] from the Empire of Sands had courted Sulaake for quite some time, forging bonds with Nerrhavia and the new, growing power to the far west. She wouldn’t have normally cared as many sought her favor, but he’d offered her a fine cloth. Enough to make a new arm out of, and the fabric had made her feel so strong that she was hooked.
String Folk made gifts of cloth to each other. Enough silk to create arms and legs out of was a handsome gift, but those rich enough to be in Sulaake’s circle went for even more exotic fabrics.
Cloth and thread that were so rare that even a single sheet could be worth a fortune of fortunes—especially since it became String Folk’s bodies. Unicorn hair, for instance, or a cloth made of Phoenix feathers rendered down—
Queen Yisame was said to have many limbs made of such cloth and she was always resplendent. This [Ambassador]? He wore the very same fabric he’d gifted to all the others to win their attention.
At any rate, talk between them was convivial and frank in this private place. It swung first from the news, the latest on Wistram television, to internal politics—the raised taxes on Djinni-owners, which was much resented yet Yisame had instituted due to politics in the capital—to the largest thing in the room. The elephant of destruction—Flos Reimarch.
“Yet another army was simply—beaten. Oh, the capital does rephrase it and I understand we are pushing Hellios, even the King of Destruction’s armies back, but my contacts abroad snigger at Nerrhavia’s glorious armies! Hordes of mice facing a lion, they say. If we win, it will only be because we buried them in corpses.”
Merchant Almon turned quite red as his newly-stitched silk face flushed. He might have been new to wealth, but he was of all things, patriotic.
So was Sulaake, at least in terms of Nerrhavia’s glory. Which was why the Ambassador Sheis had sought her out, of course. She sat, a displeased expression on her face.
“That we win is not enough. It must be with grace and conviction, or not at all. After the disaster that was taking Tiqr…”
The representatives of Escrites nodded sourly. Nerrhavia’s Fallen didn’t look good, for all they were winning. Rather—the fact that they hadn’t pushed Flos back enough to take Reim was a sore spot. That they couldn’t simply…overpower Flos by sheer volume of armies was annoying, but there was his Army of the King and vassals. If Nerrhavia lost, say, five-armies combined in a single battle…
Sound caution did not make the non-[Generals] happy, however, and the Ambassador played to that.
“Today is Cinaelu, friends. We should be merry—but alas, I hear the King of Destruction is celebrating our day. Thumbing his nose at what our peoples fought for.”
He injected careful emphasis on ‘our’, and the mood turned sour even as more wine flowed.
“It should not stand. Which is why we’re here, of course.”
The head of the Escrites shot a quick glance around, getting to the point in his impatience—or maybe it was the drink. Sulaake sighed.
These were not her chosen companions for socialization, and she was doing the Ambassador a favor by even having them here at all. However…they did all own Djinni.
Almon swallowed his wine, oblivious.
“Why, the King of Destruction has done well against even Nerrhavia’s chariots. Countless Silk [Charioteers] and warriors have fallen, even some of our lesser [Generals]. Of course, Nerrhavia’s full might is not yet upon Reim. Yisame holds back her champions, though they might well triumph over Mars and the other vassals of course.”
Even Nerrhavia’s own hesitated at the affirmation, but the Ambassador pressed on.
“Meanwhile, no [Assassin] has yet to trouble the King of Destruction, though a bevy were certainly sent. Gazi the Omniscient.”
Another pause. Each name was known across Nerrhavia. Famous names. The names of stories. Sulaake’s skin prickled, although not unpleasantly. Her heart was beating quicker, with excitement, as when Sheis had talked her into this.
“The King of Destruction is a legend.”
Merchant Almon offered cautiously, unsure if this was considered unpatriotic. Sheis nodded.
“And yet—he must fall. He sits in Reim now, feasting on Cinaelu. Perhaps, as they say, not even the best of mortal men can stand easily against him. The Minotaurs failed, though they did well. The King of Duels struck him twice through the chest, but a legend is hard to kill. So. Why not send enemies in kind against him?”
The group fell silent. The Escrites knew it was coming; Almon choked on his wine. Sulaake watched their faces, hiding her excitement by drumming her fingers unseen behind the shawl of her dress.
“Ambassador Sheis! You can’t be suggesting—is that why I’m here? Me and…?”
Almon looked around, putting it together at last. The Emir of the Escrites sat back, frowning.
“The palace did not ask, or you would not be approaching us, Ambassador. It will be the work of moments to piece together whom they belong to, even if disguised.”
Sheis countered. He glanced at Sulaake.
“If the King of Destruction were to fall—all the glory would fall to you three. Consider that. And consider, his Majesty, the Emperor of Sands himself desires this. So greatly that he would reward anyone who were to aid him.”
“Has he not Djinni of his own?”
The question bounced off with a smile.
“It would have to be quick, and Djinni are noticeable, especially if they must cross a continent. Fast as they are. Today is Cinaelu.”
“I heard peace was declared for a day. Djinni are not…we would be in the greatest of trouble! Emira Sulaake, are you considering this?”
Almon looked horrified at the prospect. Sulaake knew he was right, but she met his gaze.
“It would be great trouble, Almon. But if we succeed? What then?”
A tantalizing vision hovered in her gaze. Sulaake had been promised enough expensive cloth to change her entire body. Ceithsand, the Ambassador had called the new cloth. She’d be as strong as a Gold-rank adventurer and more beautiful still. And—with the glory, however won, of slaying the King of Destruction, perhaps Yisame’s inner circle would be open to her.
If they agreed. Three owners of Djinni sat, being lulled into it with wine and promises. Of course, Sulaake had already agreed. They were nervous. The King of Destruction was a legend! One of his vassals stood with him!
And yet—which mortal could easily stand against the spirits who had once battled Dragons? Drenir looked at Sulaake and she shivered, imagining it. She had never seen his full might; not in any of the displays he had done when she had first inherited him. That could only be seen in battle.
In the end, it was simple. Orders were given. The Djinni stirred, as amazed as they had been. Delighted, amused…Drenir’s expression looked just—resigned, to Sulaake’s disappointment. But it was done. The group hurried to celebrate prematurely. Their confidence was odd, given all they had seen, but they had some reason to be.
Not even the King of Destruction could stand against Djinni.
Not without his [Mage].
Plots and schemes and royalty. That was nothing new, but war? The war was pressing on and time was limited.
Yet this recent development might throw everything astray. It had to be considered. Thought on. The Thronebearers sat in a private room in their inn—the Tailless Thief, not The Wandering Inn.
They had to think. Gravely, all four, Ser Dalimont, Ser Sest, Ser Lormel, and Dame Ushar sat, drinking water, not anything stronger. Their heads had to be clear.
The room was silent; the Drake [Innkeeper] had peeked in once, caught the vibe, and backed out. Ser Sest had his head in his hands. Ser Lormel was steepling his fingers, the tips just touching his nose. Ushar was biting her lip.
At last, someone had to break the silence. Ser Dalimont exhaled, and gave voice to the issue. The 6th Princess of Calanfer called a child, a Gnoll child, her own. She had been at the inn. She was now in Oteslia. But the child? He wavered, uncertain, looked around, and then spoke.
“Lyonette the Kind.”
The heads of the other Thronebearers rose. Ser Sest sat up. He frowned.
“Absolutely not. Far too simple.”
Dame Ushar pounded a fist on the table.
“I kept thinking the same thing, but we must elevate, Ser Dalimont.”
He sat back, sighing. Dame Ushar drummed her fingers on the table, frowning mightily.
“Lyonette the Munificent? No—something that more eloquently flows from the tongue. A reversal of her character thus far. She was Lyonette the Fiery before—dead gods, was that really the best we could come up with?”
“One had to explain her address to the common folk somehow. Peons.”
Ser Lormel muttered. Dalimont winced. Thronebearers had to do their best with what they were given. Now, though…
A thoughtful silence descended on the table. After a moment, Lormel snapped his fingers.
“The Princess of the Hearth. Hearth and home. She would never let a child be alone.”
The others turned on him. Sir Sest’s jaw dropped and then he stood up to clasp the other Thronebearer on the shoulder.
“That’s fair brilliant, Ser Lormel! I knew we could do it! Princess of the Hearth! What do you think?”
He looked around. Ushar and Dalimont considered it, one with more fervor than the other.
It said something about the Thronebearers, that the first thing they did after discovering Mrsha was claimed by Lyonette was think on how they could spin this back home.
Dalimont thought they were missing the forest for the trees. No—the Treant for the twigs on the ground. He sighed and pushed his chair back.
“If we can finish how we’ll re-label Princess Lyonette later…? We still have to find her, and she’s in Oteslia of all places.”
The Gnoll [Server] had been quite helpful. The little girl, Mrsha, less so. Adopted by a [Princess]? Dalimont rubbed at his face. Their job just got harder and harder.
Seraphel had sent him to add some kind of competency into their mission. Dalimont knew each Thronebearer, one from his Majesty, Sir Lormel, Princess Shardele’s champion, Sir Sest, and Dame Ushar of the 5th Princess, Vernoue, were all good [Thronebearers]. Just…typical of their order.
The Thronebearers looked at Dalimont.
“You mean, what to do with the child? We must retrieve the [Princess], so Oteslia is our next call. We might as well sail from Zeres if we retrieve the [Princess]—although the north might be safer. Either way, we must hurry.”
Ser Lormel grimaced. Dalimont nodded.
“Do we bring the child?”
Another silence fell on the Thronebearers. Well now, that was the question, wasn’t it? This? This was a Tier 5 explosive spell in Calanfer’s courts waiting to go off.
Dame Ushar grimaced.
“The Princess of the Hearth brings a poor, abandoned child with her in Calanfer’s dark hour…it can work. The marriage however—”
That was a problem. Children were generally not as attractive in arranged marriages. The others nodded, frowning. Sir Sest was the next to speak up, a crease burrowing deeper on his forehead.
“Perhaps we assume too much, friends. Consider it another way.”
Everyone looked at him. Sir Sest leaned back, looking a bit wary, but none of them represented Lyonette herself; just other [Princesses] and the throne, and they knew all the politics of court.
“To my understanding, Princess Lyonette arrived in Liscor. She apparently stole for a living, but in the end ended up at said inn. At some point, she discovered a child whose tribe and family had been lost in a tragic accident, and with the aid of the sadly deceased [Innkeeper], raised her as a child as best she could while working to provide for them. That would be Miss Mrsha.”
The other Thronebearers nodded. Dalimont felt a prickle of…Sir Sest gave voice to it with a deeper frown.
“With all due respect, friends, the story is touching. It is a noble thing to care for a child. A generous, heartfelt act…does that sound like the 6th Princess to you?”
Dalimont inhaled with Ushar. Lormel just bit his lip. If anyone had heard that back home…but it was true.
“Perhaps her care for Miss Mrsha is…emblematic of the current situation? It might have been a passing fancy. Hence Miss Mrsha not being with the Princess?”
Ushar spoke tactfully. Dalimont felt his heart sink. If that were so…he shook his head.
“I want to believe it is not. Miss Mrsha wrote as if the [Princess] had taught her, personally. I peeked upstairs and they share a room. I saw the nameplate. I believe there was genuine care there, Dame Ushar. A [Princess] can change. Believe me.”
All three Thronebearers looked at Dalimont. They had all heard rumors of Noelictus. None said it, but he had changed too.
At last, Ser Sest sat back with a pained sigh.
“The fact remains you are right, Ser Dalimont. We can return the story, but the individual? The child cannot return to glorious Calanfer, surely. Even if she cannot speak, she can write. If the slightest hint were to emerge that Princess Lyonette had been anything but chaste…”
“She is far too old for that, Ser Lormel! To even be considered the fruits of a co-mingling—I would challenge you to a duel were I to hear that from your lips in Calanfer!”
Ushar half rose, a thunderous look on her face. Sest raised his hands.
“I would never impugn her Highness’ honor, Ushar! Yet tongues wag in defiance of fact. In another time, friends, perhaps we could take the child but—dare we risk Calanfer’s fate today?”
“She cannot be left alone.”
Ser Lormel put in, as concerned for Mrsha’s wellbeing as for what would happen next. He looked around. Ushar bit her lip.
“She has friends here. It may be cruel, but Calanfer could prepare an adequate sum to care for her all her days. The Princess could well visit—in time—after marriage. Reveal the story and reunite the two. If she were married ere our return, three years?”
Lormel was shaking his head already.
“That is cruel to do to a child, Dame Ushar. It clashes with every notion I have of wellbeing for children.”
He would know. He wasn’t assigned to any one [Princess], but Lormel was in service to the throne, and thus he had helped raise the 7th Princess. The other Thronebearers deferred to him and Dalimont sighed. What a mess.
He closed his eyes and thought. At last, when he opened them, he looked around directly.
“Let us find the Princess first and see just how much she cares for the girl. We need not separate the two, after all. A Gnoll may grow up in Calanfer…quietly. And visit the palace or be visited quite often.”
“Like the illegitimate…ahem. Yes, of course! Plenty of time to deliberate further on the journey back.”
Sir Sest’s eyes lit up, and even Lormel nodded after a moment. The Thronebearers relaxed. Then, they focused on the other task and Ushar groaned.
“Oteslia! We have ridden a continent across already!”
“At least we know the door will help. That’s an eight-hundred mile round trip saved.”
Glumly, Ushar nodded. Lormel frowned.
“But Miss Mrsha should be cared for, especially if Princess Lyonette has declared her a ward of any sort. That inn is not safe. I find those men in hats somewhat…disreputable to my senses. Were I in Calanfer, I would inquire after them. Nor does she have a proper caretaker.”
“We should ensure it ere we leave. Perhaps take it into our own hands.”
Sest nodded. Ushar blinked at him and snapped back.
“Take her with us? Are you mad, Ser Sest?”
He glowered at her. She’d misinterpreted his words.
“Not at all! I would hardly subject a child to riding through Drake lands, even if we can skip the Bloodfields. Perhaps, though, we should arrange something! One of us staying behind is…too perilous for our mission, yet surely there are ways to arrange actual guardianship! The Terandrian Embassy?”
There was a joint embassy which multiple nations could house representatives at—a kind of neutral ground. [Knights], [Diplomats]…there was surely a way, although keeping Mrsha’s status quiet would be the hard part. The Thronebearers looked at each other, thinking it over.
At this point, Mage Montressa du Valeross stopped listening in on their conversation. She sighed, rubbing her forehead.
Bezale, Palt, Kevin, and Joseph all hovered behind her. Imani was furiously cooking downstairs for the crowd who’d returned to find they had a [Knight]-problem. Montressa just shrugged and reached for a drink. She took a deep, fiery draft of the Drakes’ famed whiskey and coughed.
“They’re harmless. If they try to grab Mrsha, I’ll [Chain Lightning] them. Okay? Leave me alone.”
She was drunk. In fact, Montressa had been upstairs and had only learned about the Thronebearers when Bezale had come to get her.
Another time, she would have been considering the implications, trying to help or score some credit with a Terandrian nation—but that would have been Mage Montressa of Wistram.
She was just…Monstressa now. Montressa du Valeross. Montressa the outcast.
She pointed and the door shut on Palt’s hoof. He shouted obscenities, although he’d come to her. Palt couldn’t break through the Tailless Thief’s scrying defenses easily, although he might have been able to. The inn was warded—but happily, they’d paid a certain [Aegiscaster] to do it and you could always slip through your own work.
Montressa ignored the discussion outside. She didn’t care. She raised a finger to her forehead as Bezale looked at her, mildly concerned.
“Montressa, you should stop drinking. We can still build our business in Invrisil. I’ve been doing it myself, but you need t—”
Montressa ignored her friend. She’d been kicked out of Wistram! She had nothing left, besides scraps. The ‘business’ network. This inn. A few secrets.
It all felt so hollow. She had given her life to Wistram and she’d been kicked out in a second. It had been her everything. Now? All she had left was…
“Hello, this is Mage Montressa.”
She interrupted Bezale brightly, using a [Communication] spell and speaking to the air. Bezale gave up and stomped out. Montressa continued.
“I’m a—graduate of Wistram. I’m sorry for calling unannounced, but I’ve been doing inquiries into a Chandrarian settlement. A village? Nerhs. N-e-r-h-s. Yes, well, I don’t know where it is…and no map I can find has it listed. Would you happen to know if your regional map has all the current villages? And could you check for—yes of course, I can wait—”
She took another long drink. Ceria. Ceria had told her they were in Chandrar. She’d already found Ksmvr. Yvlon? She didn’t know. Pisces either. But Ceria—Montressa waited. She hadn’t gotten a [Message] spell back, but she was helping.
She began to cry as she waited—until the [Mage] came back. It was probably the drink.
Three days the half-Elf had slept. She’d woken to use the toilet, eat, drink, and ask a few vague questions before passing out.
Luaar, the [Village Head]’s son, had stayed by her, helping to feed the strange adventurer who’d come to them. She was…disappointing.
The first time she’d woken up, he’d been hauling a bucket of ice out. The villagers had put lots of water around her to chill. She’d been sitting up when he noticed the motion and pointed a wand at him.
“Where am I again?”
“Nerhs! I’m Luaar! You’ve asked three times!”
He froze. Ceria blinked at him.
“Right. Ceria to M—wait, I did that. Damn.”
She blinked at him. Then checked herself. She was still wearing her robe; albeit washed. The women had tended to her injuries, though most had been healed.
“Did you take off my clothes?”
“No! It was the women! We didn’t touch you!”
Ceria felt at her belt, blinking at the bag of holding, her wand…
“You’re not robbing me. Or keeping me under guard? Am I in trouble?”
She glanced at the door, as if Luaar’s father was about to come in and attack her. Luaar shook his head. Ceria’s eyes twitched. She nodded slowly.
“Okay. Good. I’m going to rest. I’m—tired—”
She fainted forwards, losing the tension in her body.
The next time she woke up, Ceria was more awake. She still ate everything he gave her. Luaar stared as Ceria tried to explain.
“Sorry. Mgghf. I’m—mana-burnt.”
She spoke and some food nearly came out her nose. Luaar had heard half-Elves were beautiful. She was certainly half-immortal, but the rest? Ceria swallowed hard.
“[Mage]-thing. I was controlling a powerful creation and fighting. I’m an adventurer. I pushed past my limits; I need to rest. One more day and I’ll be fine. I need…did you find anyone else?”
She had asked, and the people of Nerhs had checked, but they had found no one else nearby, and some had gone for miles out. Luaar said that and Ceria grimaced.
“I need to find Pisces. He’ll be in trouble.”
“Is he your friend? Another adventurer?”
“Yes. Gold-rank. Give me—give me that, please. What is it?”
A mustard seed, along with yellats, were among the few things Nerhs made. Ceria lathered a yellat with it and ate it. She chewed furiously.
“I need to contact my friend. She sent me a [Message]—where is Nerhs exactly?”
“It’s not part of any nation. We used to be, but we were abandoned.”
The half-Elf interrupted Luaar, not unkindly, but impatiently.
“Location. North Chandrar, south, east? Give me one and I’ll ask for details later.”
Luaar wanted to ask who Montressa was, how Ceria had gotten here, and more, but she was already flagging off. Exasperated, he rose to find his father.
“The adventurer is awake! Her name is Ceria Springwalker, father, and she wants to talk to you!”
Novethur, or Nove as he was known, turned. He had been sitting with the other oldest [Villagers] since Ceria had woken up on the third day. They had been in conference; someone had even ridden hard to a neighboring village to pick something up.
They were consulting it now. Nove nodded heavily.
“It is time, then.”
He closed the book and the other villagers murmured.
“Do you think it will all go well, Nove?”
“I think so. She seems reasonable. But remember: follow the guide. Here. If I don’t return—execute the following.”
Nove turned and handed the village’s [Healer], old Mereth, the book. Luaar stared at it, a bit incredulously.
When Nove and the others had realized an actual adventurer had appeared in their village, they had sent for the book. Apparently they hadn’t ever thought they’d have to use it, but it was actually a staple the world over in some settlements. Both as entertainment and…a guide.
Adventurers and You: what to do if you find an adventurer on your doorstep. By Krsysl Wordsmith.
“Father, is that book real?”
Nove looked at his son. He had consulted with the book long and hard. Of course, he’d laughed about it the first time the copy had been passed around. Now?
‘Section 8: Adventurers Appearing Out of Nowhere.
If you are subject to the ‘randomly appearing adventurer’ be it an emergency-teleport, a visitor falling from the sky, or, rarely, one tunneling up out of the ground or so on, remain calm.
Refer back to the ‘adventurer alignment test’ at the start of the book to ascertain how dangerous this adventurer is. Under no circumstances should you attempt to rob or deprive the adventurer of their possessions.
Many settlements and individuals have made this mistake. While it may be tempting to earn a fortune off their artifacts, theft is still theft and selling a Gold-ranked object is harder than you might think! Moreover, the adventurer’s enemies or allies often enact vengeance even if the individual is deceased. Kidnapping is also rarely profitable for that reason.
With the random-appearing adventurer, you have to first make a risk-reward assessment. Ask yourself the ‘adventurer’s question checklists’, entries #1-14.
Will this adventurer be dangerous when they wake up? Are they infected? More importantly, are they being followed? Are they putting you or your loved ones in danger?
If the answers are ‘no’, and they seem to be on the neutral to good scale of alignments, it is often profitable to help them. Adventurers can be generous for help rendered. Just remember: an adventurer makes life exciting. And exciting isn’t good for the health.
Section 9: Romancing an Adventurer.
Unwanted children from the roaming, licentious and lascivious adventurer are, sadly, a common occurrence that…’
Well, that last part didn’t seem applicable. However, this was one of Krsysl Wordsmith’s most popular works, along with the Antinium Wars, Guide to the Walled Cities, and so on.
So, it was with some actual foresight and apprehension that Nove entered his home where Ceria was resting. Luaar was, to his great disappointment, hurried away.
The village was prepared to run if the half-Elf turned out to be an ‘evil’ adventurer. ‘Neutral evil’, ‘lawfully evil’, and ‘chaotically evil’ were terms Krsysl had apparently come up with to describe the worst sorts, that were closer to [Bandit] than adventurer.
And there were bandits about. Nove was worried about rumors that Sandkempt, a village to the northeast, had…gone silent. No one wanted to check in case something had attacked, but another village had apparently been extorted by [Bandits].
They were coming again. Nove thought of all of this as he entered the hut.
Ceria Springwalker was staring at the frozen buckets of ice and other basins of water about her, slightly bemused. She glanced up as Nove froze.
“Are you Luaar’s father? The [Headman]?”
His heart began to beat uneasily as he saw the ice they’d put around her. Ceria pointed to a frozen bucket by her food; the air around her was cold.
“Did you use my aura as I slept to freeze all this ice?”
Nove ducked his head.
“We—we did, Miss Adventurer. I must tell you, we used it since ice is not something we can normally afford, not without paying for a temporary charm. We even sold it.”
The [Village Head] nodded. They’d bundled huge amounts of ice together so it stayed frozen, ran it to other villages nearby, and sold it. Ice was valuable! The village had been having headaches for the last three days; they’d been flavoring shaved ice with bits of sugar and such and eating it. Ceria looked at Nove and he held his breath.
The half-Elf’s lips twitched. She chuckled, and then laughed.
“That’s amazing! Fine by me. Thank you for rescuing me. And not robbing me in my sleep. I owe you something. I’m…”
She tried to struggle up and Nove exhaled the breath he’d been holding. ‘Neutral’. Or even good! Ceria fumbled for her belt pouch, but nearly fell over as she tried to get up.
Nove caught her, helping her sit. Ceria blinked.
“Wow. I’m still drained.”
“You may rest as long as you wish, Miss Springwalker. We already consider your ice to have given us more than caring for you. But I hope we may talk before you go?”
She was nodding. Perhaps she’d read the guidebook too.
“Of course. I owe your village so much, Novethur. I need to find my friends, though.”
“The ones separated? Miss Ceria, is anything following you? Am I putting my village in danger by hosting you? We can arrange a safe place, but I must know.”
For a moment her features froze, and Novethur worried, but Ceria just shook her head carefully.
“I don’t think so. We teleported a long ways away. Just…”
“I could have sworn someone called me ‘murderer’. But maybe it’s what I’m…well. No, I think not.”
That wasn’t what he wanted to hear, but at least she was being honest. Nove helped Ceria sit up and the half-Elf gestured.
“I need—to tell my friend where I am, but your son keeps telling me we’re not in a ‘nation’.”
“We pay no taxes and we were abandoned. However, I do know where we are. I can fetch a map.”
Ceria smiled, relieved to be speaking to an adult rather than a boy who kept asking inane questions like if she’d apprentice him. She knew they weren’t in Khelt. They’d hit something in the air, but she gasped when Nove showed her how far south they were.
“I nearly hit the sea! Damn it! Is that Nerrhavia?”
He nodded. Ceria groaned. They’d bounced—or she had—all the way south! She bit her lip, hard.
“I have to find Pisces. But he’s not responding and he’s out of range. I’ll have to scry…Montressa left a [Message] saying she can’t spot him, but she knows where Ksmvr is. Where’s…sorry, where’s ‘Illivere’? The Illivere Federation? Makes Golems?”
Nove pointed and Ceria brightened up. That was close! Well, not within walking distance, but give her a horse…she relaxed.
“Thank you so much. Here, Headman Nove. I want you to have…”
The [Village Head] had been expecting this. Or rather, hoping. Ceria counted out fat, gold coins into her lap, as many as she thought she could spare. And she had over two hundred in her bag of holding! The rest was at the Merchant’s Guild.
A small fortune glittered in her lap. She tried to push them into an empty bucket and offer it to him. Her arms shook with the effort.
“Please. I have to keep some, but—”
Novethur stared at more money than his village might earn in a year. He bit off the instinctual desire to protest and just nodded, taking the bucket with shaking hands. Gold was like water for adventurers. That was what the book said. Don’t argue, don’t bargain—take the money if it was good.
Oh, and don’t tell anyone you’d been paid. Ceria Springwalker smiled at Novethar, and the competent [Village Head] smiled at the decent adventurer.
She tried to remember what was next in Krsysl’s book. Not Adventurers and You, but his companion book.
Adventuring for Beginners: a thousand tricks and tips, including how to speak to quest-givers and royalty. By Krsysl Wordsmith.
That damned Drake might have had a lot of stupid ideas, but at least if both sides read the book, they were on the same page.
The Djinni would not reach Reim overnight. Nerrhavia was vast and fast as at least one of them could travel, timing also mattered.
Timing. Somewhere, her friends might be dying. Ceria slept, but she did not rest easy. Her exhaustion from keeping the Frostmarrow Behemoth intact after battling over twenty giants was one thing. Her desire to find her friends…of all of them, she might have taxed herself hardest. Muscle could knit in seconds with a healing potion, but the half-Elf had drawn deep.
She had to find them. Ceria tossed and turned and mustered her strength, for she knew, without a doubt in her heart that if they were able—
Her team was thinking the exact same thing.
By the end of the fourth day, Ceria was walking, albeit with Luaar there to help her. The mana-burnout was fading by the end of the fifth, which was just as well. The [Bandits] rode in around that time and she heard the voice again.
However, she had time to prepare for all this. Ceria Springwalker was stranded, but not helpless. She only had to ask herself one question as she assessed, learned where she was and what might be in front of her or finding and rescuing her friends. And that was—
“—how am I going to get out of this?”
Yvlon Byres sat, her one arm folded, staring at the wall. She hmmed to herself, biting her lip. She wore no manacles on her legs or arm anymore.
However, there was an unpleasant marking on her neck. A glowing rune that would blow her head off—and the rest of her body—if she left this place, or angered her captors.
She was in the colloseum, in one of the gladiator’s cells. It was and wasn’t like prison.
Yvlon was familiar with incarceration in the north. Not personally, but she knew what a [Lady] might—it could be municipal, or administered by the ruling lord. Swift—it often was—or longer-term prisoners did exist. More rarely though; Calruz was an exception.
It cost money to feed and house them, and that was a luxury most didn’t have. A [Bandit] normally got the noose. However, Chandrar put their prisoners to work. They made slaves out of them or—as Yvlon now knew intimately—made them [Gladiators].
She had not gained the class yet. She had not fought yet. But she would.
To Yvlon’s surprise, once she’d arrived in the cells, she and the other [Storm Bandits] had been divided up. Their shackles had been removed, and they had been fed, even given fresh clothing, albeit already used. The [Guards] watched them, but didn’t offer to beat them and gave them privacy, even small luxuries.
Even the [Storm Bandits] seemed to think they’d struck out. Because a prisoner or worse, [Slave], would be worked until they dropped. But a [Gladiator]?
“Let’s see. Either I break out—and I’m in a large city in…where in Nerrhavia? Point.”
Yvlon turned her head. A terrified woman pressed up against the edge of the cell shivered and pointed.
“T-there, Miss Byres.”
Yvlon raised her metal arm. She poked a finger straight through the old stone of her cell and carefully marked the crude map of Chandrar. The [Thief] that had been in her cart and two of the other prisoners who were now gladiators stared at Yvlon in horror. Every time she looked at them, they flinched. They were clearly worried she’d beat them or kill them—the story about her mad rampage had been all over the cells.
The other gladiators watched Yvlon from their cells. Not the barren, straw-and-lice cells with urine on the floor and an unsanitary odor she had expected at all. Rather, there were blankets, pillows, the [Guards] made sure there weren’t rats, and someone had even lit incense.
“No good. I’m way too far within the borders. Damn. You said I was about…here?”
Yvlon indicated the western edge of Nerrhavia. One of the prisoners nodded.
“If it was where they said—yes, Adventurer Byres!”
She gave the woman a look; the cells were obviously split between genders.
“You can call me Yvlon. I’m not going to hurt you.”
“Absolutely, Yvlon! Whatever you say!”
The Human woman sighed. She was alone among mostly String Folk, although the gladiator-prisoners hued to all sorts. She turned to face the three companions in her four-person cell.
“Okay. What’s my other option. Let’s assume I’m not freed after an investigation and I don’t break out of these cells.”
They nodded rapidly. Yvlon frowned.
“What did you say? When you said I could ‘earn my freedom’? As a [Gladiator]?”
The female [Thief] shivered. Her name was Rexes, and she was a Cotton-caste [Thief]. Her strings were frayed, but she had old, silk arms, which made them fast—too bad her legs hadn’t been as fast, or she wouldn’t have been caught.
“We’re [Gladiators], Miss Yvlon. We’ve been sentenced for our crimes—”
“I did nothing wrong! I was defending myself! I killed no one!”
Yvlon glowered. Rexes nodded rapidly.
“Of course not! B-but we are [Gladiators], which is for the best.”
All the String Folk looked astonished she didn’t know, but [Gladiators] were a story of a different continent. As much a fairy tale, as well, jungles in Baleros. Yvlon had dreamed of going to such places, but she hadn’t studied.
“Well…a good [Gladiator] that wins—or puts on a good show—can earn a patron. They can get better cells. If they do well enough for long enough, you can win your freedom! Freedom as someone’s [Bodyguard], or the champion of a city! There’s more than one criminal who ended up living fat for the rest of their days after winning an arena, or the championship.”
Yvlon growled. However, it was a thought. She eyed her jagged stump of a right arm and grimaced.
“From what I recall from the stories—gladiators don’t fight just each other, do they?”
The prisoner’s enthusiasm faded markedly. One of the [Prisoners]—a [Gambler] with too many debts—pursed her lips. She didn’t have the confidence of the [Thief], or for that matter, Yvlon.
“The expendable ones fight beasts, monsters, and sometimes even damned Golems or other things for sport. If you’re worth more, you’re safer. Us? We’ll get rusted weapons and fight the real gladiators. Some might take it easy on us. That’s why we should make friends.”
Yvlon frowned, looking across the other cells; all the ones around her were the [Prisoners]. The nicer, private rooms were elsewhere.
Rexel gave Yvlon a blank look.
“Why, when we eat or are trained, of course. The veteran [Gladiators] sometimes check the newcomers. To recruit to their team or size up. I’m sure they’ll come to see you.”
Yvlon looked at Rexel. Then the [Armsmistress] made a disgusted noise in her throat.
Size up? Win your freedom by killing others? New gladiators fighting monsters for fun? It was all…
“Blood sports. I heard Chandrar had some barbarities, but this is insane.”
The String Folk looked at Yvlon. She was surprised that rather than agreeing, as they were all in this predicament, they glowered at her.
“Nerrhavia’s arenas are not barbaric, Human. We can show our battle prowess and courage, win freedom! Where else could you do that? In Izril? Don’t they have [Executioners] and [Headsmen] in Izril?”
“Yes. So what?”
The other three shook their heads.
“That’s the real barbarity.”
Yvlon glowered. She was willing to debate the point, but she shifted one arm, and Rexel took a look at the shining metal—and the drawing Yvlon had made out of solid stone—and shushed her companions.
Nevertheless, Yvlon Byres was stuck here. The Magistrate who’d lied about her had covered his tracks well. Yvlon had lodged a complaint, but how long would it stay in the system? He had all the time in the world to make up cover stories, find actual dead people she’d ‘killed’.
Worse, Desais, the [Chancellor], had done a quick check and no relic-class artifacts had been found in Magistrate Ducaz’s possession. Nor had Yvlon expected them to find anything; he had been holding onto two of her pieces of gear, but now all of it was confiscated, far from her.
She was stuck, in more ways than one. Yvlon thought in the privacy of her mind as they were herded into the latrines; she declined to use the stinking privies, except to pass water, out, and then to the gladiator’s life. If Magistrate Ducaz had been an honorable man and read the book on adventuring…well, some people thought they were the exception.
It would have made everything so much easier that way. Yvlon Byres was miserable on her first day in her new life. She was sunburnt from Nerrhavia’s sun on her fair skin, weak from her battling in the Village of the Dead, and…
Distinctly unwell. Some of the other new [Gladiators] eyed her as she sat, fidgeting, awkwardly eating with her left hand since her right was gone. She was a Gold-rank adventurer—but she’d been through hell and back and it showed.
“So this is the beast who killed over a hundred [Guards]? Looks like someone poisoned her and took off an arm.”
One of the [Gladiators] in the Arena of Rust grinned as some of the veterans eyed the newcomers. They got to eat private meals, alone or in groups; they had value. Some had even joined of their own volition. One of the others, mingling with the new prisoners, shrugged.
“Apparently she chopped them all up one-armed. Gold-rank. There’s one to watch.”
“Any other newcomers?”
The [Gladiators] were an interesting bunch. Mostly String Folk; other species did feature, but more rarely, they were in a decent arena. Far from the largest or most hotly-contended, but tens of thousands would watch a match.
And there was a match on any given day. Now, the [Prisoners] might have to fight giant crocodiles with spears, or fight unbalanced matches against each other, because that was sport.
[Gladiators], though, got more leeway. They might get to attack a group of weaker [Prisoners] in a ‘blood match’, or they’d fight each other in battles where you could lose a limb at worse—but it wasn’t to the death and there was an unspoken rule not to do too much damage to each other.
Of course, if it was a blood match, all bets were off, and the presiding dignitary would decide life or death for the losers—if the battle didn’t finish them off. Otherwise, a [Gladiator] could ‘yield’. His opponents could refuse, of course, but in the better arenas, there were even [Lesser Teleport] scrolls that could be triggered so a [Gladiator] could fight another day.
Not so in the Arena of Rust. The arena got its name because blood was spilled every day, unlike some arenas where displays of pure skill were enough.
Nor was it entirely fair. The [Gladiators] watching the prisoners warily were mid-to-low rankers. More valuable than expendables, but not like the reigning champion—or the crowd-favorites. They had no Patrons or poor ones.
Even so, if they wanted, they could ‘nudge’ the [Arena Master] or [Guards] into helping them out. Gold, favors, anything went. So a [Gladiator] might be paired against some Firebreathing Lions, but just maaaaybe they weren’t fed for a few days by accident. Or—if they had to go up against a [Prisoner] they didn’t like, maybe the prisoner didn’t get a good weapon.
Or the reverse. Yvlon narrowed her eyes as Rexes delivered this all in a whisper. She had been alone at first, picking at her meal and not very hungry but knowing she had to eat, but then Leprel, the [Storm Bandit] who’d first met her, had come over.
The [Gladiators] were eying her and Yvlon eyed them right back. She turned to face the two who’d given her the low-down.
“Why are you telling me all this? Aren’t you worried we’ll be enemies?”
Rexel licked her lips. It was Leprel who grinned lopsidedly.
“Think on it, Silver-arm. If that’s the score, all us prisoners are in trouble until we survive for a bit and stop being the fresh meat afore the hyenas. If she were here, we’d all be behind Merr. But since she got taken to be a [Slave]—if I get with you, you might watch my back in a fight. Not like there’re better options, eh?”
Silver-arm? Yvlon’s face was blank, but she bit into the yellat at last and swallowed some water grimly.
“Maybe. No promises. What’s next?”
Leprel laughed at Yvlon’s incredulous expression.
“What, you thought they’d just toss us to death? We’ll get at least a day or two of lessons. They also see how good we are with the blade to make the most interesting matches.”
“Aren’t they worried we’ll use the weapons on them? Even a practice sword can kill.”
Yvlon looked at the casual guards, but Rexel reminded her by tapping the rune they’d drawn in magic on her neck.
“No need. You kill one of them, your head blows off. So—just keep calm, eh, Silver-killer?”
The [Silversteel Armsmistress] glowered at her two companions.
“What is with these nicknames?”
The two, [Bandit] and [Thief], exchanged silent looks. Neither one said it, but Leprel quietly traded places with one of the other prisoners to the relief of Yvlon’s cellmate. It was a risk with a wild, raging monster like her, but—she had a sense about Yvlon.
If you wanted to be a legend in the Arena of Rust, you needed a nickname and the Skills to back it up. She and Rexel were putting their hopes on the beast from Izril, one-armed or not.
Yvlon Byres grumbled as she stomped off after breakfast, following the others to sword practice. She still felt unwell and occasionally felt at her stomach. But she was acclimating, understanding she might have to fight. She was just glad…no one had noticed the most important things.
Two things. One, they’d tested everyone for magic when putting them in jail and noticed Yvlon’s arms obviously. They couldn’t remove them, so all was well. Well, that was one thing.
The second was that they had no idea what her Skills could do. Yvlon hadn’t used her new Skills yet since she was always with her cellmates, but even without…she glanced casually at the jagged metal on her right arm. She couldn’t tell, but it looked—
A bit longer. Was her arm growing back?
He did not know where Yvlon was. Or Ceria. Or Pisces. Ksmvr did understand a few things, and compartmentalized the facts in his neat mind like a good Prognugator would. Or adventurer.
-He was in the Illivere Federation, a group of states all specializing in Golem-manufacture in the south of Chandrar.
-They had not arrived in Khelt and been separated mid-trip, possibly by magical disturbance or the haste of the spellcasting. Possibly Pisces had simply miscast the [Greater Teleport] spell.
-Whereabouts of all the other Horns were unknown, even to the Magus-Crafter of Illivere.
-Ksmvr was a pseudo-prisoner, exact status unconfirmed, but his ‘murder’ of Domehead and Hammera and the other Golems had engendered Illivere’s wrath.
-He was in the Magus-Crafter’s personal abode under watch, sharing the space with the Empress of Beasts, Nsiia of Tiqr, who had saved him for reasons unknown.
-All his items had been confiscated. That they knew about.
These were the facts. Ksmvr nodded to himself as he tried to figure out the best plan of action.
Of all the Horns of Hammerad…Ksmvr had not read the book about adventuring by Krsysl Wordsmith. Ceria had kept insisting, but Ksmvr had been told by the Free Queen that ‘that Drake [Writer] was a fool’, and thus, questioned the validity of the writing. One of the few times he had ever actually disobeyed his Captain in any way.
Besides, he was no ordinary adventurer. For better or worse, and it seemed all worse as of this point, Ksmvr was Antinium, and his reputation on Chandrar and everywhere was being one of the bloodthirsty monsters of Rhir, herald of the swarm that would overrun all if given the chance.
Rather than lean out of that as they’d tried to do so many times in the north of Izril, defusing tense situations, Ksmvr leaned into it. The first time Femithain and Armsmaster Dellic and two bodyguard-Golems—and a few [Golem Artificers]—all came to talk with the Antinium adventurer, they found Ksmvr standing at the enchanted window.
“Adventurer Ksmvr of the Horns of Hammerad?”
Femithain was still troubled by Domehead’s loss. By the events that had occurred—he could see and even heard the angry shouting from outside. Days still and they wanted Nsiia punished. Well—that was for later. He waited, but the Antinium did not turn around.
Ksmvr did speak.
“I am Ksmvr. Of the Free Antinium. How may I help you, Magus-Crafter? Or should I say: is it war?”
His head rotated slowly on his shoulders. The Humans flinched as the mandibles opened wide, and the two broken antennae stumps wiggled independent of one another.
Femithain halted, suppressing a moment’s unease at Ksmvr’s foreign appearance. Of all the species in the world—the insect-based Antinium were the most unnatural, even over Lizardfolk, or Drowned Folk.
“I would hope not, Adventurer Ksmvr. I—have come to you to express my deepest apologies for the events at the Testing Grounds.”
“Indeed. I regret slaying so many Golems. In self-defense, you understand. But then, I am a Prognugator. We are trained to defeat any foe. You do realize that keeping a Prognugator of the Antinium prisoner is an unacceptable act to the Hives?”
The escort murmured and Armsmaster Dellic’s hand on his sword tightened. Femithain hesitated. Ksmvr met his gaze, not blinking—although he didn’t blink.
He was bluffing with exactly zero cards in his hand. His Hive didn’t care for him. Nor would anyone go to war for him. However, the other Humans looked worried.
Femithain though…regarded Ksmvr and nodded slowly.
“We are not keeping you prisoner, Adventurer Ksmvr.”
“Then, I am free to go? Please, stand aside. I will collect my belongings and depart Illivere at once, then. Perhaps with a single stop to the Mage’s Guild.”
Ksmvr made as if to move and saw the man with the sword half-draw it. Femithain held a hand out.
“Armsmaster Dellic, please step back. Your conduct is unbecoming towards a guest. I would ask Adventurer Ksmvr to stay as a guest—given the circumstances. For a few days.”
He met Ksmvr’s gaze. The Antinium hesitated. Femithain wasn’t impressed by the threats? Had dominance failed to assert itself?
Then again, he had already asserted it far too much in the Testing Grounds. Ksmvr nodded slowly.
“Then I take it you do not wish me explicit harm? Why am I to be a prisoner, Magus-Crafter Femithain?”
The man hesitated before replying.
“Circumstances of national outrage, Adventurer Ksmvr. You did act in self-defense, but I cannot guarantee your safety given the ‘death’ of Hammera and Domehead among other Golems. It is also imperative that Illivere does not seem to aid a communal enemy of Chandrar.”
“As in, the Antinium threat which I represent?”
“Correct. There are rumors you are but a harbinger of many. Groundless, I take it?”
The others’ heads swung back and forth between Femithain and Ksmvr. The two never looked away, and their replies only became quicker. Ksmvr barely paused before nodding.
“I understand the circumstances. However, I must warn you that I am a Gold-rank adventure and my rights are guaranteed by the Adventurer’s Guild. Moreover, as a Free Antinium of Liscor…”
He reached down. He’d been saving one of the foodstuffs on his plate. They’d given him all meat; perhaps thinking an insect as a carnivore from his mandibles.
A dried bone hovered in his hand and Ksmvr crunched it. The other Humans flinched. Femithain blinked as Ksmvr chewed it down, giving them all a good look at his incisors.
“…My patience is not unlimited. My Hive’s? Even less so. The Free Queen and her Revalantor, Klbkch the Slayer, can be—unpredictable.”
The Magus-Crafter nodded slowly.
“Understood, Adventurer Ksmvr. For now, we simply ask that you stay in this suite. Golems will not allow you to escape, but any amenity will be provided. Have you need of anything?”
“Hm. Maps would be acceptable. And a [Message] scroll? I would like to communicate my wellbeing to the Adventurer’s Guild and my fellow adventurers. And perhaps locate my friends?”
Femithain adjusted his glasses.
“All these things are underway. I shall have maps prepared and a [Message] scroll sent directly.”
“I see. Thank you.”
That was the first encounter. Ksmvr thought he hadn’t established sufficient intimidation. Femithain had been helpfully precise, however.
To up the intimidation-factor, when the [Servant] came to deliver the scroll, they found Ksmvr, standing an inch in front of the door as it swung open.
They screamed. Ksmvr collected the scroll and maps after they’d run away shrieking. He spoke to himself as he unrolled them, corroborating his location with his internal knowledge and scribing a [Message] to Halrac, then Lyonette.
“Hm. Intimidation. How would Comrade Pisces or Captain Ceria do it?”
Pisces would no doubt cast a handy illusion, but lacking that, Ksmvr had to improvise. Maybe he should hit himself on the head until he bled green. Provoke suspicions of insanity—or was that too much? He wanted Femithain to take him seriously, after all.
Ksmvr paced around the rooms. They were quite nice; a guest room for Femithain’s guests, not actually a cell. He had to convince the Magus-Crafter that keeping Ksmvr prisoner—or attempting to punish or hold him—was deadly. He tried to come up with Ceria-isms, or Erin-isms. Erin had a way of getting what she wanted. What would either say?
“Don’t mess with me. I’m crazy. I’ve eaten more [Bandits] than peas on this plate. I could kill you all with a fork. You shouldn’t have given it to me. Now I’m armed. Ice magic. I eat bugs.”
Ksmvr paused, staring at his lamentably-whole hand. Not the bone one Ceria scared kids with. She had demonstrated intimidation one time very well on children by concealing it. Perhaps his missing stump? Ksmvr waggled it and sighed.
He had no talent for this. What would Yvlon do? She was so sensible. If she had to intimidate someone, she’d use her rank, in a very acceptably diplomatic way. And then if there were no recourse, grab them and put their head through a wall.
“Hm. What if I ate this plate? Or—demonstrated the might of the Antinium by…”
Ksmvr was so busy thinking up ways to increase his dominance-factor that he didn’t realize the room had been infiltrated until his assailant leapt on him. He whirled, fists raised. His new Skill was ready to pulverize—
Yinah the half-Golem cat landed on Ksmvr’s shoulder. She stared at him. He stared back.
“You are the cat.”
The cat licked her paw and stared at him curiously. Ksmvr remembered her! From the arena! Then she’d been on his chest…
The [Skirmisher] hesitated. Then he glanced around. No one was bothering him, so Ksmvr lifted Yinah up.
“Are you a prisoner of the Magus-Crafter too? Wait, that would make you a ‘pet’. You are half-Golem. I commend your upgrade.”
Yinah gave him a narrow-eyed look. But then Ksmvr began to pat her on the head.
“Pat, pat. You are a cat. Also known as a kitty, or kitten, or feline. I am Ksmvr. Pat, pat.”
All three hands came down and patted Yinah very gently. Ksmvr wasn’t sure if he was doing it right, but he had once been told animals liked such things. She was softer than the horses he had ridden, but she seemed to enjoy the patting just as much.
Travails forgotten, Ksmvr began to pat the cat. He was still a prisoner, even if not a dire one, and his team was lost. But here was a cat.
He liked cats, and didn’t realize he liked them until now. They made a strange, purring sound.
Femithain’s problem was that Ksmvr was Antinium—the issue with the public demanding he be damaged in kind for the Testing was not the issue.
The issue was Antinium in Chandrar, a fact that had caused no less than Yisame to write to him expressing concern. Femithain didn’t…know what to say.
He was still trying to fix Domehead, reprimand all those at the Testings, address Nsiia, and locate other Horns of Hammerad—all while reassuring worried nations from the Shield Kingdoms to the largest nations that Antinium were not going to appear out of the sky.
Or from the ground. It was a ludicrous thought. Ksmvr was an adventurer, but panic…the Magus-Crafter sighed as he hurried back towards the guest suite.
Less than an hour since his first talk, and he had an idea. He held an affidavit for Ksmvr to sign, a magical seal confirmed by truth spell that Ksmvr was not part of an invasion force. Femithain had no idea how else to reassure the many concerned people; it was a ludicrous thing to need to prove, but maybe this would work.
“Magus-Crafter, will this really work? And that you should deliver it?”
“It may at least reassure most. What is the issue with my presence?”
Femithain turned to one of the [Golem Artificers]. The man was pale. He lowered his voice as Armsmaster Dellic warily eyed the door.
“You saw that—that thing. Magus-Crafter! Perhaps we should take more precautions! That thing—”
“—it threatened war! Implicitly!”
“Mm. Yes. Although given what he has been through, that is an understandable precaution.”
The other man spluttered, but the Magus-Crafter looked unnaturally calm. He glanced at Dellic.
“Your impressions, Armsmaster?”
Dellic licked his lips.
“I don’t know how you’re so calm, Magus-Crafter. The Antinium didn’t sound understandable to me. That trick with the bone—it wants to fight.”
Femithain tilted his head. he realized that everyone else was of the same mind. Curious, the Magus-Crafter tapped at his lips.
When he knocked, there was a muffled sound. Femithain frowned—pushed open the door. He stopped with the others as Ksmvr stood in the room.
“Ah, Magus-Crafter. I assumed this was your pet?”
Yinah was held up in one of Ksmvr’s arms, and his mandibles snapped below her. The Humans froze. Femithain just blinked.
“A pet. Then I will not consume her. We Antinium eat…everything.”
Ksmvr met the Magus-Crafter’s gaze. Femithain blinked at him. His lips quirked. He chuckled as everyone else stared at him, horrified.
Dominance had failed once more! Ksmvr sat, horrified, after he’d signed the affidavit guaranteeing a lack of an Antinium invasion to his knowledge. He’d threatened to eat the cute cat and the Magus-Crafter had laughed!
He was clearly deranged. Ksmvr was up against a madman, and he could not employ the same aggression-tactics. He sat on the ground.
“Pat, pat. Little cat, you are not a good enough victim. Yinah? Can you look more scared? What is wrong?”
The cat squirmed in his lap as he gently patted it. Ksmvr saw her meow, then struggle with her golem-legs, which were a bit slow to react, to escape his lap.
“Are these pats not enough? I shall intensify. Pat, pat.”
Ksmvr was perplexed. He could give 50% more pats than any other non-Antinium in the world, but somehow it wasn’t enough! To his dismay, Yinah began to squirm out of his lap.
“No, do not do that. Here. I shall offer you—multi-sided pats. Like so. Pat, pat—”
Ksmvr began to pat her from the left and right sides, kneeling on the floor, as Yinah flounced away, tail raised dismissively. He followed her, attempting to regain her affection until he realized something.
The door was slightly ajar. Ksmvr froze, looked up—and saw Femithain, Armsmaster Dellic, the [Golem Artificers], and two incurious Golems all standing there. Peeking in on him.
The [Skirmisher] froze. Then slowly sat back.
“…It appears my attempt to…lull the cat into a sense of security for more ease of edibility has failed.”
That was the best he could do. But it was pointless. No amount of dominance would save him from the sight of him patting the cat. Armsmaster Dellic was staring, but the other Humans looked amused or even seemed to regard him as…adorable.
Ksmvr met Femithain’s gaze. The Magus-Crafter just smiled and adjusted his glasses.
“Adventurer Ksmvr, I am sure we all take your status with all seriousness. However, I would like to reiterate: Illivere has no designs on hostility with you, your team, or the Hives of the Antinium at all. This has all been an unfortunate misunderstanding.”
Ksmvr regarded him. The Magus-Crafter was smiling as Yinah huffed between his legs, bored of Ksmvr. He was—a refreshingly logical and direct Human, Ksmvr had to give him that. Practically Antinium in his mode of communication. But it seemed Ksmvr had been defeated from the start.
“You did not appear to take my intimidation seriously, Magus-Crafter. May I ask why?”
The [Brave Skirmisher] got to his feet. Magus-Crafter Femithain blinked. Then chuckled and covered his mouth politely.
“Ah, so that was the miscommunication Armsmaster Dellic and the others suffered. I regret to inform you, Adventurer Ksmvr, that I am a [Diplomat]. [Sense Intentions] is considered a basic Skill.”
Ksmvr’s mandibles opened and closed.
“Fortunate, in this case. Otherwise, misunderstandings might arise. I find harmony to be more acceptable than acrimony. I apologize, but would you sign this addendum claiming no knowledge of other Antinium on or about Chandrar?”
The Antinium gazed at the Magus-Crafter. He hesitated. Scribbled on the contract as the magic bound him, and looked at the Magus-Crafter. Quite impressed, Ksmvr nodded.
“I tend to agree with your statements, Magus-Crafter. I merely wish you had been there at the Testing Grounds earlier.”
Femithain nodded gravely.
“As do I. I hope we will not keep you long.”
The door closed. Ksmvr stared at it for a few minutes and then sat down. He thought about the Humans staring at him as his dominance-assertion failed. Slowly, without really understanding why, Ksmvr went over to the bed, sat on it, and then put a blanket over his head so as not to be observed by anyone else.
“I am very much embarrassed.”
Yvlon Byres flushed for three reasons. The first was she was distinctly not feeling well, despite food and comparative rest.
The second was how she was handling the weapon she was holding. They’d given her a longsword when she asked for one; a practice weapon in the ‘training’ the [Gladiators] were given.
It wasn’t…bad. In fact, it was actually a cut above what a [Militia] or [Guardsman] might get. They had actual instructors who taught the new prisoners and gladiators how to fight. Showily, some of them, but most had simple advice they delivered in bored monotones.
“Don’t go for flashy kills unless you’ve won and no one’s around. No big cuts. You want to make a name and get a style? Figure it out after your fourth match.”
“You don’t have to win; just bleed and stay alive. Mind you, if you just run, the audience’ll throw things or you get hunted down. So. Pick. Your. Fights.”
They had the kind of…off-handed care that Yvlon hated. Like veteran adventurers talking to newbies who might survive, so they were investing just enough effort for a favor later on.
They didn’t beat the prisoners; nor were they gentle in sparring. Most of the non-combat classes like the [Gambler] got knocked about, but even after an hour, they probably knew enough to stab someone in a melee.
That was them. The [Storm Bandits] and Yvlon were a cut above the rest. The other gladiators training or observing could tell the new crop of gladiators had some actual fighters.
Yvlon though…she dodged sideways, swung her sword, and knocked Leprel’s blade down. She tried a riposte, but it was awkward.
Left hand. Yvlon hadn’t realized how much she relied on her dominant arm. She’d trained enough to use her sword left-handed, but the difference in finesse was night and day.
Even so, Leprel swore and jumped back. Left-handed or not, Yvlon was stronger, faster, and more experienced.
“It’s like trying to parry an axe! Take it easy, Silver-Killer, please?”
“Stop calling me that!”
Yvlon growled. She hated the easy ‘friendship’ of Rexel and Leprel. How quickly everyone seemed willing to die for sport. She certainly resented the corruption of government that had landed her here—or the idle self-preservation of the other officials.
She was angry, blushing—for the third reason, which was that the ‘armor’ they’d given her showed off more skin than regular clothing.
“This isn’t armor! This is metal underwear!”
One of the prisoners complained. The [Guards] and veteran gladiators chortled.
“You want armor? Win!”
That was how it went. An uphill battle until you won. Yvlon glowered about. She saw the [Gladiators] grin at her—then someone detached themselves from the mob. The others drew back and she saw a huge, gleaming figure.
When the writers or ill-informed poets wrote about ‘glistening muscle’ and ‘paragonic bodies’, they were generally exaggerating. Most people who glistened were sweaty, and some notions of the ideal physical form looked like exaggerated blocks of muscle to Yvlon—well, Grimalkin was an example of that.
Nevertheless, the champion of the Arena of Rust looked like that. His body was silk—or some kind of equivalent. Tough and lustrous, such that he looked like a [Lady] who applied the finest tonics to her skin as well as a mini-Grimalkin.
“So this is the One-Armed Slaughterer, the woman who went on a rampage in a city. Arms of silver! Eyes like a rabid Manticore! Fair of skin and beautiful enough for a Human—hah! I see it’s almost true, although the sunburn takes away from it all.”
He boomed as the new prisoners and even the guards fell silent. Yvlon stared up at the champion, who was six and a half feet tall, a giant of a man.
“That’s the Champion of Rust!”
Rexel immediately hid behind Yvlon, squeaking. She stared up at the Stitch-Man in awe.
“He’s won over two hundred bouts! Sixteen years in the arenas total! Five as champion here!”
“What’s your name? What do you want with me?”
Yvlon lowered her practice blade, staring grimly up at the Stitch-man. He smiled, showing perfect teeth.
“Merely to make the acquaintance of a promising [Gladiator]. You look like one who might last more than your first ten matches—I have an eye for such things. Come; you needn’t practice with the fodder. Why don’t we sit, talk? One can live well in the Arena of Rust—if you have the right friends.”
He held out a huge hand. Yvlon stared at him. She lowered her longsword—and then stuck it in the ground and crossed her one arm over her chest. It didn’t really work since you couldn’t cross your arms if you only had one.
“No thank you. I’m not a [Gladiator]. I’m an adventurer. Wrongfully imprisoned. I don’t care to make a deal with bullies who prey on the weak.”
A gasp ran around the arena. The Champion of Rust’s eyes narrowed slightly.
“Humans are as rude as any species I’ve met. Come now, Silverarm. I came here in friendship. You would not like me as an enemy.”
His smile was warning, now. Yvlon looked at him. Rexel, Leprel, were all trying to signal her to say yes! Don’t be a fool!
Unfortunately, they didn’t know Yvlon Byres. If her team was here, they might have calmed her down. Yvlon Byres right now?
She was alone, hot, half-nude, and ill. She stared at the Champion of Rust.
“I have enemies I’d rather not face. You’re not even on that list. I don’t want to have to kill you all—leave me alone or we’ll see who ends up dead. That goes for all of you!”
She looked around. The Champion of Rust sighed. He shook his head as he turned and walked away.
That was echoed by the others as Rexel, Leprel and a few prisoners dared to come over to the madwoman. Yvlon just picked up her longsword and kept practicing.
“You—you just made an enemy of the Champion of Rust! You could have worked with him, risen safely!”
Leprel was pulling at her hair, although it occurred to her that if Yvlon had taken the Champion’s hand, she and Rexel would have been left behind. Yvlon Byres just snorted.
“A man like that doesn’t have equals. If he thought I was more than an asset, I’d end up poisoned or dead. I’m not stupid.”
The [Bandit] bit her tongue on the obvious reply. Yvlon went on, glancing up. The Champion was jesting with some of the other veterans, who were wary, but still equals, even if he was first among them. After all—a Champion could be defeated.
“That Champion. He’s…over Level 30, isn’t he? Maybe Level 40?”
Rexel looked at Yvlon. The [Armsmistress] was feeling at the stump of her other arm. The [Thief] nodded.
“An Arena Champion is usually that good. Some have even been known to be over Level 50! Rarely, though; not in our lifetime. They say Mars the Illusionist won her freedom when she was only Level 40 or so at the time.”
Yvlon nodded to herself. The Champion of Rust glanced back and Yvlon Byres decided against making a rude gesture. She wasn’t Ceria. Nor was she Pisces, who would probably be reclining and eating grapes right about now if he was in her place.
She knew her enemy, and Yvlon Byres liked facing them head on. She went back to practicing, grimly trying to adjust to the sword. The other [Gladiators] watched, now sure that the first match of ‘Silverarm’ was going to be something indeed.
Ksmvr received a visitor shortly after he crawled out of bed. He still felt embarrassed, but then he heard a meow.
The cat again? He glanced up, and then heard merry laughter.
Yinah had come into the room where Ksmvr was a ‘guest’ through some enchanted air vents, just large enough for a cat to crawl through. They provided cool air in Chandrar’s heat.
Ksmvr stared at the opening, but that wasn’t where the sound was coming from. He glanced out and saw someone on the balcony.
Nsiia, the Empress of Beasts, had leapt from her balcony, off a wall, and landed on his like the very cat clinging to her shoulders. She grinned, crouching, as Yinah waved a tail at Ksmvr.
The [Skirmisher] stared, recalling Nsiia distinctly. Why was she here? She waved—pointed at the door.
“Does it open?”
Her voice was muffled. Ksmvr shook his head.
He was sealed in, and someone had enchanted the sliding door. Nsiia shrugged. She walked over and then appeared by a window.
Normally, you could latch and unlatch it, but Femithain had clearly sealed it shut with more magic. Nsiia tried it, grunted, and then punched the window.
The enchanted glass and frame popped out of the wall. The Empress of Beasts swung herself through the gap. Yinah landed on the bed, and Ksmvr stared at Nsiia.
“I believe vandalism is frowned upon in every nation in the world. Am I being attacked?”
The Empress of Beasts eyed Ksmvr, and then laughed. She straightened, hopped off the bed, and faced him.
“Not by me! Greetings, Adventurer Ksmvr of the Free Antinium. I am Nsiia of Tiqr. Formerly the Empress of Beasts, now prisoner, like you. I greet you and offer you the bounty of the oasis—or I would, if I had any left to me.”
She made a curious gesture with one hand, two fingers and a thumb splayed out as she touched her shoulder and bowed slightly. Ksmvr hesitated, and copied the gesture.
“I greet you, Empress of Beasts. I also possess no oasis, but I would offer you the bounty of my personal tree. If we were close to it. I also thank you for saving my life.”
Nsiia eyed Ksmvr and then burst out laughing.
“An Antinium owns a tree?”
“Two trees, in the lands of House Byres.”
Ksmvr had been given them by Yvlon and it had been ratified by Lord Byres, after all. Nsiia threw her head back and laughed.
“Such a strange thing! I never dreamed I might meet an Antinium save if the King of Destruction took his conquest to Izril once more! Or they invaded. Now I see: an Antinium owns trees, and pets cats quite cutely!”
Ksmvr felt the same unfamiliar rush of embarrassment. He looked at Nsiia.
“Ah. You observed me?”
She smiled, eyes flashing with mischief.
“Yinah, my friend here, is a companion. I can see through her eyes for a while. You like animals, Antinium? Stories would say your people eat everything they see, and slaughter all life like a man culling animals.”
She stalked around the room, so much like an animal herself that Ksmvr was fascinated. Still, he was also thinking of why she was here; her illegal entry certainly indicated this was not with the Magus-Crafter’s approval.
“Rumors about the Antinium have as much validity as other species. I have observed that Humans cannot spit blood unless stabbed in the mouth, Drakes are not always greedy—although some can be, and so on. I would hope you would regard me as a Gold-rank adventurer first, Antinium second, Empress Nsiia of Tiqr.”
The [Empress] stopped, smiling, and inclined her head. She gestured to some chairs.
“Well spoken, adventurer. I apologize, then. But not all of Chandrar will see it the same way. In fact, that is why I am here. We have greeted each other; now, shall we sit and talk over food? This is the agreeable way to do such things.”
“That is acceptable.”
So they ended up sitting and eating over some of the snacks Ksmvr had been given. He plucked little dates from a bowl as Yinah leapt into Nsiia’s lap. She refused to feed the cat the fruit, though Yinah was clearly curious; she found some meat and crumbled it up instead.
“Do you know where you are, Ksmvr?”
“Illivere. I am in the Magus-Crafter’s residence, and you are the Empress of Beasts, deposed after the war in Tiqr. Currently, the King of Destruction rampages to the north, although he is under attack from multiple sides and Khelt has moved once again in the war between Jecrass and Medain.”
“You know more than I thought.”
“I must keep abreast of larger events. A good adventurer is aware of political currents.”
Ksmvr didn’t know more than that, but Nsiia nodded.
“Then you understand my position. Do you recall the Testing Grounds?”
“The Golems. Yes. You saved me, for which you have my gratitude. Though it seems to have earned you the wrath of Illivere itself.”
The open window let in outraged shouting, albeit from a great distance. Nsiia rolled her eyes, sighing.
“Yes. I have outraged the puppet-lovers so. I take it as a worthy sacrifice; had you died, opportunity might have been lost. I witnessed your battle, Ksmvr. The Horns of Hammerad fought well.”
Ksmvr’s broken antennae waved for a second. He had forgotten that the Village of the Dead’s raid had been broadcast. Nsiia was regarding him intently, even familiarly. They had all seen them fight. Ksmvr felt…proud of that. Then worried for his team.
“Why have you come, Nsiia? I am honored to meet an [Empress], but I must soon leave to locate my friends. I regret the incident with the Golems; that was self-defense, albeit with a display of too much dominance. I owe you a debt, but my team comes first.”
Nsiia nodded, smiling, but then shook her head. She sighed as Yinah purred in her lap. Ksmvr kept staring at that. Nsiia saw, and offered him the cat, wordlessly. Ksmvr began to gently pat Yinah in his lap.
“I know you hunt for your team, Ksmvr. But you will not leave Illivere so easily. Femithain is an honorable, straightforward man. But he is a ruler. And you are Antinium. I come here because we may share the same fate—and I would like to talk first. Before you do something rash. We could be allies.”
Ksmvr thought about this. Unlike Yvlon, his first instinct was to nod, which he did. Mathematically, two people were better than one. Trust was an issue of course, but Nsiia had saved his life and she was an [Empress]. Her desires were predictable, meaning trust could be achieved based on shared need—until needs collided.
Also, she had a cat. Yinah yawned, then tried to squirm out of Ksmvr’s lap again. Distressed, he stared down at her.
“I do not understand. Why does Yinah the cat not prefer me? Is it because she is speciesist? Racism in animals is a terrible thing.”
Nsiia snorted as Yinah leapt into the woman’s lap. She shook her head, bending over Yinah.
“That’s not it at all. Nor is it your ‘skin’; Yinah wouldn’t mind either, would you?”
The cat shook its head, amiably. Ksmvr hesitated.
“What then? I am functionally able to pat fifty percent more than…”
He stopped. Nsiia scratched behind Yinah’s ears, giving him an amused look. She offered Yinah back.
“You pat Yinah, and she will enjoy that for a while. But—do you not know to scratch behind her ears? Tickle her? Kiss—well, I suppose not. Have you never held an animal?”
“I have patted horses. I would not wish to hurt an animal.”
Ksmvr slowly accepted Yinah. Nsiia pointed, smiling.
“You cannot hurt her so easily. Be gentle. She will tell you if you make a mistake. There.”
Ksmvr scratched Yinah by the ears and felt her purr. The world changed. Ksmvr gently held Yinah and unlocked a new technique in the world of patting—no, cuddling animals. He looked at Nsiia, and decided this would be a relationship of mutual benefit already.
Not even Captain Ceria had a way with animals as much as Nsiia. Ksmvr had learned the art of beaver-speaking, and horse-speaking, and many other animals-speaking, which seemed to involve shouting at them, but Nsiia was the [Empress of Beasts]! He listened as she leaned forwards and told him what his future held.
Femithain had to break the news to Ksmvr, and he was apprehensive about the Antinum’s reaction. He did not beat around the bush, of course.
“Illivere is searching for your team, Adventurer Ksmvr. They will be found if they are here at all. I am willing to expand the search, and you are a guest. Once again, I apologize for the incident at Elbe; punishment will be administered. However, your…stay may need to be extended.”
“I cannot leave?”
Ksmvr stood in his room, the window secured again, the Empress gone, although Yinah was in his arms. The Magus-Crafter tried to explain.
The problem was that Ksmvr was Antinium. Nsiia had said it, and told Ksmvr exactly why the Magus-Crafter would keep him as a ‘guest’, even one with more liberty than she.
Even with the affidavit, the other nations of Chandrar had heard an Antinium was in their midst. An adventurer, true, one who had been on the news, sure.
However, one was here, for the first time…ever. Memories of the Antinium of Rhir and the Antinium wars surfaced. Izril had been distant, and the threat of the Antinium, however grave, had been far off. Now? They were facing it anew and feeling uneasy.
Did they want to let Ksmvr walk off? Absolutely not! Izril was one thing, but let the only known agent of the Antinium wander about, scouting out their lands and forces and seeing who looked the most edible? No thank you! Why didn’t they just cover themselves with gullible sauce while they were at it?
“A number of [Sages] and other representatives of many local nations would like to speak with you, Ksmvr. As a representative of the Antinium. I would offer you the run of the city, albeit with escort at all times. Many would like to speak with you, but a number of individuals, from Roshal to one of the Shield Kingdoms, have put a bounty on your head.”
Ksmvr had not believed Nsiia when she told him that would happen. He tilted his head.
“Most rude. However, I would still take my chances to find my team, bounty or not. I cannot simply leave? If you return my gear, I will not make this your responsibility.”
“Your gear will be returned, Adventurer Ksmvr. All of it, naturally. However, for the good of Illivere, I must ask you stay. You see—the Hives of the Antinium have contacted me. The…Grand Queen of the Antinium and Free Queen both sent me [Messages].”
His skin chilled a bit. That alone had been astounding, and all six Walled Cities and a number of Drakes had contacted him at once, asking to see the contents of the [Messages], talk strategy. Femithain went on.
“The contents of both…warnings…were simple. If you should perish, the Hives of the Antinium will turn their wrath on Illivere.”
Ksmvr stared at Femithain, lost for words for once. The Magus-Crafter saw the Antinium [Skirmisher] open and close his mandibles.
“I claimed that the Hives would go to war for me, but I must tell you, Magus-Crafter, that I exaggerated the truth. I do not believe—did not believe—I was of any worth to my Hive. Or the Antinium.”
His voice trembled a bit. Femithain smiled slightly, if tiredly.
“It would appear you did not lie after all, Adventurer Ksmvr. I regret, then, that for Illivere’s safety, you should not go about unprotected. The Queens did not specify conditions for their wrath; moreover, the Walled Cities have their own…demands. Illivere itself can search better than one lone adventurer in any case. Will you accept a temporary stay?”
He was worried Ksmvr would refuse. However, the Antinium only hesitated a second before nodding.
“I am unhappy, Magus-Crafter, but I would prefer to remain amenable and work in cooperation with you.”
“Thank you, Adventurer Ksmvr.”
“You may call me Ksmvr, Magus-Crafter.”
The Antinium saw the man smile. It was just like Nsiia had said. Ksmvr became a guest of Illivere. It was not ideal, but he had to find his friends and Femithain would help with that.
Meanwhile, while he waited, Ksmvr talked with Nsiia. He learned how to scratch dogs on the stomach.
He quite liked animals. Also, Nsiia had an interesting proposal. Ksmvr listened.
[Animal Friend Class Obtained!]
[Animal Friend Level 2!]
[Skill – Comforting Petting obtained!]
Was it a combat-viable class? Absolutely not. However, Ksmvr hadn’t the heart to refuse it. He calculated that if he maintained a 6:1 ratio of combat-levels to non-combat levels, he could keep the class with no one objecting strenuously.
Sometimes, you had to have a class just for you.
Ceria Springwalker sat in Nerhs, slowly bouncing [Message] spells back and forth with Montressa. It took a lot of effort and she needed to conserve her magic. A [Message] spell at this range was taxing, but now she knew.
Ksmvr, located. Yvlon? Unknown, unscriable. Pisces, likewise.
Well. At least one of them was found. Ceria bit her lip, trying to breathe in and out. She tried to form an [Ice Spike]…but it wasn’t any good.
She couldn’t call enough moisture out of the air to form the spell like normal. From the existing water? Sure! She eyed the javelin of ice she’d crafted out of a bucket of water.
Luaar stared wide-eyed at Ceria as she took stock of her magical abilities. The half-Elf cursed.
“Looks like I’m going to have to improvise with non-ice spells. Damn. Okay…at least I have my wand and gear. I can probably take on any Silver-rank threat, even alone. Even some Gold-rank threats. Hey, Luaar…”
She turned and he hurried forwards. The ice javelin reverted back to water, much to his disappointment. Ceria dipped a cup into it and sipped. The aura of ice wasn’t as pervasive around her; she could control it when she was awake.
“How can I help you, Adventurer Ceria?”
“It’s just Ceria. What kind of threats might I run into if I was heading to Illivere?”
She was already planning on going? Luaar gulped.
“Father hopes you can stay in case of [Bandits] and…”
“Yes, yes. I’ll see if I can do anything. I can’t stay, though, and I can’t summon…I hate not having water. But what about dangers on the roads? If I bought a horse—what’s the worst random monster I’d run into?”
Ceria sighed. She couldn’t try to summon an [Ice Elemental] for the same reasons her ice-spells weren’t working. Nerhs had only the water in their wells, and it was finite and dearly needed. When it rained, the wells were replenished, but that could be few and far between.
Once, Nerhs had had lots of water, apparently. It was close enough to the coast…but the weather had changed since Luaar’s father had taken his position. Now?
Ceria listened as Luaar described the worst of Chandrar’s most common predators. Manticores, giant sand worms, bandits of course, Sand Golems…
The boy shivered at the familiar name.
“They are everywhere, Adventurer Ceria. Some live in the sands, but they are always hunted down. When found.”
“Wonderful. Well…if I need to bust Ksmvr out of prison or fight anything more dangerous than one of those stupid dogs, I’d better figure out a way to actually use my magic.”
She cursed. She still had her wand and other spells, but Ceria was sort of good at ice magic. What would Illphres do? She’d probably call this good training and kick Ceria into a desert to ‘practice’. Ceria smiled sadly at the thought.
Then she focused. The half-Elf stared down at her gear, laid out before her. She reached out and pushed Luaar back.
“Ah. No touching. No getting near it.”
She had…one trump card. An unpredictable trump card. The kind of card, that, if you were to extend the gambling metaphor, could either win you the game despite having the worst hand—or explode your entire body at the table.
It was rather like hiding a Tier 5 scroll under the table rather than an actual card. But which Tier 5 spell? Tree rot…Ceria stared down at the object. She wasn’t even sure it was Tier 5. It could be a lot higher.
The artifact glittered at her. Relic-class? Or just super-powerful? Cursed? Luaar’s eyes shone as he stared at the object Ceria had pulled out of her bag of holding when she’d finally woken up.
It was…a circlet made of something dark. Black bone. Obsidian? Ceria couldn’t tell. Nor did she touch it now.
“Is it your treasure, Adventurer Ceria? What does it do?”
She glanced up.
“I have no idea. Hey, shoo back over there. Actually—don’t even look at it. It could be dangerous.”
As in, ‘pull this village screaming into an abyss in the ground’ dangerous, but Ceria didn’t tell Luaar that. He scooted back further, but couldn’t look away from the artifact. She had no idea what it did.
Frankly, given her experiences with the ruins of Albez, Ceria knew she shouldn’t have gone within a ten mile radius of an artifact used by the Putrid One. She certainly shouldn’t have touched it, let alone stuffed it into a bag of holding and kept it on her person.
There had been no choice. The undead had been about to wipe them out, and in that frenzied moment before flight, the Horns had taken a calculated risk and grabbed anything they could before running.
It had been a good risk; they hadn’t gone into the armory, but grabbed the Putrid One’s personal possessions, which were lying about. The odds were that such objects weren’t as cursed as most dungeon treasures.
Even so, Ceria had snagged only one object; the circlet, which had been fallen on the ground, possibly knocked from the half-Elf’s head himself. She’d only touched it with her bone-hand, and even now didn’t quite dare touch it with her flesh-and-blood one.
It could protect her and enable her to brave any threat. Or…Ceria shuddered.
“It might be a soul-sucking circlet that contains the lives of hundreds of innocent victims. Or it could fuse to my flesh. Or slowly turn me into an undead if I’m not strong enough in death magic. Or—if it’s one of those super-rare sentient ones, it could decide it hates me and cast [Death Bolt] through my brain.”
Luaar stared at the circlet, and then Ceria, and then backed to the doorframe. The half-Elf sighed. She didn’t even know if being near it was healthy.
Still…she was smiling. She had treasure. Ceria’s smile flickered. Dangerous treasure. If anyone knew she had this—well, it made her life harder. She heard shouting from outside and rose. Luaar turned.
“Bandits! Adventurer Ceria—they’re—”
Ceria swore and rose. She hesitated, reached for the circlet, and stuffed it into her bag of holding without putting it on. She really didn’t want to die. It was a last-resort.
As she strode outside, then thought better and peeked out from the doorframe with Luaar, Ceria worried for her team. Ksmvr was alive. But Yvlon and Pisces would be walking targets, if they hadn’t been thrown into a dangerous spot already.
Each one of them had grabbed something. The half-Elf breathed in and out, and heard the voice again.
“Just who’s saying that?”
She stared at the bag of holding for a second. No, it couldn’t be. Ceria sighed.
If the circlet was possessed, she was going to be really upset.
…Each one a treasure beyond worth. They’d survived the impossible. If only they’d arrived at Khelt.
If only. From glory to defeat to…the world did like to kick you when you were down. That was how it went. When you fell, the momentum carried you.
He had been sick, ill, for days. They’d dragged him along; now? They made him walk. He could barely think, he was still sick with mana-burn.
Yet he remembered.
Artifacts. It was his. His treasure. His…spellbook.
The [Slavers] just laughed at Pisces as he mumbled it, dragged along, tethered to the long line of chained [Slaves]. One of them lifted the book in a gloved hand; they weren’t stupid enough to open it.
“Not yours, [Necromancer]! Ours! By rights, your gear is ours. We’ll sell that separate; it might be worth more than you are! Although your name will earn a lot. I’ll be interested to see which is which, eh? Although if it’s really a treasure from the Village of the Dead…”
The master of the caravan rode forwards and struck the [Slaver] hard.
“You idiot! Put it away! Don’t look at it, don’t stare at it!”
He snapped. The other man hastened to obey. Pisces stared up at his captor. He tried to speak, blearily.
“I’m a Gold-rank adventurer. You can’t enslave me.”
The [Slave Master] smiled. He even looked a tiny bit sympathetic as he waved a finger.
“Ah, perhaps if you and I met on your two feet, I’d agree, Master Pisces Jealnet. However, Roshal has rules. We found you half-dead, so the initiative was ours. As for law? We are well within our law! After all…you are Pisces Jealnet. Your bounty still remains from Terandria and Wistram both. A criminal is a criminal.”
Pisces looked up. He cursed the man. He cursed Wistram and home. The book! He would have lunged, but the chains held him down. And…he looked up.
Behind the [Slave Master], a figure looked down at him. Not as sympathetic. More uncaring. Bored. But watchful. The enslaved Djinni watched the caravan moving west, out of Nerrhavia now, towards Roshal. After all—if you had a prize like Pisces and the book, you’d sell it where it was worth most. Pisces stumbled forwards, tugged ahead.
A captive. He only hoped they’d find him before he reached his destination. Ceria, Ksmvr, Yvlon…
Author’s Note: No Djinni battles. No bandit attack…well, not yet. I was going to write it in, but somehow we focused more on the Horns and that could be okay.
It has become the month of work! Side-work! Boring work! Oh well, I’m working hard on it. Book 4’s e-book needs to come out, and I need to fix up Book 5’s typos so we can get the audiobook done…
And that’s only some of the stuff on my plate! I wish it were food! I wish I could eat my problems!
Oh well, writing isn’t easy, but I do know how to do it, so the chapters will still come out! Even so, I may have to make them shorter…
For now it’s back to work! Let me know if you’d like more Chandrar! Maybe we should do more chapters in a row? Thanks for reading and vote on that poll! That might be the next chapter. Or not? We’ll find out next time!
Anazurhe the Goblin [Witch] by LightResonance, commissioned by pirateaba!