Like a great natural disaster, or powerful spell—or simply the clash of armies, the aftereffects, the fallout took far longer than the event itself. Processing that might take days, weeks…years…
If you could even piece together the full story. That was the challenge here, for all those aware of the event, even those tangentially related to the main players of the story. If you saw her from afar, that was not knowing what she was.
Belavierr the Spider. Belavierr, the Stitch Witch. Yet she had many more names. There were many titles that had been lost to time, stories in the depths of the secret libraries about her. Before you could process the impact she had made, how close Liscor had come to calamity—for all it had seen enough—you had to know her.
Which was impossible. So you didn’t know quite who had attacked, or what she’d done. Or why she’d done it.
The consequences were obvious. A child was kidnapped, an army had been beaten back, the dungeon’s threat resurfaced…there were wounds, recriminations, and it all spiraled around the inn, again. There were dead Gnolls that no one could identify, Goblins riding Wyverns, and so many dead monsters that the Adventurer’s Guild had hired every [Alchemist] in the city to help catalogue important parts before they went to rot.
That was…easy to deal with. The hard part was asking what had happened. Would it happen again? Was there any way to prevent it, make safeguards? And…where was little Mrsha? Was she in direct danger? Had a [Slavetaker] gotten her, or something darker?
Many people asked those kinds of questions. What had Belavierr wanted? What was that spell Xrn had cast? How had that single Antinium beaten her back? Would Hectval try again?
The question betrayed the goals of the individual involved, and their personality. Some—some asked no questions.
Lyonette du Marquin just screamed. Screamed, and ran for the gates, the walls, as if to run to Pallass, before they caught her. Numbtongue? He sat amid guilt and a second horror of failure—but not for long. Not this time.
Some were not able to process at all; the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings simply collected their dead. One of them tipped his hat to Ishkr as the Gnoll gestured at the four men, lying prone after the fighting had ended.
“Terrible business, sir. Happens to the best of us, though.”
“I—I—I don’t know how to thank you. I can’t. Someone should speak to you. To…they saved us all.”
Ishkr looked for someone else in authority to give the Brothers their due, but there was no one. Everyone else was busy or mourning or trying to find Mrsha, or—
The man had a tall cap and he looked as old as the Brother he was helping carry away. In…a bag of holding. He’d just bent down and the body had vanished. It seemed disrespectful, to Ishkr. Practical, yes, but for the dead?
“Don’t you worry, sir. We’re used to it. We’ll get these fellows in the right place. Among their kind. If I may say so—it was their choice. It was all volunteers and we appreciate the sentiments, but there’s little to say. We had a debt. A debt was paid. More’n paid, maybe.”
Two of the other three Brothers who had come by gave the third a significant look and he passed a finger over his mouth.
“Apologies. Not my place.”
“Are—what will happen now?”
The man looked at him as he bent over another body, inspecting the face, identifying him and writing it down, then collecting the body. He glanced up at Ishkr.
“Frankly, sir. We won’t be back. I’d like to say otherwise, but…a debt’s a debt and a man pays it in full, and adds whatever honor has him put over the top. This debt’s been squared, and the ones who called it’re gone. We’re not even Invrisil’s lot.”
He gestured to the other two. The other two men nodded, a grizzled, scarred man, and a young one.
“The Brothers of Invrisil are half gone. Reinforcements. The ones who thought we had business with the inn made their choice. But we can’t keep tallying up numbers. Thought we should break it, impolite as it is.”
“No…you’ve done more than enough.”
They had paid with their lives. Because the [Innkeeper] had died…Ishkr looked down. The Brother identified the last man. Ishkr hadn’t even seen where he’d died. He should have gone out in a blaze of glory. Instead, he had gone down in the shadows, holding the line with Numbtongue.
Crimshaw stared up at the ceiling. The Brother touched his eyes, closed them, and moved the bag of holding. Then he was gone.
The dead and the living. Normen lived; he and another Brother were being treated for poison.
Along with Pawn. The [Priest] had survived the poisoned arrow, mainly because…it had happened before. This time, the inn and [Healers] were armed with broad-spectrum antidotes.
Antinium were resistant to poisons to begin with, and he’d taken a single arrow to the gut. He wasn’t able to move, though, and could only speak, lying on his back.
“Find Mrsha. I promised Lyonette. Do the Listeners have anything?”
Chaos in the Hive, though you would not know it. Antinium didn’t run around in a panic or raise their voices. They were just…aimless.
Xrn was wounded. She had retreated, and no one would breach the chambers where the Free Queen was working with Xrn’s magic and potions and her knowledge to mend the Centenium. In the gap of the Revalantor and Prognugator…
It was Tersk who eventually went to the Listeners and came back with an answer.
“That’s all you know?”
Belgrade turned to Tersk. The Armored Prognugator opened and closed his mandibles at the brusque, even interrogatory question to a Prognugator, but he nodded.
“Yes. Half the Listeners are damaged beyond repair. They could only identify sounds, not pitch, tenor, or any other qualities. Something moving at intervals, southwards. At speed.”
“Damaged? Damaged from wh—”
Belgrade realized they must have felt the battle from Belavierr. He clicked his mandibles.
“What do we do? Go after Mrsha? For how far?”
He looked around but—Pawn had passed out again. There was no Klbkch, no Free Queen, no Xrn…the other Hives’ Prognugators were uncertain too.
Uncertainty in power. Too much to do, too few resources. Here were the facts, as Drassi, one of Liscor’s most famous and esteemed individuals liked to say.
Drassi. That loudmouthed [Gossip] who’d been fired from her last four jobs in a row for talking too much when she’d been working?
Now a city-heroine, the kind you had on a shortlist. Famous; a name known around the world, who gave the city prestige, negotiating power at many tables. Who would have guessed?
Well, the former [Shopkeeper] on Market Street, the most generic street name in any city, supposed it was the same thing that had happened to him. Lism Swifttail, [Councilmember] and one of the few officials who could process this—this attack—thought about what he could do.
He struck the table. Jeiss and Alonna looked at him. Tismel, Zalaiss, and Elirr, the other Councilmembers present during the Meeting of Tribes, all looked up.
“Nothing? We have to rescue her!”
Elirr shot to his feet; his fur was practically falling out from horror. Lism corrected his words.
“I mean, Councilm—damn it, Elirr. What are we going to do? Send the Watch? Send a [Tracker]? How large a force? We are at war. Hectval just attacked us!”
“We can’t ignore that. But we can’t ignore Mrsha. Or the fact that this—this [Witch], Belavierr—nearly conjured something that might have caused untold devastation!”
Alonna snapped back at Lism’s perceived apathy. The [Shopkeeper] fixed her with an eye.
“Oh yes, Alonna? And let’s say we form a taskforce. Are we sending all of 4th Company? They took nearly a sixth of their number in casualties from one clash with her! All of the Watch? Could, if they even found her, and caught up, all of the Watch even scratch that—that thing? Olesm? Zevara?”
The two Drakes looked at each other. Zevara shook her head at the same time at Olesm.
“Not a chance.”
“She can’t just get away with this, Watch Captain!”
Jeiss rose to his feet, outraged. Lism snapped back.
“Oh yes she can, Councilmember Jeiss!”
Jeiss was astonished. The [Swordsman] looked at Lism.
“You want to let her go? And Mrsha?”
Lism was shaking. He stood up to pace and his tail struck the chairs, it was lashing so hard.
“Absolutely. Do you think I’m happy about it? But I just read the reports our [Librarian] dug up—Belavierr. Full power unknown. The kind of [Witch] who can raise the dead and apparently fight Xrn, Grimalkin, and three damn armies without being hurt! She’s the kind of thing that passes by a city, causes chaos, and they let her go. Maybe even Pallass. Do you know why? Because that is why.”
He pointed out the window. At the smoke still rising from the pyres outside the inn. The other Councilmembers looked out the window. Lism sat down. He couldn’t control his voice. It was shaking with fury.
“We let her go because if we make her an enemy, we vanish off the map. Hectval? Damn Hectval! I want Hectval torn stone from stone and their Council in chains! Belavierr?”
He shook his head. The Councilmembers looked at him, some shocked, but he was glad to see Tismel and Zalaiss nodding fervently. Their usual cowardice? It suited him just fine. He wanted all the Council on this page. They didn’t touch Belavierr. Lism would never forget.
“What about Mrsha?”
Elirr stared at Lism. The Drake managed a grimace, not a smile.
“Not the same, Elirr. A citizen of Liscor was kidnapped.”
“And you want to do nothing?”
For answer, the purple-scaled Drake leaned on the table. He looked at Elirr, not unsympathetically. He didn’t like the troublemaking little Gnoll, who made rude gestures at him whenever she saw him. But she was a child. Still—his objections there weren’t the same at all.
“I’d throw whatever we could at finding her—and identifying that Gnoll, Councilmember Elirr. I’m willing to entertain whatever suggestions the Watch Captain and Strategist Olesm have to locating and rescuing her. However. Do you really think we’ll be helpful compared to who’s going after her?”
The Councilmembers hesitated. They eyed the window, where a Wyvern was already taking off; and two more had already flown south. Wyverns, and multiple Gold-rank teams who had heard about the beloved child’s disappearance.
“So we do nothing. Just like you said.”
Alonna looked like she was eating grain mixed with rat feces. Lism already had a plateful, but he nodded.
“We focus on where we can make a difference. I know an impossible sale when I see it, Alonna. What can we make sure never happens again?”
He stabbed a map, and a list of troop details, battle plans. The others looked at him. Lism stabbed the table until he chipped the tip of his pointing claw.
“Hectval. Hectval. Hect. Val.”
It was a strange day, the day that Thronebearers of Calanfer stared at a tribe of Wyvern-riding Goblins, Antinium, and a pile of dead monsters and decided they had more important things to do.
It was a dead-split between them. Lormel and Ushar wanted to go after Mrsha. It was Sest and, strangely, the wounded Dalimont, face white as a sheet, who wanted to find Princess Lyonette.
“Ser Dalimont, Ser Sest—if we were not fellow [Knights] sworn to brotherhood and cooperation, I would use language unbefitting of the lowest bar!”
Lormel shouted, face purpling; his armor was still battered and bloodstained. Dalimont answered, coughing.
“We are one of a number hunting for the girl, Lormel. We are not trackers. The [Princess] is alone in a city under siege. More importantly—she may know how best to find her. We do not know where one is—the other? We stand to lose both, so we find the [Princess] first. So we are charged. Only the throne can countermand our quest. Or…a [Princess].”
Lormel and Ushar considered that. Lormel paced back and forth, but there was no time to waste. They were just one of a number of groups that set out. Dalimont, barely able to stay in his saddle, looked at the other bands flowing mostly south.
They were all leaving the inn.
The immediate concern of those on the ground was to go after Mrsha. To secure the area, or tell the others what had happened. Word spread, as it did, with some people learning of the event far too late.
Others had seen it live, albeit not broadcast via Wistram News Network. That was a good thing. No one needed to grow Belavierr’s dark legend. Besides—the sight of this kind of thing was destabilizing.
Most importantly, though, knowledge of the strange Skills used by Pawn should remain secret. Perhaps even the fact that those Gnolls had failed to kill Mrsha.
There were a lot of things to process here, and Chaldion began with reports of who was leaving the inn, individuals seen together, and of course, damage reports. He had people marking any number of valuable targets.
He eyed the pawn on the chessboard he’d fetched out. The symbolism didn’t escape him—but of course he knew Erin’s story of how she’d met Pawn. A Worker who befriended an [Innkeeper]—or the other way around.
Chaldion looked up. He was having his signature drink, the Chaldion’s Eye, and the sour had just entered the alcohol. It dulled his mind—but anyone could use a drink after what he’d just seen. Besides, this was aftermath. He nodded at his guests.
General Duln of 1st Army, General Shirka of 3rd Army, the newly appointed female Drake, youngest of all of them, and [Stormline Strategist] Esor Ventail were his guests in his private abode. Not including the personal [Caretaker] he now had to keep around.
The [Grand Strategist] grunted irritably at the thought of the annoying…helpful…considerate…Gnoll [Caretaker] who made living easier but somehow infringed on dignity. His three guests had all been served by her, and they were a carefully cultivated group.
Duln—you needed Duln on your side. Duln was always on Chaldion’s side; he had to be, or the commander of 1st Army and Pallass’ overall forces aside from Chaldion would be an obstacle. Chaldion didn’t need that kind of obstacle. Yes, Duln seldom left the city, but he had earned his rank and his forces went to all the other armies. Clout, a solid head, and loyalty; Chaldion had helped him get his position.
Shirka was new, but she was occupying Thrissiam’s old position. Chaldion needed a [General] who could take to the field and know extracurricular details. With the other armies abroad, she was a suitable candidate.
Of course, 4th Army and Edellein were here, but the older Blackwing was not Thrissiam, for all Edellein was Thrissiam’s uncle.
As for Esor? The Garuda was a ‘younger’ [Strategist]. In his forties, in other words. Sharp. He was being groomed as Chaldion’s replacement. The Assembly didn’t like him because he was a Garuda and Duln was a Dullahan. As if the two would form a coup and turn Pallass into Chandrar.
Chaldion snorted. He took another light sip.
“Esor. Pawn. Bump him up another ranking for the Eyes.”
The Eyes of Pallass. Their agents, some of whom were on the ground now, casting [Appraisal] spells for all they were worth. Esor consulted his list.
“That would place the Antinium Worker known as Pawn at…Galadz-threat, Grand Strategist.”
Shirka’s eyebrows rose. Chaldion gestured; he had one of Saliss’ cigars in his claw, another vice, which he was partaking of now because his nosy [Caretaker] couldn’t object in such company.
“Internal references, [General].”
He saw Esor duck his feathered head with brown running to red and orange as Duln took another serving of ssarish, the sliced meats. As if Chaldion hadn’t told him to accidentally use the phrase.
Shirka’s eyes brightened up. She was a [General], but Pallass’ Eyes were another division, and they liked to guard their secrets. Chaldion, of course, was in control of everything.
He shook his head, coughing slightly as he took another drag on the cigar. Interestingly, his head cleared. Saliss made some cigars to sharpen your cognition, and Chaldion liked those.
“A good guess. Each one refers to an incident, historically speaking. Known events or individuals. We don’t do a numbered system, but references. It’s a complicated chart; I’ll send you a copy.”
She nodded appreciatively, sitting straight, eyes on him. She was honored to be here, and she was an admirer of Saliss, who she regarded as a true hero from their past meetings. There were far worse candidates to be a [General] of Pallass.
In fact…all the worse candidates had not gotten to her position. Because Chaldion had picked Shirka. Or rather, he’d given her the same tests he gave a wide pool of hopefuls, and she passed.
Neat, orderly, and efficient. Chaldion had watched her career. He watched Liscor through the scrying spell. There was a reason they called him the Cyclops of Pallass. One eye he might have, but under him, Pallass had organization, competent leadership, and intelligence that didn’t fight with the military for seniority.
If I die, what will happen? Pallass had lived through poorer commanders than Chaldion, times when the Assembly was in charge, and times where the military ruled all. Chaldion wanted an heir; Esor would only be a fine [Strategist]. And his only heir was…Saliss.
Saliss, who bought Chaldion two more years. The Drake closed his eye. Something, he supposed. More than something. He wondered if the decade Saliss had bought was literally the decade he’d used up. He spoke, as much to keep his mind from wandering as anything. And it did wander far too much sometimes…
“Galadz, Esor. Right below Xrn and the other two Centenium. I am convinced there is something there worth more than the Grand Queen and all the other Queens’ plans.”
“A Worker has more effect on the Hives than a Queen?”
Duln murmured politely. Chaldion’s good eye turned towards him and his ruby one flashed.
“…Could one of the Queens make Belavierr retreat, Duln? Could you?”
Could I? The dinner party fell silent. Chaldion coughed again.
“The fact remains. Pawn is without an obvious class that could do that. Yet he uses Skills—also unknown.”
“Prime target for the Eyes to pluck. We don’t need that kind of variable in the Third Incursion War.”
Esor murmured. He glanced at Pawn uneasily. Chaldion made a slashing gesture with his claws.
“Knock some sense into your head—and anyone in the Eyes who thinks that. The instant one of them dies, the Free Antinium are hostile. More importantly? We don’t know what he does or how he got that class. What benefits Pallass in the long run is not another dead Antinium, but knowledge.”
The Garuda ducked his head. Chaldion eyed him, sucked on the cigar, and spat a cloud of shimmering yellow out.
“Stop thinking only in terms of war, Esor. Stop thinking a year in advance. Think of Pallass’ future. That’s why…well. You owe me a lunch at Tails and Scales, Duln. I’ll collect when they reopen, and that’s a silver lining at least.”
Duln nodded. Chaldion saw Esor focus on the scrying orb.
“The Titan of Baleros is at Liscor. Confirmed.”
“He could have been watching…”
Shirka ventured. Chaldion grinned.
“The Titan, watching from afar? I’ll bet he was somewhere unseen.”
“So we’re not reporting him to the Iron Vanguard.”
Duln looked at Chaldion for confirmation. He had no ties to the Dullahan company, but, well, a species was a species, even for a Dullahan born and raised in Pallass, Chaldion supposed. The Grand Strategist shook his head.
“The value is low. I’m entertaining keeping it secret—and calling in the favor of keeping it secret by putting a birdsong in the Forgotten Wing Company’s ear. Perhaps not. We’ll let it ride.”
“And not collect on the favor? That is to say, Grand Strategist, if the favor is not logged even in that small way, how will the Forgotten Wing company know they have one?”
Esor was struggling to keep up; he had just been attached to Shirka’s command, and was still in ‘combat-thinking’. Narrow, immediate…useful, but this kind of political strategy was new to him. Chaldion eyed him, amused.
“Why, because Niers Astoragon will go about his business—whatever it might be—and not have Pallass interfere. He’ll remember it and consider it a debt. A minor one, perhaps.”
“Pallass doesn’t interfere and that’s the debt…?”
Shirka, Duln, and Esor glanced at each other. Chaldion sighed.
“He knows I can tell he’s there. He knows that I know. If he asks for something, that’s different. The Titan’s not worth much to us here, and his company is infinitely preferable as an ally in Baleros. Tell the Eyes not to look for him.”
Look at how they stared at him. Learning, admiring, appraising…Chaldion felt old. It was like he and Niers spoke the same language that Esor was fumbling over. Why would Chaldion hunt Niers down, or make an enemy of the Titan—risky as it was to try to capture him—for little gain?
Focus on what mattered. Chaldion spoke around the cigar.
“Belavierr. In my city. I didn’t even detect her, with all my Skills. That’s the Witch of Webs, for you.”
The others nodded, uneasily. Chaldion looked at the scrying orb. The thing was…even Pallass would suffer the Witch of Webs’ designs, retaliate, drive her off—but even Pallass had trouble bringing her low. She was harder to defeat than an army. Better at running away than even a top-class [Rogue]. And her wrath when roused? He shook his head.
“Belavierr…I’ll think about what to do about Belavierr. She’s destroyed the inn. If the Brothers are pulling out—”
“The Goblins are on the move. Leaving the inn.”
“Mhm. No location on their base?”
“We haven’t been able to scry the location, even from Captain Bevussa’s descriptions, sir.”
“Well. Investigate. Magic only. I want someone monitoring their flight paths. The Brothers are gone, the inn’s in ruins. The Antinium are in chaos…”
“It’s time. Have Magus Grimalkin meet me at his convenience—but don’t let him leave the city. Make sure he recovers. It’s time. General Shirka? Duln?”
The two [Generals] looked at Chaldion. The Grand Strategist sat back, and blew another cloud of undirected smoke up, wishing he knew how the hell Saliss had once managed to create a dancing Drake. They all waited on his words, and he weighed them, trying to know if they were right.
He thought they were. They didn’t make him happy—but he spoke them anyways. Erin was dead, and after this?
“Shirka, Duln. Put together some of your best. Ones you can do without—combat leave. A little vacation with little work unless they actually have to fight…maybe a bonus? Volunteers, even. I want a rotation of sixty, all hours. Esor, offer them to Liscor, to secure the inn and watch for Belavierr.”
It was the kind of thing that made sense. The two [Generals] agreed instantly. Duln tapped his fingers together.
“Persuading Liscor might be important. They can…patrol the Floodplains?”
“After Belavierr, I don’t think it will be hard. Offer some of our [Sappers] or [Engineers] for that damn hole they have in the ground; even repairs for the inn. More fortifications? Don’t drop gold on it, and let the Antinium do what they want.”
“Yes, Grand Strategist.”
Chaldion nodded. He stared up at the ceiling and the smoke, beginning to disperse.
“…I want one of our best [Negotiators]. Not a [Diplomat]. No overt charm Skills. Someone who’s actually likable, not who can force a deal. Put them on Troy, Joseph. Extend an offer to Imani and Palt. Find them housing—get them into the city by nightfall. The inn’s in ruins anyways.”
Esor inhaled slightly. Shirka sat forwards, and Duln refastened his head.
“It’s time. The inn’s no longer safe. It’s proven that. Get me Kevin. Damn, I keep forgetting how many there are. No Rose…it’s time.”
He took another long sip of his drink. If Erin were here—it would be different. But she wasn’t, and this was the umpteenth time the inn had been attacked. It was time. The Cyclops moved. Because what he saw was what would come next.
“Esor, I want you to make them welcome. No questions. No prodding—genuinely get them settled in and make sure they’re happy. Questions can come later. I changed my mind. Get me Grimalkin, unless he’s too wounded to meet with me. Now.”
She wanted to know what spells Belavierr had used. Exactly what the [Witch] had been trying to summon. How Xrn had used her spells—the nature of the Antinium’s ability to deflect a known Relic-class weapon.
All they wanted to talk about was politics. The woman chewed her lip, thoughts spiraling, going in tangents, running together.
“We simply must insist on it, I think. Go through the Scriptels. It’s a shame du Valeross is not part of your faction, Naili. An offer to recall her if…?”
The silky, dangerous tone came from the Star Lamia. The woman glanced at her. Dangerous. Extraordinarily tight enchanting-work; little magical leakage. She was hard to get to share notes, however. Too flighty.
Viltach nodded. He was too focused on economics. Which…mattered, but he kept talking about politics. Too much; he was leading this discussion.
“They should all come to Wistram, preferably. I know there is an—agreement—but this proves even the Spider is aware of them. Why else would she assault the inn? Can you imagine what she would do if…? Do any of you know one of the Tricksters?”
Tricksters? A fragment of Valeterisa’s mind spun away and returned with the common slang used to refer to the Ullsinoi faction. List of members…exactly 2 confirmed, 31 unconfirmed or suspected duplicates, 8 [Mages] who were confirmed not to be part of their faction—
The Archmage of Izril focused again.
“Hm? What, Feor?”
The half-Elf gave her a pained smile that they all assumed she ignored. Verdan Blackwood, the other Archmage, cleared his throat. The Archmage of Dullahans looked at her, wearing his ‘mage armor’.
“We are asking if you will intercede with Grand Magus Eldavin. We are aware of his—desires—regarding the inn, but this is clearly an exceptional event. I am sure he is aware of the incident…”
By now, the Terras faction led by Eldavin and Valeterisa was a wave within Wistram. It went without saying that Eldavin would know. Valeterisa’s mind hesitated.
[Minor thought // amusement, calculation // conversation possibilities, personal interest] — Odds of Eldavin being aware? Strange.
[Introspective thought // self-analysis // logical loop] – Query: why strange?
[Major thought diverted // apprehension, analysis // take it seriously, wider diffusion] – Until today, I would have given it…
[Minor thought // calculation // guesswork] – 89%
…Likelihood that Eldavin was aware of this. Today?
[Minor thought // calculation // guesswork, sadness?] – 62%
Strange indeed. Valeterisa’s thoughts were not all in one place. In fact, she had learned to sort them. Some thoughts, like her questioning herself, were tasked to do that. Constantly question her assumptions. Others fulfilled conversation topics; she felt her mouth move in response.
“I will inquire with him, Archmage Blackwood.”
…And thus required less intellect than others. She could ‘divert’ more thoughts to a task as necessary. This was just one level of her racing mind; another was figuring out what she wanted to eat, working on a spell, cataloging and sorting valuable memories and obliterating useless things, and so on.
She had nearly been trapped in her head, once. Ryoka had saved her from this, but Valeterisa would never go without her Skill of [Parallel Thinking]. It was too valuable.
The Archmage of Izril thought her peers could have used that Skill; they were too focused on the inn, acquiring other ‘Earthers’ at the expense of looking into the Antinium and Belavierr. She vouchsafed this, and Feor hastened to assure her the opposite was true.
“I am hardly unaware of the implications of all of the battle, Valeterisa. A [Thaumaturge]. A creator of spells, and one of the Antinium?”
“What will be done about Belavierr? A monster like that on the loose? We should inform the Walled Cities, even if Pallass is aware.”
Viltach licked his lips. Valeterisa searched for all the information she could on Belavierr, and it was precious little. Naili frowned.
“When there’s a Hydra in the swamps and you’re carrying a bucket of gold, you don’t go after the Hydra. Earth matters more, is what I’m saying.”
“If she’s aware of Earth…”
“Then we’re in a race with her. I’d rather not send [Mages] after her; you saw how well Montressa’s Shock Orb did. It was like spitting into a tidal wave. No thanks.”
Valeterisa looked around. She tapped the table hard. No one was listening. She tilted her head, and came to a logical solution. She slapped the table so hard all four Archmages jumped.
Ow. I regret that.
Valeterisa stared at her stinging palm, and dismissed the pain—although she filed a note not to do that again. Attention gained, she looked around.
“You have misunderstood my point, Archmages. I did not suggest merely interdicting Belavierr or countering her agenda in regards to securing Earthers. What I meant was…why are we not attempting to make contact with her to negotiate for her knowledge?”
All four Archmages stared at Valeterisa. The woman stood up, unable to hold in her excitement.
“She demonstrated a superior knowledge of magecraft! To have such an experienced individual who predates Cognita and even Zelkyr many times over…regardless of the risk, and her divergent class, what we could learn is—”
She turned, eyes shining with the only desire of her life. Magic, and magic alone. Not politics or power. Oh, her fellow Archmages all wanted that.
Naili was ambitious and young. She wanted to be the greatest of Archmages.
Viltach wanted to be beloved among Terandria, a peer of royalty.
Verdan was too old. He…feared death and coveted ways to extend his legacy, and did not seek conflict with his position.
Feor? He was closest to her. He wanted magic—but he conflated it with respect, his faction.
Yet they all wanted magic. Just…she looked at their faces and hers fell. They gave her the same, disturbed look she had seen all her life.
“Belavierr is…not to be trusted, Valeterisa. You have read all the accounts of her deals, I am sure. They favor her to an extreme.”
“Yet if we could unlock spells and theories of old, Viltach. What would you not do to further magic itself?”
They looked at her, and Valeterisa saw it in their eyes. She opened her mouth and—
[Major thought // priority, regret, socialization // do not say it].
She closed her mouth. Yet what was stifled on her tongue was simply a question.
Would you not die for magic? Would you not dive into the heart of it, even if it meant your end? To see the truth?
They would not. So she sat back down, and stared longingly at the only other spellcaster who had leapt, like Valeterisa, into the very center of what she loved.
Magic alone. She had thought Grand Magus Eldavin understood.
He had, Valeterisa believed. Yet somehow, suddenly, practically overnight—
He had changed.
Grand Magus Eldavin—well, why call him that? Already, some [Mages] were whispering he was the 6th Archmage of Wistram.
Nailihuaile, Verdan, Valeterisa, Feor, and Viltach—not including the last Archmage or the mysteriously absent Amerys that no one talked about—who could match Eldavin in magic?
They told stories to the newcomers about his battle on the first night with every Archmage where he’d held his own against half of Wistram. To hear his admirers tell it, Eldavin had spanked the Council of Mages and the Archmages with one hand while writing poetry and forgotten spells with the other for the [Mages] to catch up on.
The truth was obviously more complex, but the reason for all the adoration of Eldavin was that where many failed to produce the cake, and only provided the aroma, the Grand Magus was capable of producing the cake, the cutlery, and having both dance about on two legs. He knew old magic. His methods? They worked.
Not ‘hey, this is another type of spellcasting or magical practice’, but ‘this is superior to what we do.’ His students in his classes were showing exceptional magical growth. Leveling—oh, the leveling.
From his most advanced group, complaints had come in about screaming [Mages] breaking bones from jumping into the water. Over forty three broken bones in the first month. Torn sinew, even someone nearly losing an eye due to a wand hitting it from a fellow student mid-flight…
However, said injuries had also produced countless levels, and there were no less than three new [Aeromancers], graduated from the [Elementalist] class. Similarly, the students in Eldavin’s mana-intensities classes were rapidly expanding their mana reserves beyond what Wistram would have expected of them. Eldavin was literally increasing their potential as [Mages] beyond what they might have hoped for.
And that was only his fundamental classes. It had seemed, until recently, that Eldavin would refuse to do more than teach history and fundamental spellcasting. Valeterisa walked up, to his private quarters now at one of the highest points of accessible Wistram. He had one of the grand suites, which used to be reserved for visiting royalty—now, the most influential [Mages] fought for them.
Eldavin had been standoffish, despite his heavy involvement with Wistram’s politics. He took no direct apprentices; his classes were open to all, and he taught no actual spells, except to Valeterisa, as a kind of payment for her help. That had been, oh…three weeks ago.
Then something had happened. Eldavin had been—wounded. During a failed experiment, he claimed. Troy Atlas had been involved, and neither had said more than that. Yet when Valeterisa catalogued Eldavin’s behavior, there was a split in his actions after that day. There were a number of factors that had suddenly changed—
- Him taking Troy Atlas and a few [Mages], students and older ones, as apprentices.
- Eldavin informing Valeterisa they lacked authority, him changing his stance on Wistram’s involvement worldwide.
- The Grand Magus passing out improved versions of spells to [Mages] in his faction—and his faction alone—bolstering the already high recruitment.
- The half-Elf seeking to forge connections with [Merchants] and other historical donors—and new ones—to Wistram’s factions…
Valeterisa cut off her numbering system. She could have accepted most of that. She had even appreciated his willingness to talk actual magical theorems. But the last part—that had made her question him. And it was this. She knocked on Eldavin’s door.
“Grand Magus Eldavin. I would like to speak with you urgently.”
She opened the door without waiting for a response. She had found that saved time, despite people objecting to the ‘invasion of privacy’.
Valeterisa looked up and met Eldavin’s gaze. The half-Elf was lying in his bed, having guarded his privacy with a magical, floating cloud that obstructed vision. Nevertheless, she noticed the other half-Elf, Teura, duck under the cloud. The lack of clothing was apparent. Valeterisa saw Eldavin raise a brow.
Eldavin supposed it was Valeterisa’s way. Perhaps a power play, to keep walking in on him when he was—indisposed? The woman just didn’t perceive the rudeness.
There was something to admire there, actually. Eldavin certainly didn’t recoil in shame. There was nothing to be ashamed of, so he threw on a robe and dismissed the cloud illusion.
“Apologies, I should lock the door, Archmage. What’s this about an emergency? My dear, it seems Wistram’s ‘duty’ calls.”
He smiled at the half-Elf, who nodded to Valeterisa. The Archmage of Izril glanced at Teura, cataloguing her, Eldavin was sure, along with the other people she’d observed.
It didn’t matter. She was an ally, and it struck Eldavin that Valeterisa would not betray an alliance she’d made unless it ceased to become beneficial. She was a logical creature, unlike most Humans. So he bore her small interruptions well.
“What new calamity has Wistram uncovered? Has the King of Destruction healed himself? Is Ailendamus attacking another nation?”
He guessed; he genuinely didn’t know. Of course, Eldavin had his sources, but he had been—indisposed—more often than not some nights. Valeterisa turned as they entered into a more sociable sitting room; she had strode right into his personal bedchambers.
“So you do not know. The other Archmages believe you have permanent scrying spells or superior observation enchantments in place.”
“A reputation does that for you. Almost as dangerous to overestimate your opponents as underestimate.”
Eldavin waved a hand, sitting, and keeping his face composed. The half-Elf was in phenomenal shape, thanks to basic physical conditioning magic. He felt wonderful, and as he had once observed to Magus Grimalkin, there was no reason why a [Mage] should not have…everything.
He saw Teura hesitate at the bedchamber door, glancing at him. Eldavin made a little sign; this was a personal discussion. He’d catch her up later, perhaps hear what Feor had to say. Valeterisa’s eyes were locked on him.
“So you do not have observation spells superior to [Scrying]?”
Eldavin just smiled. Of course he did. Wistram had forgotten more than he knew, and the school of physical combat magics was just one area. Divination—of course, yes.
Still, he wasn’t some omnipotent being. So Eldavin listened, and half-shot out of his chair.
“An attack on the inn?”
He remembered The Wandering Inn! The Grand Magus accepted Valeterisa’s copy of the battle, inscribed into a spell crystal, and watched it on fast-forward. He sank into his seat, slowly.
“Who is that [Witch]! That’s—she’s using a ritual summoning spell. I have no idea what that thing is—”
Valeterisa was eager; she leaned forwards like a schoolgirl. Eldavin glanced at her.
“It’s not a failing; there are any number of such things you could summon. But the scope! The scale! Did you see that? Grimalkin tried [Greater Dispel] on one of the cardinal links and it barely flickered. If that thing had come out, it might have leveled…all of Liscor. I can’t imagine it would stop after getting past the walls. Trees and Treants, that spell! That’s a [Thaumaturge]!”
He spotted Xrn. But his attention was all on Belavierr. Eldavin watched the rest of the battle, frowning mightily. He had a number of thoughts. But his priority after all was said and done was not for Mrsha, or the inn, but the [Witch].
“Who was that?”
Valeterisa paused. Her grey eyes, shot with what looked like jagged purple thunder—the first uncontrolled manifestations of magical alteration to her eyes from the sheer magical power in her body—focused on Eldavin, quizzically.
“You—don’t know who that is? Belavierr the Stitch Witch? Is this some kind of humorous pun or jest, Grand Magus?”
The half-Elf shook his head.
“I don’t care to waste time any more than you do, Valeterisa. Who? She was using a Naq-Alrama needle. Nothing else has that kind of piercing capability. We just saw—those fools. They were striking at a dimensional-protection enchantment. The sword, half those attacks that got through her [Spellguard] enchantment on the dress? They went into a pocket dimension. Like punching air.”
He could follow most of her spellcasting with ease, which made the lack of this powerful [Witch]’s identity all the more troubling. Valeterisa nibbled at a fingernail.
“Perhaps you know her by another name? The Spider of Terandria? The Witch of Webs? She is an infamous figure; most would recall her name. She is alive, unlike the famous [Mages] of old, or those whose works exist.”
Eldavin’s brows creased. He searched his mind and came up with…nothing. A disconcerting nothing, so profound he realized it was tied into the gaps in his memory.
“Intriguing. Do you know other recent [Mages] of old? Archmage Doorsa? Valmira—of the recent spell? Shoko, the Warlord-Magus? Warmage Thresk…?”
She named a number of influential figures, living and dead, whose works had endured. Centuries to decades to millennia. Eldavin’s look of blank incomprehension continued.
“Perhaps it’s a gap in my memory. I’ve—no, let’s put that aside.”
He rose, as much to hide the disconcerting effect the absence of any memory had had on him as to focus on the real issue at hand. The truth was, Eldavin didn’t want Valeterisa to know that he’d…lost…something after the near-death experience at Cognita’s hands.
That damned Golem. That ungrateful—he still remembered it. Eldavin had been going to free her, and then she’d resisted his spell! They’d fought, and he’d taken serious wounds.
Troy, that brave lad, had saved him. Eldavin had been wounded for four days. Cognita? No one had seen her, and the idiots didn’t think to worry when she vanished.
Well, Eldavin would offer her no more mercies. In a way, he was grateful to her. She’d woken him up. He’d had a good think while he lay, convalescing of his wounds, and he couldn’t understand what had gotten over him.
Senility. The half-Elf could recall more recent memories easier. Longer-term ones, like Belavierr’s name and anything about her? Gone. He worried about that and had been looking into memory spells—all the ones he’d cast and had turned up nothing. Perhaps the Truestone Golem had damaged him with an ability unknown.
Well, he’d live. He was living. Eldavin whirled.
“Witch of Webs and old legend or not, that inn is under our protection. A poor showing by those three [Mages]! What do the Archmages want to do?”
“Put the Earthers into our care. They were wary of your injunction, however.”
The half-Elf frowned. Grand Magus Eldavin poured himself a drink, then telekinetically whisked one to Valeterisa. She sniffed at the wine, and refused it.
“Water is satisfactory for my health and hydration.”
“Your choice. As for the Archmages…I don’t see why not.”
The Archmage of Izril eyed Eldavin, stopping in sipping from some purified water.
“You do not? You had been most strident on the issue of Ryoka Griffin and the inn before now.”
Eldavin drew the word out as he sat back down. He glanced around the rather spartan living room; he’d have to get more decorations in. All of what he had were gifts right now. A rather lovely tapestry he’d accepted from Viltach with some Dragons casting fire down on a city—he didn’t know why he’d taken to it. A mage-window that reflected the air over a rather lovely Terandrian city from Feor, and so on.
“I don’t know why I thought that, Valeterisa. I was quite content to let Miss Griffin—a Runner who has impressed me now and then—race about. In light of recent events? I reconsider. Let’s pull them over to Wistram if they can’t be safeguarded. And that inn is not safe.”
Eldavin recalled the inn. Of course, he recalled Ryoka too. He remembered her reaching his cave, him dismissing her, messing with her memories—ah, the tricks one got up to! And him putting a [Geas] spell on her to deliver…well wishes…to Az’kerash?
For a birthday? Eldavin frowned. Yes, he recalled that. The half-Elf recalled…
He looked down at the dying Runner, mildly shocked at the blood. [Restoration]. There was only that spell first—he began casting it.
The Dragon spread his wings slightly and his forked tongue flicked out—
The half-Elf spread his arms slightly and pointed his wand—
And then of course, he’d gotten to know her more. That impudent, yet charming young woman who made acquaintances of the Frost Faeries. A brave girl…
Eldavin couldn’t understand some of the choices he’d made. Sending a birthday’s greeting to Az’kerash for his two hundredth? The [Necromancer] had shown just how honorable he was by going after Ryoka. No—Eldavin should have left well enough alone and supported Magnolia. Another brave girl.
Brave, and entirely right all those times she’d urged him to leave his cave—no, his laboratory to take a more active role in the world. He’d make it up to her. Eldavin was making up for lost time.
What he didn’t understand was why he’d left The Wandering Inn well enough alone. He recalled how much he’d admired that [Innkeeper] who’d died, mourned her, even. Erin Solstice.
Why? Because she’d bested him in a chess game? That no longer seemed—significant—as before. Eldavin shook his head.
“No objections, but let’s phrase this as the Terras faction agreeing to work together, Valeterisa.”
She nodded; she was a savvy expert in Wistram politics, for all her love of scholarly magic. That was why Eldavin had chosen her of all the Archmages to put his might behind. Plus, she was new to Wistram, another returning [Mage] with no true faction, like him. He rubbed his hands together.
“As for Belavierr? You don’t tackle someone like that without preparations. We’ll monitor her; I’ll look for improved spells on locating her. But let’s leave the Walled Cities to deal with her; there’s always favor to be curried among the Drakes. The Meeting of the Tribes is going on—damn. A shame Wistram can’t send an envoy over, but we’re at odds with them, aren’t we? I don’t understand where this idiocy around ‘Gnolls can’t be [Mages]’ is coming from.”
“It began when I was a student, I believe.”
“Hmm. Well, in that case—if you want to take the Archmages and this inn business—we’ll grab any of them who return, and one is already coming this way—I’ll scribe some more spells down.”
Valeterisa paid attention to that.
“Any ones I am unfamiliar with?”
Eldavin gave her an apologetic smile.
“None. Basic spells, Valeterisa. Well—I say basic, but no one knows how to summon elementals as familiars. Let alone form pacts! Not a single young student walking around with a Waisrabbit under their hat. The benefits—we’ll ‘leak’ it to our people later. I’ll copy over the advanced theorems to you…later this week.”
She nodded, disappointed, but Eldavin was feeding her spells slowly. She was brilliant, but give her everything and her investment in the Terras faction was limited. And Valeterisa had given him practically everything he’d asked for. All her lists of connections, all her secrets, everything for magic.
Well, he’d repay her. Eldavin stroked his beard. The Archmage of Izril bade him farewell, giving him another of her owlish looks. He glanced to the side when she was gone.
“Ah, you were here too?”
“I just came in. Reporting, Grand Magus.”
“Excellent. Then—shall we discuss matters over wine?”
The shy [Bard] ducked her head, but Eldavin ushered one of his apprentices in. Of course, it was a mix between individuals like Teura who had sought him out, throwing her old faction aside, and other [Mages] whose company was simply—beyond palatable. He taught them, advancing their spellcraft, and the half-Elf thought they genuinely enjoyed his company. If not, he wouldn’t have been as interested. And after all—one should prize mutually beneficial relationships.
He smiled, reclining. Fair company, influence over worldwide events, and a growing collection of small, useful artifacts…far better than that damned gloomy cave. He couldn’t remember if anything was in it. He remembered cataloging…what, air? Eldavin led the young, and quite charming lady, to a more personal, private setting, and remembered to lock the door this time.
He stopped only once, frowning, before following after the giggling young woman. The half-Elf touched his chest. He was fit, with a clean bill of health from all [Healers]. He’d looked into it, but he was without flaw. So why…?
Why did his heart hurt so?
Then he shook it off and got back to living.
Valeterisa stopped outside of Eldavin’s door. She had not missed the [Bard] who’d remained. Nor Eldavin’s proclivities of late.
[Major thought // introspective, analysis // troubled, not exactly hurt] – But not me. I must not be attractive enough.
Troubled, yes. Not offended; Valeterisa was glad. She would have done whatever was necessary for magic and she was familiar with this kind of relationship. It might have entangled things had they split up, and that was needless work.
However. She felt—Valeterisa’s thoughts ran through over a hundred words and settled on the easiest.
Yes, simply disappointed. In Eldavin. She had thought he was different. She looked back and uttered the words even she had known would be socially unacceptable.
“What happened to you, Grand Magus?”
He was the same. Still insightful, still genius, possessing knowledge long-lost, but something was gone. His values had changed. She did not know why. But it changed Valeterisa’s attitude towards Wistram.
The Terras faction was valuable. Eldavin? She would have followed him to Rhir to learn more. He was giving it to her, piece by piece, though. So…Valeterisa wondered if she was needed here.
Grand Magus Eldavin wanted an Archmage’s power behind him. Valeterisa didn’t need to be here to grant him that. If he continued to provide her with new magical theorems approximately every week and a half, her involvement here corresponded mostly to Wistram politic gains, information on Earth, and personal relationships.
Not magic. Valeterisa was reasonably sure the Terras faction would double or triple in value, so now she walked away from Eldavin’s quarters, routing a [Memo] spell at Viltach with the details about the inn.
She decided she would consider leaving the academy. Because she was…disappointed?
All information sourced from Wistram regarding Earth could be analyzed in any location. Spells, likewise. Valeterisa’s actual body could be put to use in more advantageous locations than here.
Especially since Eldavin had confessed he’d given her a sabotaged long-range teleport spell and helped her realize the true spell behind his tricky, flawed version.
Valeterisa stopped in the banquet hall. She looked around as [Mages] and students gazed at her.
[Information request // urgent, priority // anything I am forgetting?] – What did Valeterisa have to do in Wistram?
Short-term goals: Look into Troy Atlas’ golem. Research possible wind-magic regarding Ryoka Griffin.
Long-term goals: Learn magic from Eldavin. Acquire more funding and support for magical research. Continue researching Earth technology with links to magic.
Well, she’d crossed out a lot of things from that list. Valeterisa appended one more item to that list as she felt one of her thoughts ping her.
The Archmage of Izril was nothing if not direct. She reached out, and snatched the nearest object from a Golem walking towards the buffet line. She stared at a pizza slice.
She scarfed it down. Students watched in a kind of awe, and even Telim, the famous snatcher of entire turkeys and dishes, looked a bit impressed or appalled as Valeterisa gobbled down ‘sufficient nutrition’ with her bare hands. From the buffet table. Without a plate.
Then she grabbed the most convenient-looking foods, dumped them into her bag of holding so she wouldn’t have to do this later, and walked off.
Sa’la, the Selphid [Mage], leaned over to Telim.
“And here I thought you were bold. Think we should tell her about the Earther idea—that drink that contains all you need to eat in a day?”
“She might be blatant, but she’s no Archmage of Food. As for that drink—bah! I’ll see it dead before anyone produces it here. Takes all the joy out of life! It offends me to my core. So as I was saying, Sa’la—consider joining the Terras faction. I know, you’re independent and you’ve heard it all before, but here’s my rebuttal. Eldavin…”
Valeterisa walked off. She had made up her mind, and when she did…she acted. Many people wasted time with overthinking things. Valeterisa overthought everything, but she seldom wasted actual time on actions that could be simplified.
For instance—she rattled the doorknob as she came to a halt at her next destination. The door was locked. Valeterisa stopped stuffing the books she’d pulled out of the library into her bag of holding; all the books she hadn’t had copies of, that was. She pointed at the door.
It unlocked. The Archmage walked in. She saw Troy Atlas and…someone she didn’t care about whirl.
Trey Atwood had just been conferring with Calac Crusland about Amerys. The situation in Chandrar was looking bad, but they weren’t able to find her—yet!
“I’m Eldavin’s apprentice, Calac! Give me a bit more time!”
“We were told to move as fast as possible. The King of Destruction is wounded and you want to learn spells?”
“That’s why we’re here. Just—”
The doorknob rattled and both young men turned from their fierce argument. Trey saw Calac instinctively go for his sword.
“Who is it? I’m a bit busy!”
He heard no response as he called out. There was a muffled voice—and then Valeterisa opened the door.
Both young men lurched to their feet, with the instinctive fear that she’d overheard. But Valeterisa didn’t look accusatory. She just looked, well, vaguely lost-in-thought as always. Her eyes focused on Trey.
“Ah, you are here. Good.”
“Archmage, can I help you?”
“Mm. No. Where is it? [Appraisal]. There.”
Valeterisa walked over. Trey saw her bend down—and a waist-sized Golem jerked upright. Minizi reached for her rather-more-dangerous claymore. She was being repaired after venturing into Wistram’s uncharted area, but she’d come back victorious after killing some kind of monster.
Valeterisa plucked a bit of Lifesand from Minizi’s miniature dreadlocks. She put it in her bag of holding and looked up. Trey stared at her. Minizi flailed, outraged.
“Oops. That was…accidental…”
The Archmage of Izril’s eyes flickered as she tried to come up with an excuse. Then she shrugged and gave up.
“Here you are.”
She put a handful of gold coins on the bed, turned, and walked out of the room. Trey and Calac stared at the Lifesand stealer as Minizi tried to totter after her, waving her sword. Calac turned to Trey.
“What was that?”
Valeterisa had found that if you took what you wanted, you could get away with it in a statistically high number of scenarios. She walked through Wistram’s corridors, ignoring the looks, the muttering when she ate, or acted rudely…
She didn’t care. In a way, it didn’t matter. If she needed someone to like her, Valeterisa would make an effort.
I gave everything for magic. My youth, my health, friendships…I left Wistram because few [Mages] believed in that. I thought Eldavin—
Well. She was leaving. The Archmage’s thoughts kept drifting back to Eldavin. It was a curious flaw; she was actually a bit emotional about it.
She produced a wand, stuck it against her temple, and lowered her own defenses against the spell. A [Mage] passing by stared at her. Valeterisa nodded as her mind loosened its grip on the disappointment Eldavin had caused.
That was better. Time to pursue the most optimally advantageous activities. Not in Wistram. Ironically, despite Earth being present, every [Mage] was devoting their time and attention to researching and collecting more information about Earth.
Valeterisa could recognize when a research team was overstaffed. She would collect salient data after they had organized it for her. She had a simple formula she employed.
To further the understanding and depths of magic, one needed a number of factors.
Time. Funding. Knowledge.
No more than that. Of course, you broke down all three areas into subcategories; time meant safety, a research spot, like the island she had labored to secure and fortify. Also—a way to prevent oneself from dying of old age. She was working on that, and kept hoping someone would start selling Potions of Immortality or Reverse Aging. She’d worry more in ten years.
Funding meant influence as well as money. After all, to acquire knowledge, spellbooks, or resources like mana crystals, you needed support. Financial and political.
She was heading out of Wistram because they had nothing more to offer her. Izril did. Or Terandria. Baleros?
“Hm…I should set up teleport waypoints to travel easily between the island and Wistram first.”
Valeterisa left Wistram through the front doors. She nodded to some students going out to try fishing with magic, walked past some Golems unloading cargo from the docks, and down, to the pier.
[Sailors] and a [Captain] stared as the Archmage walked towards them; she hadn’t chartered a ship. Then Valeterisa stopped, mid-step as the [Captain] hurried down the gangplank.
“Archmage, can we help you?”
She stared at the Human man blankly, then snapped her fingers.
“Izril is that way. Of course. I’m not taking a ship. I should cancel my ship-boarding routine…”
She pointed. The [Captain] stared as the woman turned, reversed direction, and began walking around the isle, to Izril’s geographical location.
Valeterisa had been going on auto-pilot, but she remembered a ship would take…weeks, possibly. Unacceptable.
So she walked across the rocky terrain on the other side of the academy, around the citadel, the home of [Mages], past rocks, a camouflaged battle golem…Cognita…
Valeterisa slowed. She looked back. There was Cognita, sitting with her head in her arms halfway submerged in the surf. She’d barely noticed the Truestone Golem.
The Golem looked up. She’d been…making a strange sound. Muffled amid the crash of waves. Valeterisa would have called it crying. The Truestone Golem raised her head and Cognita saw her face was also distorted from normal.
The two stared at each other. Valeterisa’s thoughts jumbled together, and an automatic-reply one took over.
“Hello, Cognita. We are having wonderful weather today, aren’t we? So pleasant to meet you!”
Her mouth smiled. Cognita stared at the Archmage. Valeterisa decided that was good enough.
The woman walked onto the surf, more heartless than the Golem she left kneeling in misery. Valeterisa began to walk…then stopped the pointless leg motions.
She began to fly. Cognita watched the Archmage of Izril cast [Levitation] and simply…fly off, towards Izril. Valeterisa began to rise higher. She was muttering automatic reminders to herself.
“Avoid low-flying over the sea; attracts Reefeyes and Sea Serpents. Cast [Haste]. Casting [Haste]…make sure you have magical barriers up…”
She levitated higher, speeding up. Cognita stared at Valeterisa’s back. Slowly, she reached for the sand and water flowing around her.
The mudball hit the back of Valeterisa’s barrier and she turned back. She stared at Cognita. Once again proving that barriers were essential to flight-travel. She waved and sped off.
Valeterisa spent the time in flight doing a few things. Her body was actually relatively easy to leave with only a few thoughts running. A few to manage the [Levitation] spell, watch out for threats, eat, manage her basic functions—she’d heard you could teleport urine and feces out of your body, but Valeterisa had weighed the risks of such a spell and decided not to try it—and so on.
She only had to focus every hundred miles, which was thankfully rare, to create the ‘pylons’ she’d use to teleport-jump back and forth from Wistram to other locations from. Of course, there were actual teleportation spells long in existence in Wistram, but a personal network was far easier than a [Greater Teleport] spell, which even Eldavin claimed not to know.
She could efficiently move from continent to continent, depending on the mana costs! Valeterisa spent some time analyzing how this might change travel, concluded it would still mean only those with exceptional mana and spellcasting abilities would be able to use it—or the rich and powerful—and added a few magical locations to her immediate ‘to-visit’ list.
Like Khelt. Wasn’t that under attack? Drat.
Anyways, the point was that most of Valeterisa’s mind was free to be used on other tasks, so she happily devoted over half to understanding the magical theorems Eldavin had given her. Some might actually help her with the new magic she was working on.
…He had reacted to her project. Did he know the spell? If so, and if that meant she had spent over a decade of research trying to re-discover what he knew, Valeterisa would be genuinely upset.
Either way, she’d pursue it when she could devote 80% of her mind to the task. Never 99%. Never again.
It was to Izril that Valeterisa’s thoughts went. As she had observed, Wistram had little she needed to be there to pursue. She communicated that to Eldavin.
Valeterisa to Eldavin: Am in transit to Issrysil, setting up teleportation network for easy return. Please communicate any needs via [Message] spell with the following encryption—thank you for encryption theory. I will provide any necessary resources or communication for Terras faction remotely.
Eldavin to Valeterisa: Transit to Izril? WHAT.
She didn’t respond. If he messaged her again, she would elaborate. Valeterisa put all that aside; her work in Wistram was done unless she was contacted. She felt relieved about that; she had so much work piling up after her ten-year absence.
Let’s see. Communicate imminent arrival to priority list. Her lips moved as she cast [Message]; she found it helped her self-check the communiques, and misunderstandings caused so much trouble.
“Valeterisa to Ieka: Hello, Ieka. I am returning. I hope you are not hexed. I see from your reply all is well? Talk to me about quote urgent business unquote later, and Ryoka Griffin. My first destination is my research base.”
She nodded to herself. Ieka was one of her rare contacts that was neither business nor magically-related alone. Both, of course; she was aware Ieka was very helpful as their family, Imarris, provided her with resources, but Ieka was listed under ‘affection’.
It was a list of four—no, wait. Valeterisa discarded one name she’d forgotten to remove.
“Valeterisa to Lord Deilan El…wait. Reroute through standard [Mage]…”
She sighed. She had to not only contact the House of El through the proper channels, but be more polite. Her lips moved and then, a surprisingly charming smile appeared on her face. No one could see, but she’d activated her ‘polite and social’ routine to compose the [Message].
“Lord Deilan El, I apologize for the delay. I am currently returning to Izril, and will of course communicate with you on further projects for the House of El at my soonest convenience. I regret to say that I am pressed for time at the moment, but delighted by the Kaalblade’s success. Please—”
[Major thought // self-introspection, calculation // banking, merchant’s guild] – Wait. What is the return on Kaalblade sales? Pertains to further work with House of El.
Valeterisa paused and checked her balance at the Merchant’s Guild. It was tiresomely slow since she had to ask the Merchant’s Guild to look up the information…her thoughts actually stopped on the figure.
…That was a lot of gold. Valeterisa had money, but even she could appreciate a sum like that. And—she was going over Lord Deilan’s correspondence.
A Kaalblade wielded by Ryoka Griffin? Valeterisa erased her last [Message] instantly.
“Lord Deilan El, apologies for the late response! I am returning from Wistram and was unavoidably delayed. I am delighted by the Kaalblades’ sales! I will communicate with you at my earliest convenience once I reach land, and would appreciate any further details on this mysterious Kaalblade. Sincerely…fill in salutations.”
The Archmage of Izril auto-tasked one of her thoughts to send and wait for a response. In the meantime, she sorted through the rest of her ‘inbox’.
She was delighted that Earth’s children had known some of the internal systems she was using, and the lexicon of words they’d provided had helped her immensely. She’d even optimized some of her own methods of thought based on their descriptions and these ‘computers’.
For instance, a ‘recycling bin’ that you used to double-check what you were erasing before consigning something like ‘what your niece sent you for your birthday’ to the void? Genius. And said long-term archival for useless data like that?
She read through her mail as she flew. Would you like a shipment of goods? No. Invitation to—deleted. Your relative has died—check the name, delete and omit further [Messages].
Of all the dross, only one recent [Message] stood out to Valeterisa not already on her list of contacts. She checked the sender identification, and saw it had come from a rarely-used area of contacts.
Southern Izril. That was to say, via Drake channels. Most of her clients were Human, and she had stronger ties in the north. Strange, since she had grown up in Fissival, but they had never liked her as much—until after she became an Archmage. And then of course, they hadn’t appreciated her statement of non-interference in the affairs of the Walled Cities…
This was interesting because the client could be important. The contents were interesting, however. Her thoughts skimmed out the superfluous details and presented her with the content. She began to respond.
“Archmage Valeterisa requesting [Message] spell to…fill in name…Wall Lord Ilvriss of Salazsar. To Wall Lord Ilvriss, salutations to the City of Gems, I am Archmage Valeterisa, and whilst my schedule is busy, I am intrigued by any personal spellcasting employment you would like to offer, with sufficient remuneration. May I inquire about specific details, or is the content quote secretive, unquote…?”
It was so hard to get [Lords] and [Ladies] of any species to just tell you what they wanted. Ieka was so simple because Valeterisa had taught her niece how to be efficient.
True to form, Ilvriss’ letter had been frustratingly vague, but Valeterisa found he had a [Mage] close by, because he responded almost instantly after getting her [Message].
Ilvriss to Valeterisa: Archmage, I am honored to receive your correspondence. I realize you do not often visit southern Izril and you have been indisposed of late.
Valeterisa to Ilvriss: For ten years, yes. I would like to qualify, however, that I am Archmage of Izril, and my connections to the Drake cities are no less strong than to the north. My business is seldom as pressing in the south however, hence my residence and the rarity of contacts. However, I am delighted to speak with you! How may I help a Wall Lord of Salazsar?
Her sociable-side was working overtime, trying to pull salient details. Ilvriss…seen in company of Zel Shivertail, net worth…very appreciable for a possible job offer, one sister, father named Zail, etc. etc.
Ilvriss to Valeterisa: There is a matter of some delicacy which I would like to employ your services for. In person, if you would be willing. I am prepared to hire you at sufficient price.
Valeterisa to Ilvriss: …May I know the contents of this matter, or are the details sufficiently secretive that you would prefer a face-to-face visit? Travelling all the way to the south of Izril is something of an imposition—
Although she could probably set up more teleportation pylons. Valeterisa chewed her lip.
Valeterisa to Ilvriss: —so long as we understand that my time is limited. I do avail my services for hire as a spellcaster, but I should warn you the price may be extreme.
Ilvriss to Valeterisa: I am sure I can provide sufficient funding, Archmage, and would be willing to reimburse you for your time. However, I am currently indisposed at Oteslia, which makes travel somewhat impossible.
Why? Valeterisa consulted the news. Another siege? She sighed.
Valeterisa to Ilvriss: Delightful, Wall Lord Ilvriss! I accept, although I understand travel is limited. Perhaps we could coordinate a further time?
Ilvriss to Valeterisa: That would be most welcome. Could you travel to Salazsar, or would you prefer a more northern meeting spot? One closer to Zeres?
Valeterisa to Ilvriss: As I have indicated, my schedule does not allow for excessive gaps in my itinerary, but—this is taking too much time and effort. Sociability ended. I will visit you immediately if you wish, Oteslia or other locations. I can arrive within two weeks.
Ilvriss to Valeterisa: At your earliest convenience would do, Archmage.
Valeterisa to Ilvriss: Good. I will indicate travel time. Please quote remuneration.
The Archmage checked the figure after it came in a few minutes later. Ten thousand gold to set up teleportation pylons south and maybe investigate the inn and Ryoka along the way? She sent an acceptance and wrote him into her plans.
She sighed. Being sociable took so much work. Valeterisa flew on. Ieka, Ryoka, Ilvriss…and then she’d get back to the important work of magic. All the rest was just to further her ends.
It never really occurred to her that the people she was going to visit had hopes and dreams and goals of their own. Or that they seldom liked to sit still.
Or stay out of trouble.
No emotion. The best answer was a calm, logical, rational one at all times. That was how Valeterisa lived. Even she couldn’t divorce emotion entirely, though.
Everyone else? The [Princess] screamed. She struggled, screaming for her daughter. Stolen away! Hunted by a [Witch].
All her fault.
“Let me go. I promised to keep her safe! I left her there to—”
Mivifa held Lyonette with Wilovan, and refused to let the [Princess] rush out into the siege encampment. She felt wretched for doing it, though. If she had doubted it when Lyonette claimed to be a mother—
They were dead. Ratici and Wilovan looked at each other. They thought of Mrsha—and Crimshaw, the other Brothers. They said nothing, focusing on Lyonette. If anything, the Gentlemen Callers surely rethought their presence in Oteslia. They kept doing it.
Thinking the inn was safe, just to see it destroyed again.
Mrsha was gone. Kidnapped. It was not the first time, but it hurt no less. It was no less dire. Lyonette, when she calmed down, rushed to the Mage’s Guild. To speak to the people in the inn. And…Mrsha’s other self-appointed protectors.
The Halfseekers, who were already returning to Invrisil. How did it hit them? Moore? Jelaqua? Griffon Hunt and Briganda, who was a mother herself?
There was nothing they could have done to prevent it. Unless they had never left, unless they had remained. That was the guilt. Intellectually, logically, you could know that it wasn’t your fault.
But people, real people didn’t look at it that way. You…you promised to protect Mrsha. You took her little paw, knowing all the horrible things that had happened to her, that might happen.
You swore you would keep her safe. And while you wasted time in the north, on vanity, on less-important things, the most important, dreadful event of all occurred.
And you. Weren’t. There.
“Jericha! Jericha, help!”
The assistant jerked into action so fast her wand cleared its holster and was charging with a spell before she knew what she was firing at.
Hethon Veltras was shouting. In other times, that wouldn’t have provoked Jericha to charge out of her rooms where she’d been napping. She saw some of the other guards appear just as fast.
Who had gotten the ones on duty? Jericha stormed around a corner, ready to kill something. Anything. What she saw was…Hethon. Desperately trying to stop a crawling woman who’d gotten half way down the keep.
She was leaving a trail behind her. Tangled bed sheets, bandages stained red—she was crawling. Jericha wouldn’t have believed she could leave the bed, but she had made it this far, despite Hethon trying to block her.
Sammial was holding onto the Wind Runner’s legs. Her face was twisted up with pain, but the wind was blowing like thunder outside.
“Let go of me. Where’s my glider. I have to—”
She was panting. Sweating—Jericha saw red liquid running down her cheeks.
She snapped at the bodyguards. Hethon and Sammial’s escort hadn’t been taken out after all; they’d just been hovering, watching for enemies rather than interfering in the scuffle between the [Lords] and Lord Tyrion’s…lover?
That was the unclear part, but either way, Ryoka Griffin was an honored guest and dragging her back to her bed was a dubious task for one of House Veltras’ [Soldiers]. Even if she needed it.
Ryoka Griffin’s arms trembled as she tried to pull herself another foot. She was bloody. Jericha bent down.
“Miss Griffin, you’re in no condition to move.”
“Out of my way!”
The air in the keep moved and Jericha felt a push at her chest. She held her ground, despite the [Dangersense] beginning to go off. Ryoka’s eyes were crazed.
“Belavierr—Mrsha—I have to go to Liscor! I should have been there! I’ll kill her. I’ll—”
The words cut off because, even mad with worry and guilt, Ryoka couldn’t properly visualize killing Belavierr. However—Hethon’s look of terrified worry wasn’t misplaced, nor was Sammial’s attempts to stop Ryoka.
“You’re bleeding! Stop! I order you!”
The [Lord] shouted at Ryoka. He backed up as a [Healer] came running. The [Lord] looked down at his front and blanched.
It was covered with blood.
No—not exactly blood. Jericha knelt, a potion in her hand. She saw Ryoka was…sweating blood. But it wasn’t quite blood. Sweat and blood. She had been leaking the liquid for the last three days.
The red lightning had done more than just strike her. The Wind Runner couldn’t move. To Jericha’s understanding of magic, it was an advanced curse mixed with lightning.
“I have to go to Liscor.”
“You won’t fly. I will inform Lord Veltras at once, Miss Ryoka. However, you are in no condition to move.”
Ryoka panted up at Jericha. The woman had the Wind Runner confined to her bed. Sammial hovered there with Hethon. Ryoka was muttering.
“Belavierr. Belavierr. Ivolethe will freeze you! Stay away from Mrsha. I invoke your name Belavierr! I’ll summon the Faerie King on your head! Oberon!”
She was raving, plagued by the curse as well as the news from Liscor. Hethon felt his skin prickling, and not just from the tone of Ryoka’s voice.
“Who’s Mrsha? What happened?”
Sammial earned a smack on the arm. He’d told Ryoka about the attack when Jericha and Ullim had both said ‘let’s tell your father first’. Ryoka’s eyes opened wide.
“She’s—I’m supposed to protect her. She’s just a kid. Sammial, Hethon. Are you there? I can barely see—”
Her head oozed a bit of that red liquid. Sammial anxiously looked for the [Healer], who had gone to get more healing potion. Hethon offered Ryoka some of the approved stamina-restorative. She gulped.
“We’re here, Miss Ryoka. Can we—do you need something?”
“Yes. Tell Jericha—get a [Mage]. Send something to Laken Godart. Riverfarm. Tell them about Belavierr. Tell them to find Mrsha.”
Ryoka’s eyes rolled. Hethon nodded and hurried off. Sammial stayed there.
“What is Belavierr?”
“A coward. Do you hear me, Belavierr? I’ll call on Teriarch! I’ll—”
Ryoka gagged on something, choked. She spluttered, and then rasped. If her threats were doing anything—choking on phlegm didn’t seem like a Belavierr move. Being strangled by your pillow? Yes. It might have been that she was too far—or that her threats were so pitiful that Belavierr just ignored them.
“Wiskeria. That’s it.”
Her eyes opened wide. Ryoka jerked up. Sammial screamed.
It had been four minutes and she’d passed out, then she’d screamed the name. She fixed him with a desperate look.
“Sammial, where’s Hethon?”
“Going to find Jericha.”
“Well, go find him. Tell them I want to talk to Wiskeria.”
The two boys found the woman and listened as Jericha bent over Ryoka. The young woman was rasping up to the [Mage], and all three of them found themselves listening. Ryoka’s condition was terrible, and Tyrion had put off his romantic pursuits to investigate another curse on someone close to him. He was actually coming back from First Landing, where he’d been petitioning House Terland for aid.
Yet as terribly as she was suffering, she was dropping names and secrets she normally kept guarded.
“Tell Laken he owes me. Mrsha—tell him I’m calling in—Wiskeria. Her mother did this. Call her off.”
“Call the Witch of Webs off?”
Jericha’s skin prickled. Ryoka was muttering.
“Her daughter. Tell Wiskeria to contact Belavierr and have her forswear…I know she can. Somehow. Tell them.”
“I am. I’m…”
Jericha was [Messaging] Riverfarm live. She spoke.
“Laken to Ryoka. We are now aware of the situation. Wiskeria has sworn to petition Belavierr regarding Mrsha. We will attempt to divine Mrsha’s location. What is her last name?”
“Stone Spears. Mrsha of the Stone Spears tribe? No, wait…Mrsha du Marquin?”
Ryoka didn’t even seem to be aware of how hard Jericha was locked onto her. Sammial and Hethon exchanged glances. They wanted to know about Ryoka too, but they were sort of on the Wind Runner’s side.
“How can a Gnoll have two names, Miss Ryoka?”
Jericha bent over Ryoka, urgently. Hethon danced on his feet.
“Um—um, Jericha. Maybe—maybe—”
He didn’t know what to say that was sufficiently distracting, but Sammial burst out.
“Maybe Ryoka should talk to Wiskeria! Do a communication spell like you did for father!”
Jericha glanced at him, annoyed, but Ryoka nodded feverishly.
In short order, Jericha had a scrying orb linked and Ryoka was muttering to a woman with a dark blue hat on the other end.
“Can you call her off? Tell her I’ll bring down the wrath of the fae on her. Tell her—”
“I can’t summon her, but she made my clothing…she doesn’t talk the same way you can to me, Ryoka. Let me—don’t threaten her.”
“I’m not afraid of her. I’ll—I’ll—grab Excalibur. I’ll get Arthur to get it and—”
Jericha was leaning in, through the doorway. Hethon bit his lip. He reached for the door.
“Lord Hethon! Please!”
Jericha reached to stop him. Sammial kicked her in the back of the knee and she fell down. The boys slammed the door shut and missed the rest as they were told off soundly.
By the time they got the door open, Ryoka was passed out. Wiskeria, however, seemed to be in communication with Belavierr herself. Jericha froze as the [Witch] fiddled with her spectacles.
“Mother. Mother, what’s this about? Calm down. I’ve never heard you actually raise your voice like this. Are you attacking little girls, mother?”
Her eyes flicked up as Jericha paused. Wiskeria listened to…something. Was her hat whispering to her? It had a sibilant tone, like the voice a spider might make, if only a spider could speak. Just hearing it made Hethon clap his hands over his ears and Sammial screw his face up. It was…
“Don’t use your voice on me, mother. I’m not a child! And this isn’t a girl who pushed me—”
To their amazement, Wiskeria held her aggrieved, arguing tone. Reply to the hiss of immortal wrath on the other end. She paced back and forth.
“Three relics? More? Your eye? Okay. Okay. No, I will not join you in vengeance. It sounds like your fault. I want you to call off vengeance on Mrsha. Forswear.”
The argument went back and forth. Wiskeria shot an aside to Jericha.
“She doesn’t like getting hurt. Someone—hurt her? What’s this about her eye? She’s angrier than I’ve ever heard her—hold on.”
She went back to speaking to her hat, staring up at the tip and sky.
“I’m asking you as your daughter. Yes. Yes, through Ryoka, who’s made threats…don’t you dare. Forswear vengeance! What do you mean, a ‘pact’? We’re family. Can’t you do one thing without—fine!”
Wiskeria threw her hat down and stomped on it. Then she picked it back up, set it on a stump, and glared at it.
“Forswear all harm to Mrsha, her friends, family, and no ill will for the rest of her life.”
The hat didn’t like that. It actually opened up a mouth full of stitched thread—a horrific sight—and spoke.
“I will not. More than one has offended me greatly.”
Wiskeria was folding her arms.
“Then—all physical, mental, and magical harm to just Mrsha.”
She turned to Jericha.
“Best I can do.”
Again, the hat didn’t like that, but the whisper became inaudible to the others. It seemed to Hethon like the…strings were whispering. He shuddered, but Wiskeria just rolled her eyes.
“Mother—mother—be quiet, mother. Your daughter is asking. So don’t say ‘vengeance without end or relief’, because we both know it’s about cost. I’ve heard you say that to that [Lord], remember? What’s the price?”
Sulkily, the hat responded. Wiskeria raised her brows.
“Absolutely not. At least…ten years. No, make it thirty. Thirty years.”
Thirty years? Jericha whispered incredulously, but Wiskeria flicked her a glance and shook her head. She walked over and whispered to the orb.
“That’s not a good thing. That means she’s going to hold a grudge forever. If she goes after Mrsha when she’s a hundred…I’ll get her to forswear thirty years and renegotiate when twenty have passed and add another thirty. She’ll forget Mrsha’s a Gnoll, not a half-Elf.”
The woman eyed Wiskeria, who didn’t look more than twenty something herself. The [Witch] flipped her hat up.
“It’s worked for six people so far—and I learned the trick from an older [Witch] who knew Belavierr. It’s the best we can ask for. Alright mother, thirty years. Mrsha only. No harm. You can’t touch her, cast a spell, or even speak to her.”
The hat grumped. Wiskeria poked it.
“I know you, mother. Do we have a deal? What are your terms?”
She sat down, sighing. Ryoka began to come to. She stared, blearily, at Wiskeria talking to her hat. The [Witch] of law rubbed at her face, clearly annoyed.
“Fine. I’ll write you a letter. Two letters every four months, at least. That’s my offer. At least two hundred words each. Deal?”
Ryoka blinked a few times. She turned her head with effort to Sammial.
“Is Wiskeria talking to her hat?”
Sammial could have elaborated, but the Wind Runner just nodded.
Her eyes rolled up in her head and she passed out for a while longer. Wiskeria was sighing.
“Okay. Okay. I’ll bake you something too. With love. Yes, mine. I’ll add a drop. Do we have a deal?”
She seemed to conclude whatever deal with the [Witch] by placing the hat on her head. Then it became silent—normal. Jericha stared in a kind of awe as Wiskeria turned, adjusting her spectacles.
“You…persuaded the Spider to leave this girl alone?”
The [Witch] shrugged.
“I did. On that note—oh. Ryoka’s asleep. We’ll try to help with that curse, but we’d need to be closer to her. Alevica could go if she’s in the area, but she’s hard to track down. Tell Ryoka that I’ll try to visit her. Right after I bake something.”
She sighed again. Jericha looked at Wiskeria. She had all kinds of notes and questions and this conversation had given her much to research.
Somehow, though, even Jericha didn’t quite dare to ask Wiskeria about her relationship with her mother. She nodded, and closed the spell, then hurried off to write down…everything.
“Ter—him. Him. If I could just ask him…”
Ryoka was muttering when Sammial and Hethon came back. Jericha had gone off to put in an order for more researching with House Veltras’ contacts. She opened her eyes wide.
“Jericha. Did I say anything to her? I didn’t say…anything?”
It was a sign of how sick Ryoka was that Hethon’s reply actually fooled her. She relaxed.
“I’ll tell him. And…someone else has to find Mrsha. Who?”
“Father will help. Unless she went south. He says sending soldiers past Liscor is an act of war.”
Hethon had heard Jericha sending [Messages] to Tyrion. Ryoka muttered a curse.
“Someone. Who? Klbkch is gone. Hawk? Where’s…she can do it.”
Her eyes opened again.
“I need to send another [Message].”
“I’ll get Jericha.”
Hethon looked for the door. Sammial stopped him.
“She’s just going to tell!”
“Don’t tell. Can’t. She’s important.”
The two boys looked at each other. Sammial scratched his head.
“I’ve got it!”
Hethon came to an idea. He darted from the room. Sammial stared after his older brother and saw Hethon race back in, furtively.
“Ullim’s [Message] book.”
“You can’t use that! You’ll get into trouble!”
Hethon knew that, but he wrote down what Ryoka told him to—then tore out one of the pages of the book of [Message] spells for those who used many such spells.
The message was short, and sweet, and Jericha didn’t know Ryoka had sent it. Hethon saw the Wind Runner smile before she lapsed into labored breathing, and that was worth getting in trouble.
He wondered who Fierre was, though. And why Ryoka had told her she needed Fierre to unleash…
Sammial Veltras watched as Hethon helped Ryoka. Then as the [Healer] came back to help Ryoka. He waited for Ryoka to say something, ask for more help, but the female [Healer] ushered the boys out as she changed the red bedding.
Not blood, but still horrible. The Wind Runner was cursed. Hethon looked away, faint from the sight of the curse. Sammial looked back, not seeing the point of tasteful nudity yet and thus having nothing to be ashamed of aside from the grossness of it all.
Thus, it was he who opened the door right back up.
“Lord Sammial Veltras!”
The [Healer] shrieked, scandalized. Sammial marched up to Ryoka, who was nude. He stared at her as Hethon raised his fist to hit his brother.
“What’s that? I’ve never seen that before and I’ve seen her naked!”
He pointed. The [Healer] hesitated. So did Hethon. Then he turned beet red.
Sammial pointed just below Ryoka’s right breast. The [Healer] stared at it, and then Hethon. Both looked accusatorially at Sammial.
“There’s nothing there!”
Sammial gave his brother and the [Healer] a dubious look. No one could see it, not even Jericha. But Sammial did. It was a glowing red mark. And it looked like a familiar sigil. It was…pulsing. Of course, Jericha grew worried when Sammial told her about it and tried another [Dispel Magic], although she’d already cast it a few times since Ryoka had been hit.
She was aware of the power of auras, which were a natural counter to the most magical beings like Djinni; the reason the King of Destruction could fight them. Royalty was a counter unto great magic and even Skills. If Sammial saw something by virtue of his innate talent, it might be a manifestation of the curse. However, the odds were just as likely it was…
Fierre val Lischelle-Drakle had never received a [Message] like this from Ryoka. It was short, simple, and to the point.
Please find Mrsha. Keep her safe. Bring her back. I need you to use everything. Everything. No matter what it takes. I will pay you back somehow.
It was the kind of favor only people like Ryoka asked. Ryoka, who was an all-or-nothing friend. Who’d go risk her life for a friend. Of course, that she asked it of Fierre was different than fulfilling that kind of thing herself, but as Ryoka had observed, she and Fierre were a bit alike.
And this was the kind of thing the Vampire girl had been waiting all her life for. Especially after she’d been cured. It was almost an excuse.
Just this once…because she had to…because she’d been asked…Fierre the Vampire would reluctantly use the full might of her heritage.
By the time Fierre got to the inn, it was emptying. She stepped around the monster parts still being dragged out, smelling the blood—
The inn was destroyed. And it was being abandoned, even as she watched. Oh, those were loaded terms. Fierre hadn’t seen the inn when it was blown up by a skeleton—or destroyed in the Creler fights. It was actually a lot more intact than you could hope for.
Sure, every window had been smashed in by monsters and [Soldiers] coming in. Okay, the top floor and roof were shredded by the arrow barrage, but the hallway was only filled with gore. The walls were intact. That was something! The…uh…blood would come off.
It was the fact that this was the eighth time or something that did it. The fact that Belavierr had gone into the garden. She hadn’t succeeded, but…she had gone in, in a sense.
Fierre saw the Earthers, the guests, milling about. Some had been on the way out, like Hexel. He was going to stay with Elirr, for purely business reasons since the Councilmember was kind enough to offer his shop to the [Architect].
Montressa and Bezale were both going to Invrisil. And they were taking Joseph with them. Already, the vultures were circling.
The vultures. A Pallassian official tried to cozy up to Joseph in the hubbub.
“Excuse me, Coach Joseph, we have your home ready as agre—”
She was practically kicked out of the way by a [Mage] who’d hurried through from Invrisil. She was checked by Bezale’s arm, but the Pallassian [Negotiator] wasn’t going to be stopped that easily. She strode forwards, and a whistling [Maid] swept her legs.
Fierre counted Wistram, Reinhart, Pallass, and that was just the groups with multiple agents on the ground. They were all trying to tug the Earthers this way, or that.
Why? Why now? Because…this was the first attack after Erin had died. Somehow, many had assumed they’d stop now that the [Innkeeper] was dead.
They had not. And some of the Brothers were dead. An army had broken on the inn, and they had been pushed back, yes. But the thought remained.
Who would be next? Imani and Palt were arguing.
“I’m not moving to Pallass. I could—work at Tails and Scales, if Rufelt and Lasica need a hand. Timbor’s promised us rooms, Palt.”
“He has steps. What about Invrisil?”
“I want to stay in Liscor. I told Erin I’d cook for her. I’m…I’m not going far.”
The two would leave the inn, though. Simply because Pallass’ [Soldiers] might have promised to help secure it, but that meant the Brothers were gone. Maybe they’d be next when Belavierr came back for round two with Facestealer and…and the Greater Frost Wyvern and two Adult Creler groupies just to fill out the set.
Perhaps they would have all stayed. If the inn were going to still have the regulars.
But they were leaving too. Not just Rags, who was standing apart with her Wyverns, far back from the Drakes casually eying her tribe, not just the [Mages].
Mrsha was gone. Rags stood, talking with those who would go after. Numbtongue was sitting down, broken twice by her loss. Empty-eyed—until someone grabbed his shoulder.
He looked into crimson eyes. Badarrow hauled Numbtongue up.
“Stop sitting around. Why are you sitting? We—going after.”
He struck Numbtongue’s shoulder, then his chest, and pointed to the south. It was the most talkative Badarrow had ever really been. Numbtongue half-shook his head. He pointed at the inn.
“I have to stay. Erin…”
“Erin is ice.”
Numbtongue whirled. The [Bard] nearly struck Badarrow, but the [Sniper] caught the blow. The other Redfang snapped.
“Little Mrsha gone! You leave? Nothing gets in garden. Not even that—thing.”
He gestured, making a triangle over his head, the closest he could come in Goblin sign to ‘witch’. Numbtongue wavered, but Badarrow looked at him.
“You leave her?”
Mrsha? Mrsha, who loved Numbtongue, and called him a big brother even when they fought? The [Bard] looked at the garden.
Nothing had ever gotten in. Not even Belavierr. Only…the thing that he had never seen, and he had no proof it had ever existed after the statues had gone back to normal. Yet even it had never touched Erin.
His head bowed. Yet if Erin came back this moment, and he saw her wake up, what would he tell her about Mrsha?
They were all going. That was why the inn was truly broken. You could rebuild it a hundred times. It was just wood and stone and copper nails, for goodness’ sake. But if there was no one in it…
The [Soulbard] flexed his hand. Did he have the strength to bring Mrsha back? He had failed to harm Belavierr. And this—Wanderer—had her.
He didn’t know. The cruel irony was, though, that he was more qualified to protect Mrsha now than he had been yesterday.
He had leveled up. The [Soulbard] felt the new Skill burning in his claws, ready to be used.
[Goblin Soulbard Level 35!]
[Song – The Brave Fall First obtained!]
A song for men with hats. His first true song of war. Paid for in blood and loss. Numbtongue embraced the Skill and new level. It was a [Bard]’s duty to remember Crimshaw’s name.
He would use it to bring Mrsha back.
The Goblin had leveled. Numbtongue was not the only one. Everyone who had survived the battle, practically everyone had leveled.
Mrsha, being carried away by Wanderer, Wanderer himself, Rags, all the [Mages]—it was easier to name who didn’t level.
Like Niers. And…Niers.
Not everyone got Skills, it was true, but everyone leveled. Sometimes multiple times. It depended on what they had done. For those who had flung themselves at Belavierr—they had leveled almost by surviving, not doing damage.
Xrn had done damage. The Centenium was in no mood to appreciate her levels, however. Her arm was gone, and Facestealer had stolen it. The Free Queen looked down at the Centenium.
“There is no way to recreate your arm, Xrn. Even in Rhir—it would have been a task.”
The ‘voice’ wasn’t Xrn’s actual voice; her neck had been torn half-off. So it was a thought translated to speech via magic. She was unable to even move; suspended in a converted Birther sac to heal as best she could.
She was incapacitated, she knew. If she could make use of the new Skill and level—it would not be now.
By contrast, Pawn was similarly incapacitated. However, he would live as indicated. And while he hadn’t gotten a miracle to cure poison…sadly…he had leveled the most of any one person on that battlefield.
For turning away the Witch of Webs, for defeating her with faith alone, the [Doomspeaker Priest] lay in his bed and heard the voice.
[Conditions Met: Doomspeaker Priest → Priest of Wrath and Sky Class!]
[Priest of Wrath and Sky Level 30!]
An odd class. He felt it should be unique, but it wasn’t. Yet what was…and what confirmed he had been redeemed came after.
[Miracle – Summon Workers (Holy) obtained!]
Somehow, still the same. Somehow, it still fit no matter that Workers had not come before. Yet Pawn did hear something. Like blood pooling in his mind, it came to him. He did not want it, but it was in him.
Great power to protect.
The wrath to doom a city.
[Miracle – Bane of Luck obtained.]
A Skill to take something away. To hurt. Pawn waited. Yet for his new class, and his battle with one of the things that would never walk in his Heaven while he existed—he was given three Skills.
The last was simply like a sigh. Like fresh air. The green of spring. Of reawakening.
[Skill – I Walked Under Heaven’s Sky obtained!]
The [Priest] sighed and lay back. If he could have smiled, he would. Yet Mrsha was gone. For her, he would have traded it all. He prayed for her.
Pawn leveled up the most. Mrsha was third. The person who leveled up second-most was a [Blacksmith’s Apprentice] in Liscor, who had no idea why he had jumped so many levels.
He only made the connection with selling the Worker a club and shield he’d made when he checked his Skills.
Rags had not slept since the battle. She had no time to investigate her Skills. Her Goblins were getting ready to leave.
Like the others. She growled at the watching Drakes and Gnolls and other non-Goblins. Her skin prickled.
Some of them looked ready to kill her. 4th Company and Embria were the nice-looking ones. She turned briskly to Badarrow.
“I will give you Snapjaw and her Wyvern. No more.”
“Not more, Chieftain? Might need.”
Badarrow and Rags kept their backs turned, and they spoke in Goblin tongue, with Goblin gestures. Let the others try to eavesdrop on that.
Rags made an apologetic gesture.
“If could, would. Needed. Also—lightning-rain-death city. Not good Wyverns. Fly-die.”
She meant Pallass. More than a single Wyvern would attract attention. One was more than enough, and she would miss Snapjaw…but she and Badarrow were a pair and Rags knew better than to forbid it.
“Come to Goblinhome first. Supplies.”
He nodded. Rags glanced around as Badarrow went over to join Snapjaw. Numbtongue would stay. Calescent? He was coming back. The Hob had made up his mind, and reluctant as he might be—he was a [Chef]. A battle-chef, but not suited to finding little Mrshas.
“Chieftain, can’t send more Goblins?”
She shrugged at him as he came over.
“Little Mrsha danger. But Gnoll fight for her. Less danger than us.”
He grinned ruefully at that. Rags had a different opinion of Mrsha’s kidnapping. It might be safer than here, frankly, and she couldn’t help. Mrsha had Goblin-spirit, which was the biggest compliment Rags could give. She would be fine, Rags hoped, and that was all.
Calescent knew Rags’ reasoning, and he was going with his Chieftain. Badarrow had disagreed. He would stay and join Numbtongue. And…Rags glanced sideways.
The female Hobgoblin sat on the ground, arms and legs crossed. Ulvama didn’t look up. She had bent her head down, and sat there, ever since she’d heard about the Goblins arguing whether to help or go.
The female Hob didn’t respond. She was blasted by Belavierr’s magics; most of her magical paint was gone. She muttered as Rags nudged her with a foot.
“Go away, stupid Chieftain. Always leaving good Goblins behind. Petty Rags, not bringing me along. Stupid name, too. Not real Goblin name.”
Rags raised her brows. So that was how it was. She shrugged.
“That’s right. Stupid Rags, leaves Ulvama behind. See you later…[Shaman].”
The Flooded Water Tribe’s [Shaman] glanced up. Rags looked down at her.
“Badarrow follows later. We fly!”
The Goblins flew, back towards the High Passes and Goblinhome. Leaving those who would head south, after Mrsha behind. As Rags flew, she looked back just once.
If she had any regrets—aside from all the stuff around the attack—it was that she hadn’t found that little man. He might be dead. Or hiding. She had looked quite hard, but he had vanished.
She wondered where he was.
The Goblins weren’t the only group trying to figure out how to rescue Mrsha.
Selys Shivertail had missed all of it. So had Drassi and Olesm, although his excuse was he’d been fighting an army, so it was a good one.
She felt wretched. Worthless. Mrsha was gone. Kidnapped! And she couldn’t even go after her.
“Absolutely not. You’re not a fighter. Neither am I.”
Drassi had her arms under Selys’ shoulders and was holding her friend back. Selys whirled around.
“Then what do I do, Drassi?”
The [Heiress] whirled, shrieking at her friend. Drassi screamed back.
“I don’t know! Put up fliers! Ask around in the cities! Just don’t go off tracking! You know what I’m doing? I’m going to put out an announcement on Wistram News Network! Gnoll girl kidnapped!”
She blinked, catching herself. The [Reporter] looked around.
“I am going to do that.”
Selys blinked too, at Drassi.
“That’s…a good idea. A really good one.”
“Right. So what are you going to do?”
The Drake looked around. What was she going to do? She was—was—
She spotted Fierre, speaking with some of the others. The Human girl was standing in the shade of the inn.
“I’m going too. Ryoka asked me to come.”
“She’s not coming? Ryoka? I thought she’d be here! The Halfseekers are going to come and search as soon as they can! Griffon Hunt went the wrong way to Riverfarm—they’re trying to figure out if they can make it! Listen. I don’t uh—know you well. But how well is this thought out? Do you have a plan? You can’t go south. Not you.”
Snapjaw stared at Olesm. She had come back, panting, and her Frost Wyvern was lying on the ground. She’d found no tracks. But there was a scent-trail.
“You need a Gnoll to track them. It’s faint, Wing Commander, but it’s there.”
Captain Wikir reported, glancing sideways at the Goblins. Snapjaw glanced at him. Olesm turned back to 4th Company.
“Yet you didn’t pursue, Captain Wikir?”
“Sorry, Strategist. It passed the Bloodfields and that’s enemy territory. Hectval could’ve taken a shot. If you want scouts…”
That was the issue. Olesm turned back to arguing with Snapjaw.
“You don’t have tracking, and you’re Goblins. If you go south, every Drake city and Gnoll tribe will take a shot at you.”
The Goblin [Eater] bared her teeth.
“So? What’s new? Who are you, anyway?”
Fierre had no idea, but she thought Snapjaw had amazing teeth. The Goblin gave her a sidelong grin. The Vampire covered her own canines reflexively—then nodded at her.
“Snapjaw, right? Fierre. We met…I’m going after Mrsha too. I’m not sure if we’re going together or apart, but I’m going.”
Olesm turned just as skeptical eyes on the, what, eighteen-year-old girl who looked half as big as Wikir? She had no muscle, and up till recently she’d looked fairly sick. Very pale; she seemed a bit…taller…to him.
“Don’t you have a job?”
She gave him a closed-lip smile.
“Yup. But I’m not entrenched and Mrsha is missing. Do you think we’ll just leave her to be kidnapped?”
“No, but—! You have no funds, Miss Fierre. You might have to hire experts, provide for yourself.”
“I have enough money for quite a bit.”
“And I’ll cover all expenses. I’m putting a bounty on Mrsha! Her safe return, I mean! Anything you need for travelling—a carriage, food—it’s yours.”
Selys stalked into the conversation. Fierre glanced up. The Drake was agitated, near tears.
“Whoever’s going to find Mrsha—I’ll help!”
Olesm threw up his claws, but in the next breath, he turned.
“Alright. If you’re going south—at least let me get you a map. You do have a map, don’t you?”
Snapjaw glanced up at him.
“…Yes? No. Give map, blue Drake. Thank you.”
Joseph Ortega watched Olesm argue with Fierre, Snapjaw, and Numbtongue. Well…Numbtongue just sat there. He had drying blood on his armor. He had cut down countless numbers of the monsters and soldiers in the hallway.
Joseph wondered what level he was. The [Bard] looked bleak, though. Yet he wasn’t a statue in the garden; he was going with the others.
To find Mrsha. Joseph on the other hand was aware of how Montressa and Bezale were fending off the others trying to get to him. The [Mage] was arguing, red-eyed and bleary with a Pallassian [Negotiator]. She was winning—mainly because the fumes of alcohol were half-choking the Drake.
“So—are you going with them? I’m…thinking about it, you know? Otherwise, we’re like, going with one of them, aren’t we?”
Joseph turned. Troydel walked over, hands in his pockets. Joseph, who had stabbed someone with a spear for the first time today, stared at the other Earther.
“Where the fuck have you been?”
The young man avoided Joseph’s look. He spoke, a bit too rapidly.
“Sorry I missed it. I mean—not sorry. This is all crazy. Did you hear? Everyone’s leaving the inn. They want me to go to Pallass. Where…where’re you going? Unless you’re joining the hunt?”
Joseph opened and closed his mouth. Troy stared at Numbtongue and the Wyvern.
“They’re going to jump on that thing and fly off? Like the Goblins? I didn’t even get to speak to the Goblins!”
He meant Rags and the others, especially the amazingly-cool wolf-riding Goblin with the twin swords. That was the kind of thing Troy and Leon had wanted to see. Joseph? He just stared at Troy.
“You want to go with them?”
“Why not? Hey, if you don’t want to go to Pallass, we can fight it! They can’t drag us off!”
Troydel made a fist and threw a jab, which told everyone who saw it, ‘watch out, this kid doesn’t know how to fight’. Joseph just looked at his hands.
He knew that he wasn’t a fighter when he tried to be an adventurer. Today had just confirmed it. Kicking footballs around was a lot more fun than holding a bloody spear as someone slashed at you with a sword.
“Are you really going to go with them after Mrsha?”
Troydel lowered his hands. He looked at Joseph, at the blood and corpses. He blanched at the sight of an adventurer disemboweling one of the dead monsters and comparing the organ with a sketch.
“No. I’m not. And I’m not staying here. I mean…look.”
He stared at the inn. Joseph saw the holes in the roof, the battlefield…Troy shook his head.
“We were safer with Magnolia.”
“We didn’t do anything.”
“Yeah. But we were safer. Right up until the [Assassin] attack, I guess. Well. Erin helped us and I’ve got my thing…”
Joseph eyed him, but Troy didn’t elaborate. The young man turned to Joseph.
“…But Galina was right when she went with the Players. Here isn’t where I want to be. I’m going to Pallass. You coming with?”
The [Football Coach] debated using [Power Kick] to boot Troy into a pile of corpses, but the fact was, he agreed with Troy. He shrugged.
“I’m going somewhere. Maybe Invrisil?”
He rose to say goodbye to Numbtongue and the others. To wish them well. None of them seemed surprised as the young man from Spain hung his head.
“I’d like to come with, but…I’m not a fighter.”
Numbtongue raised his head. He looked at Joseph and said it clearly. But he did rise and offer Joseph something.
It was a hand. Joseph shook it. The [Bard] stood, looking exhausted, bloody, but he did meet Joseph’s eyes.
“Go. We will come back. With Mrsha.”
“If there’s anything I can do…money? I have money. I can help Selys. Just say it.”
The others nodded. Joseph stepped back—and all the agents clustering around the field surged forwards. Fierre herself broke off investigating one of the downed Gnolls who had gone after Mrsha.
“Wistram, Pallass…oh, hey. That’s someone from Roshal. Um…Terandrian?”
She was counting the people vying for Joseph’s attention. The young man backed up.
“Coach Joseph, Coach Joseph! Hear me out! Before you decide on a place—”
“—A home, fine accommodations—”
“You don’t want Pallass! Invrisil is full of your people!”
Most of them had no chance. Even if they were agents hired from abroad to keep tabs on the inn, you weren’t going to get Joseph to sail to Lailight Scintillation. They tried, though. Right up until Bezale blocked them with a [Wall of Stone].
“That’s enough! Joseph, you’re heading to Invrisil with us, right?”
The [Football Coach] nodded dubiously. Instantly, Pallass’ agents protested, but one of them was already hurrying after Troydel, as the young man tried to see if he could get a better offer—with few results.
The fact was that all that attention, the ‘circling vultures’ as Valeterisa, Chaldion, or Fierre might describe them, were various powers realizing the inn’s clients were up for grabs. Imani and Palt had already vanished under an [Invisibility] spell and were heading to Liscor.
Joseph on the other hand? They wanted Joseph. Some of the agents might not have even known the value of an Earther, hence Troydel being ignored.
Joseph was worth a lot no matter what you knew, and it looked like a showdown between Invrisil and Pallass over the [Coach]’s place of residence, for all he was contracted to teach both. Especially because Invrisil had beaten Pallass in their first matchup, much to the horror of the Walled City.
That was sports for you. Chaldion had told his people to get Joseph if possible.
But the real Human that the agents were looking for, saving their best offers for, charm Skills, was Kevin.
Kevin, who made bikes. You could take football or leave it, but bikes, skateboards, and Solar Cycles was transportation and anyone with eyes wanted Kevin. Fierre even saw a delegation from Esthelm—a bunch of [Miners]—fight through the crowd.
“Where’s Kevin? We’re just going to get him—”
“Excuse me, I represent—”
The [Negotiator] from Pallass, and a hired [Contractor] who was representing Khelt both lost to Esthelm. Not because the small city had better [Negotiators], but because they knew how to throw elbows. As Ilvriss’ uncle, Nerul, would have observed, that was why you had an anti-combat Skill—or a [Bodyguard].
They fought through the crowd, although Esthelm would have been mostly happy to let Kevin stay in Invrisil where Hedault was. However, the [Miners], despite their tremendous ability to shove people aside, didn’t get to Kevin first. They did a circle through the crowd, and Fierre looked up from where she was conferring with the hunting group.
This was all a sideshow to Olesm’s discussion with Snapjaw. They had to organize a route, supplies, and a team.
“Listen. If it’s Numbtongue, me, Badarrow, Snapjaw, um, your Wyvern—”
Snapjaw patted the Frost Wyvern affectionately. Fierre stared at it.
“…Yes. Well, I’m sure you’re all high-level. But those Gnolls were good. We need more than just four.”
“Badarrow will see. Otherwise…we go. You don’t need to come. Bloodbiters too much work. Scream under sun, scream when cooking with garlic, scream when someone sneezes in silver dust…”
Ulvama poked Fierre in the side and the Vampire girl went white with terror. Olesm just gave Ulvama a blank look.
“I don’t know what that means, but I’ll see what I can do.”
He walked off and Fierre stared at Ulvama. The [Shaman] just gave her a self-satisfied look.
“What? I wrong?”
Before Fierre could shout or scream or run away, someone walked over.
“Excuse me, Sirs, Misses…heard you were heading after the young girl. Mrsha, as it were. Mind if we tag along?”
The group looked up. And there were two Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings. Numbtongue’s eyes widened.
Normen, the younger Brother, tipped his hat. He had a nasty scar down one cheek; a product of an enchanted blade. The other Brother had come from Liscor, having been arrested during the altercation with Wanderer. Those two alone had come over; the other Brothers had left.
“You want to come with?”
Snapjaw glanced at them, surprised. She had seen the dead hat-men. Normen and the older Brother tipped their hats.
“If we could be of use, Miss. The little Gnoll’s gone, and we were supposed to look after her. Doesn’t feel right, leaving her.”
Numbtongue looked at Normen and thought of Crimshaw and the others. The [Bard] spoke, slowly.
“You do not have to. All debts…you paid them.”
The younger Brother nodded. He reached for his side and produced something.
Crimshaw’s dagger. He’d collected it from his mentor. The one thing he would keep. Normen flicked it up, caught it. Then looked at Numbtongue.
“So you say, sir, and it’s appreciated. I just feel that Crimshaw would be going. Since he’s resting, I’ll come. If you need me.”
He held out his gloved hand. Numbtongue looked at it. Then he slowly took it. Fierre watched, eyes flicking to Ulvama.
The expedition grew. In the background, the susurration and arguments had grown quiet. The Vampire girl looked over, and someone raised their voice.
“Hey. Hold on. Stop elbowing me! Just—truce, alright?”
The factions ceased fighting, Montressa and Bezale with Joseph behind a barrier, Troydel shielded by Pallass’ [Soldiers]. The others looked around. One of the battered [Negotiators] stared about.
“Where is Kevin?”
The others looked, but they began to realize—in all the confusion, the person they were fighting over was…missing.
Kevin was gone.
Below the city of Liscor, the Antinium were making plans of their own. The Painted Antinium gathered around Pawn, who lay, convalescing, but turned as a new Antinium walked their halls.
Bird stopped in front of Pawn. He looked down.
“You cannot travel, Pawn.”
“That…is probably true, Bird. Are you going? You?”
The [Bird Hunter] looked at Pawn.
“Of course. I am here to see who else will come. I know I am banned, but Klbkch is not here. So I poo on him.”
Belgrade hesitated. The [Tactician] tapped Bird on the shoulder as the others drew around.
“You mean, you poo-poo him.”
“Possibly I would do both if he were here.”
In Goblinhome, as soon as she returned, Rags called the Goblins of her tribe to her as Badarrow stood before them. The [Sniper] leaned on his bow as Rags explained to the Goblins an abbreviated version of what had happened.
Most knew already, the Goblin social network being infinitely faster than most modes of communication. What they were curious about was…why their Chieftain had summoned them.
Also, who that was. Rags noticed the stares and turned her head. She jumped.
“What are you doing here?”
Kevin stared around. The [Engineer] scratched at his head.
“I uh…wanted to meet the Goblins that Erin was always talking about. He said it was okay. We’re all splitting up anyways, so…”
The young man gestured at the best [Negotiator], who had gotten him before anyone else. Rags turned to face Calescent. The [Spice Chef] looked smug as he waggled his eyebrows. In Goblin body-language, he was expressing immense satisfaction and hilarity at her reaction, and a slight shift of his head indicated the crossbows. And Kevin.
Eh, Chieftain? Seems like I did good, huh? Want to buy me that spice rack after all?
Rags eyed Kevin, ignoring the smug [Chef]. Kevin scratched at his head.
“Well…I was looking at the Wyverns, and Calescent was like, ‘want to fly? Come with.’ So I did. Am I in trouble?”
Master-class negotiation. Rags looked at Kevin, and then turned back to Badarrow. That was not what mattered right now. It was simply this. She took a deep breath and began to speak.
“Mrsha is gone. The inn is being abandoned. Erin is dead. For now. So, I am leaving.”
Bird spoke. The Antinium listened. The inn was…their heads swung back to Pawn. Yet the [Priest] just listened. His gaze was fixed on Bird.
The [Hunter] stood in the center of the Antinium, the Free Antinium, the Antinium from other Hives, looking around.
“Hello. I forgot to say this—I am Bird. You do not know me, I do not know you. Especially you.”
He pointed at Xeu. The Silent Antinium’s Prognugator clacked her mandibles. The others looked at Bird as he turned around.
“That is not important; I do not care. Mrsha is gone. I am going after her.”
“You will not survive.”
Pivr. Pawn had nearly forgotten the Flying Antinium’s Prognugator was here. Pivr stared at Bird.
“Are you suggesting leaving Liscor? That is not a sensible decision. To the south lies the lands of the Drakes. Gnolls. We are bound by our Hive’s pact with them. If any Antinium is found outside of Liscor or the Hivelands, they will be killed.”
“Thank you for telling me, not-bird Antinium. I like your wings.”
Bird looked at Pivr and turned away. He happily ignored Pivr.
“I have never been to the south. Yet some Gnoll has taken Mrsha. She is missing, and she is part of the inn. If Erin wakes up tomorrow—she will be sad. Lyonette will be sad, if Mrsha never comes back. I will be…sad.”
The Antinium listened. Bird looked around.
“So. I am going. I do not know where I am going, exactly. But I came here to ask if anyone is coming with me.”
They looked at each other, Belgrade, Garry, Pawn, Yellow Splatters, as the Antinium made his request.
“Badarrow is leaving. So is Snapjaw. They go to find this Gnoll.”
Rags spoke. The Goblins susurrated, expressing their feelings in gestures more than words. Rags looked at Badarrow. He should say something.
The taciturn [Sniper] glanced along the lines of faces. Towards the Redfangs.
At Redscar, the last leader of the tribe. Redscar folded his arms.
“Chieftain has battles to fight. You leaving tribe?”
“I give him permission. He comes back if not dead.”
Rags snapped back. Redscar shrugged. Badarrow looked around, and a sea of glowing crimson eyes met his. Kevin watched, fascinated, as a Wyvern sniffed him and drooled.
This is what they said.
Bird looked at Pawn. Badarrow glanced at Rags as he leaned against the Wyvern ready to take him back to Liscor. And…further beyond.
“Will you stop me?”
Bird tilted his head, curiously, gazing at Pawn. The [Priest] looked up at him.
“Stop you? I would go with you if I could. But Bird—Pivr is right. We are Antinium. I cannot ask others to die. The Antinium are going to war. Is that not so, Belgrade?”
The [Tactician] walked forwards. He nodded slowly, looking at Bird, at the floor.
“We are to battle Hectval. I was asked by Olesm to take command—Bird, I promised.”
The [Hunter] just smiled.
“If you promised, Belgrade, you must fulfill your promise. Unless you lied. I am not stupid, Pawn. Just silly. I will tell them, properly, what will happen.”
The [Priest] nodded and sat back. It was up to Pawn. The Workers and Soldiers listened as Bird stepped forwards. He faced them, the Free Antinium of the Hive, and Xrn and the Free Queen both listened and watched through their eyes.
Bird looked around, at the room full of painted signs, Fortresses of Fluff, books and toys and things to make living…better. He looked at his kin, and then back up towards the ceiling. When he spoke, his voice was not as playful, not as relaxed as it normally was.
It was still both things. Yet Bird’s voice was…serious. Intent. Conversational, matter-of-fact, and determined. Even the first Workers, Garry, Belgrade, and Pawn, who had known him from the beginning, with the [Innkeeper], had never heard him speak like that.
“I have been to Pallass, you know. Someone once said Antinium would never take Pallass’ walls and I walked on them. It was okay. There were lots of bird-Wyverns, and I got into trouble. I nearly died. But that is normal.”
The Antinium listened. Pivr’s mandibles opened and closed. Bird had done that. The [Hunter] shook his head, his antennae waving.
“They say these things. Antinium are not allowed here, or there. We are on Izril, and Liscor and the Hivelands, but we never go anywhere else. Maybe because there is nothing to see. Sometimes, though, I think there must be countless birds I’ve never seen, if I walked north, or south, until I left Liscor behind. I never did, because I did not need to. Liscor is nice. The inn is nice. But now, it seems the inn has run away. A silly little Gnoll has gone missing again, and I must find her.”
He looked around. The [Sniper] spoke.
“Her name is Mrsha. She is part of the inn. That inn. I am going after. That is why I go. If I come back…I will rejoin tribe. But I am going. To find her. Or die. Numbtongue is alive. He goes too. And Snapjaw, Ulvama.”
The Goblins stirred. They knew all those names. Rags looked at Badarrow. She nodded to him.
“It is a thing Badarrow must do. So he does. If any Goblin wants to go with—they can. They will be part of the tribe. But. They will die.”
She did not lie to them. She did not promise them illusions. You should not, between Goblins. Goblinhome focused on Badarrow. Now, they knew what he wanted.
“I cannot promise we will come back. No…I promise the other thing.”
Bird stood in front of them. His head rose, and he looked upwards. To the sky he could not see, but had stayed so many days and nights under. This place? This hive was…cramped.
Pawn felt like he could…sense Bird’s thoughts. For a second. The [Hunter] spoke then, and looked at the Antinium.
“I am asking if you wish to come. But I will tell you this: if you leave, you will never come back. That is the truth.”
The Antinium stirred. Bird walked forwards.
“We are Antinium. All these things Pawn and the not-bird over there said are true. We go to rescue Mrsha, but we are Antinium. If you leave, you will die far from the Hive. With no one to write your paint on the walls. No one will make a statue for you. It may be painful. No…I am sure it will be.”
Rags bellowed to the listening Goblins.
“This is not for the tribe! It is not for the good of Goblins!”
“We are not meant to leave Liscor.”
Redscar spoke to Badarrow.
“They will hunt you across Izril! If you go with them, they will watch you and try to slaughter you with every step you take. So why do you ask?”
He bared his teeth. A challenge, a question. Badarrow met the older Goblin’s gaze, unflinching. He thought, and Bird replied. He looked around, having prefaced the journey with the truth. The odds against them. Certain death.
“I tell you this because it is true. And I am asking because I am going, not because I want more Antinium to die with me. That is not my goal. If you were wondering.”
“Didn’t say I wanted Goblins to come.”
Badarrow addressed Redscar. The Goblin raised his brows.
Bird looked around, spreading his four arms to his Antinium audience.
“I am asking if you want to come with me. Because I am going. I must. So if you must—come. If you know you must go, even if you die, that is why you go.”
He lowered his arms. Looking at Garry, Belgrade, Pawn, all of whom knew what called him. Garry was opening and closing his mandibles, but Bird laid a hand on his arm.
“Pawn is hurt. Belgrade has a promise. And you are bad at fighting, Garry. I am going. Erin is here—you can protect her. Mrsha is different.”
“You cannot leave it to anyone else, Bird?”
Garry whispered. Bird just smiled. He shook his head.
“Mrsha is my big sister. She said that and I have no idea what it means, but it means something. I am the younger brother! Although she is sillier than even me. I must go.”
The Goblin nodded.
“A debt for the inn. It is still here. For the Redfangs who were there. Headscratcher. Shorthilt. They would go. So I am going.”
Badarrow looked around. There were not Goblin words for the specific meaning of ‘debt’. Not like this.
“How many times will you pay it?”
Redscar. He didn’t scoff, but the Goblins were curious. Badarrow just gave him a pointy grin.
“You never finish, until you die.”
The other Goblin thought about this. Then he laughed and nodded.
They stood there, in a single rank of bodies.
Hobgoblins and regular Goblins.
Workers and Soldiers.
Painted and unpainted, [Shamans], [Warriors], Cave Goblins and Mountain City Goblins, Redfangs, Prognugators of foreign Hives, Individuals and not.
“If you would join Bird, and leave us…”
Pawn raised his voice. Rags shouted.
“Goblins who will follow Badarrow—”
The line of Goblins and Antinium moved. Thousands of Goblins and Antinium, as one, did nothing.
They did not volunteer. They had heard what lay ahead and decided not to. Bird smiled and Badarrow grinned.
Good. Because they didn’t want all of them. If all of them had volunteered to die, that was a problem.
Their eyes fixed on the ones who had moved.
They stepped forwards, in perfect synchronization with no one else, and looked around, hesitated, and began to step back.
Then stopped. Goblins and Antinium looked at each other. For reasons only they knew, they had left the others. Stepped out of line.
Fifteen Antinium. Twelve Goblins.
Badarrow nodded. The Goblins of Goblinhome were tired of dying. Even for the best of reasons. Yet twelve had come. Twelve, who thought they had a debt yet to pay. He saw only three Redfangs. The rest of the Goblins were all of one kind.
Cave Goblins. He nodded at them and they bared their teeth in reply.
Bird glanced at the Workers and Soldiers. The ones who had known Mrsha. Who had gone to the inn. He made to walk towards them and two of the Antinium who had moved blocked Bird’s path.
Xeu, the Silent Antinium, and Pivr, the Flying Antinium, Prognugators both. Pivr clacked his mandibles, looking around in agitation. He gestured at Bird, as Xeu rubbed her scythe-arms, just as perturbed.
“…We have orders not to let an asset to the Hive die. You should restrain him.”
Yellow Splatters had not moved. He leaned against one of the walls and spoke as he looked at Bird.
“You could try. We will watch.”
“We have authority. Over you. You will obey.”
Xeu whispered to Bird, one of the few time she had ever spoken. Bird blinked at her.
The Silent Antinium stared at him. Bird peered at her.
“How about that?”
He began to walk past them, and the two Prognugators blocked his way.
“We have authority.”
Pivr looked confused. Xeu raised a scythe, hesitantly, as if wondering how to stop Bird without hurting him. It was one of the Workers who spoke.
“No, you do not.”
The voice was female. It spoke through the Worker. The Antinium fell silent. Bird looked up.
The Free Queen of the Antinium looked at Pawn. The Prognugators of other Hives knelt. It was the Free Queen who spoke. Just this.
“Bird. I name you Revalantor of the Free Antinium. Go. If you would protect him, Xeu, Pivr, you will bow to his will.”
The two Prognugators looked up. Bird smiled.
Then he walked out of the Hive. The Antinium followed.
The Goblins came down from the mountains the next day. The Antinium left their Hives.
By that time, Selys had bought as many supplies as she could. Bags of holding, horses.
There was only one Frost Wyvern. Fierre had been fretting over sunproof cloaks, their route. And…the gathering.
“Antinium? I’ve never seen an Antinium ride a horse. Goblins too? This is suicide.”
Palt was trying to talk them out of it. Bird pressed a finger against his mandibles.
“Be shush, silly horse-man. Do you think we don’t know that?”
The two Brothers leaned against their horses, looking at their travelling companions as the Goblins stared at the Antinium. Bird? He just made a fist and bumped Badarrow and Numbtongue and Snapjaw’s fists all at the same time. Ulvama ignored his fist-bump.
“Who else is coming? Who’s that?”
Ulvama frowned, standing straighter and hefting her staff warily. More people were coming from the inn. Fierre turned. She blinked.
She had expected one, not the other two. They slowed as they came down the hill. Palt looked up and scowled.
“Absolutely not! You’re not fighters!”
“Yeah, but we’re Runners. And if you’re chasing someone—there’s no one better. Fierre, I heard you wanted Garia. Not me?”
Fals and Garia Strongheart trotted down the hill. The City Runner and [Martial Artist] gave Fierre grins. The Vampire blinked at Garia.
“He wanted to come.”
“What about you? You’re not a warrior either!”
Palt trotted over. Octavia bit her fingernails.
“But it’s Mrsha. Look—it’s Mrsha, Palt.”
“Are you sure?”
“Someone has to come who can go into the cities and such, right, Fierre? I mean, besides you.”
The one actual non-monster beamed around as she clapped Fierre on the shoulder. Fals looked at Numbtongue and Badarrow. The [Bard] and [Sniper] duo glanced at him.
“You coming for Mrsha?”
“Yeah. If it wasn’t her—but that’s a kid. Right? Ryoka’s always going on adventures. I figured…I might as well.”
The two Goblins eyed the unfamiliar City Runner, but they didn’t turn him away. Fierre stared at the eclectic group, as Garia looked at Pivr and recoiled.
“What are you?”
The Flying Antinium just tilted its head, looking at Ulvama.
“What are you? A Painted Goblin?”
They didn’t know each other, some of them. The Cave Goblins nudged each other as they pointed at Garia’s abs. Bird was introducing Fierre to Xeu.
“This is Fierre, Xeu. She is Ryoka’s friend. I have no more information about her.”
“What is…a Ryoka?”
Fals was eying the rescue party. He frowned, peering around at faces.
“Antinium. Goblins. Humans. The three most-hated species are going into Izril’s south. Are you telling me we don’t have one Drake or Gnoll?”
The others looked at each other. Numbtongue shrugged.
“Drassi can’t fight. Selys can’t fight. Olesm is going to fight Hectval. Relc?”
He glanced at Badarrow and the [Sniper] made a face.
“Mm. Maybe. He gone though, right?”
“Yup. Gnolls gone too. Krshia gone. Elirr old…Halfseekers? Too far.”
The Goblins halted in listing all the people who couldn’t join in. Because someone was trotting towards them. No—two people.
The token Gnoll and Drake came to a halt, regarding the group. The Gnoll woman just snorted.
“Uh—hi. Can we come?”
Fierre blinked at the Gnoll…she had never seen before in her life. Numbtongue frowned. He eyed the Gnoll’s armor and weaponry.
“Who are you? Why do you want to find Mrsha?”
For answer, one of the two just grinned, but the Gnoll strode forwards. She stopped, and snapped a military salute as she not-quite looked past Numbtongue.
“Sergeant Gna, at your service. Sir. Heard you needed someone who could actually smell the quarry.”
4th Company’s Gnoll looked at the company. Fierre had lost her eyebrows in her hair.
“You want to come with us? Why?”
The Gnoll hesitated. She chose her words carefully.
“Wing Commander Embria got an or…request from Liscor’s Council and the Strategist. Said it was looking for volunteers from 4th Company. I volunteered.”
The others exchanged glances. Snapjaw bared her teeth in an unfriendly way as she eyed Gna.
“Really. Why do you want to come?”
The Gnoll scowled at the ground and kicked at some grass.
“Because I…really want to go with you. Look, do you want me to help? I can go if you don’t.”
She looked hopeful, but after some silent thought, Bird and Numbtongue nodded. Gna sighed.
The last of the volunteers was the most confusing, although she at least, was recognizable. The onyx-scaled Drake had a pack on her shoulders and a horse. She kept glancing behind her.
“I’d like to come too! My name’s Salkis. Uh—are we moving fast?”
Numbtongue blinked at Salkis. The Drake shot him a grin and looked around, sizing up the others. Fierre frowned.
“Why do you want to join us?”
The Drake took a shuddering breath. She was practically dancing on her feet—not least because someone was going to notice her body-double soon. She’d run away from home. As to why? She looked at Numbtongue.
“Because this is the most fun thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I can help. I know how to fight. There will be fighting, right?”
He just shrugged, backing up warily. Salkis fell into place. Fierre opened her mouth, but she didn’t have the heart to say no.
…No. Rather, she looked at the group and felt like this was madness. Over six different species, with various levels of gear, experience, backgrounds—not all friends—
“This isn’t an army. We’re all going to die.”
“If that’s your speech, I hate it. Thanks.”
Sergeant Gna called back. The Antinium just hefted their packs, silently determined. The Goblins started laughing.
“What’s so funny?”
Snapjaw nudged Fierre, then looked confused when no one else started laughing. Snapjaw swung herself into the Frost Wyvern’s saddle as Badarrow joined her.
“Tracks go past Bloodfields. We go that way. Uh. We marching? You all slow.”
The others looked at each other. The craziness of this dawned on them—well, some of them—at last. Fierre glanced up at Snapjaw.
“You’re going to fly?”
“You want Icecube to walk?”
The Goblin looked offended. Fierre shook her head, trying to explain. She pointed at Liscor’s walls, and the inn, where the army of the City of Inventions was clearly watching their group. One of them was calling back towards another, unseen.
“They’ve marked us. Instantly. We might not get past Pallass alive; we’ll have to walk. They’ll be [Scrying] us everywhere we go. Maybe even sending people to kill us.”
Snapjaw glanced at the Pallassian Drakes. Ulvama just snorted.
“They will try to scry us. I am a [Shaman].”
She poked her chest importantly. Fierre gave her a dubious look, but they had few [Mages] and her artifacts didn’t pertain to a group. Salkis opened her mouth, hesitated, and closed it.
No one said anything. Snapjaw was looking around, ready to give an order. Numbtongue hesitated himself, and Sergeant Gna looked like she wanted to go back, throw the short straw she’d drawn in Embria’s face, and have a drink.
It was the Worker who walked forwards. He turned and faced the group.
“Yes. We will go and live or die. And it is time to go, I think. Follow me.”
Bird raised his voice, and the band of Goblins, Antinium, Humans, Stitch-Person, Drake, Gnoll, and Vampire, all looked at him.
The Antinium was looking ahead. He pointed to Snapjaw.
“You will fly and scout. Ulvama will cover you from scrying. We will all march together, those not riding.”
Snapjaw objected, gesturing at the Antinium on foot. She didn’t care how long they could march; even Redfangs would fall behind the Brothers and others on horses. Bird shook his head.
“They will not be.”
The Goblin narrowed her eyes. She had served under Reiss, and she was as experienced as any Goblin Chieftain. Heck, she had been one until being subsumed into his army. Rags was one person to take orders from, but this Antinium? She leaned over Icecube’s neck.
“Oh yeah? Prove it.”
Bird tilted his head. He met Snapjaw’s gaze without flinching, and then raised his hand. He spoke.
“[On the March: Vigilance and Speed]!”
Fierre felt the Skill activate. She felt her body grow lighter, and she was suddenly aware of a Drake marking her from the inn.
The others felt it too. Snapjaw’s mouth opened wide, Ulvama started, and Sergeant Gna snapped to attention. They stared at Bird, even the other Prognugators and Antinium. Numbtongue looked at his friend.
“How did you…?”
Bird calmly looked about.
“You silly people. Did you think I did not have Skills? I learned chess from Erin. I beat Erin. I am Bird the Hunter. As Ksmvr would say—”
His mandibles paused. He opened and closed them. He tilted his head and waved his antennae.
“…I have no idea. I do not like Ksmvr. Here is what I will say: I am better than all of you. Follow my orders! Authority!”
They began to march. Fast, faster than anyone expected. Ulvama began casting magic as she rode, and Bird strode ahead of the Antinium, ignoring Pivr’s panicked questions.
Someone was laughing as they headed south, this war band of insanity. Insanity—bravery—it called to him.
Niers Astoragon had wondered if Bird could sell his Skills well. It turned out the Antinium was a natural. The Titan propped himself up, from the hiding place on Bird’s body.
He had been found. Not by Rags, or anyone else. Not the Eyes of Pallass, but by the Antinium, who’d stopped, following Apista.
He’d reached down and pulled the needle out. Then crouched beside Niers.
“How did you find me?”
Bird glanced at Apista, who was buzzing around worriedly, looking for Mrsha.
“I am Bird. I stare at small things and you are very small. What are you?”
So they rode. Bird tilted his head to the sky. He hummed as he left the inn behind.
[Revalantor Level 3!]
[Skill – Antinium Telepathy (Weak) obtained!]
[Liar Level 1!]
[Skill – Convincing Lies obtained!]
Ishkr watched them go. First Mrsha—then them.
They were all gone.
The Earthers, the guests, the family who had lived there. Erin remained, but she was gone too. The Gnoll walked through the empty inn, ignoring the Pallassian Drakes securing it.
They were not the inn. Now…he ran his hand across the counter. Walked through the kitchen.
Into the [Garden of Sanctuary]. The Gnoll walked up the hill, stopped at the frozen bier.
“They’ve all gone, Erin. What should I do?”
Without her, the inn was…drifting apart. The Gnoll sat down for a while.
“Until they come back.”
He rose, and walked down the hill. Until they came back…Ishkr realized this was the truth. He went to every shutter, and closed them. Boarded up the windows smashed in. He locked all the doors, and went to the front door.
They would move the portal door to Liscor. Unless Pallass decided to operate it here. But the inn itself?
It took him time to find a piece of wood suitable. And paint, a brush.
He found it in the basement, where an [Innkeeper] had abandoned it long ago. Ishkr wrote carefully, making the words larger. He put the sign up, over the door, and prepared to nail it in.
The Wandering Inn is closed. Please come back later.
He hesitated, as he took a few nails and a hammer. It was such a bleak message. It was—wrong.
The [Head Server] looked at the message. He thought of what Erin would write. Then he quickly reversed the piece of wood, and dipped the brush into the paint. He wrote again, and this time stood back. Satisfied, Ishkr put it up, nailed it into the door, and looked at it.
This was what the sign said:
The Wandering Inn is closed, sorry. Please return later. We’ll be back one day.
He read it again, and nodded.
“Yes. That will do.”
It was a promise. The Gnoll looked at it, and then turned his head. But they were already gone.
So he walked back into the inn, to serve the Pallassian [Soldiers]. To clean up.
But before it all, Ishkr paused by the bar. He looked around the empty inn, and found a good glass. He poured some liquid into it, went for the little lantern under the bar.
There was still a glow. He lit the alcohol, reminding himself to add fuel to the lantern later. To it he added a tiny yellow flower, watching as the flames ate it. One of a handful. They too would return and grow again.
The pink flame glowed on top of the mouthful of liquid. Ishkr raised it in a silent toast.
He drank, and the inn came back to life around him. The Gnoll smiled as he saw an [Innkeeper] standing there.
We’ll be back.
Then he closed The Wandering Inn until they returned. And waited.
Author’s Note: Well, this is the chapter after the chapter. I have one more chapter left in me—a short one—and then I will take my monthly break. Perhaps a bit longer; I’ll be going on a vacation with actual travel.
I do need it; I think you can see the signs of exhaustion. Lack of description, weaker scenes in parts…well, I hope you like it either way.
The revised chapter is still being worked on and I don’t know if I’ll get it done until after my break. Which is fine; I should edit when I’m at the top of my form. You can’t rush good storytelling, so it’ll be out when it’s out.
One more chapter. Thanks for reading! It’s not the end. It’s just something different.
Collaborative picture by Brack, ArtsyNada, Gridcube, AuspiciousOctopi, QtheBird, Chalyon, Mencret, Blueboyv1, Pontastic, Anito, LeChatDemon, Pythraithia, and mg!
Wiskeria, Ryoka, the Griffin Prince, and more by Tomeo!
Erin and the Umbrella of Sunlight by Miguel!