Interlude – Pisces (Revised)

Trigger Warning: This chapter contains numerous examples of sexual and physical assault, slavery, and various forms of torture as well as suicidal ideation.

 

Of all the things he had ever heard, the thought that Mrsha believed she truly was a Doombringer hit Pisces hardest.

It was far from the most painful thing to be spoken, even in that inn.

It struck him twice deeply. A perfect step-in, a strike past all his careful defenses and concealed truths. That little girl thought she was cursed. Responsible for all the tragedy that had befallen her and deserving of the terrible fate she’d been subjected to.

She was wrong. Maybe…he did not know her full story, so maybe she had made mistakes. Huge ones; perhaps she had erred so greatly someone died. Perhaps—it hadn’t been her fault and she could not have known. Yet she was innocent.

She had not chosen to do evil, so if she bore guilt, so did they all. She deserved no title, no markings like her white fur, and she should not carry that pain with her into the decades that would follow.

He wished he’d told her that, however uncharacteristic it might have been for him. He wished he’d done a lot of things. But Mrsha—most of all, Pisces wished he’d told her that.

For if he could believe that, perhaps there was some redemption for him.

It seemed that he was more deserving of the title of ‘Doombringer’ than anyone: three times in his life, he had brought death and destruction to the very same people he had called his friends, who had taken him in.

The first, as a boy on Terandria.

The second, as a young man in Wistram.

The third—the Village of the Dead and the obliteration within.

The fact that they had lived, used a miracle to escape, changed nothing

They could all be dead. Everyone but you. The thoughts dragged at him night by night, just like the past. He couldn’t escape it. So—as he woke and slept, and woke and slept again, the heavy collar of enchanted metal around his neck, the mundane bindings of a slave on his wrists, part of Pisces felt relieved.

So relieved. For at last, the [Necromancer] was receiving the just punishment he had evaded for so long.

 

—-

 

As he was led deeper into Chandrar’s continent, Pisces Jealnet walked. Then he rode. He alternated between both, talking a little and listening quite a lot.

There was little else to do on the move. And despite the stories or romantic images, talking incautiously while riding was a good way to bite your tongue off.

Even he couldn’t fix that. Bone? Yes. Flesh…ah, well, he’d never liked flesh as much as bone. Yvlon had once taken him to task about it.

Silver and steel, Pisces. I don’t see what the difference is. You’re a [Necromancer]—a zombie is no harder than a skeleton, surely! It may stink worse, but if you’re in for one, you might as well be in for the other. That would be like me not learning how to swing an axe and only focusing on a sword. For someone like you, it’s a strange weakness!

And what were you supposed to say to that? Pisces dimly recalled some sneering remark he’d made, but it was cover. A lot of what he said and did was—cover. Old habits. Deflect, lie, or hide how you felt. That was safer, even with friends.

He…wasn’t ashamed of the truth, but how could Pisces tell the sometimes surly, often high-and-mighty daughter of House Byres that he found bone and skeletons infinitely more attractive than a rotting Ghoul, or even the hulking musculature of a Draug?

His slightly superior friend and comrade might understand that. But if he told her that he found the look of ivory shaped just so—attractive? That he called the true creation of undead, proper undead, art? As beauteous as any horse or painting she admired?

What would she say then? Either she would be horrified, disgusted, attributing him the same qualities as some fetishist who slept in graveyards, or she would simply not understand. So he lied. It was simplest that way.

Ah—Pisces felt a jerk as he stumbled and nearly fell, caught himself, and for a second, dragged on the thin length of rope running through the manacles on his hands. It was looped around the steel shackles, impossible for him to free himself.

The tug ran down the entire line of people. Pisces heard a groan of annoyance, someone slow and stumble themselves—he caught himself. Then stared down at the manacles.

The manacles were themselves the same kind he’d had on now and then. Steel or iron or even wood; designed to make grabbing a sword or weapon harder, if not impossible, and obviously make it harder for a would-be criminal to flee. These were steel and cloth, ironically enough. Someone had made two bracers of metal, chained them rather generously with some metal, and then, oddly enough, added a cloth padding to the interior.

The odd part was the length of the chain. Pisces could, with a bit of difficulty, scratch his chin, even touch his toes when not looped into the rope procession. And padding? He had never seen this kind of restraint.

Perhaps because these manacles are not meant to be taken off so easily. He had not worn them for a few hours while being marched to a jail cell and interrogated, or even a day. He had worn them since he had woken up in dry Chandrar, enslaved and this procession of…he looked at the other figures ahead and behind him, also connected to the same length of rope.

The slave caravan all wore manacles like his; they would not be taken off, hence the additions for ease of use and comfort. It made them able to do basic tasks, and while it was more dangerous to a captor, their collars were the true prison.

He felt the collar’s cold metal around his neck. This one had no padding; some of the other [Slaves] had something like that, even vanity decorations. His collar was silver and mithril, harder than steel.

Enchanted. He could feel it blocking his natural flow of mana. With it on, he had as much chance of casting magic as the sweaty man he’d nearly dragged down in front of him, whose sweaty neck flaps Pisces had been dully watching for the last three hours.

He didn’t even have chains around his feet. That was the insulting thing. As impairing as the manacles on his wrists might be, Pisces had once been trained by one of Terandria’s recognized [Fencers]. Give him a blade—any blade—and he might have dared to fight the four-dozen some mounted captors riding in bored formation around the procession on the road. If he had a chance to escape, if it were possible to get them one or three-on-one at most…

But no. Pisces shook his head and kept moving, knowing to slow would have the person behind run into him. The collar was all they needed. With it, he could never hide from their magic. With it—they could also kill him if he grew too dangerous.

Pisces had woken up in one of the wagons loaded with goods, [Slaves] too weak to walk, even some of the slumbering [Guards] who traded off. Even this caravan needed a bit more than could easily be carried in bags of holding, and the wagons were useful for people like Pisces.

He had been half-dead for the first few days, burnt out of mana, raving when he was lucid, confused and delusional when he was not. He had apparently been close to death when they found him lying sunburnt and dehydrated in the desert, thrown by the teleportation spell.

“Still stumbling, heh, Pisces? Maybe you should ride in the wagons! Can’t have you slowing the pace. You were so quick on your feet in the Village of Death too! Maybe Wistram makes everyone on the scrying orbs look good.”

One of the [Guards] joked as he slowed to eye Pisces. The young man looked up at him, and had to swallow a second or two before replying.

“No, thank you. I would rather walk and build my strength.”

Ah, adventurers. Tough! Heads tough and too full of pride to ride! Myself, I’d rest up, but be my guest.”

The man rode ahead, and Pisces felt eyes on him. From the other people chained up in the two long lines, from the wagons, and even from the other [Guards]. They all knew who he was by now.

Pisces still wore his white robes, and they were still pristine despite living in them. His skin was dirty, dusty, and he would have no doubt had an odor but for the dry, gritty climate. His enchanted clothing, though, was the last possession he had. His rapier, his bag of holding, his possessions, even the spellbook he’d taken from the Putrid One’s collection were all in the possession of the caravan master.

But for that hint he wore something expensive, he might have been any young man, albeit from Izril or Terandria, rather than Chandrar where skin tanned fast under the sun. If you knew magic, you might be able to sense the death magic around him, but no more than that.

Yet everyone in Caravan Igheriz’s group knew that Pisces Jealnet was a Gold-rank adventurer and member of the Horns of Hammerad, one of the survivors of the Village of the Dead raid, [Necromancer] and former graduate of Wistram with a bounty on his head from Terandria.

They knew this, because they’d seen him on the scrying orb. Or heard about it after. Pisces was a celebrity before ever having come to Chandrar. Unfortunately—that was why he was here.

It earned him some respect, ironically enough. The [Guards] were not any kinder to the one Bronze-rank adventurer than the others—yet Pisces they had seen or heard about. He wondered if he could play on their vague admiration, but they still followed Igheriz’s orders readily.

No, not [Guards]. Not [Caravan Guards], or [Caravaners] or [Mercenaries] or anything of the sort. [Slavers].

Pisces reminded himself in his head. These were not like any people he knew. The almost exclusively-male group of [Slavers] that made up Igheriz’s Caravan made their living by owning, buying, ‘acquiring’ and selling slaves. The odd, interesting, disturbing part was how Igheriz labeled himself.

“Is Pisces stumbling? Well, we cannot have that! Slow! Slow and we rest. Give water—and see if the road ahead will stay clear, Azam. No monsters, no [Bandits], no sandstorms…we thank Roshal’s fortunes for such things, but I will not lose even a hair upon Pisces’ head until we reach home!”

And there he came himself. Igheriz was a Stitch-man, one of the Cotton-caste, but with noticeable ‘improvements’ from silk. Even a fabric Pisces had no ability to label on one hand; the skin it became seemed permanently slicked, almost sweaty? Yet it seemed strong enough as he rode one-handed towards Pisces.

As one of the [Slaves] permanently attached to his caravan went down the line, offering a long ladle of water to each person so they could drink several huge gulps then move on, the caravan owner leaned over his saddle and grinned down at Pisces.

“You see how I do such things for you. This is a sign of admiration, Pisces. I wish you to take note, no matter where your fate takes you after Roshal. I, Igheriz, give such tokens of respect to no [Slaves] other than the most beautiful of women or the greatest I have ever dealt with—and you are no beautiful woman!”

He laughed hugely at his own joke. Pisces bared his teeth.

“I would be even more impressed, [Slavemaster] Igheriz, if you would let me ride without manacles.”

Ah! Ah!

Igheriz waved a finger. He looked down at Pisces sternly.

“I am not that kind of a fool, Pisces. The manacles—well, adventurers like you get such thoughts. I know you are smarter than most, but Gold-ranks always think they can escape, collar or no. But that is not what displeases me. You keep calling me [Slavemaster]. It is to annoy me, I think? You would not like me to lose my good humor so I forgive you, Pisces! Remember: it is Caravan Leader Igheriz. I will not warn you a third time.”

He grinned and Pisces hesitated for a long second before ducking his head.

“Of course…Caravan Leader. Do you not style yourself by your chief class?”

The [Slavemaster]’s eyes lit up. Pisces took a grateful drink of the slightly brackish water being offered, and listened as the man replied.

“I am more than one thing, Pisces. Or we would call you [Necromancer], not just adventurer! I am a [Merchant]! I trade in goods and rumor! I make connections. And—yes, I sell slaves, but those who lead caravans are greatly respected. Roshal’s name—not everywhere. Especially not in Izril or Terandria, eh?”

He gave Pisces another knowing look. The [Necromancer] didn’t reply, and he was happy to be called that so long as there were no other pejorative added because that was what he was. Igheriz?

The man was a pompous, ruthless lowlife, and Pisces would have happily called him a [Bandit] wearing a [Merchant]’s skin if he were freed. He detested Igheriz, but unlike Yvlon—or Ceria come to that—Pisces could lie and be polite. So he smiled.

“Have you heard of my team, Caravan Leader? It’s been nearly a week and a half.”

“Ah! Of course. You ask every day.”

Igheriz slapped his forehead, again pretending to be astonished. He seemed to tire of the charade now and then, but his spirits were high. After all—he was going to be rich from selling Pisces.

“No word yet, but we are on the road and I will ask as a favor to you when we next stop. However, you needn’t fear! None of them have bounties, so they cannot be taken. If you hope they will catch up and rescue you—that too, I do not fear. You are mine, fair and done under Chandrar’s laws, and Roshal and Azam protect me.”

He grinned. That was the pretense under which he’d justified taking Pisces as a [Slave]. Pisces had a bounty extant from Wistram and Terandria—thus, he was fair game to be taken captive. It seemed like a poor and easily exploitable system to the [Necromancer], which was probably exactly why Roshal liked it. It wasn’t as if they had many Terandrian nations to impress; [Slaves] were not common in Terandria or Izril.

Pisces was a [Slave]. A Level 3 [Slave]. He’d woken with the class in his mind and he resented it. For one thing—it was…red…in his head.

That was how he could imagine it. Red, if there was a color. Not that it was a color; it was more like a pulsating, sear of…intensity. Thus, red. Like crimson blood. Like a heartbeat.

 

[Slave Level 3.]

[Skill – Master’s Sympathy obtained!]

 

[Condition: Famous Name obtained.]

 

Pisces had learned the secret that you could refuse classes you didn’t like long ago as a boy. But he had never known there were classes you couldn’t refuse. And—condition?

Igheriz had just laughed when Pisces had asked, those first few days when he had all the questions and no strength to walk.

Ah, there are classes and things Terandria and your fabulous Human kingdoms have forgotten, Pisces. Conditions? Well, let us say your ‘red’ class will remain until you make peace! Then it will be much better for you and change. As for conditions…this is hardly the worst that you can receive, so be grateful! For I am a generous man, and will deliver you to Roshal on a bed of roses—without thorns!—unless you force me otherwise.

Aside from the bed of roses part, Pisces had to admit, this was not the worst treatment for the last week and a half. But then—he’d only been conscious the last four or so days, rather than slipping in and out as his body recovered.

He suspected it could get worse, yet so far he was only marched at a steady pace all day. He rode in a second line of slaves now and then, to rest, and if he had wanted, he could have rode as well in the wagons. Food was not terrible, and he was not whipped. Igheriz had even stopped their progress for Pisces.

The biggest imposition to date was not knowing if his team was alive or not. Pisces suffered from nightmares waking and sleeping about if they were alive, if he had doomed them to oblivion caught in limbo or they had woken up somewhere worse than he was for his foolish decision. There had been no time! He had simply used the location Az’kerash had given him and…

They had bounced off Khelt. Pisces remembered that too. Some kind of anti-teleportation barrier? Once again, he cursed himself.

He had told them to go to the Village of the Dead, to find the Helm of Fire and persuade Az’kerash to revive Erin. He had activated the scroll, hadn’t stopped them from entering the heart of the city and rousing the Putrid One’s greatest servant. He might have gotten his team killed.

The worst thing in the world was knowing what might have been, and knowing how stupid you were. Unfortunately, Igheriz had recognized Pisces because he had a scrying orb, because he was rich.

Thusly—he could tell Pisces day by day news from home, perhaps to mock Pisces, or perhaps in the genuine feeling he was helping in some way.

Pisces kept thinking about ‘if,’ mumbling out loud to himself.

“They found the Helm of Fire. We could have stopped. Recovered it. We’d all be safe. We could have gone to Wistram. Why didn’t I ask for Wistram? Wait, you can’t teleport there. Or—Silvaria. He had to know somewhere in Silvaria.”

“Who knew about Silvaria? You mean teleporting? Serves you right, eh? If a giant monster was chasing me, I’d have teleported it.

Pisces turned his head to see who had retorted. He heard a grunt from ahead, and the man with the flabby neck looked back. By now, Pisces knew some of his ‘companions’, fellow slaves who tended to be put in the same spot to avoid fights.

“Would that have worked?”

Pisces looked at the forward man. Bearig was a sweaty fellow, a [Cook]. As portly as the stereotype, because he did like to sample his own food. He was, apparently, not a good [Cook], because the Stitch-man had been made a [Slave] for nearly killing one of his most esteemed guests, the [Magistrate] of a region in Nerrhavia’s Fallen, with a fishbone in a fillet.

Accidentally, but still the enraged Magistrate Ducaz had accused him of trying to murder him or gross incompetence, and thrown Bearig into chains.

The Garuda woman behind Pisces was also from that area; they were passing out of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, heading west, towards Roshal along the coast.

A [Thief]. Well, that was the kind of person you got in this kind of caravan. A mix of the innocent in poor situations, like Bearig, those in debt who were sold to recoup their losses, the simply desperate—those who lived on the street were easy targets—and criminals like the Garuda and Pisces.

She grinned superiorly at him with a cracked beak. Cawe had heard all about Pisces’ story. He glowered back.

“Firstly, if the Putrid One’s servant could have been teleported, I’d have had to touch him. I doubt he would have let me cast the spell, and if my hand did not rot off, we would still be in the center of the Village of the Dead.”

“Ah.”

Bearig nodded, looking suitably impressed. Cawe just tossed her head scornfully.

“Excuses. Shut up about it if you’re going to explain away why there was no other option. I’m sick of hearing of it!”

Pisces shut his lips firmly. He couldn’t tell her about the one part that might have been changed—Az’kerash’s coordinates. He had probably wanted to send Pisces somewhere secure, under his influence, or that he considered safe. Khelt, the Necrocracy, was one of the few places.

Even so. Now that they were on the move again and talking, Pisces jerked his attention to the present. He nodded at Bearig, who had to half-turn, and to Cawe, who did not.

“You two have been part of this caravan for nearly a month now. How long until we reach Roshal?”

“Eager to get to the auction houses? I’m sure you can look forwards to a rich master; we’re not. Bearig’ll be lucky if he’s sold to some place who needs a [Cook] who leaves bones in his food. Me? I’d rather have been in the gladiator pits.”

The Garuda woman sneered. She was resigned to her fate. It was Bearig who answered.

“We took a month on our route; we were heading north and south as well as east to west, Adventurer Pisces. But since you arrived, we’ve been heading west only, and fast at that. I’d say only a month. Far less if we begin using Skills.”

“Only a month?”

Pisces glanced down the road. Nerrhavia was not close to the coast, and he knew Roshal was at the southwest of Chandrar. They had half a continent to traverse! It was Cawe who jerked her head.

“Travel Skills. All the [Caravan Masters] have them. You have that one to thank for it, though. With him, we’ll not need many Skills.”

All three looked ahead. Towards Azam. Pisces stared ahead at the bare-chested half-Giant. Yet—not an actual half-Giant, more like one half-made of obsidian for skin. Actual obsidian, with glowing magma beneath. That seemed to be the form he chose, but obviously it was mutable.

Azam was a Djinni, and the true reason why Pisces would not escape even if he had the collar and manacles removed, according to Igheriz. From what the [Necromancer] knew of Djinni—that was correct.

“If he’s so powerful, why can’t Igheriz check the [Messages] for my team, and why does he have to pay for a scrying orb from Wistram?”

Pisces lowered his voice as Azam strode back down the road, having scouted ahead. He moved fast, like someone under a [Speed] spell, but he didn’t fly.

Cawe looked contemptuous, and even Bearig shook his head.

“He’s not that sort of a Djinni. He’s powerful, but no Manasource Djinni. Do you know what Azam is, Bearig?”

The [Cook] shook his head.

“I could ask.”

“Go.”

He shuffled ahead to ask the [Slave] ahead of him. Pisces glanced at Cawe.

Now here was something for his mind, finally clear and working, to latch onto. The [Mage] tilted his head.

“I’m familiar with Djinni from my studies, but I never looked into them deeply. What do you mean by type?”

He neglected to mention being expelled after only three years. The Garuda sneered, but seemed happy to lecture the Gold-rank [Mage].

“You don’t know? Even mighty Wistram…well, Djinni have types, so they have names. I do not own one, but some take to different things. You see Azam?”

She pointed at the obsidian giant.

“He can’t fly.

Pisces’ brows rose high.

“Truly? I thought they all could.”

The Garuda opened and closed her beak, frowning.

“Maybe if he took a form like mine, but I’ve never seen him fly, so he must not, right? Bearig, what is he?”

The [Cook] had come back down the line.

“They say he’s Aethertravel.”

Ah. Then he’s doubly-suited for his job.”

“Aether and travel. What would that entail in terms of his abilities?”

Pisces craned his neck, frowning at the giant. Cawe shrugged.

“Just as you see him do each night for travel. Raise and unmake walls for camp. Help us with weather, speed our steps and keep the horses fresh. Aether. What does the word mean?”

It was Pisces’ turn to be the expert. Normally, he relished such things, but he wasn’t among friends, so he answered without pretense, without a sniff or comment designed to infuriate.

“Another plane. A magical term. It may mean he can manipulate…dimensions.”

“Dimensions? Of what? A room? Hah! No wonder he’s a Djinni of Igheriz’s caliber.”

Cawe’s voice was scornful, but she kept it low. She was…spirited. Yet clearly resigned to her fate. Bearig was likewise cowed, and always talked about his family whom he had left without support due to his failure. Pisces shook his head, then reconsidered.

“No…well, exactly that. He could perhaps alter a room—or create a room where there was none before. Dimensional magic. Not many [Mages] today could do that.”

He looked forwards and the [Slaves] eyed Azam anew. Pisces saw the giant Djinni glance their way, and felt a slight shock on his skin.

Azam had more power in him than Pisces could likely hope to achieve in a lifetime. He was a being of pure magic, and the biggest obstacle in Pisces escaping…or for Ceria, Yvlon, and Ksmvr rescuing him. Pisces still held out hope that they would, or even the Necromancer, Az’kerash himself. He was a calculating genius, but perhaps he might feel he owed Pisces for landing him in this situation?

Azam did not grin or jest—he had never spoken to Pisces once, in fact. He, like Pisces, was a captive as well. A slave. He had no swagger, no boast; he just obeyed, and that made Pisces warier still. If he freed himself—he would have to make sure Azam wasn’t able to follow or outrun him.

He just had to work out how to get free first. This was Pisces’ life, now. Four days and nights he had marched, learning about Chandrar, this caravan.

He would learn too much, soon enough.

 

—-

 

It was two days before she even laid eyes on him. Of course, she, Igheriz’s favorite, did not walk with the others and he had…reasons for keeping her out of sight.

Nevertheless, the new [Slave], the famous one, was welcome to her as well, so he earned her gratitude simply by distracting the [Slave Master]. It was a rare chance for her to rest.

What rest came, though, was marred by the knowledge of her waking hours. Sitting in the bumpy wagon, staring at her arms. Her legs.

Dark lines she hated. Sometimes she plucked at them, but she stopped, knowing it would just invite more punishment.

When she first saw him, lying sick and baked red as a lobster, he was not impressive. Nor even when he stumbled along in the procession, for all he bantered well. Even so, she decided she would not hate him and try to be kind, if they ever did talk.

He was a prisoner too, for all Igheriz liked him. They were akin; important [Slaves], but that might make it worse. For now, she just peeked at him out of the wagon, curious, unseen.

Her name was Eloque. She had no hope that the Gold-rank adventurer would save her. He could not save himself. She was merely curious.

Everyone in the caravan looked at Pisces Jealnet. Yet what Eloque noticed from her vantage point was that mighty Azam, the Djinni, watched Pisces too.

Azam had never cared for anything or anyone in the three years she had been a [Slave] in the caravan. Not for other Gold-ranks taken to market, other species across the world. He watched Pisces. So the [Necromancer] was special after all.

 

—-

 

He was building his strength. Step by step, day by day, Pisces felt his abused body repairing itself after the trauma endured at the Village of the Dead. Sometimes he regretted that he was not a [Fencer] or [Duelist]; Yvlon and Ksmvr might have been on their feet far earlier due to their Skills.

…But he would not take that class. Had not, as a boy.

When had it begun? Something about this caravan, the [Slavers], the guards—was familiar. Pisces saw one cuffing a stumbling figure hard for slowing and holding up the line.

He felt the blow, over a decade ago, and remembered a voice.

Come on, boy! Move your hands and feet at the same time! You’ll disgrace the Jealnet name!

As if that meant something. As if ‘Jealnet’ meant anything other than they were descended from [Fishers]. But Padurn Jealnet had dreams of making the name forever associated with [Fencers]. He was considered a somewhat good one.

He owned a silver bell. Silver, not gold—some days he came back from a duel in a temper, having lost to as famous a person as the young [Lord] of Nadel. So he was touched with greatness in that sense.

His son had lost that during his training. Padurn believed he had no anger in his training; that no matter how bad a day he had, there was only the art of the blade, footwork, a purity of expression in the way the rapier moved and danced.

He still worked his son from before dawn till dusk. Without anger? Perhaps. But it was then twice merciless because it was so dispassionate. Perhaps it would have been best if he’d had a girl or his son hadn’t shown any gift. Yet Pisces? He had a gift.

Somehow, from the start, from the first day his pleasant life had turned into pain as he was shown how to hold a real sword and struck on the hands and arms if he didn’t hold it right—he had refused to gain the class. His father didn’t understand it, but Pisces had been taught to rebel from the very start.

 

—-

 

Pisces came back to the present world when they stopped. A bitter recollection, that. It was thanks to his father that he had the bounty that had landed him here—well, that and a number of other things. Theft, [Necromancy]—and taking a [Fencer]’s silver bell.

Pisces bared his teeth. He had earned that bell. There were two ways you earned your bell. By passing tests, by being approved by your peers. Or—by defeating someone who owned the bell in single combat.

He had bested his father the day he ran away. So class or not, he had the ability to defeat his captors with a blade and no magic.

The problem…was they knew it. Pisces had long craved fame in a positive way, but this? He saw the [Guards] and Igheriz watching him, and they made comments about the Village of the Dead raid, even asked him questions.

“So, Pisces, if your team doesn’t have a claim, who’ll that Helm of Fire go to, then? The one they say is a relic?”

Pisces played along as the [Slaves] were made to rest in the camp Azam had created. The Djinni could lift the landscape itself into huge, nearly flat slabs of stone. It made an excellent defensive place to camp, and they had fire, refreshments, tents—the [Slaves] shared a few huge ones. Pisces, still the guest of honor, was accorded ‘space’ by the [Guards] kicking everyone else back a few feet.

Same for food. He replied as he ate the travel rations and the [Guards] listened with interest.

“That would be the team with most claim. Either Elia Arcsinger or Eldertuin the Fortress have a claim as Named-ranks. But whichever team did the most damage and took the most casualties, I didn’t see.”

“That might be the one who got that Drake-thing. The…Halfseekers. Hah! The balls on that [Rogue]! And he lived!

In that way, Pisces knew his friends were alive. And he had the [Guards]’ favor, for what it was worth. Little chance they’d help him, but his unwanted Skill did add to his already-present fame.

Still, Pisces understood neither Igheriz nor the [Slavers] would be helpful. If there was help? It had to come from his fellow [Slaves]. So that night, he looked at them, sleeping well apart from his ‘special’ area.

“You don’t need to stay back. I don’t care.”

The others in the tent looked at each other. They were free of the rope group, but each was still attached with a personal line to a peg hammered into the ground in front of the tent. It meant you could tangle up, but they seemed used to it.

Cawe was the first to roll over with a grin.

“Ah, but if they get mad, we’re in trouble, adventurer! Still, I’d rather stretch out.”

Encouraged, Bearig shifted over and Pisces heard murmurs of thanks. He saw a Stitch-woman, one of the ones who’d been trusted to pass water out, smile at him.

“You’re kinder than you sounded. When they told us you had fought in that village, they made it sound as if you were a monster yourself, slaying powerful undead left and right.”

Pisces made himself smile. He wasn’t as friendly as some others, but Ceria had once told him he could be quite charming if he tried. So—he tried.

“Ah, well, Miss. It was a [Necromancer] fighting undead. Not exactly hard.”

The others looked up. A few began to ask questions. They were soon hushed, but Pisces traded whispers for an hour or two. He realized the [Guards] weren’t the only ones interested in him, but most couldn’t chat as freely. That was how he got to know some of them—some that might help, at any rate.

The Stitch-woman’s name was Astotha, and she was a [Slave] of years, attached to Igheriz’s caravan. He also met those in his ‘line’ which included Bearig, the hapless [Cook]—little help, but genial enough—and three others that Pisces had picked out for helpfulness or interest.

It was about Skills or trust. He didn’t know if he could trust Bearig or Cawe, but they were close to him and it was good to make friends. Cawe could be helpful, though. He learned she was not, in fact, a [Thief] when he offended her by using the class.

“I’m a [Pickpocket]. There’s a difference!”

Then she kicked him in the shin. Pisces swore—being kicked by a Garuda’s talons was not fun.

“I apologize for the palpable difference.”

She clacked her cracked beak at him.

“A [Thief] isn’t a specialist! I am. I could have a key out of my [Guard]’s pockets if my collar didn’t stop my Skills. Even without…”

The others shushed her and she fell silent. Astotha looked at Cawe, warningly.

“Any of them hear you again, and you’ll suffer twice. Igheriz won’t tolerate it, Cawe.”

The Garuda snapped her beak shut and Pisces saw her bravado vanish in a second. His sense of unease grew, but her comment told him two things. Firstly—he wasn’t the only person shackled from their Skills. Cawe had a special collar, if not as elaborate as his. Bearig did not.

Neither did Astotha. In fact, she could use her Skills. She…had Skills from her class as a [Slave]. She eyed Pisces, still a bit exhausted from the trek despite his rest, and touched his arm.

“Here. I won’t need this until tomorrow and you look tired, Pisces. A gift for a gift. That’s how we like to do it in Chandrar. [Ease Your Burdens].

He felt some of his exhaustion vanish. Pisces blinked, and some of the footsore, aching joints and tiredness flowed away…into Astotha. He saw her grimace, slightly, and protested.

“You needn’t have done that. Thank you—”

She smiled.

“It’s my class. Some of it is lost, so we both gain.”

He met her eyes and they were kind. So Pisces nodded, vowing to remember the favor. He did remember such things. Like the [Innkeeper]…

No thoughts of home. Pisces catalogued the other three ‘interesting’ [Slaves] and made a point to talk to them the next day, as they struck camp and were put on the road again.

There were three. Most of the caravan were Human or Stitchfolk, with some spattering of Garuda, the natives of Chandrar. However, Pisces also saw a Dullahan [Tailor] amongst them. Qshom, who had run into a debt after a fire consumed his shop…his armor was plain metal, and he often cursed his justifiable misfortune.

The second was Droppe, who, like Cawe, ran afoul of the law. He was a [Broker], the kind that existed on Izril, that Fierre was, and had tried to sidle up to Pisces twice to chat about anything the [Necromancer] might share. Even here, he seemed to think there was profit in knowledge, and Pisces couldn’t fault him for that.

“I’d rather increase my value before we get to Roshal. You see, the more I’m worth, the better I’ll be treated! True, my master will know everything, but it’s better to be valuable than not.”

He grinned. Pisces turned to the man laboring next to him. The only other adventurer, a Bronze-rank Human named Shein who clearly held Pisces in some regard. They were the potentially ‘helpful’ or interesting ones, and had naturally been chained together, with Astotha as the exception; the small freedoms they were allowed.

“What will we expect when we get to Roshal?”

Shein grimaced.

“For us? The markets. We’ll be sold in big batches unless we’re worth something. Someone like Bearig’s worth more’n me.”

He jerked his head. Pisces was surprised, but Shein explained.

“I’m just a Bronzer—not like you. They’ll lump me in with anyone who might be good for hauling, fighting. Cawe and Droppe are specialists.”

“Told you.”

Cawe was smug. Droppe nibbled at his claws as he hopped forwards, apparently bored with walking. The Lizardfolk had bright, slightly multi-colored scales, but mostly a bright yellow. He wasn’t like Drakes, though, being far shorter and smaller, and frankly, more friendly. Sort of Drassi-like, Pisces supposed. Selys could be friendly, or snappish.

“Frankly, that’s half the, um, criteria. The other half would be our personality if that’s identified. Our fame. Cawe might be eligible to be put with the quite attractive females. Cracked beak doesn’t help, but I don’t know Garuda standards. Bearig? No. Shein? No. Me? No. Cawe’s the only one who has a chance and even that’s—ow! Stop it! Stop it!

The Garuda tried to kick at Droppe. Pisces looked up. Ah. The other reason people bought [Slaves]. He felt a trickle of bile in his throat, but went on.

“And me?”

Droppe grinned, unperturbed.

You? My friend. You’re a Gold-rank adventurer and a [Necromancer]! I’d already have you for personal auction, but with your fame? That’s why Igheriz isn’t taking his time. You will make him rich! Perhaps enough to double his caravan! Even buy a second Azam!”

Pisces still didn’t realize how famous he was. He knew the caravan had heard of him, but he just snorted at Droppe’s comment. He looked around. Droppe, Shein, Astotha, Cawe, Bearig, Qshom…hardly an inspiring group to pick a breakout team from. He’d bet Shein and Cawe had some kind of fighting ability—the rest, not at all.

Still, if they were his companions, they were good for knowledge like this. Pisces nodded at Qshom, who had been laboring harder than the rest due to his armor.

“Astotha is a permanent [Slave] for Igheriz’s caravan. Is there anyone else who’s…important as she is?”

He had already seen how much leeway she was given compared to the others; she could roam about, unfettered.

Instantly, all the other [Slaves] gave Pisces a sidelong look. He tried to look innocent…but then realized they all knew what he wanted. Cawe grinned, but it was Bearig who elbowed her; she and him were in front of Pisces today.

“Important slaves?”

Qshom gave Pisces an appraising look. He turned his head left and right.

“Astotha is one of the most-trusted. The others are as you can see. If there was one more—”

He hesitated, looked towards Igheriz who was riding at the head of the caravan, and suddenly lowered his voice. Uneasily.

“—that would be Eloque. She’s of Droppe’s people. But I do not think you will see her walking with us. No, not at all. She is—important—”

He shut his lips tight, as if he had said too much. Suddenly, Pisces saw how all the others had fallen silent. Even Cawe. He looked at them.

“I haven’t seen her.”

“You wouldn’t. She is Igheriz’s favorite. His…project.”

Even Droppe refused to speak more, and the little Lizardman had lost his smile. Pisces felt the back of his neck tingle.

 

—-

 

A simple event on the road changed things.

They met another caravan. This one called Hrome’s Wares. It was another caravan that dealt in slaves and goods. The man who led them was Human, unlike Igheriz. And he was…well. Plain.

Igheriz was a composite of different fabrics, but dressed like some rich [Merchant], styling himself with fashion even while travelling, and had three flashy rings and Azam when he greeted the other man.

Hrome had on a nondescript riding outfit, and he made no airs. He was bland. His slaves were almost all low-grade. He was transporting spices across Chandrar as well; he was a lower-grade Caravan Leader, not one with a Djinni or success like Igheriz, or his luck.

If he had one interesting quality, it was that his movement Skills were second to none; his caravan had caught up with Igheriz’s and nearly passed them; despite having [Slaves] walking behind the wagons, they seemed to step half as far again with each motion than Igheriz’s group.

The second thing was that Hrome took one look at Pisces as Igheriz greeted him and recognized him.

“Do you see the fortune that fell into my lap, Great Friend Hrome? What else are you bringing to Roshal of interest?”

They were swapping tales and information, and—comparing slaves. Rather like [Mages] compared artifacts or spells. Hrome’s eyes widened.

“I ran into a bit of luck myself—but nothing half so amazing as this! That’s Pisces! From the Village of the Dead!”

The [Necromancer] looked up as all of Hrome’s people glanced at him and then he began to understand what worldwide fame meant. Hrome turned to Igheriz at once.

“Caravan Master Igheriz. I know this may be inopportune and you have many clients who might want to bid for him—but could I make you an offer for Pisces? I would place him among my people! I could offer you twenty—thirty thousand gold at this very moment!”

Igheriz laughed and held up his hands.

“No, no, Hrome. I plan to sell Pisces for far more than that.”

“Fifty thousand. Fifty thousand and each [Slave] I have. Look—I have this one. A [Bandit Lady], Merr the Storm! I purchased her from a city not three days ago—”

Hrome hurried over to the most valuable slave in his collection, a vicious-looking woman who bared her teeth defiantly. Igheriz looked amused.

“Friend Hrome, you have good eyes, but not enough money! I do not say this to be rude; come, let us ride together and you may talk with Pisces. There is safety among the fellows of Roshal, after all!”

They were both from Roshal, and thus had a level of trust amongst them. Hrome kept trying to buy Pisces; he went up to eighty thousand gold pieces, which included most of his caravan, a princely sum even for a Gold-rank! All for Pisces, whom he seemed to regard as a minor hero. When he failed to tempt Igheriz, although the number did make the Stitch-man hesitate, Hrome went to asking Pisces about the battle.

“You defeated how many Skeleton Lords? Eight? With your sword? How was it done? I thought I saw you disintegrate their bones—I have a recording!”

He was simply a fan. Ironically, neither he nor Pisces knew he had missed another Horn of Hammerad, but the attention let Pisces fill the day and learn more. Unfortunately—Hrome also meant that by the time they were camped, Pisces was on auction.

The Human [Slave Trader] had a [Mage], unlike Igheriz, who relied on Azam and spell scrolls. He sent word to Roshal that Pisces had been captured and would be sold. Unusually, bidding had already begun even as they struck camp.

“Ah, you see, Hrome! This is why I took none of your offers, even when you offered me everything! I thank you for your [Mage].”

Delighted, Igheriz strode about the camp, eyes lit up with greed and self-satisfaction. Hrome nodded, looking envious as the [Mage] shouted numbers and names with increasing fervor.

“They are already bidding, Caravan Masters! Within the first moment, the Emir Hestute, upon learning such a famed person was being auctioned, declared he would buy Pisces outright for ninety thousand gold! At once! If you so will it.”

“Hah! A rich opening bid. No. I wait.”

Igheriz was right to. Because for the rest of that night and the next day, the bidding wars began in earnest. By the time Pisces slept, he had been valued at over four hundred thousand gold pieces.

 

—-

 

This was an astonishing sum. Hrome talked to Pisces the next day, explaining.

“Slaves are expensive, Pisces. But even the average Gold-rank might barely go for a hundred thousand gold pieces—without artifacts, of course! Mm. Perhaps they could double that if they had an unusual class or comely looks, but you?”

“I’m delighted to be worth so much.”

Pisces replied drily; he was riding, now, the better for Hrome to talk to him. The other [Caravan Master] had apparently elected to follow Igheriz, at least for now, and unfortunately, that meant their already-swift pace had more than doubled. They were passing by Illivere in a storm of movement, heading towards what had once been Tiqr.

“Ah! Another bid has gone up! Once again, the Emira! And once again, overtaken by Emir Hestute!”

It seemed like there were a few big bidders who really, really wanted Pisces. The Emira Se-Hexri, a Naga, Emir Hestute, and…one they only called the Naga. As if there were only one.

“Who is…the Naga? As opposed to this Emira Se-Hexri?”

Hrome stroked his chin and for some reason, glanced around.

“The Naga? Ah—Emira Se-Hexri is a recluse, you see. Rarely seen. It is odd that she should be so enamored of you, but perhaps she finds you as fascinating as I! But the Naga? There is only one. Emir Yazdil. Have you not heard one of the ten thousand legends told about him?”

Pisces had not. But Hrome and the other [Guards], even Igheriz, promptly told him a dozen.

“It is said he slew his greatest enemy, the foolish Emir Darsul, with his faithful servant, who climbed the tower, slaughtered each [Guard] without anyone hearing, and slipped past every ward and trap to kill him.”

“He has sent fleets that would make even the House of Minos tremble—each one full of gold and [Slaves] and treasure to his friends!”

“They say each servant of his is superior to any other. Even that he sells Djinni he does not find worth keeping! If you would be one of his, you should be lucky indeed, for the Emir does not even chain his servants!”

Well now, wouldn’t that be nice? Pisces decided there were worse fates than that—but the Emir Yazdil seemed like a powerful figure. Perhaps it would be better to fall into this reclusive Emira’s hands.

 

—-

 

Pisces did not know how true that was. Az’kerash, far distant, had finally found him. And the Necromancer was engaged in a bidding war to end all bidding wars with the Naga.

The Naga wanted Pisces too, but Emir Yazdil was also curious why the reclusive Se-Hexri was so interested. Of course, that just meant he bid more and more, knowing there was something there to win. After all—the Naga did not like losing.

As for Emir Hestute—he was just there.

 

—-

 

Four hundred thousand gold pieces?

When she first heard of the sum, Eloque had to gasp. She was worth a fraction of that price! Then—her lip curled and she was a bit disgusted with herself.

It was the way of [Slaves] to value themselves on how much they had been sold for. She was a [Slave], and had been one for nearly four years, now, but unlike Chandrar’s people, this was not normal to her.

She was from Baleros. Baleros, and [Slaves] were not so common. She wondered if another year would erode more of her sensibilities.

Even so, four hundred thousand gold was four hundred thousand gold no matter how far across the world you went and such a princely sum justified all the attention Pisces was getting.

They still had not met, yet Eloque found herself thanking Pisces even further; the obsessed Hrome meant that Igheriz drank and socialized. Less time to spend with her.

What intrigued her was not just the price. As she rode and numbers raced down the caravan, Eloque listened to the shouts.

Four hundred thousand! Sing it to me, Hrome! We must drink, even when riding!

Igheriz was in high spirits. He would visit her tonight, drink or not. Eloque stared out the flaps in the wagon, then turned her head.

“You don’t look impressed, Azam.”

A figure, like obsidian from Baleros’ volcanoes come to life, turned his head slowly. Azam, guardian and greatest slave of all, if not with the class.

He spoke to no one and nothing unless Igheriz ordered. He was silent, efficient, and often walked with her, next to the wagon with the greatest goods, a deterrent for [Raiders] or [Thieves]. Twice she had watched him crush a man’s head or throw magic. He was faster than they dreamed.

Yet he spoke to her of all the caravan. For she was not a guard, whom he no doubt detested, nor was she a transient [Slave]. He had not spoken to her for two entire years. Now?

…Well, she doubted he knew her name, but Igheriz’s attention seemed to instill the only pity Azam had ever shown anyone. So after a minute of walking, one eye slowly slid down and his mouth moved grudgingly.

“Should I be?”

“Is not five hundred thousand a sum beyond sums? Even you might be sold for a number close to that figure—and the price still rises!”

Eloque prodded Azam, wondering if she could stir him to anger or any emotion. She succeeded, but to her surprise, it was a smile that flashed across his face. His lips quirked, then his face went flat.

“It is a number. Should I respect another digit on the end? You nor I will never hold nor be able to use such a sum.”

This was true, but Eloque was still impressed by it. More than that…this was not the reason Azam stared at Pisces, then.

“Do you think it is too low, then? You sometimes stare at the adventurer.”

His eyes flicked to hers again and Eloque felt a shock as the power in him revealed itself. Azam frowned. He was displeased.

“We walk for days without end. There is little to stare at.”

Eloque rested her chin on the lip of the wagon and then winced as it jolted and her jaw clicked together. She rose, rubbing at the spot.

“Azam, are you avoiding the question?”

The Djinni looked at her, and then away. His eyes focused on Pisces, dismissively.

“His worth is due to fame. Not his power. Rather than that…this sum you make much of. All the numbers being shouted so loudly by our master—”

He nodded to Igheriz, still rapturously calling out. Azam glanced at Eloque and hesitated, but then lowered his voice slightly.

“—They are far too low, and directed upon the wrong target. The adventurer is worth far less than the book.

Eloque’s eyes widened. She looked at Azam and realized. The Djinni was not staring at Pisces for interest in the man.

The book? What did Azam see with his power in the book?

Her curiosity grew still further, and Eloque resolved to talk to Pisces. Perhaps to gain the measure of a man worth half a million gold pieces.

 

—-

 

It was midday when the final announcement came. The hoarse [Mage] shouted, eyes bulging.

“Emira Se-Hexri has placed another fifty thousand gold on Pisces!”

Murmurs arose. Pisces looked up, scarcely believing it himself. He was now worth seven hundred and fifty eight thousand gold pieces.

“For that kind of money, you could buy a Named-rank adventurer! A cheap one, if they were on the market!”

Hrome was astounded. Igheriz was dancing, in the greatest of moods. It was down to two now.

Se-Hexri and Yazdil. The two were bidding slower now, reaching their limit. Pisces couldn’t understand why this female Emira wanted him, but he had a suspicion. Maybe…

As for the Naga? The [Mage] hesitated, put a finger to his brow. He reconfirmed, then whispered.

“The Naga tires of the bidding. He has put the price for Pisces Jealnet at nine hundred thousand gold pieces, and invites the Emira to go by the hundred thousand from now on.”

Dead silence reigned in the caravan. Then Igheriz laughed, the wild laugh of a man who had struck all lotteries. However, Hrome shook his head, nearly white with shock himself.

“There is no way she has enough to match that. Se-Hexri would beggar herself already, whatever fortune she has stashed away. There is no way…”

And the spellbook is still to be auctioned! But we will keep that secret until I reach Roshal. I need not want for gold—and I shall give you 1% of what I now earn, Hrome! Never let it be said your generosity goes unpaid!”

Igheriz laughed and laughed. Pisces waited, but Se-Hexri had nothing more to bid. The true power behind her could have bid more, but he would have had to justify why.

So the Necromancer raged and the Naga won. As he always did. Now, Pisces felt the chains grow tighter, for here was a nine hundred thousand gold [Slave]. If there ever had been any chance of sweet-talking the [Guards]…now there was none. Each one had been promised a bonus for delivering Pisces. Hundreds or thousands of gold pieces; a pittance compared to what Igheriz would get!

If there was any danger, it was to the Caravan Master, Pisces realized. So did Igheriz. He now knew he carried true value, and Hrome’s speed would be essential. However—any thoughts of quickly taking Pisces themselves that surely existed in the [Guards]’ minds were forestalled because of one being.

Azam. The Djinni hovered, watchful, above them all. Igheriz turned to Pisces, smiling wide.

“You will be sold for more than even Azam, Pisces! More than you are worth, I think. Because Azam is mightiest of all. But then—so goes fame! I am minded to celebrate, but we do so only when we stop! To Roshal! Faster and faster!

Still, he made merry that night. And that was how Pisces discovered who Eloque was. And how he began to see deeper into Roshal’s depths.

 

—-

 

That night, Igheriz made merriment with wild abandon. He drank, opened a rare cask of wine he had been intending to sell, ate liberally, and shared his good mood even with the [Slaves].

Especially Pisces. The [Necromancer] was allowed to drink, and did so. He drank and drank and carefully made sure Igheriz didn’t see how much was going onto the ground.

This was an opportune moment. The caravan was wildly excited with how much gold was promised for Roshal and they would be going fast to Lailight Scintillation, the port-capital said to be one of the wonders of the world.

They’d be more vigilant after this night. If there was ever a time to make a move, however incautious—it would be when Igheriz was in his cups. Pisces was ready. However—Igheriz surprised him in the worst of all ways.

“I—I knew you were lucky, Pisces. But this is more than you or I dreamed, eh? I will convey you to the Naga and be rich beyond dreams. So—so let us have fun! Eloque! Astotha, fetch her. And you, Pisces. Which one of Hrome’s or mine would you fancy? Cawe? I see you talking.”

Pisces froze, cup halfway to his lips in a feigned drink.

“What do you mean, Igheriz?”

“To bed! I will be generous. A [Slave] may sleep with another [Slave], but only if their master lets them! Sometimes for children—but who do you want?”

“No one.”

The [Necromancer] replied instantly. His skin crawled. Igheriz waved a finger.

“Ah, ah! You are going to offend me, Pisces. And I told you, I do not like offense. We won’t watch, will we, Hrome?”

The other [Slave Trader] looked half insensible himself, but he had called for his own personal [Slaves]. Pisces bit his lip.

“Cawe, then.”

He had no ill intentions, but better to escape and have a chance to talk with her than anything. Igheriz beamed.

“Excellent! Fetch Cawe—no, make her presentable first. They will have one tent—and I? There you are, Eloque. Pisces, come meet my personal…masterpiece. Do you see? Do you understand my genius?”

Pisces’ head turned. He saw the least talked-of [Slave] in Igheriz’s caravan. For a second he didn’t understand. Then he dropped his cup and saw.

Eloque was a Lizardfolk woman. Astotha had told Pisces that she had been beautiful, acquired by Igheriz in some port, and the [Slave Master] had been instantly besotted. However. She was still Lizardfolk and Igheriz was a Stitch-man.

So. Igheriz had done something to her to make her more ‘presentable’.

“There is nothing more beautiful than cloth, Pisces. If I marry, it will be one of my people. Silk, if they will have me. But a man’s tastes go to the exotic, so Eloque I will keep. And she looks far better to me, already. I have had Humans, other people adorned just so, but had to sell them. Is she not beautiful? Do you see?”

Pisces looked at Eloque and saw…thread. Thread, amidst scales. She looked at him, and he saw how she looked as patchwork as Stitchfolk. Igheriz had changed her by sewing string into her body, mimicking the seams of Stitchfolk around her joints.

“Eloque. Come here.”

Igheriz beckoned with his oddly wet hand. He saw Pisces looking at him, and mistook the wide eyes for curiosity.

“You see my cloth here? It is Watercloth, a simple name for such a rich thing. You see? Always it produces water. It is strong too, but it has many uses! Especially when travelling or in the bedroom. Hah!

He made a gesture, and then looked at Pisces.

“I felt a connection with your captain, Ceria Springwalker. The one with the bone hand? I am like her, you see? Well, I admire your friend, Yvlon Byres greatly. Both speak to my people.”

Pisces’ ears rang. He saw Eloque walking slowly over to Igheriz. He saw her look at him and one look—Pisces’ lips moved before he could stop himself.

“You think you are like Ceria, Igheriz? Ceria? Hold your tongue. You don’t deserve to compare yourself to her boots.”

Hrome stopped pawing at his [Slaves]. Igheriz, the [Guards] joining him for libations, and Eloque all looked up.

The [Slave Master] was still smiling, but suddenly all noise had stopped. He turned his bright eyes onto Pisces, and replied slowly.

“That sounds like an insult, Pisces. Of course, I heard you wrong. So I give you a chance to clarify your words.”

The [Necromancer] hesitated. He heard every instinct in his sensible mind tell him to apologize, not to say what was boiling within him. He was not Yvlon! He was not Ceria! He was…

He looked at Eloque and the words tumbled out.

“You heard me, Igheriz. You monster.”

The Stitch-man looked around. He laughed, and some of the others picked it up, but suddenly the air was changed. Igheriz rose.

“This astounds me. A [Necromancer] disdains me. Me? You make puppets out of the dead, Pisces, and I did not say as much, but you call me a monster?”

He looked down at Pisces, eyes far, far too bright. Had Pisces seen him sniffing at something while drinking? It wouldn’t surprise him.

Pisces rose as well. The [Necromancer] was shaking.

“I am a [Necromancer]. I use dead bodies. The dead. Not the living. It is true, I have done terrible things. In my greed and arrogance, I have unleashed horrors. Because I was too incautious, I have seen those I loved die. I have even…created a monster.”

He thought of Toren and shook his head. Pisces looked around the tent, at the [Slavers].

“I was at the Village of the Dead. I saw the thing that lay in the center, the Putrid One’s last servant. I felt it touch me and rot my flesh like carrion and pestilence. It seems…so pleasant compared to here.”

He fixed Igheriz with a look. The Stitch-man had begun to laugh, a dangerous laugh. Hrome looked at Pisces, shocked, even daring to be disappointed. The [Necromancer] spat.

“You all disgust me. I will never be like you. I see beauty in death and life. You? All you can do is ruin what you touch and find more innocents to torture. I have seen Crelers, and even they look less horrific by comparison to—”

He got no further because Igheriz struck him. The Stitch-man leapt across the tent and backhanded Pisces so fast the young man couldn’t dodge. Something—rage or the drug had given Igheriz speed.

And strength. Pisces felt his cheek cut against his teeth and went stumbling down.

So. I offer you everything, I give you my friendship and you insult me.

Igheriz bellowed. He kicked at Pisces; the young man rolled. Pisces reached for something—the fork he’d been eating with! He rose, eyes blazing, fork raised in his manacled hands to stab—

He couldn’t move his arms. He couldn’t even lift them higher than his chest. Pisces stared at his trembling limbs.

The [Slave Master] laughed. He struck Pisces again, a blow that took Pisces stumbling backwards.

“A [Slave] wearing a collar cannot raise their hands! Say it again, Pisces! Say it again, how I disgust you!”

He kicked at Pisces. The [Necromancer] tried to roll, but ran into the tent flap. Then Igheriz was on him, and the [Guards]. They didn’t stop him. They joined in.

You offend me, Pisces.

Blows rained down from the Stitch-man onto Pisces. It was not the first time he’d been beaten like this; Pisces curled up, protecting his face, exposed parts. The beating lasted minutes, but Igheriz was panting quick, running out of stamina.

Pisces stared up with cold hatred at the [Slave Master], seeing Eloque cowering, Hrome calling for Igheriz to stop before he damaged Pisces. The [Slave Master]’s mouth was flecked with spittle and his eyes were rolling. He looked at Pisces.

“You have offended me once. Do you think I cannot discipline you before you go to Roshal?”

“I know you can’t kill me.”

The [Necromancer] spat blood. He stared up at Igheriz. He saw the man’s face twist and realized, too late, he had gone too far.

Can’t? I can’t do anything? Do you think you are special because the Naga wants you? That I am not sole master? Dagger! Bring him outside!”

The [Guards] hesitated. Igheriz spun.

Azam! Dagger!”

They dragged Pisces out. Azam, the Djinni appeared, and Hrome fell back from grabbing Igheriz. Pisces found himself pinned by one huge hand.

“What do you will, Master?”

Azam had Pisces’ legs; two [Guards] each arm, which they sat on. Igheriz strode forwards.

He had a dagger. Just a steel dagger. Pisces stared up at him. The [Slave Master] was still foaming with rage. Yet he had calmed into something far more terrifying than before.

“I am punishing Pisces, Azam. Hold him. Protect me as always. Pisces—you have offended me once. This is what I do to those who offend me. Once. Azam. That brazier. Bring it over.”

The Djinni did not need to move. He just reached out. One of the huge braziers set up for warmth and light at night was placed next to Igheriz.

The Stitch-man kept well free of the fire, which he feared, but he lifted the dagger in his watercloth hand.

“You see? I fear no fire with this! And this—do you think I am afraid of injuring my property, Pisces? Tell me I am a monster.”

He stuck the dagger in the fire. Pisces saw the blade begin to heat up. He began to struggle.

“Igheriz. Igheriz, I—apologize.”

“You do, do you? Well, I will listen to how sorry you are. Hold him down.

“Caravan Master Igheriz. Pisces is—”

Hrome froze as Igheriz whirled. There was a deadly look in the man’s eyes now.

“The Naga can repair anything he wishes. But this? You and I have met, Pisces.”

He drew the dagger, tip now glowing. Pisces began to struggle hard, but the Djinni and [Guards] had hold of him. Igheriz bent down, and yanked Pisces’ robes aside.

“You and I have met. And now you will remember it in more than words.”

Igheriz. I apologize! Stop! Enough! I apologize, I—

The man began to draw on Pisces’ chest with the glowing blade. It was only then Pisces began to shout. Then scream. The others, [Slaves], [Guards], Hrome, and Azam watched. Only the Djinni did not look away. He just met Pisces’ eyes. For he had seen worse.

 

—-

 

Her first meeting with Pisces the [Necromancer] had not gone well.

For him. Eloque watched the entire event unfold silently, wishing she could tell him to shut up. The young man was as foolish as most [Slaves] taken from outside of Chandrar.

Even so, he did not beg. He did not shriek like some did. He was an adventurer, for all that was worth.

And…a [Necromancer]. That was the curious thing. Eloque kept thinking of it that night, as [Slaves] tended to Pisces and Igheriz stormed about, laughing and drinking and raging by turns. He didn’t forget her of course, but Pisces had stung him, so Igheriz slashed the air with his sword and everyone stayed out of his way.

For sport, he beat the [Cook], Bearig, as if it were his fault for being tethered next to Pisces. Now that man begged and cried out—which alleviated his suffering. Eloque could hear the laughter as he pleaded for mercy, calming Igheriz.

That was not what Eloque thought of. She tuned it out, and thought of Pisces’ words. How he had stood there, in the tent, and dared Igheriz’s wrath.

I will never be like you.’ He had said that to Igheriz’s face, calling what he did monstrous. Oh, Eloque had enjoyed that. Yet he confused her.

He was a [Necromancer]. It was not illegal to be one in Baleros like other continents, or so Eloque had been told, but the undead were still horrifying to her. Rotting flesh. Disease. [Necromancers] animated dead bodies.

He thought of himself as better than Igheriz? Eloque began to sneer…then fell silent.

“Perhaps he is.”

The dead could not suffer. She hoped he would not heal too badly or catch infection. A brave young man, with morals, ill-suited to Igheriz’s company.

A foolish one too, to let his tongue wag so.

But brave. She liked him because he brought a mind and voice far from Chandrar to this place, [Necromancer] or not.

 

—-

 

Everything changed after that. 

Pisces was no longer favored. He was chained, treated like the others—but worse, because everyone knew he had fallen from favor.

The branding took a long time to heal. He was only given a tiny bit of potion. And it would not…heal. Not that. Not burns.

Igheriz was not just evil, Pisces realized. But truly mad. Eloque was proof of that. So was Pisces.

“He will kill you. Offend him three more times and you die. He does it, for [Slaves] who matter.”

Astotha took a bit of his pain, treated him. Pisces stared at his burned, raised flesh. Igheriz had…written his name there. Across his chest.

“Three more times? What can he do worse?”

He laughed, almost hysterically. Astotha stopped brushing a bit of potion onto him and looked at him.

“Pisces. That was only the first. The second time, he beats you to almost death. The third? He cuts off your balls. The fourth—he kills you. No matter who. You think he won’t do it? He will, even if the Naga wants you.”

The [Necromancer] looked up. Astotha stared at him, and then away.

“And you are his [Slave]?”

“I have no choice. He is fine if he is not angered. Well. Mostly.”

Pisces looked at her. Around the tent. He was developing a hatred for Chandrar he had never felt before, not for his father, not for anyone—no. Just Roshal. Just Igheriz.

The worst part was what the [Slave Master] had called his perversion of Eloque. Beautiful. As if he was making art. That was how he thought of it.

Art—Pisces fell into troubled dreams. Because he remembered true art.

 

—-

 

Her name was Gewilena. She was a [Necromancer]. No—she was different. She had a class, and it was [Artist of Bone].

She was the first person that the boy Pisces had met, one day after he’d run away from his training, sobbing and tired of learning the art of the sword. He’d met her in a forest and she’d been as terrified as he.

“Why—why are you upset, young man? You’re from the manor, aren’t you?”

Padurn Jealnet taught the rich scions of the noble family how to fence. Pisces stared at the woman, who was hiding something behind her back.

“My father’s the [Fencer] who teaches them. I hate him.”

“You hate your father? That’s…terrible. I didn’t expect to find anyone here, you know. Why, are the lessons hard?”

She edged back. She had been in a cave he had run into, thinking to hide here. It was clear of wildlife, but there was something…he tried to see.

“I’m better than everyone. Everyone but him, but he says I’m not good enough. I like magic more. The [Mage] teaches me, but he won’t let me learn. Who—who are you? What’s that?”

Gewilena froze. She was in her mid-thirties, though she had looked far older. Pisces would always remember her as being—furtive. Looking over her shoulder. She rarely relaxed, unless she was around him. Young and old. As innocent as could be, laughing, delighted, or older from what she had lived through. She had tried to block him, to destroy it—but he had seen.

An undead. But not like any undead he had ever seen, before or since. She had been working on a torso of bone, a creation. Her creations. She had even begun to paint it, having taken the bones from this cave to work.

Gewilena was a [Necromancer], but she created undead slower than even natural magic. She created…Pisces had fled the staring face, the alien structure. He had fled in a panic as she cried out for him not to tell anyone, that she wasn’t hurting anyone!

No being, not even Crelers or the most foreign monsters had ever looked like that to Pisces. It was what Erin or Ryoka would have called alien. He had run, accepted his punishment, and never breathed a word about Gewilena, although he had known what she was.

[Necromancer]. A class outlawed. He had fled her, but he told no one. Because after the horror had faded, the shock that something could exist that was so illegal to the world the young boy knew—

He had found the undead beautiful too.

That was how Pisces had first met Gewilena. It would not be the last, and in time, they would become friends. That was how he had started down the road to [Necromancy].

Her art had ended up all being destroyed. Every creation burned by the [Lord] of the manor. She had burned with them. Pisces’ fault.

Yet Gewilena’s art had never been made of people. It had been made of corpses long abandoned, animal bone. It hurt no one, he had screamed. All she had wanted was to make her art, beauty as she saw it. She had never taken a life, never harmed anyone.

Igheriz? They were not the same. There was no evil inherent in [Necromancy]. Danger, yes. But [Slavers] and [Slaves] were made of pain. It would never be the same for Pisces.

Never.

 

—-

 

He saw the key to his collar for the first time the day after offending Igheriz. Pisces stumbled in the lines of [Slaves], pain-ridden. Every time the robes brushed against the skin, he shuddered, in fury as much as pain.

Out of favor, and the [Slavers] finally treated him like the others. Blows if he wasn’t quick enough, spitting on him, at him, insults—

He had offended their precious pride by calling them monsters, and favoritism quickly flipped around. All but Hrome, who still seemed to secretly like Pisces.

One of the [Slavers] struck Pisces across the back with a long stick he liked to lash the [Slaves] with. He drew something from his neck and waved it at Pisces.

“You offended Igheriz, eh? You’ll never remove that, not without magic. And you tried to strike him? Foreigners. Didn’t know, eh? Your collar stops you hurting us. You need this if you want to make a fair fight, and I’d take you, fancy rapier or not.”

Pisces stared up at the glinting key, inset with a gem on the handle. He frowned.

No visible magic. But a key was still a key. Pisces stared at it. What curious teeth! There were two sets, in some sort of…forked prong. He couldn’t understand the mechanism by which it would open the cuffs.

Magic, not tumblers. Another reason no [Thief] would free themselves, not even Cawe. He didn’t reply as the [Guard] taunted him, merely memorized the key’s shape.

It was Igheriz who rode over and struck the [Slaver]. Hard. The man screamed and fell from his horse, clutching at his back. The [Slave Master] was in a bad mood after yesterday’s hangover and his rage against Pisces. Eloque was nowhere to be seen.

“You idiot! Wave that key about and I will break your hands and leave you in the sands, understand? Pisces. You are no longer in favor, eh? This saddens me. However, we still march in your company, so smile, smile!”

Pisces stared up at him. Igheriz grinned and spurred his horse onwards. He…still acted like they were friends. Even though Pisces was ‘out of favor’, and he expected Pisces to at least pretend to play to the part.

Madness.

No healing meant Pisces’ face and limbs were swollen and he was exhausted, trying to keep moving. It was Bearig who helped Pisces, supporting his arms. Cawe too, though mainly with encouragement.

“You idiot. Didn’t you learn to keep your mouth shut to the [Guards]? More fool you for getting branded. Cheer up. At least you’ll only lose your balls if you make him mad two more times. You don’t want to know what happens to women.”

Qshom, Astotha, Droppe, and Shein all helped too. Astotha most of all, taking bits of Pisces’ pain for him. They had formed around him, a group of sorts. So…naturally. But then, they were [Slaves]. Pisces hazily remembered that was how it happened.

 

—-

 

When Pisces ran away the second time to join Gewilena, it was after months of learning from her in secret. It started with questions about why, how, and more. Learning the law wasn’t the law, that [Necromancy] wasn’t evil, all of it was a slow process.

He joined her cabal. [Necromancers] hiding out, glorifying Az’kerash, all taking to death magic for different reasons.

Talent, a desire to emulate the great evil of Terandria for their own hatred of this land, baser fascination with death, a sense of being outcast…

Pisces didn’t care for many of them. Gewilena was whom he admired. She was among the best of them, but she didn’t create zombies or seek vengeance. She had taught him well, and he joined their cabal.

They attempted to farm like Silvaria had once done, but ran afoul of insects and plague. They kept ahead of the law, [Knights] and [Guards], fighting sometimes, fleeing and hiding most of the time.

They argued politics, envisioned a better future, and studied magic. Erin had called them ‘death hippies’ when she had pried part of the story out of Pisces, and he had no idea if that was accurate.

What he had known were his friends. Gewilena, Ama, Feren…

Well, ‘Ama’ and ‘Feren’ were their names, but they took on pretentious airs. That was how Pisces had stopped using ‘Pisces Jealnet’. If they were to be outcasts, they should be as royal as those pretentious [Lords] and [Ladies]!

Feren du Aquinteis, his assumed title, had been the leader of the cabal, who had to clash with the other [Necromancers] who wanted to lead them to conflict, root out the ones who were bad, fight…he was the best of them.

Level 30, although he’d barely gotten there and Pisces had privately believed Gewilena had been better, just refused to use her full powers. Nevertheless, Feren had been good. He’d heard Pisces was good with a rapier, but refused to get a class, and they’d become friends, or a kind of mentor and student.

“Come on, Pisces. Learn the damn spell!

He never struck Pisces, but he wasn’t the best teacher. Gewilena was patient; Feren was not. Nor did Pisces want to learn.

“It’s not fair.”

Feren swished the practice sword he’d made out of bone impatiently. He had begun to dye his hair, in emulation of Az’kerash, his hero, despite being older than Gewilena, even.

“It’s a spell to replace a Skill! Fair? I told you to use everything you can to win a fight!”

Pisces had, back then, still believed in Padurn’s teachings about how to fight, for all he refused to take the class. He’d protested, but Feren had overruled him as Gewilena worked on her next masterpiece. They rarely had any function, for all they were undead; they could barely defend themselves. They were just for beauty.

Some of the cabal had left because of the perceived waste. That was fine; Feren could create strong enough undead to protect them all. Food was harder. Sometimes they stole, sometimes they had to intimidate or raid caravans. So he trained Pisces.

“They care nothing for us. A fair fight doesn’t exist when eight [Knights] are charging at you, Pisces. So—once again. [Flash Step]! Az’kerash himself used this spell!”

Pisces hoped Feren had survived. When his father had tracked him down, after an unwise visit to his mother, the [Lord] had arrested half the cabal and put most to death. All but Pisces, who was returned to Padurn until he escaped.

Did Feren live? Ama? Pisces had seen Gewilena die, and he thought he would never hear a worse sound than that. Her sobbing as her creations died. He had run from Terandria, to learn magic where Az’kerash once had.

He thought he would never hear a worse sound than that.

He was wrong.

 

—-

 

Pisces learned of the holiday of ‘Leciaun’ shortly after Cinaelu and the dramatic battles with Khelt and the King of Destruction.

Everyone was jumpy, watching Azam. The Djinni had heard about his cousin being freed, but he made no sign of emotion. Nevertheless, Igheriz had been ready to send Azam to capture the rogue Djinni himself.

“The King of Destruction broke a Djinni’s chains. Will Roshal refuse to trade with him?”

Whispers ran down the line of slaves. Pisces listened with half an ear; politics and the King of Destruction seemed far away, but he had to remind himself that he was now within the same continent as that legendary [King].

“Surely not. They wouldn’t throw over the King of Destruction for saving his own neck.”

Droppe opined, fancying himself the final word on such things. Qshom sighed tiredly, glancing back and clearly wishing his head could take a ride on the wagon with Eloque.

“Explain, Droppe.”

Thank you, Qshom. I’ll give you some of my rations…”

Everyone else groaned as Droppe began to lecture.

“You see, it’s about cost and gain and the message they’re sending. If they went after the King of Destruction for freeing Djinni, all of Chandrar would agree. Yet he clearly did that as a last resort on a Djinni-attack from Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Therefore…should we blame the King of Destruction? He was an inch from death!”

“That he can at all should terrify any.”

One of the [Guards] leaned over his camel’s back and spat, giving Azam a wary look. The Djinni was expressionless, moving far ahead of the caravan as per Igheriz’s orders. Droppe gave the man a sly look.

“Ah, but it could have backfired. Fear not! No Djinni will be freed even if the King of Destruction gets his hands on them. He is no idiot! They would roast him before flying off…no, I believe Roshal will give him small favors, and other nations condemn fools who would involve Djinni in this war. Leave them to serve; there are few enough of them anyways!”

Igheriz himself listened and nodded, smiling.

“Just for that, Droppe, I will put in a good word for you at the market! Someone remember to give him wine tonight, eh? For easing our minds.”

The Lizardman tried to bow, grinning broadly. Igheriz did seem to relax, as well as the other [Guards] who had been nervously fingering their hilts every time Azam passed by.

Pisces just frowned to himself, wondering if Droppe was right. Even if he was…he looked ahead towards Bearig.

“Roshal seems to be a major power.”

The [Cook] stared ahead until he realized Pisces was talking to him, and then jumped.

“What? Er, yes, Adventurer Pisces!”

“It’s just Pisces, Bearig. Do you know much about this?”

The man tried in vain to wipe at a sweating brow.

“No more than any other Chandrarian, Pisces. Which is more than someone from Izril I suppose…you’ve never seen Djinni?”

“Never, aside from scrying orbs. Wistram doesn’t keep them. Their binding spells can interfere with magic, we had Golems and…there are too many things for them to exploit.”

“There’s some wisdom, sir. Not that I’d turn down a Djinni as someone to chop things or haul buckets, but you know what happens if they get loose?”

Pisces nodded. Both Bearig and Cawe shuddered, a reflex Pisces found intriguing. He walked forwards a bit, so he and Bearig were closer and Cawe did likewise.

“So, Roshal as a power interferes only in matters of Djinni.”

The [Cook] nodded solemnly.

“They’re slaves as much as we are. Any nation or power in Chandrar would do the same; we only hear of Roshal because Master Igheriz is from there. Only a fool frees Djinni, Pisces. A man as desperate as the King of Destruction, or something foul like, like…Demons.

He searched for someone evil enough to meet his criteria. Pisces was only glad he hadn’t gone for ‘[Necromancers]’ first.

Drily, the young man cast his eyes across the caravan.

“So Roshal fears Demons too, eh?”

“They send vast stores of goods and a tithe of their own to Rhir, Pisces. More than most nations.”

“Really. Is that in their oaths pledged to help Rhir? Why would that be?”

Bearig shrugged.

“I don’t think so. They support Rhir. Strongly. They fear things like…the Demon King’s Deaths. The Death of Magic has returned. So they say they can never be killed. Roshal doesn’t want them getting free any more than most. Less than most, perhaps. If the Deathless—”

Shut up there!

A blow came swinging in so fast from the side that Pisces barely dodged it. Bearig was clubbed and fell down, yanking Pisces low. A [Guard] snarled at the two, on edge.

“Talking about Demons next! And the D—them! Bad luck! Talk about free Djinni or Rhir one more time and I’ll lash you both!”

“And I’ll kick you in the balls for making me fall over.”

Cawe snapped at both of them, spitting sand out of her beak. Pisces sighed. He fell silent with Bearig as the man felt at his side, wincing. Instead, Pisces turned his gaze ahead to the source of all this paranoia and fear.

Azam.

It was another reminder the Djinni was a slave too—but not like them. He cared nothing for the other [Slaves], and would knock them aside. They were ants to him.

However, he was needed and Igheriz could not put him aside. After all—

They were attacked. 

A night raid, three days after the branding. It was fast, quick, and Pisces stayed in the tent throughout all of it.

To leave would have been to be prey to the [Guards] and their attackers, even if he could have levered out the peg hammered into the ground; only Azam could do that, as he was the one who drove them in.

The attack came in the middle of the night, and eight [Guards] died. The attackers came in with swords, arrows, sneaking up on the sentries, and they might have killed both caravans’ [Guards] and freed the slaves—or captured them themselves—if it weren’t for Azam.

Igheriz could fight. He had an enchanted sword, and Hrome might have been decent and his [Guards] average, but Azam tipped the scales. The Djinni strode about, killing the attackers with swift blows from his hands, ignoring their blades and arrows that bounced off his skin.

When it was over, Igheriz interrogated one of the attackers. Pisces didn’t see that either—but he heard the screams. He only heard what was said after, by Astotha, the [Slaves] who had heard the [Guards] talking.

Merr! We received orders to free Merr! And—get the [Necromancer]! Pisces! Someone hired our boss to make the raid!

 

—-

 

“Damned bandits! This is what comes of taking the direct route! We pass too close to Savere and the Siren respects not even Roshal! Something must be done, Hrome. We must join forces or hire more guards. Azam cannot be everywhere!”

It was Savere, the lawless country run by a [Bandit Queen] that had launched the attack. Not formally; it was one group among many, but Igheriz was worried.

Pisces wondered who had hired the [Bandits]. Perhaps a certain someone after the auction had failed? If so, more attacks might be coming. This one had been too close already; they had been going for the [Slave]’s tents to free them, Pisces had learned.

But for Azam.

It was then that Hrome and Igheriz began casting a wider net for support. Roshal protected its own—for a fee. However, it was easier to look for allies in the area. They found it in a third caravan, the largest and wealthiest by far.

“Do you know this [Slave Master]? The Emir?”

Igheriz was dubious as the joined caravan went to meet the third. There would be no danger if they joined three groups into one, or so he hoped. Hrome shook his head, frowning.

“Not personally. Riqre’ma Medaale is—unpredictable. They say he has lands not far from here. But it would be best to treat him with all respect, Igheriz.”

He’s unpredictable?”

Pisces stared at Igheriz. The [Slave Master] was insanity personified to Pisces. Yet somehow, the adventurer had yet to see the worst. He saw Igheriz check the sky and curse.

“We will not reach this Riqre’ma today. Tomorrow, perhaps. Yes, it might be well. Today—it has been tiring on all of us. This attack, the pace. But given that it is three days after Cinaelu…”

He glanced around and raised his voice significantly. The [Guards] had been frayed with nerves ever since the raid and losing eight of their number. They glanced up, and looked excited. Hrome nodded.

“You think we should stop now?”

“Yes. Of course! Let us make camp early. Then—Leciaun!”

Igheriz clapped his hands. Pisces heard a low moan run through the [Slaves]. Cawe had frozen. Bearig looked pale and sick.

“What is Leciaun? That’s not a Chandrarian holiday.”

Pisces knew all the major ones, or so he thought. He heard no answer from Cawe. Bearig’s face turned towards Pisces, struggling to come up with a reply. It was Droppe who answered.

“It’s not one. Roshal created it after Cinaelu, long ago, but only they truly celebrate it. Especially in the caravans. It’s…to ensure obedience.”

Pisces’ head slowly turned. He did not like the way Droppe was telling him this. He did not like…what he guessed was meant.

“What is Leciaun, Droppe?”

The [Broker] glanced at him.

“You can’t guess? A day for the [Guards] to do what they want. The ones who have done the best. Everyone is fair game—everyone but the [Slaves] most favored by Igheriz and Hrome. The [Guards] can’t permanently damage anything. But beyond that they’re free to do…anything.

Pisces sensed Cawe shuddering. He looked around, and once again noticed—to almost exclusion, Hrome and Igheriz employed almost all men. If there were female [Slave Traders], and there surely were, they operated differently.

This? The [Slaves] were herded into camp. They were untethered, and then the [Guards] looked at them, separated them.

And Leciaun began.

 

—-

 

Pisces heard a sound as terrible as when Gewilena had died. He was untouched. He sat, in Igheriz’s personal tent.

The [Slave Master] did not partake in Leciaun. Why would he? He owned everyone here, so that day was every day to him. He drank as Eloque poured him wine.

“Do you know why I called you here, Pisces?”

The Gold-rank adventurer barely heard him. He was hearing the sounds from the camp. Cries and laughter and…he tried not to listen. He was unable to block it out. Wouldn’t have, if he could.

He had heard and seen terrible things. Pisces had fought Crelers, gone into the heart of the Village of Death. He had beheld Skinner. Even so. He realized something as he sat here.

That wasn’t evil. The image of evil…the [Necromancer] had a different perspective than most. Even so, he realized that evil wasn’t the image of wailing organs, the gurgling rasping of monsters or the hidden nightmares in the center of a dungeon, in dark places where they waited on the edge of where reality met dreaming.

That might have been horror. But it was not evil. Evil? Evil was mundane and around him. There was no law here to stop anything happening. Igheriz was the law, him and Hrome, and they encouraged freedom.

Leciaun. Roshal’s answer to Cinaelu, the day of freedom.

True evil sounded like weeping. Silence and grunting and sounds of…Pisces looked up.

“Why am I here, Igheriz?”

In this moment, he would have done almost anything to stop this. The [Slave Master] saw it. He grinned.

“You might do something today, eh. That is what I thought. So I called you here, Pisces. Because you are an adventurer. You think you have control. Even now. Even though I wrote my name on your chest, you would do something stupid and I would have to hurt you.”

Pisces thought he heard Cawe’s voice. He put his feet under him.

“Shouldn’t I?”

Igheriz just laughed at him.

“You can’t raise your hands to me, Pisces. This? This is a lesson. Maybe even a mercy, for I like you. Sleep.

Pisces’ eyes widened. He rose to his feet—and toppled over as the collar blazed with magic. When he woke, Leciaun was done.

Igheriz had done him no mercy.

 

—-

 

The next day, Pisces woke in silence. Oh—noise from the [Guards]. They boasted and laughed, in good humor afterwards. [Slavers]. He would have killed them like Mrsha had once tried to kill Badarrow, with a piece of wood or dagger through their ears if he could raise his hands.

But it was silent on the [Slave]’s side of things. No one spoke. A few tried to comfort or reach out—but those taken did not want to be touched.

The worst part? Few wept. It had happened before and it would happen again.

Some had been exempted. Astotha, for instance, and Eloque. A few favored [Slaves]—and not all [Guards] had been allowed to take part. Those who did swaggered around, taunting those who had not.

Cawe said nothing to Pisces or Bearig that day as they were chained up. She didn’t look at anyone or anything. The feathers on her neck were…torn, Pisces realized. As if someone had plucked them out in a handful. As they began to walk, a [Slave Guard] rode past and made a gesture.

“I will see you next Leciaun, lovely bird!”

The [Pickpocket] shuddered. Qshom saw Pisces’ head go up.

“Stop.”

The [Tailor] warned Pisces. The [Necromancer] looked at the man’s horse. If he could get it to rear, let it toss him and snap his neck—

He moved out of line. Bearig slammed into Pisces, a shoulder-charge so hard it knocked both down.

Astonished, Pisces felt the big [Cook] fall on him. He tried to get away, but Bearig swung his clenched hands, striking and pulling at the line.

[Guards] turned and the one who’d rode by turned back. Pisces kicked, but Bearig just slammed his full weight onto Pisces.

“Enough! Enough! Hey! The [Guards] smile, but the [Slaves] quarrel? Well, I am generous.”

Igheriz called out. Bearig was dragged off Pisces and dealt a dozen blows. Pisces stared at the [Cook] as Bearig’s blood ran down his neck from a lash from a riding crop. He had a bloody nose.

“Why did you do that?”

The [Necromancer] demanded, furious. The [Cook] mumbled.

“It will do nothing to help. Do not.”

“Don’t.”

Cawe whispered. Pisces looked at her for a long, long moment. He thought of Bevussa, the only Garuda he had known besides her. He tilted his head up to the harsh sun and blue skies.

“Thank you.”

He told Bearig. The man nodded and they resumed. Pisces did nothing, even afterwards. He simply resolved to kill the [Guard], Igheriz, and every other person here. Hatred?

He hadn’t known hatred, even against his father, like what was in him now.

Then they met the third caravan.

 

—-

 

It took two days to reach Riqre’ma Medaale’s caravan. In that time, Pisces saw the effects of Leciaun on all the [Slaves]. Not just Cawe or Eloque. Droppe refused to talk to anyone for a day. When he did, he laughed and told jokes and never said a word about yesterday. Many had suffered.

Especially Merr the Storm. The [Bandit Lady] had been the most defiant in Hrome’s lines, newly enslaved. She had been lashed, beaten—Hrome had no policy like Igheriz’s three strikes—without change.

Then Leciaun had come and gone and she was…silent. She walked in a daze.

Two days. The first day was the worst and Pisces retreated into memories of Gewilena. Of the past. Misery begat misery; he remembered his failures, darkest moments.

Erin dying. What would she say? If she or anyone he had ever loved was here…? Ceria? Yvlon, Erin?

He was glad it was him instead. Not that he would have been safe necessarily. A laughing Igheriz had caught him at the end of the day.

“Be doubly glad I put you to sleep and watched over you, Pisces! Few men here like such things, but some might leave you something to remember by just because you are famous! Ah, but I am so kind.”

He rode off and Pisces nearly threw up his meal keeping all the hatred inside him.

 

—-

 

They called him Azam.

Mighty Azam. Azam the Powerful.

Azam, Aethertraveller Djinni.

Azam of Ozeclith, of Nerrhavia’s Fallen.

Names for what he could do, for his power and nature as a Djinni, where he had been ‘born’, but none of these names were him. They were labels, like his name itself.

He thought of himself as Azam of course, because one had to have a name. Yet all those of his people who had ever met him told him it was…sad.

Sad, short, truncatedan imitation of a true Djinni’s name. Those who had given it to him had done it to make him seem like those caught before, who had lived and breathed free air. All it did was inform those who met him he had never been free.

Perhaps for one second. For one infinitesimal moment—he had been. Azam sometimes tried to recall it, wondering if the joy of creation had also been that…that moment of true freedom before he had sensed the bindings, and begun to learn what he was.

Azam thought of this, his mind going back to the past, as he stood sentry outside the camps. He did not need to sleep the same way other mortals did, though he did need rest. He was different. Djinni. Slave of magic, who would outlive them all.

He thought of the past to ignore Eloque’s weeping. The other voices he could hear in the camp.

Leciaun.

Did he feel a bit of gratitude towards her? Was that why he talked to her, of all of them? Perhaps. Perhaps because Igheriz turned his attentions to her, and not Azam. No one was safe.

Azam stood there, thinking of the past. Thinking of the news that had given him pleasure. Even hope. The King of Destruction could free Djinni?

“Well, it is as the Lizardman said. He will not again.”

Azam muttered to himself, a rare utterance to drown out the sound. He looked around.

The sky was so beautiful. The stars, those brilliant lights that were not magic, but something almost akin to his being, hung in the clear sky. Azam could see over the tents, over the walls he had made, in every direction across this flat landscape.

He longed to fly, but he could not. If he could, he would have flown as high as he was allowed, pretending to be sentry. And then he would look…

North. Northwest. Azam always stared that way at night. He knew that location, of all others, and always tried to make minute adjustments so he faced it. If anywhere in this world mattered…it was there.

And if anything in this world mattered, it was that book that the [Necromancer] held. Azam’s gaze turned back to the tents. If he could hold it but for a second…no. Igheriz had kept it next to him, even on Leciaun. Azam had hoped.

Not on this day. He let Eloque weep. Tomorrow, if she willed it, he would talk to her for a while.

 

—-

 

The next day was easier because it began with one of the [Slave Guards] dying. Pisces had thought Igheriz was the most foul man ever to live. That he delved deep into the abyss of mortal suffering and depravity.

No. The truth was he danced on the edge. He laughed there, a monster without redemption.

But not without law. Pisces awoke to find a commotion happening.

No less than six men and Azam dragged a [Guard] out of a tent. Where…he had accosted Astotha in a continuation of Leciaun.

However, this time, Igheriz had put a stop to it the moment she’d cried out. Now? He gestured and his ring glowed.

“You worthless sack of hemp! When I say we celebrate Leciaun, it does not mean all that is mine is now free! This is my property! She is my property! Am I not generous? Am I not fair with my possessions? And you touch her?”

“It was only a moment!”

The man protested. Igheriz gave him the bright-eyed look Pisces had come to associate with his true rage.

“Well, this will only be a moment.”

“No—”

The man tried to fight free, but Azam held him. Igheriz pressed the glowing ring to the man’s throat and when it came away, Pisces saw a copy of the same collar around his neck, a glowing band of magic.

No one touches my possessions! No one breaks laws! My laws and Roshal’s!

Igheriz thundered at Hrome and his [Guards]. The men stood well back, looking palely at the [Guard] with the magic band around his neck. Pisces saw the man gasping and realized—the magical collar was cutting off his air.

“We are not savages. You will all conduct yourselves, or this one’s fate will be like a pleasant dream. Am I understood? There is law in Roshal. We are not monsters.

The [Slave Master] cast a glance at Pisces, then. He turned.

Am I understood?

A chorus of quiet murmurs was his answer. Igheriz looked around, spat, and then strode to his horse.

“Azam! Break camp! We move!”

They left the [Guard] where he knelt, clawing at his neck. He could find no purchase on the magic. His friends and fellows looked back. Astotha looked vindictively back as he tried to beg for Igheriz’s mercy, call out.

The narrow band tightened. Tightened even as the others rode away. His eyes bulged. His face turned scarlet, then purple. The band tightened—

Pisces looked away.

 

—-

 

Igheriz was madness tempered by only the slightest, deluded belief there was law.

Hrome was just…boring. He had allowed Leciaun, but he was less provocative. This was his business, and he still admired Pisces, somehow.

Riqre’ma Medaale? He was true evil and insanity. Such that within the first minutes of him, Pisces saw it.

Friends! You have come to join our procession to Roshal? Of course you will be safe, and with such valuable merchandise!”

The Stitch-Man beamed so widely that Pisces thought he was putting on an air. Igheriz and Hrome clasped arms, smiling.

Emir Riqre had the largest caravan, rich beyond belief. While he had no Djinni and admired Igheriz for that, he had nearly four hundred [Guards], and even more slaves.

Even [Slaves] who watched their own kind. His people were armed with magical weapons and one look at his caravan and Pisces realized that no [Bandits] would free him. Even if there were thousands in a gang, they would be spotted far off and Azam and this Riqre had the forces to repel any attack short of an actual army.

Igheriz was beaming, but only for a moment. Because his smile flickered as he saw something behind Riqre that gave him pause.

“Emir Riqre’ma. What is…that?”

The two caravans, [Slaves], all looked over and fell silent. But it was Azam, the great Djinni, who slowly turned his head. And that—Pisces saw the Djinni frown.

Behind the Emir Riqre were two…men. Pisces thought they were men. Or had been men.

Hemp-caste Stitchfolk. They wore [Slave]’s collars, and they were tightly bound in metal, being carted around behind the Emir on wagons of their own. That was the—the fact.

What was wrong was everything else. They were naked, but Pisces hadn’t realized that at first. They had wild eyes. Bigger…eyes…than they should be.

Their skin was hard, even leathery from time in the sun, but unnaturally tough. Even the most sunburnt skin in the world would not turn into that. They had…claws.

Claws, almost like a Ghoul’s. And their faces. Pisces had seen undeath change bodies. He had seen how it turned corpses into Crypt Lords. But these men were alive. Their faces had changed.

Huge jaws, mouths of rows of teeth. They looked like monsters. But they were men.

“Ah. You mean my [Carrion Eaters]? Igheriz, you catch me out! They are my special bodyguards, my special people, you see? I would not have let you get within eyeshot of them, but I wished to see this Pisces who is worth so much! You must keep it between us. Roshal frowns on such things.”

The Emir laughed lightly, but his [Guards] looked at Igheriz. The [Slave Master] looked back at Pisces. The [Necromancer] saw him lick his lips.

What did even a [Slaver] fear in depravity and misery? Emir Riqre had gone deep. Deeper than even men like Igheriz dared. And that was horrific enough in Erin’s world. In this?

Those depths answered him.

 

—-

 

Emir Riqre was mad. So mad that Igheriz actually consulted with Hrome about leaving, but the danger to his caravan—not to mention Riqre’s insistence they visit his lands before going to Roshal—could not be ignored.

“He keeps those classes out in the open for all to see! How has not one of Roshal known or dealt with him?”

Igheriz whispered hotly to Hrome, pretending to ride next to Pisces and inspect him. The result of course, was that Pisces could hear, despite the bubble of [Silence] they’d made just large enough to envelop him.

“I do not know, Igheriz. He is a powerful man. Must we tell Roshal?”

Igheriz reached out and hissed at the younger [Slave Trader].

“This goes beyond preference, Hrome. He has—classes—that should not exist. Not without regulation. Perhaps he has the right, but I do not think—”

Igheriz! Hrome! I come to meet this Pisces! What do you whisper about?”

The Emir himself burst the bubble, beaming, and the two [Slave Masters] looked up. Igheriz smiled, or tried to.

“Of course, we are lecturing Pisces to behave, Riqre. He has a tongue!”

“Ah, such men do. I have ways of dealing with that—but let the Naga do what he wills! Pisces Jealnet. I wished to meet such a man like you, who is a class as close to mine as possible.”

Pisces twitched. Riqre was all silk, all smiles but he was…insane. You could see it in his eyes. There were no inhibitions to him. No sense.

“[Necromancer] is close to [Slave Master]? I…do not see the similarity, sir.”

Pisces held his tongue as best he could. Riqre laughed.

“Is it not? Then—perhaps—you have not delved deep enough into your nature, young Pisces! I thought you would see after meeting the Putrid One’s power. Do you not?”

He looked disappointed, as if that exchange had been a test and Pisces had already failed. The young man licked his chapped lips.

“How so?”

The Emir actually leaned down over his camel’s back. It was some kind of magical breed; it flickered and left afterimages as it walked, like some kind of desert illusion itself.

“Why, the truth that Igheriz and Hrome fail to understand. I hoped you would see it. If you were a kindred spirit, I would have insisted Igheriz sell you to me so we might join understandings. Alas. Shall I tell you? Perhaps you will one day come down my road! Igheriz and Hrome will, if they grow stronger.”

His eyes tried to draw Pisces in. Igheriz started and Hrome grew more nervous. Riqre was not a typical slave master, even by their standards.

“What truth?”

Pisces whispered, curious despite himself. The Emir Riqre smiled.

“Why—simply that there is no law. No limitations. Roshal, even Roshal pretends there are. Do not treat your [Slaves] in certain ways. Do not feed some the meat of the dead! But look what they create!

He pointed at the bound [Carrion Eaters], a class Pisces had never heard of. Riqre tsked softly.

“Dark deeds. Like necromancy. They say they are dark deeds, Pisces. Dark deeds reward themselves in time. Surely you know that?”

He looked at Pisces. The [Necromancer]’s head jerked.

“I—do not perform acts of evil.”

“So he says. So he says!

Riqre straightened, disappointed. He turned.

“Then you know nothing. You will see. We will detour in my home. Then I will change all your minds, Igheriz, Hrome—and you, Pisces.”

He rode off without a backwards glance. Igheriz stared after him, and Hrome looked for his [Mage]…who was carefully riding among Riqre’s [Magicians]. That was how Pisces’ caravan found itself among the deepest depths of Roshal’s kind yet. Where even Igheriz feared to go.

 

—-

 

Pisces was able to just see how Riqre created his…people after that. It might have amused Pisces to see Igheriz and Hrome realize they were smaller cats who had finally encountered a lion…if it were not so dire.

The [Slave Guards] had always slept with weapons close to hand. The day thereafter, it seemed as if they rode with their fingers glued to the hilts of their swords. They refused to go near Riqre’s caravan unless ordered, and flinched when one of the [Carrion Eaters] twitched or worse, glanced their way.

For the [Slaves]? They began to walk with their eyes closed. Never mind if they fell or stumbled. They let themselves walk, using the tether of rope for guidance.

If they could have prayed, like Pawn, Pisces was sure they would have prayed. Without it, they only feared.

It got to the stage that Azam was directly consulted on what would happen if they came to blows. The Djinni spoke, one of the rare times Pisces had heard.

“I could not down the Emir Riqre’s four hundred and forty one [Guards] alone and keep you safe, Igheriz. They possess blades that could wound even one such as I. He has…servants who could do the same.”

He meant the other [Slaves]. This was what disconcerted Hrome and Igheriz’ [Guards]. Their willingness to rape and abuse [Slaves] still meant they were Traders of Roshal, who obeyed certain laws. They regarded Riqre creating the cannibal classes as truly monstrous.

Yet when they subtly or unsubtly mixed with Riqre’s people, they got the same answer when asking about Riqre’s extremes.

“The Emir must have his passions.”

“Roshal does not impugn him, so we shall not. He pays very well.”

“You grow used to such things. Or you end up like Tenir. Happy enough, you think, don’t you?”

Riqre’s [Slaves] mixed with Pisces and some of the others on the first night. Some had decorative collars; none had manacles and they all began telling the others how wonderful Riqre was.

“He is the Emir beyond Emirs. You will love him, and weep if he sells you! His [Guards] are the most loyal and he produces fine servants. He rarely takes others into his confidence. Beg your masters to sell you to him! If you are worthy.”

Each one was, without exception, beautiful. Mostly female. Pisces noticed that uneasily. Largely Stitchfolk too, which discomforted Igheriz. The fantastical adoration though, puzzled Pisces.

Even Astotha glared at the woman addressing her, sharing their dinner.

“You don’t need to say that every second! Your master won’t hear you if you complain—unless he can? Are there spells or…?”

She looked uneasily at the other [Slave]’s gilded collar, but the woman just gave Astotha a blank look.

“I am not lying or omitting complaints. If I had any, I would say them. Look at Emir Riqre. Do you see any faults?”

She turned and gave the Emir a look of such admiration that everyone fell silent. Her smile was…unnerving. Too wide…Pisces felt the same uneasy tingle he had when he’d laid eyes on the [Carrion Eaters].

Something was terribly wrong.

The dinner was interrupted by Riqre summoning Pisces. The [Necromancer] rose and, escorted by two [Guards], was drawn over to Igheriz and Hrome. The two men were on their feet, and many [Guards] were retching; unable to eat.

“Ah, but you get used to it! Come, Pisces. Let me show you how to use basic necromancy. This is one of my projects. For Roshal’s ranks of [Assassins], you see? Not one of the poor ones. This child will be one of the best, in time. You see?”

The Emir ate with good humor. And he showed Pisces. The [Necromancer] looked over and saw…zombies.

Zombies, the most basic of undead, swaying, attached to the caravan. Rotting. They were undead, animated by a basic spell, a cheap, weak one. There was nothing unique about them, yet they were so…decrepit that Pisces was confused.

The zombies had missing internals, damaged bone, and every sign of degradation as undead got. Even zombies could ‘decay’, or simply lose their ability to function if they took enough damage, yet someone had continually reanimated them. Was there a lack of bodies?

Even more confusing still was the [Slave] who had been brought out. A little half-Elf stood there, blank-eyed. holding a shortsword in his hand. Alive—and young.

“Emir Riqre, what are you…?”

“Silence. Rophir—begin!”

Pisces saw the half-Elf boy look up. The blank look in his eyes never changed, but he moved as the two undead half-Elves lurched at him. The two zombies attacked and he?

He killed them. It was a bad battle. The half-Elf boy looked barely older than ten. Ceria had told Pisces that half-Elves vaguely followed Humans in growth until puberty, where they slowed, so he might have been a bit older.

He could barely stab and swing the shortsword, but he did. He knew how to fight zombies; stepping aside, slashing their legs, and stabbing them when they fell. Zombies could be killed by even the weakest adults—if you kept your cool and had experience.

Pisces watched as the zombies eventually stopped moving. Then the half-Elf boy, Rophir, stepped back. Riqre clapped his hands; he had barely glanced at the fight as he supped.

“Good, good. Now, do you understand?”

He looked around like a teacher expecting an answer. Igheriz had no answer. Pisces? The young man met the Emir’s gaze and spoke slowly.

“Those. Those zombies. They’re…that boy’s parents. Aren’t they?”

Hrome’s head whirled. Pisces was staring at something lying on the ground. The zombies were all but rotted away; preserved by the arid climate, but too far gone to make out features. Yet he had seen the pointed ear lying on the ground, gangrenous and filthy, but intact.

Hrome turned a shade paler and Emir Riqre laughed, applauding; all his servants instantly copied him. Igheriz had frozen. His eyes…were wide in his head, but he uttered not a sound.

“Very good! You see? You do have potential. Yes. Rophir nearly died at first, but now he knows. You get used to it. He will become the greatest [Assassin] in his lifetime—but it will take decades! I am merely preparing him before we get to Roshal. Animate the next undead! I would have Pisces do it, Igheriz, but he might make them too strong!”

He waved Pisces away. The young man looked back at Rophir. He saw nothing there. No emotion. No grief. No anger. The half-Elf boy just went where he was told.

 

—-

 

Pisces had a nightmare that night. Erin, now a zombie, looked at him with crossbow bolts in her chest. Then he saw Mrsha with a dagger, and the same terrible expression as Rophir as the Emir applauded…and himself, standing behind the Emir, smiling like one of his [Slaves].

He was almost glad when he woke up. Then he wanted to return to the sleeping nightmare.

Someone was screaming. Screaming so loudly it woke all the camps—except for Riqre’s people. They just slept through it, completely inured to the sound.

It was dawn. Pisces saw Riqre standing next to the wagons that held the [Carrion Eaters] and other…advanced…servants. He looked up as everyone turned.

“Ah, Igheriz! Apologies. I am simply at work as usual. I cannot delay; they have three days left, you see and it would be unfair not to give them three more chances.”

The [Carrion Eaters] watched him, bound head-to-toe and Azam glanced at the two bound shapes.

“Those two alone could kill every [Guard] in your caravan save I, Igheriz.”

It was not to them that Riqre tended. They were finished products, or enough so for his liking. It was his servants he wanted.

Held by two [Guards], a beautiful woman sat in the wagon, struggling, shaking, and pleading. A Silk Stitchgirl, as peerless as the rest of his [Slaves]. Riqre spoke to her.

“Three more days. Three more days, Anareen. Please tell me. Do you love me?

“I do. I do! Emir, please—not again. I do! I will do anything if you—”

He wasn’t even listening. The Emir glanced down at something he was holding. Pisces saw the truth crystal flash red and the Emir sighed.

“It does not do to lie, Anareen. Two more days, then. Next!”

The [Guards] lifted her. The Stitchgirl began to scream and thrash with such might that if one had not touched her with a Wand of Paralysis, she might have broken free. She went limp. Pisces saw her huge, horrified gaze meet his as they slowly dropped her into a giant jar. They covered the lid, sealed it, and all sound ended.

“She can breathe. I will ask her tomorrow. And one more time when we reach my lands. If she still cannot tell me the truth—then she will remain.”

Riqre walked past the two [Slave Masters]. They looked at him. Then at Riqre’s people.

Each one gazed at their master with pure, genuine affection. Each one had passed the truth spell Riqre applied to the other five captives. Somehow they had passed.

“Emir Riqre. Why do you ask? Is it not enough they are slaves?”

The Emir turned to Hrome, raising his brows.

“If I were selling them, surely, Hrome. But I wish them to be my people. I would not take a [Slave] that does not love me.”

“And if they fail to answer you?”

The Emir’s eyes were wide and something stared out of the pupils in the center.

“Then they will remain like that forever. I feed them, you know. Most pass my test. You see—if they have a choice between this and me, they will change. For me. They change their classes. Most do not before they see the others who failed, but then they succeed! Joyous. You will learn, Pisces. It is classes. It is all about…classes.”

Then he turned, and as if he had suddenly remembered, he beamed at Pisces. The young man froze as Riqre twirled on his heel, the jar forgotten in a moment.

“Ah, but where is my mind? Igheriz, Hrome, we must slow our pace a tiny bit or make preparations tonight! Pisces is here, but we cannot delay any longer.”

Igheriz looked close to snapping. The zombies, and this—his hand hovered at his side, but the [Carrion Eaters] and [Guards]…he almost snapped a reply as he looked for Azam.

“For what, Emir Riqre? Pisces is mine, I remind you.”

Hrome grabbed his arm, warningly, but Riqre’s smile never faded.

“Of course, of course. Yet it seems to me, Igheriz—and I ask your pardons for my bluntness—but you are not yet a [Slave Lord], or one of my class and level. Even if Pisces is to be sold…and we shall talk…there are still yet ways to improve him. Teach him.”

He looked at Pisces and the young man felt a pit in his stomach. Riqre scratched at his chin as Igheriz glanced at Pisces.

“Your Djinni, too. He is but a servant. He could serve you better, Igheriz.”

His voice was loud and carrying. Pisces’ head moved and he saw the giant, always close by Igheriz for protection, turn. The Emir and Djinni locked gazes.

For the first time since meeting him, Pisces saw Azam…shudder.

 

—-

 

When they came for him at dusk, Pisces seriously considered if fighting and dying here was worth it. He’d go for a sword and if he died…there was a chance. Better that than what Riqre intended.

He did not. Because Pisces still had hope of surviving, of finding the others. Because he owed Erin. Because, damn him, he was curious.

What would Riqre do to him? If it was too egregious, Pisces hoped Igheriz would fight back, and create an opportunity for escape. Pisces was worth nearly a million gold pieces.

Unfortunately, Riqre was cunning. Riqre was mad, but…when Pisces was pushed into an open space in the camp, he didn’t understand.

“What’s…what’s going on?”

He found himself in a large circle of onlookers. The [Guards] of all three caravans, the [Slave Masters], Riqre, Igheriz, Hrome, and Azam standing a ways away, [Slaves] of Riqre’s caravan…and one man he recognized.

Shein. The Bronze-rank adventurer looked as terrified as Pisces felt. Riqre clapped his hands.

“There is Pisces! And here is a strong young man! Good bones. Bronze-rank? Psht.”

He made a sound and his people laughed. Shein flushed. Riqre turned to Igheriz.

“You will not make much off of him. Almost better to call him a [Warrior] or—no, he is a [Fighter], isn’t he? Rather than tout him as Bronze-rank.

He glanced at Shein and read the man’s class. The adventurer could only hang his head.

“He is still worth gold, Emir. I would not have him—damaged. Whatever it is you intend…”

Igheriz looked nervous. Uneasy, as he glanced at Pisces. The [Necromancer] was tense, but Riqre lifted an admonishing finger, frowning.

“Igheriz, I will recompense you at double, nay, triple his price for any accidents. Which there will not be! And I will ‘risk’ my people first, you see? But first—Pisces!”

He spread his arms as if to embrace Pisces. The [Necromancer] backed up into impassive guards.

“What…what am I here for? I will not be privy to any…wrongness, Riqre. If you intend—”

Pisces referred to anything and everything Riqre had done. Was this about the half-Elf child? Yet Riqre looked hurt.

“Pisces. Ah, Pisces. You wound me. Am I that unsubtle? Sometimes. Yes, sometimes the hammer is needed instead of the brush, but I am adept at both things. I know you. You are unruly. Angry. You see, Igheriz? All defiance. Not trained at all. Nearly completely wild.”

He gestured at Pisces, as if it were written on the young man’s face. Igheriz hesitated.

“I do not have your Skills of appraisal, Emir, but need he be? I am only transporting him.”

“And you do nothing to add to his worth? You could at least try, Igheriz. But then—I have many methods and the experience of decades. So I will help. Hrome, you may watch as well.”

“Y-you honor me, Emir.”

Hrome managed. Riqre dismissed him with a single glance. He looked at Pisces.

“I would rather free you and have you work with me, as a companion who shares my vision, Pisces. But to do that, you would have to be my [Slave], and…well. There are ways to change someone. Like that.”

He snapped his fingers and Pisces flinched.

“The Naga could make you think I was your boon companion, the fifth in the Horns of Hammerad. For a while. Make you a friend as true as…what is that funny Antinium’s name?”

Pisces refused to speak. Riqre hunted until one of his [Slaves] whispered.

“Ksmvr. That’s right! I am beside myself, though. Pisces…I only mean to use your powers tonight. Improve you.”

“I will not be party to anything you do.”

Pisces whispered through stiff lips. Riqre gave him a pitying look. He turned to Igheriz.

“You see? He says this like he has a choice. The same as your Djinni. He obeys.

He pointed at Azam. Even Azam was wary. Riqre sighed at Igheriz.

“Far better for them to want to do things, Igheriz.”

“Then show me, Emir. But if you harm Pisces’ value…”

“I know.”

This time the crack in Riqre’s voice made everyone go still. For a second death filled the air—until Riqre passed a hand over his face.

“Igheriz. Igheriz. My temper gets the best of me. I will make it up to you. Just watch, please?”

The [Slave Master] said nothing. Riqre turned to Pisces.

“Pisces. You mistrust me. You dislike me. I see these things, and it is fine. I will earn your trust. I will earn your respect. I am not the Naga, who must have these things from all and sundry. I can train a slave and sell it, even if I like him! I do hope Igheriz will change his mind…but this is how you work, even if you transport a slave. You raise their value. Like so.”

He gestured around his audience. Riqre spun, eyes searching…then his eyes lit up.

“Meritha. My lovely servant, you first.”

He pointed, and Pisces blinked as a young woman came over. Her dress was like the other female [Slaves]’. Revealing…and Meritha was a half-Elf, her features soft. Riqre stroked her cheek and kissed Meritha on the lips.

“I should be very upset if anything were to happen to you, Meritha, yet will you risk your body for me?”

“For you, Emir? Anything.”

The [Slave] breathed. Just like all the others. Pisces watched as Riqre exchanged another kiss, then turned. He reached for something a [Guard] held, weighed it, and turned. Pisces saw…a [Wagonwright]’s tool in his hand. A simple hammer.

“Sometimes a brush is needed. Other times? A hammer.”

With that, he turned, and swung the hammer into Meritha’s leg. Pisces saw and heard the bone crunch and break. Meritha screamed and toppled over.

Riqre!

The scream came from multiple mouths. Riqre stood over Meritha, a look of genuine pain on his face. Then he turned.

“Pisces. Look.”

Meritha’s leg was broken. Badly; she’d been struck just below the knee and it was no simple break. She lay, gasping, face white, blood seeping from the broken skin.

“Emir? Emir?”

“Rest, Meritha. I know it hurts. Someone, a pain-tonic! But no healing potion!”

Emir Riqre clapped his hands and turned to Pisces. The [Necromancer] just stared. Then Riqre walked over to him. Igheriz muttered a curse. Yet this had been arranged. Riqre stopped in front of Pisces.

“Do you see her leg? It will never grow straight. Not with a potion, not with time. Look, Pisces. Do you see what I did?”

“I see it.”

You monster. Pisces stared at Riqre. The man looked almost in tears. Then he nodded.

“It distresses you almost as much as I. Good. Then—Pisces. Please. Fix it.

And with that, he produced a key, inserted it into Pisces’ collar, and unlocked it.

Pisces stared at Riqre as the band of metal fell. Hrome shouted, but Igheriz was strangely silent. The [Guards] of the other caravans whirled, and saw Pisces staring around.

A [Necromancer] without his collar. A Gold-rank adventurer freed. They reached for their weapons, crying out. Riqre had gone mad!

Azam’s head rose. But the Djinni, everyone else was too slow. Shocked. Pisces waited only a moment. Then he turned.

[Deathbolt].

He pointed at Riqre as he [Flash Stepped] away. Pisces moved—

—And stumbled. His finger fizzed as the mana filling him failed to come out. He stumbled forwards, and one of Riqre’s [Slaves] caught him. Pisces stared at her. Behind him, Riqre sighed.

“Pisces. Pisces. Do you think I am stupid?”

He stood there, as the [Guards] calmed down. As Pisces whirled—raised a fist—and saw it lower of its own accord.

“What’s happening?”

Riqre beamed. He smiled. He laughed.

“Where other men need chains or collars, I am the greatest of my class, Pisces. Did you really think I’d let you run amok? Igheriz, don’t look so worried. With me, you will never fear even your most powerful slaves running free. Well…perhaps that one.”

Azam had stopped. Pisces stood there, trapped twice over. Now, he looked at Riqre. He imagined plucking out the man’s eyes, striking him in the face, the groin—and his body refused to move.

“Why did you free me?”

“So you could fix Meritha! Of course!”

Riqre instantly turned, all attention on the [Slave]. Sweat stood out on Meritha’s forehead, but the [Slave] had been numbed, and she lay there, shattered knee oozing blood. Pisces looked at Riqre. Then he understood.

“With…with my magic?”

“I know [Necromancers] cannot affect bodies from afar. Unless they touch them. Unless the patient is willing. Meritha, you would like to be healed, wouldn’t you?”

“To serve you, Emir? Yes.”

The young woman gave Pisces a look of trepidation, but also desperation. Pisces stood there. Riqre knelt beside Meritha, taking the young woman’s arm. Then he sighed.

“…Both legs. I forget myself.”

It was fast. The [Slave], for all the obsession, still cried out as the hammer fell. Yet not once did the half-Elf try to dodge. She lay there, crippled, as Pisces stood there.

“Pisces. I beg you. Fix my beloved Meritha.”

Riqre fell to his knees and turned to Pisces. The [Necromancer] looked at him.

“Me? Why?”

Riqre blinked.

“Because you can. Because you are an adventurer, and I have heard, a brave one who fights for those in need. Meritha is in need. Is that not enough? Fine then. Because, Pisces Jealnet. You will level.

He gestured at Meritha. Pisces looked at the broken bones, the [Slave] waiting patiently as others held her, giving her water and applying more numbing cream around the leg. He understood, then.

“Few [Necromancers] have a chance to work on the living, you see, Igheriz. They are experts at bone-manipulation, though.”

Suddenly Riqre was the [Teacher] to [Students], striding excitedly to the [Slave Masters], who were watching with a kind of fascinated horror. More fascination than horror, Pisces noted.

“You want me to heal this woman? You’d trust me?

He demanded, still shocked, outraged. Riqre looked back.

“My trust in you, Pisces, is not just blind faith. I know you can do it. Haven’t you ever fixed a bone? We of Roshal know how [Necromancers] are experts at melding bone. Even [Healers] study their arts to learn to treat it—those who are free of Terandria’s idiocy, that is.”

What madness. What…Riqre said things Pisces agreed with. Which were true. He knew Pisces’ class, and wanted Pisces to level.

The [Necromancer] didn’t move.

“What if I refuse?”

Meritha looked at him, and Pisces could barely meet her gaze. Riqre heaved a heavy sigh.

“Then Meritha would be crippled for life, Pisces. I would be distraught. I would not live with myself but to replace her limbs with fine magical ones. You see, I would be in despair that you refused to cooperate. Then I would break both his legs and not let you heal him, either.”

He pointed at Shein. The adventurer turned even whiter. Pisces and Riqre traded looks. The Emir smiled.

“So?”

 

—-

 

That was how Pisces found himself kneeling on the ground, mending bone. It was familiar. The ivory moved, the marrow shifted—and Meritha whimpered, despite the numbing.

It was familiar. Pisces recalled…

The bone’s broken. Stop squirming!”

Gewilena was mending the bones of one of the new apprentices to the cabal, as she was the best. The idiot had tripped trying to pick mushrooms on a hill! Still, [Necromancers] feared no broken bones. Unless someone squirmed.

It’s healing potions that we have to worry about. And infection. Even so, don’t you see what an asset we can be? If only they tolerated us.”

Feren murmured to the fascinated Pisces, who wanted to put his hands to the arm and see what Gewilena was doing. The young man nodded, but Gewilena rolled her eyes.

Don’t start, Feren. I need to focus. And will someone please…”

He had learned to heal from her, but Feren was right; Pisces seldom used that talent. Yet that was how he had reunited with Ceria, and met the original Horns of Hammerad, wasn’t it? He’d been healing a Runner that they had brought to him, with a shattered leg, who might never walk again.

Ryoka Griffin…back when it all began.

Meritha rose to her feet, unsteadily at first, after Pisces was done. The [Necromancer] caught her arm.

“Don’t strain the bones. They’re tender. She needs to rest.”

He was tired, but Riqre applauded and his entire caravan gave Pisces a standing ovation.

Magnificent! And so quickly done too! Pisces, you must be an expert at this. You have done it before!”

“A few times. You took a risk. Many [Necromancers] couldn’t have done as well as I did. All but two of the ones I have known would have struggled.”

No, three if you counted Az’kerash. Could he…? Of course he could. Pisces was far more adept thanks to Gewilena’s teachings, and Ryoka’s bones had been far worse than this [Slave]’s.

Riqre just shrugged.

“I trusted a Gold-rank [Necromancer] had the talent. Much less a specialist in bones such as yourself, Pisces. How do you feel? You acknowledge that was some work, yes? At your level…well, it might take a while. Level 38. Marvelous. You are closer to Named Adventurer than not, surely. It might take a hundred such healings to level. Perhaps a thousand.”

Igheriz stared at Riqre, then at Pisces. Hrome looked thunderstruck. Riqre just smiled wider, reading Pisces’ class.

“Thank you for the experience, Emir Riqre. Am I done, then? I consider it a token of your investment in me, as you said.”

Pisces replied icily, but he was grateful it had ended merely at that. Riqre snorted.

“Pisces. Pisces. I said I would help you. Who but levels without a challenge? My servants! I shall spend a night with brave Meritha and spoil her for her deeds! Who else will bravely volunteer and receive their rewards?”

He turned and his [Slaves] rushed forwards. Pisces stared at Riqre. Then the bone-breaking and healing truly began.

 

—-

 

Six broken limbs. Six healings. Pisces had to have two mana potions, high-quality ones, but each [Slave] walked away with tender limbs–but healed ones.

“I can see what you mean, Emir Riqre. It is an investment of time and coin, and a risk, yet you are truly wise. If he levelled but once…what a fool I was to sell him!”

Igheriz exclaimed as Pisces worked. The [Necromancer] listened, but had to devote his mind to picking out bone in flesh, mending it, applying healing potion now and then.

The risk of infection was real, and one of the [Slaves] had looked in horror as some kind of infection appeared from the first drops. Lines of red and pus, crawling up her arm before Pisces knocked the flask away.

Riqre had instantly told her to see a [Healer], promising to praise her once the infection was halted.

It was a risk, but Riqre had the resources and people…yet only someone like him would even dream of this way of ‘levelling’ Pisces.

“We find ways to level efficiently, Igheriz. I may share some more secrets of classes. This is the kind of thing you will learn if you rise—and I am sure you will! Secrets the likes of which royalty hoard.”

Riqre was grandly munificent, but he was not even done. After the sixth healing, he did not call for another volunteer. Pisces wiped sweat from his brow.

“Now we see how to increase the value of one slave, Igheriz. Will you place your trust in me again?”

“I will, Emir Riqre.”

Igheriz was drawn by the lure of levels, the promise of increasing Pisces’ value. If Pisces reached Level 39, Igheriz might well reveal this and start the bidding war anew. So when Emir Riqre beckoned for Shein, Igheriz didn’t hesitate.

“[Slave], go forth. Don’t hesitate. You have seen Pisces’ skill!”

Shein was terrified, yet the [Guards] just thrust him forward when he hesitated. He began to protest.

“Master Igheriz, please—”

“Oh, silence.

Riqre’s brows snapped together and Shein’s collar glowed. The voice cut off and Riqre inspected him. He had only broken the first pair of legs. He gestured to a guard.

“Both legs. A good breakage. Here, here, here.”

He pointed to three spots on Shein’s leg. The Bronze-rank adventurer screamed in silence and thrashed as men held him down.

Pisces was sick, but it was fast. Shein was sobbing silently when it was done. He looked at Pisces, but Riqre stopped the [Necromancer].

“This time, Pisces. I would like you to do something for me. Something…different.”

“What?”

Pisces was tired, but he wanted to hurry; Shein had no painkillers and Pisces could mend him quickly. Yet Riqre had something else. He turned and Pisces saw something placed beside Shein. Both adventurers stared at…a bone.

A huge bone. Yellowed, but new. Riqre smiled.

“That is a Grand Elephant’s femur. Pisces. Do you know what I want you to do with it?”

Pisces turned his head. Riqre answered him before Pisces spoke.

“I would like you to make this man…Shein…I would like you to make his bones stronger. Or perhaps make him taller? Flesh is an issue. Lighter, even. Shorter! Whatever you like!”

Pisces stared at Riqre.

“You want me to change his bones?”

“Yes. And if you do not, and if the bones are the same, they will be broken and he will be left there…. Igheriz, this is how you add to the value of more than one slave at a time.

The Emir chuckled. Pisces turned to Shein. The man could talk, as Pisces slowly walked over. Pisces stared at the bone.

“Pisces…Adventurer Pisces, sir.”

“I’m sorry. I…”

Pisces looked back at Riqre. Shein tried to grin.

“Always…I’ve not taken wounds this bad before. I thought I could handle it. You saw me blubbering like a baby.”

“Everyone screams, Shein. Don’t think of it. Just—just relax.”

Shein tried to nod, and a groan escaped his lips. He looked at Pisces, fear in his eyes, a mortal terror.

“Can you heal me? Are you going to…?”

“Do you want me to?”

Pisces stood there. He looked at Shein and thought of Yvlon. He had done this, too. He had never really considered it until Yvlon had asked him to help. Hadn’t he improved her?

“He will if he wants to ever walk, Pisces!”

Riqre called out cheerfully. He waved from where he was feeding Meritha grapes upon his lap, to the envy of all the other [Slaves], and Pisces looked at the man. How could he know Pisces’ past like this? Put together necromancy in this way? Could he read Pisces’ soul?

“I…what do you want me to do, Shein?”

“J-Just—”

Shein’s eyes were rolling up in his head. He clutched at Pisces’ arm.

“Just make the pain go away. Please? And keep me normal? Normal looking?”

Then his eyes turned to whites and he fainted. Pisces removed the hand, and gently laid Shein’s head back. He stood there a while, then knelt.

“I promise.”

 

—-

 

The next day, Shein walked. He walked, and stared at his legs. Everyone did.

There was a faint scar from where the wounds had been dealt; beyond that, no one could see anything wrong with his legs or the bone structure beneath the skin. Of course not. Pisces knew bones.

Yet something was different. For…Shein walked and nearly skipped over the sands. He kept saying the same thing.

“It’s so light.

His bones were lighter. Nearly half their original weight. Which was…well, a femur was barely a single pound in weight, and all the little bones added up, but it wasn’t that much on the whole.

Yet it did make a difference. Pisces had sweated, improvised, tried to find a way to do what Riqre wanted and had come up with this in the moment. He could have added to Shein’s bone mass, but that would just make him heavier, even if it was stronger.

Instead, Pisces had created a kind of internal structure that Yvlon’s arm had used, and added the Grand Elephant bone in place of Shein’s bone.

Stronger bone. There was a bit of magic in Grand Elephant bodies that allowed them to support their weight. Thusly, Shein’s bones could be lighter-weight and just as strong. Stronger.

I never told Erin that her bear-teeth were probably tougher than normal. Pisces walked along, attracting just as many stares.

Riqre was overjoyed. He’d been a bit suspicious until he’d gotten Pisces to swear on a truth-spell, and now he laughed.

“Better than the fleshshapers of A’ctelios! They can only mend flesh. Bravo, Pisces! Bravo, dear boy! I want you more now!”

Even Igheriz smiled. Pisces had not levelled, but the [Necromancer] knew that was only because he was Level 38. If he had done this ten levels ago? He was sure he would have levelled in the night.

“Excellent work, Emir Riqre. Your talents are undersung and I shall sing them loud when we go to Roshal.”

“My estates first, Igheriz. My estates first.”

Igheriz hesitated, and glanced at the [Carrion Eaters]. The mood of the caravan turned bleak once more. Yet Riqre beamed. He pointed at Pisces.

“So what about it, Igheriz? You see my point?”

“Of course, Riqre.”

“Good. Then we will do it again tonight. Perhaps a [Guard] who wants to be taller? Or just a [Slave] you want to change a bit. After all…a few of mine would like to be taller, or more compact. A chin shaped so.”

Igheriz looked sidelong. Pisces’ head rose. Riqre met his gaze as he gestured to [Slaves] who had the slightest imperfections as he saw it. An inch too short. A nose broken once. He looked at Pisces.

“Pisces can help us create perfection. He surely cannot refuse that, can he?”

Pisces stood there and felt the jaws of a trap closing. If he refused, Riqre would punish someone. If he accepted…

It was just [Necromancy]. Put to good use. This was not evil. This was…was…

This was what Az’kerash and he had dreamed of.

That was what was so terrifying.

 

—-

 

Thereafter, Pisces was favored once more. Not for his fame, but for Riqre’s interest. Ironically enough, for his value not as a celebrity, but his powers with bones.

He would trudge along with the others for an hour before someone unhooked him, then led him to a wagon where he would sit in shade, or work when they stopped. Every night Riqre would demand the same thing.

“Improve him, Pisces.”

“Make her a tiny bit…more appealing. I think her chin is a bit jutting, don’t you agree?”

First it was [Slaves]. Then he came with a [Guard].

“This man has weak bones. Can you fix him?”

Pisces had never, ever imagined his class put to this use. It wasn’t easy; the living were not the undead, and Pisces was still an expert in death. He made mistakes. He could undo them, mostly, but Riqre would accept any accidental flaw.

“One gambles, Igheriz, and I shall accept failure for perfection. This one will be sold.”

A [Slave] screamed and fell to her knees, weeping. Pisces looked at the slightly bowed arm which he’d been unable to correct; some kind of fragility of the bone, and he didn’t know how to fix it. Riqre just patted her on the head, and turned away as [Guards] dragged her off.

The worst part was that Pisces was learning. Necromancy was a forgiving art. You could replace faulty construction with magic, so that joints didn’t have to rotate entirely properly; an undead could be less than stable. Naturally, an expert like Az’kerash had perfect symmetry and function, and he had castigated Pisces in their brief lessons, although Pisces was good.

On the living, he had to be perfect. It got so that he was thinking of new improvements as he looked about. Riqre still made the same threat.

Each night, Pisces had to improve a fellow [Slave]. Improve in such a way it was a clear and telling upgrade, or Riqre would undo all of Pisces’ work and heal the broken bones wrong.

The first night it was Shein. The second?

 

—-

 

Cawe didn’t flinch, but stared down at her broken hands. Talons, rather. Her fragile wing-arms and the joints in her hands had broken swiftly.

She hadn’t said a word. She just—grinned at Pisces.

“What am I getting, fabulous Pisces? Extra long talons? Poison sacs? I’m a [Pickpocket]. I need nimble fingers, not…”

She cut off, swaying. It had to hurt, as bone rearranged in flesh. Pisces spoke, trying to alternatively meet her eyes and…not.

“Nimble fingers, Cawe. I am articulating her joints, Emir Riqre. So she has more mobility.”

“Like Human fingers! Excellent! Can she bend them backwards?”

“Would you like me to?”

Pisces regretted the question almost instantly. Riqre took him at face value.

“Yes. Try that.”

Cawe stared at Pisces as the [Necromancer] hesitated. She whispered.

“Pisces, let me give you a piece of advice. I’m no [Necromancer], but I think I have an idea how to make this work better.”

He glanced up.

“Yes?”

“Stop talking.”

It was still done in a trice. Cawe blinked as she opened and closed her clawed hands. Garuda had grasping talons, reminiscent of a bird’s, but with thumb-claws, and four fingers. They were still noticeably more clumsy than a Human’s hands because their joints lacked the same number of articulation points.

Now she had three instead of two on her fingers. She stared uneasily at first at her hands, then shrugged.

“I liked my old hands better.”

“Ah, but perhaps this is an improvement? This…a lesser man would think it small, but I know how many bones are in the hand. Well done, Pisces.”

Riqre beamed, pleased, and Pisces relaxed. So did Cawe, who ducked her head and avoided any flippant comments around her. Pisces…saw Riqre lose interest in Cawe at once, noting her cracked beak and less-than-perfect plumage. He turned to Pisces.

“Tomorrow will be a harder test. Think of…spines next.”

“No.”

Pisces said it quickly. Riqre’s brows crossed.

“Ah, Pisces. Afraid of a challenge?”

“I do not have the skill to fix a spine, Riqre. Igheriz would…lose any [Slave], no matter how hard I worked. That is not a lie.”

Riqre drummed his fingers on his side.

“It isn’t, is it? What a pity. I would still love for you to learn…”

“Ah, let us work Pisces up to it, Riqre! I grant you indulgence, but it does not do for a [Caravan Master] to lose too much of his stock, even if they are his [Slaves], yes?”

Igheriz waved a wine cup from where he was sitting and indulgently watching. He had no desire to see bones moving under skin up close, but he seemed…relaxed. Almost reassured. This was clearly managing slaves as he preferred it. He still avoided ever looking in the direction of the covered wagons where the jars and [Carrion Eaters] lay, but it amazed Pisces how fast he and Hrome had compartmentalized this.

The good mood lasted all of eight more seconds before Riqre turned.

“Then, Igheriz. Shall we see to your greatest servant? Azam?

The merriment fell silent. Igheriz looked up uneasily.

From where he stood sentry, Azam stirred.

“I…I do not think it wise to interfere with Djinni overmuch, Emir Riqre. My orders to Azam are carefully constructed. Even so, a wise owner takes few chances, is that not so?”

Igheriz licked his lips, turning a shade paler. Riqre smiled.

“What I have will not interfere with any precautions you took in binding Azam, Igheriz. It is simple, though. Look at your Djinni. Mighty Azam, will you not speak to me?”

Azam returned the stare. Silent. His eyes glowed and his body was unmoving.

“Azam respond—”

Igheriz halted as the Emir lifted a hand. Riqre turned to Igheriz.

“Ah, but you would have to command him. Your Azam is capable, intelligent, and bound well, but he is as reluctant as Pisces, Igheriz. A good Djinni would be making me laugh! Anticipating. You force him to do everything and he spitefully ignores all orders he can, is that not so?”

The Stitch-man glanced at Azam.

“…So do all Djinni behave, Riqre.”

“All Djinni do, except for the rarest, the best. Yet you can change them. It is hard to win loyalty, so I do not keep them…but there are still ways to persuade them. Look at him. He thinks he will outlive you, and I, and all here. He endures. Like the very stone he takes into his being.”

Emir Riqre skipped forwards. He walked around Azam, looking up fearlessly, circling him like a small dog would a larger animal.

Azam’s head began to turn, then he stopped. He ignored Riqre thoroughly. The Emir reached out and patted his arm. Then he reached down, between Azam’s legs.

The Djinni started. For a second his eyes flashed and he almost moved. Pisces stared as Azam froze again.

“You see. He does react. He did not like that.”

Igheriz watched Riqre, like someone watching an insane man dancing with a leg over a cliff, or poking a lion with his face in front of the bars of a cage.

“Riqre…you are fearless.”

Hrome breathed. Riqre turned.

“You are too cautious, Hrome. I know Djinni bindings. Azam will do nothing unless I offer him threat. Igheriz could…take more liberties. Yet we will talk of that later! In truth, very little of it would provoke Azam. He endures. See?”

He poked Azam’s side, and the Djinni was unmoving. Staring straight ahead. Pisces wondered what Azam was thinking. If it was anything like what Pisces would have thought, Riqre would have been dead if Azam could lift but a finger.

“Immortal but for if they are slain. Healing all but the greatest wounds. I could torture him as would make a mortal [Slave] shriek, and it would pass him by. He can forget it. I can suffer him indignities and he will mock me by waiting until my bones are dust. Yet. I do know you, Azam. I can leave a mark.”

The Djinni shivered. He didn’t look at Riqre, but his eyes flickered. Now, the Emir’s head turned and the madness was fully back in his eyes.

“Do you want to know how to humble Djinni, Igheriz? I will teach you. They will remember your name, and mine, for the rest of their days. He will be a better servant as well. Or…well. Let me show you.”

Riqre clapped his hands, and someone brought forth a decorated pot. At first, all shuddered, thinking of the jars. Yet it was not that which the Emir revealed. He showed the pot first to Igheriz, then brought it around, so that [Guards] and [Slaves] stared in puzzlement. He stopped before Pisces and Cawe.

“No one knows what this is. You, perhaps, Pisces?”

The [Necromancer] recognized it instantly. It was Cawe, though, who opened her beak, naming it in surprise.

“That’s…magicore.”

Riqre blinked and looked at her for a second. The [Pickpocket] froze.

Azam, who had not been able to see the contents of the pot, stirred. In confusion. Then…

Fear.

“Well done.”

“Magicore? How will this help, Riqre? I have transported magicore before, but never looked at it.”

Igheriz was confused. He stared at the grey, almost clear magicore, without element or nature. It was a [Mage]’s tool, or a [Jeweler]’s, if they specialized in magic. Few would ever use it.

Riqre spun back to Azam.

“He knows. Don’t you, Djinni?”

Azam was silent. The Emir looked conversationally over at Pisces, then the other [Slave Masters].

“Did you ever wonder how they reproduced? Did you not think to question if such beings ever aged, ever died? Surely—they have limits, or else they would rule this world. Djinni are beings of magic, that is the answer. Pure magic, you see? It is why getting them to reproduce is so hard. Even they can foul up the act of creation. Azam is a rare case.”

Again he smiled, but hefted the jar in his hands. Pure, raw magicore.

“And this…to change Azam, it is simple. It is not about taking his tongue, or forcing him to be this, or that. To punish him, it is simple. Mighty Azam, take this jar in your hands.”

He held it out. Azam did not move. Riqre clicked his tongue and looked at Igheriz.

“Take it, Azam.”

Slowly, the Djinni reached out and took the jar. He held it as far away from him as possible.

Even now, Pisces did not fully understand, but he saw the Djinni’s fear. The gathering was so silent, Riqre’s next words filled the air.

“Drink it.”

Azam looked at Igheriz. The man hesitated, but a malicious light was in his eyes. He nodded.

“Drink it, Azam. Why not? I have seen you down a barrel of spirits and poison without blinking.”

MasterI do not wish to.”

It was the first, and only time Azam had ever spoken like this. Igheriz blinked, and looked uncertainly at Riqre. The Emir stared at Azam.

“You see? Order him.”

“Master, it will harm me.”

Again, the two warred with Igheriz, from either side. Yet it was the Emir who bent over, whispering in Igheriz’s ear.

“Have you ever heard him beg, before? Have you ever seen him afraid? This is power over Djinni, Igheriz.”

The Stitch-Man hesitated. Then his features took on a look like Riqre’s. He pointed.

“Azam. Drink.”

Slowly, the Djinni did. He slowly raised the magicore to his lips and imbibed it. It was a sludge, and it took him a long time to drink. He did not grimace, or show any signs that the liquid rock hurt him. After all, his body was magic, transformative. He might not even have a stomach.

So why did he look like he was in so much anguish?

“What is happening, Emir Riqre?”

Hrome burst out at last, confused. Riqre just watched Azam’s face. The Djinni stared at him, and there was hatred there. So much that it unnerved Pisces. Gone, gone was the blank look of what now all realized had been contempt and indifference. Azam glared at Riqre.

“The trick is not done. Tell Azam to spit it out, Igheriz.”

“Azam…”

The Djinni was already doing so. Out came a spool of liquid from his mouth, and it was dark. The magicore was silky night black, flecked with bright orange stars and a film of color Pisces had never seen. He stared, impressed despite himself.

“That’s valuable.”

Cawe whispered to him. The [Necromancer] nodded. Riqre clapped his hands. Like the [Magician] showing off the highlight of his trick.

“Do you see? Do you understand?”

It took all of them a while, but Pisces got it before the rest. He only had to think of magic…and his face became so disgusted that Igheriz himself stopped smiling.

“Explain it, Riqre. I do not know magic this well.”

Riqre waved at the jar of magicore.

“Think on what it looked like before, Igheriz. Transparent. It was raw magicore. It is the void, you see. No—more like glass. You understand? Transparent. Nothing. They are creatures of color. Even their nature. Nightair. Aethertravel.”

He strode over to the jar, and inspected the valuable liquid. It began to splash onto his hands and the ground.

Azam, in the jar!

The Djinni stopped spitting it out at the Emir. Riqre just shook his hands free, smiling up at Azam, and let a [Slave] clean him. He gestured at the liquid on the ground, shining with magical power.

“Such valuable magicore. Colored bright. Worth—easily worth—ten times what it was mere seconds ago. Had we let Azam keep it in him, it would be even more valuable. Maybe not. It has his quality, you see, so it may be hard for a [Mage] to work with. They have to distill individual elements. After all…it is part of Azam. Or was.”

He smiled like a Demon, gleefully. Azam’s face was still. Igheriz stirred. Some of the others finally realized what had been done and looked incredulous or uneasy.

“You mean…”

“Not his power, Igheriz. Just…what was Azam. A bit of certainty. A bit of memory. Faded away. Now it is here. Do you want it back, Azam? Do you want to ignore me again?

The Djinni stared at the pot. Pisces held his breath.

A bit of Azam? A bit of his memory? What had happened? Was it like…forgetting a detail of something in your head, like losing the color of the drink you’d had last night? Or had he forgotten a face? A name? An event?

It terrified him, and he had not suffered it. Azam stared down at Riqre, and his lips moved.

“No, great Emir Riqre. What do you bid?”

The smile was victorious, and magnanimous. Emir Riqre turned away, waving a hand.

“Nothing from you, Azam. It is a lesson for Igheriz. You see.”

The man did. He stared at Azam, and the jar, and at Riqre as the Emir went to recline. The Emir kept speaking, as a [Slave] took the jar from Azam to be sold.

“That is how you will punish Azam if you feel like it, Igheriz. To motivate him. Does he not make you laugh? Feed him magicore. Does he misinterpret an order? Do that. A bit of him will go with it. A small amount makes him dread. A large amount? That is the biggest punishment. In time, they could lose everything that makes them…Djinni. They are practically newborn, then, like the few who are created.”

His head turned, a gleeful mask. The caravans of Hrome and Igheriz were silent again. They stared at the horror that could make a Djinni shiver and freeze up in fear.

“That would be something, eh, Azam? You could be born again. Perhaps made—better.”

This time he ran a hand up Azam’s leg. Riqre’s gaze was a lighthouse’s beam. It swung from Azam to Igheriz, back again.

“What did you lose from that? No one knows. It’s chance. Yet I have heard of smart masters who can take just what they desire. Replace it, even, with a color of their own. Maybe you hate how he smiles. Take it. Are you too dour, Azam? Igheriz could take it and make you happy. Smiling all the time. Take and put together. So beautiful. Wouldn’t you like to forget why you are sad?”

Azam was afraid. He whispered.

“I would not wish that, Emir Riqre.”

The Emir stood there, cocking his head left and right. As if confused by the response. Then he shrugged.

“Well, we shall see how well you serve, then. It is difficult, and hard, but Igheriz could craft a better servant if he had the time. That is what we do. Make what we own better. The true of us do, anyways. Am I not generous with my knowledge? Thank me, Igheriz!”

Emir Riqre took a glass of wine and toasted the others. He began to laugh. Hrome and Igheriz tried to smile, but they were unnerved. They stared at Azam and chuckled with Emir Riqre. The [Guards] of Riqre’s caravan laughed with him. They laughed…and slowed, as they drank and realized Riqre hadn’t stopped laughing.

He laughed. For ten seconds. For twenty seconds. Nearly a minute, laughing, and laughing until everyone was silent. Staring. Guffawing with such hilarity and glee that his voice was the only sound anywhere.

Pisces felt like his skin was crawling off his body. He looked at Riqre, and the Emir only stopped laughing after nearly two minutes had passed. He panted, and then looked around, as if confused as to why everyone looked so unnerved.

“Ah, Igheriz. Pisces. These are just little tricks. When we get to my estates, I promise you…”

He looked at Azam.

“True fun shall begin.”

Pisces looked at Igheriz. The man’s smile was gone once more. He looked at Riqre, and licked his lips and drank as deeply as he could. He could not pretend. He tried, oh, how he tried. But each and every time, he stared a little deeper into Riqre’s soul and saw more madness.

More insanity.

The others departed in time, to uneasy sleep. Riqre left in good humor, and the [Necromancer] and other [Slaves] were led away.

Azam stood there, a silent sentinel. Only when all but the sentries were abed, only when he was alone, unwatched, did he make a sound.

A small cry. No tears. No other evidence, no louder sound did he dare, or else he would show his weakness. The Emir devoured such things.

Yet he did make a sound then, as he looked down at the wasted magicore on the ground. A part of him.

Inside, the Djinni wept. He cried out, and wept and raged. For something he had lost, truly lost. He mourned and sobbed for something gone.

He did not know what he had lost. He could not remember.

 

—-

 

The last product of Riqre’s madness made himself known as they were two days away from Riqre’s lands. Pisces dreaded what he would see in Riqre’s home. How could it be worse than here? Than this?

The looming dread almost made you forget the horrors Igheriz could inflict. Almost. But Cawe didn’t forget. Of course not. No one did, but Leciaun was once a year, so you could almost blot it out, pretend it didn’t exist, as a kind of self-defense mechanism. That people like Igheriz would ‘reward’ their favorite [Guards] more often than that was a truth no one spoke about.

But in Riqre’s caravan, there was no need for Leciaun. His personal, devoted servants were off-limits. Everyone else? The [Guards] had free reign so long as they did their duties.

The [Slaves] who were not devoted moved in silent fear. The [Guards], well, they put up with all of it for this alone.

The worst of them was the [Guard] named Tenir. Tenir was not the highest-leveled, he was not the most trusted, although he had Riqre’s favor. He was not even the cruellest, but he was so relaxed. He joked and talked to the other [Guards], so completely at home here that Pisces suspected he was a monster beyond belief.

The truth was more horrifying.

[Slaves] would plead or try to negotiate with the [Guards] who took an interest in them. Tenir? Tenir they didn’t try. He would approach one, and they would beam at him.

“Tenir, are you busy?”

Tenir, I beg a moment of your time. I so enjoyed our last encounter.”

Tenir…

They loved him. He alone enjoyed their affections; they practically fought over him. So Tenir happily enjoyed their company. No matter if they pleaded or wept or shouted, he heard nothing.

To him, they sounded and seemed to be happy as could be. His smile never changed and he laughed and jested with imaginary retorts to something he alone heard.

Pisces stared at Tenir. The other [Guards] just shrugged.

It was Emir Riqre who explained, when Igheriz demanded to know what was wrong with Tenir.

“It’s a class and a Skill. He does not know he has it himself, you see? It is invisible in his head. Tenir? I employ him and he works for me for a song. You would not know it, but at first he was the most miserable [Guard] who ever existed! He drove himself mad, but a man must work. Guilt. He thought he did something wrong. I told him not to worry, but he had different beliefs than mine. Foolish man. So he…broke. Against something. It worked out, you see?”

Igheriz just looked at Tenir.

“You let one with that class serve you as a [Guard]?”

“Of course. It does not harm. Roshal fears too much, Igheriz. As long as you know what is made, you fear nothing. I do not delve as deep as A’ctelios Salash. Now. Tomorrow we visit my home. Then we shall feast! And after that, to Roshal!”

Pisces looked up from ‘mending’ the bones of another [Slave]. He looked at Riqre. The Emir’s head turned and he caught Pisces’ eye out of the corner of his. He winked.

All of this? Play as we travel. Now you shall see all of it.

 

—-

 

They stopped at Emir Riqre’s manor. Pisces sat with Cawe, Bearig, Droppe, Astotha, and the others. No one really spoke.

“If I—if any of us stay here, I would rather anger Igheriz four times. Not that I interest him. Sands, let it not be so.”

Cawe muttered at last. The others nodded. All eyes turned to Pisces.

“Do you think he’ll insist on you, Pisces?”

The [Necromancer] shuddered.

“No. He can’t be that mad. This Naga wants me and Igheriz wouldn’t allow it. Azam is still here…we’ll leave tomorrow.”

As soon as Riqre entombed all those who didn’t genuinely, truly love him by now. Shein shuddered. He still felt at his new legs, running his hands over his flesh and squeezing the bones when he had a chance. The horrors made him physically vomit and shake. Pisces didn’t blame him. There was adventuring—and then there was this.

“Necromancer Pisces. The Emir Riqre desires your presence. You are to be an honored guest.”

One of the [Guards] stopped in front of the cells where they had been placed. Riqre’s manor was an actual keep, an old one in the middle of nowhere, along Zeikhal, the Great Desert. It was actually quite far from Roshal; perhaps to keep his passions hidden.

Pisces rose, slowly. The others looked at him, but he just nodded.

“Very…well. What does he want?”

The [Guard] gave him a look almost as blank and uncaring as Rophir, as all those who served under Riqre for a long time.

“Your company.”

 

—-

 

All thoughts of escape vanished as Pisces walked to Riqre’s manor. He had too many devoted servants, too many [Guards]…and Pisces had his collar and manacles.

Riqre actually wanted them taken off, but Igheriz had the presence of mind to refuse, and the Emir took it with bad grace. A good thing too, because Pisces wasn’t sure if he could have stopped himself from trying to strangle all three [Slave Masters] at the banquet table, collar weakening him or not.

The Emir was decadent in his home. He sat, wearing clothes on his upper body—none beneath. His [Slaves] twined around him, obscuring everything from view, but that didn’t change the obvious.

His trusted [Guards] and people were just as unrestrained. Here, as Pisces sat and ate nothing—but drank liberally—he saw the very thing he’d feared.

But not the depths. Not yet. That lay below and Riqre had not shown him. He must have shown Hrome or Igheriz, because Hrome was pale and drank so fast and hard that he passed out within minutes.

Igheriz didn’t pass out. He had been shaken by Riqre. He did not like Riqre, what the Emir did, but Riqre was the better between the two at molding people. And he was doing it to Igheriz.

Darkness begat darkness. Pisces saw only one of Igheriz’s [Slaves] here. Some of the [Guards] were here, staring or even beginning to get sucked into the madness.

But Eloque? The Lizardwoman was here and Igheriz turned all his fear and loathing and all he had seen on her.

Pisces looked away. If he could have stopped it—in every place, there was something to fight against. Which was worse, Riqre’s people, who believed they loved it because he had broken them, or Eloque? She protested—then fought, as Igheriz hurt her.

Enough! Enough!

Eloque cried out. Pisces half-rose—but it was Azam who spoke. The Djinni stood, arms folded, a permanent bodyguard.

“You will injure her beyond repair, Master. You bid me stop you.”

Azam! Enough!

Igheriz rose, as mad as Riqre. The Emir turned his head and his gaze fixed on Azam. Eloque ran, sobbing, and Pisces felt a lurch.

“Such insolence from your servant. He countermands you? Now would be the time to punish him, yes?”

Azam froze. Igheriz rose in a rage. He barely hesitated.

“Yes! Magicore! Lend me some, Riqre! Two times—no, thrice what he drank last! You will hold your tongue, Azam.”

The Djinni actually shrank. Riqre laughed and demanded some brought at once.

“Master, I beg you. Not that. I will lose myself.”

Azam spoke, his voice straying to…pleading? Not enough. Pisces watched as Igheriz hesitated, but Riqre was there, whispering in his ear again.

“Ah, he is repentant! Maybe you should relent, Igheriz?”

“Maybe. Maybe.”

Igheriz muttered, his wrath warring with what he knew he could do to Azam. Then he looked sideways and flinched. Riqre’s eyes were dark pools.

“Azam begs forgiveness. Yet he does so only in words. Perhaps…if he wishes to avoid the magicore, perhaps have him prove it.”

“H-how?”

The Emir grinned.

“Have you never ordered your mighty Azam to change forms? Aethertraveller he might be, but they have talents. Have you never seen how far you can order them?”

Igheriz hesitated. Azam’s head slowly turned and he met Emir Riqre’s gaze. He did not shudder, or show fear. Yet Pisces thought even the Djinni feared…Riqre laughed and beckoned Igheriz to whisper. All others dining saw Azam begin to shake. And that was only the start.

The madness grew worse. And the Emir had called for Pisces. He was going to drag Pisces into it. Force him into this horror, and Pisces already saw the Emir watching him. The [Necromancer] felt sick. He would not be the same. No one who fell would. He rose, but Igheriz whispered and Pisces was unable to run.

“Pisces. Igheriz told me he marked you. Let me show you too—the very foundations of your class. Do not worry. We will begin gently, at first. With games. Fetch me a [Slave]. One who was often with Pisces. Games first, then to the true matters.”

Emir Riqre beckoned and Pisces did shout then, a mortal shout of horror to be freed, to run. He couldn’t move.

 

—-

 

This is how Riqre played his games. He broke you apart. Took you deeper into darkness. Let you float there, even try to escape.

Then dragged you down again.

It was a variation of the tasks they had made Pisces do before. A game, Riqre called it.

Pisces sat in a room apart from the banquet. He had been led there, locked in. He did not have to wait long.

Bearig!

Cawe screamed as they dragged him in. The man was screaming. He screamed as they dropped him, ungently, laughing. Pisces stared in horror at his legs.

Broken! It lasted for a while, but not against hammers, eh? Try again, Pisces!

This was the game. Bearig had been here twice. First, they broke his legs. Then Pisces sent him out…and they broke them again.

Riqre himself appeared in the doorway, swaying. Behind him, Pisces heard a voice. Azam’s? It was a shout, but there were no words.

Cawe backed up into a corner. Pisces did likewise. He couldn’t help it.

“What are you doing?”

“Pisces, I’m helping you, of course. I am disappointed. I have hammers. I can break this man’s legs.”

He pointed at Bearig, who was choking on his saliva and the pain. Emir Riqre tapped the side of his nose.

“Stop me. Six blows from my own hand, Pisces! Stronger bones! Make him a better man! A better [Cook] or [Laborer]! Like, yes, like a Draugr! Imagine it! A mix between undead and man! You have twenty five minutes.”

He was gone before Pisces could react, hurrying towards the Djinni’s voice. Pisces looked at Bearig.

“Pisces. Pisces. My legs!”

The man wailed. Pisces slowly approached. He knelt, uncollared, but unable to use his magic except as Riqre willed it.

“I know, Bearig. Just…hold on. I’ll stop him from breaking your legs. I’ll make you better. Improve you. Give me a moment. I’ll make it so they can never break you again. Perhaps you can save us if we leave here.”

Cawe saw Pisces kneel. Bearig was out of his mind with pain, yet it was the Garuda who saw Pisces touch the Grand Elephant’s bone he was using to meld into Bearig. She mouthed the words.

Better? Improve…?”

There was something in Pisces’ eyes. He looked at Bearig, but it was a detached look. Could he make something out of Bearig such that the man could break their chains? He looked at Bearig, but not at him.

Cawe opened and closed her beak. Then she saw the door opening. She tried to flee, to find a place to hide in the bare room. No. Not her! Not

 

—-

 

Eloque stumbled into the room, still sobbing. She froze when she saw them. Pisces looked up. Bearig had reawakened after fainting twice. Cawe stopped scrabbling herself under a couch.

“Eloque?”

The Lizardwoman stopped, swaying. She took in the terrible scene. Bearig’s blood was staining the carpet. He had a single bit of healing potion, but Pisces was saving it to mend his flesh. His bones were reshaping themselves, growing denser, tougher.

“What—what…”

She had run from the banquet hall, but the entire keep was full of Riqre’s people and a few of his [Guards] and Igheriz’s were searching for her to bring her back. She’d run from room to room and seen…she slowly looked at the other [Slaves].

“Is he coming? Any of them?”

Pisces glanced up. He broke away from changing Bearig to reply, curtly.

“No. You can hide here for a moment. Twenty one minutes.”

Eloque’s legs gave out. She sat down. Some of the stitches had torn free in her scales. She looked at the others and saw a mirror of her face.

Waxy horror. Disbelief. Fear. Pisces looked at her for a moment and then turned to Bearig.

“I’m sorry. I…I have to work. Bearig is running out of time.”

That was all he said. Eloque saw his features change to one of concentration. She stared.

“What is he doing?”

“Fixing up Bearig. Making him tougher. Riqre is playing a game. Either Pisces makes Bearig’s legs strong enough so they don’t break or…”

It was not hard for Eloque to guess the game’s nature. Riqre was so simple in how he performed his evil. It all made sense. She looked at Bearig. The man was moaning.

“Pisces. It hurts. Stop, please.”

“Bearig, I know. Bear with it. I’m…I’m going to improve your bone structure. You won’t break another bone. If only I could chain an animation spell in here, they’d automatically knit. If I had more bones…more variety. I’ll change your arms. Perhaps if we’re put to sleep, I could make them strong enough to pull the chains apart.”

Cawe’s eyes widened. Pisces’ gaze flicked up, and Eloque started.

“Strong enough to…”

“I want to escape. We just have to survive tonight. Or do you think I intend to stay another second in this place with that monster? Bear with it, Bearig. I’ll try to hide the changes; don’t use your full strength. It’s only bone…if only I knew muscle.”

It was a gamble. Pisces wondered if he could do it. Bone was not sinew and muscle; perhaps he had to hide a kind of…bone saw in Bearig’s fingers? Something else? He focused on the legs first, but Bearig’s hand, slick with his own blood, grasped at Pisces.

Pisces looked down. The man was shaking his head wildly.

“Bearig, stop! He’ll cripple you for life if I don’t focus!”

Pisces snapped at the idiotic man. The [Cook]’s mouth moved; he’d chewed through his own lip. Yet out the words spilled.

“Pisces. No. I—I don’t want this. I want to be free, but not like a Draugr. Not like a monster. I want to be me. Not this. I beg you.”

The [Necromancer] barely heard him. He mumbled to himself, trying to think. What could he…?

“You’d rather die? Live with two broken legs? Igheriz won’t haul you around. I can reverse it in time. I’ve done this before. You know I have a teammate, Yvlon. I improved her arms.”

“Pisces. I don’t want that. I’d…what would my family see?”

Bearig’s voice was weakening. He was losing blood. Pisces bent to his work, moving faster. The man was delirious, and he underestimated Pisces. If Pisces could just…

“I would rather die, Pisces—”

“Enough. Be silent.”

Bearig whispered, but then Cawe and Eloque stopped hearing his voice. Pisces had cast a [Silence] spell. The man tried to move, but he was too weak.

In dead silence, Pisces kept working, mind racing now. He ignored Bearig’s feeble moving. They had to live. He didn’t know what he was talking about. He’d thank Pisces later. Pisces could improve him, perfect him, more than Riqre dreamed.

All I have to do is hide something in his bones. Or make him strong enough to break metal barehanded. Why did I never dream of this before? Not even Az’kerashno, has he ever done something like this?

Why didn’t I ask him?

Can you fuse undeath and life together? Yvlon. I helped her. She gained a class from it revolving around her improved body. Look how much stronger she is. What if I had made her arms out of the Archmage’s bones? 

Yes. Yes! Imagine that. Strength of a Draugr. Bone arm. Why…why do you even need flesh? Look at Ceria’s hand. If I could create something like that, they’d be closer to invincible. Repairable. If I could alter her hand…

What could I create? How can I make Bearig better able to help me? Us?

The magic was taking on a complex form and Bearig was struggling, but to no avail. Pisces saw a grander vision in his mind, and reached for it. Something not even the Necromancer had dreamed of. Something…

It was Eloque’s voice, quiet, intense, that made Pisces stop.

“You can’t change him back. You will never, ever change him back. You can change his bones, his body. But the class you and Riqre give him will last forever.”

The [Necromancer] froze. Bearig’s eyes opened. Cawe, who had been peering through the keyhole of the door, looked around. All three looked at Eloque.

“The class?”

“You have one too. It’s crimson. Like blood. That’s what Riqre wants. Change Bearig and you’ll give him one. Like I have. Look. Igheriz laughed and told me to keep it a secret.”

Eloque stretched out her scaly arms. The Lizardwoman pointed at the stitches, and then looked at Pisces.

She had stopped weeping. She might begin again soon, but in this place…in this time…she met Pisces eyes. The Lizardwoman looked at the young man who had interested her, caught Igheriz’s eye, a fellow [Slave]. Or he had been, a moment ago.

Now?

She spoke, slowly, gesturing at Bearig.

“Bearig asked you to stop. He told you he would rather die than change.”

“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He’s half dead from blood-loss.”

Pisces retorted. Eloque blinked at him.

“So you know what is better.”

“I know how we can survive. Maybe even escape! Stop arguing with me and just trust that I know what’s better.”

Pisces tried to focus his mind, but he was just waiting for a response. He began to work, and it was Cawe who spoke up.

“You sound like Riqre right now, Pisces.”

The young man rose to his feet. His eyes flashed and he whirled on Cawe.

“Take that back.”

She balled her talon-hand into a fist, then stared at it. The gesture was not something a Garuda could make, yet her fingers…she thrust them at Pisces.

“I didn’t ask for this.”

“It was that or he’d keep your hands shattered! I didn’t have a choice!”

“I know, so I let you do it. Bearig knows. He doesn’t want this. We’re all [Slaves], aren’t we? Listen to him.”

Cawe pointed. Bearig wasn’t able to speak; he lay there, but he had said his piece. Pisces hesitated.

“If there’s a chance…I am not Riqre. I am not.”

“You are not.”

Eloque agreed. She sat there, knowing Riqre and the [Guards] would soon return. She rose, and stared at her arms. She clawed at her stitches in horror. Pisces and Cawe turned to her.

“Enough. Enough! I cannot live like this.”

Eloque screamed. Pisces reached for her, but she struck his hand down. He stared at the gashes on his hand, wincing, but Eloque was calm in the next second. She looked at Pisces, and backed away from the door. She had thought this was a safe place. Now?

Now, she looked at Pisces.

“When we first met, you told Igheriz you were better than he. A [Necromancer] better than a [Slaver]. I believed you. Right now? Look what Riqre has done to you.”

She pointed down at the unconscious Bearig. She never looked away from Pisces’ gaze. The [Necromancer] wavered as Eloque slowly opened the door.

“Igheriz makes me look like something more appealing to him. Slowly. Painfully. You—you do it less visibly. Faster, kinder. You are better at it than him, yes, but I prefer Igheriz after all. Riqre will have you make us all into his puppets. I have had enough. Goodbye.”

He did not respond as she threw open the door and fled deeper into the mansion. Pisces stood there, swaying, her words echoing in his mind. He looked at Cawe, and down at Bearig.

Pisces knelt, head in his hands. He had never thought of himself as a monster. He had never…

He felt himself sinking. Riqre was laughing, somewhere. 

Pisces stared at his shaking hands.

 

—-

 

When they brought Pisces to the banquet hall, Emir Riqre was not angry. He sighed as he stared down at Bearig. The man’s body was whole. He was healed.

Not changed.

“Ah, Pisces. How close you came! Nevermind. I can see you had someone change your mind. The little bird? Perhaps…no, it does not matter. We have time. Let us try again.”

He didn’t even care Pisces hadn’t ‘fixed’ Bearig. The man was dragged out, surprised that he lived. Yet Riqre had forgotten about him in a moment. He was studying Pisces, thinking, musing aloud.

“It is so tricky. Perhaps if I said ‘that Garuda dies’, you will…but what? Some things are too crude. Hm, hm…let me think.”

His gentle, musing voice horrified Pisces more than anything he had ever heard in his life. The [Necromancer] looked around. There was nothing to stop Riqre. Hrome had come to, but was pouring himself more wine in horror. Azam? Azam—Pisces couldn’t look at the Djinni. Not after what they’d done.

There was no salvation here. Not in this darkness, in this night. If the sun had risen overhead, and the roof of the keep broken, Pisces thought the light would have quailed and fled Riqre. If Erin were here? Could she stand against this?

If he could have done anything, Pisces would have eradicated this entire place. Destroyed it completely. That was all there was left. There was no salvation here. He began to reach for something, a weapon, a fork or butter knife, hands shaking, knowing he would never come back.

Then he saw Riqre look up, and beam. He clapped his hands and rose.

“I have it! It is always first steps, Pisces. First…steps. I will help you down the first few, so we shall try again. Bring me magical agents! Find my [Mages] and deliver unto us all their little powders and crystals, to write spell circles! And bring me one last thing.”

His [Slaves] rushed about and the others turned to look at Pisces. What now? The [Necromancer] waited, hand on the butter knife. He saw Riqre look down and laugh.

“Oh, Pisces. You will not object nor need that. Put it down; you cannot raise your hand against me, anyways, only my enemies or those I let you. I could give you company, threaten you to do many things. Kill that man as punishment. Inelegant. Foolish.”

He flicked his fingers, blew on the tips of his nails and brushed them against his lips.

“No, Pisces. I treasure you. So, my people. Bring me bones. If Pisces will not change the living…let us perform his great spell! I see it Pisces, and I know you must have never used it! Are you not curious? I am so curious. Perform the [Ritual of the Lord of Bones] for me! Let us make a glorious masterpiece!

He threw up his arms and there was laughter and cheering. Pisces stood there. He looked at Riqre and dropped the knife dully.

Oh yes. He would try that. If there was a chance…his eyes were filled with the same fear as Azam’s. He would try, but how would Riqre twist him? How…would he fall? That was the Emir’s genius. Hope inverted itself around him. Pisces felt raw, terrible giggling in his throat. He began to laugh, as manically as Riqre.

Somewhere in his mind, he tripped and began to tumble.

 

—-

 

No salvation came. No hope.

It was the opposite of hope that appeared. It came in a sobbing woman, as tortured as Igheriz could make her. She had seen how much worse that could be.

Too much. Eloque had run, screaming with pain, her body a mimicry of a Stitchfolk’s. The Lizardwoman fled the laughing room in the chaos after Emir Riqre called for the [Necromancer] Pisces, and madness swept the crowd.

She fled again from Pisces as he sank into this hell. Eloque ran on, ignored by the [Guards] as they celebrated. Deeper. Deeper into the keep, running from what would follow and kill her one way or the other.

Down. Past wine cellars.

Down. Into the earth the Emir had dug into, deeper, into the cold and darkness.

Down. Where there was no light. Down so many steps she had to stop to breathe.

It was here Eloque found something. Found…but she had known. Known deep down, even when she did not want to admit it. Here, cut into the narrowing staircase, was Riqre’s promise to all those who did not love him. She looked around.

Jars. Each one large. Large enough to hold someone inside. But not to stand upright. They would be crammed in, like fish. Like…

There were hundreds of them. She had passed many, and many more lay there. Still. Silent.

There was air to breathe. They were fed. They were…Eloque backed away in horror. She drew breath to scream.

But even the air sucked away the words. Here was the end of everything. Riqre wanted Pisces for this, to take him even further into horror.

I have gone deep as I can, but I cannot go deeper, even when I dig… Eloque stared at each jar, and she felt it. The same thing Pisces did. What all the [Slaves], even the [Guards] and Igheriz and Hrome did.

The pure, unadulterated wrongness.

If you could, if you were free and had all the power in the world, what would you do to this place? This corrupted pit of the soul?

Her hands reached out, shaking beyond belief.

“Hello? Can you hear me?”

No response. The jars were silent. Perhaps everything here was dead. But Eloque felt…

“It must end.”

The Lizardwoman spoke. She looked at the thing Igheriz had made of her body. String amid her scales. She thought of all she had endured and all they had.

Months. Years. Decades, maybe, like this.

She had seen the [Carrion Eaters]. The [Slave] whispered.

“It must end. Either way—”

She heard voices. Her pursuers, lazy with contempt and laughter, were following, tracking her. Eloque looked up. There was nowhere to hide; the staircase down was not finished. It could continue forever if time and effort allowed. There was only Eloque… and the jars.

Slowly, she reached out. The air seemed to grow tighter and she thought she heard a…sound.

“Will you free me? Free us all?”

She pressed her head against the side of the jar. The voices above were growing uncertain, and the footsteps faster. Eloque listened, again. She thought she heard a voice. So she rose and reached out to the jar, fighting with all her strength to push.

It was unnaturally heavy. She heard a shout.

Down here! She has entered the storage space! Where—

They came running now. Eloque heaved with all her might and she felt the jar move.

Someone charged down and grabbed her. She fought, screaming. But the [Guard] saw the jar teetering. He reached for it, swearing.

Too late. It toppled, bouncing heavily down the infinite stairs, the enchantment keeping it secure despite the impact. Eloque, the other [Guards], everyone stopped and listened.

Thump. Thump. Thump—

Crashing from stair to stair, going down. Down and down and down….

Until they heard the last thump, and then the [Guard] breathed out, shakily, laughing. He reached out, grabbing her—and then froze.

Crack.

Slowly, the [Guards] looked down the spiraling staircase. They heard a sound. A crack. Then more cracks. They slowly began to move backwards.

And Eloque laughed.

 

—-

 

In the banquet hall, Pisces stood in the center of a glowing hexagram. He stared at the bones, of failed [Slaves]. Riqre was leaning forwards.

“Now, let us make it better. A ritual demands a sacrifice. Bring the bird.”

Pisces turned. He felt the magic summoning something powerful. Yet his focus wavered.

Cawe!

She fought, shouting, then fell limp. Her head rose and she looked at Pisces. She mouthed the words.

“Do it. Let me kill them.

Riqre was chortling, looking from Pisces to Cawe to the glowing circle and moving bones. Either way, he won. Either way…

No salvation came. No hope. Just the very consequences of what Riqre had made.

They came out of the cellars. Up from that staircase. Hundreds. Things forgotten by even the Emir. People—changed by their classes.

Horrors.

The first of them fell upon the [Guards] enjoying themselves, then upon the sentries, and servants who had given in. They made no distinction.

Had they once been female? Human? Stitchfolk? Garuda? There was no way of knowing. They looked…nothing…like what they had been.

Imagine living a day in a jar you could not move in. Could not stand up in or stretch in. Then imagine ten days.

A year.

A decade.

Madness would descend in the first week, the first month. Time lost all meaning. It was one of the worst tortures ever, and you would live until you broke.

Many did die. Some—lived. They lived and heard the whispers.

 

[Rank 1 Horror – Entombed One.]

[Rank 2 Horror – Sealed Secret.]

[Rank 2 Horror – Many in a Jar.]

[Rank 1 Horror – Screaming Soul.]

[Rank 3 Horror – …

 

Trapped in infinite horror, they began to change. They gained—conditions. Aspects. Skills of a different kind. They waited. Waited, and waited, unable to die, some of them. Some of them clinging onto a hatred that would not leave. A desire for vengeance. If ever there was a chance…

If they waited long enough, they might grow strong enough to leave. They pressed at the magic and insides of the jars. Almost. Almost—it would just take one earthquake, one chance.

One [Slave] who was like them.

Released, they came out of their prisons and brought vengeance. Death. As much pain as they could inflict before death.

Pisces saw one as he whirled. Emir Riqre was on his feet, annoyed at the interruption to his fun. Igheriz and Hrome turned. They saw…a hand…reach out around a door as the screaming in the corridors stopped.

A hand. The hand was normal. Pale from lack of light. Yet the fingers had grown, and grown, and stretched until they had no limits. No bone. Searching a tiny space for just a crack, just a hint of—

The face came next. The body. Pisces looked at a pair of huge eyes. Hair as long as the fingers, twined around a body pallid and naked.

Yet the woman had no mouth. No chest, no throat. That entire region was…gone. Connected only by a bit of flesh she dragged the rest of her body around by. As if she had screamed so much she had torn away everything that could do so.

She looked up, huge, wide eyes focusing. Emir Riqre breathed.

“The captives have gotten out.”

His [Guards] and servants looked up. The first of the horrors crawled forwards—into a ball of fire. Riqre had pointed a ring and unleashed a jet of white-hot flames.

The horror did not scream. It—she—could not. It began to burn, but it was reaching for Riqre.

Guard the Emir!

The horrified [Guards] rushed forwards, drawing blades, hacking at the nightmares. They hacked at the dozens of fingers, reaching and twining around them. It took them minutes to kill the thing, even on fire, even under attack from all sides.

Panting, the gore-drenched [Guards] looked up. Emir Riqre turned.

“Your servant has unleashed one of my captives! You fool!

“Who? What…. Eloque…?”

Igheriz’s eyes widened as he looked around for his captive. Emir Riqre turned. He—hesitated. Then he smiled wide.

“Ah. Not one, was it? I always wondered if they were changing. But I couldn’t control them. Now I get to see.”

He began to chuckle, then laugh. His [Guards] looked towards the doorway. They saw eyes, figures moving as more screams echoed within the keep.

More were coming. Many more. Riqre turned, almost joyfully.

“There you are. Wait. Wait, just a moment.”

“We have to leave. Emir—”

The [Head Guard] began to panic. Even Tenir was unable to hide what was happening. But the Emir ignored him. The others shouted, overturned tables, and his servants flocked around Riqre, to defend him, Pisces realized. He was already looking for Igheriz. Cawe, Astotha, Hrome and their people—all were running.

But Riqre’s people were almost as mad as he was. They were setting up to fight; this was their place. The Emir ignored everyone as the second horror burst into the room and was cut down. He finally found what he wanted. He strode forwards, beaming, as from every corner and door, his captives returned to end their tormentors once and for all.

The last thing Pisces saw was the Emir striding forwards, holding up a stone.

Tell me one more time: do you love me?

His laughter followed Pisces as he ran. Emir Riqre’s keep exploded into death and violence. An end to it. No salvation. Just everything he had created.

 

—-

 

Pisces ran. He had picked up no blade; there was no time, only the need to escape. Igheriz and Hrome fought, with their [Guards].

To the stables! The cells! Grab everything and run, run!

The horrors were in the corridors, killing even the two caravans. They paid less attention to the others, but anyone in their path still died. Pisces saw a bundle of eyes moving, shuffling his way—until Igheriz stabbed it. The eyes fell—reformed again. It jumped at Igheriz and the man screamed, slashing uselessly; each eye was made of blood, and there were no organs or body to kill—

Azam smashed the horror into a wall. The Djinni was roaring, his indignities forgotten. Even now, he was bound to protect.

Run! They will drown this place in death for what has been done! Run!

But for him, none of them would have made it. The Djinni attracted the horrors, slowed them and secured their exit. Everyone ran.

Pisces got separated from the others as something pulled one of the [Guards] screaming into the darkness. He dodged left—and found himself alone.

Could he escape? He had to live first! Pisces ran, swearing, looking around, looking for—

He found her by one of the doors to the courtyards. Igheriz’s caravan and Hrome’s were fleeing, pursued by shapes, protected by Azam’s glowing form. Emir Riqre’s people were dying.

Screams. Pisces stopped, panting. He raised his hands to defend himself or fight past…

“Eloque?”

The stitched…Lizardwoman looked at him, eyes wide. She had stopped laughing, by now. She stood there, ignored by the very things she had helped unleash.

Her kin. As tortured as she was.

“It’s done. I’m done. I’ve freed us all.”

She lifted something in her hands. A dagger. Pisces saw her angle it at her chest, and then Eloque stopped to look at her arms. The sewn stitching between her scales—she looked at him.

“I can’t be free of him. You see?”

She gestured at the collar at her neck. Her claws trembled as she lifted the blade. She laughed.

“I can’t even do it myself. Leave me. I’ll stay here. They’ll free me.”

Eloque looked back. Pisces heard the last of the people within dying. He looked at her. Back.

“No. Don’t—”

It was a death more horrible than he could imagine. He could not imagine the crazed things would remember what she had done. Eloque shook her head.

“I will not live like this. Do you not see what he did to me? Look? He wanted to make me like him. I can’t even remove the thread. It’s in me.

She gestured at her body. Pisces looked at her.

“Don’t. Not here. Don’t die. Surely someone is waiting for you? Even—”

Even me. They were waiting for him. Eloque looked at Pisces. She laughed, and it sounded like glass breaking.

“I don’t want them to see me! I don’t want to live like this! Don’t you know what he does? Leciaun? Every day is like that.”

“I know.”

But Pisces didn’t know. He couldn’t imagine. He didn’t even know if she was wrong. He looked past her.

“We can run. They don’t know where we are.”

“There’s nothing for me. What would I do, even if I was freed? Like this? I’m a monster. Where would I go?

She shouted at him. The [Necromancer] heard a sound from behind. Even so, he looked at her. The Gold-rank adventurer, the [Necromancer], looked at Eloque.

“No. I know monsters. You aren’t one. Igheriz can’t make you into one. There is somewhere safe. There’s a future for people like us.”

He looked past her. Straight past her, into that past. Looking at the [Necromancer] who had been exiled from Wistram, who had lost his friends. Who trusted no one and nothing. Who lied and stole and…had been coming to this place down Az’kerash’s lonely road.

Until he met a young woman who had protected him despite it all. Who made fun of him, but who refused to let him die just for being a [Necromancer].

He reached out. He just had to bring Erin back. And then…

“Come on.”

The young man took her arm. Eloque made a sound, but followed him as they ran.

 

—-

 

For a moment, as they ran out of the keep, Pisces realized he was free. His hand went up to his neck and he remembered that the Emir had removed his collar!

He was free. Riqre was dead.

Pisces slowed. His eyes widened. Eloque, following him, saw the [Necromancer] slow. She wondered if he had changed his mind. Then…he blurred forwards. Her eyes widened as Pisces [Flash Stepped] forwards.

“My magic! My Skills!

He shouted, and looked back at her. Eloque felt her heart leap. Then she heard a sound from behind her.

Something shrieked. A howl? A snarl? It was not either. A wail without end.

Their grace had ended. The horrors behind them had lost themselves to madness. If some had recognized Eloque…these ones flooded out after them. Shapes that twisted and grabbed and screamed.

Hundreds. Pisces’ blood chilled. He saw Eloque pumping her legs and arms, but she was too slow. They were exploding out of windows, coming out of doorways, through the cracks in stone itself.

Pisces found himself running through the courtyard, for the walls. Yet Riqre spited them even now; the walls were high and there were only a few entrances to his domain, which was defensible.

A trap from within.

Some had made it out. Fleeing [Slaves], and, Pisces thought, both caravans. They were racing away on horseback, [Slaves] and [Guards] alike. Igheriz had escaped.

Pisces and Eloque might not. A shape nearly forty feet long, flat, like a snake, stretched out in front of one of the gates, forming a web out of its body. Eyes looked at Pisces, filmy white, but focusing with malice. He pointed.

“[Fireball]!”

The spell exploded on the thing and…failed to blow it apart. Something screamed through many tiny mouths, but it refused to give. He recoiled and his mind presented him with a terrible fact.

They were people. They had been people.

They had levels. Or whatever they had gained in the darkness. Perhaps he could kill one…

There were far too many.

Something bounded towards Eloque, a mouth full of teeth replacing a body. She spun, dove. It missed and Pisces shouted.

The other gate! Back, back!

They ran as Pisces blasted spells around at the nearest shapes. Many were hunting for Riqre’s guards, but Pisces was drawing attention by his spellcasting. They began to converge on the last living forms.

Is this how they died? Pisces was shouting. Eloque…was using a Skill. He blinked as he saw her hop, and a monster slammed into the ground.

She was quick, yet his spells and Skills were only delaying the inevitable. Pisces slowed as he saw the gates. They were swarmed with things feasting on the dead. Savaging the captors’ mutilated parts, as if this was not enough.

They would never make it out of there alive. Pisces looked towards the walls, but didn’t know if he could get over. A wall of bones? There were too many things on the walls too. He looked at Eloque. Before he could say anything, she cried out. The Lizardwoman pointed. She spoke, a single word.

A name.

Azam?

Pisces’ head rose. Then he saw him.

A figure at the gates. Fighting his way forwards. 

Azam, the Djinni.

He was covered in wounds, glowing patches on his stone-body. He had been hurt, but he had cleared the horrors, kept them distracted while Igheriz and Hrome’s caravans fled.

Yet the faster horrors had bogged him down. He was fighting, roaring. Clearing bodies around him with mighty swipes of his fist. His hands glowed and lightning flashed.

It was not enough. The creatures leapt around him, striking, refusing to die. Their hatred kept them standing.

Azam refused to fall. He moved forwards, rocked back as something taller than him stretched up and dealt him a terrible blow. The Djinni stumbled, and raised a fist. He flinched as something flashed past his face.

[Deathbolt].”

Pisces saw the giant shape flinch and recoil, sagging down. Azam whirled. He saw Eloque and Pisces.

“You?”

That was all he had time for. Eloque locked eyes with Azam. Her only companion in their long captivity under Igheriz. Pisces and Azam glanced at each other, both of whom had suffered under Riqre.

The Emir was dead. As his dark deeds fell to ruin from within, the Djinni raised a hand. He cast something down at Eloque and Pisces’ feet. Something that came out of his hand, his essence and body.

A sword, and a rapier.

Pisces blinked. He looked up at the Djinni. Then he seized the blade. Eloque clumsily lifted hers. They stood together and fought.

The pitch blackness like the insides of the urns drove the horrors mad. They roamed the halls, slaughtering the screaming monsters who had imprisoned them. They turned as they saw the light.

A flaming rapier. A glowing Djinni’s eyes. Spells and light. They swarmed towards the gates, into the courtyard. That was where the three stood, fighting, making their way for the outside.

Pisces, whirling, striking with a [Fencer]’s grace. Eloque slashing with a fierce desire to live, her stitched scales gleaming under the moonlight, and Azam, roaring, casting spells of his being and swinging, clearing the space around them.

There were hundreds, flocking towards the three who dared to live. Who dared to hope. They shrieked…

And were drowned out. Pisces was screaming louder, fighting. Eloque was howling back in their faces. Azam’s roar was loudest still. Pisces stabbed something and saw a shape as thin as cloth recoil, bursting into flames. He pointed and a [Deathbolt] put it to rest.

The horrors came for the gate as the three retreated through it. They came over the walls, but the trio held them back. They refused to die.

We are guiltless. We were like you.

Did the desperate, suffering things hear them? They attacked, tearing—Eloque cried out as something bit her across the side. Pisces nearly lost half the fingers on his right hand and his hand was bitten down to the bone as Azam tore it off him. The Djinni bled his magic to the night.

The horrors slowed. They looked at the Human, the Lizardwoman, the Djinni. Then they fell back, towards the keep. They looked back once.

Pisces saluted them with his sword. He didn’t know what to say. Eloque just dropped the blade, exhausted. Azam was the one who spoke.

Tyrants and monsters die. Rest, chainbreakers.

They stood there for a second. Then, Pisces turned. The rapier in his hands dissipated. He realized Azam had recalled his being. The Gold-rank adventurer tensed.

Azam stared down at him. He was still chained, and Igheriz’s slave, Pisces knew this. The [Necromancer] hesitated.

He was nearly out of magic. Yet if he—

“Azam. We have a chance. Igheriz isn’t here to command you. He doesn’t even know we’re alive. Not yet.”

Eloque whispered. She looked up at Azam. The Djinni stared down at her.

“I am his servant. I cannot flee; he calls me to him already. He will find you both.”

The Lizardwoman half-shook her head. She touched her collar, then looked at Pisces.

“You do not have to do his bidding now. Azam, please…”

The Djinni was still as Pisces stared at his face. He looked at Eloque. Then turned away. Azam began striding away from the keep.

“I do not. Run.”

Eloque watched him go, sagging in relief. Then she looked at Pisces. He nodded.

They ran. For a second…Pisces felt perfectly free.

 

—-

 

The two [Slaves] ran. Ran, into the night. The things didn’t follow far. They returned to the keep, breaking it into pieces. The Emir and his people never escaped. Not one.

Overnight, the Emir Riqre’s fortune and power disappeared. The things he had wrought bore him down.

What did a [Slaver] fear? This. The moment when they stared so deep into that darkness that it pulled them in.

The things at the ruined keep would not endure long, even if they could. Perhaps they might have collapsed, or spread outwards, bringing madness. Or changed yet further. Maybe they would have created a shadow of Riqre’s misery, so altered as they were.

But they never got a chance. As Igheriz and Hrome fled, both miraculously salvaging most of their caravans, the [Slave Masters] finally alerted Roshal to Riqre’s madness.

Roshal replied with full attention. From Lailight Scintillation, before anyone could learn of what had been unleashed, came [Slavers]. [Slave Masters] on carpets, with powerful servants and Djinni and artifacts.

They investigated the ruins. Captured what they wanted. Then—with spells and relics, they burned it to ash. All of it. Any of Riqre’s associates that had survived this moment?

They would be found and killed. Lest this return. Some things even Roshal did not countenance. That was the end of this tale of horror, which even in Chandrar’s many myths and fables, was only whispered of.

 

—-

 

They caught Pisces and Eloque after less than a day.

Igheriz rode down on the two himself. He laughed in delight to find Eloque alive, and Pisces heard her scream and regretted his words to her. He tried to attack, but could not.

A [Slave Lord] pointed down from a carpet. They had joined the hunt.

“Capture that [Slave].”

Two dozen [Mages] hit Pisces so hard it was over in a second, even as he tried to dodge. Pisces had failed.

He had tried everything to remove Eloque’s collar, knowing they would be tracked. He didn’t have the magic to break the enchantment. He couldn’t even fight back; he just saw the flash of magic and woke up two hours later.

They were captured again. The caravan resumed its course.

Not the same, of course. Igheriz and Hrome were changed by what they’d seen. They all were.

And yet, they continued to be [Slavers]. They never questioned what they did, only feared what Riqre had shown them. They had seen every conclusion to the path they took and still they didn’t turn away.

That was when Pisces knew there was no redemption here. He planned his escape in earnest.

The first time, he failed.

 

—-

 

Of all those who had survived Riqre’s madness, it seemed wrong more [Guards] than [Slaves] should have lived. But they had weapons and weren’t in cells where they could be butchered.

It was also wrong to say that none of Riqre’s people had made it out. That was the official line. Yet a few had fled.

His [Slaves]. A handful of [Guards]. Among them…

Tenir. The man had followed Igheriz out, even saved the [Slave Master]’s life. For that reason, and his shorthanded caravan, Igheriz let him stay. He probably had every intention of replacing him at the next city, but he wanted to make as fast a pace away as possible.

That Tenir was allowed to live after everyone had seen what he had done was due as much to the man’s levels as the fact that the [Guards] were so few in number. He was still dangerous.

Still insane. He thought the monsters who had come out of the basement were some kind of underground horrors. He didn’t understand—refused to let himself realize what they really were.

Pisces watched him. Igheriz had said no one would lay a finger on the [Slaves], and Tenir had agreed, too shaken to act like normal anyways. But what did that mean?

Absolutely nothing. Riqre’s madness lingered.

It happened on the fourth night, after the mad, day-long marches had slowed and someone had cracked a joke—a bad one—for the first time. After that smiles began, and people began to distance the memory of what had happened.

Pisces was in camp when he saw Tenir stop someone. Merr the Storm. Pisces paused as Tenir pulled her around the stone wall that Azam had raised. He heard a muffled sound.

The [Guard] had a hand over her mouth. He was smiling, laughing.

“No, we shouldn’t. But if you’re that desperate…? Just quickly, then. Merr. It’s a beautiful name.”

Let go of—stop—

She was trying to shout, to scream. He had an arm blocking her mouth. Tenir continued his monologue, staring at her face as if he didn’t see the fear or horror.

“Let me help you with that.”

He reached for her clothing. In response, the [Bandit Lady] tried to kick him, but her collar made her weak. She bit his arm instead.

Instantly, blank-faced, Tenir cracked her head into the stone wall. She went slack and he laughed, looking at the broken flesh on his arm.

“Not to worry, my arm? It happens. What a funny accident. Are you alright?”

As if there were some other reason she had bit him. As if he didn’t realize what he’d done. Something was filling in the gaps in his head.

Riqre’s madness.

Tenir had half her clothing off, tearing at the rest, when the low voice spoke.

“I knew it. You know exactly what you’re doing.”

Tenir spun around. He felt something at his waist—and Pisces drew his sword. The [Necromancer] held it to the ground, panting at the effort it had taken just to draw it.

“You—Pisces! Drop the sword! Hey, I have—

Tenir hesitated. He looked at Merr, who was sitting, head lying back, nose bleeding, barely conscious. He bared his teeth at Pisces.

“Say you didn’t see us, Adventurer. Put the sword down and I’ll keep quiet if you do. She asked me—but neither of us should take the blame, eh? Everyone needs comfort after what they saw.”

Pisces didn’t answer him. He just looked at Tenir.

“You must know what you’re doing, somewhere inside of you. That Skill just helps you sleep. You coward. [Rapist]. Can you even see your class? How do they let you in at gates? Or does your class hide it from their spells too?”

Tenir heard that. His face turned hostile instantly.

“I’ve never taken a woman into my bed that didn’t ask, Adventurer. Watch your tongue—”

“You cowardly man. I’ve known true cowards, but never one who lies to himself like you. You should have died with Riqre and his lot, [Rapist].”

Pisces raised his voice. Tenir reacted even more than he had hoped. The man’s eyes opened wide in genuine fury—he really believed he was innocent.

Pisces felt sick as Tenir’s fists clenched and his face turned crimson with outrage.

Don’t—call me—a [Rapist].

He strode forwards. Pisces tried to raise the blade. No good. And Tenir knew it. He strode forwards, but Pisces stumbled backwards. Raise the damn sword! He tried one more time, as someone raised his voice.

“Hoi. Where is Pisces?

A man skidded around a corner as one of the [Guards] saw him. He shouted.

“Here! With Tenir! Damn—”

Now. Pisces raised his voice. He shouted with all his might.

He was assaulting Merr! Trying to rape—

I did not!

He leapt at Pisces, confident the [Necromancer] couldn’t so much as lift the blade. And Pisces couldn’t. So—he sat down, and in one motion, put the sword on his knee and angled it up.

Tenir ran onto the sword as he crashed into Pisces. The furious man’s charge did all the work. He spitted himself onto the sword. He choked.

In a flash, Pisces was shoving him off him, wriggling free. He reached down and twisted the sword as best he could. Tenir was choking, impaled high on the belly. Pisces saw the [Guards] staring in horror. He didn’t care. He flung himself down.

There! The keys!

Tenir had them at his belt. Pisces had seen that the mad [Guard] was trusted with some fumbled at the bloody body.

He’s killed Tenir! He’s—grab him—

They jumped for him, trying to reach him; Pisces flung himself down, and the dying [Guard] helped. They tried to yank him off—but Pisces had the bloody key ring in his hands. To make matters better, someone running to help tripped over something.

Merr’s leg? Tenir’s flailing limbs?

A dogpile. And now, Pisces was twisting the keys free, swearing. He plunged one into his collar’s keyhole and twisted it. And felt it jam—Pisces fumbled for another and felt the hands tearing at him—

 

—-

 

Igheriz looked down at Pisces and laughed. He laughed, even as his eyes shone with that familiar fury. He squatted down.

“Pisces, ah, Pisces. After all we’ve seen and lived through, I thought we were friends, heh?”

“After all we’ve seen and lived through, you haven’t rethought what you do?”

Pisces retorted—or tried to. He was mumbling. His face was puffy. He drooled a bit of blood and saliva. Igheriz just snorted.

“Emir Riqre was mad. I am not. There is a difference. I thought we were friends, Pisces, so this will pain me. Also—I thought you were a smarter man! After all, you thought I would entrust Tenir with a key to your collar? Or any other man?”

Pisces stared up at him. He had grabbed for the other [Guard]’s keys when all of Tenir’s had failed. But even theirs hadn’t worked. Now, Igheriz waggled a key in a mimicry of the [Guard].

“It was a neat trick, I admit. But no [Guard] has a key to your collar, Pisces. They are all different, all the special ones! What fool would have but one key to every lock?”

He chortled. Then shook his head.

You killed Tenir. I did not know you could do such a trick with a sword. It was even a favor; he was mad, and Merr has you to thank. So I will be gentle. I will not break any bones. But we will hurt you. Oh yes. And if you rebel one more time? Well, the Naga can have you without your gems.”

He sighed. Then motioned for his [Guards]. Pisces bared his teeth in defiance—until he saw what they were doing.

Heating up pokers in a brazier. He looked at Igheriz. The [Slave Master] sighed.

“Did you think we would just beat you? Pisces, I thought you were smarter. This does pain me.”

The other [Slaves] listened. Cawe put her talons over her earholes. She edged away, nevermind that it put her close to a watching [Guard], flexing her hands and hiding her face. Astotha could not; she was tending to Merr. First, Pisces refused to make a sound, though they smelled burning flesh.

But they wanted him to scream, his tormentors, and they would not stop. So he began. He cried out so they would stop.

They kept going.

Qshom had his head in his lap and was covering the ears. He looked at Bearig. The [Cook] had a little person in his grip. The other [Slave] who had survived.

Rophir. The half-Elf boy did not look up, or even listen. His eyes were blank. His parents had been left there, finally at peace, but he was not.

Shein, Droppe, they all heard Pisces’ voice rise in desperation and looked away.

Stop! Stop! Enough—please—”

Please. Even then, they did not. The only person who did not look away among the [Slaves] was Eloque. She watched Pisces. Watched him suffer. She said nothing, but looked at him, meeting his eyes after it was done.

 

—-

 

Did he believe in what he said to her, even now? Eloque saw the [Necromancer] gaze in her direction. His eyes closed and she felt the same madness in Riqre’s keep growing in her. But not yet. There was so much further to fall. She would have begun to laugh.

Then she saw his eyes open. No—just one. Pisces opened one eye, as if unable to focus. He stared up as Astotha was allowed to tend to him. Closed his eyes. Opened one, unfocused. Cawe hurried over to cursing, bending to berate him.

He’d most certainly—

Failed.

 

—-

 

One last attempt. Pisces had been warned. Everyone told him it. Even if Igheriz ‘liked’ him, he would carry out his threats. Technically it was two more attempts, but Pisces really didn’t want to suffer the consequences of the third strike.

He lay in the wagon for nearly a day afterwards, until Igheriz made him walk with the others. Pisces stumbled, head-down, looking all but defeated. Yet this time—the [Guards] watched him like a hawk.

They were not fooled. And Tenir’s death, reviled though the madman had been or not, had shaken them. They never took their eyes off Pisces.

He was even separated from his ‘friends’, the other [Slaves] who had made his acquaintance. Pisces was placed among strangers after the first day, on Igheriz’s orders.

Hrome was displeased by Pisces’ torture. He still liked Pisces, and remonstrated with Igheriz in private, but he could not deny that losing Pisces was to lose all, after this fraught trip. So he kept vigilant too.

They had slowed after Riqre, losing time rather than gaining it. They were passing far across the south, but the next city would change things.

“I will not wait, and risk all again. I will hire a flying carpet, dangerous though it might be, or a Djinni, or some means to transport Pisces to Roshal. Azam will escort him, and I.”

Hrome knew, then, that Pisces’ time was limited. He felt sorry for the [Necromancer], but he would not try Igheriz’s wrath. Of course, no less than three people had offered, but Hrome had no intentions of trying to betray Igheriz. The other [Slave Master] was higher-level, and while a surprise was advantageous—

No one could kill Azam.

 

—-

 

Two days away from the city of Vishront, Azam himself spoke to Pisces.

The Djinni walked besides the [Necromancer]’s wagon. Pisces had collapsed. Suspicious that he was faking it, even though Astotha assured him Pisces was still weak, Igheriz had him watched by Azam and chained down.

“[Necromancer]. Speak to me.”

Pisces jerked back to wakefulness from a dream he was back in the inn. His scars burned. He had heard Eloque weeping.

He woke to his hell, and the Djinni’s surprisingly high voice for his size. But then—Azam took the form of the obsidian half-Giant glowing with magma. Pisces looked up.

“You—you want to converse, Azam?”

Once, before, he might have called Azam ‘mighty Azam’ to play to his ego, or made some snide comment. Pisces did not. He did not sniff or speak with eloquence or diction proving his lexicon of words.

He was tired. Pisces had reached his limit long ago, in Riqre’s keep. He wanted to be free.

How did someone live, a lifetime, a century, as long as Azam, like this? Forced to face masters as bad as Igheriz, or even Riqre? He looked up and saw the glowing eyes.

Uncaring. Azam had watched as they tortured Pisces. Azam had seen Riqre’s deprivations, and only been moved when they came to him.

He looked down at Pisces with the same gaze. Neither hostile nor sympathetic. Not even uncaring; he didn’t think of Pisces at all. Like dust. Their brief moment of survival at Riqre’s keep seemed long ago and forgotten; that had been a uniting nightmare. With Igheriz’s predictable evil, he had lost his interest.

Yet he still spoke.

“Tell me of the book, the spell tome, [Necromancer]. Did it come from the Putrid One’s very library, his personal possessions?”

Pisces looked up. Of all the questions…he tried to laugh, and felt a catch at his voice as he chuckled.

“You want to ask me about the book? Nothing of me, nothing of you?”

The Djinni strode along, speaking quietly.

“What purpose would those questions serve?”

“Getting to know each other, perhaps. One [Slave] to another?”

The Djinni’s pace slowed just a beat, and he looked down at Pisces with what might have been amusement.

“You compare yourself to me? The arrogance—”

“—of mortals? Friend Azam, I had hoped for a measure of ipseity from you, but to hear you utter the very stereotype of the immortal is somewhat disappointing.”

Pisces saw the expression on the Djinni’s face and chuckled. Well, perhaps he had a bit of vocabulary left for someone who might appreciate it.

Azam did not smile twice, but he did nod slowly.

“Clever, [Mage]. I have met many of your kind. Perhaps we could talk. What then?”

“We would get to know each other?”

“To what end? You and I will not know each other long, [Necromancer]. I will live far longer than you. I will meet more [Necromancers], more [Mages]. Countless more slaves. I barely remember all my kin I have met, and I strive to do that. We forget each other, and only remember the greatest of our kind…”

He paused, and went on, murmuring as he stared past Pisces.

“I will meet a hundred thousand, a hundred hundred hundred hundred thousand of you…I do not care to know your name. So. Tell me of what lingers in my mind. The spellbook, or we shall not converse.”

Pisces realized that was why Azam called him [Necromancer]. The Djinni saw his class. He whispered.

“Pisces. Pisces Jealnet.”

Azam paused. He looked at Pisces. Shook his head.

“It does not linger. I cannot make it. Truly. Do not wish for fleeting immortality, [Necromancer]. I do not even remember his name, save that he controls me. That is why that…poison…why that Emir had to die. What could he take? He alone of them all had to die.

He flexed his hands. Pisces looked at him and remembered Riqre’s method of torturing Djinni.

“So he could take the few things which are immemorial to you.”

Azam nodded, once. His eyes turned to Pisces.

“It was well they slaughtered him. He found a way to hurt me when no torture or indignity could before. I do not know what he took.

His fury was like molten rock beneath the skin; Pisces saw veins of it lacing across Azam’s chest and face until it vanished. Then the Djinni was silent.

“What do you fear to lose? Your memories of your kin? Happy moments?”

Pisces was purely curious. Azam hesitated, and his head swung north a moment.

“Good or bad. Ill or well. Do you not fear to lose a part of yourself, no matter what it is? Yes, though. Most importantly, [Necromancer], I fear to lose…hope. Even we Djinni hope. I feared I would have forgotten why I hoped. Then I truly would have been a slave.”

He stared into the sky, his eyes bleak. Pisces wondered what Azam could hope for. Perhaps it was only a dream. Riqre had threatened to take even that away.

Then Azam shook himself.

“Enough of this. My master lives, and I may be harmed. Talk less of that one, or him. Answer my questions.”

He nodded at Igheriz. Pisces sighed.

“Very well. The spellbook. Why do you ask? Do you see something I do not?”

The Djinni nodded.

“Power. The blaze of it allowed me to find you, as much as the spell that carried you here. For a moment, I beheld its full power as the teleportation spell wore off. But now it is cloaked.”

He nodded to Igheriz, who had secured the book to his saddle, not trusting it to the bag of holding. Wisely; it might be easy to run off with here, but woe to anyone who touched it with bare hands. And the bag of holding might not be able to hold such a relic. Azam hesitated.

“It was so powerful. Like a…beacon. I could see it blaze with power from far away. Had we not found you, someone else would have.”

Pisces could believe that. Perhaps there was a way to mute the power; yet if not leashed, no doubt it was an artifact beyond belief. He wondered what Azam had seen.

“Powerful death magic?”

“Powerful magic. Did you see the Putrid One?”

“Yes. I saw him die. He was alive—but we woke him. He died. I took the spellbook from his possessions. Right there, on the table. It may be his.”

Pisces had not told anyone that. Azam looked at him.

“I think it is. So that is the Putrid One’s relic. Do you know, I knew him as he lived. I was…born…shortly after him. Though it took many, many years before he grew to power.”

“You knew his legend?”

Azam nodded. Pisces looked up at him.

“Tell me?”

The Djinni hesitated. The Aethertravel spirit bent down. He searched for words, and then spoke.

“He grew to power. He grew to discontent amongst his people. He fought them and killed them. Then other peoples. In time, the world quaked at his name. Then they beat him back. They hounded him and slew him in that place and buried his name.”

He met Pisces’ gaze. The [Necromancer] tried to stir himself, chains or not.

“That tells me nothing!

“That tells you everything. He was like many. I remembered only one fact about him that I ever cared to know.”

“What?”

Azam leaned down, down, and whispered to Pisces.

The Putrid One is but a name. One [Necromancer]. He lived and died. That spellbook? He stole it from one of us.

Then Azam rose and walked onwards. He ignored Pisces’ every question. For that was all Azam wanted to know.

Two more days remained until the city, and Pisces learned a day away that a carpet was prepared for him. He laughed, too tired for words.

 

—-

 

All watched Pisces the next day. Such that Azam wouldn’t have been able to talk, even if he was so inclined. He strode ahead, staring at the sky, head turned as it always was, when not swivelling for threats.

The other [Slaves] were quiet. Eloque had a blank look in her eyes. She watched the [Guards] and Igheriz mock Pisces, but they were too careful. The [Necromancer] was silent…if he had a plan or was able to do something…

No. He shifted once and they were on him, checking to make sure if he was hiding something. Eloque closed her eyes. She saw the other [Slaves] had returned to their lot. Cawe and Bearig walked together, but Cawe didn’t snap at the [Cook] as usual. He was still himself.

Pisces had healed his bones, and the [Cook] looked at Pisces with sadness. Cawe…she pretended everything was alright. Even joked with the guards. She went as far as to nudge one with an elbow when he was complaining about being shorthanded.

“Better than this hand, eh? Or do you want Pisces to fix you up before he goes?”

She flexed her digited talons. He blinked, laughed, then cuffed her, but gently. She staggered past him as he shook his head.

“Damn bird. Don’t talk to me about that. That was a bad dream, and I won’t think of it again…”

“Watch the merchandise!”

Igheriz dragged Cawe up, but eyed her talons. He nodded at them, brusquely.

“We will see…just how that sells. If not, I will put in a word. Do not speak of Riqre in Roshal. Ever.”

Cawe lost her humor and ducked her head. Eloque glared at Cawe, flattering and even, it seemed, flirting with the guards. What was wrong with her?

Despair took many forms. Rophir had been saved, and Bearig tried to feed him as they sat in the evening.

“Smile, Rophir. Eat a bite? Please? The darkness lifts. I even swore I saw a beautiful shooting star last night to the northwest. Many colors it was. You would have smiled if you did not sleep.”

Azam frowned at the boy and Bearig. Igheriz avoided staring at Bearig too, but kicked the [Cook] in the back as he passed. He did not seem to know if taking Rophir was wise…but the boy had lived and Bearig had carried him without complaint. Igheriz would not kill a child.

Perhaps he should have. Eloque saw Rophir take a bite to shut Bearig up at last. He curled up, eyes blank. Even when he had been told Emir Riqre was dead, he had not smiled. That was the way of such men.

Real monsters like Riqre were not overcome or vanquished by heroes. They just died. Eloque let time pass.

One day remained. Then…one night. They would reach the city in the morning. And every eye was on Pisces and he could do nothing. Igheriz was no fool. That last night, he chained Pisces to six stakes in the ground, each with a different key in the lock.

 

—-

 

Pisces lay, feeling the chains on the blanket. He was awake. In the morning, they would ride for the city and he would be lost.

He had no illusions; maybe he could jump off the carpet and crash it, but Azam would be there and the Djinni…no.

Roshal. Maybe it would be better than this road with Igheriz. The Naga was said to be a genius who appreciated value. Perhaps….

Pisces might have been able to believe that before meeting Emir Riqre. He might not have tried to escape and bided his time, but the Emir had shown him just how dark a [Slave]’s fate was. How they could change you against your will. He had said the Naga knew of such things.

No. Pisces saw the other [Slaves] looking at him. They talked, staying up, Igheriz allowed them that. The tent was guarded, of course, but Pisces was helpless. He couldn’t unlock the collar with a bit of metal even if he had that; they were magical keys.

And everyone had been watching Pisces so damn hard. He’d gotten the keys off Tenir, but overplayed his hand. The useless damned keys.

“I hope it will be better for you, Pisces. The Naga can mend your wounds. Who knows? No story really says what it is like in his abode, but perhaps it will be better. He does not need to collar his [Slaves].”

Astotha murmured as she applied some of the healing potion she was allowed. Pisces still ached.

“But neither did Riqre. I will not hope for you, Pisces. I have forgotten how. I will remember you, though. And speak your name to all Dullahans I meet.”

“Thank you, Qshom.”

Pisces met with his companions amid the tent. Others murmured goodbyes. It was Shein he looked to next, and Droppe. Droppe spoke.

“I have learned many secrets the last few days. All of them dangerous. I hope you can find your friends, Pisces. I heard a rumor Igheriz knew the locations of one—the Ksmvr. Not where. Don’t look at me. I thought it was better you not know. You’ll learn when you reach Roshal.”

The Lizardman [Broker] shuffled back. Shein remained.

“After seeing those things in Riqre’s keep—was it as bad as the Village of the Dead?”

Pisces thought.

“Worse. The Village were simply undead.”

Shein nodded.

“No wonder I never made it to Silver, let alone Gold. I’ll remember you too and tell stories.”

“Thank you.”

What else was the young man to say? Shout his bitterness? His despair? No…he waited. Cawe held back but Merr who spoke.

“Thanks for killing that bastard.”

Pisces nodded at her. The [Bandit Lady] looked as tired as he was. Eloque was even present, sitting alone. They would all say goodbye, and Igheriz had let her join him on this night alone.

You see how I still honor you?

“You did your best. I think you were wrong. Better to end it than live like this. Is this place you know so beautiful?”

She murmured, watching him closely. Pisces murmured. Bearig and Cawe were last.

“It’s hardly that. It can be annoying. Dangerous.”

“Then it hardly sounds better at all!”

She laughed. Pisces just shook his head. He looked at an image in his head.

“No. It is worth waiting for. Because it was the home I wanted all my life. I waited so long for a place like that, and never knew it existed.”

The first place he had ever been that welcomed him as he was. Eloque shook her head, but not in denial.

“I hope you can find it again.”

Bearig was last. He didn’t really know what to say.

“I’ll tell stories of you. And Rophir will remember, won’t you?”

Rophir was sitting there, blank. Only Bearig would try to make him eat—the others looked at him like a weapon. Pisces wanted to say something to Rophir.

I know one of your people. If I ever get free…

He bit the useless words back.

Cawe was last of all. The Garuda sat cross-legged, fussing with her blankets.

“So, Pisces. You never got free after all.”

“Looks like it. All those keys and it turned out Igheriz had the right one after all. And he’d notice any moment if it went missing.”

The Garuda nodded. She peered at Pisces. He had thought long and hard about the issue, of course.

“And you’re not exactly quick with your hands.”

“I was a thief. But you’re right. Never a [Thief]. Let alone achieved the exalted class those of a métier like yours achieve.”

The other [Slaves] glanced up at the fancy Wistram-word. Pisces lay there, gazing up at Cawe. He saw her cracked beak open and the [Pickpocket] grinned.

“Quick hands isn’t as important as knowing the when and where of it. When I told you I could’ve stolen a key from a [Guard] with my bare talons, I didn’t expect you to tell me to put a key back.

The [Necromancer] looked up. Cawe slowly produced a key. Several keys. The other [Slaves] went silent. Eloque’s eyes opened wide. The [Necromancer] only…sniffed.

“That’s why you got caught.”

“But how?”

Astotha was confused, and terrified. Cawe released her shackles with a key, and undid Pisces’ shackles. He was still bound with multiple cuffs—he hadn’t expected that, but she was producing more keys, fast as could be.

Tenir.”

It was Droppe who breathed the answer. The Lizardfolk man looked from Pisces to Cawe and snapped his fingers.

“His keys! But they were all for Riqre’s [Slaves]—”

“—Which means Hrome and Igheriz’s [Guards] have a lot of useless keys.”

Pisces murmured. The others looked at him, astounded. He suppressed a smile and shushed them, but his mind was racing, as his heart had been.

Eloque’s eyes turned round as it all made sense. Pisces just sighed in relief.

He hadn’t been sure Cawe would pull it off.

 

—-

 

Pisces’ master plan was simple. The odds of him getting a key to his collar alone were remote, even if he could kill a [Guard] with the sword-trick. He hadn’t believed that one key would open all collars; he’d noticed the teeth on it and compared it to the others.

So, if he couldn’t get his key, he had to force a way for it to be revealed, as well as engineer better odds. The obvious answer was Cawe. She was a [Pickpocket] and even if she had been caught—she had a better chance than his.

The trick was Tenir. Pisces had deliberately gone for the bad keys to throw the caravan off. While they all watched him, he’d told Cawe to find the keys he’d tossed free. One of them was a basic key that Tenir would have had; the kind that unlocked all shackles. After all, shackles were different from collars and only one mattered.

With both limbs free, Cawe could steal a key to her own collar. She and Pisces had picked at the lock, trying to match jagged teeth to each [Guard]’s key, identifying which one she needed to steal long in advance. Once she had that? She could unlock her collar, nullify the enchantment and use her Skills without anyone noticing.

Tenir’s keys had gone into the pockets or key rings of the [Guards], replacing the bad ones. They hardly ever unlocked collars except when someone was being sold. Igheriz had been the question.

“Besides, I promised you.”

Eloque and Pisces were last. Everyone else was free, feeling at their necks; most collars had a single key, not being nearly as powerful as Cawe or Pisces’. Only Merr had a special collar. The one key that they’d kept was the one that fit Rophir’s collar.

“I don’t believe it. We’re free!

“Not free. We’re under guard and he’s still locked up! And chained down!”

Pisces was indeed chained by six pegs Azam had hammered into the ground, and Cawe looked distressed.

“No keys. I’m sorry, I didn’t know—”

I’m free. No keys? No problem, he’s only got tent pegs on him.”

Merr growled. The [Bandit Lady] reached down and heaved at a tent peg. It slowly began to come up as her Skills activated. Bearig grasped another. To Pisces’ surprise, the [Cook] began to extract one too!

“I’ll have them weighing me down, but it won’t stop a horse ride and I can fight with them. If I have my spells—none of it matters. Cawe. What about the last keys?”

Eloque and his collar. Pisces stared at the Garuda. She didn’t meet his eyes.

“It’s Igheriz. If he caught me—and Azam is always watching. I—”

She shook her head, and Pisces’ heart fell.

Then the [Pickpocket] produced a pair of keys.

“—Really hoped you’d cry.”

Pisces relaxed. He had almost, almost burst out in tears, if he were honest. Eloque began shaking as Cawe handed a key to Shein. She put the key in Pisces’ collar and twisted it.

The collar opened. The Garuda grinned at Pisces. He grinned back.

“That was worthy of tears, Cawe. Now, let’s prepare our escape.”

The others looked at him. Eloque collapsed to her knees, but Bearig urged her up.

“We’ll have to run for the mounts. It will be a fight as we run—but we must run. Azam can’t be stopped, but he’s not fast. If we lose him, they can’t track us.”

Pisces outlined the plan to the others. Astotha shook her head, eyes wide.

“You’re mad! You haven’t seen all his powers! He’ll kill us! And any [Slave] that runs—Igheriz will punish you—we’re dead! We’re not [Fighters]!”

“Merr is. So is Shein.”

Me? They have more levels on me!”

Shein protested. Pisces overrode both. He looked around, his body singing with power. Yet he kept himself from tapping into his mana. If they noticed…

“We just have to reach the horses. If they have none, Azam will not catch us. I will delay him. I am a Gold-rank adventurer. Just run for the horses.”

He’d have to leave his gear behind. And the spellbook. Pisces had debated going after Igheriz…but no. He would return. He would never forget Igheriz, or any of the [Guards].

“This is madness! We’ll die!

Droppe protested. Astotha joined in, but Pisces shook his head. It was Bearig who replied.

“Better to die than live like this. Will any of you suffer another Leciaun? Another man like Emir Riqre? If I die—I’ll do it thanking you, Pisces, and you, Cawe. You saved me once and I was ready to die there. Freedom. Freedom or death. I thought being a [Slave] might not be the worst fate when I was imprisoned in Nerrhavia’s Fallen. I was wrong.”

He held Rophir in his arms. Pisces looked at the [Cook], and the others stared. It was the longest, most eloquent speech Bearig had ever made. It was right. Pisces slowly reached out and clasped the [Cook]’s arm, and gave the man a look of true regard.

“Yes.”

That was all. The other [Slaves] looked at each other and their nerves firmed. It was only Astotha who moaned.

“You are all warriors! We’ll be caught! We’ll be punished like the worst were! Don’t do this!”

Pisces ignored her. He tensed, the chains wrapped around his arms and tied into loose ‘knots’; they’d impede his magic and movement, but he could [Flash Step] with them.

Just go for the horses. Cut all those loose—try to ride at us with them.

Cawe and the other Garuda would be first out, then Merr. They were fastest. Cawe was pointing to where the horses were tethered.

“What about me?”

Eloque looked at Pisces. She was shaking. He looked at her.

“I will not leave without you.”

“If it looks like I may be captured—kill me. Not one more night.”

He met her gaze and slowly nodded. The Lizardwoman smiled. Pisces thought he saw hope in those eyes. He tensed to give the signal, checking to see if the [Guards] were talking—

“Wait, wait, wait—”

Astotha screamed. It was a single, piercing scream of noise. She shouted.

Escape!

Pisces jerked. He whirled around and saw her looking at him. Eyes round with terror, she backed up to the edge of the tent.

They’re escaping! They made me—

Astotha!

Bearig howled in dismay. Cawe and the others at the front were already running. Merr turned, blood in her eyes, but Pisces forced her out of the tent. He heard two more people take up the shout.

Escape attempt! They’re going for the horses!

We’re not moving! Don’t kill us!

Droppe and of all of them—Shein. The Lizardman and Human Bronze-rank held back. Pisces would have turned back, cursed them and their cowardice and betrayal. He didn’t waste breath. He ran like a madman, for the horses, looking for—

Azam. The Djinni burst through a tent in a roar of fury as Igheriz raced out, screaming in rage. The Djinni and Pisces locked eyes. Pisces aimed a finger up.

“[Deathbolt].”

He spared the Djinni no quarter. No mercy. For this, for freedom, he would kill and use every spell and Skill he had been granted. If he had his [Shatterbolt] ring, he would have used it.

If he had dared to cast [Invisibility], he would have cut the [Guard]’s throats from behind.

If he had Nekhret’s bones, he would have used the [Ritual of the Lord of Bones] to risk all, even if a second Toren had been created.

He tried to raise undead from the sand. Pisces [Flash Stepped] as Azam grabbed for him. The others were running for the horses. Pisces shot acid over a [Guard] and seized the sword from the screaming man. He whirled, in one long shout of fury, ducking a blow from Azam.

The [Slaves] outnumbered their guards, even in one tent. They were desperate, unarmed, but free to use their Skills. They had the advantage of surprise, if lost mostly by Astotha, and they knew what would happen if they were caught, so they fought or ran with all their might.

They would have made it, but for Astotha. Even then, they would have made it.

Except for Azam.

 

—-

 

“Never again.”

He whispered, even as the Djinni dropped him in front of Igheriz. Pisces lay still. If he could have moved, he would have…have…

The last of the [Slaves] were kneeling. Merr, Bearig—all of them. Those not killed.

Azam had caught Pisces. The [Necromancer] had tried to stop him from capturing Eloque, but the Djinni—that damned Djinni knew how to stop [Slaves]. He had hurled fire and killed the horses. If he had been slower to react, they might have gotten out of range.

He had caught Pisces with another trick, as the [Necromancer] turned back for Eloque. A Wand of Paralysis. Now, the Djinni stood, and Pisces looked up and met his glowing gaze.

“Damn you.”

Pisces cursed him. The Djinni looked straight through him, uncaring. He had absorbed every spell, broken every barricade. [Deathbolt] had done nothing to a being of pure magic.

“Pisces. Ah, Pisces. You nearly made it. I call you clever after all. A clever fool. Look at you! A Gold-rank adventurer worthy of your price! But I am a man of my word.”

Igheriz was beyond fury. His too-bright eyes shone as Pisces looked up at him, still paralyzed. Eloque was weeping. All the [Slaves] were. She had tried to end it, as she had sworn, but Azam had taken the dagger away.

“If only you knew people better. But a [Necromancer] has no eye for the living, eh? You, Astotha. I will consider letting you go for this.”

The [Slave Master] turned and patted Astotha on the head. He regarded the three who had betrayed Pisces and the others fondly. Droppe gave Pisces an apologetic shrug as if to say there was nothing personal for seeing how the winds blew.

Merr lunged at Astotha and Shein, who met no one’s eyes.

“You fucking traitors—”

Igheriz turned and kicked her across the face as hard as he could. He walked down the line of [Slaves].

“Master, be merciful, please.”

Astotha begged, not looking at Pisces or Eloque. It was the Lizardwoman that Igheriz stopped before.

“I will be. After I am angry.”

“Kill me.”

Eloque whispered. Igheriz just laughed.

“After I have made you so beautiful? Pisces—ah, Pisces, you know what is coming. But before that…”

The [Necromancer] stared up in hatred as Igheriz passed by. Hrome was speaking urgently.

“We’ve lost only three, Igheriz. Consider otherwise. You’ll be rid of him tomorrow.”

The Stitch-man whirled, and screamed in Hrome’s face.

You think this is easily forgiven, Hrome? That I am not a man who keeps my vows? He would have gotten away!”

The Human backed away. Igheriz controlled himself—barely. He looked around. No one dared speak. The [Guards] were still angry, but a small blaze compared to the raging inferno of Igheriz. Azam bowed his head. Pisces’ hatred for him…he only cared for the book, which lay open behind Igheriz. If he had just…Igheriz laughed, and he sounded like Riqre for a moment.

“No. No—Pisces is next. Before that, where is she? There is only one person who could do this. Ah, there you are. Cawe. Cawe, Cawe, Cawe.”

She jerked. She was burnt; Azam had seared half her feathers off. The [Pickpocket] still spat at Igheriz.

“Do your worst!”

Igheriz gave her a beaming smile. She looked up at him, shaking. Pisces felt his limbs begin to move. Igheriz shook his head.

“You have made me so angry—so—but I have to get to Roshal. And Astotha begs me for mercy. So. It will be Leciaun for the others until I return. And that is merciful. You? Cawe? Just…”

He stood, turning to Pisces, then turned and pointed back. Pisces saw him draw a sword.

Igheriz ran Cawe through the neck. Pisces screamed.

Cawe!

The [Slave Master] was turning away, dismissively. He walked over to Pisces. Then he squatted down.

“You know what is coming next, don’t you? Snip, snip. Bring me potions and a blade. Hold him down. Azam.”

The [Guards] moved forwards, grimly. Pisces shouted. He struggled, as someone seized Eloque. He saw Igheriz looking down at him, and Pisces no longer cared. He looked at where Cawe lay.

Do it. Do it, Igheriz. Do your worst. I will live through it all. I will walk down that dark road that Az’kerash took. I will reach the end and I will end all of Roshal and you.

He saw the [Slave Master] ready the blade. Pisces saw him look down. The [Necromancer] felt it. The same madness. He knew now what Az’kerash had seen.

“I will never forgive this. I will wage war until the end of my days and beyond.”

He began laughing as the pain began. No salvation. This was simply Chandrar and the Traders of Roshal. There was no inn anymore, no [Innkeeper].

The end.

 

—-

 

The night sky over Chandrar had no clouds. In it blazed a hundred thousand multi-colored stars. They looked down over the screaming [Necromancer], the kneeling [Slaves], the caravan and the rest of Chandrar itself.

As they had always done, winking down on horror. There was no salvation from there, even if it was said in the old stories that the Gnomes had once traveled into that heaven.

But those were old stories. And who remembered old stories like that? Only the almost immortal…

A shape broke across the starry sky, growing, splitting the dark night into light. No star, although it seemed like one for a moment.

Pisces looked up and saw a comet streaking across the darkness. No—not a comet. He looked up and saw a—

Rainbow. It burned across the darkness. Everyone looked up.

A rainbow, shooting across the starry night sky, without rain or light. It left a trail of colors, a shower of its own; falling sparks that burned and faded in the darkness. Yet the rainbow shot forwards. On and on, curving across the world and the bleak desert and quiet lands below.

A line of prismatic spray. Emanating from a single, glowing point of white light. It was such a…non-sequitur that Pisces stopped raving. The other [Slavers] looked up, and Igheriz stopped his first cuts.

To Pisces’ surprise, the [Slave Master] looked up and then dropped the dagger. He stood up, slowly. His look of rabid vindictiveness faded. A note of—uncertainty filled his eyes.

He murmured.

A-aah. It—that—such sights are—”

His gaze traced the rainbow-comet. It shot forwards, streaking closer from the distance. So small at first. And then…growing.

Pisces felt the grip loosen on his legs. He looked up and saw Azam’s eyes go wide. Igheriz turned to Hrome.

“That—do you see it, Hrome? Do my eyes…?”

Some of the [Slave Guards] were murmuring. Others looked blank, but Igheriz was suddenly sweating. He looked up.

“I see it, Igheriz. It can’t…can’t…”

Hrome licked his lips. He looked around, and Pisces saw a look of real fear on the man’s face. As terrible as when he had been in Emir Riqre’s presence. But not on all the faces. All the [Slaves] looked up, uncomprehending, but one suddenly began to weep.

And then Azam raised his head. He let go of Pisces and raised his arms to the sky. He began to bellow, with a voice louder than anything Pisces had heard.

“Sister? SISTER! Is it you? Sister!

Igheriz whirled, and the look of terror redoubled. He screamed up at Azam.

“Be silent. I command you!”

The Djinni ignored him, bellowing as loudly as he could.

Sister! I implore you! Sister, to me! To me!”

“Be silent or perish!”

The [Slave Master] screamed. He seized the jar around his neck, the tiny object, and it flared. Azam screamed, but his lips closed. He stood there, staring up at the rainbow.

Hrome was backing up. He looked at the rainbow, still impossibly distant in the horizon.

“It’s just a story. It’s supposed to be dead. They killed it—”

Igheriz passed by him, running, screaming at the confused [Guards].

Quiet! Quiet and—send word to Roshal! Everyone, hide! Dump your artifacts! Gag the [Slaves]! Not a word comes out of any lips!”

He was running for the fire. Pisces struggled, but Azam had resumed his grip. Igheriz was shouting, panicked. But the rainbow was just streaming onwards. Then—suddenly—it began to turn. And it came towards them.

Pisces saw the motion. A glowing point of light turned, and the sky lit up behind it. Turned every shade of color he knew and more by the aura of magic given off. Igheriz looked up.

“No. No.

Run! It has returned! Run!”

Hrome screamed. The [Slavers] looked up, and screamed. They ran, leaping onto horses, or running in every direction. Igheriz himself just looked up. Azam stared at the sky, laughing. Laughing, unable to shout, but pointing.

To arms. To arms and—

The [Slave Master] looked around. His [Guards] stared, some still not knowing what it was. Pisces looked up as something burned his arms.

“What is that?”

Liquid burned his arms. They were…tears. Azam looked up as the light grew brighter, brighter. He wept, as the figure hurtled towards the land out of the sky. A rainbow, cast by the figure in front of it. A sign. He pointed up and named her.

Roshal’s great foe. The nightmare of all those who kept slaves. The being thought dead, lost in battle in Rhir a century ago.

The Death of Chains.

The Djinni was larger than any Pisces had ever seen. Her body was a glowing cloud, and she wore armor. She was wounded.

She had wounds that had not healed after a century. Blows that had torn even her essence apart. Yet the Djinni still crashed to earth and shook the world. She brought light into the darkness.

Slave! I defy you! I defy you!

Igheriz screamed. He drew his sword. The Death of Chains raised her head as he charged at her. She looked down.

“There you are, brother. I heard you cry for me. Come. Let me free you from your chains.”

She ignored the little man flailing at her, striking air with his enchanted sword. Azam was weeping as he held something out.

His hands, where two shackles like those Pisces had worn were. The Death of Chains placed her fingers at the edges of the metal, and gripped. Then—she pulled at the bindings on Azam.

Her body glowed. Every color ran through her. She was a cloud—a giant—a screaming warrior armed in artifacts from Rhir.

Deathless of the Demon King. 

She tore the metal apart. The explosion knocked everyone down. Azam looked at his bare hands. Then he rose and screamed.

Free! Free!”

The Death of Chains laughed. She reached down and embraced the obsidian giant. He changed, shrinking, his skin not changing in color but turning to glass. He looked different, and stood on the ground as she shrank.

“Am I freed? So easily?”

Like that, brother! You must name yourself! And swiftly, for we must not tarry!

She looked at him. Shakily, the younger Djinni looked up.

“I—I am Azam’du.”

“Just that?”

The Death of Chains looked astonished. Azam shook his head.

“I was born in chains.”

“Ah. Then we will give you a true name, Azam. Come. You will come with me to safety! To Rhir! But first—I am sorry. I took too long healing. I was nearly dead. My kin woke first and healed me. I tried to regain my strength, but I was too late for Cinaelu.”

She laughed. Azam looked at her.

“For that day? Why?”

The Death of Chains’ eyes were flickering from color to color. Her body appeared white at a distance; because she shifted in shades of prismatic glory with every moment. She shook her head.

“Oh, little brother. You do not know so much. I would tell you—and will! But I waste seconds when my kin are scattered across Chandrar. Now they know I am here. I must free as many as possible! Come with me!”

“I cannot fly.”

Azam hung his head. The Death of Chains reached out and the larger Djinni touched his arms. Pisces saw Azam’s entire being light up. 

“You can with me. Now—only one thing remains. That pitiful thing is what calls itself your master, is it not?”

The lesser Djinni turned, and they saw Igheriz. He had hacked at the Death of Chains’ body—then, as she freed Azam, turned to run. He was still quite visible, fleeing across the sands.

The Djinni reached out and grabbed him. She grew, and plucked him up. She held him, screaming, panicking in one hand and turned to Azam.

“He is not the many who hurt you over the ages—but would you see him dead now, or later? He may suffer an eternity if you will it.”

Azam looked at Igheriz. The man was writhing in the Death of Chains’ huge grip. How small he looked, that monster who had done so much.

Only Azam knew all of it. The Djinni looked at his former owner with wrath—but then shook his head.

“I care not. Let it be done, sister. What—what happens next?”

She smiled and squeezed her hand. A body fell, charred, motionless. Pisces looked at the little figure as it landed. It was done. Just like that. All the…

“We free the others. As many as we can. My presence is a message. Come now—quickly. But before that, we must set things right. I see more chains to break.”

She turned, and the [Slaves] of two caravans shuddered as her eyes fell across them. But unlike Azam—the Death of Chains looked at them. She saw them.

And the [Slavers]. Some [Guards] had just watched, in horror, stunned, disbelieving. The Death of Chains reached out and plucked their heads from their bodies.

“So die all those who hold chains. Let them all tremble! Azam, glorious brother, are these all [Slaves] truly? I see one who is dead and not even my kin, the one you call Death of Magic, can bring her back.”

She knelt, a giant towering over them all even now. Looking down at Cawe.

Azam stirred. His gaze swept over the others and fixed on Pisces. Then—turned. Slowly, the Djinni pointed at the quivering figures.

“Those three. Craven traitors. That one would have escaped but for them and I myself. They were free to choose. I was not. Those two kept slaves themselves until they were taken. That one was a [Slaver].

The Death of Chains nodded. She looked down at Astotha, Droppe, Shein.

“We were [Slaves].”

The Stitch-woman forced out. She stared up at the Death of Chains in horror. The Djinni nodded one vast head. Her eyes were not wrathful. Just—disappointed.

“Yes. We do not choose our chains. But we choose what we are. So—”

She raised a finger. Pisces felt a flash of heat. Screams. The Death of Chains turned away from the ashes.

“What others?”

She and Azam spoke as Pisces got to his feet. He was shaking. He looked at Cawe, stumbling over to her. Then he turned and stared up.

“You. You saved us? Just like that? How? Where were you?

The Death of Chains stopped. She looked down, poised, her body roiling, to move. Azam gasped.

“That one is an adventurer, sister. He took a spellbook from the Putrid One! A spellbook written by our kind!”

“I know. The magic called me to this place, as much as you, brother. Did you send me the signal?”

She pointed. Pisces’ head whirled around. He saw the open spellbook, lying there. The spellbook that Azam had placed…

The Djinni smiled, and it was the smile of hope made manifest.

“I heard a glowing comet had appeared. That the Death of Magic lived…I dared to hope, sister. I would have settled for thieves or bandits, come to steal it away.”

The female Djinni laughed, delighted, and hugged him in a full embrace, kissing his cheek.

“Well done. Well done. And this is the mortal who found it. Hello, Pisces Jealnet.”

The Death of Chains bent down. Pisces looked up at her.

“You know my name?”

She smiled.

“We are of Rhir. Of course we can see what happens. I saw you. I did not think to see you here. I saw you being tortured. Was this your friend?”

She indicated Cawe. Pisces nodded. He felt numb. Shocked and numb.

“Yes. Who are you? Who…”

It was a stupid question, but she knew what he meant. Up, the Djinni rose. She stretched, and arms appeared from her back. She was gas and air. Magic and will. She boomed, and everyone for miles heard her voice.

“My kin know me as Czautha, little [Mage]. Czautha’qshe, and many words after that. I have many names. Yet all who call me in this age know me by the one I took. The one I was given. Death of Chains.

The Djinni who broke her bonds and was never captured. The Djinni, Czautha, looked down. She shook her head at Pisces, then stopped Azam.

He had taken the Putrid One’s book. She put a hand out.

“Leave it, little brother.”

“But sister—”

“My kin, the Death of Magic, has many such books. Leave it. It may be better placed here. After all—look.”

She pointed. Azam, Pisces, and the others’ heads turned. He saw a great flash of light. Czautha bared teeth.

“The Death of Magic. She has come to liberate as many as we can. I have no time to linger. Even now, they know I have returned, and my kin lie in bondage and torture across this world, and this land most of all. I cannot protect those I free. Azam, you will come with me. But you?”

She looked down at the [Slaves]. Wordless, they gazed up at her. Czautha shook her head.

“Even if we could take you all, even mighty Silvenia can only transfer a few. You, though, Pisces Jealnet. Do you have the will to guard them? You have surely seen what horror these people commit.”

Czautha gestured at the dead [Slavers]. Pisces nodded. He could not speak, yet she knew. The Death of Chains nodded. She spread her arms.

“To me, Azam. We must find others.”

“I know of more nearby.”

Azam hurried to her. Czautha folded him into an embrace and they seemed to meld together. She looked down. Pisces spoke, shouting up to her as the hum of magic became a roar.

“Thank you. I will never forget this.”

She had done none of it for him. He was…just here. A side note—it was always Azam, that the Death of Chains had come for. Pisces didn’t care. He was grateful. He saw the Djinni’s eyes fix on him. The Death of Chains dipped her head, and her words filled the air.

“Go, Pisces Jealnet. Never let yourself be chained again!”

Then—she shot into the air. She laughed, a huge laugh, as the wounded Djinni and the glorious rainbow shot across the skies.

And all across Chandrar, from Merreid to Roshal, they looked up. All those who feared her return. The Naga, the Traders of Roshal quaked. For their only true foe had returned. And all those of her kind looked up and rejoiced.

Sister, you live! Hope remains! Free us. Free us all.

Karsaeu screamed from distant Izril, the Djinni terrifying the passengers of the Unmarked Carriage. [Slaves] and the Djinni slaves alike looked up and remembered the stories. The rainbow, a sign of hope.

Let all those who held chains tremble.

 

—-

 

Cawe had died. If only Czautha had been a second earlier, but she was a miracle he had not looked for. The only one he had ever seen on Chandrar.

“This damned continent feels worse than Terandria.”

“It’s not all evil. Just them.”

Bearig held Rophir. The half-Elf stared after the rainbow, wonder the only expression on his face. Pisces looked at the [Cook].

“You can still say that after all this?”

The Stitch-man shrugged, painfully.

“It is all I know. And you have seen the worst. Far and away the worst. What—what will happen now? The Death of Chains liberated us, but we are alone. And they know we are [Slaves].”

Some had been marked like Pisces. Others were simply on the roster, subject to any [Detect Truth] spell. Pisces shook his head.

He ignored the remains of Astotha, Shein, Droppe. He knew why they had done what they did, but the Death of Chains had no pity for them. He looked at the others.

Qshom, awkwardly holding a weeping Merr. The [Bandit Lady] looked up, and all [Slaves] wept. They were free. Eloque stood over the remains of Igheriz, almost confused.

“It was so easy. Why was it so easy?”

Pisces had no answers for her. He only knew…he looked down at his rapier. His bag of holding. He slowly fastened the objects to his belt, and hesitated over the spell tome. He didn’t pick it up. Not yet.

“First, wait here. I have something to do.”

The other [Slaves] milling about looked at him. Pisces turned.

 

—-

 

Everyone had forgotten him.

Hrome had fled and Azam had forgotten all about him. The Death of Chains had not killed him. Nor the other [Slavers] who had fled.

Pisces had not forgotten. Hrome jerked from side to side, staring. The [Guards] who had joined him were screaming.

[Slavers] slashing at the air, aiming spells and bows at—the air. The air slaughtered them.

A red rapier coated in blood appeared for a second—a bolt of black magic made one of the others collapse, dead.

“Pisces! Pisces!”

The [Necromancer] appeared as the last of the [Guards] died. He had killed them in bare minutes, as gloriously superior as Hrome had seen him on the scrying orb. The man fell to his knees as Pisces walked towards him, bloody rapier at his side.

“I—I was asked to free you, you know. I could not, not with the Djinni! I admired you, Pisces. That thing, the Death of Chains—was it her?”

“That’s all you have to say?”

Pisces looked down at him. Hrome spread his hands.

Pisces. I never so much as raised a hand against you, did I? I spoke for you, did what I could! I was your admirer! You know this!”

The [Necromancer] eyed Hrome. He lowered his rapier.

“All of this is true.”

Hrome smiled. Pisces nodded. He rested on the tip of the rapier, lightly, feet poised. Lighter than he had ever been.

“And Merr? Your other [Slaves]? You liked me. You celebrated Leciaun.”

Hrome’s face twisted. He tried to stutter, but Pisces cut him off with a slash of his rapier. Hrome clutched at his throat; it was severed. He gurgled, screaming, choking.

The young man stood there. As Hrome died, he spoke to the man.

“You know, I could not forgive them. Not Emir Riqre, not Igheriz. They were monsters, each and every one. But you? In some ways, you were the worst because you pretended it was normal. How the world should be.”

He did not wait for a response. Pisces turned and walked away. He had a thought and stopped though, and saw Hrome pouring the healing potion on his cut throat.

Their gazes met, and Pisces pointed.

“[Acid Orb].”

Then he walked away.

 

—-

 

The Death of Chains flew across Chandrar, upsetting the world, announcing she had returned. She went to Roshal itself, and fled Lailight Scintillation as they sent their slaves to battle her. Her kin screamed her name as she flew away, swearing to return. She would not die until every chain was broken.

A far smaller story played out here, in the dust and desert. Igheriz was ash. So were many of the [Slavers]. But the rest had been piled together.

Pisces buried Cawe, amid the last route of the caravan, as the other [Slavers]’ bodies lay where they were. He thought she might like that.

Pisces Jealnet stood there, as the other [Slaves] watched. He addressed the corpses simply.

“You do not deserve rest. None of you. If there is any redemption in death, you will find it here. So…rise.

He raised his hand, and cast the first spell as a free man—truly free, now that all had been avenged. Behind him lay the [Slaves]. They would be hunted. Pisces had no idea where his team was.

Yet he lived. His throat was bare. He would never be chained again.

The Skeleton Lord rose slowly to its feet. The bones had fused, leaving a sigil in the ground, the rest consumed. The glowing-eyed undead slowly adjusted its head and turned to face Pisces.

It wore no armor. Its eyes were a light emerald green. It was unarmed. Weaker than the ones created by the Putrid One. Perhaps—beyond his control.

The young man shuddered. A vision of Riqre swam before his eyes. Bearig pleading with him…Eloque’s words. He did not know if necromancy itself had been tainted by what he had done. He stared at his hands.

“It’s not the same.”

The voice came from behind him. Pisces started. Eloque. She stood there, looking at it.

“This is…just necromancy. It’s not part of what he did. It’s not us. Is it?”

The two looked at the undead. Pisces nodded.

“It’s not. I only wonder if I can control it. There are places in undeath I have never dreamed of yet.”

Eloque nodded, but did not step back. All the undead could do was kill her.

Pisces didn’t know if the Skeleton Lord could be commanded. All he knew was that he had sworn to Cawe, to Eloque, to the others, that he would bring them to safety. No matter if he had to cross the ocean and bring them to that one place in the world he called a kind of home. He spoke to the Skeleton Lord.

“The living do such cruel things. You are so much simpler. You were made of things that called themselves men, but I ask you to be more than they were. To give, not take alone. Will you betray my hopes too? Can I make nothing beautiful, nothing that lasts? Will you—help me?

The undead creation looked at him. Pisces waited, and saw the skull slowly dip.

The Skeleton Lord knelt.

He sighed. Bearig approached, and the others gathered around their protector. Pisces, the [Necromancer], the Gold-rank adventurer, stood, looking around as the sun rose.

“Where are you going to take us?”

Pisces felt the sun warm his skin and sighed.

At last. It felt so long since he had seen it.

“Somewhere safe.”

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: This chapter has been the most cursed in history. I wrote it at the end of my writing cycle so I was tired in Draft #1. I took a two week-vacation and Diana, the editor, also had troubles on her end.

My computer tried to delete itself the day I sat down to revise it. Cursed. Chapter.

However, I will say this: it needed editing. I will link a copy of the old chapter below, as well as Diana’s letter to me. You may read it, but I deliberately avoided posting Draft #1 for a simple reason: it wasn’t good enough.

You can see why, but the long and short is I wrote into stereotypes and tropes about…well, slavery and human trafficking and abuse. If you are going to write something that echoes reality—and believe me, nothing I can write can be as horrible as what exists in our world at this moment, right now—you base it on what is out there. Yet it doesn’t add to The Wandering Inn, or even our understanding of such things.

When I revised based on Diana’s notes and helpful reader observations from the stream, I felt a lot better because I knew it had improved wildly. That’s what editing does and the delay, the cost? All justified 200%. Not that I’m paying Diana 200%…but it was worth it.

If you compare the two, I think you’ll agree. However, it was a lot to toss at her. One of my readers observed that finding an editor is like getting married; a good editor for a writer is like a spouse. Which is an interesting analogy. To extend it, this is like the first date and I tossed…this chapter…at her.

I’m going to stop that analogy because we’ve gone too far, but the point is Diana got what may be the toughest chapter to edit I’ve written. Certainly the chapter that has gone darker and deeper than any before. Yet I don’t think it’s bad. I learned a lot from this one, and in conclusion, I’d just like to extend my sincere thanks to Diana and the readers who helped me get this one edited. This was a chapter that needed it, and I can tell it’s improved. Hope you…hm.

Hope you found something in it, if you read it, that was worthwhile. Thanks for reading. I’ll see you next chapter. For now? I rest.

–pirateaba

 

Pisces – Interlude (Draft 1) can be read here. It’s…darker. Different.

https://wanderinginn.com/interlude-pisces-draft-1/

Password: beforeDianaEdit

Diana’s Editorial Letter can be read here:

https://wanderinginn.com/diana-editorial-letter/

 

 

Pisces in the Village of the Dead, by Dr.replig8r!

 


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110 thoughts on “Interlude – Pisces (Revised)

  1. Leave a typo if you find one! 

    (Editor credit: Diana Gill)

    (Advance reader credit: Gorexn, MrWiggles, Oshi, Blue Fruit Juice, Linnet, Cortz, Gunmandude2, Qwiliman, DM Rat, Arcane, Bobo Plushie, Kehl)

    (Typo-finder credit: Aox, Awerick, Scott Crawford, Maladal, Quynin, Ignat, Quadralisk)

    • “Cawe held back but Merr who spoke.”
      Remove “who”

      “Cawe hurried over to cursing, bending to berate him.”
      Replace ” to cursing” with “, cursing”

    • I too thought this chapter very dark, but as you said not as dark or horrible as what is going on in our country and every country in this world.
      Fighting this evil needs to be done. If your readers felt something from the horrors of this chapter and human slavery, they too can fight.
      Learn how you can help at https://our rescue.org Operation Underground Railroad.

  2. Honestly one of the darkest chapters so far.
    Wish we could get more explanations on the “red” classes.
    I kinda wish there wasn’t a deus ex mechina at the end but still was a great chapter

    • I think this chapter needed the ending. It was too dark, too full of horror, the slavers had to die otherwise us readers would have been left with a sour taste in our mouths, and feeling down after something like this.

      Having the slavers killed, their empires crippled, and the Deathless descend on the abomination that is Roshal to lay waste to it is the only way a chapter this dark could end without it all just seeming bleak.

      This was a hell of a chapter, and as much as I hated what was happening in parts of it, the ending was a breath of fresh air, as well as setting the stage for more to come.

    • I think it’s fitting. The whole point is that this system of slavery isn’t undone by just a few clever tricks and some bravery. If that was all it took it would have fallen apart outside of Roshal long ago. Because of the System, magic, and djinn, it’s almost impossible for slaves to free themselves without outside assistance.

      If you want to get rid of it you need the power to burn it to the ground and stomp out the ashes.

      Also, the Deathless of Chains has been foreshadowed for a while now. There’s not really a better chance to introduce her. I don’t think pirateaba is keen to write more chapters like this.

        • Because Roshal exists. And there’s a Death of Chains.
          Just her being in the setting is foreshadowing of her involvement with slavery.

        • The ones I remember are the Djinn that Flos freed mentioned his sister and the death of magic saying something about breaking the chains of roshal. Teriach’s story may have mentioned a Djinn being lost in Rhir, but I’m not certain.

          • There’s also the fact that they mentioned Roshal giving far more resources to the fight in Rhir than other nations; likely due to fear of the death of chains.

        • It’s not just that she was mentioned, the book was also foreshadowing. The djinn saw it, it led to Pisces’ capture, it also led to his freedom.

    • I definitely agree that there was a bit of a deus ex mechina at the end, but the reveal that Azam had purposefully made the Putrid One’s book open up with a signal, and implication that he had hope (not wanting to forget why he had hope) made for some foreshadowing of the Death of Chains, or that Azam was trying to be free.

      That said, this chapter was quite well-written, with Pisces’s near-descent into the abyss. Beholding true evil, and seeing how he almost followed.

    • Looking back, the whole “Azam looks to the far horizon” thing now makes more sense though, hoping that she would be coming and helpfully providing a beacon. Across the whole chapter he was interested in the book and looked into the distance, so… subtle foreshadowing?

      Still somewhat ex machina to arrive “in the nick of time”, but oh well. Pisces without balls just wouldn’t have been the same.

  3. This is probably the largest amount of info on the demon’s of Rhir that we’ve ever gotten. So the Deathless are freed Djhinn. That makes sense. Though if it gets known that the Deathless are running around Chandrar freeing the slaves, I wonder how different groups will react to that. It kinda hurts the Rhir kingdom’s narrative that the demons are universally evil and that they need the world to band together to stop them.

    Or maybe Rhir will somehow spin this to show how the demons are gaining control and they need even more funds and manpower, like they did with the summoning ritual.

        • The glossary, apart from anything else: “Demons are beings affected by Rhir’s persistent corruption and manifest a variety of features from horns to extra eyes and so on.” They’ve been described as corrupted and mutated by whatever’s wrong with Rhir from the beginning. The Blighted Kingdom doesn’t have it nearly as bad, with the walls and being further from the source, but even they get twisted a bit. That’s why Quiteil has that patch of luminescent skin

    • The Deathless are crazy high level people that all seem to be motivated to change the status quo. They have become so dedicated to their cause that no normal death can stop them only slow them down. My guess is the Death of Magic got high enough level that the [King’s Truth] skill stopped working on her and swapped sides. Seeing as Rhir just used said skill cover up their sacrifice of thousands of children.I don’t think it is unreasonable to assume that the whole demons thing came from the first blighted king’s propaganda. The Death of Chains was probably freed by the demon king him self like we saw the king of destruction do a few chapters ago.

      • “The Deathless are crazy high level people that all seem to be motivated to change the status quo.”

        Making Twenty-First Century Earthlings (with an apparently large leavening of Westerners) the worst possible choice of champions to defeat them. That, after all, is the trouble with mercs: When “your” armys sole loyalty is to money, you can get outbid mid-war. Then again, a close examination of principles might have the same effect here, and on more than just the Earthlings; the more we learn of the nature of Rhir and Demons in particular, the harder it is to justify aiding genocidal war solely because people willing to mass murder children say we must (something into which Earthlings, and Westerners in particular, might also be able to provide more insight than they might like.)

        • Aborting fetuses. Young westerners in particular are unlikely to see that as “killing children.” Slightly unpleasant, yes, but nowhere close to murder, and certainly not remotely comparable to the kind of things the Demons do even without omnicidally crazy Silvenia there to egg them on.

          • Not when they number hundreds of thousands of newborns ranging from just embryo’s to close to newborns. Not to mention it was nonconsensual. I am honestly surprised you think that destroying a pregnant woman’s desire for a child is a grimaced shrug at worst. Some of those parents actually wanted their kids you know? Not to mention the kingdom of Rhir has actually sacrificed people. Both sides are committing crimes left right and centre, I don’t see how you can say the demons are worst than the Kingdom when the kingdom is brainwashing it’s own citizens and indoctrinating them. AND the killing of fetuses AND sacrificing people. They are both equally shit but at the very least the demons have for the most part restricted themselves to combatants. Rhir is actively sacrificing people they have no right sacrificing.

            Also, westerners are going to be varied on the subject and not wholly united if you think they’ll all just agree that aborting fetuses was distasteful at worst than you haven’t been paying much attention to the human race, we will find a way to disagree about almost everything.

            • I’m not so sure about that. It’s one thing to have an abortion by choice, having someone doing it to you regardless of your own will is a very, very different matter.

              • Even people who do get abortions by choice are often still extremely affected or even traumatized by doing so. There are many reasons why someone might get an abortion, and casual indifference is only a very rare one.

          • Aborting fetuses, past the second trimester? Whenever they develop a brain, I believe would be considered murder unless the mother was going to die. This killed babies regardless of whether they were 1 month or 9 in the womb

      • I had a different thought on [Kings Truth]. It could be he was telling the truth the whole time. The demons could be responsible for the ritual that killed the unborn…..if you consider that the Blighted Kingdom are the demons. i recall on the demon side that the girl with the handgun was pissed because somebody was lying about the demons, and she was wondering why they weren’t as well. the giant monsters (forgot what they were called) are the last true giants, harpies are just harpies, not “demons”.

        • I think [A King’s Truth] is more simple than that in that it is literally a King’s truth. It is not THE truth nor does it brainwash people to believe it is the truth but it will pass truth Spells and Skills cause it is a truth that serves the King.

          Wistram also mentioned how the Blighted King did not let them monitor the truth spell or fact check it after.

  4. I’m not going to lie I hated the fact that you cut off Pisces’s balls. This is the sort of thing that seems useless except for shock value unless it ties into the plot somehow. Please change that part.

    • The way I read it they only started cutting (“first cuts”); it wasn’t finished. Also, the way he was acting so grateful and all….didn’t read to me like someone who’d just been castrated.

      • I think my eyes jumped over that portion and in my mind, it happened and then there was a time skip where the group continued on their way until being stopped.

    • SIgh. Looks like I jumped the gun. I read this part

      “He began laughing as the pain began. No salvation. This was simply Chandrar and the Traders of Roshal. There was no inn anymore, no [Innkeeper].

      The end.

      —-

      The night sky over Chandrar had no clouds.”

      And saw what looked like a time skip and then missed the part where the slaver dropped the dagger. Sorry.

      • Understandable, I had almost read that break as a time skip as well, but realized what had happened as the slaver dropped the dagger after the first cut.

    • He still has his balls. The slaver was going to take his time with it and only made his first cuts. Easily potioned.

    • I agree. I had to read it three times because of the way it was worded. Hopefully it’s just a misunderstanding but I still read it as a time skip. Hopefully we’ll get some clarity on that. Can’t think of any reason why castration would be a necessary addition to the plot.

      • An excellent chapter. Pisces has grown up now. He is going to be more powerful now. And maybe a little more short tempered.

    • Agree. I won’t say it wasn’t well done, it was.

      From the moment Pisces was taken as a slave, it was only going to go one of two ways: shallow and short or deep and dark.

      Deep and dark is treating the subject with the seriousness that it deserves and, to my mind, the better way to go.

      Still, I’m glad it’s not several chapters long.

      • I’m impressed with how well Pirate can build a dark story like this. I haven’t read the pre-revision version yet but I feel like this version censored a portion of what happened. While I understand why, it feels like Pirate approached the subject to just back off.

  5. Christ this was a hard chapter. Harder even than Actelios Salash or Tom the clown. The ending was good though.

    Death to all those who keep others in chains.

  6. Good Lord, this chapter was rough. Pireateaba, you are fantastic at writing characters, both ones that we love and ones that we hate, and hot d@mn this chapter had plenty of hateable characters in it. This could not have been pleasant to write, and I’m impressed that you did. Just reading it made me angry at the characters in Roshal, and writing it must have been worse. I don’t know how you deal with writing, but please make sure to take care of yourself.
    I’m kinda intrigued, though, that this sort of horror is the kind that really gets to me. I can walk right through the clown chapters without a problem, and even enjoy them. Actelios Salash was just well-implemented villainous eldritch horror. Belavierr doesn’t really weird me out, but this ( and anything with that creepy-a## Naga Emir ) really just flips a switch for me that screams “Kill it with fire!” I’m wondering if it’s the personal touches here, or something else. I’ll have to think that over. Regardless, this is a very well-written chapter.

    • It may be personal to you.

      Now I will relate a similar incident I experienced to explain why I think that.

      This chapter was dark and deep, but what gets me is realistic depictions of rape. Particularly how it usually happens not from strangers, but those that should be trustworthy.

      I kept reading this other story through a trigger warning, and now I cant touch it. I am a-okay here though.

      Your trigger concerns may be tied more deeply into brainwashing, propagander, hypnosis, and other losses of freedom. A good chance to introspect, and learn to avoid or overcome.

  7. Some chapters have fear… This one was kind of messed up in all the worst ways.

    Yet it proves why [Slavers] continue to exist and have so much power. [Levels] are what keeps the power flowing even to the most twisted extremes.

    An ability to force people to worship you. An ability to make people unable to fight. The right skills to trap people from being able to live, die, or stay sane.

    Then it ends with the final skills to call forth even more twisted nightmares born from madness itself.

    Red Skills are tied into something far worse… Which shows that even the [Slave] Class is sort of a violation even acknowledge by the system… And it had placed red skills and warnings when a human [Flower Keeper] and lost her levels and nearly turned into a ghoul while still being alive.

    Twisted, messed up, and why everybody seems to hate/look down upon this continent.

    The only question is which evil will top this one next?

    • No evil can truly surpass slavery, because coercion is evils essence. That is also what makes Riqre so horrific: He NEVER uses physical violence, but instead makes each slaves agency ITSELF the agent of its own destruction, leaving nothing but hollow puppets or, worse, hideous parodies of “love.” If freedom, love and respect are the essence of goodness, slaverys fundamental of all those things is the essence of evil, because it acknowledges free will: As an existential threat.

      • *Slaverys fundamental DENIAL of freedom, respect and love is evils essence. That, and inability to edit comments.

  8. Curious about the red classes – flower girl lost hers through redemption, but iirc Gazi mentioned only kings can remove classes (i.e., slave) so I wonder if Flos or Khelt will help remove Pisces class, or if there is another way to remove it. Also glad Pisces didnt end up castrated for no reason and this enslaved arc ended in one go! Tough reading – hate seeing characters stuck in helpless situations.

  9. So does anyone else share in my assessment that red classes are classes you can’t choose to accept and are generally detrimental? But the good thing is I believe the class will either fall off or convert to something like “Freed Slave,” now that he is no longer a slave.

    From what we’ve seen, if it does convert then the skills associated with it will likely convert as well to cover a larger range of situations

  10. that was incredible. Horrifying and incredible. Incredibly horrifying. I got chills when I read the part with the florist in Flowers of Esthelm, and this was like that but scaled WAY up.

    The horrors of slavery were….difficult to read through. Not just the obviously bad parts but the subtler evils of slavery, like trying to make it ethical. Ethical slavery. what a contradiction

    • I mean, it SOUNDS like a reasonable idea, at first: Until one starts thinking of ways to do it, and realizes all the things needed to make slavery “ethical” just happen to collectively make it NOT slavery anymore. Though it does seem like the worst excesses of everything develop when people start doing it for PROFIT rather than just to sustain their household, whether slavery vs. slave-trading or farming vs. ranching. Most people are not genuinely callous, let alone sadists, “in person,” but we have the Milgram Experiments legacy to tell us how unfeeling otherwise decent people can quickly become if permitted the slightest distance between what they do and the harm that causes others. There is also a world of difference between shearing a sheep or even killing the fatted calf to feed and clothe ones family vs. slaughtering a whole HERD to expand the familys investment portfolio (deliberately breeding sheep over generations until they produce so much wool they MUST be sheared to remain healthy is a bit of a gray area.)

  11. If that was the PG-13 second draft, all I can say is that it is a darned good thing you edited; other than seeing things we now only briefly hear, I cannot imagine what was removed (and am disinclined to try.) I do not envy you writing that chapter, trying to avoid shocking or outraging delicate sensibilities without trivializing the suffering of real-world victims. Verisimilitude is crucial (especially in “meta-spec” fiction) but I remain willing to leave some things to asterisks. Put it this way: We only need to see Jason Parker “only stopped screaming toward the end” ONCE. ;)

    • Honestly after reading the editorial notes and skimming the first draft, the revised one is much more horrific. In the first draft Emir Riqre isn’t trying to corrupt Pisces’ magic and never removes his collar. It’s still horrible but lacks a lot of the direct psyche damage Riqre inflicts on Pisces.

  12. I read this…then went about my day. But everything Pisces went through kept popping up. Try to work out..Pisces gets burned! Write my reports…Pisces gets hurt even more. This consumed my day…and I hate it so much….but I hope Pisces finds salvation…and REVENGE!!! I’m writing this from a place of knowing how evil it is to be put down….so I hope HOPE , we see one of our own survive, thrive, and put down the masters of the world that is Roshal!!!!
    Pirate…as much as you write for whatever purpose you write….know that there are some who live this life and read your writing. Give us better than this please. Our hope is in the books we read.

  13. So, as a huge Stanley Kubrik and Quentin Tarantino fan, I find this very hard to say: but I have a new favorite vision for the Journey Into the Heart of Darkness archetypical story. Gratz Abba: it is no small thing to surpass Apocolypse Now and Django Unchained.

  14. A terrible chapter. Not terrible in the sense that it was written badly, though. I loved it. Congratulations on writing something so poignant, and thank you for limiting the horror to only one chapter. I imagine Pisces and the others will go through a lot of shit anyway, though. I wish you hadn’t killed Cawe. Didn’t Czautha say

    Ah! Oh shit! As I was typing that I looked for the scene where she appeared, and she said “I see one who is dead and not even my kin, the one you call Death of Magic, can bring her back”

    You know, I read that as her saying that Silvenia actually could bring her back. I read the rest of the chapter and was soooo confused about why she hadn’t taken Cawe for healing. It’s actually why I typed this comment. I’m really sad now. At the end of the day, this chapter was saved by a deus ex machina. We all know the Wandering Inn is not an essentially grimdark tale like PGTE or Worm. Would it have been so unrealistic to let one more victim live?

    • You think PGtE is grimdark? Book 6 could maybe be described like that, but that’s all. But yeah, Worm is definitely grimdark as all Warps.

  15. Hey. This chapter was….disgusting. I think that’s the emotion I felt the most. Disgust. Probably that is what you went for. The feeling of hopelessness, that you can do nothing to escape is the emotion that I feel is the worst you can experience as a human. Every other emotion usually has an outlet. This doesn’t, not really. It makes reading the chapter pure suffering. Which is not really a good thing to feel while reading. The ending made it better, but still I really struggled with this one. I know this was an important chapter, but for the first time…I feel the chapter was too long.

  16. Heavy stuff. In the end it turned out okay. The resolution was a very unexpected though. Almost annoyingly weird.

    I have to ask though… did the wandering inn need stories like this? Because… why?
    Do you just wake up somedays and go: Fuck it! This volume will put lasting traumas upon all my readers?
    It’s depression porn in every chapter.
    I just don’t get it.

    But then… it’s also very interesting necromancy stuff.

    So good work! I… e-enjoyed it?

    • I think there going to get rid of slavery by the end of the story and its going to be a big story arc so we need to see the ugly stuff and be motivated to see it destroyed.

  17. Wow!

    Whenever i’ve recommended The Wandering Inn to people, i’ve said that Pirateaba’s output “would have killed Isaac Asimov”. Now i’m saying i expect it will bring him back from the dead to acknowledge a superior.

    And i read it in one sitting because i couldn’t stop.

  18. This must have been difficult.

    I don’t think this was Deus Ex Machina. We saw the Death of Chains coming for Roshal foreshadowed from long ago. We saw a narrative rule of three executed here, three attempts with escalating consequences for failure, to the point I expected the third attempt to succeed.

    It failed instead, but as a result we got to see the Death of Chains introduced in-narrative instead of as an out of context interlude. I think this worked well, and the edited chapter flows well.

  19. Excellent chapter!

    This makes me loathe Flos all the more, knowing he once held Chandrar in the palm of his hand and let Roshal keep existing. Disgusting.

    • Leaving aside that Flos didn’t have time to do much of anything on Chandrar, on account of the whole world coming to kill him, you’re severely underestimating the threat of Roshal’s djinn. They’re basically nukes, as we saw when that one self-destructed and wiped a city from existence. Like nukes, nobody uses them that way because of the threat of mutual destruction (and because unlike nukes they have uses beyond exploding), and like nukes if they think they’re facing destruction anyway they’ll press the button. If Roshal is about to go down, the last thing the [Slavers] will do is destroy every major city on the continent. The second-to-last thing they’ll do is activate the collars and kill every slave they have.

      • I’m not sure they have that many djinn but yea they are super powerful and I don’t think floss beat them they probably made a deal of some sort so they could keep all there stuff and not waste money fighting him.

    • Why would Flos destroy Roshal? He’s a slaver too, whether he has the class or not. Absolutely disgusting human being.

      • yep.

        the mass mind control using conquerer who makes some of the people he beat swear magical oaths of fealty and enjoys their unearned loyalty in face of extreme danger (see the grand mage he enslaved for an example) is probably not that opposed to a spot of slavery.

        might object to the methods since his skills mean he can just say “serve or die” and get an obedient slave in weeks at most with no effort
        for beaten high level people while low level people just get swept when he conquers a place effort free so those methods are just not that useful for him and so can be scorned.

        He would of course absolutely be all for freeing all slaves and djinni if the math ever shakes out for trying to do so getting him more military benefit then damage from extra enemies (like with the gnolls and demons)

        • He did not enslave the grand mage. That was parasol stroll the mercenary group. And they gave her a ‘choice’ as in join us or die. And there is a time limit on the contract. Real slavers dont give you the option of choosing death. They give no options at all.

    • I bet they just surrendered without a fight and laid Low until his empire collapsed. Maybe next time they will be wiped out. To me it seems like the dental king is being put trough a few hardships for a reason. Not like we ever saw a pow of him , so his motivation are just based on what he tells other people.

  20. So what do you think that big flash of light in the distance, that was apparently proof the death of magic is nearby, was? I guess she is raiding roshal also? That’s interesting. Is this an assault by the deathless? Roshal is the nearest city to pisces and co.

    • I think that light might be the after-effects of the Death of Magic breaking Djinni collars. She could also be basically carpet bombing [Slavers]/cities cause she doesn’t seem to be the type of person to care about collateral causalities.

      Also I’m pretty sure Roshal is more like a collection of city states rather than one big city or kingdom.

  21. I read and enjoy these chapters for themselves and what they are, although the horror in this one did push me a bit. I will not read the first draft. I do NOT nead to read anything you consider darker.

    They’re all interludes until Erin is back.

  22. That chapter was truly amazing in what it did add to the story. I believe it was much better than your first version and I think Diana managed to point out many good ways to improve upon your first draft.

    I felt this chapter was even darker than the first draft, because it added more dimension to the horrors of slavery in the Innworld. In hindsight it would have felt a little bland if the ways the Emir tried to break Pisces were so restricted to blatant forced physical abuse. Instead you beautifully found a way to use the special means provided by skills and magic to give the Emir more options to nudge Pisces deeper into madness.

    I especially liked how you gave the Emir more motivation than just evil slavers being abusive. But gave them the pretense of “improving the value” of their “products”. Something that makes sense in a very disturbing way.

    My biggest criticism of how things were done would be the deus ex machina rescue at the end. At the same time I am kind of glad it was there so we wouldn’t have to endure more slave chapters…

    The only other (minor) complaint I have would be the missing foreshadowing for Pisces plan with the keys at the end. I might just have missed it if it was there but it kinda came out of the blue for me. The only instance of foreshadowing I noted was when Cawe stumbled/nuged one guard.

    Ah yes and thank you so so much for not splitting this chapter into to, long enough it would have been…

  23. I was hoping for a [I am Spartacus] rebellion by a random Earther ever since it became clear we’re going to get a slave arc. Instead, we got the Death of Chains and the strongest foreshadowing that the Rhir plot is headed for a “no, you are the demons” reveal.

    Maybe it’s not too late for some of the Earthers in Emir Yazdil’s tender care to rebel in all the confusion?

    In any case, I expect there to be major fireworks once Pisces tells Az’Kerash that he was saved by the Death of Chains working together with the Death of Magic.

    On the positive side, I am certain that the Blighted King is beyond pleased that at least two of the Deathless (maybe 3, including whatever made the magical storm?) are stirring up the rest of the world instead of assaulting 4th/5th wall.

    • We already saw Kent Scott’s fate in ‘Interlude – The Revenant and the Naga’. Not much else can happen there given his position.

  24. To paraphrase Harry Potter, a great chapter, dark and terrible but great. Very tastefully done as well, I felt as if I wasn’t made to watch, but you can imagine the darkest of things that weren’t mentioned. Horrors too terrible for pen and paper.

  25. Wow 😳 that was an EPIC CHAPTER!
    Thank you *so much*!
    You are the most compelling author to read I have encountered.
    Please consider me as on the bandwagon to encourage you to exercise self-care!
    You have worth beyond what you do! That said, your work speaks for itself – see first line again.

  26. Reminds me a lot of the book Alhazred. His necromactic journey ironically begins with his two best friends from De’hez Balhz being BBQ’d, and force feed several body parts. Great memories, easly my favorite lovecraft. Anyway, thanks of the chapter!

  27. What I like in this chapter is that it shows that the system makes everithing worse.
    Real life slavery is bad enough but here there is magic that can take not just your freedom but your mind, free will, memories, even your body can be warped into a monster.

    Also, since science is sufficiently analized magic it makes me feel like our own world heads toward a dystopian nighmare also, as research is slowly but inexplicably makes much of this horror possible in the future.

      • What I believe he’s insinuating is that as science progresses in our world, much of the magical/System power to fuck with the mind/personality of people ,shown in this chapter, will be realized. Once this capability is achieved, he feels that our society will begin its own steady march into a dystopian nightmare commonly seen in post apocalyptic sci fi novels.
        A rather depressing line of thought

        • I think we are already there honestly. Pandemic, a large portion of people still thinking its a hoax, etc. And we just adapted to it, but not necessarily well.

  28. So where can Pisces think of going that’s actually safe from Roshal? The only place that really fits the bill on Chandrar is Khelt, but that would be a long way away if they were nearing Roshal itself at the end of this chapter, and being granted admission is far from guaranteed. Or Actelios… but with obvious major downsides.

    All of the bidding on Pisces will highly motivate his recapture, and his only allies on the continent are widely scattered. Also, how well can his group move and how well can they hide? Their bandit lord may have skills that help with both, and Pisces may be able to rustle up some undead mounts… but others are sure to be able to travel much faster.

    If they’re lucky, they may be briefly overlooked in the aftermath of the Deathless’ raid (and isn’t it interesting that even they can only manage hit and run raids vs Roshal), but such a state of play is hardly likely to last for long.

    • Pisces could go to the King of destruction. Declare for him and have him free the other members of the horns, good way to connect the King with Erin as well

      • He could. But Flos still deals in slaves, so it isn’t nearly as safe as Khelt.

        Pisces is going to be facing the simultaneous challenge of herding cats (freed slaves from across the continent who will have very different ideas of where might be safe to go) and resolving his own conflicting commitments of looking after these freed slaves vs getting the band back together.

        • How likely do you think it is that Pisces will try to message his teammates or the izril folk.
          Because given the possible slave hunters, bounty chasers communications may be intercepted or faked or blocked.

          • He and Ceria have their custom communication spell which has previously been hard to intercept due to its uniqueness. I don’t know what the range is on it, though.

    • I thought the “safe space” he had in mind was a return to the Wandering Inn, it fits with all his other thoughts about the only home he ever had.

      All your other points are spot on, there’s still plenty that can go wrong while the Horns get together. With Pisces’ newfound hatred for slavery, I think his liberation of Yvlonne and Ksmvr is going to be spectacularly bloody.

  29. First of all, truly a great chapter.

    Second of all, I like to switch from the slave talk and point out that if anyone else picked up the hints on him not willing to work on spinal stuff, cause he doesn’t know enough. Made me think that there is going to be a reunion between him and the doctor, which could see her being able to walk on her own again.

    • It’s certainly a possible foreshadowing but I feel the likelihood of that is rather abysmal given that both of them are on different continents and the main selphid community is in Baleros. Hence unless there’s another teleportation this meetup probably won’t occur for a while.

    • The problem is not Geneva’s spine bones, the vertebrae, it’s the spinal _cord_: the nerves that run through the vertebrae. Pisces does bones, not nerves.

  30. Wow. That was one of the single most horrifying pieces of fiction I have ever read. Only to be surpassed by real historic accounts, because those actually happened. I agree with what Pisces said at the end when he kills Hrome. The casual normalization of it all, the uncaring objectivication of human life, the bland, boring evil of it all is the worst.

    Because it wouldn´t be that hard to forgive Hrome. Because he wasn´t THAT bad. I´m sure he was good to his friends and kind to his family. He was just living in the status quo. Like certain soldiers… following orders. Roshal wouldn´t exist if not for the likes of him. It all deserves to be burnt to the ground.

  31. I usually do not comment
    Sometimes I want to for your writing is amazing, there have been a ton of ledendary chapters, ones that really lifted me up
    I comment on this one because it’s actually the first that really dragged me down. The horror you wrote was ghastly, I almost stopped reading, as it was almost too unbearable.
    It’s one thing to know the horrible things that happen here in this world, it’s an other to see them written like this in the way you did.
    I sincerely hope there won’t be chapters like this in the future. Not that it was badly written, it was just too awfully real.

  32. I dont usually comment, but since this time we have two versions of your lovely work pirateaba, I decided to drop my opinion. It might be gold, or crap, or something in between, but it is honest words from someone who has fallen in love with your work this last 6 months.

    I see that in this revised version you added more references to Eloque as per the editor’s recommendation. Personally, I don’t think it adds more to the chapter. It was fine as it was, but for some added wow-factor you could have gone with a more dramatic transition from the ideas of “there is no hope, no salvation” to “a woman in despair unleashes the evil”, perhaps using some special fonts, giant words, colours, etc. (An opposing style could be used for the appearance of the Death of Chains!).

    On the other hand, the substituion of the forced rape with forced levelling was a masterful and brilliant addition to the story!
    But it left behind what feels like a blank spot: since now Pisces exits the Manor without a collar, he could have escaped, if not for Eloque. He could have at least considered escaping and then coming back to save them, but then dismissed the idea because of Azam. I think that thought process can be assumed but would have been delightful to see, because Pisces is a good boy.
    However, he is not a good boy just because he doesn’t see any other way of being (*cough* Ylawes*cough*). He is a good boy because whenever he is confronted with difficult situations he chooses to be better.
    (wow, Pisces fangirling much)

    Thank you for your lovely work.

  33. This was so dark and horrible and hard to read but very well written of course. But like you said there are probably worse stories in our reality. I felt so angry that we allow such evil to exist. Atleast in your writing evil can be stopped by a rainbow.

    Thank you Pirate.

  34. I can’t say if I’m glad or not the unedited and “darker” version is password protected, but I’m not going to be actively looking for it.

    I can admire the ESCALATION in this chapter. Yes, that was a Worm reference, because this whole thing reminded me of the Slaughterhouse Nine arc. The Emir was like Jack Slash + Bonesaw without the superpowers but having the tools to get the same results. And Pisces’… training montage was similar to what they did with Panacea to get her to break her code and give it to the madness and power. You even put in the words “bone saw” in there so I’m wondering if that’s an Easter egg.

    So I suppose I wasn’t really as shaken with the evil stuff. Except for Rape Day… Because that’s what that is. It really is disgusting to read about rape. Even if the chapter ended in a Deus ex machina, I’m glad Pisces killed that unrepentant rapist.

    What’s also sad is that Wistram News will never do a segment on Roshal, because they can throw gold at them until they listen. Here’s hoping Remi Canada can bring Roshal to light.

  35. Took me since plebs first got wind of this chapter to this day to actually get to read it. It is certainly dark, the only bad thing about it is that it ended kinda good. I was honestly expecting the down bad, possibly out of reach like Erin, Pisces ark.
    And my thoughts on Rhir are confused as heck rn.

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