8.36 H

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When all was said and done, she was there.

When the [Wyrmpact King] excused himself from the throne room to find out what had happened, he saw her standing there, facing the Duke.

When the [Royal Bodyguards], [Generals], [Strategists], and [Knights] dared follow their [King], after the King’s brother had cracked a man’s skull in his fit of rage, they saw the consequences standing there. A Courier in chains.

When the little boy opened his eyes, he saw Ryoka Griffin standing over him, facing the Duke. A sneering man with cold eyes whose pointed finger was blocked by her outstretched arms.

“No. Harm him, and I will call the wrath of hospitality down on you. I will invoke the wrath of the fae. To kill him, you have to kill me. And you can’t.”

“How dare you assume you could threaten me.

The glowing chains wrapped around her and one began to strangle her. The [King] and his court halted, some calling out. Nevertheless, she met his eyes. The Wind Runner grinned, and for the first time, the ruler of Ailendamus saw Rhisveri, the Wyrm, hesitate. Her voice rasped, choking, but it seemed the wind whispered with her.

“You…need to know what I know. My message. Are you going to…kill me? And steal my treasures?”

The Duke’s eyes narrowed. He raised a hand and sent her flying. But he did not kill her. He whirled away.

“Enough. Guards! Arrest this thief, who dared to try to steal from Ailendamus’ sacred treasury. No [Torturers]. Imprison that…boy…as well.”

“Uncle. Who is…?”

Itorin saw the dizzy little boy raise his head. He had not been told a child would be kidnapped. His stomach began to twist in a familiar fashion, but he pretended he knew what was happening.

Rhisveri was visibly angry, upset…and for some reason, embarrassed? His eyes flicked to Sammial without immediate comprehension.

“An unintended passenger. We have lost one of your Great Knights…your Majesty.”

How? Dame—?”

The Death of Magic. And the damned Death of Chains. I must look into this. We may be in danger of teleportation strikes. And the damned Order of Seasons is on the march!”

“My head hurts.”

Sammial audibly whispered. Neither man glanced at him. Sammial saw Ryoka lying there, staring up at the [Knights] who were glancing at their superiors for instructions. An apprehensive [General] had taken one look at Sammial’s face and turned pale.

That was Ailendamus’ capital. The Duke Rhisveri swept off with his brother, as arrogant as any [King]. The eccentric, difficult genius, who had added to Ailendamus’ problems.

The war was not one of those problems, incidentally. The Dawn Concordat had lost the border forts or would lose them within the day. More armies were pushing into their lands, trading at acceptable losses if they were forced back.

As for Pheislant? The Order of Seasons’ own crusade, apart from the Chandrar debacle? The Duke had given one order, quickly ratified by two [Generals] and the royal seal itself.

Send the Order of the Hydra. Send two legions.

 

—-

 

The Order of Seasons had triumphed in three pitched battles over the last week and a half. First at the pass where they routed the army marching to flank the Dawn Concordat—later in smaller engagements.

Rabbiteater fought in both, of course. Or rather, ‘Ser Solstice’ did. The Hobgoblin had never passed up the opportunity to fight, and in the vanguard with the Summer’s Champion, he always saw combat.

Ser Greysten was not a man who believed in leading anywhere but from the very front, with people racing to catch up and shouting that he was an idiot. He embodied a certain kind of war unknown to Earth; the commander who was superior to the troops he led. Some [Generals] made their armies stronger, but were individually weak. Greysten? The opposite.

Summer burns hot!

He locked blades with the leading [Knight] of Ailendamus. True to his words, his longsword was glowing with heat, and the Knight of the Thirsting Veil recoiled. Rabbiteater heard a male voice cursing as the helmeted figures rode past each other into the melee. Greysten was already reaching for the axe he carried; he was slashing about himself with the longsword. He had lost his shield; the other [Knight] had disarmed him with a Skill.

Greysten had burned the other man’s blade and the thin line of poison; a paste with small seeds now charred black along the Thirsting Veil [Knight]’s blade. Fire ran rampant as more Summer Knights wielding burning weapons slashed at Ailendamus’ wavering core of [Knights].

They were armed with poison, the Thirsting Veil’s counter to the Order of Seasons’ aura-based attacks. Unfortunately, poison burnt away, and the Order of Seasons was too well-armored for all but the best strikes to go through. And even when they did—

Struck! Healer!

A Summer Knight rode out of the melee, a gauntleted hand clasped to a steaming wound. He or she was actively cauterizing the place where a dagger had punched through their chestplate. A Knight of Autumn, the Season of Fall, raced forwards with a broad-spectrum antidote prepared for these clashes.

Shield Ser Hitre! Break their lines!

The Summer’s Champion shot past Rabbiteater as the Goblin broke off from his shoving match with a [Knight]; they had locked shields and were battering at each other without much success. Greysten brought the hilt of his longsword down and thwacked the Ailendamus [Knight] on the side of the head, so hard he dented the dark purple iron.

“—unchivalrous, Ser!

The female [Knight] reeled, her voice coming out of her helmet. Greysten actually slowed to salute her.

“‘Tis a battle, Dame Enemy! And besides, poison is more unsporting still!”

The genteel conversation could only occur in a battle like this, where armored figures would spend minutes literally hammering each other’s armor. The Dame began to retort, shield up, when Rabbiteater reached out and slapped her horse in the face. The stallion reared, furiously, and the Dame whirled back to him. Her guard was up, and she raised her mace—

…Just in time for her saddle to slide off the horse’s back. The animal bucked off the saddle, the straps cut. Rabbiteater had taken advantage of her banter to slice them.

[Mistreach Cut]. A gift for slaying the [General]. The Dame went over with a shout.

How—

The ‘whuh’ of sound coming out of her visor as she landed flat on her back was followed by her trying to roll over and get to her feet. She never made it. Rabbiteater rode his horse over her.

The Summer’s Champion watched as the Goblin happily let his horse stomp the [Knight] into the muddy ground, already drying with the heat auras.

“…That was fairly unsporting, Ser Solstice.”

“Yep. Which is why I won.”

Rabbiteater’s shield was up. He rode with Greysten as the two charged back towards the enemy commander.

The battle was won with surprisingly few casualties. As in—four [Knights] had been wounded seriously. Three died, and the rest were healable with potions.

It was not like the routing of Ailendamus’ army; the [Knights] of the Order of the Thristing Veil, unable to retreat once the horn blew, put up their blades after taking a beating. They were treated, taken prisoner without even being stripped of their armor in some cases, and would be ransomed or imprisoned as Pheislant saw fit. A prisoner train would need to be established again.

I protest, Summer’s Champion! That [Knight] does not fight with valor or honor!

The Dame [Knight] that Rabbiteater had bested had something to say as they were being arrested. The Summer’s Champion gave her a salute, his helmet off to enjoy a drink of water.

“Apologies, Dame Enemy! I would take my own Order to task for such a blow—except perhaps Winter’s lot, but you skirmished with a [Knight] of Izril! His style is unlike our own. Or have you never heard of the Goblin Slayer? Ser Solstice!”

He slapped Rabbiteater on the back. The Goblin saw some of the Thirsting Veil glower at him. One clearly muttered.

“Izrilian [Knights]. We should expect nothing more.”

Dame Talia frowned at Rabbiteater, but Greysten was ebullient after the third victory.

“Another group smashed! We’ll be pushing towards Ailendamus’ western flank soon! How long until the border?”

“We might be over it. Not the watchtowers, but since they eclipsed Saturst…”

Pheislant’s army was celebrating. True, this was not the grand battle of the pass, but they had won three battles in grand style. The Order of Seasons was crusading against Ailendamus, and their attack had won them the popular opinion of Pheislant’s people and their more aggressive leaders and [Lords], who were already assembling armies to back up the Season of Summer’s aggressive advance.

Rabbiteater understood—because Ser Markus told him—that the issue was more politically fraught than that. He listened with interest, but the truth was he’d come for a fight, and a fight he got.

“To the north, then! No time for rest! Have someone sort out the prisoners—if we want to keep Ailendamus guessing, I demand another forty miles behind us! At least!

Greysten roared. The [Knights] stopped celebrating, and many leapt right back into their saddles. They were moving fast; theirs was a smaller army of [Knights], and they intended to take the pressure off the Dawn Concordat by forcing Ailendamus’ armies to turn towards them, by which point reinforcements would have hopefully come from Pheislant.

That was the plan. Rabbiteater wished he could remove his visor to wipe the sweat from his face. Amulet of Greater Fire Resistance or not, fighting was hot work. He felt their good luck couldn’t last forever. They’d broken one army of Ailendamus, but the counter had to be swinging back their way if Terandria’s kingdoms were anything like the Izril that the former Redfang knew.

He was right, of course. Ailendamus was hard at work. The war machine of one of Terandria’s greatest, and certainly, newest superpowers began to move.

 

—-

 

Ailendamus’ loyal servant wondered what all the fuss was about in court today. People were abuzz about a voice shouting in the castle, the Duke stirring something up…and apparently one of the Great Knights of Ailendamus had perished.

If true and not the oft-unreliable court gossip, that would be a disaster. The Great Knights of Ailendamus were, like their Great Generals, an actual class. Not the most…mm…inspired of names, but the fact that Ailendamus could appoint anyone to a new class that was an upgrade over a regular [General] was something indeed.

He banished the thoughts from his mind. The man stopped, checking his silver-and-wheat hair in a full-body mirror. He adjusted the glowing sash of amethyst, the band across his vibrant felt coat, as red as a glossberry. He was attired with a light, heavily frilled, and ruffled shirt of pearl white, and darker pants that would be charcoal black but for the gold lining.

The effect, as the doors were opened and he strode into the huge courtroom, was calculated to blow the loose coat back and let it swirl about him as he strode into the room. Ailendamus’ great servant beheld a grand auditorium.

That was the charm of Ailendamus’ palace; the sheer display of wealth that gave rise to so many vast chambers. Why, even the hallways could accommodate armies in themselves. It was so vast even half-Giants need not stoop under the ceilings. An architectural message: we shall never be assailed in our capital. There is no need for tight corridors or hallways. Ailendamus, this vast kingdom, had no small ambitions.

And thus, even a non-critical chamber such as this was practically cavernous. The man looked up slightly, appreciating the relief drawn across the ceiling. A thousand [Artists] had renditioned a battle of King Itorin I over his enemies in a splendid drawing in the domed room.

Of course, the army overhead was matched in scope by the army which had knelt to greet his arrival. The capital’s guards, the audience in their humble clothes, and of course, the [Knights]. Or…[Squires], rather.

They were men and women. Half-Elves, Dwarves, even a Stitch-Woman. They knelt, heads uncovered, all armored in the lighter colors of their order. The man surveyed them in silence. Then he crossed to the podium and dais, his motions fluid, his head thrown back, shoulders squared to let his coat billow behind him.

One would be fair in thinking he was a [King]. Certainly, he carried himself like one. Of course, he was not. [Kings] did not care so much as to practice the stop, heel-turn, and flourish of the arm that let him step up to the podium. Nor did your average member of royalty practice throwing their voice such that it filled the air, deepened by vocal exercises, magnified to catch the ear perfectly through extensive, nay, obsessive practice.

I am Baron Regalius du Ecte, [Regent] of the Barony Veilau in service of the glorious Kingdom of Ailendamus. By the decree of the crown as vested in me by no less than his Majesty’s proxy, Duchess Vepil herself, I have been granted the right to bestow titles with the full weight of Ailendamus. It is my honor to convene this ceremony on this day of Liriean, the 20th of Weris on the year 213 A.E. as set down by Ailendamus’ calenders.”

The oration of Baron Regalius du Ecte filled the room. By the end of the first sentence, his voice, already filled to bursting with pride, had swelled further until he was practically bellowing ‘no less than his Majesty’s proxy’, and ‘honor to convene’.

Not at his audience. But rather, to the room itself, as if he stood before a million of Ailendamus’ citizens rather than a mere thousand, and this was the highest of honors. In a sense—it was.

The Baron’s eyes roamed the [Knights] kneeling before him. For this was a ceremony to elevate the [Squires] into [Knights]. Sometimes a [King] would do this himself. Baron Regalius had the honor, nay, privilege of doing it himself rather than his Majesty. He had been personally selected…by the Duchess Vepil…to act in King Itorin II’s stead!

“Brave servants of Ailendamus, you have been found worthy of one of the highest honors of our kingdom. By wit and courage and valor, you have proven by deed and action to be beyond repute in both spirit and body. Ailendamus expects no less. In recognition of your actions, you have been chosen to embody the great spirit of our nation as [Knights]. You shall swear by crown and country to be no less than the finest to ever draw breath. You shall represent us in war and peace as the sword of His Majesty, the shield of the people, the hope of our young, and comfort of the old!”

They were grand words. Perhaps…too grand for a mere [Baron], who, yes, ranked over a [Lord], but was hardly the greatest noble in Ailendamus. True, there were [Barons] who had inspired fear in their enemies—great leaders in battle who were as dangerous as the Great Generals…

Regalius was not one of them. He was a [Lord of Ceremonies], which had turned into [Baron of Ceremonies], but the officio behind the class mattered not. It was just power; the nature was ceremony. Not war. Not finance.

Ceremony. His entire life was based around this act. Not just knighting ceremonies, but all matters of state. Ailendamus was vast enough to have a man as specialized as him. And that was a good thing.

You wanted a man like Baron Regalius. Many people wouldn’t see it. Many people would see how he gave a speech at every dinner, thanking the host, how he combed his hair at least three dozen times even when he was at his busiest, with an enchanted comb and hair products from the best [Alchemists]. They would see how he refused to ever step on grass or hike through nature, and see a ponce with no real value.

They were, of course, fools of the highest order. They were wrong. Baron Regalius was not only the man for this job, he was perhaps the only man for this job, and that included Itorin II. Why? Because a [King] did not feel like convening large ceremonies like this regularly. A [King] was busy, and frankly, didn’t care.

Regalius did.

He made it special. He had ensured all the [Squires] arrived, that they had been gifted proper rooms for the ceremony, attended all the oaths and private rituals of their order.

Their families were here. That was Regalius’ doing. The low-born commoners had the wide-eyed look of people who were permitted to walk the palace of Ailendamus’ seat. This was the highest honor many would ever have in their lives and many had already been weeping before he walked in.

So the [Baron] gave them a speech worthy of the occasion. He did not stutter. He did not look or sound bored—nor was he, and that was part of why he sounded good, even though he had said this a thousand times. When he addressed the knights-to-be, they looked up with a solemnity fitting for this occasion, nevermind they were not in the presence of their [King].

Baron Regalius had memorized their deeds and names. He did not need a list or prompter. Yes, he had Skills, but the man made an effort, Skills or not.

Oh—and one more thing. There was a third reason Regalius was so vital to Ailendamus. And it was this:

As the ceremony concluded, a hundred [Knights] clasped their hands to their chests, then performed a salute of Ailendamus’; a slight touch to the bottom of their left eye, or right, depending on which was their dominant hand. Regalius named them all, individually bade them to utter their vow, struck their shoulders with the blade, and had them rise.

A hundred [Knights]. The [Baron] was tired by the end of the four hour ceremony, and only his Skills and powers of speechcraft even made the moment awe-inspiring rather than tedious. Many nations might not knight so many [Knights] in a year!

Baron Regalius? He stood before the hundred new [Knights] and saluted them, tears in his eyes.

Go forth, Knights of Ailendamus! Go forth, brave sons and daughters! Rise now—[Knights] of the Order of the Hydra!”

This was his job, and he did it well. He did it very well. So well that Baron Regalius, who did these ceremonies most of all, and for the Order of the Hydra exclusively?

He did this every week, at least.

Sometimes every day.

 

—-

 

Send the Order of the Hydra. Send two legions.

So they came. The Order of the Hydra. A new [Knight]-order. A somewhat infamous one.

“The Order of the Hydra has sent their champions? Good! I was tiring of battling the Thirsting Veil!”

Greysten laughed. Rabbiteater nudged Ser Markus and Dame Meisa, who he was riding with as the [Scout] returned. The [Scout] didn’t seem to think it was so funny—she pointed down the flatlands at a distant, moving body coming their way.

“It is an entire army, Summer’s Champion! The Order of Hydra leads it! And…and…”

“What is Order of Hydra?”

Rabbiteater saw Ser Markus and Dame Meisa glance at each other. Some of the Order of Seasons were sighing, preparing for battle, but there was a truculence that Rabbiteater hadn’t noticed in the last three battles against the other forces. Not all knight-led either; in fact, the [Knights] had been the last to flee, but they were often the smallest contingent because they were…[Knights].

“I forget you don’t know the Orders of Terandria, Rab—Ser Solstice.”

Meisa murmured. Markus nodded. He tried to stand on the stirrups to see the approaching army, but gave up to talk to the two.

“The Order of the Hydra is one of three Orders that Ailendamus fields. We have seen few of them; the Thirsting Veil are the poison-users who clashed with us most strongly.”

“Ah. The sensible [Knights].”

Meisa and Markus exchanged a look. Poison was unbefitting of a [Knight]. Rabbiteater had thought it was quite smart.

“Ye-es, well, Ser Solstice, it’s a matter of perspective. The Order of the Hydra is…less…they have a reputation for being somewhat…they are a new Order, but their membership tends to be less…genteel than other Orders. Which is not frowned upon! They have [Knight] classes. Same as we. But they’re…”

“Commoners.”

Meisa explained succinctly. Markus winced and glanced around. He was from a noble house; she was not. The other [Knights] riding around them, mostly from the Spring, coughed, and Rabbiteater sensed the mood.

He happily ignored it.

“Why’s that matter? Commoners bad, eh?”

A silence befitting the Season of Winter swept over the group. Markus tried to explain.

“The Order of Seasons has many applicants regardless of noble birth. We do not discriminate! It is just that a non-noble house can rarely afford to pay for a [Knight]’s education. That the Order of Seasons can…well, some [Knight]-orders only induct the nobility. The Order of the Hydra? The exact opposite.”

“They are almost exclusively common-born.”

Dame Meisa leaned in to whisper. Rabbiteater stared at her.

“Okay.”

“They…have a reputation among some Orders. Not that we have any stated objection, but the issue is somewhat contentious, Ser Solstice.”

Markus put in. Rabbiteater nodded.

“Okay.”

“It’s why some of the other [Knights] might prefer to clash with…another Order, Rabbit.”

Meisa leaned in so close their visors nearly touched. She whispered so only he could hear, and he caught a whiff of sweat and metal. The Hobgoblin…nodded.

“Okay.”

He was getting tired of the explanations. Can we have sex now? After? He didn’t really care. Rabbiteater straightened, just in time to realize…he should care.

The Order of Seasons and Pheislant’s army had halted. Ser Greysten had stood up in his saddle. Now he was standing on top of it, heedless of the danger to himself.

“What the…”

He fell off the horse as the war stallion decided he’d had enough and kicked the Summer’s Champion off. The fiery horse didn’t hurt Greysten, but the Summer’s Champion was clearly rattled by something.

Rabbiteater began to stand on his own saddle like the other [Knights]. Then he decided that was stupid.

“Markus. Give me ride.”

“What? Wh—”

Rabbiteater stood on Ser Markus’ shoulders, which was far better than a temperamental horse. He put a hand over his visor. At the same time, Talia, who’d elected to use her stirrups, swore.

“That can’t be right.”

 

—-

 

“Send two legions of the Order of the Hydra.”

 

As defined in the Wordsmith Dictionaries, written by Krsysl Wordsmith for the modern era, a legion was a body of soldiers employed in an army under older military systems, occasionally used in the current day. Each legion was known to be comprised of between 4,000 and 6,000 soldiers unless marked as significant, such as the Necromantic Legions, which were apparently 20,000 strong, despite the numerical inaccuracies of the term.

So they came. Behind them was an army of [Archers], the Greatbow operators, a conventional force of pikes and a bare handful of riders—the main vanguard of this force drawn to defeat the Order of Seasons had been dispatched. The regular [Soldiers] were just supplementary forces, though they were still the largest body on the field.

Yet the [Knights]? To repel the thousand plus [Knights] of the Order of Seasons, Ailendamus had sent their most populous Knight-Order. The most numerous group of [Knights] in the entire world.

The Order of the Hydra.

They were running down the road like a living, laughing stream of light, mulberry-colored metal. Men and women of many species, mainly Human, but anyone who showed the valor and will of their class.

Running. On foot. They laughed and cheered, and they were on foot. Not a horse in sight.

“They can’t even afford horses.”

One of the Summer Knights scoffed. Dame Voost slapped the helmet without even looking around.

“Shut up. How many?”

“One…two…eight…thousand…”

Greysten was counting. The Summer’s Champion hadn’t lost his smile, but it had turned from a grin into bared teeth. Yep. Rabbiteater spat his water out onto Ser Markus and Meisa.

Ten thousand [Knights] were running down the road ahead of an army. And they were laughing. Slapping each other’s shoulders, cheering. Singing Ailendamus’ national anthem.

Let the lance-arrows fall from Ailendamus’ walls and guard the Kingdom of Glass and Glory!”

Their massed voices echoed down the straight trade-road. They were headed straight at the Order of Seasons, not digging in, not taking a formation like the other forces. This group had come for a battle.

The Order of Seasons and the army of Pheislant…hesitated. For a second. Then Ser Greysten roared.

Season of Summer! Season of Spring! Fall! To arms! Ailendamus has sent our brothers and sisters against us! It will be a fine battle.

He began to blaze with Summer’s heat. The [Knights] checked themselves. Rabbiteater moved into formation behind Dame Voost. He heard some of them talking.

“Ten thousand? They may outnumber us ten to one!”

“So? Commoners. They take almost no members from the aristocracy. I hear they induct them by the thousands if need be. Hah.”

It was a sentiment that the Goblin heard from more than a few helmeted heads. He glanced around.

“Not the most charitable of ways to say it. However, we do out-level them. I have not heard the Order of the Hydra was known to be, ah, the most high-level. I might guess even our Spring Knights stand above them.”

Ser Markus was flexing one hand. Dame Meisa was uncharacteristically silent. Maybe because she saw it the way Rabbiteater did. Neither of them were noble.

He saw it a bit differently than the Order of Seasons. Rabbiteater looked at the all-infantry army. Lacking horses, yes, lacking specialization to their armor and weapons which were mass-produced. Commoners en-masse.

Put another way? He saw ten thousand [Knights]. Who didn’t have horses, which were a pain to feed and keep healthy, a huge saving, who could run in full plate armor and who had the morale of common-folk who knew they could fight and elevate themselves. Become more than they were simply born.

Like…Goblins. Oh, and one more thing? Their mass-produced armor and weapons were fine steel from Ailendamus’ huge, mass-producing forges, and mass-enchanted. Weakly enchanted, but mass.

Rabbiteater eyed the army. Then he spotted their champion. He inhaled suddenly, and gave voice to his feeling.

“We are in trouble now.”

The Order of the Hydra did not march just with the sound of their own voices. The loud voices, the shouts were replaced by a distant melody. A spirited one. The Order of Seasons heard it drifting towards them on the breeze, incredulously. Did the lack of decorum of this Order know no bounds?

They were playing…a song. A song—not a national anthem or glorious war-song, but a pop-y, running song. Sung by a female [Singer].

The Singer of Terandria, in fact. It came from a song-crystal, strapped to a [Trumpeter]’s horn and blasting out of the enchanted tube. Rabbiteater thought it was a great song to run to. If the Redfangs—no, if any Goblin tribe had heard it, it might have become their theme-song. He began to tap a foot against his horse’s side.

“What song is that? I want to buy a crystal.”

He nudged Meisa. Ser Markus absently pulled something out of his bag of holding.

“I believe I have a song-catalogue of the Singer’s latest songs.”

“Markus! Now?

Meisa rolled her eyes as Rabbiteater looked over and matched the song to the name already.

Good to be Alive, as originally performed by Skillet.

“Ooh. Good song. Why do skillets sing?”

Then his head rose again. Because he heard a distant voice. The enemy commander was bellowing, so loud that even the distant Order of Seasons heard it.

“The Order of the Hydra fights on foot! We triumph with our feet on the ground! Time to bring down some [Riders]!

Now those were fighting words. The Order of Seasons’ backs went up. Ser Greysten grinned grimly. He shaded his eyes.

“Ah. Now that could be a problem. The one good [Knight] in the entire Order of the Hydra has come against us already. Is she Ailendamus’ Great Knight?”

“None other, Summer’s Champion. Unless you think there’s two of her?”

Dame Voost remarked drily. She eyed the [Knight] who stood out from the rest with unease. The [Soldiers] of Ailendamus were cheering her, and her fellow [Knights].

Pheislant’s [Soldiers]? They gaped in much the way Rabbiteater did. Someone cried out, with a shaking voice.

“The Great Knight of Ailendamus! The Dame of the Hills! Dame Merila, the Hill-Knight!

Rabbiteater looked at her. Merila, the Great Knight of Ailendamus. Then…his head tilted back.

Fun fact: commonfolk included half-Giants, incidentally. Not a royal bone in their body. And here came the first half-Giant [Knight] he had ever seen. Playing the very song-crystal she had once been given by Cara O’Sullivan.

Merila, the Hill-Knight. She wasn’t as tall as some of her kin. She wasn’t Zamea the [Shepherd], thirty plus feet tall. Merila was ‘only’ twenty eight feet tall.

And covered in armor. And holding a sword on her back only a nation like Ailendamus could afford to make. And laughing.

“Come on, sisters and brothers! For Ailendamus! For the glory of Terandria and the Order of the Hydra! Let’s get them.”

Her voice boomed across the ground. She pointed ahead.

Summer’s Champion! I challenge you to single combat! Let’s fight fair, eh?

She smiled and threw back her head to laugh, a huge, full-belly laugh that made Rabbiteater think of home.

The Knight of the Hills laughed like someone who could do anything.

“We will have to circle and strike them. If they bog us down, we will never endure. Burn the air until they retreat.”

The Summer’s Champion calmly dispersed his forces, meeting the half-Giant’s gaze. He saluted her, then looked around. He rode through the ranks of the [Knights], and found a shoulder to clasp.

Rabbiteater started and looked into Greysten’s gaze. The Summer’s Champion smiled.

“Still with us, Ser Solstice?”

He did not intimate that Rabbiteater would run. But there would be no reproach if the foreign [Knight] decided he’d had enough. Yet Rabbiteater just shook his head.

“I don’t ever abandon my friends. I don’t have enough to lose more.”

Greysten smiled wider. He squeezed, and raised his voice for all to hear. He gestured at the Order of the Hydra.

“That is right! We must quash Ailendamus’ ambitions. This is but the first sign they will not rest until they occupy every nation on Terandria. The odds may be taller against us. So? The taller fall harder.

He glanced back at the Dame of the Hills. The Order of Seasons cheered. Rabbiteater did not. He glanced at the Order of the Hydra.

“They believe in their kingdom as much as you do in your thing. [Knight] vs [Knight]. Same morale. Same will. Big, hard fight.”

“You think the Order of Seasons will lose, Ser Solstice?”

Dame Talia snapped. Rabbiteater’s head turned slowly. He replied, calmly. Calmly, but with the same heat that Greysten had claimed for his Season.

“I don’t underestimate my foes. I lost my people and my family, once. Never again. So let’s fight.”

He met Talia’s gaze until she looked away. Then looked at Markus, Meisa, Greysten, Zulv, Voost…the Summer’s Champion nodded.

Then ride with me, my brother.

The Order of Seasons raised their lances. Then prepared to charge the Order of the Hydra.

 

—-

 

Of late, it seemed like a lot was going wrong. Oh, there were some good victories, but they were invariably tainted by things that you couldn’t write any other way but ‘disaster’.

For instance: yes, the King of Destruction was burned. Yes, the Terandrian crusade would not threaten other Chandrarian nations if the ‘noble kingdoms of Terandria’ just happened to decide they wanted another colony or didn’t agree with the way a nation was governed.

On the other hand? Khelt was awake. It had deployed no less than three groups of Revenant undead who had displayed terrifyingly powerful Skills. They had ground down an entire crusade’s advance, and the infamously dangerous Claiven Earth and all of Medain had barely halted them. And only then because it seemed like two of the Revenants got bored and retreated!

Not to mention the fact that even if the King of Destruction was wounded, the very act had been a Djinni-led assassination. A rarity in any but the most brutal wars. And…he had freed a Djinni and now a city was gone.

Revelation after revelation. All bad news. But the crowning cherry on top, ironically, the straw that was breaking the camel’s back—no, the giant wood log falling from a hundred feet up? Two things.

Firstly, the takedown by Drassi of no less than Queen Yisame on public television regarding her culpability in the Djinni attack. Nerrhavia was a laughingstock. Worse, the crown’s authority was called into question and they were being viewed as having ordered the attack, despite it really being unauthorized!

Secondly, and from another angle: the loss of Alked Fellbow, Named Adventurer, to Khelt. Yes, Nerrhavia’s Fallen was a superpower, arguably one of the finest for sheer size and power, if not as newly come to it as Ailendamus. But losing a Named Adventurer?

No nation bore that lightly. So the two disasters, more than the rest, were political and military. Political embarrassment was one thing; the courts would gleefully spread rumors, gossip, and claim you were failing and on your last stitches, even if they had to whisper it for fear of public redress.

You could weather that. But the [Generals], noble [Emirs], [Administrators] of each region, and every other military body in Nerrhavia’s Fallen who had a sliver of power had their own agendas. They viewed defence of the realm as a key; wars and plots to expand the nation and their own power, or defeat enemies within or abroad were their stuffing and stitches. Losing Alked—permanently; he had renounced his citizenship!—was a devastating blow. Khelt itself was terrifying to these war hawks.

Now Nerrhavia was caught between two very angry, very powerful groups. The royal courts were abuzz, the higher echelons heaved with unrest, and Queen Yisame had an ulcer.

She poked at her stomach and felt a wave of pain radiating upwards from her guts. Nevermind that her body was sewn with Kisquiel Silk, a royal cloth from the origin of their kingdom, looted from Nerrhavia’s own coffers—no. The same silk that gave Queen Yisame such unparalleled radiance, grace, and splendor did nothing to fix her stomach problems. She stared at her glorious, bronzed skin-cloth, treated daily with dozens of alchemical substances to keep it supple and young, and made a face.

Servant! I require a replacement stomach.”

Yisame delicately plucked the string knot around her guts, and the beautifully concealed thread came away. Royal she might be, but every Stitch-Person was used to changing their body. In a trice, Yisame had the offending stomach, stitched of the same Kisquiel Silk, out and felt the hollow feeling she knew all too well.

“Your Majesty! The [Chiurgeon]—”

“I have no time! Do not summon her!”

Yisame replaced her stomach before something happened. You could live a while without a stomach—a long time, actually. But the problem with a missing organ was that your body began to feel its absence. Unlike Dullahans and whatever spatial-bending powers they had where they could detach limbs, Stitch-People’s organs just…went missing.

If Yisame had broken her fast, it might have come out into her inner abdomen. What a mess. Of course, she could have replaced almost every organ with ease—except her heart, a dangerous operation—but they would each have to be individually cleaned, and carefully replaced so their absence didn’t harm her.

At any rate, Yisame felt better when her new stomach was installed. She glowered at her old one.

“I have an ulcer. Have it mended and reinforced.”

“Yes, your Majesty!”

The servant took the piece of cloth sewn to look identical to a stomach away, to be ‘healed’ by a [Chiurgeon of Cloth]—or just a [Seamstress]. Of course, it was easy to repair internal organs with thread, rather than potions, but the tradeoff was that a poorly-stitched stomach lining could burst. A poorly shaped one, or one made of inferior materials had different qualities; poorer digestion, or just different capabilities.

“I have heard that Hemps can consume even tree bark. Is that so? I shall breakfast now.”

Yisame stretched, as one of her handmaidens stitched her stomach closed with deft movements. Another discreetly signalled the rest of her royal staff to heat and have the sumptuous breakfast out and ready by the time she exited her bedroom.

“I have heard it said they can even eat rocks, your Majesty. Such…crude cloth.”

One of the [Servants] murmured. Servant she was, but the Nerrhavia’s Fallen Stitch-girl was still made of silk, the costliest and highest-caste of Stitch-Folk.

Three castes. Hemp, Cotton, and Silk. Of course, you could be made from any cloth, but they were in three categories. Hemp were laborers, common soldiers. Cotton were everything from merchants to artisans to whatever they wanted to be. Silk?

Silk ruled in grace and style. Silk was beautiful, strong. Simply superior. And Queen Yisame ruled over Nerrhavia’s Fallen, one of, nay, the greatest Stitch-Folk Kingdom in the world.

…She was having a bad day. A bad week.

Her stomach began hurting again before breakfast was even over.

 

—-

 

Oh, see the exalted courts of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, built in glory on the backbone of tyrants.

Literally, if the rumors were to be believed. Nerrhavia, that old tyrant who had ruled the lands now taking her name, had gone to her grave when all was lost, depriving her enemies of the ability to hold her to account in life or death for her actions. Her tomb had thusly been buried beneath the capital’s sewers and other infrastructure. A fitting end.

What had emerged from that time was a kingdom of Stitch-Folk like no other. Which is what they all said, but Nerrhavia’s Fallen meant it this time. It was rich beyond belief, fed by countless territories, protected by armies with hundreds of thousands of [Soldiers], and was tributed more wealth still.

Like any good nation, the capital was thusly the crown jewel of said wealth. That was not what made Nerrhavia’s Fallen unique, however. What made it unique was the people that had risen to this height of power.

Stitch-Folk were not Human. The String People were shaped like Humans, but that was ‘humanoid’, and the half-Elves said that Humans had copied Elves anyways. Dullahans, Centaurs…it was a common look. Yet it came out culturally a lot different.

Drakes built their famous Walled Cities when they stood in the heyday of their power. Bastions of defense and control. Literal giant vaults they could hide behind and hoard treasures in.

Humans? Humans had the archetypal castles and palaces which you saw everywhere. Gleaming façades, ballrooms, a certain predilection towards wide open spaces where someone could sit above it all on a gleaming throne.

Where Nerrhavia’s Fallen differed was in the very design and component parts of what they treasured. From afar, the palace where Queen Yisame walked looked almost…wrong.

Why did it twist so, offended, foreign [Architects] asked? Why didn’t you build a straight tower? Why did you use wood rather than stone in sections of your building, and create these aggravating complexities in every design—sometimes violating the very blueprints you set down—to accommodate for material? If a tree trunk, cut almost wholesale, skews left, then cut the damn tree and make it straight!

Of course, that just exposed their ignorance. Yes, Nerrhavia’s Fallen had curved structures. Yes, everything wasn’t straight. And that was because Stitch-Folk believed the material mattered as much as the design.

Fabric bent. You could quarry a block of stone to be a perfect geometrical cube. And if you did? Did you ignore the stronger seam, the natural strength of the rock waiting to be exposed? A tree’s natural curves were sometimes better than a plank of wood.

Thus, they contrived to build entire towers that curved in the air, just ever-so-slightly, but which viewed from afar, alarmed anyone who had never seen them, as if they might fall over. Hallways were not all straight lines. The entire effect was to create a palace that sometimes felt as alive as any [Druid]-building.

Not to mention, a certain nod to complementary materials. Some idiots chose marble and slapped it down everywhere because ‘marble was rich.’

Queen Yisame passed through one of her sitting rooms where she liked to escape the heat, and was glad her Kisquiel Silk-skin was rated against minor elements; otherwise her feet would have chilled on the Frostwood floor, which remained cool and cooled the room at all hours, even in the arid heat.

“Is there any news from Khelt? Any…other events of note?”

Yisame’s staff flurried about her as the [Queen] broke her fast and dressed, all grumpily upset. Quail eggs were the least expensive ingredient sourced for her breakfast, which, if she but clicked her fingers, could be one of a hundred different styles from around the world.

Of course, she ate in Nerrhavia’s Fallen’s own style, as her [Servants] would surely gossip and relate a change in her diet. This was not the time to be anything less than patriotic, so the date jams, customary flatbreads topped with soft goat cheeses, and the like were her fare. Not much meat in the mornings.

Yisame could have really done away with the thirty-minute breakfast, or if she did take her time, fewer [Servants] about. Mainly because they were not her bosom friends, stitched of the same cloth, childhood confidants, but spies and informants who played their own games in the palace. So she ate like a [Queen] as a [Servant] fussed about.

“This poor [Servant] has not heard of any important events of note, your Majesty. However, we are but the humblest of your attendants. Perhaps the royal courts know far more than we?”

The narked look the [Queen] gave the [Servant] said quite clearly that she knew the staff heard everything of value ahead of time. But then, Yisame supposed that meant any grand developments were secret, so only her [Spymaster] and the top echelons of her court would have heard of it.

Some good news, at least. Yisame sighed and rose. As she did, wearing a regal dress of Shockwool, the air around her changed. Her servants drew back.

…Mainly because the dress would give them a damn good zap if they got close. But also because the [Queen] was about.

“We shall attend the courts anon. Prepare the way.”

Yisame changed to the royal ‘we’, a custom whenever she was in public. She rose a [Queen], and swept into the hub of the palace, where gossip and politics ruled.

…It took her fifteen minutes to get there. Nevermind that it was not far from her chambers; the real issue was that Yisame did not just walk into the royal courts.

She had to be announced. Royalty did not just skip about, poking their heads into rooms. First, the [Head Maid] informed the [Chamberlain] or other representative, who had a [Herald] announce her coming in the court. The first time. When she actually entered, she was announced again, and all present bowed.

Yisame, by custom, took her seat not on the grandest throne in her throne room, but a lesser throne, seats marked only for the royal family or ruler in all such locations. From the outdoor pools to the courts, positively alive as nobility, officials, and people of power sat at tables, gossiped in wending hallways, or dined on the capital’s riches, there was a seat for Yisame. She never jumped in the pool.

And oh, she wanted to jump in the pool. Yisame had seen children doing it, but not once had she done the same, even as a girl.

She sat on the Seat of Words, the enchanted, actually fairly comfortable seat on which she could listen to the court’s gossip. With it, she could focus and pick out a fly’s buzzing across the vast chamber, even behind the low-rise walls that made her courtroom almost like a vast bazaar, complete with ‘restaurants’ where people could eat at any time.

It was always full, even at night. Yisame heard a lot of innocuous talk, but as always, the best conversation, the truly juicy tidbits and plotting were absent. The problem was…she sat on the Seat of Words, which allowed her to hear anything she chose.

Everyone knew that, so they cast [Silence] or other privacy spells to keep the important conversations private. Rather, if you were smart at all, the really vital talk was never discussed in the palace’s public areas. You found a room you had already screened for spells, invisible watchers, peepholes, and then jogged into the city and had your conversation in a hole in the ground because everyone was listening.

In the same way, everyone watched Yisame. The [Queen] waited for the first of her court, her advisors, her [Strategists], top [Generals] and so on to approach her. There would be a pecking order of the day, a scheme to watch for and abet or aid. Yisame would have to keep her focus. After all…

The real power of Nerrhavia’s Fallen was the throne. Of course. But the throne was held up by powerful people. And if they rocked, Yisame might well fall from grace. It had happened before.

The [Queen] smiled as her [Spymaster], a powerful Stitch-man who had a golden hand—literally, Truegold embedded in the fingertips—greeted her and whispered in her ear. He had served as the top [Spy] in the previous [Spymaster]’s employ, and then murdered her in her sleep.

Three of her great [Generals] vied to talk to her about Khelt, each one with an army under the crown’s authority…but who were quite, quite loyal to the [Generals] above said crown. She treated with the [Chancellor of Coin], whose power over the mint and a vast amount of wealth meant that he could lean on any [Merchant] in Nerrhavia, and had an army of his own guards of the treasury. Her [Royal Magician] was a powerful woman who had survived…had it been over a hundred assassination attempts? Yes, they’d thrown her a party.

The power behind the throne. In a way, Nerrhavia’s Fallen was more typical of a monarchy than many nations popping up in the news. Of course, there were absolute tyrannies like Khelt in its way, or places where the [King] was undisputed, like Reim. However, in practice, many rulers had to treat with powerful underlings with some degree of care. Even a mighty [Queen] could suffer a rebellion of the nobility.

Nerrhavia’s Fallen? Well. Sometimes the crown was mighty, sometimes it walked with care. Yisame was on the lower end of average when it came to the crown’s power. That was to say, she was a principal player in any power move, and she was [Queen], not puppet on the throne. But she did listen when her advisors spoke.

Such as Khelt, or the war in Tiqr, or…well, every event you could name, really. Yisame had gone to the meeting at Pomle knowing her court’s stance on the war—knowing Tiqr would likely be the target everyone aimed at. She had tried to stop the idiotic Terandrians on the advice of her [Diplomats] and [Generals], both groups united in their fear of Khelt.

Her inner circle of the powerful ‘helped’ her decide what to do. Yisame threw her weight behind those she found more trustworthy, actions that might enrich her own position. And when the nation trembled, or made a mistake, when Alked Fellbow resigned or Djinni attacked a sovereign [King]?

She took that fall.

 

—-

 

The Level 22 [Queen] was in her mid-forties. Her levels in her ruling class belied her ability to navigate the day’s treachery. She felt every eye on her, and so relaxed, despite the two terrible indictments to her rule. Her dress of Shockwool made the air around her hum, a reminder to anyone who stood close.

There is still power here. Obvious as Stitch-metaphors went, but sometimes you needed to be obvious.

“…And we expect to cut off the Lord of the Skies from Reim shortly. Hellios has yet to burn with full rebellion, but many cities have taken up arms. We intend to strike at the King of Destruction as he lies wounded.”

One of her [Generals], Thelican, spoke for a smiling circle of his peers. Yisame smiled.

“This pleases us. We await the head of the King of Destruction, General Thelican. Your name shall be writ large in the history books ere he falls.”

Thelican beamed—then his eyes flickered. Yisame smiled graciously as he bowed, a touch uneasily.

A lot could go on in a few words. She did not say ‘you promised Hellios would instantly rebel’, rather than the lackluster revolts she had seen so far. Yisame let Thelican take credit for the war plan—by mentioning his name, and potential for glory, she implicated him in the fall.

Of course, if all of Nerrhavia’s Fallen’s glorious hordes failed to defeat the King of Destruction, she, Yisame, would be in greater danger still. The [Queen]’s stomach hurt.

“Your Majesty, I have uncovered three plots against your life.”

Three. Her [Spymaster] was good. Perhaps they were just symbolic plots…but everyone was whispering. Yisame could hear it, now and then.

“The Djinni…”

“…on the news…”

She flicked open a hand-fan. It was beneath a [Queen] to fan herself, of course; she had servants to do that if she wished, although the courts were cooled quite well. It was a signal.

Her [Spymaster] hurried back over, frowning in vexation. He approached the throne.

“Your Majesty?”

“We did not converse on a topic that had slipped my mind. What of the…Drake? A suitable reprimand is in order, yes?”

“It is still in progress, Great Queen. The Drake cities are not easy to infiltrate, and she lies under the aegis of the Cyclops of Pallass.”

That was not what Yisame wanted to hear, and she gave the [Spymaster] a thin glare. Just so people knew she was upset. She could not afford to truly insult or offend him, but it might set a fire under his rear.

That Drake. That…Yisame stewed as she continued her court. It had all been going so well, a week ago!

 

—-

 

A week ago, Yisame had felt like [Queen] of everything. That was before the Djinni debacle, and Alked’s departure. She had been riding high, and from what?

The Arbiter Queen’s conclave, of course. That had been Yisame’s crowning glory. Her, deliberating on the fate of that wretched fool from Belchan! Holding her own among her peers, displaying Nerrhavia’s Fallen’s wisdom!

Dead gods, but she had felt alive when she saw people replaying scenes of her, and everyone, everyone talking about her. Not just the court, not just her people, but the world’s watchers. Her gesture, the single thumb pointed down, had been made into several sculptures and paintings widely-circulated.

She had three copies in her room.

Then…that Drake and the Djinni incident. Yisame hadn’t predicted it. She’d been so happy to be interviewed on the news she had demanded to speak personally to Drassi, of whom she had been quite enamoured with.

…Right up until the [Reporter] had made her a laughingstock in a twenty-minute interview so painful that Yisame wanted to rip out the stitches along her ears and pluck out her eyes whenever someone so much as brought it up!

No one was even allowed to say Drassi’s name anymore. That Drake would suffer, naturally. Even aside from Yisame herself, she had insulted all of Nerrhavia’s Fallen by making them look foolish. But the damage was done.

“Today’s court has tired us. We shall return to our rooms and rest. Not to be disturbed.

The servants bowed as Yisame returned to her quarters, tired after three hours of managing the day’s affairs. It was really the least she could get away with. Three hours was not long, but she had put out immediate fires, shown her face—now she could run away.

As she had feared, the vultures were out. Circling like hyena packs, trying to see if now was the time to undermine her, or simply reduce her power. Her supporters weren’t leaving her, but…oh, it was not fun.

Such was Queen Yisame’s life. One of the most powerful rulers of a superpower, constantly plagued by stomach pain and juggling factions and praying they were not steering her into a mistake.

Not atypical. Not special.

Certainly not high-level as a [Queen] went. Yisame knew her [Servants] were right in the waiting rooms, probably gossiping about her, maybe even mocking her behind her back.

If she raised her voice, they would hear her and attend her every need. Since Yisame did not want them listening in at this moment for gossip, she twisted a ring on her finger.

[Complete Silence] enveloped the rooms. Accordingly, Yisame thought she saw a slight shadow behind the doors to her rooms vanish; a [Servant] sulking off. Yisame waited a beat. She knew her rooms were warded; her people were not incompetent and protected her.

Nevertheless…there were things she wanted to keep secret. The [Queen] walked over, found a chair, and wedged it under the handle of the door. She closed the curtains herself. She sat in the cool darkness, and her pulse spiked a bit.

Queen Yisame of Nerrhavia’s Fallen…had a secret. Of course, everyone knew she had a secret. Monarchs all had their foibles. Still…still. What they ‘knew’ varied.

For instance, common-folk knew that Yisame sometimes visited the gladiator arenas and had a favorite—the current Champion of Champions, the title for Nerrhavia’s Fallen’s greatest gladiator in the capital. They were always favored by royalty, or how else would they be the best?

No less than Mars the Illusionist had once come from that very arena, and Yisame sometimes was seen in disguise, watching the battles.

That was, of course, made up. Propaganda spread around. Yisame didn’t really care for the current Champion of Champions, a quite showy Centaur woman. So what people ‘knew’ was wrong.

They thought they knew her passions, her debauched pleasures and sinful little secrets. Some things her [Spymaster] made up. Some things Yisame let spread. The truth was…a lot of what people assumed a [Queen] would do were wrong.

Yes, you could hire the greatest [Courtesan] in all of Nerrhavia’s Fallen to provide you with service and unimaginable pleasure. Any species! The greatest Skills in the art of sensuality. Yisame had done that.

She had also taken other pleasures. She had done everything someone with her means would, experimented, indulged herself. The problem was…it got old. The most high-level [Courtesan] ran out of tricks the eighth time you met with them.

A Potion of Divine Sensation did its work every time you drank it, even if the Drakes refused to produce it anymore. It got old. Drugs lost their kick; they were addictive, but not unique.

Everything became…boring. Boring, because Yisame could have anything she wanted. If she were poorer, less influential…

“Ah, to be less than Silk! To have…challenges.”

The [Queen] lay on her bed, filled with enchantments and protective spells worth more than some of her lesser nobility’s entire fortunes combined, and bemoaned her fate. Then she rose, whisper-quiet despite the ring on her finger glowing with soft, dark iron light, and walked to a corner of her room.

Her private chambers were already large enough to play a soccer game in. Not at the highest tower of Nerrhavia’s palace—royalty got tired of the commute—but in the center of that grand place. Accordingly…Yisame traced a finger across a bookshelf, found a bound volume conspicuously a bit worn.

The Secrets of Monarchs. She rolled her eyes. Whoever had designed this mechanism to begin with had a sense of humor. She pulled it, and the entire bookshelf promptly…vanished.

A powerful illusion spell that revealed one of the secret passages known to litter the palace. This one was not connected to the other chambers or hidden hallways; it was for the ruler alone.

…Of course, the [Spymaster] knew it existed. The [Servants] knew Yisame tip-toed down there. They probably monitored the local teleportation spell or secret passage out of her private rooms to make sure she was safe if she went out ‘in secrecy.’

Yisame did not do any of these things. She descended the smooth walkway carved of a single tree, stepping lightly over glowing steps that revealed malign spells on her and were keyed to only let her through. She passed through trap spells rendered inactive by her royal rings. And emerged into the place her predecessors had built.

Secret indulgences. Dark secrets. Everything a monarch might…desire…and revel in, where no one was able to see them.

It was a big room. Altogether too…padded…for Yisame’s taste. But then, at least it was stain-proof. And had its own silencing spells.

Every time she came down here, she had to stare at the giant phallus in the center.

“Who used this? Did anyone use it?”

Yisame walked around it. It was bigger than she was! This…sex dungeon…could have accomodated a hundred pairs quite easily. It had. She walked past an empty pool just ready to be filled with any gel or other liquid you desired. A rather, rather large bed with completely different enchantments to her royal one above. Ones to enhance any acts committed on it.

There were things in this room that Yisame had needed to look up the usage of. Every kind of strap, piece of furniture, brush, harness, stone, cord…well. It was just as well no one came down here but her, or someone might know the Queen had dark passions.

Yisame poked a gelatinous mold of an intimate part of someone’s body. It kept wobbling for nearly three minutes afterwards.

Her [Spymaster] knew this place existed. Her servants did, too. They did not speak of it openly. Some secrets were just too important to spill, and their heads were on the line if anyone were to know of it. They abetted the [Queen]’s passions, occasionally smuggling in people for assignations. Sometimes someone had to come down here to clean everything up.

Yisame circled the room. She did not pause long on the many objects she was, by now, familiar with. When she did stop, she stopped next to one of the less striking objects present.

A…Centaur’s phallus attached to a life-sized model hanging in the corner of the room. Yisame reached out, grasped it—and yanked hard.

The fake sexual instrument of great, and perhaps fatal, pleasures clicked as it moved downwards. Yisame turned as a second wall slid open, revealing a second secret passage, this one going straight out. She walked through.

The thing about secret dens of debauchery was that everyone expected the first one. Yisame and her predecessors weren’t idiots.

The second chamber led to an inner sanctuary. A secret lair that was actually a good deal less pristine than the sex dungeon that the servants regularly cleaned. Not that it was filthy! It was just that whoever used it had to clean up after themselves and Yisame didn’t often sweep the minute dust and whatnot she tracked in.

The second room looked more like an [Alchemist]’s laboratory. It held neatly-tended to plants, vials of dust, potions…Yisame stopped to admire the first vial.

Selphid’s Dust. A powerful, and highly illegal narcotic. She stared at it, and then some of the other drugs she had sampled in her youth. She eyed an entire drawer of various kinds of Dreamleaf products.

She walked on, through the den, with the padded places to lounge, snacks, treats, and ran her finger down the rows of bottles. She found one, and pulled at it. Then she walked into the hallway again and took the third secret passageway, sighing mightily.

Her [Spymaster] knew that the sex dungeon wasn’t actually used. Yisame suspected he was aware of the room of drugs and other illicit pleasures. If he had ever made it to the third chamber, well…he’d left it there. After all, one look at the glittering chess board, pieces carved out of gemstones, and the magical, glowing surface, revealed Yisame’s true passion.

Chess! And if that didn’t fool her people, then the skein of magical yarn and knitting needles would. The half-completed Paterskein design spoke to something they would believe—that Yisame liked to knit! A scandalous, but completely understandable pastime for a [Queen]. Despite being above it all, she was still thread like they were.

She had a subscription to Chess Weekly that was covertly delivered to her rooms, and she sometimes dropped subtle hints about fabric. All this for secrecy. All this so they wouldn’t know her true passion. Yisame tip-toed around the gemstone chess board. She had custom-bought a nasty trap spell and set it up at the entrance; her [Spymaster] probably looked at the trap, the chessboard, assumed she was the Titan’s opponent or styled herself as such, and let her be. Same with her servants who might uncover this place, if any.

The truth was…Yisame was not good at chess. She was not about to indulge in a life of sweaty, flailing limbs. She had a drug of her own, but it wasn’t Selphid’s Dust. But it was potent.

Her hands trembled as if she was still addicted to Fabledust. Yisame glanced over her shoulder, then, at last, pushed past the simple curtain she’d hung up to hide the final, and true room she liked to visit. She spread her arms and sighed.

The room was a humble one compared to many of her residences; still larger than most middle-class families’ homes. Hollowed out of the palace, the walls were a mis-match of many different building materials. Into the room sparse furniture had been interjected; a desk and chair. And…a cushioned, stuffed orb of jaguar fur that Yisame could sink into, the better to indulge her passions. It was comfy, and sat only a few feet in front of the door.

Beyond it lay what she had come for. Her great secret. The room was filled, not with furniture, but with shelves.

Shelves and shelves of…books.

Queen Yisame, the Level 22 [Queen] and Level 27 [Avid Reader], clapped her hands together and sighed. She could feel the stress oozing out of her. She wandered her private library of books, mostly fiction, or historical adventure stories, and smiled.

 

—-

 

Books. Books, books, books. They were food for the soul. One of the few things a monarch with unlimited power might indulge in, really.

Another answer once you got over the stereotypes of sex, drugs, war, and so on, might be ‘pets’. Yisame had considered it, but they just weren’t as fascinating to her as they were to some of her peers.

And some of them, like Sariant Lambs, she just would not tolerate. She hated the manipulative little things. They were a match for her royal court.

Books? Books were something Yisame could buy, but not replicate in any way but to read them. They were stories, and such stories that she could envision herself doing.

Climbing the High Passes, waging glorious battle with boon companions, sailing through stormy seas as Krakens tried to consume ship and crew alike!

She just loved to read. And it was reading which kept her sane. For instance, as she had sat on the Seat of Words, holding court, Yisame’s smile and patient observation of her court had hidden what was really going on in her head.

 

Thivian Stormless, the Lightning Thief, dove as the rain of arrows from the Lamias’ bows struck down around him and his companions. Not one touched the Dullahan [Mercenary], He’re, much to her disbelief. She had been prepared for death, but she saw the Lightning Thief hold up an armful of arrows and dump them at their feet. Not even the enchanted arrowheads had detonated!

“Dead gods, but I hate stealing arrows. Let’s get out of here before they do it again!”

He panted, and the two raced down the battlements as the confused Lamias, shouting for him to return the Eye of Baleros, loaded a second volley onto their bows and sent them whistling through the air. Thivian outpaced He’re as he ran, dodging over the cleared ground for the forest. The Dullahan, swearing, looked back just in time to see an arrow arcing towards her back. She threw up her shield and shouted—

 

Queen Yisame was re-reading one of her favorite books. The Lightning Thief and the Eye of Baleros, a somewhat-accurate retelling of the actual [Thief], Thivian Stormless.

She had been playing the passage out in her head during the boring court. Now, Yisame ‘loaded’ enough of the story in her mind to replay later. Her eyes flickered across the page, such that she kept turning the book’s pages every second.

She was not reading the book, so much as memorizing it. Yisame was a Level 27 [Avid Reader]. A class few people even knew existed, and at her level?

[Flash Memorization: Literature]. She closed the book after five minutes, and let the four hundred page drama rest in her mind. She would actually read it later.

[Automatic Recitation: Literature]. That was how she could hear the tale in her head, blow by blow, when she was sitting on a throne and dying as someone read out a proclamation, or letting people parade her about, or travelling or…anything.

The trick was keeping her face from revealing what was happening. Yisame could do that, though. And oh, books!

Now she had her day-reading material set up, Yisame reached for the books she’d actually read in her time off. If she was lucky, no one would disturb her for a few hours. At least! She pulled out the latest book she’d had smuggled in with one of the [Prostitutes] who often just took naps in the sex dungeon. They knew the score.

“Here it is. The latest installment. Is it…? Yes!

The Queen delightedly waved the book about. She’d heard the [Book Merchant] was in town, and this one was hot off the [Scribe]’s quills. It even had artwork! She read the back of the book eagerly.

 

Presenting sixteen tales from around the world, from the first-hand account of the Stargnoll herself, Lehra Ruinstrider, to accounts of the Dauntless Pack’s last voyage into the Depthless Dungeon by a survivor of the expedition.

This book also includes a retelling of ‘The Village of the Dead raid’, as recounted by survivors, and a summary of the last, heroic stand of the Horns of Hammerad!

 

Tales of Adventure and Woe, an ongoing book series. This was Book #31,129, proudly labelled on the spine.

Yes, there had been that many books. No, no one had a complete collection or even close! There were re-prints, unauthorized publishers, and redactions of false stories. But it was one of the few things that remained past the collapse of civilization.

Adventurer stories. Yisame debated cracking it open right away, but she had six books ongoing and she wasn’t sure she wanted to indulge herself just yet.

She could devour a book in a day, but she liked to savor books. Re-read them. Replay them in her head during dull moments. And this one? Oh, this one was topical. Yisame flitted around, collected her currently-read books and settled back in the beanbag, which was really a Sariant-Lamb-wool-bag.

The thing most people didn’t realize was that a [Reader] was above ordinary readers. Dead gods, most people didn’t even read for fun that much! If your city had a library, it was already something. A child might have a single book or two they would read, and perhaps adults read a few books, their own Tales of Adventure and Woe if they could afford to splurge now and then.

They were not [Readers]. Yisame had Skills that enhanced the act of reading. She could replay stories. And also…

 

The Thief of Clouds is a noteworthy new [Thief]; this humble [Writer] cannot yet identify more than a few salient facts.

 

Krsysl Wordsmith loved to call himself a ‘humble writer’. Yisame rolled her eyes, delicately shaded around the eyelids and corners, and adjusted her regal dress. She kicked a slipper halfway across her private library after two tries.

 

Nevertheless, we can paint a picture of this young [Thief]; he comes from the Great Plains, hence the sizable bounty already on his head from both Drake cities and the Gnolls of the wild. His first noticeable thefts were about four years ago, while the famous incident that named him ‘Thief of Clouds’ occured only a year back.

Eye-witnesses paint him as a slim Gnoll, with a greyish fur often described as mixed with a forest brown, or a russet red tinge. He has not, as of yet, lost limbs or taken noticeable scars over his fur, but what is striking, according to those who claim to have met him, is how athletic he is.

Famous [Thieves] have been notoriously less than limber, but the Thief of Clouds can run up the wall of a Drake city, leap from rooftop to rooftop while avoiding the Watch, and even clear gaps with jumping Skills.

One account I have taken down describes his antics like this:

“I thought he was flying at first, you see. He went up the side of a building so fast everyone thought he was using a Ring of Levitation or something. It turns out he was using these little handholds—barely larger than my claw! Just pulling himself up faster than the Watch could run on the ground. Then he waved at us, jumped, as bold as you like, and dashed off across the rooftops!”

From this, we can gather that the Thief of Clouds makes up for a lack of stealth or a certain acumen with the lockpicks with sheer, blinding speed and escapism. Which certainly fits his pattern of thefts…

 

Yisame was reading from People to Watch, Issue #22, by Krsysl Wordsmith. A book that listed high-level people around the world. It was going to come out faster now; apparently it would join the new phenomenon of the smaller magazines. Yisame, as a loyal customer, didn’t know if she liked that; the fat bindings were delightful, even if the Drake [Author] did go on and focused on Izril a lot.

At any rate. It was not just because Yisame loved to read about [Thieves]—and she did—that she had picked up that book before the adventure story she so dearly wanted to read.

She wanted to use one of her Skills. She sat back, thinking on her beloved Lightning Thief, and this new Thief of Clouds.

There was always the great [Thief] of any age. Like [Bandits], like anyone, really. Bloodfeast Raiders were the talk of Izril, the Thief of Clouds was the rising star to match the Lightning Thief, and Chandrar had its own set of famous criminals and rogues. However, to the reader who read the sensationalized accounts, Yisame had an obvious question.

Who was the better [Thief]? Now, obviously this ‘Thief of Clouds’ had not been seen explicitly stealing something as fast-moving and deadly as lightning. Yet Yisame wondered if, just maybe, the Thief of Clouds had ancillary Skills that would triumph over a direct-theft [Thief] like the famous Lightning Thief. What if…if say, the Thief of Clouds had been hired to steal the Eye of Baleros back from Thivian Stormless?

Yisame tried to imagine it, conjuring her own rough image of the Lightning Thief—as a Stitch-man, though she knew he was Human—and a Gnoll as athletic as the story said. And Baleros? She imagined…a jungle. A rocky fortress, angry Lamias with bows…

It wasn’t good. It wasn’t complete; she had never been to Baleros, but seen images. Lamias and Gnolls weren’t as familiar to her. If you asked Yisame what armor Thivian Stormless was wearing, if any at all, if he had shoes, and so on, she wouldn’t have been able to tell you. Her imagination focused on what mattered.

And her Skill filled in all the gaps.

[Sublime Daydream].

Suddenly, Yisame smelled Baleros. It was wet. Rain had just fallen and it was on the thick vegetation. She could inhale the rich plant matter, some decaying from the heavy rainfall, feel the earth under her one bare foot, missing the slipper. She felt something try to bite her, and swatted it away. Just in time to see—

Who are you?

Thivian Stormless leapt to one side, swearing, head turning as angry Lamias screamed, aiming bows at him. Yet the Gnoll who had blurred forwards made them hold their fire. He had a fearless grin, and was far younger than the Lightning Thief.

The Thief of Clouds. Yisame saw the Dullahan, He’re, turning, bogged down in the wet terrain.

“Who’s this, Thivian? You’re not paying me to fight another adventurer!”

“He’s not an adventurer. He’s—”

The Lightning Thief cursed, and suddenly thick fog—no, a cloud—rolled over everything. The wet haze made Yisame stumble forwards to see. She saw two shapes burst through the fog, hands blurring.

“The Thief of Clouds!”

Thivian shouted, enraged. Yisame gasped as the two emerged, hands locked around a single glowing object that shone like a lighthouse’s magical beacon.

The Eye of Baleros.

 

—-

 

Of course, it wasn’t the actual Eye of Baleros, and that had never happened. It was a daydream. Yisame made up their appearances and Skills, but even so, it was like she had been there.

For seventeen glorious minutes, Yisame watched the two [Thieves] clash, filling in the Skills they might have, what might occur, with what she’d read about them. Then it ended and she sat up.

“So…so amazing. [Cloudburst Theft]! That might be a Skill! And when he grabs the Eye of Baleros…”

She strode over to the desk in her library, sat down, and furiously began to scribble down some of the things she’d seen. Yisame was a [Queen], a [Reader], and…a [Writer].

Level 8. Nothing special. She wrote her own adventure stories. Nothing published…not even close to that. But sometimes it burst out of her and she could not help but put it down to words. She hadn’t even shown the [Reader]-[Prostitute] who smuggled her books her writings on Thivian; Yisame had written a lot on the Lightning Thief.

The point was, this was what Yisame lived for each day. Imagining great adventures, losing herself in the printed word.

She wanted to be Level 30. She wanted it so bad she could almost taste the new Skill she might get.

The problem for Yisame was that she could not use her Skill on her own meager writings; there were limits. As a low-level [Reader], many of her Skills were confined to ‘literature’, which meant bound and sold books of a distribution of at least 1,000. Esoteric tomes, spellbooks, were also out of reach. For now.

Someday, though, she’d make her own writings come to life. Yisame envisioned her [Sublime Daydream] Skill lasting for an hour, maybe even letting her interact with the stories, rather than be the observer. When she had first gotten it, bugs hadn’t bitten her; there had been only sight and sound, not smell and feel.

Mind you, she had some, ah, guilty pleasures. Yisame blushed to think of it, but there was a section of more licentious tales, some hearsay, some actually based on fiction. Her Skills worked on those books, but the truth was, she was now addicted to stories in her time.

The Lightning Thief was all very well and good and she got a good hour out of painstakingly writing her new story idea down, but she went back to Book #31,129 of Tales of Adventure and Woe. She flipped through it, bookmarking the Stargnoll for later, until she came to the part she had personally witnessed on the scrying orb.

The Last Stand of the Horns of Hammerad. A Village of the Dead short story by Heartslayi.

Yisame frowned at the name. There were two Village of the Dead stories, one by an Izrilian [Author] who had apparently interviewed the teams and had blow-by-blow accounts. She was less interested in that, having re-watched the battle many times.

This? This was…fiction. Yes, definitely. ‘Heartslayi’ was a new [Writer] that Yisame didn’t like. Mainly because her works had been turning up in books like this. She wrote romantic fiction. Yisame wrote her own fiction, but she had yet to get the Lightning Thief short stories published. ‘Sandquen’ was her pen-name, incidentally.

“Hmf. So. What has she written this time?

Yisame critically opened the short story. One of her Skills activated.

[Total Immersion: Literature].

And then she was there. Rain was falling over the Village of the Dead. Because she had seen them, heard their voices, Yvlon, Pisces, Ksmvr, and Ceria were all there, right in front of her.

Yisame experienced the scene on one level like that. On the other, she was still reading the words set down by the writer. Quality did matter, so bad writing could take you out of the story, just like good writing took you in. She saw the four look back.

The undead were coming. The bone giants, zombies, and Draugr were flooding back the way they’d come. A vast, writhing mass—a Wailing Pit rose up, voices singing in discordant harmony. The Horns were wounded, determined to reach the center. Yet…all that remained in the center was a greater death.

Undead with glowing eyes rose out of the ground. A vast skeleton Dragon landed, roaring, and the Gold-rank team saw there was no way out. Undead from behind. Undead ahead. The Antinium, Ksmvr, spoke, resting a hand on his shortsword.

“I shall serve until I fall, my boon friends. Go ahead without me. Comrade Pisces, what are you doing?”

His head turned. The Antinium blinked as the [Necromancer], Pisces, in his torn white robes, broke away from the romantic kiss with the golden-haired woman with silver arms. Their tempestuous embrace broke away as…

Yisame blinked. What?

“What?”

 

As the [Necromancer] lustily made out with his oft-hated foe, the [Knight] broke away, her cheeks flushed carmine with desire and the illegality of their actions. It was the wisest of the four, the half-Elf, who stole her gaze skyward again.

“I will hold off the undead. Go! Run, you fools! Run!”

 

Her envisioning of the scene…broke apart as Heartslayi’s account failed to match up with what she, Yisame, believed of the group. Clearly, the [Necromancer] and [Knight]—Yvlon? She wasn’t a [Knight]!—were in a love affair that only came to the fore in this last hour.

They died in each other’s embraces; the [Necromancer] and [Knight], as the brave Antinium fell last of all, taking his own life as he realized his companions were gone and there was nothing to protect. Yisame stared at the book.

“I hate you, Heartslayi. That’s not what happened! The—they clearly weren’t in love! It’s Ksmvr and Yvlon! That’s the true pairing! You—you—!”

She raised the book to throw it, then put it down. Sourly, Yisame looked around. She needed some wine.

 

—-

 

Not all books were winners. Yisame read as she sipped wine on her little sofa-seat. The book floated open in front of her, and the automatic page-turning spell flipped pages whenever she flicked a finger.

Not having to hold a book meant you really could read at full leisure. This was the decadence of wealth. Rich-reading.

The [Queen] sometimes wished all she needed to do was read. That she was a [Queen] of such a powerful nation meant this was only a hobby, for all it was something she was levelled highly in.

In time, she would have to designate an heir, even if she herself never married, and oh, there had been attempts which she had beaten back. She might be deposed, her power might wane…Yisame’s goal was to reach a ‘retirement’ that did not involve her death. And that was not a given, especially because a former [Queen] was a liability unless you made absolutely sure she would never come back.

She had been born into the wrong life. Not just because it didn’t allow her time to read. Also because her dreams of these glorious heroes and protagonists of their stories were dashed. Because she was one of the few people who could actually meet the very people who were written about. That was a poor thing, incidentally.

Never meet the heroes you read about. They were never as charming, as grand, as…brilliant as they seemed. Yisame knew this because she had read of the wrathful, yet visionary [Bandit Queen] who had taken over a nation. A water-wielding genius who had been expelled from Wistram, whose younger sister was one of the greatest [Pirates] in the world!

That was the book’s account. Yisame’s personal, first-hand experience? Less exciting. The Siren of Savere in real life was a [Thug], not some grand sorceress supreme, just like her sister was a…[Pirate]. Not a [Pirate Queen] of yore.

The King of Destruction…Yisame thought of him and closed her eyes bitterly.

She had met him as a girl and he had seemed the stuff of stories. When he rode through Nerrhavia’s Fallen with his armies, he had been the legend in flesh. The man to unite Chandrar, to make other continents tremble. She had needed no books then, but she had read every story of him and been a fan.

Many Stitch-Folk had, Yisame believed. They had loved him.

Right until he fell into his slumber and his kingdom shattered and put her in fear of her life. Half her family had died in the chaos; the suzerain, her step-uncle had tried to shield her. Or had he been treacherous as rumor said?

People suffered because when the King of Destruction abandoned his dream, everything collapsed. Yisame had lived through days of actual backstabbing, fought and wormed her way into the throne as her family died or fell victim to their own schemes. In a way, her survival had been because she had retreated to read books rather than make gigantic plays that backfired. The squabbling factions had seen a decent leader in her and backed her, rather than let the disorder doom everyone. And that had led to…now, really.

Her sister was a prisoner in her own palace and arguably happier than Yisame. Her step-brothers, all three of them, were formally abdicated [Princes], each of whom had sprawling families with tenuous claims to the throne. It wasn’t bad mostly; it was just life as usual in Nerrhavia’s Fallen.

But the cracks were starting to show. Yisame’s two latest failures, neither of which was really her fault, might be her death or downfall. She had seen it happen before.

Yisame’s eyes watered. She didn’t want that. She saw herself lying in bed, a dagger protruding from between her breasts, open-mouthed, vacantly staring upwards like her mother. She didn’t want to die.

She wanted to live and read books and…experience the truth of them. Just once. She wanted to live a story like the ones she loved. But she was too powerful.

Empress Nsiia, the Empress of Beasts had been there when the King of Destruction rode on conquest; had even fought by his side as a girl. There were stories of her, too. The wild queen who rode a Grand Elephant and was as great a warrior as she was beloved.

She had been almost the stuff of stories, dashing, fearless. Yisame had feared she would not be, but the one time they had met face-to-face at Pomle, she had been what the stories made of her.

If only Yisame had not looked at her and seen how she held a story’s life in her hands. And for Nerrhavia, the courts, her own safety…she had damned Tiqr. There was no choice.

“I should not be more powerful than stories.”

The [Queen] whispered quietly. In those times, when she seemed too much a giant in her own skin, she went far back. Before the modern day, and pulled out the truly old books she had collected. Her hands trembled as she touched a book so old the protective enchantments had faded, been restored, faded, and been restored many times over. She opened it and read aloud, trying to see the faded, mostly destroyed artwork.

They gathered in grave conclave, the Dragonlords four. Never again would so many come together. Not once; nevermore.

She wished she knew what was actually said. They were Dragons, yes. Chandrar’s mortal enemies, tyrants, of a surety. Yisame stroked the book’s binding. Even so. She read the next passage.

So came he of wrath and greatest fame. The arrogant, kind, Dragonlord of Flame. Teriarch be his name.

Old stories. But no one lived who knew such names, beyond the written word.

…Well, maybe the Quarass did. But the last one hadn’t been the wise ruler of a thousand souls. She had been a wretched woman.

The [Queen] sighed, closed her eyes, and closed the book. She loved this place. But inevitably—

She had work to do.

 

—-

 

Yisame lounged on the throne, replaying a book in her head. She was so bored that the Seat of Words barely contained her; she was threatening to slump out of it.

“Perhaps a refreshment in the water would suit your Majesty?”

Unless you give me a book, go drown yourself in the pool. Yisame smiled at one of her ‘friends’, the [Emira] Desulte.

“We are concerned with the affairs of the state. Now is not the time to relax, regretfully.”

It looked bad if she relaxed while everyone was struggling to replace Alked Fellbow. Yes, he was one Named Adventurer, but he was the one who killed so many monsters that it freed up [Soldiers] for the armies. But because no one valued him enough, he was gone! Hemp or not, this was not Yisame’s fault, but whoever decided to pay him less than the Silk adventurers!

She had never even met the Named Adventurer. Yisame listened to the bickering, hiding her glower behind a smile.

Then, as if someone had done a [Flying Jump Kick] to her face, Yisame started. She rose slightly from her throne as one of the many conversations she generally ignored permeated her ears.

What?

“Did someone mention the…Antinium presence in Illivere?”

Those around her looked confused and Yisame realized the Seat of Words had amplified a distant conversation. She honed in on the speakers, a pair of young nobles.

“…Prince Zenol is returning. Since he isn’t a Named Adventurer, he must have a good excuse.”

Yisame heard the two snigger and recalled that one of the many [Princes] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen had been at the Village of the Dead. The young man sipped from a cup.

“I am telling you, it must be the Antinium in Illivere truly is that one from Izril! The Village of the Dead’s raid! What was its name?”

Ksmvr. Ksmvr of the Horns of Hammerad. [Skirmisher]. Prognugator of the Free Antinium, exceptionally interesting, probably in a relationship with Yvlon Byres.

“Kiss—Kisel? Ksmever? I don’t know their wretched names, Lamistu. So that thing actually survived? But why Illivere? Couldn’t it be another one?”

Ksmvr!

Yisame’s eyes opened wide. The young man scratched at his chin as she opened her fan with a snap. One of her [Attendants] looked up and hurried over.

“Well, maybe the Human in the Arena of Rust really is the same one. Silver Arm. The recording’s something, isn’t it? Here, let me figure out how you ‘re-play’ it…”

“Your Majesty?”

The [Attendant] leaned over. Yisame whispered behind the fan.

“Those two over there. The two young men. They are watching something and referred to an ‘Antinium in Illivere’. Find out what that is. Fetch me a recording.”

The [Attendant] blinked, but bowed at once and hurried to find the [Captain of the Royal Guard]. Yisame watched her actions send a ripple through the court.

She was interested in the two young men, which meant everyone else was. They broke off their conversation as a beaming [Emir] strode over. Startled, they glanced at the throne, and began to whisper, confused, nervous. More figures turned from their conversations as word spread that Queen Yisame wanted to know what was happening. By the time the [Captain of the Royal Guard] made his way over to enquire, the topic of court had shifted.

“Your Majesty is interested in Illivere today?”

The [Spymaster] approached Yisame’s throne cautiously. He took it to be a sign she was redirecting conversation politically towards Illivere. Yisame could almost see his brain working.

Was she making a move to have Nsiia’s captivity shifted to Nerrhavia by making the Illivere topic a priority? Was it that or deflecting from the Djinni debacle? Perhaps—had she decided to transfer the Tiqr occupation forces to Illivere for concessions, say, Golems?

Yisame just wanted to know about Ksmvr.

“We are told an Antinium has appeared in Illivere, [Spymaster] Zenm. That surely cannot be, can it?”

His eyes flickered, trying to keep up with her machinations. In the end, he smiled warily.

“…Of course. We had brought it up, I believe, but the Djinni-incident occurred around the same time. A single Antinium. An adventurer.”

“From the Village of the Dead? Truly?”

Had she missed it by zoning out all the time? Yisame’s interest disconcerted the [Spymaster]. It was clearly feigned, but what was she up to? He bobbed a nod.

“Of course, your Majesty. I can present you with all the relevant documents. I do believe it is the same adventurer from the Village of the Dead—Magus-Crafter Femithain seems to believe so, at any rate.”

“We see. Then we shall peruse a full report within the hour, [Spymaster].”

She waved him away. The man’s jaw opened and closed; he hadn’t expected her to actually ask for a report. He hurried away, trying to figure out what this betokened. The rest of the other factions watched, equally wary, as Yisame was presented with what the two young men had been looking at.

“A recording of the gladiatorial events, Your Majesty. The Arena of Rust, I believe. A smaller arena.”

“We do so enjoy watching such sports, my loyal [Captain]. Pray, play it before us all.”

The [Royal Captain] raised his brows; he was aware Yisame hated the gladiator matches since he never had to escort her to any. But it fit with the court’s image of her, so many people gathered to watch. Yisame stared down at a recording and then her eyes nearly popped out of their sockets. She nearly removed one to check the stitching.

The one-armed woman charged the Champion of Rust, screaming so loud it was faintly audible over the roar of the crowd. Her arms morphed into silver pincushions. Yisame saw Yvlon Byres staring at her blood-soaked hand as the stunned audience looked down at her.

Then the [Silversteel Armsmistress] turned. The recording of her first bout, freshly copied over to the palace that day, showed what happened next.

Yvlon Byres let the Champion of Rust flee back to the gates. She dragged up his axe, raised it overhead, and to the stunned [Gladiators], prisoners, and crowd, bellowed up at the sky.

I am Yvlon Byres of the Horns of Hammerad! I have been unjustly imprisoned! Come hither and lie about my deeds, attack me, or slander me and I will rip your heads off in self-defense, you spineless cowards.

So saying, she raised the enchanted axe overhead—and began to charge the remaining [Gladiators]. Her two companions stared after her as the [Armsmistress], who had just defeated the Champion of Rust, went after the rest.

The [Gladiators] of the Arena of Rust took one look at her and ran for it. So did the prisoners. Yisame watched for a good minute as the Human woman ran around the arena, chasing a school of frightened fish—some of whom tried to climb the walls of the arena to escape.

“Silver-Killer! Silver-Killer!”

Yvlon Byres only gave up when the crowd, cheering her name, began to applaud. She stomped towards the gates, tossing the axe down to wild cheering.

“This—this was this morning?”

The Queen’s voice trembled slightly. The rest of the court was chuckling; some looked bored, others connected the events at the Village of the Dead and were mildly interested. Yisame?

The [Queen] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen looked at the angry Human. The very angry woman whose entire reaction to surviving a raid and near-death scenario and being teleported across the world somehow was to come out swinging, spitting hellfire and vengeance and trying to push everyone’s face in within arm’s reach.

She was…everything Yisame wanted at this moment. She was an attitude in and of herself.

And another disaster waiting to happen. If one of the Horns of Hammerad—no, two—were in Chandrar and one was a [Gladiator] in an arena shouting she was falsely imprisoned? It was going to be another bad look.

Yisame thought about all this in the time it took her hand-fan to lazily waft scented air at her face two times. Then she smiled.

“How entertaining. We do so enjoy such displays. Commend the two who brought such entertainments to court. We should focus on such great martial displays. After all, did not Mars the Illusionist come from the arenas? Let us look for talent there.

The court susurrated. People exchanged glances. Oho! So that was the [Queen]’s plan, was it? A few [Generals] murmured. Replace Named Adventurers and train up their [Gladiators] into war-leaders? Not a bad plan.

How savvy. A clear response to the Fellbow crisis. Yisame smiled knowingly as her court turned on her words. She waited an hour, replaying her favorite writings on The Knights of House Byres and the Silver Dragon in her head. Then she made her real move.

 

—-

 

The [Chancellor of Coin] was not a fool. Like everyone he employed truth spells as a matter of course. Yisame knew that. So when she lied, she did it with the truth. That was basic.

“I am having the [Spymaster] investigate the issue, Chancellor. However, I would hate for it to be another crisis in this fraught time.”

She used ‘I’ as a sign of familiarity, and because they were holding an intimate court. The [Chancellor] nodded, eyes flickering to her, to the [Royal Captain], and back to Yisame.

“Naturally, your Majesty.”

“I would like you to look into it. I am certain the [Spymaster] prefers to work alone, and he has expressed a desire to keep the affairs of state separate, but…”

The [Spymaster] and [Chancellor of Coin] were long-time rivals. They sometimes clashed, and the [Chancellor]’s twitch made Yisame smile. He thought the [Spymaster] had asked her to keep it private and the [Queen] was simply worried.

Lies in truth.

“Ah…I respect the [Spymaster]’s will, your Majesty. But if it harkens to the affairs of coin—it is only natural my people should be involved.”

“So I believe! And so I will say to him. But…”

Yisame trailed off delicately. The [Chancellor] was practically dancing to rush off.

“Which—which affair are you speaking of, your Majesty?”

He did not like to admit he didn’t know. Yisame feigned surprise.

“The…Horns of Hammerad incident? Miss Yvlon Byres? We cannot have a world-famous Gold-rank adventurer falsely imprisoned. I heard…mm…a [Magistrate] was involved?”

Her information networks were far, far weaker than either the [Chancellor]’s or her [Spymaster]’s, but Yisame could still trace the criminal links that had put Yvlon in court and assigned her to the Arena of Rust. She did not mention Magistrate Ducaz.

She did not have to. The [Chancellor]’s eyes narrowed. If a [Magistrate], technically in his domain, was to be found to be corrupt, the [Spymaster] would certainly use it against him.

“I thank you for your concern, your Majesty. Rest assured, my people will look into it. Please inform the [Spymaster] that this is an affair of the treasury and…”

Yisame tuned him out. She smiled, nodded, saw him practically sprint off to cover his back, and then summoned the [Spymaster] in her private bedchamber. The first thing she did was turn to him with a worried frown.

“Zenm, I promised the Chancellor of Coin that I would leave this matter to him, but the situation with the adventurer concerns me.”

The [Spymaster] blinked, then hurried to reassure Yisame that he would of course look into…what was the [Chancellor of Coin] claiming he was doing, again? He was gone so fast Yisame thought she saw an afterimage.

The [Queen] stretched, then rang a bell for one of her servants. Her heart was beating so fast she thought she was reading a thrilling adventure novel. Yet she was in the middle of one. She was not a helpless [Queen].

One of her [Servants] appeared, bewildered; Yisame would normally have been resting at this hour, or rather, reading a book.

“Your Majesty?”

“It is time, Esxeria.”

“T-time, your Majesty?”

The [Attendant] was confused. Yisame clapped her hands, smiling regally. The thing about lies and perception was that sometimes…you could do exactly what people expected you to.

“I have a mind to visit the arenas. In disguise. Have the [Royal Captain] prepare a suitable escort. And fetch me the [Arena Master]. I have heard of a wonderful new [Gladiator]…”

Her heart was pounding so very quickly. The [Avid Reader] rose.

Stories. A story had landed in her kingdom. All thoughts of treachery, danger, were forgotten. She was just the reader who got to meet the truth behind the legends. She had to know. Were all the Horns of Hammerad alive? What had passed, truly passed, in the Village of the Dead? Had they reclaimed any treasure? Was it just Yvlon and Ksmvr, or were there more?

What would happen next?

 

—-

 

Yvlon Byres, the Silver-Killer, Silver Arm, the Champion of Rust, and Gold-rank adventurer or something…sat in her crappy cell next to Rexel and Leprel. They were upset. Yvlon was upset, but that was because she was sick, clogged up, and feverish. She sat, grinding her teeth, until she had to say it.

“Hey. Rexel. Aren’t we supposed to be rich and famous by now?”

Yvlon’s sarcastic tone made the [Storm Bandit] jump. Rexel opened her mouth—then had to glare.

“We would be, if you didn’t try to punch the [Guards] and the [Arena Master]!”

Yvlon folded her arms—well, she folded her metal arm across the chest and made a similar pose with her jagged metal arm. It was regrowing—but very slowly. She could morph it into a weapon, but it took energy and concentration.

And she was sick. Tired. And she didn’t like this cell. Mind you—at least it was quiet.

The [Prisoners] and low-ranked [Gladiators] all stared at Yvlon in silence. The Silver-Killer had left a mark in her debut battle. It just hadn’t elevated her as Rexel and Leprel had hoped.

“You had to attack the guards! You just had to! We’re not even sponsored!”

Leprel moaned. Yvlon twitched.

“So? I beat the Champion of Rust.”

“You poked out his eye and stabbed him! That’s not the same as killing!

The Human woman hesitated.

“…That’s not bad enough?”

“It’s just an eye. He can replace it in a minute!”

The [Armsmistress] and the [Thief] clearly had different views on serious wounds. Yvlon remembered—Stitch-Folk. She growled.

“But I did beat him.”

“He’s alive. He’ll exact vengeance. Next time he’ll have you cuffed or fight you in a flooded match. With a bow, while you have lead weights around your ankle. You should have stopped after you beat him! Now everyone’s your enemy.”

Rexel rocked back and forth. Her stomach hurt, but that was nothing compared to Yvlon. The Gold-rank adventurer knew she wasn’t well.

“…We’ll figure it out. I was…angry.”

Yvlon muttered. She stared around the cell. The [Gambler], the third prisoner whose name Yvlon kept forgetting, was squeezed into a corner as if trying to get out.

“I’m not going to hurt you. You can stop doing that.”

“I—I—I know that!”

The [Gambler] tried to smile at Yvlon. The blonde-haired woman sighed. She tried to smile, but the grimace of pain made her glare. She stood up and everyone in the cell flinched. But Yvlon just rapped on the cell’s bars.

“Hey. I need to use the restroom.”

An [Arena Guard] came by quickly. The prisoners watched in silence as Yvlon was led out in wooden handcuffs, with a nervous squad around her. Only when the Silver Menace was gone did they begin talking.

“She’s going to snap. You’re going to get us all killed, Rexel. Oh, dead gods, why did I trust you?”

Leprel moaned, banging her head on the floor. Rexel was licking her lips.

“We can still survive. She’s sick—we need a [Healer]! But we can’t get one because she messed up any chance of getting a patron!”

“Hasn’t she gone six times today?”

One of the new [Gladiators] in the cell across from theirs called out nervously. Not in actual sympathy for Yvlon; more like a fellow prisoner trapped in a room with a ticking time bomb. Rexel nodded.

“I think she’s in trouble.”

“What happens if something gives?”

“…In the toilet?”

“No. What happens if she snaps?”

The gladiators in their cells thought about that. Silently, they began looking for holes to enlarge, or escape holes for when the Silver-Killer went on her rampage.

 

—-

 

Of all the unpleasant things to happen to her, Yvlon would have said ‘getting my arm ripped off’ or ‘fighting a rot-monster undead in the Village of the Dead’ was one of the most traumatic.

Somehow, though, not being able to have a sufficient bowel movement—any bowel movement—was quickly moving up the list. It was not something you talked about in polite conversation. But the truth was…

Nothing was coming out. And it had been days. Yvlon had not participated in a match after the first debut. So…two days of training and acclimation here, plus a day and a half of transit. Plus another day and into mid-morning today…

“Damn it.”

She was sweating, clutching her stomach, and sitting in the stinking privy for the low-class [Gladiators]. Yvlon Byres hated a lot of things.

The Champion of Rust. The arena. Her imprisonment.

And her new class. [Gladiator]. Level 3! It made no sense. She was already a [Warrior]—getting a second class in that vein shouldn’t happen.

It was because she had to be one. Yvlon gritted her teeth.

Dead gods damn it! I’m going to kill something!

A woman sitting in the stall next to Yvlon was finding it very hard to do her own business. It was like…trying to pee next to a rabid bear with a silver arm. In theory it was easy, but not right next to one. She rapped on the stall next to hers.

“Can we trade places—?”

“No. Shut up!

Yvlon Byres sat there for another minute. Then three. She heard a tinkling sound. She could drink and pass water, but…she thought she knew exactly what the problem was. The problem was…something had to come out or she’d die! This was not how she wanted to die, but the Champion of Rust was still alive! She was sick, missing an arm, her team was gone and she couldn’t—even—

Graaaaaaaah!

The wham in the bathroom made the [Guards] and [Gladiators] sharing the space all jump. The [Gladiator] in the stall next to Yvlon’s stared at the metal fist that had just punched through the wood next to her face.

She fled screaming at the top of her lungs. Yvlon Byres sat in her stall as the others were evacuated. She emerged a minute later as the very nervous guards took her back to her cell.

No joy. So it was with the worst mood possible she saw the [Arena Master], standing behind a double-rank of [Gladiators] and [Guards], trying to smile at Yvlon.

“Ah, the Silver Arm herself. Good, good. These two are part of your team, yes?”

Rexel and Leprel were standing in front of the guards; the [Gambler] was hiding in her cell. Yvlon froze. Her hand clenched and the others tensed.

“What are you doing with them?”

The [Arena Master]’s smile was sweaty. He edged behind the largest [Gladiator] and called out.

“Calm, Silver Arm! Calm. It is not time for an arena match yet. You may not even be fighting in my Arena, thank Nerrhavia’s grave. Just…come with us.”

Yvlon Byres’ eyes narrowed dangerously. She was on the edge of everything snapping. Death might come for her since the [Guards] and [Gladiators] were all armed and her entire body wasn’t made of silversteel, but…she gritted her teeth so hard they nearly cracked.

“What are you doing with us, then?”

She tensed—

 

—-

 

—And poked the duvet bedspread again. Yvlon Byres stared at the window with glass, no bars, and then at Rexel and Leprel.

“What?”

“That’s your room, Silver Killer! Yvlon! This one’s mine—look at all the food!

The [Storm Bandit] turned [Gladiator] danced about, laughing. Yvlon stared at the table full of delicacies, then at the only indication this was even a cell; the enchanted door at the far end.

“But why?”

“A patron! Someone saw the battle! We have a patron!

Leprel explained again. The [Thief] was dripping with water; she’d bathed for the first time since being caught. With scented soaps and shampoos!

Patron. A [Gladiator]’s patron. Someone had seen Yvlon fight, reached out to the [Arena Master] and…suddenly their fortunes had changed. Yvlon stared around the comfy suite, for the highest-class [Gladiators] in the Arena of Rust.

Leprel and Rexel had been afforded the same suite, as they were on Yvlon’s ‘team’. They’d been ready to deny all connections with her, but it seemed their faith had been rewarded. The [Thief] and [Storm Bandit] were high-fiving, investigating their quarters…Rexel gasped.

“They even have spare parts! Look!”

She had found some pieces of cloth. Arms, legs—a [Gladiator]’s replacement bodyparts. Some were higher-quality than her own cloth, so she began trying to undo the strings on her arm.

“Leprel, help me put this arm on! It looks way better than mine!”

“I hope this is to your satisfaction, Miss Byres?”

A voice from the door made all three turn. Rexel and Leprel stopped and Yvlon looked at the [Arena Master]. He was still wary of her, but he smiled with all the insincerity in his body.

“Thank you for the accommodations.”

Yvlon meant not a word herself, but the Stitch-man just grinned at her.

“A [Patron] was very generous. I would advise you to rest up and take full advantage of the facilities of the Arena of Rust, Miss Byres. It will not last long.”

The [Armsmistress] felt a warning tinge in her stomach—or maybe it was just another sign she needed relief.

“Why not?”

“Because you will not be fighting in my arena. Oh, no. You have been elevated. The capital’s arena waits for you after what you did to the Champion of Rust.”

Leprel and Rexel’s faces were awestruck and terrified. Yvlon just grunted.

“Wonderful. More comfort for more danger?”

The [Arena Master] shook his head. He was an older man, in his sixties. He gave Yvlon an insulted look past faded eyes and his own scars.

“Many would die for such a chance. You are an adventurer, aren’t you, Miss Yvlon? In the capital’s arena, there is ample chance for glory and improvement. Even a Gold-rank adventurer might petition to join the ranks of the [Gladiators] there! You can win more than freedom; last three matches and you could well free yourself! For the best, glory and great treasures await. Permanent employment! Fame! Mars the Illusionist came from those very sands!”

His little speech made Yvlon blink. Only three matches? The [Arena Master] snorted at her expression.

“Do you think the [Gladiators] there are [Slaves]? You may not like my arena, Silver Arm. But you have a Patron and bested the Champion of Rust. Try to enjoy the amenities. Oh—and as proof, here. That is for you.”

He pointed around the suite the three had been given. Spare bedrooms, bathing rooms, a stocked larder, even a kitchen and quick access to anything the [Gladiators] wanted, from a massage to training and personal [Trainers] and so on. Yvlon Byres looked past the table set with treats like caviar from the sea and a fat, roasted duck, to a single stoppered bottle. As the [Arena Master] stepped out, she walked over to it and read the note left there.

Potion of Incontinence. If it does not work, a [Healer] will attend to you.

Rexel peered over her shoulder and whistled.

“Wow. [Alchemists] do make everything.

 

—-

 

The thing was…she was in better condition than before. Yvlon stopped sweating. She found…relief.

Rexel and Leprel decided to eat with the other [Gladiators] and give Yvlon a lot of space, especially since the woman didn’t emerge from the bathroom where she had been located for over forty minutes. They decided they did not want to hear, smell, or see anything. Especially after they heard her muttering.

Gah. This is disgusting. I’m—

I regret everything.

Dead gods. This—is not—

Yes, it was disgusting. Yes, you could be immature about it and make jokes. It was a fact of life. The fact that Yvlon took all the soaps that had been provided, buckets of water for her bath, and spent nearly an hour and twenty minutes in the bathroom was testament to the ordeal.

Not least, of reaching into that hole and fishing around. Gagging, laboriously washing, washing, washing, and regretting every decision that had brought her that far. Yet…it had been necessary.

Magistrate Ducaz was a bastard. Poor luck had landed Yvlon in his clutches. He had wanted to steal her treasures, but of course, he had found none. Even after an invasive strip search.

He hadn’t found anything but the magical items that were her gear; paltry compared to what he wanted to have found. And the magic in Yvlon herself.

She boiled some water and rinsed everything, including herself, a sixth time. Yvlon breathed out, a shuddering breath.

“If it had been one day earlier, and I had to explain this in the mass jail…”

She had her mysterious benefactor to thank, she supposed. Yvlon felt calmer. She shook her head. Ducaz had clearly not read enough books on adventurer basics, because he’d fallen for one of the oldest tricks in their books. Not that Yvlon had ever met anyone who’d actually pulled off the routine, but…

It turned out swallowing relic-class artifacts was not a fun ordeal. Passing them? Yvlon forbore comment.

Nevertheless. She stared at the pair of magical rings and two spell scrolls that were absolutely clean, and somehow, undamaged from their long voyage. Yvlon Byres remembered where she’d seen them last.

Right on the workbench belonging to the greatest [Necromancer] of his era. The Putrid One.

Everyone had stolen something. Yvlon Byres’ eyes glinted. She wondered where she’d hide the two rings and scrolls next. Swallowing them…no. Not again. She wasn’t willing to try out any of the four, even if she could activate them.

Even so. She clenched one hand.

“This had better be important. Or I am going to kill…someone.”

She sat in her glorified cell, waiting for a time to get back to the people and things that mattered. Yvlon Byres had no notion that her story had already changed. Or rather, an enthusiastic [Reader] was helping her reach her full…potential.

The Silver-Killer had a fan. She also needed a better nickname.

 

—-

 

It was how they saw you that mattered. Almost as much as who you were. Which was insulting, if you thought about it. Sometimes people thought you were a hero or better than you actually were. More evil, too. They had an image in their heads and if you weren’t 100% spot on, they got mad. As if it was your fault, not theirs.

What did they see you as? What did you want to be seen as?

One of the Horns of Hammerad sometimes thought about that. She had her own fan. Someone who looked at her with wide eyes, as if they were looking at a walking legend. Which she was to this little place. But he expected her to do something…she had no idea what.

The rest of her team could have answered him better. In the time she’d spent healing, resting, rebuilding her damaged source of power, she imagined her team would have done more.

Yvlon—Yvlon would have probably been lifting entire houses with her arm, demonstrating her strength in some way. Or just have stormed off within a day of nearly dying of dehydration and heatstroke.

Pisces would probably have animated half the village of Nerhs’ graveyard, nearly gotten lynched, and then snootily pointed out that now there was free labor and security in that way that made you want to strangle him.

Ksmvr would…annex the nearest local tree for his burgeoning dukedom of trees. Which would take some doing since Ceria had only seen runty little plants, not full trees like back in Izril. Then he would do something strange, like wipe out the [Bandits] that were apparently torching villages. Or whatever was out there.

Ceria gave it a lot of thought. So, on the fourth day of her stay at Nerhs, Luaar, the son of the [Village Head], Novethur, raced over when he saw the crowd around his home.

Boys and girls, the small population of his village in the middle of nowhere, were pointing, seeing something. At last! The half-Elf [Cryomancer] was doing something! Luaar pushed forwards, needing to see. What had she done? Used her ice powers in some fantastic way? Put on the Relic-class artifact? He fought to the front and saw—

Tada! I’m a chipfmunf! Look hfw many I cn fit in my mouf!

Ceria Springwalker turned, cheeks bulging with Yellats. She did indeed resemble a giant half-Elf rodent, and she had fit no less than eight full Yellats in her mouth, to the delight of the children, some of whom were rolling about laughing. The adults too.

Luaar’s betrayed look nearly made a Yellat come out of Ceria’s nose. She thought it was hilarious.

 

—-

 

“Murderer!”

Again, she heard it at night and rose to pace around, restless. Nove, the [Village Head], had given his entire hut over to her, but it was still too small.

She walked out into the cold air of Chandrar at night. Hot by day, and cold by night. At least—she was told it was cold.

Ceria couldn’t tell anymore. She was an [Arctic Cryomancer], and cold swirled around her like an invisible cloak, lowering the temperature of everything in a ten foot radius.

It was ‘cool’ around her at the edge of the invisible bubble, enough so that children sometimes edged over in the baking heat of the day, or the adults working the fields or crafting something—like the wicker baskets out of the tough roots and bushes—asked Ceria to stay and chat.

Closer to her, though, the aura of cold grew unbearably chilly. To the point where it could actually snow if there was enough water. Ceria could alter her aura to shrink or grow, but that took conscious effort. As Nerhs’ people had learned, you could freeze water by placing it next to her, hence their new, ice-based economy.

All of this was fine by Ceria. Freezing people accidentally had been embarrassing, but if she really wanted elbow-room at a table, she got it. She didn’t feel cold anymore, but that was a sign her mastery of ice-magic was deepening. Not a negative like Yvlon talked about her arms.

“Yvlon.”

Ceria exhaled and saw her breath emerge as a plume of frosty mist in the air. She felt…dry. Still tired, but recovering fast from the Village of the Dead. Her body was healing. Well, the healing potion and that Dullahan-adventurer’s light had cured her of her wounds, but Ceria had been riding the back of the Frostmarrow Behemoth, taking earthshaking blows that knocked her about as she repaired it.

Then she’d been fighting the highest-level undead she’d ever seen…the half-Elf winced.

“How am I still in one piece? I should be dead. Or at least, lost another hand.”

She waved around her skeletal hand for emphasis. Ceria stared at the bones, clicking and moving together in the absence of flesh. Now there was something out of stories for Luaar to stare at. And he did.

“I couldn’t get [Iceflesh Hand] or something? Yvlon got two free arms.”

Ceria grumbled. Then she had a thought. Well, technically…

The [Cryomancer] stared at her hand. She pictured skin, a copy of her skin on her other hand, sliding over the bones, mimicking skin. It was a variation of [Frozen Armor], a spell she knew. But far more delicate; rather than a slab of ice, it would have to be ice that flowed and moved every time she wanted to flex her hand.

Exceptionally complicated. Some might call it impossible, because ice was not water, and making it behave like that was foolish.

Yet Ceria had known someone who could do that. With her face, no less. It had always been a bit stilted, but unless you knew Illphres, her old master, you would have been fooled. Colored ice.

Ceria watched as a thin layer of frost crept over her bleached bones. She frowned, bit her lip…

Novethur, watching from the side, saw Ceria shrug and lower her hand. The frost coating it dissipated. She glanced up, and the [Village Head] was too slow to duck back behind the hut.

“Adventurer Springwalker.”

“Master Novethur. Hello. Did I disturb you?”

The man shook his head as Ceria smiled and strolled over.

“Late night watch. All the adults take turns. Especially of late…”

Her eyes flickered. They had turned pale and light blue, like frost itself. Something else that didn’t bother the half-Elf. She was…well, a pleasant guest. She ate a lot of Yellats, but she had been amiable, pleasant, a gracious guest given the poor amenities, and she made everyone laugh.

That was why Novethur didn’t feel wary of asking her what she’d been doing. Ceria rubbed the back of her head, self-consciously. Her features were half-Elven; pointed ears, fine blonde hair—a sense of immortality, only partially captured. She would live far longer than the rest of the village of Humans, unless she died in battle or of sickness.

“That? Oh—something I thought of. Ice replacing skin. It didn’t work.”

“Is it…an advanced spell?”

Novethur, as a [Village Head], had access to a very weak pool of mana, but higher-level [Village Heads] were actually known to be on par with [Hedge Mages]. Ceria shrugged.

“It’s not a spell. Call it…a sign of mastery. I don’t know if there is an enchantment that could permanently replace my skin like that. I can cover myself in ice and create a mask that’s static. Living ice is harder.”

“Living…ice?”

“Frost Elementals. I can create them, and I know there are creatures that are entirely made of ice in the northern lands. Maybe Chandrar too?”

Ceria’s eyes became distant. Novethur couldn’t imagine it; ice was a luxury here, without powerful spellcasters like her. Even having free ice meant his village was now considering refrigeration and eating shaved ice—even selling it to other settlements!

“Is such magic beyond you, then?”

Ceria blinked.

“…No? I can probably do it. Or I’m close…my master could, and she was—higher level than me.”

Her face grew sad and her ears actually drooped a bit. But then Ceria smiled. Novethur recognized that. It was the kind of expression he made, when he talked about his late wife. It did not hurt less. But you had lived a while since then.

“The problem isn’t control or expertise. It’s uh…it’s dry, here.”

Ceria gestured at her hand. Novethur blinked, and got it instantly.

“Ah. It surely is.”

He was used to the sensation, the lack of moisture in the air and static charge that could accumulate. Ceria was not. She kept shocking herself on pieces of metal and she hated the feeling. She licked her lips, grimaced.

“I’m out of my element. Literally. Ice-magic isn’t water-magic—someone from that school would be dying out here. But I need moisture. Most of my spells require some water, even if the ice itself is magical.”

Frustrated, she kicked at the ground. She would have practiced her new [Summon Lesser Frost Elemental] spell if she had the chance. Here?

Novethur bowed slightly, as if this entire region’s lack of water were on him.

“We do have the well, Adventurer Ceria. But…”

“I know. I can sense the water down there. I’m not about to use up your livelihood. And my hand’s fine, see? It’s actually really helpful when you cook. No burns. I can also poke anthills and they do nothing.”

The half-Elf had horrified all of Nerhs by trying their local insect varieties. Well, the children thought it was fascinating. Novethur smiled, and it was genuine.

“Will you be leaving soon, Miss Ceria?”

It was not a random question. The fact that she had the energy to stand up after a day of mild exercise told him she was mending. She had barely been able to keep her eyes open at first. Ceria nodded.

“If I can buy a horse—yes, maybe tomorrow. If not? I’d wait a day or two to get one. I know it’s the ‘adventurer crawls in wounded, rides off into the sunset’ routine, straight out of the book—”

Both of them had read the relevant handbook on adventurer-villager interactions and smiled. Ceria went on.

“—but my team’s out there and I need to find them.”

“I understand. You have been very generous.”

“And you saved my life. If you want more gold…”

Ceria saw the slight shake of the head, and took her hand away from her money pouch. They stood together, half-Elf and [Village Head]. Ceria admired the flat landscape, seemingly inhospitable, and Nerhs itself, in the lee of the hill of dirt and stone that provided enough shelter to live in.

A village with no official ruler. Forsaken. Who would live here all their lives? Was Novethur happy, being king of an anthill?

Ceria knew the answer, at least. She was 65…no, was it 66 years old? She was already forgetting to count. Yes, she had passed some of that time in a half-Elven village, but 60 years was still…sixty years. She was older than the rest of her team put together.

She did not always feel it, but when she stood with the [Village Head], she was older. When she was around Luaar or her team, she was younger. She could be both.

“It is a lovely land. Dry. But your village seems happy.”

“Some of us long for greener, richer lands. More levels. We are content here, though, Miss Ceria.”

Novethur nodded. Ceria’s vision wandered the landscape. She exhaled another cold plume of air which vanished into the violet, almost pitch-black night sky dotted with glowing stars of every color.

“That’s what Humans—not you, the ones in Terandria—never got. Half-Elven villages. People think they’re exotic, beautiful places. Some are. I heard there’s an enclave of my people in Chandrar. Clay Earth or something. Tree rot, I don’t know. I heard they were snide and arrogant. All I know is that my village wasn’t impressive. And the Humans always wondered why we didn’t ‘improve’ it or make it fantastic to live in. Mind you, I ran away, but…”

Novethur was listening, fascinated by the half-Elf from a land apart. She glanced up at him and grinned.

“…They never got that it was fine as it was. Some half-Elves lived centuries drawing water from the same well, rather than having an enchanted bucket or water-conjuring spell.”

The [Village Head] nodded. He understood.

There was more comfortable silence, then Novethur spoke.

“Luaar will be unhappy to see you go. He keeps wishing for you to cast a great magic.”

Ceria’s head turned slightly in the darkness. No torches at night; Novethur’s eyes were adjusted to the darkness, and burning wood was a waste. If they needed a [Light] spell, they would have conjured it, but it could attract unwelcome attention from afar.

“…Do you want me to? I’ve been trying not to show off big magic. Children see that and they run off to be adventurers. I’d rather be the goofy chipmunk.”

The Human man snorted.

“His disappointment will only be for a while. Thank you.”

Ceria nodded. That’s what she’d thought. She listened, with all her might, and stretched her magical senses in every direction. But she saw nothing. At last, she murmured.

“…There’s one more thing. I might stay longer. These…[Bandits]…concern me. And that village. You said no one’s appeared from it? To the northeast?”

Novethur’s stomach lurched and he nodded slowly. His head turned in that direction, but it was far out of eyesight.

“No word. Not that we have the [Mages] to communicate magically, but I have heard of [Bandits]. Perhaps worse?”

He looked at her, but the monster-slaying expert only shrugged.

“I can’t guess from just silence. Lots of monsters could do that. People too.”

“Of course.”

The [Cryomancer]’s eyes glinted. She hesitated as she met Novethur’s eyes.

“I can beat bandits. The question is…am I going to bring down more danger on you by staying? I wasn’t sure, but Novethur—I think something is after me. Either my relic or from the Village of the Dead—someone is calling me ‘murderer’. I can hear it. You know what kind of trouble an adventurer can have following them.”

His skin crawled, and not from the cold. Novethur saw Ceria glance back towards the hut where the circlet she had taken from the Putrid One lay.

“Murderer?”

“Yes. I’m not sure what’s causing it. If you want me to leave tomorrow, I will. I’m happy to fight [Bandits]. But my entire team was nearly killed by the thing in the Village of the Dead. And it’s…still alive. We teleported out using a scroll. I—bet there are more of those scrolls.”

Novethur gulped. He looked at Ceria, but she was content to let him wait, gather her thoughts. In the darkness, the man’s face wasn’t really visible to Ceria. She saw him shift, foot to foot, glance back to his small village of huts. Not a hovel; just not rich. A fine place to live if you wanted that.

At last, he bowed his head.

“Tomorrow might be for the best. My apologies, Miss Ceria.”

She nodded, smiling slightly.

“Tomorrow it is.”

She went back to rest after that, and he went back to watching for threats. On the fourth day, Ceria slept.

On the fifth, the [Bandits] came.

 

—-

 

Festering tree slugs! Tree rot! Pisces’ sniffing nose!”

Ceria’s cursing in the quiet of Novethur’s hut made Luaar less worried, somehow. She was tense, glaring, a wand in her skeletal hand, but not afraid.

He was. The villagers were in their homes—all those who didn’t have a bow, or pitchfork or other weapon. His father had a spear and buckler, and was facing down the [Bandits] who had rode up, nearly thirty strong, and whose leader had dismounted and was a hundred paces outside the village and walking closer.

The first bastard who fires an arrow we will kill! Don’t be stupid, you lot!

There were only thirty, compared to the hundred people of Nerhs, but in terms of a fighting force, they outnumbered and out-levelled the adults who had actual combat classes. Their leader was a bored-looking Stitch-woman who still contrived to stride forwards warily. She had a spiked shield raised; a curious design.

Ceria was hidden with the others, watching as Luaar’s father faced the [Bandits]. She narrowed her eyes.

“That’s a razorcut design.”

“W-what’s that, Adventurer Ceria?”

Luaar had a cutting knife, and he was ready to fight. He tried to make his voice strong, but it kept shaking. The half-Elf glanced at the boy. Her eyes found the knife, his wide-eyed gaze. She nodded at the [Bandit Leader].

“Spikes around the rim. That pointy thing in the center, see?”

Luaar peeked at the rounded shield, which had jagged ‘leaves’ of metal sticking out around the rim and a central spike, just as Ceria said. The half-Elf groused.

“You run into someone with it, then slap them with your shield if you get an opening. It’s like having a shield and a blade. Nasty weapon. Not a good sign she’s got one.”

“Why?”

Ceria was a Gold-rank, wasn’t she? The half-Elf frowned as she stared at the shield.

“…Because the shield breaks constantly. It’s not enchanted. You always break an edge in combat. That shield-spike? Snaps off like you wouldn’t believe. I had a friend…Gerial…he broke it in six battles running. It cost so much to repair he switched to a regular shield.”

Luaar didn’t see why it mattered. Ceria did.

“They’ve got a [Smith] and the resources to maintain a shield like that. Or it’s new. Could be—but their horses look good. No missing saddles, no wear and tear—this is a professional group of [Bandits]. Damn.”

By all accounts, Ksmvr had taken on a decent group of [Bandits], but every seasoned adventurer knew that the quality of outlaws varied. This group? They stood, laughing, talking, but alert. They’d spread out from the village to avoid area-attack spells, and they weren’t whooping or racing about, trying to terrify the people of Nerhs.

It was a competent shakedown. The bandit’s representative stopped as Novethur moved out of the village’s gates.

“We are prepared to defend ourselves if you attack, Miss. Nerhs is a peaceful village, but we will not let you do what you please.”

The [Village Head]’s grip was firm on the spear. The [Bandit Leader] sized him up. She was chewing something, and looked bored. Nevertheless, her tone was brisk.

“[Village Head], are you? Listen up, man. We’re not going to plunder and destroy your village. There’s no point. Heard about a group hitting settlements to the south and west? That’s us. We’ve ‘raided’ nine places before yours and we have three to go to meet quota, so let’s not waste time.”

Novethur hesitated. Ceria blinked, and her eyes narrowed. The leader gestured at the village.

“We don’t want to have to kill you all, burn your bodies, salt the soil, etcetera, etcetera. It’s dangerous for us, and it completely wastes time and money. There’s nothing to squeeze from rubble and dead bodies. If you run us off, and that’s a big ‘if’, we’ll just come back with twice the numbers and burn this place down. So here’s how it’s going to be. We’ll calculate an appropriate fee, you fork it over, and you don’t see us for a few months.”

“You want us to pay you protection?”

Novethur spluttered. The [Bandit] raised her brows. She was already waving someone out of the throng.

“Protection? No, we’re robbing you. Just…what’s the word? Economically. Sustainable robbing.”

“You expect to steal our wealth and expect us to trust you?

An angry [Villager] with a bow had a spot on them from a watchtower—the only one in Nerhs. Ceria winced; the woman had a bead on the [Bandit Leader]…and nine [Bandits] would hit her if a firefight broke out. That watchtower was a death trap.

The [Bandit] had the expression of someone who’d had to do this all week. She slapped her chest.

“Listen. Do you have a truth stone? Tell me you do. You can use it on me, or a Skill. I don’t care. I’m an [Enforcement Raider]—not a [Pillager]. Not a [Ravager] or the classes you don’t want to see. You lot have been off the list of villages we regularly visit every few months for a while. We…sort of forgot you existed but someone found a map. Now we’re collecting. You’ll see us every six months. If you see someone who tries to rob you before that, it’s not us and we’ll probably have to hunt them down and make an example.”

“So…this is protection money?”

Novethur was very confused. The [Enforcement Raider] pinched at the bridge of her nose.

“No. This is a robbery. Protection implies we have to protect you, and the boss would hate that. See—there’s a fine distinction. We run off competitors who’d shake you down because we’ll lose our money if you’re having to pay off multiple groups. But we’re not protecting you from monster attacks or anything. Robbery. If you report it to the Adventurer’s Guild, please say ‘robbery’.”

Ceria Springwalker’s jaw was hanging open. This was the strangest raid she’d ever seen. Luaar himself was peeking out at the weird [Bandits], who were in their way, as disappointing as the adventurer. The bandit’s leader was arguing with Novethur and some of the other [Villagers] who had lost some of their fear due to the strange demands.

“No, shut up. This isn’t a negotiation. We kill you if you resist, got it? It’s just that we’re not stealing everything because you’d fight to the death! Dead gods, I hate doing this with new places. Hey! Where’s the coin-counter? Tell them what they owe and it’ll be simpler!”

Someone scurried out of the ranks of [Bandits] with distinctly less of a dangerous look. A woman complained as she carried an abacus.

“I’m not part of this! They make me do this! I am so sorry—

The [Enforcement Raider] aimed a kick at the woman.

“Shut up. See this? This is our [Corrupted Accountant]. She’ll calculate how much you can afford to give.”

“I’m not corrupt! I’m doing this under duress!

“It’s just a word. And it is your class. Shut up. I have a headache and we have to go to two more villages after this! Twenty miles away by nightfall and then all the way back for a handful of gold…”

The woman with the abacus was using Skills and peering around the village. Novethur, who had been looking back at Ceria in hiding, and at the [Bandits], started. He stared at the [Enforcement Raider].

“You—you came from the south? Not the north?”

The leader was yawning and checking the [Accountant]’s figures and grimacing. She glanced up as she leaned on the other woman.

No, no. I know you pulled their baseline income for this year, and that’s not worth the ride out here. I can smell they’ve got actual gold, somehow. Try their income for this month. See? Much higher. Why is that? Figure out what’s different because if we miss out on actual gold—what was that?”

She turned from the discussion of pillaging economics with her underling and frowned at Novethur. He licked his lips.

“You didn’t raid the villages to the north? Two are…the two you’re visiting. Merral-Devith and…?”

“I have no idea. Hey, what’s the name of the village we’re hitting next?

The [Enforcement Raider] shouted back at her group and turned to face Novethur, suddenly alert.

“What’s wrong with those villages? Someone else hit them?”

He pressed his lips together. The [Enforcement Raider] took a step forwards—reconsidered as the villagers lifted their weapons—and went back to the [Accountant].

“See here. If there’s something to the north we don’t want to run into, tell us now and we’ll give you a discount on the first robbery. What is it? Monsters? Other [Bandits]?”

Novethur was glancing at the other [Villagers]. He was listening to the numbers the [Accountant] was muttering and they were not pleasant ones to imagine paying. On the other hand, she wasn’t aware of the half-Elf hiding in his home. Ceria could gift them enough gold to more than make up for this extortion. So Novethur lowered his spear, signalling for the others to do the same. He made up his mind. Fighting was a last resort, and if they were from where he thought, and if their ‘boss’ was truly…

“We don’t know what came from the north. Two villages have gone silent. We thought it was other [Bandits].”

“Not in our territory. Damn.

The [Enforcement Raider] cursed. She looked north, and the [Bandits] groaned.

“Boss! Don’t tell me we’re checking it out?”

“That’s our job. Alright. Draw lots for scouting. Hey, idiot, got the sum for us to grab yet? I want a camp set up and scouts—we’re not going into those villages blind. Give them a ten gold discount for the info. Let’s just rob these people, get moving and—”

No one is robbing anyone.

A voice rang out from the village. Novethur closed his eyes. Ceria Springwalker started. She looked up from her crouched position. Then she swore.

Luaar, no—

The boy was standing outside the hut, furious, holding his knife. He waved it at the [Bandits].

“You can’t steal our gold! You’re—you’re not stealing anything! We have a protector!”

“Luaar, get inside!”

Novethur shouted. His hand tightened on his spear, but the [Enforcement Raider]’s hand was already in the air.

“No one make a stupid move. There’s always the snotty brat. We’re not going to kill him, so weapons down!

She barked it at Nerhs’ villagers. The [Bandits] hadn’t even moved. Novethur breathed as his head swung back to the [Bandits]. But Luaar was furious. He just saw the [Bandits]. He pointed at the hut where Ceria was hiding.

We have a protector! Don’t you dare threaten us or a Gold-rank adventurer will kill you all! She’s a powerful ice mage and—ulp—

That last sound was because someone had tossed a cup at him from inside the hut and smacked the back of Luaar’s head. The boy staggered, whirled around, and looked shocked. No one emerged from the hut, but the reaction on the [Bandits]’ side was dramatic.

The [Enforcement Raider]’s eyes had opened wide at the words ‘Gold-rank adventurer’. By the time Ceria threw the cup, she was halfway back to her group.

Ambush? It’s a damned adventurer—

“Hold on! Hold on, it could be a bluff! Scatter! You heard him!”

“[Cryomancer]? Here?

By the time Ceria emerged, cursing, the [Bandits] had spread out even further, flanking the village around the hills. The [Enforcement Raider] took one look at Ceria and bellowed.

Back it up! It’s a Goldie!

The [Bandits] instantly retreated another fifty feet. Ceria groaned. They could tell she was Gold-rank—probably some kind of threat-based Skill. And they weren’t running, which meant they’d fought Gold-ranks before.

She strode towards the gates of the village, but Luaar, dragged inside by one of the [Villagers], did not see what he had been expecting. In his head, the half-Elf faced down the [Bandits], hair blowing in the breeze, wand in her skeletal hand glowing with magic as they fled—or fought and then fled.

In reality? Ceria Springwalker poked her head around the gate, keeping her entire body behind the dirt walls.

Hey! I’m a Gold-rank adventurer! That’s right! Get lost! Neither of us wants to fight, right?

The [Enforcement Raider] stared at Ceria’s head as it ducked back. She bellowed back.

How many of you are there? Were you hired to go after us?

That’s a secret! Attack and you’ll find out!

“The boy said just one. Sounds like a solo adventurer, boss. [Cryomancer] in this dry weather? Good as dead. We don’t even need to call in reinforcements.”

A [Bandit Markswoman] opined. The [Enforcement Raider] nodded.

You’re alone, Goldie! You heard us! We’re not here to kill anyone! Just let us take our money and go! Don’t make this hard!

This village is under my protection!

A fist was extended and shaken in the air a few times.

For how long?

“…What?

The [Enforcement Raider] took a swig of water to bellow again.

How long? You run us off and we’ll come back and take vengeance! You kill us and two hundred will be back! Just drop it! It’s too hot to fight!

She waited as the half-Elf thought about it.

“…How about you skip this village once? Then you can come back in uh, six—four months!

“Oh, come on.”

The [Enforcement Raider] grumbled. There was a cry of consternation from inside the village. The bandits looked at each other.

“Sort of tempting, boss.”

“If she’s going to wipe us out…you can’t trust adventurers. They’re crazy.”

Their leader rolled her eyes. No one wanted a fight, she was sure. That Gold-rank had been hiding until that brat outed her. She snapped at her companions.

Our boss will kill us all if we do that. No deal, Goldie! Just let us collect…fourteen gold coins? Hey, that’s not bad. Fourteen gold coins! You can probably pay that yourself!

It was a reasonable request. There was a pause, then—

Fourteen gold coins? I’m not paying—back off or I’ll blast you to pieces! Want a taste of this? [Fireball]!”

“Oh shit, scatter—

The [Enforcement Raider] saw the flash of light from the wand poking around the gate. She screamed an order, but then realized it was clearly a warning shot. The [Fireball] was aimed at the ground fifty feet away from the [Bandits].

A glowing orb of woven fire coalesced with incredible speed and ferocity. A blazing ball of light arced up and landed, whereupon the fiery strands expanded, creating an explosion of flame and light. The [Fireball]—conjured by an expert [Mage], not someone who had to take half a minute or longer that the [Enforcement Raider] was used to among her people—detonated, and the thump of air and roar of sound echoed around off the hill Nerhs stood under.

Bang.

The [Bandits] got up from their cover, or stopped riding away. They looked back at the unfamiliar, weak sound that came from the pocket-sized detonation. The [Enforcement Raider] had seen [Fireballs] with a thirty-foot radius. Average blasts were far smaller. This one?

…Four feet? She stared at the tiny crater in the sand. Ceria Springwalker herself stared at the explosion, and then her wand.

It had been a while since she cast [Fireball], but…the [Arctic Cryomancer] cursed.

Tree rot. I’m too powerful an ice mage to cast fire spells? But I don’t know [Lightning Bolt]!”

Novethur and the other [Villagers] were staring at Ceria. Luaar’s look of betrayed expectation from inside the hut…Ceria saw the [Bandits] reform. Their leader trotted forwards a dozen feet. Ceria saw them staring at her position. The half-Elf took a breath and then shouted.

Okay! How about you get lost and come back in two months?

The half-Elf waved a hand at Novethur as the [Bandits] laughed and jeered. She was asking for something. She pointed at his side. He jerked—looked down, and tossed something over to her.

Let’s call it twenty gold, Goldie! And don’t think you can bluff us. A [Cryomancer] in Chandrar’s as good as spit unless we’re on the coasts! And we’re far enough inland that—

The [Enforcement Raider] wasn’t laughing, but she was more confident. She rode forwards, exasperated, wanting to get over this stupid waste of time. Then she jerked. She blurred left in her saddle, swore—

The [Bandits] saw the shard of ice flash past their leader, curve, and fly back the way it had come. The [Enforcement Raider] clapped a hand to her cheek. She had actually dodged the wrong way, and the slashing [Ice Spike] had nearly killed her.

Ceria called back the single [Ice Spike] she’d shot out. The frozen water—from Novethur’s water flask—hovered in the air as the [Bandits] lost their laughter. She poked her head out and a thin layer of frost began to coat the walls of Nerhs’ village and the ground.

“Get. Lost.”

The [Bandits] went silent. They looked at the [Enforcement Raider]. She had been chosen for her job out of the many, really, thousands of people who could have filled her role because she was not a hot-tempered leader who would destroy a village.

Even so. She was a [Raider]. And she had nearly died. True, Ceria had aimed off and it had been an accident the [Enforcement Raider] nearly dodged into the [Ice Spike], but…

The [Enforcement Raider] splashed some healing potion on her hand, slapped it over her cheek, and bent down to talk to the [Bandit Markswoman].

“Get the scroll out and tell the boss we’ve got a problem. Hey! Half-Elf!

She bellowed back at the village. Ceria Springwalker poked her head out.

What?

Thirty gold!

“…Go eat tree bark!

 

—-

 

The shouting match had lasted over forty minutes. Two arrows stood out in the gates; Ceria had tossed more spells out at the [Bandits]. Both sides were getting…frustrated.

It’s thirty gold! You can pay it! I know Gold-ranks are loaded! Don’t be an idiot!

You try earning thirty gold! Go to Rhir and eat maggots!

It was a ridiculous argument. By now, all of Nerhs was for paying the bribe, extortion, robbery, or what have you. But their protector, the Gold-rank adventurer, was shouting at the [Bandits] and escalating the situation.

On the [Bandit]’s side, it was about the same energy. The regulars did not want to tangle with a Gold-rank, even a [Cryomancer] in the desert. One of them nudged the furious [Enforcement Raider].

“Boss. She’s in the area.”

“What?”

The [Enforcement Raider] was dragged out of the shouting match. She paled a bit. The [Bandit] read the words apprehensively.

“She says she’ll swing by and take care of the Gold-rank if you don’t handle it. And whatever’s in the north. But you get to say hi to Roshal’s slave markets.”

The bandit group went silent. That was not an idle threat. Nor was it a fair one; their leader had been doing a good job! But it was clearly not being appreciated by…her.

“That ain’t fair. What’s got her ticked?”

One of the others muttered, but lowered their voice and looked south warily. The lone [Mage] of their group snorted uneasily.

“Don’t you know? She hates [Cryomancers].”

“Oh. Shit.”

 

—-

 

Ceria was getting cramped from crouching and her voice hurt from shouting for so long. More than that? Her head hurt. The sunstroke must have been getting back to her. It felt a bit squashed, as if someone were leaning on her brain.

She knew she should take the deal and just leave it be, but she was mad. [Bandits] were still [Bandits], even ones who were ‘reasonable’. She heard the woman shout.

Listen, you Gold-rank idiot! Just pay up and we’ll be done! Twenty gold! Fourteen! Don’t make this harder, you murderer!”

Ceria poked her head out of cover and shouted back.

“Don’t call me a murderer! I haven’t murdered anyone! Yet! You’re the ones storming around here stealing from innocent people!”

Novethur blinked. The [Villagers] around the gates looked at Ceria.

The [Enforcement Raider], a hundred feet distant, hesitated.

“I didn’t call you a murderer! I said, you murderer, I’m murderer, murderer!

Ceria Springwalker hesitated. Wait a second. That didn’t sound like a grammatical sentence, even for a [Bandit]. She rubbed at her pointed ears.

“Wait. Did you just say ‘murderer’ twice?”

The [Bandits] exchanged looks. Was the half-Elf cracking up on them? But then…someone in their group muttered.

“Wait a second. I hear it too.”

The standoff suddenly became silent. For everyone but Ceria. She looked up, and it became clear that the [Enforcement Raider] was not speaking to her. She heard the voice. Not in words. In her…head.

“Murderer. MURDERER. MURDERER.

The same words. Growing louder. Much…much louder than the faint voice she had heard at first. There was no thinking she’d imagined it. Ceria’s stomach clenched. A bell began to sound in her mind.

“Oh no.”

In the bandits’ ranks, the same premonition triggered.

“Boss. My [Dangersense] just went off.”

“Mine too.”

The [Enforcement Raider] swung around. She looked at the village gates apprehensively, but the half-Elf had suddenly gotten to her feet. She wasn’t attacking. She was looking…north. Around. Back into the village.

Was it him? The half-Elf monster? Was it the circlet? Ceria turned, wide-eyed to Novethur, who was hearing it too.

“What is—Ceria, what is that?”

It was after her. Her doom. The half-Elf suddenly didn’t care about the [Bandits].

“I—I have to go. Novethur, if something comes after me, just run. Don’t fight it—”

“What is it?”

The villagers were sensing the danger too. Now it echoed in the air. In all their heads. Wrath. A word.

MURDERER.

But who shouted it? It was not the same voice that Ceria remembered, the half-Elf who turned into the rotting giant. His had been a despairing, furious rage, but this was not the same tone. Moreover, he had spoken with an actual voice.

Something was familiar, though. Something—

A terrible trepidation came over Ceria. She knew what this was. She knew, and she did not. Her head turned.

“The north.”

It was the [Bandits] who saw it first. They turned, cried out, loosed arrows—then fled. The [Enforcement Raider] looked at something, hidden by the hill, and screamed a word of terror. They raced away, shouting.

Why? The pieces came to Ceria, slowly. One by one.

Something destroyed villages.

Something called her murderer.

Something hated her. But why? What enemy had the half-Elf in Chandrar? It had not followed her across the sea. It had been here. Waiting. It had sensed her. And its kind had come, crawling, destroying, consuming, as they always did.

They tore out of the soil, scurried across the ground. The first Ceria saw of them was glowing orange bodies, morphing to attack, long biting mouths exploding out of their fleshy forms. Whirling limbs, scything mandibles. All death. The horrors of Rhir.

It came out of her mouth in a whisper. Novethur shouted it and it was taken up as a wail of despair in Nerhs.

Crelers!

Then Ceria Springwalker understood. She looked past the first line of crawling bodies, the tiny larval-form Crelers. There were larger shapes, giant pillbug-monsters, some the size of oxen, charging along behind their mindless brood-young.

But the one that knew her, that led this horde? Only one of them had thought. And there it was.

An Adult Creler.

It tore open the earth in a geyser of sand and dirt. It had been tunneling towards her, but now gave up all pretense. A vast body, armored, with no weak internal organs showing, lifted itself out of the ground. A hideous maw exposed glittering interiors, poisonous saliva. A mind that could reach out and talk, could think, raged against Ceria’s own, pressing at her with malice.

Murderer.

It knew. The Adult Creler tore forwards. Ceria Springwalker, who had slain one of the world-ender’s threats before, looked at it. The Humans around her were screaming. Ceria?

She began to laugh. Hysterically? In despair? Luaar didn’t know. Everything in him had changed to terror. The nightmares of Rhir were here! They had destroyed both villages. Even the [Bandits] had fled.

The Adult Creler was leading a brood of hundreds. Ceria’s wild laughter cut off as Novethur grabbed her arm.

“We have to run! Ceria! We must flee—can you slow them?”

She shook her head. Her mind was racing—she looked at the Adult Creler and Novethur seized her arm again. Ceria broke out of her trance.

“There’s no outrunning Crelers. They could down us if we were all on horseback.”

“Then what do we do? Fight?”

Novethur stared at the Crelers. So many crawling baby Crelers, and Juvenile Crelers…an Adult Creler alone could wipe out the village. A baby Creler could easily kill a man. An entire team of Silver-ranks could take on a single Juvenile Creler.

He saw annihilation. Ceria? Her lips moved.

“It’s…a small nest.”

The [Village Head] stared at her in disbelief. But Ceria was counting. The Crelers that had emerged from the Bloodfields had been thousands strong. This was less than three hundred, all told.

“They’ll slaughter us all!”

“Yes.”

That part was true. But Ceria was still watching the Adult Creler. She had it.

“It’s…smaller. A lot smaller. And it’s not spitting anything. I should be dead already.”

Novethur didn’t understand. He looked at the gigantic Adult Creler, larger than any hut. But not nearly as vast as the other one. Its maw opened and closed, but no projectile emerged with the force of an enchanted ballista’s shot.

It wasn’t fully grown. Maybe it was too young. Maybe…there wasn’t enough to eat. The Bloodfields were lush, a veritable feast compared to Chandrar.

It didn’t really matter. It was still an army of Crelers. Far too many to survive. The [Bandits] had known they were dead if caught. Nerhs?

Nerhs was doomed. Novethur slowed. He saw how fast the Crelers were moving. Not at a horse’s gallop, but they would keep going even as horses tired. Without one, and maybe a Skill or potion, they would catch you. And Nerhs had no horses.

“My son. Luaar? Luaar!

The father looked around. His boy. If it was the end…he stumbled forwards, shouting.

Ceria Springwalker stood at the gates. The voice pressed at her head again, shouting the same word.

Murderer.

“What a funny word. Me?”

A Creler was talking to her. And it said…not ‘killer’. Not ‘enemy’. Murderer. As if she had done something wrong.

It was so funny she started laughing again. The Crelers were beginning to shriek. An alien sound that overrode the screams of Nerhs’ villagers. Ceria looked around.

We’re all in so much trouble.

The dirt walls of the village, the hill? This was not The Wandering Inn. The walls could keep out lesser monsters, the Humans with bows and spears could fight off even an angry beast. Not Crelers. They’d swarm over the walls, insanely hard to kill, and tear apart anything not in full plate armor. The Juvenile Crelers and Adult would tear apart even Gold-rank defenses.

In their way stood only Ceria. Ceria Springwalker. She walked back through the village, seeing people running out the far gate.

“No. You’ll die out there.”

She muttered. It was true. They would never survive on the run. That Adult Creler was too fast. If they had to fight…

“[Ice Wall].”

Nothing happened. Ceria stared at her wand. No…water. But it had worked on the Adult Creler before. She looked around.

Water.

 

—-

 

Stick together! With me! With me! Go to the adventurer! Don’t run, they’ll catch us in the open! We have to hold them back!

Novethur was screaming, holding Luaar. He saw half of Nerhs in a blind panic. It was not their fault. This? This was death. Yet his words were the only thing to cling to instead of despair.

The Gold-rank adventurer. She was alone. She was in the wrong climate for her magic. But if there was anything to hope for…

Luaar knew they were dead. He felt his father carrying him, like he was a little boy. Novethur was rallying most of the village behind him, running, spear clutched in his other hand. As if it would stop them. Luaar knew the stories. Crelers were death. Why had they come here? It was not supposed to be this way.

And Ceria was not going to stop them. Not her. Not…the half-Elf who ate Yellats. Luaar was afraid to look over the huts and walls of Nerhs, to see that roiling tide of limbs coming their way. If he didn’t look, maybe they’d live. Maybe it would be a dream.

Ceria! Ceria Springwalker! Where are you?

Had she fled? The villagers followed Novethur as he ran down the main street. They found the half-Elf. She was standing in front of something.

The well. The village’s only well, with the bucket hanging there, waiting to be pulled up. She was staring down. Down into the well. It was hard work to pull water up from there, and it was sometimes brackish. There was a purification stone in the bottom, but it wasn’t perfectly working.

“Adventurer Ceria. Please…”

Novethur stopped. Ceria looked back. The silly half-Elf who ate Yellats, laughed, couldn’t even cast [Fireball]…Luaar’s despairing look turned to confusion.

The air…was shimmering. Ceria Springwalker’s pale eyes were glowing. Her skeletal hand, holding the birch wand, was aimed down into the darkness. There was ice coating the stones of the well.

She looked at the villagers of Nerhs. The [Arctic Cryomancer] smiled.

“Miss Ceria. Can you save us?”

Novethur panted. Ceria glanced down into the well. It was the village’s lifeblood. Without it—Nerhs would surely end. You could not live without water. That was why her magic had so little power here. There was just no…water.

She looked up. Luaar saw Ceria’s hand slowly rise. He heard a crack as the stones forming the well’s basin broke from the cold. Then saw something moving upwards.

A pillar of ice. It climbed out of the well, breaking through the simple roof. A sheer wall of water.

All the water in the well. It rose higher, and began to split. Nerhs’ people looked up. Ceria looked at all the water in Nerhs. All she had available to her. She turned to Novethur, and Luaar. The boy looked at the half-Elf and she gave him a wild, insane grin.

“I can try. Stand behind me.”

 

—-

 

The Crelers swarmed towards the open gates of the village. They were hungry. There was never enough to eat. And eat they would, until nothing was left in this world.

But they were also angry. They hated everything. They hated all things. But they hated what lay in this village most of all.

Murderer. Something had murdered one of them. That knowledge made them even hungrier. The Crelers could think. They could tell the village’s walls would never stop them.

The oldest of them had confidence that the single murderer would die. It had sensed no great power from the single murderer; a disturbing amount of it from something within the village the closer it drew, but no terrifying magical aura from afar.

The first Crelers were within a hundred feet of the village when something coated the walls. It made the Adult slow. Temperature was just another component it could sense along with magic. And this was visible to all.

Was that…ice? Something foreign to most parts of Chandrar swept upwards, covering Nerhs’ simple dirt walls. Fortifying them. Creating a solid, vertical wall.

Ice. It frosted the huts, created ramps, trenches, interior walls as it rose higher in the center of the village. The Crelers slowed. How was this happening? Even Crelers needed water, and there was so precious little of it.

The [Cryomancer]. She was tapping into the groundwater of Nerhs. A lifetime’s supply. A village died as the water funneled out of it, and this was a dry land. So dry and arid because all the water was funneled elsewhere by other magics.

But let Nerhs die so this fortress could live. Ceria’s lips moved. She was rising higher, on a dais of ice.

[Ice Wall]. That was her spell. [Glaciersheet Ice]. [Frozen Quickshape]. [Adept Iceform]. She did not need any of these Skills; they just made her faster, made the ice tougher.

But her master had taught her well. The basic spell was being used to form nigh-vertical ramps. Walls which would slow the Crelers down, some already ten feet thick and growing. She had to be careful with the water she had. She would call it back as they broke through layer after layer, reinforcing the heart.

Yet the design was already in place. Look. The Adult Creler visibly hesitated as it saw a fortification emerge, rounded layers of defense. From any angle, it was a nightmare for infantry to attack. A frozen bastion.

Ceria had seen it once before. She had made it once before, in a time like this. Never completely. She did not yet know the spell, but she knew exactly how it should look. How strong it should be.

After all. Her master was Illphres, the [Ice Mage] of Wistram. And her great spell had been—

“[Fortress of the Ice Queen].”

The half-Elf’s lips moved. It was not that spell. Not yet. Her ice was too weak. It could melt, even now. It was not strong enough.

But it was close. The villagers of Nerhs were staring. Luaar and his father looked at Ceria.

“This is—”

“There.”

Ceria pointed. She had taken their hut, frozen a world of ice around it and two more. In the very center of her castle, a ramp opened.

“Get down there. Hide. I have to battle them from up here.”

She was on a parapet of ice. Ceria was breathing hard, but she hadn’t even begun the battle yet. She raised her wand.

[Ice Lance]. The first oversized projectile formed out of the ice she was standing on. A jagged chunk of it rotated, turned into a spire of frozen death, and shot forwards. Ceria saw three Crelers vanish, crushed more than pierced by the impact. She raised her hand, and the ice began to float back to her.

She could not waste a drop. She only realized Novethur was still standing there after a second. Ceria glanced over her shoulder.

“I can’t protect you unless you’re there. If the ice breaks—run. I’ll buy you all the time I can.”

She didn’t waste time arguing, if there was anything else he actually said. Ceria turned, and cast the spell again.

“[Ice Lance]. [Ice Lance]. [Ice Lance].

Some people—Pisces—believed you should have variety in your spells. In a [Mage] battle, that was true. But this? All you needed to do was kill Crelers.

Last time, [Ice Spike] had only been able to nail baby ones, and not even kill them. This time—Ceria watched as the gigantic stalactites pulverized the little ones, turning them into twitching trails of orange paste and limbs.

They reached the walls by the time she realized the villagers had gone. Below her, they were in the huts. Ceria closed the ice ramp—added airholes from the south side and weakened the ice there. If they needed to, they could break out that way.

Part of Ceria, the part not casting spells, aiming, knocking down the Crelers already swarming over the first layer of walls, knew the Crelers would get to the villagers of Nerhs. Hence her placing them at the center of her fortifications.

They could get through even my best [Ice Wall] in time. They can melt through the ice, bite through it. She had to keep them back.

The Crelers, nearly three dozen, were already through the inviting, open gates. They charged down a narrow corridor of ice between two ten-foot-high [Ice Walls]. Such an inviting passage. Ceria focused on them.

The two [Ice Walls] flexed, and both walls slowly rammed together. The Crelers saw it coming and tried to scrabble up the sides of the walls out of danger. Two made it—Ceria picked them off with rapid-fire [Ice Spikes]. The rest?

They tried to glow, to heat up and melt the ice at the cost of their own energy. Too slow; the ice crushed them. There was a scream from their kin, who backed away from other kill-zones.

“Idiots.”

If the ice breaks, I’m dead. She hadn’t told that to Novethur. He didn’t need to be told. If the ice broke, he’d try to escape. Smart man.

“[Frost Arrows]. [Ray of Frost]!”

Ceria aimed for a Juvenile Creler trying to ram through one of her walls. As it broke through, she saw the deadly arrows made of ice bounce off its armor. The ray of frost?

Well, it chilled the Creler, and froze another one—for seconds. Then they just warmed up. Ceria nodded.

“[Ice Lance].”

She sent the Juvenile Creler reeling backwards so hard it fell onto its back, exposing its weak underbelly. Before it could twist over, Ceria hammered it with [Ice Spikes]. It flipped over, but she saw it leaking its internals. Still, it came on.

Crushing them is the only way to make sure they’re dead. Ceria saw the Adult Creler stalking around her fortress. Looking for a weak point? She hadn’t even tried to kill it.

The half-Elf watched the Crelers break through the first walls of the village. They smashed the ice down, and their claws carried them up the frozen ice with dismaying ease. However—she raised another [Ice Wall] in the faces of a group of Crelers. As they swarmed up it, she tipped the wall and it fell forwards, knocking them down and crushing their comrades.

[Cryomancer]. What had Illphres always said? Oh, yes. ‘We’re not rapid-cast [Mages]. Go apprentice yourself to Amerys if you want to just blast things. We control our battlefields.’

That was what Ceria was doing now. She was creating kill-zones, funneling the Crelers through, squishing them, hitting them with [Ice Lances].

Running out of water.

Something was wrong. Ceria tried to lift a puddle of orange and melting ice. Creler blood mixed with the water of Nerhs’ well and she…couldn’t…pull it up. Not with ice magic alone.

It’s blood, not water. She didn’t know how to control it. Ceria hissed; she took apart one of the broken walls to pound at a Juvenile Creler trying to come up a wall. She thought she heard a note of triumph in her head.

Murderer.

Ceria was getting awfully tired of that voice. She turned and saw it.

The Adult Creler was stalking through a ruined wall, after the vanguard of its kin. It had offered them up to break through and now, it was scuttling forwards. It rammed into her third layer of [Ice Walls] and exploded through. Ceria threw up her arms and a thin [Ice Wall] shielded her tower from the spray of shrapnel. She aimed down.

“[Ice Lance]! Die, damn it!”

The jagged spear of ice shot downwards and…cracked on the Adult Creler’s armor. It was young. But—Ceria’s lips twisted.

“Yeah. I needed Yvlon.”

Slowly, her fingers reached down for something hanging on her belt. She aimed at the Crelers she could kill and a Juvenile Creler collapsed as the Adult clawed at a second wall. Ceria slowly grasped the circlet hanging there.

Not yet.

 

—-

 

She stood on the fortress of ice. The smallest Crelers made their way up to her, but found she had encased herself in a clear wall of ice that she could fight from. She blasted them off with spells as they gnawed on it. She tried to slow the giant Creler, as spells flashed out around her.

The ice available to her was…diminishing. The more it ran together with Creler blood, the less she had. She heard the beating voice in her head.

Murderermurderermurderermurd—

The half-Elf laughed. She had started laughing. Her robes whipped around her. Despite the midday heat, her tower was frozen solid.

Running out of ice. She said something then. A reminder. Below her, Nerhs’ people stared at the glowing bodies pressing themselves against the walls shielding them. Luaar heard something.

“Hell’s Wardens.”

The half-Elf shouted it down from her tower. She dragged a chunk of ice into the air and sent it crashing down. Something bored through the ice and leapt at her. It met frozen armor; a skeletal hand. She tossed it out of the tower and hit it mid-air with a spike of frozen water.

“Hell’s Wardens!”

They were just words. But the villagers of Nerhs looked up. The [Cryomancer] rained down ice—now lightning spells that sent limbs jerking spastically. She shouted it back at the thing that called her ‘murderer’. A title from Rhir. Luaar, Novethur, looked up.

Was she really that? The title even Gold-rank adventurers acknowledged? She shouted it down at the monsters.

“Hell’s Wardens! Hell’s Wardens! Hear that you little pieces of tree crap? Hell’s Wardens! Crelerbane! HELL’S WARDENS. HELL’S—

She bit her tongue. Ceria spat out some blood and spittle. She conjured some ice out of the walls protecting her and hit another Creler mid-leap.

“Hell’s Warden.”

Then she ran out of water. There was ice left, but all of it was in the walls. Ceria watched as Crelers clung to the outsides, bodies glowing. Anything melted she desperately threw into regrowing her protections.

No more water. And her mana was too low to cast other spells, even if she could have used [Fireball].

The Adult Creler was just watching. She had killed the Juvenile Crelers, and it was wary. It was letting the remaining small ones eat towards her. They did have a survival instinct.

“Too bad I’m out of tricks.”

Ceria’s flash of anger had lasted all of six minutes. She pressed her hands to the ice, bare feet of protection from a scratching flurry of claws, willing it to freeze. Her breath was an icy mist.

She couldn’t rage. She wanted to. She wanted to pull from that reservoir like Yvlon had, keep fighting even if they tore off her arms. Ceria couldn’t.

“I…can’t even tell if they’re alive.”

She muttered. Death by Crelers. Here. There was something ironic about that. Maybe? Her energy was fading. She stared at a glowing abdomen. Were those eggs inside the one coming for her?

Her hand crept down to the circlet. Her [Dangersense]…grew louder. Ceria grinned.

“Nobody knows what will happen next. Do you think I’m scared?”

The Adult Creler was watching her. No, watching the circlet. She saw it draw back when she lifted it. It knew.

“I have lost my team twice. I’ll do it. I’m crazy.”

She felt her [Dangersense] telling her what would happen if she put it on. Mysterious artifacts…Ceria gritted her teeth. Something was wrong. She had to do something.

“It’s hard. Angry. Hard to…”

Water. Water, if only Nerhs had more water. If only she was a [Bloodmage]. Let’s teach yourself blood magic now. Good idea. Good…

Stupid. Someone was whispering in her ears. Ceria swayed. No, wait a second. She was having a vision. A memory? A delusion? What was supposed to happen?

Someone had a grip on her ear and was twisting it hard. Are you stupid? What kind of self-respecting [Ice Mage] learns blood magic? Go change your class if you’re going to do that.

Who would say that? Ah. Yes.

Illphres. Wouldn’t she say…Ceria felt the ice warming. Not enough material to keep between her and the Creler.

That’s the problem. You’re thinking the wrong way. Water? Are you a [Hydromancer]? Does your magic begin and end with water, you idiotic appentice?

“No, master. But give me a hint?”

The half-Elf looked around. And then it came to her. Oh. Of course. She looked down at her hands. One flesh and blood, one skeletal. When she had lost that hand, had she called only on the power of ice made manifest? What was their class? Illphres loomed in her vision.

“Cold, Master. Cold. It’s…cold.

Ceria recalled her latest Skill. Not [Battlefield of the Frozen World]. She didn’t even have the water to conjure it. Not [Lesser Frost Elemental]. Those were spells that required something. But her nature was cold.

“[Aura of Rime]. [Aura: Distant Manipulation].”

She stood there, without the rage that her friend had. Her brave little protégé had all the courage and loyalty, more than she could have. She was not as clever as he was, or as gifted. And perhaps that was fine. None of these things lasted forever.

Speed drained away. Anger faded. Energy left you.

All things were lost in time. Cleverness failed.

The half-Elf stopped moving. Her hands were locked against the frozen ice, staring at the burrowing shape coming towards her. There was nothing left. She stopped moving. Stopped casting magic. She was just…

Just…still. A little void in her soul, which Ceria kept closed. Into it she spilled her worry, her fear, her anger. Until naught remained.

What must be done was simple. The truth was cold. It was true, she did not want to die. She was afraid. But…in time…

Even fear began to freeze.

The burrowing Creler’s movements began to slow. The glow in its body…began to dim.

The other Crelers felt it. They felt something….painful…engulf them. What? The ice? The ice was cold, but they had infested even frozen lands. What was this? It was—

Cold. So cold it leeched even their burning heat from their limbs. So cold that…the little Creler was struggling. Uncomprehending. But it dimmed. Something was…stealing the heat. That damned murderer. She was taking.

It’s cold, isn’t it?

In her tower of ice, a body stopped moving. Two pale eyes stared at a frozen shape. Lips moved upwards.

It was not a malicious smile. It was not triumphant. It was a frozen gesture. Like her master’s face.

A mask of ice. Slowly, two pale eyes turned left. Another body began to slow. The heat of life began to fade away.

Desperately, the others tried to burrow faster. The ice wasn’t reforming. It didn’t need to. This—this was just temperature. They froze, feet from her, then inches. Too cold. The closer they got—

The Adult Creler stared up at her. This was not magic it knew. This was not…a spell. They locked gazes, and it began to climb up the tower, biting, tearing, now feeling a cold reaching for its soul.

But it had been made to resist magic! To be supreme! The end of all things! This was not fair! This was…

Ceria Springwalker watched the last Creler advance, dreamily. She did not move. To move was to have energy. To be the opposite of what she had to become. This was the truth at the heart of it all. Her…strength.

Of the four of them. She was not the most cunning. Bravest. Most adaptable. Certainly not the strongest. Perhaps, though, it was one thing she had more than anything else.

Tenacity. She had looked death in the eyes once before. Just like this. A horde of undead. Terror. Two glowing ruby eyes. She had possessed the will to do what had to be done.

Yes, come closer. Her skeletal hand rose, slowly. A scything maw was opening and closing. A mind beat at hers, but it froze from sheer contact. Was this what her master saw? The truth, waiting for her? She wasn’t even close, but she saw it.

It was…cold. So cold she had stopped shivering. So cold it was beginning to feel warm. For her. She had thought she would never feel cold again. Now she knew.

I will lead us into the frozen land, together. What lies there?

Something was afraid. Something saw her skeletal hand. Her smile.

Look at what I gave up last time.

To kill you, I will do whatever it takes. My arrogant friend is clever enough to best you. My young protégé is brave enough to risk everything for victory for us. My brave sister will take you to the grave no matter the cost to herself.

I? I am willing to see the cost clearly and pay it, time and time again.

It was clawing closer. A few feet left. She could feel the vibrations. Hear the malicious thoughts. Alas, something thought.

Not cold enough. Not yet, to kill with temperature alone. Not without water. A bit longer. A bit colder…

Her hand slowly rose. With glacial speed. With inevitability. The circlet flashed.

Let’s find out, together.

The monster was coming. If it could have run, if there were any other way but her death, it would have. Because it was afraid.

 

—-

 

What did you see? How did you see them?

The boy saw the horrors of hell stop moving. He heard cheers, gasps, and saw the last great monster coming. Clawing over his head through the transparent ice soaked with gore.

He had no eyes for it. Only her. He had thought she was such a letdown at first. Even until the last hour, he had been disappointed. Now he saw Ceria Springwalker, the adventurer he had longed to see in her full might and glory, standing, facing the slowing Adult Creler, whose limbs were lined with frost, shrieking at her.

In that moment, he no longer wanted to be an adventurer. He saw Ceria smiling widely, and saw the empty oblivion in her eyes. Just how far she was willing to go to rid the world of that…that thing.

Luaar understood something then. A critical thing he hadn’t understood.

She was no hero. This was no glorious hour. It was a bitter battle to be won at any cost.

She was an adventurer.

What did you see when you saw that? A village frozen in silence. An entire nest of Crelers, frozen, pulped by walls of ice. Destroyed by a single [Mage] in a land completely against her magic. In a battle nearly an hour long, she stood in the center of a fortress that refused to break.

[Ice Mage]. [Cryomancer].

Someone slowed. A group of riders pointed, readying themselves. But the first among them, their leader, stopped. Her eyes were only on the obscured figure amid that familiar…familiar spell. Yet it was impossible. Wasn’t it?

“It can’t be. Illphres?”

 

—-

 

Nearly. She nearly won. But the first claw broke through the ice.

“Alas.”

Ceria sighed. The circlet gleamed as she lowered it onto her head. She felt it touch the very top of her hair, and then a voice whispered in her ears.

Freeze it. Incoming.

Her head turned, slowly, slowly. With the weight of that cold world she invoked. What? Who was speaking? What was falling in a huge orb, nigh as vast as Nerhs itself? Was that—

Water.

The bomb of water engulfed everything in a sudden, aquatic world. The explosion of the orb of water landing on the village obliterated almost everything in a titanic burst of sound.

Ceria was knocked off her perch in the impromptu fortress, flailing, disoriented, and drowning. To be fair, so was the Adult Creler. It was more confused than debilitated, however; it began to flail and twist its body through the water.

It had never swum, but it was drawing on ingrained knowledge, learning how to propel itself with deadly speed. It whirled, looking for its terrifying foe. What was this water doing here? How had—?

It spotted her too late. A half-Elf, sitting in a chunk of ice. She had frozen herself. The Adult Creler began to try to swim at her, screaming. No, no—!

The water froze. It froze around both of them, so fast it didn’t even let the water flow away. The Creler tried to escape. It tried to heat up, but now it was too slow.

Too slow to break through as the numbing cold, the hoarfrost beginning to engulf it. The movements of the monster slowed. The glowing light began to fade. It sat there, in the ice, with the half-Elf. How?

Neither of them knew how. But in time, the half-Elf looked down. The ice around her unfroze. She gasped, and dropped out of the frozen sculpture.

Onto the sand and ground. Amid the living, warm people, who reached out to hug her, touch her, and recoiled at the freezing temperature. She looked up at the people of Nerhs, those who had fled…

And the [Enforcement Raider] and a far larger band of armed, rough figures. A palanquin and a figure staring at the Adult Creler there.

All of it was meaningless to the thing encased in ice. It was dying. But not dead. The [Cryomancer] had frozen it, but so long as it was only this cold—it would eventually thaw. Fool. Fool! The gleeful little thought was so tiny that no one would have even sensed the life with a spell. But it was there.

It waited, as the half-Elf struggled to her feet, was hugged by a little boy, talked to the others, warily faced a warrior with a shield, and pointed at it. Then—as those two cold eyes looked upwards.

The murderer tilted her head back. And the Adult Creler heard something.

I know you’re still alive.

A cold little thought.

 

—-

 

The limbs jerked. The ‘dead’ Adult Creler cracked the ice and began to glow. Ceria Springwalker heard the [Bandits] and people of Nerhs shout and run backwards. But she was already aiming her wand upwards.

Die. I know you have to die. Until you’re nothing but ash, I won’t rest! Until the ice turns you to powder.

She didn’t know if she had the magic left, but it would die. She heard a frantic thought pushing at her head. The ice was thawing. She tried to keep it frozen, but was someone…taking the cold away?

Murderer—wait—

“Enough. Stop freezing it. Let me.

A voice filled with disgust and imperious wrath stopped Ceria. A hand knocked her away. The half-Elf felt power, swirling like the tides of a vast, unseen ocean, move past her. She turned.

A woman with her own wand aimed it up. She had been lounging on the palanquin, her robes askew, rippling like the liquid water they were. Her eyes, the irises swirling as if liquid themselves, narrowed, and a sun-darkened hand rose. Painted nails, like waves, curled around an azure wand of lapis lazuli.

Then the Siren of Savere spoke.

“[Water Pressure — Dark Straits]. [Elven Concentration]. [Temporary Holding: Water]. Unleash ten thousand pounds. [Sphere of Water]. [Pinpoint Spell: Needle’s Focus]…”

A roar of water. Ceria Springwalker looked up as a vortex of clear water unleashed itself from out of empty space. Novethur looked up as more water than he had ever glimpsed in his life, the water siphoned from this dry land, the bounty of the Kingdom of Bandits, Savere, formed in a vast, swirling orb over the Siren’s head. Then she finally cast the spell, as the wriggling Adult Creler tried to swim out of the water prison.

“[Water Jet].”

A needle of compressed water shot out, through the tip of her wand. Siphoned out of the water source overhead. Ten thousand pounds of water, accelerated, compressed, into a beam of force.

The Tier 1 spell blasted a hole through the Creler’s internals, even the armor. It sawed through everything, even shooting out the other side of the water prison spell.

It was not a quick death. Ceria heard something screaming. The Siren never relented, never sped up. She cut the Adult Creler in half, slowly, drawing on more water, sawing through the captive, twisting shape, again and again, until it floated in pieces. Then, and only then, did she collapse the binding prison.

The woman turned away. Her accompanying force of hundreds of [Bandits] and [Raiders] stared at the bloody orange water filling the village of Nerhs. The woman snapped at the [Enforcement Raider].

“Dispose of the water. It’s contaminated. Not even worth trying to purify. Burn everything that remains until it’s ash. Bodies, even parts where they fell. If one Creler emerges here in a month, I’ll hang all of you.”

They bowed, pale-faced. Ceria looked at them. [Bandits]. Then at the woman. She felt like she should know who this was.

“Uh. Uh…”

The wet, drenched, shivering half-Elf kept repeating herself as the Siren wrinkled her nose. The other [Bandits] looked apprehensive. [Cryomancer] and an adventurer. But the Siren did not immediately vent her famous pique. She frowned at Ceria.

“You are not Illphres. But that was her spell. [Fortress of the Ice Queen], exactly like she cast it. And only she cast it that way. That ice armor was her old spell, too.”

Ceria Springwalker blinked. Illphres? She met the deep blue-green gaze, the suspicious—curious—scowl. The words left her mouth before she could think. Gone was the frozen mage. But the Siren had seen it.

Just like her master.

“Illphres? I’m her last apprentice. Who are you? Also—got a handkerchief? I have water in my nose.”

The Siren’s eyes widened. She looked at Ceria, disbelieving, and nearly raised her wand then and there. Then she remembered. She lowered the wand and told Ceria.

The half-Elf sneezed.

“Great. [Bandits].”

That was how she met her master’s old friend. Which came as a shock to Ceria. Frankly…

She hadn’t thought Illphres had any friends.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: Big stuffs is happening this month. On the 24th, the Kickstarter for the physical book of The Last Tide, and digital version of both parts will be out! I shouted out a LitRPG Facebook group that reads stuff like The Wandering Inn, so check it out.

More importantly…I am sick. Not ‘lying dying as everything voids itself’ sick, but lightheaded sick. I didn’t believe it at first. Oh, I’m just blowing my nose every other minute. I’m not sick…

Right when I finish my break. I fear it’s affected the chapter. I think I can see it already has; even though I’m rested, everything feels worse.

Why must I be sick? Why? If it affects the next few chapters, I am sorry. But blame…whoever made me sick. Thanks for reading and I hope this was legible. I am going to rest and hopefully recover. Until next time.

Big stuffs is happening this month. On the 24th, the Kickstarter for the physical book of The Last Tide, and digital version of both parts will be out! I shouted out a LitRPG Facebook group that reads stuff like The Wandering Inn, so check it out.

More importantly…I am sick. Not ‘lying dying as everything voids itself’ sick, but lightheaded sick. I didn’t believe it at first. Oh, I’m just blowing my nose every other minute. I’m not sick…

Right when I finish my break. I fear it’s affected the chapter. I think I can see it already has; even though I’m rested, everything feels worse.

Why must I be sick? Why? If it affects the next few chapters, I am sorry. But blame…whoever made me sick. Thanks for reading and I hope this was legible. I am going to rest and hopefully recover. Until next time.

 

Ducks (readers of TWI are called Fat Ducks, apparently), by Brack, commissioned by Ayutac!

DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/shurkin/gallery/

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/brack

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Brack_Giraffe

 

Pan, This-GIF, and the Lord of Flames by Bobo Plushie!

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Bobo_Snofo

Pets, Redfang Goblins, and a stream-sketch by ArtsyNada!

 


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53 thoughts on “8.36 H

  1. Leave a typo for sick writers! But don’t get sick!

    (Unsick readers: Gorexn, Litwickee, MrWiggles, Quynin, Scott Crawford, Qwiliman, Vento, Jay Dee, Haanss, dradford, Maladal, Awerick, OpticYellow)

    • I wonder if this is a case of ‘surgeon’s general’? Where the adjective goes after the noun. Given that this is fantasy land, there’s no real specific reason that it has to be French or Saxton grammar rules. But as a stickler for rules, I’d go with “Nerrhavia’s Fallen” as a proper noun, and not a noun phrase, so the right possessive form would be “Nerrhavia’s Fallen’s”, even if it looks weird. Or just shorten it to “Nerrhavia’s”, as most people seem to call their homeland that anyway.

    • One nitbit I have is the use of the word evacuate. You evacuate buildings, ships, etc. It means emptying them. Evacuating people is … rather messy.

    • In this chapter Yisame states that she had never met Alked Fellbow, but in Chapter 8.32, Alked recalls that he did meet her when he knelt before her to be titled a Named Adventurer.

      From Chapter 8.32:
      …. He had knelt before Queen Yisame and Nerrhavia Fallen’s throne the one time he had been titled Named Adventurer, ….

      From Chapter 8.36 H:
      She had never even met the Named Adventurer. …..

      • Yisame was probably reading using [Automatic Recitation: Literature] when she “met” Fellbow and completely missed what was going on.

  2. “The Duke Rhisveri swept off with his brother, as arrogant as any [King]”—should this be his nephew or the king’s brother because I don’t think Rhiaveri has a brother

  3. Whelp, Ceria is a badass.

    Hope you feel better soon! It’s 5:38am for me, and I’m only awake because I’ve got an awful cold that makes trying to sleep basically impossible.

    Don’t be afraid to take another break if you need to, I think I speak for everyone here when I say we’d rather you felt better than were trying to push out content when you’re feeling sick.

  4. Ah Pitateaba, you’re to harsh on yourself. You’re 100% my favorite author ever! And I’m a huge bookworm. You’ve given me the most entertaining, shocking, heartbreaking, and emotional roller coaster while reading “The Wandering Inn”.

  5. As an avid reader myself, the [Avid Reader] class sounds amazing! If I got stuck in this world I would probably take the [Student] class because enhanced learning sounds game breaking, but I would be extremely tempted by [Avid Reader]. Even if it was only to read this story in such an immersive way. Also it is telling that the queen has [Avid Reader] instead of just [Reader], because that means it is one of the few reasons she is able to stay sane and her greatest passion, not just a pastime inbetween politics. This chapter alone makes her such a better character and I love it. I would be willing to bet pirateaba made some of these Skills up as ones she would like herself.

  6. His skin crawled, and not from thecold. Novethur saw Ceria glance back towards the hut where the circlet she had taken from the Putrid One lay.

    ^missing a space

    Yisame tried to imagine it, conjuring her own rough image of the Lightning Thief—as a Stitch-man, though she knew he was Human—and a Gnoll as athletic as the story said. And Baleros? She imagined…a jungle. A rocky fortress, angry Lamias with bows…

    ^pretty sure he was a Duralahan

    Lastly, at the beginning of the chapter, I think you may have written both, but it was referring to 3 battles that rabbiteater and the knights had been in?

    Thanks for the chapter!
    It’s always the highlight of my week!

  7. This was a great chapter! The extremely bureaucratic raiders were very entertaining.

    With the notes on the hemp stomach and wishes for real struggles, I kind of expected Yisame’s secret to be that she gave herself a hemp body occasionally. Glad that wasn’t the case though, the stuff about reading was really charming.

    Also the ending was great!!

    • “The extremely bureaucratic raiders were very entertaining.” → Agreed!

      This example of a sustainable bandit economy reminds me a bit of how the Thieves’ Guild in Ankh-Morpork was regulated under Vetinari.

  8. If ever there was a job for genies it’s cleaning up dead crelers. They can work in shifts using levitation and flame until every tiniest bit is destroyed.

    Great chapter.

  9. Please for the love of [redacted] take care of yourself first and foremost. If the chapters are late or you need to take another break its ok. Cuz personally I would rather have a healthy writer and a lot of chapters to read than dead writer and one chapter to read. We’re not Pisces, we cant just reanimate you to keep writing. 🧟‍♀️

    Oh and by the way that was a really good chapter once again. Cant wait to see where all thus will eventually lead.

  10. There seems to be a plothole with Yisame learning about Ksmvr in this chapter, she already knew about him in the previous chapters.

    Chapter 8.25, Femithain mentiong Yisame herself messaging him about Ksmvr:
    “`Femithain’s problem was that Ksmvr was Antinium—the issue with the public demanding he be damaged in kind for the Testing was not the issue.

    The issue was Antinium in Chandrar, a fact that had caused no less than Yisame to write to him expressing concern. Femithain didn’t…know what to say.“`

    Chapter 8.36, Yisame not knowing about Ksmvr in Illvere:
    “`“Those two over there. The two young men. They are watching something and referred to an ‘Antinium in Illivere’. Find out what that is. Fetch me a recording.”

    (…)

    Yisame just wanted to know about Ksmvr.

    “We are told an Antinium has appeared in Illivere, [Spymaster] Zenm. That surely cannot be, can it?”

    His eyes flickered, trying to keep up with her machinations. In the end, he smiled warily.

    “…Of course. We had brought it up, I believe, but the Djinni-incident occurred around the same time. A single Antinium. An adventurer.”“`

    • I think that is just more timeline being kept rather vague. Remember that Ksmvr was passed out for some time after the golem fight and was moved to their capitol.

      This wouldn’t be the first time where there are multiple plot points are being told at the same time that don’t happen at the same time on the timeline.

      • You are wrong. In 8.25, after we are told about the message, we get Yvlon’s POV, in which she arrives to the gladiator arena, which is some time before she fights and is noticed by Yisame. Ksmvr talks with Nssia about the recent political events, and there is no mention of Flos fighting the Djinni. And in this chapter some time has passed since the interview about that.
        In this chapter Yisame mentions the battle between Khelt and Half-elves/Perric, and Khelt moved after Fetophep talked to Erin. Which happened after Erin talked to Cawe, which was after Pisces was rescued by DoC. Which happened around a week after the Horns arrived to Chandrar.

        It is impossible for the message to happen after Yvlon fought in the arena. This is an obvious plothole.

        • Well do we know she wrote it and did not just authorised it. She herself noted in this chapter she might have missed it while reading an book. I can totally see her responding “do it” to the question of “Illivere almost got an gold rank adventurer killed with the golem trails of theres, supposedly he did not agree to fight the golems. Do you want us to use it to put some more presure on them?”

          • I mean I think this might just have been an oversight while Pirate is coming off break and sick. This is the first chapter we are seeing Yisame as a full character and this book has been crazy eventful. Sometimes details get missed when you are writing like 50k words almost every week while also working with editors and audiobook narrators and also also trying to get a physical comic book kick started.

        • And again, you can’t trust multiple events happening in the same chapter to be happening at the same moment in time. In 8.25 Pisces first talks to his [Slaver] in the same chapter which would make no sense timeline wise with Ksmvr’s section or even Yvlon’s. It should also be noted Nsiia does not actually mention what the current events of Chandrar are only that Ksmvr seems to know more than she expected.

          That being said Pirate has been riding the vague timeline for Volume 8 even more than usual, which is a good thing cause otherwise we’d probably get another Volume 3 plothole disaster with the chapter release rate.

  11. Didn’t earlier volumes feature a couple scenes in which Yisame is in a council of her own alternate bodies and previous Imperial personalities? Is that still canon, and if so, how does that reflect on the new backstory for Yisame? Doesn’t seem to gell. Had lots of fun with the chapter back, though…

  12. I was not expecting ceira to take on a bloody adult creler, young or not, alone and and weakend the way she was. Christ she’s grown, probably the most out out of the horns in terms of raw power, even if she didn’t kill the adult, 300 odd smaller ones is still a damn fine achievement.

  13. Hm. How did Yvlon swallow two spell scrolls? Magic rings are easy enough to imagine but spell scrolls as well? I’m surprised she didn’t choke to death.

    • I wondered that as well. Has it ever been spelled out how large spell scrolls are in this world? Large objects swallowed tend to get stuck in the stomach or the oesophagus if they go down at all (limited by a diameter of about 25-30mm in the oesophagus and at the pyloric sphincter at the junction of her stomach and small intestine). This wouldn’t explain her constipation, though, so presumably the scrolls could get past that point but then got lodged somewhere in her intestines, leaving her in subacute obstruction until helped out by a magic potion.

  14. Assuming Pisces is getting freed around the same time as these events, presumably he and Ceria should be able to re-establish magical communications soon. And maybe Savere might be somewhere he and those with him could hide from Roshal for a time…

  15. So who’s going to level from the events of this chapter? Ceria definitely, possibly also the kill-stealing Siren and Rabbiteater (although you’d suspect his main moment to shine against the mass produced Knights is yet to come).

    • I would feel satisfied if Ceria technically got more levels out of this because of the higher challenge (finishing off a weakened enemy although smart is not enough of a risk). I don’t know if practical decisions overall are considered less risky or not. I’ll have to wait and see.

  16. I don’t know if it will be relevant in the future, but I feel obligated to point out that I think that among the most desirable skills for a [Reader] to have must be something like [Forget Story] that will let you wipe your memory of a story you love so that you can read it again like it’s the first time. I would kill for that.

    • Or [Suppress Story], so you could re-experience but also cross-reference. It’s extremely valuable during editing, and test is reportedly a powerful way to learn. Really, [Reader] could be an extremely powerful class, if they learn to leverage skills as much as Skills.

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