Do you like The Wandering Inn? How about…in French? The official translation of L’Auberge Vagabonde is up, as well as a Patreon! If you know anyone who’s been holding off because English sucks, recommend it to them!
That’s right. We’re going international! I mean…someone else is. I don’t speak French. Or write it. I assume this is in French. It could all be an elaborate joke. How do you know Google Translate translates accurately?
The earth felt no different under Orjin of Pomle’s feet as he jogged around the natural canyon, a natural shelter from dust storms and wind that held a small oasis.
The Strongest of Pomle was bare-chested. He wore little clothing, and that had been mostly due to a lack of any clothing to begin with. When he had needed it, he had traded for garments, patched up holes, or paid the few people who could work with needles to fix it for him.
It was a problem to be dealt with, not a desire or focus of his life. These days, he could have adorned himself in a number of raiments.
He stayed light. Excess clothing in Chandrar’s punishing heat could be a training in and of itself, but what was the point of rich cloth that would soon tear or degrade? His dark skin wouldn’t burn under the sun, anyways. Not like some of the new arrivals to Pomle. Or her.
Apparently, scales could ‘sunburn’ and flake off, just like skin. Orjin thought of her. Some now thought of that Drake as the most dangerous threat to Pomle’s existence, and theirs was a tiny nation of [Martial Artists] who had once fought every kingdom and empire for hundreds of miles around to retain their independence.
Orjin could see why. He was Strongest of Pomle, a simple title that meant a lot and a little. In other times, it just meant he had the unenvious task of quelling arguments between the warriors of Pomle, making decisions if need be, and leading the defense against larger threats and monsters. It was not necessarily a position many wanted.
For his entire life, he had trained here, growing in levels, skill, and Skills, learning different styles of fighting, and…well, being what Pomle was. A [Martial Artist], ever in training. Some came to improve for a while. Others left to hone their strength. Since its inception, this is how Pomle had been.
She had changed everything. Orjin moved quickly, stepping lightly across the sand. There was a trick to it; if you had a lightfoot Skill, you could race about as if you had solid ground to push off from. For Orjin and those without, you needed to know how to get a firm foothold beneath the tenuous grains of sand, to push, pivot, and fight properly.
The sand burning his bare feet would have been a concern if Orjin were twenty years younger. He had been plagued by burning his feet when the sun was out when he was a child; now if there was pain, he would ignore it or treat it as a lesson for not moving at the right speed.
He had a pace a camel would envy, at any rate, surging up and down the dunes, stopping along a partially-uncovered road, even hopping onto a stone chunk buried in the sands to stare about.
“It’s all the same.”
The man muttered to himself. Everything was as he remembered it—in that he never bothered to remember the shifting landscape around Pomle. It straddled the Great Desert, Zeikhal, which dominated the center of Chandrar. There were places to live deep inland, but the most prosperous nations tended towards the coasts.
Nothing was different about this area. And yet…it was. Somehow, it was. If he had not known, would he have sensed it? Orjin wondered.
All the light touched…literally…was Pomle’s. From the canyon, to as far as Orjin could see, until the land rose in an incline to the north. Pomle’s.
To be clear, it had not been a week ago. Pomle was a small nation whose independence wasn’t even recognized on paper by most nations; they claimed only the canyon, and even then, anyone was free to come and go as long as they didn’t make trouble. The ‘Peace of Pomle’ was so famous that other nations even came to make diplomatic treaties on this neutral ground.
Yet now, there was a definitive border of Pomle’s. She had marked it out with a stick, and arranged for a [Cartographer] to draw a new map with the border. She had made this happen.
The greatest [Secretary] the world had ever seen—according to her—was relaxing under a palm tree. She wasn’t stupid enough to sit under one with an actual fruit that could kill you if it fell; she was drinking from a flask of water, and had a comfy rocking chair with Shockwool padding.
Orjin eyed the chair. It was new. The Shockwool, a product of the baahing Shockwoolies, was a new product of Pomle’s. The little town of mud-brick houses? New.
“You expanded Pomle again, Salii?”
“It was cheap, Orjin. No one wants the land around us. I made a few [Memos], invested the money from the pit fights…that’s right. You told me I could do ‘whatever I wanted’. So I did.”
Salii fluttered her eyes at Orjin. He grunted. She was mocking him. He debated kicking her chair into the oasis she was relaxing next to. A single magical stone was embedded in the oasis, sucking water out of the atmosphere and dribbling it into the pond. The edges, usually a crumbling mess of dirt eroding inwards, were now shored up with stone, and everyone was reminded to keep trash well clear of the oasis.
Not that the [Martial Artists] had ever tossed dirty things in. But Orjin recalled some sickness from when a few would bathe injuries or just jump in after months of being dirty. You learned to boil the water fast.
New, new, new. The animal pens? New. The grass being cultivated in the first fertile patch of soil so the animals could graze? New. Permanent houses for the refugees of Tiqr and growing number of travellers? New.
Orjin’s scowl and folded arms made Salii look up after a second. She smiled brightly.
“Do you have any objections, Strongest of Pomle? I’m here to serve. I am Pomle’s [Secretary]. Just say the word.”
The Strongest of Pomle stared at her. He stared over his shoulder at the new lands that Pomle owned. He really thought about kicking her chair over.
Without a word, Orjin walked off. Salii grinned—then sighed and settled back, fanning herself with her clipboard.
That had been emblematic of their last two dozen encounters, over as many days. A little story of Pomle’s unexpected growth. The breaking point was not the new lands.
It was not the fighting pits, which had worldwide acclaim. It was not the stone homes, the trading post set up, or even the permanent [Umbrella of Shade] spell in one corner of the canyon.
The last straw was…healing potions.
It was getting old to Orjin as well. And to be fair, the [Martial Artists] had stopped demanding he do something about Salii with every new thing. They’d been remarkably patient. A few eyes had twitched at the [Umbrella of Shade] spell, but the non-warriors did need a place to relax in the shade, and it was nice and cool.
The stone homes the [Geomancer] put up were permanent, but you didn’t have to live in them. The grazing pastures for the animals didn’t take that much water, and the animals themselves were…animals. A trading bazaar let [Traders] stay, and you didn’t have to go near them.
When they finally snapped, it was at healing potions. Namely, as Orjin understood it, a new group of [Martial Artists] now training alongside their peers, but healing any wounds taken in sparring, chugging down a stamina potion, and generally, buying things.
Like clothing. Perhaps, rather than practice punches and kicks and steps bare-chested in the sun, some fairer-skinned [Martial Artist] decided to buy a vest and trousers? All okay. And maybe you did have potions for emergencies; everyone had some for bad injuries. Fine…fine…
“…But an enchanted Vest of Cooling and six stamina potions? They’re sleeping in the new homes, on padded beds, and they have a [Cook] making them breakfast, lunch, and dinner! They have their clothes washed by a [Washer], and now there’s a [Masseuse]!”
Salthorn shouted. The [Grappling Master], a Selphid with a worn-out body amazingly still functional, was gesturing at some embarrassed [Martial Artists]. Orjin eyed them.
They were not, as you might think, new to Pomle. Rather, they were fairly experienced. Not masters, but some were among the higher levels in Pomle. Which is why they had the money for all this.
“They did pay for everything, Master Salthorn. We have [Cooks], [Laundry Washers], and yes, someone is offering massage-services. They’re quite good. You feel relaxed afterwards. Isn’t that part of martial arts?”
Salii entertained the angry [Martial Artists] near her home, which had been expanded from a place in the shade to a hut, to a stone building she could work out of. Salthorn’s glare was almost a physical attack.
“Don’t play games with us, Salii. You’ve taken all the challenge out of living in Pomle!”
“I took nothing. They’re paying for all this with the money they’ve earned. That’s how money works. You see, you pay money, and then…”
“They won that in your pit fighting!”
That was what people called it. Salii’s pits…until they realized that was a bad name. But the underground gambling matches had a life of their own. People from nations as far off as Rhir and Terandria bet vast sums of gold on who would win in Pomle’s matches.
There was an appeal, even though gladiatorial arenas and other institutions had scrambled to replicate Salii’s idea—which she had gotten from Iratze, the strange young man and his group with unique fighting styles—but Pomle had still retained most of the viewers. Mainly because Pomle had so many diverse species, warriors, and styles that it was never predictable.
Orjin was about to step in when Salii sighed and dropped her teasing. She looked at the group of thirty [Martial Artists], many of whom would probably repeat the contents of the argument to their friends and associates if it came to anything.
“Let’s be clear, Salthorn. You’re not angry about healing potions or potions at all, are you? If they’re not used to undo the effects of muscle training—you have your non-Selphid apprentices use them. It’s not that.”
The Selphid grunted.
“No. It’s the money. It’s…you making Pomle easy. We’ve all seen what’s been done and the Strongest hasn’t stopped you because a lot was for them.”
She nodded at the non-warriors, the people of Tiqr, travellers, who had come during the war. Orjin saw them watching the standoff anxiously. However, Salthorn was noticeably not one of Pomle’s warriors who was annoyed by the refugees who had settled here. She was just exasperated about the outcome. She closed her eyes—the one that still was in its socket, rather—and a little flash of orange revealed her true ‘eye’ in the hollow socket of the other.
“Pomle was a place for us to become strong because it afforded little opportunity for anything else. Now—young [Martial Artists] can make a small fortune if they fight and win in your betting pit. They dream of luxuries where once the harshness of the oasis drove away all but those who were truly dedicated.”
Salthorn looked ready to choke Salii into the next world, but the Drake elaborated before the [Grappling Master] could lose her patience. She spoke loudly enough for all to hear.
“Luxury. Why is that bad in a vacuum? Potions, someone to cook for you—none of this is bad, as you admit, Salthorn. It’s the fact that it can be done, can make a very pleasant life that you object to. Well. Is that wrong of me to create? I am challenging your beliefs with my Skills, clipboard, and knowledge. If I can erase what makes you [Martial Artists] by offering you money, was that a fault of the money or the fact that you never had to choose before?”
It was a well-reasoned argument. The warriors of Pomle looked at each other, and Salii looked a bit smug—for all of a second. Then a Stitch-man brushed hair out of his face. He hadn’t cut his hair in the six years since he’d come here to learn from Xil, the great [Peerless Spearmaster] Garuda. Orjin had never heard him speak, but the young man replied to the Drake now.
“This is so, Miss Salii. Thanks to you, the oasis will never run dry. You make our lives easier. Thusly, levelling becomes harder. It is not fair to equate such amenities simply to temptation.”
Salii’s brows rose high, and Orjin saw many nod, including himself. If the [Secretary] had expected Pomle’s warriors to be thoughtless—years of solitary practice gave you plenty of time to think.
Her nod was respectful to the Stitch-man. Salii thought for only a second before she turned and gestured at the town behind her.
“You’re right, sir. Civilization is designed to elevate all, at the expense of the few. A good civil servant serves her people; a fact my people seem to have forgotten. Yes, I am decreasing the harshness of Pomle, but now more people than ever will become [Martial Artists], can live here. Pomle’s population has quintupled, and unlike other times, it will retain that number…if you let them. Already, more and more are developing classes to improve your training, or seeking to emulate you. That’s true too, isn’t it?”
It was. Salthorn bit her lip. Even she had a new apprentice, in the form of Iratze, and many refugees aspired to be like Pomle’s best, with little else to emulate or do now their kingdom was lost.
“It’s a tricky problem. Nevertheless, we who came here for privacy suffer. Those who came for harshness suffer. We did not turn away those in need, but it is not our desire to sacrifice Pomle to become a city just so they can live as they wish.”
Salthorn pointed out at last. The [Martial Artists] nodded. Salii nodded.
“Then, that is a decision for you to make. I serve the Strongest of Pomle. He has not stopped me from doing what I can to improve the lives here. It is his decision, and he has elected to let me do as I see best for everyone. Whomever the Strongest is, makes the rules. Isn’t that how it goes?”
All eyes swung towards Orjin. The Strongest grunted. He saw a lot of [Martial Artists] glance at each other, then eye him in a speculative way.
…Orjin was not pleased at the way Salii grinned. After all this time, she’d finally figured out how to force him to do something when he had deliberately, stubbornly refused to make use of her abilities.
He had to admire her tenacity.
The first serious challenge to the Strongest of Pomle in over three years came the next day. Oh, they did challenge him for spars, and sometimes for the position, but few actually wanted the role who could back up their desires.
This time…someone close to Orjin’s level asked him for a match as he was having breakfast—fresh dates, his favorite treat. Orjin looked up and saw a Dullahan woman, her armor faded, but still strong steel.
“Chein. I accept. Thirty minutes. Here.”
Cheindurana, the [Slayer of Fists], bowed slightly and re-fastened her head. Orjin put half the dates away—he would need to be light—and crossed his legs, meditating. Envisioning the fight. He made sure his old healing potion was still good and tucked it into his belt—not that he would use it during the battle. But he would definitely need it.
Salii and Pomle’s warriors, and the refugees—practically everyone—watched the bout. It was rare to see two masters go at it this fiercely, and you could learn a lot. If you could even tell what was happening.
Some of it was obvious. When Orjin went for a low, practically nose-to-the-ground tackle into an arm lock, Iratze and new [Warriors] could tell that Chein barely got out of it. If he grabbed her, a non-grappling expert, she would be in trouble. Orjin wasn’t Salthorn, but he had trained in many styles.
Her [Perfect Dodge] was gone. And there were only a set number of Skills you could use in a limited time window. So it wasn’t as ‘flashy’ as the Wrath of Winds’ match and that idiotic cult. Rather, it was fast and brutal.
Orjin ate eight punches as Chein backed up. She had a natural [Flash Step] equivalent. He knew some of the crowd were gasping; he tuned them out, but they didn’t understand how the powerful, heavy punches that were visibly distorting his chest, face, arms as he tried to block them were even landing.
Chein was punching, but she’d miss one punch as he ducked left—and Orjin would clearly be uppercut. And not by a light punch, either. [Enhanced Strength] and steel gauntlets meant she was hitting him so hard many people would have passed out already.
The ninth punch Orjin saw, and he dodged Chein’s physical jab—and her second blow, which had been almost invisible the first time it landed. Iratze didn’t see what Orjin had just dodged; Salii was squinting.
“Can you see it, Miss Salii?”
The Drake [Secretary] frowned. She eyed Chein.
“…Nope. Well, sort of, but it’s too fast.”
Orjin had run into a warrior who had advanced to a next stage of combat—beyond what you could merely see. The punches were like an aura attack. Or…
He didn’t have time to think about it. A punch hit his arm and hurt far more than it should have. He had [Steel Skin], and it cut through his Skill.
Hard to see—invisible if you couldn’t sense auras at all—and hard to block. Chein’s furious punches had once, apparently, killed a Hydra by sheer punishing damage on her home continent. Orjin ate another punch when he tried to get close. He couldn’t lock her down in a grappling match; if she was new to Pomle, maybe. Whenever he tried now, Chein used one of her higher-level Skills.
[Omnidirectional Blow] was not fun to get to the back of your head. Orjin leapt back, and decided he couldn’t risk it dragging out. He got serious, in a way he hadn’t needed to for a while.
The Dullahan [Slayer] backed up as she saw Orjin’s center of gravity lower. But he didn’t even give her a second to react; only a fool needed to prepare their best Skills.
And only a fool spoke them out loud.
[Dulav-ra: Tetrad of the Solar Aura].
It was so fast Salii barely saw it. She just saw a flash, smelled the burning steel, heard Chein’s shout of pain and then Orjin was bending over her.
She saw the holes in Chein’s armor from two of the blows, and Xil explained the rest to some of his apprentices and the other warriors.
“Four blows. Fire. Aura strikes—or whatever you want to call them. Energy-infused punches. Her armor Skill was worthless against them. Good thing he avoided her vitals; see?”
Orjin had damaged Chein’s armor, and the blushing Dullahan was covering the gaps. He hadn’t hurt her badly, but he could have, so it was the deciding blow.
Salii was fascinated. However, she had more insight than some of the others. She happened to know that Dulav-ra, the Skill that had popped up in her [Appraisal]-vision, was Orjin’s personal martial art.
A high-level Skill for a high-level fight. Orjin sat, panting, discussing the match with Chein. Amicably; she was annoyed that she’d lost and her armor-body had been damaged, but they were both agreeing to train together later.
“I am injured. Any further matches must wait at least two days.”
Orjin informed the crowd. His position of Strongest would remain until someone could beat him at full-strength. Even so…his gaze found Salii. She waved, smiling. Orjin glowered.
“Salii. I wish to speak to you after this.”
“I got you to do something at last. I’ve won! I’ve won!”
Salii was…surprisingly childish in victory. She did a little victory dance as Orjin held some chilled stones in a bag to the back of his head. He still smarted from the match, and his glare spoke volumes.
“I did not tell you to do anything because the Strongest should not be a ruler, Salii. I am unhappy you are forcing me to take an active role.”
“Pshaw. That’s what you think. A leader doesn’t lead? Orjin, that’s stupid. Pomle must have direction.”
“Why must it change at all, Salii?”
The Drake stopped wagging her tail around and turned to face him.
“Because it can be better, Orjin. As Pomle, the training ground for [Martial Artists], not just ‘better’ in a nebulous sense. I came here to do just that, to test myself as a [Secretary] against the most stubborn idiots in this entire continent of sand.”
At least she was honest about it. That was the same answer she’d given him when they’d met and he had become the newest Strongest. Orjin sighed.
“Pomle is becoming too comfortable. Can you fix it?”
He blinked. With such an open-ended statement even he had expected Salii to ask questions. But the Drake was already striding about her orderly house, laying out documents for him. For him to sign. His eyes narrowed as Salii explained.
“I have an idea to make them see I can be a benefit. Pomle wants hard? We can give them hard. I’ve been speaking to Iratze and his group. Very interesting Humans, and I don’t mean as a species. You should talk to them too. They have a secret but I’ve been too busy to ferret it out.”
“They use a strange martial art. Elegant. Not adapted for Skills at all, though. What is…this, Salii?”
She rolled her eyes and smirked at him as Orjin stared at the illustration and her tidy notes.
“Did you really think I didn’t know Salthorn was coming back to shout at me?”
Orjin’s head snapped up. He met her dancing gaze.
“You were waiting for them to complain.”
“Cause and effect is sometimes better than preemptive efforts. Rather, in some situations it is better to build trust by proving you can back up your claims. In other cases? Stop a fire before it starts. But I was also saving up gold.”
The [Secretary] wagged a claw at Orjin. He sat back.
“Hm. I like this one.”
Salii eyed her illustration and rolled her eyes.
“…Of course you do. We can do them all.”
“This is your plan for a new Pomle? Why, Salii?”
The [Secretary] pursed her lips.
“Didn’t you hear? So I can level. Because I think [Martial Artists] of an even higher level are fascinating. The other nations are already scared of you. Imagine if the average level around here rose by 10? By even 5? I spent four years here, Orjin, proving I could survive so the [Martial Artists] respected me. Learning how Pomle worked. Figuring out how to do double-entry bookkeeping for an entire nation on half a sheet of parchment!”
“Because you love Pomle so much?”
Salii laughed. Orjin himself chuckled; even he, a lifelong inhabitant of Pomle, would never claim it was anything but rugged.
The Drake caught her breath.
“I really meant it, Orjin. I have to do it here. Here or something almost as challenging or I’ll never level up again. [Hour of the Secretary]. Have you ever heard of it?”
Orjin’s ears perked up. He had little interest in the many things Salii did, but a Skill? He shook his head. She elaborated as she found some tea and poured him a cup.
“It’s a famous Skill among my class. A Level 50 capstone Skill. I’ve heard you can get it as low as Level 40, and there are numerous applications. I know someone who can use eighteen minutes of it. Free time, to organize, plan, even on a battlefield.”
“A powerful Skill.”
Orjin didn’t whistle or sound amazed. He had known more impressive, but neither did he take it anything less than seriously. He just imagined how it would work, the ramifications in a battle. Even he could use it well if he observed a foe…
Salii’s next words made him nearly crack the delicate little cup.
“My Level 50 Skill was different.”
The ‘Strongest’ of Pomle glanced up. Salii had her back to him. She glanced over her shoulder.
“Throw the cup at me?”
Orjin did. Gently; he was fairly sure he could hit Salii, whatever she wanted to show off or not. The [Secretary] spun, and her clipboard hit the cup. It bounced back at Orjin, nearly twice as fast.
He actually caught most of the tea back with it. It was the same trick she’d done when he’d fought the Shame of the Wind or whatever that fool had been. He’d thought it had been a fairly good defensive skill for a [Secretary], but now he realized it had a bit more power than he’d thought.
“[Spiritguard Deflection]. I could probably block one of Chein’s punches. Just one, mind you. But it recharges pretty fast and it works with my clipboard.”
Orjin was impressed. Also—very confused.
“That is an…exceptionally poor Level 50 Skill. Even for a [Secretary].”
“That’s not the Skill. [On The Job Training For Services Rendered].”
“…That’s a lot of words.”
Orjin was trying to figure out what it meant. Then his eyes snapped together. Did she mean…?
Salii winked at him.
“I earned one free Skill from my work here already. Two Skills from my previous job. Pomle has to be a success or I won’t ever learn [Aeriform Punch]. Or your fire Skill. I’d quite like that. Imagine dealing with someone demanding an appointment with that?”
She smiled beatifically at the thought. Orjin was just stunned. Free Skills?
“You didn’t level up to gain them?”
“Nope! There’s a separate notification. Skill awarded. Like I said, Orjin—powerful Skills. I came here to get stronger. And what better nation, I thought, than this one? Mind you, if I’d known the King of Destruction would wake up, I might have gone to him.”
Salii sighed. Orjin had a lot to process, but his first thought was that this was manifestly unfair. The [Secretary] just chortled as she poured herself a cup of tea.
“Orjin, I took a small company in the Walled City of Salazsar from actual bankruptcy—that’s a Drake term for having no money—to being one of the most competitive companies in the entire Walled City. Although they just had to squander it by losing all their good [Miners]…will you let me work now? I promise you—you won’t have to abandon your training. But I have big plans for Pomle.”
He looked at her. At last, the Strongest of Pomle sighed, and held out a hand. He shook her claw.
“As you wish…Strongest of Pomle. I’ve been defeated. I’ll tell them to challenge you tomorrow.”
Salii’s face went blank. Then worried. Then she saw Orjin smiling. She laughed as he chuckled to himself. They had an accord.
And that was two weeks ago.
Orjin stared at the new feature of Pomle that Salii had put into motion. Duunab, the [Geomancer] who had fled Tiqr, rubbed his hands together with extreme pride.
Salthorn, Xil, and all the [Martial Artists] had gathered when it had first begun construction. They had been turned away. Now? With the opening of the new part of Pomle?
Salii was smug as could be.
“Geomancers. Best class in magic. Don’t argue with me.”
Duunab bowed in her direction. Orjin had to admit, Salii might have been right. It had been a stroke of fortune a Level 24 [Geomancer] with extensive rock-shaping proficiency had landed in Pomle. However, as Salii pointed out, a single [Geomancer] still labored to do any large-scale projects.
Her Skills and the power of lots of money and organization had provided for more experts, including [Miners] among the refugees, [Builders], and simple paid labor to move dirt and stone into place to help this part of Pomle happen.
The canyon around Pomle would expand in time. Salii had shown Orjin a plan to change the geography to be three times as large. However, this first installment was simple, and again, based off of something Iratze had suggested.
The others had called it ridiculous, too much like stories, or as one of them had whispered, ‘anime’. Orjin had no idea what that meant.
“Rock spires. Fifty feet high, narrow. You fall, you die. Or learn how to fall. Here’s a cave with a [Darkness] spell cast on it. It’s a lot wider than you think. We probably need to make sure people know how many people there are inside. And this is going to be where we get an [Aeromancer].”
Salii was leading the tour group around. The first area consisted of vertical rock spires—as well as poles of wood or metal, suspended high off the ground. Although…there was no helpful body of water at the ground. Salii had an option on [Featherfalling], but in deference to Salthorn’s complaints, you’d have to buy or procure your safety net.
There was a huge underground cave for blind fighting, and Salii had even installed tightropes and rope bridges across Pomle’s canyons, to provide alternate places to train. However, that was only the start.
She was showing Pomle’s warriors the huge, sandy expanse outside of Pomle. Salii was excitedly talking to Salthorn.
“Why an [Air Mage]?”
“Well, it’ll be an expensive enchantment, but I hope we can make one we don’t have to upkeep. It’ll blow sand.”
“Of course. A natural sandstorm, oh, thirty miles wide? Anyone who wants to train in that, be my guest. And if we really get enough magic and a power source or natural ley-line, we’ll have a [Gravity Mage] set up a spell. Apparently that’s…how some martial artists train?”
Salii glanced at Orjin, who shrugged. It was conceivable, but—both looked at Raul, who slapped his forehead.
“Which of you told them about that? We don’t do that! If it doesn’t work, you morons—”
“What do you think, Master Salthorn?”
“It’s…different. You have to choose to train there, but I’ll admit, you can experience things we couldn’t before. Not bad.”
The Selphid was grudging. She turned to Orjin and Xil.
“The problem is, it’s still something you can choose. Part of levelling is not having a choice.”
“We’ll have to make up for it with diversity, then. Harder training. If the Strongest is for it…is there more than just terrain, Orjin?”
The Garuda commented. Orjin nodded. Surprisingly, the challenges had stopped once he announced he and Salii would work together. Everyone had waited for what they’d do.
“There will be. It will be a choice, but we will learn more. Such as instructors.”
“Instructors? For us?”
Someone called out. Salii grinned.
“Of course. Pomle is full of [Martial Artists]. But what if I paid for a [Pyromancer] to come here for six months and throw [Fireballs] at anyone who asked to practice evading them?”
Dead silence. Orjin smiled. Practicing against spells was difficult. After a second, one of the [Warriors]—a Stitch-girl—shouted nervously.
“Only if you pay for an Amulet of Fire Protection!”
That was the first time anyone had willingly engaged with one of Salii’s new plans. She beamed. She’d done it. Once one [Martial Artist] asked for something, another asked if she could create a cold zone, since they were practicing cultivating a fire aura. Someone else wanted a [Blacksmith] to buy weapons.
Pomle’s prosperity was at hand. Of course, as Orjin had commented, they had no actual products. Salii had bought some cash animals, and they had an oasis with better-than-average water supply thanks to the gem she’d gotten from Fetohep of Khelt, but where would the money come from?
Well…the underground fights. Almost exclusively, actually. Salii had told Orjin no less than a hundred gold pieces were gambled on any given fight. Even with a tiny cut of it, Pomle had a huge budget for projects. Given that Salii was not spending it on much else, and her own Skills, she could make things happen.
Opportunity attracted travellers, people seeking a job, people that Salii reached out for. Orjin watched Pomle’s population explode, again, but contented himself with just waiting. It might be for the better, after all.
Then the first aspiring [Martial Artist], an aristocratic Stitch-man—Stitch-boy, almost—from Nerrhavia’s Fallen moved into one of the new homes. He had private instructors of his own, but had come here to learn from Pomle’s best. He had an entire caravan of servants from his royal house, but dreamed of being a true warrior, like the famous Prince Zenol, the Gold-rank adventurer who had made his name in Izril.
He settled in, with grumbling from some [Martial Artists] who still disliked Pomle’s path, reservations from those who thought he’d never truly learn and level with that kind of wealth, and a note from Salii to Orjin about ‘complications’. He thought little of it until, as he was drinking water, he noticed.
As one of the few wealthy people to ever try to live in Pomle, the young man was the first to bring [Slaves]. The Strongest of Pomle heard the rumblings from warriors from beyond Chandrar’s sands.
The outsider was always at a disadvantage when it came to being respected. Liked? You could be liked, a novelty, but that was completely aside from garnering admiration. It was a thin coin that separated novelty from mockery. And both could turn into genuine hatred if the outsider stepped wrong.
Why are you doing things wrong?
Why do you look wrong?
Of course, sometimes the questions revealed in and of themselves. Nevertheless—when public opinion turned against you, it was a long way to any kind of social grace. If that was what you wanted. If it mattered.
In any other time she would have damned the praise and antipathy alike, but Nsiia needed popular support. She had burnt it away, all the fascination for the ‘exotic empress’, the people’s interest in her as a representation of the wild, and everything contrary to their culture—at least, in their mind.
Nevertheless—sweat ran down her cheeks, onto, yes, clothing. A light, sleeveless tunic far richer than the occasion needed. Like Orjin, Nsiia was well aware of how fast you could tear up good clothing. Not much protection, but she had no need to be a spectacle at this moment, and besides—her feet traced left on terracotta bricks in the beautiful little courtyard—
Even wooden blades could tear open bare skin at this level.
The jeering in the background became silence. Perhaps the onlookers fell silent themselves. Nsiia didn’t pay attention.
The other foreign warrior was quick when he came in. As light as she was—almost. [Cat’s Grace] was one of Nsiia’s Skills, but she had many.
She was [Empress], but also warrior. She was both. She was more than a mere ruler with low-levels and she had fought on battlefields. She was a contemporary of the King of Destruction, and even if she had missed much of his first wars of conquest, Nsiia Oliphant was still…
[Empress of Beasts].
Two shortswords and a dagger. The third arm had disconcerted her at first, but it had a lot of limitations. It wasn’t as if the Antinium could slash through his other arms; he added an attack when he swung left, jabbing with his third arm. She responded by merely ducking away, her single practice sword flickering.
—Nevertheless, he was quick! He pressed his attack, carefully stepping in, and it was a fascination to both.
He fights well! Nsiia had met many [Warriors] who were strong, could swing a sword or axe just so, block well—but had the kind of mentality suited for a massed battle. She could take them apart because when it was just them, they were not ready for her leaping off walls, circling, kicking sand into their face.
Ksmvr of the Free Antinium had trained somewhere. He swept towards her, able to pivot back when she tried to engage him, daring her to come too close.
He did not get overeager, and his swordsmanship was strong. Nsiia hissed as his [Quick Slash] scored a line down her arm. He had a decent number of [Warrior]’s Skills too. That would have laid her arm open in a real battle.
Nevertheless…Ksmvr charged at her. She stabbed forwards with her sword. Saw him blur left and over her in a jump.
[Evasive Flip]. He actually slashed down at her mid-flip. She responded by rolling herself, stabbing up. She hit his stomach but it was like a rock.
Ring of Barkskin. Adventurers.
When he landed, he charged, and he was faster still. [Surpass Limits]? [Quick Movement]—Nsiia grinned. It would kill most warriors not used to fighting him, especially with enchanted blades. Her response was to tap the ground with her feet.
[Gazelle’s Leap]. Ksmvr’s charge and blades struck only air. The audience gasped as Nsiia leapt across the courtyard. Some of the [Guards] stirred; the Golems did not. Nsiia caught herself.
Her watching was done. Her offensive began.
[Elephant’s Strength]. The temporary Skill was a hallmark of her level. Even [Enhanced Strength] fell behind this Skill—for a few minutes. Eight, to be exact.
She only needed one. Nsiia’s posture shifted down, down. The Antinium, watching her, thought it suddenly mimicked her cat, Yinah. Or…something else.
[Furious Hunt: Hyenas]. The Empress stalked across the courtyard, circling, far faster than that posture should have allowed. Ksmvr thought he saw other shapes, like her, in his peripherals. He ignored them as an illusory manipulation, until it occurred to him—a fraction too late—that if it was part of the Skill—
Nsiia exploded out from the side, snarling like the embodiment of a wild animal. Her slash came as Ksmvr was turning. His right arms’ sword was knocked clean out of his hands by the tremendous impact. He swung left, trying to get back—
She rammed into him, and stabbed him through the heart and chest. A killing blow. Her blade continued to stab, as the two landed, tangling, Ksmvr’s green blood spattering the ground…
…In what would have happened if they actually had swords. Ksmvr lay on his rounded back shell, staring up at the sky. Nsiia, smiling, offered him a hand.
“Well fought, Adventurer Ksmvr.”
“To a certain degree, perhaps. I am still insufficient. Your sparring with me indicates how little attacking power I possess when deprived of my crossbows.”
She raised an eyebrow, amused. Ksmvr let her help him up. He stood, inspecting the place where he had fallen. He should have kept moving. Perhaps even leapt into the air, although she would have targeted where he landed. Next time, he would not be taken in by a strange Skill.
“Many in Tiqr would consider themselves lucky to force me to use three Skills.”
“I am a Gold-rank adventurer. I am deficient. You outmatched me even in speed, which as a [Skirmisher], I should excel at.”
The [Empress of Beasts] raised her eyebrows. Even her eyes were almost closer to feline than Human, or gave the impression. Everything about her could be like a wild thing—and then she would straighten, accept a cup of water from one of Illivere’s servants with a nod, and become a person once more.
She was both. The bridge between animal and people in her kingdom. Or had been. She studied Ksmvr, thoughtfully.
“You are slower than me. Your skill with a blade is quite adept.”
“Thank you for your compliment, but you and I both know I am quite substandard compared to any acceptable reference.”
Nsiia’s eyebrows shot higher. She opened her mouth, thoughtfully, but then forbore comment.
“As you say, Ksmvr. If you say it, it must be so.”
The Antinium nodded, happy she could understand. So many people insisted on false compliments. It was an illustrative practice match, as the last three had been. That was the level Ksmvr aspired to. Nsiia might have been a…well, perhaps a match for Yvlon! Maybe a tiny bit higher-levelled.
Only then did the two return to the world where other people existed. Nsiia and Ksmvr heard the murmurs, and saw the crowd watching through the iron fence outside of Femithain’s mansion murmuring and pointing.
“They have stopped shouting insults at you, Empress Nsiia.”
“So they have.”
The woman eyed Illivere’s people, many of whom returned the look with sincere hatred. Her gaze was amused, but then she turned to Ksmvr.
“Insults at you as well, Adventurer Ksmvr.”
He shrugged politely. The Antinium adventurer regarded Illivere’s people, who gave him looks ranging from uneasy to fascinated. His voice rose, carrying slightly so the guards attending both him and Nsiia as well as Illivere’s citizens could hear.
“I am not the person who slew Domehead, who was beloved. I defended myself as per the Adventurer’s Guild’s laws, Rule #6, regarding self-defense when attacked with no legal basis. Any ire against me regarding my destruction of Golems is largely unfounded, as Magus-Crafter Femithain’s statement indicated. Therefore, I have actually calculated that I am more liked than not based on my last five days of observation. Statistically, I have a 58% approval rating. Which is more than yours. 36%.”
Nsiia’s head cocked sideways. She eyed Ksmvr, perturbed. So did Illivere’s citizens, many of whom had drawn breath to contradict the Antinium. They looked at him, and it was a familiar gaze to the ones Nsiia had first received when she had become prisoner of Illivere, over a month ago.
Fascination. The [Empress]’ eyes narrowed slightly. That was not how Ksmvr normally talked. She had not known him for more than five days, but he stood, wiping dirt from his head, mandibles, and body as he talked. When he finished, he stood tall, brown-black chitin gleaming in the sun. Ksmvr’s head turned to her with precise, stilted…no.
Golem-like grace. He nodded at Nsiia.
“As we have concluded our sparring for the morning, shall we retire to Magus-Crafter Femithain’s residence, Empress Nsiia?”
“…Of course, Ksmvr. After you.”
There was a certain charm to how Ksmvr walked. The Magus-Crafter of Illivere appreciated it as Ksmvr walked with him around the city. It was not appreciable at first. For many, it did not even occur to them until they looked at Ksmvr and compared it to themselves.
He had a deliberate, measured tread. He did not vary the length of his stride. Nor did he change it depending on whether he turned right or left. He walked…perfectly.
It was something any Antinium who had lived in the Hives could do. Ksmvr did not normally walk like that, since walking was normally variable to account for changes in terrain. Unless you had an environment as precise as the Hive, he did not walk like that.
He did now, slowing, stopping, turning with precise movements. The Magus-Crafter himself admired it. So did the citizens.
He walked like a Golem. When Ksmvr spoke, it was often with figures and facts, in logical parlance.
“I appreciate your accompanying me to the Adventurer’s Guild, Magus-Crafter. Free reign of the city allows me more opportunities to appreciate Illivere.”
His words were measured, polite. Diplomatic. Femithain was conscious of the stares, some hostile, some curious, but Ksmvr’s figures to Nsiia had not been exaggerated. Hostility had quickly changed to fascination. He had killed many Golems, but Illivere’s people had done a curious about-face mentally.
Ksmvr could be the hostile alien from far off…but if he was, he was a superior enemy. However, if he was a Gold-rank adventurer, and positively Golem-like himself, it didn’t sting so much to admit that all the Golems had lost to him, surely? Femithain nodded to Ksmvr as Armsmaster Dellic kept most of the curious at a decent distance.
“Of course, Adventurer Ksmvr. You need not inform me if you wish to leave the residence.”
“And as to my request about leaving the city?”
The man shook his head slightly, adjusting his spectacles.
“It is still a delicate matter…but I am now confident many nations will not have you imprisoned or killed. The bounty remains, however, and given the Antinium Hive’s warning towards Illivere, I am reluctant to place you in jeopardy.”
Ksmvr’s presence had alarmed the other powers of Chandrar. They reacted in paranoia, despite knowing he was an adventurer. Was he a spy? A forerunner of another Antinium invasion?
Most had calmed down, but a few nations had issued bounties on Ksmvr. Well…that was one thing. Femithain was not responsible for that.
However, the Antinium Queens had apparently threatened him and all of Illivere with dire consequences if Ksmvr came to harm. Thus, the Magus-Crafter was now caught in the position of fearing for Ksmvr’s life. He had insisted Ksmvr remain until one side or the other relented.
“Hm. This is not what I wished. I shall abide another day, then. My destination is here, Magus-Crafter.”
“I do apologize, Adventurer Ksmvr. But if you would like to avail yourself of Illivere’s sights…the First Crafters have all issued invitations, including the First Crafter of Elbe who wishes to make amends.”
Ksmvr turned his head to Femithain. His mandibles rose in what the man now knew to be a smile. Ksmvr shook his head.
“No, Magus-Crafter Femithain. I would like to leave. My team needs me. I shall meet you at dinner. Farewell.”
With that, he turned and strode into the Adventurer’s Guild. Fascinating, aloof. Femithain was not the only person to stare after him.
Yvlon had once said that a good adventurer behaved politely and tried to engender respect from all sides. If they had to take sides, they did, but an adventurer was neutral.
Ksmvr had thought hard after he’d realized his captivity—albeit a polite one—in Illivere was more difficult to deal with than he had anticipated. He had tried Captain Ceria and Pisces’ approach, which was bluffing and deception combined with an expression of dominance.
That had failed rather significantly, so Ksmvr took Yvlon’s words to heart.
‘If you must be anything, be fascinating rather than a nuisance, Ksmvr. Ylawes’ team eats for free because people like him. That’s better than having the prices tripled just because people know you can afford it.’
Ksmvr had weighed the merits of Yvlon’s words against his own understandings from being taught as the Prognugator of the Free Antinium and thus implemented his new actions, such as walking differently, speaking with facts and figures to impress Illivere’s people and the Magus-Crafter, all of whom liked Golems and related actions. It created goodwill.
He had, of course, considered Pisces’ words of wisdom against Yvlon’s.
‘There are fools in every land, young and old, Ksmvr. Ignore them. Do what you must, and hang their feelings. They will never love you for simply…being. Why pander fruitlessly and humiliate oneself?’
There were contradictions in the advice given, clearly, but Ksmvr considered it was situational which of his teammates was right at any moment. They had stopped throwing things at him, but not Nsiia, since he had adopted this approach, so he considered Yvlon was right. For now.
What would Captain Ceria say, though? She was actually more sparing with advice than Pisces and Yvlon, both of whom often took him aside to impart their vast troves of wisdom to their junior teammate. Ksmvr tried to think as he approached the counter of the rather empty Adventurer’s Guild and the staring [Receptionist].
‘Always have a snack, Ksmvr. Some long-term food. Like…a stick of butter and honey rolled with a bunch of walnuts. Tastes great. Don’t listen to Yvlon. That’s food for a day if you’ve got nothing left. Bugs don’t have much energy.’
Could he extrapolate that to be a commentary on the exigency of always having a backup item or plan? …No. Probably not. But it was still committed to Ksmvr’s impeccable memory.
“Y-you’re the um, Gold-rank. I’m the [Receptionist]. Not that Illivere has many adventurers, but you’re…”
The woman at the desk had a very similar reaction to many Humans. Ksmvr politely nodded.
“I am Ksmvr, Gold-rank adventurer of the Horns of Hammerad, a team from Izril. My credentials are registered worldwide. I am happy to prove I am Ksmvr via truth spell if identification is needed.”
The Stitch-girl stared at Ksmvr, mouth moving slightly.
“I—I do not think I need—that’s necessary.”
Hm. Shoddy Adventurer’s Guild, as proven by their lax regulations. Nevertheless, Magus-Crafter Femithain had assured Ksmvr they could do the basic work.
“I have come to claim damages for my destroyed gear. Magus-Crafter Femithain has arranged this?”
“Yes! I mean…yes. Do you have the um, items?”
Ksmvr nodded. He reached for his side and brought something out.
A broken shortsword. The enchantment was gone, and the steel weapon was in two parts. Ksmvr looked at it as he put it on the counter. Then the Flamecoat Dagger. His Cloak of Arrow Protection…a crossbow…
His beautiful, lovely gear that the [Brave Skirmisher] had maintained for so long was in ruins. The [Receptionist] got over her nerves to exhale quietly.
“That’s a lot of gear, um, Adventurer Ksmvr.”
“It was all very low in magical interference. I would like to note that in my damages claim.”
“Of—of course. Could I ask you to list the items for me? Please?”
“Naturally. I have a Shortsword of Hardening, a Cloak of Arrow Protection, a standard crossbow—please note Izril’s market prices at the time, and the steel frame as opposed to other materials—a Flamecoat Dagger…”
His hand touched the Flamecoat Dagger. Of all the items, that had distressed him most. Ksmvr had broken his weapons against the Golems, against Domehead in the Testing. He had seen his shortsword break, one of his crossbows, and the other Golems had damaged his cloak.
The dagger? He hadn’t realized it was broken until he had reclaimed his gear and noticed the chip along the blade. Accordingly—the flame effect was gone.
Ksmvr realized he’d stopped speaking. The [Receptionist] had logged all the items, though.
“Magus-Crafter Femithain has asked us—that is, the Guild—Illivere—to tell you that you will be fully reimbursed for all damages to your equipment, Adventurer Ksmvr. Sir.”
“That is most refreshing. Honesty in governance.”
Ksmvr nodded. He was glad of that. Losing all that gear would be disastrous enough without gold reimbursement. He had already been gifted steel weapons from Illivere’s armory by Armsmaster Dellic as short-term stopgaps, but Ksmvr wanted enchanted weapons if they could be procured.
The Empress of Beasts was superior to me in many ways. Lacking her strength or higher-level Skills, I should buy better bows or have the crossbows enchanted. Enchanted ammunition?
Right now, Ksmvr’s best Skill was [Aggregate Volley]—the weapon art that let him fire ten crossbows at once, and his bow—nine now, since one crossbow was broken.
He also had [Knuckles of Iron] if he lost his weapons, and [Surpass Limits], a Skill from his new [Brave Skirmisher] class. Ksmvr did consider it an upgrade.
Barely. [Brave Skirmisher] was…not [Silversteel Armsmistress]. It was not [Arctic Cryomancer]. It was not a powerful class advancement and Ksmvr knew it.
It fit his talents. So he desperately needed equipment to make up for his lacking strength, especially since he needed to rescue his team. They were out there and he was wasting time.
He only realized the [Receptionist] was taking the broken items one by one when she reached for the Flamecoat Dagger. Ksmvr picked it up.
“What are you doing? I would like to retain my items, please.”
“Oh. But we—we need our [Enchanters] to appraise them. Not that we don’t trust your word, Gold-rank Adventurer Ksmvr! But to fully assess…they’ll just disenchant the items, pick them apart. We have all the details logged and Magus-Crafter Femithain told us to estimate high!”
It was reasonable. However, Ksmvr held onto the Flamecoat Dagger.
“I would like to keep this. This is a weapon from the Dungeon of Albez. My team awarded it to me. I…broke it.”
The [Receptionist] was growing flustered.
“But we—I could just write down the details, but we’d have to go on standard enchantments, Adventurer Ksmvr. If we could disenchant it…”
“To my knowledge, that would also destroy the item in many cases, would it not?”
Ksmvr hesitated. He closed his hand around the dagger and stepped back from the counter, slipping it into his waistband.
“I would like to keep this item. Standard enchantment payout will be acceptable.”
“Of course, sir. If I can have you sign?”
He did. Then stepped back from the counter, departed, conscious of the stares from low-level adventurers. Ksmvr felt…foolish.
Why had he done that? He had turned down gold to hold onto a worthless piece of equipment. But…it was his team’s. They had given it to him, and the Forceshield that still hung by his side. Ksmvr doubted even Hedault could have fixed it without simply re-enchanting it; that was not how enchantments worked. But he couldn’t give it up, gold or not.
The people spectating him watched the Antinium smoothly walk from the Adventurer’s Guild and greet someone who wanted to talk to him. Ksmvr spoke to a curious citizen of Illivere, voice reasonable, calm, logical. He refuted guilt in destroying Golems. It was self-defense.
He was so implacable that the angry man calmed down and eventually, gingerly, shook his hand. The fascination the people had with this strange mechanical person was at odds with Ksmvr holding onto the dagger. He acted one way because it benefited him.
But they only saw that. They did not know him at all.
“You are a good doggy. Yes. Your tail wagging means you are happy. Are there many dogs like this, Empress Nsiia?”
The woman watched as Ksmvr scratched a panting dog with all three hands. It was a complete contrast to the Ksmvr who had been outside. He peered down as the dog wriggled in ecstasy at his [Comforting Petting]—or rather, scratching. She couldn’t help but smile.
“There are many kinds of canines, Ksmvr. Needlehounds, wild dogs with no magic like this—even great, gigantic ones. Storm Hounds, one breed is called. They run with sandstorms, huge, four feet tall and so long that smaller warriors can ride on them. Fierce—but playful as can be. Those who roam with civilization are as gentle as mice. I have seen them tickle babies with their whiskers.”
“No. That is very amazing. I would like to see it.”
Ksmvr sat up, and for a second he was as wide-eyed as Bird, though Nsiia could not have known that. A cat sat on his head between his antennae. Then he went still.
“Is that bird wishing to be petted, Nsiia? I have never pet a bird. I know someone who hunts them.”
He saw a bright macaw staring at him. Nsiia blinked and turned. A familiar bird was dipping its beak into one of the bowls of water around her room.
“It is. You may pet him—I have not given him a name, Ksmvr.”
She did not always name the animals, even the ones who associated with her. Ksmvr held up a hand as Nsiia removed something from the bird’s leg, and let it hop over. It knew he was safe, but the Antinium’s hands trembled over it.
“I…I do not know how. Do I pet it vertically? Do I scratch it? Please instruct me in optimal petting, Nsiia.”
What a strange creature. What a strange child. Nsiia had to laugh. She tucked the little scroll of parchment away and showed Ksmvr how to gently comb the macaw’s feathers with his hand. And he did.
He loved animals. Only someone who truly appreciated them could get [Animal Friend] as a class. When he sat there, surrounded by the cats, dogs, and the bird that flocked around Nsiia in peace—despite being predator and prey—she felt he was closer to her people than Femithain’s.
And yet…her brow clouded as she stepped back. Yinah glanced up, sensing Nsiia’s mood as the [Empress of Beasts] read.
It was a simple message, from Vasraf, her [General].
They dare not enter the steppes in force yet, but neither will the Garuda aid us. We cannot last forever, and the armies hold home in great numbers. I bite and bite, but draw little blood. Can you reach us?
Another message from the last hope she had. Resistance. Nsiia crumpled the note, shaking her head. She had sent word to him, of great dreams and hope at the start. She was not a complete prisoner, so Nsiia had imagined—foolhardily, she now realized—of raising an army to support him. Convincing Femithain or some of the people of Illivere to support Tiqr.
They were too different. Too insular, in a way. Illivere’s people were sympathetic, but they would not rise for Nsiia or the Empire of Beasts. Not for so little to gain. She had lost whatever support remained. In return, though, perhaps…
Ksmvr was staring at Nsiia when she looked up. She started. But the Antinium calmly kept scratching the dog’s ears with one hand as he gently scratched the macaw, who kept trying to nibble on a finger.
“That Magus-Crafter Femithain allows you such freedom is astonishing, Empress Nsiia. I thought he was a practical man.”
She covered her dismay; even now he was canny.
“He is. He plays many sides at once, Ksmvr. Do you not see how he keeps you here, to avoid making enemies of either Chandrar or the Antinium?”
He nodded, voice reasonable.
“I see it. But he is not impartial. Or, to my understanding, he would have bargained you to either Savere or Nerrhavia’s Fallen for gain long ago. That is the logical choice. Yet he keeps you here, dangerous as it may be.”
Nsiia shuddered. It was a reasonable decision. She was not altogether that grateful, though.
“It is the action of a man not without conscience. He knows my fate. The Siren of Savere or chains in Nerrhavia’s Fallen. This is…kinder, as Femithain thinks it. But it is not right. You see the animals whose company you enjoy, Ksmvr? There were millions of their kind in Tiqr. A nation of peace. We began no war, and still my people fight. My lands are taken. So…”
She was warming to her words, her speech. Ksmvr stopped petting Yinah with his third hand and held it up.
“I have heard your plea forty four times, Empress Nsiia. I say to you again: I refuse. I will not involve myself, or my team by proxy, in a war of reclamation.”
Nsiia exhaled, hard.
“But if you could help me but escape—!”
“No. That is not practical. Offer me something concrete to save my team. I care nothing for Illivere. Or Tiqr. My team is lost. I know Yvlon is a captive of Nerrhavia’s Fallen as a gladiator. I will free her as that is unjust and clearly a miscarriage of justice…unless she broke a law, in which case I will find a legal recourse. I do not know where Ceria or Pisces are. Yet. I will find them. Offer me something that will help me locate or rescue them.”
“If my kingdom is restored to me, I will throw all of my strength behind you. I swear as [Empress], Ksmvr.”
Nsiia sat cross-legged in front of Ksmvr. He tilted his head, regarding her. His two antennae were both torn short. They waggled before he spoke.
“…That is a lot of cost for an improbable outcome, Empress Nsiia. It is not practical for me to accept.”
She exhaled, hard. And once more her hopes were dashed!
“You are not the Golem-made-Antinium that Femithain and the people of Illivere think of you, Ksmvr. But you are more heartless than I could wish.”
Nsiia could not hide the bitterness in her voice. To that, Ksmvr only nodded.
“You are right, Empress of Beasts. I am sorry. Or I would be, if I treated this as an admission of guilt or failed desire. But I do not. My team needs me. I am thankful you teach me about animals and spar with me. Yet I will not jeopardize my chances of helping them.”
Both of them realized the issue on the evening of the fifth day. That was about when Ksmvr’s healing had ended, hence his little visit to the Adventurer’s Guild, and the boredom of his captivity pressed Femithain into action.
So he, dressed in the long, flowing gown of state, a curious patchwork almost resembling a quilt with every state represented on it, from symbol to motto inscribed in squares of cloth, approached Ksmvr and by extension, Empress Nsiia.
“We have prepared a small gathering and meal, Ksmvr. The First Crafter of Dellva has invited us to her residence for a meal.”
Ksmvr looked up from his play-time with the animals. He saw Nsiia glance up, though the invitation was not for her. Femithian hadn’t even looked at her.
“I will politely decline, Magus-Crafter Femithain. Has it already been…three hours? I am late.”
He stood, abruptly. Taken aback, Femithain blinked.
“I had not thought you would refuse, Adventurer Ksmvr.”
He was dismayed and didn’t hide it. Ksmvr turned, bowing slightly.
“I would not wish to offend the First Crafter of your state, Magus-Crafter. But since it is so late, I must hurry to the shops and procure another crossbow. Complete my rearmament, and then continue training.”
He had spent hours with Nsiia that morning, warming up his body after recovering from his injuries. Nsiia and Femithain glanced at him.
“You wish to train more, Ksmvr?”
The [Skirmisher] nodded calmly.
“If I must remain in Illivere, I should dedicate every hour to training for the chance of levelling up one more time before I am free to leave. I should not have spent three hours here. I shall limit my visits to only an hour, Empress Nsiia.”
“Surely you can spare the time to attend the First Crafter’s residence? It would not take…”
Femithain hesitated. He couldn’t in good conscience say it wouldn’t take less than five hours; the First Crafter had an entire evening planned. However, Ksmvr just shook his head.
“Even at the risk of offending Illivere’s people, I would rather establish a precedent for antisocial behavior that I might not attend more such dinners. I must improve myself.”
Nsiia and Femithain looked at each other. They traded barbs, but both were somehow unified in this moment.
“Ksmvr, do you not take time to relax and enjoy yourself? What if your team were here?”
Even Nsiia thought he was behaving oddly. He was Antinium, but he had done little else but prepare himself for battle by training, buying items, petitioning or arguing with Femithain that he should be allowed to leave, eating, sleeping, and petting animals.
There was more to life than that. Yet Ksmvr just shook his head as if it were obvious. Patiently, he explained.
“If my team were here, Empress Nsiia, Magus-Crafter, I would naturally accompany them to any event. Because that is a worthwhile exercise with my team.”
“But lacking them…?”
Femithain was fascinated. Ksmvr calmly responded.
“There is no point. When I am not participating in team-building exercises which contribute to our overall cohesion and friendship with one or all of my team, I prepare for our next engagement by procuring items or supplies, studying monsters or geography, or training.”
Nsiia’s eyebrows rose. Yinah gnawed on Ksmvr’s antennae and he gently lifted her off his head.
That was the most boring life she could imagine.
“You have no hobbies, Ksmvr?”
She looked pointedly at the cat in his arms. Ksmvr shook his head, oblivious.
“I do not. Hobbies are a waste of time unless they meaningfully contribute to my team in some way, as in a class. If my team does something…”
“What if they do something pointless, like…staring at weeds?”
“Then that is clearly a worthwhile endeavor because they are doing it.”
The two Humans looked at each other again, and this time forgot all hostility for a moment. Both of them liked Ksmvr, despite their short meeting, for elements of his personality that gelled with theirs. Nsiia shook her head, dismayed.
“Ksmvr, if your team jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?”
His mandibles opened and closed and his head tilted.
“…Empress Nsiia. That statement presupposes that I had not already leapt first to secure the way.”
It was an objectively hilarious statement, but he said it so seriously that it was dismaying instead to hear. Femithain shook his head slightly.
“Adventurer Ksmvr. I myself find endless passion in solitary activities, but even without my position, I find time to socialize with my friends and partake in entertainment. A life without any kind of diversions for their own sake sounds detrimental.”
Ksmvr stiffened slightly. Had the Magus-Crafter actually angered him? He took a second to respond.
“…The fact that you cannot find complete satisfaction in the support and wellbeing of others is not my fault, Magus-Crafter. If you had a wife, or child, I would assume you would recant your statement.”
He lowered his mandibles and made a curious sound. Nsiia thought it was him trying to…sniff?
He didn’t have a nose. Femithain was tapping a finger against his wrist, not offended, just trying to respond. Nsiia decided to help him. Because Ksmvr’s words had offended her.
“Ksmvr. Your loyalty is beyond question and reproach. However, the Magus-Crafter was concerned for your wellbeing as a person. You say you will do everything for your team. Work at all hours to support them.”
“Is that not what a good teammate does?”
Nsiia smiled and nodded gently.
“It is. But no one does it all the time.”
“I do. Therefore, your statement is incorrect.”
“You do, Ksmvr. But…what then have you to offer your team? Do not say ‘planning’ or preparation. I mean, what do you, Ksmvr, have to offer them as a teammate? As a person? You are like a [Slave], because all you do is live for them. Or like a Golem.”
Magus-Crafter Femithain twitched. Ksmvr hesitated. He clacked his mandibles together a few times as Yinah purred triumphantly. Femithain looked at Nsiia, then silently nodded.
“Even Domehead, who was the finest of my creations, stood out because he deviated from everything we had taught him, Ksmvr. Originality, that which is unique, is prized even in Illivere as much as the perfection of craft. It is said that once, a [King of Riches] walked down a hallway set with a thousand vases, each one perfectly crafted. He paid no attention to any of them, for they were too perfect, for all each design was varied and unique. He only stopped when a butterfly landed on one, and declared that no other vase could compare in all his vaults.”
The analogy was a bit flawed in Nsiia’s mind, because, as the story went, the [King] then had a [Stasis] field cast over the butterfly, thus ensuring the art would never be despoiled.
But it had its intended effect. Ksmvr slowly put Yinah down, faced the two rulers, and eventually nodded.
“…As I do not have a logical statement I can refute you with, I shall accompany you to dinner. I am doing it unhappily, though. Not because I dislike food, but because I have been bested in verbal discourse. Most vexing.”
Nsiia laughed. Femithain glanced at her, and then seemed to sigh.
“Empress Nsiia. Would you care to accompany us to the First Crafter’s gathering? She did invite you.”
The [Empress of Beasts]’ eyebrows rose. She smiled and accepted.
It was a strange gathering at the First Crafter’s domain. The First Crafter of Dellva, unlike the Magus-Crafter, Femithain, could be in her position far longer. Femithain was somewhat rare in his long tenure, but the First Crafter’s residence was still grander than his essentially glorified work office.
Illivere was not as arid as some places, but still had that dry quality in the air. Not so within the First Crafter’s residence. As soon as they passed through the enchanted archway, Ksmvr felt the air moisturize quite pleasantly and grow cold.
“Ah, atmospheric enchantments. Quite practical, if it does not cost too much mana.”
“Well observed. So this is the Antinium who people say is more like a Golem? Your Majesty, I welcome you to the halls of Dellva. I am First Crafter Leire of Dellva. Well met, Magus-Crafter.”
The First Crafter, Leire, was old. Old, as in, it would have been strange not to mention that first of all. Old, as in, she had passed over a hundred and thirty years and still, the Human woman looked lively enough.
Not that she walked anymore. She sat, cross-legged, as a pair of Golems lifted the enchanted dais to head-height. Femithain rarely saw her move. He bowed deeply. Even Nsiia offered Leire a slight inclination of the head.
“We stand upon a leyline of power, Adventurer Ksmvr of the Antinium. It allows many magical things to be produced or kept up. Not least…the very reason age touches me less. Do you know what I rest on?”
Ksmvr peered down at the strange dais. It was not stone; or at least, not just stone. He saw a clear crystal etched with glowing little lines of light, but what struck him most were the…elements embedded within.
Clear water, gloriously beautiful gold, polished beyond belief, a deep azure flame, a growing flower, and a light blue crystal, but a glowing white fire within.
Five elements, set around the dais in a curious pentagram. He spoke, absently.
“The pattern and nature of these magical components eludes me, First Crafter Leire. As does the exact enchantment. I can only assume, though, that this is one of the Top 100 Most Valuable Adventurer Treasures as listed down in the Adventurer’s Guild, that I once perused. If I had to make a guess, I would identify it as some variation of a Sanctum of Health.”
The old woman laughed with delight and her fingers twitched. There was a gentle clapping sound—from the little Golem made to look just like her, standing proud in front of the dais.
“Oh, very well done, Adventurer. Yes, this is a variation of that artifact.”
Nsiia knew it too. There were many artifacts in the world; some to heal, others to enhance or simply kill. But this one was clearly to extend one’s life. Fortify the body.
No wonder the First Crafter had lived over a hundred and thirty years if she sat on this. It was a sought-after artifact, as all things that could keep you alive were.
Even so, you had to accept the cost. The First Crafter was shrunken. She had probably been far larger than the almost child-sized woman sitting there. Even if she had tried to stand, Nsiia wondered if her atrophied muscles would let her.
The little representation of her bowed to Nsiia, and waved at Femithain. It was her ‘body’, and the woman carried about by the two Golems let it make the expressions, quite animated, in her place.
“It is a delight to meet two such fascinating individuals. I am grateful both accepted my invitation. The Magus-Crafter had said you were busy, Empress.”
Femithain avoided Nsiia’s look. The [Empress] smirked.
“Am I not the disgrace of all Illivere?”
“Not I. Even had you destroyed Domehead’s Golem Heart, I would have wanted to meet the [Empress of Beasts]. I shall not meet another, I think. Nor the Antinium. But come. I have prepared a little demonstration and there are more guests who await you.”
There were a number of high-ranking [Golem Artificers] and nobility of Illivere. Many regarded Nsiia with glares, especially the woman with the fake Golem eye, Crafter Se, who had been on the team that created Domehead.
But they were polite in this setting, the open-aired ‘porch’ with slanting roofs leading into a strange garden.
No plants here, not for Illivere’s folk of Golems. Rather, it was a literal Golem-garden. And not even a garden!
A flat, glass-like pool held Golems. Some were actual statues, others animals, or even Golems of a far stranger design than modern ones which carried or performed vital tasks. A Golem that was essentially a stone lantern rotated its ‘head’ slowly, a polished gemstone eye turning. It had no legs. It was never intended to move.
A Golem-garden. Nsiia rolled her eyes. No fish pond, no place for animals to come and relax. Just their perfect, ordinary world of Golems acting like…Golems.
It was a calm place to view from, though. And apparently, they would be also getting a chance to see how their dinner was being made. Ksmvr sat, fascinated, as two Golems appeared on the lower wooden steps in the open courtyard and placed something between them. A [Golemmaster Cook] bowed deeply, and presented them with a small speech.
“It is my honor to prepare a feast for the Magus-Crafter, Empress of Beasts, First Crafter, and Adventurer from Izril! Please, observe the preparations of the foundation of your dish.”
With that, the two Golems stood; giant stone figures without real face or feature, but strong granite arms. They lifted two objects high as a giant wooden trough with a rounded base was placed between them.
The Golems had hammers. Ksmvr evaluated the odds of a trap being low, so he kept calm. They were not warhammers, mauls, or any other normal hammer you’d use in war, for that matter. Not even a carpenter’s hammer; these were flat, wide, and nonsensical in many ways. Why so wide? They wouldn’t disperse force well without better contouring.
His answer came as the trough was filled with a number of yellow to orange, root-like objects. Almost like lumpy carrots, but with multiple root structures in places. Some were as long as an arm; others smaller.
Nsiia looked interested. So was Ksmvr, because no one else was scoffing at the basis of their meal. However, to Ksmvr’s knowledge of Chandrar, this was not an appropriate foodstuff.
Yellats were tough, to grow so well across Chandrar with little water. Stringy? Well, not in good ones necessarily, but it was true that it was fibrous. They were a commoner’s fare, though. He liked them well enough, but why yellats? He would assume the rich would crave something exotic, or at least, expensive.
It was Leire’s demonstration that made sense in only a second. For as soon as the trough was half-filled the first Golem swung its mallet up—and brought it down perfectly with a thunk onto the yellats. Then the hammer rose as, precise as could be, the other Golem brought its hammer down.
Ksmvr and Nsiia realized they were hammering the yellats flat. And not just once or twice; the Golems would continue through the rest of the nigh hour-long conversation as the food was prepared before their eyes. It was incomprehensible to Ksmvr at first, and that was because he was not Garry, and didn’t understand food.
Most things mashed and that was that. Potatoes? You mashed them and they stayed mashed. Like fingers or meat; there wasn’t a point and often it ruined the structure.
But some things had a benefit to repeated mashing. Leire explained as the rhythmic toc, toc, of the Golems striking the platter with just enough force echoed across their garden.
“We learned it from Baleros, or so the story goes. They do much the same thing with rice. However, Yellats are slightly different.”
There was a technique to making a dough out of rice like this, but the Golems didn’t just mash for that—although the Yellats would do much the same. However, every ten minutes, a single Human apprentice [Cook] would change the mashed Yellats, turn them, mix them—and sift through them, looking for something.
The second time she plucked something out and hurried it over to the dinner guests, many of whom had asked Ksmvr to relate his story of the Village of the Dead.
“Su-yellat. A strand of magic. For you, honored guests.”
She presented it to Femithain first, who passed, and to Nsiia, who blinked. She passed it to Ksmvr, who eyed…a glowing strand of bright orange.
“What is a Su-yellat? Please excuse my ignorance, First Crafter Leire.”
The old woman smiled.
“A rare Yellat that might grow out of any normal one. You have heard of Yellat-day, Ksmvr? It is said some Yellats actually move or run about. I have not seen one in a hundred years, but it is true some magic can seep into them. This is concentrated. A magical Yellat. It will aid your body for a while, if eaten. [Mages] like it, and I am told Drath buys them. For you, it is a gift to taste. Other places harvest them to sell.”
She nodded at the Golems, preparing the Yellats in a style unique to Illivere and little else. It required a lot of mashing and force.
Ksmvr delicately accepted the Su-yellat and it tasted powerful. Not good, not bad, not bitter, not sweet. Because the taste was all magic. He clacked his mandibles together.
“Quite unique, First Crafter. Thank you.”
“You were saying that when you leapt to the Prince of Nerrhavia Fallen’s aid, you did not know if you would live or die?”
One of the [Golem Artificers] broke in urgently. Ksmvr turned his head.
“I did not.”
“That seems impulsive. Hardly logical.”
Nsiia snorted quietly, but Ksmvr replied evenly.
“It may not have been, but Prince Zenol had attacked the liches to save us all. It did not behoove a fellow adventurer to leave him to die. Not when I had a choice.”
The audience murmured, taken in by the simple way Ksmvr spoke. The Antinium privately thought he was doing a bad job of ‘talking himself up’, a trick Ceria had told him was important to make clients value them as adventurers more.
He couldn’t have known his attempts to glorify his team and make himself sound less important struck a chord with Illivere’s people, especially the artificers, who seldom saw combat. Ksmvr was an adventurer out of stories.
Over the appetizers and chatter, the Yellats did become a doughy substance. It became, over hours, a long, winding strand of incredibly soft material, but Ksmvr didn’t miss how the apprentice kept adding bits of flour and other things to it.
“It can then become noodles, a type of bread—many things based on what you added during the pounding process. Of course, most nations do not have the time to produce it like this. Their loss.”
Crafter Se haughtily explained as the noodles made of Yellats were prepared in a trice after the long wait and came out, smelling of many complementary flavors. To it was added a very fine sauce that tasted nutty to Ksmvr.
“Of course, we should all just pull out our personal Golems and do the same.”
Nsiia chuckled, and Crafter Se flushed and glared.
“Most nations should consider the foresight of Illivere.”
“We tend to invest our money into other things. Not everyone can afford an economy based on Golems.”
Nsiia had been on the edge of the polite conversation. Now, Crafter Se glowered with some of her compatriots at the Empress of Beasts.
“And what artful cuisine has Tiqr? I have never heard of them preparing Yellats finely. What would you serve a guest like Adventurer Ksmvr, Empress?”
The ‘Empress’ was a veiled insult. Nsiia smiled cattily.
“Meat. And we would do it at a banquet, not this calm ceremony. With plenty of animals roaming to join us.”
She winked at Ksmvr, who sat up at the thought. The rest of Illivere’s folk shuddered at the thought of a hyena begging for scraps at the table.
“Just meat, Nsiia?”
Someone scoffed. She shrugged.
“How am I to know what was hunted that day? What animal was culled in its age? Yes, meat. Does it matter what kind so long as it is prepared by a master?”
She gestured at the Yellats dismissively, which Ksmvr thought was unfair to the master who prepared it.
“Wrap it in a variety of leaves—steam it in a boiling pot filled with the right kinds of spices. The right water, and the right fire. You can turn old goat’s meat into a feast I’d gobble down without a second thought with the right preparation.”
Before the others could break into a fierce argument, Ksmvr leaned over to Femithain. He shuddered at the memory of water—he was deeply allergic to swimming, and it was a fatal allergy—but he had no idea the quality of water might matter. The Magus-Crafter nodded, amused despite Nsiia’s argumentative tone.
“I believe there are many kinds, not that I am a [Cook].”
“Many [Cooks] don’t think of water!”
Nsiia slapped her knee, with the forthright authority of an amateur expert willing to lecture everyone about their ignorance. She began listing off the waters you could use as a stock, or in boiling—in everything, really.
It wasn’t just stream water, or mountain water—there was a world of water.
“Prelon water, purified water, saltwater, freshwater, Garswamp water, Phoenixfeather water—not as clean as you’d hope, so don’t just drink it from a pond they’ve claimed, frostelwater…”
Ksmvr was fascinated. He had no idea so many waters existed, and, apparently, didn’t just impart a subtle flavor. Some waters would freeze the outside layers of something dunked in it, like frostelwater. Phoenixfeather water had a heat of its own. You could actually significantly change your outcome depending on the water you used!
It was just that many places lacked access to the varieties of water, or had a variety of foods instead. What struck Ksmvr was the boredom of Illivere’s guests, aside from a few like Leire and Femithain. They were openly dismissive of the barbarian [Empress] neighboring their lands. Part of that was surely how she had destroyed Domehead, but still.
“Surely, even with the varieties of water and fire, the end result of steamed or roasted foods is lacking in variety compared to a diversity of ingredients, Nsiia.”
Ksmvr asked, and there were many nods, but the question was reasonable. She shook her head.
“You say that, Ksmvr, but you have not seen the varieties of spices and plants that lay in Tiqr! Illivere is rich enough to buy what it wants; my kingdom lived cheek by jowl next to the animals who knew where to find it in every crevice and place where treats grew. From ants who created a spice to defend themselves, to wild Ashfire Bee honey—there is a reason Tiqr won competitions of [Chefs], not Illivere.”
A sour silence descended over the group, until Leire had her miniature representative clap its hand and announce it was time for dessert! No Yellats for dessert; rather, sugar-crystals, mined out and eaten with minute liquid flavoring. Apparently, it came from ancient sugarcane relatives that fossilized and stayed deep underground. If you could keep the bugs off it, it was a treat.
Food facts. Ksmvr forbade comment, but he really would have loved the bugs and the sugar.
Afterwards, Ksmvr rode back with Nsiia and Femithain. The [Empress] was clearly tired of the conversation, which had turned argumentative until she paced off, and was staring out the window of the little carriage. Femithain turned to Ksmvr.
“I hope you enjoyed yourself, Adventurer Ksmvr? First Crafter Leire feared some aspects of the dinner might not be to your taste.”
Ksmvr roused himself.
“I enjoyed myself quite immensely, Magus-Crafter.”
Femithain smiled. Ksmvr smiled too. He said nothing more. But he could have.
It was not for the Magus-Crafter to know what lay in Ksmvr’s heart. The [Skirmisher] felt that he had sufficiently impressed the party guests, and Crafter Se had told him privately she ‘forgave him’ for damaging Domehead since it wasn’t his fault.
A net positive. He still stayed up late that night, and when he could not sleep, restlessly paced Femithain’s mansion.
It was only then he heard the crying sound. Ksmvr paused by the door. A little cat stared up at him, her back legs replaced by Golem prostheses. Yinah. She had pushed open the door, and by that, he could hear the sobbing from within.
Nsiia. She was weeping before something. Ksmvr peeked into her room, and saw her kneeling before something.
A…piece of paper. He suspected it to be from her people somehow. He had noticed her communicating like this. Ksmvr did not believe she had received truly bad news from whoever it was, and the macaw could not have flown to its destination and back. So why did she weep?
There was a map of the local region placed there, and a worn comb of bone. Folded clothing that looked rich; almost like armor. Was it the royal garb of Tiqr?
These were the possessions she had carried with her out of Tiqr, as a prisoner. Perhaps…all that remained. A map of Tiqr. A comb. Clothing. Ksmvr stared at the missive and realized that wasn’t the point.
The [Empress of Beasts] knelt before Tiqr itself. And all that was Tiqr was…a memory. She was almost prostrate before the little shrine, crying.
Ksmvr wondered if he should leave. This…was not for him. Like when Yvlon wept over her arms at night, he wanted to run and pretend he had never seen it.
Something stopped him. He saw a figure in the room, two solemn, bright eyes by night. Ksmvr froze—then realized it was not a person.
The little street-dog and the macaw sat in the room with some animals. The dog, playful, a puppy, looked down at Nsiia with a strange, uncanny solemnity. So did the bird.
They stared at Ksmvr and Nsiia broke off from her tears. Her head rose.
“Who is it?”
She spotted Ksmvr. The Antinium stepped forwards.
“I did not mean to intrude, Empress Nsiia, or witness your grief. I would blame Yinah, but she is a cat.”
Aforementioned cat yowled softly. Nsiia smiled, wiping her tears away.
“You can do little to humiliate me, Ksmvr. And I do not think you would. You catch me in the middle of self-pity. Asking forgiveness for failing my empire.”
He stepped slowly into the room. Ksmvr had, of course, educated himself on the Tiqr war after realizing it might be expedient.
“By all accounts, the war was nearly impossible to win without the aid of the King of Destruction. Your grief is understandable. Your guilt…”
He tilted his head.
“…Perhaps understandable too.”
Nsiia looked up sharply. Her tears ran tracks down her cheeks, but her eyes glittered by the candlelight.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that it is my understanding the war began because you did not forswear Flos Reimarch at the meeting at Pomle. Had you done so, perhaps Tiqr would not have become a target.”
The [Empress of Beasts] inhaled, and the animals stirred. She rose, slowly.
“You say what many do not have the courage to say to my face, Ksmvr. Should I have forsworn him, then? Left him to the jackals? He was a great ruler and I admired him as much as you claim to admire your team. Would you forswear Yvlon, or Pisces, Ceria, in my place?”
She knew their names. Ksmvr looked at Nsiia steadily.
“Never. But I am not an [Empress]. You were a good friend, ally, and person. I suggest, perhaps—a poor ruler.”
For a second he thought she’d leap at him, her eyes flashed so furiously. Then Nsiia turned her head and barked a laugh.
“Perhaps! But as we told you, Femithain and I, even a ruler must be a person before a simple servant, or we are nothing! Didn’t you enjoy yourself, or did you lie to Femithain today?”
Ksmvr ducked his head.
“I enjoyed myself. I did not lie, as the Magus-Crafter is able to detect falsehoods, as he revealed to me. I enjoyed myself. And I, too, am awash with shame and guilt. I do not weep, though. I cannot cry.”
The Empress looked at him sharply.
“Why? For enjoying yourself one night, Ksmvr?”
The [Skirmisher] shook his head slowly. Almost…pityingly. He explained, because she would understand. Perhaps Femithain would, but better for him to believe Ksmvr had simply enjoyed himself.
“Consider the following situation, Empress Nsiia. As we speak, as I dined and talked and ate good food…my team, who were scattered by the teleport scroll, landed across Chandrar. One’s location I know. Yvlon, in Nerrhavia’s Fallen.”
She nodded. Femithain was seeking the other two, but Nerrhavia’s Fallen was hard to sway even for a head of a smaller nation. Pisces? Ceria? No word as of yet.
“Ceria, my team captain, did not appear in civilization as I did. She…in this scenario…materialized higher. She fell, and landed on a sufficiently sharp rock. Perhaps concussed; she lacerated her ribs and arm, and broke her legs. She was already wounded from the Village of the Dead raid. Now she is bleeding.”
Ksmvr’s eyes stared at Nsiia. Through her. Without pupils. Not without a soul.
“How long would she survive? If she has a healing potion, many days. If she cannot walk? A limited amount of time. If she had no healing potion…and healing potions are not adaptable to broken bones as well as mere flesh, and not at all to infection…she has minutes. Hours if she can freeze her wounds. If she is conscious.”
“There are many ifs, Ksmvr.”
He nodded slowly.
“Yes. Perhaps she is simply exposed, or predators scent her blood. I do not know. But consider, Nsiia, the many things that could happen, even if she was safe. If, as I sat, eating good food and conversing, she were to become wounded or die, I could have saved her. If I did nothing, I would be responsible for her death. If she is even alive as we speak.”
He was…vibrating. No. Trembling. Nsiia saw how Ksmvr shook. But his voice steadied.
“I appreciate the situation I am in. I would like to leave Illivere not as a fugitive, but with as much aid as I can muster for my team. I am also aware that every second I delay, they may die without me. If I fail—if I have failed one of them, I will take responsibility.”
His voice was silk and steel. Nsiia had heard it before, in her own tones, in the same words as Vasraf and so many brave people.
As hard as steel. As soft and…she reached out, as if he were a creature in pain, but he was not hers to command.
“Such a brave child.”
She murmured, and Ksmvr did not know how she knew he was so young. She looked at him, wearily.
“So you hold Femithain and I in the balance. You do think only of your team. But Ksmvr. Even should you save them from this—what next? If you and your team survive calamity and death and retire, as few adventurers do, what comes next?”
Ksmvr looked at her, and almost smiled.
“I have prepared for that since our first great victory, Empress Nsiia. I have earned an equal fourth share in income and other dividends from my team, despite my rookie status and lower level. I have invested all income at the Merchant’s Guild. I have also begun to secure land in the form of two trees. I intend to expand that until I have a permanent home, and enough monetary reserves to provide food and security to my team in our old age.”
She looked at him like her heart was breaking twice. Ksmvr did not understand. Didn’t she see how well-prepared he was?
“And that is all you desire? To live with your team? To see them alive and happy until you all pass away of old age?”
“I will find a Potion of Reverse Aging before then.”
She almost laughed. Almost. But then she took his arm, with a strong grip.
“Such a good child. But nothing. Nothing for yourself?”
The Antinium hesitated. He shuffled his feet. There was nothing in that image for him. At last, he muttered.
“…Perhaps a horse and cats. And a dog. For companionship, which is good in retirement. If my team wishes them.”
“Ksmvr. Where are your wants and dreams? What of you?”
She looked at the Antinium. Ksmvr hated that question, just like he didn’t like her and Femithain pointing out his flaw in thinking only of his team. At last, he whispered.
“Why must I care for myself more than something I love so much?”
She sat back on her heels and looked at him. Nsiia shook her head.
“For you, Ksmvr. Your team. For me, my empire. In that we are alike. My little schemes do nothing. If I could, I would go to them alone. I cannot flee; not alone. But you?”
Her eyes lit on Ksmvr’s face.
“We are alike.”
The [Brave Skirmisher] met Nsiia’s gaze.
“I think we are. I will accept that you love your nation as much as I, my team.”
The Antinium stood there only a second. Yinah rubbed at his legs, but he did not bend down to scratch her ears.
“I am sorry, Empress of Beasts. It is simply not advantageous to help you. You and I know that.”
He turned his back and marched out of the room. Nsiia sighed and bowed her head. Because, of course—they both knew he was right.
First he was the adventurer. The stranger. The opportunity, the chance…now he was a child. In a way, the more she understood, the harder it was to make a plan around him because she felt for this boy.
And he was a boy. In a way, he had a dream and ambitions so pure, so fragile, it reminded her of a man who had once stopped in her empire with a dream. If she wept after he went, it was not just because another plan fell through. It was because she feared the day something shattered that dream.
Yet that was half of what mattered. Because if it was hard for her…
Magus-Crafter Femithain lowered the bead with fingers that shook. And they did not shake often, for he worked in such delicate ways in his craft. Even so. He had expected to hear some plot, and he had steeled his heart against her grief that happened every night. But that?
He had not expected that. It made him like Nsiia more, and he did, despite what she had done.
It made the rest harder. Femithain closed his eyes and pressed his fingers to the bridge of his nose. Then he replaced his glasses and looked down at three missives.
An ultimatum from Nerrhavia’s Fallen. A threat from Savere. One certainly came from the Siren; the other from Nerrhavia’s royal palace with the royal seal, so it mattered little if it were Yisame or simply the will of the crown.
The last? An auction list and a sum, already paid. A name.
Femithain did not often resent the duties of his position. Difficult choices arose in governing his nation, but often between how best to improve, to refine. To make sure the gears did not crush citizens like sand as they were oiled.
But these were foreign affairs, and their choices were cruel. His fingers twitched again.
It had nothing to do with him. As he had said, it was not his affair and there was no gain for his team.
Pisces mattered. That he was a slave of Roshal? Ksmvr received the news in the morning and thought about it. Roshal, a world power, denied any arguments that would lead to releasing Pisces.
Therefore. Ksmvr asked to visit Elbe that morning. It was one of two changes. Magus-Crafter Femithain assented, of course. He presented Nsiia with another ultimatum then.
“A collar. You intend to make a [Slave] out of me, Femithain.”
The [Empress of Beast]’s voice was flat. Femithain did not meet her eyes.
“You are not a [Slave]. But Nerrhavia’s Fallen has seen how free you are for a prisoner.”
This was true in technicality. She would not be a [Slave].
But it was a collar. A gilded one. A…[Slave]’s collar. It had come from Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Femithain gestured to it as it lay on his desk.
“They do not trust you to remain an amiable prisoner, Nsiia. Your people lie in the steppes. An army led by your [General]. You, with your Skills, could well escape.”
Nsiia’s eyes flickered. She could not deny it without lying to Femithian. All she said was…
“You do not have to do this, Femithain.”
“It is only a collar, Nsiia. It will not restrict your Skills—only detect your location. If you leave Illivere, it will paralyze you. I hope you do not. That would lead to—”
Her hand struck his desk like thunder. Everything went flying and Dellic rushed in, sword drawn. Nsiia had crushed the desk.
“It is a collar and you know it! Look how luxurious they made it, Femithain. It even has Nerrhavia Fallen’s sigil!”
She pointed at the gold and jewels.
“So the world knows who truly owns me. No wonder they are content to let me live here! I will never take it off. You don’t have the key.”
Ksmvr, listening to the loud argument while pretending to still be in his rooms, heard Femithain’s quiet reply.
“I do not. It will not be removed. I do not believe…I could. Not without a great artifact. Nor will I try. You knew you were a prisoner, Nsiia. You had to make a statement for all to see on the scrying orb.”
Silence. The Magus-Crafter went on.
“Nsiia. You will not be taken to Nerrhavia’s Fallen. But the royal palace will not accept anything but this, and this is the least of what they demanded.”
“It will never come off. Could you not have asked for cuffs? I would have removed my hand.”
“I know. Nsiia. Do not—”
The [Empress of Beasts] howled like the very kingdom that had fallen. Ksmvr did not put his hands over his earholes then. He only did after the shouting had ended, Femithain’s battle with Nsiia, the Golems and other guards had brought her down as she tried to flee the city.
They dragged her back, and the sound she made then as they forced the collar over her was a howl of despair. A weeping cry for Tiqr as hope died.
Somewhere, the Siren of Savere laughed to see it. All Ksmvr knew was that he sat in his rooms as Yinah howled, hands over his ears, the last trying to pet her as she bit his hand.
Nothing to do with him.
Nsiia did not journey to Elbe, in the days afterwards. Or the other states. Ksmvr tried desperately to get Femithain to petition Roshal, to find legal recourse, but he received news of Pisces’ auctioning as he toured the states, trying to win over friends.
She did not spar with him. She sat, light gone from her eyes, fingers around the collar. She had tried to break it, of course.
[Elephant’s Strength]. The might of the [Empress of Beasts], tools stolen from Femithain’s workshop—all had failed. Nerrhavia had put a final collar on the Empress of Tiqr that could not be removed unless they had the key.
Both Ksmvr and Femithain did not speak of her. Ksmvr did not know what to say. He could think of many things to say to Femithain, and nearly did. But he considered, when he looked at the Magus-Crafter’s expression, that Femithain was already hearing them.
It was the second visit to Elbe. This time without Femithain. Ksmvr had done the big dinner with the First Crafter and while he had been invited to her residence again—mostly to discuss a new Hammera from one who had beaten the Golem—he did not have the Magus-Crafter.
Ksmvr had been here a week. A week. But he was still under a bounty from Roshal of his own, and he had been trying to help Pisces via Femithain.
The Magus-Crafter had tried to bid on Pisces, but had been forced out of the auction in the first ten minutes. Rich he might be—it was nothing compared to the Naga.
The Antinium had delayed forcing the issue because he was still working on Illivere. He had things to do.
The angry crowd at the Testing Grounds had shouted at him, despite no Testings going on. Domehead was still under repair, but Femithain had said he’d be on his feet any day now. Ksmvr decided to postpone any visits there.
Nevertheless, there was still a commotion following the Antinium. As he shut himself in the dark room, he stood quite still. The intelligence inside the room was amused.
“So how does an Antinium of Rhir come here? I cannot imagine the First Crafter of Elbe was so careless. I have heard of you, Ksmvr of Izril.”
The [Skirmisher] slowly rotated. He turned from the door where a furious argument was emanating from. And there it was. She was?
A Golem’s head, lying on a pedestal. The great secret of Elbe. The terrifying, smiling…Oracle of Elbe.
He said nothing. The Oracle looked at him. She, who had plagued countless First Crafters and the Magus-Crafters of generations, a relic from ages past, laughed softly.
“Are you surprised, Antinium? Come closer. Do you wish…to know something? Ask. Perhaps I will answer.”
But what truths might a Golem this old tell? What false answers, or half-truths, or worse, simple facts that could destroy nations? Ksmvr made no move.
“I am content to wait here, Oracle of Elbe.”
The Golem’s head paused. The voice was steady. Did the Antinium not find her disturbing?
“Really? Then you surely have a question if you have sought me out.”
She smiled. Ksmvr checked the door. Then he pulled something out of his belt pouch. The Oracle hesitated. Was that…an hourglass? Ksmvr put it on the floor.
“No. I am just here to wait out the duration of this hourglass. By my calculations, seven more minutes should be appropriate.”
The Golem blinked. She hesitated.
“…You don’t have a question for me?”
Ksmvr glanced at her.
“As I understand it, you are a malignant Golem with dubious information sources dating back to the old Golem empire. Any information you give me is highly suspect. However, the prestige of having spoken to you is quite considerable, especially if I intimate that I have learned something. I am content to stand here, thank you.”
He folded his arms. Then reached into his bag of holding and took out an orange. He began to peel it. The Oracle of Elbe’s mouth moved.
“Prestige…? You can’t do that. You must have some question. You’re an adventurer. Don’t you want to know where buried treasure is? I can tell you a secret of golem-making.”
Ksmvr popped the first orange slice into his mouth and nodded, clacking his mandibles happily.
“Highly suspect. If you had not bartered away all useful information, Oracle of Elbe, I would still doubt your sympathy towards any member of Illivere. I will accept that as an Antinium and unbiased outsider, I may be worthy of some sympathy. In which case you will furnish it to me without pretense. That you did not the instant I entered this room means you are a manipulator. If you have something to tell me, I will listen, but any attempts to obfuscate are pointless as I do not care and my objectives are already accomplished in merely entering the room.”
The logical, carefully-reasoned statement was Ksmvr’s attempts to win more favor among Illivere’s ruling class. The Oracle opened her mouth, glaring mightily, and Ksmvr interrupted her.
“Also, if you attempt to deny or even tell the truth regarding my actions here, no one will believe you given your reputation as a liar. So, by attempting to disparage me to the First Crafter of Elbe or those who follow after, you only help me no matter what you say, if only nothing.”
He chewed down another orange slice. The Oracle of Elbe opened and closed her mouth, clearly trying to work out the best way to hamper him given his line of thought. In the end, she snapped.
“Get out and don’t come back.”
Ksmvr checked the hourglass.
“In three more minutes. Thank you for your time.”
“I cannot deny the fact that a powerful Gold-rank team willing to excavate in the name of Illivere is a…powerful allure. You have many qualities of Golems yourself, Adventurer Ksmvr.”
“Thank you, First Crafter of Elbe.”
“Please. Call me…Inerta. We are certainly more than acquaintances, aren’t we?”
Ksmvr nodded. The woman with Golem-arms and he were in private discussion. She was dithering.
“It is just that…Roshal? A dangerous foe to irritate.”
“Mercenaries are easily deniable.”
The First Crafter bit her lip.
“So they are. So they are. It is an intriguing offer, Ksmvr. But if it does come back to Illivere—”
“I remind you, First Crafter, that Magus-Crafter Femithain himself produced Domehead perhaps as a result of his participation in the Tiqr war. He risked his life, and the levels may have resulted in the creation of a Sentience-class Golem. It follows that risk is necessary for progress. Logically.”
“Logically. Yes. So fascinating. Are all Antinium like you?”
The First Crafter flitted around her room full of schematics and designs for Golems. She truly was a [Golem Artificer] as much as a ruler. He considered his response and wondered if he was being flirted with.
The First Crafters and other powerful Crafters of Illivere found Ksmvr fascinating, but they were frustratingly hard to commit to any serious course of action. He had only today to finish his plans. So, Ksmvr rose, and delicately took a miniature Golem, half-made. He held it as he stood next to Inerta, looking at a telling tapestry in her personal rooms.
A Truestone Golem, Cognita, perhaps, idly posing upon a throne while people of various species performed Golem-like tasks. It looked…almost identical to sketches of the Truestone Golem at Wistram that Ceria had shown him.
But Ksmvr didn’t recall the haughty, bored expression on Cognita’s face. He glanced at Inerta. Telling indeed. She must have commissioned an artist to create this scene; he could not imagine it was drawn from life.
“The Antinium have many qualities I find in common with Golems. Perhaps this is a strength the Hives and Illivere share. I find myself impelled to press my case, First Crafter. I hope the strength of my arguments will sway you.”
She turned, and Ksmvr adjusted his posture to be as perfect as the little Golem’s he held. She smiled, uncertainly, but with that interest of someone willing to push all limits.
Ksmvr really hoped he wasn’t being flirted with. He was also aware of adventurer relations with clients from discussions with other adventurers like Crossbow Stan, and how this could create a net gain or unfavorable situations. He had been advised to avoid seducing anyone, and he feared if he got to that stage with Inerta, he would be physically incapable of success.
Crossbow Stan had many words of wisdom regarding where an adventurer should sheathe his sword, or how many candle wicks to light, and when to charge the dungeon. It had taken Ksmvr quite a while and Comrade Pisces’ help to figure out these were metaphors.
Ksmvr stayed late at Elbe. For many reasons. What had Crossbow Stan said when he decided Ksmvr was an up-and-coming lad who needed some advice?
“Ah, yes. A smart fellow always has a second crossbow quarrel ready to go.”
The Antinium stopped, by midnight, at the Testing Grounds. He stared into the empty pit. Well, almost empty.
The [Guards] were still there, but the [Skirmisher] was able to avoid their gazes quite easily. The Golems would react if he got too close, but the principal Golem was standing in the pit.
They had reinforced his dome. Colored it topaz for some reason. Given him a complete redesign.
Domehead had been a foe that pushed Ksmvr to his limits before. This time? Ksmvr saw the feet they’d added to the Golem, the war-class armor, the enhanced spells built into his body.
This was not a Testing Grounds Golem, but one which Illivere had poured its considerable technological prowess into. No unenchanted battleaxe, but one with properly deadly enchantments; a glowing Force Axe that could send foes flying. His armor had multiple enchantments written into it, and Domehead’s interior ‘brain’ of crystals shone brighter than ever.
They were still loading countless new commands into him. Not just fighting routines, guarding ones, patrol, attack, defense, counter-spy—everything.
He would be the first of a new generation of Golems. But perhaps the greatest; Femithain’s prodigal son. He would never break again if the Magus-Crafter could help it.
Yet Domehead stood so still. Ksmvr had heard Crafter Se worrying to Femithain something was wrong. He moved when they told him to, executed all commands flawlessly, and still displayed the lateral thinking; he could do what all other Golems couldn’t.
One sign of this was simply giving Golems a locomotion task they weren’t made for. Like…walk in a wavy line rather than straight. Unless explicitly programmed, Golems could not do it.
Domehead could. Yet he did not do anything when he was not ordered to. In theory, he could ‘think’, albeit limited. He just didn’t show it. In war that might change. In battle. They were going to test him out on foes, ‘train’ him.
Ksmvr watched the Golem, now nine feet of death, holding the battleaxe, the only source of bright light in the arena. The [Skirmisher] pondered his journey.
Negotiations were complete. He had wasted enough time.
Now. Now was the hour. He was sorry about Nsiia. But Ksmvr…well. She had the collar and Tiqr was far away.
The Antinium bowed his head. This next part might be unexpectedly hard. He had hoped they’d finish Domehead. But time? Alas. What had he said to Nsiia?
“For my team. What would I do?”
And of course, the answer was simple. Domehead, frozen in place, suddenly moved. The guards, watching him idly, saw the lights burn in his crystal brain. The Golem whirled, axe rising. He took a step—faltered—and backed up a step.
The Antinium leapt over the first balcony and into the seats of the arena. There were shouts and Golems came to life. A bow-wielding Golem trained a bow on him, but Ksmvr dove as shouts identified him.
“It’s the Antinium! Hold fire! Hold—”
Ksmvr landed in the arena. His boots struck the ground with a thud. The [Guards] and [Golem Artificer] on duty froze.
“It’s the Antinium! He’s in the arena with Domehead! Call the Magus-Crafter! Call—”
The Humans froze. What was Ksmvr up to? Was it a rematch? Was he testing Domehead?
Surely not. Yet as they panicked, unsure of how to remove Ksmvr without injuring him, they realized Domehead was not in danger. The huge Golem had been rebuilt. And Ksmvr had lost his enchanted weapons.
Unless…his Skill? Horrified faces looked down. Either a diplomatic incident or another tragedy. But why?
Domehead had raised its axe to shield its chest and lower half of its domed head. It remembered Ksmvr.
“You are called Domehead. Do you know me? We fought once. A regrettable accident.”
Ksmvr called out. He spread his three arms to show he was unarmed. Domehead did not lower the axe. But it did step forwards.
Danger. Ksmvr’s instincts shrilled at him. The Golem was clearly hostile. Ksmvr held up one hand higher.
“I am not here to battle you. I am not your enemy. Do you…understand me?”
He took a step forward. Instantly, Domehead swivelled left, dodging in a pattern as his axe moved, threateningly. Ksmvr halted.
Was Domehead…nervous of him? The motion was aggressive, but it was a defensive position. He turned, calmly.
“I am not here to damage you, Domehead. But I need to do something.”
“Antinium! Do not move! If you attack Domehead, we will restrain you and cannot guarantee your safety! The Magus-Crafter demands you leave the arena and then state your intentions! At once!”
Ksmvr looked up slightly. A [Guard] was aiming a crossbow at him. But he was no Crossbow Stan. Something else the old adventurer had once said to Ksmvr rang true.
“I’ve got a family, Ksmvr. A family. I can’t let ‘em down. So. A good adventurer makes all the profit they can. But they never forget who’s waiting for them.”
They were waiting for him. But would Stan’s family wait forever? Ceria had surely made provisions. But Ksmvr had never…
He looked up at Domehead. The Golem was tensed, lights flashing. Would it attack?
“Someone cares for you. You are Sentient-class. I know you are capable of thought. How much? Do you understand me?”
The Antinium was reflected in the glowing glass of the dome. Ksmvr pointed at Domehead, slowly. The Golem flinched.
“Someone rebuilt you. You have someone who will wait for you. Your…team.”
A pulsing little light lit up a tiny crystal in the side of Domehead’s brain. Ksmvr was fascinated. He could see a divergent thought in the Golem. And then the Golem slowly…nodded.
The arena was silent. The [Golem Artificer], Crafter Se herself, was tearing at her hair, almost weeping aloud, but muffling it. Ksmvr smiled.
“Yes. You understand me. Good. Everyone must have a team. Someone to protect them. Therefore…”
He took a step. Domehead fell back, but it was assessing Ksmvr. The axe came out of its guard-position, warily. Yet Ksmvr, like someone invading the den of a wild animal, refused to back up. His voice was measured. He pointed at Domehead.
“I am not here to harm you. I do not wish to. You have a purpose. So do I.”
He walked towards the edge of the arena, the very place he had come from. Then his head turned. Slowly. He addressed Domehead.
“Do not force me to destroy you.”
Domehead froze. Because, of the many things it was learning, thinking, in this moment—it was analyzing Ksmvr. And…Domehead had no real concept of truth or lies yet.
It did not think Ksmvr was lying.
Uproar in Illivere. The First Crafter of Elbe was shouting at him. Crafter Se was shouting at him. Femithain heard an admission of guilt, of conspiracy. But he barely heard them.
He was racing towards Ksmvr’s position on horseback, and Armsmaster Dellic and every Golem, [Soldier], and [Mage] he could muster were hot on his heels. Yet they had to keep adjusting their position because Ksmvr kept racing forwards.
He was heading back towards Dellva after setting the entire state of Elbe ablaze. Not only had he leapt into the arena, done something to Domehead, but he’d seized the Golem Horse assigned to him and was racing back without his escort.
Why? Femithain had heard mixed reports from the Testing Grounds. Crafter Se had said something about Ksmvr doing something where he’d first appeared, in one of the cells, but then she had shouted about Domehead running amok and had gone chasing after him.
Femithain’s mind could come to a few conclusions about what Ksmvr had been doing. He had been rallying support across Illivere for his team. Now he had acted.
But what had he needed to go to the Testing Grounds for? Well, Femithain suspected, but first he had to catch Ksmvr.
The Antinium was racing across the ground, on the back of a Golem Horse. Femithain shouted at him to stop. In response? Ksmvr just changed directions and raced around the wave of people trying to slow him.
“[Light Nets]! Slow him! [Sticky Webs]—anything!”
“But the Golem Horse!”
Femithain saw one of the [Golem Artificers] pale at the thought of damaging one of the last Golem Horses. Femithain cursed, took careful aim at Ksmvr—but the Antinium dodged the [Paralysis Bolt], swinging low on the saddle. He raised his Forceshield as he surged towards Dellva’s walls, and caught another spell.
Adventurer. Illivere had a lot of [Mages], lower-level [Warriors], and Golems. It was a powerful army, but it was an army when all was said and done, used to engagements, not chasing a single Antinium [Skirmisher] on horseback.
They did a splendid job of getting in each other’s way. And by the time Femithain realized he’d made a mistake and was racing back to the gates, Ksmvr had already leapt over the wall.
The Empress of Beasts was smiling when Ksmvr entered the mansion. She was sitting in his room. He looked for his possessions—she pointed to them.
“If you came to free me, you were too late, Ksmvr.”
She sat, calmly, the gold collar around her neck. Ksmvr studied her. He picked up his remaining belongings, his map, his carefully-prepared provisions, and addressed her succinctly.
“You seem calm, Nsiia.”
“I will be free one day. All my plans fall to naught. But I will be free. I will not crawl to Nerrhavia’s courts to beg Yisame. But someday, someone will break this chain.”
“The Death of Chains?”
“Her? I didn’t even think of that! No. I meant someone who could shatter this bond. You know who I mean. Flos Reimarch. He swore to liberate Tiqr. Well, he will have to break this with his own two hands.”
Ksmvr studied her. He nodded slowly. Yinah yowled. Ksmvr adjusted his belt, and looked out the window. Already Femithain and his guards were flooding back through the open gates.
“It is time for me to go, Nsiia.”
“Then go. Find your team, Ksmvr. I am sorry I had little to offer you.”
Bitterly, Nsiia looked up. Ksmvr bowed slightly. He and she exchanged some last words.
Then he walked out of Femithain’s mansion.
How much did he really know Ksmvr, after all? Femithain had no idea. The Magus-Crafter had seen his sides. From the qualities that so inspired Illivere, to the parts Nsiia had found in common. His rational, cunning mind. His childish dreams.
Now? He saw Ksmvr the Gold-rank adventurer. Ksmvr, of the Horns of Hammerad.
The Antinium was covered in light from torches and [Light] spells as he halted in the courtyard outside Femithain’s mansion. He looked around, calmly.
Golems and Illivere’s warriors surrounded him in almost equal measure. Armsmaster Dellic had his best [Soldiers] armed with shields and swords protecting the [Mages] aiming wands and staves at him, but it was the Golems who should terrify.
Femithain’s personal bodyguards, with shields and weapons. Golems with bows, capable of slinging massive arrows across vast distances.
Even the Golems that never left Illivere. Protector-Golems from older times like the Purifier.
Dellva’s Lantern-Sentries, ceramic Golems holding magical lanterns that patrolled at night stood with simple canes, batons that matched their gentlemanly—or gentlewomanly designs. Complete with splendid hats and old, fashionable garb. The paint had worn away, leaving them pale and white.
In older times, they had tricked [Rogues] and [Muggers] and proceeded to beat the hell out of them and kept the peace. In this era? They could defeat Level 30 [Warriors] who were incautious and they were tough as steel.
An army of Golems and people. Yet Ksmvr walked out into the spotlights and halted. His voice was loud. Fearless.
“I am Ksmvr of the Horns of Hammerad! Gold-rank adventurer of Izril!”
The people stirred. The Golems did not. Ksmvr looked around, his eyes catching the light.
“I have committed no actual crime. Your paranoia may be understandable because I have acted in strange ways. But without legal recourse, I choose to treat this gathering as a threat, which may be actionable legally, but is without actual grounds.”
Femithain saw Armsmaster Dellic glance his way. The Magus-Crafter called out.
“Ksmvr! I asked you to remain in Illivere. Your departure will endanger my nation, and as Magus-Crafter, I cannot allow that.”
“My death will endanger it further. So your army has strict orders not to kill me, Magus-Crafter. You cannot intimidate me. Furthermore…I have acquiesced with your will so long as it suited me. But you have not imprisoned me. I am an adventurer. And now, I choose to go.”
Ksmvr looked past them. If he broke free, he might well reach the gates before all but the fastest could grab him. And they did have orders not to harm him.
“Ksmvr, we cannot allow that.”
The [Brave Skirmisher] slowly swung around. He met Femithain’s gaze, behind the two bodyguard Golems.
“You are trying to hold me against my will, Femithain? Then I will defend myself. I do not wish to. I am stating here, for the record, with you all as witnesses, that when I slaughtered you, I gave you full warning.”
The Humans and Stitch-folk started. They looked at the huge Golems, and at the single Antinium incredulously.
Femithain? Femithain felt a twinge of unease. But it was one Gold-rank, alone. He hesitated, but someone called out.
Armsmaster Dellic. The man had a sense of the moment. Of the event. He did not have a great command of words, sadly, because he chose to invoke the wrong event.
“Is it war, then, Ksmvr?”
The Antinium stared at Dellic blankly. The confident [Armsmaster] waited for a witty response. He did not get one and faltered. At last, Ksmvr chuckled. He reached for his side.
For the bag of holding. Femithain’s eyes locked on something Ksmvr seized. And the pieces connected.
Ksmvr, the survivor of the Village of the Dead, had turned up here with only his gear. He had no objects beyond a traditional adventurer’s gear. But surely, given all the Horns had done…
They had all seen how the Horns went into the center. For what? Glory? No. Treasure. Femithain had been there, with Nsiia, and he had not believed Ksmvr had left empty-handed.
He had not believed it, in truth. But he had held his tongue because Femithain was not a [Thief]. He had wondered how Ksmvr would have hid such a priceless artifact, though. Now…he knew.
The Testing Grounds. It had occurred to Femithain that Ksmvr had appeared in one of the cells. Before he left, if he thought he might lose what he carried, if he was afraid…maybe he had buried something? Rather than even risk it in battle? That his team might recover it, even if he died.
But what had he hidden? If he had not unveiled it, even if he trusted Femithain and Nsiia, it had to be something valuable. So valuable Ksmvr would only recover it now, fearing [Thieves] or it simply being seized.
Slowly, slowly, the Antinium called out to Armsmaster Dellic.
“War, Armsmaster? You cannot survive my war.”
He unveiled the thing he had taken from the Village of the Dead and the people froze. Even the Golems paused.
In the chaos of the flight from the Putrid One’s greatest servant, what would you grab? A spellbook? Rings? A scroll? Whatever you could lay your hands on? A circlet?
The object rose in Ksmvr’s hand. Femithain stared, uncomprehendingly, as the magic began to burn his eyes behind the spectacles. Dellic turned pale.
In the last minute of the great [Paladin]’s life, as she faced down her death, she had not reached for her weapon. Mainly because someone had run off with it.
The [Paladin]’s sword burned the instant it met the air. Ksmvr remembered the moment. The Dullahan woman had turned and grinned at him.
The radiance hurt the eyes of all who saw it. Except his. A terrifying glow. A weapon from a different era.
The death of the Putrid One. A…gift.
“Stand aside or perish. This blade was meant to slay monsters, not you.”
The people and Golems both fell aside. Ksmvr walked forwards. He strode past Femithain, then stopped. Came back.
“My thanks, Magus-Crafter. But from here on out, my team is my goal. If you stand in my way, we are enemies. Please remember that. I know you have a good memory. I will only go to the border with the horse.”
Then he leapt away, sword glowing in the night. Femithain stood, speechless, as the Gold-rank adventurer departed the city.
Ksmvr raced over sand with the Golem Horse, knowing that behind him lay chaos. He had almost debated leaving the sword where it was. It was too grand for him. Yvlon deserved it, or Pisces, perhaps.
He would be pursued, but his enemy was Roshal. He needed the blade.
The Antinium was headed west, on a direct course after Pisces. He had thought about Yvlon—but Pisces was in the most danger if he was right. Ksmvr had heard Roshal was a…bad place.
To the west lay Tiqr. To the southwest, Savere, along the coast. Further still, and his target, the caravan where Pisces was held captive. So it made sense Ksmvr’s movements could be anticipated in some ways. Anyone heading to Tiqr or Roshal would take the same path.
“…Nevertheless. I am a bit displeased.”
The Antinium slid from the back of his Golem Horse. The glowing-eyed, ceramic beast was not comfortable to ride. Ksmvr would move fast on his feet, anyways. He let it trot back the way it had come.
Illivere probably had ways to recall it, anyways. Then the [Skirmisher] turned.
A panting mare let a figure slide to the ground. Then Ksmvr heard a meow. He stared accusingly at Nsiia of Tiqr.
“Why did you bring her?”
“She came along. I thought you’d come this way.”
The [Empress of Beasts] returned Ksmvr’s glare. The [Skirmisher] saw her eyes lock onto his sword. She stared at it, even though she had already seen it.
“I thought you said that you would not aid me, Ksmvr of the Horns of Hammerad.”
She still looked confused. Ksmvr huffed.
“…I hoped you would cause sufficient distraction for me to make my escape. I did not anticipate us taking the exact same escape route. You will go that way, and I will go that way. I do not need to be caught up in your affairs.”
He pointed northwest, while he took the road. Nsiia didn’t budge, so Ksvmr flapped all three hands.
Yinah leapt down to nuzzle his leg. Ksmvr bent to scratch her behind the ears. Nsiia studied him.
“You didn’t explain fully why, at the time.”
She touched her throat. The collar was gone. It could have held a lesser Djinni, but the sword had sliced through it, of course. Ksmvr admired the blade. Not silver. Actually, goldish, except for the edge. It had a dark stain, even now. The Putrid One’s blood? He had managed to get it to stop shining so brightly.
He glanced up. Nsiia was waiting. After a moment, Ksmvr straightened. His reply was simple and easy.
“I thought of my friend, Pisces, wearing chains. I found it abhorrent and applied the same logic to you.”
He began to walk past Nsiia. She waited, but that was all there really was to it. Why did he free her? Why…?
It was the same voice. That was not surprising. The fact that it was the same tone was surprising. Just like every other time.
Not worried, just a bit vexed. A bit annoyed. Orjin tuned out the shouting. The shattered armor. The people being picked up.
The others were watching. From Salthorn to Xil. Some looked disturbed. Others, calm. Others didn’t even care.
Salii, the [Secretary] of Pomle, looked at the Strongest. Orjin calmly snapped the last binding on the leg. The [Slaves] looked at him.
“Why did you do it, Orjin? You didn’t give me any warning.”
Her tone was level. The Strongest looked at the Drake.
“For all this time, you’ve asked me what I wanted. What I would do, what I willed. I never told you anything because I never wanted anything. I was happy with some changes. Not with the others. I didn’t inform you about this because I’ve always done as I thought I should.”
He looked at the fleeing Nerrhavia’s Fallen group, and the people whom he had freed. Salii tilted her head, smiling.
“Can you explain it to me, again? I think I know.”
Orjin exhaled into the night air and shrugged, as if he had done nothing out of the ordinary.
“It offended my sensibilities. That is all.”
It was the same kind of answer, said two ways. The why was easy. The how was pretty easy too if you had a magic sword.
Ksmvr began jogging off. Nsiia followed him, scooping Yinah up as the mare groaned and plodded after them.
“Go away. I am trying to rescue my team.”
“What if we went together? Femithain will conflate the two of us. You freed me.”
“…No I didn’t. Yinah freed you.”
She laughed. Ksmvr sighed, but he didn’t scare her off. And the word spread. An adventurer had freed the Empress of Beasts. A foreigner from distant lands with a magic sword.
It was going to cause a lot of trouble. Ksmvr…didn’t really care. Someone had once said there were consequences for actions and that was true. It might be war and consequences. So what?
They’d have to catch him, first. He began running, and the [Empress of Beasts] leapt into the saddle. A cat yowled as the two began to race over the ground, to what really mattered.
They only slowed when they realized they were being pursued. Ksmvr looked back. He was sure he’d established sufficient dominance this time! Moreover, their breakneck speed had outdistanced anyone but someone on a Golem Horse of their own.
Or…someone relentless enough to run the entire way here. But how had it—he—known they were here? Ksmvr checked his sword. Nsiia spun.
Domehead slowed when he saw Ksmvr. He had not been expecting to see Ksmvr. Ksmvr had not been expecting to see Domehead.
Nsiia was flabbergasted. She looked at Domehead, not able to comprehend how this had happened. Ksmvr’s mandibles opened and closed.
“I told you I would destroy you if you attacked me. Is that what this is? I thought you had a…team…”
He looked up, suddenly. At the figure on horseback. The woman stared at Domehead, and Ksmvr. Even the cat caught on before she did. Then Nsiia reeled.
“But I struck him down! I…”
Domehead trotted forwards slowly. He looked at Nsiia, the lights flashing in his head. The axe was strapped to his back in its holster. He did not reach for that. Instead—he raised his hands and took a familiar fighting stance.
It floored Nsiia. She looked up at Domehead, staggered as if the Golem had punched her.
A little light glowed in Domehead’s mind. Ksmvr saw tears spring to Nsiia’s eyes. She touched her chest, took in a shuddering breath.
“I—I am a fool. A terrible…friend? Mentor? A worthless woman to look up to. A betrayer. A…”
Domehead stood there, indicating he disagreed. Anyways, Pisces sometimes said that too, and Ceria. Ksmvr felt a kinship with the Golem, and tapped Nsiia on the shoulder. They had to keep moving. This was…probably going to cause more trouble.
The [Empress of Beasts] started as Ksmvr indicated the way ahead.
“You are not a terrible friend, Nsiia. Come, come. And hurry up. Not a horrible ruler. Just a bad mother.”
Then he kept running.
Domehead was gone. Ksmvr was gone. Nsiia had fled.
Three disasters for the price of one. All interrelated. He saw that now. What Magus-Crafter Femithain thought, in his light-headed state, as he stumbled through his home, was how connected it all was.
Like a Golem’s circuits. One provoked the other. Had he not seen it?
Yinah was gone too. For some reason, that disturbed him most of all. He thought of the little cat, and could focus on missing her more than…
Domehead. Why had he gone? Of all of them, Crafter Se, who had slept in the arena to fix him? Armsmaster Dellic, whom Domehead had also learned from? Femithain had given Domehead life.
Yet it was Nsiia. Femithian thought he understood why. It had not just been the Magus-Crafter’s logic and Skill. Perhaps the Empress of Beasts had helped create Domehead more than he ever knew.
Femithain stumbled, and nearly fell as his walk took him past his office. Not to his desk, not in the dark mansion. He had tripped over something.
A broken collar. He looked at it, and then kicked it aside. Femithain walked on, blindly.
He was chuckling, laughing softly. A quiet hysteria. Understanding…something.
At last, the Magus-Crafter stopped. Not in his workshop, not in his office filled with papers and the affairs of state. These were not the places that drew him. It was just a private room, in his mansion, where Nsiia and Ksmvr had never intruded. They probably thought it was abandoned.
And how not? He knew them. They knew him. But only for a short time. Femithian himself had never entered this room for the last two years. He’d just…forgotten.
Yet it was cleaned of dust. The Magus-Crafter looked around. He had been preparing to show it to someone. It was just…a thought. Now, he knew why.
They taught Domehead how to fight. Gave him routines to protect, defend, even bow and repair himself. Dellva, Illivere, had been abuzz with dreams.
Teach him to learn. To overcome! To lead? For a Golem such as him, he would not have to be taught pre-programmed actions. He would learn. Had Crafter Se dreamed of…?
He did not know. The Magus-Crafter sat at an object in the darkness. He had wanted to take his creation here. His son.
The harp was free of dust, and the enchantments kept it tuned. Femithain plucked at the strings, hesitantly, then remembering. It was a pointless room, or had been.
You did not play music for Golems. They could not appreciate it. Femithain sat in the dark room, bleeding, though he had not been struck. Murmuring the word.
He realized the irony, why the Oracle of Elbe laughed. The living were so…hard to predict. You could not control them. Femithain looked out the window.
“The day I made him, he was not mine, but yours, Nsiia. Take care of him.”
Then he rose to follow after.
Author’s Note: I am still sort of sick? I don’t actually know, but I’ve observed that thought-cohesion is still harder and I’m just not sharp.
Sort of like…a stick of butter compared to Ksmvr’s new sword. Even tangentially, being under the weather isn’t great for writing if you don’t have multiple drafts.
However, the chapter is shorter! And done! And that’s what matters, right? There’s big news coming up. Did you not see that trailer? I’ll ask you to spread the word to make the Kickstarter a success closer to the date because if it does, I can do more comics and projects!
Also…French translation for The Wandering Inn! Multiple languages! Hurrah! It fits so well with the story, you see, where there’s only…one…main language…which is explicitly English…
It’s just great to have another way for people to read the story that wouldn’t ever normally find it. I hope to one day have lots of translations, but finding people willing to translate 8 million words and not charging uh, by the word, is tough. Nevertheless, I’m excited for the future! And getting to maximum health. Thanks for reading and see you next time!
Stream Sketch by Artsynada!
Emir Riqre’s Prisoners and FurFur the Hated by LeChat