8.38 H

The Last Tide – An Innverse Graphic Novel from pirateaba

 

It had been nearly six days. Six days of brief action regarding the two Gnolls; sightings, false flags, and updates from the Doomslayers heading north.

Chieftain Xherw kept tabs on the issue. However, it was one issue of many and it said a lot about how he felt about Doombringers that it was even part of his concerns.

The Chieftains had begun to meet and deliberate. Even so, as he broke breakfast with no less than Chieftain Iraz of the Steelfur Tribe, greatly fascinated, and Shaman Ulcreziek, there was a murmur from the guards outside his tent. [All-Seeing Honor Guards] were not easy to trick or bypass, so Xherw wasn’t worried.

“I simply do not see why you failed to bring this to the Plain’s Eye tribe if you were aware of it the last six days, Chieftain Iraz.”

Shaman Ulcre’s voice was annoyed, containing mixed emotions from concealed trepidation only Xherw could pick up on to open skepticism. Yet it was the implied rebuke to Steelfur that made Xherw lean over.

“Ulcre. Chieftain Iraz is his own Gnoll.”

It did not do to offend one of the greater tribes, for all Steelfur was a staunch ally of theirs. Iraz accepted Ulcre’s apology. His own gaze was steady as his metal fur shifted by the dawn’s growing light. He held a cup delicately in one paw.

“I promised to keep the secret of the Ekhtouch, Silverfang, and Longstalker’s Fang tribes’ great gift, Shaman Ulcreziek, Chieftain Xherw. Waiting until the Chieftains began to meet was a point of honor.”

“Hmm. And honor matters. You are not wrong, Chieftain Iraz. Ulcre, we must confirm this. Have any other tribes found Humans like this? If not…”

Xherw had to rise and let Ulcre talk with Iraz longer. The argument at the door to his yurt was not ending, so he went outside and saw the Gnoll standing in the dawn’s light. It shone off his red leather jacket, glinted off his sunglasses, and backlit his pose as he stood in front of the [Honor Guard].

They glared at Yelroan. The [Mathematician] glanced up as Xherw sighed and gently massaged his face. This was the last thing he needed.

“What is it, Yelroan?”

“I’ve found your Doombringers, Chieftain.”

Xherw’s head snapped up. Yelroan elaborated.

“Or where they will be. Both of them.”

 

——

 

“There’s obviously some kind of anti-detection Skills going on. Good ones too, since all the [Oracles], [Shamans], [Seers], and so on can’t do a thing. Anti-prediction? I told you I could do it.”

Xherw patiently sat in front of a map in Yelroan’s large work-tent as the Gnoll dragged it over. He wanted proof of Yelroan’s conclusion, although he’d already signalled Merish’s group to make a course-change.

“How sure are you? How did you find their route, Yelroan?”

Math, of course!

The Gnoll’s glasses glinted. Xherw rolled his eyes. He’d walked into that. The [Chieftain] was patient, but his impatience was a physical feeling in the air, and Yelroan felt it and hurried on.

“At first, I tried to do what your spellcasters didn’t, and see the logical pattern of movement based on a five-day data-set. They’re moving fast, so I actually had more points of data than you’d expect. I was also able to use extrapolation-Skills to fill in data points.”

“…You mean, you were calculating where they were going and seeing a pattern.”

Xherw’s head began to hurt already, and Yelroan had explained how his mathematical formulas worked many times. The Gnoll nodded, happily.

Exactly. In this case, I had five locations, see? And I have them pinned here…”

He indicated the map of Izril, along the High Passes, where a red line of yarn was moving in a roughly eastern direction, a bit south, a bit north—no clear straight line or even helpful curve. Yelroan went on.

“I assumed that two Doombringers would be avoiding Gnoll tribes in the area. So, I found every Gnoll tribe with accurate listings or known locations, and marked them. Then I—”

“You found every Gnoll tribe in a hundred miles?”

Xherw was startled, but Yelroan was indicating circles of yarn around pins. The [Mathematician] sniffed.

“Of course, Chieftain! Keeping up on information is part of how my class works. But just knowing where a tribe is isn’t helpful. So I extrapolated. These circles around each tribe are the radius in which they could conceivably move in one or two day’s time. Some tribes have larger radiuses, because their patrols or Chieftains have movement Skills…”

Ah. So the Doombringers would go to their next location where no Gnoll tribe was.”

“Exactly! I traced essentially ‘threat zones’, and compared them to their movement over the course of five days.”

“And?”

Xherw sat forwards, eagerly. Yelroan smiled.

“…There was no real correlation. It looks good now, but they passed through other tribes’ threat zones and I can’t pin their pattern to it.”

Xherw’s stare made the [Mathematician] fumble over to a second map; he had multiple boards for projects like assessing trade value or other activities.

“To be fair! Even your [Pathfinder Scouts], [Hunt Masters], and so on can’t figure out where they’re going because they’re doing what I am! Plotting a route based on geography or proximity to the Gnoll tribes is obvious. So that’s when I realized we were thinking about it the wrong way. There is a pattern to how the two Doombringers are moving. Just not in any of the normal ways we check—to keep themselves safe. Clever.”

“Yelroan, I have a hundred things to do this morning.”

The Gnoll gave Xherw a hurt look.

“You did ask, Chieftain.”

“I did. So summarize faster.”

Yelroan pushed a piece of paper towards Xherw. The Chieftain peered at it. They were sums of gold and silver and copper.

“What’s this?”

“The expenditures of the two—or rather, the adult male Gnoll—”

Doombringer.

Yelroan hesitated.

“Yes, Doombringer, Chieftain. Their expenditures over the last five days. I had them pulled with a little work. Note what they’re paying for?”

“Hrm. Carriage ride. Inn rooms. Food…lodging…supplies. A silverware set? Is there a point, Yelroan? How did you come up with all this?”

The Chieftain couldn’t make any sense out of it. Yelroan smiled triumphantly, however.

“Most inns—even Drake-run inns—will give you the time of day if you send in a [Message] spell asking about particulars. I wouldn’t have gotten all this information if we couldn’t prevail on Gnolls to look it up. A bit of coin opens ledgers…as does the news. It’s that poor girl that was on the news! But enough about that. See the expenditures? It’s not a small amount of money, Chieftain!”

“I can see that. But it’s not a large amount either.”

Yelroan tapped the side of his nose.

Yes, but now look at the cities we’ve plotted. You can’t tell by names alone, but they’ve gone from town, village, city, city, village…”

There were classes of Drake settlement, although almost all had walls. Xherw peered at the little breakdowns of each city. He still didn’t see it.

“Not many Plains Gnolls would, Chieftain Xherw. But I realized there was a pattern. A pair of Gnolls with money to burn is not the most unusual thing to see. However, a carriage ride from city to city? That’s…not actually as easy as you might think. A private room for dining, here? In fact, every inn? That’s sensible. They don’t want to be seen by another Gnoll traveller. But all these little things, like leaving this city before dawn at 4 AM?”

“What of it? We don’t even use enchanted timepieces, Yelroan.”

But Drakes do. And do you know something, Chieftain? You cannot leave a Drake city before dawn in many circumstances. Not unless you’re the Watch or have special dispensation. They lock the gates at night.”

The Chieftain of the Plain’s Eye tribe perked up his ears. Now he was interested. Yelroan pushed his glasses up further.

“There is a pattern. Firstly, the two Doombringers avoid any settlement embroiled in strife. They also avoid places with stringent checks for travellers—or ones that just don’t like Gnolls. They want easy-to-access inns and taverns, where they can lay low. And they do go from settlement to settlement. My guess is that an entire Drake city is safer than an inn on the road, where the Gnoll tribes can easily search.”

“What’s the pattern?”

Xherw saw Yelroan tap his final data point. The [Mathematician]’s eyes traced the geographical map and his gaze turned distant.

He saw it, clear as day, and had confirmed it with a Skill once he’d checked his hypothesis. There was a pattern, just not geographical or corresponding to proximity to other Gnolls.

[Visualize Data Set]. Yet the Skill proved the math was right, not the other way around. His murmur was satisfied.

“Passports.”

“What now?”

Xherw saw Yelroan turn. He gestured to all the cities he’d marked and three more with gold pins.

“Each city they visit accepts and uses the Walled Cities’ passport system. Not all do, or recognize it as strongly. You probably don’t care, Chieftain, but a passport lets travellers enjoy certain rights, even if they aren’t known to the city. Like, say, chartering private transport, no questions asked, leaving through the city gates at any hour. The older Gn—Doombringer? He has a Grade-4 passport. I have no idea how he got it, but it means it’s a safe bet he’s using that to speed their way. And that narrows down his next destination to the following three cities.”

He pointed to three cities that Xherw would have been unlikely to name based on any logical pattern. One was almost vertically down on the map, despite the promise of the two going ‘east’ via his oracles. And yet, if they were trying to lose pursuers…

Xherw stood up.

“You are sure, Yelroan?”

“I’m sure of the pattern, Chieftain. I’m sure of the data, but there are a lot of variables in life we can’t predict. However, I’m fairly certain I’m correct on at least the passports.”

“Then I will inform Chief Warrior Merish and any Gnoll tribes at once.”

Xherw took the names of the three settlements down. He nodded to Yelroan.

“Well done.”

The [Mathematician] puffed up with pride. He smiled, smoothing his fur back, and decided to bring up getting apprentices or helpers or expanding his role in the tribe at a good point. He stared at the map. He hoped he was right, and Merish would get these Doombringers.

…Yelroan stared at the map and remembered what you did to Doombringers. He’d been so focused on the problem, he’d forgotten. The Gnoll’s smile vanished, and he fiddled with his glasses.

“Ah. Right…Chieftain?”

He looked over his shoulder, very hesitantly. But Xherw was already striding away.

Yelroan didn’t follow him.

 

——

 

Every good nation needed someone like Yelroan. Someone who could make sure the numbers added up, perform logical, independent actions without needing their paws held at every moment.

Government officials, in short. Sometimes they were merely tools in the arsenals of nations, to fight internal corruption, help with the tasks of supply and management. Usually, the power of the bureaucrat was the spoken or written word, which was translated into sword or magic via authority and writ.

It was the rare, ascended form of their class that could deal with bad bookkeeping with a [Fireball] spell as well as a ledger. So, for instance, when you saw ‘Creler infestation’ on the books, instead of allocating the troops or supplies to eradicate the issue and waiting two weeks…

“[Gravity Well: Reversed]! [Flaming Lightning]! [Glass Needle Spray]! Die, verminous filth! The Vizir suffers no pests upon the land! Die, die, die!

Some days Fetohep wondered how Vizir Hecrelunn had managed Khelt when he’d been alive. It was easy to watch him yanking the Crelers out of the dust and blasting them apart, but how was he with a quill and ink? Did he scream his name while signing documents?

“…Delegation.”

Fetohep concluded. The scrying orb turned off as the Vizir raised his head.

Begone, transient ruler of Khelt.

He actually cancelled the [Scrying] spell. Fetohep sat back as the Vizir continued to root out Crelers.

They weren’t even near the battle lines in Medain. The Claiven Earth, Terandrians, and Medain were in an all out running war, but the Vizir had abandoned the front when he’d heard about the Creler nest to destroy it.

His logic was that a threat to Khelt should not be allowed to grow in strength. He’d also wanted to see Crelers, which had not existed when he ruled. The Vizir had been openly unimpressed, despite their magical resistance and endurance that let them even survive being set on fire and electrocuted at the same time…for a while. Fetohep suspected Hecrelunn could kill an Adult Creler. An Elder? Well…

In any other situation, Fetohep would have been thinking about how to curtail Hecrelunn’s naked ambition to replace him and rule Khelt ‘properly’. He would have hesitated to unleash the great [Vizir], or have put him to some great task.

In this strange era he found himself in, he simply let the Vizir deal with the Crelers. If need be, he would rein Hecrelunn in. But Fetohep couldn’t help but resist.

Great Khelta, Queen Heris, if you walk with me—was the Vizir changed markedly by his death and entombment as guardian Revenant? He seems…unhinged. Arrogance is to be expected, but in a [Vizir], meant to support the throne?”

He waited. Then there was a soft laugh in his ear as Queen Heris spoke, her voice still almost breathy in death, fluent, someone who could chatter—at least that was how she spoke to him. Not at all like he had imagined.

Hecrelunn was [Vizir] in a time when Khelt treated with other nations who feared our emerging power. He humbled other rulers who would not accede, and we sometimes called him ‘Little Brother-King’, Khelta and I. If he acts too strident, remind him of that. And that we are watching. He was ever faithful. He only threatened to steal the kingdom’s throne that we might rule without the nuisance of governing ourselves.

Little Brother-King…Fetohep had no tongue or lips left to move, but his jaw opened and closed soundlessly. In the end, he managed a slow nod.

“Truly, the days of great glory of antiquity have once again come to the present, Queen Heris. Perhaps his great might can be put to more tasks after the war concludes. Not least this project…I rise now to pursue your will.”

He slowly left his throne to stand at one of the balconies in his palace. Fetohep looked down into a huge clearing of space outside. An entire garden and even some residences had been removed, and mana stones and [Mages] by the hundred were being carried out for a great magical working. Fetohep stood over the huge proceeding. He studied the lines of arcane force. After a moment, Queen Heris’ voice whispered in his ear.

Fetohep. Fetohep. The [Archmages] say it is still off in eighty three ways.

“…Great Queen Heris. Can you…ah…repeat their instructions again? Verbatim?”

Both dead rulers of Khelt sighed mightily.

 

——

 

In the land of the dead, there were no people or objects, save for what was stationary, not held. Only Fetohep was visible, and only to the rulers of Khelt and the Human girl they had permitted into their great confidence.

However, there was a gathering as mighty in death as there was in life. The hurrying servants of Khelt and [Mages] in the living world were echoed by their peers in the land of the dead.

Yet such an imbalance! Where a pacing [Court Mage] of Khelt stood in life, trying to lay down a magical outline in paint, sweating over a glyph she could not understand nor fully even visualize given the basic, verbal instructions from Fetohep himself, an [Archmage] of Wistram stood.

And a [Sage of Wonders].

And a [Shaman of the Eternal Grasslands], who had risen to the rank of [Archmage] herself in life.

They were watching the clumsy lines appearing and all three were tsking over them. The [Archmage of Sky], the Garuda, turned to the Gnoll and Stitch-Man.

“Completely wrong. How do they not even know how to connect two magical thoughts?”

“I don’t understand. Hrr. It’s literally a straight line. Why is she drawing a loop here?”

The Gnoll rubbed at her head. All three waved at the harried Queen Heris, pointing out another flaw in the magical diagram they were working on. The [Queen] tried to shoo away an annoyed ghost repeating the instructions again.

Two straight lines and an Invel Loop. That’s a magical loop under the first two, which completes the magical circuit!”

The Queen glowered at the [Runemistress of Ger].

“Fetohep of Khelt informs me there is no way to draw it in physical space, [Runemistress].”

“Yes. Physical space. You draw the third line via magic! Just tell any [Mage] ‘Invel Loop’ and they can draw it.”

The flat line that Queen Heris’ lips made said that she was quite aware that ‘any [Mage]’ might well not know the magical term from whatever era the [Runemistress] was from, that visualizing magic for non-[Mages] and trying to translate magical instructions via only words was aggravating, that she was sick of these arrogant spellcasters bossing her around, and that Fetohep was not good at drawing.

Yet she turned and began whispering to the figure only she could see, and both kept at it because, well…it was a magical working of a scale that literal [Archmages] were collaborating on.

Grand magic. Even in life, so many ghosts pooling their expertise was unheard of. Even if they had to test and implement via the living, here stood a [Deathless Virtuoso Assassin], who had been guildmaster of the greatest Assassin’s Guild in life, debating which technique was best with a Named Adventurer [Dragonslayer Rogue].

Each one could, theoretically, then pass on said knowledge to the living world. Every [Assassin] in existence would trade someone else’s testicles and left hand for that knowledge. Imagine what you could create?

Well, one did not have to imagine. Queen Khelta of Khelt stood, watching the magical construction at work. Her mind raced.

Potions from the [Sages] of Chandrar, who had mastered turning sand to gold as a warmup, who had created tonics to reverse aging, created forms of limited immortality, and changed any aspect of the body they wished.

Spells from the masters of magic that had once broken dimensions apart and slain magic itself.

Techniques from warriors who had battled Dragons.

All of which she could gift Khelt now. Create in it a kind of mastery—or at least, the knowledge of said masteries—that had never existed in any age.

She turned to her guest of the moment. A [Swordmistress of Ancients], who had mastered six styles of blade school, each with their unique Skills and Sword Arts.

“…As you see, Zeladona, now is not the time to withhold any act. Now is a time of legends once more. I ask you—in the name of your story, which once shook every continent—grant my scion, my ruler, Fetohep of Khelt, the grace of one of your great schools of blades! He will recreate a school of [Blademasters] who will bear your name into future generations.”

The [Blademistress of Ancients], Zeladona, who had been so old she had been literally turning to dust, was the young woman who had first mastered all these arts. She appeared as she wanted to be, and the radiance of her soul might have eclipsed even Khelta’s. A bit.

She fingered the useless memory of a weapon at her side, one of the varied swords she had carried and used. She looked at Khelt, and then at Khelta.

Betimes, Khelta wore a headdress of bone and light, free clothing that revealed sections of her arms, a cut dress to allow free movement in the heat, but still a dark purple, like the [Necromancers] of her time.

Other times she was older, wearing garments of state, or armor—also of strange ivories not always pale white—as she changed in age.

Most often though, she matched the age of those she talked with, so the young woman wearing the light clothing and bone earring would have been an odd, but similarly-aged pair with the [Blademistress] who sat lightly, legs waving in the air on the ledge of the palace, the Dragonbone sword slung across her lower back, ready to be drawn in a moment, her Wyvern-scale armor glinting in an imaginary light.

Zeladona’s reply, when it came, was simple.

“…That is all very well and good, great Khelta. And I do not mistake the favor you and your peers have done for us all in warding Chandrar. However, it seems to me that for me to unveil one of the ancient styles that even Dragons used, and which ruled the entire world when I was young…some due compensation might be in order, ah, eh?

She smiled, using the expression of her era. Ah, eh?

Khelta’s eager smile waned. Zeladona glanced meaningfully down at the city.

“I’ve…heard there might be a statue or two for some favors done. A statue is all very well and good. But for the greatest sword style of my time…perhaps a book? Come to that, I’ve heard tales about certain ghosts who might be on a short list to…influence…the real world. I would like a few promises, perhaps with witnesses? Then we can talk.”

By now, the First Queen of Khelt’s smile had vanished completely and a sour look replaced it. It just went to show. The egalitarian unity of the dead, their great defiance of the evil of the six and the end of all things?

Gone, the second someone suggested they had something to gain. Khelta ground her teeth together.

“We can…certainly arrange due tributes via our mortal representative, but some aspects are as yet impossible. If your face or history is not recorded, Zeladona—”

“I am happy to provide my own biographical account. And help coordinate with any [Painter] or [Sculptor]. So handy we can see mortal objects, isn’t it?”

“...Quite. By which, do you mean, repeat the entire story of your life?”

Zeladona coyly brushed at her hair.

“Perhaps only the most important bits. I know time is fleeting, but since your great scion is undead, he could spare a few days of dictation. Me through whichever ruler is talking to him. I am inheritor of the Soul’s Light style of blades. It would not be too great a sacrifice for knowledge of that art, hmm? With a few other concessions.”

A few other concessions. Khelta’s smile twitched.

And there it was.

If you looked over the palace of Khelt, into the grand gathering of ghosts, you could see countless peoples, not all standing on the steps or streets of the capital of Khelt itself. They could fly, so regular Humans walked or sat in the air next to Garuda, or shouted into the ears of half-Giants or Giants who kept their voices low.

Beyond that was the great procession in which the dead were organized and the latest news acquired. All of it had been so perfect, so grand. Unity against the six things.

Only, something had thrown a wrench into the plans of late. The [Sages] no longer patiently had Named Adventurers and monarchs asking the recent dead to spread the news. The [Sages] did not impart their vast wisdom freely. Everyone had heard what was happening in Khelt—seen it with their very eyes. And thusly—everyone now had a price.

The problem was…well, Khelta gloomily stared down at the top steps of the palace. There sat a young woman, talking with [Witches], her latest guest, amid her friends, like the Silver-rank adventurer, the [Pickpocket]. The ghosts still kept back the rabble from her, and they lined up to speak with her.

Erin Solstice had a way about her that was simply charming. The ghosts wanted her to bear their stories, their grief, their knowledge back if she returned. It was safe to say the dead of Chandrar had bet on Erin Solstice, and put all their money on her.

Why don’t I just whisper how to create the Boots of Seven Leagues into your ear, my dear? Not to worry! You’re so charming and I do hope you’ll teach those Drakes a lesson. Did I tell you how they conquered my nation when I was alive?

Let’s just practice the Steps of Seven Lands. You’ll probably not get it, but just in case, hmm? And then you can tell everyone you learned it from the [Aethergate Traveller] himself. Go on, don’t be shy…

They gave away great knowledge to her, most of them. Because of course, she carried hopes and dreams and had a terrible burden to bring news of the six to the lands of the living. Because there was hope in her.

But Khelt? Khelt had direct access to the lands of the living. A king who could obey any commands in realtime! Give them that, and the ghosts, rather than help Khelt become the greatest power ever, decided to remember their mortal allegiances and desires.

Khelt? I was just never too keen on necrocracies, I’m afraid, Khelta. Happy to chat with that young woman, but I just don’t think it’s the right time for another undead superpower.

Of course I could teach you how to cultivate Ironbark—I might even know where some saplings are. What’s in it for me? A statue? Hah!

The dead got…greedy. The bastards.

“…It may be I erred in granting Nerrhavia and a few ghosts statues.”

Khelta muttered, admitting her own culpability in the situation. Word had spread like…well, word in the lands of the dead. Nerrhavia hadn’t helped, showing it off, even though it was in the most remote courtyard, strutting about. My legacy remains.

Now they all wanted their life stories re-recorded, set down just so, statues, that Fetohep had to somehow translate from a verbal description into stone. And the ghosts were picky.

Some were altruistic. But…Khelta wrenched her attention back to Zeladona.

“What did you mean, Great Zeladona, about influencing the real world?”

The [Blademistress] smiled widely, exposing a gap in her teeth she’d had since being a child. Apparently, rather than having lost it to natural causes or in battle, she’d simply once punched herself with the hilt of a training sword hard enough to knock it out.

“Oh, you know what the dead say, Khelta. If there were a plan to, say, animate statues to let us inhabit them, or paintings, or…create a gate to bring us back. Put us in bodies? I could see giving you all six styles. For some carefully worded promises. In front of the right people.”

And there it was. Her eyes betrayed a terrible desire. The same desire Khelta felt, even now.

I want to live. They had all heard Erin’s cry. They all knew it, damn it. Who didn’t want to try again? No matter how, no matter in what way…

If I could but move a blade of grass, I would have some meaning in this place where there is nothing but memory and death.

Khelta bared her teeth.

“There is no way save that which Khelt has, Great Zeladona. I am afraid I cannot offer what does not exist.”

“Ah, eh, well…perhaps some lesser things. But I cannot just give away my life’s work for nothing, you understand?”

The [Blademistress] spread her arms, sounding reasonable. Khelta resisted the urge to throw her off the palace’s roof and nodded, smiling again.

Both of them knew…Khelta was telling the truth. But they also knew that now every ghost in Chandrar was thinking of the same thing.

If rulers could talk to an undead in the living world, it followed there were other ways for the dead and living to meet. If Terandrian rulers could hold an artifact still in the mortal world…if [Witches] and [Warlocks] and [Summoners] had once indeed summoned ghosts to the mortal realm, as used to happen in days of old…

Perhaps. Khelta’s gaze turned towards the grand working, and felt Zeladona’s eyes on her face.

“The future is uncertain, Great Zeladona. I suppose the question is—who is a friend of Khelt? Ah, eh?”

The [Blademistress] considered the question, eyes narrowed.

 

——

 

Negotiations were slow, but then, Fetohep was occupied and there was the decision of which great thing to bring back into the modern world at any given time.

The working outside the palace was the #1 priority; the rulers of Khelt had agreed on that. The rest was more negotiable.

“A sword art, like a spell, is still different to a secret like brewing a Potion of Adamantium Skin.”

King Serept was debating with Queen Xierca and two others. The half-Giant was sounding out his thoughts.

“Even had we full cooperation, learning a sword style is not the same as levels. I would almost rather create grand rituals than learn mere knowledge of a given style or art.”

“Yet, King Serept, so many now look at Khelt and wonder if they aid us to their detriment later.”

Xierca pointed out. King His-xe laughed, but sadly.

“Do they think we will all come back? And if so, that Khelt would try to subjugate all? I find it sad, my fellow rulers, how soon our vaunted unity falls apart.”

The others nodded slowly. It was Khelta who spoke as she marched up to them.

“Yet we cling to hope. We know ghosts can be summoned, or spirits from ages past. I myself could call ghosts, not actual spirits with personalities, but something like them, as a [Necromancer]. They are right to hope. And right to be suspicious. We must simply prove we are worthy of their trust.”

“As always, Khelta, wisdom.”

Xierca bowed, as the later rulers who had come to venerate her always did. Serept just nodded.

“Perhaps demonstration will do. Queen Khelta, I have been speaking with Fetohep regarding my people, who continue to wane. They are technically sworn to another [King], and at war, but…”

He led Khelta towards another gathering and continued speaking.

“…Demonstrations such as this would engender the sympathies of all half-Giants such as myself. Giants too. My ancestors are not without vast wisdom of their own.”

Khelta saw they were following Fetohep as he stepped towards another wing of the palace, looking slightly exhausted from four hours of directing [Mages] about. She nodded.

The Giants who sat around in the lands of the dead were easy to ignore, but they were even more tight-lipped than the other ghosts with secrets.

“A favor for a favor.”

“Just so. And there happens to be one group that would make their secrets known for a single deed.”

Khelta brightened up. That sounded great! Who was…

“Hey! Hey, it’s Serept and Khelta! Are you guys here to bug Fetohep too?”

A familiar, cheery voice made Khelta and Serept stop. They exchanged glances. Khelta rolled her eyes; Serept gave her an apologetic look. They looked up and saw someone had slipped her handlers.

Erin Solstice waved in the company of some ghosts. Fetohep, walking around, slowed, and turned his head, perhaps hearing her. She stood with one of her friends, and Khelta’s eager curiosity turned into a kind of wariness. She bowed slightly, for even a ruler such as she acknowledged legends.

And it was a group of legends who stood before her. No, not just from one time, but all those who had her spirit. Who had the will as one of Erin’s great friends.

Elucina, the [Rebel of String], stood with adventurers, [Mages], warriors, and scholars. Rulers of old. And there had been many. But even if Khelta knew only a fraction of their names and deeds, she knew them at a moment’s glance.

“Those who hate slavery.”

“Great Khelta, King Serept. You have it right. We have heard many refuse to tell you their secrets of life. We come to make you an offer.”

Elucina nodded as Erin gave her a thumbs-up of support. They were all following Fetohep; he had a swarm of ghosts at any second these days. Khelta kept glancing at Serept. The half-Giant stepped back, nodding, and let them talk.

“You have a proposal, Rebel of String?”

“A simple one, great Khelta.”

A masked figure bowed slightly, but the mask’s shape and their figure said clearly it was a Garuda who lay garbed in cloth such that not a single feather was visible, and only a mask stood out from the bundled cloth. They would never fly, not like that. Khelta wondered if something in their life had rendered them…unable to fly.

She shivered. Even in death, there were dark stories.

“We are those who strive against chains, in every era. In every form. It would take a mighty oath, Khelta, but you are honorable, as are your rulers and descendants. Did Erin Solstice voice for you that you spoke truth and received truth—we would give you our knowledge and secrets, yes, even our techniques, for a promise of three.”

“Name it.”

Khelta’s mind was racing. Factions had re-emerged among the dead, and one stood before her. Elucina’s eyes burned.

“That Khelt outlaws all slavery. Now until the end of time. Beyond the end of time. Until every citizen and child ever born or who will be born who is Khelt has passed—they shall all bear that promise. Never again, never in any form. Second—that Khelt tells our story. The story of [Slaves], and the cruelties that lie behind the masked deed, the false pretenses of those who chain others. Golem-makers, [Slavers]—in every form.

Khelta could just imagine the controversy that would arise if Fetohep were to proclaim that, yet the two were not the most arduous requests. She could well weigh it against the other ghosts’ wraths for immediate gain…but she had a feeling about the final request.

“And the last?”

Elucina glanced at Erin. Then she nodded at Khelta. She seemed not to doubt Erin; perhaps the [Innkeeper] had given her a promise. Well and so. She did not rule a nation.

That Khelt takes up arms against Roshal, and shall not rest until that nation lies in ash.

“Ah.”

Khelta sighed softly. Almost sadly. For Roshal had existed even when she was alive, and she knew how much that promise was.

“We do not ask it immediately, Khelta.”

Elucina saw her hesitation, and Khelta raised a hand.

“…But you do ask it in time. And with time constraints, no doubt. An oath. I…understand. We shall discuss this imminently. However…”

Her eyes slid sideways. Erin had been bobbing on her feet; she thought it was a good deal! But then she saw Serept and Califor coming back their way.

Erin tried to hide behind a giant Dullahan. It was no good.

“Erin Solstice, your lessons in witchcraft await. Come with us.”

“Aw! But I was going to help convince Khelta to beat up the [Slavers]! Come on, Califor, join in with me. It’s a good deal, right?”

“Your lack of understanding of politics astonishes me. Enough.”

Califor grabbed Erin’s ear and began to tow the young woman through the corridors, back the way they’d come. It didn’t hurt, and they passed through a wall with Erin arguing. Serept sighed, and so did Khelta.

In…relief. Elucina and the other ghosts noticed, of course, but they did not comment. Khelta turned to them.

“Let us talk. I make no promises, but your desires are not unknown to me, Rebel of String. Is there room for compromise? Is there…?”

 

——

 

Work. Fetohep’s head hurt with trying to understand magical sigils as a [Warrior]. He had actually been studying up on spellcasting; he could do some as a Revenant, in theory, but the truth was that the project outside would work based on his limited communication or it would not.

This next location was just as important, however. If not for the same scope…no, for the same reasons. It concerned a citizen of Khelt, after all, and in her own way, she was as valuable as any other task before him.

Khelt’s rulers did not forswear their vows, and this was a vow made nineteen times over. Thus, the nineteenth ruler of Khelt had invested an equal share of time into this as arming his new great scions.

His subjects were coming to the capital, to be tested for aptitude. Alked Fellbow and the Falcon of Medain had both pledged themselves to his service.

Everything was going splendidly! Or was it? Fetohep was a flurry of mixed emotions. For the greater the deed, the more fell the hour. And…in this case…

Fetohep, you may walk faster now.

The King of Khelt had slowed to investigate one of Khelt’s many rooms. In this case, a fantastic bathing area. It hadn’t been the most subtle of choices since Fetohep was not going to hop in any tub, even the one filled with hot, shifting sands.

However, he’d done so as soon as he’d heard Erin Solstice’s voice. Serept had also whispered in his ear.

Fetohep nodded and picked up the pace. He murmured, quietly.

“I take it I need not conceal my actions, Great Khelta?”

“No. I would speak with you, Fetohep. The ghosts desire more for their aid. Tell me…your feelings on Roshal?”

It was a question out of the blue, but Fetohep was quite used to it by now. He responded instantly.

“Unfavorable. I do not like the nation of [Slavers]. If you would have me act with them…”

“No. But how do you rate them as a military strength? If…ah…I were to ask you to go to war with them and bring them to dust and ruin?”

Fetohep nearly walked into a pillar. He adjusted his pace; he was going into a more distant wing of the palace, far from the entrance. He normally wouldn’t conduct much work there, but circumstances in the lands of the dead had pressed him to relocate the project there.

Was the Roshal of your time, ah, less powerful than Khelt was, Great Khelta?”

A laugh in his head, a bit tired but wonderfully…wonderful.

“No, Fetohep. I only ask.”

He thought of it, and replied simply.

“Give me leave to unleash all of Khelt’s wonders and warriors. A way to ambush Lailight Scintillation, perhaps. Ample timing?”

“Yes?”

“…It would still be no sure thing. Roshal would mobilize countless nations to its defense. It lacks some of the old legends of its past, but there are names in this generation. Among them, the Naga, an Emir Yazdil of surpassing wealth. There are simply too many nations who draw succor from Roshal. And their hoardings…may surpass Khelt’s.”

“I see. Thank you, Fetohep.”

That was all. Fetohep nodded. Khelta’s voice drifted away, and then she spoke closely in his ear.

“I see we close in on the second great project. Speak freely, and we shall not let that mistake happen twice. And as we speak of it…have you more thoughts to the nature of our enemy?”

Fetohep’s golden flames flickered in his skull.

I have, Great Khelta.

“Then speak.”

The Ruler of Khelt did not mince words.

“You stand against a great foe that has come against you in death itself. Which commands power over your kin. Which cannot be slain, only held back, even by Dragon’s fire itself. Six. You tell me six. No names, for that may empower. Even the knowledge of it will be a weapon against us. They devour souls.”

Yes, yes! And you know them as…”

Fetohep clenched a fist. He was sure he was right this time.

“Spectres. Amalgamations of soul and wrath, which grow in power the more they absorb. They will eventually reach the material world if they accrue enough force, by devouring all.”

He waited. In dead silence, Fetohep walked until Khelta’s strangled voice replied.

“…Almost. Almost.

Fetohep’s eye-flames dimmed. What was he missing?

The problem was that Khelta could not explain, and he could not understand. It would be so easy if she whispered a word.

Erin had whispered a word into his ears that made it all so…so simple. Fetohep?

He had fallen down. Collapsed, and the rulers of Khelt had been so afraid that he would not rise—though he did after a second—they forbade Erin to ever say it in fullness again. So they danced and he kept positing theories. Close enough. It was fine if he was close enough, but the entirety of it mattered too.

Fetohep sighed and walked onwards, trying to figure out what he was missing that frightened Khelta so. He could not, so he hastened his pace; he had already covered a mile of ground and had further to go.

And at last they came to their destination. This part of the palace had been made in a time when the preservation spells and great magics were not a guarantee; accordingly, the rulers had elected to have a safeguard to preserve the undead and other things if need be.

The walls and floors were cold, frosted. Everice made up actual rooms, and this was an excellent freezer. Not that it was often used as such; the [Preservation] spells would work just fine.

Yet it was suitable for this moment. This project. Fetohep stopped in front of a door and gestured.

It swung open, and four dozen people inside turned and bowed deeply.

“Enough. Appraise me of your progress.”

“Your Majesty. We regret to say that while we have now found the exact poison and applied it in the right methods, the exact method of unfreezing eludes us. Applying the cure, and the cure itself…”

Beyond Fetohep stood his best [Healers], [Mages], [Scholars], [Alchemists], and more. Not just Khelt’s own; he had sent for others, like he had Alked. They were all working on the problem.

“Oteslia was more advanced than we were in regards to the cure. We have been formulating ideas, but the instructions given are sound. A general cure for the poison must be applied before unthawing, or the healing will not take effect the instant the flesh warms. Yet…thawing the flesh is a challenge unto itself. The flesh may be damaged by freezing and unfreezing. Twice?”

A [Healer] was gnawing at his beak, shaking his head. Yet he thought there was a chance, and the others had approved the general instructions that had come from the Last Light of Baleros. Fetohep listened, murmuring, repeating their findings to Khelta, who had her own [Sages] and [Healers] to consult.

…Although some of them were less helpful.

‘Just toss a Potion of Death’s Door Revival on her and move on!’ 

‘Have you not considered using Unicorn horns? No? Well, go get some!’

The materials and Skills lacking…Fetohep shook himself. There was progress and no progress, but he had devoted Khelt’s considerable money to the project.

Oteslia’s [Scholars] were now in contact with Khelt’s, and he had reached out to Talenqual, but the [Doctor] was unavailable. They had all that was needed behind this project. Funding? Check. Talent? Arguably too much of it, some of which got in the way with ideas that only worked with equipment they had in life, or wanting Fetohep to reinvent a certain reagent that wouldn’t be guaranteed to help…or had been replaced by cheaper or more effective ingredients like Sage’s Grass.

“Very well, enough.”

The babbling fell silent. Fetohep looked around.

“What of the final issue? [Mages]?”

One of his people looked unhappy to give Fetohep the bad news. His highest-levelled [Mage] on this project was a [Royal Scholar of Magic], a generalist, but a good one capable of casting many spells out of many disciplines.

The problem was…she cleared her throat.

“The nearest [Ice Mage] of a caliber above Level 30 willing to join the project is still two weeks out via ship, and that is assuming they agree, your Majesty.”

Fetohep’s eye-flames winked out. Yes. The one thing Khelt could not source properly was…well, [Ice Mages].

Chandrar. Ice mages. These things did not go together. Oh, there were technical tundras, but Chandrar just didn’t have the specialists required. They had plenty of [Mages] who could cast ice spells, but Fetohep wanted the best of the best. He waved a hand.

“Send for them. But we must proceed at all speed. Therefore…is all in readiness? How many?”

“Six, your Majesty. With an option on eight more.”

“Six. That is…enough.”

Fetohep saw trepidation in the researcher’s eyes. Even an unspoken objection. He ignored it, though he himself had reservations. Yet…

“Take me to them.”

 

——

 

There was one reason, and one reason alone, that Khelta had stopped Erin Solstice from following Fetohep.

There had been no secrets in the land of the dead that needed it. Until now. It was not some grand scheme against the ghosts, for dominion, against Erin Solstice, even. It did concern her, and she would not accept it. Which was why…she did not know.

Fetohep of Khelt halted in front of an old man he did not know. Human. They were all Human. Six figures. Some who wept. Some who stared defiance, silenced under spell. One—and this was the old man—surrounded by his family.

“I am Fetohep of Khelt.”

“Yes, your Majesty.”

The old man had a cough. He was weak. He had never met Fetohep, and his gaze betrayed the fear of someone seeing the undead for the first time. Nevertheless, he had come here.

Fetohep let his gaze roam past the others. One was being prepared with a spread of the same poison. She was weeping; another was staring at daggers prepared to thrust. This man was too weak to survive either; he would simply…

“Your Majesty. Must we—must we watch?”

A woman was clinging to her children, who both looked at Fetohep like he was a monster. He turned to her.

“You do not, mistress. But here is the noblest sacrifice your father shall ever make, in his last hours. It is your choice to watch it or not.”

The old man closed his eyes at Fetohep’s words. His daughter, her husband, their small family, all looked at each other.

“Your Majesty, Fetohep of Khelt. I hate to ask a ruler this. I have no right. But, please. May I ask you to swear it again?”

The old man whispered. Fetohep looked away from the other five. Only two were like him; the other three were criminals. And oh, the crimes one had to commit in Khelt…two had come from abroad.

Slavery? Worse? He did not know, but to the old man, it seemed an even greater crime. Fetohep slowly nodded. His golden flames flashed bright in his skull.

“Before those you see here, Pelai Chesaw. Before the rulers of Khelt in death. Upon my nation’s honor and my hope for its continued existence. I swear. Your family will be citizens of Khelt henceforth, unless they should break a law of this land, in which case I shall exile them with ample compensation for the rest of their lives. Yet I make no promise without the spirit of it; they shall be cared for until the end of their days.”

“Then. I will hold you to that.”

Pelai reached out, and Fetohep realized he wanted to clasp hands. Slowly, Fetohep did. Pelai’s eyes flickered at the strength, the familiarity of the grip.

“You shall watch from the lands of the dead. Believe me, Pelai.”

“Thank you.”

Do not thank me. Fetohep looked at the volunteers, as the [Mages] moved forwards with the prepared freezing spells. Copies, or close enough to what had frozen Erin Solstice.

“If he lives, your Majesty? If he lives, will you tell us? I cannot watch.”

His daughter sobbed. Fetohep nodded at her.

“If he lives, you shall come within the hour, no matter where from.”

Pelai smiled, but he and Fetohep knew the truth. The six were unlikely to survive. Yet…that was what Khelt could do, that Oteslia, the [Doctor], could not. Practice. Enforce theory with experimentation.

“Conduct the spellcasting. I shall attend. Then—after the first three, the three criminals. I shall hear their last words and wishes.”

“Your Majesty, they are likely to spit only filth.”

“Then that is their right. I shall hear it before their end.”

Fetohep met the gazes of the three. Then he turned as the man said his last words. He watched, an undead’s grin on his face.

Yet Fetohep of Khelt did not smile for long thereafter.

 

——

 

In the lands of the dead, Khelta could not see the ghost until he rose to walk with her, like Erin. That was how she knew it had worked; one of the six had died in truth. She told Fetohep that, then left the ruler.

It had to be done.

No. It did not ‘have’ to be done. There was every chance that a cure could be found without this. Yet how would they test it?

Erin Solstice would refuse. That was in keeping with Khelta’s understanding of her character. So, the Queen did not tell her. The young woman had to live.

Not just because Khelta had sworn it, and named Erin an honorary citizen of Khelt. Because she bore so many secrets and burdens of her own. Because Khelta cared for the young woman’s fate.

Beyond that? Most of all? If this were the hour of the destruction of Khelt, the ghosts would still have pressed for Erin to live. Because she did matter.

The sword of Kings had come from her, and the umbrella that still shone. Their foes had never been truly harmed, for all they had felt pain. But for then.

Khelta needed Erin Solstice to live. So she left Fetohep to the harsh weight she had placed on him. Hurry, she wanted to tell him, but he knew that.

Hurry. It was too peaceful. Khelta had not heard of the six appearing near Chandrar for too long. It could not last. Nothing was forever, not even Khelt. Hurry.

Someday, something would change. In the next hour, in the next year, the next minute…their enemies were never kind enough to let them wait. When it did change, they had to be ready.

 

——

 

“Go, Pisces Jealnet. Never let yourself be chained again!”

Then she leapt into the air. A being made of light, who shone with every color she had ever seen. Flying upwards, shouting with a voice that shook the open air.

Czautha, the Death of Chains. In her wake, Azam, the Aethertraveller Djinni followed, flying. His eyes wide, his expression filled with emotions that the young Lizardwoman had never seen in his weary resignation.

Hope.

They joined the laughing half-Elf, the Deathless legend, nightmare of old Wistram. Silvenia, the Death of Magic.

Literal stories. A fitting end for the madness, perhaps. Never forget. The Death of Chains looked back once, at Pisces.

There are things to chase away even evil. Some people still fight in the darkest corners of the world.

Then she was gone, a streaking rainbow across the skies, leaving the freed [Slaves] and naught but the dead [Slavers] behind. A heroine of a tale no one had ever told them in truth.

And then…and then…

And then what? Eloque stopped staring at the sky when the last rays of the Djinni’s passage vanished. It had been an hour, at least, watching her travel at fantastical speeds through the heavens, alighting there, stopping elsewhere—sometimes to glorious flashes of light. Always heading west, towards the haven of [Slavers] itself.

But Eloque’s eyes and the curve of the horizon did not allow her to see the end of it. So…she stopped staring at the sky and looked around.

What happened now? She blankly stood there, realizing she had not moved since the great Djinni had torn her collar apart with ease, since the monster who had owned her, Igheriz, had been destroyed without a second thought.

“What…”

Her voice made a few of the others still staring into the night sky start. There they were, the [Slaves], staring in stupefaction, now—coming to their senses and realizing they were free and alive, rather than about to be tortured for daring to escape.

Bearig, the [Cook], holding Rophir the little half-Elven boy. Qshom, the Dullahan [Tailor] whose two friends, Droppe and Shein, had betrayed them with Astotha.

Eloque herself, her scales stitched with tiny black threads to mimic…Stitch-Folk. Many others from Hrome’s caravan and Igheriz’s, but among them the tan, sable-eyed [Bandit Lady], Merr the Storm, thin from captivity, bloodied from the fight she’d put up.

And the last of them…Pisces, the Gold-rank [Necromancer] from Izril. And Cawe, the [Pickpocket]’s eyes closed, her beak still partly open in snarling defiance, her feathers stained with blood. Eloque knelt.

“Oh, Cawe.”

It broke the others out of their trance. Bearig passed a hand over his face, his jowls moving as his lips traced words soundlessly. Rophir broke off from staring at the night sky, and his look of silent wonder faded slightly. Merr started, felt at a wound on her shoulder, and muttered an oath as pain reasserted itself.

“Cawe.”

Qshom spoke, kneeling down. It was cold, and Cawe lay there on the ground. The Dullahan knelt. So did Eloque, her strength leaving her legs.

“She—if Igheriz had been five minutes slower. If we hadn’t tried to escape!”

Suddenly, regrets filled her. Their freedom. The bravery of the escape attempt—did it mean nothing? Qshom had removed his head from his shoulders and placed it next to Cawe’s body.

“No. No, if not for her, perhaps the Death of Chains would never have noticed us. It was Azam who signalled her. Somehow. With…the spellbook?”

He was trying to piece together what had happened. The Dullahan reached out, hesitantly, for Cawe’s claws. Eloque didn’t understand what he was doing, but he was trying to clasp them together. Someone else spoke, roughly.

“Azam? That bastard could have let us escape! He may have flown off, but he was obedient right until his bonds were broken. He didn’t. But at least one Djinni is out there, burning Roshal’s bastards to ash.”

Merr strode over, her head whipping left and right in the darkness. She stopped in front of Cawe as the others gathered around. Bearig made to shield Rophir’s face. But the half-Elf boy stared with little emotion.

“Cawe. We should bury her.”

Eloque insisted. Qshom nodded. He had already removed something and placed it around her, adjusting the folds of cloth.

A cloak, to shield you from sand. The Dullahan moved gently, covering Cawe’s body. All but her face. Bearig looked oddly at him, but Eloque remembered, faintly.

Dullahans buried their dead differently. Head apart from the body. It prevented them from becoming undead, sometimes, and the head was what mattered.

Suddenly, Cawe was all the freed [Slaves] could think about. They bent, and someone else went looking for a shovel. It was Merr who muttered.

“Someone should say some words. Does anyone have a pair of gold coins? Damned [Slavers] probably had some, but that’s no good and most’re ash.”

“Gold coins?”

Qshom murmured, confused. Bearig was fumbling at his side. Eloque saw, to her confusion, he was trying to remove part of the string on his arm joints. The Stitch-Man pulled it free, then began to place it on the top of the cloak. Someone else brought over a piece of wood.

“For the dead.”

Merr was speaking. She saw a Stitch-Girl offer her a piece of wood.

“Embers are out. We’ll have to relight the fire.”

“Fire? You want to cremate her?”

Eloque and Qshom started. The Stitch-Folk in the gathering just looked at them, blankly.

“Fire consumes all. It’s the death of cloth, that her form will never be tarnished. What are you going to do, bury her? The ground’s too hard. Here.”

Merr removed some stitching around her wrist. She placed it on Cawe’s body, and then looked around.

“I need to re-stitch this. My hand’ll come off.”

“Here.”

Bearig already had thread and needle. It made no sense to Eloque, until she saw all the other Stitch-Folk taking just a bit of string out of their bodies, re-sewing limbs, but contributing part of their thread to Cawe’s growing pyre.

Remembrance. Part of them going with her?

“Gold coins. I’ve never heard of that.”

Qshom was hesitant. He was clearly realizing that they couldn’t remove Cawe’s head for preservation and bury her body—or entomb them, even re-use the armor—but he clearly wasn’t sure about cremation. Eloque didn’t know either. If this was home…

Home? Baleros and Lizardfolk villages? It felt so far away. She heard Merr mutter.

“It’s just a [Bandit] tradition. You put some gold with them in case they need a start wherever they’re going. Not even the worst [Thieves] steal that. It doesn’t…better nothing than Igheriz’s gold.”

“I have two silver coins.”

Eloque murmured. She fished them out. After a second, Merr took them and placed them over Cawe’s closed eyes. Eloque didn’t have anything else to add. She wished she did.

“Back home, one of the Nagas would…organize this. Have people say what Cawe did, or—are we starting a pyre? How do Garuda bury their own?”

“They don’t. Some cremate like us—others leave them out in the wilderness. So they return to the land.”

“To be devoured? What if they rise like undead?”

Qshom was quietly horrified. Merr shrugged.

“They make sure they don’t. We could do that.”

“No. Let’s—give her a send off. I think she’d want that. I think. She lived in Nerrhavia’s Fallen all her life.”

Bearig murmured. He had been next to Cawe for so long, no one objected.

It was only then that Eloque had a thought. Amid all the people adding something, bringing over firewood, trying to relight the campfires that had gone out…

“Where’s Pisces?”

He surely had something to say. Something to…

The others’ heads turned. Where was Pisces? In the stunned silence after Czautha, he had gone. Eloque rose, heart beginning to pound faster in fear. Merr’s head snapped up, and she abandoned the flint and steel. She searched around.

“Sword. Where’s…”

She stumbled over to Igheriz’s ashes, kicked them aside, and cursed.

“The sword’s nothing but slag. Hey! Anyone have a sword? Even a spear!”

The others looked about at her sharp voice. Merr strode towards the camp and came out a second later with a sword. She checked it, then tossed something at Bearig. He fumbled at the spear and dropped it.

“Merr, what’s this?”

“Weapons. Not all the [Slavers] got torched. If they come back…everyone, grab a weapon!”

The former [Slaves] looked at Merr in silent surprise. Then…a familiar horror. Eloque felt her scales tingling and her stomach knotted with fear.

“We can’t defend ourselves!”

“We damn well can. Igheriz is dead and Azam’s gone! Even if that bastard were alive, I’d skin all of them myself. Just back me up! Get a weapon!

Merr’s orders made the others move for the camp. Eloque stumbled with the others as they raided the [Slavers]’ tents. There weren’t nearly enough spare weapons to go around, and everyone felt it.

A resurging horror. Would they be hunted? What happened next? As Merr looked around, she spotted a figure riding their way on horseback. She pointed, shouted—then lowered the sword.

“Pisces?”

The [Necromancer] was riding back on a horse. He looked…Eloque wondered if his face was like hers.

Relieved. Exhausted. Worn. Wonder, fading to…no, his was already set. Grim. His eyes glittered behind tanned skin, still paler than anyone else’s. The [Necromancer] dismounted from his horse.

“Where were you? The [Slavers]…”

Merr called out, striding towards him. Pisces shook his head.

“They’re not coming after us. They are dead. Most, if not all. Hrome is dead.”

The [Slaves] looked at him. Pisces walked past them, saw Cawe and the pyre, and halted. He stared down at her body. Eloque joined him, weapon forgotten. She looked at Pisces.

“Hrome’s dead? You’re sure?”

Merr drew in a sudden breath, but the reminder of the [Slave Master]’s existence was deprived of any vengeance. Pisces nodded.

“I watched him die. Their remains are that way. We’ll…I need their bodies.”

The others stirred. Merr turned her head.

“And they’ve got weapons. Armor. Money. Even bags of holding if we’re lucky. Horses too?”

She looked at Pisces and he shrugged.

“Most survived.”

“Then let’s grab them. We were going to cremate Cawe…”

Pisces knelt there as Merr’s voice trailed off. He looked at the Garuda, his face blank. Not emotionless…just blank. Eloque knelt again.

“We should do it. She helped save us. But for her…”

Pisces nodded.

“Let’s.”

They watched the flames consume the body. Eloque spoke. Bearig spoke. Pisces…said something quietly. Merr did not stay the entire time; she had already gone off to grab the horses before they could bolt, strip the bodies, and bring the corpses of the [Slavers] back.

Pisces wanted to use their bones. And he did. The Skeleton Lord rose, and Eloque watched him, heard him whisper to the undead. She shuddered as the undead slowly flexed its hands and picked up a sword.

“What next?”

The rag-tag group stood there, unsure. The fact they were alive after the Death of Chains’ departure was almost a bit of a mistake. They had lived, for a short moment, in the story. But after it ended—what happened?

“I…it’s nearly dawn. Dead gods, but I haven’t slept. What if we took a nap in the camp?”

Merr muttered. She stared at the camp. Eloque shook her head instantly.

“In the tents? No!”

“Not in the [Slave] tents. In the others’ tents…in the damn open if need be.”

“Oh.”

Bearig nodded. Rophir was almost asleep, but he kept jerking awake, tense, then…looking at the destroyed ashes of the [Slavers] and slumbering again before repeating the cycle.

“We should do that. Can’t march about without rest.”

Everyone sort of nodded along, but no one moved. At last, Merr clapped her hands.

“Alright. Find a spot and fall down. We’ll wake up in a few hours. Someone help me hitch the damn horses. Saddles off.”

People moved. Eloque followed Merr, and looked back. As the night ended, they gave Cawe their farewells, according to each species and custom. They sent her off with two silver coins, string from their very fabric, and words of thanks or remembrance.

Then Qshom, Pisces, and Eloque helped bury the ashes. The [Necromancer] stood there a long time before he collapsed into slumber.

The Skeleton Lord remained, standing at the gates to the camp, bright green flames glowing in its ivory sockets. Watchful.

 

——

 

It was passing strange for him to wake up that day. His hands went to his throat and there was no collar. He woke up to voices chattering, sunlight streaming through the tent flaps, and he had no idea what was happening.

Free.

Pisces breathed in, and out, and remembered all. He sat up. Looked at his hands. Felt at his neck. Remembered Cawe was dead.

Yet, treacherously, even that could not stop his heart from lifting. The [Necromancer] muttered the word.

Free.

He began to laugh, hysterically, until someone peered at him through the tent flaps. Pisces jerked as he saw the little, solemn face and pointed ears. Even as a boy, Rophir was unmistakably of Ceria’s species; the timeless immortality was only partially glimpsed, but it was there and Pisces knew what older half-Elves looked like. He stopped laughing.

“Pisces? Are you alright?”

Someone brushed the tent flaps aside. Pisces saw green scales…

No. Eloque’s weren’t light green, but rather multi-colored, brighter than the monochrome Drake scales. She had a neck frill, and the little stitching in her scales, dark thread. For all that, her eyes were clear, bright yellow and slitted, staring at him.

Pisces stopped laughing. Self-consciously, he stood, and saw Rophir run away. Eloque looked at him.

“I…”

The [Necromancer] didn’t know quite what to say. Eloque just grinned, and that was an unfamiliar expression. She gestured to the outside and Pisces smelled something.

“We have food.”

Pisces hesitated. It was like he was relearning how to breathe. Walk. Everything felt…better. His stomach rumbled, and he found he was hungry, and remembered how good that felt. He also felt like an idiot.

“Food?”

 

——

 

Bearig had made food. It was not wholly unusual to see the [Cook] bending over a cast iron frying pan, crisping meat up and tossing it onto plates.

In fact, he had often been told to prepare food when the caravans were moving. Only, Bearig was doing it with a huge smile today. Pisces inhaled a particular spice to the air and saw Bearig slap a thick cut of steak or some other meat taken from a bag of holding onto a heaping bowl of boiled grains.

Yellow rice. Saffron, the valuable spice, had been added to the popular grain for travelling caravans in Chandrar and elsewhere. Pisces had eaten it many days as well, but always plain brown or white rice, never seasoned.

However, Bearig had gotten ahold of the caravan’s food supplies and wasn’t about to be stingy with the first free meal. Everyone was eating. Stuffing themselves, rather.

“Who organized this?”

Pisces took the bowl and began to eat, burning his tongue twice. Eloque looked around vaguely. Qshom was feeding his head rice with little chopsticks he was expertly wielding at a reprieve from the fire. She had already eaten and was passing more food bowls out. Rophir had gone to tug silently at Bearig’s arm and the [Cook] promptly gave him a little rasher of meat.

“Don’t scarf it—”

Too late, Rophir popped the entire thing into his mouth and began to chew, as if immune to the scalding temperature.

“Merr organized it. We’re moving in twenty minutes.”

Eloque absently told Pisces. The [Necromancer] looked up between two bulging cheeks of food. He was eating so fast he felt like Ceria. Or Ceria. Or Ceria.

“We’re movthing?”

“Northeast. Along Zeikhal. We’re way too close to that city and Merr thinks someone’s bound to check in on us—they’re probably still hiding from the Death of Chains. But we have to move!”

That made sense. Pisces began to eat faster, for all he’d have loved to savor the food. Along Zeikhal? The Great Desert had far fewer civilizations the further in you went, but it was also increasingly inhospitable. It made sense, and he agreed. However. He was in charge, so he had to make sure the plan was good.

He was in charge, wasn’t he?

 

——

 

It was hard to come up with a speech on the move. But he instinctively felt there should be one. Something to address what had happened. What needed to happen. Pisces rode ahead of the others, some of the former [Slaves] on foot, others trading turns on the wagons. There weren’t enough horses to go around, so many had to walk on foot. Younger people like Rophir were given the wagon’s seats by unspoken decision. The horses went to a few others like Merr, Pisces, Eloque, and so on.

“Friends.”

Pisces paused on the word as the small group of sixty or so [Slaves] looked up at him. He wasn’t sure on the address. Comrades was too…affable. He began to speak, as heads turned up to him.

Friends. We have survived, escaped terrible bondage and the deprivations of Roshal. I…we have lost a great soul, a dauntless Garuda and [Pickpocket], Cawe. I shall not soon forget her, nor let her slip from my remembrance. The Death of Chains has given us freedom, and inspired us. I pledge to you that I will evoke her deeds. We are not all bound by common cause, but if you follow me, I swear to protect you. I guarantee your safety so long as I live. For proof—look yonder.”

He pointed at a figure stalking alongside their group. All heads turned to the Skeleton Lord. The powerful undead did not look their way as Pisces nodded at it.

“So long as you remain in my company, I shall lead you to whatever safe havens exist. We will not be made prisoner towards any depravity again. We will not forget what has transpired, nor will we ever give up our freedom. The coming days are uncertain, but trust in me.”

He wondered if he should slap his chest. Pisces had to own that the quickly rehearsed lines and words didn’t sound as good as they had in his head—and they hadn’t exactly been the stuff of legends then.

He’d felt it had to be done, though. He had to articulate the promise, and while he didn’t have Yvlon’s unconscious panache towards being the inspiring adventurer, or Ceria’s own competence…

Well. No one applauded. No one cheered, or said anything. Eloque scratched at her neck.

“So what’s the plan?”

Pisces decided to take it.

“East. We go east, along Zeikhal—perhaps even try to head north. I hope to either take us to a port, or towards Reim.”

“Reim? That’s countless miles away!

A startled voice. Merr. Pisces looked at her. He was uncertain, for a second, but addressed her.

“Reim is embattled, but I doubt Roshal’s [Slavers] would follow us as easily there. To the northwest of Reim lies Khelt. And Khelt…is a necrocracy. We might find safe haven there.”

“Khelt allows no one past its borders. Not even [Necromancers]. We should go to Savere. There are a lot of people who trade with Roshal, but I know some people there who could be trusted. ‘Sides, there’s a port in Savere.”

Merr gestured, pointing ahead. Pisces…had no idea if that was south. He squinted at the sun, and decided it was probably southeast. He coughed.

“Ah. Well. That might be an option. I will think on it. But I do intend to lead everyone to some safe haven. Not Chandrar, that is to say. Izril.

The others stirred. Pisces went on, but kept his gaze focused on Merr. Merr, and Eloque. Merr, because the [Bandit Lady] had assumed command, but Pisces wasn’t sure of her motivations. Eloque?

He had promised to see her free. Or…dead, before she was captured again. Thus, while it was not in his nature, Pisces tried to sit taller, look around at the others and give them confidence. How would Yvlon do it?

“Trust in me…friends. I am a Gold-rank adventurer. My team is…somewhere in Chandrar, I hope. If I can find them, if we can join together, we will be a match for all but Roshal’s best or an army. I am a Level 38 [Deathbane Necromancer]. I can protect you, and this Skeleton Lord is but the first of the warriors I could raise to defend us.”

The [Slaves] stirred. Merr herself blinked.

“Level 38? Kraken’s balls, but you’re almost Level 40!

“Indeed. So, Merr. I extend the same invitation to you as everyone else. Follow me. I intend to lead us to safety. But I do intend to lead. Unless your level exceeds mine?”

Pisces met the [Bandit Lady]’s gaze. Merr the Storm…that was what they called her, wasn’t it? He wasn’t sure if it meant she was famous, or if it was just a styling all [Bandit Leaders] had.

The Stitch-Woman considered this. She smiled, baring her teeth, but not in a hostile way.

“I’m not Level 38. You’ve got more on me, and I can’t twiddle my fingers and raise Skeleton Lords. Not like we should be duelling over leadership in the desert.”

“Exactly my thoughts.”

Pisces nodded. He turned to the group, and saw Eloque gazing at him. Pisces sighed, but kept his back straight. Leading a group of runaway [Slaves] away from the most powerful slave-nation in the world. It had to be done.

And there was so much to do.

 

——

 

The first issue, to Pisces at least, was clear. He went to the wagon where no one was riding. It had supplies. Food, tent equipment, everything that couldn’t fit into a bag or Chest of Holding. Pride of place, of course, was the object which had saved them, and led to Pisces’ capture in the first place.

The spellbook of the Putrid One. Pisces touched the bound cover. It was not pitch black, or brown, as you might expect. Rather, it was a deep, beautiful green. At first. It looked magnificent, like some rich leather or…well, Pisces would have assumed a dyed hide or something, fit for any royal library.

Until he looked closer and saw the faint brown, the tracework of sickly orange, and other colors. As if the green were infected. The spellbook had no title, nor did it have any engravings, but it was set with a single object in the center.

Pisces had seen magical gems in sockets, even animal eyes, or other motifs or magical incorporations into spellbooks. He had never seen…glass.

Was it a mirror? If so, it reflected nothing. It had no backing, so the top of the book was all Pisces saw, yet the glass did not reflect light or anything else no matter how it was tilted, left or right.

The [Necromancer] suspected a few things. Firstly, that the binding and glass ‘mirror’ had some function he didn’t know about. He hoped it was not some delayed plague-effect. Igheriz had kept it on his person, albeit handling it with gloves, and it had never seemed to harm him.

“That’s the spellbook of this Putrid One, isn’t it?”

Bearig murmured, as he trudged next to the wagon, craning his neck to see. Pisces nodded. He did not touch it immediately.

“By all rights, we should put it in a bag of holding, but I believe it might destroy any bag of holding. Including my own.”

He thought of the one at his side. There was so much magic in it already…Pisces had recovered his equipment from Igheriz’s possessions. Thus, he was armed with artifacts, and a few things not even Roshal knew about.

Like the bones of Archmage Nekhret. Could he use them in the [Ritual of the Lord of Bones]? Did he dare? Would it be a waste or, more concerning, would it create another Toren, only with a Skeleton Lord’s power?

Better not to risk it. Pisces addressed Bearig.

“I would like to open the spell tome, but doing so creates a literal beacon for any [Mage] to see. As it is, it becomes a tempting target for anyone to steal. The knowledge contained within could well aid us, though.”

“I’ve heard of spellbooks like that. Can’t they harm you if you open them?”

Eloque looked at Pisces. The [Necromancer] nodded, and then shrugged, trying to be casual.

“It is true danger exists, but Azam opened it without harm. It follows, then, that it might not be deadly—immediately. I will attempt to read it now.”

Now? Are you mad? You just said it makes a beacon.”

Merr rode over. Pisces glanced at her and felt another moment of…uncertainty. He began to sniff, stopped himself, and tried to speak as reasonably as possible.

“I am attempting to open it now, Merr, because our position is known. Opening it later would be more dangerous, but we are close enough to our original location with Igheriz’s camp that it would not be revealing. And pursuit is likely deterred by the Death of Chains’ attack. If there was any time to try to learn something, or reduce the spellbook’s natural aura, it would be now.”

Merr hesitated.

“…Makes sense. You need a lookout or something?”

Again, Pisces hesitated.

“I believe I will sit in the wagon and open it. Perhaps some space? If something goes—untoward—clear the area.”

“Got it. Hey, everyone! No…Qshom.

Merr turned. The Dullahan steering the supply wagon looked at her. Merr pointed.

“Roll it away from the others! Good fifty feet!”

The Dullahan nodded. Pisces opened his mouth, then nodded.

“A good idea.”

Eloque glanced from Merr to Pisces as both cordially nodded at each other. So did Bearig, but he was once again carrying Rophir. Eloque rode back away as Pisces climbed into the wagon.

“Bearig, you may use my horse. You don’t have to carry Rophir. What about the wagon?”

“He seems happier this way. Don’t worry, I can carry him on foot.”

The [Cook]’s sweaty face belied the truth of that statement. Pisces glanced at Rophir’s blank face, but he did cling to the [Cook] and Bearig clumsily got onto the mount. Merr tapped his shoulder.

“You ever rode a horse, Bearig?”

“I ride now and then.”

“Well, you sit like a sack of crap. Here, don’t sit like that. Adjust your posture. Come on…”

They headed off as Pisces sat on the wagon. He sensed Eloque watching him, and a lot of the other [Slaves]. Pisces thought about Merr. He’d have to inquire as to her motivations later. He had made his promise to the others to keep them safe, but she was a [Bandit Lady].

And the others may be [Slaves]—former [Slaves]—but that does not mean they’re trustworthy now. They all have their own motivations now they’re free. Astotha, Droppe, Shein, they were all traitorous. Watch them.

The Skeleton Lord pacing ahead of the group was Pisces’ insurance. He closed his eyes. One thing at a time. He might have one chance at this. If he could gain something definitive such that no thoughts of treachery emerged, something to speed their way or protect them…

It was never wise to open a spell tome without extensive precautions, but this was a desperate moment and Pisces had some assurances it was not trapped to hell and back. Ironically, the Putrid One having been ‘recently killed’ and the spellbook lying there meant it was not likely to have as many wards activated as a spellbook from a dungeon.

So, Pisces opened the spell tome as he muttered the two spells he knew.

“[Charm of Thoughts]. [Detect Magic].”

If he had remained at Wistram, he would have learned extensive anti-enchantment spells for moments like this. As it was, [Charm of Thoughts] would give him a bit of an edge on [Sleep], [Confusion], or other spells. He’d learned it after Albez. [Detect Magic] might let him see a spell activating.

It was rather like putting on a tunic and pants before diving into what might be a nest of Crelers head-first. But…

Pisces’ eyes opened wide as the first page of the tome appeared in front of him. He remembered what Azam had said. This was a Djinni’s spellbook, before the Putrid One took it. What did that mean? What did it have that a regular spellbook did not? What did it—

Ah.

The first thing Pisces Jealnet sensed was the power radiating from the spellbook. So much of it even a Djinni from countless miles away could sense it. A radiating world of magic, trapped inside! More magic than he had with his [Mana Well]! But why? Pisces realized he should have asked why a spellbook needed that much power. To store spells? But spells were just diagrams. The only reason you needed that much power was to do—something—

The spell hit Pisces so fast that even if he had known it was coming, he wouldn’t have been able to dodge it. His eyes unfocused. He felt the power of the spellbook invade his being in a second.

There was something in the magical tome. Not an intelligence. Not quite. More like a complicated system.

Magical spellbook. Djinni. Why would a Djinni have a spellbook? Answer: to teach them magic. But what magic did…?

You. It was almost like a thought, but impartial. A dim awareness in Pisces told him there was some kind of…dimensional magic at play. Of course there was.

You are not the last one. Do you understand this?

The spellbook’s pages fluttered and Pisces saw a spell. It looked like—his mind tried to focus on abstracts.

Drag them down into the very depths of this pit. Massive—he could understand the exact dimensions. Summoning—no, conversion. Drag them down and unleash.

A [Necromancer]’s spell. But something was wrong. Something was off. Pisces could understand it, but he couldn’t. Even so. The air was filled with so much death magic that no wonder Azam and Czautha had sensed it!

The book was trying to recreate the spell! Not cast it—even it and Pisces lacked the sheer amount of mana this would require. But tracing an outline.

An efficient way of teaching. The part of Pisces still sane was amazed. Of course, this was how you taught someone magic or refreshed your memory! It was like…all the books he had been taught were verbally describing what a joist in a blueprint should look like. This book was just a picture, no, a physical version he could inspect.

For a second all of this burned itself across his mind. An all-absorbing whirlwind of understanding and grappling with concepts far beyond his. Pisces was helpless as the alien magical system rooted through his mind. And found him…wanting.

Not the same as the last one. Does not understand. You do not understand.

It wasn’t words. That was how Pisces translated it. It was more like a simple yes/no question. Pisces had failed. Then, the pages stopped. A second spell glowed in his mind. Pisces tasted fire. And he heard the question again.

Do you understand this?

 

——

 

The book’s pages fluttered. Eloque, watching from afar, heard Merr curse.

“I don’t like the look of that. He’s not even moving. Hey! Get ready to run!

“What about helping him?”

The Lizardwoman cried out. Merr looked at the spellbook and Pisces.

“Are you crazy? That’s way beyond our grade.”

 

——

 

The second spell was…Pisces couldn’t even tell what it was. He just got the overwhelming impression of fire. He failed. He failed on so many levels he couldn’t even tell how he was failing.

Something—he saw the writing burning in his gaze. He knew the spell. But he didn’t know the spell. The spellbook was telling him, but something was off.

Do you know the spell? No?

The spell changed abruptly. Whatever was guiding it had switched to another spell. Somehow…lesser…in power? Pisces could tell the relevant power of the spell. Although it was like comparing Giants. Nevertheless, he sensed something was different. And again, the book probed him and again the answer was obvious.

No.

So it tried again. That was why the pages kept flipping. From afar it looked like the pages were just flying past Pisces as he stared at the spell book.

That was how fast the appraisal process was. It was an elegant kind of system. If Pisces could have learned the spell, it would have been obvious to him and the enchantment assessing him. Since he could not, it skipped. It was like…a running monologue in his head.

Do you understand?

Can you comprehend?

Learn.

For some reason, the nuance kept changing. Sometimes the spell tome seemed—interrogative. And there was a nuance. Male, female—no, even more varied.

Like multiple voices, all checking Pisces for understanding and finding him wanting. The voices blasted through his soul, and their conclusion was always the same.

Does it know?

Can he do it?

 

No.

No.

No?

No.

No. Wretch.

No? Alas.

No.

No!

No, no.

No.

No.

No.

No.

No…

 

The spells flashed past him, in a whirlwind that took an eternity and a second. Until…something changed. The spells began to make more sense. The assessing process slowed. And at last, it halted on a single spell.

Maybe?

Pisces blinked. He swayed, as the spellbook’s furious flipping pages stopped. The magical aura changed from a storm of undeath to a faint glow in his gaze. Pisces stared down at the page. Then he slowly toppled back off the back of the wagon and landed with a thump on the ground.

“Pisces!”

When the others had rushed over to pick him up, and he’d assured them he wasn’t possessed and they weren’t about to be dragged screaming into a vortex—a disturbingly specific fear—the [Necromancer] climbed back into the wagon.

He lay there, staring at the spellbook. He didn’t even recall what he’d been subjected to—not the specifics of the spells, but he knew now what this book was.

A teaching spellbook. Well, any good spellbook was either one that taught you magic…or one that you recorded spells you knew in, and was designed to help you re-cast said spells. This one was definitely here to teach you.

And look. Here was a spell that Pisces could learn. He stared down at it. The magic traced itself outwards, showing every aspect of the spell. It was still harder than ‘copy and cast’.

A few things were odd. Pisces saw notes, actual writing along with the magic. Trembling, he touched the diagram, and the spell stopped outlining itself. Now the spell tome had absolutely no magical aura.

“Incredible.”

Pisces touched the diagram again and he saw the spell laid out. But…his hand moved down to an illustration. He touched it and saw the little image come to life. The spell shot forwards, a pure demonstration of how it worked. There were variations, ways to alter the matrices…

He understood the spell already. At least, in concept. Yet something was still wrong. Pisces frowned.

It was ah, a bit embarrassing, but it was a spell he was qualified to learn. There was no denying every other spell before this one had been beyond him. The spellbook had essentially locked Pisces out of the higher-level spells for his own good, and no wonder. Miscast one of those spells and he could kill himself.

All the spells Pisces had access to were, therefore, defacto, spells he could learn. Pisces’ ears didn’t burn with shame, though.

Two things were still off. Firstly? He understood how the spell worked. It was a variation of a spell he already knew. Only—so many things were odd.

The book was telling him that he could cast this spell, but not cast it. It was like…something more fundamental was wrong. Pisces blinked down at his chest.

“My mana flow is wrong? The way I materialize it is…why that? A singular point here?”

The book was demonstrating a type of casting completely contrary to every basis of spellcraft Pisces knew. From where the mana flowed, to how you crystalized it, brought it into the real world, the book was contradicting his knowledge.

As if I’ve been doing it wrong this entire time. Pisces thought back to the mysterious Grand Magus Eldavin he had once met on the road and his comments. His pulse became electric.

A superior style of spellcasting?

That was a neophyte’s conclusion, however. Pisces realized the truth as he analyzed the second problem in this spell. And it was this:

He should know what it was. He should. The words on the page were clearly legible. He conceptualized the entirety of the spell. Yet…there was no ‘click’. There was no easy way to say it. Except there was? He could literally say the spell aloud, describe it, and yet…

What was wrong? Pisces’ lips moved. And then he had it. His eyes turned round. He read the description at the top of the page.

Lighted Arrow. Only, that was wrong. It wasn’t…[Light Arrow].

It wasn’t [Lighted Arrow].

Something was off. It was not a spell as Pisces knew it. It was a spell, but he couldn’t name it like every other spell he knew.

Someone had taken magic out of the box. Pisces, his finger trembling, traced the first words of the spell’s description. He beheld the true value of the spellbook that the Putrid One had once owned now.

This was what he read:

 

Lighted Arrow. Magic of the Unicorns – School of Magic: Vail Forest Unicorns (no formalized school), precursor to Slyphan Warmagic., see subsection here.

 

It wanted him to direct his mana flow across his body, concentrate it in a single point. Just like…something with a horn would cast magic. Pisces stared. Then his mind exploded.

 

——

 

What had unified them was their unwanted class. [Slave]. They had always been different, but their shared misery had unified them, from Djinni to half-Elven child.

Now, it was almost sad to see how quickly they began to split apart. Ironically, Pisces had begun it with his speech.

Which had been a bad speech. Eloque just didn’t have the heart to say it. She realized she had not expected Pisces to make…any…kind of pronouncement like that. True, she didn’t know him that well, but it seemed entirely out of character.

That he had was gratifying. He had looked at her and she knew he had remembered his promise. He intended to keep it. The question was…who would join them?

The cracks began as Pisces read his spellbook. All was apparently well, so Qshom had taken the wagon back to the group. Pisces had stood up, begun shouting about ‘completely unique methods of mana distribution and spellcasting radically reinventing the paradigm of all [Mages]’, then failed to elaborate.

He was so absorbed in the spellbook he missed the quiet discussion going on behind the scenes.

Sixty [Slaves]. Most of them were Stitch-Folk or Human, as befit a caravan which had come from Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Eloque and Qshom as Lizardwoman and Dullahan were standouts, as was Rophir. Well, there was another half-Elf, her skin dark and hair fiery, but she was not…Rophir, who had come from Emir Riqre’s clutches.

Bearig was actually more typical of the group. A [Cook] in his case, most had classes that ranged from below Level 20 to over it, but generally well below Level 25 at the highest.

Pisces and Merr were the exceptions. However, the disparity between the two was also notable. Merr didn’t say what her exact level was, but it was silver to claw clippings that she was over Level 30 in Eloque’s mind.

Even so, Pisces had Gold-rank gear thanks to his reclaimed possessions, a magical spell tome, and that Skeleton Lord trudging by the group.

She kept staring at it. Eloque didn’t shudder—she didn’t think she would again, not even if she stood in a vat of insects. There were worse things. She picked at the string embedded into her scales as the others slowed to eat.

“We should remove those threads. Unless…you don’t wish to?”

The Lizardwoman started. It was Qshom, who had taken a break to eat the dried food Bearig was passing out with abandon.

Ironically, they still acted much like Igheriz’s caravan. The people lined up in single lines, and Eloque realized they’d walked in a line, even without the ropes and chains. It was unconscious.

She looked at Qshom, reminded of something else from those days. The thread in her scales. She shuddered.

“Nagas, yes. But…”

The [Tailor] had a little dagger.

“If we simply cut the thread, can’t we pull it out? Or is it…”

He hesitated when he got close. Eloque smiled at him, and gestured mockingly at her body.

“If it was easy I’d have done it no matter what Igheriz did to me. See?”

Qshom did see. Each stitch into her scales was anchored, such that you couldn’t just cut one part of it and remove all the stitching by pulling. The Dullahan shook his head; the threading was tight.

“Each part needs to be cut and removed. Pulled out with tweezers. If I had some…”

“It will take a long time. It took…a long time for Igheriz to change me like this.”

Eloque whispered. She began to shudder—until Qshom laid a gauntleted hand on her arm. His metal was plain, but it was steel, and his fingers were deft, a [Tailor]’s careful fingers, as he dug at the first row of thread.

“If it will take a long time, we can begin now. Unless you’d like to wait?”

The Lizardwoman looked at him, then shook her head wordlessly.

“Start with my hand. Please. Thank you.”

Merr the Storm watched as the two began to work during the rest period. Her eyes found Bearig, offering Rophir some bread dipped in honey, the other people eating, scarfing down food and going for seconds, and Pisces, engrossed in his work.

“Hey, Pisces. Are we rationing food?”

She called out. The [Necromancer] looked up, realized they’d stopped, and jumped to his feet.

“Yes. Hold off on eating. I appreciate that we are freed, but let’s limit our portions to…”

He strode over, checking how much each person ate. Merr watched him a second, then turned to Eloque. She squatted down, sighed, and rubbed a hand through her hair.

Dark hair, sable eyes, and a faint streak of red from the roots; a natural dye like many had. Well…among some species. Hair fascinated Eloque, who had none.

“Dead damned gods. What am I going to do next?”

The little question was everything. Qshom and Eloque stopped. Bearig glanced up and everyone in earshot seemed to lean over to Merr.

“What are you going to do next, Merr? That is…surely you of all of us will have the easiest time. You don’t have to go with Pisces. You’re a [Bandit].”

Eloque hadn’t meant to be rude. The way Merr stiffened told her she had been. Merr glanced at Pisces.

“Yeah, well, he’s right that he’s got the levels and the undead to protect you all. A Skeleton Lord? If I was a [Bandit Leader] and I saw that thing I’d run so fast the other way…if I’m not needed, I reckon I could head off. Today. Now, even. What would you say to that, Pisces? Any objections if some of us just headed off?”

Everyone looked at Pisces. He turned slowly to Merr, met her gaze, and nodded after a beat.

“…If you wish to go, I will not stop you. But I have promised to keep everyone here safe. No matter who you are, we are united in our past.”

Again, the [Bandit Lady] paused. She slapped her knees with a loud laugh.

“Fair enough. But dead gods, let’s say I do leave. What will I do? Go back to raiding? I…I don’t know. We’re all former [Slaves]. We’ll be hunted.”

That was true too. Bearig glanced at his hands.

“I have a family in Nerrhavia’s Fallen.”

“Then you’d better figure out how to get word to them, but don’t think of ever going, [Cook]. They might turn you in, or they might be arrested for harboring a [Slave]. There are few ways to win freedom, but killing a [Slave Master] and running just means you’re dead…or when they catch you, you’ll wish you were.”

Merr drew a finger across her neck. A moan rose from a few voices, but Pisces interrupted.

“That will not happen.”

She just shrugged.

“Doesn’t change the fact that no one will find work the length and breadth of Chandrar, save for a few places. And even then, if Roshal sends agents…better to run across the sea, yeah.”

“There are [Slavers] in Baleros, though, and I know they go everywhere. Is anywhere safe from Roshal?”

Qshom muttered. Pisces turned to him.

“There is.

Eloque watched his face. How could he be so sure? He had said he knew of a place that was safe. Home? Where was that? Before he could elaborate though, Merr jabbed her chest.

“See, none of that’s my problem. I’m a [Bandit Lady]. Top dog in any pack. Biggest crab in the bucket! Uh…largest cucumber in the field. I could ride off now and be fine. All I need is a horse and a sword. The rest comes easily.”

“[Bandit Lady]? I thought there were only [Bandit Lords]. Isn’t Maresar, the King of Destruction’s vassal, only a [Bandit Lord]?”

Bearig flinched at Merr’s glare. She tapped a finger on her palm, exasperated.

“No. No! If you weren’t a fellow [Slave] and I didn’t like you, fat man, I’d kick the crap out of you for that. That damned Maresar messed all of us up…she was a [Bandit] way back, before the new generation rolled in. So her class was [Bandit Lord] because there was no leadership! There are plenty of [Bandit Ladies]! Anyways, Maresar used to dress like a man. Everyone thought she was a [Bandit Lord]—word is she can even blend in with others thanks to her Skill. That’s why she got the class. I’m a [Bandit Lady]. Lady.

Everyone nodded since Merr was very insistent on that point. After she’d calmed down, Merr went on.

“So I could just ride out, leave Pisces to take care of you lot, and start up another gang. Heck, maybe I’d take anyone who wanted to come with. We could always use a good [Cook]. Lots of classes are useful, and anyone can pick up [Bandit].”

“What about a [Tailor], Miss Merr?”

Qshom raised his brows. The [Bandit Lady] snorted.

“You kidding? They’re royalty among [Bandits]. All the holes you get in armor and cloth? Not to mention socks? Besides, Stitch-Folk love those classes. You’d be right with us.”

“Would you need a good [Hunter]?”

“Natural [Bandits].”

Pisces looked around, as others called out. Merr saw potential in all of them. [Hunter], [Cook], [Tailor], [Butcher]? Every single one had a Skill that could translate into the life of raiding and pillaging. One [Slave] raised a hand.

“What about a [Painter]?”

Merr looked at her.

“…Well, you can always learn to be a [Bandit]. Come to it, you’d be a fine addition to any gang, Pisces. What about it? Want to ride with the [Storm Bandits]? Merr’s Storm Bandits were a huge gang, and I could remake it again.”

She turned with a grin to Pisces. But then, before he could say yay or nay, she sighed and cursed.

“…That is, if I can figure out how the [Bandit]’s life goes. Now Roshal’s got a bounty on me, I can’t exactly ransom prisoners.”

Everyone stopped. Eloque sat bolt upright.

“You sold slaves?

Merr didn’t meet her gaze.

“It’s how [Bandits] make money. You think we just steal coin? Villages are poor…and Roshal pays well per head. I never thought anything of it. I didn’t!”

She looked around. Held up her hands.

“Those days are beyond me. I swear by my sword. I couldn’t even if I wanted to; in Roshal’s eyes, I’m still a former [Slave] and any [Slave Master] would go after me, like it or not. I’m just saying…we’re all out of a job. I can’t be an adventurer or anything else in any city. If I do recreate a gang, we’ll only steal and pillage.”

She placed a hand over her heart. It was a sincere promise to villainy, and Eloque almost caught herself nodding before realizing what she was nodding at.

Pisces had been looking at Merr. He coughed.

“Given that Roshal will no doubt come after us, both you and I are targets on their list, Merr. It makes sense to stick together. For now.”

She hesitated, and nodded.

“Oh, perhaps. But what’s there to gain from me staying? You want to offer me some loot or incentives? Listen, I appreciate the concern, Pisces. But I’m Merr the Storm. I could walk off, shit in a bucket, and have an entire raiding party come begging me to lead them into battle!”

She slapped her chest. Eloque hesitated, but Pisces just nodded, cooly.

“Whatever you think is best, Merr. I won’t force you to go.”

“Right. Well…at least another day, eh? Might as well get a few solid meals before I make up my mind.”

The [Bandit Lady] smiled wide, but Pisces didn’t really return the look. Which was odd. Because a few days ago…the Lizardwoman sighed to see it.

How quickly they broke apart.

 

——

 

The break ended as Pisces and Merr chivvied the others to their feet. Carefully; they weren’t Igheriz and Hrome, but everyone needed to keep moving. Eloque ended up riding with Qshom, and Pisces, brought out of his magical studies, began to get to work.

“Does anyone have a map? I intend to plot a course to meet my team. If I can find them.”

“Do you know where they are? Word was all about the…what team was yours, again? I don’t have a scrying orb. You were some bigshot, fancy team, weren’t you?”

Pisces began to sniff and caught himself. Instead, he ducked his head and answered Merr politely as Eloque glanced over.

“I was part of the Horns of Hammerad. We raided a death zone in Izril.”

“A death zone? What’s that? And that name’s familiar…can’t place it, though.”

Merr tapped a finger to her lips. She was, somehow, the most ignorant save for perhaps Rophir, but a [Bandit] didn’t get regular scrying orb access. Which was strange because they were cheap, but Merr just waved that off.

“Nah. Wistram stares right back at you. Heard of a [Bandit] group getting wiped out like that before word spread. Everyone knows.”

“They do what?

Qshom was startled. Pisces was surprised that Merr knew about it. He still didn’t know if he could trust her. He wanted to, but now that he was thinking of the future, he was aware of the price on his head.

Nearly a million gold. That would tempt every [Bounty Hunter] in existence to come after him, not to mention the Naga and Roshal itself. That was why he hadn’t objected to the others expressing interest in Merr splitting. Obviously there was safety in numbers, but a smaller group would be easier to protect.

Pisces had promised to protect Eloque, and his greatest sympathies lay with Bearig, Rophir, and Qshom. But his team also weighed heavily on his mind.

He had already tried to message Ceria, but she was well out of range of their private communication spell.

“What about [Message]? Do you know that one?”

Merr peered at Pisces. He hunched his shoulders.

“I do. But any [Mage] of a certain caliber can not only tell where I am casting the spell from, but decipher the contents of the spell.”

“Ah. Damn. I could try to send word through my channels, but I’d have to find an established bandit group too. We’re in the middle of nowhere, see?”

She tapped their progress. They were heading into Zeikhal, the Great Desert, away from Roshal, still far to the west, heading back the way they’d come. She spoke out of the corner of her mouth.

“We’re not moving at a bad clip on foot as we are, but it’ll get us caught by everyone soon enough. I’ve got [Far Riders], but it only works on…riders. That bastard Hrome kept us moving at twice the normal speed. So to even get back to Tiqr, the steppes, or Savere, let alone Nerrhavia, it would take twice as long as it took us to get here. So a month.”

Pisces bit his lip. That was unacceptable. They had limited food supplies, and obviously couldn’t purchase more unless they used disguises. He began to plan out ideas.

“I could animate horses to carry us.”

“What, undead horses?

Merr’s brows rose. Pisces nodded.

“They are not suitable for riding, but they could pull the wagons day and night. Perhaps more efficiently than…”

His eyes roamed to the living horses plodding along. Merr instantly slapped his shoulder.

“You can’t kill horses! If we were all starving, maybe, but horses?”

She looked appalled at the suggestion. Pisces was about to say she was the most principled [Bandit] he’d ever met when he remembered he did have horse bones!

In his bag of holding! And even…

…No, no chariot. Pisces recalled Ceria used to make the ice chariot, or they bought a wagon and converted it to the mobile attack vehicle the Horns used. Eloque and the others stared as the old horses nearly bolted and the new ones replaced them. That freed up four horses for riding, but they were still far under horsed.

“Four horses and a Skeleton Lord? Not bad for a [Necromancer].”

“I have ample mana reserves.”

Pisces smiled at Merr, resisting the urge to sniff. Leadership. He had to admit, though, even animating four horses had taxed him.

My [Mana Well] and natural reserves must not be up to the task of sustaining a Skeleton Lord without recharging. Pisces had a few mana potions left; he didn’t feel drained from half a day and a night of the Skeleton Lord being under his control, so he hoped he could balance the upkeep of the other undead so long as he didn’t raise too many. Even so…he regretted the fact they only had two wagons.

“If I could create an ice-sled…”

“…It’d melt in five minutes.”

Eloque finished the sentence for him. Pisces sighed.

“Or a sled of stone, or anything we could use to create more vehicles with. A sled of bone would be possible, but I don’t have enough bone I care to sacrifice for it!”

He began to regret his lack of magical understanding. The spell tome of the Putrid One had shown him something. He knew a lot of spells, but he lacked the insight specialists had. For instance, he could raise a wall of stone, but he couldn’t make it last more than a few minutes.

Ceria could, albeit with ice. Pisces couldn’t bind a permanent cooling spell to stop Bearig needing water every five minutes. He could blow cold air and did now and then to keep people cool, but it wasn’t like a bound spell of [Cloud of Darkness].

How limited was he, as a [Necromancer]? It was a startling reality check. Up till now, Pisces had just bought wagons, replaced necessities with the ease of gold. Here, in the middle of nowhere?

He looked around. It really was flat. And the further north they went, the more the dunes of sand seemed to grow, and the vast Zeikhal Desert enveloped them. They were skirting that for now; the sand would swallow the wagons and the famous sandstorms would blot out everything. At the moment, the dry soil crumbled with dust, and the few plants were tough, dry things. Pisces had not seen wildlife in a while, and it was usually bugs burrowing beneath the sand, or birds circling high above on thermals.

“Is…is making ice chariots normal in Izril?”

Eloque asked after a while. Pisces heard a snort from Merr. He glanced over.

“What? No! It’s not cold enough in Izril to warrant it.”

“Okay. I didn’t know if it was like Baleros. Parts of Baleros are frozen year round, isn’t that right, Qshom?”

“Right.”

The Dullahan was working on her arm. Eloque deliberately looked away. Pisces shook his head.

“Very little of Izril is frozen.”

“But you said…do you just like ice? Is that why you want to make ice chariots instead of something sensible?”

Pisces blew out his cheeks. He heard more giggles and looked back as Bearig pretended to be checking on Rophir. But the man’s shoulders shook. Only the little half-Elven boy looked unamused. What was worse was that Eloque was trying to sound reasonable and understanding.

“I don’t make ice-anything! It’s my teammate. She’s an [Ice Mage].

“Oh. Oh, of course. My mistake.”

Eloque ducked her head, embarrassed. Which made Pisces ashamed for blowing up at her. He took a deep breath. Leader. He had to be a leader. He’d reacted like…well. She reminded him of Selys. But they were different.

“I’m sorry, Eloque. I should have clarified. My team, the Horns of Hammerad, each had a speciality. There are three of them. They might be scattered across Chandrar. I do not know. We were separated by a grand magic…”

Eloque and the others listened as Pisces recounted the escape from the Village of the Dead. Merr whistled.

“And this was on the scrying orbs? Damn me, but I have to buy one of them, Wistram watching me or not. So one of you’s an [Ice Mage]?”

“Ceria Springwalker. She is our team leader. She is…a powerful [Ice Mage]. Very skilled.”

“What kind of leader?”

Pisces’ lips moved silently.

“…Inspiring?”

Eloque gave him such a dubious look that Pisces tried to explain what made Ceria good. She was…competent when it mattered! She wasn’t as bossy as the others. He gave up.

“The second is an Antinium. Ksmvr. Our [Skirmisher]. A brave, commendably loyal fellow. Very skilled with all weapons. Young.”

“Antinium. Aren’t they bug-people?”

And then Pisces had to explain the Antinium to the fascinated audience, many of whom only vaguely knew about the ‘Antinium’ being a plague to Izril. It was quite amazing; they had no instant association with the name. They knew the Antinium Wars as history, and referred to them as the Incursion Wars rather than their nickname.

“Who’s your last teammate?”

“Ah, that would be our [Silversteel Armsmistress]. Our [Warrior]—she is a skilled, strong, headstrong…very strong…woman. Yvlon Byres, whose very arms are silver thanks to her class. She had them torn off, but after a battle with an Adult Creler—”

Merr the Storm had begun to stiffen in her saddle. Her head turned. She looked at Pisces, mouth open wide, wider—until everyone but Pisces, trying to hype Yvlon up, was staring at Merr with some worry. At last, the [Bandit Lady] exploded.

The Silver-Killer? I know her!

Pisces whirled around in his saddle. Merr threw up her hands.

“You know that rabid beast? I thought she was going to eat all of us alive with her teeth!”

The [Necromancer]’s jaw dropped.

 

——

 

It was a small world. No, it was a huge world, but coincidences were apparently common. As they stopped that evening to rest, and their one [Hunter] went off to find any game he could, Pisces sat, head whirling.

He now knew where one of his teammates was! The fact that Yvlon had never really mentioned him, and that Merr was not an avid television watcher meant he’d been in the dark.

They’d been so close to each other! But every day in the caravan had taken her farther away.

“A coliseum? A [Gladiator]? Yvlon?”

“She’s in better condition than you are, Pisces. Believe me. I wanted to be a [Gladiator]—I could have won my freedom. Her? If that really was your teammate, she could have killed the entire arena with her eyes. Absolutely savage. I heard she snapped and beat a hundred [Guards] to death with her bare hands before they captured her.”

“Yvlon wouldn’t do that. She’s the most reasonable…did they provoke her?”

Pisces was just imagining the situation. A corrupt magistrate. He cursed.

“Did they take her relics? She grabbed something, I was sure of it.”

“If they did, they didn’t mention it. She claimed they were all confiscated.”

“Well. At least I know her city.”

Pisces closed his eyes. Nerrhavia’s Fallen was too far away to make plans for, but if he could lead an undead attack…

He must have napped, because he woke up to the sound of Merr’s voice and shouts.

“That’s right! Chop, chop! Come on, fat man, I thought you were a [Cook]!

“I was! But I don’t cut food like this!”

The [Necromancer] sat up. Merr was exhorting Bearig, Eloque, and a line of over half the former [Slaves]. The other group was watching.

“What’s going on?”

Merr glanced his way.

“Oh, I’m just teaching them how to fight. Might as well, right, Pisces?”

The [Necromancer] saw her correcting Bearig’s chops. Since there weren’t enough weapons, they’d armed him, fittingly, with a [Cook]’s evil-looking cleaver. Merr was showing him how to chop an opponent, preferably where neck met shoulder.

“That’s a killing blow right there. Just charge ‘em and swing until they’re dead. You’re a big fellow; outpowering them is the way to go. No dancing for you. As for you…keep poking!”

Eloque was trying to use a spear, clumsily. The Lizardwoman didn’t have the muscle or training, but Merr had gotten her to a decent spear’s thrust amazingly quickly.

“You have…some natural talent with this, Merr.”

The [Bandit Lady] grinned.

“I’ve raised enough gangs to know how it goes. [Bandit Lady], remember? [Quick Training: Fighters]! You won’t get any fancy formations here, but I can get them into decent fighting shape in a few days. Figure if any want to ride with me, I might as well train ‘em all, right?”

She glanced at Pisces. He nodded. Was it set in stone then, that she would go? Was it for the best? She was…doing better than he was. After a second, he rose to emulate her example and try to drill some footwork into the fighters who actually had held a blade before, like a [Hunter]. Merr watched with interest. Pisces glanced her way, and they met gazes and looked away.

Was there tension there? Did he see her watching him, or evaluating him for weaknesses? Pisces wasn’t sure. He vividly recalled her pulling the chains free in the tent. Why was it harder to trust her?

Perhaps it was the dreams.

 

——

 

Every time, it was the same. Not every night. But three out of four nights so far.

There he sat. Sometimes strange things were occurring. This night, Pisces had a fork. A cheap piece of metal that should not have stood up to any force. Even so, he was killing servants with it. Beautiful, wide-eyed, mostly naked [Slaves], defending Riqre in madness.

Pisces had to get closer, but there were so many bodies in the way, and the blood was everywhere and all he had was a fork. Dream-logic didn’t let him use spells or find anything else.

There he sat.

Emir Riqre. He was laughing.

“Did you really think I was dead, Pisces? Me? The Emir? Come now. Come closer.”

And Pisces did, trying to kill the man as he laughed. His eyes were like Pisces remembered. Void of soul or anything. Deep pits. The dead bodies were twisting, turning into the very things Pisces had seen. The prisoners.

“I’m not dead, Pisces.”

The Emir beamed at him. He gestured at his body.

“You never saw my corpse, did you? I am alive, and I shall find you. You and the others. I’m not dead. Do you know what they did? They put me in a jar, Pisces. I’m down there. I’ll be back.

Then he leapt, and his face began to elongate, along with his limbs. He caught Pisces, and the [Necromancer], trying to stab the growing monster—

…Woke up. He sat up in a tent, and knew it was the fourth day of travel. But for how long? Roshal would be hunting them. Could he protect them?

Better, perhaps, if he just took Eloque on horseback and rode off. What about the others? What about…Merr?

“You can’t trust her. She’s a [Bandit]. You’re so valuable. But you knew that. You can’t even trust the others, can you? I touched them all. Even you. You and I will never part ways, Pisces.”

The young man’s head turned. He saw Riqre sitting there, a pallid, curled up man staring up at him out of an open jar. The figure leapt and Pisces shouted in horror.

And then, of course, he woke up.

Or was he still dreaming?

 

——

 

The first attack came on the fifth day. Eloque woke up, weeping. Not because she had dark dreams, but because she woke up and knew she was free, and didn’t believe it for a while.

When she did, the tears came.

They were on the road when the ambush began. Not [Slavers], although that was the first scream that came from the person who saw them. In truth, it was more mundane.

Sixty people, not apparently armed well, two wagons? That was a prime target for anything. Of course, an expert might see Pisces and Merr, but…

A flood of monsters came over the lip of the hill. They swarmed down in a sudden attack, weapons raised. Their scream filled the air, that familiar, monstrous warcry.

Yiyiyiyiyiyiyiyiyiyiyiyi—

Eloque saw Pisces’ head turn. The [Necromancer] whispered.

“Oh, no. Not them.”

She didn’t understand why he looked afraid in that moment. But then the Goblins were charging down the slopes, near a hundred of them, led by a single Hobgoblin.

They failed to take the caravan, though they had numbers on their side. For two reasons. One was Pisces. The other was Merr.

“[Group: Speed Raiders]. [Fearless Charge]! Kill the Gobbo bastards!

The unprepared freed [Slaves] felt the two Skills hit them as Merr ripped a sword from her sheath and charged the nearest Goblin. Qshom, shouting as a Goblin tried to swarm up the wagon, felt everything move a bit slower and kicked the Goblin off.

Pisces had hesitated as the Goblins came. Now? A flaming rapier appeared in his hands. He leapt out of the skirmishing line and charged at the largest Goblin. The Hob. The Goblin blinked in surprise, crimson eyes widening with alarm as she realized this was not an easy target. She swung a rusted halberd, and felt a lance of pain run through her arm as she was struck by the fiery blade.

That was not what made her recoil, back up. It was the [Necromancer]’s voice.

Leave! Death! Big scale death here!

He was shouting in their tongue? Every Goblin in earshot did a double-take. Of course, Pisces’ inflection was completely off, and he was shouting nonsense. ‘Big scale death’ was something he’d heard Rags refer to Relc as, one time, and he had mistaken it for ‘death’ or ‘danger’ in general.

Faced with the obviously dangerous [Bandit Lady] who had killed six Goblins in a heartbeat, and the [Necromancer] shouting their own language, the Goblins wavered. They broke when they saw the final defender of the caravan.

The Skeleton Lord. It was the first time Eloque had seen it do battle. And—

As the Goblins poured over the slope, the Skeleton Lord’s head had risen. The green flames, flickering in its sockets, burned bright. The sword and shield it carried rose, and it charged, jaw clattering, towards the Goblins.

So fast! The nearest Goblin had taken the skeleton to be a low-level…Skeleton Warrior at best. It was not prepared for the charge that plunged the blade through the heart. The Skeleton Lord whirled, slashing. So quick! Eloque, seeing the Goblins fleeing Merr, had time to see the Skeleton Lord, almost see how it thought.

[Shield Bash]! [Power Strike]! My sword and shield are unstoppable! Die! It had no Skills, but the undead scythed around it with both shield and sword, slashing, knocking one Goblin’s spear flying with the sheer strength of its limbs.

I shall cleave it all in half! It leapt and slashed, and Goblins dove for cover as the sword came down with a mighty swing that missed its target. Then the Skeleton Lord saw one of the better Goblins come in, a shield and sword of its own raised.

At least a Level 20 [Fighter], to judge by the confident way the Goblin held the shield. The two began to slash at each other and Eloque saw the Goblin stumbling, unable to match either strength or reach. But then it moved into a flurrying attack and the Skeleton Lord raised its shield. It blocked the blows—at least—the first three.

One, two, and because I’m tired of being on the defense and think I can end it soon, hiyah! It dropped its guard, slashed out, and received a nicking blow along one rib. But the bones were strong, and the Goblin stumbled back, shield arm broken or, at least, cracked. It took one look at the paltry damage it had inflicted and the Goblin backed up fast.

But more Goblins were charging the Skeleton Lord and the undead dodged a spear thrust and nearly ran into some maces and daggers. Eloque saw it react with alarm.

Whoops, uh oh, back off, back off.

And the Skeleton Lord literally jogged away from the fight before resetting itself. The Goblins facing it didn’t look eager to come closer.

Then, the Hob bellowed a single order.

“Retreat!”

She waved her halberd and the Goblins broke off. Many had already concluded this was not a good fight and had been scrambling backwards. The Goblins broke away, and the Skeleton Lord began to pursue in another charge—until Pisces shouted.

Stop!

It did stop. The Goblins fled, leaving behind a dozen of their dead. But Eloque’s eyes, and Merr’s and Pisces’, were all on the Skeleton Lord.

The strength to cleave a buckler in twain. Speed that even Pisces would be pressed by! A toughness unknown to its lesser kin of bone. The Skeleton Lord was mighty.

…However, it fought about as well as one of Hrome’s [Guards].

 

——

 

After the battle ended, wounds were healed with potions and the damage assessed. Minor, in truth. The Goblins were smart enough to run and only they had any dead.

It was more what the battle revealed, than anything else that stood out. Pisces’ curious shouting in that foreign language, as well as the combat capabilities both he and Merr had shown. Pisces had charged into the Goblin lines, wounded their leader, and forced them all away. His Skeleton Lord had also scared the Goblins.

Yet something else was apparent to the group. If Pisces was the better fighter, Merr was the better leader.

For proof, their instinctive actions after the fight was over stood out. Before he recalled himself, Pisces had gone over to the Skeleton Lord and studied it in dismay, noting how it took a posture like a Level 14 [Caravan Guard], shaking his head.

Merr was the one to get them moving, telling them not to waste potion by slopping it on their wounds. Pisces did the same—once he remembered he was in charge.

“That Skeleton Lord fights…funny.”

Eloque didn’t know how to bring it up. Pisces hung his head.

“It fights like the things it was made of, apparently. I did not think to question its level of expertise; regular skeletons can fight with sword and shield. The [Ritual of the Lord of Bones] clearly takes more from the bones than I thought.”

“Personality?”

The Lizardwoman was alarmed. Pisces eyed the Skeleton Lord and shook his head.

“No. Just…it is a decent combatant. Just…just.”

He began to sniff, and caught himself. Eloque wondered if he had a nasal problem. Pisces straightened his shoulders.

“I should address everyone. Friends, well done! We have survived a battle—”

Eloque bit her lip as he raised his voice. She saw Bearig wince. Qshom removed his head, and carefully put his hands over his ears.

He was doing his best.

 

——

 

It was strange, the things they did not know about one another. Rationally, it made sense. Pisces had spent only two weeks in the company of the others. Yet it felt like they had a deeper connection than he had with, say, the Silver Swords, whom he had adventured with.

Deeper…and still, Pisces learned strange things about his companions. Trivial things that nevertheless caught him off-guard.

After the Goblin attack, there had been some debate as to what to do. Merr was all for gathering the bodies and having Pisces animate them. The [Necromancer] vetoed the suggestion.

“What, the bones not good enough?”

“No. I would rather not offend the tribe by making Goblin zombies. Let them collect their dead once we have left. They are no doubt watching.”

Pisces glanced around and could swear he saw a little head duck down. It was too familiar. Merr was confused, but shrugged.

“You’re the [Necromancer]. Any reason why we want to give them their dead?”

“They are hungry. They will eat their own if they cannot eat us.

The others looked at Pisces in horror. He shook his head. He did know something about Goblins.

“More importantly—if there are Goblins in this area, there may be an oasis nearby. Even Goblins need water. We should scout for it.”

 

——

 

They didn’t find it. There was no map with an oasis listed, nor did they have dowsing Skills. Ceria might have found the water; Pisces could not. Nor was anyone exactly eager to take a horse and ride around, over a foothill into, say, a Goblin ambush.

So they kept moving, and presently, Pisces had to explain his curious reaction to the Goblins, not to mention the language.

“You know a Goblin? What? They’re monsters!”

“Classified as monsters, certainly. But they can speak. Play instruments. I…did not want to fight them.”

Pisces was thinking of Numbtongue. He shook his head. Everyone, from Merr to Eloque, was giving him an incredulous look. Pisces tried to elaborate. And that meant telling them about Rags, the little Goblin whom he’d taught basic spellcraft to.

The others listened solemnly, shaking their heads, but listening. And Pisces felt surprised, because he had shared that. Somehow, he had forgotten how they all saw Goblins.

“Well, that Skeleton Lord helped fight. Dead gods, but it’s fast. Not the best fighter, you said? Still better than any [Raider] I’ve had!”

Merr reached out and slapped the undead on the shoulders. The Skeleton Lord barely seemed to notice. Pisces stared at her. He had never seen anyone do that.

The others nodded. Rather than complain about the lackluster performance of his undead, they looked appreciatively at the ivory Human skeleton walking with them. Bearig frowned at it.

“Now that you mention it, this fellow’s naked.”

“How do you know it’s a fellow, Bearig? Why don’t we put some clothes on it? We could pretend it’s a person and trick people. Come to that—what’s its name, Pisces?”

Eloque investigated the undead, curiously. Pisces’ head snapped up.

“It has no name. Nor gender. It is an undead.”

Toren. But they had no understanding of that part of his past either, so the others objected.

“It should have a name. What about…about…well, a nickname? ‘Bone Defender’.”

Everyone looked at Eloque. She coughed. Bearig was nodding as he offered the undead a tunic. It stared at the piece of cloth and kept walking. Pisces rubbed at his face. He had to actually order the Skeleton Lord to put on clothing. But he held the line at a name.

For some reason, Bearig, the [Cook], was most strident about it. He was giving Rophir a ride on his shoulders.

“It is a tool, Bearig. In time—no. If I—it must be a tool at this moment. There is no…force that would give it greater sentience.”

I think. Could Skeleton Lords develop personalities? Pisces began to sweat at the thought, but the Stitch-Man was insistent.

“I name my tools, Pisces. Every good tool deserves recognition.”

“You…name your tools?”

Qshom gave Bearig an odd look. He glanced at the dagger he was using to remove Eloque’s stitches and waved it at Bearig.

“Would you name this?”

The [Cook] shrugged, a bit awkwardly, his already reddened brow darkening a bit further as everyone chuckled.

“Not every tool, but good ones? I had a ladle I used since I was an [Apprentice Cook]. I called it my lucky ladle. Had a name and everything.”

“Oh yeah? What was it?”

Merr was still frowning at the slight foothills for more Goblins as they continued climbing a slight gradient. Bearig turned beet-red.

“Er…I called him…The Duke of Soup.

Dead silence. Then, laughter, guffaws from everyone listening. Pisces started laughing, and it was so unexpected and unforced. Duke of Soup? Eloque clutched at her stomach and even Qshom had to grab his head to stop it rolling off the wagon’s seat in hilarity.

It wasn’t even that funny, but it was Bearig’s face and the moment and…it was good to laugh. The laughter even came from a little boy, high-pitched, and for a second—

Bearig glanced up at Rophir and Pisces stopped in amazement. He saw the half-Elf boy’s face twist up in mirth. For just one second. Then the laughter stifled, and the boy’s little face went blank.

“Rophir! You laughed!”

Eloque exclaimed. The half-Elf looked at her, then down at Bearig. The [Cook] was beaming up at him. But Rophir didn’t laugh again, despite the delight on Bearig’s face.

His face went blanker. It almost seemed like he resented that moment of hilarity. As Pisces watched, he reached out, and smacked Bearig’s head.

The [Cook] yelped.

“Rophir! Stop that!”

But the little half-Elf began punching, scratching at Bearig’s head. They were not hard blows, but they clearly hurt.

“See now, that’s enough. Bearig didn’t do anything wrong. Don’t—ow!

One of the Stitch-Women reached out, and Rophir slashed at her with a hand. She retreated.

“Rophir. Enough.”

Pisces rode over, but the little boy kept hitting Bearig. And the [Cook] didn’t drop him or try to stop it. He grimaced at Pisces.

“Leave him. Rophir, Rophir. I’m sorry for making you laugh. Stop, please?”

The boy did not stop. His face stayed blank, but Pisces saw something running down his cheeks. Tears. He reached to pull Bearig’s hair, and Pisces caught his hand.

“Rophir, enough.”

The half-Elf tried to strike at him, but Pisces was too quick. He caught both of Rophir’s hands and met the silver-grey eyes.

“I understand you do not wish to laugh, Rophir. Bearig does not wish to hurt you. I know…you have suffered. But it is a poor thing to hurt the people who care for you. Enough.”

The boy struggled, then tried to bite Pisces’ arms. The [Necromancer] grimaced.

“Enough. Sleep, Rophir. [Sleep].

He began to cast the spell, but someone grabbed his arm before he could stop Rophir. Bearig. The [Cook] gave him a shake of the head. And…Eloque.

“Don’t, Pisces. He’s had enough of magic.”

Pisces lowered his hand. Rophir stared at him with huge, untrusting eyes. Pisces recalled Riqre using magic to animate…and surely other spells. He lowered his hands, backing away.

“Let me. Rophir, don’t hit Bearig. Come. Ride with us.”

Eloque let Bearig transfer Rophir to the wagon. The half-Elf boy seemed to accept riding with Eloque and Qshom, and sat there. As they moved on, and Bearig applied just a tiny bit of potion to his head, Eloque put an arm around the boy.

He stiffened, but didn’t pull away. Encouraged, the Lizardwoman hummed. Then, began to sing.

Hello Naga, how was your day today? Did you meet anyone interesting on your way?

It was such a bright, cheery song that Pisces blinked. Not at all like a soothing lullaby.

It was a Lizardfolk’s song. Or perhaps—a Balerosian song? Because Qshom started. Eloque stopped singing, and glanced at him meaningfully. Qshom hesitated, then grimaced and opened his mouth. His head, sitting next to them, began to sing. Call and response, Pisces realized.

“I met a [Wizard], hurray, hurray. And I helped him cast a spell on my way.”

He did his best, but the Dullahan couldn’t interject the same energy as Eloque into his voice. The counterpoint still somehow worked, and Pisces imagined a little Lizardfolk bothering a tired Naga. Rophir glanced up suspiciously at Eloque, but then he began to lean against her, listening. So did everyone else.

“Tell me Naga, did you see a snake today?”

“I saw one with five heads and sent it on its way.”

“Naga, that’s a Hydra.” 

“Oh my, you don’t say?”

The silly little song filled the air as the group travelled onwards. Soon, Eloque’s voice died down and Qshom looked at the little half-Elf boy with some relief. He had gone to sleep, leaning against her. Eloque nodded at Bearig, who smiled. Pisces had never known she could sing.

And the Skeleton Lord, which had brought all this about? It trudged onwards, bald, boney head covered by a turban of cloth, attired like a traveller, so only the sockets were visible. Names hadn’t stuck yet, but Pisces heard the caravan arguing.

Such sweet moments, sad moments, amid it all.

And then they came to the Glass Straits.

 

——

 

“Glass?”

Pisces stared at the landscape, which glittered with unbearable light in places, reflected from the sun above. Merr just grimaced.

“Yep. We’re further north than I thought. Dead gods, but I knew it stretched a long way. This far?”

The Glass Straits along Zeikhal were a natural phenomenon, not the product of some great spell, as Pisces had assumed. Somehow, the sun’s natural heat and intensity was so strong in this part of Chandrar that it could bake the top layer of sand into glass.

“Or perhaps there was some spell that began it. Some glass to begin with. Either way—it reflects and magnifies the sun. So it creates more glass, and, well…”

Eloque, of all the others, was the expert here. She had passed this way before, and jumped up and down on the hard glass mixed with sand to demonstrate how tough it was. Like a road, albeit lumpy. You could make better time on it, and the glass was not all one color. The varied sand and minerals created many colors and fascinating lumps of glass. Rarely beautiful; they were all dirty with trapped bubbles or sand, but you could hunt around and find a nice, clear part, or a bit you could polish up beautifully.

“Dangerous as tickling Crelers, I’ve heard.”

Merr had reservations. Eloque nodded.

“We’re travelling at night. It’s lucky we didn’t come by midday; we’d be blinded. By day? This place heats up beyond belief.

“Is it better to travel the Glass Straits or stick to the wilds?”

Pisces was frowning. Eloque considered it.

“It’s not the most popular route, but Pisces—the Glass Straits are huge. If it’s this or going over dunes…we have wagons. We need a road.”

It was true. Twice now, the group had been forced to stop and push the wagons out of sand. If they tried going through actually rough terrain, they might have to abandon the vehicles and they were too necessary. Pisces bit his lip.

“Are there any unique dangers here?”

“Lack of food. Animals get different, too. Glass animals, some of them. Things that eat glass…I’ve heard you can even find Fire or Glass Elementals. Not worse than giant Sand Worms or what you can find in the sand.”

Glass Elementals? Pisces’ lips moved, but he just nodded. He sent the Skeleton Lord to scout about as they made an early camp. The undead came stomping back before they’d set up with something in its hands.

A giant glass ant’s head. Pisces stared at it and Qshom nearly dropped a tent pole. But it wasn’t an Antinium head. Pisces calmed down. In fact…it wasn’t even an ant’s head.

“Glass Termite. Is it edible?”

Eloque recognized the monster, but passed it to Bearig. He poked the insides, shuddering. The outer ‘carapace’ of the insect was hard glass. The inside? Well, it was flesh, but the [Cook] shook his head.

“I’d rather not try to cook that, Eloque. I’m no [Monsterparts Chef].”

“Well, food won’t last forever! Go on! Give it a bite! I’ll eat some once it’s roasted. Where’s the body, Bone Lord?”

“Don’t call it that. His name is Ivery.”

Eloque called after Merr. The [Bandit Lady] came back after a while with an experimental cut of the Glass Termite’s meat. She roasted it in the cast iron pan, until it was almost black, took one bite, hawked it back up, and came to a decision.

“Right. That’s inedible. And we’ve only got four more days of food for everyone at this rate. Two days of water. Time to go.”

Pisces looked up. He had come to the same conclusion; they had water barrels and lots of food, but even the Chest of Holding they’d taken from Hrome’s caravan had limits and they had yet to restock anything. Merr strode into the camp. All the former [Slaves] looked at her as she raised her voice.

Listen up. I’m heading off. Anyone who wants to join me—I’m going to reform Merr’s Bandits. Merr the Storm rides again! You’re all welcome in my crew. That is—unless you all want to join me?”

She gave Pisces a look. The [Necromancer] stood there, a bit tensed. Was this the moment? He shook his head, slowly.

“I will pass, Merr. I have no intentions of becoming a [Bandit].”

She grunted.

“Suit yourself. But if you think you can protect everyone who stays…”

Another meeting of eyes. Pisces didn’t sense hostility, just…he smiled thinly.

“I can. And I wouldn’t bear you any ill will for going. If you wished to stay—”

Eloque looked between the two. Merr shook her head and tapped her chest.

“If I’m not needed, I’m off. Food’s a problem anyways. Tell you what. Spare me a fair portion—half of what we’d eat—and a quarter of the horses, and we’re square. Deal?”

“Agreed.”

Pisces breathed. It was more than fair. Merr nodded at the others.

“Don’t worry about light provisions and less horses. We’ll move fast and get more things to ride. Who’s with me?”

 

——

 

Only eighteen people went with Merr. Which was surprising, given how competent the [Bandit Lady] was. But she intended to be a [Bandit] and…it just wasn’t in many.

They followed Pisces because Pisces had promised them safety. But what did that mean?

Pisces and Merr shook hands, and Eloque saw the [Necromancer]’s wary smile. She was upset. She took Merr’s hand, but didn’t know what to say.

“Until we meet again!”

Merr the Storm left, with more horses than she’d asked for; enough to let the others ride two-to-a horse. It left Pisces’ group with far fewer mounts, but between the undead horses pulling the wagons, they wouldn’t be that much slower. More importantly, they had the lion’s share of the food and water.

“Is she going to be alright?”

Eloque asked Pisces privately. The [Necromancer] grimaced.

“[Bandits] can sense raiding opportunities. I very much doubt Merr intends to forage long. She would not be this confident if she did not have somewhere she intended to be.”

“It’s a shame she couldn’t stay. We could…have used her help.”

Eloque glanced sidelong at Pisces. He shrugged, but nodded slowly.

“It would have been beneficial. Alas. We had nothing to offer her, however, and without substantive gain…she is a [Bandit Lady]. I am an adventurer.”

“Did you want her gone?”

Eloque pressed, a frown on her face. It hadn’t seemed that way, not explicitly. Pisces shook his head.

“I am a [Necromancer]. Far be it from me to be the first to insult her way of life. It is just…we have nothing for her to gain from, and she can survive in Chandrar. Not so for the rest of us.”

That was true, but Eloque was still unhappy. It was done, nevertheless.

They would not rest this night long; they had to cross the Glass Straits by night, and then camp by day. As the caravan plodded onwards, however, they were forced to stop at exactly midnight by an unusual, and at first, alarming spectacle.

The Skeleton Lord, who had been patrolling ahead, nicknamed ‘Ivery’ by Eloque much to Pisces’ chagrin, had halted. Pisces rode up to it, frowning, as the dark glass covered by a light sprinkling of sand crunched under his horse’s hooves. Eloque and the others halted uncertainly, because they heard it too.

The wind had died down, and the rolling crunch of glass under the wagon wheels faded away. All that was left was a strange hum in the air. Then…a low wail from ahead.

The Skeleton Lord’s eyes were glowing bright. Pisces stopped. He stared as something began to trace itself outwards, and swore, galloping backwards.

When he had enacted the [Ritual of the Lord of Bones], Eloque had been so tired and distraught she hadn’t really watched. She had seen him placing the bones from the dead [Slavers] in a curious, concentric pattern around the center pile, ten times as many bones, twenty, perhaps, as had created the Skeleton Lord.

She had watched Pisces raise the bones into the air, seen the glow of power he called upon. Now she saw the same symbols trace themselves outwards from the Skeleton Lord as it stood in the center of the glowing diagram—but with lines of magical force, as green as its eyes, instead of bone.

“Pisces! What’s happening?”

The [Necromancer] looked back. And it was clear he did not know.

“It’s…my ritual. It must have a component I did not know about.”

“What? It’s your spell!

“Yes, but—it was granted to me as I levelled! I don’t know what it does!

Magic given without instruction. Eloque was no [Mage], but she’d heard of them gaining spells when levelling they didn’t learn. Thusly, Pisces didn’t know the full nature of the spell he’d cast.

Sometimes…you opened a box and didn’t see the depths.

The Skeleton Lord stood, glowing under two full moons. Staring at nothing. Waiting. Waiting for…what?

Pisces was frozen, staring into an unravelling complexity of death magic. It was true—the ritual was too advanced for him. He didn’t understand his creation.

And that terrified him. It reminded him all too much of another undead he had made. Back in arrogance. Would this Skeleton Lord become another Toren?

What have I done?

It wanted something. That much Pisces could see. But what was the input? What was the outcome? He felt a fool.

I should cast aside my magic. Begin once again from the Putrid One’s spellbook. From true magic. Why do I reach for that which I cannot understand?

“Pisces…”

Eloque’s voice was afraid. The [Necromancer] braced himself. He dismounted from his horse.

“Stay there. I will…something is needed.”

He began to approach the Skeleton Lord, warily. It waited, not turning to face him, but part of its inner being exposed. For something. Something…

Him? Blood? More death? More bone?

Bearig had a hand on his cleaver, but uncertainly. Qshom had a crossbow aimed, but the group of freed [Slaves] were simply tense, unwilling to interfere. Pisces strode forwards—if he had been alone, or with his team, he might have risked waiting, analyzing the situation. Not here. Not now.

He was walking towards the Skeleton Lord when someone else moved. The taut air, the imminent danger again, made one of the others snap. A little figure darted down. A voice shouted.

“Rophir! No!”

Pisces whirled, but too late, the little half-Elf boy reacted as he’d been trained. Conditioned.

No one had given Rophir a weapon, for all he was arguably one of the more dangerous people with a blade. Bearig had found the cutting knife and taken it from the half-Elf boy. Even so—Rophir bent down, and picked up something.

A rock—no, a nugget of glass. A bit of sand turned into a fist-sized piece of heavy glass. He scooped it up and hurled it at the Skeleton Lord’s head with uncanny accuracy for a boy his age.

Pisces leapt for the stone, then remembered his magic and tried to catch it. Too late—the stone thwacked the undead in the head. Pisces whirled.

No!

There was a flash. He saw the magic changing and his flaming rapier was in his hands. [Flash Step]—Pisces lunged, conjuring an [Acid Orb] into his other hand. He saw the Skeleton Lord turn with unnatural grace to face him and brace as it raised its weapon. The glass rock?

Pisces stumbled. He nearly careened into the Skeleton Lord, who caught him. Qshom lowered his crossbow. The others saw the Skeleton Lord raise its hand into the air. It had been hit in the skull by the little glass nugget, but now it held the very same bit of glass in one hand. Yet a second nugget of glass lay on the ground.

“What the…”

Eloque saw the undead’s eyes burn green as the lines of magic retreated within its being. It raised the rock overhead.

Yes! So the compact has been made! Look unto me and my great weapon! My bonded nature of death, which I shall use to destroy all that come against me or my master! My—

It regarded the glass rock in its hand. Pisces stared as the Skeleton Lord experimentally threw it. Then stared at the rock. His mouth moved silently.

The Skeleton Lord’s eyes burned. It raised a hand—and the glass pebble reappeared in it. A bound weapon. A…

It tossed the rock again and stared at it. The undead seemed…confused as to how to expand on the varieties of martial combat as they applied to glass pebbles. Ivery tried to recall the weapon again, found it could not, and scuttled over to pick up the glass rock. It kept trying to throw it, practicing with its new bonded weapon.

Rophir hid behind Bearig, but Pisces didn’t look at the half-Elf boy. As the others investigated the Skeleton Lord and its new weapon, the [Necromancer] sat with his head in his hands.

But he was laughing.

 

——

 

It was clear that the [Ritual of the Lord of Bones] was designed to attenuate and customize a powerful…lord of bones. First in construction, then customization. Imagine giving it an enchanted weapon! Or would only a mundane one work?

You could attune a varied weapon to the very heart of the Skeleton Lord, designing its entire battle strategy and combat prowess around a weapon, esoteric though it might be, and the Skeleton Lord would fight with it, an eternal weapon.

Or, in this case, a rock. Ivery the Skeleton Lord could now, at the beginning of each battle, throw the glass pebble. Pisces watched it toss the glass pebble at a Glass Termite. The monster recoiled, and the eight giant termites all attacked the pebble. Ivery stared at the rock, then drew its sword and shield and charged into battle.

“It’s…um. At least it has a sword and shield?”

Eloque watched as Ivery won the battle. It picked up the glass pebble and carefully carried it around. Pisces tried not to burst into hysterical laughter again.

“My undead creations seem to be instructional in what not to do.”

The worst part was that the Skeleton Lord was clearly learning how to use its weapon of choice; it had progressed from weak throws to an actual approximation of a baseball pitch. Pisces had a headache.

“I shall endeavor to replace this undead with a superior Skeleton Lord if we get the chance. I do not know where I will find the correct bones of a skilled warrior, but I could at least give it a proper weapon.”

He muttered. To his surprise, that landed him in hot water. Eloque turned on him, aghast.

“You can’t destroy Ivery! He’s doing his best!”

“What?”

Qshom nodded.

“It deserves a chance. I like it.”

“It’s an undead.”

“It’s been protecting us! It even killed that Glass Hare!”

Pisces stared at said hare, draining of blood. Its skin was glass, but the internals were regular flesh and blood, so Bearig was going to make a stew of it. He rubbed at his head. It was hot, by evening, as the Glass Straits cooled off from the incredible heat of the magnified sun. They’d already learned not to camp anywhere close to the glass road.

The trick of the Glass Straits wasn’t the overall heat; it was the magnified heat as it reflected off natural mirrors. The caravan had camped too close the first day and one of the rays of sun had burnt one of the tents.

They were riding along, taking turns to march on the glass road or sit on the wagon. Eloque almost always had the wagon’s seat, as did Qshom, despite the limited space. Qshom because he was a Dullahan with heavy armor and a [Tailor], both of which awarded him some respect.

Eloque because…she was Eloque and everyone knew why. After five days, Qshom had rid her left arm of stitching. She kept flexing it, peering at her bright scales. Smiling.

The Lizardwoman was in such a good mood that day, that Pisces caught her murmuring to herself and laughing every now and then. He didn’t understand why until he edged over, pretending to read from the spell tome.

“Ooh. Indigo. Nice.”

…What? Every few minutes, Eloque would point to something, chortle to herself.

“Indigo! Indigo. Mm…no, that’s violet. Aha, indigo!

The [Necromancer] couldn’t resist. He looked at Eloque.

“Are you…enamoured with the color indigo, Eloque?”

She jumped and blushed.

“It’s a nice color! You don’t see much in Chandrar—I always pass the time by looking for it.”

Pisces raised a finger. He scratched at his temple.

“Always?”

“Yep.”

One of the [Slaves] who had been part of Igheriz’s caravan for a long time nodded. Pisces looked at him.

Always?

“Indigo! Look!”

Eloque chortled, pointing out a bit of fused glass with every sign of genuine joy. Pisces stared at the patch of indigo amid orange-yellow glass, from some kind of mineral. He looked at Eloque. Her indigo-spotting habit was…the most annoying thing he had experienced since coming to Chandrar.

 

——

 

Mundanity did not last long. Pisces was riding at the head of the caravan, well away from Eloque’s chortling indigo spotting, which Qshom and Rophir had joined, when his head snapped up.

“Oh, no. Not now!

His exclamation made Bearig jog forwards.

“What’s wrong?”

“We’re being scried!

Pisces swore. He looked up, cursed, and tried three spells. Then he just aimed up.

“[Deathbolt]!”

The black bolt of magic shot into the sky to no effect. Pisces leapt down, swearing. Eloque and the others cried out.

“Pisces! Can you stop it?”

“No!”

No? But…”

I don’t know how! I was expelled from Wistram before we learned wards or counterspells! Roshal knows where we are.”

Pisces was fumbling for the spellbook, flipping through it desperately. Was there a counterspell somewhere in…?

He hadn’t even realized they were being [Scried] until now. It could have been a while. And sure enough—after three hours of worried night trekking, the first manifestation of their observers appeared.

“Flying carpet!”

Bearig screamed. Everyone shouted in horror.

There it was. A flying carpet, and a pair of riders perched mockingly there. There was no guessing where they were from. Eloque felt it, like prickling on her scales.

Roshal.

She was not mistaken either. Pisces took aim and sent a [Deathbolt] flying towards the carpet. The [Carpet Rider] didn’t even bother to dodge; the bolt just soared well clear of their distant shape. They kept following as the caravan desperately picked up speed, but it was a literal flying carpet to how fast they could run.

They were doing something, up there. Pisces spotted a [Mage] and the [Carpet Rider]. After only thirty minutes, the [Mage] stood up. He aimed again, but [Light Arrow] was his only spell with any tracking and the [Mage] had swatted down the low-Tier spell with ease.

Ivery couldn’t reach them; the undead had jogged beneath the carpet, trying to hit them two hundred feet up with its little pebble for an hour. They were out of bow shot, and…watching them.

Reporting their location. Pisces looked up from trying to learn Lighted Arrow as fast as he could as something glinted from the carpet.

The [Mage] was holding up a mirror. A scrying mirror? The others tensed as it caught the light. But it was not a painful glare that shot downwards. No—what appeared in front of them was a man.

A Human man, reflected from the mirror onto the ground. He smiled, and looked around.

“A Skeleton Lord? You impress me further, Pisces Jealnet. Please—”

For Qshom had shot a bolt through his face. The man regarded the Dullahan with mild interest, and his eyes turned back to Pisces. Slitted pupils. The [Necromancer] froze, his face a mask of hostility. And fear. Eloque was paralyzed. The figure bowed, gracefully.

“—let us talk. I am Emir Yazdil. The Naga of Roshal. My people have found you, Pisces Jealnet. You are all [Slaves]. But we shall be understanding. If you acquiesce.”

“Leave us be. I swear I will destroy you if you approach.”

Pisces whispered. The Naga shook his head.

“…I am told you were in the company of Igheriz, and the Emir Riqre. Neither one represents Roshal, and Riqre…I fear you have the wrong impression of me, Pisces. I should like to speak.”

“Begone!”

The young man’s voice cracked. He blasted the illusion with something that made it actually wink out, but in a second the [Mage] had adjusted the mirror and it was back. The Emir shook his head.

“Pisces Jealnet, Roshal sees you. Let us speak. If you are not willing now—I shall return in an hour. But we shall speak. I would not have this be unpleasant. I hold the other Emirs in abeyance, and they would make an example. Is it not prudent to talk? I have heard you were known for your sagacity.”

He smiled, and Eloque wanted Pisces to refuse. He even spoke in a reasonable way. Pisces’ face was white and he was shaking, but everyone was frozen in fear. The carpet, the scrying spells…Roshal knew exactly where they were.

“Pisces.”

Eloque whispered. The [Necromancer] glanced at her. Then he tried to nod.

“Speak, Emir Yazdil. How is there room for negotiation if we are [Slaves]?”

The Naga’s smile reminded Eloque too much of home. Was he a Naga? How could one of them…?

“I am no fool, Adventurer Pisces. What if I were to let the others in your company go free? Remove their [Slave] class? But for you. I would purchase their contracts and set them free. If you agreed.”

Pisces reeled as if struck. Eloque wanted to throw up.

No.

She raised her voice, but the Emir had already dug his claws into Pisces. It was like Riqre again. Not the same, but the same poison. In just one sentence he had set the other freed [Slaves] to hesitating. No! Don’t let him speak!

The Lizardwoman slashed at the illusion, but it was intangible. The Naga looked at her, smiling gently.

“If not that, Pisces, I am even prepared to make you a deal. One month. One month and then I would let you go free. Do not mistake me. I am not negotiating from weakness. But I do wish you to be willing t—”

Pisces, tasting bile, was ready to shout, or stop Eloque, who was slashing the air. But the Naga suddenly winked out. Pisces, Eloque, and the others stared in puzzlement at the blank space where he had been.

Had the illusion spell gone wrong? They looked at the distant carpet just in time to see the [Mage], puzzled, adjust the mirror and tap on the [Carpet Rider]’s shoulder.

Then the scrying mirror exploded and the carpet went down, burning, to hit the ground below. Pisces’ eyes opened wide.

Apprentice.

A voice whispered to him. A familiar voice, distant, far, but not weak. And not…inhuman. Pisces closed his eyes as the others babbled, confused. They did not understand. He did.

For if one could see him now—so could another.

 

——

 

Az’kerash, the Necromancer of Izril, was not a…kind person. Pisces knew that. He knew the legends, and he recalled vividly the threat the Necromancer had made if he should reveal anything.

Even so, why did he sound kind? Just Pisces’ imagination.

…Roshal shall not see you. Their pursuers follow, but blindly.

What did he say? Pisces gulped.

“You are—generous beyond belief, Great Az’kerash.”

Am I not Archmage Chandler?

The voice almost sounded amused. Pisces recalled he had made a point to say it like that. It had been so long. He closed his eyes.

“Of—of course, Archmage Chandler. Then, we will be cloaked from all detection spells?”

Naturally. Roshal is not a match for my abilities. You are far from any of my…agents, however. I shall send aid if you require it.

Pisces’ own gray-green eyes opened wide. Now here was the danger. The Necromancer had stopped Roshal, even the Naga, and killed the two most high-level pursuers in the doing. But he still had his desires.

“…As I am your humble student and admirer, Archmage Chandler, I would throw myself upon your aid. However, I would not incur a deeper debt than I could repay.”

He didn’t want to hint at what both knew the debt would entail. Perhaps he had offended Az’kerash, because there was a moment of silence.

Such aid as I can render is simple, young Pisces. A trifle.

Pisces tried to smile.

“Nevertheless, Az’kerash, or Archmage Chandler, a debt is a debt.”

He had no doubt anything given would need repayment.

“…As you wish, then. Escape Chandrar, Pisces Jealnet. Your team is as yet occluded to me, and I have lesser interest in their fates. I would tell you, however, to search Nerrhavia’s Fallen, Illivere, and Savere. The spell that went awry scattered your team across a smaller radius.

Pisces was amazed. The Necromancer could tell their rough trajectories just by analyzing the [Greater Teleport] spell? He bowed in the privacy of the tent, wondering if Az’kerash could see it.

“Of course, Great Necromancer. I…I would not ask your help further, as you have already spent enough of your precious time in this limited exchange.”

…My precious time. Yes. I consider it—amusing—to participate in such diversions. If you require aid…

Pisces would place himself in that kind of debt the same day he took up Bearig’s offer to make him fish stew. He was sure the Necromancer was…better than Riqre, or the Naga. But still. It was too close. Pisces spoke, and here he began to sweat, a bit.

“Rest assured, Archmage Chandler, I shall. However, I shall recompense you all your time! We did not recover the Helm of Fire, as promised, but my team and I secured several Relics, as you well know, from the Putrid One’s very abode! I have in my possession a powerful spellbook—perhaps his personal copy! I hesitate to remind you of your promise to aid my friend, but I vow I can repay all your effort!”

There was dead silence, but Pisces knew the Necromancer was well aware of the spellbook. Why else would he help Pisces?

Of course, Pisces Jealnet. We shall discuss terms later. I congratulate you on your success. Survival is the mark of a true adventurer or [Mage], regardless of the cost.

Then the link broke. Pisces shuddered, sat back, and then went to tell the others they were safe. Safe-er. He didn’t want to part with the spellbook, but at least they had an ally as great as Roshal on their side.

 

——

 

In distant Izril, Az’kerash tapped his fingers together. Why was Pisces refusing help? He had been ready to send…

They have Relics? The Putrid One’s spellbook?”

His eyes burned with sudden curiosity. He had not expected that! Az’kerash drummed his fingers on the armrest. Now…how was he supposed to render aid subtly? He had to find a way to cover for the interference as well. He had posed as Wistram, or so he hoped. But if he took Pisces’ current position into account…

Toren, peeking in at Az’kerash, saw an entire war council’s worth of maps and books on local geography, fauna, recent reports of settlements in the area, and so on. The skeleton shook his head.

He had no word for what Az’kerash was, but if he had been introduced to the concept of ‘nerd’, ‘fanboy’, or so on, he would happily have used it.

 

——

 

They moved faster after that. With less food weighing down the wagons; they also tossed more gear they didn’t absolutely need. They could share tents, they didn’t need some containers or tools.

They had to outrun their pursuers. The group changed course, heading into the Glass Straits. They needed to fool Roshal’s force.

With luck, they wouldn’t have many or any [Trackers], expecting to be able to scry Pisces. With luck, Pisces and their group would vanish into Chandrar.

Nevertheless, despite Pisces’ assurance of magical help from powerful allies back in Izril—that was how he explained Az’kerash—the incident had shaken everyone.

Eloque was sobbing when Pisces woke up. He stopped, a cup of tea in his hands. It was not that she wept, it was because it was Eloque. Everyone cried. From Rophir to Bearig. Pisces? He had woken up screaming or with his head in his hands.

But she and he had seen…they had fought with Azam, outside of Riqre’s mansion. She looked up when Pisces stopped.

“Dreams?”

“No. I was imagining being captured again.”

The Lizardwoman whispered. She touched her neck, then shook her head. She took the tea, gulped it cold—they had only a small fire—and shook her head.

“I wish you hadn’t killed Hrome. Or that the Death of Chains hadn’t burned Igheriz to ash.”

Of all the things to say—Pisces rocked back on his heels as they sat, waiting for the Glass Straits to cool as the sun set.

Why?

She bared her teeth at him, her slitted eyes sharp. Her left shoulder was free of stitching, but her scales were marked from the cutting Qshom had to do, scratched up, but she looked at her left arm like it was the most beautiful thing in the world.

“Because then I could look at their skulls and know they were dead.

The [Necromancer] could understand that. He sat, nodding. Eloque stared at him, then curled up like a cat, lying on the warm glass.

“And then I thought about the future. If we do escape, and leave Chandrar. I thought of what came next and I kept crying. Isn’t that silly?”

“Why?”

Eloque gave him a weary, weary laugh.

“Because, Pisces. If we do escape and go to a city or nation that outlaws [Slaves], where I will be free? What happens next? I have no Skills—not like Qshom or Bearig. My highest-levelled class is [Slave]. What will I do?”

Mockingly, she gestured at her body. She still wore a dress, now faded with travel.

“Do you want me to entertain you? Do you want a toy to stitch up? I can do that. They took my entire adult life from me.”

Pisces’ shudder made the Lizardwoman look at him.

“Don’t say that. You don’t have to do anything like that.”

“Don’t lie about what I have. I can’t go back home and just start over, Pisces. I don’t know where to begin.

She shook her head. Pisces hesitated, rocking on his heels. He hadn’t thought what would happen to them after they got to safety. That was what mattered, but what could he tell Eloque?

“I would make sure you reached home, in Baleros, if you wanted it…but I could ensure you found a place in Izril.”

“No. I won’t go to Baleros. Home? No. I was sold from there. I can’t go back and see my family, my village…”

Eloque whispered. Pisces looked at her, and the hairs on the back of his neck prickled.

“Did they…?”

He caught himself, but Eloque’s bright-eyed gaze fixed him like a beacon.

Did they sell me? Did they sell me as a [Slave]? No, Pisces. They didn’t have to. I…volunteered.”

She began to laugh. Isn’t that funny? Then Eloque told him why.

 

——

 

The Lizardfolk were one of three main species on Baleros. Centaur, Dullahan, Lizardfolk. Humans, Selphids, and Gazers were a larger minority, as were the Beastkin tribes. Some Lizardfolk cities were grand, and the Naga, the catchall term for the Lizardfolk’s many forms from Lamia to Gorgon, ruled.

But not everywhere was rich. Some villages were poor, very poor, and those were the places Roshal haunted. But not as an evil force—at least not in image.

“[Slavers] cannot simply grab people on Baleros. No, they can, in secret, because so few challenge them. They don’t have to. They just come to a village like mine when everyone’s sick or hungry and…”

It didn’t take a giant disaster. Just a plague, a minor one compared to Yellow Rivers, making everyone ill. There wasn’t enough coin for a [Healer] or [Alchemist]. So Roshal had come, smiling and offering a deal.

“They made it sound as if it would be a noble sacrifice, and I had a chance of becoming free. That I’d be treated well. I was the most beautiful Lizardgirl in the village. Everyone thanked me, and I went. It was fine. Fine until it wasn’t. Do you understand?”

Pisces did. He felt sick, trying to imagine it. Something like Igheriz’s smile, right until you saw who he truly was.

“I could have said no and no one would have blamed me. But I went off with them. I think about it every day.”

She was crying again, but not many tears. Not in this dry land. Pisces looked at Eloque, curled up on the ground, tail wrapped around herself as she lay in the dimming sun.

Reach out and take her shoulder. Hug her. Tell her…

He couldn’t tell what was best. So he did nothing, and knew that was worst of all. But he still did it. Pisces hunched his shoulders—then burst out with it.

“I—What should I say in this moment? I—I should like to say something, Eloque. But I am not my teammates. They are better people than I.”

The Lizardwoman looked at him, and then burst out laughing. She lay on her back.

“You’re such a bad leader, Pisces.”

He turned red and hunched his shoulders, but Eloque sat up kindly. To comfort him.

“Not a bad person. You rescued me from Riqre. You and Azam helped us remain free. Tell me of something else, Pisces. Tell me…of your team. Tell me there’s good people, because I’ve met so few. I’ve spent my entire adult life a [Slave].”

So he did. Pisces rode with Eloque by night, and told her about Yvlon, Ksmvr, and Ceria, and how they’d met.

He never talked about himself. He was not used to it. Pisces had never told anyone about how he first fled his father and homeland. He didn’t even tell his team his last name.

But he told the others everything, because they had seen everything that made him vulnerable already. He told them about home, but that was not what they needed. At last, Pisces realized what it was, and it was so simple.

“Where is safety, Pisces?”

Qshom was tiredly looking ahead. The [Necromancer]’s head rose. He stared up at the bright sky, and murmured.

“Home.”

“You mean…where do you mean?”

He looked at them. Pisces rode ahead, and decided to tell them—properly.

“It is a fair question, Qshom. Believe me, I do have somewhere in mind. There are many places I’ve been. Not Baleros, it is true, but now three continents out of the five.”

Heads rose. Pisces looked at them, and then at the patch of sky where had once flown the carpet. He shook his head.

“Where would we be free of Roshal? Terandria? I was born there, and I tell you there is little love of [Slavers] there. But I would not vouch for Terandria.”

He grimaced.

“Terandria bears little love for my class, or those who cannot obey in their way. I have no allies there except…a few old friends. [Necromancers] in hiding, perhaps, if they did not also flee. There is nothing safe there I could count on. Even a single undead is a hanging offence in many kingdoms.”

Every head turned to Ivery, trudging along with his glass pebble. That was it. They didn’t find the undead comforting, but in Terandria, there would have been screams of horror just seeing one. Chandrar tolerated undead a bit more—or had less immediate preconceptions. Pisces went on.

“Nor Wistram. Once, I was a [Mage] of Wistram, but they exiled me for being a [Necromancer]…”

He hesitated. Eloque saw his head lower, and his hands squeeze tight on the reins of the horse. Pisces’ head lifted, and a sigh escaped his lips.

“…No. That is a lie I tell myself. I was exiled for more than my class. I was exiled, rightly, for making a grave mistake. For endangering the lives of other [Mages] and ending in the deaths of many. A terrible accident that killed a good man, and friend of mine. A Centaur named Calvaron.”

He paused a second, and they waited. Like a [Storyteller], and he was better at this than any speech, because it was something he knew, and was building to, Pisces went on.

“Where next, then? Not Chandrar. Izril. Izril is where my home is. Izril is…”

Pisces searched for words, then realized he didn’t have to. Slowly, his hands rose, and a bright light filled the Glass Straits. Eloque saw, mirrored dully in the glass, figures rise. Bright walls. Proud people with scales, like her, but with neck spines, stronger builds. Furry, tall people, who grinned, so like Beastkin…

Rophir’s head peeked out from over Bearig’s back. The [Cook] looked up, murmuring. Pisces’ voice was stronger now.

“In the continent of Izril, past the Walled Cities on high, filled with millions of Drakes each, north of the tribes of countless Gnolls of the Great Plains, and south of the Human lands, ruled by the Five Families, each to their strength, are the High Passes. They stretch across the center of Izril, save for two places where one can enter. The wild High Passes’ eastern route, almost certain death to all but Couriers and Named Ranks, and the western route through a valley that floods every spring.”

The land changed, and they saw the hills and valleys, the lush grass so unlike many parts of Chandrar. Pisces conjured a giant rock that slowly lifted up, and two eye-stalks poked out from under them. Qshom recoiled in horror, somewhat ironically, to Eloque’s mind.

“Giant crabs with shells like rocks roam the area. Shield Spiders, which make nests in the grass and wait for prey to fall in. Even trees that explode when you come too near. It is not safe, you see? But a city sits in the middle of this valley. Liscor. A small city by some accounts, but with…decent people.”

Faces flickered past them. A running little white Gnoll. A [Shopkeeper]. A Drake rolling her eyes. Pisces’ gaze lingered on each one. Then the images changed.

Everyone watched. Even the group that had snuck up on the caravan. Spellbound.

“On a hill outside the city of Liscor, there is an inn. It has a sign out front. If you choose to read it—which not many do—it has a strange inscription. ‘No killing Goblins’. And should you venture inside, you might meet an [Innkeeper]. If you do…your days will never be entirely boring. Not always dangerous or exciting—often, but not always. But you will be safe. Safe, for a given value of the word. Even so. I call it home. I have known nowhere else as fine.”

“What is the inn called?”

It was an obvious question. Pisces smiled.

“The Wandering Inn. It is a strange place. How can I explain it. It was destroyed, rebuilt…three times? There is a tower with an Antinium keeping watch named Bird, who eats birds. If you sit down, you can order a drink of…Blue Fruit Juice. Or a cookie. Or a bowl of flies. But be warned, if you sit too long over your food, a little Gnoll child might try to steal it. And there is a garden and…”

His smile faded. For a second, Eloque saw a frozen bier and a figure—but then it was gone, and Pisces was talking about a drink named a Minotaur’s Punch. Plays.

He did not tell them the truth, because the truth was that the inn was not complete as it was. He told them how it should be, and the vision of the inn, his home, filled their heads.

“So that’s where we’re going?”

Bearig looked at the idea. It seemed so far away. But so welcoming. It was good enough to aim at. Pisces nodded.

“However far it may be, that is where I will one day go. You are free to join me.”

He looked at that fragile image of the inn. And wondered if it would be that way when he returned, or if he would have to find a way to bring it back. Someone sighed.

“Not a bad dream, Pisces. Not a bad dream for a [Necromancer]. I thought you were all cynical lots, but I’ve only ever known [Bandits]. Better than any home I’ve known.”

He spun. And there they were, appearing out of the darkness.

Merr the Storm. And…nearly a hundred plus [Bandits].

Pisces’ hand stole to his sword. Eloque gasped.

Merr!

The [Bandit Lady] grinned. Pisces stared at the small army behind her. How had she…?

“Found a local bandit group. We hit two spots, got our feet under us. Told you all I needed was a bucket. Hey! Break out the drink!

Merr waved a hand. There was a shout, and the group, filled with the same people who’d left with Merr, dipped into a keg recently looted.

“But how…?”

“[Raiding Opportunities]. You knew I could tell where good stuff was, couldn’t you?”

Merr winked. She saw Pisces still eying her.

“Don’t be like that, Pisces. We just came by to see if anyone else wanted to join up. Besides—we’re flush with food and loot, so I’m feeling generous. Actually…”

She glanced at Eloque and Pisces and then coughed.

“…I thought we could trade.”

“Trade?”

Pisces’ eyes narrowed suspiciously. What did he have to trade? Merr shrugged.

“Well, sure. You’re a [Necromancer], aren’t you? We’ve got some broken bones that need setting. Didn’t grab any bodies, but maybe we could get you to animate a Ghoul or something? We could throw it at the enemy. You’ve got gold? We’ll trade you, even up.”

Pisces touched his coin pouch. He…did have gold, come to think of it. Merr winked at Bearig, and Rophir, staring at her from behind the [Cook]’s head.

“I’d make a good [Merchant], wouldn’t I? Generous prices and I get free goods!”

Pisces was still silent. He suspected a trap, but even if he tried now…what could he do? Ivery was still, waiting for orders, but one Skeleton Lord and Pisces versus a hundred [Bandits]?

The new ones looked like an experienced group. Well…‘experienced’ as in, lower quality than even the group Ksmvr had taken out. They were following Merr with respect. The [Bandit Lady] was like royalty compared to Level 8 [Bandits]. No doubt she had strode into their camp and asserted dominance.

That was how Ksmvr would put it. Even so, a hundred [Bandits]? With Eloque and the others to protect?

Three dozen Goblins once killed Klbkch the Slayer. It was a story that had made Pisces doubt his ears when he’d heard it. But all it took was one knife-thrust…

Merr knew he was watching her. Could she sense the [Deathbolt] spell in his fingers? Her smile widened.

“Hey, I’m coming by because I knew you were low on food, Pisces. Let’s not do anything we’d regret, eh?”

Her left hand was on her belt. The two looked at each other, Gold-rank adventurer and [Bandit Lady]. Eloque looked from one to the other. The Lizardwoman called out.

“Pisces. Merr is here to help. Isn’t she? She was a [Slave]. Just like us.”

Merr glanced her way. Pisces hesitated.

“Yeah. This one helped me when that bastard was after me. What…do you think I’d do? Even [Bandits] have a sense of honor. Not that I’d expect you to believe me.”

Her sable eyes peered at Pisces. He looked at her and he could hear Riqre laughing. How can you trust her? She had too much to gain.

Riqre, the Naga, Az’kerash, Merr…they all had their own interests. Pisces hunched his shoulders. It was all too easy to imagine when the dagger would come. The instant his back was turned…

He couldn’t trust her. Pisces shifted, adjusting his weight in the horse’s saddle. He really couldn’t trust her.

Because—well, why? Because he was worth nearly a million gold? Because she was a [Bandit]? Yes. She was a [Bandit Lady].

She was also a [Slave]. Yet you couldn’t trust [Bandits]. They were fundamentally untrustworthy.

“Just like [Necromancers].”

The [Necromancer] turned his head. Merr blinked. Her hand nearly drew the concealed throwing knife. Both turned left.

Eloque didn’t know who that was. Who stood there, in the moonlight? Who stomped her feet, threw up her hands, and rolled her eyes? Her eyes were hazel, her skin was fairer, and her hair was a light brown. Her voice was light and exasperated, but it definitely sounded like she was laughing. With you, not at you.

“[Necromancers]. Fundamentally untrustworthy. [Bandits] bad. Goblins bad too. Hey, everyone’s bad! Have you heard of stinking Humans? Sheesh.”

She rolled her eyes. Erin Solstice, the illusion of her, threw up her hands. She flickered…reappeared, resting her head on her hands.

“What the f…?”

Merr the Storm had no idea what was happening. Her eyes flicked to Pisces, but he was absorbed in his spell. He was doing it, Eloque realized. The young woman spoke to him. Like…a conscience.

A reminder.

“Why should you make the effort? Why should you try, Mister Gold-rank? Because, and I keep telling you this: you’re a better person than they are.”

“I am.”

The [Necromancer] muttered. Eloque saw the [Innkeeper] smile. She rose—and then vanished. Pisces lowered his hand and turned back to Merr.

Merr the Storm. Merr the [Bandit Lady]. Merr the Fundamentally Untrustworthy? One of those things was untrue. The [Necromancer] took a deep breath. Then two.

“It does seem like you have enjoyed greater success than we have, Merr.”

He gestured at the group behind her and the beer they were passing out in mugs. Merr leaned on the saddlehorn of her own mount.

“I’m good at what I do. Raiding. Stealing. I know it doesn’t jive with a Gold-rank’s principles.”

“Really. You thought that?”

Pisces raised his eyebrows. Merr gave him a cautious shrug.

“Gold-ranks hunt [Bandits].”

“True. But I have been…a thief. Many times, in fact. That was not my…my objection.”

“Huh. I didn’t know that.”

And she really hadn’t. How was she supposed to know that? She looked at Pisces, who, in her opinion, had been an upstanding Gold-rank…[Necromancer].

Somewhere, Pisces was sure, if his team could have heard that, they would be laughing until they puked. All except for Ksmvr, who would laugh awkwardly and ask for clarification as to why that was funny later.

Maybe…Pisces felt like he was standing on quicksand. It was too hard. He couldn’t do it.

Eloque, though? She looked from Pisces to Merr. Then she sighed, exasperatedly.

“Why are you two acting like we’re on different sides? Pisces! Did you really think Merr was going to claim the money by taking you as a [Slave]?”

“No! I…”

Pisces’ guilty reply made Merr narrow her eyes. But the Lizardwoman was already looking at Merr.

“And you thought Pisces would run you off for being a [Bandit]?”

“…Well, he has principles.”

Merr looked defensive. Somewhere, in a hypothetical bar, Yvlon sprayed her drink out her mouth, nose, and possibly ears.

Pisces shook his head. He looked at Merr.

“I am entirely unscrupulous, Merr. I…”

He glanced at his own group. At her. Eloque saw the [Necromancer] stare upwards. Then at last, he came out with it.

“Merr.”

“Yes?”

The young man looked her in the eyes. He sniffed, for the first time anyone in the group had ever known him, a huge, haughty sniff.

“Would you…care to join our forces in unity? We could use your considerable acumen. And I am not the most proficient leader. I am a superlative—specialist. What I’m trying to say is…”

He worked his mouth.

“Give me a hand, Merr. Please.”

The [Bandit Lady] sat there on her horse. Eying him. Now, why would she help Pisces? Why would she, the woman who kept asking if she was needed, who just happened to come back this way with food and loot…

In her way, she was as bad as Pisces. Eloque rubbed at her head. Actual children. Lizardfolk did not have this kind of problem. It was clearly a Human thing. A Stitch-Folk thing.

“…A hand? All you had to do was ask. Hey! Merr’s Bandits! We’re sticking with this lot! Play nice!

The [Bandit Lady] turned her head and shouted. Pisces looked at her. He relaxed, slowly.

You can’t trust her! You can’t…

Riqre screamed in his head. Pisces imagined someone charging the Emir.

Who are you?

Consequences! [Minotaur Punch] or something!

The imaginary Riqre received an imaginary [Minotaur Punch]. Which was all imaginary. But maybe so was his paranoia.

Merr reached out. She offered Pisces a hand, and he reached out and clasped it.

“Just so we’re clear—I call the shots when it comes to managing things. You can be the Gold-rank, but I’m the one who tells people where to crap. That work?”

She eyed him. The [Necromancer] thought about it.

“I suppose I can acquiesce. Just so long as you appreciate my unique capabilities.”

He tried, he really tried, but he had to sniff and do that. If he’d tried to be genuine, he might have actually vomited. But Merr just grinned and laughed. Pisces sniffed again, and it was…good. Not a nasal problem, just an old tic.

“That sniffing thing you do.”

Eloque had noticed. She stared at Pisces. He gave her a supercilious look. Expectantly. He waited for her to tell him how annoying it was, or to call him to task on his arrogance. Or…

The Lizardwoman clapped her hands together, delighted.

“Qshom! Bearig! Did you hear that? The sound Pisces makes? With his nose? I love noses. They’re so weird! That is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen!”

The Lizardwoman, who did not actually have a nose, peered at Pisces.

“Do it again, please? Why are you doing that?”

The [Necromancer] turned beet red. Merr threw her head back to laugh. And all was well. Today…

All was well.

 

 

Author’s Note: I did not get to where I wanted! To be fair, I had a huge list of notes, and I missed the last bit only, but I did not write 36,000 words. Just 30,000. I’m sorry. I’ve clearly lost my edge.

But this is the promised Horns arc from the side story poll. We are not done! But we will move onto other stories and come back rather than focus onwards.

What does the future hold? More sniffing, probably. And on the 24th! The Kickstarter for the full The Last Tide comic! I will probably talk about it more then…a chapter will be out on the day. I hope you enjoyed this one and I will see you next time!

Thanks for reading.

 

Stream Art and Ryoka Emote by Bobo Plushie!

 

Yisame by Lanrae!

 

Fortress of The Ice Queen by Blueboyv1!

 


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54 thoughts on “8.38 H

  1. Damn, if Khelt can leverage the knowledge of all those ghosts it’ll be entering a new golden age. Maybe the King of Destruction will end up working for Fetohep.

        • Not really. Flos has no problems with slaves as selling prisoners of war for money s what helped build his war time economy… Which is what most of his economy runs on.

          The problem is not that they are [Slavers] but that they made themselves too profitable to go up against. Their major draw/power is the allies they can call upon and money to throw at people to fight for them.

          Khelt is strong, but it can not fight the war alone.

          The question simply becomes trying to move so many undead and trying to get past every other nation. As the current “war” came from one jerk king who kidnapped a good man and broke various laws and agreements.

          Yet he could call upon half-elves, another army, and a crusade of knights to aid him.

          That was just for a nearby king who he had every excuse to attack and beat up in exchange for access to a river.

          Yes his upgraded army is better, but that is still trying to walk through a lot of annoying enemy ground where war crimes might be seen as a suggestion guide instead of a list of things not to do.

  2. Really good chapter! (I’m beginning to feel like I say those exact same three words every time 🤔)

    I really liked the ending where Pisces… got over himself, it was really good and heartwarming and stuff, good to see him settle into place and stop trying to be somebody he’s not.

    Also, spells that aren’t [Spells]? Fucking FASCINATING, and the way they were explained took me a little while to get, but it blew my mind once I did!! God that’s so cool, I wonder how old that fuckin book is

    • We’ve always had Spells that aren’t [Spells]. From the very beginning when Erin called the Fae and did that feast, or when Teriarch did magic and afterwards said the name of a [Spell] to cover that he was doing true magic. Or when Witches do their brews. Also likely, Erin’s [Wonderous Fare] probably uses Spells to help make that food. Ryoka’s whole thing with wind control. That’s a Spell with a capital ‘S’. The making of Naq-alarma steel.

      IMO, ‘Spells’ is just another way to say ‘Fae magic’. The System (or whatever it is) just takes Spells, and puts them in a structured little box. That’s how you get [Spells] :)

      • I think that spells (or Spells/[Spells]) are structured magic. Teriarch’s explanation of the different casting methods (weaving?) fireball shows that spells use mana to construct different shapes and therefore spells. Ryoka’s fae magic isn’t the same as other magic as she doesn’t consciously manipulate her mana like other spellcasters (unlike when she casts [Flashlight]).
        IMO, I consider Ryoka’s brand of magic as ‘sorcery’ and the other types of magic as ‘learned magic’.

        • It’s not about conscious or unconscious. Ryoka doesn’t manipulate any magic at all most of the time. She just asks the wind to help her. There are times she pushes it with her own magic but most of the time, especially all the big things is just wind helping her. Well, Wind. Its magic from the myths of our world where you you can make friends with a Mountain, race against the Time in a competition, grow a forest by throwing a comb given to you by a witch or the Mother Earth herself. And so on.
          Which is also why wards against normal magic and skills do not work. Ryoka herself isn’t doing any “magic”. You can’t just make the mythical powers stop working for they are the foundations of the world. But countering them is possible – case in point the weather control scroll that assassins used.

          Frankly, gods of Innearth are lucky not one of Earthers got to bring a handful of earth with them. Maybe there is some kind of protection in the summoning spell against that. Because inviting Earth in your house while you are stealing her children seems like a really bad idea.

  3. Wouldn’t the land of the dead try to hide the existence of the gods from most in the living world? After all they want to be remembered.

    • Yeah but at the same time if you don’t know what you’re fighting against than how do you prepare? Presumably the idea is that the power boost given by having one more person (well revenant) know about them is less than the benefit you gain by having someone to coordinate an ideal defense.

      • Even then it is trying to give a rough guess or idea. There is a difference between preparing for an invasion of dragons and a rather nasty invasion of Crellers.

        Both are threats, but you prepare for each threat differently.

        • The last solstice Rhir brought over a butt ton more Earthlings and the Dead-God of Magic made Ironman mass text that the Gods aren’t dead. If people in the living side don’t take active steps to stop the summonings and/or re-suppress knowledge of the Gods then the Dead Gods will rise to power in huge bursts in a very short amount of time. Honestly one more infusion of believing humans and the gods might be able to start overcoming the weapon and dragons currently keeping them away.

          • How do you do that then? Do you just tell your undead king to start killing earth born? Enslave them?

            How do you prevent the spread of knowledge to people you have not located? Winstrum is dumping money, people, magic, and resources to grab and bag them… And even they come up short trying to find them.

            Best guess is that mega magic arch mage circle is a spell repeated to trying to fix it or to shore up the realm of the undead.

            Other then that? It is prep work and trying to find what you can share that will not cause an undead skeleton to suffer a heart attack.

            Also they do not know that believing in heaven will let them skip the realm of the dead gods.

            • Let’s consider the Antinium; a race created as a living weapon (by a god that doesn’t play nice with other gods) that have no problem going to war on mere orders, without any need to have a just cause explained to them.

              Of course, it backfired when they rebelled but they still have the same qualities.

              Then we have the Goblins, which are also a race created as a living weapon (by gnomes?) who are very big on shamanistic magic, have their own afterlife AND whose purpose in life seems to be destroying all the “gods’ playthings”.

              • I think that the goblins are related to faeries, and the dead Queen of Fae. That is why the faeries dont prank the goblins, and are so so sad about their fate. And also, why there arent any new fadries being born.

  4. Is it just me, or does the Naga seem like a pretty decent guy? It feels like he doesn’t treat his [Slaves] like [Slaves], but more like very well treated servants. He is willing to free all of Pisces’s companions for only one month of his time. He only killed his rival Emir when they struck first out of arrogance. Yes, he did kind of break Kent Scott and is kidnapping as many earthers as he can, but honestly his reaction seems justified. He overreacted with Kent Scott and overdosed him a bit on memory potions, but that was in the heat of the moment of realizing there is AN ENTIRE OTHER WORLD out there with weapons far beyond his own. His kidnapping of earthers is for the preparation of a possible invasion in his perspective. He left the Grand Elephant alive in respect of its strength. I dunno, in a nation filled with the vilest [Slavers] I have ever read about, he seems pretty alright. Maybe I am missing something?

    • Re-read his Interlude. Even though it didn’t go into detail, I am certain some horrible stuff goes on in that dungeon where the Emir “trains” his slaves to be obedient without collars. Remember that the other Emir, the one who died during Pieces’s time as a slave, also had his slaves uncollared, and look at the nasty stuff he got into. Then there’s Fetohep’s observations that slavery led to terrible things when it was legal in Khelt.

    • Alright for a slaver is still pretty awful. But yeah he has some good propaganda to make him seem more tolerable.

      Maybe he, himself is no worse than say, Regis Reinhart or the Siren any other evil-aligned ruler we’ve seen so far.

      I’d still prefer appearing before even a neutral aligned, self interested ruler like the Rat-king of Medain over him any day though.

    • The Naga is someone that basically kidnaps people, isolates and drugs them, and will show them how much he ‘cares’ for them long enough for Stockholm syndrome to set in. That’s why the Naga makes that 1 month ‘offer’ cause he knows he can psychologically weasel his way into Pisces’ mental in a way that will make him ‘choose’ to stay forever. Sure the method is different than Emir Riqre’s but your mental will still be as screwed as Riqre’s ‘lovers’ were.

      Also remember all those wonderful tales we heard about the Naga was being told by Roshal [Bards] for Roshal as Roshal propaganda stories. There MIGHT have been some truth behind them but the main point is to get people to like him.

      • I think it’s more likely it’s his interest in earthers that has prompted him. He knows Erin is an earther and he knows about Pisecs connection to her.

        He would be willing to give a great deal for more information about them.

    • He’s a slaver. That’s all you need to know to know that “Is it just me, or does the Naga seem like a pretty decent guy?” is just a completely morally bankrupt thing to even think. Did you grow up in one of the many countries in the world that still have actual slaves?

      • My new guess it that it is the accident of comparing him to everyone else on his side of the world.

        It would be akin to asking which God of Chaos looks like your best bet in 40k.

        As one man put it… “It is like asking which form of brain cancer seems like the best pick”

        They all suck. He just does a better job at making him seem the least horrible out of the bunch. Which to be fair… The others seem to take it as a challenge to see who is the must (censored) up out of the bunch.

    • “He is willing to free all of Pisces’s companions for only one month of his time.” And leave them to be picked by other slavers most likely, it wouldn’t do to set a precedens where slaves her what they want.

    • He’s not decent, he’s an absolute egocentric, somewhat lazy, prone to panic attacks and prefers seduction/mind control/drugs than torture as a means of control.

      Sure, being his slave is a thousand times better than Emir Riqre’s but it’s still very bad. Do you remember that oh so loyal slave prostitute he gifted to a Terandrian lord as a way to corrupt him and get a trade deal? It shows he doesn’t really care even about his loyal slaves, even if he’s normally possessive.

      Also, we haven’t seen what he’s willing to do when genuinely angered or backed into a corner. Do you think he’d just have let Pisces go if he couldn’t break him in a month? Egocentrics don’t take failure well.

      • I have yet to see him break his public persona yet. It would be satisfying to see him lose that smug composure after all. I wonder if Yazdil is someone that Erin could ever forgive because of how ‘nice’ he is. Erin feels like the moral measuring stick in this series to me and it makes me wonder what would happen if Yazdil figures that out, would he try to charm her or try to be honest about his wants and dismiss her as crazy?

        • He would certainly try to charm her, I expect it to fail. Erin is willing to give chances (Goblins, Necromancers, Raskghar, Calruz…) but she also knows when the only thing to do is kill the sick bastard (that Hob that attacked her in v1, the other Goblin that killed children…). At its most basic, Emir Yazdil’s villainy is that he enslaves people for his own pleasure, wealth and comfort.

          Sure, he doesn’t treat them as nightmarishly bad as some other slavers but he still does evil out of egoism, not a necessity forced upon him (like Goblins having to eat their own dead to not starve or Necromancers having to protect the living with undead cannon-fodder). In my view, Erin cannot forgive that. Also, she refused the knowledge of Roshal in the land of the dead and those were ghosts who could do no more harm to the living, she’d be even more unforgiving to a living slaver with his own selfish ambitions.

          We don’t know enough about him to predict for certain how he would react if pushed to the brink but, based on the panic attacks he has when he’s still nominally in control, I think he’d just scream and run like a coward (assuming he’s not backed into a corner). If he’s merely made furious (like if Pisces couldn’t be broken in a month), I’d expect him to turn cruel and rage, that would fit an egoist’s personality.

          Okay, it can be argued she’d forgive anyone who tries to turn a new leaf, no matter how bloody their past (i.e. Klkbch the Slayer, Ksmvr the torturer, Relc the Goblin-murderer…) but how likely it is that the Emir would genuinely give up on his slaves and luxury? If he had any moral objections, he already had the opportunity to sell-off everything and bugger-off to another continent. Not to mention that his preparation for future Earth-contact is based on his expectation that Earthlings won’t tolerate his slavery.

    • The Naga is doing things like he did to Kent Scott to everyone.

      There were rooms and rooms full of slaves he was doing that to, when he walked through his secret basement.

      • Plus the way that his most ‘trusted’ slave preferred not to go down there implies something deeply disturbing is down there if not already happening.

  5. So I am calling it now this is going to be one of the unexpected consequences of Liscors new joke law, instead of selling some volunteers into slavery those lizard man villages will just move to Liscor. After all, they are even being paid to do it and it would not hurt to ask “Hay can you send a healer over here we are having some problems and could really use the help. Once everyone is healthy enough to move we will head out.” This will snowball very quickly if it catches on in any way form or fashion. Imagine them having to send Relc to another continent to escort the equivalent of a few cities back.

  6. So
    How likely do you think it is that when Erin wakes up, she’ll level up and that her new skills/class will have something to do with dead people?
    The possibilities are are making me quite giddy.
    Heck I’m still waiting for a skill that can allow the inn teleport door to apply to the entire inn.
    Really embody the name,
    you know.

    • Well given how she did pull the sword out of the stone we could be looking at a Witch-Queen of Innkeepers and Stories.

      • Yeah but I get feeling that even though Witch, Queen, General, and even Innkeeper all embody her words, actions and skills they still fail to truly capture her, She isn’t just a Queen or Witch or even a Magical Inkeepeer, she’s Erin Solstice.
        The only way for a class to truly embody her, IMHO, would be if it invented a new term for itself similar to the Quarass,
        That said I can’t deny that a mixed name class like the one you suggested isn’t appealing either

  7. “Pisces thought back to the mysterious Grand Magus Eldavin he had once met on the road and his comments”

    He called himself Teriarch back then.

    • I got the impression he was doing it on purpose. He was using his memory of Erin to help him ward off his paranoia about the slavers.

    • Well, Fierre (the Vampire) was shown to be able to siphon levels and skills from people whose blood she drank,
      However it was pretty inefficient and restricted, everyone from whom she gained levels died after feeding and she wasn’t able to absorb all their levels,they had to be high level enough in the first place, not to mention to for it to work she had to feed directly on them.
      Still if vampires are able to achieve this limited effect then their could surely be an alternative method to achieve this in Innworld albeit it must be restrictive as well.

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