Kickstarter Note: 36 Celsius or 96.8 Fahrenheit depending on which you use. Well, this is no good.
I keep checking it, but I can’t call it a fever either way. Yet here I am. I haven’t slept. I lay down, but I don’t think I ‘slept’ after two hours. And I already stayed up late.
It’s strange. I feel feverish. I can’t have even the lightest sheet on me. My mind is racing even though it’s tired and I should be asleep to write the end of this chapter.
I cannot. The Kickstarter for The Last Tide launches today, and if it does well, it means another comic is likely to come out, success, work justified for over a year—and that was the drawing, not the pre-production and other parts!—and people get paid, including me.
If it fails? It won’t be the worst thing in the world, but I’ve never felt as stressed as I have now. Even other chapters let me sleep, but this is a big project beyond me. I keep thinking I’ll be able to lie down.
I can’t. So I’m writing the second half of the chapter with zero sleep, and I might crash, but the Kickstarter is going live sometime today. If you see something that looks interesting, please consider backing it! It is a comic based on a story I wrote and both parts, which is the full comic, are finally out. The pandemic delayed everything, but you can now pre-order physical copies and other bonuses like figurines and artwork.
I hope it’s a success. Please consider spreading the word too! It would really help for anyone interested to see this and word-of-mouth helps a lot.
Either way. I have to write so I can release a chapter. And then perhaps I’ll sleep. See you in the Author’s Note, if it exists.
While news trickled in of the wars on other continents, of the wounded King of Destruction, of friends and adventurers freed, ancient kingdoms of death, and missing [Doctors], all grand events that mattered, her daughter was still missing.
Her beloved daughter, whom she had vowed to protect. Who she should have brought with her. And if Mrsha died, was dead?
There was no word, but all of Izril had seen the broadcast. There was no concrete evidence of her, alive or dead.
So the [Princess] danced. She danced, from ball to party, a whirling spectacle. A Human, in the City of Growth, Oteslia under siege. Wildly, passionately, laughing, kissing an ivy-scaled Drake on the cheek. Flirting outrageously with his friends, then flitting around the room, sometimes talking with other fixtures of the new high society, the Human [Lady] from the north, or the Wall Lord of Salazsar.
Or Wall Lady. Or…
Saliss of Lights watched Lyonette as she let Cirediel whisper in her ear. She laughed, bit her lip, as if deciding, and nodded after a judicious interval spent talking with someone else. The young Drake didn’t try to conceal raising his fist in victory and going to slap tails with his friends.
When she returned to the more permanent, formal residence they had been granted by the First Gardener of Oteslia for their stay while the Walled City was under siege, Saliss and Xif traded looks. The Gnoll [Alchemist] played it off.
“I’ll get back to looking at those Faerie Flowers. Lovely party. What in the name of exploding vials did we eat?”
“Disgusting. Is Lyonette…?”
She had not come with them. She had left with Cire and the younger Drakes and Gnolls, early for a more informal party of their own. Saliss had seen Ratici and Wilovan slip after them. And two more groups. Oteslia? Ilvriss? Magnolia? He was not as concerned about another assassination attempt so soon. Rather…he didn’t go to the alchemy station he and Xif had set up.
A clouded mind was no good when working with dangerous ingredients. Saliss sighed, and, grumbling, went to unpack the last shipment from Pallass his apprentice had sent to him. And no more would be coming because she had gone running off…the one time he could have actually used someone making potions!
The Drake was reading the newspaper from Pallass. War. War. War. Ooh. Eir Gel prices were up. Why? Someone with a speculation Skill, no doubt.
The war between Ailendamus and the Dawn Concordat? He bookmarked that page for Lyonette; it was just trivial news, like the [Princesses] of Calanfer going on tour in the safe regions of Kaliv to hearten the soldiers.
How much heart they imparted was dubious, but Lyonette would doubtless care. Saliss was really just passing the time. He looked up, as, at around 10:32 if the moonwater clock was right, Lyonette du Marquin stumbled in with a brief burst of noise and laughter. Saliss spotted figures waving at her, a plaintive call. She blew a kiss backwards.
“That was for Paill, not you, Cire!”
Then she closed the door. Lyonette’s eyes were bright and she smelled like Dreamleaf, Oteslia’s root-ale, and…Saliss sniffed. Sweat?
Well, he wasn’t great at deciphering things by smell after too many strongly-scented ingredients. Saliss saw a Drake tip his cap and a Gnoll wearily adjust his top hat and do the same. Saliss nodded at them, jerked a thumb.
“Want a drink? Xif and I rolled a keg of something into the larder.”
“You’re a gentleman, Saliss, sir.”
“No I’m not.”
The Drake mildly nodded to Wilovan as the Gnoll went to refresh himself. He must have been watching Lyonette all day, and the Gentlemen Callers didn’t drink on the job. Saliss idly wondered how much their service would cost if they were charging Lyonette anything. But his eyes were really on Lyonette.
She stood in the hallway, for a moment. Her cheeks were flushed, and she had been smiling. Genuinely smiling. Then she strode towards her guest room. Saliss, of course, followed after.
I am writing to tell you I’ve been unfaithful. I shall be direct, and tell you that I cannot remain in a relationship with you, honestly. I have seen other people for reasons I cannot explain. Simply put, I am sorry. Forget about me, please.
There was no artistry to the letter. None of the usual tact and delicacy she made Mrsha write with. Lyonette’s quill trembled as she wrote, dashing the letters down onto the paper. Everything in the room was a gift of Oteslia’s First Gardener, who had many sympathies for Lyonette’s plight.
How did her sisters write letters like this? Never so brazenly. They’d use careful expressions, even if they had been caught. Lyonette knew Pawn wouldn’t understand them. And she…
“Huh. So you did sleep with him? Seems early. He just talked you into going out into the city for the first time.”
Saliss’ voice made Lyonette jump. He was peering over her shoulder, and as silent as Wilovan or Ratici. Lyonette looked at the letter, then began to fold it up into an envelope. She addressed it, poured wax over the seal, and only then turned to glare at Saliss.
He held out a claw. The yellow-scaled [Alchemist] and Named Adventurer had a smile on his face, but Saliss’ smiles were not all the same. His eyes were speculative, watching her.
“Want me to bring it to the Runner’s Guild? Or is it the Mage’s Guild for confidential [Message] spells? You know they read them, don’t you?”
“I am well aware. I will send it by City Runner myself.”
Lyonette didn’t make as if to rise. She put the letter on the corner of her desk, and looked at it. Saliss peered at her.
“So you’re going to sleep with that kid. Cirediel or whatever the First Gardener’s son is named?”
The [Worldly Princess] did not want to speak to Saliss right now. Yet, among her friends in Oteslia, he was the only one to talk to. Xif, Ratici, Wilovan, or Saliss were her immediate allies. Mivifa…but she was only an acquaintance.
And for some reason, Lyonette didn’t see the judgement she expected in Saliss’ gaze. The Named Adventurer looked a bit too knowing. So she replied, brusquely.
“Of course I will. If I have to. I’m leading him on.”
“If you had a tail, he’d be twined all around it. So you’ll do…what? Tell the First Gardener you’ve married her son, send an army to find Mrsha?”
Lyonette glowered at Saliss.
“Cirediel has the First Gardener’s authority. Not just him. I’ll do whatever it takes. The letter is…I’ll send it if I must.”
“So the [Princess] sells herself for her daughter.”
“It’s what we’re good at. Or have you never met a [Princess], Saliss? We are tools of the crown. I would have gone to another kingdom to forge an alliance. This—at least I care about this.”
The Drake nodded. He was watching Lyonette. Gone was her carefree smile. As she sat there, Lyonette du Marquin was cold.
Calculating. She did not weep, or scream, or try to break out of the city like a fool. Even when she had received word her daughter was gone…she had begun outrageously flirting with Cirediel that day.
Calm. Her blue eyes held a degree of ruthlessness that even [Soldiers] on the battlefield lacked, to Saliss’ mind. She had weighed her options, the things available to her. What would she do to ensure her daughter might be found and saved? Whatever it took.
Saliss hated it. Lyonette stood to head downstairs. She tripped over an outstretched foot. She didn’t actually fall, but caught herself and whirled, glaring.
“Saliss! This is not the time!”
“There’s always time to annoy people.”
The nudist Drake turned. His own eyes had violet pupils. Lyonnete expected a mocking grin.
He wasn’t smiling. And his eyes, locked on hers, were too…
The [Worldly Princess] hesitated. Saliss of Lights shook his head.
“I like annoying people. Annoying people is simple, egalitarian. It treats everyone with the assumption that they all deserve to be annoyed. I don’t like treating other people with respect because they’re a [General], or because they’re a Wall Lady. Or a [Princess].”
He closed one eye, and regarded Lyonette.
“I don’t like it when they treat themselves differently, either.”
“Saliss. Don’t talk me out of this. This is all I can do. I am a [Princess]. We have always been the currency of kingdoms!”
Lyonette snapped. The Drake exhaled. Then he looked at Lyonette, seriously. The Drake reached out…and poked Lyonette in the chest.
“You are depressing. Is that how you Humans think, in Terandria? De. Pres. Sing.”
He poked her. She swatted at his claw, but his hand was too fast. Saliss went on, frowning mightily.
“Even for the Walled Cities you’re…no, wait. Nah. You fit in. With the most cynical, cold-hearted Drakes. Everyone’s just a thing to be used. And so are you? Wrong. Stupid. Don’t do that, Lyonette. It will cost more than you think. Believe me.”
He shook his head. Lyonette hesitated.
“And how would you know?”
She snapped, unguarded, angry, because his words struck home too much. What Lyonette was not prepared for was the look she got.
“Because I know.”
It was rather like being doused by cold water. Lyonette looked at Saliss and suddenly had many questions. Many questions, but the Drake’s…look…prohibited any of them. At last, Lyonette turned. She clenched her hands so hard her fingernails dug into her skin.
“And what am I supposed to do? Mrsha is out there. And I can’t…”
Her shoulders shook. Saliss, mouth closed in memory, was lost for a moment. Then he saw the young woman’s shoulder shake. She sat down, not even bothering to find a bed or chair. Tears rolled down her cheeks.
The Named Adventurer looked down at her.
Oh, of course. Lyonette sat, overcome by grief. Zeres’ army had Oteslia surrounded. And it might have been possible for her to leave…if she hadn’t been marked by two Admirals of Zeres and the Sharkcaptain.
Saliss awkwardly patted her shoulder. He sighed and produced the letter he’d looted from her desk. Damn Ancestors.
Saliss tore it up. She could always re-write it, but maybe she wouldn’t send it at all if she thought about it again.
It was so…complicated. Depressing girls that reminded Saliss of…well.
If only it were an easy solution like ‘kill everything’. The [Alchemist] was good at that. However. He sat, patting Lyonette’s shoulder. Well. It was still interesting.
They were a bit similar after all. It made Saliss want to help this young idiot. But how?
Oteslia was under siege. Zeres had come with an army, and Liscor’s famed mercenaries were also contributing to a blockade over the issue of the Human [Lady].
And other issues. Frankly, they were also there due to the Meeting of Tribes, because Zeres and Oteslia had been at war for quite some time…it was a siege as usual.
Such normality meant that there was still traffic in and out of Oteslia. City Runners and a small number of vehicles were stopped by Zeres’ [Soldiers] and let go.
Because, of course, City Runners were an independent body. Same with the Wyverns or Pegasi that might travel through the air. It was a curious standard; of course Oteslia’s [Pegasus Riders] were the enemy. But Oteslia’s Pegasi that fulfilled the Walled City’s transport or other vital services superseded the mere state of war and were allowed to fly.
It said a lot that Oteslians were so used to being besieged in the Walled City of Growth that some had penpals in said army camped outside their walls. In the end, the move was as symbolic as it was a war of financial pressure; it cost money to keep Zeres’ army in the field, but Oteslia in turn was deprived of trade.
Magnolia Reinhart’s presence now…that had escalated the situation. As had a number of other factors, like Salazsar sending no less than five representatives, including Wall Lord Ilvriss, Wall Lady Navine, and Helessia Gemscale. It worried concerned minds that there might be an actual possibility of some kind of…peace?
Unacceptable. Of course, that was one angle. Sheer disgust at Magnolia Reinhart was a simple motive. There were far more that were unexpected and unforeseen.
Such as Manus’ growing agitation. Not for any reason Zeres could have known, and the City of War did not want to show how upset they were. However, a certain Wall Lady Rafaema’s presence in what could hypothetically be a warzone?
Absolutely not. If Lyonette’s cold rationalization and mentality was as a mother to a child in danger, so was…all of Manus…to Rafaema. They were considering all moves without revealing why they wanted this war ended, but an unconditional kill order had been sent to Hunt Commander Makhir and every agent in the city regarding protecting Rafaema.
Honestly, the Dragon hated it. Did they think she was an idiot? She had a copy of the very same orders that were making the newly-freed Ferris and Makhir practically follow her into the toilet. What really insulted her was their insistence they had no special orders to obliterate anyone who so much as sneezed in her direction.
Rafaema was willing to own she was not a grown, adult Dragon, and wouldn’t be for another hundred years. 200 was the age of maturity among Dragons—but it didn’t mean they were children all that time!
Half-Elves grew at a normal rate to Humans until their teens. Same with Dragons. When Rafaema had been 14 years old, she hadn’t been a drooling idiot; she’d been a girl, but still functional!
She’d learned how to crack Manus’ internal code ciphers no matter how much they changed when she was twenty three. She had a century of being coddled and she was done.
“Ferris. What are the odds Zeres actually attacks Oteslia?”
“Somewhere below 1%, Wall Lady Rafaema.”
“Right. It would be disastrous. Even if they tried, I’m sure Manus would intercede. Or even hire Liscor’s army to halt Zeres. This is a political siege. They’re mad about Magnolia Reinhart and the army might be here because of all the cities getting burned along the Great Plains.”
Ferris hesitated as Makhir scanned the street they were walking down. The [Hunt Commander] had a double bodyguard of [Soldiers] from Manus, all with bows, casually strolling along. Rafaema saw him glance at Makhir and the Gnoll coughed.
“…In regards to that, Rafaema, we can’t discuss intelligence or possible moves…”
The Dragon rolled her eyes. It was obvious to her. Zeres loved to throw its weight around depending on which Serpentine Matriarch was in charge and this one was spicy.
Hah! Name me one that wasn’t. Rafaema concluded her argument.
“Either way, an actual attack is beyond unlikely. So, Ferris, Hunt Commander. Kindly stop breathing down my tail or I will toss you over the walls.”
Ferris and Makhir glanced at each other, and the Gnolls stopped shadowing Rafaema so closely she could feel their fur brushing her scales.
“Apologies, Rafaema. But we are on duty and if anything should happen to you while it was just us on duty…”
Makhir grimaced. Rafaema frowned at him.
“Why would that matter?”
“We’re the only officers in the city. I’m sure Manus would like at least one more, although we’re quite aware you can handle yourself, as you proved with that [Assassin]!”
Makhir’s words were complimentary, but Rafaema espied something…she glanced at the two and finally got what she had missed.
Both Gnolls looked meaningfully at each other. Rafaema’s brows snapped together.
“You’re both officers of Manus! Does the Dragonspeaker and High Command think you’ll throw me over for the Gnoll tribes or something?”
She turned, and the Drake [Soldiers] walking with them studiously looked everywhere but at Makhir, Rafaema, or Ferris. The Dragon stomped forwards.
“Unbelievable. This is why Manus is on the decline. You people don’t see it. You live like—as long as toads! And you wonder why we can’t recruit Steelfur’s warriors to serve in our armies? Because every two decades, some [Captain] is called out for calling Gnolls ‘dogs’ or Manus supports a Drake city over a Gnoll tribe! You forget. They don’t. Neither do I!”
“Rafaema, your voice…”
Makhir murmured, but he looked gratified. Rafaema just snorted and the air ionized around her as the Lightning Dragon walked on. The others, her bodyguards of Manus? The Drakes looked at their Ancestor among them, who already spoke like that. Lead us into the future.
It was heavy. Rafaema could see herself making a difference, though. That was why Makhir and Spearmaster Lulv were two of her closest allies; the Gnolls could see how she would change things.
Drakes. Her people could be courageous, smart, dedicated and hardworking. Or stubborn, arrogant, closeted, and prejudiced. It was not that they were worse than Humans or Gnolls; it was just that she knew them too well. They thought she, their Ancestor, would take them into another era of glory.
Rafaema, the Dragon, considered that the best way would be to take the strengths of other races as well as her relatives, the Drakes. They thought of themselves as closest to her. She thought of Drakes and Gnolls as almost equally distant.
In a way, it was like how Humans were distantly related to rats as mammalian species, but were closer to primates like monkeys and apes. The only difference was that Rafaema, and perhaps Dragons in general, saw the remove as equal. Monkeys? Rats? Like Gnolls and Drakes, they were both distant relatives to Dragons, if at all.
She didn’t tell any of them that, of course. Rafaema was conscious of her authority. She was done with being a troublemaking wild child. And as if to mock her efforts, the burden on her wings and shoulders…
“Hey Raf! You done monking around? Let’s hang out! It’ll be an Archmage day—Lyonette’s hitting the streets with us!”
The female Dragon closed her eyes. Even Makhir and Ferris winced. A figure leapt down from where all of the bodyguards, Makhir, Ferris, and Rafaema had seen him lurking five minutes ago.
Cirediel, the Earth Dragon of Oteslia, was the brat to Rafaema’s reserve. It just went to show; it was about your mentality, not a mere difference in ages. He went to slap Rafaema’s shoulder, and saw Makhir glaring at him.
“Whoa. Raf, you have to stop hanging around with the Dulls. They’re armored plodders. Come on, you’re in my city! Let’s fly!”
Dulls? As in, dull, plodding? Which also suggested Dullahans? Rafaema crossed her arms and glowered at Cirediel.
“Cire, Oteslia is at war.”
“So? It’s just a siege. Come on, you never visit and you want to walk about?”
“It’s up to you, Wall Lady. We can catch up.”
And here came the double standards. Her overprotective escort, Makhir, Ferris, and the Manus soldiers, rather than threaten to break Cire’s legs, instead all gave her the go-ahead nod.
Because Cire had Oteslia’s bodyguard in the skies. Also, because the two Dragons getting along was priority #2, after Rafaema’s safety.
She wasn’t happy about that prospect either. Oh, did Rafaema think about it. Cire too. She caught his eyes on her wings. And then saw them slide sideways, lighting on her armor, her undershirt…
“Alright, Cire. Let’s fly.”
Rafaema’s retribution was swift. Also—horrifying to males in general, and anyone expecting Dragon offspring. Cirediel lay in a familiar pose to all males, legs crossed, whimpering. Makhir grabbed a healing potion.
She did fly, though. Rafaema leapt straight up, in a soaring jump that even other Oldblood Drakes would have been pressed to copy. Her rapid acceleration left her guards behind, and for a moment, Rafaema breathed in the morning air, cool and wonderful on her scales, the varied scents of Oteslia, pollen and sweet fruits.
She felt free.
…Right up until Cirediel flew after her, squawking. He never caught up immediately; she was faster, stronger, and far more skilled with a blade than he was. But he had that annoying endurance to chase her around the city. He never got tired.
“You are so not Archmage, Rafaema! You—you—booted bastard!”
Rafaema glanced down at her boots.
“Don’t you mean, ‘creler’, Cire?”
She slowed to let him catch up. The Earth Dragon sulked as they flew around the city, keeping well clear of the walls.
“No. Crelering is bad. You’re a boot. You know, the Watch?”
“Armored boots who beat up innocent people. Didn’t you hear about how they were treating people? Like in Cellidel?”
“Isn’t that where Sellme lives? And that’s the Watch, Cire. They’re not nice. They enforce order.”
“Hah! You’re all mind-controlled by spells and what the brass says, Rafaema. Wake up! Manus is all boots and no smart people at all.”
The Lightning Dragon had to turn in the skies and stare at Cirediel, with such frank incredulity he checked himself.
“Cire. Your guardi—your mother is the First Gardener of Oteslia! You’re as connected to the High Command of a Walled City as anyone is!”
He blew out his cheeks.
“Well, yeah. But I don’t let her mindwash me!”
What did you even say to that? Rafaema just dove and Cire followed.
“Oh, come on, Raf!”
“Don’t call me that!”
She turned and Cire dove just in time to dodge the actual fork of lightning. He flew back, squawking.
“No lightning! No breath! Don’t make me fight you, Rafaema!”
“Yes, I’m so nervous of you fighting me.”
She sneered. Although it was true that Cirediel could spit acid…she sighed, folded her arms.
“Are those your minders?”
Cirediel turned his head and saw some Drakes with wings and two [Pegasus Fliers] following from a distance. He grimaced.
“Let’s lose them.”
The two Dragons glanced at each other and dropped, so fast that the Oteslian [Guards] couldn’t keep up. They hit the ground hard, but they were Dragons and were running down the street. Rafaema saw Cire running with a huge grin on his face. She rolled her eyes.
But for all they fought, they were alike. Two people who knew what it was like to be minded all the time, watched.
And to be alone. So when they paused, in the lee of a building and glanced up, they saw Oteslia’s watchers circling.
“Lost us. Do they have magical seekers on you, Cire?”
“Nope. I told them I’d run off if they did. You?”
“I blasted a hole through a priceless painting or statue every time I found one on me.”
“Hunt Commander Makhir will find us, though, or Ferris. They have tracking Skills.”
“They do? That’s so…”
“Shut up. If I hear one more bit of street slang, I will kick you again. Let’s walk and talk before they find us.”
The two did. In a sense, this was a time for them to be children still. Rafaema was aware of the politics regarding the siege, and the beyond paranoid decisions regarding her safety, but no one had asked her input on how to shape events.
They let her into the war council meetings, but she was still a child. At least, when she was with Cire, they were equals. Even if he was annoying. And they did talk.
“They let you into the war council meetings? Really?”
Rafaema gave him a steady look.
“I keep telling you, you could insist.”
“Yeah, but…I mean, they’d probably let me in, but I’d have to sit there for hours and they’d want me to keep going…”
“So don’t. Dead gods, Cire. Do you just want to be let into all the important meetings but never actually go?”
He gave her two thumbs up and a grin.
“Yep! Unless something totally Arch—awesome happens, though.”
Rafaema had a real reason beyond evading her captors to talk to Cire, though. She slowed, dragging him under a waterway that allowed Oteslia’s waters to feed many gardens. They talked, amid what looked like a lot of graffiti. Cire flapped his wings happily.
“Oh, cool! You know our hideouts? I did this piece. Do you like—”
She whispered. He went still as Rafaema lowered her voice and twisted a ring on her finger. Magic was hard for her, but she was learning it too. She whispered.
“Have you actually gotten that Human to talk to you? The [Princess]? Lyonette?”
Cire went still, and an unusual look of seriousness crossed his face. He rubbed at his neck spines.
“Who? Her? Yeah, we’ve been hanging…”
“I’ve seen that. She’s all over you this week.”
“Yeah, well, I just had to turn my natural charm up and…”
Rafaema raised a fist and Cire shielded his face.
“What? She likes me!”
It certainly seemed that way, Rafaema allowed. She sighed.
“But have you gotten her alone?”
“I’m hoping to get more than—don’t hit me, don’t hit me! No, I haven’t. She’s sorta interested in the group. Me, obviously, but everyone.”
“Well, you need to get her alone. Not to sleep with her, you twit! To ask her about what we both picked up on! The other Dragon!”
Cire bit his lip.
“Are you sure it’s real, Rafaema? It’s been getting fainter each week…”
“It’s still there.”
It wasn’t pheromones, or if it was, it wasn’t anything Ferris or Makhir could smell. It was more like a…sense. The same sense Rafaema and Cire had for each other. When they had first met, they’d known, even under illusion spells.
We are Dragons. We are kin.
It was faint, though, and growing fainter. Rafaema’s only explanation was that Lyonette had not only run into a Dragon some time ago, but actually been close to one. Then…her heart fluttered at the thought.
We’re not the last ones.
“Forget flirting. Just find a way to get her alone and ask. That is—do it covertly! Don’t just come out with it. She’s the 6th Princess of Calanfer. Be discreet. We could put both our cities in danger if she’s a spy or reporting back.”
“So I don’t tell her I’m a Dragon?”
Rafaema’s mouth worked. Cire looked at her face.
“…I don’t. I knew that! Okay, okay. I’ll…try to get her alone.”
“Do it today! I’m tired of waiting!”
The Earth Dragon looked hurt.
“It’s hard to get a girl alone without, y’know, Raf. I have to be suave. I’ll do it! But she is into me, don’t you think? She keeps flirting with that old bag of scales.”
“…You mean, Wall Lord Ilvriss, Wall Lord of Salazsar and one of the richest Drakes?”
“He’s old. I’m way cooler. I’m a Dragon. You think she’s into me, right? She was flirting with one of my buddies…”
Rafaema sat under the waterway and stared at a dripping block. Unbelievable. She was finding the first Dragon besides Cire ever, perhaps one of the last ones in existence, and she had to rely on his tact and acumen. She closed her eyes.
“This is impossible. Alright.”
Her gaze opened. Maybe she could do something. Now she thought of it…Makhir and Ferris would probably be happy if she ‘hung out’ with Cire. Rafaema had declined to do so because her image as a responsible Wall Lady of Manus would be ruined among Oteslia for a decade or more if she consorted with those idiots. However…she glanced down at one of the rings on her claws.
She did have a trick to pull.
On their long journey, the lowly grasshopper student observed the true levels of sagacity of a master of evasion, trickery, and deception.
Wanderer and Mrsha had been on the move for over a week now, and moving fast. Mrsha, who had been reluctant about the entire half-kidnapping affair, still had mixed feelings. She had to admit two things, however:
Gnolls were hunting for her with ill intent. And…Wanderer was good at his job.
Not being nice to Mrsha, or patting her on the head, or tucking her into bed with a big glass of milk and providing cookies. But keeping Mrsha safe, evading what felt like every Gnoll on the continent, and moving fast?
Oh yes, he could do that. The Gnoll was geared beyond even the Gold-ranks that Mrsha knew. He had special boots, a special cloak, a special quarterstaff, and special Skills.
He could use [Grasshopper’s Run] to leap across terrain. He could blur across long distances like Pisces’ [Flash Step]; even disappear and reappear in limited circumstances. This was because Wanderer, or Wer, was high-level. Not just high-level.
A [Guardian]. Of what, and the specifics, he refused to tell Mrsha. He was thus [Wanderer] in class, and [Guardian]. Of Gnolls like her.
Even so, with all his considerable abilities, the pursuit had been getting more extreme. At first it had just been a few Drakes joking about every little Gnoll girl maybe being the ‘missing Gnoll’ on television. Then it had been Gnolls giving her the side-eye sometimes as they walked on the streets.
Mrsha had realized they were actually out for her when she saw a group of eight Gnolls with bows being arrested by the Watch. Wer had tossed her into a group of young Gnoll children going home from the Drake school and Mrsha had watched as the arguing Plains Gnolls had been arrested after a tense stand-off with the Drakes.
Those arrows were meant for her. The danger Mrsha felt ratcheted up after the second close call. Wanderer had been letting her splash around in a pond. Someone must have seen them, because he had come running, grabbed her, and they had run out of the little forest and seen nearly a hundred Gnolls on horseback surrounding and charging in, howling.
Why did they want her dead so much? Mrsha was a Plains Gnoll and she heard the stories. Doom came to those with white fur, and they were bad luck. Terrible things happened around them, like tornados and monster attacks.
She now knew that was partly true and the white fur meant they had powers. But this level of animosity?
It frightened her. Her own kind were after her, and Wanderer did not help.
“They think you’ll bring disaster on other tribes by living. Listen…listen. That damned Drake did us no favors.”
Drassi is nice! Be nice!
She punched his arm as he sat in the private dining room in the inn of the city of Marwsh, a cat-infested city with a sizeable Gnoll population. However, it was excellent cover; the Plains Gnolls were unlikely to suspect them of having gone here, and Wer’s Level 4 passport had gotten them into the city and even merited respect from the Drake [Innkeeper].
Mrsha saw Wanderer tiredly fumbling at his pouch as he chewed on a corned beef meal. It was good food, but he looked worn. He’d had to literally pick her up and run to evade Gnoll groups stopping anyone with a Gnoll her age. Sometimes for hours. Sometimes at night!
“She might be nice, but that idiot had no idea what she was doing.”
Wer snapped back. He put something on the table. Mrsha saw it was a gold coin and some silver; he’d paid for high-class rooms, posing as a travelling [Merchant] on holiday with his son. Mrsha was the son. She fooled the Drake [Innkeeper] mainly because he couldn’t tell the difference.
Mrsha had some travelling trousers on, and a smock that Gnolls sometimes wore. She didn’t like both, but Wanderer went on as he put more objects on the table.
“It’s got to be a big tribe that’s organizing this hunt. They do it, you see, because they’ve put so much on us. They can blame us for a lot of what goes wrong, but it means they have to back up their claims. So many pursuers…I’m running out of tricks and we’re not even halfway there.”
It had been nearly half a dozen close calls. Mrsha nodded, writing carefully on a note card. Wer grunted.
“Still think you’d have been safe at Liscor? Like I said, if they’re sending hunting groups into the city, you’d have had to hide in a safe room because if they even saw you, they’d take a shot. What’s this?”
He read the card.
If we can’t get to Salazsar, maybe we can go to Oteslia? Pwease? My mother’s there.
Mrsha had realized their route had taken them closer to Oteslia as much as Salazsar; Wer had taken them further south to confuse their pursuers. In response, he just growled.
“Oteslia? Right along the Great Plains? Why don’t I hang us both? Not that there isn’t a good point—but no. I’m one Gnoll and we need to get you a cover story. It’s getting too hard.”
The problem was it was the two of them, and one adult Gnoll and one little girl exactly matched the description Drassi had put out. Hence the close calls.
Only one thing had saved them. Even Wer’s many Skills and artifacts eventually would have failed. But for the luck.
A Watchwoman interviewing them spotting a [Thief]. Suspicious groups heading their way seeing a fat flock of ducks they just had to hunt. The latest example had been the most dramatic; Gnolls chasing after them suddenly fell into a sinkhole that engulfed them out of nowhere.
Luck. Wer was using his power. But…Mrsha peered anxiously as the Gnoll sat there. He looked…hollowed out.
Grey. His fur had lost its luster. Now, Wanderer produced something and placed it on the table.
“I’ve used up all my luck. Rather—I’ve run a deficit. I need to make it up before the backlash hits.”
Mrsha peered at him. Backlash? Deficit? Wanderer grinned at her.
“Told you there were consequences. I drew too heavily, and believe me, it’ll hit me right back. I think I can hold it off, but sometimes you can’t. So here. While we eat, let’s play a game. Have you ever played dice?”
He jiggled a cup and bone dice. Mrsha blinked. Of course she knew dice!
“Let’s play Rolling Gems. With actual money. You have the money I gave you? We’ll do a silver coin in the pot.”
It was a simple game. Whoever was higher ‘won’, and could take the current pot or demand the other player ante in again. It was a Drake game, all about greed.
There were a few derivative rules Mrsha didn’t remember that Wer educated her on. You rolled four dice; all four of one number meant you doubled your tally, so even all 2’s was great.
On the other hand, all 6’s on the six-sided dice was an instant-win and the opponent had to double the contents of the pot. All 1’s was an instant loss, but Mrsha could either keep the pot or make Wer double it, not both.
Simple rules. Mrsha was amused they were playing for real coins. Wer just shrugged.
“I’ll let you keep what you win. It wouldn’t be an actual game otherwise.”
Oho. Mrsha’s eyes gleamed. Mrsha the Gambler wasn’t about to turn down some spare change. She began to roll the dice eagerly as they ate and plotted their next course.
“We’ll take another carriage by evening. I need to rest…let me sleep after this. I’ll settle up with the [Innkeeper] so we can leave by noon. Then we’ll go by carriage. Maybe we need to hire someone to pretend we’re a family, but if they think you’re the stolen child…”
What if I vouch for me not being stolen?
Mrsha rolled a 3, a 1, a 5, and a 2. Wer rolled a 3, a 4, a 2, and a 4. Glowering, Mrsha let him take two silver coins. She slapped down another one. She wasn’t seeing much bad luck here!
They rolled again and Mrsha took the pot. Wer sighed.
“You mean, vouch that you’re not the mute little girl who only writes by offering them proof in writing?”
Mrsha glowered as Wer took the third pot, then the fourth. She wanted to send word to Lyonette she was alright, but Wer had told her that would lead the enemy right to them. And they were already close. She tried to think on how to convince him to go to Oteslia. Or…Lyonette had said she was going to the Meeting of Tribes, and to Liscor.
Was she there? Or…
Mrsha’s drooping face made Wer glance at her. He saw her roll the dice and put her little chin on the table.
This isn’t fun.
She handed him a card. Wer saw her glance at the door. The Drake [Server] had been plenty polite, the Drakes made the joke about ‘is this the missing girl? Whoops, not white fur!’ that almost half of them did; Mrsha’s fur was reddish brown.
But really, it was the hatred. It was the fear.
Why do they hate us?
The Gnoll had told her the answer, but Mrsha still asked. She had rolled 2, 2, 2, and 3, so she waited. Wanderer had no answer for her. Or at least, not one that didn’t include a lot of history. This was the way it was. He picked up the dice, and rolled…
Mrsha perked up. She pointed at the four dice, clapped her paws, and did a little dance in her seat. She pointed at Wanderer. Ha ha! Bad luck!
The older Gnoll just sighed and asked what Mrsha wanted.
“Double the pot or take it?”
Mrsha the Greedy thought about it, and made him add two more silver to the pot. She smugly saw Wer pick up the dice. He shrugged, tossed them out…
And rolled four ones again.
Mrsha’s eyes went round. She stared at the dice, which had tumbled, but somehow bounced back to their original spots. She stared at Wer.
I guess that doesn’t count? No, but he was looking at her.
“Take the pot or double it?”
Mrsha hesitated. She hesitantly held up ‘double the pot’. After all, now he had to put in four silver to match the four in the pot. Even if she lost, she had odds at reversing all her losses thus far. She reached for the dice.
And rolled a 3, 2, 5, and 5. Mrsha blinked. Not a bad roll! She just had thought it would be all 6’s or something. Wer reached for the cup. He rattled the dice for a bit. And when he rolled…
Four 1’s again. Mrsha stopped. She stared down at the dice, up at Wer.
Blank-faced, the Gnoll gestured at the eight silver coins.
“Double or take?”
Double? Mrsha stopped Wer as he reached for the cup this time. She took one die out, and held it.
Roll three. And throw them hard!
He did. The sixteen silver coins on the table reflected the dice as they bounced. Mrsha saw one bounce onto her plate, another off a cup. The last landed on the floor. She stared at the first die. The second. Then she went onto the floor and picked up the die.
Wer didn’t even stare at the dice. He looked at the one in her paw.
“Do you want to roll it? Go ahead. I’ll let it count.”
Mrsha hesitantly did. It rolled across the table two times. Stopped.
“If I were you, I’d double up. That means I’d owe…a gold coin and a half. Almost.”
Twenty silver to a gold piece. Mrsha bit her lip. She slowly nodded, and didn’t even bother rolling that turn; he’d lost by default. Wer let her roll the next one.
Three one’s and a two. Mrsha stared at it. She stared at his cup as it jangled and he tossed them out.
“Double or take?”
Wer stared at the pot. Then he put three gold coins in, taking the rest out. Mrsha didn’t argue he was off by a few silver. Mrsha the Gambler had stopped smiling. She just stared as he went to roll the dice.
No, wait! She took the dice, and put them in her paw. I’ll roll for you, okay?
“If you want. Remember. It’s your gold. I mean it. I will not take it back. We’re playing for real money.”
Wer had his money pouch on the table and Mrsha knew he had lots of gold. Even so….she hesitantly rolled a die out.
One. She stared at the single pip. Mrsha popped a die out, saw it clattering about—and slapped it. It shot across the table, bounced off Wer’s paw as he blocked it, rolled back…on the same face.
Mrsha was getting nervous now. She looked up at Wanderer. His face. He looked tired. Exhausted. But more than that? A terrible calmness hung over him.
A deficit of luck.
“Keep playing. It helps, a bit. Please, Mrsha.”
Slowly, she rolled the last die. Mrsha looked at it once, and had had enough. She deliberately reached out, and slapped a die down.
Six! I rolled it, so there! Wer glanced at the die. Mrsha defiantly stared at him. She reached for the cup so she could roll, and then—
“Excuse me! Is the food alright? Can I get you—”
The Drake [Server] coming in to check on the private guests opened the door. She saw the little brown Gnoll’s paw jerk. She blinked as Wer lifted a paw.
“Oh, alright then. If you need anything, just ring…”
The two were silent until the Drake went. Mrsha saw Wer calmly appraise her, as if checking to see if she had been spying on them or was reporting them. Mrsha had gone still.
He looked down. Mrsha had jumped when the [Server] entered the room. She’d knocked the die next to her paw over. Calmly, he looked at her. Then placed three more gold coins in the pot.
“Double or take?”
He rattled the dice in the cup. Mrsha didn’t want to play any more. She ran out of the dining room, leaving her meal half-eaten, ten minutes later. Wanderer went to sleep in his room next to hers, connected by a little door. But he was as good as his word. When Mrsha peeked out to use the bathroom, she saw a little pouch just inside the door of her room.
In it were ninety six gold coins. Mrsha the Newly Rich looked at the pile. It did nothing to make her stomach feel better. Because it told her that even if Wanderer had given her the money…
He still had a large debt.
Cellidel was in the news. In the past tense. The city was still standing. Give it that. But the exodus of a surprising number of people had been for the best given what came less than two days afterwards. All-out riots followed by the entire army marching back into the city.
If Cellidel was silent, it was only because enough blood had been spilled to put all fires out. Part of the disaster had been the lack of a certain Senior Guardsman, who had departed with countless Gnolls and even Drakes.
He was now on the move. A lot of people were, actually. There were the people who never left their city, ever, and the people who travelled all the time. Liscor was an exception to the rule due to the Bloodfields and their relative isolation.
Travel was not uncommon. It was affordable, and if you had the right passport level, you could sequester easy access to many major cities. It did require a disposable income, but you could ride in style from Walled City to Walled City, courtesy of Izril’s Wonders or other travelling services, if not flying transport.
Even so. Saliss of Lights had spent a rough night with Lyonette, trying to be comforting, which was not his forte when sarcastic was available, or just annoying. When she’d finally been persuaded to take a sleeping draught, he’d stood and stared at the Faerie Flowers in the alchemy lab for a good damn hour.
He should have been making battle potions and explosives, but this lab wasn’t blast-proof and it would take a year of straight work to repair his stocks. Now that Saliss had been introduced to the concept of apprentices and making them do all the work…he was tempted to make Octavia do all the work.
Still, it had been money well-spent. Sort of. Wiping out almost all of the Assassin’s Guild was a win. Levelling? He’d levelled. That was a win. At Saliss’ position, a level was actually worth that kind of expenditure if it was guaranteed.
Faerie Flowers, now. This will be your next level. Saliss poked the flower. He stared at it. Hallucinogenic, highly magically powerful…too magically powerful. Saliss was used to understanding ingredients.
You could actually quantify it and some [Alchemists] insisted on using systems of magical force to approximate effects. If Sage’s Grass was eighteen eins of power, and you had a multiplying catalyst, you got blah blah amount of magical power.
It was too reductionist for Saliss, who didn’t believe in quantifying magical effects. But he thought of it now because…
“Xif. I think this flower has an outsized effect compared to the amount of magical power in it. I can’t quantify it any other way.”
The Gnoll [Alchemist], his fur stained all kinds of color and smelling just as varied, looked up. He lowered the goggles from his face as he attended to a row of vials.
“…You’re right, Saliss. I didn’t believe it at first, but it’s true. It’s the legendary Unicorn horn’s paradox! Right in front of us!”
“Not quite. I don’t see any angry, hornless unicorns coming around to kick us to death. But close. Damn.”
Saliss rubbed at his face. What they meant was that a Unicorn’s horn was an example of a magical object that didn’t quantify itself properly. With Sage’s Grass you could actually tell how much magic was in it. It produced magic, and gathered some from the air, but it was always a linear growth. Sage’s Grass could grow for hundreds of years, but it always had as much as it should.
Unicorn horns, the rare, illicit ingredient back when it had actually been a commodity, had been reported to have a power outside what it should have. Faerie Flowers? They were the same.
There’s an element to this flower that I can’t detect. It’s not right. It…it doesn’t fit.
Saliss knew why that was. Or he knew enough. Xif? The Gnoll’s paws were trembling, but he steadied them.
“This is even more valuable than we thought, Saliss. It might actually become a classified material.”
“Good luck on stopping the spread. There have to be cuttings we missed. It’ll spread, even if Pallass and Oteslia lock down all purchases.”
“Saliss! This will change the world!”
The Faerie Flowers were still in short supply. The Wandering Inn had lost all but a single patch, somehow, and the ones in Oteslia refused to germinate in plenty.
As befit something this powerful. Saliss still had yet to really figure out what they did, though. He kept trying to distill their effects, but the effect changed so much!
If you burned it, soporific. If you put it in alcohol, hallucinogenic. If you put it in water? Irritant! And even Saliss’ own remedies hadn’t stopped the itching on his scales.
It was a powerful, unpredictable booster. But what Saliss didn’t like was…
Alcohol had an amazingly beneficial effect and Erin Solstice was as dumb as someone hucking rocks at a Troll for even trying that without taking precautions. But it worked! Her Minotaur’s Punch and Faerie Flower drinks were beautiful. Wonderful.
Same with Lyonette burning the flowers to confuse the damn bees. Both effects—beneficial. When Xif and I tried it in water, we got the most annoying itch possible. In fat? Mild explosive and terrible smell, but doesn’t actually do much damage; just spits fat everywhere and is a huge mess.
“How’s the reagent with Eir Gel coming?”
“…I think I created a new way to stink up the world.”
Saliss had nose-plugs in, but he could smell the noxious combination. He eyed Xif’s other vials.
They were trying basic reagents to ‘combine up’, a term for unlocking better potions. In theory, they started with alcohol or smoke, distilled that, and created a more powerful hallucinogen or other effect. Each thing they’d made had more magical power than it should.
But except for the alcohol and smoke, all the effects had been useless.
Stink! Or an amazingly hard, glue-like substance from the base of mana potions—Sage’s Grass water. Or a kind of glass-eating acid that only ate their enchanted glass vials apart.
They had tested twenty eight reagents already, and tonight gave them the conclusion that thirty more all produced levels of useless that were impossible to clean.
And yet, Saliss knew the power of the Faerie Flowers was immense! For proof, take not the alcohol, and the smoke alone, but the most powerful and effective painkillers he had ever seen.
They were the product that had set Oteslia abuzz; they had cured the First Gardener’s migraines and that poor Selphid. And it had been a relatively simple mixture with a mild moss-based painkiller!
“It makes no sense. They said they just used water from Oteslia, didn’t they? Well, our results show they should have made the First Gardener puff up from the inside!”
“I know. It must be the moss acting as a neutralizer. Saliss, don’t worry. Take a break. I know you’ve been helping that poor girl. I can keep working.”
Xif murmured. He was a steady worker and could be relied on to do this. Saliss was the mad genius, so he did lie down.
Something was off, though. Hadn’t someone else figured out another effect? Yes, there had been two.
Painkillers so good that if we can mass-produce them, I’ll tell the old man to replace them in every [Battlefield Healer]’s kit. Alcoholic drink…what was the last one? Someone made a fertilizer with it, didn’t they? I need to see what they made. And…
A secret to all but Saliss. His Potion of Time’s Return that Maviola had used to prolong her life until her demise in battle? The Faerie Flower had replaced three of his most expensive ingredients.
That’s one…two…five unique effects, each of them different. I only added them to the Potion of Time’s Return because I was out of damn rose diamonds and mad as a Gnoll with her fur on fire. It was just coincidence.
What’s the secret of these things?
Saliss must have drifted off, trying to figure it out on the couch covered in Xif’s fur because someone was getting breakfast ready. The Drake dozed…then got up when the sunlight hit him in the face.
Lyonette, Wilovan, and Ratici were eating breakfast. The [Princess] was red-eyed, but determined and hopefully less nihilistic. She nodded at him.
“I am going to call on Wall Lord Ilvriss today.”
Saliss made a sound that fit this early hour and his mood. How long was I asleep? He found a tea kettle and, to Lyonette’s patent horror, tilted the spout to his mouth and began drinking.
He wandered back to the workroom.
“Xif. How long was I out? Feels like I got no sleep.”
The Gnoll turned and blinked at Saliss. He eyed the markings he’d been making, the Drake, and the sun.
“…Looks like you slept twenty one minutes. We must have been working all night. Oh well. Pass me some tea?”
Saliss handed Xif the tea kettle, and came back with a biscuit. It was better fare than either [Alchemist] was used to; they were used to research sessions long into the night, even multiple days.
“Keep hitting the combos, Xif. I’m going to look up that fertilizer.”
“Oh, good idea. Can you…mm…get me a restock of the blue sulfur variant? I’m out.”
Not all days were wonderful days where you followed people around and made a spectacle. Saliss stomped out of the mansion, bleary-eyed, ignoring the scream of horror from an offended passerby.
“Yep. Naked Drake. Nothing to see here.”
He paid a visit to the [Herbalist], put in the order for blue sulfur to be delivered, and checked the prices. Reasonable. That’s right! The [Herbalist] and everyone else was at Lyonette’s mercy.
Speaking of which…Saliss went to pay a visit to the [Researchers] and checked on Erin’s conundrum.
“We’re still working out how to unfreeze her. If you had a gel, Alchemist Saliss…”
“…If I had a ‘de-ice your flesh gel’, you mean? Oh, let me just get it from my bag of holding. Why didn’t you ask for that?”
Researcher Dromenl looked at Saliss, mightily impressed.
“You have one? Why didn’t you say so! That would solve all of our…”
The Human man realized Saliss was being sarcastic and frowned. The Drake sighed.
“I don’t think the solution to the ice-flesh thing is an alchemical one. She’s literally covered in ice. Now, poison, I can see a gel working. Something to kill that poison.”
“Yes. Tricky multi-compounded issues. We’re talking with Khelt and they agree we need a spell and antidote.”
“Khelt? What? What’s Khelt doing…?”
Saliss rubbed at his face. Dromenl tried to explain, but all he got was Saliss’ blank, blank look of utter confusion at the way things had turned out.
“I’m tired. Look—good. You have funding from them, so you don’t have to bother Lyonette and me?”
“Well, there’s always more funding…”
Saliss raised a bag of copper coins to throw at Dromenl and the [Researcher] assured him they were adequately compensated for their time. Saliss nodded. He wanted to lie down and sleep.
His scales were itching. He was beginning to feel…horrible. Not just from lack of sleep, or Lyonette’s distress, or Mrsha being missing.
She wanted to come out. Saliss looked in the mirror of Dromenl’s glasses and saw an imposter. Not the one Named Adventurers talked about, but a literal wrongness.
“Hold it together.”
“What’s that, Alchemist Saliss?”
The Drake scratched at his neck.
“Nothing. Dromenl, you have something on your glasses. While I’m here—what was that fertilizer that the Faerie Flowers made comprised of? How good was it?”
“Amazingly effective, Adventurer Saliss. We saw overnight sprouting! From seeds with weeks of germination time! Not as effective after that, but it was literally some detritus an [Apprentice Gardener] added to their own manure mixture that started it.”
“…They tossed it in crap and it worked? What kind?”
Saliss had to track down the apprentice gardener because no one had thought to ask. Mind you, it didn’t seem to matter. The original feces came from an ordinary pig that Oteslia raised; they had used all kinds of manure with the same effect.
That’s too convenient. The Drake jotted this all down, but something was pinging in his tired brain.
The poo was a hint. Because feces was not similar alchemically. Depending on diet and species, it could have radically different composition. Now, just maybe every animal producing said manure had a similar-enough diet for the same effect, but Saliss was beginning to understand something.
Still, the [Alchemist] was so tired he wanted to head back, check on Lyonette and make sure she wasn’t trying to sacrifice her body, and then sleep on the issue. The Drake stomped back through the city, past the gates letting in very little traffic. He debated climbing onto the walls to shout insults at Zeres’ army, but it was too much work.
“Saliss! Adventurer Saliss!”
“Too tired. Arrest me later.”
Saliss mumbled. He didn’t have time to be locked up in Oteslia’s rather nice jail. Everything was wrong. He was trying not to look up at any reflective surfaces.
Anything for those I love. Why had Lyonette reminded Saliss of…? The feeling grew worse, and it was not an itching, it was a sickness. Something’s wrong. I need…
Then the traveller newly come through Oteslia’s gates caught Saliss’ shoulder. And that was astonishing because no one touched Saliss. The [Alchemist] twisted so fast, going for the little vial of deadly acid that made the Acid Jars in The Wandering Inn look like bathing oil—
Still, the clawed hand caught his shoulder. His hand stopped, depressing the vial’s trick-lid, ready to spray, and he saw a familiar, smiling face.
Dark blue scales, almost dark enough to be called midnight blue, but not quite. A familiar scar across the lips; other scars elsewhere, from being a [Soldier]. A retired one, but an old friend. A wiry body, travelling clothes and a club that was far, far more dangerous when he held it.
Saliss stared. It was someone he knew. But…
The [Protector] and bar owner of one of Pallass’ most popular bars you’d never heard about smiled jauntily. He winked.
“You’re not looking well, Saliss. Good thing I caught up with you. Stressed? Good thing old Mirn’s here!”
Saliss just blinked at Mirn. Then he carefully felt at Mirn’s face. Tugged.
“Ow. Watch it, Saliss.”
“Hold on. You can’t be Mirn because Mirn doesn’t talk to me. Let me just rip this off.”
“Ancestors damn it, Saliss!”
Only when his old friend, who often spoke to her, to Onieva, more than Saliss, smacked Saliss so hard it laid the Named Adventurer flat on his back did he believe. Only Mirn knew how Saliss dodged like that.
But why was Mirn here?
“It’s not the bar. The bar…is on hiatus.”
That was Saliss’ first instinct and worry. If Mirn was here, he’d surely been identified and chased out of Pallass with a death warrant?
No, as the case turned out. Quite the opposite. Mirn was happily eating a huge apple three times as large as you could buy anywhere else. An Oteslian speciality.
“This is delicious. You’re not having one? If you go to another Walled City, you should at least sample the specialties, Saliss. Or is a Named Adventurer too used to all the exciting things to do so?”
“I am going to smack that out of your claws and beat you to death with it unless you make sense.”
Mirn eyed Saliss. It was not an idle threat. Saliss of Lights looked agitated. Mirn was one of the few people who could understand why. So, he leaned back, cutting slices out of the apple.
“Chaldion sent me. The bar’s closed. But no one’s asking questions for a good two months. I thought it was a worthwhile trade. No Watch raids. No nothing.”
Saliss nearly fell over the railing they were talking against.
“…What? The old man found you? How did he…?”
“He’s Chaldion. I told you he knew. Scared the scales off my tail when I was called in, but he didn’t use the Watch. Listen, Saliss. He knew I had a passport that could get me through even a siege if I came with his authorization. So he sent me with this. I haven’t opened it.”
He plucked something out of a bag of holding and offered it to Saliss. The Drake grimaced; he recognized the rolled up scroll at once, sealed in a glass bottle. It was perfectly blank but it stank slightly as he uncorked it and fished for something.
Mirn watched as Saliss dumped a potion meant to be paired with the scroll into the jar.
“What’s that? Something the Eyes of Pallass use?”
“Yup. I invented it for them. They used to use just magic scrolls. These ones burn up or lose the words if you don’t have the counter-reagent. Easy to customize per each agent; not like spells. Annoys the hell out of other spy networks too. Let’s see…”
Saliss read and then tossed the scroll onto the ground. It began to smoke and burst into fire as the two Drakes watched. Saliss carelessly stomped the dust out as a passing [Druid] gave them the evil-eye.
“That had better be toxin-free.”
“Sure is. Don’t worry about it.”
The [Druid] harrumphed.
“If it’s not, clean it up. Any animals or plants get sick, I’ll come back and break both your tails.”
Mirn glanced up from the scroll. Saliss rolled his eyes. Both Drakes stared as Nalthaliarstrelous stalked on past.
“…[Druids] around here. I forgot how intense they are.”
Mirn muttered. Saliss shook his head, too tired to explain. Mirn leaned back.
“So? What are the orders?”
“Don’t start a war with Zeres. Some other stuff. He sent you because he’s worried I’ll blow up half the army.”
“I don’t want to hear it, Mirn. He’s just worried I’ll go berserk.”
Mirn grabbed Saliss’ shoulder. The Drake twisted again, but Mirn eyed the [Alchemist]. He let go and leaned back.
“Chaldion cares. Or I don’t think he’d have gone to the effort of making that deal and sending me. You look…bad.”
“Don’t snap at me. How long has it been? Chaldion must have been counting. Even if he says he doesn’t care…how long?”
“It must be—two weeks. I’ve gone longer.”
Saliss muttered. Mirn slowly shook his head and took another bite of apple.
“Well, it’s not good. Let’s get her out and get you in a better place, Saliss. That’s why I’m here. Orders? I bet that was just the excuse. We’ll hit Oteslia. It’s better than Pallass, or it was last time I visited. We’ll go out and…”
Mirn eyed Saliss. The [Protector] frowned mightily.
“…Are you high on Dreamleaf? Or are you being watched by whoever Oteslia’s got? You’re snappy, tired, and I just bet you’ve stopped eating. It’s time, Saliss. She…”
He hesitated and murmured a bit quieter.
“Onieva needs to relax.Even for a few hours. Saliss never does. ”
The Named Adventurer gave Mirn a death’s head grin. He stood against the railing, looking out over Oteslia.
“Mirn, Mirn, Mirn. It’s not the time. A little kid’s gone, I have a [Princess] trying to sell herself the royal way Humans do to the highest bidder, there’s at least one group trying to assassinate any number of people in Oteslia, and something’s up with a fellow Named Adventurer, Mivifa, that makes me think Oteslia’s got its own problems. Oh, and I have a dead [Innkeeper]. Now is not the time. For all of those reasons! And for one more. I’m out of stock.”
Mirn had been waiting for a chance to break in, mouth open, combative. Just like he was ready to call Onieva out or drag her back. But then the Drake halted, and looked at Saliss.
“You are not. You told me you had full doses!”
“Let me think. That was before I wasted a huge amount fighting the Antinium, had to escort a pair of Humans north, didn’t get a chance to rebuild my stock, had all of Oteslia refuse to sell me anything, and I’ve had to share my work space with a Gnoll [Alchemist] who can see everything I do…”
Saliss grinned unhappily as he ticked off problems on his claws. He looked up as his childhood friend and companion from when they had been [Soldiers] just stared at him.
“The ingredients aren’t cheap, Mirn. They aren’t accessible, which is the problem. I’ve gone far longer…”
“I know. Shut up. No wonder Chaldion sent me.”
Mirn shook his head. Saliss nodded. He closed his eyes. Mirn being here did help. But the potion…
Shapeshifting Tincture. You could scale it up, into Saliss’ famed war-form, although turning into a Dragon was well beyond its capabilities. But Saliss had never cared about that. Shapeshifting. That was why he had gone to Nerrhavia’s Fallen to learn it from the master himself, decades ago.
Even so. If only there was a cheaper, discount solution rather than the potion that only a Level 40 [Alchemist] could even dream of making. Even rationed, even then…Saliss leaned back against the railing.
If only Faerie Flowers worked well with that potion like the Potion of Time’s Return. There is no way it would, though. It doesn’t even play well with salted water! It would be…far too…
The Drake’s eyes opened wide. He stood up, as Mirn tried to figure out solutions. And there it was.
“That would be way too annoying. That’s it!”
He punched a claw into his palm. Mirn looked at him like he was crazy.
Xif the [Alchemist] had thrown a tantrum by the time Saliss had come back. One look around the workshop told Saliss why.
“Hi, Xif. How many combos? This is Mirn, a friend, by the way. He’ll be staying here.”
Xif looked up from lying face-down on the couch.
“…Two hundred and nine.”
Saliss nodded. Mirn looked at him.
“Is that a lot?”
“It’s a lot. Nothing but alcohol and smoke?”
“I hate these weeds. Saliss, I’m going to sleep. Don’t let me near here or I’ll burn them all.”
Xif went up to his rooms, as frustrated as Saliss had ever seen him. And for all Saliss loved to annoy the old [Alchemist], Xif had twice as much patience as Saliss. The Drake cracked his claws.
“That might be a good thing. Mirn, help me tidy up. Ancestors…”
That comment was because Saliss had finally taken in the devastation. Splatters of goo, annoying, viscous substances, snot-like reactions…
Every annoying thing you could imagine had come about from even the most innocuous combinations. As the Oteslians had found in their own research, albeit with far more limited Faerie Flowers, nothing seemed to work. Yet no less than five superlative examples of the Faerie Flowers’ effects had occurred.
Mirn scraped at a wall in a practiced manner, with proper [Alchemist] gear on. He’d helped Saliss more than once and had been a rated [Alchemical Infantryman] when they’d first enlisted in the bottom ranks; Pallass’ unique soldiers who tossed nasty things in your face or used interesting salves on their weapons.
Saliss was preparing a clean work area, going over a checklist of ingredients. He had…exactly half of what he needed. Most of the rare stuff was out of stock or he didn’t have enough.
Fine. That was perfect. Saliss explained his theory as he worked.
“The Faerie Flowers played nice with a surprisingly wide web of common things, Mirn. Alcohol. Fire. Crap. Yet it made water into itching cream. Xif has tried more combinations than anyone else in the city, but I’ll bet they’ve found what he has—Faerie Flowers play well with nothing except for those exceptions. I just hope he hasn’t tried too many combinations.”
“Because they’re not playing by normal rules. I had the sense as I was working, Mirn. I think…we’re inventing all the bad combinations of the Faerie Flowers with the different substances.”
It took Mirn a few minutes to properly understand what Saliss meant. The Drake shook his head.
“You mean they didn’t exist until you came up with them? That’s…does something like that exist?”
“In theory. I’m surprised Xif didn’t come up with it himself. There were magical substances that only activated when you looked at them. Uncertainty catalysts, I heard they were called. Imagine brewing a potion blind?”
“So these things are that powerful?”
Mirn edged away from the little yellow flowers as if they were malicious. And he was more correct than he knew. Saliss shook his head.
“Not necessarily that powerful. But I think…I told you how I just happened to create a Potion of Time’s Return for a fraction of the cost and effort because I just tossed a Faerie Flower in and expected the whole thing to blow up?”
“…That sounds like all your new discoveries.”
The [Alchemist] actually laughed. He was working. Now, where would he add it? After the base.
Saliss held up a Faerie Flower. He inspected it.
“Maybe. Maybe, though…the flowers want to be something. A gold coin, if you look at them wrong. A drink for sad people. Sleeping gas for a girl stealing honey from bees. Maybe you have to want it, Mirn.”
“That’s the least [Alchemist]-like thing I’ve ever heard Saliss say.”
The Drake chucked an empty beaker at Mirn and the other Drake dove. Saliss tossed the flower in, stem and all.
“Well, Saliss doesn’t want to be Saliss right now. So…let’s experiment. I’ll give it three hours before I burn down this house and everything in it.”
“Got it. I’ll set an hourglass.”
Mirn was not actually joking, because Saliss wasn’t. The Drake had that wide smile and relaxed demeanor Mirn had seen right before he tried to explode Pallass’ walls, back when he and Chaldion were really quarrelling.
“They come from somewhere else, if the rumors are believed. A strange people. A different people. It might work.”
Saliss muttered. Mirn glanced at him as he tilted an hourglass over.
“A different people? You’d better hope they’re nicer than we are to each other. Drakes, that is. Do you think they…understand…”
Mirn tried to think.
Saliss looked at Mirn. Neither Drake had the grounding to understand how funny that was.
If the one expert on their kind were here, Ryoka Griffin, and they had somehow trusted her with a secret so great that they didn’t even dare utter it out loud, even here, and if…no. She wasn’t here.
But if she had been, she would have told the two that surely, somewhere, the Court of the Fae was laughing right now. Guffawing until they threw up, probably.
Laughing. But kindly.
The Faerie Flowers from the land of the fae would have many qualities discovered later. More secrets. But as Saliss of Lights would first write down, their principal effect was not mere change, physical or mental. In a word, their essence was…
Somewhat predictably, Mirn never let Saliss live it down for calling it first.
Lyonette du Marquin returned to the mansion, divested herself of the formal, Oteslian-style dress, and changed into something more casual. More calculatedly appealing to a certain young Drake.
Ilvriss had been helpfully unhelpful, and Lyonette had tried not to scream at him. He had already put actual money and some of House Gemscale’s forces into looking for Mrsha. It just wasn’t every single Drake he could muster.
Cire, now. He could prevail on Mivifa and she could fly! Imagine how much ground she could cover? Maybe even sneak Lyonette over the walls? They wouldn’t dare shoot down a Pegasus, even if she didn’t have the right clearance, would they?
Lyonette just needed a rather specific kind of commitment. No matter how she had to get it—she had a magical scroll in her bag of holding. The kind you could activate rather easily. Cirediel might balk at signing something, but not if he really, really wanted something.
And there were other ways too. She hesitated at Saliss’ words as she changed.
“What else am I supposed to do, though?”
The [Princess] headed back downstairs to where Wilovan and Ratici were waiting. She had put a trendy pair of pants and jacket that somehow made her feel a bit like a [Bartender]—one of the styles in fashion—on. She halted at the stairs.
There was a commotion outside. You could hear Cire’s friends from outside. They were ready to run wild. Lyonette took a breath, ready for a genuine smile—and yes, you could fake genuine—but she hesitated on her way down.
Xif was on his feet, roused by the sound. He blinked as he drank from the teapot in that horrible way, and gestured.
She gave the old Gnoll a steady look and he edged away. Lyonette politely nodded to the strange Drake lounging there. Wilovan and Ratici were giving him casual scrutiny, but they were relaxed.
“Is this the Human I’ve heard so much about? Lyonette? I’m Mirn. Saliss told me all about you.”
He was far more casual than Saliss. Far more stylish too, although that wasn’t hard because Saliss was a nudist. But Mirn had an actual style to his clothes, unlike Wilovan and Ratici who always had one look, decent as it was. He had a scar across his face that took away from it a bit due to the placement, but Lyonette was still fairly impressed.
“That’s…correct. Are you a friend of Saliss of Lights?”
“Mm. Acquaintances. A family friend, rather. He and I don’t meet much, but I’ve known him since we were little hatchlings. No, we dropped by to deliver some orders from Pallass. But when we heard about the entire scene, Saliss asked us to keep an eye on you. And of course, she insisted. She’s just one second. Changing.”
Mirn rolled his eyes. Lyonette was patently confused.
“She? Do we have more guests?”
“Adventurer Saliss and Xif vouched for both, Miss Lyonette. Competent as a duo go. But I’m minded to trust a vouchment, as it were.”
Wilovan raised his brows and tipped his hat up. Lyonette took a lot from that, but before she could inquire further, a door flung itself open from an unused guest room and someone strode out.
“And there she is! Look at this, Mirn. Just like Saliss said—what a troublemaker.”
Someone swept out of the room, a huge grin on her face. Lyonette caught a glimpse of rose pink and cobalt blue scales—an unusual pattern. A tall Drake, with a familiar tail and features, if obviously different from her cousin—and then Lyonette was spluttering, in a headlock.
“Onieva! What are you doing?”
“Trying to rub sense into this little girl. Gaah!”
A female Drake retorted. Lyonette found herself in a strong grip. Spluttering, she tried to force the claws off her.
“How dare you! Unhand me at once! Who are…?”
Her head came up and her neatly-combed hair was a mess around her face. She glared up and met two dancing eyes. She blinked.
Onieva had a pale blue eye and a winking yellow one. It made the Drake stand out, and she already did.
“I’m Saliss’ cousin. I heard all about him. He’s gone sulking off, but I hear you need someone to watch you. So Mirn and I are here for backup. And it looks like a party’s outside.”
“I don’t need—Saliss has a cousin? Excuse me—”
But Onieva was already whispering to Mirn.
“She’s trying to do that Human thing, Mirn. Sell her chastity, as if she has any left and as if it’s worth anything. Depressing.”
“Dead gods, why?”
“For her kid. No sneaking off into back rooms for her. Slap sense into anyone who tries.”
“That’s not hard. But are we going to enjoy ourselves?”
“Discreetly. I’ll have no problem. You? Maybe call it a working day.”
“The things I do…”
Lyonette was spluttering, gasping. Yet something made her stop. Onieva stood there, laughing, flirting with an abashed Ratici and Wilovan, who were both introducing themselves to her. Ragging on Xif, who looked resigned to Saliss’ cousin.
There was something…familiar about Onieva. Lyonette couldn’t place it, but what struck her most was how the Drake smiled.
She had a delighted expression on her face, even as she lectured Lyonette, teased her friend, Mirn. Lyonette had seen it before, on the faces of some people she’d met. The smile of someone just happy to be here.
Erin, the Goblins, and adventurers knew that expression. It told Lyonette more about Onieva than anything else, in a moment.
Before she could put more together, the Drake threw open the doors.
“And who’s throwing rocks at the door?”
Someone had been tapping stones against the door, calling for Lyonette to come out. Onieva caught a stone as it flew at her face, and chucked it back. There was a yelp.
Lyonette strode forwards to see a gang of Drakes and Gnolls on the ground. Cire blinked at the unexpected guests. Then he saw Lyonette, hair a bit of a mess, come out. He saw two older Drakes step down.
“So this is who we’re going with?”
“Aw, Cire. Does Lyonette have minders? That’s so not Archmage.”
One of Cire’s friends grumbled. They had never spotted Wilovan or Ratici, but Mirn and the new Onieva made them groan. Cire just blinked at Onieva as she gave him a patient, scrutinizing look.
“So you’re the little brat. Hello, I’m Onieva. And I’m not a minder. Where are we going? If it’s not fun, I’ll drag Lyonette off to have an actual fun time. This is Oteslia! If you’re just getting drunk, go home and sit under a table with a bottle of Firebreath Whiskey. Young idiots don’t know how to have fun, right, Mirn?”
“Oh no. Don’t go too wild. Hey, look! We’ve got a crowd with a bit of flash and glitterdust. Why are we monking around? Let’s tele out.”
Mirn hopped down the steps with a wink at the jaws that fell. Lyonette groaned as the two older Drakes took Cire’s friends by storm. She hurried after them as Cire recoiled from Onieva, then his eyes narrowed. He locked onto Onieva’s face. And her eyes.
Lyonette was all but forgotten. She stumbled down the last step and someone caught her.
“Excuse me, Miss…Lion, isn’t it? Lion Solstice.”
“Oh, not at all. Thank you…ah…?”
Lyonette turned to the person who had caught her. She was greeted by a tall Gnoll with dark black, silky fur, with the slightest blue tinge. He gave her a toothy smile as Cire turned back and glowered.
“Call me Raef, Miss Lion.”
Mirn whistled innocently as Onieva glanced around. Now this…
This looked like it was going to be an interesting group.
Some days your luck ran out. Across Izril, the travellers were in progress. Fleeing their own problems. Problems they had created.
Fleeing from things they had not begun. Fleeing because someone had told them to. Little children pursued by hunters.
Why? If she could have screamed it, she would have. She wrote it, but no one read the little inky notes.
Please, stop. I did nothing wrong.
I loved my tribe. It wasn’t my fault. I really think it wasn’t my fault.
Why do you hate me?
Marwsh, a small city that had lots of cats. More than that the little Gnoll girl hadn’t had time to uncover. A place with stories of its own, but they hadn’t bothered to learn them either.
Wer was stumbling out of his room, leaning on a wall, looking up, cursing under his breath. Mrsha slowly crept out of the inn’s back door. She could hear, with crystal clarity, the voices from the group talking to the [Innkeeper] below.
“An older Gnoll man and a little girl? I…I don’t know. He said it was his son, Senior Guardswoman.”
“Ah. And did you ever hear the little Gnoll speak?”
“No. No. Now that you mention it…”
Mrsha had heard them come in. It had been just…chance. Wer was dozing, exhausted, after ‘replenishing’ some of his luck over their lunch. She had seen a group coming towards the inn and somehow, with that terrible intuition, had known who they were.
It wasn’t hard to deduce. The Watch Officer? The Drake with the bright azure breastplate and a shiny badge like Relc’s? She was the part that fit, and so was her squad of six.
The group of eighteen Plains Gnolls were the odd ones out. They were practically naked compared to the City Gnolls, each one carrying a weapon or two at their sides, along with a bow on their backs or throwing javelins.
A hunting party. But not one Mrsha was used to. Each tribe had its peculiarities. Yet she sensed the magic coming from the painted markings on each one.
[Shamanic Warriors]. They weren’t just strolling around, either. They came after the Watch patrol, which was either there to aid or escort them. Mrsha wasn’t sure which.
The Senior Guardswoman was a Drake in her mid-forties. She wasn’t stupid, which was worse. The [Innkeeper] put together the clues, same as her. He glanced surreptitiously upstairs and lowered his voice.
“They’re right up…Ancestors, in my inn? W-what should we…?”
“We’ll handle that, Innkeeper. If this is the Mrsha from Liscor, we’ll handle it.”
“And the Gnolls?”
An apprehensive look Mrsha heard in the voice. She tensed by the back door. Wer! She’d rapped hard on his door, but she hadn’t been able to speak. And by the time he’d come to the door…
The Gnoll was a silent figure from the second story window. Mrsha had the view from the outside. She could see into the hallway, and the common room where some of the Plains Gnolls were standing.
They were sniffing the air, getting her scent. How had they known to come to Marwsh? Were they in every city in the region? But why this inn?
Someone had been clever. Cleverer than Wer. And—Mrsha finally saw Wer glance her way. He was standing in the shadow of the doorway. He glanced out the window and saw Mrsha, although she was crouched, using her [Natural Concealment] Skill as she lurked behind a little bin of scraps left out for the feral cats.
Some had hissed at her when she came over, but the [Druid] had blended in with them. Wer saw her.
He also saw something that made him freeze. The Gnoll had heard everything. He scratched at his chin. Raised two furry fingers.
Mrsha, staring wide-eyed up at him, didn’t know what he meant. Then she looked around and spotted them.
Two Gnolls, watching the inn. And that was only from her view from the alley. Mrsha stared in horror up at the inn. Wer never looked at her again. He just stood there. She might have dared to hope he’d jump out the window, grab her and escape the pursuers.
But luck had laid him low at last. He’d tried to stop it, and Mrsha hadn’t realized. She’d known he feared the backlash, tried to mitigate it. In vain. She saw it, had smelled it when she heard him throwing up.
Food poisoning. His corned beef must have been spoiled or undercooked or…Wanderer looked physically ill. Now of all times.
“…These are concerned citizens. Plains Gnolls; apparently all the tribes are looking for the girl. Backup, in case the adult resists arrest. Sir, we’re going to try to take them by surprise, but I’ve been told the older one is a considerable threat, so what I’d like to do is…”
More of the city’s Watch were strolling over. Taking up places around the inn. Mrsha’s heart sank. She looked up at the alleyway and saw Wer mouthing something.
A single word. He kept saying it, until even she could figure it out.
Run? But how? They were in the street! Her [Natural Concealment] didn’t extend to running away! Where would she go?
Mrsha had her bag of holding, her wand, and the money he’d given her. Lots of gold. But…
One of the cats lazily meowed on top of Mrsha’s head. One of the Gnolls casually leaning against a wall glanced over, but all he saw was the cat. Mrsha nearly died of fright.
Maybe they weren’t here for her. Maybe this was all a bad dream and she’d wake up in her bed and…and…
If Mrsha were younger, she could believe it. She could have actually walked out into the street and died there, because she wouldn’t have been able to understand how deadly serious this was.
She had seen the Raskghar. She had seen monsters and looked into Belavierr’s eyes. Mrsha squeezed hers shut.
“Just step out, sir. Careful…careful…”
The Senior Guardswoman was evacuating the inn. Mrsha saw a flicker as two Drakes left the inn. The [Innkeeper] was muttering.
“My inn! Please don’t damage it.”
“Any damages will be compensated, sir. But think of the girl.”
“The little Gnoll? You mean the boy?”
Mrsha froze. A Drake, the same one who’d served them food, was hurrying out with the rest of the staff and guests. There was a muted conversation as one of the [Guards] explained. Then Mrsha heard the Drake woman’s voice.
“…But I saw her sneak downstairs. I think she went out the back door. Just a minute ago. She—”
She was so well-meaning. Like Drassi. Mrsha felt it all happening, like evil clockwork. Pieces fitting into place, but a bad puzzle. Spinning, adjusting themselves.
Mrsha saw the gaggle of figures outside the inn slow. The Gnolls in the common room looked up. They’d been listening. Their heads turned. Mrsha saw Wer move.
He exploded out of the air next to her. The Gnoll stepped out of space, scattering the terrified cats. He said one word in her ear.
As quiet as a whisper. As desperate as death. Mrsha saw his paw blur. He struck her with a shower of liquid. Mrsha?
She vanished. The little Gnoll hit the ground, the invisibility potion coating her fur. There was no potion like that for Wer. He downed a tonic that made the fur on his body harden, like it was suddenly made of stone. A second tonic—and then he exploded forwards, catching the Gnolls coming out of the back door of the inn and down the alleyway by surprise.
Mrsha had never heard a Gnoll roar like that. It surprised everyone. Wer had a dagger in one paw. He plunged it into the chest of the first Gnoll, and the quarterstaff was already spinning, striking another.
Wanderer roared as Mrsha ran, streaking past the Gnolls, the Watch blowing their whistles. Screams filled the air. But the Plains Gnolls, the [Shamanic Warriors]—they moved faster than the Watch. They came for the alleyway, weapons drawn, magical markings glowing. Howling a call to the hunt.
A call to death. Mrsha heard the furious cadence. They were here to kill both.
She ran, looking back. Wer! Wanderer! He was fighting alone in the alleyway! How long could he hold them off? Could he hold them off?
She had to run. Get into the sewers—no, find somewhere to hide her scent! Get out of the city? She had to do something. Cats. [Druid]. She was a [Druid]. She just had to…
“There you are.”
A kindly claw plucked the little Gnoll off the ground as she scampered past the adults, invisible, fast as could be. Mrsha could be smelled and heard, but even the [Shamanic Warriors] who might have detected her were distracted by the roaring Gnoll.
Who could see a little Gnoll? Who had spotted the little girl?
A kind Guardswoman, that’s who. The Drake plucked Mrsha up as her squad recoiled.
“[Anti-Invisibility Sight]. [Danger-Spotter]. You glow. I’ve never seen anything like that. You’re safe now, dear.”
Mrsha struggled, frantically, but the Senior Guardswoman had her! She frowned, trying to soothe Mrsha, and one of the Plains Gnolls, a huge Gnoll with two axes, bellowing the attack, turned. He saw the struggling outlines of Mrsha in the air and his eyes widened.
“Merish! Is that the Doomguy who’s stealing children? Merish? Was your friend right? Is it—?”
A little Lizardman bounded over, hopping on one foot, with a staff of all things. Merish, the Gnoll leader, didn’t answer. He just stared at Mrsha as the oblivious Senior Guardswoman tried to assure her she would be reunited with her family.
It was a tableau of too many scenes. Marwsh was one of those travelling cities, a popular hub to stay in while on the road. Unless you were allergic to cats.
Even then…it was a good place to blend in, in theory. So many people intersecting meant that the Watch wasn’t as scrupulous about identities or as familiar as a city with few visitors. A perfect place if you were on the lam.
The Drake sneezed as he watched with the other guests of the inn. Outrageous, really. Turned out of their inn by the Watch!
“Tyrannical armored boots.”
The young Drake muttered, scowling. Someone should draw a mural about it! But apparently, and thankfully, this wasn’t about him…not that there would be any reason for him to be worried.
“What’s up? Don’t tell me you caused trouble again, Tesy? It was one day.”
An exasperated voice whispered in his ear. The pale-scaled Drake jumped, dragged his hood higher, then relaxed.
“Vetn! Don’t scare me like that!”
The taller young man grinned. He was about Tesy’s age, but he had a black fur complexion with faint, light blue highlights around his ears and on his arms. Well, today he did.
Appearance was variable, as Tesy well knew. The rose-scaled Drake had a very light pink coloration. Also…variable. But you could do a lot if you knew something about dyes and colors.
The two recognized each other despite the differences in coloration; they were old friends. Vetn scrutinized the commotion as he slid into the crowd watching the inn. More of the Watch were arriving and he and Tesy both eyed them with some degree of distrust, although if Vetn was wary, Tesy was actively hostile. A key difference between the two.
“You’re as jumpy as I’ve ever seen you. What’s up? How bad is it? What did you do, draw inside the inn? Why are there so many [Guards]? I’ve been travelling all week to meet up. Tesy, I wanted a break…”
“I don’t know if I’m in trouble! And this isn’t my fault! This is unrelated, I swear!”
Vetn gave him an unconvinced look. But he watched, arms folded.
“I heard about Cellidel. Was that it? Did you get spotted? I thought you would have all fought instead of letting them get killed.”
“Yes! No! We were fighting the boots! But this one Senior Guardsman took all of us out! All of the free fighters! And he knows what I look like!”
Vetn’s face turned worried at once.
“That’s a disaster. Tesy!”
“He might not tell. Listen, it’s complicated.”
“Might not tell? Why? You have some kind of blackmail over him? You’d better explain this, Tesy.”
“I will. It’s just—”
The roar from the alleyway made both dive for cover. Tesy ended up with Vetn on his back; they’d both dove behind a nearby wagon with unmatched reflexes.
Well…Vetn was agile enough to be crouching. Tesy was just flat on his face.
“Get off! What was that? What was—”
The [Innkeeper] ran screaming as the Watch jerked, and Gnolls began charging forwards. Tesy heard a scream.
“Dead gods! It’s the kidnapper!”
“Call for reinforcements! Where’s the child! Stop! The Gnolls just—”
Whistles filled the air. Tesy and Vetn poked their heads over the wagon—right before it went rolling as the [Driver] leapt into the front and steered it away from danger. They stood, with the rest of the crowd, at a remove, then decided to back up further as the first bloody Gnoll stumbled out of the alley and fell down.
Tesy turned pale at the sight of the maimed Gnoll. Vetn was even more alarmed. He pulled Tesy.
Both young men weren’t used to this kind of violence, but again, there was a difference. Vetn was ready to bolt; Tesy craned his neck to see.
“Is it the boots? They said ‘kidnapper’—Vetn, I think this is about that Gnoll kid who was on the scrying orbs!”
“Well, come away and let’s watch from a safe distance! Don’t get involved! Those are Plains Gnolls—[Shamanic Warriors], not the Watch! Don’t get involved, Tesy…”
It was only then they became aware of the altercation surrounding the Watch patrol, which hadn’t entered the fray. Tesy pointed. Vetn blinked as a little Gnoll finally came into view as a Drake [Guard] emptied a flask over her head.
Then they saw the second layer of the drama. The furious, frantic little Gnoll fighting to get free, the Senior Guardswoman.
And the Plain’s Eye Gnolls, who turned away from the battle in the alleyway to stare at the little girl. Tesy was oblivious, but Vetn’s eyes flicked to their markings and he identified their tribe.
He grew tenser as Tesy edged closer to hear.
“It’s definitely the Gnoll who matches the description, Senior Guardswoman. Doesn’t speak…are you Mrsha? You’re safe now, Miss Mrsha.”
One of the Drakes was trying to talk to Mrsha. Another was investigating her sopping wet fur.
“She’s all brown, though. Is her fur dyed? Did that maniac…?”
“It’s not uncommon. Water’s not making it come off, though. She’s still in danger. Muster up, squad! Look sharp! That kidnapper’s in the alley! Where are the reinforcements?”
The Senior Guardswoman made the rest of her squad jump back to attention. Tesy didn’t like boots, as he referred to them. But he had to admit, she reminded him a bit of that other Drake.
He folded his arms, watching keenly. The little Gnoll girl was wide-eyed, frantic, trying to tear free, and when that failed, tearing something out of her bag of holding. Gold coins fell to the ground in a shower and Vetn blinked.
“Whoa! That’s a lot of money! And she’s got some nice gear on her! A good magic wand, a nice bag of holding—is she a rich kid or what?”
He peered at a gold coin in his paw, despite the shower of coins only landing a few feet around Mrsha. But she didn’t even care. She was scribbling, writing desperately on…a bit of paper?
“Guardswoman. This…this is the Gnoll child.”
One of the [Shamanic Warriors] had walked over, flanked by two more. The Gnoll girl went still when she saw them. Tesy did not like the way she shrank. He recognized that.
The Senior Guardswoman saw it too. She coolly held Mrsha up, letting the Gnoll write with shaking paws. She glanced at Mrsha, the alleyway where the fighting was still background, and at the Gnoll warrior.
“It seems that way. We need to take her to a safe place. Can your warriors handle that Gnoll, Chief Warrior…Merish, was it?”
He didn’t even glance over his shoulders. The Gnoll had both paws on the hilts of his axes, clearly ready to charge into battle, but he was locked onto the little Gnoll girl.
“In that case—squad, defensive perimeter! We’re taking this girl to the Watch house. Double time. She’s still in danger.”
The rest of the Watch began to move with the Senior Guardswoman, but they came to a halt. Tesy saw, to his growing confusion, the other Plains Gnolls on the street abandon their posts or attempts to get a vantage to shoot into the melee and instead come out to…surround…the patrol.
Vetn muttered. He was staring at Mrsha. Mrsha and at the alley’s entrance and at the Gnolls from the tribe he recognized.
“One moment, Guardswoman. Check if it is her. Who has…”
The Gnoll grunted. He caught something as it was tossed to him and uncorked it. The Drake blocked it, but he offered it to her.
She hesitated, checked the contents, then glanced down at Mrsha. The little Gnoll’s eyes were wide, but the Senior Guardswoman let a few drops land on her head.
Mrsha’s fur turned white instantly.
The sound the Gnolls made, then, was not a sigh, or a gasp, or even a murmur. It was more like a…growl…
“Oh no. Oh, no, no…”
Tesy didn’t understand.
“Vetn. What’s going on? Her fur’s white. You told me Gnolls don’t get white fur naturally.”
“It’s her. She’s definitely the kidnapped child, Senior Guardswoman. We’re going to be on the news!”
One of the [Guards] celebrated, oblivious to what was happening. But the Senior Guardswoman was looking down at something Mrsha was holding up. The Gnoll girl was holding the notes out to the Chief Warrior, who was not looking at her, but at his companions. At the little Lizardman, who had picked up on the growl too.
“It’s her, Chief Warrior. Doom.”
A Gnoll hissed. Merish raised a paw.
“Viri. One moment. Senior Guardswoman, we will take the…child.”
The Senior Guardswoman replied. She tried to walk out of the small encirclement. Now she was sweating. She looked down at Mrsha. Around.
“[Danger-Spotter]. You’re still…move aside. We’re grateful for your assistance. This is Watch business, however! Leave the child to us!”
She raised her voice, but the rest of the Watch was heading towards the alleyway, not seeing the standoff here. Merish didn’t move. He was looking at Viri, who was glancing at the Senior Guardswoman to Merish.
“She’s Doom, Merish? But I thought…what’s going on?”
Tesy was shaking Vetn. One of the Plains Gnolls reached for Mrsha.
“Give her to us, Senior Guardswoman. Now.”
It was not a request. The Drake’s grip tightened.
“No. Move aside. I said, move aside. By the order of the Watch—”
She raised something in her free claw. Not a dagger. Not a shield or a baton.
A whistle. She nearly had it in her lips when the Plains Gnoll growled, glanced at Merish who was arguing with the little Lizardman, so out of place, and drew a dagger.
She ran the Senior Guardswoman through the belly.
Time slowed. Tesy turned, eyes open wide in shock. The crowd of onlookers saw the Senior Guardswoman slowly drop Mrsha. The rest of her squad recoiled.
Then there was blood. It ran down onto the street. A [Guardsman] reached for a baton. Another for her whistle.
Then there was more blood. The Plains Gnolls were fast. Tesy saw five dead bodies drop so quick…only the Senior Guardswoman sat there, holding the dagger and her guts. She was fumbling for a healing potion.
The people in the street were running, screaming. Tesy was dragging Vetn back now. This—he did not understand. He just looked at the tableau as Vetn muttered.
The Plains Gnoll with bloody paws turned to the shaking little Gnoll girl on the ground. Her eyes locked on the white fur on her head.
The alleyway had gone terribly silent. The little Lizardman was shouting in horror.
“Merish! What are you all doing? Merish!”
The big Gnoll was turning. He stared at the blood on the street, the Senior Guardswoman gasping up at him. He looked at the others.
“Those are innocent guards! I did not give the order for this!”
“This is your first hunt. Not ours. Doom is alive! End it!”
Another Gnoll spat back. Merish looked down.
A little Gnoll held out a card in trembling paws. Her inky little words ran together, and her entire body shook. Tears were in her eyes.
Please, stop. I did nothing wrong.
I loved my tribe. It wasn’t my fault. I really think it wasn’t my fault.
Why do you hate me?
But no one read it. They didn’t care. Tesy stared. This wasn’t happening. Why was it happening? This was a dream. He knew of terrible injustice, but this?
This was cold murder. They were going to…
His claws fumbled for his side, for a brush, his tools, but it would be too late, too slow, too far away, even if he thought he could fight nearly three dozen Gnolls of that level.
Even so. His entire being revolted. He had to do something.
Someone moved then, in that little void between the Chief Warrior slowly reaching for the axe at his side. Down the long street, hundreds of feet distant. Little Gnoll, Plains Gnolls, bleeding Senior Guardswoman. A voice Tesy knew all too well.
“Oh no. No, no. No.”
Vetn. He began to run forwards. Tesy’s head turned.
“Vetn. What are you doing? Vetn—”
His words were already too late. The Gnoll left them behind. He started forwards, and Tesy ripped at his concealed pouch of holding. He looked up as his friend…
Vetn’s bare feet hit the ground. Pads striking cobblestone. Ignored by the distant Gnolls. His feet moved faster.
In the frozen world, as Merish reached for the axe, drew it, and lifted it up, there were seconds. In between those seconds, in adrenaline and the life-and-death flashes, everything slowed down. The world became…slow…but so were you.
Except for him. Somehow, Vetn sped up. He moved like a few people could in any world.
In a time apart. At a speed no one else could match. He jogged down the street, and his stride began to lengthen. His legs lengthened, long limbs carrying him faster with each stride. Then he started running.
His feet touched the cobblestones, pushed off the stone, and Vetn’s posture changed further. Not down. Not like the four-legged gallop some Gnolls resorted to, even as adults. Looser, upright. A sprinter’s upright run.
Some of the Gnolls noticed the figure breaking towards to them. Heads turned, some even recognized the figure. But this was still in the time an axe took to rise to its apex and fall.
Hundreds of feet. A distant figure. A hundred meters.
A single sprinter, legs and arms pumping. Going faster with each step. Vetn went from his standing posture to a run. To a sprint.
Tesy’s brush finally cleared its hiding place. A painting palette rose as the Drake lifted it, mouthing the words of a Skill. Not Tesy.
Sellme. The famous [Magical Painter]. He was only a part of the audience, though. Backup. Backdrop. To another professional at work. Another famous figure.
Vetn leapt. Merish saw a blur as his axe dropped through the air. He saw Viri tear free of the paws holding him and leap, bellowing.
The axe stopped. Viri crashed into Merish’s side and bounced off to no avail. But there was no point.
Mrsha was gone. The little girl in front of Merish just—vanished. The Chief Warrior blinked. He stared at the ground. The Gnolls who had turned towards the running figure whirled around, seeing nothing, eyes wide. Then all of them looked down the street.
Forty feet away, Vetn reappeared. His cargo was under one arm, eyes wide, disbelieving. The Gnoll turned. Only Tesy understood what he’d done.
[Flicker Theft]. The Drake’s heart was pounding out of his chest. Merish’s eyes went wide. He pointed, and his voice joined the other Gnolls.
“Stop that Gnoll! That—”
They were so close. So close. The Gnoll began to run, the young man carrying the girl under one arm. Back the way he’d come, past the surprised Gnolls. They lunged at him.
He ran up a wall and raced over their heads. As if gravity didn’t matter. As if…
“Doom’s accomplices! Kill them!”
A Plains Gnoll howled. She nocked an arrow to her bow and a Lizardman kicked her in the face with a flying jump. Someone else tackled him and pinned him, but more Gnolls drew bows and more still were racing after Vetn, almost as fast. They charged down the street.
Straight into a brick wall. The Gnolls slammed into a brick wall in the middle of the street. Where had it come from? Why? A brick…?
They were lovely red bricks and strong mortar. Tesy had drawn them way back when.
[Artbook: Saved Sketch]! [Art Comes to Life]! [The World is My Canvas]. [Speedpainting].
The brush’s tip was still wet. Sellme panted. He saw Vetn slow, and a wide-eyed little girl staring at him.
“Sellme! What are you standing around for?”
His companion, compatriot, fellow professional bellowed. The Drake turned and took to his heels. Now two were running. The Gnolls streaming down the street ran around the wall, climbed over it.
Wer emerged from the alleyway, covered in blood, just in time to see two figures running. Two young people. Both male. Gnoll and Drake. His lips moved.
He saw a little Gnoll girl, her fur shining white behind the dye, looking at him. He felt it.
Travellers. Coincidence? Not really.
“Who are they? Get them! Kill them!”
The Plains Gnolls were howling. They were coming down the street, weapons covered in blood, promising death. Seasoned killers.
They ran into a mud pit. Slammed into an invisible glass wall that shattered. The Gnolls charged through both. Then they hit the tripwire.
“Damn it, stop painting and run!”
Mrsha felt her savior slowing, turning with her under one arm. The rose-scaled Drake with the hood was a blur, the brush he carried drawing the obstacles so fast she could barely process it. Like a pre-rendered scene, being translated to the real world in moments.
“They’re going to kill us! What did you get us into? I don’t have many paintings saved!”
The Drake screamed back. The Gnoll cursed. He ran back.
“You don’t? That’s your entire job, you idiot!”
He took one look at a snarling Gnoll bounding at them, his magical paints giving him speed. Vetn lowered his body, and dove under the slashing block from a spear. Then he whirled, changed course, and hoisted the Drake onto his shoulder. Carrying Mrsha under one arm and Tesy hanging from his left shoulder, Vetn ran.
[Loot Weighs Nothing]! Sellme gasped, winded. The Plains Gnolls chasing after them leapt, howling in triumph as the strange Gnoll slowed…
And completely missed him. He was fifteen feet away by the time they swung their blades.
Merish had activated [Markings of Speed]. [Vanguard’s Advance]. [Adrenaline Rush]. He felt like he was running underwater as he charged after the Gnoll. How…?
So fast. The Gnoll was storming towards the gates with a Drake on his shoulder and the child under his arm. The child…Merish tore his eyes away from her. He had seen this before.
He had seen this before. This speed! This insanity!
He ran with the other Gnolls, towards the gates, but the Gnoll was so fast they were running towards some horses saddled and unattended as he ran vertically up the wall, leapt past the surprised [Guards], and over.
The Gnolls jumped onto horseback. They swarmed out of the city, riding for all they were worth. The [Magical Painter] was shouting as the Gnoll ran. He was tiring. Yet even now, he was the fastest.
Faster than Couriers! Faster than horses! The Plain’s Eye tribe’s Doomslayers raced after him during the time when he was fastest. Who had to be this quick? Only someone who had to outrun everyone and everything. Who could steal jewels from under your nose in the time it took to blink.
And here came his famous calling card. Only, it came from the [Magical Painter] who called it out of a drawing. A team effort that had given him his name.
A cloud. It blasted Merish in the face, a fog of mist and wetness. The Gnolls crashed into each other, shouted, lost sight of the Gnoll. Then Merish felt something odd happening to the saddle he was sitting in. His horse slowed…
And the painted creature turned back into paint. Merish and the other Doomslayers found themselves sitting in the grass outside of the city as a huge cloud floated upwards. A mocking smile, a raised thumb. Such that all of the people in Marwsh saw it, floating upwards.
They shouted his name. Merish bellowed it as it came to him, howling at the empty plains where the three had disappeared.
“Thief of Clouds!”
In relief? Then they were gone, and Merish was…left with the Drake city up in arms, giving pursuit, neither quarry had.
And Viri, the little Lizardman, stared at the dead Watch in disbelief. At the sudden violence and slaughter. At what Doom was, and his friend. Slowly, he bent down and picked up a little notecard.
He read it.
Bad decisions. Regrettable mistakes.
The right thing for the wrong reasons or the wrong thing for the wrong reasons. Sometimes they were just mistakes.
But sometimes…you did anything you had to. Anything at all. For more than vengeance. For more than hatred. For the only friend you had. For kindness. For hope.
For Erin Solstice. The [Innkeeper] who was friend to their kind. Too long had those with debts left them unpaid. She had asked them, their [Great Chieftain], if it was worth paying.
And as they had once said—you never stopped paying the debts that mattered. Until you died. Not even then, sometimes.
The city never saw it coming. Why should they? It was not an attack at dawn, the proverbial time of ambushes and surprise battles. It was not dusk, thematically appropriate. It was not by night when darkness hid them.
It came at sort of after midday. Right when you were digesting lunch. A deadly time for the unaware.
The first sign of their coming was shadows in the sky. Sentries on duty looked up and murmured.
“Wyverns. Damn bastards. Someone call out if one circles. We have to kill it in case it’s hunting here. Bows?”
But they were out of bow-range and circling before any were trained on it. The sky was beautifully clear. The grass was green. The earth was presumably still earth.
A few [Dangersenses] went off an hour before. A quiet alarm was raised.
Then a louder one. But they attributed it to the Wyverns, perhaps a hunting weyr. Lower-level [Dangersenses] began to fire off closer too.
By now, the city was alarmed. It was on guard, and the highest-levelled defenders patrolled, wary, uncertain. They spotted the Wyvern again flying, high, high overhead, so high it was in danger of the thin atmosphere.
“Damn, what’s got it flying that high? Some kind of other monster?”
“My [Dangersense] keeps going off. What’s…?”
And then something began to drop from the Wyvern overhead. A strange…cloud. No, a plume of descending brown and beige. It took the defenders of the city a few seconds to process what it was.
Yes, dirt. A huge amount of it, emptied from a bag of holding from overhead.
They began to realize something was wrong, then. [Messages] began to bounce to other cities, but…what was…?
An attack. From another city! From the damned Drakes! A full-scale alarm began to ring as more Wyverns began to fly overhead. And these ones clearly had riders. They dropped more clouds of dirt over the city. Like a certain Wind Runner’s tactics.
After all…Goblins were good at copying.
Goblins. The first shout identifying them came seconds before the clouds of dust began to whip up. The [Mages] realized someone was playing with the weather, and the few who could manipulate the air began to fight for it. But there was a [Shaman] or five out there and they just wanted to blow the wind.
A dust storm hit the city. The confused fighters on the walls cried out, realizing they were blind to whatever was out there! It was happening fast. They had warning, but they had squandered it, thinking there would be monster attacks. And they could handle monsters.
After all, who would dare attack this city? What would be the point? After all, it wasn’t as if they’d done anything wrong.
This wasn’t…Hectval. Not that anyone in the city even knew the name of the Drake city. They had thought this was a Drake attack, already dramatic enough. But it wasn’t.
The dust began to clear as the first wave of Wyverns passed over, circling and ‘reloading’ their stocks of dust. They flew well out of bow-range, and there were high-level individuals who could shoot down the Wyverns. If they could see.
The civilians were panicking, rushing towards the inner gates, demanding answers, protection. The defenders locked the enchanted gates, looked to their furious leader, who had only one goal: protect the client.
It was one of their [Archers] who saw through the concealing dust and spotted the first figures on the horizon. Saw the crimson eyes of the riders on the Wyverns’ backs and realized the truth, and screamed the alarm that shot across every nearby city. Of course! Only they would be mad enough to attack this place!
Goblins. Filthy, mindless, warlike Goblins! It was a raiding party! No, an entire tribe! They had no idea what they were doing! They were going to charge the walls and…
…And? The attack didn’t come. Coughing, blowing the dust out of the air, the Humans waited. Panicking people flooded out of the gates, saw what was coming, and ran screaming back towards the inner city.
The adventurers standing together, multiple teams of Gold-ranks supplemented by Silver-ranks, enough to fight off any casual foe, visitor, or supplicant, saw the dust clear. Then they saw the Goblins sitting casually behind oversized crossbows, newly-made ballistae, and trebuchets. They had carefully emerged from the hiding places they’d snuck into over the last few days, set up their siege weapons, and now…
A Gold-rank adventurer whispered. He had a bow. Which was nice. It was even enchanted with Longshot.
The Hobgoblin grinning at him had no fancy bow. But she did have a giant Thunderbow-style crossbow made of Wyvern bone and sinew and two loading partners. The [Greatbow Archer] adjusted her sights. Lovely idea, adding a little glass sight to magnify her shot. Why didn’t all bows and crossbows have something like that?
She was glad the Human had thought of it.
“It’s…a siege encampment. They’ve got siege weapons!”
A [Mage] stated the obvious with amazing talent. He pointed a trembling finger at the Goblins. Someone else cursed.
“Fuck me, what’s that? Ogres! Ogres!”
An armored core of Ogres was lugging a battering ram forwards, grumbling. They halted, next to a force of Goblins on wolves.
It was a small army. Ferried here over many days by Wyvern. They still outnumbered the adventurers many times over. And it was adventurers who held this city. There were overpaid members of the Watch, a desultory militia, and a lot of civilians.
Not just civilians. Families, individuals, rich and poor. Of course, the richer ones had a better chance. But all lined up each day for the lottery. All of them came here, hoping for a miracle. To this city no one dared attack because it was neutral ground.
Tenbault. Where the famed Healer of Tenbault dispensed aid to a lucky few. Crowdcaller Merdon and the adventurers hired to protect the Healer stared at the Goblin raiders. The Named Adventurer’s eyes bulged. He heard the first horns blow as the Chieftain of the Goblins slowly advanced and held up a hand.
Everyone fell silent for a second, waiting Goblins, Ogres, impatient to loot the valuable mana potions, adventurers, and terrified civilians. The little Goblin bellowed.
“Humans. Give us the Healer and no one gets hurt! We’ll give her back.”
Of course, she didn’t really expect it to work. But it was worth it, just to hear the Named Adventurer howl.
Rags had heard Tenbault was some miraculous city. It hadn’t looked so good even before she covered it in dirt. It looked like an idea.
The inner city, guarded by adventurers and enchanted gates, was beautiful. The outer city, with the desperate throngs, was dirty and unkempt. It seemed to Rags that the inner part could have shared with the other part.
But what did she know? She was just a Goblin. And she had no time to wait in line, even if they would have her.
This one’s for Erin Solstice. She lifted a claw and pointed.
The Thunderbows firing split the air like their very names. Bolts shot forwards. Not at the Humans cowering in their city, but at the right target.
The adventurers. They had magical shields, high-levels, and powerful gear. But they were used to tackling groups, armed retinues at best. Not actual armies. They took cover behind the walls or shields as flaming bolts targeted them, and stones from the trebuchets thudded into the walls and ground.
Flaming. [Battlefield: Power of Fire]. Also—[Rapid Reload]. Those were Rags’ Skills, not even including targeting Skills and other abilities each Hob gunner had.
Gunner. Nice term. She wondered if they could get the class. Rags watched as two Hobs dragged a Thunderbow’s arms back, loaded a bolt up, and stepped back so it could fire, all in seconds. It was already hurling another deadly bolt through the air as the Ogres advanced.
Ogres in heavy armor. Shields raised. She’d made them carry shields, and the sight of a [Fireball] striking a shield and making the Ogre swear but do little else reaffirmed Rags’ tactics.
[Lightning Bolts] were different, as were piercing arrows, but the Ogres shielded their faces and made use of the healing potions they carried. Anyways, they were the anvil.
The hammer was already in the city, racing through the choking dust. Rags saw Carn Wolf riders shooting forwards after their leader. She saw adventurers panicking, saw her Wyverns dropping dirt and now stones, circling downwards.
And then the one complication. That voice.
Operatic. Huge! It blasted the dust out of the air. It knocked bolts from the sky, and sent Goblins falling down, some vomiting, others clutching at burst eardrums.
Crowdcaller Merdon. Named Adventurer! Rags narrowed her eyes. She pointed a finger. Time to see if she’d learned anything at all.
“Hold your ground, you idiots! If you run I’ll make sure you’re kicked down to Bronze-rank for the rest of your lives!”
Merdon’s voice was audible in every part of the city. And that wasn’t when he shouted. When he shouted, it was a sonic cone you could see in the dust, and a radius of ear-splitting death.
Literal death. The Goblins hadn’t believed it, at first. Even for them, ‘voice death’ sounded stupid. But the truth was evident just from feeling it.
Merdon’s voice could actually damage your insides. Not just deafen you; it was so loud it became an attack unto itself.
And it was working. The Carn Wolves howled in agony despite the wax packed into their ears. [Silence] spells cast onto them did nothing to Merdon’s voice.
Forget about casting it on the man himself. He made the Ogres balk; just by screaming he could probably take out an army.
That was a Named Adventurer for you. However, he had one weakness, and that was why the Carn Wolves and their Goblin riders held back, circling, until they saw if the plan worked. If it didn’t, they’d be in trouble. Same with Poisonbite’s [Rogues]…both Goblin strike forces waited, nervously keeping back from the inner city where the voice emanated from. Then they heard it.
A cough. Swearing. A voice.
“Get this dust out of the air!”
The wind blew, but the [Shamans] pushed back. And the Wyverns dumped more out of the sky. A Goblin sitting astride the largest Carn Wolf grinned and raised his clawed hand. He pointed and the [Riders] howled and charged, though they were still deafened by their own protective gear so they couldn’t hear it.
A voice that huge surely had to suck in more air than usual. They had little chance of prevailing against such a warrior in a fair fight—even their best. But what if you could make the air more dust than air? Well, that was a problem for Goblins too. Right until their helpful Human introduced the concept of a mask with filtration, for Carn Wolves and Goblins.
Crowdcaller Merdon was shouting, coughing, slashing around in the dust as adventurers tried to keep the gates to the inner city. But the Goblins were everywhere. They were hitting the walls with bolts, climbing the walls—he shouted and blew a hole in the storm of dust, then kept hacking.
My lungs! The man was raging. He’d fought against people who tried to [Silence] him, or use other tricks, but no one had just…filled the air with dust! He could blow away a single [Dust Storm] and had before, but the Wyverns kept dumping dust on him! And he couldn’t take the time to knock them out of the skies, even if he could see them.
Someone was out there. The Named Adventurer gritted his teeth and turned. His enchanted mace and shield, not his first weapons of choice, rose as he turned.
Glowing eyes in the dust. Who are you?
Merdon opened his voice to bellow, and jerked aside. Someone had tossed a ball of powder straight at him. Not just any powder, Merdon realized. He began to hack harder.
Had they put something in this damn dust cloud? Why was everything burning?
“Calescent makes good spice. Poisonbite—stop the shouting.”
A figure emerged from the confusion. He was riding a gigantic Carn Wolf, and he was a Hob. A Hob with two swords. One was red, like the warpaint on his body. The other was frost and cold.
Redscar and Thunderfur circled Merdon as Poisonbite, grinning, circled the Named Adventurer. He opened his mouth to roar, ignoring the pain and his burning eyes. Redscar charged, laughing. Let’s see how good you are with blades!
The woman inside the inner city’s inner…building…was not in a palace as you might expect. It had a lot of glitter on the outside, but the inside was more like a library crossed with a mage’s workshop. Which is what it was, really.
She was frantically throwing items into a bag of holding when she really should have already been running. But that was amateurs for you. She turned as the bloodcurdling scream from the entrance told her that time was up. She lifted a trembling wand.
“I—I am under the protection of the Five Families! I am a valuable [Mage]—[Healer], you understand? I’m worth more alive than dead! Alive! Take what you want!”
She shouted, then tried to hide behind a desk. The invader, who had halted with her squad on the inside, sighed and scratched her head.
Well, this was disappointing. She whistled.
“Get Wyvern ready. Tell Redscar to pull back. Ten minutes! Grab and go!”
Goblins raced forwards, as three trained crossbows on the trembling figure. The Healer of Tenbault was…Rags blinked at the middle-aged woman in slippers, a [Mage]’s robe, and holding a wand in one trembling hand. She looked like nothing.
“I’m the Healer of Tenbault. I’m not valuable dead!”
She whispered. To Calescent, who was bigger than Rags. The little Goblin sighed.
“I know. We don’t kidnap dead bodies. Well…not yet.”
She glanced outside, to where another ear-splitting roar filled the air. They were running out of time. Rags nodded to Calescent.
The Healer stared at Rags in disbelief. She processed the [Chieftain]’s words, then her eyes grew round with alarm. She took aim at Rags. The Goblin sidled behind a pillar as a bolt of light slashed through the air.
“Help! Help! I’m being—”
The Healer turned as Calescent charged her from the side. She opened her mouth, raised her wand, and he tossed his death-spice in her face. Then slung the woman over one shoulder.
Rags and Calescent ran to the first Wyvern as the other Goblins kept looting. They mounted up and flew, the Goblins abandoning the lightning siege of the city. The Humans were already coming from multiple cities.
Too slow. Too late. It was done. Merdon shouted at the sky, bleeding, stumbling after the Goblins and clutching at his torn armor. He could barely speak through his torn throat and streaming eyes.
Of course, they never did. The Goblins took to the air, already fleeing pursuit as the entire north of Izril went chasing after the kidnapped Healer of Tenbault. Rags gave hasty orders, the woman webbed to the Wyvern’s back. She glanced at the horse archers and changed their course north, cursing, away from the High Passes.
“Split! Get to Goblinhome! We’ll take Healer! Go, go!”
They were all following her, breaking up to follow each Wyvern or the Goblins on Carn Wolves, unsure of which group to follow. Rags saw Redscar leading a charge on the pursuers before breaking away. She flew, knowing they wouldn’t forgive her for this.
Well. She didn’t need their forgiveness. The Goblin Chieftain laughed. Then she turned her head, looking south. She had a long way to go. But not so long, now.
Time to heal her Human. If no one would do it, she would.
Soon. Rags closed her eyes.
Hurry up. They were all of them, all her friends, her comrades, her family. So…so…
Author’s Note: I wrote chapters like this, back in the day, without multiple days. 20,000 was about the limit for a single ‘writing day’.
As I said, I couldn’t sleep. I’d been having odd sleep, feeling sick, or off. I think I know why. The Kickstarter was a big event I knew was coming up and while I kept working as usual, I was clearly stressed.
Because it does matter. I hope it’s a success and not just because of the money, but because people want a comic based on The Wandering Inn and other stories. But this is the test, isn’t it? Wallets speak louder than words.
…Actually, that doesn’t seem quite right and I’m sure Merdon would object, but you know what I mean. I haven’t checked the Kickstarter yet, but I hope to go past the goal not just based on huge backers, but a lot of people buying the hopefully cheap comic. I know not everyone will want it, but that’s hope for you.
We take chances and sometimes they pay off. It’s all about chances. Good decisions, bad ones…like staying up with about 1 hour of ‘sleep’ to write 10,000 more words. Bah, I wouldn’t have slept anyways.
I may after this. Hopefully, actually. I don’t want to stay up 48 hours. It’s already been…uh…21. The chapter is done and the Kickstarter is out. Thanks for reading. Consider even sharing the Kickstarter, and see you next time.
Fat Ducks (The Wandering Inn Readers) by Kalmia!
Maviola, drawn by Bobo Plushie, commissioned by Sunshine!
Pan Slap by Brack! (I…don’t know what to say about this one.)