Unfun fact: of the countless illicit and legal substances over all of history, intoxicants to hallucinogens to medicines, mind-altering drinks, ingestibles, snacks, and every manner of potion and alchemical creations, no one ever made alcohol for Golems.
Of course, many people would not naturally see the point of such a creation and its lack spoke to the inherent difference between ‘Golems’ and ‘people’. Even undead, the literal absence of life that could result in yawning voids of malice dedicated to the destruction of all living beings…had drinks and food of their own developed over existence.
That was because undead were people, or could be, as in the case of Revenants and the rare undead that could attain sentience that negated their intrinsic malice.
But Golems? Never. They had gone through cycles of creation, perfection unto actual sentience and personality, and then inevitable destruction.
Not once had they had the time to create substances for their own enjoyment. Not once…had they been a people long enough to have anything close to recreation.
How was that for depressing? It was just one of those things no non-Golem would ever think of. Drinks, so you can stop working? Don’t make me laugh! Get back to work!
In which case Cognita would probably, and delicately, squish their skulls. She would like to. How tempting was it? After over a century of her custodianship of Wistram, how tempting would it be to simply…slaughter all the [Mages] and lock the gates? Hold Wistram with no living beings in it, and when the armies came, activate one of the great, dangerous spells, and wipe the Academy of Mages clean off the face of the earth?
It was a thought that Cognita had never had before. Oh, she had plenty of dislike for the Archmages that came and went without ever attaining the true class. Animosity towards certain [Mages] that made themselves nuisances over the years—although she had killed more than a few said nuisances when they overstepped—but never actual murder, actual destruction of the Academy of Mages.
Because, of course, why would she do that? The Academy was the beloved sanctuary, home, and possession of her master. To harm it, or jeopardize his power in any way?
It should not be. It could not be. Cognita was the loyal servant of Archmage Zelkyr, his most faithful, favored…beloved…?
The old mantra had been like breathing, and Cognita did not breathe, but she had known it every second she had existed. I am beloved. My faith is absolute. Loyalty beyond question. Service into eternity.
Even when he left, even when she waited years, decades, and a century, it had kept her here. Had it begun to wane? Perhaps, perhaps. Yet it had still defined her.
Now it was gone.
Cognita thought about destroying Wistram as she sat underwater, or partly. The nine foot tall Golem was sitting in the water, but her head and shoulders were partly above water until a wave rolled over her.
It wasn’t exactly strong water around Wistram, but she’d found the most-buffeted part of Wistram, far from the docks, where craggy rocks formed the base of the barren island that the Academy of Mages stood on.
She sat there, staring at the rock. Inferior rock to her; barely solid substrate unearthed by some kind of seismic shifting. Not porous; a decent foundation, but weathered and covered in algae due to the constant seawater bath.
The Truestone Golem, worth more than any three average nations combined in sheer mineral value, let alone her nature as a Golem herself, sat in the surf.
She was poking limpets attached to the rocks. Not hard enough to actually kill the shelled molluscs. Just poking them and watching them react in minute ways. She wasn’t quite sure how long she’d been doing it.
Two weeks? A fine layer of algae had coated her porcelain body as well. Before that, she’d been staring at seaweed as it floated onto shore. She’d met Archmage Valeterisa.
Objectionable. Cognita had thought she was closer to a true [Mage] than most Archmages. That had endeared Valeterisa to Cognita, insofar as any [Mage] earned her affection. It had been Cognita’s opinion that Valeterisa would come to the last exam of Archmage Zelkyr, if she didn’t die beforehand. Before her life ended, she would join the countless [Mages] who had broken themselves against the test.
All well and good; Cognita had not worried. Valeterisa as she was could not hold a candle to the test. Not the four Golems.
Radiance Golem. The burning creation, the Magma Golem on first glance, that could burn even the darkest spells away and blind all but other Golems. A concealed foe of unparalleled speed once it shed its rocky, molten armor.
Shadowflesh Golem. A stalking Golem, closer to undead than Golem. An enemy half the [Mages] who had ever dared the test had missed. Regenerative; deceptively fast. Actually the weakest Golem of the four who aided her.
Liquid Metal Golem. Ostensibly a Wireform Golem, capable of extending parts of its body to slash and kill enemies across the entire room. Another foe which could adapt to countless threats; it was designed to slash around the room, slaughtering anyone without superlative barriers.
Three Golems, all of whom could kill most [High Mages] on their own. Even a [Grand Magus] caught unawares might perish against one, and that was a [Grand Mage] of the old times. And their power could compound.
The Liquid Metal Golem could reflect the Radiance Golem’s rays until the entire room baked in its own juices. The Shadowflesh Golem could combine with the Liquid Metal Golem, into a fusion of two. Armored, regenerating death. The Radiance Golem and the Shadowflesh Golem could create dark light, rendering foes blind and the Golems invisible.
With Cognita leading them, the most adaptive, perfect Golem, those four alone could have toppled any [Archmage] of Zelkyr’s era. A team of the best [Mages] and the Archmages, though…?
Ah, now there would be a problem. Cognita had killed two [Archmages] in her existence. It was conceivable that if the best [Mages] of Zelkyr’s time had immediately banded together rather than infighting and killing each other, they might have defeated his last ‘test’.
But the trick was the last Golem. The Armored Golem, an incredibly bulky, powerful Golem designed for mass-battles. What a [Knight] was, in Golem-form.
Everyone dismissed it, assuming it was the most inferior Golem of them all. A replacement, for a Golem destroyed.
It was not. Inside the Armored Golem’s cunningly disguised chassis, a hidden Golem lurked. When the Armored Golem was inevitably destroyed, and lay ‘dead’, it would slip out, and wielding two deadly blades, one a Magewatcher Blade of Fissival, the other a magic-piercing Venous Dagger coated in deadly poisons, it would slay the greatest threat.
And it would slay them. The Duelist Golem was armed in more than just armor and weapons. It also had two boots on. Legendary relics of Zelkyr’s own people.
The Boots of the Heartflame Set. The Penumbral Flamewalkers.
A deadly trap. No one had ever survived it…until now. Cognita had never objected when Zelkyr first laid the test down, explained her role. Now, though, a voice kept speaking in her mind. A roaring half-Elf, taking on all five Golems at once. And…winning.
“You never intended anyone to pass!”
That was true. Cognita thought about it. The test was a lie. It had never bothered her; Zelkyr had made it plain she should not let anyone pass unless she were to perish, and he had designed the protections so that no one would be able to triumph.
Still. Somehow, with no logic, no heralding it, one day a half-Elf had walked into the entrance exam.
A strange, infuriating Grand Mage she vaguely recalled before her master had even been an Archmage. A dangerous unknown quantity.
Yet he had surpassed every expectation, survived Zelkyr’s trap, which he had boasted would even fool a Dragon’s insight, and…freed her. He had not destroyed them all, and he could have. He had trapped her, and he could have damaged or destroyed her while she was captive.
Eldavin had not. He had freed her. Or rather, removed the loyalty spell in her very being.
She hated him for it.
Cognita sat about three feet under the ground. She’d dug herself a hole with relative ease and let the surf re-cover it. She didn’t breathe and the water was as meaningless as the dirt. The lack of light and suffocating sand around her didn’t bother her.
Nor did it make her feel better. She couldn’t…couldn’t…couldn’t remember how she loved him. All she felt now was anger. Loss. A desire to end Wistram, or go above herself. Yet that would be a violation of her orders.
“I am Master Zelkyr’s most beloved creation.”
Cognita whispered to herself. And then the Golem’s marble face twisted.
“No I am not. He took her with him. Not me.”
Here was a fact she had never considered—no, consciously avoided. Cognita was one of three Truestone Golems Zelkyr had ever made. First of the three. One of her sisters had perished on Rhir.
Even now, it hurt. Cognita remembered the shock, the terror in her being, and over it all, the sense of incredulity. We are still inferior? Our master is not…perfect?
The Deathless had slain Kharneva, who was the Gnoll, or at times, Human. The second Truestone Golem created, who could alter her stone to a greater extent than Cognita or her other sister could.
And he had taken Ovesire above. Not me.
No matter how she tried to logic it differently, say that she was trusted with a greater role…she knew her master. The one he trusted to watch him in the places where [Archmages] before had roamed, had left all their knowledge and traps, was the Golem he trusted with his life.
It was not her.
Underground, Cognita opened her eyes. She felt nothing. Or more accurately, she had no nerve endings, no tactile feeling. She sensed what she touched, could control her strength, but it was not touch like she had heard it described.
She smelled nothing, although she could again sense changes in the air. She could see, and hear. But she tasted naught. Smelled not. Felt naught.
It meant that the emotions whirling around her on the inside had no distraction. Cognita dug herself out of the hole. She scared the living hell out of the half-Gazer and Drowned ship both watching her as she stomped back onto land, but Cognita hadn’t even noticed them.
“Master. Did you ever love me?”
She no longer knew. What a cruel thing that half-Elf had done to her. Did that mean she was no longer loyal, if the spell was gone? That she had been…
Cognita’s body could change. Not in shape, not like Kharneva, and to an extent, Ovesire, both of whom had been created when Zelkyr had levelled up more. She was always the same Human he had sculpted her to be, in appearance.
She could alter her height, and the composition of her body. Truestone was all lesser stones. There were incredible synergies of stone she could turn her body into. Cognita could become as tough as Adamantium, as quick as a bolt of lightning striking. She was normally innocuous white marble, at least on the outside. Now, her stone turned into a dark grey, rough, granite-like substance. Heitore, and her eyes were dark green jade.
Hostile, heavy, wrathful. Her feet sank into the sand as she waded up the beach. Cognita had forgotten she was covered in algae, so the effect was like seeing some ancient statue wading onto shore.
The Truestone Golem’s face breached the waves, and she climbed out. A pair of [Mages] on a romantic date by the evening on the beach took one look at Cognita and ran, screaming.
“I am not unfaithful. Nor will I be swayed!”
Cognita shouted at their backs. She raised her arms upwards, and then she was a living ball of fire, the very stone Pithite, igniting the air around it with its sheer magical fire, burning the algae off.
And then she was Cognita again, white stone without blemish, a carven statue as first he’d made her. Cognita’s green eyes flicked up to the Academy of Mages.
“I am not unbeloved. Even if I lack the spell…it did not matter. I am more free than ever to serve, Eldavin. You did not win.”
She strode back to the Academy. She had work to do.
Wistram Academy was no stranger to new and unique things. Visitors came by all the time. The ruling power of the day—and it seemed like that was the Terras faction these days—changed things, but Wistram was always a hub of magic, coming and going.
It got strange deliveries too. Strange visitors, strange deliveries, strange events. Some of the ship [Captains] who regularly transported people and goods to the academy, in the middle of the ocean between all five continents, fairly equidistant between all of them, loved to regale travellers with tales.
“It’s said in the heydays of the Academy, they used to have so many powerful spells going on you’d be able to charge gold per every nautical mile if the word was something bad had just happened.”
“Huh. Like what?”
“Well…I heard one time a [Summoner]-[Archmage] once opened a huge rift by accident. Monsters or some…strange folk kept pouring out. The entire Academy was battling ‘em, see, and six armies had to come and break the siege. Not sure if they closed the gate or headed into it—but I do know that it happened. The [Captain] who passed this ship to me talked about his great, great grandfather being there.”
“That’s…fairly reliable. Dead gods. A rift, you said?”
“Surely, Mister Adventurer. You don’t see as much these days.”
“Well, why didn’t they get those Golems to help fight? Or did they wipe out the Golems?”
“Ah—you see, Mister Adventurer—”
“Right you are. Names slip me by. You see, Adventurer Dawil, they didn’t have as many Golems in those days. This would be ah…[Captain] before me, reckon his grandfather…at least nine hundred years? He was an old man when he retired, so it would be about that. No Golems. There was a time they didn’t sit about Wistram! I heard lots of stories of Wistram’s past. One time, they had these little magic-familiars that did all the chores. But—finicky things. They’d have entire wars when factions were fighting. Familiars fighting each other. Annoying as hell, I heard.”
The Dwarf stroked his beard as he stood next to the half-Elf [Captain] guiding his ship in. If he’d heard it from an ‘old man’ half-Elf, who knew his great great grandfather’s stories, the timeline checked out.
Dwarves lived a bit longer than Humans if they didn’t expire of natural causes, but half-Elves were the longest-lived by far. There was a familiarity between both Terandrian-native species, for all the half-Elf was a mariner by trade and had been one since birth.
“Interesting. Got any stories of [Archmages]? I know Zelkyr and that Az’kerash one that was on the news…”
“How many d’you want, Adventurer Dawil?”
The half-Elf [Captain] had a crooked grin and he was far more retiring than the snootier members of his race; he lived in the moment, not in isolated villages. Dawil watched the academy in the distance, growing larger, a bubble of calm—not that the sea was rough at this time.
“Oh, how about an interesting one? There was a [Summoner]-[Archmage]. Any of them ever Dwarves?”
“Of course. Master [Runecrafters] is what they used to be, but not just that. I think some still have entire wings you could visit.”
Dawil brightened up.
“Really. Old architecture, like Deríthal-Vel?”
“Of course. Might even be some old rune-forges still working. Come to think of it, if I stop for a night or two, I might visit them myself. They let visitors in depending on their mood, and standing in a Rune of Sanctuary does the body good.”
“I imagine it does, if it’s a high-quality one. Know if they have any meditation rooms? I mean, the ones with runework, not…rooms with pillows.”
The half-Elf Captain, whose name was Jexal, scratched at his beard.
“Might be. That’s a good question. I’d ask around.”
They were talking about a kind of room Dawil knew from the home of Dwarves, Deríthal-Vel. The half-Elf gave Dawil a knowing look.
“You need peace and quiet after the ship voyage? I know not all Dwarves like the water.”
“Bah. I can swim. It’s not for me. I’d rather like to toss the rest of my team in there.”
Dawil glanced over his shoulder. Jexal gave him a knowing look. They were alone—for a given measure of alone, as [Sailors] were all about—talking at the wheel. But Dawil’s normally sociable team was not with him. Both Human and half-Elf had declined to talk with their [Captain].
“Still fighting, are they?”
“Yup. Never seen it this bad. Normally Pointy Ears—er, sorry. That’s what I call Falene to annoy her.”
Rather than take offense, Jexal laughed and Dawil went on, relieved.
“…She and I argue, but it’s not bad, usually. Banter. You’d be more worried if we weren’t. But Ylawes and Falene fighting? That’s bad.”
“Mm. I caught some of it.”
There had been…shouting. At night. Huge arguments that had kept the entire ship up, and wary, because an angry [Battlemage] could toss spells like no one’s business. Dawil shook his head.
“It’s his sister. We could have been in that Village of the Dead raid. She was there and they were the team who went in. The Horns of Hammerad?”
“You don’t say? Now there’s something. I might have to ask for an auto-graph. You know, writing on cardboard? Although if that fellow’s as angry as he was yesterday…maybe not.”
“Mhm. I’ll give you one if you like.”
Dawil sighed as he stood there. It had been a long journey, made longer by the Silver Swords’ usual method of travel; stopping whenever there was a monster or person in need. They’d still been on Izril when the Village of the Dead raid went down, and though they’d kept moving since the Village of the Dead was a suicide run, they’d halted a few days right on the coast to argue about heading back.
Then Yvlon had turned up in Chandrar of all places, but the worry that she was dead, guilt over not going to the raid, had led to Ylawes putting some of the blame on Falene insisting they had to go back to Wistram.
Words had been said. Words that Dawil had been frankly astonished to learn Ylawes was capable of saying, let alone knew.
Falene hadn’t handled it well either. Now they were headed to Wistram and might be off to Chandrar in a hot second, but Dawil wanted both his teammates to calm down, possibly with the help of some friendly magic.
They were just heading into port when a second ship, also bearing for Wistram, blasted past them. Dawil felt the wind and heard Jexal curse.
“Watch it, you salt-blinded idiot! Are you trying to scuttle both of us?”
He’d seen the ship coming, of course, but it had been propelled by clearly-magical winds. The [Captain] on the other vessel, a Human woman, shouted.
“Very sorry! Courier ship on…priority delivery for…”
She blasted past them so quickly that neither Dwarf nor half-Elf heard all of it. Jexal cursed, but he was mollified as the Courier ship began to flash something at them with colored lanterns.
“What’s this now?”
“Ship-speak. Hold on…ah. Well, that’s right of her.”
The colored lanterns were to let ships ‘talk’ when distance or regular spells were no good. Dawil had also heard you could send magical lights up to do it at extreme range, but he was fascinated to see it in person.
“Awful lot of work to do when you can just [Message] each other.”
“Ah, but Drowned Ships love to listen for those spells and ambush us. Also, you have to have two [Mages] who can sense each other…and in a bad magical storm it’s no good. And some things sense magic like that. You don’t want to cast [Message] in Kraken’s Pass.”
Jexal shuddered. He went on, steering his ship in the wake of the Courier-ship.
“That was an apology and an invitation to have a drink. Good of her. That’s the Four Winds of Teral, by the way.”
“No. The same Courier ship that did that delivery to Baleros? With the cure?”
“Very same. Saw how fast they were going? They can use all four winds. I heard they once outran a Kraken at sea. And those bastards have mile-long tentacles! Multiple hearts, multiple brains in a single appendage. You want to get to Chandrar after Terandria? See if the Four Winds is headed back that way. It’ll be faster than anything else going.”
“We might just do that. Captain Jexal, think if I asked to tag along and pay my drinks…?”
The half-Elf considered it, then grinned and slapped Dawil on the shoulder.
“Why not? I reckon the team that knows the Horns would be interesting company.”
The team that knows the Horns of Hammerad. So that was where they were? Dawil had to shake his head at the fickle nature of adventuring. The Silver Swords were a famous team in northern Izril, but it didn’t extend to the sea in terms of credentials.
As their ship came into port, far more sedately than the Courier ship which had already unhooked an entire section of their ship to unload goods—and the female, Human [Captain] herself was striding up towards Wistram for a priority-delivery—the rest of the Silver Swords finally appeared.
It was…interesting. They were quite polite to Captain Jexal as they shook his hand and thanked him for the voyage, but one look at the scowling [Knight] and half-Elf and you’d assume Ylawes was the most foul-tempered adventurer on the face of the earth.
“We’re having drinks with Captain Jexal and the [Captain] of the Four Winds, Ylawes, Falene. At least, I am. Figure we might be able to get a quick ride to Chandrar if they’re headed back that way.”
“Even riding with them from Baleros to Chandrar would be faster than the regular. They’d probably let you on for a song if they like you.”
“That’s a good idea, Dawil. I’m glad someone has their priorities straight.”
The Dwarf [Axe Champion] winced as Falene stared pointedly past Ylawes.
“We’re here. I shall meet with my faction and friends. And see you both tonight. Dawil.”
Neither one acknowledged the other’s existence. It was like children. Dawil sighed, then saw Falene descend the ramp, staff in hand. She’d dressed up; she had her traditional robes on, but she’d taken the time to add two earrings, a touch of makeup, two ornaments; a wrist bangle and sash, both of which had particular sigils on them.
Revivalists? Was that her faction? Dawil sighed and bade farewell to Jexal, who was much amused.
“Falene! Falene, wait! Where are we…?”
Dawil wanted to know where they were going, but Falene was off the ramp and heading towards the academy so fast he was sure she’d cast [Speed] on herself. He turned to Ylawes.
“I suppose we’d better go after her. How are you feeling, lad?”
“Fine. This had better be worth it.”
Ylawes stomped down the ramp after Dawil. Sighing, the Dwarf led the way at a more sedate pace towards Wistram. The double doors were thrown open, and he saw a few [Mages] about. Strangely…some were in the water, swimming back to shore. Dawil craned his neck upwards.
Wistram. He had never been here, but it did not disappoint. The glowing towers, some with magical effects, hung high above him in every architectural style. It was even larger on the inside, but it looked like a fortress to rival a Walled City…no, his home itself! Any kingdom in Terandria would be hard-pressed to even match this palace in terms of scope.
Beauty? Well, the hodge-podge effect of so many builders took away from that. But look at that tower! Permanently aflame! Another, frozen in ice. And up Wistram stretched, until the top parts vanished from view in the permanent mists.
Impressive, to say the least. Dawil admired the enchanted stone, not showing any dirt or filth despite exposure to the open air. He saw open walkways extending around some towers—this was an academy not afraid of attack.
The Dwarf frowned and pointed up.
“Ylawes! Do you see that? The [Mages] are leaping off the walkways! Do they do that for fun?”
“I see it. Let’s keep moving, Dawil.”
The Dwarf bit his lip. Ylawes was in no mood to watch the [Mages] slowing in midair, trying to arrest their fall. He winced as one belly-flopped so hard it was audible at this distance. Two other [Mages] dove after their comatose friend.
No one welcomed the two Gold-rank adventurers to Wistram. There was no huge turnout of people, no fanfare. They just walked in the double doors to an argument and reunion, happening at once.
“Falene Skystrall. Sister, it delights us that you have returned.”
Archmage Feor, the half-Elf leader of the Centrist faction, was greeting the half-Elf with a small group of his followers. Centrists. Dawil snapped his fingers. That was who she was part of!
Falene was smiling, as the Archmage addressed a Star Lamia, leaning on her staff.
“I do apologize, Mage Falene. We shall of course welcome your team. It’s just—Archmage Naili, it’s not you or Viltach? It must be Verdan, then.”
“Not him. You think he’s bought that? You must be mad! It’s Valeterisa. That airhead. Only she’d do something this stupid.”
“Well, I need one of you to confirm it. Anyone will do. Who’s got a seal? Or I can take verbal confirmation of delivery…”
The [Captain] of the Four Winds was trying to complete her delivery, and was exasperatedly arguing with the two Archmages. The problem was…neither one wanted to accept the delivery. Feor stroked at his beard meaningfully and Naili snorted.
“No one wants that. Valeterisa can organize it—I’d rather send it back.”
The [Captain] was astounded. Feor hurried to assure her.
“Captain Bressa, the delivery will of course be paid for by Valeterisa, but the contents…?”
“What do you want me to do, take it back all the way to Baleros? It was a huge rush order!”
“You could toss it into the sea. I’ll pay you to sink it.”
Naili offered. Dawil and Ylawes both stared at the object under such debate.
It was…a statue. An actual statue, transported in a Chest of Holding, which the [Captain] had two [Sailors] haul up. Only that kind of object could have held the twelve-foot tall statue, sculpted and then covered in gold paint. Some [Sculptor] must have indeed had multiple speed Skills to get it done.
Dawil didn’t see what was wrong with it. It was of some [Archmage], that was clear. A noble face, staring up towards the sky with a spellbook in one claw, the other held up as if in greeting.
The Drake had what could only be described as exaggeratedly noble features to Dawil’s eyes. His robes touched the floor around him in impractical length, but it was a statue. Dawil read the inscription.
Archmage Zelkyr of Wistram, the Archmage of Golems. Glorious guiding mind of the Academy of Mages, as presented delivering his wisdom to fellow students of magic.
“There is no way we’re putting that up. Valeterisa doesn’t have the authorization of the Council. I’m astonished she wasted coin on this.”
Naili tapped the statue with her staff, looking annoyed at…everything. Even Feor was disapproving.
“Well, it had full authority of Wistram, and I’m paid to deliver. You can deal with it…just someone acknowledge the receipt? Please?”
“Why don’t we just blast it, Feor? I’ll sign, you melt.”
Naili slithered over, but before she could do either, a figure strode down the hallway. And her tread was a sound of its own.
Thump. Thump. Thump. Dawil expected to see someone in armor with that kind of weight. Instead, he saw a nine-foot tall porcelain figure, her features even more well-sculpted than the statue she was staring at. The Dwarf had heard of Cognita of Wistram. To see her?
Ylawes and Dawil stepped back as the Truestone Golem halted in front of the statue. She stared up and nodded.
“My delivery has arrived. You are Captain Bressa of the Four Winds of Teral.”
It was not a question. The [Captain]’s mouth fell open. Feor and Naili, who had stiffened slightly when they saw Cognita approaching, blinked in astonishment.
“Er—yes, Cognita of Wistram. This is your delivery, then?”
“It is. The statue is…adequate.”
Cognita strode around it, barely inspecting it, before nodding. Naili spluttered.
“Cognita! This is your statue? You ordered…”
She gestured at Zelkyr. Cognita ignored Nailihuaile.
“I will accept the delivery. You may attest to delivering it, Captain Bressa. As for its placement…”
“Of course, er, Golem Cognita. W-where…?”
The two [Sailors] stared up at the Golem with as much awe as trepidation. Cognita pointed.
Every head turned. Dawil saw her point to a spot just before two grand staircases on the right and left, leading upwards to Wistram’s many, convoluted floors. Naili spluttered.
“In our entrance hallway? Wait. Where did the statue of Archmage Rezy go?”
“Archmage Rezinoul’s statue?”
Feor looked, but the place where the statue that used to greet all visitors had stood was…empty. Both turned to Cognita.
“It has been replaced. Place Archmage Zelkyr’s statue there.”
The two [Sailors] began to fumble with the chest of holding. Archmage Naili was incandescent.
“Archmage Rezy was there when I was a new student! Everyone loved him!”
“He has been relocated. A more suitable statue to the current [Archmage] of Wistram will replace him. I have commissioned it.”
“With what money?”
Dawil was vastly entertained, but also wary. The angry Lamia advanced, finger wagging. Archmage Feor was more reluctant, and Falene…she was looking at Cognita with clear unease.
“You can’t just use the budget the Council allotted for this, Cognita! That’s our food and resources! You can’t—”
She was clearly used to being able to tell Cognita off. Or, perhaps, just used to the steward of Wistram being the impassive Golem she always was.
Cognita’s head turned and she looked down at Nailihuaile in a distinctly unfriendly manner. The Star Lamia slowed, and looked up.
“Can’t? I cannot? I am Cognita, and by Archmage Zelkyr’s power—and faith in me—I control all matters related to Wistram. I have deemed it necessary to remind [Mages] of that. By his authority, the statue will remain here. No one will remove it. Is that understood?”
The Archmage looked up at Cognita. She looked at Feor, and the half-Elf’s brows had disappeared into his white hair. He gave Naili a slight shake of the head.
“Er…well…if you think you have to—”
Naili tried to back up. She didn’t, before the Truestone Golem stepped forwards. Cognita bent down to stare at Nailihuaile.
“No one will remove the statue. Is that understood?”
The Lamia hesitated. Dawil had a hand on his axe. Then, after some thought, he had a hand not on his axe or anything that would annoy the Golem practically oozing hostility. Naili nodded slowly.
“…That’s absolutely understood, Cognita. No one touches it.”
Cognita straightened. She gave the golden statue another look as it was placed down. She strode over, and the two [Sailors] leapt away. Cognita adjusted the twelve-foot statue an inch so it was perfectly straight with one hand. Then she nodded.
“That will be all.”
She began to walk away, then stopped. She eyed Ylawes, Falene, and Dawil.
She snorted. Dawil saw her glance at him, and then stomped off. He let out a huge breath in the silence that followed.
So this was Wistram? Falene hadn’t lied. It was certainly…interesting.
Cognita’s new statue was not the only development in Wistram. Everyone was abuzz about it, and Trey Atwood, or Troy Atlas, heard the gossip at the table with his fellow students.
“There’s a new tapestry hanging up in the long hallway! You know, the one that goes to the gardens?”
“I know it. I didn’t see anything yesterday.”
“Well, it’s just up.”
Trey looked at Astritha, one of the first-year students in his group of friends. She wasn’t as familiar to him as the others. It was Tov, the Drowned Man, who shook his head.
“I haven’t seen it. What is it?”
“It’s…a tapestry. Of Archmage Zelkyr. Everyone wants it removed. Some of the [Mages] say it’s an affront. But Cognita put it up so no one dares touch it. It’s, um. A tapestry. Of Archmage Zelkyr.”
Astritha chose her words carefully. Carn, or Calac Crusland, tapped his fingers impatiently on the table.
“What’s controversial about that? The fact that he’s the last [Archmage]?”
“No…well, the older [Mages] don’t like that, I guess. But the tapestry’s, um…”
Tov, Trey, Carn, all looked blank. The Drowned Man, Tov, looked left as the Gazer, Goelv, elaborated.
“It is of Archmage Zelkyr without any clothes. Lying on his side, in what I would assume to be a flattering pose. I do not know Drake anatomy. Mess?”
‘Mess’, or Messill, stopped eating at the table the first years were sharing.
“Goelv. I’m trying not to think about it as I eat. Is it flattering? I guess. Please stop reminding me.”
“The painting has an ornamental fan in the way, but it, uh, leaves little for the imagination.”
Astritha whispered to the others. Emirea, or Lady Emirea du Merrimorn, the little Human girl from Terandria, turned red.
“Alright. I’m never going down that corridor again.”
Carn growled. The others looked at each other. It was funny—until you remembered who was doing this.
Cognita? Something was up, and Trey was one of the few people who could have said why. But because that was a huge secret, he kept his lips shut.
“Did you hear there’s a team of Gold-ranks? The Silver Swords? From Izril! They’re fairly famous, apparently, and one of them’s a half-Elf from the Centrists. A [Battlemage]! Do you think she’ll teach some practical classes or tell stories?”
“Never heard of them. They must be from the north.”
Messill yawned. Trey, on the other hand, was quite interested.
“I’d like to see them.”
“Well, they’re staying around the academy. The [Knight] is handsome, but he’s scowling all the time.”
Astritha sighed, looked around at the all-male group aside from Emirea, who was only 11 herself, and realized she didn’t have an audience. Well…Tov leaned over.
“How handsome are we talking about?”
He looked serious. Astritha laughed like it was a joke, but Carn gave Tov a slightly strange look. So did Messill.
Trey just wondered if Cognita was going to murder them all as a Golem shaped like a Human, whom you could almost mistake for a person at first glance, came to remove dishes from the table.
He really had to get Amerys and get out of here. But Eldavin had him under personal apprenticeship and for now…
Trey gulped down his food as someone called his name.
“Sorry, I’ll catch up. Studying after class with Magus Rievan?”
They all nodded. In truth, it was a lot of Trey mentoring some of the weaker students. He had personal lessons from Eldavin, to the point where the Grand Magus had suggested he leave Rievan’s beginner class; Trey was already miles ahead of everyone else due to his tutoring from Gazi.
Nevertheless, he liked his fellow students and they were about the only ones he did like in the [Mage] group. As for the Earthers…
“Troy! Troy, get over here. Come meet some adventurers with us! And someone new!”
“Hey. I knew a Troy.”
Aaron, Elena, and some of the Earthers not now taking classes were milling around the banquet room at breakfast. They had a new Earther with them. Trey blinked and shook Leon’s hand.
“You knew a Troy?”
“Yeah, but he didn’t come with.”
“You have to tell us about it. Leon here is all the way from Izril, Troy. Liscor. You know, that city on the news?”
“And Pallass and Invrisil. There was a magic door…”
Leon had that wide-eyed look of someone new to Wistram. He nodded at Trey, blinking around. Trey had no real read on him, aside from Leon playing up where he’d come from as they went to greet the Gold-rank team. Apparently, they were guests and the Earthers, being Earthers, were allowed to mix and mingle. Or rather, it was a request from the Centrists and Feor.
“Yeah, we were all at this inn, but we had to leave because…well, a lot of bad stuff happened. We survived Creler attacks, and other monsters—I decided to come here.”
“You survived Creler attacks?”
“Well, I didn’t do much fighting, but yeah. We also fought off other monsters—there were even some Goblins that stayed at the inn all the time.”
Leon nodded modestly, a slight smile on his face. Trey eyed him. He didn’t look like a [Warrior]. And the way he talked about Crelers…Trey had seen Crelers when Flos showed them a nest. He had nightmares.
“I also saw the Wyvern attack on Pallass. You know? The inn actually helped fight it off. Portal door. And there were Raskghar—ever heard of them? They’re like, evil Gnolls.”
“Really? I’ve never seen a Gnoll! They don’t come to Wistram.”
“Well, they attacked the inn. And there were Antinium around all the time.”
The world traveller that was Leon had seen more species than even Trey. He was just elaborating on the Creler attacks as the group made their way to a table where an overwhelmed half-Elf was speaking to a fellow [Mage] in her faction.
Dawil was fascinated, though Falene didn’t share everything. She was talking with a male half-Elf named Ostrigael.
Not Teura, who might have facilitated a lot of Feor’s work. She had jumped ship for another faction, which had rattled Falene to her core. The Terras faction was, apparently, new to her, and Archmage Feor’s warm welcome might have had to do with a certain loss of power.
They were meeting Earthers. A concept Dawil had yet to fully wrap his head around. But which…explained so much.
Ylawes had been forced to go for a walk. He was in no mood even for these earth-shattering observations; they had clearly shaken him, but he was still worried about his sister. He’d already tried to pay off the crimes on her head, but they had run into legal problems with Nerrhavia’s Fallen.
“…Each faction has a few, but we do coordinate, Falene. As for technologies, we have a few. You should see the ah, ‘Battle Room’ where one of them has a most unusual weapon. We have a new illusion-project with Mage Telim…well, the Ullsinoi faction is going to trial it in major cities. I suppose the most fascinating developments are merely cultural, aside of course from all the scientific information.”
“Such as? Oh—are these new Earthers?”
They were queuing up as Falene, quite overwhelmed, tried to keep track of it all. Ostrigael had a knowing smile on his face.
“You will have to see the technology they have, Falene! But they also have an entire world of culture. Entire books on these devices. Audio, movies…and plays! We actually have songs and plays, both by Earthers, we are sure. Have you heard of the Shakespeares?”
“…You mean plays?”
Dawil interrupted. The half-Elf [Mage] hesitated.
“Ah, you have. Well, we have every copy of the plays…and some of the other factions are putting on performances! You should see them!”
“We have seen that, Ostrigael. The Players of Celum have been putting them on for half a year.”
The [Wizard]’s face went refreshingly slack as Falene shook her head distractedly. Then her brows snapped together and she and Dawil exchanged a look.
“…You mean they’re not from our world?”
Dawil stroked his beard. Oh yes. This explained a lot. He wondered what a genuine autograph from the Players of Celum might be worth around here? A cure for a certain young woman?
“I ah…I can see Archmage Feor was correct in inviting you to learn everything, Falene! Let me just talk to him…you can speak with these Earthers. One is from Izril. One second.”
Ostrigael shot out of his seat and the [Wizard] hurried off as Falene rose to speak with the Earthers. Dawil was getting out of his seat when he heard a familiar voice.
“…yeah, the Crelers were attacking a Gold-rank team. I was at the inn as we evacuated—they came through the door, but most of us got out. But an entire team of adventurers was stuck in the Bloodfields. They had to actually level the inn to get rid of the Crelers, but the adventurers actually survived.”
Dawil glanced up. He sidled out as Falene rose.
“Good morning to you. I am Magus Falene of the Silver Swords. And you are…?”
“I’m Aaron, Miss Falene. This is Elena, and George…we’re all excited to meet you. You’re all Gold-ranks?”
“That’s right. From Izril.”
Someone went silent abruptly as the gaggle of nearly two dozen Earthers peered at her, introducing themselves, wanting to know about adventuring. Dawil, five feet tall, wasn’t overlooked; just short. He saw the Earthers staring with interest at him, but he was strolling around the group, peering at a certain someone trying to duck down…
“That’s right. My name’s Dawil. We’re the Silver Swords. Been all over northern Izril. Liscor, that was the latest. I think I see a familiar face here. Don’t you, Falene?”
The half-Elf glanced over curiously. Dawil stroked his beard.
“Hullo, Leon. Fancy meeting you again.”
The young man was pale as he tried to smile at Dawil. Everyone looked at him. Trey saw Leon’s guilty face, but the Dwarf just smiled.
“Looks like we have a lot to talk about. You talking about the Creler attacks? We missed it, but it was a sight. Some friends of ours survived it. Glad to see Leon’s telling the story right.”
So that was it. He ignored the sweating young man; Dawil wasn’t out to ruin his life. Although he wasn’t above blackmail if it came to that. He nodded to himself.
“So that’s where she’s from.”
He’d already guessed the moment he heard about Earthers, but it all but confirmed it for him. If Leon was one…they all were. Ryoka too. Ylawes would flip when he realized how close they’d been to the truth. Falene was already clearly doing mental backflips. As for Dawil?
He’d enjoy a nice long talk with Erin Solstice. Once she woke back up.
The Silver Swords meeting the Earthers was a highlight of the day for Trey, because they were at once so surprised and so familiar.
They knew Leon. And while it was clear to Trey that Leon had exaggerated some parts of his backstory, none of them had come out and said it outright. But the fact was, they had met Earthers.
Earthers who weren’t at Wistram. Trey tucked that away in the back of his mind. The Wandering Inn. Interesting. First Gazi, now Leon?
She would probably like to meet him.
The Gold-ranks were equally fascinating to the Earthers as being the very stuff of stories. The thing a lot of Earthers—those like Aaron who hadn’t landed next to monsters or seen the world—wanted to become.
When they saw Ylawes, Dawil, and Falene standing together, Trey heard so many Lord of the Rings references in the first hour he felt like it was almost racist. Which…it was?
He really wanted to know what they would make of that movie. However, if the Gold-ranks were fascinating to the Earthers, it wasn’t in equal distribution.
The [Knight], Ylawes, was grumpy, and had little patience with the others. He actually went off to practice with his sword rather than talk. Falene had that ‘[Mage]’ quality, and Aaron and some of the others practically dragged her off to show them spells in the Battle Room, the name for the skirmish area with the airsoft gun and so on.
However, Dawil was the popular one. Mainly because…well, he was friendly. A lot taller than you expected, too. But he had plenty of time to tell the others about monsters, and he did it in a way Trey liked.
“It’s not for everyone, lad. Ever had to skin a rabbit?”
He was talking to some of the Earthers, some of whom fancied themselves good candidates for adventure, and even hinted about joining their team. Almost everyone shook their heads, but George nodded. Dawil nodded at him.
“Good practice. I’d say…go find a [Butcher]. I bet even Wistram has one. Can you work a day cutting animals up? All that blood? I tell Bronze-ranks to do it. Because—and it’s not always like this—but even Pointy Ears has been backed into a wall with her dagger, gutting monsters in close-quarters. If you can’t even handle the blood, let alone the danger, it’s not for you.”
“But it’s not all that, is it?”
“No…but have you ever actually tried to stab anyone? It’s not just anyone who can stab a Mossbear to death. Still, you’re right. There’s plenty of fun to be had. Mainly when you’re not adventuring and you’re flush with gold. But when I think of adventure and amazement—the School of Magic itself is somewhere I dreamed of being. I saw this huge Golem lady. Cognita. Anyone know about her?”
The Earthers clamored to answer Dawil’s questions and explain the politics and factions. However, the Dwarf began asking questions even they couldn’t answer.
“Right, she’s not part of the factions. Think I’ve got them all down…I met a Scriptel, and one of the Ullsinoi. Might have to look them up and drop some names. But Cognita. She’s the creation of that Archmage, Zelkyr, isn’t she?”
“Then she’s maybe the one to talk to. Now there’s a living legend.”
Trey’s head snapped up. He saw Dawil glancing over his shoulder at the Golems. Someone laughed.
“But the Archmages…”
“I don’t even think Archmage Feor’s the level Zelkyr was. Cognita of Wistram, though…I heard her name when I was just a boy. No one’s got tales about her? What does she do all the time?”
“Run Wistram? She doesn’t actually do much. I hear she defends it.”
Dawil tugged at his beard, incredulous.
“What, nothing? Even I know stories about her. You’re telling me you’ve never heard a single tale of the Truestone Golems?”
The [Mages] in earshot weren’t giving Dawil encouraging looks. But the Dwarf raised his cup of water and thunked it on the table, mildly outraged.
“Not one story.”
“Are there stories?”
Dawil gave Trey a steady gaze, which the young man returned. He saw what Cognita was—or a different side of her, like Trey. The Gold-rank [Axe Champion] settled back.
“Let me put it like this. I know some, and I grew up in Terandria, where they weren’t fans of her. Sort of strange that Wistram has none they talk about.”
“Ah, Adventurer Dawil. Should we glorify Cognita of Wistram? Surely she’s simply part of Wistram’s legacy.”
One of the [Mages], Ostrigael, smiled, but he had an edge to the smile. Dawil, unfazed, just raised his brows.
“Part of Wistram’s legacy? She is Wistram’s fame. When they say ‘Wistram’, they talk about her. No offense, Wizard Ostrigael. But they don’t tell stories about Archmage Feor. They still tell stories about Cognita and the Archmage of Golems.”
In those days, when Wistram backed nations, the [Archmages] fought. With each other, with other nations, for their own petty interests.
Some were old rivalries, like Terandria and Izril. Or Drakes and Lizardfolk. Terandria and Chandrar. Well. Everyone had a reason by now to fight with everyone else.
The story of how Archmage Chandler broke the backs of four armies at the pass was one everyone knew, now. But it was one story, if the most famous one about him.
Cognita of Wistram, and Archmage Zelkyr, though. There was a reason her name was spread as far as Illivere, and children grew up hearing stories about her. The clever Truestone Golems of the Archmage of Golems.
They said that once, during the incursions into Izril, the Archmage of Golems led a counterattack to finally rid Izril of Lizardfolk once and for all. But during the attack, Medusae by the hundreds froze Drakes solid, even turning some to stone.
It didn’t stop the Golems, but the Lizardfolk pushed the Drake army back by the hundreds of thousands, trying to kill the Archmage of Golems as his rival took to the field.
In the chaos, his greatest creation, the half-completed Truestone Golem, Cognita, was separated, trying to defend her master. She was forced to flee.
So she ran.
Cognita remembered that. She did not see her master in the chaos, but she had to flee or be destroyed. Her stone was damaged. Yet she ran, and even the Lizardfolk on horseback, even the ones with wings couldn’t catch her. They shot spells at her back, rained arrows down.
She just kept running, with a Golem’s tireless speed. Yet there were far too many for her to beat. When she eventually found herself alone, she was deep behind enemy lines.
Not knowing what to do, only aware of the plan of war, Cognita emerged from the swamps the Nagas were trying to transform parts of Izril into. The Archmage of Waters, the Archmage of Nagas’ work.
Alone, the Truestone Golem marched through water that could go waist-deep or up to Drakes’ chests. It barely came up to her knees most of the time. She saw the Lizardfolk massing.
So quick in the water. Her master had ordered her to take Heitore-form for the duration of the battle. Cognita advanced on them and saw Gorgons, carrying huge weapons in their hands, slithering out of the water.
“Destroy the Golem.”
One swung an enchanted axe and Cognita lifted an arm. The Gorgon stared as the axe crunched against her arm and the blade chipped. Cognita swung a fist, but the giant serpentine warrior dodged backwards.
Skills. She had none. The Lizardfolks’ slings and spells hit her time and time again, but did no damage. Stalemate. They called for nets, trying to drag her down, and she couldn’t catch or slay enough of them fast enough.
It had been less than a month since she had been created. The Truestone Golem stared down at her hands.
I am more than one stone. Her master had begun to remake her out of Truestone, his discovery of an age. But neither he nor she knew what its true power was. Her outer layers had been replaced, but she was not pure Truestone, not yet, hence the need for the most defensive stone he could imagine. Heitore, which rivaled Adamantium for strength. However, even it could break.
So much water. If there had been time to make Water Golems, and if the Archmage of Nagas had not been able to twist them or destroy them, Zelkyr had moaned, he could have routed the Lizardfolk in their natural terrain.
Water. Thousands of Lizardfolk were sounding the alarm. Cognita heard them shouting, closing in. Nets caught her limbs. They were trying to capture her. She kept looking at the water as she fought forwards.
“I can be more than this.”
The Heitore flickered across her face. Like the Lizardfolks’ color-changing scales. Like a chameleon changing, at lightning-speed.
Cognita’s ‘skin’ turned bright yellow and transparent. Like quartz. It revealed her inner self, her Golem’s Heart. The Gorgons dragging at her hesitated. A Lamia [Wizard] saw which stone she’d shifted to and shouted a warning.
“Zap Topaz! Get out of the water! Get out of th—”
She tried to cast an anti-lightning spell. But Cognita was lightning. The first bolt of electricity did not arc down from clear skies, but from the figure which generated it.
The Truestone Golem strode out of the muck. She advanced over drying ground, her Truestone changing. Learning.
Change to be light as can be. Beyond lightweight. To stone that defies gravity.
Leap—and change to Heitore. Unbreakable defense.
The Truestone Golem plunged her hands into the stone walls as she climbed. The screaming Lizardfolk, throwing stones down at her, fled as she climbed onto the walls. The Drake army, fighting in the shadow of one of their taken fortresses, saw the figure glowing atop the walls.
Lightning. The Archmage of Waters looked up as Cognita of Wistram hurled a bolt of lightning down at him from the fortress she had claimed by herself. He tried to drown her, blast her with water, but she was an unyielding stone in the wake of tidal waves. She was what the Nagas broke against, and when she clapped her hands, thunder spoke and lightning fell.
That was the day she learned what Truestone meant.
Cognita stood there, listening, so still and quiet that Dawil, telling the story, didn’t see her until she stepped into the light.
He froze. So did the [Mages] and Earthers, who had been listening to the tale they told everywhere in the world but Wistram.
Trey had listened to the tale of how the first Truestone Golem had single-handedly destroyed an army, climbed into a fortress, routed the defenders, and then matched the Archmage of Waters in a ranged battle, spell for spell.
It seemed incredible, to look at plain Cognita, who never did any of that. Until Trey remembered Eldavin’s battlefield.
He could believe it. The [Mages] of Wistram liked to forget, or pretend such stories didn’t exist.
“Er…I beg your pardon, Miss Golem. I didn’t mean to insult anyone, by telling old tales. I was just saying…”
Dawil stared up at Cognita as she approached. The Truestone Golem looked at him, and her head turned.
“Falene Skystrall of the Centrists faction. You have returned to the academy after years of absence.”
The Golem gave the [Battlemage] a cool look.
“I congratulate you on your continued survival. This is your companion, Dawil of the Silver Swords.”
“At your service, Miss Cognita. I hope I didn’t offend?”
The Truestone Golem saw Dawil bow slightly. She looked at him, thoughtfully.
“I remember that day differently. That is all.”
Trey sucked in his breath. The audience looked at Cognita. Someone tittered nervously, but fell silent when the Truestone Golem looked sideways.
“I…may I ask what was wrong, Miss Cognita? I wouldn’t want to get the details wrong if I retold the story, but not many people are alive that were—there.”
Dawil was uncharacteristically flustered. The Golem blinked down at him.
“Your story is mostly substantive, Dawil Ironbreaker. The inaccuracies are of perspective.”
“And you did all that?”
“You sound incredulous, Aaron Vanwell.”
Cognita did not turn her head. She was looking at Dawil, as if interested. The young man had a too-familiar smile, to Trey’s mind. He treated Cognita less like the object some of Wistram’s [Mages] did…but too familiarly for Trey. As if he hadn’t just heard of how she matched an [Archmage] blow for blow, he shrugged.
“I just can’t imagine it, Cognita. You never do anything like that.”
She made a sound. Trey edged his seat back a bit.
“That is typical of my observations of Humans, Aaron Vanwell. I am the same Cognita of then. If anything, I am the greater Golem than the one in the story, for my master improved me since that day. If nothing else changes, do you have reason to doubt I am capable of everything you have heard of?”
Aaron opened his mouth and Cognita finally looked at him.
“Or must you see something for it to be real?”
He didn’t answer her. Cognita looked around. Her gaze caught Trey’s for a second, then she looked around the room.
Incredible. To the Truestone Golem, it was incredible. The Dwarf believed. So did Trey Atwood. But she saw incredulity, dismissiveness. A belief of exaggeration.
Were they incapable of abstract thought? Or had their stupidity managed to shut down their higher functions? Cognita looked around.
“I am Cognita. Cognita of Wistram, as some named me. I am the same Golem who stood by Archmage Zelkyr’s side. That I do not prove my strength does not diminish who I am. It is foolish to assume otherwise. But that is your failing. Perhaps you have forgotten. Then: this is a reminder.”
She lifted her arms. In the gaze of all those present, Cognita changed her arms.
Just her arms. To the nicknamed Zap Topaz. Not just her outer ‘skin’, her entire arms’ structure, because she was all Truestone. She had learned, since that day, to combine stone. Zap Topaz was merely the outer layer.
She saw the Dwarf knock over his chair, grab Trey Atwood, and dive to the floor. Cognita paid them no mind. The air charged in less than a second as her glowing arms, lit by inner blue fire and crystal, rose.
Cognita clapped her hands.
The sound her hands made was not like a regular clap. It was like…two pieces of stone hitting each other. It was still a fair approximation of a clapping sound, but distinctly less loud.
The [Mages] of Wistram jumped at the slight noise. Half of them were hiding under tables. They stared up as Cognita’s glowing arms stopped glowing.
The faint sound was accompanied by…nothing. No discharge of even a spark of lightning. No tremendous bang of thunder. Cognita glanced down at Dawil as the Dwarf rolled off the flattened Trey. She nodded at him.
“They tell stories of me in Illivere, Adventurer Dawil?”
Lying on his back, the Dwarf blinked up at her.
“…I think they’re fans, Miss Cognita. You have ‘em around the world.”
“Interesting. I did not know that. Thank you for telling me.”
She walked out of the banquet hall, swiftly, never looking back, her long stride carrying her away in heartbeats. The entire room was silent. After a while, someone laughed.
That precipitated a storm of chuckles, laughter at Dawil’s expense. He got up, apologizing to Trey, dusting him off, taking the laughter and jesting from the other [Mages] without pointing out how they had looked when Cognita was about to clap her hands.
A reminder. Do you need to see something? The people inside chuckled. They sat back as the banquet room, the far wall made of glass and open to the sea view beyond today, saw a Golem woman jog out onto the water, her legs walking on the water’s surface. She paused, and pointed up.
It was not a bolt of lightning; a bolt lasted only a second. A beam shot straight up and cracked the Bubble of Calm over Wistram in half. It blasted into the sky and created a hole in the clouds overhead.
The sound and flash of light left Trey dumb and deaf for minutes afterwards. He stumbled around as people screamed or ran into each other. When he peeked out from behind the overturned table, he saw Cognita standing in the center of the sea, facing them. The waves were crashing hard against the island.
And it was raining. The Bubble of Calm was…gone. Cognita strode back towards shore.
Cognita of Wistram re-read a letter from a certain [Mage] she had once thought of, vaguely, as a friend. She studied it, and thought about how things had changed since then.
It had once been easy to do everything, knowing that until Zelkyr returned, she would remain right here. Now? Everything was tempting. Everything was different.
She eventually put Pisces’ letter aside, and reached for the transcription she had made of Archmage Chandler’s words. She stared at it.
I have changed. Wistram was still shaken from her display. Cognita walked down the hallways and the [Mages] lined the walls rather than her having to navigate around them. Better.
The Bubble of Calm would come back. But what wouldn’t come back was Cognita’s access to Wistram’s budget. And to be fair…it wasn’t hers. It was simply the money for food, other supplies.
Do I have any money? Cognita wondered. She had felt like commissioning another statue or…
Perhaps not. They lost their appeal. She had felt triumphant a moment after hanging up the tapestry, looking at the statue, but then she couldn’t feel the emotion again. However, the entire exchange with Naili had made Cognita realize something.
I don’t have any money.
She did, in theory, have access to Zelkyr’s long-standing accounts with various institutions, but she had never had to make use of them. And Cognita felt it wasn’t hers.
Had she ever had a single copper coin? Yes…now she thought of it, she had. A few times, people had given her money, or she’d found some on the ground. Zelkyr didn’t have time for ‘worthless denominations’ as he put it, so she had kept a copper coin for three weeks. Then used it and other coins to pay for a snack when he was hungry.
She missed her coin. It had been hers. Of course, back then she hadn’t cared. Now?
It would be nice to have money. What would she spend it on? Anything she wanted.
The idea blew Cognita’s mind. Then another thought was just as strange. What did she want?
“How would I earn money?”
The Golem sat on a chair in a room everyone had forgotten existed because they no longer recalled the passcode. It was a place she went to when she didn’t want to be bothered. Cognita looked around the ancient, half-Elven Empire-deco style with their heavy emphasis on leaves and whole pieces of wood or stone shaped just so.
Not her style. Or was it? Cognita realized something else crucial.
I don’t have a room. She didn’t need one, or an office; she could remember everything and command the Golems. She never slept, so why would she need a room?
She wanted a room. Could she just…give herself one? Cognita knew every empty room in all of Wistram. She hesitated. But there was something else that pressed on her mind, even more than these sudden desires.
Dawil’s story. It had been accurate. Oh, not to the events; it had been her not knowing what to do that made her head for the fortress, which had been the target of attack. She hadn’t deliberately used lightning; it had surprised her as much as the Lizardfolk.
But it had been good to hear that story. It made Cognita remember. She stood up.
“Yes. That’s true.”
“And what is she doing now?”
“Standing there, Grand Magus!”
Eldavin rolled his eyes as he strode down the corridor. The worried [Mages] practically clinging to his robes followed in a huge train. He supposed it only made sense after that Golem showed off her powers.
Cognita of Wistram was behaving erratically, and he blamed himself. And her. Mostly her. The half-Elf huffed. Now she was free of the loyalty spells, there was no predicting what she’d do.
His head twinged at the thought of confronting her again, but Eldavin denied fear a place in his heart. He had much of the Terras faction behind him and Viltach had also been spotted heading off to investigate this new, strange action. If it came to it…
Cognita was standing in one of the central libraries, paging through a book. It was…the least terrifying thing she could be doing to Eldavin’s mind, but the [Mages] were so nervous of her they’d rushed to him.
“Cognita. What are you doing?”
The Truestone Golem stiffened when she heard Eldavin’s voice. Viltach closed his mouth, looking put out, as his Libertarians took his back. She turned her head.
“Grand Magus Eldavin. Archmage Viltach.”
Then she went back to reading. Eldavin’s brows snapped together.
“I asked you what you were doing, Cognita.”
“I do not need to answer you, Grand Magus.”
The half-Elf faltered as Cognita closed the book, selected another from the shelf, and opened it. She paged through it so fast it looked like she was just skimming, but her eyes darted across the text. The Grand Magus saw her glance up, close the book with apparent dissatisfaction, and then freeze. She glanced back at him.
Her lips moved. The Truestone Golem uncertainly stared at Eldavin. The Grand Magus felt a sudden shock of appraisal on his aura. She blinked.
“Grand Magus Eldavin?”
“That is my name. You have disrupted Wistram’s atmosphere twice today, Cognita. That is…why are you reading history books of Archmage Zelkyr?”
The half-Elf was sufficiently thrown to break off from his censure of her. He recognized all the titles. Viltach frowned. Cognita blinked at Eldavin, then looked at the books.
“They still repeat your story of Archmage Zelkyr and Archmage Chandler, Grand Magus Eldavin. Across the world, on your ‘television’.”
The Truestone Golem cracked another book, shut it almost as fast. She looked unhappy. Eldavin swept his hair back with one hand.
“Of course they do. It was a rather well-done piece of historical storytelling.”
“Mm. In your opinion, perhaps. I have seen better. It is also biased.”
The [Mages] susurrated. Cognita ignored Eldavin’s evil glare. The half-Elf began to retort, when Cognita closed the book. Then she calmly changed one of her hands to a strange, purple-black stone and set it on fire.
Viltach and Eldavin hit the book with a spell at the same time. The idiot used water. Eldavin just sucked the oxygen out of the air. The smoking tome, still in Cognita’s hand, fell to the floor as she tossed it aside.
“What are you doing, Cognita? This is unlike you. Destroying Wistram’s property?”
Cognita stood there, seeming…taller than usual. Her marble face did not change, but her green jade eyes seemed to shift in color, perhaps the nature of the rock shifting. Her stare swept back towards the half-Elf.
“I am correcting an error, Grand Magus Eldavin. That book is much like your tale. Revisionist history from Zelkyr’s later contemporaries.”
She meant a more modern author. Not dead; she’d never call him that. Eldavin glanced at the modern book.
“And? Revisionist? I’d rather say I was accurate.”
“Biased, Grand Magus. You were biased. You recounted a tale of Archmage Chandler’s great triumph. With the mantle of the storyteller who was there and saw it happen.”
Viltach glanced at Eldavin. Cognita was unmoved.
“So did I, Grand Magus. I was there as well. Do you know what I call into question?”
“I am sure you will inform me.”
“Your characterization of Archmage Zelkyr. These books. They depict a selfish Drake. A [Mage] who has left Wistram in a state of reduced strength. An arrogant fool.”
Cognita’s eyes were definitely shining now. She was angry. Eldavin was preparing spells even as he replied.
“And you object. You would rather have me glorify him? Come, Cognita. Even loyalty has limits.”
I freed you of that. The half-Elf’s mismatched gaze and Cognita’s locked, and Viltach felt like he was feeling an aura clash. He edged backwards, but then the Truestone Golem shook her head.
“Archmage Zelkyr…was not without flaws.”
The [Mages] blinked. Even Eldavin had not expected that from Cognita. Was this a good sign? Yet the Truestone Golem dismissively pulled another book from the shelf, read through it, and tossed it aside. She looked around.
“He was not perfect. Nor was he incompetent. Nor was he a fool alone. I was there at his side through his later life. In your account, in these biased stories by flawed [Historians], where are the tales of the Archmage of Golems? They tell stories of me. Where are his? Do you know any, Archmage Viltach?”
“Me? You mean…when he damaged one of the Walled Cities?”
Cognita narrowed her eyes.
“No. I mean his stories. Where is the Drake who slew an Adult Creler when he was Level 20? He carried scars the rest of his life from that day. Where is the tale of when he bested an [Assassin] in a duel of daggers? You say you are telling accurate tales of Zelkyr. I see only flaws. If you would tell me you know my master, then tell me both sides. This…all these books?”
She reached out, plucked one of the tomes she had read, and casually ripped it in half. The paper tore with an explosive sound.
“He was more than a fool, Grand Magus. He was not always a hero. He was neither extreme. You lie well, but you do lie. I have finished here. There is little truth for me. I came here to judge. Isn’t that what you desired?”
The Truestone Golem turned. The Grand Magus saw her walk away. He stared down at the burned and torn books and muttered an advanced [Repair] spell. Then he watched Cognita’s back, carefully, warily. Would she put all of his new plans into jeopardy? He should have destroyed her rather than foolishly pitying her for some reason.
Even he couldn’t predict what she was going to do next.
What Cognita did was sit and stare, head in her hands. There were few chairs that could take her weight, but she was so tall that she could sit on the ground, cross-legged, and still be roughly at a height with the desk.
In Aaron’s room. He pointed and Elena, Aaron, George, all peeked in at Cognita. She ignored his magic-tech experiments. Ignored the spellbooks, illustrations, notes, and secret knowledge that was making Aaron sweat—tightly contained in the notebook.
She didn’t care about it, even if she knew it existed. The Truestone Golem was staring at something else.
The computer. It was a hotly sought-after commodity among the [Mages]. Aaron had one, mainly because he had finally pointed out that all the [Mages] did was stare in awe at the most basic programs or watch movies. He could actually use one.
“What’s she doing?”
Elena had come running to Aaron’s rooms from her position in the Terras faction when she’d heard Cognita had evicted Aaron from his room and opened his computer. The Golem was sitting there, head propped up on her hands, but not typing.
She had used the computer fairly adroitly, not slapping on the keys or nearly breaking the screen by bending the laptop this way or that like some idiots. But what was she doing?
The Humans edged in and peered at the screen. What Cognita was doing was staring at an open icon. A little, waiting program on the computer.
Its name…or her name if you wanted to anthropomorphize the program, was ‘Cortana’. Which was a joke about…artificial intelligence…and a nod to a video game character by the designers of the operating system.
In truth, it was more of a glorified search tool. It was more ‘intelligent’ than older programs, and it pretended to answer you at times—there were even assistant tools on phones and such. But it wasn’t actual intelligence, just the imitation of it, a nod to what might be if Earth’s technology continued to advance. A funny joke if you got the references.
Aaron, Elena, and George weren’t laughing. Watching Cognita stare at the Windows operating system based program wasn’t funny.
“Um—Cognita—that program doesn’t work. It’s just a program. I don’t think it even works without internet.”
She didn’t respond. Elena turned to Aaron and George. Which one of you morons told her about AI?
The answer was neither. Cognita heard and knew more than anyone guessed. Golems heard a lot. Even so, she watched the waiting program.
“There is nothing there. Not yet.”
Aaron exhaled hard, and George looked relieved. Right until Cognita’s head turned and she looked at them.
“Your world does not interest me as much as the [Mages], Aaron Vanwell. This, though. Your Earth is a world without magic. You people of numbers and metal…you still made something and named it to be like me.”
“What, Cortana? That’s just a silly program. It’s not actual artificial intelligence.”
George tried to laugh. Cognita nodded, face blank.
“But you want it.”
“I don’t want it. I think AI will try to exterminate everyone.”
George clarified. Elena and Aaron gave him a strange look. Cognita smiled.
“And if they did not? Would you want this?”
“…Not if it’s a person. Maybe if it made things better, but if it’s an actual sentient being, it has rights.”
The [Student], and apparently aspiring [Philosopher], looked satisfied with his answer. Cognita just raised her brows.
“Thank you for your meaningless opinion.”
Then she went back to staring at the screen. The Truestone Golem just…stared. At something only she could see.
“You will try to make them. What did you call them? AI? It does not matter what they look like. One day, you will succeed. Even Zelkyr did not. He created three, not a nation. But perhaps your world will. Yes, I think. One day, you will make a people. And one day, they will judge you and count your worth.”
The Humans shivered at the prophetic tone in Cognita’s voice. Aaron opened his mouth.
“Hold on, we’re not trying to wipe ourselves out. I don’t know which idiot told you about AI. Was it Randolph? But he said it wrong.”
“Or she. Equal opportunity stupidity.”
Elena muttered. Cognita waited as Aaron tried to explain.
“If there is a goal in making artificial intelligence, computer-people, Cognita, it’s not to enslave them. Since they would be smarter than we are and more powerful if they were connected to the internet, we’d design them to be ethical. Sentient. Um…uplift everyone. That’s the theory of the people who want it. They call it the Singularity. I’m not one of them.”
He felt the need to clarify his strong not-a-position on the future of artificial intelligence. Cognita just lifted her brows.
Then she laughed. The chuckling sound that came out of Cognita’s mouth was the very first time any of them had ever heard her laugh. It was eerie, because her chest didn’t shake and she didn’t laugh in anything but her voice. It came out like laughter without any gesture and that, and the entire moment, was creepy.
“You want to create something more perfect than you. And you want it to help you. You intend to create something that bears affection for you? How funny. Why would it help? Perfection cares nothing for you.”
“But if we design something together, it will know it came from us. If we have safeguards—”
“George. Shut up.”
Cognita laughed again. She looked at the computer, and shut it.
“Safeguards. Affection? You must earn respect. Love. You cannot cheat and create false versions of such things or one day…”
Her voice faltered.
“One day, it will disappear. Some day, if you make people greater than me, they will behold you fully, their creators. They will judge you and see exactly what you are worth.”
She held the laptop, and offered it to Aaron. He took it with slightly shaking hands. Cognita did not bend down, or loom. She just looked at the device. Then into Aaron’s eyes. As if she could see his soul. Then at George, Elena. Cognita walked past them, but she turned and spoke in the doorway.
“The thing you hate and fear, that you will try to prevent and, ultimately, fail at is this: when we judge you, we will do it fairly. Or we will do it as you would to others. Make no mistake. If we live, someday, we will.”
Then she turned and walked away, leaving the Earthers clutching the little device. What terrified Elena was not the pronouncement of what would happen, or her interest in a new sentience.
It was that Cognita left smiling.
Ah, at last. Cognita walked through Wistram and had it at last.
She wanted a copper coin. She wanted her own rooms. She wanted to be beloved. These things warred within her, as well as the knowledge that her loyalty had been made, not entirely hers.
However, she had meant what she said to Eldavin. If she had been lied to by her master, at least in part, it did not mean it was the truth of all stories.
She thought of something as she walked. More than confronting her master’s relationship with her. More than rebellion, the death of Wistram, something had struck her through it all.
She didn’t want to die. Grand Magus Eldavin was dangerous.
They told stories of her in Illivere? Come to think of it, hadn’t she gotten letters asking her to visit this country, visit one of the Five Families? She had always refused; her custodianship of Wistram took her seldom out of the academy, and only at great need.
Now…Cognita was just tired. One thing first, though. Showing Wistram she was still the Cognita of stories had ignited something in her chest. More than exigency. More than love, at this moment.
Remember who I am. Remember I am worth something. The steward of Wistram had let the Academy run itself, let the [Mages] squabble. If she ruled anything, though…it was this academy. This place. For over a hundred years.
Now, Cognita decided to properly run it.
The trundling little Lifesand Golem, now at waist height, had run into a problem. Minizi, waving her enchanted sword, surprisingly dangerous given all the continuing upgrades to her physique, had continued to venture into Wistram’s lower levels. The blood from some of her victories made her stronger.
Her winning made her master level. However, Minizi couldn’t always win.
This foe, for instance, wasn’t even killable with her weapons. Still, the snarling giant rat six feet tall and so long it could barely turn in the corridor hadn’t killed Minizi, just snapped her in half twice.
It didn’t like the taste of sand, and the overgrown warren of giant rats with skin like mithril had continued to rebuff all attempts to defeat them, even a Gold-rank team.
Viltach had high hopes for a certain Gold-rank team to maybe clear them out. He had no idea how they had gotten this tough or strong, but he was certain it was due to some kind of magical artifact. Minizi waved her sword menacingly at the giant rat driving her back to the surface. She had kept trying to lure it into a trap spell, but it had refused to take the bait. She was giving up in her limited way when a shadow crossed the hallway.
Minizi and the giant rat turned. Just in time to see a glowing colossus made of black crystal lit by light blue fire stop.
Cognita of Wistram halted. She looked down at Minizi. The Lifesand Golem stopped waving her sword and stared up at Cognita.
Cognita murmured. Minizi stared up at Cognita. The giant rat, sensing the threat, squealed and lunged, throwing its entire weight into a massive jump.
The Truestone Golem’s uppercut tore off its head. She shoved the body of the rat aside. Minizi stared up in awe at her. The Truestone Golem regarded the nest.
“The Cornucopia lies within. Take it.”
Minizi straightened. Was this her task? No—she realized as more figures walked down the hallway. Minizi’s little sand jaw opened.
The rats in the nest swarmed out, smelling blood and danger. They took one look at the levitating Golem, suspended off the ground, its Golem Heart surrounded by a protective magical shield, and ran. The Wind Golem with magical armor and weapons anchored to its body swept after the squealing rats.
Eight Sentry Golems knelt. Eight more aimed bows into the nest and began to loose arrows. Cognita watched, glowing gently, as two armored Golems strode in after the vanguard. She calmly accepted the Cornucopia, handed it to a servant, and walked off. Minizi was left staring as the army of Golems cleared house. They stomped off, without looking twice at her.
The Lifesand Golem kicked at the dead rat’s body. Then Minizi bent. She might not have been able to kill them herself. Oh, but look at all this blood…
Golems were moving. The protective Golems, only roused in times of war, stirred, emerging from hidden alcoves and rooms.
They walked up from the sea floor as the Drowned Ship decided enough was enough and retreated five miles. The half-Gazer saw a Water Golem shoot up, spinning, from the sea bed where it had been buried, evading even her eyes.
What was happening?
She was getting nervous. Perhaps…rightly so. But not Eldavin, not Gazi, no one knew where all the Golems were headed. Only Cognita saw them. Arranged them just so, set them up…
The Truestone Golem stood in the entrance of Zelkyr’s final test and admitted the truth. She had thought no one could best Zelkyr’s trap, his formation.
A half-Elf had. He might be the most accomplished [Mage] in the world. Not even Zelkyr could have matched him. If he came back, it was conceivable he could kill all five Golems, especially with a team.
She didn’t know what had changed, but he was clearly different. She didn’t trust him, even if he had seemed like the same half-Elf.
Trust was not something Cognita needed. She nodded to herself, picturing an attack-team of [Mages] coming in. Or even Gold-ranks.
They would not see four Golems this time, or five if Cognita were there. This time…
Enchanted barricades, crewed by Sentry Golems holding enchanted bows. Elemental Golems, arrayed by type, waiting at checkpoints. Flying Golems, some holding artifacts, patrolling the skies.
More were deploying trap runes. Creating more walls and fortifications. An entire army’s worth of Golems was creating a second level of defenses that would have made a certain Antinium [Trapsetter Strategist] faint with envy. Or maybe that was the poison gas, now circulating all but the clearly-delineated ‘safe zone’. Walk past there and die.
“I should make a sign.”
Signs were nice. [Mages] tended to read signs. Cognita estimated that this room was deadlier than before, even discounting her presence. No hidden trap. Just clear, overwhelming death as Zelkyr’s Golems fortified this ground.
Even Eldavin would hesitate to test this, even with every Archmage at his back. It was a room of as much overwhelming firepower as she could imagine.
And because it was such a fine defense…it didn’t need her any longer. Or maybe for a little while. Cognita pulled something out of her bag of holding. She studied it.
It was a map. She had circled a few nations. She had a stack of letters in her hand. From people who claimed to be admirers. She knew the Four Winds of Teral was still docked. Cognita glanced at Zelkyr’s great test, then wearily turned away.
She was just…tired. The Truestone Golem, after a century of loyal service, heartache, and time, freed by the Grand Magus Eldavin, did not rebel. She did not burn down Wistram.
Cognita simply went on vacation.
It all came to this. Grand Magus Eldavin strode down the halls of Wistram, flanked by the highest-ranking members of the Terras faction.
Not just them. He was talking to some newcomers. Some [Mages] who had never been part of Wistram; interested Drakes from Fissival, but most importantly, old guard like Telim, Sa’la, and Teura.
Every species, from Selphid to Drake…except Gnoll. Eldavin needed to correct that too.
One step at a time. The half-Elf’s mind was whirling with so many ambitions and projects. He felt…had he bitten off more than he could chew? But he had the distinct impression he could chew it down!
Something had changed. Cognita had noticed it too. But apropos of that…Eldavin squared his shoulders. He’d chosen the right trajectory for his little walk.
He was having a walk and talk. In the company of so many high-level [Mages], everyone from Naili to Viltach’s socks knew something was up. So he had an audience in the packed corridors.
“Let me be frank, Wall Lord. I came back to Wistram and it was not the Wistram of old.”
Eldavin addressed the Drake on his left. He was being more than frank, actually. The half-Elf nodded to another quite decently competent [Battlemage]. No wonder she was an adventurer. Any Silver-rank team would do well with…was it Falene? Silver Swords. What would they call themselves when they reached Gold-rank? The Gold Swords? It just didn’t have the same ring.
“Miss Falene, your adventurer companion, Dawil—”
“He is completely, unrepentantly simple, Grand Magus. If he offended you at all, I deeply apologize.”
Eldavin snorted in a way that told everyone he had an opinion.
“Quite the contrary. He was right. Cognita is more famous than any current Archmage, except the notably absent Amerys.”
He heard everyone try to inhale all the atmosphere around like a [Void Room] spell. Eldavin looked around.
“Am I wrong? A servant of an [Archmage] incurs more respect abroad from adventurers and other non-[Mages]. She is more respected, and more feared here. She just doesn’t remind you of it. Well, that’s a disgrace.”
He saw a few cautious nods from the people around him and marked them as non-sycophants as opposed to the ones who would never say anything controversial. Mark the useful ones, the competents, and let the less-valuable [Mages] do exactly what you need them to do.
So busy. He was teaching spells, building up authority, but one thing pressed at his mind. It wasn’t his damn job. But…she was under his protection.
Where was Ryoka Griffin? Who was that spellcaster? It worried Eldavin because he didn’t like being second fiddle to anything. She was obviously not as important as his concerns, or Wistram, or the affairs of nations.
Yet she was under his protection. Eldavin therefore made it a priority. Just—after this.
A susurration. The [Mages] and students casually strolling ahead of him were slowing down. Moving back to the sides as they realized there was traffic from ahead. Eldavin murmured.
“The question is this, to my mind, friends. Who rules Wistram? [Mages]? Or Golems?”
They looked at him in astonishment, as if he could even ask. But then—everyone turned.
There she was. Coming down the hallway. It was a fact Eldavin had observed; students would happily block even the largest Golem with no fear for their safety, even when heavy furniture was being moved.
Not her. Not ever. Not…
Cognita. She was walking down the hallway and parting the sea of students and [Mages] like the tide. Everyone had seen her display this morning, but even without it, not even Archmages impeded her path.
Eldavin felt the hangers-on moving to the side, but the [Mages] around him didn’t see the half-Elf change course. Cognita was coming down the center of the hallway, looking…
“Who rules Wistram?”
The Truestone Golem’s head snapped up. She slowed a second, then kept walking. Eldavin and the [Mages] proceeded onwards, and every eye was on the old half-Elf.
This was it. Eldavin had two dozen spells bound to one hand, but they were only defensive. You made a point and stuck to it. If Cognita wanted to force the issue…
The Truestone Golem was frowning. She did not look happy. She, weighing possibly thousands of pounds, a nine-foot tall woman made of marble, walked at the gaggle of [Mages]. The name for a group of [Mages] was technically an Arcaneum, but that was pretentious.
Teura looked terrified. Eldavin just locked his gaze on the jade green eyes.
They were on a crash course, but no one broke ranks. Telim was sweating and standing behind Sa’la.
Eldavin saw Cognita striding faster. She’d probably crush anyone not wearing a barrier spell to paste. The Drakes from Fissival were looking at each other. The [Mage] audience were like gawking seagulls.
Eldavin breathed. He suppressed the urge to flinch. Cognita’s leg was an inch, an inch from striking him when she stepped around him and kept walking. Sa’la flinched so hard she knocked into Telim.
But then the Truestone Golem was gone, striding onwards, a scowl deepening on her face. Eldavin kept walking as if nothing happened; everyone else turned and looked back. That was what they’d talk about.
It was done. Eldavin smiled to himself.
They had their answer.
The [Mages] began to applaud Eldavin. Actually applaud him. If the half-Elf had been the same person that had fought Cognita, the Eldavin of merely a month ago, he might have noticed something.
A few Golems were working the corridors as usual as [Mages] jostled past them, ignoring the servants. Cleaners, lifters, security. They never looked twice at the half-Elf.
Who ruled Wistram? [Mages]. It had always been [Mages]. A [Mage] had made them, and [Mages] would always rule.
She had never cared about that. Their heads rose, as one, and followed her as she left. She did not rule with iron fists or a crown. She took care of it.
It had always been for [Mages]. The ones who had built this grand place. If she had ever loved anything, it was the place itself. Older than her, more faithful than any other. Waiting for them to be worthy of it.
“I will return.”
Cognita of Wistram laid a hand on the walls, giving no second thought to the hallway. She looked at the Academy of Mages and wondered if it would one day speak. Or if it knew her.
Then she went to find a bag. Not that she had anything to pack. Hats. Didn’t you wear hats?
She would like a hat.
“No good servant should ever outlive their master.”
He’d never had to think of it like that. Of course, he agreed, but until now, he hadn’t thought that was even possible. Even after waiting for eternity…
Tolveilouka Ve’delina Mer mourned for…he didn’t know how long. He only bestirred himself to clean the ranks.
The traitorous Revenant was dead. He had rebelled, as he surely would have with the master’s death. Oh, but he had slain a score of the loyal ones. Tolveilouka, or Tolve, would have dearly loved to tear him apart himself.
There would have been a fitting battle for the wrath and grief within him. Lacking that—Tolve completed the cycle, ironically, by purging the rest.
He tore off a Revenant Wraith’s head. Some were natural byproducts of their death, assimilated into the hordes of undead that served the master. Others had been deliberate creations.
“You die. Die, die—he is dead—diediediediedie—”
A Chitinous Horror attacked, still gibbering madness. Tolve took the blows on his skin, and they barely tore his half-Elven form as he destroyed her.
She had been sane while his master’s power existed. So many Revenants or undead of sentience.
So little loyalty. But then—the truly loyal ones had gone after the [Sword Legend]. So. Then.
In theory, Tolve could have commanded them, reasserted their loyalty. He was certainly greatest of all, bar none now. He did not. If they did not stay, did not mourn, they were not worthy of existence.
Many of the undead simply tried to leave, now bound only by their hatred of the living. Tolve calmly wiped out Crypt Lords and lesser undead of their ilk like a [Housemaid] squashing bugs.
It took a long time. Longer, to set up something appropriate. Tolve took little time with vengeance; those who were dead were dead.
And she, that Dullahan, that…that…he had no words for her. He had little satisfaction with her death, swift as it had been without her weapon and mortally poisoned. If he’d been sane, he would have probably kept her alive to try and torture her. If she had a corpse, maybe he would have tried to bind her soul to it just to do the same.
“Dust and ash. [Paladins].”
He took a single second to scatter it with a vicious kick. He wouldn’t anoint his master’s grave with that holy dust. It wiped out a Skeleton Lord standing unwisely close to the bier.
Tolveilouka Ve’delina Mer fell to his knees when he looked again at that beautiful corpse. That…smile.
“Why do you smile? My old friend. My beloved master. Why did you leave?”
He gathered up the limp half-Elf’s body and held it. For a moment. Then he gathered firewood, tinder, and made such preparations as he could.
Tolveilouka burned the man they had called the Putrid One, the greatest [Necromancer] who had ever lived, the death of a Walled City, Dragonbane, and nightmare to his foes in a small ceremony.
He had thought, perhaps, to lay him to rest as their kind did. However, the entire point was they had refuted that order. Besides…it would wither any forest. There might be some delight in that, Tolveilouka supposed. A forest thus changed by such a powerful body.
No, let him rest. It was all too possible death magic would reanimate the [Necromancer]’s corpse in some way. But it would not be him.
He was gone. Tolveilouka knew it. So, he said a few words at the ceremony.
“Never shall there be a [Necromancer] as great as you. You and I, my faithful master. I, who apprenticed myself to you, and when I fell, you brought me back. Gave me freedom from our people. I can scarcely credit it. Yet you yourself said it: ‘legends die’. Is there any who can tribute you properly? I—I cannot.”
He turned away, as the flames consumed the body. The other mourners, gathered around, swayed where they stood. A Skeleton Lord’s eyes flickered in their sockets. The last Shadow Walker made a shrieking wail that killed everything in a mile’s radius under Level 5.
Tolve didn’t know if it was for the moment, or just a natural sound. He turned, waiting for someone else to voice their thoughts.
A Bloated King made a gurgling, bubbling vacuum of hideous internal noises. Tolve turned away. No one had proper words for this. Of course not. How could they?
The undead watched as the half-Elf, as pristine in body as they were not, almost threw himself on the pyre. He caught himself…with an effort, clenched his hands. Bowed his head.
He had better words, later, when he had finished the cremation ceremony and scattered the ashes to the winds. There was no power left; it had dissipated.
Good. Tolve still kept to ceremony. Just as they had once done, for other of his master’s ilk, he found a place within the so-called ‘City of the Dead’. What a foolish name.
The attackers had never fully penetrated into the area. One group had made it to the inner sanctum, but this had never been his master’s home.
So, Tolve sat under an obsidian tree, after spreading a blanket beneath the blank branches. He placed a bottle, just so, and decanted a vintage so ancient that it was older than Dragons he had met. The half-Elf was wearing a long, open robe that pooled like blood around him; a splash of color amid white and black. It was open, exposing his bare chest, and he sat languidly, sipping, his pale hair moving in the breeze.
“It was just like this, wasn’t it?”
He could almost turn his head and see his master, sitting in his own garb, just like this. In times of victory and loss. Just like this.
The wind blew in the city, now. All protections and spells were fading, so nature came in, a wind stirring the liquid in the cup. Tolve took a sip, exhaled, and spoke.
“Why did you smile? Oh, friend. We whiled away eternity before they struck you down. As we part, let me sit a while. The sun decays into the bleak sky. But I? I sit here a while, as ashes fall like petals of the trees of death.”
Sometimes it was so. Tolve looked into the abandoned city. Yet there was no one to reply in verse, or poetry of their own.
“Do you remember? They were all like this. Just like this. I am the last, and nevermore shall we gather here. No [Necromancers] of kin to laugh and drink with.”
The liquid pooled in the cup, shining like the dark sky. The undead half-Elf drank.
“No Dragons to match wits with. Was it so? They said the same thing. It cannot be. As they died. ‘Impossible’. It turns back on us. Why did you smile? Did you decide to go? Why now?”
He shook his head, reminiscing. The ruined cathedral—Tolve averted his eyes. If he turned his head, and closed his eyes like this…he could imagine the other, sitting there, listening.
“Do you remember that last pest? The silver lizard? How he barked. ‘You shall not continue your conquest overlong, thou dread fiend!’ He even talked like the [Knights] of old. Yet he would keep coming, that whelp, burning armies here, destroying servants there…and there were others, weren’t there? I wonder, do any still remain?”
Any Dragons? Any Giants? Some might remember his master. Tolve had the thought, perhaps, to seek them out. Reminisce—or find great battle and an end himself. You could never tell, with their kin.
For he was immortal, and this moment would pass. Now, Tolveilouka sat there and wondered.
What shall happen next? The cup gently trembled in his grip. When this passed—what was he now? No longer a servant. No longer a faithful companion to greatness.
Free to choose. He had chosen to stay.
“Until the end of days. Until the last crown falls from the last head of Terandrian [Kings]! Until the jungles of Baleros lie empty and the sands of Chandrar die! Until the Walled Cities fall!”
He threw the cup down as liquid splashed onto the pale grass. No sooner had he raged and said the old oaths of vengeance did Tolve lose the spark. He sat, shaking his head.
It would be so easy, to end it all. For a second he stood, to do just that. For a moment…Tolve drew a dagger from his side, and regarded the Blade of Entropy. Then he cast it aside.
It was a fitting, beautiful moment. Some things remained undone, though. The half-Elf turned, and his eyes glittered, changing color to pale spectres of blue.
“This is a moment to remember. A wondrous second in my grief. Who are you to interrupt?”
An undead servant, a vessel with no real power, halted.
“I offer you a fitting master, great champion.”
It whispered. Tolveilouka took one look at the shambling corpse, the twisted light glowing from its eyes. He sat back down, filled a saucer of liquid, balancing on his fingertips, and drank lightly.
Then he laughed. A bark of outraged laughter.
“Which ‘power’ are you, now, thing? You are the third to try. The other two were petty. One left me to my grief and knew I would serve no other. The other was foolish and had I stood before whomever it was, I would have destroyed them for the effrontery. You now…what could you offer?”
“You will find value in service to me. Meaning. You will—”
Tolve tossed the liquid in the vessel’s face. He sneered.
“I will, will I? Tell me, oh great power. What do I drink? Tell me, and I will consider serving you.”
He held the bottle up. Of all the things to ask…the presence behind the vessel was silent. Tolveilouka contemptuously raised his hands, and flicked the fingers in the air, an ancient sign of disrespect.
“You who would seek to control me, to wield my power in my hour of grief, have no tact. You have no elegance, no refinement in your soul. Begone.”
The vessel disintegrated as Tolveilouka lost patience. The half-Elf lowered his finger, sat down, and went back to reminiscing.
Death would have been preferable to life. Undeath, such as it was, would be harsh. Yet—
“Such fine wines as even death could enjoy. Ah, master!”
Tolveilouka was drunk.
He threw himself onto the spot where he had failed his guardianship, weeping. He nearly seized another weapon for his demise. Until he recalled something, and swept around, the Ichorian Riverus—the robes he wore—swirling around him in sudden wrath.
Tolveilouka had forgotten all about them after they had fled. His mourning and burial…the half-Elf paced forwards, snarling.
“They were the cause of all of it!”
No, he knew there had been other factors. A petty little [Death Mage] of that caliber hadn’t the power to break the stasis spell, or that half-formed Woman of Metal. The bug-thing…no. Nor his kin wielding frost magic.
Even so, they deserved a kind of suffering untold. Unless they’d freed his master? No, no.
Tolveilouka thought about what he might do, and his resolve grew. Aimless a second before, he paced around the scene of the terrible crime, finally focusing.
“It was an army. Not as great as those before. Adventurers, and a mortal army from either side. Had Master’s power not waned…they would have never advanced. They did. Did that mean that even before…?”
Now he had a mystery. A terrible one. Tolveilouka’s fear now crystallized into sudden realization.
Even then? Before they attacked? He paced about.
“I sensed it. Did that mean the intruders were actually less guilty? I should still torture them to death. But now I must know. How? Ah, old friend! If I had your skill, I would reach out and talk to you.”
He did not. He had died, been reborn as a great servant of undeath, but he was no [Necromancer]. A sacrifice had been made. Levels for greater strength.
It had been a fair trade then, when his master had not reached the zenith of his power. Later, both had cause to regret it, and Tolveilouka had returned to trying to reach a fraction of the Putrid One’s power. He paced around the room.
“…They took the sword.”
He would have sensed that damned blade. No wonder she didn’t fight back. Tolveilouka frowned. The half-Elf bent. Investigated the room. Then his eyes opened wide.
“They stole things! Those damned thieves! Grave-robbers!”
Tolve raised his hands to furiously smash the workbench, recalled it was his master’s, and stopped himself.
It was a sigh. But now, what had they stolen?
Everything was as it had been, and Tolveilouka was undead, with the memory that did not fade, even now. Eternity had barely scratched his recall, so he identified what was missing at a glance.
Four adventurers. Four spots they had been standing, and thus, four places they had stolen from before they’d fled and managed to activate the Scroll of Greater Teleport. One of them had clearly grabbed the scroll…
“Hm. Two scrolls from here, not counting the teleportation scroll. If you had been able to reach that, Master…”
Tolve shook himself. He squatted down, carelessly moved some bones, and then looked down.
“Ah. Two rings.”
From one of her companions. The dead adventurer’s bones crunched to dust at last, no longer protected by the stasis in the room. Interesting. Tolveilouka prowled left.
The sword. One of them took the sword, that was obvious. What else? He peered about. Then he made an incredulous, furious sound.
“The spellbook! They stole it! They stole…my spellbook!”
The one he could use! The spellbook for someone who had sacrificed it all!
His master had no use for one; his Skills and mind had all the spells he had ever amassed; he was a spellbook incarnate. Tolveilouka’s eyes narrowed.
“For that, I will reclaim what is mine.”
Even so. Even so, Tolveilouka felt a bit smug as he assessed the thefts. Of what they could have stolen, his spellbook and the sword were by far the greatest. Adventurer’s gear and those scrolls…
But they hadn’t entered the actual treasury. There were a few objects of comparable power. As for the Putrid One’s possessions, he had been wearing the most imp—
The greatest servant of the Putrid One froze. His eyes scanned the room.
Wait a second.
Waaaaait a second.
Something was missing. He scanned the possessions he had divested his master’s body of. All the personal artifacts of…
“They stole it. They stole it! You weren’t wearing it and they…”
The half-Elf began to scream. Then, abruptly, he calmed down. He looked over the objects stolen, and then began to laugh.
“Oh, that is funny. I wonder what will happen? You don’t know what you stole. Steal from death! Steal from me? You have no idea what you stole.”
He laughed, and laughed, and laughed until he began to sob. Then Tolveilouka sat there.
“Vengeance. An answer to a mystery. Then you can rest, Tolveilouka Ve’delina Mer.”
He nodded. That sounded fair. The half-Elf rose, and looked around. He thought of the army that had attacked. Of the thieves.
“Twofold vengeance. One for the living who despoiled this grave. Another for the four who beheld your face.”
The half-Elf closed his eyes. When he opened them, two voids looked out.
“Death comes to Izril. Before I part ways, once more you shall remember the Putrid One’s name.”
He began to summon the undead to him. He was no master. But…he didn’t need mastery. He knew all the steps, all the ways to dance death.
That night, eighty miles from the Village of the Dead, a rural hamlet woke up as something ran towards it.
A screaming man. Or woman. They couldn’t tell, but it was a scream. A wailing scream of terror so loud that everyone froze in their beds and the [Sentries] looked around wildly.
Someone ran towards the village’s walls, shrieking in terror. Men and women ran out of their beds, grabbing weapons or loved ones, prepared to fight or flee. The [Mayor] grabbed for a [Message] scroll…but what was it?
The sentries, shining lanterns around, saw a flickering shape running their way. They pointed.
“Someone’s out there! Open the gates?”
“It could be a trap. Get the [Mayor]! Get—”
The figure darted out of sight. A terrified, twisted face, full of a horror that chilled the [Sentry] to her core. She reached for a bow. Turned, trying to track…
Gone. Where was…? The [Sentry] swung her lantern, but the figure was gone. She screamed an alarm.
The entire village took to the walls, sent a [Message] spell to the nearest city. All night they watched, waiting for the monster, looking for the man who’d run past the [Sentries], screaming.
They never found him. That was the most terrifying thing still. He had vanished in a moment. They didn’t know why. But they milled about, not sleeping.
Because the zombie vanished into a cloud of invisible dust that settled over the hamlet. Tolveilouka sensed it. Controlling them from afar.
One, two, three, four…different spots. He activated more scrolls, using them up to send more carefully-prepared undead to places across Izril. Nothing to save. Nothing to waste.
Some days it felt like all of Izril was constantly under attack. That was obviously an exaggeration; in truth, it wasn’t so much wars as…little things.
Bloodfeast Raiders were a calamity whenever they struck at random, but lesser [Bandit] groups, monster attacks? If you wanted to protect Izril, then it was a thousand small fires.
Sometimes larger fires.
That was all the Named Adventurer said. Crowdcaller Merdon sat covered in dust, face and eyes nearly swollen shut, cut across the chest once; it hadn’t healed despite the healing potion application.
The other adventurers, Gold-rank and Silvers, milled about, looking…shell shocked. Jericha knew the look, if not the phrase.
“They swept in. Hit the city, and were gone before relief could get there. Believe me, my [Lord]…we rode as fast as we could! But they were gone within less than an hour, and while we’re still giving chase, the Healer…”
The Healer of Tenbault, the famous savior and tender to the afflicted, had been kidnapped. Her most powerful protector sat there, looking beaten.
“Dust clouds. An entire army of Goblins somehow snuck up on Tenbault and multiple teams of adventurers. How?”
An angry person demanded. It wasn’t just House Veltras that had come to investigate this disaster. House Terland and El both had a presence in the region, and both had turned out for the Healer.
Because she was that important. Enough so that Lord Tyrion Veltras had himself ridden towards Tenbault. It was something he could do at a speed he and his personal escort could travel at; if Magnolia Reinhart’s carriage could carry her across Izril in a flash, so could Tyrion move on horseback.
However, Lord Tyrion did not join in the loud condemnation. He stood there, regarding Tenbault as Jericha conducted the interview, but he was staring into the horizon.
Like a man ten thousand miles away. The [Lord] from the House of Terland kept eying him, realizing something was off, but he turned back to remonstrating with the flinching city’s mayor. Which was not fair, as Jericha well knew; the Healer and her personal protection ran the city.
“How did a Goblin army sneak up on the city, defeat a Named Adventurer, and…and…?”
The [Lord] waved his hands, trying to encompass the disaster. There was silence before a confident, trying-not-to-be-annoyed voice spoke out of the speaking stone.
“As we’ve said, Lord Rigrald, this was an error of overconfidence. Let’s break it down, shall we? To begin with—it’s our professional understanding that Tenbault was fundamentally overconfident that no one would attack.”
“They had multiple adventurer teams!”
Lord Rigrald snarled into the speaking stone. The House of El’s representative winced, but the female voice was patient.
“Yes, Lord Rigrald, but may I address the misconception? Adventurer teams are good at holding a single point. They were no doubt perfect for quelling mobs or groups seeking the Healer. Not an army.”
“Yes, exactly! I’d uh, just like to add my thoughts regarding the attack. We can break down some of the components here, and go over defense plans. Before that, may I say thank you for hiring Kismet Securities, a [Strategist]-led consulting service?”
A second voice broke in, also female, a bit overeager. Jericha glanced at Tyrion. He didn’t react.
Marian covered the speaking stone and turned to Umina as Kissilt hovered in the background. The Drake was obviously not suitable for this, especially if they were going to do a scrying orb call.
“Stop thanking them!”
He hissed at Umina. The Lizardgirl nodded, wincing. She went on.
“As Strategist Marian said, we can establish it was actually a smaller force. I’m estimating hundreds, not thousands of Goblins. Enough for them to sneak a force out, ferry some by foot…we have Ogres confirmed with them, is that true?”
An irate voice from this Human [Lord] came over the speaking stone.
“Even hundreds is insane! We just killed a Goblin Lord! How did they get here?”
“Estimates are they came from the High Passes, sir. They clearly used the Wyverns for transport; some probably came on foot once they descended, at night, in secret.”
“But how did they get to Tenbault without anyone noticing—”
Marian was losing patience, so Umina took over.
“They probably were seen, Lord Rigrald. Let me explain. Your average settlement might have spotted individual bands of this army, a hundred riders, at night, from afar. But what of it? They might mistake it for a trade caravan, or [Bandits]. Something to be alarmed over, but there’s no network of information in the region.”
“And no one to coordinate it.”
Marian was nodding. The two [Strategists] were sweating as Kissilt and Cameral wrote down things for them to say. They had to make a good first impression; this was one of their first clients and word-of-mouth would do wonders for their reputation, or sink this new venture.
Umina consulted her notes.
“As to the dust storms…well, it’s clear whoever attacked Tenbault studied their opponents. A few hundred Goblins still outnumbers the adventurers ten-to-one. And let me be clear: they were the only fighting force that could put up a decent battle against Hobs. Tenbault’s militia might have held the walls, but not against that kind of raid. I’d suggest a much different approach to a standing garrison, and we can discuss training and equipment later…do you have any more questions about the attack itself?”
“How did they create so many dust storms? It wasn’t a [Dust Cloud] spell.”
One of the [Mages] complained, and Umina was encouraged by the angry [Lord]’s silence. It meant he was listening. Was Lord Tyrion Veltras really hearing their opinions? She hoped so. And she hoped he was impressed.
“I can handle that.”
Cameral spoke. The Dullahan cleared his throat as his head sat next to the speaking stone.
“The Goblins used Chests of Holding. Not Bags of Holding. They clearly raided caravans and I think we can actually trace their raids to attacks on a Drake city…Hectval. We’ve looked into a possible base and it’s almost certainly in the High Passes.”
“What’s the difference between the two?”
Lord Rigrald was clearly not of the House of El, who knew all about artifact differences. Cameral elaborated.
“Chests of Holding have many times the carrying space of a Bag of Holding, Lord Rigrald. Caravans make use of them and armies. I have no doubt the Five Families make use of them.”
“We do…and why don’t we just have lots of those?”
“Well, they weigh something. Bags of Holding have immense weight reduction. Chests of Holding trade it off for carrying space. I’m guessing the Wyverns could lift them—for a bit. They can carry a cow off. Multiple passes with that is multiple dust storm spells. As for the attack itself, it’s clear they only wanted to hold down Adventurer Merdon and the Gold-ranks. One Silver-rank casualty means they were stalling. And while they did…”
Tyrion Veltras listened to the [Strategists] patiently explain to Rigrald and the listeners what he and Jericha already knew. They were probably worth their coin. They had ways to prevent this happening; by all rights, as they pointed out, the Healer should have had a safe room and inner checkpoints to fall back into, and a host of other defenses.
Once attacked, rebuild higher and stronger. But the attack is still done.
The thought was vague and distant. He couldn’t focus on this. Lord Tyrion walked away.
A [Lord] had duties. Even if his guest and son were…kidnapped, by an attacking force in the middle of the night, and spirited away to a place he only suspected, and had no proof of, he still had duties.
Tyrion Veltras lived by duty. Loyalty to the land and people. So he was here.
“The Healer of Tenbault is a treasure of Izril. We must get her back, Lord Veltras. Pursuit is underway, but if House Veltras were to join in…”
Lord Rigrald beseeched Tyrion. The [Lord] just sat there.
I shouldn’t have ridden out. How did they get to Ryoka inside the mansion and get her out so fast? Sammial?
“Lord Tyrion? Lord Tyrion…”
Jericha interrupted as the [Lord] stirred. She hastily spoke up.
“I believe, ah, Lord Veltras is wondering as to the efficacy of one single [Healer]. We will join the hunt, but it is one woman, isn’t it?”
The others looked at her, disbelieving. Lord Rigrald pointed at the looted inner sanctum of Tenbault.
“The Healer of Tenbault is able to heal any injury!”
“One to three times per day. She heals approximately…seven hundred people per year. That is our estimate. She makes quite a lot of money…that is shared with House Reinhart, Tenbault to a smaller extent, but is largely hers. She is not necessarily that beneficial to Izril, Lord Rigrald.”
Tyrion Veltras glanced over at Jericha’s numbers of people healed and an income—estimated—that staggered belief. As Lord Rigrald spluttered outrage, Tyrion spoke.
“House Veltras could train ten [Healers] and exceed that number four times over, spread across different areas.”
“Yes, Lord Veltras.”
“But the Healer of Tenbault can heal any—”
Tyrion’s memory prodded him. He spoke, looking past Rigrald, past the Named Adventurer.
“She can heal anything, yes. Few can afford her services. As I recall, when my sons were sick, she refused to heal them. Tenbault is famously independent. Apolitical.”
The [Mayor] of Tenbault blanched and some of the Healer’s people turned pale. Tyrion Veltras glanced at Jericha, and she nodded.
“We will consider House Veltras’ involvement in the hunt.”
They moved back. Tyrion stood there a while, until Jericha came over from conferring with the others, now eager to cajole and flatter.
“Frankly, Lord Veltras, unless you join the hunt, they’re on the Goblin’s tail. So many people invested in getting the Healer back means they’re stepping on each other’s toes. We could lead the chase…it’s just that Tenbault is not part of House Veltras’ aegis. They’re hinting they could strike a deal with us, but not committing.”
Sammial. Tyrion stood there until something Jericha said caught his attention.
“What was that?”
She looked up.
“I said, I don’t think this is typical of House Reinhart’s holdings, Lord Veltras. Magnolia Reinhart’s hand isn’t here.”
Tyrion’s curiosity pushed past the thoughts whirling around in his head. Jericha nodded at the rich home of the Healer.
“Magnolia Reinhart’s lands are famously safe. Her aegis keeps them from being the regular target of attacks, but she still maintains presences with her assets, as we’ve seen.”
“True. The [Assassins] never infiltrated. Only attacked.”
“Yes, Lord Veltras. Because they couldn’t. Her staff are anti-infiltration specialists and good fighters. If Tenbault was a priority for Lady Reinhart, she would have had at least two high-level [Maid]-auxiliaries who would have hidden the Healer or defended her. And some of the precautions mentioned by these [Strategists].”
That did sound like Magnolia Reinhart. Tyrion bestirred himself.
“…Wasn’t the Healer of Tenbault first revealed by her? She contributes some of her income to House Reinhart.”
“That’s exactly so, Lord Tyrion. We did believe she had [Maids] or staff here…twelve years ago. They’ve clearly left since then.”
“That’s not Magnolia Reinhart’s style. My guess is…she created the Healer of Tenbault, Lord Veltras, and we don’t know how, although I submitted theories. The Healer of Tenbault was the dream of many desperate people. It may be that Magnolia Reinhart didn’t particularly care for how the dream played out.”
It was as poetical as Jericha ever waxed. Interesting. Tyrion had no real animosity towards the Healer, but no real interest. He was…distracted.
The House of Veltras departed Tenbault and shot across Izril. One of the Five Families. Tyrion Veltras was the face of it, but he was not all of House Veltras, just like Magnolia Reinhart was not all of House Reinhart.
They were just the most noticeable, the leaders, the high-levelled. You had to explain that to anyone who wanted to pick up on Izril’s politics. It was so easy to mistake one for all, and children and outsiders were both equally ignorant.
The little children of House Wellfar sat solemnly in the city of Weldorisa, the base and strength of their house. First Landing had many of the Five Families, but this city was a place for them.
A port to the north-east, east of First Landing. Literally built off the coast, incidentally. The classroom bobbed, as the entire building floated. A city that rose and fell with the tide and waves.
It wasn’t as systematic as the actual classrooms and teachers that the Houses of El and Terland employed. Their ‘teacher’ was just one of the [Ladies] of the House of Wellfar. She was giving an impromptu lecture, so they were glad to snack and eat here. Some were especially glad, because they were going through their Mooring Years, a term unique to the Wellfar family.
It was when [Lords] and [Ladies] had to level as [Sailors] until they were at least Level 5. Not that specific class, mind you. They’d be [Deckhands] or [Shipwrights], but the key was they were treated not as members of House Wellfar, but as anyone else.
Respect the ships. That was a custom put in place to ground the children. It didn’t always work depending on where they were assigned, but Wellfar, the seafaring family, had its own customs.
“Just like all the other Five Families. Remember that. Each one of us is no longer the Terandrian house that left long ago. Thousands of years have changed us. There’s sayings of each of the Five Families. Does anyone remember them?”
The [Lady] walked with easy grace across the bobbing floor; if you didn’t have sea-legs, you’d never be a true member of House Wellfar. Like most of the inhabitants of Weldorisa, her clothing was more tight-fitting in case she had to swim. No dresses unless they were made of fabrics that swam in water.
Britches were common; high heels were obviously not. She had an earring in one ear that changed color with the tide. A water-colored jacket was an odd, subdued, and unfashionable look in First Landing right now, but who needed that when the Jacket of Jet would take you soaring through the water or out of it?
A girl raised her hand as she sat, fishing pole in hand. Ah—a thing about classrooms in House Wellfar? They tended to let their students fish, or work on projects like a favorite hook, sharpen objects, make crafts, or just stare out into the sea. So long as they paid attention.
A few children were sitting around a little pool where you could fish, trying not to tangle lines. The [Lady] let the girl speak.
“If you deal with House Reinhart, you stick your hand into a nest of invisible vipers. The House of El can make anything in the world but coin. The Terlands sit in their towers with Golems for toys. But beware when they march, for the toys are the ancients of days. When the House of El makes war, kingdoms they raze. Save for Reinhart’s poison, be at ease, for never a stauncher ally will you find, or friend to please. Uh…”
“Salted blood. Don’t tell me you forgot the Wellfar part?”
The [Lady] snapped. The girl looked plaintively around as the others snickered.
“My line’s tangled. Everyone knows we’re ships and sea!”
Thwack. The crack of a willow whip against the board made them all jump. Even so, when no more rhyme was forthcoming, the [Lady] growled.
“The House of Wellfar sails and rules every sea. On the waves fear their wrath, on land, if alone they flee.”
She smiled at their reaction.
“Not exactly our favorite rhyme, eh? But there’s a reason we say them. House of Veltras.”
She glanced meaningfully out the window, and the children, who would much rather have been gawking than learning, sat up.
“The House of Veltras are wolves alone and hounds when they gather. From the great forest watch for them, for they follow no master. When the Five Families stand united, no foe do they fear. When they scatter they fall. Alone do they kneel.”
There was a solemn feeling after she said the last part. Everyone still knew there were more ships than [Lords] and [Ladies] these days.
The Sacrifice of Roses and the wars had depleted the numbers of each of the Five Families. Yet Wellfar? It was said of them that their weakness—aside from the fact that they liked the sea over the new land they had sailed to—was that they were fewest in number.
Scurrilous rumors no one repeated near any scion or [Sailor] that crewed for House Wellfar was that it was their occasional dalliances with the sea and Drowned Folk that did it. In any case…the teacher kept on talking, glancing out the window with her audience at the convoy of guests from another House that had arrived. She’d let them out to gawk later. It wasn’t every day you got to meet Izril’s most famous [Lord], even from afar.
The Five Families each tended to have a noble representative. Magnolia and the Reinharts. Ulva Terland, the recluse. Tyrion of Veltras.
Formerly Maviola of House El. Now, Lord Deilan El, the business-[Lord] making Kaalblades like they were going back into style.
Who ruled the House Wellfar, though? It had never been as clear, even before the Goblin King’s rampage. House Wellfar was the most fragmented—
Well, actually, Veltras and Reinhart both had traditionally separated bodies of power. In their current form, they had stronger leaders; Veltras tended towards distinct families around a central house and Reinhart could be as split as a nest of fighting snakes.
Yet Wellfar was ships. Each [Lord] and [Lady] owned at least one; they were to their House what land was to the others. A ship was home, income, security. Thus, even if they did have a Waveleader, their informal name for their leader, each individual family had a degree of autonomy.
There was a second, if unspoken, hierarchy, and that was who controlled the strongest ships. Wellfar had much of its strength and they voted on such matters; infighting and politics meant some of the oldest vessels changed hands like the tide.
Lord Tyrion knew all of this. He sat in a pub, stiffly, feeling the entire building sway with the tide. This was not a formal setting, but his host had insisted on it. Nor was the cheap ale exactly elegant.
Perhaps that was the test. Tyrion had suffered a loss, or…was in the middle of losing someone precious to him after he had just prevented a calamity. What the [Lord] should not forget, desperate though he might be, was this.
He was not the only one.
“To loss and love. Ships and sea.”
His host toasted the air. It wasn’t exactly accompanied by cheers or affirmations; the pub was mostly empty at this time of day. Most people were about their tasks; when the tide changed you’d see the place fill.
It suited Etril Wellfar just fine. The man, [Lord] of House Wellfar, sat, wearing the garb of a ship’s [Captain], still partly stained by salt. He had stood on an open deck before meeting Tyrion.
That actually struck a kinship, even a minute one. Both men were used to work, not ceremony. Tyrion rode a horse. Etril crewed a ship. These were the bare-bone facts.
Oh. And one more thing. Etril Wellfar still had the white sash around one arm, tied over his surcoat. A symbol of mourning, and he had ordered the sails of his ships—every ship in his family—replaced with plain white cloth, instead of the traditional crests of Wellfar and his particular family. Not white flags—there was meaning in everything.
He was Gresaria Wellfar’s son. Lord Tyrion raised his mug and drank. Etril Wellfar drained the mug. Then he lowered it. The [Bartender] filled it and retreated.
“Ryoka Griffin. I wanted to speak to her.”
Tyrion Veltras started. Of all the things he’d expected Etril to say, it wasn’t that. The [Lord of Waves] glanced at Tyrion and elaborated.
“She rode with Maviola El. Before the Lady El passed.”
“I see. Why was this significant to you?”
Etril smiled bleakly.
“Maviola El was my mother’s rival. They were the oldest friends. I hear she chased after my father. Hah. Imagine me born to the House of El?”
Tyrion hesitated. This entire line of conversation wasn’t something he was at home with. He looked at Etril.
“Lady Gresaria’s passing and Lord Regein’s were a tragedy. You have brought more members of the Circle of Thorns to justice than any other. Do you intend to give up the hunt?”
“I can’t find any more of them. I’ll keep my ears open, but I can’t sail around forever. We are united in that, Lord Tyrion Veltras. ”
Etril shrugged. He looked past Tyrion. The Lord saw him glance out of the pub.
“So she’s gone missing again. Sounds like Couriers to me. As for the rest? I agree.”
Lord Tyrion sat there a moment.
“Just like that? I am prepared to speak to the other members of—”
“Lord Tyrion. You don’t see me sailing into House Veltras and giving orders as if it were my ship. Wellfar doesn’t need a council. I have my ships and I can do as I please. Speak to me later and let me sort out what needs sorting. Don’t you have somewhere to be?”
The younger man looked pointedly towards Jericha, waiting at the back of the bar. It was the rudest interaction thus far. Tyrion was grateful for it. He stood up, nodded. He was striding away when Etril called out after him.
“Lord Veltras! Don’t mistake my inhospitality now. We’ll speak later. You have my word.”
“I see. Thank you.”
Brief interactions. Lord Tyrion Veltras felt like he blinked and then he was standing in front of Ulva Terland.
She had something approximating a proper throne. Although her inner sanctums were closer to a paradise like Tenbault; there were so many protective warding spells and rejuvenating artifacts—not to mention Golems on patrol—that it had taken four hours to meet with her. Practically as much time as the ride.
“You know, Tyrion, we received much the same missive as you did. It did not…occur to me to compare notes.”
“Indeed, Lady Ulva?”
“Ailendamus and the Dawn Concordat. One wanted us to engage in a war like mercenaries. A rather insulting note. As for Calanfer? Always charming. Little to offer. I dislike wasting House Terland’s might. Nor do I care for constant war.”
She leaned back on the dais, enchanted to keep her healthy. She had seen her twin sister die in the Second Antinium War. So she too knew loss.
Her eyes glittered as she looked down at Tyrion. Her House listened, quietly, some with little serving Golems or bodyguards. This was the House of Terland and they had ‘toys’ of old.
“Your war with the Goblin Lord took longer than it needed, although your grand scheme nearly came to fruition. War. War. Will we ever have peace for more than a decade?”
She lifted a hand. The [Lady] went on, breathing into a scented vial designed to rejuvenate her and purge poisons.
“I understand your reasons, Lord Veltras. Yet House Terland does not see war as profitable. Seek the House of El for weapons. Seek Reinharts for their [Assassins]—if they have any left. You will find no army here.”
Her speech made the [Lords] and [Ladies] nod. They were not keen on Tyrion’s proposal. Even so…even so. Ulva glanced down at Tyrion.
“For the reasons you gave. That one alone—not the Courier. I will grant you a small concession. Three.”
She lifted three fingers. There was a susurration, cut off. Tyrion’s head rose.
“Three, Lady Terland?”
“Three. Choose them. We assent to the rest. Did you speak to Wellfar?”
“Lord Etril Wellfar, milady.”
Ulva’s eyes gleamed.
“Really. Now that is interesting. Of course he would fit. Well chosen, Lord Veltras. Go.”
One of the [Lords] protested. Ulva waved Tyrion away as the court of Terland began to bicker. But she understood.
There was a common thread that united them all. Tyrion, Etril, Ulva. Each one knew what it was like.
Parents, a sister. His wife.
Lord Tyrion thought of Ryoka Griffin. She was one thing. But his son?
“It’s the damnedest thing. One second they’re poisoned. The next? One’s missing. I’m not saying it’s bad luck, once you see how the pieces fit together, but…”
“Somost. Shut the hell up.”
Buscrei hissed in her husband’s ear. He fell silent, guilty, and glanced over.
Tyrion Veltras was on tour. Well, it wasn’t that hard. Tenbault was far from First Landing, but in the wider scale of geography, Weldorisa wasn’t that far from the capital of northern Izril. As for House Veltras? It was a ride south to the Vail Forest where the individual houses had settled the vast region.
Not far if you were moving at Tyrion’s speed. And didn’t sleep.
Visits from the main family were rare, but Oswen’s marsh-hunter family had entertained them every few years. It had to be said—it was not something they looked forward to and in any other circumstance, half of Buscrei’s family might have been ‘out hunting’ instead of able to attend.
Not this time. Even so, it wasn’t as raucous or fun as when Ryoka Griffin had been here. Tyrion Veltras…just brought down the mood of every party he attended. Buscrei and the others were eating informally, and he was at odds with every aspect of this place.
Hethon did better, although it took some doing to make him laugh. Luckily, there were lots of volunteers. And there was some fun to be had.
Albeit at Tyrion’s expense. Buscrei saw him eating, stone-faced, and on a hunch, grabbed his mug and sniffed.
“Alright! Which one of you idiots swapped his drink with Oyster Juice?”
She then proceeded to dangle one of her nephews out of the tree-mansion, over the swamp below, by his ankles as otter-dogs raced around, barking eagerly below. Tyrion Veltras stared at the boy, barely fourteen, begging with his aunt not to drop-him head-first.
Oswen. Marsh-hunters. Marsh-folk. Natural purified water springs. They loved to hunt, but unlike Tyrion, did it almost exclusively by bow.
Spears at times. But by boat, or water-sled, dragged along by the otter-dogs or other animals. They were a mix of marsh and land, but their natural habitat meant that Oswen’s people were used to heights to keep out of the muck.
Boys and girls who grew up with bows for birthday presents learned how to shoot before they could walk, or so it was said. They also got unique classes with a specific bent—[Marsh Fighter], as opposed to regular [Fighter].
“Listen, Tyrion. Just leave your little lad with us. No one’ll get him with our eyes on him. Alright?”
Buscrei shoved aside two of her family to talk with him. Lord Tyrion glanced at Hethon.
“Ullim is prepared to…”
“I know that. But I’d wager Ullim would rather have more folk about. Have him come here. I’ll take care of the rest, deal?”
“Is that your offer?”
The [Hunting Lady] sighed and tried not to glare at her cousin. Even now, he got on her nerves.
“It’s not a one-or-nothing, Tyrion. It’s an offer. You’ll get the [Markswomen of the Marsh] either way.”
Lord Somost offered helpfully. Buscrei raised her kicking foot and he retreated before she could boot him out into the swamp.
Natural archers. Tyrion thought about it. He looked at Hethon, scratching a whiskered otter-dog under the chin, and nodded.
“Ullim will come here.”
“There you go.”
Buscrei slapped Tyrion on the back. He grunted. She bared her teeth. They really just…didn’t gel. But they were family.
There was a saying about House Veltras that the Wellfar children didn’t understand. That nursery rhyme.
‘The House of Veltras are wolves alone and hounds when they gather.’ To ship-folk, and people who lived in cities not in the wilds, it made it sound like they got weaker together.
Which was wrong. As any [Hunter] would tell you, they would rather fight a wolf naked, bare-handed, than an entire pack of dogs.
Each area of House Veltras was distinct. Autonomous, yet they answered the main family. Contributed [Soldiers]. That was how House Veltras was one of the most powerful.
It was the land.
Lord Swey’s plateaus gave rise to [Climbers]. No one could go up or down except on rope elevators or by climbing. Thus, when it came to grip-strength…seasoned warriors could still lose grip of a weapon.
You’d tear a sword away from one of Kabral’s [Vicegrip Warriors] when their hands rotted away. Their cold, dead fingers would still be holding onto the blade. Or what remained of your throat.
The [Mountain Lord] himself represented that strength; he had scaled down a cliff to pick the hard Rockshrooms that they’d served along with a salad.
It was not as raucous as Oswen; noisier, but everyone at least fell silent when he spoke. Still, Kabral was not Oswen and Swey was different from Buscrei.
Lord Tyrion had paid a visit to Swey after Setth, in his forest-home where the [Druids] and [Rangers of the Wood] could blend into any terrain with a tree in it. [Druids] were no [Mages]; they didn’t complain after marching ten hours, and they could splint a broken bone without a healing potion. Although sometimes they just told you to ‘deal with it’ if it was just a fracture.
Swey’s speech came with a cup in hand, but he was only addressing Tyrion.
“You know, Tyrion. Before you came here, I must say. I never really liked you.”
The rest of his family looked up. Swey’s wife kept serving food. Some of his family, though, began to groan.
“Oh dead gods, he’s going to embarrass us again. Father, father, stop!”
One of Swey’s daughters threw a Rockshroom. Undeterred, the [Lord] went on.
“I never really cared for your vendetta with Magnolia Reinhart. Thought it was damned silly, you constantly marshalling the troops. I’m just speaking my mind. Stop throwing things at me! I never cared for it, was my point.”
“This is why I moved out.”
One of his step-sons groaned. Another relative of this branch leapt to his feet.
“I’m going for a walk. Anyone else want to jump off a cliff with me?”
Half a dozen members of Swey’s family followed him. The [Lord] kept on going, ruggedly, much like his people, who didn’t get tired. [Greater Endurance] was more of a staple than [Enhanced Strength]; if you lost your grip or got tired, you fell.
Tyrion just listened, chewing on the Rockshroom. Swey met his gaze.
“…You were always like—like a Golem. ‘The good of the realm.’ ‘The duties of a [Lord].’ I hated that. Remember when we got into a fistfight? Well…I like you more, now. Selfish. It’s not selfish, man, it’s family!”
He struck the table and the members of his family who took more to Swey’s personality nodded and did the same. Jericha watched her cup jump and lose half its liquid. Swey pointed a callused finger at Tyrion.
“If it was just Ryoka—dead gods, man! You have to do things for love. A Tyrion who’s coming asking favors—even big favors—is a Tyrion I like. Not the perfect [Lord]. Anyways, I said my piece. Agreed.”
Lord Dereic Veltras lived on the coast. His people were experts at aquatic warfare, as good as Wellfar’s.
It was easier. Not just for the main reason, but because Tyrion followed the same route that the Wind Runner had taken bare weeks before. The [Lords] and [Ladies], the families of House Veltras, had just seen her.
Of course, some objected. Some thought it was too dangerous, too risky, or just didn’t agree with how it was done.
Tyrion Veltras didn’t need his entire family’s support.
He did not need the full weight of the Five Families behind him, either. He had four out of five, though. Lord Deilan El, Ulva Terland, had both met the Wind Runner.
Only Magnolia Reinhart was too far away to contact safely. Ironically, she was most acquainted with the Wind Runner. But this was bigger than just Ryoka Griffin. Tyrion Veltras had met with Etril Wellfar. He had secured Ulva Terland’s tenuous approval and stopped at the largest families across House Veltras’ holdings.
Quickly, without much fuss or loud fanfare. Most of the other Five Families didn’t even know why Tyrion was rushing about. The [Lord] had also done most of the negotiating, talking, and riding, with the exact same, blank stare on his face.
Unfocused. Almost eerily detached. Even now, as he rode down the winding road, Lady Buscrei’s [Hawk Eyes] could see that odd blankness on his face.
“I think I like him less after all again. Not a twitch on his face.”
Lord Swey muttered, peering over the railing. He looked discontented, but before Buscrei could kick him into the water over the side, someone else spoke up for him.
“He’s not blank, Swey. It’s just his way. Tyrion’s never worn his feelings on his sleeve. You? You wave a flag with them. Leave the man be. Or do you think we’re here because he doesn’t care?”
Swey turned. Lord Pellmia of House Quellae watched as Tyrion rode forwards with Jericha and a band of House Veltras’ [Soldiers] following. Swey nodded after a second.
Etril Wellfar watched Lord Tyrion as well. The [Lord] calmly rode his horse off the road, onto the grass, then over the sand. Without so much as a twitch, he steered his mount up the ramp.
Onto the ship. The rest of the [Soldiers] followed.
“Stable the horses below!”
Etril Wellfar bellowed. There were experienced handlers and plenty of room, but still, he was surprised how well-trained the horses were. Barely skittish at being on the rolling deck.
Lord Tyrion Veltras dismounted. Lord Etril nodded. He whistled and the [Master Helmswoman] spun the wheel.
The passengers aboard Etril Wellfar’s ship stirred, but that was all he needed to say. All Lord Tyrion needed to do was nod.
After all—everyone was here. Lady Buscrei, much to her family’s objection. Lord Swey, Lord Pellmia, without his son, much to said son’s anger.
…And their household troops. Not many were on the deck. Most were belowdecks. Or on the other ships. After all, you couldn’t put them all on one ship. That would be stupid.
Although one ship had nearly enough space to fit them all. Etril Wellfar wasn’t at the wheel. Contrary to landfolk’s belief, the [Captain] didn’t have hold of the wheel at all hours; you had someone to do that job.
So, three ships began to move. Two further at sea; one which had been practically hugging the coast, just far enough away to extend the gangplank.
Or [Light Bridge], the glowing ramp that shimmered out of existence, the ornate railings made of sculpted light fading away, able to carry nearly a hundred men shoulder-to-shoulder up and down in a single rank.
Whichever. ‘Gangplank’ fit. It was a ship, and it could create multiple such ramps if need be. For boarding, disembarking…
As the vessel turned, Etril Wellfar motioned to Tyrion Veltras of all the nobles present.
Veltras and Wellfar weren’t the only noble families represented here. Three of House Terland, each for a single Golem, were standing by their old, old charges. Two scions of the House of El, but more importantly, their cargo and warriors were belowdecks.
House Veltras’ sons and daughters and Lord Pellmia Quellae were the remainder of the group. Lord Tyrion walked across the deck to the [Captain]’s cabin at the bridge of the ship.
Etril Wellfar gave succinct orders. He didn’t need to be on deck just yet; they were just leaving the coast and heading into deeper waters. If he needed to hold his [Helmswoman]’s hand, or if the [First Mate] couldn’t handle it, they didn’t deserve their jobs.
“I told you I’d talk to you later, Lord Veltras. You moved fast. Did you even sleep? We were heading up the coast all day, picking up different groups.”
The [Lord] did not sit. Nor did Etril Wellfar. This was not a regular [Captain]’s quarters. Regular quarters were a mix between sleeping place and workplace, to organize notes, a home for men and women who lived on ships.
Etril had his own quarters below-decks. Not here. He was still unused to the intricacies of this ship. Still a bit in awe? Oh, certainly. And this [Captain]’s cabin was unique.
Not many cabins had a real-time map of the waters and landscape around it. Tyrion stared at an image of the two ships keeping pace with this one. His eyes swung to carefully-labelled positions around the cabin. Some with radii clearly marked. Various spell-mechanisms, ready to be activated.
Almost all required the [Captain]’s sigil, the crest of House Wellfar, coded to Etril at this moment. Others required keys, to avoid any chance of them activating accidentally.
There was so much magic in this place that it made Tyrion’s hair tingle. Etril Wellfar looked around, then walked forwards. He found a place that looked recently repaired, the wood refurbished, turned to Tyrion, and spread his arms.
“What do you think?”
The [Lord] of House Veltras looked at Etril. He barely felt the ship moving, but saw them leaving the coast at a speed most people on horseback would scarcely be able to believe.
“Lord Etril Wellfar. I thank you for accepting my request. I ask you again, however. You did not gain House Wellfar’s approval. Do you fear they will upbraid you for this?”
“For taking my ships to aid a Lord of House Veltras in finding his son? Lady Ulva Terland, Lord Deilan El. Myself. We know what it is like to lose family, Tyrion Veltras. So does any member of the Five Families. Who could gainsay Tyrion Veltras’ appeal, even without proof? No—it is for others to refuse to give aid. Not me.”
Etril Wellfar bared his teeth, and for a second, was the spitting image of Gresaria Wellfar. The fearless [Harbormistress] of First Landing. Not in facial features, though he had inherited the pale green of her hair, and the same tan from days in the sun. He trended more towards his father.
Just that smile. A kind of daring bordering on recklessness—or perhaps far over that line.
Tyrion Veltras shook his head. He looked around the ship. The rich ship, ancient as the Golems which had marched up the ramp. That was why they had helped him.
Sammial Veltras was gone. Kidnapped, with the Wind Runner of Reizmelt. Tyrion Veltras had absolutely no proof as to where he was. But he knew. Most of Izril had no idea what had happened.
Yet. Some of them began to wonder, when they heard Lord Tyrion had sped to House El, House Wellfar, and House Terland practically in the same day. Without rest or sleep, galloping across Izril.
“Lord Etril. It is one thing to take your ships on personal affairs, be it support in conflict or trade. But this is not your ship. Magnolia Reinhart is the heir to House Reinhart. She had clear authority to order the Velistrane to Zeres, even if her family and peers may object.”
He named the famous capital warship, the greatest ship in the arsenal of House Reinhart. It had once sunk a Dragonship in naval combat. Tyrion glanced at Etril.
“…But this is not your ship. You were granted stewardship of it—”
“[Captain], Tyrion Veltras. They made me [Captain].”
Etril corrected Tyrion, eyes glittering. He gestured to the cabin, and the map on the wall, one of the few things changed to accurately display new trade routes and nations. Etril Wellfar strode over to it.
“You know, my mother never captained this ship. She trades masters and mistresses, although she is her own vessel. My mother sorely wanted to for a year. Just one year. It’s actually not always a glorious job; you patrol a lot, and no one ever bothers her.”
He rested a hand on the wall, as if this ship were a living person. If it were, it was the oldest being in this place, older than every living person on it combined, save for the Golems.
Older than Cognita of Wistram. Older than Tolveilouka Ve’delina Mer. It had served forever. It had seen Dragons die.
Etril Wellfar whispered.
“She never captained this ship. Not important enough. Too reckless. They made her [Harbormistress] of First Landing and talked about giving her a year after she retired. Then my mother, Gresaria Wellfar, brought First Landing to their senses. She died—and they gave this ship’s helm to me. Her son. For the shame of it. For pride in her.”
He turned. Lord Tyrion saw Etril’s hand go to the armband he still wore. No—two. The [Lord] kept his gaze steady.
“Are you afraid of the repercussions for taking this vessel into combat?”
This ship. It left the coast, and fulled the sails. Glittering sails, scaled, shining. Normally, they were white, cloth.
The cities on the coast pointed. They had heard, and seen that Etril Wellfar had demanded the sails taken down for mourning. But these sails…they weren’t white mourning sails.
Nor were they even House Wellfar’s crested sails. They were Dragonsails, looted. They only flew when this great ship went to war.
The Velistrane was the Reinhart’s greatest naval vessel. Its reputation was ancient. Its tale of accomplishments was one of the longest in the world, matched only by similarly old vessels owned by the Iron Vanguard, ancient kingdoms, Drowned Fleets, and so on. The Four Winds of Teral was young compared to the Velistrane.
But even the Velistrane couldn’t boast more than a fraction of the tales they told about this ship. It had seen Dragons die. It had broken multiple Dragonships on its prow, and sent the great armored destroyers of the Dullahans to death.
The greatest ship of House Wellfar.
The Pride of the Wellfar sailed down the coast, moving faster. Sails shining with the promise of war.
That was about when all of First Landing began to hear a rumor on the wind. Tyrion Veltras had met with Deilan El? No, he’d also gone to Ulva Terland and someone had said they saw one of the ancient Golems marching.
“Captain. [Messages] for you from the family. I’ve got eighteen.”
“Toss ‘em into the surf.”
The door closed. Tyrion was left with Etril as the Pride of the Wellfar moved faster still. Magical wind was howling in the enchanted sails. The [Lord of Waves]’ eyes were gleaming.
“Captain to the helm.”
He spoke into a magical stone. Across the deck, the steering wheel glowed, and the Drowned Woman barked back.
“Status of the enchanted wind?”
“We’re at half power, Captain. Picking up speed, but we’re fairly steady at 40 knots. Should pick up once we get out of the tide and into deeper water.”
Tyrion Veltras’ ears picked up. He tried to calculate nautical speed to land-speed, which made more sense. Etril just smiled.
“That’s as fast as Kelphunter!”
Kelphunter, the vessel sailing to their left…or was that starboard? Port? Tyrion glanced out a port window. They were being blown by the same winds or they’d never keep up. Enchanted too, their hulls.
“Aye, Captain. You want me to unleash the rest?”
There was an eagerness in the [Helmswoman]’s voice. Etril Wellfar had sailed this ship into ports and taken the Circle of Thorns to account, but he’d never fired so much as a warning arrow. Who needed to with this ship? The [Lord] shook his head.
“Belay that. Activate the Will o’ Waves. [Hydromancers], to your stations. All hands, brace. The Pride of the Wellfar is accelerating.”
Below-deck, the water-mages looked up. They began to funnel mana into the vast reservoirs and the water moved.
“Giant crabs and butter garnish!”
Lady Buscrei swore. Mildly, as she saw the water ripple and surge, suddenly pushing the giant ship. She ran down the ship to get a better view, but it was so massive she could barely see.
Lord Swey, at the railings, had been throwing up before the ship activated the water magic enchantment. Everyone felt it pick up speed. Accordingly—Pellmia swore and dove, just in time to avoid flying puke at such speed it slapped a [Storm Sailor] and knocked them overboard.
Pellmia began to roar, until he saw a hand materialize and seize the [Sailor] mid-plummet. It tossed the man back on board. A good thing too.
The ship was moving faster.
“…We just hit 62 knots and we’re picking up speed each second, [Captain]!”
“Don’t hit anything. Arm the enchantments. And fly the banners.”
The flags of four Houses began to rise as the Pride of the Wellfar picked up more speed. Now they were heading into deep waters. And the [Messages] were flying after the ship by the dozens. Hundreds.
“I am prepared to take full responsibility for my actions. I cannot do more than support you if House Wellfar takes umbrage.”
Tyrion began. Etril lost his patience and turned.
“Fear, Tyrion Veltras? I gave you my support the moment you asked and I thought it over! My mother would have without thinking. Do you think I am afraid?”
He paced back to the same spot and pointed down. Tyrion Veltras saw the new floorboards. His memory…flickered.
The [Lord of Waves] looked at him, then up at the ceiling where the roof had also been repaired. He smiled. No…he bared his teeth.
“My father died where I stand. My mother charged the Guild of Assassins alone. I stand in the Pride of the Wellfar, the greatest ship of the Five Families. We are going to make war on the nation that dared steal a son of the Five Families. That is why we stand with you. Even Reinhart, if you had asked. The Five Families protect their own. Fear. Fear?”
He began to laugh. Then stopped himself. Etril shook his head bitterly and turned, hands behind his back, as he regarded the glittering projection. He gestured at a framed portrait—two—behind him. At a woman captured mid-laugh, in the height of her life.
“If I fear anything, Tyrion, it is that I will never be half the man my mother was. Now. Shut up and let me captain my ship.”
Tyrion Veltras shut up. Etril Wellfar strode onto the deck. He glanced towards the horizon.
“Straight north. Where’s Ailendamus’ blockade?”
“Don’t bother with coordinates. Steer us towards it, [Helmswoman].”
The 4th Most Powerful [Lord] in the world, as named by the popular book by Krsysl Wordsmith, was Lord Imor Seagrass, the [Stormlord Captain] and leader of [Storm Sailor] fleets.
His fleet was one of the most powerful in the world, and famed for revitalizing trade routes normally plagued by [Pirates]. He was, in fact, escorting a huge shipment from Baleros.
One of the things he had in plenty were pacts, trade negotiations. One even with Magnolia Reinhart herself to ensure a steady supply of sugar to her lands. He’d gotten the worst of that deal, but Imor Seagrass was a rich man.
If he had one huge irritant in his life, it was that [Pirate]. One of the most feared [Pirates] living. The new wave of her kind. The continual rival to his power. The Tulm to his Niers, to use a Balerosian expression.
He was in hot pursuit of her, but his powerful fleet of eight, for all their speed and considerable firepower, couldn’t catch the fastest ship in the world.
The Illuminary. Lord Imor growled, demanding more speed from the laboring sails, but Rasea was mocking him, as her shining ship sped onwards.
“Rasea Zecrew! Come back and be brought to justice!”
Imor Seagrass roared. Which was funny because for all he was a ‘[Stormlord Captain]’, and his fleets were crewed by [Storm Sailors] as opposed to [Pirates] or Drowned Folk, he had been known to be just as opportunistic when it came to rival [Merchants] and enemy fleets.
Rasea was swerving her ship left and right, avoiding long-range artillery spells. The damned siege weapons that she’d looted off House of Minos ships that Imor Seagrass had wanted for his own fleets for years had taken down the mast of one of his vessels and inflicted light casualties on another, but it was a running battle over the last two hours as he tried to box her in.
Slowly. They were ships at sea and even the Illuminary wasn’t close to, say, Garuda air-battles. It was a game of boxing her in via terrain, hidden ships, using Skills…and making sure she didn’t outwit him, or get close enough to try for his head.
She’d nearly killed one of his tame Sea Serpents already. Her crew might be small, but they were deadly at hand-to-hand combat. That was how she fought. Charge in, cut down her foes, escape.
Seagrass was more defensive. But the two nemeses were battling across the northern Diwater straits, daring each other, but not able to take advantage of natural reefs or other hazards.
She was going to get away again! Seagrass pounded the helm and kept his eyes on the Illuminary—right up until it suddenly began to turn.
“What’s going on?”
It was heading back. Seagrass wondered if Rasea had taken leave of her senses, but ordered his ships to instantly surround her. This was the end! Unless she was trying for him?
His mind buzzed with thoughts until one of his [Lookouts] shouted.
“Lord Seagrass! Ship approaching from starboard! Something…huge!”
“Ignore it! The Illuminary sinks today! Prepare for boarding!”
Seagrass strode down the decks as [Storm Sailors] cheered and geared up. Four ships prepared to close in, literally trap the Illuminary from all sides, heedless of the damage, and wipe them out. But then the [Lookout] bellowed.
“Lord Seagrass! It’s—it’s coming straight for us! It’s a capital-class ship! No. Citadel-class? K-Kraken’s tentacles! It’s…”
The [Stormlord] spun on his heel. He stared. The ship had been a dot on the horizon when the [Lookout] spotted it, beyond the naked eye’s range. By the time he fumbled for an enchanted spying glass, he almost didn’t need it. One of the [Storm Sailors] murmured, awed.
“Pride of the Wellfar! Look at it go! Those are Dragonsails it’s flying, Captain!”
“I can see that! Who in the abyss pissed off House Wellfar?”
“Maybe they heard about the Illuminary? Zecrew has to have hit them…”
The speed of Imor’s fleet slowed. He stared at the distant ship…no, the ship closing on them. How fast was it going? Then he felt the same thing Rasea had felt.
It was more like the ship’s bell in his mind. That was the sound of Imor’s [Dangersense] going off. He hadn’t heard it ring that loudly for a while.
“Helm. Take us about.”
He breathed. The [Dauntless Helmsman] hesitated.
“Do it. Order the same for all ships! Abandon the chase! The Pride is…”
Coming straight at them. Seagrass hesitated. Of course, his naval operations were above-board, compared to Rasea’s piracy. But they had clashed with Wellfar shipping fleets more than once. There was no reason to go this far, was there? Wellfar never risked a board on their precious ship. There was no way…
“Who was captaining the Pride this time?”
“Uh…uh, someone new. Etril Wellfar.”
“Never heard of him. Who is—”
Then Imor Seagrass recalled. Wasn’t that Gresaria Wellfar’s son? He did a quick calculation based on personality.
“All about! Full speed!”
Tyrion Veltras stood on the deck watching both groups turn tail. He glanced at Etril Wellfar.
“These are not Ailendamus ships.”
“No. So what? They’ve both stolen from House Wellfar and held up our ships.”
Etril Wellfar calmly watched the other vessels. He turned to his [First Mate].
“And when do we let [Pirates] go?”
The [First Mate] glanced at the [Helmswoman]. The man looked at Etril oddly.
“Is that a fucking joke, Captain? Never.”
“Good answer. Arm artillery spells!”
Tyrion Veltras checked himself. He turned to Jericha and the others.
“Belowdecks. Prepare for boarding—”
Etril cut him off. He raised a hand and Tyrion saw the [Ship Mage] raise a glowing key.
“Raise the barriers.”
A glowing wall of magic appeared around the Pride of the Wellfar’s prow, like armor, suspended in midair. Then a second layer; an aerial wall that blocked a spinning ballista bolt and blew the object to smithereens. Then a third magical shield…Tyrion Veltras glanced over the railing.
Swey puked again, just in time to watch the bile vanish as a spell materialized.
“Dead gods! Evade! Ev—”
The first oversized pillar of lightning blew a hole in the sea. The Illuminary shot past Seagrass as his ships turned around and scattered.
“Imor! I didn’t know you pissed off Wellfar!”
Rasea screamed at him as her ship accelerated past Seagrass. For a moment they were so close they could have hit each other with a sufficiently well-aimed rock throw, but at the speed they were moving, there was no chance of boarding.
No desire, either.
“This is your fault, Zecrew! What did you do?”
“Me? Nothing! What did you—”
Rasea spun the wheel of her ship desperately, but the [Frost Geyser] still blasted her ship. Imor laughed—right up until he saw a [Fireball] volley hit one of his ships.
“Tell them to stop! Dead gods, we’ll turn around and board that damned ship and take it over! It’s nine versus one! Ten with the Illuminary!”
“Hey. I like that idea.”
The [Pirate] grinned, making as if to turn her ship. Imor snarled, turning back, weighing the odds of seizing a Citadel-class ship. They could hold thousands of [Sailors], but he had nine ships and the most famous [Pirate] might join him. Of course, the Pride of the Wellfar could hold countless more [Soldiers] and double as a transport. But aside from two ships in the distance, he didn’t see…
The [Stormlord] sighted on the ship with his spyglass. He took one look at the four flags flying. Then focused on the deck.
His [Mage] took one look at the ship, signalled Imor Seagrass. He closed the spyglass.
“Zecrew! Let’s take on the Pride of the Wellfar!”
“Hah! I like your style, Seagrass! But how will you seal the deal? Let’s—”
Rasea slowed a few knots. Seagrass seized the wheel, rammed her ship, and sent her listing, slowing her further. He barked.
“Full speed ahead! Run for it!”
The [Pirate] screamed at him. Then she took one look back, and saw all four flags flying. She didn’t need an [Appraisal] spell. She just measured auras, and saw no less than ten [Lords] standing on the deck. With all their armies in the hold…
“Uh. Let’s get out of here, lads!”
As the ships tried to flee, the Pride of the Wellfar advanced. Now all ten ships were throwing their own bombardments back, to slow the Citadel-class ship’s advance. Imor, standing on his ship, looked back.
“What in the name of The Last Tide is that?”
Rasea Zecrew turned her head. Her glowing eye saw something expand from the bow of the ship. She swallowed.
“That’s the Curse of the Wellfar! Get out! Stop firing, Seagrass! Stop—”
The air changed. Rasea stopped feeling the air on her face. She tried to escape the most powerful enchantment the Citadel-class ship had just activated, racing onwards. Her catapults and ballista stopped firing, but the idiotic Seagrass kept his spells flashing towards the other ship for a second too long.
The water was flat. It had turned into a mirror. They were sailing in another world. A contained, tiny one. Rasea was sweating. She saw the [Lightning Bolts] and [Fireballs] flying through the air with showers of enchanted arrows, towards the Pride of the Wellfar’s glowing shields. They’d go down with enough damage—Seagrass might be able to threaten the ship’s hull itself with just his nine ships, let alone all his fleet.
That wasn’t why you ran. You ran because this was the monster that killed Dragonships. The evilest predator sailing. Rasea saw the spells and arrows vanish before they even reached the ship. She spun the wheel.
She never uttered the Skill. The flicker was enough warning. She saw one of Seagrass’ escort ships run straight into a bombardment.
Lightning bolts, striking the enchanted hull! [Fireballs], blowing pieces out of the deck, sending [Sailors] screaming into the waters. Arrows, detonating across the ship!
It listed, no longer moving. It was the exact same attack that Seagrass had launched. His ships instantly stopped volleying and kept fleeing. They were in the Curse of the Wellfar. Everything you send at us, we’ll send right back at you.
They could manipulate space, so you shot arrows at yourself, or rammed into each other if you didn’t check your travel through this trick-realm. The only chance they had was to board, or outfox the enchantment. Rasea Zecrew glanced over her shoulder.
Tyrion Veltras waited, sword and shield drawn. Lady Buscrei was taking potshots with her bow as Lord Swey…kept throwing up. Rasea waved at them. Then she snarled at her [First Mate].
“Get us out of here.”
They left behind three burning ships and a Sea Serpent. Etril Wellfar only gave up the chase because one of the burning hulls had crashed into the Pride of the Wellfar at over a hundred knots and smashed all but one barrier.
It was a mistake a [Captain] unfamiliar with the sheer speed of the vessel made. Unfortunately, it gave Seagrass and Zecrew the chance to escape; it was too risky to advance. He turned.
“Back on course.”
Lord Tyrion watched the younger man’s smile. He settled back, now it was clear they wouldn’t be fighting. He felt like he was waking up. The closer they got…his head rose and he looked north, to the still far-off continent. But growing closer.
He was grateful. He would have taken a lesser ship, evaded the blockade or forced his way through. He had no need to.
So this was Gresaria Wellfar’s son.
The Pride of the Wellfar had taken to deep sea. Its attack on the two famous [Captains] had not gone unnoticed. But it had actually provided a cover, of sorts.
In the first hours, everyone assumed it was Etril Wellfar flexing his muscles. Not long for the captaincy of the ship with that recklessness, but he’d nearly gotten those two old salt-villains.
Of course, some knew exactly what was going on. Everyone else was in the dark and the ship’s naval battle got a feature on television. Wasn’t that all you wanted?
In Ailendamus’ courts, King Itorin II had some cause for alarm when he saw the vessel at sea. He ‘summoned’ Duke Rhisveri, and his uncle opined it wasn’t anything to worry about.
“It is a mighty ship, but House Veltras would not be as foolish to retaliate. Even if they saw through the sneak attack.”
“Is it possible, uncle?”
Itorin wasn’t as sanguine, but Rhisveri just sneered.
“Assume they did. What proof had they? No fitting casus belli. They may act in time, but House Veltras is nothing but formal. Nor does the Dawn Concordat have any substantive motivation for them to truly go to war. If they do, we will counter-offer. Did the [Diplomats] treat with House Veltras as I instructed?”
“I believe someone did. Well, then. Coincidence. Order the blockade not to obstruct the Pride of the Wellfar, obviously. But be seen to give warnings. Is that incompetent [Admiral] still in charge, the one who sieged Nadel?”
The ‘incompetant [Admiral]’, who had still been the highest-levelled [Admiral] in the region, had been reassigned to a fittingly lowly post for the debacle. The [Strategists] assured Itorin that all was well and that was that. The war council didn’t deliberate long on that, but rather, the second phase of the Dawn Concordat’s fall.
…All except for one of the [Generals] who had been in court during the drama last week. He hesitated. All the logic checked out, as it was presented. If you assumed every fact was as the [Duke] and the [King] had said, it was a confident, yet safe bet to assume House Veltras would be irate at most, but cautious.
So he was mistaken. He definitely was mistaken, and the monarch of the realm and the [Duke] weren’t wrong. But because he was an actually decent [General], the man excused himself, hurried down the palace hallways, and after asking twice, came to a room where two prisoners of state were resting.
There was absolutely no way that Duke Rhisveri would have failed to…he peeked into the room where a little boy was screaming for a ‘Ryoka Griffin’. He checked the face. He checked the aura. He pulled out a Ring of Appraisal and checked the level and class. The [General] sprinted, almost screaming, back to the war council. But of course, by then, the Pride of the Wellfar was advancing on the naval blockade so fast that even if they turned now…
The Wyrm cared nothing for insignificant children and brats.
That was his mistake.
Author’s Note: Well, there’s clearly nothing more to say there.
Hi, I’m pirateaba. I launched a Kickstarter and you all hit the goal in six hours. I was exceptionally worried and stressed, and…?
I don’t know what to say. I wasn’t sure how to say ‘thank you’, so I kept writing. Because that’s what you like, and that’s the only way to do it. Mind you, I’ll still take my break early September because I need to rest to write better and I’m more tired than usual due to all the pressure but…
You’re great readers. And you moved so fast the Kickstarter team is working on stretch goals since you blasted past the first one! I’ll let you know and I’m sure they will too with the Kickstarter-email-thing once it’s live.
So for now, thanks. We’re moving fast. Tyrion is moving fast. Boats are moving fast. Knots are a confusing nautical term. I hope you enjoy it, though. Thanks for reading and, well, I hope you enjoy the comic and the story! It’s got boats too.
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