Interlude – Songs and Stories

He knew all the stories—or enough of them—and the history, from both worlds. Even so, the Goblins seemed so…different from any generic monster in a video game to Kevin that he never thought of them like that.

They didn’t look like dirty, horrific evil placeholders in the army for the heroes to kill by the thousand. Oh, yes, they had vaguely shark-like features, lots of pointed teeth, red eyes, and green skin.

But they never acted like monsters. In fact, Kevin vaguely suspected that some had better hygiene than he had ever practiced in his life, like Calescent. Normal Goblins were short, but not unintelligent. When one looked at you, it was with more insight than, say, a little kid.

Sometimes, they were so weary and old that a two-year old made Kevin feel like he’d seen and done nothing. Mainly, though, they could be, like people, good and bad. Glorious and mundane.

Numbtongue. Now, Numbtongue was objectively handsome. Some Goblins—more than Humans—were naturally bald, and that went across genders. Numbtongue had hair, the kind of physique only an exercise-freak like a Redfang got, and he looked good, especially since Lyonette gave him clothing and he wore it.

Objectively. Hot. Kevin wasn’t an expert in male beauty, but he had a private dream he’d never told the [Bard]. And that was someday, somehow, to find a way back home. To San Diego, California, and take the Hobgoblin bar hopping for a night and just…see what happened. What would happen if Humans with no context for Goblins just saw Numbtongue rock in, and begin strumming on his guitar?

It might have been chance, a habit from growing up and avoiding danger or battle training, or innate style, but the Hobgoblin liked to choose the shady corner of the room. You’d hear music, and see him there, eyes glowing crimson in the darkness, shoulders and claws illuminated by sparks of electricity as he played on the guitar. Style. Kevin wished he had a look like that.

It wasn’t a grand dream, or even a noble one. It was a quintessentially ‘Kevin’ dream, though. Life should be like that. Not full of fire and glory—not all the time. Rarely. Once or twice in a lifetime was enough for him.

Just full of mundane highs and lows. He couldn’t be an adventurer. He’d tried. Right up until he, Joseph, Rose, and all of the others, equipped with relatively good gear—enchanted even—had gone on their first adventure, financed by Magnolia Reinhart.

Corusdeer skins were worth money. So were the horns. Heck, you could eat Corusdeer. But somehow, Kevin had completely forgotten that you had to skin animals to get…skin.

They’d given up and botched the job. Then they fought Eater Goats…and that was enough. Enough. As Magnolia Reinhart had probably intended, it brought home everything to the Earthers. We can die. And stabbing a screaming, writhing, biting Eater Goat until it stopped moving, even when he tore half of its jaw off and it kept trying to bite the spear impaling it through the head?

Kevin wondered how Erin had stood it. The Goblins told him she had fought in battles and killed people. To hear them talk about her, she was a one-woman army who could throw a knife through your skull, or melt you with a jar of acid.

The Destroyer. An old nickname. Kevin had asked why, and they, the original Goblins of the Flooded Waters tribe, including the Chieftain of Goblinhome herself, had told him about the time Erin Solstice killed her first thing in this world. A Hobgoblin Chieftain, with a pot of boiling oil.

That was the difference. Kevin knew it well. He knew it with Erin—yet he had forgotten that the same applied to Goblins.

They were so chill that until they went to war, he thought they were quite similar. Redscar, trying to ride a skateboard, slamming into half the rocks down the slope until he gave up and declared it a stupid device. Calescent, pestering him to talk about the Carolina Reaper, the hottest pepper in the world. Chasing after Poisonbite who’d stolen his Android and didn’t want to give it back…

Little Goblins obsessively crowded around, watching a video or listening to a song. And then? Finally noticing the Wyvern flights out, wondering where all the Ogres were. Rags coming over and…

Well.

 

——

 

Rags had the Healer of Tenbault. That was what Kevin heard from the outpost they’d established in the foothills. He had only their word because the city of Tenbault was a storm of settling dust, flashes of light—obscured in the distance.

The [Shaman], Taganchiel, was first to arrive. Goblins posted sentry in the narrow pass leading up, or standing watch from the piled boulders and dirt looked up, but they didn’t swing their bows or crossbows up at the Wyvern flying low.

The skies were safe from threats. The ground? Not so much.

Taganchiel shot down, with a chatter in the Goblin’s tongue Kevin missed. The lone Human in the camp hovered as a handful of Goblins raced around, the rest holding their positions. They were administering a stamina and healing potion to the snapping Wyvern, coaxing it back towards Tenbault.

“Tagan, what’s happening? Did Rags get her?”

Yes! Humans too fast! Chieftain pursued! Gave orders. We go! Go!

The [Shaman] snapped. Kevin looked up as Taganchiel began casting more magic; two Hobs with shields and spears grunted as they grew two feet in height. The Wyvern flew back, and Kevin looked out and saw the Goblins fleeing.

The Humans were already coming after them. But Rags had planned out the retreat almost as much as the attack. The Wyverns dove, loading Goblins not on horse or wolf-back up, flying, ferrying them to the outpost. The rest proceeded on their mounts, and the Ogres ran, as fast as they could, lugging their steel and iron armor and weapons.

Heading for the outpost. From there, they loaded the Wyverns a second time and sent them flying back towards the High Passes.

Not far. They leap-frogged to the outpost, and from there, into hiding. It was too far to fly into the true High Passes, but there were caves, and increasingly inhospitable and remote ground. All the Goblins had to do was get ahead of the Humans and lose them. Then smaller bands could lay low until they got home. Or were picked up.

…However. The plan was astray already. Rags didn’t return. Nor did a quarter of the Goblin force. And the ones who did…

Redfangs rode into camp and shook their heads as Taganchiel shouted at them. Poisonbite, who’d been in the fighting, was similarly distressed. She looked up as the [Shaman] addressed the dirt-covered, bloodied fighters who’d been in the thick of it.

Where is Chieftain Rags? Where is Redscar?

The leader of the Redfangs wasn’t here either, or Thunderfur. Kevin saw Poisonbite dig at one ear. He saw, with a shock, a bit of dried red running from her pointed ears.

“What? What?

Taganchiel shouted right in Poisonbite’s ear, but the Goblin was deaf. Crowdcaller Merdon. Many of the Redfangs were deaf, despite their precautions. Whether it was temporary or not—it had made the retreat bloodier. They hadn’t been able to hear their comrades, and some had failed to miss the maneuvers or gotten lost in the dust storm.

The rest? A Redfang slung herself out of the saddle, and finally roared an answer.

“Redscar with Chieftain! Fighting! Followed! Cut north.”

North? Why?”

“Followed. Humans’ fliers. We go!”

Without further guidance, Taganchiel led the retreat as Poisonbite was disabled, and the other leadership, Badarrow, Snapjaw, Calescent, Redscar, were all occupied. He knew what to do. Wyverns flew off, but they had a far longer flight to the secondary dispersal points.

Meanwhile, the Goblins held the hill they’d set up in and waited, tending to their wounds. They knew the Humans would come after them.

So Kevin got to see Goblins make war. From a distance. He sat in their command outpost, nervously holding onto the self-defence wand. Watching as Taganchiel grimly cast spell after spell.

Even they hadn’t predicted how furiously the Humans would come after them. The first group was hot on the heels of the Wyverns and riders, though this outpost was nearly fourteen miles south of Tenbault. Kevin waited, and waited—then there was violence and death. Waiting as they regrouped, rapid loading of Goblins onto the Wyverns’ backs.

Fiercer fighting as the Goblins’ numbers dwindled and the Humans’ grew. Yet, even then…

 

——

 

They finally reached the first line of Goblins. Kevin saw the infantry, the ‘foot’, charging up the slope. Six sallies of [Riders] had been broken, even with [Mages] in tow. It had been a bloodbath the last two times, but whoever was leading them hadn’t had an organized force, just the fastest groups, and had been clearly incredulous that they were being beaten back by Goblins.

They had shields, which protected them from the slings and casual arrows loosed by non-[Archer] classes. However—

The Thunderbow fired with a sound exactly like its name. Kevin saw a Hob, calmly standing behind the turret, aim and loose a gigantic bolt through two Humans charging with howls in the first rank. Another aimed her oversized crossbow, training it on a [Mage].

A bolt of lightning blinded Kevin. When he could see again, the Goblin was gone. One of her companions blinked at the charred body, then grabbed the Thunderbow, and with a roar, shifted the aim and took down the [Mage].

The second, a Redfang, didn’t reload the damaged Thunderbow. He had so many stripes of red warpaint he was practically covered in the stuff. One for each fallen comrade, or so Kevin had been told.

He came down the slope, into the Humans skirmishing with the line of Goblin pikes. An axe in each hand; the Humans looked up as the howling Redfang cut through them. They were already breaking; his charge put them to flight.

Come back! Ecraw!

Taganchiel howled. The Redfang lit up with a faint, glowing, misty aura that saved him from the first two arrows that shot towards him; they glanced off like they’d hit rubber, not flesh.

However, Ecraw kept going, cutting down fleeing Humans, charging towards the army exchanging bolts with the Goblins in their superior cover. He was headed straight for an officer. He went through a [Footsoldier], five of the militia, even what might have been an [Armswoman] or…

Kevin looked away as the Redfang fell. Taganchiel stared down as the Humans tried to regroup. He hissed.

Too many Humans. Now. Now, now!

The Wyverns had returned. Instead of flying back, though, two took off and strafed the clustered Humans below. They aimed up and one went down, screaming. But the other dropped a payload over the enemy and the screaming—

“What was that?”

It looked like…mist to Kevin. A spray of liquid? He’d heard of Rags’ dust-cloud tactic, and the Wyverns had dropped rocks too via Chests of Holding. But that? The [Shaman] bared his teeth.

“Acid. Too much water. Only burns.”

It ‘only’ burned? Kevin blanched. He saw the Humans falling back, but they stopped long enough to end the Wyvern’s screaming.

“Humans running!”

No one cheered. The latest force was pulling back, but Poisonbite, whose hearing was partially restored from healing potions literally poured down her ears, snarled. Twice, her commando-Goblins had gone down to stab Humans, vanishing and reappearing, and Goblins had died as much as Humans.

Taganchiel! Break! Get Goblins going!

They had a reprieve to load the Wyverns. However—the [Shaman] took one look at the loss of a Wyvern—already down since Rags had taken two with her—and at the Humans already trying to regroup. He came to the same conclusion as Kevin had.

“Can’t get all Goblins on Wyverns. Have to run.”

Run? You want run-run-stab-in-back death? Humans have horses!”

Poisonbite scoffed. The [Shaman] gave her a steady glare.

“Have to run. Scatter Humans—we go. Redfangs!

The Goblins’ finest looked up from where they were tending to their Carn Wolves and horses. Taganchiel gave them a long look.

“Buy time.”

They grinned, teeth and eyes flashing. Kevin just looked at them. How could they grin and laugh?

 

——

 

The attackers weren’t as hotly after the Goblins here as Rags, but since they could catch these Goblins…they were arriving in more numbers. The Goblins had to scatter them first, though, so the disordered mob retreating, tending to the acid burns, looked up and saw four Wyverns, the only four left to Taganchiel’s force, strafing over them.

The memory of the acid and dust cloud attacks sent the Humans fleeing in a disorganized mass. The Wyverns pursued, screaming. By the time the Humans realized the Wyverns had no more cargo to jettison, they were already banking. They landed on the hill, loaded the last Goblins they could carry, and took off, overburdened, to the High Passes.

The rest of the Goblins and lone Human, the rear-guard, fled on every mount they had available, many running on foot. They might have been pursued, but there were still Goblins on the hill.

Forty Redfangs stood on the hill, banging swords on shields, hooting, loosing the Thunderbows down at the Humans. They dared the Humans to come and take it, aiming at the riders, if not their mounts.

So they did. The Redfangs collapsed the dirt walls of the pass, fought with the Thunderbows as the Humans came up, and made them work for every step. Then they set fire to the Thunderbows, broke them beyond repair, and fled on their mounts’ backs.

They held the enemy for nearly fifty minutes. Kevin had no idea how they did it. What he did know was this: when they caught up to the group running for the High Passes, there were only six left.

It had been one of the more successful battles as Goblins counted it. Not all of them had died. In fact, less than a hundred had. The slaughter at their outpost had been one-sided. Humans had run into waves of crossbow bolts until they stopped. Only at the end had it gotten bloody, along with casualties from fighting adventurers in the city.

However, a hundred Goblins had died. Kevin had even known some of them, briefly. Still, they had died and still they had followed Rags for this risky plan. They had picked their battles, and there was no chance of all of their tribe being wiped out like at the Floodplains.

Even so. Kevin rode with Poisonbite behind him. The Goblin was so tired she’d tied a rope around her and Kevin, then either passed out or simply let the rope support her.

“Shaman. Where we going?”

“After others. Where Ogres? On foot? Find them! We run!”

Taganchiel snapped, looking back over his shoulder. They were being followed, despite the Redfangs’ sacrifice. Already, they were spotting Humans on an intercept course from the east…Kevin wondered if they’d make it to the High Passes.

They found the Ogres, jogging at a good clip, but not towards their next rendezvous spot. Some of their Goblin companions were with them. One leaned out of her saddle and snapped at Taganchiel.

“Humans.”

She pointed the direction they had to go. Taganchiel’s eyes roamed backwards, then to the High Passes, then the other ascending foothills and parts of the great mountain range dividing Izril in half. He pointed, and without a word everyone broke right, racing in the only direction they could go. He looked at Kevin once, and the young man wondered what he’d say.

The Goblin only shrugged. Rags had the Healer. Hopefully she’d make it back. If they lived, they lived. If not?

Well. Poisonbite roused long enough to poke Kevin hard in the side.

“Why gloomy? You won’t die. Heh.”

All of the Goblins found that insanely hilarious.

 

——

 

The thing about stories was that you told the same ones time and time again. Just in different ways. Sometimes, they weren’t stories you told; they just happened to you.

Loss, triumph, danger…and the thing about such stories, if there was an upside?

You didn’t have to make the same mistakes. You didn’t have to tell your part the same way twice.

It was rare that he took notice of the weather. Yet, even in his busy day—and every day was busy for King Itorin II—he noticed how blustery it was. He remarked on it over breakfast with his family.

Immediate family, that was, and the ones in the capital. Itorin II was, in the way of many Terandrian monarchs, in the habit of spreading his bloodline around. So while he wasn’t as prodigious as Calanfer’s royal family, which he was at war with, he had five offspring.

Two daughters, three sons. A good mix age and gender-wise. You could make do—again, like Calanfer—with more of one than the other, but this was almost perfect. Sometimes…sometimes Itorin wondered if that too had been arranged.

He didn’t like to think of that. Still, the [King] was a rather indulgent patriarch in private, and of the family in the capital, he often breakfasted with his youngest daughter and son, or elder daughter if she could ‘spare the time’ from Ailendamus’ magical academy. For his two elder sons? If one was returned from his command in safety, but at the front, they would make small festivities of it. The other was in training. With the half-Elves.

Again, his two youngest were easiest as breakfasting companions. They loved to talk about tutoring, what they saw on the scrying orb they were glued to, songs from the Songstress, the Singer, questions about some part of ruling Ailendamus they found fascinating, badgering his wife, Oiena, to buy them a trinket while knowing he might indulge them…

But today they were unusually eager to finish breakfast. Itorin II, somewhat content to let silence reign given all the people who’d speak to him shortly, kept glancing out the window. It was, naturally, spelled, but he couldn’t miss the leaves and even branches and dust positively whirling about the castle.

“My. What a windy day. Did a [Weather Mage] perhaps commit an error?”

That idle question garnered such looks of patented surprise and even scorn from his son and daughter that Itorin Zessoprical II was quite taken aback. His daughter, the youngest, but still already nine—nine, how time flew—Oesca, informed her father patiently.

“It’s the Wind Runner, Father. May we be excused? We want to fly.”

The King of Ailendamus, great superpower in the world, rising star to the faded kingdom of old, King Itorin II, Heir to the Lance-Arrows of Ailendamus, Keeper of…etcetera etcetera, gave his daughter a blank look.

“Do what now?”

They had to explain, and assure him that no, no one had been taking artifacts out of the vaults. Especially given what their Uncle would think of that. The name also made Itorin recall something.

Wasn’t that…the prisoner? The one who’d resulted in the costly death of one of the Great Knights, and that operation in Izril that might lead to one of the Five Families’ wrath? The one that had obsessed Rhisveri so?

When Itorin finally came to the window, he saw her. Just like yesterday, when Rhisveri had thrown a huge tantrum for reasons beyond him. He locked eyes with the Wind Runner of Reizmelt, the Courier from the scrying orb.

Ryoka Griffin.

She was outside the castle, summoning the wind to blow mightily. Whirling around this part of Ailendamus in such ferocity…

No, wild grace. Mighty gusts of wind, yes, but only terrifying in a way that exhilarated, as you felt when you beheld a mighty storm without rain, whipping trees and grass around. When you realized how mighty nature was.

The air whipped at her dark hair. Her silk guest clothing was light purple running to green jade, and it blew in a way about her naturally as the wind snatched at it that some movie directors paid lots of money to emulate.

Her eyes were open wide, and she had a strange smile on her lips. Patently mysterious. As if this wasn’t just weather magic, but something else. Oh yes, and one more thing.

Itorin II could see her quite well because she stood, arms outstretched, facing towards him. All fine, all understandable, but he was in Ailendamus’ palace. It didn’t exactly have a 360-degree view all around. In fact, the royal chambers were quite high up.

Thusly, the Wind Runner was standing on top of a tower. Right on the edge, in fact, as the wind blew around her. Facing the royal chambers.

Oesca and Ivenius pointed at Ryoka, the older [Prince] bouncing on his feet like he was as young as his sister was and not a [Squire] in training.

Itorin vaguely wondered if he should call the guard. What was she doing up there? How did she know where the royal chambers were?

“Is that Duke Rhisveri’s…guest?”

Oiena sounded horrified, as a former [Princess] of Taimaguros might. Itorin II didn’t immediately respond. Ryoka Griffin smiled at him, with that same enigmatic look. Then she bowed.

Only then did Itorin realize that a pair of armored figures wearing the colors of the Order of the Thirsting Veil were doggedly trying to climb up the tall tower towards her. More were gathered below, but the Wind Runner didn’t appear concerned as one finally reached the lip of the tower and hauled herself up. She just smiled, lifted something up, and jumped.

Oiena gasped and Itorin went to shield his son and daughters’ eyes before they saw the splat. And he knew from experience it wasn’t a splat. It was…something you never forgot.

Yet her limp body did not bounce from the roof and land terribly still far below. Rather, the Wind Runner leapt off the tower as the [Knight] reached for her…and flew.

For a tenuous second, her bare feet began to descend. Then her momentum shifted. She flew up as the wind blew in a fierce updraft. Up. Itorin’s mouth opened. He had seen [Mages] fly. He had used flying artifacts himself—who didn’t, when they had the chance?

But this?

“She’s flying! I told you, Father! Look, look!

Oesca danced, pointing with simple delight. The Wind Runner held onto something that ballooned out above her. Itorin II recognized it. It was not the strange, triangular contraption she’d used to fly in her dramatic run, or even her Windsuit; he supposed those things had been taken away from her, if he even knew they existed.

No, this was a simple parachute. A…bedsheet.

Silk. Strained as it inflated perfectly in the wind. Ryoka Griffin soared past the [Knight] who made a grab for her and nearly fell off the tower. She floated down and away as the King of Ailendamus watched.

Pay no attention to the barefoot runner with the bedsheet.

 

——

 

Of course, she got in trouble. No less than the captain of the guard was ready to slap her in irons and beat her for daring to interrupt the royal family. To which the Wind Runner vouchsafed one thing that kept her alive before the [Prince] and [Princess] came running to demand flying lessons.

“Duke Rhisveri hasn’t prohibited me from using my powers.”

The [Royal Captain] hesitated. He stared at the angry Thirsting Veil [Knights], at Ryoka, and at the band on her wrist supposed to lock down her magical powers.

Which it did. All her amazing magical powers like casting uh, [Flashlight]. Ryoka Griffin knew that he knew what it was. She gave him a big, unhelpful smile.

“Take it up with Duke Rhisveri.”

She saw how his eyes flickered at that. Even if they didn’t know he was the true power, the Duke was still the Duke, and he had a reputation. Ryoka was still ready for some impositions, but then came a striding figure.

“Ryoka Griffin. We must speak, if the winds say it so. By earth and sea, by land and tree, will you speak with me?”

The Wind Runner turned. To her eyes, a limping…woman made out of branches turned to stone came her way, her bark fossilized with time, damaged with battles or trials long gone. A mask hung around her neck, a tiny version of the one in the Court of Masks, but one shaped with exquisite care, more than those there.

It was a perfect replica of what everyone saw, and Ryoka did after she adjusted her perspective. A short—but not too short—Dwarf woman, almost as old, hair gone white rather than grey.

The [Captain of the Guard] instantly turned and bowed.

“Lady Fithea! Forgive the interruption. We were just attending to a matter of royal security. We did not intend to disrupt the gardens. Rather, the culprit…”

Instantly, Ryoka noticed that the [Guards] hurried off the grass they’d been standing on. They looked somewhat apprehensively at the woman they knew as the Conservator of Forests, a high-ranking position in Ailendamus.

Fithea gave the man a blank look. Her voice was no different than it had been in the Court of Masks. Dry, cracked, but with a spark of life.

“You are pardoned. I must speak to Ryoka Griffin. Privately.”

“Yes, Lady Fithea, but—”

The Dwarf woman stared at the [Royal Captain]. He looked ready to insist, but then came two screaming figures.

Wind Runner! Wind Runner! We want to fly!

The [Prince] and [Princess], both with their friends, and followed more timidly by a gaggle of Ryoka’s biggest fans. The [Royal Captain] tried to block the [Princess] from this miscreant. Upon which point she grew vexed at him.

Ryoka felt bad for the man. But she wasn’t done. So she winked, checked to see if she still had a certain monarch’s attention. She thought she did, although his face wasn’t in the royal quarters.

“I can see I’m disturbing the peace. And the grass. So I’ll move away. Lady Fithea, I would be delighted to speak to you. Maybe in an hour? I’ll just step over here…”

So saying, and before they could grab her, the wind blew up her sailcloth again and she glided over the heads of the guards, and awed children. Like a herd of cattle following the parasailer, they raced after her as she flew away.

All I need now is some candy. Actually—isn’t that an activity back home? Someone flies around and scatters candy for kids? And here I thought I was the first person to channel Mary Poppins.

Ryoka Griffin landed. She turned, and her fans swept around her, begging to use the bedsheets. For a second, the Wind Runner remembered kids doing this for the first time. She looked towards the palace, where a [King] no less had come out to talk with the royal guard. She looked at the bangle on her arm, imprisoning her.

I have done this before. Not in the same way. Not exactly like this. But it was familiar. This time…Ryoka Griffin bent down.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize I was in the presence of royalty. Your Majesty, Princess Oesca, I think? And Prince Ivenius? Good morning to you! I hope I didn’t disturb you?”

The Courier sketched a bow. The [Princess] drew up short and everyone else drew back as they realized they had crowded in front of her in their excitement. Rank still existed in Ailendamus. The [Prince] caught himself and the boy, roughly Hethon’s age, maybe a bit younger, sketched a guilty bow.

“Courier Griffin.”

“I…greet you, Courier Griffin. I am Princess Oesca. But I hope you will not wait on my title.”

Oesca sounded unhappy. As a child might, when reminded of her rank as an impediment to fun. Oesca and Ivenius, named after their parents. Naming traditions. Ryoka had researched all this. She smiled.

“Not at all. If I may, I could call you…Oesca? I’m the Wind Runner of Reizmelt. I think you’ve heard of me?”

“You can make people fly. Could I…fly?”

The girl asked eagerly. Ryoka saw a woman sprinting at her, faster than the worried [Knights].

Holy crap, that’s one angry [Nursemaid].

Well, in for a pinch of pain, in for a wagonload. That was the Ryoka way. And if she wanted to make an impact…she hadn’t made one yet. So she winked at Oesca.

“I can indeed, Oesca. You could even fly around like I did. Although I don’t know if your guardians would let you go so high.”

Oesca’s lips twisted unhappily. As if Ryoka was going to let her soar hundreds of feet in the air holding a bedsheet, friendly wind or not.

“They wouldn’t, I fear. And I should hate for you to get in trouble, Miss Griffin. Did that young man find you yesterday? I directed him towards you, but I heard little of his fate.”

Sammial? Ryoka blinked.

“He did indeed. Thank you for that. I should thank you, Princess Oesca! As I was saying. If it was just you, I’m afraid I can’t let you fly alone that high. Everyone can certainly sail around on the ground. But if it’s not just you. Well. Would you like to go for a ride?”

She held out a hand, and smiled, a twinkle in her eye. The twinkle of little girls who broke laws and rebelled. She still had a bit. She wasn’t sure…but then Oesca glanced over her shoulder.

Your Highness! [Protect the Innocent]! [Protect the Innocent]! Step away from that—your Highness!

The [Carer] racing towards Ryoka was clearly trying to use a Skill and failing. Oesca stared at her, the adults, and then at Ryoka. She took Ryoka’s hand, and gasped as Ryoka put a hand under her shoulder.

“Hold tight. And no one else beg me for this later. It’s special. Get your parents’ permission.”

She winked at Ivenius. Then Ryoka gripped Oesca tightly with one arm, and lifted the bedsheet parachute with the other. The wind dragged them up as the [Carer] leapt. She had a good pounce. But even so, she missed and dove head-first into one of the [Prince]’s buddies as Ryoka and Oesca shot up into the air.

The [Princess]’ scream made her father and the people on the ground panic like hell. But it was only of surprise for the first, dizzying second of ascent. Then she screamed and laughed—in delight. Ryoka Griffin held on hard, wishing she’d practiced this. But the loop of cloth on her hand meant she wasn’t one grip away from dropping both of them. She kept tight hold of Oesca.

Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, don’t drop her. Next time I need to make a harness or an easier way to hold onto them!

However, the Princess of Ailendamus knew none of this. She waved with both arms in an astonishing display of trust at the people below, the envious children, as she flew around the palace, and awed people looked up. Ryoka saw a snappily dressed man tilt his head so far back he nearly fell backwards. She nodded at Baron Regalius.

He wasn’t the only person who saw Ryoka that day. A better question was who didn’t see her. While children were first to know, it was hard to miss a flying Courier. The Wind Runner was in Ailendamus. And she was seen, skipping across the ground with the [Princess] of Ailendamus no less, racing across the gardens, as the wind blew strongly. Laughing with the delighted girl in tow.

…Right up until the Great Knight, Gilaw, caught up to her, and with an amazing flying drop-kick, literally kicked Ryoka Griffin out of the air before catching the [Princess] in her arms.

No one said you didn’t pay the price for troublemaking.

 

——

 

Ryoka Griffin actually missed a lot of the punishment and haranguing. Mostly because King Itorin II, the furious [Caretakers], Royal Captain, and all the others, even Rhisveri, took one look at her curled up on the ground as Oesca berated Gilaw, and felt bad for her.

It was an amazing flying kick. Ryoka had to hand it to Gilaw—or she would if she could move. The ‘Great Knight’, who Ryoka deeply suspected to be some kind of avian immortal, had gotten nearly fifteen feet of air.

And she’d still managed to not only catch Oesca, but hit Ryoka so hard that she broke two ribs and ruptured her stomach.

Punishment had been administered, so Ryoka actually left the [Healer]’s without any more flying done two hours later. Ribs were bound with a poultice-infused gauze, and they’d actually spot-applied potion to her stomach. Ryoka was just grateful she had no appendix anymore or Gilaw might have popped it.

“Miss Griffin, by order of the throne, you are to refrain from laying hands on the royal family without express permission and supervision. You will also confine your…mobility…to the royal grounds and not the palace itself.”

One of the [Knights], Dame Chorisa, informed Ryoka with a blank face. Ryoka, wincing, put her hand over her ribs.

“Duly noted. Do they want me? The royal family, that is.”

“They are at their lessons.”

“Good, good. I don’t think the wind’s particularly nice right now. Was that…Great Knight Gilaw who hit me?”

“Lightly, yes, Courier Griffin. She was defending the royal family.”

“Lightly?”

The Thirsting Veil Knights gave her bright smiles behind their visors, Ryoka was sure, that mixed schadenfreude with…Ryoka suspected…a bit of familiarity.

The Wind Runner began walking down the corridor, now perceiving a certain amount of looks her way, but she spoke to Chorisa.

“Can I ask—what Order of [Knight] is Gilaw?”

“The Great Knight is an…independent [Knight]. A powerful one, as is obvious.”

“Very. When did she appear?”

Chorisa exchanged a glance with the other invisible [Knights].

“…It must have been twelve years ago she was accepted into Ailendamus’ service. She is an…unusual case, Miss Griffin. Zealous beyond reproach. Mute, however, and prone to overeagerness in some regards. Without manners or social graces, but she is entrusted to monster-slaying and guardianship of some of the most important members of Ailendamus.”

She was approving about the zealous part, but Ryoka swore she saw a patch of air wince at the ‘overeager’ part.

“Especially on the training courts.”

Another [Knight] muttered. Ryoka, wincing, nodded. Dame Chorisa eyed her, then walked in front of Ryoka and came to a stop. It was walk into her or stop, so Ryoka stopped.

“Miss Griffin, regarding your conduct. You have invalidated my order’s watchfulness in front of the royal family. In light of your specific nature as Duke Rhisveri’s…guest, you were allowed some licenses other prisoners of state are not. However, if you conduct yourself so again, we will be forced to address the issue.”

Her blank face but slightly clenched jaw told Ryoka exactly what she’d like to do. The Wind Runner smiled winsomely.

“Thank you for being forthright, Dame Chorisa. I’ll keep it in mind.”

That wasn’t the response Chorisa had been expecting, nor was it characteristic of Ryoka. She gave Ryoka a narrow-eyed glance.

“My warning…”

“Completely understood. You have to do what you have to do. I’ll hear you out if I make any errors you feel cross the line.”

Ryoka waited a beat.

“Good luck in stopping me.”

Before Chorisa could respond. Ryoka glanced around.

“And now, I would like to visit Lady Fithea, the Conservator of the Forest. I have an invitation. Can you escort me there?”

Chorisa looked like she wanted to escort Ryoka to a locker and keep her in there. But she blinked at Fithea’s name.

“Lady Fithea? That would be the private section of the palace. The Estexil Wing. Adjacent to the Court of Masks. Visitors are not allowed license to enter…even Baron Regalius or a [General] would be prohibited to enter.”

“Well, she wants to meet with me. You can ask her, but we could go over rather than waste time. Court of Masks, you said? I know the way.”

Ryoka began to trot down the corridors. Chorisa hesitated, then strode after Ryoka.

“We will escort you and confirm you have an appointment. Dame Lacres.”

Another figure materialized and marched off. Chorisa followed Ryoka, speaking hotly as the Wind Runner practically skipped along.

“If you disturb the peace again, Miss Griffin, we will not let it go unaddressed.”

“Mhm. Yep.”

“This is not an idle threat. Guest or not…”

“I understand. What, are you going to beat me with sticks?”

“We are not barbarians.”

Ah, so you’ll beat me up in private. Want to go hand-to-hand? I like non-lethal fistfights. You can even book a timeslot in the Ryoka-asskicking schedule. How’s tonight sound? I’ll take advance payment on any beatdowns.”

Chorisa’s mouth worked. Ryoka smiled to herself.

Well. She didn’t have to change all the best scenes.

 

——

 

They were being followed. Doggedly; with literal dogs, or so the Goblins speculated. Kevin didn’t actually see them.

Both sides were using camouflage and speed Skills, and Poisonbite was leading them now, so she was making the best use of her Skills, which were suited to the job. Even so…she scowled as she tossed more of the [Thief]-brand scent-destroyer on their trail.

“Too many Humans. Too fast. Place to hide? No good. Place to die?”

She gave the others a thumbs-up she’d learned from Kevin. In short, as Kevin translated it, the Goblins had no way to find a hiding spot. Not with the Humans being able to track them and literally overturn every nook and cranny.

They could find a place to hole up and hope to outlast or just make a glorious last stand. The Goblins accepted this with equanimity, to some extent. They didn’t want to die, but they weren’t going to be paralyzed by the thought of it.

Now, the Human and Ogres were a bit more unhappy by the idea. Especially the Ogres.

Somo, the lead Ogre warrior from the clan she’d been poached from, rumbled and checked her shiny shield.

“No dying. Bring back big birds.”

“Wyverns? Can’t. Ogres can’t fly.”

Poisonbite sneered. Somo rumbled.

“Chieftain promised potions and fighting. Not death.

There were ten Ogres present. All of whom looked pretty upset at the idea of dying. Even…dangerously upset. The Goblins were remarkably calm; the tallest Goblin was shy of seven feet here, and they were hobs. The Ogres were nine feet tall or larger. They had literally knocked down Tenbault’s gates and Kevin saw blood on their weapons. Even Gold-ranks didn’t like fighting Ogres en-masse, and these ones had discipline.

And armor.

“Not die. You use Skill. You use magic.”

Somo insisted, urgently, pointing a huge maul she wielded one-handed at Taganchiel, then Poisonbite. Both Goblins shrugged.

“No good magic or Skills left. High Passes…we climb and look for good spot? Maybe climb so fast Humans don’t catch?”

“Good way to find Gargoyles or Eater Goats. Or nastier. Let’s do.”

Poisonbite grinned. It certainly sounded like a better option than a slaughter in a cave mouth. They peered up at the mountains.

It was Kevin who decided he had to make a stand. He cleared his throat.

“Leave me behind. I’ll only be a nuisance. I can slow them down. Tie me up and I’ll tell them you went the wrong way.”

The Goblins glanced at Kevin. Poisonbite slapped him on the shoulder.

“Smart! You don’t die, we maybe die less.”

She fished around for some rope. Conversationally, she looked at Kevin.

“Maybe Humans don’t believe. Truth stones. If kill you, can I have skateboard?”

He began sweating instantly. Kevin hadn’t thought of that, but even so, he held out his wrists to bind up convincingly. It wasn’t much, but it was a Kevin-level sacrifice.

It was Somo who interrupted. The other Ogres weren’t deaf, although given their own language, it was doubtful how much they’d completely gotten of the Goblin’s own stylistic dialogue. But it was clear they weren’t happy. One was clearly of the opinion, ‘let’s smash these Goblins for getting us killed before we die’ in a clear display of Ogre-logic.

Somo was a bit smarter, though, and smacked him so hard Kevin saw the ground actually move a bit under his feet. The Ogre, cross-eyed, slunk back in line as she snapped.

“No death! No death! Goblins wrong!”

She waved a club. Instantly, Poisonbite went for the dagger at her wrist. She casually held a deadly, glowing blade coated in poison as she pretended to fiddle with Kevin’s bindings, smiling at him. She was ready to turn and throw, but Taganchiel gave her a warning look.

“Not die if we can help it, Somo. Come, climb.”

“No. Goblins wrong. Not die. Not climb. Better…way.”

Somo was conferring with the other Ogres. She frowned mightily, sniffed the air, and checked the mountains nearest to her. She looked at the others.

“Close?”

They were doing the same things as her. But they apparently couldn’t tell, so one got a better sense. Not by checking the mountain, but by stomping over to the nearest tree, tearing off a branch, and munching on it. Another scooped up some dirt, found a stone, and began to chew.

The Goblins and Kevin both stared. Yet Somo got an answer as an Ogre nodded. She turned to Taganchiel.

“Not climb. Better way. Maybe die. Maybe. Humans die too. Not follow long.”

She stressed ‘maybe’ as if it was a huge accomplishment. Which, to be fair…Taganchiel raised his brows.

“Redfangs don’t know other way.”

“Red-fang. Not Ogres. Ogres know hills. Ogres go…here.”

Somo made a snorting sound and spat. She gestured around the lower-lying areas of the High Passes on the Human’s side, which, to be fair, the Redfang Tribe had seldom if ever colonized. If other Tribes had, they weren’t here and had died.

Ogres had more staying power. Ogres had memory. Ogres were also not like onions and got no jokes in that regard, Kevin had learned.

“Tastes like old place. Old place. We not go up. We go there.”

Somo pointed. Apparently they knew something. The Goblins began to move, after the short break, and the jogging Ogres were suddenly leading. They broke out of the narrow forest they’d been using for cover, yet there was a confidence that sped the step. Taganchiel asked the obvious.

“Where are we going?”

“Down. Bad. Dangerous. Maybe die. Maybe. Humans not follow long. Not stay long. Bad stay long. Maybe die. Maybe…”

Somo repeated herself. Getting nervous. And she hadn’t been nervous, even when she heard they were raiding Tenbault. She’d only demanded a 60% cut of all mana potions seized.

Kevin traded a glance with Poisonbite. Taganchiel patiently raised his eyebrows.

“Where are we going, Somo?”

“Down. Into dark place. Ogres know. Ogres came. Ogres…don’t go anymore.”

Kevin…really didn’t like the sound of that. But it still beat having no place at all. He gulped.

“What’s down there, Somo? You sound nervous. Uh, what’s there to fear?”

Her head turned. She did not look confident at all.

“Thing many Ogres die. Place big clan once go. Five…no, fifteen lives ago.”

Fifteen lives? Oh, she meant fifteen generations. Kevin wondered how long that was. Ogres could live a long time…he licked his lips.

“What tribe? What happened? What’s there?”

“Maybe gone. Maybe all gone!”

Somo looked happy at the idea. Then she frowned.

“Maybe still there. Big clan die. Somo and nine Ogres and Goblins…not live long. Humans die too, though.”

That seemed to be some consolation. Kevin really didn’t like this. Taganchiel didn’t either.

“What tribe?”

“Thousand Warriors Clan.”

Kevin traded a look with the others. One of the surviving Redfangs slowly began checking her weapons, grinning as her friend traced new lines of red on her skin. Somo waited.

“Want know why clan famous?”

“Uh…what’s down there, Somo? What got the Thousand Warriors Clan? Somo, what’s there to fear, exactly?”

She licked her lips as her Ogres led her unerringly towards the entrance to below, ahead of the Humans who had spotted them. The Ogre came to a stop, and pointed, as the stone changed, and they found a tiny crack in the foot of the mountain. That led to strange, ghostly granite, so hard even Poisonbite’s dagger could make no impression. Down into darkness. Down into the deeps.

What did Ogres fear?

“Drums. Drums in the darkness.”

 

——

 

Ryoka Griffin missed meeting Fithea. She was actually busy with work, but she gave orders that Ryoka Griffin be admitted past the Golem Sentries in this private wing of the palace.

Not the Order of the Thirsting Veil, which made them mad as could be. Ryoka also wondered if this was against Rhisveri’s orders.

She had not missed the way the Wyrm looked at her when she taunted him with the magical obol. However, he had refrained from summoning her instantly.

Fithea, though…she looked at Ryoka differently. Like, well, the last member of a dying species seeing hope for the first time. It bordered on maniacal, having gone way past obsessive.

Ryoka just hoped it would help. Meanwhile, she realized she had just been invited into the immortals’ wing of the palace.

And there were no minders. Ryoka hurried along the corridors, and noticed a few things at once.

“…Good gracious, it’s dirty here.”

No cleaning staff were presumably allowed here, so it looked like someone literally just blasted a tidal wave spell through the corridors every now and then. Ryoka suspected that because of the streaks of dirt on the marble.

And feathers. Someone had a feather problem. Even…dandruff? Huge dandruff. There were discarded seeds here and there, footprints…

Ryoka Griffin wished she had slippers as she padded bare-foot down corridor after corridor. Yes…this was definitely a lair of multiple people. It even had an entrance from the Court of Masks.

Of course. Sophridel, the Elemental of Masks, ensured their secrecy. It was the caretaker of the Court of Masks. Rhisveri was the ‘boss’, or at least, the first among equals. Probably the boss.

So what was Fithea? Refugee? Guest? Another sharer of power? Gilaw…she was younger.

A lot younger. Compared to all three, she was practically a baby. Still old enough to pretend to be a Great Knight and dangerous as all hell if a light kick could nearly kill Ryoka, but the Wind Runner’s senses were not to be fooled.

She was still not an expert on the wind, her running was arguably surpassed by the best of both worlds, and so on, but she was probably a reigning expert in immortal studies. She could tell Gilaw was young.

Who else was here, though? That was the question. Ryoka got her first answer soon enough. She came to what looked like a hallway leading to various activity-rooms. The sound of splashing water hinted at a bath, or pool. Ryoka peeked into open doorways; there weren’t many doors here, although she’d passed by what might have been the living quarters back a ways.

“Library. Huh. I wonder if there’s an immortal librarian. If it’s an orangutang, I’m leaving. Let’s see. Is that a greenhouse? Wow—oh.”

She nearly stopped in the verdant place, which was probably Fithea’s, but the pool was on the other side and Ryoka just had to look inside. She peered through the door, and saw a huge, just, multiple-olympic-pool sized body of water. No…a practical lake in itself. Was there a dimensional spell on the room?

There had to be! Ryoka gaped up at the sunny ceiling, which looked like it was actually outside. Onto a beach on the far end, and what looked like a damn reef and other underwater nods. She heard laughter, the clink of glass.

“…so there I was. And I realize—they’re flirting with me. Both of them!”

“No. Twins? What did you do?”

“Nothing. Do you think I’m going to shed my disguise? ‘Rhisveri the mighty’ told me to keep it quiet. But could you believe it? Prince and princess of…? Do you think they were serious?”

“I don’t know. I wish I could travel.”

“Maybe next time you can come with. I was just—Gilaw, come in. You can swim in that form?”

A defiant woman’s voice, rather like a squawk, but translated through a Human set of vocal chords, answered.

“Suit yourself, but we’re not coming over. You have to learn to swim…come on. Aunt Fithea! Aunt Fithea, tell Gilaw to stop being silly and…”

A laughing group was in the middle of the body of water. They were teasing a dark-skinned woman with her huge mane of hair. She looked decidedly younger, despite the illusory spell, as she nervously peered into the water she was definitely afraid of entering. Not that she should have feared drowning.

Not among the company of the laughing group inside. They weren’t actually all that Human. Maybe it was inbreeding with Drowned Folks or a mistyping of legends—or they’d grown more Human in later legends. But some had beautiful scales, rather than skin.

Ryoka saw light silver scales running down one young man’s arms. Gills, or something, and fin-like protrusions. Webbed fingers.

Completely Human on others. There were only, oh, eleven she saw visible. Eleven. Yet they swam around, as energetic as could be. With floating dishes, gossiping, talking about their experience on land, as fast in the water as Ryoka was on land. Maybe faster.

After all. They had huge tails, some forked, others the single flipper you imagined. Some didn’t have scales, but a shark’s ‘skin’. Some had predatory teeth, others not.

Nevertheless…they were definitely Mermaids. A laughing young man turned sun-bronzed skin to the door. He saw Ryoka instead of Fithea and went still. Gilaw, shuffling away from the water, glanced up.

“Uh.”

Ryoka had not expected Merfolk of all species. It made sense. Drowned Folk existed. Unicorns had once existed. Why not Mermaids? But she just hadn’t—

A Human! An intruder! She’s seen us!

One of the Merfolk screamed. He pointed at Ryoka with a look of such genuine terror Ryoka backed up.

“No, wait. I was invited—”

Call Rhisveri! Flee! Flee! Gilaw, run!

They dove so fast Ryoka didn’t even get a chance to answer. Gilaw looked as the Merfolk dove, and Ryoka felt the underwater panic vibrating beneath her. Gilaw rose, her eyes flashing.

“Oh shit. Gilaw, Fithea invited me. Fithea—”

Too late. The Great Knight charged at her with a cawing scream. One fist raised—and she did look like she knew how to brawl. Ryoka backed up.

Gilaw, don’t—

The immortal leapt. It was a predatory strike, and it might have actually torn out Ryoka’s stomach or throat, for all it wasn’t the way Humans should move. It would have worked, but Gilaw ran into a wall of wind. It flipped her into the pool.

She landed, eyes wide, and immediately began thrashing and drowning, making screaming protests. Ryoka hesitated, but she saw the Merfolk moving in the water below.

Oh shit, were those weapons? Ryoka didn’t wait to find out. She ran for it. She dashed down the hallway, hoping to get back before Gilaw found her, so Fithea could sort this out. But she heard the angry, wet Great Knight tearing after her, so Ryoka dodged left, praying Gilaw didn’t have a sense of smell, and opened the first door she came to and shut herself in.

That was when she met the immortal named Menorkel.

 

——

 

It was obvious after mere moments of descending into the darkness that this place was not natural. Kevin felt it in his bones.

The strata of the rock was uniform. Some ultra-tough material even Poisonbite couldn’t chip a flake off of, at least not on the move. They had to move quickly too; the Humans had seen them entering and were coming.

A big army. Yet the Goblins were cheerful. As one Redfang, Atter, cheerfully explained to Kevin, this was a good place to die.

“No light. Humans hate no light. Small tunnels. Good to fight many in. Except [Fireballs].”

She was a former Mountain City Hobgoblin, hence her advanced command of linguistics. Compared to that, the Redfang next to her, a normal-sized Goblin, yet wearing the Redfang paint, was practically unintelligible and had no Shaman-name. He was called Pillowhead.

There was a difference in Antinium and Goblin naming conventions. Antinium were random, like Kevin2 and Infinitypear. Pillowhead? Kevin stared at the pillow strapped to the back of the Goblin’s head.

“…Why does he have a pillow on the back of his head?”

“Good sleep. Also, cheap helmet. If he dies, he gets to sleep a long time comfortably.”

Atter assured Kevin. Pillowhead, who had grunted after surviving the outpost stand, gave Kevin an amiable grunt. Kevin looked at them.

He had known them for exactly two minutes by name and already he didn’t want either to die. Die they might, though. Taganchiel had placed a ward at the entrance. He was monitoring it as they fled, following Poisonbite now, because her eyes were best and the Ogres only knew this place, not the layout.

Down they went. Through smooth stone tunnels. Debris became increasingly apparent, and some kind of detritus on the ground. None to obstruct movement, but it proved someone had been here.

No. Someone had built this place. Kevin shined a wand up and saw the strange, pale stone. Why was it so cavernous yet so clearly made? The answer came to him as they passed by a more intact part of the caves. He gasped. Atter made a sound.

“Oh. Dwarves.”

The part of the tunnel not worn to craggy stone was clearly a road, and the walls were not yet fully obscured. Kevin saw cut stone, old reliefs on the walls, depicting some design or mural…he swung the wand of light around.

Oh no. He had a bad feeling about this, and that was about as clichéd as…

“Ward gone. Humans behind. Hurry. They are coming.”

Taganchiel snapped. Kevin looked at him.

“Don’t say that.”

“What? Humans coming. They are—”

“Don’t say it like that, Tagan. Just…trust me.”

It was too silent down here. The Goblins moved, and the heavy tromp of the Ogres and the jingling of armor was the only sound Kevin heard. But he had been promised something. Drums. Drums in the…

Perhaps no one was here anymore? Kevin really, really doubted it. More likely, whatever was here might not have known there were intruders yet. However, any hopes of that ended as their pursuers entered the caves, spreading out through the branching tunnels, or as Kevin now knew, hallways. They made a lot of sound, a furious din in the distance.

They had to come on foot, probably, so it was a foot-race, but the Goblins were slowing. They felt it too.

Something was down there. Something Kevin really didn’t want to meet. He didn’t want a damn magic ring either. Invisibility spells were cheap and he’d seen Ryoka’s missing fingers.

All of Kevin’s worst fears were crescendoing in his head into a fever of paranoia. He almost wanted something to pop out as the Goblins marched downwards. Just get it over with! What was it, Crelers? Evil horrors? Actually…

“Atter. How do you know this is a Dwarf-place? Is it obvious?”

“Mountain. Underground? We lived in Dwarf-place. Many around. This one old. Very old.”

The Hobgoblin’s voice made Poisonbite scowl for breaking silence-discipline, but since they were already followed, she let it slide. Kevin nodded, gulped.

“So…what could be lurking down here?”

“Whatever kills Dwarves. Could be bad. Horrific-death.”

“Great. Uh…one last question?”

“Mm?”

“Do, uh, ‘Balrogs’ exist? Ever heard of one?”

He really had to know. Atter glanced at Taganchiel. She was about to dispel his fears that this particular horror was unknown to her when it happened.

Thum.

The first beat rose upwards from the ground. An earth-shaking sound. It made the Goblins and Ogres freeze. It made Kevin pee, just a bit.

We’re all dead.

Even the Humans stopped for a second. Everyone turned their heads wildly, setting themselves, waiting for an attack. But Kevin knew. Oh, he knew. That sound was huge, and in this confined space, it echoed for perhaps miles. It had come from far away.

It was the sound of something coming. Something waking up. He heard it again as Poisonbite wavered. Then she glanced over her shoulder, bared her teeth. Light from behind them.

Run! Run or die!

The Goblins ran. Now, Kevin heard shouts.

There they are! Get the monsters! To me! To me!

Someone was blowing a horn, and the pursuers converged, finding the tunnel the Goblins were heading down. Kevin pumped his arms and legs, and one of the Goblins turned—tossed something down and the howls of pain told Kevin they had deployed a trap.

Even so. It was a race downwards. Yet everyone was waiting. Waiting for the next—

Thum.

That was the sound it made. The sound of a drum, the boom of it in your bones. Less loud this time? Perhaps. The first had been a wakeup call. But this next one, when it came, did not leave the silence lingering long.

Thum. Thum.

The beats began. Picking up in speed. Kevin heard them, the boom of something in the darkness. They were coming. Oh yes.

Thum. Thum. Thum. Thum.

…And the drumbeats were picking up in tempo. Even the pursuers seemed nervous—but it meant they picked up speed instead. They wanted the Goblins dead now, before this trick or external threat got them.

The Goblins and Ogres sprinted into a huge space, some giant walkway or gathering point, mere seconds before the Humans. Somo actually turned and struck low someone charging after her. There was a scream—pursuit slowed a bit as the Humans realized they still had to fight at the end.

“Regroup! Box them in!”

More pursuers were coming out of other tunnels. Poisonbite’s head whirled; she saw the other pathways, and pointed straight down the huge intersection.

This way!

“That’s towards the drums!”

Kevin yelped. Somo groaned.

“No, no. Bad. Other way!”

Poisonbite just snarled. She did an amazing dive sideways and a crackling ray blasted the stone. Everyone started running after her, dodging as Taganchiel shot magic back.

“We find death or we die! Too many Humans!”

Thumthumthumthumthumthum—

It was fast now, a rhythmic beat Kevin was amazed by. Whoever was heralding their imminent horrific demise also had amazing beat control. Well, if movies could do it…the thunderous sounds were a quick rhythm, just a bit slower than his terrified heartbeat.

Something was coming. Poisonbite held up a claw. She stared ahead.

Something—

The Goblins, Ogres and Human slowed in their mad dash. They hesitated, but an army was coming towards them from the rear. Kevin heard the drumbeats change one last time.

Thum-thum thum thum. Thu-thu-thum. Thum. Thum thum.

Kevin stumbled. He slowed, as Poisonbite pointed and everyone ran left, staring at something coming out of the darkness. Wait a second. That was a half-beat. That was…

“Dude. It’s got a rhythm.

That wasn’t the sonorous war-drums he’d expected. That sounded like something else, suddenly. Terrifying in the darkness, loud as everything. But it also sounded like…

Music. Someone had interrupted the steady downbeat, throwing in double-thums and a changing tempo. It was music.

Oh. And it was getting louder. So loud that Kevin didn’t even hear Poisonbite screaming at them. He saw her gesturing, pointing. Get to the side! Yet the world was filled with the drums.

Thum-thum-thum-thum…

Now it was a march. Thunder in the caverns. The Humans slowed, weapons raised, shining lights into the darkness, illuminating the Goblins, the Ogres, Kevin…

And the things coming up from the depths.

They came out of the darkness in ranks. Not with the Redfang’s military strictness, but shoulder-to-shoulder, with huge, swinging steps. Just seventeen of them. Seventeen, to face hundreds of Humans.

They were not as tall as Somo’s people. Yet each one was huge, their skin surprisingly more pale from lack of light. They carried crude weapons by the standards of civilization, but still, huge clubs of bone or axes. Somo backed up, weapon raised, snarling in alarm. She respected these warriors. Cousins of hers.

Trolls.

Seventeen Trolls thundered down the intersection to the beating of that drum. Weapons raised, ignoring the arrows and spells trying to hurt them. They marched past Goblins and Ogres, not oblivious, just confident. The Humans brought up weapons and shields, but they were not prepared. For Trolls or…

The drums! It was so loud, now, Kevin couldn’t even tell if his heart was working. He only heard that terrifying sound, and he was sure it was no different even for the Humans. A [Mage] was screaming a spell. For a second Kevin heard silence as the enchantm—

THUM.

He actually heard the sound blow apart the spell. No one could hear a thing! Yet the Trolls moved, and as the drums rolled, they struck.

Thum thum thum thum!

Every time the drum struck, the Troll warriors echoed it with mace and axe. A fast, yet rhythmic onslaught. They tore forwards, collapsing the first line of Humans like they were made of paper. Kevin was astonished. Yet there was no cohesion in the defenders.

The drum. It was throwing off the other warriors! It was so loud, so pervasive that it echoed through Kevin’s soul with every reverberation. It threw off the natural timing of the [Warriors], the shouted orders, a hostile rhythm they didn’t know and couldn’t predict on first contact. They couldn’t hear orders, or Skills, or the shouts to retreat or regroup.

The Trolls didn’t care. The drums were their orders. It picked up speed and they accelerated. Then a double-beat—they stepped back, slashing, letting the Humans charge forwards into a feint and more slaughter.

“Dead gods.”

Kevin didn’t hear himself say it. He just knew the song from the darkness. It played for nearly three minutes. Three minutes was all it took. The Trolls slowed as the beat lapsed into a very slow rhythm, breathing hard, grunting. But the Humans were in full flight.

As for the Goblins and Ogres? They set themselves, warily, in the corner they’d chosen, staring at the Trolls. For the fighting wasn’t done yet.

Thum. Thum. Thum.

An ominous sound. The seventeen Trolls turned back. Maybe they weren’t as big as Somo’s people, but Kevin swore he saw a cut on one of their arms closing as he watched. The Goblins and Ogres eyed them, and Kevin realized the thunderous drums could debilitate them as much as they had the Humans.

Thum…thum…thum…

It was slowing. Each beat growing longer, until it stopped. And the silence was more ominous than the music, now. The Trolls waited. Not for the Goblins to say anything, but for the sound.

When it played, everyone died.

Poisonbite was glaring at the biggest Troll, daggers out. Atter and Pillowhead were pointing to a flanking position, glancing warily into the depths for reinforcements. Taganchiel, muttering spells. Everyone was tensed, and Somo was readying the maul, prepared to take down at least one of her foes. Death or victory! The species, all humanoid cousins, glared at each other.

Except for the actual Human, Kevin. He had actually relaxed.

Drums in the darkness. Mysterious inhabitants of the underworld. He had been prepared for horrors.

All he saw were Trolls. And the music was not the impartial war drums of some abyssal creature. Someone had played that. Someone had a sense of rhythm and music.

In short, Kevin’s opinion was that someone had good taste. Someone could play music, and if that was so…Kevin had a Kevin-solution.

“Taganchiel!”

The [Shaman] started as Kevin grabbed his arm. He looked at the Human, who was holding a glowing object and completely ruining everyone’s night-vision.

No lights! Stay back! Fighting!

The Goblin snapped. But Kevin was pointing at the object he was holding.

“No, no! I have an idea! Can you cast magic on this? Make it louder! Louder, Taganchiel!”

The Goblin eyed Kevin. Poisonbite’s head turned. She glared; Kevin was not a warrior. He was here to negotiate and calm the Healer, but all the plans were upended.

Perhaps Taganchiel saw something different. He took the smartphone, touched it, and grunted. He shrugged, casting his equivalent of a loudness spell. Kevin saw him turn. The Trolls were tensing. Some conclusion might be being reached. But before the drums could play and sound an attack, Kevin pressed a button.

Music began to play. It came out of the little speakers, a bit tinny, a bit low-quality. Even so, amplified by Taganchiel’s magic.

A song. 

The Troll warriors started as drums, far less loud, but drums began to play. There was a strumming sound—then a Human voice shouted, full of excitement.

Crank it up and play it loud!

That was Kevin’s voice. But it wasn’t Kevin who said it—at least, not the young man holding the smartphone up and sweating bullets. It was Kevin from a while back. Yet the voice was answered in moments. Someone began to riff on an electric guitar. At the same time, the drums continued, less fancy, but they were joined by a second guitar, and, to everyone’s surprise, and Kevin’s mild mortification, his slightly off-key singing.

Numbtongue himself joined in later, and improved the song. However, it was their song. It was a song Kevin had played with Numbtongue when they formed the world’s first Human-Goblin-Bird rock band. He was pretty sure Octavia and Mrsha had both participated too, come to that.

It echoed down through the Troll caves, an imperfect recreation of a rock song from back home. Nevertheless…music.

The Goblins were staring at Kevin. Taganchiel’s eyes opened wide, then he began to smile. Atter’s head began to nod to the beat, although everyone’s ears were still ringing from the drumbeat.

Somo stared down at the little Human. Slowly, and quite deliberately, she adjusted her weapon and shield to cover her ears. Kevin just grinned. It was a mad, nervous smile. But if he was going to die, at least he’d given it a shot.

The song was halfway through and he was wondering if he’d have to play a second one or if the Trolls would just attack. Then he saw something. One of the Trolls was moving.

It was…nodding. Exactly in time with the beat. The others were giving death-glares, but one Troll was just standing there.

Vibing to the beat. That was why Kevin thought there was a chance they might live. And sure enough—

Thum. Thu-Thum. Thum. Thum, Thum…

The drumbeats were less loud. The Trolls started. One raised a weapon and Somo raised her hammer, but then the warriors relaxed. Because they heard it. The drummer in the darkness wasn’t calling an attack.

They were copying the beat of the song! Replacing the recording’s drumming almost perfectly! Kevin’s head rose. He exhaled. Then he began to grin. He fumbled for a second song with a drum beat from his song collection.

Poisonbite just looked at Kevin and the smartphone. She checked the Trolls, her daggers, then sheathed them. She shrugged. Then sat back to listen.

“This Human. Pretty good. Chieftain should buy Calescent stupid spices.”

Taganchiel rubbed at one ringing ear. He nodded.

 

——

 

Ryoka Griffin closed the door behind her, and the sounds of furious pursuit died down. She looked ahead, and found herself in a bare room.

Not empty; there were cushions scattered around, an actual cork board with pinned up bits of paper, and so on. A pair of windows let sunlight in, but curtains had been drawn. The sole occupant stood at the back of the room. He didn’t see the Wind Runner, because his eyes were closed.

The young woman just gazed at him, mouth open, much like when she’d disturbed the Merfolk. Yet if that was one thing…the young man’s eyes opened wide after a few seconds. He still missed Ryoka, oblivious, lost in his own world.

There he stood, tapping his foot to a beat only he could hear. Ryoka saw the person he truly was, no illusions, not here in his home. How could she describe him?

Thin. Thin and tall. Lanky, in every sense of the word. Wiry where you’d expect superlative muscle, and so young. So young, compared to the only other member of his species that Ryoka had met.

She couldn’t take her eyes off his face. His skin was dusky orange, like the sky before it set, but blazed with evening—then faded. Of course, that wasn’t the first thing you noticed about him.

Yet his body began to sway. At last, his heads rose.

He began to sing.

 

I~, I have a secret. And it’s you.

I~, I know it’s never just me alone.

It’s been gnawing at me for so long

Because I’m not honest with them all;

It’s not one, but two.

 

He was singing. Ryoka Griffin’s mouth dropped, because it was astonishingly good pitch control. His head turned, looking left. Like a performer on a stage to an audience of one—no, two—his second head turned, and began singing.

 

Everyone I know doesn’t see me

Somedays, somedays I can’t stand you.

But if they could see, could even see,

Would we be fine, just us two?

 

The first face listened. Two heads, singing in a—a duet. He had something in one of his hands. It looked like a microphone. Only, it was clearly made of wood and painted. Hand-made, the only crude thing. He raised it to the first head’s lips.

 

They talk to only you,

Somedays, somedays I wish it were true,

But if it wasn’t just us two, just us two,

Would you love me like you do?”

 

It was a song for two heads, clearly self-written. Performed with no intention of anyone seeing. It was so good, though, that Ryoka felt like recording it if she had her iPhone and putting it on the store. Especially because both heads were singing.

Two heads. A young man, a shock of short-cut hair on both heads, light black, skin a kind of unnatural orange that Ryoka had only ever seen on one other race—Gazi.

This was no Gazer, though. This young man…what was he?

If Ryoka could have been where Kevin was and compared the other humanoids, she would have seen how different he was from Ogres and Trolls. Ogres were tall, scaled up Humans in many ways, while Trolls were more squat, while still being tall. Skin like stone for Trolls, just thick skin for Ogres.

Cousins. Neither one was quite as…foreign as whomever this was. Yet he was heir to a bloodline older than both of theirs. Grander. He looked like he was young, which he surely was, yet Ryoka thought he looked astonishingly fit.

What was he? The singing…which species had two heads? Was he a variant of a Cyclops, some relative of Gazers?

No…Cyclops, Ogres, Trolls, ents, the old English word for Giant, eten, none of these descriptors worked. They were all too…young. Too narrow, species that didn’t fit.

Descendants of the original.

She had met his kind once before. Ryoka’s eyes widened as she recalled another member of the species, if distantly related. This? Her knees trembled a bit. She forgot completely about Gilaw, the alarmed immortals. She just looked at him. Could it be?

To find out who this young man was, his species, it was simple. Accept no substitutes. Go back, to the dawn of mythology. To Greek legend. To the age of g—Mount Olympus and their kind. Then go back further, to those who came before them.

Titans.

He wore a kind of loose toga, appropriately, like Drakes; perhaps the only thing that could be easily tailored for his frame. Both heads were attached to a fairly Human body, albeit with long arms, six fingers with carefully-cut nails.

Oh, and four arms. Ryoka had seen the Antinium before, but this was the prototype they were surely built on. A Titan of old, like the giant who had nearly eaten her in the lands of the fae. Yet if he was a rampaging brute, willing to throw down with old gods and creatures like Nama…

This was a teenager, or a young man, species aside, singing by himself in what he thought was private, oblivious to his guest. His song was self-conscious, but he swayed, turning as he sang with natural performative grace.

He was just a kid. And he was eleven feet tall. He was smiling as he sang. Right up until he saw the Wind Runner gawping at him. Then he froze, and two pairs of eyes locked onto Ryoka’s face with immortal terror—and embarrassment.

Ryoka Griffin, from much experience being an embarrassed younger person herself, knew he was probably two seconds from tossing himself out the window. So she raised her hands, and brought them together.

She began to clap. Not just politely, but with genuine approbation. For ten seconds, then twenty.

Then she stopped. The young man just looked at her in horror. The Wind Runner cleared her throat, twice.

“It was really good. I mean it. You…you must be a fan of music. That sounded like the Singer of Terandria’s music. You even have a mic. It’s as good as any song I’ve heard, really. Throw in a guitar, a drum, or some kind of acoustics, and it’s perfect. Just great. Yeah. Sorry, I was looking for a place to hide and…”

She made a wild guess, but there was no way to take what he’d been singing as anything but from a kind of pop-inspired genre. The microphone was the big clue. Someone had seen the Singer’s music video, or perhaps even a copy of her performance and taken the tool without knowing what it was for.

“Wh—what? You think it’s good?”

The blush on his cheeks actually manifested as brighter, not darkening. What color was his blood? Ryoka realized that his pupils were unnaturally large. He had no whites of the eyes; they were different colors instead, and his irises…she hesitated.

Play it calm. The fact that he didn’t jump to panic was a good sign. She checked herself, nodded.

Absolutely. Did you come up with that song yourself? You could sing professionally.”

She wasn’t lying either. Even if he hadn’t been a good singer, being able to duet by yourself was a great talent, but he had amazing pipes.

“Really. Uh—I’ve never shown anyone. Only a few other songs. That was private. How—how did you get in here? No one told me we were having visitors. You’re a guest, aren’t you?”

The young man glanced around. He was reassuring himself that this wasn’t some random Human discovering his nature. Ryoka nodded.

“Fithea invited me. I know uh, Rhisveri. I’m a guest of his. Sort of.”

That made the young man visibly relax. Then his second head finally stopped grimacing in horror and peered at Ryoka.

“Oh, good. I thought…”

It was astonishing. The second head spoke for the first one as if continuing the conversation for the first. No visible infighting or separation of personalities. Two heads instead of one. Ryoka smiled.

“Sorry. I uh, caused a commotion, but I really am a guest. I didn’t mean to intrude. I upset some of the others. The—Merfolk? And Gilaw? They didn’t know I was a guest. I ducked in here. My name’s Ryoka Griffin.”

“Oh, Gilaw would do that. She gets nervous and she’s only been here fourteen years.”

The young man murmured. Ryoka blinked. This was such a casual conversation, but…no, keep it casual. It surely was to him.

“What’s your name?”

“Menorkel. It’s longer, but you can call me Menor. Paterghost—sorry, Lady Paterghost and Nube insist on full names, but no one else does.”

Paterghost and Nube. Hm. Ryoka’s immortal-senses were tingling. She smiled.

“Pleased to meet you. I’m a Courier.”

A Courier? We’ve never had anyone who’s a Courier as a guest. I thought you were one of us…but you’re not.”

Menorkel was astonished. Ryoka shrugged.

“I’m a bit special. Look, I’ll keep your singing secret, but it was truly good.”

“You don’t think the song needed work? What about the lyrics?”

Dead gods. Ryoka felt like she was talking to a young musician. He wore his insecurities on his face. Both faces. She bit her lip.

Alright, whatever you do, say the opposite of every single thing you’ve ever said to other people. She had hurt a lot of feelings. It helped that she could be genuinely approving. Wait, what the hell was she doing?

Ryoka-things. Giving musical feedback to a Titan. Triton? Did he have an official name? Duotitan? That was stupid.

Just go with it.

“It’s really good. I think you need some kind of accompaniment. It’s not a song meant to be sung alone, is it? Tone? Spot on.”

“Really? I’ve tried with drums and flutes and so on, but I don’t think it fits. It’s new music. You’ve heard of the Singer of Terandria? It’s like that, but no one knows what instruments she plays. I want that…you know, that music?”

Ryoka rubbed at her chin. She knew what he meant. Pianos, electric music, the power of amps, all of that was beyond this world. Perhaps they had equivalents, but no one had put anything together like this.

“You know, it reminds me of pop. But not exactly pop. It’s sort of…electropop.”

Electropop? What’s that?”

“Uh—a kind of pop. It needs a synth. That’s um, synthetic music. Something soothing. I don’t know, sorry. I don’t compose music, but not a flute. Something more background.”

He needed a music program and a recording set and a computer and she’d have the next pop sensation on her hands. If she was on Earth, Ryoka would have seriously considered throwing over the dangerous and relatively un-lucrative Courier business for the far more profitable world of music management.

Menorkel actually grabbed a pencil with one hand and began scribbling notes frantically as his other two hands fiddled with the microphone. The last one scratched at his short hair.

Amazing coordination. Ryoka was impressed. She’d observed that even the Antinium weren’t perfect with four arms. They could do things in tandem, but this was literally like someone using each hand deliberately for rapidly different tasks.

Two heads. He must have insane ability to multitask. It was probably not a genetically sound move for Humans, but if it existed…Ryoka wondered if he could literally out-think someone or do involved activities like equestrian polo. Heck, he could stand and be taller than someone on a horse’s back.

“I’ve wanted to learn how the Singer does her music for ages. You don’t know what a ‘synth’ is, do you?”

“Uh…you’d have to use magic. Literally copying music and playing it back, sorry. I don’t know how.”

Menorkel groaned.

“That’s what I thought! But I can’t cast that kind of magic and Fithea won’t teach anyone ‘silly magic’. And the Singer’s never performed in Ailendamus. I could listen to her at least, but even though Sophridel told me he tried to invite her a dozen times, she never came.”

Gee, I wonder why? Ryoka was reminded of Ailendamus’ reputation as a war machine and Cara’s own hints in her music video.

Then again, the truth of Ailendamus might have pulled the Singer over here in a heartbeat. Ryoka didn’t know her, but this was something else. She walked forwards slowly…then walked back. Because Menorkel was so tall that if she got too close, she’d have to literally talk while craning her neck straight up. And she was a tall girl!

He was so tall it was disconcerting. And unlike Moore, he didn’t naturally hunch himself over and try to look small and unthreatening. He walked and moved about naturally. Someone had taught him not to be afraid of his height. He seemed fine talking to Ryoka at a remove; it felt more natural to Ryoka too. Her brain could pretend he wasn’t almost twice her height.

“Right. Well, you can do a bit even without meeting the Singer. For instance, I know…a bit about her music. Did you know that the microphone amplifies her voice? Gives it a bit of an echo, maybe. You can enchant it.”

She nodded to the wooden mic he was holding. Menorkel nearly dropped it.

Really? Is that what it does?”

“Absolutely.”

“Can you tell me more? I’ve never met anyone like—if Fithea wants to talk to you, you have to go. Where did you come from? I heard Rhisveri finally caught a Thief, but no one mentioned a guest. I didn’t think he liked anyone. You’re Human, aren’t you? You smell Human. I thought he’d only like another Wyrm or Dragon or…”

Ryoka coughed.

“Uh, funny story. The thing is—”

The door flew open. A furious Gilaw spotted Ryoka. The Wind Runner whirled, and the wind blew. Too weakly to stop Gilaw from grabbing her and strangling her with an arm like steel.

Gilaw! Stop! Stop, she’s Fithea’s guest!

Menorkel stared in horror as Gilaw dropped Ryoka with incredible force. The Wind Runner was kicking, but she was so outclassed in terms of strength she knew she was either going to be choked out or die. Gilaw was making furious sounds, and she was squeezing so tight Ryoka was afr—

“Gilaw!”

A pair of hands plucked the angry Great Knight off Ryoka. She breathed, coughing, gasping, and turned. She saw a pair of kicking legs, heard a furious squawking voice—and saw Menorkel effortlessly holding Gilaw under the shoulders in the way people did to stop a fight across worlds. He was holding Gilaw, armor and all, off the ground. The Great Knight was trying to break free.

And she couldn’t. Menorkel’s other two hands were gesticulating frantically as he spoke.

“Gilaw, shut up! Don’t attack! She’s Fithea’s guest! Fithea’s guest, understand?”

The angry woman couldn’t break free. She calmed down as she was forced to listen, and stared at Ryoka. The young woman looked at Menorkel in awe. Right up until the armored boot stomped her flat again.

Thou perfidious fiend. I have thee at mine mercy. How dare you desecrate this place of respite?”

An echoing voice snapped. Ryoka looked up just in time to see an armored figure apply more pressure to her back. She groaned as a second figure, armed with a mace and shield no less, and a full set of ancient, ceremonial-looking armor put her full, and considerable, weight on Ryoka’s back.

“Lady Paterghost! Nube, stop her! Lady Paterghost, she’s a guest!”

“Stay your hand, Menorkel! I was not informed of a visitor. This intruder dareth lay her hands on—unhand me at once, child! This is a disgrace to my armor! Nube, stop him—

The pressure on Ryoka vanished. Ryoka rolled over, heartily sick of being kicked around by immortals. Yet it seemed she’d backed the right Titan. Because as she scrambled up, she saw something amazing.

He still had Gilaw in the restraining hold, and she was dangling there, looking miserable. But with his other hand, he’d literally picked ‘Lady Paterghost’ up from the floor, and she was flailing at him with one gauntleted hand. Then Ryoka saw something ooze from her visored face. Some pinkish, fleshy mass which slapped Menorkel’s arm.

“Nube! Stop that! Lady Paterghost, please!”

Menorkel had a final hand free and he stopped the flailing assault as one of the armored arms extended, revealing more of the inner pink mass to try and pry his fingers free.

Armor? What was that inside it? Ryoka’s eyes fixed on the armored figure—no, the two beings as Lady Paterghost’s head rotated clean around on the shoulders to glower at her.

How have you infiltrated Menorkel’s mind, fiend? I challenge thee to fisticuffs, before I exact further retribution for your insult to this place!

Ryoka Griffin just stared at the wrathful, living suit of armor. Lady Paterghost. And what was clearly ‘Nube’, the…what was it? A Mimic living inside her?

However, both Gilaw and Lady Paterghost apparently didn’t equal one Menorkel, who held them off the ground with an ease that astounded Ryoka. He looked around, as if for a place to dump them. Ryoka was trying to back away from a swinging fist from Lady Paterghost that extended, trying to make good on the armored woman’s threat. Gilaw was just dangling, making peeping sounds unhappily that said she wanted to come down.

Predictably, that was when Fithea entered. The ancient Dryad looked at the scene. Menorkel turned pale and dropped all three other immortals with a crash. They were on their feet in a moment. Fithea stared at Ryoka. The Wind Runner smiled.

“Um. Sorry. I should have waited?”

But she didn’t regret it, in truth. Because while she had an enemy in Paterghost, who literally slapped Ryoka with a glove—thankfully not her armored hand—she’d made at least one tentative friend.

Menorkel. Titan of Ailendamus, who only left when Fithea ordered him to spread the word of their guest and calm the others down. Who looked after Ryoka with curiosity and interest in his four eyes.

 

——

 

Music. It was about music. It existed. Sometimes people sang along. However, in a world where instantaneous music on demand was yet to be widespread or fully implemented, people capable of making real music were fewer and further between.

Anyone could hold a beat or sing along. But who wrote the lyrics, who made new music? It was one thing to meet someone who could play decently. Someone who could play beautifully? As rare as a warrior among warriors, or an Archmage of magic.

It was just that they weren’t always as respected. What good did music do to my ability to stab people efficiently? That was the kind of cave-logic you got.

Ironically, not among actual Cave Trolls or just Trolls. They escorted the band of Goblins, Ogres, and one musical Human into the depths. So the master of drums could get a look at them.

Kevin had played three songs, and the unknown drummer had approved. So had the Trolls, apparently. One kept reaching for Kevin’s smartphone and their leader kept slapping the hand away.

Trolls. Male and female, fewer in number than Kevin guessed. Even in their ‘lair’, what he saw of it as they took him to a separate chamber at the heart of this old Dwarven fortress, they were fewer in number than Ogres or Goblins by far.

Yet seventeen had beaten back a small army of Humans. Perhaps it wouldn’t have worked except in this terrain. But those drums certainly hadn’t hurt. Nor was it fair to say Trolls didn’t have their own advantages.

Ogres could all learn to cast magic. Goblins were numerous and could become Hobs and level.

What did Trolls get? Well…the power to heal from a literal enchanted spear going through their stomach, into their guts, in less than ten minutes. The Troll kept pointing it out as he yanked the barbed spear out.

Ow. Look at what they did!

Even the Redfangs were impressed by that kind of resilience. They were wary, ready for a backstabbing, but Kevin was mostly interested in who was playing so eloquently.

Even now, he could hear it. A low, much quieter sound. His ears were still ringing, but Kevin heard a one-man band, just playing some beautiful lounge music on a set of drums, echoing through this place.

Proper lounge music, that was. As in, the kind of thing that was actually fun to have in the background, not obnoxious elevator-type music that made you want to throw yourself through the glass elevator’s window.

“Mm.”

The Trolls’ lead warrior pointed through a huge archway that the music was coming from. The rumbling rhythm was actually shaking some pebbles outside. Poisonbite hesitated, but Kevin had to see. So he walked through and met the drummer at last.

There he sat. The ruler of the Trolls, the lord of the deeps. Leaning back in a seat of stone, holding two glittering mallets in his hands. A blanket around his shoulders, and some wraps of clothing for modesty around their chest and lower half.

He had a huge drum in front of him, shimmering with magic in Kevin’s eyes. He had also chosen a natural place within the deep caves to play in. Even as Kevin watched, the Troll did a rolling melody, hands delicately playing on the massive drum sitting in front of him.

It was clearly a magical drum. The kind of thing that might have been meant to sit vertically, rather than as it did now. Kevin could just imagine it. You struck it with the mallets, sounded an alarm, perhaps used the power in it.

It had been abandoned when this place was left, or perhaps someone had taken it long ago. However it happened, it had ended up here, in the perfect spot for it.

A vaulted chamber, with a circular ceiling reaching up thousands of feet. The Troll King played on the ground, and the sound could echo up and out through the entire underground cave network.

Now he played softly. On the magical drums, with the glittering mallets tapping with the ease of a self-taught professional. Kevin saw it was not the main drum alone; hide-drums accompanied the main one.

It was a drum set. And the Troll, so engrossed in his task, didn’t even bother to glance up at Kevin. He just rumbled on the drum, a growing crescendo.

For the guests. Kevin realized when he slowed down to gesture at the other Goblins. The crescendo stopped rising in pitch and volume. He glanced back, and saw one eye flick up.

Kevin hesitated, and took a few steps forwards. Playfully, the sound rose in volume and tempo—then subsided as he walked back.

Amazing. With that alone—Kevin felt the last tension leaving him. He grinned, and the Troll smiled as he played.

No, wait. Poisonbite took one look at the leader of the Trolls, the drummer of the deeps, and looked more interested. She peered at Kevin as he addressed the leader.

“Excuse me, sir.”

Tum-tum whap. The first discord as the Troll actually slowed. A frown. Poisonbite blinked at Kevin. Then slapped him on the butt, since she thought it was hilarious.

“Idiot.”

Kevin looked at Poisonbite. The Goblin rolled her eyes and pointed. He looked back and corrected himself.

“I’m so sorry. Ma’am?

The Troll Queen grunted. She. She gave Kevin a look that said he’d made the first mistake in coming here. But she glanced with interest at Kevin.

“Human.”

She rumbled; her voice was as deep as the drums, and her command of the language was a bit guttural. But she eyed the smartphone the music had come from. Then her gaze shifted.

“Ogres.”

Somo glowered, intimidated by this great Troll who was bigger than she was. She thrust her chest out, but the Troll Queen ignored her. She narrowed her eyes as she came to the last group.

“Goblins.”

Dum dum dum. Her hands never stopped moving. But the music was more of a read than her expression or posture. It drummed softly, disapprovingly.

“Thank you for helping us, er, Drummer Queen.”

Kevin began. He didn’t know what to say. The Troll didn’t introduce herself. Nor did she move as Taganchiel stepped forwards with Somo.

“I am Taganchiel, [Shaman] of the Flooded Waters Tribe and Goblinhome. My [Great Chieftain], Rags, will thank you. Trolls are mighty and helpful.”

She gave the Goblin [Shaman] a long look. The Troll Drummer-Queen—she had quite liked the appellation and given Kevin a drumroll of approval—played a staccato beat as she seemed to ponder his words. Then she actually stopped playing, reached to one side, and picked up a bowl of liquid. She drank.

Not a good sign. She didn’t even deign to answer Taganchiel. The [Shaman] waited, a bit confused.

“Great Troll Queen. You gave aid. We are from a mighty tribe. We will reward help if you offer it. We ask in the name of Chieftain Rags. May I ask your name?”

“Bleh.”

Bleh the Drummer Queen stuck out her tongue, glaring at the stale water or whatever it was. She stared at Taganchiel. He hesitated.

Was it Bleh or…? She looked past the Goblin [Shaman]. At Somo.

Goblins.

It was a one-word dissertation on how she felt about all this. Taganchiel saw her quite deliberately look away.

“Troll Queen…”

Shoo, shoo. She literally flapped her hands at him. Taganchiel hesitated, but two Trolls came forwards. They ushered him back with motions from their weapons. Kevin stared at that, uneasily, but the Troll Queen beckoned him forwards.

“Hmm?”

She didn’t really speak, but she made her wishes clear as she pointed at the smartphone. He tried to explain.

“You were playing music. So I…my name’s Kevin. I have music. On here. Would you like to listen?”

“Kvn. Hmm.”

She tried to say his name. Then approvingly gestured. Kevin hesitated—and began to play a song. Instantly, the Troll Queen picked up the mallets, and began to play along to the beat. She began to nod to the beat of the song, pricking her ears up at the unfamiliar instruments.

The other Trolls did likewise, looking approvingly at Kevin. He found himself standing there, in the amazingly acoustical room, just playing music with the mighty drums playing an accompaniment.

Play more music. Kevin saw a keen-eyed intelligence flick her eyes at him. She smelled like dust and a bit like a cave, but not unpleasant. He sat down and played some songs. And she…just played music.

She vibed, the Troll Queen in this cave below the High Passes, this fortress of old. She played on her drums, then did a solo that shook Kevin’s world. Literally. And that was it.

She just played on the drums. The Trolls sat around, some finding food, others cultivating mushroom patches. A few tried to pawn off shiny rocks with the Goblins and Ogres for their gear.

Bleh the Troll Queen ignored Taganchiel, Poisonbite, and Somo completely. She barely had interest in Kevin relaying their questions.

“Will you help, Drummer-Queen? We’re trying to find our Chieftain and she had a great [Healer]. We—the Goblin tribe—can pay you. In gold, potions, magic items?”

The Drummer gave Kevin an amused look. Healer? The last group to need the Healer of Tenbault chuckled as they sat, listening to a rock song. Kevin looked at Taganchiel.

“Money? Food? Artifacts? We could use help.”

The Drummer rolled her eyes. At last she spoke, with a rumble of annoyance for having to negotiate when she could be listening to music.

“Help? You not dead. Humans gone. Helped.”

She stared pointedly at Poisonbite and the others. The Goblin eyed the Trolls.

“Give warriors? Show ways through mountain? Fight with—”

“No.”

The Drummer struck the huge drum with a boom that emphasized her words. The Trolls went silent and Kevin motioned to Poisonbite. Don’t say that again.

“You. Music.”

She pointed at Kevin. He fumbled with his smartphone. The Drummer pointed a mallet at Taganchiel.

“You. Go when music stop. No fight. No help. Go.”

The Goblins traded looks. That was already better than them being pursued, but now Taganchiel muttered with Atter and the Redfangs.

“What do you want, Troll Queen?”

“Not Queen. Heh. Goblins.

The Drummer was amused. It was so…strange. Taganchiel was caught off-guard, because the Trolls seemed more knowing of the Goblins than vice-versa. He protested.

“You killed Humans for us. We can help. There may be consequences. We can give—”

To that, the Drummer literally played over him until he shut up. She stopped when he fell silent, shielding his ears, and looked exasperated. She jerked a thumb at Taganchiel. Kevin wasn’t sure what to say, but the Drummer sneered.

“Quence? Quence, ‘help’, ‘plan’. Goblin things. This? Troll’s.”

She stabbed a finger at the ground. Kevin nodded. Don’t come to my place and bring your stupid needs and fighting. I don’t want help. I don’t want to deal with this.

That’s what he guessed she was saying. She was literally…unmoved. He looked at her.

“Why did you let us live, then, Miss Drummer?”

She winked at him.

“Song. More songs? Give?”

She pointed at the smartphone. She looked disappointed when Kevin explained it would run out of power. But she shrugged.

Good songs for a bit. She listened to sixteen more songs, nodding to some, shaking her head and making him skip others. Then she sighed.

“Song. Go now.”

Kevin slid from her perch and stood, stretching his legs. The Trolls sighed, but then the beat began.

Thum, thumthumthum thum…

A marching song. It was time to go. One of Poisonbite’s lot had scouted back the way they’d come and looked worried.

“Humans. Many. Coming.”

The rest of the army. Kevin saw the Drummer look up once, snort contemptuously, and play on. She nodded at Kevin, Taganchiel, ignored Somo completely.

“Go.”

“We can help fight.”

“No. Go now. Before die.”

The Goblins hesitated. But now the Trolls were ushering them, with considerable agitation. Only one showed them a different route out of the caves. He jogged along. Hurry, hurry!

Why? Kevin glanced back. The Drummer was sitting there, calm as could be. She nodded at him. Come back and play more music sometime. The inviting drumbeats settled down and the thum began again. Growing in volume until his ears thought they’d burst.

“Fast!”

The Troll barked as they ran. He was leading them to another way out of the caves. Taganchiel kept glancing back. An army was flooding the caves, to kill the Trolls. Was the Drummer not going to run? Did she have that much confidence in her warriors? Why…?

They had their answer near the end of their journey. An hour out of the center of the Trolls’ home must have been enough time for the Humans to get close enough. The rising drumbeats made it easy to figure out which way to go.

They were thunderous where Kevin was, and they were nearly out of the caves. He couldn’t imagine how loud it was inside. But then it happened.

He heard a second drum, quieter than the first, but struck with such force by a Troll’s strength that it made a sound beyond even the biggest drums Humans had ever imagined. It echoed out of the deeps.

Whum. Whum. Whum!

Kevin actually felt like he was in danger of losing his hearing, and he had been in a band and not worn protective earplugs once. But then he heard a second Troll drummer begin to play. Then a third…

Then he realized what they were doing at the same time as the others. They began to sprint for the opening as the Troll leading them sighed sadly that he wouldn’t join in. He helpfully explained their defense mechanism.

“Loud.”

The Goblins, Ogres, and Human fled the Troll Caves and into the daylight just in time. The thunder from below died down, but Kevin still heard it. Like an earthquake.

A hundred Trolls playing drums so thunderously that only the ultra-strong caves could even withstand the vibrations of air and stone. So loud they shattered [Silence] spells. So loud they might actually kill anyone who wasn’t a Troll from the waves of sound alone.

It played like that for ten minutes. A roaring sound that sent every bird for miles flying. Kevin gulped. He didn’t know if the Humans survived it. But he doubted any of them would risk going deaf to try to take the caves from the Trolls.

It was like fighting Merdon, in a way. Poisonbite rubbed at her ears.

“Trolls. How do they do it?”

Their Troll guide was already headed back into the cave. He nodded once at Kevin, turned, and gave Somo a complex gesture that made the Ogres nearly charge him, snarling. But he gave Kevin a wink.

Thick eardrums.

Kevin started. That was the most complexly syllabic word he’d heard one of them say. The Troll nodded, and headed down.

They had drums. They clearly knew Goblins. Kevin wondered if they went above. Maybe some went travelling. Were there other Trolls in Izril? He stood there, with the Goblins, as the Caves of Drums became quiet once more. But Kevin would always know, whenever he saw a cave, that somewhere, in a deep cave, sat a Troll, playing drums, without any care in the world beyond music.

It made him less scared of caves. Or at least—this one. Kevin sighed. They’d made it to safety. Maybe with permanent hearing damage. But now…he turned to Taganchiel.

“Time to find Rags. Hopefully she’s at Goblinhome, eh?”

The [Shaman] gave him a blank look. He said something. Kevin frowned.

“What?”

The [Shaman] looked puzzled. He cupped a hand to one ear. He asked Kevin what he’d said. The young man realized there was a ringing in the back of his head.

What?

 

——

 

Of all the things to ask about, of all the secrets and deals to be made, she surprised Fithea as she sat in a sanctuary of trees. Not a wild, overgrown place, but neatly-grown. Not trimmed, no, but each plant in its place.

A Dryad’s home. It was Fithea who sat there, looking gnarled and…sad. Yes, sad. Because she was so old. She was wood turned to stone. And Ryoka thought—it meant she had lost something. Everything.

“Thank you for speaking with me, Ryoka Griffin. They call you Wind Runner. I know you now, more than before. More than Courier. Friend of the furthest travellers. Friend of Fae.

Ryoka shivered. Fithea knew! The Dryad stared at Ryoka, with such an intense longing…

“That voice. Never have I heard it, yet I heard voices. That night. What did you do? Once, I knew, there were some visitors. The winter folk come, but only for winter and tricks. How did you…?”

“I’ve been to their lands, Fithea. Should I call you um, Lady Fithea or honored…?”

The Dryad’s smile was bleak and bitter.

“Those are names this kingdom gives me. Conservator of Forests. Half-Elves speak to me as if they owned the forests. They forget. I am Fithea the Last. Fithea Deadwood. Do you know me?”

Ryoka gulped.

“You’re…a Dryad?”

Two burning, glowing eyes in the old wood face.

“Yes. Not many remember. You do. But look at me. Do you know why my body is lost to stone? My forest is long gone. My tree is dead. The wise protectors fled into the sea. Kin of fang and fur are dead or wild or the last hide. The great forests are all but gone or tamed. So I will soon follow. But for now, I am part of this place they call Ailendamus. For my kind. Do you understand?”

“Immortals.”

Ryoka whispered. Fithea’s smile was cracked, like stone.

“Yes. You have met many, now.”

“I’m…I’m sorry about disturbing them.”

A gnarled hand rose, a slow gesture from side to side like the shake of a head.

“Better you didn’t die. Gilaw is young. Wild. They made her Great Knight because she is strong, but she is a child. I teach her, but she is young.”

Ryoka’s head turned. Gilaw had a room next to Fithea’s, and she had slunk in there, but Ryoka saw the telltale signs of a mess in part of this garden-home. A…nest of dead branches and feathers.

A giant one. It could hold a beast of incredible size, and the feathers, like the one Sammial had grabbed as a trophy, were scattered about.

“Er…what is Gilaw? Maybe that’s a private question. I know I—”

“A Griffin.”

Ryoka nearly spat out the earthy tea she’d been served in a pewter cup.

“A Griffin?

“Not like the mortal ones. She was one amongst generations. She will someday rule her kind, but she is barely forty years old. They found her alone, born of a nest by chance, parents slain. By adventurers. Fools. But that is how it is for all of us. They are all children. You understand? I live to raise them to be old. Some will be, in a hundred years. Others? Longer.”

Ryoka took in a breath. Fithea was so natural about it. She drank by dipping her fingers into the water, like a tree might if it could move. The liquid in the cup didn’t go down, but Fithea just rested her hand in the cup and it slowly emptied over their conversation.

“You’re willing to tell me all this, Fithea? Just…so easily?”

The stone Dryad gave Ryoka a steady look. No—not steady. It burned with desire. Her other hand trembled as she offered Ryoka food clearly snatched from the kitchens.

“Yes. Yes. You know my kin. They spoke to me, from afar. I have not heard…and you bear coinage of another place. Could—could—are there my kind there? Is there a way? You are my guest. Ask me anything, I shall answer.”

“Would Rhisveri be angry if you did?”

Ryoka hesitated. This wasn’t what she expected, but Fithea looked longing. No, desperate. It made Ryoka feel like she was taking advantage of the Dryad’s desperation because she was about to do just that. Yet it was her way in.

“Rhisveri gave us shelter. He needs us to some extent. He does not rule me. I taught him the magic of forests. He is younger than I.”

“I see.”

Ryoka sipped at her drink again.

“So Menorkel, the Merfolk…”

“They come to us, like Gilaw. Most were always there. It was Rhisveri who brought them together, out of hiding. A final sanctuary built and protected by Humans. Only a Wyrm thinks like this.”

Fithea shrugged. Ryoka was fascinated.

“Then Menorkel. I’m sorry, let me show you some of the money…but can I ask about Menorkel?”

“Of course.”

Fithea’s eyes were greedy as Ryoka pulled out the magical coins. She reached for one, and snatched her hand back, barely able to contain herself. She stared at one. She might not have been able to read it, but Ryoka could, and the Dryad somehow knew what it said.

Life. Ryoka met her gaze.

“Menorkel?”

She prompted and Fithea jerked her attention back.

“He is old-blooded. Oldest blooded, perhaps, along with Wyrms.”

“He’s taller than he looks, isn’t he?”

Ryoka had suspected as much, but Fithea rewarded her with a nod.

“Even here, he is too large to be hidden well. So Rhisveri gave him a charm.”

“…How much taller?”

The Dryad pondered the question. She shrugged, once.

“He is second-tallest among our kind. Rhisveri is taller.”

So…shorter than a Wyrm that could literally rise hundreds of feet into the air. Ryoka gulped.

“He’s just a kid, isn’t he?”

Fithea paused in fiddling with a ball of rice. She gave the Wind Runner a sharp look. Because the young woman was correct.

“Yes. If you wish to speak with him, he is a guest. But ask your questions. May I…may I hold this stone? It speaks to me.”

“Of course. They are mine, but I might be willing to trade them. For the right price. And if we can talk…I think we can both help each other out.”

The Dryad was only half-listening. She closed her eyes as she held the stone. Then she looked at Ryoka, with real hope in her gaze. Maybe…Ryoka thought of the broken gate in Ailendamus’ depths. It was gone, but if you could put a bit of money through, maybe you could open it just once, just once for someone who didn’t belong here anymore?

Melidore promised the [Witches]…she looked at the Dryad and began to bargain in earnest. For at last, she did have something she wanted.

 

——

 

Something he wanted too. Rhisveri paced around, snapping at Sophridel. The Elemental of Masks kept secrets, by his nature. He was trustworthy, again by nature, or at least, his main form was.

“I don’t know what she summoned, but that coinage is invaluable. I must have it. She is taunting me, Sophridel, but she can’t know what I possess!”

“This one does not know what you possess, Rhisveri. Secrets kept. Alliances founded upon doubt. Disturbs.”

“I do not need to inform you of every treasure I possess! You are here for counsel, Sophridel.”

Rhisveri snapped at the immortal, who, like Fithea, held some sway even over him. The Elemental made no response. Rhisveri wasn’t sure if he had feelings that could be hurt.

“Explain value of currency. Money is artifice. Like a mask, the worth dependant. Paper. Metal. Negotiable.”

Not this money. Dead gods, are you blind? Do I have to explain basic economics to you?”

“Yes.”

The Wyrm elaborated with a sigh.

“It’s universal currency. Do you have any idea how valuable that is? It is worth something in every world. And there are more than one! Money, gold even, is worth little in a world where gold might literally pave the streets, but that currency? It is inherently magical and you can feel it too. So the value is not just deferred, but present in the coinage itself. In fact—in everything but a highly-magical society, the value grows, especially if there is not any inherent magic at all! A universal coin that has value that cannot be taken away.”

His eyes shone. He practically salivated at the currency with its unique value. Sophridel gave Rhisveri a blank, blank stare.

“Money is still dependant upon culture and systems of economics. Debatable.”

Go eat yourself!

Rhisveri snarled. If there was ever a time he wished for a peer like a damned Dragon…at least they knew the value of concepts like this. He tried to figure out a way to get all of Ryoka’s money and the other objects she owned. Not for…that. Not for everything she owned, ten times over.

It was far too valuable, and no one could know what it was. Not Fithea, not Ryoka. Thankfully, all the people who did know were long dead.

 

——

 

A song for even the dead to listen to. Numbtongue played on his guitar as they travelled. Slower, after the mad dash of yesterday.

Changed. A Nameless Soldier flexed his hands, feeling the air around him belong to him. The other Antinium gazed at the oldest member of their kind among the Free Antinium who was not Klbkch or the Free Queen.

The first Free Antinium with an aura. He was not the only one. Gothica sat, adjusting her umbrella, smiling darkly in a world of midnight. She actually had a little zone of shadow around her.

Perfectly gothic. Ulvama kept poking herself, adjusting to her new class, and Snapjaw was cheering up Badarrow, beaming with her new class.

Fierre was lying face-down in the wagon, under a blanket. The Vampire who had gotten neither aura nor class consolidation was being tended to by Octavia, who occasionally gave her a pat on the shoulder.

Sergeant Gna lay next to Fierre, in much the same ‘corpse face-first in the mud’ position. The [Goblinfriend Bug-Captain] was not happy.

By contrast, the Goblins were in great spirits. Numbtongue was playing loudly, and they were grinning. Occasionally one would poke their head up over the wagon.

“Friend!”

Shut up! Get away!

They laughed so hard they nearly threw up. The Antinium kept staring at Gna too. Wow. She was a friend. That was so nice of her.

But of music, it was Numbtongue. He felt, after that run, that he had remembered something. He had not levelled, it was true. Yet he had remembered.

Redfangs. So he played, loudly, and remembered his companions, who would have loved the mad run. He didn’t fear being heard; Niers’ Skill still kept them relatively safe, although they travelled by evening and night, stopping at dawn.

He played the Ballad of the Redfangs, the same song he always worked on. The tale of thirteen Goblins who had come to an inn.

For the three ghosts who marched behind him. A lost Goblin, half-remembered, damaged, following a Hobgoblin warrior with a sword and a big Hob wishing he could munch on some rocks.

Ghosts. The song remembered them. It remembered them all.

What a strange company. One that had literally led an army on a run across countless miles. They looked like regular people unless you could see through a very powerful Skill.

Or…you knew they were Goblins. There were multiple Hobs in this group, with the power of Chieftains…sort of. So, for anyone who could see ghosts or sense fellow Goblins, it was confusing.

Still, the food was good. Even the bugs. Rasktooth kept staring left. Infinitypear saw his travelling buddy frown as he looked at some Goblins gamely marching with him. They were so…ordinary that Rasktooth assumed someone had okayed them. Badarrow, or Numbtongue, or Bird.

Otherwise…he poked the Goblin walking next to him, with a big white handprint on her shoulder. She swatted his finger, absently, and stared at Numbtongue and the ghosts. Another poke.

“Eh?”

She growled at him. Rasktooth gave her a long stare.

“Who you? Where you come from?”

The Goblin gave Rasktooth an exceedingly blank look. She pointed vaguely.

“Over there.”

“Oh.”

Rasktooth thought about it. He glanced in the vague direction she was pointing.

Well, it checked out.

 

——

 

Six came to rest. Six, for one last test. 

A village with no reason to die, but a voice to hear.

For memory, for flowers, there fell Bugear…

 

Numbtongue was working on the lyrics. It was hard to put ‘Bugear’ into a rhyme, but his name mattered. He replayed the verses about Esthelm; that was good, workshopped material.

He was glad the Goblins and even some travellers liked the music. Few kept pace with them so late at night, but occasionally he saw a traveller turn to listen.

But it couldn’t be just headturningly good. It had to be beautiful. Something so sad it brought you to tears, so glorious when it mattered that it scorched the soul.

It was wrong to say that Numbtongue had no real desire or inclination towards his class. It was just that he hated playing anything that wasn’t good enough. Especially when it mattered.

For the moment, he played. He had been there, so only he could remember it properly. He, Badarrow, and Rabbiteater.

The last brothers.

It was also wrong to say that the song, as it was, was inherently poor. It was just a composition of Numbtongue’s finest work, some filler, and a conflicting bunch of ideas.

For instance, was it appropriate to have an electric guitar riff instead of a dirge for Bugear? Bugear probably would have appreciated it, but thematically it might be a bit off.

Nevertheless, Gothica glanced up as Numbtongue began to play like lightning, and actual electricity made the horse skip forwards a bit.

Music as you had never heard it, from an instrument born of knowledge of Earth. The Singer might have copies of that kind of music, and her own version, but this was the first instance of it existing in Izril outside of a recording.

The Hobgoblin’s music was electric. The company listened. Fierre poked her head up, nodding appreciatively. Salkis started. She liked this music. It was definitely the right choice to come here, bugs and annoyances or not, even if she hadn’t been able to do nearly as much fighting as she’d hoped. She’d levelled. Worth it.

Niers Astoragon wasn’t sure if he liked it or not. He just felt it lacked accompaniment.

“Bird, am I getting old? Old people have no taste in music.”

Bird tilted his head.

“Whether you have taste or not, you are certainly old.”

Thank you, Bird.

However, the consequence of Numbtongue’s playing wasn’t so much in affirming the relative age of his listeners. It was in how it affected them. Especially the ones who’d never heard it before.

Some of the Goblins began oohing or pointing at Numbtongue. Look at that! Look at that! Snapjaw stopped snuggling with Badarrow on her horse—she’d let someone else take over Icecube for the day—to frown.

“One, two…Badarrow, who those Goblins?”

The [Sniper] frowned at the odd Goblins. At last, he took notice of them. Just in time to see one of them approvingly see Numbtongue playing and decide this was a jam session. She pulled out a curious bone flute out of a pouch and began to play on it.

The haunting melody made Numbtongue falter for a second, but it was complementary, not competing. He turned to stare, but assumed for the first second that it was a Goblin disclosing a hither-to unknown musical gift.

The two began to experimentally duet as Badarrow and Snapjaw exchanged glances. They’d picked up Goblins? They were sort of used to it; like ticks, a Tribe could actually pick up Goblins. But it wasn’t something they wanted now.

Especially when attention came their way. And the bone flute/electric guitar solo finally picked up the wrong kind of attention.

“Excuse me. What is that music? We’ve been listening to it for the last hour.”

Numbtongue started. He recoiled, nearly went for his sword, but relaxed just in time as some Gnolls caught up down the road. The group slowed, uneasily, and Garia gulped.

But the sixty-odd Gnolls who’d come their way were as friendly as they could be. They even sniffed Numbtongue.

“Hello, brother! What tribe are you from, yes?”

Numbtongue stared at Bird. The Antinium helpfully tipped his hat, but there was no way his Skill could fool this many people.

Somehow, he did. And the Gnoll group was from a local tribe. Their leader explained.

“We’re hunting, yes? For one-horns. There are few about.”

“One horns? I don’t know them. I thought all Gnolls were at uh, Meeting of Tribes.”

Numbtongue blinked. The Gnolls were sniffing the air, looking a bit puzzled, but they clearly thought he was a Gnoll and their company was full of Drakes and Gnolls. They took them to be City Gnolls and Drakes.

“Ah, you cityfolk. Not all of a tribe goes. Our Chieftain’s over there. Probably eating all the food in sight. We are the Lomost Tribe. We settled this place; well, the Drakes love to say otherwise.”

The Gnoll indicated ‘this place’, which included the local hills, lowlands, which was fairly elevated in terrain. The Goblin with the bone flute rolled her eyes at the Gnolls, but was hiding behind the wagon.

“I see. Uh. Hrr.”

Numbtongue did his best. He felt bemused by the convivial Gnolls. One pointed to his guitar.

“It looks normal, but it must be enchanted, yes? How do you make it sound like that?”

“Skills.”

“Told you.”

Another [Hunter] sighed. They wanted to hear some songs and play with him. That was it.

“Why don’t you stop with our tribe tonight?”

“Er…we are moving.”

“Our tribe moves too. Are you going too fast? Ah, if you cannot, you cannot. But play with us for a bit, eh?”

Numbtongue kept glancing at Snapjaw, who looked alarmed, but their cover was holding amazingly well. He needed this Skill himself! He wondered how Bird had gotten it. He was just preparing to oblige them with a few of his songs he’d learned from Kevin when the Gnoll’s relaxed demeanor changed.

“Hunt Leader…”

One of the Gnolls whispered. The Hunt Leader, who’d spoken to Numbtongue, looked sideways. He cursed.

“Friend, don’t move. You’ve got…Goblins.

The Hobgoblin gave him the best poker-face of his life.

“Goblins? No way.”

The Gnoll just pointed. Numbtongue’s head slowly turned and his heart beat faster. But it wasn’t at Snapjaw that the Gnoll was pointing. Or even Rasktooth or the Antinium.

It was at a little Goblin peeking at them from under the wagon. The Goblin with the bone flute, and a group of about eight. Numbtongue…had never seen them before today. They were not part of the group. Accordingly…

“Damn. They’re getting bolder.”

One of the Gnolls cursed. Numbtongue tensed. He didn’t know what was about to happen next, but his hand oh-so-casually moved, towards the hilt of his sword. They all had bows and weapons to hunt one-horns, the thick-skinned rhinos who were worth a lot of money for meat, hide, and horn.

The Gnoll [Hunters], oblivious to the growing danger, muttered. Niers watched from his hiding place. Was this going to be a bloodbath? He didn’t care for massacres, but his Skills suppressed their [Dangersense].

Until the hammer falls. They’d lose cover for a long time, but…his eyes narrowed. Wait a second.

The [Hunt Leader] didn’t go for his bow. Instead, he picked something off the ground. Numbtongue’s hand moved—but the Gnoll picked up a small stone, and threw it and sent the Goblin scurrying backwards.

Get lost, you pests! You’ll die if someone sees you! Scat! Get away from here!

The Goblins scurried backwards, making rude gestures and calling out to the Gnolls. Numbtongue’s jaw opened.

“Brother—don’t go for your sword. They’re harmless.”

One of the Gnolls looked at Numbtongue with concern. More threw stones and shouted, chasing the little Goblins back. The Goblins stared at Numbtongue’s group, more confused by them than afraid of the Gnolls.

“Wh—you’re not killing Goblins?”

“We don’t. It’s a local tribe. Listen, brother. Don’t get up in arms about killing Goblins to us. This tribe’s known to us. Lomost doesn’t make enemies if we can help it. Kill some of the Goblins and it escalates. I’ll explain it all over some Velrusk Claw if you can spare the time.”

Numbtongue’s jaw worked as the [Hunt Leader] tried to explain to the Goblin-hating Gnoll exactly that not all Goblins were bad enough to murder on sight. It was a tough up-sell, but he might have a chance.

He turned to the others in the caravan. Even Niers agreed. They had to figure this one out. Sergeant Gna was staring at the traitors to her species incredulously. What tribe was this?

But then the Hobgoblin just grinned, whipped out his guitar, and began to play. Music brought interesting meetings after all.

 

——

 

It was indeed something, to share time with a master of the craft. Sometimes it was young talent, yet to be developed, uncertain. Other times it was natural ability, the product of endless amounts of practice, but completely self-taught.

Numbtongue was certainly in the latter category. But there were also the musicians of talent, enthusiasm, and practice with formal educations.

Did it mean they were intrinsically better? Perhaps not. But they could be very good, and arguably better than even the self-taught if you added the things money and professional training could buy. Money could buy things that made music better. Especially if those things were magic.

All this to say that sometimes the world’s finest was an illusion. Sometimes, it was well-deserved.

The Four Winds of Teral set out from Wistram Academy with only one passenger. Not a Gold-rank team for two reasons. Firstly, they were too busy and the Courier ship was to leave within the day. The Silver Swords had a reason to stay and learn more, for at least a while longer, despite their pressing desire, and even their leader could see that.

The second was that their passenger refused to have company. And one did not argue with a Truestone Golem.

…Unless of course, one had a damn good reason to do so, and an ego to match. So, amazingly, Cognita was informed she would share passege and that the Four Winds was making one stop.

“I am terribly sorry, Miss, er…Cognita of Wistram.”

The sweating [Captain] saw the Truestone Golem’s head turn. She was reading a book and sitting while watching the waves go by. Cognita looked at Bressa.

“Captain Bressa. You are confused as to my address. When you address a woman of uncertain rank, what title would you use?”

“…I would say Miss, uh, if I didn’t—”

“Then I am Miss Cognita.

Captain Bressa cast a look at the other [Sailors] of the Four Winds. It was a Garuda-led ship in many regards; she was the child of a Garuda-Human match, but the [Sailors] often had wings. You wanted to harness the power of the Four Winds, the famed Courier-Ship.

“Absolutely, Miss Cognita. I am terribly sorry, and it will not happen again. As I was saying, I am so sorry, but we cannot avoid this contract. The other passengers booked our ship—they have travelled nearly nonstop to get to a port and one of the passengers is a famed individual.”

“I see. I will accept this.”

Cognita sat back. She kept reading. That had been, oh, two days ago. She wasn’t in that much of a hurry to get to Illivere. The outdoor chair she’d been reading in, and indeed, the book, were her company. She didn’t read fast; she watched the ocean. Just watched the ocean, birds, plants, activity on the decks, so it took her two full days to close the book, having read it.

She hadn’t actually moved from her seat for two days straight. A fact that disconcerted the [Sailors] who had to eat, stretch, and sleep. But Cognita was enjoying herself.

She did not look forward to visitors, however. The Four Winds was hired for her, and she would rather not have passengers who stared and asked questions or treated her like…a thing. She wondered how disreputable it would be to toss someone into the sea.

However, it seemed it had to be done. Captain Bressa offered Cognita a partial refund, but the Truestone Golem didn’t want a refund. She just wanted no passengers. She watched, face stony, as they pulled into a dock. She wasn’t sure which continent it was at first. It was not Zeres, and a far smaller port than the ones she knew. And Cognita remembered every port she’d been to, on every continent of the world.

“I am told one of the guests has met you before, Miss Cognita. Perhaps that is some comfort?”

The Truestone Golem’s head slowly turned.

“I do not enjoy the company of many people who claim to know me, Captain Bressa. We will see how I react.”

If the [Captain] had been nervous before…she hoped this would not ruin the reputation of her ship. She already had Khelt’s wrath to worry about—she should never have taken that job for the Terandrian crusade! She was just glad they wanted to land on Chandrar’s south, not anywhere near the Revenant-class undead tearing up the north. She was going to sail wide of the northern coast until that was over.

However, you couldn’t refuse some passengers and just refund them so easily. Were they Cognita of Wistram? No, but one was close. The other?

Looks like lots of cargo, Captain! Dead gods, look at that. A menagerie of stuff to load and an entire entourage.”

Bressa cursed as Cognita’s eyes flashed. She lowered the gangplank and strode down to meet her guests—and advise them they might have to confine themselves to their quarters. All things considered, it went well.

They only drew their blades in outrage once, but their leader was more understanding when he heard the name ‘Cognita’. They ponced up the deck, and yes, Bressa felt it was an appropriate verb to describe them. Then again, it was a royal entourage of sorts and her guest was a bit famous world-wide.

As for the other one, when he heard Cognita’s name, he came up the gangplank, stopping their leader from introducing himself despite the risk, to Cognita.

“Allow me first, [Prince]. She is not…amicable at all times. Cognita of Wistram? Might you remember me?”

A figure walked up the deck, in travelling boots, and a colorful cloak fluttering behind. In one hand he carried an artifact of such power that Cognita blinked. She recognized it, and focused on his face. Her look of annoyance changed to one of almost pleasure.

“You are Barelle the Bard.”

One of the world’s famous [Bards] swept her a bow. The magical harp he carried, with strings each of unique power, was held in one hand. Cognita actually smiled at him, then regarded his companion.

“I know you as well. Wistram had cause to feature you.”

“Lady Truestone. I humbly greet you in the name of Nerrhavia’s Fallen. My kingdom may be mighty, but it is nothing compared to your beauty.”

The [Prince] bowed with a flourish. Cognita gave him a level look, but passed him from the sea-dunk test. Prince Zenol of Nerrhavia’s Fallen had travelled hard to meet the Four Winds of Teral from inland, and it showed a bit, despite his entourage of servant-bodyguards’ luggage and their larger group.

Barelle the Bard glanced at Zenol as the [Prince] went to oversee the loading of cargo. They wanted to be out of port in twenty minutes or less.

“I believe the last time we met was six years ago, Miss Cognita.”

“Yes. You interviewed me for your latest song. Is it finished?”

Barelle looked wistful. He plucked at a chord on his harp. For a moment, the harbor paused, as a single chord stilled the waters, the rocking boat, and made all go quiet.

Such was the power of the great [Bard]. A man Cognita could respect in that sense.

“Almost. I have sung it many times, but my tales are more popular. It is one thing for me to sing it, with the Skills and power allotted to me. Another to write something that even a Level 5 [Bard] can recite and bring a room to silence.”

“That is true. That you know it is well. I am not displeased to meet you, Barelle. I believe your company is more welcome. As for the [Prince]…equanimous. Are you travelling in his company?”

She had not missed how familiar the two were. Barelle nodded. He eyed the [Prince] as Zenol strode up the decks. He looked fabulously stunning in his rich clothes, without an adventurer’s armor, but Cognita saw his sword was the most powerful artifact he held, and his defensive armaments. He was a match for any one of the Silver Swords at least, beyond them in terms of gear.

He was also an adventurer by the simplest of reckonings; she saw how he had replaced limbs with less-fitted ones. He had taken wounds and it did not show to non-experts, but it did to her.

“He participated in the Village of the Dead’s raid, Cognita. I saw fit to interview him and many of the others. Yet it is Prince Zenol I follow now, because he returns to Chandrar to chase the lead of the missing team.”

“The Horns of Hammerad.”

Memory stirred. Cognita saw Barelle’s eyes light up; he could spot a connection.

“You know them?”

“I am familiar with two of their number. They were—are—[Mages] of Wistram. They live.”

Barelle nodded.

“So it seems. Prince Zenol considers it a debt unpaid, so we are bound for Nerrhavia’s Fallen.”

Interesting. Cognita appraised the [Prince] again. He strode up the gangplank, and Bressa called for the ship to depart. Fast as could be, the Four Winds turned for its next destination.

“I see. Why do you join him? Barelle the Bard was content to his station. A great song for the ages, but no more adventures. That is what you told me the last time we met. Now, you are headed towards a continent rife with war, and towards Nerrhavia’s Fallen, at the side of a [Prince] who may endanger you. Why?”

Barelle gave her a shamefaced smile. His hair had grey in it. It had not the first time he met her, before he earned the first string on that harp. How soon it changed. Yet she was glad to see something had returned from his youth.

“I confess, my ambition died out. I was complacent, Cognita. Perhaps that’s why my songs stalled and I just made a comfortable living. But of late, I have had—interesting days. I was there when the first plays struck Invrisil. I met unique people, and had the chance to perform at an event which—well, I cannot say. I found myself asking what the stories behind each were, and I did not know.”

“You were drawn to the stories. That is Barelle the Bard, the Meddling Storyteller of tales.”

The [Bard] who found himself in grand tales and sometimes took up arms that they should end the right way. He looked old and young. He smiled, shamefaced.

“I confess, it was not just the desire to know that made me come out of my semi-retirement, Cognita. One of the stories I had hoped to investigate—ended. Too abruptly. I have seen it many times, as you have. Or maybe it is not ended, but I cannot imagine how it will return. The Horns are part of it.”

“Really.”

“Yes. I met with adventurers from the Village of the Dead raid. They are still fighting over who will gain the Helm of Fire, but the Horns of Hammerad saw what lay in the center of that place. Isn’t that a story worthy of Barelle the Bard? Not to mention, the King of Destruction has awoken! He will be more than the lifeless man on the throne. I wish to see it. So—yes. I am going to Chandrar.”

The [Bard] stood on the decks, breathing in the salt air as Cognita felt the ship move. She envied the life in his eyes, rekindled by adventure. He looked at her, and took her in fully.

“There is a story behind Cognita of Wistram leaving her home. May I ask it?”

The Truestone Golem considered him for a long time. Stories. True and untrue, flawed, the stories she told herself about Zelkyr, the ones told by history and the present.

“Perhaps. Yes, perhaps it was well we met after all, Barelle the Bard. Let us talk. As for the [Prince]?”

She glanced over, to where he was hovering, eyes alight with interest. Cognita glanced at Barelle.

“Does he matter? Or is he just a smaller player in your story?”

Barelle glanced at Zenol, who hadn’t heard them, only saw them looking his way. He bowed again, and Barelle smiled.

“Everyone has a story, Cognita of Wistram. Perhaps you will think more kindly of him if I tell you his?”

She considered it.

“I will listen.”

Thus, Barelle the Bard stood, setting his foot on the lip of a railing, and lifted his harp. The deck went silent and even Bressa turned to listen as Barelle the Bard gave a performance. He strummed one chord that sang like the sea, as blue as the sky. His double-harp had a mortal set of chords, and the magical strings on the other side.

Was it music or chant? Cognita listened. It was not rehearsed, but it was free-form, told by Barelle to the ringing notes. He touched the magical chords only rarely; they had power, but it was power that only had its magic because it was spent more rarely than the mortal chords.

“There is a story behind Prince Zenol of Nerrhavia’s Fallen. [Prince of Sands]. Prince of Isphel. One of many of Nerrhavia’s royal lines that stem from the throne. Long ago, the [Prince] left for an adventurer’s life. For war, for death, for untimely end and strife. He did so not just for glory or gold, but to fulfill fate. His father’s story, which shapes him. A tale of old.”

Prince Zenol watched Barelle the Bard. With a kind of eagerness and pain mixed. Cognita looked at him as Barelle told the story of the former Prince of Isphel. Now there was a man who might have risen higher. Who had risen higher.

A [Prince] who had carried his line into fame. A lion among Nerrhavia’s sheep.

Who died when his son was but a boy and left their house weakened irrevocably. And a legacy that would never be matched. Barelle touched a string like blood and it echoed across the sea as the Four Winds raced onwards. Past. Present. Future. Zenol listened. He whispered.

“[Like a Lion, He Leapt].”

With his pride, he died alone. He left only his sword. His last Skill. And the burden of legacy on Prince Zenol Isphel. The lion who leaps. He did not die at the Village of the Dead. For he was taught, by Antinium no less, that the lion never fights alone.

Barelle finished the high chant. There was a moment of silence as the last magic finished humming in the air, then applause. Zenol bowed slightly as people looked at him. He had a [Prince]’s air; many couldn’t have borne an entire story about them, but Zenol kept his head high.

An [Innkeeper] would have fled. But each to their own and Barelle…his eyes lingered on Zenol as he addressed Cognita, more quietly.

“Where will fate take him next? For the bonds of adventurers he returns to his kingdom. I do not know where the story ends, but I shall watch and see whether son steps out of the shadow of father.”

“You are fascinated by such things.”

“It is worth living dangerously to find out how each story ends. And they should end right. Gloriously, tragically—but right. So they call me the Meddling Storyteller.”

Barelle chuckled self-consciously. Cognita nodded. She took some things from the story. Little sympathy for Zenol. An appreciation of who she was. But perhaps…she looked at Barelle.

“I have never known much music. My master never cared for it to the degree of others.”

“Oh? That is interesting. Did he have no desire for it?”

“He simply never truly cared for music as made by mortal hands. And Golems play music poorly. They do not create. Perhaps, though…you will show me how to play a harp before we land. If one can be made for my hands.”

Cognita saw her fingers change shape. Barelle’s eyebrows rose and his eyes lit up with curiosity.

“Ah. There is a tale here. I am glad I travelled. To Chandrar, then, Cognita. Adventurers await. If only I could be everywhere and live longer. But such beings do not exist. Even Djinni are limited.”

He smiled. Cognita almost did too.

“There is a word for that, Barelle.”

“Really? Forgive an old [Bard], but I have never known it.”

The Truestone Golem’s eyes glittered.

“I would speak it. If you could survive it. There are words that Golems know that even [Bards] lack. Someday, Barelle. When you are a truly great [Bard], seek me out. I hope you will accomplish it before the end of your life.”

The man’s eyebrows rose. He looked at Cognita. She smiled as she set the flames of his curiosity higher.

It might be an interesting trip after all.

 

——

 

Music rang through the tunnels of the Antinium just once. It was quashed in a moment. The frightened little Worker hid in a corner and Anand had to carry him away with Goat and the others.

He had never heard the Armored Queen, who seemed nicest of all the Queens, even the Free Queen, scream like that. But the terrified little Worker, Pie Piper, had begun to play music and she had heard it and…

It distressed him so much he had to talk to Klbkch during their daily debriefing. That was what Klbkch referred to it as. Anand scurried up to the Antinium, reconnecting nerves and muscle. It was a long, painful process, being rebuilt.

However, Anand had to admit that Klbkch looked more dangerous. He was able to talk, and often discussed the building of ships, which was progressing now that they had a guide, albeit a terrified one.

But that was ongoing and neither here nor there. It was over there, in the underground lake. Today was about music. Klbkch had, of course, heard of the incident.

“Music will be forbidden in the Hives.”

“But why, Revalantor Klbkch? Bird sings to the Free Queen.”

“…He does?”

Anand hesitated.

“No?”

Klbkch stared at him. Anand amended his answer.

“Sometimes. Is it dangerous, in some way, Revalantor Klbkch?”

“It is unpleasant.”

“To Antinium?”

“To the Queens. The Free Queen’s decision is not that of the Armored Queen. Did she…react beyond screaming?”

Anand nodded.

“She was very upset. She told us that we will never make music in her presence again. She seemed…pained.”

For a long time, Klbkch was still, and the custom-Antinium delicately maneuvering gels to aid the developing body worked in silence.

“Yes. She would be. It is not a physical phenomenon, but a mental one that has troubled Antinium since our arrival on Izril, Strategist Anand. I inform you that you may not offend the Queens again and hinder their process. It is a commonality amongst other species as well. Memory causes pain.”

He expected Anand to grapple with the problem, but the Worker just nodded.

“Yes. It does. It hurts when I think of Erin.”

Klbkch was silent. His great wisdom learned from many years had been already internalized.

He expected Anand to shuffle off, but the Strategist hesitated.

“Revalantor Klbkch…may I talk to you about being sad? I am sad. I still think of Erin. So are the others.”

Klbkch evaluated his ability to move, and also his desire to talk to Anand about sadness and Erin being dead. He clacked his mandibles.

“Speak to Wrymvr instead. You informed me he was an inspirational leader in many ways.”

Anand hesitated. Yet he did not scurry off to find Wrymvr, who apparently could be more of a leader than Klbkch.

“…I would, but Wrymvr is not suitable for this conversation, Revalantor Klbkch.”

“Why not?”

“He does not care about us.”

This time Klbkch actually moved his head slightly. He glanced at Anand.

“Wrymvr is constantly appraising your actions, Anand. He is pleased about your progress and…kinder…than I am.”

Anand nodded amiably. He poked his fingers together, then refuted Klbkch.

“Yes, Revalantor Klbkch, but I have misphrased my communications. He can be caring, but he does not care about us. My perception is that Centenium Wrymvr is interested in our worth. Not if we live or die.”

Klbkch looked at Anand. Something like…approbation stirred in him. Because Anand was correct. That was probably what Xrn described. Anand went on.

“Wrymvr is very helpful to me. He tries to cheer me up when I am sad. He delivered the ship to me. He does what is helpful. However, I have seen the Twisted Antinium’s Hive. Wrymvr does not care about our lives. Only our function. I believe this is so, Klbkch.”

Ah. So that was why she called him insane. That was the difference between Wrymvr and Xrn. Klbkch considered Anand’s statement. If he was going to be depressed for another week, Wrymvr was going to be upset. So Klbkch tried to say the most comforting thing he could imagine.

“Do not be disheartened, Anand. Wrymvr may see you as a means to an end, but he is not biased.”

“…How so?”

Klbkch raised his mandibles in a fake smile.

“If he believed the benefits were worth the cost he would sacrifice me or Xrn, just like any of the Antinium and expect us to do the same. Wrymvr is committed to success.”

For some reason, Anand did not look particularly inspired by this information. His mandibles drooped.

“Now I am very sad, Revalantor Klbkch.”

The Antinium stared at Anand. This was so difficult. He tried a different tack.

“I have an interesting factoid, Anand. About Wrymvr as it pertains to this morning’s incident.”

The [Strategist] latched onto this and Klbkch saw him stop moping.

“What is this, Revalantor Klbkch?”

“It is not permissible to ask for a demonstration within the Queen’s hearing. However, I can inform you that Wrymvr is, himself, capable of singing.”

“What.”

Anand twitched his mandibles. Klbkch tried to nod, but his muscles weren’t there yet.

“He is capable of singing with multiple mouths. Quite adeptly.”

Rather than cheer Anand up, Klbkch got a suspicious look. Anand doubted him! Klbkch had no other recourse.

Wrymvr. Wrymvr.

Klbkchhezeim.

The two communicated, True Antinium to True Antinium. In truth, Wrymvr was one of the few that Klbkch could talk to like this and cared to.

Wrymvr, I must ask you to sing to Anand to alleviate his fears that you do not care for his life on a personal level. Also, because he is growing depressed.

No.

Klbkch paused.

Why not? As I recall, you quite enjoy singing.

I will not sing again. Not until a sign our mission will succeed appears in fullness.

There was something like Adamantium in that promise. Klbkch understood it full well. Exasperated, he kept Wrymvr in the link as he addressed Anand.

“…I assure you, Wrymvr can sing. He has declined to, but he is capable of music.”

“Yes, Revalantor Klbkch.”

Why are you talking about singing?

I do not know. Anand has another issue he is bringing up. Indulging him boosts productivity.

You lead them poorly.

He perceives you don’t care about his fate. I do not care to converse with you given your lack of helpfulness.

Klbkch snapped back mentally, coloring his mental tone with frustration. Wrymvr’s response was simple when it came back.

Yet Anand comes to you. Therefore, he senses you do care, or can. This I agree with. That you do not, or do not try, is your failing. He is not of my Hive.

The Slayer’s mandibles clicked a few times. In the end, he decided to talk to Anand since it was better than Wrymvr.

“Is it doubtful that Wrymvr is capable of song, Anand? Xrn is. We are able to perform every function you can. And more.”

“So Centenium sang?”

Anand peered at Klbkch, sitting on a stool, interested again. The Slayer tried to nod again and gave up.

“This is so. Are you happy again?”

Anand edged forwards on the edge of his seat.

“M-maybe. If you answer more questions. Were the Centenium like us? No one will tell me much, even the Grand Queen.”

For a moment, Klbkch was dumbfounded. Were they like…?

He couldn’t help it. A fluttering sound, like an insect, emerged from his mouth. Somewhere else in the Hivelands, Wrymvr copied the sound. Anand was terrified. Then he realized.

They were laughing.

“Like you. You are a copy of Galuc. You are nothing close t—”

Klbkch responded to Anand, and Wryvmr’s censor stopped him. He amended his statement.

“The Centenium had different personalities. So…yes, Anand. They were ‘like you’. Each one was different. Each one glorious. Complete in their function, beyond any other Antinium.”

More or less. Some were more capable in all regards.

This time Wrymvr’s comment left Klbkch speechless. He was silent—then gave Wrymvr a mental buffet so hefty it closed their connection. That was not an insult to Klbkch. That was…simply wrong.

Anand was still there, waiting for Klbkch’s next words. And because of what Wrymvr had intimated in thought, worse than word, Klbkch went on.

“Each one had great talents, Anand. Each one was…unique. Designed to be forerunners, exemplars of what they did. Some overlapped in talents. Some were truly unique. Yes, some sang. Of all of them, the hundred, there were some who did sing. Our Queen sang. So many could. Song…oh yes. We could ‘sing’. Not as you know it.”

It pained him to speak, so he stopped. Anand listened, then nodded, his eyes filled with understanding at last. They had sung.

“So that is why the Armored Queen was sad.”

“Sad? Yes…I suppose.”

“Did they make music? Or was it just singing that is not singing as I understood it?”

Klbkch’s head lowered. His mandibles drooped. For a long time, he hung there. Then he spoke.

“Only one ever learned an instrument that was not part of their body. If that is the difference, yes. One made music. The rest of us…no. To your question, there was one Antinium who ever fulfilled your criteria.”

Anand listened to the weary Slayer. To stories of old. How alike they were, how apparently different. Centenium. Of every form? Not all the same? What was Antinium, truly? He yearned to know.

“Is his statue among the Armored Queen’s?”

“Perhaps.”

“What is his name? I could look.”

Klbkch hesitated.

“His name was…”

 

——

 

“Czautha.”

The Death of Chains turned. Her body, inside of the Demons’ domain, was condensed. Still, she was reminiscent of a cloud of magic and color that had decided to take humanoid form. Two glowing eyes narrowed. For she was still wrathful.

The Death of Magic returned the look. Silvenia, Islandbreaker, The Curse of Elves, the Traitor of…well, one of Terandria’s traitors, did not back down.

She was a half-Elf. But Czautha thought that she came closest to the heritage of her kind. If Elves were pure magic, Silvenia was among the closest of her kind to that idea. Certainly, the closest living.

“I do not wish to speak with you, Silvenia. Begone.”

This was Czautha’s domain, and so even atmosphere as other species understood it was different. Still, Silvenia intruded.

“Ah, but I wish to speak to you, Czautha. Little whispers have reached my ears since our raid on Chandrar.”

“Our raid on Roshal.”

That was the difference. Little words, which heralded deep rifts. They had not cropped up as the Deathless were returned from their mortal wounds. Then, they had been grateful to live, too busy with the great news.

Flora.

Time had passed since then, and Czautha, the Djinni, Death of Chains, Chainbreaker, was reminded of how Silvenia was. She who loved wars, compared to the Djinni who would liberate her people, all slaves, if she could.

The Deathless looked at each other, and Czautha forced the hostility down. Now was not the time to fight. Silvenia might hold back, but she was always hungry for battle.

“Why have you come here, Silvenia?”

“Two reasons. The first is minor. We have time for the second. Yet the first bothers me. I interviewed the ones we brought to Rhir. One of them is a cousin of yours.”

“So?”

“His name is Azam. Or was. He is picking a new one, I know how you are with names, but since he has no new one…he told me something interesting, Czautha.”

The Death of Chains knew what was coming. She sighed.

“Yes. Which was?”

“In your raid, you came across a spellbook owned by a Gold-rank adventurer. The one who was on the scrying orbs everyone likes to watch?”

Silvenia wasn’t as interested in that. She peered at Czautha.

“He had a treasure. From the Putrid One. A spellbook. So powerful you could see it. You let him have it.”

“And?”

Silvenia narrowed her eyes as she floated towards Czautha. She was displeased. As if it didn’t matter to mention assassinating a [Knight] mid-transit and trying to kill a child and a girl in chains.

“You said I had ‘many spellbooks’ like that one. Did you appraise it? Did you check which spells it contained? Who wrote it?”

“I do not know. It was powerful, but I did not have time to investigate it. Every second mattered.”

Silvenia steepled her hands and ‘sat’, floating around Czautha.

“Indeed. Indeed. So you did not investigate, but you deemed this spellbook had nothing of value to me. Why?”

She was piqued. Former [Archmage] or not, Czautha rolled her shoulders and eyes. Silvenia’s own damaged features glared at her from their healing/stasis spells. Now here was someone who could bring back someone on the verge of death by magic alone. Flora had helped cure her, and thus she had expedited the return of the others, able to divide her magic rather than barely keep herself from dying.

The Djinni replied in a level tone, dismissing the memories of decades of pain, fighting for life.

“You do not need more tomes, Silvenia. I left it with a child of death who could take up arms. Who needed a weapon where he stood.”

What remained of Silvenia’s lips pursed. She was displeased. She glared at Czautha.

“There was the adventurer as well. A [Necromancer] of some talent. You should have taken him too. Level 40 would be acceptable as a lieutenant. Especially one who can create undead hordes. He was known enough. If we convinced him to speak and overwrote Wistram’s broadcast…”

Czautha interrupted Silvenia.

Death of Magic. Do not lecture me about possibilities and choices. I am still displeased with you.”

The air turned ominous. The magic of the two beings collided, auras unto themselves such that even their distaste for one another created a magical storm that might have killed lesser spellcasters where they stood. Eventually, Silvenia floated back.

“Very well. I shall remember this, Czautha. Now is not the time for strife, however. I had two pieces of news. You are needed.”

“I am resting. Unless the Demon King summons me, or…”

Czautha was in no mood to be tugged around by Silvenia, but the half-Elf’s next words made her move. The Death of Magic turned and looked more serious than before.

“Czautha’qshe. One of them is coming.”

The Djinni’s eyes opened wide. Without a word, she looked at the Death of Magic. Then she followed, swiftly.

 

——

 

The Demon Kingdom was not as the Blighted Kingdom painted it. A horrific land of nightmares? It had nightmares. It had scars from war, like the Blighted Kingdom.

Yet this was home to a people apart. It was protected by the Deathless, beings of unsurpassed strength. It was not unpleasant to live in.

This was not the time to admire the Demons’ lands, however. Silvenia flew from Czautha’s domain. She blinked out of the air and teleported. Czautha just flew, and called out.

The Death of Wings took to the air. Harpies screamed around her as the most grievously wounded of the surviving Deathless flew. Czautha called out in worry, but this moment warranted even that.

They assembled. Not just Silvenia. Not just Czautha, or the Death of Wings. The might of Demons came together, lesser though they might be.

Bazeth, one of the Demons’ young [Generals], strode into place with every high-level Demon. Flora of Texas followed. Her nerves were humming.

Not just because Silvenia was there. Because all three Deathless were there, and she had only seen them like this twice. When wounded, and when the Demon King summoned them to give his words.

Now, they gathered a third time. Why?

Because they might be needed. Because their guests warranted it. Yet who would be guests to Demons? Only a few factions treated with them. And who warranted this level of—what? Respect?

Wariness?

“They are coming. Your Majesty.”

Czautha addressed the throne. A faint voice replied. Flora’s eyes flicked left—and the Demons stirred. Bazeth had a tight hold of his weapon. Flora looked at him.

“Is it them?

“Yes.”

A terse answer. She had not seen him tense. Few came to the Demon King’s court without some measure of hardship, but she had never feared guests before. Not Drath. Not Dullahans or Drowned Folk or the few others.

They were not strong allies of the Demons. There was only one species in the entire world who could convene the Deathless by their very presence. One race which was known across the world.

The Black Tide of Izril. The monstrous species that came from Rhir. Yet oh, how they knew the wrong ones.

For now—Silvenia called out, and it might be warning or challenge. The ranks of Demon officers stirred. Flora felt the air grow tight.

You did not know them. Not the remnant that made it to distant shores. Here came the ones who remained.

The Antinium of Rhir.

What did she expect? Thunder and lighting? Portents? Omens? A bestial roar? Flora had never seen any of them, but she had heard Demons talk about the Antinium like the Blighted Kingdom talked about Demons.

With awe, fear, distaste—like stories. Now, something split the air as the doors were dragged open. Flora expected to hear the voices of the populace, some kind of murmuring, for the Demon King did not hold with silence. Silvenia would make a comment, or…

What she heard was music. The last thing she expected. Music, which by every note and second absorbed and reduced every other sound in the universe to stillness.

It sounded like voices. It sounded like alien reeds, singing. It sounded like what it was—music of insects, come to life. Flora had never heard a song like this.

It was a sign and welcome. She realized she could not even hear all the notes; they strayed into areas above and below her hearing. It should have made the sound discordant, but the musician played on multiple frequencies.

On an instrument he had made. Although it seemed not made, but grown, from the same arms and armor they carried. The same material as their bodies. Not the common chitin of insects, but something developed, refined until it became a kind of material analogous to that of steel or other qualities.

The last of it outside of Rhir was embodied in unbreakable swords carried by Klbkch the Slayer. The body of Xrn, the Small Queen. They had fragments.

These Antinium were made entirely of it. Flora saw the instrument was made of a string she could not name. It looked like a spiral staircase, ascending. Yet there were threads within the complex creation.

No normal fingers could hope to pluck the fine threads, of so many kinds, so thinly dispersed together that it seemed impossible to pick one out from the other, let alone distinguish the difference in pitch.

Yet this Antinium’s ‘fingers’ were thin enough to slip between the gaps, and so numerous they played the welcome, or…was it warning?…with ease. Vertical strings, horizontal, diagonal, ranging into pitches Flora had never dreamed of.

So came their representative. What Flora thought, her only conscious thought was—

How beautiful. Here was an alien. But an alien playing music. Not a bug. An insect of a civilization apart.

How beautiful. And…how weary. Even the music conveyed that. The Antinium stopped, surveying the Demons, without fear. Flora saw they were seven in total.

Their leader and six…representatives. Bodyguards? She heard Bazeth’s voice at last, as if he had held his breath for minutes.

“Czkelcill Mirrex. The Voice of the Antinium.”

Six came with him. Not Centenium—or so she didn’t think. True Antinium nevertheless.

These were the ones the lesser Demons watched, for if it came to battle, it would be Deathless versus the Centenium. They would have to stop at least one of the others.

Bazeth’s hand was so tight on his weapon…by contrast, Flora just backed away. She craned her head up at one; they were all different sizes.

All different forms, engineered for war. She was conscious of the weight on her hip. Yet she didn’t even move her hand towards the revolver at her side. Even if she had it in hand, would it do any good?

The Demon King rose, slowly, on his throne. Czkelcill halted before him, as the Demons watched.

The Voice of the Antinium did not bow. The Demon King spoke, softly, but audibly in the silence now pervading the room.

“We greet the Antinium of Rhir. Our allies.”

The Antinium did not gainsay the statement. Nor did they move. At last, Czkelcill spoke.

“You are not the Demon King of when last we met.”

The figure on the throne smiled bleakly.

“My mother is dead. The Demons have their king. Will you speak with me?”

“Yes.”

The Antinium ducked his head. His neck was long. His eyes…there was a glow to them, which never faded. Two of the Antinium stirred, were still.

They were speaking. Communicating, in flashes so fast that Flora could not even tell what was happening. Yet only Czkelcill spoke.

“We come to confer. To ask questions.”

“Then ask. Do the Antinium come to tell us they will leave Rhir a second time? Or do you wish to know about your kin on Izril?”

It was Silvenia who asked, gliding forwards to set herself in front of the throne. Next to her, Czautha, the Djinni mighty. The Death of Wings, still bleeding ichor, set herself on the other side. Three Deathless.

They spoke to Czkelcill. The Centenium looked at them as the Antinium stirred. Silvenia had provoked them, and the Demons were uneasy. However, the Centenium was unmoved.

“Do they still speak of Klbkchhezeim, Xrniavxxel, Wrymvr?”

“They do. Though they say Xrn was wounded of late. Not how. Not why. It is a rumor plucked from Wistram’s lips.”

Czautha answered next. If she hoped for a response, again, the Antinium’s strange bard made no response.

“Yet she lives.”

“We would tell you if she dies.”

“Very well.”

An ocean of emotions Flora couldn’t see, if the opening wings of the great shelled back on one Antinium were a clue. Scythe blades on another, sharpening against each other. However, it was clear the Antinium were not here to ask about that.

“What news of the world?”

The Deathless conferred. It was not a question that surprised them. At last, the Death of Wings croaked, though it pained her.

“To your kind? Little. The King of Destruction, he wakes and makes great war. We return for battle. Nothing else of note.”

She glanced left once. But did not look at Flora. They were lying to the Antinium. Or withholding truth.

And their statement! Two things to tell the Antinium. The only things that could even possibly concern them. The return of Deathless and the King of Destruction’s waking. Not Ailendamus. Not the Four Great Companies. Nothing.

Czkelcill looked at the huge, winged features of the Death of Wings, but no hint of emotion escaped her eyes. Not so for any of the Deathless. Even so…slowly, that tall Centenium’s head swept around. His fingers plucked at the strange chords.

Once.

Twice.

Three times.

Then he looked straight at Flora. The Demons stirred. More than a few blades shifted. Yet all Czkelcill did was shake his head.

“It is not time for war.”

The Antinium accompanying him settled down. The Demons breathed again. The glowing gaze turned away from Flora, and she would have fallen but for Bazeth supporting her.

“We ask. Perhaps you omit. Now, we ask again. Do not lie. Tell me what changed during the longest day of the year.”

The Deathless looked at each other. The Demon King moved on his throne, and Flora’s head snapped up.

The Summer Solstice? Had they too received children from another world? Silvenia’s eyes flickered, but she dared not confer.

“A great magical event. I sensed it. A weft in space and time, exploited by magic of a scale so great, I cannot explain how it was brought into motion. Yet it was done, by the Blighted Kingdom no less. And it has torn…something.”

“Yes. It has.”

A whisper. Flora jerked. That did not come from Czkelcill. The Centenium just nodded.

“What was done, exactly?”

“We do not know. Something the Blighted Kingdom wrought.”

Silvenia was angry. She could guess. Opened a gateway. Yet her eyes kept flickering across the Antinium. The Demons were wary.

However, it seemed as though they were speaking cross-purposes. Czkelcill’s antennae moved, but one of the Antinium opened huge maws on its armored body and spoke. Not with the cavernous voice that Flora expected but with a deep, feminine voice.

As if it was but a relay for some other intelligence peering out. No—that was exactly what it was.

“You are magic. Does it lie in your power to stop this event from occurring again?”

She addressed Silvenia. Again, the Death of Magic hesitated, and this time Flora, who knew enough of Silvenia from their talks together, realized the half-Elf wasn’t confident.

Silvenia did not like admitting there was anything she could not do. So she was uncomfortable as she replied.

“…I have stratagems in place. It may be impossible to stop, however.”

Again, the Antinium conferred. This time with considerable agitation, although the only sign was the flicking of antennae.

Czkelcill replied.

“Then—can you sense if another attempt is made?”

“Oh yes. I can do that.”

Silvenia nodded, eyes glinting. Czautha’s eyes never moved, but a part of her body changed color and Bazeth blinked. She was signalling the others. Flora knew the Djinni well enough to realize they had complex signs of their own.

What did the Antinium want? It was clear they never came above, and the few times they had were heralded by terrible conflict. Now, though, Czkelcill nodded. A decision had been made, perhaps before they had even come. This was simply notification, politely, as the Antinium did it.

“Dispensation will be made. If it occurs again, inform us. We will come to halt it.”

…What? For a second, Flora didn’t get the implications. Yet the Demons’ officers did. They looked at each other.

Were the Antinium declaring that they were willing to fight the Blighted Kingdom if the ritual occurred again? And their wording?

We will come to halt it. No question. The Deathless looked to the throne, but then Czautha spoke for the Demons.

“If your goal is preventing the ritual from occuring again, great Antinium, will you lend your aid to help us crush the Blighted Kingdom?”

Czkelcill took a long moment to speak, and Flora saw the argument, invisible, in the air. However, when the Voice of the Antinium spoke, it was firm denial.

“No more time can be spared. No more Antinium. We part. Allies.”

With that, he turned and began walking back the way he’d come. As if there was no more that could be said. It was so abrupt the Demons were caught off-guard with dismay. Czautha opened and closed her mouth, clearly searching for words to use. A [Diplomat] spoke in the Demon King’s ear, but was patently unsure what would work on such foreign guests. Skills? Flora wondered if they dared to try it.

Into the uncertainty, as Czkelcill and the six Antinium were nearing the door, the only one of them who would have dared to speak—did.

Silvenia. The Death of Magic floated higher, and called out in a sing-song, teasing voice.

“Just so I know, Antinium. What if we were to tell you the ritual is happening…and make a little mistake?”

The Centenium halted in his tracks. Slowly, he turned, as Bazeth’s face drained of color. The Demons, some horned, other changed by the Blight, suddenly tensed once more. The other two Deathless looked at their insane companion. But it was said.

Slowly, Czkelcill extended one arm. The thin ‘finger’ changed. To something approaching fingers, which moved with such delicate grace into a single gesture like that of Humans and Demons and species of this and Flora’s world.

He pointed down at the tiles of the Demon King’s court. Just down at the ground. What if the Demons made a little mistake? Told a little lie?

“This ends.”

Silvenia’s smile opened wider, wider, like the gates of hell. Until something happened. The Voice of the Antinium plucked at his strings. He played eight notes. No—exponentially many times that. A complex melody.

Abruptly, Silvenia’s feet dropped out of the air. She landed hard, and the bindings of magic on her wounds flickered. The Demons exclaimed. Bazeth stared at his enchanted glaive. The steel looked like…

Steel.

The Voice of the Antinium turned magic back on after a second. Now, it was dead silence.

And Silvenia was no longer smiling. Again the Centenium turned, but one of the Antinium did not.

A different one, tall, like a mantis but only in the scything talons. It stalked forward two steps and Czautha drew her great relic. The Antinium was so fast. It left behind an afterimage or something, so that only when it moved—

But it did not spring forwards. Did not slash or deliver a second war to Demons and Antinium. Rather, it lowered itself. Spoke. A different voice, also female, but more grating. Authoritative, like Bazeth on a battlefield.

Decisions have been made.

The Deathless looked at the Antinium. The other five swung back, and Czkelcill looked at the lone warrior. Waiting.

The True Antinium of Rhir’s head rose. Foreign intelligence stared up towards the Demon King’s throne. It—she—addressed them.

No chances can be taken. It dies. So speaks War Queen Heclaivk. This War Hive will eradicate. Claim Blighted Kingdom. Fortify. Reprisals acceptable now; not before. No chances.

“Excuse me?”

Silvenia herself couldn’t believe it. The Demon King rose on his throne.

“Do you mean…?”

One Hive will eliminate threats. Coordinate assault. Cost acceptable to prevent repeat.

The Voice of the Antinium turned. Not with surprise, but with finality.

“So decided.”

Flora couldn’t believe her ears. The Demons were stunned. Stunned—and worried. Flora saw them looking at each other. If the Antinium took out their great foe, that was one thing. But—fortify? What if the Antinium decided—if one Hive could destroy the Blighted Kingdom, then…

Demons were speaking up now, unable to keep silent. Demanding questions of the War Queen Heclaivk, who was waiting for a response from the throne or Deathless. Into this moment, as chaos swirled, the Antinium were leaving. All but this lone warrior, herald of countless more.

Czkelcill passed by Flora, and no one dared to stop him, or the other five. His gaze turned and fixed her with a look again, but he seemed content to leave. A Hive went to war, for better or worse. So—

The True Antinium’s footsteps slowed. The other Antinium didn’t notice. They proceeded onwards, and comically halted after two dozen strides towards the door. Bazeth backed away, shielding her with one arm; he had orders to protect Flora with his life.

Slowly, the Centenium’s head turned. Flora saw that bright gaze turn. Suddenly—a discordant note filled the air.

The perfect strings on the instrument, snapped. Thousands of them, all at once. This time even the Deathless froze in sudden, terrible anticipation.

The Voice of the Antinium’s grip had torn the strings. His own instrument! Flora trembled as his gaze swept over her—

—And past her. He wasn’t looking at her at all. He was staring at—at—

Suddenly, the Centenium did not seem so weary. He did not seem so tired, or calm. Something filled the air.

Wrath. The other Antinium were tensed. One spoke, aiming towards the throne, the Deathless.

“What? Battle?”

One word from him and everyone died. Yet the Voice of the Antinium said nothing. Slowly, more strings snapped. Yet when he spoke, Czkelcill’s voice was filled with the same loathing, the same hatred as Flora felt emanating off of him. A rage beyond naming. Cold fury deeper than any grave.

“The enemy has multiplied.”

She did not know what it meant. The Antinium did. And it seemed then, as if the world did end. But how did he know?

What did he stare at?

Not even Silvenia and Czautha and the Death of Wings could see. Yet there the Centenium looked. He felt it. He saw…

 

——

 

It. It paused on its long journey. Past Terandria, far from Chandrar where it had begun. It had delayed, stalled, meandered. The journey meant as much as the end, after all.

It of the six. It was not alone, but only it dared tread on Rhir’s ground now. That was a madness of a different kind.

Even in the land of the dead, Rhir was empty. Two more watched warily from a distance. 

The Huntress and the Dancing Man. They had followed it, seeing a change in one of their companions. They were alarmed, but did not tread on Rhir.

Why had it stopped? What was it looking at? For a moment, it stared at something, and the gaze was returned, across a veil thinner than paper, as wide as—

But if one person felt it—

So did something else. And it too—

Stirred.

 

——

 

Stirs. The enemy stirs.

The first croak came from the representative of War Queen Heclaivk. No longer calm, logical pronouncements, but a strained voice.

Suddenly, more voices filled the air, from the other five Antinium. They spoke rapidly, no longer in silence, forcing the words out that they might be heard through one medium or another.

Czkelcill. Return. Return.”

“The Unitasis Network is breaking.”

“Queens are dying.”

It was so fast. One second everyone was tensed—the next, they were watching a nightmare, but one they couldn’t understand. The Centenium turned. Another voice cried out.

“Slk Hive…eradicated. Wrchrl Hive under siege. It stirs.

That was enough. The Centenium moved for the exit. The other six were already blurs, and shouts and screams filled the air as they left the throne room so fast the Demons outside thought it was a prelude to war. Silvenia shot after the Bard of the Antinium as he moved after them.

“What is happening? Wait! Wait! What about our reinforcements?

He stopped only once, and spoke to the Deathless, the Demons, Flora, as they poured out after the Antinium retreating to fight—something. Their old enemy.

“Our kin on Izril. Tell them we are waiting. We cannot wait long. Not anymore.”

Czkelcill stopped a moment. Looked at Silvenia, dead in her eyes. He nodded.

“If we fall, flee.”

Then he was gone, racing back the way he had come. Leaving the Demons bereft of their allies and fearing, with a mystery. What had happened?

 

——

 

“What is it doing?”

That was the question. It had nearly died. All of Rhir had stirred, as, provoked by footsteps, even in the lands of the dead…

Yet it was insane. That was what worried the others. If they could have, the two would have found all five so they could worry together. Of the six, and they all had foibles, strengths and faults, this one was the most…most…

Unpredictable. It walked past the broken lands of Rhir, now. Not close to Drath; Drath was dangerous in death. But further onwards.

Distance had meaning, but here it could be crossed faster, although time had less understanding too. They followed, watching.

Further still. Over sea, as the last large landmasses faded away into the distance. Past islands, bare pieces of land. Some were tiny rocks, and furthest out, closest to that edge of the world was where the furthest Earther had arrived.

Yet. That was not what it sought. Not that island. Not the living, waking world.

Something else. At last, the two, Huntress and Dancing Man could bear it no longer. Because they feared this inevitable conclusion. It would be beyond insanity. Yet if any of them were of kind and nature to do this…

“Norechl. What are you planning? Come back! This is madness. Even for us. Do you not know what lies there?

So he called the name of it. And at last, with a kind of gleeful malice, it turned.

Norechl. A being with no face, though they could be anything. No features. No real shape to body, like Tamaroth. It did not change like Kasigna. It was…

Nothing. Nothing concrete. The absence of something. It was not of leaders.

It ruled…nothing. It was of lost things. It was of lost things, and that was what you understood. Lost things, dark places, where the forgotten lay.

Norechl stood there, on the rushing waters, over something that warped even this land of death itself. No ghost would ever emerge from the depths. Here was the end of the world.

The Last Tide? No, the Last Tide was what lay up to it. But that darkness past the edge, as waters roared downwards in a forever torrent. Norechl peered down there.

“Don’t go closer.”

The Huntress grabbed the Dancing Man. They were afraid. But just as afraid of…

“Do not. You will ruin all. We will overcome them. There is no point to victory—and this would be no victory if nothing remains. Not even us!

The Dancing Man warned Norechl. All he got in return was…

A smile. A terrible, malicious smile. A smile with no face.

The exact same smile it had given as it beheld the stolen umbrella, that sword. It turned as the Dancing Man moved forwards, taking a risk—

“Do not—”

—And fell over the edge.

Gravity. Some kind of gravity, no, something pulled it downwards. For a moment it was visible, a shadow even amongst darkness. The Huntress and Dancing Man peered over the edge.

“Norechl is dead.”

The Huntress said at last. The Dancing Man hesitated.

“What if it is not? The others must know. If it is dead it is one thing. Down there. But if not?”

If not? The two looked at each other.

They stared down for a long time, over the edge. Into…

The two backed away. They fled, hoping that their kin was dead. But worse things than death existed.

So the music ran still, as Rhir stirred and Antinium held. So music played, a beautiful thing across places, connecting, binding. A powerful force indeed, until you remembered:

There were places you could fall where even music had died.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: I’m back. The Last Tide finished its Kickstarter shortly before now. Which is good.

It’s time to write. Thank you for making it a huge success and I hope you enjoy it! I think it’s not going to be too long in coming out? Obviously printing takes longer, but the digital versions might be soon?

I’m tired so I’m not making sense. And I have a confession: I wrote this in two parts, not three because I uh, forgot what day it was. So yesterday I realized very late that I hadn’t even done a bit of writing and had to make it up.

Even so, I got a big chapter done! I hope the quality didn’t suffer, but I’m off break!

And no, this isn’t the poll chapter. Sometimes you have to write what fits and I think this fits. I’ll give you the poll chapter later in the month. Thanks for reading and hope you enjoy!

 

Hot (?) Numbtongue by Mencret!

 

Thief by Dr.replig8r!

 

Hat and Ceria AC by Anito!

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/anito

 


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37 thoughts on “Interlude – Songs and Stories

  1. Leave a typo for songs! Stories! Falling off things! Wait, maybe not that.

    (Song readers: Gorexn, Litwickee, MrWiggles, Akrasia, Quynin, The_Outrider, a, Niello, Seabourne, Octo)

    • “The rest of the Goblins and lone Human”
      > “and a lone Human” or “and one lone Human”?

      “orangutang”
      > “orangutan”?

      “she would share passege and that the Four Winds”
      > “passage”?

      “Meddling Storyteller of tales”
      > “Meddling Storyteller of Tales”?

    • “They hadn’t been able to hear their comrades, and some had failed to miss the maneuvers or gotten lost in the dust storm.”

      If you “fail to miss” a maneuver, does that mean it is executed correctly?

    • In Chapter 7.39 A it was already revealed to Anand that Wrymvr can sing by both the Armored Queen and Klbkch.

      And in the same chapter they had also already mentioned and showed Anand a statue of a Centenium Antinium with six armed an instrument in his hands, who can sing, known as Mirrex the Bard.

      Both of these statements can be found said at the same time by the Armored Queen:
      “Of course it is. Mirrex the Bard sang. The Centenium sang in Rhir’s Hives. Xrn—I have never heard Klbkchhezeim sing. But even Wrymvr sang.”

      So are Mirrex the Bard and Czkelcill Mirrex one and the same, were the Antinium call him Mirrex, and the Demons call him Czkelcill. Or are they two different Centenium Antinium, who both have a musical instrument.

  2. Ants!

    Really cool chapter.

    Cognita implied to the bard she could speak to him about gods if he grew high enough leveled I think.

    Healing trolls and sonic attacks are a great fit.

    Ksmvr is too scary to sing.

    Great cliff at the end. So creepy.

    • I doubt Cognita was talking about the Gods though, for one it seems far too unlikely not to mention it makes little sense as to how she could have found out.

      • Cognita has been watching the Earthers the entire time. She was probably aware when the god of magic possessed that one guy and forced him to send out that fateful text.

  3. Gah, Rhisveri is breathtakingly hypocritical, blaming Ryoka for theft when he stole a child. Its in-line with how he’s collecting them without paying attention or consideration, but it’s so stupid.

    I hope Ryoka can leverage the money’s unconventional properties, like Selys uses the Heartflame Breastplate. Trade is an important feature, and an immortal may trade her their worldly goods if they have to leave much behind to reach another world. But it sound like the money could be studied, or act as like leylines of rare qualities. Either way, including a light touch of economics is great.

    • When she was in the Far world, Ivolethe was helping her to get an artifact to help Erin.

      This resulted in Ryoka and Ivolethe appearing in the Dukes hoard, with Ryoka trying to grab the artifact (we don’t know what it was). She didn’t take anything, but the Duke accused her of being a Thief for the attempt.

  4. Okay, so… Kevin walls right into a lotr fanfic, Ryoka walks into a magical menagerie and a ___ walks off the edge of the world.

    I guess it could’ve gone any which way, really.

    I really liked Kevin’s part. More teasing of lore and history, plus the trolls are really neat, I’d never have expected them to use sonic attacks but it makes perfect sense the way you wrote it.

    Ryoka just can’t help herself and always have to cross every line she comes across but somehow she always survives, and now she not only didn’t get beaten to death, she befriended a *titan*. Like, goddamn, girl. A titan! How the heck do they still exist that there are young ones running around?

    Again with the size of these beings, giants, treants, titans, leviathans and krakens (not to mention movement skills) even the crazy size of innworld seems too small as it is now.

    Numbtongue’s part was nice and wholesome, the worst that happened was Gna seeing her own people not murdering goblins on sight. Poor Gna is never going to be able to set foot in a city again or go anywhere near Drake military.

    So Cognita knows about the gods. The geas or whatever doesn’t affect golems. Why not? How did she learn about gods? She knows that simply hearing the word will kill people, what else is she aware of?

    Antinium conversations are so hilariously painful to read. Klb is going to return a stranger from this vacation in more ways than one.
    The demon king’s court shitting themselves over a simple emissary from the original hives feels absurd but then they just casually turn off silvenia’s magic. Actually I’m so glad we finally got to see that the hives are still around and kicking but holy shit. The sleeping god stirred from the lost thing stepping onto rhir and a hive hive simply disappeared? Another besieged, but by what? How can a simple turn in the sheets start a siege? Queens, plural, died. I need to know what’s actually happening down in their tunnels, damn. I wonder how this is going too affect the demon kingdom, will they panic and do something rash? Can they really contact the Izril hives in secret? This spells trouble.

    “and this would be no victory if nothing remains. Not even us!”

    Norechl playing to his strengths. The thing of nothing and the lost, gets itself lost in a move that may leave nothing in its wake. What a colossal power move lol.

    Got to wonder what scares the gods more, the thing on rhir or what lives beyond the edge and if this fear is because of their current state or if they’d fear even if they were at full power.

    • How did Rhir get so much damage?

      For the ants the simple act of a queen being able to think of an invasion and having it instantly carried out is big. The fact that beings like gods can appear at multiple places or just ignore distance at certain times is also big.

      Then add to the corruption effect that forces some ants like Klbkch having to murder “corrupted” ants to save a hive?

      The simple act of turning in one’s sleep could have caused multiple attacks by monsters with corruption spreading across entire ranks without any clear way to contain it besides murder.

      Get two queens infected then that spreads to the more bog standard troops which could tie up lines before the rest of the problems spiral out through monster attacks, corrupted ants, or whatever spreads the corruption moving freely through their tunnels.

      And that is without any direct attacks, curses, spells, or Skills being unleashed… Much less a “divine” or “unholy” ability as even Dead Jerk Gods can tear holes into the fabric of reality.

      At best think Cthulhu in how much damage he was able to do while being asleep… Then upgrade and enhance.

      That is your answer for how this disaster could have happened and killed so many so quickly.

      A lesser example would be how the Moth Swarm did so much damage so quickly before they took them out with rain. Just a few minutes before anyone realized what had happened and only teleporting doors and magical alarms helped warn everyone.

      And the Ants seem to lack certain means of warning systems. Or ones that might fall prey to corruption effect.

    • > So Cognita knows about the gods. The geas or whatever doesn’t affect golems. Why not? How did she learn about gods?

      Well, Cognita said that Golems know some words that bards don’t. Funny thing, the original golems (the ones in the Hebrew legends from our world) were animated by having one of the names of God written on a paper and shoved into their mouths. And Cognita is one of the very few ones that are… um… cognizant…

  5. And called it.

    The gods might become the new allies because one of their number hit the “oops” button. The one that could end the world because it was annoyed at Erin pulling a win.

    That whatever is in Rhir is dangerous enough to even threaten the gods and it started to stir when the gods started moving or looking at it.

    So is it Eldritch… Or is it a devil?

    For one should be careful when praying to gods least a devil listen instead.

    • My theory is that when the gods died, they left corpses in the real world. The ancients (Fae, Elves, Gnomes, Dragons, Goblins etc) sealed them in vengeance dungeons across the world, like under Liscor. Perhaps it’s actually the Walled City of Graves, constructed with enough dragon bone to build dozens of Walled Cities, from those fallen in the war against the gods. There’s probably one sealed under Wistram too.

      Rhir may be the resting site of a final cataclysmic battle of said war, where countless immortals and gods and level 100s fell. Ambient residual energies / aftereffects may have prevented setting up any seals, and the resulting clusterf may have spawned some horrific gestalt abomination over time. May have also been a seat of power, given how the Blighted King “found” the gods’ hero summoning spell there.

      Might be different types of gods; the six are one kind that are created and fed by faith, then there’s the cthulhuian types like Actelios Salash and presumably beyond the Last Tide. The ancient Drathians kinda strike me as immortal cultivators, so maybe not gods but almost godlike power and capable of godslaying. Their descendants seem cut-off from their home realms and resources so they can’t cultivate to the same level of their ancestors.

  6. I was pulling out my hair in this chapter. The drums in the deep, I had to play the Bridge of Khazad-dum while reading it.
    The power levels were insane and considering that I don’t get what the Antinium of Rhir want from those of Izril that could change the tide.
    Thanks Pirate.

    • More. The idea was that they’d go colonize Terandria, expand freely for a while without the severe resource constraints of Rhir, and then come back with enough Centenium to bury the entire continent. That no longer being on the table might be why they seem so unconcerned by the fate of the departed: they don’t want anything the Izril lot can give them, and so they just don’t care at all.

  7. I figure that the Lost god is trying to exerce influence in the world the few ways he can: by messing with the Antinium in rhir he may force the hands of the antinium in Izril. And i just bet he jumping over the edge of the world is gonna cause another Actelios Salash type entity to cross over the edge in the real world

  8. Lesser mysteries hinted in this chapter:

    What could a human from Earth have done to heal a mortally wounded Deathless? A not-medic Earther at that.

    What is the Wyrm’s most precious possession that he does not want to trade away?

    • since he knows what ryoka tried to take it’s likely safe to assume that it’s the possession he isn’t willing to give up for the obols.

      No reason for him to worry that she might want some random really valuable possession of his for it when he Allready knows what she wants.

  9. So the dead gods are afraid both of the sleeping god and of whatever lies over the edge of the world. But the god of lost things knows something about what’s over the edge that tempts it to take the plunge… Somehow inspired by Erin or her artefacts to do so.

    Beyond the above, I have no idea what’s really really going on here

  10. I like Ryoka’s strategy, whether she is intentionally doing this or just being herself post character development. If she gets the good favor of everyone surrounding Rhisveri and Itorin 2 (including a possibly more powerful teacher apparently) then I bet that she could get some objective voices to argue for her release. It sounds like the strategy of a certain frozen Innkeeper to me.

    • Sounds like the dynamic Pirate always writes between Erin and Ryoka, ever since Volume 1. They both go through similar events in the opposite ways. (In this case it’s Erin, dead, earning the favor of the forever-dead, and Ryoka, alive, earning the favor of the forever-alive.)

  11. Are we not talking about how the trolls know the goblins too well? They are in the mountains but who think to look down when hiding something. Say a key

  12. The closest thing I can think of to synth sounds I can think of that can be easily built by an Earther and a local craftsman is the Glass Harmonica, which is made by nesting a bunch of different size glass bowls and spinning them on their sides, and you get a controlled version of a finger around the edge of a drinking glass. Invented by Ben Franklin, this seems like something Ryoka might know of.

  13. Gotta say, wouldn’t it be better for the Antinium if they destroyed the Blighted Kingdom as soon as possible before they have any chance to perform the ritual again, rather than wait until they’re in the process of doing so? I can see the disaster taking shape right away.

    • It may cost them too much in resources and lives to do it unless it proves absolutely necessary. Whatever stirs seems to be breaking the stalemate.

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