“There are but two laws in this world as they apply to all folks capable of levelling, be they winged or finned, small or large. There is law for those of low-level. And law for those who level higher than the rest.”
The Book of Levels, Chapter 4. On the whole, Teresa Atwood found it curious. It was a mix of biblical-esque writings about morality, strength through suffering and perseverance–‘those who struggle will one day outlevel those who live in complacency’–and a kind of, well, power-gamer’s handbook.
She was no expert, but telling a [Farmer] to try cultivating difficult crops in bad soil? Sounded like a good way to give yourself a hard time. Or to gain experience.
However, it was a mix of morality and tips, and thus parts simply read wrong to her. Like the opening to Chapter 4.
“It’s not fair.”
She broke off reading, frowning at the passage. A steady, no, trying to be steady look was her only reply. Teresa didn’t know if that was impatience or a desire to hear what she said.
She deferred to the latter, as it had been a chapter every day at best, despite neither having read this before.
“I know it’s true. I’ve seen Orthenon spar and he can do eight-versus-one. I don’t think anyone in my world…maybe if it was an actual fighter or soldier versus a bunch of idiots, maybe. But with weapons? I know everyone can break our world’s records, even if they’re only Level 40. But it just doesn’t sit right.”
She had actually done this, in the times between war and strife. And in the Kingdom of Reim, that was all the time. To test her theory, she’d asked some of the King of Destruction’s vassals, from Mars and Orthenon to ‘lesser’ vassals like Maresar, Venith, and so on, to perform some tests.
Teresa hadn’t watched the Olympics and written down all the scores, but she knew things like the hundred meter dash. Of course, figuring out how far a meter was when no one thought in anything but feet was annoying…
However, the results were clear even without precise measurements. Some people weren’t built to run, didn’t enjoy it, and some people like Orthenon could zip across the battlefield, being all about attacks and maneuvering.
Mars, for instance, wore armor, and she could run forever, but she didn’t sprint, only charged into the enemy at the head of a vanguard. Nevertheless, she could easily break ten seconds without Skills.
That was a Level 60+ [Vanguard], though, one of the greatest warriors of Chandrar. By contrast, the [Mages] were actually quick…for what Teresa expected of them. But even Ulyse, the highest-levelled among them, couldn’t compare to [Warriors] half his level.
Teres missed Ulyse.
A single one of Flos’ vassals could scare an army. But the law applying to only a select few rankled Teres.
Her audience never replied. He sat, never moving, blinking a few times. Covered head to toe in bandages. Teresa looked at a living mummy, and the flash of green. However, even the flesh around his eyes had burned. He hadn’t been able to open his eyes for days and the [Healers] had privately confessed they were terrified that the heat had melted his eyes from his sockets.
That they hadn’t was because he’d been drinking healing potions as he fought, and his level. Even so, and even now, the King of Destruction sat, bandages hiding horrific burns that did not want to heal.
Magical fire. The power of a great Djinni, the terrifying Drenir. Yes, he’d been freed and laid waste to a Nerrhavian city. However, the battle had left the King of Destruction so wounded he’d been levitated away. Now, without him to lead armies, Takhatres had abandoned Reim to hold Hellios. Orthenon and Mars were stuck in the north, and Maresar and Venith alone were holding off the biggest push of Nerrhavia’s Fallen yet.
Teres? She was keeping Flos company. She could have been fighting, but after he had woken up, he had said two words, though his throat was as burned as the rest of him.
First–Gnolls. Second? Teresa’s name.
“They’re all safe. Takhatres is sweeping Hellios, holding off the armies. The only problem is if Queen Calliope rebels…or her son.”
Teres put aside the book after three more pages, when his eyes began to roll. The King of Destruction tried to nod, then froze.
Teres bit her lip. She didn’t need to read his mind to see how much that hurt. His bandages needed to be changed regularly because his wounds seeped or bled, but that was so painful she couldn’t watch. And no one dared try healing the burn wounds at this point. The risk of infection and thus murdering him in seconds via potion-enhanced disease was extreme.
So Teresa read to Flos. She reached for the newspaper next and Remi Canada’s articles. Reim’s capital was under lockdown. They were preparing for a siege. She wished she knew whether Trey was safe. Or if relief would be coming. But it was this, speaking to Flos, practicing her sword drills alone, or speaking to Nawal.
Yet if Flos didn’t speak, for once silenced by burns, forced to write if ever–and all he wrote were simple questions, like ‘Gnolls’, ‘war’, ‘Trey’, or ‘Fetohep’…the Blacksmith of Clan Tannousin said nothing by choice.
She stood by the anvil, swinging her hammer and making superlative blades of steel, until her hands were raw and bloody.
Two ghosts. The war was going poorly, and the one magical cure for Nawal–perhaps–who knew her, was lost to Wistram. The other, for Flos?
He was in no position to gainsay Fetohep at the moment, even if he could ride on the capital and demand one of the great treasures like a Potion of Regeneration to heal himself. Not with Khelt’s show of force. Rather, the opposite. Venith and Maresar were almost more worried about a single army from Khelt than five from Nerrhavia’s Fallen, and they were worried about both.
So, Teresa did her best. Distract Flos Reimarch from his terrible pain. She held up the newspaper so he could read.
“The Gnoll tribes are saying it’s Fissival that uh, planted this anti-magic crystal in the ground. Did you know they could do that?”
Flos blinked twice for ‘no’. He looked at the paper, and Teresa read out the commentary and analysis by Chandrar’s most beloved [Journalist].
“…the allegation, among many conflicting narratives, in brief, can be summarized as this: the Walled Cities, or Fissival alone, conspired to nullify the Gnollish people’s arcane abilities, which differ from that of Shamanic magic, using said crystals. Whether they are scattered across Izril, and how far this plot reaches, or even the accuracy is not yet verifiable. However, the facts are these: a crystal was uncovered directly under the Meeting of Tribes. It correlated to a burst of arcane magic. More Gnolls have yet to manifest talents, but some have managed to cast arcane magic when they could not before. And finally, Fissival, the City of Magic, is known to have had a continent-wide teleportation network which ran on waystones such as these.”
It was dry, well, newspaper-like, but that was clearly an attempt to be accurate and not shout the obvious, which was unverifiable as of yet. Flos Reimarch expressed his thoughts on the matter.
“You said it. No wonder the Gnolls left Izril. What do you think will happen?”
Teresa began to find some of the other newspapers from Izril. Some of them were spicy. The news was the talk of the world. The talk of the week. The talk of…well. The century. Right up until the next big thing happened. Like Reim falling.
But the Gnolls weren’t going to forget. She wondered what the consequences would be.
“Consequences? I’m sure the tribes will be furious. It might be war and that would be disastrous, given that would be exactly what the Antinium want. Why would we add anything to that?”
The question was so stupid that Grand Magus Eldavin didn’t even deign to look at the speaker as he addressed Wistram’s own Council of Mages.
“Gnolls have historically been part of Wistram. Gnolls have been [Archmages]. Fissival alone, or some wider conspiracy, has engineered their exclusion from Wistram, and indeed the rift between the species and the academy now! Is Wistram Academy going to simply sit by, or censure this with words?”
“It would be neutral, Grand Magus.”
A cautious voice from a [Mage] of the Hulltp faction, a tiny one, but which had a whole two seats on the Council of three hundred. The half-Elf looked at the Drake.
“Neutral? Neutrality is not the same as inaction, young man. If we do nothing, or merely reply in words, we, by doing so, imply that there is little problem with this kind of action. That it is fine to erase the magical talents of generations. I am putting a vote to the Council to do more than censure. Down with the City of Magic! I suggest, to begin with, all Fissival [Mages] be banned from all but public spaces of the academy. Certainly from speaking with any…Humans…among us. We need not eject them yet…the guests at Wistram are token. More importantly, we will begin a magical boycott of all items from Fissival’s academy by all magical institutions across the world. That would be today’s items, but I suggest that we make the following announcements over the next few days…”
Eldavin said the words ‘suggest’ and ‘vote’. However, he spoke with no such intentions in mind. The [Mages] listened as the Terras faction seats, newly acquired, and a majority, waited behind their leader. The other Archmages weren’t even present. What would be the point?
Cognita was gone. Who ruled Wistram?
Grand Magus Eldavin.
Of course it was horrific. The Gnolls of the tribe they’d joined were hopping mad. The news had just hit them, less than an hour after the Earth Elemental had uncovered the stone. They weren’t even at the tribe yet, but the [Hunters] were howling, throwing things, and uttering so many bad words that Bird was glad they hadn’t found Mrsha yet.
Her trail was getting harder to follow. They now had to rely on guesswork, sightings of white Gnolls, so this detour wasn’t actually a bad thing. It gave their scouts, like Snapjaw, the chance to use Icecube to search.
Bird had been staring at Fierre’s scrying orb, where Drassi had done the smart thing. Which was to kick Relz and Noass out of the booth and give a proper opinion piece of the entire event.
…By bringing on a Councilmember Elirr of Liscor, and a Pallassian Gnoll [Camerawoman] to take over. It was smart. So smart that it might have been a certain [Cook]’s suggestion in Drassi’s ear, as well as Remi’s, that made her do it.
At any rate, the composition was Drassi’s doing, and it also worked. Elirr was older, but had the perspective of a Gnoll who had been in the tribes. The Pallassian [Camerawoman] knew how the best interviews went, and took over a kind of interviewer/commentator role. She’d lived in Pallass all her life.
Not to say there wasn’t shouting. But the best moments were like these, in silence, when you saw Elirr’s paw trembling on a cup of tea.
“Am I surprised, Miss Treisha? Surprised? Yes. Horribly, terribly. But it does not surprise me, no. That is the worst part. That is…”
“That is the worst part of all.”
No one had a good thing to say about Drakes in this moment. From Magnolia Reinhart, to Rasea Zecrew, to Ailendamus, not one person had a good thing to say about this.
Well, Magnolia Reinhart did thoughtfully remark to Ressa one thing.
“It might make our reluctant allies come to the table. That would be a silver lining in the stormcloud they’ve summoned. And we must have some silver lining, Ressa, or I’ll have to cut short this visit to find out what has happened to…Eldavin…with no gain and all loss.”
Her hand tightened on the teacup. Ressa nodded slowly. She watched the ongoing coverage, as Elirr and Treisha, overburdened despite talking for nearly two hours, let another trio of Gnolls storm in.
“You never considered offering the Gnolls land in the north?”
Magnolia Reinhart’s gaze shifted. She looked at the young woman feverishly reading something in between trying to hold the conversation down and watching the scrying orb. Lyonette du Marquin touched the letters as if trying to pick them off the page. They’d been having a tea party when the news struck.
“Never once, Lyonette. Not in my wildest dreams of pursuing a peace with the Drakes.”
Lyonette glanced up, all vim and vigour and action. Magnolia had been hearing about some of the things she was getting up to. Calmly, the [Lady] regarded the [Princess]. Did she know who she was talking to and dancing with? Did her class attract them? That would put fact to the stories.
“My dear Miss Marquin–oh don’t look so worried. No one can hear us, magically or otherwise. Do you think I’d allow it?”
Lyonette hesitated, frowning, but chose her words with the tact Calanferian [Princesses] were supposed to be known for. In Magnolia’s experience, it was not a given.
“No offense to your security, Lady Reinhart, but we were nearly all assassinated in the open.”
Magnolia Reinhart heard a snort and elbowed Ressa’s knee. Lyonette blinked as both older women smiled.
“Miss Lyonette. What is the point of nearly being assassinated in public if no one sees? Rest assured, I don’t take chances in private for no gain.”
The [Princess] blinked. Magnolia glanced out the window and sighed.
“There are a lot of them. But the quality?”
Lyonette’s head turned just in time to see a [Butler] politely shove a figure climbing up towards one of the windows of the mansion with a stick. A figure flashed past her. There was no sound, but Lyonette winced.
There was a reason even the Assassin’s Guild of Izril had only ever taken Magnolia Reinhart’s holdings or attacked her in ambushes, as opposed to clandestine, convenient operations. Figures carefully swapping out bags of sugar in deliveries to the house turned as someone tapped them on the shoulder and they saw a trio of maids, led by an angry Gnoll [Maid], standing with cleaning supplies.
Not that scary, but you got the point. Magnolia answered Lyonette’s question as Reynold watched the figure run off, glad he didn’t have to get a broom.
“Gnolls are not the group sending forces north each year to slap hands with Human armies, Lyonette. Nor would the Walled Cities, ah, see a non-aggression pact between Humans and Gnolls any more favorably than between Antinium and Gnolls. Finally? Yes, I could probably arrange a huge patch of land to be given, or at least free access to the north. If I drank a Potion of Dunce, I would do just that.”
Why? But of course, Lyonette was too intelligent to ask that. She thought about it and came to the conclusion in two sips of sweet tea.
“Exactly. The worst thing I could do for Human-Gnoll relations is to let them be our neighbors. Can you imagine the first time a [Lord] or [Lady] decides one of them has stolen something?”
Magnolia sighed. You took matters one step at a time. But–she had to admit, as she scowled at the commentary…
“…Even my family wouldn’t enact a scheme as ludicrously unpleasant as this.”
It was hyperbole, because Ressa snorted again, but it just went to show that Magnolia Reinhart had more to learn.
Lyonette went to sip more tea, but it was hard. The [Princess] looked up from her cup. She tried to speak, coughed, and lifted her tea cup.
“I fear…with great apologies, Lady Reinhart, I might request a different cup? Mine is rather too sweet for my liking.”
Magnolia eyed Lyonette as Ressa, smirking, offered her a cup without Magnolia’s usual dose of sugar. She rolled her eyes. Fine, you were right. She’d add less sugar. Maybe.
Lyonette tried to wash the sugar dissolving the enamel of her teeth away with some of the rather fine tea. She looked at Magnolia, and the [Lady] murmured.
“We do have much to talk about, Miss Marquin. Too many issues cropping up of late. Even one is a headache. The Titan of Baleros is apparently running around Izril with every [Bounty Hunter] in existence tearing apart Invrisil on the hunch he is there.”
“You know that for a fact, Lady Reinhart?”
“I do have my network still, Miss Lyonette. Diminished, but it seems intelligence is not the strong suit of those pursuing Niers Astoragon. If I were to start my search anywhere…but it seems they’ve checked Liscor. Drat the fellow. He ignores me, and doesn’t even have the decency to conduct his affairs without causing a commotion.”
She scowled, then her lips quirked.
“Of course, that is hardly surprising given the Titan of Baleros’ character. What is surprising…I am not surprised by much, Lyonette. Not by much. If anything shocked me of late–it was that Tyrion Veltras proposed to anyone. Truly. I could accept the rest. But Tyrion Veltras, proposing to Ryoka Griffin no less?”
The [Princess]’ face twisted. She hadn’t expected Magnolia to bring that up, out of all the pressing and urgent events, but the [Lady] looked like she was slightly in shock, even now.
“You heard about it?”
“I believe I actually swooned. Ressa, do you recall that?”
The [Maid] considered the question.
“If you mean by ‘swooned’, laughed so hard you actually cracked a rib, yes.”
Both women traded glances. Magnolia began to chuckle so hard she had to put down her cup.
“I am sorry, Miss Marquin. You have come to me with great need and urgency and believe me, I am looking for that young child. But–you do know Miss Ryoka Griffin?”
“And I am sure you know of Tyrion Veltras and his…reputation?”
Oh yes. Lyonette saw Magnolia lift a handkerchief and dab at her eyes.
“On bended knee. Asking permission to court her.”
A snort–Lyonette looked, but Ressa had turned her head. Magnolia laughed. Then she grew serious.
“What a disaster. What riotous, unacceptable messes they’re making of my continent. I thought the worst they could do was start the war to end all wars or create weapons on par with Tier 7 spells. Instead, they’ve got Tyrion Veltras making war on Ailendamus. Well, better than him writing love letters, eh, Ressa?”
“Please never say that again, Lady Reinhart.”
Ressa shuddered. Lyonette saw her blanch, actually bend down, pick up a cookie, and pour herself a cup of tea. Completely ignoring decorum, she downed the entire teacup and cookie.
“Do forgive Ressa. Terrible memories. Tyrion Veltras has always admired women of a…particular character. Even as a young man.”
Lyonette’s mouth worked. Magnolia Reinhart smiled as Ressa shook her head like she was trying to throw off a shade’s grasping hands. But then she lost her smile.
“However, and I do regret bringing this up now, but I had no opportunity to speak to you before–Lyonette. Erin Solstice’s passing was a tragedy and I was deeply sorry to hear of it.”
Lyonette’s heart began to pound, painfully. She waited, but Magnolia Reinhart said nothing more. Her face was bleak. Bleak. Not uncaring. At the same time, however, she did not weep. She just looked…mildly sad. Lyonette found the words bursting out.
“She isn’t dead.”
Lyonette knew she was being a poor guest. She couldn’t help it, though. Her voice rose. Magnolia glanced at her.
“…Of course not, my dear. I do hope she can be revived, with this technique of ice. It is beyond curious, though. Such strange messages from…Khelt.”
“You know ab–”
The [Lady] glanced at Ressa. She didn’t even bother responding to that.
“Have either you or Erin Solstice met Fetohep of Khelt, Miss Marquin?”
“He does commission from Solar Cycles. And yet. And yet. Is this all connected?”
Magnolia Reinhart couldn’t even begin to fathom it. Erin Solstice? Not surprising. Tragic. Heartfelt. She should have truly taken the girl in hand, or posted more of her people there, but the young woman had seemed fine on her own.
“We cannot shape them. Only give them the chance to be all they might. A tyrant’s claw weighs down on all souls, yet the hand of kindness smothers as well.”
Lyonette glanced up. She had never heard that, but it sounded like a quote. Magnolia nodded to herself, then glanced up.
“Miss Marquin. Let us not play too many games. You are busy, no doubt, sequestering aid for your beloved little Mrsha–”
The [Lady]’s eyebrows rose. She peered at Lyonette and for a second, the full weight of her aura hit the [Princess]. Not like someone swinging a hammer, but a pressing scrutiny. Lyonette began to fight it, but then…Magnolia’s eyebrows rose.
“Your daughter. Indeed. Forgive me, Lyonette. I will help you. I have been, but navigating Drake lands is not easy for my people, what few of them there are. I can certainly tell you she made it out of that city long before the Gnolls got to her. And they are Plain’s Eye.”
Lyonette inhaled, hard. Magnolia went on.
“I will help you. But you will answer some questions for me, first.”
“Of course. Anything I can within reason. Is it the Healer of Tenbault that worries you that much? I…”
Lyonette had deep suspicions about just which Goblins might have kidnapped her, and why. Maybe Magnolia suspected it too, given how much she knew about Erin’s friends. But it seemed she was off. Magnolia turned, blankly.
“Oh, her? She is…quite capable of negotiating for her safety, and I’m sure the others are looking for her and all that. No, that is not what worries me. Not at all. We are following her, aren’t we, Ressa?”
“Someone’s on the job.”
The [Lady] waved the thought away without a second word. The [Princess] sat upright. What had Magnolia Reinhart so worried? If she wanted answers, she had summoned the right person to spill all.
Almost nothing was out of reason. If she wanted to get to Mrsha, when she found her, or if her brave little girl managed to tell her where she was, she would need the fastest vehicle in the world. A Pegasus, perhaps, or maybe a pink carriage. Magnolia Reinhart nodded. She appraised Lyonette, pursed her lips.
Why was she nervous?
“Lyonette…I would like you to recall meeting with a certain…a certain person. Spare me no details or speculation. But tell me everything. Did a Grand Magus Eldavin seem–off–to you when he visited your inn?”
The [Princess] hesitated. She knew that name. But why, of all disasters and opportunities, did this make Ressa stop taunting her mistress, make Magnolia’s hand tremble on the cup like that? Was it a cunning feint? Or…? She tried to think back to the enigmatic [Mage]. Magnolia listened.
Who had done it? Ryoka? Had he…?
If there was one thing that worried her, it was not the Circle, or Tyrion’s addled mind, or events in Oteslia, even the Drakes’ actions. It was simply this.
What had happened to him? He, who had never taken sides for as long as she had ever known him? The weary legend who slumbered? Why now? Why like this, and so odd, missing all her hints? Talking about reshaping Wistram?
The [Princess]’ eyes flickered, trying to work out what Magnolia’s game was. In any other time, the [Lady] wouldn’t even have hinted at the card being on the table. Now was not that time. She had to know.
What had they done to the Dragonlord of Flame?
It was true that even Regis Reinhart sneered at the mistake Fissival had made–if it was Fissival. Real genius was that it wasn’t.
“Either way, that it could ever be found out makes it a fool’s gambit.”
Yes, no one with a single good word for what had gone down. No one at all. Except for the little man in Bird’s head.
…Niers Astoragon, that was. He sat, listening to the outraged commentary, the shock, the fury, and told Bird it was fine.
“In fact, listen to what they just said.”
The Gnolls had exploded into fury as Drassi read out a breaking news bulletin. Bird was not sure why Niers laughed.
“Fissival just announced that the city had no motives against Gnolls, and any conclusions drawn are incorrect. Also, that they may have destroyed ancient Drake property, and the Walled City wishes to investigate.”
“Is that what you expected?”
The only thing Bird had expected all day was omelettes, and he’d gotten boiled eggs instead. He shook his head.
“No. It is silly, and I would know silly.”
“No, it’s not. I just bet you, that army from Fissival we passed? It’s picking up the pace. The Drakes aren’t going to apologize. Why would they? That’s an admission of guilt. They’re going to claim the Gnolls are making it all up.”
“Provoke them? Why?”
The Titan laughed.
“If you know you’re getting into a fight, Bird, you might as well throw the first punch. And they have. I can’t imagine many tribes are going to walk away from this. But the Drakes have the march on them in a huge way.”
“I do not understand. They did not turn off magic for [Shamans]. They have only made the Gnolls angry.”
“And killed generations of their magical talent in the arcane field. Put a huge rift between them and Wistram–that’s two hundred years of progress if what these Gnolls are saying is true. Maybe more. Think of it like this, Bird. You know that Great Shaman of the Goblin King during the Second Antinium War? He threw an army of your people into the sky by himself.”
“Yes. I wish I had been there.”
Bird sighed sadly. Niers paused.
“…Well, that was one [Shaman]. Gnolls? Gnolls have had [Archmages] and great [Shamans]. Two spellcasters, across a single race.”
“Is that so impressive?”
“Stop tilting your head, Bird. Yes, it is. Most races have one or the other. Good [Mages]? Good [Shamans]–both is rarer. Humans, for instance, tend to have one per civilization. Having a mix of them means you have more magic-users competing for less resources. More chances for truly high-level people to emerge. Even Fraerlings, my people, are behind in [Shaman]-magic. Dullahans are [Mages] without [Shamans]…Centaurs have a bit of both, but aside from them, Humans, Gnolls, and Garuda…no other species has an equitable mix.”
The Goblins, milling about, were oblivious, but might have protested being left out. To which the Titan would have replied they were a shamanic-leaning species, much like Gnolls, but without institutional opportunity, by and large, to benefit from arcane magic training. At which point they would have probably agreed.
Bird digested all of this, processed it, and came to a simple conclusion.
“So Drakes have done a bad thing for a clever reason. They have still done a bad thing. It is not nice. I think.”
In his hat, the Fraerling laughed. He laughed so hard he nearly knocked Bird’s hat sideways. To one of the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings, it looked like Bird’s hat tipped itself at him. He cautiously returned it and then backed away.
“Niers. Niers. Yes?”
“Listen to me. Are the Drakes going to beg for the Gnolls’ forgiveness? Absolutely not. Did they do this? Rhir’s hells and Foliana’s stupid tail, yes. I’ll bet a fortune. Do you know why? ‘Nice’ doesn’t win wars. Worry about morality after you win. That’s a luxury and that’s why I’ve rolled over idiots who think I have to obey their rules. Do you know what the proof of who’s better is, now? After all their history of fall and rise, decline and triumph–the Drakes still have the Walled Cities. The Gnolls have traditions like the Meeting of Tribes. Who won?”
Bird considered the question. He replied, slowly.
“You are not a nice man.”
Niers snapped back. He wished he could sit in Fierre’s hat. But she didn’t have one. Why not? He’d start a damn trend.
“I’m nice when I can afford to be. When your opponent’s hanging by the cliff, Bird, you don’t give them a hand. You break their fingers. You get to be a ‘silly Bird’ because someone else keeps you safe. They never do nice things. If you want to lead people, remember that. Their lives are your responsibility, so you never hold back. Never.”
He waited. The Professor realized he’d lost his temper and calmed down a bit. Something about Bird did annoy him, though. Perhaps it was being stuck in the hat. Perhaps it was just that: moralizing over what had been done.
The enemy has hurt your entire people. Don’t argue over the ethics. They’ve done it.
What are you going to do? Feshi was at the Meeting of Tribes. She’d have an answer, he was sure. They needed to find Mrsha, but these Gnoll hunters…they were tearing apart cities for her!
Even I wouldn’t authorize that, even if someone knifed me personally. There’s more than just vengeance and tradition here. The Titan began to tug on a string, but he had far fewer.
When the Antinium did speak, he was calm, for he liked and disliked Niers, but he knew the Titan was still the Titan. Even so, he murmured.
“I do not see why you wanted to meet Erin. I do not think she would like you.”
Niers Astoragon froze in his hat.
“Why not? She’s a brilliant chess player, and from what you’ve said, she’s done hard things and led armies. Dead gods, she challenged the Assassin’s Guild in Invrisil! She–”
He stopped then, because something strange happened. Something that made even the group talking about the incident turn. Numbtongue, Pivr, Goblins, Antinium, Humans, and more.
Bird was laughing. He laughed, like he had been taught, not like True Antinium laughed. And oh, it was free and gentle and mocking and innocent.
And sad. Niers heard him speak then.
“You do not know Erin at all. I hope you someday do.”
“…Me too, Bird. Me too.”
The world had changed in a day. A grand conspiracy had been unveiled. Big things were going to happen and now everyone sensed it, not just the Titan of Baleros.
What did you do on such days? Well, you either talked, processed it, or you kept moving. In great tragedy or triumph, what else could you do?
Perhaps…even Niers was taken completely aback by what came next.
“So, [Shamans] are a power of spiritual magic?”
“Collective. I don’t think there’s a difference. Certainly in how they cast it, but one’s simply innate, which is why you can suppress it. The other’s shared. I’m not a [Scholar], but I know enough to know how to foil both.”
“Intriguing. But how do [Shamans] get magic?”
Bird went over and plucked at Ulvama’s arm. The snoozing Hobgoblin jerked, raised her staff, and relaxed only fractionally.
“Oh, you. Bird. What? Trouble?”
She peered at the Gnolls, unconcerned with Gnoll drama. Bird shook his head.
“How do [Shamans] get power, please?”
Ulvama peered at him as if doubting this was a real question. Then she shrugged.
“All Goblins have power. Not just magic bzzt.”
She flicked her fingers, and tapped her chest.
“Power. Because we are united. Tiny bit, lots–usually tiny. [Shamans] gather. [Shamans] have power from old things too.”
She saw Bird’s blank expression, and Fierre’s, who had come over for a history lesson. So Ulvama sighed, and switched into a suddenly more advanced diatribe.
“There is magic in many things. Magic in tradition. Magic in ideas. If you take a boring rock, and put it in a special place for a long time, it is powerful. Not to [Mages] unless the special place is mana zone, because [Mages] only see one thing. But [Shamans] see the value. [Shamans] take it. So our magic does not do what [Mages] do because it is not the same magic. Understand?”
“Oooh. Yes. So even non-[Mages] can…”
“Yes, yes. I go back to sleep now. Okay?”
Ulvama was turning over and Niers was chortling. He was going to borrow that for his lecture on [Shamans]. It was a nice little way of explaining it. What Ulvama didn’t say was that the same held true. Cut off a [Mage]’s magic and they had none. That was simple; anti-magic fields, or Skills, although a truly extraordinary [Mage] could punch through it.
To beat a [Shaman], you could have a harder time or easier. Like a [Wizard], if the staff mattered, hit the staff. If a tribe’s will mattered, shake it.
He was about to explain this all to Bird, since he regarded the Antinium as something of a pet project–how high could his [Revalantor] class go? What did it do?–when Bird spoke.
“If it does not matter how much each person has, like Gnolls have [Shamans] even though there was a bad stone, does that not mean that Antinium can have [Shamans]?”
Ulvama had snuggled into a ball, facing deliberately away from Bird. Fierre saw the crimson eyes open. The Vampire girl herself sat upright, blinking.
Niers said nothing at all. Bird looked around. He nodded to himself.
Then, he walked over to the Antinium. They were milling around, the ones with names and the many with none. Of them was Infinitypear, an [Adventurer], Touma the Great, [Martial Artist], and so on.
And the Antinium with scars all over his carapace. He had no name. He had an aura. He was old.
Bird did not know his story. No one knew his story. That was fine. The Soldier had never expected anyone to tell his story. He had never had Erin sit him down individually. He had never done anything worthy of note–certainly not like these Individuals. He did not envy them. He did not hate them. If anything, he was glad they had come because things were better.
He had not even known Mrsha that well. So why was he here? Because he had seen her, scampering around once when he got to come to the inn. He had eaten a bowl of congee. Stared into a fire and seen half of a play.
And that was more than he had ever had in six years of his life. So when they called, he came.
…Bird passed right by him. The Antinium turned as Bird peered at an Antinium Worker with something interesting on its shell. Rather than just paint, it had discovered that some of the paints were also glues, so it had sprinkled dirt and grass onto its back shell, and applied what was more like a resin than glue.
Thus, Grass Shell had been created. The Worker had a little shortbow, a spear, and a buckler. He stopped still, as Bird came to him. The Individual of the Free Antinium pointed at him with all four hands.
“You. You have the power of grass and dirt on your side. Therefore, you are most worthy. You are a [Shaman].”
Grass Shell’s antennae waved frantically. A [Shaman]? Him? He peered down at his chest. Bird nodded.
“You have the magic of the Free Antinium. Yay. Xrn will be happy! Or not? Someone tore her head off. Part of it.”
He hopped away, humming to himself. Ulvama stared at Grass Shell. Xeu, Pivr, looked at each other in dead silence.
Niers Astoragon sat there, and came to a slow realization. Of course, he had known it, but he gave voice to it in full.
“You are exceptionally dangerous, Bird.”
The [Bird Hunter] tilted his head.
“Me? I am just a silly Bird. You must be mistaken.”
The Titan rubbed at his chin, smiling. He thought for a while, then mused aloud.
“I wonder…no, I don’t have a copy of a chessboard. And Tallfolk’s are way too damn big. A pity. You told me you played chess, once. If only–”
“Pawn to F4.”
Bird happily spoke. The Titan blinked. He paused for a long moment. Then replied.
“Pawn to E5.”
“Pawn takes E5. My bird is appearing.”
Bird happily clapped two of his hands together. The Titan blinked, in the silence of his hat.
“Erin Solstice taught you how to play chess with numbers?”
“Of course. Every Antinium can do it if they learn. Chess does not need a board. Silly. Even Apista can play chess with a board.”
Apista, the undisputed grandmistress of chess in the bee world, buzzed lazily past Bird. She had, in fact, demonstrably won a game against Mrsha one time. It took nearly two hours as the two wandered away from the chess board–well, Mrsha did. Apista kept having to figure out how to correctly attack with knights.
…But she did win. Niers sat in Bird’s hat, murmuring chess notation. It did not go unnoticed, of course.
“Bird. Are you playing a chess game against yourself?”
Fals couldn’t help but ask. Bird stopped muttering his moves, and hesitated.
“No? Yes. I am lying.”
The City Runner took it at face value, but Fierre almost went cross-eyed trying to work out…Fals grinned.
“We can play an actual game of chess, if you want. I have a board. From Erin’s inn. I bought it back in the day. It might be worth something, right?”
Some of the Gnolls looked over as Fals hopped onto the wagon and Bird climbed onto it.
“I would like to play games of chess.”
“Well, take it easy on me. I’ve seen the chess players in The Wandering Inn. I can let you finish your game.”
“Do not worry, Fals. It was only in my head. And I was winning.”
Someone kicked Bird’s antennae and he winced and slapped his hat. Fals didn’t notice.
“Anyone else play chess?”
Even the angry [Hunters] looked up. Fals was friendly enough to get a response from the growling Gnolls.
“Chess? We’ve heard of it. Some people in our tribe have a chess board. All they do is play the game. I had to hunt with one of them, once. Idiot watched a Corusdeer walk right by him because he was thinking of the next move.”
“I’m not bad at chess.”
Fierre offered. Numbtongue just rolled his eyes, but even Badarrow had been taught. And of course, the Antinium knew the game. It was Ulvama, of all people, who yawned.
“Silly game. I am good at games. You show me, I win.”
Her instant confidence made Bird’s head slowly turn. Niers whispered in Bird’s hat.
“Let her win two games. Then crush her.”
For once, both Antinium and Fraerling were in complete agreement. So Niers sat, watching, playing off games with Bird. It was amazing, but he actually did it. The Titan actually had to peek under a crack in his hat as Fals spluttered.
“Poke me with needles, it actually looks like a bird. Sort of.”
Chess and drama. Numbtongue listened sympathetically to a species who had gotten the quintessential Goblin experience for the first time in living memory. Ulvama began losing rapidly, for all the [Shaman] was, in fact, the best player in the Mountain City tribe, and started throwing fits.
Grass Shell just lay down. The thing about Antinium was that they had no true class. [Butcher], [Digger], [Warrior]–all usually below Level 5, let alone Level 10.
[Shaman], now? He’d never even dreamed of being a [Shaman]. What did a [Shaman] do? He must be, though. Bird was a [Liar], but he didn’t lie. The power of grass is in me? The little Antinium lay on his shelled back and lazily waved his arms and legs as he stared up at the sky.
[Shaman Level 1!]
[Skill – Ambient Focus: Grass obtained!]
[Spell – Razorgrass Patch obtained!]
Some people who didn’t know all about the betrayal of Gnolls, the drama at the Meeting of Tribes, actually covered a lot of ground.
Ksmvr of the Horns of Hammerad ran across the ground, in the kind of run the Antinium could keep up forever. Only, faster because he had the Ring of Jumping that let him easily leap over obstacles, and his [Brave Skirmisher] class.
Next to him rode a woman with dark skin, bright eyes, hair flying behind her. Below her, horse sped along, bearing the Empress of Tiqr, the Empress of Beasts, on its back. Other animals had more speed, more enhancements by Skill or magic or pedigree. Few had such will.
A little cat meowed on the back of the saddle, strapped in to avoid falling off. She kept staring at a giant figure, running as the lights flashed in its crystal ‘head’, carrying a huge battleaxe on one shoulder.
Domehead was the slowest of the lot, which meant that the Golem’s dead-run that never faltered, and could run down horses within an hour or two, was the benchmark by which they travelled. They did not stop travelling, the three.
They were being followed. And they had destiny to catch.
“Ksmvr. Do you know where your comrades are?”
“Yvlon is behind us, in Nerrhavia’s Fallen. However, Comrade Pisces is a captive of Roshal. I do not know where Ceria is. It is Pisces I must go to first. He will not be a [Slave].”
Nsiia’s eyes glinted.
“No indeed. Well-reasoned. Do you have a plan to catch him, though?”
“I sequestered the aid of the First Crafter, among others. [Bandits] have been hired to raid Pisces’ caravan. Along with other bits of material aid. However, I will personally free Pisces if need be.”
“All by yourself? I heard tell it was a large caravan.”
“I am a Gold-rank adventurer. I will pick them off, lay traps. And I have this.”
The sword of the [Paladin] was sheathed at his side. Nsiia eyed it.
“Hyenas laugh at me, but that’s fair enough. Even a Djinni would fear that blade.”
Ksmvr nodded. He glanced at the Empress of Beasts.
“And you are headed the same way to find your army along the Kilalle Steppes. I suppose we are allies, then. It occurred to me an army might free Pisces.”
The woman smiled.
“It might, mightn’t it? But that would depend on whether we stick together.”
Ksmvr nodded. The sun rose over the borders of Illivere’s lands, as they passed out of the greenery and cliffs which had given rise to each state’s strength in stone and the cultivated lands built on Golem-labor. They headed north, for anyone wanting to hide marched along Zeikhal, the Great Desert where sand and sheer distance made it easier to elude pursuit.
“Are you sure you didn’t want to take the Golem horse?”
Nsiia asked Ksmvr after the first hour. She was busy setting herself, adjusting what she had taken, and looking at Domehead. Domehead, who had come after her, not to Femithain or anyone else when freed. Ksmvr had called her a poor mother.
Which meant he was a son? The Empress of Beasts had no idea what to say to that. If she feared anything, more than pursuit, being captured by the forces that would surely follow from all countries that feared her return and Femithain himself, she feared that Ksmvr was right even more.
Ksmvr replied steadily as he ran.
“I am a [Skirmisher], I have plentiful stamina potions, and I am Antinium. We have marched for days on end without rest. It is what we were designed to do. Moreover, as a law-abiding adventurer, stealing a Golem Horse would be considered theft of a national treasure.”
Nsiia threw her head back and laughed.
“The rest of it was not a crime? Facing down Illivere’s finest, freeing me?”
Ksmvr shrugged. He calmly munched on a dry ration bar, as he had exerted himself a bit that night.
“It is lawful refusal to be held prisoner, asserting my right to self-defense…and I did not free you.”
“I simply waved my sword between your hands. That is what Ceria told me to say if I ever got in trouble. It sometimes works.”
Nsiia laughed. She threw her head back and breathed in. Free. There was a difference, for all that Femithain had never chained her until the end. Free. She spoke, a note in her voice.
“I shall not forget this, Ksmvr of the Horns of Hammerad. This is a mighty thing you have done for me. I failed my kingdom once; never again, I say. I shall have it back. Not at any cost. I paid one far too high in losing it, but I hear my people are the poor subjects of other lands, slaves like your friend. I will free every single one, and I will repay you as well.”
Ksmvr’s head turned. He nodded, calmly.
“I shall register the debt, Empress Nsiia.”
She regarded him.
“Ksmvr of the Horns of Hammerad. Ksmvr of the Free Antinium. Have you no last name to call yourself, Ksmvr?”
“No. I do not need one. Antinium have one name, if any.”
“Hm. You should have two. One so they know you, the other so they know from where you came. Be it tribe, or deed, or place. I am Nsiia Oliphant, so-named because of my capital city, and the very Grand Elephants my people made friends with long ago. You should have a name like that. Perhaps you should choose one?”
Ksmvr stared ahead.
The Empress’ eyes brightened, but Ksmvr shook his head.
“It does not matter at this moment, Empress Nsiia.”
“True! As for you. Domehead!”
The Golem turned, arms and legs pumping in distance-covering run #1, the algorithm running smoothly. Yet Nsiia saw lights shine from individual crystals in its atrium-dome. She drew closer as the Golem kept running. It never changed speed, never did more than slightly turn to her, as it was programmed to do when addressed.
Yet she sensed something watching her. Nsiia reached out. Her hand hovered near the reinforced plate armor. And Domehead…moved back.
To avoid hurting her by accident? Getting in her way? Or…?
“Oh, Domehead. I have not treated you well. Do you…do you understand me? Can you communicate?”
The great automaton said nothing, but the lights moved in its head. Nsiia threw her head back and yowled, like Yinah. A guilty sound. Ksmvr nearly fell over a rock as the sun began to bake the dry, flat ground. It was warm at first, then unpleasantly hot. He absently reached for a water bottle. He must remember to hydrate.
“I will make it up to you. I must apologize. You–Domehead, never let anyone strike you again. Not I, not your creators, not anyone. Do you understand me? Can you tell me if you rage?”
He said and did nothing, just ran. Nsiia looked at him. Then she rode closer.
Again, the Golem veered away slightly, but Nsiia just followed. Domehead hesitated…then did what no unthinking Golem should. He stopped moving away and let her come nearer. As they rode, Nsiia gently placed a hand on his side.
“I know not what Femithain has given you. But if Ksmvr is correct…I beg your forgiveness again, and again, Domehead. For you are a child born of metal and magic. Yet…you come to us, on this day we shall mark, and mark again. Little child. Born to Tiqr. Beast’s friend. Stop your crying. Still your fear. For wherever animal or person roams, a friend shall be near. I ask that you grow older, and wiser, and live long. Levels come to you, and may your life be filled with song…”
Ksmvr listened, as she began to recite a nursery rhyme. He had never heard it before, and she dared not slow, even as she rode. Yet the Empress never took her hand away from the great Golem as she sang.
So passed their first hours in flight. As the sun rose, it got hotter, and hotter, and hotter.
Ksmvr knew this, of course, but he found it displeasurable the more it baked his brown-black carapace. Nsiia was used to it. Domehead didn’t care. Ksmvr did not slow, but he emptied the first water flask that would have lasted him half a day on Izril.
“The heat is a disadvantageous foe.”
He confided to Nsiia as they slowed. She nodded.
“What manner of provisions have you? I didn’t have much to take, although I had a bag in case I did ever manage to flee…”
“I have ample food and supplies. Observe. Rations.”
He had bought nearly twenty pounds of dried rations, a staple across Adventurer’s Guilds and one of the things they sold. These were, of course, a local variety used by Illivere’s folk, so it was a kind of Yellat-paste mixed with nuts, dried jerky, then sun-dried and compiled into bars or even cubes.
Nsiia’s look of disgust said it all. Yinah sniffed a bit of a bar and tried to hawk a hairball up.
“I shall hunt, if we have time to slow. Or on the ride.”
“Will your horse tire? If we must slow…”
Ksmvr was aware horses needed such things. Nsiia laughed and patted the brave mare who tossed her head and actually reared slightly as if she understood everything.
“She rides in the company of the Empress of Beasts! A finer horse you will not find even in Jecrass! And this is a woman who was born for battle and adventure. I will only give her the strength for it!”
“Ah. Enhancement Skills. Very nice.”
Nsiia lost some of her smile. She frowned at Ksmvr.
“You are a bit too practical for my tastes, Ksmvr. Have you no sense of drama?”
“I have attended many plays, thank you.”
Ksmvr carefully topped up his water supplies. He had a lot of water, but he still felt unpleasant, so he drank more. Nsiia saw, and nodded.
“I know how to find wells. We shall stop and perhaps purchase more supplies. It is hard to disguise you, but at a distance with a cloak? It can be done. No doubt we are being scried.”
She snapped her fingers with vexation.
“Femithain gifted me with a ring to hide my presence! A standard thing. But you do not have one, do you?”
“Nor does Yinah. Or Domehead. Well, I shall simply have to try to ruin any [Scrying] spells myself. Let me simply…”
She frowned mightily, and Ksmvr felt the air change. He felt his heart beat a bit faster, and Yinah yowled.
“What are you doing?”
“Using my aura to block spells. I dislike it, and it will tire me out. Grr…there.”
She shook herself, as if shedding something on her back. Ksmvr was mightily impressed.
“Auras seem very convenient.”
“They are. I myself trust a blade more than an aura, though. Enough talk. If you have one, perhaps I shall teach you as we run? I do not have the means to unearth it, though. Onwards!”
They headed off. Ksmvr ran, but something began to happen after only twenty six minutes. He began to…slow. Domehead moved up a pace, and Nsiia glanced at him.
“Is something wrong?”
“I do not feel good. This is a distasteful heat.”
“A potion, perhaps…?”
Ksmvr sipped a stamina potion, and felt the jolt of energy, but he still felt bad. He sped up anyways, but Nsiia watched him, frowning.
After only six minutes, Ksmvr went for his water again and drank a lot. Nsiia cautioned him.
“Too much will slow you down.”
Ksmvr splashed some on his body.
“I am not a fool. Do not lecture me, Empress.”
She blinked once. The Antinium had a snappish tone to his voice. After only three more minutes, he slowed further, stumbling.
“Ksmvr! What is wrong?”
“I do not feel good. It is hot.”
The Antinium muttered. He tried to keep moving…then slowed down. Then he fell down and curled up. Nsiia, astonished, leapt from the mare’s back and ran over to him. She put a hand on his shelled back and yanked it away.
“You are burning up!”
Ksmvr was hot to the touch. Not like metal left under the sun, but close. She grabbed her own water flask and poured it on him.
That was all Ksmvr said. She was watching him shut down in front of her. Why? He had seemed to hydrate and he was a Level 30 [Skirmisher]! What was…?
It was as Nsiia stared at the sweat on her own skin, and at Ksmvr, that she realized what it was.
Perspiration. He wasn’t sweating.
“Ksmvr! You don’t sweat?”
He didn’t respond, but Nsiia realized–bugs didn’t. They didn’t regulate their body’s temperatures, not like other creatures did. They hid in the shade in the heat, under the sand, and when winter came…
Heat and cold. Ksmvr wasn’t moving. Frantically, Nsiia dumped the rest of her flask over him and looked around.
This was not the place for shade. They were entering Tiqr, but a war-ravaged part of Tiqr, and this was one of those places where you travelled in arid conditions from oasis to oasis, which were greatly important. Further towards the capital there was more water, but it was a plague across Chandrar.
Water. Some nations had the Purifier Golem, or had money to buy water, or natural rivers. Or they stole it, like Savere. But nowhere was immune from thirst. And heat?
A shadow passed over her. Nsiia whirled.
“Domehead! Stand here, please! Shield Ksmvr from the sun while I think.”
The Golem instantly blocked the killing sun from covering Ksmvr. Nsiia searched through his gear, frantically. However, neither was a [Mage]…
“We need to cool him down. Ah! He hasn’t any elemental scrolls…very well. Very well.”
She seized the objects he had and improvised to save his life.
Ksmvr was hot. He was too hot. It was pain, not like physical pain, but a bad, terrible suffocation of heat. He couldn’t see or think. It was just there, to be endured, with no relief.
Until it wasn’t. Until he felt something all over him, dripping, swishing, pattering. So much of it that it cooled him down.
Right up until he realized he was drowning.
“I am going to die! Water! Water!”
He flailed his arms wildly. Nsiia backed up, and Yinah stopped bathing in the entirety of Ksmvr’s water rations she was dumping on him. But it had worked. She had given him the perspiration his body lacked, and Ksmvr came to.
“You are dying of heatstroke, friend. Domehead, help me. Carefully, carefully…”
Ksmvr tried to move, but it was like someone had hit him with a spell. He felt two massive hands pick him up, and Nsiia fussed around him, bending down, applying something to him.
“What are you doing? I will run…I am a Gold-rank adventurer. I do not fall to heat.”
She patted his shoulder.
“You are in no condition to do either, Ksmvr. Until it turns dark and we can cool you down, you are as weak as a Sariant Lamb, the worthless little things. Rest. Domehead will carry you.”
“But the sun? You have used up my water.”
“Yes. We will manage. A well will present itself. But this…should save you until we get there.”
She pasted more of whatever it was all over Ksmvr. It was mud, he realized. The glop from all the water she’d dumped down. A cooling covering.
“I am embarrassed.”
“Everyone has a flaw, friend. Isn’t it lucky you took me?”
“Yes. Thank you.”
Domehead’s crystals whirled as he carefully held Ksmvr, the dangerous Antinium, weak as a lamb in his hands. If the Golem thought…Nsiia put a hand on his arm.
“You see? We two laid you low, Domehead. He, of necessity. I, of cruelty. But we are allies. Protect him, I ask you.”
The Golem did nothing. Nsiia stared up at him, anxiously. Ksmvr, head lolling, indeed unable to move, had an insight.
The Golem adjusted its posture. Ksmvr whispered.
“You nod when someone asks you for something like this. It is a sign of affirmation, and expected.”
The Golem paused. Then Nsiia saw it try to nod at her. Her eyes went wide. Ksmvr smiled. Nsiia’s head turned to him.
“How did you…?”
“I had to be told too.”
Onwards, and this time with a pressing concern as the trio moved. Nsiia rode ahead, head high, on a swivel. From what the delirious Ksmvr saw, it was not good.
So flat. The horizon turned to wavy lines in the distance. They were passing through a true desert terrain and it seemed to Ksmvr nothing could survive here. That anything did was because they were so small they could survive off the barest hints of moisture–or they had magic in them.
“Sand Worms will be our only true threat, I think. This is not part of Zeikhal in truth; just a place sands reclaimed. Yet there will be wells.”
“Wells. Where does the water come from?”
“From mountains. It runs down. Or groundwater from whenever it rains, deep basins. Or simply…up.”
“That is not how water works.”
“Then you have not seen all wells, friend! And it may seem deserted to you, but any traveller knows there are wells on their journey. I think…if I recall correctly…aha!”
She spotted a well at last, though Ksmvr had no earthly idea how. Experience; Nsiia pointed, and they headed down the barest hint of a road, packed from use compared to the dust around them. The very earth was cracked, but as promised, there was a well.
Just a circle of tightly-packed stones, into which you could hurl a bucket or waterskin and use the rope to draw it up. Nsiia was doing just that.
“Water for your rations, cooling for you. We must travel at night and find a way to remedy your weakness, Ksmvr.”
The mud had baked dry already in the heat. The Antinium was still weak as she applied more water and fed Yinah some. It was not good water, but it was there.
“I did not expect this. I have never been away from Izril.”
“Ah, well…when we reach my people, we sh–”
Nsiia broke off, because there was a scream from above. Then, without warning, a stone struck the earth near them and a shape circled overhead.
“That is my well!”
Ksmvr tried to pull for his blade, but he couldn’t. Domehead moved–but Nsiia held up a hand.
“Domehead, stop! Hey there, well’s guardian! We did not see a sign!”
A Garuda landed, far enough away to be well out of danger, a sling in one hand, a simple spear in the other.
What was this? Ksmvr saw the Garuda eye him, but he must have seemed a ball of mud. Domehead and Nsiia he was far more wary of.
“What’s this? Are you travellers or nobility, to have a Golem bodyguard? What’s that he holds?”
“Private business, friend. I come from Illivere.”
The Garuda grunted. Ksmvr didn’t see his dress, but it must have been light to let him fly around.
“That’s clear. This is my well.”
“And I did not see the sign. Was there a bowl? I would have left the fee if I had seen it. You come to anger too fast, guardian.”
“Hmph. Well, it must have been blown away, though it was secured! The fee is four silver. More, with all the water you’ve taken.”
Nsiia mumbled and Ksmvr, holding still, heard her fish around in her bag of holding.
“It seems a steep price to pay! I have been at this well before, and it was a silver only, and we saw no guardian.”
“Well, I must not have seen you. Times are harder. Tiqr’s fallen, but this is my well. I’ve maintained it for years.”
“Only the one?”
“Psh. What do you care? It’s a pittance to you and it keeps me alive.”
Nsiia nodded agreeably. The Garuda kept frowning at Ksmvr as she tossed the coins down.
“We’ll leave and be on our way, friend. As soon as we draw the rest of the water.”
“Hmph. Do that.”
Ksmvr heard the beat of wings, but he still didn’t move. He heard Nsiia go back to the well, and draw more water. She filled his flasks, then murmured.
“Domehead, he’s circling. Turn slightly.”
The Golem obeyed, shielding Ksmvr. Nsiia was silent as Ksmvr whispered.
“Is that common?”
“Oh yes. Someone must own a well. Someone must make sure it is not befouled. It is a living, and individuals or tribes or cities hold their own. A single Garuda is a threat indeed. Had I no bow, he could strike me with stones with the right Skills, or even harry a group. Even if they were mighty, he could warn others out of maliciousness.”
“I see. A different place indeed. No one does this in Izril.”
“So I am told. They don’t claim rivers?”
Ksmvr shook his head slightly. He felt so miserable. He was beginning to hate Chandrar. It definitely ranked below Izril on his scale of exactly two continents he had now been to. Below Rhir, maybe, even though he had heard Crelers came from there.
“Some do, but not for access. Yvlon tells me that no noble truly tries to claim all of a river. Some do things like toss silver into wells, but that is only tradition.”
“What, to purify the water? Odd traditions, Ksmvr. I should like to visit, nevertheless. Someday…we have the water. Domehead, keep up. Quickly, now.”
Something was wrong. Nsiia set a fast pace, so that Domehead jolted Ksmvr a bit. Did she want to escape the Garuda?
No. As it turned out, she was merely finding the right place. She set herself, on a hill of all things, a natural rise and the only such one, and bade Domehead stop. She waited.
“Why have we stopped, Nsiia?”
“For his friends, of course.”
The Garuda was back. This time Ksmvr raised his head and saw nearly two dozen riders approaching. The Garuda was the only flier of the lot, and shouted as he drew near.
“Not at all.”
Nsiia’s voice was steely. The [Bandit], who had disguised himself as a well guardian, hesitated. But Nsiia explained, for Domehead and Ksmvr’s benefit.
“I knew the previous well-guardian. An old man who kept it clean. No one else could claim to have worked here for years. Second? I doubt many Garuda would watch one well. They can fly many miles to watch over each one. Lastly–the price told me you were checking if I could pay it. Of course, since I had a Golem, you decided to kill me anyways. Tiqr has fallen, and already the scum infest the travelways!”
She drew her sword, an unenchanted weapon, but a good steel one with a ringing sound. The [Bandits] stared at her.
“She’s dangerous. That’s a big Golem.”
“Who cares? Kill her and it’ll only chase or guard.”
Bandits. Ksmvr tried to get up, but he was still too weak.
“Nsiia, take my Forceshield and bow. Domehead, put me down.”
The Golem began to obey, but Nsiia shook her head.
“They’ll be on you as a hostage, Ksmvr. Domehead, stay here. Guard Yinah and Ksmvr.”
An angry yowl as the Empress tossed the cat. Domehead hesitated as a furry figure landed on Ksmvr. He began to put Ksmvr down.
Nsiia’s head turned as the [Bandits] began to ride forwards, aiming bows to end this without danger to themselves.
“Domehead. Do you worry for me?”
“It is sensible. He guards you, not me.”
Ksmvr answered for the Golem. A light flashed in Domehead’s head. Thoughtfully, Nsiia looked at it. Then she beamed and smiled. She touched his arm since his shoulder was far too high.
“Ah, then. If I am to teach you anything, let it be war and respite. This is a lesson for war, today. These scum are a threat to small bands, to the innocent. Yet when it comes to battle…”
“They have horses. They have bows and outnumber you.”
Nsiia laughed. She hadn’t even taken his Forceshield.
“A single warrior can scatter fifty times her number! I have seen it done. Watch!”
With that, she kicked her mare into a gallop. Straight at the [Bandits].
At first, they laughed. Fast as she was, she was still far distant and they did have bows, and levels enough. They formed a loose line, joking about who would hit her.
“Don’t kill her! That’s a fine prize!”
One laughed. The Garuda was circling, warily, as the first shots began to range out, bow, crossbow, slings.
Most went wide. It was a single figure, riding on them, sword drawn, galloping. A few were enhanced, though. Nsiia spun her sword, a cavalryman’s sabre, and slashed down an arrow. She turned the mare and avoided a second projectile. On she came.
The [Bandits] frowned. They loosed a second volley. This time, without the benefit of Skills, most went wide again. She was riding at them fast.
“Enough. [Perpendicular Shot]!”
A [Bandit] aimed an arrow wide of Nsiia, but as it flashed past her, it suddenly turned at a ninety-degree angle and shot straight at her.
She leaned out of the saddle. Now, the [Bandits] were turning.
“Break up! Break up and surround her!”
They still hadn’t even met. Ksmvr, watching, saw Nsiia riding at the [Bandits] as they began to realize something. She was literally cutting arrows out of the air, and her speed…she could run down any single one of them on horseback.
Not a problem if they killed her, of course. But what if she killed them? Now, the woman was riding faster. She swung her sword, and he heard a shout.
“As I am sovereign of these lands, you shall all die! Know me! I am Nsiia of Tiqr! Nsiia Oliphant! [Empress of Beasts]!”
Silence. Then a shout of horror. The Garuda turned, and Nsiia whirled. She brought up the shortbow she had taken from Ksmvr, aimed, and loosed.
A figure dropped out of the skies. The [Bandits] watched their leader fall, and wavered. She rode at twenty, and their nerve broke. They began to scatter. One, seeing her come at him, turned, and raised his own blade.
Nsiia swept past him as her sword flashed. [Elephant’s Strength]. [Cat’s Grace]. She had fought on battlefields against armies.
She ran them down, one after another, catching them and dispensing a quick justice. Ksmvr watched her check the bodies with distaste, whistling to the mounts. They trotted over and joined her as she returned.
“That is impressive.”
“They weren’t worth the effort. Nor will they trouble this well. I won’t waste time on money or arms. But here. We have a solution, of sorts.”
She helped Domehead put Ksmvr down. The Antinium could stand, but he was mostly embarrassed by his weakness.
“I will be able to run by nightfall, Nsiia.”
“We have no time for that, Ksmvr. You will ride. Here. With a pole, and some cloth, we can make an umbrella of sorts. Use it to cover yourself and we will make sure you stay cool.”
Ksmvr brightened up a bit. Nsiia smiled.
“Aye. As for your mount, this lot treated theirs poorly. Hey, four-legged kin? Do you know me?”
The mounts clustered around her, for petting, and Ksmvr saw Nsiia laugh, check their injuries, run her hands across a few, and murmur a Skill.
“I’m sorry. I have no ability to keep you all, and I do not know how far we will go. Let me cut your saddles off. Roam free! Tiqr will return.”
The Empress of Beasts blessed them, and most began to gallop off. But she held one back.
“You are the finest fellow of the lot. And a good mount for Ksmvr, I think.”
The Antinium saw an animal come over. He brightened up and raised his three petting hands. And…stopped.
“What is this?”
A giant, humped, tan…thing was staring at him with a very odd face. It bared yellowed teeth and Ksmvr backed up. Nsiia eyed him.
“Never seen a camel before, have you? He’s fine, for all they worked him ragged. And a better match for some of the places we might go. He’ll not want for water, either. They store it well.”
Ksmvr stared at the camel. He did not know if he liked this creature, and it did not know if it liked him, for all the camel clearly adored Nsiia.
“I…I will ride it, then. Hello, camel. I am Ksmvr. Pat, pat, p–”
He got to the third pat on the nose when the camel bared its teeth and spat on him. Saliva dripped from Ksmvr’s face. Nsiia started laughing.
“Hah! Now here’s spirit! You shall need a name, just like Chance.”
She patted the mare’s flank. She regarded the camel.
“I will not ride this thing. Domehead can carry me.”
“Oh, no. You must ride Spitty, Ksmvr.”
The Empress of Beasts had a twinkle in her eyes. Ksmvr stared at Spitty. He found himself riding the humpy, lumpy camel as it followed Nsiia, a little tent of cloth over his head to protect him from the sun’s glare.
He hated Spitty. Off the two rode, seeking Nsiia’s army. To challenge the greatest slaver-nation in the entire world for a comrade, a friend, a teammate.
Such terrible wars. Why did they have to keep fighting them? The answer was that, sometimes, history told that conflicts arose due to need, hostilities between similar peoples over finite resources or belief. Yet it did not have to be this way.
War created advancement. War also caused death and suffering on vast scales. War…was not necessary.
Why did we fight, then? Every officer like Paethex learned of previous wars and why they had ended. How peace could reign.
Conflict was not endemic to the mortal condition. At one point, entire civilizations and peoples had stopped fighting and agreed that there was no zero-sum equation. Everyone could live on an elevated level, rather than claw and fight each other to the top.
It may seem small. Perhaps it was. Yet they had done it for a hundred and eight years. A hundred and eight years of peace, out of war that each species had lived through. Complete, thorough, alliance-wide.
Then, like all stories that told such things, came Oelt-Vaar. A foreign empire who considered that peace was an option. But not a necessary one.
“Commander. Eighty six and counting. More flashing in.”
Commander Paethex was, of course, a translation. As close as she’d been able to approximate it for the stranger who called herself Ryoka Griffin, the Wind Runner of Reizmelt. ‘Commander’ was a translation, too, but a good one. Real-time translation was nothing to even blink at, of course.
Eight digits paused on a control panel. She could see it too. In response, the air around her changed as a primordial fight-or-flight response released a faint wave of pheromones. She was glad the air filters kept it from reaching the rest of her crew. Yet each one reacted in their own way against such odds.
They would never use them unless something went really wrong, but some checked sidearms, adjusted their own suits, rated for hard vacuum as well as combat with anything below a Threat Rating of 16…and about as useless as spit against certain foes.
Same with Thiv-stablight carbines, which could blow chunks out of mere metal and simple-alloy vehicles on their lowest-diffusion settings, and Hetshal-knives. Well, ‘knives’. She hoped that a certain Human knew how to calibrate hers. They’d had to literally write the instructions in minutes.
Words were stupid if you didn’t have an automatic translator. Again, ‘see’ was a foolish concept. It was impossible to truly see the vast distances involved, let alone at the speeds each vessel was moving. The view she had was just that; a projected view to allow her to analyze on a visual level. Destroy or hinder the programs running the analysis and they’d have to rely on only sensors.
And they needed to see. Paethex’s head turned.
“Do we have any friendly contacts?”
“Three full Victory Companies, wiped out. Commander–they’re not even bothering with hails.”
“I thought not. They must have heard of us. Maneuver. Put out a wide-ranged hail, no encryption. This is Commander Paethex of the Victory Company Delsa. Do not reinforce. Repeat, stay clear.”
Even in this day and age, there was something so ludicrous about their statement that no one answered. Eighty six plus vessels of the Oelt-Vaar empire were closing, an entire war fleet. They had destroyed entire Victory Companies of ships.
Spaceships. That was another bad name, but it was what she’d used, hadn’t she? Human. Paethex thought about it as she watched them traverse the incomprehensible distance.
“We are suffering long-ranged shots…diversionary fields holding. Deploying Aerem fields, Commander. Should we try to counter?”
They were already being hit. Paethex felt no rumble or other effects on the ship–and she had felt the hard rumble of weapons so powerful that even diffusing them distorted the entire ship. However, the enemy was firing even from outside the technical solar system limits with no clear effect.
Of course they were. If you could engineer a vessel capable of travelling from star to star, then weapons could be even better. Near-instantaneous ‘beams’ were striking them, but only a pattern-spray. Neither she nor whomever was leading the enemy fleet really expected any damage.
There were ways to deflect, neutralize, or dodge any kind of weapon. Both empires had armed their ships like a dance of move and countermove. If you trumped the enemy in one area, you could reliably take them to pieces until they adapted.
In practice, it came down to more of a battering match, and here strategy actually mattered. Paethex’s eyes narrowed. Her fingers did not tighten on the controls, but danced faster. Accordingly, her lower limbs moved. When trouble came, her people infamously did not stand and fight. They moved and she itched to race like her ship, now speeding and pushing its engines to the max.
Oelt-Vaar’s warships were larger, far more well-armored, and each had Aerem fields. They’d taken apart the alliance’s fleets in a systematic, crushing advance due to the simple scale of advancement. Attempts had been made to equalize the gap, but the difference was that of prototypes not manufactured en-masse against a standing army also developing and upgrading.
Somewhere, out there, the enemy intelligence was laughing at the single ship on attack. Flagship or not, a single Victory Company cruiser couldn’t even expect to survive five seconds. Why was it here? Anyone who read Paethex’s call would be surprised.
They were supposed to be on a wild goose chase, lightyears upon lightyears away. If anything was concerning, it was the sudden line of victories and silenced operations among Oelt-Vaar’s ships. That was why all eighty six ships calmly entered the Aerem fields.
Aerem fields. She’d tried to explain it to Ryoka. If you could move at the speed of light–and they could, when they had to go slower–fighting other ships in space was stupid. You were all moving in a different time, and if you fired anything slower, it would be literal years before the enemy even noticed it missed.
Hence, Aerem fields. A way to create a battleground that demanded a nod to maneuverability, more conventional weapons like the charged weapons now tracking her vessel.
She should have been taking Worldpact into an evasionary maneuver. That was the one thing her people’s ships had on them. She did not.
Eighty six ships fired, with slower weaponry, but ones that didn’t diffuse against simple diffraction-shields. A calculated firestorm, on all possible vectors.
It looked like the inside of a star, in every color. A deadly lightshow.
Worldpact, rechristened in its new name, had seconds before they impacted in the Aerem field. Paethex felt a lurch, a sense of inevitable death, even now. However–
Of the many differences they shared, like the first contacts with other species in the alliance, Commander Paethex had been surprised, gratified, to learn that the most basic trick in interstellar diplomacy worked. The Human was different, but they shared commonalities in biology and culture.
Both of them did smile. In their own way.
Worldpact emerged from the storm of energy, unscathed. At this point, the literal intelligence commanding Oelt-Vaar was stunned into eight processes of sheer computing.
“Its shields have not been downed?”
It demanded to the crew, re-checking the sensors. What trick was this?
We supplied/projected in excess of 341.8% of what shields could/should be capable of, even with all auxiliary power supplied.
Yet Worldpact flew on. Either this was some kind of trick that had fooled all sensors–and they had hit it and it was giving off every sign it existed–or it had some kind of energy source beyond belief.
The second. The intelligence finally saw a reading that made it stop. Five sensors on its vessel actually overloaded as a panicked call went through the fleet.
“Unknown energy reading beyond scale. Evasive maneuvers requested.”
All this in fractions of a second. The intelligence hesitated, and fear enveloped some emotional core. Was this the reason behind the sudden wave of silence? It had been speculated that a single force could have overwhelmed nearly eight different war sectors, but it would have had to literally engage in minute-long battles before entering transit. However–
“Evade. Redeploy projectiles, mark–”
This time, the second volley lit up the field like…well, enough energy to atomize significant parts of a smaller celestial body.
And still, Worldpact accelerated. Straight towards the enemy lead cruiser. It was somehow maxing out its engines and shields. How? And that energy–why hadn’t it fired any weapons? What new ship was this?
The intelligence saw they were coming in for a ram. A tactic so old and futile compared to the many available moves you could make it beggared belief. Did they trust to their boarding party’s superiority? Why–
And then, for a second, it saw what Worldpact was carrying. A strange object, suspended in front of the other ship, contained by simple gravitational fields.
Archaic. It had to open up an actual history file. What a ludicrous thing. It projected towards the Oelt-Vaar’s vessel as Worldpact spun just past it.
–And broke through every single barrier. The intelligence saw the projected energy fields dissipate. Backup shields just blinked off and generators suddenly vented energy meant to be going into said fields. An explosion rang through a section of the ship. Then one of the menials fired a desperate message through the command structure.
Of course, nothing else was said after that, or ever again. It was just a nick through armor, but when atmosphere breached at that speed, in a void, with no backup systems or countermeasures?
It was a bad way to go, sucked out a tiny gap–Paethex was glad the monitors didn’t show that. She felt the forces of their acceleration in this self-contained physics-boundary, the Aerem field. She’d ordered the engineers to disable all safety limits.
If their shields went down, they’d suffer a fate analogous to the doomed vessel currently trying to tear itself apart. But their shields would not go down. Not with a power source like this. She turned her head as one of her officers breathed a comment, an oxygen-rich expletive, filtered away quickly.
“Ship destroyed. Targeting next.”
Worldpact shot forwards. Paethex didn’t hear the wild cheering this time, but there was still that sense of incredulity. Eighty six vessels–eighty five now, began to break away, stunned, as a predator ate through their formations. How was this happening? Some incredible energy source was attached to Worldpact, and whenever it struck…
“Commander, we have a surrender hail.”
The captain’s gaze flickered. Her digits rested cautiously on the controls, taking them out of another deadly dive, leaving multiple ships behind.
“Surrender? They’ve never surrendered once before. They must be aware of the previous defeats.”
“We can take the rest out before they leave the field…”
“No. We’re still under the rules of engagement. Order them to vent their koil-reserves. If we have to, we’ll make them literally remove their emplaced arms. Signal what remains of the Victory Companies; we’ll need them for disarmament.”
This time they’d be staying for a while, rather than shooting to the next front. Paethex was almost glad of it.
“Rotate the bridge crew.”
“We’re functional for another two cycles, commander.”
“I don’t doubt it, but save your mental actuators, officers. It may be we’ll be fighting for dozens of cycles without rest. I will address the Victory Company’s commander and download our report in brief. Prepare the public files.”
“Done. The full report is going to be the longest piece ever written in stellar history, Commander. Good luck to you.”
One of her officers, who had been on the mission that would go down in history, saluted wryly. Paethex shuddered.
“I’ll write it once the war ends. And it is my solemn promise that Worldpact will not stop fighting until the very last battle.”
Amusement ran through the group, translated as laughter by their personal communication devices. Now that the battle-alert was taken off, seals on helmets were released. Some of the non-tacticals, the bridge crew not familiar with close-combat deployment, took off their helmets at this point.
Paethex and the squad who’d survived the lands of the fae did not. In fact, it was her promoted second, Reiy-Tosiy, who checked his side.
Of course, he’d been reissued with the same standard weapon. Hetshal-knives were literally the most common denominator across alliance-ships. A standard, mass-produced weapon issued to any tacticals; they weren’t seen as needed by space crew who would fight from range, if at all.
Not cheap; it was one thing Oelt-Vaar lacked, preferring single piece, machined weapons with mechanical functionality, as opposed to the far more technologically advanced Hetshal-knives. Even so, Oelt-Vaar’s weapons would have done better than their knives where they’d gone.
And yet. Reiy-Tosiy turned to Paethex.
“Seems like a bad trade, eh, commander?”
She knew what he meant. It felt like that was what they’d done. Traded a knife for…the weapon. The alien captain nodded.
“We left that child-thing with enough of its metal to coat a small moon. Not to mention all the other minerals it wanted. And five strike ships.”
“Still. Do you think that…Ryoka…knows how the weapon works?”
If they’d had an hour, they could have cycled her through a combat tutorial. Reiy-Tosiy had talked about her more than the rest–and they’d had entire mission briefings on their brief encounter and speculation of all they’d learned, recordings, such as they were, and more. He carefully configured the Hetshal-knife into a different combat setting.
“We gave her the best instructions we could.”
They’d even resorted to drawing pictures in their desperate attempts to translate. With a day of running her linguistics in their cycles or just a bit of writing samples…Reiy nodded.
“Next time I’ll offer her my combat armor. And weapon systems. If we ever return.”
“If we return, I will personally authorize you a strike ship to trade. Her name will be written. And…if we manage to end this and find a way back, we’ll bring back something nicer instead of a knife.”
Reiy made an affirmative gesture. The crew all signed affirmative, some copying the head-bob the Human did as a joke. Paethex did not. That gesture hurt. But every one of them looked out the viewport at the weapon hanging in space, scaring Oelt-Vaar to pieces. Salvation–a war-changing device.
Paethex turned. She knew that, from afar, Oelt-Vaar probably read it as a signature that would literally destroy their sensors. Or saw it as a strange object from their antiquated past. She saw both things too, but even now…
Even now, sometimes, as she stared at it in the viewport, it still looked like a damn stick.
They asked for volunteers. Volunteers, willing to risk their lives. Six, to fly to the Forgotten Wing Company.
Four, to follow the Giant.
Sentry Leader Ekrn himself had debated taking one role or the other, but he was now one of the most senior Tallguards of Feiland. So he delegated Noa and three others to the job. To his dismay, the Architects insisted on sending a civilian, a capable [Alchemist]-[Mage], with Luan.
“He may need clarification or improvisation and we cannot send [Messages], Sentry Leader. This is a dangerous mission and Alchimagus Resk is aware of the risks.”
Guidance had been firm. Ekrn couldn’t really object. This was not a time to fight.
Paeth on the Coast, the tree-civilization, had just had an influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees from their home. This was beyond a crisis. Ekrn was prepared for an army of Tallfolk to appear. Worse–they’d already destroyed one Fraerling settlement, and a larger one than Paeth.
Feiland’s best Tallguard had died to evacuate the city. So, yes. This was not the time to argue about one brave Fraerling risking their life.
“We need food. We need everything on the list. Whatever you can get–we need it.”
Luan nodded. The Human was one of few Ekrn had ever met, but the Fraerling wished he didn’t trust him so much. He had to, but Luan was almost too easy to ask for help.
He had a huge secret of his own, though. And Paeth was desperate.
Not, importantly, rife with famine from the sudden influx. Or overcrowded. Or even in danger from the predators who’d followed the Fraerling army.
Said predators were currently being harvested and Paeth had literally vaporized half of them. Even without that extra meat, though, they didn’t need to worry about shelter or food in the same way Luan had feared, like creating a refugee camp outside the tree.
“Prepare for magical injection! Pellets planted?”
“All set. Where’s our [Druid]?”
“Ready to pervert nature!”
A Fraerling dressed without metal or the more machined fabrics strode down one of the vast, magical growing rooms. The overseer, none other than Ilekrome himself, was observing the emergency food production.
Pellets of pre-prepared alchemical design had been inserted into beds of similarly enriched soil. It was no more than a simple ‘container’ of energy. After all, food, or at least, plants, were just different kinds of life. Less complex in some ways than a person, but you could use spells on plants.
Not create food wholesale; cornucopia had that ‘magic food’ problem. However…what if you were able to inject bare seeds with everything they needed to grow? Food, water, a substitute for light…it would grow. That was what [Farmers] knew. The only problem was time.
There was an equation someone had worked out about how much magic went into time. Ilekrome would look it up later. For now, he watched as earth-attuned magicore was dumped out, filling the area with magical radiation. The [Druid] activated his Skills, and the growing team stepped back.
The first buds of life shot out of the soil less than a minute later. And that was from frozen seeds. There was applause, but the [Farmers] were already activating their Skills for bountiful, quick harvests.
“Excellent work, everyone. Let’s fill eight silos within the week and I’ll personally throw you a celebration when this is over.”
Ilekrome went around, shaking hands. The Fraerlings nodded, turning serious.
This was all possible, of course. They’d done experiments with this in the past, neatly catalogued the method, and put it in the files until they needed it.
The reason why Paeth didn’t do this all the time was that magically-grown food tasted worse than the natural stuff–too magic-y.
More importantly, it played hell with your Allotment, the magical limit to what Paeth could disguise.
In this moment? Ilekrome strode out of the greenhouses and saw a [Geomancer] raising a wall of stone out of raw material. Forming emergency housing–Fraerlings were hefting huge objects, enhanced by strength spells. Some were literally levitating around–the supervisors and anyone with a justification.
Damn the Allotment. Paeth was like a lighthouse of magic. They’d fear a Tallfolk [Mage] would spot it, or the more serious kinds of monster, in any other time. A Hydra was not what you wanted to come looking for a bite to eat, Paeth’s defensive spells or not.
However, this was a time of crisis. So Paeth flurried about. But they were relying on Luan.
“Why do you need some of the ingredients on this list so badly?”
Luan was marching through the jungle. He’d seen some of Paeth’s incredible abilities. Defensive spells, food grown overnight…Noa clung to one shoulder, and two Tallguard [Rangers] kept watch on the other shoulder. One, like Noa, was equipped for close-combat. The other, like Alchimagus Resk, was magic-oriented.
It was Resk who explained. He wasn’t nearly as old as Luan had expected. Barely forty, since he needed to be in good shape for the dangers of the outside world. Still, he was apparently Level 32 in [Alchemist].
And Level 35 in his [Mage] class.
“We need raw magic to keep Paeth energized, Luan. We have a surplus stored; if we need to activate all of our enchantments, we need more. However. Even more critical is raw magicore, Culthen clay, Sompter vine…anything that can neutralize Paeth’s magical aura.”
“To keep you hidden. But if whoever attacked the other city knows you’re here…”
“They may only have a rough estimate. Either way, Paeth must survive, Luan. Magical supplies, food…preparations for war. If you could get even a single cube of adamantium, or unprocessed ore…”
Luan really doubted he could do that, but he nodded.
“We’ll try Mithril. I’ve seen it on the markets.”
“That will do. Mithril, iron.”
They didn’t even need that much. The Fraerlings had submitted a wish list of every possible resource they could use, and told Luan they’d maxed out the numbers. They’d worried about the cost and how much he could get back to them soon.
…He’d looked at ‘twenty pounds of iron’ and thought he could do that. Even without a chest of holding, or a crappy bag of holding. Hell, he could probably carry it.
“You sure you don’t want steel?”
The Giant was carrying his new, Fraerling-enhanced scull towards the water. He was anxious, worried for Paeth, but relieved he was going to Talenqual.
The United Nations company. Daly, Ken–everyone must think I’m dead. He would need to keep Paeth’s secret, but he’d tell them what he could. However, Paeth’s desire for absolute secrecy was out the window.
Someone was razing Fraerling settlements. They were supposed to be under the Titan’s protection, even though they weren’t directly allied.
This was bad. But Luan had to admit, as he approached the piranha and crocodile-infested waters from the beach, he was still excited to see what the scull did. Fraerling-magic was on a level beyond anything you could find short of Wistram. And they’d worked hard on his scull.
Hell, the hand-crossbow by his side was so dangerous Luan was afraid to touch it. Automatically reloading, capable of firing a wooden bolt through a significant amount of a tree…he hesitated on the edge of the water.
“If a damn crocodile comes out of the water, we’re going to be in trouble.”
Resk gulped, but the Tallguard nodded.
“Just get out of the inlet as fast as you can, Human Luan. We’ll cover you. Remember–aim for the eyes. Conserve your magical ammunition. No telling what we’ll run into.”
They spoke like they were headed into Rhir itself, not Talenqual, a fairly nice city. Luan just eyed the lazy surf. Resk chattered, casting a protective spell as he anchored himself to Luan’s shoulders. Some kind of localized gravity spell on his boots that let him walk up and down Luan’s body without the need to fear falling off.
It felt like someone had heavy magnets and he was made of metal. Luan made sure not to roll his shoulders or rub his head against Resk and crush the Fraerling to death.
“No steel, Luan. It’s appreciated, but we’ve seen the quality your people come out with. Just porous. Terrible grain. We’ll take iron and refine it; it’s not hard. Now, Dwarfsteel would be excellent…”
Luan set down the scull, which was virtually weightless, and got into it. He’d push into the water; he didn’t like how quiet it was.
“We’re moving fast. Everyone ready? Anchored?”
“Grappling in place. Do what you’re going to do, Mister Luan.”
Noa’s eyes were shining with excitement. The other three Fraerlings braced as Luan put his new paddle to the sand. He gently pushed into the water.
Amazing. It was so easy to push himself forwards! Even the top-of-the-line sculls back home weren’t this lightweight. This weighed practically nothing, enchanted by magic. They had engineered it to cut through the water, the paddle to push more water than it should…
Luan glided out into the surf, but didn’t feel it trying to rock the tiny vessel. He grinned.
“This is amazing. This is–”
A Tallguard loosed an arrow as the water exploded and a Giant Crocodile came out, huge jaws open. Luan shouted.
A little explosion blew a tooth out of the mouth as one arrow hit it, but Luan didn’t try to hit the croc. He just put the paddle into the water, and pushed.
The crocodile snapped its jaws shut, thrashing, biting…water. It turned left and right, huge eyes confused. What? Where had…
The scull skipped. It actually left the water for a second. Luan, the Fraerlings, Noa, all had that open-mouthed, bug-eyed expression. Then they started screaming.
Luan hit the water and made the mistake of trying to correct himself with another full-force stroke; he thought they were about to roll. Instead, the scull auto-balanced and his second push with the oar?
Luan Khumalo. Olympian-class [Athlete], [Expert Rower], with multiple Skills already enhancing the best technique in sculling in either world. [Lesser Strength], [Power Strokes].
Scull. Nearly zero-gravity, enhanced with water resistance, balance, and durability.
Oar. Also lightweight, extremely reinforced to take on the main enchantment, which was to generate an approximately quadruple-sized ‘presence’ in the water with each stroke, to magnify the amount of water Luan could displace, and thus generate acceleration in–
A passing seagull did a double-take as a screaming man and four tiny people flew past it. It banked, swerving away. Now the apes were flying? The sky was just going downhill, it really was. Who would they allow up here next? Dogs?
Luan actually capsized his scull. Like some kind of complete rookie, he felt the water engulf him, began to roll–right before a force twisted him around and sent him whirling back upright.
Drenched, water in his ears, nose, the Human spat out seawater.
“Noa! Resk! Are you…”
Four soaked Fraerlings were still clinging to his shoulders. They stared at Luan as the boat auto-rolled him back upright. Everyone was silent as the scull serenely glided forwards, like it was on a flat lake, not the actual waves near the coast.
“I thought you said you were good at this paddling thing.”
Resk muttered after a moment of silence. Luan didn’t even correct him. He slowly, gingerly put his paddle into the water.
“No one told me this thing auto-corrects itself. This…this might be overengineered.”
“I’m going to complain when I get back.”
One of the Tallguard agreed. Gingerly, Luan pushed and the scull shot forwards. Noa gasped.
“It’s so fast!”
“Too fast! I’m about to launch us with every stroke!”
Luan agreed. He was actually way too strong and the scull was like a wild animal, threatening to shoot out of the water if he put any strength into it. Nevertheless–a wild grin was on his face. He began to adjust, pushing lightly, and the scull shot forwards. Luan thought he passed an imaginary Luan in his head. The other man took one look at the Luan in his enchanted boat, shooting past him as he labored with all his best Skills working.
This is amazing. Wild, in need of adjustment, but–Luan caught himself as he laughed.
“Think we can install a cabin or something?”
Resk was muttering as he surveyed the scull for a place to sit besides Luan’s shoulders. Maybe they could? The only other place was in the waterskirt, but he really didn’t want to sit in a confined space next to Luan’s groin. He settled for another anchoring spell.
Yet the Giant was laughing. He cast about, and then recalled he’d lost a lot of his gear.
“Noa, can you get out your compass and your map? We need to head south, along the coast.”
The Fraerlings did have a good map of the region. Luan turned, and began to shoot into deeper waters.
“First stop! Talenqual!”
He smiled, then tried to temper the joy in his heart as he recalled Paeth’s plight. His friends.
They had work to do. Even so, he felt that indescribable sense of adventure in his heart. Magic. This was what he’d wanted, the moment he appeared.
There was a joy to magic. Yes, like all things, if you made it your profession, if you took it in the context of politics and work, it lost its charm.
Yet it was still magic. Point at something, cast a spell, and you could levitate an object, or shoot fire from your palms or…
The problem was how hard it was to memorize, redeploy the magic in exactly the right way, and strain. One component of magic as [Mages] did it was to have absolute focus in your mind, like holding an entire calculus equation and understanding it while recreating it.
So no wonder the Earthers who came to Wistram couldn’t get into it as fast as they wanted. No ‘swish and flick’ for them.
“Well, you can do that. Sort of. If you’re a [Wizard], you can rely on enchanted gear. That makes sense, doesn’t it? It’s just not [Mage]-magic.”
“In that case, I want to be a fucking [Wizard], Harry. Not a [Mage]. How about a [Sorcerer]?”
“Uh…they’ll laugh at you. And it’s just as hard. Only, instead of knowing spells, you just think so hard–”
Flynn tossed the spellbook to one side and buried his face in his hands. Instantly, Pokey, the Needlehound, nosed up to him and licked his arm. He gently petted her on the head as Elena rubbed at her face.
“It’s really unpleasant, Aaron. My head feels like it’s going to explode. How does Troy do it?”
Aaron Vanwell, or Blackmage, shrugged. He was a bit envious of Troy, to be honest.
“Someone taught him really well. He said he also saw combat, so I think he has, y’know, perspective?”
“I’ve seen combat. I still can’t ‘hold the magic’ in my head. What if I got a wand and just cast magic like that?”
“You can do that. But someone’s got to charge it up.”
“That’s what I’ll do. Sorry, I need to take a walk.”
Aaron nodded, biting back any comment as Flynn got up. George, Elena, Saif, Basil, Sang-min, Caroline, and more were part of the study group.
A lot of the Earthers had quit, though, and Aaron feared that Flynn would too. He wished Troy were here to give some advice, but he was studying at a higher level than the rest.
And to be fair, Aaron was high-level and had been here the longest. He even had tips and knowledge that all [Mages] except maybe Eldavin lacked. It was just that you still had to work hard, and not everyone was cut out for it.
“How about we all take a break and play in the adventure rooms? Or have a beach party? I’ve got a new drinks-mix from one of the [Mages].”
George suggested hopefully. Aaron bit his lip. Elena answered for him.
“If we keep taking breaks, no one’s going to level, George. You’re free to go, but this isn’t a school project or homework. It’s a class.”
Chastened, he flushed, and the [Beautician] rubbed at her temples.
“Okay, Aaron. Let’s go over [Firefly] again.”
In truth, the magic study sessions were really for those who hadn’t found their place yet. Some came to learn magic, but they already had a class. Already knew who they were, in a way. Flynn was a Bronze-rank [Beast Tamer]. Elena was a [Beautician] and she spent as much time with Sa’la as chivvying the other Earthers.
Malia, for instance, didn’t even attend the magical lessons. She was a [Thought Healer] and made it her duty to make sure Basil, Sidney, and the others were alright. They were doing a lot better now, thanks to Telim’s help.
And then there were the Earthers who didn’t just live, but thrive. Leon was the newest arrival, and he was a bit aghast when Erik, the [Actor] and ‘member’ of the Aquais faction of Wistram, handed out flyers.
“We’re putting on Elisial tonight. Anyone want to come?”
“Is there free food?”
“You show me a play without some. Don’t worry. There are silence spells and special effects.”
“You uh, know Elisial? I know the Players of Celum put it on…”
Leon murmured. Aaron glanced at him and Elena’s lips pursed, but Erik just nodded.
“We got a copy of their script.”
Some of Leon’s newfound popularity had diminished, as had his bold claims, after meeting with the Silver Swords, but he still had the amazing connections to so many things. Aaron knew he wasn’t all that. Elena, for instance, had met Cara O’Sullivan, the Singer of Terandria. She hadn’t seen all of what Cara had been through–but oh, she could tell he hadn’t been as central to some of his stories as he claimed.
She didn’t out him. The others dithered over the play; there was a lot to do in Wistram, but one young woman announced she couldn’t make it.
“I’m sorry, but I have to get back to work! I’m trying to come out with a new piece for this month’s magazine, and I just have to write The [Cook] and the Centaur. Leon, tell me more about Imani.”
Caroline, the lone [Writer] of their group, and survivor of Baleros, looked at Leon and he hesitated.
“Alright, then. But um. Is it going to be another…romance?”
“It’s fiction. Don’t worry, I’ll change her name!”
‘Heartslayi’ smiled as ‘Blackmage’ gave her a long look. She had come to them completely by chance. She’d actually been abducted in Baleros’ jungles, but before she was sold off, a Wistram [Mage] had found her and immediately taken her to Wistram.
She had stories aplenty, but had been cagey about other Earthers, on Elena’s immediate advice. Nevertheless, Caroline was a success story. Her romance stories, that was.
…Aaron was not sure what to think about that. He’d read her latest…piece. Which involved a love story between the Horns of Hammerad who had perished in the Village of the Dead.
Privately, he thought it was in bad taste, but Caroline already had a fan base. And even rivals.
“Are you still getting letters from Sandquen?”
“Every week. I don’t know who she is, but she keeps writing insults about my stories. It’s just like home, you know? Only slower since there’s no internet. Do you think we could get someone to help me trace who it is? She’s really getting on my nerves, but she’s not getting published, is she?”
Caroline scoffed at her unknown rival. It was as they were breaking up, heading to their respective places, that someone accosted Aaron and Saif.
A half-Elf with white hair. Not Feor. A huge, built [Grand Mage], who Aaron had been warned to stay away from by his…own mentor. Nevertheless, Grand Magus Eldavin had shot to the top of Wistram’s hierarchy, so he was allowed even in the new Earth-corridors arranged for them.
By request, Elena had petitioned for that. The factions could demand an Earther be ‘theirs’, but the Earthers wanted to stick together and it kept them from leaking secrets to the general body.
So they now had their zone, with the exception of a few people like Troy who were active students. It was like dorm life in college, complete with quarrels, drama…
But they were also part of Wistram. So Eldavin halted.
“Aaron Vanwell. I have need of you. Teura, which one is ‘Saif’?”
“Right there, Grand Magus.”
Saif gulped as the half-Elf glanced at him with his mismatched eyes.
“Ah, excellent. Young Saif, with me, please. And you Aaron. We’ll head to your rooms. Saif, fetch this ‘gun’ I’ve heard so much about.”
Elena’s head shot up as Eldavin led the way. Aaron blinked.
“Grand Magus? You wanted me?”
The half-Elf nodded, striding along, with his personal entourage of devoted [Mages]. Teura had jumped ship so fast she’d left the boat rocking. She hung on Eldavin’s words, and she wasn’t the only one.
Even Telim and Sa’la were part of the new Terras faction. Even Valeterisa. Eldavin was speaking.
“It’s past time. I’ve been occupied getting ahold of Wistram. Now? Action. Is the announcement about the boycott…?”
“Already done, Grand Magus. Fissival is already protesting.”
“Excellent. Let them. Inform the Meeting of Tribes that we–I–would personally like to assure them that if they would like to rectify our long-standing differences, we would be delighted to host no less than two hundred Gnoll students capable of arcane magic with the next semester. Assuming any of them have any magic. We might have to make [Wizards] of the lot.”
“You think they might not have the aptitude?”
“From magical suppression that extensive? It might have literally crippled their natural development. However, the announcement…”
Aaron trailed in Eldavin’s wake, like he was following a hurricane. Here was a force to be reckoned with. Yet why did Emerrhain dislike him so? He refused to tell Aaron why in their…lessons. Only that Eldavin was a complication.
To whose plans? Moreover, Emerrhain himself…
No one had ever really talked about the message sent on all the iPhones on the Summer Solstice. Sometimes Elena would stare at Aaron, but he had denied doing it. Most of the others thought it was a joke or…
Some had begun praying again. To their respective religions. In private. Aaron couldn’t talk about anything he knew, anyways. He could only help the others. If he wanted to, Emerrhain had promised he could actually get Elena off Wistram. Did Aaron want that? He felt things were actually going well. Better to be a prisoner, yet growing in ability in the safety of Wistram, than faced with some of the horrors Leon had talked about.
However, things changed so fast. Eldavin opened the door to Aaron’s room without asking. Aaron would have protested, but nothing…special…was in there.
“Grand Magus Eldavin. What are you doing in Aaron’s room?”
Eldavin turned at Elena’s sharp voice. He gave her a slight nod.
“Miss Elena. Excuse the intrusion, but I am in a hurry. Moreover, young Vanwell did mention this before…ah, there it is. Is this gun-object there too? To the battle rooms or whatever nonsense you call it.”
He turned. And he had…Aaron’s heart skipped a beat. Elena started.
The Iron Man glove.
That was what everyone called it. It could actually shoot lightning, but it had to be hooked up to a bulky magicore battery. Eldavin eyed the creation of Aaron, Archmage Naili, and to some degree, Emerrhain, with distaste.
“I see what’s been done, now. Yes, yes. A decent reinforcement spell, non-conductivity and electrical resistance, obviously, and a simple link to a [Shock Volt] spell from the magicore battery. Activate in a number of ways. How…simple. Yet I’m told it echoes some element from Earth?”
“Er…er…stories, Grand Magus. It doesn’t exist yet, but it’s one of the uh, superhero stories.”
“Ah, yes. Theoretical. But this is a version of a weapon from your world? It fires pellets, though, not metal?”
Saif had the airsoft gun that had perplexed and intimidated the [Mages] on the wrong end of it. The pellets that the [Mages] had made for it gave it more ammunition, and indeed, they had found out how to maintain it.
Just not replicate. Eldavin stared at the object with clear distaste.
“I’d like to see it in action. Teura, would you do me the favor of…?”
She was already stepping into the battle room, and let Saif do his demonstration with his Boots of Speed, tricks, zipping out of cover, firing, repositioning…
Eldavin watched as he summoned more of his apprentices. A young [Bard] had some armor–plain steel, unenchanted, unlike the painted gauntlet Aaron had worked so hard on. He had a bad feeling about what was coming next.
“I see. So Earth’s amazing tactics, which so befuddled our best battle mages, is a simple upgrade of a crossbow and the ability to use cover and move around. The age of Wistram’s name being feared on every war front is clearly long gone. No wonder that Magus Grimalkin told me he had a kill count of over three dozen.”
Eldavin looked disgusted. Not at Teura, but at Saif’s amazing combat abilities. The young man saw Eldavin walk over.
“I can see what is meant now. If that object were to fire metal at the speeds described, I hardly imagine a mundane army would survive long. [Mages]? We can certainly counter that.”
“You have a thought, Grand Magus?”
Teura reappeared, and his personal cortege listened avidly. Eldavin smiled.
“Intangibility spells. Unless their munitions are enchanted, it should be a standard. We’ll bring it back. However, Earth has many unique ideas that echo, or build upon, concepts of times past. Their notions of armored vehicles…intriguing. I have to say, there is some charm to experimenting. So, young Aaron, I’m told you’ve been working on this ‘armored suit’ idea for quite some time.”
Aaron stared as Eldavin turned, holding the glove out.
“Will you talk to me about this ‘Iron Man’ concept?”
“I–I–well, it’s only an idea. But I thought if you had a suit of armor, and you could still cast magic…or just fly around…”
Elena watched as Aaron tried to explain to Eldavin. For some reason he stuttered, despite being so enthusiastic about it. Eldavin hmmed, tapping his lips.
“So a flying [Knight]. There have been those in the past. What I like is the idea of this magical battery. You see? Clearly a simple magicore battery is foolish, but a pack mounted on the rear?”
“It’s an expensive idea, Grand Magus. A single suit of that would cost gold to bronze pennies compared to even a traditional [Knight].”
Telim murmured. The High Magus liked the idea of adventure, same as Aaron. But Eldavin…why was he asking?
“Of course, High Mage Telim. But considering that it might protect a [Mage], who has spent decades in study? A single warrior can change the tides. That’s what a superhero is all about, isn’t it, Aaron?”
Eldavin smiled. It was kindly, but…Elena thought it was different from how he had acted at the start. He was less mysterious. More…active.
“Then we’ll begin. Everyone, follow through. I don’t think we need to enchant from the ground up; we’ll get some Boots of Levitation. Just so long as we keep the magical interference near zero. Teura, you lightweight that breastplate. I’ll overlay it; just keep the enchantment concise. Should I enchant Saif’s gun to enhance the output? Perhaps not if it’s meant to be demonstrated. We don’t need casualties already.”
Aaron’s mouth went dry as Eldavin pointed and a gauntlet rose. The Grand Magus hmmed, and it changed color, matching the very gauntlet he had.
“Grand Magus? What are you doing?”
Elena spoke quietly. The half-Elf turned.
“Realizing young Aaron’s project, Miss Elena. Aaron, I hope you will volunteer to trial the armor? If we can get it working, this can be one of the hearts of Wistram’s own arm of battle. Flying, [Armored Mages]. It’s been done before. They don’t cast spells, they just blast things with bound spells from the gauntlets and rely on magical batteries. Ingenious.”
Blackmage and Elena traded a look. Eldavin turned back to the suit of armor as the other [Mages] gathered around. Teura went off to get the boots. Aaron stood there.
It was one thing to make a gauntlet, to dream of it. Eldavin? He intended to realize it.
“Did you say ‘arm of battle’, Grand Magus? Wistram doesn’t have an army.”
He turned, impatient.
“Nonsense, my dear. We have a Golem army here, but we cannot control it or do anything with it. Wistram used to stride into battlefields. Well, if we are preparing for anything, be it Earth, or…anything else…”
His eyes flickered.
“We might as well prepare, shouldn’t we? Aaron, come here. How fast were you hoping to go? And ah, are there any more things about this iron-fellow you can tell me about? Any more ideas would be quite interesting. Flying planes? I don’t see a [Flying] spell being superceded for the moment and this is already one aerial project. However…”
Elena backed away. Saif had his toy gun in his hands, and it was a toy. He backed up too. Eldavin had just offered to transform it. Elena had worried and told the others to keep silent. Now here was the nightmare Cara had dreamed of, calmly making the first suit of magical armor. And that?
That was only the beginning of Eldavin’s renaissance in Wistram.
When it seemed like the world was burning, when it all seemed bad. Not all hands were against you. Not all events were sad.
The misconception was about enemies. Who were their enemies? Wistram? Drakes? Dead things?
You were against some people by accident, or because you had a side. Not because they were evil. Some of them might be misguided, or simply stubborn or…
They were not all against you. Grand Magus Eldavin was so busy as he worked. Nevertheless, he had time to realize a young man’s dream, and that was how he saw it. Armored [Mages], flying around?
Sometimes you needed them. After all…he paused and thought about it.
House Veltras, backed by the Five Families, was sailing into conflict against Ailendamus. Ryoka Griffin was missing, spirited away by a superi–by a competent spellcaster. He could put two and two together.
That girl is under my protection. The half-Elf hummed. He had felt like he’d woken up. He had indeed had a revelation of sorts. But he was still T–Eldavin. That girl is under my protection.
How dare you? Whoever you are–and children? He had told Valeterisa to look into that little child’s disappearance on her way south. Too long had Wistram allowed things like Fissival’s actions to go unchecked.
There could be a better world. He knew it. Not Earth. A better world. He felt like he had seen it, before. Time now again.
Who are your enemies? Who, in this wide world, are your foes?
Only a fool said they had no foes. That was a thoughtless, incredibly stupid statement. Understandable, hyperbolic, but consider this: to say you had ‘no enemies’ and you got along with everyone was to turn a blind eye to injustice.
You weren’t opposed to the act of keeping slaves? If you had no enemies, you stayed away from politics or world-events, you didn’t get to pretend terrible atrocities didn’t happen. You just stated, by inaction, you didn’t really care.
Erin Solstice had enemies. She also had great friends. Even now, though, even in death, she had taken a stand.
“Slaves are bad. No, wait. Slavery is bad. Yup. Yup.”
It might be a hard pill to swallow, but someone had to say it. And shove it down every throat, if need be. That was why some of them loved her.
The ghosts of Roshal and their like watched, narrow-eyed, thin lipped, and poor of soul. The ‘best’ of them weren’t even here, but those who were just petty enough not to sink into Riqre’s depths had no voice that Erin wanted to hear.
She sat amongst friends and companions, dead though they might be. She listened and learned and laughed.
“Gerial. Was that what Ceria was like? She’s so…different now.”
“Ah, well. That’s how we knew her. She was in a slump. So were we, in a way. Calruz was always sort of bull-headed, but he really got into trouble when he first came to Izril. He thought they’d make him Gold-rank in a month.”
“That’s Calruz…I need to see him. What should I…I say?”
The man thought. He shook his head, but not for lack of words.
You got one chance, ever. Which was terrifying because everyone forgot it, until it was too late and they were reminded. But if you got two…
“Tell that bull-headed idiot. Tell him…tell him I said…”
He leaned over and whispered. The [Innkeeper] listened. And promised to remember.
“I’ll tell him, I promise. And–and has anyone found anyone else who knows someone I know? I don’t think Mrsha’s parents are here, or…her tribe. Maybe there are some ghosts still coming?”
“If there are any, we will find them.”
Calmly, Califor replied. Erin nodded. Now was time to rest. They would go back to studying soon, but she had a day off. A day, measured by the dead.
“What day is it today? Is it the fourteenth or fifteenth?”
Out on the sands, a Queen of Nerrhavia’s Fallen seized a newly-appeared [Bandit] and shook him until he answered her. She relaxed.
“Still the same day!”
Nerrhavia’s own shade rolled her eyes at Queen Merindue.
Silly ghosts. Silly…sad ghosts, working together. Erin was aware of a great event taking place with Khelt’s rulers. They tried to keep it secret, but everyone could see the magical thingamabobby they were working on.
However, she had different goals and a job to do. Erin’s head was packed with revelations of the dead and she feared she’d forget some things. Unimportant things, like Potions of Youth, as opposed to Gerial’s last words, of course.
It was as she sat, though, that a few more ghosts introduced themselves to her. The [Witches] were aware even Erin’s ghost had limits to the knowledge she could cram into her mind. They were cutting out that portion of her learning.
“Just in case her head were to explode upon returning to her body.”
Somillune remarked. Erin Solstice hesitated.
“Hah. That’s a joke, right?”
However, one ghost did come up the steps, hobbling, frowning up at her. Erin Solstice, in the midst of asking Cawe about her family, anyone to talk to, hesitated.
“Who’s this? Someone else to help out the Khelt-people?”
Queen Khelta herself frowned down as she floated past, but shook her head.
“Not ours. Is yon figure a guest, Witch Califor?”
The Witch peered down. Her eyes blinked twice, and she looked past Khelta, sharply.
A gigantic [Witch] of tree and earth nodded.
“I HAVE FOUND HIM, THOUGH IT TOOK A DOING TO CONVINCE HIM TO COME.”
The ghost walking up the stairs winced, and put two fingers in his ears. Khelta blinked, and the ghosts stirred.
A [Vision of the Desert] nudged the [Archmage of Grasses], the Gnoll who was really unhappy to hear about what those damn Drakes had done to her people. The Gnoll stroked her chin.
“I…don’t know. Perhaps he is not as important?”
On the contrary. The older ghosts had no idea, even the ones who had been [Legends]–literally–in their era. Yet all the hip, trendy new ghosts knew.
“I didn’t even think to–Califor, you sent for him?”
The Witch nodded at the recently dead. Her eyes lit on an older man, balding, grumpily stomping up the stairs and looking around. That he was old, was a meaning. Some ghosts looked like they had at the prime of their life. However they chose.
But this man clearly believed how I died is how I damn well died. He had his eyes on Erin, recognizing her as halfway between life and death as all ghosts could.
“So this is the young woman you hauled me all the way here for? Well, she doesn’t look like much. And I’m to celebrate her as the ‘one true hope’, eh? Hah.”
Erin Solstice blinked as a crabby old man halted, arms folded. He wore a kind of robe, but more sensical than [Mages]. Many pockets, to hold sheafs of paper–there was a quill behind one ear, and two in various sleeves. He had ink stains on one arm, a sign his ghost was more powerful, and remembered such details.
Personality. He peered down his glasses at her.
“Um. Hello. Who are you?”
“Annoyed, miss. Annoyed that even when I’m dead, I don’t have time to work and sit alone in peace. Annoyed that you don’t have the courtesy to stand up and introduce yourself despite me coming all this way.”
Erin Solstice blinked. Then she slowly rose. She had the conflicting desire to poke fun at this old man, and to apologize.
“I’m sorry. Sort of. Uh, I’m Erin Solstice. Who are you?”
She offered him a hand. He took it, briskly, and shook it.
“Architect Drevish, formerly of Reim. At your service, miss.”
Below her, ghosts turned. The old ones had no idea what all the fuss was. But Cawe went wide-eyed, as did Gerial. Even Reim’s former king, or rather, grandfather of Flos, raised his head.
“Drevish. Drevish. Hold on. I sort of know that name. Drevish…”
Erin rubbed her chin with genuine puzzlement. The [Architect] snorted. Gerial whispered.
“Erin! This is Drevish, the Architect! One of the King of Destruction’s Seven!”
Erin Solstice’s eyes widened. Below her, every [Architect], [Builder of Fables], and similarly-classed ghost looked up in deep offense. Yet the greatest [Architect] of his time had an ego to match.
“I can see they still remember me. And I’m told you own an inn of your own, Erin Solstice.”
“Yes. Um–wow. So you’re the guy who went around with that jerk? I mean–the King of Destruction?”
Erin was conflicted since she didn’t hear nice things about Flos. Drevish’s mouth quirked.
“‘That jerk?’ Hah. I can see you’re worth the travel, if only to get rid of that annoying witch.”
He nodded at the [Witch] who’d come to find him. Then he peered at Erin.
“With that said, refrain from insulting him in my presence, young woman.”
“But he’s a warmongering guy who…”
“He is the King of Destruction, and you do not know him, clearly. There is a reason I served him, and if you are at all polite, I ask you to be polite. Know him before you mock him, because the tales told about Flos Reimarch range from truth exaggerated to falsehood completely. And I do not build walls out of lies.”
He had a little cane, and waved it slightly before tapping it on the ground. Erin Solstice blinked at Drevish.
The ghosts around her were impressed. This [Architect] had done more than some royalty, including Nerrhavia, who had stormed away from Erin twice while telling her tales. Perhaps it was because Drevish was not royalty. He nodded at her.
“There is much to talk about. I am told you might need help upon living, if such a thing can be done. And perhaps you need information about my [King]. Indeed, there are things I could tell you that would…persuade him to act.”
He glanced, troubled, around this vast gathering. Califor’s eyes were on Drevish’s face. The Architect shook his head.
“I do not know if that is appropriate. I do not know if it is wise for the dead to haunt the living. And he is haunted, that fool. If Queravia were here, I would let her decide. Or…Tottenval. But I am told Tottenval might not be here, if he was lost at sea. As for Queravia…I cannot find her. Perhaps she lies on Baleros.”
Califor muttered. Drevish shook his head.
“I had hoped to meet them in time, and we had forever to reunite. But I simply sat and relaxed and before I knew it, a calamity was upon us. Simply obnoxious. Who designed death and life so?”
Erin smiled. He was so offended. Yet the old man fixed her with a gaze, as if she were a pet project and he was wondering if she was worth the effort.
“Well, I shall take stock of the situation, as always. But before that, young miss! You will sit down, as I am old and I feel tired, even though I am dead, and tell me all about your inn. What style was it? I’m told you have inherited the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Have you unearthed its secrets? Have you designed around it? What is the style of Izrilian architecture today? Please tell me you don’t have decorative pillars or I may have to simply up and leave…”
Erin stuttered. Suddenly, she was faced with the greatest challenge of her death. Which was explaining why she had separated outhouses, a weird Bird-tower, and the particulars of her inn to an [Architect] who had opinions on how stupid each part was.
“So you have a pointless hallway filled with obvious traps that everyone must proceed down and waste precious seconds of their life? A hallway that did not, in fact, save your life when you were shot by crossbows?”
“W–buh–when you say it like that it sounds stupid. But it works! I think!”
Drevish looked pained beyond belief. He was already making Erin sketch since only she could create in the world of the dead.
“If I tell you anything, you will swear to me to completely rework this abomination. It sounds like these Antinium are good [Builders]–I should have liked to meet them and studied their design. But the style? Did a [Princess] of Terandria decide to make this rubbish?”
“Now that you mention it…”
Oh, a great meeting. Oh, the dead who mattered in conjunction with the living. Erin and Drevish were arguing about Bird’s tower, but he took her by surprise, as the Giant standing sentry on Chandrar’s shores with the umbrella raised his head and called an alarm.
“No, no. If you’re going to do a watchtower, miss, you build the inn around it. See here! A central tower, three times as tall! Put Liscor’s walls to shame and mount a ballista on top.”
“…Are you sure you’re an [Architect]? Bird would love you.”
The old man smiled.
“Miss Erin Solstice. What is the point of being generic? Buildings should be perfect for their intent. They should also be grand when they need to be. Impressive! Eye-catching! Worth building. They should protect, and inspire, and make people laugh.”
She looked at him, and liked him. And wished he weren’t here to meet her, because Drevish the Architect was alright.
Then she heard the hubbub, the call to arms. That copy of the sword in the stone rose, and Erin saw all heads turn. Something was coming. Something was…
No, it wasn’t an attack.
It was in fact, a familiar ghost who came. Well, one of them was familiar.
The Void Dragonlord rested his wings, panting. He rasped as he landed in front of Khelt’s palace.
“Greetings, undead rulers.”
Khelta inclined her head a fraction of a millimeter at him. The two traded barbs, but weakly. Xarkouth shook his head.
“We barely escaped them. But not for Terandria’s ghosts in the south sallying forth–and they seemed distracted, from the presence as well as something that drew three north–even so, we barely made it.”
He had passengers. Ghosts who landed, calling out greetings. Erin, peeking down at Xarkouth and waving, heard a shout.
“Glorious Calanfer be with you!”
“Oh, dead gods. Terandrians.”
One of the ghosts muttered. Erin just smiled and laughed. For no less than a [King] and [Queen] had come on Xarkouth’s back! And more!
“It amazes us! We thought only Baleros yet lived, but here we see sunlight and a sword to match any relic we battle the foes with! Greetings, queen of…”
The [King] did a double-take at Khelta’s clear [Necromancer] origins, but the [Queen] shoved him aside.
“From Noelictus to you, I bear words of hope and support, kin.”
“Ah. Then you are well met indeed, cousin! How fares Terandria?”
Khelta kissed the cheek of the Noelictus [Queen] with delight. Xarkouth nodded at Erin.
“Mortal girl. Have they not brought you back, yet?”
“Not yet. Hey, Xark.”
The Dragonlord gave her a look. Erin grinned. Drevish harumphed quietly, taking it all in.
The ghosts were talking, conveying news, how they had held off the six with weapons that remained in death. Also, events of note.
“We come from Ailendamus, where they make war on the Dawn Concordat. A waste of time–but something happened. For a second, I swear I smelled grass and felt the wind on my face. It certainly frightened the six. It was centered in Ailendamus, in the castle.”
“Where? I have never heard of this nation.”
“Brand new. It’s swept each nation aside, and there’s a reason for that. If I could but warn my kingdom…”
“Silence. Enough petty talk!”
Xarkouth bellowed and offended ghosts looked up at the Void Dragonlord. Yet he opened one wing and revealed a final ghost.
“That you have a name for the foes who assail us–I brought the news from Baleros, and there are kin there who want to speak with you. Great ghosts, Erin Solstice. However. There is news of even greater import here. They were not sure whether to tell me, these petty arguers. Seeing one of the six convinced them. Tell them what you know, [Knight].”
A single figure, far less grand than the other ghosts present, but still shining with some measure of her soul, stepped forwards and bowed. She was wide-eyed, with that look of Cawe’s, that of someone recently dead, taking it all in. She looked at Erin, then addressed the others, humbly, sinking to one knee.
“I am Dame Eclizza of Ailendamus. Great Knight, and newly fallen to the Death of Magic.”
Some of the ghosts stirred. Others muttered, ‘who’?
“Our sympathies for your death, but the Death of Chains, even the Death of Magic are not the threats that concern us. Perhaps what they hold back…but we know not details.”
It was the Rebel of String, Elucina, who called down. Dame Eclizza nodded.
“Yes, great ghosts. In this time and place, loyalty and bonds of the living fall away. I understand that now, but when the great Dragonlord came, I realized there was some knowledge I had that might aid even the greatest of you. I…heard of the girl who was not yet dead. No–I heard that a muster was being taken, to fight these six…things. There is more than resistance to be put up. There is a way to fight back.”
She clenched a fist. Khelta raised her brows.
“If you mean a weapon of Ailendamus we can bring to this world…”
“No, great Majesty. I mean something else entirely. I am privy to a bit of knowledge about my great Kingdom, but far less than those…directly involved. Yet I knew enough. So when Great Xarkouth came, I journeyed to persuade one who could tell you all.”
“Thus, she came here. Listen, you arrogant fools of Chandrar. Listen.”
Xarkouth’s head rose. The Great Knight Eclizza’s eyes burned.
“I died escorting one called the Wind Runner of Reizmelt to Ailendamus. She was a curious woman. A ‘thief’, or so the Duke Rhisveri of Ailendamus claimed. She had tried to steal a certain object, of whose worth even I was not aware until recently. His great treasure.”
Erin Solstice choked. She knew–? But Eclizza wasn’t done.
“No one living knows, save the Duke, who is, in fact, in control of Ailendamus. Who is…not a mortal man. I did not know this. He has an object of such worth that my death was a pittance to it, in his eyes! And I cannot help but agree! I tell you this now, as it is heard among Terandria. Yet Terandria has no agents in the mortal realm.”
“What is this Duke? Not a mortal man?”
Xarkouth’s eyes glittered in dour amusement, and the ghosts of dead rulers looked offended. Yet for answer, Dame Eclizza only turned.
“I did not know the answer, milady ghosts, Miss Solstice. I only knew who to ask.”
She turned, and the last ghost approached, who had not ridden with Xarkouth. Who could not. Ghosts looked up and Khelta muttered an oath that shook the land slightly. Erin Solstice’s jaw opened wide, wide…
No one living knew what Rhisveri possessed. Ryoka knew it was there. But even the Great Knights did not know. Yet the dead? Oh, the dead knew, and they were willing to talk.
Down, out of the skies, came a figure larger than Xarkouth. Beautiful, ghostly scales, deep eyes of power.
A Wyrm. He descended, as hostility rose from the ghosts below, but the Wyrm sneered, even at Xarkouth, though they were distant cousins.
“So here are the fabled ghosts of Chandrar. Well, for this journey I roused myself, and I shall accept your gratitude.”
He was not the oldest of his kind, or the grandest in death. But he had a temperament to match. Khelta called out, frowning at the arrogant Wyrm.
“Who are you, Wyrm of Terandria?”
“Second-last of my spawn. Perhaps the last true Wyrm’s get in this world. Certainly, of the last male Wyrms. For the serpent who spawned me and my kin was the last, and our sisters died young. We grew, and fought, across age to age, but withered. The last of us were great, and Dragons feared us.”
Xarkouth muttered, but Erin was entranced by the Wyrm. He raised his head.
“I am Calthusveri. Brother of the damned Rhisveri of Ailendamus, who masquerades as a man. I died eight hundred years ago when we fought. The last two of us, over my great treasure he now hoards. An artifact of such power that even you sneering ghosts of old would wet yourself at its name.”
The sneering ghosts of old looked at the Wyrm. Yet–Erin suddenly saw a flicker in even the oldest’s eyes. Could it actually be?
“Do not delay, Calthusveri. What is so important a Dragonlord, Wyrm, and such ghosts risked their souls to cross the ocean once more to tell us of?”
The Wyrm hesitated. Then his eyes grew crafty.
“If I tell you, I would demand a favor in kind.”
“Not to use it.”
Dame Eclizza interrupted hurriedly. The Wyrm snarled at her.
“Silence, you little…! Very well. I shall tell you, since it is more common knowledge. But I expect favors in kind! From this working, perhaps. It may all be realized, and we may all benefit if we use it right. Not that it will be easy to acquire. My brother will defend it with everything, yet I hear you have a nation you can spur to fight. So. Then.”
He huffed, clearly regretting telling anyone. His eyes glittered as he glanced at Erin, but he did not care about her.
“It is more valuable than a half-dead child. More than a way to talk with the living. After all, did I not acquire it from the deepest places, from the very fingers of legend? Was it not worth kin battling kin to the death for? Yes, each of you ghosts, one yet remains. One more! One of the greatest works ever created, by one who reached the zenith of magic!”
The ghosts looked as the Wyrm raised his head and told them what Rhisveri was hiding. What Ryoka Griffin had nearly stolen. Erin Solstice couldn’t believe it. It was unfair. It shouldn’t exist.
But if you had a game. If you had levels, and classes, and Skills…you also had this. At least one, from days so ancient even Dragons thought none remained. It would change everything. But who would use it?
“A Scroll of Resurrection.”
Author’s Story: I bought one of those frozen deep dish pizzas which you can cook in an oven. Now the worst pizza type in the world to me.
I don’t know if it was not cooked enough or sat out too long. It tasted fine, but my stomach started hurting as I was writing, live, at the end of my day. It got worse and worse, but I could not tell if it was back pain or stomach pain because they sometimes run together.
And I couldn’t sit up straight. Then I had to lie down in the middle of writing and I couldn’t even get up. I was fairly sure it was food poisoning and am now, but for three hours, the pain really sucked. As in, for the first time I was wondering if I was going to call an ambulance if I had to endure it much longer.
I’ve never had pain from food poisoning that intense before, but after three hours it went away and I could handle moving and doing things…now it’s fine, as I type this. Hurts, but it wasn’t ‘I cannot move’ pain.
That’s my story. It’s hour 4 of food poisoning and I have chills despite it being the same temperature as always. So whatever this chapter was, I’m sure it was shorter. Nasty stuff. I have one more of those frozen pizzas left, but if I eat it, it’ll be charred.
The point is: I hate getting sick. This is pirateaba’s mini-story about food poisoning. Hope you didn’t enjoy it.
Author’s Note: I wrote that last around two days ago in torment. I have finished the chapter, but I’m still a bit queasy even now. Certainly not at my best, but I got the chapter done because writing took my mind off the pain…when I could actually stand and sit. Book-authors don’t tap out due to food poisoning, I’m pretty sure, but this is the genuine web serial experience.
Hope for a healthier me next time. Thanks for reading.
Jaw of Zeikhal by Enuryn the Naturalist!