Interlude – Conversations

(The author is on break until the 13th of November for Patrons! I am also taking Thanksgiving week off to visit family so bear that in mind. Thanks!)

 

The truth was he was just fast when he needed to be. Fast, and gifted. Think about what that meant. He was gifted. And old—that meant he had lived long, not a breadth of experience. But that was beneficial because strength came from age, unlike mortals who withered.

He could walk across the immediate world in moments. Not far. Not across the world. But he could visit the palace and return to his estates with a modest expenditure of power. Which he did now.

Part of him regretted that. It was in his nature to hunt and seek. But the intellectual side of him said she had given him all the trust she was willing to, and far more than he had expected.

She bounced back uncannily fast. She was used to this, he realized. Perhaps—even beings more intimidating than him.

The thought did not bother Viscount Visophecin. It was a good reminder that arrogance killed. And that he still had more to learn.

He had played a dangerous game, laying so many cards down to win her trust. Part of it, honestly, had been her needling, which in hindsight he realized was calculated. Her speech about Devils, which he did not quite equal. Her dismissiveness of Ailendamus.

And she could judge. She had seen multiple civilizations, he was sure.

“Fascinating.”

He did not blink through the world. How could he describe it? Visophecin walked forwards in a place without light. Without touch. Only a kind of perception. He reached for a door and it opened.

It was not instantaneous. He stepped out into a world where you could breathe and see. It was purely his desire to have someone recognize a superior system. Vanity. Tyrannies were so wasteful. He looked at them and wanted to eat the fools who didn’t see how temporary, how shortsighted they were. Good, evil—it should last an aeon. It should be remembered forever.

It should be glorious. He would have loved discussing more philosophy with Ryoka Griffin, but she had to sleep, and she was still wary enough.

“I have returned.”

The mansion sprawled. House Shoel’s lands were overflowing with richness, and the Lucifen could afford countless servants—and did employ them. However, the words were not meant for servants, not in this private area.

A figure looked at Visophecin. They neither moved nor acknowledged Visophecin in any physical way. But her voice was calm, deadpan.

“You were out late. Is the Duke throwing another tantrum over his thief?”

Visophecin strode past the guard, who looked quite like he did. Both had illusions on, but they were still related. He responded absently, already far out of the room and down the vacant hallway—no furnishings here. Furnishings had to be cleaned, maintained. No servants were allowed here. Ergo, no one who used this area could be bothered with more than cleaning spells at most.

“Not entirely.”

If he hadn’t spoken, if she had doubted who he was, he might be dead. When you consorted with beings of Rhisveri’s class and nothing was ever certain, you took precautions.

“I met an interesting mortal.”

Her voice floated around him.

Really. The Thief? Maybe I should visit the palace.”

“No. This is a surpassingly delicate matter. I will convene a forum if need be.”

“Are you certain?”

The guard was audibly disappointed, as someone who had to sit in this space for the entire week might well be. But she didn’t push it.

She was not Visophecin. He was first of all.

The Lucifen’s lands did not contain them all in one place. This was their central base and meeting place. Many kept to themselves, only coming here for the deliveries. And they sated their appetites here alone. There were rules, and they were kept.

Lucifen were allowed free rein in many other respects, though. Most were young. Visophecin recalled a time when there had been far, far more. But here was the irony: they were as dangerous as Ryoka believed. More dangerous still, because they were not foolish enough to go without allies, even before coming to Ailendamus.

The Creler Wars had taken a few of them. But Lucifen had accounted well, realizing they fought enemies who were natural counters to their magic. They had…a trump card, which had allowed them to weather that armageddon, purely because the entire world had taken up arms.

Do you want to know irony? It was not Crelers. It was not an enemy Terandrian nation.

It was Goblins. Not the last Goblin King. The one before him. Curulac of a Hundred Days. A hundred days was all it had taken.

Now there was a monster. Visophecin happened to know that Rhisveri had his own nightmares around the Goblin King. But then—he had known more than two.

So into the heart of the manor. What did you expect it to look like? Gothic architecture stretching hundreds of feet high? Some height of depravity or temptation? Carnal and sadistic passions unrestrained, or a kind of cold bureaucracy? A hidden menace draped in pure elegance?

Visophecin walked through a disguised door into the manor proper. He stopped and stared around his home.

House Shoel in glory. House Shoel in radiance. Literal radiance. The wallpaper was bright yellow, and someone had drawn a bunch of children’s doodles all across the lower half—even finding a ladder to draw higher up. Visophecin eyed a cute sheep drawn in stencil with two dots for eyes.

He walked past a giant sofa with toys scattered about. Past a room where all the latest Singer of Terandria song crystals had been obsessively bought and cataloged. Across a foyer with an open glass front that showed a garden blooming with every delightful flower and beautiful plant you could imagine, complete with benches for sitting, a pond with fish that would come and nibble at your fingers, and a pet frog section.

He passed by the servants’ mess hall. And their private kitchens, sleeping quarters—since it would be more difficult if they had a distant servants’ quarters, after all. And a private rec room.

And a pool. They had framed pictures on the walls. The servants, not House Shoel.

“Viscount! You’ve returned. May I take your coat? Can I offer you refreshment?”

A bright, happy voice made the Viscount turn. A beaming [Housemistress], in the peak of health, bustled up with the air of a foster mother. He hesitated, then shook his head.

“Perhaps another time, Herea. I am looking for my cousins.”

Instantly, the woman’s face fell.

“Oh, Viscount. If you had been here sooner—perhaps it’s as well you weren’t. They’re in tears.”

“Really.”

His voice was flat. Herea sniffed.

“The most tragic thing. Little Lesy’s Sariant Lamb passed away. Ser Tubeliges.”

“I see.”

Not a muscle moved on Visophecin’s face. Herea was used to it.

“Simply awash. I think Lady Gadrea is even trying to console Lesy.”

Lesy was a serving girl, one of the [Servants]’ daughters. Visophecin’s eyes sharpened.

“Take me to her.”

 

——

 

It was death by natural causes. Ser Tubeliges had lived a Sariant Lamb lifespan and a half. He was thirty two, and had died wanting for nothing. In fact…Visophecin stopped as he arrived at the wake.

Well, it had mostly ended and all the others had left. But the Sariant Lamb had been buried with full honors in the cemetery…for pets…and had his own tombstone. Marble. Upon which his name, genealogy, and brave deeds, which included once saving a baby from drowning, were etched.

Ser Tubeliges had been the favorite of a serving girl, a Human, named Lesy. She was crying, but her parents had left, and the other staff who had loved the Sariant Lambs.

Of which there were…twenty eight. Twenty seven, now.

Viscount Visophecin saw the little girl crying and placing a flower on the grave. She was not alone. A tall figure stood next to her, practically willowy. But tall. Visophecin was tall. The woman was taller still, and crying into a handkerchief.

He stopped when he saw Lady Gadrea. She was patting Lesy on the shoulder, but the little girl, despite being eight, had still had a year to understand Ser Tubeliges had been reaching the end of his life. She was crying, but he had died peacefully, eating toffee. She was dealing with it.

Lady Gadrea was sobbing so hard she was almost leaning on Lesy for support. She turned as Visophecin approached.

Visophecin! Cousin! Did you hear? Ser Tubeliges is…he was so brave and he went so peacefully. But it cut at me! And poor Lesy!

The girl looked up at Visophecin and began to bow.

“Viscount—”

“You needn’t bow, Lesy. Visophecin wouldn’t ask it of you any more than I. And he surely understands.”

“…Yes.”

Visophecin did not eat meat—except for people. He could enjoy food, but he didn’t make a habit of it.

He requested lamb if he did eat at state functions. Always lamb.

But in this moment, he slowly bent.

“I am sorry to hear this, Lesy. Gadrea. Cousin. You should not be standing.”

“But I had to. When I heard—I couldn’t simply let Lesy be! She has been so brave. So caring. I know Ser Tubeliges and she were close. You are an inspiration to me, Lesy. I want you to know that if you need anything, you must ask.”

She patted Lesy on the shoulder. The girl sniffed. She had faintly green hair running through dark blonde, and she was benefitting from Ailendamus’ enhanced nutrition programs. She wasn’t old enough to work, but she was bright, intelligent, and wanted for nothing. Usually she adored running about the mansion, and she was the one who had drawn the Sariant Lamb on the wall. Among others. Children were allowed to ‘decorate’.

Visophecin saw her bow to Lady Gadrea. She probably knew the lady was serious—but her parents and the [Housemistress] had drilled it into her long ago how much to ask for. Besides…

“You are very kind, Lady Gadrea. But I’ll be fine. I cried an awful lot when Lady Ichewool died, but I will be fine. I’ll just…visit Ser Tubeliges now and then so he won’t be sad.”

She almost teared up again as she choked the last words out. Nevertheless, it was a fine, touching, even adult thing to say in her young way. And that was that.

…Until Lady Gadrea seized Lesy’s hands with both of hers. Her eyes opened wide and she gave Lesy a stare of such intensity that children who did not meet House Shoel’s other members sometimes burst into tears, despite the stares never being hostile.

She had…two pupils in one eye. Three in the other. And her irises had changed accordingly. Her stare wasn’t even as pronounced as some of her kin.

Not only that; it was intense. Lesy had grown up here all eight years of her short life. But even she froze before the spotlight of such passion that radiated from Gadrea’s face.

Nonsense. Don’t stopper your emotions for me or Visophecin, Lesy. I know how much Ser Tubeliges meant. You will remember this day forever. He will not leave you, and you will be the better for it. Let out your emotions. He saved you as a babe—he was a champion among Sariant Lambs.”

“He—he did do that. Everyone said I was drowning and I remember—”

Lesy had been fine. Now she began to hiccup as the old story—the Sariant Lamb who had dove into the pool and dragged out a baby—struck home twice. Gadrea hugged her tightly, but gently.

“Never forget. Never forget those that die, Lesy. We cannot. We shall—we must do something for him. A statue! A painting!”

At this point Viscount Visophecin felt the need to interrupt. He spoke, calmly.

“I believe there is a communal painting of all Sariant Lambs in this generation, Gadrea.”

She glared at him and, for a second, he felt the force of her emotions.

“Not enough, Visophecin! For Lesy and Ser Tubeliges—you wouldn’t gainsay her that, surely?”

Visophecin sighed. The [Painter] who had come expecting to do portraits of House Shoel’s reclusive and rich family had been forced to paint each Sariant Lamb in great detail. And they looked alike. He did a quick estimate of how much a marble bust would cost.

“I never spare you anything, Cousin. If you would like a marble statue, so be it.”

And yet…he eyed Lesy. The girl was crying harder than she had at the funeral. Visophecin looked around.

“Herea. I believe Lesy is overwrought. Will you take her somewhere quiet and make sure she wants for nothing?”

“Of course, Viscount.”

The [Housemistress] had been hovering. Now she came forwards and Lesy clung to her, sobbing violently.

“I shall go with her—”

Lady Gadrea moved to join Lesy, and Visophecin blocked her.

“I require a word, Cousin.”

“When Lesy is grieving?”

“Alas, it is a matter of state. A…young woman, and the Duke.”

Gadrea paused, but looked after Lesy. Herea smiled.

“Lesy will be fine. If she asks, I will send for you, Lady Gadrea.”

“I suppose that is well.”

Visophecin met Herea’s eyes briefly. The [Housemistress] was not going to send for Gadrea. And that ran two ways.

Because it was true that the servants of House Shoel wanted for nothing. In fact, applications to work at the manor were fought over tooth-and-nail by even the palace’s finest, because not only did House Shoel want large families, the children would not work, you would be paid the fattest wage in the entire nation, and amenities went from healing potions on demand to extensive vacation time to the recreation rooms.

Nor was this because House Shoel’s folk were hard to please. Oh, Visophecin’s side of the family was aloof, but polite and demanded nothing—they preferred to be left alone aside from simple fetch requests.

Lady Gadrea’s side of the family was engaging, lovely, cared about you, and sent flowers and thoughtful gifts to your wedding. However. They were also as dangerous in their way as anything Visophecin might do.

He had seen it before. Lesy might well grow up to be a woman in her thirties who still celebrated a ‘Ser Tubeliges’ every year. Or simply develop some odd savior-complex where she went around protecting sheep—or other people.

Lady Gadrea stood with Visophecin as Lesy was led away, now wailing. She watched Lesy anxiously, with a pure sadness, empathy, concern that Visophecin lacked entirely. But that was her nature.

“So why do you wish to speak to me rather than the other Lucifen? Did you say a young woman? Then you’ve come to us with sense, Visophecin. One of us should be at court. You know you don’t…deal well with mortals.”

Lady Gadrea of House Shoel coughed, looking tired in Lesy’s absence. But she drew herself up and regarded her cousin. Cousin, which confused people because they were both of House Shoel. But that was just for appearances. After all…Visophecin looked at her strange gaze, her tall, frail body, but with a passion and vigor that seemed to defy her weak flesh.

What had Ryoka called her? He nodded to his kin.

“I seek the council of all Agelum, Gadrea. Not just you. I was concerned you were on your feet.”

She looked after Lesy.

“I couldn’t leave her behind. They grow up so fast, and the darling Sariant Lambs bring them so much joy.”

“Yes. They do a fine job.”

Visophecin agreed, absently. He looked at the grave. The cemetery. All the things designed to make the servants’ lives as happy as possible. Not for him. He thought he would have run a pleasant household with minimal interaction if given the chance; the kind of efficiency you got from the top [Maids] and [Butlers]. Magnolia Reinhart was an exemplar in that area, or so his notes went for the current serving scene.

But Gadrea needed Lesy, tears and joy in all, just like Visophecin needed the dregs of Ailendamus. Of course, she would rather die than harm a hair on Lesy’s head. But she still took something from the girl. Or perhaps…basked in it, for he didn’t think it was like [Witches] or other such classes or monsters.

Happiness. When the staff were content, thriving, in passion, Gadrea and her kin lived. Even now, she smiled like…an Angel.

 

——

 

But what did an angel smile like? Visophecin told her no lies. They were too close, and Gadrea might not be the greatest of her kind, but she was close. She grew excited as she paced around the cemetery.

“From another world? And you did what to her? I could harm you, Visophecin.”

He watched her, because that was no idle threat—or wouldn’t be if she were in better health. Gadrea glared at him.

“Have you no thought for how a young woman would perceive it? After so long?”

“I was carried away. I rectified the issue.”

Gadrea shook her head. Her cheeks were slightly flushed, but they had turned a lighter color, rather than darker. Light blue?

“I must speak to her! I must ask her—oh, everything. You said she brought Fithea comfort? Why, then she must be an ally! And Rhisveri should grant her whatever she needs. I am glad you saw sense. If there is another place out there…”

Her eyes sparkled with the very possibility. She was no fool. Visophecin remarked quietly.

“She trusted me because she was aware of how valuable she was. But I have not earned her trust. Nor do I intend to blindly invoke whatever powers brought her here.”

Visophecin! Have you no trust? An extraordinary girl comes here, with the daring, the drive to stand up to Rhisveri and you, knowing what you two are, and it truly strikes no chord? Imagine what she could become. How old is she?”

“Hm. I would say…twenty two?”

“Twenty two. Dead gods. I can almost picture her. Such bravery. And—and you were cold.”

Gadrea turned, almost resignedly, to Visophecin. He touched his chin.

“…No, actually. I rather desired to keep dancing with her. Even court her.”

Really? This is wonderful! Astonishing! Inconceivable, truthfully!”

Gadrea clapped her hands, becoming even more animated. Visophecin’s smile was crooked.

“Not for the reasons you hope, fair cousin. I was simply aware that Tyrion Veltras seems enamoured with her. Rumor has it already that His Majesty, Itorin, has invited her to a personal dinner. Whether or not he truly is in love, Queen Oiena has done the same. She is the more suspect of the two, between you and I.”

“Oh. But then…”

Visophecin’s smile had sharpness to it.

“I would rather like to charm her first. Simply because of the competition.”

Gadrea gave him a long look. It was not unfamiliar, and she had given him many such looks over their long lifespans, and he did the same to her. They were fundamentally opposed. Yet…she was so excited she began pleading with him.

“Take me with you to the palace next time. I won’t give anything away. I just want to behold her. See her. If she knows about you, perhaps about me? I—I could even see if we could fly. She can fly, Visophecin. She could be—”

She coughed, raising her hand.

“—so brilliant. I have to ask how little Yorishi is doing. Did she become a [Mage]? If I could just go out—”

Another cough. She blinked. Something was trickling down her mouth. Visophecin’s eyes opened wide. Gadrea stared down at the light blue liquid running down her hand. It did not look like it, but it was her…

Blood. She began to cough harder, and Visophecin caught her. He turned and Gadrea collapsed as he carried her out of the garden, calling for a [Healer].

 

——

 

“…A regular collapse. She was up for nearly three hours.”

“And no one stopped her. I shall speak to Herea.”

“Don’t…don’t…”

Gadrea was calmer now that she was lying down and had been treated. Visophecin saw her agitation, and lowered his voice. Another of the Agelum, now that the [Healer] had seen to Gadrea, was speaking.

The [Healer] saw only red blood. He didn’t notice the discrepancies, and he was loyal to House Shoel beyond doubt. But he was still only a half-Elf, albeit one with long experience with the fragile kin of the Lucifen.

Uzine, older than both Gadrea and Visophecin, oldest of all on the Agelum’s side, sat in a chair that could be pushed around. There were any number of devices the Agelum could use. Floating beds, simple mechanical variants…he patted Gadrea’s hand, and she lay there, resting.

He went outside with Visophecin as Gadrea lay in the bed of healing crystals. Visophecin pushed the chair.

“Did you hear about Ser Tubeliges? Such a sad thing.”

Visophecin sighed.

“I heard about Ser Tubeliges. I have news, Uzine.”

“Tell me, then.”

They went for a tour of the manor, Visophecin letting Uzine greet the children running past, who had to stop and bow or show him a toy or a flower, ask him if he had heard the latest song from the Singer. Visophecin regarded it as a necessary evil. But Uzine smiled with delight. He had an infinite patience like all his people for such things.

Yet Agelum would have surprised Ryoka—or maybe not. They, like Lucifen, had their role to play. But it was not always benign.

“Did you meet with Ser Lomoor’s widow when you were there? Please remember me to her.”

It was another child that Uzine had known since he was a serving boy. In fact, and people attributed this to the care of House Shoel, patriotism, their rich lands, or any number of factors, many of the serving children went on to become [Mages], [Knights], and more in Ailendamus’ ranks. Some rose to positions of great power and still visited and remembered their beloved friends who didn’t age.

It was inevitable. Uzine smiled at a boy with a scar and a limp.

“Tored. How are you healing?”

“Good, Lord Uzine! I’m sorry, Viscount.”

“And those wretches who picked that fight?”

“Haven’t seem ‘em!”

The boy gave him a huge grin exposing missing teeth. Uzine nodded.

“Suffer no bullying. Go proudly in House Shoel’s name.”

When the boy had limped off, he turned to Visophecin.

“I wanted to give him a practice sword for the end of the month. Herea refused. Speak to her, will you?”

“Hm.”

Visophecin’s eyes followed Tored. The boy had, after several incidents with a neighboring village’s children, single-handedly picked a fight with no less than four children with multiple years on him. He’d broken a leg and lost several teeth, but had given them more scars than the one he had. He had done it after a chat with Uzine on the issue.

Until Tored was older, Visophecin would have left him alone. Treated him like a servant if he was employed, and not bothered with any facet of his life unless it affected Visophecin for whatever reason. Unless Tored committed a crime. Then they would meet one more time, as man and Lucifen.

But Uzine and his kind…meddled. The children they poured their affection and attention into went on adventures. Many died young. Some became great heroes and figures of renown. Champions of the poor, feared warriors. Some simply snapped. There was no middle ground.

Live. Live louder, live with conviction, with passion. If Uzine had been able to stand for long periods, he might have founded a new [Knight] Order, or led the charge into enemy lines. As it was—he couldn’t.

They were all bedridden. All…weak. So, as Visophecin spoke, a few more were escorted over, to give him advice. Ironically, he trusted the Agelum more than his kin. Not all of his kin were as practical; you could learn the kind of selfish altruism he believed made great rulers. But Agelum…

“A girl from another world? Or one who travels at least? You were right to stop Rhisveri. Hear her out. Give her aid, Visophecin. Bring her here, perhaps. Have you heard about Ser Tubeliges?”

Another of the Agelum wheeled herself over. She was old, white in her hair…but that didn’t mean much. She coughed.

“Gadrea collapsed, then?”

“You shouldn’t have let her stand so long. Three hours? You are lucky she didn’t suffer intense harm.”

Razia smiled.

“You don’t know what it’s like, Visophecin. To want to stand and hold someone. Don’t scold Gadrea too long. I feel for mortals who suffer injuries like ours.”

“I have put forward your suggestions about ways to improve their lives and give them employment in the Court of Masks already. And we are purchasing magical prosthesis designs. Sophridel and Fithea, among some of the others, are looking into the project, but we have a war to fight, Razia.”

“I know that. I wish we could give more aid. But we are not as skilled at magic.”

She shook her head. Then she smiled ruefully.

“I hope we do not add to your worries, Visophecin. To tell you the truth, I stood and walked about the manor just this morning. Only thirty minutes.”

He sighed. But he did understand the frustration they had to feel. To occupy them, he gave them wide liberties to begin and envision projects. One of Ailendamus’ dishes that was now a standard across the kingdom had come from House Shoel’s kitchens, and thousands of taste-testings, much to their pride. Razia smiled.

“I know, but I had Herea send someone to watch me. I didn’t feel poorly at all. I’ve felt better this last month—months, really—than I have since before Curulac, damn him. And I’m not the only one, am I, Uzine?”

Visophecin raised his eyebrows.

“I hope you will remind the others not to push themselves, however you feel, Cousins.”

“We know. But it is nice to feel better, Visophecin. I know it must be something—good humors, if they existed. Perhaps it’s that lad Tored. He put a spark in me, but I really feel better. Perhaps there’s a project in Ailendamus that’s boosting the mana?”

“Not that I know of. I will ask. Tell me if you continue to feel better next month.”

“Of course. Of course. And bring this young woman here! Visophecin is minded to seduce her, Razia.”

The other immortal laughed as Visophecin sighed.

“We shall all flirt with her. If that’s what she wants. But Visophecin? I thought the only mortal that could ever conceivably catch his eye would be someone like Tulm the Mithril. Or Magnolia Reinhart.”

“I am pleased to see you are in high spirits. Should I purchase a new Sariant Lamb?”

Visophecin! But perhaps you will find a [Chef] who can make more of that gelato? Oh, and soccer. Could you even hire that [Football Coach]? It would benefit Ailendamus. While I have you—bicycles, Visophecin. When are they arriving? I promised the children and the adults they would all get to ride one. Also, do we have room in the budget for a camel in the stables? Just one! Or three. Have you seen the documentary…”

The Devil walked his home, in the company of his fair cousins. He would never understand them, not completely. But he could appreciate them. For them, he had taken them all to Ailendamus.

This would be his kingdom. This place would be safe, until the end of time. Until his ambitions came crashing down. And if he had to see it all end, he would stand here, with a flaming sword in hand, at the doorway.

Until the end, the last of the two species lived and waited in the world’s twilight.

 

——

 

The things the Wind Runner did. She had won herself an audience because she charmed immortals. She struggled, because they were not alike at all except in the most fundamental part of their nature, and even then…

But she did find a way to charm them. Perhaps it was because she liked them.

She thought she was clever. Well, she might have designs on others, and even won Visophecin’s approval somehow, but some beings were beyond her charms.

She had a talent for the wind, but Rhisveri found her about as appealing as a block of meat. Less, frankly, because if it was a prime cut of sirloin?

He had no weaknesses and he knew the advantage of surprise. He had granted her an audience. So the audience was now.

Rhisveri strode into Ryoka Griffin’s rooms just past morning. He tried the handle, and busted the door in when it was locked.

“Now we shall discuss things, Ryoka Gr—ah.”

He stopped for a second. Stared, and backed up.

“…You are a disgrace to your Order. All of y—”

Something bounced off the wall. It was a helmet. The Duke began to lambast them for their—he ducked as more pieces of metal hit the walls.

Rhisveri retreated backwards, into the guest rooms, to recollect himself. It turned out a surprise visit—had its own flaws. Several voices followed him, uttering loud curses. It turned out when you got a lot of Ryokas together, they did have similarities.

The Duke walked out of Ryoka’s quarters just in time to see Queen Oiena headed this way. Following Sammial, marching over to say hello with Oesca, and Fithea bringing up the rear. He wondered if he should stop them.

He really wanted not to.

 

——

 

Mrsha du Marquin ate breakfast. Next to her, a little Gnoll cub slapped his knees as he chanted.

“Bird hash. Bird hash! Bird hash!”

That would be…Cers. Mrsha had no idea what a ‘bird hash’ was. It turned out it was a nickname for a simple breakfast.

“Cers. Stop eating that or I will tell Chieftain Akrisa.

Satar, the [Shaman] and his older sister, slapped his paw away from the raw and dried bird meat. The Silverfang tribe did not want for things like runes of preservation, being able to afford them, so ‘bird hash’ let them use a mix of preserved and fresh foods.

Meat. Gnolls ate meat. But since they were also famously good herders, chickens, one of the most economical creatures in any world, were sources of all kinds of food, and all you had to feed them was non-edible stuff.

Bird hash was when you fried up the meat with a gravy or spices, which made Mrsha’s mouth water terribly, then cracked a few eggs and made a simple, fast scramble. Completely dependent on chickens. Then you could plop it into a sandwich, eat it as it was, or add it to another dish.

It was not fine cuisine by any standard. It was food Satar could make with all the adults being busy. Comfort food.

Cers stuck his entire face into the bowl the instant he was passed it. Mrsha ate slowly. Satar watched her, a bit anxiously.

“Are you hungry for something else, Mrsha? Honored Krshia said whatever you need…”

Mrsha shook her head, and continued to nibble on bites of her meal. Krshia was elsewhere; she was the star of the Meeting of Tribes along with Ferkr, who was a guest at the Silverfang camp. But, because of this, she was breakfasting elsewhere; Gnolls just had to speak to her. Therefore, Mrsha should not be anywhere near her if one just so happened to poke their head in.

This was despite Mrsha wearing her disguise. And she was not the only person in this tent, incidentally. Satar and Cers had come over to a small camp that had been newly set up within the aegis of Ekhtouch—mainly because Ekhtouch was the most reclusive and suffered few visitors.

“Vetn, Tesy, stop complaining. Bird hash. Dead gods, that takes me back.”

Qwera took a bowl and reached over, but the two ducked away. Vetn sniffed.

“I thought Silverfang would offer us a fancy dish. They’re rich.”

Satar flushed, and Qwera kicked the younger Gnoll.

“You loved bird hash when you were young. Shut up and eat. You too, Tesy.”

“But I didn’t—ow. Alright!”

The Drake bent over his bowl. Vetn and Tesy scarfed down their food. Cers was already done and begging for a second helping. Satar bowed to Qwera.

“I’m sorry, Honored Qwera. Honored Krshia recommended something simple, like Cers’ favorite food…”

“It’s perfectly fine. I drank water flavored with wild mint when I was out of provisions. You want to complain, Ysara?”

“…I’ve eaten nothing but meat for the last three days in your company, Qwera.”

“Humans.”

Everyone else rolled their eyes. Mrsha kept eating. Despite Vetn’s complaints, she rather liked this meal. It was simple, but tasty. It was something…

Erin might have made. It was about her level of cooking and she lacked the patience for bigger dishes, unless it was a special occasion.

The thought of Erin made Mrsha stop eating for a second. It wasn’t that she was sad. She had met Krshia and Krshia had hugged her and now she was among everyone. From Qwera to the Silverfangs to new people like Feshi and Torishi, who Mrsha thought was the best Chieftain ever, aside from Urksh.

It was just that she had met another Chieftain. Mrell. And Prha. And…

Mrsha sighed. Qwera eyed her, and then began to kick Vetn and Tesy out of the tent.

“I have to get to work. You two, get lost.”

“But I was going to stay with Mrsha…”

Tesy looked at Mrsha with quite a lot of concern and Vetn turned at the door. Cers was already racing into the Ekhtouch camp to play Triumphs, whatever that was, with the other children. Qwera glanced knowingly at Mrsha.

“Sometimes a girl has to think things over. With the fine company of a caring, sensitive soul.”

Tesy nodded.

“So—”

Qwera put him in a choke hold and dragged him off.

“A caring, sensitive soul. That Feshi or Chieftain Torishi will be over in a moment. You stay far away.”

Satar hesitated, but she had a job too, and Mrsha passed her a note thanking her for the repast and vouchsafing that she was merely taking her time to savor the melody of flavors.

She had that one pre-prepared, incidentally. She tended to give it to Lyonette when she had to eat salads, then tossed them out the window.

Lyonette. Erin. Mrsha sighed. She wasn’t sad. It was just…she thought of Mrell. No…no. But…

Life was never easy. Dead gods. Mrsha took a sip of her goat milk and sighed like the last drunk in a bar, leaning on the counter. She was left alone with a generous helping of breakfast cooling in the pot. Outside, Ekhtouch was starting their own day. Mrsha knew that Chieftain Torishi would soon be here to talk, and Feshi, and…Rose and Inkar, and more.

They all cared about Mrsha, and were invested in getting Lyonette here, or Mrsha to Lyonette, or Mrsha to home, or something. But Qwera was right. Mrsha had ‘parents’. She was going to have to do something. They just showed up out of nowhere and gave her a headache.

Mrsha was in her maudlin mood and content to sit in contemplative silence.

…Right up until a shadow passed by the door flap. Mrsha froze. A huge shape. A giant muzzle, like a Gnoll’s, but far larger. Gigantic muscles, yet unearthly dexterity. That shape—she began to choke on her food, and tried to stand and run. It was them! Somehow!

Raskgh—

Gire poked her head into the tent. She sniffed.

Bird hash? You’re making bird hash for breakfast?”

She looked over her shoulder, then blew into the tent so fast Mrsha barely saw her move. She had two bowls full and a spoon raised before she saw Mrsha.

“Oh. Good morning. Mrsha du Marquin. May I have some food?”

She blinked at Mrsha. The Gnoll stared up at the gigantic [Paragon], the second-tallest Gnoll in the entire Meeting of Tribes, and nodded. Gire smiled, ducked her head, and began to eat her breakfast.

Satar had prepared enough for Mrsha to stuff herself until bird hash came out her ears, and for everyone else in the tent to eat their fill; she could always save or re-use it. Gire chowed it down so fast Mrsha saw less of it every time she raised her head.

Not that she didn’t savor it. She was beaming with delight.

“Bird hash. I love bird hash. What kind of bird is it? Chicken…but the speckled hen breed. Probably eight years old. Yum, yum…”

Then Gire blinked at Mrsha and looked embarrassed. She offered the last bowl to Mrsha.

“My apologies, Mrsha. You’re an honored guest. Do you want more?”

Mrsha shook her head, in awe of how much Gire was putting away. The Ekhtouch Gnoll ducked her head and went back to eating. She had good manners. Even so, now that she was reminded Mrsha was there, her eyes assessed Mrsha as she sat cross-legged, back straight. A giant among even her tribe.

[Paragon]. Mrsha had seen her yesterday, of course. But today? She took in Gire, and Gire did the same.

“I should introduce myself. I am Gireulashia of Ekhtouch. [Paragon]. It is my honor to meet you, Mrsha from Liscor. Especially after all you’ve done!”

Mrsha, still eating, looked around for her notepad. She began to sign with her paw, one-handed. Then, frustrated, remembered that no one could understand. And the voice runes…

Gire tilted her head, ears flicking with interest. She reached over, and handed Mrsha her notepad without having to stand.

 

Thank you. What is a [Paragon]? What do you do, again?

 

The big Gnoll girl smiled.

“[Paragon] is my class. Only one Ekhtouch has it—perhaps I’m the only Gnoll living that has this class. It means I am the inspiration, the exemplar of all Gnolls. I am…superior. In body and mind. I must lead my tribe and people by example.”

She said that all with a straight face. Mrsha blinked at Gire. The tall Gnoll touched her chest, then sighed and went back to eating.

“…Or so Chieftain Firrelle says. But how would she know? The last [Paragon] was four generations before her, so all she has to go on is rumor and [Shaman]-memory. All I do is train. I’m not old enough to have a job, so I am Tested, learn fighting, crafts, and am witnessed at the Meeting of Tribes.”

A sour look crossed Gire’s face. She caught herself as she saw Mrsha watching and bowed her head again.

“Forgive me. I’m complaining and you’re an esteemed guest. Are you waiting for Chieftain Torishi? I could fetch her if you wanted.”

Mrsha shook her head. She was fascinated by Gire. Especially—what had she said?

 

How old r u?

 

Gire frowned at the abbreviation.

“Fifteen. Fifteen years, two months, five days.”

Mrsha’s jaw dropped. Fifteen? But she was huge! Mrsha wondered if she would get that big. That was…a long way up. But then she could do anything she wanted! Lyonette could never stop her! But it probably made crawling under the table harder. And sneaking around.

She thought that, but just then, someone shouted.

Gireulashia! Where are you? Breakfast!

Gire grimaced. She turned with Mrsha, and clearly someone was following her by scent. Mrsha saw the Gnoll glance at the pot, conspicuously empty, and her paws blurred.

By the time a Gnoll with a huge, covered bin appeared, some kind of woven container charred at the bottom, Gire was innocently sitting with Mrsha, and the frying pan and the bowls were nowhere to be seen.

Gire—oh. The guest.”

“I was entertaining our guest, as Chieftain Firrelle asked.”

Gire innocently gestured to Mrsha, and gave her a swift look. Mrsha nodded obediently. The Ekhtouch Gnoll sniffed, but nodded.

“Then—will you breakfast here?”

“I…yes. Yes, I will.”

Gire accepted the odd container from the Ekhtouch Gnoll, who gestured.

“I will have the rest sent over. Chieftain Firrelle wishes you to take part in sparring later today.”

“Very well.”

The [Paragon] sighed. But she was already opening what Mrsha realized was some kind of steaming device. The charred wood sat over a fire and within were…

Green…steamed buns? Mrsha craned her head to see as Gire put the huge basket in front of her. They could have fed everyone. And they were curiously green buns, with strange flecks of some kind of vegetable baked into the exterior. They had an odd smell, but Gire lifted one, took a huge bite, and revealed there was meat inside. Meat and some other ingredients.

“I’m sorry. They never let me have bird hash. And I cannot go and buy food with them watching. Just pretend I’m eating everything. I’ll account for the extra food…”

Mrsha’s eyes nearly popped out of her head as a second basket was brought in, placed before Gire, and revealed a double helping of food. Mrsha was known in various circles back home as a devilish stealer of food.

Mrsha the Mouth. Mrsha the Morsel-Hunter. Mrsha the Maw.

She watched as Gire calmly, and apparently still hungry, ate more food than Mrsha would eat all day in the form of those strange buns, on top of her bird hash! Gire ate with a resigned look. Until Mrsha pointed and showed Gire a note.

 

May I try one?

 

She didn’t comment about the amount of food; Lyonette said it was unmannerly to comment about such things to fellow women. Gire looked surprised, but instantly handed Mrsha a bun.

“If you like. It’s not tasty, though.”

Mrsha thought it was. It did have some fine meat within, beef if she was to judge. She took a bite, chewed—

Gire leaned out of the way of the spitball as it hit a corner of the yurt. She grinned, as Mrsha scrubbed at her tongue.

 

What the heck is in that thing? Nasty! Horrible!

 

She signed with her paws, because she had to express her revulsion, then went to scribble it down. Gire replied, glancing at Mrsha and the note.

“It’s got herbs in the bun. That’s why it tastes bad. Here. Have the inside.”

She opened the offending bun and Mrsha suspiciously took a bite of the filling. That tasted good. A bit odd, but fine quality.

“The herbs make you stronger, you know.”

Mrsha would rather die. She glowered at the buns.

 

Do you eat that every day?

 

Gire sighed.

“Not every day. Every four days is bun-day. I have an eating pattern. They try to vary it up, but they just use a sequence. Every four days, then every three, three, four, eight—four…even when they think they’re being clever, they just throw in a single variation.”

Mrsha tilted her head. There was something about Gire that was fascinating. Aside from her mere height. She spoke very adult-like, but she complained about food like Mrsha. Not only that—Gire blinked at Mrsha.

“I’m sorry. I’m supposed to be a good host. And you don’t want to hear about food. You escaped the hunters, didn’t you? You’re safe here. Ekhtouch lets no one in. Also, the authority of Weatherfur and Ekhtouch are such that no other tribes can directly force their way into either camp. Or are you worried about your parents?”

Mrsha’s ears drooped. Her tail did likewise, and Gire hesitated.

“Chieftain Mrell and Warrior Prha. Formerly of Stone Spears? And you don’t like them because you have a mother. Lyonette du Marquin, in Oteslia. You fled from Liscor, The Wandering Inn, and arrived here thanks to Qwera, among other factors…”

Thanks for noticing, jerk. 

Mrsha didn’t write that one down, but signed with one paw. She didn’t appreciate the commentary on her life. The fact that Gire knew the confusing story didn’t register with Mrsha—but Lehra and the others still had to have some of the details clarified.

Gire frowned at Mrsha’s paws. But she saw how the little girl was hunched over, and ameliorated her tone.

“I, ah…I suppose it’s hard? To have parents you don’t want. Mine don’t have much bearing in my life. I’m sorry.”

She ate an entire bun as she thought for a second, eyes flickering. Mrsha put her bowl down and Gire leaned over.

“You know, technically, under tribe-law, if they were expelled via a [Chieftain]’s orders, they have no formal claim on you as parents. The fact that you’re the survivor of a tribe means that your legal status is a bit strange…I guess Krshia would have a strong claim on you, but if this Lyonette comes, she can have the [Shamans] formally recognize her as your guardian.”

Mrsha blinked. She looked up at Gire. The [Paragon] frowned.

“…Unfortunately, ‘Lyonette du Marquin’ is the name of a [Princess] of Calanfer and under Terandrian laws of royal inheritance, she cannot legally adopt or declare you her ward without approval from the throne, due to the Bloodlines Decree. Especially since you’re non-Human so they can’t even claim you’d be partially intermingled after marrying a royal bloodline; non-Humans can’t develop royal blood. Half-Elves are an exception ratified to the treaty, but you’re not one.”

She looked at Mrsha. The legal knowledge of the [Paragon] was impressive. The rest? Mrsha slowly wrote a note and handed it to Gire.

 

You suck at being nice.

 

Gire looked a bit hurt. Mrsha passed her another note.

 

How do you know all that? Do they teach you Terandrian law?

 

Even Lyonette hadn’t done that and she taught Mrsha tea etiquette and the flower-signs of court. Gire shook her head, bemused.

“No. I read a book once. I’m sorry I’m not comforting. Um…maybe Liscor has separate bylaws in regard to adoption?”

She went back to eating, a bit embarrassed. As if she had explained everything. Mrsha frowned at her. What, you just remembered everything you read?

You mean jerk. You’re big and smelly and stupid.

The little white Gnoll girl took some pleasure in signing it, with a smile on her face. She was Lyonette’s daughter no matter what.

Gire looked at Mrsha’s paws. Then frowned.

Horrible!

She signed back. Mrsha nearly catapulted herself into a wall in astonishment. Gire glared.

“I don’t know what the rest of that meant, but I can tell I’m being insulted.”

You can read my signs?

Gire tilted her head back and forth, eying Mrsha as the Gnoll girl, disbelieving, moved her paws.

“You…something….my…can I understand you? Not yet. It’s very obvious, you know. Some of the gestures, like ‘you’.”

She made the simple indicator. Mrsha was agog. Only Goblins and Antinium had ever picked up on her language free-form! And yet, Gire smiled with clear interest.

“Did you make that? Warriors have their own hand signs, but yours are funny. I like your signs more.”

Mrsha’s were more expressive. When she insulted you, it was very obvious, like her word for ‘smelly’, which was pinching an imaginary nose. The Gnoll girl shyly waved a paw.

Aw, go on.

And that was how they became friends. By the time the Ekhtouch adults came to clear the meal, they found Gire and Mrsha having a completely silent conversation, paws flashing. They were even inventing new words, and the older Gnolls frowned.

They were sharp enough to read some of it, but they weren’t Gire. And the Gnoll [Paragon] was visibly excited.

“Really? So it does rain and flood all spring? Do you swim?”

Mrsha shook her head, explaining about the things in the water. Gire sighed.

“I’m going to have to fight underwater soon. It’s hard.”

Mrsha had no basis for that statement, but she was fascinated by Gire’s experiences. And the same went for Gire.

“You met with a holder of an inheritance Skill? That’s so rare. What’s the garden like? And you came from Liscor. Does that inn have all the treats the Silverfangs are bringing? Like cookies?

She didn’t know. Mrsha almost stopped signing and grew sad when she thought of Erin, but the desire to tell Gire was stronger. The [Paragon] knew how Mrsha had gotten here. But the entire story?

Mrsha almost hesitated, but then she remembered that Gire knew everything. So Mrsha could tell her…

 

——

 

It was a strange duo that walked around the Ekhtouch camp. A tiny Gnoll cub and a giant girl. Mrsha rode on Gire’s shoulders, and the Gnoll let her sign, watching out of the corner of her eye and replying. The older Ekhtouch Gnolls were a bit grumpy.

“Gire, you should be stretching and practicing.”

“I am with an honored guest. Chieftain Firrelle will agree. Chieftain Torishi and Chieftain Akrisa both think so.”

“But your training…”

The instructor blinked, then dodged a [Mudball]. Mrsha waved her wand. Back off, fool! Gire laughed in delight.

“You can use magic! I don’t have any magical capability, or if I do, it’s tiny. Firrelle thinks we have to breed for that too.”

Mrsha wrinkled her nose. Breeding? Adult stuff? Disgusting!

“I know. But I have to have lots of children some day.”

Gire sighed. Mrsha shook her head. No way. Just run off! Gire gave her a long look.

“I thought about it. But where would I go?”

Liscor! Liscor was nicer than anywhere. It had football, cakes, the plays…and Numbtongue, Bird, Ishkr, everyone, and the laptop!

Gire had an interesting reaction to Mrsha’s tales of home. She wasn’t actually as fascinated with how famous people got, or even football.

“I’ve played it. It’s not as fun. I don’t want to be famous.”

…said the [Paragon]. Mrsha blinked, but Gire’s eyes did light up at the mention of Numbtongue and the laptop.

“I would like to meet a Goblin who’s not hostile. There are stories about them, you know. And a laptop? Rose and Inkar have their phones. Inkar even let me borrow it. What’s a laptop?

Only the greatest invention of all time! It had movies, games where you got to kill alien things with big booming weapons if Numbtongue didn’t hog it all the time, card games, music, and it was proof against evil, immortal [Witches]!

Gire’s ears perked up. She reached down and produced the iPhone, upgraded, small in her paws. Mrsha’s eyes bulged as she realized this was a new model thanks to Krshia’s Skill.

“I want to see this laptop! Did you know this device has lots of games?”

Give, give that to me. So I can inspect it.

Mrsha reached for the smartphone, but Gire effortlessly held it out of reach. She was moving through the apps, and held the screen out to Mrsha.

“Hold on. You can try the games. I’ve beaten most of them…but look at this. Do you know what this is?”

She had opened the most boring app of all the ones on the phones. Mrsha sighed. Really? But Gire pointed.

“No, look. I know what it does and so do you. It’s not that useful, or so I thought. But look over here.”

She pointed as she tapped a few numbers into the calculator.

“Multiplication, division…it can do larger numbers flawlessly, which is good if you can’t do it in your head, I guess. But—here. You see?”

She pointed to something Mrsha had never bothered with, with all the other interesting things. Gire frowned.

“It works with a lot of numbers. It’s some kind of…answer. But I don’t understand what it means and Inkar couldn’t explain. See?”

She pointed to a little button that labeled a nonsense word. It said ‘log’. Gire pointed to others. ‘Sin’, ‘ln’, ‘cos’…they were nonsense words.

“Inkar told me they were mathematical devices. But she didn’t know what they represented. Neither does Rose.”

Mrsha raised her eyebrows. That checked out. Rose didn’t know anything. Kevin might know. Gire shook her head.

“But Mrsha, everyone has this device. Phones. Everyone. It follows then, and I checked, that this ‘app’ is on both phones. And since this is here, this is an important thing. Whatever it represents. So it matters. I’ve almost figured out what it’s doing to each number…but how do you use it? No one makes something you don’t use.”

Mrsha hesitated. She had never cared one bit about the calculator or maths, although she could now multiply up to six without having to use her fingers. Yet Gire said things so sensibly.

There was a logic behind that button. Behind everything.

“Someone made this, Mrsha. It’s very clever, but you can see the line here, and here, see? I wanted to open it up, but Inkar said that would break it. That’s fascinating.”

If you say so. Mrsha tried to explain what was really cool to Gire. You think you had fun making birds kill pigs? Granted, hugely amusing. But that was nothing compared to the complexity of a firefight where you had one of those glowy grenades, and they were coming at you and all you had was a pistol.

Master Chief Mrsha saw Gire’s eyes light up.

“So you have to fight them? How many?”

Hundreds. And they were on your ship! And then you crashed and you had to beat up them all over the place, and you ride in this big thing that was named after a pig, but didn’t look like one at all, and rescue these stupid Humans. But then Numbtongue took the laptop away because he wanted to beat the game again and he overwrote your save data!

Like every enthusiast ever, Mrsha tried to explain just how cool this thing was to Gire, who listened, mouth agape. She had to play it. And there was only one place in the world where she could. Mrsha took Gire’s paw and the [Paragon] swung her about—then tossed her twenty feet up and caught Mrsha.

She didn’t do that again, because that was more scary than cool, even though Gire promised she could catch her every time. But by the time Feshi and Torishi came, just past breakfast, Gire and her little friend were waiting for them.

 

——

 

The Meeting of Tribes had a lot of rogue elements in it. From little Gnoll girls, to undead Revenants. You know, standard. And it was attracting political attention from around the world and it had already uncovered a Drake conspiracy and there were Raskghar.

All that to say…fall was upon them. The wind was growing colder, with that crisp breeze, and the first leaves were beginning to change, but it would be a long season.

Ah, back in those days—no, even now, a small village might gather around, burn some wood to produce a merry blaze, and cook something over the fire. A baked sweet potato, some fish if they were along bodies of water, or simply warm themselves with some cider…

That was memory. A potato on a stick with some butter was among the finest of meals. One he remembered even now.

Az’kerash stood in front of the burning fire. He did not hold out his hands. There was nothing to warm, or rather, he would not feel it. Belavierr stopped in her slow circuit of the castle. She was knitting something, and her look of discontent ever since she had returned from Liscor changed slightly.

“What are you doing?”

The Necromancer slowly placed another sheaf of paper on the fire. He didn’t really want her company, but she was a guest.

“I am disposing of unneeded…material.”

She looked at the pieces of paper. The fire wasn’t large, but Az’kerash had added some wood just so it wasn’t a single thing. A tiny bit of ceremony, he supposed.

A skeleton scuttled away with a baked apple as Belavierr came close. Damned [Witches]. A skeleton couldn’t even sit around a fire and bake apples for his friend slime without….grumble grumble…

Belavierr glanced at Toren, but her attention was on the pieces of paper.

“What are you burning?”

She was too direct. Az’kerash sighed, but proffered one of the pieces of paper.

“…An approximately hundred-page plan with as many steps and options for fostering conflict between Gnollish tribes and the Drake cities.”

“Ah.”

The [Witch] discarded the piece of paper. She watched Az’kerash burn more pages, faster now that she was here and the ceremony of the moment was less enjoyable. Az’kerash felt motivated to speak after six minutes.

“I had designed the plans during my recuperation. Far before the Raskghar or these latest developments.”

“I see. Is your agent, Kerash, following these plans?”

“He is adapting.”

The [Witch] stared at the fire. She looked at Az’kerash.

“I have found that plans of that nature go awry. Especially if laid too many centuries in advance.”

He bowed, stiffly.

“I will bear it in mind for the future, Witch Belavierr.”

“Ah. Yes. I had forgotten you were new.”

Az’kerash sighed. He waved a finger and the rest of the pages ignited in one moment, swirling into the fire before extinguishing themselves. He inclined his head to her.

“Until later, Belavierr.”

She made no response. Az’kerash returned to his lair.

Long laid plans set up in literal flames. And yet—everything had changed. He went back to checking on Pisces’ position. Oh. The next part of the documentary had aired.

It was a strange confluence of circumstances. Az’kerash remembered designing the plans, to take advantage of the bloodbath. But that was not the Necromancer of now. Now, his undead levelled. His Chosen, his alliance with the Stitch Witch…

And, of course, among the limited aid he could give to an…ally? No, apprentice? A worthy [Necromancer], if only starting out, and a debt he was finding alarmingly difficult to fulfil was this:

“Erin Solstice.”

“That’s me! Hey, don’t wear it out. I’m Erin. Hi.”

A zombie lurched past Az’kerash. He pinched the bridge of his nose. Then he went to consult his notes.

“Belavierr. Will you consult with me?”

She was there in a moment. The Stitch Witch eyed the zombie, who stuck out her hand.

“I’m—”

The zombie hesitated, then lurched off to stand by a wall, dead silent. Belavierr walked forwards.

“Interesting. This was not part of our agreement.”

“Must we renegotiate on the basis of limited magical discussion?”

Belavierr tilted her head.

“If you wish.”

“I do not wish for that.”

“Ah. Then I shall consider it…a gesture of respect.”

The Stitch Witch walked forwards. Az’kerash turned. He did not have to speak, exactly. She saw multiple stages of his investigation, and regarded them, frowning.

“Fetohep of Khelt. Frost magic. Regeneration magic.”

“Do you have a reagent capable of mimicking ethereal effects in alchemy?”

Belavierr blinked at the complex spells. She tilted her head, left and right.

“Not one of the items listed.”

“Ah.”

Even she didn’t have…the Necromancer turned as the Stitch Witch produced something.

“Do you wish to use this?”

A long, semi-transparent thread on a single spool. The Necromancer eyed it.

“What use would that have?”

The Stitch Witch blinked at him, her ringed eyes shifting a bit.

“Dealing with spectres. This…soul. You know you must retrieve it?”

The Necromancer sighed.

“I am aware. That is, ironically, the simplest task. It will probably be close to her body. The one thing I am sure of is that the body must be placed in the inn, not the garden.”

“Hm. Yes. You would be able to do it well. As a Necromancer. Why are you speaking with Khelt?”

Az’kerash didn’t turn his head, but one of the floating lines of text in the air abruptly vanished. The Stitch Witch looked at him.

“A separate matter. Khelt has an interest. I may pursue it.”

She smiled.

“An intriguing one. I have offered my services to Khelt several times. They do not accept.”

Az’kerash knew the Stitch Witch entangled every affair. He wasn’t surprised the rulers had such sense. Although…he did not mention Belavierr to Fetohep, as even communication was delicate. But perhaps she was what the immortal ruler desired, along with Az’kerash’s abilities. But what a grand ambition. Bring back the…?

He had this commitment to see through first. So the Necromancer put any other project to the side, especially ones that might be beyond even his abilities at present.

“Pieces. Can you improve any aspect of this planned healing project, Witch Belavierr?”

She regarded the component parts. It would be exceedingly difficult to put together. Az’kerash could substitute his own abilities and considerable wealth and influence to copy the project, but again, he was no specialist in healing.

Yet the Stitch Witch…her eyes flickered from incomplete part to part. She came to a swift conclusion.

“Something is missing.”

The Necromancer nodded.

“Do you mean the frost magic? Or the antidote to the poison? No [Alchemist] has yet synthesized a proper application method, and most lack the proposed reagents. Although…”

His eyes flickered to the line of thread. Intriguing. He dipped it in the simple antidote, and walked over to a number of frozen corpses. Female Humans, roughly the same in age. Belavierr watched him point a finger. The thread slowly sank into the first frozen chest, and the layer of poison trapped underneath.

“Not that. Part. And piece. And part.”

The Stitch Witch’s fingers crawled as she moved from section to section, each incomplete. Her head tilted left, and right, and left.

“Almost. It lacks something else.

“I see. That is valuable insight. Thank you, Witch Belavierr.”

It meant that they needed one more acting factor. Belavierr wasn’t looking at the actual proposed cures. Like her craft, she was looking at the whole of it. And yet…Az’kerash stared with grim satisfaction down at something. He raised a finger.

Eight corpses sat up. Frozen Ghouls rose; a foray into ice combined with death. He didn’t usually bother, but Az’kerash made a point to move them to another room for later designs. They left the stone slabs where they had been waiting for tests.

He looked down, grimly satisfied. Because when he tested next…the Necromancer stepped back. He cast a spell.

“[Detect Poison].”

Belavierr saw the corpse light up. She watched as the veins darkened, flooded with a toxin that revealed itself to Az’kerash and Belavierr. A network of death…

And a single spot without, in the center of the dead body’s chest. Az’kerash lifted the thread, and handed it back to Belavierr without another word.

“My gratitude, Witch Belavierr.”

She regarded the spool. Then, as Az’kerash was turning back to advise Fetohep to pursue the matter intensely, reached out—and tapped him on the shoulder. The Necromancer turned, waiting to see if she had any more insight…

Two more spools of ghostly thread appeared, and an ethereal needle. She also added, after some thought, a hat.

“Would you care to purchase any of it?”

She paused. Then offered him the hat.

“The hat is complimentary.”

 

——

 

Almost. That was what they told him.

Almost. Did they need help? Well…he could not go and help them. He could move, and he had acted. But when she wrote to him and told him they were under siege, what could he say?

“I will move mountains?”

No. What he could do was make it worse. That he understood very well. Yet it did seem that he had a role here. Someone had to make sure nothing happened, even though very little did at that inn anymore.

There had been one incident. It had never even reached the front door before being stomped, punched, and obliterated into nothingness.

Some days it was hard to preach faith. Yet many brave and wise and desperate people had gone to find a cure, so when he thought of it, he thought—soon. Soon, and he would go on saying that until the day he died.

Pawn of the Free Antinium swung his censer as he walked through the streets of Liscor, out of the Hive. Workers and Soldiers walked with him.

They did not have to do it. They could have left through another entrance. They could have done this secretly.

That was not the point. The point was when the Workers and Soldiers first saw the sky, they should see it like this. Walk the city they had lived every day of their lives under and breathe fresh air. See Drakes and Gnolls and Humans.

And be seen. If someone stopped them, threw something—it happened. But this was not the first congregation led up like this. People watched. Some pointed; many knew exactly where they were headed.

Not a congregation after all. That was what they were. But they were on…a pilgrimage.

They did not have to go far. Just through the gates, up a hill, to a place where Antinium held guard. They would stop there for a while. Then they would go get a Garry-cookie, or maybe a stroganoff.

Months. Months now. When had it been? Just after the middle of summer, and summer was over. That was a long time, though it had seemed even longer as it passed. Years.

In other places, mere months would not seem such a dramatic shift. Nations had risen over the course of centuries; what was months?

It was a lot. In Liscor especially. After all…

It had been months.

The Antinium congregation made their steady way down the street, so they could see and experience everything. Their heads swivelled, overwhelmed by the sights, smells, even the feel of the wind up here. Pawn saw a shadow following them. He turned his head, but the Drowned Man was just watching. The censer moved. What did he see? Pawn did not pray, but this too was…

Religion.

Yet it was not in a bubble.

New paper out! The war against Hectval—new arrivals to Liscor! Five new condominiums open at cheap rent!

A [Crier] was standing in the same place many had for a long time, in one of Liscor’s plazas. But this too was new; he was selling newspapers with the aid of a young Gnoll boy passing them out for copper coins. Pawn himself almost stopped to see if that was referring to Relc.

One side! Watch coming through! Clear the way! Fire!

The Antinium halted. They looked to Pawn, readying themselves, but he just gestured and they stepped smoothly to one side of the street. The Watch had this—and if they did not, no one did. Because they weren’t going to be able to rely on the Antinium.

…Not when a line of Drakes and Gnolls led the Antinium and Human [Guards] forwards at a double-time march. A new visitor to the city, clearly, was staring in horror at the Antinium. And Pawn himself.

“They’re just walking about.

“Yes. Duh. Stop staring. Didn’t you read the brochure? Don’t make a scene or we’ll never get a copy of the plays! I hear they kick you out if you badmouth them!”

Another Drake hissed at her companion. She dragged him out of the way and gave Pawn a huge stare, but two things had changed the visitors’ reactions.

First was the documentary, which was on repeat in the Free Antinium’s Hive. Pawn had mixed feelings about Ksmvr, but he had prayed for him anyways.

The second was…well, the brochure. Which was offered to new cities, especially ones with the door. It was free, and it had a number of travel advisories.

Cost of using the magical door, times, rules on entering Pallass, Liscor’s own warnings and information. And, among them, two rules. One pertained to the Antinium, emphasizing their status as citizens. The second…

No killing Goblins.

Pawn didn’t know who had arranged for that. Olesm was fighting Liscor’s war, so he had to imagine it was Elirr or the Council. He didn’t know how they’d gotten past Lism. But perhaps it had been…Zevara.

He didn’t see the Watch Captain much these days. Not in person; she was always striding about, teaching the new recruits. A lot of her job was sorting out incidents with visitors.

And, oh, there were a lot. The Antinium passed through the main square, nicknamed Traveller’s Gate already. He heard another shout.

The day-transport to Pallass is beginning! If you don’t have documentation, please, don’t line up! You’ll just be turned away. A reminder that you will have to pass an inspection and background check!

That was a snappy, official-looking Gnoll. He was good at his job. He also wasn’t Liska; she’d been fired two days after the door had been moved. Mainly because she was lazy.

However, it was also because the door only opened to Pallass twice a day. No exceptions except diplomatic travel or emergencies. People wondered why—and other cities got the same treatment. It was faster to ride to Esthelm with a Skill than use the door, much to the discontent of regular travellers who had to plan around it.

But that was because of the stream of goods that came through the door. Pallass wanted to send something to Invrisil, or further north? It was an entire operation of organizing the goods coming in and out, holding them for later transit.

Plus, without its proximity to the inn, the door had to be regularly recharged. They had debated keeping it in the inn, but the inn was too small, it wasn’t right, and…no.

The [Guards] at the gates let Pawn and the pilgrims out without a word. He walked up towards the hill with a stream of other people. In fact—it looked like a new group was heading out into the wild green yonder.

That was to say, the Floodplains. Humans mostly, this time. [Farmers], no less. They looked a bit nervous, but they’d already established a base camp and were chatting.

“I reckon it’s Yellats.

“For a first crop? It’s not worth spit!”

“But they’ll grow fast. Hear me out. Yellats first. But we put up some fast growing trees. Wood’s a premium. Buy some magical fertilizer. And we have an entire grove of Amentus trees. That’s long-term. Short-term? Anything on the list. ‘Scuse me, sir.”

The [Farmer] nodded at Pawn and walked wide of him. But she was leading a group out towards the Floodplains. It wasn’t as dicey as it used to be, but they’d hired a Bronze-rank team for the job, and they were on the lookout for Rock Crabs. Not as many Shield Spiders; now it was cleared up, more [Farmers] had begun heading this way.

Liscor had changed. Pawn looked back and saw Gnolls and Drakes playing baseball in the pitch just outside the wall. But more than that, the new quarter was rising ever higher. The temporary dirt walls? Turned to stone in many places.

Hexel was constantly redesigning the city, and the new quarter already was being called ‘Human Liscor’ because of how many Humans had moved to the cheap buildings. There were…conflicts. Ironically, they took some of the heat off Antinium.

Pawn walked up the hill. A Gnoll sweeping out the front turned to look at him. He raised a paw, and Pawn waved back.

“Moore must have left with Ulinde and Jelaqua for Pallass.”

That was all Seborn said, as the Workers and Soldiers stopped there, to look at the inn and tower and…take it all in. Pawn nodded.

“Do you see anything, Seborn?”

The Drowned Man put his hands on his pockets.

“No. Not yet.”

“Then perhaps you are looking for something else. If you wish to watch…we are going to visit her.”

Seborn hesitated. Then nodded. He followed Pawn inside. On the way, they met two people, the last few people who stayed at the inn, coming out.

 

——

 

“Are you drunk?”

“No…”

“Get ahold of yourself, Montressa.”

The [Aegiscaster] stumbled after Bezale. She was vaguely aware of the Antinium walking past her.

“I’m not drunk. I’m hungover.

Wonderful.

The Minotauress grunted. But she didn’t lambast Montressa that long. She understood, she really did. And yet…

“We’re a duo, Montressa. Bezale and Montressa. Secrets, services—not Bezale and this Human who our clients have never seen, only heard me speak of.”

Montressa du Valeross hung her head.

“You should kick me out of the partnership. I deserve it.”

“And watch you fall deeper into your cups? Come on. Shores of Mawei! Do I have to buy you a robe that cleans itself?”

“Hey. I’m not Pisces.”

Montressa brushed at her robes guiltily. But it was true. She was a wreck and she’d fallen further. Bezale? Bezale was doing great. The Scriptels had forgiven her, and she was their representative in Invrisil. But Montressa wasn’t part of Wistram.

She was making money. Their business was going well—all thanks to Bezale. Montressa drank her profits. And unlike Ceria and Pisces, she hadn’t bounced back.

No, it had taken them years. Her family wanted her home, especially in light of the war, and they wanted explanations. Montressa didn’t want to go. She was still trying to communicate with Ceria, but the half-Elf had fallen off the radar. She was watching the Ksmvr documentaries, trying to get word of Pisces, pleading with Nerrhavia’s stubborn judicial system from afar—

And mostly being useless. Every day was the same. Bezale dragged her out of bed and Montressa said the same thing.

“I’m going to get out of this, Bezale. I’m going to start learning magic again. By myself. I still have spellbooks. I’ll…I’ll do that. I’ll make a career here.”

By the end of the day, or week, she was saying the exact same thing again after Ishkr found her face-down in a corner of the inn.

Not all of Liscor had changed for the better. Bezale was dragging Montressa forwards.

Hurry. Or we’ll completely miss the Invrisil gateway. And we cannot miss this appointment!”

She strode ahead of Montressa. The [Aegiscaster] felt distinctly nauseous and felt around for a hangover cure.

“One second. I’m right behind you.”

Bezale was already lining up, but Montressa had to swig the terrible-tasting stuff. She wiped at her mouth, caught sight of herself in the mirror of a shop window. Definitely gaining weight. Despite being a [Mage], constantly trying to eat and/or drown her sorrows didn’t help.

Something in the corner of the jewelry shop’s window caught her eye. Montressa read the little piece of paper and almost smiled.

Courtesy of Silveran’s Cleaners. Inquire with the Free Antinium’s representatives or Cleaner’s Guild for services.

Silveran did it. The mad-ant had actually gotten Guild membership, mainly because he was threatening to put them out of work.

“This city. When the Horns get back…when they get back, are they going to recognize it, Bezale? Bezale?”

Montressa looked over and saw the line for the door. Guiltily, she hurried forwards. It was just—Liscor was changing. It had grown used to such a fast pace that innovations were sweeping through it. It was at the flashpoint.

A Human boy on a skateboard was trying to do tricks with some Drakes. They weren’t all calling each other scalebags and fleshbags. Although it had…no. It wasn’t nearly as bad as a monster attack, and say what you would, but it was quieter now.

Even during a war with Hectval, there were less random events and attacks. They’d had one major monster incident.

And by ‘incident’, it was just that some Metalbite slimes had infested Liscor. Even gone on a ‘rampage’. They’d been wiped out in three days and the sewers re-cleaned.

New arrivals in Liscor were amazed by how sanguine the Liscorians were. No—it was even a kind of in-joke. A band of Stitch-Folk had rolled in one time via Invrisil, and been put out that no one asked them anything.

“Excuse me, you know I’m String-Folk?”

“Yeah, sure, buddy. You want somewhere to stay, directions, or what?”

Same when high-level individuals hit Liscor. They didn’t often get a lot of attention purely based on levels. Let’s say you were a Gold-rank come to explore Liscor’s dungeons.

A semi-famous [Merchant] attempting to make a huge profit on this new circuit.

A mysterious young woman with a crystal hand and a map, on the lam from [Bounty Hunters].

You came into Liscor and expected someone to ask questions. They did ask questions.

“You new here? Try the ice cream. Players of Liscor are putting on a show tonight. Don’t bother with Invrisil; they’re pricey and we’re just as good.”

It was so strange. Visitors didn’t understand it at first. It was not that Liscorians were blind to something interesting or exciting. It was just that it wasn’t their first time seeing something amazing. Or even tenth.

And no one would say why. Why they were used to the Antinium, why there were sports and all these new ideas and things coming here. Why the brochure had that funny line.

No one would tell you. It was like a secret test to be a true Liscorian. You had to know what to ask. And it was this:

What’s up with The Wandering Inn? 

Or, perhaps, ‘Why is it empty?’ ‘What happened?’

And finally…

Who is Erin Solstice?

Of course, if you understood it all, you’d know of one of the local legends of Liscor already. And you would ask it right.

“Who was Erin Solstice?”

Montressa heard that question in the air. Then a voice, as she hurried towards the plaza and the portal door. The voice was so familiar she turned.

“Say that again. Say it again. Was? Was?

Someone had taken umbrage to the question and was shaking the person who’d asked. A Drake was trying to un-pry the claws around the terrified asker’s collar.

“Menolit. Menolit, calm down. They don’t know.”

Menolit? Now who was that…? Montressa saw the [Veteran] with a missing tail and recalled him. But not this Drake.

Menolit? He stood, scarred, bearing wounds from Liscor’s army, which he had been honorably discharged from. But rather than the down-on-his luck guest that often visited Erin’s inn, she saw him wearing a combination of armor and suit.

As in, dress-suit. Something casual, but which had the motif of armor worked into it; chainmail combined with cloth. It had an adventurous flair of what looked like blood on one shoulder, but was actually just paint. And a symbol of Liscor on the other shoulder, but with a strange, stylized claw holding a sword as well.

Menolit was not alone. In fact, he’d been escorting a group of clearly foreign Drakes and Gnolls forwards. Even some Humans. The other people, including the Drake trying to calm Menolit down from throttling their customer, all wore the same kind of armor.

They also carried weapons. Indeed, Montressa recognized none other than Vuliel Drae, along with some [Hunters] who had joined this group.

No. This company. This organization.

Liscor Hunted. A new service in the city that was getting steady business. And if that sounded familiar, perhaps you’d heard of Pallass Hunting?

Funny story. The Pallass group that let civilians experience the thrill of the outdoors in a carefully contained environment was hugely popular. Once upon a time, an [Innkeeper] had remarked on how funny it was to her guests.

And a while later, he’d had an idea. Fighting a single Grass Slime in a curated environment? That wasn’t adventure. You wanted adventure? Go sneeze outside of Liscor’s walls and you’d have a Fortress Beaver trying to gnaw your leg off.

…Or would if they weren’t a protected species, having been ‘employed’ by Hexel to help with some construction. Also, a curious number were Selys’ roommates and guard…beavers.

But Menolit had somehow started Liscor Hunted, which let you go outside the walls and possibly die. They had a motto, ‘death is not guaranteed’.

That was actually a typo from back when Menolit first advertised it. He’d meant safety, or the opposite, but the motif had attracted some clients who thought they knew what was what.

They were wrong.

It had been a local broadcast, not an international news story, mainly because it was hugely embarrassing for the Drakes involved. Noass and Sir Relz had decided that if Drassi could do ‘on-the-scene’ reporting, well, so could they! They’d gone out to experience this quaint mimicry of Pallass Hunting, armed with expensive gear.

And run into a herd of Rock Crabs. Liscor Hunted still played the scene as part of their intro-video and promotion.

 

——

 

Noass reached for Sir Relz, who was halfway inside the cave. The clicking Rock Crabs were outside and a small one had his leg. Menolit and the two [Hunters] were shooting arrows, trying to drag him inside.

But the camera focused on Noass and Sir Relz. The Drake was panting to his friend and fellow [Commentator].

“Hold on, Relz!”

He was trying to drag the Drake inside as the Rock Crab slowly pulled him out. Sir Relz’s face was white. He spoke, desperately.

“Noass. I’m not going to make it. Take my monocle.”

 

——

 

…They’d made it. But the scene was so iconic, Menolit had leaned into the theme all the way. There were some rules Liscor Hunted employed:

 

-You were on your own. They had helpers, experienced adventurers, and fighters, but you still made the choices. Want to take on Shield Spider nests? Go ahead, but know your limits.

-You had to be Level 20 or higher in any class. Any class, but you could not sign up without that.

-Death was not guaranteed.

-Run if you see a crab.

 

The rules, the style, and the challenge meant that no end of people came to test themselves and prove they could do it.

All of it meant that Menolit was a successful businessdrake. He was pulled back from the Human who’d asked, angry. Montressa saw his expression, as he adjusted his gear and pointed the group forwards; they were hunting Razorbeaks. She lingered a second, then recalled.

“On no. Bezale! Bez—”

She ran forwards just in time to see the door close. She’d let her friend down.

Again.

 

——

 

Bezale walked through Invrisil. Stormed, rather. She knew Montressa was suffering. Even so…

The Minotauress hadn’t been able to step out of line. Montressa had been lost in her own world, and so Bezale went to her first appointment alone. Which, to be fair, was what their clients expected.

Today, her first call was actually on behalf of Wistram so it might be as well that Montressa had missed it. Small silver linings. And it was an irony, because Bezale was trying to talk the [Mayor] into allocating land, even buying into this.

“…I understand that Lady Reinhart’s approval is not needed. I have led this city for quite some time, Mage Bezale. It’s just that I don’t see the point.”

The Minotauress smiled as politely as she could.

“But the Adventure Rooms will be a huge draw, sir. If you would like to put coin into it—we just need a single warehouse’s space.”

“Guaranteed housing. Wistram—I have a lot of respect for Wistram, you know—but I’ve been speaking to…no, I should say it’s just that Wistram wants guaranteed housing. From the city. Why don’t they just buy it? It’s preferential treatment.”

The [Mayor] was friendly, intelligent, and Bezale was working uphill because he was right.

“Wistram has customarily made such requests, for the fine services it provides.”

She reminded him. The [Mayor] smiled politely.

“Yes, but…must they? And the city to help cover the costs in exchange for a small amount of the profits? I don’t really think it’s germane to negotiate over something as small as this—even if it becomes a success.”

“Ah, then—”

“…Can’t Wistram cover the costs themselves?”

Bezale stopped. It was interesting. You had Liscor to thank for all these innovations. But she could not help but suspect the [Mayor] had been talking to a certain Drake.

Named Lism. And his bearishness on giving Wistram exclusive rights to setting up their Adventure Room project was due to this.

Bezale had heard it was a problem across other big cities where the initiative—backed by Ullsinoi, of all factions—was rolling out. Wistram’s reputation had…suffered…of late.

Most of all here. The [Mayor] regarded the plans for a way to have the greatest adventures in total safety.

“It’s a wonderful idea. Magical—I do think the cost is a bit too high. But I think it could work.”

“Then…?”

He gave her an apologetic smile.

“It’s just, Mage Bezale, forgive me for saying so, but it sounds like Pallass Hunting. A delightful experience, but you know, Liscor Hunted is already offering its services. And I’ve gone through one trip and I must say, nothing gets the heart pounding like that.”

 

——

 

An entire hour, wasted. Bezale did her best, and simply sent off a [Message] to Wistram. If you wanted space and to build the thing, pay for it yourself. At least Ullsinoi would remember she’d tried.

“Next…bicycles. We have to ramp up production. Pelt can do it. But Hedault?”

They were sending the first shipments out at last. It had taken some doing to convince the impatient buyers that building a complex mechanical instrument took time. Pelt could manufacture the ‘cheap’ bicycles fairly fast, and some other [Smiths] had even created far less perfect versions.

However, the ones that Kevin had pioneered—and Ryoka herself—required a master [Enchanter]’s skill. Or, failing that, a number of apprentices.

Hedault was alone in that regard. You couldn’t get apprentices as fast as Pelt, and to be frank, Hedault was as tricky as Pelt in that regard. He had no desire for apprentices, but either he did the enchanting full-time or they’d have to outsource.

Dead gods, maybe they could make Montressa do some of the basic protective spells? It would give her work if she could stick to a quota.

Bezale was going to chat with him. She hurried because she knew the [Enchanter] hated people being late. But when she knocked on his door—or rather, used the enchanted gemstone to announce herself—he did not immediately answer.

That wasn’t like Hedault at all. Bezale tried again.

“Master Hedault? I’m here for my appointment. 11:00 sharp. Did you send me a rescheduling note? I didn’t get it…”

She put her hand on the door and it swung open. Bezale’s instincts sharpened as she heard a loud, angry voice from within.

Hedault. She made a fist, prepared her spell scrolls. She surged towards his workshop and living space.

Stay back! You are not welcome—

Bezale exploded into his workshop, fist raised. She saw the [Enchanter], aiming his wand at someone who had…

.a bag of gold in one hand…and was waving it at him.

“I can prepare gemstones. Please sell the wand to me. Also, do you have any other artifacts of interesting qualities? I will offer you fifty thousand gold pieces. No? Sixty.”

Valeterisa, Archmage of Izril, had backed Hedault into a corner. She plucked for the wand with one hand as Hedault backed up, a look of pure frustration on his face.

“Please let me inspect it. I will compensate you for the time.”

“Master Hedault? Is th—”

Bezale stared at the powerful [Mage], then realized who she had to be. Her eyes went wide. Hedault turned.

“Mage Bezale. Please eject this Archmage. She comes from your academy. Archmage Valeterisa, I will call the Watch!”

Valeterisa turned. She peered at Bezale.

“Hm. Minotaur. Female. You must be Bezale, contact of…[Recall Memories]. Scriptels. Note on record about loyalty. Mage Montressa. Hello.”

Then she turned back to Hedault.

“I would like to inspect it.”

“I recall you from last time! You disassembled an artifact meant for a Gold-rank adventurer!”

Hedault covered the wand with one hand. Valeterisa blinked.

“I offered compensation at market value. Perhaps you will take other artifacts? I have a teleportation spell…or we can come to…other arrangements?”

She struck what Bezale thought might be a seductive pose. Hedault stared at her. Valeterisa blinked at his expression.

“Ah. I’m not young. Alas. I need to amend that persuasion tactic. Note to self…illusions or don’t…”

She began muttering. Bezale looked at Hedault. The [Enchanter] gave her an exasperated look. Valeterisa peered at Bezale.

“Hm. Come to think of it. If I cannot sequester the wand, I might as well continue on my way. Next location…Liscor. Liscor? That’s four hundred miles…oh. Magic door…make teleportation network…Erin Solstice. Who? Aha. Communicate with Eldavin. Interesting.”

With that, she strode past Bezale. The Minotauress was so startled she went after Valeterisa.

“Begging your pardon, Archmage Valeterisa. Did you say—it is an honor to meet you.”

Valeterisa was walking under some kind of a speed spell, but her head snapped around as Bezale jogged to keep up. She looked blankly at the Minotauress. Then a huge, fake smile appeared on her face.

“Oh, a fellow student? How do you do. I am Archmage Valeterisa! It is a delight to see young people interested in magic. I am a bit busy, but please contact the Mage’s Guild; Wistram always needs new talent.”

“What? No, Archmage…”

Valeterisa’s ‘meet and greet’ routine ended and the Archmage lifted a hand.

“I am sure you are quite a capable [Mage], Miss Bezale, but I am already behind schedule.”

You are banned from my premises!

Hedault shouted after her. Valeterisa ignored that. She was making a beeline for the door.

“I will entertain any requests, favors, bribes, or offers. Please send me a [Message] spell. I have a backlog, but I should get to you within the week.”

She was as…insane as Bezale had heard. The Minotauress struggled to keep up.

“If you want to go to Liscor, Archmage—did you say you were looking into an Erin Solstice?”

“Yes. I don’t believe she can be cured, but I will assess her and make notes. I also have a number of others to meet…oh! A Mage Montressa? At the same inn. Good, good. Excuse me, I would like to purchase travel to Liscor.”

Valeterisa came to a stop at the door on this side, which had closed for the duration and was waiting for a shipment of goods. The tired person at the door pointed to the queue.

“You’ll have to wait. There’s restaurants and places to rest. No exceptions.”

Valeterisa blinked. She peered at the door.

“I would like to go to Liscor, now, please. I understand this door can be opened upon request?”

“Only for [Diplomats] and emergencies. There’s a transit this evening. In almost exactly five hours. Please…”

The tired man rolled his eyes. He had to field questions like this constantly. They needed…a bulletin board or something. No, an announcer, like one of those speaking crystals to shout it every five minutes. In fact, this plaza was a bad space since you couldn’t herd these idiots and the goods. They needed a building of their own. Yes, that would do it…

His imagination of a better system cut off as Archmage Valeterisa lifted a finger. She enunciated carefully and loudly.

“I. Would like. To go to Liscor.”

The attendant lost his patience and looked around for some of the people who’d taken notice of the argument and were strolling over.

“Miss, if you don’t step back, I will ask the [Guards] to—”

Valeterisas spoke over him.

“I am Archmage Valeterisa of Wistram. I would like to go to Liscor. On behalf of Wistram. It is an emergency. [Message]. Archmage Valeterisa to Wistram. Please declare an emergency if I am still an Archmage…”

The [Attendant] and Bezale stared at Valeterisa. She stood there, taking all questions and ignoring them. She sent [Messages] to Wistram, Liscor, and waited.

The door opened in five minutes. Bezale choked and Valeterisa smiled.

“Thank you.”

“Wait—”

Valeterisa walked through before Bezale could stop her. The [Spellscribe] sent a hurried [Message] to Montressa. But since she had no idea how to send an all-encompassing explanation of what was headed her way, she simply wrote:

 

Watch out.

 

——

 

“I can’t stay long.”

“I know that. I hope you’ll be safe.”

“Thank you. I—I can only stay a day, really. So I want to make it memorable. It’s, um, a bit embarrassing.”

She blushed shyly. Because she meant one thing. Jelaqua had put on her best body, and she was fiddling with a lock of her styled hair.

Maughin, the Armorer of Pallass, sat in his private apartment. Jelaqua let her robe slip lower around her shoulders. She breathed, savoring the feeling in the nerves not rotted away.

“So…Maughin?”

“Yes?”

“I was thinking. We could do something really adventurous. Anything you want.”

“I see.”

The Dullahan’s face never changed. Jelaqua let the robes slip even lower. She whispered.

“And Maughin? Before I go after Mrsha, and risk my life? It’s been a long journey south and they’re still fighting over the Helm of Fire. But I never stopped thinking of you. And I would love to have something to remind you by. I even have a new Skill. So I would love for you to ask me to do anything, and I will. And then you can turn away from that piece of metal which you seem to care about more than me!

She tore off her robes and stomped on them. Maughin jumped, and turned his head guiltily away from the Adamantium ingot. His body had been facing her, but he swiveled his head around just in time to see Jelaqua burst into tears.

“It’s over. I knew it was too good to be true!”

Faint green ran from her eyes and nose. Maughin reached out.

“What? Jelaqua, what do you mean? I just—look.”

He tried to show it to her. A tiny sliver of metal lay next to the block.

“It’s taken me two months, but I’ve not only figured out how to manipulate it, I think I’ve finally figured out how to heat it like Master Pelt. I’m inspecting the unique grain, you see; I managed to cut it yesterday. Well, not cut, but—”

“You care about a piece of metal more than me! Well, fine! She can be your partner!

Jelaqua pointed at the block of metal. Maughin’s head slowly swung back and forth.

“Jelaqua, that is a block of Adamantium. It’s not you. I’m sorry, it’s just that Pelt gave it to me as a challenge. It’s a sign of deep respect. The challenge of my career.”

Oh, fine then! Go marry the block of Adamantium and Pelt!

Maughin’s mouth opened, but Jelaqua went on.

“I’ve been on the road, and fighting with idiots to make sure they don’t sell the Helm of Fire out from under the Horns! I nearly died at the Village of the Dead and I was waiting to meet you and you can’t even look at me!”

The Dullahan tried to apologize. Jelaqua refused to be consoled until he began to rectify his mistakes. And only then, after he quickly booked a restaurant, made arrangements, professed his deepest mistake—

And put a cloth over that damned block of metal.

 

——

 

Something was in the air. A familiar feeling. Pawn saw it ripple through Liscor on his way back. Someone had just arrived that made even the citizens look up and say, ‘what now?’

It was a feeling. A familiar feeling of excitement, confusion, and apprehension in the air. But perhaps it was a sign.

These days will come again. And the harbinger of them walked through Liscor’s door. What was the first thing she did? It was something that lived up to expectations.

To that name.

In Liscor, there was no embassy of the Antinium. Their representatives could be found in Yellow Splatters of the Watch, or Pawn, or a number of other people.

But, strangely, one of the voices of the Antinium, who actually fielded requests to talk with Silveran, this or that, had a shop next to the fairly empty street where the entrance to the Hive was. He got good foot traffic on top of the people who sought him out. Mainly because he was the only Antinium with a regular presence.

Also, you could not beat those prices. Although, as the sign said…

 

May contain insects.

 

You were gambling with every bite. But the food looked very good. Loaves of bread even Antinium could consume, pies, even a cake. Yet, as anyone who had ever eaten from Garry’s unmarked foods would attest, you could find a crunch in your slice of cake and discover a leg in your teeth.

The worst part was if it tasted good. Garry had a clientele, from people who told him they could not afford food at other prices, to people who had begun to develop curious tastes. He wondered what the stir was about.

Then he sensed a command from the Queen, a mobilization order. She was alarmed. But why? Garry wondered if he should go inside the Hive, but he had just put a pie out labeled ‘free samples’.

…Where was it? Garry peered at his counter. He had just put it out, piping hot, steam rising from it. Lovely berries and, uh, other things. Normally the smell attracted some people who stopped when they saw the sign.

“Excuse me.”

A voice spoke from somewhere odd. Garry hesitated. He looked around, but no one was in front of his stall that opened out of the window of the shop he rented. Some people were lined up, but they were all…frozen in the street.

“You are Antinium. I would like to speak to the Centenium known as Xrn, the Small Queen. I am Archmage Valeterisa of Wistram. I come in peace. Unless we are at war.”

The voice was coming from…Garry leaned out of his stall. Then he walked out of his shop’s door and looked up, past the awning.

Archmage Valeterisa of Wistram hung in the air. Flying. A quad-layered barrier of magic hung around her. And—coincidentally, Garry and the other passersby emptying the street couldn’t help but notice this—a giant orb of darkness, and what looked like burning fireballs suspended in the air.

“Oh.”

The [Chef] stared up at enough firepower to waste everything in a five block radius. His antennae wilted. But then—he couldn’t help but notice one more detail.

“Do not be alarmed. I have simply taken precautions against any offensive action. Please summon the Small Queen. I come in peace.”

Soldiers were streaming out of the Hive, taking one look at the flying Archmage with spells, and reconsidering the validity of their tactics. However, Garry, despite the distinct threat of death, was not quite afraid. He couldn’t be. Because…

Valeterisa spoke, watching the Antinium take up possibly hostile positions. She wondered if she should bind another spell for quick activation. She decided to repeat herself.

“I come in peace. Please do not be alarmed.”

As she addressed Garry, she took another bite of the pie. She noticed the Antinium staring at her.

“That is my pie.”

Valeterisa blinked at him.

“It was marked as ‘free’, was it not?”

“…Yes.”

The Archmage peered at Garry. At the pie. She hovered left a bit. Checked his store and the sign.

 

Garry’s Bakery.

 

She stared at something, then swivelled to Garry.

“Does this contain bugs?”

Valeterisa pointed at the pie. Garry hesitated.

“Yes.”

Valeterisa looked at the pie.

“I see.”

She kept eating. Sustenance for the day had been achieved. Sadly, though, Xrn refused to meet her. So she floated off. Alas, it seemed like Archmage Feor would have to employ other means. She had been as diplomatic as possible under the circumstances, but the Antinium simply weren’t open to that sort of thing.

Now, where to next? Valeterisa absently floated past an angry Drake [Councilmember] shouting at her to come down. The Captain of the Watch stared at a nightmare worse than the [Innkeeper] of stories herself. Archmage Valeterisa quite liked the pie. Maybe it was a suitable birthday gift? No, wait. Ten years…so a thousand pies?

But she didn’t know if she could recommend crickets to Ieka.

 

——

 

Montressa du Valeross saw her coming. She saw her coming, then going, as she flew past her. Overhead.

She could fly! Maybe it was [Levitation], not [Flight], but even so—there went an old Wistram legend. An Archmage. She flew through Liscor, ignored the law, nearly blew a hole in the city with what had to be at least a Tier 5 spell…then flew off.

“Old school Wistram.”

Montressa stared at Valeterisa with awe. That was like the Archmages who went anywhere they pleased. Got what they wanted. Put a door in their way? That was what [Acid Wave] was for.

Of course, she was making Wistram look bad—but where was she headed now? She flew straight for…Montressa heard murmurs.

The Wandering Inn. Montressa stared. Then she saw Valeterisa circling the inn as Antinium burst out of hiding places, aiming bows up at her. But she didn’t attack, and she had cancelled the other spells. Instead, she seemed to be searching for something.

And indeed, after only a few seconds, she stopped by a window, and, it seemed, unlatched it from the outside. She flew in through the window.

Well, in point of fact, she smacked into it, and then had to re-angle herself so she flew in horizontally, head-first. At this point Montressa began choking—then burst into a stumbling run.

Mainly because that was her window.

 

——

 

Montressa raced past Ishkr as she heard a voice floating down from upstairs.

“Hm. No. No. No. Ah, I am running out of clothing. Can I purchase this?”

“Where is she…?”

The Gnoll just pointed a finger. She arrived, panting, breathless, just in time to see Valeterisa stuffing her undergarments into her bag of holding. Montressa’s—

Archmage Valeterisa!

Her room was a mess! The Archmage had opened every cupboard, drawer, and the closet, and half of Montressa’s possessions, including empty bottles of wine rolled under the bed, were floating around as she sorted through them. Montressa’s awe was turning into fury, but then Valeterisa finally found what she was looking for.

There it is. A prototype, just as promised. Oh, how interesting. Destroyed, but someone’s attempted to repair it. Nailiuaile did not mention that. However, I can attempt to repair it and see…excellent. Excellent.”

She floated over, and plucked the Shock Orb from behind Montressa’s dresser. The ruined orb of brass had indeed been destroyed, but it had been repaired as best as Montressa could; she even had a note appended to replace the liquid inside, and some still remained, sloshing about.

The Archmage of Izril’s eyes were alight with curiosity. She floated past Montressa, into the hallway.

“Hello. You must be Mage Montressa. I have left recompense for the objects. Thank you for the orb—I am taking it. Archmage Nailihuaile informed me I could. Goodbye. Excuse me, sir. Do you know where I can find an ‘Erin Solstice’…?”

She walked past Montressa without a second look. The [Aegiscaster] was lost for words. It was like Valeterisa was walking past furniture. Or people who just existed to get in her way.

“Erin Solstice is unavailable, Miss…?”

Ishkr saw Valeterisa frown.

“She’s dead. Or in stasis. Yes, I have been briefed. Please direct me to her. I am on the business of Grand Magus Eldavin. Or is he Archmage now?”

“Archmage Valeterisa. I hugely admire your magic. That’s my—property. I don’t know what Archmage Nailihuaile told you, but…”

Montressa hovered there, afraid to touch the older woman. Ishkr crossed his arms, frowning.

“Grand Magus Eldavin…?”

“Yes. I may be able to resuscitate her. Failing that, I would like to inspect her body.”

Ishkr gave Montressa a pointed glance. The young woman saw him clear his throat.

“Perhaps, Archmage Valeterisa, you could ask Mage Montressa for guidance?”

“…Does she have any salient information?”

Valeterisa slowly swung around and seemed to take Montressa in for the first time. She peered at Montressa.

“Ah, yes. The [Aegiscaster]. Formerly Revivalists. My note says ‘rub it in’ per request of Nailihuaile.”

Montressa flinched. The Archmage had actually…?

“Yes, Archmage Valeterisa. I can, um, direct you to Erin Solstice. And she’s in a special zone. An Inheritance Skill, you see. But can we talk about the Shock Orb?”

Valeterisa looked at Montressa, impatiently.

“If you would like to direct me to Erin Solstice, [Mage] Montressa, I would be grateful. However, I have been gifted the Shock Orb. Archmage Nailihuaile did point out it was created by her and therefore property of Wistram. You have been loaned it; that is the end of the discussion. Thank you.”

“But it’s all I have left. They kicked me out of Wistram. You can’t just walk in and…”

Montressa’s voice broke. Valeterisa took one look at her wet eyes and sighed.

“I believe this will take too much time. Excuse me, Mister Gnoll. Please direct me to this garden.”

She turned away. Montressa followed her as Ishkr gave Valeterisa a long look, then directed her downstairs.

“I’m sorry. It’s just—c-could you perhaps induct me back into Wistram? The situation was—I’m a [Mage] of Wistram. I gave my entire life to the Academy. I’m a secret broker. I could offer you…”

Valeterisa glanced back at the ‘secret broker’ comment. She frowned.

“Intriguing. But if I weigh the costs to benefits—I cannot imagine you could offer me something worth more than Archmage Nailihuaile’s personal ire. If you can, please correct me. She is a rather personal being, however.”

Montressa couldn’t imagine she did have anything, besides knowledge of Earth, and…she knew Valeterisa was right.

The purest quill of logic. Uncaring, just like the stories said. She floated after Ishkr as he pointed to a door that had hither-to not been there before, and a warm light beyond.

“Fascinating. An inheritance Skill. But there’s no…magical residue I can sense. Inside is another matter, but the manifestation is purely Skill-based. Alas.”

Valeterisa’s eyes lit up, but after a few seconds of casting identification spells, she lost interest because this was not a magical phenomenon. She floated forwards, into the [Garden of Sanctuary].

“Valeterisa to Eldavin. I have arrived at the inn and am insp—whub.

The last part was cut off because she ran face-first into the invisible barrier. Valeterisa recoiled, looking mildly shocked. Montressa stopped, and saw Ishkr, unflappable Ishkr, who hadn’t blinked more than four times to see the Archmage of Izril drop by…

Smile.

Valeterisa ran her hands over the invisible barrier in the air.

“I have been obstructed. By a Skill? Excuse me, Mister Gnoll. Do you know what is wrong?”

“I believe you have not been invited in, Miss.”

“Ah. Then how would I obtain an invitation?”

Ishkr coughed.

“You would need to speak to the owner of the Skill, Miss Erin Solstice.”

Valeterisa nodded, eyes a bit blank as her hands and magic explored the obstruction.

“I see. Then may I meet with…ah.”

She stared at the garden’s door. Montressa saw the Archmage float back and put a finger to her head.

“Grand Magus, I have a small problem. I will contact you once I find a solution. Hm.”

She lowered herself to the floor, then began to walk back and forth. Montressa saw, in a flash, magical symbols appear. Valeterisa reached into her pouch, produced a rock, and stared at it. It vanished, popping out of existence…and appeared right in front of the door, landing with a thump.

“Teleportation failure. [Dispel Magic] failure, of course. Can you portal in? Do I know a portal spell? Let’s see. Shadow walking, beacon-based porting, intangibility? I see an opening in the area beyond. Intriguing, but if it is dimensional…I would have to search for it. A barrier exists. I wonder how strong it is? [Bind Spell]. [Tier Ascendant: Localized Earthquake].

“Archmage, it’s the [Garden of Sanctuary]. You can’t just—no, no, no!

Montressa panicked as the Archmage’s eyes began to glow. She was really doing it! Not [Acid Wave], but—she tried to grab Valeterisa, but her hands struck another invisible barrier. Montressa saw Valeterisa focus on the door…

And then Ishkr walked in front of her. She stopped, hand raised.

“Excuse me. I am attempting to enter this area. Please step back. This is probably dangerous.”

The Gnoll [Head Server] glanced at her. He calmly held out a paw. And when he spoke, his words reached even Valeterisa. Mainly because he was using a [Thought-Provoking Statement]. A Skill for legends…or people working at Erin’s inn. You would not believe how useful it was.

“Archmage Valeterisa, this is private property. Moreover, I would advise you not to do something you would regret.”

The Archmage focused on his calm, polite words. She frowned. She looked at Montressa blankly—then saw a figure standing behind her.

Well, figures. Pawn had his hands clasped together, all four, and Seborn was staring at Valeterisa in a way only the Drowned Man could. Antinium were filing out of the basement, hallway, and some were staring through the windows.

“Ah. This would be unacceptable?”

“Unacceptable.”

Valeterisa’s mouth moved silently and then she lifted a finger.

“…Could I pay a fine?”

“No.”

“Would Wistram be able to compensate the damages?”

“I believe not. It would be a hugely significant issue for Wistram, Archmage Valeterisa.”

The woman frowned, looked at Ishkr, then sighed and lowered her hand.

“Hm. Well, damn.”

She kicked at the opening to the garden, looking genuinely frustrated. She glanced around and her eyes narrowed.

“Interesting. Higher levels than I would have anticipated among Antinium based on records. And…”

Her head swivelled around and she focused on Pawn.

“The leader has…three levels in [Carpenter]. [Tactician]…odd. Very low.”

She stared at Pawn. Her brows crossed. Valeterisa eyed Seborn, then looked around. Another smile appeared on her face.

“I am so sorry, I appear to have caused a misunderstanding or incident. Please accept my sincere apologies, and this, for the inconvenience.”

She reached into her money pouch, put five gold coins into Ishkr’s surprised paw, and headed for the door. Montressa saw the Archmage walk past one of the Antinium Soldiers.

“Excuse me. Pardon me.”

Montressa almost admired it. The same thing people might hate—the sheer nerve of the woman, who went through every social protocol and barrier, physical or otherwise, because she didn’t care and didn’t have time to waste.

And yet—Montressa ran after her as Ishkr offered Pawn a complimentary drink, which Seborn accepted for him.

“Archmage Valeterisa. Please. I know I can’t—legally—but please, let me have my Shock Orb. Or—or consider Wistram. I need it.”

The woman ignored her. Montressa reached for her shoulder, casting a spell.

[Barrier Breach]—and it actually worked. Or at least, it passed the first barrier. Montressa was an expert in her field, but even she was shocked. Until she felt a paper-thin barrier around Valeterisa’s shoulder.

“Please do not interfere with me, Mage Montressa. I will retaliate with offensive casting.”

Valeterisa kept walking. Montressa grabbed her shoulder—and was yanked off her feet. She tried to pull the academic back, but Valeterisa was like a moving woman of iron. She dragged Montressa halfway down the hill, muttering about ‘trying Xrn again’ before her meeting.

She ignored Montressa. The [Aegiscaster] tried everything. Begging, pleading, mild threats, cajoling—Valeterisa paid her no mind. Nothing Montressa had mattered. She was aware of the girl pleading for the Shock Orb, for readmittance to Wistram.

She even tried to hold the Archmage in place with a quintuple barrier. Valeterisa stared at it forming.

“Interesting. I can benchmark a Wistram graduate in the barrier field…unleash.”

The [Localized Earthquake] blasted a hole straight up as the air shook. The angry Watch, Councilmember, and even 4th Company of Liscor’s army, all halted as Valeterisa looked at the shattered barrier.

“Hm. Well, that was expected. It didn’t fully strengthen and I was casting from within. Well done. Acceptable magic.”

And with that, she began to float away. Montressa grabbed her legs and Valeterisa sighed. She vaguely tried to kick the young woman off, because dropping her from extreme altitude probably meant her death. She was sobbing, begging for a second chance…and Valeterisa really didn’t care.

She was just about to cast [Paralysis] when something the young woman said caught the fleeting thought process attached to listening to her. Valeterisa stopped her kicking process, and listened.

“Please. Just let me keep it. It’s all I have left. My friends, my academy—it’s all I have. Magic.”

It was, of course, a nonsensical statement, and Bezale, storming up the hill, would have kicked Montressa into the well if she heard it. Montressa didn’t have nothing left besides magic.

But perhaps that was how she saw it. They kicked her out of the academy, which she had given everything for. She didn’t have a vendetta anymore, against Pisces. She had Bezale, but…

“All I have left is magic.”

Montressa waited to be kicked onto the ground, or hit with a spell. But neither thing happened. Instead…her feet touched the ground. Valeterisa slowly drifted downwards. Montressa looked up through blurry eyes, and wiped at them. The Archmage of Izril gave her a long, strange look. She met Montressa’s eyes, for the first time, and replied, in a distinct, not-distant voice.

“That is all you need.”

The [Aegiscaster] saw the woman look down at her, eyes alight, perhaps with emotion. Irritation? Understanding?

“That is what makes us [Mages]. Do not look at losing the rest as despair. Be grateful. Throw yourself deeper into the heart of magic, student. Never look back.”

Her eyes flickered. She regarded Montressa’s open mouth, and sighed.

“This is why I do not give inspirational advice.”

She turned away to float off. Montressa looked at the older woman’s back. And she understood why people did not follow her, for all she had reached her vaunted position by talent alone. That was a terrifying statement.

That was the Archmage of Izril. It was incredibly lonely and strange and…it reminded Montressa of something. Someone.

For a second, she did recall another [Mage] like that. Almost as strange, just as rude—no, even more. And back in those old halcyon days…

“Archmage Valeterisa!”

The Archmage did turn. She sighed, but she had seemingly decided to pay attention to Montressa. The [Aegiscaster] scrambled forwards, wiping at her face, following a sudden, crazy idea.

Following a half-Elf in her memories, just like she used to. She had no giant bag of salt looted from the kitchens, but…

“Archmage.”

“Yes?”

“Do you…would you have any use for an, um—an apprentice?

Bezale, charging towards her friend, nearly tripped. She stopped as Archmage Valeterisa focused on Montressa. The young woman spoke, rapidly.

“I’m expelled from Wistram. But if you taught me magic—”

Valeterisa frowned.

“I do not take apprentices. I did—but apprentices require too much energy. They’re a net loss. And they die, which causes problems. Vendettas with family, friends.”

Montressa gulped. She spoke rapidly, praying that Ishkr’s Skill was still in effect.

“Not me. I can do all kinds of useful things. Like…”

She glanced at Valeterisa’s bag of holding that had a bit of cloth hanging out of it.

“…buy you undergarments. And smooth things over. I bet you—to get to Liscor—you had to queue up to use the door, didn’t you? And you must get a lot of [Messages].”

Archmage Nailihuaile employed Beatrice full-time just to manage her affairs. Valeterisa considered that.

“This is true, but I am proficient at multitasking.”

She frowned deeper.

“…Which nearly cost me multiple decades of my life. You’re…what are you?”

“A Level 28 [Aegiscaster]. Full Wistram graduate, secret broker, um, with training in both runecraft, enchanting, and I took a course in divination magic.”

Montressa felt like she was back in Wistram, listing her classes. Valeterisa’s eyes flickered.

“[Aegiscaster]. You must have a decent spell selection to gain the class before Level 30. That’s a post-30 consolidation mark in terms of casting power. But if I employed you as an apprentice…I would have to feed you, pay you, deal with Nailihuaile—”

“I can do all of that. I did assist Archmage Nailihuaile.”

Montressa saw Valeterisa go hmm, silently. Bezale hurried over.

“Montressa, have you taken leave of your senses?”

“…Transport is the issue. I would have to dual-cast [Levitation], and I don’t know you. Valeterisa to Archmage Nailihuaile—no, wait. She’s not going to give you references.”

She was clearly devoting more mental energy to this moment, because she actually grew more animated, snapping her fingers, frowning, floating back and forth as if she were pacing. She looked at Montressa.

“I’m intrigued, but I am quite busy and this is not the moment to spend training an apprentice. I must decline, Mage Montressa. But I will review your offer after I return north.”

“But I…”

Montressa ran after Valeterisa as the Archmage floated downhill. She had to do it! She remembered how Ceria had done it. Literally de-icing a magical spell with salt. Being tested with Illphres—don’t jump and watch out for when you get pushed.

She had a chance, she knew. Because Valeterisa kept glancing over her shoulder, clearly not certain.

“It needs thought. I will consider your offer and…let’s put learning [Restoration] on hold. There. Plenty of thought to devote to the problem. However, I would rather take an apprentice with significant advantages, and you have qualities that may cause issues, Mage Montressa. An idea. What if I offered one of the Earthers an apprenticeship? Troy Atlas. And then I have access to a Lifesand Golem…”

Montressa feared Valeterisa’s new lines of thought. The Archmage was floating faster, lighting up with ideas. Valeterisa was excusing herself, promising to get back to Montressa later—

When she nearly floated into a line of spears. She stopped, looked down, and saw Liscor’s Watch aiming bows and spears up at her. A Watch Captain walked forwards and barked.

Archmage Valeterisa, you are under arrest for violating the peace, threats of aggression, breaking and entering, and casting high-level magical spells of a hostile nature within city bounds without a permit!

Valeterisa blinked. She saw the [Guards] apprehensively aiming their weapons at her, and then noticed someone on the walls activating Liscor’s wall spells. Not in a ‘we really want to do this’ kind of sense, but a ‘do I have your attention’ moment?

She frowned; a city actually taking her to task was new. But a young woman hurried forwards before Valeterisa could decide if she was just going to teleport out of there.

“Watch Captain! Watch Captain—Archmage Valeterisa is willing to pay all fines. And issue a written apology. In fact, she’s leaving now, which is preferable to processing any paperwork or trying to arrest her. I’ll handle it. Isn’t that right, Archmage?”

Valeterisa peered down at Montressa. Zevara glowered, but Montressa had her at ‘she’s leaving’. She looked suspiciously up at Archmage Valeterisa. Montressa turned her head, heart pounding in her chest. She saw Valeterisa eye her. Then, of all things?

Valeterisa chuckled.

The amusement surprised her more than anyone else. She floated down, as Zevara held her ground, sweating a bit.

“Archmage…Valeterisa. Is Mage Montressa your, ah, agent? Representative?”

Valeterisa peered at Montressa. She nodded, slightly.

“She is my apprentice, and authorized to speak for me. Provisionally.”

Montressa saw Bezale’s jaw open wide. But she had no time to celebrate. Valeterisa plucked at her shoulder and drew her aside as Zevara ordered the Watch back to the city. Lism was demanding a verbal apology and she’d have to explain how bad of an idea that was.

Valeterisa was looking at her.

“Provisional apprentice?”

“A test. Deal with that.”

Valeterisa waved her hand at Liscor as a whole. Then she eyed Montressa again.

“You were a secret broker. A capable manager? And you meant what you said? You will learn magic from me. That is all I want. Everything is to forward that goal. If you are my apprentice, you must have the same belief.”

“It’s all I have. Magic. Everything else changes but…I stopped learning at some point, in Wistram. I want to learn again, Archmage. I’ll prove myself, I promise.”

Valeterisa nodded slowly, searching Montressa. She almost smiled, then snapped her fingers.

“Very well. You are on trial. Firstly, after you deal with any fines or legalities—can you find me a geological spot with no active monsters, suitable for inscribing a rune four by four feet wide? Somewhere that will not be disturbed. Safe from…”

“Elements and travellers?”

Valeterisa gave her a gratified look.

“Yes. Locations every hundred miles, beginning here and heading south. Plot me a course on a map.”

“I can do that!”

Montressa grew excited, thanking Beatrice for making her take rune studies. Not a wasted course, no matter what her peers said! She was already thinking of where to direct Valeterisa when she realized—the woman was still speaking. And speaking faster.

“I require a birthday gift suitable for my niece. Ah, that’s Lady Ieka Imarris. Budget for ten years’ worth. I may also need you to send and write a missive. I will copy over a—no, you probably can’t mentally compartmentalize it. I will have the [Mage]’s Guild print every [Message] sent to me. Please reply, sort anything of value, and have it prepared. Finally, I am out of the following reagents and magical items…”

Montressa was fumbling for a piece of paper, but, to her relief, she saw Bezale, her great friend, her wonderful friend, writing like a Demon, as only a [Spellscribe] could, noting down the rapid-fire items. Valeterisa finished, and looked rather pleased.

“If you can handle that, it will be beneficial indeed. I will need time to set up the teleportation marker. And sleep.”

She sniffed her robes, frowned. She tapped her robes and a bunch of dirt fell off.

“[Cleanse]. And bathe. Direct me to a bathhouse, please. And suitable lodgings since I suppose I should take a day to let you familiarize yourself.”

“Y-yes, Archmage Valeterisa. I’ll get on it.”

Montressa’s head was spinning. But as she turned to go to Bezale—and celebrate and run around doing everything at once—Valeterisa stopped her.

“One final thing.”

Montressa turned. Valeterisa paused.

“Garry’s Bakery. Get me another pie from that shop. Ask for less bugs.”

 

[Apprentice Level 4!]

[Skill – Exhaustive Memory obtained!]

[Skill – Magical Tutelage (Grand Magus) obtained!]

 

——

 

Of Angels and Archmages. [Paragons] and Doombringers. Every Devil was a hero of his own story.

“I don’t care if some people call me a monster, you understand. I’m prepared for it. That’s what people in our position have to understand. You do what you have to do because it’s necessary.”

“Absolutely, Commander.”

The two sat together, in a spacious place to converse and drink some wine. There was an unparalleled view of the city outside.

Though he was technically far lower in class and rank, the other poured a drink for him. That was because he knew Peclir Im’s true status. The pourer went on.

“They’ll call us Demons, maybe. But I agreed the moment I heard the plan. It’s this moralizing that’s the crutch. You understand?”

“Perhaps. Can you elaborate, sir?”

Peclir received a thin smile.

“Come now, you get it. I’m told Foliana and Niers Astoragon were heroes. Of their generation. Dead gods, I’ll admit—I had a children’s book of them growing up. Forgotten Wing, the Named Rank team. But that’s not the Titan and Three-Color Stalker of now. The Forgotten Wing company is an entity. They have the boot on the neck of the future. That’s the conceit of these ‘Great Companies’. You become one, and you have interests. You suppress your enemies. Iron Vanguard, Howling Maelstrom, the Eyes of Baleros—they suffer small companies, but not enemies.”

“Very true.”

Peclir kept his face straight. He knew this person loved to pontificate, so he indulged him. After all…it was a huge request, but this wasn’t the asking part. This was just the delivery. So he could wait a few minutes, or even an hour if he had to.

He had waited for years, doing his part. So he sat, listening.

“Lizardfolk don’t see it. They’re so…they’re children. We’re the adults. That’s how it’s always been. Nagas…I remember when I wondered why they were so serious. Then I understood. Not that I lost my sense of humor, but it’s when you grow up. That’s what Nagas are about.”

He undulated back and forth. Peclir Im cleared his throat.

“Then you believe once the Forgotten Wing company is upstaged, it should not be replaced?”

That would be concerning, to put it mildly. He saw a long tail disappear as the first speaker swung around.

“…No. That’s the point. You see? It’s harsh. It is truly sad. But—Nagas. You look at it clearly. You need to prioritize the people that matter. Forgotten Wing is for Fraerlings, and a handful of Beastkin. I’m saying that everything is for us.”

He meant Lizardfolk. Despite Peclir being Human. So the speaker raised a cup, using his tail as dexterously as other people used their hands.

“Jungle Tails. To its resurgence. I expect a company-command once we’re done, you understand.”

He peered hard at Peclir, and the former [Chamberlain] of the Forgotten Wing company moved at once to reassure him.

“You will be one of the Serpent Leaders. I have that in writing.”

Instantly, the huge, serpentine figure with feathered wings relaxed. The Quexal nodded. Fezimet smiled.

“The Featherfolk Brigade is at your service. We’ll strike this tree-fortress with your irregulars as soon as we find it. The primary strike force is all yours. Will you take them now?”

“Yes.”

Peclir stood, relieved that no more time would be wasted. He had more allies to visit. Fezimet walked him to the door—well, slithered. The city of Talenqual lay behind him, his domain. After all, his was not an inconsiderable company.

He did hesitate as he halted Peclir at the entryway. The Quexal stared at the Human, and then spoke.

“One more thing, Mister Im?”

Peclir turned. Fezimet looked a bit uncomfortable, then leaned in.

“I await the resurgence of our Great Company as well as anyone, and I hope you tell the Nagas that. But, ah…can you put a word in delicately?”

“Of course, and what would that be?”

The Human saw the Quexal’s face screw up.

“…The name. Can we rebrand it afterwards? ‘Jungle Tails’ is, of course, famed, but it’s so…it’s the dignity of the thing, overseas.”

 

——

 

Time was running out. In a shorthand sense. Something was coming. On multiple levels, in multiple places. You could be as impatient as you wanted, but what mattered was…were you ready?

It wasn’t about walls alone. Sometimes it was just about who you knew. Strange meetings.

Conversations. Grand and short, telling and secretive. Chance and designed.

The voices were faint, arguing, but they were clear enough. Echoing a bit, impatient.

“…personally told not to allow this young man to…”

“…Archmage Viltach’s orders. Directly.

A head rose, slowly, under quite a lot of weight. A mask on the face, chains and bindings. Because there was a second voice, one she knew. She would have laughed.

Telim?

“I quite understand that, you two. But let me vouchsafe this to you. Grand Magus Eldavin. Who’s soon to be Archmage. You say Viltach? I say Eldavin. Let the lad through. It’s the kind of thing a young man just wants to do. Meet a story. That fellow, Aaron, comes here all the time?”

“Yes, but Archmage—”

“Eldavin.”

“But Vilt—”

Eldavin. Also Valeterisa, for what it’s worth.”

Perhaps it wasn’t worth much. But, eventually, the voices gave up. A door opened, and a figure sitting against a wall stared up. She saw…nothing much.

Just a young man, like the other one, walking into the room. Although he had a bit more confidence. A bit more weariness in the eyes. He had seen a bit more…but it was the way he stopped and looked at her that counted. Perhaps—she waited.

He bowed, slightly. A little golem made of sand poked her head out of his hood, which was a surprise. The young man gazed at her, glanced at the door, and didn’t quite smile. But he did look at her.

“Archmage Amerys? Hello. My name is Troy Atlas.”

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: Short chapter. I was already tired, so I had to aim for something that would not tax me. I’m still tired, but here we are.

Time for my break. I need it, as always; that edited chapter took it out of me. But I hope this is a good wrap for next month, and don’t forget to vote in that poll! Wait…

Darn.

I tried not to write a cliffhanger for the break. That was in my notes. Literally, ‘do not leave it on a cliffhanger’ because I don’t have to.

Well…uh.

Goodbye! See you in a week!

 

The Wandering Inn short comic by Teapot Mimic! Go like their post!

https://twitter.com/TeapotMimic/status/1455367499332128770

 

Erin, Gazi, and Skinner by painterinthesky!

 

Erin by Deepsikk!

 


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52 thoughts on “Interlude – Conversations

  1. Leave a typo for conversations! Have one. Or not, I just type things.

    (Conversational readers: Quynin, MrWiggles, Litwickee, Gorexn, Maladal, Ignat, kellyR, dianaprobst)

    • “thirty two” -> “thirty-two”
      “twenty eight” -> “twenty-eight”
      “Twenty seven” -> “Twenty-seven”
      “twenty two” -> “twenty-two

  2. Montressa’s level of 28 is too low. We have to assume she levelled 4 times, plus or minus 1, after the adult creler battle, same as the Horns. Her contribution to the battle was no less than theirs. Are we really supposed to believe she was only level 24 back in volume 6, when she took a siege blast from Liscor’s city walls and shielded *hundreds* of adventurers from the wrath of an army of crelers?

    Also, frankly. she was a better mage than Ceria or Pisces at this point in time in every way.

    She should be in the low to mid 30s in level count, at the least.

    • I forgot to mention that Montressa knows at least two *tier 5* spells. Fivefold Arcane Barrier and Valmira’s Comets. There’s no way she was only level ~24 back in volume 6. Just no way.

      • Recall that Montressa had assistance from the Shock Orb in her castings, but also that being over level 30 at her age would be a tremendous accomplishment.
        Us knowing mostly high level individuals skews perception of what the norm is, but level 30 is a lifetime accomplishment for most people.

        Chaldion is a 106 and only in the 50s.

        • That and level stacking. As explained before it is not uncommon to see multiple levels in different classes on people. Inn keepers being level 20, but having chunks of level from Adventure days.

          Guards turning into [Players] who write new plays would be low levels [Actors], but cumulative level would be much higher.

          So she may be level [28] as her Mage Class… But how much is put into [Secret Keeper] or any business related classes… Or other classes she picked up while growing up.

          Erin and a few Earthers got to power level only going up in a specific class thus tunneling their exp gain… While everyone else gained a bit of multi-classing.

          More levels = More Power and Skills. Focus leveling = more specific Skills and Focus.

        • Montressa was being considered for an apprenticeship under an Archmage. She was dispatched as the leader of a hunt squad sent to chase a level 31+ [Necromancer] (who Wistram thought was level 26+). Montressa was fighting at a Gold-rank level during volume 6, even gold-rank mages rarely have tier 5 spells, judging from Typhenous. She was singlehandedly influencing an entire battlefield, which is what Gold-rank is. She is exactly the kind of person who looked like she had achieved that ‘tremendous accomplishment’ back in volume 6, either before or after the adult creler battle.

          This reminds me of how the author made Griffon Hunt’s levels really low during the Village of the Dead arc. It doesn’t make any sense at all that a decades-old Gold-rank team had less levels than the Horns on average *before* the VoTD arc, let alone after. These decisions are just so weird.

      • Maybe it’s the same problem Klbkch has: level progression being hampered by too many secondary classes with too many levels sunk in.

    • We’ve been told before that [Mages] don’t really level from fighting but from understanding magic better and learning new magics. Pisces and Ceria pulled off something new and powerful when facing the Crelers with that whole frost-bone behemoth duo-link while Montressa basically just used the same Spells she knew.

      As Montressa mentioned this chapter, she hasn’t really been learning new magic. Montressa has been pretty much stalling out at the inn like Ceria was until Grimalkin started giving her lessons.

    • To add to what others have said: We’ve also seen that Class Consolidation can lower your level in the resulting Class or leave you much lower than you’d expect. Just like what happened with Lyonette when she consolidated 6 Classes into [Worldly Princess], or what Relc mentioned when he consolidated into [Spearmaster].
      We don’t know Montressa’s exact Class progression and [Aegiscaster] sounds like a Class that could well have been combined from two or more Classes, bumping her down in number of levels, but giving her a far more powerful Class with some very specialized Skills and Spells.

  3. Well I guess that’s why they are called the Thirsting Veil… At this rate Ryoka is going to blow through her ‘to do’ list before she even gets freed.

    I was wondering why Gire wasn’t being forced to learn from that spellbook 24/7 by her tribe but poor magical pool makes sense. I still think the Ekhtouch would make great [Mages] solely on their calculating capabilities.

    And man poor Zevera getting her hopes up at Valeterisa leaving only for her to stay the night.

    Also random thought but where the hell is Oteslia’s dryad/tree spirit? Filthea mentioned they appear when trees get old enough and there is a gigantic tree in the center of Oteslia that should have been there since at least Oteslia’s founding.

    • Either the tree’s still too young(size isn’t reflective on age) or the energy that would’ve formed a Dryad is funneled towards Dragon stuff.

      OR the Dryad is kept in hiding by the druids.

      • The tree should be a few thousand years old at least cause I highly doubt Dragon’s would build a Walled City with a small tree as the base.

        Maybe the rest of Oteslia is leeching off the tree to grow everything. That might be keeping the dryad dormant or from forming.

        • That or one has formed, but has yet to see a reason to interact with the rest of the world. Why tell the Drakes and take a chance they get offended?

          Besides on the large scale… Nobody cares enough about the walled city to put a possible Dryad in danger.

          So just wait until you need to act or even get a desire to act… As for all we know the Dryad could exist, but is asleep or doesn’t see a need to interact with the world like the Trolls.

          Why mess with something when things are doing just fine for you now?

  4. That author’s note… I hate you. And love you. Enjoy your break! This chapter had so many little surprises yet perfectly fit with what I would’ve expected the world to look like after the events of the previous books. This chapter, and the last few, shows you haven’t lost your way. Not once.

    Thank you.

  5. Is it wrong that I was waiting for her to go “it looks more like a cat. Like a puma.” when the talks came to a certain pig-named vehicle?

  6. Gire leaned out of the way of the spitball as it hit a corner of the yurt. -> Gire leaned out of the way of the spitball as it hit a corner of the dirt.

  7. Oh yes, here we go!
    “My name is Troy Atlas.”

    That line alone gave me shivers, It’s time to really get this ball rolling!

  8. correction:
    A bright, happy voice made the Viscount turn. A beaming [Housemistress], in the of health, bustled up with the air of a foster mother. He hesitated, then shook his head. – should be “peak”, I believe. Pique is an irritated feeling. Peak is the top of something.

  9. Thanks!
    \(^^)/

    Of Immortals and Inheritances, Archmages and Apprentices, Development and Destruction.
    Nice to see how Liscor is growing, all that is missing is a certain [Innkeeper]. Reread 7.61 a few hours ago so feeling a bit melancholic.

  10. Im so curious about the agelums! why are they sick? how are they working together with the lucifels? what are they taking from the humans? it’s all so interesting!

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