[See that header up top? Book 5 on Audible. E-book’s also coming out on the 23rd. Consider buying it!]
(I am on break until the 30th for Patrons so I can go and visit family for Turkey-day. Apologies, and hope you have a good one yourself! I…don’t like turkey that much.)
Is it cowardice, that I hope they’ll flee?
They do not, of course. I only hope they do, that they’ll turn tail and run—though I never would. It would make every war so much easier.
Then, I would not have to kill them.
It looks like rust on metal’s edge as the sun rises. Dark sand and dirt, already stained once over. I can see metal glinting, fragments shining as the sun catches them. A pretty sight if you cannot fathom what it means.
Blood spilled. So recently it has not yet been covered by dust or bleached by rains. Broken armor and weapons lodged in the sand.
A [Scavenger]’s paradise. Are they here? I cannot see them; my eyes are locked on the faces in the distance. Shining armor—they are chanting, now. Blowing horns, rattling war drums. Cheering, as if they intend to hide the truth.
I know they are afraid.
My feet crunch on the ground. I still feel the ground, you know. I can feel the padding in my boots, the way my fingers flex. I feel everything. I am not so divorced from being Human that I have forgotten, yet.
After this battle is done, if there are not more to come—no, even then. By darkness, under the glorious night sky with countless glittering stars, there will be a second battle. People will creep out of the darkness where they hide—sometimes all night, as a battle rages, in danger of stray arrows or spells striking them—rush forwards, and pick over this place.
They will grab broken swords, or better yet, pieces of intact armor or weapons cast down. Fight with each other and, yes, kill each other over such finds. As if there has not been enough already. They are not noble soldiers—if such a thing exists. Nor are they evil. I have seen them and been them. They are desperate, hungry, and, like carrion, they follow us.
We are [Soldiers]. I keep walking forwards. Now—yes, now they know something is off. I can see the army maneuvering. Galloping about; their vaunted colors, such expensive dyes whipping flags and banners.
And the chariots. The damned, idiotic chariots. I grew up thinking they were such grand devices only to learn that few nations employed them in war. But the Silk love to ride on them, casting javelins down and seeing themselves as the star of every battlefield.
Not a one is not painted with reliefs of their kingdom, Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Sigils of the countless aristocracy. Markings to denote kills—even embroidery like fur.
Soon, they will lie in wreckage, broken, splintered wood to be hauled off for firewood or raw material for other, better uses. The proud [Chariot Masters] whoop at me, waving swords in arcs. A few even try to throw spears from afar.
They’re afraid too.
Now, the army advances. I see the real fighters, the ranks of what, to us Humans, appears to be a cruder people. Blunt-hewn expressions. Almost like they were carved of rock compared to the intricate expressions of someone cut of Silk.
Hemp [Soldiers]. As poor as the [Scavengers]—some will be conscripted. Most, in a lesser army. Not so for one of Nerrhavia’s endless hordes, the primary armies from the capital. These will be career soldiers, paid a bit better. Armed with genuine steel since Nerrhavia can afford it.
Still—the first line in the slaughter. Tough. Fearless of blades.
People. I know how they look because I have seen them smile. They look different, and all of Stitch-Folk is only skin-deep. They know that, and those soldiers standing in a line are braver than the riders on chariots will ever be.
I do not want to kill them. Throw down your arms and flee. You know me.
—Perhaps they believe in their cause. In that case, they stand there, and I stand here. Walking towards them. A shield in my left hand. A sword in my right. This sword burns, and they shudder as they watch it.
Just an Everflaming Sword. A cheap weapon even a Silver-rank could afford. I will wield many before this battle ends. But it is a reminder.
What do they see? I think—they must see a glorious figure. I cannot remember which face I wear. Perhaps she looks like them. Cut of cloth, striding along, hair blowing like fire. Taller than I am in actuality. Her armor will be shining like burnished Truegold and they will know me not for one face, but simply because of that appearance.
Now they realize it. I can see the [Soldiers] turning their heads. Looking up, as if Takhatres’ tribe might be nearby. Scanning the distant, flat battleground for the rest of my army. They won’t find it, but they’re even searching for [Invisibility] spells.
Then they scream my name. Not the one I was given at birth, but the name I chose. I have heard it from either side, countless times. I raise my sword and stop. Yes, that’s me.
A roar, meant to be contemptuous, perhaps so they believe it. A lone warrior come to meet an entire army of Nerrhavia’s Fallen on the sands. The soldiers are already spreading out to encircle me, but I can see the hesitation on their faces as the officers shout orders.
They have never done this before. Surround a single warrior? How does an army fight one woman?
Exactly. Exactly…you have done too well against the others. We’ve left too many of Reim’s dead. So it’s just me.
I halt as the Hemp [Soldiers] stop four dozen feet away from me. Oh—they’re already shooting arrows. I barely notice.
I can’t even feel the impacts on my armor. Someone tries for a [Piercing Shot] and it feels as though someone tickled my armor. I can see and hear the arrow shafts snapping, though.
I raise my sword overhead and they halt. That’s enough for an entire army. The words come to me again, and I shout them wearily. It rarely changes anything, but I still hope.
“Flee or perish! In the name of the King of Reim! By the will of the King of Destruction! I am Mars the Illusionist! Greatest of the Seven! I will not quit this field until the last foe falls before me or runs howling back into the sands that birthed you!”
I see them tremble at the words. Mere words. Admittedly, they sound as if Zamea herself shouts them. A simple voice-changing spell.
It is my voice which roars in their ears, fit for the name. Mars. Vassal of the King of Destruction. The King’s Seven.
I do not lie, either. I am highest-levelled. There are others who are better than me in many things. Almost all things, actually. Sometimes it bothers me. Takhatres, Gazi, even Orthenon, who is not technically one of us, but is—
Those that remain have so many useful talents. I? I can make my [King] laugh and that is good. But in peace, I am so very useless.
Here—I lower my sword and plant the tip in the ground. My head bowed. I wait. Someone hurls a javelin into my back with all their might. An enchanted tip. A blow from the mighty Silk nobles.
I laugh. A child has kicked me, me, in full body armor. I let them shoot their arrows, watching for spells. If they are clever, they will not try lightning or fire. The first crackling arc of electricity strikes me and bounces, hitting the ground with the crack of thunder.
Amerys would mock them if she could see it. I let them attack me, so they understand.
I am Mars. [Vanguard]. They know the nature of my class, if not the exact wording. And they know my level, or close enough.
Vanguard. Level 66.
I stand alone before an army of tens of thousands. They are beginning to chant again. Do they think it will scare me? I was born in Nerrhavia’s Fallen. I conquered their Coliseum of Monarchs. I wait.
Soon…they will muster their courage. I wait for them to attack me. I give them every chance. Not for that [General] who hides in the back, or the charioteers who race around calling insults, but with fear in their eyes. For the poor [Soldiers] who look at me, who will face me the instant they advance.
That is bravery. I grit my teeth. One army, here, in the north. Countless enemies assail us. I lift my sword as I see a wall of [Soldiers] advance, faces set, eyes wide, staring. Such beautifully polished armor.
This will not be easy. It is an act of desperation, even for me. But only I can do it. So I lift my sword, and when I charge, the entire army shudders. I bring it down, and the first Skill makes it a blade far longer than it should be, with the weight of a hill behind it. I see terrified brown eyes staring up at me from behind a helm, a shield raised.
I bring down the sword, shield rising, head turning.
I barely feel the blade connecting.
The first hour of battle is easy. The first ten minutes. The second hour is exhausting. The fourth—I have burned my stamina potions almost to the end.
By the end of the seventh—
I am beginning to bleed.
My armor is beginning to fail. I have to change it, via Skills. My sword? I broke the Everflaming Blade in the first hour of battle. Enchantments fail, in time. The sheer force I or my lord can swing a sword at can blunt the steel.
I have many blades. I have countless sets of armor. But only two hands. One body. And they—
They are still an army.
I cannot tell you how fast I am moving. What does it look like? I have been told it seems like a figure stands in the storm of blades and bodies, swinging a sword without end, cutting through armor and bodies while she blocks only the most dangerous blows. Wading through unenchanted steel and arrows without end.
That is what a [Poet] once tried to put to words. I thought she must not have been close to the battle.
It smells like blood. Blood and urine and death. Although I have stopped smelling anything for a while now. I hear a roar—that too is deafening. But I can hear myself gasping.
Hours of battle. My sword swings without end—that’s true. I lift my shield, blocking an axe glowing with some kind of ghost’s flame. It’s all automatic and it’s all hard despite that. I feel as though I have lead in my very bones. I know what to do.
Block death. Strike. Strike—this sword looks like glass that captures light inside. It is so sharp I sweep through every foe around me—except the strong ones.
Now I am bleeding. The first was an arrow. There is an [Archer] here who can pierce my armor. So I charged him and rammed into pikes, let them try to drag me down.
Idiots. The [Trick Riders] of Jecrass did it and they died. They were a nation’s best. Bring me down with your hands and try to kill me. It’s my armor.
An [Archer] died. He stood on a chariot and he had no helmet. Some brave [Lord] perhaps. An [Emir]’s son? But a gifted archer. I cut off his head and they learned to keep their best away from me.
Now, the [Mages] are remembering how to do it. They try acid. They turn the ground to mud under me. I can see the ground warping, trying to entomb me—see poor [Soldiers] screaming and flailing in the muck as I charge away.
The [Mages] don’t care. Nor, in truth, do I care about them. They will run out of spells before they hurt me. If they could have hurt me, they would have at the start of the battle.
It’s the poor, damned [Soldiers]. They keep coming. I cut an officer down and he falls, screaming, before he can lift that axe with ghost-flames. But here is where I bleed. Here is where the danger lies.
I am cutting them down, and they still keep coming, with a bravery I cannot believe no matter how many times I see it. Then I feel a blow to my shoulder. A chilling pain.
That axe. I whirl and my sword has already taken the wielder in the gut. I see…no Silk-cast officer. No high-level face. Just a staring pair of eyes in a face like mine. Someone from Cotton.
No great warrior. A [Soldier]. One daring enough to pick up that blade and—
I slash, reach for the axe, but now they have ropes. The [General] is sending them in waves, lest I cut them down by scores. Clever—I slash the ropes, and the axe is gone. I see someone toss their spear aside and reach for something. An enchanted sword. I feel another sting, and know my cut shoulder is letting acid inside.
It won’t burn me that easily. I must replace my armor. I have potions, but now they have weapons that can harm me.
I am beginning to bleed.
They send Sand Golems against me. It is a welcome break. They stop when they realize I am letting the giant constructs just hit me around. I think I fell asleep for a minute.
It helped. I want to sleep. I want to rest one second, but now they know. The group that surrounds me has enchanted weapons and armor. Torn from the hands of the dead. For each that falls—I try to sunder each blade, but they pick up even broken metal. And Nerrhavia is rich enough to afford many artifacts.
It comes as my arm burns. I hear them roaring, and I try—but she’s fast. Fast and young, and I am old. She looks like I was—not in face, for she’s Stitch-Folk and Hemp and I am Human—but like me.
A [Warrior] with talents, gifts. Slashing in, dodging my weary thrust from the sword. And she holds—
The glass blade that is so sharp. Broken halfway. I tossed it aside for another sword, but she picked it up.
Foolish. It cuts my armor as I twist. Try to bring her down. The entire army is cheering her as she dives in. I’ve fought for…I don’t know, and she’s fresh.
It isn’t fair, but how many have I killed? The ground is wet, and she—
She runs me through the chest. With that short, broken blade. Piercing my armor. I stagger back and she exhales, as if this all took a single breath. She steps back, her brown skin caked with dirt, eyes like the orange of the fruits, staring at me. Disbelieving. Relieved? They were so determined before.
Their hero. The Stitch-Folk of Nerrhavia are cheering her. They don’t even know her name. I feel that damned sword, my sword, cutting deep.
My lips rasp. Has it nicked a lung? I taste blood on my tongue, but maybe it’s just from some other wound. She must have a Skill. Perhaps she levelled in battle. They are levelling if they survive even one clash with me.
A champion who will go down in legend…but she let go of the sword. She looks at me, and then I rasp.
“Is this your first time here?”
She looks at me, eyes widening, scrambling backwards. I tear the sword hilt free, toss it down, and snap the blade with my boot. The cheering stops.
Her friends pull her backwards, shielding her. Now they’re rallying around her, but—she’s still staring at me. And I? I smile behind my visor. Perhaps my illusion copies it, if it’s still working.
“Do you see…death?”
She doesn’t understand, and I begin to swing my sword again. Now—I have a target. I reach for a healing potion. Out of the corner of my eye, I think I can see it waiting.
Is this your first time here?
It was not mockery. It was an honest question. A warning. I cannot explain to her, not with words, and I am not an eloquent speaker like the others. How can I say it? Trey and Teres—they are her age. Children. Teres has a sword and she is good with it, again, for her age and experience.
Trey might understand better. It is not vanity. It is simply…truth.
I have done this a thousand times. Ten thousand times. I am bleeding, exhausted, and they still strike at me. Yet.
This was not the battle where I crawled in my own guts to find a sword.
This was not the day when I wept for weariness and slept among corpses.
This was not the day I saw Tottenval die.
Even so, this may yet be the day I…
Now I feel the blade slide in through my side. It hurts. Every time, after so many wounds, it hurts and I scream for the pain of it. A razor’s edge, hot, burning, trying to bake me from within.
The worst blow I have taken yet. And it is hunting deeper. Trying to end me.
Lift. The. Sword.
I do, and then we meet again. Her eyes are wide, desperate, and she sees me. This is the second time.
This time—the entire army is watching in silence. Her dead comrades lie around me, sacrificing themselves for this single moment. A chance to fell a legend.
An enchanted blade sticking out of my side. A blow fit for a [Hero].
The stuff of stories. After this, they will cheer her. She will be an officer, elevated to Silk or beyond. The Queen of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, Yisame herself, will see this warrior kneel before her. If she lives, she will be a legend. The story that began with the day she felled—
The girl recoils as I slash at her, and the pain—it’s still there, but the blade vanishes. She retreats, then freezes.
For I am laughing.
I am laughing, I know. Weeping for her.
The bravery to strike at me, the daring to take a mortal wound to fell a monstrous foe. All of this is genuine. All of it is grand.
“I have been here before.”
She doesn’t understand. Perhaps she thinks I’m rambling. I point my sword at her. Ah—poison runs down the blade. I know how to use this enchantment. I rasp, and it feels like my voice is gone, through screaming, shouting—breathing that bloody air. I look her in her eyes.
“I was you. But girl. I have been here before and held your blade.”
I have been you. Now she understands. I charge, and the army watches. I bring that sword down, and look into those bright eyes until they close.
When I rise—turn my head—I see it in their eyes. That is when they begin to break.
I am on my knees. I cannot remember when I fell. It is dark. I grope around for my sword, but I’ve lost it.
So I stand.
Were they reinforcements? Did they rally? All I know is that the sun is rising again. Yet I have a reprieve. Somehow.
Soldiers are screaming and running. No—they broke long before that. Came back. Tried to fill me with arrows, held their ground, retreating, and I kept coming after.
This is different. I raise my blade and pull it just in time. The [Rider] halts.
I recognize Reim’s crest. I don’t reply, just…stand there. The [Rider] dismounts, calling for potions, as more [Soldiers] charge, scattering the army.
“Pull back. Give me…five minutes.”
The man looks around. He’s no stranger to battle, but perhaps he’s forgotten. Or this is the first time…his eyes are familiar. Is he looking at a legend or monster?
He gulps several times. I just sit down. Five minutes. Glorious.
“Lady Mars. The King of Destruction bid us find you when he heard you had taken to the front alone. This is madness. Please, retreat with us.”
I would have fallen asleep, but I raise my head. I try to make sounds, but—I cough, spit. Try again.
“The order came from his mouth, Lady Mars.”
Djinni. They did not send Djinni against me. They told me he was so badly burned—
I am on my feet. No less exhausted. No less in pain. But I look at this officer.
“Is he still fighting?”
The man doesn’t know how to respond to that. I grab the potion, cough as it burns my throat. But I grab him—not even five minutes. The army is coming back.
“Then so shall I. Tell him I am fighting.”
I see him back away. I ignore whatever he has to say. I check my armor. Sword…shield…I swap the shield and begin walking forwards again.
It is a new army. Damn Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Too many [Soldiers]. And in truth—I am one woman. No Amerys who can kill them by the hundreds with each spell. But unlike her—I do not fall.
They shudder to a stop as my allies retreat. This time, I plant my feet on the ground. I raise the sword and strike it against the shield. Like a gong. I shout at them. They are brave—but I would try this against their army.
Not the sons and daughters of the House of Minos. So I laugh and roar at them.
My second wind comes from no Skill or potion. They are falling back. I raise my sword and they look up at me. Am I shouting?
Yes. I think I am. I sweep around in an arc and my shield catches a lance. They’re trying lances now?
I laugh. And I feel younger, truly. It has been a long time. But I waited for twenty years. I can wait another day.
I gave my life for my lord’s dream. I can still see it. Once more. Once more. They can’t see what’s keeping me upright.
But if he is fighting, so shall I. For a dream of kingdom, and the fallen.
“Tottenval! Queravia! Drevish—”
Like a chant. With each name, I feel lighter. The [Soldiers] shudder at each one. They are legends to you. Perhaps you are old enough to remember them?
I walked with those legends. And I know, in that moment.
I will not fall today.
This army is too afraid. Too broken. Already—they are beginning to flee once more. Perhaps I cut down an officer?
No…I cough, looking around. Suddenly, my exuberance dies.
Another [Champion]? I thought Nerrhavia was too canny to send their best to die against me. Yet—I lower my sword, reach for one of the new potions. Suddenly—alarmed.
I am in great danger. But I don’t see…
There. My sword sings again as I clear the space around me. They are still attacking, yet I sense the shift in the army. The movement in the back ranks.
It takes me another minute of fighting. Another hour, it feels, before I see it again.
Strange. Now they are fleeing, and I try to make sense of the shouting, but I am too tired to latch onto one voice. But why fleeing? I wonder—
Until I see a group swept apart. Recognize a Skill. Someone else is fighting them. And I…I cast aside my sword and shield and reach for my best gear. If I had time, I would replace my armor too.
Something clears another group of [Soldiers]. A slaughter in a single strike. My hair begins to rise—and it is short-cropped to hide in my helmet, unlike all of my lovely illusions. I am not half as beautiful—not a tenth—as I would like to be.
Hence my name. I grit my teeth and wait, unsteady. That is not Orthenon. Who…?
It…he…appears out of the milling bodies like the one real person among a sandstorm of shades. Not that they aren’t real, but sometimes it feels…I gasp as I recognize him, and I think he does the same.
You are like me. Someone who can walk through an army. Someone who…
I think he gasps, but I cannot tell. His throat is rotted away. Yet his eyes burn with a ghost’s fire. Undead flame.
He halts in front of me, this warrior covered in glorious armor from another era. He carries a massive axe, ludicrously oversized since he is still a Human, for all he would be a huge man if he were still alive. I break into a sweat at the sight of it, though, since he carries it so easily.
It could break my armor. That is a weapon for killing half-Giants and great monsters. Or foes like me.
The figure stops. He stands there, eyes glowing, yet I see the battle-fury in him abate slightly. We stare at each other, and I recognize a foe that even I have seldom crossed blades with. Undead. This one a champion of Khelt, another threat. A dire omen if he appears before me—or aid? I don’t know. But my skin tingles as I nod to him. An undead warrior from another age, bearing Skills and classes even in death.
The two warriors stood amid the shattered battlefield. Nerrhavia Fallen’s army was fleeing, shattered by two warriors of such level.
An alliance between Khelt and Reim? Disaster! Disaster!
But it was not an alliance. The Revenant, the warrior…regarded the woman. She looked like a battered [Knight], encased in armor.
Yet she was not. [Knights] in far more glorious regalia had died. Even so—
“Salui. You must return to your battlefield! This is Nerrhavia Fallen’s army. You have no permission to attack them! Attend, Salui!”
The angry voice came from the Vizir. The buzzing of a giant gnat with Tier 6 spells. The Revenant reached up and crushed the speaking stone without a word. Then he pointed a hand at the other warrior.
“I. I am Salui of King His-Xe. Greatest ruler of Khelt.”
Mars nodded warily.
“I am Mars. Are you here to do battle or aid me, stranger?”
Her stance was lowered, her shield elevated. She was watching him, and Salui’s blood—no, the memory of it—began to boil. He was shaking—almost—with anticipation, but he caught himself.
“No. You are not the enemy. That one called Fetohep…no. I sought you out. I knew you existed. How do they call you?”
The armored head hesitated.
“What do you mean? Mars is my name.”
Salui shouted and she tensed. He caught himself again, looking around blankly.
“They call themselves [Soldiers]. I fought…[Knights]. I think. I was told to fight. I left. I had to find you. To know you existed. What do they call you? They called me Salui. [Champion of War]. Yet they called me the Dragon of the Sands. The Crimson Viper.”
She understood. The warrior hesitated, lowered her sword fractionally, and nodded.
“…They call me Mars the Illusionist. In the arena, I was known as the ‘Eternal Gladiator’. They call me Mars. Mars, one of the Seven of the King of Destruction.”
The answer calmed the Revenant instantly. He stood there, undead eyes fixed on Mars. Then gestured, aimlessly.
“The other one. There are two of you. You. You are…like me. You are from the days I breathed. A warrior. I had to know. They are pale reflections. I thought I was dreaming.”
That was his explanation. Mars hesitated. She didn’t understand his purpose—and when he turned and began to trudge away, she called out.
“Where are you going?”
The Revenant’s head turned. Suddenly, he began to shake again, then calmed himself. He spoke in a flat tone, as his off-hand rose and touched at his emaciated face.
“I am sure I’m not dreaming, now. His-Xe is dead. I went to sleep, to guard his kingdom. He is dead…and I will kill his enemies. You are not one of them. If you become one, we will see who dies.”
He turned away. Began striding back the way he’d come. Mars panted, leaning on her sword.
“Who…who is the other one? The one who’s a warrior?”
Salui turned back one last time.
“They call her Herald of the Forests.”
He began to walk back the way he’d come. Mars stood there, panting. Staring at his back. At someone far, far older than she. Somehow—
She knew exactly what he was thinking.
“They’ve left. That insane warrior and…the mage.”
It should have been a relief. Instead, the horror written across the faces of the army staring at the undead soldiers slowly advancing towards them did not slacken. Because the two Revenants had left so casually.
Just—walked away. The warrior, Salui, had simply stopped fighting in the middle of battle, turned his head, and walked off. Ceased hacking apart foes—the Vizir had left on ‘business’ of his own.
As if this battle had no bearing on them. That was how overwhelming it was.
Claiven Earth, the Terandrian Crusade, and Medain held the line. Say it again. The Treespeaker, High King Perric, and the commanders of the crusade heard that in their nightmares, and it was a waking nightmare.
They held the line. Two of Chandrar’s mightiest nations in the north and an entire Crusade against one tiny one.
The Herald of the Forests lay slumped in her saddle. Another volunteer wing to recreate the Fables of the Forest…their great [Mage] was unconscious from a duel with the Vizir.
This was the moment to push in, in theory. Without the two mighty Revenants. Yet no one dared utter those words. Not with…
“Our predecessors lacked for discipline. Hold the line.”
The booming voice came from a half-Giant, thirty feet tall, ghostly flames blazing in its sockets. Another half-Giant, all bone, took careful aim with the largest bow anyone had ever seen and loosed another arrow.
A half-Giant [Mage] began casting a spell as Khelt’s undead continued forwards. A force of half-Giants, each one likely Level 30 or higher.
“Serept guides us. Come, [Knights] of Terandria.”
Their leader boomed. His head swivelled the battlefield, searching for targets. He saluted a wedge of armored figures pushing in for a charge and began striding towards them. The only thing the mortals could claim in their favor was that Khelt’s advance was…slow.
Deliberate. Only Salui took risks; the half-Giants, and even the Vizir, refused to even chance their destruction, and the lower-ranking undead were a horde, despite Khelt’s armories. Yet they were pushing in towards the coast and now—now the Claiven Earth was willing to negotiate. Now High King Perric lay sick abed, as his [Generals] frantically begged him to make peace. Terandria refused to admit defeat—for now—and the three combined armies struggled to hold the line.
Yet the Herald of the Forests had a terrible feeling that the war front was stalled out not because of the disinterested Revenants alone, or the necessity for caution in their fighting. She had a feeling they were…
Waiting for something.
But time was up. Suddenly, and just like that.
“It does amuse, you know. Twenty years is a young man’s life entire. For Humans, at least. Twenty years, wasted. They say you are the [King] to terrify other [Kings]. You seem not so grand. Not so to one who has seen greatness.”
In Reim, the world’s most dangerous toasted marshmallow lay in his bed. Covered in bandages, which seemed to be a trend these days.
His skin refused to heal. It was burned so badly by a Djinni’s fire that some worried it might never heal—not without some great restorative. The King of Destruction was immobilized. He could move, speak, but at great pain.
It was a terrible thing. Nerrhavia was advancing, and without him to lead one of the armies—no, it had been a slow withdrawal already.
Now…time had run out. The figure who had entered through the window stood alone in the room. Well…‘stood’.
He floated in midair, in a contemptuous display of disregard for the laws of gravity and the security of Reim. But then, he had flown here invisibly, beyond detection. Flown, in an era where most [Mages] could barely teleport short distances. He was the relic of an earlier age.
“The Vizir Hecrelunn has many titles. You may know the Vizir simply this way, as you are a [King]. However disappointing.”
No Teres, no Venith or Maresar, despite one or the other being near the capital, the other leading the armies in defense. No servants…the figure stirred. The Vizir sneered down at him, eyes glowing a bright red.
“Are the [Kings] so petty in this day and age they can be called Kings of Destruction so lightly? When this Vizir heard that one man had united Chandrar, he was intrigued. Yet all he found were stories of greatness. A pitiful remnant and a burned husk of a man.”
He cast his eyes dismissively around the royal bedchamber. With his hands clasped behind him, he floated past Flos Reimarch, to stare out the window. He wore enchanted clothing as regal as any ruler’s, and he turned to regard the King of Destruction.
“A pitiful ruler without bodyguards or ample protections. Brought low by a single Djinni? This Vizir could snuff your life out with one hand.”
He lifted a finger, which crackled with red-dark light. At last, the figure lying in bed opened his mouth and uttered a coherent word. Two baleful eyes stared at the Revenant.
There was no flesh on the lips to move, but the Vizir still grinned with his deathly corpse-face at Flos. He floated closer and bent over.
“Your death serves Khelt little, King of Destruction. This nation, ‘Nerrhavia’s Fallen’, and other nations which claim greatness, focus on Reim. Better to suit the Vizir’s needs that they focus on you for a time. Yet this Vizir comes to make you an offer, since the current ruler of Khelt is too shortsighted and weak of will to return Khelt to its greatness.”
The King of Destruction’s eyes narrowed and he listened as Hecrelunn bent lower. At least he was direct.
“Swear fealty to glorious Khelt, your lands and armies. They are not without some merit. Do this, and this Vizir shall not only provide healing to your ruined flesh, but an answer to the armies besieging your lands. Surely you know, ‘King of Destruction’, you cannot long endure.”
Flos thought about it for about two seconds. His reply made the Vizir’s crimson flames narrow to pinpoints of malevolent light.
“Not unexpected. Even small men have such egos beyond their true worth. This Vizir thought of that. Yet he has a contract, an oath to be sworn.”
He produced a scroll which glowed with power. The Vizir ignored the buzzing [Message] spells, glancing out the window. Then he looked back at the helpless figure in bed.
“He will spare some time for this matter. Let us speak of persuasion, King of Destruction. He must imagine yours is a painful existence. One cannot simply command oaths of binding—but there is persuasion to such ends. Tell me…”
He bent lower over the bed, and he was grinning now. He whispered to the living [King].
“…Do you think you know true agony?”
The alarm in the palace made the soldiers think it was battle too early. It was not—at least, not a direct battle.
The Vizir Hecrelunn floated out the window of Reim’s capital. He ignored the slashing young woman with a sword and paused only one moment to point backwards and send her flying head-over-heels.
He flew off as people pointed up and screamed, rolling up the contract and accelerating southwards. It was not wholly wasted time, though he left empty-handed.
“—At least he has a monarch’s pride and will. That is more than the petty rulers thus far. Few could free a Djinni with their bare hands in any era.”
That was about as much of a compliment as the Vizir Hecrelunn had paid for centuries. Certainly more than Fetohep of Khelt would ever get. The Vizir stopped, several miles outside of Reim’s capital, and cleared his throat. One more errand.
An arrow flew up at his face. Again, his crimson eye-flames narrowed and he pointed down.
There was the thunder and flash of something striking the earth. Screaming. Then refreshing silence. The Vizir cleared his throat again, and this time no one interrupted.
“By the authority of Eternal Khelt, whose glorious reign extends beyond death and whose majesty knows no bounds, he, the Greatest Vizir of Khelt, Hecrelunn, grants you leave to besiege this city!”
The Vizir pointed to the distant walls of Reim. Below him, a hundred thousand [Soldiers]…a bit less now…stared up at him.
Nerrhavia Fallen’s banners waved in the small breeze, and the [Generals] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen stared up at the Vizir, mouths dry. The Vizir went on, magnifying his voice with a spell.
“For your insolence, you should all bake in your worthless juices as a million scorpions cover you. Know that you have been spared his wrath only because you serve the Vizir’s ambitions, and that of Khelt! Fell Reim swiftly, and you shall know the Vizir’s tolerance.”
He looked around, floating higher, and his eyes flashed.
“Thou petty mortals—remember this day, for you have beheld a being that strode the world and knew the tyrant you heard only whispers of! Nerrhavia, Suzerain of Cloth, Tyrant of the Woven Citadel, Ruler of Clothkind! A being so great even in death she defines your little kingdom.”
A great roar rose up, of choked voices, of horror. The Vizir floated there, looking down at them as the Stitch-Folk froze at what he was saying. Yet Hecrelunn simply floated higher, spreading his arms.
“…And remember this. This Vizir did not bow to her. Begin the siege.”
And with that, he flew off, laughing. Cackling. You had never heard proper cackling, truly villainous laughter for want of another word. Without remorse or regret or forethought to how it might sound.
In dead silence, the army of Nerrhavia’s Fallen stared at the distant capital of Reim, finally in sight after so long. Their glorious attack force, poised to take the King of Destruction’s head…stared off at the Revenant flying away on important business. The [Generals] looked at each other.
Their eagerness to fight was…quite sapped.
More drama in Pomle. No, truly, though, things were happening. At the same time the Vizir was causing trouble, it was true that the siege of Reim had begun.
At the same time? There were rumors of other great deeds occurring.
Mars the Illusionist laying an army to waste by herself was the stuff of stories. Khelt’s resurgence, the stuff of nightmares. And in that vein—
It was a recording you could purchase. Not shown on television; it had apparently been recorded like Rémi Canada’s ongoing documentary about Ksmvr of Chandrar, who had already been suggested as the Slayer’s replacement. Certainly his heir—an Antinium with incredible abilities.
The recording in question was of about sixty [Martial Artists]. Who, over the course of two hours, kicked, punched, and otherwise threw back a force nearly a hundred times their size. That reminded you of why their nation existed to begin with.
Trouble on the winds. Especially since, while they didn’t show it overtly, only one nation had that many Stitch-Folk being turned into literal ragdolls.
Roshal was still up in arms about the Death of Chains, who had liberated countless [Slaves] from caravans they were still scrambling to go after. Not least the nearly million-gold adventurer on the loose.
All of this as the damned Arbitration Council was now condemning the Drake attacks on Gnolls with the power of words. Not that she was bitter. She hadn’t even gotten on the waiting list for invitations.
As for Roshal…Roshal was an unpleasant enemy, but a bunch of [Slaves] and all the trade routes in disarray?
Plink, plink, plink. The pile of gold coins and even several artifacts had arrived this morning. The woman trailed her hand across the pile.
“Not exactly rich. How much is this?”
“F-four hundred and eighty four gold pieces, Your Majesty.”
The nervous other woman was an [Accountant]. You had to have them. To count things. She was afraid, most likely because she’d heard what happened to the last woman who’d made a costly mistake.
The Siren of Savere didn’t bother addressing the issue. The last [Accountant] had been embezzling money; that’s why she got what she deserved, but she didn’t tell the newcomer that. She didn’t waste lives.
Revine Zecrew sat back and regarded the morning’s income. Which, to be clear, she hadn’t earned herself. It had appeared in its designated spot. But whom, or rather, who it came from was very important.
Who being correct since she did understand basic grammar. She had gone to higher education, which some people might find interesting. Especially in a [Bandit Queen].
“Not a huge haul, but she did tribute it to me. Which means she escaped. Tell me. How faithful has Merr been on her payments?”
The [Accountant] rushed to open her ledger.
“Um. Q-quite good, Your Majesty.”
“I am the Siren of Savere. Say that.”
Your Majesty was too generic and people needed to remember her title. It was all about respect and titles. Revine looked at the small tribute and sighed.
It hadn’t been sent via traditional means, like a [Messenger] or in a chest. That tempted [Bandits] to steal away with it, and besides—it was so slow. A [Bandit Queen] had better, more secure options.
“So Merr’s back to raiding. Roshal’s going to be after her.”
“That wasn’t a question. Shut up.”
The [Accountant] clapped her mouth shut. Revine rubbed at her forehead. She had a headache. She was a [Bandit Lady] and thus technically Revine’s follower.
In practice? No. They would have both laughed until they were sick at the implications of traditional serving and loyalty. This was a business relationship. Revine was on top. Merr was being practical.
Revine slapped the table. The [Accountant] jumped. The Siren turned.
“Find the nearest gang or raiding group in the region and tell them to join Merr.”
“Tell them to join…? How, Siren? Where do I…I, uh—”
“Go get it done. Ask someone else and don’t bother me!”
The woman fled, white-faced, and Revine cursed, because she should have told the woman to put the coin in the treasury first. That was the problem with new help.
The Siren of Savere, Revine Zecrew, was an unusual ruler for an unusual land. And yes, many rulers could boast the same, but she was a strange criminal class. [Bandit Queen]—an authority that didn’t always exist generation to generation.
Why, in the age of Maresar, there hadn’t even been a ruling [Bandit Queen], and there still wasn’t a [Pirate King]—a ridiculous concept, but they did pop up now and then.
Criminality? Well, that was such a refined word for them. [Bandits], [Raiders], [Pillagers], and [Rogues], oh my. Most people thought they were just disorganized thugs, and that was true for a lot of them.
Yet there were secrets to their classes. [Bandit Queen] was one of them. And Savere?
Before it had been taken, Savere had been a province of multiple local city-states, like other areas on Chandrar. This port-city had been the capital and it still was…only for a new power. It had existed for quite some time, having emerged after the King of Destruction’s slumber, in the chaos of the power vacuum.
Revine had not always ruled it, but under her, the ‘lawless’ Savere had gained some laws. Again—not like another kingdom, but laws as they applied to her people.
She was Siren of Savere. [Hydromancer] supreme; a master of weather magic as well, such that the citizens who lived in Savere would never want for water, unlike other parts of Chandrar. So long as they paid up, that was. Life was not perfect, of course. Revine had her enemies here and abroad. She had to watch her back, stay on top, and there were people she hated, like the Empress of Tiqr, whom Savere had clashed with many times since their inception.
However, she wasn’t in mortal danger, and her sister happened to be one of the most famous [Pirates] in the world. Rasea Zecrew, [Pirate Captain] of the Illuminary.
…Of course, she was the younger sister and they were universally annoying. Revine reached for a glass of wine. She did not want to think of Rasea right now. That idiot sister of hers kept pulling stunts like running the King of Destruction over with her ship. No thought of how that might get back to Savere.
Revine had a project at the moment. An unexpected opportunity—even a boon. And yet…she sipped at her wine as she stared balefully out of her position in her palace.
“I cannot believe that’s Illphres’ apprentice.”
Ah, childhood. Ah, youth and past and regret and friendship—one of the few she had ever made. Revine closed her eyes.
Once upon a time…
Once upon a time, Illphres the [Cryomancer] had been alive in Wistram. Her status had been one of the top [Mages]—even on the level of fighting with Amerys, now and then.
She had been an Isolationist—but a staunchly pro-magic one, who wanted to uncover the true mysteries of the Academy. Challenge Zelkyr’s last test. She was not apolitical, but had stayed out of the center of the debates and power struggles.
Her true class had been a variation of [Cryomancer]. Everyone knew the basic class; few knew the details.
Back then…Ceria Springwalker had been privileged enough to know Illphres’ true class in the last year of her master’s life. Back then…
She had really hated Illphres.
“Student. Get me some Everfrozen Ice.”
“Okay, Master. From where?”
Illphres, the [Cryomancer of Masks], gave Ceria a blank look. Her beautiful mask had colored ice and looked like a real face, but the lips didn’t always move perfectly with her actual flesh. She pointed and her young half-Elf apprentice, the first she had ever taken, looked…out her door.
“I don’t know. Go find some.”
“I don’t know.”
Ceria Springwalker waited, mouth opening and closing slightly.
“…Do I have any money to buy some, Master?”
“Yes. Go find some.”
“I have some lying about. Get me a big block. Oh—and breakfast. And find my other wand. The one with earth attunement. And a Potion of Relief.”
“My period. Get to it.”
Ceria Springwalker threw her hands up. She stalked out of the room, cursing Illphres’ name. Her master watched, slightly smugly. She had learned the value of largely unpaid labor and it was getting them to do whatever you were too busy to do.
And yet—she was good at her job. Which was freezing things. So good, in fact, that Ceria’s own ice magic studies were progressing far faster than any other student in her year. So by the time Ceria came back, Illphres would have a spell for her to study, or a book to read about famous [Cryomancers] of the past.
“Read and learn, Ceria. We might not know their spells, but this is how they lived. Some fought—others earned money more traditional ways. They were all geniuses.”
“The one who sank in that ship made of ice sounded like an idiot.”
Illphres slapped Ceria on the back of the head.
“Don’t contradict me. They were better than you. You can’t make structured ice so show some respect until you pass them.”
“Master! I’m learning quickly! No one is even close to learning [Ice Wall] in the 3rd Year!”
“So? You’re comparing yourself to post-Zelkyr [Mages]. And they get more worthless each generation. When I was a student, I knew [Ice Wall] by my third year because some of my teachers remembered what real magic was like.”
Ceria ducked another swat. She glared, shielding her head.
“Well, I’m sorry for disappointing you, Master. What was it like, learning from [Mages] who remembered that?”
Illphres stopped. She wasn’t actually that violent, or even mean. No—she was definitely mean. But she loved magic and so Ceria could get her to reminisce.
“Back then? Not all of them were old enough. Some, like Feor, predate Zelkyr vanishing. But some were apprentices of [Mages] who existed before the upper floors were locked up. They weren’t that different. Infighting idiots. But they knew what they had lost. That’s the difference.”
Ceria sat cross-legged as Illphres slowly sat. Ceria had never asked how Illphres’ face had been damaged exactly, but it had been frostbite, not another injury. She had warned Ceria she could draw too heavily on ice magic if she couldn’t withstand it and damage herself. She hadn’t said ‘never do that’. Only told Ceria the risks.
“You’re a half-Elf. I don’t want to talk about age with you about anyways, you annoying brat. You’re older than I am.”
Illphres grumbled. Ceria rolled her eyes.
“I spent most of my time in a traditional half-Elf village, Master. You don’t age there the same way.”
“Clearly, or you’d master [Ice Wall] already. Well…you know the fundamentals. But I won’t have you casting [Ice Hedge] while you’re my apprentice. When I was your age…”
“I bet you didn’t have any friends.”
Illphres’ kicking foot twitched and Ceria scooted back. But the woman returned mildly.
“I didn’t. Or at least, not as many as you.”
Ceria blinked. The woman sat there and her apprentice asked after a while.
“Did you…uh, are they the [Mages] I know now?”
“Hm? No. They were student friends. Most went off, or died…I don’t keep up with most. I had one or two good ones. Actual complementary experts. Unlike your lot.”
She meant Beatrice and Calvaron, Pisces and Montressa…although Pisces…Ceria’s lips twisted. Illphres gazed at her.
“You should consider finding a [Mage] who can complement your abilities. If you fall in love with a [Pyromancer], though, I’ll disown you as an apprentice. [Pyromancers] and [Hydromancers] work…although all they can do is create steam spells. [Aeromancers] and [Hydromancers] work well—earth magic and water magic, even color magic and water magic. But we’re ice mages, so we’re less complementary with other disciplines.”
Ceria raised her brows.
“You sound like you know a lot about hydromancy, Master. Who was your friend? A [Hydromancer]?”
“A good one. We worked well together, but she left. Different attitudes. Don’t bother learning too much water magic, though. Ours is superior.”
And that was all she had ever said about that. Ceria Springwalker had forgotten all about it. It certainly hadn’t been an important conversation.
Ceria Springwalker opened her eyes and stopped meditating in her rooms. She recalled Illphres’ face, the way she would walk, somewhat stiffly, unless she was in battle.
Ceria still remembered how she had frozen the sea and skated across it to rescue her. She wished she had talked with Illphres more, but she had been so young.
Not in age—she wasn’t that much older now. But…Ceria sighed.
“I was so immature. Pisces and Mons and…”
Her skeletal hand opened and closed. Here was the thing about memory and regrets. If. Everyone did it, especially adventurers.
“If I was the me of now back then…”
She would have been able to get Illphres to apprentice her right off, Ceria just bet. And she would have learned all the spells Illphres tried to teach her, rather than only manage to pick them up years after being taught the fundamentals. Ceria would have been able to persuade her not to try the test, accepted Pisces…
But regrets? Ceria shook her head. You couldn’t dwell on them forever. And right now, she regretted Illphres not ever elaborating about her friend quite a lot. Because Ceria Springwalker was a guest of the Siren of Savere, the ruler of Savere. [Bandit Queen], and Crelerbane in her own right.
…Not a nice woman. Ceria was no expert on Savere, and she wished she was, but in coming here as a ‘guest’ she’d seen how the Siren was treated.
The [Bandits] who had come to shake the village down? The [Pirates], [Rogues], and other criminal classes infesting the port city of Runsblud? They didn’t cross her. They were very respectful. Mostly because…and here Ceria glanced out the window again.
“I might be in trouble.”
You could still see the last [Accountant] the Siren of Savere had employed. Well…parts of her. She was hanging from the docks.
That sort of set the tone for Ceria’s stay in Savere. She took a breath, and got to work.
“Ib a squirrel!”
Ceria had a party trick. Which was to fit as much food in her cheeks as possible. A [Bandit] snorted her drink out her nose and the others fell over laughing.
Shortly after she had arrived in the capital, Ceria had been ‘invited’ to the first banquet. She hadn’t known what to expect.
She’d been so tired from being mana-burnt again that, on the way from the village of Nerhs, she hadn’t talked with the Siren much. She’d only learned that the Siren had been a friend of Illphres and that Ceria would accompany her, along with the people of the village since theirs was infested by Creler corpses.
That wasn’t an option either, by the by. Ceria was going with the Siren, and so were the people of Nerhs, and Ceria suspected the Siren would have left them to deal with the dead Crelers alone if not for the half-Elf’s involvement.
In a way, it was for the best. Poor Luaar and Novethur and the others. Their village was a goner, even though Ceria had wiped out the Adult Creler and the others with the Siren’s aid.
Too many corpses. Too many corpses with the potential for little Creler eggs. The entire thing needed to be burned and it was already smashed to pieces by the attack. The Siren had left orders for it to be burned.
And now Ceria was here, in Runsblud, the charmingly named capital port-city. The palace had a frightened staff of civilians, but the Siren’s people were [Rogues], [Bandits], and every criminal class you could name. In fact, the very people who’d tried to shake down Nerhs were sitting at Ceria’s table.
“You are the craziest half-Elf I’ve met. Go on, put another Yellat in!”
Revine Zecrew stared at Ceria as she obligingly tried to cram another Yellat into her mouth.
“If gnna cmb out my noth!”
Some of the other people at the dining tables looked offended by the laughter. A rough-looking man slouched over, and here was a salient detail: the Siren’s staff and indeed, personal cronies, were a largely female force.
“What’s going on? Who’s the newcomer?”
“Some [Cryomancer] Gold-rank. Heard of the Horns of Hammerad?”
He blinked as one of the [Bandits] leaned over. The rest were taking bets on whether Ceria could get another Yellat in.
“Is that who made a fuss at that new village?”
“Yep. Wiped out an entire nest of Crelers by herself. And an Adult Creler.”
“No. Don’t shit me.”
The female [Bandit] grinned.
“I was there. Saw the end of it myself. She had the big one all frozen up before the Siren cut it to pieces. She was probably gonna die, but she got the little ones. Smashed them to bits. Seems the Siren liked her so much she took her here.”
The man whistled as he blinked at Ceria.
“Gold-rank adventurer, eh? Think she’s gonna survive long here?”
He eyed his companions, who were all glaring at the half-Elf because they were trying to have a proper meal here, and the sight of her opening her mouth while eating was putting them off their feed. The [Bandit] shrugged, but she leaned over.
“Don’t know, but the Siren’s interested in her. So she’s not just fish bait. Spread it around.”
The man nodded carefully. No one got on the Siren’s bad side. He glanced at Ceria again and then his eyes sharpened.
“What did you say her name was? Ceria…”
Some of the others sitting at the table looked up at once. Two rose.
“That’s the Gold-ranker on the orb, isn’t it? Krakens awake. The [Captain]’ll want to hear about this.”
“Easy on. She’s under the Siren’s protection.”
The [Bandit] emphasized again. And as if to prove that, the Siren was personally striding over, cutting the laughter short. Ceria glanced up, half-choking on Yellats, and saw an icy glare Illphres would have been proud of on Revine’s face.
She glanced at the clearly disparate faction at the other table. They dressed and acted in a way that clearly set themselves apart from Revine’s crew.
The Siren dressed like a [Mage]-[Noble], with the richness of enchanted cloth, and her palace wasn’t filthy; on the contrary, it was one of the grandest settings Ceria had ever been to.
Yet there was a looseness to the discipline here. Rather than [Soldiers], she had what looked like [Rogues] and [Bandits] who’d taken up semi-official posts. They had good gear, no ragged holes in leather, but they even sauntered around in small patrols, and most eschewed shields.
For instance, the [Bandits] who’d come to Nerhs to demand protection money wore light leather under chainmail, and carried bows, swords, like any [Outrider] group or [Scout] party.
They also had throwing daggers and a few other nasty tricks, like a blast vial. Their [Enforcement Raider] leader had an enchanted, scimitar-like blade and magic boots.
Also—again—it was an all-female group, even the [Corrupt Accountant] who had ridden with them. Very interesting.
By contrast, the men and women at the other table were practically bare-chested. A jerkin exposing skin—to be fair, it was leather—or just casual clothing. They swaggered around with single weapons, not lacking for attitude among Savere’s forces, but they had a curious walk. And, Ceria noticed, they tended to have a wand, side-arm in a sleeve holster or at their belt, and jewelry that was clearly magical.
The Siren of Savere put them all to silence, though. She stopped in front of Ceria and stared down at the half-Elf who really did feel like a Yellat was trying to come out her nose. Her look of disgust made Ceria swallow, or try to.
“You. Come with me.”
Ceria slowly rose as the [Bandits] bowed or dipped their heads. Meanwhile, the [Pirates] watched. One stood up to tell the others that someone interesting had dropped by.
The Siren of Savere glared at Ceria as the two walked higher. She halted Ceria and pointed.
“Do you understand what Savere is, Ceria Springwalker?”
The half-Elf followed her finger. It traced along one of the open-air windows to the outside. Salty air blew in, along with the other odors of the port. Not great for the drapes…which meant it was a good thing the palace had none, at least in these hallways.
Ceria eyed the largest docks she’d seen short of First Landing. A massive port, heaving with ships and crew, was outside. And—yet again—different from any city like Pallass or Liscor.
She could see a fight on the streets taking place between groups of [Sailors] or [Pirates]. Rather than anyone breaking it up, she thought she distinctly saw one of Savere’s patrols cheering on the fight. From so high up and far off, Ceria didn’t see more than a flash of limbs, someone attacking someone from behind. But she did see blood when someone drew a dagger.
Cargo came off ships, and it did seem like a fairly orderly system. However…Ceria eyed the ships and she saw pendants, flags that were not like the regular ones. Too many skull motifs. Indeed, one of the hulls was even painted red, with some kind of teardrop motif in blue. At least, she assumed it was paint.
“Savere’s a bandit kingdom.”
Ravine gave Ceria a thin smile.
“Savere is the bandit kingdom. There are other places—none so official as this. None that have official borders and trades and makes war with the authority of a nation. I am the Siren of Savere, and you are my guest. Quite an…interesting one.”
Her tone and look made Ceria hastily wipe her face; she had a bit of food on her chin.
“Er, I’m sorry, Siren Revine. Is that how I should address you?”
“That will do. Do you always eat so?”
Ceria’s ears turned a bit red.
“Uh—it’s my icebreaking trick, Siren.”
The [Hydromancer] snorted.
“And Illphres is your master. We did not converse on the ride here overlong.”
“Yes. Um. She was my master for two years. Before she…you knew her? You were her fr—”
Revine made a slashing gesture, eyes sliding sideways. Ceria hesitated, and the Siren glanced out another window.
“Yes or no will do. We will converse in my domain later. There are ears everywhere in Savere. While I am the principal power, I am not the only power here, and you would do well to remember that. Did you see the guests of Savere?”
Revine’s expression darkened slightly as she glanced out at the harbor through another window again. She stared at the ships with the painted hulls—Ceria saw no less than nine in tight formation at the docks.
“They are the Bloodtear Pirates. You’ve heard of them?”
The half-Elf inhaled sharply. Yes, she had. The Bloodfeast Raiders were known across Izril as the principal [Bandit] gang, but they were a rare, elusive force. Arguably…copycats of the famous [Pirate] army who flew under one flag and slaughtered their foes.
The Bloodtear Pirates. She felt her skin prickle a bit. Revine looked somewhat approvingly at her expression.
“Then you understand they can be touchy. Half would challenge you to a blood duel for the sport of it if they knew you were a Gold-rank. You are under my protection, so fewer will dare, but that is a warning. The other?”
She flicked a finger as they passed by a third window on the sea-facing corridor. Ceria saw the flicker of magic and dove.
Ceria heard a scream. Revine stared down at Ceria lying sprawled on the ground. The scream had not come from her. Rather, it came from outside.
A figure clinging to the exterior of the palace fell, screaming, as their handhold on the stone grew slick. Ceria scrambled up, looked out the window, and wished she hadn’t. She saw the Siren glancing at her, amused.
“You sensed my magic. Illphres did teach you something.”
The Siren was already walking on.
“An idiot who thought they’d profit by knowledge. Which they would have if they got away. There are ears everywhere—save for my domain.”
Ceria hesitated, then walked after Revine.
“No. I said, an idiot. A [Rogue], perhaps. A [Thief]? It doesn’t matter. Secrets have currency and there are brokers for that everywhere. You should know that. You were at Wistram. Then—expelled. We shall discuss the rest of it later, as I said. Make lighter conversation until we ascend.”
Another searching look. Ceria Springwalker slowed once more, and saw Revine looking at her.
Illphres had been in her fifties or sixties when she died. Ceria had never asked for exact details, but she had claimed to be younger than Ceria in actual, biological age. Ceria had been in her sixties already, albeit as she often said, sixty for a half-Elf raised in the never changing forests. There were days there when you just sat and watched a tree grow all day long, or the shoots of a flower you’d planted.
It only got boring if you realized there was a faster world outside. At any rate, the Siren…did not look so old. She had jet black hair with lines of sea-blue streaking through the darkness, down to the very roots of her hair—but it was wavy, and she could have been in her late thirties, for a Human. Her robes were a [Mage]’s, but had the sigil of Savere drawn large on the back—Ceria saw an anchor, a curved dagger, and a raincloud all in one.
Under the robes, the Siren had a kind of shimmering fabric that Ceria thought might be watercloth; very fitting for someone of her class. And…the half-Elf noticed…she was very conventionally attractive, lips full red, thin, skin without flaw, like a Terandrian [Lady] might aspire to be.
Not that Ceria found Revine attractive. If anything, her killing that [Rogue] only made Ceria warier. What Ceria did think was…
Beauty products. She’s spent a fortune on her appearance. It’s not an illusion spell or I’d be able to tell. Plus, most don’t copy facial muscle movements properly.
Enough to take a decade or two off; more than her clothing or jewelry, that was largesse for anyone who knew to notice it. Ceria thought of her master, whose only nod to vanity was her mask of ice; she didn’t even bother changing her robes most days, having a Pisces-like attitude towards clothing cleanliness.
Ceria was off-guard. It seemed like, from Nerhs to Savere, she kept being tossed into weird situations. But she was alive, not eaten by a giant Creler, and, rather than being captive of a dangerous [Bandit Queen], it seemed like Revine was disposed to like her due to Illphres. So Ceria was cautiously optimistic.
“Do you have anything to say?”
Revine’s snappish tone made Ceria start. She was rather like an impatient client, who wanted you to prove how good you were before she gave the job. Ceria remembered Calruz was particularly good at impressing prospective clients like that; he’d just challenge their bodyguard to a short match that involved him slapping them across the room.
Since Ceria lacked for biceps thicker than her legs, she took an alternate approach. Revine must have been from Wistram; secret brokers sounded very familiar, so Ceria coughed.
“Er…I can’t help but wonder, Siren. Savere is clearly an exceptionally rich nation. You have an, um, amazing wardrobe that I think even an Archmage would be pressed to match in terms of money. But the palace is a bit—is it due to wanting an open window for hydromancy magic? No glass?”
She pointed at the open-air windows, which let in salt and mildew that the hard-pressed cleaning staff—who fled the instant they saw Revine—probably had to work every week to clean.
Revine blinked at Ceria. She glanced at the windows, and her expression changed again.
“No. Not for hydromancy. Practicality. Those fools fight and have no discipline. Do you think I’d litter my palace with vases or other valuable objects?”
“Ah. But they’re under your command…”
“They are still [Rogues] and [Thieves]. I trust them to do their jobs if properly motivated. No more. Savere has an army and my officers are trustworthy enough, but Runsblud has too many guests.”
“I see. So…not even enchanted glass?”
Revine’s expression twisted into one of disgust.
“They would steal the entire window and carve it out of the stonework. I have had entire doors go missing. That is the quality of…door thieves. Who would do something like that?”
She made a disgusted sound, glancing back at her guest to join in the condemnation of door thievery. Ceria bit her lip and avoided meeting her eyes.
They passed into the Siren’s territory in a moment as they reached the stairwell and headed up. Ceria felt a tingle on her skin and stopped dead. The Siren looked back, and, once more, she switched from annoyed to approving.
Ceria felt the power of water in the air. Not humidity, but like if you stood in a graveyard and you were Pisces, or in the middle of a snowstorm and you were her—
The sheer potential for water magic made Ceria’s own cryomancy instincts tingle. She could raise a wall of ice here in a fraction of the time it would take anywhere else. She looked around, frowning.
Not only that, it felt like this was a distinct ward in the air, probably against hostile magics. How…?
Ceria pointed at something built into the hallway. An archway of strange stone. It looked pitted, like it was corroded—until Ceria realized the gleaming, polished material was coral. Coral mixed with some water-blue stone.
“Lapis lazuli. This marks the boundary of my domain. You may enter; few others can. Speak openly here and nowhere else. Servants! Refreshments!”
Ceria saw people scurry out and looked ahead towards a far grander, far more decorated section of the palace. Actual paintings and pictures—some of Revine, others of a strange Drowned Woman with a glowing left eye—decorated the halls, along with other paraphernalia that was distinctly…
Wistram. And by ‘Wistram’—Ceria glanced at a giant relief of The Wisdom of Mages. There were four copies in Wistram; it was a painting of a bunch of monarchs, lords, generals, and even adventurers, slowly approaching a shining group of [Mages] who were depicted in rather noble poses, dispensing wisdom to the masses.
The same with the paintings. You had to have a few of yourself, but the real showoffs framed…artifacts. Ceria eyed a glowing embossed eye-pendant on a wall, a wand that Revine had personally wielded, almost out of charges…
Yep. This was a Wistram [Mage] alright. So many decorations that Revine swept past—carefully waiting to see if Ceria noticed them—
But such a lonely place at the top of her palace. Her servants bowed, but said nothing to her, and Revine herself halted as Ceria approached.
“Fit for an Archmage, you said? Did Illphres have such treasures? You don’t have to answer that. She never did understand how to put her magic to use. She lived and died at Wistram and barely set her foot out into the wider world. As if Wistram was everything. I thought she would never take an apprentice. When I heard of her death—I knew it was coming. I never thought to meet you, though.”
She stood there, as a glass of wine floated towards her from a serving tray placed on a table. She gestured around.
“Sit. Stand. You and I shall converse.”
Ceria nodded slightly.
“You did know my master then, Siren Revine?”
Revine’s eyes narrowed. Ceria looked around and went to pick up a cup of wine. When she turned back, the Siren was glaring again.
“Know her. Know her? She and I were the greatest of friends as students. She never mentioned me?”
Ceria was afraid of stating the obvious. Revine’s eyes flashed—then she abruptly grew cool. Her moods swung so fast Ceria was having trouble keeping up.
“That would be like her. Not a word about me—the Siren of Savere—to the only apprentice she ever kept. Ceria Springwalker, a student who stayed for only three years at Wistram before being expelled in an incident that slew countless [Mages]. Yet a graduate of Wistram because Cognita of Truestone herself declared it so. I would have never thought that heartless piece of stone would bestir herself for anything but her dead master.”
Ceria jumped as Revine drained her goblet. She didn’t move to fill it from the pitcher—she pointed and a stream of wine spiralled up and poured into her cup.
Casual water magic. Indeed, at Ceria’s glance, with a mocking look she sat back—and water rose from out of nowhere to create a molded seat for her. Her legs dangling, she reclined as it adjusted itself.
“I do know who you are, Ceria. And while Illphres may not have spoken about me, let me assure you it was not because I was inferior to her in any way. In fact, she could never afford anything but magical studies to enhance her power. I have a kingdom’s treasury at my disposal.”
She waved a hand around. The [Cryomancer] stood there, eying the water chair, the rich rooms, the tapestries, and Revine herself. When she replied, it was with a shrug.
“My master would have said magic is all you needed, Siren.”
Revine’s mocking smile went out. Her hand holding the goblet froze—then she set it down on a pedestal of water. Her languid posture changed. She sat forwards, shoulders hunched, hands in her lap. She looked at Ceria, bleakly.
“…Yes. She would have said just that. So you were her apprentice after all. Tell me…”
Revine struggled. She took a deep breath, then stared at Ceria with a fixed look. A dangerous one, but…her eyes shone with some deep emotion.
“I know it. Yet tell me, from your own mouth. You were there, were you not? Tell me…how Illphres died.”
The Siren of Savere didn’t know what to make of this half-Elf girl. A girl, despite being a half-Elf.
She was no ancient [Mage]. She looked like a fool, especially when she had been in the banquet hall. Yet she was sharp enough to notice several things. A capable mage—she had been using Illphres’ tactics when she killed the Crelers.
Even so, it made no sense to Revine that her old friend would ever take an apprentice. Illphres had no affection for anyone. Not for friends or lovers. Magic was her goal.
Yet…she saw something as Ceria spoke. Perhaps it was that.
“You won her apprenticeship by melting her ice with salt?”
The half-Elf ducked her head. Revine threw back her head and laughed.
“I was desperate for a master at the time…I didn’t know if it would work.”
“I am surprised it did. You must have bruised her ego. Illphres was always determined to make ice that no force could ever melt. And for a 1st year student to do it with salt?”
She listened as Ceria told her stories, what few there were of Illphres. And, in truth—there were not many. Illphres had taught Ceria for two paltry years. Well, it seemed. She had even…
“She battled a [Storm Captain] for you?”
Revine blinked. Ceria nodded.
“That was when my friend showed his [Necromancer] class.”
“Yes, yes. I’m familiar with the basics of your team. The Horns of Hammerad. Illphres left the academy for you.”
“It was very…it was amazing and it saved our lives. Was it that extraordinary?”
Revine shook her head.
“I can’t believe she would do that. But then…”
Her voice trailed off. Ceria sat there, across from her.
“Illphres never talked about her past. Or you, Siren. I’m sorry if that’s…unpleasant to hear. She was a good master, but she was driven to challenge the exam.”
“Yes. She was. Perhaps that was why she took an apprentice. Knowing it was coming. Or perhaps—hah. Perhaps it was you.”
Now she saw it. Ceria’s eyes lifted. Her eyes were like pale ice. She had begun showing the effects of her class. Revine felt the chill emanating from her. And her hand—her hand was bone.
Lost from an ice spell she had pushed too far. It was so much like Illphres it gave Revine goosebumps. Had Illphres seen that and—no, that had come after. But it was proof.
“You must have—I’m sure she took you melting her ice into account. If she knew she was challenging the test soon—but Illphres would break her word and refuse to teach you. She was that sort of woman. She had another reason for teaching you.”
Revine reached for the wine, but it was muddying her memory. She cast it aside and looked back.
“Of course. She must have been reminded of…”
The past. The half-Elf girl leaned forward, and Revine closed her eyes. Incredible as it might seem. Once upon a time—
A young woman stood on the table in the banquet hall, pointing down at another student in her year who had mocked her. She raised a hand as Revine drew an enchanted dagger, menacing the other students they were fighting with.
But the Archmages, the actual [Mages] in the room—they looked over when they heard the young woman shouting furiously. She pointed down at Vilt and shouted.
“I won’t stay down here. I will be the one to pass Zelkyr’s last test! I will become the Archmage of Ice!”
His jaw opened. Illphres turned to look at Revine, who stared up at her, astonished. Right before the laughter began. Illphres stood there, turning slowly paler and paler with fury. She pointed a finger and an [Ice Spike] flashed across the floor at the head table—
Ceria Springwalker’s mouth was open.
“She said that? In front of everyone?”
The Siren of Savere’s gaze rose, breaking out of memory. She glared at Ceria…then relaxed. With a rueful smile, she nodded.
“They never let her forget that. Later on, before I left and when she was coming into her full power, she’d throw [Ice Spears] around if someone brought it up. The [Mages] must have decided to walk warily of her by the time you came to the academy. That was Illphres.”
An impetuous, ambitious young woman who had already known how to cast [Ice Spike] by the time she came to the Academy. Talented, and who had befriended a young woman in her year who was talented in water magic, stuck by her even when the latter was found thieving.
Those days. They felt like yesterday and a thousand years ago.
“—and after I created as much water as possible, she froze it all over then shouted that a Chandrarian custard was being served and it was running out quick. So every [Mage] in the Centrist faction went running and—”
Revine found herself talking animatedly and cut herself off. Ceria was smiling, disbelieving, shaking her head.
“She did that. Master Illphres.”
Revine halted. She looked at Ceria. It was not entirely a sad smile. It should have been. Didn’t she mourn Illphres?
But no—there it was. Sadness. And at the same time…the half-Elf smiled.
“Thank you for telling me. I never knew.”
“…You’ve moved past her death.”
The Siren stood and turned, abruptly. Ceria hesitated.
“It’s been years. I guess…I have. She went up to challenge Cognita and—I’ve never been back. It took me a long time to make my peace with it, everything that happened. If I went back I think it would hit me, but—I never did.”
Revine envied Ceria’s steady tone. She shook her head. No wine; Revine had purified water, the real stuff, and took a drink of it.
“You haven’t been…? Ah, you were expelled. You might well return, you know.”
“I…I’ve never thought of that. Yes. Wistram wouldn’t refuse me entry?”
The Siren sneered as she turned around, thinking of her alma mater, and in a sense, the place where she had grown up as much as the streets of this very city.
“Not Wistram. Not for a Gold-rank adventurer. I have returned to Wistram myself, despite my status as ‘criminal’ by many sensibilities. Rarely; the academy has little to offer me besides politicking, and Wistram is not interested in Savere’s dealings. Too unscrupulous for their high-minded ways. To me, there is little difference between dealing with gangs and [Mages].”
Ceria nodded cautiously.
“Did…may I ask, Revine, why you didn’t stay at Wistram? Or why you and Illphres parted ways?”
Revine snorted bitterly.
“Haven’t you been listening? Illphres stayed. I left. I asked her many times—even when I became the Siren—if she would leave. She refused. Her magic changed her. The academy changed her, when she saw how pitiful the other [Mages]’ dreams were. She was one of a few who loved magic. Everyone else, the majority were…”
She trailed off. Ceria hesitated.
Revine turned and laughed. She shook her head.
“The rest were like me. Practical. We knew the doors would never open. Illphres was the dreamer. She was the one who was obsessed with the challenge, with the impossible. She kept trying until everything else fell away.”
The half-Elf lowered her head. Revine drank furiously, and turned her head.
“Bring me something stronger! Krakenblood Rum!”
That was it. A simple story. A woman who gambled everything after fifty years of toil—and it was all wasted. Wasted, by that murderous Truestone Golem, an Archmage’s trickery.
Except for Ceria. Revine saw the dark rum being brought over. In shot glasses. She took one, hesitated before tossing it down. Ceria was offered one and Revine snapped at the terrified serving girl.
“Did I tell you to serve her some? You idiot. Don’t try this, Ceria.”
With that, she tossed the drink down. A small shot of Krakenblood, people said, could knock a [Drunk] out. Revine shook her head.
“—I’m a [Hydromancer]. Try it if you want, but if you faint, I’ll throw you down the steps and let you sleep it off.”
Ceria gingerly tasted the dark liquid and gagged.
“My tongue’s going numb! How did you…?”
Revine laughed with genuine pleasure.
“I am a [Hydromancer]. Illphres never could hold her liquor—I could drink all of our group under the table. Liquor is still a liquid. As my class progresses, we learn more than mere magic. Poison—my spells have saved me from poison more than once. I doubt I could ever die of thirst, even in Zeikhal. You’re entering that stage too, aren’t you?”
She eyed Ceria. The half-Elf took another taste of the Krakenblood and put it to the side. She nodded.
“My aura, you mean.”
“Your aura, your eyes…Illphres would have taught you to mitigate it. She never had an aura, but she could create the same effect with magic alone. She never finished teaching you, did she?”
Ceria shook her head, shamefaced. Revine eyed her, swaying a bit despite her boasts.
“I can tell. Your [Ice Walls] are too simple. I saw that copy of her [Fortress of the Ice Queen] spell…sloppy. It only fooled me from afar. You tried to freeze an Adult Creler? You didn’t think to keep a bag of holding with water on you? That is basic [Cryomancer] and [Hydromancer] training.”
“She didn’t prepare me for adventuring. And it was only two years…”
“Even so. You didn’t have any other spells? You said you were stranded in that nowhere village. Nels.”
“Nerhs. Yes. If I’d known, I would have taken water with me. But it was a teleportation spell gone awry…”
The Siren saw Ceria watching her, carefully. She reminded herself—Ceria wasn’t on her side. Just Illphres’ apprentice. Revine sat down on the wobbly water-chair.
“And you didn’t…cast [Condensation] and gather the water? You didn’t think to create an ice domain when you saw the Crelers coming? When you took the well’s water—you could have at least cast [Whiteout Blizzard] and fled. You fought extraordinarily well, but with, what? Four, six spells at most?”
Ceria turned beet red. Revine saw her open her mouth, stutter.
“I—I never learned any more spells from Illphres. I barely caught up to [Ice Wall] last year.”
“Last year…? Are you that stupid? You said Illphres was teaching you herself! She would have disowned any student who couldn’t pick up [Ice Wall] by—”
“She was dead. I didn’t have anything else but memories to go on!”
Revine’s lolling head rose. The Siren blinked. She muttered.
“[Sobering]…what? She never left you anything? Not her spellbook? Not…”
Ceria Springwalker shook her head.
“There was no time to ask. I was expelled and—she must not have included me in her will.”
The Siren blinked. Illphres’ apprentice sat there, looking forlorn. All that time without…?
That wasn’t like Illphres at all. She was so meticulous, and she wouldn’t have…Revine blinked at her.
“You don’t know any ice magic beyond what you’ve levelled and…? Truly?”
“I have a spellbook, but there aren’t many ice spells and I’m missing the fundamentals. I never completed my education.”
Revine’s mouth opened and closed.
“Wait. You said you were in your third year. Then—did they even teach you the higher courses? Linked magic? Domains?”
Ceria Springwalker bit her tongue.
“—I learned about linked casting this year. I cast a spell with my friend, Pisces. My friend who graduated, Montressa, called it natural link magic—”
Revine Zecrew sat back so far she nearly fell over. Instead, her chair turned into a recliner and she lay there.
You never knew anything besides the basics? No—her thoughts changed to astonishment. She sat up and looked at Ceria.
“You entered a death-zone, reached Level 30, became a Gold-rank adventurer without learning magical theory?”
The [Arctic Cryomancer] shrugged helplessly. Revine sat bolt upright, and her heart began to beat with excitement again. That was talent. That was…
Perfect. She was like Illphres, but not. The Illphres who left Wistram, who went out into the world and became an adventurer. She had accomplished this without a proper mentor. If she had one—
She was exactly what the Siren needed.
Savere had seafood. And if that was obvious, well…
The Siren watched Ceria carefully as they dined. She was still getting a handle on the half-Elf’s personality. To that end, she’d requested a dish that made some people turn squeamish. Trust was the thing.
Ceria stared down into a bowl of dozens of tiny, fried eels. Which, yes, looked like Selphids, albeit different in color, or…she slowly put her fork in the bowl, raised it—and began eating.
“This is really good stuff. What is this? Eels?”
“You’ve never had it?”
The half-Elf began scarfing down the actually very tasty food.
“Nope. Love it. Eels? Not bad at all. Do you have it with this rice stuff? That’s new too, but I’ve had it recently.”
“Er. Yes. With chopst—”
Ceria began putting the eels and other side dishes with the rice—and eating it with a fork. The Siren reflected that on the whole…it wasn’t much worse than the rest of her underlings’ manners.
Revine spoke after Ceria’s first burst of hunger had abated.
“I asked Illphres to come with me many times. Her abilities were second to only the best [Mages] living—she might have even made Archmage if she could stand to build alliances.”
Ceria lowered her fork slightly.
“Yes…she did say that she had no patience for it. So she didn’t want to leave?”
Revine’s mouth twisted.
“She did not. I offered her a position just under mine. Savere is a powerful place; the Bloodtear Pirates are not the only powerful force on the seas that comes here. Any [Pirate] that seeks to trade, repair their ships, or gang on Chandrar might well come here. Even groups from other continents. But you can imagine it is not simple to keep them in line.”
Ceria nodded cautiously. Revine glowered at sights unseen.
“I am the Siren—which means I have the right to refuse any group hospitality if they bring trouble. Savere is quite capable of doing battle with any group, so they abide by my rules largely. But there are many after my position. Illphres…with her, I would have feared no one. You understand why?”
“…Because she was that powerful?”
Ceria hazarded a guess. Revine pinched at the bridge of her nose.
“Dead gods. I forget you didn’t even get to your fourth year—they never told you about elemental combinations, did they? Illphres was an ice mage. I specialize in water. We were complementary!”
The half-Elf blinked. She slurped down an eel as Revine explained.
“Water and ice grow stronger together. We are two close elements. So close—temperature is the only difference between us. Fire and lightning. Earth and metal—none are as close as our two.”
She lifted a finger and a twirl of water brought a bowl of light broth up. It froze into a pillar as Ceria watched, and Revine dipped her spoon into the broth, which began to steam before Ceria’s eyes.
“Water magic is infinite in possibility so long as water exists. Frost has power even without water, but requires it for strength. One molds and changes constantly—the other is static, shattering. A duality of strength. And one is weak against the other. You cannot freeze an ocean, but water is helpless once turned to ice.”
Her eyes flicked upwards to Ceria.
“—Which is why I would not trust any [Cryomancer] to help me. But together, we could combine our powers, Illphres and I. Moreover, she would have been someone I trusted. Trust is the most valuable commodity in Savere, more than gems or magic.”
“Is it…that difficult, Siren?”
Ceria’s mind was racing ahead of this conversation. She thought she understood why Revine had gone to all this trouble now, and she wasn’t sure she liked the answer her mind presented her with. But she had to admit, it hadn’t been bad thus far. Revine had clearly been true friends with Illphres and the food was good.
The Siren smiled tightly.
“I trust two people in this world not to kill me in my sleep if it benefits them. My sister, Rasea, and Joam. And I only trust Rasea because she’d rather duel me face-to-face.”
Ceria bit her tongue. She began to say something—decided it was a bad idea. After a second, she coughed.
Revine’s partner? Was she married?
For answer, Revine made a psking sound and raised her voice.
“Joam? Come here and greet my guest.”
Ceria saw nothing for a second. Revine glared.
There was a yowl, and then Ceria saw a moving orb of water carrying a startled creature towards them. It leapt off with surprising familiarity, landed in the Siren’s lap, and sniffed the food. She offered it an eel, and the cat, which looked wet despite the orb of water not actually leaving any of it on Joam, accepted the treat.
The Watercat, Joam, had fins and gills. He could swim through water with amazing ease and, apparently, breathe in it, and he dove into the Siren’s chair made of water and out the other side to peek at Ceria.
“This is Joam. The only other being I trust not to stab me in my sleep besides Rasea Zecrew, my sister.”
Revine gave Ceria a sardonic look. The half-Elf hesitated.
“He’s, uh—very handsome. I can see why you trust him…?”
“Yes. He doesn’t have hands. Servant! Fetch Joam his meal. I feed him any number of foods—although he mostly does eat fish and the like. Also, Sariant Lambs.”
Ceria saw the cat lick his chops at that. She eyed the cat.
“Er, Your Majesty. I appreciate you telling me about Illphres. But why…?”
Revine ignored the question. She stared past Ceria, and the half-Elf turned her head slowly and saw a very rough sketch compared to the paintings in the room. Something a much poorer person might pay an [Artist] for with a bit of silver. Ceria saw a group of young people and…she blinked.
Illphres. Revine murmured to herself.
“In those days, I almost bought into Illphres’ dream to challenge the Golems. Almost. Until I saw how many people died. We weren’t alone back then, though. If things had played out differently—if she hadn’t vanished—you know, Illphres tried to apprentice herself to a master, just like you did.”
“The only woman who shared her dreams. Valeterisa, Archmage of Izril. But she was a recluse, and besides—she vanished. I hear she’s back. We all had that dream, though. Illphres, Valeterisa, even Viltach used to be one of us in spirit—but he lost his nerve when he had his first child.”
Ceria frowned. She felt like she’d missed something there.
“You mean…Archmage Viltach? He has children?”
Revine laughed at her.
“You think Archmages are celibate? Yes, he kept all his affairs outside of Wistram, though. Unlike some Archmages, he doesn’t go after fellow [Mages]. You truly didn’t know? It’s a minor secret at best.”
She seemed delighted by Ceria’s reactions to things like this. Revine leaned forwards.
“Have you kept up with the intrigue at Wistram? There is some grand secret there, but no one will tell me what it is.”
“Some secret…? No. I don’t know many Wistram [Mages] although—I know a half-Elf and a former [Mage], and they both said the same thing.”
Ceria thought of Falene and Viceria. The Siren frowned darkly.
“I as well, but my position and my allies are few there. I have been meaning to ferret it out, but I trust few of those in Savere to represent me properly. There are [Mages] here—decent ones—but not ones I trust. If I had an agent…I could send her abroad. Or trade places without leaving an untrustworthy commander in my place to stage a coup. You understand?”
It all went back to her. Ceria bit her tongue, then spoke, as carefully and professionally as she could. The Siren’s eyes flicked up and she focused on Ceria with a gaze as deep as the sea.
“Illphres. Siren Revine…I am grateful for you saving me and Nerhs from the Crelers. However, I am a Gold-rank adventurer and my teammates are missing. I need to find them, so, er, I’d, uh, like to be granted permission to go soon. I’m very happy to reminisce about Illphres! But if I could ride out tomorrow, maybe? I could pay for…”
Her voice trailed off. Revine Zecrew scrutinized Ceria.
“Your team. Naturally, you’d want to find them. And naturally, I don’t know you. Only that Illphres made you her apprentice. And that you are an adventurer with a history of working for an honorable Silver-rank team. In fact, you lost your hand holding the line rather than fleeing in the crypt of Liscor.”
Ceria blinked. She knew about…?
“A powerful [Cryomancer] who survived the Village of the Dead yet who lacks for any training. I was Illphres’ best friend. I may not be her specialization, but she and I share similar schools and I am an accomplished mage. A Wistram graduate. I could teach you. Savere is a powerful nation. You know, I have heard your friend is captive of Roshal. There is even a bounty out for his freedom.”
“Pisces? You know about—”
Revine lifted a finger and Ceria fell silent. She waved a hand.
Instead of it floating over, Joam brought it over in his mouth and received another eel. The Siren consulted it.
“He has been their prisoner for nearly two weeks. I am told one gang tried to free him and failed. He is not at Roshal yet, though. And your other friend—Yvlon Byres—is a gladiator in Nerrhavia’s Fallen. The last one, the bug-man? Illivere.”
Ceria’s mouth was wide open. They were all alive! She felt dizzy with relief—and then the Siren looked up.
“It isn’t impossible to free all of them. To gather them here? Not for me. Roshal is a mighty foe, though, and of the three, your friend the [Necromancer] is in gravest danger. I would not take on that request, no matter how much is being offered. Unless I had something worth doing it for.”
She looked at Ceria. The half-Elf shifted in her seat.
“…I’m not exactly keen to join Savere, Your Majesty. I have a…mission. An important one I need to get back to.”
Revine sighed delicately. She sat back as her cat leapt into her lap.
“Very understandable. I can’t force you to do anything. Then you have my permission to go. On the hour, in fact. I will let you purchase a horse and ride off to find your friends with the best of luck wished.”
She raised a hand and made a little gesture with her fingers splayed. Ceria hesitated.
“Yes, indeed it is.”
The [Cryomancer]’s eyes flicked to something behind Revine.
“Er…might I make one request, Your Majesty?”
“Could I persuade you to…give me back that circlet before I go? It is my property, you see. I earned it at the Village of the Dead.”
The Siren of Savere turned her head. The circlet in question sat in the center of a perfect cube of barrier spells, on a small pedestal. The same circlet Ceria had been about to wear before the last-minute save.
Revine Zecrew looked at Ceria and smiled blandly.
“Ah, but that is my possession, you see. I am a [Bandit Queen]. If you want that back, I may be convinced to turn it over. But you would have to be very persuasive.”
Ceria sighed. It was never easy. She ducked her head as Revine went on.
“I might be persuaded to part with it if you made promises to me that you would return. I am not a fool, Ceria Springwalker. Nor am I blind to your desires and missions. But I do need…an ally.”
Her eyes glinted. The half-Elf smiled weakly.
“You don’t say?”
Revine Zecrew got exactly what she wanted out of the conversation. Which was nostalgia about Illphres and nothing from Ceria remotely resembling a promise.
But she was staying. She wanted that relic-class object. Revine hovered around it after Ceria had gone. Joam was prowling off, hunting mice or something.
Revine stayed well clear of the pedestal. She wasn’t getting anywhere near the circlet and she’d had the best spells placed on it. She knew the dangers of relic-class objects and she was certain it was one.
“Find me every [Enchanter] worthy of the class. I want to know what this thing does. But secretly.”
She spoke, and one of her court mages bowed, eyes locked on the circlet. Revine halted her.
“Don’t think of touching it, Ureita. I have warded it so well that even an Archmage would vaporize if they tried.”
The woman, Ureita, licked her lips.
“I’d never dream of—”
“Yes, yes. Get out.”
The [Mage] scurried out, looking annoyed, but trying to hide it. Revine sighed after her. So transparent. She hadn’t lied about needing an ally.
“But I am not stupid. You’re no Illphres.”
She threw herself backwards and a chair of water materialized. Ceria was also far lower-level than Illphres, despite her accomplishments. Yet…Revine sat there. She eyed the circlet.
“Relic class artifacts aside…servant.”
Someone came out of the darkness.
“Get me Omusc. Tell her I want to see her, now, about bodyguard duty. And spread the word.”
The woman froze as Revine lifted a hand. The Siren beckoned her back and pointed to the place Ceria had been.
“That half-Elf. I want her on Savere’s side. Tell the guests she’s not to be harmed unless she’s a complete fool. And that I want to see if she’ll join Savere. Persuade her.”
The servant bowed. The Siren’s eyes glowed with a magic of their own. Yes…she had seen the limits of magic at Wistram. That was what Illphres had refused to see. Magic had limits. You filled the gaps with gold and power and alliances.
There was more to power than just magic classes. Revine was something Ceria took lightly.
A [Bandit Queen]. Did Ceria think [Corrupt Accountant] was just a class? She was clearly intelligent, but not as…cunning…as some. That was perfect.
“Chip at what makes her Gold-rank. Tell Omusc that’s her job. See who she really is. Send for the [Agents of Corruption].”
Omusc found Ceria Springwalker that morning before the half-Elf even got out of her room. She heard the triple-knock, opened the door, and found the woman standing there eying her.
“So you’re the Gold-rank, eh? Ice Squirrel. I’m Omusc. The Siren’s told me I’ve gotta keep you alive. You want food?”
The woman was dark-skinned…at least, half of her was. She spoke fast and with an accent, slurring her words a bit.
“Ice Squirrel. That’s your nickname. Heard you ate food like a damn squirrel. You can call me Omusc. [Pillager]. Exactly the kinda thing you Gold-ranks hate, right?”
She didn’t hold out a hand, but a third of her face opened up, exposing her insides. Ceria Springwalker stared at the Drowned Woman.
“Huh? It’s morning. What’s this about?”
Omusc was a Drowned Woman, like many of Savere’s people who lived with the sea. However, unlike many other Drowned Folk, who were half-fish, half-crustacean, or so on…
Omusc was half mollusc. Hence the…name.
Ceria had never seen a creature like her. One half of her face looked like bark, and, as Ceria watched, something moved the bark out—revealing fleshy, pink insides that used the bark as a false skin.
Sort of like a Dullahan. Omusc glanced at Ceria.
“Am I bothering you, Ice Squirrel?”
“It’s morning. What?”
The [Pillager] hesitated. Ceria rubbed at her face. Omusc glanced out one of the windows.
“It’s nearly midday. What’re you talking about?”
Ceria was still bleary-eyed at breakfast. She stared at a giant piece of fowl meat.
“Bird. Some kind of it. You picky?”
Ceria began chomping down instantly. Omusc reached for her plate. She cracked part of her face open—one of the other [Bandits] at the table turned away, gagging—deposited a slice of meat into her face, and then began to chew normally.
She waited for a reaction. Ceria just blinked at her a few times.
“So you’re Omusc. Is that…a pun?”
Along the table, one of the very specialist classes that Savere could field watched her target. Oh yes. [Corruptor] was a class.
There were always people like her in the world. People whose job it was to bribe, convince, threaten, or do whatever it took to get someone to abandon beliefs.
Sometimes it wasn’t hard. They were needed for sabotage, intrigue, and they could even make [Traitors]. Savere didn’t exist with the goodwill of other nations alone. They had people like her in every area.
Her job, and Omusc’s to some extent, was to fulfill the Siren’s wish and see who this Gold-rank was deep down. Reveal her true nature—sometimes you found just a bastard—or just someone who was like they were normally, only freed of fault.
Everyone had a weak spot. She narrowed her eyes, appraising Ceria as Omusc sat there, bemused. Ceria stared as a frightened person brought over more food.
“Got a problem with my face, Ice Squirrel?”
Omusc was trying to rile Ceria up. And…the [Bandits] grabbed for foods, calling insults at the [Slave] as more was brought around. Ceria turned, saw the collar, and now…the [Agent of Corruption] leaned in.
Now she understood what Savere was. Adventurers were tricky. Not all were upstanding, but some took lots of work. Yet the Siren had no limits, and there were lots of Skills that did many things. But she had to know what Ceria Springwalker was like.
The half-Elf blinked at the [Slave]. She looked at Omusc. She bit into a sandwich of chicken.
“…Is Omusc not a pun? It’s really early. Sorry…why are you with me?”
Omusc’s and the [Agent]’s faces fell. Dead gods damnit. Was she just an idiot?
Ceria rubbed at her head.
“So you’re a [Pillager].”
“Isn’t that sort of a weird class?”
One of the [Bandits] from the Nerhs raid sniggered. They were her eating buddies, having gained some respect for Ceria after seeing her take down so many Crelers. They were also off-duty, having been given a leave for the incident.
Omusc had multiple eyes. Her entire left side was…mollusc. That meant it was flexible. She didn’t even have limbs. Indeed, her left arm was so long it was uncanny. And, if she wanted to, she could change parts of her body on that side.
Including her eyes. She pulled off the staring, painted piece of wood, revealing the pink insides, and pasted another piece of bark in its place.
A painted eye glared at Ceria.
“The fuck you mean weird? We fight, I pillage. I’m the reason a raid comes back with more loot than normal. Hidden stashes, artifacts—I grab it all.”
“Right…but that means all your Skills are devoted to the one moment when you get everything. It’s just…really specialized. You know, like [Treasure Hunters]. I get it—but they appraise loot, find it, and have Skills to sell it. Sort of an odd distribution.”
“She’s got you there, Omusc. Tell her about your Skills—oof!”
Omusc’s arm shot out and punched someone in the stomach. Ceria blinked. She could extend her arms? It wasn’t lightning quick but…the [Pillager] glared around.
“It’s not a wasted class. Ever seen someone strip gold paint from the walls? I can steal everything. I can steal things that aren’t there!”
She pointed a finger at Ceria.
“You get on my bad side and I’ll steal everything you own after I kick the shit out of you—and your mother’s jewelry, no matter where she is!”
Ceria blinked at Omusc.
“My mother’s jewelry is mostly wood. Painted. Half-Elf jewelry sucks.”
The [Bandits] fell over each other laughing. Omusc strode around, swatting at them. She moved very fluidly, and Ceria suspected she wasn’t lying—[Pillager] was an advanced class. When she came back, more than a few were groaning and swearing at her.
“Omusc, you hit me again and I’ll stab you!”
One woman threatened, raising a dagger. Omusc turned her head.
“Yeah? Go ahead. I’ll let you have five.”
The [Bandit] glared, but she backed up and not just because her friends talked her down. Omusc turned back and eyed Ceria.
“Just so you know, the Siren wants me to keep you alive, but I’ll kick the hell out of you if you mock me again.”
“I’m not mocking you.”
Ceria saw the woman narrow her one real eye. Ceria leaned on her chin, fascinated.
“I know a Drowned Man…but you’re nothing like him.”
“Great. Another expert on Drowned People. You know one, you know ‘em all, huh?”
Omusc rolled her eyes. Ceria felt this was somewhat inaccurate.
“No—I just meant—”
Someone took a swing at Omusc from behind. Without moving her head, the woman twisted her mollusc arm back behind her back, blocked the blow at an angle that would have snapped Ceria’s bones if she tried that, and punched.
Molluscs apparently had eyes in the back of their heads. Or something. Also, Omusc was apparently as tough as nails.
“I’m a Drowned Woman Mollusc. Not sure exactly which one it is—don’t know, don’t care. I know what I can do. I’ve survived more fights because of that than anything else. Like the other half of my body or does it make you sick?”
“My best friend’s got morphing silver arms.”
Omusc glanced at her.
“Huh. Sounds nice. Horns of Hammerad, right?”
“Does everyone know who I am?”
The [Enforcement Raider] laughed with great amusement.
“Didn’t you know? You were on every scrying orb in the world a while ago! Just for a moment—and we didn’t see you lot, but ‘course we know!”
“Really? We were on the scrying orb?”
A delighted look passed over Ceria’s face briefly. Omusc snorted.
“You had no idea? Truly?”
“No! We were fighting—and then I was in this village in the middle of nowhere—wait. If you know that—did anyone die? The Halfseekers—Griffon Hunt—”
Suddenly, Ceria had a thousand questions and she realized she was in a bandit-held city. But still a city. She turned to Omusc and the [Pillager] raised her hands.
“I’m not a [Mage]. Like I said, I’m your guard—”
“Do you know how I can find out? Is there a Mage’s Guild or…?”
Half the [Bandits] fell over each other laughing again. Even Omusc grinned.
“Is there a Mage’s Guild. What, do half the cities in Izril not have one?”
The [Enforcement Raider] leaned over.
“We’re civilized bandits. For instance, we use cutlery.”
She looked pointedly at the finger-food Ceria had been eating. Someone else handed Ceria a napkin. She looked at Omusc, who seemed more amused, and that was how her strange stay in Runsblud began.
“Hey, we’ve got the Siren’s guest here! Service!”
Omusc led Ceria to a Mage’s Guild that looked like any other. It was fairly well-swept, although the influx of visitors kept it a bit dirty and wet from the harbor, but it was hardly overflowing with rats, and there was even a [Receptionist] at the counter. Everything was the same—until a mage emerged from the back.
“Yeah? Well, why doesn’t the Siren cast her bloody spells herself? Forgotten how to do [Message]?”
He was smoking a huge blunt of dreamleaf, but aside from that, he didn’t have any notab—
The [Mage] poured himself a glass of low-quality wine, and offered one to Omusc. She took a swig.
“Gah. Dead gods, you drink that stuff?”
“Look at you fancy palace-lot. Most of the customers don’t even get wine—or special deals. Is this your fancy guest? Alright, let’s deal with whatever she has. Who am I sending to?”
The [Mage] sneered at Ceria. If anything, the [Bandits], [Pirates], [Raiders], and honest sailors seemed to regard Ceria’s clean robes as something of a provocation.
“She’s a Gold-rank adventurer.”
Omusc said it with no lack of irony. The [Mage] snorted, eying Ceria.
“One who can’t cast [Message]?”
“I can cast [Message]. I just don’t have the range—”
“A Gold-rank [Mage] who can’t cross-continent [Message]. Tsk, tsk.”
Some of the others in line were enjoying the show. Ceria looked around. So this was how it was? She sighed and lifted a cup of wine to her lips.
“Fine. I get it. Can I just get some help or what?”
The [Mage] and Omusc eyed her. Ceria gulped the wine down.
“…What? Tree rot, this is bad stuff.”
The [Mage]’s lips quirked. He took the blunt out of his mouth, fished in his pocket, and offered Omusc and Ceria something.
“Want a puff? Special for the Siren’s friends.”
Omusc waved away the Dreamleaf rollup.
Ceria lit the tip, took a puff, and went cross eyed.
“Wait. This is way stronger than Palt’s stuff. You drink and smoke Dreamleaf?”
“It’s…an acquired taste. And you’re clearly a [Mage] of culture.”
The Savereian [Mage] blinked at Ceria. She snorted in derisive amusement.
“It’s not my hobby, but I was in Wistram.”
“Aaaaah. They still throw massive parties over there? I hear about them sometimes. Ordering ten pounds of Dreamleaf and lighting it up in a single room?”
“…Sounds about right. I never went to them myself, but—”
Omusc stared at Ceria as she began swapping stories with the [Mage] about the things Wistram [Mages] got up to. Which, yes, in a subsection of their student and adult population, included ingesting any number of illicit substances through any orifice possible and a few that weren’t.
Omusc leaned over and glared covertly with one eye at the figure lurking in line. Are you sure she needs corrupting?
The most basic, overt plays were clearly not going to work, so they were abandoned and a deeper strategy employed. Meanwhile, any number of people entered the Mage’s Guild, mostly to see Ceria sitting at one of the tables as the [Mage] got to work.
“…No dead names from either Griffon Hunt or the Halfseekers. Confirmed. Here’s your recording of the battle. Just start playing it.”
He placed a crystal on the table. Ceria got to watch the actual battle as the world had seen it of the Village of the Dead, and Omusc got to watch her reaction to it.
“Dead gods! Ryoka! I forgot! She brought an entire army—is that Tyrion Veltras?”
Ceria exclaimed. Omusc leaned in as Ceria started swearing—she saw the teleporting undead trap, the way the undead began pressing the Gold-ranks.
“Where were you in all this?”
Ceria pointed at the Frostmarrow Behemoth going toe-to-toe with a Zombie Giant. She whistled as Omusc and the [Mage] both turned to stare at her.
“Wow. It looks a lot cooler like this. Is that Halrac kicking Ghouls off that roof? It is!”
She peered at Halrac’s rescue of adventurers on the rooftop. Things like that, or even how Prince Zenol had dramatically gone to fight the Liches, made Ceria fixate on the replay—and the mysterious eye in the sky that had assailed Ryoka.
She had just gotten to the part where the [Sword Legend] appeared when someone plonked down at the table.
“Ceria Springwalker. So you’re the Gold-rank that wiped out Crelers in the north.”
Ceria heard Omusc swear. She looked up and saw a [Pirate].
To be precise, a [Pirate] Gnoll. He had a bandanna tied around his head, and two swords at his side. He also had scars she could see under his fur, which was a typical chestnut brown—
Aside from the red dye. It was on his bandanna too, and the group that came swaggering in.
“Oi. This is the Siren’s guest. Heard about her?”
“All of Savere’s heard about her. The big half-Elf who everyone thought was dead. So this is the Siren’s new favorite pawful of spellcaster? I had to see her myself. I’m Gorry. [First Mate] of Plainsblood. Bloodtear Pirates.”
The Gnoll grinned with all his teeth. Ceria met his gaze as he held out a paw. Omusc glanced at the other [Pirates] as they strode over.
“Hope you’re not thinking of doing anything stupid, friend.”
She leaned on the edge of Gorry’s chair. He glanced up at her, completely unperturbed as the [Mage] in the back of the guild slowly closed the door to his work room.
“And if I was, clam-girl?”
Omusc grinned wide. Several of Savere’s [Bandits] waiting in line looked up and shifted slightly. The Bloodtear Pirates looked about, grinning wider if that were possible. Ceria remembered the Siren’s warning.
“Aren’t the Bloodtear Pirates guests of Savere?”
Gorry glanced at her.
“Sure we are. But there’s always time to throw down and the Siren doesn’t stop a good bloodbath every time.”
“She’ll stop it this time. This one’s a guest.”
“And am I doing anything other than shaking her hand, landgirl?”
The Gnoll and Drowned Woman stared at each other—until Ceria reached out and clasped Gorry’s paw.
“Alright, that’s enough. Gorry? Ceria. Nice to meet you.”
The [Pirate] swiveled back to Ceria, and she shook his hand with a strong grip. He grinned and returned the pressure, looking her up and down. He eyed her right hand, all-bone, and Ceria’s eyes.
“Ice magic, huh? You’ve got some nice scars.”
“Thanks? Can I help you or anything? Sorry, but I’m sort of in the middle of finding out what happened to all my friends.”
Ceria glanced over as the Bloodtear Pirates approached. They stood around Omusc, who glared about, and Gorry leaned back. He reached for something.
“We’ll leave you be, although our [Captain] says he wants to speak with you, Miss Ceria. Not every day you meet a Gold-rank on the news. But before that…”
Ceria watched his paws as they slowly drew something out of his belt pouch. He slowly put a white cardboard square on the table, then found one of the quills and inkpots at the table.
“…I’ll take an autograph. Want to tell us about killing Crelers? Now there’s something sea and land respect. We’ll buy you your weight in wine if you tell us what you saw in that village, eh?”
He grinned at her. Ceria blinked at him and Omusc sighed. Then she remembered.
Bloodtear Pirates. Famous for slaughtering opponents. Merciless fighters…who had also personally escorted the Waterbear after her delivery through the magical hurricane. They loved a display of courage. Crazy madpeople of the sea, even for [Pirates].
She smiled and shrugged.
“I’m willing to talk. Are you staying in port for a day or two?”
The [Pirate] glanced up at Omusc, whose one-eyed glare made him grin even wider. He gave Ceria a speculative glance.
“For a day or two, why not?”
Then the [Mage] came bustling out of the doors. Ceria Springwalker half-stood as he spoke.
“I don’t have the spells for [Communication]—but one of your friends wants a [Message] spell. They’re paying. You free to talk, or are you shanking each other?”
He eyed the Bloodtear Pirates, who turned as Ceria rose.
The [Mage] gave the orb a glance, and Ceria the same look as the others.
“Says he’s Halrac Everam. He wants to know if you’re alive.”
—And then I woke up.
Halrac Everam stared at the glowing words on the [Message] scroll. He heard not a sound, including the thoughts in his head. At last, someone breathed hard into one ear.
He shoved her away, but the [Shield Maiden] was leaning on his shoulder. Typhenous kept elbowing other adventurers out of the way; most were still with them. Fighting like cats, dogs, and Crelers over the treasure.
“What’s she saying? Let me see. Is it that half-Elf? I’m part of Arcsinger’s Bows, you know…”
A plaintive voice from the adventurers, who, regardless of rank, were jostling to see. Revi growled as she fought for a chair.
“Get off! This is my team’s—”
The chair snapped under the weight of about six adventurers and she went down, cursing. Typhenous’ chair was unmolested. Perhaps because the kindly old man kept poking people with the tip of a dagger whenever they tried. An unsheathed dagger.
“Is she really Ceria? This could be a scam. I hate to bring it up, but it is a classic…”
That came from one of the older adventurers. A senior [Wizard], who’d survived their trial by fire. Halrac nodded. The conversation moved fast—although he had to write legibly—it moved even faster when Revi took over. She and Typhenous had the best penmanship and literary natures of the team, and she was even teaching Cade (and his mother to some extent) his letters.
This is Halrac. Your words are coming to us in Renost. We all want to believe this is Ceria, but a teleportation scroll? Some final monster in the center of the Village of the Dead? All hard to believe. Can you prove you’re Ceria? This is not coming from her directly but from a [Mage]’s Guild.
“Damned good point, Halrac. Savere. Anyone know Savere well? I’ve heard it’s got more criminals than Scurrydel has rats. How can we tell if it’s the right Ceria?”
Levil of the Pithfire Hounds looked at Keima and Lamont.
“Eldertuin the Fortress might know. He’s a Named Rank and I heard him say he’d been to Chandrar. But…”
He had left. Not all the adventurers wanted to stay here and stake their claim on the treasure directly. He was arguably one of the ones who had a presence even without being there. He also had less interest in being lauded and the talk of every city they passed through, with free drinks and admiration galore. That was why they were moving so slowly towards Invrisil; the adventurers milked the attention for all they could get.
However, a second Named Adventurer seemed content to ride the wave of fame. When she approached, no one jostled her except her daughter, shooting everyone triumphant looks.
“I know Savere. Not personally, but the odds are she might be under some kind of duress. If it is Ceria Springwalker? I will be delighted, but we must be sure, I agree. Ask her…where she decided to place my team for maximum effect in the battle.”
Halrac Everam looked up into the eyes of that famed Named Adventurer. Elia Arcsinger herself. Revi quickly scribbled as Typhenous raised his eyebrows, carefully keeping his face away from Elia or her team. Halrac’s expression never changed from a block of wood. But his eyes were glued to the scroll.
Ceria, can you tell us where you deployed Arcsinger’s Bows during the battle? Not where they ended up, but your orders. Or anything else only the real Ceria would know? What did you tell my team?
A pause whilst everyone waited with baited breath.
Er, I said to Elia’s team to hang back and shoot the big monsters? Halrac…I don’t know. I told you to get on a roof? I can’t remember.
A groan from the adventurers. Briganda slowly put her head in her hands and Cade grabbed her arm worriedly.
“She’s such an idiot.”
“Anyone who saw the battle could tell you that! This has got to be a scam.”
Keima whispered. Halrac eyed the [Message] scroll. He muttered to Elia and Typhenous.
“…It sounds like Ceria.”
The old man’s eyes were dancing. He coughed and whispered to Revi. She blinked, and, after a moment, nodded.
Her next scrawl made everyone but Griffon Hunt blink.
Ceria, what is the favorite dish of Flesh Worms in The Wandering Inn? You have five seconds or you’re—
The response came before she was even done writing.
Halrac sat back with a sigh.
“It’s her. She’s alive.”
The Adventurer’s Guild was silent for a second as everyone looked at him, then they burst into cheers—and a renewed argument.
“Wait, does she get the Helm of Fire? Because we had to fight the Revenant—”
It started up again. Elia rose as Revi kept writing, glaring about. The question was…
Are you coming back? Do you need help of any kind?
Ceria Springwalker was dictating verbatim to the [Mage] on her side of the conversation. Albeit, in a private room…but Omusc was listening keenly, eyes on the scroll. And—Ceria turned her head and saw a Gnoll waving at her.
Gorry and the Bloodtear Pirates didn’t even pretend they weren’t listening in. She hesitated.
Um, no. We’re too far away right now. I plan on finding my team. You just tell the others I’m alright. I’m going to get them. This is our mess; we’ll sort it out. But tell the others we want the Helm of Fire. We’re ready to negotiate for it, but that’s the one we need.
The [Mage] snorted. He was auto-transcribing Ceria’s words via a spell, and was mainly just keeping the spell active as a quill skittered across the parchment. He looked at Ceria and grinned, showing some golden teeth.
“I’m sure that’s going to go down well. You have the biggest Relic-class artifact sitting there and you think you can walk on back and grab it?”
Ceria scratched her head. She feared that was the problem. Elia and Eldertuin—not to mention other Gold-rank teams—might well force the issue. She chose her words carefully.
“We did claim dibs, Mage Teic. One Relic—and we’ll make it up to the others. Not that I want to be bankrupted, but we have other artifacts. Even other Relic-class—oh shit.”
Omusc snapped, and the [Mage] looked down and snatched at the quill, but it was too late. Ceria saw him desperately swipe at the parchment, trying to cross out the words, but they had been written there, ink still gleaming.
We did claim dibs, Mage Teic. One Relic and we’ll make it up to the others. Not that I want to be bankrupted, but we have other artifacts. Even other Relic-class oh shit
Ceria didn’t see a response forming. Rather—she saw a huge blotch of ink appear on the [Message] scroll, and—she suspected—the wavy line of a hundred hands fighting for the quill at the same time.
“Well this [Message] scroll’s worth nothing. Dead gods damnit!”
Mage Teic threw up his hands, but he looked at Ceria. Omusc was cursing. Not from just Ceria’s idiocy—she was staring out the door at the suddenly very still [Pirates].
What a blunder. The Siren was going to kill her—after Ceria. She saw the half-Elf scratch her head as the [Pillager] whirled to tell Teic to cut the spell. But then she saw something.
Ceria Springwalker didn’t look like a mortified half-Elf. She smiled—and put a skeletal finger to her temple.
Typh. Tell Halrac I’m in dicey waters at Savere. But I’ll handle it. The Helm of Fire is for a trade to cure Erin. Hold onto it. We do have artifacts. If I find the others—they have more.
“What was that?”
Mage Teic snapped. His eyes flickered and he slapped a palm to his forehead, but he cursed.
“What? What did she do?”
Omusc strode back to stare at Ceria as the half-Elf lowered her hand.
“She sent a [Message]! I thought she couldn’t do that! I missed what she sent—damn—you said you couldn’t do it!”
Ceria blinked at the two. She shrugged.
“I can’t do it long-term. Not for a lot of [Messages]. Plus, I had no idea where to aim. Don’t worry. I just told them something private. No one’s stupid enough to come after Savere. We’re adventurers.”
Omusc’s jaw opened and closed. She saw Ceria raise her brows, innocently. Mage Teic glanced at the hubbub outside.
“Right, well, I’m getting money for the scroll from the Siren. If you’re done…I have some juicy gossip to sell.”
His eagerness to get Ceria and Omusc out of the guild wasn’t just due to him selling the news far and wide. There was a loud argument at the front desk.
“Hey! We want to send some [Messages] today! Why does someone get to cut the line?”
An angry group of people was demanding service, and the one other [Mage] on duty was overworked. Even in Savere, there were things that could not be tolerated.
“Sorry. Siren’s business. Cool your feathers.”
“Watch it, you.”
Ceria emerged from the back to see who was so angry. Not the Bloodtear Pirates—they were grinning fit to burst and Gorry clearly wanted to get her attention.
Rather, this was another distinctive group.
Garuda, with their traditional light armaments, although some had some enchanted armor—a [Raider] group to look at them. But these ones had a similar motif: all their beaks were dyed an ashen grey.
Omusc sighed. She lifted her hands.
“Siren’s business. You see that half-Elf? She’s the Siren’s guest. Cool off.”
The Bleakbeak Garuda glared at Ceria, but then they seemed to recognize her.
“That’s the Gold-ranker from Izril? Huh. And here I thought it was for some no-name idiot from one of the nearby kingdoms. Alright…hey, you. You’re Ceria Springwalker, aren’t you?”
“Does everyone know my name?”
Ceria was astonished. The Garuda glanced at his friends. Then he leaned over, trotting out of line with the others. They muttered—then grabbed some parchment.
“I hear it’s worth some gold. You wouldn’t mind tossing us a few gold coins, eh? Give us one of those, um…autographs.”
He grinned at her with his beak—right before a Gnoll calmly shoved him out of the way.
“Hey! Who wants to die?”
Gorry grinned at him.
“I’ve got dibs on an autograph, landfolk. And it’s a promise. Tonight, at the Hanging Bait—drinks on us?”
He looked at Ceria. She hesitated as the Garuda bristled. One went for a long dagger at his side, and the other stopped them.
“So? No one pushes us and—”
Gorry’s head turned as the [Pirates] behind him all instantly, and with huge grins, put their hands on their weapon hilts. The Bleakbeaks froze and counted; they were outnumbered by five.
“Break it up!”
Omusc’s shout made both groups turn to her. Fearlessly, the [Pillager] moved both groups back. She turned to face Gorry.
“The Ice Squirrel’s going nowhere. Siren’s orders.”
“Oh? Aren’t you confident.”
The Gnoll had a dangerous look in his eyes. Omusc folded her arms.
“‘Fraid so. Ceria’s got orders to meet with her.”
The Gnoll tilted his head left and right, clearly thinking on whether this was upsetting. Ceria forestalled him.
“How about tomorrow? Hanged Bait?”
He blinked at her, then grinned.
“Ah, there’s a willingness I like. Tomorrow.”
He watched with satisfaction as Ceria signed the autograph, and then took a piece of parchment and scrawled her name on it. The tense atmosphere defused, and Ceria saw Omusc breathe out, slowly. Ceria felt her own adrenaline stop coursing through her veins.
She’d seen adventurers getting into petty arguments before—but something about the way Mage Teic had been hiding behind a door and Omusc’s desperate orders and invoking the Siren’s authority told Ceria that it wouldn’t be just a fistfight. The Siren’s authority kept a delicate peace indeed.
“You’re damned lucky. You know that? The Bloodtear Pirates are insane. Clap you on the back and stab you in the eye the next second if you cross them wrong. Bleakbeaks? They’ll stab you too—you’re just lucky you’re not a Garuda.”
“Is there anyone who won’t stab me? How does the Siren keep the peace with so many factions?”
“By not having someone start sparks, for one. Second? She keeps them from causing havoc, stealing everything and running off. Mage’s Guild is off-limits. But if they decided to—there would be a hundred dead bodies in the street in the hour.”
The [Pillager] looked back at her.
“Runsblud’s not like any other city. Ever heard of Drowning Nights? No…hah.”
She exhaled, giving Ceria a look much like she was a Bronze-rank who’d never heard of Shield Spiders. The [Cryomancer] frowned.
“What’s that, a term for Savere?”
“A term. What am I, a [Scribe]? It’s the thing that every gang, and especially seafolk, know to watch for in gatherings like Savere. How do I say it so someone like you’ll understand? An adventurer…”
She stalked off, leading Ceria back towards the palace looming over the docks. Ceria walked after her.
“I’m not exactly a rookie world-wise, Omusc.”
The Drowned Woman hesitated.
“Guess not. You’re not exactly as upstanding as I thought. I thought you’d be some [Knight]-idiot. Terandrian adventurers are all like that.”
“That’s the Silver Swords. Not my team. Yvlon—my teammate—she’s sort of like that.”
The [Pillager] shouldered aside a group engrossed in a shell game. They turned to bicker with her, saw her glare, and decided they’d rather not.
She was some kind of authority, Ceria guessed. Omusc went on.
“Drowned Nights are…when people have too much to drink. One big gang—six it’s almost a given—and let’s say they’ve got blood rivalries going on. On that day, everyone closes their doors.”
She nodded to the wary [Shopkeepers], people doing rather mundane jobs like processing fish, carving furniture, and so on. Ceria frowned.
“…And that’s normal?”
“No, it’s not normal. It just happens. And with the Bloodtear Pirates, it’s more likely than ever. They must have paid a fortune for the Siren to let them in. If a Drowned Night happens, it’ll be a slaughter.”
“Do they attack civilians?”
If that were the case, Ceria thought the people here…wouldn’t be here. She’d known people to live in bad circumstances, but that seemed a cut too far. And sure enough, Omusc shook her head.
“No. If they went after people in homes, the Siren would ban them forever. Even Bloodtear isn’t that stupid. But it’s free game and anyone on the streets—”
She drew a line across her throat.
“—that’s when you level or die. And when groups sort things out.”
Ceria’s skin prickled.
“So Savere can turn into a bloodbath at any time?”
“And people like living like that?”
“Like it? You don’t have to join in. There are laws. If you’re not a gang, no one can just walk up and stab you. The other groups come here to trade, buy potions—they can’t anywhere else. They’re the ones in danger. Like you. You don’t seem to get that.”
Again, the Drowned Woman looked back at Ceria. The Gold-rank adventurer walked along, digesting that. She scratched at her head, looking speculatively at Omusc, and around the city.
“…I guess that’s why the Siren put me in your care. You must be a pretty good officer, right?”
Omusc nearly tripped. She caught herself, and glared back.
“I’m a [Pillager]. It’s my job to keep idiots in line and make sure the loot’s divided up. I guess that’s why I got saddled with you.”
Ceria smiled faintly.
“I bet that’s not your entire class. Or your only one. Were you born in Savere?”
“What is this, Archmage’s Questions? I’m from Savere. I’m minding you. That’s it.”
“Well, you know all about me. I don’t know anything about you.”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself, Ice Squirrel. I don’t care that much about you. You were on some big raid, you have a bug in your team…that’s what I’ve got. Oh, and you’re too stupid to keep your mouth shut about artifacts.”
“I have a [Necromancer] in my team too. We’re not bad pillagers ourselves either, you know. That wasn’t our first dungeon.”
“Really. You’re going to make me explain why you’re not even a tenth as good as a [Pillager]. You think adventurers steal something? I steal everything. You idiots leave traps, good metal, even bodies behind. Do you know how much Selphids pay for a good body? And that’s only the dead ones.”
Omusc tossed that barb out and watched it bounce off Ceria’s puffy cheeks. The half-Elf smiled at her, eyes lighting up with mischief.
“You might be right. But I hear someone steals the Siren’s doors.”
The Drowned Woman felt a tingle run down her back, the precursor to sweat.
“Yeah? So? That’s basic. Any Level 15 [Raider] could think of that.”
“Well…I stole a magic door with my team. A portal door. Worth a fortune—actually, I think it was the most valuable thing we took, all-told.”
Omusc came to a dead halt in the street. She looked back at Ceria.
It turned out that if there was anything to win Omusc’s respect in this world, the tale of Albez and taking the enchanted door was it. By the time they got to the palace, the [Pillager] was shaking her head.
“Why, you want to look for more treasure?”
“No…I want to find that exact spot you all went to, get down to that trap room, and pry all those insanity glyphs off the wall. I’d make a fortune.”
The [Pillager] was salivating at the prospect.
“Even one is a good trap that any [Merchant] would buy. You said there were hundreds in the room?”
“Maybe even thousands.”
“Dead gods. You land-brained idiots—that was the real treasure. Although I’ll give you credit—that’s a dangerous removal job. You want a professional, not some idiot with a dagger and a pickaxe. Stealing that door—that was smart. You might deserve Gold-rank after all.”
She gave Ceria a grudging look of approval. The half-Elf whistled to herself.
“It’s worth that much, is it?”
“Depends on the grade. Sounds like they’re good—I’d say you can get four hundred gold minimum per glyph.”
The Mollusc Drowned Woman was doing a rough calculation.
“Rechargeable, long-lasting magical glyphs of a Tier 4+ spell? Remember, this ain’t something some no-name Level 30 whipped up. This is a pre-civilization spell. From an older kingdom. That just multiplies the value. It turns out this Warmage Thresk was some big shot? Eight hundred, easy.”
She caught herself with a sigh.
“‘Course, they might all be burned or someone else looted them. I’d kill you over it if I thought there was a chance of me getting to Izril and this Albez. I guess that’s just a friendly advisor, yeah?”
She kicked along, regretting mentioning it to Ceria—there was something inoffensive about the half-Elf’s personality. Although it was true that Omusc wasn’t getting there. Ceria grinned.
“I could tell you where we were, roughly. Landmarks shift all the time, but we had a map and I remember the rough spot. If you want to run to Albez—my team’s in no hurry.”
“Don’t shit me.”
“I’m not. You want to know where?”
Omusc halted. She eyed Ceria up and down and then gave a grudging laugh.
“You’re not bad, Ice Squirrel. I’d have to, what, leave Savere, find a crew, get all the way to this place and get out while protecting my haul…”
She stared upwards.
“That would be the adventure of a lifetime. The kind of thing that sets you up for good. I’m no adventurer, but that’s tempting. Money like that, even if I had to give up half of it? I could retire on that.”
“And what would you do then?”
The [Cryomancer] saw Omusc frown, turn to glare at her.
“…None of your business. If this is you trying to bribe me to get on my good side, well…”
She glanced around as they entered into the Siren’s palace. She leaned over and whispered.
“…It won’t do you any good. The Siren’s the boss. No one beats her. Remember that. As long as you’re on her good side, all you have to worry about is people with a grudge who’ll risk her wrath.”
“Good thing I don’t have any of those, then.”
Ceria remarked blandly. The Drowned Woman gave her an odd look.
“You’ve got at least one.”
Ceria halted, blinking.
“No, you idiot. You think you didn’t make anyone mad when you came here and stole the Siren’s attention? Follow me—we’re almost late. I’ll meet you after the dinner thing. Not that you want to go out in Runsblud at night anyways, unless you’re looking for trouble.”
“What am I doing now?”
Ceria frowned around. Since she had woken up so late and gotten a lay of the port city and done her work at the Mage’s Guild, it was early evening. Omusc gave her a look.
“The Siren’s got a plan for you.”
Revine Zecrew watched as Ceria began to sweat. It beaded on her forehead, but only a bit—and it never rolled down her cheeks. It froze there.
The room was cold. Ceria’s aura was in full-force—which was the problem.
“Control yourself. Your aura is leaking. Focus it down. Did Illphres never teach you that?”
“She did—but it’s an aura—”
Ceria was panting as she tried to do as the Siren demanded. It was difficult—not least because she was working on something else simultaneously.
Fifteen candles were set around the room, burning, but not with any waxy deposits. They burned and would keep burning forever.
Everburning candles. It was Ceria’s job to extinguish them without a puff of air, just suppress the fire magic with an equivalent of ice magic.
It wasn’t something you could do on actual candles, mind you. Maybe it was possible to snap freeze fire, but this was a magical test. Ceria could easily extinguish one, even from afar.
Fifteen? Simultaneously? She had gotten six at a time.
Revine had to admit—the [Cryomancer] wasn’t bad. Even so, she sat on a rolling ball of water, circling the room.
“Illphres could do all fifteen with ease. This is the fundamental of how to chill a foe at range.”
“I thought you couldn’t directly…?”
“No, you can’t. So you freeze the air around them.”
Revine rolled her eyes, but she mitigated her temper. She came to a stop as Ceria turned her head.
“…This is the kind of thing Illphres would have told you if you were ready. How did you say that idiotic [Mage] told you to train? Cooling boiling water?”
“Yes. Is that wrong?”
Revine’s expression said it all.
“It’s suicidal. Why…why not just cool the boiling water without being in it? That achieves the exact same goal.”
“You don’t know Magus Grimalkin.”
The Siren shook her head. She sat back as Joam batted at one flame, hissing when he realized it was hot and, therefore, hurt.
“If you need pain to motivate you…you have no desire to improve as a [Mage]. Which might be the case, frankly. How many years since you left Illphres’ care? Even without a spellbook or mentor, you clearly stopped improving your magic fundamentals.”
She eyed the half-Elf and Ceria blushed. It was true. Even later on in Erin’s inn, she had fallen behind Pisces for lack of ambition. She did need the boiling water to force herself to improve.
“You can’t move [Ice Walls], they’re just simple geometric shapes. Your [Ice Spikes] aren’t bad, but you don’t do anything with them. You have no ability to use snow-spells, only solid ice. You have no grounding in trap runes, magical domains, or advanced cryomancy techniques.”
Revine was listing off Ceria’s many faults. Ceria bit her lip.
“…I thought my [Ice Spikes] were fine. Even Illphres said their form didn’t lack for much.”
She lifted a finger, and a jagged shard of ice appeared, roughly twice as long as her hand and almost as thick. A deadly, nasty projectile. Revine pursed her lips and waved her hand.
This was her personal practice room, and as such, the reinforced walls could weather most spells without a scratch. A glowing target appeared on the far wall.
“Hit that if you c—”
Ceria hit the center. Revine blinked at it. She narrowed the target, spun it left.
“Hm. Hit that one.”
Ceria pointed and hit the target dead-center. The Siren peered at her.
“…Now that’s interesting. Illphres was a markswoman too. Did she teach you how to do that?”
“First thing. I had to go out every morning…”
Revine clapped her hands, her face lighting up.
“…With the others and cast spells over the sea? She still does—did that?”
She stumbled, and a scowl appeared. But she had to see it to believe it. She led Ceria to a balcony and began making targets in the air out of illusion magic.
It took Ceria back. She aimed, loosed an [Ice Spike], and hit eighteen out of the twenty targets—even the ones hundreds of feet away. Revine was impressed.
“That’s almost as good as Illphres.”
“Well, that’s what I trained while being a Silver-rank. Lots of moving targets.”
The Siren nodded. Ceria wiped some of the icy sweat from her brow. She was surprised. Omusc had made it sound like the Siren intended something quite dire.
Instead—she was training Ceria in magic. They had begun by establishing where Ceria was, but the Siren had simply started teaching her after that. Spells were hard, but she could show Ceria one and have the half-Elf practice it. She even had a spellbook she loaned Ceria.
“Not bad. But Illphres could use [Ice Spear] and do the exact same. I doubt you have that control. Or advanced [Ice Spikes].”
“Advanced [Ice Spikes]? What, are they bigger? Faster?”
The Siren snorted. She conjured eight targets in an orb-pattern, with one in the center. Ceria watched as she created an [Ice Spike], as fast as Ceria could. The Siren pointed—and the [Ice Spike] flashed outwards.
She…missed the center target. Her aim was off by a hair, but it didn’t matter. As the [Ice Spike] flashed by the center orb, it detonated, spraying outwards.
Five of the orbs vanished. The Siren and Ceria stared at the three glowing orbs remaining. They winked out and Revine turned her head slowly.
Her look dared Ceria to say anything. The half-Elf coughed after a second.
“…I didn’t know you could do that.”
Revine replied after a moment.
“Ice magic is not my preference. Water magic is far simpler. I can create pressurized water jets—but that is the benefit of ice magic.”
She sat back, turning hurriedly towards the practice room.
“There are even variations on the ice you can create. Illphres’ was far stronger than yours. Lesser spells couldn’t even melt it, as you saw. You should develop your own ice.”
“Really? I had a thought—is there blood ice?”
“Yes. Blood, saltwater ice…it’s all varied. I can see I have much to teach you. I will consider the matter. You’ll come here each evening; I’m too busy to do more than an hour or two, and you are years behind. But if you make it worth my while and live up to Illphres’ name—”
Revine realized Ceria wasn’t with her. She turned back, scowling, and saw Ceria scratching at her head.
“It’s not that much harder…”
“[Shatterspray Ice Spike]? No, it’s just an effect. You can layer it onto other spells that harmonize. Not [Fireball], for instance; fire doesn’t work the same way. It is not that impressive. [Ice Spear] is still stronger in most cases.”
“Unless you’re tossing it around a corner. I bet you could even angle the way it explodes.”
Revine’s brows rose.
“Yes. You can do that. Illphres never understood that, but an adventurer…yes. I will teach you that, but on the list of spells you would benefit from, that’s not the highest. As I said, this is the work of years, and in the time you have…”
Ceria’s scratching stopped. Slowly, her finger rose and Revine saw her conjure an [Ice Spike]. The Siren snorted as Ceria aimed it out into the middle distance in the sky. She shot the [Ice Spike] forwards.
The Siren saw the [Ice Spike] explode into a cloud of icy particles. Sardonically, the woman applauded.
“Very well done. That is a complete unmaking of the spell. If you want to learn to diffuse enemy spells in midair—do that. Shattering is taking the power in the [Ice Spike] and directing it outwards.”
You idiot. The half-Elf ignored that last implication—in truth, Revine was impressed she’d even managed to undo her spell in the air. She indulged Ceria, watching the half-Elf’s eyes widen.
“Oh. Oh. A second spell. But can I re-cast at a distance?”
“You could layer both spells in a single cast if you knew how. A predetermined spell—even giving your projectiles a course to follow. That is quite complex, though. In the heat of battle?”
The Siren watched Ceria throw another shard of ice—this one twice as large as normal—out into the air. She saw Ceria jerk a finger.
“[Ice Spray]. [Ice—]”
Revine was about to insist Ceria give it up. She was bending down to tell Joam not to steal the Everburning Candles when she heard a crack. She looked up and saw a spray of shards shoot through the air.
Revine blinked. Her mouth opened in disbelief. She saw Ceria create another [Ice Spike], hurl it out, and saw it shatter, spraying out sideways.
“[Shatterspray Ice Spike].”
The Siren of Savere couldn’t believe it. She had just shown—and the half-Elf had picked it up from two tries? Was it her aura? Or just…
A mentor? Ceria turned, eyes sparkling with delight.
“I did it! I could do that to [Ice Wall], couldn’t I? Each [Ice Wall] becomes a weapon. You could create a maze of attacks!”
“…Yes. Yes. If your opponent doesn’t just blast through it. Well done.”
Revine murmured slowly. She stared at Ceria. This half-Elf was…
She really was Illphres’ apprentice.
The Siren of Savere was impressed by Ceria, and that wasn’t something either Ceria or Omusc took for granted. Ceria herself was astonished.
Omusc swore as a blinding sheet of snow particles laced with wind blew upwards. She batted at it and sneezed. The other diners in the huge feasting hall looked up and swore.
Tables of rather fine, polished wood sat under three grand candelabras hung over the interior of a room fit for any Terandrian dining hall. Only—there was more of a Chandrarian style to it; a huge rug, regularly cleaned by spells, had a wave-like pattern of colors to it, and the windows of the room even had tinted glass so light could stream through in multiple colors.
However, because this was Savere, these nods to decoration and actual ornamentation came with caveats; the candelabras were fanciful pieces of enchanted water, draped in the air like glass and colored so they looked golden if illuminated. Worth a ton, but if you tried to steal them, you’d get…water.
Similarly, the windows were glass unlike the ones the Siren didn’t have—mainly because they were so high up. Similarly, the tables were too large to steal—but the cutlery and plates were cheap porcelain and wood, such that the forces of Savere, staff, and anyone else eating here couldn’t walk off with anything worth more than a few copper coins.
Amused heads turned as they saw the Drowned Woman jump away from the spray of ice and water. Some curses came from people caught on the edges of it, but they were amused by the regular here. Omusc shook a hand at the half-Elf who tucked her wand away.
“Kraken’s tits, that’s cold!”
The other [Bandits] agreed, shouting insults as they had lunch. Ceria just grinned. That was one of four spells she’d learned—admittedly, this one was a Tier 1 spell, but one she could have used many times.
“Imagine trying to fight through that.”
“Go show Gorry. They like talking about fighting non-stop. I’m just—”
“My long-suffering bodyguard. Sure. Do you want to show me those hot baths later? I miss them. We have a lot in Liscor, you know.”
Omusc was wet and glaring, but the water faded from her clothing, running off it, and she felt as dry as a bone. She eyed Ceria and shrugged.
“Sure. Are you drinking with the Bloodtear Pirates again tonight?”
“You’re mad, you know. What do you do with them? We don’t fuck with their lot.”
The [Enforcement Raider] from Nerhs was named Abelesque. A very fancy name that was shortened to ‘Abel’, which she was touchy about. But Ceria did know it, and this group of women and Omusc were something like friends.
As were Gorry and the small group of Bloodtear Pirates from Plainsblood, the ship he served on.
“Mostly it’s just been stories. You know, I tell them about Liscor’s crypt, they tell me about fighting Crelers at sea.”
Half the [Bandits] shuddered at the thought. Omusc eyed Ceria.
“That would be a place to start.”
Mutual respect for each other. Not only was Gorry a [First Mate] on a Bloodtear ship, he was a [Dualblade Marauder]—which meant he had seen arguably more combat than even Ceria had. However, it was very amiable and Ceria had realized something. Savere might be lawless, dangerous, and all that stuff—but it had excellent drinks. Just spot on, and cheap too.
“I haven’t met their [Captain] yet. Apparently, it’s a Gnoll-crewed ship, by and large.”
“Well, I’m not joining you. I’ve seen Bloodtear fights.”
So had Ceria. They weren’t punches; they started with knives, and if the [Pirates] bickered, blood was spilled. They generally pulled their blows from an actual kill, but that meant you had someone leaning on a table, drinking a healing potion before they bled out.
Even so, Omusc, who had been there to mind Ceria, had to admit the half-Elf held her own. She barely blinked at any of it, and not only was the Siren making time each day to teach her, she seemed to be thriving in Savere.
…At least food-wise. She was packing in a shrimp-and-cheese pasta, and her nickname, ‘Ice Squirrel’, was spreading.
She was doing too well. And that thought didn’t come from just Omusc. Ceria scratched at the back of her neck.
“…Hey Omusc. Is someone staring at me?”
The [Pillager] glanced over and Ceria saw a Human woman balefully glaring at her. It wasn’t the first time Ceria had seen…
“You’re treading in the deeps, Adventurer. Watch yourself.”
The [Mage] stalked over, unable to keep herself contained any longer as the [Bandits] broke over lunch. Ceria turned and saw a woman with huge, dangling earrings, about seventeen years old perhaps, Human, with a shocking yellow robe.
Literally shocking. Shockwool, very finely graded and woven into a motif that combined watercloth with the wool to form Savere’s sigil on the arms and back. Where the two cloths met, you could see a line of sizzling electricity, permanently crackling together.
It was a look. Omusc edged away from it since sparks connected the robes to nearby bits of metal. Ceria slowly took another bite of shrimp and cheese pasta.
[Aeromancer]. Lightning mage. Or…lightning and water?
“Um. Hello? What am I doing, exactly? Who are you?”
“I’m Ureita. The Siren’s favorite [Mage]!”
The Human hissed at Ceria. She was definitely young. Ceria was put in mind of Erin’s Earther guests—but Ureita was from this world, and far more worldly at that. She looked confident—and angry.
“Ureita, leave off. Ceria’s—”
“Shut up, Omusc!”
The [Pillager] frowned at Ureita, but the [Mage]’s eyes sparked dangerously and the other [Bandits] edged back. She pointed at Ceria.
“You might be in the spotlight for now, but I’m warning you—stop hogging the Siren’s attention. She’s my mentor and I’m her best [Mage].”
“After the last one ran for it, sure—”
Abel ducked as Ureita pointed a finger and a shot of something flashed past her. She dove, swearing.
“It was a joke, Ureita! Leave off!”
Ceria’s eyes narrowed. Had she just seen…? It wasn’t a bolt of electricity; the shot was too well-aimed to zoom just past Abel’s ear for that. It was a jet of water, infused with electricity.
A combination elemental mage! Ceria was impressed. She stood up to hold out a hand.
“That’s pretty impressive magic. Are you from Wistram? Another academy? I’m not, uh, taking the Siren from—”
Ureita slapped Ceria’s hand down. She leaned in close and hissed at her.
“Don’t get in my way. Just leave—and nothing will happen. Revine’s mine. We’re lovers, understand?”
Ceria blinked. That was a lot to process, but only she’d heard it. Ureita turned and stalked out of the hall before Omusc or the other [Bandits] could take her to task. Ceria looked at Omusc and pointed at the [Mage].
“…That’s the one who doesn’t like me?”
The [Pillager] reached for a cup.
Ceria thought about this. She frowned. Something about the way Ureita had said that…Omusc sighed as she glanced out the window and heard shouts from outside.
“Sounds like another fight in the streets. More ships coming in. I hope the Bloodtear bastards leave. You sure you want to drink with them after the lessons? Squirrel? Ice Squirrel? Ceria?”
The half-Elf didn’t respond. She was thinking.
“We’ll have to cut this short. I have business later today. And no, I haven’t been able to muster more than one gang to free your friend, Pisces. They’ve got Djinni guards. At least your ant is staying put with that insolent woman.”
“His name’s Ksmvr. Why do you hate Nsiia?”
Revine glared at Ceria.
“I’m in no mood to debate this. I have ships coming in, the Bloodtear idiots have killed someone under my protection—and they’ll pay blood money for it or I’ll sink their entire fleet!”
Her voice boomed and Ceria saw the skies open up. Rain poured down in a sudden torrent—but not over the palace. It concentrated itself squarely over the docks, and the ships of the Bloodtear Pirates actually vanished from sight.
For a minute. Then the Siren sat back, panting, and Ceria saw figures picking themselves up, shaking fists and swearing up at the palace from the rails of their ships. Still…they looked wary.
The Siren was at her peak power around water and she could slice an Adult Creler in half with water alone. And Runsblud was a port city. You do the math.
“What do you want? We’ll see if you can handle some hydromancy spells along with the others.”
Revine snapped at Ceria. The half-Elf was wary of her temper, but she had to ask.
“Do you teach other [Mages] magic?”
“Only a few. I have [Mages] in my forces—what’s with the stupid questions? I don’t trust most enough to spend the time tutoring them. And you’re only here because you might be useful to me and Illphres was your teacher.”
Revine stalked into her practice rooms. She glared back at Ceria for reasons only partly under the half-Elf’s control.
“Tell Omusc I want to speak with her before you leave.”
“Uh—alright. I was just asking because—do you teach someone named Ureita magic?”
Revine glanced at Ceria.
“You’ve met Ureita? She’s my [Court Mage]…in a sense. She’s one of the best battlemages I’ve ever seen, especially so young. Did she pick a fight with you?”
A sudden, resigned expression crossed her face. Ceria hesitated.
“Not exactly. Er…I don’t know how to say this—”
“Spit it out.”
“She seemed to think I was hogging your attention. Which I am—given that you and she are lovers?”
Ceria delicately appended the question mark to the end of that statement like a butterfly landing on a flower. She saw the statement sink in on Revine much like Apista landing on anyone’s face.
The Siren of Savere’s expression changed from mild shock to a kind of subdued horror. She shuddered, then shouted.
“Ureita! What has that brat done—is she going around telling…? I will peel her fingernails off!”
She almost stormed out of the room, but halted as Ceria called out.
“So it’s not true?”
Revine whirled around. She stalked back and poked a finger at Ceria’s chest.
“Ureita was a girl when I took Savere and became the Siren. She grew up, and I did teach her magic because I saw her potential. She latched onto me, and she has ideas. Make no mistake. I regard her, if anything, like the daughter I never wanted and don’t have. She thinks—”
The Siren shuddered. Ceria winced, getting where she was coming from.
“She seemed, uh, rather taken with you.”
“She is a pest and I would have exiled her to another city if she wasn’t so good at her magic. She even combined her natural talents in lightning with my magic. She wants to be…Illphres.”
Or you. The Siren didn’t say that part.
“To link our magic. We might well be stronger for it, but I don’t trust her judgement or age. Ignore her. Servant. Find me Ureita.”
Ceria felt like she might have made things worse. Still…she left the Siren’s rooms after only an hour’s training, interrupted by the Siren interjecting to complain about her life. Omusc tapped her on the shoulder as she headed out.
“Give me a few minutes. Don’t leave.”
“I’ll wait and grab a snack.”
“Of course you will.”
Omusc sighed, squared her shoulders, and entered the Siren’s quarters as Ceria traded places with her. She was apprehensive—and the first thing she heard didn’t exactly make her feel better.
“Shut up! I am the Siren of Savere! If I hear you spreading lies about me—”
There was a brief argument—Omusc halted, her back to the door—then she saw another pair of women waiting for her. One was dressed in plain clothes—for her—and had been with the others at the table this morning. The other looked like an upstanding citizen—and both were very apprehensive.
Omusc heard a scream, heard the crack of magic, and saw Ureita for a second. The [Mage] waved her arms—right before a colossal hand made of water picked her up and threw her screaming over the balcony.
That wasn’t enough, incidentally. The Siren of Savere lifted her hands, and an orb of water as big as a house followed her down. The angry Bloodtear Pirates saw the orb strike the water, and the geyser of an explosion afterwards made them decide it was better to pay up blood money after all, steep as it was.
Omusc thought Ureita was probably alive. But that was no light spanking. One of her friends had to dive into the water to fish the unconscious [Mage] out of it.
The Siren watched long enough to see someone grab Ureita…and perhaps that was why she hadn’t drowned and floated. But her head turned, and Omusc and the two [Corruptors] were reminded of something as they stared at the docks where the old [Accountant] was still being pecked at.
This was not a boss you crossed lightly. She was not unfair…most of the time, but Omusc coughed.
“Er—we can come back later, Siren?”
She was slightly hopeful and her companions nodded. The Siren pointed a finger, advancing on them.
“You’re going to get to work, Omusc. I have a ship coming in and I don’t know who it is—go find out. But I want Ceria on our side. It’s been five days, and I don’t see any progress! You—go with her.”
She pointed at the [Agent of Corruption] in her [Bandit] garb. The woman nodded.
“Shut up. You’re part of the team working on Ceria.”
The last woman gulped. The Siren beckoned.
“You’re going to explain to me exactly how much progress you’ve made. If I don’t like what I hear, the next time I hear about a Creler nest, Manticore gang, or group of [Raiders] who won’t pay their dues, you’re going to lead the team that exterminates them.”
Revine leaned over.
“That’s Omusc’s punishment.”
The [Pillager] turned at the door. The [Corruptor] leaned back.
“And me, Siren?”
“If I don’t like what I hear right now, Omusc gets a new coworker. So think up something that will make me feel merciful.”
The woman blanched. Omusc and the [Agent] turned at the door and saw the desperate look cast their way. Omusc slowly closed the door. She heard a muffled shout.
“Get me that ship, Omusc!”
Ceria Springwalker sat with the Bloodtear Pirates and met the [Captain] of the Plainsblood.
A huge grin, filled with teeth. The male Gnoll had a strange weapon on his back. Ceria eyed it.
“What kind of spear is that?”
“Harpoon. Whale-killer. Ever fought one of them, Goldie?”
Captain Aldrail had a challenging look in his eyes as they drank at the Hanged Bait, one of the best pubs for this kind of thing in Savere. The Bloodtear Pirates weren’t the only people inside; it had a spatial component, which meant you could have literal hundreds. And the [Bartender] was made of strong stuff—he didn’t flinch, even at the angriest [Pirate] or [Bandit].
True, the grille of metal between him and his customers that he could pass a drink under helped. Even so, he was very careful to get anything the [Captain] wanted first.
Because Aldrail wasn’t alone. A Drowned Woman had come off the ships, and she was half-Jellyfish. Half her face looked melted, and she had a strange arm that was wet, glistening—and filled with venom.
Captain Jiupe was known as ‘Screamtouch Jiupe’, because if she touched you…
They were not fancy names. But two Bloodtear [Captains]? The other [Bandits], even ones like Omusc, jested, held their own—and didn’t provoke either [Captain] one iota. There was bravado against a regular Bloodtear Pirate, dangerous as it was, and this.
Jiupe looked up from talking with her second on shore.
“…all the way out there. No sport aside from a few damn raids, but they had to cut wide of the Iron Vanguard. Should we help them?”
“They didn’t get torn up, did they?”
“Then we’ll let them sit out there and find their way back. If they want us to sail off and help, they’d better have a good damned reason. I’m more interested in…”
She jerked her head to the half-Elf. She was watching to see what the [Cryomancer] would do in response to Aldrail’s attitude. Ceria Springwalker reached out…and took a huge handful of peanuts.
The Gnoll waited, but it wasn’t a ‘nope’ that suggested a challenge. It was just…no. And that was Ceria for you. Gorry laughed.
“See, Captain? You’re not going to get a fight out of her that easy!”
The Gnoll sighed.
“Damn. You’re as chill as your name, Ice Squirrel.”
He gave Ceria a hopeful look, but the [Cryomancer] just chortled.
“That’s what Omusc calls me. I don’t mind, but I’m not going to fight you.”
“Why not? Gold-rank’s too good for a duel? Or are you nervous?”
Ceria gave another Bloodtear Pirate a skeptical look. She pointed at Aldrail’s weapon.
“I make it a point never to duel anyone with a weapon as tall as I am. I’m an adventurer. I don’t pick fights if I don’t have to. I like to eat, drink—”
“Dead gods, are you going to eat all the nuts?”
Aldrail exploded as Ceria emptied two thirds of the bowl. She stopped.
“…It’s just nuts. I thought you killed whales.”
The table exploded with laughter; though, it wasn’t really a joke. The Bloodtear Pirates, including Aldrail, roared with laughter as Jiupe got up to introduce herself.
It wasn’t that Ceria wasn’t trying to make an effort—she was, a bit. But mostly, she was neither. Neither intimidated nor eager to please. Neither confrontational nor overly diplomatic.
She just…was fun.
“I’m Captain Jiupe of Blood-By-Tide. You’re Crelerbane, eh? Put it there. From one to another.”
The half-Elf eyed the dangerous jelly-hand as Aldrail leaned back, swearing as his fur nearly tickled Jiupe’s skin. The Drowned Woman grinned mockingly—then swore.
Ceria reached out and shook her hand.
The skeletal hand waggled its fingers and Jiupe laughed in delight. She slapped Ceria on the back with her other hand.
“This half-Elf I like! Gorry, you did right by finding her. Get me a round and you’ll tell me how you killed that Creler! Then the village—”
“You know any Gnolls? Been a while since I was home. Would have gone to the Meeting of Tribes if they wouldn’t string me up.”
“Really? You miss home? Well…the only Gnolls I know are Silverfang. Ever heard of them?”
“Uh…silver. That’s all I’ve got. I forgot you were around Liscor.”
Gorry was hopping with impatience. He leaned over.
“Captain. Wait’ll you hear she says they have a white Gnoll at the inn where she stays. Only, she’s under protection.”
Aldrail’s brows shot up.
“A white Gnoll on land? And the tribes haven’t axed her? There’s a proper recruit.”
Some of the other Gnolls looked askance at the very idea, but Jiupe recalled something about that and leaned over, even more intrigued. Ceria raised her brows.
“We have a lot to talk about. She’s only a kid, but…”
“I can see this is good stew right here. Hey! Drinks, you slow bastard! Get me a Krakenblood shot!”
The others laughed as Jiupe shouted for the famous rum. Ceria rose to her feet.
“And more peanuts! You’re paying, right?”
She turned to Jiupe. Omusc watched with a resigned face as more Garuda waiting at the bar grumbled as the Bloodtear Pirates were served first. The Bleakbeaks were getting less respect, and a ship was coming in. And it was actually fun—which was the problem.
The Siren of Savere stared out the window in her private domain. The top of the palace was hers, and this was a safe place.
Even so, Savere was not somewhere where she exercised complete, unquestioned control. If three Bloodtear [Captains] stood in close proximity to her…the Siren wouldn’t get into that situation without proper security, nor would they just try for her head.
But yes, some forces could push on her, so she did want Ceria on her side. Mostly because two [Mages] could play off each other’s powers.
Ceria could create Ice Elementals. When the Siren had heard that, she’d known. She wanted Ceria’s aid if it could be sequestered. She stared off into the distance. A storm was brewing at sea, but she could still see Runsblud’s own lighthouse by the shore, throwing a bright diffusion into the clouds.
She was tempted to turn it off.
“No ship lands at Savere without my permission. I’ll sink it myself if they can’t show me respect.”
“I think they were caught in some kind of magical disturbance, Siren. I am requesting details now.”
The Siren had one of her personal [Mages] doing that. The [Corruptor] gulped as the busy woman sorted through her work flow.
“…Who’s this ‘Omniscel’?”
“The [Enchanter] you wanted, Siren? He came from Illivere where he was staying—”
“Ah. Send him up instantly. Hm. Yes…where were we, Dascy?”
“T-the half-Elf, Siren?”
The [Corruptor] was known as Dascy. A name that might not be relevant or need remembering in about five seconds.
Especially if the Siren dropped her. She was hanging over the balcony—not over the water, but the sheer rocks below. A hand made of water was holding her there. Revine eyed her as she sipped from a cup of purified water.
“Yes. You were explaining why Ceria Springwalker is showing no signs of changing her attitudes and I was wondering if I should drop you or throw you.”
“S-Siren, please. We’re doing our best! You know we are!”
“Then explain why nothing’s working.”
“We’re [Corruptors], Siren. Not Roshal’s lot. We can’t…force people to do anything. You know our classes.”
“Well…we need something to latch onto. Most people, they’re hiding something. Like some [Magistrate]. He can act however he wants, but if he’s greedy, or favors one group over another—we can take that. Same with someone who acts high-and-mighty, but really loves the brothel.”
The [Mage] supplied helpfully. The Siren turned to glare and the [Mage] decided to continue communications elsewhere. She tapped a foot.
“Yes. You latch on, you offer them what they want, and they start to see it our way. I expected to have Ceria on a raid within the week.”
“She wouldn’t do it willingly, Siren. You’d have to threaten her, and hold the Nerhs people hostage—which is why we brought them.”
Dascy gulped. She did not like floating in the air like this, as the wind blew at her back.
“…And then she’ll push back. But you threaten her, and get her to slowly push at her values—we’ve done it before! [A Crack in Morality]. T-that’s my best Skill. And [See It My Way]. Omusc’s been putting Ceria in positions where she has to see our [Slaves]. She drinks with Bloodtear every night!”
“So why haven’t your Skills been working?”
“I don’t know, alright?”
The Siren recoiled slightly. Dascy snapped, at the end of her wits.
“I don’t know! She’s too laid back! She’s—she’s a glutton! She eats, sleeps, drinks—she’s selfish and she’s not pretentious! She acts like she wants to! Do you know how hard it is to tempt someone who does what they want?”
The Siren frowned. The door opened as she opened her mouth to reply.
“Omniscel the Enchanter has arrived! Forsooth, I have come from lands far—oh. Is this a bad time?”
An [Enchanter] with a magnificent white beard exploded into the room with hands raised. He had a glittering cloak of magic, and wands in both hands—the Drake spotted Dascy dangling in space and hesitated.
The Siren hesitated, because Omniscel, which was a Drake name, for a Drake…she stared at the huge, white beard hanging off his scaled chin. So did Dascy, despite the imminent threat of death.
“You’re my [Enchanter]?”
“Er. Yes. Omniscel the Omnipotent! Grand [Enchanter] specializing in artifacts! And I’m told you, oh great Siren, have a Relic-class object. Therefore, I…are you going to toss that woman? I’d like to step out if I may. I get queasy at the sight of death.”
The Drake eyed Dascy. The Siren hesitated, as nonplussed by him as he was by her. Slowly, the giant water hand pulled Dascy back. She hit the balcony, scrambled into the Siren’s rooms, and lay in a fetal position, hugging herself, as the Siren addressed the Drake.
“No. I have the circlet I want you to appraise right here. It may be cursed…I want you to tell me what it does, what it’s worth—and if you spill any secrets.”
“Please, Siren! I am a professional. Is that the circlet? Dead gods, you put it out there in the open? What if it opens a rift and swallows us whole?”
The Drake recoiled as he saw the circlet on the pedestal. Instantly, the Siren backed up.
“That could happen?”
“I’ve never seen it myself, no. But it could, in theory. Ah, but you have a Cortix Cube around it…that’s what I’d tell any [Mage] to use. So the chances of any curse activating are very slim, even if it’s possessed.”
The Siren relaxed and glared at Omniscel as he stroked his beard. [Mages]. They were either normal people—or people like him. He stalked around it.
“I think I can do a quick appraisal from the get-go here. We’ll need to transport it to a formal working environs to analyze later…I say, this is quite cleverly done.”
“I can transport it now.”
The Siren clearly wanted to get back to Dascy, but Omiscel waved his wand.
“I think I can do a rough appraisal right now, Siren. And I do want to check that moving it won’t trip a Tier 8 destructive spell.”
Put like that…the Siren backed off with Dascy to another part of the huge central room, where she could hiss at her.
“Fine. You have trouble with the half-Elf. But I demand results!”
“I know, Siren! There are six of us on her, but she’s…she’s tough! It’s like she’s some kind of honest [Knight]—or she’s just been through too much!”
The Siren chewed this over.
“You can’t corrupt a [Slaver] of Roshal.”
“That’s because they’re already too far gone. You can bribe them—we can do that, but she’s a Gold-rank, Siren. Rich. And that’s not the problem or else you wouldn’t need us to corrupt her to begin with. It’s finding the chink in her armor.”
The Siren frowned.
“She has to have one.”
“I know, but it’s like hitting a brick wall. Normally we get her mad, but [Slaves], insults…”
“Insult her team. Be more creative! She’s also as oblivious as her [Ice Wall] spells. Have Omusc take her to buy a [Slave] or something—she’s from Terandria. Maybe she just doesn’t care. This is not my job, so figure it out by the end of the week or I’ll start removing digits!”
Revine snapped. She was watching Omniscel edge around the circlet with grave misgivings. The circlet looked like something made of plain silver, incidentally, one smooth, perfect piece.
Although…maybe it was mithril? It was a beautiful pale material without ornamentation or anything else. Revine believed it looked like that as much as Dascy believed she could fly.
It was a Relic, she was sure. And so was Omniscel.
“It’s definitely powerful, Siren! It’s hiding it, but dead gods!”
She wasn’t certain this [Enchanter] was any good. For instance, he had a wand in both claws and he was waving both around like a child.
“Does that idiot actually know what he’s doing?”
She snapped at her [Communication Mage] as the woman hurried back. The [Mage] eyed Omniscel.
“He’s supposed to be a very good [Mage], Siren. One of the best in this region.”
“Well, he looks like an idiot. What news on the ship?”
The woman gulped and cast an eye out towards the storm at sea.
“We finally have a name, Siren. Details. Um—they’re fleeing pursuit. One ship. They claim their pursuers are getting lost in the storm, but they want shelter at Savere. They’ll pay more than just docking fees—it’s one of the Vessels.”
The Siren’s ears perked up, as did Dascy’s. A Vessel was simply one of the ships that had an individual or crew that merited notice. The Four Winds of Teral, the Bloodtear Pirates, the Illuminary—all counted. For good or ill, like the Velistrane, the well-reputed capital ship of the Reinharts.
A Vessel paid for docking at Savere because they always brought trouble.
“Sounds like a pain. Which ship, then?”
The woman licked her lips. The Siren focused on her because she saw the apprehension in her eyes. But before the [Mage] spoke, Omniscel shouted.
“Dead gods! Another layer unfolds! Was it made by the Elves?”
The Siren whirled around and saw the circlet had changed. Suddenly, it looked like the circlet that Ceria had seen. Black bone, with a single gem set at the top. Another illusion? Another—
The circlet flickered, and suddenly it was a high crown, with a gem set on every tooth. Omniscel saw all three women race over. The [Enchanter] turned as their eyes turned round. He stroked his beard.
“…Probably not. I don’t know. But look, I can make it change into different shapes, see?”
He smiled proudly. The Siren stared at him. Her own hand twitched toward her wand. The Drake hurriedly backed up around the pedestal.
“I’ll just get back to work, then. Don’t mind me. I like to hypothesize.”
The Siren stomped back to her corner. The [Mage] came over to whisper.
“Siren! This ship that wants entry…it’s calling itself Shifthold. And the [Captain] is…Irurx. Irurx the Alchemist.”
A chill went down Dascy’s back. The Siren compressed her lips into a line.
“He wants entry?”
“Yes, Siren. He’s willing to offer quite a lot.”
The Siren went to the balcony and drummed her fingers on the edge. Dascy exchanged a look with the [Mage]. Of the unsavory lots that Savere found at Runsblud…the Alchemist Irurx was a stain on Savere’s reputation.
“Tell him no.”
“But he’s offering two thousand gold—”
The [Mage] scuttled off. Omniscel frowned.
“Uncover your dark powers to me, dread circlet! I abjure you, by my name! Omniscel the Omniscient! They say Relics forged by Dragons have no master, but I…will…master…you!”
He threw up his wands. Dascy stared at him.
“Was it made by…?”
The Drake grinned at her.
“Possibly! Possibly, we can’t rule it out!”
Her face went slack and the Siren rubbed at her forehead. Her plan included tossing the [Enchanter], Dascy, and Shifthold into the ocean and burying them in the shoals if that damned ship dared approach. But they kept coming back.
“Siren, Alchemist Irurx is offering more. He’ll custom-make any ten potions—”
“No. Tell him if he approaches I will capsize his damned ship.”
She could see it now, on the edges of sight. A ship on the waves—a big one. Shifthold. There were places even the Siren did not want to go.
A’ctelios Salash. The deeps of Lailight Scintillation. Shifthold’s lower decks would be another one. But this was not a horror born of Chandrar, for once. If you wanted to lay blame…
This one was Terandria’s.
She stood there as lights began to flash around the room and an unearthly groan filled the air and the wails of the damned turned the air dark. The Siren turned her head.
“Enchanter Omniscel. If you keep casting illusion spells, I will murder you.”
The groaning and lights stopped, and the Drake sulkily got back to work. The [Mage] came back.
“Siren…a thousand potions if he docks. Medium-grade healing potions or more. He swears pursuit will not reach Savere—he only requests the ‘honor of residing at Savere’ while he recoups. He will even promise not to let his crew leave their ship, only himself.”
The Siren twitched.
“A thousand potions?”
She stared out at the ship slowed at sea. After a long moment, the Siren cursed.
“His crew never leaves their ship. He can leave, purchase, as long as he follows the rules of Savere. Tell him Bloodtear and Bleakbeaks are here.”
Revine leaned on the balcony. A ship came in with the storm and tides. Dark green wood mottled with strange moss and growths. Sails not made of cloth.
Shifthold came into port and the Siren shuddered slightly. But it was one visitor of many, and Savere had seen worse. She just thought of her project.
And, at last, Omusc saw something that even Ceria Springwalker could not ignore. For once, she didn’t cause it.
Not here. Not in the Hanged Bait pub; if the owner thought the Siren was playing games, he’d ban her crew, and that was no idle threat.
Nor would it have been easy to find volunteers, for any amount of gold. Not with Bloodtear surrounding Ceria. The [Agent of Corruption] had been sitting with her head in her hands, clearly unsure of how to further provoke anything from Ceria.
When it came, it was just…well, from them.
They’d watched the loud Bloodtear Pirates enjoying themselves with the half-Elf, served first, laughing loudly, and they had that problem where someone else enjoying themselves became a detriment to one’s own happiness.
The Bleakbeak Raiders watched as Ceria recounted the tale of the Village of the Dead, and ended on her companions, stranded across Chandrar.
“…Ksmvr’s alive, and so is Yvlon, and they’re not in bad straits. Yvlon’s in the gladiator rings and Ksmvr’s got a bounty on his head, but they can take care of each other. But my friend—Pisces. He’s in Roshal’s clutches.”
Ceria looked around as the Bloodtear Pirates listened. Gorry was grinning as she finished.
“The Siren’s not likely to let me go with my…possessions.”
“You mean what you took from the village.”
“Yeah. And I hear Roshal’s as dangerous as can be.”
“Dangerous as Krakens at sea, in their own way. You’d need a powerful force to steal from a Djinni.”
“Mhm. So…how much does Bloodtear charge for a raid?”
Both [Captains] looked at each other, then Aldrail and Jiupe burst into laughter. Omusc froze, but Jiupe grinned.
“I knew I liked you! Straight to the heart, eh? You think you can hire us?”
“Maybe? I don’t want all of Bloodtear…wouldn’t a single crew do?”
“Ah, but then Roshal holds a grudge on all of us. ‘Sides, it’s land. We fight best at sea. That’s interesting, though. Very…interesting.”
Jiupe sat back, brows raised. Aldrail grinned.
“I won’t lie, Ice Squirrel. We’re not keen to fight Roshal. How far gone is he?”
“Two and a half weeks. But I’ll get him back. I promise.”
That was when the mocking laughter started. The Garuda listening in called out from a table well away from the [Pirates] and Ceria, proving they’d been listening in. But the entire pub had; Ceria had to raise her voice to talk to her audience and she was the celebrity of the hour.
“From Roshal? Good luck, half-Elf. Gold-ranks have broken the same as everyone else. No one’s getting free from Lailight Scintillation.”
One of the Bleakbeak Raiders laughed at Ceria unkindly. She looked at the other Garuda, face blank as she reached for another handful of salted peanuts. That was it. Just a moment for mockery. The kind of unpleasantness that was the precursor to truly disliking someone.
The Bloodtear Pirates had gone quiet, eying Ceria as she sat there. The half-Elf slowly raised her cup.
“I’ll get him back. Even if I have to get to Lailight Scintillation.”
“Good luck with that. Izrilians. You have no idea what you’re up against.”
The Raider sneered back and went to her drink. Ceria frowned, and Jiupe nodded.
“She’s got a point. Hey, Roisere.”
She turned to one of her [Pirates], who was a big Dullahan woman wearing wood armor—but very tough wood—and standing around the group.
Roisere nodded. Omusc saw her walk over to the laughing Bleakbeak Raiders. The Garuda who’d talked looked up.
“Hey, what do y—hey!”
The Dullahan [Pirate] calmly grabbed the Bleakbeak Raider and towed her up. The other Raiders shot to their feet, warily. They saw the Duallahan woman draw back her head and headbutt the other Garuda straight in the face.
The [Raider]’s head snapped back with a cry. Ceria stirred. She saw Jiupe hold out a hand, and the other Bloodtear Pirates watched in dead silence.
The [Raider] went for a dagger. Then saw the head drawing back.
The second headbutt nearly knocked her out. Dizzy, she held there as the other raiders grabbed at the Dullahan.
“You bitch. Let her g—”
The head went back. Snapped forwards. And this time Omusc heard a crack. The Dullahan, Roisere, broke the other woman’s beak. She shook off blood running down from her forehead where she’d connected as the other Bleakbeak Raiders grabbed her in horror. Because her head was drawing back—
In dead silence, the bar listened to the fourth impact. Then saw the [Pirate] draw her head back. The other body wasn’t even moving.
That’s when the Bleakbeak Raiders drew steel. One went for a hatchet and, screaming, charged Roisere. Omusc saw a flash and crouched—she heard the terrible thud, and saw a pinned body on the floor.
By a harpoon.
“Dead gods. Dead gods. It’s a blood feud.”
The [Agent] whispered. The pub was evacuating. Slowly, Captain Aldrail rose. The Bleakbeak Raiders turned.
“You insane maniacs. This won’t stand! You—it was one taunt!”
“That’s our friend and guest. Bloodtear takes that from no one. It won’t stand? Get your gang.”
Jiupe rose, draining her cup. She looked around. There were more Bleakbeak Raiders in the pub, but they were shocked. They’d seen fast fights, but this? The Drowned Woman pointed at the Garuda who’d spoken.
“That one lives.”
Then she hurled the mug across the room. It didn’t break, but the face did. The [Pirates] charged, weapons drawn.
Omusc grabbed the [Agent] and threw her behind her. She backed up into a corner and drew her weapons of choice—sickle in the offhand, a strange weapon, and shortsword in the other. She waited, but the Bloodtear Pirates were after only Garuda.
It was fast. Omusc had seen them fight and they stacked up with the best of Savere’s warriors. [Pirates] were fewer in number than armies, but this lot—took no prisoners. Even when asked.
The [Bartender] was hiding behind the grille and the floor was wet. Omusc stared as the [Pirates] looked around, realized they had no foes left, and began grinning, grabbing drinks and heading back. Laughing.
“It’ll be blood alright. Someone run and tell the other ships we’re here for a Drowned Night!”
Omusc heard Gorry roar. She let the [Agent] run—it was only one person she wanted to see. And that person had risen, but not cast any spells in the brief surge of violence. She, like any experienced bar fighter, had put her back to something—in this case, the bar itself.
Ceria Springwalker stood there. Eyes searching the bar. The Bloodtear Pirates halted as she lowered her wand. Captain Jiupe’s eyes glittered and Aldrail had retrieved his bloody harpoon. He shook the blood off of it.
“No need to thank us, Ceria. The least we can do is shut up loudmouths, even if Roshal’s under negotiations.”
He grinned at her, watching her face. And that’s when Omusk remembered. The Siren had said—
Tell the guests. The Bloodtear Pirates watched Ceria’s expression. Waiting. They saw her look at Aldrail, the dead Garuda, the one who lay motionless, who started it all with the barest provocation.
Ceria scratched at her head.
“…I’m not paying you to fight them. And if you get us kicked out of this pub, I’m going to be upset.”
Slowly, she reached out, picked up a handful of peanuts, and began chewing on them. Aldrail blinked. Omusc stared. Ceria sat herself back down and peered around.
“Wait, I’ve got a spell for this. [Spray Wave].”
A little wave of water rose and swirled around her table and raced out the door, red with blood. Ceria sat back. She raised her brows.
“You can take the bodies.”
The Bloodtear Pirates looked at her, and then whooped and cheered. All except for Aldrail, who looked at Ceria thoughtfully. And Omusc. What was she doing?
At last the Siren knew. She turned as the breathless [Agent] made her report, away from watching the Shifthold dock.
“That’s it. That’s what she’s doing. It’s exactly what Illphres would do. Clever…stupid? Clever, at least.”
Dascy saw the Siren shake her head. She looked down at the Hanged Bait, cursing—it would be a Drowned Night soon enough if one or the other group didn’t leave. Revine could hear Garudas screaming in fury.
“She’s…stepping into her class. Her emotions. Her outrage. Everything. She’s freezing them.”
The [Corruptors] and [Communication Mage] stared at the Siren of Savere in astonishment.
“She can do that?”
“Of course she can. A [Cryomancer] can freeze anything! That’s why you have no purchase on her. She’s no fool. She has to know she’s in danger. But she’ll go through this ice-cold.”
She sounded almost admiring. Revine shook her head as Omniscel did a little dance, clapping his claws together. She glared at him and turned back to her people.
“We need to thaw her out. It’s not hard. She’s playing a game with her magic, but she can’t do it if there isn’t any magic or we counter it. We’ll—what are you doing?”
The Siren shouted. Omniscel had lifted the circlet out of the containment field and was inspecting it with his bare claws. Then—he ‘held’ it on the tips of his wands.
“Oho. Oho. I think I’m figuring it out. You see, I knew this was a Relic-class object, so I went backwards. Instead of finding out merely what enchantments it was, I looked up a list of powerful circlets—and I think—”
“Are you trying to get us all killed?”
The Drake gave the Siren an offended look. She would have strode over and slapped the circlet out of his grasp—if she wasn’t preparing to teleport to safety.
“It’s perfectly safe, Siren. I’m impressed by your precautions. It’s so clever what you’ve done, and besides—I am an expert.”
“The precautions only work if it’s in the cube!”
The Siren screeched. Omniscel nearly dropped the circlet.
“What? Oh sh—wait a second.”
He caught it with his wands, eyed it, then picked it up with one claw and turned it over and over.
“Hmm…ah good one. I make a few jokes, you make a few jokes. I like this working relationship.”
He stroked his beard with his other claw, and saw the Siren staring at him. Omniscel blinked at the circlet and the Siren.
“Wait. Are you joking? What’s going on here?”
Revine Zecrew was lost for words. She looked at the [Enchanter], at her other minions—at the circlet. She wanted to know that too. Then she’d kill him.
The Bloodtear Pirates had cottoned on to the same thing the Siren and Omusc had. They sat around her, having let the [Bouncers] take out the bodies. Alone—save for Omusc and a few other very brave souls.
But it was true. They had only killed the Bleakbeak Raiders. There was something so…casual, cavalier, even, about it. Ceria Springwalker glanced up, chewing on more peanuts.
“So just so I’m clear—why did you kill that poor Garuda?”
“We killed them for insulting you. Or did you like that idiot needling you about your teammate?”
“I didn’t. Honestly, no. But I wouldn’t have killed her over that.”
“That’s the difference between you and us. You don’t do things because there might be trouble. We’re Bloodtear. Free. No one insults our own. No laws, no mercy—except for people we like. And that doesn’t bother an adventurer?”
Ceria took a drink of her ale.
“Should it? I can tell you want it to, you know.”
She tapped the side of her head as Aldrail stirred. Omusc, who had joined their table, kept her face straight as possible, but Ceria just glanced at her.
“It’s, uh—not hard to tell. Honestly. Listen, I know you want a rise out of me, but what am I supposed to do?”
“Object to us killing people? Not that all adventurers’re like that, but you’re calm as can be. Huh.”
Jiupe glanced at one of the Bloodtear Pirates. Calm. Ice magic. She made a little sign.
Get me a [Dispeller].
Gorry watched as Aldrail grinned. Ceria, oblivious, kept speaking. She was scratching at her head, and Omusc feared she had lice. So did some of the other Gnolls, who backed up.
“Listen. Look at it like this. If I do object to [Slaves], you killing people—what am I going to do? Fight all of Bloodtear, Savere?”
“That’d be a stupid fight. So you’re not stupid. But let’s say you and I go for a long walk and I take a nap. You not going to object then?”
Aldrail watched Ceria’s face. She looked at him, and for the first time, a serious frown crossed her expression. She set her mug down, pushed herself back from the table, and spoke.
“…Have you ever fought a monster, Aldrail? A real monster?”
The Bloodtear Pirates looked at their [Captain]. Aldrail began grinning.
“From anyone else, I’d teach them a lesson. From you? I haven’t fought Crelers at sea personally. My crew? A few. But I have fought undead. Goblins. The worst monster I fought?”
He closed his eyes for a second.
“Rech o’ Hell.”
The others shuddered. Ceria’s ears perked up.
“Giant monster. Lives in the ocean. Around Rhir. Hell itself. Grabs everything and drags it down. Nearly took out an entire ship one time. I had to dive to kill it. Deep. Two hundred feet down, as it ate my crew.”
Omusc shuddered at the thought. Even Aldrail’s calm confidence turned to grim reflection at the memory, and the other Bloodtear Pirates sobered up.
“There’s a monster you don’t see often. Is that your monster, Ceria? Or can you do one more?”
Gorry refilled tankards. Ceria smiled thinly.
“Maybe. It’s not a bad monster. I don’t even know if I’d call it a monster.”
The Bloodtear Pirates looked at her. The [Cryomancer] spread her hands on the table.
“How’d you mean?”
Aldrail demanded angrily. Ceria shrugged.
“Well, it sounds nasty. I don’t want to fight it. But…it’s just a killing machine, isn’t it? Like Crelers. Adult Crelers…I’m fairly sure they think, but even they’re just things that live to kill. A monster…I’ve seen a few monsters. Monsters like what they do. They enjoy it. Skinner. That was a monster. Facestealer. Another monster. Same dungeon. They killed my friends and I was sure…they liked it.”
Her eyes rose, and those pale, snowy eyes fixed the group. Now the Bloodtear Pirates leaned in. These were the stories they had come for. The true tales.
“Did you kill them?”
“No. One died. The other’s out there. And it’s unbelievably tough. I…couldn’t kill them. But listen, Jiupe. Aldrail. There was one monster I was ready to kill. I nearly did. A monster who enjoyed doing the worst of things. He didn’t…kill nearly as many people as a Creler. He wasn’t as mindlessly violent. In fact, he thought he was doing the right thing. But I looked at him and he’d lost his mind. Lost his mind, his honor—he led the Raskghar, these monstrous people, to kill and sacrifice Gnolls.”
The Gnolls among the group shuddered. Gorry looked at Ceria and she continued, voice level, hands clenched.
“…That was Calruz. My old team captain. Captain of the Horns of Hammerad before I took over. I thought he was dead. When I found him—we defeated him, didn’t kill him. I was ready to. Because that was a monster.”
She looked up and met the eyes of the others.
“You understand? I don’t like what you do. [Slaves]? Killing people? That’s not me. But my team is out there and they need me. So…”
Someone edged into the room. Jiupe glanced up, pointed. A [Mage] grinned and began casting a spell. She froze as Ceria turned her head.
The half-Elf stared right at the [Dispeller]. Aldrail watched, and Jiupe tensed, but Ceria just exhaled.
The [Dispeller] hesitated, and Jiupe nodded. She murmured a spell. Ceria stared at the woman—then settled back. Her face didn’t change. She stared at Aldrail, and now the Bloodtear [Captain] looked at her, curiously.
“Did you think I’d blink?”
That was all the half-Elf said. She looked around.
“Honestly. Do you think I’m a Gold-rank because I haven’t seen terrible things? I’ve taken bad jobs. I try not to. I have regrets. I’ve left my friends to die and watched them die. I’m not going to fall for provocation. Because my team is out there.”
“So what are we? Monsters if we enjoy killing? I think we’re just free.”
Ceria looked at Jiupe, who looked genuinely curious. She shrugged.
“At the end of the day, maybe your crew is, Captain Jiupe. Laws are funny. Some are terrible, and my best friend does things that everyone else tells her she cannot do. I admire her for that. If you’re happy, and you’re living as much as you want…I’m an adventurer. Odds are I’ll die young, but it’s worth doing. Like finding my friends.”
She looked around. The Bloodtear Pirates murmured, and it sounded like admiration to Omusc. The [Pillager] just watched Ceria. The half-Elf brushed at her hair.
“So I’ll hire Bloodtear, do whatever the Siren asks, so long as I can get to my team. But here’s the thing. If I saw Pisces, Yvlon, or Ksmvr haul off and do what you did to that poor Garuda?”
She nodded to the stain on the floor. The memory. Ceria looked at the Dullahan [Pirate].
“I would have stopped them. I’d be shocked—I’d take them to task. If I saw them doing something like that…Ksmvr? Pisces? Something monstrous—or if someone tried to do that to my friend? Yes, you’d see me fight.”
Her eyes were cold. Gorry saw Captain Aldrail look at her, frowning.
“And what’s the difference between them and me, eh? Circumstance? Respect? Fear?”
Ceria shook her head.
“No. I’ll throw down with you if you got every [Pirate] in the world. Maybe not stupidly—the difference, Captain Aldrail?”
She lifted a tankard, smiling wryly.
“You’re not on my team.”
The Bloodtear Pirates sighed. Ah. There was an answer…Jiupe looked at Ceria, then she began to applaud. Gorry banged a mug on the table. They laughed.
“Now there’s something we can respect!”
Ceria Springwalker laughed. She raised her hand absently, cursed, and scratched at her head. Aldrail swore.
“I like you, Ice Squirrel, but if you have lice and it gets on my ship, I will keelhaul you. Much less me!”
The half-Elf sighed.
“No. Sorry. It’s just—I’m so itchy. Hold on…”
She absently raised her hand. Lifted something up, put it on the table, and gave her head a damn good scratch. Ceria put it back on, and saw the Bloodtear Pirates, Omusc, all go suddenly silent.
“It’s so clever, you see? I know it’s dangerous, but once I realized it was just a simulacrum, there was nothing to fear.”
Omniscel the Omniscient pointed at the circlet he was carelessly waving about. The Siren kept flinching every time it passed near her face, but then she stopped.
“A simulacrum. A copy. It’s not the real thing. But you knew…”
The Drake’s voice trailed off. The [Enchanter] looked at the copy in his hand. He spoke slowly, his eyes slowly rising to meet the Siren’s.
“It mimics other relics. Well, I suspect it can change forms with ease. The true nature is hard to divine, but I can tell you what it is.”
She said not a word. The [Enchanter] slowly placed the circlet down.
“At least in part. You see, I am good at my job. And I can cross-reference known enchantments to artifacts, more or less. And I’m sure I know at least two. The first—well, the first is bog-standard on any [Mage]’s gear. Although…”
“What is it?”
Omniscel lifted the circlet and breathed longingly.
“Intelligence. Mental acuity. The most powerful booster spell I’ve seen…worthy of an Archmage. No. An [Archmage].”
The other [Mage]’s eyes grew wide. The Siren saw Omniscel lift the circlet, but he placed it back down.
“Not that I would ever put it on my head. You are right, Siren. I’m sure there are other aspects that might be curses. Or enchantments. I will need to research this quite some time. But you’re lucky. I had a list of possible curses and—”
“Spit it out. What is it? She’s wearing it. She…she was wearing it all…”
The Siren recoiled from the circlet. Omniscel froze, and everyone turned to him. The Drake gulped.
“Well…the spell isn’t a curse depending on how you look at it. It’s just an enchantment. Freedom, actually. Freedom From…Morality.”
Ceria Springwalker slowly conjured a mirror made of ice. She looked into it. She saw a half-Elf with dirty blonde hair, a splatter of blood on her cheek, and pale frosty eyes. The tips of her ears waggled—and then she saw a thin circlet, sitting on her head. It shone with power now, now that she realized it was there. It had been so invisible, but of course—her mind connected the dots.
“Oh. I put it on after all.”
She blinked at the circlet, at her stunned audience, and then she smiled. She reached out and grabbed another handful of peanuts. Slowly, Ceria began to chew on them.
“That changes things, doesn’t it?”
Author’s Note: I’m flying out in like, 27 hours and I need to pack and I hate travelling.
Not flying. Flying’s okay once you’re strapped in. Everything about it sucks. Give me a broom, flying car…no, wait. I hate cars too.
I’m done for a bit. I’m off to see family and that’s very important, especially in light of all that’s happened these last years. But I will be back by the 30th! I hope you enjoy this chapter, which has nothing at all to do with anything interesting, but sometimes we need the salad life.
Not that Ceria knows anything about that. I will be back, but in the meantime, consider listening to Book 5! Buy those presents for Christmas if you celebrate it, and hopefully we’ll have some more story soon! Big things await, the comic especially.
See you in a bit!
Book 5’s Cover by JAD Illustrated, cover lettering by Shawn King!
JAD Illustrated: https://www.jadillustrated.com/
Stk Kreations: http://www.stkkreations.com/