There were many things that people affectionately liked to call ‘hell’, in this or any other world. Often, it was a rather subjective term that seemed to range from mildly-inconvenient to a genuinely nightmarish situation.
Rhir was an excellent example of how the term could apply, in geography, event, and the simply nightmarish array of monsters and enemies one might face there.
Compared to that, it was fairly difficult to come up with another, more suitable definition for ‘hell’. At least, in this world.
But the term and expression still applied. Hell was a concept. And, in a larger term, the hells that people suffered through might well be a commentary on what truly made a hell.
Or they were simply prone to exaggeration.
Either way, hell was Rhir. Hell was Crelers. Hell was devils and angels. Hell was a shard of glass under your big toe that would not come out, digging into your metaphorical soul.
Hell…and this was a broader term, was travel.
It was amazing, though. How quickly boredom could set in. Pisces had survived the worst humanity—no, any species could devise. He had seen a legend come to life, and had won his freedom against all odds.
And yet—boredom still crept in, even after all that. It was not that he lacked for things to do.
He had a magic spellbook predating or possibly refusing to bend to conventional spellcasting theories. His caravan of freed [Slaves] and [Bandits] needed constant minding, and, even with Merr the Storm now leading the group, Pisces, as the [Necromancer] with a majority of their strength, had to be vigilant.
He had a Skeleton Lord, the difficulty of navigating the Glass Straits, and more. And yet…he got bored.
He couldn’t help it. Yes, he reminded himself that he was a free man every other minute. He touched the scarred skin around his neck, where he had worn that hateful collar. He talked with Eloque, Bearig, and the others about the future, tried to make the little half-Elf boy, Rophir, smile.
However, that pernicious foe crept in. In truth, the problem was that boredom was largely tied to helplessness. Boredom was a disease born of a lack, and the lack?
Well, it snuck up on him when he put the spellbook down, mind practically exploding out of his skull with the agony of trying to process theorems, nay, ideas that he had never thought of before.
The magical book was incredible. Mainly because it revealed something to him. Where Pisces had thought he was talented—alright, a prodigy, so gifted even his abridged magical lessons were only an impedance—this revealed just how woefully ignorant he was.
It brought him to mind of other encounters like this. Pisces had met more incredible mages in his short time than most could dream of. Among them: the mysterious half-Elf on the road, and…Az’kerash.
There was a difference between the two. The Necromancer of Terandria was a genius beyond compare. A being whose very power could generate national conflict at the least, and raise armies.
He had all the magic Pisces could ever dream of. And yet…he was using magic as Pisces understood it. Even though the scope and complexity was beyond Pisces, the framework was understandable.
It was the half-Elf who had thoroughly trashed Pisces and Ceria with Tier 1 and 0 spells and his cryptic comments, combined with this spellbook, that was beginning to unearth some kind of revelation in Pisces’ mind.
Magic…the magic he practiced…was a shortcut. No—it wasn’t a shortcut, but it contained, somehow, a great deal of—of—
That was the only way he could explain it. It sounded ridiculous, but even the most basic spells seemed to contain a nuance and complexity he had never dreamed of.
For instance, this Unicorn Light Arrow function like a [Light Arrow] normally did, but Pisces was struggling to re-learn the spell because it was so difficult. So complex!
It was as if he had been cooking with a cookbook all his life that left out three out of every five ingredients and some of the preparation. And yet—if Pisces cast the spell, or cooked the food, he was still rewarded with the end result.
That was how he could explain it, if he had to, to a layperson.
Like Erin. Ah…Pisces closed his eyes and massaged his forehead as he rode at dusk, along the hard glass road, hearing quiet voices, the crunch of hooves on glass, and smelled the dry emptiness and cold that cut him despite the warm hood—
Erin. How had he gotten so far from his goal? He had tried everything he could. Right now—he had to survive.
So, magic. So, studying. Pisces memorized the spell, learning just how much went into such a simple spell. And he realized—you could theoretically customize such magic far, far beyond even what the most adaptive Skills and normal spells could. Perhaps…
Then his head would burn with agony, like someone was slapping it with a hammer, and Pisces would put down the spellbook and ride, trying to contain everything.
That was when boredom set in. Boredom and travel and…
Part of the issue was that Pisces had no one to talk to. The long caravan and desert winds along Zeikhal were such that unless you rode side-by-side and kept yourself on-track, you would have trouble keeping anything like a coherent conversation.
The other problem was that they left him alone. Pisces rode, often at the head or back in case of danger, and saw the freed [Slaves] he knew congregating in other parts of the caravan.
They sometimes looked at him, or rode ahead, backwards, fetching snacks, arguing, but Pisces felt excluded. On the second day since Merr had taken charge, he asked why over their regular stop.
“Pisces? We thought you were studying or casting your [Necromancy] spells.”
Eloque was plainly surprised. The Lizardwoman was letting Qshom work on her arm as she rode on one of the wagons. She eyed Pisces as he blinked and sniffed.
“Ah, well…I do most of the time. But I am hardly immune to the necessities of conversation.”
Bearig turned to Eloque for translation. She frowned at him.
“…I have no idea what that means. Are you angry or not?”
Pisces hesitated. Again, dissonance. Not bad, but most of the people he knew, from Ceria to Yvlon to Erin to Selys, would have figured out what that meant and taken him to task.
Eloque watched as Pisces’ ears slowly grew red. It was Qshom, the [Tailor], who looked up and hid a smile.
Someone roared with laughter in Pisces’ ears and he searched about.
“He got lonely! That’s what all those fancy words mean, or I’ll be a naked camel.”
Merr the Storm had spotted the gathering and rode in, head held high, voice commanding. She had fallen into the role of leader as naturally as she breathed, and Pisces had to admit she had been the right person to trust. Now that he knew he could trust her.
Merr was a [Bandit Lady], and so her style of command was as rough-and-ready as Pisces had ever seen. Not abusive…she tended to slap some sense into anyone giving her lip, but she was careful around the freed [Slaves].
Not so the [Raiders] and other outlaws she’d picked up somehow. They were on a short leash, and Merr suffered no challenges. However, this was her group.
This was Pisces’ group. The freed [Slaves] of Hrome and Igheriz.
“Lonely? Well, why didn’t you ride with us? Even Azam did, you know. He’d stride over and you’d know he wanted to talk.”
“Terandrians. Not a social body among them.”
Merr agreed with a wink at Bearig. The [Cook] said nothing as Rophir sat on his lap, face blank as always, but he gave Pisces a look.
Not mocking, not hostile or anything close. Just…wondering. Perhaps even happy.
Pisces was red, and not from sunburn. He cleared his throat.
“That is not how I would phrase my position, but I am happy to wile away the hours between studying. I can only devote myself to learning magic for so long each day.”
Eloque smiled and Merr grinned again, reaching out to slap Pisces on the shoulder. That was how they fought boredom. No—that was how they fought the dark thoughts. The memories that came creeping in, with any second, at any time.
Together, they talked. About what, it didn’t matter. They were here. And not all conversations were pointless either.
The first thing they talked about was their dreams. Each one had a dream. Yet it varied, depending on how long they had been in captivity.
“I must find my team. They are out there—I will rescue them, return to Izril, and tend to my friend. I hope…I hope we have not left it too long.”
Bearig and the others nodded, listening to Pisces talk. He had a story to tell, the story of adventure and daring. Yet…he didn’t belabor his point. It was a long journey ahead, and it gave him little comfort, imagining Ceria, Yvlon, or Ksmvr in situations similar to his. If he thought of it, he would not sleep, and imagining them in someone like Igheriz’s clutches…no. No.
Better to listen to someone else speak. Anyone, really, for they all had better dreams. Theirs bore no battles to come, just hope, hope liberated and set free to dare to think of better days.
“I hope to go home.”
Bearig looked around, his diminishing second chin moving as he spoke. He ladled the soup he’d been working on into bowls; it was a hot mix of mostly Yellats with fat, water, and spices, but it did the job, and a single bit of meat added something. A meal for hunger—somehow better because it was like this. Rophir had already scarfed down his portion, but Bearig fed him by spoon, carefully giving him some of his portion.
“Does home exist, Bearig? We were all [Slaves] taken from Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Home…I was a debtor. I could not even pay to keep myself free. Yet you were imprisoned, is that so?”
Qshom’s head turned to the [Cook] and Bearig hung his head.
“For nearly killing the [Magistrate], yes. But while that was my incompetence—I am glad it fell on my shoulders alone. My wife, my daughter—they weren’t harmed. I know it’s a fool’s dream, but I hope to come home. I know I am a [Slave] and it would mean me risking all. But I have this image, you see.”
He shrugged, gulping hard as he filled another bowl.
“…There I am. At the door to my house. I knock, and my wife opens it and she’s astonished to see me. She rushes me in and I find our daughter well, and I tell them what happens and we…we leave. We pack what we can, and we head out.”
“When I think too hard, I imagine how much they’d have to leave. They’d think I’m dead, or not likely to see them again, and I’d have to ask them to run with me, to risk enslavery and where would we go?”
For a second, no one spoke. Then Eloque raised her voice. Pisces had been opening and closing his mouth, but he saw her look his way, eyes shining by the stars and moonlight reflected onto the glass road.
“Izril. You go to Izril. Izril, and Liscor. Isn’t that right, Pisces?”
She looked at him and he nodded.
“I promise you, Bearig. You and anyone I can manage—my team and I will go there, and so shall you.”
The [Cook] sighed, long and hard.
“Now there is a proper dream. Izril, serving Gnolls and Drakes food—not seafood.”
Everyone chuckled. Bearig glanced at Rophir, then at Pisces.
“I know things may change, but if it did happen, if naught else came up, would you have room for two more…? Perhaps three or four, even, if more relatives were to join me? I have an ailing mother.”
The Stitch-man smiled and said no more. Next was Merr.
“I don’t know as I’d go to Izril yet. A [Bandit]’s a [Bandit] wherever you go, and I’ve heard Drakes are even keener on stringing us up than Stitch-folk. You can break a magic collar or steal the key…but few can walk away from the noose. Still, I plan on some payback to Roshal if possible, and, next time, my gang won’t fall to army or adventurer.”
She winked at Pisces, who raised his brows.
“You wish to continue, Merr? Even after…Roshal would be hunting you.”
The others went still, thinking of that unpleasant truth, but Merr’s eyes gleamed.
“I don’t take them lightly, Necrolad. But I’m a [Bandit Lady]. I have my own backup—they can try to grab me, but in Savere, even [Bounty Hunters] are prey, often as not.”
Eloque started laughing. She nearly fell off the wagon as she covered her mouth, then gave up. Pisces saw Merr wink, then go on.
“Aye, Savere. Not that it’s sunshine and roses, mind you. Did you wonder how I got a gang behind me so fast, Pisces? Or why I was starving for gold within days of being freed?”
Pisces recalled something after Merr’s first raids. He’d seen her taking a huge cut of the loot, and wondered where it had gone.
“I did…I assume the two are connected, then?”
Merr nodded seriously.
“I gifted the treasure via a Skill. That’s how a gang came to me. ‘Course, I took in two small lowland groups, but it wasn’t all my own talents. It’s a special Skill. You might’ve never heard of it, but we like to call them Yellat Skills. [Tribute to the Bandit Queen]—that’s it. Takes whatever I send straight to the Siren of Savere herself, the ruler of Savere. The [Bandit Queen].”
Pisces’ ears perked up.
“I’ve never heard of a Yellat Skill, Merr. What’s that about?”
The woman winked.
“Oh, that, Eloque? It’s just our term for it. Rare Skill. But it’s, ah…orange? I don’t know how to say it. Not exactly, but close. Not like a Bloody Skill at all. That’s red, like death. Yellat Skills pop up sometimes; tied to fame, or other things. The [Bandit Queen]—that’s all part of [Bandit Ladies] and [Bandit Lords] popping up. Without us, she doesn’t get to rule. With it—well. Let’s just say that Savere sometimes backs up a gang in need.”
“Not when you were taken.”
Merr’s face darkened, and Qshom ducked his head apologetically, but she waved it off.
“It’s worth, Qboy. I’m worth a bit to the Siren. I pay my dues, don’t cause trouble, but she wasn’t going to throw down with Nerrhavia over me. Or Roshal. Same with me getting out here and restarting my gang. I’ll need to be careful…”
“That. And Savere. When you’re in the downs, that’s when you’re at risk. But hey, I’m a [Bandit]. Qshom, you go next. Tell us about opening a new shop.”
Pisces rode closer as the Dullahan began his tale.
“Savere. I don’t know it too well, Merr. Is this Siren someone to be worried about? Might she be a possible ally?”
“Enemy? No. Ally? Also no. If we don’t fuck with her, she won’t bother us. Same thing—I wouldn’t say let’s bother her too much. A gang or two or a bit of favor is all I can curry unless I send her real artifacts and treasure.”
Pisces nodded dubiously.
“You suggested Savere might be dangerous for you?”
Merr seemed about ready to give him a comment with bravado, but she hesitated. She looked at Pisces, then sighed.
“I’m gonna say this once, and you didn’t hear it from me directly, Pisces. Merr the Storm’s the [Bandit Lady] that even Nerrhavia puts bounties on. She doesn’t take shit or crap or even camel dung from anyone. But…Savere is sometimes a refuge, sometimes a hideout, sometimes just a place to stop over. When Merr’s there, she doesn’t fuck with Savere or anyone in it, you understand?”
She tapped her chest, eyes serious.
“Merr’s Merr. Savere’s Savere and it gets dangerous. Not like Roshal, but Merr likes to keep her head on her shoulders, and there are powers there, got it? Now, Merr is going to stop talking about Savere—and she thinks she is stuck talking in third person. Damn.”
She coughed, and Pisces nodded. Something to be wary of indeed, if Merr phrased it like that. He mentally tabled the idea of using that to find a ship. Well, it depended on how fast they had to leave and where his team was at.
The fact was, they did have a good shot with Merr and Pisces. Better than having no Level 30+ people. But the reality of pursuit and their long trek weighed on Pisces. He hoped to reach a town or settlement and find some way to search for his team, but it might be a needle in a haystack. His fame among the [Slavers] gave him hope there might be clues.
He just didn’t know if he could move the caravan away from danger or leave them with his promise. Merr was training them all to fight, but they were far from becoming good fighters overnight. Watching Eloque try different weapons or Bearig trying to take his [Cook] knife-handling into using a butcher’s cleaver was…well, something.
So he rode and talked and found these people he knew so well: Eloque, of course, slowly removing the thread one stitch at a time, blinking around at everything, the Lizardwoman from Baleros, her neck frills opening and closing when she laughed, scales running from bright orange down to the shades closest—red and yellow and violet at the edges.
Next, Qshom, silent often, listening, reserved, skin darkened with the sun, often with his cloth armor body holding his head in his hands—or with a needle and thread in the other, mending some of the Stitch-folk’s bodies. But a keen intelligence, and when he spoke, he sounded almost academic.
Bearig, and, of course, Rophir were two constants. The big [Cook], often sweating or red-faced, was always looking for the blank half-Elf boy with scars and a stare as old as time. By contrast, Bearig smiled or laughed on the brighter side of everything, despite it all, and the Stitch-man lifted dark conversations up with good food or just his presence.
Last, at least among the living, was Merr the Storm. A [Bandit] to her core; she looked like she could have ridden out of a story in Izril, albeit having darker skin than many northern Izrilians. She was the [Bandit Leader] challenging the hero, with a grin on her face, spitting, swaggering around, referring to herself in third-person.
They were the ones Pisces knew. Of course, there was also Ivery…another odd skeleton. Pisces sighed when he saw Ivery marching about with his sword, shield, and magically bound glass rock. Was he completely unable to make normal undead?
There were far more [Bandits] and freed [Slaves], but Pisces was more passing with them, though he learned more names every day. Yet in the quiet moments, he did recall.
There had been Astotha, who had seemed—no, had been kind, caring, but ultimately too afraid, treacherous. Droppe, the cunning Lizardman who had chosen wrong after all, and Shein, the Bronze-rank who would never rise higher.
And…Cawe. Pisces forgot her least of all. He would have forgotten Riqre, Igheriz, and Hrome’s names gladly. Azam…Pisces wondered if he would see Azam again, or the Death of Chains. Czautha—he would never forget her either.
But Cawe. As the freed [Slaves] rode onwards over the Glass Straits, they talked about the future. They ate, gained strength and some saddle sores from riding instead of walking all the time, and breathed in fresh air. They had the luxury of becoming bored, but the future…
The first conversations began on the morning of the fourth day. Not of the future. Nor the past…no, not that. It was just as Bearig was discussing plans—well, he and the others were badgering Merr and she was patiently explaining their rough goals.
“Listen. I’m not some fancy [General], you lot. You want a route? Go ahead and make one, and I’ll toss it to the winds. Planning a route and sticking to it gets you caught, ‘specially if there’s some bastard snitch in the ranks. We’re going east towards Pisces’ friends and maybe Savere, or Nerrhavia, or something. And that’s all. We’ll play it by ear. There’s nothing as hard as catching someone who has no idea where they’re going. That’s [Bandit] cunning for ya.”
She tapped the side of her head. Eloque gave her a skeptical look, but Merr refused to discuss specifics.
“The Glass Straits run for a long while along the south here. We’ll keep going long as we can. There are some settlements…we might hit them.”
“So we’re going to attack other people and pillage them?”
Merr caught Qshom’s gaze. She shrugged and spat over the side of her horse’s back.
“Listen, Qshom. You don’t have to come along—in fact, I’ll probably leave anyone who can’t fight while we ride out. But this lot?”
She jerked a thumb at the [Bandits] and [Raiders].
“They won’t stick around without something every week or two at least. And we need them. Without good fighters and riders, this group’s never going to make it. Right, Pisces?”
She turned and Pisces glanced up. He was half-reading his spellbook. He nodded.
“It seems like an unfortunate necessity, Qshom. I will not object. However…I hope I can persuade you to keep casualties to a minimum?”
“We’re [Raiders], not butchers. Speaking of which—can you get me some undead? You mentioned skeleton horses. We’ll—I’ll take any if we end up with dead mounts, but, uh—three dozen Ghouls or even Zombies wouldn’t go amiss.”
Pisces rode straight for nearly twenty seconds, blinking at Merr. The [Bandit Lady] coughed.
“No? I’d do ten.”
He had indeed offered them to Merr, but her asking him for regular undead was a first. Merr grinned.
“Don’t tell me a fancy Level 30+ [Necromancer] can’t rustle up a few for me? Bodies’re hard, but we’ll have some soon—and the Glass Straits have more’n a few dead travellers. Zombie horse? It’ll tie up the fighters.”
“Ah—I could certainly do that. And you just want…average undead?”
“Sure, sure. I don’t want them munching on us, obviously, but you can just point the Ghouls and we’ll keep wide of them. I’ve done it before with [Necromancers] who couldn’t control ‘em. How many can you raise?”
“I don’t know. I have never…”
The others looked at him as Pisces just blinked, and they realized he was surprised. Surprised because, aside from the Horns, no one had counted his abilities as an asset.
Oh, he had run with cults and cabals as far back as Terandria, and then afterwards. But never so casually had anyone just asked for a handful of Zombies, like you’d ask for a bit of parsnip.
A difference in continents. Indeed, Eloque leaned over as Pisces began to ask what bodies Merr had and search the sands for any ‘materials’.
“Can I watch as you animate them? I’ve never seen you actually do it.”
He twisted in his saddle.
“You’re curious? None of you—necromancy is disturbing to most sensibilities where I come from.”
“It’s not pleasant. I will not watch. But Baleros has [Necromancers]. Some. We are well aware of the undead, and Suppression Companies must keep them down.”
Qshom shuddered, but Merr just grinned.
“A few rotting corpses isn’t the worst you’ll see, Pisces my lad. We’re not as soft as some Terandrians.”
Pisces began to smile.
“Ah, well then. I can certainly try with the bodies we have. Although, if you can procure more…”
“We’ll see. I don’t want to kill many people when we raid—that gets you a bounty fast. And it’s touchy on our side too, unless no one likes the bugger. Shame it’s got to be people.”
Pisces tapped a finger to his lips, looking amused.
“And why would that be a requirement?”
Merr eyed him.
“…You can do monsters?”
Pisces shrugged, sniffing slightly. Eloque pointed and grinned and Bearig hid a smile, and he hastily stopped with a glare. He covered his nose as he went on.
“…I have dabbled in arachnids. It is possible to animate most creatures with a skeleton or flesh. Believe me, it is possible. Whether or not I can do it effectively is another matter, but…”
He had a mentor who might be able to give him some pointers. Instantly, Merr whistled.
A few [Raiders] quickly rode over.
“Something up, boss? And we’re not idiots.”
One of the [Raiders] plaintively complained. He was from a gang that apparently went around the Glass Straits; he had a glass sword, made of sharpened detritus from the road, which was pretty much how rich this gang was. Merr gave him a long look.
“Fine. Yokels. Go and start hunting for anything with bones around here. Don’t kill anything, but find me dead carcasses of travellers—dead camels, people—and if there’s a graveyard, we’ll be doing some digging.”
“Aw. We have to pick up corpses? I don’t want—”
Merr rode over and two of the ragged [Raiders] tried to flee—but she swatted them as they cursed. She projected her voice around.
“I don’t want to hear it! Get me some corpses! And don’t slack, you lazy idiots—every dead body you find is an undead between you and an arrow! If Pisces can’t raise enough bodies, guess who gets to lead the charge?”
The [Bandits] looked at each other. Merr went on, speaking slowly and loudly.
“Undead mean we ride in while people are fighting them, steal everything, and get out without a scratch, got it?”
Oh. Eyes lit up at the idea, and the scouts moved off with considerably more enthusiasm than before, with a few people calling out suggestions for where to check. Merr rolled her eyes as she rode back.
“You do that quite well.”
Pisces commented to her. She winked at him.
“[Bandit Lady]. You have to talk to them and make them see why they’re doing crap they hate. That’s most of the job. So—what can I get? Ghouls?”
“You could get Draugr if I can figure out the spells. No more Skeleton Lords this month, I believe—”
Az’kerash had told Pisces it was a ritual thus far, which meant that he could not animate them as much as he wanted. Merr whistled at Draugr, though.
“Are you kidding? Those things can knock down gates. I’ll take one over a lot if you can make it. But I also need numbers. So Ghouls and Zombies—several dozen’d distract anyone.”
“That doesn’t seem arduous. A few high-level undead mixed with the others? I will see what the night’s count is. I can even animate them and move them with the group, assuming my mana pool can sustain them. Perhaps, ah, downwind and behind us. Nevertheless…”
He was rising to the challenge. To the idea that his [Necromancer] class would be the most useful thing here—and realizing that there was no law, people’s opinions to care about, or anything else here. To survive, he’d do whatever it took. He was smiling.
Until he saw Rophir’s face. The half-Elf boy was staring at Pisces. And the young man remembered what Riqre had done to his parents.
He abruptly fell silent. Merr glanced up from her calculations and hesitated. Eloque, Bearig, Qshom—all looked at Rophir. Pisces saw the half-Elf boy staring at him.
An [Assassin] in training. A killer, at least, that was what Riqre had tried to make of him. Pisces…he didn’t see Rophir look away or blink, but he had to. He turned his head away, to Merr.
The [Necromancer] nodded slowly. He cleared his throat, looked back.
“Monsters and, ah, mounts. Those would be the ones to animate. Perhaps a deceased traveller—the—the graveyards contain the loved ones of others. The same with those who might inadvertently die. I will animate the corpses of monsters if I can, and dead animals. Not people. Not in large numbers.”
Merr glanced at Rophir, and nodded.
“Sure. Bad example anyways, I guess. If those idiots think they’ll get more meatshields they might…yeah.”
Both glanced at the boy, but still, Rophir said and did nothing. He just stared at Pisces, and that was worst of all. He and Merr fell silent—until Bearig’s deep voice broke in.
Gently, very gently, the [Cook] reached forward. He was letting Rophir ride ahead of him, vaguely holding onto the reins. Now he took Rophir’s shoulder.
“So you see, Rophir? Only monsters and animals. And only because Pisces must. We may have to fight, but Pisces is doing his best to protect us. I know it is hard…but Pisces is not a bad man. You know that. He helped save us. If you wanted to say anything, Rophir, I am sure Pisces would talk with you willingly. He feels great sadness for you.”
“I—yes. Yes, Rophir. I would not want to make you uncomfortable.”
Pisces rasped after a second. His throat had gone dry. He coughed, watching the little boy. Bearig’s eyes rose to meet Pisces’, and he gently patted Rophir’s shoulder.
“Anything. Anything, Rophir—just say it. Or tell me and I will let Pisces know.”
The half-Elf boy never said a word. But after a second, he looked ahead. Pisces exhaled, and Merr gave Bearig a nod.
“You’re kind to him. Wish my fellow’d been half as good, but all he knew was this life.”
“Rophir is the bravest boy I’ve met.”
That was all Bearig said. He patted Rophir on the shoulder and fished out a bit of this morning’s flatbread. He offered it to Rophir and the boy munched on it. Bearig gazed at him as Rophir stared ahead with a look of such profound…Pisces felt the exact same way, yet it was Bearig he admired, because the man took care of the boy nonstop. Spoke gently, even when Rophir stole food or struck him in fits of anger.
It reminded Pisces of how Erin had talked about Mrsha when she first came to the inn. He closed his eyes.
Mrsha. He wanted, suddenly, for Rophir to go to the inn and perhaps meet her. To see Bearig experiencing all the strange dishes Erin made.
He was sick of this continent, though he had seen virtually none of it. He knew that, intellectually, but it contained Roshal and the likes of Riqre. It was therefore the worst place he could imagine. A hell.
And yet…it was their home. Merr and Bearig, Stitch-folk. Cawe’s too. What astonished Pisces was that they still loved it. They loved the land, their family, the cultures and peoples. However…Bearig looked at Rophir, then his head rose.
“…Do you think she knows?”
Everyone else turned to him. The [Cook] glanced around blankly, then clarified.
“Ah. Her Majesty, that is.”
Still, Pisces was blank. Bearig tried a third time.
“Queen Yisame of Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Do you think she knows…what Roshal does? What the likes of Igheriz, Leciaun—Riqre?”
Rophir twitched at the last name. Bearig looked guilty, but Eloque had sat up in her cart. Merr blinked long at him.
“Knows. Do you mean…about what do you mean, Bearig?”
Qshom seemed uncertain. The [Cook] struggled for words.
“I have always known [Slaves] exist. As a boy. But you see—I did not know anyone who was one…I have had them working for coin in my kitchens. Later, I knew a relative who could pay no debts and became one. A [Thief]—I was glad to see him caught. You see? I would tell a joke that I’d rather be a slave than fillet another fish this evening. I…I quite knew it. But I didn’t know.”
He looked around helplessly. Pisces met his gaze and Bearig shook his head.
“I knew it was a terrible fate. But better that than dying. A [Slave] earns their fate—they were defeated in battle, a debtor, a criminal—until I had a collar on my neck, it did not bother me in the same way. Now?”
He took a deep breath.
“Now? It has been a mere month—no, two, I suppose. For me. I have seen such things…I will never see someone in a collar again, nor—even if my bounty were lifted and I could walk around freely, without fear—I will never look at Roshal’s [Slavers] again.”
A shudder ran through those listening. Bearig looked anxiously at Rophir, but it seemed even the boy was listening. He took a deep breath.
“So. I dream of home, friends. But—when I think of it—does Her Majesty know? Not about [Slaves] but about…what it is truly like.”
No one said a thing. Pisces hesitated, and, eventually, Merr spat.
“If she does, what matter? She won’t take on Roshal; she’d lose out on far too much coin. ‘Sides which, she’s a ruler. We’re not people she’ll ever meet.”
“Yes, but, Merr…she is Her Majesty. She protects Nerrhavia’s Fallen. If she knew, surely—but then she doesn’t know. Or does she?”
Eloque glanced at Bearig.
“Do you truly believe that, Bearig? That Queen Yisame protects Nerrhavia’s Fallen?”
He squared his shoulders, a flash of indignation in his eyes.
“I’ve lived in Nerrhavia’s Fallen all my life, Eloque. It is a good nation, one I’m proud of. A nation of the String-Folk—and Queen Yisame’s a proud ruler for a man to have. Better than the King of Destruction, who abandoned his kingdom to ruin. Our cities are rich, our borders strong…and all is…well. It all seemed well, until they put me in chains. I never thought of Roshal.”
He stared down at his hands.
“She must not know, then. As much as I—perhaps more, but it must be that she has never seen the likes of Riqre. If she did?”
Pisces waited, but Bearig said nothing else. Pisces prompted him after a minute of silence.
The [Cook] looked up.
“If she did know…if she does. It has been two months. Weeks for you, Pisces. But I have seen—I shall never—”
He struggled for words. Qshom’s grip slowly tightened on his scissors until his knuckles were white. Eloque almost reached out for Rophir, but the boy was just glancing up. Bearig struggled, face contorting as Merr and Pisces rode alongside him.
“It will never be the same.”
That was all he said. They all nodded. Pisces set his eyes forwards and touched his bare neck. It would not be. And it would never be that again. Even if Roshal set every guard and bounty hunter on the world upon him—
He would never be chained again.
Someday, the Walled Cities would fall.
Not just them. The Drake cities and their proud monuments would crumble to ruin. Their inhabitants would flee or fight and die, screaming, their bodies ravaged and turned against their kind.
The Gnolls would perish, the great tribes of the world end, and the Waning World—or perhaps the next era—be their last. Perhaps it would take thousands of years, or tens of thousands. But they would die, adults, heroes, children…
It was nothing personal. No, truly, it wasn’t, in every sense of the phrase. He hadn’t even thought of it like that until now. When he had sworn to haunt the living, he had dedicated himself to the eradication of all life, and the hatred in his heart had continued beating even when his body fell long silent.
…But Az’kerash, Perril Chandler, had mostly meant Terandrian life at the time. He didn’t actually have a grudge against most other parts of the world. Oh, some private quibbles from life. The Lizardfolk of Baleros, for example, had made brutal war. But he had had friends…among Drakes and Gnolls.
He had done the Gnollish people a terrible injustice in a sense. Dealt them a blow beyond blows.
Az’kerash. Slayer of Kerash. That title…he had not welcomed that title when they first gave it to him. It had been a shame. A thing he had thought necessary—no—something he had done out of necessity, from the bonds made.
For his great friend.
So Az’kerash would one day overwhelm Izril under a tide of the undead, but it was not personal. He had severe distaste for some things, but it was his hatred of life itself that motivated him. He would rather tear down each Terandrian kingdom, starting with the hypocrisy of shining Calanfer…
Yet if he had a list, Az’kerash might well admit that he had sated some of his desire for vengeance against Terandria after a century of war. At the moment, if he had a Top 10 list—he would place Roshal on the top.
“Why not? It has always been thus. A cesspool…no. Cess would fain flee the depths they sink to.”
Why hadn’t it occurred to him? They would be mighty foes. Yet inevitable ones, given his ambitions. Az’kerash sat there, thinking of how even Archmage Chandler at the height of his power had not been able to eradicate Roshal, or drum up the support for it.
Perhaps if the Rhir war had ended in success…perhaps if he had lived without being cast down. Perhaps if—
At the moment, he thought of Roshal and regretted that he had concentrated so hard on Izril and Terandria. He had few agents there, and even less political power. The [Necromancer] studied the map.
It was going to be an arduous journey to escape Chandrar. Long, with countless perils due to Roshal’s wide reach.
Pisces Jealnet may have been freed, but he was far from any port, and weighed down by low-level people he had elected to protect. In any other situation, he might have been surely doomed, because Roshal had reacted to the Death of Chains’ raid by dispatching high-level [Slavers], and their most deadly [Slaves] to recapture those freed.
Level 40 [Mages] on flying carpets. Named Adventurers wearing collars. Brave and resourceful though he was, Pisces would have no chance if they concentrated on him, and no less than the Naga of Roshal was in pursuit.
However…they were going to have a bad time. Az’kerash calmly reached out to an object in front of him.
It was a small, perfectly round crystal ball hovering in midair. It looked like many scrying orbs. It was not. Most scrying orbs were clear, enchanted glass, a quartz if they were fancier.
They were generally not made of literal blood diamond, glowing with the ominous light that seemed wet, like the rare crimson moons. Their colors did not run and drip as they reflected Pisces—then a startled, straining, sweating face of a Garuda [Mage].
“Something is interfering with the scrying spell, Master!”
“Abort the spell! Cut the connection, damn you! Cut th—”
Az’kerash saw a hand striking down, holding what might have been a riding crop or something similar. He put his hand on the orb. It shone.
The screaming started before he cut the spell. He didn’t need to see the rest. Az’kerash sat back, and the dead orb floated away.
“Next. Ijvani. Bring me that scepter.”
The [Skeleton Mage] scuttled forwards with a staff that screamed faintly as something crawled around the inside. She watched with delight as Az’kerash lifted it in one hand.
Roshal was indeed mighty. It had vast reservoirs of artifacts, and had hoarded its strength. Well…it could join the club. And a nation’s might was not the same as an individual of his level.
The Necromancer could keep Pisces free of [Scrying] spells, as Roshal was learning. Direct aid…that was more difficult.
He eyed his own [Eye of Clairvoyance] spell, frowning down at Pisces.
“At least one raiding group. Low-level [Raiders] and [Brigands]. A [Bandit Lady]…”
Hardly ideal. The Necromancer drummed his fingers on the table.
“Ijvani, go check on the [Message] scroll. Has Fetohep of Khelt replied?”
“Then…send another missive to Savere under the same identity. Emira Se-Hexri. Are there no [Mercenaries] in the entire region?”
Frustrated, he swept his hand across the orb. Ijvani hesitated.
“Ijvani, I am at work. What is it?”
“Master, I sent a [Message] twelve minutes ago. I can send another, but the [Mage] said…”
Az’kerash glanced up. He sat back, frowning. His black eyes flickered and he shook his head.
“Ah. Of course. In that case, hold off, Ijvani. I shall…”
He stared darkly at the scrying orb. The Necromancer tapped his fingers together.
“He is approaching a trading settlement. If he were to raise a horde…”
But would he? Perril Chandler observed Pisces. He hesitated, finger on his temple, nearly about to send a message…
To the Gold-rank adventurer. Az’kerash lowered his finger. Made a fist. Grimaced, though he was not consciously aware of doing any of these things.
“The others. If but one linked up—not the Antinium. The half-Elf. Yes. But the impetus for her learning would be…”
He hesitated. His mind scrambled over a number of scenarios. Highly difficult. Did he sacrifice the Emira? That was no issue except if the attention it garnered—arguably, Savere was more dangerous. A million gold bounty—which he could pay the Siren, but from which source? What was Fetohep of Khelt, damn…that esteemed ruler…doing?
Archmage Chandler was just about to settle on a plan that went through the Horns of Hammerad’s allies when someone interrupted him. He looked up and someone spoke.
“You are late. You must continue spellcasting or we will be in danger of failure. Or worse.”
Belavierr stood there. She regarded his setup with calm interest. Az’kerash got to his feet. He frowned about and conjured a magical timekeeper.
“I had lost track of the time, Witch Belavierr.”
“Yes. You must join me. Now.”
The Necromancer hesitated. He peered back at Pisces’ orb.
“I have a pressing—”
“I would prefer not to perish.”
Belavierr’s tone rose slightly, and that was so extraordinary that the Necromancer realized—he checked the timekeeper again and was halfway towards the door.
“I have an affair I must tend to.”
“Then choose between failure or that. Our pact will not extend to a second attempt.”
The Witch’s tone was warning. The Necromancer saw her glance ahead, and he focused on the present. Magic was twisting…he stopped walking and raised a hand to teleport in.
“I understand. I will focus my efforts there.”
“Good. I will leave with my daughter until you succeed. I shall return if the castle remains.”
Belavierr eyed Az’kerash. The Necromancer cursed. He cast one glance back—then vanished. Belavierr looked back towards the room where Ijvani appeared. The skeleton stared at the [Witch]. The Witch stared back and the skeleton slowly retreated back into the room.
The undead called Maviola appeared. Belavierr turned and smiled. The…[Lady]…looked at where Az’kerash had been and then at the room.
“Are we leaving?”
“For a moment. It is still likely he will fail.”
Belavierr kept staring at the room. Maviola twisted her head from side to side.
“What is the matter with him? You said something was wrong.”
Belavierr regarded her second daughter, then the room. Ijvani poked her head out, saw there were two, and hid again. The Stitch Witch sneered. Just a small sneer, but…
“He is entangled. Entangled by his own threads.”
“Is he a fool, then?”
The Stitch Witch turned. She began striding along, holding her daughter’s arm, out of the castle.
“Fool. Not a fool. He tugs on threads too far for him to control. They move without him. Do you see them?”
She turned, hopefully, and the Revenant stared blankly ahead.
Belavierr paused, then nodded. She stared up.
“My daughter will, someday. They move. All coming together. Four threads by fate tie faintly to the Necromancer of Terandria. Fate…fate moves. You must learn to twist it.”
Maviola stared obediently at the Stitch Witch. Belavierr’s sneer turned to puzzlement. Then her eyes, the ringed orange eyes, narrowed slightly.
“They twist together here, too. From him to the Gnolls. From him to…it matters not. He has countless threads and to pluck one is difficult.”
She was trying to teach. It was about as effective as her lessons in bookkeeping to Wiskeria were. Yet her new daughter listened dutifully. And she saw Belavierr touch her chest as they left the castle.
“Threads. Many threads for mortal get. Far fewer have I. But one…”
She reached out as if to pluck it, eyes narrowed.
“I have one. It leads to him and to the Meeting of Tribes. That little thread. That…”
Her voice grew darker.
‘Maviola’ looked at Belavierr. She looked at the thread the Witch traced, unseen. She hesitated, then decided to burst into tears.
Yvlon Byres lost the good fight. Which was because she put up a bad fight.
She slipped. That was all it took. It wasn’t a slick patch of ground, or any Skill. Sometimes you just slipped.
The foot kicked her onto her back. Yvlon hit the ground, winded, a curse on her lips. She saw someone raise a spear, aim it—and thrust it down.
The roar of the crowd thundered, and they shouted as the [Gladiator] thrust the spear down—right next to Yvlon’s head. He raised an arm, and Yvlon almost rose.
Almost. The voice thundered behind the helmet.
She hesitated, raising her arm, and the figure tensed, but Yvlon only took a second to inhale.
He nodded and stepped back. Yvlon half-lay there. She wasn’t sure what to do.
“Yvlon, get out of the arena!”
Someone shouted in her earpiece. The woman touched her ear and winced. For some reason, she’d not flinched when her arm was torn off by an undead Revenant, taken terrible wounds from Crelers, monsters, and people—but she still smarted from getting her ear pierced.
She rolled to the side, looking for her sword, but Rexel, the [Storm Bandit], was shouting.
“Leave it! Leave it, and raise one arm up! Your right one! You’ve surrendered!”
Yvlon did that, lifting the jagged stump of her right metal arm up as she slowly walked past fighting figures, a group all dodging a rain of [Light Arrows]—she heard a shout.
“Silver Killer! We’re not done with you.”
She whirled. The [Gladiator] who’d beaten her turned as a pair of other [Gladiators] advanced. Yvlon saw one aim a bow straight at her.
“I know! They’re not supposed to—duck!”
Yvlon didn’t duck. She raised her arm and shielded her face, just in time. She felt the impact, heard the snap as an arrow glanced off her metal flesh.
The [Gladiator] snapped, but the second attacker lifted a wickedly curved half-moon on the end of a pole. Some kind of glaive or halberd variant.
“Stay out of it.”
The [Gladiator] was panting; he and Yvlon had traded blows for nearly five minutes. He backed up, looking at Yvlon.
“Rexel. What do I do?”
“Fight! Get to the gates!”
Yvlon backed up, aiming her jagged stump of an arm towards the other two. She could extend the metal into a stabbing lance—but they knew that and circled.The second arrow was tracking down, and Yvlon knew she couldn’t get lucky a second time. They were going to shoot her legs out or strike her in the stomach! She tensed. She’d have to charge in and—
“There she is! Mectail, over here!”
Yvlon looked around. She saw the two [Gladiators] turn; curse. Then Yvlon saw a figure burst through a clump of struggling figures. A [Martial Artist] moved aside a sword thrust with his bare hands, and advanced.
“Damn, it’s them.”
“Back up! No one’s killing Silver today!”
A second figure followed the Stitch-man from Pomle, cursing, slashing left and right and forcing back those around with two poisoned long daggers. Yvlon saw the [Archer]-[Gladiator] curse as the second veteran, Thexca, stormed forwards.
“Do it. I won’t slow them more than—”
Yvlon saw the bow rise as the two [Gladiators] exchanged terse words. She saw the [Martial Artist] charge, but step back as the half-moon spear slashed. Yvlon saw a flicker—
The crowds watching the group-battle in the Coliseum of Monarchs were roaring and cheering and screaming. There were many things going on, but the scrying orb projection had focused on one bit of drama. The newcomer, the Silver Killer from Izril, Yvlon Byres, Gold-rank adventurer of the Horns of Hammerad, was down.
“Those bastards! They got her in the knee!”
Rexel was screaming from the gates. There was indeed an arrow going straight through Yvlon’s leg, and she was half-collapsed, shielding her face and throat with her metal arms. One had turned into a miniature shield, but the [Archer] calmly stepped left and put another arrow into her other leg.
Thexca and Mectail were furiously attacking the second [Gladiator], who ate a full palm to the chest—somehow he kept standing, though Mectail had clearly broken another rib. But all they needed was a final shot…
And that’s when the last [Gladiator] appeared. She leapt through the air in a huge leap, twenty feet long, defying gravity in an arc that carried her over the heads of the others. Even the other Garuda in the air, fighting and diving, didn’t have the strange momentum of the…
Fox. The fox-girl, the [Gladiator], Vitte, who seemed to swing towards the [Archer]. She twirled as the [Archer] turned, cursing, a single shortsword in her hand, a strange claw-weapon in her other paw. She landed as Yvlon looked up, blood streaming from both legs.
The audience cheered as the trio of [Gladiators] fought to rescue Yvlon from the cowardly attack. Mectail knocked the other [Gladiator] left into a hail of stabs in a perfect combination attack from Thexca. Vitte saluted the stands, facing the [Archer] who backed up three steps, cursed—
Then shot Yvlon straight in the chest. Vitte recoiled, turned left, and saw Yvlon grab at the shaft of the arrow. She fell backwards as Mectail, Thexca, and Vitte heard Rexel and Leprel shouting Yvlon’s name. Vitte looked back as the [Archer] turned and raced for the gates, raising her hands in surrender. The Foxgirl stared at Yvlon.
Two female gladiators stood at the entrance to one of the waiting pens in the Coliseum of Monarchs.
“Bring her here! Quickly! Is she dead? She’s dead!”
Leprel was wailing. Rexel had a healing potion, and jogged out a few steps to meet Mectail and Thexca as they dragged Yvlon towards her. The blonde woman’s eyes were closed, and she had one hand around the bloody arrow shaft in her chest.
Behind them, Vitte was giving chase to the last treacherous gladiator, and the thunderous disapproval from around the arena made it clear in no uncertain terms how the audience felt about such treachery.
In fact, people were throwing bits of food, rocks, and other objects into the sands. The magical fields that protected the arena were one-way. Defiantly, the [Archer] raised his arm and made a gesture at the stands. The blowback of noise temporarily deafened Rexel as she rushed Yvlon into the waiting room, out of sight and, hopefully, more danger. Vitte kept pursuing in huge leaps, but kept wide of the arrows streaking her way, and another tangle of [Gladiators] nearly took her down.
Leprel kept wailing as Rexel saw Mectail and Thexca drop Yvlon. The [Martial Artist] bent down to touch her neck; Thexca snorted and glared.
“That’s the end of it for us. Unless you want to go out there and knock heads, Mectail? I think it’s done.”
She stood over Yvlon, looking down at the woman’s closed eyes, grimace of pain, and the deadly arrow lodged just under a rib. Mectail straightened.
“Right. Me neither. We’re out of sight. Good work, I guess.”
“She’s d—oh, can I stop now?”
Leprel stopped wringing her hands. Rexel lifted the healing potion, and, unopened, put it back on her belt. There was a moment’s pause, and then Yvlon Byres sat up.
She reached up, touched the arrow shaft still embedded in her flesh, and swore.
“Silver in my eyes, that hurt! You said it was all arranged! I felt all three arrows!”
She gingerly touched the arrow shaft in her right knee and pulled it out with another muffled oath between her gritted teeth. She looked up and Thexca grinned unsympathetically.
“It’s a real arrow—the only not real thing is the Skill. What, you thought it wouldn’t smart? That’s why it’s realistic. Good work.”
She grudgingly gave Yvlon a nod, and peered out of the waiting room, eying Vitte.
“Vitte said you’d be able to do it, but I would have stabbed you myself if you messed it up. I think we got the attention of the massed bout, though, don’t you?”
Yvlon looked out. She couldn’t see much besides distant figures fighting, but she still heard the booing and people chanting Vitte’s name. She glanced sideways. Rexel wiped sweat from her brow, looking relieved, and Leprel seemed quite pleased by her one-line performance.
Mectail…he offered her a hand. Yvlon took it, and the Stitch-man [Martial Artist] helped her up. Then he casually and quickly yanked the arrow out of her chest.
“You did well, Yvlon. Vitte loves her performances.”
Yvlon Byres, [Silversteel Armsmistress], unwilling [Gladiator], and captive of Nerrhavia’s Fallen under false pretenses—well, half false—rubbed at her chest and eyed her friend.
The other gladiator of the Coliseum of Monarchs, who had snapped her out of her one-woman, one-armed rampage through the capital city. The only Stitch-Person she’d met with integrity, that she respected, aside from Oct—aside from Rev—
The only Stitch-Person she’d met with integrity, that she respected. And yet…Yvlon gave him a quick glance, and Thexca as well.
“So you won’t go back out and fight?”
Thexca answered for both of them. She was a Human woman, but from some nation to the west, the Empire of Scaied, and her poisoned daggers spoke to that, as did her light, free-flowing armor.
“No. Dramatically, it makes sense we’re with you since you’ll survive this. If you actually died, Mectail and I would be seeking vengeance. Or if you were on your deathbed.”
Yvlon frowned, trying to figure this out. Thexca rolled her eyes.
“Think about the narrative.”
“Narrative. It’s just a show. And you’re okay with this, Mectail? Truly?”
The [Martial Artist] stretched his arms, and now he showed her his fist. It was slightly cut from where he’d been blocking swords and other blades.
“It is half a show. You did well, to let Arnei strike you. But he is quite good, isn’t he?”
Yvlon hesitated. The truth was that kick had caught her off-guard. She nodded.
“He is…those kicks are fast.”
“You have to be good to make people fall for a fight like that. Let alone put on a good one or one that lasts a while. Don’t worry; you and Mectail will get a chance to actually bloody each other up. In a smaller setting.”
The [Martial Artist] nodded in agreement. He still saw Yvlon’s doubtful look, and smiled.
“I know you must be thinking the same thing I did. But I sometimes enjoy such battles. Vitte comes up with interesting plans and we try them. Sometimes it does not work and we run inside while they throw trash at us.”
“Rarely. And it’s mostly Mectail’s fault because he can’t Knight well enough. This is no place for amateurs in any field. Anyways…there’s room for improvisation. Nice combo attack, Mectail.”
He nodded. Yvlon ran her good hand through her hair, mystified. She knew Mectail was a genuine expert fighter from Pomle, so good he’d taken on her shifting, metal arms barehanded.
“So it really is fine?”
He smiled again as Thexca rolled her eyes and walked off to drink some honeyed water set out for the returning gladiators.
“I think of it as fake, Yvlon. A show, but no worse than a practice bout or a casual duel you adventurers might put on.”
The Gold-rank adventurer’s brows furled.
“We don’t put on shows.”
Rexel interrupted her.
“Cup? Potion, Silver?”
Yvlon distractedly saw the [Storm Bandit] offering her and Mectail a drink and even a shot of potion. She seemed to have moved into a supporting role quite happily, as had Leprel, who even had a towel. Yvlon reached for the cup and realized it was with her jagged stump of a right arm. She grimaced, switched hands, and nodded. Mectail took a drink, nodded at the two women, then turned to Yvlon.
“Do you not? Do you fight with all your strength, with your lives on the line?”
“No, of course not. But…”
He lifted a hand apologetically.
“I am sorry. It is not an insult, but I would call it something like that. Testing, then. Showing each other your strengths. But it is not a true bout to me. This? This is much the same. In truth, I like some aspects of it.”
He gestured and they sat on a bench. Yvlon leaned forwards, resting her arm on her knees. She still felt her blood pumping hard—even knowing it was a trick, it had been something to let that [Archer] shoot her.
In the back of her mind, Yvlon had to admit that even had she been doing her best, he might have still done the exact same thing. Dodging arrows…they were real, genuine warriors. But this was also an arena. The duality of that was something she disliked, and, but for Mectail, she never would have agreed to participate.
The Stitch-man took another sip, shrugging.
“It makes coin, and the audience enjoys it. That is a valuable thing for someone who can only fight like me.”
“Except we’re prisoners. You and I, at least.”
Thexca glanced up.
“Don’t lump me in with you two.”
Both Yvlon and Mectail were criminals of Nerrhavia’s Fallen who’d been shuffled into the [Gladiator] ring. Yvlon grimaced, and Mectail nodded, tapping his own neckband. Not as painful as a collar, but…it boiled her blood. And that was despite Yvlon having a wooden one since all the enchanted, metal ones kept breaking.
“That is true, Yvlon Byres. And I wish to be freed. I hope it will come soon; I have been a gladiator here long enough, even without a patron.”
“Then why are you smiling?”
The woman was mystified. Mectail kept smiling.
“Why are you angry, Yvlon?”
Where to start? But before she could answer, he went on.
“That is what the Strongest of Pomle once asked me. Ah—the one before. One of the ones before? He retired to live with his relatives in his old age. A wise man. Once, as a boy, he caught me in a fury and asked why I was angry. Why? If you are angry because you think you should be angry, or angry at things you cannot change…better to leave it for later and enjoy the present.”
“That’s an incredible statement.”
Yvlon muttered. Mectail shrugged.
“It helps me. Anger is a waste of energy. When I need to be angry—I will. I think you have every right to it, Yvlon. But remember your Skill. It can change you.”
She looked up and remembered. [Berserker’s Rage]. It was indeed—more concerning than any other Skill she had ever gained. She sat back, content with her answers for the moment, and all those in the waiting room watched the mass-battle end.
It was a sight. Yvlon Byres had to admit, grudgingly, that most of the warriors in the Coliseum of Monarchs could go toe-to-toe with a lot of Gold-ranks she’d seen, just on pure weapon skill alone. And they had levels to match—but in that [Gladiator] class, which she now knew to be part show.
Some were outsiders like her and Mectail, but many had grown up in this circuit, and they were so good that if she’d fought with two arms, all her might…she might have gotten to the top twenty reliably, but any higher would be chance.
You needed a team in a massed battle. Sure enough, even Vitte went down, hit by a flying dagger. She rolled around, and surrendered before the [Gladiator] could hit her with a mace.
From then on, it became a quick free-for-all of shifting allegiances as teams broke up, sensing a shot at being the last person standing. To be fair—that was drama.
Yvlon saw a five-way standoff between a hurried alliance of three [Gladiators] and a duo of a big Dullahan and Garuda break up as the Dullahan shoved the Garuda into the crossfire of blades, and the other two [Gladiators] took out one of their teammates. The three fought against each other and the Dullahan woman won—mainly by picking up the last gladiator and hitting the other one with the first’s body.
“Was that last bit scripted or real?”
Mectail was watching. He closed one eye as he studied the woman raising two huge arms to the sky; she was larger than anyone but Moore that Yvlon had met.
“Real, most definitely. Pethore’s grip is similar to any [Grappler]’s. If she grabs you…”
Yvlon imagined what would happen if Moore got a grip on you and was really mad. She nodded. Skill at arms was one thing. The ability to throw someone through a wall was generally respected most places.
The last [Gladiators] were coming in, some being carried, and the injuries looked about half-real, half-fake.
For instance, Vitte was lying on a stretcher, swearing a blue-streak. The blood running down her furred leg was matted, and she was drinking a healing potion.
“You bastard. I nearly had top ten!”
She shouted at the [Gladiator] with the throwing knives, who waved cheerily at her and blew a kiss.
“That’s for last week, Vitte!”
The Fox Beastkin sat up, grumbling. Thexca walked over and touched fists with Vitte.
“Nice performance. Did you really say ‘oh heck’?”
“I thought it was convincing. Don’t bug me, Thexca. I nearly had top ten. That’s a cash prize, Yvlon.”
The woman nodded awkwardly. What a strange world this was. She hesitated, and then saw two figures walking over. One of them was a Human man, tall, long armed, and tattooed. He was the [Archer]. His companion was the other [Gladiator]—a Dwarf who was rubbing at his sides.
“Nice work out there.”
“You say that, but you stabbed me in the liver, Thexca. That hurts like fire, even now! Still…the crowd will remember that. Everyone’s asking if the Silver Killer’s alive.”
They gathered up, and the [Archer], Romen, nodded at Yvlon. She nodded back, hesitated, and glanced at Mectail.
“Er—good shooting. I barely saw it coming.”
Romen nodded again. He frowned, pursed his lips, and then addressed the entire group as a whole.
“Thank you, Yvlon. May I ask a question? How did you find my expression? My posture? It’s hard to convey proper menace. Did you think it was off?”
The woman wavered. Leprel waved a hand.
“I thought it was very convincing, Mister Romen, sir! I’m a huge fan of yours, actually…”
“Really? That’s gratifying. I think I left an impact, but I need to plot the rest of my villainous story.”
Vitte nodded, getting up to rest her leg in a chair. Yvlon sat back as Romen took a cup of honey water. The Fox girl gave Romen a huge grin.
“Now that you have a lot of people who want to take you to task, I bet you could team up. Vengeance arc?”
“That’s fairly predictable. But if we can work together if we’re ever thrown with Miss Yvlon into another massed match…”
Thexca grinned crookedly, watching Yvlon’s colorful expression.
“Sure, but you’d better hope she’s learned how to show off properly by then. Or all you’ll be able to pull off is a Knighting.”
“A what? Excuse me, what does that mean?”
Even Rexel and Leprel seemed confused. ‘Knight’. Thexca had mentioned that before. Romen rubbed at his hair and grimaced at his slick hand.
“Sweat and hair grease. Does anyone have a towel? Thank you. That’s an inside term. We pulled off a variation just now. It’s where…no. Now that I have to explain it, can anyone…?”
He gave the others a helpless look. Mectail shrugged, but the Dwarf man leaned in, giving Yvlon a knowing wink.
“It comes from back home. Terandria, eh? Izril too, but mostly Terandria. You know the story of a [Knight]? Brave fellow or woman—goes off. Always has a grand struggle between them and the monster, but they win. So it’s like that. You have one person who’s about to win or lose, and then it looks the other way…”
“You can pull it off in less than what, six strikes? Mectail, show Yvlon.”
Thexca drew her daggers. She slashed at Mectail, and the [Martial Artist] swept her arm down from a standing position, without even bothering to shift positions. He knocked her back and she staggered, going to one knee and raising one hand as if to shield her head. He sighed, walked over, punched at her face—and Thexca surged upwards, the tip of her blades gently drawing across his throat.
“And…that’s a Knight routine. Well?”
Yvlon Byres, [Lady] of House Byres, one of the oldest and most honorable families of Izril that still maintained at least one [Knight] per generation and often more…bit back all the things she could say. She sat there, perched on her chair, as Romen went around shaking hands.
“Here’s hoping for a patronage, or that we all ride your newcomer fame, Miss Byres. Best of luck.”
It was her first match of cooperation. And, in a way…Romen smiled, and she saw some of the other [Gladiators] here watching. They waved and came over to meet her. Because she was no longer the Silver Killer, a genuinely unpredictable warrior who would try to kill or maim them.
Yvlon realized, watching Mectail smiling and Vitte and Thexca nodding at each other when they thought she couldn’t see, as well as Rexel and Leprel’s relaxed expressions, that this was vital. Because…she looked at Romen.
If we were fighting, I could probably take him if I was anywhere close or ran in. But he’d be thinking she was an actual threat. And all it took was one arrow.
She knew that full well. Far, far better to engage in these fake bloodsports. Yvlon managed a smile. But she was surprised as the [Gladiator] nodded.
“And best of luck finding your team, Miss Yvlon. I often go drinking with a group from Baleros—my homeland. I’ll spread the news about you being falsely imprisoned. There’s a tale that will spread like fire, not least because it rings true. If I hear anything about the others, I will let you know, though doubtless you’ll hear it first. Could I ask for an autograph, to that end?”
Yvlon scribbled on a piece of cardboard. Only then did Vitte stop smiling.
Fox Beastkin. A species Yvlon had never seen, that apparently had as many numbers in Chandrar as Baleros because they were the same species as Tottenval, one of the King of Destruction’s Seven. She was short, as in barely five-foot-three, on par with a Dwarf, but slim, usually happy, mischievous, her face expressive.
Her fur was not the red Yvlon was used to, but more of a sandy…sand. Because it fit the natural landscape, Yvlon supposed, with darker pale-grey fur on her underarms, belly, chin and so forth. Right now, her amusement soured slightly.
“We’re the best [Gladiators] in all of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, in the world, maybe. And we’re asking for autographs from Gold-ranks?”
“Don’t start, Vitte. Thank you, Miss Yvlon.”
“Yes, but we’re falling behind. First these [Actors] from Izril—I only autograph, what, twelve things a week!”
“That’s because you autograph everything, Vitte. It’s about value. Supply and demand. Even a non-[Trader] knows that. You can’t sell a scorpion to someone with five down their pants.”
Everyone turned to Thexca. The woman raised her hands.
“What? What? It’s not that weird to say! Didn’t you sell, I don’t know, mice, growing up?”
The woman looked at Rexel. She lowered her hands.
“Oh. Well, we sold scorpions on the streets. Good money. You can get a silver for a rare one…”
Romen gave her a completely mystified look.
“…Do people just collect scorpions where you live, Thexca.”
“Why would you?”
“Uh, because they’re food, self-defense, poison, collectible—some are really rare and poisonous, they don’t cost much to keep, they’re cute…”
The [Gladiators] were breaking up now the match was done. Some were heading off to rest, or train, and many to eat. Yvlon saw more than a few being tossed small bags of coin, and, in fact, a [Guard] sauntered over to their group.
“Vitte. Everyone’s talking about the Silver Killer. Huge stir—actually, go show her face, hey? The [Arena Master] doesn’t want a fuss, and some big patrons want to know she’s actually alive. Here.”
He tossed her a bag, and the Fox girl leapt up and caught it. She opened it, and Yvlon saw the flash of gold amidst silver. Vitte grinned wickedly.
“Can do! Thexca, stop talking about your pet scorpions. She’s got, like, twenty in her room, Romen. You can come over and watch them try to kill you later. We did good, today. Especially Yvlon.”
She smiled at Yvlon with sharp teeth. That was at least normal, and Yvlon nodded. She sat there, feeling…odd. Struggling, she realized, to stay angry. She had every reason to be, but—she looked up and saw Mectail smiling.
Enjoy what you could. Yvlon exhaled. She nodded, turning to the Dwarf [Gladiator].
“Thanks, Vitte. Thank you, Romen and…I’m sorry, I don’t know your name?”
“Granith. Don’t laugh, please. It’s my actual name, not my arena name…”
Yvlon shook his hand. And she thought the Coliseum of Monarchs might be a bit more bearable. Right up until Vitte raised the bag of coins and looked around.
“Okay, everyone! And by everyone, I mean Thexca, Mectail, Leprel, Rexel, and Yvlon—Romen, you’re welcome and you too, Granith—drinks are on me! Let’s get out and hit the city! Who wants to go to the Silken Saloon?”
Yvlon Byres’ head rose as the other [Gladiators] hurled insults at Vitte’s qualifier and Thexca smacked her lips. She stared at Vitte.
“…Do what now?”
Yvlon Byres stared at the door. She stared out the door. She stared into the street where crowds were pouring out of the Coliseum of Monarchs. She stared at Thexca, who offered her a piece of cloth.
“A hood. Unless you want to be mobbed.”
“We can leave?”
Yvlon’s shout drew more than a few heads and the other [Gladiators] leaving glared her way. Vitte doubled over laughing and Mectail nudged her.
“Don’t be unkind. I didn’t realize it either.”
“We can leave, Yvlon. Yes, even you and Mectail. Not the city—did you think [Gladiators] had to stay in their rooms and train all day?”
“But—so you get paid based on how well you do and even the convicted criminals can…?”
“Well, you’d have to rise up pretty far to get to the position where they let you out, but sure. You do know [Gladiator] pays extremely well, don’t you? More’n even Gold-ranks who don’t land huge cushy jobs or get treasure. Alright, hood on and try not to flash your arms around?”
Yvlon put on the hood silently and stared at Leprel and Rexel. The [Thief] and [Storm Bandit] followed the other three [Gladiators] into the capital of Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Rexel grinned at Yvlon.
“Don’t look at me, Silver. You’re the one who never wanted to talk. I told you it was worth rising up. And look at us! [Gladiators] in the Coliseum of Monarchs!”
Thexca turned her head and glowered.
“You mean, ‘gladiator and her two support crew’. Yvlon’s the one fighting and they’ll take your nice rooms out of her coin.”
Leprel bit her lip and slid her eyes sideways to Yvlon. The Gold-rank adventurer rubbed at her forehead.
“I don’t care. Rexel and Leprel helped me out. And I…I am not staying here. This is insanity.”
“No, it’s just sensible. Come on, the city awaits! This is Yvlon’s first day out there, isn’t it? In that case—”
Vitte threw her hood back. The Fox Beastkin leapt upwards, and the people down the street pointed. She leapt up onto the roof of a house in a single gravity-defying bound, spread her paws, and shouted.
“This calls for a party!”
Mectail sighed good-naturedly and Thexca threw back her hood.
“So much for getting there in peace and quiet.”
Yvlon Byres’ first true hour as a semi-free woman in Tyrant’s Rest was like a storm. The first thing she saw was the crowds.
She had thought Pallass was crowded, or Invrisil. She had thought they had wide streets, and rich cities. She had been to First Landing, but even the capital city of the north…was just small compared to the scale of Nerrhavia’s Fallen.
The streets were so wide you could play a baseball game across some of them. There were thousands of people, usually Stitch-folk, with Humans in the minority, but every species, crossing streets, buying goods, living.
But unlike Izril, the skies were just as crowded. Garuda swooped around, filling the air traffic, occasionally lazily dodging a flying carpet or, even more rarely, strange figures of all shapes and sizes that flew through the air.
The colors of Nerrhavia’s Fallen were just as vivid. Like Ger of Germina, bright colors were painted onto the stone worn by the wind and dust. Unlike Ger, or other cities with less funds, Nerrhavia’s Fallen was rich.
So Tyrant’s Rest had countless fountains, waterworks, plumbing, sewers, which meant no one would die of thirst. Yvlon also saw there was a kind of gradation to the city. The center, marked by the royal palace itself, towered over the rest of the city, and the buildings were tallest there, countless stories high. The further out you got, the less developed, so the furthest buildings up against the walls were ‘short’, and, even then, were proper houses and sometimes walkways overhead.
That was architecture. The people? Well, they were sights just as foreign to Yvlon.
String-Folk. Stitch-folk. The self-made people of Chandrar. They came in three rough categories—Hemp, Cotton, and Silk. Of course, those were catchall terms for a variety of cloth, and so Yvlon saw the most varied set of quasi-humanity she had ever seen in her life, in every shade of skin tone, feature, and design.
Because Stitch-folk could choose how they looked, if not always from which cloth they were first cut. Therefore, if they wanted certain features, they popped into their version of a [Barber], and had someone stitch up their nose, adjust their eyes—or just replace entire body parts altogether.
If you had the coin, you could be anything you wanted. And, oh, they did.
“That person has blue skin.”
“Yeah? Drakes have blue scales. Garuda have blue feathers.”
Yvlon Byres stared at a Cotton-Man walking past, carrying a load of fat grapes in a basket. She turned to Rexel. The Stitch-Woman was much amused by Yvlon’s reactions.
“Is that—normal? All the Stitch-folk I’ve met didn’t look like that.”
“And how many have you met?”
Mectail glanced back and Yvlon bit her tongue.
“…Revi, Octavia, about six more before that…oh. There were those at the Village of the Dead…”
“So, until Chandrar, less than twenty, easy? And I just bet they wanted to fit in around Izril. It’s not normal over here either. Well…that’s just because it’s a pain in the stitches.”
Yvlon saw someone else with a distinctly red component to their skin that had nothing to do with sunburn. Hair? Hair was an illusion. You could have hair any color you wanted. Pink, neon yellow, rainbow…
“Getting all the cloth dyed. It does wear, you know. And you can’t replace anything easily on the outside because it’s all a different color from standard. That’s all. It’s more usual to get something more…copycat-ish. See?”
She pointed out a half-Elf walking along and giggling with some of her friends, all of whom were younger, maybe young teens? A half-Elf…until Yvlon saw the stitch-marks on her skin.
Rexel waited, looking expectant. Yvlon didn’t even know what she wanted to say. Isn’t that something? But then her eye was caught by a group of [Laborers] with features like actual stone, walking along one side of the street. They were ignored and had broad shoulders, strong frames…
“They’re Hemp, aren’t they? Uh—the Hemp Stitch-folk?”
“Yep. Glad I wasn’t born Hemp. But then—I was always a [Bandit], and we change up, see?”
She waggled her arms at Yvlon, which were old silk, but noticeably smoother and more supple than the rest of her body. It was as if where her arms met the shoulders, the skin became more weathered, less well-cared for. Even a bit off in skin tone.
Yvlon glanced at the Hemp [Laborers].
“So they’re the ones who stand at the bottom of Nerrhavia Fallen’s society?”
“Mhm. If they’re lucky they’ll trade up to Cotton—not that you can change who you are on the inside. Some even get lucky, but most are like that.”
“You know. Slower. They’re good [Soldiers], but not the brightest bunch. Believe me—Merr used to run rings around them with the [Storm Bandits].”
Rexel casually spat in their direction. She didn’t look twice at the Hemp people. Yvlon stared at the [Storm Bandit] in silence.
“Some of them are smart. But it’s rarer. Heard of Alked Fellbow? He’s a Named Adventurer, even. Or was. But you know that you take the cloth from your parents, right? So the best thing is if they somehow marry someone who’s Cotton. Or Silk. Then their children are set.”
Mectail glanced at Yvlon. Rexel clearly didn’t pick up on anything Yvlon was saying, but the Stitch-man nodded her way. It was, however, Thexca who glanced back. Somehow she had already picked up a snack while Yvlon was gawking around. She sidled back down.
“Hey. Newcomer to Nerrhavia’s Fallen, heh? Strikes me like that too. Don’t get too bothered by every Silk-woman looking like she’s royalty. It’s all just cloth-deep. Just make sure you don’t get into it with the Silk-caste. They’re touchy, every single one, and it’s a pain to deal with. They’ll challenge you to a duel if they don’t know who you are, and the other half will do it if they think they’ll win.”
Yvlon nodded. The Human woman offered her a bag.
Yvlon reached down and received a handful of roasted, salted nuts that were sweet to the taste. She frowned.
“…These are perfectly round. What are they?”
They were like dark brown marbles with a sweet, crunchy interior. Thexca grinned.
“Rollynuts. I love ‘em. Specialty grown around here. Have you ever had anything as good?”
“Walnuts dipped in honey…are not as good.”
Yvlon took another handful. Thexca slapped Rexel’s hand away from her bag.
“Get your own. I’m just humoring Yvlon.”
Rexel sighed, but she had some coin somehow, so she instantly went off to get some. In truth, for all her worldly wisdom about this place, she seemed just as impressed. Yvlon suspected a [Storm Bandit] didn’t get to hit the big city that often.
While she was gone, Thexca leaned over.
“Hemp gets a lot of shit. We’re all fleshies—meat people, so the worst is that we’re all outsiders. Don’t bring it up.”
A friendly hand squeezed her arm. Thexca frowned at Yvlon’s metal bicep.
“Dead gods, that’s an odd feeling. Look, it’s friendly advice. Just don’t bring it up. Some [Gladiators] do and get nowhere. They don’t like Hemp, but it’s mostly just talk. There are some [Gladiators] and most treat ‘em just fine. It’s like anywhere in the world, you know?”
Yvlon Byres grimaced. She hadn’t missed how the [Laborers] kept out of the way of everyone else and were cursed at if they impeded the progress of someone who wasn’t Hemp.
“I come from Izril, and we don’t have anything like that. If I saw someone of the nobility talk to someone like that—most Izrilians wouldn’t stand for it to begin with.”
“Huh. Are you a [Lady] or something?”
“House Byres, yes.”
Thexca gave Yvlon a friendly nod and popped two Rollynuts into her mouth.
“Oh, makes sense. Then this is your first time on the other side of it, huh? Yeah, just think of Hemp like your commonfolk. You’re not a noble here, though. They might respect it a bit, mind you.”
Yvlon turned to stare at Thexca.
“I beg your pardon? I just said they’re nothing like—”
The Human woman shifted her gaze past Yvlon and suddenly pointed a finger.
“We should be heading to Vitte’s favorite spot soon. The Silken Saloon. And, oh, look who’s found Vitte. Her fans.”
And there they were. At first, Yvlon thought Thexca was pointing out a giant rug in the distance. It took her a second to realize it was countless Fox Beastkin, mixed with Stitch-folk, mostly young, milling around, begging for autographs, with Vitte in the center.
“Yeah, yeah. I’m sure you bet on me. Where’s my sister at? Anyone seen—hands off the coin purse!”
She was laughing, slapping paws, and scolding the others at the center of it. Yvlon recognized the leader of a group, and she had to admit, Vitte did have that infectious charm and confidence. She was young, but she was a top-[Gladiator].
What fascinated Yvlon, though, was the Fox Beastkin. Many had fur like Vitte’s, but some had red or black—even a flash of silver. Unlike Gnolls, the Fox Beastkin didn’t have the more brownish focus and really did stay true to their distant cousins’ variations in fur.
They were shorter on average than most Humans, slim, and animated. What interested Yvlon the most was how nimble they were. One enterprising thief had snatched Vitte’s purse. He scaled up a drainpipe in seconds, and perched on the roof, waving it. He was so flexible; she saw him curl up into a ball as he rolled backwards without any trouble.
However, Vitte had a strange quality of her own and it was this—she narrowed her eyes and leapt upwards.
And there it was again. Yvlon saw the other fox-boy yelp in alarm, somersaulting back as Vitte landed on the roof. He leapt for a second roof even as she descended, and seemed to be running for the distance, if playfully.
In response, Vitte grabbed something in midair, and swung herself into a flying kick that knocked him flat.
“Got you, you little—”
Yvlon watched her thrash the thief, and come back with the coin pouch in seconds. The Human woman narrowed her eyes.
What had Vitte grabbed hold of? It looked like she’d swung herself, like someone would swing off a bar. But…the space above the roof was empty.
Still, it was clear that had just been a prank, and the Foxfolk were full of pranks. And excitement. When they saw Yvlon, they swarmed her.
“The Silver Killer! Can you move your arms for us?”
“Where are the other Horns? Do you know? Were you really falsely imprisoned?”
“Can I have a lock of hair? I won’t sell more than half of it—promise!”
Yvlon raised her hands, feeling like she was at a Byres family reunion—but they weren’t half as chaotic as this. It was like…a bunch of talking Mrshas.
What a thought. Thexca was noticed too, but she kept them away, swatting unkindly at paws reaching for her snacks.
“Clear off, you walking fur-rats! Vitte, get rid of ‘em or I’ll start stabbing!”
The press let up a bit, and Vitte herself stood on the roof to give a pronouncement.
“Hear me! I’m giving Yvlon a tour of the city! We’re drinking, and no, you’re not invited! But tell the elders Yvlon’s here and if they want to meet her, they can ask me!”
She gave the others a wicked smile as they groaned and pleaded. Sure enough, three lucky people—two Fox Beastkin, one Stitchgirl—were allowed to join their group.
“I had no idea that Fox Beastkin lived in Nerrhavia’s Fallen in such numbers.”
“Eh, some cities. And many’re here because I’m here, you know. We’re still a super-minority. There are just lots of us for us. We’re here because, back during the King of Destruction’s time, our people were protected under Tottenval. We had lots of kids.”
Vitte airily waved a paw. Yvlon looked sharply at her.
“The King of Destruction. I forgot he—it feels like a story, elsewhere. But he’s actually awake again, isn’t he?”
The way they told his story made it sound like he was dead—and he had been slumbering twenty years. Vitte just grinned at Yvlon.
“He’s as real as you or me. Some of the elders in the city even met him. Heck, some served under him when he was still young.”
“Really. And no one holds a grudge? You don’t have…”
The [Gladiator] made a phshing sound.
“That’s old news, and we never ruled over anyone. Unlike some. Besides, Tottenval was the nicest of the King’s Seven. You know Thexca’s Rollynuts? He planted those nut bushes. A lot of kingdoms benefited from all the plants he put down, so most didn’t kick us out.”
“Will…does that mean the Fox Beastkin have no intention of joining the King of Destruction?”
Thexca frowned. Mectail, Leprel, and Rexel glanced back, frowning, and Vitte eyed Yvlon.
“What, all of us? Why would we? Tottenval was his vassal. We just came for him. We’re not going to fight in his armies—most of us. Some of the elders like him, but Tottenval’s dead. We don’t have a grudge either, like some vassals. He’s just…”
She searched for a word, then snapped her furred fingers together.
And that was it. Vitte walked forwards, waving to people she knew, preening and then glaring because people wanted to meet Yvlon. The woman realized hers was a generation that cared little for Flos Reimarch.
So, Nerrhavia’s Fallen. It took them an hour to get to the Silken Saloon. Mainly due to the crowds, the size of the city, and the people wanting to meet Yvlon and the other [Gladiators].
Even so, Yvlon hesitated as they passed by a street where a gate in the distance was clearly open and manned by two ceremonial guards. She looked around and, aside from her friends, no one was here minding her. And she was a Gold-rank adventurer. If she grabbed the artifacts…
Thexca popped up.
“They’ll find you, you know. Mectail never bothered, but I think that’s because he saw them grab a [Gladiator] who tried it and toss them back to the lowest circuit. Besides, that’s the middle city gate. You’d be running for a long time. There’s the lower city, and then the outer city.”
“I was just—”
“Yeah, sure. Whatever you were going to say, I totally believe it.”
The woman grinned at Yvlon.
“Listen, Yvlon. No one’s found your friends, right? Aside from that Pisces fellow, and he’s in Roshal. There’s not much you can do if Nerrhavia’s haunting you. Best thing you can do right now is get free, legally. You do that? Then you can see about hiring someone to get your friend. Maybe even my home. Scaied’s not cheap, but we do have armies for sale.”
“And how would I do that?”
The woman clapped Yvlon on the shoulder.
“Let’s get a drink.”
Elsewhere in Chandrar, at this exact moment, in Savere, the Kingdom of Bandits as some called it, all secrets were revealed.
Or perhaps just one. A circlet sat on a half-Elf’s head. It did not shine. It did not glow. And that was scary because even [Detect Magic] made it look like ordinary metal. But then—it didn’t even appear unless the owner wanted you to see it.
And even she had forgotten it was there. So they gazed at her, in the banquet room. Siren and [Pirates], [Rogues], and [Bandits]. She sat at the table, wearing the relic of a lost time. Ceria Springwalker turned her head to Omusc and the [Bandits].
“Ib a chubbfy chipmunkf!”
Her cheeks were bulging with sweet yams this time. And yes, it was the second time she’d done this. Omusc stared silently at Ceria. Then at her circlet.
No one laughed.
At roughly the same time, Yvlon Byres was having the exact opposite problem as Ceria Springwalker. Her companions realized it shortly after they got to the Silken Saloon.
“So, can you explain patrons to me? Someone suggested that was one of the fastest ways to be freed.”
“Sure, sure. But come on, look around this place, Yvlon! The Silken Saloon? Like it? Silk servers. And there’s dancing! Hey, it’s me! Has anyone seen my sister?”
Yvlon did actually meet Vitte’s sister, who was named Zirre. And yes, it was deliberate. More than a few Fox Beastkins who were ‘elders’, something of a respected term, came to meet her.
Or were allowed to meet her? There was something going on that Yvlon couldn’t quite parse. This wasn’t like Gnoll culture, where honored Gnolls existed in cities or tribes. Nor were the elders accorded the same respect of age—Vitte ribbed them and they did the same to her.
In fact, the Fox Beastkin who put her in a headlock and tried to rub the fur on her head until she broke loose and tossed a drink on him was seventy-three. Yvlon was amazed—partly because she hadn’t been able to tell.
For instance, Vitte’s sister was younger than her by about a year, had silver fur, and thus the family resemblance was lost, as was age on Fox Beastkin who’d gained silver or simply lost color. They were all so spry.
“Zirre’s one of those [Mages], Yvlon. From Nerrhavia’s academy, though. Hey, Zirre. Look who I found. She’s on my team.”
“I saw you on the scrying orb! Vitte, you joined Miss Byres’ team?”
Zirre covered her head as Vitte threw a half-finished rib at her; they were all eating at one of the private booths, and she was clearly a well-known patron and celebrity. Mectail casually slapped the rib straight back down and, amazingly, back onto Vitte’s plate. The Fox [Gladiator] glared.
“She’s on my team, Zirre. Get it right.”
“Where are you from, exactly? Not Wistram, then.”
“No. Thousand Tomes.”
At the woman’s blank look, Zirre elaborated.
“The Hundred Thousand Tomes Academy of Nerrhavia’s Fallen. It’s…the best in the kingdom.”
“And she’s not the best student. But she did get in. Let’s talk about patrons later. Who wants to dance? Is that the Singer of Terandria’s newest song?”
Vitte soared up from the table. Even Thexca and Mectail were going. Yvlon looked up as Zirre hesitated, unsure if she was joining them.
Rexel and Leprel were already dancing, incidentally. They had found partners, though you could dance alone.
“Are you dancing, Miss Yvlon?”
“I’m not sure. I don’t dance often.”
And this was not the dancing Yvlon had been raised for, which was Lyonette’s formal ballroom affair. Thexca stopped as Mectail was offered a hand by Rexel. To both her and Yvlon’s surprise, the teasing gesture turned into Mectail matching Rexel step for step. He seemed focused too, as if this were training.
“Aren’t you an adventurer, Yvlon? Surely Izril has at least one tavern.”
“Yes, we do. I don’t make a point of dancing in them.”
Thexca eyed her.
“…Want to try?”
Yvlon passed. She sat back down with Zirre. The Fox-girl was definitely not like her older sister, but she was quite friendly; like most of her classmates, they’d kept up to date on the news.
“It is just amazing, Miss Byres. Not many adventurers are on the scrying orb, but some took scrying orbs into their dungeoneering. Dungeoning? I’m sorry, I don’t know what—”
“Dungeon diving is probably the term. Really. So more are, uh, being noticed?”
Zirre shook her head.
“Not exactly. Most aren’t interesting. Wistram News Network featured a few—but the only interesting one was when the team walked into an ambush. And a lot of teams didn’t, um…look good.”
Yvlon thought she understood. A team could probably reveal a lot of flaws, from picking your nose to all the things you did when you were normally not being watched. And an adventurer’s approach to taking down monsters wasn’t exactly inspiring either. Jumping them from behind wasn’t like the Village of the Dead.
Zirre told Yvlon about the Hundred Thousand Tomes Academy, which actually sounded quite decent. Not Wistram, but Nerrhavia’s Fallen had a vast amount of its own magic, and the underground academy had apparently existed from the time of Nerrhavia the Tyrant herself. It was one of the reasons why Nerrhavia’s Fallen was so powerful; it had a strong foundation of [Mages].
“I’ve actually thought about changing my focus. I’m studying traditional magic for my people, you know, but scrying might be steady work, right? I, um, don’t know about being an adventurer. I’ve wanted to—so has Vitte, but—”
Before they could finish, somehow, it was already an hour past and they were having more food with drinks. Then they hit the city, leaving the pub, and the problem cropped up again.
“So what do you want to do, Yvlon?”
“Can we discuss the patron issue?”
Rexel waved a hand, still grinning. She’d been exchanging locations with some people after dancing and she seemed hepped up by this dose of freedom.
“Silver, Silver—we can talk about it back at the arena. But come on, you have a chance to explore one of the greatest cities in the world! What do you want to do?”
“Rexel’s right, Yvlon. What do you want to do? We’ll come with.”
The others nodded as Thexca interjected. So Yvlon had to think. She was indeed in one of the shining capitals of the world, which had so much to do any tourist would be spoiled for choice even a month in. So what did she want to do?
“…Do they have any galleries of art open for public display? Perhaps some landmarks? Some historical sections?”
Vitte’s face went blank. Rexel and Leprel exchanged a look. Mectail blinked and Thexca stared at Yvlon.
“Yeah, I’m sure we have some of them. Uh…let me get a map.”
No, but it was an important part of any city and culture. And each nation was quite different. For instance, Yvlon had seen art galleries in private estates and other places, and she had to admit that Nerrhavia’s wealth meant that the pigmentation open to the [Artists] here was certainly varied.
“A strong foundation in [Alchemists] must also help the design. But you paint your statues?”
“We do, Miss Byres. The bleached color of Izril and Terandria is so odd. Most things aren’t just pale marble, so why not add color?”
“Isn’t there a kind of austerity to…”
Vitte and Yvlon were admiring the sculptures on display when Vitte slapped herself, coming out of her dazed look.
“I’m going to die. Yvlon, I’ll catch you later.”
She left. Indeed, even Mectail and Thexca didn’t linger; Rexel and Leprel looked around a bit longer, but Yvlon and Zirre cut short their watching to find Mectail doing squats outside.
“I’m sorry—I am genuinely interested by Nerrhavia’s culture.”
“Each to their own. Okay, what next? We could go shopping in the bazaar, maybe do some singing with the Singer’s ‘kara-okay’ crystals—oh, there’s also trying out fun magical artifacts! Anything you want, Yvlon? What do you normally do?”
The woman hmmed. And she made the mistake of answering honestly.
“Truthfully, in Liscor or another city? I’d see the sights, art—have a drink and a meal that night, but I tend to spend most of my time in the practice courts.”
She looked at the slack looks on the others’ faces and clarified.
“I do go around—with my team. With Ksmvr especially.”
“Seeing the sights? What about…hobbies? Like getting a pawful of Dreamleaf and jumping off roofs? Or—we have lots of good restaurants.”
“Hmm. I do like good food, but that’s mostly Ceria’s thing. Pisces dances and enjoys magical items. I…”
“I have a great deal of hobbies.”
Mectail prompted after a moment.
Thexca kicked him. Yvlon stood there, biting her lip. And she realized the same thing everyone else did.
She was mainly—an adventurer. When she was at Liscor? Yvlon counted it off on her fingers. Get up, eat with the team, then she went to the Adventurer’s Guild like clockwork with Ksmvr. If she went around the city, shopped—she was with Ceria, or again, Ksmvr—
It was taking the Antinium to new places he’d never been, or doing things with her team that took a lot of her day. But before that? In the Silver Spears…
“I must have swung a sword four hours a day, or spent an hour or two on my gear—and we travelled a lot…of course, I went to see the sights everywhere…”
Thexca exchanged looks with Rexel. The [Storm Bandit] cleared her throat.
Yvlon looked up. Rexel patted her on the arm.
“You have no life.”
The [Armsmistress] began to protest that was untrue. But really…she sat back. Stared about. They were in a restaurant, as food was one of the uniting things even Yvlon enjoyed. She stared at a bowl of some kind of curry they were pouring over rice and other very tasty foods.
“I’m not fit company for Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Or the Coliseum of Monarchs. I’m sorry, Vitte. I’m simply focused on my team. I do…tend to work hard, I suppose. And I can’t act.”
“Not even a little bit?”
Yvlon grimaced expressively.
“I’ve seen it done. The Players of Celum—I’ve seen their performances, but I can’t imagine myself doing it. As for the showing off, attracting the crowd to get a patron?”
They had explained the system to Yvlon briefly over food. It was quite simple: if someone liked her, they could pay off the arena master or guards, or arrange favors for her in the arena. They might even pay for her freedom, or simply pay her in Vitte or Thexca’s case. In return? She might represent them, even work for them in some capacity. It ran from above-board behavior to relationships—and all the [Gladiators] warned her about that.
“You know the—you know what? It’s fair, it’s fair. Being a [Gladiator] isn’t for everyone, but you did your best. We’ll work around that. Dead gods, I don’t want to do a match tomorrow. We have another group-bout, but no Romen.”
“Well, you’re coming up with the plan to get us attention. Or we can just hit people and try to come out on top.”
Thexca slapped Vitte’s shoulder. Yvlon felt the need to clarify.
“…It wouldn’t be the same if my brother were here. I can’t imagine Ylawes would do poorly, though he’s no actor. As for Ysara—she has her own flair.”
“Older or younger?”
“Both older. Brother and sister.”
Yvlon grimaced again into her plate. She began to eat, and realised she was famished. The silver spoon glittered as she took a bite, and she instantly reached for the yogurt. When the pain abated, Yvlon sighed.
“They’re…well, Ylawes would be perfect for you, Vitte. He really is a [Knight] and he’d probably challenge people to duels.”
“Oho. So he’s really the kind of person who rides around fighting battles?”
Yvlon chewed glumly.
“You have no idea. You know those stories about [Knights]?”
Everyone nodded. Yvlon waved her spoon and frowned at it. Was it bending? She looked around.
“Excuse me, can I get a wooden spoon…? I think my grip’s too strong. Thank you. Where was I? Ylawes? He is that [Knight]. I know that sounds off, but he looks the part, he’s impossible to sway, he’s…well, a hero. Just without the class. His team is famous, you know. The Silver Swords. Countless people look up to them.”
Thexca raised her brows.
“More famous than the Horns of Hammerad?”
Yvlon started. She stared at Thexca, then sat back.
“I—well, up until—they were. They’re a veteran Gold-rank team. Ylawes could probably even meet your [Queen]; he’s got the manners for it.”
“A real knight’s [Knight]. Huh. And your sister? Why’d she do better than you? Is she higher-level? That’d be something.”
Yvlon drew in her plate with the replacement spoon.
“No…and yes. She’s not higher-level, but she is a prodigy with the sword. I have never seen anyone better. I don’t think I could beat her without Skills, maybe not even with my new arms.”
Something about the way Yvlon talked…Rexel looked around the table and saw she wasn’t the only one who noticed it. Vitte put her chin in her paws, fascinated. It was Mectail who looked at Yvlon.
“Neither one raided the Village of the Dead.”
“Ylawes might have—would have done a better job. I nearly got my team killed. I should have pulled them back.”
Yvlon grimaced. Thexca frowned at her over her meal.
“But you’re a Gold-rank. So your big sister’s the genius with the sword and your brother’s the upstanding hero. What’s Yvlon got?”
The woman looked past them. She stared at her jagged metal stump, growing slowly, her left hand. She looked up and calmly met Thexca’s gaze. Calmly, because she’d had that very thought before. And this was her answer.
“I’m the adventurer. I can’t fight like either Ylawes or Ysara. My bladework isn’t so fine, and I can’t stand in the center like Ylawes. But…”
She flexed her hand and Mectail nodded.
“…I can certainly win. I just have to work hard enough. And that’s fine. I don’t want to be Ylawes. I couldn’t, even if I tried. Ysara…”
“I’d quite like to see her again. But not Ylawes. It’s impossible, truly.”
“What’s wrong with him?”
That was like opening the floodgates, Vitte kicked her sister under the table, because Yvlon was only too happy to explain.
“He doesn’t just act like a [Knight], he just does what he ‘thinks is right’, and that’s always the most moral outcome. It’s as if the world twists so that he’s the one who carries someone out of a burning building, or fights the monster face-to-face. I thought he was pretending at one point, but he’s not. That’s the worst part. It’s actually something like a trick.”
Leprel was slurping down noodles, fascinated. Yvlon grimaced.
“Ylawes isn’t an idiot. He’s actually quite experienced. So—part of it is that when he sees something happening, he puts himself right where it’s likely to swoop down. He stands in front of the [Fireball] because he sees where it’s going.”
“So he’s actually quite clever. Is he not pretending?”
Vitte was confused. Yvlon shook her head.
“No, you see. That’s all part of it. I think…Ylawes believes he’s the only person who can do what needs to be done. So he does it, regardless of the danger. And it’s not pretentious. He’s just…a good man.”
She took a long drink from her cup. Thexca whistled.
“Wow. I hate him already.”
Yvlon shook her head.
“No, he’s someone you’d like. It’s my fault. I’ve just been in his shadow for a long time. It’s not his fault he casts it. I—nevermind. I’m sorry, let’s change the subject.”
Moodily, she took a huge draft of what she realized was wine. Her friends looked at her, and, thereafter, their goals changed.
“Yvlon, it is my solemn duty to get you to have some fun. Come on. Follow me! There’s a saying in Nerrhavia’s Fallen: no one has fun like a fox!”
“No one says that.”
That was how they began the First Temptation of Yvlon. It was certainly a Gold-rank challenge. Yvlon Byres herself didn’t realize how many things she just…didn’t do. She found herself arguing with Rexel as the woman tried to offer her a pipe.
“Not here. Silver, as I shit on Nerrhavia’s grave, you’ve never tried anything? Not a pinch of Dreamleaf? Not a single—one puff.”
Yvlon’s arms folded like the gates of propriety itself.
“No. I don’t need drugs to enjoy myself.”
“How would you even know what that looks like—alright, fine! Who’s next?”
“Me. I’ve got just the pet for—”
“Thexca, get away from me with those scorpions!”
Vitte nearly threw an entire jar of bright red hairdye over Thexca. Which she did not get Yvlon to use, incidentally.
“Come on, don’t Terandrians love red hair? Izrilians too, I hear.”
“I don’t need to dye my hair.”
“Well, you’re going to sing, then. You can sing, can’t you?”
Yvlon Byres stood like the solo member of a choir, a silver hand placed over her heart. Her blonde hair shone in the light of a silver spotlight, and her clear voice had the training of tutelage behind it. She projected her voice into the silence, like an opera singer into the limitless dark, be it crowd or only the empty sky.
“I saw the Silver Dragon flying
Over home and golden fields…”
It was an old song, a House Byres song, actually. As close to an anthem as they had. Yvlon had sung it with peers at celebrations, and she still remembered every word. Her friends watched, open-mouthed.
“Courage be my sword and shield
While valor holds I will never yield.”
It was a good song. Perfect intonation, really. If Yvlon had an accompaniment, some stately string instruments, more voices, it would have been a solemn, even patriotic melody.
The bar was so dead that Zirre could hear her sister slowly dying of laughter, covering her mouth with her paws. Thexca was covering her face, not quite able to look at Yvlon or around.
“This is not a bar song. Mectail, punch me into tomorrow.”
She looked up and saw the stoic [Martial Artist] in an expression she had never seen before. His wince was so pained she actually stopped and started staring at him.
Yvlon finished and sat back down. Rexel glanced around as people applauded to fill the gap in existence.
“Silver…Yvlon. Don’t you sing, uh, bar songs?”
“I sing along. But you asked me to sing. That’s the song I’ve sung the most.”
The amazing part was that Yvlon seemed aware how well the song had gone over, based on her red cheeks. She coughed, reaching for a drink.
“…I just don’t remember the other ones at all. A Skill really would have been nice when I was on the spot.”
Vitte stared at her. Then she exploded with laughter. Zirre sighed, but the Fox [Gladiator] reached over. She hugged Yvlon and, to the audience, which included many of her kind, shouted.
“See? This is Gold-rank madness! Alright, let’s have a party! For Yvlon, unjustly imprisoned! Spread the word! Magistrate Ducaz is a corrupt bastard and the heroine of the Village of the Dead raid is right here!”
The bar cheered and came back to life. And that, in a way, was progress. Yvlon watched Vitte take down two tankards in one go, and frowned.
“Don’t we have another match tomorrow?”
“It’s fine. Fine, Yvlon. It’s smaller-scale. We have to enjoy ourselves! Drinks all around!”
Vitte laughed as Thexca and Mectail drank more responsibly. Yvlon looked at her. She had to admit, she envied the Fox girl. She had…
The Silver Spears had done this. Not this, dancing with a bucket on your head on a table like Vitte was doing—and the bucket was somehow rotating despite her not touching it—but like this. She had lied, Yvlon realized.
She had done more with her first team. It was only after that she’d stopped. She swished the drink around in her cup.
“I lost more than I thought, that day. I’ll get it back later.”
But first—her team.
The next day, Yvlon checked on her jagged stump of an arm. It had definitely grown a little bit.
“Maybe that’s why I’m so hungry. How much did I eat…?”
She wasn’t even that hungover; though, Yvlon had realized she’d possibly lost more mass than the average Human if her metal arms didn’t add to her flesh-weight. People had kept trying to touch them as the alcohol flowed last night.
She flexed her arms, found the sword she used as a [Gladiator], swung it a few times, and frowned. It felt…lighter. Brittle. She swung it, nevertheless, a hundred times, then flexed the blade gently.
It snapped. Yvlon tossed it down with an oath, and then checked her arms again.
It was just off. Yvlon thought losing an arm to that monster counted as trauma though, so she was willing to wait until it was healed. As for the rest…she walked over to a table, opened a drawer.
Still there. Good. Two scrolls, two rings. Yvlon checked the scrolls. A single roll of parchment, bound with a mundane bit of string as far as she could tell. It hadn’t been affected by passing through her…literally.
I could unroll it. It might well be another Scroll of Greater Teleportation. Put on a ring…they came from the dead adventurers.
Yes, they did, didn’t they? On the actual fingers. So…the odds of them being cursed were remote. Yvlon’s hand twitched towards the rings.
Yet she had to be free first, and, unless one of the rings could help her escape…she had no idea what they did.
Information. Power. That was what she lacked, and it was clear Vitte and the other [Gladiators] did have a measure of power. So Yvlon was on-board with rising in the ranks. And if that meant acting…well, so be it.
“Silver! Ready for the morning’s bout? Can we get you anything?”
“I’m fine, Leprel, thank you. How many?”
“Um…twenty, I think. All of your friends are with you. Just give ‘em a show for an hour, that’s what I was told.”
Yvlon nodded. The Coliseum of Monarchs had a sight at any given moment, which meant [Gladiators] had schedules and, yes, planned events.
“Maybe we’ll just fight. I can do that. Oh—Rexel. There is something.”
Yvlon handed her the broken blade.
“…I need a new sword. I know the [Arena Master] is going to be upset—maybe just a wooden one? I can hit someone as hard as I need to, especially if it’s fake.”
Rexel took the blade, wincing as she noticed the costly steel was broken. She frowned, though.
“There’s a huge, gaping void in the steel. I think it’s just crap equipment you’re getting, Silver. I’ll show this to the [Arena Master]…anyone could have broken this.”
Yvlon squared her shoulders and made her way to the waiting room. She didn’t see Mectail or Thexca or Vitte; they were all in private areas.
“Free-for-all. You can team up, of course. Don’t worry, Silver, just go out there and fight. Vitte didn’t send word to meet you, so it’s fair game.”
“I understand. I’m surprised she’s on her feet. She was drinking hard last night.”
The Fox Beastkin had barely been mobile at the end. Leprel gave Yvlon a quick grin.
“Thexca will probably give her hell. She kept promising she’d have a show; you have to make people remember you. Of course, she’s visible as Vitte Groundless, but…”
“Yeah. Is she an [Acrobat]? Do you know how she does that, Leprel? Those jumping tricks?”
Yvlon grunted. Well, it was one or the other. She heard the announcer spin things up.
“And it is the morning in glorious Nerrhavia’s Fallen! I am your host, the [Commentator] Thoweina Silk! I have the great honor of welcoming the following august figures this morning…”
Yvlon tuned out the recital of various noble or important figures. A [Guard] approached, scowling, as she adjusted her armor.
“Don’t go off into the city after this. You were wanted yesterday. A patron wanted to meet with you and you were gone.”
“A patron? So she does have one? Who is it?”
Leprel squeaked. The [Guard] shrugged.
“No clue. It came in late, so when we went to find you—just don’t run off. You’ll be called.”
Yvlon’s blood began to pump a bit faster. So she did have a mysterious benefactor. Well, first things first. The [Commentator] was getting the crowd amped, but it was difficult first thing in the morning. They did their best, then seemed to latch onto something.
“—it seems like there’s a bit of commotion on the grounds! The [Gladiators] are just coming in, but I can hear some arguments from the waiting rooms where I sit, exalted guests! Is it the Silver Killer, ready for payback? Unfortunately, Romen the [Archer] is not here, but we may see blood on the sands—unless her new companions rein her in!”
Yvlon rolled her eyes, but then frowned. She could hear a loud argument and what sounded like laughter, muffled through the open gate. It began to rise, and Yvlon warily accepted the sword as a panting Rexel ran over.
“—and here come the [Gladiators]! The Silver Killer emerges slowly, like the hunting Mothbear of Izril, sword in hand. In the far corner, the [Gladiator] already moving for high-ground is the Eagle of Senusk, Gekoi! And…oh, what’s this? Something unusual is happening, dear audience, unless I miss my guess! Direct your attention to Gate 11, please!”
Yvlon glanced around. She was in Gate 9, and if memory served, her companions would be…
Mectail and Thexca were both coming out fast, but they slowed as they looked around. They were in Gates 10 and 8, which meant that the oddity was coming from…
Yvlon looked over as the laughter, the sudden roar of interest from an audience waking up, all came together. She saw a terrified Fox Beastkin girl standing there with a spear…and her silver fur blowing in the breeze.
“That is not Vitte Groundless, dear audience! It seems—and I am being told that her sister, a [Mage] from the Thousand Tomes academy has been substituted in for her! Vitte Groundless is, in fact, resting, and apparently requested—”
Yvlon heard laughter from the crowds, and a sudden keen interest as the [Gladiators] turned to the low-level prey entering the arena. Yvlon began to jog over as Zirre screamed, banging on the gates.
“No, this is a mistake! Let me out! Let me—Yvlon!”
She whirled as Yvlon slowed.
“Why are you here, Zirre?”
The Fox-girl was looking around the arena in a wide-eyed panic, barely listening to Yvlon. She was certainly no fighter. Yvlon grabbed her shoulder and she squeaked.
“I—Vitte was lying in, and she told me to go here and tell them she was sick! Then they said I was filling in for her and it was arranged!”
Vitte. Yvlon’s brows snapped together. She peered around and realized this was definitely no misunderstanding.
“It seems Vitte Groundless continues to amuse even the Coliseum of Monarchs! We’ll see if her sister survives meeting trained [Gladiators] in the sands—or if her three companions will protect her.”
“Vitte! I’m going to pull your tail off! Is she mad?”
Thexca came running over, but Mectail and she couldn’t discuss anything—or break the sturdy gate. A huge gong rang and the bout commenced.
Twenty gladiators. Technically, Yvlon and the other three comprised an entire fifth of the arena, but all fifteen [Gladiators] had the scent of drama in the air. Mectail didn’t even get over to them—the Eagle took aim, and no less than six [Gladiators] surrounded him in a second. They kept a wide circle, attacking to keep the pressure off the others as he whirled, chopping, meeting blades with bare hands.
“Damn, damn—this is twisted, even for Vitte. Listen, Zirre. Just—stay behind me and Yvlon. No one’s going to kill you, but they’ll put on a show. It’s just a stabbing. All it does is hurt. Can you actually fight?”
Thexca could have used a better pep talk, but there was no time. She and Yvlon stood alone as nine [Gladiators] closed in. Zirre was shaking, and she clearly didn’t know how to use the spear.
“I—no! I can use magic, but I don’t have a battle stave! My school is gravitation, but I’m a [Mage]—Vitte’s the fighter.”
Gravity magic? Yvlon blinked. Then she realized what Vitte was…Thexca swore.
“We’re not going to win this one, Yvlon. We need to stall for at least twenty minutes before they’ll open the gates. Nine on two is…”
Yvlon knew she was right. Nine Level 30 [Gladiators]? She looked at them, then at Zirre.
“It doesn’t hurt long. I’ll hit Vitte until her stupid brains come out her ears. Just…”
Thexca was trying to reassure her. Yvlon glanced at her sword, cursing. If it was Ylawes, he would stand there with his shield and block them. Somehow defend her for an hour, even if they took him to pieces. He was a [Knight]—but this was cruel amusement, and Vitte’s trick and drama or not, there was going to be blood; Zirre would have to experience the pain of being stabbed at least once.
And it did hurt. If only she was Ylawes. If only…
“Mi, mirror menagerie, making my mithril sing…”
Yvlon heard a voice. She looked up as the [Gladiators] moved, six on her side, three on Thexca’s, aiming for Zirre. Was that…a vocal warmup? Yes, it was! The Dullahan from the last bout was doing a voice exercise, coughing.
“Let’s settle this, ladies. No losing limbs or killing, agreed? Sorry about Vitte’s sister, but the audience needs a show. Poor sport of her, though.”
One of the others saluted them. Yvlon thought about it. She could escalate this. But…she saw the [Gladiators], even Thexca watching her.
“Yvlon, don’t do anything stupid.”
The problem was, that was practically the motto of the Horns of Hammerad. ‘Get the treasure, don’t die’. Yvlon felt like being stupid. She was not Ylawes. She couldn’t…
She looked at the [Gladiators]. Hesitated. Well…wait a second.
The audience had a display of the standoff by now, and the nine versus three was reflected on the scrying orb, so the Dullahan woman had stopped her warmups. The [Commentator] herself stopped talking for the moment to play out—Yvlon Byres stepped forwards and they tensed as she lifted the sword in her left hand.
Her right arm began to morph, and they all watched that. That deadly weapon—and Yvlon had no Skills to pretend. She had no artifice either. She was Gold-rank.
She lifted her sword high, and called out to them. Her other arm came up and they tensed—then stared at the curious shape it had taken. Which it had never taken before…
“You are all cowardly, perfidious worms! Worthless, honorless vagrants, assaulting an innocent girl!”
Her voice was caught by the scrying spell. The audience listening to it saw one of the [Gladiators] recoil. Yvlon hesitated, then went on.
“You worthless worms, and maggots of no-good repute! I am ashamed to lay eyes on you. I have killed Crelers with more dignity, and if this is a [Gladiator] of the Coliseum of Monarchs, you aren’t worthy to rub shoulders with common [Bandits].”
The nine [Gladiators] exchanged looks. This was starting to really hurt their feelings. Had Yvlon gone mad? Then she adjusted the strange object on her hand.
It had morphed, the jagged front of it turning into a rough crescent forming a teardrop at the bottom. She held it in front of her chest. Angling it. Almost like…a shield. Then she spoke, and they understood.
“I am a Gold-rank adventurer. And as…a knight defends his honor, I will not let you lay a finger on her. If I have to kill you all to do it, I will. Do you understand?”
They blinked at her. Thexca’s worried face turned to astonishment and then delight—and then to righteous fury so fast the audience missed it. The [Gladiators] eyed each other. Then the Dullahan sneered.
“You couldn’t even last against one of us in the last bout, ‘Silver Killer’. That Fox girl isn’t worthy of stepping in the Coliseum of Monarchs. Her blood will stain the sands, on my word, and no one will heal that. That is the price for mocking our great arena!”
She raised her arm, but the cheers were mixed with boos. She grinned, and winked at Yvlon as she turned her head away from the scrying orb. Yvlon Byres set herself. Now—how would it go…?
Ah, yes. She saluted them with her sword, then raised it high overhead. The [Gladiators] waited.
“In the name of House Byres, honor, the dignity of Izril and—”
One threw a knife and Yvlon felt a flash of pain across her cheeks. She saw Thexca leap forwards with a cry of outrage. Yvlon readied herself, and the first two [Gladiators] came in.
And the audience loved it. Two against nine. Three, because Zirre rallied herself enough to start casting magic. A shower of sand, even a spell that lowered the Dullahan woman’s weight so much so that Yvlon sent her flying across the ground with a punch.
That was unprompted. Unscripted. But you had the world’s best improvisers here, and Yvlon? She was an untrained actor, but she knew her source material by heart.
Oh, but it wasn’t easy. It couldn’t be or it wouldn’t be real. Someone leapt on Yvlon’s back, garroting her as another bore her to the ground and then began raining blows with a mace on her torso. But she severed the cord, which was a bit too loose, and staggered upright, drinking a potion.
But she was losing. She put up a fight as much as she could, though. The nine ducked a wire of metal that threatened to cut them in half—one of them screamed, staggering away as she cut off his arm…which turned to cloth as it hit the ground. Yvlon Byres charged them, and they scattered after fifteen minutes of fighting that left three face-down. She had them on the run, six-to-two—
They bore her down. It was so fast she never saw the tripwire, went sprawling, and the Dullahan woman herself planted a foot on her back and ground Yvlon’s face down. She turned, as Mectail went over, taking five of the six original [Gladiators] set against him with him, and only defeated by the reinforcements.
“Now bring that girl over so they can watch as she dies!”
The Dullahan boomed. The last [Gladiators] whirled—but then shouted.
“You idiots! Close it! Close it—”
The gates of Zirre’s waiting area were slowly rising. Zirre, who had fled their lazy pursuit, looked up. Yvlon struggled, but the foot held her still. She saw the Dullahan point, roaring in fury.
“Now, get her you idiots!”
She waited a beat, then whispered to Yvlon.
“I hope she can jump half as well as her sister.”
Zirre ran, screaming, as four [Gladiators] tried to grab her—then the Dullahan as well. Yvlon tackled the woman from behind, and Zirre dashed for the gates. But she was far slower, and a [Gladiator] leapt at her. The Fox-girl saw it coming and—
Leapt. Yvlon’s head rose and she heard a delighted, quiet laugh from the Dullahan woman’s throat. The audience cheered and roared as Zirre leapt through the air. Weightless. Soaring as if she had forgotten the earth had a hold on her, silver fur flashing in the light. Reaching upwards, seeing an arrow aimed—twisting—swinging herself through the air in that curious fashion.
As if orbiting an invisible force. But, of course, Yvlon could not understand how—only the name of that magic.
Zirre plummeted to the earth faster than anyone else, slowed—slammed into the ground as she miscalculated her descent. She rolled under the closing gates as the last [Gladiator] leapt, slammed into the bars, and howled upwards like a depraved animal. The audience was on their feet as the [Commentator] shouted.
“She’s done it! Zirre, the sister of Vitte Groundless can fly as well as the [Gladiator]! She’s escaped the Coliseum of Monarchs, but that was a splendid debut! Will she return? The Silver Killer, Thexca of Scaied, and Mectail the Striker won’t forget this humiliation and the depravity of Pethore and her gang any time soon, however! I am [Commentator]…”
Now that was a show worth coming for.
Afterwards, Yvlon stood in the waiting room shaking hands. Pethore herself was smiling.
“Excellent improvisation. I feared we would have to make the girl suffer. Where is Vitte? I would like to have words with her.”
“I’m going to hurt her. She’s pulled stupid stunts before, but that—Zirre, how are you doing?”
The girl had her head in her knees, but she was unharmed, and still shaking. The other [Gladiators] didn’t know where Vitte was either, but they were congratulating Yvlon on the performance.
And she? She smiled.
“I just did what my brother would do. Only, he would have actually fought you all.”
“Well then, I’m damned grateful it was you. The last thing we need is an idiot who can’t read the crowds—and that’s someone who dies. I thought you—er, well, I’m glad. Vitte, though—it is something else, to put your sister in a place where she’ll be stabbed! What were we supposed to do? Stabbing—dead gods! I did it one time on my cousin because he insisted and it traumatized him for years, Skill or not!”
Another was helping tend to Mectail, who had genuinely been quite badly battered in the fighting.
“We’ll settle this next time, Mectail. A duel to see who truly is the better fighter.”
The [Martial Artist] spat out a tooth. He eyed it ruefully and offered the torn bit of cloth to Leprel.
“I need another one. We will, Tren.”
Yvlon shook her head. Stitch-folk were as adaptive as they came. Replacing teeth, limbs…she could envy that.
She was so caught up in deciding what to do about Vitte, talking, that she didn’t see the [Guards] waiting for her until one of them interrupted.
“I have to take Yvlon Byres with me, now, [Gladiators]. Excuse me—excellent match. But her patron is waiting. There’s actually an invitation for her companions, Thexca, Mectail, and I suppose Zirre since Vitte is missing.”
The others turned. The [Gladiators] glanced with keen interest at Yvlon.
“And who is she meeting? Or is it in the secret meeting rooms?”
The [Guard] glanced over his shoulder and Thexca eyed the odd group behind him. Usually a single [Guard] just took you to a private, spell-proof room if you had to have secrecy. This though…she frowned.
Those aren’t [Arena Guards]. Their armor was far, far too ornate. Each one was, in fact, Silk, and looked down at the Cotton [Guards] who stood respectfully back, as professionally as they could. There were no less than eight of them and…her eyes went round as the [Guard] turned and lowered his voice.
“It’s not the secret rooms. Miss Yvlon Byres? I don’t know who it is but…you’re bound for the palace. The palace.”
The other [Gladiators] looked up. Yvlon sat straighter, and Mectail and Thexca exchanged a glance. Zirre sat up suddenly.
“Wait, me too?”
The [Guard] hesitated, and, at that point, the impatient Silk-caste [Palace Guard] stepped in.
“You four will all ride to the royal palace of Tyrant’s Rest, at the behest of the patron of Yvlon Byres, who sits on the Council of Steel. Their name and identity is not at liberty to be discussed; you shall all be guests of the palace until then. Make such preparations as is needed to leave in twenty minute’s time.”
Yvlon Byres nodded, heart beating faster. Someone on the Council of Steel? She…she had no idea what that was, but she could guess. The other [Gladiators] watched as the [Palace Guards] marched back, then burst into frantic gossip. Thexca sat back, and then spoke after a second.
“…You know what?”
Everyone looked at her. The woman nodded slowly to Yvlon, then Zirre.
“Forget me stabbing Vitte. I can’t think of anything that would hurt her more than knowing she’s going to miss this.”
It was time. Beyond time, really.
The quartet entered into the palace of Tyrant’s Rest, Resturgium, so-named because it had been seized from the Tyrant of Cloth, then rebuilt so that no stone remained that had belonged to that old seat of evil.
The Stitch-folk architecture, melding styles, and flowing approach to construction—as opposed to the rigidity of Izrilian and Terandrian forms—rightly made Resturgium one of the wonders of Chandrar and the world.
Of course, a proper monarch would receive a welcome of thousands of servants and [Slaves], some grand entrance—perhaps on the walkways of air, a procession seen across the entire city.
The four [Gladiators]—wait, was it three plus the sister of one?—were simply walked in, with no fanfare, to the Court of Silk as it convened in the wide forum. They attracted attention, of course.
“That is the adventurer from Izril. You know, the one in the scrying orb?”
“Who sent for her? Look at that arm.”
“—Swear my plumbing was working fine yesterday. In the capital? An outrage, the [Chamberlain] should be—”
Yisame sat on the royal throne which granted her hearing across the entire area. She tuned out the superfluous talk, trying not to crane her neck as she kept her face impassive. Her [Speaker] kept up a light conversation in her name as the other powerful members of the palace circulated around her, or skulked off on their own designs.
It was time…but Yvlon was at the edge of the royal courts, and a proper opening needed to appear for Yisame to quite-coincidentally meet her. Open favor…no. But it would come.
She had missed the chance to coincidentally meet Yvlon yesterday, and had to spend forty minutes meeting other [Gladiators]. Yisame pursed her lips, frowning. It might be too brazen to invite Yvlon now, but…
It was time. Those [Gladiators]—what a mockery they made of a real adventurer, a heroine of true wit and daring. Involving her in those charades? Yisame knew their playacting when she saw it.
That wasn’t Yvlon Byres. She was a Horn of Hammerad. She had gone into the Village of the Dead…Yisame saw a flash of blonde hair as Yvlon circulated. She let a [Servant] fan her, waiting impatiently as the happy group around her discussed the siege of Reim.
“Three armies have begun the advance. No sign of that Rev—that ‘Vizir’, but we have placed an army facing Khelt.”
Yisame broke off from looking for Yvlon to look around in alarm. The [Strategist] hastened to clarify.
“At a great remove, of course. A symbolic position far from the borders. Yet we cannot be seen to give way to undead. As for Pomle…”
“These are insolent wasps. Incompetence is truly what it is. Too many feather touches when what is called for is the hand to wield a hammer for a decisive strike. Isn’t that so, General Thelican?”
The Stitch-man touched his beard, smiling around at the others.
“You would say it, not me, Chancellor…”
Yisame rolled her eyes, but privately. Now where was Yvlon…?
[Gladiator Level 6!]
[Skill – Weakness Feint obtained!]
[Skill – Suresand Step obtained!]
“Yvlon! What are you doing?”
Yvlon Byres jerked. She opened her eyes, and realized she’d dozed off. She sat up hurriedly as Thexca looked askance at her.
“You’re in the royal palace! Resturgium itself! Are you sleeping?”
“Yes. I levelled up as a [Gladiator] again.”
She had mixed feelings on it, but none wholly negative. Thexca hesitated.
“Oh—congratulations. Er, we’ll have to celebrate. But what are you doing?”
Yvlon sighed and stretched her back slightly. She looked around, and eyed the table filled with high-class delicacies. They sat in one of the royal courts, where Named Adventurers and [Courtiers], powerful [Magistrates] and no less than the [Queen] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen herself, Yisame, would come and deliberate upon the affairs of state.
The two [Gladiators], Thexca and Mectail, were looking around, and even he was clearly taken in by the atmosphere. Zirre? Zirre was petrified, sitting and agog.
Yvlon yawned. Thexca was offended by it, but Yvlon rubbed at her right shoulder.
“I’m sorry, Thexca. Healing and fighting in the morning…”
“Aren’t you excited? Your patron is from the Council of Steel!”
“Well, they haven’t shown up. And I think we had better prepare to be here all day.”
Yvlon glanced around the royal court. She eyed the delicacies on the table, then sat back, sighing. Thexca gave her another glare.
“You don’t seem impressed. What, do Izrilian [Ladies] get this sort of treatment all the time? We can order whatever we want—look at all the richness! Scaied is not half as rich…and we might meet the [Queen] herself!”
She trailed off. Yvlon nodded, understandingly.
“I don’t want to take away from the moment. But you should know, Thexca, we’re not going to meet the [Queen].”
“You sure? She’s sitting right there.”
Mectail pointed towards a distant throne. Yvlon shook her head.
“I know royal courts, Mectail. We are far too unimportant to get close. We’ll circulate the lesser areas. Maybe meet with curious members of the aristocracy, important figures—but not too important. Unless one of them is interested in us…it’s impossible. And who would be?”
“We are top [Gladiators]. And you’re famous from Izril.”
Yvlon waved that away.
“Not to a monarch. She could summon Named-rank adventurers.”
That put it into context for the others. Thexca eyed a frosted delicacy sprinkled with gold.
“And the furnishings? The treats? You don’t want anything?”
Yvlon looked at the sweets. She shuddered.
“…No. To be honest, I’d like more regional foods from Nerrhavia’s Fallen. This is all—well, simply rich foods. More edible gold than substance. And no, thank you. I’ve had enough pastries and sweets to last eighteen lifetimes. And fifteen stomachs.”
The others gave her a curious look. Yvlon Byres had to explain.
“I used to visit my aunt. Magnolia Reinhart. She…”
…Quite ruined even a young girl’s sweet tooth. It was like that parental trick of giving a child who tried wine an entire bottle until they were sick—not that it was a smart move. But in Yvlon’s case? She shuddered. Sweet tea. Sweet pies. Sweet…
So she was more analytical than the others. Still, Yvlon had to admit, this court was huge. Thousands of people, all who qualified to be here, and, soon enough, more than a few made her acquaintance.
“So you are the adventurer from Izril. I am the Emira Sal-Therrisa, and I have observed you on the news network, of scrying orb repute.”
The complex statement was followed by the delicate snap of a fan as a Stitch-woman with eye-shadow and a sigil of some kind painted on each cheek in gold stopped before Yvlon. All the [Gladiators] and Zirre bowed.
“I’m honored to meet your acquaintance, milady.”
Yvlon pulled from some of Ylawes for that, and the [Emira] smiled.
“Ah, Izrilian etiquette. How delightful. Tell me, Adventurer Byres. Truthfully—was all of that quite real? I have an acquaintance who insists it was staged.”
She fingered a brooch as she eyed Yvlon. The woman blinked at her.
“…It was certainly real, Emira. I don’t know what you saw exactly, but we didn’t stage the Village of the Dead raid.”
“Really. It was so untidy—and quite dangerous. Yet thrilling. And now you come here—and I hear you have been unjustly imprisoned? How did this come to pass?”
She was the first of a number. Yvlon saw Thexca give her a nod, and she launched into an abbreviated version of the tale. Emira Sal-Therrisa frowned mightily.
“A corrupt [Magistrate]? Your team is missing?”
“I believe…one of my teammates may have been unjustly taken prisoner by Roshal as a [Slave].”
The Emira caught herself.
“Well, I shall hope mightily for your success, Adventurer Yvlon. Nerrhavia is a just kingdom, and if this [Magistrate] is indeed false…it will bear out. Indeed. I am glad to have met you—such lovely arms you have. More Humans should adopt your class. They are entirely fetching.”
Yvlon’s mouth opened and closed. She managed to reply after a moment.
“Yes. Well, I must attend to my husband—but before we part, I believe a token of our meeting might be in order? A keepsake?”
Yvlon had no idea what she meant, and the [Emira] eyed her over the fan. They stood there in awkward silence for a good few seconds before Thexca leaned over and whispered.
“A signature, Yvlon.”
“What? Oh—I don’t have—”
Yvlon was about to protest, but Thexca silently handed her a piece of white cardboard. The Emira smiled as Yvlon awkwardly scrawled with her left hand.
“Thank you. I shall quite enjoy mentioning our meeting.”
She departed as a [Servant] bowed, offered her a drink, and directed her towards her husband. Yvlon watched the Emira go.
“What was that?”
“I think she wanted to meet you. You did well. She’ll definitely remember your name if she has your autograph. She didn’t ask for mine.”
Thexca wistfully stared after the Emira’s back—she hadn’t so much as looked at Thexca. Then the [Gladiator]’s eyes brightened.
“Hold on…Zirre, do you have more autograph cards? Mectail, hand ‘em over. I know you have one…”
“Excuse me, are you Adventurer Byres? In the flesh? I just wanted to get your opinion on the latest raid they’re showing on the scrying orb. And, ah, a token of remembrance. And is it true you found a gateway from Izril to Chandrar?”
The second person accosted Yvlon seconds after the Emira. She found herself staring at a Stitch-man who turned out to be a [Merchant Lord] who thought she’d seen the latest adventurer drama on the scrying orb and had some funny rumors about her.
“So not a gateway? I was told Izril had one.”
“That’s a portal door, er, sir. It doesn’t connect nearly as far as Chandrar; only to other parts of Izril, and only around Liscor.”
He snapped his fingers.
“Damn. Someone assured me there was cross-continental teleportation in the works, but that’s rumor-based Skills for you. Excuse me—the darn thread—”
He noticed a stray thread on his thumb, and, looking embarrassed, pulled it and removed his entire thumb. He tucked the digit away in a pocket and turned to Yvlon.
“Frayed cloth. I keep meaning to have it all redone, but they never have the right cuts of cloth I’m happy with.”
Yvlon felt a tap on her shoulder and blinked as Thexca offered her an autograph card.
“Honored guest? Adventurer Yvlon’s token of remembrance.”
“Ah, thank you.”
Yvlon reached for it to sign—then saw a curious thing. The autograph card was pre-signed, and it had no less than four signatures. The [Merchant Lord]’s eyes brightened.
“Now what is this?”
“Thexca of Scaied, Mectail the Striker, uh, Zirre, and the Silver Killer of the Coliseum of Monarchs. We are a team of this morning, sir.”
Thexca saw the [Merchant Lord] glance at Yvlon’s companions. He eyed the signatures, each in a different color, and Yvlon saw a very stylish ‘Silver Killer’ followed by an elegant signature of her name—she eyed Thexca and the [Gladiator] winked.
“How delightful. Thank you. A new team, is it? I must visit the arenas again sometime soon.”
Yvlon turned just in time to see Thexca forging another signature on a small pile of cardboard squares. She glanced up at Yvlon, and the woman…gave her a covert thumbs-up. She understood adventurers marketing themselves. What amused Yvlon the most was the final signature. After the [Merchant] had walked away, she leaned over.
“Are you adding Zirre’s signature to the card?”
“A four-set. It looks better, and she will be a [Mage] someday. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Yvlon. For her. I’ll be back. Why?”
Thexca looked up as Yvlon glanced at Zirre. She saw a rare twinkle in Yvlon’s eyes. The [Armsmistress] whispered.
“Write ‘Zirre Groundless’ on the card. We’ll tell Vitte later.”
Thexca’s face was slack—then a huge grin reached her ears. Even Mectail snorted approvingly.
The introductions in the first hour were a whirlwind of people asking Yvlon all manner of things. Was the scrying orb telling the truth? How did she get here? Where was her team? What were her thoughts on the war, how did she find Nerrhavia, the honor of being a [Gladiator]…
Interesting, revealing conversations. But mostly, they asked about the gossip spreading through the court.
“So. You claim the Magistrate Ducaz of…well, I’d have to find the region. He falsely accused and imprisoned a Gold-rank adventurer?”
Ylvon met the interrogative eyes that were a bit too small in a glaring face. Yet this was a Stitch-man. She nodded slightly, never looking away.
“I will stake my team’s reputation on it, sir. And swear on truth stones.”
“Ah, but truth stones were surely employed in your conviction.”
“Then someone is lying. But it is not me, sir.”
The man’s stare was like a pair of hot needles, but Yvlon had met prickly [Lords] before. They were part and parcel for Izril, and so she held his gaze until he nodded.
“If it is true, then perhaps it is a form of lesser corruption. Or the [Magistrate] himself…but one cannot lie alone. If it is true. I will take you at your word, Adventurer. I do not want a remembrance token. I offer you a farewell. Walk on the bones of tyrants.”
He turned and hobbled off, and no less than three [Bodyguards] and a cluster of servants followed. Yvlon exhaled as Thexca lowered the card she kept offering.
“Who was that?”
The [Gladiator] didn’t know, but Zirre hurried over, looking nervous and excited.
“That…was [Supreme Adjudicator] Coroint. He’s retired, but he used to be one of the officials who settled disputes between royal households.”
Yvlon whistled silently as she stared at the old Stitch-man. Thexca blinked, eyes huge.
“Now there’s a powerful patron. This might be bigger than we thought, Silver. Did you see how he kept touching that ring on his finger? That wasn’t just [Detect Truth], I think.”
No—Yvlon had noticed the huge opal as well. From the way Coroint had frowned…well, she had high hopes herself.
A [Servant] with a blank face appeared. He was Silk and dressed in what Yvlon took to be royal colors; Nerrhavia’s were purely gold and white and, to cut the high colors, a deeper pink-red mixed with purple. He spoke, crisply.
“You are summoned to the inner walks of the Court of Silk. You may approach the second pavilion and may stay there until called further or dismissed.”
He gestured, and Yvlon saw that he was pointing to the second layer of the courts, closer to the throne.
“The second pavilion? That’s only one from being able to approach the throne! Excuse me—is Yvlon meeting someone? All of us are…?”
The [Servant] bowed slightly, eyes flickering to Yvlon’s face and her arms.
“You will be summoned shortly. Permission has been granted to enter the inner walkways—that is all I am at liberty to say.”
Yvlon saw him gesture, and she, Mectail, and Thexca followed him across a line on the stone floors. A distinction between the outer part of the Court of Silk and…
Heads turned as they watched the four being led in. Zirre was clinging to Mectail’s back, scurrying past him, and murmurs arose. Those who had seen Yvlon Byres already saw her draw closer to the throne and, accordingly, the aloof group in the inner court saw her enter and began to drift over.
Among their number was the [Supreme Adjudicator] himself. He turned in his seat and eyed Yvlon. She heard his faint harumph—and his eyes sharpened.
Who is my patron?
Now Yvlon was curious. She had assumed it was someone who was simply taken with her as an adventurer. But…this was no common member of the nobility.
Now even those around the dais were glancing up—and at each other. If you could understand how they thought, they were as open as a good book.
Who had invited this [Gladiator] here? Well, we might as well scope out the situation. Is this a ploy? Simply greeting…is that the adventurer from the scrying orb? Why yes it is!
Fascinating. Not least Yvlon’s arms, which were interesting even to most here. And with them came a rumor.
Somewhere, the [Magistrate] was going to have a very bad day. However—there were things Yvlon hadn’t accounted for. One of them was Administrator Vebrynthe, who casually asked a [Servant] who that Human was—then asked again. The other was that she had forgotten how it worked. Everyone knew everyone. Friends…well, friend was an exaggeration in most cases.
Someone came striding up to Yvlon before she truly began the second wave of introductions and greetings. She was just shaking hands with a Garuda woman who was a [Diplomat] from afar when a young man, oh, nineteen or so, planted himself in front of her.
He was shorter than her, young, and had a sword on his side. Yvlon noticed that first—then the strange quality of his skin, which seemed…almost a bit luminescent? He stared up at her, glaring at the taller Human woman, then snapped.
“How is it done?”
“Er, excuse me?”
The Garuda backed up as the young man glared at her.
“How is it done? With you Izrilians. Hm? Well?”
He turned, and, rather than address her, glared at a group behind him. Yvlon saw, in order, a Stitch-man with a huge frown for her, tugging out a riding glove from his bag of holding; he was dressed in dark scale mail, some monster’s clothing, and handsome in a sharp-featured way—Silk.
Eight bodyguards and just as many servants, and, among them, standing far at the back, a huge, broad-shouldered man with a severe nose, who stood quiet with a plain helm over his face and good, but severely plain armor, aside from the complicated blue seal that combined an anchor with some writing Yvlon couldn’t recognize. She met his gaze and realized—he was Hemp, the first of his caste she had seen here.
He was also, incidentally, the most dangerous of the entire group if Yvlon’s warrior senses were right; something about the way he stood made him feel like Calruz, or another fighter who could explode into an attack if need be.
The second most dangerous was the man who removed the riding glove.
“I believe it is with gloves, Highness.”
“Is it? Then—”
Yvlon blinked, recoiled, and the tip of the riding glove slapped her across the face. She cursed.
“What are you doing, you idiot?”
Her hand went to her side, but there was no sword. Instantly, the conversation around her went silent. [Guards] turned, and she stared as the tall Silk-man calmly put a hand on his own sword. The young man nodded.
“That is twice. First, the magistrate. Now, an insult to my line or my trusted retainer, which is equal.”
Yvlon stared down at him. Her jaw worked as her good hand clenched. Her first instinct was to punch the man who’d just slapped her with a glove. But she calmed herself, gritted her teeth.
“I’m sorry. I seem to have offended you, and I don’t know who you are…?”
The young man’s eyes flashed. He raised his voice, throwing his head back, and Yvlon saw he had some kind of decorative scarf-wrap around his head.
“I am Prince Esceit of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, glorious nation of cloth. I am heir of Quarein, whose royal blood stands second only to Beziin.”
He turned and bowed to the throne. Yvlon looked up, and saw a pair of staring eyes past a veiled fan. She and [Queen] Yisame Beziin of Nerrhavia’s Fallen locked eyes for a fraction of a second and then her attention was dragged back down by the [Prince].
“You have insulted the [Magistrate] of my domain and implied corruption among the Quarein family. You have insulted my servant and, therefore, me. You have no knowledge of whom you address. As the Izrilians do it, Adventurer Yvlon Byres, I say you spread falsehoods, I demand apology, to myself, my name, and Nerrhavia itself which you are guest of. If you understand none of this, understand at least that you stand in the presence of a [Prince] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen.”
The young man stood there, diatribe completed, and Yvlon Byres stared at him, rubbing her cheek. The first thought she had was that he didn’t quite understand that slapping someone with a glove was more of a Terandrian ideal. And even then—it wasn’t used quite like that.
The second was that…Ducaz? Yvlon understood why this young man was offended—well, one of the three reasons listed. She mildly, mildly replied to him.
“Your Highness Esceit, I apologize if there has been any misunderstanding. I did not mean to offend your family, but I have been unjustly imprisoned by Magistrate Ducaz. That is not a slight on your family.”
“You are using my name without permission, Human. And if I must explain, I must explain—Quarein has no corruption within it. To imply a [Magistrate] of an entire region is corrupt is to throw our loyalty to the throne into doubt. That is four. Septis?”
The glove raised and Yvlon cursed, but again, it tickled a cheek.
“Would you stop—Your Highness, I am a Gold-rank adventurer of Izril. Surely you have heard of—my raid on the Village of the Dead was on a scrying orb. I came to Chandrar by chance. That I appeared as a prisoner in Nerrhavia’s Fallen surely seems wrong, doesn’t it?”
She clenched her hand behind her back. Calm down. Don’t pull an Erin. Or a Pisces. Or a…no, those two were the worst. She eyed the young man balefully, and someone else approached.
“Your Highness. Your Highness, perhaps now is not the…we are in the presence of the crown.”
An anxious woman and another gaggle of people with the same odd sheen to their skin approached. Yvlon guessed they were the [Prince]’s family of some kind, but the [Prince] just snapped at the [Servant].
“Now is precisely the time. Or Her Majesty—”
Again, he bowed at the throne.
“—Will not see the loyalty of our royal name. We are Quarein of Satin! We do not suffer lies. By my cloth, I will not. And this Human—you are insolent, Adventurer Byres, but I will relent as you are a guest of the Court of Silks and your appearance on the scrying orb has some credence. Nevertheless, you will recant your words against Magistrate Ducaz and I will pardon the…”
He hesitated and his bodyguard or servant leaned over.
“Four transgressions. Yes, Septis.”
Yvlon Byres glanced at the man, who gave her an unfriendly look. She exhaled, slowly.
“…I cannot do that, Your Highness. I did not lie. I am Yvlon of House Byres, an Izrilian noble house, and my word is true as silver. I do not intend offense against…House Quarein of Satin or Nerrhavia’s Fallen—I am simply pointing out a corrupt man who lied and interfered with the system of law to place me in bonds illegally. That is all. I hope you will not be offended and if you try and slap me one more time, I will rip your arm off and feed it to you.”
The [Prince] recoiled and every [Guard] raised their weapons as Yvlon grabbed the glove and her hand turned into a flurry of spikes. It shredded the fabric as Septis recoiled, half-drawing his sword. Yvlon tossed the piece of fabric down.
“Back, Your Highness—to the [Prince]!”
Someone cried. The Silk Stitch-man slowly drew a dark, purple-tinted blade that made Yvlon’s nerves sing. The Hemp-man in the back calmly raised his hand, moving forwards in front of Esceit as Thexca backed up, horrified. Mectail raised a fist—
“Lay your weapons down.”
A voice from the dais. Yvlon stopped, hand raised, and the others froze, swords raised. Mainly because a line of archers had stood up, and, in front of them, a wall of [Palace Guards] were presenting enchanted steel. No less than forty advanced on Yvlon as she froze, then raised her arms.
The [Archers] had flaming arrows. Most were trained on her, but a few shifted aim towards Septis, the Hemp-man…and Mectail and Thexca. None to the [Prince].
The [Queen]. Her [Speaker] was on her feet, and it was she who called out, furious.
“You draw blades in the Court of Silk? Before Her Majesty? Even a [Prince] should not dare. Let alone an adventurer from foreign lands.”
Instantly, the Quarein family turned to the throne. Yvlon saw the [Prince] bow, face flushed, and glare at her. As if any part of this was her fault…well, she had lost her temper. She froze as they began to apologize.
“Your Majesty, we beg forgiveness for the disturbance…we will offer apologies to the throne and all present. His Highness was simply concerned with—”
“I will not accept this slight on my royal name, or that of the crown, Your Majesty. Forgive me.”
Prince Esceit broke in. He bowed to Yisame, who had never moved. Her [Speaker] stepped back, as Yisame’s fingers flashed, but she listened, glancing once at Yvlon as the [Prince] spoke.
“I will not trouble Your Majesty or the Court of Silk. Yet it is done five times now—five slights. Therefore, as this Human woman is a [Gladiator], I demand a bout in the Coliseum of Monarchs. My warriors will redress her—Septis, my loyal hand, will answer her insults in blood.”
He gestured, and Septis stepped back, sheathing his sword. The [Prince] glanced up, but the woman on the throne was silent. It was her right hand who spoke, eyes flashing, frown in full view of all.
“This entire affair…displeases us, Prince Esceit. The adventurer is a noted figure of distant Izril. We are unhappy with Quarein. Insults or no, a Gold-rank adventurer deserves respect, in combat or outside. Your warrior is no [Gladiator]; the Coliseum of Monarchs is for those who earn the right to battle there, not a grounds for simple dispute.”
The ominous speech from the [Speaker] made Pince Esceit duck his head further. His ears were bright red, and he hesitated. Before anyone else could speak—and they looked ready to drag him off—he glanced back.
“Then…if it pleases the throne, I shall answer [Gladiator] with [Gladiator]. Beton! Step forwards!”
Another figure came forwards, the calm Hemp-man who hadn’t drawn a weapon. Yvlon’s nerves tingled as he sank to one knee. The [Prince] gestured to him.
“Though it may shame the Courts to present him here—Beton is a champion of the Coliseum of Monarchs past. Beton [Doomguard]. I shall have him answer the adventurer in a manner befitting the arenas.”
Yvlon saw the [Gladiator] bow. She heard a muffled oath from behind her.
“Oh shit. That’s not…”
Thexca fell silent. And indeed, Yisame and her speaker were silent a long moment. Yvlon saw a finger twitch. The [Speaker] glanced at her, then smiled.
“We are most pleased by this. Honor to the traditions of Nerrhavia must stand above all. Honor and dignity. We shall forgive this slight once.”
“Yes, Your Majesty. I am humbled by your words. I shall arrange the match at once.”
Prince Esceit shot to his feet. He turned, and fixed Yvlon with a stare. She looked back, glancing first at Septis, who eyed her balefully…then that man.
Beton. He rose, slowly, bowing, and tilted his head her way. His face changed not at all, but Yvlon cursed. Why did these things always happen to her?
She should have let that idiot slap her. But this was Nerrhavia’s Fallen. The courts where duels were not unknown, and the dignity of such things sometimes ended in blood. Where such plots were common. And the [Queen] floated above it all, serene, impartial, an observer among a current of plots. There was little else of note as Yvlon was towed backwards to the Coliseum for a match of vendettas. No time for a patron—who never revealed themself.
But she swore, when the [Speaker] took a bad fall off the dais, that she saw a foot kick her.
Yvlon Byres was getting awfully sick of people making life harder for her. Greedy, shortsighted, arrogant…
She was almost glad for a chance to fight back. Almost—but she kept staring at her right arm. It was still jagged just past her wrist. She couldn’t fight at full-strength without it, even if she could pull tricks with the metal itself.
This time she needed to be at full-strength. Prince Esceit’s challenge had hit Nerrhavia’s court and city like a storm, and he did not waste time. They had a duel that evening, and Yvlon had to not only figure out how to fight—she also had to see if she was alone.
“I wish it was the other one. The right hand—Septis, that Silk [Bodyguard]. Not that it would be easy. He’s got a poisoned blade. Did you see the purple edge?”
“How good is he? Some idiot in a distant family or…?”
“Professional bodyguard. No idea how good, but they’re one of the main bloodlines. He has to be Level 30. Not higher, probably.”
Yvlon was sitting with Rexel and Leprel as the two freaked out. Vitte was here, and Zirre, Mectail, Thexca…and even Romen and sympathetic gladiators like Pethore. They’d all heard the story by now and Vitte’s outrage…
Was somehow still focused around Vitte.
“I missed it. You didn’t even put my name on the autograph card! You put Zirre’s?”
“Vitte, shut the hell up. Yvlon, you’re in trouble. Septis was the better choice. If they let you duel him, you’d have a fair shot, one arm or not.”
“I think so.”
Yvlon didn’t like the poisoned blade, but the man hadn’t seemed impossibly good and she had a distinct whiff of arrogance from him. Vitte nodded.
“All you’d have to do is not kill him or else there’d be a second feud. Beton, though…”
Everyone fell silent. Yvlon looked around.
“He was with the [Prince]. Part of the bodyguard, despite being Hemp.”
“Because he’s the real security, along with Septis. No one’ll try to take on an arena champion. And he was the champion of this arena.”
Romen muttered. Yvlon felt at her bad arm, touching the ends of the metal.
“…So how good is he? What’s his fighting style? Can I bring any—”
Pethore spoke. Yvlon glanced up. The Dullahan woman looked down at her, eyes sympathetic, holding her head in her hands. She placed it on the table and her head addressed Yvlon solemnly.
“Forty-three. That was his level when he became champion. In true bouts—no pretense, no acting. That was then, and it was near a decade ago, when I was first here. He uses a mace in one hand, and has a kind of arm-gauntlet on the other. He can block with it as good as anyone with a shield, and I once saw him crack the arena’s magical barrier with a blow. That…is your opponent.”
The room fell silent. Yvlon felt cold.
Level 40. A step above her current stage. A huge one. No—she had other levels. She wasn’t purely Level 30 alone but…
He might have multiple classes too. Still, Level 40. And she had one arm, and not even her dominant one.
“Maybe it won’t be to the death.”
Thexca suggested after a while. She shrugged.
“I don’t know blood-duels in Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Back in Scaied, we just tap them with poison and let them scream for a week straight. Is there any chance…?”
“It depends on whether or not the [Prince] tells Beton to finish Yvlon off once—if she loses. Thumbs up, thumbs down. Simple.”
“And the odds of…?”
Thexca looked around. No one met her glance. Vitte coughed.
“Well, he was insulted five times.”
Yvlon Byres sat there. No gear. No secret weapon. The others began trying to talk tactics.
“At least he’ll have to use standard gear.”
“That favors him, not Yvlon—someone check her potions allowance. If we can give her a Potion of Speed instead of a healing potion—”
“…saw Beton fight once. He’ll charge straight in. If Yvlon could evade…”
She didn’t partake in the strategy. Mectail wanted to run through a practice battle. Someone else suggested a [Masseuse]. When everyone stared at Romen, he lifted his hands.
“They have good Skills! It will limber her up for a battle. Anything. Any temporary buff or advantage…”
“That’s a good point. Yvlon? We could try a massage or…Yvlon?”
The woman stood up without a word.
“I need a moment. Rexel, let me know when the match is an hour away.”
She slowly walked towards her room as her friends fell silent behind her. Yet it was not in despair or desolation as they might think. Yvlon entered her room, sat down, and went for the desk drawer. She pulled out the two rings, two scrolls, and stared at them.
I could destroy all of the arena if one of these scrolls is deadly. The rings…
She reached for one, hesitated.
There was nothing stupider than putting on an unknown relic. No one was that crazy. Ceria, Pisces…Ksmvr might do it because he was young and new to the job, but she might well take her chances that the [Prince] would spare her.
But if it was certain death or not—Yvlon Byres slowly put the rings in her pockets. She hoped that wouldn’t activate them—well, swallowing them hadn’t. The scrolls? She hesitated.
The scrolls could be truly dangerous if they were the possessions of that Putrid One. She would rely on the rings as a last-ditch resort. She stood up, shaking slightly, and went to talk to Mectail and Pethore. Either training or insight into that [Gladiator]’s style would be welcome.
She walked out the door and straight into a wall of flesh. Well, more like rock. Yvlon recoiled. She looked up—
And there he was. Beton [Doomguard]. Yvlon froze. She went for the sword she, again, didn’t have and he grabbed her arm.
“You have insulted Quarein’s royal line.”
“You—what are y—”
He was right outside her room! The former [Gladiator] pivoted, and tossed Yvlon as her shoulder morphed. The spike of steel missed his hands and she hit a wall.
“What was—dead gods!”
A [Guard] came walking down the corridor, saw Beton, and went pale. The [Gladiator] ignored him. He reached out and put an arm against her shoulder, away from her metal arm, pressing her against the wall. He was strong! And—Yvlon grabbed his hand—his flesh was almost as tough as her skin!
“Steel woven into thread. Steel wool. Quarein’s gold is my cloth and flesh. I am Beton, and I ruled this coliseum. You are a Gold-rank adventurer and brave, but I tell you now—you cannot best me. If you bow and grovel before Prince Esceit, you may yet live. I am offering you this chance.”
“Gladiator Beton—you can’t—let her go!”
The [Guard] nervously shouted. Beton glanced sideways at him and the man stepped back. Beton shook his head.
“Adventurer Byres will not die here. I am offering her a chance. Do not interfere.”
“You—I didn’t start—”
Yvlon’s chest was compressing. Beton leaned forwards. His skin did have a metallic-ish cast to it. And, yes, his features were dull. A blunt, curiously flat edge to his nose, two wide-set eyes, a mop of short, tough hair in grey, and cracked lips. He looked like an upscaled version of a [Bouncer] in some bar, a [Tough]. The [Guard] was backing up, calling for reinforcements as Beton leaned forwards.
“Surrender and beg for his mercy, or I will punish you before you die, adventurer. You are not my equal. You should have been a [Knight]. A [Knight] could face me well. You? Pathetic.”
He pressed harder and Yvlon gasped. Gasped…and stared at him.
“You think…I’m a [Knight]…?”
“Better you were. But then, I have no weaknesses. Understand?”
Beton stepped back, as more [Guards] skidded around the corner, saw Beton, and decided they didn’t have enough reinforcements. He lifted one huge hand.
“Do you understand?”
Yvlon saw him point at her. She backed up, coughing.
“I do. And—I refuse to bow to your [Prince] for telling the truth! I was told this city was founded on the bones of tyrants. It doesn’t seem much has changed.”
His eyes narrowed. Yvlon saw a hand come up. The [Guards] ran forwards, saw a fist go through the wall, and ran back.
Yvlon ducked. She stared up at the crumbling stone, plaster, and Beton’s face. Now shouting filled the halls, and more [Gladiators] came running, including Mectail, who sped up when he saw Beton. The [Gladiator] stared down at Yvlon and his lips moved fractionally.
“Just like that.”
The [Doomguard] turned. Yvlon saw Mectail leap and throw a palm out.
They touched—palm to arm blocking Mectail’s chest. This time, the shockwave made Yvlon’s ears pop. When she got up, she saw Mectail recoiling, and Beton…walking backwards.
“I gave you one last chance, Human. Remember that.”
He pointed at her and walked off. Mectail was glaring. The others stared at the hole in the wall.
“Oh, dead gods Yvlon…”
“I’ll be okay. I think. I’ll be—”
Yvlon stared back at Beton. Her lips moved slightly.
The arena was roaring already. They did for things like this. A former [Champion Gladiator], facing a Gold-rank adventurer in a blood match of honor?
The stuff of stories. Oh, but she wished it were a story she would like.
Yisame was furious. That idiot from Quarein—she hadn’t thought they’d take it personally. The [Princes], though—they were dangerous. Too close to the throne. Yet Yvlon!
She knew Yvlon was the heroine of the Horns of Hammerad’s tale. A brave woman, who had survived encounters most warriors couldn’t dream of.
Yet she kept repeating the numbers. Level 37 [Silversteel Armsmistress] versus Beton’s Level 43 [Doomguard Gladiator Champion]—and that was ten years ago.
“A Level 40 capstone does not make an entire battle.”
“No, but it tends to win most of them. There is a huge spike in power and Beton’s no rookie. Your Majesty.”
A cracked voice replied. Yisame turned to glare, but this wasn’t her [Speaker] and her gaze bounced right off her companion in the royal booth.
“So that’s the Gold-ranker, eh? One arm and she’s already fought this morning? I’ll bet on Beton any day of the week.”
Yisame had forgotten all about that. She ground her teeth together as Yvlon came out onto the sands. She raised her one arm briefly; she had a shield strapped to the other arm. The crowd cheered and roared and jeered, because she had insulted Quarein, a beloved royal line. Satin’s caste.
When Beton entered, though, the roaring was so loud the [Silence] spells automatically activated in the royal booth. He wore no enchanted armor; just that steel armguard over one arm, running down to his hand, and holding a mace in the other.
Hemp. Metal-cloth. Yisame had heard even his bones were made more of metal than cloth, and he had shown that toughness in the arena time and time again. She ran down the list of highlights as the [Announcer] read them off.
Survived a [Fireball] point blank range. Fought a Grand Elephant to a standstill. Hit by a catapult and…
“Oh come on.”
She watched as he raised his arms and the screaming grew even louder. Yvlon Byres looked quite small, standing there, even reflected onto the large, enchanted mirror set up to magnify her. How had it come to this?
In dead silence, she watched as Yvlon Byres was given one last chance to repent her scurrilous ways. The [Prince], Esceit, did not occupy Yisame’s most royal booth, but his family and entourage, including that idiot with the glove, Septis, were all watching from the front rows. Yisame half-wished Yvlon would…
But she did not. She shook her head, and that was everything Yisame wanted of her. And yet…Yvlon lifted her sword as the [Prince] pointed at Beton. The [Doomguard] bowed and then raised his mace. The two warriors stared at each other as the [Announcer] counted it down with the crowd.
Yvlon’s heart beat down. Three. Two. One…
And then Beton charged. He launched forwards so fast that Yisame didn’t see it. Yvlon herself was caught off-guard as he flashed across the arena. His mace screamed behind him and she saw him roar a Level 40 Skill.
Not his best. But a Skill of a level above Yvlon’s. The simple, iron mace turned dark. What Yisame could only describe as a pall of dark energy charged around it, and when it swung down, she saw the air fracture and spread outwards, crushing everything the shockwave touched.
She cried out. Yisame was on her feet, so was half the arena. The other half was watching the scrying orb. They saw a flurry—then, as the dust was whisked away by spells they saw Yvlon Byres.
She had ducked the blow, unimaginably fast as it was. Beton recoiled as her sword came up and the metal on her arms twisted—stabbed in an explosion outwards. He twisted, but too slow, and as he recoiled…
The [Doomguard] stepped back, touched his shoulder. He stared at Yvlon and a drop of dark red blood hit the sands. Yisame gasped as the crowd shouted and cheered and exclaimed. Yvlon Byres charged into an attack, took a step back—and the earth exploded. A geyser of rock and sand nearly took her face off. She stumbled backwards as Beton charged again, but once more he was caught off-guard by her morphing arms. Twice now! Yisame was breathless, as her companion chortled and demanded a drink and snack.
The stuff of stories.
A geyser of earth? She had never even seen a Skill like that. Had he somehow transmitted a blow through the ground? Yvlon Byres rolled, panting, and saw the mace come down.
The ground kicked her. The air kicked her. She went flying, caught herself, and saw Beton turning, looking for her. Each time his mace struck, it left a terrible shockwave—she had already realized she could block one blow at most before he destroyed her shield.
Yet he wouldn’t give her one blow if he could follow it up. Nor did he give her a chance to set herself. He was already charging. Yvlon saw the mace come up and aimed a finger—a needle of metal shot out and his hand twisted—but she’d forgotten his other hand.
The gauntleted arm blocked her sword, picked her up, and Yvlon felt herself being carried in a bull-rush towards one of the walls. She swore, trying to move free, but the momentum—
Her eyes widened. She struck the wall, so hard the wind went out of her. The stone cracked and she hoped her ribs hadn’t, but—she could breathe and she saw the mace moving—
Her foot dug into the stone. No, wait—his knee! Yvlon pushed up and jumped. The mace hit the stone wall of the arena. The detonation sent her tumbling, and the entire arena’s barrier flashed as people threw up their hands from the terrific cloud of debris.
When it was gone, Beton was staring incredulously at the wall, coughing in the dust. Looking around for her…Yvlon Byres charged him from the side. He whirled, and they locked blades. Yvlon’s arms began to explode into a porcupine and his eyes went wide. He tried to back up, too slow…
The illusion. Behind.
Beton went roaring away as the crowd howled; he had been struck dozens of times as Yvlon’s arms became a living porcupine of metal! Yet he was not the Champion of Rust; he turned, eyes ablaze with fury and came at her in a roar. Yvlon saw him blur slightly as he charged her. She ran forwards, hesitated, saw the image of Beton charging her vanish. She was already turning—
And the mace nearly took her face off again. The uppercut did send her reeling backwards. Yvlon’s mouth was bloody, but she staggered back. She began her [Sword Art], sword twisting in her hand and he stopped, warily.
They faced each other, for a shuddering heartbeat, then three—then he kicked sand up at her and charged. She hit the ground, wrestling away from punching fists, that mace—
During the throw. Sword art.
Her eyes widened. And up she went. And—he raised a mace to strike her as he held her and she stabbed down. He roared and threw her and Yvlon twisted.
[Sword Art: Crescent of the Moon]!
It caught him across the chest, and even the [Doomguard]’s partial block wasn’t enough. He stared at his torn flesh, in a crescent arc across his body, and howled. Yvlon got to her feet, reaching for her own potion. She saw Beton whirl, point at her, and shout. But she wasn’t listening to that.
Four times. Four deaths. From the first blow, impossibly fast to her head, to the rock geyser attack to being trapped in the wall—now the illusion attack. She had escaped each one by the barest chance—and only because she had the reflexes to match.
And…because she’d known it had been coming. Yvlon waited. Beton struck the ground with a mace, creating a huge dust cloud, which he disappeared into. She retreated, putting her back to the wall.
Waiting for his voice to tell her what was coming next. Yvlon Byres set herself.
The oldest trick in a [Gladiator]’s book. It was still life-or-death. But because he’d told her—he had to be improvising with her. They were cutting each other; she’d loosened a tooth in that punch! Yet he was—
Yvlon heard a voice. She dove forwards and this time he got her. The mace came up and her chestplate bowed in. She went spinning out of the cloud, and she thought she had snapped a rib. But she was sure if he had actually meant to hit her that hard…wait for the flash. What flash? Just wait for the—
She saw his mace flash, closed her eyes, and spun right. This time she caught him across the side with a horizontal slash, and the flash of light both blinded him as it bounced off her arms, and missed her. The crowd was on their feet; the [Prince] was howling at Beton to finish Yvlon.
He couldn’t. He tried, but she was too quick, her arms too adaptive. The metal could morph, cut him as he blocked with one arm, and Yvlon was too nimble, ducking blows—and he wasted Skill after Skill, destroying a lot of the arena in grand, showy blasts and clouds of dust while she cut him across the belly, hit him with her own Skills and metal arms.
Bleeding him down.
They had three potions each. Beton used one after Yvlon’s first sword art. The second after the cut against the side; the first clearly hadn’t been enough for all his wounds so far. When he reached for the third, Yvlon knocked it off his belt and shattered it on the ground.
His back against the wall, Beton [Doomguard] kept fighting, but Yvlon had two potions left. They kept at each other, and Yvlon pulled one potion out as he hammered her to the ground but failed to finish her, then the last as the two, staggering, traded blows in the center of the arena.
She knew her friends were cheering her on. She knew the crowd was roaring, the enraged [Prince] screaming orders. She could hear none of it, only her blood pounding and that quiet voice.
Dodge, block—be wary for this Skill. A quiet, methodical tone.
Wearying, now. A rasp, each time they collided.
Good. She looked up, and she saw his bared teeth, his snarling face. A [Gladiator]’s grin. He shoved her back.
She stumbled backwards, and saluted him with her sword. Beton, breathing heavily, lifted his mace. Blood running down his legs onto the sand as the arena fell deathly quiet, he tossed his armguard away. Lifted the mace high, and came at her with a roar for the last time.
Yvlon pivoted, watching him come in. She swung her sword up, charged shoulder-first, collided, felt like she’d hit a wagon—and swung the sword.
Beton [Doomguard] lay on the ground, staring up at the sky, unable to move. A sword was embedded in his belly—not far, Yvlon hoped. He stared as she yanked at her belt—looked around for a potion and shouted.
His lips moved, but the sound wasn’t even audible. Yvlon gazed down at him as [Guards] rushed out with potions and the [Queen] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen herself rose to her feet, applauding. She mouthed back, shielding her face.
The Hemp-man winked slightly. Yvlon looked down at him and wanted to know how he had come to work for a [Prince] like that. No—his class, whether he had done this before—she turned her head to the stands and saw the furious [Prince] shouting down. Yvlon reached for the sword as someone rushed forwards with a healing potion, wondering what came next…
And saw the [Prince]’s bodyguard, Septis, drop to the arena’s floor, sword drawn. Yvlon stiffened and Beton looked up.
Seven [Bodyguards] landed—one hit the ground and broke his leg—behind the Silk man. Quarein was on its feet, some remonstrating with the [Prince], but he pointed at Yvlon, thumb down.
“Prince Esceit Quarein has sent his personal bodyguard into the arena to slay Yvlon Byres! This—Her Majesty herself is outraged! This is a disgrace! The—”
Yvlon Byres backed up as Septis charged across the sands. The [Arena Guards] looked up, saw the deadly poison blade, and threw themselves sideways.
“You cowards! Don’t you have any honor?”
Yvlon ran backwards, stumbling. Behind Septis, the [Gladiators] were trying to raise the door to the arena, but the other [Bodyguards] were spreading out to block them and more were leaping down.
Beton spoke, trying to pull himself up as the man passed by. The [Bodyguard] sneered as he lifted his sword, slowing, aiming up for a thrusting strike. His other hand was hidden on his belt, clasping something.
Yvlon had no words. She lifted the sword up, and felt a terrible weakness in it. Yvlon shifted her guard. No, not now! Another sword? What was wrong with…?
Fighting in the arena. The [Queen] herself was shouting fury. Yvlon angled her metal arms. She saw a flicker—her hand caught the poisoned dart and it left a notch on her silversteel flesh. No more. Septis cursed, pivoting. He stepped closer, seeing Yvlon waver, bloody and exhausted.
Yvlon heard a furious voice snap across the arena. A royal voice, no [Speaker], bringing silence. She agreed. The blood beating behind her eyes was speeding up. A fury was filling her. Septis hesitated, glancing up.
Then he craned his head back. Frowning. Eyes widening. Yvlon hesitated as the man took a step back, lips forming a curse. She was tempted to look up, but it was a feint—
Wasn’t it? Yvlon saw an uncertain boy staring up at the [Queen] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen. No…something else? The Quarein family were all angled the same way as he was. So was everyone around him. Their heads slowly moving up, up…following something. Tracking—Septis leapt backwards, sword raising.
At last, Yvlon Byres looked up. She whirled, head turning as her sword stayed on-guard and saw the man charging down the steps of the coliseum. Cloth armor flying behind him, salt-flecked cloth blowing as his lips moved. As he jumped, an enchanted scimitar in hand, his own bodyguards surged after him, followed by a giant woman made of…marble?
But every eye was on him. Prince Zenol.
[Like a Lion, He Leapt].
The [Prince] took to the air in a single jump that carried him from the edge of the arena high overhead. Slowing, rising, until he reached the zenith of his arc and fell like a meteor towards Yvlon and Septis. The [Bodyguard] threw himself back and the Gold-rank Adventurer, the [Prince], struck the ground.
He rose, sword slashing out. Septis deflected it with an oath, then the second blow. Zenol advanced. Yvlon heard him whisper something.
Barelle the Bard stopped at the head of the stairs, next to Cognita Truestone, as Yisame rose to her feet. The [Bard] murmured as he saw the [Prince] land.
“[Like a Lion, He Leapt]. [He Fought With All His Pride].”
The world flashed. Barelle saw Zenol, standing in the arena, next to Yvlon Byres. Then—over a dozen figures. His [Bodyguards] leapt out of the air around him, weapons drawn.
The [Elite Bodyguard], Septis, stared at Zenol’s reinforcements, his pride. Like a lion, the [Prince] charged him.
Prince Zenol Isphel of Nerrhavia’s Fallen knocked the blade of Septis, bodyguard of Prince Esceit Quarein, down. In the Coliseum of Monarchs, before the [Queen] and all gathered, his sword swung once.
Septis’ upper torso collapsed, cut from the neck across down to his left armpit. Zenol flicked his sword and blood showered the sand. Then he turned.
Yvlon Byres looked at him as he offered a hand. The [Bodyguards] of Quarein stared as the [Silversteel Armsmistress] looked at Zenol. Then she laughed and clasped his hand. For a second, they stood there, then Zenol turned. He pointed his sword and the [Bodyguards] of the Isphel family followed their [Prince] and the Silver Killer into a charge.
[Gladiators], a [Prince], and an adventurer—no, two adventurers in the Coliseum of Monarchs.
Barelle the [Bard] let out a long sigh. Beside him, a woman folded her arms. Cognita stared down at the drama below.
“Is this what you and the [Prince] rushed to see? Blood and death and politics, Barelle? I expected more of you.”
Her green-jade eyes turned to meet his. The [Bard] bowed deeply to her.
“Not that, Miss Cognita. Stories.”
His head rose with an appreciation of a [Bard]. Someone who could say they had been there and seen it with their own eyes. But then, he was a storyteller in his own way.
A [Reader] half-stood, staring down at the two Gold-rank adventurers. Zenol and Yvlon. One who had rushed across the ocean to her, even at the cost of making mortal enemies. The kind of thing that had less consequences in a book. Here?
They looked up at her, then. So it was amidst a blood feud, war with the King of Destruction, and everything else that Queen Yisame met Yvlon Byres at last. Prince Zenol Isphel kneeling by her side.
Author’s Note: I forget sometimes. I’ve done this six years, but it’s never easy. I get off break, technically refreshed in body and sometimes mind…and I have to try hard.
Well, if I didn’t I’d be coasting and who’d want that? M-me. But some chapters are hard to write, some are easy. It’s a combination of factors that has something to do with butterflies flapping.
We’re off break and it’s going to be a long month? I have chapters until the New Year where I’ll take a longer break…or will I? Normally, we end around a volume, but I’m almost positive there’s no way that’ll happen.
Also, Christmas I usually have a chapter out by, but you never know.
Uncertainty. That’s the key. I’ll give you updates if anything happens, but for now I hope you’ve had a good November. It is the time of snow, if you get snow, crass commercialism, and Santa, who might be a Drake with a red hat and fake beard.
…Call your Watch if you see a Drake with a red hat and fake beard. See you next chapter! Thanks for reading.
Acid Flies, Blue Fruit Juice, Acid Jars, and more by Kalmia!
Death of Magic by SystemGlitchy!
Stop Maviola by BoboPlushie!