“He was right, all along. I think I knew it, deep down, or at least, I thought he had a point. But he was right. Necromancy is just magic. It is all just magic. Everything we are…”
The half-Elf hesitated. She took the circlet off her head and stared at it. She dropped it, and it rang as it struck the floor.
But it was still on her head.
“…It’s just magic. Good and evil are spells we cast to call things that. It doesn’t matter what the truth is, just how we react to things. What matters is what we believe.”
She played with the smooth, dark bone of the thin circlet. She touched the jewels set into a glittering, golden crown, heavy enough to hang low on the head. It changed. But it was hers. And it whispered to her what it was and what it could do. Or were those her thoughts?
Ceria Springwalker closed her eyes. She stood, facing the mirror, and looked at herself. The half-Elf spoke.
“What I’m trying to say is…”
She hesitated. Looked herself in the eye, and smiled.
“…I’m not very good at being pretentious. Even a magic circlet can’t stop me from being an idiot.”
Ceria grinned wider. Then she reached up and touched the circlet again.
“It’s not half-bad, though.”
A glittering circlet of bone set with a single frozen crystal as pale as ice sat on her head. A line with a single faint snowflake lattice holding the gem. Ceria nodded and closed her eyes.
She spread her arms, and the gem glowed faintly. Magic surrounded her, and her mind felt…she left something behind. Or it lost its hold on her. The circlet glowed, and she knew it had powers she hadn’t even begun to tap into.
But the first of these was this: she looked at herself and thought of everything that was, and everything that mattered to her. From a different point of view.
Free from morality. Free from conscience. Free from…everything. A mind unfettered, made more intelligent.
At last, Ceria Springwalker looked at herself. Her grin turned rueful and crooked. She touched the circlet.
She didn’t take it off.
They called her…Ice Squirrel.
The Frozen Chipmunk.
The Mouth of the Horns of Hammerad. Yellat-girl. Okay, the ‘Mouth’ nickname was a stretch, but she didn’t have other names.
Truly. She was just ‘Captain of the Horns of Hammerad’. Gold-rank [Cryomancer]. The Siren’s possible new squeeze. That half-Elf with the bone hand who kept eating everything in sight but was fun to drink with.
She was new to Gold-rank, so she didn’t have a nickname like Halrac the Grim. It said a lot that her greatest claim to fame was the Village of the Dead raid—
And the only title that mattered. That even Savere’s lawless lot respected.
Crelerbane. Hell’s Warden.
That you respected. But the half-Elf herself was…inoffensive. Amusing more than charming, but she was friendly, personable, and you knew her rough level and capabilities. She couldn’t move Savere; compared to the Bleakbeaks, let alone Bloodtear. Or Shifthold, which was now at port in a berth isolated from the others.
She wasn’t there yet. Most people weren’t. Most people would never be, so it was easy to laugh or ignore her one-note trick, which was stuffing her face full of food until it looked like she had doubled the holding capacity of her face.
Until the circlet appeared on her head. Until you saw a Relic-class item sitting on her head, and heard it was cursed in some way. Until you realized all the times you’d slapped her on the back or made fun of her, and all the times she was silly and idiotic and her guard was down—
It had always been there. Invisible.
Then—when she turned to you with her cheeks full of food and grinned—well, there was a horror to that.
Omusc, the [Pillager], and the other [Bandits] in the enforcement squad who’d taken Nerhs, the little, no-name village which had led to all this, were sitting at Ceria’s table. A bit away from her. The banquet hall of Savere’s capital, Runsblud, was strangely quiet.
“Ib a chubby chipmunkh!”
Ceria grinned around. No one laughed. Omusc stared at the circlet on Ceria’s head.
It had changed again. It was now a pale bone circlet with some kind of ice jewel. It sat on the half-Elf’s dirty blonde hair, glinting innocuously, without the true sheen of powerful magic. Indeed, when you cast [Detect Magic] or used a Skill, it was like a piece of scrap.
Omusc needed to use the bathroom. Her stomach had an explosive anchor it wanted to drop. She was more nervous than most—because she had both [Innate Spell: Detect Magic] and [Quick Appraisal], and a host of Skills pertaining to her class.
[Pillager]. Which meant ‘get the most valuable items and run’ in a raid. An important class, which also meant she was a competent leader if need be, and a good fighter. She tried her [Quick Appraisal] again.
Nice-looking headband: piece of carved bone and a glass gemstone. Probably worth 9 copper to a reseller. A few silver for the looks.
That was what her Skill told her. Her Skill said that thing was a piece of crap that only looked good.
Omusc’s brain told her that was a Relic with a curse that had outsmarted the Siren of Savere and her Skills. Her guts churned.
Ceria turned her head around, looking disappointed at the lack of a reaction. She swallowed with difficulty, nearly choked on her mouthful, and sipped some water.
“Come on. Nothing?”
She looked around, grinning. As if today was just like yesterday, before they’d found out what was on her head.
“Alright, I need a new trick. But I’m not shoving anything up my nose. One of my friends tried that once. She tripped. Did not end well.”
A few of the [Bandits] chuckled unwillingly. That was funny, and horrific to imagine. Ceria smiled. She turned to Omusc, and the [Pillager] met her gaze. Ceria raised her brows.
“It’s the circlet, isn’t it?”
Normally Omusc would snap back, something like, ‘what did you think it was, idiot?’ But she just held her tongue. Ceria sighed. She thoughtfully reached up and lifted the circlet off her head. Everyone stared at it as she put it on the table. The half-Elf took a breath. She blinked a few times and scratched at her head, repeatedly.
“Whoof. Okay—how about now?”
Everyone looked at the circlet, sitting on the table next to her plate. Omusc eyed it.
“Ice Squirrel—Ceria. That’s not a good—”
Ceria blinked at her, reaching for her drink. Then there was a flash across the ground.
Ceria grabbed for it, too late. Someone dove, and the circlet vanished. Omusc whirled, cursing, as the table burst into chaos. [Bandits] leapt, grabbing, drawing blades, but the [Thief] was already half over the table and vaulting another.
“Stop them! They’ve got the—”
Omusc saw other diners surging to their feet. The [Thief] went for a window. She never made it.
Someone leapt up from their table and dove at her. She did an [Evasive Roll], ducked a thrown chair—and ran right into a blade.
A [Knifemaster] sitting at another table didn’t bother standing up. They just tossed the blade through her chest—then grabbed for the circlet. Omusc saw a brawl breaking out. Everyone was trying to grab the circlet. Some were trying to put it on—others toss it in their bag of holding and book it.
She surged to her feet, drawing her own blade, and saw Ceria sitting there. She was picking at her plate, ignoring the fighting, helping herself to another bite of gravy-covered meatballs, today’s special. Omusc eyed her. Ceria glanced up.
“Ceria! Aren’t you going to—”
The [Enforcement Raider], Abelesque, stopped, staring at the two of them. Her crew was watching the fight, but reluctant to wade in. There were three bodies on the floor and from the blood—they wouldn’t be getting back up.
The Siren of Savere herself came bursting into the room with a wave of water. The fighters looked up, saw her aiming a finger, and ran for it. Some put up their weapons; the ones with the circlet went for the window again.
A blast of water went through a back like an arrow, pressurized force cutting through armor and flesh. But someone tossed the circlet and six figures leapt out, never mind the two-story drop.
“Recover the circlet!”
The Siren shouted. Her personal, loyal fighters went for the window and doors. She whirled, face white with anger and…
And then she saw Omusc, staring at Ceria, slowly sheathing her blade. The other bandits, all looking at Ceria.
The half-Elf calmly took a huge bite of her breakfast and glanced around. It was that casual act that let the other diners know…they turned.
Four dead in this room, not counting the original [Thief]. The Siren focused on Ceria’s head. Her hair was a bit messy, and there was no indentation, no circlet. Ceria looked up, and her pale eyes glinted.
“Alright. I think I’ve got it. First trick? Chubby chipmunk. Here’s the second icebreaker. A magic trick. First you see it, then I let someone take it. Then…”
She tapped the side of her head.
The circlet was back on her head. As if it had never left. Omusc recoiled and slammed into another [Bandit]. It wasn’t just that it had been invisible—a strand of hair had been right there, where the circlet was. Had it reappeared? Teleported? Messed with her appearance?
Ceria sat there, looking around as Revine Zecrew, Omusc, and the others looked at her.
“Just thought I’d get that out there so no one tries grabbing it. So how about it? Maybe I’ll work on it so there are fewer bodies next time. I didn’t think anyone would fall for it.”
She winked at Omusc and glanced at the five fallen figures in the room. Ceria took a sip of water. The [Pillager] looked at Ceria and something escaped her mouth. Abelesque too—unprompted, unrehearsed—they started laughing.
It wasn’t exactly amused laughter. At the same time? That half-Elf, sitting there, eating with an icebreaker that killed five people?
That was Savere’s kind of humor. Ceria got the joke. She grinned and winked as a few people threw food or utensils, cursing at her. They sat back down and the Siren eyed Ceria. She turned on her heel, but not before snapping.
“Ceria, my floor. Fifteen minutes.”
The half-Elf nodded. She saw a few figures get up and saunter over for a quick word or to keep cursing her out. A [Trickster] wanted to congratulate her, and Omusc watched. From being a Gold-rank in a foreign city to now?
She was a little too good at fitting in. Everything Omusc thought she had pegged down about Ceria was flapping around in a storm. The real question was—what would happen next? Everyone wanted to know. And that included people who would have never cared about Ceria a few weeks ago.
The Siren of Savere rarely felt nervous. Tense—angry—yes. But afraid?
She had faced down gang leaders and [Pirate Captains], from the famous Admiral Seagrass to the Drowned Folk’s deadliest marauders. Sometimes she compromised or acceded against her will, but it was Revine’s firm belief that she could kill anyone who sailed the sea. Some battles would almost certainly result in her death, but there was always the possibility that anyone who crossed her would end up with a hole in their forehead.
By contrast, she didn’t like unknown quantities. What bothered her wasn’t an overwhelmingly strong person, because you could run from them or bargain, or team up. It was not knowing how someone would jump when the storm rolled in.
It was part of the reason why she and her sister didn’t get along. The Siren of Savere paced around her rooms on the top floor of the Siren’s Lookout—the informal nickname for Runsblud’s palace.
She was half-watching Ceria out of the corner of her eye. The [Cryomancer] was reading a spellbook and standing in the practice rooms, which could contain high-grade magical spells. She was currently posing on one foot like a martial artist, the other foot resting against her knee. The spellbook floated in front of her as Ceria raised both hands upwards, spreading her fingers in a complicated pose. Every few seconds, the page would flip and Ceria’s eyes would skim across it.
“…What in the name of Rhir’s hells is she doing?”
Revine craned her neck, trying to find purpose in the pose. There were ways to chant to enhance a spell, or poses one could take; there was even a magical theory which proposed supporting spells with naturalistic movements to coordinate the flow of mana could enhance or facilitate easier casting.
Ceria just looked like an idiot. She stood on the tips of her toes; Revine admitted it was astonishing balance. Then she did a quick transfer and landed on her other foot, repeating the one-legged pose.
The Siren wasn’t the only one watching the antics. A Drake with a huge, white beard and robes was watching, eyes locked on the circlet on her head. So were the servants, gazing at Ceria out of the corners of their eyes.
“Revine? Are you there? Revine? I think we lost her. Hey, turn the ship around! We need better reception! Try riding that wave over there or something…”
The Siren snapped back to reality. She lifted the customized speaking stone to her lips.
“I can still hear you, Rasea.”
Her voice was resigned. She heard that famous tone, like it was laughing at all times, and, behind it, the chatter of a ship. Then Rasea Zecrew, one of the most famous [Pirates] in the world, spoke.
“Good! Good! So how’s Savere, Revine? Lots of interesting things happening? Stolen anything good, recently? I heard the Empress of Beasts is loose. Say, are the Bloodtear Pirates hanging out there? I heard one of their navies was sailing in.”
Revine closed her eyes. She had a headache.
“Everything is—fine here, sister.”
They were having a speaking stone call. Which was not actually that common, even though such spells were possible. But to carry on a conversation in real time rather than a [Message] spell, you needed a Wistram-trained [Mage] who could enchant two identical lodestones of enough power to carry on a conversation—and even then it only worked within a certain radius of Savere.
Often Rasea, a [Pirate Captain] who sailed the Illuminary, the world’s fastest ship, would often be far too far away to carry on a conversation. However, Revine was a [Bandit Queen], and that conferred certain privileges.
Such as them not having to worry about this speaking stone’s call being interrupted, which was a real hazard of most communication spells. Even so, long-distance calls weren’t that common…mainly because the two sisters didn’t often get along.
Yet right now, Rasea was cordial, even chatty.
“Good old Runsblud. Is the Hanged Bait still open? No one’s shanked old Ernol yet?”
“As far as I know, no.”
“Hah! He’s got more lives than a Cat O’ Nine Lives! I miss his drinks, though. Finest in any port, isn’t that right, lasses?”
There was a chorus in the background to the effect of, ‘aye, Captain!’, ‘never had better!’, ‘I’m one of the lads, Captain’, and so on. Rasea went on as Revine rolled her eyes.
“You know, it’s been too long since we talked. We should have a drink. Head out! Have a night in some coastal port, sink a few ships. What do you say?”
“Rasea. You’ve heard about my guest, haven’t you?”
A pause, infinitesimal, followed by a hearty laugh.
“What? Guest? I don’t know what you’re talking about, sister. Although, if you’ve got guests, I should meet them, eh? We can swap stories. I was on the trail of those [Strategists] and those damned Swords of Serept, but they’re inland and I don’t feel like sailing up a river with all those Drakes about. I just thought I’d head back, embrace my sister—”
“Rasea. Stop it.”
Of her many qualities, good and bad—and she had many—Rasea Zecrew was not exactly known for subtlety, and Revine knew her well. She was drawn to action and stories like a bee to sugar or Dreamleaf. Rasea paused, clearly thinking on how to tackle things next.
“Alright, big sis. My favorite sister—so, uh, you’ve got that famous Gold-rank team, eh?”
“Just one. Don’t flatter me.”
“Is it flattery? We’re family!”
“You tried to stab me the last time we met.”
“Only because you—you know what? Let’s let bygones be bygones. I’m just curious, Revine.”
“You and half the world.”
The Siren watched as Ceria cast a spell. [Ice Wall]. It rose upwards and she hopped over on one leg to inspect it. She put a hand to the wall, frowning. What was she doing?
“Will this take long? I don’t want your ship in my ports. I have a gang war brewing and there’s a Drowning Night coming—”
“You don’t say. How big? Bloodtear started it, didn’t they? Hah! You couldn’t ask them to postpone it until we get there?”
“If you come anywhere within ten miles of Savere, I will sink the Illuminary. Clear off!”
Revine snapped. Rasea paused.
“Don’t be like that, Revine. I just want to see this Relic. So it’s so good it fooled you, huh?”
Her tone was now needling. Revine knew what she was doing but…it was working. She gritted her teeth.
“Not just me. Omniscel the Omnipotent fell for it himself.”
“A high-level [Enchanter] and my big sister? Well, well, well.”
“You are not coming here. The Relic’s probably bound to Ceria Springwalker and—I am warning you, Rasea.”
“Just tell me what it does. It’s an Archmage’s circlet, isn’t it? Not too useful for me. If it’s all sparkles and spells, I’ll leave you alone, so let’s talk, huh?”
Revine hesitated. That was true. Rasea loved treasure, but she liked magical swords and armor more than artifacts she couldn’t use. She sighed. Family always knew how to push your buttons.
“It’s some kind of powerful mental circlet. That’s all I know. It can create false copies that fool everyone—and it’s cursed. Or at least, the [Enchanter] thinks so. He thinks it attached itself to Ceria when she picked it up.”
Rasea whistled through the stone.
“Interesting. I’ve seen a few of those. Is it sentient?”
Revine’s back prickled.
“I don’t know. But the only effects Omniscel has traced have been enhancing intelligence…and something called ‘Freedom from Morality’.”
“Oho. And what does that do?”
The Siren of Savere stared at Ceria, who was hopping about, casting [Ice Spikes] at a target with one foot. She spoke, slowly.
“As far as I can tell—either the intelligence booster isn’t that effective, or this half-Elf truly needed it. As for morality?”
Rasea cackled in the background and Revine was silent.
“I just watched her pull a ‘prank’ over breakfast that killed five people. She didn’t even blink.”
Savere had many stone-cold killers, but even they had some reaction to death. Ceria? It didn’t even put a sway in her step. Revine lowered the speaking stone. Ceria had just done a hop and crashed face-first onto the ground. The circlet hadn’t gone flying, though; it stayed anchored to her head like it was glued on.
“I have to go. Don’t add to my troubles, Rasea. Shifthold just docked, and I have to deal with that.”
Some of Rasea’s crew had clearly been listening in, because there were groans, and Rasea herself sounded less enthusiastic.
“Shifthold? Maybe it’s not worth a quick trip after all. Blegh. I’ll…think about it, sis. I am bored. I’m almost tempted to see if we can sack Medain and free the King of Duels. But we have work, and I suppose it’s not that interesting. Hey, if that circlet does anything else interesting like free teleportation? Just say the word and I’ll kidnap some handsome [Prince] for—”
Revine hung up. She was half-tempted to toss the stone out of her open-air balcony, but instead she just tucked it away with a sigh. Then she strode over to the practice rooms and threw the clear glass door open.
“What are you doing?”
She stared down at Ceria Springwalker. The half-Elf glanced up as Omniscel half-crouched next to her, shouting.
“That’s right! One, two, three! Testicles! How’s that for Magus Grimalkin impressions?”
He tried to flex, and Ceria broke off from doing pushups. She looked at Revine’s incredibly annoyed face and wiped at her brow.
“I’m, uh, doing tests. Omniscel, you can stop. I think there’s definitely no physical enhancements in the circlet. No balance, no speed, and definitely no strength. I can barely do thirty pushups in a row.”
The Drake [Enchanter] lowered his arms, unflexed, and began writing notes, which was ironically an even better impression of Grimalkin than before.
“Interesting. You’d think they’d add that in, but maybe it’s too complex with mental magic. Or they had a limited amount of enchanting capacity, even for a Relic-class object.”
Revine realized Ceria’s stupid antics had a point. Ceria pushed herself up and shrugged.
“Yeah. Now I know I’m wearing it, I’m letting Omniscel help me figure out what it does. It’s definitely helping me concentrate, but…no physical boosting.”
“You seemed fairly well-balanced.”
Ceria had stood on one leg for five minutes without wobbling. The half-Elf shrugged.
“That’s not new. See?”
To prove it, she grabbed her right foot and began hopping about in a circle, then doing a spin-hop that Revine thought would make her throw up or fall over.
Ceria did neither, and she spun, lifted a finger, and shot an ice spike into a painted target across the room. She hit dead-center.
Omniscel eyed Ceria, impressed. So was Revine.
“Did Illphres teach you that, too?‘
Ceria smiled sadly.
“No. I learned that. She taught me how to aim, but she never adventured; you have to know how to run, turn, and hit your targets.”
Huh. Revine had never…her aim was superlative, and it had to be since she could hit a target at extreme range, beating out an ordinary [Archer] with a longbow with her infamous [Water Spray] condensed into a pinpoint jet.
However, she had to admit, she didn’t practice the running spellcasting of adventurers. Could she do that?
Never when anyone could see me.
“I always had good aim, Omniscel, even before I went to Wistram. It’s not an ‘eye-booster’.”
Ceria was reading his notes over his shoulder. The Drake crabbed away from her.
“Stop altering my impartial observations!”
He slowly underlined ‘eye-booster’ just to spite her. Ceria shrugged. Then she went back to studying the spellbook.
“And what are you doing now?”
The Siren was of two minds on Ceria. Firstly, she realized why her [Corruptors] had been as effective as spit; Ceria was already compromised by a possibly greater force.
Was the circlet sentient? What kind of curses did it have? Could Ceria be trusted?
She was thus uncertain if training Ceria or keeping her anywhere near Runsblud was wise. There were cursed objects that transformed you or ate your mind…
But Ceria was Illphres’ apprentice. Moreover, for all her antics, she herself seemed intelligent enough to know wearing a foreign Relic was a problem.
“Are there any other curses, Omniscel? You can tell, can’t you?”
The Drake frowned.
“It’s not that easy. Sure, your average face-melting enchantment is pretty easy. That acid spell doesn’t belong. But all the real curses look like beneficial magic. So, um, if you wake up as some kind of horror in the night, I’ll be sleeping far away from your rooms. But…”
“—I don’t think it’s cursed like that? It’s just got enchantments that are dubiously beneficial.”
“You’re basing that on your instincts?”
The Drake looked offended. He tugged at his beard; it was real, but the Siren had heard he just used a beard-tonic for some inane reason.
“Context, Siren, context. Ceria snatched it from the lair of a powerful [Necromancer] as he was apparently killed in an ambush. You don’t leave powerful cursed objects just lying around unless you’re really sadistic or some kind of [Mastermind] who expects adventurers to try on objects like that. It sounds like this was his personal circlet. So…it’s ‘probably’ safe.”
He made air quotes with his claws. Ceria nodded.
“I could take it off, but I don’t feel any different. Just dumber. Slower.”
She lifted the circlet off her head. The Siren and Omniscel both looked skeptical. Ceria scowled at them.
“It’s actually off my head. See? I only notice the mental aspect.”
“If that’s so, then let Omniscel inspect it.”
The Siren reached out for the circlet, preparing a containing spell, and Omniscel backed up.
“Containment! Containment first—”
Ceria instantly lowered the circlet back onto her head as the Siren approached.
“…And now it’s back on.”
Revine halted, glaring at her. She got Ceria’s bland smile in return.
“What are you doing?”
“Keeping the circlet, Siren Revine. I’m not an idiot, even without it on. I don’t really want to give away a Relic-class item. I’ll never get it back if I hand it over. So…even if there’s a chance something is eating my brain, I suppose I have to take it.”
The Siren eyed Ceria.
“You don’t trust me?”
Ceria snorted. She smiled, but she raised one eyebrow and Revine blushed.
“I’m not exactly a greenhorn, Siren. But it doesn’t change the fact that I’m your guest, either. If you want to keep teaching me magic—we can definitely talk about deals. But the circlet’s off the table.”
The Siren hesitated. Ceria was calm and cool. Collected. Her nervousness and uncertainty were gone, and Revine had to wonder if that was an act. Was any of Ceria’s personality real?
That was the uncertainty she didn’t like about the circlet. That, and the other factions interested in Ceria. But…after a moment, Revine nodded.
“What are you studying, then? More spells?”
At least this explained how Ceria was mastering magic in a fraction of the time she should have, missed tutelage from Illphres or not. The half-Elf gestured at the book, and the Siren saw it was Fundamentals of Ice Magic, which sounded like a beginner’s book…but was more theory than actual spellbook.
“I’ve got one chance to improve myself. I was always behind Pisces a bit—and I never got to study, just adventure. I want to learn the kind of magic that will complete my training. I think I’m getting it. Hardening ice, changing its composition—extra-cold ice.”
“Can you do ice cubes that only make a drink cool, not super-cold? I’d pay a fortune for those on demand.”
Omniscel waved a claw. Ceria and Revine stared at him, and he backed up.
“Just a joke. Just a joke. [Cryomancers] and [Hydromancers], not a drop of humor in them. [Pyromancers], now, a ball of laughs and a house on fire…”
“You want to change the composition of your ice?”
“That’s right. I can do [Glaciersheet Ice], and that held off even an Adult Creler. But ice magic is adaptive. Versatile. It…”
“—Is strong because you can create anything you can imagine with it.”
Revine finished her sentence. Those were Illphres’ words. She looked at Ceria, and the half-Elf nodded. Revine mumbled.
“She used to argue with me all the time that ice could be more adaptive than water.”
“That’s what she always told me.”
“She’s clearly wrong.”
Ceria snorted, then caught Revine’s glare and raised her hands.
“…Do you know some of the other ice qualities? That’s what I’d like to focus on. Rough ice, blood ice? It’s what I need, right now.”
The half-Elf tapped the side of her head. The circlet glinted and Revine stared at that, but Ceria met her eyes.
“Yes. I’ve been thinking about my weaknesses as a [Mage] and…it’s not the circlet talking. It’s just me, Siren. It’s still just me.”
Revine wished she could believe that. But she nodded, nonetheless, and began speaking with Ceria. The half-Elf listened, eyes bright, circlet shining. She continued on as normal with nothing being normal.
That evening, the Bleakbeaks began attacking Bloodtear Pirates who walked alone or unwisely moved about in smaller groups on the streets. The Bloodtear Pirates demanded an audience with the Siren of Savere.
And so did Alchemist Irurx, the captain of Shifthold.
How much time had he wasted, in days of peace and comfort? If he had worked a bit harder—now, when it mattered—it might have helped more.
The first real attack on Pisces’ caravan came roughly a week into their journey through the Glass Straits. He stumbled out of his tent and saw the enemy coming clearly by day.
Day, because they slept during the day and travelled at night; the glare coming off the Glass Straits meant the freed [Slaves] and [Bandits] had to camp in the shade of a dune. It also meant the Glass Straits were both as bright as the sun itself and hot. So hot the sand melted into the very glass that formed this long stretch of land.
They had been safe for a week. Pisces had feared the worst when the flying carpet found them, but it had been downed by the Necromancer, Az’kerash, and he had assured Pisces he would hold back Roshal’s eyes as best he could.
He had failed. Or something else had consumed his attention, because Roshal was still pursuing them. Not with elite [Slave Masters] or [Slave Lords], but with rank-and-file. With hired mercenaries and expendable troops. Pisces could not know how many had died, sniped out of the air by spells.
He did see Roshal’s attacking force, though. Like the Goblins who had raided the caravan—they hit hard and fast.
[Sand Mercenaries]. They charged out of the sands, riding camels, both people and mounts equipped with visors to shield them from the bright glare, screaming, shrieking.
“To arms! Get up! Get to your squads!”
Merr the Storm was bellowing as Pisces raced out of his tent, fumbling with his robes, rapier drawn. He whirled—saw Roshal’s warriors—and then saw them screaming, fleeing—Pisces hesitated.
One of them vanished as a beam of something blasted a hole in his back. The camels were running, wide-eyed, and half of them were on foot. Running towards their camp. Away from the real attackers.
“Monsters! Monsters from the Glass Straits!”
Merr realized what was happening faster than Pisces. Roshal’s mercenaries were being routed. They had snuck up on the caravan—only to be ambushed in turn. But by what?
Hidden from the glaring glass road by the dune, the people could only see flashes of something. A kind of ray-spell, to Pisces’ eyes. Screams—but no sound he could pick up on the other side. Pisces searched for Merr.
She had parked the wagons in a circle around their camp, and now she had a standard defensive line. Fighters with spears and swords to hold the gaps, and people with bows trained on the crest of the dune.
“Merr! I will scout it out!”
She looked at him, hesitated; Pisces saw her glancing around, then she swore and called back.
“Don’t lose your head!”
He nodded. No ‘don’t take a risk’; they had to know what was attacking. Monsters, someone had said. But what…?
[Invisibility]. [Muffle]. [Flash Step]…Pisces crested the hill and went blind. The glare from the Glass Straits! He tried to shade his eyes, but he didn’t know the spell…
Spells. A [Mage]’s toolbox, and if he had a proper, complete spellbook, he would have looked up—Pisces squinted, then swore. He came stumbling back, half-blind.
“Pisces! What is it?”
Eloque called out. Merr rode over. Pisces pointed.
“Some kind of…glass monster. With a center eye. Not Crelers. Not scorpions, but…”
Merr’s eyes flickered. She looked around, and a [Bandit] swore.
“Shield Kingdoms guard us. It must be Crystal Lights. Boss, boss, we have to move! They’ll set us all on fire!”
He was a Stitch-man. Merr licked her lips nervously.
Pisces assured her. But rather than reassure the [Bandit], he went pale.
“Sixty? Boss, we can’t fight sixty of ‘em! They’ll kill us before we close, and we’re blind out here!”
“How fast do they move?”
“Slow. We can outride them on horseback, even with wagons. But they have a range of…”
“Mount up! Get rolling! You lot—right up against the dune! They come up, you take five swings and run!”
Merr roared at once. She singled out a squad of [Bandits], who turned pale and hesitated. Merr snapped.
“Do it or I’ll fill you with arrows! I’ll cover us with a storm. Will that work?”
The [Bandit] looked up and brightened.
Pisces was incredulous. He was still blinking spots out of his eyes, but the caravan numbered in the hundreds. There were sixty of the monsters…Merr looked at him.
“Unless you’re hiding the rest of your team up your ass? Yeah!”
“We can win! I have a Skeleton Lord and—”
Pisces was counting the [Bandits], but Merr seized his arm.
“Unless you want to lose lives, we’re running. This isn’t an adventure, this is a [Bandit]’s fight. We don’t fight monsters unless we have to! Move!”
Pisces looked at her. She was ordering everyone to run, moving the wagons, hitching horses…Merr pointed as the flashes and screaming stopped.
“They’re already dead.”
“Boss, call the storm now. If they see us, we’ll die. They shoot rays of sunlight, and in the middle of the day, it’s like eating an enhanced [Fire Bolt] spell!”
Pisces hesitated. When you said it like that—rays of light? He had only roughly made out a small group of shining things with six legs each, like a sort of spider with a strange eye in the center that shot a blast of concentrated light.
How many of Roshal’s warriors had they killed? How many ‘rays’ could one of these Crystal Lights shoot each minute?
Merr swore and raised her hand. The [Bandit Lady] shouted.
“[Summon Dust Storm]! Go!”
The first people in the caravan were already riding. The wind was picking up. Pisces saw a cloud of dust whirl up, obscuring the glaring sun. He hesitated.
“Come on, Pisces!”
Eloque shouted. Bearig had Rophir in his saddle and was riding. Pisces looked back.
“Wait a moment. Merr—I’ll catch up.”
“You stupid? Don’t try to buy time—they’re expendable, you’re not! They’re just going to tie them up for a second then go!”
Merr snapped, pointing at the rear guard. Pisces shook his head.
“Not that. The bodies. The bodies—”
She blinked at him. Then she saw the [Necromancer] go full-tilt, flashing back across the sands and up the dunes. Eloque shouted as a figure charged after Pisces. But then the first Crystal Light came over the dunes.
They were half-lost against the sandstorm. But the sight of one was still disconcerting. It was a crawling, five-foot-tall monster with glass ‘skin’, like the glass ants that Pisces had seen. It had internal organs exposed to the light, but somehow the incredible heat didn’t seem to bother the creature.
Rather, it focused the heat into a single huge eye, and emitted a beam of light that turned sand to glass. It gnashed two pincers, and an open maw below the eye could tear and bite.
But it was that eye that made them so dangerous. Merr pointed as the sandstorm blew around them, and more Crystal Lights came crawling over the dunes.
“Go, go! The rest of you bastards, with me! Hold them off and then break! Ride!”
The sandstorm picked up, and the flashing rays of heat melted the sand and dust, diffusing among the particles. More crawlers came over the dune, and but for the sandstorm—the [Bandits] charged, fighting then breaking away to buy the caravan time.
It was bad fighting. Merr hacked at a Crystal Light and found it was like trying to cut through iron armor. The glass was hard, and the center eye discharged a beam of light at her face. She swore, maneuvering—then saw the eye grow dim—then begin to light up, less than six seconds later.
She lifted a throwing dagger and hurled it through the eye. The Crystal Light screamed in a low, warbling growl, and began slashing at the air. Merr rode back, slamming her blade into the head of another.
The [Bandits] were not faring well. To injure the Crystal Lights, you had to stab them in the eye, and that eye would blast you with searing light. They fired so fast. A smaller group was no danger, but sixty could kill six hundred in the open if they got the chance to keep firing.
The [Bandits] were no heroes. They hammered on the Crystal Lights, saw how tough they were, and began fleeing. The Crystal Lights growled, attacking, but were indeed slower than horses. However, they were scuttling to clear the sandstorm to where they could make a firing line…the first broke left, out of the whirling dust cloud, and its body shone with painful light. The eye grew brighter, and it trained on a distant wagon.
Even hundreds of feet away, the wagon burst into flame to screams from the people riding there. The eye grew brighter; the monster was feeding on the light, absorbing it to use its attack rapidly. By night it was far weaker. It took aim at a camel next; a meal for at least a few days—
Pisces ran it through the eye with his rapier. Panting, he saw the eye burst, and the monster screamed, but its brain wasn’t behind the eye, instead suspended above it. It recoiled, and Pisces yanked the blade free.
“Pisces! Watch out, they’re coming!”
The [Necromancer] turned and vanished. Invisible, he walked left as more Crystal Lights emerged from the sandcloud. Merr was galloping back; she had warned him. Pisces saw one of the Crystal Lights focus on her and stepped forwards, angling for another eye-stab. He saw the monster hesitate—
Then swivel towards him. It saw him, somehow. The monster was locking onto his body heat, but Pisces couldn’t know that. He threw himself sideways, and a beam blasted through the air. He felt the heat cooking his side and rolled to his feet.
The sand made moving hard. And—another Crystal Light took aim. Pisces flicked his other hand up, then saw a figure charge out of the dust and crash into it.
Ivery! The Skeleton Lord actually knocked the Crystal Light back with the force of his charge and began hammering on its head. The undead was so strong he began to crack the monster’s armor, but the Crystal Light began snapping at him with its jaws. They failed to rend Ivery’s bones, and the Skeleton Lord continued hammering it down.
But the rest of the sixty were emerging. Pisces was beating a fast retreat now that he realized this was a shooting gallery and that he was the closest target. The Crystal Light that had nearly singed him was lining up another shot. So he cursed, flicked his wrist, and activated the ring on his finger.
[Shatterbolt]. A thin, pale sliver of energy struck the Crystal Light just on the side, missing its eye. Pisces cursed again; aiming was difficult with that trick—
Then the monster exploded.
Pisces shielded his face. He saw the entire glass body break and the monster’s insides rupture. It collapsed, and even the other Crystal Lights slowed in dismay. Pisces wished he could do that twice.
As he couldn’t, he [Flash Stepped] backwards, pointed a finger, and spoke.
A black bolt struck one of the Crystal Lights, went through the armor, and it staggered, stunned. Woozily, it shuffled from side to side, then scuttled back into the cloud.
Two shots, then. Pisces turned and ran. Because two Crystal Lights had been maimed in the eye, but only one was dead; Ivery was smashing into the brain of the next, but that meant there were fifty-six angry monsters about to unleash death-by-sunlight on Pisces.
They were actually forming a battle line, lighting up and discharging beams of light. Pisces dodged left and right, feeling the air sizzle as Ivery ran for it as well. Some of the [Bandits] and mounts screamed as they were hit on the limits of the Crystal Lights’ range; their skin blistered, and some caught fire.
Ironically, Ivery was the most immune; he just ran after Pisces, bones turning black, but with no flesh to bake.
If only Ceria were here with an [Ice Wall]! He couldn’t cast [Bone Wall] without—Pisces threw himself behind a dune. The air over his head charred.
It took him only a few seconds to concentrate enough to throw it up. The ivory wall began charring as bones rose up to shield his retreat. Pisces got up and ran.
His team. They could have helped fight that many—not that they would have after seeing what the things were capable of. But Yvlon could probably smash the Crystal Lights with pure strength. Ksmvr could dodge, and Ceria could shield them. Without them—
The crack made Pisces’ head turn. He blanched; the angry monsters had just blasted apart his wall of bones in seconds, heating it so fast that the bones cracked from the sheer heat. But he was almost out of range…almost…the caravan just needed another five minutes! The Crystal Lights focused on Pisces as Merr whirled her horse.
She saw nearly twenty monsters focus on him from different angles. Ivery was on fire and running, flailing his arms. The Crystal Lights’ eyes glowed in unison—
And then the first Ghoul came hurtling out of the smoke and latched onto the back of the nearest Crystal Light. It jerked as the feral undead began to hammer on its head. The Crystal Light scuttled back and forth—then another blasted the Ghoul off its friend. The monsters turned and saw their prey, the dead people, were getting back up.
It was round two. Zombies and Ghouls charged forwards, grappling with the glass monsters. Merr saw Pisces look over his shoulder and laugh. Nearly a hundred undead came out of the sandstorm, still wearing their charred armor. They didn’t use weapons, not being ‘intelligent’ enough to wield them, but they were strong as undead, fearless, and the Crystal Lights recognized the threat.
The two sides began battering at each other, monsters cutting and biting the undead who slashed at them with pure brute strength. Pisces and Merr, racing away as only a few beams flashed overhead, saw the fighting.
“Dead gods. You really are a decent [Necromancer]! How many’d you get?”
“All of them.”
Merr saw Pisces gulp for air. He felt like throwing up.
“I just burned through my entire mana well. Can I get…a ride?”
She nodded and offered him a hand. Pisces swung himself up. He looked back and shook his head.
The undead were losing. A hundred plus zombies and Ghouls were getting the hell kicked out of them by half that number. They tried to bite and claw the glass armor of the Crystal Lights and did no damage at all, unless they hit the eye or just bore the monster down by sheer numbers. This was one foe that was a bad matchup. They would have arguably done better against Mothbears.
“Damn. No wonder the local lot were scared shitless of them.”
The Crystal Lights were setting the undead on fire. Pisces watched as the undead went down, some being torn apart—he whispered and jerked his fingers.
Merr glanced at him. By now, the caravan was out of danger.
“What are you doing?”
“Trying to salvage some of them. We’ve already lost over half their number. They were Stitch-folk.”
“Can’t you animate…oh.”
Merr looked at the burning undead. The Stitch-folk had gone up like torches; there was nothing left to animate. As for the zombies and Ghouls? Well—some were just incinerated. More vaporized than burned.
However, the rest began to flee from the Crystal Lights, who kept blasting them until they seemed to realize there was no point. They left the undead to stride on, burning. Pisces, panting, watched them follow as the caravan kept riding. Merr rode ahead.
“Hey! Stop running so fast or we’ll run into a Sand Worm or something as bad! Slow! Slow—how far do they chase us? We’ll keep running until we find a new spot and…”
The brush with monsters and the natural dangers of the Glass Straits took another hour of marching before Merr called a halt. She told them to set up camp, and the weary people just threw down tents, climbed into them, and fell asleep.
All those except the guards who had first watch—and Pisces. Wearily, he sat, rubbing at blisters. He reached for a healing potion and a mana potion—then stopped.
We don’t have enough to waste. Grimacing, he resigned himself to the glaring headache and burnt skin. He did sit down, but he had to stay awake.
Eloque found him slapping himself every few seconds as he kept nodding off.
“Pisces, what are you doing?”
“I have to stay awake. Just a bit longer…a bit longer…don’t stop—”
Eloque slapped him across the face. None-too-gently. Pisces jerked. The Lizardwoman eyed him.
He rubbed his cheek.
Eloque smiled briefly, then looked up. A figure came jogging over the dunes. The [Bandits] looked up.
“Att—oh. It’s that thing.”
They eyed the burnt Skeleton Lord, who came to a halt, shield and sword in hand. Ivery trudged down the hill, looking…well, a bit defeated. They don’t fight fair, chief.
Pisces ignored the Skeleton Lord. However, some of the [Slaves] saw Ivery and decided to remove the ash on his bones. Why they liked him…
He struggled to his feet after another fifteen minutes. Eloque had a cup of tea. She sipped at it as Pisces reached for it and hesitated.
She handed it to him with a grin. Pisces took a gulp. Then he nodded to the hill.
“No one panic. It’s just undead.”
The [Bandits] looked at him. Eloque raised her brows, but the only person who noticeably reacted was Rophir. He stared at Pisces, then crawled into the tent he and Bearig shared.
And, sure enough, a minute later, the first charred body came over the hill. Eloque blanched.
The zombies and Ghouls were, like Ivery, a collection of terrible burn victims. Them being dead didn’t change the fact that they looked horrible. What was perhaps worse?
“Dead gods, Pisces. It smells like charred meat. I don’t want to be hungry.”
Merr came out when she heard the small commotion. She paled, and Pisces nodded.
“I don’t think these are as salvageable as I hoped.”
The [Bandit Lady] shook her head instantly.
“Absolutely not. They smell like dinner and every scavenger downwind of here will come looking for a meal.”
Pisces nodded. He stared at the undead he’d put his life in danger to salvage and grimaced. thirty-one had made it. None of them looked able to function. However…he put a finger to his lips.
“I might be able to repurpose them.”
The [Necromancer] looked around.
“…It’s going to be very messy. I should do it far from camp. I’ll be back in…thirty minutes.”
He began to chug the mana potion after all. Merr raised her eyes. She and Eloque followed him—then hastily came back. Bearig had gotten up and was making a snack before everyone slept for their evening march.
“What’s Pisces doing? Food?”
Eloque and Merr shook their heads without a word. Merr muttered.
Bearig thought about what that meant, and then shuddered and went back to stirring the stew.
Pisces Jealnet stared at piles of bone. He did not stare at the flesh, organs, and other things in the deconstruction spell he’d learned from Az’kerash.
He felt slightly queasy. Mostly because of the fleshy bits.
“This is why I don’t deal with flesh-and-blood creations as much.”
He shuddered. Pisces checked himself, then sat down.
“…I have her bones.”
Archmage Nekhret’s bones lay in his bag of holding. But he didn’t want to use them. Not now. Not casually.
Not after he’d seen what Toren was capable of, and all his flaws. He had no time to hand-scribe the necessary binding runes onto the bones. So he decided not to waste them.
Thirty-one bone piles. Pisces hesitated. It was…odd.
He hadn’t raised undead, not for a purpose, not deliberately, outside the heat of battle, for a long time. Thirty-one bodies.
So many. How would he explain it to the Adventurer’s Guild in Izril? Oh, yes, I just ‘happen’ to have thirty-one bodies lying around. All [Bandits], I swear.
But this was not Izril. They were [Slavers] or, at least, people working for Roshal, and Pisces had little sympathy for their fates. His concern was to keep the caravan safe.
We nearly died to indigenous monsters. If that raiding party had hit us…
He needed tough undead. But which ones?
“Archmage Chandler, are you there?”
Pisces raised a finger to his brow, but the Necromancer had not checked in for several days now. He was presumably alone. So Pisces sat there.
How much time had he wasted? It came back to him, the guilt. He had studied, of course. He’d learned [Deathbolt] and even how to summon a Bone Behemoth—but Pisces had to admit that he had slowed his studies while enjoying the inn.
He had been skating around on waxed floors, eating good food—good food for Erin—and helping Selys pick artifacts and arguing with her rather than…
Of course, that was living. But Pisces still regretted it now.
What do I make? Like an [Artist] staring at a blank canvas, he was somewhat at a loss. Pisces decided to go from the top.
“I cannot make a Bone Behemoth. Too noticeable. Too much mana, and not enough bone. The [Ritual of the Lord of Bones] is not available for another three weeks. Therefore…”
He went down the list in his head. Az’kerash had told him there were more forms of undead than Pisces had ever dreamed of, but it was one thing to know that—another to easily maintain and create undead. Pisces’ immediate repertoire of undead was low, and it made life simpler.
“The warbear. I don’t have bear bones here. Bone Horrors? Perhaps. Ordinary skeletons. And…Skeletal Crawlers. I could make a project of shaping the bones, but I’d have to do that on the move…”
And it was annoying and difficult and they needed an army now. Pisces sat there. Damn. Maybe he’d stick them in a bag of holding and just animate them when he…?
A [Necromancer] is not a [Summoner], young Pisces. We create undead to persist, not to appear and disappear. Know your class.
Az’kerash had admonished him on that very thing. Pisces frowned. But…wait a moment.
He felt at his bag of holding. Lifted it.
It was his bag of holding. It had been taken from him, and the contents inspected, but to his knowledge everything was still in there. He had only checked for Nekhret’s bones, as Igheriz had not known their worth, but…he stared thoughtfully at the piles of bone.
Bone Horrors were powerful. Skeletal Crawlers were dangerous ambushers. But Bone Horrors were slow, and he’d be able to make…two. Three, if he stretched things.
Skeletal Crawlers were weak in a straight-up fight, and Pisces didn’t see a lot of confined spaces for them to fight and hide in. So that left shaping them—or basic skeletons.
Weak skeletons. You could give them armor and weapons, but until he mastered the art of upgrading them into Skeleton Knights and so on, they sort of sucked. Az’kerash made use of skeletons, though. Every [Necromancer] did, but in legions. He had thirty-one. Put them up against thirty-one living fighters and they’d be crushed.
No worth for their individuality. Except…Pisces frowned. He reached for his bag of holding and pulled something out. He exhaled, slowly.
“Oh. You’re still here. Excellent.”
Slowly, he put the bear’s skull on the ground and smiled.
“What is that?”
When Pisces came marching back with his undead, Merr the Storm took one look at the two skeleton horses, the Skeleton Warbear, and twenty-five skeleton warriors and freaked out. She almost climbed into Eloque’s arms.
“It’s a warbear.”
“It’s a giant fucking rat with two heads! Gah!”
Merr backed up as the [Bandits] and [Slaves] murmured. Pisces eyed her.
“It isn’t that divergent from a standard bear, simply reinforced. I forgot I had the bones in my bag of holding—and two skeletal horses.”
“That’s great news. They can pull the wagons; some of the horses were killed.”
Eloque sighed, but Merr was still hiding behind her.
“Keep that thing away from me.”
“Merr, it’s just a bear.”
The Lizardwoman was amused. Merr looked at her.
“You say that like that fucking thing’s common or something.”
“Of course it is—”
Eloque glanced around and saw the other Chandrarians staring at the bear. Not in horror like Merr, but only Qshom and the other non-Chandrarians knew what it was based on.
“You don’t have bears in Chandrar?”
“Of course not…it’s too hot. You’ve never seen a bear, Merr?”
“No. And I don’t like it.”
Pisces was amused. Imagine being afraid of…bears…
He hesitated. Was that actually a genuinely decent phobia compared to mice? Was he the fool…?
Warbear aside, the undead did not receive the horror they would have on Izril. If anything, the [Bandits] were relieved.
“Better them than us. But why’re there only twenty-five skeleton guys? I could have sworn there were more.”
“I had to use the bodies of seven to fully finish these skeletons.”
Pisces explained. Merr edged away from the Warbear, who was sidling up to Ivery. The Skeleton Lord stared at the Warbear, who was actually Pisces’ oldest battle-undead. The warbear did nothing, being more mindless. It didn’t even react when the Skeleton Lord slowly climbed onto its back. Ivery swung his sword a few times and looked around.
Yes, this feels right.
Pisces had just caught sight of the first Skeleton Lord with a warbear mount, and he was wondering if he’d created another Toren, or if the undead was just…intelligent. Why not a horse? Qshom and some of the [Slaves] eyed it.
“Ivery’s got a steed? Ivery and…Bearbones.”
“Do not name that—”
Too late. The second undead got a name. Pisces rubbed at his face and got sand in his eyes. Meanwhile, Merr was poking the skeletons.
“Something’s funny about them. Say, Pisces-boy. You didn’t, uh, fail necromancer-class, did you?”
Pisces whirled around in outrage. Eloque laughed, but then she noticed it too.
“Wait, these are off!”
He sniffed in outrage.
“I will have you know that my knowledge of the anatomy of species is second to none in this caravan!”
“Are you sure? Because Stitch-folk know about how bodies look. And I’m definitely sure you messed up the ribs…”
Merr pointed out the very strange ribcage of the skeletons. She turned and saw Pisces smile. His modified skeletons lined up, five of them, for a test demonstration.
“These are more than simple Skeleton Warriors, Merr. Once per battle, you simply shout—Skelisis! And th—”
The ribcages of the five skeletons exploded outwards, and a splinter-spray of bones blasted into the sand. The [Bandits] ducked or swore, and Merr leapt back. Pisces beamed.
His designs from back at the inn had been roundly critiqued by Az’kerash and, come to mention it, Selys. She had pointed out the futility in making Crossbow Skeletons, and instead suggested a one-off trap. Az’kerash had disapproved—but Pisces had never heard him criticize the actual structure, just the concept of costly skeletons.
Well, these ones were now going through their test run. Merr eyed them.
“We could send them in and blast the enemy to bits. And you just shout—what was it? Skelisis?”
“I can engineer them to respond to your voice as well as mine. You see—”
Merr was waving a hand.
“But Skelisis? Can you, uh, give them a better code phrase? Because I’m not shouting that.”
The [Necromancer] looked at her. Some of the [Bandits] and Eloque sniggered. The [Necromancer] threw up his hands and stalked off.
“Pisces! Come on! It’s an objectively stupid password. I love the skeletons. Let’s give ‘em some of the crap weapons. You just suck at naming things. Leave it to us. Ivery and Bearbones—top tier names. You could put ‘em in any [Bandit] gang and they’d never get anyone to bat an eye…”
Another day down. Despite it all, Pisces didn’t think it was the worst of them. It was a close call with death. It was dangerous, and he felt Roshal’s hand following them. But they were alive. Pisces exhaled as Merr found him. She clapped a hand on his shoulder.
“Glad you were with us. I don’t think either group’d have done as well without us being on the same side.”
He sniffed, then relented and smiled.
“I suppose not. Do you think we’ll find civilization or reach a kingdom where we can leave the Glass Straits soon?”
Merr shrugged. She exhaled, then sniffed the air too. Pisces wondered if she was mocking him.
“Could be. I, uh—ergh. I hope so, because we need more supplies, and more supplies means I can tribute and get reinforcements from the…”
She trailed off. Pisces looked at her.
“From the Siren? Is there a problem with that?”
“No…it’s. Well, damn me. The fighting and undead—Pisces, you stink.”
Pisces blinked at Merr. She was holding her nose. He realized he did somewhat smell of burnt flesh, undead, sweat, grime and…he grimaced.
“My robes are clean. I trust the sand and grit will take away the worst of it.”
“What…just that? When did you last clean yourself?”
Pisces smiled at Merr.
“We are in the middle of a desert land, Merr. I don’t think there’s time for a shower, if we had the water to spare.”
She stared at him.
“Are you telling me you haven’t taken a single…you haven’t washed yourself once for over a month?”
Pisces hesitated. He coughed.
“It’s—there isn’t any water. So naturally—I have been meaning to learn [Cleanse], but I—Merr, we are all in desperate straits. I will cast [Neutralize Odor]. There…done. You see? No one bathes—Merr?”
He followed her, but she was backing away. The [Bandit Lady] held her nose.
“There aren’t any showers around here! There’s not a well or—”
“Oi, someone help me get this idiot a steam bath!”
Steam baths were a concept Pisces had vaguely heard of but never seen implemented. They were not hot baths, or even saunas.
Pisces made the mistake of comparing the two since he had seen saunas before, and he got the look he often gave other people. That shut him up throughout the entire setup process, which was actually quite quick.
The concept was simple. In a place with less water than most climates, how did you keep clean if you didn’t have access to an oasis or the like?
Pisces had half-wondered if it had something to do with scrubbing yourself with hot, dry sand or something. He didn’t say that part aloud because the instant he thought of it, he suspected Merr would go tell him to try that on his unmentionables and see how much fun that was.
A steam bath took place in the steam tent, which was a bit more reinforced than other tents—to keep air in. You’d enter through two heavy flaps, and then sit in a room with a single feature, aside from a few cleaning tools and a chair.
The entire way you cleaned yourself was through the steam; the literal condensation in the air. It would accumulate on your skin like a shower, only slower. And the heat and limited water this technique needed? It all came from a simple, boiling pot of water over a fire.
Most modern caravans had magical equivalents to this, which helped rehydrate the air and were even more efficient. They’d looted a steam generator among the caravan’s goods, so that was what was running now. An everburning flame, no less.
“Fancy. And I, ah, sit here and scrub myself? You know, I am not filthy.”
Merr, Eloque, and half the people gathered around the steam tent stared at Pisces.
“Says the man who hasn’t bathed for a month. Is it Izril that’s filthy, or Terandria?”
“Neither. I am far from unhygienic! Have you been smelling anything?”
“Only because you keep casting de-scent spells! You know filthiness makes you sick, right? The Nagas tell everyone—oh, swamp rats. He’s been eating and doing everything with those hands!”
Everyone stared at Pisces’ hands, the harbingers of plague worse than Yellow Rivers. He turned red.
“I clean them regularly!”
“Sure you do. In you get. Don’t come out until you’re actually clean. At least his robes are enchanted. I bet they’d be brown, not white, if…”
Pisces stalked into the tent as the others muttered about the disgusting Humans and their ways. They were still audible, and he heard Qshom quite clearly talking.
“I have heard they sit in mud. In, ah…Desonis? Mud baths.”
“It’s considered a skin treatment! That is one Terandrian nation!”
“Ah, but they do do it? Can you imagine how that would get in your armor?”
“We don’t have either!”
“Well, it gets somewhere. You know, I heard that Drakes have these communal baths. Only, instead of being steam, it’s water. Eugh.”
That was from a Stitch-man. Pisces bristled, and the crowd lost some of their members. Eloque’s voice was audibly indignant.
“What is wrong with that?”
“Sharing dirty water? Please. The things some people do…”
Pisces sat there in the steamy room, which had yet to actually reach maximum condensation. He could already feel the grit beginning to turn wet as he added some sweat. It did not feel…pleasant.
At first. Then, as he removed his robes and decided they could use a bit of a dusting, enchantments or not, and undergarments, he looked around and found a towel, put it over his lap, and decided it wasn’t bad.
Hot, and he was breathing in humidity, but it was nice to feel moisture on his skin. And there was a brush to scrub with…he wasn’t that dirty. But still. Something to it.
What surprised Pisces, though, was that the arguments and banter continued, though it grew a little less present. The crowd was still talking…no, wait.
It sounded like a dozen conversations now, all semi-muted and inaudible. Pisces remembered there were more tents being set up, and realized everyone was taking that time to bathe.
He sat back, wishing he had a bench to rest against, and wondered how long you were supposed to do this. Until the water ran out? That might be a while. Not that Pisces was against long bathing or even baths. It was just that there was a finite amount of time in the day, and unless someone would helpfully draw a private bath for him, he did not feel the need to share his—
The tent flaps opened. Pisces jumped.
“What is this, a toilet? Please don’t tell me you shat in the bucket. Also, your Skeleton Lord is riding the bear around camp. Scoot over.”
The tent flaps opened and Pisces’ mouth opened. Merr the Storm pushed in, sealed the flaps—
“What are you doing?”
The [Bandit Lady] looked up, saw Pisces’ expression, and grinned wickedly.
“Oho. Someone’s shy. Wait a second—”
“I thought this was a private experience. Merr—”
She poked her head out of the steam bath.
“Hey, lads and lasses! Pisces our boy hasn’t ever heard of mixed bathing! He’s as red as a lobster in here!”
Pisces heard laughter and jeering from the [Bandits]. He was half-standing and sidling around, but Merr was in the entryway.
“I will come back later…”
“Oh no you don’t. It’s a waste of water, and we’ve none to spare. You’re just lucky I didn’t stick you in a tent with ten [Bandits] as filthy as you are.”
Merr stomped on in, set a chair down, and sighed as she stretched. Pisces stared at her and then turned the other way. Mainly because Merr was naked. Completely naked, and grinning at him.
“You have a towel on? Is that for me or do you do it in private?”
“Merr, I am warning you—”
“Don’t be shy. Unless you’re embarrassed. Or this is too much for you? We kick the lads out who make things awkward, but I’ll let you stay even if that towel moves.”
She cackled at his back. Pisces decided he would never get in a steam tent ever again. He realized that the longer he stared at a wall, the worse it would get, so he slowly rotated in his seat. Merr stared pointedly at his towel, then grinned.
“There we go. See? Let’s have a chat—and I bet you’ll have a quick bath. I won’t stay long; the stitching gets a bit loose the longer I rest.”
He stared at her, averted his gaze—and Merr laughed. She stared at him without a problem, and Pisces flushed.
“Of all the Chandrarian customs I’ve had to suffer, this is the…”
“Worst? Pisces, my boy. We were just [Slaves]. You’ll live through seeing some breasts, even if it’s not your preferred mount.”
He opened his mouth. But Merr had stopped teasing him and was reaching for a brush and cloth. By now, it was getting harder to see, and he was sweating and feeling condensation roll down his everywhere.
“Some fight to wake up to this morning, eh?”
“What? Oh—yes. Dangerous monsters.”
“Glad they killed those fucking raiders. I never felt them coming. The lookouts might’ve spotted them, but that was a nasty group. What do you think Crystal Lights rate?”
“In Izril. Silver? Gold?”
“Oh—ah—probably high-Silver if they’re alone. But that was a fearsome assortment. A group of sixty could threaten a city. Astonishing, really. I can’t recall seeing something like that in Izril, aside from Crelers or monsters in dungeons…”
The [Bandit Lady] gave him a wry grin.
“That’s Chandrar for you. We don’t have worse things—lots of people say that. But my old boss used to say it was just that we had more space between them. More space for things to get tough.”
Merr was industriously removing grit from her skin. She kept talking, because it was awkward to share a steam tent in silence, but after five minutes it was less completely mortifyingly awkward and more simply uncomfortable. After ten? He eyed her shoulders, not simply peeking, but looking at…
A Stitch-Person. Pisces had never actually seen a Stitch-Person…uncovered before. He had seen dead bodies, but contrary to everyone’s perception of the most degenerate [Necromancers], he was at least respectful of the dead. He did not…do things.
Stitch-People had that tell-tale pattern of stitches around where limbs connected. They were not in the same place. For instance, some, like Octavia, had a ring of stitches around their neck. Others had it lower down, around their collarbones. Most had stitching around their wrists, arms—for easy replacement.
But they had stitching everywhere. Merr had two huge rows of stitches running down around her shoulders, and another near her hips.
Patchwork people. And you could remove any part of yourself and turn it into cloth except…
“It is so weird seeing someone without stitches. You’re pretty fair-skinned too, nevermind the sunburn and tan.”
Merr was eying him. Pisces turned red again, but she only grinned.
“Don’t mind me. I like to bother people. Kick ‘em down early, that’s how I have to run my gang. I’m not used to having…people around, rather than underlings or other gang leaders.”
“Ah. Well I—I take no offense.”
Pisces began scrubbing absently at his skin and realized he had layers of grime. Merr eyed him.
“Might take a while for you.”
Pisces decided to wait a bit longer. Merr kept working. She glanced at him.
“At some point I’m probably going to ask you to get my back.”
The [Necromancer] sighed. Of course. He stared pointedly at one wall.
Merr laughed softly.
“In Chandrar? No. There’s plenty of solo bathing and only-lads bathing. This isn’t that common. Families would do it, or friends who know each other.”
Pisces half-rose, saw her laughing at him, and realized this was why. He sat back down glumly. But he had to admit, it was sort of funny.
Merr was easygoing. She reminded him quite a lot of Jelaqua in some ways, but where Jelaqua would pull back…
“So you’ve been a [Bandit Lady] all your life?”
“[Bandit]. My first class. I was levelling when I was six. Not that you get [Bandit] straight off—I think I was first a [Scrounger]. Kid-classes, you know?”
“No, I…do you mean [Page]?”
“Page? What’s that, like books?”
Pisces had to explain the system of knighthood that went from page, squire, to knight-in-training, then full knight. It was so commonplace to him he expected everyone to know it, but Merr just nodded.
“Yeah, that sounds like kid-classes to me. It’s rare they get full ones unless they’re actually doing something. [Accomplice]—that’s another one. [Lowlife]?”
“It’s a very…generic class. Like [Peasant], I suppose.”
“No shit. Someone actually gets that class? Now there’s a class that was made to stink.”
“People do obtain it. I think it’s the kind of class one acquires in lieu of anything else.”
“What’s lieu mean?”
“It—you acquire the class because you can’t do anything. I understand what [Peasants] are good at is…working and surviving acrim—terrible conditions. They have a variety of Skills, but I have heard there are some benefits.”
Merr raised her brows, interested.
“Really? Like what?”
Pisces stared at a wall, trying to remember the stories.
“Surviving a famine, for one. Or a terrible winter; people would find villages of [Peasants] who had taken fewer deaths compared to more prosperous ones that had frozen to death. The [Peasants] stretched their firewood and food supplies with Skills.”
“Something for everyone, eh? That’s what I always heard. There’s no class in this world that doesn’t offer you something. Except the Blood Classes and Skills, though.”
Pisces shivered. He knew what that meant. He had one himself.
“[Slave]. You know about more classes and Skills than I. I considered I possessed a broad spectrum of knowledge…”
“[Bandit Lady]. We trade information, and so, yeah, ‘course I learned up on stuff like that. Most people don’t even know Blood Classes exist. Tradeoffs. You pay something. You get something.”
“Yellat Skills. Blood Classes. Are there any others? I may know of one myself. Royal Skills are known to be…unique.”
Merr raised her brows.
“I wouldn’t know, but I’ve heard they get nice things, yeah. Let me see. You know you can get Skills by training hard?”
“Yep. I once tried to learn [Scythe Cut]. Spent four months training…never got it. I think you need a good teacher or there’s something else—there’s folks you can pay to tutor you, but I never bothered.”
The Stitch-Woman removed her left breast to examine it. Pisces stared as she sewed it back on. She grinned wider, then turned.
“Want to give scrubbing my back a try?”
“I’m just kidding. We have brushes. I wouldn’t trust you to scrub a camel’s ass. Heh. Yep, they’re out there. Expensive—I could raid for a month and barely have enough saved to pay them. But apparently they do good work. You get a Skill they teach you or your money back. [Tutors]. [Weapon Masters]. And so on.”
It was a fascinating conversation. Before he knew it, Pisces had really stopped being uncomfortable. He had never talked with Merr—not privately. And this was as private as you got.
“Any more Skills?”
“Hmm…Royal, Blood, Yellat…”
“That cannot be the true appellation, surely.”
Merr stopped brushing at her back and turned her head. She looked at him over her shoulder, genuinely irritated.
“Are you doing that on purpose?”
“Trying to make me feel stupid?”
Pisces opened his mouth.
“No I—it’s a habit. I tend to…”
He stopped. It was a habit that he liked to throw in words that made people stop. He hesitated.
Merr relaxed slightly.
“…Eh. It’s fine. As long as you’re not laughing at me, I won’t kick you through the tent. I hate that the most.”
“I would not do that. Ever.”
Her back was turned, but he heard a smile in her chuckle. After a while, she went on.
“I guess you’d call them Fame classes. Fame, Royalty, Blood. Oh. And I’ve only heard of this, but there’s also…Original stuff.”
Pisces sat up.
“Yep. And you’d call that green.”
Merr raised one hand.
“Don’t look at me. But you’ve felt the Blood Classes. You get it, right?”
Pisces did. His lips moved. A green…wait a second.
“Original. By original, you mean new. As in—”
“Someone gets it for the first time, yeah. A new Skill.”
Pisces stared past Merr. His lips moved.
“…I think I know at least one person with that kind of class or Skills.”
“Really. Well, I don’t think it’s special beyond being, uh, new. But I could be wrong. Ah—Inheritance Skills. You know those. Not just the ones you get passed down, either. Skills that last. Places. Legacy Skills.”
Pisces was counting. There were more unique…his brows raised.
“When I consider how many there are—I have gained only one of these unique Skills.”
“They’re rare for a reason. I’ve heard there’s even another one.”
“Really? What else could there be?”
Pisces was fascinated. Merr chuckled drily.
“Nah, don’t hold your breath. It’s just—one time some [Sage] or another did a count. He said—there’s green, Original, red in Blood Skills. Yellow in probably that Royal stuff. Even Yellat Skills. There’s Skills you don’t even notice.”
“So…where’s the damn blue stuff, eh? Blue and maybe purple.”
Pisces stared at Merr.
“…And are there?”
“I have no clue. Some idiot just said there ought to be them, right?”
“I suppose…it does make sense. Do you personally know anyone who has any of these Skills? Besides…[Slave].”
That word dropped into their conversation. Pisces tried to say it normally, but he couldn’t. His neck itched. He remembered…
Merr’s eyes flickered, but she replied normally.
“Aside from that? Yeah, I know some Blood Skills and Yellat Skills. I have a Yellat Skill. But Blood Skills? Nasty. One fellow had one that made him tougher. Not just feeling less pain—tougher. But guess what happened?”
“He started…getting tougher skin. Rougher. I even think he grew a bit—it freaked everyone out, and I kicked him out of the gang. Never heard what happened to him. I asked him how he got it, once. Then I decided I didn’t want to know. You get me? You don’t want to know how they get those Skills.”
Pisces nodded slowly. The mood turned more somber. Merr kept scrubbing; she was nearly done. Pisces was beginning to do so himself, but he had dirt everywhere. And his hair…
“You really are a ball of dirt, eh?”
“I suppose you were right.”
He sighed. Merr nodded. She sat there, skin cleaned. He saw her glance at him. Merr smiled, looked at the tent flaps. Then…paused.
“I’d better get back out there and keep order. Nice magicing today. Raising a hundred undead in one go—that’s Gold-rank for you. Wistram graduate, never mind not finishing schooling.”
Pisces ducked his head. Merr glanced at him.
“How’s the spellbook going along?”
He grimaced. He also had the half-burned book from Albez, and some of the books that Az’kerash had given him, but they weren’t spellbooks as much as theory.
“Slowly. The new spellbook is…less valuable immediately. It might behoove—be better if I just studied spells.”
But the new spellbook was fascinating. Pisces wished Ceria had the Albez book, but they had traded it off and…he hoped she was well. He would find her.
Merr nodded. She looked towards the tent flaps again, then spoke.
“You said you were a decent [Mage]. You know a bunch of spells, right? You learned [Condensation], and you thought you could pick up [Cleanse]…”
“If I had the right magic. Is there a spell that would be helpful?”
The [Bandit Lady] hesitated. She looked at Pisces, then past him. For once, her easy companionship faltered.
“Nah. Maybe. Do you know…well, spells that make people forget things?”
Pisces stirred. Merr glanced at him and grinned, but this time it was fake.
“Just—you know, blank it out? I heard some [Mages] that ran with gangs had something like that—”
“Remove a memory completely, you mean?”
She nodded, still not quite looking at him. Pisces stared down, only half-thinking of the answer he knew. He looked at her.
“I…a complete memory removal spell would be beyond me. It’s very powerful, to be able to do that. I am sure it is possible…”
He thought of Az’kerash.
“Ah, it was just a thought! It might help some of the others sleep at night. I was just curious.”
Merr stood up abruptly. She turned, laughed as she stretched, then reached over to clap him on the shoulder.
“I’m heading out. You keep scrubbing. Eugh.”
She wiped her hand on her shoulder. Pisces started, then smiled. He looked at Merr. They held each other’s gazes too long, and then she walked out into the cooling world outside.
Pisces sat there for a while. Like a single drop of color in a bucket of water…he wondered if that was what Merr had truly come here to ask. He almost wished he knew that spell—
But no. That was too close to Riqre.
Riqre and…Pisces remembered his dreams. Roshal. They had nearly come. He sat there in silence; for how long, he couldn’t have said. Probably only minutes.
Then someone entered. Pisces blinked as someone shuffled into the tent.
“Merr said it was empty—Merr!”
A distant laugh. The Lizardwoman shook her fist, then stared at Pisces. At least she had a towel—two towels. She sighed.
Eloque hesitated. Then she sat down on the vacated stool.
“Just so you know, I’m not scrubbing myself here. I’ll find another tent.”
“Perfectly reasonable. I would vacate, but…”
Eloque eyed Pisces working on one arm.
“Dead gods, you’re like me and my stitches. How can someone be so dirty?”
“I’m not that—”
Pisces gave up. Eloque half-rose, then sighed.
“There’s lines for the steam baths. I’ll join a queue. Merr didn’t bother you too much, did she?”
“Not really. It was actually a convivial talk—that is—enjoyable.”
Eloque nodded. Her lips moved. She adjusted the towels, making sure they weren’t slipping.
“She’s tough. Did she ask you about memory spells?”
Pisces stopped brushing at his skin. He looked up.
“Yes. I don’t have any.”
“I told her you didn’t, but she wanted to ask. Not that I think it’s…good. It’s too much like them. Like Roshal.”
Pisces nodded slowly. The Lizardwoman turned her head. She extended an arm.
“How do I look?”
He stared at bright scales, glowing in the faint light from the steam generator. Clean scales. They had faint marks, but the thread was gone. It ran up to Eloque’s shoulder…and then…
Everywhere. The Lizardwoman saw Pisces’ gaze and turned. This time he did turn away.
“It’s a work in progress.”
“It looks—better. I can’t tell from just the arm, truly.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Eloque nod. She sat there in silence for a moment.
“It would help if they could forget. If everyone could. You know, someone got stabbed yesterday?”
Pisces glanced up.
“One of the [Bandits]…?”
That was one of his fears and why he hadn’t trusted Merr. He still trusted her; not necessarily the others. Eloque shook her head.
“No. It was one of the freed—one of us. We have those big tents, and she must have rolled over or someone else did. She woke up when they were partly on top of her and she stabbed—well, it was a Stitch-woman, so it wasn’t bad.”
“Yes. Like that.”
It was Roshal. Roshal…the encounter had brought it back. They were running. Not just free. Pisces sat there. Thirty undead weren’t enough. He tensed—and Eloque looked at him.
“We’ll make it. Or we won’t. Either way, we won’t go back.”
“No. I will get you to the coast. To…Izril. If the others don’t want to find their own way. But I have promised it, Eloque. And I have allies.”
He looked up and met her gaze. The Lizardwoman tilted her head.
“You know, I believe it. I saw that carpet go down…that was the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in my life. I actually think, some days, that we might escape. But you know something?”
She sat there, tail slowly waving in the steam bath. Eloque’s neck frills began to open. So strange, as strange in her ways as a Stitch-person. But just Eloque. She looked ahead.
“I couldn’t join in the conversation with you all the other day.”
Pisces tried to say something, but he just waited. Eloque looked past him.
“I don’t see mine. Bearig wants to go home. Qshom wants to start a business. They have classes, families. Dreams. Me? I came to Chandrar when I was young. Ten years. All I have is this class. The only thing I can do is—”
“You don’t have to do anything. I’m an adventurer. The items we looted from Igheriz are enough to make a living for a long time. You could travel wherever you want, and start afresh.”
Pisces spoke quickly. Eloque glanced at him.
“…Yes. But I can’t go home. My village sold me. I agreed to it, but I can’t go back there. Not with Roshal welcome on Baleros’ shores in most places. I could hide in a company that refuses to treat with them. But I don’t have a future.”
He had nothing to say to that. Eloque met his eyes.
“That’s not a bad thing. At least I can be worried about that. I used to know my future. So I wanted to say—thank you. To you and the Death of Chains. I thank her every night. I know she’s a Demon. But she killed Igheriz.”
“Yes. I thank her too.”
The Lizardwoman smiled brightly.
“I’ll leave you to scrubbing. You have some dirt behind your ears. Ears and noses. Humans are so funny.”
She stood up and left. Pisces felt rattled by the talk. What could he say? What could he have said? What could Erin have…
There is an inn. Believe me. You cannot imagine it, even as I describe it. There is an inn in a city far from here. It is not perfect, but it is what you need.
I will take you there. And someone will greet us at the door. I don’t care if she throws a pan at me.
By now, Pisces was waiting. He had gotten his arms and his neck, and he was actually cleaning his hair with little cupfulls of water from the [Condensation] spell when the next person came in.
It was Bearig. The man knocked on the door flaps, unlike the other two.
“Pisces? Do you mind sharing the tent?”
“Come on in, Bearig.”
Strangely, it was more uncomfortable as the [Cook] shuffled in. The two men stared at each other, and Bearig coughed; he had a towel too.
“I’m sorry for interrupting.”
“No, come in. It is large enough for…”
“I wouldn’t have, really. But the lines are getting long and I had to let Rophir wash himself. I don’t want to—”
“Not at all.”
He was the opposite of Merr. Too polite because he held Pisces in some regard. The [Necromancer] gestured, and Bearig sat. He was heavier-set than most, but he was losing weight. Pisces and Bearig eyed each other.
“So Eloque and Merr were both in here?”
“Ah—Eloque thought it was empty.”
“I saw her waiting in line.”
Their conversation was about as deep as a puddle. And that was why it was uncomfortable. Pisces hesitated. He liked Bearig. The man respected him.
That was not the same as his connection with Eloque and Merr. But they had been chained up together for a long time. Pisces knew Bearig’s back as well as…
Well. He tried to smile, and Bearig returned it. He relaxed.
That was all it took. Pisces saw Bearig pull something out.
“Do you have any soap?”
“I do. Thank you—”
They got to work. Bearig was fast, perhaps trying to respect Pisces’ time. To make conversation, Pisces stared blankly ahead. That snack was most excellent. We survived those Crystal Lights, didn’t we? How are you feeling?
Nice weather today.
He shuddered. These were, no offense to him, Ksmvr-level remarks. No—Ksmvr tended to have practical statements and only used these because he thought it was social etiquette to do so.
These were Yvlon-level conversation topics. Pisces just defaulted to the only thing he could think of as the silence drew on.
“So, Rophir took a steam bath?”
Bearig looked up.
“He washed himself. I asked, but he doesn’t want company.”
“Of course not. That’s very kind of you to…it’s very good of you, what you do, Bearig. Taking care of Rophir.”
The [Cook] mumbled. Pisces felt he was being too humble. He twisted.
“Truly. No one else took care of him. I—I wouldn’t know how. I have no siblings, and children—someone needs to help him, and you do important work. If I can help?”
Bearig seemed surprised by the compliments. He turned a bit red.
“I just do what I can. It’s nothing commendable.”
“It is. Rophir is not always easy. I’ve seen him punch you or bite—”
“He’s suffering. It doesn’t hurt. Much.”
Bearig rubbed at his side and Pisces saw some blotches on his skin. Bruises. He shook his head and Bearig scrubbed as if they’d come away.
“—It’s nothing to what he’s been through.”
“Does he talk? I have never heard him talk…”
Bearig talked to Rophir all the time. The [Cook] shook his head.
“Never in words, but he can make it clear what he wants. He is a bit older than he looks. Just a bit. But half-Elves…”
“I’m sure. I…you do it so well.”
Bearig stared past Pisces. He shook his head slowly. The [Necromancer] was trying to be encouraging, but it wasn’t working. Not because Bearig was too modest. Because…
The [Cook] slowly ran a cloth down his arms. He glanced up and met the younger man’s gaze. Seriously. He spoke quietly.
“I am trying, Pisces. But it’s not well. I’d like to treat Rophir like I would my son, but he isn’t. He’s terribly hurt. I’m just taking care of him.”
“That’s all you can ask for, surely.”
Pisces saw Bearig take a deep breath. He let it out shakily.
“Is it? If he were my son—when I think of what’s been done to him, or when he wakes up screaming, but silent—I am helpless, Pisces. I am angry. Emir Riqre did things I would have killed him for. But I watched. We watched.”
“We were [Slaves]. He’s dead.”
Bearig nodded. Pisces felt his skin crawling. Riqre was a name not uttered in the caravan. Igheriz, Hrome—yes. People spat as they mentioned them. Not Riqre. Yet Bearig invoked him, here. In this place, filled with steam and, strangely, privacy.
“I have been thinking, Pisces. How…you heard me talk of Nerrhavia’s Fallen? I employed [Slaves]. I could never afford to buy them, but I rented their help. I did. It gnaws at me. I remember them—and I remember not caring, being annoyed when they made mistakes.”
“You didn’t know what their lives were like.”
Pisces saw the Stitch-man staring blankly ahead. The [Cook] passed a hand over his face.
“Does that excuse it? Perhaps I have seen the worst of Roshal. I hope so—because if there is worse, I hope never to see it. Yet I wonder, Pisces. How many more Riqres are there?”
The [Necromancer] slowly looked up towards the ceiling.
“His evil was one of a kind.”
Pisces’ mouth was dry despite the steam.
“Igheriz and Hrome called him a monster. Even they did.”
“Even so. He existed. How many more exist?”
The young man felt revulsion building in him at the thought. Bearig glanced at him, then away.
“I shouldn’t say such things. Not now. But I think of them.”
The [Cook] shook his head. His hands trembled as he worked on his chest.
“I…when the attack came this morning, I fled. Rophir was ready to fight. He has a dagger—but I ran when Merr told me to. She’s teaching us how to fight, and I know how to swing a cleaver—but I was glad she told us to run. I couldn’t fight.”
“You’re not an adventurer. You don’t have combat classes. We all contribute in our ways, Bearig.”
“But when Roshal comes, it will be you who fights. It is your burden that’s heavier than mine, Pisces. I regret that. I wish I was a Level 15 [Warrior], at least. I am levelling in that class, but slowly. I thought it was a fool’s errand, a young man’s fancy to be a fighter. Now—I have to rely on other people to protect me from the worst. It is a terrible thing, being so helpless.”
Pisces didn’t know what to say. He had never felt like that. No—
He had once. When his inspiration burned. When he had seen Skinner attacking Liscor and feared for the inn, for Ceria. When he had fled the monsters that ravaged Wistram…
“I have felt that all throughout my life, Bearig.”
The man looked up. Pisces stared at him.
“I know it well. It’s not just you.”
The [Cook] blinked at him. Then he ducked his head.
“Then, I’m doubly grateful you and Merr are here. I…I suppose I will do what I can. Train and cook and help Rophir.”
“Someone must cook. It does make us feel better, rather than eat horrible food. If Ceria were cooking—my captain, my friend—she’d be serving bread dipped in eggs and sugar water.”
“Just…I can see that as a kind of—but just…?”
The two men laughed over that. Pisces was about to mention Erin’s cooking, which was functional but hardly as…nuanced as Bearig could do, despite her Skills. But he saw the [Cook] staring out the tent again.
Someone was making a loud, keening sound. Not entirely…it didn’t sound like a person.
“Is that Rophir?”
Bearig nodded. He began to hurry.
That was hungry? Yet Bearig began finishing his own cleaning. Pisces was down to his belly by now, and he did feel cleaner.
“You do do well, Bearig. Truly. No one is perfect, but you are kind to him, and he needs that.”
Bearig was already rising. He stopped as he trudged towards the tent flaps. He glanced back towards Pisces, and his face was…clouded. No—Pisces looked at him and saw the [Cook]’s eyes flash.
“I am helpless, Pisces. When I look at Rophir, I am angry.”
The [Necromancer] nodded slowly. Bearig went on, hand on the flaps.
“I know you mean well. But I am not. I am not. Well? I cannot be his father, even if I wanted to. His family…he had to kill his parents, night after night. I cannot hold Rophir, and tell him all will be well. When he wakes, screaming, and turns to me, I can’t tell him there are no monsters out the window. He has seen monsters. One tortured him and held him captive.”
Pisces saw the [Cook]’s fists clenching. The [Necromancer]’s lips moved. He slowly straightened.
“…You can remind Rophir that they die. Monsters die.”
The Stitch-man stopped. He looked at Pisces and nodded slowly. He murmured.
“I wish I had his bones. Then I could show Rophir that.”
He turned and left the tent. Pisces was alone once more. However, he had a bet going on. And sure enough…
“Excuse me. May I use this tent?”
Qshom, looking hugely embarrassed, entered. The Dullahan man was in his cloth armor, but he had to remove it to clean his actual body. Pisces nodded.
“Come in, Qshom. I will face the other way if you like…”
“That is very kind of you. I hoped to bathe alone, but I understand this is impossible.”
The Dullahan was the shyest of all. So much so that Pisces began to feel like he was the lecher, and deliberately faced the other way the entire time Qshom was in the tent. The Dullahan man placed his head down and began to clean himself with every air of extreme discomfort, for all he’d been in Chandrar long enough to know the custom.
Pisces was nearly done. He wondered what they’d speak of before they came to a topic around Roshal, or the future or…Qshom’s own battles with inner monsters. He was waiting for a segue in. Tailoring into how Qshom would bring up that he’d had to originally sew the stitches into Eloque or something horrific.
He was waiting. Waiting, searching for his own conversation topic. But so focused on that that he was more distracted than anything. At last, he spoke.
“Have you been sleeping well, Qshom?”
The Dullahan made a sound. He hesitated, then placed his head on a little stool so it looked up at Pisces. Now it was the Human’s turn to be uncomfortable; Qshom’s body cleaned itself while his head held a conversation with the young man.
“Really. Nothing is bothering you?”
Qshom smiled mildly.
“Nothing I should complain of at the moment.”
Pisces nodded. He waited. And now Qshom said…
After a few moments, the Dullahan looked at Pisces.
“How are you faring, Pisces Jealnet?”
The [Necromancer] blinked. He looked at Qshom. No one had asked him that. Off-guard, he blinked.
“I…I am also well, Qshom. I cannot complain. I am just—focused. Focused on survival and evading Roshal.”
That was the truth. He could have said so many things. His nightmares. His fears for his team. His desire to find Erin’s cure. His uncertainty about his ability to keep everyone safe, his ability to help them with anything that truly ailed them.
“It’s just that I was talking with Merr…”
Qshom listened as the words burst out of Pisces. The Dullahan listened, nodding, occasionally interjecting, but listening. Pisces scrubbed, realizing his hands were shaking. He had known pressure—but not this. This was something else.
Terror. He had fought for his life. Not his very soul. The worst that could happen with the Crelers was that you died as painfully as possible.
He realized he was doing to Qshom what the others had done to him, and was guilty. He couldn’t ask for a magical answer to these problems. Yet…surprisingly, the Dullahan just nodded when Pisces trailed off.
“It is a strange thing, Pisces Jealnet. A strange thing. Is it a comfort, I wonder? To me—it is slightly.”
“Comfort? What’s a comfort?”
Pisces could not imagine any comfort here. The steam baths? Talking with others? He supposed so, but the [Tailor] just smiled. He spoke, slowly, meeting Pisces’ eyes.
“Why, simply…to know that these days, these days past, this time alone is it. These are the hardest days we will ever live through. Whatever comes next, when we walk out of the desert, we will have survived it.”
Pisces Jealnet looked at the Dullahan. The hardest days they would ever…? He opened his mouth to object. To say…
Then he trailed off. He met Qshom’s eyes and nodded slowly.
“It is a strange feeling indeed.”
The Dullahan smiled, and that was all they said. It was a long bath, but when Pisces emerged, he did feel better. He sighed, looked up at the sky.
Then continued onwards.
Savere was change. Some cities were built on stagnation, on ensuring continuity. These were cities that had limited trade with the outside world. That could enforce or try to enforce something static.
Not so for Savere. The mightiest criminals on land and sea came to this harbor. When they did—sometimes they left intrigue, blood, or mysteries in their wake.
To rule Savere was to see things coming, to move with the tide as it ebbed and flowed. Only a fool, Rasea, saw the world as an endless stream of battles you could win.
Five Bloodtear [Pirate Captains] stood in front of the Siren of Savere. She sat on a throne that augmented her magic, with her most trusted subordinates at her back. With her was the [Aeromancer]-[Hydromancer], Ureita, her own [Bandit Generals], and high-level fighters, including Omusc.
It was not going to come to battle. It should not. The Bloodtear Captains had taken only their seconds into this meeting—but it would be a slaughter on both sides.
So they spoke civilly. Yet they did not mince words.
“Bleakbeaks are raiding our crew.”
“A battle you started, Captain Aldrail.”
The Siren looked pointedly at the Gnoll. He grinned, and the other captains chuckled.
Captain Jiupe swept her a bow that was fairly sincere. Gorry, the [First Mate] of Aldrail’s command, watched from the side, grinning at Omusc, who didn’t meet his gaze. Jiupe looked up, and the half-jellyfish woman grinned.
“We’re not here to squabble over law nor who started what. We’ve obeyed Savere’s laws and kept it between us outsiders, isn’t that right enough?”
There had been smaller incidents, but Revine would give them that. Jiupe nodded, and her eyes glinted.
“Then we only request what is already agreed. Bleakbeaks is callin’ for their friends. Land versus sea. Well, we just want to make sure it’s okay with you all, you being the Siren who rules Savere.”
“A Drowning Night.”
Revine’s skin prickled. All five [Captains] were grinning at her. She shifted.
“Bloodtear hasn’t ever needed to request that before. You want to fight? Pick a night and do it. Leave those inside alone. Savere has seen Drowning Nights before and will since. Bloodier than any five ships—even Bloodtear—can manage.”
It was a mild insult and a reminder. Two of the [Captains]’ eyes flashed, but Jiupe looked at them and they calmed down. Then they started smiling once more.
“You’re wrong about only one thing, Siren. Which is why we ask. We know Savere’s seen blood. So…is it okay? A Drowning Night?”
Revine’s skin prickled.
“I just said it was.”
Captain Aldrail grinned. The Gnoll spread his arms.
“Tonight, then. But what about tomorrow?”
The throne room hadn’t been exactly chatty, but the others of Savere looked up. Revine leaned forwards.
“Tonight and tomorrow and every day. Until the last Bleakbeak dies or flees Savere. Let them bring every gang in a thousand miles. They think this will go a night. We of Bloodtear petition Your Exalted Majesty—”
Jiupe and the others bowed mockingly, the light of madness in their eyes—
“For free rein. Under your laws. As long as it takes.”
The Siren saw Omusc shudder. Even her most stalwart [Generals] looked uneasy. Bloodtear. Madpeople of the sea.
The harbors would be filled with bodies, and the streets would be red from one Drowning Night. A week? The Siren imagined the undead rising, the classes, the destruction…her lips moved.
“No. Savere weathers Drowning Nights like a storm. I will not have a week of it. Pacts or not, you will damage the city. You have not paid enough for me to tolerate that.”
“Then we’ll pay a thousand gold pieces a night.”
One of the [Pirate Captains] countered. They’d take more of that from the Bleakbeaks if they won. The Siren drummed her fingers on the armrest.
“I have made up my mind.”
The [Captains] looked at each other.
“Can we convince you otherwise, Your Majesty?”
“No. My will is final. One night.”
The Siren rose. She had a second audience, and this one she was looking forward to even less than Bloodtear. The Alchemist Irurx. He was upstairs, in her private domain. She did not want him there, but it beat him and the Bloodtear Pirates getting into it.
Besides, she hated to admit it, but she had business with him. His ship had faithfully obeyed her commands; they let no crew on shore and only sent for what they needed. Any other crew would have rioted at that. Shifthold?
So silent. Yet [Pirates] and [Rogues] came, whispered at the docks with figures, and paid for potions. Because Alchemist Irurx was one of the best in the world and some of his potions…you couldn’t pay for them anywhere else cheaper.
Revine didn’t know what he wanted for the audience, but she suspected it had something to do with Ceria Springwalker. The Bloodtear Pirates had clearly been hoping to meet her, but Ceria was waiting for Revine.
Upstairs, in her rooms. Omusc would have watched her…Revine began to leave the throne room. The [Pirates] were vocally unhappy, but she wasn’t going to continue this conversation. Jiupe muttered.
“I guess that’s that. One night or there’ll be two sides we’re fighting, eh?”
Revine slowed. She looked back.
“What did you just say?”
The Bloodtear Pirates smiled innocently at her. Jiupe coughed into one fist, her Human one.
“Just layin’ it out, Your Majesty. We can’t rightly break Savere’s laws. Not without making an enemy of the Siren herself. We’d have to fight the Bleakbeaks, their friends, and Savere. If we continued. Or you gave us an extension. But you’ve said your piece, and I respect that, woman to woman.”
She smiled, a toothy grin on one half of her face. The Siren stared at her. Without a word, she turned and stalked off.
“Siren? What the hell was that?”
Her people followed her as the [Pirates] filed out of the room. The Siren looked around and saw her [Raid General]. She pointed.
“Pull the army into the capital.”
“The army? But you said we were going to chase the Empress—they’re all the way at—”
“Don’t argue. March them this way now.”
The Siren did not like what the Bloodtear Pirates were implying. This was her ground, her city, and for all they were fearsome, even Rasea’s famous crew couldn’t storm Savere alone. But what did that mean?
“Revine. I could tail them invisibly and see what that meant…”
“Ureita, be silent. The rest of you, disperse. Omusc, get to Ceria Springwalker. I have to meet with the Alchemist.”
The [Mage] trailed off, hurt, and the others nodded. They broke up, and Omusc strode ahead of the Siren. She ascended the stairs.
Alchemist Irurx was a half-Elf. He had to be, for Shifthold to be so…old. To be one of the greatest [Alchemists] in this world on the other side of propriety.
He had come from Terandria, but made his name in other parts of the world. He was one of the few [Alchemists] who had survived Nerrhavia Fallen’s purge—when they infamously tried to make potions out of A’ctelios Salash’s unique ingredients. People had tried that before, and the nation had come down like a hammer when it had been uncovered.
Irurx survived. Shifthold. He traded in Roshal, too. He bought people. He fought at sea and dealt with [Pirates] and Drowned Folk. He had a massive bounty—for a single man. Few people tried to claim it.
You could buy magnificent potions from him. Healing, stamina, magic—all your standard goods, and a thousand top-quality potions were now in Savere’s treasury. The best kind of stuff you’d find on the market.
However, there were items Irurx sold that were not on any market’s listings. He was no battle-items specialist. No healing savant. His specialty was one thing.
Potions of Skill. Potions of Transformation. Hirelings of the kind you unleashed. Beasts of…burden.
Drink one of his potions, and if you were a fumble-fingered [Thug], for eight minutes you’d be able to flip over walls and pick locks with toothpicks. Or conversely—you’d fight with all the abilities of a Level 28 [Warrior].
Other [Alchemists] could do that, but Irurx’s were stronger, more potent, and his crew was known to be…different. What few you saw of them were generally hooded or clothed. They were beyond loyal to him, such that Revine would never try to corrupt one. She didn’t want one.
What did he want? The Siren entered her private quarters and snapped.
“Alchemist Irurx. I apologize for the wait. Alchemist—”
She looked around. Where was he? She felt like she would have smelled him at once; even now, there was some kind of mycenoid odor in the air, like fungus and mold and the conditions to grow it, mixed with the alchemical fugue.
But it wasn’t immediate. The Siren looked around.
“Where is…? You!”
She pointed and a servant flinched.
“Where is the Alchemist?”
The woman flinched and hurried to reply.
“He—he was just here, Siren! But he left about ten minutes ago…”
“For the restroom?”
The thought of Alchemist Irurx having something as normal as bowel movements…the Siren hesitated.
“Well…where is he?”
If it was her private bathrooms, she’d be casting [Cleanse] spells all day. The servant hurried off, clearly weighing having to find Irurx versus the Siren’s wrath. Revine tapped her foot until someone came hurrying to find her.
It wasn’t the servant. Revine turned and saw Omusc striding her way. The [Pillager] looked worried.
“Where is Ceria? No—don’t bring her here. Don’t tell me she’s downstairs, making an ass of herself in front of those pirates!”
The Siren was losing her patience. She glanced out the window and saw it was getting dark.
“Drowning Night is coming. Don’t let her outside. We’re sealing the palace!”
Those damned Bloodtear Pirates! She hadn’t expected them to do a Drowning Night tonight. What were they hinting at? Omusc bowed.
“I’ll find her.”
“You had better. Find her and get her back here if she’s outside. Don’t bother coming back if she’s not with you!”
Omusc turned pale. Revine actually gave her a shove.
“You heard me! Get Ceria or you will live to regret it!”
Omusc hesitated, then turned and ran to beat the fading sun. Revine looked around, foot tapping. Circlet. Irurx. Where was…?
She had a sudden suspicion. But before she could act on it, the Siren heard distant screams, coming from overhead. She cursed.
There were Garuda in the air. Hundreds. Outside Savere, she could see figures stalking the streets as people hurried into homes, boarding them up. They were actually fortifying the ground.
The Bleakbeaks had called in every gang to teach Bloodtear a lesson. They outnumbered the [Pirates] by far. The Siren thought they were both fools for this petty toll in blood—for what, a handful of treasure and loot from the others’ corpses? Maybe Irurx would pay them for the dead bodies.
She had to admit, though, there were more landfolk than she had thought. Even with five ships, it would be five-to-one with just the people she saw in the open, and Bloodtear would have to fight defensively or they’d be surrounded and slaughtered.
However, the Bleakbeaks made one mistake. They were furious because their own had been brutally slaughtered in the bar over a petty insult. No gang would take that lying down, but Bloodtear?
They were maniacs. They’d fight to the death once you roused them. And they gave no quarter once it was truly a battle. Even so, a week of fighting would empty their ships and they weren’t stupid. So why…?
The Siren had her answer as she gazed out her balcony. Her senses over her domain tingled. Slowly, she turned her head.
The sun was setting. It looked red against the sky; [Sailors] beware. But that wasn’t what the Siren saw.
She glanced around—then strode over to a telescope. Her beloved Watercat bounded towards Revine, yowling, but she paid him no mind as she bent over the magical artifact. The Siren whirled it across the sea.
The wind was picking up. As the sun turned red, the landfolk waited for the Drowning Night.
A storm was blowing in. Another one. But this one wasn’t one the Siren had conjured or allowed. She could feel it building in the distance. She reached out—but her hand trembled as she felt how strong it was.
She couldn’t toss this one towards another nation’s coast. It was backed by more than just a powerful tempest. It wasn’t a magical typhoon, thank sleeping Krakens. But it was backed by a force she knew at once.
A Skill. Multiple Skills. The Siren began sweating.
This was what she had once warned Ceria about. The Siren was mighty. But sometimes the Siren had to know fights that were deadly. And this? She stared through the telescope and saw them, coming in fast.
Sails billowing. Blue drops on red hulls. Their flags were black. She counted.
“…three…five…dead gods. Eleven.”
Three full fleets, including the ones in the docks. She had seen so many of them gathered only once. They were coming—and—the Siren stared out into the streets where the mocking Garuda were jeering, daring the [Pirates] to come out.
They had no idea. The Siren didn’t care about them, though. Damn them. She was sweating, despite the ocean breeze.
This was about…either she reversed her decision, or sixteen Bloodtear crews and their [Captains] would force the issue.
Jiupe’s grin. If you do not relent—then it’s us against Savere, eh? And if she did? If she bowed to them? Would that be enough? Or…was that the pretext?
“Get the army. Get me my [General]. Tell them the army has to arrive now. Not later. March them with every movement Skill, with every—”
The Siren went for her speaking stone. The army. They needed the army. With it, even Bloodtear’s full might…
Amid it all, the Siren’s panic as the first Drowning Night began, she forgot completely about Omusc. The cawing of the Garuda kept going until they saw the sails in the distance. And then an entirely new sound would fill the streets.
The Siren was busy. But she realized something, as she shouted at her people and braced. Not for today, but tomorrow. Her sister wasn’t answering her hails. Yet then, Revine looked around after nearly two hours.
“Where is Alchemist Irurx?”
He had never shown himself. At last, the Siren of Savere put something together. He was missing, but he had been here. He was unexpectedly gone.
And so was Ceria Springwalker. The Siren stared out of her balcony at the dark ship anchored far from the others.
Night fell. A storm blew into harbor. She looked up as the first drops began to hit the city. A Skill made storm.
Ceria Springwalker halted as she walked with the masked half-Elf across the decks of Shifthold. He gestured towards the Captain’s cabin as a figure garbed from head-to-toe in stained black bowed deeply, holding the door open.
“After you, sister.”
Alchemist Irurx bowed to his half-Elf cousin. Ceria held up a hand, her skeletal one, head turning to those distant ships. It was raining. But…she held up her hand and something fell into it.
A drop of red. It splashed over her bones. Like blood. Ceria Springwalker looked at the [Alchemist], who had ‘invited’ her to his ship.
“What’s that sound?”
Slowly, Irurx turned. He spoke in a flat voice.
“The Bloodtear Pirates. They are singing.”
She heard it now. From the ships at dock, and an echo at sea. Silencing the Garudas’ screams. Hovering over Savere. A chant to make even her skin tingle. She had never heard the like—but this was Bloodtear.
“[We Sailed Under Flags of No Quarter], [A Storm at Our Backs], [We Took No Prisoner]. [Blood in the Waters, Blood in the Sky].”
She stared out at the ships at sea. Then turned to the Alchemist. He beckoned her inside, smiling. Ceria exhaled, slowly.
Then she walked into his cabin. The Alchemist smiled as he removed his mask. His eyes never left her face and the circlet on her head.
They fought in the shadow of the Glass Bazaar.
Fought, but it was an ever-doomed fight. That they did fight at all was desperation, wild courage because they knew what awaited them.
The observers watched.
“Roshal. You see them, brothers and sisters?”
One pointed them out. They too were not in the city, or rather, sprawling trading bazaar that watched on without interfering. They had been banned, and were debating their present course.
Roshal ignored them too. They had eyes only for their quarry.
Hundreds. The [Slave Masters] and [Slave Takers] had them in wagons and lines, but there were so many that they required even more [Guards]. Fortunately…for Roshal, they had that many.
This was a hunting party. Across Chandrar, Roshal was moving. Where it had cowered, it now sprang up since the Death of Chains was confirmed to have left Chandrar. And in her wake, the freed [Slaves], liberated from their chains, were being pursued.
Each one would be found and reclaimed. This last, desperate group, who had fled a famous [Slave Master]—now dead—had been caught flat-footed by morning. They had weapons, and surprising numbers.
These [Slavers] had no Djinni, or they would have trampled the others in seconds. They were…cautious. Roshal had come under attack, though no one would say exactly how, only that it might be related to the Death of Chains.
So they employed mortal [Guards] and [Mercenaries] in great numbers. Not least, the [Slave Masters], the leader of whom was riding into battle with an enchanted sword. He swung it carefully, lashing with a Whip of Paralysis in his other hand. He only severed the limbs of Stitch-folk, and, one by one, the desperate band was being caught, only a few, the most defiant, killed. Each one was worth money, and the captives were being thrown with the others.
“Dark deeds. Roshal should not stand proudly, yet they do. I have thought on it long, brothers and sisters.”
One of the watchers remarked. He was eating simple bread and water, grimacing at the sight. The others nodded.
They were a group of only sixty, yet they feared neither the Glass Bazaar’s intolerance nor Roshal. Roshal had been known to…make mistakes when it came to those they took as [Slaves]. But this lot would not flinch. They had simple weapons, as most travellers did, simple clothing. They had been begging for alms, but they were odd.
“Tell me, brother Izreal. What are you thinking?”
“Only that these are a people who did not ask to be [Slaves]. Perhaps they were people who have done terrible things, but slavery? Isn’t there room for redemption? Doesn’t it go against our very core of beliefs?”
The others looked thoughtful. One woman clasped her hands together.
“I do not know. We must discuss it. But now?”
The slaves had no chance. Yet…the words lingered on the man called Izreal’s lips. Did they fear numbers? Did they fear adversity? They served a ruler who could shatter Roshal if his full fury was brought against them. Turn it to glass and ashes, even more than the Glass Straits.
What was right? What was…he thought hard as he watched the battle winding down. And because he was watching—he saw the first figures on the hilltop of one of the great dunes.
Pisces Jealnet stared down at the battle below. He had sunk down into a crouch, and Merr was on her belly.
“Damn, damn, damn. Stick a cactus up my ass—now? They beat us to the bazaar!”
This was the Glass Bazaar she’d been telling Pisces about, which she’d wanted to hit. Pisces had been dubious about it, but Merr had told him she needed the loot to keep the gang running.
However, the [Scouts] she’d sent ahead to plan their route for the day had woken everyone after another night of marching to sound the alarm. Roshal was there. A huge group of [Slaves] who’d been recaptured.
[Slaves]. They were trying to get to the gates, but the gates were barred, and Pisces knew that the occupants of the Glass Bazaar would stand aside or hand them right back to Roshal.
Nowhere to run. Yet they fought because…Pisces clenched his teeth.
“What do we do, boss? There’s a lot of ‘em.”
One of the [Bandits] looked ready to turn around, rich bazaar or not. Merr the Storm was silent. She was staring down at Roshal’s people.
“There are hundreds of slaves. Just as many guards. No…no Djinni. I see few [Mages]. But we are outnumbered, even if they have not spotted us. That does not even account for the Glass Bazaar, if they intervened.”
Pisces was counting. Merr muttered.
“I heard they had a bit less than what we’re seeing; the caravans contribute to the defense. If you scare them…Roshal’s tougher. Yeah.”
She looked up at Pisces. He stared at her. Merr spoke, glancing down the slope. Eloque, the freed [Slaves], [Bandits], [Raiders], all milled around, but quietly, waiting.
“We could head east. We keep out of sight? Maybe they don’t realize we’re even here. Even with—with that many [Slaves] they’d have to split up. We’d be able to keep them off us, with my Skills.”
They stared down at the fighting. Pisces’ lips moved. It was a terribly dangerous battle. He saw Merr slowly rising. She looked at him, a hand on her sword hilt.
“The odds are against us. We’re outnumbered.”
Pisces nodded slowly. He stared at the people. There were children down there, and the [Guards] were cheering on the ones on the attack.
“We are. But there is a second army down there.”
Merr blinked as he pointed down at the people in chains. She looked up and exhaled. Pisces wavered. He looked down at Eloque and the others.
“If…but if we fail.”
The [Bandit Lady] followed his gaze. Towards Bearig, Rophir, Eloque, and Qshom. She clapped him on the shoulder.
“We can spare four horses. But if we go down there, Pisces, my lad—they’re nearly done.”
She pointed. The last three dozen [Slaves] were pressed against the wall. Pisces looked down at them.
“Boss, this is stupid.”
One of the [Bandits] tried to argue with them, eyes moving uncertainly from Merr to Pisces. Because she lacked context. Merr nodded simply.
They came down the hill without warning. [Raiders] and [Bandits], charging over the top of the hill in a second.
Roshal didn’t even see them at first. A sandstorm blew downwards, and the [Slavers] only saw that. They shouted warnings though; they sensed it—
Then they saw the first [Rider] break through the dust and grit at her back. She rode down on the unguarded lines of [Slaves], a sword held high. After her came a figure on horseback, a flaming rapier drawn. He aimed a finger and a bolt of black light went through one of the [Guards] tending to the wagons. He collapsed without a word, and the [Bandit Lady] chopped downwards.
“Charge! Wipe them out!”
The riders burst out of the sandstorm blinding their opponents. They rode down, slashing and breaking away, going for the sides, fighting, as figures on foot charged after them. There were strange creatures amid the storm. The [Guards] who turned, locking blades with people charging forwards on foot, saw glowing eyes amid the dust.
What was that? Someone was shouting.
“Merr the Storm! [Bandit] attack! Open the gates! It’s him! It’s the [Necromancer]—”
Then the voice cut off as a giant bear made of bone leapt out of the darkness, and a figure on its back brought a sword down.
A Skeleton Lord. And—the [Guards] shouted as the glowing eyes drew nearer, revealing burning flames in pale sockets of bone.
“Keep the [Slaves] shackled! [Rally To Me]!”
The [Slave Master] with the enchanted sword whirled. The [Slavers] around him rallied, standing firm as the [Necromancer] and [Bandits] tried to break the shackles on the [Slaves]. Some tried to grab keys from dead [Guards], but the wagon bars were iron and so were the chains!
A figure burst past the fighting there and charged the main body of Roshal’s fighters. He flicked a ring, and the [Slave Master] leaned out of his saddle as a bolt of magic flashed past his head. A [Guard] saw the figure coming at him and raised his shield—so Pisces stabbed him in the guts.
Merr the Storm broke forwards. She whirled her sword overhead.
“To me! Keep moving! [Fight Like You Mean It], you half-balled idiots!”
The [Raiders] and [Bandits] screamed, surging forwards to clash with the armored [Guards]. Off-guard, they faltered—then held as the [Slave Taker] leader raised his sword.
“[Feet of Stone]. Stand or die. Roshal commands it! Now—[Advantage: The Unchained].”
Merr faltered as a spear slashed at her face. She knocked it down, but suddenly a quarter of the fighters found the [Guards] and [Slavers] fighting faster against them, stronger—the [Necromancer] cursed, raised his hands, and blasted a line of [Guards] with flames.
They ran, screaming, rolling, but it didn’t ignite the Stitch-folk fully. The [Slave Master] recoiled, then pointed his sword down at Pisces.
“That is the slave worth a million gold pieces! Ten thousand to the one who brings him down!”
The [Guards] charged. Pisces backed up—then vanished with an oath. He reappeared, running one of the [Mages] through the side, and whirled.
It was chaos and confusion. Three sides watched the fighting, at first, for nearly three whole minutes, obscured by Merr’s summoned storm that had given her that famous name.
The Glass Bazaar saw the attack and hesitated. Merr the Storm. However, as the [Slave Master] rallied his forces, it became clear this was not Merr the Storm, head of Merr’s [Storm Bandits], the lighting-fast raids of her elite [Bandits].
She was deadly, lashing about even with a disadvantage, but she was not the common [Bandits] who had levels from below 10 to 20 at most, generally. They came to a rapid decision as Roshal’s people hammered on their gates.
Slowly, the Glass Bazaar began to open the gates and archers appeared on the walls. The [Slaves] began to be herded inside as a relief force moved out to support Roshal.
“No. They’re attacking.”
The second group to see the fighting was Eloque, Bearig, Qshom, Rophir, sitting on the horse pawing the ground in front of Bearig, and the other non-combatants. Merr had excluded those not ready to fight in her eyes, the young and old.
“If it looks like we’re losing, run. We’ll catch up. We’ll break away if we have to.”
That was her order to them. Eloque had the spear she’d been given, but she knew she wouldn’t last more than a single clash in the thick of that fighting—not without support. Roshal’s guards were dangerous, and the [Bandits] faltered as arrows began to rain down from above.
“They have a chance. Pisces and Merr are there.”
Qshom murmured. The Dullahan was feeling at his cloth armor, and Rophir kept looking from Bearig to the battle. The [Cook]’s lips were moving.
“Come on, Pisces…”
Rophir stared down at the battle. He could see better than the other slaves, both in terms of pure eyesight and how it was going.
The initial assault had pushed Roshal back, but they were rallying, and they wouldn’t be swept away by the sheer impact of the charge. It was a battle and so both sides had to lean on what they had.
Numbers and, arguably, training and vantage from Roshal. Equipment too. What did the freed [Slaves] and [Bandits] have against all that? The element of surprise.
The undead, who had surged into the fight. Even as Rophir watched, one locked blades with a [Guard], who began to hammer it down. The skeleton was knocked flat, and the warrior lifted a mace to hammer it to dust—
The ribcage exploded as the [Bandit] Merr had assigned to the job pointed and shouted.
A simple command. The skeleton’s ribcage exploded. The [Guard] toppled over, armor and face shredded, and the skeleton, now lighter, got up, and, clattering its jaw, attacked the other [Guards], who fled the deadly trick-skeletons.
That was one advantage. The second were the three—four fighters.
Ivery. Bearbones. Merr and Pisces.
The four were higher-level or far more dangerous than anyone else present. Ivery had fallen off Bearbones, and the warbear was standing on two legs. It brought its full weight down on a [Guard], then savaged another as they hammered on its armor.
Ivery slashed, whirling around with his superior strength and speed. Not finesse—but as he fought in the melee, a warrior with a huge battle axe charged him. Ivery raised his shield and it split before a furious [Overpowering Chop]. The skeleton stared down at its off-hand as it staggered. The man raised his axe for another down-swing—
And Ivery threw a rock into his face. Rophir saw the man’s nose crunch. He staggered. How had—there was no—
Ivery’s magically bound rock reappeared in the Skeleton Lord’s hand. He stabbed the man through the chest, then whirled and threw it like a baseball pitcher through part of someone’s skull.
Two figures. Merr was fighting amidst the [Bandits], using her Skills.
“[Hammering Blows]! Get that bastard! Stop them from getting those slaves into the city!”
She was matching the [Slave Master]’s Skills and fighting at the front. The [Bandits] were ready to break and run, but Merr kept them in the battle. Even so, with all of it, they would have run. They would have been overwhelmed, Ivery’s magic rock and Bearbones or not, if not for him.
Pisces whirled, running a [Guard] through. He aimed a finger, shot a [Deathbolt] through someone’s chest, and sprayed flames around him. Just a Tier 2 spell, but it kept them back. He [Flash Stepped] to the side, evading a swinging man with a club, and an arrow curved as it shot at him.
“Alive! Keep him alive!”
The [Slave Master] was screaming, but the [Guards] were desperate. Pisces aimed another finger and they scattered.
Where he pointed, they died. Pisces’ rapier took someone else, slashing across their leg, then when they struck wildly, across their eyes. His mouth was open. He was laboring for breath, but he never stopped moving.
He was shouting. Fighting wilder and with more savagery than he ever had before. Die. Die! He aimed a finger up and an [Arrow of Light]—a regular one—hit an [Archer] in the groin.
Low shot. Pisces sprayed the archers on the walls with the spell, wishing he had Ceria’s aim. Wishing he had her spells. He retreated, put his hand up.
[Bone Wall]! It blocked off the bandits on one side, letting Merr focus forwards. Pisces closed his eyes.
“Arise! Rise and fight for me, bodies of the worthless in life!”
They rose. [Guards] cried out as zombies rose, from [Bandits] and [Slavers] alike. They fell, clawing, adding to the numbers of the fighters. Pisces gulped for air.
In his very soul, something was emptying itself. He felt it.
[Ashen Mana Well]. He drew on it until it was expended. Rise! Rise, and fight for a just cause! This battle will never end. For all those that die, I will call them back!
“I am the [Necromancer] of the Horns of Hammerad! Flee or die!”
Pisces shouted. He saw Ivery racing past him and drank from a mana potion, the last of three he had. The [Slavers] hesitated. Pisces lifted his finger.
I shouldn’t have let Mrsha have that wand. He focused a second—a [Bandit] fell, screaming, as the [Slave Master] slashed across her neck. An arrow nearly struck Merr and hit someone in the arm. The [Slaves] were fighting, but they were being dragged into the city—
It rested on him. Pisces gathered the mana and shouted.
A squad of [Slavers] saw the orb coming. Too fast—too close. The backwash actually spattered Pisces’ cheek and burned. Not as deadly as Erin’s acid but—they ran, screaming. Pisces drank another potion.
He shot two [Guards] dead. Something was happening.
My [Ashen Mana Well] is recharging! He realized it was filling up with every death, with the undead around him. But only with death magic. [Deathbolt] worked. Undead worked. But—
The mana from the potion filled his veins again and burned. He was pushing himself—but Pisces aimed a finger up. A trail of fire followed it as his focus wavered. It didn’t matter. It was still magic in a box. Push and—
The [Archers] vanished. Spells he had never had to employ—Pisces used them one after another.
The slavers wavered. Gold-rank adventurer! Merr was laughing.
“Get them! Get—Pisces! Watch out!”
She slashed, but the riders charging forwards refused to get anywhere near her. Pisces looked up and saw the leader of this band coming straight at him.
The [Slave Master]. No—multiple [Slave Leaders]. He aimed up—
[Deathbolt]. One fell, white-faced, from her saddle. Pisces used [Flash Step], trying to evade. He leapt sideways and the horses began to turn, but were far wide of him. He saw the [Slave Master], the deadliest, probably highest-levelled of them, slash, but that was just a feint.
The whip! Pisces ducked and the tip cracked, missing his cheek with the paralyzing tip. He whirled.
His finger came up. The [Slave Master]’s hand tightened.
“[Recapture the Runaway].”
Pisces’ felt something lock around his neck. A metal—he choked, and was dragged off his feet as the horse and rider, now tethered to him by a gleaming rope, began to drag him across the ground.
[Slave Taker]. A class devoted to recapturing [Slaves]! The rider was dragging Pisces around on the ground and he was slashing at the rope attached to the collar to no avail. And just like that—it turned around.
Rophir heard Eloque scream. The morale of Merr’s bandits faltered in an instant, and the [Guards] pressed in. Pisces wasn’t out, nor were his undead—but he was fighting with the [Slave Master] and they were on the back foot.
Qshom whispered. Rophir waited.
He knew what was coming next. They would all be taken captive. Given to someone like Riqre—but not before things were done to make sure they would never try to escape again.
“We have to help him! Someone—Merr!”
She was trying, but the [Slaver Leaders] were keeping far away from her. Someone had to help Pisces.
Rophir knew it. Someone else, to turn the battle around. It was…
It was what Riqre always said. Quality over quantity. The half-Elf boy waited.
Now. Now they would wonder how, these powerless [Slaves] without a class. Then…
He felt someone shift behind him. That big oaf. That…kindly man. Rophir waited.
Bearig looked down at him, a grave look on his face. Rophir waited.
I know. I know it has to be done.
The half-Elf boy waited. [Assassin]. Young. But he had a class and levels…
Somewhere, Emir Riqre was laughing. He touched the dagger at his side. He felt Bearig lift him up—then he handed him to Qshom.
“Qshom, hold onto Rophir. Ride away if it looks south.”
Rophir stared at Bearig. Eloque turned. She had the spear in her claws, and twice now she had hesitated, almost looking as if she would ride into that fighting.
He watched as Pisces finally forced the [Slave Master] to let go of the rope. Staggering, Pisces whirled, slashing, but his magic was locked down. Not his Skills.
Bearig had a meat cleaver. A [Cook]’s tool that was also a deadly weapon. He drew it now. Stared at it.
“I’m no fighter. I may get in the way. But I have been thinking.”
He stared down at the battle. His lips moved. He only spoke and hesitated a moment. Less than a minute in total for all of it to take place. When Bearig turned, his eyes were bright.
“…I beat a [Slave]. I rented slaves, for my restaurant. I would curse at them, beat them if they were too slow, if they made mistakes. I treated them like I wouldn’t treat a dog.”
The others looked at him. Bearig turned back.
“I have a dream to go home. To find my family and live happily. But even if I do—I will never forget the things I have seen. Nerrhavia’s Fallen, my home. I asked if she knew. Her Majesty. She must. I have seen terrible things. I cannot go back and live in peace. Even if I was given the chance? I cannot.”
He stared down at the [Slavers] and people fighting. His eyes locked on the [Slaves]. On the [Slave Master]. The people in chains were watching Pisces, desperately. They had the eyes Rophir and the others had once had when they stared at Czautha. But Pisces was faltering.
“Bearig. You will surely die.”
The [Cook]’s shoulders were shaking. He was sweating.
“I know. But—I will not run. Better to die than be a [Slave]—no. No! I will never be a [Slave] again.”
He hefted the cleaver and looked at them.
“Such people—they deserve worse than death. All I will give them is death, if I can. Whatever it takes—in this next minute or year. I will be free. I am no [Slave]. Nor will I see anyone else be a [Slave]. No more collars and Riqres. Never again.”
He kicked his horse in the sides and the beast took him down the hill. Slowly. Then gathering momentum. Qshom hesitated. Eloque looked at the other [Slaves]. Some were already moving forwards. Rophir leapt off the saddle.
The Dullahan jerked and stared down. But Eloque was riding after Bearig next, then the others. The [Cook] charged, straight down. Some of the [Archers] saw and began taking shots at him from the walls. Most of the [Guards] ignored him. He was one man, face white, holding a cooking tool, not a sword.
But the [Slave Master] turned. His grin as he conjured more bindings and circled Pisces…faded. An odd, uncertain look entered his eyes as his head turned to stare directly at Bearig.
Perhaps he heard it. A sound under the light of day. A rarity that only occurred a few times. When you earned it. A temporary Skill.
A revelation from the divine.
And…it echoed in the [Cook]’s ears. A will as old as his people. A voice that had set the first of them free. From Elucina, to now.
[Slave class removed!]
[Rebel class obtained!]
[Skill – Mortal Enemy: Slavers obtained!]
[Rebel]. He crashed towards the [Slave Master], who rode away from him, whip cracking.
They were still losing. But the sight of a mere [Cook] charging the enemy was enough. The Stitch-man spoke.
“I have seen enough.”
“Brother Izreal. There is nothing against—”
He whirled to the others.
“There is not. But there are contradictions. Were our own people not once [Slaves]? Were they not freed? Look. Those [Slaves] fight for freedom with courage. Roshal? There is no redemption in Roshal. I am called.”
“You must not make such decisions alone. You are not the will and voice and teacher.”
One of the other sixty stood up to confront Izreal. He met the uncertain gaze.
“I am certain. It lies in my heart and the heavens. Or do you fear the might of Roshal, Lazimeh? Is it not written? ‘Be strong and courageous; do not be afraid or terrified of them. For it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will never leave nor forsake you.’”
His hands clasped together. The woman kneeling next to him looked up. Slowly, the Stitch-man drew a simple club.
“I hear his voice. As He is my witness. I will go alone and smite them if I must and answer to the [Prophet] alone.”
He turned and began walking towards the fighting. Horseless. He had simple cloth clothing and a simple weapon. They had been begging and preaching odd faith in the Glass Bazaar, and thus been exiled.
Strange people who spoke strange words that made the ears ring. Fearless. No wonder they had been exiled. Alone, Izreal walked, and he had taken a name that was half from holy land, half from his people. A new name for a new calling. A better calling.
He walked alone—for a moment. Then a Stitch-woman caught up. She was murmuring, and when he heard her voice, he picked it up.
This was written.
“When you go forth to battle against your foes and see armies of horses and chariots and enemies more numerous than you, be not afraid of them. For the Lord thy God is with thee…”
Disbelieving [Guards] on the edges of the fighting saw the sixty coming down the slope. Just sixty people, far less terrifying than undead or anything else. One aimed a bow up—shot an arrow.
Someone went down, a cry of pain—an arrow in the leg. The [Guards] relaxed. They were exactly what they seemed. The sixty began charging as arrows came their way, and a rank of [Guards] moved out to slaughter them.
Then…they saw something odd. One of the women had stopped next to the Human man. She reached down, dragged the barbed arrow out of his flesh, and he screamed and nearly passed out. She bent—touched his leg.
There was no potion. But suddenly, he was rising, blood still on his legs, and charging, screaming. The [Guard] who saw it stared.
What was that? Then the first of them, led by a man with a club, came charging down the hill. The [Guards] set themselves. They saw the figure leading them raise the club and shout a word that echoed.
“___ protect us!”
And there was light. It pierced even the arms raised to shield against it. No mere [Light] spell. The air boomed, and the earth shook under the [Guards]’ feet. Some caught themselves; one ran through one of these strange warriors and killed them dead.
But another lifted a shield and saw the mace burning with white fire. It came down like a hammer and sent the figure sprawling back. An [Elite Mercenary] locked his enchanted blade with a simple shortsword and stared at the iron weapon that took no damage in disbelief.
Magic. Magic versus…
[Pilgrims]. [Believers]. [Acolytes]…they surged forwards, blinding their foes, the words of a strange belief on their lips.
Merr shouted, seeing them breaking through. She raised her hand and the dust storm rose once more. But the strange new group and the freed [Slaves] fought without being blinded.
Pisces ran through the cover, looking around.
He saw a half-Elf boy bring down a [Guard] from the knees. Saw Eloque and Qshom fighting and ran through their opponents from behind. Then he saw Bearig.
The [Cook] brought down the cleaver on the [Slave Master]’s arm and hacked down to the bone. The man screamed, and Bearig wrenched the cleaver up and brought it down again. Again and again—as if he was hacking at some carcass.
Let all who hold chains beware. Pisces looked around. Then he ran through the Glass Bazaar’s gates. The confused guards and [Slavers] saw a Gold-rank [Necromancer] charge out of the darkness, a black light swirling around his aiming fingertip. Then followed a [Rebel] and a [Cook], a half-Elf boy, a Skeleton Lord…
The Glass Bazaar fell in a second round of fighting, followed by a surrender. By more fighting, really; Merr the Storm shouted at the people barricaded within.
“If you’re [Traders] and people of this place, you live! Give up Roshal or die, all of you!”
Roshal’s guards knew what awaited them outside. There was no hope of running or winning; Pisces had freed the [Slaves], and they had taken the bazaar. They fought the people inside, rather than leave.
Afterwards, Pisces found Bearig. The [Cook] sat there, half his face puffed up. The paralzying whip had struck him several times near the end.
“Rebel. I am a [Rebel]. A class as old as…the Rebel of String.”
He laughed. Pisces looked at him. A blue class. Or perhaps it had only been how he was saved.
Merr was counting heads, riding among the freed [Slaves], ordering her remaining [Bandits] to strip the Glass Bazaar. They had paid a dear price for victory. Ordinarily, they might decide to run or kill her for the loot until she found a loyal crew. However, the freed [Slaves] outnumbered them and there would be no need to petition the Siren for more reinforcements. [Bandits] fought for gold. [Slaves]?
Eloque was sitting down, throwing up. Not so much from the gore or horror of killing [Slavers]—she had drunk an entire bottle of water down and it had come right up. Bronze-rank mistake.
It was the last group Pisces sought out. They were only thirty-some strong now. They had fought with amazing spirit—and little actual skill—but they’d somehow exacted a terrible toll.
It was their lack of armor that did them in. Whatever they had trusted in—some of them had survived arrows striking them and bouncing off, or taken blows that would surely have killed them—others had just died.
However, more were on their feet than he had any reason to expect. As he watched, a woman bowed her head and placed her hands over a cut side.
“You will not die today, Brother Izreal. Not while the Lord watches over you.”
“He asks…what he asks…”
The man gasped—and Pisces saw light. A flash of…
It was familiar. He stopped, and saw Izreal rise. He touched at his side, and it was whole.
That was not a potion. Nor a spell. Pisces saw the woman look up.
“You’re the [Necromancer].”
She said it with little rancor. If anything, she was impressed. The man turned and bowed to Pisces.
“I am glad to see you lived, and these good people survived. May we introduce ourselves?”
“Please. I am Pisces Jealnet.”
No recognition. So they didn’t have scrying orbs. They had fought—interceded—why?
“Because my heart told me to. Because I felt the calling.”
Izreal smiled. Pisces saw the others nod.
“You are people of conviction.”
“People of faith. The Glass Bazaar cast us out, but we find converts among [Slaves] and those who suffer. We spread the word of truth across Chandrar. We are small, but our classes shine bright. Already, we level, so we know our cause was just, our faith not misplaced. I am Marrieh.”
The woman smiled. She was Human too, and Pisces blinked at the strange statements.
She had levelled? He hadn’t seen her take a nap—maybe someone had hit her so hard she’d passed out?
No. He looked at them and his memory touched him.
“You must think our classes strange, but perhaps it is well you have seen the truth. There is something I would like to tell you—tell all those here, Pisces Jealnet. A great salvation has come to us all. To this world! Rejoice!”
Izreal smiled at Pisces. He was caught off-guard when Pisces smiled back.
“I…have seen this before, actually. Once.”
Pawn. Izreal stared at Pisces, then burst into a huge smile.
“Then the news is spreading! You are a friend twice over, Pisces. Shall we rest and talk?”
“We shall indeed. But please—tell me. Who are your people? Do you lead them?”
Izreal shook his head as Marrieh smiled.
“We are only one group. We were founded around the [Prophet]. We are the People of Zeikhal, who can survive even in the great desert because we want not for water or mana.”
Mana as in…? Izreal continued.
“Our true name you will not understand until you hear it. But we are simply…”
He smiled, spoke, and Pisces’ ears rang. Somewhere else, five heads rose, and they looked hungrily towards that desert continent, guarded by that damned sword and light.
“Can you repeat that?”
Pisces rubbed at his ears. Izreal smiled.
“We are the People of God.”
Author’s Note: It me. 24,000 words was not enough to split Pisces and Ceria. Frankly, I’d have liked to do it but…
I can’t. I’m running out of steam; an entire year’s worth of steam. I recharge every break, but it is a cumulative drain. I may have to take a longer break for the New Year’s as usual, but I intend to go until Volume 8 ends and then take a huge break.
However, I’ll try to keep quality up. If it dips, let me know. For now, part of that is keeping short-er chapters…like uh, Volume 6 length. Hope you understand.
There’s nothing else to talk about, clearly. Nothing important in this chapter aside from steam baths. If you scrolled down from the top, you can close the tab now and sleep easy.
…So uh, bye. Thanks for reading!
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