[I am taking a ~mysterious break~ for one update on the 18th, and I will be back on the 21st of December with a chapter and explanation! Maybe. See Author’s Notes for details.]
Would you like to know a secret?
A big secret. A top-tier secret.
You could get someone to pay for an entire roasted goose prepared by a Level 26 [Cook] with [Enhanced Seasoning] for a secret like this. And then give you a mana potion every week for four months straight.
Ceria knew, because she’d once sold a Major Secret back at Wistram for exactly that. She had no regrets; it had been a great dinner with the others when they were all friends. It was the most succulent goose she’d ever had; the real bourgeois experience, whatever that meant. Specially fed all its life until it realized at some point that it wasn’t going to have chopped food for dinner tonight…
Well, it had been exceptionally tasty. She had once mentioned that to Erin, offhandedly, not expecting the same quality, but on the chance the [Innkeeper] would like to experiment with the dish like she did with so many others. Erin had given her a horrified look and said geese were different from chickens. You fed geese, not ate them! It would be like eating duck—wait a second—
Whereupon she’d gone through an existential crisis about poultry until she wondered aloud whether swans were food too, if everything else was. Ceria had said she’d find out the next time she saw one.
Why did it matter? Well, as Ceria walked across the docks of Runsblud in Savere, following the Alchemist Irurx, as the blood storm and [Pirates] stormed into port—she thought of that.
Not because she was particularly hungry. But because, in that moment, past Ceria had missed the point. Which was not that Erin was odd, or that geese were important, or a commentary on the practice of raising animals for slaughter.
It was that Erin came from a place that was used to treating geese like semi-tame wildlife. It was that she was so used to chicken as a mainstay of food, she didn’t even bother to look into other types of poultry.
One day at market, she’d been unable to find chicken eggs. So she’d gone home empty-handed, and Lyonette had walked into Liscor and come back with a basket of duck eggs. When Erin said ‘milk’, she meant cows.
That was sort of odd, wasn’t it? A more perceptive Ceria would have wondered about that. Of course, Ceria, both past and present, knew why that was.
Erin came from another world. Ceria had never stopped to think about it.
No, she had. But she had only thought about it in a vague sense of, ‘I cannot comprehend this, but it makes complete sense given all I know about Erin.’ She had wondered about the methods and reasons behind a spell or…Skill that let it happen.
But she hadn’t discussed it with Erin or Pisces. Ceria supposed she had simply thought of it as Erin’s secret. Everyone had one, and, in truth, she had suspected it was like that port on Izril and other places. Dimensional magic was not unknown.
Now, though…Ceria thought about it. She thought fast and hard. It was like she had lived her entire life in a cloud and only now broke through it. Or, to put it another way—her mind had never been bad. It was a bit lazy, and she had trouble with some things other people were more naturally gifted at.
However, it had been a scrappy…Gerial. Poor Gerial. Good in a fight, though. He could throw a decent hook, and he would fight dirty. But now? Well, it was more like Calruz with both arms, who’d let you punch him while he picked up a table to hit you and all your buddies.
Erin came from another world. She and Ryoka. One that didn’t have levels or Skills. And…Ceria realized—everything they brought came from there.
That was elementary. But think about it. Not about the food; although, that was interesting. Think about…how Erin did things. How Kevin did things.
They didn’t understand magic. But they did know about refrigeration, even flight. What they were at home with was Pallass. The elevators, bicycles…
The half-Elf [Cryomancer] tried to picture it. A world made of those gears and lots of Humans. She had so many questions. So many thoughts. After all, it wasn’t about the inventions. It was about the perspective.
She had once seen Ryoka cast a simple [Light] spell and produce colors that Ceria had never dreamed of. Why hadn’t she chased that down? She’d accepted Ryoka’s explanation about seeing things and thought she was from Drath.
What might I learn from them? The half-Elf wondered. But her mind was running hot—or rather, cool. Thoughts were gliding across her mind, so while she thought of Erin—she was also focusing on Irurx.
A half-Elf with a mask. Two staring, painted eyes over a strange inscription-rune on his mouth and nose.
Purity seal. Maybe for gases or poisons in the air. I might be walking into a trap.
Ceria registered it calmly. Part of her head began searching for spells she could use to remove poison or ideas—the other kept thinking. Two Cerias, then, in perfect tandem.
The circlet. It was literally making her twice as smart—or perhaps—twice as fast. There was a difference. So Ceria went on thinking about the inciting thought as the Alchemist gestured to the gangplank slowly being lowered from his dark ship.
Would you like to know a secret?
Ceria did not approve of how Wistram ran itself. Buying and trading secrets, all the games of politics. It was why she had chosen exile. Because Pisces was right. Necromancy hadn’t been outlawed because it was inherently evil. Blood magic was arguably far worse, or hexes and curses. But there had been no [Witches] among her class, and few ever came. Gnolls? None. No [Necromancers]—not because the magic was wrong.
Simply because the [Mages] disapproved. Because the Archmage whose legacy still shaped Wistram had disapproved.
Zelkyr. Or perhaps it had been a sudden change, because he had certainly been friends with a [Necromancer] until the end. One [Mage] ruined the reputation of an entire school of magic.
However, Ceria had played the game quite gamely when she was there for three years. She had hoarded secrets, and Calvaron had been a secret-broker. So…she had obtained one, once.
A Major Secret. Which ran from Major, Big, Normal, Minor…Big being an intermediate category not always recognized in the shifting fiscal economics of secret-based currencies.
What was that secret? It was something Ceria had ferreted out based on her specific knowledge, and then bluffed a fellow [Mage] into verifying it. She was fairly proud of it. Of course, she’d been heavily warned to keep it secret, but she’d traded it to Calvaron, who promised he’d hold onto it.
Here it was. A Major-class secret. Not a hidden room—that was probably above Major. Not a spell, or some political revelation like an impending war, which was hot currency that devalued fast. The most powerful secret of all: personal information. It was this. Ceria had laughed when she realized it.
Archmage Feor dyes his hair.
How long did half-Elves live, truly? It was a question of half-Elven villages. Some people knew half-Elves who were only a century or two old at the most. Others knew those who were into multiple, multiple centuries.
There were half-Elves over a thousand years old, but the upper limit, the median, the average lifespan of a half-Elf who was not killed, was truly unknown. Because…they seldom lived that long.
Even in a ‘safe’ village, what were the odds you didn’t run into a monster, a [Bandit], or have an eagle drop a rock on your head over a hundred years? Two hundred? A thousand?
Half-Elves died from unnatural causes. Like sickness. Like falling and hitting their head wrong. Honestly and truly, they expected that more than to die of sheer age itself.
Feor wasn’t even two hundred years old; he remembered Zelkyr. He had studied under Zelkyr, being a young man at the time, new to Wistram, much like Ceria. Well, perhaps he’d come at sixty like Ceria—she had reason to believe he had only been thirty, a real fresh-faced half-Elf with a talent for magic. He was only around two hundred at best, and that meant…
He dyed his hair. It was probably white-ish. But he was no silver-maned half-Elf. That Eldavin fellow…
That was interesting.
Anyways, the point was that Ceria’s knowledge of half-Elf age had once won her a goose and mana potions. Feor was still old. He was a half-Elf in the real world, and they aged like regular people, by and large.
Half-Elves in villages did not. They created paradises that they defended as well as they could. In truth, some were quite vulnerable—just secluded. They found ways to live in a kind of harmony with whoever ruled the land, and while some clashed and some nations still remembered the half-Elven empire…the villagers were not the half-Elves of cities.
A true, traditional half-Elven village was timeless. You could and did stare at grass growing. Because you fell into patterns.
Ceria had grown up there. She used to think the seasons changed so fast. When she left the village—she had been so shocked at how fast people moved. In the village, you said, ‘look, there’s a nice spot of land. I’ll plant some strawberries there.’
And your best friend would smile and nod. A year later you’d remember you said that—but it was all frosted over. So you waited another year, missed the timing because you’d lost your strawberry seeds, and they were all eaten by the squirrels. Bought some more.
Eight years later, your friend would wander by and find a field of strawberry bushes and say, ‘where did that come from?’ And you would remind them and they’d laugh and say how quickly you did it.
That was what Ceria had once seen happen with her grandmother. And yes, her grandmother had been going grey, but when Ceria had asked about her age?
“Why would I bother counting?”
Half-Elves didn’t bother, so the problem of their age didn’t come up. Young Ceria had lived in that village in a time-out-of-time for a long while. She had learned expressions and actions there that even other half-Elves found odd.
For instance—her favorite catchphrase.
Tree rot. Everyone thought it was such a mild epithet, but it wasn’t. It was the kind of thing half-Elves said when they were really mad. Why?
Well, think about it. You turn your back and half the forest is covered in slime, mushrooms, and mold. For a village that could pass eternity by, it was a terrible plague, and they hated it as much as bugs that ate into their forests. Termites? Forget about it.
Half-Elves would rather fight [Bandits] than a colony of bark beetles. Why? Because you had half-Elves who practiced hunting ‘on the side’ over three centuries. Not [Hunters]; just a hobby. Who could put an arrow in your eye from a thousand paces. Bugs? Not as easy; you’d battle them for years and years and they’d ruin your perfect pattern.
They loved patterns in the traditional villages. There were legends about half-Elves who mastered crafts and art by doing them for countless decades.
Why did that matter? Well, because Ceria had known the old villages. She had been there, had left—and, frankly, the Springwalker village was unlikely to want her back. It had only been…what, twenty-plus years?
They definitely remembered. If she strolled back in they’d throw rocks at her and claim she’d just been kicked out not a week ago.
It felt so long ago to Ceria. Not at all to them. That was because she was what they called ‘time-touched’. A derogatory expression to refer to half-Elves who walked the mortal world. It was a poor thing.
Ceria stopped on the deck of the Shifthold and looked at Irurx. Another half-Elf from home.
“Sister. This way.”
He gestured towards one of his hooded crew holding the cabin door open. Ceria smiled faintly. He was staring at her circlet. Twice, now, he’d probed it with a spell.
She was wary. Even nervous. But she had weighed his ‘invitation’ and decided to join him. The half-Elf murmured as she strode across the decks.
Another word from home. A word half-Elves who had lived long used to talk about those that would soon die.
They did not die from age. Their blood was only half-crossed with immortals, but it was enough. What half-Elves knew, what they mourned and saw, was how even the best of them ended their lives.
Entangled. They could live their lives in solitude and live almost forever. But these static villages, entire colonies, individuals—they died when they cared. When they grew entangled with the short-lived folk. Ceria looked at Irurx, and wondered which he was. He was certainly old. The [Alchemist] shifted ever-so-slightly. His hand hovered over his mask as he began to remove it.
He had heard Ceria. She smiled politely as she stepped towards the cabin door. And reminded him. Immortality was a lovely, fragile, blooming flower. It only lived alone. When it entered the weeds—when it tangled with mortal, dangerous lives, however beautiful and long-lived and perfect it was—
That was how forever died.
He knew the phrase ‘entanglement’ too. It was practically required reading, understanding how half-Elves saw the world. They were among the most numerous quasi-immortals.
If you were gifted the right to live beyond mortal spans, take the time to study. You have forever. Understand the choices. Understand the…consequences.
Study two species—well, study them all, but study two to know how to live forever, to guard your immortality well.
Study half-Elves and their villages.
And study the Fraer-folk.
Long-lived and short. Fraerlings could live long, but they lived alongside great danger. Study both, to see how both prolonged life.
He knew entanglement. He knew the dangers completely well; it had already begun to weave around him. He had begun vendettas and blood feuds. Made enemies. Made himself a target. He could still escape the net of his death.
But there lay the key difference between them and he, those half-Elves, content in their hedonism. A hedonism of time, an arrogant selfishness that troubled no one and helped no one.
They wanted to live forever, or as long as they could.
He did not. Half-Elves would let their hearts beat for millenia, in solace, in repose. His would be far shorter, for all he could strive for longer.
Yet the worth of every second spent would be reflected across a hundred thousand hearts, a million. A day of happiness and bliss that never ended throughout their rich lives.
Fetohep of Khelt wondered if Khelt was entangled. No—it surely was. He had begun it, with Princess Jecaina. He would have answered for those sins gladly, for all he had taken part of Jecrass to feed Khelt for future generations.
However, the call had come. Come from the very first [Queen] of Khelt and every ruler hence. Forget peace. Forget waiting.
Now was the hour to drive Khelt so deeply into the sands that Chandrar shook. Fetohep spoke once.
The mortal woman cringed, but it was not a rebuke. Fetohep lifted his hand.
“Almost, Your Majesty. Almost. It was a beating heart. I heard it.”
Her ear was…wet. The Dullahan came from distant Baleros, in the north where the world froze over. Fetohep turned his head. His golden gaze flashed.
“You heard it. Then the frozen soul…”
“Perished. But they did come back. At least, enough for their heart to beat.”
“Ah. Then why did it fail? And who…which of them was it?”
“One of the criminals. I can search for the name—”
Fetohep lifted a hand, and the [Cryomancer] fell silent.
“The reason alone will suffice.”
She nodded, licking her lips.
“We attempted the cure based on a number of improvised factors, Your Majesty. We prepared a slow, slow unfreezing spell given the last—failures. A Potion of Regeneration at one tenth of the entire dose we applied when [Detect Life] began to function. We believe it was working. However, two factors complicated the process: the antidote and the patient’s injuries.”
“From the damage of the crossbow bolts.”
She ducked her head.
“Yes, Your Majesty. The Potion of Regeneration should have worked. I even believe it did—but the poison…”
The woman hesitated and Fetohep sighed.
“Requires an antidote fabricated of ingredients so rare even Khelt lacks for a vast quantity.”
“Ethereal alchemical ingredients. If they exist, they are rare indeed. If I might ask about securing more…?”
It was a bold ask, but Fetohep had told her there was no expense to be spared. The King drummed his fingers on the balcony as he surveyed his city.
“…[Whale Hunters], [Deep-Sea Fishers], and net-ships of Drowned Folk are all searching for the fish that produces this ectoplasm. I will inform you when it is acquired.”
“Of course, Your Majesty. However, I can say that the antidote was likely working. It was only a liquid we injected into the ice, so as it melted it ran over the wounds, but we did find the poison neutralized in the blood when we took a sample and performed poison detection spells.”
That got Fetohep’s interest.
“—Then why did this person expire? Was the Potion of Regeneration not enough? I will allow a full dose if you are confident.”
Her eyes widened. The woman hesitated and then shook her head.
“No, Your Majesty. I do not believe it was the potion. As I said, Oteslia and my team are working on perfecting the defrosting process. The antidote being applied before unfreezing would also help greatly, as would more spellcasting—I am suggesting healing crystals being placed around the patient. The problem was not that. It was just…it was all working. All of it. Potions, antidote…”
“And what happened?”
She looked up.
“The patient died. We had three seconds, I think. But the damage, the arrows, the poison? They couldn’t last long enough to survive for the Potion of Regeneration to work. If we increase those chances…”
She trailed off. Fetohep nodded slowly.
They were so close. He turned back to watching his city, and the [Cryomancer] realized she was dismissed and bowed her way out.
Waiting. He was waiting for the ritual—the giant eyesore of magic—to be completed. It was so powerful all the [Mages] in the city wanted to know what he was doing. So costly, too, but Fetohep didn’t count the cost.
“Your Majesty, another missive from Medain.”
Fetohep didn’t turn his head as one of his servants for the day approached. The man bowed. Fetohep glared ahead.
Medain. It was a sign of changing fortunes, how High King Perric talked. He had invited Fetohep to some of his parties with exceptionally rude, condescending letters before they had come to blows.
When Fetohep had given his ultimatum, High King Perric had blustered and sent long screeds demanding a ceasefire, a peace, threatening Fetohep with a coalition of nations, and warning him of the cost of his aggression.
These days? After the deployment of the Vizir and other Revenants? His appeals were not about the possibility of surrender, but only in how it would go. But he hung onto Raelt because that was his only shield. Or so he believed. Perric didn’t quite seem to understand that Fetohep was not a liar or prevaricator like he himself was. Once Raelt of Jecrass walked free, Fetohep would go. He didn’t need to take Medain.
“Fools. Claiven Earth is little better, for all their age.”
Fetohep leaned on the balcony. In this way, he was the model of repose, the wary undead tyrant—but a loving tyrant—ruling over his paradise without equal. A scene of such grace and elegance that one of his subjects was, at this moment, painting him from far below.
Fetohep had always been popular, but after his dramatic flair in war, his subjects had taken to practicing swordplay, and his popularity had somehow gone even higher. He leaned there, a king caught in a moment of tangential melancholy, eyes burning gold as he rested in peace and tranquility.
“Yeah. Yeah. Fools. That’s right. Look at me, I’m leaning on balconies too.”
A young woman leaned on the railing next to him, putting on her best serious face. Fetohep saw her try to stroke her chin, lose focus, and pass through the railing.
“Whoa. Hi, Fetohep! Is this where you’ve been?”
She turned and grinned at him. The undead king didn’t exactly jump, and he covered it with a world-weary sigh.
She had nearly heard his discussion. He stared about and, sure enough, Erin Solstice began flapping her hands at the air and bickering.
“No—Cawe! I’m not bothering him! I just wanted to say hi! You don’t have to follow me—just because Nerrhavia and Khelta said—they’re only monarchs! See? Fetohep doesn’t mind! Am I bothering you, Fetohep?”
The king bowed towards the air Erin was staring at. The ghost of the young woman…had ghosts. Or rather, there were ghosts all about him, but he could only see the rulers of Khelt and Erin.
He suspected they had done something to allow her to become visible to him that they could not easily replicate with the other ghosts. Exactly what was a mystery, even to Fetohep, but Khelta had been a [Necromancer] without peer. Still…there were other [Necromancers] among Chandrar’s dead. The best who had ever lived. So the fact that they could not interact with the living and that that ritual was their best option meant it was tricky indeed.
So how did they let him see Erin? Fetohep wondered if it was the power of every ruler of Khelt focused on her. That was suitably…thematic. But he had a sneaking suspicion that might not work.
The…only other way he could imagine Erin Solstice being visible to him via his connection with the dead predecessors of Khelt was a technical one. He was bound to Khelt, and thus could hear and see them when he stood on Khelt’s grounds. So…if they wanted him to see Erin…they might have made her…
No, that was ludicrous. He did not mention the theory aloud, but he would if—when—she came back from the dead.
“Sorry about that. Khelta keeps saying you’re busy, but I saw you and wanted to say hello.”
The young woman rested next to him, sitting cross-legged in the air. Fetohep inclined his head.
“Indeed. May I ask if you have some great need?”
“Nope! Just wanted to say hi. You know how it is. I meet people, I take lessons—I lose track. How many days has it been?”
“Four since last we spoke in the august company of King His-Xe, I believe.”
Erin began to slowly rotate upside down. Fetohep watched her. She was not entirely unpleasant to talk to. She was rather amusing—engaging—and entirely insolent. He could only hear and see the rulers of Khelt and her, of course, but Queen Xierca had related some amusing incidents.
A world of the dead. He watched her expression, because Fetohep was no fool. It was not when Erin smiled—she smiled constantly.
It was how she smiled.
“I’m…it’s been a few months, hasn’t it?”
She stopped her rotation in the air and looked at him. Fetohep nodded once more.
“It becomes fall.”
“And the Meeting of the Tribes is, um…not going well? Those Drake jerks really did take the Gnolls’ magic?”
Her face clouded. Fetohep nodded.
“So it appears. I can only speculate and observe; I have few informants, and all are for hire, not trusted envoys.”
“I see. If it’s true…the ghosts are mad about it. The Gnolls and some of the others. You would not believe how mad they are, and all the Drakes here keep saying they didn’t do it—then someone brings up the stuff they did do, and it’s all disgusting.”
“When I get un-dead—I mean, re-alive, I’m going to be saying some stuff to Chaldion. I—oh. Hey, buddy.”
She hesitated, waved, and put on a fake smile. Fetohep saw Erin turn, half-point at him.
“I was just talking with Fetohep about that. Archmage, um…Kishkeria. I was j—I asked, and he said nothing else is happening. Right, Fetohep?”
He shook his head. Erin glanced at him.
“She can’t see you. He shook his head! It’s all—right. No—yeah—absolutely. I told you about Mr—uh huh. No, but—Khelta’s the one giving orders and I—uh—uh—oh, hi, Serept! I guess I’d just better let you go. See you!”
She waved, then wiped at her brow and floated behind Fetohep as if hiding from someone’s gaze.
“I trust that was another ghost?”
“Archmage Kishkeria. She was asking about the Gnolls. Because she’s a Gnoll.”
Fetohep had no need to truly move his jaw, since his tongue was long withered away, as were his vocal chords, but his mouth opened slightly.
“…By which you mean the Archmage of Grasses, one of the most powerful Gnolls to ever walk Chandrar?”
“Yeah? She’s, uh, pushy. But the other ghosts keep them clear.”
Fetohep had just seen the giant form of King Serept floating past him, clearly escorting someone he couldn’t see away. Some of his servants worried he was going mad. Fetohep was worried too.
He saw Erin resting her arms on the balcony, staring out at the city. She could see it, and the places that had been here before, from a time before Khelt to other periods in its history.
He envied her that. It was beautiful, to hear the lands of the dead described. A place without pain, where kin and enemies gathered without strife.
Beautiful, until he heard how there was danger there. Until they told him there was something—six of them—attacking the ghosts, such that the mightiest legends were helpless against them.
Yet Fetohep still admired death. He found solace that the end would not be the end after his bones decayed and he was succeeded—provided he could fight to keep it secure. Yet, as he looked at Erin, he saw her expression.
It was only a beautiful dream for him. Because Fetohep did not eat. He did not sleep or drink, and he could not hold and feel or smell. He was already dead.
For this young ghost? It wore at her. Erin Solstice stared blankly ahead—until she noticed him watching her and smiled.
“So, uh…anything new happening? Not that I’m bored. I know, I know. I have lessons. It’s just…”
Her gaze flickered back to the horizon. Fetohep glanced around and saw a face he had only seen in death, Queen Xierca, looking at him from afar, from inside the palace. She mouthed words, and he nodded.
Fetohep of Khelt cleared his throat, or made a sound like it.
“The world is somewhat odd, Erin Solstice. I am…old, yet it changes quicker and quicker these days. I am told that Drakes are besieging the Gnolls in their Great Plains, and they are beginning to clash. I have news, some of which I cannot fathom, from Ailendamus, and Chandrar as well. The King of Destruction lies under siege. This troubles me.”
“It does? He’s a jerk too, though.”
Fetohep saw Erin frown and fold her arms. He nodded.
“…Jerk…though he may be, his death will cause great strife. I have not intervened, but perhaps you and I would speak on the world as it pertains to Khelt?”
Erin eyed Fetohep. With a slight smile, she shook her head.
“You don’t need me. I’m just an [Innkeeper].”
“Ah. This is true. But I confess, Erin Solstice, it becomes…wearying. To have no one to speak to, even uncertainties, thoughts.”
“Oh. Well…I don’t mind. I mean, I know Califor wants me, but if it would help—lay it on me! You need to figure out what to do?”
“Inaction is a decision as much as action.”
Erin rubbed her hands together.
“Alright, let’s blow up Reim with a super-spell.”
Fetohep raised one brow and Erin laughed.
“Just kidding! There are people there. Let’s hex his hair green. Um…so what is happening?”
He told her, and the [Innkeeper] smiled and listened and gave her opinion, which made him smile. She seemed to brighten up for a moment, and Fetohep saw her look out across Chandrar.
“…And my friends?”
“I do not know where Mrsha is. Yet I do now know where some of the Horns of Hammerad have landed. It has taken time, and one is as yet missing. But…”
Fetohep had hesitated to tell her, especially when he heard of Roshal—he had been distracted, and Roshal refused to have any dealings with Khelt, so he did not monitor their auctions and chatter. But Queen Xierca’s words and Erin’s mood convinced him.
Distract her. The [Innkeeper] brightened up in an instant.
“You know where they are? That’s wonderful! And—and Ryoka’s in Ailendamus for some reason? Married to Tyrion Veltras?”
“That would be the rumor. I do not think it is necessarily true.”
Erin shook her head, counting on her fingers.
“Lyonette’s in Oteslia, Halrac and the others are okay—Mrsha’s…”
“They are apparently still hunting a white Gnoll, to the best of my knowledge.”
He reassured her. She exhaled, slowly.
“Good. Good. I…I just need to…”
She looked around, distraught, then smiled at Fetohep, catching herself.
“As long as the Horns of Hammerad are okay. That’s—that’s all I can ask for. They went to the Village of the Dead and got out. They’re crazy like that. They did it for me, I’m sure. As long as they survive—where are they?”
Her expression was pleading and hurt and…Fetohep of Khelt stood there. Because what he would tell her…he hesitated. But then he saw Queen Khelta herself walk out of the void in the air and stand next to them.
“Tell her, Fetohep. She knows Cawe’s story. Tell her their trials and triumphs.”
Erin nodded, sitting eagerly. Fetohep glanced at her, and then Khelta. She looked at him, and he saw a flush in Erin’s cheeks, the way she sat up, brushed at her hair, clenched her fists, and muttered about pans for all of Roshal—and not as gifts.
Before, she had been static. She rested on the balcony, she moved—but like a ghost. Defying gravity, rotating without laws of physics. As if she was forgetting…he saw her chest rising and falling. She had begun to forget to pretend to breathe, begun to fade.
So he nodded and told her stories of her friends. Khelta smiled, but he watched her lips move.
Nothing lasted forever. There was some humor in it.
Consider that if you spent your entire life in the pursuit of strength, it would one day wither away. Age. They had sayings about age, and they were all true. Age laid low mountains and [Kings].
Age would take away the muscle you prized so highly. In the same way—what was muscle? Stitch-folk looked at it differently than Humans. You wanted biceps the size of your head? You could do that. Just hand me a wad of cotton.
Naturally, that was a bit of an exaggeration. Muscle cloth fibers were actually important to get right, let alone use correctly. However—it was true that pure physicality came as easily to them as getting your hair done.
That was why they valued skill, knowledge here. That was valuable. That was what they could strive for.
But the [Martial Artists] of Pomle had known, had always known, that it too was finite. Techniques would be lost when masters died. Some would come and go. Pomle was small and young, and it had been a strange confluence when it had been created. [Martial Artists] had gathered around an oasis, refused to pay taxes or disperse when someone claimed the unused watering hole was ‘theirs’. They had fought.
That was all there was to it. The fighting had been legendary, but it was so simple. Some people had expected a kingdom to arise from the bones of that place. They were fools because they didn’t understand why it had all taken place.
Simple reasons. A simple battle.
Those days had come again. Orjin, the Strongest of Pomle, stood on one of the cliffs surrounding Pomle. A powerful shield against weather.
Less against armies. Two passes allowed travellers in and out of the simple oasis and training grounds. Of course, now much of the land around this canyon was also technically Pomle’s.
If it had contained anything valuable, that might have been a problem, because Pomle was at war.
With no less than Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Orjin sighed. He shifted from one leg to another. In doing so, he side-stepped the arrow. He pivoted, caught it. The glowing tip sparked, but didn’t detonate.
Long-range archery Skill. No nuance to it. Just distance, not flicker-shot, not teleporting arrows that curved or exploded in midair or ricocheted.
You’d think they’d learn. But then—it was a fast arrow, a small thing, and if you were distracted, maybe it would touch you and turn you to ash.
Orjin wasn’t distracted. Nor were the other figures sitting or standing on the canyon’s walls.
Guards. Not in class, but it was necessary. Mostly to prevent infiltrators scaling and launching attacks.
A cry from below. Orjin shifted. He hopped off the canyon’s plateau and ran down the vertical cliff.
Ran? Hopped, from one foothold to another, but so fast it seemed like he was running vertically, then arresting his movement and transferring it smoothly into a step that carried him horizontally, as if it were as simple to go up and down in the world as it was right to left.
It was always Salii. Except…when it wasn’t. Orjin blinked. He’d assumed it was, but this was another Drake. Holding a clipboard.
“It’s Henss, Strongest. Salii’s [Assistant]?”
The new Drake was not used to Orjin. He hesitated, his tail shifting in the dust.
“I’m, um—one of Tiqr’s former people. A [Wildfriend]? Low-level. I came from Oteslia with the [Druids] in their last expedition.”
Orjin’s face never moved. They could do this all day—but then he remembered.
He had begun this, so he couldn’t waste time. He stared at the sky.
“What did Salii send you for?”
The Drake consulted his notes, speaking rapidly and clearly.
“She wants to tell you another army’s coming in. Nerrhavia’s Fallen is attacking. The eastern entrance—or at least, that’s where they’re coming from. [Mages]. Lots of [Archers]. But this time they’ve brought a proper guard. She thinks they’re [Lineholders]. Hemp-caste; armed with tower shields and spears. They might be veterans, in which case they’re [Trampleguard Lineholders] who fought Grand Elephants.”
Last time, Nerrhavia’s Fallen had brought lots of [Archers] to force Pomle to attack, but not taken enough warriors to guard them. Pomle had attacked. It had been fairly one-sided.
Most of the [Martial Artists] and [Warriors] were close-combat experts. Some, like Orjin, had long-range attacks like [Aeriform Punch], but they couldn’t win a long-range battle. They were aware of this weakness, so they would charge the enemy.
It had worked so far, but Nerrhavia’s Fallen wouldn’t relent. Henss went on.
“Salii says that the new [Archers] might be ready by then, but she is requesting three experts in arrow catching or blocking techniques. She wondered who that might be.”
Orjin scratched at his head.
“The Garuda with the bright red plumage. He will know other experts.”
“I will do that, thank you, Strongest! Oh—”
Orjin stopped Henss. He handed over the arrow, and the Drake took it gingerly.
“Give it to Yesq. Ammunition.”
And, like that, another arrow was added to Pomle’s stocks. Yesq was a [Master Skyarcher], so he would know experts in arrow-catching. He would also put that arrow to good use. Frankly, a quarter of Pomle’s ammunition was reclaimed arrows from those that were shot at them—or taken from the defeated [Archers].
However, the other three-quarters? The potions? And, indeed, the [Archers] in training? Orjin saw them practicing under the eye of a [Weapon Expert]. He saw refugees from Tiqr, and even one of the freed [Slaves].
He had freed them. Started a war with Nerrhavia’s Fallen by offending a [Prince] or…someone. Orjin didn’t remember. Now, all of Pomle was under threat of attack by the greatest nation in all of Chandrar.
“Are you angry?”
A Garuda was napping by where Orjin had been talking with Henss. He opened one eye.
Xil, the [Peerless Spearmaster], sat up. Orjin looked at him.
“I have begun a war. [Martial Artists] will die. Salii is buying every bit of ammunition, weapons she can. Potions too.”
There were more [Merchants] and [Traders] than ever in Pomle. Orjin had never seen so many. It seemed counterintuitive, but they came because the [Secretary] was offering fistfuls of gold for whatever they would sell.
None had [Slaves]. Word got around that taking them into Pomle was as good as freeing them. So some of the most wealthy kept away. Yet more and more came.
Why? Why was Pomle so rich? Not just the fight club—Orjin watched as a line of not-slaves were being shuffled into position. They cursed—well, the Silk ones did. The rank-and-file just seemed grateful to not be dead.
Defeated prisoners. Pomle kept taking them and ransoming them back to Nerrhavia’s Fallen via the [Traders]. Orjin wasn’t sure how Salii had managed it, but she was funding them via Pomle’s victories. All they had to do was keep winning.
But more armies would come. More and more—until you break their backs and make this war too costly, they will attack, Orjin.
[Martial Artists] were already dying. At first, they’d let anyone join the fighting. Now? They had to be of the right level, and those who were weaker fought on the sides while Xil, Orjin, and the other masters attracted the worst of it. Yet—
“Herish is dead. He didn’t survive the poison arrows.”
“I barely recall him. What was his specialty?”
Xil sat back. His face didn’t change. Are you angry? He had waited for a challenge, and a few had come, but not from Xil or the others. At length, the Garuda picked up something.
Orjin eyed it. The Garuda drank greedily.
“Ah. Wine. I have lived here for…it must be over a decade, and wine was something I’d have once a year. Now? I can walk over, and Salii can buy me some. Wine for gold for hitting fools with a spear. Death, too. How many have died so far?”
Twenty-three, in six successive clashes. An incredibly low number?
Incredibly high, considering Pomle’s population. Xil nodded.
“So more armies will come. So now they’re bringing better fighters. We might lose more. I fought as a [Mercenary] for Nerrhavia’s Fallen. They have hordes—but they will send a final army to crush Pomle the longer we resist. You know that.”
Orjin stared ahead, arms folded. Xil grinned.
“The odds are we’ll die. A hundred to one. Two hundred. They’ll bring magic and proper [Generals] and chariots and enchanted weapons.”
Already some [Martial Artists] had left, said their farewells. They did not want to die, nor had they come here for war or true violence. Most had stayed. Xil stared ahead.
The [Spearmaster] smiled.
“We will level or die. That is also martial arts. Orjin—you may have started it over your principles, but do you think most disagreed? We have trained all our lives in the shadow of those that started Pomle. Trained because skill is not killing. But don’t you think we wonder how we would do? And Salii is making warriors of the people here. I’m not angry. I only feel…”
Slowly, he rose, an old Garuda with part of his beak broken, more scars under his feathers than he could count. He lifted something.
Not his walking stick. Not the simple wooden sticks he made his [Students] train with. An enchanted spear. His eyes gleamed.
“I feel like I might begin levelling again. I, who have defeated over a dozen [Spearmasters]. Peerless. Static. Without challenge except to kill people far lower-level than I.”
The tip of his spear began to glow. Orjin eyed it. Xil grinned at him.
“I had an enjoyable decade, training students to hold a spear properly. Now…now? Let’s live up to Pomle’s old legends, eh?”
Orjin nodded slowly. They were leveling. Faster than they had with the most intense training. Combat was giving them levels.
“Growth amidst death. That was what Salthorn said.”
“But do you think we can win this war?”
Xil stopped preparing his spear. The tip was so intense that Orjin felt the air moving. The Garuda eyed Orjin, then muttered.
“[Spear Art: Skyjump]. [Flash Wings]. [Cast of th—]”
Orjin didn’t hear the rest. He saw Xil plant the butt of the spear and launch himself into the air, hundreds of feet up, as his wings snapped open. Light flashed and Orjin shielded his gaze, but he sensed Xil throw the spear.
[Cast of the Fisherman]. He flew back with his spear after fifteen seconds.
“Got the [Sniper]. I’ll make someone with evasion Skills get the bow and arrows.”
The Garuda went back to sitting down.
“Can we win? Can we win? It’s not about fighting all of Nerrhavia. They could drown us in bodies, but they won’t. Nations hate cost; they hate being embarrassed just as much. Once they bleed, they’ll stop. They could send this kind of harassment against us for years. But they won’t. I don’t know if we’ll survive a true clash, but I trust in your [Secretary].”
Xil grinned as he lifted the wine flask to his beak.
“She’s the monster-[Secretary] of Izril. If she’s still here—she thinks we can win.”
Orjin nodded. He bade Xil farewell; the Garuda was already going back to sleep.
It would come down to the actual army, whenever it came. Salii was convinced of it. But when that army came?
They’d knock down the canyon walls. Attack from all angles. [Martial Artists] would fight as arrows and magic rained down around them, surrounded by foes.
When that happened—anyone who wasn’t a master would die. How would they survive that? Orjin wasn’t sure if he should…tell them all to leave. Just leave, for the Kilalle Steppes or elsewhere. Nerrhavia’s Fallen would pursue, but not catch many.
Yet Salii was confident. She stood in the center of a furore, giving orders, administrating, sending [Messages]. She saw Orjin and strode over.
“Something wrong, Orjin? About the attack?”
“When is this grand army coming?”
Her eyes flickered.
“Not yet. The [Garrison General] posted here is sending this attack, and she’s in danger of being replaced for incompetence. Nerrhavia’s Fallen is concentrating on Reim. They might pull together another army to attack us if we smash them hard enough today.”
“How will we survive it? I have been envisioning the battle, Salii.”
It was hard. He was no [Battle Seeker] or [Visionary Martial Artist], but he could imagine eight of those [Snipers] firing into a melee. See how well some of the younger fighters did against three [Soldiers] and imagine what would happen if there were eight, in a scrum, with nowhere to maneuver.
Salii’s eyes were bright.
“Good. Then you’re not a giant fist attached to two legs. I never thought you were, but at least you know what you did. Do you regret it?”
Orjin wasn’t sure. It was so much death for a few people.
“No. Not doing it. Only what it might cost. How will we survive?”
Salii smiled slightly.
“I have ideas. Ideas from the Walled Cities and how they fight. We have gold, Orjin, and experts. More high-level fighters in one place than most nations can field in their armies. And we have one most secret weapon.”
He raised his brows. Salii waved.
“Raúl? Come over. I’ve been talking with him—I think it’s finally time for you to tell Orjin everything.”
Her eyes glinted. Orjin saw the young man with the interesting fighting tricks look up. His small group was often following Salii around. And it seemed she had found something interesting.
“You might even want to call the other masters over. Salthorn, Xil—they’ll all want to hear this. They were being coy, but once the war started I lost patience and got it out of them.”
The Drake woman said conversationally. Orjin raised his brows.
“How can they help us?”
Salii smiled tightly.
“With knowledge. Most of what they have is impossible to replicate without industry, and even then…I could rule Pallass. I could revolutionize Salazsar.”
She laughed lightly.
“—But that’s too easy. If we win this war, we’ll win every single one afterwards. Let’s talk, Orjin. They will be coming.”
She smiled, looking towards the horizon. Orjin nodded. He went, listened to Raúl, rubbed at his ears—and was still somewhat shocked when he kicked a [Mage] thirty feet and routed the [Linebreaker] army.
No less than Salthorn herself took down the head of the attack, which turned out to be the [Garrison General] herself. Salii rubbed her claws together at the ransom, and Orjin walked back over to keep asking Raúl questions. The young man stared at the angry Nerrhavia’s Fallen [General] and Orjin knew.
They were coming.
Ceria Springwalker sat and listened to rain pounding the roof overhead. A blood storm was coming in. So were the Bloodtear Pirates.
“It may be the end of Savere—at least, the Siren’s long reign. I cannot imagine why now of all times, but Bloodtear may decide to take the capital.”
“Why? They don’t strike me as, uh…ruling types.”
Ceria politely eyed the platter as it was placed in front of her. She sat in the quite sumptuous cabin, and felt it was distinctly not like the rest of Shifthold.
The sides of the ship looked like half-eaten bark. As if it had grown the crusted, barnacle-ladened wood that smelled of rot and fungus—yet Ceria was sure—as tough as could be.
The decks were no better, and the sails were not cloth. Nor hide nor skin—in case that’s what you suspected.
It was something else. Some odd, shiny material, although it was furled up at the moment. A dark sheen. She was piecing together the clues, but it was all still a mystery.
The crew of Shifthold were, like their master, Alchemist Irurx, garbed in dark cloth from head-to-toe. But while his clothing was faded grandeur, expensive, enchanted robes worn dark from alchemical stains that had eaten at the magic cloth itself, their coverings were dark, stained, and only functional.
They were definitely not all humanoid, let alone Human. Some were too tall. Too oddly shaped. They had masks, like Irurx, and said nothing.
One had placed the platter in front of Ceria and served the half-Elf sitting next to her the same. He had taken off his mask. Irurx smiled politely as he replied. He had burn scars all over his face.
“Bloodtear? They are not…builders, but you may be confusing their reputation with the Bloodfeast Raiders of Izril. Imitators. Bloodtear would happily take a powerful base; they have at least one, and they do organize into fleets. Each ship has a powerful [Captain], but they will join together to raid important targets.”
“Oh, I see. I had no idea they could sustain…so many?”
Ceria smiled blandly. She looked at her food as the dish was lifted.
A giant crab. With butter, garnishings—but a huge crab, shell cracked for easy access to the meat. She glanced up. Irurx was watching her.
He was turning grey. But his hair, rather than having any original color, had dark streaks to it. Like soot. His skin was shiny across his neck and up to his cheeks. A terrible burn, never healed. His eyes were a mild reddish-green, mixed but not composite.
“I hope this is to your liking. We eat fresh catches, mostly. I was told you were not averse to meat…unlike those from home, sister. May I call you that? It has been a while since I conversed with someone who knows home.”
Home. The villages. Ceria poked her crab with a fork. It twitched. Was it alive?
No…no, it was properly cooked. But this was not a fork and knife meal. Irurx had the same food, and Ceria eyed her dish. It smelled good, even delicious. There was no poison in it…she glanced up.
“It is quite safe. I would prefer to be cordial.”
He hastened to assure her. Irurx’s eyes focused on Ceria’s face, and then flicked up. She looked at him, then shrugged.
“Fine by me. I love crab.”
She snapped off a leg and began removing the meat. She dipped it in some garlic butter, popped it into her mouth, and was chewing so fast that Irurx blinked.
“You have a commendable appetite.”
“I love seafood. We never got any in the villages.”
Irurx blinked. He looked at Ceria and relaxed slightly. His mask lay on the table next to him and the [Alchemist] raised his hands, somewhat painfully, and removed a leg himself.
He appeared quite ordinary to Ceria. A half-Elf, old, with burns, but he spoke in a fairly dignified accent. Oh—and one of his crew stood silently behind him, waiting for orders, a blank mask with two soulless sockets revealing nothing of what lay within. A grey, stained robe, draped over a body with no apparent shoulders.
Horrific. Imagine one of those standing behind you as you slept? Then you’d look up into that blank, iron mask, and the robe would come up—
Ceria was down three crab legs already. Each time she touched the crab, the pincher snapped. Some kind of automated reaction.
“The villages do not eat meat, by and large. I had almost forgotten. At least—mine did not. Did yours? How long has it been, sister? Apologies, Adventurer Springwalker? For me—it has been over eighty-one years.”
Ceria looked up.
“I think twenty-three for me.”
“So long, already? But you would be…pardon me asking…?”
The half-Elf sighed. Ceria frowned.
“I think I passed sixty-eight. I lost track at one point, but I’m nearing seventy.”
“And you would be…?”
Irurx hesitated. He put down one leg, and made a gesture. The figure bent at the waist to listen.
“You have forgotten refreshments. And I believe Miss Springwalker would care for a second crab. Perhaps smaller?”
“I can do two. This is great crab.”
Again, the older half-Elf blinked, but smiled.
“Ironclaw Snappers. Fetch another.”
The masked figure moved past Ceria and she caught a whiff of something entirely…foreign? She slowed in eating.
“I apologize. I seldom have guests. Does their visage bother you? Their smell?”
Irurx watched her carefully. Ceria swallowed.
“I’ve smelled worse. They’re somewhat creepy, but I’ve seen worse.”
“Indeed. Astonishing. I can count on one hand those in this century who have had the stomach to dine in Shifthold, let alone quite so…voraciously?”
Again, his eyes travelled upwards. Ceria smiled.
“You did make me a pressing invitation.”
“I am sorry. But the Siren is notoriously clever, and I knew she would not be occupied long. That was my chance, and I greatly desired speaking with you.”
He had knocked on her door with two of those crewmembers in his wake. Ceria had heard he was forbidden from taking any ashore. Well…no one had seen them after she had agreed to his dining invitation.
They had stepped into the shadow of his robe and vanished.
She assumed they might still be there. Ceria chomped down. Nothing’s wrong with me yet.
“Is that Gnoll fish paste sauce? I love that too.”
Irurx glanced up as the platter returned with a bottle of wine and two glasses. He hesitated, then spoke as it was placed next to the first.
“To answer your question. I am three hundred and twelve years old. I—”
Lightning flashed and boomed outside the cabin. If it had been just a hair earlier it would have been dramatic. As it was, it was just sort of annoying. The rain began pattering harder, and Ceria heard distant booms and a clash of metal on metal in the distance.
“The Drowned Night has begun.”
Irurx glanced towards the port window, then back at her. Ceria swallowed slowly.
“You’re three centuries old? Really?”
“A third of it was spent in a village. I was a century old when I left. Exactly.”
“Wow. That’s…why did you leave?”
Most half-Elves either stayed forever or left when they were younger, like Ceria. He was an odd case. Irurx drummed his fingers on the table and winced. His fingers were gloved, even to eat the crab, and he touched at one hand.
The figure who had brought the food left and came back with a bottle. Irurx spoke as he fussed with the glove, poured a tonic over his hand—under the table. It had to be burned too.
“I will tell you. But first, let us speak of home, sister.”
They stared at each other. Irurx hesitated.
“—Perhaps we should dispense with the familiarity. It sounds—”
“Entirely uncomfortable, yes.”
Ceria rolled her eyes.
“I met a half-Elf who kept calling me ‘sister’. And she only ate vegetables and she did that thing, you know? We must guide the younger races?”
Irurx closed his eyes.
“I am all too familiar. Perhaps I’ve met her?”
“Skystrall…the village? Yes. That particular half-Elf? No. They’re all like that.”
“Dead gods. Well, I know where I’m not going.”
Irurx smiled and Ceria grinned. The conversation was shifting. Swinging, back and forth, like the gently moving boat. From casual to…
For now, it was pleasant. Ceria pointed at the crab.
“My village would never eat a crab. They’d be horrified. They hate eating things with…faces. Sometimes a [Hunter] would bring in a catch, like once every two months. Or they’d find a freshly-dead animal or whatnot. Then we’d eat it in a stew, or something. But always skinned and processed. No seafood. I thought fish were cute little friends you fed—until I ate one.”
“Ah. That is reasonably adventurous. My village was strictly vegetarian. Some refused to even eat eggs. Not that they wanted for food; they had a Yellat they’d grown for over eighty years. It was taller than my house.”
“Wow. And there weren’t birds or scavengers…?”
Irurx waved a hand.
“Spells. They warded the village outskirts from bugs, the skies…a perfect magical bubble.”
“That’s more magic than my village had, for certain.”
“Yes. They were a gifted village.”
Ceria knew most of the half-Elven villages in the region of Terandria; they knew each other. She hesitated.
“I don’t know…”
“It does not exist any longer.”
And there they went again. Irurx’s face darkened.
“I did not end it. So we are clear. They…chose to disperse. After they renounced me.”
“Oh. Because of what you did?”
“Yes. After the Grand Endeavor—A’ctelios Salash’s experiments. I returned there to heal and they cast me out. You…do you know much of my history?”
A hand rose to touch his burned face. Ceria slowly swallowed her bite of crab.
“Not at all.”
It seemed to surprise him. He glanced quickly up at her.
“Really. The Siren did not…mention me?”
“She’s been busy with the Bloodtear Pirates. I’ve heard Shifthold is a famous ship, one of the Vessels…but I didn’t look it up.”
The half-Elf man looked nonplussed. Ceria reached for the second crab, then noticed the wine bottle.
“Tree rot, is this a genuine vintage from the villages?”
He bestirred himself and smiled.
“None other. You cannot find finer.”
“No, you can’t! Can we—are we—doing this?”
Ceria hesitated, examining the corked bottle of half-Elven wine, which came from perfect vineyards. Irurx gestured.
“I would be delighted to share it with someone else who knows home. In truth—I had wondered how this conversation would go. I am delighted it is so…refreshing?”
Ceria poured herself a cup of wine, took a sip, and smiled.
“It’s nice to talk with someone who’s from home. I’ve met other half-Elves—but I can’t, um, talk with someone who left on purpose. Falene always made it sound like she left to save the world and become an adventurer. She’s a Gold-rank. I met another half-Elf who had lived for four generations in a Human village. We helped her out with a Golem problem.”
Irurx leaned forwards.
“Really. Four generations? As what? A minder?”
“Nope. [Headwoman]. She was married and kept marrying every few decades, I think. She had…children.”
That shocked Irurx as much as it did Ceria.
“I can’t imagine that. The heartbreak. The same village?”
“She gave me a scrying mirror. Here…”
She fished it out and passed the tiny mirror across the table. Irurx reached for it and stared at the inlays around the small mirror.
“This is from the villages.”
Ceria hesitated. She eyed the simple silver decoration; it was so worn she couldn’t make out any reliefs.
“Are you sure?”
“It is. I cannot imagine it was made anywhere else. Not because of the reliefs, you understand. I am no [Jeweler]; I cannot tell what this is supposed to be.”
He indicated the rounded bevels and faint markings that were just a rough oval around the glass. Ceria nodded. Irurx went on.
“I can tell it is pure silver, though. Most [Jewelers] don’t make items out of pure silver; they’ll add an alloy. But half-Elves don’t bother as the few who would mine it would cast out of silver alone. There was also a tradition to keep a bit of silver on oneself…”
“Really. I don’t remember that. The woman—Disabella, I think her name was?—she said that it was a gift from a suitor. I feel bad, now.”
Irurx passed the scrying mirror back.
“It’s an old tradition, and you know what that means among us. Perhaps it was a gift. From a suitor. From home. If so, perhaps you did a kindness, taking it from her. It may be a memory she no longer wished to keep.”
Thoughtfully, Ceria put the mirror away. She took another sip of wine and looked at Irurx.
“This is an enjoyable conversation.”
“Isn’t it? I am astonished. But it is everything…I hoped for.”
He looked at Ceria, hungrily, in a way that had nothing to do with food. She glanced at him, but he lifted a hand.
A ship sailed past the window, into port. Ceria heard a roar as the crew leapt from the railings and joined the fighting. Both half-Elves turned to watch it.
“Are you worried? The Drowned Night doesn’t safeguard people on ships.”
Irurx glanced at Ceria. He smiled. She heard voices pounding up the dock towards this ship. Then…an exclamation.
“Bleeding Shifthold! Back up! Back—”
Something screamed on the decks, right outside the cabin. Ceria whirled, finger raised, but whatever it was leapt off the ship and onto the docks. She knew that because there was shouting—fighting—a shriek, again, not like any animal she had ever heard—
“Keep away from that damned ship! Move into the streets! We’re not after another Vessel tonight!”
Ceria blinked. The screaming died with a wet sound. Someone—the Bloodtear’s [Captain]?—had ended it.
“That would be one of my crew. A shame. I lost two in the storm and pursuit. [Bounty Hunters]. But as you can see, few would dare to do battle with me here. It is a costly endeavor.”
He lifted his cup and drank. Ceria nodded. Irurx lowered the glass, and his eyes sparked as he glanced up.
“Which begs the question—why did you acquiesce so easily? Adventurer or not—knowledge of me or not—I am sure the Siren warned you. Do you fear for your life?”
The ship groaned and rustled around them. Ceria glanced up and saw the masked crewmember looking at her. Irurx waited for her to shiver or for bravado or…
Ceria just took another sip of her wine and stared at the crab, as if wondering if she could fit another two legs into her stomach. The answer was always ‘yes’.
“Fear. I’m a bit nervous. But I don’t think you want to kill me. If you did—I was dead the moment I opened the door. You’d have gutted me, taken the circlet, and been sailing out of Savere before the Siren even knew. You’re cautious because you don’t know what it does.”
Ceria glanced up at Irurx as she snapped another leg and went for the orange sauce next. She took a bite—pushed the dish away.
“What is that?”
“Orange-flavored sauce of some kind. Sweet and spicy.”
“Not for me. Eugh.”
Irurx saw Ceria glance up. She smiled and went on.
“The reason you didn’t kill me, Alchemist Irurx, is that you want something. Everyone does. Maybe it’s the circlet. Maybe it’s to talk and then kill me. But I think…you’re curious. You want something. So I’m in danger. But I also think you’re not leaning towards killing me yet.”
He was fascinated. The half-Elf [Alchemist] sat there, eyes flickering over her face.
“Does your circlet grant you the power to read minds, or intuit such things? Or do you have a Skill, Adventurer Ceria?”
She laughed and poured herself another cup.
“No. I just know when someone’s getting ready to murder me. We’re not there yet. Is there dessert, by any chance?”
She lifted her cup in a silent toast. Irurx began chuckling. The crewmember watched them both. Yes, oh yes.
He was exceedingly curious. He leaned to the side, whispering urgently.
“Yes. Fetch me any if we looted any. Gelato…something from the hold. Sweet. Not the rations. Sweet and in a container. Understand? Show it to me, first.”
Ceria watched the odd interaction with the crewmember, who walked past her. Then, as it opened the door, the wind and rain blew inwards a bit and the remains of their crab-dinner blew slightly. Ceria heard something rattle, then a lid hit the floor.
Irurx cursed. She saw a flurry of movement—and then it happened. There was a rustle—
And fifteen large, large cockroaches swarmed onto the table and covered the crabs. Ceria saw their fat abdomens wriggling, their wings fanning—Irurx raised his hand.
“I apologize for—”
He looked up to see the half-Elf girl recoil. To see her blanch or scream, and regret the moment was over. Instead? Instead of doing what any half-Elf in the villages would have, she idly picked up a roach, which immediately panicked.
“I know I asked for dessert, but these guys don’t taste that good. Even if you dip them in honey. I’m sort of full.”
She held it to her mouth, pursed her lips, and tossed it down. It fled behind the crab and all fifteen roaches looked up.
Irurx felt like he had stopped breathing for a moment. Ceria eyed them.
“Bugs. Taste awful. Except for honey-ants. Ever had them? They have these abdomens made of sweet stuff.”
“I know them. But you—you eat bugs?”
Ceria smiled, glancing at Irurx.
The cockroaches stared up at her in horror. She does—they swarmed off the table and back towards their jar.
Ceria looked at them. Then the jar sitting in the corner of the room. Then she thought about Shifthold, about that strange scream. And about the sails that were so familiar and not. Not hide. Not skin…but glossy. Like…
Chitin. Ah. And those figures. And—
She saw Irurx turn back to her and saw him smile. Uncertainly. Like he thought he was being pranked.
“You truly don’t seem bothered. Is it your circlet, or the nature of being an adventurer?”
“No. I just eat bugs. I did all the time, growing up.”
For some reason, Irurx began to get angry.
“In a village? Don’t be…”
Ceria sighed. She didn’t talk about it to anyone. Not really. She looked at Irurx.
“No. When I left. I didn’t know how to fend for myself, not properly. I stole things. I hunted and ate raw eggs and even tree bark—and bugs. I still eat them, now and then. I feel like I have to. I nearly starved to death.”
Bugs were not tasty, but…Irurx sat back. Then he blurted out what was burning on his lips.
“You consume insects? You are the only—I dine on them as well. Crabs are the acceptable food, socially, but I—this ship—I do the exact same.”
A huge smile reappeared on his lips. Ceria rested her chin on her hands.
“Now that’s interesting.”
What an odd connection. It had nothing to do with the circlet. When the masked figure came back in, edging through the door with a bundle of what turned out to be old, molded shortcake, Irurx instantly sent him back to fetch a small tin of actual honey-ants. The crabs and shortcake went into the recycling bins…
The jars of bugs. Which sat around the room. There was no fear of Irurx knocking one over and having an infestation. They were…not pets. Not tame, not exactly. But they had an understanding.
Ceria was realizing this as she saw the odd movement of the masked crewmember. The way its body was so odd. The name of this ship.
This was Shifthold. She began to suspect what she would see next. But for now…
“Butterfly trees. You know? They hang on branches, thousands of them.”
“You ate them? Truly?”
Ceria shook her head.
“Their wings taste awful. I think they’re poisonous. And their actual bodies? It’s not really a meal, even if you grab a hundred. I threw up for two days after I tried—so I used them as bait for fishes. Worked just fine.”
Irurx was smiling with delight, eyes lighting up. He was leaning forwards now, talking animatedly. Someone understands me. Someone…
“I confess. I had—untoward plans—once I heard of your Relic, Ceria Springwalker. But I also had hope. Hope, when I heard what it might do. Now? I think it might be providence. I would like to…show you something.”
And here his face clouded, grew reserved. He wasn’t quite sure. But he wanted to be.
“I would like to show you Shifthold in its entirety. It is a privilege few earn, though many witness it. I would like to see what you make of it.”
Her reaction would decide everything. The young half-Elf woman wiped her mouth on her arm. She stood casually, and nodded.
“I thought it would come to this. Lead on.”
Slowly, Irurx opened the door, conjuring a shield to protect them from the red rain. There was fighting everywhere in Runsblud. Screaming, violence…Ceria Springwalker glanced at it, calmly as could be.
Not idly; she was watchful for danger. Yet she had looked at him and Shifthold and even the roaches with the same lack of fear or hatred or revulsion. Irurx licked his lips. Yet that was one thing.
Shifthold’s truth another. He pointed towards the dark stairwell and door that led to the deep decks below. The crew stirred. The ones keeping watch drifted after Irurx, but he motioned them back as Ceria walked ahead of him towards the stairs. He put a hand in his robes and clutched at a bottle. He did not wish to be…discourteous to a guest.
But she wore a Relic. But he wanted her to understand. Perhaps? Maybe? Someone in this wide world, who understood—let alone one of his kind? He realized he was trembling with nerves.
Ceria Springwalker had been on worse dates. She was surprised, really. Irurx was…
Oddly desperate. Perhaps it was because he hadn’t expected her to eat bugs. Perhaps he just didn’t get out much. Then again, if he was prepared to waste her with that bottle if he didn’t like what she did—she doubted many romantic interests got much further.
Shifthold was one of the places.
One of the places.
Like A’ctelios Salash.
Like the depths of Liscor’s dungeon.
Like the City of the Dead.
A place where normal was dead. Not just magical. Not just strange. Strange was Erin’s inn.
This was the kind of place that some people might call…wrong.
Somewhere where laws were being broken.
Where someone had done…something.
Or something had happened.
The kind of thing that led a nation to burn every [Alchemist] alive. Then—one of the survivors had gone home. Been rejected by his people. Fled every nation and law and…
Shifthold. A ship that was tolerated in some ports because of what it sold. Potions to make you stronger. Potions to give you temporary Skills. Expertise you did not own. And, in his way, Alchemist Irurx had become an expert in other substances and creations. Thus he had named his ship, which seemed to constrict and move as Ceria walked down the stairs.
There was a second door there. Unlocked. It was the only thing truly made of metal on this ship; there were nails and bracings, but this was the only metal thing. A foreign object. The rest of Shifthold…the ship…it was in the name.
Change. But not that of A’ctelios Salash. Oh, no. That was just the foundation. Shifthold bought the meat from there. It bought [Slaves] and took prisoners. It conducted dark experiments, but it was no copycat. The foundation for Irurx’s work? He had studied the most adaptive creatures he could. Plagues that even his folk could not easily remove from their sanctuaries.
Possessing abilities beyond the normal species. The ability to…transform. Remake themselves completely. After all—had not one kind nearly overthrown the Blighted Kingdom and taken Izril?
The door opened, and the belowdecks scuttled. The crew, unmasked, ungarbed, looked up. Something clicked in the darkness.
A bulging sac twitched. They hung from hooks. They writhed in containment fields. They grew, eating A’ctelios’ flesh. They changed. Some of them had been people. Some were waiting, and flinched away from the [Alchemist]’s return.
Ceria Springwalker stood in the light of the moonlit sky. Red light, seeping into the hold. There was light here, but it came from no magic. Nor flame. It made everything look worse than…no. It wasn’t really possible to make it worse, was it?
Irurx stood behind her. Alchemist Irurx. The Alchemist of Change. The monster exiled from half-Elven lands.
[Heretical Swarmlord Alchemist]. He lifted the moving, shaking bottle and watched her face. Hoping. Searching for…
Understanding? No. Acceptance? No. What he so dearly wanted, what he had idly wondered and now which had a hold over his heart was…
Appreciation. Do you see it? You are free from morality. Do you see…?
But he also wanted her to recoil. To gasp. To show him, like every single person who had stood here, her frailty in front of his creations.
No one had ever stood and beheld Shifthold without flinching. Even Irurx. Not half-Elves, not even Bloodtear’s [Pirates] or famed [Marauders] and [Murderers]. Even Roshal’s [Slavers] had cried out and fled.
He was smiling. Even now, if he sat down, in that moment, Irurx wouldn’t have been sure if he wanted her to scream and try to flee—or embrace it.
He waited a moment, watching her face. Waiting…waiting…
A second rolled by. A flash of lightning illuminated the below-decks. The things began to move. One of the cocoons twitched harder. The prisoners stared at Ceria, tubing attached to their veins. Outside, Runsblud howled with violence.
Ceria Springwalker stood there. Looking around. Irurx’s huge smile…wavered. She looked into each shadow. She stared at the things crawling across the ground. She stared into the cocoons and realized what they had been. She looked into the eyes of the prisoners, and the experiments.
She looked back at Irurx and saw what lay behind the masks of his crew…changed, bound to him in loyalty and madness.
Her face never changed. The [Alchemist] stared at her, unsettled. Ceria looked back into the depths of Shifthold.
“Huh. It’s about what I expected.”
The [Alchemist] stumbled as if she had struck him. Ceria Springwalker looked around again.
That was her reaction. No horror. No outrage. No fascination nor understanding. The half-Elf wrinkled her nose faintly.
Irurx hesitated. The bottle was in his hands, but Ceria pivoted and he realized—she’d cast [Ice Armor]. Her lips, her real lips, moved within the faint sheen of colored ice.
“What were you expecting, Alchemist Irurx? For me to be horrified? If I didn’t have my circlet—you’d probably get your wish. Are we doing this?”
He stared at her. Then the worst exploded out of him.
“How do you not see anything? What you expected? This is my life’s work! This is such that even A’ctelios’ own creations flinched away from it! See what I make!”
She looked over her shoulder.
“I see it.”
“Can’t you see the beauty in it? You? You—doesn’t that Relic free you? Free you from misconceptions and the banality of people?”
He pointed a trembling finger at the circlet. That was why he wanted it. Or her—he wanted to see with eyes unfettered by even his own limitations or foibles! Ceria reached up and touched the circlet on her head. She looked at him and smiled, almost pityingly.
“Oh. I get it, Alchemist Irurx. You think I would have loved this. Loved…you. You, and Shifthold, because of what it does.”
Freedom from Morality. Ceria looked over her shoulder again. At the suffering and insanity. She shook her head.
“I don’t love that. I don’t like it. It is cruel. Disgusting—especially that.”
She pointed blandly at something that started at her, half-formed. Ceria wrinkled her nose.
“Yes. I can see how disturbing it is. It doesn’t bother me, though. That’s where you’re right. See the beauty? That’s where I’m afraid you’re wrong, Irurx. Even if you take this circlet from me and put it on someone else, you won’t get what you want. It’s only beautiful to you.”
She looked back at him, and the [Alchemist] recoiled as if she’d struck him. Ceria’s pale eyes were calm.
“It is the truth my people—a glorious—”
The circlet on her head gleamed as the half-Elf [Cryomancer] spoke.
“No. It is not an objective fact. I am free from morality, I suppose. It’s an odd feeling. But even so—I don’t like what you’ve done here. If I thought I could, I would stop you. Since I can’t—I’ll do nothing.”
“Stop me. You? Who’s freed from—”
“Free does not mean ignorant.”
Ceria moved. She grabbed the bottle he held, and her fingers closed over the stopper. Shifthold stirred, but now they were locked together. Ceria stared at Irurx.
“It’s still there. I can see it. I don’t like this place. Not because I care for anything in here. But because I have friends who would be horrified. Because this place would do terrible things to people I care about. I find it mildly offensive. But I’d also like to live.”
The [Alchemist] stared at her. His expression was trembling. Shifting as much as his ship.
Confusion—then to disappointment, anger—sadness—longing.
“You can see what I am doing.”
“Yes. Searching for something. But it’s not terrifying.”
Such a plaintive question. As if a child were asking it. Why don’t you see anything here? Ceria smiled. They were wrestling for the bottle now, and if it opened—she grabbed for it with two hands, but he was so strong. Changed by his own formulas.
“—Because—I’ve seen worse. I’ve seen things I don’t understand. This? You made this. I understand this. It’s just bullying. It’s just cruelty.”
He pulled and Ceria saw the bottle lift. The fragile glass crack in his grip. Irurx stared at Ceria, mystified.
“What should I do with you? I had such hopes. Now…even what you hold, I want less. But I still want it.”
The buzzing. Figures were above decks, shapes behind her. Ceria sighed. She put up her hands.
“Irurx. I came with you politely, as a guest. We enjoyed ourselves, didn’t we? I didn’t see what you wanted, but I am not here to stop or kill you or even judge you. Why don’t we speak? Or at least—go our separate ways.”
He looked at her, bottle raised. Ceria’s circlet shone without any magic he could see. She was a Gold-rank adventurer, but he had held them in Shifthold’s bowels.
“And if I don’t agree?”
Irurx whispered. Ceria’s smile never changed.
“Then, Alchemist. You will find out exactly what this circlet does.”
Revine Zecrew stared at Shifthold, at dock. She had her wand in one hand, and the other was clenched into a fist.
I could sink that damn ship.
Probably. She could certainly attempt to flip it; the [Alchemist] Irurx was not known to be a [Captain], and his ‘crew’ were probably lower-level, if dangerous in other ways.
Then again, she didn’t think it would kill all of them, and she didn’t want that in Runsblud’s bays.
There was blood enough already.
The Bleakbeak Raiders were getting slaughtered. It wasn’t one-sided, but it was going Bloodtear’s way. With a storm at their backs and wind and rain pelting everything, the Garuda were grounded, and the [Pirates] were fighting on their terrain, despite being on land.
Blood and death. Where was Ceria? What had possessed her to be so foolish?
Irurx got to her. If I hadn’t realized what he was planning—
He was a high-level [Alchemist]. Probably—definitely over Level 50. For all she had that circlet, Ceria was twenty levels below him, at least.
She might be dead. Or wishing she were dead. Revine was debating going down there. However—
She was afraid she couldn’t waste any magic. Not with Bloodtear moving through the port. Revine didn’t know for sure, but she had her emergency bag of holding ready, and a skiff was loaded in the secret docks. She was ready to flee Savere. She would not go down with this ship, but nor would she give it up easily.
Damn them. Damn these people getting in the way of her plans. It was Nsiia all over again. That arrogant empress, checking Savere, making costly war—but for her, the Siren would rule an area twice Savere’s current size, and then she wouldn’t need to fear strong groups forcing her hand.
If only she had…the Siren’s concentration lapsed. Then she saw a figure backing onto the decks. Revine focused downwards. Was that—
Ceria! The Alchemist, Irurx, was slowly backing away. And Ceria’s circlet was shining like…Revine’s mouth went dry.
There was a rule most people followed regarding artifacts. When it started shining, making sounds, or screaming at you, back away.
Alchemist Irurx had read the Adventurer’s Handbook too, clearly. His eyes were locked on the circlet, and his bottle of whatever-it-was was raised defensively now.
“I really don’t want to fight. Let’s agree to go our ways, okay?”
The half-Elf stood with Ceria amidst the rain. His crew was gathered around her, but Ceria Springwalker was cool.
“Truly. You’d just walk away?”
“Why not? You’re not my enemy. I might need to even buy potions from you—but I’ll talk and conduct business off this ship.”
The [Cryomancer] smiled. She was so casual. Irurx’s jaw was clenched in frustration. But he didn’t quite dare get closer.
Not without knowing what the circlet did.
He jumped at the word. Ceria looked around.
“You don’t know what it does. No one does. Not even me. If there’s even a chance—”
You didn’t get to three hundred and twelve years old by taking those chances. Ceria Springwalker bowed, politely, to the alchemist.
“It’s been fun. Aside from the last part. Let’s agree to leave it here.”
She turned and began walking towards the docks, half-waiting. A spell burned on her lips, but none of the crew moved.
“Wait. Answer me one last thing.”
Irurx called out. He was staring at her. Mystified. Angry—but not mad with it. He pointed at Ceria as the bottle disappeared into his robes.
She turned. The rain was just wet; not bloody at all. It had a faintly iron smell, but that wasn’t blood. It was still water. Irurx licked his lips.
“You…why did you leave your village?”
It was the last question half-Elves like that asked. The last…Ceria raised her brows. She looked up and sighed. Of all the things they had said and done—that one alone hurt.
“I left because my grandmother died. My grandmother, who raised me and took care of me and told me stories about the outside world. She died, and no one noticed for five months but me. So I burned down her house and left.”
She stepped back onto the gangplank. Irurx stared at her.
“Just that? Just that? I was cast out for delving into dark alchemy! Forbidden magic and experiments! They threw me out of my village the first time for creating an insect the likes of which no one had seen! It could have tended our forests. The second time they burned every [Alchemist]. I was scarred forever by that fire! My village renounced me and ended itself for shame! You—just that?”
Ceria Springwalker looked at him. Grandiosely small set against Shifthold’s unnatural crew, its reputation, and his famous name. She shook her head.
“Alchemist Irurx. Does it matter? I didn’t have a grand reason why I left. But I have seen and done things since then that…”
She trailed off. Reached up and touched the circlet. Ceria’s eyes, pale ice, shone. Once they had been a different color. The rain began to turn to sleet around her. Cold.
“I have lived through stories. Fought monsters. I walked into the heart of the Village of the Dead and saw a half-Elf there. Older than both of us combined. Perhaps older than my entire village put together, and yours. I saw him die. The greatest [Necromancer] I have ever seen.”
Irurx’s eyes were round. He mouthed the name.
“The Putrid One. You met—the—his creations! His legacy lives on—”
He stood there, poleaxed, and Ceria shrugged.
“It’s not who we were, Irurx. It’s what we do. I met the Putrid One. And I stole his circlet.”
He looked at her. One of the crew lunged suddenly, but Ceria was already moving. The crewmember slammed mask-first into a wall of ice. Ceria strode down the gangplank, waiting—but Irurx appeared alone on the railings. He and she stared at each other. At last, the [Alchemist] sighed.
“Tell me how to get to the heart. What you saw. I invite you upon my ship in truce and true hospitality. I swear it on truth spells.”
“Come find me tomorrow and bring more wine. And I will tell you.”
He narrowed his eyes, hesitated.
“There were lots of bugs around the center.”
Ceria offered. The Alchemist licked his lips. How strange. She was just walking away—neither enemy nor friend. Just…like a practical adventurer.
He let her go. Irurx stepped back and laughed. Bitterly. He had gotten nothing of what he wanted and still—
“Clever. Too clever. You have walked into Shifthold and back out, Ceria Springwalker. They will tell stories of it, too!”
He walked back towards the belowdecks. He’d bring another bottle of wine. And potions to barter. That was all.
He wasn’t willing to find out the truth of that circlet.
Revine Zecrew met Ceria Springwalker as she returned to the Siren’s Lookout.
Not that Ceria took the streets. The half-Elf had left the ship, amazingly, without a fight beyond casting [Ice Wall]. Then she had headed towards the streets, taken one look at the bloodbath beyond—
And not gone that way. She had jogged back, waved at the Alchemist, and hopped into the sea. Or, rather, onto a pillar of ice, and begun casting [Ice Wall]. She navigated around the ships in their berths towards Runsblud.
Some of the [Pirates] had seen her and clearly weighed taking pot-shots, but they seemed to recognize her and let her pass. By the time Ceria got to the rocks closest to the palace, the Siren had cast a spell.
A staircase made of water led Ceria up to the balcony. She got up a third of the way, then sat down.
Revine shouted down at her. The storm raged around her, but neither the wind nor air bothered the [Hydromancer]. Ceria hollered back up.
It was a lot of stairs, and a long walk from port. Even so. Revine stared at Ceria, and a ball of water rose under her and began to carry her up the stairs.
Ceria walked onto the balcony. Revine just looked at her.
“Irurx took you to Shifthold. You escaped. Did you see…what lies below?”
All she knew were stories. She had never set foot down there. Ceria grimaced.
“Yep. It’s not pretty. Lots of experiments. Bug-related. Not Antinium—just bugs, I think.”
“Ex—bugs? Was it—and he let you go?”
“Mhm. He didn’t have a choice. See?”
Ceria tapped the glowing circlet on her head. Revine eyed it apprehensively.
“What—what is it doing?”
It winked out as Ceria tapped it. She exhaled.
The Siren of Savere was lost for words for a minute.
“Do you mean you just made it light up and—he let you walk off?”
Ceria smiled crookedly.
“Why not? It’s an adventurer’s oldest trick. Besides, I was pretty sure he couldn’t tell what the circlet was doing. You can’t.”
It was true. Revine couldn’t tell if that was a simple [Light] spell or illusion. Ceria exhaled again.
“I hate bluffing. But it worked so I didn’t have to do anything else. We parted on a truce. He might sell me some potions if I give him some information.”
“The Village of the Dead. Apparently, the [Necromancer] there was some kind of famous person to Irurx. He had undead beetles…I think they were undead. Good luck to Irurx, I say. He can shake hands with what’s inside.”
Revine just looked at Ceria. She was trying, very hard, not to be admiring. She had seen stone-cold bluffs before, but Ceria’s would be the stuff of bar stories among [Sailors], even if they never heard about her lies.
“Few can claim they’ve walked Shifthold’s lower decks and lived. I am glad you survived. It was foolish to take his offer.”
“I didn’t have much of a choice. He brought two of his crew ashore.”
“He did? That—”
“In his cloak. You might want to watch out for it; he’s got reinforcements.”
The Siren cursed. That was a high-level artifact for certain. Maybe a Relic-class object if it could store people. Or was it a Skill?
Either way—she was relieved it ended there. The Siren gestured to the wild streets below with a curled lip.
“As you can see, a Drowned Night has begun. Two more fleets of the Bloodtear Pirates have sailed in. I…believe they may be dangerous. To me.”
Ceria glanced up. The Siren was sweating in the small of her back. She didn’t know if it was wise to tell Ceria, but right now she was scrambling for any allies, and her army was days of marching away from the capital.
“Hm. Are they going to try to assassinate you?”
Revine spat over the balcony.
“They would not assassinate me. It would come in the open. Stay indoors. It will not be tonight. The Bleakbeaks are doomed. Tomorrow…it will be Savere’s own who begin to clash with them. Spill blood.”
Provocations and inciting incidents. That was how she’d do it. Revine’s stomach churned. Then she looked at Ceria and shook her head; the half-Elf was wet and she wasn’t shivering, but no one liked being soggy. Not even Revine.
“Come inside. We will discuss Irurx and the rest—he will not get away with this. I also need to tell my people to stop searching for you. Not that anyone can exactly go out into the streets with…”
Revine began to wave a hand at the chaos below and then hesitated. She cursed.
“Salt for blood! Omusc!”
Ceria turned as she began walking inside.
“I…sent her into the city to find you when I thought you’d left. With orders to return with you or not at all. She’s down there. She—might survive.”
Revine bit her lip, feeling genuine guilt. Omusc was a mollusc Drowned Woman, though. She’d survived a lot of fatal injuries thanks to her amazing regenerative abilities. Even so—that was a bloodbath, and Omusc could survive a stabbing, incredible damage—not being sliced into pieces.
Ceria looked at Revine.
“She’s down there?”
“Yes. I will contact her. Omusc is intelligent enough to find a hiding spot. I’m sure she—what are you doing?”
Ceria Springwalker stopped. She had one foot over the balcony. Revine lifted a finger and the water stairs fell into a thunderous cascade of water.
“Don’t be a fool. There are Bloodtear Pirates and raiders and, even if some consider you a friend, no one can see anyone down there.”
Ceria just looked at the Siren.
“Omusc’s a friend. Not a huge one—but I’d feel bad if she died.”
“Don’t be stupid! Circlet or not—”
The half-Elf snorted.
“The circlet has nothing to do with it, Revine. I don’t leave friends to die. Ever. I was always stupid. Not even a Relic can change that.”
She hopped up onto the balcony and windmilled her arms.
“Whoa. That’s slippery. Can you help me?”
“I will not. Come down here! Come d—”
Revine grabbed for Ceria’s legs. She missed. The [Arctic Cryomancer] did a hop. Just a little bunny hop forwards. She met Revine’s eyes and the two locked gazes.
Then Ceria’s butt hit the long slide of ice aiming towards the city’s streets and she shot down with a scream.
Revine saw her move so fast neither she nor Ceria had time to process it. Ceria flashed downwards, hit the ground, and lay there. Revine winced. Ceria levered herself up; she had a bloody nose and scrapes, and drank a healing potion. Then she ran.
I was always stupid. That was what everyone didn’t understand. Not yet. Wearing the Relic of the Putrid One didn’t change her. The circlet? It just made her more of that.
But also? The fighting people on the streets, the [Bandits] and [Raiders] and [Pillager] and [Pirates] and [Marauders] and [Killers]—they got to learn what the circlet also did. And that was let Ceria be the person she imagined. Move, cast like the [Mage] she wanted to be. Revine looked down and saw. Her lips moved and her eyes widened.
Omusc was bleeding. This was how she’d die. Not from her wounds; she pushed herself off the wall, and her chopping cut with her shortsword took a [Pirate] in the neck. He got her in the stomach, but she wrenched the blade free and ran.
“Kill them! Kill—”
A Garuda ran past her, mistaking her for an ally. He covered her with his death; the Bloodtear Pirates were easily distinguishable from the rest.
They wore red bandannas. Simple, effective in a night-fight. And they were stained more and more with crimson.
“Fall back! They’re everywhere!”
Omusc ducked. Something flashed over her head and the shouter was struck by an arrow or crossbow bolt. She saw a figure running at her and swung her sickle in her off hand. A strange weapon. Unpredictable.
She tangled, disengaged with a shove. Run. Omusc was no hero. Run! The Bloodtear Pirates were not screaming. They advanced with fighting ranks, engaging, switching out. Contrary to their image, they fought disciplined—but took no prisoners.
They were singing. The song was half-chant, half-Skill.
“We sailed under flags of no quarter. We took no prisoners.”
“A storm at our backs. Blood in the water, blood in the sky.”
Two chants, a terrifying song because of how calm it was. Even cheery.
“The bodies filled the decks. We fought until we died.”
“No mercy, no regrets, aye.”
Terrifying. The Bleakbeaks were experienced killers and marauders. But they were still raiders. They flew off if they thought they’d die.
Bloodtear killed or were killed. All or nothing. Idiots.
Where was Ceria? No—she wasn’t here. If she was, she was dead. Omusc was dead. She should have hid and risked the Siren’s wrath.
“Open! Open in the name of Savere and the Siren! Let me in!”
She pounded on a door, but no one answered. Of course not. Not on a Drowned Night.
Omusc kept running. A squad of [Pirates] was after her, and the Bleakbeaks and their friends had realized she wasn’t one of them. She stumbled down a street, locked blades, and someone planted an arrow in her back.
They seemed very surprised as Omusc kept running. Her ‘flesh’ rippled and ejected the barbed arrow, but she still bled.
She was running out of energy. Omusc wanted to lie down. But if she did…
Not yet. I have to survive. I have to take care of—
She stumbled upwards and ran. They were singing. The Drowned Woman heard a strange sound ahead of her and frowned upwards. Her mouth opened.
Omusc heard a familiar voice. Someone was searching for her. But…in the rain, in Runsblud, a port, how could she hope to find Omusc? It was a stupid idea, even if you were willing to risk your life.
You’d have to be an idiot to try it.
An intelligent idiot was doing just that. And Omusc saw her. Half of Runsblud saw her.
“Omusc! Omusc! Where are you?”
Ceria Springwalker stood on a pillar of ice, firing [Ice Spikes] down into the melee and crouching behind walls of ice. She was higher than anything else; she’d conjured a massive tower out of the water and was taking fire—mainly from the Bleakbeaks.
Some even tried to fly up, recognizing her or seeing the circlet. [Rogues] and [Thieves] saw Ceria and realized she had the circlet. They tried to climb the tower, and their gloves slid off the water-slicked ice. Garuda flew up and [Archers] took aim.
One nailed her in the head with an arrow.
Ceria staggered, and Omusc cried out. But she just shook her head, and the [Ice Armor] refroze. She pointed down, and an [Ice Spike] struck someone in the face.
The Drowned Woman ran, waving her arms, shouting upwards. Ceria didn’t see her at first. She dove, and a wall of ice shot outwards from the tower to block a [Fireball]. She picked herself up.
Her return was an [Ice Lance] that splintered, sending deadly shrapnel everywhere. Then she spotted Omusc and her smile was relieved.
“There you are!”
Ceria leapt down, and the ice tower collapsed. She slowed before she hit the ground. [Featherfall].
“What are you doing? Are you stupid?”
“Let’s get out of here!”
Ceria pointed but then ducked; another arrow flashed past her, and Omusc screamed. A second arrow—this one burning.
This one she couldn’t just remove. She collapsed, grabbing at it. Ceria bent down—then looked up. She raised her finger. The [Pirate] bared her teeth in a wary grin. She had aimed for Omusc.
The jagged shard of ice caught her in the throat. The Bloodtear Pirates stared at their friend. Then one of them grabbed a horn and blew it.
“You’ve done it. You’ve done it now—”
Omusc was lying there. Ceria looked around. She saw more Bloodtear Pirates moving this way. It must have been a horn for ‘high-level foe’. A wall of ice rose, blocking her from the [Pirates] and arrows and spells. She bent over Omusc and uncorked a healing potion.
“Just stay here. I think I can hold them off. This is a good place.”
They were caught between both sides in a plaza. Nice, open, flat; not a place you wanted to stick around in for fear of incoming arrows. Ceria bent over Omusc.
The [Pillager] was at the end of her rope, clearly. Exhausted from multiple healings and fighting for at least an hour. Ceria doubted they could get to the palace. So she lifted a hand.
“What are you doing?”
“Don’t worry. I’ve done this before. You’ll live.”
Something rose around Omusc. She tried to rise, but the casket of ice enclosed her. Thickening. She could only watch. Ceria left airholes, but too small to let anything else through. Then she rose. She smiled at the woman inside.
“Don’t worry. I don’t let friends die. Besides.”
She turned. The Bloodtear Pirates were advancing on one side, the Bleakbeaks on the left. Ceria Springwalker touched the circlet on her head.
“—I’m a [Cryomancer]. It’s raining, and they’re coming for me. This is my ground.”
She walked forwards as the red rain pattered off her armor of ice and the casket protecting Omusc. Ceria Springwalker called out.
“I am Captain of the Horns of Hammerad! Ceria Springwalker! Come any closer and I will kill you!”
She heard laughter. The Bloodtear Pirates halted. One laughed. An officer of some kind.
“We know all about you, ‘Ice Squirrel’. You just had to kill one of our own. Your friends won’t protect you.”
“They don’t need to. I am warning you. See this circlet?”
Ceria tapped it. The Drowned Woman eyed it. Then she threw a dagger, so fast Ceria barely dodged it.
“I’m watching. I’ll see how it fits afterwards.”
She flipped another dagger up. Ceria shrugged.
“I warned you.”
The Bloodtear Pirates didn’t answer. They just charged. Ceria Springwalker held up her hand. She aimed her wand at the leader, who juked sideways. The [Pirate] performed an [Evasive Roll] across the cold ground, got back onto her feet, teeth bared—
She hit the ground on her shoulder. Another [Pirate] went down, face-first. Two more began to slide and caught themselves with their balancing Skills. They stared down and across the ground at Ceria.
Two walls of ice had risen around her, blocking either approach. But that was not what halted the [Pirates] and [Raiders] coming in from both sides. Ceria murmured.
“[Slick Spell: Ice Floor].”
Just a simple adjustment to the ice. Wet ice. Wet, nigh-frictionless ice…One of the [Pirates] tried to get up and fell on their back with a curse.
Most of the Bloodtear Pirates slowed, but a number were equal to the challenge. The swearing [Boarding Officer] tried to get up, and a [Pirate] strode past her. His boots perfectly adhered to the ice.
“Nice trick. We’ve seen it plenty of times. Got any more?”
Half the other [Pirates] were moving forwards slowly. Ceria saw they knew how to do it; they were stabbing the ice, wedging blades into the ground as stabilizers. One had even produced…sand. Literal sand, and she was tossing it forwards, creating footholds.
“Damn. It’s never easy.”
Ceria turned over her shoulder and saw half the Bleakbeaks were lying on the ground. The other half were trying to fly, swearing. The Bloodtear [Pirates] rolled their eyes.
Then Ceria yanked her skeleton hand up and a spear of ice shot up from the [Ice Floor], nearly impaling the closest [Pirate]. She leapt back with an oath. The rest charged. Ceria took one look at them and ran for it.
Omusc saw the half-Elf just turn around and book it. Walls of ice rose to block the charging [Pirates], but they just dodged around them. Three stopped and one went to hammer on her casket.
“Tough as a rock! Damn—”
“Let’s pour some poison in. Hold on, I’ve—”
A Human reached for a vial and his head exploded. A spike of ice had just shot out of the casket. The others recoiled.
“Get the [Cryomancer]! Scatter!”
They pounded after her. Ceria was running, but she was already getting winded. She had a decent dash like any adventurer, but she’d been running searching for Omusc. She slowed as the [Pirates] began to encircle her. Ceria exhaled.
She turned as a [Pirate] leapt through the air. Ceria looked up, smiled—and then stopped running. She leapt, hit the ground with both feet planted—
And shot away. The [Pirate] missed, slashing, rolling, coming up—and nearly crashed as she ran onto the second [Ice Floor] spell. The Bloodtear Pirates saw the half-Elf kick the ground.
She accelerated. Turned. A [Pirate] ducked as an [Ice Spike] barely missed her face. She saw Ceria heading towards a wall and the [Cryomancer] cursed—
Then a lip of ice rose from the [Ice Floor] and turned her. She changed directions, and a Garuda running for her was caught flat-footed. A [Pirate] shot the [Raider] in the leg.
Arrows flashed after Ceria, but she was accelerating. Moving faster. She was…
Skating. Shooting across the slicked ice, conjuring more across the plaza, creating shields of [Ice Walls] for cover. She was moving so fast.
This wasn’t some new technique. She had done this before. Like on a waxed inn’s floor. But the concept? She skated across the plaza, firing [Ice Spikes] at the [Pirates] and [Raiders].
Yet even that was a copy. She had known this—even before.
Even before. Revine’s hands were trembling on the stone railing of her palace. She stared down and whispered.
It was her technique. Movements created by someone who had once been told by the young [Mage] who would later be known as Archmage Viltach that ‘[Cryomancers] had no mobility’.
Just to spite him. And that [Cryomancer] had refined the technique, until the day Ceria Springwalker saw her skate across the sea.
Illphres’ apprentice flashed around the plaza, but the [Pirates] were moving to intercept her. She was Illphres’ first and only apprentice. But her magic was her own. Ceria turned. A [Raider] leapt at her and crashed into a midriff-high wall of ice.
The Stitch-woman began screaming. Revine couldn’t see why—until she saw the other [Pirates] and [Raiders] recoiling.
More walls of ice and ledges were rising. No—other shapes. What looked like some kind of ice-made clothesline, just a line of ice at waist-height. Yet the [Pirates] looked around and began moving for the edges of the plaza, suddenly in retreat.
Why? Then Revine saw the blood. The [Raider] was impaled—
On spikes of ice coming out of the wall. The [Ice Walls] were developing jagged edges. The thin line of ice was as sharp as a razor! And on this slick battlefield, where you could slide into it—
Walls of ice were rising across the plaza. More to guard Omusc. Ceria slowed amid a playground of deadly shapes. A labyrinth of killing edges. She fired [Ice Spikes] from both hands, picking off anyone in the open. And still more ice rose, gleaming traps.
[Battlefield of the Frozen World].
Ceria Springwalker stood in the middle of her ground. Her territory. Revine’s hands were shaking.
Now, the Bloodtear Pirates had seen the battle. They were forming up. Not squads, but by the hundred. So were the Bleakbeaks. This was a flashpoint, and Ceria was still alone.
She had created a dome in the middle of her battlefield spell to protect her. Spells were hitting it, but the ice held.
What was she doing? Figures were flooding into the battlefield—but the traps were static. There was danger there, but only if there was fighting and confusion. A [Raider] charged past a wall of ice, and a hand shot out and grabbed their throat.
A hand? A claw of rough ice. The [Raider] screamed, and something lurched out of the wall of ice. A blocky, jagged thing, roughly humanoid, clawing, an open mouth of frozen water biting.
“Monsters! Monsters in the—”
A [Pirate] spun and slashed at another figure coming out of an [Ice Wall]. The Lesser Frost Elemental staggered, half its face gone, but kept attacking. The [Pirate] hacked it down in a shower of ice—but more were appearing.
They were tough. Unlike the slick, half-melted [Ice Floor], these monsters took arrows to the face that barely dug into their bodies.
Revine murmured. She saw them attacking, forcing back the [Pirates]. But that wasn’t enough. They had killed true monsters at sea and were continuing to advance. Except…
One fell to her knees. She slowed, and her friends reached for her, then recoiled.
Cold. She shouted, and someone blasted her with flames—but then they went out. The Drowned Woman’s lips turned blue. Her shivering stopped.
The advancing [Pirates] saw the half-Elf sitting in the dome of ice shift her gaze. They dodged—but what was there to dodge? Nothing. The cold ate at them. They retreated or froze.
[Aura of Rime].
Each of her Skills and spells at work. Ceria Springwalker left the dome of ice a second before a floating pillar of earth hammered through the roof. She spun, going up a ramp, and [Ice Spikes] rained down around her.
“Enough! Fall back!”
The [Pirates] below her were falling back. The Bleakbeaks had already retreated. The [Frost Elementals] were flooding the field. Just two dozen; Ceria felt herself panting.
The Bloodtear Pirates quit the plaza, her battlefield of ice. There was no point. They couldn’t even get near her.
Except for…Ceria looked up and saw a grinning face. A pale, orange flush in dead skin.
A Bloodtear Pirate.
With a hat. And a wand. The [Captain] pointed, and a pillar of earth punched through the ramp Ceria was standing on. She hit the ground with a grunt.
“Four o’my crew. You’ll die once and we’ll call it square, eh?”
The Bloodtear [Captain] grinned. Ceria sat up.
“It’s a Drowned Night. They knew the risks. Or did you think it was your night?”
The [Captain] recoiled. Some of the [Pirates] even laughed, but the Selphid narrowed her gaze.
“They call me Shipbreaker. Hammers of stone. Let’s see whose magic is stronger, eh, Ice Squirrel? Walls or hammers.”
“Wouldn’t you rather walk away? You or I could die. It doesn’t have to go this way.”
Ceria offered hopefully. She saw the [Captain] laugh. The half-Elf sighed.
She lifted her wand. A pillar of earth like a battering ram punched out of the air and towards her head. How did she do it that fast? Ceria Springwalker looked up—
And the pillar punched through her body. She stood there, then threw up her hands.
“Oh no. You got me!”
The [Captain] blinked at her. Then whirled.
An [Ice Lance] hit her barrier and knocked her backwards. She caught herself—aimed around.
“She’s damned invisible, [Captain]!”
A [Pirate] called out. The Selphid snarled.
“I don’t need your help, you idiots! I—”
She hesitated, looked around, and spat.
“So that’s what that fucking thing does.”
Ceria peeked around one of her [Ice Walls]. She also poked her head over a little ridge of ice. A third Ceria stood in the open, aiming her wand at the [Captain].
Illusions. One shot an [Ice Spike] and the [Captain] dodged—and the [Ice Spike] passed straight through one of the [Pirates], who recoiled with a yell. Another [Mage] looked at the Cerias, wide-eyed.
“I can’t tell which ones are fake!”
Illusion magic. Her circlet was shining. The [Captain] whirled, blasting at the Cerias—a wall of ice rose, ten feet tall, and then tried to fall on top of her. The Selphid kicked off it with an oath—she flew through the air.
Rampaging. Strong and able to cast [Earthen Pillar] and throw it around. She turned around, laughing.
“Is this the circlet or you? Come on, Gold-rank! Show me what you have! Is that your best spell?”
She raised her own wall of stone and an [Ice Lance] shattered on it. Her magic punched through an Frost Elemental and one of Ceria’s walls.
She had the magic Ceria did not. They were both Tier 4 spells. But one of them had been at that level longer, figured out how to make it stronger.
If Pisces were here, Ceria would have been able to let him support her with [Invisibility] spells. Yvlon could have taken the [Captain] in a straight fight, and Ksmvr was fast enough to dodge those things.
“I miss my team.”
The Ceria Springwalker standing in the open sighed. The other two Cerias not dead flickered out of existence.
The [Pirate Mage-Captain] spun warily to face Ceria.
“Out of tricks already? That circlet’s not that impressive. Or is it you?”
Ceria idly tapped it. The [Captain] looked around, expecting a trick. Which she was wise to. Ceria lifted it up and admired it.
“It’s true. I can’t make full use of it. Not yet. It even had to feed me mana so I could cast all those spells. It doesn’t have infinite magic. And I don’t have any Tier 5 spells or boosters. Yet. I’ll work on it. Good lesson.”
The Bloodtear Captain eyed her.
“You think you’ll get out of here?”
Ceria Springwalker smiled. She glanced up and to the side for a second.
“I think so. Ready? Take your best shot, if you dare.”
She aimed her wand at the [Captain]. The Selphid hesitated. She linked the magic in her mind. The largest [Earth Pillar] yet appeared in the air over Ceria’s head. It hammered the ground—but she was skating away.
Straight into a wall of earth. Ceria whirled in shock—as if she was the only person who could control a battlefield. Two shackles of earth leapt from the ground and grabbed around her ankles. She lurched. And the final [Earth Pillar] shot from the wand.
Captain Aldrail roared. He charged through the watching [Pirates] with Jiupe and another [Captain]. Too late. They saw the [Earth Pillar] fire. Captain Ereiyne’s signature move, which could crack the decks of unenchanted ships.
It struck home. The thunderous roar of ice and stone and bone filled the air. Aldrail watched, throwing up his paws to block shrapnel.
Ice and stone and—?
Captain Ereiyne slowly backed up. She stared at the thing she’d hit. Two vast, glowing, purple flames stared back at her.
Two pissed flames in empty eye sockets. She had hit a giant…
Head. Poking out of the ground. Slowly rising upwards. But not a skull. Not precisely a skull. Not of ivory. Nor of ice.
Rather, ice coating bone, like skin. A paw rose, with glittering nails of ice, and slammed into the ground. Aldrail heard Jiupe whisper.
“Krakens. I thought she wasn’t a [Necromancer]!”
Slowly, the giant bear’s head rose higher as the rest of the monstrosity pulled itself upwards.
It dwarfed everyone here, towering over the houses. A huge monster of ice and ivory.
A Frostmarrow Behemoth.
Ceria Springwalker stood on its head. Circlet shining. Her eyes were glowing.
Death magic linking completed. Mana reserves: 49%.
It wasn’t quite in that way, but it burned across her mind like she had always known it.
Death magic. The other half of the combined spell. But without Pisces it was—
It all made sense now. What the circlet did. Revine was right.
What was a [Mage]’s greatest weakness? That they were alone. Even the Putrid One, for all his strength, was one magic. And magic…
Linked spells. She could cast linked spells through the circlet. The Frostmarrow Behemoth roared like an avalanche falling, and Ceria looked down.
“This is my best spell. Want to try yours again?”
The Bloodtear Captain looked up. Then she stepped back. Grinning. Raising her hands.
“Now there’s a fight. What say you?”
Four Bloodtear Captains stood there. Ceria cursed as she saw Aldrail and Jiupe. She spread her hands.
“I killed four [Pirates] from Ereiyne’s ship. I’m not sure about yours, Captain Aldrail, Captain Jiupe. Can we be friends? It’s a Drowned Night. But that woman is my friend.”
“What say you leave her and we call it even? We’ll be sporting, but it’s four versus one. Even if it’s just us.”
Jiupe tilted her head. Ceria Springwalker smiled.
“I’ve still got my circlet. It could do anything. I could do anything. Try to kill her and die.”
“Well said. Well said!”
The Bloodtear Captains shouted their approval. Ceria Springwalker was sweating. Because in a game of bluffs and cards, they’d call every time. They’d raise the stakes, turn the table over, and pull out the blades.
She saw Aldrail looking at Ereiyne. At Jiupe and the last [Captain]. Taking a silent vote. Ceria Springwalker closed her eyes.
Stupid people. Them and her. People who said, ‘this is the line, cross it and die’, and meant it. Who went into a city and risked their lives for a friend.
Ridiculous. Except…if there was a point. A point to all of it. The half-Elf spoke, to the Bloodtear Captains, to the air, and they listened. After all—they loved and admired moments and people like these.
“I care only for my friends. I went into a Death-zone for a friend. My team is scattered across Chandrar. This night, I walked into Shifthold’s depths. I walked out, because I didn’t care. My team matters. To find them and save them, and to bring my friend back—I will make any pacts. I will do what it takes. Believe in that.”
She looked down. Slowly, the four [Captains] turned. They eyed the lone figure standing on the docks. Then…the figures that appeared out of his shadow.
Alchemist Irurx watched her. The Bloodtear Pirates hesitated, unsure of what he was doing. But Ceria only lingered on him for a moment. She raised her head.
“Someday, I will go back to Wistram and avenge my mentor. I will walk Wistram’s higher floors. I am Illphres’ apprentice. Believe me.”
She reached up to the blood-soaked sky. A hand reached down. Revine Zecrew clasped her hand.
“I believe you.”
The Siren of Savere floated downwards and came to rest on the Frostmarrow Behemoth’s head. Her imperious gaze swept those below, and Ceria saw the Bloodtear Captains look up in alarm. Revine turned to Ceria.
“Put your magic in mine.”
Ceria nodded. Her eyes turned upwards, and the Siren of Savere raised her hand.
Ereiyne raised her wand, but hesitated. [Rogues] had taken to the rooftops and were aiming bows down at her. Revine Zecrew stared down at the [Pirates] and her lip curled.
“This is my city. This is my kingdom. I did not give your fleet permission to land. Nor do you have the right to touch my people. This Drowned Night is over.”
“You can’t cancel a Drowned Night!”
Ereiyne shouted up at her. The Siren of Savere ignored her. She lifted her hand upwards, fingers splayed wide against the backdrop of the sky. Sweat appeared on her brow.
Ceria’s circlet was shining. She was sweating too, cold drops that turned to ice on her brow. Her flesh-and-blood hand clasped the Siren’s.
Slowly, the [Mage-Captain] stared upwards. She slowly muttered as she backed away.
“Krakens fuck me. I hate [Hydromancers].”
Aldrail stared at her, and then his [Dangersense] began to prickle. He glanced over his shoulder for his ship; [Pirates] were looking at the Siren, around for danger. Then they looked at the right place.
Straight up. The blood-red skies were slowly dissipating. The crimson combined Skill of the Bloodtear Pirates faded. Turned…grey.
But not lifeless. The skies swirled darkly overhead, like a [Sailor]’s nightmare. Winter storms.
The temperature dropped. A staring Bleakbeak Raider peered up and saw something fall from the sky instead of the bloody water.
It looked like—
The first dart of sharpened water went through the Stitch-man’s eye. Then another fell.
A needle of ice. Just a sharpened tip of ice…falling as fast and as hard as rain. Hardly a deadly weapon.
But then another drop fell. And another. And—and then it was raining. Raining—but every drop was a falling shard of ice.
The skies opened up. Ceria gasped, collapsing, and the Siren swayed. But she had enough energy to raise her hand and create an umbrella of water that caught the shards.
Everyone was in disarray. [Pirates] ran towards their ships, shouting, trying to take cover. Garuda dove out of the sky. Even Savere’s few [Rogues] sheltered. The Siren pointed towards the docks and a wave rolled upwards. Six of the Bloodtear ships tore loose from their moorings and drifted towards the sea.
And the rain fell. A combined spell. A linked spell.
“We made this one a while ago. Rediscovered it. With it, we could fight an army.”
The Siren stared up at the deadly rain. Ceria frowned upwards.
“What is it called?”
Revine smiled sadly.
“[Rain of Frozen Tears].”
The Drowned Night ended. For the first time in Runsblud’s living memory, ended not because of blood and killing or the sun, but because of the rain. Revine stood with Ceria.
“I could take that circlet now.”
Ceria was panting, seeing her ice melt. Omusc sat up, yelped, and tried to go back under cover. Ceria looked at Revine.
“But you won’t.”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
Revine seemed half-insulted, half-amused. Ceria shook her head.
“Because everyone needs someone they can trust. The [Pirates] haven’t left yet. Besides—if I help you, and you help me, we both benefit. The Siren of Savere is too canny to steal my circlet.”
“You are as bold and reckless as can be. Even Illphres had more sense, and she was as mule-headed as a block of ice. You need better magic. Come on, before either one of us collapses and they realize we’re out of magic.”
She turned, realized they were standing on the Frostmarrow Behemoth’s head, and Ceria laughed. It slowly lowered, and she nodded. They walked together, as Omusc ran under their umbrella. Alchemist Irurx, the [Pirates], Savere watched.
And Ureita, awash with tears. At the Siren and Ceria Springwalker. Who they would tell stories about. The bearer of a Relic-class item.
The half-Elf who had walked into Shifthold and survived. Who had faced down four Bloodtear Captains and survived a Drowned Night. For, you see, it was about the moment, not the exact details or technicalities.
Friend of the Siren of Savere. Captain of the Gold-rank team, the Horns of Hammerad.
Ceria Springwalker, the Ice Squirrel.
The Siren of Savere had a new ally. Everyone was talking about it, but given how gossip networks worked, half of the people who heard about the Siren’s increased power were uncertain whether or not it was because she had allied with a powerful [Cryomancer]…or bought a new pet.
Now, though…now, they said she was moving. Preparing Savere’s lawless army to give chase to the Empress of Beasts. She had thrown the Bloodtear Pirates out of her port city and was advancing into the conflict that had engulfed this region of Chandrar.
At the same time? People in Tyrant’s Rest, the capital city of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, and abroad watched the video of Prince Zenol returning to his homeland. Nerrhavia’s Fallen had too many [Princes] to count. Far too many, some claimed quietly.
But here was an instant hero. Not least because he had traveled home to aid another adventurer. Yvlon Byres, the Silver Killer, the Human with metal arms. Queen Yisame herself was said to have heard the petition by Prince Zenol.
“Your Majesty, I will vouch on the name of Isphel and my own class that Yvlon Byres was wrongly accused. I ask for an immediate inquiry at the highest levels into Magistrate Ducaz’s claims!”
Prince Zenol stood in the Court of Silks as it exploded. Yvlon Byres stood next to him and saw the angry [Prince] Esceit and his people, the royal line of Quarein, staring daggers.
“You accuse a [Magistrate] of corruption before the crown?”
The [Speaker] of Queen Yisame spoke, her tone imperious, chin tilted upwards. Behind her, the [Queen] herself sat on her throne—the true throne, where other monarchs knelt to supplicate her. Prince Zenol and Yvlon—surprisingly—had been granted permission to rise.
“I do, Your Majesty. No less than I ask that the crown pardon Yvlon Byres, that she might seek her team. She is an adventurer among adventurers and has triumphed where Named-adventurers died. In the Village of the Dead! Should her reward and view of Nerrhavia’s Fallen be that of a kingdom where corrupt men pervert justice? Do we not honor courage and valor?”
Zenol met the [Speaker]’s eyes fearlessly—not Yisame herself. The [Speaker] pursed her lips.
“You are bold, to implicate our will—that of this great kingdom—in errant justice. Nor do I take it lightly. Prince Esceit Quarein has displeased us with their actions in the Coliseum of Monarchs. Yet Isphel has shed blood between families. This is displeasing. Greatly displeasing.”
Zenol ducked his head.
“Forgive me, Your Majesty.”
The [Speaker] glanced back to the throne, yet there was no twitch, no movement of fingers or nuance of the fan held before Yisame’s face. Smoothly, the [Speaker] turned back and looked down at Zenol.
“Our judgment shall not b—”
She hesitated. Fell silent. The Court of Silks, who had fallen respectfully silent for the [Speaker]—but continued to murmur behind their hands—went abruptly still.
Queen Yisame of Nerrhavia’s Fallen stood. The [Speaker]’s eyes widened—then she was walking backwards into her shadow.
Prince Zenol himself seemed dry-mouthed, and Yvlon’s blush over his effusive compliments turned into nervous heart palpitations. They both looked upwards as the [Queen] herself spoke.
“You, Prince Zenol, return to Nerrhavia’s Fallen in the company of a being that has not walked Chandrar for a hundred years. Cognita Truestone. Lesser, but known across the world—Barelle the [Bard]. You, who fought in Izrilian affairs as an adventurer, have come to the Coliseum of Monarchs and shed the blood of Quarein on its sands. For an adventurer. Yvlon Byres.”
Her gaze swept left, and her eyes, like emeralds, flickered across Yvlon’s face. Zenol’s head was bowed, and he knelt once more. Yisame continued.
“A [Prince] stands before the throne and demands justice for corruption. An adventurer seeks her lost comrades, wrongfully imprisoned by the greatest kingdom of Chandrar. These claims fall upon my ears. So. This is my will.”
She paused, and the Court of Silks rustled. Yisame’s face was impeccable; Zenol and Yvlon were sweating. The Quarein family watched, caught between a desire for vengeance and…apprehension. When Yisame spoke, her words were carried across Nerrhavia’s Fallen.
“Let it not be said that Nerrhavia’s Fallen will lag behind any nation for justice, for righteousness. [Supreme Adjudicator] Coroint will take charge of this investigation.”
Every head swung left and there were gasps. The old Stitch-Man bowed. His eyes glittered as they rested on Yvlon. But the [Armsmistress] thought it was whoever was in his hunt that would truly be having heart attacks.
Yisame went on.
“You, Prince Zenol, have slain a valuable servant of Quarein’s line. Asked for pardon. If Yvlon Byres is freed, what will you do next? Tell us, adventurer.”
She looked down, and Yvlon realized it was her turn to speak. She rose, slowly, every eye on her.
“Your Majesty. If I am freed, I would go to seek my friends. My teammates. I know where one of them is, and the location of another…I think.”
The court stirred. Yisame narrowed her eyes.
“We know of this one. Ksmvr of Chandrar, the Antinium. He rides with enemies of Nerrhavia’s Fallen.”
“With respect, Your Majesty—he is not the enemy of anyone. He is searching for me. I would go to him and find my other two teammates and trouble Nerrahvia’s Fallen no longer.”
Yvlon croaked. Those eyes seemed to be boring into hers, looking her up and down as if she were some kind of book to read. Prince Zenol broke in.
“If you will grant me the right, I will aid Yvlon Byres in her search, My Queen.”
She looked at them. Yisame Beziin held perfectly still, painted lips pursed—
Then she smiled.
She smiled, and Yvlon’s heart leapt in confusion. The [Queen] snapped her fan open.
“It is done.”
The court stirred. Quarein’s family seemed to be having conniptions. The [Queen] pointed down at the two as Zenol and Yvlon blinked. Her voice rose, and she spoke faster.
“Nerrhavia’s Fallen will take Prince Zenol Isphel’s word on the weight of his rank and status. On the weight of a Human, a team that dared to stride into a death no other has returned from. I declare Yvlon Byres a guest of the crown and free her of her imprisonment. This is the stuff of stories. Go, Prince Zenol Isphel. Quarein shall abide by the blood spilled, and I say it was done well. Go, Yvlon Byres. Stay one day in the capital. Then go—seek your team. No less than Nerrhavia’s Fallen’s armies shall reunite the Horns of Hammerad.”
Dead silence. What was that last bit? Armies? Then—uproar. Yvlon Byres, favored by the [Queen], stood, seeing Zenol’s dumbstruck expression. Quarein was protesting, but flinching away, bereft of allies. Yisame looked down at Yvlon, smiling.
One day. Yvlon gazed up at the [Queen] and slowly bowed. She didn’t know what to say.
Armies sworn to help Yvlon Byres by the [Queen] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen herself—to help her reunite her team. Savere’s Siren in the company of another.
The Empress of Beasts had won a great battle with Ksmvr of Chandrar over the Empire of Scaied. Even now, they marched to break the siege on the [Monks] of Sottheim, who had been held in their monastery by the very same kingdom of scorpions.
The last of them was on the run, but in the company of a [Bandit Lady]. Freeing [Slaves].
They had scattered across Chandrar. A narrow escape from death that had thrown them into peril and danger, even slavery. Yet here they were.
The Horns of Hammerad.
Fetohep of Khelt finished telling the ghost of the young woman all that he knew. He knew more than most, for ghosts spoke louder than mortals, and more truthfully. He had both to tell him the truth.
She sat there, on the balcony, dangling her legs out into the air.
Erin Solstice smiled. She stared across Khelt and into the horizon of Chandrar.
“What a strange continent. I’ve never been here. Not in the flesh. I would like to, someday. There are awful things here. And…beautiful.”
She stared down at Khelt, that paradise on earth. Fetohep spoke slowly.
“I should enjoy that day when it comes, Erin Solstice. Your friends have faced adversity. Yet all four live. Powers stand behind them—and danger.”
“Yes. The Empress of Beasts? Ksmvr…and Pisces? Poor Pisces. If I was alive, I’d…I’d…I need more levels. I need—”
Erin Solstice clenched her fists helplessly. Greater armies than she had ever witnessed were moving. Entire nations were at war and her friends were caught among them. She had only ever seen one true army. And it had cost her…
She was breathing. Breathing without air in her lungs. Longing. Fetohep stood there, watching her living in the lands of the dead. When Erin Solstice turned to him, the ghosts of tears in her eyes, frustrated tears, she stopped.
Because the Revenant King was smiling. Erin eyed him.
“Are you laughing at me?”
“Perish the thought. If I laugh, Erin Solstice, it is because you stand here, amidst the dead. Yet to be returned to life. Yet thou art guest of Khelt. Friend of the eternal stewards of this land. You have heard your friends’ plight. Others you love lay further abroad, a difficulty, if not insurmountable.”
He waved his hand to indicate distant Izril and Terandria. Fetohep turned his head, and Serept, Khelta, and Xierca stood there. They too smiled, with flesh and blood, and nodded. His golden eye-flames winked brighter, and Fetohep looked at Erin Solstice, who watched him curiously.
“Distant lands. Even Khelt’s hand weakens across the ocean, it is true. Yet you speak as if there is nothing that can be done. As if you must wait to live. This is Chandrar. I am Khelt. Tell me honestly, Erin Solstice. Would you like to aid your friends?”
Her eyes widened. Fetohep of Khelt smiled. Rather than speak immediately, though, Erin Solstice hesitated. She hesitated, and the [Witches] breathed out, the rulers nodded at what she said next.
“There will be a cost for it. There always is.”
He inclined his head slowly. His gaze fixed on her.
“Yes. The question is only if you have the will and means to pay it. Khelt’s coffers lie nigh infinite. So tell me, Erin Solstice. What do you will?”
“The [Monks] of Sottheim are entrenched within their monastery. Tens of thousands, perhaps. They’ve been cut off from the outside world, however. Ever since the King of Destruction announced his return. They have gardens—food stores—no trade. None have left their monastery; the army is too great, even for them.”
Empress Nsiia of Tiqr rode with her army a day after the battle where Ksmvr had learned his new Skills. He rode with her, feeling the eyes of the army on him.
A battered army, but triumphant. Ksmvr turned his head and saw Vasraf spit.
“Cowards. They boxed Sottheim in. Part of the reason Scaied never sent armies against us is that a bulk is here. Paid to keep them in.”
“If this is such a fearsome force, why do they not break free?”
Nsiia’s lips twisted.
“It is a killing field. They would have to run across bare ground under bombardment, then fight through Oisk Stingers—they have no [Mages], and their [Archers]…Sottheim could do it. But they must believe the cost is too great. They are patient. They wait for Flos Reimarch to free them. So I shall in his place, for I need them.”
“Then you can defeat Scaied’s army?”
“We will divert them. They are already moving to face us. Sottheim must charge, or we will be forced back.”
She was nervous. It was a gamble that based everything on the Monks of Sottheim being willing to help.
Loquea Dree flew after Ksmvr, and Leka Thri glided next to the riders. He spoke conversationally.
“Sottheim is strong. If they attack, Scaied flees. But they will still die.”
Ksmvr remained skeptical.
“What makes these [Monks] so powerful? And are you sure they will be able to fight? If they have been besieged for months, no, nearing a year, they may all be dead of starvation.”
If even Loquea Dree thought they were impressive, it must be so. Ksmvr saw Nsiia grin.
“Sottheim will not be dead. There lies a force that can march twenty miles on a single cup of water. Each [Monk] can match a [Soldier] with their fists—though, when we arm them, they will be a force to be feared! They cannot take Scaied easily—because their armor and weapons are more rust than metal.”
“That seems like a foolish mistake. Did they not maintain their weapons and keep an enchanted armory?”
For some reason, even Leka Thri laughed with the others.
“You will see the [Monks] have a strength that comes from their lack, Ksmvr. We must defeat Scaied. The army is still healing, but—”
Nsiia clenched her jaw.
It had to be done. To take back her kingdom, to take back her home—her greatest battle yet lay ahead. Nsiia placed the faith they would win in Loquea Dree. In Ksmvr’s new Skills. In her army.
They were cresting a hill, and Vasraf raised a hand.
“We are entering the range of their artillery. Ranged magic. Not as deadly as the House of Minos, but…we must assail them in the pass. Charge forwards.”
Nsiia rode ahead impatiently. Ksmvr hastened after her as Rémi Canada captured the entire scene with the camera. The [Empress] stared ahead, frowning, riding faster.
“Each second we give them is another second of preparation, Vasraf. Illivere still lies at our backs. Forwards.”
“It will be a slaughter until we reach their lines. My Queen—you must stay behind.”
Vasraf urged her. He turned to Ksmvr, Leka Thri.
“If someone were to distract the Magic Throwers long enough—”
Ksmvr hesitated. He looked at Leka Thri, and the Garuda looked at Rémi, up towards the First of Judgement, and towards Nsiia and Vasraf. She met his gaze steadily, hands tight on her reins. Ksmvr looked at Spitty, who harrumphed and tried to twist his head around so he could nail Ksmvr in the face. The Antinium looked at Vasraf, at Nsiia, at the flying undead man…
The flying undead man stared at Ksmvr. Ksmvr stared at him, then at Nsiia. She stared at the [Vizir].
Leka Thri, Vasraf, and Rémi Canada all stared at Vizir Hecrelunn. The Revenant’s burning red eyes were locked on Ksmvr.
Vasraf had his bow raised. Hecrelunn muttered.
“Bug people. Hah!”
Ksmvr unsheathed his swords, but the [Vizir] shot upwards. The entire army slowed as they saw him shoot higher. Loquea Dree broke, circling around him like hunters, but the [Vizir] accelerated.
He was heading towards…Nsiia went pale.
“What was that? Some kind of Revenant?”
“Khelt’s—but how is it—he—here?”
The Vizir was flying ahead, towards the foothills around the monastery of Sottheim. And…Ksmvr stared.
Scaied’s army, entrenched in the foothills. They all gazed upwards, mouths opened as, for the second time, the [Vizir], a figure from Khelt’s ancient past, hovered in midair.
“Halt! Scaied will allow no one access to Sottheim!”
A [Mercenary General] shouted up at the [Vizir]. The Magic Throwers, strange artifacts that shot magic spells rather than objects, like a catapult, were training upwards.
Hecrelunn ignored them all. He reached for something in his bag of holding. His blood-red glare seemed to fix all those below him with a malevolence and rage that dried the tongue. Hecrelunn slowly unfolded a piece of paper.
Then he pulled out a pair of spectacles. He was missing his nose, so he held them in place. He peered down, and read.
“‘I hate scorpions.’”
Scaied’s people looked up at him, bewildered by this objectionable statement. The Vizir stared down at the next line.
“‘Therefore…I am the crazy Vizir.’ Who wrote this?”
He was so angry he was shaking. But the Revenant suddenly calmed. He crumpled up the piece of paper, then incinerated it. Then he removed the spectacles, tucked them away, and pointed.
“Enough. [Blood Lightning].”
A bolt of red lightning cracked downwards. The [General] was thrown clear off his Oisk Stinger. Scaied’s army stared in horror as the Vizir looked around.
“[Meteor Strike]. [Meteor Strike]—”
Ksmvr watched the first flaming comets hit the hills in the distance. Nsiia’s mouth was open in shock. The Revenant swept the hill as Tiqr’s army watched.
“What is he doing?”
“Why is he doing it?”
Leka Thri stood next to Ksmvr, staring at the [Vizir]. That crazy [Vizir]. You never knew what he’d do next. Ksmvr said nothing. He had the most pertinent question of all; though, he couldn’t know it.
As he laid Scaied’s army to waste, freeing the [Monks] of Sottheim…
Why did he look so annoyed?
The letter burned. Words lost.
But elsewhere, further north and amidst a close victory, Pisces Jealnet looked up by morning and saw…
It was simple. He stared up, and something smacked him in the face. Pisces recoiled—caught it, and stared at it.
Izreal corrected him. He reached up and caught more of the strange bread. Pisces just stared at him. The [Pilgrim of Faith] smiled.
Someone else was filling water from a stone. It bled water. Pisces rubbed at his eyes. The [Slaves] and [Bandits] watched.
Eloque’s eyes were wide, disbelieving. Merr was slapping her cheek—but it didn’t change what they saw.
“Behold his miracles! You may doubt. You may question. But what you see is the truth! Come with us and find salvation. You shall not thirst nor hunger, even in the Great Desert. Monsters shall not touch you, if you truly believe.”
Izreal stood and preached to them. Preached, as more miracles shone. The others, the People of Zeikhal, clasped their hands together.
He had seen it before. But not like this. This…Izreal had accepted nothing more than a bit of the gold, some artifacts—little provisions from the looted Glass Bazaar. He wanted little of it.
What he desired was something else, and he had it here. The freed [Slaves] looked at him as he walked among them.
“Not even Roshal shall find you there. We serve a master beyond any other. Beyond the King of Destruction. Beyond mere [Kings] and [Queens]. Come with us, and be free. All wounds shall be healed there.”
He rested a hand on Eloque’s shoulder. She jerked away, but Izreal’s words struck their mark time and time again.
Even to Pisces. He could not fathom what he saw, not truly. His ears rang and his mind…he felt sick and dizzy.
“It will pass. You will understand the truth if you accept it, believe. There is a book. A sacred text. Soon, there will be more. This is the beginning of true glory. Will you not come with us, Pisces Jealnet?”
Marrieh looked at him. Pisces half-shook his head.
“I must find my team. My friends. I have promised to lead these people…elsewhere.”
“Is it safer than where we are going?”
“The Great Desert? No. I don’t think so.”
Pisces smiled, but he couldn’t be condescending. Bread was still falling from the skies, and water from nothing? It was real food. Not even a cornucopia artifact…Marrieh smiled at him.
“You doubt. I will pray that you reconsider. Look up—is there anything you can claim is greater than this? Any magic? Any Skill? This is the work of our Lord. This is…”
She hesitated. Frowned. Pisces had seen it too. Merr broke off her enraptured staring and snapped.
The [Slaves] ran backwards, shouting in alarm. The People of Zeikhal turned, surprised. Pisces recoiled—then stared upwards.
He dove, leaping sideways, and the first gilded chest smacked into the ground in front of him. Another popped out of the air, and Marrieh ran as it went whumph into the sand and dirt.
Three more popped out of the air and hit the ground around Pisces. He picked himself up and stared upwards. No more attack-boxes emerged from the sky.
“That was—what was that? That was no Skill. Not even the [Prophet]…”
Marrieh was staring nervously at the chests. They were all rich, properly gilded boxes of sculpted, polished wood. Pisces stood up.
“That was no Skill. That was a teleportation spell. But what…?”
“Pisces! Get back! They could be attack Mimics! Or about to explode!”
Merr hollered at him. Pisces hesitated. He was of the same mind, but he thought he knew what they were.
But how? He had one idea. Yet this didn’t seem like Az’kerash’s style. He was about to retreat and have Ivery open a box when he saw something fluttering on top of the first one.
It had, in big, bold handwriting…his heart leapt.
The young man slowly reached out, grabbed the note, and retreated. He unfolded it, ready to drop it if it contained a hostile spell. But it had no magic. Just words.
Izreal and the others had clustered around to see what was going on. Merr jogged over as Pisces read the note. Eloque, Bearig, Qshom, and Rophir came too.
They saw the young man blink—then turn dead white. He nearly dropped the note, then clutched it to his chest. Stared at the chests.
“Pisces? What is…?”
Slowly, the young man walked over to one of the chests of holding and opened it. Everyone gasped as they saw it was laden with sacks of neatly-packed, high-quality food. A second had armor, weapons. A third? Potions and scrolls.
“Someone sent it to us. To me.”
That was Pisces’ only answer. Izreal’s look of simple pride and conviction faltered for a moment. He stared at Pisces.
“Is that the work of your…this other believer?”
He glanced uncertainly at Marrieh, then Pisces. The [Necromancer] turned. He blinked at Izreal, and then, to the man’s surprise, smiled. He laughed and read the note again.
“No. Not my master or lord. Someone…sillier.”
The blank look Izreal gave him, of sheer uncomprehending stupefaction, was so familiar. Pisces read the note again.
It was the wrong handwriting. Perfectly legible. But…he held it carefully. It was a short message. Rambling, slightly incoherent, and entirely confusing. It was the end he read, again and again. Something that Eloque and Merr, peeking over his shoulders, couldn’t understand. Why did he have tears in his eyes?
I’m not dead, only chilling. Don’t die on me, I have to serve you pasta again.
It was simply signed—
Pisces Jealnet looked up at the sky.
Author’s Note: I’m reaching the end of a year of writing. It’s…taxing. I will have to take my end-of-year break. I mentioned that.
I am also taking a break off instead of next chapter. The reason is secret. I am not taking a break from writing—though I could use it. No, I’m, uh, doing something.
That involves typing.
Which I can’t tell you about—yet. But if all goes well, I can at least begin hinting after this Saturday. Who knows? It’s the kind of thing that you would probably like to hear about. Some of you’s may have been even demanding it.
But that’s all I can say. I’ll leave it there. Look forwards to nothing—and then something. I may drop a hint only on Patreon, or in the Tuesday chapter. Who knows? Even I don’t. I’m playing it by ear, but just know that the chapter off will be put to good use. Think hard on why, and hopefully you like this chapter.
We’re moving fast, but I hope you’re enjoying at least some of it. Thanks for reading and see you on the 21st!
Artsynada is doing a December calendar! Here are days 1-14. Check out the Discord to keep up with it! It’s cute!
Ksmvr of Chandrar and Ksmvr…with Ylawes’ hair…of Chandrar!
Fetohep by Brack!