8.59 H

If you hadn’t heard of her, you weren’t from this continent.

Or you were deaf. Her songs were on every young person’s lips. They were played in royal courts and pubs.

They called her the Singer of Terandria. Her class was [Popstar].

Her name was Cara O’Sullivan.

She looked down from the moving, decorated stage upon which she stood—the top of a caravan wagon, a guardrail cleverly disguised behind illusion magic that made it seem like she stood on a far larger stage, a light shining on her, red curtains hanging out of dark skies.

There were fireworks and roaring flames. Magical light shows and a back up dance crew, who were entirely fictional. She walked under a rainbow and tossed a golden flower into a crowd of cheering fans, who fought for it with a savagery any [Street Fighter] would be appalled by.

Singer of Terandria. Cara, to her friends.

She had many names. But the truth was that few people knew her. She had a story of her own, but as she slowly rode into Ailendamus’ palace, singing, the focus of attention, amusement, disgust, and fascination by all—

Ryoka Griffin knew her. She looked up at the young woman who winked behind her colorful, dyed hair, the facade that came with glitz, glamor—a copy of the very same phenomenon from her world.

She knew Cara. What she didn’t know was that Cara knew her.

The Singer locked eyes with batman for one moment, then threw her head back with a spray of sparkling lights. Just for a moment—before she continued into her show-stopper, and her band picked up the beat once more.

Not Batman, the highly renowned, mentally unstable, fictional superhero who may or may not exist given the metaphysics of multiple realities—but ‘batman’. The handle of a user in a chat session that had influenced…everything that followed.

So she really is here.

That was what the Singer thought, in a clinically detached manner. Her body moved, walking her back behind a magical curtain.

Aaron was right.

Blackmage. She’d seen Ryoka—on Izril. Now she was here. Why? Why Ailendamus? Well, the location was answer enough. So, as the crowd grew silent, and the music fell low, Cara stared at her band. She tapped her clothing—and the illusion magic changed her. Cara, the Queen of Pop, the Baroness of the Beat, the Siren of Songs—

—‘Humble Actor’ as she was known to a few people in chat—

—Glanced up inquisitively. She met the eyes of her [Drummer], Thien. The young man raised his brows. He was actually playing. He was ready.

Greg was waving at the crowd. Rae, on the bass, glared. The [Performer], Greg, played as well as Cara did—and his part was covered by the music. But he needed to look the part. He started, looked at Cara guiltily, and flushed.

The rest of the band eyed Cara, and their tempo changed. They’d been playing straight, classic pop songs, the kind of stuff meant for huge crowds and concerts. It had been going well, despite this being a huge entry into a nation they’d never played in before.

Six stops, six shows. All paid for by the crown’s purse, and with exceptional comfort and the adoration of Ailendamus’ people—who hadn’t ever seen the Singer, only heard her song crystals.

They’d been asking her to perform in Ailendamus for months. Never ‘begging’—one didn’t beg. They insisted, offering Abebi, her [Manager], more and more.

Cara had never considered accepting.

She’d been surprised they even wanted her after her music video, but the people in charge must not have studied their recent history or missed her in it. However—

The times were a-changing. And with Cara’s new garb—it was time to change things up. She could keep playing the best of the yearly hits from Earth—after all, she had every song ever written to draw on as the Singer of Terandria.

But pop? The Singer sighed. This mattered. No matter what happened next, she was still the [Popstar] of Terandria.

She had to make an entrance. So she adjusted her hat. Straightened her blazer.

The hat was a fedora, incidentally. Cara glanced left, and one of the non-Earthers nodded. A half-Elf with dyed hair and a similar suit to hers checked himself, tapped his shoes together, and nodded.

Retihome was a real [Singer], a [Bard of the Voice]. He had two friends, who looked nervous—an apprentice and a female [Singer] who could adapt to Cara’s music—and had even sought Cara out.

I need better performers. Thien can barely keep up. Greg’s an idiot. Rae’s got no stage presence.

They were doing their best, but only the advent of lip-syncing and Cara’s own presence kept the performance from seeming artificial. That—and her habit of introducing a new music advent every month.

If you were going to steal every song and claim it as your own, you might as well do it right.

As the curtains rose, the audience—including no less than Queen Oiena, the Wind Runner, nobles, and several influential leaders of state—started when they saw Cara.

The cheering audience let out gasps of expectation and curiosity. Cara O’Sullivan almost forgot the last bit, but she worked it into her walk from behind the curtains. She fished out a pair of dark, wide glasses.

Spectacles. But the glass was colored wrong. It was dark brown, not clear. She put them over her eyes, smiling a pearly-white grin that oozed confidence. Her crew, Retihome, the two other [Singers], and a pair of [Performers] who were as musical as a sneeze in a bucket all followed her out.

They were all dressed the same way, in dark pants and colorful blazers. They also had the strange apparel on. And hats.

Cara strode out, singing Uptown Funk by Bruno Mars—with slightly adjusted lyrics. She blew a kiss to a half-Giant, whose mouth was so open it could have swallowed a pumpkin. Cara winked at a crowd of [Ladies] staring at the woman in a man’s suit—and began to dance.

 

——

 

Ailendamus went wild. With scandal. With shock!

They had never seen someone dance like this. No one—except perhaps the Lord of the Dance himself, Belchaus Meron, understood dancing could evolve.

That it could be solo, fast—performative. There were fast dances, there were plenty of performative dances—ballroom dancing in Terandria was an art.

This though…it was so many different ideas combined at once that it was like an alien performing.

Ryoka was trying to keep track of it all. The aspect of modern-day celebrities. Wild hair colors, a concert-like stage with illusions that even Earth lacked. Progressive dance. Hints—no, a distinctly flirtatious attitude that disregarded gender and clothing and the behavior of traditional Terandria.

Oh—and she could sing.

“What the f—”

Ryoka had no idea what was happening. She had just been outsmarted by Rhisveri, seen the object she had risked it all for going on auction—

And then here came the Singer of Terandria with the steel chair! Ryoka just gaped up at her. In that way, she fit right in with some of Cara’s audience.

She had the distinct impression the Singer was looking at her, but then—she was performing to everyone. Her caravan came to a stop and the [Singer] came down a ramp, dancing with her backup crew.

Then she stopped as the song ended, breathing hard, sweat beaded on her brow. Her hair was a light purple, waving after her every time she tossed her head. Under her hat, it was piled up, but now she took the hat off, skimmed it into the crowd—someone did a flying leap and caught it—and shook her hair out.

Her eyes glinted as she grabbed one of her props. Ryoka kept staring as Cara raised the microphone to her mouth. It was actually enchanted. The painted piece of wood magnified her voice.

Ladies and gentlemen! Lovely people of Ailendamus and my shining stars—it is my honor to come to the Kingdom of Glass and Glory! I am Cara, known as the Singer of Terandria.

She stopped, because the roar of delighted voices nearly drowned out all hearing. Young women and men, from [Servants] to commonfolk to—Ryoka noticed—some of the nobility, were crowding closer, blocked off by big security guard-types.

…Big, but not necessarily tall. A young man waving an autograph slip tried to jump at Cara and was checked at groin-height by a Dwarf’s arm. Half the shoving crowd—the male half—took one look at the Dwarf and the curled up ball of pain and decided to try and push past the other guards instead.

Cara went on, seemingly oblivious to that, but also looking around, meeting all eyes. She bowed low, in a stylistic bow like a [Courtier], one arm held wide. Ryoka started—

And realized Cara was staring straight at Queen Oiena. The [Queen], who was coincidentally standing right next to Ryoka Griffin.

“Your Majesty, it is my honor to stand in your presence. I hope I will not disturb the peace as I perform for the next two weeks across the capital. It has been a week beyond compare, touring through Ailendamus’ rich lands and happy people!”

Queen Oiena smiled and raised one hand, but didn’t speak. Cara’s words seemed perfectly calculated to gain the approval of even the people frowning at this singing raccoon with painted lips and dyed hair.

With a twinkle in her eyes, Cara stepped back and tapped her head with the microphone, like it was a wand.

A shimmer of what looked like someone’s idea of fairy dust, instead of the real thing—which was probably pepper spray if Ryoka knew Ivolethe—drifted down around her. Her clothing shimmered—then the suit turned into a long, flowing dress very much in the ruffles and layered ballgown style.

Cara wore the light green and rich purples of Ailendamus’ national colors. She took a deep breath—and, suddenly, the impish cheer in her face was gone. She was, in a second, no longer the cheerful, humble performer, but a dignified [Singer].

“It is now my pleasure to conclude our opening performance with an ode to Ailendamus, great kingdom of the world! I shall now, with all due respect, sing the national anthem.”

Her band struck up a subdued performance of trumpets and woodworks. Ryoka’s lips moved as Cara, straight-faced, looked up as a spotlight trained on her.

“Oh no. The anthem?

Queen Oiena murmured. Even some of the guests who’d heard it multiple times hesitated. Because the anthem, glorious, fitting to Ailendamus—

Didn’t exactly fit with, uh…it was…

It was patriotic.

Yet Cara O’Sullivan began the first lyrics straight-faced, singing loud and clear and amazingly—Oiena’s jaw dropped next to Ryoka’s—

Sincerely.

Let the lance-arrows fall from Ailendamus walls and guard the Kingdom of Glass and Glory/Until my dying breath, from sea to glorious sea—Ailendamus, the only Kingdom of Terandria for me~”

Ryoka’s face went through an amazing change any [Alchemist] would have been amazed to see as she listened to the words. Someone had written this. Someone—she suspected Rhisveri—had commissioned a song entirely in line with Terandrian ideals. And so it had just classic lines.

“…To protect crown and people, every [Knight] stands true. A [Soldier] I shall be, or if a [Farmer] be my calling, to my part I shall do~”

Terrible. Bearable if you were singing it in great concert or for formal occasions, but after a pop song and dance number?

Yet she sang it so well. With such sincerity, tears coming to stand in the corners of her eyes, that you might actually wonder if she had been born of Ailendamus and was coming home. Some of the older people watching made a gesture across their chests and stared up at the waving flag overhead.

Someone kill me.

Ryoka Griffin longed for death, yet the moment was made bearable by looking at Cara. Trying to figure out why she was here. Her music video. Her warning…Rhisveri had invoked Oberon, and Queen Oiena was angry about the [Knights].

It was looking like an average Ryoka week.

 

——

 

Cara O’Sullivan finished singing to wild applause. Not just for the singing or the nod to Ailendamus’ ego. You had to applaud someone with the courage to sing that with such genuine emotion.

She bowed, and her security swept around her, refusing autographs. There would be time, later, later! She was staying at least two weeks, after all! For now, the approving [Chamberlain] was very satisfied with the entrance and attention—which had been captured on a spell for playback across the nation.

Cara saw Abebi hurry forwards to get everyone settled, as Greg tried to reach past the security to grab a folded piece of parchment. She resisted the urge to kick him into the fans and kept her eyes ahead, bowing slightly to the [Queen], who walked forwards to speak to her.

She was good at her job. Which was her class. [Popstar]—but that was like [Singer]. A general class. All the details were Cara’s. And so was the other class, hidden by the ring on her finger.

You’d never know unless she told you about her other class.

[Thespian].

An actor’s class. She was so good, in fact, she had sung Ailendamus’ national song without seeming disingenuous. Cara never looked at Ryoka, but ‘batman’ had seen her, and that was enough for today.

She was so good that no one even suspected how much she hated this kingdom. Cara raised her head and thought of her friend. Trapped under siege.

Words she would never say here for the connection they’d bring. She stared up at that hated flag.

Her friend, and a place. Two places, but the first? Cara looked up and held them in her chest until she did what she had come here to do.

Seraphel.

Seraphel and Afiele.

 

——

 

“I hate her. You understand why, don’t you? Her—I have many enemies—but her I will hurt, in some way, some how. I will bring the Empress of Tiqr down to grovel in front of me, but this? This is even more personal. You can see what she’s done to me, can’t you?”

Ceria Springwalker sat in the palanquin rolling on a wave of water across Savere’s roads. She was chewing—predictably—on food.

Raider Rations, Savere’s specialty—which were misnamed because that implied they were bad. Some were, but Savere’s employed a delicate mince of crab meat mixed with sardines and other catch, flatbread crumb, sometimes stale, but in this case higher-quality, seasonings from the port, which imported any you could want, egg, and mustard, which was for some reason a top-level condiment here.

It was then sautéed in Ferfish oil, a plentiful oil that tasted a bit nutty when you fed the fish…nuts…in the fisheries. Ceria had eaten eight. Revine eyed her as the Ice Squirrel chomped down on more, reaching for a processed, little fish cake that was also enjoyed as a snack.

“I…don’t get it.”

Revine Zecrew glared. She pointed at the scrying orb.

Her! Her! Don’t you see?”

Ceria eyed the Singer of Terandria.

“…Is it the hat?”

“No! Don’t you know what she calls herself?”

“The Singer of Terandria?”

Revine was practically frothing at the mouth.

The Siren of Songs! She took my name! Half the Mage’s Guilds ask if I am referring to the Siren of Songs rather than the Siren of Savere! I have had that title for—and she took it and she is claiming it! It isn’t even her main title!

The palanquin, which was gold and styled with Savere’s heraldry, was really comfortable. Plush, silk pillows, a place to recline and cast magic from—

And it was enchanted against arrows and a lot of hostile spells. It wasn’t just a fancy conveyance; any chance ambush would quickly realize Revine could sit in it and blast you to bits with water while her army chopped you up.

Her army, incidentally, got to ride or march around it. [Rogues] and [Bandits] stared up enviously at the two riding along. The wave of water supported the massive vehicle and seamlessly carried them forwards.

Ceria chewed down her bite.

“I think I get it. Huh.”

Revine stared at her.

“You don’t share my opinion?”

“I don’t think she meant to anger you, Revine. Frankly—and I know this is going to sting—I don’t think she knows you exist.”

The Siren twitched. Ceria glanced up, fingers frozen on a pink fish cake.

“Uh—I only mean that in the sense of—”

For once her enhanced intelligence let her down. Because what Ceria saw and instantly placed in the camp of ‘Kevin-weirdness’ or ‘Erin-phenomena’…had made her forget her audience. Revine inhaled and spoke one trembling word.

“Out.”

 

——

 

Omusc, riding on a wagon and playing cards as she felt at her regrowing flesh, heard a whump, a shout—she turned her head in time to see a half-Elf go flying as a jet of water hit her. She flew like a screaming brick and landed flat on her back with a thump. Omusc saw Ceria stare up at the sky, then, dazedly, up at her as the [Pillager] rolled by. One of the [Bandits] eyed her.

“…You sure that’s the same person who wasted two dozen [Pirates] and [Raiders] last night?”

Omusc carefully stole a card from the top of the deck and hid her bad card in her armpit as she went to scratch it.

“Believe it. Someone haul her up. And hide the snacks. She’ll eat every fucking thing.”

 

——

 

They were moving. Savere’s ‘Army of Waves’ had returned to the capital—just long enough to see off some [Pirates]. They’d had to leave a garrison, but the port had been cleared.

Most importantly? The ships were out of the port. The Bloodtear Pirates had left. Not as cheerfully since they did leave, but with more rueful shrugs than gnashing of teeth.

They’d made a play and failed. They hadn’t paid much in blood, and they had still gotten to wipe out most of a land-gang. There had still been sixteen full crews—but with five at sea, the army inbound, the [Pirate Captains] had taken a look at Ceria and the Siren—

And the Alchemist, Irurx, who dined with the two the next day.

They came to a reluctant conclusion and shipped off. No fuss, no drama.

 

——

 

“You made an enemy of Ereiyne. She won’t forget that.”

Captain Aldrail had grinned down at Ceria as Gorry blew her a kiss. She looked up at him and Jiupe’s ship, which lingered at port. Behind them, the port gates were closing to a half-opening.

It changed the way the water flowed and lapped around Savere’s port. More importantly? Ships could come in and out, but only in single-file, and not as fast, because the currents were artificially slowed.

So, if you were an armada, you’d have a hard time sweeping into port suddenly. Most importantly—the gates could be shut, in which case you’d be trying to knock them down while Savere held out in a siege.

That was how they acted when the Siren left. Which freed her to march.

Where, though? Why now?

Well…

The Ice Squirrel was wet. She sat, dripping, on the wagon, as the other [Bandits] stared at the fuming Siren. Every now and then she’d blast the air with precious water.

“She’s still mad as a scorpion with its stinger up its own arse. What happened?”

“The Singer of Terandria’s on the news.”

“Oh.”

The [Enforcement Raider], Abelesque, winced and picked up a card. She scowled at it, then her face went blank. She glanced around and the other [Bandits] sighed. They were an unscrupulous lot, who liked to play cards because you could level if you swindled, cheated, or just stole each other’s cards. It was rare, but someone had once leveled twice from the most dastardly, underhanded theft of a 200 gold pot. It was a legend in Savere.

…Mind you, it had been a [Thug] who, after unsuccessfully trying to steal a few cards, had kicked her opponent and grabbed her cards in the dustup and hid them up her sleeve.

Even so, Abelesque, who had many important qualities as a leader and [Raider]…had no card face. So even Savere’s worst rogues felt playing with her was a bit…well, it felt wrong to take her money all day and night.

Like stealing from a baby. Who did that? If they were holding a diamond, sure, but candy? Buy some. You want something covered in saliva? Dead gods.

They were headed to battle. Ceria? Omusc murmured to her as she leaned over. The two were sitting together, and Ceria was being dealt in.

“So you’re working with us now, huh? You’re part of the crew. Technically, I guess you’re the boss. Want me to stop calling you Ice Squirrel?”

The half-Elf calmly shielded her cards from the friendly [Pillager]. They hadn’t spoken long about Ceria saving Omusc’s life. But they didn’t need to. All of Savere remembered. The other [Bandits] walking or riding along kept staring at Ceria, even the ones who were regular army veterans.

She looked like she wasn’t wearing the circlet. But who would believe that? Ceria brushed at her hair and smiled around. Her poker face was the stuff of legends. So bland…one of the [Bandits] saw her motion for the bowl of cheaper fish cakes and reluctantly passed it around.

“Nah. It’s temporary. The Siren and I have come to an arrangement. I help her—she helps find my friends. One of them is with a [Bandit Lady] she knows. We’re splitting work. Got a problem with that?”

Omusc grinned.

“You’re the boss’ best friend right now, boss. Just tell us who to stab and keep us rolling in gold.”

“Hah! How about coppers?”

The [Bandits] laughed. They watched Ceria. Damn, she really did have a poker face like—

The half-Elf reached up, detached her face—Abelesque went over the wagon’s side with a shout of horror as she sprang up—and removed the mask of ice. She grabbed a handful of fish cakes, popped them into her mouth, then fit the mask back over her face. Only then did she look around.

“What? I know you’re cheating. Fold.”

Only then did Omusc and a [Rogue] glance around and see the little mirror of ice reflecting the cards on the lip of the wagon. It melted as Omusc whistled. She leaned over the edge of the wagon.

Hey! Get the gambling bitches up here! You know them! All the cheating bastards. We’re playing a high-level game!

Savere’s army reformed as [Conwomen], card sharks with various high-level classes, [Gamblers], and so on walked out of the crowd. The kind of people who no one was willing to play with for money. Or even peanuts.

Of course, the rules were that if you got caught, you got the shit kicked out of you. But that was the fun. Savere moved with raucous laughter, chaos, and a rapidly-diminishing snack pool. The Siren fumed, but she looked ahead.

Nsiia. Nsiia and…well. Ceria’s friends. Not that Revine was a fool, but Ceria was amazingly practical, and the half-Elf was changed for all she had not. She aimed for Nsiia; Ceria’s team was secondary, but they’d meet if the Siren found Nsiia. As for what came next?

They’d negotiate when it came to that. After all—the Siren had an army.

 

——

 

The procession that left Tyrant’s Rest was the stuff of stories. One of Nerrhavia’s Grand Armies was forming, and that meant days of celebration.

Each city they traversed along the wide, well-kept, Djinni-maintained roads would throw open their gates and celebrate the passing of one of Nerrhavia’s greatest hordes.

Stitch-folk marched to the cheers of hundreds of thousands of admirers. Even the Hemp got their day in the sun, wearing burnished armor and bearing proud spears under the flag of Nerrhavia’s Fallen.

It was not just patriotism; the riders on the chariots would toss coins, and trinkets from the capital would be given out. Food would be placed along the procession-ways, and it was like a festival.

Not that all of it gathered from Tyrant’s Rest alone, of course. A muster for a Grand Army meant that each city that was contributing a contingent to the army would have this kind of procession—speeches—and march to link up with the main horde.

It was masterful organization, even if you disagreed with the rest of it. Nerrhavia could raise many armies in this way, as they only drew from the garrisons or waiting soldiers of multiple cities lightly to form a giant force. Indeed, as the army passed by each city, it would do an incredible amount of business. Also, leave quite a lot of babies—broken stalls and furniture from fights—and a certain amount of chaos in its wake.

Nevertheless. It had begun. Ironically, at this moment, the very two people this Grand Army was meant to escort were not…with…the procession riding through the first city on their route.

General Thelican of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, appointed to this great task by the [Queen] herself, had set out on the day it had been announced. That was because an army—even an army boosted by multiple Skills marching down a paved road—was slower than those on horseback.

“[We March Under Friendly Skies]!”

“[Swift Infantry]!”

“[Maintain the Pace]!”

Multiple [Strategists] and experts in the simple art of getting to one place quickly—[March Commanders]—were hastening his army’s progress. Thelican rode, an arm raised as the people gazed up at one of the greatest figures in their kingdom with awe.

Internally, he was less sanguine. He was returning to Tiqr, which had not been a pleasant campaign in the least. Mind you, the elephants were dead…which was good, because the veterans of that campaign might well break and flee rather than fight a thousand rampaging Grand Elephants again, Nerrhavia Fallen’s honor or no.

Yet what really bothered Thelican wasn’t the location, but the decision itself. The thing was…he leaned over his saddle and murmured to one of his companions.

“[Tome Magus] Irwhil. Did you have a chance to ask Her Majesty’s inner court or anyone else on the Council of Steel about the formation of this army?”

The [Mage] riding next to him was the lead spellcaster attached to this army. In this case, he was also a figure of note instead of being just a [War Mage]; Yisame wanted no effort spared, so she had commanded one of the Tome Magi of the Hundred Thousand Tomes Academy to aid Thelican.

His exact rank was Spellcaster Selendia—a term that meant he had permission to cast magic in the royal palace. In practice? He was as important as a lesser [General], an important ally to have in the courts.

Especially for a man like Thelican, who had both ambition and need of magically-capable allies. Irwhil had been his first choice to share in any glory and as a trustworthy ally.

A Grand Army, for a grand occasion. But Irwhil’s face was as…confused…as Thelican’s as the two rode together. The [Mage] cast an illusion to make it seem like both were still waving and smiling.

“I did not. From what I saw, even the [Spymaster] was astonished. The [Chancellor of Coin]? Perhaps it was that bastard who…?”

“No, I talked with him briefly. Maybe it was the [First Diplomat]? The…I think it must be Queen Yisame herself who ordered it.”

The two exchanged a look of frank amazement. Nerrhavia Fallen’s courts were highly complex. Thelican tapped at his painted lips.

Why would she not only offend the powerful Quarein family, a royal family who was as close to the throne as any by supporting the poor Isphel house, let alone form a Grand Army and pledge it to save a few adventurers? No matter they were famous—

This was not how Yisame normally did things.

She was a clever woman. She had ascended in the bloodbath of a civil war and survived because she understood how to rule a nation like this. Which was by staying clear of political fallout.

Consider most wars. Obviously, the one with Flos was an exception, but despite individual defeats, the onus of failure did not usually fall on Yisame—nor for costly economic projects that failed.

Because she did not propose them. She was carefully neutral, and let those who clutched at ambition rise or fall. Thelican knew Yisame as a savvy, cunning leader with a viper’s reflexes—politically—who would strike at you if you bared your fangs. A generous ruler otherwise.

With peculiar tastes running towards sharp edges, or so he had heard. But what ruler didn’t have…interests? Thelican carefully collected such information and never used it since there was little point. No, he had high ambitions, but Yisame’s seat was too high, even for him. The throne was a precarious place to be.

So why did she pledge armies to Yvlon Byres? Irwhil was clearly wondering the same thing.

“It must be that someone petitioned her to do so and we do not know about it. Either that or…”

Or she is aware of something we are not. Thelican didn’t like that, but the [Queen] did have the [Spymaster] on her side. Mind you, the [Spymaster] had his own plans, but he was still subservient to the crown. Yet Yisame had her own networks…

Thelican snapped his fingers, eyes widening, as they passed by some giant peacocks whose radiant feathers were collected into massive fans. He ignored the proffered gift of one luxuriant feather.

“Of course!”

Irwhil looked at him. Thelican leaned over and whispered urgently.

“It’s obvious, Irwhil. Don’t think of this as a simple gesture to the adventurers. It’s so obvious I should have seen it at the time. Why would one form a Grand Army and send it west?

The [Tome Magus] thought, then his eyes widened.

“You mean…?”

Thelican was nodding, smiling with relief as he saw Yisame’s grand plan.

“That fool got herself captured by Pomle. The [Martial Artists] are strong. I can well imagine they might put up a long fight against our garrisons, Nerrhavia’s might or no. Why would one want a costly, protracted war of humiliation? Not least—the Empress of Beasts has joined the damned [Monks]. She’s becoming more than a nuisance. Thanks to that insane Vizir. Did you hear he wiped out Scaied’s forces just because he hated scorpions?

Irwhil shook his head.

“Khelt’s madness. I agree—the entire region has the potential to rapidly destabilize. Just today, I heard that Savere was moving. So Illivere and Savere are chasing after the Empress of Beasts…”

“Really? Then Queen Yisame must have known that. Multiple nations—the Magus Crafter is a sensible man, but he’s made too many blunders. I’ll be appropriately restrained with him, but Savere? Multiple nations, Irwhil, getting ahead of themselves. That’s what this Grand Army is for. Pomle, Tiqr, and reuniting this famous team, just to put the last diamond on top of the treasure pile.”

“Astonishing.”

The [Tome Magus] breathed. Thelican nodded several times. No wonder Yisame had personally risked her capital on this. He sighed.

“At least we’ll be taking credit for the victories. I’ll send word to the garrisons to procure the right troops for these battles. Gird your loins for some fighting, Irwhil. It won’t be easy—but this army will be larger than the one that took Tiqr.”

The [Tome Magus] nodded.

“I’ll make an appointment with the next [Weaver].”

Thelican glanced at him—then the two exploded into laughter. They’d have a drink tonight. To success and glory! And Queen Yisame’s bold cunning.

 

——

 

Armies on the move. A Nerrhavian force swelling with each day. The Siren in pursuit.

And…Tiqr.

A beaten army, partially replenished, leveled up from fighting, it was true, but hardly earthshaking. In dire need of inspiration, support…and a hammer to replace their lost vanguard, the [Elephant Riders].

That hammer stood before them now. One of the scariest forces on Chandrar. Warriors of an older time, who had risen to fame under another [King]’s banner.

The King of Destruction’s allies.

The Monks of Sottheim.

…Ksmvr didn’t think they looked like much. The Antinium was still staring at the smoldering foothills and abandoned positions of Scaied’s army. They had literally fled the field, and the Magic Throwers were ruined. In fact, Vasraf’s forces were seeing if any could be salvaged.

“So that is the power of a high-level [Mage].”

Ksmvr decided that his team needed to invest in anti-meteor protective spells. That, or find a way to fly. He would look into it. Maybe a flying carpet?

He turned his attention back to the moment of the hour—which was Empress Nsiia greeting the leader of the Monks of Sottheim.

“[Abbot] Shurein. I greet you in Tiqr’s name, and offer you water and the bounties of my kingdom—such as they remain. It is an honor to lay eyes on you once more, especially in these dark times. I hope you will forgive my sudden appearance. Nor—do I think—you wonder why I have come.”

The [Abbot] was a calm, older man. Bald, straight-backed, dressed in a simple robe of decaying red fabric, and he seemed…Ksmvr peered at him.

Withered? Thin? He was a Stitch-Man, but his thread was clearly in decay, and his skin had the look of a raisin or something left out for a long time. He was very thin—all the [Monks] were—but not necessarily malnourished. Just…no fat whatsoever.

They had been under siege for nearly a year, yet Ksmvr didn’t see signs of extreme starvation. Perhaps these were the best fed?

Yet…that wasn’t what was interesting. Ksmvr eyed the man’s sun-darkened skin. His bald head. Then his bare feet, standing in the baking sand that was so deadly Ksmvr had to wear a huge hat and enchanted cloak.

Not only that—he had a huge halberd he’d planted in the sand. It was practically covered in rust, and Ksmvr suspected that if you removed the rust, you removed the blade itself. It was so thin and worn that he was amazed the wind wasn’t snapping it.

Same for the old, old wood haft. The other [Monks] behind the [Abbot] bore weapons just as old. A bowstring that looked like it might snap with every shot, a shield with two holes visible through the rust…

The [Monks] of Sottheim did not have good equipment. Yet Tiqr’s warriors looked at them with great respect.

Ksmvr…also felt something. Which was a sense that if he drew his swords and charged them—he would regret it. The [Monks] might be thin, underequipped, and had been contained by Scaied for months, but there was a reason the Kingdom of Scorpions hadn’t just wiped them out.

They were dangerous. So not withered, Ksmvr decided.

Tough. They felt tough, and the [Abbot]’s callused hands were that of a warrior. He placed them together now and bowed before Nsiia.

“Empress, this day is mildly astonishing. You, we expected. That Revenant? No. For a moment, I thought none other than Amerys had returned—but I forget myself. I am chatty, after so many months of silence. I accept Tiqr’s graciousness gladly. Let us speak and sit. Outside Sottheim; we have little left within. Another four months, and we would have sallied out for lack of food. I would have regretted the slaughter.”

Whose slaughter? Ksmvr saw the [Abbot] glance at him and felt a keen presence behind those mild eyes. He saw the other [Monks] bow and walk forwards.

“Let us break bread, then. Abbot, first I must introduce you to a great ally of mine. He who rescued me in bondage. A Gold-rank Adventurer. Ksmvr of the Horns of Hammerad. You know my [Wild General], Vasraf. This is Seelaw Ya, First of Judgment of the Loquea Dree tribe, and Leka Thri. Rémi Canada, a [Journalist], stands yonder, to record all that passes. Lastly, Domehead and Yinah, two young companions.”

The [Abbot] looked from astonishing person to astonishing person, a completely odd assortment of people. All he did was raise his brows.

“Interesting. First of Judgment, two of the King of Destruction’s old vassals meet. This is a fascinating day.”

He bowed, politely, as the tall crow-Garuda greeted him. Ksmvr was impressed. He didn’t think the [Abbot] was hiding surprise.

The [Monks] were setting up with some old rugs and coverings with Vasraf’s people, making a tiny enclosure with a canopy so they could rest and talk. They offered their food as Vasraf ordered the best foodstuffs brought out. Ksmvr stared at the [Monks]’ contribution to the pile.

“Is that all you have left?”

Even Rémi Canada was astonished. He stared at a bag of clearly-aged grain, some Yellats—more vegetables that looked relatively recent, but enough to feed…about six Cerias.

That was apparently enough to feed all the [Monks] who sat outside the canopy in the baking sand, which were exactly eighty-three in number. One was cooking the grain in a simple pot over a fire.

[Abbot] Shurein smiled as he watched the others sit. Like his people, he sat in the hot sand without appearing to notice it. He accepted some water in a cup from Nsiia herself, but refused the rich cut of meat. Nsiia looked unperturbed and offered it to Seelaw Ya. She picked up a second bowl and found a cat had taken it.

“Yinah! That is for guests!”

“Do you wish sustenance, [Abbot]? I am Ksmvr, as Nsiia indicated. You must be hungry.”

The [Abbot] saw Ksmvr carefully offer his food. Once again he shook his head.

“You are kind, Ksmvr. However, my people are satisfied with what we have brought. I, like the other [Monks], have taken a vow—I will not eat rich foods. Nor do I need to.”

Indeed, Ksmvr saw the [Monks] were calmly chewing down on a tiny bowl of porridge mixed with the scant vegetables. The only thing they did take from their hosts was water.

Some of Vasraf’s people looked as dismayed as Ksmvr, but the [Monks] seemed quite content. Vasraf, Nsiia, and even Seelaw Ya and Leka Thri acted like this was to be expected.

“You must tell us all. We were cut off from news, so all I know is that the King of Destruction wakes. Does he still live? I expected him before you, Empress. You say these are dark days for Tiqr? And how comes an Antinium—I can only believe it is one of the Antinium—to Chandrar’s shores?”

The [Abbot] ate his pitiful portion as Nsiia sat opposite him in the shade, on a rug. He really didn’t know anything of what had passed, and listened intently.

He didn’t speak much either. All the [Abbot] did when Nsiia told him of Tiqr’s fall was sigh. When he heard the King of Destruction was besieged in Reim, he shrugged.

“I see.”

That’s all? Ksmvr was incredulous. The [Abbot] noticed his stare and smiled.

“We would have had difficulty reaching Reim in time to begin with. Sottheim cannot be abandoned; he will come to us, or some would march to him if the siege were lifted. That is what we decided, but I wished to know if he had the will to return. Your arrival and request, Empress, is far more interesting. Scaied is neighbor to Tiqr, and the fall of Tiqr is tragic indeed.”

Some of the other [Monks] nodded. The [Abbot] sat, cross-legged. He lowered his head and closed his eyes in deep thought for about ten seconds. Then he looked up.

“Sottheim will march with Tiqr. We will not wait for another siege, nor the King of Destruction. My people—half of us will go to war. Prepare yourselves and choose whether you will go or stay. Those that leave may never return. Empress of Beasts, I will request a second Sottheim be permitted in your lands if we take your kingdom. Is that fair?”

Nsiia exhaled slowly. Her hands, which had tightened on her bowl and chopsticks, relaxed.

“It is, Abbot. You have my deepest gratitude.”

He shrugged and smiled.

“It is what I believe is best. We will be ready within an hour’s time.”

Ksmvr exchanged a look with Domehead. Even the Golem’s dome-lights were blinking in confusion. The Abbot stood, and so did the [Monks], some of whom lined up after him. Ready to go. Possessions? Check. Ready to fight in a war? Check.

Ksmvr decided the Antinium could learn something from the Monks of Sottheim. He liked this [Abbot] indeed.

 

——

 

Alright, what was up with the Monks of Sottheim? They were indeed ready to go in forty minutes, and nearly six thousand [Monks] lined up outside of Sottheim.

Sottheim was a vast monastery. Ksmvr had never seen it up close; it lay in a valley with only one outlet, a bit weathered, but in fine condition. Gardens of crops were neatly planted around it, and it seemed that war had not come to Sottheim—not even artillery from the Magic Throwers.

Scaied had never attacked, only contained. Ksmvr saw huge, flat grounds with odd indentations in them where [Monks] would sit and meditate. He also saw what looked like training grounds, and obviously a huge, sprawling complex made of stone with little-to-no ornamentation.

But the [Monks] left their home, possibly never to return, without a word. They lined up in neat rows, wearing only robes—or extremely corroded armor—and bearing simple weapons. They didn’t have a set weapon like all-halberds or so on. They simply carried what they had. And, in some cases, that was nothing, so the [Monks] were armed with their bare fists.

“I shall be glad of weaponry. Scaied would have exacted a toll I was unwilling to pay—yet. We shall take your simplest arms.”

“We have many, in spades from our foes, Abbot. I will tell our [Quartermasters] to arm your people well.”

Vasraf was assuring Shurein, who was very humble, clearly impressed by the shorter man. Ksmvr kept staring at the bare feet. As the [Wild General] hurried off to do just that, and expedite Tiqr’s packing—which was ironically slower than the [Monks]’—Ksmvr strode over.

“Excuse me. Abbot Shurein? I am Ksmvr, Gold-rank Adventurer and friendly Antinium. I am very pleased to make your acquaintance. As a conversational topic to begin with, I have an acquaintance who also runs about with bare feet. Hello.”

The [Abbot] glanced at him, turned, bowed with that odd greeting, and smiled.

“Hello, Ksmvr. I am glad you approached me. I believe we have much to talk about. Is your friend a [Monk], by any chance?”

Ksmvr thought about it.

“No. Simply odd. May I inquire about everything from your poorly-maintained weapons to eating habits to your bare feet and combat prowess without being rude? I believe you would appreciate such direct address.”

He clapped his mandibles happily together. Finally, someone who spoke straight!

The [Abbot]’s smile widened.

“I do indeed appreciate it. Forgive me if I am too abrupt. There are weeks I will go without speech; Sottheim needs little in the way of words, but I must remember the outside world loves speech and performance.”

Ksmvr nodded happily.

“They do. Little gifts. Compliments. Also, they frown upon eating wildlife. Some wildlife.”

Shurein actually laughed.

“They do. Rats are unacceptable. The same for insects in many countries. People spend a lot of time talking. They need not. To answer you directly, then, Ksmvr, I am a [Monk]. Although my exact class is [Abbot]—leader of monks. Do you know what a [Monk] is?”

Ksmvr tilted his head left and right.

“I have studied [Monks] in my comprehensive lexicon of all classes. The Antinium appraise them as [Warrior]-analogues with cultural Skills and background. There are few on Izril. We would not rate you highly as a threat. I would guess you use a staff and have hand-to-hand combat techniques if I did not see you holding a halberd.”

The Abbot was very pleased by this.

“Indeed? That is close to many [Monks]. There are other monasteries across the world, although it is true, I have heard Drakes make poor [Monks]. Perhaps that is simply bias. Regardless, Ksmvr, we are a class that tends to live in privation of some kind. We vow to strip elements out of our lives, that we might focus, meditate, train ourselves.”

“Like [Martial Artists]?”

Shurein nodded.

“An apt parallel. However, they focus only on combat. Some aspects they practice are a lifestyle. Our goal is entirely how we live and conduct ourselves.”

“Aah. And how strong are you?”

The [Abbot]’s smile grew a hair wider.

“If the Antinium had come to Chandrar, you would not underestimate the [Monks] of Sottheim. We were the King of Destruction’s vassals. You have met the Loquea Dree?”

The Antinium nodded. Shureim gestured at the [Monks].

“Loquea Dree as a tribe was small, and their numbers did not change markedly through the war. They grew, but few died since theirs was a small force that kept order. Sottheim’s [Monks] were fewer in number, but our ranks grew exponentially through the war. Yet by the end of the King of Destruction’s conquests, they dropped precipitously. Over ten thousand of our number perished on Baleros with the [Gambler of Fates]. We exacted a fitting toll; many others perished at sea against the House of Minos in their ambush. Since then, our numbers have swelled again. They will rise higher, now we leave and march to war once more.”

Six thousand [Monks], and the same number presumably left to guard the monastery. Ksmvr nodded.

“Six thousand is a small number compared to some armies on Chandrar. They number in the hundreds of thousands, so I can only guess that a [Monk] is superior to a regular [Soldier]. How would you rate their combat status?”

“It depends on their level.”

Ksmvr paused.

“Well, yes. But…on average, how good is a [Monk]?”

Shurein shrugged.

“Superior to a [Soldier] of the same level.”

Ksmvr scratched at the stubs of his antennae.

“…Broadly speaking?”

“Almost always.”

It didn’t sound like arrogance, but that was an incredible claim! Ksmvr eyed one of the female [Monks] walking along with a literal staff for a weapon.

“I believe we are being imprecise. I am not sure if I am ‘being laughed upon’. How strong is she, then?”

Shurein and the female [Monk] glanced up. The [Abbot] gave Ksmvr another polite, slight smile.

“Nothing is certain until the clash. You may be beyond us all, Ksmvr. I would not know from just looking. So…would you like to find out?”

 

——

 

Nsiia strode through the line of [Soldiers] watching, and pushed past people until she ran into that which could not be pushed.

Domehead. But the Golem politely stepped aside for her, and she saw Ksmvr fighting.

Not the female [Monk], but against [Abbot] Shurein himself. The [Monk]—and five others—were sitting, with bruises or, in one case, a split lip which they refused to treat with a potion, watching as the [Abbot] spun his halberd. He stepped left, then right, feinting with the halberd, a jab, a shallow cut—whirling the blade to threaten the right side, as Ksmvr’s swords shone.

[Silver Illusion]. A school of blade arts known for its incredible speed and deceptive cuts. The Antinium [Skirmisher] had inherited it. He still carried the twin shortswords Vasraf had given him.

On loan, much as the shining sword Nsiia carried was. The blades flashed together in a mesmerizing, glittering pattern that would distract you. Even if you sliced at Ksmvr, he might vanish.

The heights of his sword school were a mystery to even Nsiia and Vasraf. Yet it said much that someone had once walked down that long path.

Klbkch the Slayer. It sent a chill down her spine to think of it. Yet…Ksmvr’s delicate sword dance faltered. The Antinium stared at the [Abbot] as Shurein feinted, stepping left and right.

“I believe I am in trouble.”

He based that not on the pure technique of the [Abbot]’s handling of the halberd; they were just testing feints, inviting a slash, seeing if Ksmvr could tell they were fake. The Antinium, with his keen insight for battle and experience as an adventurer—

Mostly based it on the fact that the [Abbot] had afterimages.

He was moving so fast from left to right that Ksmvr saw two Shureins, and multiple halberds seemed to be flickering through the air. But while Ksmvr had a Skill and mastery of the two blades—

Shurein was just fast. He came in, hard, fast, and low, his halberd angled so the blunt edge would hit Ksmvr if he struck. Such a frail old man—who was about to hit Ksmvr like—

Shurein stopped. He put up his blade, and then smiled widely. Nsiia blinked. She watched as Ksmvr put up his swords and ran out of the circle of onlookers. He hopped over three people, ran—three arms waving—a good hundred feet, then turned to see if Shurein was chasing him.

Ksmvr! I thought you were going to fight!”

Nsiia shouted. There was laughter as Ksmvr shouted back.

“I am an adventurer! I do not take fights where I will die. Mostly.”

The [Abbot] chuckled as he put up his halberd.

“That is a wise opponent. I see why Loquea Dree favors him. A [Skirmisher] who picks his battles.”

Ksmvr came back. He regarded Shurein, then copied his bow and placed his palms together.

“You are a very mighty warrior, Abbot Shurein. I believe I begin to understand why Sottheim is feared. Your [Monks] were very good opponents as well.”

Each one had been quick, strong, and proficient with their weapons. Not as much as Ksmvr, but they had adapted to his three arms and style fast—before he bonked them on the head with one of his swords. Ksmvr eyed the five [Monks] who bowed to him.

“What level are they? How many battles have they been through?”

Shurein scratched at his chin. He looked at the [Monks].

“No battles. These five came to Sottheim after the King of Destruction’s slumber; there are only a few hundred who lived past the end of the war. As to their levels? None here are over Level 30. Isn’t that so?”

“No, Abbot.”

They replied as one. Ksmvr tilted his head.

“They are very good. Very…good.”

Nsiia snorted. Ksmvr glanced at her, then Shurein’s small smile. He frowned, putting his mandibles together.

“I am being laughed upon. Everyone knows something I do not. What is it?”

It was Leka Thri who flew down and stood next to Ksmvr. He bent over and murmured.

“Sottheim’s [Monks] are not known for their levels, Ksmvr. Not weapons. Their Skills. Each [Monk] you could face has the same ones. Regardless of level.”

Ksmvr’s head snapped up.

“How? Skills are random.”

“Not necessarily. [Monks] are a different class from many. [Mages] differ. [Monks] differ. Those who master a weapon experience Skills differently. You know this.”

Shurein returned. He gestured at the [Monks], who bowed again.

“Each one of Sottheim’s [Monks] follows our class. Our class does not gain in strength simply by achieving great deeds, but how we live. We have taken [Vows]. For instance, I have taken a [Vow of Poverty]. I will never carry or use money. Should I try, it may slip from my grasp. Or my class shall become endangered.”

Ksmvr’s antennae stubs were waving rapidly. He looked at Shurein.

“I have never heard of this.”

“Few have the willpower to live their lives so. But that is what a [Monk] does. Each class has secrets. Some monasteries vow only one thing, or let their disciples choose. Sottheim? We have many vows. [Vow of Poverty]. [Vow of Privation]—we will not sleep or rest on luxury, we shall not eat rich foods. In exchange, we need less. Deprivation is strength, but it is a vow that will endure as long as we live. Or…we will lose our class.”

“A dire trade. I could not live so.”

Nsiia murmured. Shurein inclined his head at her. He gestured to the [Monks].

“Yet my people are free to come and go, Empress Nsiia. To renounce our class at any time. They do not, which tells me they find a reason to believe in Sottheim’s teachings. Someday—perhaps—there will be hundreds of thousands, millions of Sottheim’s people. Even if they take other classes, they will live under such vows.”

“Why would that be ideal?”

Ksmvr saw Shurein look at him.

“Because we fight wars over money, Ksmvr. Because many starve for want of food or water. Sottheim’s people will not. It is my dream, and the one the King of Destruction let me, and the [Abbots] before me, pursue to spread Sottheim’s teachings to those who will listen.”

“Ah.”

Another person who wanted something. Loquea Dree? Respect, a purpose. Sottheim?

Belief. To spread far and wide. Shurein gestured at one of the [Monks], who might be as young as fourteen. He bowed.

“Each [Monk] is given a trade for their vows. Each warrior you bested, Ksmvr, has the same Skills. That is why some claim Sottheim is mighty. Their Skills are these: [Lesser Strength]. [Lesser Toughness], [Lesser Dexterity], [Lesser Endurance]. Four vows. Four Skills. In time, they too will evolve.”

He smiled.

Mine are greater.”

Ksmvr’s mandibles opened. He looked at the [Monks]. At Nsiia, who laughed at his expression. At the six thousand [Monks], all with…

“What. I am shocked. I am…

He looked around for a way to express himself. How could he even convey—

Aaaaaah! Aaaaaah!

Ksmvr ran around in a circle, arms thrown high. Erin did it—it seemed effective at communicating his feelings.

People were laughing after a minute, so Ksmvr stopped.

Sottheim. Now, Ksmvr got it. He had only one last question.

“How did the [Monks] of Sottheim grow to such numbers? It seems you recruit and wish to create more monasteries.”

“Yes. Our particular monastery is new. But I believe we will grow over the course of this next war or campaign. Tiqr’s people, all people, will join us. But that is not why we will flourish.”

Shurein looked much amused at Ksmvr’s reactions.

“Two monasteries will grow twice as fast, regardless of whether the King of Destruction rises or falls. I hope for more, but, so long as Sottheim lives, we will grow. Time will tell if what we believe is right.”

He looked so calm and confident that Ksmvr was impressed. He also saw why no one bothered attacking the [Monks]: even at low-levels they were dangerous. A bunch of counter-leveling [Monks]? Even without weapons?

The funny ant-man was getting lots of laughs, and he nodded and bent down to pet Yinah. Ksmvr waited until Rémi Canada was focused on someone else. He wondered…

If Antinium could become [Monks].

Erin Solstice had taught him well indeed. Perhaps Shurein noticed, but the [Abbot] said nothing. After all. Sottheim’s beliefs were Sottheim’s, regardless of species. And wouldn’t it be interesting?

A slight smile that Leka Thri watched. Loquea Dree, the Executioners of the Sky, were feared. So was Sottheim. There were reasons they were equally feared.

“You truly believe you will convert that many people, then, Abbot Shurein? I admit, your monastery is very impressive. I wish you success and hope for your aid and our good companionship on our journey. Perhaps you may tell me more about your class later.”

They were moving out. Where to next? Nsiia had another destination, and now her army had a vanguard as powerful as any Grand Elephant. Shurein glanced at Ksmvr and bowed slightly.

“This is well. But I believe you make one mistake. I apologize for teasing you, Ksmvr of Chandrar. I did not take a vow against humor. So I shall clear it up. Recruits? We do not rely on that, for that is a dangerous thing to trust the future of our monastery to. Sottheim will grow faster than most monasteries.”

Ksmvr hesitated.

“…Why?”

Shurein pursed his lips. Then his eyes twinkled. He whispered to Ksmvr.

“Because, Ksmvr. We do not take vows of celibacy.

The [Skirmisher] stared at Shurein. He looked around. His mandibles opened.

“Ew. Is that why you joined Nsiia’s army?”

The [Monks] were talking with the Tiqr [Soldiers]. Who were flirting. Ksmvr stared about. A [Monk] helping load a wagon. Was that flirting? Foreplay? How would you know? Was one of them talking and offering a drink from a water bottle flirting? Was kissing a [Soldier]—no, wait, that was definitely flirting.

He’d better be careful. Ksmvr wished he had the manual on reproduction that Belgrade and the others had helped him write. He turned to Shurein, but the [Abbot] was calm again.

“No, not for that. We joined Tiqr because Sottheim must be tested. Because I believe in Tiqr as a nation. That is selfish…but Sottheim does not court war with no chance at victory.”

He was serious again, and Ksmvr went still.

“Then you truly believe this war can be won?”

Shurein looked at him. The [Abbot] nodded and cast his gaze skywards.

“I do not know why Khelt intervened. My decision is my own, and the Empress of Beasts seems to be seeking out allies of Reim. That is one thing. But I have sources that have little to do with politics or current events. I believe Tiqr’s allies remain. And they are coming.”

He looked at Ksmvr. The Antinium looked around.

“Who…?”

The [Abbot] gave him a mysterious smile and walked off. Ksmvr followed him.

“No, who is it? Please stop smiling. Is it a secret? Who…?”

They were on the march without an answer before Ksmvr thought to ask where they were going. The Empress of Beasts answered him curtly.

“I know you seek your friends, Ksmvr, but Scaied will not let this go lightly. Nor can we wait with Illivere on our backs. They will not attack with Sottheim joining us—not lightly. However, I have word that Savere is marching on us from the south, and Nerrhavia stirs. I must find my people and retreat to the Kilalle Steppes. From there, we may conduct a longer war and locate your friends. First though, the last ally who might stand with us.”

“Which is where?”

Ksmvr saw Nsiia point northeast. Her eyes glittered.

“Word comes to me of a place where my people gather. Where a foe stands against even the great nation of Stitch-people. We march to Pomle.

 

——

 

“Pomle. Truly? Not Savere?”

Pisces lowered his water flask. The water was sweet, drawn from some exceptionally clean well and purified further. Nothing like the gritty, brackish water of most desert wells.

Merr met his gaze stolidly.

“Pomle. Savere’s almost as close, but I hear Scaied’s all riled up with this damned Empress of Beasts.”

“Ah. The deposed ruler?”

Merr shrugged.

“Yes. No idea why. And we’re not risking being counter-scried, but the gangs say she’s on the run. Moreover—we’re not going through Scaied with Roshal on our backs. The entire kingdom is mercenary; we’d have to fight through all of them. But if we go along that route—”

She traced a road heading east.

“Pomle. Why Pomle?

Pisces wondered. He knew the reputation of that small place. Merr glanced at him.

“No one fucks with Pomle, that’s why. They’re not at home with [Slavers], and Roshal never bothers them. If there was anywhere to lay low and rest—I hear there are refugees from Tiqr there. Pomle. We can strike towards Savere or Nerrhavia—or even head north along Zeikhal towards Reim depending on what it looks like from there.”

The [Necromancer] thought, but he didn’t have a better answer. He frowned as Merr pointed out their route.

“We are not staying on the Glass Straits any longer? Why not? This…this is a populated road. We will run into travelers. Even caravans.”

“Yep. [Slavers] too, I bet.”

Pisces eyed her. He opened his mouth to point out the obvious—then looked over his shoulder. Merr followed his gaze.

She stared pointedly at the remnants of her [Bandits], who were fighting over enchanted weapons pulled from the chests. The freed [Slaves]—no.

The [Rebels]. Including Bearig, who were armed with the dead [Slavers]’ weapons. The [Cook] was trying on a helmet as Rophir tried to jam it over his head.

Hundreds of freed [Slaves]. Not just a band of dozens. Pisces looked at Merr. Her eyes were on the map.

“The Death of Chains hit countless caravans and freed [Slaves]. I’ve never thought of it this way. But Bearig? He put the idea in my ear. Roshal’s probably dragging them to Lailight Scintillation as fast as they can. So there are huge caravans with [Slaves] on these roads. We can’t beat them all. But every caravan has [Slaves] too. Besides…we can take them. Without losing many people.”

She looked back up, and Pisces’ head turned once more. He looked back—and this time into the glowing gaze of…

A Zombie. They stood in ranks, denuded of armor and weapons. Some swayed, others opened and closed their jaws.

Zombies. Ghouls. Even Skeletons with their exploding chest traps. A force of undead.

“Both’ll grow the more we fight.”

“You want an army.”

Merr shrugged.

“They way I look at it, necro-lad—”

“Don’t call me that.”

She slapped him on the shoulder.

“—Pisces my boy—is that we’re already being hunted. If they want to take us, we should make it as hard as possible. What do you say? Up for a good old-fashioned rampage?”

The [Necromancer] looked at Merr. He felt at his neck, glanced over his shoulder at the freed [Slaves] and undead. Pisces Jealnet’s eyes flickered. He stood up, slapped Merr on the shoulder, and swore and rubbed at his fragile [Mage]-hands as she laughed. But then he looked at Merr and bared his teeth.

“I thought you’d never ask.”

 

——

 

Plans were coming together. Intersecting. You had to play something by ear, but they were drawing to their perfect conclusion. Like a net. Like a tapestry. Like a spider’s web. There would be snags, complications…intersecting goals and dreams.

And yet. Yisame Beziin, Queen of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, Steward of the Sultanate of the Freed Cloths, Guardian of the Tyrant’s Grave, Threadchosen of the Kingdoms of Nerrha—that was the old name for Nerrhavia’s empire—Monarch of etc. etc…

Watched as a woman awkwardly signed the cardboard card with her silversteel left hand holding the quill. It wasn’t good penwomanship because she was using her wrong hand and she wasn’t used to autographs.

That just made it more valuable. 

Oh yes. It was all coming together. The [Silversteel Armsmistress] put the quill back in the holder and then hesitated, clearly wondering if you just…

“I will take it. Thank you, Adventurer Byres. I am much enamored by your exploits. Not just in Nerrhavia’s Fallen.”

The [Queen] accepted the autograph, and Yvlon ducked her head.

“You’re too kind, Your Majesty.”

“Not at all. You must call me Yisame, and I shall call you Yvlon. We only have a day…”

Yisame regretted that. She leaned over, and Yvlon leaned back. She seemed patently uncomfortable. Yisame tried not to look too excited.

“Do forgive me. I truly do admire your deeds in Izril.”

“I—I had no idea you even knew about them, Your Majesty. This is a high honor.”

Yvlon shuffled her feet. She grew more relaxed as Yisame clapped her hands.

“Servants! Leave the refreshments. I believe Yvlon and I will be best suited alone.

“Your Majesty, with a Human from—?”

A [Servant] flinched as Yisame gave her a wide-eyed glare. They put down the refreshments, and Yisame turned to Yvlon.

“Drinks? Something to eat? I know it must seem—odd.”

After all, Prince Zenol was not here. Nor were the other [Gladiators]. It was just Yvlon. The Gold-rank adventurer had come in full of etiquette, not prepared for…

Well, Yisame knew she was smiling a bit too widely. She went to serve Yvlon a drink herself and the woman stood up.

“Your Majesty, allow me—”

“Yisame. Please!”

They stood, as Yvlon took one of the decanters and Yisame faced her. The [Queen] felt a lurch in her chest.

Oh no, this wasn’t going according to plan! They were supposed to be—no, wait.

She wasn’t blind. Yvlon was certainly a bit…weirded out. Off-put by Yisame’s demeanor. And the [Avid Reader] realized something.

In all her scheming to help Yvlon, to put her into a better position, then to salvage the disaster at the court—then her impulsive decision to throw it all to Rhir’s hells and help that brave adventurer and [Prince]—

She had never thought of what to do when she met Yvlon.

Suddenly, Yisame began to sweat. She was the ruler of the nation that had interred Yvlon. She had apologized, of course, and Yvlon accepted that, but did she mean it? What would they talk about?

“I—ah, I truly am a fan of yours, Miss Byres. I enjoy stories, you see.”

Wait, don’t lead with that! Yisame flushed slightly, and Yvlon slowly poured herself a drink.

“I see, Your Majesty?”

The [Queen] hurried on. Definitely don’t mention the writing! Or fan fiction. Sandquen—this was why you didn’t add yourself into your stories!

“I followed the entire raid on the Village of the Dead, you know. I know all of the Horns of Hammerad.”

“I see?”

Yisame’s desperate smile turned waxy.

What did I just say? I know all the—there are four of them! It isn’t like knowing the genealogy of a royal family! But her treacherous lips kept moving.

“T-that is, Pisces, Ceria, Ksmvr, and you.”

“That is the Horns of Hammerad, Your M—er…Yisame.”

Yvlon Byres looked like her teeth ached. The two stared at each other, realized they had locked gazes, and Yisame desperately opened a fan and began to wave it. She pretended to glance down at her cup. Yvlon Byres stared at her jagged wrist; her right arm was almost regrown.

This was a disaster. Yisame felt like she was going to cry. And if she started crying…

With every ounce of will, she suppressed her tear ducts. She saw Yvlon’s lips moving, perhaps trying to formulate some kind of nothing statement about the decor. Oh dead gods, what do I…

“Calruz of Hammerad too. Sostrom, Gerial, I believe there was a Marian and Hunt?”

Yvlon’s head snapped up. She blinked. Then her eyes widened.

“You know the original Horns of Hammerad too?”

Yisame breathed. She spoke faster.

“Of course. Once I looked into the Horns, I had to learn about them. The original team as formed by Calruz of the Beriad—I knew it had to be related to the House of Minos in some way, but I assumed one of you had been granted the right to use the name by the Minotaur King.”

“Oh, no. I—the Minotaur King?”

Yisame lifted her cup and drank. She began chatting, out of sheer nerves.

“The Minotaur King would grant you the right to use Hammerad’s name, as one of Minos’ regions. This Calruz—your previous Captain—must have been one of Minos’ citizens privileged enough to exit to the outside world. But—”

She bit her tongue.

“—He is currently imprisoned in Liscor. Sick silkworms, I am so sorry to bring—and your team, the Silver Spears—I apologize. I was only—”

She turned beet red. She’d done it. Mentioned the worst thing Yvlon Byres didn’t want to hear.

But rather than grow angry—Yvlon was just looking at Yisame.

“You…you do know about us. That’s incredible. Do you know my teammates’ names…?”

Yisame’s heart leapt. She closed her eyes, then used a Skill. [Re-read the Passage].

“Veronika, Dalia, Samite, and…Maisé. That’s all the entry said.”

Yvlon Byres sat back, eyes wide. An expression of pain flickered across her face, and Yisame’s heart sank. But then she nodded. She looked at Yisame and…smiled. She took a deep gulp of wine as she realized who Yisame was.

The Horns of Hammerad’s first, true, non-related fan. Someone who had never met them, but a fan. A fan who wanted autographs, who knew their story—at least, the accessible bits.

And who was definitely going to save that drinking cup. Yvlon took another deep sip and so did Yisame, in relief. They had completely forgotten they were not being served water, but wine.

 

——

 

Forty minutes later, Yisame was sitting on a couch next to Yvlon as the [Servant] came in and refilled the wine decanter and brought a lunch. The [Queen] leaned over as the [Servant] left.

“So you and Pisces truly aren’t, ah, romantic in any way…”

Yvlon half-recoiled.

“Pisces? Please. Never. I really do respect him. I hold him in high esteem, even if he gets on my nerves, truly—but as a partner? Never.”

“I knew it. I knew it, but some people think you and he—I am going to tell that goat-faced harridin—you wouldn’t mind putting out some kind of statement? Some kind of…”

Yvlon reached for the cup of wine.

“I’d make an announcement and post it in every Adventurer’s Guild.”

Done! Send for my [Scribes]!”

Yisame half-rose, and Yvlon tugged her back. A [Servant] poked their head in and saw the two women, slightly red in the cheeks, laughing and arguing.

The [Queen] had made a friend. At first it had been terribly awkward, but when she proved she knew Yvlon’s story, wanted to hear the rest—the woman had begun to relax.

The wine definitely helped. But what also helped was Yisame’s confession. Yvlon looked at her as the door closed once more.

“So you’re really a [Reader]?”

“Books. I love them. It’s all so…adventurous. The world beyond the castle.”

“Is it? It’s a lot of dirt and grime and…”

“I know that. But you get—surely there are moments where you feel like you’ve done something else no one has. Triumph?”

Yvlon thought of Albez, of emerging with the treasure, of realizing they were alive and the Adult Creler dead, and of becoming a Gold-rank adventurer.

“Sometimes. Sometimes it’s terrible, but yes, sometimes.”

The [Queen] sighed.

“I long for that. I never wanted to be a [Queen], you know.”

She looked around guiltily. Yvlon was no fool. She looked at Yisame in astonishment, then lowered her voice.

“I never wanted to be a [Lady] either. But I am one. I can’t…not be one. I wish—I wish, sometimes, I didn’t have my older brother so I wouldn’t compare myself to him. But would I have made it without being born a Byres?”

Yisame was nodding, tears in her eyes. She went to hug Yvlon, impulsively. It was more physical than the Izrilian was used to, but that actually squared with Yisame as a [Queen].

“That is exactly how I feel. I wanted to go out—but I once got a magic sword, and I arranged to fight a Silver-rank monster…I couldn’t do it.”

Her face fell.

“I couldn’t. I can only read of things. I can’t change how I was raised.”

Yvlon tried to cheer her up.

“Most people freeze up, the first dozen times. I did—everyone has trouble with animals and monsters, let alone people.”

“Truly? That makes me feel better. I do love reading, you know. It’s just—I am [Queen] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen. I would rather have read about the King of Destruction. Even him coming back—you know, I was truly excited? Until I realized what it meant. Until my kingdom made war on his. The Empress of Beasts…”

She sighed. Yvlon looked at her.

“Can’t you…change things? Give orders?”

Yisame gave her a fragile smile.

“A [Queen] can—but in Nerrhavia’s Fallen, even a [Queen] is not a secure position. I would that I were higher-level, but there are many checks on the throne. Nerrhavia, the Tyrant of Cloth, shall never return, and that is good because she was a monster given flesh. But…I must be careful.”

She sat there, rather like some kind of wondrously-sewn doll trapped in her role. Yvlon felt for Yisame. She knew what that felt like, even in part.

“You helped me and Prince Zenol. I will repay that, Your Majesty.”

Yisame looked at Yvlon.

“Do so by continuing to do great things. Things of such great stories that I can read them and know I met you, helped you. And—and I will continue to do so. Your arm is nearly healed. But is it entirely well?”

Yvlon flexed her arm, frowning.

“It’s…it feels off, sometimes, but I am learning to control it far better.”

Yisame took a long gulp of goat’s milk and threw her head back.

“Well, we will not spend all this time together. I have made arrangements with an expert I can trust completely. She will see to you before you go. Appraise whatever you might have carried from the Village of the Dead too.”

Yvlon jumped.

“How did you—”

She was rewarded with an arch smile. Yisame’s eyes glittered.

“I may be a low-level [Queen], but I did read Ducaz’s reports. The rest of my Courts did not. Even falsified, he claimed he only sequestered your Gold-rank artifacts—I will have them returned, mark my words. But I could not imagine he would do all this if it were not for a Relic-class item. As one was never found on him when an inquiry was launched, my guess was that you had hidden it somewhere. I can retrieve it if it is buried—but I was sure you had at least one once I heard of Ksmvr. Adventurers don’t leave treasure behind.”

Yvlon Byres hesitated.

“I do have the Relics.”

“Really? Where did you hide them? Was it that the Relics were undetectable? Wait. You hid them in your arms! Of course!”

“I—absolutely. That’s exactly it.”

Yvlon Byres would never tell anyone, anyone, even her biggest fan, how she’d really hidden the scrolls and rings.

It was a strange feeling, though. Meeting someone who liked you, and didn’t really know you. It could, as Yisame had feared, be entirely disastrous. The reason it wasn’t was because Yisame was still…

[Queen] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen. And once Yvlon saw past her delicately hand-sewn skin, the luxurious fabrics, the painted lips, makeup, and power behind the often-cruel, gigantic nation…

She found someone she liked, despite only having met her for these scant few hours. A bookworm sitting on a gilded throne, willing to move earth and sky for the sake of stories.

As for Yisame? She listened as Yvlon told her some of the real stories. She told Yvlon her small life, surviving the bloodbath of a civil war, figuring out how to stay in power…the [Armsmistress] made much of it, but Yisame was hardly the King of Duels, let alone a ruler who had won their crown by cunning or blood. She had just survived.

She didn’t seem to understand how much that counted for an adventurer. In the same way—as Yvlon told her story, she was surprised how it moved Yisame. The self-conscious woman touched her metal flesh as she sat there.

“The…the first time I actually damaged my arms, during the battle with the Fire Elemental? It was too fast. I was there, trying to kill it, and I didn’t think. That’s how it goes, usually. But afterwards? When I was fighting the Adult Creler, and other times before that? I knew I put myself in danger. When I thought we were all going to die, I charged it because…”

She hesitated. A confession came to her lips she’d never really told anyone.

“…I was glad if it was me.”

“Why?”

Yisame looked up at Yvlon. The Human woman smiled bleakly, remembering.

“At the time, I looked at my team, and each one was special. Pisces was a silver-bell duelist-trained [Necromancer]. Ceria? She was a half-Elf and growing in ice magic. Ksmvr was Antinium and…Ksmvr. They had room to grow. What did I have? Training, experience—but I’d just level up into [Knight] at best. I thought I was dragging them down. So I was reckless. I should have died.”

“Do you know why you didn’t?”

The woman stared into that memory of her shattering the Adult Creler’s brain, surviving losing her arms. All the rest.

“I…just kept fighting. I said to myself that I knew I’d die. But I’d die in the next five seconds. After the next blow. Somehow, the next five seconds never came. Or someone would save me. That’s how it happened. Now I have something. Silversteel arms. So I suppose…I can keep up with my team now. I hope so.”

She thought it was an unmoving, uninspiring story. But Yisame blew her nose. When her head rose, her eyes were shining with more than just tears. A golden drop ran down one painted cheek, around a smile.

“Yvlon Byres. When you leave, we may not meet again. I know you have pressing business. I could not ask it of you.”

“I will surely not forget this, Your Majesty—”

Yisame raised a hand, and Yvlon halted. The [Queen] smiled at her. The [Reader] wiped at her nose delicately and went on.

“No. You have your own missions, I know this. I tell you this—do not concern yourself with me. I am a [Queen] of a great kingdom. But as a [Reader]…I will read and know many stories, especially in this new time where stories are shown rather than writ down. You, though…”

She reached out and delicately tapped Yvlon on the chest.

You will be my hero. For I have met you, and I admire you all the more because of what I know. I hope you will continue to inspire me—and those like me.”

She looked at Yvlon Byres, and the [Lady], the [Armsmistress] and adventurer…was lost for words. Beet red with embarrassment and gratification.

Yisame would remember that look forever. Then Yvlon ducked her head, and her golden blonde hair fell around her.

“May I say that I do not know you well either, but I have profound gratitude for this meeting, Yisame?”

“Thank you, Yvlon. May we be friends?”

The [Queen]’s eyes shone with nervousness, until Yvlon’s blue gaze rose and the warrior woman smiled.

“…I think we already are.”

 

——

 

Neither Yisame nor Yvlon had a proper exit to the sentimental moment, so there was a good amount of aheming and scattered talk involving—‘what a beautiful cushion’, ‘oh, you like it? I received it from a [Sultana], do you want it?’…and so on.

However, Yisame was conscious of Yvlon’s time—more than Yvlon herself. Regretfully, after only six hours of talking and eating through brunch and lunch with Nerrhavia’s finest delicacies, she was reminded Yvlon had to make preparations to go.

Yvlon was entirely willing to hop on a horse and gallop after the army, which would already be at least two cities away thanks to all their movement Skills, but Yisame was more coordinated than even Yvlon.

Yvlon kept the Horns running like a good helper to Ceria. But that was only insofar as she would poke Pisces and ask if he’d repaired the bone chariot, or tell Ksmvr not to make all their travel rations eggs and oatmeal because that’s what he had found the best deal on in the market.

Yisame? She made plans.

“I sent General Thelican to head the army. Politics. However, he is a good [General]…not highly imaginative, but he succeeded in Tiqr where others might have failed. Consider him an exemplar of the standard Nerrhavian [General]. Prince Zenol will know what that means. He shouldn’t bother you aside from feasting you every day on the road. The army will find your friends, even if it must besiege Savere.”

Yvlon nodded, head spinning a bit. Yisame said that so casually.

“I will bear it in mind. Uh—what is Thelican like? He must be an impressive man, to be one of Nerrhavia’s greatest [Generals].”

“Not like you.”

Yisame looked at Yvlon. The woman felt this was unfair.

“He might not be an adventurer, but surely he has some qualities outside his levels?”

The [Queen]’s face was exceedingly blank, but she finally dredged up one fact about the man.

“…Patter songs.”

“Excuse me?”

Yisame shrugged.

“He is the 6th best [Competitive Singer] for patter-songs in Nerrhavia’s Fallen. I believe he goes to every competition he can make.”

“There are competitions for—I’m sorry, I think I know, but what’s a patter song?”

Yisame laughed.

“Silly little rhythm songs. Thelican is apparently obsessed with them. You know? I am a mighty, magical [General]…I will conquer and level again, just as my name is General Thelican…

She didn’t actually know his songs, but there was Yvlon’s tidbit. Somehow, it reminded Yisame that she had never asked Thelican about it.

How curious. Still, the man was there to support Yvlon. He was the side character, just like Yisame, to the real heroine of her story.

Zenol? Well…Yisame would content herself with one person of note, even if Yvlon had to leave. She said her farewells to Yvlon, which surprised the adventuress.

“The day isn’t over.”

“No, but I fear we might not be able to meet. You and I will have a dinner—but I have sent for an aide to you. Nerrhavia’s Great Sage is a friend of my family. She is trustworthy…and few are. However, she is not…”

“…Socially acceptable for a [Queen] to be around?”

Yvlon suggested. Yisame glanced at her and shook her head.

“No. Enjoyable to be around when she is working. I would rather not have something thrown at my head if I interrupt her. You must go to her now if you want your relics appraised; she is not sure if she can tell what they do even now, and she will not head on the road with you for any favors. [Servant]! Take Miss Yvlon to the Great Sage at once! I will see you later.”

That was how Yvlon Byres found herself walking through the corridors of the palace, eyed by other dignitaries and [Servants]. Many people wanted a word, but a line of [Palace Guards] kept them at bay, marching Yvlon along like she was a valuable dignitary. Like she was the best friend of the [Queen] or something.

The Great Sage of Nerrhavia’s Fallen was waiting for her. Yvlon stared up as a figure paced down the hallway.

Yvlon Byres. So Her Majesty hath not forgotten our promise. It is well done.”

Even the other nobles and socialites stopped respectfully at the booming, deep voice. They looked up at a non-Stitch-folk member of the palace—but no wonder that they had risen to such acclaim.

This Garuda was a [Sage]. A class Yvlon had never personally encountered before. Yet this was a Garuda far different from Bevussa or anyone else.

They were nine feet tall. A vast, curved beak and piercing eyes gazed down at her from behind a hooded robe—which trailed across the ground. Some serpentine fabric with such a long tail that everyone near the Great Sage had to walk carefully, even twenty feet behind them.

This was the kind of legendary [Sage] that would fit even among the ranks of the dead stories of Chandrar. Yvlon gulped as the figure bent slightly. She was surprised to hear a female voice, albeit echoing and grand.

“Come in, Adventurer Byres.”

The [Palace Guard] bowed respectfully as the [Sage] raised an arm, and the robe moved aside like a curtain to expose a doorway made of some kind of magnificent, rosey wood, inlaid with arcane gems and sigils. Yvlon Byres bowed and entered.

[Sage]. No [Alchemist]. No [Scholar], and no [Mage], but a combination of all three and more. The wise class of those who learn all things. She half-turned as she walked into a surprisingly comfortable waiting room with a very small chair—meant for someone Yvlon’s size, a dressing mirror—no sign of a giant perch or chair for a nine-foot-tall Garuda. Multiple work-rooms, including a library, a laboratory, a mage’s workshop, and more splintered off from this room in an open-wall design, no hallways or walls to clutter someone moving around.

“Excuse me, Great Sage. Her Majesty didn’t inform me of your name. I hope I’m not troubling—”

Yvlon turned and saw a dead stare. She jumped back as the giant Garuda in those magnificent robes…stood there.

Limp, unmoving, that piercing gaze suddenly blank. Yvlon Byres didn’t think they were dead. But that look. What was going…?

Hah. There we go. One second.”

Then something rustled, and the Garuda’s chest under the robes bulged. Yvlon leapt backwards with an oath as a furry face with two fox ears poked out of the robes.

A Fox Beastkin woman hopped out of the giant puppet and rubbed at her back. She stomped over to a chair and threw herself into it. Then she gestured.

“Sit down, sit down. We’re out of the public. Let’s get to work. Stop staring your eyes out; half the Court of Silks knows I’m a fox. The other half is too stupid, so it works out. Appearances must and all that. Yisame didn’t tell you? She was probably too busy sniffing your feet or something disgusting.”

The Great Sage of Nerrhavia’s Fallen was actually a Fox Beastkin, fur going to silver, and short. As in, five feet tall and clearly very elderly.

She was also extremely no-nonsense, and chivvied Yvlon towards the chair next to her—by poking at her with a walking stick.

“Adventurers. Where are these relics I’m supposed to appraise? I’m not an [Enchanter], but Yisame needs someone she can trust. Well, we have one day. Don’t tell me you left them in your rooms?”

Yvlon hesitated. The Great Sage sighed.

“Wonderful.”

She leaned over, grabbed a speaking stone out of her bag of holding, and spoke into it. For a second, Yvlon heard a booming voice.

The Great Sage Etrikah hath need of a City Runner or Courier beyond repute for a simple errand to the Coliseum of Monarchs.

“Those are Relics—”

Yvlon protested. Etrikah raised her eyebrows.

“Then don’t tell them they’re Relics and they won’t notice. Do you think most Runners can tell if they’re carrying a cursed doomsday artifact or a simple lamp? They cannot. If you wish to hide in plain sight, do it mundanely. That’s wisdom for you. I’ll charge you for the next bit of advice.”

The first [Sage] Yvlon met turned out to be…completely indicative of her class. Which was to say, weird. Yvlon Byres was stunned, but Etrikah was settling in for a long chat. A cup of tea filled itself and floated over to her. She put her feet up, then stared at Yvlon.

She was finicky, crotchety, and probably other adjectives if you asked Yisame to describe her. She was indeed no powerful [Mage] who threw meteors around—nor the best [Alchemist], who could transform iron into gold and destabilize the economic systems of nations. She was the Great Sage of a kingdom in the waning world, with access to less information than the greats of old.

Even so…Etrikah proved she was a [Sage] in the first five minutes of meeting Yvlon. She took one look at the [Armsmistress] and narrowed her eyes.

“…What’s wrong with your arms?”

 

——

 

The City Runner arrived panting, and handed over the simple objects they’d collected to the [Palace Guards], who in turn knocked on the door. Yvlon went to collect the two rings and scrolls, and tried to keep her face straight. When she went to hand them to Etrikah, the [Sage] snapped at her.

“Don’t touch me. And don’t touch that! Go sit back down. Let me see. Burn that chair. Burn that foot table…put it on that foot table. The bad one.”

She kicked one over. Yvlon sat, gingerly, as the Fox-woman hopped around the room. She, like Vitte and Zirre, was unusual.

Gravity didn’t seem to touch her the same way, so she did a big bound across the room, snagged a giant piece of clear quartz, and continued grabbing objects and creating a magpie-like pile. Yvlon sat very still.

“Sage Etrikah, I don’t know what you’re talking about. My arms feel a bit off, but—”

“You said you’re snapping metal? Swords? Armor? Enchanted cuffs and collars?

“Yes. I thought I might be taking the strength from the metals to repair my arms.”

Etrikah glanced up.

“And you didn’t test that theory. You just kept breaking steel swords in the Coliseum of Monarchs and put it down to a defect in the steel? How many times in a row? Six? Do you think the [Gladiators] would suffer that? They’d riot.”

Yvlon shifted uncomfortably. When you put it like that—

“I didn’t have much of a choice, Sage Etrikah.”

“I’m sure. The entire situation around your imprisonment was a classic Nerrhavian mess. Too large a space with not enough oversight. There are dedicated officials, but great nations are cumbersome. Do you know how much corruption the King of Destruction had to deal with when he conquered Chandrar? Half his forces were devoted to keeping all the places he subjugated in line. No wonder he quit.”

“Do you…study government?”

Yvlon shifted as Etrikah poured something into a basin of water. The Fox Beastkin glanced up.

“I study everything. I am a [Sage]. My class is devoted to understanding new things. Or recovering it, as the case may be. However, and before you ask, I am no [Scholar] or mere [Historian]. A [Sage] is supposed to be wise. Wisdom isn’t knowledge. It is in how you apply everything. And wisdom tells me that after having your arm ripped off by a giant plague monster, something might be wrong with all the metal you’re breaking. So. Don’t. Touch. Anything.”

It might be that [Sage] was, in fact, someone who applied common sense to most things. Then again…Etrikah frowned at Yvlon and shook her head.

“Hm. Hm. Rod of copper. Rod of silver…very well. Hold this bowl.”

She handed Yvlon a clay bowl with what looked like water slopping about inside. Yvlon held the bowl—then Etrikah placed two items inside.

A long rod of silver and one of copper; both looked like someone had been cutting from the ends. Supplies for alchemical reagents or something? She frowned at Yvlon.

“Now what do I do?”

“Now…we watch and wait. I may ask you to touch either rod—not yet! I want to see how far whatever this metallic effect is extends. If it’s just touch or anything else.”

Yvlon shifted. Etrikah had positioned what looked like a giant…monocle to stare at her from. It was a magnifying piece of enchanted glass, and Yvlon saw a vague, swimming outline of something around Etrikah. She had no idea what the [Sage] saw.

“How did you realize something was wrong?”

The [Sage] grunted.

“Your balance of mana is off. Your…vital essences. What do you Izrilians call it? Your humors. As if those exist. I can see something’s warping too much of your energy towards your arms. The right one makes sense—it’s regrowing.”

She nodded to Yvlon’s nearly-healed right arm.

“But your left? It looks exactly like when someone’s got a cold and is walking around the Court of Silks and I have to tell one of the [Palace Guard] to throw them out.”

“You can see that?”

Yvlon was amazed. Etrikah glanced up at her.

“The cultures and nations of this world have forgotten more techniques and methodologies than you can imagine, young woman. Of course we can see such things. But unless you unlock the Skill—which I did, and constructed these artifacts—it is a rare pair of eyes that can naturally see such things, and it requires extensive training. So…”

She swung herself left and fiddled with a cupboard. Yvlon waited for the next artifact as the [Sage] continued talking.

“…why bother? And that, as I have told Yisame, is why we forget how to create Potions of Regeneration. Not just because some old [Alchemist] dies, but because we forget to maintain everything that enabled him to create it in the first place. Even our roads!

Her head popped up and she glared at Yvlon.

“We use Djinni to maintain the roads because they remember how to make bricks that last. Do we need Djinni? No! Get them to teach someone and let layfolk do it. Instead, we have Nerrhavia’s famous roads from city to city—and common folk have to deal with dirt roads or poor-quality brickwork. Idiots.”

She returned to her armchair, which she’d moved far back from Yvlon, and sat down with her last important object—Yvlon eyed it.

“Uh. What is…?”

“Soican pig sausage caponata. I’m hungry. This might take a while. I’d offer you something, but I don’t really feel like ruining my silverware.”

The Fox Beastkin began to eat. Yvlon stared at her and saw her bushy tail waving idly back and forth. Etrikah glanced up at her, and the pair of half-moon spectacles she’d put on glinted.

Her entire set of rooms alternated between insane glassworks and the propensity for bubbling vats of alchemical or magical rituals and someone’s living room. She had pictures on the walls next to esoteric spellbooks. And—Yvlon glanced around—a huge, life-sized statue of an impressive Fox-man holding a staff blooming with vines and…

The woman slowed, sat up, and looked at him. He was walking amid growing flowers and other plants as he seemed to be tossing something from one paw. His clothes were not magnificent; they looked like casual traveler’s clothes, yet this was a statue, so whoever had once carved it had made him look half-princely. His eyes were bright, and though the statue was simply marble, Yvlon imagined his hair might be shining…

“Black. He had black fur. The faintest blue and white on the tips of his tail and paws. Handsome as you could imagine.”

Etrikah followed Yvlon’s gaze. The [Armsmistress] swung back to her.

“Is that—Tottenval? The Blooming Plague?”

The [Sage] stopped eating. She looked up.

“Yes. Never seen a statue of him before, have you?”

“No. Not even a picture.”

The woman went back to eating.

“It figures. The King’s Seven were never much beloved after his slumber, and Tottenval didn’t inspire the mind like Mars or Amerys. You understand, he means far more to his people. Before you leave Chandrar, try to find one of Tottenval’s Gardens. There are some in Nerrhavia still. Plants he created to live in arid climates and give food for the hungry. That is legacy and wisdom.”

“Did you…know him?”

Etrikah glanced up. She regarded Yvlon—then threw a piece of sausage at her.

Some of the water slopped out of the bowl as Yvlon ducked it. Etrikah glared.

“Did I know him? It was twenty years ago that Flos Reimarch went into his slumber! How old do I look? Of course I knew him! Children. Do you know how many little yipping cubs ask me that question? You young people have no perception of time. There are people—who aren’t even half-Elves—who lived through the Necromancer’s execution and remember Perril Chandler, the respected Archmage of Death. Not just that uppity half-Elf on the scrying orb.”

She glowered, then glanced at Yvlon’s bowl. Yvlon looked down too; the water was clear and the two rods were staying still.

“Should something be happening?”

The Fox-woman shrugged.

“Perhaps. I have no time frame for how long your effect lasts. Hold onto the copper rod. Just touch the silver one—yep. Now, don’t touch it. Leave them in the mixture, there. We’ll just talk.”

Yvlon obediently held onto the copper bar as Etrikah sighed.

“We’ll spend…thirty minutes waiting for a reaction, then I will try to appraise whatever those rings and scrolls are. But if they are Relics, I doubt I can do much.”

“I know a good [Enchanter] in Invrisil. It’s not essential.”

“Mm. And you won’t put them on until then, will you? Good girl. You have some sense. The rest of my people would try them on just to see what happened if they didn’t think they could get them appraised within a week. Senseless, the lot of them.”

“So Fox Beastkin are common in Nerrhavia’s Fallen?”

The [Sage] put down her plate. She lifted up the cup of tea and drank. She looked at the statue again.

“We followed Tottenval. Beastkin live in villages in a certain part of Baleros, you know. But we don’t populate much—not with so much competition. So why not Chandrar? That was how we came here, and Tottenval…he shaped who we were until he died. His death shaped us too.”

Yvlon stirred. She half-lowered the bowl, then raised it as liquid threatened to slop over the edges.

“How, exactly? May I ask if it’s not…”

The Fox [Sage] glanced at Yvlon, then nodded. Briefly, she put her mostly-empty plate aside, and then drank down her tea. She snapped her fingers, and a pitcher floated over. Etrikah critically eyed the cup—then put it aside and found another one.

When she came back, it was with a transparent glass. She filled it with water up about halfway, and then put it down.

“There.”

Yvlon looked blankly at the piece of blown glass sitting next to Etrikah. The [Sage] indicated it with one paw.

“What would you say that glass is? Half-full? Half-empty? What? No, wait…I’m doing this wrong. Sorry. It’s been a while. What I do is…here.”

She pushed it towards Yvlon with one foot. It skittered across the floorboards and tipped over. Yvlon and Etrikah stared at the puddle of water. The [Sage] sighed. Yvlon tried to interject.

“Er…is this the adage about the glass of water being half full or empty? I know that one.”

The grumbling Fox-woman sat back down.

“That’s only partly it. What you’re supposed to do is hand someone a glass of half-full water and see what they make of it. It’s based on these Gnollish riddles. Fox-folk call it Life’s Riddle.”

“A…glass of water?”

The [Sage] fixed Yvlon with a piercing, orange-eyed stare.

“Good metaphors are easy to grasp. Let’s pretend that cup is in front of you. What do you make of it?”

“I…it’s half-full?”

Etrikah watched Yvlon’s face.

“Just that? What would you do with it?”

“Put it to one side? Drink it, I suppose.”

“Ah, practical. But let’s pretend the glass is a metaphor for life. What do you do with the glass?”

The Human woman just looked at Etrikah, completely stumped. The silver Fox-woman snorted.

“Don’t try too hard or you might turn that blonde hair white.”

Yvlon flushed a bit angrily.

“What do you mean, ‘what do I do with the glass’? What am I supposed to do?”

The [Sage] laughed, revealing pointed teeth.

“Ah, no one’s ever asked you that, have they? Children in our communities get asked that all the time. What do you do with the glass? What is the purpose of living?”

She looked pointedly at Yvlon, expecting an answer. The woman hesitated.

“Is there a purpose?”

“There’s an answer and a question. Is there, Miss Byres? Was your purpose to be an adventurer? Why did you become one?”

“To…help people. Because House Byres always has been.”

Yvlon replied, eyes flicking uncertainly to her arms. Etrikah raised her brows.

“Do you have to do what your family dictates? Is helping people important?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Why?”

The Gold-rank adventurer just stared at Etrikah. She tried to speak slowly. For some reason, it was hard, as if she had to explain the obvious.

“Because—people need help. Helping people is a just thing to do.”

“Who told you that? Where is the law that says that? Will they help you back? It sounds like something you were told.

“I don’t need to be told to do the right thing!”

Yvlon snapped. She was getting a bit annoyed by Etrikah’s needling tone. Yet the [Sage] only smiled mirthlessly.

“You’re getting angry.”

“No, I’m…”

Yvlon took a deep breath. She smiled calmly at Etrikah, who raised her brows.

“I’m sorry, Sage Etrikah. I just don’t see the point behind your questioning.”

The [Sage]’s brows rose even higher.

“…That was quite incredible. I’ve heard the expression ‘swallow your temper’, but I’ve never seen it so literally done. You are fuming. Internally. No wonder you kept snapping in the arenas. Silver-Killer is an apt moniker.”

“That’s—!”

Etrikah’s orange eyes stared pointedly at Yvlon over her spectacles. The [Sage] tapped her glasses.

“Do me the courtesy of not lying to my face, Yvlon. And if those questions bother you—perhaps you had better ask why. Because Fox-folk ask. They ask what the purpose of anything is. You only get one life, sometimes very short. So what do you want to do? We all get handed a glass and come up with our own answer. Do you know what Tottenval, the Blooming Plague, did?”

Yvlon bit her tongue. Her mind was awhirl, but curiosity trumped any of the things Etrikah was hitting her with.

“What?”

Slowly, Etrikah took her cup of tea. She picked up the pitcher, filled it halfway. She placed it down.

“He looked at the glass, and filled it up. Then he handed it to someone who wanted a drink. Symbolism. This world is underwatered. He believed he could make it better. So his people decided his answer was the best. For a time, we were the King of Destruction’s allies and soldiers, people who saw the best in what he did. Tottenval inspired us.”

She lifted the teacup up, admired it—then tossed it down. Yvlon jumped as it shattered, spraying into pieces over the floor. Etrikah sat back down.

“Then he died. The King of Destruction’s empire fell to dust. Our people survived; we are resourceful and few pursued vengeance against us. But do you know what Vitte, Vitte Groundless of the Arena, did with her cup? It is the same answer many young Fox-children give. She takes the cup, and tosses it in someone’s face, or drinks it down.”

The pieces of broken pottery were slowly rolling to one side, collecting as some automated spell gathered them. Same with the water; it had begun to dry so fast Yvlon could see the puddle vanishing.

Without a word, she looked at Etrikah. The [Sage] waited, so Yvlon’s brows furrowed as she tried to work that one out.

“That would mean…the water, the world is for you? Or it’s useless.”

“Not bad. You do think. You just clearly don’t like to.”

Yvlon glared, and Etrikah snorted.

“You and Yisame must have gotten along. Prideful young women. You are right. To Vitte, to many in this new generation, the world is a joke. Good deeds don’t go rewarded. Great works collapse—so why care? You saw what she did to her sister.”

Yvlon slowly nodded. Even after all that had passed, and all the surprise good—it had been exceptionally cruel to Zirre to place her in danger, even if it would ‘only’ have been the feeling of being stabbed.

“That’s what she believes?”

The Great Sage looked tired.

“She and many. I think they laugh because they see what happened to Tottenval, the best of us. They pretend it did not affect them, but I truly believe it shattered parts of them, as much as I shattered that cup. He was our hero. Our shining star, and we are a few people, Yvlon Byres. When he died…it changed us all. That is the problem with people we love, who are good for this world.”

She looked at Yvlon, suddenly, and the [Armsmistress] saw something flicker in her gaze. She shifted, disturbed by all of this. These…were questions and conversations she had never talked about. She didn’t like thinking about them.

Perhaps that was why the [Sage] brought them up. For a moment, Etrikah sat there, then she clapped her paws, briskly.

“Enough. Let’s see those rings. And those scrolls. I can at least tell you if they’re activatable by reading, unrolling, or whatnot. I see two magical flows to those rings. One looks cursed—or malevolent. Maybe it just hurts something. The other’s beneficial.”

Yvlon blinked. She glanced down at her rings. One was a band of colorful stone—she even suspected jade—with a seam of some metal running like a deep blue river amidst it. The other? It looked…well, it was a ring, and solid, but it looked almost leathery. Or like scales—tiny scales—banded perhaps around a wooden core?

The Great Sage pointed at the scaled ring.

“Danger. The stone one’s beneficial.”

“You can tell that by looking?

Etrikah tapped her glasses again.

“Intent. Like those scrolls. Neither one screams bursting at me—which suggests it’s a spell you must activate and read. Your [Martial Artist] friend, Mectail, can do much the same—but only with people. But you know how I can also tell one’s probably better than the other?”

“How?”

The Fox-woman produced a pair of tongs and lifted the scaled ring.

“This one’s made out of something that was alive. The other ring is jade, a friendly, protective, magical mineral. You figure out which one might be more hostile. Common sense. Although it is fascinating and worth you coming here. You see this scale-ring?”

“It looks like it was made of some kind of little creature’s hide.”

“Correct! And entirely wrong. That’s what they want you to think. But I suspect it’s a method old [Enchanters] based around high-monster regions used to employ. It’s just a theory, but you skin an entire Wyvern or some beast—then shrink their entire hide, wrap it around a ring, and you have all that power in one place. The question is—which hide? Hand me that magnifying glass. No, wait. Don’t touch it.

She hopped over to investigate as Yvlon helplessly held the stupid bowl of water and copper rod. She glanced down at it, and even flexed the rod slightly. It didn’t break. Yvlon saw Etrikah glance back at her.

Hm. Well, we’ll keep at it. I can’t cure what I don’t know, but I can recommend some generic cleansing spells and reagents. We could do worse than making you take a bath in purified water with soap and a few cleaning reagents. Put the bowl over there; we’re done with it.”

She casually nodded to a counter she’d cleared. Yvlon put the bowl down—

“Not there. To the left, the left.”

The Fox-woman was persnickety about organization. Yvlon shoved it left slightly, got a nod, and walked back over to sit down.

“Can I, ah, help in any way?”

“Yes. By not touching anything. Perhaps describe to me what this [Necromancer]’s lair was like. Who had the rings? Adventurers? What species? What were they wearing? Context clues. And do you know…who they were?”

Yvlon blinked.

“The Dullahan woman did say she was part of a team, but I had no idea—”

Etrikah whirled around.

“You met the adventurer who slew this [Necromancer]?”

“The Putrid One. Yes, and his servant told us his name. But we had no idea who they were. I remember the [Paladin]’s name and group if that helps. The Radiance of Canopies. A Balerosian team.”

The [Sage] pinched at the bridge of her snout.

“…So, you know their names, their team, the name of this Putrid One, a famous [Necromancer] who was clearly a famous individual in his time, and his servant’s name. And you didn’t think to tell me that at once? Forget the appraisal. I’ll just look up their team. Kitsune’s tails, young woman. They probably have the artifacts listed if this Putrid One or this team was famous! Let’s find a book.”

She strode into her library, and, after a quick search, ascertained she only had a few books that might even tangentially relate to adventuring teams or famous [Necromancers]. However, you know what Nerrhavia’s Fallen, an ancient kingdom of surpassing size and history, had?

Libraries. The Hundred Thousand Tomes was an academy that had books in the name.

“If only you could stay longer. We will be researching this, I promise you, but let’s take a trip there.”

“What about my arms?”

The two women were getting ready to leave, rushing about since there was a time limit. The bars of copper and silver sat in the plain mixture of what looked like water in the basin.

For a high-level test by a [Sage], it certainly hadn’t done much. And now, the two were completely ignorant of the bowl as Etrikah began to reset her puppet. Their chatter in the background completely obscured the faint sounds as the copper bar began to move.

A little, crawling shape slowly detached itself, edging away from the dangerous water. It made a tiny clicking sound as it edged up the top of the bar.

Lots of expensive metals here. Not necessarily ones that…worked. But there was a good source of iron and…the bug cast around.

“Mm. A bath. I’d like to take a sample of your arms if that’s acceptable…”

“I think it won’t hurt. I can turn the pain off…”

“Disturbing.”

The beetle fanned its wings. It took off from the edge of the bowl, stealthily flying into the [Sage]’s laboratory—

And then slammed into the invisible barrier that shimmered to life around the bowl. The trap rune glowed and an alarm went off. A high-pitched ringing.

Yvlon Byres spun around in alarm. Etrikah looked up, calmly dropped the puppet, and strode over to the bowl.

Keep back. Hands away from everything.

The [Armsmistress] froze. Etrikah eyed the squirming metal beetle on the ground. She took one look at the water and murmured.

“Interesting. It’s definitely magical, then. Or the Fulfield Water would have shown me something living. And what are you? Very clever. So clever, you only reappear after no one’s watching.”

She squatted down, staring at the copper beetle, which flew into the magical barrier again and again. The Great Sage of Nerrhavia’s Fallen looked at the beetle. She looked at Yvlon, who was staring at her arms in alarm. Etrikah removed her spectacles. She rubbed at her face as she thought of collars, gladiator arenas, and how long and where Yvlon had been. She came to a simple conclusion and voiced it instantly.

“We are in trouble.

 

——

 

Yvlon Byres lay on her front, butt-naked and red with embarrassment. Yisame tried not to stare. However, it was quite amazing that Etrikah and a bevy of her most trusted apprentices, [Mages], and other [Alchemists] were not staring.

Instead, one of Yvlon’s arms was outstretched, and the group ensconced in protective, shimmering barriers was watching as a [Hydromancer] produced a needle-thin ray of water and blasted Yvlon’s arms.

The concentration was so intense the water jet made Yvlon’s metal-skin ripple. Etrikah called out.

“Yvlon. Does it hurt?

“No—I don’t think so. I can’t feel it.”

“Well, good. Because my second option is literally scraping two layers of your metal flesh off your body. How’s the other sample look?”

Someone was staring at a metal fingernail in a bowl of water.

“I think we cleaned it.”

“You sure? It can’t be that easy.”

“It can if it’s ‘Minor’. It says here that the Putrid One unleashed many plagues across metal, flesh, wood—dead gods, there are magical plagues. Cloth, too.”

A [Scholar] looked up from a book. The Stitch-folk in the room blanched, including Yisame. Etrikah was unphased.

“If it were a Great Plague, we’d be dead or have noticed already. This is either Plaguesteel, Omen Rust, or Gariepe’s Twisting. Given the symptoms, I am convinced it’s Plaguesteel. And it looks like we can remove it, Your Majesty.”

“You’re sure?”

Yisame stared at her Great Sage. Etrikah gestured at Yvlon’s arm.

“It’s not in her arms. Whomever this Tolveilouka was…from Yvlon’s account, it knew she was a ‘person of metal’, which implies her class has yet to evolve—but more practically, it knew how to fight her. By infecting her with a metal plague.”

“Is it…is it safe?”

Yvlon stared at the buzzing beetle and the silver one that had later emerged from the two rods. Etrikah gave her a curt nod.

“Here it is. Elsewhere? I need you to muster the Council of Steel and tell them our sewers might be infected. This…could be bad.”

Yvlon was pale. She looked at Yisame. The [Queen] stared at her Great Sage, lowered her voice, and took her aside.

“How bad?”

The Fox-woman glanced at Yvlon.

“Depending on how fast the plague moves? That beetle came out after less than forty minutes of direct contact with Yvlon. I hope…the offspring are slower when not close to the originator. Either way. It may be very bad.”

Yisame looked at Yvlon. Etrikah added.

“All the more reason she should leave as soon as possible so no one makes the direct connection.”

“Your Majesty. I’m sorry.”

Yvlon didn’t know what to say. Her skin crawled at the thought. She stared at the water blasting her arm, but she didn’t know what the plague was supposed to look like. Yisame drew herself up.

“I told you, Yvlon, I would spare you no expense. This is secret, by order of the crown. Sage Etrikah, you will receive anything you ask for.”

Etrikah nodded.

“I will ask for everything. Be warned. For now? I know how that undead got Yvlon. Her arms aren’t infected.”

“Are you sure?

Yvlon stared at her arms. Etrikah snorted.

“Firstly, if they were infected, you would probably notice bugs crawling out your arms. Secondly, silver is a famously defensive and purifying metal. The fact that we can clean that fingernail proves it.”

She pointed at the metal.

“Let’s do a wash of her arm. What Yvlon has isn’t an infection in her blood. It’s on her arm. Like…slime. A thin, thin layer, I suspect. I think we can actually blast it off with enough water. But all the water here? This room?”

She gestured around. The mist of water rising around Yvlon from the water spray was being contained in a barrier, and a foot of water was already swishing around on the ground. Etrikah backed away, despite the multiple magical barriers of containment around her.

“We are going to vaporize it.”

Yisame looked blankly at Etrikah.

“You mean, incinerate.”

The [Sage] turned to her.

“If I mean vaporize, I mean vaporize. If I could cast [Disintegration], I would. No one leaves this room without being tested. Yvlon? Yvlon?”

The [Armsmistress] had frozen as she began to pour the cleansing liquids over her arms and body. She nearly dropped the bowl, and then shouted.

“[Condition – Plaguesteel]! It’s in my head. It was in my—”

She began scrubbing furiously. The Skill—no, the Condition—was burning in her head, but she felt it receding as she scrubbed at her arms. It was turning…

Blue?

[Condition – Plaguesteel (Minor) Removed!]

Yisame inhaled. Etrikah nodded as Yvlon kept scrubbing, determined to leave nothing to chance.

“You did it so quickly, Etrikah. You are the Great Sage of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, truly.”

The Fox-woman eyed Yisame, and then tried to kick her in the shins. The [Queen] retreated.

“You fool. Treating it was never the hard part. It was catching it. I need you to think, Yvlon. How many people did you touch? How many pieces of metal did you touch? How many arenas…oh, dead gods. That fool, Thelican, shook your hand.”

Yisame went pale. Etrikah looked up. A Grand Army was on the move. Filled with metal objects. And Thelican?

 

——

 

The [General] was singing one of his famous patter-songs as he set down a golden cup. It was instantly whisked away by one of the [Servants] as he enjoyed a banquet in his honor in the second city. His aides were with him—except for the ones who had to coordinate the army bedding down, supply issues.

Normally it wasn’t hard, but [Soldiers] were complaining about shoddy tent poles and no less than fifteen axles had broken down in the chariots. The [Smiths] had clearly been mixing poor metal. They’d have to be taken to account.

Everything of lesser metal was in trouble. For now. The carrier was cured, but the rest of Nerrhavia’s Fallen?

Thelican’s touch would be dangerous for about three more hours. After which, now that the originating source was gone, the Plaguesteel creations would be unable to be rapidly spawned, and even these were smaller and weaker than that which Yvlon Byres touched. It was not her fault that Thelican liked to inspect chariots by touch or clap men and women in armor on the shoulders.

It was just insects. Metal insects that ate metal. Reproducing as fast as insects did. Tolveilouka Ve’delina Mer would have readily admitted it wasn’t his best work. Just a parting gift.

It was only a bit of trouble.

 

——

 

“Fold.”

“Fold.”

“Call and raise two silvers.”

“Go fuck yourself. Fold.”

“Call.”

Cards were tossed into the center of the pool and coins were put in. The circle kept changing as people were kicked out or decided they’d lost too much. The circle paused…and someone coughed, but no one quite dared interrupt the half-Elf lost in thought.

Not Ceria. Omusc was happy enough to elbow her, but not Alchemist Irurx.

He was lost in thought, staring off into the distance. After a few seconds, Ceria coughed.

“Irurx? You in or out?”

He looked blankly at her, then tossed in three spell-cards, a winning hand or good enough.

“I…thought I felt something calling to me.”

That was his only explanation. The [Gamblers] looked at each other, then went back to playing. Ceria Springwalker raised her brows, but the Alchemist just shrugged.

“Perhaps this will be more enticing than I thought. You were telling us about the Village of the Dead?”

There was a reason he had ordered his ship to sail up one of Savere’s rivers. It could not follow them far, but he was accompanying the Siren for a while. And Ceria. His presence…bothered many, but Ceria had shown the others he could be a perfectly pleasant guest. The fact that she knew what lay below Shifthold’s decks did not change her assessment that he was a useful ally. A good [Alchemist] was always helpful.

Besides, if worst came to worst? Shifthold obeyed no powers, not even Roshal, if it didn’t want to.

And Irurx had a ship.

 

——

 

The point was, at last, they were all on the move. Pisces rode with Merr the Storm on a rampage across the trade roads.

Ceria played cards and ate food.

Ksmvr pondered the exigencies of [Monks] and their odd mating rituals as he petted Yinah.

Yvlon Byres scrubbed at her skin until her flesh was raw, despite being pronounced with a clean bill of health by Etrikah, who promised to send a number of safeguards with her.

It was looking up for the Horns of Hammerad, where it was looking very down. Even so, as Yvlon Byres sat down with Yisame and Etrikah for a small, intimate dinner, she picked at her food.

“You’re clean. Not that I can blame you for not being hungry. Believe me, you finding that hidden condition and removing it is the best assurance I can think of. Hidden Skills. Hidden conditions. Even hidden classes. What have we forgotten?”

The [Sage] sighed. She was reading at the table. So was Yisame, who had a book open in one hand, expertly flicking through the pages; she had found an old story in the famous Tales of Adventure and Woe collection about adventurers in the time of the Putrid One.

“So you were Yisame’s, ah, tutor when she was young?”

Etrikah glanced up.

“I was a lesser [Sage], yes. I rose with her. Not that I bet on Yisame for the throne. And here we are.”

“Thank you, Etrikah. She put me onto reading, you know.”

The two were rather comfortable, and Yvlon was relieved that Yisame had someone like that. Although they were distinctly different. Yisame had found an adventure story about teams in the Putrid One’s time from the library of Nerrhavia Fallen’s vast wealth of ancient tomes—so vast even someone constantly reading couldn’t find useful information amid all the dross without a hint like the Putrid One—while the Great Sage had pulled out a history book.

“I put Yisame onto reading to improve her mind. She decided she wanted [Barbarians] carrying off [Princesses] while wearing only loincloths. Do you know what we call that? Abduction. Kidnapping.

“Leave me alone, Etrikah.”

The morally dubious ethics of scantily-clad [Barbarians] aside…Yvlon truly had lucked out. Zenol was here, and, somehow, Cognita of Wistram too, and she had met the Silver Swords. Yisame had a lead on Pisces, Ceria, and Ksmvr, and she had an army at her back.

Things were looking up.

Yet.

Not one of the Horns was smiling.

Oh, they smiled. They laughed at times, they celebrated the good and they had fought through the ill.

Now they were freed, though.

Now they had a chance to breathe.

They remembered why they were here.

So Yvlon Byres, the angriest of the Horns of Hammerad, the conscientious [Lady], the berserker with the metal arms, looked at Etrikah, the Great Sage, at Yisame, [Queen] of all she surveyed, even if she rode for a month in every direction—looked up.

Like Ceria Springwalker, about to reach for a card. The [Silversteel Armsmistress] looked at Etrikah, then spoke.

“There is one last thing you don’t know, Yisame. The real reason my team went to the Village of the Dead. How we all came together. If you want beautiful stories, there’s one you’ve never heard.”

The [Reader]’s head snapped up hungrily. Yvlon Byres put down her fork and pushed her plate away. She looked at Etrikah.

“The glass being half empty or half-full and what you do with it—I know someone who also decided to fill it up.”

The Fox [Sage] glanced up. Yvlon Byres fiddled with her napkin.

“She died. Or…she was hurt so badly she had to be frozen in ice. I’m not sure if you’ve ever heard of that.”

“Ice? Never. Stasis spells, yes. Ice…is actually intelligent if you had neither. You can preserve meat. But I would never dare it.”

The [Sage]’s eyes glinted. Yvlon shook her head.

“Nor would I, but I wasn’t…there. She is a dear friend to many. She helped bring the Horns together after the crypt. She’s still there. It’s been…months. My team went to the Village of the Dead not for glory, not to use the relic we thought was there, but in order to gain it. To trade it for something that could cure her.”

“Truly?”

Yisame looked at Yvlon. She half-rose.

“What does she need? A Potion of Regeneration? A Scroll of [Restoration]? We have both, I think. Those are often used by rulers, but—”

Etrikah raised a paw and gripped Yisame’s arm, stopping the [Queen] in her excitement. She watched Yvlon’s face.

“It’s not that easy, or you wouldn’t have tried for a Relic-class object. Isn’t that so, Miss Byres?”

“No.”

Yvlon met her gaze. She closed her eyes, and looked up at the ceiling.

“No, it’s not that easy. Nor am I close to her. I don’t even have my team. But here I am. Before I go, Great Sage Etrikah, Queen Yisame. My friend. Her name is…”

 

——

 

“Erin Solstice.”

Ceria Springwalker put down her cards. The [Rogues] and [Bandits] were all staring at her. Even the Siren, just happening to be riding on her palanquin next to them, was listening.

“You went into the Village of the Dead on the chance you might find something to help your friend?”

“Yeah. That’s right. It’s like going up against the Bloodtear Pirates for someone you’ve never met. Shut up, Abelesque.”

Omusc glanced to her left at one of the audience, then looked at Ceria. The half-Elf smiled crookedly.

“Ice. I have experimented with that. There are creatures…who can survive freezing. I have never seen larger beings survive it.”

Irurx looked at Ceria. The half-Elf nodded.

“Maybe, though. Maybe. She needs many things. A cure to a poison. A way to unfreeze her—I don’t know the right spell. But maybe—

She raised her hand and gripped the circlet on her head. Then she turned her head right and looked at Revine. Ceria half-rose. The dark [Alchemist] of Shifthold looked at her. The Siren of Savere raised her brows.

 

——

 

“…Do you have any ideas?”

Yisame held her breath. Sage Etrikah tapped her claws on the dining table.

“Again, you should tell me these things beforehand. I have mere hours before you leave. Research would take months. I can work on it—but you understand this is a crisis. Yes, though. I can certainly look into these things.”

Yvlon’s heart beat faster. Again, though, the [Sage] held up one paw.

“Intelligence. Wisdom, Yvlon Byres.”

“Yes, Sage Etrikah?”

The Fox-woman tapped the side of her head.

“…Why would I start from scratch? Who else is working on this? I assume someone must be.”

“Oh—Oteslia. Oteslia and I think—I don’t know.”

“Well, why don’t we look that up first and make contact? Then we can see. Speaking of which, have you told your mother you’re alive? Mothers do worry, you know.”

“Huh?”

Yvlon blinked. Etrikah sighed.

“That you didn’t die in the Village of the Dead. You were a [Gladiator]. I’ll stop shouting. Why don’t you send your family a [Message]?”

“Of course. [Servants]—

Yisame clapped her hands and Etrikah slapped her hands down.

“It will not kill you to stand up for once. Come, come. We’ll use my [Scroll of Messages]. Tell your parents you’re alive, Miss Byres. I will inquire into this young woman’s cure if one can be arranged. You have my word.”

 

——

 

“Mine too. It is not a difficult thing to pledge. And it is quite…interesting.

Irurx’s eyes glittered with the academic challenge. The Siren of Savere nodded too, however surreal it was to be on the same wavelength as he. Idly, she placed a finger to her brow and began to cast a few spells. Then frowned.

“…There is a substantial bounty on an ice spell in conjunction with an Oteslian multi-part cure project. Posted by Khelt. The reward is in the tens of thousands of gold pieces.”

“Really?”

Ceria blinked. She sat up, and the Siren reached out. At the same time, so did the Great Sage of Nerrhavia’s Fallen.

Hands or paws, joining together, asking to be let in on a project backed across different continents. Strange experts from all walks of life.

A name.

Erin Solstice.

Just who was she? May you have time to find out. Almost, that was what they learned.

Almost. But for a missing piece here. Elegance lacking here. An ingredient, a spell unperfected.

It was so frustrating, and even with it all, it was just incomplete. Hovering on the boundary of being realized, and this was something that could not be left to chance.

Pieces like the [Princess] in Oteslia, pledged to find her daughter or die trying. Fate intertwined with Dragons.

A Goblin Chieftain hunted for kidnapping the great Healer of Tenbault. Guest of the Goblin [Witch].

The Grand Magus of Wistram, preparing to elevate himself to Archmage. Mindful of his promise—

To a young woman who was suffering from a panic attack while a [Popstar] paraded into the capital and a Wyrm gloated.

A half-Elf and a woman with metal arms far from home. An Ant and a Necro-lad on the run.

An angry Fraerling with a [Message] scroll and an army. Oh, and a bunch of Goblins, Antinium, and some weird others.

Even more. A Necromancer who made a mistake and watched a wall of his castle go screaming into the void. A silly little Gnoll with white fur trying not to throw up lobster through her nose.

An [Alchemist] who smiled, mindful of her promise.

The ghosts of Chandrar and an undead king.

More and more. Incomplete for all this talent. Pieces of a puzzle not completed.

Especially since something was missing. Something…one last piece that no one had penciled into the checklist.

It wasn’t her fault. She had been busy with being kidnapped. Reviving the dead was never something she had been taught.

Now, though, a [Doctor] dove deeper into the depths of her Mind. Taking a deal to save a life. She reached down and finally saw it.

 

——

 

“Oh.”

Geneva Scala whispered. In the Mind, she stopped and saw it. A glimpse on the edges of her understanding.

A final thread. She pulled at it, following it along its source. Straining for understanding. She would have taken longer, never grasped it, perhaps. But she was a mind among Minds. At last. She actually smiled. It was so simple when she realized it. That would work.

“That’s what I was missing.”

There it was. 

She found it at last.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: It’s hectic. Hectic, and I’m keeping these chapters short because I don’t have time to write more. But I will get one out on Christmas…or probably the day after for when you’ll actually see it.

I’m sure you’re all busy, actually. Who has time to read when there’s so much to do on this relaxing…lovely…holiday?

No matter which one it is?

Anyways, I hope you enjoyed this chapter. Look out for the Christmas one, and I thank you for reading. Patreons, we may announce something to people on Christmas. But maybe. It’s all chaos, so for now I will leave you to do other things.

Thanks for reading!

 

Riverfarm Battle by rinartstruggle!

 

Mrsha Heads by Kalmia!

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/kalmiayarn

Etsy: https://www.etsy.com/shop/GoodLongYarn

 

Christmas Calendar, Days 15-20 by ArtsyNada

 


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32 thoughts on “8.59 H

  1. Leave a typo for cures and cures! No, really. That’s sort of what this chapter’s about.

    (Cured typo finders: Gorexn, Litwickee, MrWiggles, Quynin, Maladal, Ignat, Axel Terizaki)

    • “Ice? Never. Stasis spells, yes. Ice…is actually intelligent if you had neither.”

      I think you have to not have at least two things to have “neither”, and the only one they didn’t have here is stasis spells. I could imagine chronomancy as the second, assuming stasis isn’t part of that. (Nereshal told Emily that lesser mages believe time magic to be impossible, but presumably Etrikah knows the truth.) If there isn’t a second thing, the sentence could be “if you don’t have stasis.”

      “Alright” -> “All right”

  2. Erin Solstice had taught him well indeed.
    I don’t recall Ksmvr and Erin having such a close relationship. He’s no Pawn or Bird to her, and he spent relatively little time in the inn.

    • He spent more time there than you’re giving him credit for. All the time that the Horns were there. The Horns spent a good portion of winter there or with her on the trip back to her inn. They spent all of spring there and had only left to take the door to Invrisil at the beginning of Summer.
      Then you have to put some importance on all the big things that happened when he was there all the attacks from the dungeon, saving Mrsha and Ceria, the Creler attack, and just everyday living in the inn.

  3. Thanks Pirate and hope you enjoy the holidays!

    I really like the [Sage], I have hard time picturing what beastmen look like though.

    That’s not the end of the plaguesteel bugs though is it? What other plagues will that crazy apprentice unleash.

  4. Have an enjoyable Christmas Pirate.

    I’m sure I will enjoy my only Christmas present, the chapter from you..

    I feel as if the ‘Cast’ have become the family I have lost over the years. Especially my Sister ‘Erin’ and my older brother ‘Relc’. I see aspects, of each of them. in the characters you have imagined..

    I’m wondering what ‘Relc’ has been up to, we used to have speak at least once a week.

  5. Happy holidays to all!

    Also lets make the bet for the missing ingredient!

    My bet? It is the soul!

    Can’t revive a person without one and it would give Erin the daunting task (and gamer old tradition) of doing a corpse run… Aka having her ghost run back to her corpse as five dead parasite gods chase after her soul.

    If she gets to her body they can revive her. The trick is getting to it.

    • That is actually what I was thinking too. It cant be as easy as, hey we revive you now and your soul is just gonna fly from the other side of the world to the inn all safely and nice. NOPE NOPE NOPE. All Im saying is that some of those ghost that have been teaching Erin all that stuff, theyre not gonna make it. And when I say some, Im pretty sure almost all of em are gonna get bodied.

    • I’ve been thinking for awhile that they might just be able to cast [Repair] on her body. No life magic, no death magic… does she just count as an inanimate object that can be repaired?

  6. Ceria with the circlet might be able to unfreeze Erin and use the water to hold the cells together long enough for healing to take effect. Also betting the missing piece is reconnecting the soul and body given that Belavierr noticed it right away.

    I wonder if the Necromancer’s mistake was related to what Belavierr wanted or one of Roshal’s retaliations made it through.

    I’m a bit worried where the name Sottheim came from that the [Monks] use. Hopefully it was from a high leveled person otherwise this might be another possibly butchered dead god name.

  7. Merry Christmas for everyone.

    Also, on a whim, I translated “Lailight Scintillation” to my native language and then back, and got “Twilight Sparkle”. I won’t be able to read that name without a giggle now.

  8. I realize I’m late to the party, but it occurs to me that an army with a [plaguesteel] status effect is marching to help unite the Horns of Hammerad. Pisces is being hunted by Roshal, so this army might end up clashing with Roshal… and losing. Roshal will take the losers as slaves and their gear. That same gear carries the [plaguesteel] status effect.
    “Let all who hold chains beware” because chains are made of metal.
    All I’m saying is that this MIGHT be where things are going.

  9. BOOM! Loved this story arch. The Wandering Inn story of Erin Solstice must reverberate across continents both dead and the living….

  10. I am a mighty, magical [General] pattern song…

    Pirateaba that is hilarious. For those that don’t understand the reference:

    “I am the very model of a modern Major General.
    I’ve information vegetable, animal, and mineral
    I know the kings of England and I quote the fights historical
    From Marathon to Waterloo in order categorical…”

    How many people would even realize that

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