8.60

[This chapter is out, as is customary for Patreons and Public readers! Which means the Public readers have to wait a week instead of a Tuesday release. Merry Christmas? Happy Holidays? Chapter’s out!]

 

Today was a very special day.

You could not tell, at first.

Fall was coming to Liscor, but it wasn’t obvious. A chill in the air. A certain lack of summer’s clear skies. Old [Veterans] grumbling about aches in their bones.

However, Liscor had no forests, so the glorious flare of color and light was entirely absent from the canopies. No one admired Boombark Trees up close. The few trees in the city did change color, but the largest indication of the season was…

The grass. Some of the many grass species of the Floodplains changed color with the passing of seasons. Why? It was unclear why grass emulated leaves, but the effect was to create entire rivers and swathes of the green landscape in orange, yellow, and even a purple hue.

Like a vast art piece. Or…rivers of color, fading into winter.

The [Guards] on Liscor’s walls were tired of seeing it already. When you had battlement-duty, you quickly lost patience with the beautiful landscape and found yourself wishing for better boots or a chair. However, the Watch Captain had them marching, checking their corners, and, of course, watching for monsters.

The newbies didn’t get that bored. The Humans were willing to work harder to impress. As for the Antinium? They would stare into the changing world around them like it was the first and possibly last thing they’d ever see.

So maybe you did appreciate it a bit more, when you realized that and heard the stories.

It was a special day. The [Sergeant] on duty knew it the moment an Antinium wearing the guard’s uniform waved an arm and rang the tiny bell the Worker carried.

Across the wall, heads snapped up. [Guards] grabbed their weapons. Antinium never rang the alarm lightly. The Worker had seen something.

Helm, what are you seeing?”

The [Sergeant] jogged across the battlements, sweating already. Helm, or Iron Helm, denoted by the customized [Guardsman]’s helmet the Worker had been given, pointed. And spoke; they just didn’t like to all the time.

“Convoy, [Sergeant]. Danger?”

Three words. Which might be all Iron Helm said that day. The [Sergeant] cursed as she peered down. Iron Helm wasn’t an idiot. He’d been treated like that until the Watch realized he wasn’t stupid, just quiet. Antinium could tell apart a caravan from [Bandits]—and Liscor had had [Bandits] for the first time in living memory.

Bastards trying to prey on the outlying farmsteads and new villages. The [Sergeant] had a list of problems that ‘convoy’ and ‘danger’ could mean. Bandits, Bloodfeast Raiders, Hectval

Raskghar?

She followed the Antinium’s finger down and frowned. She had a standard-issue seeing-glass, enchanted with doubling-vision. She pulled it out now, swore, and, after a gut-churning moment, the [Guards] on the battlements saw her pull her hand away from the alarm-horn and laugh.

“[Sergeant]? What’s up?”

Stand down. It’s not an attack! Someone get me a Street Runner!”

Below, the figures at the gate winch took their hands off it. Liscor was now used to attacks, such that if the [Sergeant] had shouted, sworn loudly enough, or made that gurgling sound that suggested someone had shot an arrow through her throat, the portcullis would be down and the alarm would be going up across the walls in a heartbeat.

Instead, a figure who’d been half-asleep, lying on a bench next to the stairs, jerked, and shot up the stairs.

“Message, [Sergeant]? Who?”

The Human boy wiped at his nose as the Drake glanced at him.

“Watch Captain Zevara. Tell her to get to the battlements. Ancestors, tell the entire barracks!”

She pointed. A Gnoll shielded his brows, stared at the odd procession moving their way, which could be danger, an army in miniature…and then laughed. The [Sergeant] grinned as the Antinium and Humans looked blankly at her.

“Tell Watch Captain Zevara that Senior Guardsman Relc is back.”

She pointed at a tiny figure leading hundreds, maybe thousands of people across the Floodplains. It was hard to tell; they kept vanishing as they went up and down valleys, and many were riding covered wagons. Most were Gnolls, too, but there was no mistaking that huge Drake marching with a spear in hand. She even thought he was singing.

[Guards] flocked to the walls and pointed. They shouted and waved, and the Drake looked up and shaded his brows as Cellidel’s Gnolls slowed. Relc raised one claw and smiled.

He was home.

 

——

 

Vok stared up at a foreign Drake city with higher walls than Cellidel. Nothing like Cellidel’s Prelon orchards; there were virtually no trees, and the odd landscape? Much less the Bloodfields they’d passed in the distance—

It was all so strange for a Gnoll who’d lived his entire life in a single city. There had been danger, but not much. Mostly, arguments. Drake cities, wanting to know what a Gnoll tribe was doing, having to be talked down. Buying food, and once a monster attack—quickly quashed by the power of Relc kicking a giant fanged termite-thing about twenty feet.

Strangely, this was the most frightening thing of all. Hickery looked nervous as she and the Guard-squad, the nickname for the Gnolls and Drakes who’d banded together during the riots, marched alongside the caravan. Not that they’d fight alone. Most of the adults had bows or a single weapon, but they’d stuck to trade roads, pooled coin and resources to hire Bronze-rank teams for escort.

At last they were here, and it was nerve-wracking. Vok looked ahead at the back and tail he’d followed with his family all this way.

Senior Guardsman Relc. Gnolls had left their city by the thousand, and some others had left their cities too, hearing of the exodus to Liscor. Not many; many had stayed, and those that left had not gone for Relc alone.

They had left because of how Cellidel had been. But they had gone together because of him. For Liscor’s promise, yes.

But mainly because he told them this was somewhere that had what they wanted:

A fair chance.

It had been nearly a month and a half of travel. Not bad progress for a group like this, even on the trade roads. They’d been wary as they passed the Bloodfields, but the instant they came to the Floodplains, Relc had relaxed.

All that we’ve got here is Rock Crabs, and you can beat one at a time. A group’s trouble.

He’d pointed out the giant scuttling rocks in the distance, and Vok had decided that was a Relc concept, to beat one of those monsters solo.

The Drake turned, now, and grinned as the weary travelers looked up. He pointed, like he’d done the last three hours.

“Almost there! I think they’ve spotted us! That village did. They’ve got villages now. I bet that’s a pain to patrol.”

Indeed, the gates were fully open, and, in the distance, Vok saw a number of figures in armor gathering. He felt a moment of instinctive apprehension at seeing [Guards]—then frowned, shaded his eyes, and sniffed.

It was too far at first, but a chance gust of autumn wind brought a scent to his nose. Hickery pointed.

“Look. Lots of Gnolls.”

Her parents shaded their eyes too.

Senior Guardsman Relc looked ahead and blinked.

‘Lots of Gnolls’ turned out to be three. Three, loitering around with a Drake and six Humans on the southern gates, and a few on the walls. But yes, that essentially constituted all of the Gnoll-[Guard] population in an entire district of Cellidel.

It was almost unheard of to see a group of Gnolls in a patrol in Cellidel. Relc just shrugged, then he grinned, slowed, and clapped Vok on the shoulder.

“I told you we’ve got Gnolls in the Watch. I don’t think Krshia’s back from the Meeting of Tribes, but it’ll be great. Trust me.”

“I see bug-people on the walls. Antinium.”

Someone whispered. Relc glanced up.

“Klb—no.”

He shaded his eyes. Cellidel’s convoy slowed as people pointed up. Of everything, the sight of the dread Antinium stopped them. But Relc raised his arms.

“Hang on. It’s just a Worker. One of the painted ones, I think. Don’t worry—they’re peaceful. Remember the stories I told you?”

He had told them so many tales of Liscor, not all reassuring. Vok half-expected ice cream to be dripping out of the walls while Humans ran around causing riots and spitting blood and doing wondrously silly things.

“It is?

Relc smiled reassuringly. His pointing claw shifted.

“Yep. That’s a Soldier.”

Vok’s gaze moved to the huge Antinium staring down at him and quailed. Relc glanced at the Gnoll’s face and realized he’d made a mistake.

He forgot how the rest of Izril and the world saw Antinium. He tried to rally the convoy and realized half of them looked ready to turn around and march back.

“Come on, guys. It’s just a few Antinium. You outnumber them, right? Let’s just get through the gates…they’re friendly. See?”

He waved a hand at the walls with a grin. Relc saw the Antinium stare at him. Vok, Hickery, and the Gnolls looked at Relc, but then saw a [Sergeant] waving down. Relc grinned in relief as a voice shouted down.

Senior Guardsman Relc, as I live and breathe! Did you have to bring trouble while I was on duty?

The Drake grinned.

“That’s Mudsa. Hey, Mudsa, who promoted you to [Sergeant]?

Go shove your tail right up your—

Mudsa hesitated as she realized she was shouting to a few thousand Gnolls and children.

“—er, come on in! The Watch Captain’s on her way!

She beckoned, and Relc stepped forwards. He looked back and saw the wagons begin to roll forwards once more. Relc was relieved, and wondered if Mudsa had gained a new Skill like he had—until he realized why the fears were partially alleviated.

He looked up and saw the Antinium Worker with the iron helmet and the Soldier waving all four hands. They did it carefully, and you couldn’t see them smile—their faces were alien, bug-like.

But they were waving.

Relc grinned up at them and saluted with one claw. Then, he walked towards the gates of Liscor. The [Guards] on duty stared at him.

“Hey. How’s it been, Rudell? Vrik, right?”

The [Guards] Relc recognized glanced at each other. Rudell snorted. ‘Vrik’ pointed at his chest.

“That’s not my name. Literally no letter in ‘Vrik’ matches my name. I’m Calog.”

“Right. Sorry. I’ve, uh, got visitors. I mean, new citizens.”

Relc jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the Gnolls and people slowly stopping for an inspection. The [Guards] peered over Relc’s shoulder. Calog, Rudell, and the other [Guards] looked at each other. Calog rubbed at his face.

“…You’re definitely Relc. What are we doing? Entry checks on…dead gods, there must be thousands.

“They’re not monsters or fugitives. Most are civilians.”

Calog glowered and leaned forwards.

“I know that, but you can’t just let them in! Where’s Sergeant Mudsa?”

Right here.

The [Sergeant] was storming down the steps. She strode over, raised a fist, and bumped it into Relc’s.

“You big idiot, Relc. It’s great to see you. Where the hell were you? Some Drake city?”

“Cellidel, actually—”

“Tell us later. I think we’ve got to split up. [Detect Truth] crystals on each gate and we just cycle them in with a basic question in groups. South, East, West?”

“Better make it South, East, and North gates, Mudsa. West is too far.”

The [Guards] conferred as Relc stood there, blinking. It was so familiar. And different. This was the kind of thing [Guards] had to do. Mudsa slapped her forehead.

“Human district. Right. But isn’t there an auxiliary gate…? Let’s just get them in, but they have to meet in one place, right? So we need extra [Guards] to escort them to—what—Shivertail’s Plaza?”

Relc interrupted as Rudell began adding up numbers.

“Where’s that?”

“Center plaza in front of City Hall. They renamed it in honor of General Shivertail.”

“Oh. That’s—”

Then Calog caught sight of one of the Guard-squad.

“Are those Gnoll kids holding spears? Dead gods, Relc!”

Vok, Hickery, and the other young Gnolls started uneasily. They had drawn close enough to hear the discussion at the gates. Relc saw uncertain faces peeking at him, and he waved a claw, trying to smile.

“They’re alright. I taught them some tricks. Cellidel was nasty.”

Mudsa nodded.

“I heard. But look, let’s get them split up. We can sort the rest later…”

At this point Relc interrupted.

“Hold on. They’re going to all need housing. I know Liscor’s offering them resettling fees, but I was thinking they needed a place to rest first off. Put things? Is there a place they can all stay together while we sort that out? The new place Hexel’s building? Even a plaza would work; they have tents and they can park the wagons. We’ve got enough food for meals, so if we keep them together, we can roll them into the city and sort it out later. Can we just pull all the [Guards] here so they don’t feel worried about splitting up? We can just line up and send them in. They’ve had a bad run with Cellidel’s Watch.”

Mudsa, Calog, and Rudell, all the veteran [Guards], stopped and turned to Relc. They stared at him, agog. Relc looked from face to face.

“What? No good?”

“No…that would work. Hold on. Do we have anti-doppelganger gear? Calog, you heard that?”

“I think I did. I might be sick. Did Relc just come up with a plan?”

The Gnoll felt at one ear. Relc folded his arms.

“I’ve been thinking on how to get them into the city for the last three days, guys. What?”

“Relc is making plans. Relc.

“You’re hurting my feelings. We’re wasting time here.”

Relc mock-glared, but Rudell put up his spear.

“Excuse me, sir. Please tell me something the real Relc would know.”

“You have warts on your tail. Come on—”

The [Guards] were laughing, and the newbies were grinning. So was Relc, but he was conscious of the nervous Cellidel people. And, sure enough, a Gnoll walked forwards hesitantly.

“Guardspeople. I am [Jeweler] Reson. Can I assist you in any way with the entry process? We’re quite willing to wait if it might take some time…”

He held his hands slightly to his sides, and he had divested himself of his weapon, a simple club. He waited for a truth crystal to be produced. Instantly, the [Guards] stopped laughing and Calog raised his brows.

The Gnoll [Guard] gave Relc a quick glance. Relc raised his brows in a silent ‘right?’, and Mudsa glanced at him. After a second, Calog stepped forwards. He offered Reson a paw. The other Gnoll blinked at it.

“You don’t need to be searched, Artisan Reson, sir. Apologies for the delay. We’re simply trying to expedite the entry process. We’ll summon more [Guards] and have you all into the city within the hour. My name is Guardsman Calog, on gate-duty for this day. Can I assist you all? Are any of you hungry, in need of the privy?”

Reson blinked. He took Calog’s hand uncertainly.

“I—that’s very good of you, Guardsman Calog. There might be some people, but we’re content to enter properly.”

He emphasized the word. Relc smiled slightly as Calog glanced at him. Mudsa whispered to Relc.

“You weren’t kidding.”

He nodded as Calog turned his head and whistled.

“It’s only a formality, sir. We have the Watch Captain on the way to meet you all. There’s no need for alarm. We only need to ask you, under truth spell, about past crimes and intentions…we’re a Gnoll-friendly city, see?”

Six more [Guards] walked out of their posts, trading with Humans, Drakes, and an Antinium with a baton. They were all Gnolls, and waved or smiled at the Cellidel crowd. Relc smiled as Reson relaxed at the sight of them.

Indeed, beyond the gates, citizens of Liscor had certainly noticed the commotion. And unlike Cellidel’s people, they had no problems walking out of the gates. Drakes, Gnolls, and Humans. Someone peered at the crowd.

“Oh, are these more visitors? People coming to Liscor? What a crowd! And—wait a second, is that Relc? I’d recognize you anywhere!”

A finger pointed accusingly at Relc. He turned and saw a Drake pointing at him.

“Where have you been all this time? Are these that horrible Drake city’s people I heard about?”

The Cellidel folk started. A group of Gnolls came out of the city and stared. They waved, and one even began to howl before someone kicked her. The growing crowd was murmuring.

“Oh, look. More Gnolls. Maybe we can put them in our district and win the vote this year.”

“Is that Relc? Where’s he been?”

“Why are we all standing here? Monster attack? New food? News?”

“Aha! This is the Cellidel group! They made it. Where’s a councilmember? They’re going to want to be here to take charge—”

More and more people were staring at Relc. He waved, recognizing faces, but his stomach lurched. There were people in that crowd who had fallen victim to the Golden Triangle scam. And he had not been gone long.

However, no one seemed angry. If anything…they pointed at him. Some even grinned. And then came a voice out of the crowd.

“You did it, you bastard.”

The others went silent. They turned, and someone called out.

“You got them from Cellidel, and showed that city what’s what. Welcome back, Relc. Well done.”

A Gnoll called out. The people of Liscor looked at him, along with the Watch, Cellidel’s people…Vok saw the Gnoll hesitate, grimace.

“What? Someone had to say it. It doesn’t sound right. Well done, Relc. Sounds wrong. But someone had to.”

People laughed, but more murmured agreement. A few even clapped, but that was going too far. Relc looked around and smiled. He was turning back to Mudsa to figure out the entry process when someone shouted.

Senior Guardsman Relc! Stand to attention!

Senior Guardsman Relc snapped up as a familiar voice rang out, and the marching sound of boots echoed down the street. Cellidel’s people froze.

Here came the Watch. But—the female Drake leading them had a mostly Gnoll army of [Guards]. She must have pulled every Gnoll on-duty and on patrol and switched them out.

Watch Captain Zevara, scales glinting light blue, strode down the street in full uniform. She came to a halt as citizens and [Guards] parted, and Relc drew himself up and saluted her.

“Watch Captain.”

“Guardsman Relc. I’m pleased to see you made it. Is this the entire Cellidel delegation?”

The Watch Captain halted in front of him, face impassive. Relc hesitated.

“Yes, Watch Captain. Two thousand, five hundred, and nine by my count. I was hoping to get them settled somewhere and, uh…I had the idea to put them in a plaza…”

He trailed off. The Watch Captain looked him up and down from head to toe. Relc was dusty from the road, and his light green scales were a bit sweaty from marching in his armor. He wore the chainmail he’d taken from Cellidel’s armory since it went well with his leather armor, and his enchanted spear stood at his side.

He was much the same, physically, as before. Even so, Relc was different. He even looked different. It wasn’t so much in the way he stood, with pristine military discipline when he needed to.

It was the way he glanced back, mindful of Vok and the others. Grinned at them.

Senior Guardsman Relc. [Trusted Sergeant of the Watch].

Zevara nodded. She took a deep breath, and spoke.

“I understand. Senior Guardsman Relc, well done. I will expect your debriefing and formal report on the Cellidel situation in person at two past dawning tomorrow. You are formally relieved of day-watch. Go sign out and have a break.”

The Drake [Guardsman] blinked at her. Vok and the others stirred, and Relc jerked his thumb at them.

“Wh—sign out? But the Cellidel people have to get in and—”

“On it.”

Indeed, [Guards] were lining up with truth stones, arranging themselves such that they could take entire families and do cursory wagon checks before they rolled into the city. Watch Captain Zevara saw Relc glance at them.

“What about lodging—”

“Councilmembers Elirr and Lism have been working on that. Miss Selys has kindly offered some of the new complexes being built, and we’ve temporarily opened some of the reserved spacing under construction for the investors. We have them in District 3—that’s the new city’s layout. They’ll all be together. Now that we know you’re here, I think we even have [Cooks] who can begin preparing the food. Some inns will also be serving for free—the Drunken Gnoll is close by, and their [Innkeeper], Timbor, has accepted a day contract.”

Relc blinked at Zevara. Then he saw a pair of figures hurrying down the street. One ran into the crowd, tried to part them like Zevara, and ended up having to push through. He was adjusting some formal robes, while the Gnoll followed in his wake.

“Who notified Watch Captain Zevara first? Commendable, but what about us? Have I missed them? Where’s my speech, Elirr?”

“I threw it away.”

Here came Councilmembers Lism and Elirr. The Gnoll was smiling and nodded to Relc; Lism’s claw was ready to shake every citizen’s who came through the gates, whether they liked it or not. Relc saw a puffing group of [Guards] and officials following—carrying a huge bag of what looked like coins.

Councilmember Lism. Are you going to give away the money as they come in? I told you—”

“You get the money just as promised, Watch Captain. And who is this? Councilmembers Lism and Elirr of Liscor. Delighted to meet you! Come in, come in! Why are they standing around? Where are the refreshments?”

Reson jumped as Lism strode at him, purple-scaled claw thrust out for a handshake. Zevara exhaled a plume of exasperated smoke—coughed—then glanced at him.

“I’ve got this.”

“But—”

The Watch Captain put an arm on Relc’s. He looked at her. She met his gaze, and nodded.

“I’ll handle it. Take a break, Relc. If you want to help, you can help get everyone moving and answer questions. But you’re relieved of duty. This is my city.”

She smiled, and Relc felt like a huge weight had left his shoulders. He looked at her, and a slow smile spread from earhole to earhole. Relc slowly saluted.

“Thanks, Captain Z.”

She rolled her eyes.

“Some things never change. Alright. Councilmember Lism, to the rear! Excuse me, ladies and gentlegnolls! I am Watch Captain Zevara of Liscor, and these are Councilmembers Elirr and Lism. We will be admitting you into the city momentarily and answering any questions you might have! Please line up in front of the [Guards], who will conduct quick inspections! If you are hungry, in need of water or other facilities, please let us know!”

Like clockwork, the uncertain crowd found itself moving forwards, splitting into neat lines as Gnolls walked down, asked a few questions, shook paws, even talked and jested with the new people.

“Try the Drunken Gnoll. It’s run by a Human, but he employs a lot of our folk. You’ll get food from a bunch of places that want your business—but they have a very good [Chef] couple there. Imani and Palt. New food you’ve never tried before.”

Merka, a Gnoll, advised Vok’s parents as Relc hovered nearby. Another Gnoll he vaguely remembered called Geils, a Drake name, was passing Vok.

“Spear-skills and a [Guard] class?”

“Yes, Guardsman.”

Geils raised his brows. He gave Vok a toothy grin, which the young man didn’t know how to respond to.

“Well, if you want to apply for the Watch, we might need to account for your age, but you’re clear to move through the gates. Welcome! I think there are many Gnolls waiting to welcome you in, but we’ll get you settled before they come at you, yes?”

Vok glanced at Relc, and the Drake grinned. There was something in the air. The wariness was turning into the same thing that had propelled these people here. Only, realized.

Hope. Hope, that wasn’t an illusion. Hickery was hopping up and down. She felt it. She was excitedly staring at little Gnolls and Drakes and Humans who were running about. A little Visma was even holding up a Welcome to Liscor sign she’d hand-painted.

Cellidel’s people had mostly entered Liscor, looking at the coins Lism had put in each paw with some amazement, by the time Relc actually began taking a break. He took a glass of water, sipped at it, frowned at the lemon wedge attached to the glass, and looked around.

“Liscor’s changed.”

He had seen the expansion to the city from afar, and he had been there when it had first gone up. Yet the stone was creeping into an actual wall, and…there were a lot more Humans and Antinium on the streets.

Even a Dullahan, strolling about with an odd covering over their armor. Was that a shirt over the metal plate that said ‘I Survived Liscor Hunting’? Relc had absolutely no context for that, but he wanted some.

“You have no idea. Some of it’s great. What are you doing now?”

“Uh…”

Relc had been expecting to be settling people all day, but Lism and Elirr had an army of officials helping do just that.

“Go to my apart—no, wait. I don’t have one.”

“Then we’ll get you settled. Don’t worry, there’s cheap rooms everywhere.”

Mudsa assured him. Relc nodded; he had his bag of holding with all of his worldly possessions anyways. She jerked a thumb-claw.

“I can’t stay long, but you have to have a drink. Everyone at the barracks wants to ask what went down in Cellidel. Some Creler-crap, huh?”

“You could say that. What, you’re too good to say hi to me?”

Relc grinned. The [Sergeant] gave him a mock-glare.

“I’ve scheduled a date with my boyfriend for the last two weeks and if I miss it, he’ll give me ten Rhirs. We’re going on a walk to see the leaves. A wine-walk. You sip wine and, uh, stare at trees or something.”

Relc nodded, bemused.

“Wait. Trees? What trees?”

Invrisil. No—wait. Somewhere north of there. It’s a special portal to one of those Human lands. It wasn’t cheap, and I had to reserve it right off.”

“A portal…oh. The door.”

Suddenly, Relc went still, and the jollity of the other [Guards] faded. Someone nudged Mudsa, and she hesitated.

“Yeah. They moved it to Shivertail’s Plaza. There’s a system and everything. Convenient—sort of. You have to have times and now they even want you to sign up on lists. But it works—for a fee. You can see it.”

“Right. How’s…the inn?”

The others exchanged looks.

“I haven’t been in, but we patrol around it and everywhere. It’s still standing.”

“Right.”

Relc glanced towards the gates. He had seen it, of course, but chosen to enter the city first. Now, though…Mudsa broke the silence by gesturing to the other [Guards] who’d been called down to help with the immigration.

“You’ve, uh, seen the new [Guards], right?”

“Oh. Yeah. Hey, I’m Relc.”

“Senior Guardsman Relc. He’ll be working once he sets in. He’s the guy you call to break up bar fights. Not that bright, but—”

Relc feigned a punch, then stopped and began to introduce himself. He shook hands with some Humans, and met Iron Helm, the Worker.

“Antinium in the Watch?”

“Yep. We even have an Antinium [Sergeant]. He used to lead the Antinium-only patrol, but Zevara started mixing us up. Yellow Splatters?”

“I know him. Wow. So…”

Relc was looking around, at a loss for what to exactly say.

This is how I remember it. But not. He remembered the feeling quite well. Relc looked for Vok, Hickery, or someone who needed him to reassure them they weren’t dreaming or being tricked.

There wasn’t anyone.

Suddenly, he was alone. A sense of terrible isolation washed over Relc—for a moment. Another familiar feeling, but he had a thought.

“Where’s my k—where’s Embria? Wing Commander Embria and 4th Company?”

The [Guards] fell silent again, and exchanged looks in a way Relc didn’t like. Rudell coughed.

“You didn’t hear about…? They’re engaged. 4th Company. And Liscor’s Volunteer Army.”

“Volunteer Army. Is that what they’re calling it? They’re fighting with the Hectval-Drisshia-Luldem alliance.”

Calog muttered. Relc’s stomach twisted up. So that’s why the letters stopped reaching him. He had assumed they’d been sent to Cellidel while he was on the march.

“How’s it going?”

“—Complicated.”

The answer no one wanted to hear. Relc had often been part of ‘complicated’. But he had seldom been the one receiving news. The [Guards] looked at his face.

“Let’s get a drink, eh? Maybe find some of the off-duty [Guards]? Jeiss will join us. We can visit one of the bars. The Drunken Gnoll. How about it?”

“Sounds good.”

Mudsa tried to reassure Relc as those nearing their cycle end made sure their replacements were here.

“4th Company’s been in the fighting, but I haven’t heard of significant casualties from them. We’d know if Embria were hurt.”

“Right. Then who has been taking casualties?”

“Let’s…start from the beginning.”

They were heading off when someone began panicking. Relc’s head snapped up as he heard a voice crying out.

Antinium! It’s the Antinium—

“Oh, dead gods. Is it a full march of Soldiers or something? Sounds like your people, Relc.”

The Senior Guardsman turned with the others. He was almost glad of the interruption.

For while he was sure he would be riveted by the discussion of the war, and he was glad to be among the Watch, it struck him once he realized Embria was gone. The inn was closed, of course. Watch Captain Zevara had promised to find him once her work day was over, but she worked day and night.

Maybe he’d find Menolit or some of the retirees, or see if one of the puzzle-heads, [Traders] or otherwise, was in the city.

Selys? Right, Selys, Drassi…he’d say hi. But they weren’t his closest friends. He would stop by the inn with…something. Check on Vok and Hickery—introduce them to Visma and Ekirra. That was a smart idea.

But that was Senior Guardsman Relc’s routine. His new routine, which was complicated and difficult, but necessarily so, and it mattered.

Relc? Relc was the same as he’d always been, and he knew it.

Alone.

Perhaps he’d go after Mrsha. Or Embria. It depended on if he was needed. He had been needed with Cellidel’s people.

Now? Relc strode over to stop someone having a panic attack, but was he really needed?

Apparently so, because there was a bevy of [Guards] standing around, even Liscor’s friendly citizens, and the shouting was continuing. A high, panicked voice from a Gnoll woman, pointing.

“Hey now, what’s wrong? I told you, the Antinium are friendly kids. Mostly.”

Relc tried to grin, but he saw a few hands on blades. What? And then he had a thought.

Aberration?

It all came into his mind a flicker before he saw what the problem was. The Gnoll woman backed away, running into someone else. She pointed a paw.

“The Antinium—the Antinium. It’s that one! The Prognugator. The—the—”

Relc’s head turned. He saw someone standing in the street, and even Captain Zevara looked astonished.

Xrn? Wasn’t she wounded in—

Then Relc knew. He gently took the Gnoll woman’s paws off his arm, and stepped forwards. At last, the words came out.

That famous name.

The Slayer.

Watch Captain Zevara started. She looked away from the slimmer, taller Antinium standing there. Watching her. She hesitated and spoke.

“No.”

“Yes.”

Klbkch the Slayer, Centenium, corrected Zevara. He stood in the center of the street, resting two hands on the silver swords sheathed at his sides.

Relc stared.

“Klb?”

The Antinium looked up. He was not the Klbkch that Relc remembered. His head was mostly the same, but every other part of him had changed.

He was lean, with a distinctly humanoid body, rather than the rounded shell of the Workers. His legs were oddly articulated, almost like someone had added a natural curve to the thin legs and feet. His chitin, the shell, was no longer the brown-black, but an odd, dark grey. It looked shadowy.

The real change, however, was in his arms. He had been using only two simple arms in his humanoid body before.

Now, the slightly refined movements had turned into something different. Klbkch seemed like he was balanced, standing at ease in the street. His arms had a reinforced look, as did his upper torso. He wore no clothing nor armor above his waist, and had a simple, kilt-like piece of clothing along his belt.

It was the same belt as when he had been a [Guard], with a little bag of holding added on. But Klbkch? He looked like his body was armored, shaped chitin moving smoothly as he turned his head.

He moved like a [Swordmaster]. He had always been good with his swords, but Relc had seen this one time before. That night Klbkch had lost his temper. He slid as he stepped forwards, as if any moment he could change direction to whichever he pleased.

As if gravity touched him less. Someone in complete control of his faculties.

Only the swords marked him as even remotely close to the Klbkch of old. But it was that—the famous blades that had marked him out in two wars—that the Gnoll woman had recognized.

Relc, and the others in the Watch, recognized Klbkch. Yet they all stood there, looking at him.

Because…

“Am I not how you remember me? Watch Captain Zevara, Sergeant Mudsa. Senior Guardsman Relc. Greetings.”

Klbkch’s voice was the same, at least. He shrugged, and the long traveller’s cloak around his shoulders moved slightly. He rested his hands on the shortswords and looked around.

“I appear to have interrupted the Watch in the course of their duties. Forgive me.”

“Not at all. Klbkch. Is that you, Klbkch?”

Zevara didn’t sound certain. Klbkch turned his head, and Relc recognized the slight head-tilt, as did Zevara.

“Of course, Watch Captain. I would like to inform you I have returned from my leave of absence. But I do not know if I will be quite able to return to my old position in the same capacity.”

“Oh, uh—I’ll check the schedule. We can discuss…”

Zevara trailed off, but Relc inhaled. Because he recognized it. Klbkch was as formal and precise as ever, but even Klb didn’t really expect to talk work the moment he returned.

He was, in his sly way, having fun. The Antinium’s head turned, and he looked around. He surveyed the cautious faces and nodded.

“Relc.”

“Klb, buddy. What happened to you?”

The Antinium turned to face the Drake as everyone else drew back. There they were. Relc remembered precisely the last time they’d truly met—and fought. Klbkch looked Relc up and down. He opened his mandibles, which had developed an odd, purplish tinge at the edges.

Poison? The Slayer shifted and so did Relc, moving his weight onto his right foot.

“Will we fight to the death, now? Watch Captain Zevara is within her authority to request my termination. As she always has been. I am Klbkch the Slayer of the Hives. I claim the authority of the Grand Queen of the Antinium. Well?

The last note in his voice made the hair raise and scales tingle on a number of watchers, even his friends. Zevara’s head snapped up, but Relc Grasstongue just stood there. He had his spear in his claw, but he slowly reached out with his other claw.

“Klbkch.”

“That is my name, Relc.”

The Drake reached out—hesitated—and then grabbed Klbkch’s shoulder. The Antinium let it happen. He grabbed Relc’s arm, gently, just above the elbow.

The two stared at each other for a long moment. Then Klbkch opened his mandibles and raised them.

“I trust you have not gotten into too much trouble while I was absent.”

Relc looked around at the citizens of Cellidel still nearby. He looked at Klbkch, and then a grin spread over his face. He raised his claw, and then slapped Klbkch on his flexible back-shell.

“You have no idea, Klb, how many times I needed you to sort things out.”

The Antinium twitched his antennae and sighed audibly.

“Some things never change. I am quite glad I left, in that case. Then again…”

He looked around Liscor, and Relc saw something like his feelings flit over Klbkch’s face. It was so subtle. A shift in the way the light shone on his insectoid eyes. A movement, from foot to foot. The slow turn of his head and the way his antennae moved.

Even the other Antinium—Klbkch paused on them, and they stared at him. A stranger. Klbkch looked around Liscor, then seemed to focus on Relc, Zevara, and the Watch. He nodded to himself, slowly.

“I am back.”

 

——

 

Senior Guardsman Klbkch and Senior Guardsman Relc walked down the street. Off-duty, but word spread ahead of them like a storm.

They were back. The huge Drake with arm muscles second only to Magus Grimalkin, and his huge grin, strode along next to Klbkch, who had gained in height. Yet he adopted the relaxed swagger of a [Guard] on long patrol, nodding to people who stared at him.

For a moment, they just walked like that. As they always had. Walked, and the city of Liscor turned with them.

“Hey. Market Street’s the same as always. Does Lism still have his shop?”

“Evidently. Would you like to make a purchase?”

“Of what? Pork belly? He’s selling pork belly?”

“Am I to understand this is a particularly fine cut of meat? Pig bellies being desirable because…?”

“Klb. Klb. Don’t tell me you’ve never had pork belly before?”

“I have never inquired into the body parts I eat. That is a hamburger. Do you ask which nose went into it?”

A Human paused with a double-fish-pork burger and stared at it with a look of horror—trumped only by the look she gave Klbkch. The stall owner glared, and Relc slapped Klbkch on the shoulder.

“Now that’s the Klbkch I know. Ruining things for everyone.”

“I simply do not see why a belly is more desirable.”

“Taste, probably. I dunno. If something tastes better, everyone wants it, right?”

“Yes. This is simple fact. However, are all pigs the same in terms of belly-quality? Would not some pigs have…superior legs? Would, in theory, a pig’s ear not be better than your average pig’s belly?”

“It’s a belly, Klbkch. Don’t overthink it.”

“A statement perfectly at home with people who possess bellies and belly-buttons. I do not. This is all somewhat strange to me.”

Heads turned as the two [Guards] bantered back and forth. The metaphysics of belly-economics made half the shoppers decide to head to Lism’s stall, manned by a shop assistant, just to find out. Relc half-glared at Klbkch, but the huge smile on his face was too big to make it work.

“You’ve lived in Liscor for ten years, Klb. You need to stop being confused all the time.”

“And you, Relc, need to stop assuming the world is easy to understand. I highlight my ignorance, rather than assume I know everything erroneously.”

“Yeah, well…you could eat pork belly whenever you want.”

“But why would I?”

They turned a corner, and Relc laughed. He inhaled, laughed, and then nearly sneezed on Klbkch, who dodged.

“Please stop that.”

“Phew. You stink, Klb, buddy! I didn’t notice it before but—”

Relc sniffed, then went to plug his nostrils. Klbkch indeed had a fugue about him. Not entirely foul, but altogether so…

“It smells like you got musked—but not by a skunk! It smells like a butcher’s—but without the blood. It smells like—”

“Thank you for shouting how much I stink to the street.”

An elbow hit Relc in the stomach so fast he barely saw it coming. He grunted.

“And you’re faster. What happened?

Klbkch raised one arm and apparently sniffed it, though he had no nose and didn’t make the same sound.

“Ah. I left so quickly the odor must still be on me. My body was just reconnected. Or rather—the ligaments were healed via a potion. The Birther sac must still be on me.”

Relc gave him a side-eye.

“What? Did you just get born or something? Birthers make Antinium, don’t they?”

“Yes. My body was remade. Hence my sudden reappearance; I am still somewhat stiff from the healing potions that were used to finalize the process. Inefficient, but effective. Incidentally, if you would like to eliminate me as a threat, now would be the best time.”

Relc stopped. He looked at Klbkch, who turned his head to regard him calmly.

“Klb. I just got back. You’re my best friend—or you were—and we haven’t seen each other for ages.”

“Ah. But you do have orders to watch me. And if necessary…if the Antinium of the Free Hive were ever to become treacherous, we both know your role.”

Relc nodded slowly.

“Yeah. But I just got back. If we’re going to kill each other, can we do it after we eat? Or tomorrow?”

The Antinium Senior Guardsman looked at Relc. The two stared at each other as every Gnoll on the street sweated under their fur, then Klbkch smiled and Relc laughed and slapped him on the shoulder.

They kept walking. Klbkch didn’t laugh like Relc, who chortled all the way down the street, but he smiled. For Klbkch…

They were back again. Klbkch pointed.

“[Pickpocket]. Left.”

Relc turned his head and saw a Human boy sneaking over. He raised a fist.

“Wait a second, neither of us are on duty. We’re not clocked in, even. I bet someone took my locker.”

“Indeed. So we are civilians with a Watch class, walking about.”

The two looked at each other. Relc raised a fist and shouted so loudly the entire street jumped.

Hey, you! You brat! Get lost or I’ll break your legs! Wait, am I allowed to do that?”

Klbkch tapped at his chin as the [Pickpocket] looked up and ran for it.

“I believe not, as that would be assault on another person. However, if you witnessed the pickpocketing in progress, perhaps that would be aggravated retaliation against a criminal, in which case you might receive a warning. Threats are, however, quite acceptable.”

“Awesome. Not that I’d do it, you know. I am a [Trusted Sergeant of the Watch], now.”

Relc ran a claw through his neck spines. Klbkch came to a stop. He stared at Relc.

“You are a Watch Sergeant. You consolidated your class.”

Relc puffed out his chest.

“Yep. Twice, actually. [Guardsman of Trust] and then [Sergeant] from my army class. Nothing big. You, uh, level up any? Get some fancy new class?”

Klbkch didn’t reply. He walked forwards, then stopped and turned his head.

You are a [Trusted Sergeant]. You.”

“Technically, I outrank you now. Not that it matters, Senior Guardsman Klbkch. But, uh, yep. New Skills too, by the way. Squad Skills, even. Probably necessitates a pay raise. And your new class is…you got how many levels?”

The Antinium’s mandibles slowly opened and closed.

“…I have received a new composite body at the height of Antinium form-shaping on Izril, with a multitude of unique capabilities.”

“Right, right. So no new class is what I’m hearing.”

“My mandibles are poisoned.”

“Yeah? And my farts smell. You’ve got nothing.”

Klbkch walked along for a few more steps as Relc grinned behind him. Then the Drake saw Klbkch turn.

“…I do not know if I will still act as a [Guardsman]. There is little reason for me to do so any longer. I returned to see Liscor. I did not know you had left until you returned.”

The Drake’s smile faded. He looked at Klbkch, and the Antinium stood there.

“You’ve changed, Relc.”

The six-foot-three Centenium with his shadow-grey body and lithe form remarked. The Drake checked himself, and tugged at his new chainmail and identical body. He nodded slowly.

“…I guess I have. Sorry for springing it on you, Klb. It just happened.”

The Antinium looked at Relc. He exhaled.

“I forgive you. Would you like to go for a walk, Relc?”

The Drake glanced about.

“I thought we were.”

Klbkchhezeim shook his head. He looked to the walls, and Relc followed his gaze. Slowly, the Drake murmured.

“Oh. In that case…sure.”

 

——

 

Two [Guards] walked out of the gates of Liscor and across the Floodplains, talking. Arguing, bickering sometimes, but just walking.

Off-duty. One had a spear over his shoulders, the other walked with twin swords at his waist.

One was Antinium, the other a Drake. They were headed towards a building.

An inn, on a hill.

That was how it always had been. For a year. Exactly one year, they had walked like this. Sometimes it had been one or the other. Or one hadn’t gone. Or…

But this was how it started.

It was not the same. They didn’t have as far to go anymore, and they were changed. One greatly; he was a [Watch Sergeant] now.

…The circumstances were different, too. Both kept looking towards the inn.

“Dark. It always used to look like that in that village, remember? A ghost inn, staying up when the rest fell to pieces. You always did say someone might squat there. [Bandits].”

“Superior construction to the other buildings. Perhaps the old [Innkeeper] had a Skill.”

“Yeah. Now…”

The windows were dark. Glass, dimly reflecting the sunlight. It wasn’t evening. The time was off. It should have been evening, and the fading sunlight turning the Floodplains to an ocean of orange and red.

But it wasn’t. Nor was there any light merrily shining from within. A telltale smokestack…

“Like the old days. She thought I was a Dragon, remember?”

“I believe you told me that over a hundred times that week, yes.”

“And she had those blue fruits. Dead gods, I asked about them when we got back to town and some people sold them, but everyone warned me about the poison.”

“Yes. They did.”

The Drake fell silent, because his companion gave him so little to work with. As if he didn’t care…until the Antinium spoke.

“Acid flies.”

“Hm? Oh, right. Her catching them and you eating them.”

“Such innovation. And I recall the high-grade Potion of Cleansing Wounds…”

“Yep. All on her hand. Good call, though. If it wasn’t high-grade, you’d have blasted her hand off. Wow, the hand-cut from the fish. I almost forgot.”

“Yes.”

Their footsteps slowed as they looked up the hill. The inn was dark. After a moment, Relc spoke.

“…Maybe she’ll be in there when we open that door. She’ll say something like, ‘I saw a Dragon!’.”

“That sounds quite like her. She will not be.”

“You don’t know that.”

Klbkch opened his mandibles. He looked at Relc, then slowly nodded.

“I do not. There is a chance, however small. A chance so minute, so incomprehensible, you would have to be a fool beyond saving to believe it—”

“Yeah, just watch it, Klbkch. I can still punch you one.”

The Antinium saw Relc raise a threatening fist. Klbkch looked up at the windows. He went on after a moment.

“…a chance so minute it cannot happen. But if there were a chance.”

“Yeah. Do you want to…?”

For an answer, Klbkch began walking up the hill. Slowly. So slowly. Relc followed him after a moment. They didn’t speak for the first few steps, then Klbkch did.

“Hectval is at war with Liscor. I did not realize.”

“Hm? Yeah. We sent the army out. The new army, I mean. Embria’s there.”

“Your daughter. Yes. Are you worried?”

“She’s alive. I’ll ask more later. What about you? I heard we sent Antinium to the front.”

Klbkch hesitated. He touched his swords.

“I could make a difference. However, if I enter the war, it will escalate.”

“Yeah. Do you know what’s happening, though?”

The Antinium nodded.

“Of course. What do you wish to know? The shape of the war? The military gains? The losses?”

“…Just how it is.”

Klbkch thought about the question. When he answered, it was simply.

“It is how you have always talked about Liscor’s wars to me.”

Relc Grasstongue looked up at Klbkch’s back. His eyes flickered.

“Brave kids. Heroes and bastards. Miracles and chance. A lot of dying.”

“Yes.”

They came to the front door. Relc hesitated. He craned his neck back and pointed.

“There it is.”

Klbkch nodded. He had seen it too. Hanging right under the name of the inn. And a sign hammered into the ground with the original lettering peeling slightly, but perfectly legible.

“Do you know where all the Goblins went? I expected the inn to be crowded, even without Erin.”

Relc started. He looked at Klbkch and slapped his forehead.

“Ancestors, Klb! You don’t know about Mrsha? I heard on the way back. Not about Mrsha or…?”

“I know about the Horns of Hammerad. Is that what you are referring to?”

“Dead gods. No. It’s—”

Relc hesitated. His voice trailed off as he raised a claw and curled it into a fist. He looked at Klbkch and then knocked. The Revalantor went still. The two waited.

“She’s not there.”

“Of course not. It would be silly t—I hear footsteps.

The two stared at each other. Then Relc put one earhole to the door. He looked at Klbkch. Wordlessly, the Antinium stepped back. The two held their breaths and stared at the door.

The Wandering Inn’s front door opened slowly. Both Drake and Antinium stared at the figure in the shadowed hallway, holding their breath. Three hearts beat rapidly. It couldn’t be. But just maybe. Mayb—

“Guardsman Relc? Guardsman Klbkch? It’s you.”

Ishkr stood in the doorway. Relc exhaled in a rush, and Klbkch nodded.

“Ah. Ishkr. I hope we are not intruding?”

The Gnoll [Head Server] looked at the two. Then he smiled.

“Not at all. Would you like to come in?”

“Ah…no. No, we both just got back and…”

The inn was dark behind Ishkr. Relc looked at Klbkch.

“Erin’s not here, so…”

“She’s here.”

Klbkch murmured. Relc stopped. He stared ahead, down that long hallway. His voice lowered, and his hand grasped onto his spear tightly.

“…Yeah. Of course she is.”

The two lingered for a while, but then stepped through the entryway. The floorboards didn’t squeak like the old inn, and there was no dust because someone still kept them clean.

The [Grand Theater] was very big, and very dark, with only sunlight. It was echoingly haunted. Relc looked around the front of the common room, and it felt familiar. The bar and layout had changed slightly, and far more had been added.

He saw Lyonette’s work schedule pinned to one wall, an actual menu hanging up, chairs ready to be placed at other tables, even the giant mirror that Palt had enchanted to show the news.

There were menus hand-illustrated and sitting up as well, and someone had kept watering the flower boxes that held regular, beautiful flowers along each window.

…Yet the kitchen was dark and there was no white furry thing scurrying around. The stage was dark, without someone strutting their hour behind the curtain. No [Bard] sat playing guitar in a corner, and there was no bee or chatty [Bartender].

It was just like they remembered it. And not.

Klbkch sat down at a table. Relc trailed along one wall.

“They started putting up guest testimonials?”

“Miss Solstice did.”

“No way. Why—hey, that’s Magus Grimalkin. Why is his face up here?”

Relc pointed at the illustration and lengthy dissertation on the proper etiquette and form of using the weights room. Ishkr smiled slightly.

“Miss Solstice decided to put up a few illustrations, on the theory that some guests would appreciate it. She never…finished the project.”

“Oh. Right. The inn’s clean.”

Relc ran a claw over a table. Ishkr nodded.

“I clean it.”

“Obviously, duh. I just meant…”

“Silveran comes by now and then. One of the Workers.”

“Oh. That’s kind of him.”

Ishkr stood there, half in darkness, half in the sunlight leaking through the windows. He gestured to the stairs.

“Miss Imani and Palt moved out, as did Mage Bezale. Recently. Architect Hexel and his staff…my sister sometimes stays here as her landlady gives her issues and she doesn’t sign up for the new housing. Your room is still here. If you would like, I can give you the key.”

“Really. I…no. I won’t stay here yet.”

Klbkch looked up from reading the menu as Relc brushed at his neck scales again. The Senior Guardsman nodded to Ishkr.

“We’ll just…sit here, if that’s okay. For a moment?”

“As long as you need. I will get out of your fur.”

“Thanks. Uh—you don’t have to—thanks. Nice guy.”

Relc said that last part to Klbkch as he sat down. The Antinium nodded simply. Relc leaned on the table across from him.

Here they were. But no young woman came rushing out of the kitchen. Relc caught himself glancing at the doorway, and felt embarrassed…until he realized Klbkch kept watching the stairs.

“A lot’s happened. I missed it.”

That was all Relc said after a long while. Klbkch nodded.

“You were gone in Cellidel? On voluntary posting? Did you do something wrong?”

Relc’s head lowered.

“Yeah. I didn’t have you to talk me out of it. I went to Cellidel. It’s a long story.”

“In brief?”

The Drake hesitated and struggled for words.

“Nothing big. Just—idiots thinking they can beat on citizens and do whatever they want. Bad stuff happening. The Watch was a mess—nothing like Captain Z. That’s all of it. Riots—some [Painter] guy. But just idiots. What about you? How’d you lose your last body after…”

Klbkch shrugged.

“Largely similar. Incompetence uncovered on a fundamental level. I have yet to address it fully.”

“Huh. So you really are going to manage the Hives, then?”

“Yes. I believe I must. Xrn is wounded. She may never recover.”

“Really.”

Klbkch slowly opened and closed his hand.

“Not as things stand. They must change. You have made a change. Now I must. Not here. I do not know if I am needed here any longer.”

“Me neither.”

They exchanged glances, and then looked away. Relc looked for an open door. A garden. But it didn’t come, and he didn’t summon it.

It was too quiet. And Klbkch…Relc stared at the kitchen, then checked the sky.

“I promised to meet some of my people. And I don’t know if you’re busy—”

“I have over a hundred tasks to accomplish, yes.”

Which meant literally over a hundred, and Klbkch could list each one if he wanted. Relc nodded. He put his huge claws on the table to push himself back.

“We can—catch up later. If you want. I know…”

He had gotten up when Klbkch held up a hand. So Relc stopped. The Antinium hesitated. He sat there and hesitated, and it was an odd thing for Klbkch to do.

“I returned to the Hives, as you know. Incidents occured that meant I would receive a new body, but one of the things I did was to reestablish contact with the Queens of the Hives. Five Queens, and Wrymvr the Deathless. A fellow Centenium of old.”

The Drake [Spearmaster] stilled. He looked at Klbkch, and, aside from the [Strategists] and leaders who had dedicated their lives to studying the Antinium, and a few other people, he was one of the few who understood what that meant.

“Yeah?”

Klbkch drummed his fingers slowly on the table. His mandibles opened and closed. He made a kcrch sound, and then coughed.

“Wrymvr. It is difficult for me to express this properly, as I have never had to. However…Relc.”

He looked up into his friend’s yellow gaze. Relc just waited. Klbkch searched and spoke.

“I have known Wrymvr since he was created. I am the older of the two of us, but our existence reaches back to the beginning of the Antinium as a true species. We have served the same positions, and our goals are identical. We have experienced the same events, and we were created of the same Queen. Our history is a shared one.”

The Drake said nothing. At last, Klbkch looked at Relc.

“…Despite that. He was less pleasant to be around. I have thought of that, now and then.”

Relc blinked. Klbkch went on, as he looked around the quiet inn.

“It occurs to me, Relc, that over our career as [Guardsmen] of Liscor, you have asked me to go with you for a drink and/or meal over a thousand times. I can count the number of times I have done so on two hands. We have often had snacks together in an acceptable way as [Guards]. Seldom meals upon pre-arranged request.”

“Yeah?”

Klbkch slowly reached down for something and placed it on the table. Relc looked down, and Ishkr, like the excellent staff member he was, reappeared.

A single gold coin glinted on the table. Gross overpayment, of course, but you didn’t come here for the fiscal value. Klbkch looked up at Relc.

“As I believe it is customary, Relc, I cordially invite you to ‘have a drink’. Let us also have a meal. I will buy the first round. Tell me about Cellidel.”

The Drake’s eyes widened. He looked down at the gold coin, and then pulled his chair out. He sat down, and Ishkr hurried over.

“Can I get you two anything? The kitchen doesn’t have a [Cook], but I can do [Basic Cooking], and we do have stored foods. Any preferences?”

Relc glanced at Klbkch. The Antinium looked at him, and they both knew what they were going to order. Relc raised a claw and smiled.

“Do you have pasta? Spaghetti? And some blue fruit juice?”

Ishkr blinked. Then nodded. Klbkch raised his hand.

“I will have pasta as well, as I can finally metabolize it. Acid flies on mine, if you have any.”

“Aw, come on, Klb—”

“You can put meat on yours. Pork belly.”

“Oh. Yeah. Pork belly for the both of us! If you’ve got it. And, uh, I’ll have an ale with the blue fruit…”

The two began ordering. Ishkr ended up rushing out to see if he could get some pork belly, but he set them up with a bowl of acid flies, french fries, and drinks. Relc and Klbkch sat there. It wasn’t about the additions. It was the pasta and blue fruit that mattered.

The gold coin glittered on the table, catching the light as Relc fussed about the fireplace, and Klbkch eventually pointed a Wand of Flame Ray and lit it.

Some things were different. But then they sat, smiling, talking, and telling each other what had happened. They ate and drank in The Wandering Inn, the pair of them. Then, after a while…

They went to find Erin and say hello.

 

——

 

It was a very special day. Because it wasn’t.

Any day could be quite special. Extraordinary, even. All it took was a reunion, a new idea—and the mundane was kicked out of the way by the fantabulously interesting.

That was the lesson they’d all learned. Your boring every afternoon didn’t have to look like that. Of course, with that precious knowledge came the other side.

Terrible things could happen out of the blue. Disaster could be waiting around the corner with a crossbow.

It was a special day, because they thought of her.

Klbkch and Relc stood on a hill, chatting. No solemn silence. No flowers. It might have been that if they had come earlier. It didn’t…work.

Not today. Not for them. Klbkch pushed Relc slightly as the Drake joked around.

“…And I’ve been gaining classes. Klb here just has his new body.”

“With poisoned mandibles.”

“—So he can’t even kiss someone. He makes it sound good, but I think the Queens messed up.”

“This is not an issue that has ever been presented to me. Nor do I intend to seek the opportunity out.”

Relc gestured helplessly at his friend.

“You see? What am I supposed to do with…this guy?”

He trailed off. The [Innkeeper] smiled at him. Relc took a breath, and a bit of mist escaped his lips. The frozen bier was like it had been the last time. The flowers frozen and dead. The trinkets…

“So I might go off soon. I had to get the kids back from Cellidel. But after that, I’ll be after Mrsha. You know me. Kidnapping? I’m great at chasing and hitting people.”

Klbkch looked at Relc and nodded.

“I will also look into the matter.”

“Yeah.”

Relc knelt down, then decided to just sit. Klbkch kept standing…for a minute. Then, as if gravity were leaning on him, he sat too. They sat there, as Ishkr looked up from the door to the inn.

“You’ll be back. Right, Klb? She’ll be back.”

The Antinium opened and closed his mandibles.

“…If anyone could, it would be her.”

Relc nodded. They kept sitting there. Klbkch glanced at Relc and kept nearly speaking. The Drake just stared ahead, at Erin, at something else. They sat there, as frost crept over both, scales and chitin.

They didn’t move for a long time. It was that kind of day. That was how it began.

With memories. With…the thought of home.

How home should be.

Even if it wasn’t.

 

——

 

The problem was that the world was better. The problem was that the world was more interconnected. In the old days, which were the bad days, you couldn’t talk with people around the world.

Or, if it were possible, it was the kind of thing that took multiple Couriers or magic beyond the ken of most mortals and so on and so forth.

If something terrible or glorious happened, you’d hear about it in the news, and that was a grand and momentous—yet distant—thing.

Now? [Messages] were common and cheap, and the world was changing faster. The result was that you didn’t leave people behind; you could talk to them, talk with someone around the entire world, and that was glorious.

Sometimes, though—

It only reminded you that you were alone. Or that Erin wasn’t back yet.

Krshia Silverfang took a long sip of wine. One sip, and she put the cup down. She had business to do—[Chieftains] to meet, and she could not be tipsy when she was one of the faces of the Silverfangs, in the spotlight and grasping at the future with both paws.

But she took that sip, because she had to. She didn’t know if it was good, what she did. But Chieftain Torishi had advised her to tell the little Gnoll girl.

“She has had enough secrets. This is good news. Mourning and happiness are part of life. We must flee from neither.”

That was Weatherfur’s wisdom, from someone older and wiser. So Krshia told Mrsha.

“Relc has returned. And Klbkch, yes? Gnolls from Cellidel.”

The little Gnoll girl brightened up and smiled. Relc? He was back from stinky Cellidel? And Klbkch too? Great news! She began writing that Krshia should tell them she was well—until she realized Krshia would have to code that. Then she began to ask how many Gnolls.

Then she thought of Erin. And Krshia saw Mrsha look lost. The girl looked around for her mother, or Numbtongue, and recalled how far away all of them were.

On a quest—to save her. Not even Erin. She looked for Apista, or Bird, or Selys…then glanced up and kindly settled for Krshia. So the Gnoll [Shopkeeper] wouldn’t feel bad.

“We will be home soon, yes?”

Krshia hugged Mrsha tightly. The girl patted Krshia on the head.

Yes, we will.

Krshia wanted to linger, but Akrisa was already in a meeting. So she hugged Mrsha again.

“I will get word to them that you are well, so they do not run across the continent, hm? Do you want to go with someone?”

Mrsha held up a card with a big name written on it.

Gire.

Krshia nodded and took her by the paw out of the tent. She found the giant Gnoll waiting for her morning playdate with her best friend, and smiled. Gire sniffed the sip of wine on her breath, of course, but made no comment. Krshia saw Mrsha off, then turned. She strode, almost ran, to her first meeting, to shake hands and make complicated deals.

If she stopped too long, she would start crying.

As for Mrsha? The Gnoll looked solemnly up at Gire, who paused.

“Do you want to do something else today, Mrsha? Buy another lobster? Or we can go and see some sights? How about horse races?”

She was excited, and clearly doing sums in her head about how much food Mrsha could buy on the pretext of ‘snacks’. Normally, Mrsha would be raring to go as well. Today? Mrsha put up a paw, massaging at her back.

Not today, Gire. One moment, one moment.

She hobbled over to a table in the Silverfang camp like an old woman and sat down. Gire frowned as Mrsha searched around, made a groaning sound, picked up a cup, and headed over to the food tent. She came back, put the cup down, and cleared the space around it. Then she put a paw around the cup and…exhaled.

The cup was filled with goat’s milk, incidentally. However, the Gnoll girl began to nurse it. Taking small sips, exhaling.

“Mrsha? Is something wrong? Are you thirsty?”

Sit, sit. The Gnoll gestured with a paw. Gire sat. Mrsha stared past her. Around her, Silverfang’s Gnolls were bustling about, and a few Ekhtouch Gnolls were condescending about. Longstalker’s Fang, Greenpaw—and there was Rose, pretending not to see Adetr waiting for another chat.

Inkar and Tkrn. Even Feshi, glancing around for them with some of the Weatherfur Gnolls. Great and powerful allies. Interesting people, all.

Yet Mrsha didn’t run about. Not today. Gire poked her, and Mrsha slapped the finger down and snarled.

Not a friendly snarl either. Gire didn’t try it again. She saw Mrsha take another gulp, and finally recognized what Mrsha was doing. It was a copy of what Gire and Mrsha had seen—but Mrsha had been to more bars than Gire, and had seen this late at night.

A figure at a table or bar, slipping into their cups. Like Menolit, and an [Innkeeper] talking to them. She copied them, not because it was fun…

But because this was one of the ways Mrsha knew how to cry in public. She stared past Gire, and there were not enough words to write down to explain it.

Or just two.

Erin Solstice.

Gire watched as Mrsha began to sniff. The little Gnoll girl’s eyes welled up.

“Mrsha? What’s wrong? Does your stomach hurt? Don’t cry…”

Erin.

Mrsha wrote it down and pushed the card over. Gire turned the card over, but it lacked context, even for the [Paragon].

“Is that…your friend? The one who’s sick? Oh—oh—Mrsha, don’t cry.”

The girl began sniffing into her cup. Huge, blobby tears fell from her brown eyes as Gnolls looked at her. Gire—panicked.

“Don’t cry, Mrsha. It’s alright. See? I can juggle. Look! I can juggle eleven things. See? Isn’t it funny?”

She grabbed some silverware, cups, a plate, and tossed eleven objects up and did actually create a double-helix. Mrsha didn’t even stare at it. Gire stopped, not knowing what to do. Because she was young, and Ekhtouch didn’t teach you how to deal with tears.

Mrsha didn’t want Gire to do anything. She just cried into her cup as the others came over. Inkar didn’t know why.

Tkrn did. So did Beilmark and other Gnolls from home. So the Senior Guardswoman sat down, took off her helm, placed her badge on the table, and put Mrsha on her knee. Tkrn tried to explain, and Mrsha kept crying. For a bit.

She didn’t let Gire stop her, or anyone cheer her up until she was done. Because she was supposed to cry when bad things happened. She clung to Gire’s arm too, and rubbed her snot into Gire’s fur.

“Ew.”

Yet the [Paragon] didn’t pull away. She listened.

 

——

 

This was how it went. It was like…a stack of cards. A pile of painted wooden blocks. And someone had just kicked in one of the support beams.

Not maliciously, but in that Relc-way…it was him.

News of home.

It struck them all differently. Lyonette du Marquin looked up.

“He’s back?”

A figure nodded. Someone stirred uneasily. One of the Thronebearers glanced warily at her, but Ratici’s hat was off his head…and held between his claws.

It was not the same. Lyonette saw the Drake’s somber face.

“I’m glad.”

She put down her quill for a second. Cirediel and Rafaema, hovering there, looked at the [Princess] as she pressed the heels of her palms into her eyes. A [Princess] did not cry, though; that would ruin her makeup.

One second, two…and Lyonette took a deep breath. She looked up, and her eyes shone, but her jaw was set.

“That’s wonderful news. If you could send him a word—tell him that we will see him soon. I may—send him something else later.”

“Of course, Miss Lyonette.”

Ratici dipped his head and walked back. Wilovan took off his hat for a second. The two Gentlemen Callers went for a walk, hats in their hands.

They scared the living daylights out of everyone they met, but they held the hats. Talking softly, walking like gentlemen. If anyone stopped them…

That was why they held the hats. Not today.

Lyonette du Marquin looked around.

“Would you all…excuse me for a moment? I must freshen myself up.”

“What, the toil—”

Rafaema stamped so hard and fast that Cire doubled over, clutching wordlessly at his foot. She nodded, and Lyonette rose. Ser Sest held the door open as she retreated.

To shed tears in private. The others stood around, uncertain of what to do. Some people went around calmly.

 

——

 

Xif and Saliss glanced up when they heard the news. The Gnoll blinked and wiped at his spectacles. Saliss’ claws never wavered.

“Thanks. Shut the door on your way out. Semi-poisonous gas.”

They kept working.

 

——

 

Like Ilvriss. On such days, he kept writing orders to his company, Alrric, and the Salazsar forces. His quill scritched across the parchment, and Osthia Blackwing didn’t see anything different about him.

But on such days, sometime between her delivering [Messages] and correspondence, something would appear on the desk, carefully placed above the pages and away from the quill and inkpot.

It would be a little amulet with a clasp. The kind you could open. The Wall Lord would carefully angle it and keep working. He would never glance at it that she could see in the brief snippets when she saw him.

However, it was there. If you saw it, you’d put the nonsense about Lyonette and wedding rings behind you.

That little illustration he had found somewhere and put in the amulet was not of a Human. Not a [Princess] nor an [Innkeeper]. After all. When he thought of Erin—

He thought of her.

 

——

 

It might be resonance.

Or synchronicity.

The explanation might be Relc.

Or a memory of the fall. When she first came to this world.

Perhaps it was just time.

Realizing how long it had been. Again, it was different. Similar, but different.

Ceria Springwalker stopped eating, refused to play cards, and marched with the army of Savere. She took out a spellbook that Revine had gifted her and began leafing through it.

Her pale eyes held no tears. She just kept glancing up at the sky, north. And the air…

Grew colder. So cold that she turned the sand and dirt hard and frosty when [Bandits] followed in her wake. The wind behind her so chilled that a gap opened up in the army behind her.

It was so uncharacteristic of the Ice Squirrel that everyone noticed it more than if she had been crying. Ceria brushed at her hair and looked at her skeletal hand. She smiled ruefully, and went back to reading.

 

——

 

Yvlon Byres sat and talked with Queen Yisame and the Great Sage Etrikah. She talked, as the [Queen] dabbed at her eyes and the [Sage] listened. She talked and paced and was restless.

Her hands clenched and roamed, touching silverware, checking her skin as if she were making sure it was pure. She sat back heavily, then stood. Resting her weight on the table.

Helplessly moving about. Frustrated with inaction.

 

——

 

It was the opposite of how Ksmvr did it. He rode along, so quiet that no one noticed for a while. Only until he refused to eat breakfast and lunch did Nsiia ride over.

“Is something wrong, Ksmvr? If you are feeling sick, tell us. Sickness can run through an army and leave it legless.”

Ksmvr looked at her thoughtfully, then shook his head.

“No, Nsiia. I am perfectly physically well. I believe I am sad, but I have not learned how to cry. I am uncertain what I should do.”

The Empress of Beasts’ eyes sharpened on Ksmvr’s face. His severed arm, his damaged antennae and exoskeleton…he had worn his injuries without noticeable pain.

Right now? He looked uncertain. As if moving would pain him, and he was afraid of it. Ksmvr kept touching his chest with one of his hands.

“Why are you sad, Ksmvr?”

“I do not know. It is unreasonable, so I would like it to stop. The person I am thinking of has already been in her present state for a long time. I am continuing to work towards her revival. Therefore, this sadness has no timing or reason. I…would like it to stop, now. How do you do that?”

Nsiia inhaled sharply. Domehead, walking by Ksmvr, turned, as the Empress of Beasts placed her arm on Ksmvr’s shoulder.

Rémi Canada hesitated as Leka Thri tilted his head. No emotion was visible on the Loquea Dree warrior’s beak, but he listened as Ksmvr tried to explain.

Rémi? He hesitated. Began to lower the camera. Then caught the motion and raised it to capture the Antinium’s face. Arguing the ethics of…

The Antinium [Skirmisher] looked around.

“It makes no sense. It does not feel good. I would rather be sick. Why is that?”

Nsiia looked at him.

“Because sickness goes away in time.”

Ksmvr leaned on Spitty as the camel glanced at him, pursed his lips, and decided against. The [Skirmisher] nodded.

“That makes sense.”

 

——

 

Pisces Jealnet was practicing fencing when Eloque, Merr, Bearig, Rophir, and Qshom found him.

“Is something wrong, Pisces?”

“Why would something be wrong?”

He turned, genuinely confused. Sweat was running down his face, and some of the freed [Slaves] and [Rebels] were watching him. He had been performing an excellent fencer’s drill.

Eloque studied Pisces. He seemed perfectly befuddled, and his face was straight.

“You’ve been doing that for two hours.”

“I am keeping in shape. Refining my magic.”

“Yes.”

“And?”

A hint of a defensive tone entered the [Necromancer]’s voice. He frowned around. Eloque looked at him, and the look turned to hesitation.

“You haven’t said a word to anyone all day. What’s wrong?”

The [Necromancer] scratched at the scarred skin around his neck, snatched his hand down, and gazed past them all.

“Nothing. Just thoughts.”

His friends looked at him. The [Necromancer] glanced about and realized he hadn’t refined any of the undead into advanced versions and hadn’t he better do that? He hurried off, and they followed.

It took them nearly four hours to get the reason out of him.

 

——

 

The music grated on his nerves. Niers Astoragon sat on the little pedestal he’d had recreated so he could ride in the view of others.

It got on his nerves, yet he didn’t snap at the Hobgoblin playing it because he knew exactly why it was playing.

It wasn’t even a sad song. It was…

The Ballad of the Redfangs. Numbtongue played it, again and again, and added another verse. As he played, Antinium looked up at the sky.

The others did. Infinitypear, Grass Shell, Touma the Great…and the Goblins chattered. Telling stories. The others listened, the Ghostly Hand tribe, to the Cave Goblins who told them of the leader of the Redfangs.

Salvation from the Raskghar. Rasktooth showed the tooth and waved his claws. Trying to get them to see it.

Cookies. A poofy hat from the luckiest Goblin ever. Five Hobgoblins and a cave. Another time.

A little bee buzzed about the heads of the Antinium, flying through the sky and remembering when she’d first come out of that little jar, and the world had been terrifying until that big blob with the red stuff fed her. And there had been that other blob too.

She missed that blob. Everything had been simpler, back then. She missed the white one, too. Apista didn’t smoke any Dreamleaf.

Niers didn’t either. But he had lit a bit of actual tobacco. He smoked it, sitting with an expression like thunder such that not even the biggest Gnoll fans quite dared approach him.

Failure. The [Strategist] counted each one. Listed it out, exactly in every mistake he’d made. Overconfidence, a lack of awareness. Preparation.

He worked backwards in time and his list had countless entries. He went back, then started again. The list had names and places. People. He smoked furiously. An angry Fraerling glaring at nothing.

Numbtongue just sat there. The Antinium stared at the sky. Only the Crimson Soldier looked ahead. The world was far better. If she came back, she came back.

It was far better even so, and she joined the fallen.

Garia and Fals jogged ahead, not really saying anything. Fierre scribbled furiously, sending little [Message] spells, checking the news, and not really processing anything she did. Gna and Salkis looked about. Gna knew part of it and was silent.

Salkis was impatient, fidgety, but aware this was not the time to interrupt. Pivr and Xeu looked about, wondering what everyone was staring at up above them and what they were missing.

The Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings, like their comrades, held their hats in their hands, walking along solemnly.

As for Ulvama? She sat in the wagon, pretending to be sleeping, as Octavia listened to Numbtongue’s songs and occasionally shed some tears. Upon which, she’d uncork a vial, let the tears roll into it, and hurry to start a potion or grind some ingredients. Then…her hands would slow until she was wiping at her eyes again.

Ulvama just stared up at the sky, one eyelid cracked open. Listening to the Goblins talk. Gothica added another spike to her parasol. Apista flew up, showing a Screaming Hawk her stinger.

Come on, bring it. Bring it. No? Why are you flying away, buddy? Huh? Huuuh?

 

——

 

There were more, of course. Many people knew her, and wanted to help. Griffon Hunt. The Halfseekers.

Some knew her, but didn’t mourn. Not fully. They had never known her.

Almost. A few more days and he would have.

The [Emperor] thought of that, now and then.

But not this day.

If you grieved, properly, you had known her. Like the [Strategist] pushing forwards with blood on the ground. Pursuing the one foe he had no forgiveness for. For two deaths.

However. Grief went hand in hand with glory. And it was that first story, that even the Cave Goblins didn’t know, that Rags told the Goblins of the Molten Stone tribe.

Anazurhe, the Goblin Chieftain [Witch], listened to the first tale of Erin Solstice. A Human who had every reason to hate Goblins because they had not been kind to her. Who had earned her first nickname.

Destroyer. She had killed a Goblin Chieftain. They had tried to kill her, more than once. They had killed her friend.

What was astonishing, why she mattered so much, was not that she had extended a hand in mercy and kindness to Goblins. Others had done that before. What mattered was that she had done that after it all. Despite it all. Because not all Goblins were alike.

Perhaps that was why the little Goblin, Rags, sat there in the great halls of the Molten Stone Goblins, dining with rich foods that were bought or obtained from far off. Calescent sat, munching happily on the food and trading secrets with the [Chef] here—so he could bring them back to the inn.

Yet Rags? She could have ordered anything she wanted, or trusted to the Molten Stone tribe to provide her with an unforgettable meal, like the giant, cooked roach they had placed in front of the Healer of Tenbault.

Actually tasty, if the woman bothered to try it.

Yet Rags had not. She poked at the plate in front of her, which was almost offensively plain…

Spaghetti. Anazurhe kept glancing at it, because Rags was eating.

“Ah. Is that why you eat that?”

She pointed a finger at Rags. The Great Chieftain of the Flooded Waters tribe glanced up and nodded. She took another bite.

“It tastes like memory.”

 

——

 

How many? The Players of Celum raised a glass, and performed with a tribute to the inspiration behind their play, the ‘Innkeeper of Solstice’, that night.

[Lords] and [Ladies] who had met the strange young woman, seen her at Lord Toldos’ funeral, remarked on the tragedy.

People of Liscor told stories about the really interesting times, when Liscor had begun to change, to the newcomers.

A Dwarf [Smith] worked furiously at his anvil.

Kevin stopped climbing back towards the resting Wyverns and looked around, before sighing hard and continuing his march.

Imani checked out of work early to go for a walk with Palt.

The Free Antinium stood silent and listened to a [Priest].

And there were far more. A [Baker] who baked bread and passed out loaves of it within his Hive. A Sinew Magus who pushed his apprentices so hard they collapsed because he had seen better and braver.

A couple who ran a bar in Pallass.

A young man in Wistram, who looked at all the magic and wondrous artifacts and felt something was still missing.

 

——

 

A [Knight] paused as he rode swiftly through a forest, evading [Scouts]. He looked around, and remembered an inn. A vision. A [General]’s strength.

Rabbiteater felt a hand on his shoulder, pushing him, so he straightened his shoulders. As weary [Knights] sagged around him, he sat up and rode ahead. Wondering how he would tell her about this part of his adventure.

 

——

 

But for those who had never met her—the people who interacted with these scattered folk, each one acting a different way—how did you describe her?

Hyperbole? That she was the one, the only person who had ever made a difference?

No. Yet—you could do it wrong, too.

Emphasize the mundanity of her, the silliness, and leave your audience thinking that was all she was, someone with no head for money, easily distractible, bad at managing a full team, and with a high weakness to crossbow bolts.

Which, to be fair, was a common vulnerability.

That wasn’t Erin Solstice, though. The true ‘her’ lay between myth and laughter. To capture that essence of her…you had to tell stories of what she’d done.

Or perhaps it was you. How you said it. How you looked, as you clenched your hand and stared at the three fingers and scars.

That despite everything, as the wind blew around you, blowing your raven-dark hair into the air, and you shifted from bare foot to foot—

You talked about her like that. A Courier, describing someone incredible.

The Wind Runner, friend of the fae, talking about someone who could do things she never could.

Her eyes shining, watering, as she stumbled over her words and kept going back.

To her friend. How they had met. Silly antics.

Glorious fire.

How did you say it? She tried.

“I…came here for her. Because it matters. Because with everything that’s happening and going to happen—we need her.”

“Who?”

Ryoka Griffin turned.

“Everyone. People do. She’s the reason why the Antinium are changing. She’s…she’s not invincible. She makes mistakes. She can’t stop a war on her own. But she meets people and connects with them. Because of her, a city didn’t fall to siege. Because of her, I saved two kids. She matters, so much that I came across the world.”

“Enough to risk your life?”

Ryoka looked up and met a glittering stare. Two dark eyes. An amused audience—half amused or curious or indifferent. The other half sympathetic, understanding, teary themselves, though they had never known her.

A few others. Yet Ryoka met each and every eye as her head moved about. She put her hand on the hilt of a sword from another time.

“Yes. Enough to walk the lands of the Tuatha Dé. Enough to seek a boon from the Faerie King, and challenge a Wyrm’s wrath. If it could be done, I would do it. Not because she is your salvation, or mine. Or that of nations. However. She will make someone’s life better. Many people’s. That is goodness.”

Well said.

Two peoples stood before her, and a gathering of other immortals. Gilaw, Menorkel, Fithea, Nemed, and more. Yet on one side sat Agelum—the other, Lucifen.

One side saw why. The Lucifen stirred, regarding their cousins.

“Goodness. Temporary, frail deeds. Explain it to us, now, why she matters.”

Ryoka Griffin saw a mocking smile. Paxere, one of the younger ones, who attracted disapproval from the more stately elders. They were better at hiding such things. Visophecin just tapped his lips as Ryoka glared—then relaxed.

She looked so rarely confident it took the younger Lucifen unawares. Ryoka turned back to the capital, where the Singer of Terandria was drawing her back—and Menorkel as well. But she looked Paxere straight in the eye.

“Because she broke the Assassin’s Guild in two and held Tyrion Veltras and his army back from Liscor. She is the world’s finest chess player, and Antinium and Goblins consider her a friend. She is the best at something. That is something no one here can boast lightly. Not even the ageless.”

She looked around, daring the Lucifen or Agelum to claim they were the finest in the entire world at…what? Being old? Magic? Breadth of knowledge? She knew a Dragon who had a far better claim than any of them to that.

She saw flashes of red ire from the Lucifen. Wide grins on the Agelum’s faces as they watched the Wind Runner rile their cousins up. Visophecin dipped his head to Ryoka with a slight smile.

“Well said. Although Lady Fithea could lay claim to expertise in earth magic.”

“Only in this world. Only…”

The Dryad’s murmur was background. Ryoka looked around. She was trying, oh, so very hard…

Not to cry. Not in front of them all. Half might care, but the other half would just quietly smile, delighted by her suffering.

Nor in front of Rhisveri, who wouldn’t care. Ryoka Griffin spread her hands helplessly. She was out of words. Only the burning desire. How did she describe that?

No. They knew. Each and every one of them here. Even Rhisveri.

They knew what it was like.

To want someone back.

That was why, across the world, it was not difficult to explain. Oh, immensely difficult, impossible to explain her with mere words.

But not that. Not needing someone. Ryoka Griffin had her explanation at last.

“I want her back. There are other people I want back. So many…but it’s impossible.”

Or if it is—just one—

She pushed the scroll out of her mind. Because that was the point. Ryoka looked around. Visophecin, Gadrea, Fithea, Gilaw…

They understood. The Wind Runner took in a shuddering breath.

“If it were possible? So many. The difference is—Erin—there’s a chance. It’s so slim, but it’s there. What would you do for a chance?”

Ah. They exhaled slowly. That, they understood. Ryoka closed her eyes.

If death were something you could fight—they would all, every living person, make such war as was never dreamt of before or since. But you couldn’t.

This was the lone battle. For one person she loved. Her friend.

She was not dead yet.

 

——

 

All the pieces were falling into place. 

Yet something was missing.

Someone did not grieve, for she had never seen the person named Erin Solstice. Though she owed her a grave debt.

However, she fought for that chance like she would for anyone else. It all was so close. So close—

But there was something else.

So Geneva Scala fell. Into the depths of the Mind.

It was a void into which a hundred thousand different scenes repeated themselves. She could look around and ‘see’ it.

Geneva Scala stood over a dead young woman. The features kept changing because she didn’t know them. Skin tone, height, weight—but always a young woman.

Skin frosted over. Or completely ice.

Crossbow bolts sticking out of her chest—sides—barbed, poison still dripping from the tips as she removed them, or enchanted.

A hundred thousand Genevas worked. With a team or alone, with magic or Skills. Casting spells she had no access to in life, pausing time, walking about. Fighting…

She was grateful. The [Doctor] was so grateful despite it all, for the Mind.

Because this would have been a lesson learned on the bodies of countless patients in the real world. She would have had only theory there.

Here? She saw the effects of each spell. Saw her failures repeated without consequence.

To the living. But in each room, Geneva Scala fought, sometimes cursing, desperately, crying out with frustration. Chasing after that spark.

Almost. It was entirely theoretical. Heresy in modern science, to actually freeze someone and expect them to come back to life. They’d do this to rodents, not people.

There were so many factors. Cellular degradation from the freezing, poison, the crossbow bolts themselves, the sheer trauma…not to mention reviving her.

Impossible, Geneva would have said, even for modern medicine on Earth. Here? She had magic. Magic and Skills and it was still not enough.

Oh—she had pieces. Geneva Scala saw the Minds providing them to her.

Ethereal antidote. It seeped through the skin, neutralizing poison as it ran through her. Imagine how effective it could be! Imagine healing an internal wound with that precision? Removing a kidney stone? Or would it harm the tissue…?

So many possibilities. She was learning. And the Minds had insights few living people had.

A Potion of Regeneration. So powerful, even in her visions, individual Genevas recoiled from the sheer potency in the air, that made her hair grow in real time and fingernails lengthen.

Antidote, healing—and a spell to defrost the young woman without killing her. All three factors were in flux. Geneva tried different combinations of each; could you do it with a [Restoration] spell? How did you warm her consistently without turning her into a pile of meat and bone?

How did you keep her alive?

“Heartbeat.”

She heard it. A beating, fluttering heart, one out of every four attempts. Then—three out of five. Geneva Scalas tried compressions, even shocks to keep it moving. They refined the process. Made sure the antidote hit the poison and neutralized it completely.

She heard the heart beat. Then flutter.

Then silence.

Something was missing. Geneva Scala drifted downwards as the scenes replayed themselves, trying to figure out what the crucial element was. She almost had it.

What is missing here? The Mind was silent, using its entire, vast collective to generate these scenarios for her. It had no answer. Geneva Scala found herself at a loss.

Then—the Third Mind thought at her.

What do you need?

“Another perspective. Another…me!

Geneva called out into the void. Frustrated. She shouted—then stumbled as she landed on the floor of the United Nations headquarters.

A woman sat across from her, fiddling with a cup. She looked antsy, and her brown hair, pinned back behind a white shirt and Lizardfolk-style sarong, swung as her head snapped up.

“You’re here. Good. Let’s figure it out.”

Geneva Scala blinked at…Geneva Scala. The [Doctor] gestured impatiently.

“Take a seat. Unless you want something to eat?”

“No. I can’t figure it out.”

Geneva glowered at herself.

“Neither can I. Let’s articulate the problem, as if we were attending a lecture. The cause of death was immediate exsanguination. Hemorrhage. Poisoned bolts.”

Geneva found herself fiddling with the same cup, a replica of the Geneva across from her. She stopped, spread her hands on the table. She needed—

A quill was in her hands, so she took notes, quill—no, pen—darting across the page.

“Then freezing, right. If we remove the freezing element, we are attempting to restart her heart. Provide blood, neutralize the poison.”

“The freezing complicates it. We cannot perform the necessary steps before warming her, and that alone is causing massive trauma.”

“Exactly. But the right spells and potions can account for it, in part. The lacking part is…”

Both Genevas stopped. They looked at each other and one balled up the paper and tossed it down.

“It’s not medical.”

“It is. It simply comes out in other terminology and processes. You’ve felt it.”

Geneva Scala nodded.

“It’s…her life.”

Not blood loss. Not her heart failing. Not the components—it was that sheer concept of her life. The individual body parts Geneva could fight to protect. Brain, blood flowing to organs, even the heart.

Yet the patient as a whole? She…died. The thing that medical professionals still couldn’t entirely grasp, the difference between someone who was ‘alive’ when hooked up to a medical instrument—

Life. It slipped away. The body was so badly damaged that all but the best scenarios, the strongest constitutions—had no chance.

“That’s what you’re missing.”

Geneva Scala told her mirror image. The [Doctor] across from her nodded. She put her hands on the table, rose—

And Geneva vanished. The Geneva across from her blinked at her copy’s dispersal, but then nodded.

“That’s it. That’s…

Her eyes widened. She had a thought.

“Oh.”

Geneva Scala whispered. It was such a non-question for most medical practitioners. Of course the patient died. Of course they failed to capture life itself—that life was a function of many parts, so focus on that.

That was an Earth-solution. Yet she was not on Earth. So life itself? Geneva Scala breathed as something began to connect in her mind.

“That’s what I was missing.”

There it was. 

She found it at last.

 

——-

 

Like a good [Doctor] should, Geneva tried her theory. The Third Mind realized what she was doing and approved.

It made sense. There were even real-life examples that Geneva had put down to hyperbole, or the phenomenon of…well, it did happen.

This, though?

What might I do? How many more chances might I receive? Patients who died…Geneva’s brain was whirling.

“Now that is worth.

The smug tone of the Third Mind was the last thing she heard. Then Geneva was dropping out of the air, gently landing in Idis’ arms.

“What are you doing? I can keep going. I need to prove it works. A thousand—ten thousand trials.”

Geneva felt limited, like she was squeezed into her body, the physical world where she couldn’t fly or summon whatever she wanted to at the drop of a hat. Such a dangerous place, the mind.

She almost forgot to breathe and that she needed to move to reach things. Idis helped Geneva stand as the [Doctor] protested weakly.

“She has pushed her every limit. Her theory is sound. It works. Enough. Few, even Selphids, have walked in the Mind so long. The [Doctor]’s will is strong when it comes to her medicine.”

The Third Mind was right. Even the [Psychic Guardians] in attendance and Calectus seemed surprised at how long Geneva had communed with the Mind.

“Did you do it, Geneva?”

Idis was patently curious. The other Selphids turned to the Third Mind.

“Is this a discovery which might cure the Wasting or be substantive?”

“Wasting? Perhaps. Perhaps not, but perhaps. As to substantive change…Geneva Scala has formulated a way to improve the efficacy of [Healers]. Experimentation is needed.”

“Yes. Yes…but also—it works. I know what they’re missing. I need to tell them.”

Geneva struggled to her feet.

“Who?”

Calectus looked at her, concerned. The [Doctor] looked at the floating Third Mind.

“Even if they gather everything, they’ll never cure her. Or the odds will be remote without it. I need…”

She trailed off as she realized what she needed. The Third Mind slowed in its sedate rotation.

“Can that be arranged?”

The [Doctor] looked up. The Third Mind deliberated with itself.

“There is a non-negative risk. This Mind shall take a poll of the others.”

“Please.”

The Third Mind seemed to regard Geneva.

“You have never met Erin Solstice. You do not know she is of your world, only suspect.”

Geneva Scala, the [Telepath], felt the force of the Mind’s intelligence. But she pushed back.

“I owe her a debt. So do Selphids, and all those who might have died of the Yellow Rivers disease. If not even that—she is a patient. If they succeed, it will prove I am right. For these reasons—please ask the others and tell them it is necessary.”

The Selphid composite listened to her argument much like an analytical computer, weighing the weight of each. Not like the Second Mind at all. But, eventually, it thought at her.

“We will see.”

 

——

 

Ryoka Griffin sat outside, next to Ser Tubeliges’ grave, in the manor of House Lucifen. She knew the other [Knights] were about, but she didn’t talk to them.

Visophecin had brought her back for the rest of her visit after her meeting with Rhisveri, and the morning was bright and cheery, and the Agelum were amazing hosts.

Yet she lacked the daring, the sense of needing to win over immortals after yesterday. Nor would the visit be extended; the Singer of Terandria was here, and everyone wanted to go to the capital.

Even some of the Lucifen and Agelum, though the latter would most likely be denied. However, they were arguing.

It amused Ryoka, vaguely, even in her current state, to see how Paxere was arguing with Azemith and Igolze. The three stood together under the shadow of an aspen tree, and Ryoka thought the shadows seemed to move slightly off with the figures in the shade.

The faint glow of red across their eyes made her notice the slight movement along the ground. Oh. The shadows had tails.

The people just looked like well-dressed business-elites. Paxere was…what? Visophecin had described Azemith as Paxere’s guardian—which perhaps implied mother.

But none of them used that term. And, indeed, Paxere was angrily pointing to the Agelum, who were pestering Visophecin despite his best efforts to leave; one had a hold on his arm and he could not break free.

“She is a cultural phenomenon. Politically important—we have a file on her. As House Shoel, I could represent us to her. Besides which, her music is a significant force of her time, and artistic.”

“Vexatious. It is not proper music, and it abrades the hearing. I do not see your point. Moreover, you are still not adept enough to navigate even the Court of Masks. You needle when you could employ tact.”

Azemith retorted. Paxere’s eyes narrowed dangerously.

“Perhaps I do not employ tact when a needle is most direct. Especially around the quality of opponent found in closest company.”

Igolze chuckled, which earned him a narrow stare from Azemith. She and Paxere drew closer, smiling dangerously. Azemith’s fingers scintillated in the air, her painted nails flickering.

“That is a very bold claim. Need I remind you how young you are? Or shall I expect an apology?”

“Need I repeat it several times? Your hearing is clearly as deficient as your regard for the Singer of Terandria is.”

The two never blinked, and it was like if Ryoka had made the terrible, just completely wrong-headed decision of having a child and the two of them went at it.

On the other hand, it was objectively hilarious, especially as Igolze made an off-handed comment to deflect the tension. Language, setting, and identity of the two Lucifen aside, it sounded to Ryoka like the parents not getting the newest music and the daughter exasperated with the people who just didn’t understand.

“Funny. Some things never change. You know, I really thought I could do it this time. But I failed. I just keep going around like this.”

Ryoka Griffin spoke to the air. At first, the distant [Knight], Dame Chorisa, thought Ryoka was speaking to her, but her words weren’t comprehensible from so far away, and she wasn’t looking at Chorisa.

The Wind Runner sighed.

“I tried. Then Rhisveri just—twisted—my best plans. I wish I could just do something, take the victory, like saving Hethon and Sammial, and just quit. But I can’t. There’s always something else. If she hadn’t gotten hurt…maybe I’d be running from Tyrion Veltras giving me flowers or something. I wish that was my problem.”

She didn’t really expect a reply, though it wouldn’t be the weirdest thing that happened all week. Ryoka looked up again.

“It must be a simple life. A grand one. You save one girl from drowning, and you get a knighthood and food for the rest of your life. I envy you.”

The visage of Ser Tubeliges didn’t answer her. But the noble Sariant Lamb’s statue was a kind of inspiration. Look upon me, and know true happiness. Am I not the valorous lamb, who hath achieved both morality and the limits of hedonistic bliss?

Ryoka was just guessing. She stared as an actual Sariant Lamb mewled its way across the manor, looking for someone to pamper it. They were funny creatures, too. For instance, this one was searching for a loving pair of hands to feed, bathe, and comb its fur. It took one look at Paxere and the Lucifen and decided Ryoka was the most generous soul in existence.

A lamb actually did a little wiggle of its body as it trotted up to Ryoka. This Sariant Lamb had a pendant—not a collar, a pendant—and it had learned to do an approximation of a shy smile.

Ryoka glanced at the statue, at the Sariant Lamb, and flapped her hands.

“Shoo. Shoo. I’m not buying it, and you’re not a [Knight]. Come back when you are.”

She was rewarded with the Sariant Lamb nosing forwards, making a sweet little whining sound. It nearly ran into Ryoka’s bare foot and recoiled with clear disgust.

“Yeah, you like that? I’ll wipe my feet all over your wool. Back off.”

The lamb trotted back, crying with distress. It peeked at Ryoka as it covered its little face with a hoof—saw she was frowning at it—and the most amazing thing happened.

The Sariant Lamb, whose name according to her gold leaf pendant was Sarathine, realized Ryoka wasn’t going to be a pamperer, and her face changed. Sarathine’s innocent expression turned into a hostile glare, and the lamb made a ‘cheh’ sound and turned. It dug its back hooves into the ground and sprayed Ryoka with some dirt.

Hey!

Sarathine trotted off. Ryoka stared at its backside.

“No way. Are they really in control of—damn it. I better not have made an enemy of the Sariant Lamb cartel or something. Hey, that wasn’t personal! I’m having a bad day!

Ryoka didn’t get an answer, but she caught herself and realized she was pleading with a lamb not to hold a grudge. She had low points, but could she go lower?

The answer was always ‘yes’, of course, but Ryoka hung her head with a sigh. That was, until she heard someone cough.

“Excuse me. Pretend I am not here a moment.”

Brimstone—the scent of forgefires.

A shadow leaned across the Wind Runner. Its owner stood against the lee of the statue. Viscount Visophecin adjusted his tie, and Ryoka saw, behind him, a bunch of Agelum casting about.

“Where did he go?”

“Inside? Anyone see Visophecin?”

A squad of wheelchairs and even a floating bed soared off in pursuit. The Lucifen held perfectly still, and Ryoka saw him peek around the statue. Then he relaxed and nodded to her.

“They should not visit the capital. They have a habit of exerting themselves. I fear they would take to the Singer of Terandria too well, and my cousins can be quite diplomatic and subtle—but only when they choose to be.”

“You think they’d dislike the Singer? Or trust her with too much?”

Visophecin sighed. He gave his garments a tug.

“…I fear they would attend her concerts and insist on dancing.

Ryoka smiled. And she felt a pang for the Agelum. She heaved a sigh, and Visophecin hesitated, before sitting next to her.

“We will expedite our return to the capital. I understand Duke Rhisveri has complicated your efforts to save your friend. That you came to Ailendamus willingly for her sake is…interesting. I will discuss the nature of your theft with Rhisveri himself, as it is off-limits to you.”

Ryoka nodded wordlessly. The Lucifen looked at Ryoka.

“A noble decision, I believe some would call it.”

“What would the Lucifen say about doing everything to save someone’s life?”

The Devil smiled slightly. A bleak expression; not because he was hurt, but because he searched inside for any shred of empathy and found it was gone.

“Foolishness in the extreme. Especially given the odds. Especially for a mortal. House Shoel respects no altruism or friendship outside of our own. But if it was to cure someone else…”

His gaze rose, and he looked at Uzine, rolling about and calling for Visophecin. His odd stare of multi-faceted eyes found Ryoka and he smiled, seeing her, but Visophecin was somehow invisible.

Lots of practice. The Lucifen watched Uzine roll by, and paused.

“Yes. That is different.”

Ryoka nodded. She sat there, tired.

“I feel like a fool. I was so obsessed with what Rhisveri had…not to give it away. But I may have been chasing after the wrong thing the entire time. Everything else, though—nothing has worked.”

Viscount Visophecin saw Ryoka shake her head.

“The Village of the Dead. Oteslia. Even people I have never met. Everyone’s trying something and it doesn’t—work. So I bet everything on this and I might have to walk away.”

“That is wisdom. Better to walk than lose everything.”

“Is that immortal wisdom?”

Ryoka snapped, tired and grumpy. Visophecin didn’t smile.

“No. Observation of how all peoples die. They cling to what they love. It has killed every species in existence. I have not yet found the way out. Perhaps because I do not search.”

Ryoka’s head moved left, and she and the Viscount exchanged a long look. The Lucifen went on, after a moment.

“You may indeed fail, and I would caution you not to risk Rhisveri’s wrath. Yet you have trusted House Shoel with your quest. You have done what few do, and attracted the attention of both Lucifen and Agelum. And with respect to my fair cousins—the Lucifen are the far more difficult of the two to sway.”

“Thanks. I know it is an achievement, but…it’s one of those days. I’m just tired. I could have used an easy win.”

Ryoka stared up at Ser Tubeliges. Visophecin glanced upwards. He stared at the smug Sariant Lamb, and Sarathine, trotting around looking for love from the Agelum, and his eyes burned for one second.

“Four hundred and twelve gold pieces.”

“Hm?”

Ryoka glanced at him. The Devil muttered.

“The price of having the statue sculpted—discounted due to previous works commissioned and a template to draw on. Because Sariant Lambs look alike. Generous overpayment from House Shoel. Rush work, and granite from the Erthine mines. Even so. Four hundred and twelve gold pieces.”

He raised one long, perfectly manicured finger. Ryoka saw Visophecin half-rise and push at Ser Tubeliges’ feet where they met the base of the statue. She saw him press so hard his pale-grey skin turned white with the strain—then heard a faint cracking sound.

The Wind Runner stirred. Visophecin pushed at the other set of legs with his other finger, and there was another crack. He looked at Ryoka, and then, with a slight smile, pushed the statue slightly.

Ser Tubeliges’ statue went over with a whump onto the ground and nearly added Sarathine to the glorious ranks of the hereafter in this cemetery. The Sariant Lamb ran with a scream as she looked up. She stared up, and saw Visophecin and Ryoka glaring at her. The Lucifen pointed a finger, and a miniature arrow of flame passed over the Sariant Lamb’s head.

 

Sariant Lamb fact: like birds and other species, they void their bowels for increased speed when they flee. Or maybe just Sarathine does when Visophecin nearly blasts her with fire.

 

Ryoka saw Visophecin smile with genuine pleasure as he watched Sarathine flee. She glanced at the fallen lamb’s statue.

“How much would you call that?”

Visophecin regarded Ser Tubeliges and lowered his foot. He pressed and smashed the face into the flagstones.

“With [Repair] spells, perhaps cheaply. I consider that a four hundred gold reconstruction cost happily paid.”

He calmly kicked the statue into the grass. Ryoka heard a smattering of applause and turned to see Paxere and her two parents applauding Visophecin with great approval. He bowed slightly to them.

“Now, to business. You left so quickly, and the discussion turned to the Singer of Terandria such that I could not ask you more about the incident around Erin Solstice. Will you tell me?”

He turned to Ryoka. The young woman glanced up at him.

“Why? The people who did it are dead. And I…”

She hesitated. Stared at the Sariant Lamb’s defaced statue. Then at Visophecin. Ryoka spoke slowly.

“…Came to Ailendamus to find something to heal her. But nothing short of that has worked. I think they even tried a Potion of Regeneration. There are things she needs. A…an unfreezing spell. An antidote for the poison, and a healing mechanism. Or something more.

The Lucifen looked down at Ryoka. He raised one eyebrow.

“It seems like an unusual problem and a grievous injury, especially for a Human. Yet, Ryoka Griffin. What is difficult or impossible short of a great relic for mortals is not so in Ailendamus. You stand in House Shoel, where some of the greatest spellcasters in the world gather. Lady Fithea is a magic user from an era where spells were created that used no conventional magic of today. I am Viscount of Ailendamus. Tell me about your friend. I care little for people with no value to me, or outside of Ailendamus.”

He extended a hand as he slowly brought out a dark glove to put on. Ryoka looked at it.

“…But we are allies. Whilst it is not in my nature—I know of more frost spells than any [Mage] of Cenidau or Archmage of Wistram living. I would bet upon that.”

Visophecin’s eyes glinted. Which just went to show how much he knew about betting. Ryoka looked up at him. Then her eyes widened. She rose, taking his hand, and he turned, as if they were dancing under the night sky in the shattered former palace.

The Lucifen and Wind Runner walked forwards, talking, suddenly with the young woman animated. The Viscount curious. Listening, casting a spell.

House Shoel turned as they heard the Wind Runner exclaim. Saw her eyes brighten. They listened—all aside from Gadrea, who paused in horror and stared down as she cried out.

Ser Tubeliges! What happened to his statue? Did anyone see?”

 

——

 

It was a special day. But, you understand, it wasn’t really one day. It was a special day whenever it came to them, and you saw it happening.

“Do you see?”

“A thread?”

“Many threads. Drawing together. Good girl.”

A mother and a daughter sat, having a picnic in a forest, staring at some embroidery. The mother even patted the daughter on the head.

They stared past a swaying Zombie Giant, into the open facade of a castle of dark stone as the undead milled about. Powerful undead—who avoided the Stitch Witch on pure instinct.

A Necromancer sat in a smooth crater of dirt. It was just dirt, but something had scooped the most geometrically precise sphere out of the world. He inhaled—on reflex.

“I am alive. Have I lost any of my Chosen? Report?”

N-no, Master.

Ijvani was hiding behind the remains of a pillar. She sounded shaken. A few of the Chosen appeared. A wall had fallen on Venitra. Part of the castle was…

Missing. Not ‘knocked down’ or ‘scattered about’, but more in the vein of ‘disintegrated’. Or dragged into an entirely different plane. Which was why the Witch and her daughter, Maviola, were watching from a distance.

It was probably safe to return now the ritual was complete. Probably. So Belavierr hung back. She saw the Necromancer inhale again.

“Repairs. Ijvani, oversee them. I must—”

His eyes flickered.

“Pisces. Roshal has been left unchecked. Ijvani, see to it.”

The Skeleton [Mage] stared blankly up at the gaping wall and stone structure only standing because of the enchanted stone, not due to any laws of physics.

Yes, Master?

Az’kerash was striding towards the stairs when he was intercepted. An odd thing, that. No one got in his way.

Except for the depressed skeleton leaning on a wall, his violet eyes burning low. An anxious Healing Slime circled around him, but he was in a bad way. He had mold on his skull, and he was holding something in his hands.

The Necromancer barely paid attention to the undead after his harrowing battle with magic that threatened even him. He was also checking in on Pisces, so he did what he had done for a century in life: he walked around Toren.

Or tried to. Az’kerash absently realized someone was still in his way, so he spoke and stepped the other way.

“Excuse me.”

Only then did he realize someone was deliberately stepping into his path. The Necromancer refocused on the world around him. Venitra, Ijvani, Bea, Devail, and Wesixa all turned. Venitra’s eyes flashed with outrage.

How dare—

Toren ignored Az’kerash. He reached out, placed a bony hand on the Necromancer’s shoulder. Az’kerash stared at the familiar gesture. Ijvani’s jaw dropped straight off her skull in horror.

Listen, pal. I know you’re busy, but give me a second.

That was the attitude Toren projected. He handed Az’kerash something. The Necromancer took it blankly, and stared down at a young woman’s face.

Fake Erin’s head stared back at him. Or rather, what was left of it after being half-sucked into the void. Toren gave Az’kerash another pat.

See?

“Ah. The puppet. That is…completely fine. I am busy. I will return to—”

The Necromancer paused as Toren handed him something. Venitra was metaphorically frothing at the mouth as Az’kerash took it. It was…

A [Message] scroll. Toren patted him on the shoulder again. He meaningfully took Erin’s head and tossed it over his shoulder. Then he gave the Necromancer two finger guns.

Priorities.

He wandered off, leaving the Necromancer staring at the [Message] scroll. It had a copy of one of the open bounties on a certain cure. Someone had underlined it helpfully and circled it.

Belavierr watched Toren go. She turned to Maviola.

“You see? A thread.”

“He is a funny skeleton. I like him.”

Maviola smiled. Belavierr’s orange, ringed eyes narrowed disapprovingly.

“Do not emulate that one.”

“Yes, mother. Sorry, mother.”

 

——

 

It began with a [Message] spell. Or scroll, if you owned one of the artifacts that could auto-project a [Message] chain onto it.

Or an inquiry to the Mage’s Guild to source a particular conversation or open-viewing [Message].

It was actually a rather highly convoluted system that required a centralized location where all the relevant [Messages] were stored. They didn’t just…linger; someone had to write them down.

Highly inefficient, really. You could magically store data, and create an efficient, working system. But why bother to do that when you could pay for countless [Scribes] around the world to do it the hard way?

“Wistram mentality.”

The Grand Magus grumbled and added it to his list of things to fix. Yes, indeed, why bother learning magical data theory when you could just write down every [Message] and charge people to recover it? Some people said it was an economic boon. He, Eldavin, called that an excuse.

He was in a bad mood, so the half-Elf was going at twice the necessary speed as the [High Mage] and [Communication Mages] and [Scriers] in the group desperately cribbed notes.

“It’s very simple. The Walled Cities can do it. This is not even a [Communication] spell in terms of difficulty. You simply connect multiple [Message]-sending mages together. Like so, you see?”

They’d done it for a phone call, but inefficiently. He was showing the others how to do it with about a pound of soot, fifteen grams of magic-infused quartz, powdered, and your left foot in forty seconds.

The magical diagram shimmered as it ‘connected’ a group for this trial run.

“There. Does someone have it?”

“I think—I think I do, Grand Magus! This is extraordinary! Why, every Mage’s Guild could offer linked [Message]-casting—”

“Yes. Exactly. Group chattery, or whatever the Earthers call it. One of you teach the others. I’ll come back and teach you how to encrypt [Messages] later.”

Encrypt—

Eldavin pinched at his nose as he walked away. It really was just…infuriating. Gratifying, yes, but the umpteenth time someone goggled at you when you told them it was possible to do something as mundane as the magical equivalent of tying your shoes? It became more depressing than anything else.

He was overworked, understaffed—with intelligent, capable people—and he had been having odd problems health-wise of late. He had too many projects, but the Grand Magus took a moment out of his day between heading to teach [Green Mages] how to properly infuse plants with mana as he realized someone was doing something vaguely interesting.

A conversation he’d been monitoring in his mind suddenly pinged. Rather, the detection spell he’d set up told him someone was adding to a chain of [Message] spells that had gone silent. He put it on his mental notecard to review tonight. Then—the spell chimed in his head again, and then again.

“Hm? That’s odd. What’s…

 

——

 

It began with the Great Sage Etrikah doing what [Sages] did best. Demonstrating the wisdom of her class.

 

Great Sage Etrikah of Nerrhavia’s Fallen requests the exalted honor of communication with the Eternal Kingdom of Khelt’s Illustrious Mage’s Guild in regards to a bounty and discussion of a cure marked within its listed bounties as of Althine, 12th, something something A.F.

 

It took about twelve minutes before a reply came, in which time Yvlon Byres was stabbing shrimp as she described Pisces’ anonymous contact. The Great Sage frowned and scribbled as Yisame peeked over her shoulder, and Yvlon broke off her discussion.

“Something?”

“Keep talking. There are formalities I need to get through.”

 

The Mage’s Guild of Khelt replies as follows to the Great Sage of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, may tyrants rest uneasy. Herewithin lies the documentation of the will of no less than His Exalted Majesty of the Eternal Lands, Sovereign of Khelt as ordained by Khelta the First…

 

A lengthy copy of the bounty followed. Etrikah rolled her eyes as she wrote back.

 

The Great Sage of Nerrhavia’s Fallen requests further clarification on said topic, with all available information and attempted cures or progress. I, the GSNF, beseech Khelt humbly with all due praise to his eminence, King Fetohep etc. etc. as it is my intention to join my efforts to Glorious Khelt etc.

 

There was a pause, as the poor person on the other end had to both decipher what ‘GSNF’ meant and wonder if the Exalted Kingdom of Khelt was being slighted, pranked, or so on.

 

To the Great Sage of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, in regards to your query. Such information is classified in partial relation to Khelt, but the Mage’s Guild will forward an information-sharing request to Oteslia for all pertinent—

GSNF: I don’t have time for that. Kindly inform His Majesty or whomever is leading this project I am willing to devote my time and effort to this issue, but I would like to communicate with someone who can speak to me on the issue at hand.

The Mage’s Guild of Exalted Khelt: The persons in question are currently occupied. The Mage’s Guild will petition His Majesty for a response upon the approval of—

GSNF: That will take weeks. Please inform Fetohep of Khelt that Queen Yisame would like to forward this matter to his attention.

The Mage’s Guild of Exalted Khelt: …As His Majesty is preoccupied with the rule of Khelt, the Mage’s Guild will lodge a—

GSNF: Queen Yisame will send His Majesty of Etc. Khelt a request to speak personally within the hour. In which, she may be displeased by the inconvenience of needing to intercede upon a simple request and highlight the issue. Your choice.

TMGEK: Do not do that with great respect. We will immediately contact the palace. Please hold.

G̶S̶F̶N̶ GSNF: Thank you. I would like this information now, with a direct line of [Messages] or speaking stone if one can be arranged.

TMGEK: This may prove difficult. His Majesty has sealed the project—

GSNF: Then please add that to his request. Also, put me in touch with the person in Oteslia who is heading this project.

TMGEK: We are retrieving the name. Your contact is a ‘Lionette Solstice’, who is partially funding the project along with ‘Saliss Oliwing’, and the project’s research and information belongs to a [Researcher] Dromenl of the Institute of Inquiry in—

Wistram: Hello! I see you are conducting a multiple [Message] spell program. Could I interest the participants in a new, multiple-[Message] spell connection at a nominal fee?

 

The Fox Beastkin woman nearly spilled soup all over her [Message] scroll. Yisame looked up from writing down a scene involving the real ship—which was clearly when Ksmvr came to Zenol’s rescue.

“What’s wrong, Etrikah?”

“I have no clue.”

 

GSNF: What is this?

TMGEK: There is no [Message] from Wistram inbound. Please hold—

Wistram: We see that Khelt’s Mage’s Guild is conducting multiple [Messages] on the same topic. If one of the recipients would like to trial our new system, please affirm with a ‘YES’. We will take that as a signal for consent and apply a slight surcharge of four silver and two copper for the entire trial period, as this magical system is in testing.

GSNF: Stop reading my private correspondence. This is Nerrhavia Fallen’s business.

Wistram: We apologize for any intrusion. This is a generic message being written into every active conversation with multiple contacts.

GSNF: Rhir’s demon-infested hells it is. I am lodging a formal complaint. Who is the fool on the other end sending this?

TMGEK: Wistram, please desist with sending [Messages]. This is Khelt’s confidential business.

Wistram: This is an automated message. Please disregard any intrusin into your conversations.

 GSNF: You misspelled ‘intrusion’. Wistram can automate spells and I can use my tails to fly.

Eldavin: You are an embarrassment to the Academy. Apologies. I am shutting down Wistram’s end of this conversation. Prepare for [Multi-Message Link].

GSNF: That’s an advanced ritual. Wistram can’t just—

 

And then her [Message] scroll suddenly exploded with text. Etrikah yanked her paws away with an oath as an entire wall of text appeared that had hither-to not been there.

Someone else’s conversation.

 

Ailendamus: I believe our conversation is being intruded upon.

The Mage’s Guild of Eternal Khelt: That is an unusual claim. Please verify. We are rechecking our connection.

Wistram: Hello! I see you are conducting a multiple [Message] spell program. Could I interest the participants in a new, multiple-[Message] spell connection at a nominal fee?

Ailendamus: I would like to lodge a formal complaint.

The Mage’s Guild of Eternal Khelt: We deeply apologize for—

 

Etrikah’s page flickered, as more text skimmed across it, replacing the old words. Yisame was now leaning over.

“Etrikah, what is going on?”

“Someone’s using a linking spell for [Messages]. But it shouldn’t be easy. What’s…hold on.”

A few shimmering names engraved themselves at the top of her [Message] scroll. Etrikah eyed them, then saw the blank page begin to cross with words simultaneously. She read what looked like participants in…a group conversation.

 

Lionette: What happened? I was asking about the availability of Ghost Shrooms when the [Mage] at my guild started panicking. What is this? Is it Wistram?

Ailendamus: I believe this is a multi-[Message] link. Intriguing.

GSNF: Is this Lionette Solstice? Are you related to Erin Solstice?

Ice Squirrel: Whoa.

Ailendamus: Lyon LIONETTE is that you? 

Ailendamus: Apologies, there are multiple individuals present. Please disregard.

Lionette: Who is this, please? I am related to Erin Solstice, yes. I am her sister.

GSNF: Erin Solstice has no sister. Who is this truly?

Ice Squirrel: Ailendamus? Is that Ailendamus the nation? What’s a GSNF?

Viscount V: I apologize for the misunderstanding. I am representing Ailendamus in inquiry to the cure regarding an ‘Erin Solstice’ and collaboration between Oteslia and Khelt.

Ice Squirrel: Khelt is trying to cure Erin?

The Mage’s Guild of Eternal Khelt: We are deeply sorry for this misunderstanding and event. It appears the Academy of Wistram is employing a [Message]-altering spell via the magic linking us. We are unsure of how this is occurring and are trying to receive clarification.

Lionette: I would appreciate being taken…off…this spell, please. My information is confidential.

Viscount V: As are my affairs. I intend to lodge a formal complaint with—

SALISS: THIS IS SO INTERESTING.

Ice Squirrel: What.

GSNF (Great Sage of Nerrhavia’s Fallen): Is that Named Adventurer Saliss of Lights?

Lionette: Saliss? What are you doing? Where are you?

Witch A: Hello? I am inquiring about a cure for Erin Solstice. What is this, please? We are calling from the Mage’s Guild of Anazuland. Very confused.

Viscount V: This is entirely chaotic. Exalted Mage’s Guild of Khelt. Upon resending a [Message] spell, I am re-looped into this [Message] chain. Will you send me the requested information at a later date?

The Mage’s Guild of Eternal Khelt: With greatest apologies, we are still contacting Wistram for a formal explanation. 

Lionette: Wait, is everyone inquiring into a cure for Erin?

Ice Squirrel: Yes, it’s me, Lionette.

Viscount V: Yes.

GSNF: Yes. Wistram is mucking things up. As usual.

SAAAALIIISSSS: TELL ME WHEN THAT’S NOT WISTRAM. HAH.

Witch A: Why is that message appearing in capital letters? What is wrong with the name? What is going on? We are inquiring into a cure, yes.

TMGEK: Please hold, we are working on the issue.

Ice Squirrel: Who? Oh.

Lionette: Who is this now?

The Mage’s Guild of Eternal Khelt: We are shortening our address to TMGEK for clarify.

Lionette: That is clarity?

Fetohep of Khelt: I am exceptionally displeased.

Ice Squirrel: Oh wow.

The Mage’s Guild of Exalted Khelt With Great Apologies to His Exalted Majesty: We are attempting to clarify the situation with—

Fetohep of Khelt: Enough. Desist. I will take this matter over myself. To all those present, I am King of Khelt, who oversees the project in regards to a cure for an individual known as Erin Solstice. Direct such inquiries unto me and—

S.A.L.I.S.S: You’re in charge? Who put you in charge?

Fetohep: Desist in your writing. 

Sal-iss: I didn’t put you in charge.

Fetohep: Enough. You speak to the ruler of Exalted Khelt. Deference is required.

Not Saliss: Make me.

Viscount Visophecin of Ailendamus: It is our extreme pleasure to tender our regards to His Majesty of Khelt, regardless of war or the circumstances. To the sand eternal, may Khelt reign.

Great Sage of Nerrhavia’s Fallen: Greetings to Khelt. This is a disaster. Is Wistram just tossing around magic link spells? I don’t need every conversation to be like the Arbitration Council.

Fetohep: I greet you, Viscount Visophecin and Sage Etrikah, to whom I believe I am writing. In regards to this conversation, it is my understanding that Wistram has ignorantly applied its magic to a similar interest. In regards to—

THAT DRAKE WITH THE POTIONS: HEY.

Fetohep: —the cure for Erin Solstice as first attempted by Oteslia. Khelt has funded and taken over.

NAMED ADVENTURER SALISS: HEEEEEY~~

Lionette: Khelt has not taken over any project to my knowledge. I am Lionette, Erin’s cousin. I am attempting to work on a cure. I am exceptionally willing to talk to whomever may have information or aid regarding Erin Solstice.

GSNF: You said you were her sister.

Saliss of Lights: Did you know that the Demonsoul Skunk has a musk that can be smelled over a mile away at peak potency?

Lionette: SALISS. STOP.

Ice Squirrel: That’s Saliss, right? Saliss, it’s me! I’m not alone, though.

Saliss: …Clarabessa?

Ice Squirrel: No.

 

It was at this point a few things happened.

Viscount Visophecin sat back to pour himself a drink of water and watch while Ryoka stared at the scroll. The Lucifen looked amused and exceptionally interested by turns.

Lyonette du Marquin looked around, saw the naked Drake energetically scribbling at a counter next to hers, and threw an inkwell, which he dodged.

Half the [Rogues] around Ceria started taking bets on whether this was real.

Sage Etrikah decided she needed a drink as Yisame and Yvlon stared at the parchment.

And then the others began joining in.

 

——

 

Grand Magus Eldavin was only partly aware of Wistram trying out their new spell like a child with a wand. He had stopped in his progress back to eject the fool who had caused this trouble with multiple reigning heads of state from the academy’s nearest window because another fool was in his way.

“Grand Magus. I know we have spoken, and you are busy, but I hope you will hear my request.”

“Ah. I believe we have met. Now is not a good time.”

The interloper nodded.

“Nevertheless, Grand Magus. I insist. I hope you will hear me out. I am prepared for your displeasure.”

Eldavin considered ejecting this young man through the nearest window as well, but there was a certain set to his jaw and determination the half-Elf liked. So Eldavin pointed.

“Very well. I respect preparation. Goodbye.”

The giant hand grabbed the Human young man with blonde hair and, before he could move, tossed Ylawes Byres out the window. Eldavin heard a shout as he strode on, followed by the sounds of alarm from outdoors.

The [Knight] caught him halfway to his destination, panting. Eldavin eyed Ylawes’ wet clothing and look of grim determination, and nodded.

“You’ve earned five minutes. Speak.”

The [Knight] inhaled sharply.

“It’s about two things, Grand Magus. My sister is currently captive of Nerrhavia’s Fallen. She is a Gold-rank adventurer. That—and I came to Wistram with my team in the hopes that you could cure someone who’s…not dead, but not alive. Trapped in a stasis spell.”

“What, the kind that ends with a kiss? Do they still do that?”

Eldavin wrinkled his nose. Ylawes shook his head.

“No, Grand Magus. She was injured and frozen. Shot by poisoned crossbow bolts, but she survived and—”

Eldavin held up a finger. The half-Elf stared ahead of him, put a finger to his brow, and looked at Ylawes.

He had the strangest sense of…all three things. And one of his greater goals, that girl who kept getting herself into—

“Erin Solstice. You mean…Erin Solstice.”

Ylawes’ eyes widened. He looked at the Grand Magus. The half-Elf stared at him, then put a finger to his temple.

“Come with me. Find a Scroll of [Messages]. Oh—and if you see an idiot wearing blue robes, toss him out the nearest window. Or just stab him.”

 

——

 

It was at this moment when the little Gnoll girl shyly ducked her head in front of the oldest [Shaman] in the Meeting of Tribes. Perhaps the world.

Shaman Perbne, the [Chief Shaman] of the tribe, bowed as the old, old Shaman Theikha of Gaarh Marsh, semi-retired but most venerable of all, peered at Mrsha.

She had graciously come to their location, upon no less than Weatherfur and Ekhtouch’s request. It was highly unusual; even if two famous tribes asked, they should come to her.

However, Theikha was spry enough, and the odd request was curious. Now, she fixed Mrsha with a calm stare that had the nervous girl sitting up straight. Mrsha was no stranger to important people, but this old Gnoll woman reminded her of her [Shaman].

And…Mrsha needed her help.

“Shaman Theikha. I thank you greatly for coming. The circumstances are…odd. Such that we must trouble you. However, the long and short of it is that Silverfang and four other tribes ask that you give us your great wisdom in divining a cure for a deathly-ill Human. A great friend of Gnolls. This child has come so far and hopes you will help us.”

“Ah. I see.”

Theikha glanced at Mrsha, and the Gnoll shyly waved. An over-nervous Gnoll woman interrupted.

“Honored Theikha, I am Krshia Silverfang. This is Mri, and she is very shy, but wished to see you. May I offer you food, refreshment? Anything else?”

They had all of that placed in front of Theikha, but Krshia and Chieftain Torishi Weatherfur and Akrisa were all here. So were Gire, Shaman Cetrule, even Satar as a young [Shaman], and two of Weatherfur’s [Shamans].

Not just because necessity demanded honoring Theikha, but because they wanted to meet one of the oldest [Shamans] themselves. The old Gnoll looked at Mrsha again and nodded to Krshia.

“Let us hear your plea. We can do no less for brave Silverfang, who has unveiled dark truths to us in these times. Do you have details?”

“I do, and a first-hand account, Honored Theikha. There are many factors…a friend is in Oteslia, seeking a cure, and we are retrieving their work. There is an [Alchemist]—but I get ahead of myself, forgive me.”

Krshia stuttered with nervousness, but Theikha smiled and she relaxed a bit. Mrsha edged backwards towards the opening of the tent, where someone was poring over an artifact.

“Well? Can she help?”

Rose whispered to Mrsha. The Gnoll girl hesitated, but Gire shook her head.

“They’re explaining the situation. Where’s the details about the injury?”

She hugged Mrsha as the Gnoll girl came out. Tkrn, even Tesy and Vetn, were all huddled around the tent’s opening, but kept fleeing every time Akrisa turned to glower. An annoyed Gnoll with golden fur was growling to herself.

“I’m trying to get it! Dead gods, don’t any of you believe in prep-work?”

“What’s wrong? Doesn’t the Mage’s Guild in Oteslia have it?”

Qwera, the Golden Gnoll of Izril stared down at her [Message] Scroll as Mrsha peeked over her shoulder. So did a Human woman, a [Merchant], Ysara Byres, with her brows raised. Qwera shook her head.

“You will not believe this…”

 

——

 

Lyonette du Marquin was frozen. Saliss was half-eying Wilovan, who had his fist slightly raised. The calm Gentleman Caller looked like even his patience was fraying.

But they were all looking down at the message scroll. Because this?

Lyonette’s lips moved. There was only one effect she had ever known that could cause this. Her hands were shaking.

 

Wall Lord Ilvriss: Hello. Hello, is there an expert on frost magic in this ‘discussion room’? I am prepared to financially back any project with a verifiable cure. Payment on successful delivery.

Fetohep of Khelt: I am Fetohep of Khelt. No payment is necessary. One shall not want for fulfillment as Khelt is my witness.

Wall Lord Ilvriss: Is this…Fetohep of Khelt, Ruler of Khelt, the nation?

Fetohep of Khelt: No less.

Golden Gnoll: Buttered goat testicles, is this real?

Fetohep: I’m Fetohep and I hate undead. Bleh.

Lionette: Dead gods. I am so sorry. I apologize without reserve—that is Saliss again.

Viscount Visophecin: It becomes clear that fraud is an issue. This system proposed by Wistram reveals more faults than benefits.

GSNF: True, but we are communicating multi-way. That’s something only a few groups like the Walled Cities can manage.

Wall Lord Ilvriss: I can verify this. Although the Walled Cities’ networks are encrypted. I believe this is an unsecured spell?

Fetohep: My sendings are secure. I cannot vouch for individuals elsewhere. Nor do I lack for such means.

Witch A: We’re just a Mage’s Guild in Anazuland. Hello! Please don’t spy on us, Wistram. :<

Saliss: Did that Witch just draw a sad face? This is amazing.

Anonymous Spellcaster A: I also would find the intrusion into my personal life discouraging. Good evening. This is an intriguing event.

Saliss: Who this.

Alchemist I: Salutations to all and sundry. I too, would like to participate in this discussion as an interested party into cures. I am an [Alchemist] of some means.

Ice Squirrel: Oh snap. Is that you?

Alchemist I: Yes.

GSNF: I am getting tired of so many people dropping in. This is chaos. Wistram, what are you doing?

Grand Magus Eldavin: I have reprimanded the offending party. Excuse me. You should see your [Message] scrolls rearranging. If you have a telepathic link, I suggest you retrieve an artifact.

Golden Gnoll: WHAT IS HAPPENING TO MY SCROLL

Grand Magus Eldavin: You now see multiple ‘rooms’ into which each intrigued party may write. This may alleviate the effects of so many parties conversing at once. Once again, I apologize for the issue. I tender my regrets to King Fetohep, Queen Yisame and the Great Sage of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, Viscount Visophecin, Wall Lord Ilvriss, and any other parties.

Anonymous Spellcaster A: Fascinating. You are the redoubtable Grand Magus of which many have spoken? It is an honor to meet with you.

Eldavin: And you are likewise intriguing. May I know your name?

Anonymous Spellcaster A: I am a simple [Mage] who was persuaded to look into Miss Solstice’s case by a mutual friend.

 

Visophecin looked at Ryoka. His fingers were twitching. Ryoka stared at the complex sigils that Azemith and two more of the Lucifen’s best were drawing. Fithea was frowning at a scrying orb.

“That is a lie. There are a few shielded spells, such as Fetohep of Khelt’s. However, I can pick up the details on most. Locations, even magical signatures.”

“Who is lacking, Visophecin? I count…they cannot be shielding themselves. They cannot! This is the Waning World!”

Azemith was frowning deeply. Visophecin was calmer.

“They can and do. This Grand Magus is a superior spellcaster, as we knew. Witch A…Fetohep of Khelt. And Spellcaster A. No…there is someone else, but they have written nothing. Interesting.”

Ryoka was shaking.

“I think I know who some of them are.”

Visophecin glanced at her.

“In that case…”

 

Windy Girl: Hello.

Saliss: Hey! You’re alive! Amateur.

Lionette: RYOKA?!

Windy Girl: No? That’s not me.

GSNF: Even I can tell that’s a lie. Hold on, I’m getting more snacks. This is hugely entertaining. Wait…someone’s having a choking fit. 

Ice Squirrel: IT’S ME! Ryoka, you’re alive! We’re here!

Windy Girl: Is this ‘C’?

Ice Squirrel: Yep!

Mons: You’re alive!

Ice Squirrel: MONS!?

V: So fascinating. Hello, Eldavin.

Eldavin: Ah, you too? Salutations, V. 

 

That was one chat which was going off the rails, into the water, and possibly through the Kraken’s maw. Another room was going ballistic as well.

 

Mri: …So unto you, I render the highest compliments of my personage, and a fine greetings to all parties not hither-to presented into this venerable estate of communications.

Fetohep: Your address is well-received, Mri. 

Lionette: Is that you, Mri?

Mri: It is, forsooth.

GSNF: I don’t think you know what that word means.

Golden Gnoll: How do you have a message scroll, Mri?

Krshia Silverfang: Hello? Is this Lyonette?

Mri: You are a damned fool, Krshia! A damned fool with little thought in your vacuous head of cotton! There is no Lyonette! There never was a Lyonette!

Krshia: I am sorry…Mri? Mri?

Mri: Oh dear. I must leave posthaste for a moment. I fear I am in some distress, but I shall rally and communicate my thoughts as best able in time.

Lionette: No, don’t go!

 

Much less the main chat.

 

Witch A: So how much is a cure worth? I submitted a recipe for the Ethereal-ingredient antidote, but there are not enough ingredients in Anazuland for a full recipe.

Ilvriss: That was you? I will pay you for any items you have at twice their market price.

Fetohep: I will receive those items now. A Courier will go to Anazuland at once.

Witch A: No! No! Please, do not trouble yourselves! We can arrange a Courier…Anazuland is not on many maps. Because we’re so small.

Saliss: Wait, you have ethereal-reagents? Is that their name? That antidote looked like it would work, but I’ve never heard of ethereal reagents. Who’s just walking around tossing out new alchemical ingredients.

Alchemist I: You have never heard of Ethereal-type reagents? My, my. Unexpected of Saliss of Lights. If this is Saliss of Lights.

Saliss: You’re a funny person, Alchemist I. And I suppose you’re good at alchemy?

Alchemist I: I have a passing talent, yes. What is this recipe? I would greatly like to peruse it.

Fetohep: My [Mages] shall copy it over to each one of you directly. They also vouch for its efficacy, although it is not perfect. That may be due to a lack of ingredients for even Exalted Khelt.

Lionette: It takes a reagent? Could one be growing in Oteslia???

Saliss: Probably not. I checked, but then again, it’s a reagent no one knows about.

Alchemist I: Once again, many people know of this ingredient, ‘Saliss’.

Saliss: Go eat your tail. Who knows about ethereal-class ingredients?

Witch A: Anazuland had a few.

Saliss: Well, obviously you did, but that’s one—

Alchemist I: I have used them from time to time. They are rare, but seaborn variants exist.

Saliss: Don’t make things up. I’m talking about real authorities, not [Charlatans].

Anonymous Spellcaster A: I am familiar with ethereal-type substances, though I am not an [Alchemist]. I regret that I do not have many…although there may be a thread that I could obtain? A spool of such material?

Saliss: Now you’re just making stuff up.

Viscount V: I regret to say that I too am familiar with the substance.

Eldavin: Are we discussing ethereal shrooms? Ghost Shrooms? I would like to pay for a few cultures if they can be spared. Wistram is out.

Saliss: I hate you all.

GSNF: This is an astonishing chat full of [Liars] or odd people. 

 

However, perhaps the best chat was the one where it was a bunch of ships passing each other in the night.

Or, in this case, a bunch of mad skateboarders zooming past each other butt-naked while jousting.

 

Golden Gnoll: Did I hear the Great Sage of Nerrhavia’s Fallen is in this? I would like to talk to her about a trifling matter.

Eldavin: I also, upon business regarding Nerrhavia and a matter of some import.

GSNF: I’m busy. What?

Ice Squirrel: Me too! I have a friend in need. She’s in Nerrhavia. My teammate? She’s falsely imprisoned. Is there someone I could speak to in authority?

GSNF: Hm? Interesting. That’s not really me, but I can pass on messages, I suppose.

Golden Gnoll: Wait, that is what I was going to discuss. I have someone I would like to pay any crimes or bounties on.

GSNF: That’s not how it works.

Eldavin: Would you consider some gesture a fitting act to consider a pardon? Queen Yisame and I did speak briefly; I would very much like to talk to her.

GSNF: Interesting. What would that be about? 

Eldavin: A certain young woman in some distress regarding crimes committed or not. I would very much like clarity on the issue.

GSNF: Dead gods, how many young women are committing crimes in this damn nation? I’m not really willing to discuss information that may be confidential and I don’t know anything about. Can someone write a name?

Mri: Often, the greatest act of redemption is the vocalization of an apology. Yet what spirit can endure such humility without losing some of its own self worth? Forgiveness without is a virtue among like-minded spirits of such nobility.

Fetohep: Intriguing sentiments. What class do you possess, Mri?

Mri: I have often been described as a [Druid], but my ambitions soar to [Wizard], [Adventurer] itself, and other passions.

Fetohep: Ah, there is a spirit long lost.

Eldavin: Indeed, indeed, but perhaps not on topic? Excuse me. ‘Offtopic’?

Golden Gnoll: Yvlon Byres is my name. I would like to pay her debts.

Ice Squirrel: Wait, that’s my person too.

GSNF: ████████████████████████████

 

That was actually more like a huge blotch of ink.

 

GSNF: Sorry. Did you say that was your ‘teammate’, Ice Squirrel?

Ice Squirrel: Yes…

Eldavin: Yvlon Byres is the person of my concern as well.

Mri: I have occasioned a passing regard for Yvlon Byres, and am willing to put down good coin upon her release for whatever misdemeanors she has incurred.

GSNF: I…may have it on good authority that Yvlon Byres was freed and pardoned of all crimes this morning. I may even be able to put her on this scroll.

Ice Squirrel: WHAT.

Golden Gnoll: That’s incredible. Incredibly suspicious. Can Yvlon give us some information her…sister might recognize?

Eldavin: Her brother is standing next to me.

Ice Squirrel: WHAAAAT

Eldavin: He appears to be having heart failure. One moment.

 

The best part—or most chaotic—was that they were still coming in. By chance and, increasingly, because Wistram was notifying people who had inquired into this subject before.

Some had no access to [Message] scrolls or willing [Mages]. However, this was a Moment, and it was being at least partly manufactured. By [Mages] who thought even this gathering was worth a big secret—until their own [Message] scrolls began catching on fire.

 

Eldavin: Enough peeking. Any links within the academy will be backtraced and burned.

Viscount V: Admirable spellcasting. Is this a new feature Wistram intends to offer, by any chance?

Eldavin: That is the theory, yes. You are familiar with basic message-linking?

Viscount V: Naturally.

GSNF: I assumed Wistram forgot.

Anonymous Spellcaster A: There is much Wistram forgets, with respect.

Eldavin: No offense taken. I am attempting to rectify the magical situation here.

Alchemist I: Very commendable, Grand Magus. If we are ever to meet, I should highly like to sample a vintage from the villages with you.

Eldavin: Intriguing. I may accept. That presupposes I know who you are.

Alchemist I: I believe I would make it a point to seek you out.

GSNF: Not ominous at all.

jort2003: lol

Viscount V: What is that name?

Eldavin: That expression…

GSNF: I assume someone sneezed on the parchment or that’s a word. 

Alchemist I: In which dictionary.

jort2003: srry. this is wild.

Eldavin: Correct your spelling at once. Name yourself. Pallass?

jort2003: !!!

Viscount V: Ah, backtracing. I would politely ask you refrain from doing so.

Eldavin: Noted, but I am attempting to understand if this is a literal child or fool.

Mri: One must take the child firmly in hand and feed them a cookie. For how will they not learn if they are not fed?

Joseph Ortega: Sorry. I’m not used to this.

GSNF: Oh, it’s that one. Why am I even surprised at this point?

Alchemist I: Fascinating.

Anonymous Spellcaster A: Beyond fascinating. Hello. I am an incredible fan of your televised performance.

Joseph Ortega: Oh, thanks. This is amazing. Who are you all?

Eldavin: I am Grand Magus Eldavin of Wistram.

Joseph Ortega: ヽ(°〇°)ノ

GSNF: He’s doing it again. Have they just…forgotten how to write in Pallass?

Saliss: It would honestly not surprise me. Believe me, sometimes I wonder if they know how to use toilet paper.

Eldavin: HAH.

Magus G: As a representative of Pallass proper, I can assure you, Saliss, that our hygiene is superior to most cities. As you might recall.

Saliss: And here come the [Fun Murderers].

Eldavin: Ah, is this Magus G? Have we met?

Magus G: Salutations, sir. Another achievement, however modest.

Eldavin: Mm. Only in reconstructing what is lost. Much like a [Historian]. But thank you. We must take wine and discuss magic.

Anonymous Spellcaster A: I am humbled. Is this the redoubtable Magus Grimalkin himself? I am a humble spellcaster compared to you all.

Magus Grimalkin, Pallass: You are exceptionally kind.

 

It was becoming so chaotic that even Fetohep with three [Message] scrolls floating before him was running out of hands. Much less the shouting ghosts behind him. He glared as he wrote.

 

Fetohep: I, Fetohep of Khelt, greet the following in brevity unbefitting my manner but the state of this hurried conversation—

Lionette: Mri, are you safe?

Mri: Though I confess to peckishness betimes, I have managed my salutary meals of leafed varieties with more wholesome peccadillos of sustenance, thank you. I eagerly await our meeting posthaste.

Lionette: I will come soon. If all is well.

Fetohep: Magus Grimalkin of Pallass, Joseph Ortega, the individuals referring to themselves as ‘Sandquen’, ‘YlawesB’, ‘Alchemist I’—

Krshia: All is very well as it can be. Is all well over there?

Saliss: Hey, someone show respect to Fetohep. He’s writing over there.

RainyEarl: Hello? Hello, can you see this?

 

Fetohep gave up. He looked around, glared, and then spoke into a scrying orb.

“There is a situation that requires your presence immediately. Return unto me at your quickest spell, Vizir Hecrelunn.”

A snide voice came from the scrying orb, replaced by a face with two glowing pinpoints of crimson light.

“You do not have more ridiculous speeches for me to write? Another army to wipe out as if I were a lap dog? Mind yourself, King of Khelt. You do not order your betters, but beseech.”

Fetohep’s golden flames flashed. He wrote, slowly.

 

Fetohep: I would like to remind those present upon the nature of this meeting.

GSNF: Yes, yes. But we have a situation and someone is about to stab me with a fork if I don’t—here.

Yvlon: Ice Squirrel?

Ice Squirrel: YV!

YlawesB: Are you well?

Golden Gnoll: It’s Ysara. Yvlon, is that you? Say something you said to me.

Yvlon: Belt over boots?

Ice Squirrel: ??

YlawesB: That’s her.

Golden Gnoll: Maybe…are you alright?

Fetohep: I am copying this message unto these separate rooms. The quarry is the revival of Erin Solstice.

Ice Squirrel: oop

Yvlon: Is something wrong, Ceria?

Ice Squirrel: No, Fetohep.

GSNF: I don’t think he quite understands how this works. I need to look up precedent.

Eldavin: They used to do this—albeit in different formats. I have removed the limitations of speed.

Anonymous Spellcaster A: Truly? It seems old, even for my knowledge of Wistram.

Eldavin: Ah, well, some of us are older than others.

Viscount V: It must be very old.

YlawesB: Are you in need of help, Yvlon? Are you still in prison?

Alchemist I: I don’t recall anything of the nature.

GSNF: Go back to your discussion ‘room’. This is private business.

Mri: Upon my sword, I shall rescue you, Yvlon Byres! If rescue needs be the occasioned, you have my sword.

Joseph Ortega: AND MY AXE.

Windy Girl: Dead gods.

Yvlon: Thank you, Mri? Do I know you?

GSNF: GET OUT

Golden Gnoll: If you need transport, or anything, we can fund it. What’s the situation?

Yvlon: I’m very well set. I have allies in high places. There is some issue, but Prince Zenol, a Gold-rank adventurer, is here and helping me.

Ice Squirrel: Zenol!?!? Great!

YlawesB: That’s wonderful news. I will head out with my team at once to help you.

Golden Gnoll: YLAWES, ENOUGH

Yvlon: No. I am quite well Ylawes, and I will make my way home and recover my team on my own means, thank you.

YlawesB: Apologies…?

Beard Lad: Lad…

Fetohep: I will be overseeing the main discussion, what I believe is now referred to as Room A: Efforts unto a Satisfactory Cure.

Ice Squirrel: Anyone seen Bone Boy? That’s what we’ll call him.

Yvlon: He’s in trouble.

Queen R: Your friend is out of Roshal’s grip. More than that will depend on the future.

GSNF: Who’s this now?

Ice Squirrel: Friend?

Queen R: Friend.

Saliss: Saliss!

Sandquen: Oh, this is wonderful. So many powerful people helping towards one cause! Hello! I’m hoping I can help in some way!

GSNF: Sigh.

 

Hecrelunn was still arguing via the scrying orb. Fetohep heard voices. Hecrelunn’s, obviously, the Mage’s Guildmistress begging forgiveness, some of his own researchers who were trying to enter the chat, and more.

The living, the undead—

I will return as I deem fit. Brief me on the situation and I may agree—

And the dead.

Fetohep, it is I, Khelta. We cannot read this scroll as it lies too much in the living world. Repeat what is being said to us, verbatim.

Ooh! Ooh! Did he say Lyonette’s there? Say hi for me! No, wait. Let’s play it cool.

“I, His-Xe, have a solution to this conundrum. A verbosity spell to read the words aloud.”

“Well thought, His-Xe. I have always admired your reign.”

“Thank you, Serept. I believe the Vizir could cast it easily. Where is he?”

“Being stubborn again. He was always so. Why is Fetohep not speaking?”

It was the exact same. He thought he had escaped it in part, but it was playing out verbally and on the text. Fetohep spoke.

“Vizir Hecrelunn, you will return to the palace now.

The sneering Revenant laughed in his face.

“Is this your paltry little display of command? I believe I will—”

Fetohep rose. His voice magnified, and the Guildmistress froze. The [Servants] working in the palace and every citizen within three blocks looked up as a heartstopping voice echoed out like thunder.

In the name of Khelt Eternal, you will return now. Be silent, ‘Little Brother-King’.”

Hecrelunn faltered. His image in the scrying orb stared at Fetohep, and he made a choking noise. Fetohep slowly sat back in perfect dignity—only ruined by the gales of ghostly laughter in his ears.

No, wait. That made it better. The Vizir began casting a spell. Fetohep was writing when he popped into space outside of the capital proper and began flying in. Fetohep wordlessly tossed him a [Message] scroll.

“We will require a verbosity spell on my scroll, I believe. It is organized into…”

“I see it.”

The [Vizir] quietly cast the spell. He didn’t meet Fetohep’s eyes, and he was silent as he began to write. Fetohep rather thought he liked the Vizir’s new attitude. The words began to echo as he wrote.

 

Fetohep: With apologies, I introduce the Vizir Hecrelunn.

Windy Girl: Hi.

Vizir Hecrelunn of Khelt Eternal, In Service to Her Majesty, Khelta, Undisputed of His Class, Steward of the Lands Claimed by Undeath: It is my—

Joseph Ortega: yo, is it that guy I saw on the news? this is wild

RainyEarl: ‘yo’ yourself?

Vizir Hecrelunn, The Fire of Khelt’s Wrath, Face of the Limitless Armies of Khelta, Empowered of the Servants of Chandrar: I am the Vizir of Khelt and I will have—

ArchmageV: I am a huge admirer of Kheltian magics from that era. Do you have a full, working spellbook? I would love to compare notes.

Vizir Hecrelunn, Who Will Not Be Interrupted, Sovereign King in Lieu of—

Mri: I too possess some aptitude with magic. We should compare spellbooks.

ArchmageV: Are you a fellow spellcaster?

Anonymous Spellcaster A: I as well. I believe I know you, Archmage Valeterisa? Well met. I am able to cast Tier 5 magics; a handful of spells. It is my singular accomplishment in life.

Eldavin: Respectable, respectable. A Revenant aside from Fetohep of Khelt? Possibly Tier 6-7. I sincerely doubt he can manage a Tier 8 unlinked, but I suppose backup spellcasters are useful.

VizirH: What did you just say?

Eldavin: I am the Grand Magus pledged to restoring Miss Solstice to life, as Windy Girl is aware. It is a compounding issue, but I believe I can do it once my affairs here are done. Which reminds me, Windy Girl—your situation?

Windy Girl: Good?

Eldavin: Where are you?

Windy Girl: You can’t tell?

Anonymous Spellcaster A: Oh my.

Eldavin: It is difficult with so many connections, and I believe I was asked to be private.

Magus G: I am amazed this ritual can hold so many individual links.

Eldavin: Well, in truth, this is a completely different magical system than the one Wistram or the Walled Cities apply. Far more efficient.

VizirH: BE SILENT, MORTALS. I AM SPEAKING. MY MAGIC AND WISDOM FAR SURPASSES ANY PRESENT.

Saliss: Oooh. This is going to be hilarious. You’re new here, aren’t you?

Mri: Thou hast met many foes in your lifetime, Mighty Vizir Hecrelunn of Khelt, but you have not met Mri, the Great and Terrible. Many have known my wrath; few have escaped unscathed.

Lionette: Mri…

True Grit: What are you doing to my academy? This is ridiculous. These days of [Mages] and petty politics have begun again.

Anonymous Spellcaster A: Haven’t they always been petty?

Rhis: Hah! Well said! They have always been petty and pathetic.

 

It was getting chaotic. Fetohep gave up on that room. The Vizir was so angry his [Message] scroll burst into flames, but the thing about being the immortal king of Khelt was that you had plenty of those.

Fetohep scribbled furiously.

 

Fetohep: Once again, I convene this to be Room B: Succinct Conversations Unto a Cure. Please focus your attention upon the issue.

Eldavin: Apologies. Frankly, this system needs work. Perhaps an overall moderator?

Saliss: And who’s that, Wistram? Funny how it’s always Wistram, huh?

Fetohep: We are getting off-track. Please remain focused.

Joseph Ortega: It’s off-topic.

 

The Revenant twitched. Fetohep’s quill paused, but before he could go on, more words appeared.

 

Windy Girl: Fetohep is right. We’re all here for the same reasons, aren’t we? You might need three rooms, though. Aren’t there three components? Healing, antidote, freezing spell?

Ilvriss: The potion has been taken care of. Healing, I mean. Unless a Potion of Regeneration at about one third dosage is not acceptable…?

Fetohep: Ah, this is commendable. A replacement can be arranged if need be, but I am assured it is effective. I shall ‘set up’ such rooms then and preannounce them.

Windy Girl: Don’t do that. I’ll write it into potions and tag…um, Saliss, Witch A, and Alchemist I. Anyone who wants can jump in. That’s efficient.

Hecrelunn, Vizir: You are insolent, whomsoever you are, before the rulers of Khelt.

Windy Girl: Hey, Hecrelunn. Shut up.

 

Which was a mistake, or so he felt—until he saw ‘Windy Girl’ disappear from that chat and appear in another room. The furious Hecrelunn followed her in, and their exchange of insults was joined by ‘Mri’, ‘Saliss’, and ‘Beard Lad’.

Impressive. He saw what this person was doing. Meanwhile—a kind of order restored itself. Yet even that was…beyond interesting.

 

Saliss: Alright, alright. Antidotes. Everyone keeps saying ethereal-type reagents are the way to go, but who has any?

Witch A: I have a few, but not enough to make a full potion out of.

Alchemist I: Or experiment. Sadly, my stocks would also be lacking, but I have the expertise to alter…any standard antidote. Is this some kind of advanced poison? Rotlung? Hetheic Death? Magical-vectors?

Saliss: It’s…a poisonous berry enhanced with some snake venom. Cosqe Stinger is the local term. About Intensity…14 on Relik’s Scale.

Alchemist I: I see…and the issue is? Not that I would trust Saliss of Lights to cure warts.

Witch A: Funny. :)

Saliss: You’re hilarious. Everyone must love you. Listen, I’ve made the cure. Liquid, gas—it’s for a giant ice cube, and that’s why it’s difficult. Understand? Do you need me to write down the exact ingredients?

Alchemist I: You may if you are attempting to alter a potion to interact with frozen flesh. What have you tried?

Saliss: Funny thing. You only get one chance. I think they’re trying the cure on squirrels.

GSNF: Regular squirrels, or is that a euphemism?

Saliss: Regular squirrels. I gave them a simple liquid injection, but ethereal-type potions aside, there’s no good vector.

Viscount V: Have you considered teleporting the liquids into the injuries…?

Saliss: What.

Witch A: That is not how potions work.

Viscount V: Apologies.

Archmage V: I have actually looked into a spell that would simultaneously redivide and redirect such potions like that—but the complexity and variance in each body makes it difficult.

Saliss: What she said. Listen, I don’t have another solution. Frozen flesh. Non-moving blood…

Alchemist I: Seeker liquid.

Saliss: Seeker…

Witch A: So smart. :o

GSNF: Hold on, can anyone actually make seeker liquids anymore? I’m only familiar with hostile liquids.

Alchemist I: I assure you, it’s possible. Seeker liquid antidote combined with a high intensity soak-factor.

Saliss: You’ll poison her with the antidote.

Witch A: Not if you use Skills. [Beneficial Tonic]?

Alchemist I: Exactly. I would also venture a guess that you could trial the ethereal-antidotes by replacing the missing component with a translucence-type reagent. Obviously, you would alter for the actual ingredient, but a sample antidote recipe lacking only for the exact ingredient could be formulated. I am close to my workstation and can attempt it tonight. Someone must, it seems.

Witch A: Brutal. :)

Saliss: I think I know who you are, ‘Alchemist I’. How did you get over here? I wouldn’t feed your ‘antidotes’ to Crelers.

Alchemist I: You couldn’t cure Creler poison.

Witch A: <3 :) :) :)

Alchemist I: Thank you.

Saliss: That’s it. I’m preparing a set of antidotes right now. I’ve created water-soluble liquids and I’m forwarding them to the [Researchers] and we’ll see how good my cures are.

Alchemist I: And I will demonstrate actual progress on my end shortly. Heading to my laboratory now.

GSNF: Dead gods. Sands save me from competing egos. Will someone start writing recipes? I’ll trial both.

Saliss: I’ll write down each successful iteration. You know who I have helping me? Alchemist Xif of Pallass himself.

Alchemist I: …Is that a net benefit?

Saliss: How dare you. Xif is the most hard-working, respected [Alchemist] in Pallass—aside from me. He is a credit to the City of Invention, and you will not slander his good name.

Witch A: Maybe I will make a cure too. I am good with ingredients.

Alchemist I: …That would be helpful, but I believe we have enough expertise on our end to formulate a cure if possible, Miss Witch A.

Saliss: Yeah, what he said.

Witch A: (ಠ_ಠ). I am a [Witch]. I am good at magic and alchemy.

Saliss: Yeah. Sort of in both.

Alchemist I: We are both [Alchemists].

Witch A: (ಠ_ಠ)(ಠ_ಠ)(ಠ_ಠ). I will hex you. I am better. I will make a potion. I have better Skills and levels.

Saliss: Listen to this. Let’s find out. Put your exploding bottle where your mouth is. I’ll have my first entry here in 15 minutes.

Alchemist I: 10.

GSNF: Sigh.

 

However, it still meant there were two, possibly three [Alchemists] competing. Not even that.

 

Sandquen: I have two [Alchemists] looking into these cures.

RainyEarl: I commissioned one a month ago.

Wall Lord Ilvriss: I, as well, believe I have at least ten in a research team undergoing trials.

Fetohep: I have eighty-eight. The issue is not the cure itself, but a new reagent or…spell. If anything, I believe the antidote is lesser to a more adept ice spell.

Wall Lord Ilvriss: True. We have had only standard [Mages] researching spells. Is there any capable [Cryomancer] here? Anyone with a passing knowledge of such magic?

Eldavin: You could say that.

Magus G: Perhaps. I also know about the body’s interactions with cold.

Viscount V: I too, am similarly proficient in ice magic.

Ice Squirrel: Me?

Queen R: I as well.

Rhis: Hm…

ArchmageV: I know in excess of three hundred spells, yes.

Anonymous Spellcaster A: I hope to be of some small assistance with you all.

 

The Vizir’s head rose triumphantly. Fetohep smiled, and he heard the ghosts cheering. He bent over the scroll.

 

Fetohep: I am prepared to offer a prize for any spell that is most effective, whereupon I introduce ‘Researcher Dromenl’ and ‘Cryomancer Ulea’ who have led the issue. They may communicate more, but the issue as it is presented to me is that the body is damaged when heated unevenly. A superior, elegant magic is required.

Lionette: Thank you all for helping. I and Wall Lord Ilvriss will also contribute in any way if that is an incentive at all, not that I would dare to assume I can add to Khelt’s largesse.

Mri: Yes, thank you. Please help her.

Viscount V: Not to disturb those here, but I must ask: this young woman frozen is alive, is she not?

Lionette: Neither [Detect Life] nor [Detect Death] work on her.

Viscount V: That is not…entirely encouraging. An object would also fail to register on both spells.

Eldavin: I assure you, a dead body would have some residual death magic.

Anonymous Spellcaster A: I would concur with that based on my observations.

Viscount V: Encouraging, then.

Fetohep: Erin Solstice is alive. I assure you of that. If she were here…she would be more concerned with the wellbeing of others. She is alive.

Windy Girl: That sounds exactly like her.

Magus G: How do all of you know her?

Ice Squirrel: Friends of friends or just friends. Let’s not get distracted. 

Researcher Dromenl, Oteslia: Yes, hello! I am very gratified by all these experts. Very gratified. I would love to talk about any spells anyone might have an understanding of—we have to teach and cast the spells ourselves, you see, and there are few dedicated [Cryomancers] with ice Skills. Any help would be greatly appreciated—and I also would like to know more details on the live people’s trials, Cryomancer Ulea. Apparently one lived but shortly expired?

Fetohep: Enough. Desist, Researcher Dromenl. Some details are not to be m—

Windy Girl: The WHAT

GSNF: Uh oh.

Alchemist I: May I hear more about this.

Eldavin: I believe this requires an explanation.

Fetohep: Standby.

 

He did not return to the chat, incidentally. Something about having that read aloud might have caused…

Issues.

Yet here it was. Ice magic. In Fetohep’s absence, the chat room cast around for good spellcasters…and found more than you could shake a dead body at.

 

Eldavin: I am the most senior [Mage], so I will list five spells which might possibly be of some use: [Iceflesh], [Rune of Warmth]—if applied correctly, of course. Is the rate of warming essential? [Greater Resistance: Cold] for the opposite qualities. [Heated Room]. [Solar Ray: Wide Diffusion]. Each one creates a powerful warming or anti-cold effect.

Researcher Dromenl: We’re aware of all five, but these are all very potent spells…which we cannot cast. At least, [Heated Room], but [Rune of Warmth] would require a Fissival-trained expert, and we were unsure of the efficacy. Can you please elaborate?

Eldavin: Ah, of course. The ‘healing’ aspect of warming the flesh intrigues me. Enough for a Potion of Regeneration to work but avoiding the trauma of the injuries?

Anonymous Spellcaster A: I believe all those spells may fail.

Eldavin: Really? You base this on…?

Magus G: He may be right, with great respect, Grand Magus. [Iceflesh] and [Greater Resistance: Cold] are based on a living target. Which is disqualified in this case. Moreover, simply warming flesh still creates intensive damage.

Eldavin: Ah.

Anonymous Spellcaster A: Significant damage on a low level. Degradation of the flesh.

Eldavin: These were simply the five most accessible spells.

Rhis: Utterly juvenile. Is that the best spellcasting of a Grand Magus of Wistram?

 

Ryoka Griffin’s head slowly rose. Viscount Visophecin, resting in the moving carriage while the rest of the Lucifen argued, glanced up at her.

Azemith sounded smug as she flicked her fingers, casting a spell.

“Someone’s trying to find out where you are, Ryoka Griffin. They keep trying to locate you. Wistram.”

Ryoka gulped.

“Visophecin. Do you think…?”

“He is an adept spellcaster. He must have noticed the [Message] linking spell.”

They both stared down at the scroll.

 

Eldavin: I find your tone insulting. I take it that this is Duke Rhisveri of Ailendamus?

Rhis: None other, Grand Magus Eldavin of Wistram.

Eldavin: Well met.

Rhis: Indeed.

Eldavin: And I suppose you know instantaneously which spell will be most efficacious?

Rhis: I would not stoop to mediocre spells. Cast [Blessing of the Winter Warrior] and begin from there. 

Archmage V: That is a lost Tier 6 spell!

Rhis: For some.

Eldavin: Quite a bold claim. And you suggest a [Researcher] in Oteslia can cast this spell because…?

Rhis: Do spell scrolls not exist in your understanding of the world?

Eldavin: No more than politeness lacks in yours, apparently. I would not fortify Miss Solstice’s flesh. If I were to skip to advanced spells, I would cast [Room of Paradise], which would, as a byproduct of the spell, instantly remove all ice and cold from her body.

Viscount V: That is quite a…powerful spell.

Anonymous Spellcaster A: Indeed. This is beyond me, greatly. Which spell school is this?

Rhis: Transmutation.

Eldavin: Transmutation.

Rhis: You also lack finesse. [Room of Paradise] simply removes and maintains an environment; the actual removal of said cold and ice is done poorly. I would venture [Inferno Skin] for the most instantaneous change possible.

Eldavin: You forget Miss Solstice is neither animate nor inanimate. Your spell would lack grounding.

Rhis: In the hypothetical situation.

Eldavin: Mhm.

Hecrelunn: You can alter that spell to target inanimate objects. Or do neither of you practice spell theory?

Archmage V: Wait, would you elaborate on that? Which method is this…?

Viscount V: That is an old style of spellcasting.

Eldavin: I am quite aware of that. I wondered if Duke Rhisveri was…?

Rhis: For someone who thinks runecraft on a frozen body wouldn’t take into account her natural magical field and leylines, you are quite thoughtful.

Queen R: This is astonishingly unhelpful, you fools.

Eldavin: Excuse me?

Rhis: Oho.

Hecrelunn: And your name is?

Queen R: I am someone who actually practices ice magic. None of these spells focus on what matters. Which is maintaining the person affected by the spell. Speed is not as essential as keeping them safe. I knew a fellow spellcaster who froze her own flesh, and she was a [Cryomancer].

Anonymous Spellcaster A: I concur with that theory. If you could apply [Greater Resistance: Cold] to the young woman…that is a working theory. If someone could experiment? I might be able to cast it in a weaker version. Hold on.

GSNF: That’s not going to work.

Eldavin: There are quite a lot of unverified claims flying about. Your expertise and classes?

Queen R: Private. I am an expert, however. At least, in this area. Ice Squirrel, you’re silent.

Ice Squirrel: Thinking.

Viscount V: We are trying this. 

 

Ryoka grabbed for Paxere’s arm.

“No, no! Stop!”

“It’s a bunny.

The squealing rabbit looked terrified as the amused Lucifen girl held a cold hand towards its face. Viscount Visophecin glanced at Ryoka, puzzled.

“Ah, ethics. Paxere, enough.”

Mortals. This is to help your friend!”

The Lucifen girl sighed—then tossed the rabbit out the rolling carriage. Ryoka pointed and the wind caught the bunny—

 

Anonymous Spellcaster A: I’ve already trialed this.

Viscount V: Really?

Eldavin: That’s remarkably quick.

Anonymous Spellcaster A: I may know my way around this theory…the problem is that the [Resistance: Cold] spell applied to all of the frozen sample. Including the actual ice, and, I would imagine, clothing…

Magus G: This is true. Damn. Can you re-focus the spell…?

Hecrelunn: In my age, any [Cryomancer] would be able to affect such changes instantly. They have frozen and unfrozen people.

Rhis: Historically? Yes. What you neglect to mention is that such individuals, aside from the highest-leveled [Warriors] or those possessed of great recovery magic, expired in less than a month from the trauma—and only those immediately unfrozen. Those frozen for any period died within days or a week at most.

Hecrelunn: …Perhaps.

Queen R: Listen to me, you don’t need a higher-tier magic, but a specific one. Even something as simple as [Ice’s Caress]—if you could cast it on this person despite them not being alive—combined with [Warming Touch] would work.

Rhis: [Warming Touch]. What are we, children?

Queen R: You are irking me, little man. Stop posturing.

Witch A: So says the girl who can’t even hide her location. XD

Rhis: Hah! True.

Viscount V: I do not know if ‘Queen R’ is fitting. Without identity checks, I am leery of the concept…

Queen R: You are all getting on my nerves. I will remember this. I am among the finest spellcasters here, I have no doubt.

Rhis: What amazingly misplaced confidence.

Eldavin: With respect, my dear, I am the Grand Magus of Wistram.

Queen R: I am not your dear. I am over Level 40 in my magic class and—

Mri: Pshaw! Is that all? Come back when thou art of proper age, child. Have a goat’s milk.

Rhis: Hilarious. It was worth coming here.

Eldavin: Heh.

Witch A: XD XD XD

Queen R: I will remember this. All of you. All of you are upon my list.

Mri: I shake in my boots.

 

Queen R left the chat, much to the amusement of the others, but in that moment, someone began to write.

 

Ice Squirrel: I remember freezing the skin off my hand.

Witch A: :O. Painful.

Rhis: Wonderful. Is this an example not to learn from…?

Hecrelunn: Hm.

Ice Squirrel: My master always warned me about that backlash. [Cryomancers] survive cold magic by having natural resistance to cold, don’t they?

Magus G: That is standard theory, yes. Where are you going with this, Ice Squirrel? Glad you’re alive.

Ice Squirrel: Thanks, Testicles.

Rhis: What.

Mri: HAHAHAHA

YlawesB: I get that reference! I think?

Ice Squirrel: However, [Cryomancers] have to cast magic around…other people. Normally we restrict the area of casting or just cast frost protection spells. However, if you do need to thaw flesh…does [Cooling Wind] make sense to anyone?

Eldavin: Hmm!

Archmage V: That is odd. That is a Tier 1 aeromancy-cryomancy spell, more focus on aeromancy, with little efficacious effects. I cannot see why you would mention it.

Ice Squirrel: Something my master once said? I don’t recall. The theory is…well, I can’t quite reach it. Can someone help me out?

Rhis: Interesting.

Anonymous Spellcaster A: I believe I am grasping what she’s talking about.

Eldavin: Oh? I think I understand.

Rhis: Enlighten us and we will check your theory.

Anonymous Spellcaster A: [Cooling Wind] has little use as a spell for…anything. Aside from temperature regulation. However, it is so low-level that it’s closer to Tier 0.

Archmage V: Yes! But it has one interesting feature. It does not generate any cold.

Anonymous Spellcaster A: Precisely. It removes cold from one target to create cold air. Which is why it is not even that cooling…however, on a fundamental level, it’s different from the generation of heat.

Rhis: Of course.

Viscount V: I begin to understand. This is similar to [Void Room] in theory. The removal of something rather than…

Ice Squirrel: Yes! That’s it! She said there was a way to remove cold rather than heating and…hurting the flesh? 

Eldavin: Magus G? Your opinion?

Magus G: In theory, removing the cold itself is less traumatizing than heating skin and creating two opposing elements. It would certainly be the smoothest method of thawing Miss Solstice I could imagine—if you could scale that up for a body-wide, seamless induction of heat.

Visophecin V: Ah. Adjust this spell in that manner? Quite possible.

Magus G: …I don’t believe it is that simple. Most spells cannot be altered at a fundamental level.

Eldavin: I believe you may be ‘putting egg on your face’, as the children refer to it, Magus G.

Mri: Children do not say that.

Rhis: It’s beyond possible.

Magus G: I will leave it to experts, then. 

Anonymous Spellcaster A: I will test this theory on a rodent or two if I can find one. This…seems plausible, but I would like suggestions as to spells and the methods.

Ice Squirrel: [Frost Vortex] but you pull the cold out and chain the effect to one spot?

Rhis: Inefficient. It could work, but use [Zone of Absolute Chill]. Or [Hidden Spot of Deep Freeze].

Archmage V: Oh! Ambush magic? You walk into it and you die? Do you actually know the spell, or is this an example?

Researcher Dromenl: Er, this is all very helpful, but some of these spells might be beyond our capabilities here. Cryomancer Ulea?

Cryomancer Ulea: No. Absolutely not. How would you use the effects of [Cooling Wind] on another spell?

Rhis: Unbelievable.

Eldavin: I will begin writing up a lesson. Ice Squirrel, do you have any other insights into this?

Ice Squirrel: Not…too much for projecting sheer cold. I have an aura.

Rhis: Of course. Auras. That…could work if someone were there. However, for spells—

Hecrelunn: [Void Air]. Tier 4. Even amateurs can use it.

Ice Squirrel: Oh! Oh!

Anonymous Spellcaster A: Thank you, Vizir. Testing…

Ice Squirrel: Me too! I just need to find something. Uh—I’ve got bugs?

Viscount V: Searching for rats.

Mri: I can get a rat. Not sure about the magic. I am passing glad we are all working together to find a solution so effectively. Let’s all pat ourselves on the back.

 

It was surreal and strange. This was only one of the conversations happening, but for those reading it, it felt like something was happening.

So many things coming together. So many plans. So many…conversations.

 

Yvlon: Go to Nerrhavia’s Fallen. I have allies.

Ice Squirrel: So do I. Uh…where’re our boys?

Yvlon: We’ll find them.

YlawesB: Do you need help?

Queen R: They have help.

GSNF: Indeed. 

 

The [Princess] wrote with trembling hands as the Thronebearers shielded her back.

 

Lionette: I will find you.

Mri: I know.

Krshia: She is here and will be protected. I promise.

RainyEarl: Do you need…help?

Wall Lord Ilvriss: They will have all the help they need.

RainyEarl: Good, but if you need it—call.

Windy Girl: What’s going on now? Do you need assistance?

Viscount V: I represent some power within my kingdom. Is there an issue?

Lionette: I…believe we are not all on the same page.

 

Not all of it was friendly. Indeed, ‘Rhis’ and ‘Eldavin’ were trading barbs. There were wildcards like Hecrelunn in chat, and rivalries like Witch A and so on.

Someone was trying to find all of them, and there was an invisible magical war going on that half the Lucifen travelling with Visophecin were involved in.

What was more shocking—or so it seemed to Ryoka—was that they found they weren’t the undisputed masters of this chat room, even discounting Rhisveri.

It was all working. Or sort of working. People were discussing spells and saying, ‘this might work’, or ‘this will work.’

But Ryoka and the others had heard them saying that before. These grand hopes could be dashed, or go stale.

The chat rooms moved faster or slower depending on how quickly people wrote. As the others converged on the three main discussions, funding and organization, alchemy, and magic…a new person crept in around the outsides.

Chatting. Moving from room to room, learning, like all the others. But different.

Almost like they were searching for something.

Much like a creature.

A…spider.

 

Belavierr: Hello. I see that you are looking for something with ethereal qualities. I have a spool of thread to sell. Are you interested?

Saliss: Who is this now? Are we [Weavers] or something? Wait…that is interesting.

Belavierr: I am a salesperson. I have many objects for sale. Alchemy related and otherwise. Hello. 

Alchemist I: Is this…a joke?

GSNF: Wait. That name.

 

Two users disconnected. Saliss left the room too. It was quick. Lightning strikes of realization.

 

Belavierr: Is someone interested in a spellbook?

RainyEarl: No. No!

Archmage V: Don’t be hasty. Spellbooks are always welcome. What kind are we referring to?

RainyEarl: No. Do not respond to this person.

Magus G: Agreed. Is this real? Grand Magus Eldavin, into this chat now.

Belavierr: I am prepared to make a deal. The means change and are unfamiliar. There are always those that want something.

Golden Gnoll: Who is this?

Wall Lord Ilvriss: I’m not sure. Everyone is leaving. Wait. Wait.

Witch A: You.

Belavierr: Me?

 

Almost as if the emptying rooms were like actual rooms, squeezing together. Until that name entered the chat.

 

Belavierr: Hello. I hope I am not interrupting anything. I followed someone here.

GSNF: This is an advisement: do not speak to this individual. Do not mention her name. Do not make any deals. It could be a hoax. If not…

Eldavin: I know that name.

Rhis: I do too…

Viscount V: Ah. I believe this is either a hoax or…the most significant event I can imagine.

Mons: Oh no. No, no, no.

Archmage V: I am hugely interested. Are you truly Belavierr? If so, I would greatly like to talk to you.

Belavierr: What do you have to offer?

Lionette: You? You?

Mri: Don’t talk to her. She’s evil.

Belavierr: Odd. What a strange thing. I know you? I do know you. I do know you. There you are.

YlawesB: What’s going on? My ink just turned red.

Mri: I’m just me. Go away, stinky. Stupid face.

RainyEarl: Stop talking to her. Grand Magus! 

Eldavin: I see it. The link isn’t breaking. It’s—

Lionette: Mri, leave, now. Krshia?

Krshia: I have her.

Eldavin: —stuck? I can’t sever the magic.

Rhis: That name.

Windy Girl: You.

Belavierr: I will find you.

Queen R: Who is this?

Ice Squirrel: I don’t know. I don’t like this. That’s not regular magic.

Alchemist I: Leave. I would advise you all to leave.

Anonymous Spellcaster A: Belavierr. You are not welcome here. I would advise you to leave, much less make threats.

Belavierr: I will hunt you down, oath or not. You are my nemesis. I will not harm you. You will wish you were harmed. I see your thread. You. You.

Hecrelunn: Who is this interloper? Why does that name sound familiar, even now? You invoke violence in the presence of Fetohep of Khelt. Begone.

GSNF: Truly, begone. This has gone from amusing to chaos to danger.

Magus G: Your presence is unwanted. By the rule of three, begone.

Belavierr: Where is she? Tell me.

Windy Girl: That is a child. I will not let you harm her. Do not make me invoke my friends. You were warned.

Fetohep: What.

Eldavin: What.

Belavierr: Her battles are not yours. Do not involve yourself.

RainyEarl: You are hunted. Someone, trace her magic. I will send it to the Hunter’s Guild of Terandria.

Belavierr: No one can follow my thread.

Hecrelunn: Begone, [Witch]. Or I will scorch your frail hat with fire. You cannot threaten Khelt. 

Eldavin: Agreed. Wistram will not suffer magical interlopers.

Rhis: Nor Ailendamus, one supposes.

Viscount V: Not children. Nor the Spider of Terandria. Begone. You are marked, Belavierr.

Belavierr: I did not come here to offend. This is a personal matter.

Queen R: It becomes personal. Lose yourself, whomever you are.

Archmage V: In solidarity, I suppose. Begone. 

Rhis: You do not want me as your enemy. Trouble me not. 

Belavierr: Very well.

 

Then, like a spell was listed, her name disappeared. And the chat went back to normal.

Normal, but shaken. Like a cold hand made of water had doused the excitement.

Like frost.

Reality.

 

Saliss: Damn. You chased her off. Does no one think about tracing her so we can teleport explosive potions to her?

Alchemist I: You do not wish to attempt that. Not at range. Not with her.

Golden Gnoll: I’m suddenly less positive about this phenomenon.

Eldavin: That will not happen again. This is an aberration.

Wall Lord Ilvriss: I suppose we should discuss future meetings and efforts. This may not all come together perfectly.

GSNF: I doubt this will happen twice. Wistram was pestering everyone to get involved, for ill or worse. I will contribute my time. We made good progress.

Saliss: Progress…I hate that word. It’s slow.

Alchemist I: Sometimes, a project takes aeons. You must know that.

Saliss: It is too slow.

Windy Girl: Yes, it is.

Eldavin: It will not be long now. I will see you, Windy Girl. And you and I will discuss matters later, Rhisveri of Ailendamus.

Rhis: We may just do that indeed.

 

Acrimony. Different sides, even united across the same purpose. Fetohep sat in his throne, listening to a ghost cry out. Not for herself, but for the dead in her name.

The chat room didn’t end. That wasn’t how it worked. It just grew silent, as no one quite knew what to say, and they were busy. And perhaps they too stared at the blank bit of text, trying to figure out what to say, but not finding the right moment to continue. Wishing someone else had something truly meaningful to say, but they had gone into magic and alchemy and…done all they could.

What else was there? So the page stayed blank. For a while. Until something happened.

Into that day of hope, despair, sadness, and surprise…

Came the last person of all.

 

Geneva: Am I too late? Is everyone gone?

 

There was a long silence as fingers reached for quills. Then…a little entry.

 

Mri: No. Are you here to help Erin too? Can you help? She needs help, please.

Geneva: I think I can. My name is Geneva. I am a [Doctor].

RainyEarl: The Last Light of Baleros.

Geneva: Some call me that. It’s not accurate.

Lionette: You! I tried to contact you, but you were gone.

Geneva: I’m sorry. I have been indisposed. However, I did not forget my promise.

Hecrelunn: [Doctor]? That depraved class still exists? What mad sawbones is this? I doubt, Fetohep, that this is one you wish to court, even in this sorry excuse for an era.

Alchemist I: Ah! Greetings! A fellow practitioner of the craft?

Saliss: Oh, dead gods.

Magus G: No.

Joseph Ortega: No. It’s a [Doctor]. A real…?

Geneva: Hello to all. I’m sorry I’ve been out of contact. As I said, I am a [Doctor]. I have been working on the case of Erin Solstice. I must be brief, as I do not have much time, and I believe there is some issue about the security of these messages?

Eldavin: None at all, and your secrecy is assured, I pledge it upon my magic.

Geneva: Thank you. I will still be as direct as possible. I was the one who first drafted the possibility of a cure for Erin Solstice. However, I am not a professional in this field, and my understanding of cryonics this area is incomplete. 

GSNF: Oho.

Viscount V: Indeed.

Geneva: I formulated the cure in three parts. Curing the poison before or after thawing the patient without damaging her body, or doing so in a way that would allow a sufficient healing potion or spell to take over.

Witch A: Yes. But it does not work :(. Not properly. Healing is tricky.

Geneva: It is. Even with medicine and magic, healing someone whose heart is entirely stopped is…the most difficult thing. 

Windy Girl: Can it even be done? Restart a completely dead heart?

Lionette: Let her write, please, Windy Girl.

Geneva: I would consider it nearly impossible. There is a difference between a heart with an electrical signal and one…without. Someone who is functionally dead in all respects is not the same as bringing back someone who has suffered a heart attack or drowned, for instance. In those cases, clearing the airways, restoring blood flow, is enough to continue the body’s operation. Not here. 

Wall Lord Ilvriss: What is the answer, then? A Selphid?

Geneva: A Selphid can make a body move, but if the person is truly dead, they are only moving a dead body. Perhaps there is some way to move every part of the body, restore blood flow, artificially or with magic. I do not know if I could consider that life.

True Grit: Someone will answer you when that time comes again.

Eldavin: Yes. They will. Please continue, Doctor Geneva. Do you have an answer?

Geneva: Yes, and again, I apologize because I wish to explain this to those working on the cure. There is a way to fill that last part.

Anonymous Spellcaster A: The missing piece.

Viscount V: A piece was missing?

Geneva: It was. To heal Erin Solstice, I am confident of this: it can be done.

Mri: YES!

Fetohep: Hush, child.

Geneva: The process is nearly the same as my rough outline. There are streamlined elements regarding the healing, antidote, and cold spells. I have read the backlog here, and the proposed changes work close to my own solution that is most efficacious in projected trials. I will append my notes. However, one more thing must be present when the cure is administered.

 

They waited. Geneva Scala wrote swiftly, and they waited.

What? The soul? Something like that?

If it were so simple…that was beyond the [Doctor]’s purview, anyways. So perhaps it was five things, but there was something else. Something simple, which made sense.

 

Geneva: When you revive Erin Solstice, you will need a particular class. 

Lionette: [Priest]? [Priest]!

Windy Girl: wtf

Eldavin: Hm? What’s that?

Geneva: No. Please, let me explain.

Lionette: I’m sorry.

Geneva: When you revive her, it isn’t contingent on a powerful healing spell alone. If she truly is dead, she will die even as the healing is being administered.

Cryomancer Ulea: This is exactly what we have observed. Then what do we need?

Geneva: A [General]. You need a [General]. Or a leader, someone with a Skill that boosts and enables warriors and soldiers to fight beyond their limit.

Windy Girl: !!!

Witch A: Clever.

RainyEarl: Oh. 

Eldavin: Of course. Elegant.

Yvlon: I don’t get it. I think I do, but please explain.

Geneva: A [General]. With a Skill that enables someone to survive the shock and trauma of death—hold on for that healing to take place. 

 

Her quill trembled in her hands. Geneva Scala was breathing hard, but that was it. The thing every doctor from her world, every [Healer] wanted.

That thing you couldn’t really account for, and that was the will of the patient. How did you help them fight? Cling to life, start that heart? It was impossible. It depended on them.

On Earth, it did. But here…you could reach out and give them a hand. Now, her quill flew.

 

Geneva: That’s it. The most powerful Skill you can find.

Viscount V: You are referring to a phenomenon I have seen on the battlefield.

Geneva: Yes. But this will save them, not bring them back. Time. You are buying time. Perhaps even the most grievous injuries can be healed with…time. Another ten seconds. A minute. That’s forever, for us.

Fetohep: My [Healers] and [Mages] believe you are right, Doctor Geneva.

Lionette: It makes sense. It—makes sense.

Joseph Ortega: Is that it? Is that—I mean, it sounds good, but is that it?

Magus G: That is it. That may be everything. It may change a great deal.

Windy Girl: Yes. Is that what we need? I think I know someone who might be able to help.

Lionette: I do too.

RainyEarl: I can find someone to help.

Wall Lord Ilvriss: And I.

Mri: Thank you, Doctor. Thank you.

Geneva: Do not thank me yet. I have played a scenario out many, many times via a Skill. The chance is two in three with the best odds I can give her, the best spells and magic and Skills I can envision.

Fetohep: She will have the best this world can offer.

Mri: Thank you.

Krshia: Thank you, Doctor. We will do this. It can be done. A [Shaman] smiles; she thinks you have found something.

Anonymous Spellcaster A: Something magic alone cannot provide. I agree. She has something. I hope for your success. I will help if I can.

Witch A: Yes. If only you have the right ingredients, the potion will come. Magic? You need a good [Mage]. I know one. But the ingredients are missing.

Eldavin: Can anyone locate these ethereal-type reagents? Wistram can transport them from around the world. Khelt, I am assured, can pay for them. That is what is missing. The rest is here, is it not? [Mage]?

Witch A: Yes.

Windy Girl: Potion?

Wall Lord Ilvriss: Done.

Saliss: So just the antidote.

 

They lingered there. On that last piece. Geneva Scala read through the chat, but only one person had offered it, and they had banished her for reasons she only partly knew.

A chat full of interested people. Each one who knew or was related to Erin. A few observers, and one very confused adventurer who was just there because she wanted the money.

So someone who had been silent up till now calmly picked up a quill. His eyes had narrowed when he saw the [Doctor]’s name. But he had read it all in silence. Now, he leaned over, and nodded to a pair of crimson eyes. And a wide grin.

That was Fierre, but Chieftain Shaik also smiled.

 

Tallman: You will get your mushrooms. Alchemist Saliss, expect a delivery into Oteslia with your name on it tomorrow or the day after at the absolute latest. Coordinate with Alchemist I and Witch A regarding the details of the antidote.

Windy Girl: Wha

Tallman: Transport will be needed from Oteslia to Liscor. A Courier can be arranged, which I believe Fetohep of Khelt can provide. Funding for all three can also be paid, I take it? Whereupon all that is needed is a spellcaster competent enough to affect the spell and a high-level [Leader]. Magus G may be able to source multiple spellcasters given Pallass’ proximity to the inn. Please contact Chaldion of Pallass regarding a proper [General] or [Officer].

Fetohep: Who is this?

Tallman: Will Khelt pay a research and production fee for the underlined, as well as transport.

Fetohep: By Khelta’s name, it will be done.

Hecrelunn: Witnessed by the Vizir.

YlawesB: Who is this?

GSNF: You ignorant child. Guess.

Mri: It is you?

Tallman: It’s me. Expect the mushrooms immediately. They’re definitely the ones you want. Three dozen.

RainyEarl: Well done.

Witch A: THAT IS ENOUGH FOR MANY POTIONS. GIVE SOME TO ME. HOW DO YOU HAVE THEM

Alchemist I: Could I also obtain some…?

Saliss: Eat your tail. I’ll make it. Thanks, Tall Guy.

Yvlon: But who is this?

 

Niers Astoragon kicked the edge of the [Message] scroll and it rolled up. Someone nearly flicked him off the table in return. The Titan looked up at Numbtongue, Garia, Fals, Gothica, Infinitypear…

Everyone. Fierre unrolled her [Message] scroll, but Niers was walking away.

He wasn’t smiling. He stood, with his hands on his hips, looking out at the halted procession of Gnolls.

An army indeed. The Lomost Tribe and the Ghostly Hand tribe. Goblins, Gnolls—and the group from the inn, who had all stopped to read the scroll.

Fierre herself had brought it to his attention. Niers Astoragon inhaled and exhaled. His heart was beating fast, as it always did when he saw everything on the table, or in the air.

He felt it too. But unlike them, the [Grandmaster Strategist] watched. He waited. Until the puzzle fit. Until the moment came to strike. And then…

The [Bard] Hobgoblin looked at Niers. He had strode away, but the Fraerling was so small that he was only to the edge of the table. Numbtongue pointed urgently at the scroll.

“What are you doing?”

“Stop unrolling that scroll and don’t reply. I shielded us via Skills from their magic game of tag, but those are some high-level people in chat.”

“But the cure. You said you’d give them all the mushrooms.”

Chieftain Shaik corrected Garia. She tapped her chest where the white handprint was.

“Our mushrooms. You pay? Very hard to grow.”

Niers raised his brows at her.

“Khelt’s gold. Undead gold. But lots of it. Maybe even artifacts. How does that sound? He is a Revenant, but he keeps his word, even to Goblins.”

The Goblin Chieftain raised her brows and gave him a wicked grin.

“You can take.”

“But the mushrooms. We need to get them to Oteslia…by tomorrow? That’s a long run. I mean, we’re close. Fals, if you and I push it—”

Fierre broke in, waving a hand urgently.

“I can help. I can run almost as fast as Ryoka. What if we took a Wyvern?”

“There’s an army camped around Oteslia. Bad death. Lots-of-arrows death.”

Icecube looked alarmed as Snapjaw patted his leg. Niers just smiled to himself. Numbtongue narrowed his eyes. He put his finger against his thumb, and held it ready to flick.

“You keen on losing that finger, Numbtongue?”

Niers didn’t even look around. The [Bard] narrowed his eyes.

“Funny man. You have a plan.”

The others stopped arguing and looked up. Salkis slapped her forehead.

“Of course he does. That’s the Titan. Am I dreaming? Someone hit me.”

She’d asked that for days straight. Gothica obligingly kicked her in the shin with her boots. The Titan of Baleros just laughed. He stared up at the sky.

“Yes, I do. Do you think I’m a fool? Don’t answer that.”

Bird lowered his hand and Badarrow nudged him, grinning. Niers went on.

“There was a reason I asked for the [Message] scroll at the start and kept my cards close to my chest. You can’t interrupt a good flow. Besides—what could I have done other than be part of it?”

Aside from being part of it? The others looked at him. Niers just smiled.

“Wait. Watch. When they clash and the glory is on the field, the [Strategist] is watching. They don’t lead that final charge or die in the heart of it. They were never there. If they are, it’s because they have to shift the odds themselves. I don’t usually risk it, but I’ve been known to. I looked at this all, learned what I could—took notes for later. But there was only one thing I could do.”

And?

Numbtongue demanded. It had been a long watch, heart-wrenching without being able to say anything. Hours of discussion and glorious chaos. Yet the Titan just pulled out his cigar and puffed on it.

There was a story they told across the worlds. It had a lot of different variations, and some revolved around holidays. Others were just that. Stories.

One, for instance, had this fat man who forced reindeer to pull a sleigh and broke into people’s homes and left them ‘gifts’. Another, more recent, they told in only one village.

That was of a young woman who would run through the snow to deliver food and gifts, aid, in the darkest days of the year.

But these were two stories only around one time of the year. Others had tales of the [Messenger] who ran day and night, burning their life out to deliver warnings or medicine.

They had told these stories before, on Earth, this world, and more. They would again. Niers Astoragon stared at the sun setting across the horizon of Izril. Towards the distant ridge of the world, the High Passes.

Somewhere there was Erin Solstice. Or, at least, her body. Beyond the High Passes lay the north—to the west, Baleros, where he needed to be.

To the south lay a little girl who was still in distress. Two species embroiled in a bitter war.

So much ground. So many stakes, and he knew all too well how hard it was to get something anywhere, especially at speed. So Niers didn’t promise to go to Oteslia and break that siege.

He didn’t say he’d be at Liscor to be the one to help Erin Solstice, because he knew how things shook out. When the Titan put his stake in the pot, his finger on the scales—he did it the best way, the only way he knew would work.

“You’re all bright young men and women. But you are children.”

Numbtongue glanced at Ulvama. She motioned. Flick him off that cliff. Niers ignored her. He smoked as he stared across the horizon.

“Here’s a tip from the Titan of Baleros: when you know it’s time to strike, don’t do it too fast. Wait. Make sure you’re on-target. That you know what’ll come after. But then strike. Before you’re too late. I saw this all beginning this morning. Mushrooms. Damned mushrooms. Do you think I’d wait until the end of this to say, ‘well, I’d better get to work’? Idiots. That’s a [Message] scroll.”

Numbtongue saw Fierre go almost cross-eyed as she stared down at the scroll she held. Octavia got it first and clapped her hands as the Vampire girl suddenly began checking it.

“You mean…?”

Fals looked at the Fraerling.

Niers Astoragon whispered.

“Fierre can tell you exactly how I wrote it. But I think—when you need them, call. Call. We have two tribes’ worth of funds here. There may be danger—so what?”

He took the cigar out of his mouth and pointed with it. And now everyone’s heads turned, seeking, finding the thing he was watching, racing across the road. The Titan nodded to himself.

“When you need them—call. No expense spared. No delay. ‘For the Innkeeper of Solstice, come.’ Let neither war nor rain nor monsters slow them. Calling the Couriers of Couriers for a delivery of mercy. Izril’s finest.”

He looked down the road. It could have been anyone. But he’d known it wouldn’t be just anyone. He had sent out the call this morning.

Someone had answered. There the Courier came, streaking across the ground so fast that even the birds looked slow. That sight you saw on the roads, the symbol that had made the Wind Runner famous.

From Izril to Baleros, across Igawiz’s Jet, to deliver a cure. Against the Assassin’s Guild of Izril—if there was something to be proud of in this continent, it was probably them.

Which Courier? Everyone strained to see. Then they saw the Courier.

No…

Couriers? There were two, but it was one. When you heard their name, you might not understand. Each Courier had a title. But the name belonged to neither.

Niers understood. He saw a man, a [Mage], riding a horse as pale as the rays of the night sky, silver and grey. One half of a pair that would never meet again.

Ci. And the man, Salamani. The Mage Runner and one half of the Moonlight Rider. So when they referred to the two now, they called them:

Tritel’s Legacy.

The Courier rode towards Niers Astoragon as he stood there. He lifted a hand, and Bird looked at him and lifted all four of his so Salamani could see. The Antinium waved, and the Courier slowed down. He looked at their faces, Salamani’s haunted more since they had seen him. Yet he slid from the saddle.

“Erin Solstice?”

That was all he said. He looked at the Titan of Baleros and blinked, but Niers Astoragon just nodded. He took the hat from his head.

“Part of the cure, bound for Saliss of Lights in Oteslia, Courier. The Forgotten Wing Company and Khelt back your delivery. Let nothing stand between you and Oteslia.”

He gestured and Salamani stared at the Goblins. He saw the basket one offered him, with an autograph card, and ignored the latter. He reached out for the mushrooms, so translucent they looked like a memory, and hesitated as he went to put them on Ci’s saddle. The horse looked past them all, and Salamani turned.

“This. Is this part of the cure? Or is it something that will help? Is it…?”

Niers Astoragon looked him straight in the eye.

“It’s time.”

Salamani nodded. He almost smiled. Then he leapt into the saddle and rode.

Straight ahead, on a delivery to complete a task from around the world. Many people’s efforts, sacrifice, and hopes. He rode as if there were no army, walls, or obstacles between him and his destination. Nor did he slow.

At last—

It was time.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: It is my custom to release this chapter to the Public and Patreons at the same time. So if you are here, welcome to both of you.

I had a grand announcement for today. But since I have one more chapter before my break, I will announce it there since it is a lengthy explanation. Then I will rest for a time, but I will deliver the New Year’s gift sometime after…New Year’s.

For later. For now, I hope you enjoy this chapter. It may be a bit—late—depending on where you are, but I’ve worked to get it done, and I hope you like it if you read. If not, I hope you are having a happy holiday’s no matter where you are.

Thanks for reading. I could say more, but I always say that since that’s pretty much all of it. The rest is just how it looks. I hope to see you next year and that this story gives you something. Until next chapter,

—pirateaba

 

A Collaboration Christmas Image by GridCube, AuspiciousOctopi, Red, QtheBird, EdgeDancer, Giraffe, Pop[Pisces Enthusiast], Nenka, Me, MezzoCatorce, Lanrae, Brack, LeChatDemon,SystemGlitch!

 

Ghost Talks and Proposals (That Never Happened) by LeChatDemon!

 

Calendar 21-24 by ArtsyNada!

 


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97 thoughts on “8.60

    • Seconded.

      A chat where its pure ID and EGO. The different personalities clashing and bashing. The prudes and the rudes. The petty and the edgy. The tall and the taller. :D

      Fun.

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