[The story is on break until January 15th for Patrons for the annual break and for a very secret project! Check the Author’s Notes to hear about…Gravesong.]
Even a day afterwards, he was chuckling about it all. Not always in pure humor. Wry contemplation and self-introspection would be part of how he’d describe it.
If, of course, he held any counsel with his most inner thoughts. But Grand Magus Eldavin did not, even to his occasional companionship. He did not even think loudly, not here.
For even Wistram decayed was still Wistram. The half-Elf often looked up, in the entrance hall, and remembered, faintly, a glorious institution of magic. So grand that all would pay homage and seek to learn here.
[Archmage], [Queen], Unicorn, even Dragon and Wyrm. Species so rare they no longer existed.
Then his eyes would begin to mist, and he did not know exactly why. For these were times so long ago even he could not have lived them.
Yet he spoke as if he did. Grand Magus Eldavin stood in his lecture class, which had [Mages] and students alike, and spoke. Like a compulsion had a hold over his tongue.
“Once, there were teachers of every kind. Once, Wistram’s professors were not [Mages]. Here! Where I stand, there was no mere half-Elf!”
His audience rustled. Eldavin stood to one side and pointed down.
“Once! You would have learned geomancy—no, earth magic in its purest form, the power of nature itself—not from someone with a class, but from a Dryad themselves! Great [Mages] would beg knowledge from beings with a magic they did not understand, trade favors for the feathers of Phoenixes. This was Wistram as it was. Let those days come again. Or—”
And here a lump entered his throat, so he had to speak quietly.
“—As close as we can come to them.”
Why did he say that? Some [Mages] thought he did it to humble them, to impress his long memory and knowledge of pre-Zelkyr times. Some—the Archmages included—regarded him as nothing more than a threat.
Like a greater scavenger, come to the carrion of Wistram as it is. They surely saw every flaw and weakness of the academy.
Feor did. He had been trying to fix it. After months here, Eldavin gave him that. Wistram’s [Mages] were not incompetent. They knew they were reduced, but the way they solved it was so…so classically Drake-like.
They had a fine teacher. Feor’s method of solving the weakness of Wistram was to try to amass power. To reach a breaching point where his own knowledge, or influence, let him ascend to Wistram’s peak.
Dragon-like? The half-Elf was so busy. Eldavin was teaching at least six different courses a day, even if they weren’t referred to as such. He’d stop by to educate the communication-branch overseeing the Mage’s Guild about encrypting [Message] spells, pay a visit to Wistram’s gardens, then teach his official class, have a chat with some [High Mages] who wanted refining in their spells, visit his few apprentices…
All to a purpose. Eldavin could spend a half-Elf’s lifetime refining every aspect of Wistram, but he was prioritizing what mattered.
So—communication. Wistram’s finances, for the trees’ sake! Damned things. Why did his people have that expression anyways? Trees. They sprang up, died, and if you kept them around too long you had Dryads acting like they ran the place and hadn’t spent the last thousand years sucking up groundwater.
“Finance is power, Mage Teura. If Wistram Academy offers a real, truly encrypted [Message] service, everyone wants it. That supposes Wistram is trusted. Which is a vessel we have been siphoning coins from…”
Eldavin looked meaningfully at the half-Elf, formerly of Feor’s faction. She nodded, ears drooping with chagrin.
“Yes, Grand Magus. But the solution…?”
The Grand Magus snorted. He was reclining on a sofa, levitating snacks towards him, and she was facing him the same way. A Chandrarian style of relaxing; Eldavin’s head was propped up on one arm. He liked lounging. He could remember doing it all the time. People were too vertical.
“Well, I would normally say lead by example. Impeccable conduct for a decade. Given Wistram’s state and all these [Mages] you’d have to corral? The opposite will work. We make ourselves indispensable. Offer magic no one can match—or, at least, make such magic more convenient. That is how Wistram has survived before. Sometimes by virtue, other times by power alone. I say—power it is.”
She nodded, and he realized he wouldn’t get any arguments or her gainsaying him. It made him a bit sad. She was enamored. Perhaps rightly so, if he was truly the last Grand Magus with magic predating Zelkyr. They had forgotten so much.
Yet he thought of his first real student, even though she’d never shown much interest in magic.
Magnolia Reinhart. And that little brat…no, the original one.
Ressa. Ryoka had come later. She was grown. It seemed so fast, like it always did. Eldavin walked and talked, moving from Teura to Troy Atlas.
“Combat magic. You are a [Sand Mage] and a golem-owner. By rights, I should have you practicing sandstorm spells until you can sleep in the middle of one before I teach you a single arrow spell. [Sand Mages] are good at one thing. And that would be…?”
The young man frowned, his dark brown-red hair shifting slightly as he scratched at it. Dyed hair, Eldavin knew. Not from magic, he just knew a bad dye job when he saw one.
“Using sand, Grand Magus?”
“No. Being aggravating.”
He laughed, but Eldavin launched into an example.
“Sand is not exactly a superior weapon. [Geomancers] will kindly hit you with a giant rock…or engulf someone in the earth. Which, I grant you, is a variation on all elementalist classes. ‘Hit someone with fire. Hit someone with more fire.’ [Pyromancers], pah. No nuance. Higher-level spellcasters do more than just that. I was chatting with a young [Cryomancer] who seemed to understand her class was more than throwing frozen water around…”
Troy nodded obediently, but Eldavin saw him shifting as he sat cross-legged. He noticed these things, so he amended his dissertation.
“…You are a [Sand Mage]. Your entire class has made a history of ‘fighting’ by conjuring a sandstorm and annoying enemy [Mages] to death. Pop out of the sand, shoot an arrow through someone’s head, hide for a week, repeat.”
“I’d…like something a bit more direct, Grand Magus.”
Troy fought to keep his face straight. Eldavin snorted.
“And that’s why you’ll be the first [Sand Mage] to die. No patience. But I concede the point. There’s a simple remedy: we’ll respecialize you along two schools of magic. You’re already halfway towards the other.”
“Which is th…oh. Light magic?”
The young man got a nod. If he hadn’t figured it out, Eldavin would have had to reprimand him.
“Light and sand go together.”
“With glass. Someone told me that sand and light were fairly complementary schools, once.”
Troy began to smile, then it was swept off his face. Eldavin knew that look.
“I take it this person is no longer with us?”
He asked, as kindly as he could. Troy looked up.
“He died. Recently. I’m sorry, Grand Magus.”
“Think nothing of it. We will begin with a light-based spell, then. Light is weaker, but infinitely adaptable. Fast, too. It suits you. Incidentally, where is your Golem?”
“Killing roaches, I think?”
“Ah, very good.”
Another lie. But Eldavin didn’t press Troy Atlas on the distinctly stronger Lifesand Golem he detected via the boy’s mana link.
He didn’t tell the other [Mages] he had more magic then they could even dream of. Yes, he told them long-distance teleportation was not a thing of dreams anymore. Yes, he said you could encrypt magic, learn to levitate, and even bind elementals.
Eldavin didn’t tell them he could see their little magic spells, read rituals like a book. He didn’t tell them how many Tier 7 spells he knew.
He didn’t know himself why he was so reticent—besides a healthy interest in keeping a number of secret advantages hidden, of course.
Something told him they weren’t ready. Sometimes he said things. Thought things.
Dragon-like. I have met Dragons.
The certainty grew over him. Eldavin stood on the balcony of his sumptuous apartments and stared at the bubble of controlled weather around Wistram.
It was raining. He had told the [Mages] that pure, clear skies were idiotic. In fact, it was more impressive thus.
Wistram rained. A squall, fierce and sleeting over the magic towers. Rain steamed away over the Everburning Tower of Rais. It began to freeze around another one; the droplets reversed direction and flew away from a gravitational field.
In other places, they just poured down the magnificent, scattered facade of the Academy of Magic.
A storm in a bubble. For the world outside of Wistram was as calm as could be. Such that the ships coming to Wistram looked into a place that obeyed no rules but those it made.
That was magic.
“I have met Dragons.”
Eldavin said the words out loud after casting six spells to hide his voice. Just so he could hear himself say it.
He knew it was true. It was so true he wanted to shout the words. Yet…
“I cannot remember them. No…”
It was a faint memory. Slipping out of his grasp, even with memory spells. Memory spells existed, as he used them; even Valeterisa had them. Yet when he searched and the drawer in his head opened…
Nothing. As if what it had contained were gone.
Did I excise the memories myself? I must have—or they did. Did I lose some great battle with a nemesis, and am now a cripple? All too likely. Was it the Necromancer? Am I a puppet? No—no. I blasted that fool with fire; he is a skilled [Necromancer], but his adaptation to other schools is weaker.
Who else? The Death of Magic? She’s one of the few mighty spellcasters left in this world. But that’s so improbable I’d be alive. Djinni? Why would I be here? Who else could use such magic I’ve met recently? Regis Reinhart with an artifact? Hah! The only other person with comparable magic is…
“Duke Rhisveri of Ailendamus.”
It was surely him. Eldavin glowered. He had a name for a nemesis. It was not exactly hard to piece together. Well, he had been confounded by the long-range casting.
He could admit that. Eldavin cast a spell.
He then kicked the pebble over the balcony. It soared over the edge in a gratifying way. In a less-gratifying way, he heard the crash of pottery.
Eldavin thought to himself, invisible and inaudible, carefully ignoring the indignation coming from below. No, he had to have done it to himself.
Rhisveri. He knew who had taken Ryoka Griffin. Silly girl, always getting herself into trouble. She had some kind of Skill for it…except she didn’t. She had no class. He remembered being surprised by it.
Eldavin had no class.
That was what he didn’t tell anyone. The fact that he had given up levels and Skills. There were benefits, of course, but for the life of him, Eldavin didn’t remember why he’d done it. It had always been this way, and he supposed he’d given up on a class after living most of his life without one. A bit embarrassing to try now, eh?
“So why was I surprised by Ryoka? I remember it. As if…”
This was Eldavin’s problem. He remembered things and they weren’t quite right. As if something was shifted about how he remembered it. He had gaps in his memory. He…
The half-Elf felt a twinge. He touched his chest.
“Ever since Cognita. How hard did she hit me? Truestone. Damned unpredictable.”
He sighed. There was so much he had to do. But he had realized—Eldavin himself was his own biggest riddle to solve.
It would be so much easier not to care. So much easier to simply go back to the High Passes, retreat to his laboratory, and rest.
He could not. Eldavin had beheld Wistram, and it was too sorry to remain this way. Yet—he had also promised Ryoka to try and heal her friend. Valeterisa had inspected Erin Solstice—well, the inn—and been unable to even get through the garden.
He wished he could trust someone with the weight of his responsibilities. He had too many. Not just to Wistram.
It was that wretched girl…Ryoka, this time. She kept getting herself kidnapped. It wasn’t her fault—entirely.
“Duty is a heavy thing. It will be the death of me.”
The half-Elf spoke, and he wasn’t sure why that sounded so right. Only that he had once said it before. He lingered on the balcony. Then he smiled and chuckled again. There was one thing. It seemed he was not the only one trying to put the world right.
“A child. Forsooth.”
Eldavin laughed to himself. There was hope. People, young people, and fairly old, trying to do the right thing.
This world was dark. The Waning World, where the last remnants of great lights before were just flickering. In this last age—where another world interceded with theirs? Eldavin felt it. He clutched at his chest, his beating heart.
Fire. We must have fire. Flame beyond imagining.
He was no fire mage. He disdained the [Pyromancers] of today, what few there were in Wistram. So why did he think that?
A burning inferno, to never go out.
“You’ll be named Archmage tomorrow, Grand Magus. We have an announcement planned. Do you have a name?”
Eldavin lay in bed. He blinked absently at Teura.
“Hm? What, my dear?”
“A name? Each Archmage tends to choose theirs. As Archmage Feor is the Archmage of Half-Elves and there is the Archmage of Izril…”
“Oh, my title. That’s often something one is accoladed, Teura. Don’t tell me people seed their own names?”
She didn’t meet his eyes. Eldavin sighed.
“Very well, I can think of something. At least until the will of the people chooses one for me. For better or ill. They can be quite cruel, but it is fair. Do you know what they used to call the Archmage of the Eternal Grasslands?”
“The Archmagus of Seeds. It annoyed her terribly.”
She smiled, and Eldavin admired her form under the sheets.
“Do you remember that from your mentor, Archmage Eldavin?”
“Hm? No…no. I’m not sure…”
Eldavin frowned. He looked at Teura and saw her face, as mystified as his.
“I suppose when one gets so old, fact and accounts of history blend together.”
He chuckled, and she did likewise. But uncertainly. Eldavin began to rise, briskly. He did that when…to cover up his weaknesses. He could not show them any. Not now.
There were only two great issues on Eldavin’s mind. Three, counting himself. But two. Four if you counted that young woman, but that was a side project.
Five, six, possibly seven if you included ongoing issues like Rhir, the King of Destruction, the Meeting of Tribes and that debacle around an entire species.
But two main projects he had to tackle. Take them one at a time. Solve one and you compounded your solutions onto the others.
“Yes, Grand Magus?”
The half-Elf snorted impatiently as he sat. Once again, Troy was in attendance, but this was no gathering of [Mages]. He sensed only burgeoning power amidst most of them, yet they were trying. Troy was ahead of all of them by far.
Except for the young man sitting far at the back. Eldavin bookmarked him, but he fixed the young woman in front of him with a steady gaze.
“Do not be coy, Miss Elena. It does not suit you. We are long past dancing around notions of Earth. You have weapons. You have a world without magic and technological marvels to equal magic…in some respects. Now, continue explaining your theory of space travel to me. Or, if you like, we can return to nuclear fission.”
She shifted uncomfortably. The Earthers looked at each other and Eldavin sighed.
“I do not intend to create city-killing weapons. We have enough of those already. Let me rephrase this for you children: I do not need to obtain what I already have. I would rather like to learn something new, even to my mind. Or—how to counter it.”
“Then you don’t trust Earth, Grand Magus?”
That question came from…George. Who raised his hand like this were a class. Eldavin sipped from a drink; they were in one of the rooms that could change to look like anything, and they had a quite lovely—if mundane—beach they were all sitting on.
It relaxed them. Somewhat. Elena was wary, and it was a shame. She was a bright young woman…but she’d been soured on Wistram before he met her. Eldavin eyed her.
It was so tempting to reach into their minds and pluck the answers out. The Archmages had been debating it. But…no.
Why did he think that? He agreed, wholeheartedly. But why…?
“What was that?”
“Why are you so sure Earth will be the one attacking?”
“Young man. Your world apparently employs city-destroying weapons on its own species. Which there is only one—humanity. Why would we trust you to be peaceful?”
“No one’s used a nuclear weapon since…”
“…The first times they were employed?”
“Well, why would we trust this world to be peaceful then?”
That jutting chin and question came from another young man. Eldavin forgot the name. He sighed.
“What a question. I would think neither side would trust the other. Rightly so. But as I suspect Wistram would be a priority target for your vaunted nations if any had imperialistic tendencies…I would rather have some safeguards in place. Don’t tell me, by all means. Let us talk about celestial bodies and physics. Simply know that I cannot help you if there is no trust.”
“And how would you help us?”
Elena watched his face. Eldavin smiled.
“We are already trying to find out how you were sent here. I would not keep you from your homes.”
A ripple of excitement through the young people and wariness on others. Some wanted to go home, had seen too much. Eldavin’s heart hurt for the girl who had lost her family to rats. He…meant it when he spoke to them.
“I will send you home, but not blindly. Not with warmongering nations—yes, among both worlds, you brat!”
The young man, Jacques, jumped. Eldavin pointed at him.
“However, one world is comprised entirely of Humans, and it sounds like one world would panic more upon meeting other species. I still don’t entirely believe that one species was there to begin with. Which begs the question what happened to the other ones…regardless, one world seems highly intolerant or, at least, unused to other cultures.”
Which, of course, was the wrong thing to say because the entire discussion turned into an argument on whether ‘Earth was racist’ for the next hour. Eldavin sighed. They missed the point. Everyone was speciesist. It wasn’t your bias, it was how you acted…
He noticed that Troy Atlas was quiet around the others. An outsider within their clique from another world. He was certainly included—but he stood apart.
The reason why was complicated, Eldavin suspected, but one of the factors was simply that Troy had seen battle. The others? Elena had seen something. Others had suffered traumas. Yet when Troy saw Saif and Leon arguing about whether or not Earth could take this world in a battle, magic versus guns and planes and industry…
He looked angry. At the two young men who talked so cavalierly about death on that scale. That was why he was Eldavin’s apprentice. He understood.
If we come to that, we have already failed.
Eldavin ended the session by clapping his hands and dispelling the room. Everyone sat in a blank, tiled room and looked at him as he rose.
“You all bear a weighty secret. I trust you will hold that knowledge tight. You already do with me—and that is well. But you cannot be ransoms of another world forever.”
“We’re guests of each faction of Wistram. That hasn’t changed, Grand Magus. We are learning magic, but that’s a long way from us being proper [Mages].”
Elena pointed out. Eldavin nodded. He swept the room, counting their levels.
“Yes. There are a few of you with adequate levels, but with Wistram’s authority…it is difficult for you to advocate for yourselves. That must be rectified. The strength to stand on one’s own is a foundation of trust. I will take care of it.”
He looked at them. There were three with levels high enough to even be counted.
Troy, Elena to some degree, and…
The young man ducked back. Eldavin saw a mop of untidy hair.
Now, why did he avoid Eldavin’s gaze? He had been patently fascinated before, but something had shifted. Well, there were many normal reasons for that.
“How will you do that, Grand Magus?”
Eldavin smiled, a bit patronizingly, at Elena.
“For that, my dear, I hope you will attend my ceremony tomorrow. I have an announcement to make.”
She eyed him, but the others looked interested. Eldavin checked the time.
“[Astral Clock]…ah, I am late. I will see you all tomorrow, then. Excuse me.”
He hurried out of the room with brief farewells, and nearly ran into his next guest.
“Grand Magus. Or is it Archmage?”
Eldavin smiled slightly.
“Not yet. Will you walk with me? I apologize for the delay. Children and their discussions.”
The two strode along the corridors, and Eldavin refocused. The Archmages of now were not the powerhouses of magic as before, but they were still people and clever enough.
He did not like them. Verdan Blackwood, Valeterisa, Feor, Viltach, and Nailihuaile—as well as one or two more with the honorary title, who hadn’t even bothered to come to Wistram yet.
They didn’t deserve it. They were [Politicians] before they were [Mages]. Valeterisa was a true scholar of magic, but she was hampered by her environment. She would agree with him; none of them deserved the title. Let them call themselves by their actual classes until they rose to the honor of that class. If it hurt their egos…it was fair.
Yet Eldavin did pretend to smile and talked with Viltach with as much aplomb as he could muster. The other man was certainly…oily.
“I must congratulate you in advance on your advancement. It must be a record.”
“Hardly. There have been [Mages] who took this title within a week. Far more deserving than you or I.”
Viltach hesitated. He nodded, baring his teeth uncertainly.
“…Yes, well. I’m told you have some project you will announce concurrently tomorrow? With your title?”
“The Terras faction has been hard at work, yes. All this magic must go somewhere.”
He had been casting spells every day. His level of spellcasting, which, even without Skills, was potent indeed. When you had so much magic and talent, why wouldn’t you use all but a reserve?
Viltach and the others knew it, too. The Archmage of Terandria felt at his side.
“The…wand you presented me with is a very fine piece of work. Very fine. I’ve admired the craftsmanship time and time again.”
“Have you taken it apart?”
The Archmage hesitated.
Viltach had to pull out the carved Joi-marble wand and look at it again. Eldavin had put some hard work into it, much less sourcing proper materials. It was a complex design—a bit too overengineered, but he had done it when Troy told him how much of a craftsman Viltach was.
Joi-marble was a treated magic marble that was actually a terrible conductor for magic. You used it for insulation, so Eldavin had turned the handle into a magicore resin, into which he’d run three ‘channels’.
Channels for a wand were to conduct magic around the core and alter the magical nature. So he’d done a thin line of literal magma, some purified water ensconced with Starshell Aquamarine, and a final line of void-element magicore.
Of course, keeping the magma hot, all three channels in multiple outputs along the wand—such that you could see fiery stone burning along the outside of the Joi-marble alongside water and a ghostly, dark substance that ate away at the light—all needed a barrier. All of it was powered by the source of the magic—in this case, a four-element reaction contained in a tiny dimension-sphere.
Live elements, feeding off each other. Rather like nuclear fission, actually—only with magical elements that the spells conjured into existence to enhance one another. Eldavin had been a bit cheeky; the wand was certainly powerful, and it wouldn’t fade in power…for about seven years.
Real cores that could last forever were hard for him to get, and he had to be a bit thrifty. Eldavin would also admit—it was sort of a bad wand.
Oh, it would certainly boost Viltach’s magic to an extent that Eldavin doubted any other wand would for a [Mage] of his level, short of a ‘Relic’ of this era. However…well, look at the channels.
Purified water? Magma? Void? Of the three, you’d get most use out of the water, and maybe boosting your geomancy-pyromancy spells, but who used void magic exclusively?
It wasn’t designed for Viltach’s own magic, but rather made to impress someone like him with Eldavin’s own abilities.
It had certainly got the Archmage agreeing to back the Terras faction. Viltach had also been very effusive over the gift, which made up for a lot of borrowed ingredients.
“Magnificent work. I don’t think I could create this, even with it as a blueprint.”
The man murmured, not able to conceal the chagrin and envy in his tone. Eldavin was careful not to sound superior.
“It isn’t for experience, I think. I’ve seen your work, and you are an adept craftsman. More patient than I…it’s simply for lack of tools and methodology. With the right practice, you could easily improve it.”
“You believe so?”
Eldavin nodded. They were concealing their conversation as [Mages] watched them walk together.
“This is what I wish to do, Archmage Viltach. Take Wistram to a point where these wands are, if not commonplace, accessible. For purchase! That would mean the truly inaccessible wands are the stuff of Truestone. Or bound light itself.”
“The age of myths.”
Viltach looked up, as if he could see it. Eldavin nodded again.
“That is Terras’ goal as a faction. That, and managing the Earth situation.”
“Improving magic…has long been the claim of Centrists, Libertarians, and most groups.”
Viltach, as head of the Libertarian party, was quick to point this out. Eldavin met his gaze directly.
“It has been. But I am placed to make good on the promise. However, like every faction, Archmage Viltach—Terras has a nuance that intersects with politics. In a sense, ours mirrors your Libertarian faction. Wistram has been the political, yet independent, party too long. The vulture who plays both sides. We must entangle ourselves. It is not a perspective Feor’s Centrists share, nor Verdan Blackwood with his…”
Eldavin snapped his fingers briskly, conjuring mana sparks as he searched for an appropriate word.
Viltach suggested. Eldavin gave him a wry nod.
“Archmage Nailihuaile is reasonable in this regard. So I hope I can count on the Libertarians tomorrow in a snap vote.”
“Regarding your announcement. And that would be…?”
“To be announced tomorrow. So secret that I believe my faction will first hear of it from my lips when I say it.”
Viltach looked at Eldavin. A snap vote on matters Eldavin’s own party hadn’t heard of? And he was asking for Libertarians to vote on it? An unconditional ‘yes’?
Madness. In old Wistram, that was. It would never fly, but, because Eldavin was here, he’d calculated this would work.
If I tell him or my people, word will spread and they’ll jumble themselves up over it. They have to start running and keep running after me.
But he couldn’t swing the Council alone. Eldavin could do what he wanted, in theory, and let them censure him, but he wanted this to drag all of Wistram in.
Nailihuaile, Terras under Eldavin and Valeterisa, and the Libertarian block would have a majority no matter what Feor, Verdan, and the independents wanted.
Of course, it depended on both other Archmages putting all their political capital behind a blind deal. Insanity?
Someone watched Eldavin and Viltach. The man smiled, putting up his hands, just as planned. You could still read his lips…if you tried very hard to pierce the obfuscation spells.
I can’t simply agree to…something something. Eldavin put a hand on Viltach’s shoulder. The watcher hesitated as he saw Eldavin say something. Viltach recoiled as if struck, then stared down at the wand.
“Don’t do it, you fool.”
Viltach looked at Eldavin…and then nodded.
Archmage Feor cursed a blue streak. Eldavin smiled, took Viltach by the hand, and pulled something from his bag of holding. He handed it to Viltach, and the Archmage of Terandria’s eyes locked onto it. Then he strode away.
“…be seeing what happens tomorrow. I assure you, more will be coming.”
Eldavin proceeded ahead, slowing as a [Mage] waved a hand.
“Grand Magus! Grand Magus! Please, can I ask you a question about magic?”
“Shut up, you idiot!”
A nervous gaggle of students watched as Eldavin slowed. The half-Elf sighed, but smiled.
“Yes, young man?”
The nervous Lizardman was holding a spell tome. He was so surprised he nearly fell over, but then was leafing through his spellbook.
“I had a spell I was stuck on. I think you can make it…elastic? But no one says it’s possible. But I said that if anyone would know…”
“Ah, advanced spellcraft. Show me?”
The students all gathered around as Eldavin waved apologetically at Viltach, but the other Archmage had stopped. Eldavin hmmed and checked the student’s question against his spellbook.
They used to do that to Feor. Not that the half-Elf could stop for every question, but he had been known to do that.
“We had an agreement, Viltach. Whatever he’s up to, you were supposed to refuse. Are you insane?”
Feor appeared and Viltach jumped. He half-hid what looked like hand-written notes from Eldavin. Feor took a mental snapshot, but he didn’t see much.
“Feor! You were watching us?”
“It seems I should have.”
The half-Elven Archmage glared at Viltach. Look at him. He was Archmage Feor, but everyone looked at the real Archmage of half-Elves now.
It stung. Teura’s betrayal stung. His sudden fall from grace stung. Eldavin’s clearly masked scorn stung.
The worst part was that Feor knew Eldavin was a spellcaster who knew magic beyond his own. He looked at Viltach.
“You agreed. Nailihuaile agreed, but she’s a young radical who can’t see beyond her own tail. How much did you sell your vote for? For anything he wants?”
Viltach closed his eyes. He held the sheaf of bound papers in his hand and refused to look Feor in the eye.
The Human man opened his eyes and looked Feor straight in his. The silver-haired half-Elf…Viltach knew he dyed his hair. It was the kind of secret the top [Mages] shared about, paid for, so they could know. Viltach looked at Feor, then at the genuinely old being standing there, calmly lecturing students about ‘elasticity’ in spells. Something Viltach and Feor would have happily learned, stood there, if not for their egos.
Because they didn’t know. Because Eldavin was…too powerful. Too old. He knew too much.
He was becoming Wistram. And it reminded Feor of the Drake who had done the same, but with Golems rather than magic theory alone.
“This is a manual on how to cast from multiple artifacts. Not just a wand in each hand. This is how I could hold eight staves if I had that many hands, or float them—and use each one to boost my magic, Feor. Without magical interference from each. Boosting—not linking them up for a minor improvement.”
The Archmage’s mouth moved silently.
Viltach gave him a sickly grin.
“It wasn’t. It wasn’t—and now it is. Or do you think Eldavin’s lying? I don’t know what Nailihuaile sold her votes for. I don’t particularly care. You might be right. We might be dragged along in Eldavin’s wake, Feor, but you know what I think? You and Verdan missed your chance. If you were truly intelligent, you would have made a deal with Eldavin first.”
He turned on his heel and strode away. Feor looked at Eldavin, who had surely seen him, [Greater Invisibility] or not. The new, upcoming Archmage couldn’t be stopped. Feor turned away, rattled—and almost missed Eldavin as he bent down to take the young Lizardman’s claw.
Eldavin went sprawling. At first, everyone thought he’d tripped and gathered around to help him up—until they saw him clutching his chest, eyes squeezed shut with pain. Feor turned around as Eldavin slowly pulled himself up.
“How long has it been?”
Eldavin didn’t respond. He grumpily lifted one arm, the muscles so fine against the skin without blemish that it didn’t seem real.
Of course, it was. A [Mage] with the right spells could make their body anything they wanted it to look like. Whatstheirface—the Ullsinoi’s leader—was proof of that.
Eldavin had just gone a step further to keep his body in pristine condition. It certainly impressed the woman inspecting it. She was trying very hard not to salivate.
Selphids. But she prodded him again as he sat, bare to the waist.
“How long, Grand Magus? I have to know. I won’t share the secret. I am in your faction and, besides, this is a [Healer]’s matter. Although I’m not a full one, so if you want me to get ours…”
“A [Mage] is more appropriate, Herbalist Sa’la. I believe there is a magical component, but self-diagnosis is hard. I don’t know how long, exactly. Three months?”
“Hmm. And your heart…hurts? Does it spasm? Does anything set it off?”
“…Not that I can think of.”
She gave him a long look. Eldavin sighed.
“Nostalgia. But that is an older man’s failings.”
“Ah. Well…that doesn’t sound right. Sympathetic pain. But it’s not like someone with a hole in their heart.”
“Perish the thought. I can perform that level of magic, you know. The heart is in perfect condition.”
The Selphid [Mage] frowned.
“Well, why do you need me, then? Alright, alright. Don’t glare. I can at least make you some of the remedies you want. It might simply be stress…although you can usually detect that.”
“I know. It is not. I would even consider you taking a look, but there is nothing…physically…wrong with me. Perhaps some vitality boosters.”
“Maybe it’s too much copious sex?”
The [Herbalist] grinned. Eldavin’s face was stony.
“If that was a serious advisement, I will take it under consideration.”
“It might be. That’s certainly an energetic endeavor. Why don’t you simply…rest? Don’t do the hundred things people say you do every day? No magic, no running about. For a week.”
Sa’la rolled her eyes.
“You’d be so much easier if you were Telim. Very well—less of everything?”
Eldavin thought it over and gave her a grudging nod.
“Acceptable. It truly didn’t hurt that much aside from—nostalgia.”
“Which isn’t really a medical issue that I know of. I think…we’ll keep an eye on it. Come to me tomorrow, after your big ceremony everyone’s talking about. We’ll check in every day, agreed?”
“Very well. And secretly. Not that I can hide my first visit, but I can at least teach you some magic while we’re here.”
The Selphid woman smiled, but she watched Eldavin as he put his robes back on.
“Not everything is necessarily a give-and-take here, Magus Eldavin. Although, I will happily accept.”
He raised his brows.
“I know that. There are altruistic people in Wistram, your friend, Telim, being one of them, surprisingly.”
“He has a better heart.”
“And a bag of holding full of food. I saw him steal a table of ice cream yesterday.”
Sa’la laughed and shrugged. Eldavin nodded.
“I know Wistram is not entirely mercantile. But you all need to learn. So, I will take your remedies.”
She nodded, and began grinding up fresh ingredients for the first one. Sa’la glanced at Eldavin as he felt at his chest. That had been the most intense pain yet. He couldn’t hide his disturbed look—until he turned to her.
“What was that?”
“And what will we become, Grand Magus? What will we learn to be?”
For everyone could see he had a plan. The half-Elf exhaled slowly. He looked at Sa’la, and thought of his obligations.
He did not have to—but he had promised. That girl. It was always that girl. It always had been.
More trouble? You are always getting in trouble…and who did he think of? Not Ryoka, or Magnolia. Who…
To Rhir. To Hell’s gates. To the end of war or until kingdom crumbles.
The half-Elf’s mismatched gaze turned, and the Selphid stopped as he fixed her with a look that she couldn’t describe. An intensity in it that she had never seen before. Far more than a [Mage] who had lived in the Academy all their days could manage.
Worthy of an [Archmage]. The half-Elf inhaled and spoke.
“A glorious people, Sa’la. Mages of Wistram. What you have always longed to be. The coming days will be a forging fire. Don’t miss tomorrow. I promise you it will be the stuff of Wistram of old.”
The fire was banked low when she stepped into the room.
Even so, it was still sweltering.
But everything was wrong. Despite the best efforts, there was a sooty quality to the air. No circle of runes on the ground.
Someone had to make do with a fire based off of charcoal. The kind of thing everyone used, but a terrible flame to some.
Now she said it like that, it all made sense. The obsessive, laborious, yet perfect routine. Containment and purity.
Even the tools were no longer as pristine as they had been. Someone kept trying, and they were so clean that another forge would have little fault with them. Only the faintest layer of debris, which only a truly intensive wash could remove, remained.
Filthy. Yet there were no more hands to help. No one to cast magic. No one else here, either.
The owner of this forge, Master Daiton, was upon the walls, weapon in hand. He had left this place to her, because he could.
Nawalishifra. The young woman stood there, her veil and clothing sooty. Burnt, as if she had scorched herself on the fire, set the dress alight. She stood there, resting her weight on the anvil.
That, at least, was a mirror. Obsessively polished, despite the metal and grit that would be hammered onto it. She…never looked up, her head hung. Something clinked as she shifted her feet towards a waiting pile of metal.
The visitor said nothing. Nawalishifra, Nawal, swayed. Her cracked lips rasped.
No response. So, slowly, with too much effort, her head rose. Slightly glazed eyes focused.
Teresa Atwood looked like she had known better days. She wore metal scale over leather armor and plated leggings; mismatched but snug. It had saved her life already; there was blood worked into the cloth and dried on the scales.
She had a sword on one side, a single-sided blade. Enchanted; fine work. Nawal had seen it once. It hung in the sheathe, and her hand was on it.
Not for violence, but ready to draw, unconsciously. Teresa Atwood, like her brother, had dirty blonde hair when not dyed. She had been a young woman, eyes amber, gawking at the world around her, even when Nawal had first seen her.
Now? Now, she stood there, balanced unconsciously, breathing slowly, surveying the room, Nawal…a warrior. A soldier in the army of the King of Destruction.
Nawal croaked again. Teresa looked at her.
“None. They’re coming for the walls. The Crown of Thunder is running out of magic.”
Nawal didn’t know what she meant at first. Crown of…?
“The towers. The lightning stopped. I can hear it, even here.”
Teresa nodded shortly. They had been firing off and on for days. At first, the enemy armies had tried to block the lightning coming down, then tried to bait it with smaller forces. Only when they moved in bulk did the lightning strike from one of the towers around Reim, the capital city named after the nation.
Lesser forces had tried to take the walls, but they were cut down by arrows before they could get close. So…Nerrhavia’s Fallen did what it had done this entire war.
Hordes of Stitch-folk, the poor Hemp, charged at the walls, looked up, and saw a flash. Yet they kept coming, bleeding the magic dry—or trying to.
“They keep coming. Again and again. They stopped for two days, and I think the [Soldiers] tried to rebel. We saw Cotton, even Silk, leading charges. [Mages]—some of them could block a shot. They had to.”
“Even Hemp will not suffer forever.”
The [Smith] of Clan Tannousin murmured. She stared at the anvil.
Teresa shook her head.
“You asked that. We don’t have any work.”
The young woman, the Human standing at the forge, laughed. She looked up and moved again, around the anvil.
She had chained herself to it.
“There is always work for a [Smith] in war. My father told me that. Nails. Arrowheads. Blades to reforge, armor to mend. What. Work?”
“We have no more wood for arrow shafts. They haven’t reached the walls, not yet. We don’t need more blades. Not yet. Everyone is armed. Even the refugees.”
They had come from across Reim. People settling the new villages, fleeing ahead of Nerrhavia. Or…coming to defend the capital.
Defend the King of Destruction. They came, when his vassals could not. Orthenon. Mars. Takhatres—Gazi, absent on her great mission.
All of them embattled, or so Teres believed. The last she had heard, Mars had challenged an army alone.
Takhatres was fighting in Hellios, protecting the Gnoll tribes and keeping the region from flaring up into outright rebellion. If there were anyone who might come in time, it was Orthenon—but he was far to the north.
And the armies knew the King of Destruction’s vassals would not let him die. So they were coming.
“Venith and Maresar are preparing for the first clash. They have some siege weapons, but they tried trading shots. One of the towers went down; we got the rest. Maresar calls it a good trade.”
Teres walked forwards. There was nowhere to rest, so she leaned against a wall. Nawal stared down at the anvil. Teresa wasn’t sure if she heard, but she kept speaking.
“Venith says they have battering rams and ladders. A few towers, and they’re making more. The towers will recharge. We’ll blow those to bits, so it’ll be ladders. If they take any part of the wall, we’re dead. He thinks they’ll come through the gates before the walls fall, reinforced or not. They want their chariots to come in.”
Nawal said nothing. Teresa went on.
“Right now, it’s the [Soldiers] in the army and the garrison on the walls. The people without combat classes will fight next. Daiton’s on the wall.”
“He should not be. A [Smith] is not meant to wield what they make.”
Nawal muttered. Teres paused, but there was nothing to say to that.
“Soon, they’ll arm whoever is willing to fight. Children. Mothers. Grandfathers. Some of them already have bows. Everyone will fight before they get through. Flos is in the castle.”
“The King of Destruction. Is he breathing?”
“He won’t heal.”
The [Blacksmith] wiped at her mouth. She stared blankly at the soot on her arm and tried to scrub it off. Clan Tannousin had a system. Each member worked to prepare the forge, keep everything as clean as possible.
They had fled when the revelation that the Naq-Alrama metal was flawed had come.
She let them go, and stayed to take the blame.
Teresa Atwood drew her sword. Nawal looked up. She nodded.
“Did he send you?”
The young woman stared at her. She didn’t flinch from the suggestion. Nor was she surprised. She just sighed heavily.
“Don’t be stupid. I came to set you free. You’ve worked enough. They keep telling Reim’s citizens to flee the walls. I don’t recommend it; I don’t trust them. But if you hide, you can surrender. They’re supposed to take prisoners.”
She stepped towards the chains wrapped around the anvil and stopped. Teresa bent down as Nawal shook her head.
“This is where I will die. Clan Tannousin’s shame cannot be repaid, even in blood. But it must be settled.”
She turned to Teres.
“If he asks, tell him I am here. If he asks.”
Teresa Atwood looked up at Nawal. She weighed what she would say next, but then her face firmed.
“…He doesn’t even remember, Nawal. He doesn’t care, not right now. Run.”
The [Smith] flinched.
“We are the reason he had no weapon to wield. All of this is our fault.”
“Not yours. Your father didn’t make the metal perfectly. Everyone told you to keep silent.”
“I am the Master Smith of Clan Tannousin. I should have said so the instant I knew.”
“The King of Destruction wasn’t here. You were waiting to tell him—you couldn’t have known the Djinni were coming.”
Nawal tried to spit, but there was no water left in her mouth.
“I make no excuses. I only ask that he blame…”
Teres stood. She kicked the chains and Nawal staggered as the reverberation ran through them. Teres pointed towards the open door.
“They left you! They ran while you stayed. This isn’t your fault, Nawal! You don’t have to do this. Do you think Flos wants you dead? Trey? You—these chains aren’t even locked!”
She pointed down. Nawal glanced down.
“…I couldn’t find one. It doesn’t matter. I am the smith who must forge Naq-Alrama metal. The responsibility was always mine to know it was faulted.”
“Your father made it.”
“He is dead. He was old. It was probably my fault as I made it.”
The young woman, the [Bladeswoman], reached out to shake Nawal—and stopped. She stood there. What good would it do?
“Is that what they told you to say, or is that really what you believe?”
This, of all the things, made Nawal hesitate. The [Smith] avoided Teresa’s look. She looked around the forge.
“…Clan Tannousin is gone. It may never rise again. Only the elders remember the Naq-Alrama steel. Besides, our reputation is tainted. There is no [Smith] with the levels or talent to forge it either.”
Nawal smiled as her lips cracked and bled. She licked at them.
“They told me I was born under an unlucky star. I should have been a boy. They told me I was unlucky, because I was talented enough to help my father when no one else could. I stole someone else’s class and levels.”
Teresa pursed her lips and spat.
“You don’t believe that. I know you don’t.”
She waited for a spark, the familiar cutting tongue, anything of Nawal when she had met Trey. But the hunched figure standing over the forge just shook her head.
“My clan’s great knowledge dies with me. How could I not?”
A horn blew in the distance. Teres started and half-raised her sword. Someone was banging on a war gong.
They were coming. In the distance, the terrible clash of metal and distant chanting echoed into the smithy. Teres looked outside and a single horn blew close by. Still, the young woman waited. She was not needed. Not yet. She looked at Nawal, fully sheathed her sword, and spoke.
“I don’t know what star I was born under. Where I come from, my world, we have no portents or signs. Or if we do—they’re silly. They don’t have magic in them. Few people believe in fate.”
Nawal’s head rose slightly.
“Where is that? Trey never…said. Which land?”
“The United Kingdom. London.”
“I don’t know…”
“Another world, Nawal. Not this one.”
The [Smith] looked blankly at Teres. It wasn’t exactly an earth-shaking revelation. She was just…tired. Teres went on after a moment.
“Our father raised us alone. Poor guy. We weren’t rich, but it wasn’t that bad. We weren’t…”
She looked around the forge.
“Special. And we weren’t bad. That was who we were. Twins. Trey and me. Then, we came here. We teleported into the King of Destruction’s throne room and woke him up.”
“Aaah. So that’s how.”
Nawal looked up, a flash of interest entering her eyes. Teres nodded.
“Luck. Chance. Fate. Whatever you want to call it. For a year, we’ve been by his side, or fighting for Reim in some way. Trey hates some of it. I do too, but I fought. I like Orthenon. Trey’s somewhere else. Wistram, I think. But Flos wouldn’t tell me his big plan. If…”
There was a crash. Something—a ram running into a door?—far distant. Both women went still, and Teres listened, but the roar in the background didn’t change. She went on.
“…he’ll be safe. I hope he will be. He takes bigger risks than I do.”
Nawal nodded. She looked at Teres.
“He hated what you did. He did not tell me why. But you two split.”
“Around slavery. Around following Flos.”
Teres nodded. She leaned against the doorframe, staring outwards. Then she turned back to Nawal.
“You can run. But you’re not going to. You’re so guilty about what you did—make the Naq-Alrama steel again. He will forgive you. There is redemption.”
“Not if Reim falls here. Nor if his wrath falls on us when he recovers.”
The [Bladeswoman] sighed. She scratched at her head.
“I didn’t like you that much when you were sharp-tongued and rude, Nawal. But I liked you more than now. Your father made this mess, not you. It’s your choice to take all the blame and sit here forging crap steel.”
“It’s not crap steel.”
The [Smith] muttered. She looked up as Teres kicked at a pebble with a boot.
“It’s far worse than what you can do. I know that. You’re one of the greatest smiths ever, a prodigy. Can’t you try?”
Nawal started laughing. She laughed—then choked on her dry throat. Teres fumbled for a water flask and Nawal drank greedily. She wiped at her mouth, nearly threw up as the water went into an empty stomach, and spoke.
“My class? I was a [Peerless Magic Smith]. Peerless. Peerless! As all Clan Tannousin Smiths must be! Now—now—it lies gone. The blood comes for me. I am disgraced. Even the fates know it.”
“…I need to ask Maresar about that. But—”
She glanced outside. The shouting was getting louder. Nawal looked at Teres, and the two exchanged glances. Looked each other right in the eye, for the first time ever, it felt.
“You could run.”
Teres paused by the doorway. She looked at Nawal.
“You could run. Trey asked you. You could not ride with the King of Destruction. You do not know his legend. This is not your death. You could run, or live without that in your hand.”
She pointed at the sword Teres had drawn again. Nawal croaked.
Teresa Atwood stood there, and looked blankly at the sword. She looked at her patched armor, which hid scars, and out towards the fighting on the walls.
Death. A final stand, waiting for a miracle. An officer had climbed up and was laying about him on one of the ladders. A high-level warrior—perhaps higher-level than her. Beyond him lay Nerrhavia’s hordes, countless soldiers for every one of Reim’s.
But she didn’t run, or hide, though she could have, could have not ridden with him. Teresa smiled.
“I didn’t ever say? It’s not very grand, like Trey. I know there are things Flos will do—if he lives. Terribly bad things. Brave and glorious. I believe in him. I like him. But it’s not just because of him.”
Nawalishifra waited. Teres looked outside. Her lips moved.
“…It wasn’t a bad life, back home. But it wasn’t a big one, either. We were one in a crowd of billions. We just were. Trey loves history. He’d read to me about figures from the past. Attila, Churchill, Alexander…you have stories like that in your world, don’t you?”
“Yes. The greatest [Smiths] of old. Heroes of Chandrar.”
Teresa nodded. She looked at Nawal and pointed outside.
“If. If you were there, back then. If you could follow them, for good or ill. Even if you knew how it would end, even if you changed nothing and history never remembered your name? Would you go?”
Nawal looked blankly at Teres. The young woman looked at her sword.
“This. This matters, for good or ill. No matter what, I was there. I couldn’t go back. If we ran away, we’d just be two people in another world. You get one chance, Nawal. I was lucky enough to land here. You weren’t meant to die chained to that anvil.”
She looked at Nawal. When she got no reply, Teresa Atwood strode out of the smithy. She jogged towards the walls, out of the courtyard of the palace.
The fighting was getting worse. Someone was cleaving around, taking down [Soldiers]. Maresar and Venith had command of their walls.
The [Bandit Lord] stood on one of the towers, shouting instructions as she loosed arrows down into the throng, avoiding the hail in return. Venith was engaged with one of the battering rams, hacking the attackers down as his people tore the device apart and dragged the scraps in.
The officer of Nerrhavia’s Fallen was trying to clear the ladders around him. [Soldiers] came up, held back by Reim’s experienced warriors, but there were so many.
All it took was one foothold. Teresa began to shout, then stopped. She looked up, slowed.
The [Lieutenant] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, blade shining crimson against the light. They stared upwards, towards the citadel that dominated the center of the city.
The fighting people of Reim, and even the [Soldiers] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, looked up. Towards a balcony, where a figure clung to the stone.
Bandages fluttering in the wind. Stained red just by moving. Even his face wasn’t visible, but Teresa saw a flicker of red-gold hair. She felt his presence.
The King of Destruction. He looked down towards the walls and lifted his hand. Teres saw a flicker—
Flos Reimarch threw a javelin from the balcony. It flashed through the air, like a meteor of steel, thrown by the strongest [King] in the world.
The [Lieutenant] tried to dodge—then block. The tip of the javelin struck them in the chest and carried them off the wall. Teresa heard a scream—then a roar from the defenders.
She looked up, and saw the King of Destruction staggering, collapsing. Telltale red spreading across his chest and arms where he’d re-torn muscles. Servants helped him back as Teres took the stairs two at a time.
They threw the ladders back as the disorganized [Soldiers] milled and retreated, screaming as hot oil, rocks, arrows, and alchemical weapons were thrown at them from above. Even sewage water.
Teresa stood there, sword drawn, watching this wave flee and another come towards the walls. She didn’t know what Nawal was doing. Nor how long they could hold.
First [Soldiers]—then the civilians by the countless thousands behind the walls. Or would they let it happen? Teres looked back at children, frightened faces. She looked ahead and saw helmets glinting as arrows forced everyone to take cover. She sheltered against the battlements, and the air flashed as a tower discharged lightning.
Thunder split the sky. Teres dragged herself up as the first ladder slammed against the wall. She stood. Breathing heavily as her heart pounded in her chest. Teres looked around and laughed.
It came out of her. Raw laughter.
“Ha. Hahaha. I feel alive.”
Then she raised her sword and brought it down.
In the smithy, Nawalishifra listened to the fighting. Her lips moved, cracked, and bled. Like her raw hands. She stared down at the empty anvil.
“I am Tannousin. I was born to make something beautiful. Something worth far more than I. My clan is dying. My father lies dead. I have killed my brother.”
She lifted her hammer and stared at it.
“I would sacrifice everything for this.”
Slowly, Nawalishifra looked around. Vaguely, her mind slowly forming. The chains around her legs dropped away. Food. She needed food. She needed…she swept the raw metal away, the forged ingots. Searching.
It was surely there, even if she had to trade something for it. Slowly, the last smith of Clan Tannousin began her final work.
Troy Atlas watched the news. His lips moved.
He made some preparations. Wrote a few letters. Went to pay a visit to a fellow student. Emirea, the little girl, and Goelv, the Gazer, both went to ask if Troy wanted to study magic together, but something stopped them as he talked with Carn, who sometimes wrote ‘Calac’ on his homework.
The two young students looked at Troy. Then towards the door to his room.
A four-foot tall figure stood there. Very tall…for what she had been. Much more well-defined. She even had a mithril sword.
Minizi. She was normally tromping about, sometimes with a grisly ‘trophy’, and no one knew quite where she went, but Viltach and Troy worked on her. She was peeking out from behind the door, one of her gemstone eyes visible.
That wasn’t that scary…when she did it at night it was unnerving. But she wasn’t trying to creep anyone out, now.
Rather…the two young students hesitated. Because Minizi was staring at Troy’s back. And…
Shaking. She looked—
Troy Atlas smiled as he took Carn’s hand. The young man shook it and smiled himself. It was rare to see him less than grumpy.
“I’ll see you later.”
“Or not. Best of luck.”
Troy ducked his head.
The young man turned, and the Lifesand Golem fled into the room before he noticed. Troy wandered back into his room and came out with something.
“Where are you going, Troy?”
“I need to give something to…Elena. I can’t study tonight. I’m going to be busy. Sorry, guys.”
Troy smiled at them. The two students exchanged a look as he walked off.
The [Sand Mage] knocked on Elena’s room. He handed her two things. The first was a letter, with a request to read it later and think about it. The [Beautician] eyed Troy, then nearly dropped the next thing.
“Troy. What is this? Where did you get…? You never said you had one!”
“It’s not mine. I’m leaving it with you all so I don’t lose it. You should…watch what it says. And this. It goes with this. I’ll come back for it. Maybe. We’ll see. But I wanted it to be safe. Other [Mages] and all that.”
Troy saw Elena turn the object over in her hands. She looked up at him, stared down at the grit worked into it, despite the [Repair] spells. Something about the young man’s eyes…she looked uncertainly at the backpack.
And the camera.
“What’s going on, Troy? You’re weirding me out.”
He looked up at the ceiling, then shrugged at Elena.
“Just getting everything in order. Eldavin’s big address is in two hours, right? See you there. Read the letter by tonight.”
He nodded and stepped away. Elena looked at the camera. Slowly, she turned it on, checked the memory, went to the first recording…
And felt a chill as she began to watch. Trey walked back. He wondered if Eldavin’s big plan would get in the way.
“Young man, young man. Would you like to be part of Grand Magus Eldavin’s big plan?”
High Mage Telim hated running about. He even had a habit of casting [Haste] on himself—or [Slow] on other people—just so he didn’t have to.
That alone made him a [High Mage]. [Haste], a Tier 4 spell with a higher complexity than normal, such that some [Mages] called it…Tier 4.5.
Which went far in explaining why the new Grand Magus looked down so much on the Wistram of now. Telim himself agreed. A Courier—the redoubtable Mage Runner of Izril—could cast [Haste]. In times past? Why, you could fly. No one liked to admit it, but the Garuda had most Couriers beat until, oh, Level 40?
The young man in question turned, looking guarded, but he smiled when he saw Telim.
“None of that, now. Troy, I’ve been tasked with finding you.”
“For what? Does the Grand Magus want something?”
Troy Atlas looked somewhat nervous, and Telim suspected…shenanigans. Which meant he was curious and sympathetic. Young [Mages], running off to play pranks or kiss each other in closets that turned out to be one-way mirrors. He and Sa’la had been young, once.
Youth. He smiled, but kept his tone hurried. Normally he’d jaw all day, but—he was part of a faction now. He’d escaped it all his life, but Terras came calling and…Telim knew how to ride a wave.
Or he had. Did they still surf along those shores of Baleros? Lizardfolk, the most naturally adept waveriders in the world thanks to those tails for balance?
Telim missed it, sometimes. Not the leeches. Or the piranhas. Or the crocodiles. Or the…wait, he didn’t really miss it. He just missed being young.
Youth stood in front of him now, fidgety, nervous, and…Telim brushed at his robes.
“Grand Magus Eldavin has a project. I don’t know what it is. But he wants a few of you lot—”
He waggled his brows at Trey, who got that Telim meant Earthers.
“—to participate. If you agree, I take you to get ‘ready’, whatever that means. He assures you through me it will be an occasion you do not want to miss. But, ah, also, he wanted you above most.”
“Me. I’m a bit…busy, High Mage. I don’t know if I can go with the Grand Magus. Even for a day of ceremony.”
Troy was reluctant. Telim sighed.
“Understandable. But—damn. What did Eldavin say? Oh, yes. ‘It was a shortcut for the thing you wanted.’ The spirit of those words, at least.”
Troy blinked. He looked sharply at Telim, and the High Mage noticed, once again, that Troy had that look.
The look some of the students who came to Wistram had. You had bright young people from around the world from relatively rich families. Then you had the ones who’d cut their way clear of a Manticore’s belly or something suitably dramatic. You put those two together and sometimes it was like children and adults, but their bodies had been swapped.
Troy Atlas thought, but in the end, he shook his head.
“I’m sorry, High Mage. Can you find someone else? I’m intrigued. But…I have something to do.”
Telim nodded, already calculating the most economical vector to another Earther or [Mage] on his list. He smiled, ready to brush it off—no one wanted to just stand in a ceremony for ages. Then he looked at Troy. Telim never said it as he bade the young man a hurried farewell, but he thought that decision had meant more than he knew.
By the time everything was ready, Terras knew. High Mage Telim, Teura, and his most trusted [Mages] knew—at least, part of it. They stared at Eldavin like he was some [Sorcerer] wielding a Staff of Mutual Annihilation.
Or some god of old.
The Grand Mage’s breath caught for a second as he stood behind a floating curtain. He paused in adjusting his new robes and looked around.
Teura was helping him put them on. These were no standard, monochrome or even lightly embossed robes. Eldavin had customized them himself, and they were robes that evoked fire.
Flame-red, crossed with white, green, and a void-blackness cut with blue along the interior to provide a relief of Wistram’s own sigil—that academy on an island.
Robes fit for an [Archmage]. Eldavin’s lips moved.
“Strange. It’s…nothing, Teura. Are the candidates in place? Hidden?”
“Ready to go. Thirty-four, prepared.”
“The Terras faction and others?”
“In position. I double-checked your ritual, but I couldn’t verify all the components…”
She was stressed. So Eldavin smiled, reached out, and gently patted her shoulder.
“My dear, I am only double-checking. Forgive me. I have everything in place, and improvisation is not impossible.”
Teura relaxed and smiled at him, and Eldavin—
Felt a pinch at his heart. He ignored it. But there it was again.
Something was off. Yet this was surely not the time to investigate it.
However, Eldavin’s chase within himself had found a thread which ran deeper than all the others, and he knew it just from that word. He stood there, absently tugging on his robes, as someone began to speak.
Archmage Nailihuaile. She was on the dais in front of him, in one of the largest halls of Wistram. The Council debated here, but they had forgotten its original purpose.
Before him and the floating curtain, he knew, there was a second ‘box’ of illusory spells hiding sixteen young people, half Earthers, half [Mages]. He was a bit upset that Troy had refused, but the young man also had a sense of the dramatic. He might accept…later.
Well, Eldavin would have to arrange it. Terras was also in place on the bleachers. So were the Libertarians, Centrists, Revivalists…
This would be a vote, as well. But the room was packed…because most of Wistram was here.
Few things could mobilize every [Mage] to come. It was worse than herding cats. The inauguration of an Archmage was one of the few things that could do it.
They all knew something was up. Little undead mice knew something was up. They could sense the cloaked magic in the air, and the other Archmages, even the ones Eldavin had bought, were waiting.
“…rare for such an august [Mage] to reach the heights of magic! Grand Magus Eldavin, via unanimous vote, has achieved that rank, and the Archmages present…”
Eldavin waited patiently for the demagoguery to end. Everyone knew he’d accrued enough political power to make himself an Archmage. He kept tugging at one sleeve.
“Like an ancient god. Or goddess. Or deity. For they came in many forms and sizes. So old, it was before my time. Before my parents’ time. And so long gone that my grand…grand…parents? Only knew stories from the mouths of those who had…”
He put a hand to his head. That wasn’t…right. That was three generations. Half-Elves didn’t live past a thousand most times. Death via unnatural causes. So short.
His lips moved, even as Nailihuaile’s voice dropped to the background and the other [Mages] speaking to complete the ceremony went on. This was all being televised on the scrying orbs, of course, but he knew it wouldn’t be well-watched except in the background. Not…not yet.
“We do not speak of them. Speak only of what they were. You will be told this once. Names, and their status unto the divine. Never again. Only that you remember. Tell no one. Tell no lesser races, but remember. Remember the way the world used to be. And why it—”
“—The Archmage of Memory, Eldavin!”
His head jerked up. The half-Elf’s gaze rose, and, for a second, everyone saw a look of complete surprise on his face.
There he stood. Newly minted, the Archmage of Memory, a title he had chosen himself. So…arrogant and telling it had half the old [Mages]’ teeth grinding. The other half shamefaced.
A half-Elf taller than any other, in the prime of his existence, hair naturally white, eyes mismatched heliotrope and cerulean.
Rafaema stopped in chewing on cereal as Cire and Lyonette debated. She blinked at the image on the scrying orb in the background. She leaned closer, peering at…
Grand Magus Eldavin. No, Archmage Eldavin. He stood straighter, and his expression firmed. He began speaking smoothly, his voice echoing across the room as the magical camera panned around.
“Mages of Wistram. I thank you for awarding me this honor. The title of Archmage—even honorary—is a mark of esteem amongst [Mages]. I would not waste the world’s time with it, however. It is only a word. If I had the class, this would be a moment worthy of attention for that alone. Yet who now has this class? No one here. Wistram of old is dead. Many whisper it. I say it now, before you all, as Archmage of Wistram.”
The Mages of Wistram sussurated. Eldavin went on, striding left across the dais under a beam of magical sunlight. Viewers of the show began to tune in as they recognized Eldavin—who was, if nothing else, far from boring.
The [Archmage]—or someone who had once held the class—turned his attention away from the separate scrying orb. He smiled, despite himself. He hadn’t had much of an impression besides a certain pomposity and arrogance in the chat, but he liked this.
Az’kerash turned up the volume. Toren crabbed over subtly with Healing Slime balanced on his head. The skeleton was grinning, despite having no context for any of this.
He liked this old guy.
Someone else was nearly assassinated by a Balerosian banana. The greatest threat to the mortal world, the magical nightmare only checked by the defenders of the world, one of Hell’s regents, the Death of Magic—
Finally got it down. Then she levitated the orb up with a wicked grin and saved that recording so she could re-watch the expressions of the other ‘Archmages’. She smiled—but only for a moment.
She knew Eldavin was right. But how did he?
The [Mages] of Wistram weren’t exactly taking to Eldavin’s speech. He should have been more diplomatic, but he was distracted. Chasing that thought.
[Thunderclap]. The sound detonation deafened the people in the room as Eldavin clapped his hands together. He walked on, as if he were lecturing them, not being given a prestigious title.
“That was not a subject up for debate. Wistram Academy is not the vaunted institution it once was. We have changed. Once, we walked across the world and chose sides. We supported bravery, ethics in magic, and held this world together when cataclysm occurred. Once, magic died. Who relit the flames?”
He looked around and no one knew the answer. Some guessed, but no one spoke. Eldavin raised his voice.
“Wistram did! [Archmages] threw themselves into the void—the greatest [Mages] of their time. Centuries, millennia of knowledge. To rekindle magic itself. Do you know their names? Their sacrifice? I do.”
He looked around. Suddenly—his eyes were shining. Eldavin looked past them.
“The first to walk into that dark future was the Archmage of Sunlight. Ailet Sundrev, the last [Lady] of House Sundrev, of the dead Kingdom of Caonis of Terandria.”
He knew it was right. But how? Had he read that? Had he…
He saw it. He had seen it.
“How does he know that? Is that correct?”
Duke Rhisveri paused in taking tea, a tedious task, with his guests. The others looked up.
“I…do not know. That would predate our time. Azemith. Do you think those records exist in our libraries?”
“Maybe. That is an old, old time.”
Two of the Lucifen exchanged glances. Then all of those present turned to the oldest being here.
She blinked two glowing lights in her petrified wood body. The Dryad’s lips moved.
“First went sun. Yes.”
[Historians] around the world were trying to fact-check Eldavin. If they succeeded—they leveled.
Yet the Archmage was continuing.
“Once, Wistram’s greatest [Mages] died so that magic might live. Not once. Nor even a mere dozen times! You do not remember that. Yet remember this. When the world’s rot broke open. When the slumbering wound left across this globe burst and poured forth the greatest pestilence yet—the Creler Wars! Who joined the nations of the world in barring the gates?”
Now, his audience knew what their cue was. They echoed it, some rising with excitement, others…waiting.
Eldavin caught them there.
“Not alone. Every kingdom rose to fight. Let us not forget great sacrifice. The Charming Dancer, that girl, walked into hell to inspire cowards who slumbered and hid for the danger of it. Courage, to bring us to arms. But when we rose, Wistram stood at the fore.”
Who? The Archmage walked on.
“When each and every calamity struck, we were there. Who fought the Goblin Kings?”
“Who joined arms to drag A’ctelios Salash down to eternal slumber?”
A young man in the audience started. The [Mages] looked at each other, but the answer was written.
The angry old man strode across the stage.
“We have checked tyrants and driven monsters to their graves. We are not perfect—so I believe we should stop pretending to be. Wistram has always been petty. It has always been divided. But what we forget is that what Wistram does matters. We are not aloof watchers from the sidelines. We must have the conviction to fight for our beliefs. So, as my first act as Archmage, I put a vote to you.”
Here it came. Archmage Viltach and Nailihuaile exchanged glances, and their factions turned to them. Eldavin raised his hand. Everyone waited as he conjured an illusory spell into the air. What would it be? He revealed it with a word.
An image of Terandria floated into being. A vast, red stain across kingdoms being swallowed up. Eldavin saw the Terandrians in his crowd sit bolt upright—with sudden unease.
“Ailendamus. Kingdom of Glass and Glory. Or should I say…Empire?”
Ryoka turned sideways to stare at King Itorin II and the royal family. She slowly put down the bucket of popcorn and edged sideways. She had a feeling…this was going to be bad.
What was Teriarch doing?
“Ailendamus has swallowed nation after nation in a mere two hundred years. Now—it is the Dawn Concordat’s turn. Tomorrow, Pheislant. In ten years, Ailendamus might rule the lower third of Terandria. When that day comes—it will not be a matter of stopping them. The King of Destruction once took Chandrar. Ailendamus is in the process of taking the rest.”
“This is a political matter, Grand Magus Eldavin! Wistram does not take sides!”
An old man rose, wearing armor instead of robes. Eldavin snapped back.
“That is Archmage Eldavin to you, Verdan Blackwood. Wistram always takes sides, and the Iron Vanguard can attest to that! There are children from every nation here—some from nations that have suffered Ailendamus’ wrath! Although, I note…”
His gaze swept his audience.
“Few from Ailendamus. They have their own academies. They do not want representation in Wistram. They intend to replace Wistram. So shall we be so generous as to remain apolitical? It is a simple question. Will Wistram censure Ailendamus?”
The motion caught the others off-guard.
“A motion to censure? Do I hear you correctly, Archmagus?”
Eldavin snorted as Feor half-rose, uncertain.
“Of course. I do not propose Wistram declares war. We are no formal nation. But I would like a vote.”
His eyes glinted.
“—To declare Ailendamus an empire with imperialistic tendencies towards expansion. That their war on the Dawn Concordat is in fact a war of unwarranted aggression. To call other nations to check their danger. And to declare Ailendamus a threat to world peace, as once we did to the King of Destruction.”
The Council was not in uproar. That suggested they were shouting and throwing things. The Council was in stasis, whispering, looking at each other. And that was a good thing.
For Eldavin. It wasn’t…Nailihuaile whistled quietly and shrugged. Viltach frowned at Eldavin, trying to work the angles as the Libertarians argued—
Mostly in favor of him. In fact, Feor was watching his own party of Centrists agreeing. Eldavin had led them on an argument that pointed out Ailendamus’ danger; they had almost no total allies in Wistram, certainly none born of Wistram, but they were powerful. If Eldavin had demanded a motion to war or something far more drastic, he’d have…probably…failed.
Even Nailihuaile and Viltach couldn’t promise a rebellion in their ranks, and they too could flip. But this?
Censure? The [Mages] deliberated. We could do that.
It was like Eldavin could read their thoughts. He saw a snap vote called, the [Mages] beginning to argue, but Teura spoke.
“Archmage Eldavin moves for an immediate vote.”
Archmage Blackwood argued. Eldavin raised his hand.
“Will you draw out Wistram’s petty politics before the world’s eye, Archmage Blackwood? If you would like, let us see where the lines are drawn.”
The Archmage of Dullahans hesitated. So did the Council; they’d seen how you could be embarrassed in front of the camera, and suddenly every [Mage] was checking their posture, robes, face for grime…
Teura went on.
“A snap vote for condemning Ailendamus. All members of Wistram’s Magic Council, please signal your approval, disapproval, or your silence via spell.”
Eldavin stood there, calm as could be. He knew the likely outcome, and it was only a gesture. If a powerful one.
Gestures mattered. They always mattered. A symbol was more than just meaning in the hearts of mortals.
They lived off symbols. Off of belief. Once, they had countless millions of followers and made mighty things. Great war, great mercy, great calamity. There were so many.
But remember the greatest of them all. First, the God of Leaders and Rulers. Head of his pantheon, he who ruled over even his kind. Tamaroth.
…He had a beard. What did he look like? Their faces changed. They wore many shapes. He had a beard. Stop asking questions, you little h…
Something fuzzed. Eldavin’s smile flickered. As if he were watching the vote. What was that next word? Little…half-Elf?
He tried to continue. Who was telling this to him? His teacher?
Who was she?
“Next? Next…I suppose, among the most powerful, came the one who presided over death. Oh, yes. There was an afterwards. There still is. It used to belong to her. The Three-In-One. Goddess of Death. Goddess of the Afterlife, Kasigna. Most feared. Most beloved. Why beloved?”
Someone chuckled. Eldavin’s head turned sightlessly. He looked up, seeking a mismatched gaze. Such sad laughter.
“You will understand, someday. Imagine what that could mean. No? Feared and beloved for what she could grant. Next? Ah…ah. Perhaps now it is time to scare you. Don’t hide! You don’t even know what you’re supposed to be scared of, silly little Teri.”
The [Mages] rose, glowing lights flashing across his vision. Eldavin’s heart—he felt at it.
“Though you should be wary. Wary of what lies beyond. Not beyond the horizon, but further still. Some of them came from so far that they were foreign to even their kind—or so it was said. Such as the Deity of the Forgotten. First of the Lost. First of Nothing. Furthest. Traveller. God of Seekers. It was not male, nor female. It was not…known. They called it Norechl. Perhaps it named itself. That one, even the greatest feared, and not for strength.”
“Grand Magus Eldavin? Archmage?”
He stirred. The Archmage of Memory looked around and realized it was done. The Council looked at each other, and then at the half-Elf. They stood, condemning Ailendamus. Eldavin’s lips moved.
“Oh. Well, then. Good job, I suppose.”
His audience was slack-jawed. Eldavin blinked at them, and the words came out simply, those other words echoing in the back of his mind.
Names. One of them was so loud something stirred.
He who ruled Secrets, Magic, and Knowledge. God of Scholars and Magic. God of Studies.
A young man shivered in the back, watching Eldavin look about. The half-Elf’s voice was quiet, weighed down by something. Time, perhaps.
“Should I be amazed? We have censured Ailendamus. Well done.”
He clapped sarcastically. The sound echoed in the background. Eldavin looked about and shook his head.
“That is the most I could ask from Wistram. United we stand to throw words rather than spells.”
“You insult your own academy and peers, Archmage.”
Feor rose slowly. Eldavin glanced at him.
“Do I? Or do I say the truth, Feor? You voted, an overwhelming majority, to condemn a nation that threatens others. That makes war with terrible death. A vote is a vote, and you have done so in the eyes of the world. Perhaps—because they were watching. It is still only a vote. You speak your convictions as if that proves you hold them. I…”
He touched at his chest absently.
“I have no time for such things. I thank you all for joining my condemnation of Ailendamus. The Academy of Magic stands with the Dawn Concordat in spirit—a frail, useless, contemptible thing.”
The Archmage of Memory turned, and his eyes lit up. He raised his hand, and that silent box, that partition of hidden people, began to move.
“Now, with Wistram’s blessing, I shall be more direct. I am the Archmage of Memory. I am Eldavin, Lord of Flames! I call the Terras faction—to war.”
Eldavin saw Teura’s head rise. Telim swallowed hard. The other [Mages] hesitated. However, Archmage Verdan was in the weeds, and it was keep going or sink. So he sneered down at Eldavin.
“To war? You intend to sail to Terandria and enlist in an army, then? Or hire [Mercenaries]? How would you affect your war against a sovereign nation?”
The Archmage of Armor’s confidence died as Eldavin looked up at him. Feor was already taking cover; he remembered what Verdan had apparently forgotten: how Eldavin had first come to Wistram and introduced himself.
“[Refraction Barrier: Flame]. [Fourfold Arcane Barrier]. [Steel Scales]…”
Naili muttered under her breath. At last, she saw something happening. She looked down and swore.
The most skilled [Mages] sensed it first. Teura knew where to look since she and a few others had helped Eldavin set it up, but even experts in the field, like Beatrice, took a second. When she did see it, the Dullahan’s eyes went round.
Everyone looked down. The tiles upon which the Magic Council had been set were…cracking.
Lines of force were snaking their way around, completing a vast circle, an intricate spellcasting pattern that put sweat onto everyone’s lower backs.
“Wh-what are you doing, Archmage Eldavin?”
Eldavin muttered. He focused on Verdan, with a kind of pained air of disgust.
“Is that who we are, now? [Shipwrights] and [Sailors]? We are magic, little [Mage]. Nor do I need to explain myself to you. A faction will go unto war. Live or die—we will do what we believe we must. Terras of Wistram! If you gainsay it, if you disagree, meet me across the battle lines and challenge me in person.”
He pointed, and half the Archmages ducked. But no [Grand Fireball] came. Eldavin glanced around. Then he pointed.
“Ah, yes. I almost forgot to announce my second initiative. While the spell completes, please observe my new creation. I believe some of you might recognize the design.”
The curtains pulled back and revealed sixteen young men and women. Half were students. The other half—
Elena shot upright. Troy stared down. So that was what Eldavin—
Every head among the Earthers swung around. Someone had gone dead white. Aaron Vanwell’s lips moved. An angry dead thing was screaming.
“What has he done? What has he—”
They only got one look at it. A glowing spell circle had traced itself on the floor of the room. Old stone cracked, revealing…
A smooth floor, like glass or crystal. Semi-transparent, underneath of which lay a nimbus of glowing lights. Power.
Raw mana. The Archmage of Memory kicked a piece of the stones away dismissively. They forgot what rooms did.
It was, of all of them, Archmage Viltach who figured out what the spell circle was for. He looked down and freaked out, raising his voice.
“It’s a spell circle. This—this is a massive spell. This entire room is a ritual room! Get out of the radius! Get out of—”
The Libertarians went running, followed by the rest of the Council. They stampeded away from the edges of the glowing circle. On it stood members of the Terras faction. And the sixteen.
Ordinary people. Some Earthers with only a shred of magical knowledge, if any at all. But—Troy saw Flynn wave at him. Point down. Eldavin returned Verdan’s horrified gaze with a calm one. He took a breath.
My heart hurts. But he had learned something. This—this was going to be hard, even though this room was meant for such things. Yet…
I have no Skills. Somehow, though, I have a surplus of power.
He drew from it now. Something—the room began shaking. The [Mages] on the ground looked up at him, but Eldavin didn’t need long. It was a mark of him that he kept repeating that word.
“Sailing. You fool. The age of magic comes and goes, and always, always we say, ‘this time it shall last forever’. But the truth is that it will always come back. Again! Again and again! Always differently!”
He pointed a finger as the air charged, lifting every hair, filling the atmosphere with potential and pressure. A wondrous force, pressing down on you—not on your skin, but the very leyline of your magic. Troy saw Eldavin’s lips move.
“I do not need a boat to get to Terandria. I am Archmage Eldavin of Wistram. Archmage of Memory. And what I remember are two words: [Grand Teleportation].”
The circle flashed. Eldavin threw up his hands and the [Mages] shouted—
Then the world in the circle blinked, and that flash of what had been there lingered in the air, like a photograph’s flash—only it was them. Fading, a memory of what was.
Travelling around the world in an instant.
Ser Greysten, the Summer’s Champion of the Order of Seasons, put up his axe, weary.
“Form ranks! Hold them!”
The Season of Summer formed a battle line. They were coming. A full legion of the Order of the Hydra, pushing towards Pheislant.
They were coming along the coast, and Pheislant was forming a full army with more [Knights]—but the [Knights] of Ailendamus were relentless.
Greysten refused to let them regroup and pursue Rabbiteater and the others. So they fought. The [Knights of Summer] did not laugh or expect an easy victory.
So many [Knights]. They spread out, cheering for their kingdom. Ailendamus. No Dame of the Hills, but so many…
Counter-levelling against the Summer Knights. Greysten tasted a bit of bile in his mouth. He set himself grimly for another battle.
He had not been checking the news. So when one of the Autumn Knights galloped towards him, he didn’t know what was happening.
“Ser Greysten! Something is coming! I sense a huge magical signature on our position!”
“Break! Break! Magical artillery incoming! Shield spells!”
The Summer’s Champion reacted with perfect reflexes, and the Order of Seasons broke instantly. Greysten looked towards the north. Had Ailendamus sent reinforcements? Already?
But then he saw the Order of the Hydra doing the same things. Their lines of neat halberds broke up, and both sides stared at the other breaking up and…slowed…
Then the world split in half. Greysten whirled and saw the sky open and, for a second, he locked eyes with Archmage Feor across a gap in the sky. He recognized that magic.
But instead of a group travelling across the void as the Order of Seasons could do—an entire section of Wistram came hurtling towards them. Terrifyingly fast. Greysten’s horse screamed and reared, unable to process what it was seeing. There—a half-Elf was pointing—
Then the two dimensions collided, and the backblast knocked a [Knight] flying. Greysten saw Dame Voost try to twist in the air and hit the ground with a sickening crunch on her left side. More [Knights] were knocked flat.
The shockwave rippled through the air for a moment, visible as the dust and debris were thrown outwards. And then…
The Order of the Seasons and the Order of the Hydra, soldiers of Pheislant and Ailendamus, looked at the figures standing there.
Less than a hundred. Less than a hundred, teleported from the Academy of Mages in the ocean all the way to…
“…What is going on?”
Greysten had drawn his axe and raised his shield warily. He didn’t know what to call these [Mages]. Most were gasping and looking around; several were throwing up, including a pudgy [Mage]. Were they here to reinforce one side or the other?
Then he saw the one person who seemed in control of it all turn. A superlatively well-muscled half-Elf looked around. His eyes rested on the Summer’s Champion.
“Ah, ideal. Excuse me, Summer’s Champion. I am Grand Magus—that is, Archmage Eldavin of Wistram. Head of the Terras faction. We are here to participate in the war against Ailendamus. Would you allow us the courtesy of the first attack?”
Ser Greysten stared at Eldavin. The Summer’s Champion had no idea who this was—no, a vague recollection.
A spell out of nowhere. A dubious offer. A strange half-Elf?
Greysten was still Greysten. The Summer’s Champion began to smile. He raised his axe and saluted the Archmage.
“I take you at your word, Archmage! I cede the honor to you!”
Eldavin half-smiled. He nodded, and rose upwards. Now, his voice magnified, just in time for the scrying spells to catch up. He raised his hands to the heavens.
“I am the Archmage of Memory!”
He shouted it at Ailendamus. The [Soldiers] and [Knights] were reforming, but their weapons trained on the strange half-Elf…moved upwards. The [Knights] checked their weapons, and then lowered them.
For Eldavin had begun to rise into the air. He floated higher, and the skies darkened around him.
This…yes. Eldavin inhaled.
This was familiar.
“I am Eldavin of Wistram. I declare war on Ailendamus! Free the Wind Runner of Reizmelt. Those before me—flee or perish. Or I shall bring such battle as you have never dreamed.”
His eyes flashed.
“Forwards. A new era dawns. Forwards, [Mages] and children. Show them the war of the future.”
He pointed, and the sixteen volunteers looked up at him. Uncertainty. Greysten glanced down and blinked.
“What is…? [Knights]?”
That was what he thought at first. They looked like it. He saw a young man slowly sliding a visor over his face. Such…colorful armor. It could have fit with the Knights of the Summer, if their armor were more pristine. It was different, though.
“The magic. The magic. What are they wearing?”
Ser Zulv muttered. The [Summer Knight] stared warily at the sixteen. Young men and women. [Mages]—but not strong ones. They had…it was like a backpack was built into their armor. The visors were strange, more like masks. Bulkier armor than a [Knight] would want, to be able to move, even backflip or run.
You’d never be able to ride a horse with that kind of ungainly armor, not well. Greysten didn’t understand. Then…he saw the first figure step forwards, and raise an arm skywards. A fist, rising upwards.
A gesture? No…Greysten watched as the lone figure in their strange armor stared upwards. Such an odd posture.
There should have been a cape. Ryoka Griffin wasn’t breathing. The royal family eyed her. They were waxy with shock, but the Wind Runner hadn’t been breathing for about a minute.
King Itorin II did not understand what that armor did. The…look. The look was familiar.
“Aaron, you fuck!”
Cara shouted. She pointed at the armor. The young man in armor—the Human—looked upwards.
Then, they began to fly. The figure drifted upwards and almost jerked in shock. Their gauntleted hands flashed as they spread them out instinctively, to catch themselves. Then they flew forwards hesitantly.
The other fifteen drifted into the air. Some leapt, others flew up and then descended. The most experienced ‘pilots’ flew higher. Cara saw the [Knights] on the ground staring up as armored figures flew overhead.
Warriors of the future. Some clutched staves or held wands. A few just pointed the strange gauntlets ahead. They began to unleash spells from the armor as she watched. The Singer of Terandria was white-knuckled.
The future of two worlds collided.
Powered armor. Super-armor. Flying warriors. The first spells were wildly out of range, but Ailendamus’ army didn’t know what to do. Arrows flew backwards—and those that even hit the figures drifting through the air snapped on the enchanted breastplates.
The children were not good at using the armor. Some knew how it should be used. The rest were still mostly ineffectual.
But they had a chance to learn. [Mages] were notoriously fragile in combat. Experts like Magus Grimalkin ate Wistram-trained [Mages] for breakfast.
So—a simple, clever man would figure out a way to give them a chance to learn. Take a project from Aaron Vanwell and…
Archmage Eldavin saw the Order of Seasons jerk into action below. Moving forwards to support the flying magic-knights. They would have a new name for them, soon. Perhaps new classes.
He hung higher. Ailendamus’ army was stunned, but still willing to fight. An arrow flew towards him, propelled by a high-level [Archer]’s Skill.
Eldavin ignored it. It struck a barrier and vanished. Not broke, not ‘disintegrated’, but vanished. He flew over the enemy army, and they scattered around him.
“Flee or perish. This is your last warning. [Pillar of Flames].”
The ground underneath him turned into an inferno. The Summer Knights looked up into a bonfire a hundred feet wide, in a perfect circle, raging upwards.
Where does this magic come from? How do I remember gods?
My heart hurts.
So many questions. He wanted to go back to the High Passes and rest. But—Eldavin stared ahead. At those flags, waving.
That girl was captive of Ailendamus. He had vowed to keep her safe.
He did not forsake his promises. So the Archmage raised his hands. A spell gathered between them.
[Grand Teleport] captured the world’s eyes. It worried, stunned the other powers of this place. They looked at him and recognized him.
The laughing Death of Magic.
A furious Duke of Ailendamus.
A worried Necromancer.
Wondering who he was. Guessing. Countless more, who knew or not. A [Lady] clutching her [Maid]’s hand in a white-knuckled grip.
The armor was a signal. Arm them. Wistram would have an army. And an army to fear, no matter how few of them there were. A single [Mage] could turn the tides of a battle. Fifty suits of armor.
“You should have worn it, Troy. Or is it Trey?”
Eldavin drew on that unknown connection. Deeper, deeper…he gasped. The air began to morph around him.
The Archmage of Memory cast his spell, to show them the last of it. Like his [Light Bridge]—
They descended to earth, bearing regalia of another time. Each one perfect in detail. Horns engraved with sigils of old blew a tune only the dead truly remembered.
In ranks, a legion of their own, marching forwards, so perfectly done in face and guise that only the golden light making them up—no, gentle light.
Marked them as not real people.
“Silvenia. You could do scarce better. Who is that?”
The Death of Chains, Czautha, pointed at the warriors. Silvenia didn’t answer. She just listened, hands clenched, shivering with anticipation. She said the words as the half-Elf shouted them.
“[Legions of Radiance, the Sundrenched of Caonis]!”
A summoning spell. A thousand warriors charged as the Order of the Hydra looked up and quailed.
“Visophecin. Get me the Thief.”
Rhisveri spoke in the silence. The Viscount stood up.
“That’s your enemy?”
The Wyrm stared at Eldavin. His fake self vanished.
The Wyrm of Ailendamus hissed. He glared at the image.
“That half-Elf will die. Prepare more armies. We are taking Calanfer and crushing all of them. All of them. Do you understand me? All of—”
Then it was done. The remaining [Mages] in Wistram were merely an audience. They watched as the Archmage of Memory entered the war on Ailendamus. His faction was fighting, although it was a rout.
High Mage Telim, Sa’la, the rest. So that was what he meant.
They would level or die. This was the forging fire for [Mages]. A war.
The others were shaking. The other factions, each led by an Archmage or powerful [Mages]—they looked at each other.
Were they factions? Was there anyone but Eldavin worthy of the title of…
Feor was white-faced. He sagged against a wall. That damned Eldavin. He was ruining everything. There was no stopping him, was there? He could throw any plan into chaos. He was too powerful to stop.
Verdan had the same look on his face. The two Archmages had joined forces, but even if the others did—if they somehow persuaded Amerys to join them? If it was five Archmages versus one Eldavin, how were the scales balanced? Not just in power, but knowledge?
He was too dangerous. Too old.
Someone else agreed with them. As Feor tried to work saliva into his mouth, a hand tapped on his shoulder. He jerked, turned to tell someone else to begone—and saw one person not transfixed by everything.
Even though it was his creation, taken and refined…Aaron Vanwell had not joined the testing of his armor. He had a faraway look in his eyes.
“What? What is it? The Grand Magus—this is not the time to discuss…whatever it is, Aaron.”
The young man shook his head. He stared back at the Archmage of Memory in the scrying orb.
“He won’t be a problem, Archmage Feor.”
The Archmage stopped, about to step away, politeness or not. He looked at Aaron, and the other Archmages clustering to talk did the same. The young man spoke, his voice uncertain, but the words…
“Eldavin will not live long.”
It was such a ridiculous statement. So…so why did Feor’s skin chill? Why did the half-Elf look at Aaron’s gaze as the young man blinked and backed away? He turned back to the scrying orb. And…
It was time.
The Archmage of Memory made his move.
Great powers moved. In Chandrar.
Such silly powers.
It was time. Did you forget? However long it took, you should never…
A mortal man—no, an immortal Dragon who thought he was a mere man?
The might of Wistram.
A nation as powerful as Ailendamus.
They were all dust.
Dust compared to the dreams of old. There lay the final resting place of the greatest beings who had ever walked this world. And each of them came here.
Dragon. Giant. [Archmage]. [Hero]. [Legend]. Monster. Tyrant.
All save for true nightmares.
All save for Goblins and their ilk.
All save for those that had already been…lost.
Yet even in the lands of the dead, the sun shone downwards. The memory of the sun, from the memory of an umbrella, stolen. Stolen!
The same for the sword, held aloft by the sentinels at the edge of Chandrar. Enough to keep the shadows and nothings at bay. Enough to stave off death.
Death had consumed one continent, but the rest of the bastions still stood. Indeed, in Chandrar, in the lands of Khelt as they had been and were now, there was great cause for celebration.
Someone was coming back. Or it might be possible, now.
Still, the young woman sat with her head in her arms. Grieving for the cost. Grieving…as an exasperated [Witch], her friends and allies, paced around her.
The other ghosts, kings and queens, were sympathetic, but made plans. All was going as well as could be expected. They had reached a stalemate, and it favored them.
The frustrated five could not advance into any remaining zone.
Each one had a name. Some people even remembered their names, but with no…
In their hearts. Five. Some called the one with the beard the greatest.
That was all you remembered. The beard, because that was constant. A vanity? A way to remember.
They named him Tamaroth.
Another—they called Kasigna. She was the most powerful here, and the other four were wary—greatly wary of her growing power. Yet even she was frustrated by the defiance.
A third was named Emerrhain. Of the five, those three were the ones with power.
The other two were a man who looked like he danced with every step, a man to know and love and to speak to. The woman was always young, a hunter, a warrior, fierce and proud and always young, for what she represented burned bright and ended faster.
They hung around the other three like envious moths. Angry, jealous.
After all, all three had something. Emerrhain and Tamaroth had a…foothold. Safety. Strength from that.
Kasigna? A purity of power, especially here. All three were superior and knew it, and laughed mockingly at the other two, even as they traded aeon-old jibes, bearing grudges and feuds into the now.
If they cooperated, it was grudgingly, because they had to, to survive. Power was driving them apart, reminding them they were no longer dependent on the others.
…There had been six.
Know them. If he could remember, Eldavin would have known them. The other two were not the greatest of their kind. Great—but once, they stood among pantheons.
Even so, remember, if only for what they represented. The Gracious Dancer, the Lover, the Friend of the Divine, the God of Dance and Love.
Laedonius Deviy. Two names.
And that young woman, always fierce? Always representing her champions, the ones she loved? She would stand by your side in the heat of war, bless you. You, who took up arms. Hunter of Glorious Souls. Patron of Valor. Goddess of War and Youth.
Cauwine. Armed with bow, the wandering deity who had only taken sides at the last.
“Cauwine. You pale. Does that Archer-King with a bow pierce your flesh?”
Kasigna mocked her. The huntress bared her teeth, but was forced to endure in silence. For even that one name was a power—it told much that Kasigna used it. Hungrily, the huntress lapped at it, humiliated, a moth drawn to a single lifeline in this dark place.
“You make much of yourself, Kasigna. For one who cannot control what belongs to her.”
The scholar, the spellcaster, returned from his errand, and Kasigna’s fury could have scorched even this place—if only there were power enough. The others chuckled, for it was true!
“Ware yourself, Emerrhain. You claim that which is mine. You and Tamaroth, grubbing in Izril for scraps.”
The bearded man’s smile was overly bright. Yet—they stood in the ocean, neutral ground, for it was true that each had claimed a ‘zone’.
By their power, Tamaroth and Emerrhain kept the others from their…places. Kasigna could challenge either, but everyone was hoarding their strength.
They were still so hungry.
So, their barbs stayed alone to words. They were frustrated. Angry. Wary—this had not gone as planned. Chandrar should have been theirs. Then, with that strength, Terandria would fall next, and then Baleros and Drath.
But it had not happened. Not, for a thief, not, because of one damned kingdom. Not, for the defiance of those who should worship.
It repeated itself. Some of the five saw it, others ignored, but few voiced it.
This was as it was. This was why it was now.
Erin Solstice’s head rose. She had been weeping, ignoring the others. Angry and sad.
And hopeful. That was the worst part. She had been hoping, and knew it came at cost.
So glad…so glad, despite the loss. Despite the pain.
Califor stopped, her hand resting on Erin’s shoulder. Cawe, trying to cheer Erin up by making faces, hesitated. Gerial straightened.
“…What was that?”
Every ghost milling about Khelt looked up. Every single one—and there were too many to count in a lifetime—froze. Erin saw it happen as one.
She felt it herself. The [Innkeeper] looked up. Her heart was only a memory, but it wanted to pound.
Her lips opened.
“Something just happened.”
“Erin! Where are you? To me, rulers of Khelt! To me, and the umbrella and sword!”
Khelta flew through the air, shouting. The ghosts of Khelt flew after her, and every other ghost on these lands. Instinctively.
Had they come again? Had the six—no—five, tried another attack on the shores?
No. It didn’t feel like that. It had never felt like that. Erin flew with the others, seeking—going to see, but not knowing how she knew.
Instinct. The ghosts travelled as one, a vast distance, taken in a heartbeat in the way of this world, where time lost some of its meaning.
Towards the shores.
Yet—the wrong shores. Califor noticed it, as did the other [Witches]. Somilune, Califor, even a few other ghosts slowed.
“This is not the same shore as before. Where are we?”
Some ghosts were along the south of Chandrar. Califor looked at the other Witches.
“Naught lies those ways. If it came from Terandria, or Baleros, or Izril, Wistram—anywhere else. It would be the north and west. East, for the very edges of Izril, perhaps. But…”
“Some things lie to the south and east. Old, dead places. Sunken land. Yes, though…little. Perhaps Rhir?”
A voice. The other ghosts looked up and beheld a vast, winged form.
Xarkouth. The Dragonlord of the Void. He folded his wings, ready to breathe the element of the void itself in defense of all there. He glanced up, nodding at the Giant holding the umbrella, a [Queen] armed with the sword that shone even here.
A Wyrm who had traveled far scoffed at the Void dragon.
“Do you forget basic geography, oh wise Dragonlord? Rhir lies north. North and west of Chandrar!”
Xarkouth stared at Rhisveri’s brother steadily. Until the Wyrm’s sneering look grew contemptuous. The Dragon spoke for all present, though some ghosts knew what he would say already.
“Rhir can be reached from the south. From every direction, if you fly and know the shape of all. Though the route is treacherous and you must skirt the place where even Dragons do not fly.”
“South? That is impossible. To the south lies only…”
The Wyrm trailed off. Califor nodded. She adjusted her hat as another secret of this world was revealed. Too late.
Erin saw the ghosts whispering and looked about.
“What are we looking at? Califor? Khelta?”
The [Necromancer]-[Queen] stared east.
“I can think of only one thing. It runs this world’s seam. The place where water ends. The place no one dares go, where magic twists and Dragons do not fly.”
“The place where worse than Demons lie.”
Erin looked around. Then ahead. Towards the horizon, that flat, perfect line across the world…or did it curve? You couldn’t tell the distance. But at the edge, unlike Earth—lay an end to it all. They called it…
The Last Tide.
The end of the world. How it had been, for all of living memory. But not all of dead memory. And now…and now…
The five felt it. They drifted across the ocean, further than the ghosts hiding at the borders of their land.
“It cannot be. You said it was dead.”
They were bickering. The two, the huntress and dancing man, defended themselves.
“We saw it fall.”
“It must be dead. Even it.”
“If it is not? It is not of us. Norechl—”
That name, like a drop of black ink in a glass of water…
Spread. Across the void. The five hushed. They looked at each other and felt it. They drifted further.
No matter where you went, you would eventually find it. The end of the world. So the ghosts looked, straining their eyes. Staring ahead.
For what? They did not know, only that it was there.
From Baleros to Terandria. The ghosts looked into the void. From Drath. Ghosts and dead things. Staring…staring…waiting.
But not for long.
Then Erin saw it. At first, she didn’t believe it. Like a trick of the eyes, or the light. Yet there was no light or eyes to trick that far away.
“Does…does anyone see that?”
She pointed. The ghosts were silent. Nerrhavia whispered.
“I see it. I see…a face.”
Xarkouth’s wings flapped. He inhaled—hesitated, and then swallowed the fire. For they were so far.
“That—that is not a face. That is a head.”
The Wyrm’s eyes opened wide.
“That is no head. Is it a body?”
Gerial was shuddering.
“Is it alive? What—what is—it’s an Old One.”
Khelta gripped the memory of a weapon in her hand.
“No. That is not an Old One.”
Cawe was shivering so hard she couldn’t speak, but Elucina, the Rebel of String, murmured.
“It looks like A’ctelios—”
Again, a voice spoke, and it was one of the [Witches]. She turned her head.
“That is not A’ctelios Salash. But it comes from the same place. It is no Old One. They are those that survive in the deeps. This is a thing Drath hunts. This—is what should not be.”
“They walk the world’s seam.”
Someone whispered. A rhyme meant for…a verse from the edge of the world. All the ghosts stared ahead. Then someone else spoke. The Sage of a Hundred Thousand Secrets.
“Those are the things that must never reach land. They are hunted from Cenidau to Drath. Yet they are killed. How…how does this come to this land?”
No one had an answer. Erin was shivering. She saw Gerial try to put an arm around Cawe. She looked at the umbrella for reassurance. Then—as her head swiveled across that distant horizon—she inhaled. There was no breath to catch, but Erin froze.
“There’s another one.”
Every ghost looked left. A ghost of a warrior uttered a soft oath.
“This is impossible. Those are not…not…”
Queen Merindue hugged herself. The Queen of Nerrhavia’s Fallen stared ahead.
“Those are not ghosts.”
They were not. Such things left no ghosts. They should not have life.
Perhaps they didn’t. Perhaps that was why they came. But how? Why now?
There were places even Dragons did not fly. Places [Sailors] never went. A span where even ghosts did not walk.
From that edge of nothingness, that foreign zone…they came.
They were rising across the horizon. Such that, even from afar, you could see them. Lesser and greater—but only the worst of them could climb…
“What has Norechl done?”
Tamaroth was the first to speak. His eyes were wide. Even he—even the five were frozen with the sheer horror of it.
This was beyond madness. Why did they come? This was a suicide for them, surely.
The question had a simple answer. They saw it coming. Striding across the water.
It had no face.
It had no real shape.
It had no identity, but it was.
Like them. But not.
Norechl. It was smiling.
God of the Lost. First of Nothing.
“You! What have you done?”
It was laughing. Kasigna raged, but Norechl laughed. And now they saw it. The countless shapes rising from that forbidden deep carved out of the world. The things that should never walk under sun.
They were following Norechl. It had fallen down.
Fallen over the edge.
Suicide for any but it. Somehow—it had survived down there. And it, it—that demented, twisted thing—
Had led them up.
Not just up. Not just convinced them to follow it—no, they were hunting, greedily following it—
Norechl had led them here. Out of where they should have appeared. An impossibility for any but them. After all…
It was only a matter of perspective.
They came. Too many to count, rising from every direction. To Terandria’s north. To Izril and Chandrar’s east, and Chandrar’s south. To the west of Baleros. From Rhir. Across from Drath…too many to stop.
In the lands of the dead. An army to break any stronghold. A gambit that would end all. The five. Norechl itself.
So nothing laughed. The Furthest Traveller brought ruin. The ghosts stared at what slowly pulled itself up. They rested there. Some fought each other. Most were so tired. It had been a long, long…climb.
Some had even gotten…
Yet they sensed what lay ahead and came forwards greedily. Slowly. Towards the ghosts.
“This is the end.”
Khelta broke the long silence. Erin Solstice jerked her head away. The ghosts stirred.
They had been staring, watching the figures coming up. How long? None of them knew. Only that now—now—they turned away from that sight. Towards Khelta.
“This is the end. We must move. That will not be stopped with light and a single blade alone. To Khelt! To arms! This is the end of everything! To me, ghosts of Chandrar!”
The [Necromancer] howled, and suddenly every shape was in motion. They fled the shores. The Giants stomped away from their watch. It was time. It was too late.
The ghosts found the King of Khelt pacing about. Eighteen rulers and a young woman descended around him, as the other ghosts made plans, babbled, and a Dragonlord took flight. Surely the others had seen it.
They had time. Time—that army advanced slowly, but this was it. So Khelta shouted.
“Fetohep of Khelt! You must awaken Erin! You must hasten the completion of the ritual at any cost! Fetohep, the enemy has made its move and time has run out!”
All the ghosts shouted at him. The undead king jerked. He spun around.
“Great Khelta? What is happening? Is Erin Solstice alive? Where have you been?”
“Alive? No. We have seen the enemy. It moves! They come from beyond the edge! Fetohep—”
The [King] glanced around, patently bewildered. Erin flew about the capital and hesitated. She looked around, zoomed through the palace. Something was…
Where were all the rooms filled with the research? Those poor, frozen bodies? She could only see the world as it was, the objects, not the people. But—but—
“Wait. Wait. That’s not—”
She flew out to the ritual and saw the [Mages] standing there. Staring down. Erin flew towards the palace and heard Fetohep’s voice.
“Great Khelta. Wait. Explain.”
“There is no time! We must move! There is not time to waste!”
“Time. I thought you had already—Khelta. Where have you been?”
At last, the tone of Fetohep’s voice made the ghosts pause. Serept, Xierca, Khelta looked around. And they realized what Erin had.
Something had…changed. The throne room was configured differently, which wasn’t a huge surprise. Things came and went. But—Erin couldn’t find the laboratories. She stared out the window.
“That building wasn’t there before.”
Khelta looked about.
“Fetohep? How long…we went to the coast to see…how long has it been?”
The king stared up towards the empty air. His golden eyes flickered with uncertainty.
“It has been one month since I last communicated with you.”
Erin Solstice looked at the ghosts. They turned. Looking at each other, then towards that horizon. Khelta’s lips moved. Then she looked at Erin. The [Innkeeper] saw the ruler exhale slightly.
“Then it is beyond time. Erin Solstice.”
She reached out and took the [Innkeeper]’s hands.
“Let us go.”
So slowly, slowly, they went to see how it would all end.
Author’s Note: Well, this is the final chapter of the year, and I have worked my last day…on The Wandering Inn. For this year. Of 2021.
I have an announcement to make. Well, a scheduling announcement and a truly important one. The important announcement is that I have written a book. In secret. During those breaks where you thought I was resting.
It is called Gravesong, and it is fully written and in the process of being edited. It will be at least 150,000 words long, it is a novel and the first book in The Singer of Terandria series. I plan on releasing a 2nd Draft or a version for Patreons to read on Patreon, never for public readers, and the book sometime in the summer of 2022, with an audiobook as well.
It takes a bit of time to do these things, you see, but I want readers to know the first part of Cara’s tale now, so I am willing to share it on Patreon, but I cannot publicly for a host of reasons. It might hurt sales, but I have hopes it will sell well when it launches as an e-book, physical book, and so on, for many reasons.
So my break will tie into that; I will be revising during my 2-week break, hence the length. I will take a far longer one after Volume 8 ends, don’t you worry, but this is the shortest workable span I can take off. I want to get Gravesong out. I want to finish Volume 8. I also want to rest, but that can come after.
I hope you have enjoyed the story so far and will follow it into next year. There have been bumps and bruises, good chapters and bad, but the world keeps getting larger and I have secret projects and more story to tell. Thank you for reading with me this year, and I hope to see you in the next chapter. Until then,
Gravesong Promotional Poster by BoboPlushie!