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[No Killing Goblins, a The Wandering Inn podcast by Oshi and Dragonus, has released it’s 10th episode! Check it out here and consider leaving a like, comment, or whatnot!]

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“Do you know why Orthenon was never one of my Seven?”

Trey Atwood looked up, but just for a moment. He flicked his gaze up into that smiling face, eternally too youthful, despite the creaselines amid the red-gold hair. Dancing green eyes, like whenever he had some ploy.

A giant man, at least compared to the young man less than half his age. Thick arms and callused fingers currently holding a tiny piece of marble carved to look like a little Lizardperson riding a…heron. A literal bird.

Since this was the knight piece in their game of chess, Trey Atwood kept watching the chessboard. Not least because Flos Reimarch, the legendary King of Destruction, had twice tried to switch pieces while Trey was distracted or using the loo.

That was him to a tee; he tried childish gambits, lost his temper, and got visibly frustrated when playing games where he felt he should be winning. Video games, that was.

He was a proper sportsman in games of skill—or rather, what he considered to be games of skill. He would happily kick about a soccer ball and laugh no matter if he lost.

Chess now…Trey didn’t respond, so Flos coughed.

“Orthenon?”

“Hm? Oh—I, uh, don’t know. Did you tell me? Was it because he refused?”

Flos stroked his clean-shaven chin, smiling as he watched Trey push a pawn forwards. He placed his knight with a chortle, and Trey took it in a fork maneuver where he threatened the king and knight at the same time.

“Check.”

The King of Destruction’s face went flat. Trey tried not to laugh. Flos had only been holding the knight for the last minute. But Flos just folded his arms and sighed loudly.

“I truly detest this game. [Strategists] level playing it? If I could gain one level as [King] for a thousand games…”

He hesitated and sighed louder.

“…I suppose I would make it my passion. You know, I played the Titan of Baleros, once.”

Trey looked up.

“Really? I thought you and he…”

Flos’ smile changed. That was one of the interesting things about him. You could read his smiles like a book, and often his face as well, but he had as many smiles as a library had stories.

This one was rueful. For a second, something sparked behind it, a sharp glitter, but he gave Trey a calm smile that told the young man he would only get the part of this tale Flos wanted to tell.

“He visited me during my slumber. The audacity of it was enough to make me curious. We spoke—I confess, I tried far harder then than I do now. Thinking, overthinking…but I dislike these games.”

“Why?”

Flos waved an idle hand at the board, poking pawns and other pieces dismissively. He moved a bishop over and took one of Trey’s pawns.

“There’s no fun in a game a Golem could win every time. You told me that’s what chess is, isn’t it?”

“A solved game? Yes, but people still love it.”

The King of Destruction rolled his eyes. He looked around, and Trey leaned back in his chair.

The sky was still cold and dreary, but no snow fell in Reim. Winter was ending, and Flos was planning his next moves—but the truth was, this was a break between wars. Trey had expected the King of Destruction to be antsy, and he was in some moments. However, he did know how to relax.

Teres and Orthenon were engaged in a spirited duel with actual blades. Trey used to watch anxiously, but the [Ruinbringer Steward] was too good for Teres to touch, and she was proficient herself with the blade by now. Besides which, they were both attacking the third member of the duel, Mars. She was laughing merrily and holding both off, using a shield while each took a single sword.

Gazi Pathseeker sat in the courtyard, above the others. She was sitting in a tree, branches currently barren, one eye on the fighting, another skimming around for spies or assassins, and two of the smaller ones on Trey and Flos. The young man shivered and pulled up the fur coat Flos had gifted him. The King of Destruction looked around and shook his head.

“In every world. In ours, with magic and great beasts and dreams, and yours of machinery and technology and electricity, people still play such a simple, solved game.”

Trey nodded reasonably, but he felt compelled to defend the world’s most popular board game.

“But the skill and expertise required means that no person can ever win every game. Surely that counts for something.”

The King of Destruction shrugged moodily.

“It does, it does. I just prefer games with more variety. I feel as though the problem is…”

He searched for words, snapping his fingers lightly. Orthenon and Mars both glanced over at him, and Teres lunged for Mars’ stomach. The tip of her sword shot towards Mars’ bare flesh—or the illusion of it—

Venith Crusland, Maresar, and Calac Crusland appeared with hot drinks and food for an outdoor lunch. Calac was as stiff as a board as he bowed; Venith nodded to Flos, and Maresar stopped to grin at Teres; she was in a headlock, and Mars was messing up her hair and laughing as Teres protested loudly.

Flos finished his thought, waving with a smile to the others. More were coming, from Parasol Stroll to the Serpent Hunters; like other times, it was becoming a festival of his vassals. But he didn’t rise just yet.

“…a game which has no elements of luck, out-thinking the opponent, doesn’t appeal to me as much. Of course, Trey, before you speak, such elements exist. But the moment you told me a machine-thing could beat any person by the superiority of knowledge? I lost my interest.”

He shrugged his big shoulders. Trey sighed. He peeked at Flos, eyed the board, counted his pieces, and replied with a deliberately straight face.

“I just feel as though you’re saying all this because I’m going to win three games in a row, Your Majesty.”

Flos’ face went slack for a moment. Venith gave Trey a sharp, amused glance, if somewhat scandalized. Calac stared at Trey with a look of offended horror.

The King of Destruction started laughing. As Trey knew he would. He threw his head back, guffawed, slapped his chest and the table—sending the pieces scattering—and Trey sighed, because that was probably deliberate. But he did laugh in an infectious way.

“Ah, enough, enough! You’ve beaten me; I’m too simple for you, Trey, and you have travelling to do within the hour. But let us go back to Orthenon.”

To Trey’s surprise, Flos didn’t call the steward over. He and Trey ate at the table alone while the Cruslands dined, and Calac instantly went over to beg a duel of Mars. It seemed Flos really did want to tell Trey. He sat there, sipping at a hot tea with Trey, and looked into the middle distance. Flat Chandrar, dry Chandrar, stretched outwards, and Trey stared with Flos. There was still something hypnotizing about it. The feeling of endless space—and pockets of surpassing beauty and magnificence.

Like Khelt. Like Ger, and Reim, for that matter. Great beauty, great tragedy.

Great war. Flos looked at Orthenon.

“He is their match in levels. In wits. People call him my left hand, and they might as well call him my right hand too. You see how he can take over running my kingdom, and manages so much I do not?”

Trey nodded. Flos glanced at Orthenon.

“A surpassing [Steward]. But not one of my Seven. Do you understand why?”

Trey didn’t. He glanced at Orthenon, who had indeed arranged food for lunch and Flos’ schedule, was overseeing the training of [Soldiers], distributions of supplies—even with underlings, an incredible task—and had even sourced transport and Trey’s gifts. Although, Trey had come up with the items themselves. Flos nodded, smiling at Trey.

“…The answer, Trey, is because Orthenon—by his own admission—does not do or add much that I could not do.”

He instantly clarified as Trey gave the [King] a dubious look.

“Make no mistake! He is far more capable of patience, organization, and whatnot than I. But…he is not one of my Seven. Consider our game of chess. Drevish would have loved it.”

Flos sighed with true melancholy. Trey thought of the [Architect]’s head and shuddered, but he hadn’t known Drevish. Flos had told him stories of the cantankerous old genius. Now—Flos told him another.

“Drevish was truly unlike me. All of my Seven are or were. They thought in ways I could not. Orthenon? He grew up in Drath, you know, but we’re a bit too alike. The others now…each one has an insight I lack.”

“Even Mars?”

Flos laughed so hard he wheezed. Mars looked up as Flos pointed at her.

Mars! Mars, Trey just said—no, don’t come over! I’ll tell you later! Wonderful, Trey. But yes! Mars has an insight into war and battle I cannot have, for all my conquests and strife. She has faced armies alone, slain every variety of monster—they were all like that. Drevish loved architecture. This twisted game of logic would appeal to him greatly. I can just picture him forcing us to play endless games, or making one of those giant chess-boards.”

He shuddered at the thought. Trey saw Flos’ smile twist into melancholy again, but Flos spread his hands across the stone railings of the courtyard; it overlooked much of Reim’s city. He touched the weathered stone, which Drevish had probably laid himself.

“…I met him during the middle of my wars of conquest. Back then, I had one main army, not armies, and led them myself. I remember we took an extraordinarily tough keep; it was on a huge incline, and the bastards kept opening gates that sent boulders crashing down towards us. I didn’t think much of it except to admire the design, but the next fortification we came to was a tower. It was just luck that Orthenon insisted on taking it; the entire damn thing collapsed when he was almost at the top. He broke a leg, and we lost some of our finest vanguards.”

Trey listened as Flos recounted the tale. The [King] frowned, gripping the stone angrily, but then gently, checking his strength.

“That was the worst direct casualties, but I kept running into more and more oddly-designed defenses. Sometimes quick alterations, sometimes month-long fortifications. Someone was selling their genius for almost nothing to my enemies. I was putting Gazi on finding whomever it was because I was getting tired of it all when Drevish asked to meet me one day. He came up to me, as bold as you like, and told me he’d had his fill of counter-levelling. He had a lot of projects no one was willing to fund. If I gave him gold and supplies and capable staff—he would design my wonders.”

The young man nodded. It was like many of Flos’ stories about meeting his best vassals. He beat them in combat, liberated them, or won their respect.

“So you hired him?”

Flos snorted.

“After eight months of running into his designs? I broke four of his teeth and tossed him in the dungeon myself! He could be the most insufferable…no, wait. Amerys could also be just as bad. Orthenon’s stubborn as two mules’ asses, and the temper on Queravia. Tottenval and his damn pranks…Gazi won’t leave you alone, and Mars when she drinks…then there’s Venith…”

He started muttering, trying to rank his vassals on levels of aggravation. Flos turned to Trey and shrugged.

“I needed him. We reconciled after two years; remember, he was not Drevish of the Seven then, just one of the most talented [Architects] I knew. That’s a story for a later time. But I needed him, Trey. He saw the world in ways most of my other Seven did not. Organization. Logistics. Orthenon can create a supply line a thousand miles long. Drevish? He would hear about your industry, your manufacturing and factories, and change all of Chandrar. That was his genius.”

Into the middle horizon Flos’ gaze strode, and Trey didn’t know what to say, exactly. So he said nothing. He was learning Flos, even if they disagreed harshly.

“…So that is why I need Amerys back.”

Flos got to the main point, abruptly, but as Trey knew he would when he started a story like that. He looked at Trey. The young man hesitated.

“Do you have a plan?”

The King of Destruction frowned. Tap, tap, tap went his fingers on the stone.

“I am beginning to. The problem is my plans are not Queravia’s…or Drevish’s. Nor do I like Orthenon’s, Gazi’s, or my other vassals’. And yes, that includes Mars. Whose plan was terrible.”

He looked ahead.

“I have one. But it depends on certain factors. I am pleased by some things, though. Tell me about your trip. Is all ready? Do you require anything else?”

Trey gave Flos a blank stare, because at the time it seemed like Flos was jumping from train-of-thought to train-of-thought. Trey instantly shook his head.

“I have everything.”

“…Do you want the damned chessboard? I feel as though I’ll break another one, and it is quite a good set.”

The young man hid a smile.

“I don’t need one, Flos. Both Fetohep and the Quarass have their own. Not that we’ll play chess.”

“No?”

Trey shrugged self-consciously.

“I can never beat them, so we don’t play.”

Flos eyed Trey knowingly. Trey was a bit put out since he did like a good game of chess, and losing twenty times in a row—every game of chess he had ever played with Fetohep—stung.

But what were you supposed to do? An immortal king with patience and as much time as he wanted to perfect any game, and a reincarnating Quarass with the combined experience of countless lives?

“There’s real geniuses. Why did you never ask one of them to be your Seven? They’re not like you at all.”

Flos snorted.

“Work with that insufferable bag of skin and bones? The Quarass—perhaps, but recall that the last two were different. They needed me less. The first was a practical Quarass. She aided me, took what I offered, and maintained her kingdom. The second was a matricidal fool who hated me like fire. This one…”

He sighed.

“The Quarass always wants something. The problem is, she almost always wants to protect Ger. So motivating her is difficult, and threats are very unwise since the Quarass will remember them. They are intelligent. But you…tell me. What did you bring them?”

He looked at Trey, and his gaze, from amused to nostalgic, focused on Trey’s face.

 

——

 

Trey Atwood didn’t notice the [King]’s interest, or if he did, he thought it was no different than normal. He self-consciously brushed at his dark hair and coughed.

Unlike Teresa, he wasn’t weathering, developing the warrior’s walk, or changing as visibly. He still looked a bit gangly and out of place…a bit lost amidst giants.

Yet he was visiting both rulers; Fetohep of Khelt himself had offered Trey free visitation, a right notably not extended to anyone else in the courtyard. Of Flos’ vassals…the King looked at Trey.

Only Tottenval and Drevish had ever earned that right, even in Reim’s greatest hour of might. As for the Quarass? She was inscrutable, but she too asked for Trey.

Because he could be charming. He was disarmingly charming, in fact. Likable. Not for humility alone, because he had a ‘selfie’ of Fetohep of Khelt, the first picture of the undead king ever. Which, yes, was a low bar to set…but he had something else.

So Flos listened as Trey counted on his fingers.

“I brought two books for the Quarass from the libraries, with Orthenon’s permission. Um, a bag of holding with some of the garden’s supplies—again for her, and for Fetohep, I brought one of the meringues—but frozen so it holds its shape sort of. We’re going there first so it should fit. And, um, uh…”

He hesitated, and Flos prodded him.

“Go on. I’ll just ask Orthenon. It can’t be too embarrassing, can it?”

He genuinely didn’t know. Trey squirmed, scratching at one leg with the other.

“A, uh, painting of you, Your Majesty. Not one of the good ones.”

Flos blinked. He hadn’t actually known what Trey had gotten for both rulers. He repeated Trey’s words slowly.

“You…are giving Fetohep of Khelt…a picture of me? Could you tell me why these four gifts? Why…why?”

And that was the thing that fascinated him. Trey looked embarrassed, perhaps nervous Flos would be angry, but when he spoke, it fascinated Flos, so the King of Destruction listened in rare silence.

“Well, they’re things they would want. I think, at least. I hope one of them will make them smile.”

“A picture of me. Fetohep. Has someone cast [Confusion] on me?”

Flos rubbed at one ear, but only to pretend. He saw Trey smile and duck his head, but Flos watched his eyes. He…knew what he was doing.

“It’s nothing they asked for—not exactly. The Quarass likes books, and she mentioned you had some from, uh, conquered countries, and I said I could bring a few. So that’s simple.”

“Why seeds from the garden? Or produce?”

Trey shrugged.

“Ger doesn’t have bountiful fields. Some of the things were from Tottenval’s era, weren’t they?”

Flos felt a pang, but he answered quietly.

“Yes. So for her fields.”

“She loves Germina. Anything for Germina makes the Quarass happy.”

“Not cakes, then? Not a bounty of sweets? The [Chefs] could make a hundred cakes. Why for Fetohep—who does not eat—and not the Quarass?”

Flos thought he had an inkling, but he saw Trey give him a blank look, and the [King]’s heart leapt. Because…Trey understood.

“The Quarass wouldn’t want a hundred cakes, even if I could bring them, Your Majesty, Flos. She can’t share a hundred cakes in her capital. Seeds…cuttings…”

“Of course. And Fetohep? A meringue and painting?”

Trey folded his hands behind his back and tried to look innocent.

“Um…he might burn the painting. Or, uh…uh…”

“Out with it.”

“I mentioned darts, and he said he had a magical set. But we had to leave, and I’m sure he’s set up some to play, so if I brought a target he enjoyed—”

The King of Destruction laughed so hard he thought he’d crack a rib. He slapped Trey on the shoulder, delighted, and caught the young man before he went over the balcony.

“Trey Atwood! You make me laugh too much! Go on, go on! The meringue thing? Why?”

Like someone watching a [Magician], he turned to Trey. The others were watching enviously or curiously, but Trey didn’t notice. He just swept back his hair with a hand, looking modestly pleased himself.

“It’s because it’s a good meringue, Flos. But, um…it’s a complex treat.”

“Yes, the [Chefs] had a devilish time figuring it out from your recollections. So why…? Ah.

The young man nodded.

“Fetohep will want to take it and prove his [Chefs] can do better. No offense to Chef Yerinse, but…he will probably have a lot made, and it’ll be the talk of Khelt.”

“Of course. Prove Khelt’s superiority. You have thought through each and every gift. I imagine you even have an idea how to keep them entertained.”

Flos gave Trey a huge smile, and he watched as the young man tried to brush it off, blushing. But he, like the Quarass, remembered that, and a little idea began to hatch in Flos’ head. Naturally, it required time. And Gazi had her own ideas, but when she laid it out for him—

He knew who to pick. Of course, it wasn’t that simple. Cunning plans never were. You had to work hard at it. Too hard, like true games of chess, and he would have rather relaxed. But plans…

Trey could make plans.

 

——

 

Months later, Trey Atwood wondered if Flos Reimarch had been planning this all along.

If so—Flos could have done a better job of it.

But hadn’t Gazi had a hand in this plan? If so—Trey had to believe in her, although if her plan was working, she was, right now, sitting underwater, tickling fishes, and she had been for at least a week.

No…he hesitated. No, how long exactly had she said she would take to follow them? It didn’t really matter.

They were not busting out Amerys right now. He had no idea where she was.

It was his second week of being at Wistram. Trey knocked on the door as he stood in the near-empty hallway, shifting from foot to foot and trying not to look suspicious.

Students went to each other’s rooms all the time. If anything, this was normal. If anything, Trey being nervous sold the scene: someone would suspect he was going to partake in semi-frowned upon Dreamleaf. Or a romantic escapade.

Given the owner of the room, Trey hoped for nothing of the sort. Indeed, a moment later Calac Crusland, or ‘Carn Thustone’ as he was known here, opened the door.

“Hello, Troy Atlas. Would you like to come in for our studying of spells?”

The young man intoned with such a painful deadpan that Trey quickly shoved him inside the room. A little Lifesand Golem, Minizi, poked her head out of the hood of his robes as he hissed at Calac.

“You suck at acting!”

Calac instantly dropped his deadpan look and glared back at Trey.

“I don’t have the class!”

“You don’t need a class to be halfway decent! Are we secure?”

The other young man nodded. He pulled out a gleaming runestone and showed it to Trey.

“I check every night that the wardstones are working.”

“Just don’t show them around.”

Calac rolled his eyes. He was not Trey’s preferred backup and co-conspirator. Trey didn’t know Calac that well, but he remembered him from Venith and the first days of Flos’ campaign. Calac was hotheaded, impulsive, unlike his father and mother, who…no, he was sort of like Venith in that sense.

The difference was that Venith had been rightfully angry at Flos, and when he got angry, it was with genuine exasperation.

Calac was just angry. He had a darker skin tone that was a mix of his father’s and mother’s, and he had certainly inherited his parents’ gifts for combat. He was good with a sword, enough to be part of Wistram’s club of weapon-using [Mages] already, could ride, shoot a bow…and he had a chip on his shoulder the size of Reim’s palace.

He had dark hair and pale, off-white eyes that were faintly yellow. However, what always stood out to Trey was Calac’s scowl. In most of their interactions he would be scowling at Trey and Teres, and it didn’t take a genius to figure out why.

They were the King of Destruction’s companions. Calac was not. He was semi-disgraced in his own eyes—or perhaps his parents’—for once interfering in the duel between Venith and the King of Destruction. He…hadn’t proven himself.

This was his chance, but Trey still would have taken Teres. She was like Calac in some ways, though both would have resented the comparison, but she was his sister. You had to put up with family.

“I am a [Lord] of Hellios. It makes sense I would have anti-listening runestones. Just maintain your cover. You’re the one hanging out with your kind.”

“You mean, Earthers? Afraid I’ll turn on you?”

Calac stopped halfway over to the map of Wistram he was drawing. Which was a stupid idea because entire hallways could change location—but he had still made one, and drawn huge red X’s to mark where they’d searched. Which was another bad idea because they didn’t need to find Amerys like a needle in a haystack, they just needed to ask someone where she was.

The young Crusland pivoted slowly, hand going to the sword that hung at his belt.

“You had better not even joke about that. My father and mother and the [King] trust you. If you betray us all, you’ll condemn—”

It’s a joke.

It hadn’t really been, but Trey snapped and Calac shut up. The two young men glared at each other. After a second, Calac pointed at the map.

“We don’t know where she is. Have you been asking? Even hinting? I brought it up—”

“You’re too obvious. You can’t just ask someone where Amerys is!”

Calac snapped back.

“Why not? You’re too afraid to ask anyone a single question! It’s a fair thing to ask —where one of the Archmages is!”

“Just about her? ‘Oh, look at me, I’m Carn from Hellios, which isn’t at all near Reim. Anyone know where Amerys is?’

Trey lowered his voice and parodied Carn’s rough tone. Calac turned red.

“We are on a schedule. Lady Pathseeker should be in position, which means we have to hurry—”

“We’re on a mission not to get caught!”

Minizi climbed out of Trey’s hood. He caught her before she fell—not that it would hurt the Lifesand Golem, she’d just ‘bruise’ and reform her head, but he still felt bad when he saw it—and he and Calac began to argue harder. Trey’s stomach hurt.

Go to Wistram, Trey. Take Calac. I can’t send any artifacts or they’d notice. I have faith in you. Just like I have faith in the Quarass to cut your throat. Also, can you pay a visit to A’ctelios to heal Gazi?

Fucking Flos.

 

——

 

Get off! Get—[Light Arrow]!

“Damn you!”

Minizi slowly ate a half-rotten slice of apple. Since she had no stomach, it just sank into her body, and she pulled it out, looking disappointed.

She was bigger, now, having been fed on milk, honey…metaphorically. More like Trey’s blood and sand for three weeks. She sat on the table since she had been told not to interfere, and watched as the two young men rolled about on the floor, throwing punches—and spells.

Calac threw punches. Trey ate punches, and threw spells since the other young man had him in height, experience, and muscle.

Magic was the great equalizer. In theory.

In practice, trying to fast-cast a spell while someone punched you in the face didn’t work. Even with Gazi’s training, Trey got the worst of it. Calac pulled a punch as he sat on Trey’s stomach, raising a bloody knuckle. They were both angry, stressed, with no real progress, and they kept saying things they regretted.

Then Minizi decided enough was enough—or she wanted some of that sweet, sweet Trey-blood—and she leapt on Calac’s back. Which wasn’t really a problem because she was only twice as tall as a big cup.

The problem was she had his apple-knife and she’d been learning how to stab rats.

 

——

 

It was very late at night, and Trey knew he was waking Calac up because the young man took a while to open the door. He probably hadn’t expected Trey; they’d agreed not to meet until one of them found something conclusive.

Since he had, Trey didn’t beat about the brush.

“Alright. I’ve found out Amerys is in Wistram. I even think we might be able to get a visit with her. Grand Magus Eldavin’s gaining in power.”

Calac looked up. The first flash of hope entered his face. He hesitated and put a hand on Trey’s shoulder.

“Good work.”

He smiled. Trey looked at him and glanced over his shoulder. He saw Calac’s map of Wistram—which had gone through about twenty one revisions before being scrapped—had been replaced by a map of the war in Reim with the King of Destruction. Calac was plotting a slow course of Reim’s advances and retreats.

But he had two pins which were in gold. They were fairly close to each other, and Trey looked at them and thought about what they might mean after he caught Calac up on the mysterious Eldavin who’d just blasted through the banquet hall.

Of course. His mother and father were fighting on the front. And here he was. Trey felt a pang and thought of Teres. They had both watched the Minotaurs beat Flos. Neither one said it, but…he decided to be nicer to Calac. If possible.

 

——

 

Four days later, Trey regretted trying to be nicer to Calac. The young man’s scowl was met with Trey’s weary one. Calac held up the diagram.

“Explain it to me again.”

“Calac…”

“Call me Carn. We can’t slip up, remember?”

Trey rubbed at his face. Minizi passed him a cloth, and he wiped his face…and realized it was the inkrag. Trey closed his eyes.

Carn. It’s past midnight. We have class tomorrow! This isn’t part of the—the plan! Grand Magus Eldavin has a lecture!”

“On history. Teach me how to do the basic mana…projection again. I can’t master it.”

“You’re a first-year student. No one has to master it.”

Trey rubbed at his eyes and got ink in them. He cursed, and Calac handed him a water flask. He didn’t look any more energetic. Trey happened to know he woke at dawn to practice with his sword, and apparently had a few admirers—but he was insistent. Calac spoke around a jaw-cracking yawn.

Trey noticed his plain room had gained some decorations. Calac had a military-style setup with a chest containing his gear, his armor and sword laid out, polishing kits, and that map of Reim, but he’d started adding fresheners, and it seemed like he had begun sweeping up. Trey glanced around, frowning.

“Did you have company? It smells like perfume.”

Calac avoided his gaze.

“That’s private.”

“You did. What?”

The [Lord] flushed as if being found out were a huge source of embarrassment.

“It’s private. I don’t ask about your private matters. Don’t you have any common decency?”

He was quite different from the other young men Trey knew about. Intrigued, Trey yawned as Calac tried to master the basic spellcraft again.

“Nope. You’re still doing it wrong. Can’t we call it a day?”

Calac cursed.

“No! I can’t! Emirea can do this, and she’s eleven! So can Goelv and Tov!”

He named their friends. Goelv the Gazer boy. Emirea du Merrimom, the shy, young [Lady]. Tov, the Drowned Man who was half-slug.

“She had tutors. Goelv’s a Gazer, and uh…Tov’s from the Drowned Ships. You literally had no magic practice. I did.”

Calac just looked at Trey.

“I don’t want to fall so far behind that I can’t talk with them.”

It was such an honest, even quietly embarrassed statement that Trey stopped being grumpy and looked at Calac.

“I…didn’t think of that. Sorry.”

The [Lord] brushed it off, but he didn’t draw back. He was surprisingly genuine, and again—the fact that he was able to say that with a straight face outright was also different.

“It matters to me greatly. You seem surprised I want to learn magic. I do want to learn. The mission comes first, but my mother tells me a bit of magic is as handy as can be for a warrior. Even my father says he would have used some spells if he had the aptitude.”

“Venith said that?”

Trey was amazed. Calac shrugged, a bit self-consciously.

“They’re practical warriors.”

“I know. I just thought of Venith as not wanting to use magic. If they were fighting with swords…”

“Why? Magic is fair. Just like an arrow.”

“I just thought he’d not want to use any.”

Calac raised one eyebrow.

“Why? Oh…you’re thinking of Terandrian [Knights]. My father isn’t like that. He’s a warrior. A [Lord], but a warrior born. In battle, in war, there’s no way to duel like that.”

Trey was struck by his misconceptions. He ducked his head.

“I guess not. I’m sorry for assuming.”

Calac seemed on the verge of making a pithy comment, but then just sat down on his bed and tried casting again. Slowly. Trey showed him, and Calac struggled to copy it. He spoke as he practiced.

“We’re different, aren’t we? I realize that more and more. I spoke with one of the Earthers…George? He wanted to know how to use a sword.”

“Really?”

Trey saw Calac frown and bite his lip. Minizi tottered back to him with a wet rag. Trey picked it up, took one sniff, and handed it back.

“Minizi, you put alcohol on it. That’s Calac’s gin.”

“That’s a gift for one of my teachers!”

The Lifesand Golem trudged off. Everyone was a critic. Trey turned back to Calac.

“And? Did you teach him how to use it?”

Calac hesitated.

“He didn’t really want to learn. I just realized—you do come from a different place, don’t you? These Terandrians are like that too. I met someone who challenged me to a duel. He had a silver bell and a rapier. Charles de…something or other. I told him I didn’t duel for fun and he sneered at me.”

He must have learned his lesson after the magical dueling incident. Trey nodded slowly.

“That’s…”

Calac interrupted him.

“I didn’t finish. When I refused, he tried to provoke me with his sword.”

“Oh. Uh…”

Calac didn’t look hurt. The [Warrior] gave Trey a sideways grin.

“I kicked him in the groin and his friends accused me of cheating.”

Trey had to laugh at that.

“I think I know that guy. The Libertarians? Archmage Viltach’s people?”

“The same. They claimed I couldn’t use my feet or magic in a duel. Such strange Terandrians. And those Drakes! Messill can’t stand Lizardfolk. It’s…”

Calac stared ahead.

“Bothersome. Does it bother you? It reminds me of Garuda tribes not being allowed to camp near cities. Only, they don’t have reasons to fear thieves or anything like it here. It’s just Lizardfolk. Yet the Drakes can’t stand them, mostly.”

The [Sand Mage] nodded slowly. He watched Calac’s hands move and grabbed his shoulder.

“You had it! Wait—oh, sorry. Yes, it bothers me.”

The [Lord] had a pleased smile of triumph on his face. He relaxed suddenly and flopped back onto his bed. He looked at Trey.

“I will call that my victory. Thank you.”

Trey nodded. Still, he lingered since they were talking about something interesting, for once. Calac sat up.

“We are different, aren’t we? I didn’t realize how peaceful your world must be. George asked me if I had ever used my sword or killed someone. As if it were a question.”

Trey sombered. He twiddled his thumbs, not quite looking at Calac, and reached down. Minizi came up with a cloth dampened by water, and he dabbed at his face as she sat on the bed. Calac grimaced, but Trey assured him she wouldn’t leave sand.

“We are different. You know, most guys would tell everyone who they had over. People in Chandrar don’t do that?”

“People in Crusland land don’t do it. I don’t speak for Reim or Chandrar.”

“Right. Sorry. I just meant—”

Calac’s argumentative tone stopped suddenly. He raked fingers through his hair and looked embarrassed.

“I know. I am…different. My mother is Lady Maresar. You know her class, right?”

“Er, [Bandit Lord]?”

Calac nodded again.

“And my father is Lord Venith Crusland. I know I’ve been taught differently. Some things I learned my mother taught me are…different. Sometimes I wonder what other families must be like.”

He looked—not anguished, not sad or longing—but just curious. Trey raised his brows.

“I didn’t know my mother. Me and Teres are twins. Everyone’s different.”

Calac half-nodded.

“Yes…but having a mother who can be more of a man than my father is…odd. The first time I saw her use her Skill—the one which makes her look like a man? It was very strange.”

Trey tried to imagine that. He tried not to smile. Calac just gave him a look.

“Go ahead and laugh. She does. My mother is far too strange, and even I know it. My father? I can’t live up to my father.”

He sighed. Trey stopped smiling, guilty.

“I’m sure he appreciates—”

Calac’s weary look silenced the words coming out of Trey’s mouth.

“Don’t say it.”

So Trey didn’t. They passed a minute in silence, and Calac went on.

“My mother has peculiar notions of everything. Not necessarily right or wrong, but they confuse me greatly. You know that argument they had yesterday? Your Earthers and the Terandrians and Izrilians? Everyone got involved, but that one?”

Trey frowned.

“I don’t kn—oh, that one.

The [Lord] gave Trey a meaningful look.

“Exactly so. It isn’t as…hugely problematic to Chandrar. There are no laws for or against it in Reim. A man doesn’t boast about his private life, anyways. My mother, on the other hand? She told me that, but for my father, she’d be flipping a coin and kissing whichever came first. Then she tried to give me advice on what to do from all four possible perspectives and…”

He saw Trey’s expression and nodded.

“That is my mother. Do you think it’s close to normal?”

Trey decided the best thing to do was get Minizi and go to sleep.

 

——

 

When did Calac Crusland become a friend? Trey wasn’t sure. It wasn’t the first month. Perhaps it started the second.

But it probably continued on these nights. Through arguments and surprising insights. Stories from home, encouragement, one helping the other, like Calac giving Trey food after the worms incident…not laughing…

It was pleasant, then. Although Trey did realize something. It was how odd Wistram was. Calac had his own opinions as a citizen of Reim who had grown up on stories of the King of Destruction from his people’s perspective.

To everyone else, they were stories.

“He’s back. Father says the King of Destruction is just a myth. I mean, he was. Mother said we didn’t talk about him—that was when he woke up! Is he real? Carn, Troy, you come from Chandrar. Did you ever hear about him?”

Emirea hugged Minizi as she looked at them, wide-eyed. ‘Carn’ and ‘Troy’ exchanged a slow glance.

“Hellios was conquered by Flos. So naturally I saw him. That is, I saw his armies. Never the man in person. But he did conquer Hellios. In a flash. We never stood a chance. Though we tried, honored be our stone halls.”

Trey didn’t wince; Calac was getting better. All of Goelv’s many eyes focused on Calac, and the Gazer sat forwards.

“Truly. Did you ever lay your eyes upon the one called Gazi?”

Tov, Astritha, Emirea, Trey, and Messill all looked at Calac. The young man hesitated.

“Not…up close.”

“But you did see her.”

Trey looked at Goelv. The full Gazer boy was fixed on Calac, so much so the young man froze up.

“Goelv. Goelv, you’re staring!”

Tov shook his shoulder, and Goelv’s eyes snapped away. Calac unfroze with a sigh as the lesser paralysis effect wore off. Goelv ducked his head, bending at the waist.

“I am very sorry, Carn. It just matters so much to me.”

“Do you like Gazi?”

One of Goelv’s eyes rotated in their sockets.

“She is the most famous Gazer. Half-Gazer. Even in the jungles, they tell stories of her. I…just wish to meet her.”

“Like meeting a story. Keep your eyes on the horizon and the tide, not on fables.”

Tov snorted. Goelv looked hurt, and the Drowned Man hesitated before making an odd sign. No one took it too seriously; you hurt each other’s feelings, coming from different and varied places.

Calac and Trey exchanged glances over their now almost nightly study sessions. He had to work harder than the others, while Trey had personal lessons from Eldavin and communicated them to the others, but each of them had an interesting thing to add.

Calac was the swordsman, who actually could tell you if someone could just duck or swat a [Fire Arrow] spell down with a gauntleted hand. Emirea was the gifted young [Lady] who helped them refine their basic spell theory. Goelv? Eye magic, so powerful in that he could cast spells just by looking. Tov had the Drowned People’s perspective and talked about magic he’d seen or theory even Wistram’s teachers—aside from Eldavin—found odd. And Trey had Eldavin’s magic, and his strange tutors.

“It’s a story to us.”

Astritha said reasonably. She was from Rhir, and less known to Trey, along with Messill, their Izrilian, but between them, every continent—and Earth—was represented. She was serious—often too serious—and was open about going back once she’d graduated to support the battle against the Demons.

Messill, the Drake, just yawned.

“It’s all hyperbole. Trust me—I actually think it’s Wistram’s fault. They cooked up the story of him. Yes, there was a [King]. There still is. But he’s not the only [King] out there, is he? Prove me wrong!”

He looked at Carn. The young man raised an eyebrow.

“He did conquer my homeland.”

“Yes, but if he’s so dangerous, why is he losing to a bunch of half-rate nations? Not yours, Carn, but the ones out there.”

Trey raised a hand. Calac just blinked at Messill.

“Half-rate…? You mean, like Nerrhavia’s Fallen?”

Exactly. Never heard of it.”

“You mean…Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Half-rate?”

“You’re saying it like I’m wrong. Okay, how big are they?”

“…Bigger than all the Walled Cities’ controlled lands combined? Probably.”

Messill stared at Trey. He looked around, then threw his head back and laughed, albeit with a trace of uncertainty. He gestured with his claws to the others.

“See? This! This is what I’m talking about. There’s no way that’s true, Troy. Exaggeration. I know it’s big, but when they say ‘millions of [Soldiers]’ in an army, it’s an exaggeration of what actually happened. Exaggeration. Now, let’s go find a map and see how big this place really is. I’m sure it’s ‘big’, but…”

 

——

 

And then came the Djinni. Then…it was serious. They had known they were behind schedule, but they had been enjoying themselves.

Then—they made progress, and it stopped being a game again. Trey Atwood placed something down, and Calac just stared at it.

“You met Amerys.”

His eyes flickered up. Trey was pale, but smiling. He was trembling with nerves.

“I did.”

The [Lord] inhaled. He started and stopped half a dozen times.

“Did you say—what did—is sh—can we do it?

Trey looked at Calac. A sand-eye poked over the lip of the table, and both looked around. Viltach had upgraded Minizi with Trey so that she was now three feet tall and tougher. She carried her mithril sword and looked up at them. Trey inhaled, and felt his heart beginning to race. He turned to Calac, and the [Lord] waited.

After so long—Trey looked at his friend. At the map, and the gold pins, all three of them, Maresar, Venith, and Teresa, at one space. Nerrhavia’s armies incoming. He thought of two conversations. When Flos Reimarch had approached Trey with his mad plan—and when Amerys had first met Troy Atlas.

Trey thought of the stakes, of Earth, the Earthers here. Wistram and their ambitions and how Wistram was. Eldavin. Teresa.

He looked Calac dead in the eye and shook his head, slowly.

“I don’t know. But we can gather the information and see what we’re up against. I know where it is—I saw as much as I could, and I’ll be back later. So…let’s get started.”

 

——

 

Archmage Amerys did exist. She was alive, and in Wistram.

After her long absence from the academy and the public eye despite the King of Destruction’s return, people were beginning to spread rumors that she had died, like Drevish, the Architect.

They didn’t know. Which amazed Trey; even in vaunted Wistram, rumors ran like water through the halls. Complete lies or misunderstanding where facts floated blissfully over people’s heads.

His pace was quite slow, which suited his companion. Also, Trey was able to ask questions and take his time. That would not be the case with the other two people who might have led him here. They were far, far more perceptive.

No…that was unfair. Trey glanced sideways at the portly [High Mage] who could be as spry as you wanted—in Mage’s Quest, the new magical-reality game Ullsinoi, Telim, and Aaron were pioneering.

Nor was he a bad man. If anything, he was Trey’s favorite [Mage] in Wistram, and that included Viltach, Eldavin, and all the others. Because Telim was splendidly uncomplicated when it came to morality. Not his interpersonal life, his mind—just the way he behaved. He didn’t do things he needed to give reasons for. Everyone else Trey had met, from his sister to Flos to the Quarass, Gazi…did.

Telim? He shuffled along amiably, his comfortable Super Silkworm robes swishing as he walked, a puff pastry filled with whipped cream in one hand. He offered one to Trey.

“Another?”

“Thank you, High Mage Telim.”

The man winked one bright orange eye at Trey and pulled another snack…out of his huge brown beard. He laughed hugely at Trey’s expression.

“Hah! Another one! You’ve never seen my beard-trick before? Tiny bag of holding. You pull it out—great party trick. Interferes with a regular one, obviously. Here.”

He showed Trey the little bag of holding buried in the nest of brown hair. Trey took the pastry, grinning ruefully.

“That’s amazing, High Mage.”

He chortled happily.

“You like it? I even made the Titan of Baleros laugh when I showed it to him. Back in the day—he was a Named Adventurer.”

“Wh—really?

Telim’s eyes glittered. He kept walking through one of Wistram’s less-crowded hallways. He was a new member of the Terras faction, but Trey knew he was one of Wistram’s [Mages] for life.

“I met him. You’d be surprised how many people have visited Wistram, at least once. Him, Three-Color Stalker, monarchs—never the Blighted King or Queen, you understand. They seldom leave for fear of assassinations, but great heroes and people of stories have walked these halls. You came from Chandrar. What part, again?”

“Er…Hellios. Somewhere thereabouts.”

Trey carefully replied. They passed by one of the libraries, and he marked it. The Comfy Library. So named because it had the best couches. No big reason beyond that. You went here to read for a long time.

Telim was nodding happily. He peeked inside, waving at some students and [Mages] who glanced up and nodded to him. For a second, Trey looked inside and saw towering stacks of bookshelves.

This was a library that Alexandria would have coveted. In places, the book stacks rose so high that Trey guessed one stack held upwards of ten thousand books. Ridiculous architecture done, he suspected, purely because it could be done.

It was certainly inconvenient for the students, who filed the books everyone liked to use on the lower stacks. To get up that high, you had to know levitation, have one of the super-ladders and a head for heights, or [Light Bridge].

“You know, some [Aeromancers] and [Mages] love putting reading materials up there. Old Menisa—she passed nearly twelve years back, lovely woman—used to teach a class on telekinesis. You’d see poor students trying to pull books off the shelves each start of term. Alas.”

Telim sighed fondly. Trey eyed a Garuda calmly flapping upwards to return a book.

“What about Garuda?”

“Bastards. If I had wings…no, I’d probably walk. It looks so tiring!”

Telim’s laugh was nothing like Flos’ either. He had a huge belly laugh that was uncomplicated. Trey grinned with him. He rather admired Telim’s approach to life, which included raiding the buffet table without regard to anyone else’s desires.

This was Wistram. So, amid this vast library, Trey saw a Lizardgirl happily curled up on a splendid couch three times her size, reading a book on her back. He thought he might miss it when he left.

It was a strange feeling, to look at Wistram like a spy or infiltrator. Or…Trey swallowed hard and looked at Telim’s back.

An enemy.

He shook the feeling away. Not yet. They were close, Trey felt, to their destination, so he turned to Telim.

“Hellios, but I came south to get to Wistram. I was close to Nerrhavia’s Fallen a lot of the time. I didn’t know exactly where I was…”

Telim took it at face-value, without even apparently bothering to cast [Detect Truth]. Most [Mages] didn’t in casual conversation, although Trey was warded. He nodded as he chewed down another pastry.

“Earthers. Good that you landed there and not like the other poor children. Well, we’ve had quite a number of Nerrhavia’s Fallen’s nobility pass through. They have a competing academy—the Hundred Thousand Tomes—but they do come. I daresay every species but Fraerlings send their people here. I’m told…we’ve even had Goblins as guests in the past.”

“No.”

Trey glanced at Telim, shocked. The [High Mage] gave him another wink.

“Swear on my staff and balls. We even debated having Velan—before he became Goblin King. It was a vote on the floor of the Council—not that it had a chance of passing, but that was the feeling in the air. Monsters and heroes, Troy.”

That begged a question. They rounded a corner, went down a ramp, and Telim began checking the giant fresco on the wall. Trey’s instincts began to perk up. The fresco was of some raging war—and, with a chill, he realized it was of Crelers fighting people. A long war-mural that ended with them being pushed backwards.

“What about the King of Destruction?”

Telim slowed. His fingers traced across a hideous monster. Something bigger than an Adult Creler fighting a shining woman in armor. Trey had passed this wall before, but he hadn’t realized how detailed the [Artist] had been. There were even…names. He peered at the woman as Telim hesitated.

“Never him. I suppose that’s part of your enduring curiosity, eh? When he was strong—Amerys made overtures, but he scared us shitless. So no. After? Again, no. You know…you never did say why you wanted to meet her so badly. I never had the instinct. Nor is this permissible, and you are keeping this secret—even to the others.”

He turned a kindly eye to Trey, but a serious one. The young man hurriedly nodded.

“I know. Grand Magus Eldavin made sure I understood.”

Telim nodded.

“Very good. It’s not for the danger, as you’ll see. It’s more students. They’d come and try to talk to her, and rumors…well, Eldavin’s got the clout to authorize it. He’ll be an Archmage within the month, mark my words.”

Trey nodded. After so long—even Viltach had refused Trey’s requests. But one person had granted it, after looking Trey in the eyes and asking why.

“Why?”

The [Sand Mage] scrutinized the painting for a moment before answering, without looking directly at Telim. He made his voice as genuine as possible, which wasn’t hard. You lied with the truth. He stared at the woman. Was she…moving?

Very slowly? Yes. Telim saw Trey jerk back. He smiled.

“It moves, yes. You can see them fighting if you check back over the course of a week. I’m told it nearly killed the [Artist] because they had to redraw the mural…oh, countless times. Do you know who this is?”

Trey looked at the image.

“It says…‘Marquin the Radiant’. Where do I know that name?”

Telim grunted. He brushed at a bit of dirt on the mural and pointed at the woman battling the giant Creler.

“Your history lessons, probably. This is Marquin, the first [Queen] of Calanfer. One of the heroes of the Creler Wars. One of the ones who took the fight to Rhir. She was given Calanfer’s lands as part of her deeds. Imagine that; even if Terandria was partly in ruins. The Eternal Throne of Calanfer, the entire kingdom started because of one woman’s ability to kill Crelers. You had to admire that.”

Trey stared at the mural. Then glanced up at Telim. The [High Mage] was still watching him, and he was no fool. So Trey nodded.

“That’s why.”

“To meet a legend?”

The older man calmly took a bite of his snack. Trey met his gaze for a moment and slightly shook his head.

“No. Not just that. To see if she is one. I saw the King of Destruction’s return. I want to ask her a question.”

Ahh.

The [High Mage] nodded, exhaling in satisfaction. He patted Trey on the shoulder.

“You have seen things, my lad. You don’t talk of it, but I’ve seen that look before.”

Trey glanced up at Telim, and the older man’s face was full of kindness. He swallowed and saw Telim look at the line on his throat.

Lies and truth, blended so closely he couldn’t tell the mixture apart.

“Yes.”

“Then mark this well. Not that you can enter alone. But remember it; this is one of Wistram’s Hidden Hallways. One of six I know.”

Slowly, Telim reached into his pocket and drew something out of his robes. It was a key. Trey’s eyes locked on it. He saw the strange head, with no teeth like a regular key, but a spade-like design. Made of bright, clear stone, paler and lighter than a sapphire, that shimmered as Telim inserted it into the lock.

The lock, which was a tiny bit of space next to the first [Queen] of Calanfer’s head. Trey blinked. The hole hadn’t been there—Telim winked at him.

“Hidden Hallways. Spell phrases. Keys. Secret activation requirements like dancing naked under the moonlight.”

Trey smiled. Telim gave him an amused look. The young man wavered.

“Wait, that’s real?”

“You’ve clearly never met the more twisted [Mages] of Wistram. Give a high-level [Exhibitionist] enough levels in [Enchanter]…remind me never to show you how to get into that one.”

So saying, Telim twisted the key, and Trey opened his mouth to ask if they needed to keep this secret, because they were standing in a hallway, and a student could just walk by and—

Pop.

“Aaaaaaah!”

Telim nearly jumped out of his skin. He leapt back from Trey as the young man shouted.

“Dead gods, Troy! Don’t do that to me, lad! It’s just minor teleportation!”

“What—that didn’t feel minor!

Trey felt at himself. Telim rubbed at his neck, removing the key from the wall and putting it in his pocket. He patted the engraved keyhole on the blank stone wall and shook his head.

“I forget you’re not used to it. I’m sorry. Well…here we are.”

They were on the other side of the wall. Trey looked around, still breathing hard. Then he stopped.

“Uh, High Mage?”

Telim looked around. He smiled at Trey’s expression and patted him on the shoulder.

“I told you. The issue’s not Amerys getting free. Although, frankly, I’m not getting into those politics. The Archmages are keeping her locked up…it’s not something I like. But at this point it’s somewhat inevitable. Amerys being Amerys…there’ll be blood if she gets loose. But it’ll be a vote or someone like Eldavin motioning to free her. Stay close to me and don’t do anything stupid.”

Trey stared up at the first layer of security, then at Telim. The [High Mage] looked up, slightly nervous despite his confidence they were safe. Both men stared up at the first Golem in the hidden area of Wistram.

The first Golem, about eighteen feet tall, with a huge, conical head with multiple eyes set in every direction, and six arms, like some mythical guardian of Greece. Each one holding an enchanted blade.

And there were two Golems. Telim nudged Trey.

“…And those aren’t even the ones in Zelkyr’s last test.”

“I didn’t know Wistram had Golems like—”

Trey didn’t take the Golems of Wistram for granted. Cognita—the serving Golems—he had definite feelings on them. But the biggest Golems who wandered the hallways were just made of clay, sand, steel—towering, but only eight to ten feet tall—already huge, but porters. Most were shaped like people, serving Golems.

These ones? Telim nodded slowly. He waved at one of the guardian-Golems, who didn’t move, and whispered to Trey out of the corner of his mouth.

“We keep—or rather, Cognita keeps—the really dangerous ones far out of sight. Too many accidents.”

Accidents?

Telim’s head turned. The man whispered to Trey.

“If you’re a drunk [Mage] who walks into a room and sees one of these staring down at you in the middle of the night? Believe me, you’re going to need a new set of robes.”

 

——

 

“Two Golems. How tall again?”

Calac interrupted Trey’s recounting. Trey just looked at him.

“Eighteen feet.”

“You…must be joking.”

The [Swordsman] licked his lips. His look of excitement faded. Trey pointed to the first room he was outlining.

“I’m not. They looked like…they’re not made of steel.”

The other young man brightened up.

“Oh? Wood?”

Trey hesitated.

“Sort of a bronze-gold.”

“So…a magical metal.

Calac’s head sunk into his hands. Trey nodded.

“They have these strange gems on their elbows—chests, legs—everywhere. Each one’s different. I asked Telim, and he said they probably each produce a spell or some effect. They don’t have proper feet, either. Just giant poles and sort of hoof-like bases.”

“That doesn’t seem like they should be able to stand.”

The [Swordsman] muttered. He was trying to sketch a picture. Trey added his own clarifications, shaking his head.

“Apparently it’s gravity spells. I saw some kind of rune work around the bases—they looked very sturdy. I didn’t see them walk, but those, um, weapons? One had a spear, two swords—the curved scimitar kind—a flail, a shield, and some kind of short, wavy blade.”

“A kris. How did you see all of this?”

Trey grimaced.

“We…took our time getting through there. Telim had to show them an amulet, and he verified himself by tracing some kind of sigil. It looks like this, but it was magical, so I can’t tell what he actually did. He made sure we were safe, believe me. Apparently, they wouldn’t jump straight to killing us…unless we started fighting.”

Calac swore. This was room one of Amerys’ security, not even counting the magical lock. Defenses?

Giant Golems.

“What’s the second layer? Is that it?”

Trey hesitated.

“Well…we pass through a hallway here. There are intersections, but I don’t know where they lead. You see—”

 

——

 

“—this is a repurposed area. Hidden Hallways. Those Golems had to be moved here; few places in Wistram have security.”

“Oh. So this isn’t normal?”

Trey followed Telim closely in his steps. The [High Mage] looked at Trey.

“Aside from an experimental area or one of the sealed portions? Dead gods, my boy! Hardly! All this security is different. New. Can you feel what we’re passing through now?”

They were walking down some actually very nice hallways. Carpeted. Odd, actually; Trey didn’t know if he liked the feel of actual carpeted floors after so much of Wistram’s stone. It felt…cozy, and he kept feeling as though he shouldn’t be wearing shoes, but Telim assured him the carpets were self-cleaning.

“It…feels like the air’s charged.”

Telim nodded, waving a ringed hand around.

“Ward spells. They’ll know we’re coming. You see, this is certainly not a normal secure area. I think this was actually a private club of sorts. Nice carpets, all these paintings of [Mages]—and I don’t know who they are.”

He pointed out some [Mages], all of whom were grinning or smiling or nodding in their still portraits. They even passed by a dark room. Trey peered in. Is that…

 

——

 

“A taproom? Really?”

Calac paused. Trey nodded.

“I swear, it looked like it. It really is just a repurposed wing they converted to hold Amerys.”

“Why…this wing? It makes no sense. I would use the crypts or the upper floors. This is a nice place.”

Trey agreed, but he knew the answer.

“Telim told me that it belonged to Feor’s faction. The Centrists. They used to hold private gatherings within—as early as last year. They changed it to hold Amerys because it was convenient, hidden, and because there’s a set of rooms that do something convenient.”

Calac glanced up. He paused, his quill wet with ink.

“Go on. When did you meet Amerys? Did they torture her?”

Trey stopped him.

“Wait. There’s something else…”

 

——

 

“Frankly, the Golems and the ward spells are enough security. It is apparently a nightmare having to switch the guards, and no one likes guard-duty. We’re [Mages]. Lazy. So they decommissioned the magical maze.”

“The…”

“Ullsinoi set it up. They’re experts in that kind of thing. I think they have one in their Hidden Hallway—not that I know if they have one. Perhaps they have dozens. It would be just like them. Hey, if you lot are here, no pranks today!

Telim shouted randomly as he and Trey came to a clearly-new door set into the hallway. It seemed out of place, and some telltale stone and dust cling to the doorway made Trey suspect someone had…built a door here.

“Second door. Another lock. Instead of a maze that takes fifteen minutes to pass through and requires nonsense like walking through the third mirror on the left backwards while hopping blindly.”

“Why did you shout at Ullsinoi? Are they here?”

Telim gave Trey a blank look as he inserted a second key. This one had a strange set of pointed teeth, but it was more like the real thing.

“You never know. I do it whenever I think they’re here. Just shout and assume someone’s cloaked. It’s worked twice in my life. Mind you, they’re smart. But you couldn’t pay me to walk that maze every single time…so someone made a door. It works.”

He opened the door, walked through, and shut it after Trey.

 

——

 

“They replaced a master-illusionist maze with…a door. And a stone wall.”

Calac looked at Trey. The [Sand Mage] put a hand over his heart.

“I swear.”

The two looked at each other. Calac noted the door down after a second. He believed Trey, of course. It fit in completely with the [Mages].

“And after that?”

Trey swallowed.

“After that…there’s only the two guards. And Amerys.”

 

——

 

The two [Mages] were clearly delighted to see Telim. After their initial argument, they relaxed and were as friendly as could be. Politics didn’t trump friendship in this case, it seemed. One was actually a Dwarf, a rarity in Wistram. A tall Dwarf; he was five-foot-two.

“Dead gods, Telim. I know you have some snacks! Fork them over! Do you know how boring it is, sitting here all day?”

“Read a book. Or watch a scrying orb. If you want my snacks, pay me.”

The Naga slapped her tail on the ground as she bookmarked her novel.

“We can’t watch scrying orbs; we’re warded. Come on, Telim. It’s a two-day rotation.

The [High Mage] staunchly refused to give up the snacks.

“That’s what you get for joining a faction.”

“So says Mister Terras. Listen. Share some snacks, and let’s play a game of chess or magic cards. We’ve got a deck. Or else we’ll be very upset, and the next time you go to raid a buffet, we’ll put a motion in the Council banning [Mages] from taking more than a set amount of food each meal.”

“You bastards. Alright. Sage’s Grass Chiffon cake or Frost Fritters? Both fresh from today.”

Both.

“You’ll have both over my dead body.”

“Is that a challenge…?”

The two [Mages] were certainly able to make good on Telim’s promise. Trey half-watched them the first time. The second, he noted the duo changed.

What didn’t change was that the two [Mage] guards were good at fighting. Telim had told Trey that, but the young man saw it. He was no magical expert, though he’d had teachers who knew combat like Parasol Stroll, Gazi, and the Quarass.

How did you tell a [Mage] who could hold themselves in combat apart from a powerful magic-user who might make simple mistakes apart?

Simple.

[Battle Mages] always had magic barriers. The Naga and Dwarf’s were both different. One appeared as a shimmering field around the Naga. The Dwarf had glowing runes sewn into his robes. The Naga deactivated her barrier to levitate a fritter through and happily munch down on it. The Dwarf had no problem eating his.

Telim had no shields. He shook his head at them.

“You have to wear barriers all the time? You can’t even touch anything without deactivating them! How do you even play chess?”

“We don’t, or we use magic, Telim. Don’t kick up a fuss. Anything in our personal radius is within our barrier, so we can read books. I don’t know how you lot can’t be bothered to put on a simple ward spell all the time. What about accidents?”

“It’s a pain in the butt.”

The two [Mages] rolled their eyes at Telim and glanced at Trey.

“That young man knows what we’re talking about. You know, I was walking down the street one time and someone hit a nail wrong. Freak accident. It goes flying straight at my cheek and guess what I had? A barrier. Don’t you remember when that poor boy got hit in the face by that pot of hot soup? Barriers, Telim. Barriers…

“Listen, Yolv. I understand you. I counter with this—you’re sitting on the toilet. You reach for the roll of toilet paper. Barrier spell.”

“You are…that’s your reason?

“Yes.”

Trey barely listened to their argument. He only had eyes for the person in the room beyond. She sat in the padded room, bound from head-to-toe, and chained as well.

She had a mask-binding over her mouth, and her arms and legs were also bound. She looked like a prisoner in a mental asylum.

Even so. There she sat, eyes locked onto him. A stare that was unblinking. Two bright yellow eyes and a messy tangle of leaf-green hair. Almost like nothing at all…not the woman he had come here to see.

That was, until the two [Mages] opened the unlocked door and ushered Trey through the thick glass that looked out of the room. One reason why they had chosen this area to contain her.

The other? Trey walked forwards slowly and felt the air go dead.

Anti-magic containment. Not just that…he felt a strange tingling in his stomach. Telim looked at Trey and grimaced.

“Ah, that’s why. Nutrition rooms. Do you even feed her?”

“She bit the fingers off the last person who tried. And swallowed them.”

Telim hesitated, a fritter halfway towards his mouth. He slowly put it down.

“I’m going to take that as a ‘no’.”

In days before these, these rooms had been used for more than holding prisoners. In fact, Trey suspected that was not their purpose at all.

Configurable rooms, like the ones that they held the group-therapy sessions in. But unlike those rooms, which created false beaches or climates…these were for a [Mage] to train.

Anti-magic to deaden your natural magic. Artificial nutrition so that you couldn’t starve to death.

For meditation? Protracted study?

He didn’t know. Nor could he think. Trey just walked forwards.

There she was.

Amerys.

The Archmage of Lightning. One of the King of Destruction’s Seven.

Amerys, the Calm Flower of the Battlefield.

She just sat there. Like an untidy silkworm. She even smelled a bit…unwashed. Her hair was a mess, and she looked like she’d been sitting like that for a long time. Trey saw just a woman, bound in chains.

Then one of the [Mages] guarding her called out.

“We’ll have to unlock her mask, young man. But keep back; she bites. I don’t know what you hope to gain, but you’ll be disappointed. She’s not pleasant company to be around.”

The other added with a roll of her eyes.

“She never was.”

Trey looked back, then at Amerys. The woman didn’t move. But as Trey went back to take the little key which unlocked her mask, he noticed something as he left and entered the room once more.

A curious tingle in his stomach. The feeling of unwelcome satiety, growing a tiny bit every moment.

Deadness, a lack of magic that made him feel like he had lost something. In truth…it felt like home, in a sense, but even more oppressive. Magic was stifled here.

Yet the last thing had nothing to do with his own nerves or feelings of apprehension, anticipation. It was simply…Trey felt at his neck. Then his head. He realized what it was.

His hair was standing up on end. As he took another few halting steps forwards, he felt it grow stronger.

A static in the air. A…charge. So powerful that, even here, a dozen paces away, he felt all his hair stand up on end. Trey took a few more steps forwards and felt it grow stronger.

As if he were approaching a battery unleashing its current into the air. That was thrilling, not scary. It should have just been…well, magical.

However, Trey didn’t feel the static was an impartial force in the world. He hesitated. Glanced back at the [Mages].

“Something wrong, lad?”

“It’s a living legend, Telim. Give him a moment. She’ll disabuse him of it in a moment. You should have heard what she said to that other poor boy. Aaron.”

One of the [Mages] spoke dismissively. Trey looked at them. Then at Amerys. They didn’t feel it from where they were.

He did. And he wondered…how many times they actually stepped into this room. If they didn’t have to feed her, and she didn’t need to use the restroom? Maybe she turned it off. But he felt it.

The charge in the air was ominous. A crackling possibility. As if he were standing under dark clouds in the rain. On top of a hill. Waiting for a flash that would be the last thing he ever saw.

The static ran up and down his clothing. The woman’s eyes were locked on his.

Bright, yellow eyes. Like lightning itself. They stared straight at the young man, tauntingly. Daring him to come forward. Amerys tensed up a bit, like an evil lightning bug.

She was helpless. She was bound head-to-toe, and the faint electrical current in the air was all she could manage. Even so…she had yet to blink. Trey got the distinct impression she was smiling from behind her mask.

He slowed, stopped, and cleared his throat. She just stared at him as he reached forwards to unlock her mask. What…he wondered.

What did she see?

 

——

 

It was a comfy cell, but it was still a box. With glass windows.

There wasn’t time here. It passed by slowly. The lone occupant just sat there. Unsure how long had passed. Time dripped by.

You could go mad, here. Perhaps that was what they hoped would happen. If so—they were wrong. She passed time the only way she could. Waiting. Waiting. But she could wait forever.

Until something changed to break up hellish nothingness. And something did come.

A raised voice in argument.

Her head rose. A veil of hair parted, so she could peek up. What was this, now? A fat [Mage] she recognized was arguing with the two captors for today. She counted by their rotations. It was a heated argument, and they were all pointing at a fourth party. She made out their voices.

“…personally told not to allow this young man to…”

“…Archmage Viltach’s orders. Directly.”

A head rose, slowly, under quite a lot of weight. A mask on the face, chains and bindings. Because there was a second voice, one she knew. She would have laughed.

The [Mage], Telim, held his ground, impatiently waving his finger in their faces.

“I quite understand that, you two. But let me vouchsafe this to you. Grand Magus Eldavin. Who’s soon to be Archmage. You say Viltach? I say Eldavin. Let the lad through. It’s the kind of thing a young man just wants to do. Meet a story. That fellow, Aaron, comes here all the time?”

“Yes, but Archmage—”

“Eldavin.”

“But Vilt—”

Telim had a way about him. She would have laughed if she didn’t have the mask on her face. He rolled over the two. He could do that when he wanted, but he never did. What a waste. The [High Mage] cheerfully interrupted the two.

“Eldavin. Also Valeterisa, for what it’s worth.”

A new Archmage? Who was Eldavin? She had heard that name once from her guards. The woman listened, but she heard no more nuggets to stir their minds. The guards looked at each other, and then relented. They beckoned the fourth person forwards, clearly content to pass on the trouble to someone else.

That was when she saw him. The woman’s eyes narrowed. She saw a young man, brushing his hair back, bowing to the two guards. He looked like nothing, and she sneered as she recognized him. Like the other boy, though they were different in appearance.

Children.

She waited as he came forwards, taking the key. He stopped, sensing electricity in the air.

Would he run from that alone? No…she bared her teeth, waiting as he approached with key in hand.

“Archmage Amerys? Hello. My name is Troy Atlas.”

No response. She just stared up at him. Her eyes burned, but she didn’t blink. Pain, the need to blink, these were all things you could control with a rational mind. And she wanted to unnerve him. She saw the young man lick his lips.

He felt like sand. Sand magic? He was no great [Mage]. A curious little boy. He went on, after a second, face too-earnest.

“I’m going to unlock your mask. I hope we can talk, Archmage. Is that alright?”

She said not a word. Just waited. She could lie, unmoving, for hours, until they thought she was dead. If only that did anything other than scare them. However, right now?

She waited. The woman bore this boy no particular grudge. But she…was smiling behind the mask. The prisoner waited, very still, as he inserted the key into the metal section of her mask. At this, the [Mages] stirred. Telim glanced up as he was dealt a hand of cards. He raised his voice, cautioning the boy again.

“Troy…watch your fingers.”

The two guards both glanced up as well. The woman grinned. She felt the key turn, heard the snick, felt the magical cloth fall from her face—

And lunged. Her mouth opened and she bit in a flash.

He had been ready. But this Troy was too slow. She hadn’t ever caught Aaron after that first time because he was careful. But the first time…

He jerked his hand back past her face. So she turned her head and bit.

The hand jerked to a stop. He shouted—yanked—and she felt her teeth grind over his skin. Stop. She was biting his fingers. Three. All the way down to…

She tasted blood. What a familiar feeling. The [Mages] shot to their feet. So did Telim.

Troy!” 

Let him go, Amerys!”

The Naga warned her. The woman laughed. She was biting hard as the young man shouted, trying to pull her jaws off his hand. She had the ends of his digits in her mouth, locked by the teeth. He would never pry her mouth off with his other hand. She was staring up at him, through a bloody grin.

The other guards were threatening her. One had a wand aimed at Amerys. The Archmage laughed silently. They had put her in a box that sucked away magic, made her a prisoner. What are you going to do to me?

Torture me? Kill me? They were [Mages] of Wistram. None of them had the stomach for it. Not Feor, Viltach…maybe Nailihuaile, if she saw the clear gain.

She bit harder and heard a gasp of pain. She could feel the bones in his fingers vibrating. The woman looked up at him.

She wanted to see his face. What will you do? You’re going to lose your fingers. Will you scream, beg? She gazed up into his eyes gleefully. She saw his expression of pain, his eyes locked on her.

“Archmage Amerys! I’m not your enemy. Please—”

A bit harder. She saw his face go pale. Telim was striding into the cell, wand raised, but he was going to be too slow. She rather liked Telim. But…Amerys grinned and continued to bite.

Then—she saw the young man’s expression change. The look of surprise, pain, fear—flickered. His wild brown eyes focused on hers and he inhaled. Then he lifted his other hand and put his first two fingers together.

“If you bite my fingers off, I will cast [Spear of Light].”

The woman halted. She did not snap bone. She hesitated, her mouth filled with flesh and blood. Telim halted.

“Troy?”

His hand was shaking, but he pointed the first two fingers of his right hand at Amerys’ temple. He met her eyes.

“I don’t know if I can cast it here. But if you take my fingers, I will try. Let me go. I haven’t done anything to you.”

The prisoner looked up at the young man. She stared at him.

Curious. That was…different. He was in pain. She could feel his hand shaking through her teeth. He was breathing hard, scared…

But the fingers pressed against her temple were the only calm things. She stared straight into his eyes.

Ah. Now those looked…different. He wasn’t in disbelief or simply panicking. If anything, he was more terrified because he knew he was a second away from losing his fingers. Even so, he pressed the tips of his fingers into her forehead a bit harder, so she felt the nails dig into her skin.

“Archmage Amerys. Don’t. I want to talk to you. I am not joking. I have been here before.”

What a simple, casual line. She blinked up at him. In genuine shock. The woman met his eyes. She hesitated—

And then Amerys’ teeth loosened on his fingers. She spat out his hand, and her head jerked backwards. Telim grabbed him, reaching for a healing potion. He dragged Troy back as the other two guards aimed their weapons at her.

But Amerys ignored them. She just looked at Troy Atlas as he poured a potion over his hands and watched his skin regrow. As he glanced up and met her eyes.

What a strange boy. He said strange things. Familiar things.

I have been here before.

She wondered if it was just coincidence. Or if someone had told him to say that.

Perhaps that falsely confident faker. The woman who wore masks far deeper and more complex than any other. Layers of armor over a fragile soul. Yet also, the [Vanguard]. The warrior who broke armies across her armor. Could it be?

The woman—Amerys, sat up as they bound her head back with spells. But she kept watching him. He didn’t run or hide, even after nearly losing his fingers, and that made him different from Aaron.

For the first time in a long while, Amerys began to hope.

 

——

 

Archmage Amerys sat there, spitting blood out of her mouth. His blood. Trey thought she did it just to get the clean room dirty and annoy the other [Mages].

She looked…odd. Now that she was calm, she seemed completely different from the madwoman bound up, unblinking.

Her head was bound back by little strands of magic, but her eyes were locked on him. Scrutinizing him from head to toe.

A remarkable transformation. That static charge in the air was gone. The [Mage] in front of him was…well.

A [Mage]. When she spoke, her voice had that precision that made him think of an academic.

“[Light Spear] is complementary with sand and glass magic. Why did you specialize in that?”

He just looked at her, cradling his healed hand. It still hurt with phantom pain. Telim was keeping an eye on them as the other [Mages] returned to their card game, but they were all watching her. Listening in? Almost definitely.

Even so, Trey didn’t run. Despite nearly losing fingers to her. Her voice—it was so at odds with her image of just a second ago. She seemed…relaxed.

No.

Tired. She lay there, bound from head to toe, and Trey thought she looked exhausted. Haggard. With a deadly core of wrath—but tired. Worn out from doing nothing.

It was a strange thought, until he looked around this cell and imagined being bound like this for a day. A week. Months.

“A friend told me the magics went together. So have most of my teachers.”

That was all Trey said. Amerys chuckled drily.

“Yes. Logical magic. Why…”

She paused to cough. She couldn’t wipe her mouth, so she licked her lips to catch the saliva. She glanced up at Trey and curled her lip.

“…Why did you listen? Because you thought it was your magic? Because you had no direction? Because you agreed? If it was their plan to teach you the best magic, abandon it. Run away from their designs.”

Trey looked down at her.

“Why?”

Amerys tried to wiggle into a better position and ended up falling sideways. She glared sideways and looked at him with a wry grin. Look at me and laugh, it seemed to say.

“Magic. Is magic a set of rules you follow? Or is it passion? Are we artists or bound by logic? Optimal magic. Complementary schools. That…that is magic for children who want to be the strongest. You know who I am. I did not gain my levels or class by pursuing the best magic for me. I cast the spells I loved again and again.”

Trey walked over and slowly rotated her shoulder so she was lying against the wall again. The [Mages] watched him, but Amerys made no move to bite him.

“You mean, lightning magic?”

She met his eyes calmly and chuckled. It was a rasp, tired at first, but she seemed to grow more alert with every second of talking. More alive.

“You’re doing it again. It makes sense for me to have a school of magic, doesn’t it? I don’t call myself a [Lightning Mage]. So I am not one. I do like lightning. Every intelligent [Mage] tells me it’s foolish to be an elementalist at my level. That everyone will specialize in anti-electricity wards. They say these things—while being ten levels below me. While never having lived through one war.”

She spat again. Trey and Amerys stared at the red glob on the ground. Amerys shook her head—or tried to with the bindings.

“Do you know how they captured me?”

“No.”

She exhaled slowly.

“Three Archmages. They tricked me into a meeting, and I didn’t have a chance. I was ready—not for that. Lightning, specialty, has nothing to do with why I lost. So there is your lesson. Love your magic. If you have to choose between what is efficient over what you want—follow your heart. No matter what they do to you, stay loyal to that.”

She looked at him. Her voice was raspy from lack of use. She was bound like one of the Super Silkworms that had made Telim’s robes. Even so, Trey was reminded of the rest of them.

“Is that a metaphor for why you supported the King of Destruction, Archmage?”

Amerys rolled her eyes.

“No, it’s a random aside. At least you understand what a metaphor is. Do you like light magic?”

“Yes, a bit. I do think it’s…neat.”

She laughed.

“Then there you are. However. I have answered your first question, haven’t I? They all ask me. That’s how I answered them, every damned year. Children with the same question. Children and Archmages. Why him? Why still? Is that what you came here to ask? Like that other boy?”

Trey half-shook his head, fascinated. She wasn’t like what he expected at all. The nearly biting his fingers off—that was unwelcome, unexpected, yet partly what he had imagined.

This?

He sat, cross legged, and Amerys watched him. Trey Atwood ducked his head. He wondered what to say. He had said one of the things he had meant to already. And he thought she had heard it.

“I came here to ask you a question, Archmage Amerys. That’s true enough. And to see that you exist, I suppose.”

“Do they think I’m dead, then? Or has Wistram leaked secrets that I live?”

Her voice was dry. Trey heard a loud voice clear behind him and turned—the Naga gave him a warning shake of the head.

“No current topics.”

He nodded. Amerys gave the Naga a baleful glare. Trey turned back to her.

“Archmage, I just have one question for you. Today. If I’m allowed, I might come back with more. But…”

He looked around the cell again. Inspected her bindings. There was no visible lock or key; just sigils drawn over where cloth wrapped around her. Trey’s heart sank—and then Amerys shifted. She looked at him as she revealed something half-hidden by her legs.

A small lock, made of pure mithril. Trey looked at it, then at her.

“…I just wanted to hear your perspective. On the King of Destruction. Not why you joined him. But whether you think what he’s doing is for the better or the worse.”

Amerys blinked a few strands of hair out of her face. Trey couldn’t see the [Mages] behind him, and he didn’t know if they were listening. So he went on, keeping his voice level.

“I have come from Chandrar. I cannot tell you what has happened—but I did see the King of Destruction’s return. He makes war again—or people make war against him. In the end, it doesn’t seem to matter. There is always another war. I’m told that’s how it happened the first time. But I wasn’t there. You were. Was it worth it? All of this—your imprisonment. Bringing Reim back. Drevish, the Architect, is dead.”

She twitched. Her eyes opened, and one of the [Mage] guards stood.

“Is all of it worth it? If he had won, would it be for the better?”

Amerys gazed at him strangely.

“You’re asking me, one of his Seven. His most trusted vassals, whether I support what my [King] did?”

She began to smile, but Trey just nodded. He felt at his fingers again, and rubbed at his throat. Amerys glanced at it.

“I suppose it’s a silly question. I just wanted to know if you had any regrets. Any reservations. Or if you saw nothing wrong and would do it all over again that way.”

The Archmage lay there, eyes flickering to him, past his face. She tried to stretch out her legs, grimacing. Three times she opened her mouth before she spoke.

“You know, I wasn’t there for the early wars. You have heard how Flos Reimarch first rose to power, haven’t you? His father passed, and Hellios invaded his kingdom. He was a boy who fought to save his people.”

Trey nodded fractionally. Amerys licked her lips.

“Well, he made those just wars at first. The Black Judgment. Hellios. Wars for people or causes. By the time we met, he was older. A young man, not a boy, and he began some wars to conquer. That was what drew some of us. Some for causes, for what he did, or people he liberated or fought for. Others for power alone. But I? I grew up in Chandrar. Not impoverished; it has many lands as rich as any you could dream of. But Chandrar alone…even more than Rhir…it has places where all that is left is sand and dust.”

Amerys’ tone deepened contemplatively. Like a historian going back through the world’s timeline.

“Zeikhal. The Great Desert. It has swallowed a hundred thousand nations. There are nations as old as time, that bear relics of great ages, and places where everything has been lost. I am a [Mage] and scholar. I am good at war and magic, unlike my peers, who understand neither.”

She gazed past Trey and grinned at someone. Amerys went on, turning back to him.

“I know his kingdom will end and most likely be forgotten, even if it spans half the world. I knew it before I joined him. But he instills loyalty in me for reasons beyond gifts. More than the fact that I rode with him across so many years. More than visions of kingdoms and power, or the backing to follow magic to its core. More than the fact that I relish grand battles where we live in the dance of spells!”

Amerys was breathing harder, and he could see her pushing, trying to break free. She could not, and lay limply. Looking at him.

“For one reason alone, I think his cause was right. For me. There are [Kings] and [Warlords] across this world. His kingdom was bigger than most. He is not a perfect man.”

Trey whispered.

“No.”

She nodded, eyes fixed on him.

“No. But when his Seven stood around him, and that one [Steward]—it was not just him. It was the best of us. And though much time has passed…though we die, I still think it is right. That it is correct, if I could join him. That I will see my world change for the better if he triumphs. For one reason alone.”

Trey waited. He sat there and felt like he knew what she was about to say next. Amerys took a deep breath. She stared him straight in the eyes.

“He keeps his promises.”

She heard nothing in response, but Amerys saw the young man’s head dip for a second.

Yes. He does.

 

——

 

It was not the courtyard when they met again. The [King] was at war. However, he had made camp early, thrown up the royal tent, and he was waiting when Trey Atwood stormed in.

“I’m done. She’s a monster. She—that place is monstrous. It must be erased. You—did you know what you were sending us to? Have you seen it? I’m done. This world. Chandrar? It’s filled with nightmares. Nightmares and tragedy and—I’m leaving. Let Teres go with me.”

He was shaking. White-faced. The [King] rose from his chair and put aside his cup. Water. He was on campaign. He had had a bit of wine—but only to toast Gazi.

This was his second meeting of the day, already eventful. The camp was buzzing. For Gazi Pathseeker had returned.

With her mended eye. That was the talk on everyone’s lips. Or for the presence of the Quarass of Ger, who inspired her people arguably more than even he. The cunning ruler of the ancient Shield Kingdom with endless knowledge and tricks.

A surfeit of kindness, though. He saw it all over Trey. Flos looked at the boy’s throat, but his eyes did not widen markedly.

Gazi had told him everything. Trey saw his look and laughed.

“That’s right. She cut my throat. She let me bleed to death in front of Gazi. She—she’s insane. I’m done. A’ctelios—that place is—”

His voice was raised, and he was sweating, red-faced, eyes shining. Hysterical. The King of Destruction stood there. Trey ranted at him.

“Your entire continent is filled with villains and horrors! And you! You’re turning Teres into a murderer. I thought the Quarass was—is she even the Quarass? Or did we sacrifice someone to turn her into that? Why do I have to live through all of this?

“Trey. I’m sorry to hear of—”

Shut up!

Trey shouted at Flos. The King of Destruction saw the young man point a quivering finger at him.

“Just—stop. I’m tired of being your pawn! I know this is your fault. You asked the Quarass to make me stronger. Well done. Someone else can put up with you and tell you it’s alright. I won’t. Not anymore. I’m tired of…”

He searched around aimlessly. His legs buckled.

“I’m tired.”

He sat down, into one of the chairs in the tent. Trey stared at Flos Reimarch. The King of Destruction looked at him.

Slowly, the [King] raised a cup of water and sipped from it. Trey twitched. If he had his staff, he might have tried to cast a spell.

The [King] didn’t shift his gaze from Trey, but he did find a chair and sit as well. He was so uncharacteristically quiet. Flos murmured.

“The Quarass—”

She cut my throat!

Trey screamed at him. Flos Reimarch fell silent again. He kept drinking his cup and went to fill it with the pitcher. He offered Trey a cup, saw the young man’s stare, and sat back down with his. He was three sips in, and Trey was about to explode, when he spoke.

“Gazi tells me A’ctelios Salash stirred. She also informs me you have seen a terrible thing within. Which has to do with children from your world. Tell me what you saw.”

The young man looked at Flos. He had a hand on his throat; the scar was a straight line, long healed, but he kept touching it.

“A’ctelios Salash. That’s it? Nothing about me. Nor the Quarass?”

Flos coughed as he took another sip and inhaled some water by accident. He pounded his chest for a second.

“Would you like me to punish her? Or rather, try? What would you have me do? Cut her throat and let her heal? Kill one of her people? That would hurt more than if I were to stab her. She cut your throat. I did not ask her to—but I did ask her to help you. She has always been merciless when she thinks she must be. I am sorry. Nothing I can say will help. So.”

He put down his cup and looked at Trey. The King of Destruction leaned his full weight on his legs as he hunched over in his chair.

“Tell me about A’ctelios Salash. Tell me what you saw.”

“Gazi’s already told you everything. I don’t need to entertain you.”

Trey spat bitterly. The King of Destruction didn’t move.

“I want to hear your perspective. You saw what Gazi did not. You have…a device with recordings. I would see that too.”

Trey closed his eyes. He was tired, and angry at this [King] who was so blank-faced, so calm.

“So watch it. I don’t—I’m not—where’s Teres? I don’t want to do this, Flos.”

“Even so. Tell me.”

Why?

The King of Destruction watched as Trey shot to his feet. Flos Reimarch motioned him down. Trey felt an invisible weight on his shoulder and snarled, shaking it off. Flos looked steadily at him.

Sit. Tell me what you saw. Tell me what they did. To your people. To children from another world. A’ctelios Salash has always had its darkness, but they balanced it with fairness of choice. They have always had horror, but it seemed to me they were people who walked with it. Now, Gazi tells me they are embracing it and falling into chaos. The Quarass shall speak to me after you, and we shall talk long of the future. But before that…tell me. Tell me what you have seen, Trey, and whether there are men, women, and children in the Carven City or if there are naught but monsters left.”

Trey’s head was hanging low. Something about Flos’ tone made him glance up. He breathed one word.

“…Why?”

For answer, all the King of Destruction did was pick up his cup. He drank like he was preparing for a long journey ahead, measuring each sip. He spoke past Trey, staring at a map hanging on one wall.

“When I conquered A’ctelios Salsh, my forces took Tombhome without a fight. The Shield Kingdom did not challenge me, for the Quarass did not. They agreed to tribute Reim—but they had nothing I wanted save soldiers, which I took and used sparingly. It was never my intent to slaughter foes who surrendered or capitulated to me. Monsters? I knew the Carven City’s reputation, but I met no monsters, only strange folk. Strange as Selphids. Besides which…nations have broken themselves trying to take A’ctelios Salash.”

His eyes went to the map of Chandrar on the wall. There was a tiny speck along Zeikhal, and he stared at that.

“It is a nightmare to face a foe that assails you like they can. I was told once that their forces when unleashed would fill the battlefield with soldiers who healed incredibly fast, were tough, fearless, and in vast numbers. Not an invincible force; far from it. Yet when led by a genius and armed with poisons of Ger—supported by the immortal beings of magic and the might of the Garuda? Each Shield Kingdom was part of an invincible army. Four remain, and removing one from this world is said to be a task beyond wisdom.”

He put his cup down and gestured at Trey. The young man just sat there, holding his throat, looking at Flos.

“No one has ever managed to destroy the city…A’ctelios Salash itself. Believe me, they tried. They tried and found the only way to keep it dormant was to consume it from the inside. I am told King Fetohep has pledged to investigate this matter, and the Quarass is deeply disturbed. We shall speak of that, and my enemies and allies alike will put aside their quarrels for it. But Trey. Tell me of the children. Tell me what was done to them.”

The King of Destruction’s eyes were fixed on Trey. The young man shifted. He felt the hair rising on his neck.

“Why?”

Flos exhaled, slowly.

“You know I keep the vows I make. For better or worse. I have seen Tiqr fall, but because I swore an oath, I kept it. Trey Atwood, you have served me well, and I give you little in return. I still need you. Gazi has a plan, and if you accept…”

“Another plan. I knew it. Another—”

Trey half-stood, but Flos halted him.

“I know. But it is to save Amerys this time. To rescue one of my Seven, she proposes sending you—and herself—to Wistram. To the Academy of Mages.”

Trey sat.

“That’s insane.”

“Gazi has a plan. I have had my own, and it dovetails nicely. I think there is a chance. I know you—but again. We will speak first of A’ctelios Salash. Tell me whether there is anything to save. Tell me of the injustice done to the children.”

“They’re still there.”

All the blood drained from Trey’s face. He sat there, shuddering, and Flos nodded. Gently, he gripped his cup and it cracked.

“Think long and hard, Trey. Even so, think hard as you might about the goodness you saw there. About anyone who did you a kindness. About any spark of humility or morality in them. Then…we will make a promise. A mighty oath, the like of which I have made to each of my Seven. If it will save them, redeem those children, or avenge them…I will slay A’ctelios Salash.”

Trey looked up at Flos.

“You’ll slay the city? Just like that?”

The King of Destruction looked at Trey, and the young man shivered at the calm green gaze.

“We are at war with Belchan now, Trey. With dozens of nations, on the field or in writing. I keep my promises. It will not be tomorrow. It will not be this year. But while I live, I will march with that promise in my heart. I am good at few things. But destruction? They named me King of Destruction. I can deliver you that. So think very carefully, Trey. Is there anything left in Tombhome worth saving? Because if you tell me there is not—when that day comes, nothing will remain.”

The young man sat there, staring at Flos. The mad words tumbling lightly from the King of Destruction’s lips. Or seemingly lightly, because he meant every one.

Is there anything worth saving? Flos gently set the cup aside; it was leaking. He got up to fetch another one.

“I can do nothing for your throat, Trey. There are healers, and you shall see one. Fetohep asks for you, and he is the better ruler than I. Nor will I force you to Wistram. You can leave. I do not know what Teres will do, but I cannot stop you. However. I need Amerys.”

He poured himself another cup, and Trey one, and handed the young man the cup. Flos sat down.

“I see the shape of this war. It will not be soon, but it will be inevitable without her. She is the [Mage] of my Seven for war. Without her or Tottenval…we need her. That is all. It is cruel, to send you on such a task so soon. Not right away. Fetohep first. But think on it. First, though…tell me.”

He looked up at Trey as the young man sat. He found himself drinking water, the words tumbling from his lips. Not because Flos Reimarch could comfort him or help him confront his death. Nor because the King of Destruction would offer him solace or respite. Yet Amerys was right. Trey believed one thing about Flos, flawed though he was.

He did keep his promises.

 

——

 

So here they were. Trey looked at the simple map they had designed.

A magical key to the Hidden Hallway. Two vastly powerful Golems. Ward spells that would alert anyone of intruders.

A second magical door. Two [Guards] and Amerys’ shackles, with the key…on the person of the [Guards]? No, they had no idea where the key to her actual bindings was.

This was a task far beyond him and Calac. To be honest, even with their ace in the hole…under the water…Trey feared they were in deep.

I will give you what I can. But this task will require subterfuge, secrecy, not great artifacts. I will send more than you and Gazi alone.

Trey had wondered what that meant. He looked up.

Calac. Great.

The young man saw the look.

“I know I’m not much of an asset, Trey. But I will do all that I can for Reim.”

Embarrassed, Trey shook his head.

“It’s not that. Just—I’m sorry. Meeting Amerys rattled me.”

“She nearly took off your digits. That would do something to anyone.”

Trey flexed his hand.

“Yeah. But not just that…I can’t quite explain it. It’s just—we break her out. Somehow. We defy the entire academy, bring her to Reim, and it’s war. She’ll fight.”

“Perhaps she can turn the tide of the war. My parents told me each of the Seven grew stronger the more they could rely on each other. With Lady Pathseeker and Archmage Amerys…”

Calac trailed off when he realized that wasn’t what Trey meant. The [Sand Mage] just stared at the map. All this to go back where they came from and continue the King of Destruction’s conquests.

Was it worth it? Sacrificing Wistram, for all its flaws?

Slowly, Trey looked up at the map and the three golden pins. He sighed. Of course, he already knew his answer. He had had months to think on it.

Now…he turned to Calac.

“We can’t break her out just yet. We need a plan. Now we know where she is, roughly, and what we have to do. So. Let’s get to work.”

 

——

 

Wistram was a funny place. So full of strengths and inconsistencies. Each hallway, each area different. Some built with care to memorialize greatness, or for the art of it.

Others? There was a hallway that reversed gravity on you. New students would be told to ‘hurry to class’, run onto the tiny, scintillating sandstone tiles, and flip. Literally. The only reason there weren’t a dozen deaths each year was because the gravity didn’t slam you head-first into the new floor.

In short, Trey Atwood knew that for every impregnable wall, some [Mage] had later designed a back door. He looked at Wistram like a puzzle you could take apart.

People were puzzles. That was why he liked history; he had wondered what these old figures were like. How they thought. You couldn’t know.

People in this world? Flos, Fetohep, the Quarass…they all had depths. Trey understood them, but, he felt, superficially sometimes. Even so—that was how he approached this breakout.

“Pieces of a puzzle, Calac. We find a solution for each part of the prison—and then we execute. We can’t do it like Flos would.”

That was what he’d told Calac. To which the young man had given him his huge, confused frown that seemed so aggressive to Trey at first.

“How would His Majesty do a breakout?”

Trey had blinked, because wasn’t it obvious? He knew Flos; it wasn’t hard to guess—on a superficial level, again—how it might go.

“He’d steal the key as soon as he found out where Amerys was and had scouted out the place in disguise. Probably mug poor Telim. Then he’d try to fight the Golems with his allies or just charge down the hall, ward spells or not. He’d break the other door and stride into Amerys’ cell—probably shouting at the guards, ‘I have come for Amerys. Release her or challenge me.’ Then he’d probably try to snap her chains with his bare hands.”

That was definitely Flos. Trey had delivered all that with a wry look…and seen Calac look out a window with clear admiration.

“That’s amazing. We’re not capable of that, though.”

Which said a lot about him. Which fascinated Trey. However, Wistram?

How would you take apart the Academy of [Mages]? It was easier than Khelt. If Amerys were in Khelt, they would never get her out.

Fetohep was too precise. Khelt was too orderly. Wistram, though…Trey ate breakfast in the banquet hall, glancing around.

Calac had joined him, but he wasn’t doing more than focusing on his plate of food. Later, he’d walk the Creler-hallway all day, checking to see how busy it was each time of day. Trey, though…he was searching for Wistram’s weak points.

Which wasn’t necessarily the architecture, crazy [Mages] aside. If Wistram had a weak spot, it was…them. 

People. Trey saw how they gathered up. It was the same, even with Terras’ new faction. They had simply squeezed over to make room.

There were the Libertarians and Viltach’s people, Humans, Terandrians. The Archmage himself who walked among them, who many thought of as supercilious or even speciesist. He was not. He was, in fact, a craftsman, in his own way, kind and certainly enthusiastic about miniature Golems. However…he was pure Wistram.

Not a likely ally. Trey drummed his fingers on the table and reached for a glass of milk.

“Troy? Is something wrong? You’ve been staring around all day.”

Emirea saw the young man glance up. He blinked at her.

“Nothing. Sorry, Emirea. I’m just tired.”

He had to be circumspect. Trey joined the conversation with his friends while observing more covertly.

Centrists were—used to be—the biggest faction with a majority of all species, but led by half-Elves. Feor’s lot. Another Wistram-for-life Archmage and…Trey watched the old half-Elf murmuring to his underlings far more quietly than Viltach…

Someone to stay away from. He didn’t like Feor. Mainly because the half-Elf reminded him of the Quarass. He was too quiet; he’d suspect a lot from Trey but never let on what he was doing.

Same with Verdan Blackwood. That old Archmage sat with a handful of Dullahans, an outsider, and very invested in Baleros and the Iron Vanguard. He was, Trey noted, another bad candidate.

It was the armor he wore. If dressing was personality, Verdan Blackwood exemplified it. Cautious; he didn’t speak his opinions outright, and Trey knew less of him than Feor, for all he had been here the entire time.

On the other hand…there were two faction leaders who were the polar opposite. Loud, outspoken, and one was useful. The other was not.

The less useful one was, ironically, Eldavin. He was a dynamo; he hadn’t even stayed for lunch. He was striding off to do more great magic after eating for almost exactly twenty minutes, and a bevy of [Mages] followed him. He was friendly to Trey, knowledgeable, an outsider come to Wistram and clearly not happy with what he found, for all he had apparently been here long before everyone else.

The problem was that Eldavin was also as sharp as one of Nawal’s swords, and clever himself. Manipulating him? Trey felt, again, it was like a Fetohep situation. Easier just to ask him straight out and take your ‘yes’ or ‘no’. But outwitting an old person like that…

No. If there was a weak point in the Archmages and each faction, it was in the now third-largest faction. The Revivalists, filled with the youngest [Mages], students, the most outspoken, and led by Nailihuaile. The Star Lamia was in a laughing, loudly-speaking circle of them, and she was the center of it all.

She was not stupid, but she was willing to take more risks than the others. She wasn’t necessarily impulsive, but she was ambitious. She sat with Beatrice, that Dullahan who never smiled, and Trey had heard…he turned and murmured.

“Hey, anyone know a rumor about Archmage Nailihuaile? I heard she wasn’t…nice.”

His other friends looked up. Astritha raised her brows silently. Goelv, the Gazer, closed his mouth; he didn’t like gossiping, probably because so much was done about him.

Tov, the Drowned Man, raised his brows.

“Thinking about joining a faction already? I thought you were with Terras.”

“More like…I was wondering if I could get on her good side. You know, to get something enchanted?”

The others nodded. Ah. You could trade favors, even possibly get the Archmage to make you something herself if the favor was big enough. Emirea sipped from her glass of Sage’s Water with a straw. She piped up nervously.

“Um. I speak to the Libertarians sometimes. They like me. They don’t like her. You know, she used to have another helper? I heard she was a [Lady] from Terandria. Montressa du Valeros. She did something that made Archmage Nailihuaile so upset…she got Montressa exiled.

The other students stared at her. The older students were appalled. Trey saw Tov just raise his brows. After a second, he prodded Emirea.

“…That’s it?”

Trey, however, liked that nugget. Nailihuaile held grudges. She also did things. Calac looked at Trey and leaned over the table.

“I have a big secret. I’ll share it with all of you.”

The others turned to Calac with great interest. That wasn’t something you did, but the young man was focused on Trey. He murmured.

“I heard a rumor Archmage Nailihuiale hired the [Pirates] who attacked the King of Destruction.”

Trey whistled and sat back. Tov blinked from Calac to Trey.

“You didn’t know that?”

The [Sand Mage] glanced at Tov.

“No. Is it open knowledge?”

The Drowned Man rubbed at his hair where it met the half-slug section of his face, which was glistening slightly. He took care to keep his Human hand away, or it’d be covered in a thin layer of mucus.

“Gossip about something as big as that? The Illuminary was paid in Wistram-gold. They brag, you know.”

“How can someone say it’s ‘Wistram’ gold, though? It’s not like Wistram stamps it.”

Messill interrupted. Tov gave him a calm look; the two didn’t like each other too much.

“Gold and artifacts, Messill. It’s obviously from Wistram. Trust me. You don’t guess about Drakes and politics, do you? Like our guests. Which city is that Drake from?”

He pointed at a small group sitting apart from the rest of the body. Ostensibly guests, but isolated, watching carefully.

Two groups. Trey’s eyes flickered over, and Messill snorted.

“Fissival. Obviously.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because only Fissival would send a delegation here. Alright, alright. I take your point. And you probably could tell us Depth Mage Doroumata’s ship or whatever, right?”

Tov nodded. He looked at Doroumata and her…daughters, who all had the same face if you saw past their veil. They sat in a group, dressed from head-to-toe in black. Tov bowed towards them slightly, though not one glanced their way. He lowered his voice.

“Don’t point. It’s rude. Of course I know her ship. Everyone knows her ship. Be more respectful.”

“Or what?”

Messill scoffed, pointing harder as if to prove Tov wrong. The young man ominously glared at Messill.

“Or you’ll need a new finger. Ever been hexed by abyssal magic?”

The Drake snatched his claw back, and Trey craned his head out from the table. Wait a second. He looked back at Calac, and the [Lord] raised his brows. He’d had the same thought.

 

——

 

“Why are the representatives of Fissival and the Drowned Fleets still here?”

Trey already knew the answer. He turned, and a young woman folded her arms.

“Because they know about us. Don’t worry, the other guests from the other academies are being kept in the dark. Why? Is one of them bothering you? Sometimes one of the Fissival Drakes comes around and tries to chat with us, but they usually get shooed off. The creepy Drowned Women? They just stare.”

Elena and Trey stood in the Earthers’ private rooms. Which, Trey realized…was another Hidden Hallway that even the [Mages] didn’t know about.

One that Aaron had found somehow, and, in theory…completely secret.

“Lots of different groups are finding out about Earth, then.”

“You have no idea. I’m worried what’ll happen when the truth gets out. Wistram thinks there’s someone looking for us—besides them. Of course, they’re still collecting us like trading cards.”

Her scowl said it all. Thoughtfully, Trey went over to one of the Earth-themed snacks that was always stocked in these rooms. He turned his back to Elena as he spoke.

“Good food, magic, safety…I didn’t know what I was going to find here, but it was better than war and death in Chandrar. Monsters and [Slavers]…”

“They really have lots of [Slaves] in Chandrar? I knew it existed, but…real slavery?”

Elena’s voice was uneasy. Trey looked over his shoulder and saw her appalled expression. He nodded slowly.

“You have no idea.”

The [Beautician] considered a response.

“Fuck.”

Trey turned back to the snacks.

“Mhm. Wistram’s better than that, isn’t it?”

“To some. But it’s still a cage. Nor do I trust Wistram. Honestly, Troy—if you don’t mind it, I’m glad. It’ll wear on you, though. It does after months. If they left us alone I think I’d enjoy it, but they keep prodding. Even Eldavin. I thought he’d be fine, but suddenly he’s asking us way too much—like that conversation about nukes. I don’t feel like this is a home.”

Elena was weary. She represented a vocal part of the Earthers here. Aaron was on the other end; for all its faults, he seemed content to stay. Trey nodded carefully.

“Where would you go if you could go anywhere?”

He stood with her, as someone played some loud music from down the hall. Elena stomped over to the door.

“Hey! Shut the door! There’s [Silence] spells on it for a reason!”

The door closed, and she frowned back at Trey.

“Honestly? Back to Terandria. I have a…friend there. But if not for that—not Chandrar from what you’ve said. Anywhere, though.”

She looked past Trey.

“You know Leon?”

Trey made a face. Elena smiled slightly and brushed at her hair.

“Yes, well…he told us about where he came from. Liscor. Pallass. Invrisil. It sounds amazing. If even half of what he told us was true…I want to see it. I don’t know why he left. Probably all the monster attacks, but that sounded like the inn he was staying at, more than anything.”

“Hm. Yeah.”

The [Sand Mage] chomped down on an éclair and felt like he was gaining weight. He turned back and caught Elena watching him.

“Why? We haven’t made any concrete plans. Everyone’s full of hot air, like Saif claiming he could commandeer a ship if we enchanted his airsoft gun right. Most of us…”

She hesitated.

“…Most of us don’t want to leave badly enough. That’s what I think the problem is. We talk about it, but there’s only a handful of people who’d really leave, even if we got a magic door right here and now. Do you want to leave?”

Elena frowned at Trey, and he stood there, blank-faced. After a long second, the young man looked at Elena.

“Yes. But I agree—at least half of the people here wouldn’t go.”

He glanced out the hallway as some of the Earthers walked by. Poor Sidney, who had seen too much, but who benefitted from Sa’la’s medicine and safety. Malia, the [Thought Healer] who was trying to create something with Elena’s help. Caroline, the [Writer], whose works were reaching a wider and wider audience under her alias of Heartslayi. Erik Muller, the darling of the Aquais faction, the [Actor].

Even Flynn, who was carefully watching as Sidney held Pokey, the Needlehound dog, seemed to like it here. Trey turned to Elena and saw the [Beautician] was inspecting him carefully.

She kept her appearance up. Trey had known people who wore makeup, but Elena was a professional—and a professional with magical tools as well. She looked like a fashion model, and her hair had the unreal gleam that he had always assumed was photoshopped or something. Not a single hair out of place.

However, calling her just a pretty face was incredibly stupid, and it amazed him how many people did.

The Quarass would like her. The Quarass was an expert on poisons, disguises, assassinations, powder, alchemy, and everything else in the world, of course, but Ger was known for its incredible [Assassins] and poisons. Trey touched his throat as Elena nodded.

“Half wouldn’t go. Some people want to. Eun—he hates the Libertarians, but it’s not just that. He’s a [Student] but he wants to see the world, you know? Lamont’s a [Sailor]; he likes the sea, for all his stories scare the hell out of me. Basil’s sworn never to go back to Chandrar—but Sang-min doesn’t regret landing on Terandria, even though he saw fighting. There are some people I’m sure would go. Including me. But we can’t get everyone on board.”

Trey just nodded. He picked up another éclair, stared at it, and placed it down, carefully. He glanced at Elena.

“Then if we left, we’d need to make them choose. You’d never get all of them. The ones who leave would have to be certain and never hesitate.”

The [Beautician] peered at Trey. Her eyes lit up with sudden interest. But Trey just packed a few more éclairs into a little box—then added more food. Then more…Elena began to look concerned.

“Please tell me you’re not going to eat all that.”

 

——

 

Trey was beginning to know the [Mages] on duty. There was a small rotation, and apparently they were being compensated for their time, but this was still an arm-twisting by their Archmages.

The Dwarf’s name was Yolv. The Naga’s was Texiasha. Yolv was from the Centrists, Texiasha from the Revivalists.

Trey offered them a box filled with snacks as Sa’la escorted him to meet with Amerys on his second visit, and their eyes lit up.

“How thoughtful! And here I thought we’d have to shake down Telim again. Sa’la, these young [Mages] are far better than we were. Or did you help arrange this?”

The Selphid’s gaze was amused as she looked at Trey.

“Don’t thank me. Troy thought of it.”

“Just because I feel like I’m disturbing you. And I remember you mentioning that you couldn’t get snacks easily unless you brought them in…”

The two were greedily helping themselves. Yolv brushed at his beard.

“Too right. Don’t you worry, young man. You’re the most interesting thing all day while we’re on duty. Come as much as you want—but I’m afraid you’re wasting your time. Brave of you to come back, though. Braver than most. Sa’la, did you hear what happened last time? Telim must have told you.”

He winked as Trey blushed. Sa’la looked confused—until Trey entered the room, removed Amerys’ mask, and sat down.

“Hello, Archmage Amerys.”

“It’s you again.”

She looked patiently amused, but her eyes flicked up and down Trey’s face. He? He offered her an éclair.

“Ah! You can’t feed her anything.”

Texiasha raised her voice, but Yolv muttered to her.

“She’s not going to bite him a second time. It’s just…what’s this? Another Earth food?”

Amerys blinked as Trey offered her an éclair. She let him insert it into her mouth and chewed it slowly, savoring each bite. When she was done she licked her lips for nearly three minutes as Trey watched.

“That…is the first thing I have eaten in months. You’re back.”

“I…have more food if they’ll let me give it to you.”

Amerys blinked at Trey. She nodded instantly.

“That’s very kind of you. Do you want something?”

Trey twiddled his thumbs. Conscious of the eyes on his back, he looked at Amerys. Why was he back and asking to see her? He was no Erik, who could play a part, but…he glanced back at the Wistram mages, blushed, and leaned over.

“Archmage, if I trade you, um, some food, and bring it regularly, would you tell me a few secrets? Even ones other people know about. Maybe—”

Amerys’ yellow eyes flickered over Trey’s face for a second with bright intellect—then her face developed into a sneer. Behind him? All three Wistram [Mages] exploded into laughter, and Trey turned beet red.

However, it was approving. Texiasha pointed her tail at Trey.

“The nerve of this young man! Trading food for…? I love it.”

Naturally, Amerys was less enthusiastic. She bared her teeth.

“Keep feeding me and I’ll consider it.”

Which meant that Trey came by with more food and began taking orders from the guards on duty. Not just Yolv or Texiasha.

“It’s not that we can’t bring food; it’s just that we don’t know what the dish of the day is. We have to stay here. Two days in a row. Yes, there are toilets and places to sleep and we can practice magic and whatnot, but it’s just boring. And she only talks to you.”

A rather chatty Dullahan confided in Trey as the young man unpacked buttered crab legs. He was a full [Mage] of Wistram, so he didn’t have his people’s customary reserve. The Human woman nodded; one of Viltach’s people. Trey casually paused as he brought out some napkins.

“Oh. So you have to bring all the food here yourself?”

The woman smiled at him. She had a scar running all the way down her leg; she’d fought in Terandria and apparently was an [Arrow Magus].

“Not at all. Someone does a delivery. Not Golems; we can’t order them around all the time for…and this is more delicate since Amerys was never stripped of her title. For caution, we get one of the younger [Mages] to do it, but they just grab whatever they can find. No decency to get the pick of the day, like you. The only one who’s ever thoughtful is that young [Bard]. What’s her name?”

“Mena. That’s the one. Terras. I cannot wait for Telim to be shuffled into guard duty now that Terras is an official faction.”

“Imagine it. I’ll visit just to laugh at him.”

Trey smiled, and then looked concerned.

“Um…could I use the toilet?”

“First left, down the hall. Mind the toilets. Use the one on the right unless you like the water features.”

The Terandrian woman shuddered. The Dullahan turned to her.

“It’s civilized.

“If I wanted a water spell in my toilet, I’d cast it myself—”

Trey hurried down the hallway. He turned a corner, looked over his shoulder, and then gazed at the carpeted intersection. His breath caught. He took a few wary steps, looked over his shoulder again…and began hurrying forwards.

“No way. No way…

Trey Atwood pulled something out of his bag of holding. He raised it slowly.

 

——

 

Calac Crusland’s eyes were huge in his head.

“You didn’t.”

Trey held the object out to him.

“I did.”

“They didn’t catch you? Or notice…?”

Calac’s hands were trembling, and he refused to touch the object as Trey set it down and configured it. The young man shrugged.

“Why would they? Even if the ward spells saw me heading down the hall and not to the bathroom—I bet they thought I was just curious, and I only took a minute. Tops. Then I went to the bathroom, and they were none the wiser.”

“But they didn’t detect…?

Trey Atwood was still shaking with nervous energy. He thumbed the button…paused as he went back too far, and Calac stared at the odd face. The uncanny…place.

Trey switched back to a far newer picture without a word. Then he handed Calac the camera.

“They can only detect magic.”

He had taken a recording of the entire area. Calac saw the camera pan shakily as Trey hurried down the hallway. He paused in each room, just for a second, which meant they had to play and replay each image. Even so…

“It is a lounge area. Look at that. There is a taproom there! Even barrels still in stock. Is that some kind of magical game?”

The two young men tried to pick apart each scene. Trey pointed at the strange, oblong shape that people could stand around.

“Yep. It’s deactivated. Some kind of [Mage]’s game. And over there you can see where they’ve just set up beds. Toilets are there…”

Calac caught Trey’s arm.

“Wait.”

He slowed the recording, and Trey noticed something that he himself hadn’t seen the first time he’d gone hurrying around. The swinging view of the camera stopped, and the two stared at a dark room, some kind of…indoor garden?

Yes! Although the plants appeared to be mostly dead. The room itself transformed into loamy soil just past the doorway, and Trey saw a lot of dead plant matter on the ground. Creeping vines up the walls…

“Looks like a greenhouse. Or maybe a private area for a [Green Mage]? A [Druid]? What a shame.”

Calac was shaking his head. He stabbed the camera screen with a finger.

“Not that. Trey. Look! Look!

The young man frowned. Then his eyes went round.

Greenhouses were a feature of both Earth and this world. Of course, in both worlds, people had learned how to artificially produce light to grow plants, but that was obviously something people did because there wasn’t enough natural light or they wanted year-round coverage.

If you were going to build a greenhouse…even [Mages] didn’t spend unnecessary effort. Trey’s breath caught.

“There’s no way that’s real.”

Calac just gazed at him. Then at the light in the picture that the forgotten greenhouse would have benefited from with a bit of water.

“They’re [Mages]. They didn’t even think of it. I bet you it’s real.”

“Maybe it’s camouflage. Maybe it’s warded too.”

Calac nodded.

“Maybe. But…”

They both stared at the light shining through from outside. Sunlight, coming through the glass ceilingand a transparent door that looked suspiciously like it was open to a neat little railing and slight terrace.

A balcony.

 

——

 

Finding a balcony in the huge, dimensionally-challenged academy was as difficult as could be, especially because, given the twisting and changing hallways, Trey and Calac weren’t sure where that greenhouse balcony was.

However, they could guess based on the rough position of the Creler-mural hallway. They went one floor up and began to find every open window, terrace, balcony, or exposed walkway they could.

It was at this point where Trey started working on the other elements of his plan. He already had a simple one for the guards.

They didn’t eat all the food he brought; they were picky, and he was worried if one didn’t eat and the other did and Trey just happened to be sitting there while one or the other mysteriously fell asleep—he’d be in trouble.

They were high-level [Mages] who had seen fighting. Even if Trey got the drop on one, he was certain he’d lose. Plus, he didn’t want to kill them.

“But they do finish their meals. And if someone were to slip a sleeping potion into their food…”

“You’d need to persuade someone to put it in. And get a sleeping draught.”

Calac pointed out. Trey told him about Mena, who was one of the Terras faction and, he happened to know, also a personal apprentice of Eldavin’s.

“What if we helped her out? We give her some food to take—she thinks we’re doing her a favor.”

“And the sleeping draught? I suppose we could buy one from an [Alchemist]…that’s not hard.”

“Done and done.”

Trey showed Calac a little bottle and note with instructions on how to use it. Calac folded his arms.

“How…?”

“Malia and Sa’la. I told her I was having nightmares and trouble sleeping.”

Trey felt bad about it, because the [Thought Healer] had instantly gotten him a strong sleeping tonic from Sa’la and kept asking him how he was doing. Calac was purely impressed.

“That…that could work! The [Mages] would be out. That only leaves the balcony, if we’re skipping the Golems.”

“We shouldn’t discount them. I don’t know how we’re freeing Amerys; they only have the key to her mask that I saw. Maybe we just drag her out, but there are ward spells, that door…”

The secondary door they’d set up blocked off the rest of the hallways from Amerys’ cell. Calac nodded.

“I need to do my part, then. I’ll find that balcony.”

“You can’t just climb down out of every window you see.”

Trey pointed out reasonably. Calac smiled. He looked around Trey’s room and pointed at the camera.

“All I need is that. I can check each spot in minutes if I record.”

“What, put it on a string? You have to manipulate the buttons. I suppose you could record it, but it’ll just spin around. It has to be angled, Calac.”

The [Swordsman] frowned mightily. Trey was busy trying to recreate an image of the key. Could they pick that lock? He heard Calac walking around the room then exclaim.

“Wait! What about—”

Trey turned and saw Calac pointing to something. Or rather…someone.

Minizi, who was rather large at this point, raised her head. Trey and Calac stared at her, then the camera. She was four feet tall, and dangerous. Heavier, with all her upgrades. Calac turned to Trey.

“Lifesand Golems. She’s just sand, isn’t she? Does she have to be that big?”

 

——

 

Night. Wistram’s calm bubble of controlled weather created a glassy lake. The stars shone down in every color around the Academy of Mages.

Parts of Wistram were lit up. Laughing students at parties. Voices speaking from distant windows. But this section of Wistram was quiet.

A section of stone opened, and the image of plain, grey material flickered, revealing a hidden window. A hand thrust it open—and then a little figure clambered onto the balcony.

A foot-tall Golem, with something strapped to her chest. A professional camera. She looked behind her, got a silent nod—and then looked down.

It was a straight drop, but there was a lip of something below. The question was…what? The Lifesand Golem looked around, saw no one watching. So she tensed—and jumped.

Minizi leapt out a window, holding the camera. She didn’t fall, but jerked to a stop as the rope tied around her waist arrested her fall. Slowly, the Lifesand Golem descended, rotating and aiming the camera.

A little red light flashed as the lens panned across the outside of Wistram. The Lifesand Golem peered around, aiming the camera for thirty seconds. Then she reached up and tugged on the string.

Once.

Calac Crusland lowered it further. He leaned against the window, ostensibly taking in the night air. He nodded as a [Mage] passed him without a word, and blocked their view of the right side of the windowsill. He fed more rope down from the spool he was holding until he felt two jerks. Then…the rope began to swing.

What was she doing? Calac risked a glance and saw Minizi swinging herself back and forth. The Lifesand Golem reached out and grabbed the edge of a balcony.

Minizi! What are you doing?

He hissed, but dared not be louder because a laughing group of flirting male [Mages] following a few female peers—Centaurs all—were trotting down the hallway. Calac could only stand and stare out the window, hoping there was no one there.

Then he felt three quick tugs on the rope and began to pull her up. He saw a smug little Lifesand Golem aiming a camera at him and exhaled as he reached out to put her in the rucksack.

 

——

 

“She’s too intelligent. Are you sure she can’t think?”

Calac pointed at Minizi as she returned to her ‘main body’. The little Golem walked into her larger form, and larger Minizi stirred.

Trey frowned at Minizi. The angle of the camera was certainly good, and he saw her swinging towards the balcony.

“I don’t think she’s stupid, but she’s not a Sentient-class Golem according to the Quarass. Not…yet. Calac. Have you seen this?”

The [Lord] raised his head as he flopped back into his bed. He’d spent the last eight days and nights canvassing every window he could find. This was one balcony of many, and the camera’s memory was filling up. Trey kept deleting all but their reference material…and the original pictures on the camera. He felt guilty doing it, but it was useful, and the [Mages] had confiscated his iPhone for ‘inspection’, which meant playing Flappy Bird and whatnot.

“No. Is it…?”

He sat up as Trey silently showed him the footage. Calac took one look and cursed.

“Trey, that’s not the greenhouse!”

“No. But look at the stonework, Calac. It’s changed to that interior wood design—and the walls look like the stone of the balcony. It’s not granite, or regular stone. It’s got that odd green-tinge we thought was mold.”

“Iveine stone.”

Calac whispered. He looked at Trey.

“I’m on it. I’ll find out where this was and see if we can get access to that. If not…how are the locks coming?”

Trey smiled. This too was done in part with his Lifesand magic. He showed Calac something.

“Take a look.”

There was a lock, an actual lock and tumblers on the table. Calac eyed it.

“Where did you get…?”

“I found a door and blasted it out. Don’t worry, it’s just a cheap lock. And take a look at…”

Trey raised a finger, and Calac saw some rust-red sand gather around it. A little, plain key with two simple teeth appeared. A stereotype of a key, too large and, Calac was sure, not the key for this lock.

But then Trey poked it at the lock, and Calac saw the Lifesand ooze into the cracks. The key morphed, and Trey frowned.

“The trick is…moving the tumblers…aha!

He twisted the key, and Calac saw the mechanism move. He heard a click, and saw the bolt shoot out. Trey glanced up at Calac.

“Locks picked. I wonder if Amerys’ lock needs that key?”

The [Lord] was agog.

“Th—then that just leaves the Golems. If we even have to fight them. The Golems and the ward spells. Then…”

In silence, the two young men looked at each other. Mages down. Both doors opened and Amerys’ locks. Balcony?

Calac found the balcony the next day. That just left the ward spells. And a distraction. Trey thought he had an idea for the distraction too.

 

——

 

Calac and Trey walked around the next day with a spring in their steps. A bit of swagger. Their friends noticed it. Of course, when asked, Trey just claimed he’d learned a new spell, and Calac honestly said he’d leveled up as a [Mage].

Neither one could tell the others the truth. Which was that they were taking apart Wistram like a jigsaw puzzle.

“It’s definitely the balcony. We land, we go in—we just need to bypass the wards. What are they? Do they [Detect Life]? Movement? Who do they report to, the [Guards]? If so, we’ve knocked them out.”

“I don’t know. I also don’t know if those two Golems ever patrol.

Trey leaned against the ballroom they’d found that looked straight down into a suspiciously plain little outcrop a floor down. Far, far below, they could see the surf meeting the cliffs, and Trey’s stomach sank a little.

“It’s…sixty feet. We scale down with a rope. An enchanted rope. I barely got Minizi down far enough to photograph the inside the first time. But Trey—I bet you we can put her down in the greenhouse.”

“Interesting. But not without a counter to the wards! I can try to figure them out next visit. That’s tomorrow.”

Trey’s heart was beating fast. Calac was shifting from foot to foot.

“Can you do it faster? The war isn’t going well. His Majesty is injured, and the armies are approaching Reim.”

“We’ve nearly got this, Calac. Just give me a day. As for ward spells…wait. I have an idea. Let me do a bit of prep work. How are we doing on the distraction?”

Calac’s eyes glinted. He patted his side.

“I was just about to do my part on that.”

 

——

 

Calac Crusland casually strolled past one of the many doors in Wistram’s hallways meant for residents to live in. There were entire wings devoted just to that, but this wasn’t a space normally held by students or even [Mages].

This was the guest suite. The young man kept moving at a slow saunter, waiting as a trio of veiled young women slowly glided down the hall. They were one of the most notable guests of Wistram.

Drowned Folk. Half-Starfish Drowned Women.

Identical to their mother. Calac Crusland slowed down, glanced over his shoulder casually, and pulled something out of his pocket. He slid it under the door as he bent down to tie his shoes.

A little note. The young man stood up, checked himself, and went on his way. He was long gone by the time the door opened, a minute and a half later, and a face poked out, casting left and right down the hallway.

 

——

 

“Miss Mena. Are you busy?”

The [Bard] turned as she inspected the morning buffet table for the best picks she was placing into a pair of wooden boxes. Other [Mages] jostled her, reaching for food, but she calmly shoved back.

“Hey. Quit it.”

“You’re the one pulling a Telim!”

“It’s not for me, it’s a delivery. Shove me again and I’ll web your feet. Oh. Hello. Isn’t it Troy? Grand Magus Eldavin teaches you too!”

She gave him a huge, beaming smile, and Trey ducked his head.

“That’s right. Are you busy?”

“I’m just—that’s it, [Sticky Webs]!

Mena swore, turned, and pointed at someone’s feet. There was a snigger.

“[Dispel Magic]. You don’t—hey, why isn’t it dispelling. Wait, wait—

Trey watched the confidence turn to panic as the [Mage] overbalanced, sending utensils, food, and everything else flying up…down onto them.

The [Bard] gave him a superior look as she pocketed her wand. Trey stared at her.

[Dispel Magic] didn’t work?

That was Grand Magus Eldavin’s teaching. The other students looked at Mena as she packed her food and levitated the two boxes after her. She nodded at Trey.

“I’m just doing a delivery. I can talk. Is there something the Grand Magus needs? I can go find him right after this.”

She turned to him eagerly, and Trey saw the same look a lot of [Mages] had. It made him…uneasy. It was the kind of pure adoration or loyalty that made him think of…

The King of Destruction. Someone swept up in the cause.

Gazi looked like that. At times. But she was tempered by years of knowing Flos. This? Gazi was a Gazer, and she watched Flos with a hint of this passion. But this was closer to blindness.

“Not Eldavin directly, no. Can I walk with you?”

Mena visibly hesitated. She glanced ahead.

“I’m going somewhere private. Up till there is fine, but…”

“You’re making a delivery to the guards. I know. Grand Magus Eldavin has let me visit…her.”

Trey finished Mena’s sentence. The [Bard] turned to him, surprised, then smiling.

“Of course you know. In that case, come with me. Do you know what he’s planning for his Archmage’s coronation? I mean, ceremony? It’s coming up soon.”

Trey shook his head.

“No more than anyone. Does he say anything to you?”

Mena frowned.

“Teura knows, I’m sure. She’s had some of the older mages working hard…but I didn’t hear more. That’s just gossip; don’t repeat it. What do you think of her? Grand Magus Eldavin went to speak with her once, but he hasn’t again.”

“I bring her food. And the guards.”

That’s you who’s doing it?

Mena exclaimed. Trey nodded and she laughed and slapped her forehead.

“It all makes sense! The guards tell me someone else has been feeding them properly. I’m glad someone does. You know, the other people doing deliveries don’t even bother checking what they put in the boxes? One packed an entire loaf of bread in and eight raw carrots one time.”

“Really?”

They were chatting as they came to the Creler mural. Trey slapped his forehead as Mena fished for the key.

“You know what? I shouldn’t.”

She smiled sideways at him.

“Don’t be dramatic. It’s not as if you don’t have permission.”

“But the Golems. You know, the wards?”

The [Bard] shook her head. She glanced up at Trey and bowed her head.

“Archmage! No, it’s fine. I have an amulet, and the wards are spelled to ignore it, or that’s what they said.”

Trey smiled, but the back of his neck suddenly prickled. He casually turned his head, nodding.

“Archmage Viltach. Good morning to you as well.”

“Troy. On another…visit?”

The Archmage of Terandria smiled as he passed by Mena and Trey. The young man nodded slightly, suddenly feeling a little…sweaty. Mena just nodded, brushing frazzled hair out of her eyes.

“Just keeping them fed, Archmage.”

“Very good. Don’t let me keep you. Troy—we must speak about Minizi, later. Perhaps a dinner?”

“Perhaps, Archmage. I, uh, have a lesson with Grand Magus Eldavin late.”

Viltach’s expression changed. The friendly, bearded Archmage looked at Trey with…what? Envy? Betrayal? Resignation?

Just a hint of it, for a second, and he nodded ruefully.

“You do have to report to your Grand Magus. Another time, then.”

He passed by, and Mena calmly turned the key in the lock. Trey’s stomach fluttered—but then they were standing in front of the Golems.

“I don’t know how you walk past them alone, even with the amulet.”

She tugged it out of her robes and shrugged as Trey stared at it.

“It’s not exactly hard. They scare the older [Mages], and they’re unsettling—but they wouldn’t go straight to killing you. Honestly, they could open up this Hidden Hallway and no one would get hurt, even if they did wander in here. All these wards? The Golems? Hey, I showed you my amulet!

She waved an irritated hand as she walked forwards with the floating breakfast boxes, and the two Golems swung down swords to block her way. She lifted it again, and their glowing gem eyes flashed. The two arms rose, and Trey tried to unwet himself. He’d actually come close…

“W-what was that?”

Mena strode on, heedless of the Golems. Trey thought he saw the hidden ward spells thanks to Eldavin’s tutelage, but all he could make out was a faint tracing of magic. There…there…

“There’s one.”

Mena pointed it out on the wall, and Trey nearly jumped out of his skin. The [Bard] smiled at him.

“You’re beginning to see them, aren’t you? Good! Eldavin will be pleased. Even full [Mages] can’t, but they weren’t taught by a real [Grand Magus]. These are the same ones as all the areas the old [Mages] want to keep private. You’re only a 1st Year, so you probably haven’t seen any.”

“No…”

The [Bard] winked at him.

“There’s wine cellars—only higher up. Private libraries with spell tomes, and so on. Older students try breaking in. The stupid ones get caught and punished, but the smart ones don’t even bother dodging wards or security Golems. Just get one of these.”

She flashed the amulet at him. Trey saw a circle, surrounded by eight different symbols. Elements? He thought he saw stylized representations of different elementalist spell schools.

“Wait. Just that amulet?”

“It’s keyed to most secure places. The trick is knowing who’s set up the wards. If it’s a big faction—they share this amulet around. Now, if an individual [Mage] has secured a wing, all bets are off, but if it’s Centrist, Revivalist, Libertarian, or any of the main factions’ shared property…”

Really?

 

——

 

At this point, Trey and Calac were wondering why they had ever thought it would be difficult. No—it had been. They had come to Wistram not knowing what was what, and Trey had needed to find the right people.

Eldavin arriving was a stroke of luck, and without being an Earther…Minizi was also invaluable. Lifesand, though Trey still hated to admit it, was beyond useful, and the Quarass had armed him with a trick that had gained Viltach’s favor as well.

“How’s the distraction going?”

“I think it’s set. We don’t need long. So let’s go over the plan.”

Trey had just returned from a long chat, and his voice was scratchy, but he walked over as Calac laid out their blueprints.

Now, they had a full vision of the breakout. It went like this, as Calac summarized:

“Archmage Amerys is being held in a magically-restricted room, here, surrounded by two experienced battle-mages. They have a magic door which blocks their way to the rest of the area, which is a converted lounge and private area. There are two ways in: one through the Creler-mural and two giant guard-Golems. Another—through a balcony from the Dazeid Ballrooms and a sixty foot descent. There are ward spells throughout the area, but they’re apparently keyed to an amulet all advanced [Mages] have.”

Trey nodded. He was shaking with anticipation and broke in.

“The plan is simple. We have one…ally who we signal a day in advance. At nightfall—no—”

Calac corrected him.

Before that.

Trey nodded.

Before that, we have to be ready. So on the day of the event, Mena will deliver both [Mages] their food. We need to slow her down, maybe even delay her or hope she’s doing a lunch delivery. That way they’re hungry. They eat the drugged food and are passed out by the time we arrive.”

Calac traced a route through the map of Wistram.

“We are in place in the Dazeid Ballroom and descend using ropes. We camouflage ourselves with spells—one of us needs to learn [Camouflage] or [Invisibility].”

“Just [Camouflage]. Even Eldavin couldn’t teach me a Tier 4 spell that soon.”

Calac nodded.

“Or potions or scrolls. We land in the balcony, and one of us uses an amulet to bypass the wards and the other sticks by them. We get to the door.”

He paused at the door.

“Unlock it. That’s your job. We get to the guards and make sure they’re asleep and won’t come after us. I can do that. Mother told me how to bind a [Mage] so they can’t easily escape.”

Trey nodded.

“Then we try to free Amerys. If we can’t—we go to Gazi and bail out the window. Straight down again. So two sets of ropes. We’re on a ship. I bet you her sword can break the bindings.”

Calac nodded. He scrubbed at his chin; he hadn’t remembered to shave, so a light stubble was growing.

“The main thing is we don’t want anyone checking on the guards. We need a distraction. Which you’ve set up.”

He turned to the young man, and the Earther sobered for a second.

“…Yes. I think so. I’ve gotten it rolling, but it’ll be something, either way. It’ll definitely cause a distraction. It’s not nice, though.”

He looked at Calac, and the young man’s eyes flickered to the camera and then to Trey. He shook his head.

“No. It’s not. But just know that I appreciate…you doing it. They won’t get hurt.”

“They won’t. This is Wistram. They don’t cast magic to kill.”

Trey repeated that. He looked at the map, trying to put it out of his head. Did they even need a distraction? Too late now.

“The only thing we can’t account for are…the Golems. If they patrol, we’re dead. I need time to break that lock. We need to make sure they never leave that room.”

The [Lord] nodded, but cautiously.

“How do we do that? On another visit?”

Trey shook his head. He looked around and saw a figure practicing her sword swings. Perhaps because she saw Calac doing it? She had no muscle to build, but he thought it suited her. Minizi looked up as Trey smiled.

“I have a better idea. And it’ll help us finalize our plans.”

 

——

 

Minizi checked herself. Harness in place? Check. Amulet? Double-check.

No camera this time. She had to move fast, and besides, Trey needed the camera for the other part of his plan; they’d already finished that.

Calac had a spool of enchanted rope in one hand, and he was checking Minizi’s harness. The Lifesand Golem peered down at the balcony.

“Remember, Minizi, just go down, inspect the hallways, and come back up. Don’t be spotted!”

“Can you see what she sees?”

Calac murmured as the Lifesand Golem nodded repeatedly at Trey, almost impatiently. The [Sand Mage] grimaced.

“Vague impressions at best. No one’s teaching me Golem-magic, not even Eldavin—but I think she’ll be able to communicate to us if she sees the Golems on patrol.”

“How long do we leave her there?”

Minizi leapt from the balcony, was caught by the rope, and smacked into the stone wall. Trey and Calac winced. Alright, when they did it? Don’t do that.

The Lifesand Golem’s head slowly reformed as she carefully descended with Calac feeding her the rope. She wiggled, trying to swing herself towards the balcony’s railing. Trey shrugged.

“Maybe an hour? Two? Just so we know they don’t patrol. One hour would be fine.”

“We just stand here?”

“No, we anchor the rope with [Sticky Web] right outside the window and walk away. No one’ll see it.”

They were on the far side of the academy, and even if some ship captain were sailing in…Calac nodded. He was tense, but with excitement as much as anything else.

Minizi was halfway down. Trey turned to Calac.

“You never did tell me how you got the amulet.”

The [Swordsman] was embarrassed. He turned away.

“A…an older [Mage] in the Libertarians likes me. We were practicing with the sword and I suggested she divest herself of things getting in the way.”

“Oh. Oh.

The [Lord] didn’t look at Trey.

“I’m ashamed of stealing it from her. Even if she notices, though, she’ll just think I stole it, if she connects it to me at all.”

He was a [Spy]! Trey didn’t know what to say, but he knew that Calac was guiltier then he let on. Solemnly, he patted Calac on the shoulder.

“I’m sure it’s not hard to get a replacement. Let’s just see about Minizi.”

Calac nodded. He peered down; she was ten feet away from the balcony. He turned to Trey.

“Do we signal her tonight if we don’t see anything?”

Trey’s mouth went dry at the thought.

“I…no. We have to set up the distraction. But…in three days? In three days?”

Calac looked at Trey, and the other young man returned his gaze of half-disbelief. Just like that? In three days?

Minizi jerked the rope once, impatiently. She was almost down and wiggling to get into hiding. Calac hurriedly spooled the rope down. Trey gazed out into the ocean.

“I’ll signal her myself. She—she told me all I had to do was find her, and she’d come when I did. But in this case, I th—”

Calac was turning back to Trey. He lifted his hand, fed Minzi another foot of rope, and the air shook.

Whoom. Trey heard the sound and felt part of the rumble. Then—a moment later, felt a flash of heat. A spray of smoke and dust and sand geysered up, and he recoiled. Calac stumbled backwards, line suddenly slack. Smoke billowed up as the two young men stared out the window.

“What was—”

Trey leapt up.

Minizi!

He stared down in horror and saw the balcony below was filled with smoke, dust—and a huge crater. Calac pulled at the rope and found a burning stump was all that was left. They looked at each other.

Then the klaxon alarm began to ring. From below—the balcony—echoing upwards. Trey and Calac heard a loud, and calm, and familiar voice of a [Mage] speaking.

“Hello. This is Galei of Ullsinoi. Someone’s trying to break out the Archmage. They might be dead. Sound the alarm. Hello, if you’re hearing this, they just ran into our traps. This is Galei of Ullsinoi. Someone’s—”

The two young men stared down in paralysis for a good ten seconds. Then they heard shouts of alarm from below. Someone threw open a window up and to the left.

“What was that sound?

The two young men looked at each other and then Trey slammed the windows shut. They ran for it.

In his rooms, Minizi, the main body, sat up with a sudden jerk. The little sand-Golem looked around, and then folded her arms. She didn’t really understand all of it. She didn’t know the politics, the drama, the stakes…but she was certain of one thing from her trials in the depths of Wistram, clearing out trapped rooms. She could have told Trey and Calac that.

They’d underestimated those twisted [Mages].

They’d got got.

 

——

 

It was amazing how little the explosive trap and alarm was remarked on in the rest of Wistram. It was barely a footnote and even then—no one knew the reason why, only that an explosion had happened.

Which was normal life in the Academy of Mages, apparently.

Within Amerys’ prison though, things were a different matter.

Telim walked with Trey again, and the young man’s heart was fluttering out of his chest. He did not want to be here. He shouldn’t have been here, but like a fool he’d kept up his regular visits to Amerys.

He clutched a basket of snacks like an alibi to his chest. Nor did he have the luxury of chatting with Telim to create anything like a relaxed atmosphere or a cover story.

[Mages] were all over this area. Two were casually lounging outside the Creler-mural zone. And the ones inside?

There were now six Guardian Golems, two in their original spots, two more in the hallway, and two on patrol. Telim stopped when he saw them.

“Six? I didn’t know we had six of them! This is a bit overkill, isn’t it? Has something happened?”

He looked at Trey, and the young man tried to seem as shocked as possible. Telim glanced around. He peered down the shag hallway currently being torn up by the huge feet and called out.

“I say! Yolv! Has something happened?”

The Dwarf [Runic Warrior] was standing in the hall, armored up and shielded behind his magical barriers, in discussion with no less than eight other [Mages]. Including…Trey’s mouth dried up.

Galei, the Centaur of the Ullsinoi faction. Trey looked past him at an exasperated man and turned a shade paler.

Archmage Viltach was there too. He and a Libertarian were talking with the Ullisinoi’s representative and other [Mages] assigned to this duty. Nailihuiale slithered out of a room and caught sight of Telim.

“Who’s this now?”

The Centaur tilted his head and regarded Trey with a keen eye.

“Troy Atlas, one of the Earthers, and Telim. Are you here for guard duty?”

“You will never get me sitting guard duty for days on end. Galei, Archmages. Has something happened with Archmage Amerys?”

Viltach, Naili, and the other [Mages] exchanged looks. Viltach folded his arms, and Yolv coughed, spotting Trey.

“This might not be the time for a visit, Telim. Something did happen. We’re recreating the security on this floor. Which means, apparently, how many guards?”

“Let’s call it an even twelve. You can play cards or something.”

Galei spoke. The Centaur had an amazing mane of hair, silver grey, and a wicked smile over his kilt-like robes. He looked like mischief and had a balanced pair of spectacles on his face. Half-moon. No, he didn’t need them, but he’d added them after hearing stories of Earth.

He and another [Mage] who wore Ullsinoi’s curious eye-sigil on their robes faced the other [Mages]. Instantly, one of the Dullahans present complained.

“Twelve? Ullsinoi doesn’t contribute its members. We’re not having twelve guards, Galei. Or is it Galei-Taxiela? Am I even speaking to a person? You lot are as trustworthy as quicksand.”

She went to prod Galei, and the Centaur laughed as she poked his stomach. He covered it protectively.

“Stop that! You know, quicksand isn’t actually that dangerous. Now, Freefall Quicksand is the stuff that’ll bury you up to your nose in a moment. We’d contribute guards—but it’s a matter of trust. We’re willing to put in the magic, though. See?”

He nodded and two more [Mages] came strolling down the hall. Trey’s heart sank. Because the lovely shag-and-wood hallway no longer led towards the improvised door which Amerys was imprisoned behind. One of the [Mages], a smiling Drake with fiery orange scales, clicked his claws—

And the hallway devolved into a shadowy maze filled with smog. Labyrinthine walls thirteen feet tall—and, oh yes. Ominous cello music.

“Dead gods.”

Yolv took one look at the enchanted maze and turned to Galei. He raised a finger and pointed at the maze.

“You put it back. You bastards! It takes fifteen minutes to get through that shit! I am not walking fifteen minutes to use the toilet!

“True. It’d take you fifteen minutes to run.”

Galei and the other Ullsinoi mages started cackling with laughter. Yolv just rolled his eyes.

“Short jokes. Archmage Viltach, please, speak some sense into them!”

“I’m still waiting to know what happened. Excuse me? Is Amerys free? Did someone try to break her out?”

Telim waved a hand. Viltach glanced at Trey, and the young man kept his face as straight as possible. He sighed loudly.

“We know what happened, Telim, roughly. This is private—but it appears Ullsinoi, not trusting to our safeguards, has been trapping this entire area with spells in case someone were to attempt to free Amerys. They planted powerful spells that could have hurt our own guards—”

“We were more clever than that. It’s directional. You walk out for a breath of fresh air, you don’t explode. Now, if you land…so long as no one started hopping there, they were fine! Besides, you’d spot it. Probably. Maybe. Nah, we hid it well.”

One of the [Illusionists] remarked cheerfully. Yolv swore, and the other guards looked at the Ullsinoi [Mages] askance.

“You didn’t think to tell us? We’ve been guarding Amerys—”

Galei interrupted calmly.

“Poorly. You didn’t think about the balcony. Don’t get out of it—you didn’t. That’s why we put a spell there; because we’re on your side. On the window, too.”

What window? The [Mages] present refused to acknowledge Galei’s point. They just glared—and Nailihuiale sighed loudly.

“The point is that one of their spells went off, Telim. Which has led to Ullsinoi condescending to tell us how flawed our security is.”

Galei cast a glance towards Trey. His eyes lingered for a second on the young man.

“…And he proves my point. Visitors. Even feeding Amerys snacks. You want to keep her prisoner? Do it properly.

Trey jumped as the Centaur pointed at him. Viltach frowned, and Telim muttered.

“This is all…astounding. Astounding! Ullsinoi, helping out directly? But the spell—what happened? Someone did try to get in? Did they turn into silkap or what?”

“No. We know what happened. We did investigate, Telim. Despite what Ullsinoi might think, we’re not idiots.”

Viltach’s eyes rested on Trey for a moment, and the young man waited. This was it. He tried to think of something to say—and Archmage Nailihuaile sighed louder.

“Emirea du Merrimom.”

Huh? Trey’s mouth opened. Of all the names—Telim started.

“Isn’t that your friend, Troy? What about her? She tried to—”

Nailihuaile lifted a claw.

“No, no. The poor girl. She was the victim. Apparently she feeds birds; the Merrimom estates. Poppingjays or some stupid things. Well, she feeds the seagulls here. She named one ‘Beaky’ or something inane—I say that in past tense, because the child was happily watching her little friend fly around when it must have crapped on the spell or landed for a moment. Ullsinoi blew it into bits.”

Trey’s mouth was open. Galei bit his lip, and the other Ullsinoi [Mages] looked away. Naili turned to Viltach and the others.

“She came to me, screaming, with a handful of bloody feathers in her hands, and when I realized what had happened—”

It was too much. Galei and the other three Ullsinoi [Mages] cracked. His cheeks bulged, and they started laughing so hard the Centaur had to lean on a wall to stand up. One actually went over, she was cackling so hard.

Oh, for—Galei! This is not a joke!”

Viltach snapped. The Ullsinoi [Mages] kept laughing.

“That’s hilarious! Don’t glare at me! It’s a damn seagull!”

Galei was wiping tears from his eyes. Trey almost laughed himself. He felt his would be hysterical, though.

Poor Emirea. But the luck! One seagull fatality meant that no one had asked questions. However…Viltach turned to the maze, and sighed.

“I suppose we can rethink the security precautions.”

“Yes.”

Galei stood upright, and glanced at Trey, Telim, and nodded to the hallway.

“For instance, we can put more Golems in. Let’s have all six guardian golems. More [Mages]. And turn off the false wall in the mural walk.”

What?

Archmage Naili and Viltach looked at him. The Centaur sighed, his face expressing every level of weary resignation.

“A wall to keep us all boxed in means reinforcements have to turn that key. It means they’re funneled in. Open this area up. Keep the Golems. Add more [Mages].”

He smiled cheerfully as the other factions looked at each other.

“Take my advice. Or don’t. But trust me—if you want to keep Amerys secure, you’re going to need to sacrifice a few birds. Oh—are those snacks?”

He flicked his hand, and Trey jumped. Galei chomped down on a fruitcake and smiled. He turned to Trey and trotted past him.

“The point to making a prison is to make it impossible to break out of—at least, if you want to keep someone inside. You lot are far too nice. People trying to break into my domain only get one shot.”

He winked at Trey and dropped the fruitcake back in the basket. Silently, the young man stared up at him as Viltach sighed again.

 

——

 

Trey Atwood and Calac Crusland sat together. In silence. They had the warding stones up in their room, but they said not a word.

Minizi silently and expressively sucked down a thimble of Trey’s blood in the corner. She was rejuvenating her lost sand; even she couldn’t reclaim it after it was blown to bits like that.

All their plans were in shambles. The layout of the prison was completely redesigned. Worse?

They were made. Maybe. Possibly? Trey kept thinking back to Galei’s comments. But for Emirea, they would be caught.

And even if they weren’t, and they had a second chance…what were they supposed to do? He didn’t know. Worse, the veil had been stripped away and Trey realized how bad their plan was.

He just pictured it, again and again. Him and Calac landing on the balcony, all set to break Amerys out and—boom.

He had no ideas and no more time. An army was marching on Reim to besiege it. Trey searched for the words to express how he felt. But it was Calac who did.

“I let them down. It’s arrogance.”

Trey bestirred himself. The [Lord] was looking at his hands.

“I didn’t understand the King of Destruction. I thought I was better than I was. No wonder my father didn’t trust me. This was my chance and—”

“We’re up against Level 50 [Mages]. It’s just us versus the Academy. We…Flos himself said it was a long shot. He said there was limited help he could give, and that we might fail. I think…he was even testing to see if I wanted to stay.”

Trey murmured. Calac looked at him and turned away, towards his window.

“We’re just fools. I don’t think he believed that, Trey. I used to think you didn’t deserve anything. Let alone his ear. But you—you came up with most of that plan. You had so much set up. I couldn’t contribute enough. If I were better at magic, or thought things through…”

“Neither one of us is good enough. Calac—there’s pieces. We’re not sharing Amerys’ cell. We have to try again.”

The [Lord] was staring at the three golden pins in Reim’s capital. He nodded.

“We must. But we’re not good enough. Not us two. Not a [Sand Mage] with a Lifesand Golem and a [Lord] who knows the sword and a bit of banditry.”

He looked ironically at Trey, and the [Sand Mage] nodded. The lights were dim in their room, and they sat in the dead of night. They had blown out almost every candle; it fit their mood.

Minizi sat, drinking blood. She had a gem for an eye, and bones of mithril. The Lifesand Golem’s sand eye swiveled to Trey, to Calac.

What was wrong with them? They were so silent. So still. So hopeless. All Trey had done when he’d come back was go to Emirea’s room. She was still crying and mourning her friend, Beaky.

Trey had returned, lit a simple candle, and placed it by his windowsill. It guttered as it cast a long shadow over the room. Like despair?

They were so still, Minizi wondered if they were sleeping. But they did not, in her experience, sleep standing up. The Lifesand Golem saw Calac glance at the candle.

Then Trey.

It wavered. A single, burning glow now. It was very dark outside. The clouds covering Wistram’s night sky. Parts of the academy glowed, but two statues and a little Golem sat in the room.

The candle. Minzi stared at it. She was aware of some things. She was aware of being unaware of things. Like the traps in Wistram that Trey and Viltach sent her to try and clear. She learned to dodge them—sometimes by running into them two dozen times and finding a route by trial and error.

But she did learn. Context clues. Some were easy, like a bit of raised stone, a change in gradation that mortal people would miss, but was as obvious as the sun to a Golem.

Some things were harder. But this…this was more of a common-sense issue, so it took Minizi a while to figure it out.

The candle moved and danced as the night air entered and left. It was just a candle, melting low, lower. But something was off about it.

The flame. Minizi really tried. The flame was no bigger or smaller than regular fire. It was not hotter or colder that she could tell. So what was it…?

Ah. Perhaps it was simply that the flame was invisible. At least, to Minizi’s eyes. She saw the wax melting, but she did not see the flame, just the place where it distorted the air.

But that was fine. She had been made in someone’s image, but her eyes were sand. Her body was blood and sand, and the boy who had created her had many mixed emotions in his chest.

Desperation. A cold determination when he looked at the camera. Fear. Apprehension. Uncertainty.

And a growing feeling of…

Expectation?

Minizi’s head tilted sideways on her body. Slightly oversized, like a bobblehead. A cute little being with a sword. Razor-sharp teeth.

She didn’t know what she was based on, only that she was. The Lifesand Golem stirred as Calac and Trey looked towards the window.

The candle guttered out. Both boys sat in silence. But Minizi heard it.

The faintest sound in the world. A…scraping sound. Very faint. Metal on stone.

She rose to her feet. The little sand hand grasped her sword.

A claymore. Viltach, the other creator, had laughed when Trey suggested it. Fitting.

Why? Minizi stared at her reflection in the blade. Dreadlocks of hair around a huge, central eye. Four smaller ones over a mouth filled with pointed teeth. Four fingers on each hand.

That was all…not like Trey. Not like anyone, except for Goelv. But the eyes were different. Minizi touched her face.

She had no skin. Or rather, the sand detailing her didn’t depict regular skin. Her fingers, her body had an odd…segmented quality to it.

Like armor. A flexible armor of banded scales, from neck to toe. The Lifesand Golem heard another crunch of something digging into stone and looked up. She raised her sword and heard something outside the window.

Like a rat. The really big ones. Minizi tottered forwards, ready to swing her sword and rightly end it. Trey started as the Lifesand Golem charged past him.

“Minizi. Wait—”

The little Golem raised its sword with a strength that shocked Trey when he tried to stop her. A huge, pointed grin on Minizi’s face. She brought the sword down towards the windowsill—

A hand caught the blade as it fell. The impact made no sound, save for the muffled thump. Minizi jerked backwards in surprise. She aimed her sword again, as the four-fingered hand flicked it back. Curious, stumpy fingers. Almost like—

The Lifesand Golem saw a head rise over the ledge. Trey had frozen in place. Calac had left his chair and was half-kneeling, staring upwards. Minizi looked up, raising her blade—and stopped.

The hair was wet. The skin was a dusky orange, an alien tone again, save for one. Yet the head had dark brown hair. And…five eyes.

Four small ones around a central eye, so large it dominated that odd face. The eye. Oh, the eye.

The pupil glowed. So did the iris. Under the darkness, the vast eye stared down at Minizi. The Lifesand Golem looked into that eye and saw the pupil was not one plain ring of color.

It was a kaleidoscope which changed subtly, running from a bright yellow to streaks of red. An eye with no visible blood vessels.

It locked onto her like a beam from a distant lighthouse, and the Lifesand Golem felt a strange presence. The other four eyes rolled around, moving up into the other being’s skull, flicking left to Trey, Calac.

Moving in every direction, independently of one other. The dreadlocks swung, dripping with salt water, as the head rose higher.

Then came the body, slimmer, covered from head to toe in a strange, rust-colored armor. It looked cheap…until you saw how it moved and flexed, perfectly. A suit that adhered to the wearer’s body without flaw, watertight, untarnished despite its long submersion in water.

Slowly, the Lifesand Golem backed up. She had never feared anything in her life. She had never been disconcerted or afraid, save for what Trey did.

Yet her reaction was completely different from his, the leap of hope and affection in his heart.

Like a giant, she rose, spilling softly into this room like a cat, stretching, adjusting the huge sword on her back.

A claymore. A huge weapon, but she moved easily with it, sliding through the window and landing. Looking around.

An eye. Focusing on Trey, pupil dilating, at Calac, and swiveling around. Then, in the darkness, Minizi saw the eye flick to her. She saw that curious face open.

Gazi Pathseeker opened her mouth, and her teeth were sharp as they glinted under the moonlight. She stretched, hand going to her sword as ocean water ran off her armor. Aching like a prisoner long buried under the waves.

She regarded her little replica with amusement and interest, and looked at her student. She smiled.

“You look lost, Trey Atwood. Do not be. Now is the time. Time to break a flower’s bonds. To set lightning free. You have found her?”

Trey nodded slowly. The half-Gazer smiled. Minzi stared up and saw how to smile with her face. Like terror and delight. Like bottled carnage and expectation and wrath. Gazi smiled and nodded.

“Then, I will free her.”

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: I planned two chapters. It’s probably three.

I make these plans, you see, and tell you, mainly because they always go astray. Perhaps I shouldn’t; I don’t always look for feedback, but just want to tell you where I am. Because the point has always been to balance speed and quality. The story matters, but the story is hard to tell because there is not one quality that makes it good.

Consistency? Yes. But I have taken time off to write chapters or re-write them when I know it is needed. Quality? Of course, but I cannot take years off to write each chapter.

It’s a balance. So if I need to take longer with the end of Volume 8, I will. I hope not, but I am going to deliver what I can in the best way I can.

This is your side story vote. I am now going to mention two things: at the top of this page, I have linked the fan-podcast, No Killing Goblins. It has produced ten episodes, and I hope you would enjoy their recap of most of Volume 1 and commentary on the current volume. I do, despite the sass, and each episode is properly long, usually over an hour, I think. That’s TWI-quality.

I hope it is a success. Second, this is the arc you get because it won the poll. However, I have an announcement. Navah Wolfe is the next editor scheduled to revise a chapter, and there is one planned for roughly the 24th. I have an idea of what it may be, but like the Pisces – Interlude, we may delay publication for the better.

We will see, but I think it may be Rabbiteater and the Terandria arcs. That is my announcement, my process, and my first foray into heist writing. I watched Ocean’s Eleven…I’m not sure if that counts as prep. It was good? Stealing a lot of money isn’t the most compelling thing to me. Stealing a person’s sort of fun.

See you next chapter! We’ll see what happens next and if I can deliver it well. Thanks for reading!

 

Frost Wyvern by Sakomi343, commissioned by Selkie Myth, a fellow [Writer]!

Sakomi343 Twitter: https://twitter.com/sakomi_353

Beneath the Dragoneye Moons by Selkie: https://www.amazon.com/Beneath-the-Dragoneye-Moons/dp/B08NWL5J8S

 


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48 thoughts on “8.62 K

  1. Leave a typo for breakouts! Breakouts! Golems! Eyes! No poking!

    (Breakout readers: MrWiggles, Quynin, Litwickee, Gorexn, Axel Terizaki, afkcuzbookiscool, Linnet Melody, Systemglitch, Ignat)

  2. I really like Trey and am glad he’s getting some attention. Really looking forward to the next chapter, hoping to see some cool sand or light magic in the next few chapters :)

  3. I was hoping for the breakout, but I loved the chapter we got. It was nice to see all the planning and scouting that went in to the breakout. I love forward to seeing the conclusion!

    When the chapter started off, I thought it was taking place after the time skip and Trey was back in Riem and Flos had been healed. I was very confused, aside from that it was an amazing chapter

    • I don’t think there’s going to be a timeskip. I think Erin is getting to see the future, sort of. Because time runs differently in the land of the dead. She’ll be brought back in that period of months that were skipped, with knowledge of how things will end if they don’t change it.

  4. Thanks for the chapter! A tad disappointed, as is prefer chapters working towards a melting popsicle, but oh well! Excited to see the escape, and definitely want to see what happens with the Illphres’ Tome!

  5. Good chapter but I personally think the placement in the series is a bit bad. Essentially what’s happened is the author has gone and said ‘the resurrection you’ve waited for for a year is nigh the mysterious dead god has made his move and the climax is upon us. Now you have to wait another couple of months to see it because here’s about 6 to 8 chapters of secondary story lines which easily could’ve kicked off the next volume. Just seems like something to do before or after the volume’s climax rather than breaking it down the middle.

    • You thought that’s gonna be next? Hah, we have one whole month in story time to cover yet. I’m sorry to say, but your climax that you are waiting on is like saying “Alright, they left the Shire, avoided a nazgul, now all he has to do is toss the ring in the lava. But damn, why we have to wait and see what happens in the middle.”
      Even if there weren’t “side” stories (which are actually pretty big and important, also equally interesting), Erin still wouldn’t come back in one or two chapters. We haven’t even caught up to her time skip with this one, the world and characters haven’t stopped for her.
      While some things could be pushed for after what you think is gonna be the end of the volume, then they would be the broken in the middle storylines in that case.

      • Sorry but what you said doesn’t really make any sense, the time skip in the latter half was a bit jarring first off, so much so I didn’t see it until a second read through, plus this chapter seems to take place before Eldavin goes off to war, so it’s even more out of sync. Which is less like what you described and more like the gates of Minas Terith have just been breached now let’s back up in time two weeks and watch two hours of Sam and Frodo walking around and fighting over who’s carrying the ring.

        • But that is the meat of this volume. All the stories on the periphery, they are the point, not things to be skipped for an ending in another pov. The gates would still stay breached until we see what the characters were doing and what is happening around the world, what that means for them and how it’s connected.

          It was more of a small peek towards a bleak future instead of a breaking up the climax in middle.

          • It still is bad placement. I think that the second half of last chapter needed to be published later. You can’t go back to normal after that, that’s the meat, the big events, everything else is relatively less important. I love each part of this story, but I don’t care about Ameryss when there’s something that big happening in the land of the drad

  6. A good chapter as it does fill in what happens when our favorite dragon drags everyone else off to war… Then again it feels like it was placed to give more time figuring out the Res bit since The Wind Runner is going to have her chapter wrap up before Erin does.

  7. So what does trey mean when he says chess is a solved game? My understanding is that there is no known limit to chess skill and that it is unclear if the game will ever be solved? is he just incorrect/using imprecise language in trying to explain it to the KOD? Excellent chapter. Thanks!

    • Chess isn’t a solved game, but I think it is fair for him to say it. I would guess many people would say chess is solved since computers can defeat any human opponent, and have been able to for so long. Also, there are analysis programs that will tell you the “perfect move” in most any situation.
      I think there just aren’t many people that understand what ‘solved’ means, so it is fair to say Trey is among them.

    • Chess is a ‘solved game’ in that chess programs have and are still capable of destroying the best players in most game states. Granted that isn’t what ‘solved game’ actually means but it is close enough logically for Trey’s background. I mean if top chess players are lose streaking to top chess programs than chess might as well be a ‘solved game,’ for your average player is always going to lose against those top chess programs.

    • Disclamer: I don’t play chess.

      And as such I read it as “there are no surprises/new moves, that can be discovered/invented”.

      • Which would be wrong. Even professional players (or engines for that matter) do pull surprises in the opening once in a while even though it is a bit risky.

        Nevertheless in the middle and end game some surprises are pretty much a given if they’re not playing one of the especially boring known variants where both players more or less work together to get a draw.

    • To a mathematician or a game theorist, a “solved game” is one where the winning strategy is known–that is, a game where we know exactly how to play optimally, and who will win if both players play optimally. Think Tic-Tac-To, which is a game that many people have “solved” in its entirety. Chess is a two-player game with no randomness and no hidden information, which means that it can, in principle, be solved–someone could enumerate all possible game states, and work backwards to determine how to play best. In practice, however, it is computationally intractable to do so, and so we instead train computers to get good at chess by practicing. Are there new strategies that haven’t been discovered yet? Maybe. Do our computers play as well as is theoretically possible? Certainly not! So, to a game theorist, chess is not “solved”. We don’t even know how a game between perfect players would end–with a victory for white, or for black, or with a stalemate?

      On the other hand, we have reached a point where our best AIs generally play better than the best grandmasters, and I think that is what Trey means when he calls it “solved”. It makes me uncomfortable to hear that verbiage, but I guess it’s fine.

  8. Thank you for the Amerys chapter I love
    This Arc and I hope we get to see her freed before switching back!! The king of destruction is in peril with armies closing in on Reim. He needs his Archmage now!! Can’t wait to see how it unfolds!

    • what do you think about teriarch?

      i think he went into a deep sleep and his simulacrum took control and only reconnects with teriarch in the dreams.

      teri said he warded the simulacra from developing awareness, but he has also been using the same simulacra for centuries, including leaving it unmaintained while he napped.

      so i think the anti simulacra sentience is wearing away, and eldavin is still suffering some repurcussions with the heart attacks. or the heart atracks are the backlash from pulling mana and memories from the sleeping teri.

      alternatively, the heart attacks are the simulacra just wearing away with time and not being maintained, something teri didnt notice while he was simply possessing it.

      what do you think?

      Also, @pirateaba theres an inconsistency. Eldavin doesnt have levels in recent chapters, but soon after eldavin took over from Teriarch, our favorite truestone construct noticed that Eldavin suddenly had levels when he hadnt had them before.

  9. The chapter has some inconsistencies.

    First.
    “The sky was still cold and dreary, but no snow fell in Reim. Winter was ending” – flashback, isn’t it? Then
    “He would happily kick about a soccer ball and laugh no matter if he lost.” – 1. It’s football, for Trey is British; 2. It’s anachronism, the sport would be introduced several months later.

    Second.
    In V7 Trey “was marching north with the rest of the King of Destruction’s armies, and Gazi. The Quarass had declined to do battle.” (7.13)
    However, Gazi had come alone: “But Gazi had arrived on the battlefield a few days ago, after returning from her mission from A’ctelios … But he [Trey] had never arrived.” (7.21).
    Turns out, Trey went to Khelt before he met with Flos, and against his orders. Compared to this chapter, there are several discrepancies with V7 events:
    1) Trey haven’t come with Gazi and Quarass;
    2) he haven’t met with Flos before going to Khelt;
    3) Quarass haven’t arrived in person to Flos’ camp.

    Also, he left the camera to Fetohep in 7.21: “Fetohep looked at the camera, sitting on the little table. Trey had left it behind, with the backpack.”.

  10. Well, at least Trey has a decent reason for doing the bidding of the crispy king.

    Personally, I’m not a fan of dropping huge cliffhangers AND then going into an old plotline whose outcome has been foreshadowed so hard that we already know how it ends. In most cases, I’d happily go with “it’s the journey that counts, not the destination” but not when we’ve got a 12 car-pilup waiting for the rescue crews to start digging people out of the wreckage…

  11. Fun chapter, I enjoyed it.

    Every time skip I felt like that section could have, or should have, been somewhere in a previous chapter. It was good on its own like this, but I’ve been wanting to know what Trey has been doing to free Amerys for over a year now- every Wistram chapter that didn’t show any progress was a little frustrating.

    One of the pitfalls of the medium I suppose… Assuming anyone else agrees haha.

    • Yeah have to agree the starting part probably would have been fine in a long read (but I kept thinking I was on the wrong chapter) and I also felt this would have fit better if it was before the Teriarch goes adventuring chapter.

      • Yeah itll likely be shuffled around during the final book edit.

        one way to improve it in the here and now would be to add line breaks to denote the timeskips, with a small explanation.

        Was lost, i also kept thinkinh i wss in the wrong chaptrr

  12. I don’t know if it’s beacause my english is bad, but there is a few things I don’t get in this chapter…

    “I brought one of the meringues—but frozen so it holds its shape sort of.”
    As a french who know how to cook: why in the hell would you froze meringues? There are solid, not liquid. And freezing won’t make them harder or difficult to break.

    “he had a chip on his shoulder the size of Reim’s palace”
    A chip? Like… an electronic chip? A radio transmitter? What for? Did I miss information in another chapter or what?

    And lastly, what sort of menace is it, for that Amerys drop it’s fingers. I mean, guy, you’re a bloody “blood” mage, for dead god sake. A mage that control blood, your own blood better thant the others one’s. And with your blood in her mouth, she shouldn’t even think to provoke you, becasue it would be as stupid as to affront her underwater.

    I think the most frustrating thing in this chapter is the continuous flashback as the last time we followed Troy adventures, he was saying “hello” to Amerys…

    • I think the “meringue” here is some kind of sundae: icecream on cokie ( or however you call it) that or Chandrar has such a weird clime as to melt sugar… now if those are the “meringues” that i know the dry air could spoil them but then you only need a box or something…
      The “chip on the shoulder” is an idiom meaning that someone is holding a grudge/wanting to prove a point.
      Noooo…. Troy is a sand mage, the blood trick with minizi is more of a one time upgrade that the Quarass…”gifted” him with…

  13. Trey and Flos got that wrong: Chess isn’t solved. Yes good engines are a lot better than the best humans but no engine knows the best moves from all positions for sure and engines are still improving (which wouldn’t be the case if the game was solved).

    The last I’ve heard about chess being solved is that it’s solved for all positions with 7 or less pieces, maybe it’s increased to 8 since then but the game becomes exponentially more complex with more pieces so we’ve still probably got a long time to go until we get to all 32.

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