8.63 K

Today.

They saw a vision of the future. Every army said it, and every nation thought it. When [Historians] dipped their quills in ink to write of the past, glorified or sardonically, they still drew a line between then and the present.

No matter how good your armies were, how inspiring your leaders—that was then. We are the armies of the modern era, who shall not be surpassed. We have built upon the bones of the fallen and learned all their mistakes.

Or rather, that was what Earth’s soldiers and warriors and thinkers believed. Unlike other worlds, they had never gone back. Realized they had lost an arms race against their ancient ancestors.

This was because Earth had experienced the fall of a civilization, like Rome. It had not seen the firmament break, gone through true armageddon where the survivors searched for pieces and found only dust. The Humans currently on top of Earth had suffered no giant cataclysm.

Yet.

However, even in this world, armies believed they were the greatest of their time. That they had, if not the greatest soldiers ever conceived, something. Superlative [Archers]. Tactics or discipline beyond others.

What a strange feeling it must be. For both children of Earth and [Soldiers] to look up and realize they were now the past.

They flew through the sky like mocking bullseyes. Armor painted so vividly, even beautifully, in monochrome colors that they seemed to call out for targets. Yet armored—enchanted, beyond the means of most to even hit. Only an enchanted arrow from a skilled archer could even bother them.

Slings? Pikes? Swords and armor? [Knights] riding around on horseback looked up at fire from the skies. Soldiers of the future, flying in suits of powerful armor.

The nightmare of two worlds, the future, flying overhead of the past with contempt for all who had come this far. Chasing down the [Knights] who looked up in their plate armor at their replacement.

That was the terror for anyone who wanted the world to stay the way it was. For people who understood that this would change…far too much. Far too swiftly.

For now, it was one battlefield, and one man—one half-Elf held the reins of power. Eldavin, the Archmage of Memory. However, he had made one mistake:

He had left Wistram. And the plotters who had no counter for him took that moment. Elsewhere in the world, armies were fighting with conventional arms and weapons. By the time he came for them—they would be ready. But for that, they needed their Archmage. Time was running out; Reim was under attack.

The siege was entering its ninth day.

 

——

 

Everyone said war was hot, which had always confused him. It might be true of other places, but Chandrar? Chandrar was cold on those nights. So cold you could freeze to your cloth in the open.

It was hot by day, but who would fight under the glaring sun? A true battle, in the young [Soldier]’s mind, was most economically fought under the moonlight, perhaps in some grand surprise attack. Under the clear skies, with ample moonlight? You could well take the enemy off-guard and have enough light to see by.

That was the kind of naive thinking of someone who had never seen a war. By the time his unit of Bast’s 14th was rotated into the front, he had seen [Soldiers] marching, running under the full heat of the sun. The glare of armor was baked into his eyes, and even standing in formation was hot. Some people collapsed from the heat of it, despite the [Line Captain]’s shouting or blows.

Heat had killed over three hundred, despite the water rations. Just…heat. However, the [Soldiers] fought until they dropped. They had to; they were pressed forwards by their fellow [Soldiers]. An endless wave of Hemp-caste [Soldiers] who followed regiments of Cotton and Silk leaders into battle.

This was Nerrhavia’s endless horde. It terrified the young Hemp-[Soldier] and exhilarated him. The roar was deafening as he turned his head and saw a line of bodies that stretched thousands of feet in every direction. Not a single mass like a swarming anthill; they were neatly separated into divisions, regiments, which were arrayed by type and level.

Waiting. Every few seconds, something would break through the distant roar ahead of him. That city, engulfed in motion across the walls. Figures climbing, falling—and the blood. You could see it, even miles away. The flash as someone raised a sword and brought it down on a helmet.

The young man stared at the person on the walls. A Human? A young woman? One of the defenders of Reim.

Capital of the King of Destruction. The last bastion of this war. He shivered, despite himself.

The jagged crown of towers rose around the walls and the city proper. There were ladders everywhere; you could barely see the wall for the ladders. A group began falling as someone kicked them down, and another set collapsed into flames.

“Fire.”

Someone murmured hoarsely, and the Hemp-[Soldiers] shuddered. They saw figures waving their arms, rolling on the ground, fleeing the fire as a [Mage] threw down a [Fireball]. That was what the young man feared most. Death by fire. He could survive losing an arm or a leg so long as he didn’t bleed out. But fire?

The terrifying thing was, he never heard them, even as [Soldiers] went up like distant candles, burning out, collapsing. The air was shaking from so many voices—he never heard them.

Bast’s 11th and Phloem’s 2nd!

The [Soldier] jumped. He almost started forward, but that wasn’t his regiment. Two groups advanced towards the retreating [Soldiers] fleeing the burning section, ladders ready to go. Infantry, like him, without distinct levels or gear, and a group of mixed slings and archers.

Thousands. Each division was two thousand strong. So four thousand went to take the wall. Compared to the number of [Soldiers] on it, it seemed they should overrun the city in a second.

But it was so vast, and that broken crown…the young man’s name was Eribis. He looked up at it.

They were not black towers, fit for some villain. They were grey and partly beige, but with dirt and dust more than anything. They were evenly spaced out around Reim, eight towers—or rather, six.

Two were broken, like the tines had been snapped off a crown. Yet the remaining six were the reasons why Nerrhavia’s great army was pulled back so far. Even as Eribis watched—a tower lit up.

Inc—

The rest of his [Line Captain]’s scream was drowned out. Eribis threw up his hands and felt something punch his armor. He stumbled, ran into someone, and the blinding flash was replaced by…

Eribis gazed out and the battlefield was silent for one second. He saw one of the divisions marching on Reim’s walls, those glorious armored figures, had been replaced by a huge crater of glass and smoke. The figures scattered around it were lying still. Some got up, stumbling around dizzily in circles. Eribis saw someone sitting, picking up their helmet, shaking their head.

Bast’s 14th!

The roar came for him. The dizzy [Soldier] felt the Hemp-soldiers jerk into sudden motion. They looked at each other, uncertain, but the [Line Captain] heard the order from the distant command tents and roared.

[Obey Me: Forward March]! [Get in Formation]!

Simple, low-level Skills, but they worked. Eribis felt himself moving forwards, and realized he was out of place. Like someone had drawn a ruler—Bast’s 14th suddenly began moving in orderly rows, not a disordered mass.

Straight at the walls. Eribis began to sweat. He realized what they meant when they said war was hot. It wasn’t just the heat of the sun, or the weather. He felt like he was burning up. His heart was in overdrive, and he longed to have someone stitch it up, make it bigger, cool him down.

It was too hot. Eribis heard the other Hemp soldiers gasping around him. One of them—an older [Veteran] who didn’t make the cutoff for a better regiment—was muttering.

“The King of Destruction falls. Heroes. We’ll be heroes…”

Eribis listened, along with everyone around him. That was what the [Great General] had proclaimed on the eve of the first attack. This was the end of the King of Destruction. Eribis felt the moment in the air. Yet…he looked up.

Eight days, and they hadn’t even breached the walls.

They’d tried. There were four spots where the walls had caved in when magical artillery and spells had blasted holes through, but the damned towers had destroyed the siege towers, even countered the [Mages]. And then—when they’d put two dozen holes in the walls the first time, the King of Destruction had used his Skill. The walls had risen, the gaps mended.

Higher. Thicker.

Now—they loomed forty feet tall. Even so, Nerrhavia’s Fallen had countered that. They’d brought fifty-foot ladders. The siege towers kept being destroyed before they could roll towards the walls, but Reim couldn’t stop ladders from every direction.

Eribis saw Reim was surrounded as Bast’s 14th marched. They jogged, looking up at the towers, moving faster despite their armor and exhaustion from standing tense so long. Better to get to the walls than face annihilation like that.

The towers did not glow. And Eribis looked at the walls and saw how each division was throwing itself up the ladders. Entire groups of [Archers] were skirmishing with the walls, and [Mages] were throwing spells up, rotating out once they’d taken too many casualties.

But the infantry kept coming. Multiple attackers for every defender on the wall, and even as Eribis watched, he saw a knot of [Soldiers]—enemy soldiers, flesh [Soldiers]—scream and break apart as a bolt of lightning struck them. Shouting Hemp-warriors took the walls, and Eribis stared at them.

We’ll win. Nerrhavia had put three vast armies into one. This was a force to wipe Reim out and end this battle. He’d receive his victor’s allotment, and he’d say he was there. He’d helped claim the King of Destruction’s head. He might even be promoted to Cotton or Silk; after great victories, entire divisions had received that honor if they were the ones who took the city…

Ladders up! Ladders up!

The [Line Captain] snapped him out of his daydream. Eribis turned and saw the ladders rising as dozens of Hemp-soldiers dragged them up. He stared upwards and, at last, he made out the faces of the soldiers on the walls.

They had bows, arrows; some even threw stones. But the majority of them had spears, swords, and axes and hacked at the ladders, trying to force them back. One splintered even as Eribis watched, but the first line of [Soldiers] were climbing up despite the danger, and a shower of arrows made the defenders take cover.

Up! Up! Don’t stop climbing! Take that wall and hold it until reinforcements get up! Go, go, g—

Then he was climbing. Eribis didn’t even think. He just realized he was climbing the wooden struts of the ladder, panting, arms shaking.

No, no. Dead gods. Not me! He’d thought he might be lucky and they’d take the city before Bast’s 14th even got to the fighting. It had happened twice before. He was a Level 8 [Soldier], but he’d gotten all 8 levels just by enlisting and training and marching for a few months. Conscripted—partly. He had a ‘choice’ and he’d chosen…

He wasn’t ready. The city loomed above him, and that citadel where the King of Destruction lay rose as his head cleared the walls. For a second, Eribis saw it. A faded, crumbling palace, but it made his blood chill and skin grow cold.

The legend of Chandrar had come from here. And now—

Hold them off! Reinforcements! R—

Eribis’ head snapped up. He reached for his gladius, panicking, and dropped his shield. The young man saw it flash past him and hit the ground, causing the [Line Captain] to jump back.

He tumbled over the battlements and hit the ground. He was dead! He was—

Up, Eribis! You idiot!

Someone grabbed him and heaved him up. He saw the [Veteran], a mad glint in her eyes, laughing. She had blood on her sword, and the Hemp-boy realized—

They’d taken this section of the walls. He looked around and gasped. All he saw were dead bodies. Torn flesh—

Glowing arrows? They stood out in a blank man’s throat, as his eyes stared deadly at Eribis. The Hemp [Soldier] realized they’d just been bombarded by a spell.

“[Scintillating Arrows]! Shields up! Shields up!”

They came from behind Eribis as he and the [Veteran] ducked. A rain of arrows that showered the sporadic Humans, enemy Stitch-folk, even a Garuda.

Up! Up! Hold the walls!

More Hemp [Soldiers] were climbing over the walls. One half-landed, stomping on Eribis’ leg. He rolled away, crying out, making way for the others. Scrambling to his feet, Eribis saw the city below, houses just as crumbling, a paved street as bad as any cobbled or dirt one because it was so worn and yet to be repaired.

Yet, a glorious city. And…he wavered as he saw racing figures headed for the stairs.

“To the breach! Alert Lord Venith! Hold them off!”

[Soldiers]. Reim’s reinforcements were coming, and Eribis saw a clear demarcation in the city. Civilians, actual children, women and men, were staring up at him with fear and hostility. Reim’s people. But the [Soldiers] were already fighting with the Hemp of Bast’s 14th, trying to push them back or hold them in place.

Yet every second, a dozen [Soldiers] came up the ladders. Eribis laughed as he saw they had taken a spot on the walls! A breach! And if they held this section—

Tussar’s 2nd. Coming up the ladders! Make way, you ill-wrought scum! Take the gates and let the chariots through!

A roar from behind Eribis made him flinch. He turned and saw a glowing helmet rise from the very same ladder he’d been climbing. A beautiful face. A Silk [Warrior] threw himself over the ladder as one of the very best of Nerrhavia’s army took over the assault.

“Tussar’s 2nd? Then we’re storming the city!

One of Eribis’ friends breathed. The Silk [Warrior] ignored him and shouted—he shoved at Eribis, snarling.

Forwards and fight, you slack-threaded fools!

Hemp obeyed, and Eribis turned—but the press on the walls was so tight he couldn’t actually reach the fighting, two dozen paces away though it was. He saw Hemp warriors clashing with desperate men and women who were stabbing into their armor and flesh, yet the Hemp advanced without fear. Someone tried to ram a steel spear through one [Soldier], and it actually failed to penetrate their thick cloth skin!

The Silk were right behind the Hemp, brandishing enchanted blades, ready to fight.

Tussar. Unlike Bast and Phloem, named after the cheap components of thread and cloth, Tussar were named after types of Silk. Enchanted gear. The veterans had told Eribis that if he ran into the dead of any Silk-division to steal their armor or swords because one piece would be worth more than he’d ever make.

The gates! Forget the walls and open the gates!

The first Silk-warrior was howling in Eribis’ ears. The young man turned and saw a movement across the flat ground.

Chariots. Chariots and horses, a wave of them storming forwards, ignoring the danger of the towers. They had held back for eight days, but now they sensed the opening. Once the gates fell, they’d storm into the city.

Yet there were still so many [Soldiers] below. A wave was positioned just below the walls, waiting for the gates to open. Grim faces staring up at Eribis. He met someone’s eyes and felt a shock. And…the civilians were watching. Some were armed with kitchen knives, or even hoes. Would they have to fight them? Butcher them?

No, Silk will do that. Hemp had bled and formed a breach; as ever, Silk and Cotton would go ahead of them. Even so, Eribis yearned to see the glorious chariots of Nerrhavia’s Fallen storm through the streets, deploying enchanted blades, an unstoppable impact of force, crewed by deadly [Charioteers] throwing javelins and sending the best warriors into the fighting. In the streets, they’d crash through any press of bodies, although it would fall to infantry to take the narrow alleyways.

But this was the gap into which Reim’s fall began. Eribis shouted, feeling a wild excitement in his veins as he pressed forwards. He heard more people taking it up.

The gates! The gates!

Horses! Horse!

Horse? The cry was half-taken up, but then it changed into a stranger pitch.

Horse!

Eribis saw the Silk-warrior turn from watching the gathering riders as well. Both he and the man glanced at each other, for one second of simultaneous confusion, and then their heads turned. The young man looked across the wall, and the Silk-warrior of Tussar’s 2nd murmured.

“But we’re on a wall.

Eribis agreed with a nod. Yet still. He saw someone riding across the battlements towards them. A man on horseback, ignoring the arrows, galloping past other soldiers, a spear raised over his head in two arms.

A…Human? Eribis saw the rider was mounted on a mare, not even a stallion, bareback. He wore ill-fitting leather armor, and Eribis saw hair white and wispy behind an iron helmet. He was an old man, laughing and charging the [Soldiers]. Behind him came charging [Soldiers], but the forces of Nerrhavia’s Fallen locked on the improbable rider, who had somehow climbed the stairs on horseback.

Coming straight at them. Then—Eribis heard a scream from behind him. He took his eyes off the charging [Rider]—who was only one man—and looked over his shoulder.

Officer assault! It’s—it’s the [General]—the—

A finger pointed. The [Soldiers] whirled, and the Silk shouted in excitement. Eribis turned and saw a knot of warriors pressing down the walls from the other end. He looked up and didn’t realize who he was seeing, at first.

All he saw was a helmet, a set figure holding a shield, pointing ahead with his sword in the middle of the fighting. Then the Silk-warrior shouted.

Venith Crusland! Take his head! Command has promised a hundred thousand gold to the warrior who does!

A hundred—Eribis’ head swam with the thought, but he looked at that figure. Venith Crusland, one of the vassals of the King of Destruction. His armor was red with blood, and suddenly he seemed bigger.

Bigger. The Hemp and Silk charged the new warriors, motivated by the gold and prospect of fighting him. But then Eribis saw Venith shoulder aside the warriors in front of him. He lowered his sword, and it began to glow. The [Lord] angled his sword like a spear and charged.

“Skill! Skill! Back up! Back—”

The press of bodies turned to confusion as the Silk warriors saw the danger and tried to back up, but ran into the others. One even tried to dodge and went over the battlements, screaming. The rest aimed their blades at Venith Crusland.

The [Lord]’s form grew. He seemed to turn into a man half as large again, armored head to toe, for a second. Eribis saw a giant hit the first rank of warriors, spearing a surprised Silk [Warrior] through the stomach. And he kept going. His other arm, holding his shield, rose and tossed three figures back over the ladder.

One of the ladders snapped as a figure hit it and sent a dozen screaming [Soldiers] down with it. Venith’s charge stopped as he literally rammed corpses into the others. The warriors stared up at him as he seemed to shrink—but that sword rose and beheaded a snarling [Captain] before he could lunge. Then it was plunging downwards, and Reim’s soldiers followed him into battle.

Howling. Eribis was screaming, but he looked into the faces of Reim’s soldiers, and his shout faltered. He felt like he was staring at a wild beast armed with a blade, who threw another [Soldier] off the walls before wildly slashing down another’s front. Wildly, as fast as a blink, but with all the experience Eribis lacked. Ducking a blade, coming up, spearing another figure below the gorget of armor through the neck. And that was one [Soldier].

The Hemp and Silk turned to face the advance of Venith Crusland and his personal guard. Eribis was setting himself when he heard a scream, felt an impact run through the people around him. He looked around and up—and there it was.

A horse. That old man had somehow closed the gap. But all the [Soldiers]? The [Veteran] who’d hauled Eribis up? Where…?

Move!

A hand threw Eribis sideways. The young man stumbled, gladius swinging wildly, but the Silk warrior charged the rider. He aimed his curved sword at the mare’s head, and Eribis saw a spear explode through the Silk warrior’s face. It was so fast he saw the afterimage of the Skill as the old warrior whirled his spear.

Forwards! Run, you traitorous pieces of cloth! Twice we broke your armies! Then and now!

The [Rider] was howling. His eyes looked like they were glowing as his spear flashed down again. Eribis cowered back and it saved his life. The old man whirled his spear.

[Scythe of the Slaughter]! Die.

Blood spattered Eribis’ face, and he screamed as he saw bodies collapse. The old man rode past him, howling, and struck down a ladder as he passed by. Venith Crusland was advancing on the other side. The old veteran—perhaps one of the King of Destruction’s original soldiers himself—rammed forwards. He couched his spear like a lance and ran two figures through with it.

An ancient, enchanted blade. So old that the glitter seemed faded. Deadly as could be. He turned, grinning, and the young man realized he’d been spotted.

There was one Hemp [Soldier] left on the walls still breathing. Eribis realized it was him and all the blood ran from his face. He turned and ran, dropping his gladius, screaming, fumbling to pick it up, and the [Rider] turned. The old man raised his spear, riding towards him—

And an arrow went through his back. Eribis, hands raised, saw the old man jerk. Another arrow struck him, and his look of bloody triumph turned melancholy. He grabbed at the second arrow, just under his armpit, and turned.

“Lord V—”

A third arrow hit him. Then a fourth, a fifth—a shower of arrows rained down around him, and the mare went down without a sound.

[Archers]. The old man was still alive, somehow. He stared up, no longer breathing, but still alive.

Waiting. Eribis saw a man walk forwards. Bend down.

Venith Crusland knelt, grabbing the old [Rider]’s hand. He stared down into the eyes, bent his head as the old man smiled and whispered. Eribis saw the [Lord]’s grip tighten—and those eyes close.

The spear slipped from a limp hand. Eribis saw Venith’s helmeted head bow. Then…

The [Lord]’s head rose. He looked straight at the boy, and the [Soldier] waved his gladius, shaking.

Hemp [Soldiers] were coming up the walls, listening to the screaming [Line Captain]. They hadn’t seen what had happened above. They landed around Eribis, and saw the armored warrior pick up the spear and hand it to one of the warriors behind him. He raised his sword and shield and advanced. Eribis was shaking. Then he looked over his shoulder and saw a squad of warriors charging at him. Screaming the King of Destruction’s name.

One raised a mace as they came. Eribis saw the motion and raised his sword, hesitating. Flinching. Blocking

The mace bashed his sword into his face. Then it struck him. The gap disappeared, and the ladders fell back. Bast’s 14th retreated after taking casualties.

Reim held out another hour. But the dead [Terror Rider] never came back. Nor did any of the fallen. Still, for every one of the defenders who fell…they were replaced.

For now.

 

——

 

This was the moment when levels lost their meaning. Not because they were useless. On the contrary. They lost their meaning because it was war.

Levels jumped. People gained a dozen levels and died. [Blademasters] died, blinking, staring at [Greenhorn Recruits] who stabbed over their corpses, not knowing who they killed.

They were bleeding great warriors. She saw it.

Lady Maresar stood on a platform, loosing arrows from behind barriers. She shot a high-level warrior of some kind through the face. She had seen that boy die. She had loosed three arrows, but let Venith hold the line.

She hadn’t been able to save that old man. She didn’t know his name, but she thought she had known his unit of old.

Terrifying riders who charged alone into masses of infantry like that and wiped them out with area-of-attack Skills. A task for men and women who didn’t fear death.

Someone had fought in the first armies, and lived through Flos’ slumber. Had grown old enough to have white hair and not be called to the front. Then they took a mare, their spear…

And died on these walls. Maresar didn’t question why—she just charted his life like that and reached for another arrow. That was how it worked.

The [Bandit Lord] aimed an arrow, loosed it. She didn’t know what kind it was until it left her quiver.

Unenchanted. It slammed into an armored chest, and a figure staggered. Some kind of heavy-armored warrior who was cutting down too many people. He turned, saw her, and raised his shield. With his other arm, he made a taunting gesture.

What class? Did it matter? He had to die. [Legionary]? [Armored Officer]? [Immortal]? [Gladiator]?

Maresar reached for an arrow, realized her quiver was empty, and looked around. She saw a bundle of arrows lying at her feet, reached down—

Volley incoming!

The [Bandit Lord] threw herself down, smacking into the wood of the platform. She felt a heavy impact on her back, but her enchanted armor saved her.

Not so for one of the [Markswomen] in her group. Maresar rose and looked into the dead eyes of a Level 34 [Markswoman]. Another old woman who could barely draw the arrow to her chest but hit every target.

They died. Yet…Maresar saw someone roll over the woman. Shake her. Then, amidst tears, a wordless cry—a young man with blood in his dark hair grabbed her bow. Did he know her? Was he a grandson?

The [Bandit Lord] read his class. Level 12 [Hunter]. He wasn’t even one of the dedicated [Archers], but he had been running them arrows. He snatched up the old woman’s bow, lifted it, and drew an arrow. He loosed it—and Maresar whirled.

She saw, far beyond the walls, one of the distant [Longbow Archers] crumple. An arrow through the eye.

Maresar’s head turned back and saw a Level 14 [Hunter] loose another arrow. Someone else went down, an arrow through their throat.

Back up! Back up and stop shooting!

One of the other [Archers] hadn’t seen the arrows land and thought the boy had gone mad with grief, which he had. Maresar raised her hand.

“Take her place. Get another runner. Back in position!

And like that, a boy found out he had a talent for war. When he slept—and he would soon—he would hear those levels and be stronger. Maresar kept her eyes on his face, counting. At Level 20. Or…

She turned. That armored figure was smashing his way forward, roaring, and she could see no weak points.

Lady Maresar! That warrior—

“I see it. Get me an enchanted arrow.”

A figure ran for the stash but they were out. Maresar cursed. She looked around for arrows fired at them—and her hand went to her side.

She had one arrow left. The tip was glittering with a beautiful, flawed metal. A jagged shard of Naq-Alrama steel.

Retrieved from Clan Tannousin’s failure. Maresar looked at it, the enemy warrior. Not that one. 

Not yet. Another arrow. She hunted around. Then saw something which had been tossed at them, sticking out of the ground. From some volley? A throw from the walls? She grabbed it, lifted the javelin up, and checked the armored warrior.

“[I Can Shoot That].”

Maresar didn’t look at what she was holding. She nocked the arrow, felt the weight of it on the enchanted bowstring. Heavy—it was going to drop—she aimed up, above the helmet.

The armored warrior looked up, spotted the javelin coming towards his face, and blocked it. It still knocked him stumbling back towards the wall. His head tilted up, and Maresar shot him through that sliver of his throat. She lowered her bow, arm burning, and searched for Venith.

He wasn’t dead. So Maresar breathed in, checked herself, and reached for another arrow. How much longer until the walls fell? Until…

She wondered where Calac was. Maresar grinned. If this were any other battle, if she didn’t have him—her eyes locked on Venith—

She’d run. Run and live, but how was she supposed to run if he wouldn’t? If everything that mattered was here—

Ah, no wonder she’d stopped leveling in [Bandit Lord]. Maresar looked up.

And Calac was in Wistram. Wonderful. She smiled as she reached for another arrow. The army kept climbing, ten thousand targets, a hopeless battle. Maresar grinned as she shot another arrow, not for the love of blood or anger or joy. Just relief. Venith was still standing. Calac was in Wistram.

She had nothing to fear.

 

——

 

Three Days Ago.

 

Archmage Viltach was a man who took baths. As opposed to a man who took showers, which was largely what you could split most of the known world into. Baths—yes, steam baths and saunas and whatnot were variations—or showers.

There were also the degenerate monsters who took neither and just walked around accumulating and spreading filth, or the even more deranged [Mages] who cast [Cleanse] on themselves every day.

Viltach, however, was in a subset of bathing people who employed various mixtures to improve bathing. Herbal additives, oils, and bubbles.

Oh, lots of bubbles. Was it childish to create a huge pool of hot water you could jump into with suds so high they’d hide you from the world?

Yes. But his children loved it, which proved the point, and Viltach had learned the romantic and relationship qualities of a bath. Yes, you could in theory do that in a shower, but a shower was always rushing things.

He missed his children. Some of them missed him. It was about time for another visit. But the Archmage was stressed, busy with a war that Eldavin had begun—the situation with Amerys—

And his one moment of solace besides sitting at his crafting station was ruined three minutes into his bath. The Archmage stomped out of his rooms as the alarm-spell grew louder and louder.

Who is making that racket? No one should be able to manipulate the door-alarms but me.

Or an Archmage. If this was some j—

Viltach stopped. He looked up, went for a wand, realized he was in his hastily thrown-on, unenchanted robes, and realized this was the moment he died. It was, of course, never how you expected it.

The looming figure’s crushing hand of porcelain hovered above his face. A gleaming, perfect mask of sculpted ceramics. A Golem. This was it. They were going to kill him. This was—

Viltach realized it was not his death a moment later, and the instinctive fear turned to relieved anger.

What are you doing?

The Golem was no serving Golem. Nor was it Cognita, but for a second the pale white of the light blue porcelain had made him think—

But it was a male Golem, with an impressive physique under ornate, sculpted clothes. No serving Golem, this. They tended to have some element of puppet-qualities, a deliberate lack of details. This Golem?

This Golem had a sword on its back. It was one of the protector Golems. Viltach never saw it roaming about.

“Wh—what is this about? Who sent you?”

The Protector-class Golem looked at Viltach. The Archmage realized it couldn’t speak and was looking around when he was disabused of that notion. The Golem’s mouth opened, revealing a disconcertingly marble, uncarved opening. A puppet’s mouth, and the voice was equally unsophisticated. Yet it did speak.

“A Golem is destroyed. An intruder is in Wistram.

Viltach stared up at it. The Protector-class Golem waited as the Archmage’s mouth moved.

“Who? What? Did you catch it?”

The Protector-class Golem stared at him. It repeated itself.

A Golem is destroyed. An intruder is in Wistram.

Viltach hesitated.

“Yes, but where? Who? How many? What’s the context?”

The Protector-class Golem stared at him, and the Archmage realized—with Cognita gone? He’d opened a bottle of wine to celebrate that monster’s absence. Now, he began to wonder if her absence was a bad sign.

An intruder is in Wistram. Viltach closed his eyes.

It had begun.

 

——

 

“There is a reason my King sent no great army to take Wistram. Or even a smaller group. He could not afford to send so many. Also? Unless he had his armies from before his slumber, there is no guarantee we could triumph. I knew this—but I was sure the moment I began my surveillance and study of the academy. There is a Golem buried at the base of the academy. Under water. It could wipe out a standard, unenchanted warship on its own. It is so vast it would be called half-Giant class.”

“So…”

“As large as Zamea.”

“D-does that imply there’s a Giant class? Or bigger?”

Yes. But that Golem was made by the greatest Archmage in the field at the time. And it is not alone. There are more, buried there. I cannot kill them. I do not need to. Tell me about the layout of Amerys’ prison again.”

Gazi Pathseeker looked at Calac and Trey’s map. She had a map of her own. She sat in Trey’s room, and he remembered why he had not called for her instantly.

It was simple. Trey respected Gazi. He liked her. He felt very conflicted about her, but he saw her good qualities that she liked to hide behind her scary mask and reputation.

However, because he knew her, he also knew that she was terrifying. Trey had convinced Calac not to call on her at first because it was risky, because she might be noticed and then the game would be up and they’d be really out of time. However, Calac had agreed because Trey thought he understood the same thing he did.

When Gazi moved, people would die. And Wistram’s [Mages] didn’t deserve that, by and large. He had missed her, though. She was intelligent, scary…

And, currently, on her third pie. The Gazer licked her fingers; she hadn’t taken off her gauntlets, but she reached for another bowl of food.

“This is good. Earth food?”

“Um. Yes. Do you want more?”

One of her five eyes swiveled towards him. Another fixed his bag of holding with a pointed look.

Yes. What are those round things with multiple components?”

“H-hamburgers? It’s just an Earth food.”

“I will eat them.”

Trey looked at Calac. The young man had heard rumors of Gazi, as had Trey, but neither of them quite remembered ‘Gazi the Omniscient’ also being known as ‘Gazi the World Champion Food Eater’.

However, the half-Gazer woman was chomping down food as fast as she could while she stared at their map and hers. Trey unpacked the hamburgers, grateful Wistram’s [Mages] didn’t blink twice at you stealing food from the buffet line.

“Are you hungry, Lady Gazi…?”

Calac ventured. Gazi stared at him, and the young man quailed a bit before that huge eye. Everyone did. You thought you’d been stared at hard by someone before? Try an eye half the size of your face staring at you without blinking.

“I have been eating food underwater for over a month. Raw fish. In the ocean. Preserved rations. Underwater. What is that?”

“A puff pastry?”

“What is that substance inside it?”

Another thing about Gazi—she saw everything. Noticed everything. However, she didn’t understand everything, so she was actually very cautious and demanded to know what whipped cream was before she had one of the dough treats filled with sugar that Telim loved so much.

Trey watched Gazi. Calac watched Gazi with as close to hero worship as Trey had ever seen.

Minizi? She peeked around Gazi from behind Trey’s bed. One of Gazi’s eyes was rolled up in her head, watching the Golem.

“You made a Lifesand Golem after me.”

“I, uh—uh—yes? I was bored and I made a lot but she—Minizi—stuck.”

Trey turned beet red as Gazi regarded him. The Gazer smiled, peeling apart the hamburger to inspect each section.

“I see. What is this…white stuff? I have never seen it before.”

“Um. Mayonnaise. Egg yolks and oil and such.”

“Hm.”

That was all she said. The Gazer licked the mayonnaise experimentally and smacked her lips. Which was such a normal thing to do, it didn’t fit Gazi Pathseeker.

Trey had often thought this privately, but even more now that he had been to Wistram and seen every species represented save for the myriad of Drowned Folk, Gnolls, and Fraerlings in person.

Of the known, civilized races of this world—Gazers were the most alien. He did not think this just because he had seen A’ctelios Salash and the parallels.

There was something different about Gazers. A lack of a nose, for one thing. The only species who had an equivalent were Lizardfolk and Drakes, but they had lizard-like nose holes and that distinctive reptilian cast to their face. Or draconic, if you didn’t want to make the Drakes mad.

Garuda also lacked noses, but they had beaks, which were arguably the same thing. Minotaurs?

No, that was it. Each species was patterned after some ancient ancestor. Many humanoids echoed monkeys. Drakes and Lizardfolk, reptiles. Garuda? Birds. Minotaurs—cows.

What were Gazers made in shape of? Where did they come from? 

Such an alien woman, and she was the only known Gazer who had served Reim in the spotlight. One of her kind, half-Gazer, and the rest of her species in Baleros. Yet…she was here, and Trey was relieved.

Gazi smiled as she recompiled her burger and took a bite. She was watching as Calac spread out the maps, explaining what they’d learned. And how they’d failed. Gazi calmly looked at the shamefaced [Lord]’s expression.

“It was never easy, Calac Crusland. Focus on the next attempt. It will be our first and last.”

That was as encouraging as she ever got, and she spoke in that deliberate, quiet way that was all too ominous. Yet Calac seemed to take heart from it. He glanced at Trey, and the young man saw the complete trust in his eyes.

Of course. He was looking at a living legend. One of the Seven. Trey was reassured, but only because he liked Gazi.

He couldn’t help but remember the fact that she claimed to be the weakest of the Seven in levels. Also…that, until recently, someone had poked her eye out.

“So. They’ve trapped the hallways. Six Guardian-class Golems. Gembound Protectorate. Wistram’s old Golems, it must be.”

Gazi’s eyes fixed on the map. Trey stirred.

“Is that their name? Do you know them?”

One of Gazi’s eyes flicked to him; that was how you knew she was listening. She seldom turned her head to acknowledge anyone but Flos, but if one eye was on you, you had her attention. It was something people had to get used to, like Goelv learning that people got upset if you didn’t look at them with your entire body.

Goelv. What would he think if he knew Gazi were here? Trey kept glancing at the door, but Gazi smiled.

“No one is watching us. Yet. I can see [Scrying] spells and all but the most powerful illusion spells.”

“Can you see through all of Wistram?”

The Gazer instantly shook her head. She frowned, her one huge eyelid narrowing in a rare sign of displeasure.

“It is impossible for me. Some places…yes. Mundane enchantments. Most of it? No. Wistram is confusing. It has always been confusing. I knew it, coming here.”

“You’ve been here before.”

Calac sat up. Another eye rolled towards him and calmly fixed him with a violet glare.

“Yes. Amerys invited me before. I know some of what is dangerous here thanks to that. Those Golems I know. They are Gembound Golems. Each gem is a source of power. They fight well. They would be…difficult to kill for me. I would not fight two. Nor are they like the other Golems.”

“How so?”

Gazi sipped from a cup. She reached out behind her and poked Minizi in the eye as the Golem tried to sneak up behind her. The Lifesand Golem retreated, stared at Gazi, and instantly fled behind Trey’s bed. The young man stared at Minizi. He didn’t know what was up with his creation, but he thought Minizi was…nervous?

“They are Wistram’s soldiers of older times. Zelkyr did not make them. Hence, the Archmages can control them more directly. Hm. Even so, she has control. So. Trapped hallways, maze, Amerys in bindings, and guards.”

Gazi stretched her four-fingered hand as the two young men nodded. She considered the obstacles and shook her head.

“That alone I could handle. The real threats are the Archmages. Do they personally patrol the areas? The ward spells—are connected to them?”

“I don’t know.”

The Gazer nodded as Trey looked shamefaced. Her main eye kept buzzing around, checking every area for spells.

“Then…Ullsinoi. As great a threat. I remember them from the war.”

Calac and Trey traded glances. The [Lord] half-bowed.

“Lady Pathseeker. Do you mean the recent wars with Hellios, Belchan, and such? Or do you mean…?”

The [Scout] stopped eating.

“We fought them during my lord’s first kingdom. When the King of Destruction began to take Chandrar, I remember strange tricks. Powerful illusions. Orders that mislaid entire armies. We encountered them rarely. I killed two of their number—I think—over the course of the entire war. Amerys went to Wistram to negotiate a truce. They are a powerful enemy.”

Trey could only agree with that. He thought of Galei’s warning and shuddered.

“I think they know I was trying to break Amerys out, Gazi. I don’t know…if they know about you.”

She shrugged, her armor capturing every motion with ease. It was apparently feather-light; Gazi had once told Trey he could lift her up fairly easily. It allowed her to scale walls and perform tricks most [Knights] wouldn’t dare imagine.

[War Scout]. A former [Infiltrator] and [Mage]. Even a [Silent Commander]. However—

A Level 45 [War Scout]. ‘Low-level’, according to Gazi, which meant that she was a Named Adventurer almost by virtue of that level alone. But this was Wistram—unlike anywhere else in the world, Gazi was among people close to her level.

Or higher. Yet the Gazer was clearly going up her ranking of threats. Golems, Archmages—and then Ullsinoi. She seemed most concerned by one more factor and turned to Trey.

“Ullsinoi must be dealt with. The Archmages likewise; the Golems can be evaded or delayed. I have gear and preparations. A single Archmage I could battle. I do not need to free Amerys, only that we get to her. We have an escape route planned. However…what about her?”

“Her?”

Gazi shifted. She looked…uncomfortable for a second, and her spinning main eye kept zooming around.

“Cognita Truestone. She is the most dangerous being in all of Wistram. She could slaughter us all, and I am no [Mage] with the protection of the academy, but an intruder.”

She didn’t know. Trey’s mouth fell open—but of course! Gazi had been in infiltration mode for—the Gazer fixed on Trey’s face.

“Cognita? Has something changed?”

“She left Wistram, Gazi. Everyone’s talking about it. She left Wistram, and she’s apparently in Nerrhavia’s Fallen. No one knows why but—oh, I think I know part of the reason. Grand Magus Eldavin did something, but he’s gone too, along with half of Terras.”

Calac turned sharply to stare at Trey; the young man had told no one about what he’d seen. Gazi, though? All five eyes stared at Trey for a second.

Then she began to smile that evil, malicious smile she worked so hard on.

 

——

 

A Golem was dead. Or destroyed.

It was the talk of no one but the Archmages, who had all been summoned—for lack of a better word—to deal with the issue.

‘Alerted’ might be the word some would use, but the Archmages had been roused from their activities and been told this was an issue. Solve it. There was a difference in how each word was used, and the Archmages resented that difference.

Even so.

“It’s not one of the Gemstones guarding Amerys.”

“You’re sure.”

Viltach leaned on the table in one of the private rooms as four Archmages conferred. No Eldavin, no Valeterisa, or Amerys, or any of the others.

Just the ones here. Feor, Nailihuaile, Viltach, and Verdan. The old Archmage of Dullahans looked sleepy; he might have been roused from his rest.

Nailihuaile looked annoyed.

“Maybe one of them fell into a hole or ran into a trap spell.”

Feor shook his head impatiently.

“A Golem? A careless student who wandered into a dangerous part of Wistram—perhaps. But a Golem? This was no accident.”

“Do the Golems even know what happened?”

Verdan muttered. Viltach sighed in exasperation.

“The one I questioned didn’t have any answers. They just know one of their own was terminated—not by whom or what—but they want us to do something about it. More importantly—she wants us to do something. I have a [Message] from Nerrhavia’s Fallen, top priority from one of our Mage’s Guilds. Guess who sent it?”

The Archmages didn’t have to. Cognita’s missive was short and to the point.

 

Do not let any more Golems die. Or I will take measures to ensure they do not. There is an intruder in Wistram. Deal with it.

 

“The nerve of that block of marble.”

Naili hissed. She lashed her tail angrily, and glared in a way that Viltach was sure she wouldn’t do if Cognita were in the room or even in Wistram. Feor stroked at his beard. Viltach wondered how he dyed it. You could use just a basic alchemical dye, but those washed out. He had to be more cunning. Maybe he used a spider-polymer dye? He’d heard about those.

“Cognita may be pointing out that her absence means she will not hunt down the intruder herself, Nailihuaile.”

“And we need her?”

The Star Lamia scoffed. Feor and Verdan, far older than the other two Archmages, both chorused instantly.

Yes.

Viltach looked at them, as surprised as Naili. It was Verdan who explained. The old man coughed and rubbed at his armor. Did he sleep in the stuff?

“You do not remember, but Cognita has historically…dealt with all intruders to Wistram. Decisively. So quickly she would announce they were found—and dead—before we knew they were here. She is Wistram’s first, last, and only security needed. I didn’t think to consider what her absence means.”

“We still have every Golem but her.”

Viltach pointed out reasonably. Verdan shrugged.

“Yes, and they will most likely counter intruders—but Cognita is intelligent. It is one thing to send one of the most advanced Golems on a hunt. Another for Cognita to lay a trap and kill her opponent. There was an incident where one of our High Mages offended the Guild of Assassins in Baleros. I think they sent fifteen [Assassins] before they gave up. Cognita Truestone killed [Archmages]. Almost nothing gets past her.”

“Of course, they just assassinated the [High Mage] once he left Wistram.”

Feor muttered, sotto voce. Verdan nodded.

“Cognita does not care. Her authority begins and ends in Wistram. So we are on our own.”

Nailihuaile listened to her elders talk and rolled her eyes.

“Alright, we’re alone and we don’t have Auntie Cognita to hold our tails and wipe for us. There’s an intruder in Wistram? Who? An [Assassin] evening a score? A [Thief]? Or…”

She glanced at Viltach.

“…Was that trap spell Ullsinoi kicked up a fuss about not an accident after all? Maybe poor Emirea’s seagull was an accidental casualty and there really was something going on.”

Viltach kept his face straight as he watched the others for reactions. Verdan frowned, looking genuinely confused.

“What seagull?”

Feor calmly tapped his lips.

“We have already implemented their suggestions. The students and younger [Mages] might soon notice the Creler-mural hallway is open.”

“At least my [Mages] will stop complaining. They can damn well get their own food if we increase the guard.”

The Star Lamia rolled her eyes. Viltach agreed with that. Verdan raised a hand.

“Why did we open the Mershi-lounges? I thought the point was to keep it all hidden. Secure!”

The what?

All three other Archmages instantly turned and focused on Verdan. The Archmage of Armor compressed his lips instantly.

Naili’s eyes lit up.

“Is that what it’s called? Mershi? As in, Mershi, the City of Stars?”

Verdan refused to say anything else. Viltach didn’t need to write that down; he was going to remember that. He suspected Verdan had accidentally let slip a Major Secret.

Well, well, well. This meeting was productive after all. Feor eventually lifted a hand.

“Let’s keep our eyes open. I suggest we all do a bit of investigating. Amerys is under heavy guard. But…why not make absolutely sure, rather than leave it to Ullsinoi?”

The other Archmages looked at him, and the old Archmage proposed an idea that they all could instantly agree on. Secrets and knowledge—it was a weapon. Viltach knew Verdan and Feor had the drop on him and Nailihuaile, but he had one thing they didn’t. Perspective on what was happening.

The only question was—what did you do with it? Viltach had been wondering, wrestling with that for a while. But he had a feeling his window to make his decision was rapidly running out.

 

——

 

The problem with heroes was that they let you down. Even if it was just by being mortal and not flying into the sun to punch it out of orbit.

Gazi failed.

Trey Atwood watched it happen. He was shaking the entire time she stealthed towards the Creler-mural to investigate.

No…break Amerys out. If it were possible. The Gazer had listened to their detailed account of the traps and problems and nodded.

I will attempt to reach her tonight.

Calac and Trey had looked at her, astonished, but the half-Gazer just smiled.

“I cannot know how difficult it is until I attempt it myself.”

She was a professional, an expert. And confident enough to gamble on detection for information. Trey accompanied her on this mission. Not because he could keep as quiet as her; rather, as a distraction.

He had every ability to visit Amerys—or try to—so Gazi told him to walk to the Creler-murals, pace around or go inside if he thought it was permissible, and then return to his rooms.

Meanwhile, she would be attempting to bypass the layers of security. So Trey did just that. He wondered how Gazi was going to reach that spot.

Even if no one seemed to be actively looking for her, despite her intrusion into Wistram—and he was certain they had noticed the dead Golem—the hallways had ordinary Golems walking them, and [Mages]. And Ullsinoi.

The method scared the hell out of him when Gazi revealed how she was going to do it. And he realized—Level 40 was a long way from Level 20 or Level 30.

Trey Atwood felt Gazi’s breath on his neck. Probably because she wasn’t bothering to keep hidden. He felt his skin prickling, but he passed by a [Mage] who only nodded sleepily at him. The Selphid never saw Gazi.

She was walking right behind him. [Walking in Your Shadow].

He had no idea she could do that, but it explained how she was famously hard to find. Nor did Gazi simply rely on this cloaking Skill.

Take a left. Speed up.

Trey instantly sped up a bit. He didn’t know what Gazi had spotted, but she wanted him to take a detour. He turned down a hallway and slowed at Gazi’s prompting. He walked on, sweating. Trey wanted to mutter, ‘what was that’? But he didn’t.

She must have known what he was thinking, so she answered for him.

“Invisible Mage. Perhaps a student. Perhaps not.”

He nodded fractionally. Gazi was steering him away from any possible detection—and there was a lot more of it than he thought. Warded doors in residential areas. Entire hallways she didn’t know the purpose of. And Golems—

All the mundane ones she let him walk past, but every Golem that looked well-made—and even a few that appeared more mundane—she told him to walk wide of. Trey stared at one of the Golems he was told to back away from.

It looked like it was just a clay Golem. Rough-made, almost to the point where the dark brown, earthy clay might leave detritus everywhere. Constantly soft clay, a common laborer Golem that was carrying its burden down the hallway; it had a harness pulling a floating trolley piled up with gemstones from Salazsar.

Very rough, very cheap—for a Golem, an expensive creation that few people in the world could afford—especially for Wistram, the Academy of [Mages], and a Golem that Zelkyr or his people might have created.

Too cheap, Trey realized. He eyed the Golem as he turned and walked sideways. Gazi’s voice was a hair tenser in his ear.

There’s something inside of it. Walk faster.

Trey would never look at the Golems of Wistram again the same way. Not after this night. Especially because, when they reached the hallway with the Creler-mural at last, nearly twice as long as it would have taken Trey normally, even with Telim guiding him…

Gazi slipped past the Gemstone Golems in the time it took Trey to peer inside and be recognized.

“Is that Troy? Hello, young man! Out for another visit?”

He jumped and saw Yolv, the friendly Dwarf, waving a hand at him. He was standing in the antechamber that marked these Hidden Hallways, bold as you like.

The mural was gone. Or rather…Trey stared at the two walls, which had folded inwards, creating two murals and a hallway that connected to the lounge area.

He looked from Creler-mural to Creler-mural and realized they had split along the inside. So that now one mural depicted the first attack of Crelers and desperation and destruction—and the other was a triumphant victory as they were forced back.

Parallels. It was so disconcerting to see the wall gone, though, that he stared—and then looked at the Dwarf.

The [Battle Mage] was stretching in the open area as two of the giant Gemstone Golems waited impassively. Trey’s eyes met Yolv’s and he stuttered.

“Oh, I was just passing by and I thought I’d—I don’t have anyone to guide me. Now that Telim and Sa’la and…”

Yolv slapped his forehead.

“Grand Magus Eldavin’s faction’s gone! Ah, pardon me. Archmage Eldavin. I was wondering why you didn’t show up all week! Then again—after hearing about those trap spells? I couldn’t blame you, but anyone who came back after Amerys nearly took off their fingers, I thought…it’s fine if you want to visit. How about it?”

He smiled and beckoned. Trey hesitantly stepped across the antechamber. He was rather pale and nervous, and cloaked his unease by staring at the Golems.

Yolv looked at the two and chuckled. Behind him, the open hallway betrayed the tromp of the other four on patrol, and he glanced over his shoulder.

“Nasty, aren’t they? You’ve never seen them fight, I’ll be bound. Well, I have, once. They’re a terror on the battlefield. It’s overkill to have them here, but Ullsinoi had a point. I was just stretching out here; come in, come in. You don’t have to visit Amerys, even. Now the hallways are opened up, we’ve doubled the guard and we’re still bored.”

“Really?”

Trey smiled at Yolv. He felt sweat running down his back, an ocean of it. It didn’t have as much to do with him being a secret infiltrator or Gazi’s presence in general.

It specifically had more to do with Gazi slowly walking around the perimeter of the hallway, bold as you like, hand on the hilt of her claymore, smiling and staring up at the Golems.

Right in the open. Yet Yolv didn’t seem to notice her. Trey watched Gazi out of the corner of his eyes as the Dwarf complained.

“The Archmages told us we could let more people in—even bring guests. Who wants to sit about all day? Cards? We started betting scrolls, and it gets ugly. Mind you, we are being paid to sit here, but I am going insane.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Master Yolv.”

He laughed.

“Maybe I should start teaching students. That’s it! If I’m going to sit on my ass—well, I don’t think I have the patience to be a teacher, honestly. You’re pleasant to be around, but some of the hairless bandits that are younger students make me want to drink magicore. How about a little visit? We won’t keep you up. Do you have class tomorrow?”

Trey took a step forward and one of the Gemstone Golems turned to him. Gazi ducked as the Golem turned its head. He realized she had ducked a flashing red ruby.

As if each gemstone had a cone of sight. No…Trey saw the Golem on the left, nearest to her, flashing its gemstones slightly. Only the ones on its body near her.

Confused, as if it were checking something. Gazi slowly slid left, and some of the gems dimmed ever-so-slightly. The Golem turned to track him, and Trey lifted his hands. Yolv waved at the Golems, and both turned to focus on the Dwarf.

“Stop that. He’s with me. Desist. Understand?

Gazi strode towards the wall and hugged it as Trey and Yolv walked past the Golems. He saw one of the protectors turn back—but Gazi flashed past him in a blur.

The gust of wind made Yolv stiffen. Slight though it was, he instantly tilted his head backwards and checked behind him. Gazi met Trey’s eyes as she stood to the side of Yolv.

“Hm?”

The Dwarf was still a battlemage. He frowned behind him, then looked around. Yolv touched a stone on his neck and glanced at Trey.

“One moment. I thought…?”

He turned in a slow rotation, and Trey saw Gazi slowly walk around him. He had never seen anything like that except in a movie—but this was no comedy. Gazi slid, doing a complicated walk that made no sound and kept her moving smoothly as Yolv rotated.

She had her hand on her sword and Yolv’s neck. Trey held his breath—

And Yolv shrugged.

“Can’t be too cautious. I—”

He smiled at Trey, whirled around, and bellowed.

Got you, you Ullsinoi bastards!

He stabbed the air with his finger, missing Gazi by a mile; she was already in a room adjoining theirs. Yolv stared at the empty air, as did Trey, and coughed. He blushed into his beard.

“I thought it was them. Must have just been a draft. Er…don’t tell anyone I did that.”

Trey’s smile was sickly, but Yolv was too embarrassed to notice. He saw Gazi poke her head out the hallway and tried not to explode with anxiety.

However…she had proved she could evade the Gemstone Golems. Even Yolv and the [Mages] as well. He was walking towards the place where Amerys was when Yolv pointed ahead and cursed.

“Ah, damn. I forgot. It’s a fifteen minute walk through the maze. You could just say hello to the outer guards. The poor bastards on the inside hate it.”

Trey looked ahead and saw the ordinary, carpeted floor turn to mist. He looked past Yolv, into a maze of old stone, fog…and ancient brick floors.

Ullsinoi’s maze.

“Ullsinoi made that?”

“Yep. One of their pet mazes. Trapped too. Makes me nervous, but we know where to go to get through. Actually, it does bother me. Maybe I was too hasty. Did you want to meet Amerys?”

Yolv rubbed at his neck. Trey looked around and saw three [Mages] glancing up from a table where they were all arguing.

“—if we’re fighting against Ailendamus, does that mean we’re involving ourselves in other wars? I agreed about the Fissival-Gnoll problem already. Those damn Drakes have caused problems for us so let them eat crap. But—oh, is that Troy?”

The [Mage]-guards turned, and Yolv waved, explaining he’d abducted Trey for a moment to say hello. The young man waved—and saw Gazi slip past him into the maze.

She was actually doing it. He saw the half-Gazer walking down the hallway in an odd pattern. Like a wavy snake, not at random, but clearly dodging tiles that had, to Trey, the faintest glint of magic now that he knew to check. That was Eldavin’s teachings in detecting magic on a ‘superior level’, as he put it. Trey would never have trusted to it, but Gazi?

She bent under what must have been a tripwire, squeezed through a curtain of something in the air, and seemed to time her next step. Then she was at the maze and glanced at Trey once.

A smile without teeth. A master-class [Infiltrator]. She looked around the maze and grinned. Trey felt like using the restroom—he saw her look at him and wink one eye.

She could see through the maze.

Golems down! The Gemstone Golems hadn’t noticed her on their patrol; Yolv and Trey had helped; they were stopping to scan him. The [Mages] were oblivious, and the ones inside? Trey didn’t know what was going to happen next. Would Gazi free Amerys? Would they come out? The half-Gazer disappeared into the maze, clearly carefully picking her path, stopping at intersections.

Would they come out and fight Yolv? He felt a sudden pang as the kindly Dwarf sat.

“It’s so boring. Maybe you should bring your spellbook, Troy. We could teach you some spells. What’s your specialty?”

“Sand magic and light.”

“Let’s teach you a few spells! Bring your friends, even!”

A smiling woman suggested, Viltach’s faction. Trey was embarrassed, and the Naga nudged the others.

“The poor boy has class tomorrow, probably. Don’t make him study tonight.

“Another night, then. Or what about—how old are you, Troy?”

“Er, seventeen?”

The Naga smiled.

“Then you can have a drink! No party; we’re on duty, but—”

“He’s underage!”

“He’s seventeen. Oh, come on. Terandrians. Eighteen? You’re going to tell me you waited until you were eighteen in Wistram to drink…? It’s not even enforced equally across one continent!”

The guards started arguing, and Trey tried to focus on the conversation with them. But all the while he was imagining what might happen next, he really needed to pee, and his nerves were humming.

No. Trey glanced up and realized Yolv was frowning. The young man looked around and heard it grow louder.

The air was humming.

“What’s that? Oh, for the love of beard wax—”

Yolv half-rose. The other [Guards] stopped bantering and looked up. Trey heard a sound in the air. All the hair on his neck rose.

A voice.

No…was it a voice? It sounded…

Far too vast to come from lungs. Vast, yet high-pitched. An eerie wail.

“I thought it was supposed to stay inside the—

“I know. Maybe it saw something. Another rat? Wands out. Troy—get behind us.”

The [Mages] rose in a second. Trey saw them walk forwards. He looked at them, then saw, as the [Mages] walked forwards—

Gazi. She had activated at least two more Skills because she was half-blurred and invisible to him. She reappeared, crouching by one of the open doors. The [Mages] didn’t notice; they triggered their detection spells almost as an afterthought. Magical barriers went up, and Trey saw them preparing spells.

The singing grew louder. The [Mages] seemed almost as nervous about it as…the possibility of an intruder.

“It’s definitely coming this way.”

“Fuck, fuck, I hate the idea that it’s malfunctioning. If it’s a rat again—”

Trey peeked out of the hallway over Yolv’s head. He looked into that maze of mists the Ullsinoi set up and saw something as the echoing voice came closer. He looked at Gazi, and the Gazer stared at him with one eye. Three were locked ahead of him, and she was no longer smiling. He saw something turn the corner in that illusory maze and cursed Ullsinoi. Cursed the pranksters of Wistram.

Galei had warned him. Ullsinoi, that jovial, mocking faction was funny and they laughed at everything.

Until they stopped. And then everything was for keeps.

Trey had seen the Golems of Wistram before. He had even beheld the terrible truth of Zelkyr’s final test. Golems made for war and destruction on massive scales.

The Gemstone Golems heralded a time when Wistram deployed them to fight as [Mages] made great war. An echo of Eldavin’s flying soldiers in magical armor.

But this Golem…

This was from a time neither dominated by outright war nor pure control and power. Had Ullsinoi had it all along? Was it just…buried in Wistram, condemned to wander other places? Or did the [Mages] keep it out of sight unless they needed it because they didn’t need nightmares?

Perhaps all of these things combined. The one thing Trey knew, the instant he saw the singing Golem, wandering the maze was simply this:

It had been made by [Mages], [Golem Artificers], of Wistram. For the singing…Golem…even had robes and carried a staff, like a parody of a [Mage]. Male? Female? He couldn’t tell. But instinct told Trey that whenever it had been created…

It had been made by Gazers. When an Archmage of their kind, perhaps, ruled Wistram.

He knew this because of the eyes. So many eyes. Too many—and not the gemstone ones that harkened to a machine’s look. Sculpted, too-real eyes. Nor was this Golem made of marble or stone. It looked…wet.

It sang, and each eye was searching around. They must have been able to see as well as Gazi’s eyes. Because when Trey peeked out at it, an eye was already locked on him. Gazi Pathseeker backed away. He saw her retreating, as the guards argued and shouted at it to go back. As unnerved as Trey, for all they hid it.

Gazi left, and Trey did too, not that any of the guards even blamed him after seeing that. But that was the thing about heroes and legends. It was reasonable that she failed; this was a scouting run. Even so, he saw the uncertainty return to Calac when they debriefed. Felt it himself.

That creeping possibility of failure.

 

——

 

“I do not know what that is. All I know is that the singing heard me. As Trey says…like bats and some monsters who use sound. What did you call it?”

“Echolocation.”

Gazi just nodded. She sat there, tending to her sword.

Which, to be clear, didn’t mean sharpening it. Gazi had told Trey once that she had never needed to sharpen her sword, a fact that defied belief for him until she cut through a stone, chunk by chunk, hacking it down and then letting him test the edge with a feather.

Rather, Gazi was applying something to the edge. Brushing it down with a strange, floral-scented liquid.

Poison? Something else? She sat very straight, calmly talking to the two young men.

“I could not bypass it. So I retreated. Nor do I like the four [Mages] on the outside and the two on the inside. I have proven I can reach the mage. So. We must account for the remaining variables.”

Calac Crusland nodded. Gazi glanced at him and gestured. One eye rolled towards Trey, and the [Sand Mage] hesitated as Gazi went on.

“…I have been prepared for a long time. I will take no chances, Calac Crusland, nor should any of us.”

“Of course, Lady Pathseeker.”

She smiled, still focused on her blade.

“Months of preparation. For me? Sitting in the ocean. I even levelled.”

Trey and Calac blinked.

“You leveled?

Gazi lifted her sword.

“Yes. From hiding. Killing monsters—Reefeyes, among others—on the edge of Wistram’s barrier. Practicing magic. This is a difficult errand, but I did level.”

“Did you gain a Skill, Lady Pathseeker?”

She swiveled one eye to Calac and smiled mysteriously. The [Lord] flushed.

“Forgive me. That is surely a secret.”

“Mm. But take heart that I am levelling. Hm…”

Gazi checked the edge of her claymore with her thumb. She glanced at Calac.

“I need a whetstone. Could you find me one suited for enchanted blades?”

“I have one in my rooms. I could fetch it if it suits…?”

He instantly leapt to his feet. Gazi nodded, and Calac hurried off. Trey frowned as Calac closed the door.

“I thought you said that you didn’t need…?”

Gazi put aside her claymore. Then she stretched out. She lay her head against the edge of Trey’s bed, stared up at the ceiling, and her relaxed, confident demeanor vanished. She spoke upwards.

“I don’t. I needed him to leave.”

Trey saw Gazi exhale, long and loud. She sat back up, and he realized that she had been sitting deliberately. Confidently, her sword on her knees, looking Calac and Trey in the eyes.

With the young man gone, Gazi sagged, ever-so-slightly, and Trey saw the motion as familiar. Because it was what he would have done.

She didn’t put her head between her knees or cover her face—and she certainly hadn’t in front of Calac. But with only Trey in the room, and Minizi edging over to her claymore? Gazi revealed her own disappointment.

“That thing spotted me. It nearly had me, but it was on patrol. It saw me, Trey. It was made by my kind.”

“Gazers. Is it—how dangerous is it?”

The [Scout] shrugged. She looked at Trey.

“What did it seem like to you?”

“Um…scary. Too intelligent. The [Mages] made it go back, but I thought…it was following you.”

Gazi saw Trey shiver. She nodded imperceptibly. Then she hesitated.

“Did it seem…beautiful to you?”

Trey Atwood looked at Gazi. He wavered between honesty and…no, he went with honesty.

“No. It horrified me. I’m sorry if that’s…it scared me. It reminded me of A’ctelios Salash. It was terrifying.”

Gazi looked at Trey for a long time. Then she turned her head and smiled.

“I, as well. I did not find it beautiful. Though, surely, it is to Gazers. I have seen their artwork. The eyes, the look of it—it is beautiful. I could not find it so. I suppose I see beauty as my other half does.”

The young man sat up and looked at Gazi in surprise. She didn’t look at him with any of her eyes. Instead, she picked up Minizi as the foot-tall version of the Lifesand Golem tried to steal her claymore.

The Lifesand Golem began punching at Gazi’s arm at once. But Gazi ignored her and placed her in her lap. She watched as Minizi delivered the old one-two to her stomach, and her sand-fists did nothing at all to Gazi’s armor.

“Why did you make an image of me as your Golem?”

She looked at Trey. He was still focused on what she’d said and how sad it was. The young man muttered.

“I, uh…didn’t have anyone to talk to. I thought it was fun. Minizi isn’t you. She’s funny.”

“She is? Hm.”

Gazi tilted the Lifesand Golem left and right, ignoring the kicking and even attempted biting. Trey tried to elaborate.

“Viltach—Archmage Viltach, I told you about his private lessons? He likes her too. Minizi’s a good helper. I don’t show her around, but a lot of people like her. She’s not like you—she’s a toy, sort of. She’s cute.”

“Cute.”

Trey paled as he saw Gazi glance up at him. She held the bobble-headed Golem up and inspected her face, albeit with simplified cartoonish features. Trey had a horrible feeling Gazi was upset and Minizi went still suddenly. Nervously.

Then the half-Gazer smiled. Gazi looked at Minizi.

“Cute. I have never heard that word used about me. Good.”

She patted Minizi on the head, awkwardly, and put her down. The Lifesand Golem sat on her butt and stared up at big-Gazi. The two locked gazes, and Gazi sighed. Trey saw her glance at him.

“I cannot defeat it. I do not wish to try. So. That Golem must go, or we must find a way to bypass it. I will not gamble on Amerys’ release if I can—and if I must, it will be the best odds possible. Trey, I need your help. You must find a way to clear the path.”

Me?

Of all the things…Gazi just stared at Trey. Seriously. With no hint that she was pranking him.

“Yes, you. I need your help, Trey. I cannot do this alone. That is why I asked my lord to send you with me. Why you took so long to learn Wistram. You have to help me. You can do what I cannot and build this escape.”

“But I failed. I’m not good at infiltration or…”

She raised two of her four fingers and flicked them dismissively. Instantly, Minizi copied the gesture, looking at Trey.

“Not that. I know how to do those things. Hide, strike, be merciless—if this were another place, a war camp, and Amerys were a prisoner under lock and key, I would set fire to a nearby village. Or kill a patrol. Distract them. Harry them. Or slip in like a shadow and set her free without anyone noticing. I can do neither, here. This is a dangerous place—so I need someone who can move it from within. I need you to trick the [Mages]. Manipulate them. Charm them, Trey. You already have a distraction. It is a good one; you must help me as much as you can.”

She stared at him intently. Trey sat there, dry-mouthed. Gazi went on.

“Allies? Set them against each other. I will help you decide if it is good—but you must help me do it.

“But…me? Why was it me?”

Trey had always assumed that he was picked because he was the only person for the job. Teres was a soldier, and she had been spotted on the scrying orb in Flos’ company. He was the only young man who Flos could trust…

…Besides every young man in all of Reim who was truly loyal to Flos. Oh. Gazi turned to Trey, and he saw Minizi now copying her, motion for motion.

The Lifesand Golem smiled sadly and touched just below her central eye.

“It was never possible for me to perform your role, even if I could disguise myself. I am not charming, Trey. I am not…friendly. You are. Even Fetohep and the Quarass like you.”

“She cut my throat!”

Gazi shrugged.

“She did it personally. She does not do that for just anyone.”

He thought it was a joke, but no one laughed. Gazi went on, and that look of melancholy intensified.

“I envy that ability. Seeing the best in people. I never learned how. I only saw the very worst in them for a long time. Until I met a boy who would be [King].”

Her gaze slowly lifted towards his. Trey was very still as Gazi went on, her eyes distant.

“He is flawed, stubborn, I admit, and he does not see the world I do. Nor even you. He harms people, and he has put people into chains, and he will do terrible things. He is not perfect. But he has never let power make him worse in all the many ways it makes others. He was the first person I met like that.”

Trey said nothing. Gazi put her hands on her legs and then stood. Her large eye flicked to the door, and she spoke as Calac Crusland edged back in with eight whetstones of various gradations.

“So. I am counting on you, Trey. Where do we begin?”

Trey looked at Gazi. He inhaled, exhaled hard, and spoke as Calac turned to him.

“Calac and I couldn’t do it.”

Someone kicked his leg. Trey amended his statement.

“And Minizi. You’re right, Gazi. We can’t do this alone. So…we’d better get reinforcements.”

 

——

 

Two Days Ago.

The bigger a plan was, with more moving parts and people, the more likely it was to fail. Trey knew that.

Not first-hand. Just from movies and stories.

However, it was also true that three people plus one Lifesand Golem was three. Or four, but no more than that. Against all of Wistram’s finest?

They needed an edge.

So Trey made a list, and Gazi checked it twice. She even recognized some names, and when she smiled—Trey knew they had a chance.

He had already made one plan with Calac for a distraction. Now? Trey expanded it. It was beyond risky, but he thought he had a shot. For one main reason.

He knew people, and he knew people who didn’t really like mainstream Wistram. Also, he knew a guy.

 

——

 

Tov was that guy. The Drowned Man gulped down a lot of water to keep his fish-half hydrated. He and Trey were standing on a balcony outside of Wistram. No scrying spells, no prying ears. They stared over at the surf and watched as a screaming student leapt off a higher balcony, trying to slow their descent. Both winced as they heard and saw the terrible bellyflop.

“If you want privacy?”

“Yep. Privacy. Absolute secrecy.”

Tov glanced at Trey, as serious as could be. The Drowned Man wasn’t sociable—mainly because he was a Drowned Man. He kept a lot of customs of the sea, and he had few friends. Trey was one of them, so he mulled Trey’s question over for a long time before sighing and replying.

“Ask her to swear by hull and ward. No…ask her to swear by Tillaevae’s hull and ward for privacy, deal or not. Make sure she swears not to tell.”

“What’s Tillaevae?

“A ship. Not her ship, but one of the great ships of the deep. As close as we have to a city. She probably maintains the wards herself. If one of us swears by that and breaks the oath—”

Tov shook his head with a shudder.

“She wouldn’t break it.”

Trey nodded.

“Thanks, Tov.”

The Drowned Man looked at Trey, seriously.

“Don’t thank me. I’m warning you again. Don’t talk to her. Depth Magus Doroumata is not…she’s as to an Archmage to us as yours are to landfolk, understand? I don’t know why she’s stayed around, but don’t bother her. Seriously, Troy.”

He caught Trey’s arm, and his touch was sticky, but Trey just met Tov’s eyes calmly.

“I’ll be careful, but I need to speak to her. How much do I owe you?”

It was a big, big secret. Not one of Wistram’s, so Tov turned away, embarrassed.

“Pay me in gold or something. Or a big secret of your own.”

He stared at the crashing waves moodily for a moment—until he heard the clink and glanced back to see Trey counting gold pieces into a pouch. A lot of gold pieces. Tov’s eyes widened, and Trey realized he was never going to fit all of them in the bag. So he pulled out a carefully wrapped item so as not to break it and showed Tov a glowing opal.

“Will this settle it?”

The young man looked at Trey.

“What are you…yes, salt me! You don’t have to pay me—how did you get that?”

“I’ve got a few big secrets of my own. And I want to square up, Tov. Being Eldavin’s apprentice has some perks.”

Trey handed the young man the opal and gold. He walked off, leaving Tov staring at his back.

 

——

 

Depth Mage Doroumata would have taken the goth world by storm if only she had met them. She dressed in abyssal black, as did her daughters. Identical daughters. Descendants of a Starfish Drowned Woman.

Also, someone who had gone toe-to-toe with Eldavin. One of the great [Mages] of the sea.

Yet she had stuck around for far longer than her entry into Wistram, and there was only one reason why that Trey could see.

“Earthers. Since we swear to keep all secret…tell me. You are what they call Earthers, aren’t you? A boy from another world?”

Doroumata spoke…no, Trey saw the dark veil behind one of the daughters flanking her move. They spoke for her.

It was eerie, but Trey kept his back straight and his hands folded behind him.

“Yes, Depth Magus.”

She sighed.

“Wistram has achieved the land’s bounty. It explains more, though I cannot speak to any of you easily. Even this might have eyes…but only eyes on my door, not ears for what lies within.”

She gestured delicately at her guest rooms. Trey nodded again.

“…What does it explain, Depth Magus?”

The woman hesitated, perhaps having revealed too much herself. Trey saw her veil move, and one huge, dark eye regarded him. He almost shuddered until he realized it was…pity.

“Death. The Drowned Cities. The ships. We found them—they triggered the alarms. But we could not account for a single one. In a city? Perhaps, though it is beyond unlikely as an accident. But on a ship? Each strand of rope, crew, and rat is counted and marked. So why. Why did we find dead children in the deeps?”

Trey Atwood went cold. He stared at Doroumata, and the Depth Mage sat back.

“You found…?”

“Too far down for us to find much. Yes. It is one of the reasons why we came. To see if Demons or something were doing this. It must end. It will end; Grand Magus Eldavin has seen to it.”

“How? He did? What did he do?”

The [Depth Mage]’s daughters shifted, three of them, but she raised a hand, and they subsided. Doroumata answered for Trey.

“We will manipulate the barriers. Catch them as they come. It is not easy, but he knows the deep wards. A great man. He has sailed below the watery sky.”

Trey nodded carefully. He felt…he pushed the emotions down. He’d tell Gazi later. He met Doroumata’s eyes.

“So you don’t have any Earthers.”

“No. Which makes your proposal all the more curious. Tell me…how many would it be?”

“I don’t know exac—”

“How many?”

Three voices whispered it. Doroumata stared a hole into Trey’s soul, and he flinched.

“Truth and lies are simple spells, but I can use them anyways. You know. How many?”

“…Maybe as many as thirty.”

Five daughters shifted. Doroumata never blinked that he could see behind her veil.

“And you would all want to voyage in the deep? No. No, I can see a lie without magic.”

“Not a lie, Depth Magus.”

Really? Then how would you reconcile our desires and yours? I have been watching you children. Landfolk all. Maybe one boy loves the sea, but even he has never sailed beneath the waves. I can be cruel and ruthless, but I am not a fool. I do not take fish out of water and expect them to breathe unless I find they have lungs. So above, beneath. Even if I…acted…they would be like here. And Wistram’s cage chafes. Which is why you are here.”

Well-reasoned. She was far more cunning than many [Mages] and…Trey thought…she also thought of the Earthers. He was sweating, but he hadn’t come this far and slipped notes beneath her door to screw up this audience.

Honestly, the ‘notes beneath the door’ thing was a bit embarrassing. The third time Calac had sent her covert messages, one of Doroumata’s daughters had opened the door to tell him to knock it off.

Yet Trey had something Doroumata didn’t, and that was perspective. He spread his hands.

“Depth Magus. Shadeward.”

She started, and one of the daughters smiled at the proper address.

“It’s true that most of us would be unhappy in places that don’t suit us. We aren’t happy here—not all of us.”

The truth. Stick to the truth when you lie around [Mages]. Trey went on earnestly.

“…But it seems to me the Drowned Folk have more of what we might want than anyone else. Freedom. Freedom to move, and travel. Drowned People don’t stay in one place long—but you have for months.”

“True. What is your point? Ahh. Do you mean…?”

Trey bowed to her deeply and pointed to something on the far walls. It was a map. A map of the known world—but not of the five continents above. It was a map of the undersea, and there were places never charted.

“Depth Magus. It might be that we’d be willing to…compromise. Compromise, with a people who are willing to make deals rather than have it one way. We want to see the world, and seeing the world means we could walk about on land. Or…what if you did something us landfolk would like?”

“Hm. Elaborate?”

She leaned forward, and Trey thought of Fetohep.

“Paradise. A safe, nice place where we could be and live. You could visit us. Depth Mage. Do you need more than one or three? If nothing else—do the Drowned Folk keep [Slaves]?”

Her eyes glittered. A daughter of hers spoke.

“[Slaves] make poor crew. Not all ships trade with Roshal. On another deck, that would be a deadly insult, Troy Atlas.”

Silence.

Trey bowed to the daughter and mother.

“I hoped the answer was no. I thought you were more righteous than that and I’m glad. I just ask because—if nothing else, Depth Magus. You could simply deliver us to a port of choice. Let us go free.”

“I would make a terrible enemy of Wistram. Wistram, which is mighty and growing stronger, and makes armor to fly above land and sea.”

The old woman said that, but she sounded so…calm. Deliberately calm. Trey licked his lips.

“That’s true, Shadeward Doroumata. But Wistram is political. You might make an enemy of some, but you get nothing but scorn from the academy, save for [Mages] who know your worth, like Archmage Eldavin.”

That he knew was true. Doroumata moved slightly, and Trey went on.

“Besides. You might gain a great ally of Earth.”

He watched her carefully and saw not a movement or trace of her face beyond that dark veil. But he heard a smile in her reply.

 

——

 

It was always the things you didn’t expect.

 

[Plotter class obtained!]

[Plotter Level 3!]

[Skill – Prepared Signal obtained!]

[Skill – Straight Face obtained!]

 

“I don’t want a [Plotter] class! That makes me sound terrible! Or like I’m a gardener!”

Gazi Pathseeker just smiled. She patted Minizi’s head and looked at Trey. She threw out a hand and two fingers opened.

Scissors. Trey closed his eyes. After a beat, Calac, who was wearing a blindfold with his back turned to the two, started.

“Uh—uh—paper! No, knife!”

Scissors, Calac. I signaled you twice!”

The young man tugged up the blindfold, embarrassed.

“I know. I just forgot which one was which. I felt it twice! It’s like—what is that sound?”

“A beep.”

Trey had copied the electronic sound for his [Prepared Signal] Skill. He could bind it to exactly one person. Very limited use, and Gazi told him there was a limit to range…but undetectable, practically. At least from a magical angle.

Calac shook his head.

“It sounds strange. But it does work, Lady Pathseeker. I’ll remember, um, how many times.”

The Gazer was pleased.

“Simple is best. We will use it instead of speaking stones or other cues. With time, we can use one Skill to do far more. Even a simple signal can be used to create larger messages.”

“Like morse code.”

Gazi blinked at Trey, then nodded with pleasure when he explained what that was. Trey resigned himself to the class. He’d seriously considered turning it down, but he needed every edge he could get.

Meanwhile, Gazi was correcting their plan. Starting with the most egregious and stupid of their mistakes they’d made in their first botched attempt. She held up the lock that Trey could unlock so easily with Lifesand.

“Magical locks do not open with tumblers, Trey. Or if they do, they require magical signatures. There are ways to open such locks with keys [Rogues] use—not this.”

His heart sank. Calac cursed, and Gazi saw both look at each other.

“But then how do we open the door and Amerys’ lock?”

The Gazer stared meaningfully at Trey.

“I could most likely cut her bindings loose and remove her from the magical cell at least. She might free herself. But it would be important to find the key to Amerys’ lock. So. You may wish to talk to Archmage Viltach.”

Trey scrubbed at his face. He didn’t want to do that.

“How am I supposed to ask him covertly?”

Gazi shrugged.

“I do not know. But we also need the Golems removed, even with a distraction.”

“What about our escape route? Lady Pathseeker, it will be a race to the exit if we are discovered, and with Ullsinoi, we might well be. Do you have a ship? A [Greater Teleport] scroll?”

Calac turned to Gazi, and the half-Gazer shook her head.

“Not that grand magic—but I do have a way to leave Wistram. Believe me—that is not the issue. The Golems are.”

She frowned, and Trey frowned as well. He had a very…very risky idea, but he turned back to the others.

“Even if we remove the Golems, there are all those guards, and Mena went with Eldavin to Terandria. How do we drug them now?”

“We have to find someone else who delivers them food. Threaten them. Convince them to work for us. It is not difficult. I will do that myself. Or you could deliver them snacks.”

“There’s no guarantee they’ll all eat it at once, Gazi. And they’re not stupid. If one falls over…they have to be hungry.”

Gazi smiled, and Trey looked at her, growing slightly pale at the suggestion. Calac cleared his throat. He’d been working on his end of the plan, as well as surveilling the corridors. He gave Trey an anguished look the young man didn’t understand at first.

“I…think I have a solution to that, Trey. I don’t like it. But it might…I know someone who’s been asked to deliver food. She does it every few days and they trust her. But…it’s someone we know.”

“Who?”

Trey didn’t understand his hesitation until Calac spoke.

“Emirea.”

Gazi saw Trey bite his lip, hard. She raised her brows.

“What is the issue? I can threaten her…”

“She’s a little girl, Gazi.”

The Gazer blinked once at Trey. Minizi copied Gazi as the half-Gazer scratched her head calmly.

“So?”

Calac’s face was one gigantic wince as he looked at Trey. The [Sand Mage] and [Plotter] imagined Gazi blackmailing poor Emirea…his head slowly rose.

“Maybe we go the other way. Maybe…Calac. Gazi. You were talking about how Ullsinoi might have hidden [Mages] in the maze too. Even if I get rid of the Golems with this next stunt, we might be relying on you, right?”

Gazi nodded with a frown. They couldn’t drug or distract the people they didn’t know were there or not, and that was Ullsinoi’s biggest obstacle. Trey licked his lips.

“What if we didn’t have to rely just on you?”

“Do you know someone who can dodge traps? Or are we getting another security amulet? Because I’m not wearing it. We’ll give it to Minizi again.”

Calac frowned at Trey. The little Lifesand Golem emphatically shook her head. Trey did likewise. He glanced at Gazi.

“No…Gazi. You can see through the traps, right? And the maze? How…do you think someone else of your species might be able to do the same?”

She blinked one huge eye at him in surprise for the first time.

 

——

 

One Day Ago.

 

Reim was under siege. It was all over the news—along with Eldavin’s war on Ailendamus. Actually, it was only part of the news, and that was amazing to Trey.

The King of Destruction was under siege. This could be it. But until the walls fell…

He stared at the distant image of one of Drevish’s towers throwing down a massive bolt of lightning. As if he could see the battle. When someone took the walls for a second, or a high-level Skill was used, the [Mages] zoomed in.

Twice, they had shown Venith Crusland or Maresar, who they labeled as Flos’ vassals. ‘Carn’ pretended not to stare at the scrying orb.

“What’s this about, Troy? We have class in under an hour.”

The young man was leading the group out of the banquet hall. He didn’t answer Tov at first. Messill and Atritha weren’t with them.

It was Emirea, Goelv, and Tov. Calac helped Trey by distracting the Rhir-girl and Drake by asking them to help him study for a test and a spell he was getting wrong; they were all in the same class.

The more advanced students were with Trey, and his biggest friends outside of the Earthers. The Earthers…they’d be next.

They had to move fast. Tomorrow, Gazi had told Trey. Tonight was prep. Like him, she knew they had to hurry, but she insisted they had to get it right. Give everyone time to get everything in order.

He’d suggested leaving this part off till the end so his friends could choose. Giving them a night to think seemed unwise, but Gazi had overruled him.

“We will tell them now and let them choose. I will watch them. But we must know ahead of time what they will do.”

He couldn’t argue with that. Emirea glanced at Trey.

“Are you alright, Troy? You look pale. Is everything okay?”

“Please tell me it’s not worms again.”

Goelv elbowed Tov, and Trey almost flushed at the memory.

“No, it’s, um…I have something to show you. A big secret.”

“A Hidden Hallway?”

Emirea grew excited. Goelv stared at Trey, and the young man tried to smile at them.

First his friends. Then Elena and the others. Then he had to get rid of the Golems. Tomorrow? Viltach. Viltach, and Trey would have the key or know where it was. He’d link up—

And they’d go. Trey led them towards his room, and Tov snorted.

“Unless there’s a Hidden Hallway in Troy’s room, I bet he’s made a new Golem. What next? Flos-zi?”

He was in a bad mood today, for some reason. Perhaps it was guilt over revealing the secrets of the Drowned Folk to Trey or rightful suspicion. Emirea still seemed ready to be impressed.

Goelv? The Gazer boy was never talkative to begin with, slightly timid and self-conscious. However, he was chatty enough most times.

He had suddenly gone stiff as a board. His many eyes locked on one spot, which was so odd for a Gazer that Tov and Emirea looked at him with concern.

“Goelv? Is something wrong?”

“G—that—wh—”

The boy stammered. The young [Mage] looked at Trey, and the [Sand Mage] slowly opened the door.

“Just inside.”

Tov hesitated. He looked at Goelv, but the Gazer slowly walked forwards as if he couldn’t believe his eyes. Tov followed, reaching for a dagger. Emirea hesitated, but she looked at Trey with such trust before she went in, he felt terribly guilty.

The three friends walked into the room as Trey closed the door. And cast a [Silence] charm just in time because the first thing Emirea did, as Tov and Goelv stared, was scream.

 

——

 

It turned out stories were true. Legends were real, and they smiled at you with sharp teeth. Kings woke up and…

And he was just a man. A man who sometimes did things beyond belief. A man who was sometimes too small, too disappointing.

At the same time, it was possible to fly on a magic carpet high over the world and breathe in that night sky. If you didn’t mind dying.

There was so much wonder in the world. Too many things to do. You could live free—or burn a rotten city to the ground to save a few souls.

What were you doing here, then? What was the point of risking your life if you only got one chance?

If you believed you would never die, that was one thing. You were simply wrong. But if you knew you would die? If you had seen an old man’s head encased in ice and known what it was like to bleed out on the floor? Why did you fight?

There had to be a reason. Trey had a reason to risk it all. Beyond that?

Wistram was too small. If the higher floors were unlocked, if they dared to descend into the catacombs and below—if they opened every door and smashed every cage, it would have been the academy of dreams and no one would ever think of leaving.

It was small, for as large as it pretended to be. Perhaps it fooled the other [Mages], but Earth’s children had already flown through the skies. They had walked through vast cities whose suburbs stretched out beyond the line of sight, looked up and seen skyscrapers too.

“If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?”

Trey Atwood brought it up over lunch that day. He sat with the Earthers. Not Emirea, Tov, and Goelv. They’d all skipped class, as had Trey, honestly. They needed a lie-down.

No, Goelv was lying down. Emirea might be more passed out. Tov had gone for a walk. Calac was watching Goelv’s rooms. Minizi was sitting in Emirea’s room. Gazi was watching Tov.

“Hm?”

The Earthers at the table looked up from food. Good food. A level—six levels above a continental breakfast at any hotel. Fine rooms. Silk bed sheets, if you could finagle them. Free room and board. Magic lessons optional.

They were staring at a scrying orb. A scrying orb showing Flynn flying through the air. That was one of the people in the magical suits of armor.

The others? A strangely intense young man, a boy, getting into the armor.

Archmage Eldavin, what is the point of offering these suits of armor? To…can you tell me who this is?

A Drake was speaking to the half-Elf on screen. Eldavin. He nodded.

“This is Lancest of Pheislant.”

“And is he a [Mage]?‘

The Archmage of Memory stroked at his beard as he watched Sa’la help the boy put each piece on, teaching him how to use it.

“Hm? No. Not a student of Wistram at all.”

“Then…is he an acquaintance of yours?”

The female Drake sat at a desk. Eldavin frowned.

“I met him only yesterday and interviewed him. Lancrest is a son of Pheislant, whose nation is de facto at war with Ailendamus. He has seen the wars of yesteryear. His parents died in the border conflict with Ailendamus. That is why he is wearing the armor.”

His eyes glinted. He seemed to be looking at Trey. He spoke, as if to the young man.

“He has no authority, no power to redress what happened to him. He never will. But he will have the chance to change the future. We all have our reasons to risk everything, [Reporter] Tewing. Ailendamus will be checked. To use a metaphor, this is my line in the sand. I invite them to try and wash it away, because I will continue to draw it until I find what I want.”

“…And what is it you want, exactly, Archmage?”

He did not reply. Trey saw everyone lock on the image of Eldavin as Flynn flew past him. The magic helmet was off, so they could see him laughing and flying over Pokey’s head as the Needlehound raced below him, barking.

“Fuck, Aaron. You made Iron Man. Congratulations.”

Saif spoke at last. He turned to the [Magictech Engineer] and slapped him on the shoulder. Aaron Vanwell gave Saif the exact opposite of a smile.

“What was that, Troy?”

Elena turned to Trey as another young man leaned forwards at the table.

“That’s Drassi. I knew her, back in Izril.”

“Yeah, I know, Leon. You said. Where’s your autograph?”

“I don’t have one, but…”

It was the same question, repeated a hundred times. Trey saw some of the others turn away from him, but Elena leaned forwards. So did one of the Earthers close by. A man that Troy had seldom talked to.

“Where would you want to go?”

He asked the question almost idly. Almost. Yet Elena looked at Trey as if it were the first time she had heard the question.

So did the Korean man. Sang-min. He didn’t always eat with the others, possibly due to the language barrier, though he could speak English fairly well, unlike some of the others who were from China or Punjab, not from the cities but more rural areas.

“Sang-min? Would you want to go back to Terandria? You were a [Mercenary], right? Want to borrow my gun?”

Saif had too much bravado—and too much of an ego for someone who happened to be holding an airsoft gun. The [Battlemages] made much of it, but even enchanted, Saif’s gun had all the force of a punch to the face.

And not even a good punch. Sang-min looked at Saif calmly.

“That is not a real gun.”

Saif’s grin faltered.

“No—but if you replaced the ammunition in the cartridge with custom-made enchanted stuff, it could do a lot of damage, Nailihuaile says.”

“So someone has to hand-enchant each bullet? That’s some real dark age shit. You know, they can’t even make steel everywhere?”

Basil remarked sardonically. Saif shrugged defensively.

“It’s not crazy! In this other universe in the future. Okay, do you know Warhammer…?”

“Oh my g—”

They broke off as Elena slapped the table. She was still staring at Trey.

“Go on, Sang-min?”

“Maybe a nice country. There’s too much war around Ailendamus. Where I fought. North. Or Baleros.”

“Why Baleros? It sounds like a hellhole of a jungle to me.”

George chewed on a pancake as he glanced over. Sang-min thoughtfully speared a bit of sausage with his fork.

“Baleros people look more like me. Drath. Maybe they speak my language there. Maybe not.”

“I thought they were Japanese.”

The [Mercenary] shrugged. Trey’s ears perked up as he muttered something that no one understood except maybe George, who tried to [Translate] it.

“…I thought she understood that. An [Emissary] from Drath came here.”

“Really.”

You spoke to her? Sang-min, it’s a secret—

The man shrugged. He looked around tiredly, one of many Earthers, but the only one besides Eun who spoke his language. One of the few who didn’t laugh about being an adventurer. He eyed Trey, and the young man nodded at him. Sang-min nodded back.

They recognized each other. Somehow. Trey looked straight into those brown eyes and saw they were haunted. He didn’t know who. He didn’t know where or exactly how Sang-min dealt with it, although it surely had to do with why he was so absent, kept to himself.

Yet Trey looked straight into the [Mercenary]’s eyes and saw someone dead there. Sang-min must have recognized the same on Trey. Elena looked at the two, then focused on Trey.

“Group meeting in thirty. Get everyone. At the place. Be there. No excuses.”

She announced to the table. Some of the Earthers glanced up, and a few groaned.

“Come on! I was going to play magic soccer with some of the [Mages], Elena. They enchanted a new soccer ball and everything.”

“I know Joseph, you know—”

Someone put Leon in a headlock.

Tell me again, Leon. Tell me you know Joseph.

Elena ignored them all. She rose, and Trey saw her follow him as he bussed his plates and tray.

 

——

 

“I got your message. I saw everything on the camera.”

Elena followed Trey towards the secret Earth-only rooms. The [Beautician] saw the young man flinch. However, when Trey turned to her, he was too calm.

Too calm, for the nightmares she’d had four days running. Elena had seen horror movies—who hadn’t? She was good at watching horror. She liked it. She got something from it, jump scares and all.

That hadn’t been a horror movie. It was nightmarish because it was real. It wasn’t found footage. It was a documentary.

“Was that real?”

She pressed after Trey said nothing. The [Sand Mage] just looked at her. Elena had met people who’d had to kill too. One look was her only answer and she turned paler still.

“Where did you get that camera?”

“A’ctelios Salash. From the people who owned it.”

They came to the secret door and entered as Elena muttered the passphrase. Trey glanced over his shoulder. Both of them had to do more than just speak the passcode, actually. Aaron had told them how to access this secret area and apparently reconfigured it to let only certain people in.

They stood in the sumptuous lobby area as they passed through a wall. Proper Hogwarts stuff. That was the thing. Everything was a reference if you wanted it to be. Right up until the monster from your book reached out and tore your head off.

“I saw the last part as well. The part you recorded. I was waiting for you to slip me a note or meet me here. I camped out for two days straight. What happened?”

Trey looked at Elena guiltily. He rubbed at his hair.

“A plan fell through. I’m sorry. I had to figure things out again.”

When Minizi exploded. Elena raised her brows.

“A plan fell through? You had one. You made one in secret and told no one. I can name three people who had anything like a plan.”

“Really? Who?”

Trey turned curiously. Elena jerked her head.

“Shun, from China. He tried to make a break for it. Actually, he got towards the edge of the calm bubble in a sailing boat before some [Mages] realized he wasn’t just having fun. He wiped out—good thing, too. He sailed straight out of Wistram into a storm. Not exactly a smart maneuver…but he thought it would work.”

“How? Wistram’s surrounded by water for thousands of miles.”

Elena smiled sadly.

“He thinks this is all a trick. Smoke and mirrors. A foreign government, maybe. Once he leaves the bubble—he’ll wake up or get out of it. He’s probably in, but I’m worried about him. Lamont tried too, you know. He was smart. He just hitched a ride on a ship; they were going to smuggle him out in the cargo hold, and he’d work off his debt. The [Captain] had no idea Lamont was one of us. He just thought Lamont was a student who’d had enough.”

“And?”

Trey thought he’d seen Lamont the other day, playing badminton with Sidney. Elena shook her head.

“That poor [Captain]. Five [Mages] teleported onto his decks before he was more than ten miles out of the academy. Blew up his sails—made him go back to harbor.”

“Ouch.”

Elena saw Trey grimace. His eyes flickered, and she took a seat on one of the plush chairs. Rich chairs. The kind of real-wood, hand-sewn whatevers that multi-millionaires wished they could afford back on Earth. They went for authentic Italian leather sofas. This? This was the kind of thing you might put down actual money for. Something old, grand, expensive.

If you wanted to live like a [King], Wistram was a fine place for it. Yet Trey had given her the camera. She prompted him.

“You know that means there are tracking spells on us. There was no clue; Lamont only told me, and I covered for him. They still found him.”

“I know.”

“Do you have a plan for it? [Dispel Magic]?”

“I doubt that works. It’s probably cast by a high-level [Enchanter], or maybe it’s not even directly bound to us. They can do that, you know.”

“Then how do you fix it?”

Trey scratched at his head. He spoke, too-casually. Too calmly. But that was why Elena believed they had a shot. He had confidence. He had a plan.

“If I were a [Mage], I’d have to do something complicated. Eldavin told me ‘first detect, then dispel’. You’d make some kind of sensor-net—that’s how I think of it. You make sure there’s nothing on you, then the air around you, then you make a kind of huge net if you’re checking an area. And then you look for invisible, hanging spells like distant hexes. They can be a mile up. And once you’ve found them all—you hope you’ve found them all—you can figure out how to get rid of them or trick them.”

“Dead gods. That sounds like a nightmare. Hacking and counter-hacking.”

Elena muttered. Trey gave her a rueful grin.

“I think only Eldavin and a few others can actually do that. He teaches me how it’s done properly—I bet it’s not even that sophisticated, what’s done to us. But I can’t find or counter them.”

“So…?”

Trey scratched at his chin, unconcerned.

“So we’ll get someone else to take care of it.”

The [Beautician] waited. Trey didn’t elaborate. She took a surprised breath.

“You are serious.”

“I am.”

He met her eyes, watching her almost as carefully as she was inspecting him. Elena grinned.

“I can tell. You look like her when you have a plan. She clams up too.”

“Who?”

“Cara.”

Trey blinked in surprise. Elena walked around the room and went to a cupboard. She checked the contents, looked back at him.

“I haven’t exactly been slouching, you know. I’m ready. We’ll see how many people are in. Some won’t be. We’ll have to swear the others to secrecy.”

What will you do if they tell the [Mages] the rest of us are going? Her eyes asked Trey, but she didn’t quite say it out loud. She knew he had to be thinking of that if he had a real plan, so she assumed Trey had a counter.

What Trey couldn’t tell her, what weighed on his conscience, was his reply.

I’m sorry, Elena. I’m counting on it.

 

——

 

“Yo, someone tried to get in. Not one of us.”

The Earthers’ secret room was crowded. Packed. Every single one of them was here. When Elena called, they came. They knew something was up.

Elena looked around sharply as she tried to keep order.

“How do you know?”

“Scorch marks. Someone got zapped by Aaron’s security. It actually works.”

A hand pointed at the entrance. Trey’s hair rose slightly. Elena gave him a quick glance and murmured.

“Maybe someone just saw one of us going in.”

“What’s this about, anyways? Someone said there’s a big plan?”

Eun was sitting with Sang-min. It was interesting; many of the Earthers kept together. With people from or close to their countries, if they were minorities, but they also had their friends, who sat next to them.

And enemies. And people who didn’t get along at all, like Saif and Sang-min. Or Erik and Haley, [Actor] and [Squire], for reasons which Trey didn’t know at all.

He didn’t know them well. He hadn’t made close friends with any and only knew Elena from their conversations. Perhaps it was self-defense. Trey felt like he’d known from the start he wouldn’t stay with them.

And this…he felt too calm. Was it the [Plotter] in him taking over? Or just the fact that when he spoke, when they shouted and asked questions and argued—

He wasn’t invested?

Escape? Are you crazy? Do you know what’s out there? There are people hacking each other to bits!”

Caroline exclaimed. She looked at him as if horns were growing out of his head. Basil nodded, sheerly uncomprehending, but Trey barely focused on him. He was counting.

There were plenty of voices. Elena shouted.

“Let Troy explain. Shut up. This isn’t a game. Shut up—

“This is a democracy!”

Shut the hell up, George.

Trey waited for silence. When he spoke, it wasn’t to Caroline, or George, or Basil, but to the people who were watching him and taking this seriously, not grinning like children.

Duha, Shun, Sang-min, Justin, Lamont, a young man he didn’t recognize fingering a cross, Elena…

He looked past them at Aaron Vanwell and saw the disturbed look on the [Magictech Engineer]’s face. Not him, then.

“I can’t guarantee where we’ll go. But anyone who wants to go—there will be a place and a time. Tomorrow.

“Tomorrow?”

Elena recoiled. He hadn’t told her that. The others just stared at Trey.

“Wait. You’re serious?”

Leon spoke into the silence. There were laughs, but Trey just kept meeting the eyes of the people who were listening.

“Absolutely. The reason why I didn’t tell anyone is because…it has to be fast. It has to be now, before anyone chickens out.”

“Before anyone spills the beans.”

“I hate your American expressions.”

“Who’s going to tell? Are you going to go? This is crazy. Who’s taking us?

“I can’t say. If you’re in, you’ll know more. If not? Just don’t tell anyone.”

And then everyone had to know more details, which Trey refused to tell them. Some of them got in his face, but he held his ground. An angry guy or girl was not exactly the King of Destruction shouting at you.

“I can’t tell you where we’re going or how. I can only tell you—I’m leaving. I have to. No matter if it’s uncertain or risky. Don’t volunteer unless you’re certain. But if we do leave—we might be able to go anywhere in the world. Then we’ll be on our own. You can go your way alone or find others. That’s the deal.”

That was the promise. Trey hoped Doroumata would keep it. Elena rose, and everyone turned to her, listening. The [Beautician] scanned the room, and when she nodded, it was tiredly.

“I’m going. I hope some of you will go with me. I’ve been trying to get everyone to go…but that was never going to happen. I realized that, but Troy convinced me. Listen. I’m going to go, and if you don’t want to, that’s fine. But if there’s any loyalty, any friendship—don’t tell anyone we’re going. If I get out, I’ll take anyone who wants to go with me to Terandria.”

“Why there?”

Elena looked around. She hesitated, her eyes scanning the room, and she bit her tongue, thinking hard.

“Because I know Cara, the Singer of Terandria. And she…is helping more of us. That’s all I’ll say. I came here to see what Wistram was like for her. Some of you know that. If we can get to her, we’ll be freer and happier than Wistram. Maybe not safer, but that’s what I’m doing.”

Uproar. Trey silently looked at Elena. Someone else on a mission. Now, even the people who had every reason to stay in Wistram were looking uncertain, like Sidney. Elena was the mother, in a way, who helped take care of them. Some of the Earthers didn’t want Elena to go, but she was adamant.

“I want to help Cara. I don’t like Wistram. You’ve all seen what Eldavin did, haven’t you? He’s the best Archmage of the lot. I am not staying if there’s a chance of going and…that’s all I have to say about that.”

“You know the Singer of Terandria? What’s she like? Can we trust her?”

Caroline demanded eagerly. She’d flipped so fast once she heard that, Trey had whiplash. Elena smiled.

“She’s amazing. She has high levels. She’s fought real monsters. Believe me—if we get her, we’ll be as safe as she can make us. We can trust her!”

“No. You can’t.”

Someone interrupted Elena, and it was the last person Trey expected. He was watching Aaron, who was the one person Trey was almost sure wouldn’t leave. He had expected Aaron to say something and sway the others, but he just sat there.

Wrestling with himself, from the look of it. Both Aaron and Trey looked over and saw a young man rise to his feet.

Leon. He looked bewildered as he turned to Trey and Elena.

“Why do you want to leave? Wistram’s better than anywhere, and trust me, I’ve seen Pallass.”

“We know, Leon. You tell us. You’ve seen the world. I haven’t. I landed in one city and Wistram grabbed me. I want to go. Don’t squeal on the rest of us.”

A sharp voice from Randolph, sitting far from him. Leon glared, but then raised his hands.

“I know it sounds great. But you can’t trust the Singer of Terandria.”

“And why not? You’ve never met her. I know you haven’t, even if you’ve met all the other Earthers you claim to.”

Elena gave Leon a dark glare. The young man just looked at her.

“You can’t trust her. I mean—she might be great. Maybe she really does know a safe place, and she’s high-level. It doesn’t matter. It’s not safe because she’ll die. We all will. I thought I was safe. I…I knew someone who was high-level. The highest-leveled Earther in the entire world. I stayed at her inn.”

Everyone went silent. Trey turned back to Leon as the young man sat there. His detractors and hecklers and people who didn’t like him raised their voices…and hesitated.

Because Leon stood there, and suddenly he seemed lost. He gazed about, and something genuine was in his gaze.

“Her name was Erin. Erin Solstice. She was amazing. She did insane things—she had friends—even the Antinium. She fought monsters, and I knew I’d never be able to measure up to her, or the others. That wasn’t why I left. I could have made something of myself. Everyone did. I left because Erin was all that. She did everything right, and she was tough, and…they shot her. Some Drakes just ambushed her, and shot her dead. Just like our world. She was the best of us, and she’s dead and never coming back.”

He looked around, hands trembling as they clenched. He was shaking.

The room grew silent. Instantly, quiet. The excited, argumentative mood turned into uncertainty at once.

Someone began crying. Sidney. It was too close. Too real. Elena looked at Leon, searching for a rebuttal. But she didn’t have one.

It could happen. She had been there. She had seen it. She looked at Trey, but he was not able to say anything to Leon as well. The young man continued.

“I came to Wistram because I didn’t want to die. You either get lucky and you go somewhere safe and play football like Joseph—or you die. I came to Wistram, but I wasn’t a chosen one here either. Flynn has super-armor. I don’t. I’m not going out there again to get killed.”

Elena stirred. Her eyes sparked, and her sympathy turned to anger for a moment. She pointed at Leon.

“You don’t get chosen. You stand up. That’s what Cara did.”

“Then they put a target on your chest.”

He wasn’t right, but he certainly wasn’t entirely wrong either. The Earthers were split once more. And as if by magic, every eye turned to one person who’d been conspicuously quiet.

“What do you think, Aaron? You’re the person who helped find us all. You’re…the first.”

Aaron Vanwell, Blackmage, looked around as if he were waking up from a dream. He stood, slowly, and his dreadlocks moved as he turned from face to face. He seemed…odd.

Like he was fighting with himself. The words came slowly from his mouth, as Aaron looked at Trey. As if he saw right through him. Trey waited, and everyone looked at Aaron. First, despite all that had happened.

Yet what Aaron said surprised Trey. The [Magitech Engineer] took a deep breath and forced the words out.

“I think…I think we can’t tell what will happen if you leave the academy. It will be dangerous. It’s bad out there. Leon’s right.”

Elena opened her mouth, and his eyes slid sideways to meet hers. Aaron smiled.

“…But Elena’s also right. Troy’s given you all this chance. I think that you should all ask yourselves what you want to do. And go if you’re going. You might never get another chance.”

He looked around and sat down heavily. As if saying that had taken some great effort. Trey watched Aaron, confused.

Why did he smile? He had said nothing…but he looked up at Trey and smiled and nodded. So Trey bowed back.

He would never know it, but that was Aaron Vanwell’s proudest moment. His finest victory.

After that, it was simple. Trey told them when and where and let them argue. Elena wanted to speak with him; they all did.

“Take the camera with you.”

“You don’t want it?”

“I know what it says. Tell everyone you meet.”

“We could show it to the world. We have scrying spells. The television—Eldavin?”

Trey shook his head. He pointed at the camera in Elena’s hands.

“They all know about A’ctelios Salash. No one has done anything yet. It will fall to us. I will see you tomorrow, Elena. I have to get ready.”

She nodded. The [Beautician] stared at Troy for a long time, and he wondered if she saw right through him. But all she did was nod slowly.

“Good luck. I hope this works. I trust you, Troy.”

He looked at her and hadn’t the courage to reply. So Trey just nodded and walked off. Terrible.

He was betraying trust.

 

——

 

Gazi had gold and gems. She had artifacts for the breakout. She had given some to Trey to bribe Tov; most of her gold had gone to Calac, who was on another mission.

However, gold was worth less in Wistram. To move pieces into position…Trey found someone who could help him. The issue was Golems.

Golems, powerful Golems. It was and always had been, even with Cognita gone. Even so, the young man felt he was at the peak of danger as he fidgeted in front of the door.

A silent Dullahan woman stood next to him, her head held in her hands, inspecting him.

Beatrice. She never smiled. Nor did the woman who opened the door, the Archmage, make Trey any more comfortable. Nailihuaile was short—for one of the Naga—but the Star Lamia glowed, with strange radiance coming off her scales.

“Troy! Come in! Beatrice said you wanted to see me? Or that you had something to offer me?”

The young man started.

“I—yes, Archmage. I was hoping for a trade. That is—a favor? Something like that.”

“Interesting. Well, come in!”

Nailihuaile’s rooms were nothing at all like Viltach’s. Eldavin’s were still ostensibly guest rooms, albeit with many gifts and his projects, but the two Archmages who had time to ensconce themselves in Wistram had configured their rooms to their personality.

What Nailihuaile liked, it seemed, was magic. Visible magic, like the glowing crystals set into pedestals. A circle of magic drawn in the center of her room as visitors entered.

Viltach was a craftsman, but he and Nailihuaile both enchanted. The difference was that one’s room had practical tools in the workshop.

Nailihuaile’s living room looked like a great [Enchanter]’s domain. Books were strewn about, opened to certain pages, and she sat Trey down just past that, around an untidy set of what were more like bean bags than anything else.

But not filled with beans. One was a liquid couch, and Trey realized it was because the Star Lamia curled around her flexible cushion rather than a rigid chair. Indeed, there were odd chairs of twined wood that let a tail rest around them.

A place for Lizardfolk. But he couldn’t focus on that long. Naili fixed him with a smile and intrigued stare.

“So what do you want? Beatrice said you had something to…offer me? But you want something in return?”

He licked his lips.

“Yes. I’d like to trade for a—a scroll. Or artifact. A powerful one. A warding amulet. Something that could deflect Tier 4 spells, even, and attacks. Or something like that.”

Nailihuaile recoiled slightly. Beatrice, who had joined them, raised her eyebrows. The Star Lamia coiled around her seat, but her humanoid torso rose.

“That’s not an easy ask, Troy. Not even if you had…knowledge of Earth you were willing to give me. I’m afraid I wouldn’t want to part with an artifact like that—even if I had one—for nothing. Why do you need a protective charm like that, anyways?”

She peered at Trey, and he began to sweat. She was no fool. Nailihuaile’s eyes flickered over Trey.

“Is something wrong?”

“No—no, Archmage Nailihaile.”

“So there’s nothing I wouldn’t want to know about?”

“N—”

The Star Lamia’s slitted eyes glittered. Truth spells. Trey clamped his lips shut. She smiled, and her seat rolled forwards as she slithered a bit closer, now resting on top of it.

“Troy. We—the Archmages—really do sympathize with you Earthers. We know it’s not easy, and everything’s changing. But there are sides. I know you’re on Eldavin’s, or at least, he claimed you. But I want you to be honest. What’s up?”

Of all the Archmages, she made him most nervous. Not because she was smartest, best at magic…he had no measure, aside from the feeling that Eldavin was the best by far.

Yet he had the feeling Naili could be the most…vindictive of the lot. Nor was she slow.

“You know something. Out with it.”

“Nothing. I just—I wanted to know if I could trade a big secret. A Major Secret for…”

The young man stuttered as Nailihuaile left the seat and circled him. Beatrice saw Naili glance at her and stepped back. She became a statue, watching, as Naili frowned at Trey.

“What kind of secret? No, no. Let’s not get away from that first part. Why do you want an amulet to keep you safe, Troy? Someone…thinking of doing something dangerous, maybe?”

“It’s…”

He avoided her gaze. But now the Archmage was very intent on him, and she could put two plus two together.

“I hear you visit Archmage Amerys. You weren’t planning on breaking her out, maybe?”

“I—”

“You’ve seen the new traps and security. That would be a mistake, Troy. We’d have to be unpleasant about that. But that would be curious as to why you were doing it.”

It’s the Golems.

The young man burst out. He met Naili’s eyes for a second. She frowned.

“The Golems?”

Trey’s breath was coming too fast. He spoke quickly.

“Yes. The—I saw one of the Golems in the maze. And the other ones. Are you sure they’re safe? Are you sure—did you order them to come down and guard her?”

The Star Lamia recoiled slightly.

“Ordered them to guard Amerys? Of course we did.”

“Each one?”

The young man met her eyes. The Star Lamia saw genuine unease there. She hesitated.

“Yes…Ullsinoi did for…there’s a Golem in the maze?”

She glanced at Beatrice for confirmation then smiled at Trey. But with a hint of uncertainty behind the needle-sharp teeth.

“Why? Why would that matter?”

“I…I have a secret. A big one. I’d trade it for a charm. Something to protect me. Just in case.”

“In case of…? Beatrice, find me my best warding amulets. I don’t have an Amulet of Protection—but I do have some powerful ones. Besides, you know a secret has to be worth a lot.”

“It’s a big one. The biggest. It’s worth—it’s worth the best artifact you’d give me. I think I might need it. Maybe. I don’t want to need it, but I might.”

“Really?”

Nailihuaile looked at Trey and saw no lie in that. She hesitated, and slithered over to inspect the amulets Beatrice brought. She frowned, shook her head, and went over to a cabinet. She opened it, stared down at a carefully-wrought cage of silverish metal around a core of something bright and fiery red, scintillating like a little molten core in the center of it, floating.

“This is an Amulet of Xion, Troy. Do you know what that is?”

He shook his head as she came over with it. Beatrice silently held the other artifacts, and Naili dangled it in front of him, smiling.

“I can’t make it. Yet. Xion was an [Enchanter] who specialized in this kind of thing. Each gem is a powerful mana stone, the kind that you can’t make. Something like the core of magic dug out of a monster. This is the most powerful amulet I would ever consider trading; I don’t wear it myself because of interference with my robes and staff.”

She gestured at the Relic-class artifact. Trey looked at the curved piece of wood augmented with shining crystal and other strange stone.

The Serkonian Lance. Naili saw his expression and laughed.

“I know Viltach tutors you. And Eldavin? Neither one has the artifacts I do. The Serkonian Lance is a jealous weapon, though. Still, even the amulet is worth far more than most Major-class secrets. But let’s put it on the table.”

She did so, on the low table, and nodded at Beatrice.

“You can haggle with me for the lesser ones. What’s this big secret you have? Don’t worry about Beatrice. She’s beyond loyal. The Golems? Now why would you be worried about them?”

She leaned forwards eagerly. She saw the young man lick his lips. Trey looked Nailihuaile dead in her eyes.

What did [Mages] fear? Gazi had asked him that.

What do [Mages] of Wistram fear? Know that—and you know one of their weaknesses. That they trust in their magic and truth spells is another. When you lie with the truth, they believe you.

He looked Naili straight in the eyes, and he didn’t have to try to appear uneasy or afraid. All he had to do was remember.

“Are you sure the Golems are obeying you? Have…have you seen Zelkyr’s test?”

Naili recoiled slightly. Beatrice made a sound.

“Zelkyr’s test? Don’t tell me you went up there! That’s dangerous! And if it’s that secret flesh-Golem—that’s not a huge secret. But—”

She was off-guard for a second. Her answer told Trey everything he needed to know. She hadn’t been up there recently. The Archmages avoided that place like the plague.

“You haven’t seen what Cognita’s done, then.”

He looked at her, even more visibly nervous. Naili’s eyes flickered.

“Cognita? She left. Why. Do you know why she left? No one knows why. If you just happened to know, that would b—”

“She might be free. Eldavin might have set her free. He was trying to when he challenged her. That’s what I heard when I rescued him. He tried the test, and the Golems of Wistram…he fought Cognita.”

Archmage Nailihuaile’s grin was frozen on her face. Her head was slightly turned, and Trey saw her breathing—but the Star Lamia, always bouncy, moving—froze up. People could turn into statues, but she held every muscle still, half uncoiled, her body arched. Then her eyes slid over to his.

What was that? He did…

She didn’t know. Trey looked Nailihuaile dead in her eyes and delivered unto the Archmage of Lizardfolk, the Star Lamia, the [Enchanter], a nightmare.

“You haven’t taken a look at Zelkyr’s last test, have you?”

 

——

 

Five Golems had once held this ground. Four permanently, in the magical battleground, the reinforced courtyard in front of the massive, sealed doors. One the true protector and mistress of Wistram.

Six Golems, but not even Trey knew the one hidden in the heart of the giant metal warrior. However, that was always how it had looked.

An invisible Golem of flesh, stalking left and right, putrid breath wafting from its maw as its eyes glowed.

A Golem made of burning magma and stone, burning from within from a heat that defied belief—a core like a star.

The tall thing of wire and metal, a scythe of a body, thin, infinitely malleable.

That too-plain, too weak giant of metal armed with sword and shield, paling in comparison to even some of its other lesser peers.

The last of them, the greatest, would walk here and greet any [Mages] who dared the final test to become true mages of Wistram. Truestone. Cognita.

That was always how it had been. An understated threat, for all the overt death here.

No longer.

If you opened those doors, the first thing you saw was a real siege weapon. Not a ballista. Nor a cute cannon from the dawn of gunpowder on Earth.

A [Mage]’s siege weapon. One of their city-breaking siege weapons.

A Valmira Cascade launcher. It had a design similar to a bow, but since it didn’t fire arrows, the contraption had no elongated wings. It did have a dangerously fragile-looking construction of charged glass orbs that were blindingly white when filled with power.

Each one threw one of that famous Archmage’s spells with a regular shot. [Valmira’s Comet]. And it scaled up. However, the siege weapon could and would detonate all that charged magic that it pulled from the air and its magical fuel—which could wipe out anything nearby.

The gunner didn’t care. It sat fearlessly, aiming the rotating, hovering weapon on its pedestal straight at any intruder.

A Golem. No regular Golem either, but one made for war. Its outer casing was Wyvern-hide; it looked like the Golem was wearing leather all over, save for one huge, oval ‘eye’ that was its entire face.

Again, they had taken from Gazers, but this Golem just had one huge, glowing, oval gemstone for a face. Deep red, cherry dark until you noticed the swimming lights. Perfect vision.

That was one Golem. A humanoid one, with its claw-hands perfectly adapted for the controls meant for Drakes, pointing the muzzle of the spell-throwing weapon down.

One Golem.

They were legion. Archer-Golems stood with classic longbows behind fortified ground, glowing one-way shields. Golems with swords and weapons like classic armies—Zelkyr’s legacy—were arrayed in ranks, holding the choke-points.

The entire room had changed. Now, the four Golems stood like the final bosses at the end of the room. To get to them?

You’d have to go up, through narrow passes held by Golems. Simple choke-points. If you wanted to fly over them—a reasonable thought—the Golems with bows and similar siege weapons would cut you out of the air.

Or the flying Golems. Like the one that hovered in the air, a glowing Golem’s Heart in its center. Wind and rain and lightning all flashed around, forming a ‘body’ visible only by its contents.

Storm Golem. Some of the Golems were like that, elemental. Others were crafted after the physical form, built for war.

Some were neither, a mix of the two, like the huge, dog-like beast that bounded left and right, a crushing pair of mithril-alloy teeth opening and closing.

Zelkyr had made a lot of Golems. Trey thought this wasn’t even close to all of them—but it was apparently as many as their leader thought was necessary to hold this place in her absence.

He didn’t bother counting. Nor did Trey Atwood peek long. He simply took the Amulet of Xion from Nailihuaile’s limp grip, put it on, and carefully backed away as she and Beatrice stared at the Golems aiming every single weapon at them.

They even had laser sights. Trey walked down five flights of stairs, found the closest bathroom, and sat there for a while. He touched the curious cage of wire around the glowing gem. If Naili wanted it back, she could have it; it was a perk. But Trey had a sneaking suspicion she wouldn’t.

 

——

 

The buzz that evening was of confusion. Archmage Feor himself went striding over to Nailihuaile before dinner even started.

Why had all the Golems save the original two been removed from Amerys’ security? Not just that—there were far fewer serving-Golems in Wistram than before.

Oh, and some were now skirting the Revivalist areas and refused to do deliveries or carry goods through there. All per a certain Archmage’s orders.

Paranoia was a lovely thing.

[Plotter Level 7!]

Trey had taken a nap, or rather, a lie-down as a hunch and been rewarded. He saw Naili arguing with Feor, and the old half-Elf’s face changed from annoyance to uncertainty in a flash.

He was not sitting close to the head table or with the Earthers. Trey sat with his friends. Emirea, Tov, Goelv. Calac was still on his job.

“So. Were you all sick this morning or something? I heard you missed class.”

Astritha looked uncertainly at her friends. None of them answered immediately. They looked at Trey. Emirea was shaking visibly. Goelv was still stunned, but Tov was just inspecting Trey.

They were in. And his friends might be obviously off, but not so much that Astritha and Messill would go to anyone with the news. Trey looked around the room and saw one of Doroumata’s daughters was angled towards him. The [Depth Mage] herself? Not present. Nor was he overtly being stared at behind the dark veil.

He wished some of the others were as covert.

“You son of a bitch. I’m in—”

One of the Earthers slapped the other on the shoulder hard as he pointed at Trey. The [Sand Mage] sighed.

They thought it was a joke. He knew better. Trey looked around and rose.

“I’m going to bed early. I’ll see you all tomorrow. I have to meet with Archmage Viltach, but I’ll see you after dinner.”

He looked at Emirea, Goelv, and Tov, and saw them nod shakily. Astritha leaned over as Messill whispered to her.

“Look at this guy. Bragging. ‘I get lessons from Viltach. I talk with Doroumata and Fissival’s [Mage Lords]! I take lessons from Eldavin!’ Sheesh.

Trey half-jumped and smiled guiltily. He saw Feor hurrying off to have an upsetting experience and saw Calac as he walked towards the exit. The young man looked at him and nodded.

 

——

 

Today.

“They’ve taken the walls twice now. We cannot keep forcing them back. The gates are…breaking.”

The reinforced wood and metal had been rebuilt into enchanted gates by the King of Destruction’s Skill. However, there was only so long they could endure bombardment, and even the battering rams that made it to the gates before they were destroyed.

Venith Crusland wore red. Maresar? Not a drop on her.

Teresa Atwood’s arm burned, despite stamina potions. She inhaled, exhaled, as she listened to them talk. Venith Crusland had no speeches. He uttered no fiery words as he turned to the officers present. They had held for eight days. Takhatres, Mars, Orthenon, all were fighting to return and bring a force large enough to break the siege while safeguarding their areas.

Flos Reimarch had told them to hold back. He could have sent Takhatres against this army, but for Hellios and the Gnolls. He could have pulled back and ceded Belchan and retreated—but then they would have come for him on all sides, and he would have lost everything.

Maresar spat casually as she stared into the distance.

“If it were any other battle, they would have already called this a disaster. Even Nerrhavia. They will not relent here. They see an end to this war. Venith. Call it.”

He nodded. The [Lord of Battle] turned to the others and gave a quiet command as he stared into the heart of the city, where people had gathered. Some ran water or supplies or tended the wounded, but most just waited.

Countless souls; some stayed in houses close to the walls because they had no choice. Every citizen from the countryside. Many had taken up arms, but they had lived and died on those walls. Now? He looked at the civilians with not a single combat level to their names and nodded.

“Arm them. We will hold them in the streets once the walls fall.”

Teresa raised her head to say something…looking at the palace. The King of Destruction lay there. She turned and heard a sound go up through the city.

A rending, winding screech of metal. The scream of a spell breaking and a roar from all around them from countless voices.

“The north gate.”

Venith stood. He started running, and Maresar lifted her bow.

“Another hour. Teresa—retreat to the palace if they take the walls. We will bleed them until they run for the death of it or fall, today. Do not throw your life away.”

The [Bandit Lord] stood as Teresa looked at her. She drew her first arrow and launched it skywards. The [Swordswoman] said nothing. She felt it, with that growing instinct that made all the others so quiet.

It would be today, one way or another. The sun was setting as the first gate went down. Then…soon after, the second.

Then one of the walls was breached.

 

——

 

Perhaps they were too slow. He could have been faster. He could have been smarter.

All Trey Atwood knew was that it had begun. All the pieces were in play—or would be soon. Distractions, plans laid, actions set in motion by himself, Gazi, and Calac.

However, one thing remained, and it was simply the end. Amerys. If they reached her—when they reached her, blood or perfect infiltration or chaos or not—

They had to set her free.

There was only one recourse Trey had for that. So he knocked, and carried the bottle of wine carefully under one arm as he put a smile on his face.

After a long, long time, the door opened. The face which appeared in the doorway was familiar. Welcoming.

“Troy, you’re early.”

“I’m sorry, Archmage Viltach. I brought a gift.”

The man blinked down with surprise and gratification.

“Where did you get that? And your amulet? Magnificent magic—you remembered my fondness for wines. Is that…?”

“Amentus wine.”

The Archmage beckoned Trey in, smiling.

Izrilian. You know, the fruit is very poisonous? The seed core, not the rind, but that’s part of the allure. Although any basic toxicity test fails because even the best stuff is a tiny bit poisonous.”

“I know. But you mentioned you liked good wines, Archmage, and I wanted to present you with a little gift for all you’ve done for me and Minizi—”

Viltach smiled. He beckoned Trey in, and the young man saw they had a small snack platter, a pre-dinner dinner. Just as planned.

“Where is Minizi?”

“Below, I think. I can feel her returning.”

“Ah, should we upgrade her next? You know, this wine might be too good to waste. Especially because I don’t believe in hoarding bottles.”

“If you’d like, Archmage.”

Viltach smiled. He ushered Trey into a seat. He was a generous man to his friends, and he enjoyed fine things.

He was also a craftsman. He led the Libertarian faction, and Trey knew that Viltach’s great love was making wands. Making…things.

He had a few slimes in his workshop, and he had Eldavin’s gift on display. Archmage Viltach noticed Trey’s look at the complex, three-element wand and grimaced.

“I’ve barely gotten started on reverse-engineering how he made that. A cunning Archmage, that Eldavin. I don’t think it’s a practical wand. I rather feel like an apprentice being handed a test piece—you know, like blacksmith puzzles? An odd feeling at my age. But we can discuss that later. Do you drink? You’re a bit young by some standards…but I won’t tell if you won’t.”

He winked, and Trey tried to return it. Viltach was…kind. It made what was about to happen feel worse.

“To Golems who won’t kill you, friendships, and magic.”

Viltach suggested. Trey smiled as he took a cup. He drank, and the Amentus wine was very sweet. Almost too sweet.

“Gah, that’s sugary. But I knew that…you know, Magnolia Reinhart loves sugar?”

Viltach took a sip and grimaced, then tried it again. Trey took his time in responding. He had to take a bite of some brie…chomp hard on the powdery pill Gazi had given him, wedged along his back molars, and then cough and take another sip of wine.

Foul as hell. But he wouldn’t go loopy, prone to answering questions, and then topple over.

If a truth spell existed, did a truth serum? Obviously. Trey tried to smile at Viltach, but it was so hard.

He didn’t feel bad about Nailihuaile. He didn’t like her. Elena? He felt awful about that in part, but he was also acting in relatively good faith…

No. Trey would wrestle with that too, but this was direct. This was looking Viltach in the eye as the Archmage smiled at him and…Trey put down his cup as Viltach took another sip and put it aside, shuddering.

“Maybe we need to cut it with water or something.”

“We don’t have to have too much. A sip’s enough. How are you, Archmage? It’s been a strange few days, hasn’t it?”

Viltach agreed. The Archmage went for a pitcher of water and poured a cup. He grimaced as he swished the water in his mouth and gulped.

“It has. You visit Amerys, don’t you?”

Trey blinked at him. Viltach shrugged. He put the cup down and sighed.

“…I never let you see her. You asked and asked, but Eldavin was the Archmage for you, eh?”

The young man hesitated and ducked his head.

“I’m sorry, Archmage Viltach.”

The man spoke a bit sharply.

“It’s Viltach. We are friendly enough to say that, Troy.”

He relented as he looked up when he saw the young man’s expression.

“I was being careful. I know you went with Eldavin—who wouldn’t? Honestly, Troy…Amerys is just dangerous. I was being cautious—and we still are. But you and I make our choices and we can’t go back. So let’s not speak of that. Not yet. How are your studies going?”

“Good…I don’t quite like barrier spells, though. They give me a headache.”

“Keeping it up? I understand. You get nosebleeds. What spell did you learn first?”

“[Light Barrier].”

“Naturally, naturally. Er, you do know you can sneeze on that spell hard enough and break it? Well, that is what that amulet is for. How did you get that?”

“Archmage Nailihuaile gave it to me.”

Viltach’s brows shot up.

“So that’s why she…ah, we do have more to talk about. Do you have long?”

Trey checked the timepiece set on one of Viltach’s tables. He looked out the window at the fading light.

“I have a bit, Archmage.”

 

——

 

Calac Crusland met Tov and Goelv in his rooms. They were waiting for Emirea and Trey.

“You’re early. He won’t be here for another hour.”

“I cannot stay in my rooms. I am nervous. Th—where is Gazi Pathseeker?”

Goelv whispered after the door was closed. Calac met his gaze briefly, and Tov settled with his back to the wall, watching the door.

“In her place.”

“She won’t be with us?”

“She’ll meet us at the Creler-mural. She has to go undetected.”

“Hm. Right. So…we’re doing this.”

Calac nodded. He looked at Goelv and Tov, and took a breath.

“You’re both in. I never asked you why. Was Troy that convincing?”

The two young men looked at him. Goelv half shook his head.

“Troy? He is a friend, but…that is Gazi Pathseeker. She knows more about magic and our people—even as a half-Gazer—she’s Gazi Pathseeker.”

He said it as if it said everything, and it did. Tov was different. He just stared at Calac.

“She serves the King of Destruction. A living legend. I…”

He hesitated. The Drowned Man rubbed at his slug half.

“Greatness. Greatness lies in that, and I’d be part of a legend. I could say I helped free Amerys. And I will be rewarded, won’t I?”

Calac Crusland nodded. He opened and closed his hands. He had seen the news about the siege of Reim this morning. The speculation.

One more hour, and they’ll know Amerys has returned. One more hour and the King of Destruction can threaten them with her wrath. She might even reach Chandrar if she can teleport—

“You have my vow as a Crusland.”

Tov just nodded, then frowned.

“Who is he?”

“Who? Crusland? My father is—”

“No. Who is Troy? Why does the King of Destruction trust him so much he sent him? You, I understand. But who is…he?”

The Drowned Man frowned, looking at Calac and then at Goelv. He was surprised by Calac’s smile.

“That would take too long to explain. You can ask him yourself.”

Tov gestured at the window.

“We’ve over an hour left.”

“It would still take too long.”

Still, since they were here, Calac began to explain. He waited for Emirea and Trey, checking the sinking sun.

The others. Were they in position?

 

——

 

“Twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty…thirty-one…”

Elena was counting the Earthers preparing for their breakout. She didn’t see Troy, but he had told her he’d catch up.

“George? You’re coming?”

She stopped one of the young men entering. The Earther grinned at her, shamefaced.

“I wasn’t sure, but I talked it over and everyone’s coming. Saif, Eun—we’re packed and ready.”

“Does anyone suspect anything? Sidney?

The little girl was clinging to Basil’s hand as he walked into the room. The [Smelter] was shaking.

“We’re all going. If you’re going.”

They were a group. George nodded at the door.

“I don’t think we were followed, but it’s hard to tell. Something’s…odd, tonight. You know those [Mages] were freaking out about the Golems yesterday?”

“Mhm? I heard they were being removed from key areas. It made my life harder. I was trying to sneak around and prepare a distraction.”

George glanced out the window.

“Us too. There’s a lot of ‘em in the corridors.”

Elena frowned.

“Wait…you made a distraction too?”

George shrugged.

“Well, we paid some [Mages] to help out. It’s just a prank. But it’s weird vibes out there, I’m telling you. Like…you know that funny Centaur guy?”

“Which one?”

Him. The one who’s helping us?”

“Oh, Galei?”

George nodded. He glanced at the corridor again and licked his lips as he turned to face Elena. He grinned.

“It’s probably an illusion. But I swore I passed him four times on the way here.”

 

——

 

Could you…tell something was off? Gazi didn’t even have to look. She eyed the trotting Centaur. She couldn’t tell if he was an illusion or not, but she kept multiple hallways between her and each Galei.

They were made. Or perhaps it was the Earthers. The Gazer didn’t know, and, to an extent, she didn’t care.

She had factored failure into elements of her plan. What she didn’t like were all the Golems. That…made no sense.

But perhaps it was an element of Naili ordering them away from the key areas. After all—Gazi peeked towards the Creler-murals. She was nearly eight hallways removed and had chosen this vantage spot because these particular walls didn’t obstruct her main eye’s vision.

She could dimly, dimly sense the magical maze in the lounge area, but that wasn’t what Gazi was focused on. She counted.

Two. Two magical, artificial presences. Two Golem hearts.

She couldn’t see into that maze of course, not without being in it, but it was clear the other Gemstone Protectors were gone. Trey’d done the big thing. All he needed now was the key. Gazi was prepared to cause a distraction if need be since they had Goelv.

Multiple elements. She pulled the single-use [Message] scroll from her belt pouch. Slowly, slowly, Gazi moved down the hallway, watching for [Greater Invisibility], for more security from Ullsinoi. They were her opponents. But she was ready. She triggered the [Message] scroll.

They’d have a way out. Gazi moved a bit closer, and the huge eyelid of her main eye lowered slightly.

Wait. What was…?

 

——

 

“With Eldavin gone, we are in charge, still. Nominally. But we fight. You know, Nailihuaile pulled all the Golems but the original two out of the hallways, Troy? Countermanding Ullsinoi, Feor, and myself…but that is how it goes. We squabble.”

Viltach was noticeably…off. His voice wasn’t slurred so much as he was talkative, drowsy. Trey watched him with a pang in his heart as the Archmage fumbled for a seedless grape and popped it into his mouth.

“I don’t see Minizi. Is she coming?”

“She’s coming, Viltach. But tell me more about Amerys. You didn’t want me to see her?”

“Dangerous. She is a dangerous woman. She cannot be freed.”

Trey nodded. Viltach’s head was lolling.

“But she won’t be. Even if someone got to her, she’s all locked up. I saw that. The guards have a key to her mask…”

“Ah! It’s not the one to her shackles! Double—something. Protected. Who gives the key to the [Jailor] who stands right next to the cell? Seems…that always seemed silly in books, don’t you think?”

Viltach went to tap his nose, grinning at Trey. The young man was breathing hard, but he tried to keep as casual as possible as he sipped from his wine cup.

“Yes. Then there is a key somewhere else, isn’t there?”

“Exactly. The key…the key to Amerys’ shackles is in my possession.”

Really?

Viltach nodded, looking around as if they were being watched even here.

“Well, mine, Feor’s, and Nailihuaile’s. Silly damn stuff. None of us trusts the others, so we need three keys. That’s Wistram-logic for you. But only one of us can unlock it. So?”

He shrugged. Viltach unsteadily showed Trey a mithril key with a tiny gem on the handle. Trey’s eyes locked on it. Viltach put it into his bag of holding and patted it slowly.

“…I keep it on me. Feor probably hides his, and Naili too, but there is a scenario where we let Amerys go. If the King of Destruction started winning—one of us would probably slip in, cut her a deal, and let her go. It hasn’t come to that. He’s on the ropes, don’t you see?”

“I do.”

Viltach muttered, head lolling down.

“On the ropes. On the robes. Strange expressions your Earthers come up with. The King of Destruction will die soon, and all will be well. You see that, don’t you? That nightmarish man who slaughters people. Trey. You know…I’ll be glad when that threat is removed. Wistram should be peaceful. Eldavin—Eldavin’s a dangerous man. A genius, but I was sick of war before I even saw one. Life should be peaceful. That’s why I like Terandria. But for Ailendamus, war does not destroy nations. It—it’s stable, you understand?”

Trey looked at Viltach sympathetically. His fingers twitched towards the wine bottle, then he relaxed.

“I understand, Archmage. I would like that too.”

Viltach was shaking his head like a dog, but it was lessening.

“People think I favor Terandria over other continents. I do. Because I’ve always thought it was better. Better than Baleros, filled with bloodshed! Better than Chandrar with horrors—like A’ctelios Salash.”

The young man froze in his seat as Viltach looked up.

“Have you heard of that nightmarish place?”

“I have…I have.”

Viltach shuddered.

“They call it their Shield Kingdom. Izril? Izril is a little better, but the Antinium have infested it, and the Drakes can be so petty…look at Zelkyr. Look at the poor Gnolls. No, Terandria. That’s where my children are.”

“You have children, Archmage Viltach?”

The Archmage of Terandria nodded. He stared down at the table and sighed hard.

“I do. I keep it a great secret…because Wistram is so political. I have a family. I…I visit them as often as I can. I spend months in Terandria, when events like Earthers aren’t happening. I wish my children liked me. Some do. Some…I have made mistakes. But Wistram is also my home.”

“Can’t you put the two together?”

Viltach shook his head.

“Some of my children have no talent for magic.”

“Oh.”

The Archmage laughed.

“From me! And I’m…Archmage Viltach. Can you imagine what Naili would do, that serpent? That—they wouldn’t be happy. So I kept the two divorced. Which led to a divorce.”

His face fell.

“Which led to them hating me.”

“I’m sorry, Viltach.”

Trey looked at the man. The Archmage gave him the most rueful, melancholy of grins. He filled his cup with wine and the other with water and sipped from both.

“You know, Trey. I liked you. I thought of you like a second son—no, that’s an exaggeration. I thought of you like a young man and treated you like a son.”

“Thank you, Viltach.”

Trey’s head lowered further with the weight of his guilt. Viltach closed his eyes. His breathing was quieter now, and he slumped backwards.

“I truly did like you. Not just for magic. Nor just for any of that. Just you.”

“I’m sorry.”

The man sat back, head staring at the ceiling. His hand moved towards the wine bottle, and he murmured under his breath.

“Would you like another…drink? I have water too. The wine’s strong.”

“I’m fine, Archmage.”

Viltach nodded as he closed his eyes. Trey glanced out the window and then half-rose, looking towards the man’s bag of holding. Viltach’s breath was a whisper.

“You don’t want any water? I put the antidote in the water. You must have taken it already.”

Trey’s eyes snapped open. He recoiled—and Archmage Viltach sat up. Suddenly, the drunken, comatose Archmage looked at him.

“I was truly hoping you wouldn’t, Trey. But the King of Destruction has a hold on you. Doesn’t he?”

Trey froze, and then he realized—for the last little bit—he hadn’t noticed because it was his name, and he was used to alias and name both. But—

Viltach had been saying ‘Trey’, not ‘Troy’.

The [Sand Mage] had put his staff at the door, but he had the wand Viltach had given him. It rose from its little holster at his side, and Viltach pointed a finger.

“Activate!”

Something flashed, and Trey locked up. The Archmage stood, looking…immeasurably sad. Sad, disappointed, yet bitterly triumphant. He gestured.

“[Rune of Paralysis]. I thought you might notice, but I wrote it into the wood of the chair. Eldavin may have taught you well, but he only gave you a month. And you were too nervous.”

Trey was locked up. He could move his face, but nothing else. He stared at Viltach.

“How did you know?”

The Archmage of Terandria rubbed at his face, his goatee, wearily. He shook his head.

“Trey. I knew from the start.”

The young man watched him and the Archmage shook his head.

“You’ve been in the company of the King of Destruction. You might have anti-[Appraisal] wards and you’re clever—I don’t know who you’re working with, but I can guess from your friends. Did you really think I wouldn’t know? Trey Atwood. You went to A’ctelios Salash, you poor boy. And he has your sister.”

Viltach rested his hands on the table, looking at Trey. The young man spoke.

“I…she’s a prisoner. You can’t keep Amerys forever.”

“Nor will we. Nor you, Trey. Just until that man dies. I wish you had trusted me enough. I truly do.”

That seemed to be what hurt Viltach most of all. He drew the key from his bag of holding and held it out to Trey. The young man looked at it—and Viltach carelessly tossed it onto the table.

“—But I cannot let you free Amerys. Naili you duped. You even fooled Eldavin—or at least, he’s not here. Feor? Feor underestimates you all. But I do not. Ullsinoi is on patrol. And while it’s true four Golems were pulled off their sentry duty, I took care of that. Amerys is guarded by more than just her regular guards tonight.”

 

——

 

Gazi Pathseeker stared into the Mershi-lounge and realized they’d been made in all truth. She focused on the maze and saw a figure ghosting along the winding hallways.

The singing Golem. But not just that—she looked ahead and heard something that Trey and Calac had never seen when they had been scouting out the place.

Music. Laughter.

A lot of voices.

Come on, everyone! Archmage Viltach has expressly opened the lounge tonight!

Yolv and the other [Guards] sighed as a bevy of [Mages] strolled towards them. They glowered—the Naga especially, not because more people was unwelcome—

More because the all-Human crowd was. Libertarians, young and old, raiding the kegs, bringing food, and a lot of bodies.

After all—there was a taproom. Gazi stared grimly at an army of [Mages] and the Golem. Then she realized Trey was in trouble. Then she realized they were all in trouble as she heard the clip-clop of hooves behind her.

“Lady Pathseeker. You’re good at seeking. Less so at hiding. What now? Tag or hide-and-seek?”

She turned and saw four [Mages] including Galei facing her down the hallway. The Centaur smiled and calmly lit one of Palt’s signature cigars.

 

——

 

“He’s late. So’s Emirea.”

Calac checked the sun, and Goelv started.

“It’s only a few minutes past the sun going down the horizon. Maybe they’re delayed?”

“I don’t like it. This feels like a bad storm brewing.”

Tov stared at the door. Calac didn’t want to say it, but he thought the Drowned Man was right. Then…he heard a quiet knock.

They should have done a secret knock or something, but Calac was just relieved to hear someone knocking at all. Actually—why did you have a secret knock? He thrust the door open.

“There you a—”

“[Paralysis].”

A wand poked him on the chest, and he went over backwards. Calac’s mouth was open in shock, and Tov and Goelv froze as a figure slithered into the room.

The reason you had a secret knock was to let you know if it was a trap. Revivialist [Mages] followed the Star Lamia into the room, and Calac, staring at the ceiling, heard a plaintive cry.

“Don’t hurt them!”

A girl clung to Beatrice’s hand, staring at Calac in horror. The Archmage stunned the other two young men and then slithered back to pat Emirea on the head.

“We won’t. They’ve been very bad, but you were brave to come to me, Emirea. Now, where is Troy?”

She looked around, eyes meeting Calac’s. The young man stared up at her as his heart sank.

 

——

 

It was all going bad. Viltach looked at Trey sympathetically. He raised a finger to his forehead.

“Yes, I have him, Nailihuaile. You caught the others? Well done. I have been aware of the problem for over a month. And you? Today? Well, Ullsinoi can confirm my account. Yes, I thought that might make you happy.”

Component parts or not, squabbling [Mages] or not—the pieces were falling down. Trey Atwood sat there, as Viltach rose with a sigh.

“Ullsinoi’s run into someone. Her. No wonder you never backed out. But there’s four Archmages and an army of [Mages] between her and Amerys. So long as that rune is active, you won’t leave, and your friends are hostage too. I don’t take chances, Trey. I am sorry.”

“You…you could let us leave.”

Viltach looked at Trey blankly.

“I really couldn’t. It isn’t just that I oppose Flos, or that I fear what he’ll do. He’s dangerous, Trey. He has killed countless innocent people with his damned wars. Don’t you see what he does? I don’t take chances with him. And in case you’re wondering—I switched the key to Amerys’ lock. Nailihuaile and Feor can’t let her out. The key is hidden, and I won’t remember where it is until tomorrow.”

Trey’s mouth opened wide in horror.

What?

Viltach gave Trey an apologetic shrug.

“I read every book on breakouts I could find. Why bother letting you even open the lock? Her bindings are secure. I’m taking one last precaution too, incidentally.”

It was Viltach. He was the most dangerous Archmage. Not because he was as cruel as Nailihuaile. He was someone who made wands. Who made sure a plan, an object, was flawless.

Trey had made a plan. Viltach had made a plan. The Archmage, the thorough man, raised his wand to his throat and spoke.

His voice was on a delay—then Trey heard a reverberation through the room. Through…Wistram.

I am Archmage Viltach of Wistram. Troy Atlas and Carn…Carn…

He hesitated.

Troy and Carn are agents of the King of Destruction, attempting to free Archmage Amerys. If you see either one, do not let them escape.

He hesitated, lowered the wand, and Trey stared at him. Viltach shrugged.

“We’ll keep Gazi quiet. We don’t want a panic. I’ll return after I grab her. I’m sorry.”

He walked towards the door. He turned back just once when Trey spoke.

“Viltach. Do you know why I didn’t tell you everything? You, Eldavin? Anyone? It wasn’t because Flos threatened me or my sister is with him. Or Gazi.”

Viltach turned, curiosity winning over everything.

“Why, then?”

The young man met Viltach’s gaze. Bound, paralyzed, Trey still looked Viltach in the eye. There was nothing to gain by it. He closed his eyes, speaking as he used every Skill he could, straining every muscle using magic…he couldn’t move. So he looked at Viltach and told him, honestly.

“It was Wistram. You [Mages]…the academy. It is a beautiful place. Wonderful, magical. It could be so much better. But it isn’t. You think Wistram and Terandria are better than other continents? I have never been to Izril or Baleros or Terandria. But I look at Wistram and I see the same thing as Chandrar. You keep [Slaves]—you just call them something else. I liked you too.”

He looked at Viltach. The man stood there, very still, waiting, with a faint pain behind his eyes.

“But what?”

Trey smiled sadly.

“…You are a kind man, Archmage Viltach. Just not a good one.”

Viltach inhaled sharply. He looked at Trey, touched his chest, and rubbed it for a second.

“Well spoken.”

Then he opened the door and left. Trey was left alone, helpless. All except for one thing that Viltach had overlooked.

[Prepared Signal]. A little alarm was going off in someone’s head.

Not Gazi.

Not Calac.

After all, Trey was supposed to meet both of them. The alarm rang again and again, telling the person that things were going very bad. Even so…the little Lifesand Golem slowly raised her sword.

No one noticed her, at first. Alone, the Lifesand Golem was the only person not incapacitated or under attack. Elena and the Earthers were frozen in place, unsure of what to do. But the plan was moving. Parts of it, anyways.

The Golems in the hallways were prepared for something. Not Gazi, incidentally. Or Trey.

Archmage Feor sat in the banquet hall, counting Earthers. He was disappointed at how few remained, but Aaron Vanwell was there. The young man pretended nothing was wrong, but there was someone with the gumption to say what needed to be said.

“You are protecting them, young man. And I shall remember it.”

He turned to Leon as Aaron stared at the Archmage of half-Elves. Leon nodded, not meeting Aaron or the other Earthers’ glares—some already apprehended by the Golems.

“I know.”

The Wistram [Mages] and students were in uproar after Viltach’s announcement. Feor’s own skin was prickling unpleasantly at the thought. So that was what the King of Destruction’s last gambit was about.

But he was reassured by Naili and Viltach. They might fight, quarrel, and backstab, but when an outside threat came towards them, Wistram still pulled together. That was what Eldavin didn’t realize.

Wistram. Wistram, that Academy of [Mages]. The banquet hall was full with dinner diners and everyone was talking about the drama. Minizi tottered forwards clumsily, trying to stay unnoticed. She saw Feor…and was vaguely worried.

Trey was in trouble. Big Gazi was in trouble. But Minizi stuck to the plan. What came next would be different, but Trey Atwood did know one thing.

What did [Mages] fear? He had thought of it long and hard for the first part of the plan. Trey knew what wise men feared. He knew what [Sailors] feared. And [Mages]?

Minizi was beginning to get noticed. A few [Mages] frowned at her. Someone pointed.

“That Golem’s…odd. What’s up with…”

Then they noticed her sword. The [Mages] turned. A few backed away. Now Minizi was caught, but it was okay. She was clumsy, but she raised her sword.

A [Mage] stared blankly up at her as she found a random target. Well, not-so-random. Mage Rievan of the Libertarians was just about to head to the party—he’d pulled a Telim and raided an entire banquet table.

“What is wrong with this Golem? It’s got a sword—”

He hesitated. Then his eyes grew round as Minizi raised the sword. Feor’s head turned.

What did you see? Minizi saw the [Mage] staring at her, backing up, fumbling for a spell, but—shocked. Confused. He didn’t expect this, but it was the nightmare crawling in the back of his every thought when he looked at Cognita or Golems.

But it didn’t…happen. What did you see?

A Lifesand Golem? Minizi very much doubted it. What the students and [Mages] saw was probably one of the serving Golems, a ceramic-clad Golem. With a sword.

A Golem of Wistram has been destroyed.

Feor remembered what that Golem had said. His eyes locked on the Golem with the blade in the slow dawning realization.

Why would Gazi need to destroy a Golem? Why would any cunning infiltrator alert anyone? Minizi hadn’t gotten it—until Trey had begun gluing the shattered Golem’s pieces back into place.

Lifesand could fill anything. Become anything. It was hard to walk and move in this false shell, but Minizi didn’t have to do much. She raised the sword—

And stabbed Rievan in the stomach. He made a sound, falling backwards—it wasn’t even a good stab. But Minizi kept stabbing, until a spell blasted her across the ground.

In the silence one of the students lowered a smoking wand. The air was filled with a panicked silence, as people tried to figure out what was happening. Give them a second and they might—until someone screamed an alternate take into their midst.

The Golems are attacking! The Golems are rebelling!

Another serving Golem was trudging over to help Mage Rievan up. It was bending down with a healing potion in hand when two dozen spells blasted it apart. The people far from the actual scene began to panic at the scream, and the shouts were picked up and repeated.

Who had shouted it at first? Feor raised his voice to shout the truth, but too late. The first panicked [Mages] opened up on the Golems in the banquet hall, and then it was chaos.

Who had shouted that? Some panicked idiot?

The woman with the dark veil slowly walked out of the chaotic banquet hall. One of Doroumata’s daughters smiled. No one suspected someone who never spoke to shout. She quickened her pace. Things were going wrong, but their part in it remained the same.

 

——

 

An alarm began to ring as the Earthers looked at each other. Elena went pale and went for the door.

“What do we do? Did he betray us? W-what do we do, Elena?”

“The Earth-only rooms? We should hide! We should—”

The door opened. The Earthers froze and saw a figure standing there. He had…blonde hair, silver armor, and behind him was a half-Elf. And a Dwarf.

Ylawes Byres looked at the Earthers. He cleared his throat.

“Excuse me. We’re the Silver Swords. We’ve been hired to get you to a ship.”

Falene was groaning with apprehension, but Dawil and Ylawes had been talking with that friendly young man, Carn, and they were Gold-rank adventurers. In the chaos, the Earthers began their escape.

 

——

 

Golems under attack.

Somewhere a continent away, a Truestone Golem stopped paging through the Hundred Thousand Tomes academy for books on Zelkyr and Golems. She was going to have to pay a visit to Illivere.

But as the alarm reached her, Cognita Truestone’s head slowly rose, and her features changed.

“Those fools.”

Her eyes narrowed as she sensed Golems under attack. They were retreating in the face of panicked spells, many glancing off the Golems’ armor. Retreating…from their attackers.

A hauler-Golem stopped as a mage tried to blast the huge stone figure to pieces. The [Mage] had been casting spells wildly, perhaps even realizing the Golem wasn’t actually attacking and relishing the chance to damage—

The Lizardman looked up as the Golem’s impassive face suddenly turned…hostile. He backed up too slowly. The Golem calmly grabbed the [Mage]’s leg and swung him into a wall.

Dead gods. They are att—

Another [Mage] shouted in alarm—right before a serving Golem dropped its tray and put her into a chokehold. More and more Golems began to stop retreating and advanced. Cognita’s eyes narrowed.

Enough was enough. She sent a second command as her eyes began to glow, and one of Nerrhavia’s [Librarians] appeared with a stack of books. He took one look at Cognita, put the stack of books down, and ran. The Golems began to restore order. They were also going to find the intruder. And that meddlesome little Lifesand Golem.

And that stupid boy.

 

——

 

They threw themselves into the breach. The defenders and the attackers. Bleeding. Dying for a cause worth everything.

Somewhere, the Academy of [Mages] was in uproar. All to rescue one woman who sat in a guarded cell, watching and waiting.

Risk your very life for someone else. For a cause. It seemed nonsensical.

Yet she knew the feeling.

Honor. Respect. Fame. People laughed and said you could not eat these things, could not use them.

Yet they defined her. She was a name.

Tannousin. The small clan whose name was known and spoken louder than some petty nations because of what they wrought.

Naq-Alrama steel. Magic in their hammers.

Pride in the craft. That was her entire existence, the foundation of their clan.

Now it was in ruins.

The last true Naq-Alrama [Smith] was dead. His final work a failure. The secrets lay with her clan, with the elders, but their name was black with lies and failure.

She was Nawalishifra Tannousin. Daughter of the last [Smith] to ever forge a blade of Naq-Alrama steel.

It was not her fault she had failed her first forging. The metal had been bad to begin with. Bad metal had still slain a Djinni. It was not her error, as Teresa Atwood pointed out.

But the blame weighed on her. It was hers, so long as she wore Tannousin’s name and mantle. Nawalishifra knew that.

Such a heavy thing. Such an unfair thing. She could walk away at any time. All she had to give up was everything that defined her.

The [Smith] had left her forge. Her steps were unsteady. They actually cracked the old stone in places. She was sweating under the fading sun.

Feverish. Sick at heart. Tired.

But she kept walking.

They flooded the breach. Reim and Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Blood was spilling from cloth and flesh. Nawal walked forwards as she saw the citizens being armed. Ready to fight and die.

Not for her. She could almost taste it in the air. Blood and iron. Death.

She walked straight for that gap in the walls. The defenders paid her little mind at first. The attackers? They had eyes for swords, for the enemy.

It was wet on the ground. Blood. So much of it, and the dead bodies, that both sides were clearing it away. Nawal stared down with a shudder.

It was said of Chandrar that there was more blood than water. Which was true. This was the King of Destruction’s war. She was insignificant—and she had failed to deliver him his weapon.

So here they were. At last, Nawal found her spot and put down her burden. Her bones themselves felt bruised. A passing [Soldier] running forwards looked at her. At the…anvil placed on the ground.

Slowly, the young woman reached into a bag of holding and drew something out. A single, pure bar of steel.

As pure as she could make it. She looked at the single bar of steel and the anvil. Clean. Other [Smiths] saw Tannousin as obsessed with it. With purity and a perfection nigh-impossible to reach.

Every ritual Nawal knew was aimed towards keeping the metal pure. Towards preserving some quality, refining in voids without air, flame without heat.

Everything else was so…dirty to her. It became an obsession.

Yet there was no clan to support her and make these things happen. They had fled. Nawal was alone.

The last [Smith]. She could not remake the Naq-Alrama steel, not now, under siege. Not alone.

Slowly, painfully, Nawal bent. Her muscles tore and screamed. Her eyes were heavy for lack of sleep. She felt a terrible fear gnawing away at the dead rest of her.

Yet—

Also, relief. Nawal bent down, and the gleaming bar of metal slowly touched the blood running from the ground. The surface covered itself with grit and blood and filth.

The [Smith] smiled, like a girl who had been told again and again not to get anything on her clothing—who did just to spite the teller. A forbidden act.

Tannousin was an old clan. It had known great [Smiths]. Naq-Alrama steel was their great secret and treasure.

They knew more secrets of smithing. More dark tales and stories. Forbidden techniques. 

Desperate, dark acts.

The steel was dripping wet when she placed it on the anvil. There was no flame. This was a parody of smithing. No tools and only a single block of metal. Not enough metal even to make a full sword. So little left after refining—now despoiled by corpse-blood.

Fire and material.

They would have both, soon enough. Nawal’s lips moved as she slowly, painfully, began to draw a circle around the anvil. Blood ran into the funnel her finger traced.

Hold the line! Fight! Fight until your—

They were fighting bare dozens of paces ahead of her. More blood. More death. The [Smith] knew there was a terrible power there. So she took up the one tool she needed.

Her hammer. Her hammer, and the bloody metal. Ah, yes. And one more thing.

Nawalishifra carefully drew a blade up. One of the fallen pieces of metal. Poor-quality steel. Practically iron. Even so…a poor [Smith]’s weapon could still kill. What a terrible irony that was. That the greatest [Smith] in the world could do what the meanest one could.

She cut her wrist. Nawal saw blood, her blood, dripping down onto the anvil. Not much. Just a drip. A drop.

Drip. Drop. Drip…

She saw the blood falling. Turning the anvil dirtier. Nawal smiled. A poor, dirty act for a girl who deserved better. Yet…her eyes rose to the palace. To the battle around her.

She thought of Trey, of leaving it all behind. But pride. She had failed Flos Reimarch and that was the truth. Excuses or not, she had promised him a weapon worthy of him, and that was her one oath.

Nawalishifra took one comfort. One relief, as she slowly raised the hammer overhead. She swung the hammer down and struck the metal cold.

A shivering peal of sound rang out, lost in the battlefield. The metal jumped, and Nawal kept it steady with her other hand. There was a truth in Chandrar, and it was this:

Blood would pay for every sin. Enough blood to redeem every failure.

Slowly, with a steady rhythm, the hammer began to fall. It never picked up speed, but it fell harder. Louder. At first, the metal just jumped despite her hand. It rang, bloody, filthy, until even the soldiers at the rear of the fighting heard it.

But they paid no heed if they saw her. A man split open a [Soldier]’s head and more blood fell. The hammer rose and fell. Blood soaked the stones and soil until it ran.

Then it began to ripple.

A [Warrior] reaching for her own blade amid the tangle of her guts looked down. She saw the blood…rippling upwards before the spear descended. The [Spearman] stared down at the blood.

It was rippling. Moving in a faint rhythm. Blood flowing, running in one direction now. Moving as Nawalishifra bled.

She had no more metal left. No magic save what was in her. A poor [Smith] had nothing to forge.

But blood? They said blood tasted like iron. Nawal tasted it in the back of her mouth. Blood was dripping down her arm.

The bloody hammer swung down again as the last forging began. A twisted, dirty blade.

A sinful creation to mend all bridges and pay all debts.

An apology in blood.

Nawal wished she could see Trey again.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: Three chapters. It’s tough, doing a first draft each time. I want to do it right. Giving myself more days to write a chapter, more chapters to conclude an arc is all for quality.

You don’t really get a second chance. I can always re-write, but some people read it the moment it’s posted. So…it’s a different experience.

Someone will wait for the next chapter. Someone reading this, later, will simply find the next one’s done, or even the volume. I hope both experiences are good, but we’ll see. Let me know how I’m doing from either perspective.

See you next chapter.

 

The Wandering Inn Analytics Graph by Amiron!

https://wandering-inn-statistics.aris.moe/

 

Ice Squirrel by pkay!

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

 

Sand-hug by Anito!

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

73 thoughts on “8.63 K

    • Typo report: “This is Lancest of Pheislant.”

      And then a few lines later

      “Lancrest is a son of Pheislant,

      He’s either gained an r or lost one.

    • “All I know is that the singing heard me.”

      Probably should be “the singing Golem”. Or possibly “the singing thing”, given how Gazi is talking later in the conversation.

      “However, there was only so long they could endure bombardment, and even the battering rams that made it to the gates before they were destroyed.”

      This may be a garden path sentence. It sounds like the battering rams are going to have a verb later, but they don’t. Possibly it should be “endure bombardment, or even those battering rams”. Or “the battering rams that made it to the gates DID SOMETHING before they were destroyed.”

      “Alright” -> “All right”

  1. I almost wished I stopped reading for a week so I could read this entire plot all at once. Suspense has built and built and built and at the end of this chapter the pressure was let off and the story surged into action and chaos, only for it to wait a few days. I am gonna spend the next while obsessing over this and waiting for the next release. So glad to see how Trey’s time at Hogwarts will end

  2. I really, really, really hate Trey.

    I can’t believe he says this “You keep [Slaves]—you just call them something else…”.

    What the f*** dude, you know Flos has literally sold thousands of people into slavery PERSONALLY. Yet you still follow him like a lost little puppy. You are at BEST second-hand involved directly with the slave trade. Get of your high horse you loser.

    Holy hell, I really hope Trey gets some intense comeuppance. At least his Sister is honest about her motivations and doesn’t pretend she is doing the ‘right’ thing (morally or otherwise).

    • I mean, he’s focused on the destruction on the shield kingdom. And Reim promised it. Just cause you comprise in one situation in an effort to eliminate something worse doesn’t mean your morals change. I’d say some slavery today to get rid of cuthulu tmrw is worth it. Doesn’t mean I can’t look down on slavers though:/

    • Trey’s point wasn’t that Flos is better than Wistram, he was saying they’re both shitty. Flos promotes slavery by selling off his enemies and Wistram claims to be protecting Earthers, but they’re also holding them hostage.

      At that moment Vilatch is acting like Wistram/Terrandia are utopias and he can’t believe that Trey wouldn’t have come over to his side. Trey is just stating that the situation isn’t so black and white.

    • He’s also reacting to what he sees as slavery by forcing a violent confrontation between the two parties without the consent or approval of the enslaved. A lot of wizards and a lot of golems are about to die.

      And Flos has done a lot more than sell people into slavery. He is pretty much literally addicted to war. His good points boil down to “he declared war on someone because they did something bad” to the point that the something bad feels less like a motivation and more like an excuse.

      And all of this is fine. K chapters come with villain POVs. That’s not inherently a flaw. You just need to remember it.

        • Maybe then we will see more factions in Chandrar coming into play once Amerys is freed and gets there. I feel that they will have to make a choice in loyalties because of Amerys tipping the scales of power.

      • The other thing to consider is that if you dislike war and slavery, well, Nerrhavia’s Fallen has declared its own expansionistic wars of late – including one against Pomle specifically triggered by a slaver’s need to enforce recognition of the practice onto others. What do people is think going to happen if they seize Reim? It’s probably not going to be gentle considering how bloody this assault has been…

        If Amerys is freed and changes the tide of the war again, then Trey will have at least more directly prevented one big heap of warcrimes (to people he’s met too) even as he would have enabled others.

    • You should reread that part, Troy split from Flos exactly because of him selling the slaves from the first attack. He was beyond angry and even split from Teresa. He only came back because of the promise to burn Acetelios, but never accepted slavery. I for one am rooting for ihm.

      • You make a good point as Trey even said in the chapter “They know. They just will not do anything about it.”

        Which essentially boils down to which two factions will help you out and on his own… Trey can not win.Winstrum will not help. King of Bloodshed and War may not be a great man, but if he promises to burn the damn thing to ash or at the very least kill everyone and replace the city with slightly better people… Then he will do so.

        Trey at best is the reluctant ally because his only options are to give up or work with Flos.

    • I’m almost convinced that Trey doesn’t follow Flos of his own volition. [Kings] get very powerful Skills. I am still mad that Rhir’s [King] straight up has a Skill that makes a lie the truth in the eyes of the world. In that very first chapter when Flos was introduced – where a fire seems to be lit in his subjects’ eyes? That has to be some kind of loyalty-inducing Skill. Fit for a [King] who lost his father and tried to cobble armies together from Reim’s remains. And then succeeded.

      • Trey really doesn’t follow Flos though. He is really only backing Flos at this point cause Flos is his only real chance at taking out A’ctelios.

        The Blighted King’s truth Skill was actually pretty underwhelming for his [King] Class. All it seemed to be was a more powerful truth fibbing Skill and it only worked cause Wistram was denied validating said lie yet still broadcasted it.

        • It was probably one of BK’s Skills obtained at low levels, enhanced by his high level to be more powerful. The real loyalty inducing Skills he showed was when his high mages, which tried to run away rather than follow through with the summoning plan, became cooperative again once they were back in his presence even after he had them tortured. That reeked of a loyalty-enforcing Skill or of mastery of a high level royal aura.

    • It’s much worse than simply serving a king who trades in slaves. Trey literally instigated a pogrom against golem-slaves by false-flagging a rebellion as a mere distraction!

      How many golems will be destroyed? How many mages? How many students?

      Pisces just robbed a tomb and some innocents got killed in the aftermath. Trey’s actions will lead to hundreds or thousands of deaths.

      For what? So that a terrible king can keep his promise to avenge a dozen Earthers?! Clearly, Trey’s gone fully “the ends justify the means”. He’s officially a villain with a tragic grudge.

      I’m quite honestly in awe: I thought Terez was the worse twin by being your standard isekai murder-hobo but Trey left her in the dust with his crimes “for the greater good”.

      • I’m not sure to what extent you misread this, but actelios Salash is huge to the extent that the people living inside who basically eat only the flesh from the monster have not harvested even 1/10th of the body after over a millennium of living there. And now they are becoming more and more dangerous.

        I can see why he might want to see something that is clearly still alive, filled with people who aim to corrupt, and EXTREMELY DANGEROUS to be burnt to the ground, at any price. Troy isn’t a good person, but he is also a CHILD. Having his throat cut and seeing a beast of nightmare can traumatise a person to act the way he does.

  3. Holy shit this is getting intense! And it feels like the Smith is creating something sinful or monstrosity from the Dark Souls with themes, corruption, blood, and heroism turning darker or something like that.

  4. So this bit “This was because Earth had experienced the fall of a civilization, like Rome. It had not seen the firmament break, gone through true armageddon where the survivors searched for pieces and found only dust.” is super inaccurate historically like Rome falling and then a dark age where humanity lost civilisation is a very much a pop culture thing and used to be reported as fact in history classes but when the evidence was reviewed historically and logically it’s completely false ignoring eurocentrism just because rome fell didn’t mean the craftsmen in say brittania or gaul lost all their skills in fact civilisation very much continued to advance in what pop culture calls the dark ages that’s when europe got water wheels for example and the advancements in “the dark ages” are what led directly in to the renaissance which contrary to pop culture did not spring up out of nowhere.
    Like narratively it makes sense but it’s just not true humanity as far as i know has only ever lost knowledge due to moving on to something different and losing the past as a result occasionally compounded by records of those methods existing also being destroyed.

    • I’d recommend you reread. Aba simply states we have only ever seen individual empires or civilizations fall instead of apocalyptic world shattering catastrophes and uses Rome as an example of a fallen empire. All you are writing here is a rant about something nowhere in the text.

    • “Unlike other worlds, they had never gone back. Realized they had lost an arms race against their ancient ancestors.”

      The passage right before the one you are criticising says this about the Earthers. The fall of Rome is being presented as no where near as serious as the knowledge drain the apocalypses Inn world has experienced. I believe you may be misinterpreting the context.

    • You could also look at the fall of the bronze age for a near total collapse of civilizations and empires, at least in the Mediterranean. Famon, loss of resources and the sea peoples lead to the destruction of cities and chaos in the region. For those people I’d say its an apocalypse.

    • No kidding the Dark Ages are uniquely Eurocentric: Because Hellenism was. Alexander left behind a short-lived Greaco-Bactrian kingdom, but otherwise, it was Romans ruling Egyptian and Levantine colonia from the northern shore of what they declared Our Sea (i.e. the Mediterranean.) And within Romes European home, the Dark Ages were every bit as cataclysmic as represented, because two millennia of immigration from Central Asia finally overran the final beleaguered Romans (a surprisingly lively competition endures for the title of Last Roman.) Think about it: Caucasians are not native to Europe, yet certainly predominate there — ever wondered why…?

      Gaul was no exception either: After the Third Century Crisis, the emperors circled the wagons, hunkered down, then notified Gaul and the remaining provinces that they were on their own, prompting the bizarre spectacle of local Gaulic officials begging the emperor to send legions to saves civilization from the barbarians. Those pleas were eventually granted: By Charlemagne, shortly before his coronation as Holy Roman Emperor, nearly half a millennium after his Frankish forbearers conquered Gaul. Native Europeans spent most of the intervening 500 years hiding from continued Germanic raiding, which Scandinavians continued for several centuries even after Europe assimilated their continental cousins, while the natives huddled behind the high thick walls of monasteries where they feverishly translated all surviving Greek literature into Latin (or did you really think a sophisticated cosmopolitan Golden Age Greek like Euclid wrote his “Elements” in the language of a small city-states second-class citizens 1000 km away from him? Did the San Francisco Conference write the UN Charter in Maori?)

      Mind you, anatomically modern humans have existed for at least 200,000 years (and recent evidence suggests closer to TWICE that) but civilizations oldest extant relics are barely 10,0000 years old. 190,000-400,000 years is a long time to believe people physically indistinguishable from Einstein and Neil Armstrong never developed anything more advanced than stone core tools, but even hammered copper tools (i.e. cold-worked, not smelted) go back no further. I have long wondered about that one myself… .

        • Those unlisted are irrelevant. One cannot simply say, “How are you wrong? Let me refuse to count the ways… .” Well, one can, but the only response merited is one in kind: Says you. Absent evidence, which may not be evidence of absence, but is surely not evidence of anything else.)

  5. “Unlike other worlds, they had never gone back. Realized they had lost an arms race against their ancient ancestors.”

    The passage right before the one you are criticising says this about the Earthers. The fall of Rome is being presented as no where near as serious as the knowledge drain the apocalypses Inn world has experienced. I believe you may be misinterpreting the context.

  6. Minizi starting all of that seems pretty unrealistic. She just starts a panic just like that even under and archmages gaze? Is there like no reasonable person under that whole faction? It just seems too forced and conveniet which is something i never get from your writing. Doesn’t seem like their greatest fear if they so readily attack the golems when only one golem seemingly malfunctions? Wouldnt fighting the golems be the last thing want to do? That scene just left such a sour taste in my mouth in an otherwise great chapter

    • I’d argue a mass group of undisciplined Wistram mages would be prone to mass panic. I could see a decisive, perceptive leader keeping the entire crowd under control, but the entire cherry picked Terras faction is missing, high level Ullusinoi and their crowd control spells are presumably pre-occupied with Gazi, and most of the hardened battle mages are guarding Amerys. Its debatable that a single archmage could keep them from mass panicking but Innworld riots have historically been difficult for even high level individuals to manage once they get started.

      • Bonus points for those taking advantage of the chaos as one lizard mage realized that the golems were not attacking and still wanted to destroy then as he thought he could get away with it due to the panic.

        As there is a bit of Golem resentment built up… Especially when word might have gotten around about the new Golem death hallway, the fear spread by an Archmage certainly didn’t help.

        only reason why the lizard mage didn’t destroy a golem was because Cognita said “No” and turned the golems “safely” take them down. so in that regard there is “someone” trying to quell the panic.

      • It just seems too fast moving when feor is there watching it happen. You are literaly an archmage why are you standing there dping nothing when your people are attacking the golems and you know thats the worst thing that can happen in the academy. Like isnt fighting the golems the worst case scenario of every mage? Just seems so dumb to start fighting a battle you cant win off of one malfunctioning golem. Are they so dumb as to not notice that every other golem is not attacking and the hostility ended on just one golem when they are all over the place???

        • I don’t know what spells Feor has, maybe he has something to immediately quell the panic, but I think that Feor’s initial shock at the ‘golem attack’ and the saboteur’s yell put the situation too far out of his control. If he recognised the danger and responded immediately maybe he could have prevented it, but once mages start yelling and throwing spells around I feel like he’d be lost in the storm. If more of the leadership and level headed mages were present this probably wouldn’t have devolved as quickly, but whether through design or chance, those particular Wistram mages are elsewhere. Also, there’s reason to believe there are more collaborators or oppurtunists accelerating the panic.

          • This just paints them having like collective 3 sets of braincells. “Oh wow someone shouted it so it must be true”. Disregarding the fact that no golem is threatning them or fighting back. Like at this point they deserve to get massacredor get their classes revoked if a single lifesand golem and a shouting person can fool them into fighting the very thing they are most afraid of. I guess i thought of them as having atleast a little bit level head given their class and position but their reaction was of 10 year olds getting the chance to hit some furnitures.

            • Honestly, their biggest fear is the rebellion itself, not fighting the things. I doubt most of them know just HOW many powerful golems are lurking, most are probably completely forgotten about. With Cognita out of town they mostly just see the serving ones who are weak and in no way thinking.
              When you fear a rebellion you act quickly to stamp it down as fast and hard as you can, that is why so many attack even when the golems are doing nothing aggressive. There is a collective “I will show them who’s boss” attitude that has built up over many years. The only way this will end is when the true giants march in and demand a ceasefire ‘or death’, the Archmages will have a brief chance to restore order before lots of death and it won’t be the golems on the receiving end and they know it.

  7. Halfway through this chapter I expected a crescendo and a resolution by the end… Haha.

    I like the overall level of competency shown by all sides of this conflict. It wasn’t a heist movie, it wasn’t going to be a harrowing but clean performance.

    Trey expected the worst case scenario and had set up his own worst case scenario for the opponents. Pragmatic, ruthless and fully committed to see his own goals through at the expense of others. He wants to live to see ac’telios destroyed and no matter what he can’t lose his most powerful and useful tool, Flos.

    Everyone else is playing the game at this level, and they play to win. I am glad to see that Trey took the gloves off from the start. He is making decisions and taking actions with the fate of nations in the balance and so are his opponents, he understands that he can’t win or even survive if he treats it like it isn’t real or that the stakes are lower than they really are.

    And Nawal, damn woman what are you DOING? It sounds like she intends to go out with a bang. A cursed weapon is pretty cool, forged of blood in the middle of a last stand should be powerful as the come. I wonder about how much blood the intends to lose.
    Imagine if her final act is to extract her own lifethread for the last swing of the hammer. A sentient curse? That would be dope as hell. Sad to lose the secret smithing techniques but if she don’t expect to survive at least make it worth the sacrifice, right?

    • It’s clear that she will die from this act.
      “The bloody hammer swung down again as the last forging began. A twisted, dirty blade.”
      It’s an apology in blood, ie, she gives her life to create something worthy of fixing her mistake. It will clearly make a powerful weapon but will take her life. The question is who will pick it up?

      • Meh, the creation mostly coming across as another version of Shashara and Nightblood. Which I guess makes Flos (or whichever character winds up wielding it) analogous to Vasher. Which, if it is Floss, would at least make him interesting.

    • Nawal is human and I’m pretty sure that only the stitchfolk have life threads. They are what turn them from ordinary-ish cloth golems into cognizant-class ones. (Or, given that stitchfolk can reproduce and level, possibly a 5th, unnamed golem class.)

  8. And so Trey condemns yet more innocent people to death so the warmonger can get back his sentient (barely, from what we’ve seen of Amerys) siege engine back, all for the vague promise that someday, once said warmonger has had his fill of murdering, pillaging, and slaving he might make an attempt to burn down the horror city.

  9. I’ve got to say I hope the king falls I hope for a significant ending to his kingdom and his death and that of most of the seven.

    • Certeanly not. But I ask you as all the others. What reason do you have for it? Are they any worse Than the rest of these nations and leaders? Because I dont see it. AlI I see is the same as in our world, The media says some country or leader is bad, and everyone readily believes it as fact.

        • Wut? Dont speak such langueges. As for trolling, they deserved it by being thoughtless, and seeing only half of this beautifully written story while ignoring those parts that does not fit with the narrative in their heads. you see, there is two way to look at the world. One is looking at the bare facts really hard and to piece together an understanding, and there is the other one which is forming a judgement and from all the pieces around the world we are cherry picking what fits it. One of these is way easier, and therefore lazy.

  10. Any bets on which blade would have turned out deadlier? Nawalishifra’s or the one Erin was about to craft with Pelt? Seems a close match: a blade made of the blood ang gore of a major battle versus one forged in the fire of literal hatred.

      • Nah, Niers lost a lot of sympathy when he decided to abandon the Fraerlings of Baleros so that he can have a jolly adventure in Izril.

        • Yeah, but that isbnot my point. My point is, that Niers is a warlord. Arguably one of the most succesful one. And he likes war maybe even more than Flos. But everyone just sees the cute Frerling. Which is explainable by getting a different introduction to the two characters, but I just cannot forgive people for not seeing the bigger picture and just goes ‘Flos, BAD’ and forgetting that practically every nation does just as badbthings and for way worse reasons than Flos, except for King of Duels, he is cool.

  11. Trey is a malignant little sneak. He schemes, he spies, he steals and he lies in his teeth to those for whom he’s supposed to feel some loyalty. He thinks every one of his betrayals is justified because he really, really wants to destroy the Nightmare City… oh yeah, Trey, you’re *certainly* a hero :-P He and his twin Teresa disgust me.

  12. At this point I’m really hoping Trey is under some kind of skill of Flos’s. From the rest of his character it seems hard to believe that he’s throwing all of these people under the bus for the sake of destroying Actelios. Which even Flos might not be able to achieve.

    Thanks Pirate. I think you might be too good at writing villains. I’ve come to despise Trey and Flos even more.

  13. Upon rereading the chapter I just realized that what a good move it was from Trey what he did at the end. Because it was inevitable to happen. Just a matter of time. Like an avalanche he set it in motion, but it would have happened sooner or later anyway. The reason is that the mages lived under a constant but slow pressure which was only kept from boiling over by the presence of Cognita. The moment she went away it was just a matter of time.

  14. as someone who started reading in audio then continued on the web, your doing great! I love your world, and your words, if I’m ever having a bad day, twi always helps

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s