8.68

Trigger Warning: This chapter contains a non-graphic description of abuse in a relationship ending in death.

 

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One of the reasons why the Order of Seasons was one of Terandria’s most respected [Knight] Orders had nothing to do with their combat ability. And, to be fair, they were considered to be one of the most superlatively martial Knight Orders on the continent. If not in pure Skill—their ability to utilize their auras was a fearsome thing.

They were numerous and had relics and a base that was founded on the bones of one of the half-Elven cities of old. A semi-autonomous Order not plagued by accusations of dishonorable conduct, with four individuals who were all on par with Named Adventurers—in theory, if not always practice.

Yet that alone just meant they were a powerful group of warriors. And what…

What was the purpose of an army outside of war? There was always a need for peacekeepers, monster-slayers, and lawbringers. But all the training, considerable expense, and authority of the Order of Seasons for a few thousand elite [Warriors] was a hard sell.

What made the Order of Seasons useful were their other qualities. Such as their ability to answer the question that came to the Fall’s Sentinel, Venoriat, the morning after the great victory where an unknown [Knight] broke Ailendamus’ lines to best their [General], liberate the imprisoned [Knights], and escape on a mad dash behind Ailendamus’ front, fighting for the Dawn Concordat.

It came via [Message] spell from one of his own [Knights]. A Ser Ilm of the Season of Autumn, who dutifully sent the entire message in a cipher.

[Message] spells were a tricky business. High-level [Mages] could eavesdrop on most sent in their area, and, because of that, the Order of Seasons used one of the many techniques to obfuscate their communications.

Nothing as fancy as the Walled Cities, who might use an old, encrypted system for top-secret communiqué; the art of encoding [Messages] was lost to all but perhaps Archmages of this era.

However, you could be clever even without magical encryption. For instance, did you know you could send a [Message] spell in Drathian?

Venoriat did not speak Drathian, and the Order of Seasons had decided their [Knights] could not justify the time to learn a second language—imagine the idea!—just to write [Message] spells. Besides, [Translation] was a known, if odd spell.

So, instead, they used ciphers. Venoriat himself designed them, using passages or sayings to alter a message so it was incomprehensible unless you knew how to decode it. He read Ser Ilm’s gibberish and translated it as he sat in the Order of Seasons.

It was a bustling time in the great keep, as even his own studious Autumn Knights, from pages and squires to senior [Knights], ran about, keeping tabs on Ailendamus and the Dawn Concordat’s movements, trying to chart where Rabbiteater and half of the attack force led by Ser Greysten were.

And preparing themselves for more battles to come. Ailendamus had not taken the Summer Champion’s declaration lightly, and Knight-Commander Calirn was with Pheislant’s commanders, preparing for an all-out war.

Not to mention coordinating the disastrous crusade on Chandrar. As far as Venoriat knew, the best [Knights] of Terandria, all the Orders’ contributions—including two hundred Spring Knights—were coming in waves across the sea, landing on Medain and the Claiven Earth’s coasts, and fighting with their armies.

And only managing to deadlock Khelt. They were unable to meaningfully advance against Khelt; they could have swept aside a hundred times their number in zombies or, at least, continued an advance, but Khelt pushed them back.

Astonishing. In another time, Venoriat would have devoted his entire attention to researching Khelt, finding ways to combat their Revenants, and plumbing the depths of how dangerous they might be.

However, he had little time to spare for such enjoyable academia, so Venoriat’s quill scritched as he wrote out the [Message] in correct wording. If it was not essential, even Ser Ilm’s question or [Message] would have to wait.

A group of [Pages] of Autumn hurried by with scrolls to be scribed by Autumn Knights for war. One tripped, and Venoriat winced; all the scrolls would have to be cleaned to ensure they contained the magic.

“I’m sorry, Fall’s Sentinel!”

The girl got up, red-faced, and Venoriat turned and waved a hand.

“Clean it up and continue. Falling in my presence or out of it should change little. Perhaps to the Knight Commander or another Season it would matter…not here. Watch your steps. A bit of time spent saves you an hour with a brush.”

The girl gathered the scrolls up and hurried back along the deep reds, browns, and violets of the Season of Autumn’s floor tiles. She passed by one of their courtyards; not the grassy expanse where you could rush about practicing your swordplay in the Spring or Summer, or the ever-snowing, solemn places to refine yourself in Winter through meditation or self-practice.

No, Autumn used their space to grow mushrooms. Rich, loamy dirt let a profusion of roots spread out, or Sage’s Grass, or other plants that were useful and practical. Indeed, the Season of Autumn was known to be the least-martial of all four Seasons. The most bookish.

And the reason why the Order of Seasons was so respected. After all, who but the ‘Fall Knights’ of Venoriat’s order could scribe spell-scrolls at will? Certainly not Greysten and his lot!

Venoriat’s Season often sold their scrolls at virtually no markup to those who might need them. [Bugward] and [Detect Rot] were very popular among [Farmers].

In times of war? Each scroll that the [Pages] were carrying would be written with magic. [Firebolt] or [Forceshield] or [Smokescreen]—and every [Knight] would carry at least one into battle.

As Venoriat finally decoded Ilm’s missive, his lips moved in a smile. He lifted the scrap of parchment and decided—it was worth prioritizing after all. So he rose and went to the one place that made the Order of Seasons so valued, at least in his eyes:

Their library.

 

——

 

The library of the Order of Seasons was as large as Pheislant’s national gathering of tomes in the capital. However, the Order of Seasons had a far more varied assortment of books and magical tomes.

It was a benefit without calculation; even if Venoriat did know exactly how many books were in the library—61,822—that was not enough of a marker.

The thing was—libraries were hard to maintain in a grand sense. Not immediate; you could throw a bunch of books in a room and call it ‘a library’. But were they organized? More importantly, were they maintained?

Did you have preservation spells on each shelf? Did you have anti-moth, bug, and stain spells? Were you fireproofing the entire place? Did you scrupulously check each book that was loaned out for damage and make a point of repairing it, or were you a coward who let people dogear their pages without folding their ears in return?

Because it mattered. Not this year. Not next year. But each wrinkle, crease, and lack of a stasis spell was another second, minute lost. And paper and ink faded so quickly. When a disaster struck, knowledge was lost forever. Even the best [Librarians] had watched their collections vanish as an Elder Creler blasted a hole through a nation. Or a Gold-rank [Mage] with too much to drink threw one damn [Fireball]…

Let’s assume, in the best case, you had a library that avoided any major calamity over your lifespan. Well, even then—your books would invariably be damaged by usage, because books were meant to be read.

You could get a [Bookbinder] to touch them up, but what happened when the paper itself began to disintegrate from age? Okay, enchant it. No problem.

…What happened when the magic itself began to get old? A [Librarian] suddenly had to find a book-enchanting specialist to remake a magical tome.

How did you re-copy a spellbook created twelve thousand years ago by an Archmage who practiced the Albezian school of magic and wrote using the crushed husks of an insect that had been extinct for over two centuries?

That was why a real library was impressive; one that maintained its books, organized them, and had the largesse to lend them out to people with no appreciation for all the hard work that went into keeping things the way they were.

Hence, the Season of Autumn’s value. A [Farmer] could send a learned daughter or son or come here themselves and take off their hat, put on some gloves or wash their hands, and then read on how to cultivate a certain crop or keep their soil fresh without Skills.

In fact, [Farmers] were preferred because they had appropriate respect for the library the Season of Autumn kept. A Summer Knight who’d toss a book across the mess hall for someone else to read or turn a page while riding and tear it as their horse came down too hard?

Well.

Those souls met with the [Librarian Knights].

Yes, that was a class. And yes, Venoriat went to one of them with Ilm’s missive. The [Knight] delicately turning a page in the book they were checking for damage was probably reading on-duty. But you had to be a real bookworm and love the job to get that class, so Venoriat made no comment as the man hurriedly stood.

“Fall’s Sentinel. Does the Knight-Commander need another lookup? Will you give us half an hour to proof them against ice and water? He does his best, but the temperature…

The aggrieved [Librarian Knight] had an understandable problem with Winter Knights, who practically generated mildew. Venoriat was pleased not to have to deal with that.

“Not at the moment, Ser Tulnous. I have a research assignment for you. A rather…interesting one. I leave it in your care as I must go back to my work.”

He handed the message over, and Tulnous’ eyebrows rose. He took the slip of paper with one callused hand.

He was a halberd-expert who had little cause to use his weapon in his beloved library but was rather fearsome among his Season nevertheless. Tulnous’ Skills included the ability to pull any book he wanted in the library, repair minor damage with just a finger, locate any book he lent out unerringly, sense if a passing [Merchant] had any books not in the Order of Seasons’ collection—

And those were just his mundane Skills. His truly powerful Skills included the ability to have any book in his possession read out loud, in his own voice, whenever he wanted—a Skill that Venoriat privately envied—visualize the fantastical stories, remember up to three hundred thousand words of his choosing, such that he could recite any passage, poetry, or quote he pleased—

And his Level 30 capstone was the most impressive. [Cover to Cover, Revision Reader].

Which meant that he could read every single version of a book ever read. So if you had eighteen versions of a book he held? He could read any one.

He had recently put that Skill to use backtracking the rise of Ailendamus, spotting the truth amid many revised histories.

The most senior [Librarian Knight] read the slip of paper, and his lips curved upwards.

“I assume this is not an idle question from Ser Ilm in the field? It would not be surprising if so.”

Venoriat’s smile had a twinkle in it.

“I suspect that this is entirely pressing, Ser Tulnous. It likely has to do with our illustrious Ser Solstice. Do you think the information is extant?”

“In one book or another on Skills and auras? Certainly! One will be easier than the other, I am sure. How fascinating. A dual-aura [Knight]…”

Venoriat lifted a finger, cautioning his subordinate.

“To be kept secret, Ser Tulnous. You and two others may look into the topic. Not a word—and I expect a report within two hours, which I will forward to Ser Ilm.”

The [Librarian] bowed.

“At once, Fall’s Sentinel.”

He smiled as he looked at the little note. Translated, the part Venoriat had given Tulnous was not about the battle or Ilm’s other observations. It was simply a question—a research request into two rather unique auras. Two, contained in a single person.

[Aura of the Hearth] and [Aura of the Brave]. Possible synergies, dual-aura combinations, the usages of each aura, and any other pertinent information. The Order of Autumn was only too happy to help. After all—if anyone knew what Rabbiteater’s new Skills did, it would be them.

“Well done, Ser Solstice.”

Venoriat murmured as he walked back. Well done indeed.

Especially for a Goblin [Knight]. But that was most secret of all.

 

——

 

“Excuse me, Lord Sophridel? I have a communication from one of the Order of Seasons. Encrypted. I was referred to you by the [Spymaster]. It is, ah, pressing, so she regretfully…”

Elsewhere in Terandria, a nervous servant stopped as a tall, intensely tall, still figure turned and closed the book he was reading.

Lord Sophridel—in truth, an Earl—was a rather reclusive figure in Ailendamus’ hierarchies. He was ‘Minister of the Interior Arts’ which meant he oversaw the libraries, did some commissioning of artwork—but not on the same level as those who coordinated statues, great galas, and more—and, secretly, ran the Court of Masks.

Running the Court of Masks was his main task, and as such, if you didn’t know, you might think he had one of those plush jobs with no actual work. If you did know, well, you considered him an enigmatic spellcaster who did a fine job and faded into the woodwork.

If you talked to him? The tall, nearly seven-foot half-Elf with pale skin was an oddity even to his own kind. He had a ponderous kind of speech and reminded one much of some long-forgotten [Scholar].

Of course, no one saw Sophridel. They just saw a mask. It was his preferred mask when he had to be…outside.

The astute half-Elf extended two nearly-translucent fingers to accept the piece of paper with Ser Ilm’s missive. The servant was all too ready to wait in an antechamber, or come back and provide him with more references from the [Spymaster].

She was used to the very competent wing of Ailendamus’ spy networks and in fact was no mere [Servant], but a [Servant of Intrigue]. That she was personally running this request was because there were some letters so important that even holding them without opening them required you to be important. Even within the safe and secure capital.

So she knew Lord Sophridel was important. She had never met him before, only seen him from afar. She was also uncertain why the [Spymaster], a scrupulous woman who had once blown off her own arm rather than let the letter she was holding fall into enemy hands, hadn’t sent him an entire packet of material for him to help with codebreaking the Order of Seasons’ ciphers.

This was a single note. Lord Sophridel would need more references—and they changed their ciphers on the regular! Even their own specialists hadn’t been able to immediately code-break it. So that was why it was astonishing when the quiet half-Elf handed the note back.

“A research request and report on the battle. I reference ‘Ser Solstice’ as a [Knight] and [Aura of the Hearth] and [Aura of the Brave] for lookup in their libraries. I will now write the contents of the message, verbatim, and my own recollection of both auras in brief. Allow me two minutes.”

He produced a piece of paper and quill and wrote delicately. The [Servant] gulped.

“Yes, Lord Sophridel.”

She retreated, understanding why the [Spymaster] considered the Minister of the Interior Arts a resource to be called upon at need. Her respectful gaze on the tall half-Elf, a silver mane of hair drooped across his angular features, absently brushing at the locks as he stooped slightly to write with impeccable penmanship…

Was all wrong. All she saw was the mask.

She saw ‘Lord Sophridel’. The servant saw the half-Elf. If she wanted to, she could have touched him, and he could have eaten and enjoyed food—not that Alniesierr Carnevien had ever truly enjoyed food. He could be roused to great passion, of course, and if that woman with her hair in a bun and a killing stiletto holding it all together had professed a great love of Selphid writings and fine wine—and baths along moonlit shores on cold nights with the hot water steaming—he would have positively swept her off her feet in a courtship of unexpected passion.

‘Sophridel’ would have been able to do that too, rather admirably, in Alniesierr’s case. But cut him open and you would find no blood or heart beating. Behead him and you would find, among clothing and dust, only one thing.

A mask.

A perfect mask of the half-Elf’s face. In fact, a death-mask, which the eclectic Alniesierr Carnevien had once commissioned thousands upon thousands of years ago. When Sophridel did not have it ‘active’, it floated in a dark void upon his body.

The Elemental of Masks stood in a private room, each mask, from animal to person, staring outwards. Each one…had a quality.

Some were cheap. He held on to them for nostalgia’s sake. Others were expensive. But what mattered was how much they in turn had been worn. Or what they were made of in conjunction with their purpose.

The Court of Masks and the nobility who argued and debated in his rooms wore masks. Each one was suited to them; multiple people could wear the same mask, but the effect was diluted.

Hence, the rules. It would bear little fruit in their lifetimes. But if someone attended the Court of Masks every day for most of their life, wore the same mask…when they died, it would be their mask. And perhaps, one day, far in the future, that mask might detach from Sophridel.

Picture the dark room. Now—see a shadow darker than even that. A bit of the void given form. Anchored, holding, floating upon it, hundreds of masks in every direction. The very idea of masks, of identity, given form.

An Elemental of Masks.

That was who Sophridel was. He was not one mask. He was not an individual if you took away all the masks.

He was all and none, and his likenesses could stride about. Someday, after the man had long-since perished, perhaps Baron Regalius would stride about once more, the very personality of him captured, from his abilities to his demeanor. Or—if it came to battle—a snarling mask made from actual Manticore flesh might materialize.

With all the power of a Manticore. All their limitations and strengths; a mask had to be an accurate representation, even if it was still a mask. Break it and he lost it forever. Sophridel hated losing parts of him.

Hence, his current guise in the genius of Alniesierr, aiding the [Spymaster] from time-to-time. Sophridel drew on more than just that, though.

“[Aura of the Hearth]. Defensive. [Aura of the Brave]. Offensive. A combination is rare. In one entity denotes a conflict or event of the soul. Past history, perhaps. No known combinations exist to my memory. However, the materialization of both is often unpredictable.”

Auras—as any [Lady] or Order of Seasons [Knight] knew—were made up of three stages. Simply manifesting the aura like the King of Destruction was akin to a second instinct. A powerful commanding presence. The ability to withstand [Terror] spells and so on.

Materialization came next, as the Order of Seasons practiced. They could make blades of flame or wind, shields—even change the ambient temperature and so on.

The last stage, rarely obtained, would be such a complete zone of authority that even magic failed before the very concept of their aura. [Mages] often found to their horror that their spells would have less effect against powerful individuals of that nature.

Sophridel, or rather one of his masks, had once heard that auras were part of a natural chain of superiority and weakness. If magic defeated regular warriors, for instance, in basic concept, auras were meant to counter…something.

Something that the theory fell apart around because the theory hadn’t been able to concretely say that auras beat people with swords or magic; it was simply one kind of superiority.

Sophridel wrote on, listing all the notes he had for [Aura of the Hearth].

“Base form—reassurance, the manifestation of morale or nostalgia. As it manifests? Limited cornucopia abilities. Extreme defensive abilities in places of home or shelter. Aura of the Hearth once repelled a King of Avel from entering a mother’s home; they were of roughly equal level. To research—see Disgraces of the Crown, by Goldtongue. The most high-level effects include the creation of structures. My information is limited. Aura of the Brave is far more documented among [Heroes], [Barbarians], and other warriors. Inspiring, courageous as implied. Manifestation of weapons. Overwhelming presence in massed battles. Sheer manifestation at higher-levels has, when consolidated and upgraded, created entire zones of anti-magic.”

He ceased writing, handed the note over to the stunned servant, and let his mask take over and turn back to work.

That was the thing. Sophridel was everywhere at once. He could have multiple masks, although for secrecy’s sake he only used them in very safe, non-combat settings. But one of his other selves was, at this very moment, doing internal bookkeeping on all of Ailendamus’ records.

All the records. She sat in a rather sumptuous room, with every whim catered to. She ate her favorite food, and the [Secretary], a notorious recluse, had once very publicly said she would have quite enjoyed being locked in a prison cell and forced to work rather than be married and deal with the rest of the world.

In her mask, she got her wish, checking for mistakes or corruption internally. Another of Sophridel’s selves was a [Teacher] who imparted magical lessons every few months.

That was who he was. The main body of the Elemental of Masks juggled his selves effortlessly. Again, he was his components. He was no mere Archmage who had to wrestle with parallel thoughts and a limited mind. The Elemental of Masks grew according to his resources, and he had been empowered by all of Ailendamus.

The only question was—er, well…

Was that a bad thing?

It certainly was to Ailendamus’ enemies, as the Elemental had broken almost every cipher and encryption sent against him. And Sophridel was only one immortal in the Kingdom of Glass and Glory. The others could be even more scary.

 

——

 

The Ministry of Intelligence—spying—was one branch of Ailendamus’ actually competent government. Suspiciously competent, one might say, and somehow devoid of corruption on any large scale.

It was hard to do that in a nation. For instance—did you trust your judges? Did you have a judicial system in your species?

Gnolls had [Shamans] and [Chieftains], who could be…biased. Drakes did have a judicial system, but they had certain provisions where the Watch Captain or Council or army had a certain overruling presence.

Humans sometimes just went to the nearest noble, who in turn reported to a higher noble and then a monarch.

Ailendamus had a court system. Not unheard of, but it had [Judges], [Arbiters], and so on. Individuals who would administer an entire region, hold Watch Captains to account, and even punish adventurers who were often considered above the law. They might be ‘above the law’ in a city state.

Not in Ailendamus, where a greatbow would tap you on the shoulder instead of a Level 5 [Archer] with a shortbow. But who were the judges?

“They’re here. Eleven of them.”

The rumor of one of the more famous groups of judges and nobility among Ailendamus was overshadowed by the arrival of the Singer of Terandria and the war. Even so—eleven of House Shoel descending on the capital was a nightmare for any prisoner awaiting judgment.

The cold, impartial men and women of Viscount Visophecin’s family were known for their famous adherence to the law. They entertained no emotional arguments, and each one was rumored to have an emotion-suppressing Skill, because they would send doe-eyed young adults to the chopping block if the crime warranted it.

They could not be bribed or intimidated, and the few who had tried had learned to fear House Shoel’s reach. It seemed to most to be a miserable job, to be so feared and to condemn so many to death, because the judges almost always presided over the worst and most heinous of crimes.

What they did not understand was how much the Lucifen enjoyed it.

Ryoka Griffin sat in on one of the court hearings. She heard the fear among the witnesses hoping that a young woman who had committed a murder, a crime of passion, might get a lighter sentence. She watched with more insight than the rest.

This was what they wanted. A system by which people—terrible people, yes—were legally and swiftly dealt with. Where they could not only administer perfect, beautiful law in an idealized version of a nation, to them, but also reap the rewards of those condemned to death.

The question was to Ryoka—was it corrupt?

She felt it had to be, hence why she took time out of her busy day of panicking about anything and everything to check. The Lucifen were not impartial judges. They had, in legal parlance, a big fucking stake in the outcome of every case they presided upon. They ate the condemned. So surely they were biased and this was a bad system, right?

…Right?

Igolze, the steely-eyed Lucifen judge, wore a kind of grey suit unlike robes that should have looked terrible on him. But the air of faint metal and oil, his perfect, slim posture, and the way he gazed down upon the proceedings without a hint of emotion, even in the face of tears, made him seem like some kind of otherworldly judge.

Which he was. The Devil sat, listening, refusing to change his posture during the hour of discussion where the entire backstory of the young woman was brought up. Ryoka listened to a murder of passion against her lover—who had been abusive—and his mother, who had been culpable and aware of the entire situation.

However, it had been a premeditated murder, not merely passion, although passion was the inciting event; the [Murderer] in question had hidden a knife on her body during the final, fatal encounter. On the other hand, she confessed that she had kept the knife six times before that and only snapped in the final, pivotal beating.

Whereupon she had stabbed her former lover to death and ignored his pleas for a healing potion. After which, his mother, hearing the commotion, tried to kill the young woman, and it led to a brutal fight which…

If Ryoka had been the jury or judge in this case, she would have been forced to make either an emotional judgment or one that had to rely on the rules, because she felt for the girl, but, she had to admit, it was murder. But the abuse…

Igolze had no such qualms. He spoke, sipping from a cup of water after an hour of directing the [Guards], [Mages], and other people present in the room to administer [Detect Truth] spells and so on.

“I judge the following: the defendant is guilty of murder. She deliberately and knowingly planned to murder her lover.”

A groan swept up from the room while some of those waiting for justice looked up. Igolze continued, lifting a hand and sweeping the room with his piercing, faintly red glare. It lingered just a moment on Ryoka, watching in the stands from above. Anyone was free to enter and watch.

“I also judge the defendant was a victim of abuse and assault from both victims. Neither instance exonerates her; she acted in what would be considered self-defense in the moment. That she knowingly kept a weapon on her is indication that she was prepared for murder. I consider the second death, of Northa Vales, in part self-defense as the defendant was attacked with a shortsword. However, Ailendamus’ laws are clear.”

He looked down at the terrified [Murderer], bound by magical spells. Not one muscle moved in Igolze’s face for mercy or anger. He looked at her like a bug defiling his home. More like disgust. We have rules. Why would you bother breaking them?

“You were not prohibited from moving about. You did not fear for your life, and indeed, a [Guardswoman] inquired about your wellbeing twice, Miss Iusa. You could have alerted the Watch or another official.”

He stopped the protest with a [Silence] spell.

“You claim you were afraid for your life. However, the Watch has arrested officials of the crown and protected the innocent without fail. If they had failed, I would be sentencing the Watch Captain and every [Guard] who failed to act.”

He looked calmly at the witnesses, who shifted uncomfortably. Igolze looked back at Iusa and went on.

“I put a question to you: why did you take the matter into your own hands? The answer you gave was that he had to die. You had a choice. It was not truly motivated by fear, but vengeance. You are guilty of murder, but not sentenced to execution. I offer you the choice between labor, twenty years; conscription into Ailendamus’ ranks, eight years maximum, reduced depending on your service; volunteering for magical experimentation, which will last…”

He gave her a list of options, which included volunteering to be a test subject of alchemy or magic, fighting as a conscripted soldier, labor—none of it imprisonment. Ryoka supposed Rhisveri, or perhaps Visophecin himself, had designed the system with the belief that spending money on locking people up was wasteful.

And she was so glad. Not for the poor girl who chose labor. Not for the family who saw justice done or her own family.

Part of Ryoka was simply glad because she saw the Lucifen’s justice.

And it was not hers. The Devils had no pity or humanity in them, and it showed. She listened to how Igolze broke down the [Murderer]—Iusa’s options logically. But logic in that kind of situation? That didn’t exist.

She couldn’t say he was completely wrong in all of it. But he wasn’t right. He had no compassion.

But then Ryoka Griffin realized how far the Luficen’s idea of justice cut when Igolze rose.

“Remove the defendant. In light of this ruling—the next trial shall concern the Vales family’s culpability in the case of abuse of one Iusa Vales. As the defendants are present, I summon them to the court. I summon the following witnesses…”

Every head in the courtroom turned towards the frozen people, and Ryoka saw, just for a second, what she’d been waiting for. At his podium, Igolze, the Lucifen…

Smiled.

Just for a second.

 

——

 

Afterwards, Viscount Visophecin met Ryoka as she tried to have lunch. She ended up just sipping from a fruit drink; she wasn’t hungry.

“What do you think of Ailendamus’ judicial systems? Compared to Earth?”

He appeared at her table as she turned her head. Ryoka nearly spilled the drink all over herself, but an invisible force stopped it from tipping over. She turned and saw Igolze, Azemith and a fourth Lucifen all watching her.

Visophecin did not preside over judgements, but he appeared interested as Igolze watched Ryoka with keen interest. She took a deep breath.

“It’s the most horrific thing I’ve seen so far. Magical experimentation? You’re judging the people you…”

She hesitated, but knew they were under secrecy wards.

“…eat? Haven’t you heard of bias? Or are Lucifen above it all? And you had no compassion for that young woman!”

The Lucifen looked at her, each face unmoving. Then they did it again. They smiled, and Igolze leaned forwards.

“Separating the issue of our presence as arbiters aside from the individual ruling…how, exactly, did you find my judgment wrong, Ryoka Griffin?”

It was not hard for Ryoka to break down why she found Igolze’s judgment heartless for someone suffering abuse. What she expected was indifference or contempt. Not the instantaneous debate that broke out among the four Lucifen.

“I would have considered it understandable self-defense on all counts, Igolze. Two murders, albeit with cause? You have erred. Reconsider your verdict.”

Azemith needled her partner as Igolze frowned.

“The law is clear. She is aware of the power of the Watch—”

Visophecin broke in.

“That is not something she was in a fit state of mind to consider. If she were a child, would you hold her to that standard?”

Igolze glared, eyes narrowing, and the smell of oil and fire intensified at their table.

“I would not, Visophecin, and I resent the comparison. Her district witnessed two public arrests within the last year; she would be aware that the Watch held no fear of authority. I remind you she testified under truth spell that it was her determination for her partner to die.”

The fourth Lucifen, a woman, smiled coldly.

“And you cast the onus of her crimes upon her? Not the Watch, for failing to investigate further? Nor the family who was culpable? I trust you will hold them to fair account. I characterize you as lenient upon the unlawful and too fond of imprisoning the victim, Igolze. The rest of the family agrees.”

The Lucifen’s eyes narrowed to points.

“Is that so? Let’s review the cases of last month—”

“Only the female ones. Of abuse. You have a failing in your mind—”

“Convince me of that now, or I will put a void spell under your pillow.”

Igolze’s smile looked like he was contemplating a crime that would send him to the chopping block. Based on how the other Lucifen returned that dangerous smile—Ryoka was sure it wasn’t an idle threat.

She saw Visophecin look at her as Igolze began a heated breakdown of all the cases—and he could remember them perfectly.

“Do you see?”

She sipped at her drink and looked at Visophecin.

“Your people enjoy this? The Lucifen?”

His eyes glittered, and all three other Lucifen looked up.

“Law, to Lucifen, and properly administering it, is a joy we have. Seeing Ailendamus function without issue or resolve a problem within the system we have laid out is…as close to happiness as we find it among mortals. Your point that we are biased is well made, but I offer you this admittedly biased rebuttal, Ryoka. To have those with the power and incentive in the seat of judgment is clearly flawed. But we are not Human, mortal, or other species. Our purpose is to uphold order. As we see it, yes, but we desire proper law. Igolze, Azemith, Shierxun’s rulings all differ based on their understanding of the law. But their intent is to render justice in its most complete form.”

All three Lucifen nodded. Ryoka looked at them, then Visophecin.

“And the experimentation on prisoners?”

He raised two brows.

“They may volunteer. It is not an obligation. I see your…moral quandaries. But I simply say this. Without live participants, we learn less, and less quickly. It is not moral. But it is delightfully efficient compared to those who hold the lives of others to be a virtue.”

Now he did look at her, clearly hoping she’d shudder. Just to spite him, Ryoka took a big sip of her drink. She nearly spat it out when she saw the unmistakable sight of two wheelchairs coming her way.

Wheelchairs? It was odd because it shouldn’t have been to Ryoka, but she was used to a world without even the expertise to make wheeled…chairs…common.

Ryoka would have more expected to see a floating dais or enchanted artifact because, in a way, that was easier. Or a palanquin carried by people. However, Ailendamus’ foundries and metalworks were advanced enough, and House Shoel’s especially, that the two Agelum could move about like that.

And they were here. That was the big thing. People respectfully passed, or noticed the Agelum like Ryoka; oddities even among Ailendamus’ palace.

“There she is. I told you she was somewhere about here. You have to watch the [Knights].”

Gadrea was scolding Uzine. The two sat in their wheelchairs as respectful servants of House Shoel wheeled them forwards. They looked as frail as butterflies, their odd eyes with too many pupils staring about hungrily at the bustling palace. They looked like they were enjoying all the excitement—and from the way the Lucifen watched with concern, especially Visophecin, overexcited butterflies that could hurt themselves by their sheer eagerness.

The fair cousins to the Lucifen came to a stop as Ryoka half-rose.

“Gadrea, Uzine. I didn’t know you two went about the palace.”

“Oh, we do! And I’d get around faster if I were allowed to push myself, no offense, Ollena. But I’m afraid we do injure ourselves; hence Visophecin limiting the visits to once every blue moon. Literally. At least there are two. Ah—you two, take a rest. Have some food and rest yourselves. I insist.”

Uzine produced some silver coins, which he handed over to the two servants. They retreated to another table as the Agelum sat at Ryoka’s table. They were too low in their wheelchairs to sit at head-height. Until they rose slightly off the ground. Ryoka peered under the table and saw blocks of light magic raising them up so they could look around at eye-level.

Gadrea’s eyes twinkled as she smiled at Azemith, whose face was perfectly blank as she nodded to her cousins. That was what tickled Ryoka. Heartless, certainly predatory, and prone to cruelties as they might be, the Lucifen cared about the Agelum.

“So, what did you think of our cousins’ laws and order, Ryoka Griffin?”

Gadrea fixed Ryoka with one of her pupils as the other eye moved about. Ryoka had seen Gazi doing much the same, and she replied after a second.

“…I didn’t care for it. I, ah…well, it’s complicated legally. Our judicial systems are different from yours.”

“How so?”

And she had to explain it all over again. What was interesting was that the Agelum had a completely different take on the matter. No sooner had Ryoka laid out the case than Uzine began frowning and shaking his head.

“This is why I cannot bear to see it. Our cousins are…fair. In that they pass judgment regardless of rank and age. I could never do so.”

Fair like the blade of the Hedag’s axe. It cuts too sharply. Which is why they vanished.”

Gadrea put in quietly. Uzine turned to Igolze, who looked uncomfortable as the Agelum gave him a hard stare.

“You put that poor girl in a labor camp? Igolze!

“I have had enough of my kin passing judgment, Uzine. I may reconsider my ruling—but I do not believe the Agelum are fair mediators. Or what would you do?”

The Lucifen’s voice was put-upon. Uzine glowered.

“I? I would make a [Knight] of that girl! Offer her a place in the Thirsting Veil, or at least the Order of the Hydra, and let her be the one that falls upon that kind of wretch without mercy. As for that family…they knew of what passed?”

Igolze folded his arms.

“I will not speak of the case until I have heard the witnesses.”

Gadrea’s glower was no less intense than Uzine’s.

“Yet they did live under the same roof. In that case, sentence them all. Eat the family that would let such a thing happen and toss their bones to the worms.”

Ryoka sat back as the two glowered fiercely. Visophecin turned to her as the Lucifen shook their heads.

“You can see why we split our family between the two of us. Uzine and Gadrea’s kin…make poor judges of character.”

“They would have each murderer who killed in self-defense accept a knighthood. Self-defense is not always virtuous, Uzine, Gadrea.”

Azemith retorted, speaking up for Igolze for the first time. Uzine sat back, letting the matter go, if not his frown. He turned to Ryoka, resigned.

“I am glad you spoke to our cousins. They do not listen; we have had this argument for millenia, after all. If not always in the same places and contexts. Why, my great grandfather used to throw his celestial arms at—”

A cough made him break off, and Ryoka saw Visophecin tap a finger on the table. The Devil looked at Ryoka thoughtfully.

“Igolze’s judgment is but one case. Pray, tell us more about your systems, Ryoka Griffin. It may lie in the mere presentation of how we sit and judge. A jury is…”

The other three Lucifen sneered, but Visophecin did not.

“…undesirable. But I do take your point well about the impartiality of judges. Perhaps it is finally time to establish the royal courts and remove ourselves. The training process will take a decade.”

“Not to mention corruption within their ranks and overseeing them. They are also susceptible to Skills and magic, even if their character is impeccable. But I may agree at last when our kin debate the issue.”

Azemith, Igolze, and Shierxun all nodded, which, again, surprised Ryoka. She took another sip from her orange juice. Nothing special. Just orange juice. It tasted a bit less sweet, but…fresher than she remembered. Probably because there wasn’t corn syrup and these were actually, genuinely squeezed from oranges. Was it wrong to miss the preservative?

“Why the sudden turnaround?”

Visophecin flicked his fingers, looking slightly amused.

“Why, because you object to it so. Because if we present ourselves to your nations and are seen—Lucifen aside—to fall behind in decorum, we are lesser. How can we seduce other nations and individuals to our cause without impressing upon them the quality of our laws?”

The Lucifen nodded as one. Suddenly, Ryoka had to explain the concept of a jury of peers, recollect how a trial in the modern world was laid out, not to mention the court system…

If there was a group interested in checks and balances and the formation of government, it was Visophecin’s people. Not Gadrea and Uzine. Gadrea promptly began ordering the latest delicacies. Uzine, after twenty minutes, put his head back and slept, only waking up when they were done and rising. He turned to Ryoka with a bright smile.

“At last! Now you have seen our kin’s gift and pact with Ailendamus and Rhisveri. We shall show you ours, next.”

Ryoka raised one eyebrow curiously.

“Pact?”

The Agelum smiled broadly.

“Of course. Or did you come here without knowing? It is our deal, we of…long-lived persuasion. Our promise with Rhisveri. Did you think he kept it all?”

He offered her a hand, and Ryoka found Visophecin pushing the wheelchair as he showed her what she had been looking for, in part.

The immortal bargain that lay at the heart of Ailendamus.

 

——

 

There were parts of Ailendamus that were truly wondrous. Like the Court of Masks, there were projects, areas, or simply parts of the nation that were amazing. And that was because they had immortal hands behind them.

Uzine was only too happy to elaborate to Ryoka how it had all come about.

“When first we struck our pact with Rhisveri, it was of aid and mutual convenience. We had—issues. Did you hear what happened to the last palace?”

“I, uh, saw.”

The Agelum laughed.

“Teething issues. We weren’t the first, either! Some came to Rhisveri in a position of weakness, rescued like poor Gilaw. Others, however? He had to offer us something, so our dear Wyrm established the basic rule that governs us. A deed for a deed. What we wish for with all our hearts will come true if it is within Ailendamus’ power—if we provide an equal value, of course. Gilaw and Menorkel are far from that dream, but House Shoel has provided unending aid to the crown. Therefore…”

“The entire system of law and justice falls to the Lucifen. As they desire.”

Gadrea was being pushed by Azemith as the group proceeded through the palace. The Agelum got looks. The reclusive members of Viscount Visophecin’s family got looks. Ryoka, bare-footed, the Wind Runner, got the most looks.

Perhaps ‘look’ was too simple a word. It wasn’t goggle-eyed, more like a speculative gaze from afar from the court. The servants had wary respect for the Lucifen, eyed Ryoka like trouble, especially because of her bare feet, and looked as fondly at the Agelum as any servants of the palace.

They all had a reputation, which each group cultivated because they desired it. Agelum were well-loved busybodies. The Lucifen, feared and aloof. Ryoka was confusing.

“So what did you ask for, Uzine? Or are we going to see it?”

The Agelum waved a hand, smiling.

“We do not have a set thing. You’ve seen Sophridel’s conceit, haven’t you? Fithea’s is within the walls. We Agelum asked for something that cannot be seen directly. And I must say—we relied on our cousins to fulfill the worth since we are so…”

He gestured at himself. Visophecin murmured.

“The Agelum provide a number of useful talents. Not least training our [Knights]. Did you have a chance to meet any you remembered, Uzine?”

The Agelum sighed.

“Only a few. The rest are deployed or at war. And I can only swing a blade for a minute! But I didn’t hurt myself, and it was quite fun, seeing how the [Knights] did. Their polish is lacking. I put eight down. Gadrea, ten.”

“They were the Order of the Hydra. The Thirsting Veil did better. They’re acceptable.”

The two Agelum were bright-eyed and missed Ryoka’s eyebrows climbing to the ceiling. As for what they had wished for…Uzine laughed.

“A simple thing. In Ailendamus—so Rhisveri has promised us—he will create a land where no one will ever die of hunger. Nor monster attack. The latter is nigh-impossible to achieve, I know, but the first…”

His eyes glinted.

“It will be done. Such that, even if you have no coin, a [Healer] will see you. No child without parents will starve before a [Guard] finds them. I have seen it done elsewhere, and Rhisveri has implemented laws that make us walk towards that goal. Someday, I will have it fulfilled.”

It was such a childish wish. Or…innocent. It was so genuine that Ryoka thought both Visophecin and Azemith slowed. She felt like shielding her own face from the simple compassion in Uzine. It made her uncomfortable.

It was like…speaking to Erin. She would have understood and been able to take the Agelum at face-value without making a joke or growing uncomfortable. Not Ryoka.

“So, uh, no palaces of gold? Or statues?”

She grinned weakly. Uzine gave her a blank stare.

“No. That would be what Rhisveri gets. I don’t understand his desires—but I am not a Wyrm. We don’t begrudge him his ambitions, so long as we get what we want. We have learned to compromise. Besides, for some, he is our only hope and shelter. Fithea…poor Fithea. She dreams of a day when he will give her a forest ten thousand miles across in every direction, untouched by even half-Elves.”

“That day will never come, even should we take all of Terandria.”

Azemith’s smile was crueler. Uzine shrugged his shoulders.

“Then Terandria and Izril? But in the meantime…ah, here we are. Part of her wish is this.”

They came to a stop, and Ryoka found herself looking up at the Royal Gardens. Not the hedge-maze of outside, nor, in truth, even the colorful walkways where visitors were allowed. For good reason. When they walked through the vast archway, they passed through a long hallway with lettering glittering on the walls. Ryoka gazed upwards and felt nostalgia, again. The messages—rules for visitors, really—were straight and to the point.

 

Littering is punishable.

Plucking flowers or any plants without permission is not allowed.

Do not stray off the paths for your own sake.

It is a crime to bring animals, insects, or other creatures into the garden.

Beware of the [Druids].

 

The area past the doors was so bright Ryoka shaded her eyes for a second. When she lowered her hands, she glanced up and blinked.

“Um. What happened to the ceiling?”

She stared up and wondered if they’d gone outside. For the ceiling was gone, and a bright, foreign sky, too bright for the day outside, shone down. The air felt more humid—and Ryoka would have looked for the rest of the palace if it weren’t for the trees.

The…trees she was sure that she had never seen before, because they would have been on-par with the palace’s tallest towers. Gigantic redwoods, as large as any of Earth’s biggest, and stranger plants still.

One tree had branches that were just long, with these spreading leaves such that it was practically as long horizontally as vertically. Impossibly suspended leaves fanned outwards, casting shadows a hundred feet overhead on thin, magical wood that was bright grey.

It could not physically exist on Earth because no wood or tree could hold that kind of weight, as impossibly thin and long as the branches were. One gust of wind or simply gravity would snap that kind of architecture.

But here, this tree existed, and it was thin and spread aggressively, fighting for light and water with the other trees. It was just one—but Ryoka’s eyes widened as she looked up at the…

“Blue fruit tree? Wait—is that a blue fruit tree?

The Agelum and Lucifen were enjoying her reaction as the Courier spun around. On the ground were glowing plants, ranging from mundane plants like thistles, in their dangerous glory, growing without being pruned, to Sage’s Grass to…

It was like someone had taken a snapshot of every single plant they could and put it in this place. A vast preserve where plants were given leave to grow without end, even war with each other—but the existence of every species was preserved. Azemith craned her head to look at the blue fruit tree.

“It certainly has blue fruit. Please tell me that is not how your world names trees? What do you call apple trees? Red fruit trees? That’s the Amentus tree that Fithea wanted, wasn’t it? Didn’t the fruits poison some foreign diplomat’s son one time?”

“Poisonous pits, yes. I believe our Thirsting Veil Knights and the Ministry of Intelligence harvest the interiors. It’s grown quite large.”

Visophecin gazed up idly. Ryoka’s eyes bugged out as she stared at what she thought was a blue fruit the size of her head. What could Erin make with that?

“This is Fithea’s…wish?”

“In part. There is a ceiling, but we hid it with magic. Dimensional spells. She desired this, but her true dream lies to the north. Forests where half-Elves are allowed to live in peace. She wishes for trees thousands of years old to grow. Another Great Forest. But it will take millenia to bear fruit; the site has been marked for such a forest to grow, but Ailendamus is only two hundred years old. Still, Fithea’s dream may come true, if last of all of ours.”

The way they talked. The Lucifen sounded encouraging, like someone talking about this long-term project a friend had. The Agelum simply rolled around, inspecting plants. Uzine cautioned Ryoka not to emulate their example.

“This place is zealously guarded. Stay on the pathways, as the rules say. You wouldn’t even have access without us. Oh, and don’t pluck flowers. I know the rules say that, but the guardians really do get annoyed. See? There’s one watching us already. Hello! I learned my lesson last time!”

The Agelum waved a hand cheerfully, and Ryoka nearly jumped into the air as she saw there was someone watching them.

The [Druid] was nearly invisible as she stood in a maze of sunflowers. Her clothing actually took on the colors of the sunflowers, a bright yellow and brown around her hood, drifting to green and then brown lower down.

Oh, and she was a Dwarf. The Dwarf [Druid]’s yellow hood moved as she pointed a stubby finger at Ryoka. She had no beard, Ryoka couldn’t help but notice, but she did have a half-mask of wood over the bottom of her face. She spoke, voice slightly muffled as she pointed.

“You. Keep your wind harnessed. A sporing has begun. We will not have it blow across the gardens.”

“Er. Yes? Hello!”

The [Druid] then ignored Ryoka and glowered at the Lucifen, who nodded to her. Viscount Visophecin raised one hand.

“We are here simply to observe. Lady Fithea has allowed us entry.”

“She has.”

It was a grudging comment. The [Druid] shifted her glare to Uzine, who snatched his hand away from some kind of carnivorous plant, which kept snapping at a finger. But he kept evading it just in time.

Ryoka felt like she needed to say something. She pointed at the woman as the [Druid] turned away.

“Uh, uh—wait! I have something to say! N—Nath—Nathi—Nathal—”

The stuttering made all the Lucifen look at her. Gadrea leaned over to Visophecin.

“Is she having a heart attack?”

“Let me check.”

Azemith began casting a spell as Ryoka finally got it right.

Nalthaliarstrelous! I know him.”

The [Druid] had been turning away impatiently, but at that name she looked back at Ryoka. The Dwarf woman raised her eyebrows.

“Nalthaliarstrelous of Vale Forest’s Circle?”

Ryoka nodded as Visophecin added that detail to his notes on her. The [Druid] stared long at Ryoka.

“I know his name too. Good for you.”

Then she walked off and vanished into the underbrush without so much as moving a branch. Gadrea and Azemith laughed as Ryoka stood there.

 

——

 

Name-dropping did not impress [Druids]. However, the final immortal’s present that Ryoka saw that evening concluded the decision she was coming to.

The Singer of Terandria was here, and the [Popstar] was dancing, singing, and captivating the entire palace. Most people were talking about her or the war, but Ryoka’s own arrival had resulted in the rare visit of the Agelum, Lucifen…and other events.

Like the Singer’s very arrival, although Ryoka could not know that. What she did know and even participate in were the plays.

“The what.”

Ryoka Griffin rubbed her ear as she sat at a late lunch with Sammial Veltras. After her visit to the courts and garden, Ryoka had gone to see him.

Their fortunes had changed such that neither were exactly a prisoner. Sammial was, more than Ryoka at least, but since she had paid her debt…he was given a free rein of the palace, albeit with an escort, and so was she.

That actually cut down on the problems the two caused. In fact, Sammial had spent all the morning in company.

Princess Oesca of Ailendamus watched Ryoka as she ate with a hovering [Nursemaid] glaring daggers at Ryoka and Sammial. The [Lord] speared a bit of sausage with a dagger and ate it with a grimace.

“What is this? I hate it.”

Ryoka eyed the green sausage.

“Why did you get it, then? Excuse me—plays?”

She turned to Visophecin, who raised his brows as he politely sipped at some soup, manners impeccable. He nodded, but Sammial cut him off.

“I got it because it was green. Duh! It tastes…weird.”

The Lucifen eyed the offending sausage.

“I believe it is made entirely of plant-matter. For half-Elves and other guests who would prefer not to eat meat.”

No meat?

In outrage, Sammial dissected the sausage. Ryoka took a piece and found it beat other vegetarian sausages she’d had. Indeed, the [Lord] chewed on his food furiously and relented.

“It’s good. If I put some fat gravy on it, I’d really like it. Do you have any?”

He turned to Oesca, and the [Princess] hesitated.

“I think we do? The [Chefs] can make everything, Sammial. Miss Ryoka, would you like some?”

Ryoka shrugged, then amended her statement.

“Er, I wouldn’t turn it down, Your Highness, but I don’t need any. Sammial—where are you going?”

“To get some gravy. Sausage needs good gravy. Aunt Buscrei told me that. Oesca, let’s go find some.”

That objectionable statement aside, what made the servants and bodyguards look on in horror was Sammial hopping off his chair, taking Oesca by the hand, and dragging her towards one of the kitchens. The [Princess] followed along, nervous and excited by turns at this breach of decorum. And Sammial’s aura meant that the [Nursemaid] had to fight to catch him.

Ryoka and Visophecin looked on as Ryoka chewed on Sammial’s sausage. She turned back to Visophecin and found he was staring at Sammial.

“…I do not interact with children often. That young boy seems unusually—gifted.”

The Lucifen frowned after Sammial. Ryoka shrugged.

“I’ve seen weirder.”

He focused on her with a slightly disbelieving look, which told her he really didn’t meet children. Just imagine what Mrsha would do?

Ryoka missed Mrsha. She stopped eating. Then she went back to Visophecin’s statement, to Oesca’s delight and Sammial’s interest. And Ryoka’s surprise.

“…Did you say there were plays coming to Ailendamus?”

The Lucifen nodded.

“We have obtained copies of the plays from the ‘Players of Celum’, I believe. It took some negotiating, but it is my understanding one of the palace wings is nearly finished with renovations.”

“For plays.”

“For a theatre, yes. Sophridel requested it, and since it would fall under the arts and not just personal…indulgence, Rhisveri approved the measure. Not that Sophridel couldn’t have simply put the request through our own systems. Indeed, it was already proposed. He simply enlarged the project.”

Sammial came back with about fourteen [Cooks], who placed a sample of over fifty sauces and gravies on the table. His first act was to dip a new sausage in a Sugarfish syrup and take a huge bite. Ryoka and Visophecin watched him in dead silence before Ryoka turned back to Visophecin.

“How big is this theater, exactly?”

The Lucifen pulled a folder out of the air and flicked through it. Princess Oesca watched the Viscount, normally so reserved, with great interest as she tried to copy Sammial’s example.

“Your Highness, a [Princess] does not eat an entire sausage or dip in syrup like…”

The [Nursemaid] tried to correct her, and Oesca lowered it.

“Just one bite?”

“Your mother would object, Your Highness. I’m afraid I must insist. Perhaps a small sample with it cut up delicately?”

“Oh—very well.”

Oesca’s face fell as the blond [Lordling] saw the nursemaid produce a knife and fork to manage her portions. Sammial, half-choking on a huge mouthful, still managed to force out one word.

“Coward.”

The [Princess] gazed at him as Ryoka twitched and covered a smile. Oesca’s brows crossed, and she snatched the fork and skewered the sausage.

Your Highness, no—!

Ryoka felt a tap on the shoulder and turned from pride, death by maple syrup sausage, prejudice, and Sammial, and saw Visophecin adjusting his spectacles.

“I believe it will seat up to six thousand people. The construction has taken…two months, and Sophridel implemented a number of design aspects, such as magnification of visuals, audio…extensive illusory spells. A chandelier? Rosewood flooring…”

He frowned at the cost. Ryoka’s eyes bugged out at the numbers. That had to be wrong. But Visophecin just hmmed.

“Sophridel is a lover of the arts, as you may understand. He was quite…passionate about the plays. I believe we have you to thank for the copies of the plays arriving. Your name helped persuade the Players of Celum to send them.”

“Me? Wait—how do you know—?”

The Lucifen gave Ryoka a steady look.

“You are listed on file as a close associate with the Players of Celum. It is not difficult to read a piece of paper. With an appropriately trained intelligence network, of course.”

“But I didn’t tell them to give you anything.”

Visophecin blinked at her.

“No, you did not. Perhaps the Players of Celum felt it was in their best interests to ingratiate themselves with one of Terandria’s biggest nations. Or that this would help your situation. They may have sent a [Message]. I could check?”

“No. It’s just…so you’re putting on plays?”

“Would you like to visit the theatre? I believe Sophridel may be presiding over the affair.”

I’ll go too! Ryoka, you don’t take me to interesting things! I wanted to visit the garden! Let’s go, Oesca. And get your friends. Plays are interesting! That’s what Ryoka told me. If she lies, we’ll blame her.”

Sammial waved a hand furiously, and Oesca, dabbing at her dress, looked up.

“I do have lessons—”

Stuff your lessons! Just tell them to go away and use your aura. I do.”

“But I’m a [Princess]…”

Ryoka and Visophecin could have stopped this as Sammial sneered at Oesca, but neither one did. Ryoka because she slightly approved. Visophecin probably because he found it intensely amusing.

“Exactly! You’re a [Princess], and I’m a [Lord] of House Veltras. No one tells us what to do!”

“Don’t listen to him, Your Highness. He’s Izrilian. Please, your mother will be furious…”

The [Nursemaid] whispered on Oesca’s other side, like the Angel to Sammial’s Devil as Visophecin watched. Unfortunately for the [Nursemaid]…the real Agelum wheeled over, having decided Sammial knew the way of eating sausages. Gadrea furiously masticated as she spoke, eyes gleaming.

“Are we going to see the plays? I will go too! You only live once, Princess Oesca. I would rather not waste a single second! Visophecin, we might even have to make you do some acting! He would be a natural, wouldn’t he? I would love to see him try to cry on stage.”

She beamed. Oesca looked into Gadrea’s eyes, and Ryoka wondered if Queen Oiena would try to have her killed. First the [Knights], now this?

Sammial blinked at Gadrea and glanced at Ryoka uncertainly.

“Who’re you? You’ve got weird eyes. Why are you in a moving chair? Can’t you walk?”

Rather than take understandable offense, Gadrea just laughed and held out a hand.

“I am Gadrea, Visophecin’s cousin. My eyes are strange to you, aren’t they? I cannot walk, and I have heard you are from House Veltras, young [Lord].”

His eyes narrowed, but Sammial did shake her hand.

“I am a prisoner, you know.”

“I know. But not a poorly treated one, I hope? You must tell me if you are. And tell me about House Veltras! I have always wanted to visit, but I couldn’t. Some of my family hunted in Vale Forest…how is it?”

Sammial found his match in Gadrea and actually walked with her rather than running ahead as an odd congregation marched down the hallway.

“It’s okay. Boring, really. We can’t go anywhere fun, and Father says the forest isn’t as cool as it used to be. It used to have Unicorns and whatnot. I’m not a poor prisoner, I suppose. That old Duke keeps taking off her clothing, though.”

He pointed at Ryoka, and [Princess] Oesca looked horrified at Sammial. Visophecin turned his head to laugh, and Gadrea eyed Ryoka.

“Interesting. I might have to have words…but it is Rhisveri. Let me assure you his intent is—different. Not un-nefarious, but differently so than a lech.”

“I know. Ryoka loses her clothes all the time.”

The Wind Runner was about to kick Sammial out a window. But then Oesca turned to her.

“You do know so many individuals in Ailendamus, Courier Ryoka. Viscount Visophecin is…seldom at court. I find it so very exceptional.”

She hesitated as she inclined her head to Visophecin, and he gave her a perfect bow. It was a searching comment, and Ryoka replied as blandly as possible.

“Couriers meet people, Your Highness. I hope you don’t take Sammial at face value all the time.”

“Oh, I don’t. I know young men are prone to exaggeration, and I’ve heard my brother. Sammial is adventurous, though.”

Oesca had a mix of envy and amusement on her face as she regarded the chatting Sammial. Then she leaned over to Ryoka.

“My mother is very unhappy with you. I do hope you’ll stay safe. She told me not to emulate your example.”

“Which part?”

“I think…any of it.”

Ryoka thought that was fair, but she saw Oesca glance at her again.

“Even the trousers. Is it so very common, as Sammial suggests, that Izrilian [Ladies] can wear it? And…do other things?”

Ryoka turned beet red. She decided to tackle the less mortifying question first. No, wait! If she was in for it…

“I don’t think either thing is wrong. Although the other thing is, uh, private. We should be allowed to do what we want, shouldn’t we, Princess Oesca?”

The girl brightened up as Visophecin looked at the whispering duo.

“I think so too! But I am a [Princess].”

Her face fell, and Ryoka felt compelled to give her some sinisterly honest advice.

“I happen to know a [Princess] who uses a sword, does her own cooking, and even fights monsters, Princess Oesca. As far as I know, she levels up from it. And she told me once—she didn’t level up by doing the proper thing. I think she’s gained, what, fifteen levels in a year? And she definitely wears trousers.”

She gave Oesca a wink that a [Nursemaid] watched with the deepest distrust. But when Ryoka finished speaking, the woman, who’d been walking a good fifteen paces behind them, snapped her head up.

[Detect Improper Learning]—Your Highness! Please disregard whatever that woman just said! It is most likely a lie, anyways.”

Oesca’s own mouth had fallen open. Ryoka, the diabolical influence, saw her stare uncertainly backwards and then twist something on her finger.

A ring. She peered at Ryoka.

“Were you lying, Miss Griffin?”

“Um…no—hey, what’s going—”

Ryoka felt herself suddenly being pushed away from Oesca. Hard. The [Nursemaid] was moving her apart from her charge, and even Visophecin stepped back, although he looked more like he was just doing it so he wasn’t inconvenienced. And it was too late. A Level 40 [Nursemaid] should have been here, not some low-level amateur.

Because Oesca had just used her ring to cast [Detect Truth], and her eyes were as round as gold coins.

Then they arrived at the theatre, and everyone stopped and gasped.

“My! What have they done to the Tenniath Wing?”

Oesca pointed as they came to a clearly new construction, with [Masons] still working on the outside. Ryoka gazed through an archway as Sammial ran forwards and shouted.

It’s huge!

Sophridel’s theatre was indeed one of the biggest venues for any actor that Ryoka had ever seen. The Met, which she had seen in person, looked incomplete compared to this room.

Mainly because Ailendamus had no cap on a budget or space. Unlike New York’s limited real estate, Ailendamus had no lack of land, and they had dimensional magic on top of it.

So yes, the first impression Ryoka got was of a room so vast she had to crane her head back. It had all that…gravitas of a cathedral.

And her first thought was, ‘this is going to suck for a play’. Because a play should be intimate, not dwarfed by the building itself. Then she realized there was a trick to the room when she gazed at the room itself.

Ryoka saw seats enough for six thousand people to sit in a broad semicircle around the room, and she again thought those on the edges would have a terrible angle because it was too wide. In other words, they’d have a view of the back-stage, which modern stages obviously accounted for, and were thus more vertical in design to put people at more appropriate angles.

However, Ryoka had given Sophridel too little credit. The Elemental of Masks might not have seen a play in its current incarnation, but he understood how plays had to be.

The instant Ryoka and the others focused on the play, the room distorted. Not visibly or in a sickening change of perspective, but suddenly the stage felt like it was mere dozens of feet from Ryoka. And the people walking about on it were as large as life.

“Ah, those would be the magnification spells we paid for.”

Visophecin’s voice was close by, but simultaneously far away. Rather, Ryoka saw and heard, even smelled a strutting man on stage rehearsing his lines before Sophridel…or rather, the fake half-Elf Sophridel pretended to be.

Ryoka inhaled the faint scent of blood, saw the man’s torn clothing and the rapier in one hand—another man was lying, grimacing as some very realistic blood and organs spilled out of his stomach. In fact, Sophridel spotted Visophecin, Sammial, and the others, and raised a hand, and the magnification spell abruptly ended.

Ryoka staggered as she felt herself standing far, far away from the stage. Sammial raced down the steps, shouting.

Amazing! That’s so cool!”

He leapt onto the stage as Ryoka followed him and heard Sophridel speaking.

“We will adjust the gore and blood. Realism is a conceit; balance the two. No smell of rot and less of blood. It need not rain on the audience, either. Perhaps a dissipating magical rain…no, not for the first iterations.”

“Absolutely, Lord Sophridel. But I don’t know if I can match them. I, ah—we’re only Level 8. If we had just one of these Players…”

The nervous [Actors] on stage turned as they found a [Princess] in the audience and became even more apprehensive. Visophecin nodded to Sophridel.

“We have come to observe your work, Sophridel. Does the theatre match your desires?”

“The theatre, yes. But the actors will require much, much work to create a satisfactory performance. Perhaps months of practice. Justice must be done to each work before I will allow it to be witnessed.”

Sophridel’s voice was a sigh. Visophecin raised his brows.

“I believe the crown will desire a performance far sooner, to justify the cost and showcase the event, Sophridel.”

“Unacceptable. Art cannot be sullied by a performance ill-made. We have few experts, and the few images of the plays are insufficient, as are mere scripts. I require…someone who has seen how it is done. I would like to send the entire cast to Izril to witness a play at First Landing. Perhaps for two weeks. Then return here.”

Visophecin exhaled as Sophridel raised his arms. He was a largely unemotional speaker; Ryoka suspected an Elemental would be rather logical and dispassionate. But he had a fire when he spoke like this, for all it was contained.

Sammial looked disappointed, but then leapt on stage and began to badger the [Actors] to let him try their rapiers. Visophecin glanced at Ryoka.

“As it happens, perhaps Ryoka Griffin would care to instruct the actors? I believe she has witnessed some, if not all of the plays.”

Instantly, all the [Actors] turned to Ryoka, and Sophridel himself peered at her.

“Ryoka Griffin. You are a being of many surprises. Which I understood from your presence in the Court of Masks. It is a refreshing revelation to understand you also have a soul. Those without art are lost.”

He spoke like some kind of theater kid. Or the most passionate art-lover ever. Which…he was. Ryoka remembered the being of masks as she lifted her hands.

“I do enjoy a play. But I can’t dictate…I mean, I can tell you a bit, but I’m not a good actor. I don’t have the class—”

He ignored her, practically pressing her forwards and demanding she show the [Actors] how to stand and face the audience properly, project—watch their plays. Visophecin observed as Gadrea and Sammial dueled to the side. She tapped his chest with the tip of a rapier as he stared at her.

“How are you so good with a sword? You’re in a chair!”

“I’ll wager your father could beat you seated, couldn’t he, young man?”

“Yes…but you’re good! Let’s do it again! Oesca, grab a sword, and we’ll beat her!”

And so the [Princess] did. Ryoka watched a [Lord] and [Princess] fencing with an Angel out of the corner of her eye as Visophecin, Sophridel, and the [Actors] talked shop.

“We must go, Sophridel. Ryoka may return later. But she has other obligations. As do you. I remind you of tonight’s banquet. And our gathering?

Visophecin had to tear Ryoka away at the end, but Sophridel refused to let her go without a promise to return. She looked at the passionate director and immortal, his eyes alight as she retreated.

“I haven’t seen Sophridel so happy in a long time. It truly does matter to him. And you have a gift with a sword, young man!”

Gadrea patted Sammial on the head. The [Lord] would have snapped at anyone who did that, but he gave Gadrea a wary bow. And rubbed at his bruises. She had taught him actual swordcraft and struck him a number of times in their bouts.

As well as the [Princess], who had already been healed. But Gadrea was an even-handed teacher and had happily cracked two bodyguards on the arms when they tried to stop her.

So passed Ryoka’s day. And as evening fell, and she took stock of the immortal’s projects that helped define Ailendamus, Ryoka saw it.

Fithea, the Minister of Forests or whatever her title was, was responsible for many half-Elves in their villages, untouched by Ailendamus’ rule. Sophridel tended to the arts and created the Court of Masks, which helped him.

Visophecin’s people ate Ailendamus’ criminals and created their courts. There were more immortals still, and the one above them all, the Wyrm, Rhisveri, launched wars and made his kingdom powerful so that it might be his guard and tool.

All of it was far from perfect. But there was goodness to it too. So Ryoka came to the conclusion that had fallen over her since…well, since her last meeting with Rhisveri. What she had wrestled with since getting to know Itorin and realizing what Ailendamus was.

As she walked with Visophecin back to her rooms to take a bath and freshen up, Ryoka turned to the Lucifen. He was watching her, and so Ryoka said it then and there.

“I forswear it.”

The Viscount raised his brows.

“Forswear what, exactly?”

Ryoka looked at him.

“My attempt to steal from Rhisveri. You can use a truth spell—I give it up. I’ve paid my dues to him, and we’ve settled things. I’ve seen Ailendamus. It’s not a perfect land…”

She looked around at the vast palace, made up of pieces of other palaces, kingdoms crushed. She looked at Visophecin and knew what he ate.

But if she was going to point fingers…she shook her head.

“It’s not perfect. But it’s not my enemy. Moreover, I don’t want it to be. I don’t want Rhisveri’s enmity, or House Shoel’s, or anyone else’s. I want…to save Erin. And you helped with that.”

She had read the scroll and seen them all trying. Ryoka’s voice trembled.

“I want to go back and see her when she wakes. I want to bring Sammial home. Then—then I can focus on the other battles. But Ailendamus isn’t one of them. If you can, I’d even pay you to send a [General] to Erin. At the least? I think I’ve done all I can here.”

The Viscount stopped in his tracks and regarded her. Ryoka exhaled slowly and looked around. She stopped looking at Visophecin as a possible enemy. She really didn’t want to fight them. So she smiled and saw his lips curve up, just for a second.

Gadrea wheeled by Ryoka in that moment. The Agelum looked at the Courier and grinned.

“Did I just hear you forswore strife with our nation, Ryoka?”

The Wind Runner nodded, still shaking a bit with her resolution. Gadrea eyed her and then looked at Visophecin.

“That was not one of my concerns for the fate of the kingdom.”

She rolled past Ryoka, laughing as the Wind Runner felt a surge of nostalgia. Immortal humbling. However, Visophecin shook his head slightly at his cousin.

“I think it is just as well, Gadrea. Especially because a citadel-class warship and one of the Five Families is at war with our armies because of her. With her help, we may de-escalate the problems in this war.”

Ryoka smiled in relief and nodded. The two kept walking, and as they were discussing how to do it, Visophecin pulled something out of the air and frowned at it.

“I just received a [Message] from Rhisveri to check the scrying orb. Wistram News Network. Let me see…”

The two saw the orb flicker to life, and both of them saw a half-Elf, soon to be an Archmage, standing in the halls of Wistram. Ryoka saw Grand Magus Eldavin giving his famous address as he was given his new rank.

“Oh! Eldavin!”

“Miss Griffin! Do you know him?”

Ryoka turned. Princess Oesca had come running, hiking up her skirt. She waved at Ryoka.

“Please have a pre-banquet repast with Father and Mother! Father wants to speak with you about matters of state, and Mother, um…wants to speak with you too. We have some of the popped corn you told us about!”

Visophecin waved Ryoka off as the Wind Runner shrugged. She followed Oesca and arrived just in time to see the Archmage of Memory’s coronation.

It really was good she’d given up on the entire war thing, Ryoka reflected as she licked her fingers and tasted the buttery popcorn. How could she really see herself fighting Itorin, who she liked? Even if Oiena was giving her sour looks…Ryoka chewed on some popcorn and wondered what Eldavin was up to. Did he not remember…?

She chomped down on her popcorn, feeling more relaxed than she had in a long time. Then she frowned as she began to catch wind of what was going on. She watched Eldavin turn to address his audience—and then cast a single spell. She slowly went dead white.

Ryoka thus had a front-row seat to seeing people in super-armor flying over Ailendamus’ army, Wistram entering the Dawn Concordat’s war, and Eldavin, Archmage of Memory, blasting his way into Terandria’s spotlight. The room…was so very quiet as the royal family looked at her, and Ryoka choked on popcorn.

That familiar pain in her stomach was back. But the churning wasn’t of the rapids in the river. The river styx had just turned into an ocean, and out of a whirlpool came a Kraken of anxiety.

She should have known, really. Murphy’s Law, remember? Ryoka Griffin and de-escalation had never been friends.

 

——

 

It never failed to surprise Rabbiteater how unprepared other species were for battle, let alone war.

Three days had passed since they had made their dramatic raid and escape, and already morale was fraying around the edges.

Mind you, the fighting didn’t help.

Wind, be my blade!

Ser Markus raised his sword overhead as they charged towards a group of surprised [Soldiers] from Ailendamus. It was a pell-mell melee, and Pheislant’s forces were skirmishing with the column of armored warriors.

Both sides had walked right into each other. Oh, they had [Scouts], and the Spring Knights with actual stealth-Skills had spotted the enemy. Unfortunately, they had been spotted, so the Order of Seasons had elected to charge rather than waste the moment.

Markus was raising his sword overhead as he bellowed, and it was a stupid move. Because even in armor, his guard was down. A [Crossbowman] on the ground—woman, whatever—aimed the contraption up at him. Then heard a loud donk sound.

“Hm.”

Rabbiteater had just hit her as hard as he could with the flat of his battleaxe. Definitely a knockout blow from the way she dropped, and she probably had a concussion.

Stop leaving your guard down, you idiot!

Meisa raced past Markus, charging another group of scattering archers. Markus, shamefaced, whirled his mount and saw a rider coming his way.

Not another [Knight], but the [Rider]’s spear looked like it was wickedly sharp. Had it grown barbs on the tip?

Definitely a Skill. However, Markus didn’t use a Skill to create the rippling air around the blade of his sword. Even as Rabbiteater watched, circling Markus from the side to intervene—the Spring Knight flicked the wind off the blade, then whirled it.

A practiced move. He might be new to his newfound power and level, but he knew how to fight with his aura. The gust of wind was no sharp blade, but it did slam into the [Rider], and Markus’ opponent flinched. The Spring Knight swung his blade into that guard, and one-two—

Rabbiteater saw the blood and the falling figure. Markus actually reached for a potion at his side—but there was nothing to heal. Rabbiteater rode past him and saw a charging man with a pike. He bent down, swung Headscratcher’s gold-jade axe, and cut the weapon in two. The shaking [Pikeman] raised his arms, and Rabbiteater pointed at him.

“Yield?”

I yield, Ser!

The [Soldier]’s voice shook with relief. Rabbiteater nodded genially.

“Okay. Helmet.”

The man stopped as he tossed his shortsword down. He hesitated, but the axe aimed at his face made him fumble it off. Rabbiteater took the helmet, inhaled the sweat and cramped fugue, and then turned and tossed it as hard as he could.

Another satisfying donk as it hit a [Knight] from Ailendamus dueling Talia. She knocked her opponent off their horse as they staggered and glared at Rabbiteater, but the Goblin just rode past the [Soldier].

Yielding was so stupid. Any Goblin worth their salt would stab him in the back. But since it was a custom, he was happy not to kill the Humans. But Rabbiteater did insist on his twist; he demanded helmets. It took a bit of work putting a helmet back on, it was easy to tell non-combatants apart, and not having a helmet was a big problem that discouraged people going back on their word.

He could be so relaxed in battle because, frankly, this was not a hot engagement. Unlike the Order of the Hydra, these were regular [Soldiers], and the Order of Seasons were [Knights].

Even so—as Ailendamus fell back in relatively good order, Rabbiteater gazed around, watching all corners, and felt that expectation.

Is this the battle I die in? He dodged an arrow coming at him from the side so fast a young [Archer] was left breathless.

[Aspect of the Champion: Greater Dexterity]. Nothing was more important than reflexes in a rapid fight where the danger was from every angle. Rabbiteater whirled and raised his axe as he rode down on the [Archer], who was backed up by one last squad. They aimed their weapons at him as he raised his axe overhead, shield guarding his chest. Markus turned as Rabbiteater, Ser Solstice, shouted.

[Aura of the Brave]. Brave be my axe or something!

Ser Markus watched as the enchanted axe rose—and the Ailendamus [Soldiers] scattered. Rabbiteater brought it down—and hit the third [Soldier] with the flat of the blade on the helmet.

A third person fell down. Rabbiteater hesitated, then flicked his axe a few times at a scared young woman. He pointed at her.

“Activate. Hm. Damn.”

She stared at him until he kicked her in the chest and rode off. Rabbiteater sighed as he looked around at the cheering [Soldiers] and [Knights]. He still couldn’t figure it out.

 

——

 

He didn’t want to kill the Humans. Ailendamus’ [Soldiers] were not his enemy, aside from them trying to kill him, and [Knights] tended to survive if they surrendered.

In fact, the rest of the Order of Seasons held that view, which was why prisoners were taken. Goblins took no prisoners; they could do awful things to them like the Mountain City Goblins or kill and eat them. There was no other point unless you subscribed to the monetary system and/or had a relationship where you could trade prisoners for coin or goods.

Or interrogation but the point was, Rabbiteater thought that was a funny attitude for two nations at war.

I don’t want to kill you, but we might. But we’ll try not to unless we have to. As he had observed—the Humans of Terandria were not ready for a real war.

A real war was like Liscor versus the Goblin Lord. A conflict where you stepped over the dead on either side and fought until you died. No surrender, no yielding—and if your side lost, you all died. But again, he had gone through this.

What surprised his comrades was that he was sticking around. Some, especially some who knew his identity, clearly expected him to ride off now that the going was not so good.

The Order of Seasons won another battle, but they had no Greysten, no senior members of their Seasons. Ser Ilm was one of three Fall Knights and the most senior. Dame Talia was the leader of her Season, and the young Ser Thaime was leading the Spring. Meisa and Markus could have easily challenged the role—that was how little leadership they had.

Most of the [Knights] who had been taken prisoner by Ailendamus had been lower-level. It made sense; it was hard for a veteran to be captured. And unfortunately, any high-level senior [Knights] had already been taken captive and sent to Ailendamus’ command for genteel interrogation and ransom.

Greysten and the more senior [Knights] had also survived, Rabbiteater knew. But Ailendamus’ army and the Order of the Hydra had forced his group to head deeper into enemy territory. On a raid. It was a Goblin idea: if the enemy prevented you from linking up, just make trouble for them behind their lines.

The [Knights] had taken it because it was strategically sound, and, frankly, they had no choice. The Order of the Hydra, despite losing their [General], were thousands strong. The Order of Seasons’ elite…ness…had struggled against them.

Plus, there was a half-giant [Knight] back there, and Rabbiteater would rather fight low-level [Soldiers] all day than fight someone who had a sword longer than he was.

Nevertheless, morale was flagging. And that was despite liberating another train of prisoners. Rabbiteater observed it as the three [Knights] leading their Season met with the commander of Pheislant’s armed forces accompanying them.

A [Marshal] Huges. Rabbiteater liked the man. He was the bluff sort who heard ‘charge’ and said, ‘alright, let’s go!’. And somehow kept his forces together and actually encircled the enemy while the [Knights] did their thing.

A fast-thinker, if not a [Strategist]. He was unto Humans what a Goblin Chieftain was. Without him…Rabbiteater suspected the Pheislant [Soldiers] would be in worse condition.

What bothered him were the [Knights] in his group. They were less-than-radiant, and their paint was wearing thin after so much fighting. They had ill-fitting mounts like the slipping saddle Markus was re-cinching. But they had no poker face; their dispiritedness showed.

“How many, Marshal?”

“Around four hundred. Mostly Kaliv’s lot, but we have all three nations in the Dawn Concordat. Not too knocked up. There’s a [Glory Captain] Mithn who’d like to speak with you, Ser Knights.”

Dame Talia dismounted and strode to meet someone dressed in the most idiotic colors Rabbiteater had ever seen. Calanfer, one of the three nations in the Dawn Concordat, along with Gaiil-Drome and Kaliv, was the most familiar to him.

And it was the [Glory Captain] of Calanfer who wore his national colors with pride. Calanfer’s colors were, as far as Rabbiteater could tell, royal blue, gold, yellow, and white. Mostly the latter three colors.

A bright yellow uniform was a terrible idea for any kind of terrain aside from…the desert on a hot day? A field of dandelions? It was probably a lovely target for an archer. Badarrow could have tapped him from a thousand feet away with ease.

Oh—and it got dirty. The [Glory Captain]’s uniform was dirty, taking away from the beautiful stitching of some kind of palace-throne that was their sigil as he saluted Talia.

“Honored Knights! You are a sight for sore eyes. Throne protect us—are you the Order of Seasons? Has Pheislant entered our war? I am sorry, I am Glory Captain Mithn of Calanfer’s Eternal Army, Dawnsong’s battalion…”

He was so…pithy. Marshal Huges rolled his eyes but turned his head away as Talia began to speak with the leader of the prisoners. Rabbiteater rode over to the [Marshal], admiring his arm.

He had great tattoos. Pheislant, as a coastal nation with strong navies, had the [Sailor]’s influence, and one of them was cool tattoos.

Rabbiteater, as a former Redfang, loved warpaint and tattoos. The [Knights] would never do such a thing, but Huges had noticed Rabbiteater staring at his bare right arm, which often swung a maul around.

“You didn’t get cut during the fight?”

Rabbiteater could have sworn he saw Huges taking a blow to the arm; it was a target like an unarmored head. The [Marshal] flexed one bicep.

“Don’t you worry, Ser Solstice. Armored tattoo. Got it special from a magical inker. It generally takes more than one hit or two. Hurts like a bitch—excuse my language, Ser.”

He caught himself, and Rabbiteater wished he could show the man his face so Huges could see his grin. Rabbiteater wasn’t a very verbal person, but he was improving. What he gave Huges was a quiet chuckle.

“I don’t mind. Good tactics. I like tattoos. Smart, having magic ones.”

“Really, Ser Solstice? I’m gratified you say so, sir.

The Marshal looked Rabbiteater up and down, and the Goblin knew he was guessing. Even the other Pheislant [Soldiers] watched the mysterious ‘Ser Solstice’ with murmurs.

It was a Human thing. Goblins got curious, but they didn’t have to know. But put a bucket over something and write ‘do not remove, big secret’, and someone would take it off and reveal the detonation rune without fail.

That was a Redfang trick, incidentally. Ser Solstice had an allure of his own by virtue of having a secret identity. Rescuing all of Pheislant’s army from being ripped apart by Ailendamus hadn’t hurt his reputation either. Rabbiteater decided to ask Huges how things were.

“Calanfer. Dawn Concordat. We rescued prisoners. Why is it a problem?”

The [Knights] had acted like it was. The Marshal cast a glance sideways.

“Oh—we’ll have to rearm them, and it’ll slow our pace. Makes us a bigger target. I think it’s just the lack of supplies our leaders are worried about, Ser.”

He was cautious. Rabbiteater looked sideways at the [Knights] and shrugged.

“We have food for six days. Now…four? Three? Half-rations soon.”

Hughes nodded seriously.

“It’ll have to be, Ser Solstice. My hope is we either find a supply train, someone to barter with, or we reach a friendly camp, but we’re headed into Kaliv, and Ailendamus has most of the lowlands. I’ve heard we might even signal for a Griffin drop of goods if we can communicate with their crown.”

“…Why?”

Rabbiteater scratched at his armor. Three days of food sounded like all the time in the world to find more to him. But that, he supposed, was the difference.

The Order of Seasons was really bad at roughing it. They could and had journeyed across Izril to get home without issue, but the instant they found they had chipped blades or were losing horses and such, or getting hungry, they started talking about finding their way back from enemy lines.

Huges seemed to agree. He cast dark eyes at the [Glory Captain].

“We’re poised to make a mess of their supply lines, Ser Solstice. A few more raids and we’ll have a real army following us if we don’t already. But it’ll take more speed, and I hope the prisoners can keep up. It might be better to send ‘em on their own way. Kaliv’s regulars are tough as the mountains they come from, but Calanfer is used to…protocol.”

“They suck?”

“Yes, sir. Not that I should say as much once we join ranks.”

Rabbiteater sighed. Soft Humans. Wonderful.

However, the Dawn Concordat’s spirits were actually higher than Pheislant’s and the Order of Seasons as Talia finished talking to their leaders, and they fell into line with the others. After all—allies were a welcome thing in the war the Dawn Concordat was losing.

“A floral lot, for certain. That [Glory Captain] talked your ear off, Dame Talia.”

“Hush, Ser Thaime.”

As the [Knights] regrouped for their discussions, apart from the regular [Soldiers] and without Huges, they talked over the recent arrivals and the battle. Rabbiteater rode with Thaime, Ilm, Markus, Meisa, Talia, and a few other veteran [Knights]. Markus shook his head.

“More hands won’t be too bad. More mouths to feed…they are good [Soldiers]?”

It was a question that earned him a slap to the back of the head—again—by Meisa this time.

“They’ve fought bravely, Markus. They didn’t just surrender. We’ll be well-served by them if we fight. I’d be more wary if we picked up four hundred Thronebearers.”

Quiet laughter. Talia frowned at Meisa, but she couldn’t hide a faint grimace.

“Let us not speak so in front of the Dawn Concordat—but yes, I think the [Glory Captain] was used to interacting with his own nation’s Order. And I regret to say it—but the Thronebearers of Calanfer have not stuck long in most battles. They are trying to hold the line, but the word is a huge army led by one of Ailendamus’ Great Generals is poised to meet them in battle.”

“Well, they must hold the line long enough for the Order of Seasons to push forwards. Knight Commander Calirn will be mustering a truer force to supplement Ser Greysten’s push. Once Summer regroups, I have no doubt Spring or Winter will push forwards on a separate front.”

Each Season would fight with reinforcements from complementary seasons, so the Order might have four different warbands as Rabbiteater understood it. Talia nodded.

“Then we’ll have to simply find our way back. Maybe to Calanfer—there’s a friendly pass—Krawlnmak’s Pass; it hasn’t fallen, and that’s one of the few main entrances.”

“Ah, the famed stand of the Dawn Concordat. One wonders why they don’t just pull back to there.”

Thaime shook his head, and Rabbiteater himself recalled Eldavin’s lecture. Even the Necromancer had held that place—when he had been the Archmage of Death, Perril Chandler. Talia just shook her head.

“Kaliv isn’t lost yet. But we should hurry. We only have three days of food, and Marshal Huges has recommended half-rations after tonight.”

The [Knights] didn’t audibly protest, but they looked gloomy at the idea. Rabbiteater just shrugged, and Talia turned to him. It was Ser Ilm—who didn’t know his real identity—who spoke up brightly.

“Ser Solstice. How do you think we should continue? Back or forwards?”

Thaime and Talia hesitated. They knew Rabbiteater’s identity, but the Goblin calmly replied.

“I’m not in charge.”

“Even so—you proposed the idea of a raid. What would you do?”

Rabbiteater shrugged.

“Keep raiding. Split up. Sixteen groups; we hit more prisoner trains.”

“What, like [Bandits]?”

Thaime was outraged. Rabbiteater smiled brightly behind his helm.

“Yep. Spread out, join up to hit any prisoner trains. When they come—run. Oh, and find a good hiding spot. This is a nice place.”

He nodded around, and everyone stared up at the imposing cliffs and mountain range that was Kaliv. It wasn’t the High Passes, but the mountains were wonderfully familiar to Rabbiteater.

“We live in caves. Probably some goats or deer live around here. Good eating. We need a deep cave…thing. Maze? Cave system. We hide, continue raiding. Four months.”

Four months? What do we eat?

Markus was horrified. Rabbiteater scratched at his head.

“Mushrooms? Mushrooms and goats.”

And bugs, but he felt that was a big ask. Ilm was fascinated.

“Those are historical guerrilla tactics, and I believe Kaliv may fall back to something similar themselves, Ser Solstice. But our arms? Armor? How would we maintain them?”

“You don’t. You try—then replace. Loot gear, and…”

“I’m afraid we won’t do that, Ser Solstice. It may be tactically advantageous, but that is not possible for our Order. We will regroup and take to the field with whatever army is nearby.”

Talia interrupted Rabbiteater, and the two looked at each other. The Goblin met her gaze and felt it searching him.

He had mixed feelings on Talia. She and he had stopped being, well, close after she discovered his identity. She had made it very plain how she felt about Goblins.

But she had also come after him to rescue him. So—Rabbiteater gave her a pass.

He shrugged.

“Suit yourself.”

Talia was in charge, so Rabbiteater wasn’t about to challenge her for command. [Knights] didn’t work like that, he was sure, and besides, he didn’t mind regrouping and hot baths and such. She began discussing their route back to linking up with the Order of Seasons with the others, but Ser Ilm, Markus, and Meisa beckoned Rabbiteater aside. The Autumn Knight regarded Rabbiteater curiously.

“I saw you using your aura in battle. Or trying to, Ser Solstice. No luck?”

“Nope.”

Three days of practice, and Rabbiteater was learning from the world’s greatest experts on aura-fighting…and he had failed to manifest his abilities. That was a higher-level thing, but the Goblin was having trouble with even beginner training.

“I, ah, put in that research request, and the Fall’s Sentinel’s reply is finally decoded. The damned cipher takes time, pardon my language. Fascinating higher-level manifestations. You know, we have no records of a dual-aura of Hearth and Bravery? You’ll be wonderful data. However, simply gathering your aura is still a first step. And that is…difficult? Even in battle?”

Ilm saw Rabbiteater shake his head. Markus frowned.

“Were you not being serious, Rabbit—Solstice? You sounded like you were having a laugh.”

The Goblin gave Markus a blank look.

“I gave it my best try. Didn’t work.”

“Even in battle? [Squires] have manifested their auras in battle. [Pages] too. I know it’s also tied to your level, but—Markus, you managed a wind blade for the first time. You were far too showy about it, though.”

Markus blushed.

“I know. I was doing pageantry…but the training did make it work flawlessly! I’ll be more discreet.”

Rabbiteater looked at Meisa and Markus and crossed his arms, frustrated.

“Hm. Can you two show me again?”

All three [Knights] obliged him. Meisa went over their lecture.

“You’d normally have years of training, so it’s not a surprise it doesn’t work right away, Rabbit. Markus hasn’t been able to manifest a blade ability until he leveled up from that big battle, but he practices the form. First, you learn to gather your aura, concentrate it. Manifestation is far harder.”

Ilm was nodding as the expert in teaching. He hesitated.

“…Why do you call him Rabbit, Dame Meisa?”

The Spring Knight hesitated.

“Er…because he’s fond of eating rabbits?”

That was very true. Although you could die of malnutrition from eating only rabbits. Ilm frowned.

“That makes no sense.”

Rabbiteater shrugged.

“Someone who likes killing birds is named Bird.”

All three [Knights] turned to him. Ilm’s mouth worked.

“Is this a common Izrilian naming practice?”

“Sure.”

Having further disrupted the Order of Seasons’ point of view on the world, Rabbiteater went back to his lesson.

“First…feel your aura. It is part of you. Think of things, triggers, that make you embody what you are. For spring—I think of gardening. Walking through a forest.”

“I think of a good rainstorm. Bracing. Fresh wind after all that snow. See, that is part of my image for the wind—”

“Shut up, Markus. It’s my example. Focus on that, Rabbiteater. Then…if you feel it, gather it around you. That’s step one. Even that can help resist [Fear] and some spells. And other auras.”

Rabbiteater tried. The problem was—he had two auras. And neither one was the [Aura of Spring] that Markus and Meisa had. He decided he’d try bravery.

Bravery, the heat of battle. Redfangs. He knew bravery. He had been in the company of twelve Goblins, the bravest he had ever known. Then less.

Then only five had remained.

Rabbiteater’s face changed under his helmet, but he held still as Meisa kept speaking.

“Your aura can do many things. What we tell young [Knights] to do is picture some element running into their blades. Talia burns. Markus harnesses the wind. I? Well, my aura is a bit different.”

The Goblin opened his eyes and saw her raising her shield. It seemed to him that he could faintly see vines, flowers, and brambles covering it. But it was more like imagination than sight; he didn’t see it, he felt they were there.

From experience, Rabbiteater knew that Meisa’s shield was reinforced with her aura, and it even ensnared blades striking it. The Order of Seasons had such…practical uses for their auras.

However, Rabbiteater felt nothing. And as Markus watched, the Spring Knight muttered out of the corner of his mouth.

“I don’t think he’s even gathering his aura. Rabbit, is something wrong? Can’t you feel it? What about your [Aura of the Hearth]?”

“Trying. Shut up, Markus.”

Rabbiteater tried. He tried to imagine the hearth, relaxing around a fire—or the clash of swords. And he did. He felt the memories coming, both good and ill. The Wandering Inn. A Human’s kindness. A little Gnoll who snarled at them and then…

They were in him. Just like Erin’s blessing and his memory of the two. The [Innkeeper] and the [General], who were the inspirations of his aura, Rabbiteater was sure.

He remembered them—but nothing came. Meisa frowned.

“I don’t understand.”

“He’s not within his aura.”

Ilm came to the same conclusion as someone else. Talia rode over, and the four trotting along looked at her. The Summer Knight frowned at Rabbiteater, but she fell into place with them and no one chased her off.

Oh. He’s not feeling his aura? Not in it? That’s not a problem most of our Order has…”

Markus trailed off. Talia shook her head.

“We embody a season. We carry it around with us in deed and spirit. But Ser Solstice’s are more nebulous. It isn’t the aura of a [King], which is who they are. His are…Bravery and Hearth. He has to feel either to harness it. He can—but he has to still feel it.”

All the [Knights] nodded and turned curiously back to Rabbiteater. The Goblin inhaled; this all made sense.

“Okay. So my aura is harder. How do I fix it?”

Meisa frowned.

“Well…you just need to feel either aspect. I grant you—Hearth may be trickier here. But Bravery? What about when we were fighting? I imagine that would be the moment, right, Dame Talia?”

Talia Kallinad nodded. Markus eyed Rabbiteater.

“Didn’t you feel brave, Rabbiteater? During the latest battle? Just a bit? Think on that. Grasp it and…”

“Nope.”

The Goblin stopped Markus. The eager Spring Knight frowned.

“Wait, no? Not a bit?”

The Goblin looked about at the other [Knights]. Bravery? He understood the assignment now. And the problem. What, did they feel brave in that last battle?

He had felt not a thing. The Goblin rode onwards, feeling…odd. This was a war. He knew he could die. He fought because his friends were there. That was a Goblin [Knight]’s way. He would put his life on the line for them.

But it wasn’t brave. He felt no bravery riding around in armor fighting Humans on foot in the company of [Knights]. It wasn’t righteous, either. He had no interest in the politics that put him on one side or the other.

It was just what mattered to him. And that was okay. But he wasn’t getting his damn aura today. The Goblin sighed.

It had better be a really cool blade. Way cooler than Markus’.

 

——

 

This war was linked to Ryoka Griffin. The more you looked, the more you saw it.

It was not about her. But Rhisveri was wrong when he called her a minor [Thief]. Because of her presence at House Veltras, Tyrion Veltras had cause and incentive to lead the Five Families across the ocean.

Because of her, Grand Magus Eldavin—no, the Archmage of Memory had moved Wistram to war.

If it turned out Ryoka had helped found Calanfer on a Dragonthrone, the Wyrm was going to flip.

However, there were more parts to this war that even Ryoka Griffin had no idea about.

“My dear Miss Griffin. Why don’t you leave us for a little bit? I am sure you understand this is a trying time, and we must…recollect ourselves.”

Queen Oiena’s smile had made Ryoka run for the door faster than anything. When the Wind Runner got to safety, she started hyperventilating. Then she kicked a wall, flung up her arms, covered a scream with her shirt, realized people were staring at her…

And wondered how she was going to fix things.

She had to meet with the immortals. She had to do something about Sammial, even if he wasn’t being abused. Rhisveri’s sale of the scroll…just sucked? Oh, and what about the Singer of Terandria? Someone had to help her—she had clearly been successful, but she didn’t know about all the dangers in the world.

Ryoka had almost forgotten about Cara, but she added it to the immediate scramble-list. Stopping Tyrion and Eldavin were also on there. And figuring out how to revive Erin now that they had all the pieces.

It was then that Ryoka realized she was doing it again. Namely—trying to be the lynchpin in every plan. Trying to be the one fixing everything when time had proved that Ryoka’s idea of fixing a hole in the wall was creating a sinkhole so you could rebuild everything from scratch.

That calmed her down, as well as the frank fact that she had done this before. She paced down the hallways, muttering.

“Okay. Don’t run off. Don’t panic or try to force things. Don’t, uh…don’t go near suspiciously inviting places in the faelands. Don’t accept requests from mythological beings. What else do I add? Don’t take on super-dangerous assignments? I tend to succeed at those. Only costs a finger or a few crossbow bolts to the back.”

The truth was, she suspected her best move was to petition Rhisveri to let Sammial go. After all—Sammial gone meant no Tyrion, correct? And if she left with Sammial, that meant no Eldavin war.

In theory. The point was, Ryoka knew she had to be at the capital to affect any meaningful change, and the immortals were de facto the most important people in Ailendamus. So she wasn’t doing the wrong thing.

She had just come to that obvious point when someone called out.

“Miss Griffin! Salutations! I hope I am not intruding on your thoughts?”

Only one man had that voice that was both commanding and impressive. And only one man used ‘salutations’ as a greeting.

Baron Regalius du Ecte, the [Baron of Ceremonies], styled harder than Visophecin in his dark attire. Ryoka had seen few men in a rosewood-colored tuxedo with the lapels thrown open—one of those older designs, clasped together by a silver brooch instead of buttons or lace—over dark leggings that had some kind of magical sparkle in the thread, and court-shoes…wear that.

Each part of the dark reddish-purple fabric was drawn with sigils of Ailendamus, naturally, and his cuffs had the insignia of his house drawn across the dark fabric in slightly brighter stitching. No silver, no gaudy gold or flash of metal save for the brooch and the sword-hilt at his belt. But hardly subtle.

However, she had also seldom seen anyone, male or female, pull off the cape he was wearing, which fluttered behind him rather than drag on the wind. Not a long-long cape; it was actually a huge overcoat, Ryoka realized, and it blew like he had a full movie effects team behind him.

It was the coolest and most useless Skill that Ryoka had ever seen, and she wanted it. Well, she had the wind, but the wind was hardly so obliging!

Regalius’ hair had a slight curl to it today, and the shining locks of it gleamed as he passed under a window. Ryoka wished she had her iPhone. Take a picture of this man and she could win any social media contest based on pictures.

No—he was born for another age like that. The most photogenic [Baron] she had ever met stopped, somehow half-in the light. Was he doing it on purpose?

The answer was, of course, yes. Maybe not always intentionally, but style was something you could cultivate, and Regalius, as a master of ceremony and dignity, had trained himself to look good.

“Courier Griffin, I am passing glad I caught you. Might I have just a smidgeon of your time? You have been with House Shoel, Minister Sophridel—one barely has to but raise a finger to the wind to hear your name.”

Regalius offered her a bow and an arm. Ryoka refused the arm, but smiled at him. He was a good man, she felt.

“Thanks, Regalius. I have time. I’m…a bit preoccupied, but I’m sorry I haven’t talked with you.”

“When Viscount Visophecin calls, a wise man answers. I can hardly compete with the royal family, and it is my delight you have seemingly redeemed this unpleasantness.”

Regalius and Ryoka strolled around, and she found he was calming because he had no knowledge of her identity or role in the greater drama at play.

…Right until he invited her to dinner.

“I believe I remarked upon it a few days ago. I hosted the Order of the Hydra at my estates in the capital—”

“I’m sorry I missed that. Uh, but I think I was with Visophecin—the Viscount?”

Regalius nodded.

“Ah, but my wife is simply besmitten with you, Miss Griffin. I told her about the Wind Runner and your exploits in the Court of Masks and elsewhere, and she ordered me to ask if you’d consider joining us at our estates. I know it’s an imposition, but she is terribly nervous at the capital. One can run into His Majesty and so many officials, you see. I should understand if you are too busy, but I had to tender it.”

It was so, so painful. Because he delivered it in the most easy way to turn him down. Which was the hardest. Ryoka squirmed instantly with the fear of social interaction…but she’d visited Garia’s folks, hadn’t she?

“I, er, maybe, Regalius. I’d love to, and you’ve been a good…friend. But tonight is a big banquet and—”

“Naturally not tonight! We should all be there, I think, myself included. My poor Yietha will make do…with her own friends. She’s quite willing to stay away, you see, rather than sit an entire banquet. She prefers the company of our animals or just herself at times. I can hardly tear myself away from any gathering, but we have our own quiet moments—in my frequent absence, she manages House Ecte quite amazingly. And our pets!”

Ryoka felt she might like this Yietha. She turned to Regalius, slightly tempted despite herself. But she had so much to do…

“You have pets?”

“Cats.”

“Huh. I expected dogs. No offense, but I can see you playing fetch with a dog.”

Regalius chuckled.

“A dog requires a bit too much time. I couldn’t treat an animal like that. Cats on the other hand…I will admit ours are a bit odd. Magical cats, you see. Strays from an incident in the palace. It created generations of magical cat breeds. Have you ever seen a flaming hairball?”

“No. They breathe fire?”

“Not mine, thankfully. I know a friend whose estate half-burned due to…well, mine were already an odd breed. Hairless. Very peculiar, but they’re quite endearing. They have the most unfortunate…or useful ability to stick to walls. So they get everywhere. More than once, I’ve seen a pair of eyes gleaming from one of the candelabras above me and spotted a doublet peeking down and thought I was about to be assassinated.”

Ryoka hesitated.

“Th—there’s a lot to unpack there. Did you just imply your cats wear clothing?

“Indeed they do. The naked aspect, you see? Winters do get cold, and one day we dressed them up as a lark. The next thing I knew, we had a wardrobe, and they refused to be denuded of their clothing. Then a [Tailor] began doing clothing for pets…”

“I have to see these cats.”

Trust Regalius to have cats that enjoyed dressing up. The man smiled.

“Ah, then I needn’t tempt you with dining or anything else? If we are exceptionally lucky, we might see one of them sporting the new hats—at your convenience, Miss Ryoka. I know you have business here. I am not one to shirk duty. At least—anymore.”

Ryoka had had this feeling once. It was of thinking you knew someone based on how they looked. Like a puddle. Like Lupp. Then stepping into the puddle and almost drowning.

Regalius owned cats with hats. And that wistfully guilty look that flitted over his face as they stepped out of the shadow of the palace into the light and he shaded his eyes…

“Er…if that’s personal…what did that mean, Regalius?”

He started slightly, and a rueful look crossed his brows.

“Ah, oh. Forgive me. It’s such old hat—pardon me—at court that everyone would know. I would hardly like to conceal it. I have made many indiscretions as a younger man, Miss Ryoka. I suppose I should even go as far as to mention that House Ecte has had a troubled time of late. First in the past, entirely my fault, and now…”

Another wistful look came over his face. Ryoka saw his expression slip, and then Regalius smiled again but didn’t hide that look of brief pain.

“My brother passed away last year.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“Thank you. I try not to dwell…it was a tragedy, and Their Majesties themselves…no. But in truth, he tried so hard to make up for my mistakes. You are aware noble titles can be awarded far more frequently in Ailendamus?”

“N—yes? A bit.”

Regalius nodded.

“Ecte is by way of being one of the stronger Houses, if I do say so myself. We occupy a newer province to the west—new is relative, of course, as Ailendamus is young—and we have been a strong ally to the nation in deed and the stability and profitability of our estates. Indeed, we are well thought-of, if I don’t mistake our nature at court. I have always believed we would have been elevated to a viscounty or perhaps even earldom by now. It was considered and in progress. But for me.”

Ryoka was fascinated. Someone moving upwards outside of marriage was exceptionally rare but unsurprising given Rhisveri’s views on the kingdom. A meritocracy was like him.

“Did you…do something?”

The [Baron] turned away and flushed slightly. He tugged at his gloves.

“Oh, absolutely. It’s an old story, so I won’t bore you with the details, Miss Ryoka. I’m ashamed to say it is a tale I cannot bear to speak long on. You see—when I was a boy, House Ecte was beyond itself as a rising star. The potential for an earldom or possibly even…marquis? My father took steps to ensure that and spent over half our capital in hopes of rising higher. So much so that he…arranged a marriage.”

Arranged marriages didn’t surprise Ryoka. What did was the complete look of shame on Regalius’ face. He went on.

“A marriage I promptly overturned to marry a [Shepherd]’s daughter, throwing us into disgrace for over a decade. My brother restored our name, and I have done my best to be a good civil servant. But it was no mere marriage.”

A boy overturning an arranged marriage for love. Checked out. Ryoka nodded slowly.

“You did love Yietha?”

Again, the [Baron] stopped. The shadow darkened.

“I do. But she was not the girl I tried to run away with. The elopement ended in an accident. She…the [Shepherd]’s daughter died. I married Yietha later. She was a [Merchant]. Is, rather.”

It was a tragedy worthy of any stage. After a long moment, Regalius lifted his head and turned to Ryoka. A decade had passed, and so he could talk about it.

“But Ryoka—it would have been one thing were it a…another family in Ailendamus, or even abroad, of similar rank. But promises were made, a fortune exchanged, all for what would have been. And I regret that perhaps this terrible war would not have come to pass. Perhaps, perhaps. You see, I was engaged to the 4th Princess of Calanfer, Princess Seraphel du Marquin, and I fear I am to blame for all of it. Including her own fate, as she has been married and divorced many times.”

Ryoka kept walking. She slammed into a decorative marble pillar so hard she got a nosebleed, and barely felt it.

It was all connected. And the genteel [Baron] who was so good a servant, whose brother had recently perished, and who had nearly been married into Calanfer’s royal family—offered her a handkerchief. Ryoka blew her nose into it and realized that was a bad idea a second later. She just had no idea what else was connected. What next?

Gnomes?

 

——

 

As they rode, Rabbiteater realized that the [Knights] really did suck at inspiring others. They did a good job with the Humans, Pheislant’s own especially.

But not with all. Especially not Gaiil-Drome’s forces.

Half-Elves.

They did not reach the pass Talia wanted to get to or friendly territory in three days. Well, maybe they’d reach it by the end of this day, but three more days had passed, and Marshal Huges was as good as his word.

Rabbiteater had to admit, he’d overestimated the abundance of life in Kaliv. The High Passes would have had a few Eater Goats coming to munch or be munched on after three days of riding, but he’d seen nary an animal aside from some birds who weren’t worth more than a mouthful or two and sparse game.

The [Knights] and some [Archers] tried, but it was hardly enough to feed nearly a thousand souls, even with dozens of kills on the march. The problem, as Rabbiteater understood it, was that animals weren’t stupid. They’d fled the war—and unlike Eater Goats, they didn’t head towards the sound of hundreds of horses and people.

“It’s a right mess, Ser and Dame Knights. Normally, there would be enough; we have enough animals for wild Griffins to hunt, and they’re the worst monsters by far. But not now. We’d hope that the Griffins that aren’t tamed go after Ailendamus; they’ve done it in other wars. But those Greatbows shoot even Griffins out of the sky.”

That came from a marching group of Kaliv [Soldiers] who were talking with the [Knights]. Ser Markus, Meisa, and Rabbiteater rode with them. Across from them, Rabbiteater could see Dame Talia speaking with some of Pheislant’s [Soldiers].

The Order of Seasons was raising morale. Theirs or the [Soldiers]’, it was hard to tell. However, morale had to be raised.

Unfortunately, the [Knights] had a classic type of way of trying to build character. Chin up, we’ll get through this! What’s your name, sir? My name is Markus, I hope we’ll both get through this, and I shall buy us all a round when…

Rabbiteater had heard all that almost verbatim from Markus. Meisa was a bit different. She conjured gusts of air, and it seemed like those around Talia seemed more energetic.

The spirit of summer. However, using an aura might work, and certainly Pheislant’s own cheered quietly as Talia rode on, but it was a bunch of people on horseback telling the foot-people to feel better.

As a Redfang warrior who had not been one of the Carn Wolf riders, Rabbiteater knew exactly how the infantry felt when the riders plodded on by and asked if they were doing okay. However…neither was he the [Hugfriend Commander of the Nice People] or an Antinium commander.

Rabbiteater’s opinion was that if a [Soldier] was feeling bad or hungry because of their growling bellies, they should suck it up and keep marching. He was a Redfang; this was not hard.

Even so. He was fascinated by the one group of [Soldiers] merely three dozen strong out of the four hundred rescued prisoners of the Dawn Concordat alliance.

Half-Elves. Rabbiteater hadn’t ever seen so many pointy ears since leaving Rags’ tribe to set out, and so many half-Elves?

Never. He knew Ceria, but she was one person, and they…

Well, they reacted to the [Knights] about as well as could be expected. With polite indifference or cordial gratitude as fellow warriors.

But no real enthusiasm. They walked, almost all of them holding bows. Gaiil-Drome was a forest nation, and they had sent almost exclusively [Archers] to aid the army. Good archers; half the kills of the wildlife had come from them.

Still, if Rabbiteater felt any pull…it was looking around at the trudging [Soldiers] and feeling the general dispiritedness in the air.

Not mutiny. Marshal Huges had claimed his soldiers could stand at least a day of no food at all, and Rabbiteater believed him. If someone shouted ‘down with the Order of Seasons, let’s all run for it’—he’d probably have his teeth kicked out in a moment.

The [Soldiers] weren’t going to run or break or mutiny. This was a war, and they knew the stakes.

They just weren’t happy. Walking sucked. Being hungry sucked. Facing a giant nation like Ailendamus sort of sucked.

Rabbiteater felt someone poking him in the side and stirred.

What would she have done? What would she want him to do? On the heels of that thought was the obvious knowledge—he was not her. She had…died.

And yet, as Rabbiteater looked around and Ser Markus went to shake someone’s hand and Meisa talked about her home with a Kaliv woman…Rabbiteater knew he wasn’t Erin Solstice.

But he could try. He could do anything. He was a Hufflepuff. Whatever that meant.

He could try.

 

——

 

The half-Elves of Gaiil-Drome’s alliance considered that everything since their last battle was stupid. Their entire command had surrendered rather than be torn apart by Greatbows and the charging Order of the Hydra—who had badly outnumbered the Thronebearers—and the Thronebearers had quit the field rather than be surrounded.

Probably strategic, but the [Soldiers] were just grateful that the Ailendamus [Knights] hadn’t hacked them apart.

As for the Order of Seasons rescuing them…it was plain to see the Humans had gotten battered in their own fighting, for all they claimed a victory. Maybe they’d even won, but if they had, why were they here, clearly trying to find safety?

They were losing this war. So the half-Elves resented the [Knights]—Human [Knights]—trying to lie to their faces. Their fellow Human soldiers knew it was a blatant attempt to make them feel better. No one was a fool; Gaiil-Drome’s people just didn’t want to spare the effort trying to make the [Knights] feel better.

“Here comes the odd one. The Goblin Slayer.”

One of the half-Elf [Forest Archers] called out, and the rest of his kin looked up with mild interest. A few Spring Knights had tried to connect vis-à-vis the love of forests, nature, and so on.

They had failed because these were not village half-Elf recluses, but urban half-Elves. For a given value of urban, of course. But someone assuming you just loved trees was fairly speciesist. As far as half the [Archers] were concerned, the only tree they loved was one that would make a fine yew longbow.

This [Knight] was interesting, though. For one thing, he had a crimson cloak of…blood? Not cloth. His armor was magnificent still, despite the fighting, and he carried an enchanted axe with a jade edge. Oh, and he’d beaten half of the [Soldiers] he’d fought by throwing helmets.

They called him the Goblin Slayer. Already rumors were spreading about him in the Dawn Concordat’s ranks because all they could do was talk on the march. He was apparently an Izrilian [Knight] that never took off his helmet. He had taken a vow—but he was a feared slayer of Goblins who’d bested an Ailendamus [General]—no, three—in battle.

He was a friend of the Summer’s Champion. He was an excellent fighter and solo [Knight] of no known Order. Oh—and people suspected he wasn’t Human.

Already reason enough for the half-Elves to be interested. The rumor had it that Ser Solstice was either a Gnoll or Drake based on Izril. Possibly a Drake without a tail?

Interesting, in short. But the [Knight] looked like he was on the morale-raising trip, so the half-Elves nodded to him warily. No bows, no ‘Ser Knights’. The armored figure stopped and then dismounted from his warhorse.

“Hello.”

“Ser Solstice? Good day to you. Is something amiss?”

Their leader nodded politely to the [Knight] as the armored figure strode next to them, the horse plodding along with its reins in his grasp. It was just as well they were close to civilization; if they hadn’t been, the [Soldiers] and [Knights] would have made the hard choice to eat the horses’ grain—then the animals.

However, the strange [Knight] just regarded the half-Elves with blatant curiosity. It was a bit uncomfortable as he didn’t reply to the male half-Elf for a while. Then he nodded.

“Nothing’s wrong. I want to talk.”

Of course he did. The leader smiled politely.

“Naturally, Ser Solstice. I am [Bow Leader] Verilien. I would be very interested in learning about you. Or discussing our homeland? Did you have something you wished to discuss?”

A few ears perked up. This might at least kill some time, but he had better not say anything about the spirit of the forest or half-Elven grace or…

Ser Solstice nodded once and looked around.

“Do you all eat bugs?”

Someone tripped, and there were curses. The half-Elves turned to Ser Solstice.

“What?”

Verilien frowned at the [Knight]. Ser Solstice shrugged.

“You eat bugs? Centipedes, roaches? Worms?”

“Wh—no. Ser Solstice! What a question! Are you asking if we’re willing to supplement our rations?”

That was the only thing the flabbergasted [Bow Leader] could think of. The [Knight] scratched at his helmet.

“Huh. No. Thought you ate bugs. I know a half-Elf who does.”

For a second, a terrible thought flashed across the mind of a few of the older half-Elves. Not all were old. Many were only in their thirties. One was even in his late twenties. These were urban half-Elves who were still mature by twenty. So they looked very young, if adult. But a few of the older ones were eighty…and one of them looked uneasy.

“…Which half-Elf would that be? An [Alchemist]…?”

There was one half-Elf who might do that. To everyone’s relief, Ser Solstice shook his head.

“No. An ice mage. She eats bugs. She did it in her forest. I wondered if you did.”

“Oh. A rural half-Elf. One of the forest-dwellers.”

Everyone relaxed, and there were some incredulous looks. He must have met…

“So there are some of our kin on Izril, of course. We, ah, do not eat bugs. Ser Solstice.”

Virilien replied with mixed amusement and outrage. The [Knight] hmmed.

“Too bad. I thought half-Elves would be tougher.”

Every pointed ear froze for a moment, and eyes narrowed. Virilien’s smile was markedly less diplomatic.

“Do you object to our pace, Ser Solstice?”

The [Knight] looked around; the half-Elves were not far apart from the rest of the column, so his voice was audible to other Humans listening in.

“Yep. You’re all slow. Pheislant, [Knights]…you could move faster. But that’s okay.”

He said it so insultingly calmly that everyone picked up the pace instantly. Now, the mysterious [Knight] was the source of glares, but he just increased his speed.

“I regret to inform you we do not have horses, Ser Solstice.”

“Neither did I. You want to race? I’ll race you fifteen miles.”

Was it bravado? He sounded so cheerful—but Verilian recognized what he was doing. The pace was picking up, but there was only so hard the [Knight] could push them.

He was clearly a warrior who was used to motivating others. The half-Elves were now striding rather than walking, but they deliberately kept up their conversation.

“I hope we haven’t offended you in some way, Ser Solstice? I don’t believe our people have fallen behind Humans in any way.”

“Nope. I don’t know your fighting. Eating bugs is useful. You could go faster. This is just talking.”

Did he mean that? A few of the warriors glanced at him oddly. So why was he here? The [Knight] strode along without seeming to even feel the enhanced pace in his armor. Then he spoke.

“Gaiil-Drome is your nation, right?”

“Yes.”

Virilien frowned at the [Knight]. The stranger hmmed again.

“Never been. Do you have good food?”

It was the most blaisé talk ever. About to scoff, the half-Elves hesitated because he sounded uniquely, completely, innocently curious. To test him, Virilien gave him another fake smile.

“Have you never heard of half-Elven cuisine, Ser Solstice? I imagine our food does not differ from the fare you might find in other nations.”

“Okay. But I have never eaten half-Elven food. Or at a restaurant.”

Hmm?

That had to be a lie. Even a few of the [Archers] from villages that were reclusive or the forest towns grinned. But Ser Solstice’s helmeted head didn’t move.

“A pub then. Surely you’ve had a few…Izirilian pubs might not have that many half-Elven dishes. A Gaiilen Salad?”

“Nope. I’ve eaten salads. What’s Gaiilen Salad?”

“Oh—”

Flustered, the [Bow Leader] found himself being honest.

“It’s a national dish. It comes from the Hinterthere Melons that we grow. A magical one that sparkles; it grows deep in the forests, but it can be cultivated. It’s just a fruit salad, truthfully, but it’s a meal unto itself. An entire bowl full of fruits. Wild blackberries from home, sometimes Peckle Nuts—tiny acorns sprinkled in.”

Bellies started grumbling at the very thought of the salad. They had other foods, too. Salad was not what the half-Elves wanted. A brisket…but the strange [Knight] was making appreciative sounds. Was he smacking his lips?

“Is it good?”

“It…you’ve never heard of it?”

A bit of national outrage sparked in a few breasts. One of the half-Elves leaned over.

“There’s many derivatives, and most places could claim to serve a ‘Gaiilen Salad’. But the truly magical dish, prepared correctly, is never left out. It needs to be fresh, of course, but it isn’t uncommon for squirrels or birds to try to eat it. That’s an indication of the real thing.”

“It also makes for wonderful pest traps.”

“Really.”

There was a smile in the [Knight]’s voice. Virilien felt like he couldn’t get a grasp on this stranger.

“Are you planning on visiting Gaiil-Drome, Ser Knight? We would be happy to host you if this war is won.”

That was the kind of statement that was acceptable. Vague promises. But Ser Solstice just shook his head.

“No. Maybe. I don’t know. I’m just hungry.”

And he thought talking about food was going to help with that? The half-Elves didn’t understand a Goblin’s perspective on food. He talked about it because he was hungry. Why not? There was no better time to talk about food, because that was when you appreciated it. You should be starving when you get to a banquet.

“What, may I ask, is your preferred dish from your homeland?”

One of the half-Elves asked with a smile. It was a testing question. If he said some kind of distinctly Gnoll or Drake dish…but the [Knight] wasn’t playing mind-games.

“Hm. Cookies?”

“…What’s that?”

Another smacking sound from within the helmet. The [Knight] looked ahead as everyone listening in grew more interested.

“It’s a circle. This big.”

He showed them with his hands.

“Made of flour and sugar and…stuff. Butter? Eggs? It bakes in this oven. Doesn’t take long. You put cinnamon on it. And chocolate, but I’ve never seen any chocolate. Might not exist. You can put other things in it. Like oatmeal. Oatmeal is good. Gives it chewiness. It comes out hot, but it can sit there.”

“Oh—like a bread?”

“Nope. Chewy, sweet. Dessert. Or a snack. You can eat an entire basket.”

“I’ve never heard of that, Ser Solstice. Is it a particularly Izrilian dish?”

“Um. Maybe?”

He was so vague, but a few people who could detect lies or were simply judges of character didn’t think he was lying. He was, well, casually fascinating. Despite themselves, Virilien and a few other [Soldiers] marching quicker along drew closer, not just half-Elves. And they didn’t notice the march.

“Another one, then. Another favorite dish, Ser Solstice.”

“Hamburgers.”

“You must be making these foods up. I have been to Izril, Ser Solstice, and I’ve never heard of these dishes.”

“It’s new.”

“Very well, I will play your game. How is it made?”

The [Knight] was smiling behind his helmet. It came out in his voice.

“You take some bread. A nice, fluffy bun. Then you cut it open and put a meat-thing in the center. A burger. Patty?”

“What is…?”

The [Knight] was growing more animated. And he knew perfectly well he was speaking to an audience who could appreciate meat. Ceria ate meat; half-Elves therefore probably ate meat. It was only the weird village-ones who would be horrified.

And while Rabbiteater was no [Cook]—his Cave Goblins had learned to cook, Pebblesnatch especially. He’d helped Erin in the kitchen.

Moreover, he was a Goblin. He knew food. No sooner had he provided everyone with the mouthwatering image of a burger sizzling on a pan or grill than he began describing the other foods that he’d encountered at her inn.

Like a stack of pancakes so high that someone had had the idea to hollow out the center and fill it with syrup and butter. Then, as you cut into it, it leaked out, until a little Gnoll girl almost passed out from sheer decadence.

Every stomach was rumbling, and perhaps it was the hungry [Marshal] himself who ordered rations broken out on the march.

Which was almost a bad idea, because as everyone stopped, they chewed on preserved, flat bread. Jerky. Liberated supplies of fish, goat’s cheese from Kaliv, and Calanferian grapes.

Ser Solstice put all of that into a sandwich—including the grapes—and inserted it into his helmet in a quick motion while hiding his face. But even he didn’t sound too happy.

“Hrgh. Dry.”

“Tasteless.”

The half-Elves ate their fare without enthusiasm but went back to talking about proper food.

“Calanfer has fine vintages of wine, you know. Proper dates and grapes as fat as walnuts.”

“Surely those are the worst. They’d be all water…”

“Ah, but they aren’t. Not with the right Skills by the [Vintners]. This bread…did you say you enjoyed properly risen bread, Ser Solstice? With a good [Baker] with leavening Skills, I assume?”

“Nope. Baking powder. Who needs a Skill?”

“Go on. Surely you don’t mean there’s a powder that…? I have a [Baker] as an uncle, and he has never mentioned the stuff.”

“It’s new.”

“Like hamburgers, ice cream—which is gelato—cookies, soufflés, and all these other things you’ve mentioned.”

“Yep.”

Everyone laughed politely at the deadpan [Knight]. If he was lying, it was still entertaining. But then they came to water.

“Save those rations! We haven’t come to a river today, so drink it sparingly! Not that it’s the greatest issue, Ser Solstice.”

Marshal Huges reassured everyone that water was not going to be a problem. Kaliv had enough sources of water; this wasn’t Chandrar. The locals could find water.

Lovely river-water. Slightly brackish. Everyone’s first ravenous bites had stopped, so they munched on hard bread and their poor quality fare very, very slowly as they continued marching.

Or rather, Ser Solstice did. He gave them all about one minute before he walked on, and everyone followed, cursing and trying not to drop their fare. Did he have no sense of needing a break? But he could walk the walk he talked, so they followed.

Besides, talking took the pain out of your feet. Even the Order of Seasons didn’t object. From Talia to Markus, they were listening to the Goblin. More importantly—Talia silenced objections from those too far back to hear what was prompting the faster pace or cut break.

She was watching Rabbiteater. Or was it not him but…? Meisa glanced at Talia and narrowed her eyes too.

Trying to see.

“It all came from a place. An inn. Cookies and pizza and more. Good food. I wish I was there.”

Rabbiteater stared ahead at the sky, and everyone thought of their homes. Virilien nodded.

“I miss our cities as well. Pray tell, what made this inn so special?”

The Goblin looked up at the sky, and his friends heard his voice.

“…It was the first place I felt safe. I could walk inside and smell something cooking. There was a little furball. She ran around. My brothers were there. And there was always something to drink or eat. I ate all the time. I never starved.”

What kind of life did he have? Everyone listened, but the Goblin’s voice was only a bit sad. It was more wistful than anything.

“We had a drink. A special drink. It was blue. I only had it once. It was out of season. But so good.”

“Alchemical?”

He hesitated.

“No…like squeezed fruit. Like oranges. Just blue.”

“Oh. Orange juice.”

“Yes, that. But with blue fruits. The insides are very poisonous, but you cut the outside up and squeeze it. It’s very sweet. The sweetest thing I ever drank.”

Does he mean Amentus fruit? You can get poisoned terribly from—

“Shh. Probably. Izrilians are crazy.”

The [Knight] went on.

“Blue juice. Sweet. Then she’d take out a pizza from the ovens, and we’d all eat. And the furball would try to steal food.”

“What furball? A cat?”

“Sure. Close enough.”

Everyone laughed, and someone leaned over.

“Pizza now. You must be making this up, Ser Solstice. Or is some kind of super-[Cook] inventing a bevy of new foods?”

“Yes. Pizza is this round, hot thing. Dough in a crust and cheese and tomato sauce baked in the center. Hot, nearly melting. Don’t burn your mouth. It has toppings and…it looks like this. See?”

He tried to sketch it in the air. The Goblin [Knight] was not an evocative speaker. He didn’t use big words like the way the ovens crisped the tops of the dough; he didn’t know what leavening meant and assumed it meant beating dough with a rolling pin. But there was still something in the way Rabbiteater talked that helped people imagine the scene and fill in the gaps.

“Always warm—except when she forgets to put the fire on. Nice chairs. My brother took a blanket and wrapped himself up around the fireplace. Then everyone stole it, and the little furball set it on fire by accident. But we sit there. All five of us and her and the others and sip tea. With cookies. Or milk with cookies. Or just cookies. Blue juice is too sweet.”

“What does blue juice taste like, exactly? I’m having a hard time imagining it, Ser Solstice.”

Markus asked. The Goblin scratched at his head.

“It tastes like sugar. And blue. It is a bit thicker than orange juice. But not like sludge. It tastes not-sharp. Not like…acid? Or acid fly juice. Not that I tried. Nice and sweet.”

Listening to him describe taste without reference was amusing. Virilien took a sip of his flat water, wishing he could have any fruit juice as the [Knight] struggled. Then his eyes went wide, and he sprayed the water all over Markus’ shoulder.

Eugh!

Markus reacted with dismay as Rabbiteater broke off. The half-Elf gagged, checking his water bottle.

“I’m sorry—something in my water flask. That can’t be…huh?”

He poured some water onto his fingers and stared at it. Everyone turned to him, and then someone else exclaimed.

“Is something wrong with the water? Mine’s—!”

Other people began checking their flasks. Alarmed that they might have taken poisoned or bad water, Marshal Huges hurried over. But the water was good. Even Ser Ilm checked.

And yet…when Rabbiteater tried his water flask, he blinked. And his eyes went wide. There was a familiar taste to the liquid that ran out of the flask.

It didn’t affect Talia. Or a bewildered Virilien as he stepped away from the [Knight]. But as he returned, it returned.

Instead of water, Rabbiteater tasted…blue juice. That sweet, almost too-sweet at times flavor. So refreshing if you wanted something other than flat water.

“It tastes like Amentus!”

A half-Elf exclaimed. Everyone turned to Rabbiteater, and he looked blankly around. Then he heard someone exhale.

“There it is.”

He looked about, and then he felt it. Amid his recollections, the stories…

A sense that was as natural as breathing. He had thought it would feel different, but his [Aura of the Hearth] simply felt like nostalgia.

It felt like home. Talia Kalinad looked at Rabbiteater as the other Order of Seasons [Knights] saw the aura swirling around him. Uncontrolled, wild—but strong.

A Level 30 [Champion]’s aura. Rabbiteater sipped at his drink as more people clustered around.

“It beats water!”

Markus laughed as he took another sip of water. He elbowed Rabbiteater.

“Some aura, eh? Too bad it’s not as practical…”

Rabbiteater elbowed him back.

“Bad wind sword ability or free blue juice?”

“Hey! Rabbit! It’s not a bad ability—”

The joking between the duo cut off as Meisa urgently touched Rabbiteater’s arm.

“Try to concentrate on the aura, Rabbiteater! Make it into…oh, a sword? I don’t think it’ll work for Hearth. But try to manifest it! That’s the next step!”

“He can’t do it untested, Meisa.”

“He can try, Markus. Try!”

Now, everyone watched Rabbiteater as he walked. He felt it. And once he had felt how it worked, he thought he could do it again. But it wasn’t…well, it wasn’t an aura for war. Was it?

He’d made his armor like the walls of the inn. Maybe…

But even as Rabbiteater tried that, he felt, instinctively, he didn’t have nearly enough concentration of his aura or power. It would be like lifting a boulder overhead with only Mrsha’s weak arms. So he cast around.

Concentrate. Materialize something you know. Something from home. What did he know that was the hearth?

A frying pan? A chair? Yes, aura-chair. Rabbiteater rolled his eyes. This was stupid.

He still had some of his sandwich left. Grumpily, the Goblin began to raise his visor, turning his head to hide his face. His terrible, poor, no-good-taste sandwich. He was getting soft. It was a fine meal for any Goblin, but he could practically taste…

The Goblin’s eyes narrowed. And Talia Kallinad, watching, saw the aura change. She saw it concentrate, and the taste of blue juice faded from the flasks around Rabbiteater, much to the disappointment of all.

It was only a seeming. It didn’t turn the water to actual blue juice. That was impossible. That was closer to a miracle. Even so, it was impressive. She watched where the aura was concentrating.

By now, even Markus, a younger [Knight], had picked up on the aura, though he had to shade his eyes to see. He hesitated.

“Rabbit. What are you…er…”

He stared at the object that the Goblin was concentrating all his aura into. Talia rubbed at her forehead. Meisa and Ser Ilm? They began chuckling. Then laughing.

Virilien had seen many powerful [Knights]. Even the Lightherald himself, the great champion of Calanfer. He had heard the Order of Seasons could do fantastical things with their abilities.

But he had to own—this was the most surprising use of an aura yet. Talia Kallinad burst out after a moment.

“Is that your first manifestation, R—Ser Solstice?

The Goblin paused as he lifted something into the air and cracked his visor open a hair. The [Soldiers] were laughing and pointing in delight.

“Sure. Why not?”

A slice of pizza dangled in the air, the tip gleaming with a bit of oil and cheese and sauce. A pepperoni pizza slice entered the vizor, and the Goblin chewed it down happily.

“Yum.”

He was getting the hang of this. Ilm was writing a note to the Fall’s Sentinel.

“Incredible. Even for his level—a first try, unprompted food manifestation?

The Goblin just laughed at the scandalized [Knights]. What did they think a Goblin’s aura would be like? And he was sure Erin Solstice would have approved.

He was happy. But he decided—

He had better not get [Aura Pizza] after he slept.

The column of [Soldiers] and [Knights] continued on their way. Laughing, fascinated. If that were all, it would have been a salutary moment, the beginning of a friendship and respect for a strange [Knight]. But no one realized that Rabbiteater was, well, Rabbiteater.

He wasn’t as talented as Numbtongue or Badarrow in one thing, let alone Shorthilt. He wasn’t as strong as Headscratcher.

But he was tireless. Adaptable. The other [Soldiers] were getting hints of good food and finishing their rations when Virilien felt someone clap him on the shoulder with an armored hand.

The half-Elves started as Ser Solstice, the mysterious [Pizza Knight], pointed ahead.

“Good. We ate. We had fun. Bellies sort of full. Next question—can half-Elves march?

The question would have provoked bristling an hour ago. The [Bow Leader] simply smiled archly now.

“Do you mean to ask if we can keep up your pace, Ser Solstice?”

“Yes. Let’s see if you can.”

He began to speed up. Again, not on horseback. The horse trotted after him, feed bag in its mouth. Talia had to object as she rode forwards.

“Ser Solstice. There’s no need to tire ourselves out. The scouts are ahead of us—but we are headed to safety. We’ll soon be behind the Dawn Concordat’s front.”

The [Knight] turned to her.

“Yes, so we get to safety faster. Marching properly isn’t tiring. I’m tired of slowness. Come on. Half-Elves can run. I saw Ceria run like shit from a skunk.”

And he had the hang of his aura. The half-Elves were only too willing to pick up the pace, if only to show the Humans how it was done. True, they were carrying [Archer]’s gear, so they were certainly lighter than heavy infantry, but everyone began to speed up.

Talia watched the pace Rabbiteater set worriedly. It was a Redfang’s pace, which meant that it was a jog. And it could probably beat most standard armies’ speeds if he intended to keep it up all day.

But it was not sustainable unless they had stamina potions. Everyone realized their legs would be burning by twenty minutes of this—those not accustomed to roadwork, that was.

Marshal Huges himself jogged up to Rabbiteater.

“Ser Solstice—this might be too fast. It’ll wear out the troops.”

“Then they level.”

“If we have to fight—”

“We fight tired. Everyone gets more energy when they’re about to die.”

The [Marshal] couldn’t fault that logic, but he wondered if the soldiers were willing to follow the pace. The ones around Rabbiteater—perhaps. But the others, like the Calanferians, knew perfectly well they didn’t have to move this fast and that they weren’t in danger.

There was a risk. And yet, as the Goblin began to run faster and even the Gaiil-Drome [Soldiers] began to look askance, Talia’s eyes widened.

There was no way. He did not have that kind of control.

But he was a [Champion]. And an [Aura Knight]. And she realized something. Meisa breathed it out.

It’s two. He just doubled it.

The convivial heat and warmth of an inn far away and long gone faded from the air. Something odd made Virilien’s ears twitch. Yet it was still…coming from Rabbiteater. The same aura, but something had changed. The [Bow Leader], as a very low-level [Commander] himself, had felt enough auras during the war and over seventy years to realize this was an aura.

But this…was something that even Sophridel had never conceived.

[Aura of the Hearth]. It did what it said. It was an aura of home and comfort. Hearth, which was a broad word with many connotations and meanings. Even so—perhaps never before had it been used this way.

Rabbiteater’s second aura informed and expanded it. But that was only in scope, such that Calanferians, jogging along and protesting to the [Glory Captain], who was rapidly formulating a civil protest, the Kaliv infantry, the Gaiil-Drome half-Elves, and Pheislant’s army…heard something in the air.

A perspective from an aura-wielder that no [Aura of the Hearth] had ever had before. Markus felt it, but he didn’t push the aura away. So, in its aegis, he kept turning his head.

“Rabbit, what are you doing? I think I can hear…”

Meisa was looking around. She heard a faint sound—voices. Something so familiar as to be nostalgic. But she didn’t quite understand. Not yet.

It was growing louder. The Goblin jogged ahead and turned his head. He heard it too. To Virilien and the others, it sounded like…

Cheering? The rattle of metal. Panting voices. Grunts. Footfalls by the hundred. But far more than were around the actual people present.

It differed, from person to person, though the perspective…was Rabbiteater’s. To Meisa, it sounded suddenly like her brothers were encouraging her to run, as they had when she was young and trying to train to be a [Page].

To Markus, it was the sound of the Spring Knights on their morning run around the keep. To Virilien, the thwapp of arrows striking canvas as his group trained. But what they all heard was the cheering. And if they didn’t concentrate too hard, if they just looked ahead, panting, feeling the burning in their legs and chests—they saw them too. And they didn’t dare slow.

It was one thing to stop alone. Or to say ‘I don’t care, I’ve had enough’. Quite enough to have someone ordering you on.

But it was one more thing to run in the company of a hundred [Soldiers]. No…warriors. Shadows, who ran out of the corner of your eye, telling you to hurry up. Maybe even a fist, ungently punching a shoulder when you slowed.

A company of warriors. A tribe of maniacs. And—Rabbiteater looked ahead and thought he saw a tall Hobgoblin, his father, who led all his sons and daughters in his tribe. A famous blade on his side, running ahead of him.

“Is this Hearth? This isn’t…”

Ilm was gasping, running in plate armor. Talia said nothing. She just looked ahead at the Goblin.

He was grinning, she knew. One arm raised and pumping, telling the others to ‘run’ without words. This was his home. More than the inn, even. This was what he thought of when he thought of home and safety.

A cheering band of brothers and sisters, daring you to push yourself until you tasted blood. Run until you dropped. And if you fell down—they’d drag you across the finish line. The [Knight] ran and ran, and the [Soldiers] followed him until they stopped and fell into their bedrolls. Then—Talia began to suspect his auras meant more than even she and the Fall’s Sentinel had guessed.

 

[Aura Knight Level 16!]

 

They ran so fast and far that day and the next that low-level [Soldiers] leveled both days. And they were fast enough that they ran straight into…well. Rabbiteater held up a hand, and the [Scouts] shouted in alarm as the sky rippled. As the sun suddenly froze in the sky, and they ran into the first stragglers screaming of a terrible defeat. Trapped, fleeing ahead of an army. Into the aegis of a Great General of Ailendamus. An aura or power beyond the others.

It faded every Hearth to ruin, and Bravery could not overcome it. Seasons were helpless to its whim, and it humbled every [King] and nation. Even those without death by age bowed to it.

Time.

 

——

 

Cara O’Sullivan had her history with Ailendamus. Fortunately, it didn’t seem like the Kingdom of Glass and Glory remembered it.

Or, if it did, the people who wanted to see the Singer of Terandria didn’t know or care. And among those people was a half-Giant—at least, that was how he looked.

Menorkel found Ryoka Griffin as she was talking to Baron Regalius, agreeing to meet him for dinner. You didn’t just get a confession like that from the man and say ‘no, I’m busy’. He hovered as Regalius turned to the young man.

Menorkel looked like he was only ten feet tall. He was, in fact, far taller. And Ryoka had been told he was second only to Rhisveri in size. Even so, the half-Giant was thin, almost stringy. And he had his own sense of fashion.

It was nothing like Regalius, more like a modern approach—a scarf wound around his head, and he wore a long jacket that could have been a blanket for Ryoka and Regalius both. Ryoka knew some of the dress was to hide details about Menorkel, as well as the illusion magic.

Like his second head. The Titan was, for all of that, a nervous teen.

Oh, and he sang beautifully and was a huge fan of the Singer of Terandria. See? Connected. And Ryoka began to suspect Cara’s presence might have been partly to do with Menorkel’s desire to see her.

“Ryoka. Ryoka—Baron Regalius, I hate to bother you—”

“Nonsense, Menorkel. I was just finishing up—four days, then. If nothing comes up. I should actually make sure I’m not called upon to give a speech. The Master of Ceremonies sometimes prevails on me if there’s a sudden absence, and I oblige her—but it is good to have advance warning. Courier Griffin, Menorkel.”

He bowed and retreated. Menorkel practically hopped from foot-to-foot as Ryoka stared after him.

“The Singer of Terandria is here, Ryoka! You have to come with me to one of her concerts!”

“Huh? Me? Why?”

“Because I’m terrified to go myself! And I’ll never get to speak to her or show her my songs! You said they were good?”

“Wh—yeah. They’re really—did you know Regalius was nearly married to a [Princess]?”

Ryoka pointed to Regalius, still stuck on that. Menorkel shrugged.

“What…oh. Yes, it was a huge scandal. I remember that. He was exiled with his brother for years, until they redeemed themselves. They were on the border? Something like that. Regalius is very helpful, Fithea says, since he’s so responsible and does coronations—let’s go see the Singer! You have to come. Nemud and the others are too dry since they were at House Shoel, and Gilaw won’t go.”

“Wh—Menorkel, listen. I’m a bit—”

Ryoka felt herself being dragged by the Titan. Here was the thing—there wasn’t even the chance she could stop him. She could dig her heels in and break her legs, but Menorkel looked so eager she had to oblige.

“Actually, I want to speak with Fithea and the others. Will I get a chance?”

“Maybe later. I don’t know. Can you believe the Singer’s come here? She refused to come to Ailendamus for so long, I wonder what changed? I would have gone to see her on tour, but I can’t leave the capital without permission or an escort, and Fithea wouldn’t go. Did you hear her sing? And dance? It’s amazing. I saw her do that technique—moonwalking.”

To Ryoka’s amazement, he let go of her arm for a second and repeated the trick. He seemed to walk backwards across the ground.

You weren’t supposed to be able to do that without a slippery surface! But Menorkel did! It was a sight to see a ten-foot half-Giant do that.

No, Titan. Ryoka recalled how good he’d been with the baseball bat, not to mention how strong. If he was related to Greek Titans or that guy in the lands of the fae…she wondered what abilities he had.

“Menorkel, uh, can I ask a few questions if it’s not confidential? And we’re…in the open.”

Menorkel glanced at Ryoka and grew a bit warier.

“I…think I can answer them. What about?”

“Uh, how old are you? And what kind of abilities…do you have? Sorry, I’m just really curious. What about Gilaw?”

Menorkel sighed.

“I think I’m twelve. Fithea raised me, and we counted since she found me, so I’m ‘twelve’ in that sense. I grew up for a long time before then…I’m probably older than Ailendamus, but I think of myself as twelve. Which would be younger, if you understand.”

He raised his brows, and Ryoka gazed up at him. Twelve was obviously wrong. So he meant…younger than Ailendamus, which was 200.

So he was a hundred and twenty years old. To confirm, she muttered.

“That’s…by ten, not by a hundred, yeah? And you don’t count the time before meeting Fithea? Why not?”

Menorkel nodded.

“That’s right. And I don’t count the other parts because I didn’t do anything. I was just…there. Trapped. It’s a long story.”

His eyes shifted much like Regalius’ had, but Menorkel was not a man in his early thirties who had made peace with his past, so he didn’t elaborate. Ryoka saw him shrug as he went on.

“I’m not magical, if that’s what you’re asking. I’m really just like a half-Giant. Rhisveri keeps telling me to practice fighting, but I don’t like it, not like Gilaw.”

“Does she—she can, uh, turn? I mean, she rides a Griffin.”

“Yes. That’s one of her abilities. She’s just—stronger. Faster. She’s a Great Knight by our standards, but she’s still young, which is why she doesn’t fight in wars. I’m a bit stronger than her, but I don’t want to fight. I want to…you know. Sing.

He whispered that last part as if that was the big secret here. And Gilaw was strong enough to match other Great Knights…which made sense since she was a Royal Griffin.

“So you don’t, uh, have any other talents?”

“I’m strong, I guess I’m tough…and I have two points of view. That’s about it.”

Menorkel looked embarrassed, and Ryoka felt she was pressuring the teen. She scratched at her head.

“Okay. Uh…well, I’m happy to go with you to meet the Singer of Terandria. I’d like to meet her too, but I doubt it’ll be easy.”

“Why?”

Menorkel gave Ryoka an odd look which she returned with interest.

“Because she’s the most famous [Singer] on the continent?”

“And you’re a Courier. If anyone would be able to meet her, it’s you.”

“Oh. I guess you’re right.”

When they got to the place where Cara was rehearsing with her band, Ryoka got to assess the Singer of Terandria, Cara O’Sullivan, and the caravan that had carried her across the continent at last, without surprise or panic. And she noticed some interesting things.

Firstly, Cara was from Earth.

It was the aesthetic. It was the songs. True, she could have murdered someone and taken their iPhone or found something by accident, which Ryoka had always banked as an outside chance, but Cara was too knowing. She sang words from the clearly-adjusted pop and rock songs and performed like someone from the modern era.

She mixed in elements of all the kinds of celebrity that worked. She was a personality, and it was manufactured.

Ryoka saw a five-foot-something girl, maybe a bit taller than average, but certainly shorter than Ryoka, who looked caucasian…and was probably Irish to judge by her name. She didn’t have any noticeable wounds on her face and hands or other unique details, although she was certainly fairly fit.

That was all Ryoka got physically, because Cara’s dress and even hair changed to match the [Singer]’s needs. One second, she looked like she was walking out with slightly curly, brown hair, waving at the cheering crowd of young people in a casual, if slightly odd white-and-black outfit of a modified t-shirt and pants—

The next, her hair shimmered, lengthened, developed gold strands, and she disappeared behind a curtain and came out in a blinding outfit of metallica like a popstar. No, Ryoka realized.

A [Popstar].

Her personality changed too. What did she call her fans? Cara put a mic to her mouth and shouted into it. Not a wire-and-electronic contraption either—the head of the microphone was a glimmering red sapphire built into a light metal base, which magnified her voice as she shouted.

Hello my shining stars! I know you’ve been waiting all day—I told you, we’re performing tonight! But you’ve all waited out here—so just a preview, alright?”

They cheered madly, and Ryoka recognized the mentality as well. Cara had certainly brought the idea of celebrity to this world.

And Ryoka didn’t like it. She frowned and nearly jumped out of her skin as Menorkel cheered and Cara launched into a song.

She had speakers, or she could generate music on command! It was like having a portable karaoke machine, and Ryoka didn’t even know if the band was necessary; a few had come out, and one, a drummer, played along, but the guitarist and bassist didn’t.

Was it all show and glitz and glamor? Ryoka turned her attention to the band members themselves next and saw—Earthers.

Definitely Earthers. They were all Human, which was one sign, but the way they behaved was too familiar. The guitarist was signing autographs, while the other Earthers watched Cara or the crowd. One even pointed at Menorkel as they talked quietly. Ryoka’s eyes narrowed as she saw someone from inside the wagon come out.

Did she see the flash of an LED screen for a second there? Well, Ryoka bet that was how they got their music.

So you had this Singer of Terandria, who clearly plagiarized every popular song from Earth to make her career here. Ryoka wasn’t about to take her to task for that—it was hard to survive, and Erin had taken plays.

But she felt like this Cara had a target on her back from Wistram and all the rest. Still—she wasn’t a bad performer. When she spoke, every eye locked on her, and she had a presence that reminded Ryoka of the Players of Celum. Or even Erin.

A stage presence. Ryoka saw her entire caravan of wagons could create a wooden stage, and she had bodyguards—half-Elves, Dwarves, as well as Humans—and an entire team to keep her people rolling. Even what might have been a mobile kitchen. Cara had magical illusions, security, and she clearly didn’t hurt for coin.

What the Wind Runner didn’t realize as she watched it all, semi-disapproving, was that the Earthers were noticing her. Why? Menorkel was dancing around, attracting almost as much attention as Cara—and he was a good dancer; no danger of stomped toes with him!

Why indeed would a Courier, who looked like she was from Drath or somewhere else entirely, with two missing fingers and the power to harness the wind be noticeable? Oh, and the bare feet. A puzzler.

 

——

 

“Hey, it’s the Wind Runner. Ryoka Griffin. Do you think it’s her, the one we came for? She doesn’t look like she’s in trouble like Cara said.”

The caravan of wagons was parked in an entire courtyard in the palace. They didn’t have to sleep there, but Cara had requested it for the sake of entertaining her fans. While she performed on the temporary wooden stage they could deploy, her audience danced on the grass, to the horror of the [Groundskeepers].

And there, eying the entire caravan as she stood, arms folded, in the shadow of the dancing half-Giant boy, was the Wind Runner. The wind blew around her light clothing and her long hair at every moment, and a few magical items glowed on her body to anyone with the sight; an amulet, two rings…

The band saw her. The tall girl realized they were watching her and pointing.

“Is that…her?”

Rae wasn’t playing with Thien, so she, Greg, Abebi the [Manager], and two helpers—all Earthers—were observing the Wind Runner. She knew she should be playing, but she couldn’t turn it on like Cara, who could perform at any moment.

Was that her? A Courier—Rae knew how famous that was, and she had seen Ryoka Griffin on the news. It was surreal just seeing her here. She had some kind of weird, magical armband, and she looked—

Well, like other Couriers. Weird. Bare feet, yet surrounded by a magical wind and standing with a giant guy! Young man. In Ailendamus, where, according to Cara, the situation was dicey.

Yet Cara refused to tell anyone, even Abebi, everything, so they had to play it by ear. Greg objected, but Greg objected to a lot of things, and he was only too happy to sign body parts and cards.

Greg. Cara was going to kick him off the band and send him back to Safety later. That was the name for the place. Rae didn’t know where it was exactly, and that was good, because no one had heard from Elena in Wistram, and she had sworn she would come back within a month if she could.

That she had not was proof there were no real allies there. Anyways, Greg making his own list of people he wanted to jump into bed with wasn’t important. The Wind Runner was.

“I can go talk to her.”

Abebi slipped sideways, but Rae whispered urgently.

“Cara said not to! We’re being observed, and you’re the [Manager].”

The young woman hesitated. Cara had said that, but…

“We have to talk to her before she leaves anyways. I’ll be careful. Maybe I’ll ask if she wants to do a delivery. There’s worse people to do it. I’ll be subtle.”

That was true. Rae had gotten used to performing, enough to make this big important trip, but she was terrified of messing up and letting the secret out. Cara was as cool as glass, and Thien could do it, but he was doing a drum solo as the [Singer] took a gulp of water.

“One more song, my lovely stars!”

Her next song made Rae frown.

“Is she just lip-syncing?”

Normally Cara sang every song, but Abebi shrugged.

“She’s phoning it in. Don’t worry; they love it. She needs to head inside and rest, anyways. We’re only doing a few songs, but the banquet is going to be big. We’ll probably only get groupies, but Cara has to impress. Now, let me get to her…”

“But Cara said—

True enough, Cara finished a short two-minute song as Abebi and Rae argued. She waved, blew the audience a kiss, and, to their disappointment, walked back to her trailer.

Odd as well. She normally did crowd work as Cara put it. But she must have been saving her energy. Abebi was just about to ask Thien to go out there.

“Okay, not me. Thien chats the Wind Runner up, okay? He pretends he’s interested in her—it’s a Greg move, but it’s convincing. If she knows us and she has to…we get to talk. If not, we know something’s up, alright?”

Rae could agree with that. But they could also get Cara. The two were hurrying over to Thien when Abebi saw something and went white.

“Oh no. That bastard. That Creler-headed idiot.

Rae looked over and saw the worst person, ever, sidle up to Ryoka. She watched from afar as Greg introduced himself to the aloof girl, put his arm around her in a hug, and she recoiled.

Greg!

The two nearly went ballistic. Thien, sweating, looked up as he backed away from the crowd held back by security.

“Oh fuck. Is that Greg chatting her up?”

“Someone get me a wand. I’m going to kill him. Where’s Cara?”

Abebi looked around. The [Manager] took a deep breath.

“No—[Summon Subordinate]. Greg. Get your ass over here, or I will penalize you with a Skill so hard your balls drop off!

She pulled rank. Rae felt like it was too late. Greg must have been resisting it because the Wind Runner was already—reluctantly—walking away with him as he chatted her up, eyes appreciatively on her chest. Talk about bad impressions. Abebi was frothing at the mouth, and she might have actually blasted the young man in the back when someone spoke up.

Geeze, Abebi! What’s with the threats? I was just talking to them! I didn’t—hey, what’s with the looks?”

Greg hurried over, worried, as Abebi, Rae, and Thien turned and goggled at him. Greg looked at them and then peered into the distance.

“Wait, is the Wind Runner going? Who’s that with—is that me?”

His jaw dropped. Rae spun with a sudden suspicion. When all the Earthers barged into the wagon that Cara had definitely, 100% gone into and had no way out aside from a tiny window everyone would have noticed her squeezing through…

There was no one inside.

 

——

 

I am going to kick this guy in the balls, Earther or not.

Sleazy was the word for Greg. But he was Ryoka’s way of meeting with Cara. She really hoped he wasn’t as stupid as he sounded—but he had asked if they wanted to talk ‘in private’—and if this was an act, it was a good one.

“Listen, I can totally get you in touch with Cara. I’m her lead guitar. Do you know what that is? But I’d love to get to know you. Are you friends with that giant dude? He’s still with the band.”

“I…am. My rooms are here. They’re warded.”

They were after the Rhisveri incident. And guarded, too. Or rather, Ryoka was. Greg smiled widely.

“Awesome. Hey—warded. Good to know, right?”

He gave her a wink, and Ryoka twitched. It probably passed for a smile. She ushered him inside and spoke to the air.

“We’ll be in private, thanks.”

Someone half-materialized, and Dame Chorisa gave Ryoka a nod. But the Thirsting Veil Knight couldn’t help but give Ryoka the most dubious look of all time.

That one? Ryoka glared at her and shut the door. She heard a voice from inside as she turned, praying that the Thirsting Veil [Knights] knew her better than this. Not because it mattered or would ruin her pretense; if anything, it would help. But Ryoka’s dignity…

Whoa. Amazing digs! Nice bed.”

That was it. Ryoka’s patience had lasted about seven minutes on the quick walk to her rooms. It snapped. She strode after Greg with a growl in her throat.

“This had better be you acting, because if you think—

She stormed into the room, fist clenched, and saw a young woman with brown, frazzled hair shaking her head out. She wore casual clothing—from another world. Worn jeans, a shirt that had been carefully mended and patched, and she bore a single locket with a beautiful sigil of a scythe and crossbow, a coat of arms, melded onto dark metal over her chest. Two rings flashed on one finger, and when she turned, her light blue eyes pierced Ryoka.

Cara O’Sullivan, the Singer of Terandria, waited as Ryoka came to a dead stand-still. She looked Ryoka up and down, and her voice was far more precise, trained to enunciate, and direct, without mirth or hesitation.

“That’s better.”

There she was. Ryoka Griffin had, for an instant, a familiar feeling. The sense of walking into a cave, bleeding and dying, only to find a strange old man who turned out to be a Dragon. Or walking through a forest to meet three strangers sitting around a sword.

Looking up to see the Winter Sprites. You were expecting something else, or nothing at all, and there they were.

The difference was, it was a mortal who created the feeling. And this time—it was mutual.

The Singer of Terandria looked Ryoka up and down as the Wind Runner hesitated. She shifted her weight onto her back leg, the tips of her fingers in her pockets, thumbs hooked into her belt.

Casual.

Careful.

The wind rustled around the small room, blowing indoors, and Cara’s eyes flickered. Singer and Runner stood there in dead silence as Ryoka hesitated.

But only for a moment.

“That is an amazing Skill. Cara O’Sullivan?”

“That’s me.”

A hand with three fingers rose, and Ryoka extended it. Cara blinked down at the hand.

She didn’t take it. She twitched and folded her arms. Ryoka lowered her hand as Cara smiled faintly. With a reservoir of reserve.

“Pleased. Well and truly. I know I’ve sprung this on you, but I didn’t think we were going to get another chance, and you didn’t seek me out earlier.”

“Oh. I’m sorry. I was considering my move—”

“I get that. And in light of that, can I ask the most pressing question? We can get to the niceties and history later. But I do have to know—are we secure? I have Tier 5 obfuscation spells. But if we’re not, we need to be done or I need to know that.”

She spoke rapidly, Ryoka noticed. To Ryoka, it was analogous to Jericha or someone used to giving orders. But the confidence in leading the conversation? That was her. The question was fair too. The problem was…

“I think we’re secure.”

The Singer’s eyes narrowed.

“That’s hopefully a yes or a no. Can we be secure?”

“Um.”

Against Lucifen magic or Rhisveri’s abilities? I have to believe that Rhisveri is careful around me. Plus there was the incident with the [Knights]. The Lucifen are sticklers for rules, and they tend to regard me as a guest. So the odds are low…

Ryoka hesitated too long before replying. Cara looked to a window and frowned outside.

“We could go to my caravan. It’s theoretically more secure. Or if there’s anywhere you can personally go…”

The Courier halted her with a hand.

“No. Sorry, that wouldn’t work. If we are watched or someone suspects, that would really tip them off. And if they want to listen in—we can’t stop them. But I don’t think they are. So we’re probably safe, but I want to be honest. It’s more like—if we’re not safe, we’re never safe. It’s not about the quality of your spells. It doesn’t matter.”

Cara O’Sullivan stopped, mid-step, which took a considerable amount of physical coordination, and just turned her head to Ryoka. The Wind Runner’s heart sank at the sheer, exasperated look she got. It was somewhat familiar.

“…Okay. Let’s go with that. I didn’t like that answer, but if there’s nothing that can be done, then we’re on to question two.”

“I—ah—okay?”

Cara seemed used to this. She was the fourth Earther or group of Earthers that Ryoka had ever met in person. Was that right? Erin, Laken, the Magnolia group…she was on the scrying orb, and Ryoka had speculated with Erin and the others for so long about her. Now she was here, she was completely changed from the bright Singer.

Frankly, without makeup and all the glamor, she was virtually a different person. Ryoka saw the bones of the Singer in Cara—someone had clearly taught her how to sing, and she was coordinated. But the woman was simultaneously direct and irritable. Or maybe that was just the classic Ryoka charm at play.

“Question two: are you in danger? Do you need help?”

What was it with the hard questions? Ryoka knew it was meant to be more direct, so she hesitated and shook her head.

“No. Not immediately. I have a…situation, but I’m resolving it. Did you come here to meet me? Or…?”

The Singer’s eyes narrowed fractionally as she looked Ryoka up and down again. She exhaled, slowly, and replied.

“Blackmage told me you ended up here. And I’ve known who you are since I saw you on the scrying orb. I wouldn’t come to Ailendamus for that. You did see my music video, didn’t you? You’re half the reason I arrived here.”

“Oh. I did see the video. You were not a fan of necromancers, Ailendamus—and you hinted that Calanfer and half-Elves were good allies?”

Cara’s lips smiled a bit sardonically.

“Glad you got the message. It pulled in about eleven people. That’s worth a budget of about fifty-six thousand gold coins, isn’t it?”

Fifty-six thousand…?

“Most of it went into spells or reserving Wistram’s time. Yes, Ailendamus is filled with shite. I don’t think I need to tell you that? I was under the impression you were a prisoner.”

‘Shite’ was pronounced like someone from the United Kingdom. Well, Cara’s name was a huge tip-off to her origins. Wasn’t it the name of a famous singer, though? Ryoka saw Cara looking expectantly at her and tried to explain. But the Immortals…

There was a problem both women were clearly facing. Which was that this sudden meeting was inevitable, desired by both parties—and neither one was willing to lay their cards down.

Ryoka because she couldn’t. Some things like Rhisveri’s ‘trust’ would probably end up in her actual murder if she let it slip, and she didn’t put it past the Wyrm to have a trigger-spell like the one Az’kerash had placed on her. For that matter—no Necromancer talk? What could she say?

Cara seemed to have a similar set of reservations, but with a different twist. Ryoka saw her frowning as she tried to explain.

“You know Aaron? Blackmage? I…yes, I was a prisoner. But I sorted it out.”

“You sorted it out. One second, to my knowledge, you were in House Veltras. I sent you a [Message] spell. The next, you were in Ailendamus. That’s not just a Tier 5 spell—that’s the kind of magic that should be myth and legend. Can you tell me what happened?”

“It’s…complicated. How do you know Aaron, again?”

Cara’s eyes narrowed further.

“I talked with him. He’s in communication with some other Earthers.”

“Really? Who? Where are they?”

At this point, the Singer of Terandria looked around Ryoka’s fairly expansive bedroom and began to walk about. She passed by the closet that used to hold a teleportation spell from Visophecin and then turned to Ryoka.

“I’ll tell you everything that’s safe. Right now, what I feel like I can say is this: I’m the Singer of Terandria, yes. My band and I tour the continent—well, we’ve done mostly the lower half—earning money, getting famous, and acting as a beacon for people from Earth. Anyone who we find, who’s trustworthy and not being followed, we take in. They go to a place called Safety. It’s our base. My band and I—we’re in the limelight. And we have a target on our backs from at least a few groups. I, personally, decided to take us here when I heard you appeared out of nowhere. And to try and end this fucking stupid war with the Dawn Concordat.”

It was everything Ryoka could have guessed, but hearing it made it sound—more impressive. Safety? There was a place? And—end the war?

Ryoka almost smiled, but Cara went on, staring her in the eyes.

“I’m a high-level [Singer]. [Popstar] is my exact class, but don’t let it fool you. It’s a good one. I’m also a [Thespian].”

“Wh—really? That’s so interesting. Are you a fan of…”

Cara lifted a hand, and Ryoka broke off. She sensed Cara’s deep distrust now.

“I’m willing to try and break you out if you’re in danger, Ryoka. Or find a way to get you released if that’s the issue. But I need to know—who spirited you away? How did that happen? What do I need to know here? At the very least, why do you claim that a Tier 5 spell wouldn’t keep us secure? Do you know how powerful a Tier 5 spell is? You’re a Courier. Is someone capable of breaking that?”

The questions were pointed, direct—and all of them tangled with the exact things that Ryoka couldn’t say. The Wind Runner bit her tongue hard as she fumbled for the most economical answer that contained helpful truth.

“I can’t tell you what my situation is, Cara. I’m glad to meet you. I’ve met…others. From Earth, but we don’t have that kind of organization. I can’t speak about my situation, but it’s a noble thing you’re trying to do. Maybe fruitless. But I’d love to help. I agree the war’s foolish! But can we just say that there’s some high-level people who exist around here? That’s what I’m tangled up in.”

She thought that was the easiest and fairest way to explain it. Just think of the Illuminati. If Cara did—she’d get it. The Singer said nothing, face unreadable, as Ryoka waited. She could feel the faint prick of sweat and spoke after an uncomfortable silence.

“I—uh—how did you get here? Where are you from?”

Instead of replying to that, Cara sighed.

“Okay. This has been really unpleasant.”

Ryoka’s heart sank. The Singer looked at her, frustrated, and there was a snap in her tone.

“I’m here. I came into what I regard as hostile territory where I could possibly be executed because I thought you needed my help. I understand there’s a situation.”

“There is. I wish I could say, but—”

Cara spread her arms.

There’s something. I get that. However, I’m here. You see me, I see you. We are from the same world. Earth.

She said it, and Ryoka almost looked around to see if there was a reaction, but Cara was glaring at her.

“Everything’s on the table here, Ryoka. If we’re not on the same side, that’s how it is. But you’re giving me mysterious answers rather than anything concrete. So either I have an invisible [Super Assassin] breathing down my shoulder—”

She flicked a hand as if to catch someone out.

“—or you don’t trust me or we really aren’t on the same side. And that’s my nightmare, because someone is going to sell us all out. And when they do, I need to know I can trust anyone I’m up front with. I didn’t come here to dance about. Let’s try this again tomorrow. You can think about what you’re willing to be honest about.”

With that, she began to stalk for the door. The Wind Runner felt…

Well, she felt it was unfair because Cara was right and wrong. Right because Ryoka had given her spit for two questions about listening spells and how she’d got here. Wrong because those were the questions that Ryoka could not, under any circumstances, answer.

Oh, and also because Ryoka felt like Cara was speaking down to her. A previous Ryoka might have tried to kick her in the back and gotten a frying pan to the head.

This Ryoka? She just sighed as Cara stormed away.

 

——

 

The Singer of Terandria ate, breathed, and manifested stress. If there were an [Aura of Stress]—and there probably was—she was close to learning it.

The Wind Runner might be the first traitor to Earth—or at least, someone who had allegiances to powers on this world—that she’d met. And if it were Ailendamus, she was dead.

At the very least, she was a ball of mysteries wrapped in aggravating string, and so Cara walked, to calm down, take stock, and try this again.

It probably should have been Abebi here, anyways. She was reasonable and personable. But she didn’t know what Ailendamus was capable of. Cara had told her, but she hadn’t been there.

Every second Cara walked in this gigantic, ludicrously opulent palace, she felt like she was walking amid the corpses of people she knew. And she laid it all at Ailendamus’ feet.

Afiele and Ovela. Sins of the Kingdom of Glass and Glory.

So she left. Or tried to. Because as Cara heard a sigh, the Singer also heard a faint sound of something being unclipped, and an alien noise. Was it…tshing? As onomatopoeias went, it was notable because that was not the rasp of a blade in a sheath. It was entirely foreign.

The Singer swung around, suddenly terribly afraid. Was this it? Was it all a tr—

But the sword wasn’t aimed at her. And was it even a sword? The Singer of Terandria stopped, dead still, because while she had seen it from afar on the scrying orb, it had been tiny and looked like the Kaalblades, or a version of them, retailing now from the House of El at reasonable prices, shipping not included. And she had bought the line about it being an artifact.

Up close? There was no way she could see the glowing, flat blade of projected light extruding from the strange handle, the neon-bright glow that lit up the Wind Runner’s face, the Windsword as some called it, or as Ryoka knew it, the Faeblade…as anything other than something out of science fiction.

Ryoka Griffin met Cara’s eyes as the Singer stopped, and all her assumptions about who Ryoka could possibly be or her ulterior motives…floated out of her skull. Ryoka Griffin slightly smiled.

“I really want to say, ‘there are more things in this world than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Cara’. But I think that’s sort of lame.”

Cara met Ryoka’s gaze as the magic…no, technological sword winked out with the squeeze of a hand. She walked back over and took an abrupt seat in a chair.

“Okay. I’m clearly not ready for this stage. Your turn.”

 

——

 

In all her years of existing, Ryoka Griffin had never met someone who was more naturally suspicious or cynical than her.

It was refreshing and scary that someone like that was out there. But her name was Cara…or was it?

“You do know we can be tracked via scrying spells? Sorry, throwing that out there.”

“Yep. But scrying spells don’t, uh, account for kanji or non-English lettering. It helps me out a bit.”

Interesting.

Cara was drinking some tea. Ryoka hadn’t been about to make it, but the Singer had some for her throat, mixed with honey. It was still less sugary than how Magnolia took it, so Ryoka had a cup.

She was reminded of the complicated talk she’d had with Magnolia Reinhart, but this was different. For one thing, the biggest issue between them of Earth wasn’t a problem. It was the rest that they were negotiating about. Cara looked up after a second.

The Faeblade’s hilt sat on the table in front of them. She kept eying it but didn’t move to touch it. Still, it had convinced her that Ryoka was willing to talk, so she was far less visibly wary as she nodded at Ryoka.

“Let’s both agree there are things we can’t talk about. Safety, for instance. No one but me and a few others know where it is. Even people we take to it don’t know exactly where. That’s for our sake and theirs. They’re not prisoners; they can go. But I won’t have them lead people to our doorstep. Because there are people hunting us. Let’s get into that. Everything you and I think we can share, that any side, anyone from Earth needs to know—we put on the table, agreed?”

“Absolutely.”

Ryoka smiled a bit weakly, but Cara didn’t. She glanced at the hilt of the alien sword.

“I, uh…huh. Sorry. My head is spinning. I can go first. I think you’ve got the more interesting story, and believe me, I didn’t think it was possible.”

Was there a hint of smugness there in Ryoka? No, no…just satisfaction. Just a smidge. Cara looked at Ryoka and then launched into it.

“From the top—I’m Cara. That’s not my real name, but I am from Ireland. Swear to it. I came here from Earth in the year of 2018, from Galway. One second I was coming out of a theatre and crossing the street—the next I was in Noelictus.”

“Noelictus? Is that, uh…”

“It’s a nation to the west. Noelictus, the Kingdom of Shade. They have lots of undead. Lots of farming…I was there throughout the fall and into winter. When I left, I started up as the Singer of Terandria. Small-time at first, but I used pop songs and my levels to make a name for myself. The rest you can guess—I built up my reputation and tried to find other Earthers and established Safety.”

Ryoka blinked.

“Wait, hold on. Sorry—”

Firstly, it was amazing that she had created a song-empire or the start of one from just landing in…an undead kingdom. Or a kingdom with undead, unlike Khelt, Ryoka supposed. However, what threw her from the start was…

Cara obligingly halted and saw Ryoka frowning.

“I’m from Earth. Obviously, sorry. America, Ohio. I was on a jog. But I came from Earth in 2016, and I arrived just before fall too. Last year, I mean.”

The Singer’s eyes instantly narrowed.

“That’s…I won’t say impossible. It leads me into another point. Time’s different. I met someone from 2017 who came after me—or so close that our timelines mixed. And recently? Guess what year it is on Earth—at least from people arriving?”

Ryoka had a terrible feeling in her stomach.

“2025?”

“…2021.”

“Oh. Well that’s—five years for one?”

Cara saw that Ryoka wasn’t even that blown away. Shocked, but not stunned. Ryoka had some kind of context for this. Cara just shook her head.

“Something’s different. The people from Earth are arriving later.”

“Could they be lying? Sorry, just throwing it out there. I met people from 2017, but Erin—someone from Earth—and I just assumed that made sense time-wise.”

Cara shook her head again.

“That was my first instinct too. But guess what they had?”

Ryoka snapped her fingers.

Phones.

“And laptops, tablets if we’re lucky. They have new songs on them. Even new movies. New tech and updates…I’ve seen it. Our world is moving faster than this one. Or…something’s up.”

Cara’s fingers tightened until they were white on her mug. Ryoka Griffin just sat there.

“Yeah. That checks out.”

The [Singer]’s head snapped up, but Ryoka gave her a weary smile.

“We’ll get to it. I swear. What’s next?”

Cara rubbed at her hair.

“…It takes all day sometimes to convince people of that. When they’re not crying and asking if this is a dream. You know—well, you know we were connected via Blackmage? Some phone call. I didn’t get it. It would have really helped, but I think I came after. The first wave, I assume you lot are, at least knew there were more people. But a lot have vanished or been collected up, and the next wave has no idea save for me and other hints that there are Earthers out there. It doesn’t help that some right bastard told everyone this was a simulation; people are still saying if we die, we wake up.”

Ryoka burned bright red, and the Singer gave her a pointed look.

“No one’s going to try that. But I do know about you from Blackmage. Aaron Vanwell. He’s at Wistram, you know?”

“I—I know. He got in contact with you?”

Cara shrugged.

“When I became the [Singer], yeah. I was on his radar. He helped me set up the song crystal stuff, but I haven’t been able to trust him. He’s in Wistram’s grip, and they’ve tried to grab me before.”

“Shit.”

“Yep. Hence my bodyguards. But he seems like he’s trying to be helpful. When he’s not a complete idiot.”

“I…sympathize with that. Do you know other groups?”

Cara began counting on her fingers.

“Absolutely. And this is top-priority information: do not trust Wistram. Watch out for Roshal, just in general, but Aaron thinks some of them are grabbing us. And…there’s a group of Earthers on Rhir. A big one. You know about that?”

Ryoka remembered the American-group. She nodded, slowly.

“Yeah. So they’re well-known? Isn’t a world power, the Blighted Kingdom…”

“Fully aware of them. Wistram and the Blighted Kingdom haven’t said as much, but I’m fairly certain both know the others have Earthers. They have a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ not to shout out what they’re doing, but they’re not on the same side.”

Cara’s lips twisted, and Ryoka’s heart sank. The Singer watched Ryoka’s face appreciatively.

“I’m glad you understand why that’s such a huge problem. By the way, regard all three groups as dangerous, if not hostile. I can’t verify Rhir; I’m not sending anyone to be killed by whatever’s there. But I sent a close friend I trusted to Wistram, and she sent me letters proving she’s alive. She never came back, though, and they tell me she likes it too much to leave. Which I have a hard time believing since she swore she’d come back.”

Ryoka wondered if there were a tea for ulcers, because she might be developing them.

“I knew Wistram was getting people from Earth. They sent a [Mage] to grab some of the ones I knew. Twice, actually.”

“Damn. Is that confidential? Where they are?”

Again, Ryoka hesitated, and Cara lifted a hand.

“You don’t need specifics. I get it. Just…tell them that the Singer will help them if they want to come to me. There’s Safety. Half-Elves might be trustworthy…some of them know me. Not as a species, but you’d be surprised how they know each other. If you mention Piloriet the Musician…they might help.”

Piloriet the Musician? Ryoka decided to remember that. The Wind Runner just nodded.

“In that case—Liscor is a safe place. And so is…the Silverfang tribe. Gnolls. Mention my name, and they might help. At the very least, I can call in favors.”

Cara didn’t write that down, but she too committed it to memory, murmuring the names. Ryoka decided Pallass, Grimalkin, Magnolia Reinhart…less than trustworthy.

“How about House Veltras?”

“I…they don’t know me, but yes. Good point. I think they’d help if someone mentioned me. Oh, and Riverfarm. Riverfarm is…safe.”

Cara’s eyes flickered. They were specific places that Ryoka was mentioning, and that wasn’t nearly as secure as Safety.

“Are the other Earthers safe?”

“Safe. Ish.”

Cara sighed, and Ryoka elaborated slowly. She felt a growing pit in her stomach, but she said it. As naturally as she could.

“We had a safe place. Someone—an Earther had an inn. The Wandering Inn. But she’s dead or…her name was Erin Solstice. She might come back.”

Cara stared at Ryoka, and the Wind Runner told her a story. What did the Singer see when she saw Ryoka Griffin?

At first, probably, an aggravatingly vague person. Suspicious, shifty. Literally barefoot, stammering. An oddball.

Then perhaps a mystery. Someone who had seen something.

Lastly, as Ryoka told Cara about her meeting with Erin and her life, someone filled with regrets. Hands clasped, shaking slightly, voice breaking.

“I wasn’t there.”

“Cryogenics? They killed her. They just…”

Cara had to stand up. She turned away from Ryoka. Hiding her face. When she looked back, the Wind Runner saw something behind the [Thespian]’s own facade.

She had seen something too. But before they came to that, Cara nodded at the Faeblade.

“So you were a Runner who did…incredible things. Three death deliveries. And you kept doing it. You outran a Goblin Lord’s army.”

She gave Ryoka a mystified look, and the Wind Runner had to clarify.

“With help. That’s part of how I got this. There’s something else that I think I can share. Safety matters. Knowing who our enemies are matters. But there is a mystery to why we came here. And I think there’s one real threat, and one clue.”

Now she was calmer, Ryoka spoke more clearly. Cara raised her brows, and Ryoka laid out the best and only explanation she had. Something that Cara—everyone who could be trusted—needed to know.

Was it a risk? Absolutely. But if she could have talked to Erin after the Summer Solstice…Ryoka would have told her it all like this.

“Cara, there are more worlds than just this one and ours. I’ve seen them. There are the lands of the fae. Avalon. Perhaps they’re the center, but I suspect they’re just one of many gateways. There are other realities, and even other Earths out there. Perhaps it’s as many worlds as there are stories. All I know is that they exist—but the gateways from this world and Earth are few. But that was how we came here. Someone opened a door, and it sounds like it’s still open. And I think I know who.”

Cara lifted one hand as Ryoka looked at her, hands clasped together.

“Wait. I know it’s a mistake to say this—but are you being serious? Avalon? We’ve jumped from fantasy to myth. I’m exceptionally suspicious, but you must admit that’s hard to say with no basis.”

For reply, Ryoka just looked at Cara. She had no object of the fae beyond Nama’s wraps, and she didn’t think those would be that impressive. But the green eyes of the Wind Runner fixed on Cara, and the Singer turned.

The wind blew. For a second, across the trees and gardens outside, the wind kicked into a gale. But that was something every [Mage] could do. The Singer glanced dismissively outside. It was wind magic. Maybe not with Skills or a class, but…

She hesitated. And stared out the window and into the air. For a second, she saw a swirl of autumn leaves, the first to fall, fly upwards. And the yellow and red and orange leaves formed a giant, smiling face in the air. Just two dots of leaves and simple lips.

It…winked at her and floated apart. When she turned back, Ryoka had a bag open. And what spilled from it were stones, currency the likes of which Cara had never seen. Ryoka Griffin held up the very essence of magic, old runic stones. Obol of the Faerie King in one hand. With the other, she picked up the Faeblade and held it out to Cara.

“An alien soldier gave this to me. This is coin of the Faerie King. I’ll let you have a coin or two; you might be able to learn magic from it. Real magic. The kind that Skills and spells have nothing on.”

She offered both to Cara, and the Singer reached out for both—and jerked her hands back.

She did not touch Ryoka. The Wind Runner noticed. And she had…a sudden suspicion.

“The Summer Solstice.”

Cara wiped her hands on her legs; they were a bit sweaty. She looked at Ryoka.

“I felt the Summer Solstice was odd. And that text message made me suspect Aaron or someone was…off. But did something happen to you during the Winter Solstice?”

Ryoka felt a chill race up her arms and back. Cara was sweating now, despite the gust of wind in the room. The Singer hesitated.

“Did you meet anyone? Anyone off?

It was just a guess. The Wind Runner looked at Cara.

“Which three did you meet?”

Cara’s face turned pale. She hesitated, searching for words. Names she didn’t have.

Names better left unsaid. Now Ryoka knew.

Erin had met them too. Had Laken? She had suspicions, but Cara just whispered.

“I met three. Yes. A man who looked like he was dancing. Three women in one. And a younger woman with a bow. A warrior. They wanted to make me a deal. I refused to take their hand. I would have rather died there. I think they did something terrible.”

Ryoka knew all three. And if Cara had taken each one’s hand…Ryoka nodded to her.

“Good. Never touch them. They’re…this is the heart of what’s happened to us, Cara. You may not believe it. But I’ve seen enough to believe. We are up against dead things. Dead ideas. But they won’t stay dead. And I think they want to be believed in. They want bodies. Hosts. They want to be worshiped. The gods are dead. But you understand—they have to stay that way. Even talking about them, much less their names, is dangerous. They’re memetic. Do you know what I mean?”

Tamaroth. She wished she didn’t know that name. A memetic threat—not memes, but something that grew more dangerous the more you knew. The worst kind of foe.

Ryoka Griffin was prepared for some kind of exclamation or more disbelief. After all, this was bigger than Avalon being real, arguably. So why did Cara turn dead white? Why did she look like she was about to vomit? Her lips opened a fraction. She gazed at Ryoka with frank…then she whispered.

“You didn’t see the text? I thought you had a phone.”

Ryoka felt a sudden pit in her stomach. Laken had told her he’d gotten…but she had assumed it was limited. Had everyone…?

“Mine was stolen. What text?”

No answer.

“Cara? What text?

Slowly, the Singer produced her phone and turned it on. It was listed under a simple number. Somehow, he had gotten it working. It was still there in her text log. Ryoka looked at it, covered her mouth—and rushed to the bathroom to throw up.

Cara deleted the message. She had saved it. Now, she deleted it and turned to Ryoka when the Wind Runner finished retching.

“Aaron sent that to everyone.”

“He’s…made a deal. He has to. Or he’s compromised.”

What did that mean? Neither one wanted to speculate. But Ryoka felt sick.

That explained why Oberon had failed to close the rift. Cara? She just looked grim.

“Great. I thought the worst we were up against were fools and monsters and bastards. So they’re behind it all?”

“I would bet the rest of my fingers.”

Ryoka raised her right hand, and Cara shuddered. She looked away.

“I can’t process this. I won’t even try. But you’ve convinced me. Let’s move on. If we’re talking about enemies, I have only two left. Ailendamus might not be trying to do…something all-encompassing. It’s just a warmongering nation with all that entails. I personally witnessed two attempts to destroy parts of Noelictus. They sent a [Necromancer] into the Kingdom of Shade to murder innocent people, and he killed hundreds. He raised an army of the dead. Ailendamus paid him to do it.”

Ryoka felt her mortal fear turn different in her stomach. She stuttered.

“You—you’re sure?”

Cara looked at her and spread her hands.

“I have no proof. But I personally witnessed it. All the evidence pointed to him being a sponsored assassin. And after that—one of Ailendamus’ war leaders invaded. Or tried to. He attacked Ovela. Both times I helped. I made the situation worse the first time. I had no idea what I did. The second…”

She closed her eyes.

“Ailendamus failed, but I was involved. It seemed like they didn’t notice me; I wasn’t the Singer of Terandria then. But I came here because I know someone in the Dawn Concordat. I want to stop this war. I hope you can help.”

Ailendamus hired a [Necromancer]? Ryoka wanted to believe it wasn’t true, but she could just imagine Visophecin lifting an eyebrow and asking what was wrong with it. Or Rhisveri snorting and…

“Yes. I’ll do that. I…I offended the powers that be, here. I can’t tell you, again. That’s dangerous. But I’ll help. Absolutely. I just don’t know if we can do anything.”

“We have to try.”

Cara looked resolved. She almost stood up, but one last thing reminded her of things left unsaid.

“We can talk about the rest later. The band will want to gossip about Earth. You won’t believe what’s happening. Our disappearances have been noted. But one more thing. On the topic of monsters…there’s little chance you’ll ever meet her. But if you ever should see a tall woman with a huge hat and strange eyes. Rings in her eyes. Her name is…I shouldn’t say it out loud.”

It was always connected. Ryoka’s head rose. Cara was hesitating, so Ryoka spoke.

“Belavierr the Stitch Witch.”

Cara nearly jumped out the window. She spun.

You met her too? Is there anyone you haven’t met?”

She looked almost exasperated. Ryoka grinned weakly.

“I, uh—encountered her. Briefly. But she wasn’t after me. If she were—I’d be dead. She’s done other things that mean I have a grudge with her. Not that I think she’d notice.”

Mrsha. There would be a reckoning, but Ryoka doubted even the Faeblade would do much good. What about the other functions? Still doubtful.

Cara rubbed at her face, cheeks too-pale.

“I’m sorry.”

“Sorry? For what?”

The Singer of Terandria turned to Ryoka, and her smile was mirthless.

“I think I was the one who unleashed her. I ran into her, and she was…well. Making a kind of lair. I barely escaped, but I ruined her plans, and she evaded the Hunter’s Guild who went after her. You know how dangerous she is?”

Ryoka nodded. And she looked at Cara with newfound respect. Singer was one thing. But to offend the Spider of Terandria and survive?

That was the last thing that made the two like each other. Something about pissing off powerful immortals, despite their differences. Cara looked at Ryoka.

“I cannot believe you have no levels.”

“I can’t believe you’re a [Popstar]. And a [Thespian]. What’s your level?”

Cara gave Ryoka a polite smile.

“High. It’s thanks to both classes I can even walk around in disguise. Did you like my cover identity? That’s Greg—and he behaves pretty much like that. I played him up a bit.”

“…Can I not meet him?”

The Singer laughed.

“[Alter Ego: Greg]. The worst Skill I have ever used, incidentally. It does give me some insight into his mind. I just wish I could tell whether it’s his nature or…him not having a fecking brain. But I can certainly appreciate the female body while I’m in his shoes.”

Ryoka just shook her head.

“And here I thought the worst gift I ever got was an alien tech-blade that breaks if you sneeze on it with magic.”

“It does that? Could I try to…?”

Everyone wanted to swing a lightsaber around just once. Of course, you couldn’t activate it.

Not unless you knew how to re-tune it. Which Ryoka did, or rather, added Cara as a registered user. Which she now knew how to do.

Instruction manuals were very…interesting. Someone competent had written that one up. Even evolved apes could figure this one out. Honestly? Probably even apes.

Ryoka danced around Cara, not afraid for herself, but trying to let Cara know how sharp those edges were. The Singer gave her an amused look.

“Who’ve you met who’d slice their hand off like an idiot?”

“You have no idea. And please—remember, the gods are dead. I don’t know who you trust, but it’s a kind of thing where the less people know, the better. And again—I’ll absolutely help you as much as possible, but we need to pretend we don’t know each other. We should come up with a cover story. Are you leaving as Greg? When do I meet you tomorrow? We should come up with a plan—”

Her stomach began to tie a Gordian knot now that the initial contact had been made. Now, Ryoka was worried for Cara’s group. If she had been against Ailendamus…and now she knew about the dead gods, what did they do? Did they keep in contact?

Cara’s amused look turned to a quick analysis as Ryoka scrubbed her fingers through her hair. She turned, lowering the Faeblade as she turned it off.

“Ryoka, inhale and exhale for me.”

“What?”

“Breathe. Slowly. We’ll work it out. We can improvise. Yes, I’ll keep my cover. I’m worried too, but breathe. Come to that—you’ve nearly died how many times?”

“Uh…I don’t know. Lots.”

Ryoka saw Cara shake her head slightly.

“This is just a…question. Don’t be offended, but did you by any chance have any medication you were taking? I’m worried I’ll meet someone who needs something we can’t provide. And have you ever gone to a [Healer] and discussed nearly dying all those times?”

Ryoka instantly grew defensive.

“What? No. I had some prescriptions. Why?”

Cara eyed her.

“So you haven’t talked about nearly dying or checked on your health for…a year? Which is longer than our years?”

“N—that’s not a priority.”

The [Singer] raised both eyebrows as Ryoka realized how that sounded.

“So you don’t have any regular [Healer], friends, or therapists that help you after you nearly die of being shot through the back or getting your fingers torn off.”

“I mean…I talk about it. But I’ve been busy. I was in House Veltras after that run, and I didn’t get a chance to go back to the inn before Erin…”

Cara lowered the Faeblade. She put it down and turned to Ryoka with a bright, false smile. Ryoka backed up too late. Cara gave her a very gentle hug with one arm.

“I’m glad you didn’t let me storm off, Ryoka. I should tell you now, I have a terrible temper. And you are the most aggravating girl I’ve met. You breathe drama, and you have too many problems.”

Ryoka frowned, but Cara just laughed.

“You remind me of my best friend from Earth. We might get along after all.”

The Wind Runner was affronted, in the midst of denying it, and trying to edge out of physical contact. Then her brows crossed.

“Oh no. No, no, no…I’m not that friend, am I?”

The Singer of Terandria just gave her a look that made Ryoka want to hop out the window.

 

——

 

They had more to say. But they both agreed that Cara needed to prepare for her performances and spread word. Besides, they could talk about Earth with Cara’s band, so they resolved to do that.

Cara was still in a bit of shock—and just denial. She couldn’t encompass all of what Ryoka had told her. She had to go back to other planets.

“So an alien space-soldier gave it to you. What did they look like?”

“Uh…orange. Weird number of fingers. Fairly humanoid, actually. But they weren’t all the same. And there was this trick with perception. They had amazing battle armor that did squat against magic. This was a gift. Honestly, I’m glad it wasn’t a gun or spaceship. But I could have used both. It probably wouldn’t have helped, and there’s proliferation of tech to worry about.”

“Proliferation of…you’re worried about that?”

Ryoka frowned.

“You’re not?

Cara gave Ryoka a cynical smile.

“It’ll happen. We can’t stop everyone. That’s where I landed.”

They had the same thoughts, but they landed on different points. Cara not worrying about that made Ryoka frankly incredulous and a bit jealous. But Cara frowned at Ryoka’s sword.

“Is there any chance of hitching a ride to space? I assume they’re somewhat friendly and we can talk to them? Or going to…another world? Home?”

She didn’t say it with the same longing as some, but Ryoka realized she had to explain about the closed gateways. Cara cursed.

“Wonderful. So it’s a one-way problem. And we’re closed off from the other places because…of them? How many are there?”

“Six. And countless weak ones. But six matter. As for why we’re closed off, that’s pretty much it.”

The Singer closed her eyes.

“So we have the interdimensional equivalent of a nuclear arsenal in this world?”

Ryoka hesitated.

“Maybe. But if it is, it’s aimed at us. Think of it more like a plague and no one wants to be infected. Or…it’s Chernobyl. And the fallout is still coming down.”

The Singer of Terandria turned to the Wind Runner.

“You have a fantastic way with words. Anything else?”

She had her hand on the doorknob when Ryoka snapped her fingers.

“Oh yeah. Another dead thing is under Rhir. So stay away.”

Cara turned back. Ryoka turned into a beet as she raised her hands.

“Sorry. Forgot.”

The Singer just rubbed at her brows.

“Okay. I can’t…we’ll take it under advisement. Let’s just go. Now—if I put my hand on your backside in the next few minutes—”

“I deck you?”

“Please. Just no permanent damage.”

Greg and Ryoka stepped into the hallway, and he was far less pleasant company. Still, there was something of Cara in Greg, but it was tempered by…Greg.

He was not a Kevin. He might not even have been a Leon, frankly. Ryoka assumed there was some depth to his character, but Cara chose to play a simple impression of a young man who had one goal in life represented by many, many women.

Was it slightly unfair? Probably. Was it convincing? Ryoka sighed. Absolutely.

The two did realize something was up as they passed through corridor after corridor of the palace, though. The Singer’s arrival in Ailendamus was the talk of the palace, but the banquet was also a celebration.

“Excuse me, Greg. Chorisa. What’s up?”

The Thirsting Veil Knight appeared, and ‘Greg’ nearly leapt into a wall with an oath. Greg-Cara gave Ryoka a look that said she was beginning to understand Ryoka’s paranoias as the [Knight] nodded to Ryoka.

“I believe it’s the announcement from the front. The banquet is being rededicated. The Singer of Terandria is the star, but His Majesty has announced a celebration.”

“For…Archmage Eldavin wading into the war?”

That was the only thing Ryoka could think of, and it didn’t fit. Chorisa’s lips pursed.

“No. You will hear this later. No doubt the other nations will dispute the rumor, but a great battle has been won at the front. The Dawn Concordat is in full retreat, and we are poised to take Krawlnmak’s Pass. Our advance has reached one of Kaliv’s southern border-fortresses.”

Ryoka’s eyes went wide with shock. Cara-Greg whirled.

“What? I thought they were like, way away from there! Nice. Invisible [Knights]. My name’s Greg. I’m a [Guitarist] at—”

Chorisa ignored him. She smiled at Ryoka, not bothering to disguise her patriotic pride.

“News will spread, but no one will believe it. A Great General has taken to the front, the first in this entire war. Great General of Ages, Lady Dionamella, has broken the Dawn Concordat’s army, and she will not cease until Calanfer is taken.”

A Great General? Ryoka had met a Great Knight of Ailendamus, but she felt a sudden chill at that name.

“What’s…why would no one realize what’s happening until then?”

Chorisa hesitated, perhaps not knowing the entire reason herself, but a smug voice behind Ryoka spoke up. A tall figure with a goatee that made Cara-Greg back up a step swept past them, pausing long enough to deliver the news himself.

Duke Rhisveri frowned vaguely at the young man, but he paid as little attention to the Humans as he could. But he did stop to tell the Wind Runner why. His eyes were filled with satisfaction, as was his voice, as he headed off to a quick meeting with the real leaders of Ailendamus.

“That would be because she is my Great General. Not some half-wit fielded by lesser nations. I instructed her myself. She is a master of time magic.”

He enjoyed the looks on the other’s faces, then walked on, chuckling to himself.

“Competency. That should shut those whining flesh-blobs up who talk about strategic retreats. Competency doesn’t lose to begin with.”

Ryoka Griffin stood, poleaxed and possibly also gutted and stabbed as Cara whispered through Greg’s lips. Just one name. Her friend, whose very nation and fate lay at stake in this war. Countless people, but Ryoka knew one [Princess] who belonged to the Dawn Concordat.

So did Cara. The Singer’s head turned south, as if she could see the 4th Princess of Calanfer.

“Seraphel.”

 

——

 

Seraphel du Marquin stood on the battlements of Aielef’s fortress, never meant to truly be besieged. And never meant to be surrounded with her and two other [Princesses] inside.

But time…rolled across the valley and the pass as fleeing [Soldiers] ran past the fortress and others headed for the gates.

They were already under attack. Ailendamus’ forces were in hot pursuit, and lance-arrows, regular arrows, spells, and riders were harrying the panicked retreat.

It should not look like this. The Dawn Concordat would have rallied an army in the middle of a defeat, rescued their stragglers, and tried to rebuff this huge force’s advance before it could get this far.

However…Seraphel looked up at unchanging clouds. The ground below had shifted when the wave of time rolled over it. This entire battle, indeed, their siege had begun as someone had sped up time in a huge radius, letting them advance with a speed that defied comprehension.

A sneak attack worked if you had all the time in the world. She saw one of the Thronebearers race over to her as [Archers] tried to rescue as many [Soldiers] as possible. Some were being told to run on.

We cannot house you all! Retreat to Calanfer! Go, go!

The bulk of the defeated army raced onwards. Princess Aielef herself was arguing with the [Fortress Keeper], the commander, demanding the gates not be opened.

Ailendamus was coming. Their march was like thunder, but they had also employed massive, booming drums, and Seraphel watched a line of silver and purple and green snake down the valley.

Like some massive serpent from myth. Somewhere, the [Princess] could sense an impossibly powerful aura.

She was a [Princess] of Calanfer and could sense auras like a warrior, if not judge the pure martial prowess of it. But this one encompassed the entire army and more. Like a giant beacon similar to Pheislant’s lighthouses.

A Great General.

There was no chance of the three [Princesses], Seraphel, Vernoue, and Aielef retreating. The [Soldiers] were under fire, and if the three made a break for it, the Thronebearers’ leader had assured them that Ailendamus would probably launch an all-out assault.

So they waited. It would be a siege.

“The third one in two years.”

Aielef and Vernoue turned to Seraphel. Of all of the people present, even arguably the commanders, she was the most relaxed. Hands folded, hair blowing in the wind, she watched with a kind of weary resignation.

“I truly should have abdicated my class. This is ridiculous. Noelictus and our nations…are they going to erase every nation?”

No one responded. The drawbridge had lowered enough to let the last stragglers in. They would never make it otherwise; Ailendamus’ army was moving to encircle the fort. And to advance down Krawlnmak’s Pass. They were already elongating, one huge arm spreading out. In fact, Seraphel suspected that only one force would remain here to bottle them up.

That was how many troops Ailendamus had fielded. She was turning; even with her enchanted tiara, it was dangerous to be above, and she had no desire to see more people die or distract the defenders. If they were all captured, well. They would hardly be treated poorly, she suspected.

It just…was. Seraphel only looked back when she heard a desperate argument break out.

Ten more minutes, Your Highness! Ten more! There are nearly a thousand [Soldiers] coming—they’ll be cut to pieces against our walls if we don’t!”

They are nearly on top of us! Close the gates!

Aielef was shouting. But the [Fortress Keeper] was begging her to wait.

“There are [Knights] in their number, Your Highness! We need them for the walls!”

“No! Close the—”

“Hold. Hold the gates open!

Seraphel shouted. Her head whirled back, and she sensed something, nearly lost among the gigantic aura coming their way. The hostile presence had overshadowed many—nearly a hundred smaller auras.

Seraphel’s eyes widened. She felt…the bright energy of Spring. Heat of Summer, even the refreshing strength of Fall, waxing strong here. The tenders of the gates looked up, and Aielef turned to Seraphel.

“I am the [Princess] here! By my crown as 3rd Princess, I order you to—”

“[Royal Rebuke].”

Seraphel du Marquin had leveled during the last two sieges in Noelictus, in the company of the Singer of Terandria. Her finger flashed, and Aielef shrieked and stumbled backwards, tiara flaring protectively. The others gasped, but she shut up. And Seraphel was on the walls, shouting down, heedless of the danger.

Hold open the gates! Let them through!

The desperate band of the Dawn Concordat’s forces—and the banners of Pheislant and the Order of Seasons raced for the keep. And Seraphel looked down as Ailendamus’ advance slowed—letting them in?—and she looked for the strange aura among them.

Among the familiar auras of seasons, she saw a plain figure in armor riding through the gates, craning his head up. Seraphel looked down and sensed two auras coming from the figure. It reminded her of home. Home, and of courage. Like Cara herself, in fact. The Goblinslayer of Izril looked up and traced the royal aura upwards to its source.

Seraphel and Rabbiteater blinked at each other—then the gates were closing, and the fortress lay under siege.

 

——

 

The fortress was surrounded. The Great General of Ailendamus, Dionamella, the General of Ages, who had personally been taught by Duke Rhisveri, learned the secret of Ailendamus, and been instructed by Fithea, House Shoel, and others…

Preferred to be called Dioname. It was not much shorter, but Dionamella was too fanciful. She was composing a report back to the crown via [Message] spell, encrypted, but she gave orders.

“Hold the siege here. Attempt to crack the walls if you must, but leave the [Princesses] unharmed at all costs. Martyring one will prolong this war and make restoring order in Calanfer far harder.”

She looked to the time after this war ended in her decisions, and the lesser [Generals] and [Strategists] and commanders bowed to her will. Nevertheless, one did ask.

“Why did you allow that force of Pheislant to escape us, Great General? If I may ask—we could have attacked them.”

The Great General shook her head.

“They would have escaped our forward troops. We could have slaughtered two thirds, I have no doubt. But I have no time to waste on them. I would rather not have them harrying our back lines. We know exactly where they are.”

She nodded at the fortress. Her fingers touched the staff she held, and her subordinates nodded. There was more to Dioname’s words. A double-meaning.

I have no time to waste on them. The half-Elf’s fingers were an immortal’s fingers. Half-immortal’s. Like every one of her kind, she was caught between mortality and not. Some could grow old beyond counting, like the Claiven Earth’s. Or Archmage Eldavin, perhaps.

Feor was but a man who dyed his hair white. True age looked like…

Dioname. Her hair was silver, and her hands had developed the faintest signs of atrophy, a fraying of the skin. Her face had developed the first lines. She was the oldest half-Elf most had ever seen and would see, even in the oldest, most timeless villages.

She was only a hundred and fifty-six years old, but she had lived that time as a mortal, born and raised in Ailendamus. Each year counted, not wasted. She had served as a warrior, [Mage], and [General] for nearly a century, but had not been called on regularly.

Chronologically? She guessed she was over sixteen hundred years old. The Great General of Ages sighed as she looked down the famous pass that had won so many wars. Was this her end? She smiled and waited to see how the Dawn Concordat would hold it. Then she raised her head to the sky.

“To Duke Rhisveri. We have reached the mouth of Krawlnmak’s Pass. Time dilation has ended. Our advance in real-time has begun. I await the final army of Calanfer. Please let me know if the Five Families are coming.”

They would be a problem, but the Wyrm of Ailendamus had taught her well. The Great General looked ahead, then behind, and then to the sky. A great battle and, hopefully, victory approached.

But then, what was it she sensed? Something else on the wind?

In time, they would find out.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: Gah. That’s a lotta words.

We have begun the delayed but hopefully awaited Rabbiteater-Tyrion-Ryoka-Cara-Rhisveri-Eldavin-Greg arc. And yes, all are equally important. I hope you enjoy and look forwards to the next chapter.

I’ve got work to do. Real stuff work, which I hate. But the trick is doing the stuff I have to do fast as possible and getting back to writing.

Put me in a box like one of Sophridel’s mask-people. Anyways. I’ll end it here since I’m out of words to actually summarize how I feel. Wordy, after my break. I’ll run out of energy soon enough but hope you liked it. Let me know and thanks for reading!

 

I have gotten a lot of birthday art! I rarely link ‘pirateaba’ art since my avatar is Pirate which isn’t me, but this is an exeption! Plus, everyone got Pirate the character right.

 

Melas and Erin’s birthday for Delta, commissioned by pirateaba! By Miguel!

MelasD’s Writings: https://www.royalroad.com/profile/142450/fictions

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

Twitter: https://twitter.com/cmarguel

 

Elden Ring Birthday Dream by Bobo Plushie! I beat the game.

 

Ghost Birthday, commissioned by Selkie Myth!

Selkie Myth: https://www.royalroad.com/profile/174291/fictions

 

Birthday by Ryuuko, commissioned by Me!

 

Birthday by Artsynada!

 

Thank you for all the wishes on the Kudoboard! I do appreciate it all.

https://www.kudoboard.com/boards/P5uV14qC

 


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55 thoughts on “8.68

  1. Leave a typo for time! Birthdays! They’re not connected at all. And I’m not old! Yet…

    (Time readers: Litwickee, MrWiggles, Gorexn, Quynin, Akrasia, Axel Terizaki, Aks)

  2. Trial by jury isn’t really „how justice is done in the modern world“. The majority of nations don’t use jury trials from what I know and generally jury trials are morso done because of tradition. Few modern legal systems decide to go with jury trials and for good reason imo. The idea that a group is impartial merely because you randomly select them is kinda ridiculous.

    • Trial by jury is how most people understand the justice system, however, due to media.

      For someone like Ryoka who had likely not seen the inside of a courtroom, it makes sense that her reflex would be public juries

      • It was instituted deliberately in America because we didn’t want aristocrats sitting in judgement over the common people, as had been the case previously under British rule. It was a class thing.

    • It’s a little bit more complicated than that, I fear. It is true that most legal systems in the world don’t do trial by jury. For good or bad. Mostly objectively bad, if you put aside the French system, which is its own can of worms, and of which we can of course discuss later. It is also true than the U.S (and common English Law) trial by jury system was heavily retooled later on, exactly because of the issues that you presented. Yet, it attained a compromise that I, personally, think is a good one.

      In the U.S, juries must, and hopefully are, chosen on an impartiality standard. That’s the jury selection process. The basic idea is to have:

      1. Jury of your pairs
      2. Impartial in all they know about the affair, the trial, and be untainted by propaganda.

      Of course the second point has always been somewhat iffy, and we’re still trying, to this day, to curb the propaganda. Propaganda can, and will, fuck trials. That’s an issue. Proper jurists will do their own damnedest to get an impartial jury, and bad jurists will not care. Simply put, it is the essence between a good lawyer and a bad one. Media and journals will put innocents in prison, if you’re not careful when your choosing your jury, and everyone will cheer on while an innocent is sent into death row.

      But that system also means an innocent man can be judged by (hopefully) impartial jury of his pairs, and get out of the death penalty absolved, when more biased judges would send them into it, not caring. There is a huge benefit to impartial juries. The issue has always been the on word “impartial”.

  3. I am so hyped for this arc. Rabbireater is my favorite of all the people you name dropped and i really hope the great general Dioname doesnt die but the death flags are heavy on her 🦈🥀

    • You do remember her “curse” is more towards those that try to wed her and the enemy forces plan on taking her alive with specific orders not to kill her… So unless she kills herself or one of the allied soldiers let in guts her then she will probably live.

      Someone close to her will probably die instead.

  4. How do you pronounce Dioname? Like Dio-name, or like Diana-meh? I’m leaning towards the second option because it’s how I’d pronoucne Dionamella.

  5. Huh, missed Ryoka getting a translate spell, but could have been offstage. Was Cara lying about the phone call, and if so why when she kinda clearly ID’d herself in the texts? Hmmm…

  6. This may have been mentioned elsewhere before but logging it in the comments here too, but Ryoka knew about the Gods text before this chapter?

    From 8.04T:

    “`
    Yet…that was just automatic. He was thinking. Ryoka gulped loudly and wetly.

    “I do. But please? I can’t…I did my best. And I…”

    “Hush. Before I speak on that, say it again. What did you say before that?”

    Another gulp.

    “They’re back. I…Laken got a text. He’s like me. Haven’t you seen…?”

    “Not for you to find. But listen to me. I will see about Wistram hunting you. And I will investigate your claims. I do not disbelieve you. But if what you say is true, this ‘text’ came from here. And I will uncover the truth of it. You may reach out to me as you wish.”

    “`

    • Whoops, missed the line in here, nevermind:
      “Laken had told her he’d gotten…but she had assumed it was limited. Had everyone…?”

      • Yeah, though it is still weird, because in this chapter Ryoka acts like she never read the message, but Laken showed it to her before, didn’t he? Yet in this chapter it’s said Laken simply “told her about it”.

        Another thing I find weird is that they haven’t even mentioned the summoning ritual, even when the “America Group” that is in Rhir told everyone about it in the first chat group.

          • Yeah. Though I think it’s more like his actions are benefitting them, as he is the one that let them get the chance to return by opening the gateway and summoning the Earthers.

            Nevertherless, that’s besides the point. My point is that they haven’t touched the subject about the summoning, even when they have known about it for a long time, nobody has even discussed it or considered it.

  7. Bit of a mess with everyone running into one another, but what can you expect?

    The Singer running into Ryoka only to find out that everything is a whole lot more complicated.
    Rabbit Eater having to work with everyone as a princess falls under siege.
    A bunch of immortals throwing down the glove annoyed at the swarm of problems suddenly hitting them.

    All that is left is to see how the next fight turns out… On one hand no one “important” will probably die due to how war is run here. On the other hand this is Rabbit Eater trained by Erin.

    She makes miracles, but at a cost. It is a question if Rabbit Eater can get 4 Wins… And what the cost may be.

    So this is both the easiest (in terms of surviving) fight… And also chaotic due to how many pieces are being thrown onto the table.

    Since the Singer needs to meet her (immortal) fan and it is a question of how that disaster might unfold.

  8. “The last stage, rarely obtained, would be such a complete zone of authority that even magic failed before the very concept of their aura. [Mages] often found to their horror that their spells would have less effect against powerful individuals of that nature.

    Sophridel, or rather one of his masks, had once heard that auras were part of a natural chain of superiority and weakness. If magic defeated regular warriors, for instance, in basic concept, auras were meant to counter…something.”

    Wonder what aura counters in that chain? Maybe faith? We clearly see that faith beats magic given Pawns level 30 skill stoping an entire armies worth of spells. Something has to work against faith or the gods would still be alive. Maybe they all killed each other but it still seems like one would have managed to make a come back if nothing trumped faith. So maybe it’s like Rock Paper Scissors or rather magic faith aura?

    Also that last stage wonder if that’s how Belavierr became so entangled with her magic Beira couldn’t fully dispel it. Because it became part of her aura which creates a natural zone of authority? If not I wonder who we have seen who might have had such a zone.

  9. Even if Erin somehow sourced blue fruits off season from someone, it seems very unlikely that Rabbiteater had blue fruit juice while Numbtongue (and Lyon and Mrsha) didn’t until Vol 6.
    Ashfire bee honey drinks or milkshakes would work better imo.

  10. ALL are equally important, truly? How many other major plotlines involve Greg? He is not even equally important here, precisely because of everything everyone else brings to the table; Ryoka would not even be on the CONTINENT but for her mission to revive Erin — so both Tyrion AND Cara came to save HER. Rhisveri has built quite the menagerie, and it does not hurt that the guy made of countless personalities behind as many laughing and crying masks loves theater (it was that or sociopathy…) but Ryoka was the match that sparked that powder keg, hence she keeps sucking even the Faerie Court back in against its will. Mainly because…:

    “‘Wistram and the Blighted Kingdom haven’t said as much, but I’m fairly certain both know the others have Earthers. They have a “gentleman’s agreement” not to shout out what they’re doing, but they’re not on the same side.'”

    Well, now. A few things have been clear from the outset, and soon thereafter several more. Some quality or qualities common to Earth but rare or nonexistent in Innworld will or will be believed the pivotal element in a climactic cataclysmic conflict. That monolithically existential conflict will permit no remaining neutrals, instead spawning and realigning vast alliances on one or the other side of the worlds defining debate. Most importantly, someone or something BROUGHT Earthers to Innworld for PRECISELY THIS REASON.

    We have since learned whom that someone is, along with more details such as what their spell was designed to achieve and that it was repeated after being judged a failure. We have further received a few hints about the exact nature of the horror beneath Rhir driving the Blighted King to commit atrocities against the whole world in his desperate desire to defeat the Demons literally consuming his peoples flesh from within. At the Solstices, we saw more hints about what must be Innworlds ultimate conflict (in every sense.)

    Now we see alliances beginning to form around the true power play of the Age as IT takes form. Interestingly, the world is historically predisposed to aid the Blighted Kingdom on a truly global international (if token) basis, and increasingly hostile to Wistram at present — but if the secret of the Earthers origin and MEANS OF TRAVEL is exposed, probably everyone would reassess whether their best interests lie with Rhirs global crimes against sapient beings or resurrected deities. It could be interesting to see if and which Antinium tribes find embracing the horror that drove them to the surface of and then beyond Rhir, or embracing the Drakes and Gnolls against whom they fought both Antinium Wars after securing a permanent beachead.

    Sadly, I fear Cara is right (or maybe I convinced her… . :-p) As previously noted, with this many humans in this kind of environment and no real accountability short of Ryoka and Cara tracking them down and screaming obscenities at while beating the crap out of them, SOMEONE will be stupid, or greedy, or gullible, or ambitious, or idealistic once, twice, a hundred-and-thrice and pretty soon “The peasants are revolting (and otherwise disgusting)!” because they refuse to stay in their place and no one can FORCE them anymore. Technology is the great leveler, and magical worlds where everyone advances in literal levels are ripe for cultural genocide at its hands.

    Remember, Earth did not always have feudal cultures either; they evolved as powerful rulers handed out conquered territory to successful and loyal subordinates to keep the conquered in line and develop the newly acquired resources so the new province does not become (or remain) a barren waste. Sometimes it went the other way, with administrators themselves acquiring permanent hereditary noble rank if particularly successful, carrying an obligation to raise levies both in routine defense of their own territory from invasion, raids and banditry as well as in their own realms contributions to the armies of the even vaster empire of which they were but part. Before that, the first cultures fought with citizen-levies who had no martial duties in peacetime, but constructive trades and livelihoods instead. It was only when warfare became a path to wealth and power within established kingdoms that a class of landed gentry that did nothing BUT administrate and train for war emerged, and industrialization rapidly de-emerged them again as it allowed those citizen-soldiers to fight more effectively en masse than the small cadre of professionals who did nothing BUT prepare for war. That is not to say any idiot who picks up an AK instantly morphs into Alvin York or Audie Murphy, but they DO instantly become far more effective in any warfare than a score of the English longbowmen who won the field at Crecy and Agincourt because they had those precise long range bows AND the decades of experience that made them absolutely devastating — while physically warping their SPINES from the sheer amount of torque placed on them so often for extended periods over decades. A single modern soldier with a rifle and a few magazines could wipe out the lot of them; it is not as if many concentrated volleys would be possible, since that would only invite a burst that killed half a dozen in a few seconds.

    If nothing else, just look how easily determined CIVILIAN guerillas can resist even the most modern PROFESSIONAL armies indefinitely, even after modern feudal commanders have declared victory. Four years in a military academy plus a decade or more of active duty, then suddenly some middle-schoolers pipe bomb beside your hummer takes off your leg and those fourteen years compress to maybe ten minutes you have to get the tourniquet snug or die; meanwhile, the kid just made another dozen pipe bombs. And if that sounds over the top:

    It is EXACTLY how Stonewall Jackson unwittingly died (with a tourniquet in his pocket.)

  11. > She was only a hundred and fifty-six years old
    > Chronologically? She guessed she was over sixteen hundred years old

    What does this mean? is she 156 or 1600?

    • Only 156 years have passed for everyone else. But her power causes a lot more time to pass for all affected. And she is the one most effected so she has experienced 1600 years worth of time.

      • If that’s the case, ‘chronologically’ should refer to time perceived by everyone, real time. 1600 years had to be ‘personally for her’ or something along these lines.

  12. >“Nope. I don’t know your fighting. Eating bugs is useful. You could go faster. This is just talking.”

    This is Rabbiteater talking like Bird.

  13. The talk of the impossible tree in the arboretum reminded me of the Trembling Giant Pando in Utah. It’s 40 thousand something genetically identical trees that share the same root system making it one giant super organism and is at least several thousand years old potentially appearing just after the ice age.

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