9.05 NPR

It might be difficult, even for someone who knew him, to spot the difference at first. The clues were all there, but you know how he lied. He lied in words, actions, and even to himself. Perhaps he was more lie than man, now.

So, yes, given the circumstances, it was entirely forgivable not to see the changes in him. An absence when he might normally interject witty observations into conversation like one interjected air into veins. A hesitation that was more visible the longer you noticed old habits that didn’t resurface.

Perhaps their recent experiences had changed him for the better. That was another reasonable conclusion, until you saw a shadow hanging on his shoulder even in the daytime. The things unsaid.

The entire past might be better if he had been more honest with his feelings. Unlike anything else that had happened to him, though, this was the hardest thing to talk about. But he had to talk—or go mad.

 

——

 

It was better that it had been him.

That was Pisces’ conclusion at the end of it. Not that any of it had been good, except the death of a few monsters calling themselves men.

But better it was me than the other three. Ceria, Yvlon, Ksmvr—especially Ksmvr. The Antinium would not have deserved it. No one did, but Ksmvr was a child.

Yvlon—Yvlon would have died. Not because she was any less tough or enduring, but because she did not suffer fools nor travesty.

And Ceria? Pisces thought she might have survived it, just like him. Even so, he would have given that role to no one else.

Of course not. It was he, after all, who had proposed going to the Village of the Dead for the Helm of Fire and begun this entire debacle. He was only grateful that the other three had not suffered worse.

Ksmvr had fought his way out of an arena and led a rebellion. So had Yvlon, to an extent, and Ceria had navigated the deadliest nation of [Pirates] above land—and fought an Adult Creler.

They had all gone through a lot. He still dreamed, sometimes, that this was all an illusion. Then he woke up with the collar on his neck and the Emir Riqre was staring down at him. And before he tumbled out of his bed, thrashing and shouting, then grateful for the [Silence] spells, Pisces felt just a moment of relief.

For it meant Cawe wasn’t dead.

…Then he looked at the ceiling of The Wandering Inn and felt the comfortable sheets, the safe place where Erin Solstice was alive around him, and the guilt and relief redoubled. And Pisces Jealnet, as he sat, eyes red for lack of sleep but unwilling to rest, swore to himself again that today would be the day.

He hoped it would. But he was also afraid of just saying it. How…pathetic was that? Yet, day by day he waited, and Erin Solstice recovered from her death. And he told himself he wouldn’t wait for her to ask but tell her all he’d seen.

 

——

 

“Fifteen days, now.”

Pisces’ comment over breakfast was casual, but the rest of the three adventurers sitting at his table reacted. Ceria took a huge bite of yesterday’s soup and talked as she chewed.

“Fifteen? Dead gods, it feels shorter. Doesn’t it feel shorter? Erin’s been back from the dead fifteen days.”

“And she still cannot walk. Her recovery rate is substantially less than an Antinium Worker or Soldier.”

Ksmvr observed as Yvlon tossed a napkin roll at Ceria. Pisces watched as a young woman in a wheelchair slowed to glower mock-angrily at Ksmvr.

“Hey! I heard that! You’re supposed to whisper insults, Ksmvr.”

“But how would you hear them? Also, that is not an insult, Miss Erin. Merely an observation.”

“Yeah, but it’s rude. Haven’t the Horns taught you any tact yet?”

Ksmvr looked at Pisces, Yvlon, and Ceria.

“No.”

Erin eyed the other three. She nodded slowly.

“Yeah, that’s fair. Maybe you should intern with Griffon Hunt or something. Carry on.”

She rolled on her way to breakfast, and Yvlon snorted.

Griffon Hunt? Between them and the Halfseekers or Silver Swords, I suppose that makes the most sense to Erin, but honestly—Halrac? Not tactful, just irritable. Ulrien was in his way, but Revi? Typhenous is tactful.”

This was the perfect moment for Pisces to interject a comment about Revi’s tact still exceeding Yvlon’s fist in your gut. Or some other pithy comment. He thought about it, but again—

It wasn’t that he didn’t want to say it or he was trying to be nice. It was just…in the milliseconds of time where he could have said that and gotten an elbow and irate look, Pisces didn’t. And so Ceria slipped in a comment with a grin.

“Typhenous is a snake, Yvlon. He’s smooth—not tactful. Half the time, he just makes fun of you without you knowing. And all three are still better than us.”

“Better than you three, maybe. I can be tactful, Ceria.”

“Yes, and a bear can dance. Name one time you were tactful.”

“In—we were separated, so you didn’t see me, Ceria.”

“Okay. How tactful were you when the Silver Killer of Izril was punching her way out of Nerrhavia’s Fallen? They said you left five hundred dead on the first day.”

“Who says—I did not. I told you, it was all exaggeration. It was probably Rexel, or Leprel. My teammates in the arena.”

Yvlon reddened, and Ceria cackled.

“No one, actually. But isn’t it a great rumor?”

Yvlon’s severe look didn’t deter the half-Elf one bit.

“If I were you, I’d stop after the Order of Solstice incident.”

Ceria waved this off cheerfully.

“What’s the worst that could happen, Yvlon? And before you answer—what’s the worst that could happen to us? But let’s just settle one thing: you can’t pretend you’re the odd one out every time we get called crazy or tactless. You can be tactful, you just never are. A Hollowstone Deceiver changes his shell only once a year.”

“Ooh. I appreciate this local proverb, Ceria. Let me try. Jexishe the Friendly Creler still murders tens of thousands every year. Do not trust her.”

Pisces blinked. Ceria tilted her head, and her eyes lit up as Yvlon rolled her eyes.

“Ksmvr…”

“Jexishe the what, Ksmvr? Someone’s got a pet Creler?”

Ksmvr glanced about and lowered his voice and mandibles conspiratorially.

“No, Ceria, Pisces. Yvlon tells me this is wrong, but I have asked Bird, and he swears it is true. There is a friendly Creler who served with the Forgotten Wing Company.”

“Ksmvr—”

Yvlon put her head in her hands as Ceria began cackling with laughter again. Pisces’ lips twitched, but Ksmvr was adamant.

“I asked Yellow Splatters and Mrsha, and both told me they had heard the same story.”

“Because Bird is a liar. And so is Mrsha!”

The argument attracted a betrayed look from a passing Gnoll. Mrsha sniffed and looked ready to burst into tears. Then, at Yvlon’s long stare, she shrugged and padded off. Fair.

It was such a convivial moment that Pisces was enjoying it. Or…his smile faded. Was he trying too hard to enjoy it? Was he aware he should enjoy it?

Was this even funny? When you got to it, what a waste it was to tell silly stories like this. How—mundane. How wasteful.

Was Merr alive? Eloque, Qshom, Bearig, and the others? What was he doing here? Pisces turned his head, and sitting across from him not a table away, banging her spoon on the table with Mrsha as a harried Lyonette headed out of the kitchen, scolding both, was Erin Solstice.

She was so close that Pisces could get up, sit down, and tell her right then and there that he had been a [Slave]. That he had met a monster named Riqre and seen worse than what Crelers did. That he had left his friends and, perhaps, part of himself behind on Chandrar.

…But he didn’t. Pisces stared at the back of Erin’s head. Now was not the time.

After breakfast. She should eat, and besides, Mrsha was there. He needed a private moment.

“—Pisces? [Mental Clarity] to Pisces.”

Ceria snapped her fingers in front of Pisces, and he jerked. His head snapped back, and he had his hands on the table before he relaxed.

His old friend gave him an amused glance.

“Save that for later. Are you doing anything before 2?”

“Two…”

Pisces’ brow furrowed. Ordinarily, he would have pretended he knew what was going on. This time, Ceria just sighed.

“Two. As in, two in the afternoon when we go to Invrisil’s Adventurer’s Guild, to talk about the loot from the Village of the Dead?”

“Oh.”

Ksmvr happily chipped in.

“Your attendance is mandatory. Please do not be late. Until then, I shall be touring Invrisil for gifts.”

“Gifts…? I’ll go with you if you’re shopping. You still might run into people who panic at the sight of an Antinium, Ksmvr. But why do you need gifts?

Yvlon seemed surprised. Ksmvr sighed.

“It has escaped my knowledge, and I did not have time to do so anyways, but apparently one brings gifts from their travels abroad. Bird and Mrsha have suggested I purchase gifts as amenities in Invrisil. Snacks. Do you have any recommendations?”

Yvlon’s head slowly rotated, and a little Gnoll girl hunched her shoulders at the table opposite theirs.

“Oh, we can certainly discuss the issue, Ksmvr. But some shopping will be a good way to pass the time. I don’t relish arguing over our loot. The teams want what we picked up. So what’s the plan, Ceria?”

The half-Elf scratched at her head as Pisces turned to her. He had the spellbook he’d recovered upstairs, and he worked on it every day. Ceria hadn’t mentioned where the circlet had gone, and as for Yvlon, she had the two rings that had yet to be worn and a pair of scrolls. Ksmvr had left his sword back on Chandrar.

Pisces was understandably worried all the treasure they’d taken might be in danger, but Ceria didn’t look too concerned.

“We can’t avoid them forever, Yvlon. We did nearly die, so our claim is strong, and there’s gear from the rest of the raid to divide as well. Treasure-division is a huge game of politics and backstabbing. I’ll speak to some of the other team leaders. Besides, Prince Zenol is far removed from here—I think we’ll be as equitable as possible.”

“Well, Elia Arcsinger’s representative has been claiming her team is owed a big share. Everyone wants the Helm of Fire, and I don’t know if we’re going to get it. Pisces, how badly do we need it? Pisces?”

Once again, it went back to Chandrar. Pisces started and looked at Yvlon.

“I—it would be exceptionally unfortunate if we didn’t get it, Yvlon. Promises were made.”

But Erin’s alive. So—what’s the reward from your client worth?”

Pisces bit his tongue. What’s it worth? Not being slain and reanimated as corpses. He hadn’t told them it was the Necromancer he’d contacted.

Pretend. Pisces steepled his fingers, sniffed self-consciously, and remembered how much Eloque and the others laughed at that. His team just waited as he chose his words, pretending to look less concerned than he was. Which was still very concerned, but to his friends, it would look like he was playing it casual when he really was concerned.

Lies within lies. His specialty.

“I—would consider it a rich patron who might be displeased in more than words if we were to renege. I will ask about the fee being waived but…”

Az’kerash might be unhappy. Then again, he alternated between a cold, admonishing voice, speaking as if Pisces were an insect on the path to true Necromancy to…well, what Pisces had thought he might be like, the wise Archmage of Death.

At any rate, Ceria nodded seriously.

“That might actually help if we claim it was promised. Alright, break, team. Pisces, you can join us…”

“I may stay here.”

Pisces turned back to Erin as the rest of his team split up. Now. Perfect. It might not be long enough to say the entire story, but Erin had finished eating a breakfast burrito and was chatting with Mrsha, Lyonette, and Numbtongue.

“Erin, may I request a moment of your time?”

The [Innkeeper] didn’t turn around. She wheeled over to the kitchen, ignoring Pisces. Because…he hadn’t said the words out loud.

They’d caught in his mouth. He hesitated, and then it was too late, again.

Alright! Look out, kitchen, here I come! You might think you won yesterday, but today, I’ll take you down! Are you ready for battle, Lyonette?”

“Erin, we’re making doughnuts.”

Erin waved a finger at Lyonette. She glanced at Pisces as Mrsha offered to be a [Taste Tester].

“Nah, nah. We’re making Spider Succulents. Remember? My new creation?”

“Spider what now?”

Ceria paused with one hand on the doorknob, and so did Ksmvr. Yvlon grimaced, but Erin waved her hands.

“No, it’s not bugs this time! It’s this dough ball we’re gonna fill with custard and coat in chocolate or something nice and make teeny little legs! I’m thinking jerky. So they’ll look like spiders, see!”

“…And this is meant to be appetizing?”

Yvlon was appalled as she said what most people were thinking. Erin just grinned.

“Well, it’s unique! I heard a lot of guests like the bug-vibe, not just the Antinium. So why not lean into it? But that’ll be on our menus tonight. Something not even Imani can copy!”

“I can copy it. But I won’t.”

Imani put on her own apron as she headed for the door for her own job. Erin shook her head at Imani’s back.

“That’s the mundane dish. We’re also perfecting…a bisque. I mean, a magical one. How’s that, Imani?”

The [Chef] turned in the doorway.

“…What’s magic about the bisque?”

The [Innkeeper] scratched at her head.

“Well, y’know my Scaleguard Sandwich? ™, copyright, can’t steal?”

“Yes…”

“I’m making the muscle-version of it. It’ll have, uh…venison. And bone. And other stuff! We’re nailing down the ingredients, but it’ll be in my magical lineup! Scaleguard Sandwich and, um…Bulkup Bisque! I already came up with the name. I was gonna go ‘Beefcake Bisque’, but there’s no actual beefcake in there. And Mrsha kept laughing.”

Erin beamed around, and Pisces felt the vague need to applaud.

He did not. However, it was clear that Erin was actually developing her inn’s menu. She was turning towards the kitchen, and he had missed his opportunity to talk to her.

“Pisces, you wanna taste-test my stuff?”

The [Necromancer] froze halfway up the stairs. He looked at Erin, and Numbtongue, sitting and pulling out his guitar, gave Pisces a warning shake of the head.

It could be an opportunity—but Pisces shook his head.

“No. Perhaps another time, Erin?”

He smiled, and Erin shrugged.

“Your loss.”

She wheeled away, and after fifteen seconds, Pisces kicked himself for not taking her offer. What was wrong with him?

Another day. He had more time. He’d…Pisces went back upstairs and read from his spellbook as he composed a message to Az’kerash. He had things to do.

It was just—if you went back over that conversation, if you were listening to Pisces alone, and you knew to look—

You’d realize that over breakfast, with his friends, not once did he sass anyone. Something was wrong, and the person who realized it most was Pisces.

 

——

 

Survivor’s guilt was an odd thing. No. Forget that. Guilt was an odd thing. After the dust had settled—wondering what you’d done wrong, how you could have changed things. Regretting everything—

It was tough. Even if you were thousands of years old, it was difficult. Oh, perhaps you stopped caring about certain people. But—Ryoka Griffin suspected that you cared about some people nonetheless. And when they died, it was the same.

In the days after war, the ghosts returning to Izril and the tricks of the Faerie King, after a single soul was brought back to life—then two, one Human, one Dragon—after betrayal and killing Fithea and telling the immortals of Ailendamus everything, there was only one question on no one’s mind:

Whatever had happened to Ryoka Griffin?

And did anyone care?

No, no, that was harsh. Tyrion Veltras cared. Her friends cared, but Ryoka Griffin was the Wind Runner of Reizmelt. Aside from being generally unscryable, people were used to her popping out of nowhere, being chased by something new.

A few notes in the Mage and Runner’s Guilds for reports of her were all the lengths Erin and others had gone to right now. They might well suspect Ryoka was torn up from betraying Eldavin and the actions of the Ailendamus war—still ongoing, by the way.

Ryoka had done a lot of thinking. Some crying, but healthy crying. She had looked at her mistakes, and she’d made a lot of old ones and some new ones. She…regretted a lot of things, even if some of the events couldn’t have been predicted, like Fithea’s betrayal.

She hoped she would learn and feared that she was doomed to keep never changing. And wasn’t that the worst thing of all, to never grow?

However, Ryoka Griffin raised her head and decided she had made peace with her actions. The manacles on her arms and legs clinked as she tried to get comfortable.

Yep. The prison cell never got more homey no matter how many hours she was in it.

A real prison cell, by the way. Ryoka had sort of hoped for a house arrest, but Ailendamus had a dungeon, and they’d tossed her into it.

A sliver of light from a window far too small for anything but air to pass through. Moldy bricks, and rats?

There was one every hour. Roaches too, giant ones. And other pests. The guards fed Ryoka halfway decent food, probably from the banquet hall, but Ryoka had found maggots in the food twice.

She wasn’t sure if the torture would come after that or this was the torture. Nor was Ryoka exactly panicking.

Not…exactly.

Okay, it was bad. And in any other circumstance, like Valeterisa’s mansion or a Walled City’s jail, Ryoka would have been seriously worried about her wellbeing, let alone freedom. However, this prison had some, ah, nuance to it.

For instance, Ryoka was pretty sure she was the only important prisoner-of-state in the cells. She didn’t base that on her cellmates.

No, no! Not the rack! Not the—

A screaming man, half-naked, flailing with spittle, was being dragged out of his cell by two burly figures in black hoods. He had blood on his fingers, and he looked like he was twisting the bones out of his body to get free.

The other prisoners that Ryoka could see looked no better. One hadn’t moved for two days, and black flies were ominously flying around the body. Another was a whimpering pile of bloody rags.

As for the captors—Ryoka thought they were the archetype of unthinking brutes. The only thing she saw in their eyes was boredom—or malice. Their clothes were black but still stained with liquid, and the entire prison complex was often filled with moaning or distant screams.

It smelled just fine. Sort of musty, and there was the faint hint of magical sage, that tingling in the nostrils that signaled magic. Oh—and the brutes who kept dragging prisoners out for torture weren’t Ryoka’s guards.

They were actually Dame Chorisa and another [Knight] of the Thirsting Veil. Ryoka saw the two bringing her food, and they were the only ones standing guard at the entrance to the dungeon. They looked disturbed by the screaming, or had—now, Ryoka thought they’d brought earplugs.

Which was a bad idea for guards for a cell of Ailendamus’ worst prisoners. If this were an actual prison.

Ryoka had her doubts. The lack of smell despite the streaks of color on the walls was one clue.

Another was that each time the brutish thugs took out a prisoner, it was a different person. And critically, they never seemed to put anyone back in the dungeon. Which might indicate the dungeon’s tortures were horrible and final, but Ryoka had other, subtler clues.

Like the roach about four feet long that skittered past her cell door. Yes, it was disgusting…but it was also just a bit too big. Dungeons had pests, but lice would disturb Ryoka more than a giant roach that even the jailors wouldn’t tolerate.

Also, the rat that kept appearing was the same one. It would run about, squeaking, in the exact same pattern and then disappear in a hole in the walls. It ran through the piece of apple Ryoka had tossed into its path as if it wasn’t there.

The chains were real. The dungeon was fake. The visitors were also real, and Ryoka was expecting Visophecin. Or Itorin. Or Oesca or her mother or a number of people soon.

But it wouldn’t be a dungeon without torture. And the person who had imprisoned her, who had ordered Ryoka thrown into the dungeon, Duke Rhisveri, was a depraved tyrant. He had thought up some clever tortures despite what Ryoka suspected was an injunction on physical harm by the other immortals.

It was beginning again. Ryoka saw two helmeted heads peeking into the prison. With sympathy? Or were they just watching?

Her captors could not stop what came next. The prison dimmed, and the world turned so dark the only thing visible was that bar of light from the window. And then…once again, it happened.

A figure rose from the ground. It looked like—a miniature Ryoka Griffin. She stood there like a little figurine, twice the size of a Fraerling, so one foot tall, barefoot, with the cloth strips bound to her feet, bouncing on her toes, wearing loose running clothing. She even had two missing fingers.

Ryoka stared at the image of herself, and then a series of flowing lines, deep green, appeared in the dark air above the miniature figure.

 

You are standing in a dark room in the Adventurer’s Guild of Tisekn. The windows are closed. Dust lines the floor. There are a few objects on the counter, but they are impossible to make out.

“Excuse me, can you turn on the light?”

A woman calls out. She is silhouetted in the doorway. You can hear lively chatter from beyond. A lantern sits on a table with a little Wand of Sparks.

>> What do you do?

 

It was really, truly amazing. No, she hadn’t told anyone about this particular bit of flavor from her world. Someone had just come up with it himself.

Ryoka sighed.

“I turn on the light.”

 

>> Ryoka Griffin is not intelligent enough to turn on a lantern without specific instructions.

 

“Go fuck yourself.”

 

>> Ryoka Griffin is not capable of that action. No one else is interested.

 

“I pick up the Wand of Sparks, then.”

Instantly, the little figure of Ryoka Griffin went over and picked up the wand. Ryoka sighed.

“I use the Wand of Sparks on the lantern.”

Mini Ryoka Griffin pointed the wand at the lantern. A shower of sparks lit the wick, and a glow enveloped what looked like a fairly interesting room full of items to pick up and the figure in the doorway.

“I pick up the lantern.”

Mini Ryoka went to pick up the lantern. Then she knocked it over.

The real Ryoka sighed as the lantern shattered on the table. Instantly, the merry sounds in the distance died down and a woman shrieked.

“It’s a fire! Put it out!”

“I stomp on the fire.”

The miniature Ryoka began to stomp, but the flames just spread around the stomps—in fact, the sparks and embers began to light up the rest of the room from her motions.

“Oh, come on. That’s not how it works. I…put out the flames with my wind. Hello? I can do that. I suck out the air from the room. I—too late now.”

The entire room was a bonfire. The woman in the doorway screamed as the fire enveloped her, and Ryoka saw more words writing themselves in the air as the miniature Ryoka was engulfed too.

 

The fire consumes the entire building. The kindly Guildmistress is set ablaze. She dies horribly. You are burning, and the guild is being evacuated.

Eight people are dead. They all burned to death. You miraculously survive because of course you do, but eight innocent people are immolated beyond recognition. Another man is crippled for life.

The Guildmistress was pregnant.

 

“Oh, come on.

The next image cuts to a funeral. The figures were lining up, sobbing and throwing themselves at a line of coffins, when Ryoka twisted in her chains enough to face the other way. She ignored the text screen.

…Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of it. It never was. Ryoka was debating humming loudly when the miniature funeral suddenly vanished and the air cleared.

She turned her head, and to her relief—there stood Viscount Visophecin. The Lucifen looked mildly amused by her expression, but he leaned slightly against the cell wall, waiting for her to untangle herself from the chains.

As always, no one had seen him come in.

“I presume I have not interrupted anything?”

“No. Not unless you count the world’s first text-based adventure.”

He raised his brows, and Ryoka sighed.

“It’s…actually, I can explain right now. How many hours do you have?”

The Lucifen clicked his tongue and drew in the air. Ryoka saw a magical timepiece appear, and he studied the hands.

“Pressing little, I fear. I wished to see you and inquire as to your…health?”

Ryoka tried to shrug and smile.

“Good. I guess. Am I, uh, going to get out today?”

“We are continuing to press the issue. I wished to tell you that Lord Tyrion Veltras continues to maintain his presence along the border. He will not relent until you are freed.”

Visophecin raised his voice slightly, although it was still as calm as ever. Ryoka and the Lucifen waited, but nothing happened.

“What…was that display?”

After a second, the Lucifen lowered his voice. Ryoka raised her brows.

“I told you, it gets weird when no one’s around.”

“I see. I believed it was—different.”

Both he and Ryoka fell silent for a moment, because it was just odd. The person maintaining all the illusions never responded to the criticisms. Nor did he show himself, but Ryoka had to believe he was watching. The things she saw were sometimes on autopilot, but some were so inventive a mind had to be coming up with them, if not actively watching her.

“Perhaps we should continue our discussions of what you call the Lands of the Fae. Or, if you prefer, I have more news from around the world. Of note—the Gnoll tribes who have left for Chandrar have finally been identified. What is your opinion on the future of…”

Visophecin was about to begin a thorough breakdown of Ryoka’s opinions on most recent events, which could be entertaining enough until it slipped into pure tedium. Ryoka doubted it was all purely to get her to spill valuable information.

He just liked to debate world events and politics, and he seldom got bored. Ryoka had made the mistake of trying to discuss different market-based concepts with him, and he’d been so fascinated he’d called in six Lucifen who took notes and debated for eight hours.

She had better things to do, like hang in place and stare at the wall. However, before the Lucifen could continue their discussion, the air darkened again.

Visophecin nearly dispelled the illusion, but then…froze. He couldn’t help it. His eyes opened wide, and Ryoka saw the most horrific thing yet appear.

Her jaw dropped as a giant…serpentine…sock puppet arose out of the flagstones. Then another puppet appeared, looking like her.

Two more appeared, a Griffin puppet and a withered tree-puppet. Ryoka’s stomach churned as the puppet of Fithea joined one of Rhisveri, Ryoka, and Gilaw.

“Hell’s contracts. What is…?”

Visophecin’s words were drowned out by a bright, sunny voice from the Rhisveri-puppet.

What a lovely day it is! My kingdom is flourishing, and I want for nothing. In my generosity, I have allowed even a worthless thief certain privileges. Isn’t that right, thief?”

The Ryoka puppet nodded and opened what Ryoka thought was a too-big mouth, even for puppet standards.

That’s right! I am a worthless ingrate, but I am eternally grateful for your forbearance despite all the transgressions I have made. Speaking of which—good day, Fithea!

“Hello, Ryoka. What is that you’re holding?”

“A flaming sword. I am going to kill you. Because whenever I appear, people die. I am a curse upon the world, ahahahaha!”

A flaming sword began to burn the Dryad’s puppet. Visophecin’s mouth hung open as the Gilaw puppet croaked.

Mother. You have killed my mother.

The Rhisveri puppet nodded.

“That is correct. What should I do with such a murderer?”

The Ryoka puppet flung the sword away and pretended to look innocent as a chorus of Lucifen and Agelum and other immortal puppets appeared. They chorused as one, led by a suspiciously familiar Lucifen in a suit.

Let her go! We are brainless incompetents who trust a single mortal implicitly! It doesn’t matter that she murdered the last Dryad in existence.

The growl interrupted the cheerful voice—then was replaced by Ryoka giggling in an unnatural voice.

That’s right! I’m just a silly mortal, tee-hee! It’s not my fault that I get everyone killed.

The Rhisveri-puppet nodded with a slack-jawed expression clearly meant to convey idiocy.

“Well, I cannot argue with that. You’re free to go, Ryoka! In fact, let me give you some treasures from my personal vault. What will you do now?”

The Ryoka-puppet appeared to think for a moment.

“I think I’ll visit the nearest orphanage and burn it down.”

“Oh? But there are none in Ailendamus due to our superior system of government.”

“Don’t worry! There will be after I accidentally murder all the adults in the next town. Bye~!”

She began to head off to the side as the other puppets ducked away. Ryoka thought that might be the end of it, and Visophecin clearly did, because he was turning to whisper to her.

“What is…?”

Then he turned as an entire town popped up and a bunch of innocent townspeople meandered about as Ryoka cheerfully waved her sword at them.

Oh, and look! Here’s my best friend, Cara, the treacherous Singer of Terandria with her hammer!

The Lucifen’s stare almost made Ryoka laugh. Almost…but she whispered back.

“This could go on for an hour.”

“An hour?

It was almost funny. Almost—and the other things the Wyrm was creating. He’d been doing it for two weeks, now.

Almost hilarious, because she didn’t think she was going to die. And yet—Ryoka stared as her puppet began to ‘accidentally’ decapitate people in the village with Cara wielding a giant hammer and beating the other puppets to death. While singing.

Bits of ‘blood’, gore, Ryoka professing how sad she was and none of it was her fault—yes, it was pointed, and yes, it was stupid.

But she watched a little child-puppet leaning over another dead one.

“Mother. Mother? Wake up. I don’t want you to go.”

It whispered, hugging the dead puppet-body. Maybe the rest of it was fake. Maybe this was all an act to get on her nerves or hurt her.

But the voice whispering behind the puppet-child was his. Two fake cloth hands reached down and shook the body, so gently. Then urgently. Then stopped, and a pair of fake, sewn eyes stared around vacantly at nothing at all.

And it sounded…Ryoka closed her eyes.

It was the best play she’d ever seen, if it was acting.

 

——

 

“I want an armada.”

“Who’s going to pay for it?”

“Me. I’ll damn well fund the ships myself if I have to. But we need an armada. We have forces abroad.”

“That you sent. This sounds like a problem you made.”

“Well, yes. And now it’s your problem. So—what are we going to do about it? We nearly lost to Jungle Tails. We need to restructure. Oh—and I need two companies in Talenqual yesterday.”

Niers Astoragon enjoyed his games of slow chess. He often practiced a laid-out schedule where he would teach his classes, keep the company running, and maintain order in the Forgotten Wing Company’s vast domain.

Right now, he was a whirling dervish flinging out orders and requests, and the [Servants] and [Strategists] rushing past the breakfast table where he and Foliana were still debating were a symbol of how much was happening.

Foliana munched on an odd meal. It looked like…steel wool. Literal steel wool covered in honey. She spat some out.

“Mm. I think Peclir Im lied to me.”

“You actually took him seriously when he said that was his favorite food?”

Even Niers was distracted for a second. Foliana shrugged. She reached for a plate of spaghetti with, of all things, deadly amentus fruits squeezed into a cup.

“Sometimes people tell the truth. I killed a Lizardwoman who ate mud. Just mud. From houses. Mm. Spaghetti.”

She slurped down a few noodles and concentrated.

“…Still too far. Damn.”

“No Antinium on Baleros?”

Niers asked half-sarcastically, but Foliana treated it like a real question.

“If there are, they don’t like spaghetti. Good to know. Or the Slayer liking this was a lie. Also good to know.”

“…How do you learn these things? I have [Spy] reports, and I have never, ever, seen anything about what Klbkch the Slayer considers his favorite food.”

For answer, Foliana just pulled something out of her bag of holding and laid it on the table.

“My sources are better than yours, see?”

The Titan had to stand up from his breakfast seat to get a look at the pamphlet of paper. He saw a fairly colorful title—Foliana paid for color—a city surrounded by water, and a big #2 next to the name.

 

The Liscorian Gazette.

 

Below were subheadings listing the articles within as the catchy title and covers hadn’t been perfected yet.

 

Containing: the Birds of Liscor, a column by Bird the Antinium. An exclusive interview with Senior Guardsman Klbkch by [Reporter] Drassi on hobbies, love life, and more! Your Top 10 worst monster encounters, ranked! And more! 

(Chess Monthly now sold separately.)

 

The Titan’s mouth worked as he read through the magazine. He glanced up.

“What love life…?”

“It was a lie.”

Even Three-Color Stalker was disappointed about that. But hey, it was definitely pushing sales. Niers sat back in his chair. After a moment, he resumed talking.

“—The Iron Vanguard will try to destroy them. So I want a fleet.”

“Got a better idea than watching them burn this time?”

“As a matter of fact—yes. We’ll beg, borrow, steal, or buy as many ships as we can.”

“Mm. And how is this my best [Strategist]?”

Foliana fished some earwax out of her ear and flicked it at him. Niers smugly dodged it.

“Because this time, Perorn is doing the hoofwork with our coin. We’ll ferry our troops from Baleros. Intrigued?”

The giant Squirrel thought about it. She nodded at Niers and then gave him one of her long stares. Disconcerting, as all three colors ran together.

“Are you sure you’re well?”

Niers Astoragon gave her a tight smile.

“I’m as well as I need to be. I learned some lessons in Izril, Foliana. Complacency is one of them. I want Jungle Tails dead. Slap a 10,000 gold bounty on anyone above [Captain] in rank. Clemency without questions for any [Soldiers] who turn over their superior’s head. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some Goblins to talk to. And my fellow Fraerlings.”

He left her at the table. Foliana was still recuperating, and so they’d taken inspiration from The Wandering Inn. She refused to get on a floating pedestal, much less a Golem-carried chair or the other methods of transport elderly figures used.

However, Foliana would accept a wheelchair to which she had attached two pieces of plywood that spun around at wheel-level. It would kneecap everyone not standing clear of her.

The fact that she could even move around much less be an obnoxious hazard showed just how effective those Shards of Relief had been. Niers marched towards the open Fraer-ways as one of the servants placed a little ramp so he could climb up into the hidden tunnels throughout the academy.

Rich, bacoina-wood floors. Glass featured heavily in the Fraer-ways—carpets, not so much. Niers had imported some art, but since the Forgotten Wing Company didn’t have a community so much as younger Fraerlings who signed up for a few years, it was a bit sparse.

Hanging Tallfolk art was impossible, and while some fancied themselves good enough to carve poems on grains of rice, the writing looked rough when you were Niers’ size.

No carpets. Lots of glass. Niers had long since known they looked more like an expensive tunnel system than a home. He nodded to a few young Fraerlings who greeted him with clear relief and excitement.

“Lord Astoragon, it’s good to have you back. The representatives—”

“I’m on my way just after this next meeting. Isn’t it Oiex? I hope you stayed out of trouble during the fighting.”

The fighting. Niers slowed to talk to the younger Fraerling, who looked a bit older than the boy who’d run away to see the outside world and come here.

“A lot of the Tallfolk died. On our side, I mean, Lord Astoragon. I’m glad we won. And the—traitors—Tallguard Ekrn and Explorer Gindal got them, but I saw some of the fighting. I was backing up the security! I never thought I’d fight other Fraerlings.”

His look was uneasy—that of someone who had always thought that while the other species could be dangerous or alluring, his people were just good. It was the face of someone realizing he might have to fight his own people.

Normal Fraerlings never considered that. Niers? He patted Oiex on the shoulder.

“That’s a perspective I hope you’ll think of—but it’s not something to obsess over or live by. It’ll change you, inform you no matter where you go. Home or elsewhere.”

“I—might go home a bit, sir. Once this is all done. To see how it feels.”

The young man hung his head, but Niers just smiled.

“Everyone should visit home. I do it now and then—take a month or two off.”

He wondered if he’d ever see Oiex again as the Fraerling looked relieved. Niers took the time to talk to Oiex and the other Fraerlings, despite his urgent business.

He had to show himself in Elvallian again. He’d gone drinking in the bar and just—talked—all night long. He’d stayed on the same mug, only sipping it to wet his throat.

Well, you didn’t exactly chug an Elixir of the Copper Tongue. Niers had filled the mug with that, knowing he’d be talking, not having fun.

That was called, in [Strategist] terms, ‘planning ahead’. Foresight—preparation—whatever you wanted to call it, half of teaching new students was just getting them to think like that in all regards.

It was something Niers hadn’t been doing of late. He’d been acting like a [Tactician] in parts, reacting. The Titan had reflected on his mistakes, and he would continue to do so.

For now? He was back, and what Niers Astoragon did when he was back was what Bird did for fun:

He lied. If he had the [Liar] class, Niers was probably pushing Level 50 by now. But he didn’t need the class—it was part of being a [Strategist].

Oiex? Niers hadn’t gone home in forty years. It was something you said. Happening to go out for a drink on the town? Purely intentional, as was putting an aphid in the ears of anyone wanting to talk to him and vent or get reassurance.

Even the ground upon which he walked, the Fraer-ways, were a lie. As the Fraerlings who had come to the academy had discovered—they had been designed to capture hostile forces if need be. Each section could be locked down by the top commanding officers. The glass wasn’t a way for the Fraerlings to look out. It was a way for the Tallfolk to look in.

…The lack of carpets was just because of how much of a pain they were to clean. Also, insects and rodents loved chewing on the damn stuff.

Busy, busy. Niers hurried down the Fraer-ways at a jog after meeting a few fellow Fraerlings. He had no end of work.

For instance, one of the things he did was call a meeting with the Selphids who formed his vanguard in battles. His [Immortals], his [Lineholders]; the fearless vanguard.

Even they’d been chewed up by Jungle Tails’ attack. Yet they greeted Niers with loud enough cheers.

“Titan, you never disappoint. I was wondering if you’d fly in on a bird at the end, but teleporting a Goblin army will do enough. Are we on deployment against Jungle Tails?”

One of the [Diehard Warriors]—a lower-level version of [Immortal]—greeted Niers cheerfully. Someone had blasted part of her true body apart, but she was recovering.

He wondered if she’d lost memory or some mobility—yet Selphids could regenerate given time. And the grin her Lizardfolk body gave him was big enough.

“Eager on adding another dozen bodies to your collection?”

The dry comment provoked uproarious laughter. These were veterans—they’d done their mourning already. When they’d sallied, they knew the risks. You laughed, here. Later, you continued talking it out.

“I’m sending four back home. One for each of my family. Aside from my sister—she married in. Lizardfolk.”

Niers grinned as the Selphids tallied up one of the reasons they fought for him—access to bodies. It was hard for regular Selphids to get good, fresh bodies, much less high-quality ones. Selphids in his army were awarded the battlefield dead in many cases. The Forgotten Wing company had agreements with some of their enemies, like the other great Companies, not to poach their dead, but Jungle Tails had no such protections. He nodded to the other [Mercenaries].

“She can stuff hers, then. I just stopped by to congratulate you all. And I’d say my hand slipped—but like Nagas, I’m going to fill my bag of holding with all this worthless metal. Alright, bring it in.”

He motioned, and one of his [Generals] marched into the room with an actual Chest of Holding and began tossing out bags of coin. The first Selphid who caught it opened it and eyed the gold and silver inside appreciatively.

The silver was there to make the bag feel hefty, but it was a sizable bonus. The Selphids cheered as Niers shouted.

Drinks are on you all for a month. This is just a token of my appreciation for staying when it got hot in the soup. I know it might be straightforward, but as I’ve observed, nothing makes a Selphid happier than a cold body and a handful of gold.”

They laughed harder at that. Niers didn’t stay long, and in truth—he didn’t think they needed him to.

It really was straightforward. You didn’t need to lie to the career soldiers who’d been with Forgotten Wing through thick or thin. Niers would spread the joy with the other soldiers later today, but he did make a point of doing it himself.

We reward your loyalty. Plain and simple.

Maelstrom’s Howling, the Centaur Great Company, was made up of almost every semi-nomadic Centaur clan. They vied for support, and it was more political, a point of pride that their leader, Fellstrider, had to juggle.

The Iron Vanguard were Dullahans, essentially, and loyalty was a huge factor in keeping their troops. Culturally, it was probably easier for the Seer of Steel. Both obviously had enticements, but Niers was straightforward.

It also meant he’d lose the [Mercenaries] once they decided their time was up and they wanted to retire. He’d found Selphids were the most inclined to keep going, hence forming a vanguard with them—they didn’t care about losing limbs, and they lived longer than Lizardfolk and Dullahans on average.

From that basis, that single idea, Niers had spent decades until the Forgotten Wing company was second in how many Selphids it employed in all of Baleros. They won him wars.

Still, he was reminded of another group that had fought for no pay at all. They had gone deep into enemy territory, and their daily allocation was food and each other’s company. You couldn’t have bought that with gold, yet the Fellowship of the Inn had charged into armies where [Veterans] would have balked.

Antinium. Goblins. Oh, and a few others. But what a time.

Niers had entire spreadsheets of classes and soldiers under his command. He sometimes rotated them around so he had an entire unit of soldiers with a specific Skill like [Evasive Dodge], for instance.

But they were statistics to him. He cared, but even the rare classes were only assets.

The Fellowship of the Inn had been—interesting. He remembered their names, like Infinitypear, Gothica, and their classes had just popped up like mushrooms.

Low-level children on a suicide mission. Nothing like it for levelling. Niers wondered how he’d incorporate an Antinium battalion into his forces.

Sappers, probably. I’d have hundreds of tunnels in key areas, and if an enemy army came, they’d just drop into a pit-trap. The Antinium never fight in regular combat, just kill monsters underground and then take out a support beam and clean up.

That was Olesm’s mistake, honestly. Niers had caught up on Hectval, and the young [Strategos] had gone into the grinder against Manus and won. However, he’d treated his Antinium like an exotic set of infantry. True, they’d done amazingly well, but he wasn’t creative enough.

Goblins, now…Goblins surprised you. Niers didn’t have to think how he’d employ them.

He could remember. Goblins would make semi-autonomous warbands who surprised their allies and enemies alike. There was nothing like telling a Goblin Chieftain to ‘go wild’ and give them enough resources. Tulm the Mithril’s head would split open from the chaos they caused, all without you having to do more than ship them healing potions.

“Healing potions. Does anyone have a report on Eir Gel? What the hell happened to Hesheit, and why didn’t Tulm deal with it?”

Niers snapped into a speaking stone as he headed to his next destination. He got the report on the go and grunted.

“Wonderful. I assume we’ve bought up all the Eir Gel we can find? Buy all the potions. I don’t care how expensive it gets.”

Tulm was probably already doing that. Niers sighed.

“We’re in trouble.”

No healing potions meant more casualties. It meant companies were more afraid of losing troops. It also meant he was probably going to come out on top against his enemies.

Selphids, again. Less healing potion per wound and expendable bodies.

“That’s what you get for being a one-species army. Eat Creler eggs, Tulm.”

He smiled about that.

Right up until he met with the Fraerlings representing the cities and settlements who had come here. Emissary Vuul of Reiryul Crystalhome. Paeth on the Coast—well, they’d only left one Fraerling. Sentry Leader Ekrn and Guidance Heish had gone back to their city long ago. And…Torteth of Colors, which had been in the Dyed Lands.

What might be the last Fraerlings of that settlement were waiting for him. Explorer Gindal and the Fraerlings in his company.

All of them greeted the Titan quite civilly. Even the annoying Emissary. Niers had sent refreshments ahead, and they were eating the Tallfolk’s infinite larder. Yet they didn’t seem intent on feasting. In fact, they were refreshingly straightforward.

“Reiryul is considering withdrawing from our alliance with the Forgotten Wing Company. As is Yuite under Waters and Comost Lightdrenched.”

Niers had been expecting it. Even so—that hurt. He took a deep breath.

“Emissary Vuul, that is difficult news. Can I talk you out of it? I understand we have let you down.”

“Fraerlings have been under attack, Lord Astoragon. Cities you swore to protect. Oierdressql is gone. Hundreds of thousands of Fraerlings are dead. Paeth was nearly lost, and another city is being held hostage. They might all be dead—at the very least, they’re captive to the Jungle Tails company. They would not be if your trusted advisor, this Peclir Im, didn’t know where they were.”

Vuul was an obnoxious man that Niers had met before. A puffed up city-Fraerling unlike Tallguard. Yet the horror in his voice, the disbelief?

That was earned. Niers head lowered.

“…Peclir had no idea where they were. I never gave out the locations. I swear to you all. That is no excuse, but I was not so lax. My guess is that he did have access to the shipments we sent. He traced our dropoffs. I am considering every city we have done business with for the last twenty years in danger. Regardless of any decision—my forces will intercept and destroy any Tallfolk attempting to gain access to your locations.”

The other representatives nodded. Vuul was mildly relieved, but he pointed at Paeth’s single Tallguard representative.

“How do you intend on making amends for Oierdressql and Paeth?”

“I will be heading to Talenqual directly today. My soldiers are already moving to secure the region. If Paeth wishes to relocate—I don’t know how they managed to move their city. But we will ensure they are safe.”

A Fraerling city in the open. The first in an age. Something to excite—if it hadn’t come on calamity’s heels. Yet even Niers felt a chill run down his entire body as one of the representatives of Comost whispered.

“They opened their Last Box. I have heard tales that it is gone. Whatever you hear with your own ears, Lord Astoragon—we would like to know. Even if Comost is…separate from the Forgotten Wing company.”

“I will inform you all of what I learn. However…would you accept two thousand Tallfolk soldiers in the region? One of my Chess Towers with a garrison?”

He needed the Fraerling Cities, but they wanted to withdraw from their arrangement. They supplied magical artifacts beyond the quality of any other civilization—and the precious Signim.

Even a single city could only give away so much, and Niers’ stock was practically emptied. Yet each representative instantly balked at the offer.

“Having Tallfolk near us is what destroyed Oierdressql, Titan. Not your soldiers or any others. If we are still hidden—we will stay that way. We crave protection. Not discovery.”

That was the conundrum of all Fraerlings. They would love a few Tallfolk to punch out jungle cats and destroy Creler nests and other threats. However, the Tallfolk were inherently untrustworthy or just susceptible to spies. Niers posting his forces in number was a beacon.

“We understand the treachery was unavoidable, Lord Astoragon. Yet you must understand—this is for our cities’ good. Unless you have a better compromise, we will regretfully sever ties.”

“Give me a day or two to make a suitable counteroffer.”

Foliana’s traps? Double the resources they were given? Niers didn’t know, but even Vuul agreed to that. As for Gindal…the [Explorer] had been quiet in the opening, but Niers turned and gave him a respectful nod.

“Explorer Gindal. I’m…sorry for your loss.”

“You had nothing to do with the Dyed Lands. Or if you did—I’d be impressed.”

The scarred Fraerling had a sense of humor. Niers smiled himself, but it was pained. Gindal had the crossbow that Ekrn had given him. He played with it, checking the mechanisms as he spoke.

“Our home is gone. Or, if it’s alive, it’s been centuries. Not just Torteth of Colors; three other smaller Fraerling settlements vanished, and one more is on the outskirts of The Dyed Lands. Monsters are rampaging across the region, but I’m told Homnel is safe.”

The other Fraerlings fell silent. Another disaster for their species, yet The Dyed Lands’ sudden advance in time was concerning for the continent, the world. It was among the things Niers had on his list.

And there were so many. The Titan nodded.

“What can I do for you, Gindal? I owe you greatly for protecting my company and stymying the traitors. If you want an escort to try to find Torteth…or adventurers?”

Gindal hesitated. His people looked at him as he put the crossbow down on the meeting table.

“My assumption is Torteth is gone. Or, if they’re there, no one I know is alive. Not unless that time-shift event let—no. Nor will I take my company into a death zone we don’t know without precautions. Escort to Homnel will do. I understand the need for secrecy, but frankly, the monster reports we’ve heard are horrific. How many Tallfolk can you give us?”

“I can have six thousand and two Chess Towers on the move within an hour. If you would like, I will place them at the nearest town or road. A peacekeeping force.”

“That would be welcome. Thank you.”

Niers turned to one of the Fraerlings in his company.

“Maps. Gindal, where should they be headed…? I will inform the commander and their second officer of the situation. No one else will know about the proximity of a Fraerling city.”

Even he didn’t know where Homnel was, but he did after Gindal indicated a location for Niers’ forces to rally. That was the thing—you could guess.

Like Reiryul or Paeth, there were locations away from Tallfolk that had a good proximity to natural resources or safety. That was how Peclir had wormed his way into finding Oierdressql.

Damn him. And damn Niers for not taking more precautions.

His fault. The older the Titan got, no, even after his adventures on Izril, the more he thought—

How much of this was his fault?

Losing his leg in the High Passes was due to overconfidence. Wanting his ‘adventure’. Not meeting Erin Solstice was due to him putting it off, being complacent, distracted by romance.

He could have done so much. The Fraerlings who had died on Baleros were because he had been on Izril.

He hadn’t even managed to make an impact in the final battle with the Gnolls and Drakes because Belavierr had thrown him back home. Just…pulled him off the board.

Humiliating? Yes. Shameful? Absolutely.

But what struck Niers as he moved to his third appointment before he flew to Paeth was that he was remembered for his deeds.

Named Adventurer who conquered the Labyrinth of Souls. Founder of the Forgotten Wing Company. The [Strategist] who had pushed the King of Destruction back. 

And so on. Yet Niers…

His career was also founded upon his mistakes. He could never escape them.

Once, the Forgotten Wing Company had been known as the company that fielded the most Selphids outside of the Selphid-dedicated company. Even more than The Bodies of Fellden, by virtue of their sheer size.

Yet that wasn’t what had outraged the world. It was also the fact that the Forgotten Wing Company had been the second-largest employer of that hated species. Had forged contracts and risen to Great Company by virtue, in part, with their alliance with that Goblin Lord.

Velan the Kind.

Once, they had Goblins.

 

——

 

Chieftain Shaik of the Ghostly Hand tribe wasn’t that mad about being teleported a continent away.

That was Goblins for you. She landed on her feet. She wasn’t even that mad about being transported into a battleground; her mushroom-laced arrows had destroyed every Lizardfolk clump around her troops and turned the battle into a rout.

She was grinning as her Goblins feasted on the generous provisions Niers kept sending to them. They were camped far from Elvallian; far enough that Niers needed to ride for nearly an hour to meet them.

So if we attack, they can vanish. Nevertheless, Niers had brought only a small bodyguard as a show of good faith, and he wanted this to go well.

“Chieftain Shaik, my Skill to send you back hasn’t recharged, and frankly—I don’t know when it will. I’d also like Perorn to stay in Izril, but I want to hear you out first.”

The Chieftain was sitting, petting her Shield Spiders, which crawled around her. Gross. However, she just shrugged as Niers sat on a pedestal at head-height.

“No. We don’t need to go back. Lomost left their homes. Drakes are stupid-mad. Home was gone already. Here? Baleros is…wet. Lots of bugs. Different trees.”

She poked at the soil and opened her mouth, as if tasting the humid climate. The Goblin Chieftain pointed at some concerned Goblins digging up soil and…eating it? They spat it back out and grumbled as they carried little pots around.

“[Growers] not sure if mushrooms grow bad here or super-good. We find out.”

“Can I purchase some mushrooms? And perhaps instructions on how to grow them?”

Niers really, really wanted them. Shaik opened her mouth and laughed.

“Can try. Mushrooms very hard. Even other Goblins cannot. Maybe you can? Sure, sure. How about one hundred thousand gold pieces per mushroom.”

“Do you want that in gold pieces or in other forms?”

She stopped laughing and gazed at Niers’ deadpan expression. Then Shaik offered him a wry smile.

“Scary small man of Baleros. I know you. Goblins know you. The smart Chieftains.”

“I’m honored. In truth, Chieftain Shaik, I didn’t come here just to assure you that we want a peaceful relationship or to purchase mushrooms. I realize you’re far from home. I’m…interested in offering you a mercenary contract with my company. Not all your Goblins, but your warriors and tribe in general. We’ll give you security, payment, and we have land you can settle in. What do you think?”

Goblins liked straightforward offers, not dancing. Shaik blinked at Niers, and her eyes opened wide. One of Niers’ escorts murmured.

“Lord Astoragon…”

He held up a hand. If Perorn were here, she would have already been trying to kick him. But she wasn’t, and Foliana hadn’t objected.

Niers played chess every day. One game in the mornings. Erin Solstice didn’t always write more than a ‘hi’ or ‘good game’, but he’d thought about her question.

What do you think about Goblins?

He knew what he’d thought in the past and how it had gone down. This time…one tribe like Shaik’s was small enough. And she was not Goblin Lord material—yet. If she did become one, that would change things.

But one tribe? Especially one that produced the amazing alchemical regents? Erin hadn’t asked him to help Shaik, if she even knew the tribe was here. 

If she asked him, what would he say?

He was willing to toss down a hundred thousand gold in a heartbeat for the chance to get ethereal arrows for his forces. Erin had an inn. Did she want a new wing? Did she know he’d offer?

Should he? Well, Perorn had definite ideas about pushing his influence.

This, though, wasn’t about Erin. Okay, it wasn’t just about Erin. Shaik mulled the question over seriously, without asking for time. She closed her eyes, hummed under her breath, and then opened them.

“No.”

Niers exhaled.

“May I ask why?”

Shaik gave Niers a brilliantly sharp smile. She patted a spiderling crawling through her hair. Niers eyed it. Was that a different spider than a Shield Spider? Yes, it had long legs—a Spear Spider? The Goblins seemed like they were already trying to domesticate the local breeds. Shaik shrugged as she let the spider crawl onto one hand.

“You too scary. Everyone knows the tiny man is actually a Titan. You say one thing—but if you say the other, who can stop you? Not my tribe.”

“I could give you a magical contract…”

“No. Not just trust, Niers Astoragon.”

Shaik let the spider crawl onto the ground where it began to ‘play’ with the Shield Spiders. She gave Niers a long look.

“You knew Velan.”

His stomach sank. Niers slowly nodded, resting his hands on his knees.

“I did. I allied with him, and I was a good-faith ally until the end.”

“Yes. Then you went to Izril and killed him. Fair. He was Goblin King. Goblin Kings are scary.”

Shaik said that all seriously and looked at Niers. Her crimson eyes were different than any other species except maybe Fierre’s—and only her irises were red—but they were still eyes. The corner of the Goblin Chieftain’s eyes pinched a bit, and Niers saw then how old she was, not just by Goblin standards, but just any standards.

She might be his age. She looked younger, but the Ghostly Hand chieftain—for all she was the daughter of the last one—was old. Old by leading, old in years. Old in the weariness of people who counted death in numbers, not by names.

“I bear you no grudge, scary Titan. But you killed Velan. You saw him die. I want peace for my tribe. You are not peace. You are war. So, no.”

And that wasn’t something Niers could argue with. He slowly nodded.

“…Then we should discuss your exit and where you want to go. I can give you an escort or arrange an opening. Do you have a map of the region?”

Shaik smiled gratefully, and he gave her a map to let her figure things out. She even let him have some mushrooms in exchange for an army’s worth of supplies, which was putting it very cheaply in his eyes.

Good business, something for something, and so on. Yet…Niers wearily sat as he headed back to his academy.

The world still remembered Niers had been allies with Velan. They would never forget his mistakes, and neither would he.

Yet the Goblins remembered it too. They were afraid of him? The Titan put his head back as he stared up at the sky.

He had a feeling about the Antinium. He wanted to talk to Erin Solstice about it—she assured him they were people. She saw the same things in Goblins he had, and he wanted to talk to her. But perhaps he was wrong about Antinium. Wrong about her. A fool never learned from his mistakes, and all the mistakes he’d made about trusting people, Peclir, Velan, the rest?

I’m fine, Foliana. He really was. It was just busy. Just owning up to his mistakes. The Forgotten Wing Company would have less Fraerling allies, and the Fraer-ways had never been filled with his people as he imagined. He had forces on Izril, and wasn’t that a big step?

But just once…Niers’ lips moved as he spoke, with no one there to hear him.

“Just once. I’d like to bet on the right thing.”

 

——

 

Numbtongue had a huge problem. It was really eating him up. And that was—why wasn’t he levelling up more?

He was a Level 36 [Goblin Soulbard]. That’s right. He had leveled from his adventure to save Mrsha.

…Once.

It was a huge problem for the Hobgoblin, and he felt like it deserved some attention from his brain. Everyone else had leveled, and yes, he was a Level 30+ [Bard], so asking for more levels was a lot, but it was a war. Surely he deserved two, maybe three levels?

But no. One. The Hobgoblin was sitting at his table, strumming the guitar as he relaxed in the pleasant inn.

And that was what it was. Pleasant. Good food, good people…he was happy again. He had feared he might never be happy again when Erin died. Now?

Now, joy was sticking a ‘kick me’ note on Mrsha’s back and waiting for the little Gnoll to freak out. She kept doing it to people after Kevin showed her the trick, but the face of horror and betrayal as Bird lightly tapped her butt with one foot made Numbtongue laugh until he was nearly sick.

She punched his leg until he grabbed her and gave her a world-ending noogie. And Gnolls were all fur, so you could really mess up their hair.

Then he smiled. So yes, the levels were the only problem on his mind.

Unfortunately, he sort of knew what the problem was. Pyrite, Reiss, and even Shorthilt’s ghosts stared at him from the table, and Numbtongue whistled as he ignored the looks.

A [Bard] is not a [Warrior].

The Goblin Lord whispered. Reiss’ half-formed ghost flickered…broken memory. Was it mending? Or was it still torn from whatever had happened to him?

Shorthilt nodded a few times.

“Singing-Goblins should sing. Stupid.”

Pyrite tried to eat Numbtongue’s fork and then grunted.

[Bards] do fight.

Reiss and Shorthilt both turned slightly, and both ghosts gave the big Hob a glare for not backing them up. Pyrite elaborated as he burped.

“…You fight the wrong way.”

Numbtongue sighed. The problem with ghosts was that they told you in no uncertain terms what they thought. You know the conscience in the back of your head? Ghosts were louder, and they also called you names.

“I’m trying. What do I do?”

All three Goblin ghosts spoke at the same time.

Make music.

Perform to others.

Lots of sex.

This time, Pyrite and Reiss turned to Shorthilt. The Hobgoblin [Weapon Expert] put his claws behind his head and grinned.

“What? It work. Little Fraerling said so.”

Niers had, in fact, said just that, but Numbtongue had steadfastly ignored his advice. The Titan of Baleros knew how most classes worked, and he had pointed out to Numbtongue that the Hobgoblin was actually a really bad [Bard].

Not because Numbtongue couldn’t sing or make music. He had, in fact, taught himself to play the guitar to a very high level by himself, which was quite amazing. The problem was that he was, uh…

Audience-shy. Numbtongue was not the exceptionally performative type all the time. He had quite enjoyed the band he’d put together, and he did make music. But he just didn’t do it enough. He was not, like Niers, a huge showoff.

The Titan had countered that by saying that if Numbtongue popped in and out of a hundred beds, he’d probably level up. [Bards] were, apparently, infamous for more than just their entertainment. And just like chess actually leveled up the [Strategist] class…

Well. Well. Numbtongue was just grateful the ghosts were not always physically present. Now that he thought about it…it was going to be really awkward the next time he had some fun.

But it wasn’t something he was going to do to level up! Although…he wondered if that were a good excuse.

Still, the Hobgoblin stubbornly continued playing. He was going to try. If Erin Solstice could try to make food, he, Numbtongue, would try to make music.

So he began to play. Numbtongue had made the Ballad of the Redfangs, although it still needed work. Yet he felt like his first performance would be…themed music.

It would be the song for Erin Solstice or the guests of her inn. The Hob closed his eyes as Erin rattled around in the kitchen and occasionally went ‘oh no!’ or ‘aha!’. Pisces sat at a table, drumming his fingers. He looked—distracted. He’d gone upstairs and come right back down, and he wasn’t playing with Mrsha or studying magic.

Anyways, Numbtongue tuned him out as he searched for the sounds.

He had never taken classic education in anything. So the Hob’s way of thinking about music went like this:

Each song was a theme. Each person was represented by the notes. Music was a language. For instance, high-pitched notes could be airy and light—or annoying—or the screaming climax of a guitar solo. Or they could be eerie. Just like there was nuance in how you said a word, the six strings on a guitar had a wealth of meaning.

So—how would you explain Erin? If you were superficial, Numbtongue thought you’d capture that frantic energy, have some kind of rapid, chaotic, friendly-merry song.

He spat on that idea. Erin could be those things, but the Hob remembered when she had first met them. Shyly, awkwardly, thanking them for fighting for her.

Erin was at her best with a slow tempo. With…his claws drifted lower on the strings, and he began to pluck.

A slow, building melody that sang like magic. Magic and kindness. In the end—Erin’s music was almost sad, but almost…and it should build into a kind of glorious, full sound, adding more refrains.

Yes. That was the story of Erin Solstice. Quiet at first, then building. She was easy, in a sense. You just had to make the most beautiful music you could think of.

That was how the Goblin thought of her. He was too shy to ever say it. But he could play it.

The Gnoll girl leaping around stopped trying to pick a fight with Bird and listened as Numbtongue played. He stopped and started, but there were the beginnings of something in the music already. Mrsha scribbled on some parchment.

“3/10. Good start. Is this the Erin-song?”

Numbtongue read her note and scowled. He nodded and grunted.

“Yeah.”

Mrsha eagerly wrote below it.

Do my song too! I want a big, epic song! With lightning!

She waved her paws, and Numbtongue thought about it. With a smile, he began to play.

Plonk, plink. A silly, stupid-sounding series of notes came out of his guitar, like an aimless butterfly smacking into a glass window repeatedly. The harmonic equivalent of ‘dur-dur-dur’.

Mrsha narrowed her eyes and glared at Numbtongue. She looked around for Lyonette, then wrote a word on the notecard and held it up.

He laughed as she scampered away. Bird happily repeated the word a few times until Lyonette came to tell him not to say that—then chased after Mrsha.

Well, that was just to be mean. If Numbtongue thought about Mrsha’s music…

Yes. It started light. Airy, carefree. Innocent, that was a better word for it. Yet—as you felt like this was such a beautiful, happy song…it turned dark.

The notes slowed down and crept lower. Like shadows. Like…growing older. Monsters in the distance. A dark moment—

And you were right back to the happy part. No, the happy part was now tinged by melancholy. But perhaps it was lighter because it was earned. Wistful, now.

“…Ow.”

It actually hurt Numbtongue a bit. Yet he had the concept in mind, and it suited Mrsha. A happy, brave, annoying little sister. Despite all that had gone past.

He decided he’d work on both songs and add them to his playing arsenal. Maybe demo them with the evening crowd.

Not once did Numbtongue have any lyrics to add. He felt that was too unsubtle. You didn’t tell people ‘Mrsha’s had a sad life but she’s survived it all, and that’s amazing for someone so young’. You implied it. You showed them without saying it. And if they didn’t get it, well.

“Hey Numbtongue, is that you making that music? It sounded pretty neat! I really like the cute music.”

Erin Solstice poked her head out of the kitchen with a big smile. She had some hot Spider Succulents still hot from the oven.

“Wanna try a Spider Donut? No spiders inside.”

Numbtongue warily picked one up and took a bite. It was sweet, fried dough with an inner filing and some salty jerky for the legs. Not bad! He licked his fingers and gave Erin a thumbs-up.

“Tasty.”

“Alright! Hey—Pisces, you try some.”

Erin was looking around for victims, and Numbtongue saw Pisces blink.

“I…ah, thank you.”

“Not going out to negotiate for your items yet, Pisces?”

“No, not quite, Erin. I—”

Pisces fell silent for a moment, and Numbtongue saw him take a bite of the Spider Succulents. The Hob blinked. Erin waited, but Pisces just smiled weakly.

“This is quite tasty.”

“Right? And Lyonette says ‘you can’t sell spiders’! Shows what she knows. Say, Pisces, I wanted to ask you something. Did you like the chests of weapons and stuff that Fetohep sent you? I never got to ask if they helped or something.”

The eavesdropping [Bard]—a very class-y thing to do—blinked in astonishment. The chests of what now?

Pisces reacted almost as dramatically. He coughed until Erin gave him a mug of water.

The—? You really did send them? I wondered why they appeared out of thin air. The cost to teleport them! They were Chests of Holding, no less!”

“Yep. Well, y’know, I asked Fetohep, and he’s super-rich. I think he put…watermelons in them?”

“Among other things. It was a boon. You…you did that? But you were—dead.”

Pisces looked at Erin, disbelieving. She smiled a bit sadly.

“Well, you know how it is. Fetohep’s technically dead—I was able to get a message through. Did it help?”

Then the [Necromancer]’s face changed. Numbtongue, chewing on some of the jerky, saw Pisces hunch. Not withdrawing or getting angry like he sometimes did. More…wearily.

Numbtongue recognized that look. The [Bard]’s ears perked up as Pisces searched for words, then raised his head.

“More than you could know. Thank you.”

Erin’s smile was gentle and, Numbtongue thought, careful.

“I’m so glad.”

She waited a beat—but Pisces said nothing more. He struggled to, and Numbtongue saw Erin waiting—then there was a crash.

Mrsha! The pan—

“Oh no. My treats! Pisces, one second.”

Mrsha raced out of the kitchen as the rest of the Spider Succulents fell onto the floor. Pisces sagged back, and Numbtongue saw his look of frustration.

Interesting. Well, more than that. Concerning. Erin raced past Numbtongue, but she gave him a look as he glanced at her.

He wasn’t sure if it meant stay out of it or not. But it was something. So—the Hob stared at Pisces and began to pick up on the clues.

Oh.

Hrm.

Something was different about him. It was the way the [Necromancer] just sat at the table without really staring at anything. Not really tasting his food. Looking at the kitchen and hesitating.

Pisces Jealnet.

Numbtongue really didn’t know him that well. They’d talked. Pisces had a sharp tongue, which made Numbtongue chortle, but he was sort of ‘one of the adventurers’. Numbtongue thought he’d talked to Jelaqua more, one-on-one, but the two knew each other, and when Pisces glanced up and saw Numbtongue looking his way, he gave him a smile.

“Ah, very good food, isn’t it?”

“Mhm.”

Numbtongue nodded. And that was about it. It was, uh, hard to strike up a conversation. Maybe that was why Numbtongue was having trouble with his class.

To break the silence, Numbtongue decided he should come up with some more music. He had Erin down—and Mrsha—he just had to refine the theme into music. Coming up with the basic flow of the song was harder for him.

Lyonette was another matter…Numbtongue wasn’t really in the mood to study classical Terandrian waltzes and incorporate those into some kind of song. Because, obviously, that was how you wrote her.

Bird? Numbtongue had no idea how to do his song justice. Bird’s theme song was Bird singing his own songs.

But Pisces…now, here was a challenge. Numbtongue’s brow furrowed. He knew Pisces’ history. Which was somewhat sad. A [Necromancer] expelled from Wistram, bad stuff before that being persecuted, coming to the inn, being heroic…but he was also the sniffing sasser.

A brilliant duelist. A gifted spellcaster. Arrogance and talent and a genuinely good person at times. Someone who’d helped down an Adult Creler.

And now…a shadow over him.

How did that translate into music? Numbtongue gave it a shot.

 

——

 

Three hours later, Numbtongue put down his third cup of goat’s milk and sighed. By now, a small audience had gathered, and they were listening while snacking.

But the Goblin wasn’t happy.

First, he’d gone for a kind of operadic rock, the kind of electric music that Kevin claimed was a genre in his world. But it was too…action-packed. It fit more to Yvlon. Actually, for her, Numbtongue thought heavy metal might do. Refined, noble music that transitioned into a berserk solo with incoherent screaming.

But not Pisces. Numbtongue had done some heroic music next, the kind of inspiring journey of the true underdog reaching the top. Yet it didn’t—fit.

Pisces wasn’t a [Hero]. He was an adventurer. He had great moments, but was he just…heroic?

Numbtongue didn’t think so, and that was no knock on Pisces! Few people blazed with pure, exemplary heroic conduct every second.

Ylawes Byres or maybe, uh…Ylawes Byres might fit that. And if Numbtongue did his song, there would be a lot of sarcastic overtones.

No—you know what? Someone who deserved that heroism, the emotion, the despair, and the glory in all its full rawness was Headscratcher. Or Zel Shivertail. Sadness and glory without any prevarication, because that was just how they lived and died.

Perhaps that Drake as well. Sserys of Liscor.

Not Pisces. So…what was left?

Next came sadness. The bitterness. The despair. The…shining soul poking through all the shit the world hurled at him?

It didn’t fit. Pisces wasn’t that gloomy. It sort of worked—Numbtongue felt like there should be at least melancholy if not sadness there, but Pisces was both successful, triumphant, and in pain.

Pain…how about something grand. Grand and dark, like…

“[Echoing Strings]. [Counter Melody].”

Now this was opera. Dark opera, the grim soundtrack of a figure standing alone in a graveyard under a moonlit night. The music to fit a villainous hero’s smile. A figure dressed all in black standing against the shrouded abyss as the mists revealed a gargantuan horror creeping below. Numbtongue’s [Counter Melody] Skill let him play two melodies at once—but he had to know what the first one sounded like.

A dueling echo of wailing strings and a sharp refrain screaming torment into the night. Yes…was the air darkening in the room? Did you smell blood and thunder on the horizon?

Did you see a grinning Goblin [Goth] and a Vampire vibing out in the background? Numbtongue glanced up at Gothica and Fierre.

“…Nah.”

Okay, maybe he’d gone too far here. His music had gone way too far into, well, goth. And it was attracting the posers. Gothica and Fierre looked incredibly disappointed as Numbtongue filed that song away into the ‘not playing this sober’ category.

Somewhere between that and the heroism. A kind of…thoughtful edginess. Yes, wasn’t that Pisces? A bit embarrassing. But that was also Pisces—Numbtongue had seen Erin calling him out. It all fit.

…So why did he think that was wrong? It was like Numbtongue was doing everything right, but doing it wrong.

As if I’m playing the Erin that people talk about, not the Erin who’s actually there. And when he realized that, the Hobgoblin decided he should talk to Pisces. If only because the [Necromancer] had been sitting for three hours without doing much of anything. Not really hearing Numbtongue and watching Erin.

“Hey.”

Pisces jumped as Numbtongue walked over and sat down. The [Necromancer] stared at Numbtongue.

“Er…good morning to you, Numbtongue.”

“Thanks. Mind if I sit?”

“Not at all. If you want to—”

Pisces looked around, thinking, perhaps, that Numbtongue was moving, but then he realized the Hobgoblin was there for him. He blinked at Numbtongue.

“Not…at all. I assume you have finished your musical soliloquies? They were quite profound, to judge by the audience.”

Ah, now there was the language Numbtongue liked. The Hobgoblin grinned. Pisces spoke like some of the books the Hob had stolen as a child. All big words.

“Nah, my music isn’t good enough yet.”

“I see. I see. Well, as first attempts go, they were pleasant to the ear. I imagine it must be enjoyable to be a [Bard] and compose your art all day.”

“Hmm. Maybe. It’s not art.”

“Ah—well then. To each their own definition.”

The conversation was a bit like yanking teeth. Pisces was clearly distracted and making light chatter, and Numbtongue didn’t know him.

Do I make fun of him sniffing or ask him if his robes are clean? Erin’s rapport with Pisces was a bit…straightforwards. Pisces seemed uncomfortable and was clearly already looking for a moment to bail.

“Not that I am an expert in musical culture. Cosmopolitan I and Ceria are not, despite hailing from three continents now. Quite embarrassing, actually.”

“Mhm. But you two are adventurers. You don’t ingratiate yourself into bourgeois societies and experience, um…contemporary hospitalities of the nations you visit. No, wait. Nations you second yourself to.”

Pisces was nodding absently in the way of someone trying to get out of the conversation. Then his brow furrowed, and he blinked.

“We—don’t. That is to say, I habitually attempt to enjoy the modern leisures of the populace, but it occurs to me that I—and the Horns of Hammerad at large—do not always use the thoroughfares that would put us into proximity with the latest trends. The Players of Celum rather came to us, being the broadest outlier to that example.”

He chose his words carefully and, Numbtongue thought, rather deliberately. The Hobgoblin took a long sip from his cup.

“An astute observation. But the Players of Celum’s vivid arrival in the cultural zeitgeist is an event I would expect the Horns of Hammerad to bear witness to. Given the juxtaposition of new forms of entertainment with the more express development of ideas on natural frontiers of nations, both conceptually and literally.”

The two stared at each other as Pisces’ eyes narrowed, and his lips moved faintly, trying to keep up. Numbtongue wasn’t even sure if what he’d said made sense, but he delivered it smoothly.

Mrsha poked her head up from over the table, dazed. Her head swung back to Pisces as he slowly inhaled through his nose.

“That is—a fundamental conceit of most nations, and a systematic flaw in the development of the ethos, perhaps, of the complacent citizenry or governance that tolerates such approaches to new—I should say—innovative refinements in any particular field. I quite concur with the phenomenon, not with the tolerance of this method of advancing our culture as a totality.”

Mrsha’s head spun, and she let go of the table and fell onto her back. Mrsha the Wordy couldn’t even get a word in edgewise. She was outmatched!

Numbtongue met Pisces’ challenging stare and sucked on his teeth for a second.

“I vouchsafe your thesis as profoundly correct.”

The [Necromancer] and [Bard] stared at each other for a second—and then both of them burst out laughing, and Pisces shook Numbtongue’s hand. Passing by, Ishkr rubbed at his ears as the two congratulated each other on their outstanding verbiage.

It just sounded like verbal diarrhea to him.

 

——

 

“I forgot you were a [Bard]. You truly did learn the entire lexicon of the common tongue, didn’t you?”

Pisces looked more energized in that moment than he had in two weeks. Numbtongue modestly shrugged.

“I lived in sewers. I stole books. There was a store…I took a dictionary.”

“Oh, that would explain much. Yet you speak so…well, fluently.

“Lots of practice. I wanted to be friends with the Humans.”

“Ah. And how did that turn out?”

The [Necromancer] froze slightly, and Numbtongue smiled bitterly.

“They went into the sewers and tried to kill all of us.”

Pisces looked at Numbtongue, and the [Bard] lifted a drink.

“Goblin classic.”

He had told that story to other people, but never so…casually. It was a terrible story, but Pisces simply inhaled, realized Numbtongue did not want his deepest sympathies, and nodded.

“I had a similar tale about growing up as a [Necromancer]…I don’t know if I’ve ever told it to you in mixed company?”

“I’ve heard it.”

“Oh, I see. Then my condolences. I, er, have no one to blame but my own desire to sound quite academic and mage-like as a young man. You know, it does work at times.”

“Really? People think you know lots of magic?”

Pisces plucked at his white robes.

“The correct attire, the right attitude…it worked about forty percent of the time. I would walk into a Merchant’s Guild in a small town and pretend to be waiting for my important delivery. Or be representing another [Mage]. I didn’t have my seal on me or ‘how dare you ask me for proof’? I collected the item—then left town in a hurry.”

“Ooh. Nice trick. What happens if you were caught?”

“[Flash Step]. Illusory spells. Then I turn myself invisible. Most towns or villages have no one capable of seeing through the spell. Nor are they wise enough to figure out how to locate me.”

“I thought Erin hit you with a frying pan?”

Pisces sniffed.

“…I didn’t think she would actually throw it at me. I was a giant, pustulous monster.”

“That’s Erin for you.”

They were having a convivial chat. Although…Numbtongue still had no more insight into how to ‘play’ Pisces’ song. He knew now that it was probably not gothic rock, nor the pure heroic music for sure. Pisces was too…

Unique for that. If anything, he seemed as uncertain as Numbtongue as to who he was. The odd [Necromancer] in a Gold-rank team. The Hobgoblin found himself smiling naturally and almost forgot his song and Pisces’ woes for a second.

Right up until a ghostly claw poked him in the side, of course. He didn’t really feel it, but Reiss whispered in his ear.

“Let me talk to him. He’s a [Necromancer]. So was I.”

Pyrite poked Numbtongue from the other side.

“I want to eat a Spider Succulent.”

Shorthilt poked Numbtongue’s sword.

“I want to cut something.”

 

——

 

It eternally amazed Pisces, even though he should surely expect it. Even so—it was the quality of Erin’s inn that he just made…well, if not friends, then likable acquaintances so easily.

The first had, of course, been Ksmvr. But Olesm and now Numbtongue were just fun to be around.

Not even them. Pisces suspected he and Halrac would only have exchanged words in a fight to the death or at the tip of an arrow before coming to The Wandering Inn.

“Finding someone else as erudite a conversationalist is a pleasure.

“F-forsooth.”

Mrsha held up a notecard hesitantly. Numbtongue and Pisces looked at her as she tried to qualify for the conversation.

She fled their amused smiles more than the scorn and arrows of any words. Pisces chuckled, and Numbtongue grinned.

Then Erin emerged from the kitchen, and Pisces’ stomach clenched.

She was out again. He’d missed the last—eight times? Enough.

Say it. Just get up and say—

Erin was sniffing the air, and Pisces thought she was mocking him, but she wheeled around randomly. He clenched his jaw, forgetting the moment.

He had to. He’d feel better. He hoped he would. At the very least—

He hadn’t even told the other Horns. He’d tell them after Erin.

Say it. Sayitsayitsayitsayitsayitsayitsayit—

His head lowered. Pisces was afraid and ashamed. He couldn’t even have explained it. Just…he didn’t say it.

Pisces had never told anyone he was—sad. Or hurt. Or needed help. He had never expected to say those words. Not since Gewilena and Feren and being a boy.

So they caught, like pebbles of truth trying to roll through miles of gravel, no matter how hard he threw them out of his heart. He wished Erin would pry them out of him.

That would be easier. That was, in part, why he liked her so much. Because she had once looked at him and saw the person he hoped he might be. Or was afraid he could be.

But no, she was just rolling about as the silly [Innkeeper], sniffing the air. Mrsha thought Erin was mocking her…right up until Erin pointed up.

Aha! I see you up there! And I can smell you too, even if no one else can! Come down here, please.”

There was no response. Pisces, however, sat up, and so did Numbtongue. Erin folded her arms.

“I know you’re there. No, uh, free beds? Wait, do you have a room here? I’ll…”

And then Shriekblade appeared. She swung down out of the rafters, and Pisces jerked in his seat. He hadn’t noticed her! One second nothing, then he remembered there was an insane Named Adventurer in the inn.

Not just Saliss. But one who was known for her violence. It was as if he forgot she existed—it had to be a Skill.

Along with the scarred Drake’s presence came a smell. Mrsha clapped two paws over her nose and ran, yelping, and Ishkr gagged. Even Pisces and Numbtongue smelled it. The Hob covered his nose, and Pisces picked up the pungent odors he had sometimes, uh, smelled on himself.

That was, of someone who had been living in their clothes for two weeks. And who stepped in a puddle and thought that was fine. And so was the mold. True, flies began avoiding him, but that was a net benefit, and you got used to—

Erin turned green up close, but she held her ground.

“You stink, Tessa.”

“How do you smell me? No one can smell me. Not even Gnolls.”

Tessa’s smell was not just down to her living in her clothes. She had what looked like food stains on her clothing. She was apparently a messy eater. So imagine a fourteen-day-old meatball that had gelled with some ice cream and…

Erin covered her nose.

“It’s my inn. You can stay here, and really, you need a room, but take a bath. Now.”

“I can jump in a stream.”

Bath. Do we have a batht—”

No.

Ishkr and Lyonette both chorused instantly. Pisces was fairly certain there was a copper bathtub, or some kind of wooden one, but Ishkr was adamant.

“She should go to Liscor’s bathhouse, Miss Erin.”

“Ooh, good point.”

The guests instantly protested, though. A Drake, Menolit, waved an urgent claw.

“No, wait! Go to Pallass’! Theirs are better!”

“Yeah, I want to have a bath today! Pallass is a Walled City! They’re superior!”

“I’ve always said that baths equal Pallass. We just can’t compete. I’ll put it in writing.”

Unfortunately, Erin was in no mood to bully past the door guards in Pallass. She pointed at Tessa.

“Liscor’s got bathhouses. Um…go for it.”

“I’ll just—”

“No! Bathe with soap! Shampoo! Brushes!”

Erin was getting really distressed by the smell. She waved her arms and turned to Lyonette.

“We should have a big bathroom here. At least a shower. Let’s build one—but for now—”

“Okay. I’ll go.”

Tessa was clearly not in the mood to argue. She headed for the door, and Erin narrowed her eyes at the Drake’s back. That was a fast turnaround, and as Pisces could have told you…

“Waitaminute. You’re lying. Do you have a change of clothes?”

Tessa’s shoulders hunched.

“Yes. Somewhere. I’m going to the bathhouses.”

Erin patently didn’t believe her. The [Innkeeper]’s head swung around, but Lyonette put up her hands.

“I have to help finish making food, and you’re busy.”

“Ishk—”

“No.”

The flat refusal made Erin blink. She switched targets and brightened up.

“Numbtongue! You’re looking smelly. Why don’t you walk Tessa to the bathhouse? And Pisces! Do you bathe?”

Both Hob and [Necromancer] were insulted at the insinuation. However—before either could protest, Erin was directing them to the public bathhouse. Tessa glowered as they found themselves standing outside.

“I bathe.”

Numbtongue began counting on his fingers.

“…Eight days ago. At the Wailant farm.”

“Did you shower since then?”

The Hob gave Pisces a blandly insulted look.

“I have a bucket from the well. I dump it over my head after morning workout.”

Pisces sniffed and wished he hadn’t.

“Well, I take care of my personal body odor. There is such a thing as [Cleanse] spells. And odor spells besides.”

“Yeah, cast one on me and we’ll go inside.”

Tessa brightened up. Pisces was about to agree when Numbtongue frowned.

“Wait. When did you last shower or bathe, then?”

The [Necromancer] had to think about it.

“Well…given my usual routine…I don’t think I’ve ever been in Liscor’s bath house per se. I had what was known as a steam bath in Chandrar. About two months ago. Before that…one supposes I used the stream from time to time before mastering [Cleanse]. But I don’t think I bathed—no. Not in that city. Nor—hm. W-Wistram was seven years ago, but I’m sure between then and now—”

Tessa was giving Pisces an approving nod past Numbtongue’s look of horror.

“You only bathe when you’re covered in blood. Or you roll around in dirt until it’s mostly gone. Everything dries off.”

Even the Redfangs of the High Passes had standards. In fact, an Antinium Worker with silver antennae coming up the hill walked wide of the three, and Silveran’s look of horror made Pisces reconsider.

“…Perhaps a bath would not kill us.”

 

——

 

It was hard to say who horrified the bathing attendants most. Pisces was a Human and a [Necromancer], but they didn’t have to know that.

However, Tessa’s smell was beaten by her telling them Pisces hadn’t bathed in seven years—an exaggeration.

And Numbtongue was a Goblin.

All three had somehow forgotten that. The guards hadn’t stopped Numbtongue as he went into Liscor. They’d been more staring at Tessa and pinching their noses.

Yet…this was the first time a Hob had been to a bathhouse. Would they turn him away?

The attendants thought about it. Numbtongue had the cheerful face of a Hob who was prepared to be turned away. And just as prepared to call an [Innkeeper] to make the bath house explode if he didn’t get his soap.

“We have a private bathing area. Miss, um, Tessa?”

“Mm.”

Tessa’s glare made the Drake attendant squeak.

Adventurer Tessa! One room for you, and another two for these fine gentlemen…this way! And please, we’ll take your clothing and have it washed by the time you’re done. Please put it in, um. This basket.”

They had male and female public bathing areas, but it was clear that Numbtongue and Tessa would cause too much of a stir. The Hob seemed content with this, and he spent much of the time admiring the tiled bathroom and putting his toe in the hot water.

Bathhouses were an interesting concept to Pisces. They were all under one large roof, but the ‘private’ rooms and public areas were separated by walls that didn’t stretch up to the ceiling. So you could hear other bathers.

Still, this was quite private with the curtain, and there was a hot pool and a cold one you could jump in. You washed yourself before entering the cleaner water, but given the public nature of the bath house, Pisces spotted tools to regularly clean the pools of fur, scales, or dirt.

“…Some minor runes to keep this pool hot. I assume this one’s trying to cleanse the water, hence their assurances it is all ‘magically clean’. It is about as effective as a cup of water in an inferno.”

The [Necromancer] was still enjoying this moment with Numbtongue enough to chat as if he were with the Horns. And in fact—he slapped his forehead as he began to wash himself.

The House of Byres! I did enter a hot bath just this year!”

“One. Still dirty. Why’s the cleaning rune not working?”

Numbtongue had decided he might enjoy this experience. There was also a lot of shampoo and soaps, and he poured them all into one bowl. Then he shucked his clothes off.

Pisces got a really good, slightly unwanted look at Numbtongue before he whirled away. The Goblin had no sense of public or private! Then again—there were stories of naked Hobgoblins who had crept around The Wandering Inn when they first arrived.

And yes. Everyone was curious. It turned out that Hobs looked mostly like Humans. Pisces turned back to the curtain and saw it move slightly as someone hurried off.

Numbtongue was completely unconcerned. He dumped the soap over himself, chortling as it became a huge pile of colored foam, and then took a taste of the shampoo before spitting it out. As bathers went—Pisces still suspected they beat the average child.

He found a towel for modesty before he removed his robes and put them in a bucket. You lowered it on a rope, and it went down…hopefully to reappear later.

Brisky, Pisces used some warm water to remove only a slight layer of dirt. He spoke absent-mindedly.

“You see, a cleansing spell is hard to scale up. Like, ah, purifying salt water. Or else countries would never want for water, even in Chandrar. That rune could purify a cup of water very well. It would be about forty minutes for an average cup.”

“Ah. Dirty water? Don’t drink.”

Numbtongue was already relaxed, fully naked, legs spread, in the most aggressive pose that Pisces had seen in a hot bath. The [Necromancer] almost wished they’d gone to the public bathhouse.

Numbtongue had the same energy as an old man, regardless of species, who would lean on you—naked—while having a casual chat.

Pisces entered the water with the towel around his waist, and the instant he was in, he saw why people bathed.

“Oh. This is quite salubrious.”

Numbtongue was up to his ears in the water, but he raised his head long enough to grin, pleased. The hot water was wonderful on the skin.

“You really do talk like that all the time?”

“It’s a habit, I’m afraid. I could see this being quite the hobby. A private bathing space is very nice. Perhaps I will go here with Ksmvr—he lacks for such experiences. And it is quite pleasant to be isolated.”

“Mhm.”

Numbtongue gave Pisces an odd look and a frown, but the [Necromancer] was relaxing already. He eyed the wall connecting his room to Tessa’s.

“One fears for the bath Miss Tessa got into though, eh? The cleaning bill will—gah!

He ducked as one of the baskets filled with shampoos came flying over the wall. Numbtongue lazily blocked a block of soap, took a bite, and spat it out.

“I don’t see what the point is. Tastes terrible.”

He seemed to be addressing the blank air to his left. Didn’t Pisces recall something interesting with his class…? The [Necromancer] lowered his voice as Tessa could clearly hear him.

Despite his reservations, he had to admit, the second Named-rank adventurer he’d been in close proximity with for any time fascinated him. Saliss was an [Alchemist], so aside from his dodging abilities and amazing ability to create, it was hard to see what separated someone of his level from the ordinary.

Yet Tessa could hide her smell from a Gnoll, and she clearly had the ability to hear as well as one too. Pisces decided this bath would be a nice time to talk with Numbtongue and forget about talking to Erin. Later.

He had almost forgotten about that and was about to inquire of Numbtongue who he kept talking to when the Hob nodded at Pisces.

“Where did you get that? Looks like a brand.”

For a second, Pisces didn’t know what he was talking about. Then he glanced down and saw the outline of—a name. Raised flesh. A scar, a brand from hot iron.

IGHERIZ.

The [Necromancer] froze up and then—

 

——

 

Numbtongue caught him as Pisces was halfway out the curtains. Pisces had stopped, because he realized his robes were gone and he’d have to walk back with a towel over his chest and pelvis.

Yet it was not wanting to show anyone that word that halted him, more than immodesty. Pisces was about to cast [Invisibility], but Numbtongue stopped Pisces.

“Wait.”

Pisces’ breath was ragged, and he was panting. He was flushed—but not with the heat of the bath. Hot and cold. His heart was racing a mile a minute.

“Don’t tell anyone you saw—that’s—”

He had forgotten all about it. Of course—he didn’t look at himself in the mirror because of that. Same with bathing. Now, it felt like it was alive with pain again. He could remember that [Slaver]’s face.

Until it was eclipsed by Numbtongue grabbing Pisces and using his one arm to hurl Pisces into the cold bath.

The cold shock of the allegedly therapeutic hot-to-cold transition woke Pisces up. He flailed about, and Numbtongue offered him a hand.

What are you—

“Bath’s not done. Come on.”

Pisces hesitated, but Numbtongue offered the hot pool, and the [Necromancer] covered his chest with one arm.

“I believe I’m done. This is—private. Please understand.”

He was still breathing hard. Numbtongue nodded.

“I won’t tell anyone. I know scars. You going to get rid of it? Cover it? Ask Ulvama.”

Pisces stopped with one hand on the curtain, the [Invisibility] spell on his lips. He turned around.

“—What does that mean?”

The [Bard] waved him back towards the water. Now he looked at Pisces like—

Too knowingly. Pisces wanted to kick Numbtongue into the water, and he had a feeling about how well that would go. Yet his ire evaporated a bit when Numbtongue spoke again.

“Redfangs have that. Sometimes. We use paint or bigger scars. Or you take this scar and make it like claw marks. With a knife. Lots of fun.”

“Fun…?”

Numbtongue saw the [Necromancer]’s uncomprehending look. He pointed to his bicep.

“Right here. Big scar. Or brand on back, shoulder? ‘Damn Goblin’, or something? Or just other scars? Covers it up. Changes it. Ulvama is a [Shaman]. She can make them go poof.”

He waggled his fingers. Pisces looked at him, and the words registered.

“Goblins have scars like that?”

He found himself sitting with his legs in the water as Numbtongue explained. Of course Goblins had that. Not every Goblin died in an encounter with adventurers. Sometimes they were captured. Sometimes they lived. Adventurers could be creative. Or whomever else captured a Goblin.

“I had no idea. Did you…?”

“Nope. Just scars. Like this, see? Evil skeleton.”

Pisces bit his tongue as Numbtongue showed him a scar on his ribs. The [Necromancer] saw Numbtongue wave a claw at him.

“I won’t say anything. Go poke Ulvama if you want. Otherwise, I forget.”

He didn’t ask what happened. In that sense—perhaps the Goblin could guess. He was certainly trying to be considerate. Pisces hesitated. Then the words came out, faster and faster after the first one. And the relief he felt—

“I was captured as a [Slave] by Roshal’s caravans. That’s how I got the scar. The Stitch-man who gave it to me is dead.”

It was said and done. Pisces closed his eyes and felt like he released a breath he’d been holding since reaching safety. He opened his eyes just as fast and saw Numbtongue look up at him.

He wasn’t Erin. He wasn’t the one Pisces had wanted to confess to. But he was someone…and Pisces felt a sudden moment of terror. Right up until Numbtongue raised a fist.

Water dripped off his green skin and his own scars as his fingernails, neatly-filed for playing his guitar, clenched together. One thumb rose straight up.

“Good.”

That was all he said for a moment. He waggled his fist at Pisces, and the [Necromancer] blinked, then gingerly touched a fist to Numbtongue’s. The [Bard] lowered his hand and nodded.

“Would have had to get on a boat to kill him, otherwise. Long trip.”

He leaned back in the waters, and Pisces sat there. They were almost casual words. Almost—until you remembered Numbtongue was a Goblin and meant them. The [Bard] looked at Pisces, then nodded to the opposite side.

This time, Pisces got back in the hot water. He hesitated, then uncrossed his arm. His skin felt like it burned, but Numbtongue only glanced at it once.

“What happened?”

And just like that, the story came out of Pisces. Not smoothly—he had never told it, and he started with Igheriz dying and the Death of Chains before realizing where he was and trying to start at the Village of the Dead raid.

He had to abbreviate too, because the bath house was noisy and attendants checked in to deliver the robes and ask if they needed anything. But Numbtongue listened, and he understood.

[Slave], Igheriz, Cawe and Bearig, Eloque, a monster named Riqre, Azam, and then freedom at great cost. 

The branding was almost skipped because of the rest. Those three weeks had defined Pisces’ journey in Chandrar more than any other part.

The [Bard] did not say much. He listened. And he was good at that. When Pisces was done and the silence was stretching out—Numbtongue nodded at Pisces’ chest.

“Scar from Igheriz? You should make it a bird. Two wings. Would look good.”

That was his comment? Pisces started—then saw Numbtongue’s serious gaze.

“You think so?”

“Redfangs wear our brothers and sisters. Our paint is them. If you want—never forget. Just a thought.”

“Thank you. I’ll consider it.”

It was such a Goblin-comment that Pisces didn’t have a follow-up. Nor did Numbtongue, it seemed. He put his head back, stared up, then looked back at Pisces.

“Did you tell Erin yet? Your team?”

“No. Not yet. I…haven’t been able to find the moment.”

“Hm.”

Numbtongue stared at his hand. He looked guilty, but the effect of skin pruning in water had distracted him since it was the first time he’d been in water so long. He tried to rub the wrinkles out on his arm, looking concerned, and Pisces almost smiled.

“…Want me to talk to Erin when we get back?”

Pisces started.

“Talk to—”

“For a big chat. It’s easy. I’ll pull her away from silly cooking or anything. She should listen.”

Numbtongue looked serious. Pisces bit his tongue.

“I—I would actually appreciate that, Numbtongue. Truly. Perhaps tonight?”

“Yes. Good.”

It was like pushing on a [Forcewall] and finding no resistance. So he’d get a chance to talk to Erin, barring any disaster? It was a relief—and it made him more nervous.

But he was grateful, truly. It was just that Numbtongue was sitting in the water. He glanced right and left. The bath was still no less hot, but Numbtongue seemed less pleased now. He glared at what looked like three spots then—abruptly—punched the water.

“Useless! I don’t know what to say, you say something!”

He pointed at an invisible presence, and Pisces stared at him. The Hob turned guiltily to Pisces.

“Sorry. I…”

He struggled for words. Then the [Soulbard] shook his head. He looked at Pisces helplessly.

“Bad things happened. It’s good the [Slavers] are dead. Your friend was brave. Erin…Erin would know what to say. You should talk to her.”

He looked extremely guilty, because he didn’t know what he was supposed to say. And again, Pisces felt almost a moment of…relief.

Because he wasn’t the only one having a hard time. No, he didn’t want Numbtongue to suffer.

But it meant the Hobgoblin cared enough to feel guilty.

“It was a—trial. An ordeal, Numbtongue. I do not think I can put it into proper words. Thank you for your consideration.”

Pisces tried to assure him he understood. Numbtongue settled back.

“I’m supposed to be a [Bard]. I wish I had words to say something. ‘Is bad’ sounds stupid.”

“You have helped immensely. I was unable to say—if I talk to Erin, it will be a load off my mind.”

Numbtongue pointed a finger at Pisces.

“I’ll get her. Promise. Mrsha or Bird or even that stupid Fraerling won’t stop you. Or the rainy [Lord]. I’ll toss the chess board down the outhouse.”

Pisces laughed at that.

“You don’t need to go that far. I’m sure she can…help. I hope she can. Not that I expect anyone to—I will see what she says. I’m just a bit affected by it all. As you see. Some scars don’t change. I won’t ask anyone to heal that.”

He indicated the brand sardonically, but that was a lie. He hoped. However, as Numbtongue wrestled with a reply, someone spoke up from next to the two in the hot tub.

“Try the Faerie Flower tonic. You’ll forget your pains. I do. That’s why I’ll stay here forever.”

And then Tessa was there. Numbtongue kicked at her reflexively, and Pisces lifted a finger, but Tessa just pulled the Hobs’ foot up, and he went underwater. When he resurfaced, she was staring at him.

The [Bard] relaxed…and both wondered how long she’d been listening. Long enough to hear everything. Pisces stared at Shriekblade and then away.

She was, like Numbtongue, naked. The Hob glimpsed at the Drake and then stared. Completely unapologetically—she wasn’t being shy either.

“Nice scars.”

“Yeah. Yours reminds me of the Guild. The Assassin’s Guild. Some of the recruits from Chandrar had that. Roshal.”

She pointed one claw at Pisces, and his skin chilled. The bath was no longer quite so inviting.

“I…presume you’ve heard everything?”

He felt angry, but Pisces had a sudden recollection of every conversation he’d eavesdropped upon, and there were hundreds. Tessa shrugged.

“I was bored.”

“Then leave.”

Numbtongue glowered. Tessa blinked at him.

“I thought I had to stay with you. I’ve been waiting for you to get out.”

“Oh.”

Pisces and Numbtongue looked at each other. Tessa went on, unconcerned. She jerked a thumb at Pisces.

“You should get that scar covered up. The Goblin’s right. That’s how [Slavers] track down their quarry. Hints like that. But they probably know your face, anyways. They’ll stay away from you on Izril, probably. Don’t go near ports, I guess. Or get an official release from Roshal.”

“A…release?”

Pisces felt himself baring his teeth in a snarl. Tessa just nodded.

“To say you’re not a [Slave]. They might get rid of the class, too. You don’t want Roshal chasing you.”

“They made me a slave without recourse or reason. I did nothing wrong.”

“Mhm. That’s what they do. If you say it loud, they might do it for free. Or hire an [Assassin].”

He knew she was giving him actual advice, but Pisces clenched one hand in the water. Tessa gazed at him, and then she tugged at his towel.

“Oho.”

Stop that!

The [Necromancer] turned red. Tessa though—grinned. She stretched and smiled.

“I feel great. The Faerie Flower drink works. I haven’t felt this good in ever. Does Liscor have a brothel? I’ll visit it tonight. I haven’t wanted to in years.”

The Human and Goblin exchanged a look as Tessa relaxed.

“Everything is great. You should be lucky, [Necromancer]. Ask for the tonic I have. Or just drink potions to forget then take it. You’ll need more if you become a Named-rank adventurer. You’re halfway there.”

“I…am?”

Shriekblade had closed her eyes and was resting her neck-spines in the water. She spoke to the ceiling.

“Of course you are. They say all Named Adventurers are crazy. Saliss always says that. He’s right. You’ll fit right in. You should be happy you were a [Slave].”

“Happy?”

Pisces’ voice rose, and Shriekblade shrugged, still not opening her eyes.

“Whatever. You got free. If you’re alive, you’ll level faster. That’s why you and the Goblin are lucky. You’re both over Level 30 but below Level 40. You’ll get there soon.”

She opened her eyes and stared at Pisces.

“You’re on the edge, aren’t you? I bet you have more than just [Necromancer] classes. Have they been levelling up?”

“How do you…?”

Pisces had indeed leveled in all his classes, but mostly in [Mage] and…[Slave]. But Tessa just shook her head.

“Once you hit Level 30 in [Mage]—no, wait. Level 29—and if you reach Level 39 in [Necromancer], then you’ll do it. It’ll all become one class. Then you’ll be one of us. But it won’t be lying around here. You’ll kill some great monster and lose your hand. Or watch someone die. And you, the Goblin—you’ll do it too. You just need more of these, see?”

She gestured down, and both Numbtongue and Pisces stared at her chest. Then they realized she didn’t mean breasts, but scars.

“The more you have, the higher you go. It makes you stronger. That’s the secret.”

She stopped talking and sank below the water. No bubbles floated up. She stared up through the water, like a corpse. Pisces saw in her gaze a flicker of the same emptiness in Azam’s eyes. Or Eloque’s.

Numbtongue stared at Tessa then glanced at Pisces. Slowly, he took a bowl of soap and briskly mixed up a lather until it covered Tessa from the surface. He nodded to Pisces as he stood up.

“Let’s go find Erin. Ignore her.”

Their clothes were waiting right outside the curtains. Pisces walked out feeling—if not refreshed, then cleaner. Tessa followed silently, and Pisces looked at Numbtongue with budding friendship. Tessa…the Named-rank Adventurer followed them to the inn and then vanished.

Then Numbtongue went to speak to Erin. He came out of the kitchen with a thumbs-up, and Pisces sighed. Erin rolled out a moment later.

“Hey, Pisces. You got a second?”

The [Necromancer] inhaled, nodded to Numbtongue—and the door burst open. An irate Yvlon stalked into The Wandering Inn.

“Pisces! The negotiations are beginning in less than an hour! We told you to meet at the Adventurer’s Guild at midday, remember?”

The [Necromancer] thunked his head into the table repeatedly as Yvlon hesitated, about to drag him off.

“Er. Pisces?”

Erin Solstice just glanced at her friend and then nodded to Numbtongue.

“I’ll go with you guys. Numbtongue, wanna push me to Invrisil?”

Pisces’ head rose as the [Innkeeper] smiled.

 

——

 

Listen. Say what you wanted about the medium, but it was still an effective torture. If not for the reasons the designer thought…it had an effect.

Hanging there in her chains, bombarded by plays about how horrible she was—it was a super-effective tactic on Ryoka Griffin.

Guilt was her special power, after all. She snapped after a gift was sent into the prison.

Namely, an eight by six portrait by one of Ailendamus’ most gifted artists. A rush job, obviously, but framed in one of those gold-gilded frames that couldn’t make up its mind about what it was supposed to be—the vaguely leaf-like corners twirling together as if it was supposed to replace the art or add to it.

Gaudy, ostentatious, and named The Wind Runner’s Triumph. It had a very flattering Ryoka Griffin, wind blowing behind her, carrying a package in one hand and her Faeblade in the other, posing on a hill, her bare feet covered with blood.

Mostly because the ‘hill’ was made up of bodies of people, their faces twisted in agonized poses. Not only Human; it was a really diverse cast of every species in the world.

In the foreground, you had a line of people being run through with pikes from which hung banners that read, ‘consequences’, ‘self-evaluation’, ‘rampant theft’, and so on.

Ryoka spent about eight minutes with the painting before she finally snapped.

I’m sorry! What do you want me to say? I never wanted to kill her. Blame me for everything—stealing, for using your scroll! But she was going to kill Gilaw and Menorkel. I’m sorry. Please…just let me go or be done with this.”

She shouted in the jail, and no one responded for a good minute. The wind howled outside, but somehow, the Wyrm had managed to ban it from her prison.

In that sense, he was better than Valeterisa, or he knew his enemies. Ryoka actually tried to tear free of the chains, but she only succeeded in wrenching her shoulder.

Enchanted. Obviously. For the first time, she had a real moment of fear about ever being free.

Yes, Visophecin and friendship and blah blah, Faerie King. But…

Rhisveri was the Wyrm of Ailendamus. If he really didn’t want her free or wanted her dead, who could stop him?

Then, once again, the air darkened, and it arose from the floor. A sock puppet…Wyrm. Bits of cloth comprised his neck-fin, and it opened and closed its mouth as if the puppet was being held up by a hand.

“Oh, now she protests? I’m so sorry I killed the last Dryad. Oops. Silly me! That stupid Wyrm should let you go free right now. Let me just get the key. La~la~la~. Where did I put it?”

The high-pitched voice of Rhisveri as he pretended to search for a key caused Ryoka to snap again.

“I told you, it wasn’t…it wasn’t her fault, either. It was whomever was behind her. Kas—”

She hesitated. The puppet turned its blank eyes to her.

Kasigna. So you said. Some random person I have never heard of before, ever, suborned Fithea’s loyalties. Oh, wow, I guess I’ll just send Ailendamus to war against her! And a bunch of dead people.

“You know I’m telling the truth, Rhisveri. The ghosts. You saw them. The Faerie King—”

What I know is that one person held that flaming sword and burned Fithea to death. One person. I’m supposed to just let her walk off. Fithea was a minister of Ailendamus. Let’s assume she was some arrogant noble who challenged a visiting dignitary, insulted their honor, and got herself killed in an honor-duel. There are still consequences.

“I don’t know what to do. I just want to live, Rhisveri.”

The sock-Rhisveri slapped his head into the wall.

Wowie. I never considered that. You wanted to live. And here I thought you just wanted to die. You know who else wanted to live? FITHEA. No, wait. She only outlived her forest and all her people because she didn’t feel like dying for thousands of years. It’s not like she hoped to revive her kind or anything. It’s—oh, look. Here come the tears.

Ryoka was really trying. But they still rolled down her cheeks, hot and wet. Rhisveri’s sock puppet produced a floating handkerchief and blew it.

“Don’t cry! Oh, my poor heart. Tears? Tears solve everything. All is forgiven.”

The Wind Runner choked out the words.

“I’m sorry. I—I know what she meant. Just—”

She didn’t know what to say, but the sock puppet interrupted her suddenly.

Meant? Oh, you think I’m personally, emotionally affected. Nonsense. Don’t be stupid. Fithea was just an irreplaceable asset. This is about accountability. Something the Lucifen, for some reason, can’t grasp. I blame inbreeding with the Agelum.

The tears slowed. Ryoka tried to wipe her face.

“Wh—you’re not serious.”

Me, affected? I mean, Rhisveri? Ridiculous. Fithea was the last Dryad. She was the last of her kind. That means something. In a grand sense—like a work of art, being burned to a crisp by a Wind Runner with a magic sword, who later stole my Scroll of Resurrection. I’m angry about it. Intellectually. But I’m a logical being. Everyone dies.

“A logical being.”

The Rhisveri-puppet nodded up and down.

“Do you think this hurt Ailendamus forever? Fithea, General Dioname—don’t be so conceited. Ailendamus was built to replace them. I could lose eight Legions of the Hydra and we would have more to fill the ranks. No, you don’t get it.”

A pair of spectacles floated down and hovered in front of the sock-Rhisveri’s face. He bent down, came up with a pointer-stick, and tapped a floating blackboard.

“You see, Ryoka, when you murder someone, anyone normal gets ‘angry’. I’m going to write this word here. I want you to memorize it. ‘Morality’.”

He wrote both words on the chalk-board and underlined them. But the young woman was just…gazing at the cloth-Rhisveri.

I’m unhappy because you have threatened a foreign nation. Murdered a high-ranking member and stolen an irreplaceable relic. We call that ‘hostility’. That’s why I’m mad, not because of Fithea’s life. Now—are you listening? Because you have a stupid look on your face, but that’s your default, so I can’t really tell if this is sinking in or not.

Ryoka whispered back.

“You cared for Fithea. Don’t…don’t do that. Not for her. Or Dionamella.”

Sock-Rhisveri retorted.

And if you knew her, you’d know she was called ‘Dioname’. Don’t patronize me. I mean, Rhisveri. He’s a Wyrm. You’re a Human. Keep your worthless perspective out of this. Nothing is worse than your anthropomorphizing of every other species and object to your perspective. Wyrms do not have ‘friends’. They respect people. However, Fithea was old. She was going to die eventually.

The puppet spat out the pointer stick. It ‘looked’ at Ryoka, and a bunch of burning flames appeared.

They looked like…people. One stretched its wings, cawing, and Ryoka recognized Gilaw. Another swished a cape unnecessarily, and she took it to be Visophecin. A swimming group of tiny flames, a hammering figure…

And there, standing next to a singing giant, was a withered tree. Ryoka’s heart clenched, but the puppet-Rhisveri just casually surveyed the lot. There was a glowing green bar hovering next to the flames, some kind of meter. The words ‘Ailendamus’ Strength’ was hovering on top of it.

“These are all assets. Irreplaceable, but not essential. Now, what happened was this: a variable vanished. A number went down.”

The flame flickered out. The glowing bar lowered slightly. The puppet nodded to Ryoka.

“That’s what happened. You affected a nation—so well done, you idiot. But nothing happened to me, personally. Why would it? She’s not part of me. You Humans think you’re connected to each other. In what way? Telepathically? Magically? These are just thoughts in your primitive minds. Dur. Dur. Dur.”

A stick smacked Ryoka on the head a few times as the puppet grabbed its stick and whacked her. Hard. Yet Ryoka’s sudden silence seemed to annoy the puppet more than her tears.

“What? The silent treatment? Okay, let me get my play I’m going to feature in Sophridel’s new theatre. It’s entitled, ‘The Casualties of Ryoka Griffin’, by…”

“Rhisveri. It does matter.”

Shut up. You’re delusional. Wait, what am I saying? You always were—

“It matters.”

Not to me. You’re projecting.

Ryoka shook her head slightly. She met the puppet-Rhisveri’s eyes and felt stupid and surreal doing so. Yet that carefully artificial voice. The slips, like how perfect that Dryad looked, conjured from memory. All of it.

“It does matter, Rhisveri. Or why would you be doing all this? Why…”

What I do with my spare time is amuse myself.

The puppet was sounding annoyed and the voice—deeper. Ryoka Griffin stared at him and felt the chains clink. The wind was whispering to her at the entrance to the prison.

“Then, Rhisveri—why can’t you look me in the eye?”

The puppet jerked around. Two glassy eyes rotated to face her.

What are you talking about? I’m looking—oh. You damn…”

The wind blew through the prison. No…that wasn’t quite right. The breeze that had been blocked from the closed door filtered through the cracks. It whispered into the room, and it blew through the walls and prisoners. Through the illusion, carrying it away in filaments of color.

Ryoka watched the magic vanishing. The air tore away like a cheap piece of paper, revealing the truth. Just a matter of perspective. It had taken her two weeks to see through it.

The filthy flagstones vanished, replaced by pristine marble. The cell doors flickered away, revealing a huge head that shifted away as a vast, serpentine body coiled around the room twitched.

Only the chains remained, attached to a simple [Wall of Stone]. And around her, facing her, was the Wyrm.

Rhisveri’s sock puppet turned around comically and then drooped. It faded into the floor as Rhisveri himself stared down at Ryoka. The Wyrm whispered as she looked up at him.

“Well, well. You surprise me. Is that how she felt the moment she died, I wonder? Just surprise—then pain. Then nothing. Would that it were as quick as a blink. My brother took hours to die. I saw him, you know. Or did you plan that too?”

Pretenses lost, his head slunk down to stare at her. One eye, larger than she was, blinked its slitted pupil. Ryoka shook her head.

“I didn’t know about that. Rhisveri—”

“Emotions. I did not weep one tear when my brother died. I laughed for a day in triumph. I have never wept. They say snake tears exist, but this Wyrm mourns not. He feels nothing. He should not. Not for a mere Dryad. Not for a single half-Elf. So why indeed do this?”

He looked around blankly. The rat-illusion scurried across the floor, as if it were still in the cells. Rhisveri flicked his tongue, and it vanished. Ryoka opened her mouth, but his head moved away.

“She was a traitor, in the end. She would have killed me. Menorkel and Gilaw both testified. As if she could. But if she were careful…she could have wreaked great havoc. I owe you for that. A servant who turns to disloyalty never deserved respect. A traitor negates any sympathy, you understand?”

“I understand what you’re saying.”

Rhisveri nodded reasonably.

“Exactly. Why would I bother to remember her as more than a lesson or as the first sign of my new enemy? I am aware of my foes. They have some charm or influence. That’s all. Maybe they struck her mind. Dryads are weak to parasites. Beings of nature can be affected. Maybe there’s rot in the forests she once claimed.”

“You think that could have happened?”

It almost made sense. Ryoka was blinking in the unaccustomed light. Had she really been here all this time? Wait, no wonder she hadn’t had to use the restroom once. Rhisveri absently moved his tail.

“I’ve…sent agents to investigate. It would make no sense, otherwise. Otherwise…she truly had a distaste for my power. Fithea surely knew what I would do if I learned of her treachery. However, I can only suspect she was mad with her desire for her forests. Seeing the traces of another world’s great forests on you did not help.”

“Yes. She believed.”

Ryoka whispered. Fithea’s haunted look of desperation followed her. Rhisveri nodded.

“Weakness. There’s no simpler explanation. Disappointing, really. I promised her to rebuild the forests. If she waited two hundred…no, just fifty more years, she would have seen the largest forest in Terandria. A bunch of groves, you see. They’ll spread and grow. A large circle—she tended them obsessively. Now I suppose I’ll chop them down.”

“Don’t do that.”

The Wind Runner whispered. Rhisveri pretended to be flipping through some maps.

“Perhaps not. The half-Elves always make such a fuss. But who knows? I promised her new forests, and that is how she repaid me. No faith at all in me. I could understand betrayal of anyone else, but I, who could grant any wish? Who could—revive the dead themselves?”

He turned one eye to stare meaningfully at Ryoka. Rhisveri went back to shaking his head. He plucked something out from the tomes of books and maps neatly organized. A worn book, the cover thick with bark and lichen.

With some distaste, he showed it to Ryoka.

“Do you see? It keeps contaminating my shelves with moss. She gave me that book. You know—I found her underground?”

“I think someone told me that, once.”

Rhisveri ignored that. He went on, absently studying the book, flipping through it.

“I met a strange Dryad underground before I ever surfaced. I had no real desire to eat her—being made of stone. We couldn’t communicate, obviously. But she taught me her language, and I had read common, just never spoken it. I often credit her with a small edge in my battle with my brothers and sisters. She taught me the foundations of most magics. I have long since surpassed her. Still. It was amusing to see a stone Dryad casting fire magic.”

“You knew her that long?”

One eye blinked at Ryoka.

“Yes. And she was already stone, then. How does it feel to know you ended…? No, don’t answer that. Fithea was the first immortal I graced with Ailendamus’ protections. Her wishes were the most difficult. I’m almost grateful you freed me of her nagging.”

“I—”

“If you say you’re sorry again, I will melt you. I just cannot believe she was so treacherous. I would have honored my words. That’s all. That’s all she was to me, and all I should waste on her. A moment’s self-reflection. A wary mirror for knives at my back. So why have I wasted so much time, indeed? Enough for even a half-trained thief to worm her wind through my spells.”

The Wyrm stared past Ryoka. Then, abruptly, he put his head on the ground and stared at her again. The chains around Ryoka broke. She fell to the ground and rubbed at her limbs.

“Am I…?”

“No. Be quiet. You know, Visophecin has told me House Shoel will force the issue tomorrow. Half the immortals, including Sophridel, who knew Fithea before me—are on your side. The other half are undecided. Only a few want you dead. Lady Paterghost is one of them.”

“Oh. She hates me. I think. I don’t know why.”

“Yes. But she is a vocal minority. It behooves me not to execute an associate of the Faerie King. You stole my scroll. You have ruined parts of my palace, gotten one of my trusted advisors killed, but even a bunch of haughty ghosts tell me I have more important matters. As if my own brother would utter a word without trying to manipulate me. He is gone. They’re all gone.”

Rhisveri’s pupils dilated.

“Can you see the dead, Ryoka Griffin?”

“No. You can?”

The Wyrm had proven that, of course, but he just snorted. Then his head rose, and he stared around. A tremor ran through his body.

“…I see nothing. The barriers are gone, but there are not even my pesky siblings. Not one across the breadth of Ailendamus. I see only emptiness, as if there never was. You know, I spoke to my mother.”

The Wind Runner stared up at Rhisveri. He clarified, turning his head again.

“Briefly. I gained little from the association. The others were far more practical. But it is an answer to how she sounded. Now there was a Great Wyrm. So venomous she would have poisoned the land with words alone. She had few associates, I imagine. Even her mate, my ‘father’ as you would dub him, she ate.”

He was rambling. Ryoka listened as Rhisveri switched from topic to topic. Then he looked down at her again and sighed, that sickly-sweet odor of acid and chemicals.

“…There is nothing to gain from me killing you. Nor even any real reason to accuse you when I know the nature of my true enemies in large. So. How much obol have you left? Do you have any…great artifacts? That sword, for instance.”

He sniffed about her, as if searching for treasure.

“I don’t really want the autographs. I think they’d keep me up.”

“What? You want—money? Are you serious?”

The Wyrm simply raised his head and fixed Ryoka with a long stare.

“Yes. Bribe me. Promise me—oh, something I believe. Swear to bring me back another scroll or a treasure. I want you to convince me to let you live.”

“But you just said…”

The Wyrm coiled around Ryoka, but loosely, giving her plenty of room. He lay with his head sideways on the floor, staring past her.

“I know what I said. Now you’re the one not listening. I’m…asking you to appeal to my baser instincts, Ryoka. Force me to let you go. Turn my nature against me. Give me something. Because I want to kill you.”

His head rose, and his mouth opened. Acidic venom dripped to the ground, a mist that began to sting Ryoka’s body like fire. She flinched away, and the wind blew defensively, but blood began to run from evaporated skin. With—effort—Rhisveri jerked his head back.

“Let my base mind rule over my higher one. Because…all of my superior mind, my consciousness, my understanding of everything? It wants to kill you right here for no reason other than you killed Fithea. I want to neither forgive nor forget till the end of time. So give me another reason.”

He closed his mouth. Ryoka’s hands, raised to cover her face, fell down as Rhisveri turned away. He lay down, staring at his side, his serpentine body.

“Rhisveri…”

There was no reply. Ryoka turned to go, and the snake’s body moved slightly to show her the door that the [Knights] guarded.

“Leave this capital and I will be your death. Find a way to persuade me. I’ll think of something. Or this will pass. This weakness, if I wait long enough. Surely.”

His voice followed her as Ryoka put one hand on the doorknob. She looked back, and the Wyrm was curling in on himself. His thunderous voice was gone, and a little sock-Rhisveri popped up from the floor.

Do you want to know something silly, Ryoka Griffin?

It bobbed left and right, a silly thing. The Wind Runner looked down at him. She bent over.

“No. Tell me?”

The ridiculous child’s toy opened and closed its mouth as it whispered a secret into her ear.

“…I always thought I’d see them again. As ghosts, you see? You can copy any spell if you build a kingdom with grand enough spellcasters. After all, someone made that scroll to raise the dead. I never thought death itself would vanish. Silly me.

Ryoka’s eyes did predictable, Human things. The Wyrm’s eyes were clear like a toy’s. The Wind Runner rubbed her face on her sleeve.

“I see. That’s so clever. And silly. Excuse me.”

The door opened and closed with a click. The Wyrm lay there a while. With every fiber of his being, he was trying not to kill her.

 

——

 

In some ways, Niers Astoragon was more emotionally mature than a thousands-year-old Wyrm or a twenty-three-year-old [Necromancer]. That meant that he didn’t have giant, gaping holes in his soul. Even Peclir Im was different.

If the other two bled, he had scars. He had seen his great dreams come crashing down into ash. A Goblin King’s madness. A dead [Strategist]’s curse.

A frozen [Innkeeper] and more.

So you know what hurt him? What hurt Niers Astoragon was not another fallen edifice of his ambitions.

What hurt him was seeing a dream coming to reality. Without his being any part of it.

Paeth on the Coast looked like a giant redwood tree had suddenly, inexplicably, grown up overnight in Talenqual. It towered over the modest Lizardfolk mud-brick buildings and the plain wood structures.

The ruins of the Featherfolk Brigade’s headquarters were mostly gone, and an entire thousand-foot space had been cleared around Paeth. A large amount of space for a Fraerling—less for Tallfolk.

However, each inch of the circle was lined with warning signs which became auditory if anyone looked like they were crossing into that boundary.

No Tallfolk are to approach within a thousand feet of Paeth save those with special dispensation! This is not your last warning, but we will not hesitate to use spells. Disintegration begins in a hundred feet.

…And that was the kind of warning you took seriously if you had seen what the Fraerlings had done to parts of the city. The battle for Talenqual had ended after some exceptionally bloody street-combat judging from the four reports Niers had read, but both sides had reinforcements they could pull.

Especially the Featherfolk Brigade, who had forces across the region. However, the sight of their commander, Fezimet, being melted by a laser had knocked the fight out of the Lizardfolk. They had surrendered, and now Talenqual was in different hands.

But whose? The answer was apparent as Niers saw a group of Dullahans, Humans, Lizardfolk, and Centaurs patrolling the gates.

“Halt and identify yourselves! This city is under the protection of the United Nations company and Gravetender’s Fist!”

The nervous Dullahan on the wall had been a Silver-rank Captain if Niers’ notes were correct. Captain Eldima, the Rustless Vanguard. One of his lieutenants called out.

“We are the Forgotten Wing Company, as we have [Messaged]! We come under truce—Lord Astoragon rides with us!”

“The Titan?”

Whispers. The cityfolk had a shell-shocked look of people who’d seen real fighting of late. Well, the burned forests spelled economic disaster in the long term. Yet they still stared at the palanquin and the flag of the Forgotten Wing company as if he were the most extraordinary thing to see.

Not a Fraerling City. Oh, and the palanquin was actually just filled with a Chest of Holding, incidentally. A glorified supply wagon. Niers always rode with his second-highest-level commander to chat and issue rapid orders.

Apparently, their arrival hadn’t gotten to the gate guard, who waited for this confirmation. Niers didn’t blame the leadership at all—if he understood things, the mercenaries who’d fought for Paeth had signed on for temporary guard-duty along with Gravetender’s Fist, who had joined the United Nations company.

However, the leadership was probably ashambles because a number of officers were dead. Quallet Marshhand, the leader of Gravetender’s Fist, had gone down with a number of others in the fighting.

Still, the response was fairly fast, and the Dullahan relaxed as one of the four people helping keep Talenqual running in the aftermath galloped to the gates and ordered them open.

A Centauress that Niers recognized shouted as she flew out the gates.

Professor—

Marian, one of his top students, looked about to cry herself. Niers was astonished to see her moving, but he shouted an order instantly.

Open fire!

Marian stumbled, and bows swung up along the lines of the Forgotten Wing’s forces, nearly two thousand strong. A single arrow struck her as she swerved, and a painted arrowhead fell to the ground as Niers called out. The defenders were frozen, but he just shouted at Marian.

Did you check it was me, Marian? Or would Jungle Tails have marched right in after you went down?”

The Centauress turned beet red and cantered over to him.

“Professor! I recognized Lieutenant Hewilst, and your coming was public knowledge! And the [Message] spell—”

“I am just teasing you, Marian. After this battle, I don’t know if I even need you back at class. Come here.”

Niers Astoragon leapt from a Dullahan’s shoulder, and Marian held out her hands as he landed. He beamed up at her and swept a hat from his head.

“Well done. Here I thought Wil’s team would have the biggest story to tell when they came back. How did it feel to fight one of Baleros’ mid-level companies and win?”

“If that was only the middle…Unicorn’s hooves, Professor. We had a thousand soldiers against forty times that number. I thought we were dead. And you—is Professor Fleethoof really in Izril?”

Niers laughed.

“She is, and you can write her an essay on defying the odds. You’re just lucky she isn’t here to chew you out. But you did it. Umina, Cameral, Kissilt?”

“Waiting for you, sir. I mean, they’re busy—”

“I’m sure they are, and I’m sure you need to show me to whomever’s leading the city. But I just wanted to tease you—and to say you’ve done it.”

“Er…which thing exactly, Professor? Graduate? Because after today, I’m sure I need another year of class.”

Marian pleaded with him nervously. Niers shook his head.

“No. I mean—you’ve survived a battle you thought you had no chance of winning. You took part in an event that someone in Rhir or Terandria will hear about. Your name, Marian, might not be the loudest spoken, but when you say, ‘I was at Talenqual when Paeth appeared’, most people in the world will sit up and take notice. How does it feel?”

The Centaur, so quick on her feet and with her tongue, stumbled on a reply. Niers just smiled and felt…good. Just a tiny bit. Marian turned red with pride, and that was important too.

He meant every word. But he was also inspecting Marian’s hooves. To be more precise, her foremost right leg. Because…he was fairly certain she shouldn’t have been walking.

The Centauress noticed the glance.

“Professor, did you hear about the battle?”

“I read your report. I’m not going to lecture you—”

“Please, do. I know my mistakes.”

“—now, I was going to say. We’ll be analyzing your battles in class.”

“Oh, of course.”

Niers looked down at Marian’s leg as the Centauress laughed. She went on after a moment.

“…I thought I could take out the enemy commander. I had my shot. Venaz turned out to be right—one unkillable leader nearly turned over the battle. I…well. I found out what happens when you make that mistake in battle. Do you think I should have done it differently?”

Her leg had been gone—eaten up to her torso by the crazed Quexal. Now, a strange prosthesis had replaced it. It looked like a hardlight projection of some kind. Like [Light Bridge], but sculpted into a leg that moved almost as nimbly as her old leg had.

Fraerling technology. Even Perorn didn’t have that—although she only had a war wound, so it wasn’t as if she’d ever wanted to amputate her leg. Yet on this scope? Niers looked up and answered slowly.

“I would have probably taken that risk. Especially if I thought I had a chance of ending the battle.”

Marian smiled weakly.

“That’s…good to know, sir. I’m not the only one who got chewed up. I’m—grateful, if anything. I can actually walk. You can do it with three legs or even two, or at least, stand. But—”

Centaurs who couldn’t run about were crippled. And their culture had a stigma against it. Niers just nodded.

“I was exceptionally happy to see you come through those gates, lack of caution or not. Now…who am I meeting?”

 

——

 

Marian’s leg was not the only sign of Paeth being in Talenqual. They had been here two weeks, and the rubble was still not all swept away. There was a heavy presence of soldiers watching for trouble, but the city already looked different than any other part of Baleros, including Elvallian.

First was the clinic. It was practically untouched in the fighting; both sides had avoided the Last Light’s practice, and two more had popped up across the city. Geneva Scala had always maintained that a [Doctor] alone could not hope to tend to a single town, let alone a city, but she had never had much support outside her small company.

The new owners of the city who knew her had taken her ideas to heart. As well as the influence of…somewhere else.

Lizardfolk were laying down a thick, tar-like substance that Marian told Niers would form a smooth surface even better than concrete for roads.

“And you just had the recipe lying around?”

“No, Professor. The Fraerling [Alchemists] mixed it up. They did a few trial runs based on the local resources and some…accounts.”

She looked shifty, and Niers sighed.

“Marian. I sent you here to investigate the Humans. I assume they’ve taken you into their confidences, but believe me, I knew what you were looking for.”

“You knew—of course you did.”

Marian covered her face, and Niers chuckled.

“Alright, roads. Someone knows the benefit of good transportation. But I’ll wait till I talk t—is that a Fraerling over there?

He whirled around and pointed, and Marian jumped. A Fraerling looked up from the window of a building—Niers’ shout was so loud half the street and his guards turned.

“…Is that the Titan?”

Both Niers and the other Fraerling just gawked at each other. You had to understand—a Fraerling in the wild was the strangest, craziest thing Niers had ever seen. Yet there she was, just standing behind some glass in a shop with a bunch of Lizardfolk, two Dullahans, and a Human.

“What in the name of aphids is—”

The entire convoy halted, and Marian trotted into the shop as Niers had to investigate. The Fraerling blinked at Niers and then nodded.

“Lord Astoragon. I needed a volunteer. Do you have ten minutes?”

“I—what? Volunteer for what, exactly?”

The Fraerling’s eyes glinted, and only then did Niers see the oddly padded tables, the diagrams of various bodies, and the oils and such around the room. The Fraerling pointed.

“Shirt and armor off, if you please. Or at least the armor.”

 

——

 

Niers Astoragon lay face-first on a table, questioning his life choices.

“Each part of the body is connected. There’s actually a muscle that runs all the way from the bone up the arm and down the hand. If we sliced open someone, you’d see it.”

Someone ran a finger down his back as she moved his arm to demonstrate, and his audience murmured. The Titan muttered.

“I’ll do it myself. Just let me—aaahhaha. That stings!”

The cry came from the [Masseuse] gently poking his shoulder in a place that made his arm jerk. She gave him a long look, and the Fraerling woman looked up to her trainees.

“It seems the Titan of Baleros has shoulder pain. Which you’d want to loosen up. There’s a basic test you can run on most humanoid bodies, from Dullahans to Centaurs, that shows if a muscle-area is in distress. Now, each species, each person varies, but there is a logic to it. For instance, if you stretch out Lord Astoragon’s arm like this, you are acting on the muscles that are sore. Here and here.”

She took his arm in two of hers, and Niers groaned.

“I didn’t come here to pull my arms off—hey, that feels good.”

The stretch was actually very painful since he’d been sitting at a desk for ages doing paperwork—but then he felt his arm limber up.

“I’m expediting about a few hours of stretching each day for a week. And some salve will keep the muscle fresh. If I were an expert—which I am not—I could make a [Warrior] as flexible as a [Body Dancer]. Very lucrative. I specialize in restoring mobility.”

“Would this work on someone very old, Miss Porwinke? I’d be worried about tearing their muscles.”

“You work them up to it. And in fact, you want to have them building the muscle they’re neglecting. Now, I think I felt at least some Galas-muscle here, and that behaves differently. Give me five more minutes, Lord Astoragon?”

For fixing his shoulder pain, she could have fifty. Niers had forgotten what it was like to have a massage.

Even if he’d cared to waste Signim, most Tallfolk had all the knowledge of massages from mentorships, not a Fraerling’s knowledge of the body combined with their alchemical prowess. What this Fraerling was teaching her students was probably the height of massage-therapy.

It was also probably a course in biology beyond what many [Healers] had. And she was standing in this shop…in front of Tallfolk…unafraid and teaching them.

Porwinke talked to Niers after her short demo with someone her size. He rubbed at his shoulder, which felt great, and raised his brows.

“Teaching Tallfolk. Don’t tell me you’ve done this before? Were you Tallguard?”

“How’d you know? I was still shaking the first four times I did it, but those volunteers want to learn, they’re very respectful of me, and they’ll share some of their profits for a few years with Paeth.”

“And teaching them how to massage at such a high level…?”

The [Masseuse] hesitated.

“You’d have to ask Guidance Heish and the Architects about that, Lord Astoragon. I’m doing everything I can to help rebuild Paeth. A few gold coins could pay for the entire city’s food supply, and I hope to earn more than that. I’m aware of the risk, but massages were deemed acceptable. Alchemy? Not so much. Even so—Paeth is in clear sight. We can’t take the cat back out of the bag of holding. And I say, let it rot.”

That was a Fraerling expression that flipped the Tallfolk’s affection for the sadistic murderous felines with how Fraerlings got rid of them. But Niers got the message.

He left with Marian and saw more Fraerlings. Not many, but now that he looked, he saw a [Master Architect] advising some [Builders] on constructing new buildings. A [Mage] was floating near a cowed Centaur and correcting him as he tried to cast a proper [Light] spell for the mage-globes.

Fraerling magic-tech. 

Niers had long ago wondered what would happen if the Fraerlings brought their full innovation into the open. His assumption was the Tallfolk would steal it until they had no need of Fraerlings or hold them for ransom.

This—this, though, was like his best-case scenario. Fraerlings introducing innovation while holding onto dangerous ideas. Collaboration. Mutual dependance.

All it had taken was a Human man arriving by accident. The needs of a Fraerling city under danger. And the courage to fight a war against an entire company.

To say Niers was incredibly torn when he met with Kenjiro Murata was an understatement. The [Diplomat] welcomed the Titan to Talenqual, and quite gracefully too.

“Lord Astoragon, I have hoped you might come to the city. Can we make your company welcome in any way? Your students talk exceptionally highly of you.”

He had a Drathian accent. Niers smiled as he nodded to the young man. Kenjiro hadn’t been flustered about trying to shake Niers’ hand or offering a finger or something stupid. He’d just given a very elegant bow which Niers had returned.

“We won’t strain your resources, Diplomat Kenjiro. In truth, I am simply in awe of Paeth’s survival. I hoped to talk with their leaders as well as your company’s. May I ask if they have time to meet with me?”

Very polite. Niers wondered who Ken would claim was in charge, but the young man surprised him with a glance towards the tree-city in the distance.

“I believe they have just finished a conference, Lord Astoragon. You will be able to meet with the leaders of Paeth shortly.”

Niers’ brows rose—and then rose higher as he was introduced to a group along with Ken that he recognized from various meetings.

“The joint Fraerling-Tallfolk Council of Paeth. Leaders of the United Nations: Engineer Paige, Captain Daly, myself, Ranger Siri, Rower Luan, and Housekeeper Kirana. And the Architects of Paeth. Farspeaker Humalepre, Judiciary Honst, Tallguard Commander Ekrn, Enchanter Ilekrome, Guidance Heish—”

He knew some of them. The Architects—no. Not except for the glowering Tallguard leader, Ekrn, who Niers felt like he had encountered once. But Luan Khumalo?

Yes. Niers waited till the introductions were done and spoke.

“I would like to greet Paeth’s Council with the utmost respect for what has happened here. I’m agog—and I would like to reassure you all that my mission here is entirely peaceful and, I hope, beneficial to all. I believe I’ve met some of you. Courier Luan, from Daquin. And Commander Ekrn? Is the Tallguard of Feiland now part of Paeth proper?”

Luan nodded with a smile. Niers noted that Daly Sullivan’s leg was giving off a faint glow beneath the table. As for Siri, two of her wooden fingers clicked on the table.

More prostheses. The Tallfolk counterparts of the Architects looked very young, and Niers wondered if this would last. On the other hand, it might reassure the Fraerlings more than grizzled political leaders.

The familiar Fraerling had a head of spiked, white hair and enough scars to instantly make him Tallguard. However, he also had a crossbow that made Niers feel like checking his amulets just by looking at it and a pair of deadly swords. Ekrn was armed to the teeth even in a peaceful mission, and he didn’t hide it.

“Titan of Baleros. I’m surprised you remember.”

Alright, what did I do to him? Niers didn’t remember, but it must have been something. He suspected Guidance Heish kicked Ekrn under the table, because the Commander took a moment to grimace before continuing.

“—Feiland’s functionally no more. We’re replenishing our ranks, but we’ve rolled in our forces with Paeth. We will continue to serve other cities, but Paeth is clearly in need of protection.”

“I see. And the Architects don’t intend to hide or move the city again…? Forgive me for being direct, the rest of you from the United Nations, but Paeth could use a smokescreen—”

It was Enchanter Ilekrome who answered for the others. He looked—worn out. Probably still magically recovering, but he had the eyes of someone who had seen miracles.

“Paeth cannot move again, Lord Titan. Not easily. Even if I dared to try and recreate the spell, we will not move. Hiding alone brought us no allies. This time, if we are assailed, it will be an army of Fraerlings and allies of the tall who defend us. We may fail within a year, or Paeth will no longer endure, but we will make this our home and let the rest of our kind see what occurs. There is no more Last Box to shelter. We have fulfilled our duty, and now…now we stand by the Tallfolk who have earned our respect. We will arm them and fight with them. And learn from each other, hopefully.”

Niers Astoragon let out a long breath and felt a shiver run down his back. He had so many questions, and the Council looked ready to answer. But the first and utmost thought on his mind was…Niers looked at Ilekrome and saw a truth there that made even him nervous.

The Last Box. That wasn’t even on par with Erin Solstice coming back from the dead. That was more like A’ctelios Salash getting up and doing a dance. Dead gods.

And he’d missed this? The Titan smiled.

“It would be my honor to hear it all at your convenience, Council. And if the Forgotten Wing company can provide soldiers or support to our allies—”

The Humans were looking nervous. The Architects glanced at each other, and the Titan’s words tumbled together. He saw Ekrn arguing with Heish, and he was fairly certain the Tallguard was saying, ‘let me say it’.

“Lord Titan—”

Heish began, but Ekrn spoke over her.

“The Forgotten Wing Company may be allies of Paeth in time, Lord Astoragon. But to be clear from the outset—we will not be part of any Great Company.”

“Sentry Leader Ekrn! Er—Commander Ekrn!”

Heish snapped, and the Council began a furious argument of clarifications, amendments, and explanations as Niers stood there.

 

——

 

The Titan’s face was hard to read, but Luan Khumalo could see the disappointment in a moment. Paige groaned, and Kirana looked like she wished Aiko had replaced her after all.

“Oh no. I asked Commander Ekrn not to say it right away!”

Ken whispered to Daly. The Bushranger’s leader groaned as he felt at his magical leg. He had a pair of Fraerling-made crossbows at his side, and the trusted forces were all armed with a caliber of weapons that even Fezimet would have feared.

…But he didn’t think making an enemy of the greatest [Strategist] in the world was a good idea. They needed help, and even if the Fraerlings could buy it on a promise, they had limits to their manufacturing capabilities. Daly whispered back to the others.

“Fecking fantastic. I thought we had the big mouths. Now how are we supposed to get him to help us find Geneva?”

Niers Astoragon’s head swiveled around, and Daly froze. The Titan of Baleros lifted one hand as the Council fell silent.

“—Regardless of anything else we settle on today, I can do that. Who grabbed her and why?”

Daly’s mouth worked, but he managed to get out a few words.

“Er—excuse me, Lord Niers—Titan. It—we think it was—”

Luan interrupted him smoothly. He looked at Niers and wondered if the little Fraerling was a relative of the man on the boat during the Summer Solstice. Or just like a more advanced Ekrn.

They’d find out. The Courier took a breath.

The Bodies of Fellden did it, as far as we know. Selphids. We think Geneva’s alive and well. But we have no clues.”

The Titan’s eyes flickered. He cursed softly.

“The Minds. That will be trickier, but I assure you: I can retrieve her.”

The members of the United Nations company looked at each other, and Siri swallowed. She had wondered why Paeth was so reluctant to ally with one of their own, but one look at the Titan’s gaze told her why.

The greatest powers of the Selphids had been too dangerous for Paeth to consider going after even in the face of their new alliance. But with a few sentences and a single promise—

They were now in trouble. And yet, Niers’ eyes looked so longingly at this alliance between Tallfolk and Fraerlings. But once again—Chieftain Shaik’s words haunted him. Despite all he’d done…

Tiny man too scary.

 

——

 

It was hard to say who was more uncomfortable when they appeared in Invrisil. Pisces? Or Numbtongue?

They went through the door like a growing storm. From the moments the words left Erin’s mouth, it was like a hurricane building at sea.

First swept in tempest Lyonette, full of questions and objections. But when she realized Erin was serious, she threw her might behind Erin’s headwind.

Ser Dalimont? Ser Sest and Ser Lormel, with you and Erin!

The [Princess] pointed three of her [Knights] forwards. Obviously, an impossible chess move, except she’d already captured one Pawn.

Backup achieved, Erin negotiated who would not go to Invrisil. No Antinium. And definitely not Mrsha the Gale, who begged and pleaded and held onto Erin’s chair until she was removed by Lyonette. There could be shenanigans, and for once, they would not involve Mrsha.

“No more Goblins. Sorry, Gothica. Next time.”

The [Goth] did her signature pfft and blew the hair out of her face. But she didn’t argue; she had heard ‘next time’. Besides, the others cramped her style.

They didn’t make it to Liscor without incident, either. Lyonette had some kind of magical warning system for Zevara like a speaking stone or [Message] scroll, so the Watch Captain battened down all hatches.

A Watch escort conveyed Erin to the door and put the regular transports on hiatus. Erin peered suspiciously at the [Guards] escorting her.

“Y’know, this celebrity treatment’s sorta weird. Is it because I own the door? I still want it back.”

“We’re just trying to minimize the collateral damage, Miss Solstice.”

The Gnoll was sweating slightly as she peered at him. Erin puffed her cheeks out, then exhaled.

“Alright. But you know that I’m gonna get annoyed by being treated like a glass doll.”

“Better than an ice cube.”

Numbtongue muttered. He put out a fist, and Pisces blinked at it, before tapping it with his own. Erin’s laughter made both relax. Pisces was watching Erin. She knew he needed help. It was only Yvlon, who’d hurried back to the guild, who was getting in the way.

Well—this wouldn’t be so bad?

…Numbtongue was slightly tense. The only time he’d been in Invrisil was in disguise and under the arguably superior protection of the Players of Celum. With Jasi and Wesle and the others gone, it was Erin who had made the offer.

And as history had proven—she wasn’t exactly immune to sneak attacks. Numbtongue also remembered that a certain Named Adventurer was there. And Invrisil had run into Goblins recently.

“I could wear helmet, maybe?”

He suggested, and Erin twisted in her chair.

“Do you want to, Numbtongue?”

The [Bard] chewed this over.

“…Sort of. Seems like lots of panicking Humans might be dangerous.”

“Well, we’ll go once, and if it turns bad, we’ll duck out. Maybe the second time they’ll be more used to it. Like Liscor. But do you want to walk around in Invrisil without a helmet?”

The Hobgoblin bared his teeth.

“It would be nice.”

Erin’s eyes glinted.

“Yeah.”

The citizens of Liscor were watching Erin and the [Knights], along with Pisces and Numbtongue, head for the door. A small cyclone touching down on Invrisil’s beaches. Possibly never to grow past that. The Thronebearers were looking nervous; they didn’t know if they had the means to quell a full-scale riot.

Then came the squall from the side. Selys with the metaphorical steel chair! Erin’s head turned as a squad of marching boots heralded the arrival of none other than the one, the only—

“Captain Todi?”

The Gold-rank Captain and his squad of adventurers gave Erin an ironic salute.

“Miss Selys thought you might need an escort, Innkeeper Solstice. Mind if we join you? We’re veterans to the guard routine. Vetted by the Mercenary’s Guild for cross-class work, even.”

“That would be welcome, Miss Erin.”

Dalimont said, relieved, and Erin gave Selys an exasperated look as the [Heiress] waved from the background. Pisces glanced at the Drake, but then Erin was grudgingly adding Todi to the squad.

Then—they were in Invrisil, and the shouting began.

Goblin!

They didn’t even get out of the plaza where the door was now installed without the first man pointing at Numbtongue and reaching for a belt dagger. The [Bard] froze, but Erin cupped her hands to her mouth.

Human! Watch out!

She pointed accusatorially at the man, and his brain locked up for a crucial second. Erin pointed ahead towards the sign aiming for the Adventurer’s Guild.

“It’s a Goblin!”

Someone tried again, and the plaza fixed on Numbtongue like a beacon of fear and growing hostility. The [Innkeeper] was ready for it.

“[Crowd Control]. [Crowd Control]. [Crowd Control]. [Crowd Control]…”

She muttered under her breath. Then raised her voice. Her own shout eclipsed the regular voices as [Loud Voice] activated.

Hobgoblin coming through! Don’t get in the way. He’s a busy guy. We have business at the Adventurer’s Guild. Move it! Don’t push! No autographs. Ser Dalimont, make a path.”

The [Knight] gave Erin a look of mild respect as he caught onto the plan. Instantly, he, Ser Lormel, and Ser Sest spread out around Erin, but began gesturing with their hands.

“One side, citizens!”

Prithee, keep moving. Do not crowd—ten steps back, please! No autographs.

It was like a magic password that flipped a switch in people’s heads. Especially in Invrisil, where the practice of autographs had really caught fire and become a worldwide phenomenon. Wait a second.

No autographs? That implied there was a reason to get said autographs. And if you weren’t allowed to have one, firstly, how dare you. Secondly—a Goblin giving out autographs?

All Erin needed was a second or two. A minute—and then it was hard to restart the ‘look out, a Goblin’ screams. You felt silly being the first one to retread that ground.

“It’s a monster! Call the Watch!”

Someone tried again. But Erin cheerfully shouted back.

“I said, clear a path. Gold-rank adventurers on the move! And a [Bard]! Captain Todi of Todi’s, uh, Super-Elites is too busy to sign autographs! So are Pisces and Numbtongue! Move it!

Todi’s Super-Elites? Even the Gold-rank Captain was giving Erin a confused look, if somewhat gratified.

It was a very [Innkeeper]-y thing Erin was doing, combined with, well, a [Witch]’s attitude towards crowds. It wasn’t classic witch-behavior, and Erin had never taken Headology 101, but she was a fairly experienced veteran in the field. Her method, as many had observed, was continuously interjecting more confusion into the scene.

First you had a Goblin. Then she said no autographs. And while you were wrestling with this one, she flipped it on Gold-rank adventurers and Todi’s Super-Elites.

“Make way! Pisces the [Necromancer]—coming through! And Numbtongue the [Bard]. And Todi the…Super-Elite. Psst. Todi, what’s your class?”

Pisces had been listening to the entire rampage of Hurricane Erin with some amusement, but his body stiffened when she invoked his class. He looked at Erin, and then there was another round of exclamations.

“[Necromancer]? Did she say…?”

His class was not beloved in Izril. True, it wasn’t the Terandrian reaction, which would have been full-blown panic, even with Erin’s Skills and methods. But the Necromancer had cut a path from the north down to Liscor before he died, and his undead had struck the south too.

Necromancer.

The word was almost as reviled as Goblin. Ser Dalimont bent down.

“Miss Erin, perhaps this is not…”

She ignored him. Erin waved around cheerfully as a Watch Sergeant on patrol finally caught up with them.

“Stand back, sir. This group is under protection of the Thronebearers of Calanfer.”

“And Todi’s Super-Elites.”

The Gold-rank Captain chimed in as Ser Sest expertly blocked the patrol. The Watch Sergeant stared at Erin, Numbtongue, and spluttered.

“What’s going on—there’s a Goblin in my city?”

“That’s Numbtongue. [Bard]. We’re headed to the Adventurer’s Guild, so if you want to escort us, be my guest. This is Pisces, Gold-rank adventurer. On very important business with, um…Elia Arcsinger? He’s a [Necromancer] and my pal.”

“A nec—Arcsinger—

Pisces was staring at Erin, and Numbtongue gave her a huge frown, but Erin kept rolling as he pushed her. The Watch Sergeant had a hurried conversation with Todi, who did know the score. A trio of gold coins and the patrol moved ahead, shouting at people to move aside.

This was really what Pisces had expected of Erin. And yet—he was conscious of the eyes on him as Erin kept shouting his class. Had she done that before? Perhaps she was using [Necromancer] to distract from Goblin, but it added to what he felt was unnecessary chaos.

“Maybe she’s out of practice.”

Numbtongue had the same opinion and whispered to Pisces as they approached the Adventurer’s Guild, down one of the most prosperous streets filled with restaurants, shops for magical items, and mundane goods like rope, potions, all to cater to the very rich adventurers who stopped by. Pisces didn’t know. Erin kept glancing at him.

They’d talk later.

He wanted it to be now. And as Pisces saw his team and the plethora of adventurers who turned and reacted to Numbtongue—he remembered why he hadn’t wanted to go to Invrisil.

It had completely slipped his mind with his urgent desire to talk to Erin. But even Ceria and Yvlon hadn’t insisted he back them up aside from the actual negotiations. Silver-rank adventurers milled around the central area of the Guild, and the Gold-ranks were in the back, the elite area where Pisces had met Todi to his displeasure the first time.

Yet—even without Erin’s class-dropping. Pisces the [Necromancer] stepped out of Erin’s group as she began to fend off adventurers, inserting a Goblin into Invrisil’s mind with a hammer. He let her do it and looked for his team.

And absolutely no one hurried up to him. Not the [Necromancer].

The adventurers knew who he was, unlike regular citizens. Then again—Pisces had [Famous Name], now. They knew who the Horns were—half were here because they had been part of the Village of the Dead raid.

Pisces recognized a few. Vuliel Drae, the Pithfire Hounds, and those were the teams in the Silver and Bronze-rank area.

The famous ones, like Elia’s representative and the other Gold-rank teams, were probably in the back. Pisces saw a few heads nod cautiously at him, like Anith, and the Pithfire Hound’s leader looked like he was debating getting up.

Yet most of the looks were, if not outright hostile, exceptionally distrustful. In the world of Adventurers, Pisces occupied the class that many adventurers would fight against. He was the [Necromancer] raising undead in the crypt.

That he was also a member of the Horns of Hammerad put him in neutral territory. But—Pisces realized—

It was somewhat ironic that he was the only member of his team who stood alone. He wished Erin hadn’t mentioned his class.

 

——

 

The rest of the Horns of Hammerad were talking with adventurers. Ksmvr was in the common room—Pisces just didn’t spot him at first because of how many people were talking to him.

Yvlon was changing from Gold-rank back rooms to the front, and Ceria was talking with a half-Elf representing Arcsinger’s Bows. Pisces knew that because of the actual banner hanging behind the table filled with Gold-rank Captains in deep negotiations.

Ceria waved at Pisces, but she was speaking behind a [Silence] spell, and Pisces just took a moment to survey the room. Spot escape routes, check for spells, the practical things one did.

The other Gold-rank adventurers sized him up, but he was the pariah. And Pisces noticed—

Ksmvr was not. Ksmvr was the Antinium. And yet, Ksmvr was also Ksmvr of Chandrar. That [Journalist], Rémi Canada, had changed Ksmvr’s reputation.

He wasn’t ‘an Antinium adventurer’. He was the Antinium adventurer, so half the people surrounding him wanted to size him up. Some were challenging, but many were just curious to meet a representative of the Black Tide who seemed, well—personable. Even likable and, of course, fascinating.

“—I have indeed met Empress Nsiia of Tiqr. She does not make it a habit to be naked aside from regularly scheduled intervals.”

“Wh—really? How regular?”

Ksmvr gave the too-avid adventurer a blank stare.

“…As regularly as one bathes or changes clothes. Periodic nudity is a custom for most species, as I understand it.”

“That’s not the same.”

“But your clothes are off. I do not quite understand the stigma against a lack of clothes. Most Antinium are naked. We put on clothing to leave the Hive.”

“You’re all [Nudists]?”

“…I did not think we were. Oh dear. Maybe we will all gain the class?”

Ksmvr’s mandibles clacked together at the light laughter. He really was hard to dislike. At another table, Yvlon Byres had almost as many adventurers keen to talk to her for obvious reasons.

Her silver arms stood out. Pisces eyed a [Warrior] rotating his shoulder and wondered if someone had made the stupid mistake of challenging her to an arm-wrestling contest. The [Armsmistress] was in more serious talks with none other than Seborn and—Pisces saw with some gratification—Typhenous.

Neither Gold-rank adventurer had their team with them. They were representatives, Typhenous probably because Invrisil had been his home. He was also, frankly, the best option for cold-blooded negotiations compared to Revi, Halrac, or Briganda.

“…got to cut Prince Zenol and the others not here a fair portion.”

Fair? Elia Arcsinger wants the Helm of Fire, and the Terlands are backing Eldertuin.”

“We had an agreement—”

Typhenous broke in smoothly.

“…Which the Silver-rank teams are justifiably nervous about. You know how things change, Yvlon. Many of the Gold-rank teams would like to, ah, claim certain items outright and relegate the rest to gold-distribution.”

Yvlon’s jaw clenched as she glanced up at some of the Gold-rank teams who seemed to be in a kind of alliance with Elia’s representative.

“Ceria called this raid. Our team did. We’ll be fair. Can I count on your teams to back us up, Seborn, Typhenous?”

“What loot are you going to give us? Alright—don’t turn your hands into a damn knife. Yes, Jelaqua’s all for it. But it’s going to be messy. Pisces. There he is.”

Seborn waved to Pisces, and the [Necromancer] approached. He recognized some adventurers vaguely, but it felt like a lifetime ago.

Even now, he got a few wary nods rather than effusive greetings. One of the [Strategists], an Owlkin Beastwoman, spoke in an eerie whisper reminiscent of hooting.

“Adventurer Jealnet. We were discussing fair distribution of the limited artifacts. Join us.”

“I—thank you, Adventurer…”

“Soew. [Strategist].”

“Of course. I’m, ah, partial to being called ‘Pisces’ as opposed to my last name.”

“Naturally.”

A few more adventurers came over as Pisces sat down and caught up on what was essentially a lot of arguing over who got what. Keldrass’ team, the Flamewardens, the ‘Silver-rank’ team of Maweil’s Reach, the three Minotaurs, and even a Gnoll representing the Pride of Kelia had all joined this discussion.

Old adventurers and young, each one trying to play nice and get an artifact or payout above the others. Pisces glanced at Yvlon.

“What, pray, did we actually recover from the raid beyond what the Horns took?”

Her smile was wry.

“You’d be amazed, Pisces. Did you see that Drake Revenant who cut up all the monsters?”

Pisces had actually watched the public video of the raid, so he nodded.

“A true monster. I’m amazed he was brought down.”

“Yeah, well—we got his sword. And he had a bag of holding full of high-grade artifacts. Before we pulled out, we looted monster parts from the big monsters—yanked a bunch of artifacts from the Skeleton Lords. But the main thing was the Helm of Fire. Everyone wants that.”

“I’ll take the sword.”

A burly [Warrior] joked. Everyone laughed, but Yvlon just nodded at the Adventurer’s Guild.

“The Guildmaster has it under lock and key, and [Thieves] have been going at it every week. No one’s been able to divide the loot while we were on Chandrar. They argued for nearly a month until it turned out we were alive.”

“…And graciously waited until our return for the most equitable distribution?”

Pisces’ lips quirked at his own joke, and Typhenous laughed. Yvlon rolled her eyes.

“No. They want what we found. It’s all loot recovered from the raid, so the claim is we should divide it under the same rules.”

“Ah.”

“Yep. However, Ceria’s been talking with the other teams, and she’s reminded them of something that might bite them—we have the claim on the Helm of Fire. One Relic, guaranteed.”

Now that would be…well, the other adventurers fell silent as Pisces bit his lip.

A Relic on par with the Heartflame Breastplate, for their team. Az’kerash had sent back a message. A very…confusing message that seemed to indicate he didn’t need the Helm of Fire as he had not fulfilled his obligations.

 

…to you, apprentice of death, I will cede the relic if it should aid your own studies. My armory is replete enough without it.

 

Very generous. Suspiciously generous. So thoughtful, in fact, that Pisces was wondering if that was a subtle hint telling him to absolutely donate the Helm of Fire or else. However, the Necromancer had assured him after a few tactfully worded questions that he meant what he said.

Pisces cast a [Silence] spell and whispered to Yvlon.

“We—could very well lift the claim on the Helm of Fire. Selys will be unhappy, but it is no longer mandatory.”

Her brows shot up.

“Selys wants it? Of course—the set. We might have to let her down, Pisces. It’s like swimming with Crelers here. Some teams have even been saying we should cut out groups that perished like Lifwail Blades. You know, the ones who were all wiped out?”

Pisces blinked. Part of what the Horns had done after the crypt raid was give proceeds from Albez to the dead adventurers.

“Truly? That seems exceptionally unchivalrous.”

“It’s not going to stand. I’ll let Ceria know about the Helm. You just…mingle. And don’t cause any fights. Why is Erin bringing Numbtongue here?”

Yvlon had finally noticed Erin. Pisces grimaced.

“I believe she’s introducing a Goblin to Invrisil.”

Yvlon just groaned and shook her head as she pushed herself up.

“Wonderful. Alright, wish me luck. And find me a calming tonic—if I hear one more idiot saying ‘the dead don’t need gold’—”

She stomped off. Ceria looked calm as ice, and Pisces wondered if it was her class—if anything, the representative from Elia looked nervous as he whispered in her ear.

“Pisces. Do you want to take a look at the inventory?”

“Let me check on Erin first, Seborn.”

The Drowned Man nodded as Pisces pushed himself up. He walked back into the common room and heard a familiar voice.

“[Bard]. B-A-R-D. Erin Solstice, The Wandering Inn. I post quests. Oh, and there’s Pisces! Pisces! Tell them I know you! I keep wanting to go in the back rooms, but apparently it’s only for Gold-ranks. That’s Pisces. He’s a guest at my inn. One of the first. [Necromancer]. N-E-C…you can probably spell that.”

Again, Pisces twitched. He saw a Silver-rank adventurer talking to Erin glance his way and recoil. Could Erin not ruin his reputation with any adventurer who hadn’t met him yet?

He began to walk towards her and felt angry. He didn’t care about the loot.

Really, truly, he didn’t. It felt hollow, meaningless, and…greedy.

He kept imagining Igheriz talking about the gold he’d receive for selling Pisces. It wasn’t the same, Pisces knew. But he felt hot, sweaty even after his bath.

Pisces just wanted to talk to Erin. Yet she was causing more trouble, and he heard his class on her lips.

[Necromancer]. [Necromancer]…Pisces thought that, in this moment, it was a title more reviled than Goblin or Antinium.

 

——

 

Numbtongue could tell Pisces was getting upset. The [Bard] was staying with Erin and Todi’s Elites. Ironically, Erin’s trick was sort of working. Most people were staring at Numbtongue and asking questions rather than going for a weapon.

Ksmvr helped. As did the escort of [Knights] and adventurers. Numbtongue was actually sitting at a table in the Adventurer’s Guild, practicing on his guitar. It seemed like a suitably fascinating thing to do.

Goblin on a guitar. He had begun work on the Pisces theme-track again. It still was hard.

Pisces wasn’t rock n’ roll. Nor was he ‘pop’—from Terandria’s Singer. Not exactly. Maybe it fit a bit? Pisces was the Horns. Were the Horns…?

They were an odd group. Griffon Hunt was a kind of serious melody that went into hard action. Determined, wounded—they could sort of fit with rock, but were more like a marching song that you could insert into another genre.

The Halfseekers, by contrast, were that chaotic pop. Up and down, highs and lows. They had been the first team to have a Goblin adventurer. They had known betrayal, but they kept going, the friend of outcasts. More classic heroes who, yes, went in hard.

They’d killed a Drake [General] in battle. The Horns? No less important. They’d killed an Adult Creler and stormed the Village of the Dead. So they did fit with that kind of music.

And yet—Numbtongue looked at Ceria and remembered her nearly choking to death on a mouthful of food. Being broiled in a hot tub for ‘training’. Their dynamic, Pisces’ dynamic, didn’t do the seriousness.

“Hmm. Got to work on this one. I need more good musics.”

“What’s that, Numbtongue? Doesn’t Kevin have a playlist on his you-know-what? Actually, I hear there are song crystals all over. Why don’t we get some?”

Erin heard him as she rolled by. Numbtongue brightened up, and a few Bronze-rank adventurers clustering around heard her.

“The Guild has some music. Hey, where’s the song crystal player? And the scrying orb—maybe the Singer’s on?”

They obliged Numbtongue with a catalog of music, and he listened to a few tunes with one ear as the scrying orb came alight.

And Pisces still looked unhappy. Most of the adventurers glancing at him had his class on their lips.

“Erin. Maybe stop telling people his class?”

Numbtongue whispered to Erin. Even the Thronebearers, especially Dalimont, looked at Pisces with a reserve as Erin reminded them of who he was. Yet the [Innkeeper] just turned to the Goblin.

“It’s who he is, Numbtongue. I know what you said. I’ve got a plan, don’t worry.”

“Just don’t hurt him.”

The [Innkeeper] stared into the Goblin’s serious face as Todi walked over to Pisces with a drink. She glanced at Pisces as he smiled weakly at Todi.

“…I’ll try.”

 

——

 

Captain Todi sat down with a fake smile that Pisces returned.

“Not fun being the [Necromancer], I guess? Miss Erin’s doing you no favors, but hey, less leeches. Your time in the sun to shine. I knew it when you two walked into this guild the first time—you were going to stand out.”

“I’m—so grateful you recognized that, Captain Todi.”

You obsequious liar. Todi had all the foresight of Mrsha in front of a cookie jar. Pisces was sure that even if Todi was working for Selys, he didn’t like the Horns or Pisces.

As proof, Todi’s glance was a little too long on Ceria, talking with the most famous teams in Invrisil. There was frank jealousy in his eyes.

“Maybe we should have jumped in on the raid—but then we might have been dead. Play it safe. That’s how my team got to Gold-rank. Todi’s Super-Elites. I’m changing the name. Like it?”

“It’s certainly…unique. I am sure your team would have been a tremendous asset if you had joined in.”

“Yeah, absolutely.”

Todi drained the mug. Then he came out with it.

“Not every team gets as lucky as yours. Emergency-teleporting to Chandrar? I’m glad you’re not full to your heads with ego. You got what one in a thousand teams does—a lucky break.”

“I know that.”

Pisces’ jaw clenched. Finding that scroll and activating it—the [Paladin] coming back to life—yet Todi went on.

“You shook Chandrar right up. Coming off that ship with a [Hero] or whatever, and that undead king-thing?”

“Fetohep of Khelt.”

“Sure. Chandrar’s a fucking weird place, right? Just don’t get in over your head, that’s my advice. Not ill-intentioned. I just see people jump into the fire, thinking they’re now invincible, and they get chewed out. Rhir’s Hells, even Elia Arcsinger did it when she was named Named-rank, back in the day.”

“I will take that under advisement. Believe me—I’ve been humbled.”

Igheriz’s name still itched on his chest. Pisces stared at Todi.

“We’ve made a number of enemies. Like Roshal, Nerrhavia’s Fallen in part—we are well aware of how outmatched we are but for luck and opportunity and allies far above our means. I credit Erin Solstice with much of our survival.”

He meant it, too. She had somehow gotten Fetohep to save their lives, and he still had to ask her why. He wanted to—

But Todi seemed to take this honest statement as a kind of bragging. The Captain narrowed his eyes and pushed his drink back as if it was suddenly bitter.

“Oh, Roshal’s your enemy? Dead gods, man! Roshal and the biggest Stitchfolk nation in Chandrar? That’s what I’m talking about. Fine—you raided a death-zone. Who am I to tell you where you’re at?”

He raised his hands, looking so offended that Pisces nearly tipped the table over and kicked him. He was about to and snapped back.

Believe me, Todi. I know exactly what Roshal can do. I’m as keen to have them as an enemy as that monster in the Village of the Dead.”

His retort made Todi stiffen. It looked like the Gold-rank Captain would snap—then he caught himself, and his eyes flickered.

“Wait. You do still have that million-gold price on your head?”

“I don’t think they removed it just because I travelled a continent away. Yes, I think I might well expect [Assassins].”

Pisces hadn’t talked to his team about that, not in so many words. He was safe deep in Drake or Magnolia Reinhart’s lands—neither were friends to Roshal.

Todi eyed Pisces, and a look of uncertainty flashed in his brown gaze. He hesitated, then released his grip on the table’s edge. Pisces realized he’d been about to flip the table too.

“Oh. You actually meant Roshal was your enemy. Hunting you, that is. Not a boast?”

“Why would I boast about that?”

Pisces’ felt like his eyes were trying to bulge out of their sockets. Todi hesitated, then reached for his drink. He took a swig.

“—Well, your head’s on straighter than I thought. I can respect that. You lot had a rough patch, but that’s Gold-rank right there, surviving what you did.”

Pisces just studied Todi’s face as the man took a huge drink, turning faintly red. Todi turned and pretended to be interested in the scrying orb.

“Say, look at that. Fraerlings on a scrying orb. Never seen that before.”

Pisces was distracted as Todi made his escape. In fact, even the adventurers discussing the loot distribution were staring at a [Mage] speaking to a cluster of tiny people.

—I’m in Talenqual now if you’re just joining in. Speaking to the first Fraerling city to appear in public for over six thousand years since the Creler wars! Excuse me, sir, what do you think of the outside world?

A Fraerling looked up with almost as much awe at the [Mage] as the Human. But she spoke up, a tad bit nervously, with a fairly loud voice for her size.

“I—I think it’s amazing, the Tallfolk’s world! You have so much of everything! Food, buildings—and bugs! Just, everywhere! And all your magic is so, um…interesting! You do things like mill grain by hand. And no one can fly and barely teleport.”

“T-teleport? Well, we can cast that. You must be thinking of Gold-rank adventurers and the like.”

“Yes, exactly! They’re the only ones who can. But we love seeing the outside world and your television-ideas! Hello! Am I on the scrying orb?”

The Fraerling waved a bit off-center, and the Human assured her she was.

“May I ask who I’m speaking to?”

“Oh—Tallguard Noa! Of Feiland. Is this really going to be shown around the world? Will, um—I’ve always wanted to see the King of Destruction and all the famous people like Magnolia Reinhart. Would they see this?”

“I assure you—they probably will! Do you have anything to say to someone you’re a fan of? Wait—do Fraerlings know about, uh, us bigger people?”

Noa frowned.

“Tallfolk? We’ve been watching the broadcasts, and we know a lot about some of your famous ones. Even we hear stories of your adventurers. Right, Resk?”

She turned to a Fraerling hovering over, looking irate. Alchimagus Resk grabbed Noa’s ear as the Wistram Mage stared, dry-mouthed, at the casually-hovering Fraerling, still recovering from his wounds.

“What? Noa, you—yes, we copied all the broadcasts from Wistram’s Academy. They should really put a magical seal on them or anyone can just copy—er, hello!”

The [Mage] looked like he was unsure if he was getting pranked. But he rallied as Sir Relz prompted him.

“Well then—well—why don’t we have an interesting question? Spontaneously—what are your top…ten adventurers? Top five? Who do Fraerlings respect in the world of the Tallfolk?”

Pisces shook his head as Todi wandered off. Noa began huddling with some of her friends. Then someone tugged on his sleeve.

“Pisces. Hey, Pisces. Say hi to this [Mage] for me. Pisces, [Necromancer]. But he’s also a [Mage] and about your level in his other class. Do you have a tip for her?”

A nervous Drake backed up a step, and Pisces—snapped. He smiled at the Bronze-rank [Mage] and grabbed Erin’s arm as the [Receptionist] at the Adventurer’s Guild desk eyed him nervously and handed something to a Street Runner.

Probably to the Watch, telling them to watch out for the [Necromancer] who might loot their graveyards. Pisces couldn’t drag Erin back, so he wheeled her over to a corner and cast a spell.

“Erin. What are you doing? Please, I implore you—stop telling everyone I’m a [Necromancer]!

His voice was only heard by her and Numbtongue, who had wandered close out of concern. Pisces clenched his fists.

“This is already tedious and stressful enough. I would rather—be discussing other matters with you.”

Erin looked up into his face and put her hands in her lap. She looked serious and less shocked than Pisces thought.

“I know, Pisces. I’m sorry we had to postpone it, but I’ll definitely hear you out. If you’re ready to talk about…everything in Chandrar. I have something to tell you, too.”

It struck him like a kick. Pisces staggered and then realized—she knew. She knew he wanted to talk to her. Not only that, her expression told him quite plainly she knew how serious it was.

Rather than feel relieved…he got angry.

“You knew I wished to talk to—you are an [Innkeeper], and you are far too intelligent not to notice. Of course. Why didn’t you ask me?”

Erin blinked up at him. She bit her lip and looked slightly guilty. But then she pushed on her wheelchair and tried to get up. Her legs wobbled—and she leaned on Pisces and Numbtongue as they caught her.

“Damn. I still can’t quite do it.”

Erin smiled weakly. Pisces was supporting almost all of her weight. He hesitated, but she leaned on the wall and looked at him. She was still so…he felt guilty. And angry. And distraught. But Erin just looked him in the eyes.

“I know, Pisces. I do know. But I’ve been waiting until you’re ready to talk to me.”

“You were waiting for me?”

The young man felt…confused. Erin nodded. She braced herself, took a few deep breaths, and stood there a second.

“Yeah. Because—well, because Pisces, I sorta know a bit of what happened. I’m sorry, but someone told me.”

“Who? Wh—”

I have spoken to the dead. Pisces felt a chill run down his spine. He grabbed Erin, but she continued gently.

“Listen. I didn’t want to spring it on you. If it was someone else…Mrsha, or maybe Moore, who needs it, or…I would have brought it up. But you?”

She looked him in the eyes with almost a smile. A guilty one, but with a spark of something Pisces didn’t like. Something like trust.

“—I know you’d talk to me, Pisces. In time. Because you already broke those chains. You survived two monsters, and I want you to tell me everything. That’s also why I came here. When I heard what happened, I was so angry and sad—and proud of you. That’s why I’m doing all of this.”

He was lost for words. She knew—and Erin’s legs were shaking from less than a minute of standing. Numbtongue wheeled the chair over so she could sit, but she kept her feet planted, panting. Pisces looked at her and shook his head.

“I’m not as strong as you pretend, Erin. I did not break any chains. I was—rescued at the end. There was no way out by my power alone.”

“No?”

Erin’s legs collapsed. Pisces slowed her, and she landed in the chair. Cursing, Erin stared down at her legs and punched her knee. She looked up at Pisces and didn’t argue with his statement.

“No, then. Fine. Maybe you’re not that strong. But I do think you were that—glorious.”

That single word turned Numbtongue’s head as he politely pretended not to be listening. Pisces blinked, and Erin waggled a finger.

“Don’t let it get to your head. Or rather…do. Do you get it now? Numbtongue, what’re the cute Fraerlings saying?”

She looked embarrassed despite herself, but Pisces saw her glance at him. Then—he turned his head and saw someone striding towards him.

A [Mage].

Unlike the other adventurers, this was clearly a more academic [Mage]. In fact, he had the Mage’s Guild insignia on his robes—a scrying orb and wand. Pisces blinked as the [Mage] made a beeline for the [Receptionist] who’d been staring at him—then to Pisces.

“Adventurer Pisces Jealnet?”

“That is me.”

Erin stopped rolling towards the scrying orb. She stared suspiciously at the [Mage].

“Hey, buddy. If you’re going to talk about bounties or Roshal, now’s not the time. I have my stabbing knife right here.”

She produced the kitchen knife, and the [Mage] eyed her warily. He stared at Numbtongue, but then handed something to Pisces in a hurry.

“I am the vice-Guildmaster of the Mage’s Guild of Invrisil. Let me assure you that I would not be on business for anything less than the most urgent tasks. No matter what is going on—I have a Five Families priority-[Message] for you, Adventurer Jealnet.”

He said the words, and Ser Lormel’s head twisted around, eyes going wide. Half the adventurers in earshot looked up and fell silent. Pisces’ own eyes widened.

That was the top-level priority used by Mage’s Guilds in northern Izril. It was akin to Chaldion or a Walled City sending a [Message].

“To Pisces? Is Magnolia mad? Is it monsters? Crelers?”

Erin squeaked. The vice-Guildmaster looked exasperated.

“Neither. I don’t know how—but it came through our channels, and I was assured it would happen again unless I contacted you at once. Damned Drakes. A [Receptionist] Salii of Pomle can apparently flag a [Message] spell for priority delivery. Do you know her?”

Salii of Pomle? Pisces—had no idea who that was. But Pomle, he knew. Suddenly, his heart began to pound.

“I—may I see the—?”

“Go ahead. I don’t even know what it says. It wrote itself. And it’s magically sealed. [Receptionists].”

The [Mage] looked ready to spit. Pisces cracked the wax seal as easily as any normal one. He looked down at the writing, and his heart stopped for one second.

One painful, glorious second. The first lines were written by a careful claw.

 

Pisces, it’s Eloque writing through Salii who tells me she can get this to you. Are you well? We’re safe in Pomle for now—

 

She was alive. She and Merr, Bearig—Pisces saw several paragraphs, each in a different style, and a note from Salii at the bottom.

His hands were shaking. He only looked up when he heard a yelp from the side. The vice-Guildmaster had tried to take a look and gotten a poke from Numbtongue and a knife-poke from Erin.

“Pisces? Is it good news or…?”

Erin was glancing anxiously at him. Indeed, Ksmvr had turned from his table and was standing up. Pisces didn’t know what his face was like.

“It’s…good. Very good. Thank you for receiving this. Delivering it, rather.”

The vice-Guildmaster looked mollified. He glanced at Pisces face and sniffed.

“Well—for a Gold-rank adventurer, I suppose it isn’t the poorest thing in the world. Please tell that [Receptionist] we can flag you with a City Runner. Normally. You are a Gold-rank adventurer, aren’t you?”

“You don’t know who he is? This is Pisces. Pisces, a member of the Horns of Hammerad. And a [Necromancer].”

Erin waved her hands at Pisces indignantly. The [Mage]’s face turned from slightly welcoming back to frozen.

“A [Necromancer]?”

And there it was again. Pisces closed his eyes. He held the letter tightly and looked down at the words. Something caught his eye.

 

Pisces, m’boy. 

 

Only Merr would do that. He could imagine her laughing as the [Bandit Lady] wrote. Her handwriting wasn’t that bad—okay, it was messy, but for a [Bandit], it was quite legible. Big writing for her flunkies to be able to decipher.

 

We saw you on the scrying orb with the King of Destruction no less. We’re watching you. Stay out of chains and away from Djinni. Nerrhavia’s fallen back, and we’re thinking of what to do, but you don’t get…

 

They saw him? So they had known he was alive, at least. Pisces was already thinking of something to write back. To apologize and ask—

Then he heard Erin shouting and nearly snapped at her. She was going on about his class.

“[Necromancer]. Yes, I know the Necromancer of Terandria was a thing. So what? No, no. Shut up. Listen. This is Pisces. My friend. He’s the Necromancer of…The Wandering Inn. Hell’s Warden. Do you recognize that title?”

Her voice rose, and the people watching the Goblin or the huge fight amongst the adventurers for treasure turned. Numbtongue glanced at Erin, and then she was wheeling next to Pisces, pointing at him.

“He’s the [Necromancer] of the Horns of Hammerad. And he has more levels than any two Silver-rank adventurers put together. Except you Minotaurs. You don’t count. He doesn’t steal dead bodies. He makes undead out of bear bones, and he does teeth too. The next person who says something disparaging? Captain Todi, give them a kick to the shins for me.”

Erin slapped Pisces on the back. Since she was in her chair, she slapped him on the butt instead. Pisces opened his mouth.

“Erin. What are you doing?”

Then she winked up at him and finally explained.

“I’m telling them who you are, Pisces.”

“I was quite aware I was a [Necromancer] hither to your comments, Erin.”

She nodded reasonably.

“Yes—but they weren’t. Look at these people.”

She waved her hands at Keldrass, Drakes and Gnolls, Humans, an Owl Beastkin, and more. Erin shook her head sadly.

“The only [Necromancer] they know is the Putrid One or Az’kerash. And the Putrid One, well, he wasn’t the worst, but he did a lot of horrible things. You, though? You’re a [Necromancer], and you’re also Pisces Jealnet. It’s time people get that into their heads.”

She tapped the side of her head and looked at him. Then, Pisces began to get it. Erin nodded sharply around.

“This is the coolest [Necromancer] you’ll meet on the continent. Probably! Remember his name. Pisces, the Gold-rank member of the Horns of Hammerad. Pisces…the Nose.

Typhenous had poked his head out of the back rooms. He began choking with laughter, and Erin waved her hands as Pisces recoiled.

“Okay, maybe not that name. But—here’s Numbtongue as well. Numbtongue the [Bard]. Numbtongue the…”

“Don’t give me a name. You’re bad at it.”

The Hobgoblin calmly covered Erin’s mouth, and she looked indignant. But her little speech…Pisces saw people looking confused. Then he wondered if her visit to Invrisil had just been for Numbtongue.

No, of course not. He bent down.

“Erin? You have never, to my knowledge, ever bragged once about our association before now. Why the sudden change of heart?”

The [Innkeeper] beamed up at Pisces, a bit misty-eyed.

“Silly. That’s because you had such a huge ego that it would have gone to your head. You were always sniffing and telling everyone how great you were at magic. And yeah, you had a lot of talent, and you were a good person deep down. Buried. Like, a mile down—”

“I understand. What happened?”

The [Innkeeper] dropped her joking. She sniffed, rubbed at her eyes, then smiled up at him.

“—That Pisces was the same guy who went into the Crypt of Liscor and fought Skinner. He was the same person, fundamentally, who went into Albez. Even the person who fought the Adult Creler. But when you went into the Village of the Dead and everything that came after?”

A gentle finger poked Pisces in the belly.

“…He’s changed a bit. It might go to his head—but this Pisces is the guy who bested Roshal. He’s a true Gold-rank adventurer who met the Death of Chains and sailed with Fetohep of Khelt and the King of Destruction. When they meet you, if someone only sees a [Necromancer], they deserve a kick up the butt. That’s why I’m saying it.”

She gestured around at the guild, the street.

“Be prouder of your class, Pisces. Because you represent it.”

Nervously, beet-red, Erin looked up and saw Pisces’ mouth open. He stood there, looking stupefied, and Erin laughed.

“Don’t let it make you too big-headed. Okay?”

She whirled her chair around. And then Pisces felt like the clouds opened. He held his friends’ letter and knew they were alive. He looked up—and it was like a beam of light was shining down, illuminating him.

The first adventurer pushed forwards, glancing at Erin.

“—I don’t know if I’ve ever introduced myself, but we were in the raid together. [All-Terrain Ranger]. I saw your behemoth-thing clear a street when we were about to get swarmed. I thought I’d never get a chance to thank you. Muskrat’s the name.”

“Muskrat? Er—Pisces. I have to thank you for fighting with us.”

“Thanks.”

The Silver-rank sort of deserved his name; he had a scruffy face full of hair all about the same length, from beard and cheeks to head, so it did sort of feel like a feral animal was inhabiting his face. Yet he sat down, and Pisces saw Erin wheel over with some drinks.

“Order up!”

She left them alone, and more adventurers drifted over. Muskrat was not the only adventurer to make a beeline to Pisces. The [Necromancer] pointed at a familiar young man with faintly burnt robes.

“Levil—Pithfire Hounds? Ryoka’s friend? [Inferno Mage]?”

“You remember! And it’s [Inferno Pyromancer] now. Long-burning flames. Nearly burnt down a forest on a request while we’ve been waiting here. Say—you don’t know what’s going on in the back-rooms, do you? Us Silvers are stuck in here hoping the Gold-ranks don’t cut us out. Your friend Yvlon and some like Typhenous are good enough to clue us in, but we’re feeling sort of nervous.”

Pisces glanced towards the back rooms and at Todi. He was all too conscious of how it must feel to be barred from the ‘elite’ circle.

“If I know Ceria and Yvlon, a fair deal is all but guaranteed. They—I will do my utmost to make it fair. I am familiar with…favoritism.”

He tried to assure Levil and the other anxious Silver-ranks. Then, a loud commotion made him turn his head.

Wh—everyone look at the scrying orb! Look!”

The Fraerlings had finished their deliberations in the background. They were going down a list of top 5 adventurers. Noa was happily listing them off.

“Number one is the Titan of Baleros, Lord Astoragon. Obviously. I know he’s retired, but still. Second? I really like the Stargnoll. She’s the youngest Named-rank adventurer in the world! Third. Um. Third is probably Ksmvr of Chandrar. Because he’s an Antinium. Then I think I’d choose the Hell’s Warden of the sea—Resk, what’s her name…?”

Ksmvr. Suddenly, the Antinium was on the news. Ksmvr looked around as the Adventurer’s Guild erupted into cheers and shouting.

“Ksmvr—get in here! You’re on the news!”

Ceria kicked open the door to the back rooms, and Ksmvr got up. So famous even Fraerlings knew his name. Pisces was smiling for Ksmvr, but the Antinium [Skirmisher] turned.

“Comrade Pisces, shall we go?”

Levil fell silent as he grinned at Ksmvr. Pisces heard a clamor from the Gold-ranks, who were not immune to fame.

“—Maybe we can have Ksmvr live-react via scrying orb. Someone contact Wistram—or Drassi—I do know her.”

Keldrass was talking excitedly. Pisces was getting up when he saw the Silver-ranks gazing longingly into the back rooms. Captain Todi was already striding self-importantly forwards. And Pisces had an idea.

He sat right back down. Ksmvr halted on his way into the ranks of Gold-ranks.

“Pisces? What are you doing?”

“I—shall remain right out here, Ksmvr. Take a seat. My legs are exhausted, anyways. And there are more adventurers outside than in. If there are accolades—let them be here.”

Pisces looked around and saw a pair of twinkling eyes. He snapped his fingers and sniffed.

“[Innkeep]! A round for the table, if you would be so good.”

Erin pretended to grumble, but she snatched some drinks from the nearest counter and wheeled them over on her lap.

“Just once, for you, Pisces.”

The Antinium hesitated only a moment, then he clacked his mandibles together.

“Oh, of course. Dominance. You are always ahead of me, Pisces. Indeed. Drinks! Yes.”

He sat down awkwardly, and Pisces heard the notes of confusion from inside. The Gold-rank adventurers hesitated as they realized Ksmvr wasn’t joining them. And Pisces…he saw Todi come right out the door with Typhenous, who hurried to get a seat next to Ksmvr and Pisces. Then—it was like how Erin treated Invrisil.

Pushing and pulling until a dam burst and the Gold-ranks came out of their hiding spots. Especially as a [Mage]—the same vice-Guildmaster from before—came hurtling down the road with a camera crew. He put a huge smile on his face, adjusted his robes, and spoke.

“Is this on? I’m [Vice Guildmaster] Heroom from Invrisil, reporting into Wistram News Network! Ksmvr of Chandrar is, in fact, here, and if Tallguard Noa would like to say a few words—”

Pandemonium. Pisces had gotten up to help extract Erin from the press of bodies. Grumbling at being in a wheelchair, he and Numbtongue rescued her to a safe distance. Pisces found his chair was occupied—by no less than Captain Todi.

Rolling his eyes, the [Necromancer] saw Yvlon in a heated argument with a Gold-rank Captain refusing to look her in the eyes. She was looking dangerously mad.

Ceria was still arguing with the half-Elf from Elia’s team, who kept grabbing her arm, looking more and more distressed. Ceria was ignoring the man, glancing at Ksmvr and Erin with far more interest. And the drinks.

Pisces, though…he was smiling. The crowd outside the Adventurer’s Guild now had more than the Watch or civilians pointing at Numbtongue. They were pressing in, calling for autographs from Ksmvr, trying to get on camera.

“Whoof. And it’s not even my fault this time. See? I don’t cause that much chaos.”

Erin was talking to Numbtongue as they stood near the edge of the crowd. Some people were asking the adventurers to pass autographs to Ksmvr.

Adventurers being adventurers, half of them just signed the slips of cardboard and passed them right back. Someone actually handed Pisces a piece of cardboard.

“I’m sorry, Ksmvr is quite busy. I don’t believe he has time to sign anything.”

Pisces was actually tempted despite himself, but a trio of people—a Human man, woman, and a Gnoll, all younger than twenty—pointed at Pisces.

“No, you! Can you sign it for us?”

“Me? I…?”

Erin turned with delight as Pisces had a wet quill thrust at him. Flustered, he scrawled his name, saw how poor the signature looked, and tried to correct it. But the young woman who’d asked him for it was delighted. She had travel-robes on with the others, and she smelled a bit like dust, and Pisces supposed she too could have used a bath.

“Thank you! You’re him, right? Pisces the [Necromancer]?”

“That’s me.”

He glanced at Erin, and she shrugged, smiling. The young woman had bright indigo eyes. She leaned forward as she took the autograph card.

“I was hoping to meet you. You’re an inspiration. Silvaria be with thee, friend!”

Pisces’ head snapped up. He turned, but she leapt back into the crowd, looking delighted. He caught sight of her pulling her hood up, and Erin frowned.

“What was that, Pisces? Did she just say…?”

“Silvaria’s gone. What did that mean?”

Pisces saw the trio pause and whispered.

“That’s…an old phrase for how we identify each other. They’re [Necromancers].”

The trio stopped and stared at Pisces. With awe on their faces as they fought for the card. Pisces looked at Erin, and she laughed.

“You have fans.

“I have…fans?”

And then it hit Pisces that not all the people looking for Ksmvr or his way were entirely hostile. Some looked just—impressed. Like they were seeing Jasi or Wesle.

Like they had at Albez. And then Pisces turned and heard his name.

“Pisces Jealnet, also a member of the Horns of Hammerad. A [Necromancer]. What do you think about that, Miss Noa?”

Heroom was still interviewing the Fraerling, and Pisces had missed Ksmvr’s undoubtedly-hilarious exchange. Alas! But the next thing the Fraerling said was heard the world over.

“[Necromancers]? Great! We have, like, a hundred in Paeth. Is he the one who made that giant Frost-Behemoth during the raid? He’s so cool as well! Can I see him?”

Then every head turned to him. The young [Necromancers] pointed and screamed. Erin threw up her hands and laughed. Pisces saw the scrying orb turn to him, and the letter flashed in his mind.

 

We saw you on the scrying orb.

 

Were they seeing him now, as Heroom tried to fight his way over? Ksmvr was getting up, but he was tangled with the adventurers. Yvlon was shouting at the Gold-rank Captain, and Ceria was trying to get up as the other half-Elf clung to her robes, pleading.

And Pisces? He looked around and didn’t really know what to do. Erin gave him a slight nudge, and he stumbled forwards. The young man looked back, and she smiled.

“Pisces—”

 

——

 

The Hobgoblin began to play. So that was what it was. He saw Pisces stumble forward, his white robes slightly messy. His untidy brown hair blew in the wind, but when he caught himself, it was gracefully enough. He turned, and you could see the rapier he carried swing around at his side, catching the light.

A [Fencer]’s grace. And a [Necromancer]’s magic. A slightly supercilious, handsome young man who could embarrass himself or be that hero.

What kind of music did he deserve? Numbtongue had it. No power ballad. But yes, it was pop. Sort of.

The song was both bouncy and melancholy. Happily sad, with all the energy that deserved a chorus on the refrain. Erin’s head turned as Numbtongue began to play.

He didn’t quite have the words to express what this was. But then—he’d never heard the terminology he needed. Euro pop, perhaps. Or a disco song from the 1970’s. Glam rock?

Nostalgic. The [Necromancer] looked around, bewildered, then realized that Heroom wouldn’t make it to him. The television crew was being mobbed by adventurers trying to get their five seconds of fame.

But he was in frame. What would he show the world, the watching fans, young and two hundred years old, his comrades in Chandrar, and Noa?

The Gold-rank adventurer paused—then turned his back. He spread his legs slightly, relaxed his shoulders—and up came one arm.

He raised a thumb and stood there, as if he was signaling for a cab on Earth. A Hobgoblin’s gesture. A simple sign to show anyone everything was okay.

It was either cool or embarrassing, and you could take whichever one you wanted. Erin was clapping her hands and laughing, and Numbtongue couldn’t see Pisces’ face, but the Hobgoblin thought he was smiling.

The Hob played on, that chaotic, happy-sad song. And the Horns of Hammerad came out of the crowd. Dignified?

Ksmvr came crowd-surfacing out of the sea and landed on his back-shell, waving all four arms around as he tried to rock back up to his feet.

A giant metal fist punched a Gold-rank Captain past Pisces and Ksmvr as Yvlon, wiping blood from one nostril, advanced on her opponent. She froze as she saw the scrying orb and tried to smile and hide her bloody fist behind her back. She made a peace sign with two fingers.

Last came Ceria, who flipped the half-Elf clinging onto her over the table. She landed on a chest and grabbed a mug and basket of french fries. She swung herself into place next to Pisces, drinking unapologetically in that glimpse of them.

The Horns of Hammerad. Then, Pisces was laughing and trying to look impressive. And he was sure—the laughter wasn’t just coming from Captain Todi and his friends.

In Pomle, the Fraerlings, and whomever you wanted—they were either laughing or cheering and shouting his name.

The [Necromancer]. Yes. But say it right.

This was Pisces, the [Necromancer]. Member of the Horns of Hammerad.

The one you liked. Pisces rubbed at one teary eye and nodded at Erin. At last—he thought he was ready to talk to her.

 

——

 

Smile. A young Fraerling was laughing, around Tallfolk, and she looked like the happiest person in the world. For a moment.

Dreams did come true. Just not for everyone. Yet Niers Astoragon had been the first Fraerling out in the world. If not for his company, perhaps this wouldn’t have followed.

That was an older man’s reward, he supposed. Even so—Niers flew back from Paeth on the Coast after an entire day of talking. He couldn’t spare any more, and while he’d be back—he didn’t have a part in this new city as a contributor.

He was an outsider. Niers couldn’t even blame Ekrn for the decision; the Fraerling’s choice had been as pragmatic as anything else. The Forgotten Wing company was a dangerous ally for Paeth, who would want to play the board.

Having a powerful Fraerling city backing an individual Great Company made it a target for destruction.

It was just—

Not him? Niers Astoragon slunk back to his academy, landing the war-pigeon in the aviary, and stood at the entrance to the Fraer-ways a second.

Foliana was already there to greet him. It might have been Perorn—but the Centauress was another continent away. The Squirrel Beastkin rolled her deathtrap wheelchair around.

“They didn’t want you, did they? Mm. Thought so.”

“I’m so thankful you didn’t tell me beforehand. I couldn’t do with you rubbing it in.”

Niers briskly fed the bird some grapes, patting it on the beak as he avoided looking at her. One giant, furry paw reached up.

“Poor Titan. There, there.”

Niers let her pat the pigeon on the head. He just shook his head and stood as tall as possible. Although his dignity didn’t exactly matter in the aviary, with birds of all sizes chirping, cawing, or honking at him. It was getting fuller than usual. Had the [Beast Master] imported a trained goose? Niers was not riding that thing. He turned to Foliana, smiling ruefully.

“I’m proud of them, truly. They opened their Last Box, you know. They saw…Gnomes. At least, one of them did.”

“Really?”

The patting slowed, and Foliana poked her head up as the pigeon cooed. She offered a hand, and Niers stepped onto it.

“They didn’t say much. Apparently, the Last Box was a kind of weapon against something? The other cities aren’t sure if Paeth is crazy or lying or whether their Last Boxes no longer matter. Neither am I, but the Fraerling who saw the Gnome, Ilekrome, swears that saved his city.”

“Ghosts.”

Foliana wheeled Niers down from the aviary. He nodded, making notes for his spy network.

“Paeth is looking for someone—they didn’t want to tell me who. I’ll try to get it out of the [Strategists]. They might work with Paeth and Talenqual. Who knows?”

“Will they be coming back for lessons?”

“Yes…and won’t that be interesting?”

Niers almost smiled, wondering if Feshi would—no, not her. But it would be something to have the Diamond Swords of Serept sharing a place with Fraerling magic. He looked forwards to that. Foliana hummed quietly.

“And the Goblin told you no.”

“…She did. Although I have an idea about that. Maybe. Something—but we won’t keep the other cities, I think. We’ll have two cities and about six minor ones. That will do, and we’ll put diplomacy first for the others. Don’t worry about it.”

“I’m not. In all of this running about, did you even eat lunch?”

Niers’ stomach rumbled slightly. He opened his mouth and saw the bloody sunlight streaming through the window as evening deepened.

“—I’m sure I had some snacks in one of the meetings. Haven’t you eaten?”

“Mm. I was going to have a bite just now. Let’s go get food.”

In her way, he supposed the Squirrel Beastkin was being considerate of him. Now, if Perorn were here—he was sure she’d be her annoying self. He hated that she could read him, but if anyone could…

“I guess I can put off meeting Emissary Vuul for a few more minutes. We could do a formal dinner—but I don’t think you’ll go for that.”

Foliana rolled down past the Fraer-ways placed overhead in most hallways. Niers spotted a few servants running down the hallways. Must be rats again. Damn. They were in a hurry. Or maybe they were just having races.

To be young. A pair of servants rushed upwards with baskets heaped with food. Cut small in familiar Fraerling-sized portions. Niers looked amused.

“Going to stuff me full? Or is Vuul—ah, wait. Gindal needs supplies. Can we send a war-hawk with a bag of holding ahead of the troops?”

“Mhm. Good idea. Hmm—let’s eat here.”

Foliana diverted from the dining room. Niers supposed she wanted something poetic, like sipping cups of tea from the balcony. Then she’d tell him he wasn’t old and say something to cheer him up.

A game of chess. He swore he’d seen Erin Solstice in the background with those crazy adventurers.

“The thing about the Goblins is…I had a thought on how to at least make things whole with Reiryul and the other cities. It’s a long shot, but—wait a second. Where are we going?”

They weren’t headed to any balcony or a regular room. Niers had been so lost in his own melancholy-tinged thoughts he hadn’t noticed something was up at first.

Just like when Peclir had betrayed him—only this time, he glanced up and saw the glint in Foliana’s gaze. The too-casual way she turned her wheelchair.

“Foliana…I’m not in the mood for—hey!

She grabbed him as Niers backed up. Her fingers encircled his arms, and he wiggled, outraged, but didn’t activate any of his artifacts. The Squirrel gave him a big smile—then hopped out of her wheelchair.

“Put me down, you giant rat! Put me down. I’m not going to play your games. Oh no. Don’t you dare—

He saw the world move crazily as she raised her arm back. He knew what she was going to do and roared.

You crazy rod—

Then she threw him. For a [Rogue], it was an easy toss. She could put a knife in an opponent’s eye at a thousand paces—hurling a Fraerling through the air without breaking his neck was only a matter of the right motion.

Niers went spinning through the air, not sure where she was yeeting him. His long shout turned into alarm when he saw—she was throwing him straight at a wall.

That was going to hurt, armor or not! Niers braced himself and saw a blur bound past him.

Foliana. She was so fast that she could throw a ball into the air and run to where it was landing if she wanted. He saw her bound over to the wood paneling—and like the Dead Rogue’s Casket—

She slid the panel aside. The secret compartment opened, and Niers realized it was one of the entrances they had built into the Fraer-ways—

—ent! Gah!”

Niers crashed into Fraer-ways and slid down a table, scattering plates, cups, and paper as shouts and screams broke out. He crashed into a chair, went flying over the other end, and landed on his feet.

He remembered his Tallguard training enough to execute an emergency course-corrective flip. Niers was actually proud of that one. He stumbled upright and drew his sword.

Foliana, you are a dead woman! Three-Color Stalker loses an eye today! I did it to the Witch of Webs. I’ll do it to you!

The angry Fraerling was charging across the room at the smirking Squirrel closing the hatch when he saw a cowering figure in front of him.

“Ah, cats. Emissary Vuul? I apologize for—”

Niers froze, sword drawn. That tore it. Foliana, that idiot, had officially severed ties with Reiryul. Niers reached down with his other hand, and then, finally, the room caught up around him.

He’d crashed through a lot of paper and porcelain. Not just your average amount for a Fraerling emissary’s dinner. Piles of paper, really.

And enough to have fed all his guests. Which made sense if Gindal and the other representatives were eating with Vuul, but Niers was almost sure the [Explorer] would rather eat in acid rain than with the Emissary.

Also, two baskets of food would feed every Fraerling, including the servants and Niers, in the citadel for weeks. The hurrying servants he’d seen came together with Niers’ noting the birds in the aviary in one moment.

The Titan slowly looked down at the Fraerling whom he’d never met, then heard someone clear her throat. He looked up and saw a Fraerling sitting at the table with both boots resting on the wood.

“You know how to make an entrance, Titan. Next time, couldya not scatter half our maps to the winds?”

The [Grandmaster Strategist] looked at a woman who reminded him of Ekrn. Not because the hair was the same—hers was fury-red and combed. But her leather armor and the spear leaning against the table were the kind of gear a Fraerling used to mobile fights in the open carried.

She also had actual scars, which made her different from regular Fraerlings at once. In fact—a black eyepatch with an eye painted over the top was giving him the evil eye.

Literally. Niers felt like it was draining some of his energy until the Fraerling flipped the eyepatch up and revealed an empty eye socket. She put her boots down as the rest of the room got up.

“Trapped rooms. I am going to insist we relocate headquarters to a room without access by Tallfolk. Or at least Three-Color Stalker. Our Tallguard didn’t even see it coming.”

A grumbling Fraerling climbed back on what looked like a scrying orb with a pillow on top. He balanced on it as it zoomed left and right, and the papers still landing flew back into their piles.

“That’s on us, Thremagus. We cede our role to Itelloi’s Tallguard. They at least noticed it coming.”

Niers’ head turned, and a man, a Fraerling man, spoke with a slightly muffled sound. Mostly because of the adamantium helmet he wore.

The Crelerbane Armor warrior nodded to a shadow who had dodged Niers when he came flying into the room and pulled two more Fraerlings out of the way. She nodded and flicked a weighted dagger towards Foliana’s fingers as the [Rogue] went to close the opening.

Niers saw a blur—and the dagger came flying back. The Fraerling wearing a shifting veil of shadows caught the dagger.

Nimble. For a Tallfolk.”

Titan of Baleros. Good to see you! You’re looking as exciting as ever!”

Before Niers could say anything, the last figure in the room strode up, seized Niers, and nearly cracked his ribs.

The biggest Fraerling yet, a huge, broad-shouldered figure, grinned widely as he squeezed Niers out of breath. He put Niers down, and the Titan saw a beetle shell armor, bright blue with a slightly prismatic shine to it, covering his body.

“Commander Rozcal? What is Reton’s Tallguard doing here?”

Niers recognized this Fraerling of all the others. The far south of Baleros was hot, humid, and the Fraerlings there were protected by the Tallguard of Reton. Their leader was famous for wrestling giant beetles.

Rozcal laughed.

“Waiting for you! I didn’t think you’d come flying in, but that’s just like the first time we met. Dragging an entire army onto my doorstep with you and that blasted squirrel. Foliana’s looking well. We brought de-cursing artifacts as a gift, but apparently some [Innkeeper] beat us to it!”

Niers Astoragon, once he could breathe, looked around and saw the room again, clearly. The Fraerling with her boots up on her table raised one hand.

“Lord Titan. I’m going to call you Titan or Niers. Please do likewise. Eirnos of Culqe of Eyes. And to be clear—we’re not going to go on officer-killing runs for your wars. My Tallguard don’t go on suicide missions.”

He just looked at her. Niers’ mind was spinning, but he didn’t miss the other armed Fraerlings and helpers clustered at the entrances to the Meeting Rooms. Watching him. Not all were as cool as the ones in this room. They pointed at him, and then Niers felt it.

[Battlefield Awareness]. He could pull up an awareness of the surrounding area. Even if they weren’t foes—his ability to see things from above via [Hawk’s Surveillance] was no help here, but Niers could still get a rough count.

How many Fraerlings are in my academy?

He couldn’t count them. The Fraer-ways hummed with motion, and then Niers saw Explorer Gindal, righting a cup of spilled tea. He looked around and spoke.

“I apologize, guests of the Forgotten Wing Company. My commander, Foliana, likes to play pranks. I hope I haven’t disturbed much?”

“It’s your cutlery.”

Eirnos tossed a broken bit of plate back on the table. The other Fraerlings sat down, and Niers looked around.

Damn Foliana. The obvious thing to do would be to say, ‘what’s happening?’ and get a response. But that was embarrassing. It was a game, and so he improvised.

“I’m sure this has been asked but can I get you anything? Are you all settled?”

“We could use your actual reports on the movement of Jungle Tails. And—frankly—we’re going to want more rooms. Actual, Tallfolk rooms.”

Eirnos seemed to be in charge, because she answered while checking her nails. Her boots were still up, and Niers stared at them.

The boots stayed where they were.

“Is it—Commander Eirnos? I’ve never been to Culqe.”

Niers tried. The Fraerling woman smiled at him, and he thought she knew he had no idea what was going on.

“Technically, I’m Commander of the Tallguard for my region. If you’ve never heard of Culqe and have no idea what it is, let’s keep it that way. If the Titan doesn’t know—we’re doing our jobs. I think I’ve been appointed—what was it? Iuncuta-Commander in interim. I don’t report to you, in other words. But we’ll share resources.”

“Naturally.”

Niers tried again. The other Fraerlings were all watching him, and Rozcal’s chuckle was loud behind Niers.

“Three-Color Stalker didn’t tell him after all. I told you she was like that.”

Gindal laughed, and the room filled with chuckles as Niers sighed and relaxed. The jig was up. He raised his hands.

“I can guess. Let me give it one shot.”

His heart was pounding out of his chest. He nodded to the embarrassed Fraerling in armor.

“Crelerbane forces. At least…three Tallguard representatives, and I’m counting two Commanders of entire Tallguard regions.”

He nodded at Rozcal and Eirnos. He got nods, and the shadowy Fraerling raised her hand.

“I’m not a commander. Just our representative. A huge admirer, Titan.”

Niers blinked, and then went on, somewhat unsteadily. A feeling was rising in his chest, and he gazed around as he made logic out of this.

“—This is an unprecedented meeting. If I’m right, my academy has thousands of Fraerlings in it.”

“More arriving tomorrow. But go on.”

Eirnos looked at him, and Niers took a breath. That all but confirmed it.

“Your title. That’s old-language. Might I ask what it means?”

Her eyes glinted, and she grinned. She had pointed teeth—some difference in biology?

Iuncuta means ‘combination’. A fancy title for someone appointed joint head of…”

“…A multi-settlement task force. You’re here about the ransomed Fraerling city.”

Niers finished. His heart was pounding, but no other reason in the world would make so many Fraerlings gather. He amended that.

“Either that or you’re here on behalf of Paeth. Or to take me to task for failing to protect Oierdressql.”

He hoped it wasn’t that last one, but the Fraerlings nodded. Each one, the [Mage] on the floating seat, Eirnos, Rozcal, took a seat as they faced the Titan. Eirnos spoke, pointing one finger at him.

“You’re correct, Titan. We represent over sixteen cities.”

Sixteen? Niers had never been to that many actual cities in his life. Even other Fraerlings didn’t know where their cousins were exactly, for safety. Yet Eirnos went on.

“We’re here to take Jungle Tails to account. If a Fraerling city is held hostage and if our people are alive—we will free them. Great Company or not. Paeth is free to do what they wish, but we’ll have words. But you were only half-right. We came here seeking Forgotten Wing support, and your Foliana agreed to lend us soldiers, resources, and your academy. We’ll be headquartering here, rather than any one city in case of reprisals and so that we’re unified. You are not our commander, but I will be working with you.”

The hairs on the back of his neck were rising. Niers saw the Fraerlings nodding and felt the buzz in his academy. So many Fraerlings. Thousands?

But he’d built Elvallian to hold that many. They’d have to open the old rooms, ensure everything was safe—Niers looked into the eyes of the Tallguard, and she was not afraid of him. She knew exactly who he was. That was why she’d sought him out.

“The second reason we came in such numbers is because every single one of us might be needed. If it was just Nagas, we’d send kill-teams into their forts when we found them. However, our Farspeakers have been talking, and we agree—no one city alone can hope to pierce into the Dyed Lands. The colors are not ceasing their advance. Monsters are overrunning cities nonstop. It’s not just Fraerlings in danger.”

The Dyed Lands. Niers exhaled, and Gindal spoke up.

“If my people are there—I will find them. But if not, a Great Company needs to halt this disaster. Worse might follow. Niers Astoragon, are you willing to send the Forgotten Wing at this foe?”

It was a formality, but they all watched his expression. And oh, but he tried. The Titan did his best—

But was it wrong that he smiled? Despite the loss of life, despite the danger? He knew it was wrong, because it would be costly and people would die—

Yet, at last. At last, a foe without morality. A cause—people to save. The Titan of Baleros looked around and saw his people in his home. He straightened his back and nodded.

“I couldn’t build you a city. Nor keep other settlements safe. I will admit, the Forgotten Wing company guards its own interests, and we grab for power.”

He looked from face to face as they watched him.

“…I can’t protect or save or liberate. But war? I can do war. Welcome to the Forgotten Wing Company.”

Then, at last—he did smile.

 

——

 

Rhisveri Zessoprical stood among the immortals of Ailendamus. Well, it was impossible for him to stand with his real body, but his representative stood.

Better that than a sock puppet. If that was the judge and arbiter, Ryoka Griffin would laugh her way to the headsman’s block.

…Was it going to be that? She didn’t think so. She hoped not. If she was going to die—well, Ryoka thought it would be so fast no one could stop him.

So she waited as Visophecin and the others watched Rhisveri. He looked…calm. Menorkel was there. Gilaw was not.

She didn’t want to look at Ryoka. Even now, Menorkel gazed at Ryoka, replaying Fithea’s death.

There was a remove in the immortals, and many gazed at Ryoka with more wariness than they had shown any other mortal. She had brought death to Ailendamus, but even more—the knowledge that their great kingdom might not be the biggest fish. The ocean was pouring in, and they were afraid.

Fearful people did silly things. Perhaps immortals had learned their lessons, but Rhisveri was learning what it was like to lose someone. Possibly for the first time.

Yet he spoke, rather grandly, into the silence.

“Here stands a thief.”

Oh no, not again. Uziel rolled his eyes, and Visophecin looked exasperated. However, Rhisveri went on.

“Here stands a thief. A knave who has not only stolen the knightly virtues of several members of Ailendamus’ most elite warriors—”

Ryoka turned beet red. He was bringing that up?

“—But a murderer who has slain Fithea, the last of Dryads. She has attempted bribery of heads of state, endangered the life of Ailendamus’ royal family, slandered a number of those present—”

“Oh, come on. Rhisveri. Will you really do this? You might as well add kicking Sariant Lambs to her list of crimes.”

Uziel wheeled his chair around and snapped at Rhisveri. One of the Merfolk looked horrified.

“She did that?”

“If she did, I vote to pardon her on the spot.”

Azemith called out lightly, and chuckles ran through the crowd. Rhisveri, however, just stared at Azemith until the Lucifen’s expression darkened and she fell silent.

There was a danger in the air, and Visophecin was watching Ryoka. He had one hand in his pocket, and the Wind Runner didn’t know it, but he had a dart enchanted with a [Teleportation] spell coded to go through Ailendamus’ wards.

It might hurt, but it would hurt less than Rhisveri melting her. The Wyrm was…too calm.

“She has done more damage to Ailendamus than any one individual. More, even, than Archmage Eldavin. Yet many of those gathered here claim she is no more than a hapless agent and should be pardoned and treated as an ally.”

The Duke turned to Sophridel, and the Elemental of Masks spoke up.

“She is worth far more alive than dead, Rhisveri. That is purely logical. You may add disruption to the Court of Masks and attempted assassination of an Archmage to her crimes.”

Rhisveri snorted lightly.

“I will. Although I take your meaning. All of these crimes may be excused. All—save one. And that is slaying an Immortal of Ailendamus. I have said it—there can be no other answer than death.”

“Hear, hear! Off with her head!”

Lady Paterghost pumped one fist into the air before Nube made her take it down. No one else joined in, much to her displeasure. Rhisveri was looking at Ryoka.

What was his answer to his rage and sadness? She hadn’t figured out a suitable bribe before he summoned her here. There was no bribe, frankly. Offering something for a life, any life, let alone a Dryad’s?

“—I have deliberated long on this matter. At last, I have decided Ryoka Griffin is free to go pending one condition.”

The immortals looked astonished. Even Visophecin. Then worried—this sudden about face did not bode well. Ryoka gulped.

“If I can just say—”

A Rhisveri sock-puppet popped out of the ground, smacked her so hard the stick broke, and vanished. The immortals stared at the swearing Courier and then at Rhisveri. He pretended nothing had happened, and even for the ageless of Ailendamus—you really had to doubt the proof of your eyes.

“As I was saying. I am willing to overlook the death of Fithea given the circumstances, but a price must be paid. A price…rendered unto me and Ailendamus. Fitting for the death of the last Dryad. Ryoka Griffin. You came here to save your friend, this ‘Erin Solstice’, and steal a treasure to effect that. A task beyond belief. An impossible quest, one might say. Since <Quests> seem to be the thing of the day, I think I shall assign you one as well. Though I have no Skills, I will enforce it with a simple…time limit.”

He pointed at her, and Ryoka’s heart sank. Uh oh. Rhisveri pondered, tapping his lips.

“One year. Oh, very well, ten.

He amended it as Visophecin shot him a long glare. Rhisveri snapped his fingers.

“Ten—and until that moment, Ryoka Griffin is not to set foot in Ailendamus. She will contact no immortals nor have any aid rendered to her, not even word or look. Ten years and she dies if every soldier in the Kingdom of Glass and Glory must hunt her down. I’m sure ten is enough for a task just as impossible as the first.”

She’d done impossible quests before. Ryoka licked her lips. How bad could it be? Rhisveri’s smile was too-wide.

“Are you ready, Courier?”

“I—I am. How can I redeem myself, Duke Rhisveri?”

The Wyrm raised one hand.

“You slew the last Dryad in the world. The last of a race. Her dream was for her kind to flourish, and it will be centuries, millenia, perhaps, before a forest in Ailendamus can bear her kind.”

Uh oh. Ryoka knew what he was going to say before he said it. Sweat began to roll down her spine.

Rhisveri went on.

“Then—it would be eminently suitable for you to make this up by finding a child to fulfill that wish. Render unto Ailendamus a Dryad. Find a child or let a forest birth one into the world and bring them here.”

Oh no. Ryoka was sweating now, and the Lucifen and Agelum were protesting. But the other immortals were nodding. Rhisveri held up one finger with a smile.

“Ah—but one more thing, Ryoka Griffin? As Fithea was of this world—so must the Dryad be. No outsiders. Ten years. When you leave, a geas will bind you and slay you if you so much as send a [Message] to anyone here.”

Ten years. An impossible task. Visophecin was arguing along with Sophridel, but the Wyrm’s eyes fixed Ryoka with a look.

Anger, grief…and almost hope. Desire. Not just greed. He was such a damn liar.

Show me her future. Show me another. Can you do it?

Ryoka Griffin closed her eyes as the immortals looked at her. She bowed her head…then a thought occurred to her.

“Wait a second. Maybe…”

She had a sudden thought. Didn’t she know of a certain seed? It was a super-long shot, but she suddenly recalled—

The Wyrm’s face went slack as Ryoka’s look of determined despair gave way to a sudden thought. He glanced at Visophecin, and the Lucifen’s eyebrows had vanished into his hairline.

“Wait. You don’t know where a Dryad child is, do you?”

“N-no. But I’ll try to—I mean, who would?”

Ryoka put her hands behind her back. Lady Paterghost stage-whispered to the others.

“She is lying.”

“Even one of my fair cousins could tell you that. You know where a Dryad’s child is? No, you must know where a seed is.”

“I don’t—”

Ryoka flushed, and Rhisveri looked sideways at Uziel. The Agelum was chortling. Rhisveri looked left and right.

“…I also want an elixir of immortality. Do you know where to find one of those? Oh, and a flying island.”

He spoke incredibly sarcastically. Ryoka shook her head. But then hesitated.

If King Arthur was in the lands of the fae…why not Gilgamesh or something? And would a spaceship count as—?

The immortals of Ailendamus watched Ryoka’s face. One of the Merfolk raised a hand.

“Ask her if she can also produce a fountain of youth. See? She’s thinking about it.”

The exasperated Wyrm silenced the others, but he looked at her. Questioningly. Ryoka raised her head to meet his gaze and nodded.

“I don’t know if I can do it—but I can try.”

The Wyrm nodded. He raised one hand, and Ryoka felt the magic in the room intensify.

“In that case, I bind you to your task. Stand back. The [Greater Geas] will—”

Rhisveri broke off. The magic surging around the room, visible like mist in the air, abruptly went still. All the immortals looked at him—then up.

A shrill siren began to blare from one of Uziel’s pendants. A high-pitched whine above most people’s hearing came out of one of Visophecin’s rings. Rhisveri’s eyes opened wide, and he cursed.

Name of Djinni! What’s breaking through the—

Sophridel spoke urgently.

“Someone is shattering our teleport wards. They’re teleporting over the border.

“It’s the Archmage!”

One of the immortals shouted in alarm. Visophecin’s eyes narrowed.

“No. It’s not. To arms.”

Ryoka’s head slowly rose, and Rhisveri’s eyes found her. She felt her heart squeeze in her chest suddenly.

There was only one person it could be. Only one would have reason to be here. She was running outside with the others when they saw the air warp. It was almost unnoticed in the clouds, but Ryoka saw something emerge. She didn’t see what it was—it vanished too soon, and Azemith cursed.

“It went invisible! [Greater Invisibility]. Did I see it right?”

“Yes. You did. I think a guest has come to Ailendamus. Rhisveri?”

“I am going to greet him. I didn’t expect this. Bold, to teleport in. He must fear nothing.”

The Wyrm whispered. His fake form vanished, and Ryoka whirled to the palace in alarm.

Bold indeed, to teleport into the nest of immortals. It bespoke an arrogance typical of his kind—enough to alarm even Visophecin because of the sheer confidence.

Or—perhaps—if you thought about it another way—it was the act of a Dragon who reached the sea and decided there was no way he was going to fly or float across that. Azemith looked at Visophecin.

“Was it a…?”

The Lucifen looked at Ryoka and nodded.

“Yes. It was a Dragon.”

 

——

 

[Goblin Soulbard Level 37!]

[Skill – Song: Ballad of the Horns of Hammerad created.]

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: This is the longest chapter of Volume 9 yet. I regret everything.

Would you believe…I had the entire confrontation with Teriarch planned as part of this chapter? I guess old habits still die hard.

Anyways, I have a lot to say. But I am so exhausted I can’t say it. In brief—I hope this chapter was in some way good. I worry that I lacked for sleep or energy and didn’t hit every scene, but I tried, darn it.

You’ve gotta try. This is where editing might have really helped, but I’ve worked for at least 18 hours over three days. Probably more. I’m gonna hit publish soon and hope you like it. Uncertainty, hard work, and the death of hands.

This is The Wandering Inn’s style. Thanks for reading and see you next chapter. I have no idea what it’ll be about. Persua, probably.

 

How to Carry Your Innkeeper by ArtsyNada!

 

Belavierr and Angry Belavierr by seenkay!

 

Cast of The Wandering Inn by butts! (Yes, that was their username.)

 


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51 thoughts on “9.05 NPR

    • Yeah I thought that was a bit weird but then I realised that Menorkel is a Titan, isn’t he? Possibly still due for some kind of edit having just had a Neirs segment.

    • Whirling dervish-

      A dervish is a a member of a Muslim religious order. As innworlders are not familiar with similar words (e.g priest) I would replace this with ‘whirling tempest’

    • Minor incontinency: this chapter says: “Yet…this was the first time a Hob had been to a bathhouse. Would they turn him away?” 9.05

      But after the siege of liscor in ch 6.02
      Numbtonge already entered the bathhouse:
      …”Yes, but if a Goblin enters the baths, we’ll have to drain the entire thing!”

      “Why?”

      “It’s a Goblin.”

      The Drake looked at her as if she was insane. Lism was still arguing, following the [Guardsmen] at a safe distance. One of the Gnolls with a bow and no arrow nocked just stared at Numbtongue as he bent to touch the hot water. The day manager groaned.

      “He’s never seen a bath before? He’s tasting the water.”…

      *In the discord someone did Bring up the counter argument that it’s the first time a goblin enters as a customer.

    • “operadic rock” should read “operatic rock” unless you mean rock related to the mathematical concept of operads.

    • “Oh—and the brutes who kept dragging prisoners out for torture weren’t Ryoka’s guards.
      They were actually Dame Chorisa and another [Knight] of the Thirsting Veil.”

      Bad referent for “They”; it sounds like the brutes are Dame Chorisa and friend. It might work as “Those were”.

      “What…was that display?”

      Not exactly a typo, but I can’t tell whether Visophecin or Ryoka said this.

      “Yvlon was changing from Gold-rank back rooms to the front, and Ceria was talking with a half-Elf representing Arcsinger’s Bows.”

      I’m not sure what the part about Yvlon means. Possibly she was “charging”? And possibly there should be a “the” before “Gold-rank”.

      “Alright” -> “All right” x9

  1. “Titan, you never fail to disappoint.“ – I think this might be a commonly misused idiom, but wouldn’t this mean the soldier is telling Niers he always disappoints?

    • Someone who fails to disqppoint is someone who *can’t* disappoint you. So Niers always “appoints” or impresses rather.

      • Yes, but the sentence has a “never” in there, meaning he always succeeds at disappointing. It should be “always fail to disappoint” or something like that.

  2. For anyone interested in hearing what Mrsha’s song might sound like check out SystemGlitch’s “Doombringer” track. Fits it perfectly.

  3. Every bit of this chapter was fantastic and I think you did so well. The difference from when you began is beyond notable and every bit of this chapter hit emotional notes so well. This really was brilliant and I can’t wait for more. This initial confrontation finally happening in earnest has me on edge and I’m sorry it couldn’t be fit into this chapter but it only has me that much ready for the next. Please know that you are doing great work and that this is literally the best story I’ve ever read.

  4. Really enjoying the emotional arc in this one. Pisces has a level of complexity a fictional character can only get after several million words and his development has been tear jerking to read. After all of the trials of Volume 8 this volume, and this chapter in particular, have been so chalk full of warmth, heart, and much needed healing.

    Anytime Numbtongue was playing I threw on Rodrigo y Gabriela on Youtube just to get some electric Spanish Guitar action going.

    I will also say that I have been loving seeing so many different threads and characters finally come within each other’s spheres without it coming off as fan service or feeling rushed as it did with many similar moments in Game of Thrones for example. The victories and character collisions have felt earned and long sought after.

    To counter some of the Author’s Note I would say this chapter in particular has some exemplary writing in that shows both growth and interest from Pirate. I say this after having been re-listening to the audio books of earlier volumes lately. The descriptions and characterizations have come a long way and there were just some great lines in here.

    I lost it at this line (contextually):
    Okay, it wasn’t just about Erin.

    I really lost it at this line:
    Numbtongue had the same energy as an old man, regardless of species, who would lean on you—naked—while having a casual chat.

    Thanks for the great chapter, Pirate. It hit the spot (right in the soul) and you are a writing machine. Please get some rest.

  5. Honestly, the first four paragraphs about the man who lies, I was thinking it was talking about Bird, not Pisces 😅

    “Yes. That was the story of Erin Solstice. Quiet at first, then building. She was easy, in a sense.” – Phrasing, Numbtongue!!

  6. Okay, that art of how (not) to carry an innkeeper is adorable!

    And this chapter was incredible, I’m loving everything that’s going on, the plot advancement, loose ends being tied up, only to tease future ones etc. 11/10

  7. Got to admit out of everything I had seen. Goblin [bards] figuring out music, A [Necromancer] dealing with survivor’s guilt, and all the emotional twists and turns…

    A wyrm with sock puppets was the most surprising… And childish which in many ways make sense.

    Build an entire kingdom focus on making the greatest magic so that eventually after all of those years they could learn how to copy a scroll that could bring dead people back to life.

    Only to then find the land of the dead… Vanishing and left empty preventing the revival still from working even if he still had it.

    A childish temper tantrum does make a bit of sense in that regard.

    • It’s worse than that, really. If you pay attention to his story about meeting Fithea, she was effectively his *actual* mother. He met her while he was still subterranean, which we know was basically the first stage of life for the wyrms. She taught him language and magic, was his mentor.

      So his idea of copying the scroll crashed, AND Ryoka killed his “mother”, just in time for her ghost to be consumed so that she can never be recalled…

  8. I have some music recommendations for… Numbtongue. Eclectic musicians and bards should know some of these higher level artists: Animals As Leaders, Attacca Quartet, Beirut, Buckethead, Chopin, Consider The Source, Cymande, Emancipator, Khruangbin, and Muete all pretty good at invoking a theme through sound. The rabbit hole of new music each of those will lead a person down is quite broad in scope, but I think Khruangbin just lends itself to theme music or atmosphere. The art of story telling with words is a hole different rabbit hole however. Enjoy!

  9. As a euro pop enthusiast, I’d recommend Red Light Means Danger by Billy Ocean as the closest I could get to your description :D was the closest i could find

    Great chapter as always, made me feel many of the emotions, grinning and tearing up all over the place

  10. I ponder on how much longer the council will hold onto the door.

    It was moved out of “respect” but now after she’s been revived, it’s being kept to prevent… EXCUSES!

    I would assume Erin will find a way to take back her property.

    Also, Shriek Blade… Is she going to find out that the flowers belong to Erin? Not Lyonette.

    For that matter, is the Ring back in Erin’s possessions?

    Imagine, the door being upgraded to “Grand Teleport”. The possibilities!

    The Crossroads. Are they stationary places amongst the continents? Only Pirateaba knows. But if they aren’t… could the Inn be infused permanently with the one on Izril? Questions abound.

    Pisces. Certainly deserves to see his quest of getting his freed individuals to Liscor and in the Inn.

    The complexities of being in the slave class as he still is. Makes me wonder if he feels like he somewhat deserves to be. He hasn’t tried to Rebel class it up yet.

    I think Erin’s special kind of magic and abilities would help those afflicted freed individuals.

    Who will help them cross the sea? Maybe we’ll find out!

    Looking forward to that.

    On the next episode of Dragon Ba….

  11. I have a theory that the Horns of Hammerad might become immortal. Each of them has their own way to do it, or at the very least 3 of 4 for sure have a way to become immortal, and 1 is likely to find it.
    Ksmvr – With the rite of Anastases he can die and come back any number of times, especially if the antinium start spreading as a result of becoming an accepted species around the world. His reputation and their actions in protecting the gnolls in the plains have undoubtedly helped immensely in that regard.
    Yvlon – She might become a fully-silver person and would be effectively immortal at that point, especially with her apparent regenerative ability.
    Pisces – Pisces might become a necromancer on-par with Perril Chandler as a new Archmage of Death. He’ll be as immortal as Az Kerash is, at the very least.
    Ceria – she is the only one without a clear path to immortality, but considering she’s a cryomancer, I don’t see why she wouldn’t be able to freeze her body’s aging process if she gets high enough leveled.

    • I don’t think pirate is going for immortality fit the horns, except, perhaps, in song form. That said, Ceria does have a certain [circlet of amorality] that could assist in keeping her alive for longer than a half elf’s normally quite long life.

  12. I love this chapter, two of my favorite groups in the story! And with Ryoka they make a US radio station, wonderful!

  13. that was amazing. pisces such an awesome character. love seeing erin introduce goblins to invrisil as well! can’t wait to see what happens with teriarch…but you’re going to make us wait, aren’t you? AREN’T YOU?! it’s really going to be something like, a whole chapter on persua. that’d be right. and i’ll probably still be laughing and crying. sigh…

  14. I don’t think disco fits Pisces, not with the description of him as a person you gave in this chapter.
    Maybe why I feel disatisfied is because Numbtongue spent a lot of time thinking, and describing pieces of music in this chapter whilst trying to figure Pisces out. But in the end, he settles on a one liner. It’s not even a good one liner as it is so vague. So the image I have probably doesn’t match what you intended. It just doesn’t tie together his train of thought from where I’m standing.

    Heavy metal for Yvlon? Isn’t that a little too on the nose?

    The antinium, as ever, are the goodest of boys. What music would suit them? Something dull and lifeless that tenatively introduces notes of life, of wonder? Moving through emotions with curiosity, gaining complexity and subtlety with each refrain? For Ksmvr, loss and failure should follow first, followed by whatever lessons he learnt from the Horns as he learn them? Perhaps with his own theme gradually incorporating them, as he becomes his own person?

    Ceria continues to worry me. This “power for morality” thing doesn’t seem like it is going to end well. Especially because she’s still hiding it from her teammates.

    Niers and Foliana’s double act continues to entertain. Also, its interesting to see just how much faith Niers has in Foliana. He doesn’t even question her decision to ally with the fraerlings and lend them her authority within the Forgotten Wings. Of course, he also desperately wants something like this. I feel like it really points out the difference between him and Flos. They both wish for glory, for great enemies to fight against, to have their deeds known throughout the world. But Niers just doesn’t seem as selfish as Flos. I can’t picture him ever letting his company fall to ruin and just giving up for two decades.

    The wyrm really is ridiculous, but I like that he’s in genuine conflict here. Good character writing.

    • Heavy metal is a little on the nose for Yvlon, but it fits. She’s the unstoppable tank, the devoted knight, and occasionally the crazy berserker. She’s absolutely someone who carries on through the fire and flames.

      Pisces, I agree I don’t see the connection with disco or glam rock.

  15. Delivering a dryad child to Ailendamus is seriously screwed up! Basically, Ryoka would be selling someone into slavery in exchange for her life.

    Don’t even start with the “it’s for the dryad’s own good”! The Wyrm demanding a life for a life is no different to how [Slavers] treat people as objects that can be traded to settle debts. If a dryad or a seed of one need sanctuary then the best place would be a group of mortal druids who respect life and freedom, not a coven of immortals with imperial ambitions.

    Don’t get me wrong, Ryoka trying to weasel out of this would be a great plot point but I sincerely hope this will be tackled head-on, not waived away without any reflection.

    On an unrelated note, if the Titan already knows that health potions can no longer be made, he should have foreseen that Geneva, a miracle-[Doctor] would be an invaluable asset. Okay, maybe he hadn’t realised she was kidnapped but now that he knows, it shouldn’t be a low priority goal to recover her.

  16. Another great chapter, thank you. I loved Numbtongue and Pisces (+ Shriekblade) visiting the bath house. Their conversation was quite something.

  17. It’s taken me roughly a year, start to finish, to get to this chapter. I’ve ran through every emotion possible while reading, and have had to take breaks either because I’ve wanted to throw my phone in despair or I’ve had life events happen that have thrown myself into despair. That aside, holy flipping Batman, Robin. I’ve had days I couldn’t go to sleep without finishing a chapter (or three) and days where I can’t bring myself to finish a chapter. It took me a little over a day to finish this one.

    You’ve got some talent here, Pirate. I’ve fallen in love with many a character in this series and had my heart broken a few times. I eagerly await the next ebook publishing; as I don’t use audible. Unless you don’t plan to publish a other ebook. I may have missed an announcement along the way. Regardless, I wish to add to my collection of books I would read over and over again. In that collection are the Garth Nix, Abhorsen world books, HP, LoTR, and Hungar Games series. Novels and such that can capture my imagination and keep me coming back again and again.

    What started as a recommended read and an; I’ll add this to the list; quickly rose to the forefront of works I will absolutely pay for to get access to in whatever format that entails.

    I don’t know that you’ll ever see this, Pirate, but well done. I didn’t think anything would ever capture my attention again like this series has. Keep on keeping on. Thank you for sharing this work with all of us.

  18. Quiet (for a given value), sincere and touching chapters like this really have a way of easing my mind. I love it when we get to see characters interact fairly peacefully. Especially after volume 8, which was excellent indeed. But this nice, quiet chapter was lovely. Just lovely.

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