Interlude – The Competition

[The author is on an actual vacation for once, until August 20th! I’ll be out of contact until then.]

 

In an age of ghosts and reviving legends, in a time of uncertainty after the Goblin King and Antinium had struck Izril low, it seemed as though the world was once again poised to shift.

He felt it. Like a wearisome paranoia in the blood. A throbbing prelude to a migraine in the back of his mind whenever he dwelt on the subject. He had said that same thing as a boy. He distinctly recalled it.

Velan the Kind, the Goblin King. Not that he had been more than…twenty four? Which would make him, dead gods, thirty-five years old. Where had his youth gone?

He was a boy of fourteen, then, when the Antinium Wars had first rocked Izril. And Calidus distinctly recalled questioning his tutors about that when the Antinium had begun surfacing and pushing the Blighted Kingdom’s borders. Everyone acted so surprised when they left Rhir and tried to colonize a new continent. But why would a hitherto unknown and highly powerful species not invade another country…?

In the same vein, Velan the Kind? Predictable. Goblin Lords became Goblin Kings. In what scenario was a Goblin company led by a Goblin Lord often challenged by unhappy parties not going to level and become a Goblin King?

The entire…situation came, historically, out of a more tempered age of complacency.

Not the King of Destruction, mind you. Nor Ailendamus, or the Meeting of Tribes, or the Walled Cities and their interminable shenanigans, or Demons…damn it, it was perspective.

Not a hundred years or even two hundred. All the recent shakeups came out of what the Gnolls aptly termed the Waning World. Where they perceived how older institutions grew lax and unwary. Then the Forgotten Wing company appeared and destabilized the Jungle Tails company, upsetting a Great Company predating the Creler Wars.

Now, it didn’t matter that Jungle Tails was back and clawing for power. History had some kind of lesson about complacency here. The cyclical nature of how the world tended to surge in levels and power after a world-shaking calamity like the Creler Wars, before entering into periods of decline, revitalization, and damned turmoil.

Calidus was about to chase down the unhappy realization in his mind that he was living through one of those shifts in history when he managed to stop his brain dead in its tracks. Namely, with the application of two shots of Djinni Essence, the good stuff, bacedel—which was a spirit akin to rum, whiskey, tequila, or brandy, all of which he enjoyed.

Djinni Essence was just the closest bottle, and he slightly regretted taking down both shots so fast, because it cost the earth, even for him. However, then he was in a good mood.

So Calidus sat up in his bed and stretched. A happier man, because his brain no longer remembered…what it remembered. He looked around the rumpled sheets and felt distinctly unclean. Dirty, in fact. Positively disgusting.

“Fantastic. It must have been a night to remember. And I forgot it? We have to rectify this situation…”

He had a languid feeling that told him he had not only been lucky, but fortunate multiple times. The lack of memory didn’t really bother him. He’d indulge in some good memories as soon as he found a way to restore them. Spells, tonics…a good time should never be forgotten.

Calidus realized that his company for the night had long since departed, though. That was the only pang; they didn’t stay. Not that he blamed them. Their transactions were often straightforward, even if no gold changed hands. Gold changing hands for an expert, he’d found, often guaranteed more fun, but amateurs were interesting.

Help, though…Calidus stumbled out of his rooms and knew the latest [Servant] had quit. There was just a…a sheen you got of too many hands on a dirty wall. The opposite of luster; the unbuffable effect of too much sweat and germine substances between cleanings.

The carpet had things in it. Since they weren’t moving or large, he ignored them in search of food. Calidus found it by walking into the kitchens, naked, and having the [Sous-chef] swear at him and push a plate of a handsome breakfast into his hands.

“Ingon, how was my night?”

“Finer than mine, Your Lordship. And finer still if you put something on. And breathe elsewhere—I can smell your breath.”

Calidus rather liked Ingon. He was not as friendly or gifted as some [Chefs]; in fact, he was average enough to make food taste better and provide mostly what you asked for, so long as it wasn’t exorbitant. He tended to burn seafood, having accidentally given food poisoning to former clients.

But he was very loyal. Loyal in a way only a man with a loving daughter could be. A daughter who motivated him to be wealthy enough to be the doting father—but not three daughters or sons that might make a man look for the quick payout.

And a daughter who lived in safety under Calidus’ authority—well, his noble family’s—far away from Calidus himself. Ingon was a hard fellow to get and the only servant that Calidus liked.

“Where’s the [Head Servant] or whomever it is I hired? C—Ane—Dorim…?”

Calidus couldn’t remember, which was a sign the shots were going down well. Ingon replied carefully.

“If you mean Master Dorim, he was in fine company last night. So fine he hasn’t woken up.”

“Oh. Well, if he’s not up in an hour, I’ll fire him. Unless I’ve fired my last head of staff this month…?”

“Not yet.”

“Then there’s time for a fine morning!”

Calidus departed with that, eating the plate of breakfast without the need to use the utensils. A man could eat a fried egg with his bare fingers. In fact, he had six. Today must be egg-day.

His entire life, he worked hard to be this poor. There was room for improvement, but it was hard to get there to start, so he was happy with this.

For instance, Ingon was a good [Cook]. You had to have a good cook. Calidus had found, with experimentation, that you didn’t need to have a good head-of-staff. If you fired one every month for embezzlement, laziness, or sheer incompetence, you could keep your household more or less running. They didn’t have to be actual [Chamberlains] either; far from it. Your average [Manager] could do the job for one month poorly.

And poorly was good enough. They just had to manage the servants, hiring new ones who turned over almost as fast as their boss. But the system worked. The new manager, as long as they weren’t completely corrupt—and Calidus did make sure they weren’t—hired mostly trustworthy people. Who did their jobs and tried hard to restore the mansion and holdings to a semi-decent state.

The parties, messes, and excessive workload would break their spirits within months at most. Calidus had a few servants who’d been working here years, but the new ones tended to quit within a three month span.

Especially when they realized they would not become permanent fixtures of his workforce, there were no benefits—and there wasn’t anything to steal.

To be precise, there were things to steal, and they were all a pain or useless. The carpets had long since lost a lot of their value, and unless you had a supreme bag of holding, good luck in rolling them up and hauling them out of here. The only bedsheets that were silk were Calidus’, and he got them [Cleansed], so if you were walking out of here with them, the guards would grab you.

Oh, and his guards were smart enough to do their job. They were paid well but rather mindful of the consequences of failure. Which was generally just losing a cushy job where you could relax and steal food and drink from the parties. But if you stole something, really stole something from Calidus, said object generally returned to him within a week, a month at the most.

And the person who stole it was only seen once. Generally very pale, with a dagger in their backs or some kind of drink or food on their laps.

Reputation. Deliberation. System…Calidus found a pair of pants and stood there, chewing as he wore them around his neck like a scarf. He had to own, he got why Ingon wasn’t too happy at seeing him.

“You’ve gained a bit of weight, there, old fellow.”

Where had his youthful, sublime…okay, he hadn’t really ever been svelte. He was amiably wide, not too heavy, just like ever. And unlike his fair, famous cousin, he didn’t have anyone to take his weight for him.

Which was fine. Calidus rather liked himself. Not his mind, damn the blasted thing, but his body was fine. Slovenly, but lovely. Naked was not a good look for most, though.

But—he swung his lower half around and felt an unexpected weight there. No wonder he’d been stumbling around.

“Dead gods, that’s a fine potion. But I’ll never get these pants on.”

He dropped half an egg tart, and there was actually enough surface area for him to pick it off his nether regions despite standing upright. Then a new servant came in, screamed, and ran.

And that was why the help rotated. Mind you, the servants were mostly female whereas Calidus had found his judgment worked best with men as his head of staff and so on. A good fellow could probably clean up just as well as a lady, but that was just how it was. [Maids] cleaned…not that he hired more than generic [Cleaners] or [Scullery Maids] at most.

Anyways, Calidus had a good laugh over breakfast, and he put the plate down, two-thirds finished. If he were hungry and no one took it, he’d come back to it, but that was egg-day. He had come up with a rotating schedule of dishes, you see, such that even if he gave no orders, Ingon would go through a ninety-day cycle calculated to appease Calidus’ interests. Another ninety days would pass before this particular variation on egg-day arrived, and by that time, Calidus would enjoy it again.

The menu of foods was one of those rare things Calidus worked on zealously, inebriated or not. The worst thing would be to lose the enjoyment of food by eating too much of it. He’d heard that the older you got, the less everything appealed.

Terrible thought. Calidus expected he had another thirty years in him and then hoped he’d die quietly in his sleep—or in vigorous activities of a fun kind, not war or anything else so horrible. He’d be quietly buried, the entire mansion disinfected, and if he got that far, Calidus thought he’d die with a smile on his face.

Because that meant it would be sixty or seventy years of fun. Fifty some, really—he hadn’t gotten the memo until his teens. Then he’d realized the grand secret his mind kept arguing with him about:

The purpose was to enjoy yourself. He had the means. He had the system. Let the Gnolls and Drakes kill each other. If Tyrion Veltras called for war, Calidus would send what he needed. If there were another King of Destruction, Calidus would pledge support and unhappily give some money to the cause.

But he, personally, would do nothing until a Goblin Lord was within a hundred miles of his position. In fact, Calidus’ worst nightmare was a huge intercontinental war. Another Goblin King, for instance.

He didn’t have nightmares. He hadn’t been there. But he didn’t want to be there, ever. Not then, and not in the future. Calidus wanted to have a supply of that damned ice cream. He wanted to see the Players of Celum—and he wanted this to continue. In no small way thanks to his favorite cousin, his benefactor, and the woman to whom he owed his entire lifestyle and class—[Hedonist].

Magnolia Reinhart. The Deadly Flower Blooming in the North and all that. Leader of his house and, to Calidus Reinhart, the insane woman who was welcome to the responsibility and hassle of leadership. She had his support. Not that he’d ever said as much.

Not that she liked him.

 

——

 

Calidus had the vague impression Magnolia Reinhart hated his guts. The clues were hard, like her never telling him what she was up to. Never visiting him. The curtailment of all his actionable authority in some senses, and the inter-family order—do what you want in private, but don’t cause trouble.

Or else Magnolia’s [Maids] and [Butlers]—the really well-trained staff Calidus could have used some of—would come knocking. But that was only if you were a prat. Unfortunately, a lot of his cousins were, and so they got in trouble for crimes.

Calidus didn’t get into trouble. He had his parties, his affairs, and yes, even his private problems resolved in such a way that they never got back to Magnolia, so she left him alone. In return? He got a generous stipend from the Reinhart family wealth each month, added to his own holdings, and she dealt with everything.

Wonderful. Beautiful. Calidus would have kissed her quite chastely if he had the chance—except that he knew what his cousins like Wernel and Damia got up to in private.

Disgusting, really. Even Calidus wouldn’t go that far—mostly because it would have been like bedding a Creler, knowing his family’s personalities. And he preferred his encounters to be pleasant, not with any long-term consequences.

After breakfast, he sat with his somewhat rumpled head-of-staff, Master Dorim, who was a former [Innkeeper]. He looked embarrassed at being caught with company and aware he was not making a good impression on his employer.

It was the first party in which he’d really let himself go and realized he could lean on his position and no one cared if he was unfaithful to…whatever. Calidus didn’t recall if the man was married, had been married, but he knew the type.

Master Dorim had pulled the doors of libations wide open, and there would be no going back. Until Calidus fired him.

…Probably six more parties. Then he’ll be more interested in currying favor from the guests. Calidus kept his face stern—if Dorim didn’t think he was upset, it would be three more parties at most.

“Again, I am deeply apologetic, Lord Reinhart, and I have the staff cleaning everything up.”

“Lord Calidus, I said. Did my…paramours of last night leave? Adequately satisfied, I trust?”

Dorim hesitated. He was not on top of things, but his expression cleared after a second.

“The ladies? Yes, I believe they left with your—associates?”

He referred to the friends, hangers-on, and crowd that normally found their way in each time Calidus did this. The [Lord] nodded.

“Good, good. How many were there?”

“F—five?”

The [Lord] of House Reinhart smiled and sat back in his chair.

“Excellent.”

Dorim tried to hide his expression, but Calidus happily ignored him. After all, [He Felt No Shame]. One of the perks of having his class.

[Hedonist]. Some said it was a bad class, and it was true…Calidus had virtually no Skills he would have termed good for the betterment of anyone, even himself. But they did make him feel good, and they protected him from the worst of his antics.

Including headaches, which Dorim was clearly suffering from. Calidus glanced over some [Messages] and realized the shots were wearing off. At least, the initial discombobulation.

Because that damned brain of his was working again. He tried to hurry along this part of the day, which was checking on things.

Everything. Politics, the news, his holdings—he had to do it. He queried Dorim as he watched a recap on that scrying orb with the news. Something about a garden…aha.

“Tyrion Veltras is back?”

“Er—yes, Lord Calidus! First Landing. Did you wish to ride out and visit…?”

Calidus was not at First Landing, but a private Reinhart holding. He could, with an enchanted carriage, get there. The question was…was there anything fun there? Calidus tapped his lips.

“—Do I have a ticket to the Players of Celum?”

His head of staff fumbled around—Calidus had given him access to the organizational system the last [Manager] had used. It had lists of servants, every item he had to pay attention to laid out in detail such that any idiot could see what he needed to do, like check the aviary for certain messages—Calidus knew it was a good system because he’d designed it himself so he could rotate managers in and out. Even so, Dorim was slow, especially since he was an [Innkeeper]. Why had Calidus hired him?

Oh yes, the <Quests>. So fascinating, but exploiting the mechanics of how they worked had seemed like a lot of work. Calidus had wondered if you could create an infinite-loop of quests that rewarded more than you put in. Maybe he’d try that later today. Unless…

“No, Lord Calidus. No ticket.”

“Damn. Then, has Miss Jasi responded to my letter?”

“N-no, Lord Calidus.”

“Lady Wuvren? Miss Esbell? Er…damn. Who else? Any letters like that?”

“No, milord.”

Calidus nodded gravely.

“Any day now.”

The former-[Innkeeper] nodded back, as if hypnotized. Calidus was sure, positive, that he would get lucky one day. A [Lord] was a [Lord], and he could guarantee a grand time.

He wasn’t looking for a relationship unless it was very fun, and nothing like a wedding. No arranged marriages for him, no thank you. A marriage into House Reinhart was so…Terandrian to begin with. Let someone else make a poor girl or boy’s life a misery. He just wanted—

“I’d think about visiting the city. House Veltras must be leaving the city aflame. How fast did Tyrion Veltras leave? Anything else happen?”

Dorim hesitated.

“Lord Veltras hasn’t left the city yet, Lord Calidus.”

The [Lord] was overturning bottles on the full banquet table, looking for a drop of wine or something else. He paused, genuinely surprised for once.

“No? What, did all his horses throw a shoe? What’s keeping him?”

“As I understand it, House Veltras is resting for the moment. Lord Sammial Veltras has reunited with his father, and they are enjoying the city in the company of the Wind Runner of Reizmelt.”

Aha! So that’s why he’s still there. Wind Runner. Wind Runner. She’s the one who ended the Assassin’s Guild! So she survived Ailendamus?”

Calidus was interested about that. He’d heard that Courier’s name a lot of late. Seldom charitably, but he was more fascinated by Tyrion’s antics. Dorim showed him a few summaries of the entire affair in the newspaper, and Calidus chuckled his way through it as the table was cleared.

“Etril Wellfar blasted a statue of…? Won’t that be funny. Upset Wellfar. Upset Wellfar…internal politics…they’re convening a Conclave of Ships? Why? That’s not for Etril to be stripped of rank. Odd. I wonder if they’ve had an encounter like those ghosts that popped up everywhere.”

The blank look on Dorim’s face made Calidus elaborate.

“Revelations. It’s not a stretch to assume all the Five Families had one. I heard my great-grandfather was hiding in his hole for a day—but that’s unique to us. I wonder if that will change what they do. But angry Wellfar means they’ll be throwing bilge water at each other from ship-to-ship. It’ll hurt trade if it comes down to a leadership dispute. Make a note in the ‘Opportunities’ file.”

“Yes, Lord Calidus. Whatever you say, Lord Calidus. What—what do I write?”

“Hm. Opportunity, disrupted trade Wellfar squabbles if Etril stays in command. Post it for two weeks. I’ll know what it means.”

It was then a problem for later Calidus to decide whether he wanted to earn some money. Which would be, namely, waiting for an actual fight at sea before swooping on whatever trade goods were disrupted or supplying vessels of ships in the interim. He had all kinds of notes like that.

For instance, he’d bought every bit of Eir Gel he could find the instant he’d heard it was a rare commodity. He’d trade it back when supply was critical.

But that was work, and Calidus did not like how his mind was spinning. If Wellfar did have a visitation, I wonder if I could find a way to get into the Conclave of Ships? They’ll be locked down tighter than Lady Zanthia’s pantaloons, but I bet Magnolia will want to know. Get one of the younger [Lord Captains] talking who’d been invited and they might spill it. Lord Toysh might spill it if…

No, no. What was he doing? Did he need to know? Calidus looked around.

“Dorim, get me a cup of wine. Anything.”

The [Innkeeper] hesitated, but he was getting into the flow of things. He watched as Calidus took down the wine, then smiled.

“There we go. Now, to more pressing business. Tyrion…his idea of a good time is riding about in something strenuous. Is he doing a public hunt?”

“No, Lord Calidus. He is meeting with some of your peers. Would you like to meet with him…? I believe he may be attending at least a few public receptions in First Landing. Should I list your name on the guest lists?”

The odds that Tyrion wanted to meet Calidus were remote. Even if Calidus had some authority and power—well, he could bull his way into most public events by authority alone. But the question was, did he want to do that?

Calidus put his two forefingers together and hmmed. His class whispered to him, and he listened to it with a smile. That was the thing—if he were in a good mood, and he tried to be, people did like Calidus. Reinharts had their charm, and he told them what he liked, and many people got on board with that.

“There is one pressing, quintessential question I need to ask you, Dorim. The only question I need to ask, and it is about this Wind Runner.”

“Ryoka Griffin? Yes, Lord?”

“…How attractive is she? On a scale of one to Wuvren? Her…figure. Is it worth seeing like a work of art? And how interested would she be to a charming suitor, or is she romantically involved with Lord Tyrion?”

Dorim’s mouth stayed open until he mustered a response.

“I—would not know aside from the scrying orb, Lord Calidus. Would you like me to find a broadcast with her? I think gossip has her involved with Lord Veltras romantically. He did join a war for her.”

Calidus abandoned his train of thought at once.

“Forget it, then. I’m not even risking the thought of a duel. Very well, very well. Last question before I’m of a mind to strike First Landing’s markets. What news of the new lands?”

That was his curiosity of late. Calidus listened to reports of more half-Elven ships setting sail for their colony, Drakes planning expeditions—and the private movements of powers who wanted to be circumspect for the moment.

Even drunk, he was fascinated. But he was also…curious.

“And House Reinhart has said we’re doing…? I mean to say, my cousin, Magnolia has proclaimed…?”

“Nothing yet, Lord Calidus.”

The [Lord] nodded, but dissatisfied.

“You checked the dovecots? The [Messages] from home? All of them? The private…?”

“Yes, Lord Calidus. All of them. I assure you—she has said nothing.”

Calidus’ frown grew wide for a second, then he flicked his fingers with a sigh.

“…She’s probably just keeping it hidden from us. Magnolia never fails to miss her mark. She saw the sugar market—put a note for tomorrow for me to check.”

Because, obviously, the new lands were a huge opportunity. A large amount of trouble, but…Calidus put it from his mind. Trust Magnolia. Don’t trust her to do something for him, but trust her to be intelligent. What helped House Reinhart helped him. He spent the next thirty minutes happily trying to find the most evocative shot of Ryoka Griffin as his carriage was readied for travel into First Landing.

…Right up until Calidus Reinhart’s gloriously uncomplicated day, uncomplicated month…uncomplicated last nine years, really, suddenly developed a hitch.

He received some very unwelcome guests.

 

——

 

How were you supposed to say it? Oh, yes. ‘A man has to have certain…acquaintances. Who do him favors. To get ahead, one must incur…debts.’

And then you added a significant pause and a wink or meaningful look. Mostly, the person got what you meant, but a few idiots still needed you to explain it.

What that all meant was criminal contracts. Unsavory ‘associates’. The underworld, in brief.

Calidus didn’t really care to put a fancy name on it or make excuses. He worked with shady people. It made life easier. The Watch and your militia, if you wanted to bother with something like that, was useful…to a point. But he was no Tyrion. He wasn’t going to spend all day—and a fortune—making a private army. For one thing, Aunt Magnolia frowned on that.

For another? You could hire professionals for most problems. Yes, they were gangs or whatever, but most were reliable in their way. If you were some kind of newcomer to the scene, you might hire a lice-infested [Bandit] gang who’d take your money then rat you out to the nearest law enforcement once captured.

However, if you were Calidus, you paid for a gang to sort out an issue. Mostly just an [Assassin], actually.

It had all been so convenient a few years ago. The Circle of Thorns had really messed up the Assassin’s Guild. Or had Aunt Magnolia? They were a useful, discreet group, and now they were gone.

Problem, that. Calidus had kept thinking how bad it was to not have them around. The Drakes had their own [Infiltrators], and foreign nations loved their spy-games. The Assassin’s Guild had been necessary. Not even a necessary evil for him. Just necessary; the instrument of Izril’s noble families.

Then again, the Assassin’s Guild had made some stupid decisions of their own. He had been very unhappy to see them essentially shoot themselves in the face with poisoning Tyrion Veltras’ sons. So in that sense—their collapse might have been for the best.

However, you could never stamp out a rat infestation, even if you blew up most of the bases. Calidus knew that too, and so he had guessed the Assassin’s Guild might return, if they found a way to reestablish their credibility—or fear—and especially if they were needed.

…The problem was, he realized that in lieu of a safe haven, the surviving [Assassins] and members of the Guild, not all of them practicing [Assassins] but support staff, needed a place to go. And, desperate, they might look for the nearest hospitable person of sufficient influence and friendliness to support and shelter them.

Why that was him, he didn’t know. But Calidus’ first premonition of his coming headache was the Unmarked Coach rolling into his domain.

Nothing normal came from the Unmarked Coach. Calidus got a warning about it from a [Blackmarket Contact] he had cultivated a relationship with minutes before he felt it.

A powerful coach rolling into his domain. It didn’t even try to hide, so it was akin to knocking on his door rather than sneaking in. He closed his eyes, canceled his visit to First Landing, and swore.

“Dorim? Get me…two of my private [Message] scrolls, the good ones. And food; another banquet.”

“Already, milord? But we’re not even cleaned up from—”

“Just get the food out. Tell Ingon to make good, straightforward food. Oh, and put all the silverware away. It will tarnish. We have guests coming.”

Calidus hurried Dorim around, mostly just telling him to put out food and refreshments as the Unmarked Coach came in. He felt…more intrusions in the back of his mind. Probably people coming in on horseback or more conventionally.

Wonderful. He’d already figured out what they wanted—it was obvious, he just hadn’t expected he’d be the one chosen. But Calidus just waited for them to present themselves at his mansion.

He did not bother telling the head of security to do anything. His [Guards], mercenaries though they were and decent, would be like children fighting Minotaurs. If he had a problem, there was only one solution for that.

[Message] scrolls, keyed to House Reinhart’s private networks. Magnolia or the real head of their family in some senses. Probably the old ghost himself; Calidus knew Magnolia had taken some of her best south.

But if he sent for reinforcements, the odds were he, Calidus, would already be dead. Or would later be dead.

No, no. That was the rare play, the unhappy one. Calidus was chewing down on some delightful fruits from Oteslia when his guests were admitted into his mansion. Watermelons from Oteslia, with salt of all things on top.

His first impression of his guests was a single Human woman, dressed all in black. So predictable. She even looked like an [Assassin], cloth wound around her limbs, a scar along her throat—so it had been cut at least once. She came into his banquet hall flanked by eight of his guards, all of whom looked nervous and at their most professional. She spoke with a slight Chandrarian drawl that he wanted to place as Roshal, but might be any nation on the western coast; he was no expert.

“Lord Calidus Reinhart. I hope we haven’t disturbed your morning?”

Calidus was focusing on his wedge of watermelon. He glanced up, but he immediately nodded as he put his snack down.

“Immensely. You lot know I don’t like headaches. But here we are, and I’m sobering up—again. Sit, sit, and let’s get to your offer so I can break out the wine. Actually—let’s all have some now. Pour a glass, don’t wait on me!”

He tossed the rind down and picked up a cup and pitcher. Calidus filled it airily, took a drink, and wished he could go straight to oblivion. But the pitcher held water, damn the stuff. He did need to use his mind.

Still, the [Lord] had some kind of effect on the female ‘Assassin’. She hesitated, and her eyes flickered to his table. Calidus pointedly ignored her. He glanced at some of the set cups and plates at his table. He’d had the room set out like a formal dinner, which he almost never had; he preferred informal parties. But he needed to prove something, so he gave one of the empty, worn-velvet chairs he’d gotten from a deceased uncle or aunt or something a pointed look.

“…Or is wine not to your tasting?”

With chuckles, the Faces appeared. And it was showy enough, even if Calidus had ruined their moment.

A shadow from the early morning sun against a drape stretched, and a figure walked out of it to sit down gracefully in an open chair. Another simply appeared, shedding an [Invisibility] spell. A third person slithered out from under the table and into a seat. Calidus counted.

Eight. Either that meant eight Faces were left and there were a few more they hoped to invite or rejoin their number, or there were less and they were inducting some of their Ranks to make themselves seem stronger than they were.

It didn’t matter. He nodded as they filled their cups and sat. The female assassin, their spokesperson, caught herself and bowed.

“Lord Reinhart, you live up to your family’s reputation for cunning.”

“No, I don’t. I live up to my reputation for having a fine time. I just know [Assassins]. One of you lot was my nanny. Family tradition. Old Ressa actually stuck around, didn’t she?”

Oh, they twitched at that. Ressa was probably not in their good books, but what were they going to do about it? She had been one of their most talented graduates back when they were friendly with Magnolia.

“—We have had a fond relationship with House Reinhart of all the Five Families, Lord Calidus. Bearing that in mind, we hope you will consider our offer now.”

Calidus lifted a hand, cutting off the obvious-assassin.

“Before we begin—I’m going to be distracted all the while you’re talking if I don’t settle this. Are you an instructor or just a [Scribe] or something?”

She was no [Assassin] proper. Calidus based that on the fact that she was doing the speaking. Proper [Assassins] sometimes lacked, uh, tact. Since they learned how to deal with their problems very directly. Secondly, she was playing into the look so heavily. The woman bit her lip and replied after glancing at the seated figures.

They were watching him. Calidus felt that wonderful crawling on the back of your spine, but he solved it by continuing to eat. If he died, well, what a waste of everyone’s time, eh? They didn’t need to do that. They needed him.

“—[Instructor]. Roshal-trained.”

She admitted after a second. Calidus waved cheerfully at her.

“Have a seat, then! We have food—I’m not sure what my [Chef]’s made. Try the watermelon. So you lot want a place to stay. I’m not going against my aunt. No offense to the Guild of Assassins, but I fear Aunt Magnolia more than you lot. If you’re going to stay, you need to give me a real incentive—or make peace with her. Or both. But you knew that. So what’s your offer?”

Again, the impressively-deadly figures slowed a moment to imperceptibly communicate. Calidus just leaned on his armrest, drumming his fingers. All of this was obvious. But they went with threats. They always had to go with threats.

“The Guild of Assassins does not have many enemies, Lord Calidus. Ours tend to decrease over time.”

One of the figures spoke, hooded—and Calidus peered in fascination at a Gnoll, perhaps, sitting with crossed arms in their chair. Was this the non-Human arm of the Guild of Assassins?

Maybe that was exactly it. Either they had been operating too far from home to be killed or join the fighting or these were foreign [Assassins], trying to revitalize the guild and rise where they hadn’t been as famous in Izril. More and more interesting.

However, the bluff just made Calidus laugh. He saw them stirring and poured himself another cup.

“Oh, have another drink. It’s good wine. Decent. It’s wine. I’m well aware any of you could kill me. The difference between you and Aunt is that she can kill a [Lord] or [Lady] of Izril and survive. She’s been our executioner, and I doubt any Face of your Guild can match her body count for my peers.”

He leaned forwards, eyes glittering with amusement. If he died here—well, Calidus didn’t expect any tears from his family. Except maybe crocodile tears. But there were consequences.

The [Assassins] were silent as Calidus kept drinking. He put down the cup and wiped at his mouth.

“If Aunt Magnolia finds you here, we’re all dead. Reinharts follow her. You know she’s banned us from causing trouble. So it’s a bribe or deal with her—or both. Which?”

He waited. His guess was that they wanted him to intercede with Magnolia and let them off the hook. She might go for it, but it was going to be a hassle, and Calidus suspected it still might end with his mansion in flames and her staff fighting the [Assassins] while he sat in his safe room and got rip-roaring drunk. Which was purely annoying.

However, Calidus was surprised for once by the response, and because of that, he was gratified. For the spokeswoman did not do either at first—she just handed him a single letter.

“This is for you, Lord Calidus. I trust you can verify it. It is our—commitment we hope you will extend to this cause. As you can see, it exonerates your part in this affair. As for reward, we hoped to discuss that revolving around your contributions to our rebuilding…”

Calidus half-heard her. He stared at the letter—and the seal—and his heart began to pound as he cracked it, checked the trim of the letter, the edgework, even stabbed it with a dagger and tore the paper slightly to see the interwoven fibers. Then he uttered an oath and tossed it down.

“Ah, kissing Wellfars. Kiss the Wellfars and slap a Veltras. So that’s how it is?”

He didn’t even read the letter’s contents. Not really. The instant Calidus saw who it was from and confirmed the identity—though he’d have to make triply sure by an in-person visit—he knew.

“The old man wants you back? Does Aunt Magnolia know?”

Regis Reinhart’s letter lay on the table as the [Assassins] smiled. Calidus drummed his fingers faster. So that was the play? Regis didn’t usurp power, but he could issue orders. He didn’t overturn Reinharts…or did he? The family history had a lot of holes.

Either way, he probably saw the same gap Calidus did. Izril’s north needed an Assassin’s Guild. And he had to shelter them?

The [Assassins] saw Calidus’ scowl, and their spokeswoman spoke quickly.

“Lord Calidus, we will be an asset, we trust, in all your personal affairs. We have a number of goals as well as attention on Izril’s new lands.”

“You and everyone else. Why me? Let Aunt Magnolia deal with it. Offer your services to her, and she’ll make use of you after she spanks a few bottoms.”

Calidus snapped back, genuinely vexed. He really didn’t want an Assassin’s Guild headquarters in his lands, even if they never bothered him and made it far on the borders. They lingered around. However, the [Instructor] of assassins raised her brows.

“Lady Reinhart has made no overtures to the new lands, Lord Calidus. Unlike the other Five Families, she has made private pledges to Oteslia to abstain—in return for their cooperation towards her peace agreement.”

The reply shocked him. Calidus’ hand slipped, and he nearly knocked over a pitcher. One of the [Assassins] gestured, and it froze, mid-tip. He took the handle, thinking that was a nice party trick. Maybe they would make the parties better if he had to suffer them. But Magnolia?

“She’s not going after the new lands? But the opportunity—even if we don’t settle the damn stuff and it’s filled to the gills with Crelers—not one move?”

Transportation, protection, new trade, speculating on events—the [Assassins] assured him Magnolia Reinhart had not made any moves. All for her Drake alliance.

What was she doing? Calidus wished he had a vineyard’s worth of wine in his cup. And as if they noticed that, the spokeswoman produced something else.

“Lord Calidus, consider this a token of the Guild’s esteem. If you would like to use our services or support our task—this is but a small token of our appreciation.”

She presented him with a vintage that made Calidus stir. He accepted a bottle, blew some dust from the label, and read—

Silvarian Umbral, C.O.T 319. 

That predated the King of Destruction. He’d have to check the dates, but he guessed it might be a century and a half old, around the time when Perril Chandler had been famous. Calidus hesitated—then uncorked the bottle with a speed that made some of the wine-appreciators wince. He took a sniff, poured an experimental cup, and stared at the glowing white wine.

Magical wines. He took one sip, and his expression lit up. Calidus glanced over the rim of the cup at the watching [Assassins]. And then…all the worries and thoughts milling around his head went away. He sailed serenely in a world of intoxication and sighed. Then Calidus threw his arms wide, beaming.

“My dear friends. Where would you like to stay?”

 

——

 

More [Assassins], their trainees, and staff were waiting for the signal. Not to flood Calidus’ mansion, but to find somewhere unoccupied—a field at worst—and dig.

Underground protected them from scrying spells, and they had to lay low at first. But they’d be rebuilding their client lists, training up a new generation—and earning money.

They had the support of House Reinhart and the Circle of Thorns. Calidus wasn’t to know everything, of course, but he would be a useful ally. The man was simple, and if they kept the enticements coming and did him favors, he would probably let them conduct their business in peace.

That was their perspective on it, at any rate. Calidus did quite enjoy the feeling of magical intoxication as he walked around his mansion.

Purely delightful. He felt like he could cast some spells—drunk—which was the best way to do it. And he wondered if some of those lovely [Assassins] might not want to share some company when they weren’t stabbing people?

Ah, the possibilities. [Assassins] were sometimes more trustworthy than you thought. Good help! Hard to find. And all of this…all of this…

Sounded like a whole lot of damn work. He did not want opportunity to drop into his lap. Damn the old man. Damn Magnolia for not doing what she should be doing and squeezing gold out of rocks. And damn…damn…

“Damn the Gnolls for being the target of Drakes and raising new lands! Yes, damn them too!”

Calidus kicked open a door and nearly scared to death the man sitting and working on a complex magical gadget or something. The man had white in his hair…what he had left of it.

“Calidus! Do you want to get us killed? I told you—don’t bother me when you’re drunk! Or did you contract another disgusting disease?”

“Not at the moment, Zeom, old fellow. Come on, take a break. I’ve got some fine wine, and we have guests.”

“What kind of nobility or party-loving wastrels are they? And address me with respect. I’m the greatest [Enchanter] in all of Izril.”

“Zeomtoril, Zeomtoril—look at what I have. A Silvarian Umbral.”

“A what? And you just—without delicacy or even a glass to—give me that.

The greedy old man instantly dropped what he was doing. He checked the bottle, then poured himself a generous cup and sniffed the bouquet before taking a sip and sighing in pure exultation. Which went to show he knew something about wine.

Then again, he was a fine [Enchanter]. ‘Finest in Izril’ was not something that Calidus could back, not so close to First Landing. But Zeomtoril was good at enchanting. And alchemy. To look at it, he might be working on some gadget for the black market. Then again, he might have made the metal parts of the orb-like device himself because he could also smith—even if he didn’t really have the physique for it.

Of course, Zeomtoril could have bought the metal himself since he could haggle. And read every written script every species had invented. He could speak Drathian—multiple variants—and Goblin, which had really interested Calidus when they’d met, years ago.

Zeom was, in fact, very good at a lot of things, which was why he had rooms in Calidus’ mansion normally locked and warded from the parties Calidus threw. Only the [Lord] could gain access here, as part of his sponsoring of Zeom’s everything. It was a good deal, even if Zeom complained about making Calidus potions to increase his libido or curealls for nasty venereal diseases.

Zeom was a [Polymath]. In fact, he was a [Genius Polymath], which Calidus suspected made him practically unique. Why he wasn’t a [Sage] was probably because Zeom had had bad gambling debts and other problems he got himself into. Wisdom and Zeom…not exactly bedfellows.

Intelligence, however? Zeom was, like Ingon, one of only two members of Calidus’ entire employ the [Lord] felt should remain permanent. Not for loyalty in Zeom’s case, but unrivaled—if tricky to manage—talent.

“This is fine stuff, Calidus. It almost merits you interrupting me. Who are my guests, and what do you want?”

“Oh, just a bit of research, Zeom. We’ve got the Guild of Assassins setting up shop here. You’ve done work for them.”

The [Polymath] raised his brows, not afraid, just surprised and intrigued.

“The Guild? They’ve hired me before, but they don’t like paying my rates, and their jobs were boring. Are you consolidating your power? That would be interesting. I thought you hated entanglements, though. And the Guild isn’t always trustworthy.

Calidus heaved himself into a chair and sighed as Zeom glared. The [Polymath] would throw a fit and [Cleanse] it later, Calidus was sure. He hated unclean things and had built everything in this room, from the door to the chair. In fact, he’d even hand-sewn the spider-silk robes he wore. And he wore no underwear, an unfortunate fact Calidus had learned.

“I know. I don’t trust them. I want you to check for poison or manipulation spells.”

And here was the thing. Zeom’s face instantly turned hostile. He hated being given orders or work he considered beneath his time. Which was everything.

“Why should I do that? It’s none of my business if you keel over. How much are you paying me? Give me a number and I’ll think about it. I could use some more materials.”

Calidus smiled broadly.

“I should think it’s in your best interest, Zeom, old chap. Especially since you’ve just drunk the wine the [Assassins] gifted me. I think we’d better know if we’re poisoned or addled by nightfall, eh? Or you might lose some of that keen intellect you’re boasting about.”

He had the pleasure of watching Zeom perform the old Winebreath Blaster across his room. The [Polymath] looked at the wine bottle in horror, then screamed at Calidus.

“You idiot! If it’s a bad poison, I could suffer the effects for the rest of my life!”

“I know. But don’t worry—if we’re going to be killed, the poison will finish us off by nightfall. If they’re slowly drugging me into compliance, it’s slow-acting!”

Calidus raised his voice as the man stumbled over to an alchemy table and frantically began trying to identify any hostile or magical compounds. He relaxed in his chair.

The odds they were doing either were remote, which was why he hated doing this. Precautions, ensuring loyalty, and so on…Calidus rested his fingers on his forehead as Zeom worked.

“…Settlers to the new lands. Yes, I guess. Anything that’s found needs to get back to who owns it. Dig up a relic? That’s where the Guild makes its mark. What you need is—hm. I think it’s [Builders].”

“What are you on about?”

Zeom turned, half-wrathful, half-curious as the [Lord] sprawled there. Calidus opened his eyes lazily.

“Builders over explorers. Zeom. I need to hire a bunch of people, and I need a [Secretary] or someone. Maybe the Guild can help me. They’ll have explorers and adventurers, but you need to build to keep what you want to hold. Good ones. The settlers rushing to the new lands—they’ve brought food and healing potions which are in short supply, but did they bring [Healers] and mortar? Damn, damn, damn.”

He sat there, aimlessly playing with the cup of wine but not taking a sip. Then Calidus sighed.

“I guess that’s where the Assassin’s Guild comes in. I’ll get them to back an expeditionary force tomorrow. Now I need to talk to my relatives and get them to back the funding…and they’ll send out stupid forces that will need my help…I’m in for it now, Zeom.”

Calidus Reinhart’s expression was the resigned look of a [Hedonist] realizing he’d have less time in the day for inane pleasure. He hoped this wouldn’t take him into conflict with his aunt, but he brightened as he had one thought.

“…But I bet you the [Assassins] have the kind of drugs you can’t get on the black market. When assassins party? Now there’s a sight to see.”

Then, reluctantly, he got to work.

 

——

 

Opportunity. Calidus was not the only person to see it across this new world. The seas were still all wrong, for one thing.

Part of the trouble with the new lands was that seafaring experts or those with magical vessels had a far, far easier time getting to Izril’s shelf. Izril’s boot?

Izril’s buttocks. Which the laughing Lizardfolk had called it right up until they’d tried to take the regular sealanes to Izril and found themselves sailing in a circle, pushed far from the route that should have taken them right past Wistram or to Chandrar.

They’d barely been able to tack back to shore before their food supplies ran out. Two weeks of fighting what turned out to be an obstinate current that moved back towards Baleros. Right where the regular shipping routes should be.

To say this was having an effect on coastal cities and trade was an understatement. However—famous ships like Shell Bazaar, The Four Winds of Teral, and so on generated their own thrust, be it a giant lobster or magical winds.

In the same vein, most half-Elven ships had enough [Mage]-power to make it to Izril. Terandria had it easiest; they had just a hop and a skip across the open sea whereupon they could use the coast to head south.

The half-Elves were moving fast. Ironically enough, the most long-lived peoples had stolen a march on even the notoriously impulsive Lizardfolk and the continent’s own Gnolls and Drakes. Like the Drowned Folk, they had the means.

Everyone else had to either figure out how to get to Izril—safely—without running into an awakened Kraken or head to the new lands on foot. However, the Gnolls and Drakes were not happy with each other. As for the Five Families…they’d have to head south past the Bloodfields and a bunch of Drake cities while skirting the Hivelands, crossing literally half a continent.

Or they could sail.

They were going to sail. And so The Watery Roots and Waterlily were sailing wide of the High Passes, and were about two more days from the landing point if the winds held.

The [Captain] of Waterlily was happy about that. It turned out whatever phenomenon had altered the ocean’s currents was providing a rather strong current south along the coast. It’d make the return trip miserable, but he wondered if he couldn’t sail all the way around Izril.

The eastern side of Izril was underused due to the westward side facing, well, the rest of the world. However, if the currents were changing, a savvy [Captain] could sell a new current to the Seafarer’s Guild or exploit it for his own gain.

He was thusly a mercantile half-Elf and slightly looked down upon by his passengers. They were very friendly, but Captain Gaoelos could tell they thought he was in this for the coin.

Yes, he charged them for passage. He was not going to lease his entire ship to a bunch of colonists for free. He’d given them a discount, and he hoped to continue working with his people. But he didn’t really like being accused, even implicitly, of greed.

All these naturalist half-Elves wanted was to create an old-fashioned timeless city or more villages where they wouldn’t clash with Human kingdoms. A different kind of greed, but…

Well, The Watery Roots was a fabulous old colony-ship, and Gaoelos was honored to sail in her company. In fact, she was part of the reason he’d so readily agreed to this trip. She was projecting an aura of calm that had saved them, or so he felt, from any angry maritime monsters.

He was used to stabbing horrors crawling up his ship, like the sea-Ogres, the Dorhmin, who had spears and even rudimentary tactics of their own—scaly, slimy eelish-reptile humanoids with bulbous eyes. They made a ss-loughing sound as they tried to breathe regular air, which was sometimes your only warning before they tried to drag you overboard.

His guests thought he was making that up, just like Crelers at sea. If that were so, why did The Watery Roots have an aura spell to calm monsters?

At any rate, it was a beautiful ship, all graceful beams of wood streaming through the waters, half again as large as his galleon. He followed in her wake, marveling at the way the water failed to lap against her enchanted hull.

And they said The Watery Roots was a poor ship compared to some of the other ships that had founded colonies. His people loved to brag by putting down anything in the modern era.

“Captain Gaoelos! Heading starboard 155º! Treespeaker Cortimaelas wishes us to steer wide of the Hivelands and Izril until we reach Izril’s new lands.”

“Starboard 155º, aye.”

He confirmed it and watched as their ships turned, heading further out to sea. Now there was a bit of paranoia. He’d sailed past Izril’s Hivelands ever since they had first been founded. The Antinium didn’t attack vessels at sea; they sank, and only the Flying Antinium would have even a chance of catching most vessels.

However, his passengers, some of whom came from Terandrian kingdoms, others from the village, shuddered and sighed in relief as their ships angled away from the coast.

“Captain Gaoelos, do you have a spyglass? I should like to see these dreaded Hivelands if we are to share any continent with them. As long as it is safe.”

“Safe as Treant waters. Feel free to use my own.”

The [Captain] produced his own enchanted spyglass and let his guests train their gazes south, although he knew it would be hours still before they cleared the High Passes. However, that was half-Elves of the old ways for you.

He had been the most courteous captain he could be. They had free reign of the deck unless they got in the path of the sailors, and many were younger half-Elves who worked in the real world. Gaoelos had woken up twice for a nighttime check on the decks to see them stargazing solemnly and breaking open a vintage of wine they had brought purely to sample with the sea breeze.

…He wondered how well they were going to fare in their destination. Then again, they had the coin and resources to have a stock of sea-wine.

Gaoelos spent his time on deck charting notes about how fast this current was going and watching the scrying orb. Dead gods, but this had been an interesting voyage so far.

First, they ran into The Pride of the Wellfar and the Five Families, next they met a flying Human! The Wind Runner no less! She’d flown over his very ship, and he’d been damn near tempted to ask her for an autograph.

Next, he heard yet another species, the Minotaurs, making a claim on Izril’s new lands. Which was not making that odious Sir Relz happy. Go back to the Dullahan’s [Garden of Sanctuary] yesterday!

“…Wasn’t that inn on the news before, [Captain]? I hear it’s in the middle of Izril. Hard to make a port landing, but hey, we could head to one of the port cities north and make a jaunt out there.”

His [Helmsman] was a funny fellow. A [Storm Sailor] who considered himself a wit. Gaoelos rolled his eyes.

“When I can spare a few months to make the voyage on foot, Corbbin…”

“No, no, Captain. You’ve not heard? There’s a land-route that has you in Liscor or Pallass in weeks from a port! You just head to Invrisil and teleport there!”

“No. Teleport?”

Gaoelos, like any seafarer, kept some tabs on landfolk business, but he hadn’t heard of the magic door. It rang a lot of bells, and he spent the next hour talking with Corbbin and a few of the experienced [Sailors] who had a moment. It beat joining the half-Elves surveying Izril’s shores as they passed the High Passes and went back out to sea. They could probably only see a bit of the Hivelands, but it was still making them shudder.

“Strange happenings around Liscor of late, Captain. Good thing Roots wanted us at sea away from the Hivelands.”

“Corbbin—did you have too much of that wine last night? Antinium don’t attack ships.”

“Until now. You heard about that ship that one of ‘em attacked, right?”

“Myths.”

Gaoelos had heard the same rumor, but people claimed it was a Drowned Vessel that had been attacked by a flying insect. He suspected it was one of those misunderstandings. No doubt the ship had just sunk after being attacked by some other monster that was insectoid.

[Storm Sailors] were a superstitious lot, though. So was Gaoelos in his way; if he saw a Treant walking the deeps while heading to Izril’s new lands, well, he’d sail the next colony of his people down to Izril for free. That would just beat all, and he’d toss a gold coin down for good luck and sing all the songs, even the bawdy ones.

They didn’t meet a Treant at sea. In fact, after six hours, when his guests had stopped murmuring in horror and recounting tales of the Antinium Wars as if they’d been there, the only interesting thing Gaoelos saw was a single ship ahead of them.

“Looks like she’s becalmed or in trouble, Captain! Roots is already bearing down on her.”

The flag and lights system that ships used varied depending on species, but anyone could see that this ship was in distress. Many flew their nation’s flags, so the key was that if you saw one hanging upside-down or red or orange flags hanging from the ship, something was wrong.

Black flags for [Pirates]—or their own unique flags, but they were pretty damn obvious. Gaoelos had worried over running into the Illuminary or some Drowned Folk pirates, but their sea-city had promised visitors safe passage.

Dead gods, Nombernaught! He’d have to visit. It had almost slipped his mind; Zeres was the major port you went to. But he could go to Nombernaught, see if they had any trade goods, and figure out how to get back to Terandria. Or sail down to the Claiven Earth?

Wild times, wild times. At any rate, this new ship was no Galleon-class ship or even the modified Man-of-War sized ship that The Watery Roots technically fell into. It was…a Brigantine?

Two-masted, with a square foremast and a fairly generous, nigh squat hull for its size. Too wide in Gaoelos’ opinion, but some [Merchant Captains] loved to add enchanted space for lots of cargo.

Lovely, pristine white sails. It must have just traded them in, because he didn’t see a speck on them. They were all furled, and he couldn’t tell what was wrong. The ship must have been an antique, though, because it was made of old, costly black wood.

“Where did those trees that made it come from, d’you think, Captain? Guests?”

The [Helmsman], Corbbin, asked the wrong question. A lot of the half-Elves looked patently offended by the question, as tree-lovers did.

“I wouldn’t venture to say, er, [Helmsman].”

One half-Elf huffed. Gaoelos sighed. He’d apologize later. It was a rare kind of vessel, though, and he drummed his fingers on the railing as he saw The Watery Roots coming alongside. They were shouting questions, and he ordered his ship to slow and drop anchor while they waited. He had no doubt that the other ship could help with whatever was wrong. They were faster in the water too; they’d accelerated to inquire what was amiss, and he envied that casual speed.

Perhaps he was the one being escorted and allowed to watch this rare voyage of such an old ship. Gaoelos admired The Watery Roots, even as he eyed the other ship.

“Doesn’t look like they’ve damaged those sails. Maybe they hit something and their keel or rudder’s taken a blow? Or they’re from Baleros and the first Lizardfolk to make it. No, wait—that’s no Lizardfolk. Dead gods, it’s another half-Elf!”

Captain Gaoelos saw Corbbin shading his eyes. He needed no scrying glass thanks to his [Hawk Eyes] Skill. Gaoelos glanced towards the half-Elves with his spying glass.

“A half-Elf, you say? We’re rarer at sea.”

“Not the rarest, [Captain]—there’re more of you than most landfolk see aside from a half-Elven nation.”

That was true, but Gaoelos straightened slowly. He glanced towards the other ship—it seemed like the Treespeaker was lowering a gangplank to come aboard. Another colony ship?

Yet suddenly, he had a pressing desire to retrieve his spying glass.

 

——

 

The half-Elves on board Waterlily weren’t quite as haughty as their [Captain] supposed. He did charge a steep price, but they had quite warmed to him over the voyage. They were [Colonists], some of them, to their delight. They’d leveled in the night. Others had their old classes, but whomever they were and wherever they had come from, they had come to see Izril’s new lands.

Never let it be said even half-Elves didn’t crave adventure, and this? This was something no one, not even their people, could remember. This was new. So they were still looking southwards as the [Captain] came striding down the ship. He was always so…busy. There was always something to do, unlike home for most of the half-Elves.

Gaoelos trotted over as his [First Mate] signaled to the other ship, which sent back a few greeting flashes from their lantern on the stern of the ship.

“Some trouble at sea? Should we draw closer, Captain?”

“Mm. Perhaps.”

The half-Elves were idly watching Izril’s coast, but one handed him a spyglass, and he walked up and down his vessel, trying to see…no, The Watery Roots was in the way.

“Did anyone see the ship’s name from afar?”

“Nary a one, Captain.”

One of the half-Elf passengers smiled; they liked the nautical terms and experience. Captain Gaoelos didn’t return the smile, a rarity for him. He frowned at the ship.

“—It could be Balerosian. Dark wood from that continent? Or Rhir? The Blighted Kingdom…?”

“Neither.”

One of the half-Elves from a traditional village assured Gaoelos airily. He blinked at the other man.

“You can tell? But you said—”

“I said, I wouldn’t like to speculate, Captain. I’ve not seen wood quite like that—ever. It’s a fascinating ship. Crewed by one of our own. Would you oblige us by moving your ship over? I would assume we’re all headed to the same destination.”

Normally, that was a slightly risky idea because two ships in close proximity would inevitably drift closer and hit each other, hence the anchors being dropped. But Captain Gaoelos suddenly stiffened. He kept the smile on his face, but he turned on his heel so fast that one of the [Mages] from Gaiil-Drome wondered if she’d offended him.

“Some nautical custom, perhaps. Pay it little mind. Possibly bad luck to have three ships all together if it forms a triangle.”

A half-Elven [Duelist] joked, and the others shushed him, hiding smiles behind their hands. However, the tree-expert watched as Gaoelos strode—and then walked over to where the anchor was dropped. He leaned over as a boy, a Drowned Lad, listened attentively to him.

Then Gaoelos walked back, smiling to [Sailors], and had his [First Mate] do another complicated lantern sign, another greeting, according to a [Storm Sailor]. He walked over to his [Helmsman], and that was when the watching tree-expert sensed something was wrong.

Corbbin’s face stiffened up, and he straightened and almost turned to the new vessel in the waters with a look of such horror—for a moment—that the [Mage] stirred. However, then he relaxed, slapped Gaoelos on the back with a hearty laugh, and turned back to his wheel.

Too heartily. Corbbin was a half-Elf who moved with the times and crewed a ship, but he had never slapped anyone on the back before. However, the [Captain] just laughed back and waved at the other ship.

Too visibly. And when he walked back down the deck, the [Mage] realized that the crew was moving a bit faster about their tasks. Faster—and slower. Some [Sailors] were gathered around the masts and the furled sails. More were standing next to the weighed anchor, glancing towards…

“Captain Gaoelos, is something wrong?”

The [Captain] took the [Mage] by the arm and steered her back.

“Not at all, Magus Yerwite, isn’t it? Did I ever ask you if you were experienced in more than nature-magic? Do you know any wind magic? Water spells? Come, stand with me at the railing.”

He stood with the spellcaster, and she felt a vague sensation in her stomach. She glanced at the other ship where the Treespeaker was greeting what looked to be a fellow half-Elf quite amiably. The other one was old, grey in his hair, and Gaoelos had trained his spyglass on the other person.

“Do you know that ship, Captain? What is this about?”

“Wind spells. Do you know…no, he looks completely ordinary. Blonde and grey. Not—no scars. But that ship. Are you sure you don’t know whatever wood that damned hull’s made of?”

“Scars…? I know basic wind magic, why?”

Gaoelos straightened abruptly.

“I need you to pour all the wind spells into our sails that you can. And put the wind against the other ship. Who else on board could cast a spell like that?”

Mage Yerwite floundered a second.

“Here? Most of our oldest members are on board The Watery Roots.

Because it was nicer. She turned to the other ship.

“I could [Message] them if we need magic. Or—”

She was just about to wave and project her voice, but Gaoelos caught her hand in such a grip she yelped in pain.

“No, don’t do that.”

“Captain! I protest!”

The [Duelist] had noticed the mood on the ship at last. He had a hand on his own rapier and was staring at the other crew with concern. But he noticed Yerwite’s wince, and her skin was actually beginning to bruise as Gaoelos let go.

The Captain turned to the offended [Duelist].

“My apologies—I am going to ask all guests to wait a moment. Something has come up. We are…going to raise anchor, now. And head over to the other ships. Signal them, [First Mate]. Corbbin? On our heading.”

The [Helmsman] nodded, and his hands were white on the steering wheel as the anchor rose. Too quickly, Yerwite thought. And the sails came down in a flash.

As for the [Helmsman]—he held the wheel straight ahead. And she saw him whisper something and felt the ship jolt slightly as it picked up speed.

None of that felt like sidling over to the other ships, which were less than two hundred feet away to Yerwite. The other passengers agreed.

“Captain, shouldn’t we be turning…?”

The [Duelist] was watching Gaoelos as if he’d taken leave of his senses, but Gaoelos didn’t reply. He was watching The Watery Roots and staring at the [Sailors] on board. They were turning to him, but he said nothing. However, nearly a dozen [Sailors] were standing on the railings with him. And as Yerwite turned, she saw his hands flashing in a complicated signal, close to his chest.

“Captain—”

“Hush. Something’s wrong.”

The [Mage] stopped an angry [Lord], and they saw that signal repeating across the chests of every [Sailor] facing The Watery Roots. The sailors on the other ship looked blank—then jerked back in alarm. They turned around and then began striding along the deck.

“Dead gods. Krakens below and red skies above. If we’re wrong—”

“If we’re wrong, I’ll buy everyone a distillery. Shut up, Corbbin. How many fighting soldiers are aboard The Watery Roots? Anyone? It’s an enchanted vessel. Does it have any magical shields?”

Magic shields? Yerwite stammered that she didn’t know. The Watery Roots wasn’t as venerable as some of the oldest colony ships. But now, she saw the same kind of—alarm spreading across the crew.

The crew, not the passengers. They’d realized something the other half-Elves hadn’t. But now that she saw it, it was clear that whatever had seized Gaoelos and his ship was spreading. Then—one of the half-Elf guests focused on that stranded ship and let out a long cry of—horror.

“No. It can’t be. It can’t be.”

Every head turned to her. She pointed at that ship, flying the flag of distress at sea. By now, both the Treespeaker and the half-Elf aboard that ship had realized Waterlily was accelerating with no signs of turning to join them. Gaoelos saw the Treespeaker staring at him in confusion and waving his way.

“What? What is it?”

The female half-Elf had recognized that ship. She looked around—and then fled across the ship. She ran downstairs, shouting at the others.

“Grab your bows! Grab your bows and wands and—”

She darted back up on deck in a flash. She had a spear, not a bow, but a shortbow appeared in her hands as the [Sailors] shushed her. Then Gaoelos motioned them back.

“Captain! It’s not that ship? It can’t be. He’s supposed to be dead. A bounty on his head!”

Slowly, the [Captain] turned. Now, the passengers were watching him, and the [Sailors] too. Gaoelos never took his eyes off that half-Elf on the stranded ship, pale blonde hair and grey, a smiling face, or the puzzled Treespeaker.

Yerwite thought she knew what had alarmed Gaoelos. Her blood chilled as she looked at the black hull of that ship. But that was the only thing that fit. That—and the half-Elf.

There were lots of half-Elf [Captains] at sea. Well, a few. And the captain of the stranded ship was whole. He didn’t have scars. If it was who she was thinking of, he should have had so many scars he wore a mask. And grey hair streaked with soot. And his ship…

Only then did she realize how few people were on the deck of that other ship for a vessel that size. And…how they all walked around, tugging on rope, loitering or sitting—not at all like what the trained crew of Waterlily did, even off-duty. They had such blank expressions on their faces.

“Crew, guests of the Waterlily. I hope I am not raising the alarm unduly. If so, I will apologize to all present. However, it is my intent to take Waterlily far out of range of this unknown vessel until her name can be found and identified, and I have signaled The Watery Roots to immediately weigh anchor and move to a safe distance.”

It was doing that now. In fact, Gaoelos saw the Treespeaker shouting in the distance, waving at his own ship as it began to move sluggishly. And that smiling half-Elf never moved. Gaoelos looked back.

“I fear we may have just sailed into a trap. I do not know what ship that is or who that [Captain] is. But—aspects—match the description of a famous [Pirate] vessel. I am acting out of an abundance of caution.”

Now, the crew was moaning. And it rose between the guests too. Others looked around blankly, but with rising concern. Perhaps they had never heard this story. It wasn’t a bedtime tale. But there was only one ship at sea that half-Elves feared more than regular [Pirates]. More than Bloodtear Pirates.

“He’s supposed to be dead. Dead and hunted! Never to sail under the open sky! He’s not twenty miles from Izril’s shores!”

Corbbin shouted, and every head turned to him. But Gaoelos just pointed back.

His finger pointed at the mysterious half-Elf’s chest. Just that—an accusation. A question. Got you. The finger trembled as the sun shone down along the pale blue waters lapping along Izril’s coast. And then the [Captain] of the stranded ship threw his head back and began to laugh.

He laughed and laughed, a thin sound on the waves. From their increasing distance to the other ship, it was faint. Like a whisper. But even from this far—it was hysterical. It wasn’t a normal laugh, and the Treespeaker jumped back.

Now, two ships were moving away from the third one. Black hull in the waters. A squat ship—but with pristine white sails.

As if they had never been used. And the longer Yerwite looked, the more she realized she couldn’t see anything wrong with the other ship. Why would they be in peril so close to Izril’s coast? Why, it was almost like that was just an excuse to have the other ships stop. As if…this ship had known they were coming and had been waiting for them.

The half-Elf was laughing. Laughing and laughing, doubled over, then bending over backwards, a hand on his forehead. Ruefully. And the laughter didn’t stop, although he should have run out of air. The hysteria was turning to something else. A manic cackle of malice. An outrage. No…venom in the air.

The half-Elf put his hands on his blonde head as he stood there. It was all unveiling like a slow nightmare as Gaoelos watched the other ship. Now, the Treespeaker was backing away, and the crew and passengers of Waterlily saw the stranger put his hands to his head. Then—he began to tear at his face.

He reached up and yanked at his hair. His grip was so strong it pulled his entire forehead up. Then—his skin began to tear. Yerwite saw his features distort—and then his face began to rip, revealing red blood and flesh.

The cries of horror began as the half-Elf started removing his face. He tore his scalp off, and then—then she saw another face below the bloody mask. A grinning pair of eyes. But what she saw—what made Captain Gaoelos sprint to the wheel and scream—was the hair. Bloody, smeared as the dye came off.

Stained red with blood. Pale grey and sooty streaks. Then the half-Elf’s ruined face came into view, and he reached down and produced a pale, expressionless mask of porcelain. Then they began to shout his name. And his ship started moving. It groaned in the water, and Yerwite screamed the name with a hundred voices.

“Shifthold. Shifthold! The Alchemist of Horrors! Irurx the Alchemist!

The traitor of half-Elves. The hunter of his own kind. The monster on the sea—who hated his people more than anything. Right there under those lovely skies.

Run! Send a [Message] and run the sails! Wind spells! Southwards, now, now! Signal The Pride of the Wellfar—signal the Five Families, Zeres, anyone!

Gaoelos ran down the deck, howling as everything turned into chaos. Yerwite only turned her gaze away from the laughing half-Elf, the [Alchemist] and his dreaded ship, when someone seized her.

“Magus! Wind spells! For the love of Elves, we need to run!

The Captain screamed in her face. She nearly dropped her wands, and ran over to the sails. She produced the best wind spell she knew—[Gale Winds], a Tier 3 spell. The sails, already full, inflated as Corbbin chanted his Skills like a mantra.

“[Up To Speed], [Waves Rock Me Not], [Sleekwater Advance]—dead gods, dead gods, dead gods. Not him. Not here.”

“Captain! We have to turn the ship and land! Go for shore! Go for—”

One of the [Lords] shouted. He pointed, and then when no one listened, he tried to wrest the wheel away. Corbbin knocked him back with a fist, and a [Sailor] tackled the [Lord] flat.

Belay that! We’ll never get to shore and live! They’ll be on us like a storm even if we run aground! We won’t get a mile before we’re doomed, not without horses! We—the deep’s calling.”

Gaoelos’ shouting turned into a whisper suddenly. Yerwite, pouring more magic into her spells, turned back. That was when she heard it.

It was faint, at first. Just a sound obscured by the shouts of alarm. The Watery Roots was accelerating, and it had a much higher top speed than Waterlily, but the other ship had been moving at close to full speed for minutes before her larger sister.

If they could keep accelerating, they would lose Shifthold. Surely—the sails were actually being taken down as the ship lay in the waters, like a pulsating…slug? Like a creature. Was the hull rippling? The sails were being taken down, and another kind of sail was quickly being raised by masked and hooded figures.

But then Yerwite realized something. The Treespeaker was gone. And then the sound grew louder and louder, and she heard screams from The Watery Roots. It was…a buzzing in the air.

A humming, a thrumming like wings. Skittering. So loud that it ran over the water. Shifthold was moving. It had no sails. It had no oars she could see.

But it was moving. Pursuing The Watery Roots. Faster and faster as some unknown force propelled it. Then she saw something pouring from the decks. Into the water. Into the air. Buzzing and chirping and chittering.

Insects. And the sky—the sky was no longer bright and sunny. A shadow began to fall over the waves. It passed over The Watery Roots as the first arrows began to fly from both vessels.

Aim at Shifthold! Aim at—”

At what? The insects? They descended over the other ship in a wave. Yerwite saw the first blooms of fire rising upwards, panicked spells from Level 30 spellcasters. They destroyed the insects, blocked them with magical barriers as warriors and [Sailors] slashed around desperately.

But that wasn’t what they were after. Corbbin swore, knuckles white on the steering wheel. Yerwite followed his gaze and saw the sails were covered in insects. One fell down as they ate into the cloth, into the ropes—

The Watery Roots began to slow down. But if anything, the fighting grew more vicious. Half-Elves on deck began throwing fire and magic, battering Shifthold. But the other ship just kept advancing, eating the incoming spells and arrows. And that [Alchemist] was on deck, pointing at the other ship. And at Waterlily. And he kept laughing and laughing—

Minutes passed as Yerwite poured her magic into the spells. Ten minutes of shouting, of the roar of magic. Then—five minutes of screaming, of passengers arguing with Gaoelos to go back. Then silence. When she looked back, trembling with fear, there was silence.

Silence but for the buzzing. The Watery Roots was a distant ship now, at a stop on the waves. It looked like it was…moving. And the hull kept rippling in patterns of black, showing the wood. And Shifthold was following Waterlily.

“All hands. If those swarms come after us, they cannot reach the sails. Do everything you can, crew, passengers, but do not let Shifthold catch up to us. Put a bow in everyone’s hands not sailing the ship. And issue everyone a dagger. First Mate? I want eight in the hold. Guests, it doesn’t matter. Give them a [Fireball] wand.”

Gaoelos’ voice was the only sound above the humming. Someone asked the obvious question.

“Why there?”

The [Captain] looked back once as the [Alchemist] came on in the storm. When he turned, his eyes reflected a terror they all felt.

“To scuttle the ship. We’ll burn in flames before we’re caught. Keep a dagger or an arrow. Don’t let him catch you alive.”

They were in full flight, and the wind had their backs. But the storm the [Mages] were calling was nothing to the one closing in behind.

Insects were buzzing in the skies, and they began to billow forwards in waves of chittering wrath. They went for the sails, crawling on the sides of Waterlily. All the while, Shifthold came on. The masked crew stood at the railings, changing, revealing their distorted bodies with each passing second.

A thin figure eight feet tall began to reveal extra limbs, each one reaching down to its knees. Each limb carried a blade grafted into the skin. Another was slowly belching crawling bugs that joined the writhing decks.

“Such horrors. They don’t belong here. This is something of Rhir.”

Someone whispered. Many of the crew and passengers were screaming—those not grimly throwing fire into the air or trying to add to the ship’s flight.

Captain Gaoelos was looking for the architect of all this madness. The [Alchemist].

There he stood, piloting his ship himself. His eyes were fixed on Waterlily—then Gaoelos. He truly didn’t belong here.

Shifthold had attacked half-Elves along the coast, and he preyed on ships like many infamous [Pirates], but he had never been this bold before.

The sight of half-Elves trying to colonize Izril had enraged the [Alchemist]. Now, with the seas in chaos, he had sailed from his regular haunts where he hid.

Irurx’s gaze was like fury. Gaoelos didn’t understand it—he held a cold horror and all the will in the world to burn Shifthold and the poor victims of its ilk. Given a chance, he would purge it with flame and steel.

Yet somehow—his rage felt like it was being swept back by the sheer animosity in the [Alchemist]’s eyes.

On and on Shifthold came, and now the storm of insects and howling wind began to fly with lightning. But not from the skies; Waterlily began opening up at range.

They had no Minotaur or Drake siege weapons, but their vessel had a single Rune of Projection. [Lightning] bolts stabbed at Shifthold, but the enemy vessel barely creaked with each impact. However, there were dozens of [Mages], and Irurx was alone—[Fireballs] began striking his sails, battering his ship.

Gaoelos hoped that would force the [Alchemist] back or at least give him some caution—right until he saw a flicker from Shifthold’s prow.

Take cover! They’re firing something!

The legends about Shifthold never mentioned it had weapons. Just the crew. Gaoelos looked up and saw cheap catapults launching…glittering alchemical flasks.

Barriers! Get the barriers—

The first jars exploded in midair, and the mists drifted down across the ship. Instantly, Yerwite began to blow the mists away, but they clung to the deck and the people.

Then the screaming took a different pitch. Gaoelos saw one of the sails glistening with liquid that smoked and saw the cloth beginning to dissolve.

Acid mists. Then a dark, violet haze drifted across the deck, and one of the [Storm Sailors] kicking bugs off the deck coughed and began to hack. Gaoelos lost track of the [Sailor] as he ordered replacement sails put up, but the cries of alarm made him turn back.

“She’s lost her mind! Aiellos!

A screaming [Sailor] was trying to behead her crewmates. Her eyes were wild with blank fury, and she slashed forwards, heedless of them battering at her and trying to grab the sword from her. She stabbed a screaming Lizardfolk in the leg—then the [Duelist] disarmed her. He cracked her head across the deck once—then recoiled as she kept trying to bite at him. She finally fell over as Yerwite cast [Sleep]—but more of the berserk haze and acid was drifting down. Then—explosions as Shifthold changed the alchemical weapons they were throwing.

Outgunned and losing ground as their sails kept coming to pieces, Gaoelos looked around and realized they had nowhere left to run.

The shores. Maybe some might make it if they split up and ran. A Drake city. There was no help coming at sea. He snatched a [Message] scroll and saw words appearing.

 

City of Zeres: Waterlily, confirm your location. Confirm Shifthold?

First Landing: The Pride of the Wellfar is sailing, Captain. However, they are hours from your location. Do not challenge Shifthold to a battle.

Zedalien: Our ships are headed north. They are arriving in four hours…

 

Hours. They wouldn’t make it. So Captain Gaoelos tore away from the [Message] scroll and seized a half-Elf’s shoulder. Yerwite looked up as he stuffed it into her hands.

“Captain? What—”

She began to read, but he shouted in her ears over the buzzing.

“Tell them where you are. Divide into three groups and run the instant you get to shore. Corbbin, the boats! Send them straight to shore! Port, now!

“Port, aye!”

The [Helmsman] took them towards the shore. The very same Hivelands that the passengers had been staring at in horror were now the backdrop to Izril’s western coast. The few Drake cities that remained in the face of the Antinium invasion…southwards or past the Hivelands.

This was desolate terrain. Gaoelos watched Shifthold coming up behind them and saw a second mast practically dissolving.

“We’ll be adrift soon. Landing craft down! All passengers aboard! Fill them up as much as you dare. Get to shore. Corbbin—take us about.”

The [Helmsman] looked up. He began to spin the wheel, but hesitated. Gaoelos pointed at Shifthold as his passengers turned to look at him.

“Captain?”

“Aim us straight at Shifthold. Then bring us up to speed. We’ll ram the damned [Alchemist] and take up his time.”

Gaoelos was shivering. And for the first time—he actually feared a mutiny. His mouth kept moving.

“All passengers and as much of the crew—get on the boats and get to shore now. [Storm Sailors] remain!”

The [Alchemist] saw Waterlily coming about. The bombardments actually slackened as Waterlily deployed the landing craft—Gaoelos watched with a sick feeling as the [Alchemist] came on.

He feared neither collision nor the boarding. The madman was actually inviting them!

“Captain, abandon ship! This is sheer suicide!”

“Not if we can slay the [Alchemist]. Go now, Magus. Someone must avenge the Treespeaker and our kin.”

To Gaoelos’ amazement, the [Duelist] had chosen to stay. He was calmly applying poison to the tip of his blade. Then he pointed his sword at Irurx. The [Alchemist] laughed at the challenge as his crew waited. The [Duelist] caught Gaoelos’ eye.

“I took a lesson from the King of Duels. Can we rid the seas of that monster? I’ve heard he is nigh unkillable.”

“Then behead him. We’ll head straight for him. There’s no chance of taking his crew.”

The last [Storm Sailors] on deck were hurling bottled letters and valuables, even their gold, into a chest. Corbbin heaved it overboard with four others. Wills and mementos.

“All boats headed to shore. We need to give them twenty minutes if they’re to make it into hiding, Captain. There’s a poor forest miles ahead—they might be able to hide there or just outrun Irurx. Stay ahead long enough for your folks to chase him off.”

Corbbin looked sick as he saluted. Gaoelos offered him a hand, and the [Storm Sailor] took it grimly and shook his hand.

“An honor to serve with you, Corbbin.”

“[Storm Sailors] die at sea.”

That was his only reply. Then Gaoelos turned back. Shifthold was coming, and the crew called encouragement to the desperate rowers headed to shore.

Go, go, and don’t stop running!

“Tell them to find the Sailor’s Locker! Tell them to find—”

“Run, you idiots! Tell that dingy to turn around and run!

An aggrieved shout from one group at the stern of the ship made Gaoelos turn. His heart sank. Another ship?

A tiny craft was bobbing along the coast. Some poor damned Drakes. It was beginning to turn; the ship must have mistaken the storm as a regular one. Then he heard someone draw in a breath—sharply.

The [Duelist] looked back again and did a double-take. He muttered as Corbbin aimed a wand at the crew of Shifthold, almost in range of small arms.

“That’s no Drake ship. Those aren’t Drakes. Or Dullahans.”

Now, why would he think they were Dullahans? Gaoelos’ head spun around, and he fixed on the small ship.

He would have barely paid attention to it regularly. Only to avoid smashing it; he’d never have to worry about such a ship unless he was doing a sailby of the land or heading into port.

It was barely seaworthy. Essentially, it looked like some kind of coastal fishing boat. A bad one. It had poor lines, and whoever had built it had made it almost as squat in the water as Shifthold. Perhaps they’d tried to make it circular in the hopes that that would spread out the mass and float? That wasn’t how the sea worked, but it still had some basic nautical design.

What made Gaoelos do a double-take was the crew. The ship could barely hold thirty figures, and they were all clinging to the sides, those not rushing around and trying to adjust the sails and rudder in the choppy waters. They had oars out, too.

And they were Antinium. The half-Elf stared as his horror became disbelief. Antinium didn’t sail!

But they were sailing. Against all odds, a terrified Antinium was gripping the wheel. He had—to Gaoelos’ compounding confusion—an equally terrified Drowned Person standing next to him.

Mostly because of Shifthold. But the Antinium vessel didn’t even seem nervous of Shifthold—more of capsizing. The winds the [Mages] had called were blowing them in a circle; they had no idea how to tack into the winds, and the Antinium were visibly panicking as their Drowned Person tried to tell them what to do.

Irurx hadn’t seen them. He was coming in for a full-on collision between the ships. Gaoelos tore himself away from the strange sight. Then he felt his skin, already burning with faint acid and sweating with cold fear and wet with the spray—prickle.

The shriek in the air overrode the chittering of insects. It drowned out the buzzing, the roar of blood, even Irurx’s laughter. The fleeing half-Elves and the crews of both ships looked up, and the buzzing? It grew into the thrumming of wings. The insects in the sky, buzzing from Shifthold’s decks, turned as one. Then they began to flee back to Shifthold as fast as they could. For here came a shape, dropping out of the skies faster and faster, half as large as Waterlily. Such a monster that even Irurx froze up a second—with delight and horror.

Gaoelos just felt the horror as Wrymvr the Deathless of the Antinium came soaring down the coastline. The Centenium had been in the air, tracking the Antinium vessel’s maiden voyage. Now—it was headed straight at Shifthold.

Alchemist Irurx’s look of delight at once turned to one of concern. He slowed his advance as Gaoelos seized the wheel and spun it away from both Antinium and Irurx. The [Alchemist] stood on deck as Waterlily began to flee.

Hail, great Antinium! I come in peace before your Queens and beg—

Wrymvr’s mouths opened wider—it had so many mouths! So many limbs! It—opened two shrieking maws, and the scream that was making Gaoelos’ inner ear vibrate suddenly turned into a rippling that was physical.

Instantly, one of the [Storm Sailors] puked. Gaoelos looked up and thought he saw the air shimmering. Or maybe it was the insects of the [Alchemist]. They dropped out of the air like rain, dead, splashing into the ocean and raining across both decks.

What was it doing? Some kind of—sound attack!

It was extremely effective. Half of Irurx’s crew fell, shrieking, clawing at their heads. The [Alchemist] himself clapped a hand to his ears, but he threw something—and a void of sound swallowed whatever the Antinium was doing. Wrymvr passed overhead, mouths still shrieking, but Irurx had neutralized the sound.

So the Centenium opened another maw and spat blue liquid straight down onto Shifthold’s decks. Gaoelos saw it cover the horror with eight arms. The creature keeled over as the blue liquid froze in seconds, literally melding it with the deck.

Great Antinium!

Irurx ducked as a second glob of the frozen spit came his way. He threw something, and the fiery explosion turned into steam as he defended himself. Then he stopped talking and threw his wheel around.

Shifthold turned as the Centenium banked, turning for a second attack run. Wrymvr passed over Shifthold and then Waterlily, but watched both vessels fleeing the Hiveland’s shore without attacking. Gaoelos stared up as Irurx fled and felt disbelief—and even gratitude.

Were they alive? He had never heard of a [Captain] being assailed by Wrymvr outside of the Antinium Wars—but no one had been stupid enough to land on the Hivelands! Were the Antinium patrolling their shores now? They had boats?

Then he realized he had just sent his people to their deaths. Because the Centenium was heading to shore where the half-Elves had disembarked—just in time to meet the Antinium vessel and the Centenium. Gaoelos ran to the railings as Irurx fled.

 

——

 

The [Alchemist] had disappeared into the ocean, swearing vengeance, by the time the half-Elven navy and Wellfar ships arrived.

Vengeance—upon his kin. Not the Antinium. He would be back. And so long as he was there, any half-Elf in Izril or at sea was in grave danger.

Monsters at sea. The half-Elves were terrified of Irurx, the [Alchemist] of Horrors. He had slaughtered the crew of a powerful ship, and despite Waterlily and her people surviving mostly unharmed, his people feared him more than they feared even the Antinium. A master of insects and bodily horror who held a grudge against his entire species after they had failed to burn him to death. Multiple times.

Anand thought that was fascinating. At least, he did after he stopped throwing up.

That was something Anand wished the Antinium were incapable of. Why could they throw up but not weep? After lying on the wonderfully solid ground and expelling all his breakfast and lunch for thirty minutes, he got up and saw all those amazing ships.

Wellfar ships. Half-Elven colony ships. Anand began taking notes. He had a really good view of their broadsides, and he decided they would be the next iteration of the Antinium ship experiment.

Torthe, his Drowned Folk instructor, looked like she might want to jump into the ocean and swim to one of the ships. But she had remained—possibly because, as a Drowned Folk [Pirate], Wellfar or the [Storm Sailors] might well have executed her sooner than give her shelter.

There was also Wrymvr to consider. He stood, watching the Humans and half-Elves beat a fast retreat. The Centenium didn’t pursue them, nor did he slaughter the half-Elves who’d landed on shore as they rowed back to Waterlily and fled.

“Centenium Wrymvr, you are showing diplomatic tact? But you chased off Shifthold. I thought you might insist on taking the half-Elves prisoner. Or letting the Flying Antinium kill them. Which I would have objected to.”

Anand looked up from his rapid sketching. Indeed, one of the reasons the non-Antinium peoples were fleeing so fast was because of the thousand Flying Antinium who had come leap-flying their way as the Queens detected the intrusion. Wrymvr’s reply was, as always, a mixed-voice reply, staccato and brief.

“Half-Elves. Non-neccesary conflicts. [Alchemist] danger. Half-Elves danger.”

“Ah, to you? It would be risky to fight so many high-level half-Elves and their wonderful ships.”

Anand nodded. Wrymvr made a krtching sound.

“No. Danger to each other. Alchemist hunted. Half-Elf colony. Drake conflict with half-Elves inevitable. Divide them.”

“Oh. Oh. That is sound strategy. I did not realize that you…understood strategy on this level.”

The Centenium shuffled around so he could stare at Anand. Torthe hid behind the [Strategist], but Anand was fairly sure Wrymvr wouldn’t do anything. If anything, he suspected the Centenium was most amused by his replies. And the most ‘relaxed’ of the three Centenium, compared to Klbkch and Xrn. He did not kill irreplaceable assets.

“No. Yes. I am not Queen. Same strategy. Demons. Blighted Kingdom. Opportunity.”

Wrymvr’s tone was amused, just as Anand suspected. Or was it his…mental tone? He didn’t exactly act like a Queen, but Anand kept picking up emotional tones that weren’t there in Wrymvr’s voice. Maybe that was what the Centenium was so excited about? Bird’s big discovery?

The new lands of Izril meant a new chance for everyone, it seemed. Anand shuddered as he gazed southwards.

“Maybe we can go there instead of building boats? After being in our ship, I do not know if this is a sound strategy.”

“Keep building boats.”

Anand sighed and lowered his head.

“Yes, Centenium Wrymvr.”

 

——

 

The longer he stared, the more offended he became. And he had woken up furious at everything and everyone. But the Antinium were especially indelicate. If they were truly a worthy people, warmongering aside (and that was by way of being one of their few redeemable features), they would have surely produced some art.

Some culture. Perhaps they had lost that too. But if they had any worth, they would have ended up in regal Khelt as citizens, for all true peoples aspired to that paradise as the worthiest end-all.

The Vizir Hecrelunn was angry at them. However, he was also enraged at Fetohep’s weakness, at the contemptible flaws in the modern nations—

And enraged at his own weakness.

Khelta was gone. Heris likewise. He…was alone. And they would never be brought back, in an era where a [Necromancer] to surpass even Khelta might bring all back to a world where the dead and living had no distinction or end.

Now, even the wearisome—brave and broken—Salui had chosen oblivion over existence. Khelt’s lineage of rulers was gone. The ghosts of their people, devoured.

And he did not even know by whom.

So, Hecrelunn was mad with grief and loss and indignation—

Because they had forgotten about him.

[Vizir] Hecrelunn. The same man who had made Khelt a superpower in Khelta’s day. The treacherous dagger to the undead hordes that had plunged into nation after nation! The unpredictable schemer, the—

[The Vizir of Treacherous Majesty].

His magic matched the so-called Archmages of this age. And that was but his magic. He could ride a horse, dictate law, and compose poetry while conducting himself in a duel with a [Blademaster].

And he refused to serve Fetohep. Khelt, the old Khelt he knew, had gone the moment Hecrelunn went to sleep. Now Khelta was gone—

“There was nothing to protect. Yet I am Khelt. So: rejoice. For Khelt shall always be made anew. If I must carve it out of the very sands, we begin again. And that poor fool on his throne will acknowledge me.”

He monologued, addressing his new subjects as they stared up at him. Hecrelunn floated past the screaming attendants of whatever local noble-king had just been sitting on the dais.

Yes, a more bountiful nation, here. Too exposed to the coast along Chandrar’s east, but far enough from that ‘King of Destruction’s’ influence and Khelt itself for him to build something worthy.

Hecrelunn stared down distastefully as the mortals gazed up at him. One raised a bow, and he turned his head slightly as an arrow froze, quivering in midair.

“I forgive trespass once. As a ruler does to servants yet to learn their place. Mercy, temperance, kindness—Khelta was always kind. She chose a land, you see, where no one would contest her. Worthless land. New Khelt shall be made on richer bones.”

The coastal province had lovely roads. It was clearly a minor trading hub; affiliated with larger nations, but easily conquerable. The proof was, after all, the lack of anyone over Level 40 in the entire worthless state.

Surely, the other city-states would object to their neighbor and Hecrelunn himself. He would need to instill the appropriate amount of awe and fear in his subjects. But he didn’t worry overmuch.

He had his levels. And an army without champions was an easy target for meteors. The Vizir took his seat on the throne at last and adopted a regal pose. He spoke to the mortals kindly. As kindly as he could.

“I am Vizir Hecrelunn. I remain the [Vizir], though I shall be regent and ruler of New Khelt. For my [Queen] could never be surpassed. Rejoice, for you will never want for anything once this land has reached its true potential. If you would squander this moment, bear arms against me, flee. Flee and grovel before any power. For my armies and my reach will come soon enough. I am Hecrelunn. AND I WILL NOT BE IGNORED.

He waited for applause. An arrow was his only reply. Hecrelunn looked pointedly at a pillar, and his eyes flashed. The [Archer] keeled over with a cry. Then the first of New Khelt’s undead protectors began to rise. Hecrelunn sighed faintly.

He had to admit—Khelta had always been slightly more charismatic.

 

——

 

Undead had a long life-span. Well, a fascinating one. Even in the deeps of the oceans, they could spawn. From whale carcasses—and that was a horrific zombie to face.

However, they had an actual ecological place in nature; undead tended to make enemies of the living, so they were, often, held in check by other forces. Much like an invasive species, they could become a horde, but they evolved, changed, even developed sentience.

Wasn’t that fascinating? Were they a new kind of ‘life’ in a paradoxical sense? A zombie could become a Ghoul, Wight, then Crypt Lord, and even progress from there. They either subsumed themselves into a gestalt will or grew stronger individually.

Revenants were, if anything, the aberration in the process, binding a soul to a body. However—she had heard even Revenants could change.

Undeath fascinated Silvenia, and she had thought many times she might well be served by letting herself die and reanimating as one of them.

However, she only dabbled in necromancy. Silvenia giggled as she popped into existence. [Greater Teleport] spells took a while, and she noticed the other plane they travelled through always seemed subtly different.

This time, it had been—odd. But the world was odd. The half-Elf, the Death of Magic, let the rest of her contingent spread out warily and do…well, the things a non-flying, non-all-powerful being would do.

‘Set up camp’. ‘Secure the area’. She just flew off in search of the closest thing that interested her. Which was undead.

There were some zombies, rotted and infested with seaweed and actual life, shambling about. How long had they been wandering the seafloor before magic had brought them up into the new lands? They were practically unique; were those mushrooms filled with death magic? Had she found a self-sustaining creature that generated more death magic than it consumed?

“Deathless, please, stay near the camp.”

Someone came after her. She rolled her eyes as the anxious Demon implored her to run protection.

“This is why I said to bring Czautha. She has time for this. Hold on. Let me just—[Stasis Box]. There. I am adding these to my collection.”

The zombies froze mid-shamble towards the Demon. Not her; undead sometimes seemed confused as to whether she was alive. She didn’t blame them.

Her face was semi-transparent, magical flesh replacing wounds yet to heal. The same for part of her stomach, her right arm, and numerous other parts of her body.

And she’d gotten off lightly! Czautha couldn’t rely on magical prosthesis as a Djinni. As for the Death of Wings—

Well, they were alive. So Silvenia chuckled, because the Blighted Kingdom was trembling at them not yet back to their health. But she was also annoyed.

Annoyed—because of all the people taking up her time.

‘Silvenia, can you teach us how to make better healing potions?’

‘Silvenia, can you construct new buildings for us to live in?’

‘Silvenia, something about saving lives instead of erasing them…’

Which she understood. When you had an actual [Archmage], you tended to want to use her for the betterment of all.

But she wanted to see what Wistram was made of. Especially Archmage Amerys and Archmage Eldavin. They might be interesting…challenges.

Especially Eldavin. Silvenia had some pride in home left, despite having long-since been exiled and her rank stripped for the ‘crime’ of allying with Demons. Eldavin…she was bothered because she felt like she remembered an Eldavin.

And that would completely skew the numbers he claimed. She suspected trickery. Either he was part of damned Ullsinoi or he was one of them. She had her bets on him being a Dragon—or an actually semi-immortal [Mage] like herself. A half-Elf benefited from time spells.

She hoped he was a Dragon. That was a foe that might be better than her, yet.

Vizir Hecrelunn. The King of Destruction. The Titan, the Stalker—and now she got to add A’ctelios Salash, the new lands of Izril, and all the rest of this to her fun.

Silvenia’s smile knew no end, but it soured soon enough. She couldn’t stay in Izril. Every second, even concealed, was like trying to hide a lighthouse’s brightness.

She was old. Too powerful. She couldn’t fly off and conduct her own affairs without abandoning her role entirely. So Silvenia flew back, sighing.

“Damn it. Yes, yes. I’m watching. No one’s been eaten, have you?”

Demons. That was what they called the many species in Rhir’s other kingdom. Demons…just because of the horns? Because of the mutations of the blight? Demons—when some had belonged to Izril before Drakes.

Like the Harpies. Not that there were any here. Nor the more ‘obvious’ demons like General Bazeth, who was practically a new species in appearance, with his horns and red skin, like a Minotaur crossed with a Human in some respects.

These Demons looked like, well, the other species. Humans and Drakes and Dullahans and so on. If they had—peculiarities—you could put that down to magical quirks in their ancestry. Right now, they were working hard at securing their spot. There was some wiry shrubbery one of the big Dullahans was trying to yank up.

“Base camp looks rough.”

Silvenia floated overhead. She pointed idly, and the earth sank in a huge circle around the base. Stone began rising upwards until a Demon begged her to stop.

“Deathless! Please! We would like this to look natural—if anyone so much as detects your magic—”

“Oh, fine. I suppose you don’t want any magical food, then? No scouting? I just get to fly on back and let you lot have all the fun.”

Silvenia scowled petulantly, but she knew it made sense. She looked around longingly.

“New lands. Can’t I just fly over there? I see this wonderful valley—”

Deathless.

Silvenia actually pouted. But the point was that the few thousand Demons here were ‘regular folks’. She lingered because the moment she went back, she’d have to teleport an entire ship, put another group on Chandrar’s northern shores…that was a tiring amount of spellcasting, even for her.

But if it worked, they got to spread outside of Rhir. Perhaps even find allies, which would be a diplomatic coup unknown to the Demons. The Blighted Kingdom was very good at keeping them contained, but this land-rush…

Every single Demon here might be dead within the month, and that was excluding their identities being revealed. So Silvenia praised their courage and envied them like hell.

She gave their leader an idle salute as she rolled over in the air.

“Fine, fine. But you’re taking a mighty risk. If I were you—I’d worry more about your comrades here. You think I’m impetuous? Czautha’s kin don’t play at being slaves well after being freed. Stay away from Chandrarians.”

She cast a glance over her shoulder, and a few figures who glowed with magic straightened and watched her impassively.

Djinni. They wore chains, collars, and bracelets that looked quite realistic. But they were no longer slaves. Now, whether that held up when they met more of their kind…

Well, it was inevitable. Not all the Djinni wanted to stay and fight the Demons’ eternal war, so they’d volunteered en masse to join this. Especially…Silvenia’s eyes flickered to the most interesting being of the lot, who had spoken with her at length.

Coutei gave Silvenia a fine salute and grinned. He had a near-perfect Stitch-folk guise, so much so that she could barely tell he was a Djinni.

“Ah, great and lovely [Archmage] of old, I, Coutei, will teach my kin how to blend in such that they won’t need to even act in time! Never you fear.”

“Flatterer.”

He actually called her [Archmage]. She blew him a kiss and then began to teleport back. She thought this entire idea was foolishness—but the Djinni were adamant. Everyone wanted a part of the new lands. Everyone wanted hope.

Silvenia couldn’t fault them on that. She watched the colony begin to lay down new roots. And privately—she wondered how long they’d act as a distraction. Once they were uncovered, the Blighted Kingdom would wipe them out.

She gave them five months. Five months of buying the Demons time. Or—a new Deathless might emerge from their ranks. And that was a bet Silvenia could get behind.

 

——

 

One last group of schemers was hatching a plan in light of recent events. However, this last group did not care about the new lands, for once.

The new lands seemed damned dangerous, and they did not do dangerous, as a species. Unless said danger was a calculated risk. Even then—they tended to outsource their problems.

Nor, contrary to some people’s beliefs, were they that organized. They had been—at times—but despair had ruined their species more than once.

The Goblins could emphasize, if the hungry bastards were able to understand—or were amenable to persuasion. They were one of the few species not infiltrated, and frankly, they didn’t have much value either.

No, it was safe to say that they were just…existing. Just scraping by, in a hostile world. It was then rare for a call to be put out. But when it was put out—their kind would listen.

Listen, and make use of a tool that had fallen into their collective laps. They had tried, again and again and again, to make something for all. And failed. However, this time might be different. And yes, their oldest minds recalled that being said before. But this time—

Ghosts, a rising of new lands, all of it was portentous. None of their ghosts, mind you. They were not worthy. Yet. But perhaps…

Perhaps she could help. Yes, her.

Ryoka Griffin.

She wasn’t just a Courier, already useful. She wasn’t just unusual or lucky. She had the representation of multiple powers. The Wyrm-King of Ailendamus. A mysterious ‘Faerie King’. The [Emperor] of Riverfarm. Even the Archmage of Memory and the Lucifen and Agelum.

More than that? She was a useful proxy. A willing dupe. She had all the qualities of the perfect agent, if they could put a hold on her. So—the call went out.

Very, very carefully, the group who had decided to gamble once more secured a communication method to their comrades abroad. They had a contact in First Landing, so one of their number carefully relayed a message.

“Baah. Bah. Mrhn. Maaaah. Baaaaaah.”

The Sariant Lamb mewling into a speaking stone repeated itself twice before a pair of hands picked it up. It wiggled furiously, but then relaxed and smiled innocently upwards as a [Servant] recovered the speaking stone.

“Lord Uziel, I found your speaking stone! Lady Sarathine had it, the little rascal.”

“Did she now? Those little lambs love all kinds of artifacts.”

A chuckling Agelum wheeled over, followed by a herd of other lambs. They stared up at Lady Sarathine and got the wink. The lambs dispersed as Uzine recovered his stone.

The message was out. It was no longer their concern unless Ryoka came back.

First Landing. A Sariant Lamb in one of House Wellfar’s noble houses shot to its feet and clattered across the floor with tiny, ornamental ‘shoes’. Ryoka Griffin? They were trying again?

The futility of it all! But if Ailendamus’ herd vouched for her…then they had to make waves. Which went to show how Sariant Lambs took on some of the idioms and personalities of their owners.

The Sariant Lamb herself couldn’t leave this self-adopted prison, of course. But she didn’t need to; she had access to speaking stones, and she knew there was a group with a lot of mobility with that [Emperor].

All she had to do was tug at the hem of a young [Lady] who saw her burst into tears. And with a few nudges, the lamb would get a playdate with her friends because she was lonely, the poor thing.

There was a [Merchant] with two Sariant Lambs in his household. One could cover for the other, and the other would have to make the perilous journey outside. If caught, he might be returned or sold, but all he had to do was contact more of his kin in pet shops or a [Beast Tamer]’s employ.

Word would reach Riverfarm’s herds in time. Or any Sariant Lamb group. And then…well, then they’d see. Ryoka Griffin, eh? She didn’t look that intelligent. But she might do nicely after all.

It was almost funny. Almost. But while it was true they communicated, they had a will—no one really knew what drove the Sariants. And that was a desire that had seen their deaths by thousands. A despair not unknown to other creatures. From Gargoyles to Trolls to…many species. The Sariants were just the newest to struggle in vain, and hope hadn’t yet been ground out of them.

All species like theirs ended up this way in time, if they lived long enough. Except for maybe Eater Goats.

They were just insane. But if they ever rose above it—well, then they would know true despair.

 

——

 

Calidus Reinhart.

Alchemist Irurx.

Vizir Hecrelunn.

Silvenia.

Lambs.

Heck, even Grand Magus Eldavin, and the Blighted King of Rhir. Any number of people, including the Emperor of Sands, the King of Destruction…

Did you know what these people had in common? Among other things—if you said the name ‘Erin Solstice’ to them, they would know it.

Not directly, necessarily. But even Silvenia of the Demons knew that name. Because of <Quests>. And other rumors.

For instance, Calidus Reinhart came up with Erin’s name as he did his due diligence researching the new lands and the Assassin’s Guild. Erin Solstice was a persona non grata—but a difficult target. Plus, she’d already died.

Alchemist Irurx knew The Wandering Inn as Ceria Springwalker’s current residence and Liscor as a home of the fascinating Antinium.

Now, how many of these people considered Erin Solstice a threat? Silvenia, for instance, regarded Erin Solstice more as a target—a probable Earther. As a threat, she might laugh until she threw up part of her stomach.

But then again—she was different from being an unknown. She was, perhaps, if not a player on the board, a rather curious piece. Someone to reach out to or consider an enemy.

The age of the unknown [Innkeeper] was over. Only a complete fool would discount her; you could no longer rely on ignorance as an excuse.

Of course, even then, there were people who still didn’t care.

It was all about ego. When you had been called [Archmage], you developed an ego, especially in the Waning World. That explained the attitude of the Death of Magic, for instance. Levels beyond all. More than that?

Watching your foes turn to dust. Laughing over their graves. And yes—actually laughing over their graves or digging them up to mock them did something to the ego over time.

When you held the world in the palm of your hand and crushed armies sent against you like glass…even for something new like <Quests>, the [Innkeeper] was inconsequential.

This entire world was. A fragment of how it had been—and there was some irony in that, because even thousands of years ago, the old guard had said the exact same thing.

So perhaps…this was what it meant to be old. This was what it meant to be humbled, as well, to have all that earth-shattering power and still—lose.

To still be bereft, to still grieve—that was immortal hubris. After aeons, humility snuck up on you and gave you a tap on the shoulder.

So, arrogance and humility tempered by loss. Despair, for the days that might never occur again. A very immortal perspective. Was he immortal? He’d never really thought of himself like that. A servant, yes. Now, a foe, but a poor one compared to the true master of magic and all things.

But this servant, this remnant of glory still exceeded everything and everyone who had come before. More than this ‘Archmage Eldavin’. More than even some former [Archmage] gone to—what? Demons?

He predated ‘Demons’. He had walked the time of Dragons and sucked the marrow from the bones of the ones he’d killed.

He was named Tolveilouka Ve’delina Mer. And he knew arrogance well. He breathed it. And yet—he could recognize how arrogance had killed his master.

His arrogance. He shouldn’t have toyed with the Putrid One’s guests. He haunted himself, tortured himself with the memories of them.

Pathetic adventurers. He’d assumed Silver-rank at most, lucky to reach the center. How it had outraged him to learn they were called Gold-rank in this day and age.

A bug-person, a—a half-begun Woman of Metal, a half-Elf too incompetent to even restore her hand, and a [Necromancer] on the first steps to true power. A toddler, no, a newly-born infant in the face of the Putrid One.

And yet—they had broken the stasis. Murdered his master…

“No. No tears.”

The half-Elf caught himself. And he was a half-Elf, when he chose to be. When he wanted, his body was fair, even nude—though he had dressed himself in robes the color of blood. They blew, now, and he lifted one finger and dabbed at his eyes. The first streaks of wetness were absorbed by the black fur of the towel he was using.

He ignored the sounds and commotion around him. The air whipped at Tolve’s hair and blew across his robes as he stood casually amidst the rocky terrain on a peak of stone exposed to the elements. His eyes sought the sky, and he stared up at the High Passes. His flaxen hair blew behind him in a single ponytail, like a field of wheat over a river of blood, his clothing. His robes blew around him, exposing his bare chest.

Never let it be said that Tolve didn’t know how to look good. Once again, Tolve dabbed at his eyes. His towel made a faint baahing sound, and he regarded it.

Oh, yes. Arrogance. He saw it in front of him. Two slightly-wide, rectangular pupils. Slightly orange irises—and beautiful, black fur. Midnight fur, in truth, so unsullied and pristine compared to most of the animals which scraped on by with blood and tooth and claw.

Like the Eater Goats, who surrounded him, bleating in terror but frozen in place. Most had scars all over their tough bodies, and their mouths of incredibly sharp teeth had holes missing—they ate and reproduced like the savage things they were.

The same for the kneeling, trembling Gargoyles, led by their huge leaders, the Bossels. Superiority was embodied, for them, in size, viciousness.

But true death in the High Passes changed the higher you went. In some, it was size—but look at this.

A rare species. The product of all-consuming hunger. Something you had to work for. You ate, and ate, and were so lucky and talented and…everything that you transcended the rest of your kind.

Then you shed your size, your teeth, even the defensive hide and skin. You became cute, almost as much as a Sariant Lamb.

But the hunger…the hunger remained. And if you became the height of consumption—at least in your mind—you learned how to eat not just just flesh, not just grind bone, but everything.

The Void Eater Goat kept trying to open its ‘mouth’. Create a void into which it would suck everything. It baahed again. Tolve patted it on the head, and it squirmed, confused. Fearless like its kind, but confused as to why it couldn’t eat this strange prey.

“You are such a lovely, stupid creature. I am almost tempted to pull out an eye to give you something to remember me by. You know, each part of you is prized by [Alchemists] and whatnot? Look at you. You think you’re untouchable. But what about this?”

He lifted the Void Eater goat and flicked it on the nose. It recoiled, confused by the unexpected pain, and tried to bite him manually. He laughed and held its mouth shut.

Now there was a look of faint outrage in its eyes. Like that yapping Silver Dragon when he was bested. Oh yes, you see? You’re not the greatest.

One of the Bossels moaned in fear. Tolve glanced to the side, and they froze up.

They were kneeling, and the Eater Goats, despite the dead corpses of Gargoyles and their kin, weren’t devouring the dead. They were too afraid to.

Dead bodies got up sometimes, yet Eater Goats could eat zombies or even Crypt Lords. But these undead?

A goat with blazing black eyes was noisily devouring a corpse. The undead Eater Goat looked up as Tolve mocked the Void Eater Goat.

“Yes, you’re such a terrifying monster. Oh yes you are! You have no notion in that mind of what lies above, do you? But you’ll all do.”

He looked around at the Eater Goats. Thousands of them. The Void Eater Goat, their advanced kin, was a kind of spiritual leader to them. A terrifying omen of death who would happily eat them if it got hungry—but they respected it as a symbol of power.

The same with the Bossels. They led their clans of Gargoyles. Now, the leaders of every group he could find knelt in front of him.

It was, in fact, the fault of the Frost Wyverns. Because of their fight with the Lightning Dragon, they had destabilized the balance of power. Bossels had begun fighting Eater Goats, and everyone had fled the Void Eater Goat, and the Frost Wyverns had been occupying the territory they’d seized after coming down from the higher areas and losing to the Goblins.

Territory. Food—the High Passes could not support too many. So what did live here was very dangerous, but seldom organized. Tolve patted the outraged goat on the head again, then withdrew something from his bag of holding.

The collar went click around the Void Eater Goat’s neck, and he put it down. Instantly, it tried to open a wormhole again and found it couldn’t. Tolve attached a leash to the goat’s neck and turned.

Then, to the disbelief of the largest, shaking Bossel staring at the corpses of its kin that Tolve had slaughtered when he first arrived—the half-Elf handed him the leash.

“A present for you. Go on, take it.”

The Bossel stared at Tolve—then grabbed the leash in terror. Tolve smiled.

“They will follow it. I know you’ve leashed Eater Goats before. This one will go wild when you release it. I would save it for later.”

“Gr—Grdsh? Kethn.”

Tolve’s head tilted left and right. Was that language? The Gargoyle was intelligent enough to make itself a club and lead a clan. The undead didn’t really care.

“Yes, Grdsh. Or whatever. Now, listen closely. Take your clan and head down the mountain. Down the mountain. And kill…oh, everything.”

The Bossel listened, uncomprehending. But it got the message as Tolve did a visual diagram. Its eyes, orange, focused on Tolve with curiosity.

But why? Why are you sparing me? Why give him the Void Eater Goat and…?

It had no perspective. Tolve made a shooing motion. But he did tell the Bossel why, as it backed up warily and the Gargoyles made sounds, corralling the Eater Goats, forcing them down the slopes.

“It’s because you do things in order. You test yourself. How fast can they beat you? Mortal armies? The Humans of the north? Are they as organized as the Drakes? If they’re not—how many cities burn? How many the first time? How many the second? How fast can you raze a city, and how fast can they build them?”

He stretched, laughing to himself at those old questions.

“It’s a game. And if that team comes—how will they die if they meet that lovely little goat?”

What could stop that arrogant goat? And if this failed, so be it. Tolve dangled his legs off the cliff as he sat.

“Nothing and no one remains worthy of my respect. No one remembers his name, even. There is no reason to stop, but slowly. Slowly…”

He raised his hand, and his fair skin mottled. A plague, living mushrooms, sprouted along his arm. Growing out of flesh, rotting, buzzing—Tolve blew it over the Eater Goats, who looked up blankly as the spores grew on their coats. The half-Elf chuckled.

“Oh dear. I think there’s a monster plague. A plague of monsters, I mean. Send adventurers.

They streamed downhill as Tolve looked for another location, another opportunity. He stood and stretched and walked off. A day later, the alarm was sounded.

The High Passes were unleashing monsters. Thousands of monsters.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Notes: If this is a shorter chapter, then I apologize, as well as the longer break, but as mentioned, I’m going on a vacation.

Although, and I’m going to complain for just a second—the airline canceled my flight the first time. Then changed the date of my flight yesterday. It’s been delayed a bit.

Travel sucks. However, I hope I’ll have fun when I get there and the getting there and packing is the hard part. Which is what I’m going to do right after this.

I hope you understand—it’s one of the first big vacations I’ve had for a long time since something about a pandemic. I don’t know how restful it is since I’m going to that wild, untamed land of Canananada. But I won’t be doing much writing (I think), and I’ll hopefully come back ready to write!

Thanks for reading and waiting until then. Wish me luck and a non-cancelled flight. Or rain. Or forest fires. Or…you know what? Just wish me not an Eater Goat attack. Thanks!

 

Az’kerash Family Dinner and Trey’s Homecoming by Lanrae!

 

Grumpy Boba Tekshia by Brack!

 

Solstice Crest, Foliana, Cire, and more by Gridcube!

 


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60 thoughts on “Interlude – The Competition

    • “germine substances”
      This is not in the scrabble dictionary (actually what it said on google when I went to look up the word”

    • Ooh oooh! I wanna ride on the new Antinium boat at the next TWI Faire?

      You are going to patent the Antinium Boat right, for all purposes seaworthy and not and is it as my imner mind says essentiallt like a big Tagine or have I missed it? Big swirljng Tagine… will cook dinner or Antiniums n possibly drown everyone if not perfected?

      Antinium on the seas!! So tickled!!!

    • “At any rate, this new ship was no Galleon-class ship or even the modified Man-of-War sized ship that The Watery Roots technically fell into.”

      I think “Man-of-War sized” should be “Man-of-War-sized”. Parallel to “bite-sized”.

  1. * “and the inter-family order” — “intra” not “inter”, because it’s within one family, not between distinct families.
    * “What that all meant was criminal contracts” — “contacts”, no “r”
    * “Many enemies […] Ours tend to decrease over time.” — the count of enemies might decrease but ours is referring to the enemies, not the count thereof, so this is saying that each enemy decreases. This needs rephrasing into the correct voice for this character but perhaps, “That already low number tends to decrease over time.”
    * “starboard 155º” — no. Ship navigation is change from current course, not compass based, so changes for large vessels are unlikely to be larger than 45° (checking online, a highly maneuverable warship on Earth is capable of up to a 150° change in bearing); also presumably not intending to head back north by turning past 90°. The ship is heading down the eastern side of Izril, so turning to starboard would turn it towards land. I think this should be, assuming direct south bearing beforehand, “port 25°”
    * “Send them straight to shore! Port, now!” — starboard. Looking from aft to fore along the ship, port is the left and starboard the right (steerboard, the side a right-handed person working a single tiller would be on). They are heading south, along the eastern side of Izril, so land is to the west of them, along their starboard side.
    * “Non-neccesary” — wrong letter doubled, “Non-necessary”
    * “you learned how to eat not just just flesh” — doubled word, drop a “just”

    • “The ship is heading down the eastern side of Izril, so turning to starboard would turn it towards land.”

      Nope, they’re on the western side, with the Hive Lands just visible. The buttocks of Izril are in the SW of the continent.

      • Hrm, I read this and took it to mean that the savvy captain was on the eastern side:

        The eastern side of Izril was underused due to the westward side facing, well, the rest of the world. However, if the currents were changing, a savvy [Captain] could sell a new current to the Seafarer’s Guild or exploit it for his own gain.

        • Oh I see, the eastern side was if they went all the way around. Okay, sorry, they are on the western side so it is starboard. But still, 155° would have them heading roughly northwest. So, I think it should have been starboard 25°.

  2. Long time reader first time poster, enjoy Canada 🇨🇦 its a beautiful country depending on where you are going I can recommend some great spots

  3. I guess Liscor and The Wandering Inn are going to be dealing with another monster invasion. It’s like the face eater moths, but with goats instead.
    What is it with Pirateaba’s monsters and “eating” Face “eater” moths, “Eater goats”, even the shield spiders are described as being dangerous because they’re hungry and way back in the Esthelm battle we saw someone turn into a monster for giving into their hunger. I wonder if there’s something to it.

    • Adding to the list of monsters bent on eating things
      -crelers are basically giant maws with legs
      -Raskghar are empowered by eating gnoll hearts
      – as tijayarnie said, even the gods are driven by hunger.
      It really makes ya’ think if it’s all a coincidence or if there is something more sinister afoot.
      My bet is on an all-devouring elder god, but we’ll see.

  4. Erin really should build up an actual wall around her inn. If she built it right like a square hallway that went all the way around, maybe it would count as being part of the inn and get the reinforcement that the rest of the inn gets. If glass can repel hammers, stone should hold up nicely to most things

    • But they don’t have [Classes] or [Skills]; which is probably what they are working toward. They’d probably be considered ‘monster people’ at the moment.

      • What turns a race of creatures into a species? When does a smart monkey become good enough to level?

        Is it renown? A sponser? What made golems of cloth a species? What allowed a lump of magical rocks to level? How can undead grow? A question to be held by those who have yet to level.

        • Though it does makes sense why the lambs tried building a tower before.

          Species make homes so the lambs tried making a tower or home built by their own whooves to level.

  5. I have to admit I am both interested and frightened of Tolve as he is willing to test his opponents instead of stumbling forth and waiting to see if a disaster strikes when he isn’t paying attention.

    Though I wonder how he might react if Erin reveals she knows who his master was… And who really did the final killing blow within the land of the dead as the Horns didn’t kill him because the [Necromancer] in question had already died before they arrived.

    Or if they will have figured out some way to kill this ancient and deadly undead being.

  6. Man I love Calidus

    I hope too see more of him, super genius that figured out being one sucks is so fun as a character trait.

    He’ll flip his lid if he ever makes it to Liscor and its food revolution

    • While I enjoy that kind of character in theory, Callidus rubbed me wrong in this. Perhaps it was because it was told from his perspective. Because we were nominally in his head, we had to go through every hedonistic thought process and that is something I don’t find interesting.
      Perhaps it was because he was all hedonism without the funny (alla Capt Jack Sparrow). Or without the eccentricities alla Sherlock Holmes.

      Beyond Callidus, I enjoyed everything else. Especially the Death of Magic. I look forward to a demon enclave on Izril. And the Antinium forays into seamanship. Wrymvr is currently my favourite centenium.

  7. Calidus, Regis and the assassins are all slimy gits and that’s somehow even worse imo than the real evil of Tolve. I hope they come to a swift end.
    I was just wondering during the last chapter what Tolve was up to. I’m really curious who will match up against him apart from Erin and Azkerash being the obvious ones.
    Thanks Pirate!

    • My bet is Goblins. The whole bit about big bars being taken down by lesser forces due to arrogance and complacency feels like some good set up for a goblin win. No clue how though.

  8. I REALLY liked Calidus as a new character. It was fun going from flashes of competency to sliding back to hedonism to cure the “headaches” of said competency. (Zeom works well too with a [Hedonist] being self-interested.) Way more interesting then a drunk stooge. The Irux plot was fun as I initially thought Shifthold was Anand capsized. And I look forward to more lore about the lambs.

    Tolve I guess I had a minority view in he seemed to be taking an overly complex scheme and while at first it appeared cold and methodical, the latter line undercut that for me. (“He stretched, laughing to himself at those old questions. “It’s a game. And if that team comes—how will they die if they meet that lovely little goat?””) It seemed at odds with his arrogance speech (toying with the Horns let them escape). Maybe there is more with the plague he seeded on the goats? But the invisible zombie plague (8.40) seemed far more intelligent and insidious. Because you kill your enemies before they even know they are under attack.

    V9 is truly going great though. Really looking forward to everything after break!

    • I wonder how high Calidus is in his hedonism class. If he keeps making plans, even reluctantly, and stays alive long enough, what sort of promotion/class-consolidation will he get at 30 and/or 40? Does he have any other classes besides [Hedonist]? Is his genius innate or from another unmentioned class?

      I’m guessing he has or will get some sort of plotter/schemer class, based on how he reads people. We’ve seen Trey go from [Plotter] to a level 16 [Chaos Schemer], and Rickel went from [Con Man] to a (presumably) 20+ [Trickster of Fortunes]. Will we see Calidus turn into a level 30 [Selfish Opportunist]? A level 40 [Hedonist of Reluctant Genius]?

      He’s definitely an interesting character.

      • It depends on the brand of hedonism pirate aba chooses to implement.

        Theres the classless stupid hedonist who is self destructive…

        then theres the hedonistic life philosphy that requires hedonists to be extremely competent and have their shit together, cuz, for example i follow this philosphy, i cant enjoy my books with a looming deadline, no i need that shit taken care of two weeks ago so i can have a pure enjoyment of dates, sex, food, books. if im not paying rent/mortgage I cant enjoy any of my shit because i’ll be busy worrying about being homeless, so obv part of my hedonism is getting a good job and being a hard worker, doing it right the first time so i dont have to cut into my enjoyment and redo it 10 times since i slacked off the first time.

        communicating clearly and getting rid of loose ends not by ghosting, but by clearly communicating whatever and ending it and not having them continually, text me or call me or contact me when im done.

        gotta work hard to play hard, slacking off lessens net enjoyment, no way will that be tolerated.

        im a hedonist, not a putz!

        id be really intrigued if Pirateaba wrote a proper hedonist. i generally rarely seen it done right im fiction- if they arent cleaning up loose ends and working hard to gain the best life possible for peak enjoyment, i dont think they deserve to be called a hedonist. Hedonism isn’t easy and definitely not for the lazy, unless lazy is a cultivated calculated reward…

        being lazy and like, having some kind of deadline or other nasty stress, just ruins the whole point of lounging in the sun without any worries.

  9. More development in these new lands and a new crisis for liscor to handle. Those goats are going to deal some serious damage.(and likely attack erin’s inn because the horns are there). Her inn seriously can’t go a single month without a monster invasion can it? It’s kinda hilarious.

    (Off topic) I wonder how Ilvriss is doing. What’s going on with him?

    • perfect excuse to rebuild with the grand architects plansboutside the town walls, after the eater goats destroy her hexel inn

      maybe she’ll develop a skill to spontaneously rebuild a new rendition of her inn a stones throw to the left?

  10. I found Tolve’s behaviour completely in keeping with the circumstances. He knows they didn’t kill his master. He knows that compared to him they are bugs (currently).
    When you lose someone you care about, it is common for a measure of those feelings to transfer an adjacent party (Pisces).
    So right now Tolve’s is still angry that they stole from his master. He’s angry that his master officially died (even if it was millennia in the process). He’s also guilty about the relief he’s experiencing now that it’s over.
    He knows that the world has waned and see’s a possibility to accomplish his conflicting goals.
    1. To kill the Horns and to just keep on killing.
    2. To begin the process of replacing his master. With one of the only people currently living who ever ‘met’ his master.
    He’ll try to kill them, but really subconsciously use it as a process of raising them (really Pisces) to the point where he is more. Pisces will either flourish and grow to fill the shoes of his previous master with the other Horns as his revenant guard… Or he will grow stronger but fall ultimately to Tolve’s machinations.
    If it’s the former than he can just slip back happily into his millennia long mindset of being a faithful follower. If it’s the latter, then he can at least tell himself that scrubs weren’t ‘responsible’ for the death of his almighty master.

    It’s not logical per se. But emotions very rarely are.

  11. Please please please have some actual stress free, mind numbing rest. As much as I love your amazing creation, I am much more worried about how exhausted you sound in every AN for the last year. Like I am actually scared for you bearer of many words.

  12. Sorry to hear about your flight! Look at their reimbursement policy since you may or may not be entitled to something for your trouble.

    Enjoy your holiday! And also Canananada, it’s really nice right now!

  13. I love shift hold, its monsters are like a lowkey version of the seamwalkers which bring a fun spice of horror back into the mix.

  14. Antagonistic readers!?

    *Cracks fingers*

    AT LAST!

    Time for me to shine!

    Let’s see how uncomfortable I can make the comment section feel.

    By me merely existing.

    Well, well, well…

    The “mockery and entertainment” peanut gallery to the rescue!

    Wrymvr, the mack daddy dropping down from the red skies.

    *wink*

    I wonder how Hecrelunn would have reacted to Erin being the new Queen, if she accepted.

    I somewhat share his anger with society.

    A bit… a sliver, tiny, micro.

    He had me smiling with his antics.

    Oh subtext shots were fired.

    Will the Lord of 2 trees make friends with the void goat? Imagine that. He grows that missing arm back only to get it bit off again.

    Will there be a character like H. Moleman? Killing off and bringing back, for comedic effect?

    Those Sariant lambs… On a mission.

    I can’t.

    I’m dead… Please stop. Will they build their tower within the Unseen Empire? Laken. You got a powerful nation of lamb chops backing you.

    “This is the song that never ends…”

    Will Tolve have his final battle against the Horns?

    Or will he learn how his master truly went?

    It’ll still be a good rematch though.

    Silvenia meeting Erin is an interesting thought too. Although, a “target” doesn’t sound too friendly lol

    Happy accidents happen around Erin all of the time… Maybe a lil bit of Mrsha luck can help.

    I can totally see Irurx finding a new resource for the lack. Than fleeing for his life from everyone chasing him down like they did with the yellow rivers cure.

    Oh, errors have been made. I went back and read the Rhir chapters and yup. I done did a boo-boo in thinking that the Harpies there were also being called demons.

    So are they actual demons or maybe they’re only being called that and over the years, forgot their identity.

    Ooo! The undead. I feel like I know where that came from. Yo! That’s exciting.

    Infinitypear and Rasktooth, brothers for life!

    Rags, you might wanna be careful with that new threat up on your mountain. Or… Rectify that issue!

    Just remembered that a certain Antinium can mark people to send them to hell.

    If the demons are demons. They have a way back home.

    By the by, fuck the King for taking the innocent lives for his ritual!

    Will Nereshal and Tom be able to stop the King?

    • Hecrelunn making an attempt at being, kind.

      Brings to mind, “I softened my posture… I even changed the tone of my voice. I said softly, sweetly… Like a pimp might say.”

      He waited for applause. An arrow was his only reply.

      Hecrelunn.

      Story of my life. Hahaha

      Also, Persona Non Grata…

      Calidus.

      Erin got beef with some dude she don’t even know exists?

      Or he has beef with her because she was a complete baddass and kicked the Assassins Guild out of the city of adventurers.

      Either way. Interesting future prospects.

      Old man scrooge is the more deadly opponent here.

      Regis can’t just die in peace.

      Evil doesn’t die so easily.

      Ooo.

      When will Bearig and Rophir come to the Inn?

      Erin can certainly use a good cook.

      Qshom can help suit the Order up nicely too.

      Eloque… I wonder.

      Erin teaches a new chef how to prepare blue fruits as Hecrelunn watches.

      Hecrelunn: “JUST EAT THE DAMN AMENTUS!”

      Klbkch. What is that stalker gonna do?

      Are the Horns going to find a way back to Chandrar?

      Nsiia is probably putting that sword to good use.

      Poor Dome Head, being used as a glorified gladiator when all he wants is to be near his ma.

      Just thinking of the folks that were left behind.

      • No. Just realized that those people aren’t “demons” at all.

        Just like open pit uranium mines caused mutations on the rez…

        The mutation these poor people are suffering…

        And the blighted crown wearing douchebag is attacking them for merely being different?

        Pft!

        I can’t wait for Roshal and the BLighted Kingdom to fall now.

        • Going to leave this here for all the men with good hearts in the Inn-verse.

          Unapologetically honest attraction for polar opposites 101.

          Feminine.
          Masculine.

          When a man acts as a gentleman.

          He’s expressing his femininity.

          When a man acts as a THUG.

          He’s expressing his masculinity.

          Don’t let anyone.

          ANYONE.

          Imasculate you as a man.

          Creatures are territorial.

          Strangers, hands off.

          This only works when it’s HER man.

          Every creature has a silly side.

          That being said…

          A woman wants HER man to be both;

          A gentleman and a THUG.

          She wants HER man to hold the door open for her…

          And smack that ass as she walks by.

          I know!

          I am incorrigible.

          • Who remembers when a man entering into a woman’s garden was akin to an intimate experience?

            Neirs practically went all up in Erin’s secret garden… when she was frozen…

            ….

            Fuckin pervert!

            Lol

            Imagine Mrsha and Gire playing an espionage adventure; And Belchaus is in Mrsha’s team… He makes too much noise.

            Mrsha to Belchaus via a card.

            Predator quote

            “You’re ghostin’ us mofo! I don’t care who you are back in the world. You give our position one more time… I’ll bleed you; real quiet. Leave you here. Got that?”

            Oh. And I absolutely love the fact that there are Swiss Drakes up in this!

            I had a Swiss ex who wanted me to go live in Switzerland.

            She was Wiccan.

            Just wanted to say, White hats on a lady witch is hot.

            Wiccans are cool.

            She was so excited and proud of a lot of her culture… lol up until yodeling came up.

            I didn’t know that came from the Swiss… But you can bet your ass that when she let me know… that I teased the FUCK out of her with it…

            Huh?

            Now, I don’t blame her for leaving me.

            Ah well.

            It’s better to have loved than to have lost.

            But than again, it wouldn’t have worked out any way. She didn’t practice her culture too well being that she hated yodeling.

            All that cheese, bread, chocolate and wine. Not good for the vocals.

            I unconditionally love the Swiss peeps.

            The only German for me is the Swiss German baby!

            • Blighted King… Go rectify yourself with a deep rectal exam; so deep that all anyone sees when they find you is an ass with shoes.

              This has nothing to do with the series. It just tickles to think of.

              There was this dude in HS.

              One time he yelped in pain and exclaimed,

              “Ow! I bit my tooth.”

              No one responded to that. A missed opportunity.

              So if he ever finds this and reads…

              Yo, make sure you chew your food carefully. Don’t want you to bite your tooth again.

              Oh! And Bubba the Ferret Bandit would some times choke on his food.

              During those times, I’d tell him,

              “Chew your food, you animal!”

              To which he would eye me as he drank his water.

              Oh, the wars I had with that tube sock.

              Many wars were both won and lost.

              There was one time he thought I was asleep, and decided to walk by my limp body.

              He walked from my feet on up. As soon as he got near my elbow, I moved.

              That lil guy had instinctual movements!

              The split second I moved, he reacted and war danced away from me while dooking.

              Both hilarious and adorable.

              I couldn’t even be mad at him for trying to assassinate me in my sleep.

  15. I don’t want to spout Conspiracy theories on this [Message] scroll,… especially after Master S. Lambda has forbidden all of us to speak about those baseless theories. He’s the best master I’ve ever had. Don’t listen to the rumours about how he’s curiously arched and has horns sticking from his hood, he assured us all it was a curious magical mutation, barely something that needs to be mentionned.

    That said, now that I’ve thought about it, and read more of this peculiar publication, and in keeping with the greatest respect I can have for my great master S. Lambda, the great Sariant Lamb theory conspiracy seems to… be not totally as wrong as I thought. I will write more about it as I le

  16. Poor Calidus, he appears to suffer from racing thoughts and self medicates with alcohol. If his mania is caused by bipolar disorder would [he felt no shame] protect him from the depressive side of things? That’s easy enough to treat with lithium salts; something like adhd would be a problem. Not sure this world is ready for speed.

    • It seems probable that the innverse has already had high-quality stimulants previously, but they were too expensive to mass produce or became lost knowledge. I can’t help but wonder what the knock-on effects of Osteslia producing massive amounts of coffee will be, especially for the paper-pushers and peons of the world.

      If Calidius’ hedonist class doesn’t protect him from STIs it raises some very interesting questions about whether magical plants and addictions will be even worse to deal with than mundane ones. The narrative implies he’s immune to hangovers so that’s something.

  17. It’s been a long time since they were first introduced, but I just realised that the Antinium are literally Protoss.

    Klbkch = Kaldalis
    Xrn = Vorazun
    Centenium = Akhundelar
    Unitasis network = Khala
    Rhir = Aiur
    The demigod in Rhir = Amon

    The only thing that doesn’t match up is that the protoss successfully retook Aiur, but the centenium fled.

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