9.14 VM

Memory was a dangerous thing. It played tricks on you, mocked you, showed you scenes of torment again and again, and, in theory, was also how you learned.

Remembering everything was a curse. Remembering nothing was the opposite of bliss.

Everything in moderation, or balanced, was probably the [Philosopher] or [Bar Drunk]’s takeaway on the issue. Another interchangeable group.

But what if you danced on the far end of the spectrum, so deep on one side you were in danger of falling off? Reasonable, sociable, likable, stable people were all very well. Yet they would never become true [Mages]. That was what Archmage Valeterisa preached, but Montressa du Valeross didn’t really understand what she meant. Not at first.

After a month of the Archmage of Izril’s company, Montressa began to understand everything.

 

——

 

Montressa remembered being a new student at Wistram. All nerves, high-pitched voice—or so it felt—and uncertainty. Everyone felt like they were ten levels higher than you, and a 3rd-year student seemed like a full [Mage].

Of course, that was due to the unfamiliarity with how everything worked. Later, she began to separate the false pretenders from the [Mages] with actual talent. She identified the gifted students, those who could parse a Tier 4 spell while everyone was still sounding out the name.

It hadn’t helped that she’d had terrible role models. Not that Pisces, Beatrice, Calvaron, and Ceria had been bad students. Far from it; even Calvaron, the ‘laziest’ of the lot in that he was a Secret Broker, had been a good magic-user. Pisces?

Pisces had taught himself [Invisibility] in a month. Ceria had won an apprenticeship from Illphres, the first apprentice the [Cryomancer] had ever taken seriously.

In hindsight. In…memorandum, they should have all graduated and gone on to do great things. Nevermind the fact that some of them had; even Beatrice was—had been—Archmage Nailihuaile’s personal assistant.

It should have gone better. Montressa still remembered how they felt, the days after Pisces and Ceria had been expelled. Everyone had known her name, then. She had been the outcast that no one wanted to teach or associate with.

In Montressa’s 3rd year as a student of Wistram, she had, desperate to reinvent herself, taken a roommate.

Cognita assigned rooms to new students, and Wistram was so large that roommates were not a requirement, but there was a social element to such things. Lizardfolk got lonely, and in response to some students becoming isolated [Hermits], the Council had long ago instituted the option for a [Mage] to take a roommate.

They got a nicer, larger suite, and there were perks like getting an occasional ticket to get room service from a Golem, or bonus allowances for an older [Mage] who showed a 1st or 2nd-year the ropes.

Montressa had volunteered for the program, mainly in the hopes of establishing a good name among the 1st years before her past caught up with her. She had been nervous, ready to sponsor a few special meals, introduce her new roommate around the academy, and bribe her if need be.

What Montressa had not expected was for a six-foot-tall Minotauress to come striding into the rooms, introduce herself as Bezale of Maweil, and ask for Montressa to show her to Zelkyr’s Final Test. Bezale had been…a challenge.

Not that the Minotauress didn’t have her own issues with Montressa as a roommate. She had occasionally pointed them out to Montressa, much to the [Aegiscaster]’s shock.

For instance, Montressa, apparently, snored. So badly that Bezale, despite them sharing adjoining rooms in the same set of chambers, had had to sleep with her head under her pillow until she’d learned to cast [Silence]. Also, Montressa had, since growing up in House Valeross, never considered how annoying her hair was.

In that Bezale—a Minotaur, granted—objected to finding Montressa’s red strands of hair everywhere. Spellbooks, breakfast bowls—Montressa had no idea how it happened, but she had a suspicion growing up with a personal [Maidservant] made one miss certain lessons about personal hygiene.

By contrast, Bezale’s faults were her strident personality, constant requests for you to find her an esoteric book if you happened to be by the library—and return six books at once—and forcing Montressa into doing pushups on the beach as the tide rolled in at the break of dawn.

Needless to say, they were great friends. Montressa missed being with Bezale dearly; they had been an excellent team, both magical and personality-wise. However, Bezale was running a new business in Invrisil, and Montressa…

Montressa was realizing that her new apprenticeship under Archmage Valeterisa would make them the student and teacher of legends, or end with her throwing herself into a well.

If a six-foot Minotauress was a decent roommate with some flaws, Valeterisa was the roommate from below Rhir’s hells. The one that you didn’t hear about because all her other roommates had vanished or been taken into a [Healer]’s custody.

Case in point. Thirty-one days into acting as Valeterisa’s personal apprentice, assistant, manager, and, yes, roommate since the Archmage of Izril was constantly on the move, Montressa received an unhappy revelation.

“Archmage Valeterisa. Can you…repeat yourself?”

Montressa swallowed her breakfast, hard. She looked across their campsite as the magical tent they’d had to share began to fold up. Little, shadowy figures darted around it, yanking up tent pegs and clumsily folding the tent into the bag from which it had come.

[Shadow Familiars]. A kind of summoned creature similar to a Golem or Elemental, and dumber than both. They had no real personality and definitely no actual soul; they just hovered there until you told them to do something. Attack a Troll, clean up a spill—which they would do until their mana ran out.

Perfect for a busy person like Valeterisa, and a nightmare for anyone subjected to their idiocy. Like Salamani, the Mage Runner, who had nearly perished in the way of hundreds of others as the Shadow Familiars captured each person trying to meet with Archmage Valeterisa. They had orders to strip each victim of gear, heal their wounds, and feed them until Valeterisa could see to them, even dealing with water, changes of clothes, and the needs of the privy.

It was just…the Shadow Familiars had faithfully taken portions of food from the storehouse and fed the prisoners until they’d run out of food. Afterwards, they’d just pushed dust into the cells as the victims of Valeterisa’s mansion expired.

Still, they could pack up a tent, and good thing too, because Montressa had her hands full in the mornings. A figure sat across from her, barely responding as she poked vaguely at a bowl with a spoon. Her hair was grey, although the roots had the same blue as Lady Ieka Imarris’, her niece. She was thin, not by an obsessive diet, but more from forgetting to eat. Valeterisa was…surprisingly ordinary until you looked into her eyes, which appeared to be distant clouds, also blue and grey, as deep as could be.

The thing that marked her was her robes. They were the Archmage of Izril’s robes and whirled around her, a deep green laced with grey across the midsection at a diagonal angle. The top was embroidered with the crests of the Five Families, the bottom of the robes surrounded by the Six Walled Cities of Izril.

Compromise. Balance. Valeterisa was Izril’s only Archmage, and the crests were colorful; her robes were enchanted with so many spells they were the highest-grade artifact you could get in the modern era before becoming a Relic of their own.

She was the greatest spellcaster short of a true [Archmage], for that matter. Valeterisa was a [Grand Magus], which was, in a general sense, the penultimate stepping stone before [Archmage], as Montressa understood things.

[Apprentice] or [Hedge Mage] or [Spellcaster], the many classes of the self-taught, became a full [Mage], [Magus], or [Sorcerer] with training. They evolved to specialties, like [Wizard], [Druid], [Pyromancer], and so on. But [High Mage] was denoted as a further step towards power. From there, [Grand Magus] was the next step before [Archmage] became the symbol of true mastery recognized worldwide. There were higher classes, but Wistram still used the term ‘Archmage’ because of how it was perceived by all.

Valeterisa was, in her own words, a Level 52 [Grand Magus]. Her exact class was [Grand Magus of Mind and Studies]. A fitting class for someone whose specialty was research and who had obtained the famous [Parallel Thoughts] Skill that had nearly killed her, a prisoner of her own mind and a research that had taken eight years of her life.

She had no other class. Even Montressa was a [Lady], but Valeterisa had devoted her entire life to her sole class. It was, then, ironic that a girl from Earth had nearly reached her level within a year. But Erin Solstice was, to Valeterisa, an anomaly, as were all the Earthers. Plus, even in the old ages, Level 50 had still been a respected milestone; levelling grew infinitely harder past that.

Back to Valeterisa. The Archmage of Izril, the great [Mage] who had allowed Montressa to act as her assistant, handle the chores of the mundane world—sat, poking a spoon into the table repeatedly.

She got to the bowl of cereal after twenty-five tries. Then she vaguely scooped out some of the grains, stuck them into her mouth, and chewed. She did all this without once looking away from the book she was reading. It floated in front of Valeterisa; sometimes, she read it one-handed, but when she recalled she could, she had them float.

Her other hand was busy penning a reply on a [Message] scroll. Valeterisa could write legibly enough without looking, and one of her many thought processes was clearly devoted to writing a letter. Montressa pitied whomever it was; Valeterisa seldom devoted enough energy to more than her form-polite responses.

“Archmage Valeterisa. Archmage Valeterisa. Archmage—”

“Hm? What was the question…Montressa?”

She remembered Montressa’s name! It had taken three weeks, and Montressa wished she didn’t feel a surge of pride at being acknowledged. Twice now, she’d woken up to find Valeterisa aiming a wand at her, prepared to blast her to oblivion until she recalled the young woman sleeping there was her apprentice, not a thief or some kind of incredible [Lecher].

“Archmage Valeterisa, please tell me you didn’t just say what I think you did.”

The woman paused, glanced up, and put a finger to her head.

“Hm. [Rewind Memory]. I said I do not change my clothing or apparel unless something is frayed. That is correct.”

“Including your undergarments?”

Valeterisa took a longer moment in replying. She reached for some tea, took a sip, and made no face whatsoever. It was just…food. She ate because she had to.

“I foresee more unnecessary changes in my life.”

Archmage! How long have you worn that set of underwear?

Valeterisa gave Montressa a curious look, like this was some kind of trap. She raised a few fingers, and Montressa heard her counting out loud to her horror.

“Four, five…is this a worthy use of our time, apprentice? You could be learning a spell.”

“Humor me.”

Montressa breathed. Valeterisa sighed.

“There was a ball in which Ieka had me dress up. So…eight months.”

Eight months!?

Montressa’s shriek roused a few birds from around the warded campsite. They were camped in a grove of trees Valeterisa had decided to land in on their journey across Izril. The Archmage raised a finger and clarified.

“I was not finished. Eight months, eight years.”

Even Pisces Jealnet himself might have hesitated when faced with this revelation. But Valeterisa watched as Montressa tried to put as much space between herself and her mentor as possible.

“I hardly see the need to overreact, Montressa. I am perfectly clean. I cast [Cleanse] every night and morning.”

“It is the principle of the thing, Archmage!”

“Ah, yes. Principles. The very same reason you would have me write a response to every missive I receive and perform social functions nonstop.”

“Anyone who is a [Merchant] or above Level 30! Social functions? Greeting a Guildmaster at a Mage’s Guild is not hard.”

Valeterisa blinked sleepily at Montressa. She stared as the [Aegiscaster] launched into another rant—and then put on a huge, fake smile. She sat up, propped her head on her hands, and Montressa broke off.

“Archmage. Archmage.

“Yes, fascinating. I take your point and will amend my ways.”

Archmage, please don’t use your fake greeting personality on me.”

Valeterisa’s fake smile turned into a brief scowl of annoyance.

“Drat.”

Like it or not, Montressa was getting to know her teacher. Unfortunately, the same went for Valeterisa. Neither one had been sure of the other at first, and there had been hiccups. But now, Valeterisa pondered Montressa and nodded slowly.

“A change of clothing. If it truly elicits such a reaction from you, this may be a faux paus that can be used against me in social engagements. Especially by [Rumormongers] or [Socialites].”

“I…that’s correct.”

Montressa faltered. It amazed her when Valeterisa did this, but the Archmage of Izril wasn’t helpless, just careless. She had risen to Archmage in Wistram, and so Valeterisa mused onwards.

“I also take your point, unhappily, about the social impact of a pleasant greeting and due diligence with regard to replying to missives. Therefore. Apprentice Montressa, you will perform all these tasks for me. Arrange a new set of clothing when we come to our next stop, and I will trust you to reply to all my letters and greet everyone in my name.”

Montressa’s head thunked onto the table. The worst part of working for Valeterisa was that she was intelligent enough to figure out ways to push all her work onto Montressa’s back. Valeterisa went back to eating.

The [Aegiscaster] went back to inserting the wild raspberries she’d gathered into her cereal. Cereal and milk was not, actually, a regular breakfast food in this world.

Porridge? Grains? Certainly, certainly, but Montressa knew Earth customs, hence her copying the breakfast format. It helped that Valeterisa wasn’t a picky eater; as long as Montressa had some cereal grains and milk, and it kept reasonably well, they could have breakfast and source lunch and dinner.

And for all Montressa’s understandable problems with Valeterisa, there were some perks of working for her. For instance, as both women finished eating, Valeterisa pointed at their table.

“Done? Familiars, clean the table.”

The shadowy ‘imps’, with vague tails and horns, flitted forwards and snatched the bowls and utensils. They tossed everything into a bag of holding as Valeterisa pointed.

“[Cleanse]. [Cleanse]. [Cleanse]. [Cleanse].”

Two bowls, two spoons. Valeterisa paused and made a face.

“Note to self: learn [Mass Cleanse] now that I have an apprentice. Four castings is inefficient. Are we ready to leave, Montressa?”

“Almost, Archmage. Let me check the campsite…”

Montressa hurried around. They had only made a fire and put out the tent, foldable table, and other camping goods, but she always checked that Valeterisa hadn’t left a book or something behind. Or they’d be wasting an entire day to get it, and Valeterisa hated wasting time.

Not that she didn’t mind spending a lot of time and effort to a purpose. Hence them camping out here anyways; Valeterisa had been laying another teleportation sigil down. She was growing increasingly picky about finding spots where they would be unnoticed and undisturbed, especially past Liscor in the south of Izril.

“Ready to go, Archmage!”

“Good. [Levitation].”

Valeterisa touched Montressa’s shoulder, and the young woman felt her feet leave the ground. But not because Valeterisa had made Montressa fly.

[Accelerate Spell: Levitation]. [Windward Barrier: Self]. [Lightform Platform, Dais]. [Invisible Spectrum]. And…

“Towing, towing, Archmage!”

“Yes, yes. [Anchor Spell: Self].”

Valeterisa finally let go of Montressa, and the invisible platform of light moved as she flew forwards. Montressa saw their campsite, a small clearing, turn into a stand of trees amidst which frightened starlings were screaming as the Archmage of Izril and her apprentice emerged. She sat carefully as Valeterisa began to pick up speed.

Then they were soaring down from the mountain range that stretched down around the southeast of Izril. They were only in the foothills, and the mountains quickly turned into the northern cliffs: sharp drops caused by continual erosion. From there, the land widened, and Izril’s south truly began.

Valeterisa flew higher and higher until they were at a dizzying height. Montressa already felt sick, but she knew the dais was fairly large. And—the Archmage was flying this high up for a reason.

Consider Valeterisa. She was no Xrn of the Free Antinium, no great being that defined an entire species. Nor was she Feor, a famous name by deed and his own magic. She had largely been forgotten, and even with her return, Grand Magus Eldavin, now Archmage Eldavin, had overshadowed her by far.

He was capable of casting [Flight]; there were other [Mages] of similar calibers, like Silvenia, the Death of Magic. Valeterisa could only [Levitate]. Yet Montressa had learned to respect Valeterisa’s methods.

“Archmage. Why do we fly high all the time?”

Valeterisa glanced sideways as Montressa called out. It was time to begin lessons, it seemed, but they weren’t always magic. She responded, as if it were only natural.

“Why, because the higher I go, the more distance I travel.”

“Really?”

Valeterisa gave Montressa a strange look.

“An arrow flies farther the higher you aim it. It follows flight is the same, even if I produce my own velocity. I suspect altitude matters when flying. I have observed birds climbing for altitude; that they do not always skim across the ground makes me suspect that height matters for efficient transit in the air. Garuda fly higher for the same reason. Height matters in flying.”

“It…does? Why would it? Air is air.”

Montressa was a bright student of Wistram, a few years past graduation, but she was still a [Mage]. She did not consider distance a function of altitude. Valeterisa, by contrast, gave Montressa a look as if she were an idiot.

“It is my observation that higher altitudes decrease the time to my destination. I believe the factors may include a lack of air resistance higher up, but I have never quantified that theory. Let us observe the phenomenon directly.”

With that she dove, and Montressa yelped as they skimmed over the treetops until it opened up into rocky ground. A few Rock Golems turned to stare up at the Archmage and Montressa for ten minutes, then Valeterisa climbed straight up until she was so high Montressa was able to see the clouds just overhead. She flew and then had Montressa calculate their relative distances.

Montressa had to do that with a light-magic spell, which projected a ray of light and, upon hitting a target, told you how long it had taken for it to reach the target. But since it was so fast, you had to memorize a formula which you converted the number into.

That was how you came up with the [Measure Distance] spell. Montressa was forced to learn it as Valeterisa hovered in the air, impatiently correcting Montressa’s magical math. The answer, when it came, was that they had covered about 28% more distance using a higher altitude.

It was an interesting lesson. And Montressa learned a new spell!

Huzzah…? The [Aegiscaster] wondered when she’d need to use [Measure Distance] in her life. But that was Valeterisa for her. No spell was wasted, and she studied mathematics along with magic.

Valeterisa could read every single known writing script in the world, from Drake to Human to Drathian. She was as much a [Scholar] as [Mage], and it separated her from a lot of Wistram’s graduates.

Like Ceria. Love her or hate her…the half-Elf was, uh, not a scholarly type. She cast magic with excellent memorization, but part of the skillset that went into a [Mage] of her and Illphres’ type was aim; composing their ice to be properly cold, balanced, and shaped; and concentration.

Like [Pyromancers]. Some of them made fire hot. They didn’t care that fire required oxygen to breathe for most spells.

Valeterisa did. It fascinated her, the interplay between physics and magic. Some [Mages] were idiots whose answer to everything was [Fireball]. Valeterisa stood on the other end of that ideal, and that was the reason she was, well, an Archmage.

She was one of the few people who could push magic forwards or rediscover what had been lost. Yes, a natural, instinctual [Mage] could invent a new type of spell, but Valeterisa’s magic was exceptionally complex.

Just like [Measure Distance]. Montressa appreciated the lessons Valeterisa taught. She had felt like she was straying from the path of true magic into mundanity—and a lot of alcohol.

Valeterisa was pulling her back to her roots. Not that the Archmage of Izril could spend all the time she wanted in her mansion. She actually conducted a lot of business these days.

 

——

 

“Eight years. Eight years of neglected duties. I am getting tired of travel. Apprentice, do you think the Walled Cities would accept you in my stead?”

“Er, no, Archmage. At least, not for this.

A few hours had passed since their morning and breakfast. Montressa glanced up from penning another [Message] to a [Merchant]. She regretted her comments to Valeterisa already. She had written eleven apologies to [Merchants] who had been selling Valeterisa’s latest magical puzzle. Only, the dratted Archmage hadn’t told them it required magic to solve, so they wanted refunds.

Valeterisa was famous for her failed business ventures. Like the poor House of El…well, it was all for a goal. Meetings, travel—she needed money for spellbooks and her research. It was just that Valeterisa’s ideas for making money didn’t always pan out. The Kaalblades, on the other hand—that was a substantial sum coming into her coffers of late.

They were coming to a city. Or rather, a mountain placed incongruously far from the mountain range proper. Yet again, Montressa admired the Walled City of Salazsar. The City of Gems was still constructing itself out of the mountainside, and it was half-done, to look at it. Spires of gleaming stone rose high above the common folk, each one a company’s property, while the mines stretched deep into the gem-rich strata.

Valeterisa descended with Montressa, on time for her appointment. She was only delayed by the Watch being really unhappy to spot her in their airspace. Montressa spent a few tense minutes telling them it was Valeterisa—again. Then she landed as Drakes and Gnolls gathered, staring at the absent woman reading a spellbook.

Montressa looked around for a Drake from House Gemscale who was hurrying to direct them to their appointment, and Valeterisa nearly flew up to the tower rather than walk.

The second delay was the challenge.

Archmage of Izril! I challenge you to a duel!

“Ah, another random encounter.”

Montressa saw Valeterisa close her book with a sigh. The Archmage glanced up as a furious Drake wearing fiery red robes—and holding an equally flaming staff—planted himself in the street. Instantly, the Watch and other passersby moved back.

“A what?

“These events do find me. Monsters. Dueling [Mages]. Wars. I term them ‘random encounters’. I get them on a rather regular basis. They are predictably random.”

“You mean…people living their lives and you running across them?”

Valeterisa gave Montressa a genuinely pleased smile.

“You do understand. But it’s how they intersect with my life that I try to mitigate. Hello, are you attempting to kill me?”

The Drake floundered as Valeterisa swung towards him. He lifted the staff.

No, and don’t you dare hide behind the Watch! I am Magus Fyres of Salazsar! I spit in your face, Valeterisa of Izril! A true Archmage is a master of magic—and combat! Face me!

Montressa began to get what this Drake was on about. He wanted credit for knocking down the slim Valeterisa, who, indeed, looked like a breeze might send her sprawling. She was famously bookish, and Archmage Feor had once nearly fallen to Grimalkin of Pallass in a duel.

Even a great [Mage] was not necessarily adventurer-material, and this looked like a combat-[Mage]. No guesses as to what his specialty was.

“Archmage Valeterisa is not accepting duels!

Montressa had three barrier spells ready and was looking around for Salazsar’s Watch. But again—Valeterisa surprised her. She peered at the Drake.

“A [Pyromancer]? Oh. Ignore her. I accept. Shall we begin? What are the rules? Do I win your staff if I beat you? I will wager…my clothes. Underwear included.”

“Wh—really? Your clothes?

The Drake, Fyres, was clearly unprepared for her to accept so readily. He’d probably hoped to egg her into a duel, but now the audience was murmuring.

“A duel?”

No magical battles on the streets!

A nervous [Guard] called out, but Valeterisa gave Montressa a vague gesture.

“My apprentice will seal the area. Apprentice. Do we have a deal?”

“The robes of an Archmage for my staff?”

Fyres looked confused—but eager. Montressa edged over.

“Archmage, he looks like he’s decent. He might be a Gold-rank adventurer—he’s at least a Level 30 [Pyromancer]!”

She was worried about Valeterisa, whose reflexes and combat abilities were an unknown. Yes, she had famously surprised Eldavin in a fight and taken part in the battle at the Meeting of Tribes, but she was no Amerys. Yet Valeterisa simply waved Montressa off.

“My robes and underwear.”

“No, I don’t need that—”

Fyres croaked, but the audience was muttering.

“That’s Fyres? What is he doing with that Human?”

“Trying to strip her naked, it sounds like.”

What?

Montressa tried not to laugh at the poor Drake. Either way, his reputation was now damaged, but she was casting a wide barrier spell as he spluttered. Valeterisa stood there, chewing on a fingernail, as Fyres lifted his staff.

“Someone count us down!”

“Archmage?”

“Yes, count.”

Too late to stop. An eager Drake began the count, and Montressa waited for Valeterisa to do something. She had a wand, a good one, but she had no grand artifact, like Nailihuaile’s Serkonian Lance, to focus through. How good was she at fighting…?

“—two, one—”

Fyres exploded into an attack so fast Montressa didn’t see it. His spell left his flaming staff and flashed across the ground. It was—she realized as the explosion sent her stumbling back, even though the barrier caught the force, if not light and sound—

A [Fast Fireball]. Probably pre-charged in his staff. As opening spells went—that would kill most Silver-ranks outright. It was dirty, and Montressa opened her mouth to scream when she saw Valeterisa.

Faced with the combat-trained Drake, Valeterisa was…lying on the ground, coughing soot and wiping it out of her eyes.

“Ow.”

You pre-cast those barrier spells! Foul!

Valeterisa lifted a hand as Fyres howled. He cast another spell, and a ball of fire lashed out, but it struck Valeterisa harmlessly; the force of the [Fireball] had knocked her over. He sent a spray of Tier 3 [Fire Orbs] at Valeterisa, but they struck a slightly glowing sheen of magic covering her.

She was an Archmage. But Fyres just loaded a second [Fast Fireball], and he began calling an even more powerful spell as Montressa bit her tongue. The second [Fireball] was already shooting out across the dueling ground as Valeterisa managed her first spell.

“[Remo—”

Whumph. She went spinning across the ground as the second [Fireball] kicked her like a mule. Valeterisa sat up, looking dizzy, her spectacles askew.

“I regret this. I may vomit.”

“[Flame Pillar]!”

Fyres howled and struck his staff. Valeterisa looked down as a line of flames appeared and formed a circle around her, ten feet wide. She muttered as she pointed a finger down.

“[Lesser T—”

Again, the pillar of fire hit her faster than her spell. Valeterisa ignited as the audience winced, and then she popped into position ten feet away. This time—she looked singed.

Her barrier spells had saved her from two fireballs and a hail of flames, but the pillar was a step too far. Valeterisa winced, and Fyres’ smile was wide and delighted. He was panting—a bit—but his opening was on par with any of Ceria’s attacks.

Montressa’s hands were clenched, nails digging into her palms.

[Pyromancers] ran hot and burnt out fast. If Valeterisa could regain her composure—but that idiot had mana potions!

“Archmage, fight back! Don’t let him keep pressing!”

Fyres glared her way, but it was sound tactics. If he had to defend himself—but Valeterisa just saw him aiming a third [Fireball] her way and raised her hands.

“[Aura Binding: Five-fold Arcane Barrier].”

She recast her barrier again, and while it was on par with one of Montressa’s best spells—the [Archmage] went skidding back.

“Yield or die! [Siege Fireball]!

Fyres had her. He raised a claw, and a powerful Tier 4 spell began gathering. It was a spell slightly beyond his abilities to instantly cast, so it appeared as a glowing orb growing larger with each second. It was soon as large as he was—twice as large—

Dead gods, he must have some kind powerful fire-enhancing Skills to go along with his magic! Montressa feared even Valeterisa’s recast barrier wouldn’t save her from that, and she was preparing an emergency spell.

But at this point, Valeterisa began fighting back. She was spitting out more soot, coughing—but her finger rose even as she staggered around.

[Parallel Thoughts]. One part of her spun off to cast and uttered a spell.

“[Dispel Magic].”

The [Siege Fireball]…winked out. Fyres blinked at his empty hand, then he hissed.

“Cheap trick! [Fast Fireb—”

“[Dispel Magic].”

Valeterisa pointed at his staff. The Drake’s eyes bulged, and he raised his staff.

“[Flame P—”

“[Dispel Magic].”

The audience watched, suddenly amused, as the onslaught of magic stopped. This time, Fyres tried to cast a Tier 2 spell, without incantations, but Valeterisa was just repeating the spell.

“[Dispel Magic]. [Dispel Magic]. [Dispel Magic]. [Dispel Magic]. [Dispel Magic]—”

Someone began laughing. Montressa watched, open-mouthed. It was stupid—but it proved clearly the difference between the two. Combat-readiness or not, Valeterisa had the technique and mana reserves to dispel Fyres at range.

It was hard, exponentially harder to use that spell the further you got, let alone on a [Mage] directly casting, but she was doing it. Fyres grew angrier and angrier as the audience laughed, but he wasn’t done. Nor was he a one-trick [Mage].

Well…he was a multi-trick [Mage], and all his tricks were ‘fire’. His eyes narrowed, and then he let go of his staff, pointed one claw at Valeterisa, swept his tail across the ground, and kicked the air lightly.

He cast four spells at the same time. Montressa’s eyes widened. A spell from his stave, one from his claw, and his tail gathered a wave of sparks that morphed into a wall of fire as his foot flicked a fourth tendril of magic out.

That was impressive! Without a catalyst, spells were harder to cast; they also ‘cost’ more mana, hence most [Mages] needing a wand. Even Ceria used her bone hand, and while Pisces could cast free-handed, he acknowledged it was less effective than a wand.

Fyres, though, needed to get some magic past Valeterisa’s counterspells. And she got three of his attacks. The fourth—

The kick of the tail morphed into a [Fire Orb] that shot at Valeterisa’s face. It didn’t strike her; she had her barrier redeployed. Instead, it burst in a dazzling spray of flame and smoke that blinded Valeterisa. She blinked, lost focus—and Fyres aimed his staff at her.

“[Rivet-Lance of Flames].”

No!

Montressa saw him cast his trump-card, drawing on his stave to send the Tier 5 spell straight at Valeterisa. The Archmage blinked at a lethal jet of white-hot flames aimed at her, a barrier-breaking molten spell—

It fizzled out. Fyres stared at his staff. He blinked. Then he began gulping hard. He spoke in a choked voice.

“What—[Fireball]—”

He pointed again, and Montressa saw his staff spark—then suddenly stop, as if the magic were dead. But Valeterisa hadn’t cast [Dispel Magic]. She had flinched when he went for his final spell, but now she watched with an academic interest.

“Ah, it does work.”

Fyres was clawing at his throat. Eyes bulging. It took Montressa a moment to understand what was going on, then she realized.

There wasn’t any air. The [Mage] toppled to his knees, gagging, trying to breathe, but suddenly his magic and, indeed, lungs were betraying him! Valeterisa stood, thoughtful, then she clicked her fingers.

“Well, that was disappointing. I thought he’d produce some fire that didn’t rely on air. Perhaps it is a viable strategy after all? But I didn’t enjoy getting knocked about for a few minutes. I need more of a quick dispersal. A vacuum?”

Fyres inhaled, and the confused crowd saw Valeterisa turn, sigh, and rub at her back with a wince. At this, someone demanded to know what was going on, and it fell to Montressa to explain as Fyres gulped air.

But what had happened? She had a vague idea, but Valeterisa elaborated.

“Oxygen. A component of air, or so [Alchemists] tell me. I met a naked Drake who once told me that most non-magical flames need air to burn. The concept is thus simple: any fire can be defeated by removing the air. I tested my theory with this helpful [Mage], but it seems as though the method is too slow. Also—magical flames do exist. Apprentice, healing potion.”

She looked rather disgruntled, and Montressa suspected getting burnt hadn’t been the plan, but Valeterisa had risked her life for that idea. She brightened up when she realized she would get the staff, though. Montressa was just about to lower her barriers when Fyres sprang to his feet.

I haven’t lost yet! I neither yielded nor fell, you—you treacherous cheater!”

“I cast that spell at the beginning of our encounter. You were about to asphyxiate.”

Valeterisa looked annoyed. Fyres raised his staff, and Montressa saw a dangerous blue flame gathering in his claws and the staff.

“I don’t know what that word means, but this battle isn’t over. Have at you!

He snarled and lunged, claws burning. Valeterisa’s eyes narrowed.

“Very well.”

“[Blue Blaze]!”

“[Howl of the Blizzard]. [Deathbolt]. [Chain L—]”

The last spell went thwoom as it struck the magical shield in the air. Crackling bolts of lightning blasted Montressa’s spell apart, and the [Aegiscaster] staggered in the backlash, but Valeterisa stopped casting and glanced irritably at her. Then she looked up.

The audience throughout the battle had been mocking Fyres, cheering on Valeterisa, then laughing—then asking in confusion what the trick had been. When he’d gone for round two, they’d been shouting in excitement or calling him down.

Now—they were silent. Silent, because as Montressa’s barriers flickered away, the puddle of red robes and frost-covered Drake was lying on his face. He had dropped his staff, and Montressa pulled herself up and wondered if he was dead.

He wasn’t moving. Valeterisa strode forwards as a cone of ice made the ground crack with the sudden temperature change. She slipped, frowned, then levitated up an inch. She pointed, and the staff flew into her hands. Valeterisa inspected it, shrugged, and tucked it into her bag of holding. She then began to float upwards, leaving the stricken Fyres behind.

Was he dead? Montressa hurried forwards as someone shouted for a [Healer]. She bent down and heard a rasping breath.

Not dead. Frostbitten and almost—the [Deathbolt] hadn’t killed him, high-level as he was. The lightning would almost have definitely done so. Montressa gazed up, shaken, as a Watch [Sergeant] arrived at the scene and saw the damaged street, unnerved bystanders, and fallen [Pyromancer]. He glanced up to see Valeterisa flying ahead, and, with commendable foresight, placed a claw on Montressa’s shoulder before she could slink off.

 

——

 

Guess which faithful apprentice had to sort out that mess? Montressa had to explain the circumstances with witnesses, file paperwork for the Watch’s records, pay a fine for the street, and pay for the street-cleaning service. She would have washed the damn flagstones herself, but she just wanted to find Valeterisa.

Then she had to talk her way into the Gemstone tower and get directions to Valeterisa’s meeting with a Wall Lord Ilvriss, which most of the company was not aware was going on. But for a Gnollish [Administrator] who personally came down to retrieve her, she might have been arguing for hours at the front desk.

“Archmage Valeterisa didn’t mention me?”

“I don’t believe she recalled, Mage Montressa. She is speaking to the Wall Lord in the Gemscale family’s personal apartments. Just across that bridge; the guards are aware you are coming, now.”

By the time Montressa arrived, it was forty-one minutes later. A fact Valeterisa informed her of.

“I was nearly about to leave, apprentice. [Message] me next time you have personal business.”

“I did!

“You did? Ah. So you did. I was devoting all my attention to the Wall Lord’s discussion. I will have some projections for you…um, by the end of the week. My apprentice will remind me.”

Valeterisa turned and put a huge smile on her face, and Montressa saw a familiar purple-scaled Drake wearing an expression of pure sympathy. Ilvriss turned it into a smile as Valeterisa bowed to him.

“Thank you, Archmage. Your fee will be waiting for you upon delivery of your first projections. May I ask about my second offer?”

Valeterisa hmmed.

“Staying? I have a mansion which I am eager to return to. Frankly, having seen the Meeting of Tribes and Belavierr…I have had some interesting, nay, fascinating insights from those ghosts who were capable of such a mass-terraforming spell, but all the [Shamans] appear to be too busy to answer [Message] spells. Or dead. I do not know if I have business that will keep me in the south long enough for your undisclosed matters of Salazsar’s security.”

Ilvriss winced with each sentence Valeterisa uttered, starting with ‘Belavierr’. From the look he and his surly, blue-scaled bodyguard shot Montressa—this was clearly private. Unfortunately, as he seemed to know full well by now, Valeterisa was a leaking faucet. Attached to a sieve.

“Please give it as much thought as possible, Archmage. I am prepared to be exceedingly generous. And discretion—”

“I have committed it to my most secret categorization, Wall Lord. Mentally.”

Valeterisa smiled again, and Ilvriss looked at Montressa. He bowed slightly.

“Mage Montressa, I believe?”

“Yes, Wall Lord? I mean—yes! I don’t know if we’ve ever met, personally?”

Montressa didn’t think so, aside from the Meeting of Tribes, and that had been a battlefield. But he clearly knew her name, and she had a sinking feeling she knew from where. Ilvriss gave her a curt nod.

“I have heard your name from The Wandering Inn. A slight unpleasantness…which I was pleased to note was resolved. I hope everyone is well, Erin Solstice especially? Did you have the chance to see her after her resurrection…?”

He sounded hopeful and nostalgic, and Montressa was sorry to shake her head.

“I’m afraid I left before that, Wall Lord, but I have heard from a friend, Bezale, that she is mobile. On two legs, even.”

“I did hear about that. Excellent recovery…I don’t know if you are planning on staying in Salazsar tonight? I should like to invite you—invite you both to dine with me if you have time.”

The Drake smiled, and Montressa’s mouth watered at the idea of cooked, fine food, and someone as sane-sounding as him. Plus, he clearly held Erin in some regard! But then her heart sank as both she and Ilvriss looked at Valeterisa.

She was fidgeting, like a child clearly bored with the conversation. Now, she broke in hurriedly.

“I regret to say that is impossible, Wall Lord. We will be flying out immediately. With all due plaudits for your offer.”

“We will? I mean—yes, Archmage. At once. Wall Lord, I am so sorry…”

He lifted a claw as Valeterisa nodded to the nearest balcony. He leaned over and shook her hand as he murmured.

“Not at all. Or rather, I should say, the apologies are all mine. For…your sacrifice.”

 

——

 

Montressa gave him a wan smile, and then she was striding to catch up with Valeterisa. The two were flying from Salazsar’s balcony, and Ilvriss swore he heard Montressa begging the Watch not to shoot them down as they exited the City of Gems as fast as they’d arrived.

He turned to Shield Captain Osthia. The Drake was watching Montressa go with much the same expression Ilvriss feared was plastered on his face.

“And that was the first [Mage] you hoped to recruit, Wall Lord? I hope we have…backups?”

Osthia was tactful, but she couldn’t hide how off-putting she’d found Valeterisa. Ilvriss sighed, rubbed at his neck-scales, and cursed quietly.

“A few. But she was the best one. All this time—wasted? Perhaps we’ll get lucky.”

His tone suggested how likely he thought that was. Osthia hesitated and then peered at Ilvriss.

“May I ask why the Archmage of Izril, Wall Lord? From the sounds of her ‘duel’ earlier, she didn’t seem the most capable, and there are fine spellcasters across Izril, if not so famous. Fissival, for instance, although that’s tricky.”

Ilvriss nodded. He threw himself into a chair and was somewhat glad Montressa hadn’t taken him up on his offer. He’d have had to reshuffle a meeting with Salazsar’s [Generals], and that would have been a bad look.

After all—Salazsar was at war with Fissival. He’d struck the first damn blow at the Meeting of Tribes, and while their armies weren’t marching into open combat yet, all trade had ceased and both cities were calling on their allies.

Actions had consequences. He would have to pay for his, but he didn’t regret what he’d done. Ilvriss answered Osthia curtly as he rubbed at his forehead.

“She might not be the most ideal candidate in some—many respects, but there was one reason I wanted her, Osthia.”

“Which is?”

Ilvriss glanced thoughtfully out the window. The Archmage of Izril had already vanished, and she should have been visible for miles. Interesting.

“…Of all the [Mages] you could name, she truly is a daughter of Izril. North and south. She belongs to a noble house in the north, but she grew up in a Walled City. Scatterbrained she might seem, but she would be a cunning ally. I think.”

 

——

 

Ilvriss was not wrong. Nor was he completely right. Valeterisa teleported Montressa and herself within minutes of leaving his tower, just as soon as she left Salazsar’s aegis that prevented hostile teleportation spells.

They popped into the air, and Montressa nearly threw up—then saw the same damn campsite they’d been at this morning!

Well, it proved Valeterisa’s new teleportation network was in order. She’d laid spots across the continent and could now leapfrog across Izril. It wasn’t like Eldavin’s [Grand Teleportation] spell, but it would facilitate travel.

Archmage! I protest! I told you there are boundaries, and not only did you get me into a lot of trouble, you insulted Wall Lord Ilvriss, and now we’re on the road again? Where?

Valeterisa landed on the ground as Montressa began to shout. Even for her—this was a lot, but Valeterisa sat down on the dirt, took out Fyres’ staff, and began to inspect it, probably gauging its worth before she sold it for coin or dissected it for knowledge’s sake.

She replied slowly, but her eyes glanced up as Montressa glared. Even Valeterisa had to wait to recharge her mana after a teleport.

“We’re heading to Fissival next. I haven’t been home in years. Not that it’s home. And I left because that Wall Lord made me nervous. He wants me to train his [Mages], arm them with Tier 4-5 spells. Scrolls they can learn from. High-power magic. And he wanted me to accompany him into a sealed magic room and discuss something top-secret. Possibly treasonous? He offered me four hundred thousand gold pieces to listen and agree to a number of top-tier privacy spells.”

“He…he did?”

Montressa’s rage evaporated, and she listened. Valeterisa glanced up sharply, and Montressa realized she was in a rare opportunity to talk to all of the Archmage of Izril at once.

“Yes. The room was cunningly disguised, and I detected no more high-level individuals present, but it would have rendered me vulnerable the moment I entered. His business may have simply been a plot for power; Ilvriss has a reputation for financial and political acumen. However, it may have been that my refusal would have ended with an attempt on my life or a blood-sealed agreement. It spoke of a trap.”

Wall Lord Ilvriss? Montressa couldn’t quite believe it, but she didn’t know him that well. It was just—Erin talked favorably about him.

“Perhaps he was paranoid?”

Valeterisa nodded instantly.

“Perhaps. There are countless scenarios, and I am running through them now. But most of them place me in a form of danger I do not seek. Top of the list is that the quote-unquote ‘secret forces’ he is training are not just to combat the Antinium.”

“He’s training secret forces?”

The Archmage shrugged.

“That is a secret. I trust you to keep it private given your background at Wistram. Yes. My top projects include him forming a task force to either strike the Antinium directly, some other threat like the north…or murder the King of Destruction. That is one of the individuals who would require someone of my level, in which case I would be handpicked to oppose Amerys. Far from ideal.”

Any of those ideas sounded outlandish, but Valeterisa sounded like she was considering them all. Montressa laughed weakly, trying to play it off. She was no stranger to Wistram’s shenanigans, but this was…a bit too much. Even for Ullsinoi.

“Archmage, I’m no stranger to the Academy’s cloak-and-dagger. Dead gods, I’ve even worked for Nailihuaile, and she has…some cold-blood maneuvers, even for a Lamia. Or had. But how likely is it you’d be part of one of those operations?”

Valeterisa sat there, fiddling with the staff, then tossed it into the air. It floated towards Montressa, and the young woman caught it instinctively. It felt hot, and she wondered if it were magicore or something stronger in the staff. It was nicer than her staff, even if the fire-element wasn’t her style.

“Eight years ago…no, it’s nine and two months. I was approached by [Assassins] for recruitment into the Circle of Thorns. I witnessed their reemergence shortly after my awakening. It would have been extremely unfortunate to be part of a poisoning attempt against House Veltras or have that blackmail me into further actions. I have been asked, privately, by numerous individuals if I would consider casting spells to kill the King of Destruction while he slumbered for the last twenty years. Attack the Antinium. Murder Feor. I make a point of checking my involvement in any dangerous plans.”

She gave Montressa a long stare, and the [Aegiscaster] gulped, hard. Murder Archmage Feor? Valeterisa nodded to the staff.

“That is yours. You need a better staff. We should reach Fissival in two days of flying. I wish to return home.”

The sudden change of topic caught Montressa off-guard. She scrambled to her feet.

“Do we have more business, Archmage? I thought we were done.”

Her schedule for Valeterisa only included activities in the north, but the Archmage clearly had one last place to visit. Interestingly, the Archmage of Izril hesitated. It seemed natural she might want to visit the famous City of Magic, even if it was the most remote of all the Walled Cities, far east along the coast of the continent. Remote via trade ships, which had usually preferred the western approach, and geographically, unlike Pallass, Oteslia, and Zeres, which all occupied roughly the middle of the continent.

Yet Valeterisa cast her gaze eastwards and took her time replying. When she did look at Montressa, it was all of her that looked.

“There are a few old acquaintances I wish to meet, and I will introduce you to some talented spellcasters even Wistram lacks. Most of all…”

She hesitated. Valeterisa glanced at the horizon, and her lips moved for a while before she spoke, sounding almost abashed.

“…I suppose I’m simply nostalgic. I haven’t returned since they made me an Archmage, long, long ago. It would be…fun? To visit.”

She thought about the word.

“No, not fun. But we’ll do it anyways.”

Montressa glanced at the odd expression on Valeterisa’s face. It was there for a second, a real person behind the Archmage of Izril’s blank mask, and then Valeterisa tapped her head.

“[Clear Emotions].”

She glanced at Montressa, and the look was gone. But the rest of it…Valeterisa began casting her spells again, and she spoke as they lifted into the air, heading towards the City of Magic.

“Apprentice, I notice a lack of fresh underwear. Did you forget?”

 

——

 

The Walled City of Fissival had a lot of stories about it. Every Walled City did. Montressa paid attention, but really, every nation said much the same thing.

Calanfer’s Eternal Throne never grew dark. Noelictus’ fields, a somber reflection of any other nation. Pheislant’s lighthouses, and so on. Desonis had…swamps with Hydras in them.

But they said of the Walled Cities, truly ancient pieces of architecture by any standard, that their heydays had been sights of wonder and glory, each and every day. Pallass’ forges had once supplied half a continent with steel, and while they only manufactured enough to fill half a floor with smaller foundries, Montressa had seen the old steelworks, and the elevators were new and fascinating; the aqueducts that ran uphill were marvels of engineering.

Salazsar had grown its legend, and its mines still produced rare Adamantium. Zeres, that City of Waves, had ironically also grown more notable—a giant gemstone halberd was sticking out of one of its towers.

Oteslia had a big tree. And a Dragon, but no one knew that. Fissival, now…they said of the City of Magic that it floated. Fissival flew, and it was the greatest mage school in all of Izril. In all of the world? It had always rivaled Wistram, but there had been times when Fissival eclipsed even the famous Academy of Mages. A hall of learning where the grand magics still held strong, including the teleportation network so many forgot about.

And the legends were true! Montressa du Valeross saw Fissival was indeed at the far edge of Izril’s south-eastern coast. The land rose into a plateau, a massive one bordering the ocean. Not that Fissival hugged the cliffs, but it made any attacking force—or travellers—climb the long path to Fissival, an exposed approach, or scale cliffs and attack via sea.

Ideally placed, in short, to have survived even the Antinium Wars with few threats. Because Fissival, like every Walled City, was unlike every Walled City.

Its architecture was unique. For instance, Fissival had a series of mage-towers and fortified checkpoints leading up to the city proper. They were clearly ancient towers, and as Valeterisa flew past them, Montressa saw one, sixty feet tall, slowly rotating towards her. A glowing gem warningly flashed at Valeterisa until she dove lower, and Drakes holding wands and bows shouted at the Archmage of Izril.

“Note the jade centerpiece below, apprentice? It is thought-controlled by the tower commander. It can swivel, project Tier 5 spells, and each tower has a complement of at least forty soldiers at all times—”

I see it! I see it, Archmage! Please stop antagonizing them!

Carved jade, colorful stone, and old motifs of Dragons, twisting upwards, were carved upon each tower. Each ‘eye’ of a Dragon was a gemstone, such that if the towers fired a spell, that was where they’d come from.

Interestingly…not all the Dragons looked like the ones Montressa saw in motifs in Terandrian paintings. Some were long, as if stretched, and had long, winding bodies.

“What are those, Archmage?”

“Hm? Dragons.”

“But they don’t look like regular ones—”

Valeterisa turned her head as they flew up the long path towards Fissival. She actually sounded…amused. And slightly peeved.

“Don’t be naive, apprentice. Things like that make you out to be a foreigner. Those are Dragons. Long Dragons, I believe.”

“Long…Dragons?”

It sounded like the dumbest name possible, and Montressa thought Valeterisa was kidding, but the Archmage elaborated.

“Lung Dragons? Long Dragons is the common vernacular. An old term for an extinct Dragon. Do not call them Wyrms. That would be highly rude and inaccurate. Zeres has ties with Wyrms, but Fissival does not associate with that kind of…”

She snapped her fingers vaguely as she descended to the ground to walk the last few hundred paces.

“…salt-brained, squabbling, day-drunk riff-raff. Fissival is better than Zeres.”

Montressa blinked. She had never heard Valeterisa insult anyone. But it seemed like her return home was awakening something in the Archmage of Izril. She walked faster, she seemed more focused, and while she had still blitzed Fissival’s outer defenses, her comments were not unheard.

A checkpoint of Drakes, the final barrier between travellers and entry to the city, had heard her comments. They were already waving Montressa and Valeterisa forwards past the regular wagons and people on foot, and she noticed a few giving Valeterisa nods of approval.

Nevertheless, Montressa had forgotten the dangers of coming here. She remembered very quickly as several Drakes lowered enchanted spears and their captain produced a wand which he casually aimed at the ground.

“Archmage Valeterisa of Wistram. You are a known enemy of the City of Magic for your participation in the battle at the Meeting of Tribes. State your business.”

“Visiting.”

Valeterisa stood blankly with Montressa at her side. She waited, and the Drake’s expression cued her into the issue.

“Ah, this is my apprentice, Montressa du Something. She will need to fill out the Foreigner’s paperwork and collect a visa; she has a Grade-3 Passport. How tiresome.”

The Drake looked at her, askance.

“Archmage, you slew Fissival’s combat mages in battle. Proper clearance is not the issue here.”

“Oh, that. I was hired to do that. By Wall Lord Ilvriss of Salazsar.”

“We’re at war with Salazsar!”

“And?”

Montressa was about to leap forwards, apologize, and deal with the situation, but unlike every other time, Valeterisa held an arm out and blocked her. She blinked, and her eyes lit up with some gentle amusement. She spoke quickly and produced something, though it took her a lot of digging to find the small, folded, old piece of parchment that glittered with ancient magic stamps.

“Ah, I see the issue here. You are addressing me as Archmage Valeterisa of Wistram. A foreign [Mage] and therefore an enemy of Fissival.”

“Yes.”

The Drake [Captain] gave her a long, wary look as the other travellers backed away from what seemed like another firefight. Although…it would be a short one even if Montressa and Valeterisa were ready to go, because no less than eight mage-towers had a lock on them from various distances, and Montressa was sure they had siege-class artillery spells. But Valeterisa waved something at the guards, and the mood changed.

“You are wrong. I am entering this city as Second-Class Citizen Valeterisa, current member of the Draconae Scholarium as a graduated [Mage] of the academy, no formal designation, no affiliations with any Mage Lords or Ladies. I participated in mercenary work for a rival Walled City about three weeks ago, which does not bar my entry into the city. Here are my papers.”

She presented a document to the [Captain], and Montressa’s jaw dropped along with everyone else’s. The [Captain] did a double-take, and then one of the [Soldiers] muttered.

“A Second-Class…? The Archmage of Izril was a citizen of Fissival?”

Valeterisa’s smile turned a bit sour.

“I can see I’ve continued to be forgotten. I am a Second-Class Citizen. I grew up here. I know my rights as a [Mage] under mercenary work.”

“We’re going to have to check that. This is—one second, Archmage.”

“I can sing the national anthem if you wish.”

The [Captain] did a double-take, almost laughed, gave Valeterisa a strained look, and Montressa saw his eyes flick to the other [Guards]. They muttered. Something about that joke…or maybe not a joke, had convinced them all Valeterisa was serious.

It still took nearly ten minutes for them to come back and announce that Valeterisa was allowed entry. However…Fissival still considered her a national threat due to her status and long-time absence from the Walled City of Magic.

Not promising. However, Valeterisa listened to the [Captain]’s carefully-worded statement and nodded.

“I am entering as a Second-Class Citizen, then?”

“Correct. Not as Archmage of Wistram. Which means you will be held to the same standards as any Second-Class Citizen.”

That didn’t sound good to Montressa. She had no idea what a Second-Class Citizen got treated like, but she bet it opened Valeterisa up to certain loopholes. What if they jailed her on trumped up charges?

Yet it seemed like Valeterisa knew Fissival. She replied steadily as she accepted the documents.

“That is acceptable. I know the laws. I remind you, however, that Wistram is aware of my visit to Fissival. I will enter the city as a citizen, but any actions taken against me will incur Wistram’s wrath.”

The Drakes glanced at each other nervously. It was a threat that might have lacked for teeth in other times, or a softer response. But right now…Archmage Eldavin and his teleporting forces were a guarantee of Wistram’s displeasure.

“I think I can assure you no hostility will occur within the City of Magic unless you begin it, Archmage.”

“I tend to agree. May I enter the city now?”

For answer, the Drakes stood aside—then one practically stomach-checked Montressa as she tried to follow the Archmage.

“Halt! You need to enter the city! Application forms? Passport?”

“Application forms? You’ve got to be—”

The Drakes took a certain malicious pleasure in stopping Montressa as Valeterisa turned. And here Montressa realized—this was a Drake city. They had forms, paperwork, and as the Drakes barked at her—

“You apply for a visitor’s permit to Fissival! In advance!”

Montressa spluttered as she dug out her Grade-3 Passport, which usually meant she could walk through any city’s gates without trouble. But Valeterisa walked back and tapped the [Captain] on the shoulder.

“I forgot about this. Tiresome. I sponsor her visit. Please issue her a visa.”

The [Captain], somewhat to Montressa’s surprise, gave Valeterisa a grudging nod.

“I need your papers again. Let me take them…identification number…we’ll issue your companion a visa as you are a citizen in good standing. Duration of stay?”

Montressa glanced at Valeterisa.

“One week?”

“One day?”

The Drake stared at both. He sighed.

“…We’ll issue you a one-week visa. Failure to leave the city by the end of a week from now will result in your arrest and a fine and expulsion from the city, Miss Human. You are going to be issued a Foreigner’s visa. Now—this subjects you to the same taxation standards as a Third-Class Citizen for a week’s time. However, I would look up how the laws apply to you stringently, as there are a number of privileges assigned to Third-Class Citizens you do not enjoy.”

“Understood. Where can I get a book of these laws?”

Montressa appreciated they at least told her what was going on. The Drake gave her a supercilious glance.

“We do not issue books of Fissival’s laws, Miss Human. Go to the nearest library. The books are free to read, although you will not have the right to check any out as a Foreigner. Note that your poor conduct will reflect on your sponsor, Citizen Valeterisa here, and that the Watch has the right to stop you at any time on suspicion of illicit activity…”

He spoke for nearly five more minutes, giving her a tired rundown of basic laws. Montressa fidgeted and tried to smile politely, but Valeterisa just walked off and waited until the Drakes handed her a visa, a piece of laminated paper with a simple magical seal that they clearly re-used and re-issued. The only changed details were the identification number linking her to Valeterisa and Montressa’s name and a picture of her pinned to it.

The [Aegiscaster] just bet that if she were back in Wistram, one of her or Beatrice’s contacts could easily forge one such pass. But at last, they were walking into Fissival, and Montressa got to see the city proper.

She continued to be let down. For Fissival was no City of War with huge walls and a double-layer of fortifications. The opening to the City of Magic they were entering had gently-sloping walls that formed a base at the plaza you could walk into, slowly rising in a gentle circle until they got to about thirty feet in height further on.

The City of Magic was below Oteslia for defensive appearances. And yet…the checkpoints seemed fairly impressive. And here, Montressa got to see one of the legends of Fissival for herself.

Behold. The City of Magic. Home. The flying city of Fissival.”

“Flying?”

Montressa looked around wildly as she stepped onto the ancient stone that demarcated the mundane road from the enchanted, ancient stone of the City of Magic. Valeterisa stopped her, made her walk back, and pointed.

“Flying. See?”

Montressa stared blankly at the tiny step up between the road and the city. Then she squatted down. She peered at the gap between stones and saw Fissival was elevated about…an inch. She looked at Valeterisa.

“It’s…floating?”

“Half an inch. The levitation spells and enchantments used to carry Fissival higher, even transport it in times of need, but the control mechanisms and most of the spells are defunct. The levitation stones embedded in the base of the city keep it continually hovering.”

“One inch.”

“One half-inch.”

Montressa closed her eyes. She hadn’t really expected to see the city flying, but she had hoped for some hovering element. The Drakes could claim it was a flying city…but it just made her mad.

Fissival had none of Pallass’ grandness when you first entered it. Erin Solstice had never gone in the proper way, but Montressa’s first sight of the great bazaar on the 1st Floor had been impressive. When she had first seen the great tree of Oteslia, she had marvelled. Even Manus’ labyrinths of fortified ground were impressive. Salazsar’s towers and mines? Artistic!

Fissival? Well—Montressa’s head rose as she surveyed the domed roofs of the buildings in the middle distance. In the center of the city rose a sprawling complex, glass windows and high-elevation walkways reminding her of Wistram or Salazsar’s heights.

The Draconae Scholarium was the heart of the city. The great Academy of Fissival was, to Montressa’s eyes, an inner city in itself, possibly larger than Liscor, where a few truly magical towers did indeed seem to be present. Like Wistram, she spotted a tower covered in glass, odd half-spheres of crystal and an entirely cylindrical top that might be the largest scrying orb in existence.

She glimpsed, even from here, so many spells they dizzied her eyes, and even saw a figure flying through the sky. Montressa’s first thought was Djinni, but it was neither a Drake with wings nor a Djinni; a billowing set of robes told her it was a [Mage].

In that sense, it was magical, but it was less than the Academy of Mages, which stretched up into mists and was surrounded by the sea in a bubble of calm. The city was like that; the buildings seemed shorter than the other Walled Cities.

Perhaps because Fissival was a huge, gigantic dais rather than a contained box bristling with siege weapons. It probably had the most space of any Walled City, and as such, less need for the huge elevation.

Unfortunately, that meant that Montressa’s eyes didn’t immediately pop with some grand edifice like First Landing could show her. She gazed around the plaza she stood in, helpfully marked The Visitor’s Plaza by a sign directing her inwards. Valeterisa stood, like the traveller returning home she was, gazing around with an unabashed sense of nostalgia.

“Home. Do you see the Scholarium, there, Apprentice? We must visit it, but there are a number of places to see. Great mages, my house…what do you think of it?”

“It’s…wonderful, Archmage.”

Valeterisa looked over at Montressa.

“I detect what might be a lie in that statement. Are you not impressed?”

“It’s, uh, a large city, Archmage. Wonderful stone floors. I imagine they don’t have to be repaired.”

Montressa kicked at the stone flooring and looked around vaguely. She saw Valeterisa’s face fall.

“You aren’t impressed. Well—we have barely seen the city. Let’s—ah. It must be the end of the hour. One sec—”

Then a pillar of light blasted up to Valeterisa’s right, straight into the sky. Montressa shielded her face as more magic than she’d ever seen outside of an Archmage casting spells jetted up in a pure surge of power. It overwhelmed her senses—it must have been a mile off, in the heart of the city!

“What? What?

It was there for a second, then already the pillar of radiance was fading, the bright white light—which had seemed bright red, like a pink sunset—fading. The other new visitors to Fissival cried out, some shielding their eyes, others flinching like Montressa, but the Drakes and Valeterisa herself just idly glanced in that direction.

“It must be ten in the morning. I think that one’s Strength. I must be old. I’ve forgotten the Grand Plazas.”

Valeterisa glanced over and sighed. Then she noticed Montressa’s bug-eyed expression.

“Well, they’re not every hour. But that one goes off at ten. We still need clocks. Come on, Apprentice.”

“What was that?

Montressa shouted, and Valeterisa stopped, struck her forehead lightly, and looked delighted at Montressa’s expression.

“The Grand Plazas! You haven’t seen the Grand Spells, have you? Aha. Are you admiring Fissival now? It seems so.”

She peered excitedly at Montressa’s face, and she seemed satisfied by Montressa’s shock. Valeterisa moved forward with a spring in her step, and Montressa reconsidered yet again.

There was something in Fissival even Wistram lacked. Magic and pettiness, in equal measure.

 

——

 

“There is no city like Fissival, no city as grand, no magics as much in demand~”

Valeterisa hummed as they walked through the streets. Montressa muttered sotto voce.

“No city as expensive or rude to its guests.”

~♪ No city that makes you pay as much for a rest!

Dead gods, they even had songs about it. Or was that Valeterisa improvising? Montressa stared around, sulking, an hour later and eyed the prices on the inns.

They were high. They were shockingly high. They were, in fact, so high that she saw one inn with a plain advertisement Erin would have probably called good marketing.

The Archmage’s Retreat! 1 gold per night for a room! Breakfast included!

“One gold piece? One gold piece?

She pointed it out to Valeterisa, and the Archmage stopped humming.

“Don’t be silly, Montressa. We don’t want a basic room. The best ones cost more than that, I’m sure.”

Montressa choked. She was a [Lady] and a student of Wistram! Both rich backgrounds, and she felt like she was being ripped off just staring at the prices. But then—she was still fuming mad.

“It’s not fair! I could barely afford that as a Level 30 [Mage] of Wistram! Especially after being ripped off—after being swindled like that!”

“I warned you not to sell your goods. You didn’t listen.”

Montressa folded her arms. Valeterisa had said that, but Montressa hadn’t understood why.

 

——

 

About an hour ago, they’d been walking through the Mage’s Marquee, a series of outdoor shops in one of Fissival’s many plazas, and Montressa had been admiring the many, if expensive, magical items for sale.

Even Wistram didn’t trade as many magical goods as a city devoted to magic. There were wands for sale, ranging from mere silver to gold in the thousands of pieces. She had never seen so many shops selling wands, or magical scrolls, reagents—they had charms, enchanted earrings, gemstones, and every kind of magical good from enchanted clothing to magical cutlery.

Hot spoon! Hot spoon! Never have a cold bite of soup again! Comes in a set for a small fee!”

Montressa’s lips quirked as she saw someone selling a simple steel spoon enchanted with a heating spell. It looked somewhat decent, and it might last for a while if they’d insulated the enchantment enough, although the magical power would wane.

But a hot spoon?

“Also, a hot plate and hot cup. Any takers?”

Not everything had to sell well, it seemed. But while the desperate Drake offering his heat-based cutlery was losing customers, a competing Drake wearing two frost-covered earrings—attached to her neck-spines since Drakes didn’t have ears—was winning the duel of vendors.

Cold canteen! Tired of the heat? Want a refreshing drink? Buy a cold canteen!”

At this point, Montressa began giggling. The worst part was that a few people had bought the canteen enchanted with the cooling spell, and why not? The Drake had cooling stones you could put in your pocket, and her rival, the unlucky [Enchanter] specializing in heat-products, was shaking his fist at her.

“You may be winning now, Claisse, but just wait till winter!”

“Oh, I’ll wait—and begin selling [Frost Resistance] trinkets as soon as it gets chilly! Ice magic never loses!”

Ceria would have loved to meet her. The Drake was just one of a series of vendors, and Montressa realized—they were selling a lot.

“Two silvers per wand! Basic starting kits! How many can I get you today, [Trader] Gosthe? One silver, eight copper?”

“One silver, six. And I’ll buy fifty if you match my prices.”

One of the people who’d been in line for Fissival, a Human [Magic Trader] if her own wand was any clue, had clearly come to top off her inventory. The Drake began to haggle as Montressa raised her brows.

“Two silvers per wand? I’ve never seen those prices.”

Valeterisa was looking around interestedly, but with little attraction to any magic shops like she normally had. She was a local and, as such, seemed to know that not much on this open street would attract her interest. She spoke to Montressa.

“Feel free to look around, apprentice. But don’t sell anything.”

Montressa jumped and hid her personal charms behind her back guiltily.

“What? Why not, Archmage?”

She might be Valeterisa’s apprentice, and it had perks like her new staff, but Montressa was still a [Mage] who needed coin. She could work enchantments or sell her charms—all defense or ward-oriented—and earn a tidy profit even in a Walled City.

“Just don’t. You will regret it.”

“It’s not against the rules, is it?”

“No. But don’t do it. I—is that a Phoenix feather?

Valeterisa suddenly vanished in a stampede as a [Trader] opened a stall and began to shout.

Magical reagents from Chandrar! Phoenix feathers and—dead gods, don’t push!

So it seemed like there were valuable items on the market! Enough so that Valeterisa actually ran to the stall with a bevy of Drakes. In fact…Montressa thought she saw more common citizens than she’d ever normally expect, here.

She looked around and saw more than one low-level seller sitting on the ground with a few wares on display. Each one seemed to be doing good business; someone had even bought a Hot Spoon™ while Montressa was looking about.

She couldn’t help it. Montressa glanced around, found a spot, and began laying out some items. She had people asking her what she was selling before she was even done.

“These are anti-insect charms. Repellants; put them in a corner of the house, and they’ll keep them away for four months, guaranteed! I have single-use, emergency [Forcewall] tokens rated at eight mace strikes by a Level 15 [Warrior], a [Protection] spell on this cloak—”

“I’ll take it!”

She made her first sale within six seconds. A Drake bought Montressa’s anti-insect charms and didn’t blink once at the gold cost.

“It’s so cheap!”

“You think so?”

Montressa did a double-take. She sold her powerful anti-insect repellants for one gold, eight silver. That was a steep price for the average citizen! It wasn’t permanent, but even so, if the old metrics of a gold per week for low-level jobs held true…

“It is! You should consider doubling the prices.”

The first Drake informed Montressa airily. She hesitated, but more were queueing up. Montressa did raise her prices after two more sales and had sold eight of her items by the time she realized what that warning meant.

[Tax Inspector]! You, Human, and you, the Gnoll—I didn’t see a notice of day-trading. We’ll do a quick inspection of your inventory. [Inspection: Gold Collected]! Hm!”

A Drake followed by a group of armed [Guards] stormed into the plaza so fast Montressa was haggling over her Cloak of Protection when he was almost on her. She saw a few Drakes who’d been selling goods furtively try to run for it, but one of the [Guards] raised a wand.

“[Sticky Webs]. Three runners!”

The other [Guards] pounded after the fleeing illicit sellers while the established ones, including the two [Enchanters], looked on with amusement, calling out encouragement to either side. It wasn’t violent—the worst Montressa saw was a few Drakes falling over as they were snared.

However—she wasn’t prepared for a [Tax Inspector]. Much less the Drake who marched over and gave her what for.

“Selling without a permit? Where’s your papers, Miss Human? I don’t know you.”

“I wasn’t aware I needed a permit for trading, sir.”

Montressa rose, and the Drake gave her a surprised look.

“You don’t. Each plaza is part of a district. There’s only a surcharge on day trades.”

“Oh, good—”

“—But I see you’re a Foreigner. Oh dear, and you’re selling? In Fissival? Well, the guards would do this, but I’m here, and some of you lot have a habit of slipping out the gates, so let’s do this. I’ve pulled your gold sales, so let me just calculate your taxes. Foreign [Mage] selling goods in the city, plus the tariffs, the day-trader tax for the plaza…six gold and eighteen silver.”

That’s two-thirds of my profits!

Montressa shouted in horror. The watching [Guards] looked amused, and Valeterisa finally found Montressa to see her apprentice clutching at her money bag in horror. The Drake [Tax Inspector] gave Montressa a vaguely sympathetic look.

“58%. We have a standing tariff on Wistram goods, which is why you got hit harder than average. It’s a flat 30% for Foreigners without a trading license, Miss [Mage]. Didn’t you read the rules? Pay up. If you want, you can argue this with one of the [Judges], but I really wouldn’t recommend that.”

“Apprentice. Did you just try to sell something?”

Valeterisa looked resigned as she stuffed a handful of feathers into her bag of holding. The [Tax Inspector] glanced at the Archmage, seemed to recognize her level, if not her by name, and nodded.

“Are you selling goods with her, Miss?”

“Hardly. I’m local. I wouldn’t be caught dead selling out here.”

The [Tax Inspector] laughed at that, and Montressa saw, to her indignation, a corner of Valeterisa’s lips lift!

“Hah! I hear that. Didn’t you warn her?”

“I did. Humans.”

Archmage! Why are the fees so high?”

Montressa spluttered as she pulled out some gold pieces and watched them disappear. To his credit, the [Tax Collector] did issue Montressa a receipt and warned her not to lose it; the guards would perform the same analysis of goods sold, and she’d have to prove she already paid. Valeterisa answered as the Drake wrote and stamped a document.

“Fissival has a lot of goods sold, Apprentice. Unless you have a Trader’s permit—expensive to maintain—or you’re a First-Class Citizen, it’s not worth it. All the Drakes here are First-Class. Aside from the ones who ran away.”

“Does that mean you wouldn’t be able to sell anything without that markup?”

Montressa was horrified. Valeterisa gave her an insulted look.

“Don’t be stupid. I only pay a 15% fee as a Second-Class Citizen. And I never sell my goods like this. Foreigners.”

She wandered off, and Montressa stared around as her hard-made magical items disappeared along with most of her proceeds. She stomped after Valeterisa as the Drake [Tax Inspector] glanced around and found someone else to terrorize.

 

——

 

Montressa was still mad about it an hour later as they walked through the inns, looking for a place to rest.

“Second-Class Citizens. How can you stand for it, Archmage? How many classes are there?

“Only three. Third-Class Citizens and Foreigners are rare in Fissival.”

“I just bet!”

Valeterisa glanced at Montressa, looking amused. The woman had stopped at a stall and bought what looked like a network of glistening threads. Vaguely like spider webs? It was attached to a little stick of shaved wood, and she handed another to Montressa.

“Here. A treat.”

“What’s this?”

Montressa saw Valeterisa nibble on the spun threads as the seller of the odd food made more. He took a long bottle of…syrup? And began to spread it over a stick. The Drake expertly twirled the stick, creating a crazy pattern, and Montressa saw it become a shining layer of delicate sugar as the strands quickly dried.

In fact, he was using magic! The Drake had some kind of air-spell that was rapidly-cooling the syrup or else he would have struggled to get it to harden. He winked as Montressa watched. Valeterisa looked approving.

“Sap String. From Sap Spiders. It’s a local treat. It reminds me of the ‘cotton candy’ the Humans talked so much about.”

It wasn’t as sweet as many of the Earthers’ concoctions, and Montressa realized it might actually be literal tree sap or natural syrup tapped from a maple or other tree. Still, it tasted good, and she nibbled at it. She’d never seen a vendor use magic like that before.

“Sap Spiders? There are sap spiders?

Valeterisa turned her head and made a coughing sound. A few Drakes waiting in line started laughing. Montressa turned beet red as she realized she’d fallen for another local joke. Valeterisa winked with a slight smirk.

“There aren’t.”

“Thanks. I got that.”

They went onwards, and Valeterisa spoke idly, gesturing at the Drakes walking about Fissival. Humans, too. To Montressa’s shock, there were more Humans than even Gnolls! Well, that fit given Fissival’s relationship with Gnolls of late, but it turned out that Fissival might have the highest Human population in all the south.

“Humans have always come to Fissival to learn magic. We have more non-Drakes than…anywhere but Oteslia or Zeres, and they have Gnolls and [Sailors]. A Third-Class Citizen is rare; they’re either students or Drakes in other cities who are affiliated with Fissival and given honorary citizenships. Anyone else is a Foreigner or belongs here. I, myself, was born into a Second-Class Citizenship.”

“But not a First-Class?”

Valeterisa pondered that.

“Well, no. I’m not a Drake. You can either be born into your citizenship or win it via great merit, and I never contributed enough. I probably would be, if I’d stayed right after graduating. Most Humans you see will not be First-Class Citizens.”

“I wonder why.”

The Archmage of Izril gave Montressa a reproving look.

“It beats being a citizen of another city in some regards. Or being a [Slave]. Or a Terandrian [Slave].”

“We don’t have slaves.”

“Terandrian [Slave] means [Serf] or [Peasant].”

“It’s not the same!”

Valeterisa rolled her eyes. She really seemed like she was stepping back into an older personality. Montressa shut up as she stomped after her teacher. She didn’t miss how Valeterisa glanced around with a growing interest—or stopped to admire a passing Drake.

“You really grew up here?”

“Since I was a girl. I’m still technically a member of the Scholarium. I might even be able to claim a room, but since you’re here…I suppose we’d better find an inn. I came to Fissival, instead of Wistram, when House Imarris sponsored my magical education.”

Montressa calmed down a bit.

“Really? Why not Wistram?”

Valeterisa took a long moment to reply.

“…Some of House Imarris’ cousins were born here, lived here. I am technically too far removed to be a full member of the nobility, but I was recognized once I became a [Mage] of some standing. My citizenship comes from my parents, who lived and worked here.”

“Are they still around?”

Valeterisa kept chewing on her Sap String treat, but her voice grew distant.

“No. They passed away when I was studying at Wistram.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

The two walked on in silence. After a while, Valeterisa tapped her head, and her tone grew lighter. Montressa wished she hadn’t cleared her emotions, but the Archmage smiled and grew excited again.

“Ah, and here we are. Apprentice, look, one of the Grand Plazas! It’s nearly midday—this must be…well, it wouldn’t hurt to join in.”

Montressa glanced up and saw a stream of Drakes, Humans, and other people heading towards an open plaza ahead. However, unlike the one that had been filled with vendors, or any other street, this one was clearly magical.

Vast ley lines of power crisscrossed the plaza, and only when she followed Valeterisa, asking what was happening, did Montressa realize—they weren’t leylines, natural avenues of power, but part of a spell circle.

A vast one. Thousands could gather in this plaza with ease, and thousands were already spreading out, murmuring, making light conversation. An elderly Drake man was dithering at the entrance, but he followed Valeterisa when he saw Montressa asking what was going on.

“First time in Fissival?”

“That’s right. Which plaza is this?”

“You don’t know?”

The old Drake and Valeterisa chatted as they stood around idly, as if waiting for something to happen. Montressa’s head swung around. Too many things were happening at once.

There were gates demarcating this Grand Plaza from the rest of Fissival. They had been standing open, but the instant she’d passed through, Montressa had realized two things.

Firstly—there was a huge sun-clock, a magical timepiece anchored to a central fixture in the plaza. It had four faces, and it was almost perfectly nearing 12 o’clock, which was what everyone was waiting for.

Secondly, and far more revealing?

“Archmage! Archmage, someone’s stealing my mana!”

It was running out of her from her feet! The plaza was—siphoning her magic! Not much, but it was alarming because of how easily it was done! Valeterisa glanced at Montressa, and the old Drake stared at her in amazement.

“Of course it is, Apprentice. It needs us to power the spell. The more people, the longer it lasts and the more efficacious. And I’ve done this before, old fellow. I lived here. This is just nostalgic.”

“So you have. Well, it won’t be long now. Should you warn your apprentice, Miss? Archmage?”

The Drake and Valeterisa glanced at Montressa as the [Aegiscaster] grew increasingly nervous. Valeterisa lifted one hand and spoke behind it.

“I think not. It is amusing to see her react.”

“Hah!”

Archmage? What’s going on? The spell circle’s activating. Archmage? Valet—

Then the clocks hit twelve, and the Grand Plaza’s magic activated. Fueled by thousands of people who contributed mana into it, on par with the cost of two Tier 2 spells, maybe, the plaza’s magics transmuted. A pillar of power rose and engulfed Montressa. She cried out and then froze as she felt something strike her.

The magics enveloping Montressa drained out the anger, indignation she’d felt at the damn [Tax Collectors] and Fissival’s bureaucracy earlier that day. They ate her pique with Valeterisa, her footsore feet, and the other emotions. For a moment—Montressa felt like a girl again, waving a magic wand and laughing at the colors she created. She looked up and felt the emotion in her chest.

It filled her up, and she exhaled, her shoulders relaxing as Drakes, Humans, and other visitors of Fissival smiled and laughed or hugged and chatted.

For four minutes. Valeterisa smiled up blandly as Montressa just stood there, looking around, and the spell buoyed her up. Even as the pillar of magic faded, the enchantment remained.

“What—what was that?”

“[Bliss].”

Valeterisa answered succinctly as Montressa felt the first wave of the spell end. Yet it still filled her and kept her light and happy. A magical emotion. She looked around and felt a smile on her face, but the old Drake only laughed lightly. And a bit sadly.

“It wears off faster the more times you feel it. But it is nice, I suppose, to visit the midday Bliss Plaza now and then. I have some friends who haven’t been in months.”

“A nice feeling.”

Valeterisa agreed. Montressa saw, to her surprise, many Drakes marching out of the plaza, heading back to work or stopping to chat before going about their day.

“They just—come here? And have this spell cast on them every day?”

She was astounded—and a bit worried. Was this some kind of magical effect altering her mind? Yet Valeterisa and the old Drake just looked amused.

“It’s optional. You give magic and receive benefits. Like Strength. That was ten, wasn’t it?”

“Yep. Strength. All the sweaty Drakes go there. Including all the ones getting the Sinew Magus’ new weight set and working at that damn gym-thing.”

Strength? There’s a—a Grand Plaza that casts a strength enchantment on you?”

Valeterisa nodded.

“Hence most labor-intensive jobs starting after ten in Fissival. There is little point without. There are a few other Grand Plazas; some have failed. There used to be one each hour.”

“Bah, we can do without. Imagine a lightshow every hour? The night ones are bad enough. It was a pleasure, Miss Mages.”

The Drake walked off, and Montressa blinked around as Valeterisa hummed again. She pointed, and Montressa considered the ethics of offering a free spell to a populace to take away your worries and pain for a while. But then again—it did feel nice.

And it was one of the few things Fissival had that was free, right? When she said that to Valeterisa, the Archmage laughed.

“I think it’s time for you to see the library.”

 

——

 

Bookshelves. Books. Libraries were filled with them, but how you organized a library depended largely on the [Librarian]. On Earth, Montressa had heard they had a standardized system called the Dew-Point system or some such. That sounded wonderful and helped to make each library navigable by anyone familiar with it.

But oh, what a loss to the creativity and scope of the library ruled by the self-designed, esoteric [Librarian] half-gibbering with madness behind stacks of dusty books. Where was the adventure in locating the hidden bookshelf behind the rotating wall in the invisible section of the library guarded by the spike trap?

Libraries could be grand. Montressa had been to Pheislant’s, Wistram’s many unique ones, and she had heard and seen illustrations of the Hundred Thousand Tomes under Nerrhavia, seen private collections and witnessed the many manifold covers of ancient times gathering together as the weight of knowledge pressed down on her.

She had seen the straight, boring bookshelves that you could push over onto someone like a wall of educating death. She had seen spiral bookcases, highly impractical, or the ladders that let you climb up and pluck a book from the top shelf and then fall to your death.

Montressa knew books. Or she thought she did, because Fissival’s Grand Librarium was a world unto itself. She had followed Valeterisa to the nearest library. It was a modest entrance, and a lot of Drakes had been heading down. Why—Montressa didn’t understand until she realized they were going down into Fissival proper.

The entire Walled City was a huge, floating dais. It had a lower section, but the only place to build was ‘up’. Mainly because the lower part of Fissival, belowground, was all taken.

It was all a giant library.

The first thing Montressa saw when she descended the suburban entrance to the Library was a circular room. A circular room so far across her eyes lost focus of the other end and it turned into a gentle kaleidoscope of colors. Because she could not, even with a [Farsight] spell, pick out the books lining the countless bookcases on the other end.

Montressa felt a giddy feeling overtake her as Valeterisa walked down the first level of railings leading down, down into a world of books. A spiral bookcase followed the Drakes heading down, and a few plucked books as they passed or placed a book carefully into the shelf. The spines were the wrong way, so the pages faced the pedestrians and didn’t reveal the title.

“Why are they doing that, Archmage?”

“They’re returning books. Obviously.”

One of the books placed this way disappeared, and Montressa saw a baleful eye appear as a Drake on the other end of the spiral staircase snatched the book.

Damaged! Spill on Page 5!

“It was an accident! Don’t fine me! Don’t fine—

One of the Drakes shouted desperately, but the [Librarian] was already recording the damage. And more were reading titles, pulling out a book on display to take to one of the Drakes waiting to record the book, accept fees for fines, or direct their guests lower into the library.

Montressa was breathless. The entrance to the libraries were the spiral staircases, large enough for six people to walk shoulder-to-shoulder, or long, sloping ramps for people who struggled with stairs! It was already on par with most libraries for the number of books—and the Grand Librarium was more than the first floor.

In fact, this library stretched across Fissival, such that the library entrances doubled as a subway. You could walk under the streets to a destination at the same or better speed if you knew where you were going, so many Drakes strolled past bookshelves, walking the old carpeted floor on their way to another destination.

Spiral bookshelves for the entrances. Yet instead of the famously tall bookcases with ladders, Fissival went the opposite direction. Entire staircases led you past endlessly tall, forty-foot-high bookcases, and if you wanted a book that was across from you, a little crystal—when activated with magic—would create a temporary floor made out of light spells.

“Efficient light magic. Even Eldavin had good things to say of Fissival’s library magic. I used to work as a helper, categorizing books. And killing silverfish.”

“Silverfish?”

Montressa recalled the spindly, unsettlingly leggy little bastards that ate books and their glue. She hated them herself, but Valeterisa spoke solemnly.

“Yes. There are plenty of jobs for a young Drake. Or Human. They gave us clubs since we don’t want to damage books.”

“Clubs? For silverfish?”

They were supposed to be as long as your finger at most! Valeterisa shuddered.

“When it gets really bad, they call in adventurers. There are…chambers down here filled with books. It’s mostly categorized, but silverfish grow fast in the presence of magic.”

Montressa shuddered, but the Grand Librarium really was clean. The [Librarians] ruled here with an iron fist, and while you could speak, smoking, eating, or any other distractions were forbidden.

In fact, there were some quite lovely bathrooms with the Drakes’ famous plumbing, but only on the outer layers of the bookshelves, so there was no possibility of a pipe bursting and endangering the books. Montressa saw more Humans here, too, and Valeterisa pointed out lower floors.

“Some [Librarians] live there and never bother to leave. Fissival hosts countless [Scholars], [Researchers]…Oteslia’s are more hands-on, but they often send us requests for in-depth research. A [Librarian] of high-enough level can find almost any book, teleport from bookshelf to bookshelf. I’ve even heard some can punish thieves remotely with Skills.”

“Ook.”

“Hm?”

Valeterisa eyed Montressa, and the [Aegiscaster] covered her mouth with a smile.

“Sorry, I heard a funny story from one of the Earthers about a strange librarian. I think it was fiction. There aren’t any, uh, strange non-Drake and non-Human [Librarians], are there?”

Valeterisa gazed blankly at Montressa, then she adjusted her spectacles and smiled unexpectedly.

“I know one.”

 

——

 

The greatest [Librarian] in the Grand Librarium did not ook or eat bananas. However, no one damaged a book in his presence. Montressa stared at the chains on his legs and forbade a comment about [Slaves].

She didn’t think the Djinni would appreciate it. Nor did he seem particularly enslaved. He was reading a book, one leg crossed, as he floated around one of the lowest-levels of the library. To get down this far, Montressa and Valeterisa had simply floated down, but a more mundane visitor would have a lot of stairs to climb.

“Librarian Heorth. It is I, Valeterisa. Do you remember me?”

“Archmage of Izril, now.”

The Djinni closed the book he was reading and glanced up. His eyes were disconcertingly white and pupil-less—he had the vague shape of a Drake, but he had two long wings, and he seemed…oddly stooped for all he stood eight feet tall. He had long whiskers at the sides of his mouth, and Montressa realized he seemed almost like a cross between the Drakes and the Long Dragons. He had also been floating on a cloud, but now it vanished as he strode over and inspected her.

“Have you returned to join the Scholarium? Did you finally read the book I recommended to you? Age has changed you.”

Valeterisa fidgeted as the Djinni inspected her.

“I…I’ll get around to it in the next decade.”

“I am sure. And to answer your next question, no, I have not found any more fantastical tomes from an [Archmage] long-lost in the shelves. Wistram likely plundered the ones not hidden in the Scholarium’s personal archives. We do have eight more novels in the tales of the Lightning Thief, though.”

Really?

Both Montressa and Valeterisa chorused eagerly and looked at each other. The Djinni, Heorth, snorted quietly.

“Yes, and many copies. Shall I direct one of the [Librarians] to find you a copy?”

Montressa’s eyes widened excitedly.

“Eight? I thought there were only six—I’ve read every single one. Wait. Are these the copies that were banned in Izril and Terandria?”

Valeterisa looked fascinated as well, but she turned to give Montressa a superior look.

“Eight? I was there when the first books came out.”

Valeterisa and Montressa realized they had something in common. The famous Lightning Thief was one of the most famous book series in print, but the Djinni seemed dismissive.

“I have met better [Thieves]. But oh, don’t mind me and read the hot, contemporary works. Don’t read about the Constellation Thief or find any similarities in the derivative naming conventions.”

That caught Montressa’s ear. She bowed uneasily, because Djinni made her nervous. Wistram didn’t have them. They only had…Cognita.

“There was a Constellation Thief?”

For answer, Heorth pointed, and a beam of light illuminated a far shelf around the long, circular floor they were on.

“The Thief of Constellations, The Annals of Mershi, Volume XXXI. Terrible numbering convention. If you enjoy it, I will direct you to further works. Highly topical, especially with the City of Stars being spoken of again.”

Valeterisa’s eyes sparkled, and Montressa and her master ended up collecting nearly ten books, including all the latest Lightning Thief books she’d missed. It turned out some had never reached Wistram or Montressa, and Valeterisa had missed eight years anyways.

As for the Annals of Mershi—Valeterisa returned to Heorth and offered him something.

“For you.”

The Djinni accepted a glowing emerald and sniffed it, then smiled briefly as he tucked it away.

“From Salazsar? You have gone up in the world instead of offering me homemade quartz filled with mana. Have you visited the Scholarium yet?”

“Not yet.”

The Djinni gave the Archmage a long look.

“Save it for last. They will have words for you—savor your visit. And return your books before you leave, Valeterisa, or I will have to hunt you down myself.”

He was reading when they left, and Montressa kept turning her head to stare at him.

“I’ve never seen a Djinni with that much free rein.”

“Nor will you again. He knows almost every book of value in the library, and no one would dare replace him. He is still slave to the Grand Librarium, but as he told me—he won parts of his freedom within his bondage by knowledge. Knowledge which he imparts to few.”

Valeterisa brushed the ancient book, and Montressa saw that there was a slip inside the cover written with Heorth’s own words that listed the book and author. The cover itself was actually a replacement; the book had been worn or damaged.

Which made her think that only someone who knew what it contained or who was very, very lucky would ever find it. Even for a fictitious tale about a [Thief] in the days of Mershi—this was an old, rare book.

She glanced up suddenly and saw Valeterisa watching her. Montressa spoke, keeping her voice low.

“I don’t believe Heorth recommended that book idly, did he, Archmage?”

“Of course not. He never does. The only books he recommends that are useless are two million word-long sagas about romance which I refuse to read. But he has told me to check out other books now and then. Come—you are not allowed to check out books, but I am.”

Valeterisa was carrying up their books to check out when Montressa saw the last, final unique thing about the library. Some magical lettering and a huge crowd on the second floor caught her eyes, right below the surface. She stopped and actually plucked at Valeterisa’s sleeve.

“Archmage. Is that a…spellbook?”

A giant spellbook was sitting in a glass case, illuminated by a [Light] spell. A crowd of students and ordinary civilians, even a Human girl, were reading the page on display, which looked to be a basic [Purify Water] spell. Valeterisa glanced over.

“Mm? Yes, the public spells. Ah, they’re changing them.”

A [Librarian] was going from case to case—and Montressa saw no less than sixteen—and flipping the pages to pre-arranged selections. A Drake was arguing with one of them.

“Give me half an hour! I’ve nearly got this spell! Half an hour?”

“Public spellbooks?”

Montressa had never seen such a thing! She was appalled, but Valeterisa’s look was sardonic.

“Why not? They’re books. Meant to be read.”

“But they’re spellbooks!

Some of the other people had heard the quiet discussion and looked amused or exasperated. Valeterisa rolled her eyes.

“Yes, and why can’t everyone learn from them? That was what I said at Wistram until I learned spellbooks were hoarded. The same is true of the Scholarium, but at least there are the public spellbooks. Anyone can learn from them, and their pages are rotated each day.”

It astounded Montressa, even offended her. She instinctually felt like each spellbook should belong to a [Mage]. Just as patently, Valeterisa found that a ridiculous idea.

“Fissival is a city in which every citizen may learn magic, Montressa du Valeross. Liscor famously has every citizen gain one level in [Soldier]. The boast of the City of Magic is that every single citizen has a level in [Mage].”

Every single citizen? Montressa mouthed the words, and then she thought of the cheap wands. She saw a little Drake boy waving a wand around and casting [Light], rather than needing a candle.

Magic was learned here. Taught on a wider scale than even Wistram. And yet—and yet—looking at the library, the public spellbooks, Montressa had to wonder.

“Why isn’t Fissival overtaking Wistram if it produces this many spellcasters?”

To that, Valeterisa sighed and hesitated. She didn’t say anything, but a Human called out. He stood there, reading from a spellbook, but his eyes had been on Valeterisa the entire time.

“It is said of Fissival that many of the Drakes’ [Mages] come from here or study here. Fissival makes competent [Mages], but they do not make great [Mages]. With rare exceptions like Grimalkin of Pallass. Or the Archmage of Izril.”

His words caused a stir in the crowd, and heads turned to Valeterisa. She glanced at the man, and Montressa saw he had long, gloved fingers, brightly polished shoes, and a vest that had hands on them like that of the sun-clocks. Valeterisa blinked at the man.

“Milaw?”

“Hello, Archmage. Stop by my shop later today.”

He plucked a small cap from his head, revealing a shiny bald pate, and bowed as he touched his grey beard. Valeterisa nodded, her eyes never leaving him.

“I will.”

 

——

 

When they left the Librarium, Montressa was split on Fissival. Split, but warming to elements of the city. Right up until she ran into a statue of Wall Lord Dragial.

It was new and being put up closer to the inner city, where the Scholarium towered over everything. A private installment paid for by an anonymous donor, honoring the Wall Lord’s heroic sacrifice during the Meeting of Tribes.

“Ah. It’s him again. You know, he was a student-instructor at the Scholarium when I was young. I was older. He never liked me.”

Valeterisa’s voice was slightly strained as she stared up at him. Montressa looked at Valeterisa from the side.

“What was it like, growing up in the Scholarium?”

Valeterisa tugged on her robes absently.

“Fascinating. They had great [Mages]—great [Teachers]—and they were more organized than Wistram. I graduated at the top of my class, then applied and was accepted to Wistram. I could have been a teacher here or taken office and become a First-Class Citizen.”

“You didn’t stay?”

Valeterisa stared at the Wall Lord’s upraised expression and the gauntlet shining upon his arm. How history changed. The Blade of Mershi looked like it belonged to him, and he seemed more satisfied than he was in life.

“No. If I had stayed, I would not have been half as far down my journey to understand magic as I am now.”

Valeterisa looked away, and Montressa gazed around the square. She heard a familiar rat-a-tat-tat, and as if heralded by the statue, a group of marching Drakes wearing Fissival’s armor and the icon of their city crossed by a wand and staff called out.

Fissival is at war with Salazsar, the traitors! Sign up to defend your homes! Join the City of Magic’s army! Win a promotion to First-Class Citizen! Level casting spells behind mage-shields, not dying in the press of bodies in another Walled City’s armies!”

Even their regular [Soldiers] were armed with wands, as opposed to bows or swords and shields. Fissival was famous for their long-ranged, magical combat. It worked well…aside from when someone engaged them in hand-to-hand combat. Like Niers, Ilvriss, and the other forces to battle them had done rather successfully.

Valeterisa’s face closed off when she saw the army, and she and Montressa stepped back as the [Recruitment Officer] marched about this place. This…Human-centric district.

“Second-Class Citizens, you’ll win a promotion! You, Miss? Or you, Sir? Anyone who can cast a Tier 2 spell is guaranteed a bonus on signing!”

Few Humans looked interested, and there were many of them in this area. A Second-Class district. Close to Valeterisa’s home.

It didn’t look as poor as Montressa had thought it might. Most of the Humans seemed to have decent clothing, but she noticed few shops selling goods for public display and few prices—again, marked up so high due to the tariffs there were even fewer buyers.

How could they survive paying 15%? Maybe it was only for trade goods? Somehow, she doubted that. She saw a number of [Tax Inspectors] here and arguably more than in the first plaza.

Yet, Valeterisa brightened up as she came to a large line of people waiting at what seemed to be a public kiosk tied to the local Mage’s Guild. Fissival, obviously, had more Mage’s Guilds than any other city, but this one had a public service, and she lined up with Montressa.

“Let’s stop and get my weekly, Montressa. Oh, and we’ll find our inn here and do a bit of trading. And visit Milaw.”

“Here?”

This didn’t seem like the hub of magic or commerce that Valeterisa wanted, but Montressa waited in line as it moved at a brisk pace. Even so, the famously impatient Valeterisa waited seventeen minutes as Humans shuffled out of line until a Drake at the counter asked for her identification.

“Second-Class Citizen…Valeterisa? And a Foreigner? There’s nothing for you. If you were a Third-Class Citizen, you’d get a food card.”

The Drake shoved Montressa’s papers back, but he clearly knew Valeterisa. The Archmage of Izril waited patiently.

“I would like my weekly, please.”

“Your weekly?”

The word still confused Montressa, but she had seen Humans stepping out of line with little cards. They turned out to be food cards, which they could trade for, well, food. But the Drake seemed reluctant to hand over the small stack.

“Aren’t you the Archmage of Izril?

He stared accusingly at Valeterisa. She smiled brightly.

“I am. I’m also a Second-Class Citizen. I would like my cards and my weekly supplies. Thank you.”

The Drake stared at her. Then he reluctantly forked over eight cards, one for each day of the week, and, to Montressa’s amazement, placed an ink pot and ten sheaves of parchment, decent quality, on the counter.

“Fine. There.”

“Only ten? I should get sixteen.”

“It’s been lowered. Next!

The Drake scowled and snapped. Valeterisa collected the ink and parchment and made Montressa carry the cards.

“We can use them for about a meal’s worth of food. It’s usually a bit less. The ink isn’t that good…here, for you.”

She handed the ink and parchment to Montressa. It was far worse than the stuff Bezale had, but Montressa looked back.

“What was that?

“Weekly food cards and supplies. Every citizen, even Second-Class Citizens, gets ink and paper. We are citizens of the City of Magic. Our taxes pay for them. Although you cannot live on eight food cards easily. I remember lining up all the time.”

Food cards. Another complete surprise to a Terandrian citizen of Pheislant. Yet it did explain the copious taxes. Sort of. But Montressa’s sense of oddity only increased the further Valeterisa went into the Second-Class district.

For it seemed like everyone knew her. And she knew everyone. Valeterisa stopped by a stall, and the owner, an old woman, looked up.

“My, is it…?”

“Valeterisa.”

Valeterisa! It’s you! Oh, it’s been so long! Sit down, my dear. Did you want a sunrise mango? I’ve got some, fresh! From the islands, you know. Oh, don’t mind your coins. Here, have two, and two for your friend.”

“That would be lovely.”

Valeterisa reached for her coin purse, but stopped as the old woman gave her two fat sunrise mangos. The exotic fruit hadn’t come from Oteslia? Montressa saw Valeterisa peer at the old woman’s face.

“Aren’t you…M…no…B…?”

Bestre! Bestre—you silly girl.”

“Of course, Bestre. Here. I’ve brought you a gift.”

Montressa, to her great surprise, saw Valeterisa produce a handful of pieces of jade and other precious stones she’d brought from Salazsar. She’d gone shopping! But the old [Shopkeeper] just glanced at the stones and only plucked two from Valeterisa’s hands.

“Are you sure? You shouldn’t have.”

“No, go on. I’m rich.”

Bestre hesitated, then plucked two more after glancing at Valeterisa’s face. The old woman watched as Montressa and Valeterisa took a bite of her sunrise mango, and Valeterisa asked about her children.

“Doing fine, my dear. And you’re so tall! But do something with your hair, would you? And stop by again!”

Then they hugged—and with Montressa choking on her sunrise mango, staring, she watched Bestre pull Valeterisa’s cheek, pinching it gently. Valeterisa smiled, and they were on their way.

“Wh—who was—did you know her, Valeterisa?”

“Nope.”

The Archmage kept eating the tangy mango as they walked on. Montressa choked again, but Valeterisa had stopped once more as an old man waved at her.

“Is that Valeterisa? It’s you! Stop a second—I’ve got a handful of scrolls, and I heard Milaw was on your path. Would you take him some gears? Pallassian steel I just got done filing. And can I give you anything for the road?”

“Me? No, but have a mango. Aren’t you Toruth? Didn’t I date your son?”

Montressa nearly spat out her second mango—until she saw the old man laugh and produce a bag of delicate gears, as finely done as anything you could find in Pallass. She glanced at the two as they hugged, and he asked if Valeterisa would take pity on the poor lad—who’d been divorced, didn’t you know?

And in the background, Montressa saw a Drake [Tax Inspector] glaring at Valeterisa’s back. And the two shopkeepers. The female Drake sighed, loudly, as the mango stayed with the man and Valeterisa walked on with a bag of steel gears.

Then Montressa got it. When they stopped at a local inn with exorbitant prices—fourteen silver for the cheapest rooms—Valeterisa knew the owner.

“Archmage, it is a delight to see you. I wouldn’t dream of charging the Archmage of Izril for a room!”

The [Innkeeper] spoke loudly, and Valeterisa smiled.

“Then you must accept a gift. Here. I have some stones from Salazsar—”

“Ooh! Those would make delightful little presents for some friends. Expensive, now that the markets are closed and we’re at war.”

“I thought so too. A present, a present. I can’t take your money.”

And there it was. Montressa saw the [Innkeeper] swing his gaze to her.

“And will your apprentice need a room? Free of charge as well, naturally!”

“You’re too kind. Can I offer you…how about some of these food cards? I don’t know if Archmage Valeterisa and I will stay long enough to use them.”

“Montressa, those are legal tender. You can’t give them away.”

Valeterisa scolded Montressa noisily, and the [Innkeeper] nodded. He nudged Montressa and smiled into the inn, which had mostly Human customers and a few Drakes. And at least one was listening a bit too hard, Montressa thought.

“Exactly. We exchange them for coin. I wouldn’t dream of taking that as a gift.”

“Oh—then would you accept this charm I made? Just in case. It repels bugs.”

Montressa had few tradable items, and the [Innkeeper] laughed when he saw it and heard what it did.

“What a lovely gift! I think we’ll have a fine banquet prepared for the Archmage and her apprentice. Thank you, thank you!”

The Drake said nothing as he ushered them to their rooms high up in the inn. Only when he let them put their things down did Valeterisa enter Montressa’s room.

“You overpaid him.”

“I know! I didn’t have anything less expensive, and it’s fine.”

Valeterisa shrugged.

“You’re learning.”

She gave Montressa a rare look of approval, and she seemed so—present—that Montressa had to know.

“Is that how it works here?”

Valeterisa’s eyes lit up with actual mischief, and she sat down on Montressa’s bed. The quilted bed was lovely and soft, but now Montressa wanted to see the rest of this Human district. Valeterisa clicked her fingers, sealing them off from any eavesdroppers.

“Of course. Everyone’s a friend around here. It’s a little game, and the [Tax Inspectors] and the eavesdroppers know what’s up. They’ll pop up and fine you for a mistake, but a gift is a gift. Just be careful; they’ll play tricks on you too, and not all the Humans are on the same side.”

“It seems ridiculous to do it this way—funny, but ridiculous.”

Valeterisa just sighed heavily. She leaned back on Montressa’s bed and stared up at the ceiling.

“Yes. Yes, it does, especially having lived in other parts of the world. I thought it all just…worked like this when I was young. Heorth told me otherwise, but I didn’t believe it. The Scholarium is like this—but worst of all. Incidentally, I’m sorry to tell you, but your bug-repelling charm has been stolen.”

“It has?

Montressa felt at her remaining charms, but that wasn’t what Valeterisa meant.

“Not the [Innkeeper]. Whomever you sold it to. They probably ran it to the Scholarium and filed a patent. Now, they’ll be able to claim they invented the charm. Patents, applying to use a spell—it’s easier to learn a Tier 4 spell here than in Wistram if you have the coin. But grand magic is few and far between, even with the plazas.”

Patents? So the Hot Spoon™ wasn’t even a joke! Montressa threw herself back and closed her eyes.

“Ugh! Imagine begging to learn a spell—is this it? Is this the City of Magic? Are these the finest spellcasters in the Drake lands?”

“Yes and no.”

Valeterisa looked tired as she sat next to Montressa. Tired…and younger than she had ever been before. She seemed alive, there, and—nostalgia was neither good nor bad, but it cut you either way. She patted Montressa on the knee and then felt the bag of gears.

“Sit up, Montressa. It’s time I introduced you to the finest spellcasters in Fissival. Then we will see if my great [Teacher] lives. Fissival is still the City of Magic, and there are lessons for you to learn from spellcasters who taught me.”

Montressa sat up. Unlike before, she didn’t argue or ask questions. Not when Valeterisa looked out on the street and smiled like that. Montressa rose—and that was how she met Milaw.

The [Clockmaker].

 

——

 

When Earthers came to this world, they spoke of intricate parts. Of electricity, harnessed to create a conceptual web of interwoven ideas. They talked about flying in planes, and cars, and the basis of that was a level of machinery they claimed far outstripped even Pallass in design.

One of the things they said they had were clocks. But this world had clocks. Everything from the sundial to magical timekeeping—but it wasn’t as if most people had a clock. The sun was a decent timekeeper, and most people used that.

However, there were sun clocks. How they worked was similar to the sundial, which was a piece of stone placed such that, with adequate sunlight, the light from the sun would always strike what time of day it was. It was susceptible to other forms of light, clouds, and it needed to be calibrated to wherever it stood, making it highly, highly immobile.

Sun clocks were different. They had an open case to the sky and actual arms that pointed at each hour of the day. The case reflected, via pieces of glass mirrors, light downwards into it, whereupon a simple spell measured what angle the light was coming from. Unlike a sundial, the sun clock had multiple sensors, because it used the mirrors to reflect the light into the enchanted timekeeper.

It was a far, far more complex piece of magical machinery than Montressa’s Cloak of [Protection]. Mostly because the enchanted stone had to both calculate angle and match that against the position of the sun to get the arms to swing to the correct time. In fact—if you shone a [Light] spell, you could ‘trick’ the sensors and get the arms to move to any time you wanted.

That was how Milaw, the [Clockmaker], was testing his latest clock. He had inserted the tiny gears Valeterisa had brought him into the device, and he was shining a [Light] spell, a ray of it, at different angles inside his shop.

Accordingly, the arms of the sun clock swung around to each time he wanted. Montressa held her breath.

It was so mathematically complex it hurt her head, despite her knowing how he had done it. The magic was very low; just the configured timekeeper. Everything else was an assemblage of gears. Yet—that single piece made the sun clock more advanced than most Wistram students could hope to make.

And he was doing it. Milaw wore a small cap over his vest and polished shoes, and his beard and mustache were grey. He winked at Montressa, and he was a [Clockmaker].

Not a [Mage]. But he was a citizen of Fissival, and he knew Valeterisa. Actually knew her. She sat in his shop as he spoke.

“Lastly, 12 o’clock…and we are done. A perfect sun clock for the Scholarium. Some noble buyer from there. A perfect—worthless clock.”

He placed it delicately in a box designed to hold it, closed the lid, attached the latch, and Montressa’s mouth opened.

“What? But it’s beautiful!

The lacquered wood of the clock showed a pair of Drake [Mages] holding wands along the redwood clock, and the dial that showed the times had the moon and stars on it. You could open a hatch in the back to adjust the gears, and it was as rich as anything she could have seen in the du Valeross household.

And yet—the [Clockmaker] poured himself a cup of tea as Valeterisa sat with him and smiled.

“It is a lovely piece of art. A poor clock. Light must dictate the time, and I think even someone who trusted the clock would look out the window—just in case it were wrong. It fails if there’s a storm and tells no time at night. What kind of a useful clock is that?”

Montressa hesitated.

“I know it’s not always practical, but the Mage’s Guild has the time even in the night.”

“Correct. And they transmit the times to each other to make sure they’re right and ask Fissival, or Wistram, what time it is. They’re off a few minutes some days, but they can always confirm with Wistram or Fissival. Because we have better clocks. Take a look at this.”

So saying, Milaw showed Montressa a completely different type of clock. It had no sensors, nor did it take in light. There was no ticking sound from within, but as Montressa watched, a minute-hand moved slowly, and the hour hand seemed in the right place.

“This is a Math Clock. Far less popular because they require manual setting and they require mana stones, rather than the almost mana-free Sun Clocks. They run purely on numbers.”

“How?”

Montressa stared at the clock, and, for answer, Valeterisa lifted one finger. She projected a beam of light straight up, and Montressa’s eyes narrowed.

“[Measure Distance].”

Milaw produced a wand and performed the same spell.

“Light is a constant, Miss Montressa. So—a Math Clock shoots a beam of light in a tiny part of the clock. Constantly, and it measures how long it took for the beam to travel. It must add, and add, and add—until it reaches what we call a second. Then it moves this gear here.”

He opened the panel and showed her a gear. Then it was simple. Sixty seconds equaled a minute. Each minute, the turning second-gear rotated the minute-hand, and the entire clock moved.

“There are other methods. Some have hourglasses built in, which measure one minute and simply rotate. Others? They let a single drop of water fall. I use light. It takes the most energy, so my clocks need constant recharging.”

“And they are the most accurate clocks of all the Math Clocks. Milaw taught me [Measure Distance], Montressa. He works part-time as a [Builder].”

“[Supervisor]. I’ve changed my class.”

“Oh. Congratulations. I should have bought you a ‘cake’.”

“The gears will do, and seeing you is a treat enough. I thought you were dead. Everyone did. You didn’t answer any [Message] spells, no one had seen you in years…”

Milaw rested a hand on Valeterisa’s shoulder, and she flinched.

“I was trapped. I made a mistake, and I nearly died.”

“That’s Valeterisa, the greatest [Mage] to come from our streets.”

The conversation was so surprisingly serious and intimate that Montressa was almost as embarrassed as Valeterisa, who looked away from the old [Clockmaker]’s proud expression. He knew her. He must have helped raise her. Because she was curious, Montressa had to ask—

“How are you a [Builder]—er, [Supervisor], Master Milaw?”

He chuckled.

“Only because I help make sure everything is straight. All the numbers line up—and that everything is level. I keep telling the others they can do it with a glass of water. Just see if it’s straight. But magic is in Fissival’s blood. If you can’t do it with magic, it can’t be done at all. So—”

He pointed his wand, and a line of light shot out. A little number popped into being over the counter.

0.0003411…

Montressa’s eyes narrowed.

“What is that?

“A number. How flat it is. I keep trying to go below four zeroes, but it’s too difficult, and no one can notice after the second one. Would you like me to show you how? Light and numbers. Everything is light and numbers. You can calculate anything, not that it’s very useful!”

He laughed cheerily, and Montressa thought of the Earthers and their math you couldn’t see that required precision without end. She looked at Valeterisa, and the Archmage of Izril dangled her legs over a stool, sipping her tea like a girl, as Milaw smiled.

“So this is the greatest spellcaster in Fissival?”

Instantly, Milaw turned beet red and looked at Valeterisa in shock. But the Archmage of Izril only nodded.

“Yes, he is. Milaw, are the others coming off work?”

“The crafters of Heneith Street are all coming now they know you’re back. What was that about…? An apprentice? You came to Fissival so fast—I thought you’d be a month travelling from the Great Plains, even if you can fly! A joke. You always had a strange sense of humor.”

He spoke, giving Valeterisa a strange look. But the Archmage just shook her head.

“The world is changing, Milaw. It is not the age of magic. Not yet. But this is my apprentice, and I decided she had to meet Fissival’s true masters of magic.”

He laughed, uncertain. Waving his hand and telling her not to tease him in his old age. But now Montressa saw—she stood as Valeterisa turned to greet the [Crafters], [Artisans] of Fissival’s district. And Montressa bowed and shook their hands as they exclaimed over their lost child who had returned.

Men and women with white hair. Not even just Humans; some were Drakes who hadn’t won First-Class Citizenships, and not all were Valeterisa’s great spellcasters. But some were.

It was not about the level of magic, as Montressa had realized, it was how it was used. For instance, a single [Tailor] lifted her hand and showed Montressa a trick.

“You can thread any needle in the world far easier than with your hands, my dear. See? Not that I’d ever manage it with a hundred tries, but it keeps me employed, even at eighty years old.”

For proof, she raised a shaking hand which couldn’t perform that task. Montressa glanced at her—and then at the needle moving in loops and arcs. That was one thing—moving a thread into a needle’s eye was already tough. Telekinesis via magic…Telim could do it, probably. High Mage Telim could do it. Montressa couldn’t, not on the first try, but the old [Tailor] could do it every single time.

Like moving a single, tiny thread of magic with perfect control. Valeterisa copied her. It was hard to thread a needle—but another to thread six needles at once and have each one sew neat rows of stitches.

Could Archmage Viltach, could Nailihuaile manage that? They could throw a [Fireball], but work on six sewing projects at once? Every artisan of Fissival was a citizen, and so they incorporated magic into their craft seamlessly.

Like the [Smith], already so old he had all but retired, and his son who had taken up his mantle. They had no ability to cast [Fireball], again, but he had learned how to heat up his steel to degree-perfect forging temperatures without the need for a fire.

“I met a traveller, a Stitch-Man from Chandrar, who once told me I could work for the Tannousin Clan! I didn’t realize it was a compliment for years.”

He laughed at Montressa and, like Milaw, like the others, made very little of it.

“It’s just a single spell. Control is all. Your teacher, Valeterisa—she can perform actual magic. All we taught her were some craft tricks; she was the one who beat every student, even the [Mage Lords], and won every duel and wrote her papers.”

They were endlessly proud of her. Just as clearly—they didn’t see how Valeterisa’s own magic echoed theirs.

Control. The old [Tailor] was performing a cat’s cradle with some yarn, but doing it magically, and Valeterisa was copying her.

“Oh, you’ve gotten better! How about this? Can you unthread this ball of yarn? I made it specially for you.”

The [Tailor] cackled, and a look of chagrin passed over even Valeterisa’s face. Milaw groaned.

“Ierythe, don’t…”

The ball of yarn was tightly wound, and it had a simple rule: you could only unravel it from the string buried on the inside. You had to sense where it was and then untangle it, moving it through the countless layers of fiber internally until the ball came apart.

Montressa couldn’t even sense the thread inside it. Valeterisa stared blankly at the ball as the conversations continued, and Montressa had to tell stories of her, because Valeterisa refused to. In turn, she heard the ones they told of her.

“Archmage Valeterisa. I remember a girl who would walk to the weekly line and stand there with a book in her hands. Day in, day out. And who could keep up with Ierythe when she needed hands for her sewing.”

The old [Tailor] cackled.

“None finer! To afford lessons, she helped Milaw make clocks, worked with me—and was always chatting with our Djinni down below. He likes and loves no one, except the little girl who began bringing him ‘snacks’. Like other Drakes and Humans made mud pies, she’d enchant some quartz with magic.”

Valeterisa blushed faintly, but the Humans were so proud of her. Proud…and never once did they speak of the Scholarium or ask where Valeterisa had been.

“Archmage. Did you learn a lot in the Draconae Scholarium?”

Montressa had to ask. Valeterisa looked up, and everyone fell silent. Slowly, the ball of yarn fell apart in her hands, and a single thread spooled into the air and into Ierythe’s lap. The old woman smiled, but her face clouded as Valeterisa sat there. She took a long time replying as everyone looked and didn’t look at her.

“I learned a lot from the people of Heneith Street. Not just this street; there is a [Butcher] I will introduce you to who learned to find rot in any piece of meat. Drakes who can carve wood along every unseen seam. Fine teachers, but I did not level much as a [Mage], for I was young. A girl. I entered the Draconae Scholarium when I was eleven years old. I graduated at fifteen at Level 23.”

“In half the time, at the top of every class. No matter how much they claimed you cheated—”

Milaw raised his voice. Valeterisa spoke quietly.

“I graduated at Level 23 and applied to Wistram. When I left the Academy of Magic, I was Level 35. In both cases, my growth as a [Mage] was clear. My roots were ever here. My levels I gained as a student of the Scholarium. Those are the numbers and the facts.”

And how they lied. Montressa sat there as Valeterisa turned her head, unseen, to the distant Scholarium, the last point on their visit. And she wondered, if Valeterisa had never entered an academy—much less the Scholarium—would she still have leveled like that, if she had started here, on this street?

 

——

 

That night, Milaw closed his shop, and he and the crafters spoke late into the night as Valeterisa cast magic.

Simple magics, like enchanting a pair of knitting needles, unwarping a beam in the [Clockmaker]’s shop. She cast simple magics for the Drakes watching her from outside, through the glass windows.

The Archmage of Izril cast the grand ones in secret, hidden in illusion spells. She reached out, and Ierythe raised a trembling hand.

“Are you sure, Valeterisa? I have nothing to barter and nothing to trade for what it should cost.”

She looked afraid, not of the spell or Valeterisa’s ability, but of what she felt it should be. And to that, the Archmage of Izril, that unfeeling bit of magical code and logic—she bent down, like a younger woman, eyes sparkling with passion and righteousness, and Montressa saw a light as beautiful as the Grand Plaza’s spell knit around her.

“It should cost nothing at all. It’s just mana. [Restoration].

Like a sigh, a glow enveloped the old [Tailor], and her hands stopped trembling. She cried out—but when the others leapt to their feet, she stood, clutching at her back, and collapsed back into her chair.

“Don’t stand—your muscles are weak. It’s restoration, not a cure for all.”

Valeterisa helped her back down, but the old woman was weeping.

“I stood! Did you see it? I felt I could stand, and I did.

“The Healer of Tenbault’s magic. How did you learn it?”

The others stood around as Valeterisa gazed about blandly. She took her time in replying and recharging her mana as she beckoned another person over.

“Goblins.”

That, of course, made no sense. But Valeterisa had both the spell and the means to teach it. If only the [Crafters] had the means to cast it. Montressa thought they did. She thought even old Ierythe could—if only she had the mana reserves, the training in the kind of magic to produce the spell. The complexity was not beyond her.

“What a tragedy.”

“A tragedy?”

Milaw didn’t understand what she meant, and he was shaking his head. He looked at Valeterisa.

“You could patent that in the Scholarium. In front of them all. They would have to make you a Mage Lady of Fissival, then. First-Class? They would make you the Draconae Magis. One of Three.

Valeterisa just shook her head as she laid her hands on the next person.

“No. They wouldn’t. I would rise, but I don’t think I would ever become one of Fissival’s Three. I see that, now. It was good I never learned this before.”

“It should be for everyone, Valeterisa. Even if you can’t cast it—will you please listen? Ten. Ten times. I will sell everything I have to pay you.”

Ierythe whispered desperately. Valeterisa bent over her and embraced the old woman so awkwardly it hurt. Because she did it.

“I can only cast it three times per day, Ierythe. Even the Healer, with all her Skills, can do it ten times each day, with every mana potion she has.”

“Oh…”

“So I will stay three more days. But I do not know if I will show the Scholarium. I have met the Healer of Tenbault. I did not care for her. I will not make more of her kind.”

That was what Valeterisa had been pondering. She turned to Montressa, and the [Aegiscaster] jumped. But Valeterisa just beckoned her over.

“Apprentice, link with me. Try to learn the magic; we may be able to do it four times before we need mana potions. Then we will dine. And rest.”

That night, Montressa felt so drained she and Valeterisa ate every dish the [Innkeeper] brought out, and as promised, he had sent a feast. A Tier 6 spell. Valeterisa knew a Tier 6 spell.

Perhaps Eldavin knew it, but Valeterisa was no ancient [Mage] of days, but a new one, however old she claimed to feel. Wistram’s return to glory was far from here.

Montressa…Montressa wanted Valeterisa to shine brighter. So much so that she felt, in her heart, that this was the right thing to do.

Returning home was unraveling Valeterisa like the ball of yarn, but what had been buried was better than the yarn itself, if that made sense. They were both a bit travel-worn, so that night, Valeterisa inquired, and it turned out both could refresh themselves at the inn.

“I didn’t know Fissival had such good plumbing that it has private baths everywhere.”

“Hm. It doesn’t. Come, we’ll refresh ourselves together.”

A public bath? Montressa hoped so, or that Fissival wasn’t that intimate. But it turned out they would be using neither. Instead, the [Innkeeper] directed them to a private room out around back, and they found themselves sitting in a wood-lined room with a pot of steaming water and some coals in the center.

A sauna. Montressa had never been in one before, but Drakes loved hot baths and saunas. Valeterisa added water until it was steaming, and then both just sat there, towels for modesty. It was only then that Valeterisa referred back to the crafters.

“Fissival is the City of Magic. Its great spells are built upon each citizen’s own talents, and they have kept this city floating even in the days when great magics have left it.”

That was all Valeterisa said. Montressa glanced up at her.

“They truly were inspiring. Archmage…”

“Valeterisa. I am a Second-Class Citizen, here.”

Montressa stared at Valeterisa’s straight face. She amended her statement.

“Valeterisa, is it alright to show me [Restoration]?”

For answer, the Archmage just scrubbed at one arm.

“You swore to be my apprentice. If I teach you—I teach you. If you are a liar, a thief, someone to steal my magic or claim credit for my work—you would not be the first.”

Montressa stared at her, then burst out.

“I never will. I swear!”

Valeterisa just nodded. She sat there and gazed out one steam-clouded window.

“The Scholarium will not be pleasant. If Wistram’s politics are something you know—think of the Scholarium much the same.”

“And Fissival’s Three? What is that about?”

“The ruling body. The Draconae Magis, the Draconae Pricepe, the Draconae Duxel. Magic, governance, and war. The Mage Lords and Ladies and high spellcasters have equivalent power to your [Lords] and [Ladies]. Wall Lord Dragial was able to command armies to march even after his exile.”

“Magic rules.”

Valeterisa closed her eyes. She lay there as the sauna cooled, and Montressa stoked the coals. She murmured.

“A certain kind of it, yes. This should be my city. Why isn’t it? Ieka is my family in the north, and these are my people and teachers here. I belong to Izril more than Wistram. But what I crave I have never found. Those who hunger for magic, and magic alone, without distraction or compromise. Do I not see it? Or am I still looking?”

Montressa didn’t know what to say. She went to sleep, and the next day, they visited the Draconae Scholarium.

 

——

 

Archmage Valeterisa stood in the Draconae Scholarium, the heart of Fissival’s magic. Learning and education, where [Mage Lords] gathered with the greatest [Mages] of Drake-kind. Izril’s seat of magical power.

From here, the [Mages] ruled. Not as Wistram did, but with classes, some sitting outdoors, lecture halls filled with more students than even Wistram could boast of.

But fewer [Mages] could fly here, even compared with Wistram Academy. Students graduated under great teachers like Wardmistress Geyasa and went on to fulfill vital roles wherever they went in business, war, and on other continents.

However, the Scholarium was a riotous place, and their greatest members—from the teachers to the aforementioned [Mage Lords], who were both nobles and successful spellcasters—formed the Scholarium’s Court. They convened, unofficially or in formal settings, often in the largest courtyard, which could also be a font for lessons as it overlooked much of Fissival.

A green courtyard of obsessively-trimmed grass across from a wide fountain, a sizzling stretch of coals that Montressa just bet new students were hazed upon, let practitioners use the elements. Students sat on a glassy plaza, tails stretched out as a Drake [Professor], an actual one, gave them a lecture about a rock.

Here stood the Wardmistress, demonstrating a level of defensive barrier that made even Montressa look twice. A group of idle Drake [Scholars], speaking to a [Mage Lady] about the impending war.

The Scholarium’s Court stood here, and their peer did likewise. The Archmage of Izril. A student of this very place who had gone on to define Izril as their chief spellcaster.

Montressa could have admired the buildings that led deeper into the private libraries, the remaining magical towers that enabled such great feats as a scrying tower capable of reaching even Rhir with perfect accuracy, or the famed teleportation network that transported goods across Izril and had once done far more.

But she was unable to; her face was almost as fiery red as her hair. She stood, the staff of the [Pyromancer], Fyres, in hand, anger smoking off her like magic. Valeterisa?

She said nothing. She stood there, like a younger [Mage], as the Scholarium buzzed around her. And ignored her. Completely and utterly as the Archmage of Izril stared down at her shoes. Some Drakes, like Geyasa, glanced her way, but none dared do the unthinkable and breach the bubble of isolation around her.

First, the Archmage of Izril petitioned to meet the Scholarium’s Court in formal redress. They accepted, in two month’s time.

Second, the [Mage] of the Scholarium requested to meet with the [Headmaster] of the Scholarium, [Professors], and received polite refusals, as was their right.

Third and last of all, they could not stop her from entering, so Second-Class Citizen Valeterisa stood and stared at her feet in the Scholarium’s courtyard. And still no one said a word.

 

——

 

“Archmage Valeterisa of Izril? Now there is a name I have not heard in a long, long time. Almost a decade. If she has the gall to enter Fissival, let alone approach the Scholarium after her involvement in the war, let alone her long absence? That would be unwise. The Scholarium will light her aflame if they don’t ignore her completely. She is no mage of Fissival.”

A Drake disembarking a ship caught wind via [Message] spell that Valeterisa was in the City of Magic. He glanced high, high up the plateau as the ship finally unloaded its passengers. Drakes, tired from circumnavigating Izril, and Humans, equally sea-sick and wary of their new home.

A new prison, a better one? Or just more of the same with different scales? The other [Mages] were tired too; they could have disembarked at Zeres and arguably come here faster. But then, likely, some of the Humans would have ‘disappeared’ or become ‘guests’ of Zeres or Pallass. Manus and Oteslia too. Let alone the damn war with Salazsar.

Politics. Were they in this together or not? Ah, well—they were home. Another Drake, nursing a scar from his encounter with Cognita of Wistram, glanced up as one of the [Mages] commentated.

“You’re too young to remember Mage Valeterisa, aren’t you, Magus Reinall?”

Mage Lord Ascoden spoke lightly as one of the [War Mages] who had participated in the raid on Wistram stared up at their home. Reinall shook his head.

“I’ve only heard of her. You would have been close to her age, Mage Lord?”

Ascoden nodded.

“I am younger, but I remember Magus Valeterisa. Top of her year. We lost her to Wistram.”

He had graduated around the same time as Magus Grimalkin, and Reinall shook his head.

“Not one of ours. I heard she’s a Second-Class Citizen, still. Which is amazing that we kept her as a citizen.”

“Not a [Mage] of Fissival.”

Ascoden nodded. He glanced at the Earthers, disembarking, and caught the eyes of some of them. Eun, Saif—along the way, he walked past Reinall and kicked him into the surf, over the edge of the landing boat.

The other Drakes watched as a flailing Drake with pearlescent blue scales went head-first into the sand and came up, spluttering.

Mage Lord!

Ascoden leaned over the landing boat and fixed Reinall with a long stare.

“I studied [Valeterisa’s Complex Seeker Projectile] spell. And it was almost as hard to memorize as that name. We lost her to Wistram. The Archmage of Izril. If she’s here, I hope she stays long enough for someone to greet her.”

“The Scholarium won’t appreciate that, Mage Lord!”

Reinall sounded nervous. But Ascoden just smiled.

“The Scholarium is never united unless someone manages to bully the others into silence. Dragial is dead, and Valeterisa has returned. Two good events in one month.”

He turned and smiled upwards, but his smile was wan, and as he walked off the boat, he was conscious of the stares and politics enfolding him like the magical aura of home.

Bad magic. Poor magic. If he had the chance to meet Valeterisa, he would shake her hand. And tell her to leave. Fissival did not deserve her. Even if it needed her, perhaps he had to wait and see if the great plateau the City of Magic was built on broke and fell into the surf below, first. Then, and only then, would he learn if Fissival, the Walled City of Magic, could truly fly or not.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: Aaah. Do you feel it?

I’m dying. Which is the dramatic way of saying I’m reaching my natural endpoint before I need a vacation. It doesn’t feel like dying and, being conscious of the fact that my words can be taken literally, I shall now continue to dramatize how it feels.

It feels like knowing I can do better, and failing to produce it. Chasing for the same easy eloquence or noting that I fall bad into writing habits. To go even further, if there’s a perfect chapter, a ray of sunlight I can tell exists in the distance, at the heart of each chapter, all I’m producing is murky waters. And that becomes more true the more fatigued I get.

Also, you don’t deal with negative emotions as well the closer to burnout you get, although that’s a nebulous term and mine is more like fatigue, not a complete meltdown.

It feels…like being Squidward from the Spongebob show and watching that stupid sponge make words of art. And the irony for writers and I suspect, a lot of tasks in general, is that the key to getting some of the inspiration and quality back is to take a break. Perhaps the ideal state of mind to be in means taking as long as 2 weeks break per chapter—but then I’d fall into the trap of some famously unfinished series. Balance.

But it’s also true that I can do a chapter in two parts, which I’ve strayed from. I don’t like to do it because it feels like I can, with effort, create contained narratives. But perhaps that’s pushing too far and the best stuff comes out of a state of grace. Seeing where the chapter goes.

This wasn’t quite that graceful, but I’ll write one more chapter which should do it, however long or short it is, then take my weekly break. It’s been sort of a hectic writing cycle with my failed vacation and other things interfering at times, but then, there have been good points too. I hate banks. I appreciate family.

I still hold a grudge against Canada but I’ll give it another shot. Airlines suck. I just wish fatigue didn’t seem to creep in faster than when I started writing, but then—I probably managed to write non-stop for years because they were 14,000 word chapters, or 8,000. I can do 8,000 chapters all year long.

That’s my musings for the day. Hope you enjoyed and see you next chapter!

 

Bela Fishing, Void Goat, and Goat Walking by Brack!

DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/shurkin/gallery/

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/brack

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Brack_Giraffe

 

Tom by maniclittle!

 

Rags Laugh by butts!

 


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55 thoughts on “9.14 VM

  1. Leave a typo for the power of…Fissival? The grandeur of Fissival? The…fun of living in…leave a typo for Fissival.

    (Third-Class Citizen readers: MrWiggles, Litwickee, Quynin, Gorexn, Maladal, ChronoMager, dradford, Axel Terizaki, Ignat)

    • This sentence is poorly structured and loses clarity of meaning because of it:

      Even if it needed her, perhaps he had to wait and see if the great plateau the City of Magic was built on broke and fell into the surf below, first.

    • To add to the benthelynx, the description of area around Fissival and the city proper could’ve been clearer, imo.

      Also, ‘six-foot-tall Minotauress’ would be too short for someone ‘taller than Calruz’ (6.57), who was over 6’7 ft tall himself.

    • Zeres is the city of waves, it should be coastal, they have a port harbor.

      “even if it was the most remote of all the Walled Cities, far east along the coast of the continent. Remote via trade ships, which had usually preferred the western approach, and geographically, unlike Pallass, Oteslia, and Zeres, which all occupied roughly the middle of the continent.”

  2. “An arrow flies farther the higher you aim it. It follows flight is the same, even if I produce my own velocity. I suspect altitude matters when flying. I have observed birds climbing for altitude; that they do not always skim across the ground makes me suspect that height matters for efficient transit in the air. Garuda fly higher for the same reason. Height matters in flying.”
    I believe the factors may include a lack of air resistance higher up, but I have never quantified that theory. Let us observe the phenomenon directly.”

    Someone can correct me if I’m misremembering my physics, but I don’t think this is true. The shortest distance between any two points is a straight line. Someone traveling at the same speed as Valeterisa in a straight line to her destination (as opposed to spending time ascending and descending) but only 100 feet off the ground will not get there slower.

    The reason planes fly faster at different altitudes is because of things like air density and tailwinds.
    At different densities the lift and drag on the plane change, and different planes have different optimal cruising altitudes as a result.
    The winds act like a a moving walkway. Say a plane is flying at 500 knots–with no wind–regardless of what altitude they fly at–they will always be moving at 500 knots, just at different engine efficiencies.
    However, if I then give that plane a tailwind moving at 50 knots, they will reach a destination as if they were moving 50 knots faster. Conversely, if they have a 50 knot headwind, it’s as if they were traveling 50 knots slower. Same theory as needing to use more gas to reach your destination in a car if the wind is blowing against you.

    Valeterisa cast a Windward spell though, so I’m not sure any of that applies. She should just move however fast she wants if it’s blocking wind.

    When we talk about using arcing arrows or birds flying for altitude it’s for different reasons.
    Arrows are arced to account for gravity and the curve of the earth–if they tried to travel in a straight line to the target they would be pulled down before they hit it. But if the distance isn’t long enough for that to be a factor then an arrow traveling straight still reaches its destination before one that’s arced to the same destination.
    A bird climbs for altitude because they want to then soar using their wings to travel further and more easily than if they were flapping the whole time. Or diving for prey.

    Unless this is meant to be some unique feature of Innworld of course. In which case, ignore me.

    • Granted, the whole point of the scene is to introduce the [Measure Distance] spell.
      Could just do that by having Val teach it to Mons for the purposes of calculating their travel time I guess? Doesn’t feel like a great answer though.

    • I’ve got a few question. Were they flying high enough to take advantage of the reduced drag due to a thinner atmosphere? The second is does the atmosphere even decrease as you go higher? The gnomes said the stars weren’t actually stars and the gods had just added them to the sky when they were creating it.

      • A planet’s atmosphere ‘thins’ out as it gets further from the planet any height above ground level automatically means less drag. Of course at low altitude the reduced drag can be almost unreadable by instrumentation.

        Given the fact that Earth’s atmosphere extends 630,000Km from the surface, even the moon is INSIDE the Earth’s atmosphere. When scientists say the Moon has no atmosphere, they are speaking relatively, since it has our atmosphere surrounding it.
        The Geocorona is the outermost layer of the planet’s atmosphere, it is composed almost exclusively of Hydrogen.
        Air density at sea level is about 27 (long scale) Trillion* molecules per cubic cm, at the moon it’s 0.2 atoms per cubic cm.
        The troposphere contains 75% of the earth’s atmosphere but the height it extends to is between 6-16 Km depending on location, weather, temperature and time. If you fly at 7Km up then sometimes you will be outside the thickest part of the atmosphere and other times only half way up that thick layer. This is what barometric pressure would tell you. Higher pressure reading means troposphere is closer to 16Km up lower pressure it’s closer to 6Km
        Zineryr, the Gnome who reached the moon, wore a suit that locked a helmet and gloves on. The moon on Innworld has either no atmosphere or is the boat same as every moon in the Universe that orbits a planet with a strong atmosphere. This suggests Innworld follows physics.

        There is of course the obvious answer for any fantasy story…
        Because MAGIC!

        *[just as an explanation, that’s Million Million Million to those who understand only the short form meaning, using the short form terms this would be Quintillion]

      • I don’t know that matters.
        The wind resistance doesn’t change how fast you can go, just how much energy it takes to achieve desired speeds.
        It’s about how efficient you are, not how fast (in our world).

    • I don’t think that logic is necessary to explain magic. For example: the world here isn’t round. As much as I deplore the stupidity of flat-earthers it doesn’t bother me here… because it’s not Earth. ;-)

    • I could be wrong, but the reason planes fly at high altitude is because it requires less fuel ie energy do to the lower air densety. Wich might mean a mage can achieve greater speed do to lower air resistance.

  3. “even in the old ages, Level 50 had still been a respected milestone; levelling grew infinitely harder past that.”

    I recall people tying leveling-speed to age rather than level. Ryoka and Klb worked out the leveling system early into the series.
    I can imagine Valeteresa having puzzled out the truth, but was the general conception around leveling retconed or something? I don’t recall any of the Silverfangs mentioning it in the meeting of the tribes either. It was just something that was sort of mentioned and never used as a plot point again.

    • As I understand, people have always known that leveling a high level class is harder.
      The age misconception was that age was an additional factor that directly made leveling harder.
      The thing Ryoka and Klb worked out is the collective level limit, that getting levels in different classes also made the main class harder to level.

      Agree, it hasn’t really come up other than royalties or other big wigs knowing about it and collectively, independently keeping the secret, like “yes, Santa is totaly real”.

  4. I don’t know if you hear it enough but your updates are amazing. They seriously make each week better. I know you may feel like they aren’t good enough, but each one has been just as good if not better then the last for ages. Thank you so much for keeping this story up… It’s literally the best I’ve ever found and each update makes me so happy! You’re doing so good, even if it doesn’t feel like it to yourself. Take whatever time you need to rest up but understand that YOU are your own worst critic… from my point of view you only keep improving! Holding yourself to your own standard is good to a point but past that lays the road to ruin. Enjoy the story, love your creation, but don’t scrutinize it too much yourself… let others judge and listen to them. We’re all here for the story you wrote… and if were still here that should be enough to assuage the pressure you’re putting on yourself! Your setup of so many plot points and they way you world build and bring them all together in the end is something I haven’t found anywhere where else. Seriously keep up the outstanding work and don’t let doubt creep in!

  5. 1. When talking about the greatness of every other city (where Oteslia’s dragon was hidden), Manus seems to be omitted.
    2. When introducing the [Tailor], I didn’t see it mentioned she couldn’t stand before. After [Restoration], when she exclaimed she could stand, I was a bit surprised because I didn’t realize she was an invalid besides her hands.

  6. Aba, you nearing burn out. I can see it in yours words, from murky chapter to murky chapter. I rather wait a month for a single chapter that I love, then chapters I skim over.

    Think back to the time when you had only one or two followers. Who did you write for back then? Write for your self, not us. I rather have an Aba that’s alive and healthy.

    • It was kind of the opposite for me. I found her to be oddly quirky and fun. Kind of like logical chaos. Now that she’s been humanised, I kind of find her boring.

      Yes, she’s a little softer and more well rounded. And perhaps the part 2 will make the new Valeterisa also likable. I’ll have to wait and see.

      My overriding feeling is rage and distaste for Fissival. And sadness for not spending any real time with Ilvriss. My one hope is that she will be so poorly treated in Fissival that she gives them the two finger salute magically speaking and throws in with Salazar.

      • That’s interesting. I thought the details we got of her life were interesting certainly, but my main reason for really liking her now is the way she goes about magic and especially with her teachers. It always bothered me with magic in Innworld how there doesn’t seem to be much training, just levels rule everything, and here i see Valeterisa with a group of old timers just hammering in control.

  7. “The Drake stared at her. Then he reluctantly forked over eight cards, one for each day of the week”

    Wait, did we always know that the week in Innworld had 8 days?

    I loved the chapter, Fissival is a facinating, if flawed, place. Can’t wait to see what else happens!

  8. Were both magic and pettiness are of equal measure. Unlike Winstrum which has great magic and great egos the City of Magic has a lot of little magic and a lot of little (big) egos.

    While the city does have its magic and glory we must also remember it was this same city that helped shape and make the archmage that effectively capped the level limit and skill by restricting the knowledge and level of magic Winstrum used to have.

    Which may have been in part to lower their cap to ensure the city of Magic could rise above it. Which it might be able to if it gots its act together which as we can see with their last great mage… It certainly has not.

    • Im guessing that the reason we got a chapter focused entirely on valeteresa is because she will be a more central character in upcoming events, like investigating the lost city of stars.
      While i agree with the sentiment that this chapter seems oddly timed and jarringly disruptive to the flow of the story (more like an interlude than anything else), i suspect its the start of valeteresa taking on the mythical quest.
      Odds are, to earn the respect of Fissivals people, she will endevor to do what dragail could not.

      • I took the last bit to mean they’ll run into the earthers who left Wistram. That’s why it’s building up on her disillusionment at the end, with the scholarium refusing to talk with her and the cut to the sailors with the earthers.

  9. That was an unexpectedly sad chapter. We start off with “oh, Valesteria is so quirky, and a little ruthless” to seeing why she is the way she is. She learned fine control from tradesmen, who are all being screwed over by the city’s political system. The buff system that’s used to keep the working class complacent (and unable to grow, in the case of the laborers), the ineffective food stamp program and the steadily decreasing welfare program, the blatant racism against humans (and the army recruiting from them), and the literal second class citizenship are all… just… ouch.

    As an American, it hits rather close to home. At least the cops (ahem, tax collectors) aren’t *too* physically violent when going after people for selling goods on the streets, so there’s that, at least.

    I’m guessing we’ll see more Valeterisa in upcoming chapters, perhaps heading into the new lands with some of those earthers at the prompting of (or perhaps accompanied by) Ascoden.

  10. Will I now reread the entirety of wistram days or will I be normal.
    I like the focus on magic in these last few chapters, first witchy magic, now Valeterisa’s crazy robot magic and F*ssival. The best part of the chapter for me was seeing the artisans, they remind me of my own grandparents and it really seems like grandparents fussing over their quirky grandchild val.

  11. If Valeterisa (or Eldavin, or Montressa) did disseminate knowledge of Restoration further, it could be really handy given the Eir Gel shortage. As indeed could the faith based healers popping up among and around the Antinium, and medically trained characters in Baleros.

    What they need, though, is some way to craft wands of restoration.

    • Problem with wands of restoration is what will power them.

      an archmage’s mana supply plus maximum safe potion consumption gives you 4 casts, if you somehow have the efficiency of the specialized healer it’s 10 casts.

      if you can mass produce something with an archmage’s supply there were enough advances on the way that the wands of restoration are a tiny footnote on the advances made to make them possible.

      just making potions of restoration(not mass produced, that ain’t happening) will be an impressive feat I think let alone multi use wands.

  12. I really like this chapter. It humanizes and gives backstory to Valeterisa, presents Fissival, a city which we never saw before, through the lens of Valeterisa and her apprentice, and frankly, it’s a great piece of writing. It is subtle and low-key – we’re not talking Fetohep riding into the dawn for an entire chapter, and yet, it was still great.

    Nothing else to really add. I didn’t really like Valeterisa, as a character, at least not immediately. It is difficult to appreciate someone that has the hat of being entirely made of logic and math and losing herself to that. But that chapter really managed to make her a prime character, and to show her hidden depths. Excellent writing, 10/10, would read it again.

  13. I loved Valeterisa in this Chapter it is like she only truly awakened with the entry of Fissival and all before was like someone half asleep on autopilot. Just great. And Montressa like a niece or granddaugther in the wake of her movements was endearing and hilarious.

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