9.27 RC

(Gravesong is out now on Yonder! Read the first part of the book here!)

 

 

Some days, he still dreamed of it. Though it had not been long ago and though he had never learned to control his dreams—the man thought it came upon him like a blessing, a vision.

He regretted it. Though they told him he had done everything he could be asked, when he stood in that dream, shining like a ray of goodness down through the blood and grit he knew so well and the light, miraculously, did not tarnish and sully itself from touching him—

Wilovan felt proud. And he thought he should have been there. On that battlefield, a club in his paw. He might have died—but what a cause.

What better time for a man like him? When he rose and dressed himself, putting on casual slacks of Wyvernhide, adjusting his undershirt, jacket, and overcoat that stretched slightly across his chest, his top hat, his tie even, gifted to him by the young Rickel—

He almost wished he’d gone with Lyonette. Even if it led him to that early grave. He had not argued because she’d been right that he was no man for the battlefield; Wilovan had never worn armor. But if he could have vouchsafed his own answer, now, he might have said—

Take me. And take us away from our lives. Use us well, even if we’re to meet our ends faster. 

We’re not good men. You can’t find any where we walk. 

So he tasted it, even now. A kind of longing. And saw it in his partner’s eyes, for all his garb was less ornate by far, the thread-count of the plain brown jacket outnumbered, the simple cap outmatched by the lacework across Wilovan’s vestments, showcasing his chest.

But no less dignified, his counterpart, as they tipped their hats to each other. A regret—for all three dozen lads stood outside their home when the two exited. Each one with a cap, a purpose.

Poor boys. Poor men, too. The kinda cutthroats and thugs and brats who only knew how to win arguments with their fists. Killers, some, not worth saving.

—But they could be better. Never o’erfine. Never good, and their caps held all their sins. Yet you could clothe them well, polish them up until they slept just good enough. So Wilovan sighed. And wondered where he might have been if—

He stared up, past the open gardens and lovely rooftops of the City of Growth. Towards that magnificent tree, the natural city filled with so much of its own goodness.

And creeping vines, parasites on even a fine city such as this. Like the two staring eyes of a Drake wearing a mask. Wilovan blinked.

Ratici ducked—and the other Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings took cover. Wilovan was too slow. The crossbow bolt nailed him straight in the heart, and it was as long as a harpoon.

A Skill-enhanced bolt to kill even a monster like him. The [Assassin] was already running as the shouting began. Wilovan lay on his back.

Get him! Get him and bring him here in pieces—hats off!

A voice roared amidst the shouting—screams from people who didn’t know what was going on. Someone bent over Wilovan as he stared at the sky.

“Wilovan? Wilovan?

The Gnoll’s eyes beheld that glorious sky and the light. And he saw it running away from him, leaving for war and back for that curious city and the inn. They’d let her down like this, hadn’t they? Had they paid…

That debt? His mouth opened, and the Gnoll sighed. The rising sun passed behind a cloud. But somehow—a fragment of it stayed behind.

Wilovan sat up, and the gigantic crossbow bolt morphed into a regular-sized one. It fell, the tip blunted by the impact, and he rubbed at his chest. The Gnoll got up as the fleeing [Assassin] turned in disbelief. He brushed at his chest, and it hurt like the dickens.

But he took his partner’s hand.

“Don’t worry, Ratici—”

The Gentleman Caller smiled, and his eyes flashed. He took off his expensive coat and realized his jacket and overcoat were also torn to shreds. Ah, well.

“—[He Scratched Only Thread].”

His eyes burnt with the same glorious purpose. A fragment captured in his hat. That was enough—but even as Wilovan rose. Even then—

He envied Normen. That lucky bastard. In his dreams, Wilovan longed for that great purpose. Never once…never once had he and Ratici thought they could take off that hat and put on a shining helmet. Walk a different path.

Maybe someday. Not today. So as he rose with grit and blood in his mouth, the Gnoll looked at the young men. Even if they could all one day follow Normen—someone needed to be here. Teaching these idiots who reminded Wilovan of a younger him there was dignity, even in the dirt.

But that dream—he wouldn’t mind having it again. Wilovan put his top hat on his head and grinned into the dawn. Then he went back inside for a new suit.

 

——

 

Skills really were cheating. Poruniv of the Earthtenders got word that his expensive hit on the Gentlemen Callers had failed.

How?

He hadn’t realized the significance of Wilovan’s Skills until now. This one left him staring across his own clothing, his outfit, which resembled the last fashion craze from Terandria. All that lace—he’d strangled a man with it, but he had silk cloth, a fine amulet across his neck—

Imagine if that were like a shield, an armor from any mortal blow.

“That’s a Skill beyond what a bastard like that deserves to get. That’s…that’s Royal-type Skills. He’s not Level 50. We’d know. Someone, check him over. Now. Where’s our [Seers]?”

“Out tending the weeds, boss.”

One of the nervous members of Earthtenders spoke up. They were all part of the gang, here, and Poruniv, a large Drake with a few notable scars, but a respectable man to many who didn’t know him, glared. Earthtenders. Oteslia’s largest—and until now, only—criminal gang of note.

“Out tending the—get them!

He had no time for the colloquial sayings. Not right now. He stood up, and three figures were the only ones who didn’t flinch away.

Ecleeif, the nervous coward of a [Sorcerer].

Zanzeil, wearing his Creler-poisoned blades, his Gnollish fur patchy.

Neverwhine, the Drake [Beast Master] and his huge two-headed dog.

Most of the Earthtenders were Drakes, but they had enough Gnolls to resemble Oteslia’s population, which had the highest Gnoll-to-Drake ratio of any Walled City. They were all over Level 40, Poruniv included.

In the parlance of the gangs, that meant four Faces. Most gangs had only one or two, even the big ones. Ancestors and Cire, a Face could be Level 30+.

Yet somehow—somehow two newcomers, from the North for all they were Drake and Gnoll, had strolled into his city and were forming a rival gang that was eating away at the Earthtenders’ territory. They had thirty-two streets and were fighting across three times that. They had businesses, people had gone to back them—

And the two Gentleman Callers couldn’t be beat. Not that the Faces had clashed much.

They didn’t want to die. For all Poruniv owed the duo for their near-assassination of him, he hadn’t gone to the streets and settled this thing in person. Mostly because he was—wary—of the tricks they had.

Gentlemen Callers. Those were Faces of the North alright. He’d inquired and heard they were unto executioners for their huge gang, the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings. Sometimes, they executed huge heists on [Lords] no one else could.

Sometimes, they took other Faces to task. Yet even so! They were outnumbered by a huge gang. They’d begun recruiting into their own Brothers—but they should be dead.

Should be, except for Skills. Except that Poruniv had worthless subordinates like his officers. Ecleeif was a coward, Neverwhine refused to risk his damn dog, and Zanzeil didn’t trust the others enough to go after the two. Lesser thugs wouldn’t work—he’d given it his best shot, and they’d made it out of the Earthtenders’ headquarters.

“No wonder we don’t have any respect.”

Poruniv had been dining—and counting how much gold he didn’t have this month. Two months after the two Gentlemen Callers had arrived and a third of his profits were gone.

Not just because the two had taken that much territory, oh no. The rest just wasn’t being paid. Idiots were claiming they had already paid, trying to lie and cheat—and of course they did.

They were criminals. Their mistake was thinking they’d get away with it.

“Zanzeil. Take a dozen gardeners. Weed out all the people not being fruitful.”

Ecleeif blanched a bit, and the other [Rogues] hesitated.

“All of ‘em?”

“Get me fifteen big roots. Fifteen, and make it a show.”

“Damn, boss—”

Get out and go. Don’t worry about collecting any soil. We’ll deal with it next week. It’ll show up by then. Anything you pick up—keep it.”

That put a pep in the bastard’s step. Poruniv heard him hurry out—as a [Seer] hurried in. The nervous old Drake clasped a few items to his chest.

“You—you wanted to see me, Mister Poruniv?”

“Ah. Sit down, sir.”

The Drake hoped the [Seer] hadn’t heard his last comments. This Drake was just an old man who did work for the Earthtenders now and then. A rare class…but the gangs knew all the rare classes.

All the classes other people thought of as stupid or ineffective—the gangs, the criminal world knew about Blood Skills. They had more of an inkling of how terrible classes germinated. They were intelligent—

Intelligent enough to know not to clash with the law most of the time. Some gangs reveled in it. Some bastards too. Each city, each nation had a different problem.

Ironically, Oteslia’s gangs were most similar to the Blighted Kingdom’s in one major way. More than any other criminal group in all of Izril—

They were loyal. Like Rhir’s own underbelly that was allowed to exist. Loyal, for all they were never acknowledged. All this—turmoil—was drawing the attention Poruniv didn’t want, though.

Anyways.

“I have someone I need you to look into, Seer Toenir, sir. A matter of classes.”

“Oh. [Appraisal] no good?”

“Everyone has their secrets. Can you give me a rough estimate of the fellow’s class?”

The Seer hmmed.

“You know it’s never accurate. I need a description, a picture, a rough count of his levels, and, uh, whatever you know of his class. Then—I could use a fresh fish? I think—haruspicy might work.”

Poruniv signaled one of his underlings to get whatever the old Drake wanted. These things were hit-or-miss, and even the most crazed Wall Ladies didn’t often go to a [Seer]—but they had their uses.

Like [Soothsayers] and the ilk, you just had to know what to do with a vague prophecy or bit of luck. Who…

“What was that bastard’s name again?”

“Boss?”

Ecleeif was listening in—in between watching the old [Seer] at work. A [Sorcerer] like him probably loved picking up magical tricks. Poruniv waved it off irritably.

“I want his class. His class—maybe it’ll help.”

At the very least, it’d tell Poruniv what kind of nasty Skills that Gnoll might be hiding if it matched one on records. The [Seer] took a live fish and dissected it, pulling out the entrails with tools and gaining something from the smelly act.

“Let me see. Let me see. Leeeet meeee seeeeeee—-

His voice grew slower, and his nervousness decreased. Poruniv felt a slight tingle on his scales as the old Drake’s eyes unfocused and his voice slowed down. When the [Seer] was in the true state, you could tell. Then he seemed to be staring over a web of possibilities.

Wilovan. I see him. A Gnoll of great power. Mid-forties.”

“Yes, go on. What’s his class? His class old man?”

The old Drake’s throat worked as he tried to pull something past anti-[Appraisal] spells. Poruniv leaned over.

[Gentleman Thug]. Yes, a [Gentleman Thug].”

The Drake resisted the urge to hit the [Seer]. He wasn’t in the mood to hit old men, but—

Yes, we know that’s his class. It’s damn well changed or—what’s it specifically?”

It had to be a class consolidation. The [Seer] huffed—even in his trance-state, he could sense Poruniv’s impatience.

“It isn’t easy. I’m looking forwards and backwards and at ifs—I’ll pull a reading of four. Silence. Now—silence…”

He wasn’t high-level. Barely mid-twenties, so you got what you paid for, and he’d get a kick on his ass if this were all. Poruniv had met the real deal, and they—they were scary.

“Rastandius.”

He muttered, and Neverwhine perked up.

“Who’s that?”

“No one. Nevermind. A dead man, I heard. Damn it.”

Like everyone—now Poruniv had the opportunity to regret that old Human bastard’s passing. Now—Poruniv wanted answers. And he’d never get them. Ecleeif tilted his head then turned to watch the [Seer] as he caught the glower from his boss.

Poruniv had his own fates he’d once been shown. And he had been told—

Well, the damn [Soothsayer] had known too much. Especially about Cire. It must have been fourteen years ago, now. He’d tried to attach himself to the Earthtenders, but he’d overplayed his hand. After his prophecy, Poruniv had held him off a rooftop by one ankle and told him that if he ever revealed Cire’s secret—he’d drop the old man.

Again.

In hindsight, he should have gotten everything, but he had never known someone with a broken leg and shoulder to be able to run so fast. Especially not in, what, his seventies?

Cire’s secret had never been unveiled that Poruniv knew of, so he’d let it lie rather than risk it. The [Seer] in front of Poruniv now?

A lot slower and a lot less helpful.

I see the Gnoll’s class. Possibly. One of four options. I see…a [Gentleman Thug of Style].

Poruniv’s claw twitched towards his cup of purified water. Although—he had to admit it sounded roughly right. The [Seer] seemed to sense his impatience and hurried on.

“A [Marauder of Cloth]. A class of style and violence. Two comingled. He has the blessing of royalty on him.”

“That damn Skill. Alright, so maybe he’s got one. Classes, classes.

The [Seer] was whispering, trying to piece together a probable class.

Wilovan the Gentleman Caller. A…[Blackguard of the Streets, Gentleman in the Sheets].

Poruniv’s face went completely blank. He stared at the old Drake until he heard a snorting sound from Neverwhine. Poruniv was carefully aiming the cup when the [Seer]’s eyes flashed. His voice echoed—and Poruniv felt it.

True prophecy.

“[Blackguard Gentleman of the Streets]! There!

He fell backwards, gasping, and Poruniv lowered the cup. Well, well, well. What was it, a 1% chance of getting something real like that? He swore the room had trembled a bit when the [Seer] revealed it truly.

“Now that’s an odd class. You got his Skills, too?”

The old Drake nodded weakly. His eyes were re-focusing, and they’d lost the cloudy look. Desperately, he waved a claw.

“I have them. Quill. Quill…I’m forgetting—”

Quill! Then get me a list. Spread it around so we can figure out how to take that bastard down. Good work. Prepare a handsome payment for Seer Toenir.”

Poruniv exhaled. This wasn’t a complete waste of a morning after all. But he had to get rid of those two.

“…Maybe I need to send for help.”

Ecleeif looked up in alarm. That was not a good thing to say out loud, but Poruniv had to admit—as he stared glumly at Wilovan’s best Skills, he wondered if Zanzeil could take him in a straight fight, Creler-poison blades or not.

No, he couldn’t. Ancestors and Cire!

That one Skill made all the difference. How many free mortal blows was it? He’d survived an [Assassin] shooting him with a [Harpoon Bolt].

Damned Calanfer. Damn royalty.

“And damn that little bastard, Rickel! I want him dead! How has no one found him yet?

Poruniv remembered the final splinter in his scales, and his temper flared once more. Yes, those two would have been dead and this would all have been over but for one little Human! He whirled on Ecleeif, and the [Sorcerer] flinched.

“Boss! Don’t throw the cup! I’ve been searching—”

“Do I have to put Neverwhine on it again instead of guard duty? Find him—you have a dog! With two noses! How have both of you failed to track down one Human?”

“It’s a big city, boss!”

The Drake protested, covering his hound defensively. Poruniv rested one claw on his snout. Idiots. They had no vision. No real loyalty to the city, to Cire. They didn’t know what he did. He growled.

“Find them. Ecleeif, you have one week before I get mad. Neverwhine? You’re taking the fight to the Brothers. But first—get me in contact with Oteslia’s Watch Captain or their Watch Commander. I’m doing it. I’m calling in the Gallowsmen.”

The rest of the Earthtenders looked up and blanched. But Poruniv was done. He was meant for bigger things. He’d been prophesied.

He hoped that old man hadn’t lied.

 

——

 

Ecleeif was nervous when he left the Earthtenders. Well, he was a known coward. Lazy, too, but he was still a Face.

He was cunning enough to cast [Invisibility], he could suck the air out of a room, and he was actually a better stalker than Neverwhine.

Not even the Earthtenders could follow him as he slipped out of their headquarters. Nevertheless, Ecleeif still checked his tail a dozen times as he went down the streets, took several wrong turns—

Then sat down, at a café, and hissed at the young man reading a book.

We’re supposed to be meeting in the safe room!

“Relax, my man. This is way less stupid-looking than slipping into some dusty backrooms. Plus, you’re wearing a different face. And so am I.”

Rickel, the young man from Earth, had no nerves. Or at least, not for this. He sat there, a somewhat good-looking Drake—Ecleeif knew how to do Drakes—sipping from one of Oteslia’s newest fads.

Coffee. In fact, he complimented the Drake [Server] as she passed by.

“This is a great mug. Can you do a latte?”

“Of course!”

She beamed—probably because he was a regular and he tipped very generously. In fact, this was the café outside the safe house they’d been using all month, and Ecleeif had spotted him sitting out here.

“You’re crazy. This is crazy.”

“You say that, but I’m paying you.”

Rickel wasn’t too loud, but he wasn’t nervous—mostly because Ecleeif was keeping their conversation private and running an innocuous conversation in the background.

He was an expert, after all. A real Face.

He got no respect from Poruniv. His cut was smaller than Zanzeil’s and Neverwhine’s. True, because Ecleeif was lazy and he had little loyalty—

But that was also why he refused to try and fight two Faces, two monsters from the north. They were criminals! This was the Earthtenders’ gang!

They should be enjoying their wealth, not risking their lives. That was his philosophy, and at least one young man shared it.

Although…why was Ecleeif risking his life and certain death by aiding Poruniv’s enemies?

Oh yeah.

The gold. The [Sorcerer] calmed down. And as always, he tried to see if Rickel had more on him, but the young man just had a bag of a few thousand gold coins—which he passed over the table.

“I need a bag of holding back, you know.”

“I’ll put one in the safe-house.”

The gold made Ecleeif happy. Four thousand gold pieces a week! That was a sum, and he had no idea how Rickel afforded it.

The young man was a mystery, but he was on the Gentleman Caller’s side and, apparently, the side of that [Princess] who had been here. Lyonette du Marquin. He had hired Ecleeif to help foil Poruniv’s efforts.

And now, he closed his history book and grimaced.

“Krsysl Wordsmith. Now there’s a name that’s hard to pronounce. History is fascinating.”

“You think so? It’s boring as shit to me. All the hidden treasure and spells get left out.”

Rickel shrugged.

“Sort of true. I hated history when I was younger—except for the interesting people and events. But I’d read a book on history any day, here.”

“You like Izril that much?”

The [Sorcerer] dourly looked around, but he was rewarded with a huge smile from Rickel.

“This world is great.”

When he smiled like that, you could see why Poruniv had let some random Human into his gambling casino. Rickel still had his scarf from the day he’d met Wilovan and Ratici, but he’d switched his clothes for a cardigan and some casual ‘jeans’. He somehow had achieved a level of style that eclipsed Ecleeif’s own clothing-game—and Rickel was a Human, not a Drake!

He flirted with the café server as the older Drake sulked. He had an infectious laugh, and he was friendly enough to be charming.

He also had no nerves, it seemed, a lot of wealth—and at least a few levels in a class similar to Ecleeif’s. What class, exactly, was unclear—but Rickel had depths. For one thing, he was an investor in the coffee industry, which he had begun by finding the beans and securing garden spots.

Now most of the city was growing the damn stuff, but Rickel was earning a percentage of the profits via the joint-effort that Wall Lord Ilvriss, Lyonette du Marquin, and a number of others were running.

Maybe that was where the gold was coming from? Ecleeif didn’t know, but he reported what Poruniv had done this morning.

Seers. Damn. It’s always something cool. And terrifying. Could that old guy find out where I am?”

“Poruniv didn’t ask. Exact places are harder. You get a lot of worthless scale flakes from [Seers], in my experience. Asking for classes or Skills is safer.”

“Like a hints guide rather than a walkthrough. Got it…got it.”

He made no sense to Ecleeif, some of the comments. But Rickel’s eyes had lit up.

“I wonder if I could ask—no. No, there aren’t any independent [Seers] you know, are there? Ones that Poruniv would never talk to? Having him as an enemy sucks. I was just getting somewhere with my [Gambler] class, too.”

Rickel had a coin, which he flipped up and down—then added it to the tips. Ecleeif shook his head.

“The only one I can remember is some Rastandius guy who was here a decade and a half ago. Poruniv mentioned him—he was just a lieutenant back then.”

“Tell me more. And tell me everything else he said. Don’t hold back.”

Now, Rickel sat forwards, and Ecleeif tried to say everything in order. Rickel did demand that—if very little else. Ecleeif just had to keep him safe, report in, and sabotage some of the Earthtenders’ plans—carefully—and teach Rickel magic and about the underworld.

The young man was insatiable for that. Ecleeif had rather liked showing off his spells, and Rickel wanted to learn magic himself, though he had claimed [Mage] magic sounded more reliable.

“I can buy a spellbook, Ecleeif. Well, I could if I wasn’t being hunted. Maybe I should leave the city.”

“It’d be safer.”

“Yes, but then who’d help Wilovan and Ratici? Those two—I like those two.”

“I’m on their side!”

“Yeah, but you’re not reliable. Even if I kept paying you, you’d just take my money and play both sides by doing nothing.”

The [Sorcerer] opened his mouth with a glower—and decided this was definitely true. He sat back as Rickel mused over the last part.

“Gallowsmen. Gallowsmen. Who are they? Another gang, Ecleeif? Why was it so drastic, Poruniv sending for them?”

The [Sorcerer] blanched at the table.

“The Gallowsmen of Loeri. They are not a gang. The opposite. If Poruniv’s calling them in, he wants to take out the Brothers. But he’ll get the Earthtenders too!”

Rickel listened with a huge frown. The Gallowsmen were, in fact, a kind of law enforcement force from the city of Loeri.

Unlike the north, where huge gangs were multi-city, the Drake cities—even gangs—tended to be independent. So the Earthtenders ruled Oteslia—nowhere else.

In the same way, their powerful forces were sometimes unique to a city, like how you got the Yoldenites with their…colorful personality.

“The Gallowsmen hang anyone who’ve committed serious crimes. My guess is that Poruniv calls them in and sets them on the Brothers.”

“…And any Earthtenders who get caught. Wow, he must be pissed. But doesn’t he fear they’ll get him too?”

“Not Poruniv. He’s going through the Watch Captain. He’s got friends at the top of Oteslia.”

Rickel’s eyes sharpened. He took a long draft of his cup and, for some reason, glanced around.

“I bet he does. Well, that’ll be interesting—let’s talk later, Ecleeif. You sure you can’t get me in touch with one of the [Underground Merchants] here without Poruniv knowing?”

“Not without one telling Poruniv. They’re not trustworthy. Well, some are, but he can lean on them.”

Rickel sighed.

“Damn. Then charge up my illusion spells and let’s meet again. Same place, two days or earlier if something happens.”

He stood up, and Ecleeif looked around warily before leaning in.

“Are you sure Ratici and Wilovan are going to win? They’ve gained ground, but it’s them versus all the Earthtenders, and their lot is getting plucked. They might win on the streets, but not in the prisons. Poruniv has the prisons. He has the Watch! He’s got Oteslia!”

For a reply, the young man gave the [Sorcerer] a huge grin. Here was the last thing about Rickel—he jabbed a thumb at his chest.

“Yeah. But the Gentlemen Callers have me.

The [Sorcerer] stared at Rickel as the young man sauntered away, hands in his pockets. The Drake leaned out of his chair to shout.

That’s not clever! Or impressive! You’re just a kid! What do you actually have that Poruniv doesn’t, huh?”

 

——

 

Well, for one thing, Rickel knew Poruniv’s big secret.

Which was that Cire was Cire. Who, exactly, Cire was didn’t matter. Nor did Rickel actually think he wanted to know, not yet.

He might not be able to spot all the [Actors] and fake actors, but he could certainly tell when a woman in her thirties was playing someone half her age. It fooled Cire—but it was about on the level of a Hollywood set.

Like someone playing a teenage drama. And he didn’t miss how the Watch seemed to always be near Cire’s location.

You didn’t need to know a secret to know it was there—and like hell Rickel was touching the issue at hand. But Cire?

He slapped the Drake’s hands as the Human grinned.

“Cire, my guy. How’s it Archmaging?”

The Drake winced as he fanned his bronze wings.

“Rickel, you keep getting it wrong! Stop it. It’s so…terrible. No, wait, it’s cringe. Am I using that right?”

“Cringe is an artform to be appreciated, Cire. And I am all about it.”

First he slapped his palms down on Cire’s low down, then they went up and did it again, did a one-palmed high-five, and turned it into a hand-clasp and fist bump. The two of them were odd people to be friends…or not so odd.

After all, they had met when Lyonette was here, and Rickel was, if not Cire’s age of seventeen, young enough to actually mingle at twenty-one without being actually embarrassing. And Cire was important.

Maybe it was because he was the First Gardener’s kid. Maybe it was that Rafaema girl everyone also fawned over.

Maybe it didn’t matter, but Rickel just bet it did. Cire’s friends gave him fake grins—a few of the actual kids looked impressed by him, if exasperated by his inability to use slang. Cire rubbed his claws together eagerly.

“Alright, alright, what are we monking around for? Let’s do something Fetohep.

Rickel raised a brow as even some of Cire’s friends groaned at the new slang.

“Is that a new word?”

“Yep. We’re Khelting. I’ve got a bag full of gold, and I’m going to hit the city. Did you see the scrying orb broadcast?”

It was a sign of how important you actually were to get Oteslian slang made up about you. Khelting around was going to become a thing, Rickel could tell. A show of wealth.

I’m gonna Arbiter this, meant you were interfering with a dispute. Interestingly, they didn’t have much slang like—‘I’m gonna pull a Zeres’. Or, ‘that was a real Plain’s Eye thing to do’.

Rickel supposed there just wasn’t much about the Meeting of Tribes that could be encompassed by that kind of language. Not that it didn’t affect Cire and his friends.

“Let’s go, let’s go! And if we find any more of those Zeres-loving bastards, I’m going to kick their tails in this time!”

—That was about the level of Cire’s actual will. But he had been at the Meeting of Tribes. Rickel doubted he’d swung a sword—but still.

It was not a good time to be a Zeresian in Oteslia, even with the siege lifted. A Gnoll? Well—Oteslia hadn’t been the ones marching into the Meeting of Tribes. Gnolls in other Walled Cities?

Not fun.

It was all fascinating to Rickel. He almost—almost—wished he were in Manus or somewhere so he could see the real intercity dynamics up close.

He wondered if it were hardcore racism like he could make an analogy to on Earth. Then again—as a Human, he doubted he’d enjoy it.

Poor Gnolls. Amazing new world. Here he was, in the City of Growth, and the Walled City was somehow not the most interesting thing.

Admittedly, Rickel could have left, but he’d miss out on the opportunities here. Plus, he was no warrior. He was, he had to admit—

A bit frustrated.

Not by Ecleeif, not by the Gentleman Caller’s progress, but by himself. Rickel hopped onto a skateboard with Cire—and promptly fell off. He wasn’t a great skateboarder, and Cire was. Still, he headed down with the group as a Human, fearless of Poruniv’s wrath.

He’d get away if he were trailed—but no one would harm him while he was with Cire. And besides—Rickel suspected if Ecleeif couldn’t help him, then Cire could.

“Rickel, want to hang out later? My mom’s got me having a stuffy dinner with her and…and Mivifa.”

Ancestors. Mivifa of Feathers? That’s so—”

One of the real teenagers got elbowed by the fake ones. Cire didn’t look happy—and Rickel, again, didn’t know exactly why, except, perhaps, that Mivifa had once been Cire’s friend and then not?

But he smiled.

“Sure thing, Cire. Invite me over. Your place is great. Plus, your mother’s great.”

“You think so? She’s totally a monk sometimes, Rickel.”

“Eh. She’s hot.”

Dude.

 

——

 

When he was with Cire, Rickel was casual, shoving the Dragon, making jokes about his mother, getting shoved for it, flashing gold around, and seeing what Oteslia had to offer.

He was nursing a twisted ankle from trying a trick with a skateboard when he resumed his Drake guise and caught up with Ratici and Wilovan.

He was spotted, of course. The Drake [Thief] noticed him instantly, but since they liked Rickel, he was as safe as the two Gentlemen Callers as they took a break for lunch.

“How’s it going, you two?”

“Wilovan got shot this morning.”

“Another suit down.”

“Whoa. What? Can you afford more?”

Rickel had heard of it, of course, but he sat down as Wilovan regaled him with the brief tale. Ratici barely glanced at Rickel’s bag of holding.

“Funding for the suits is a small thing, as it were, Rickel. A fellow does appreciate the offer, but you don’t need to flash anything with us.”

They were rich, so Rickel shrugged.

“Just say the word, guys. How’s it going with the, uh, Brothers?”

Ratici and Wilovan exchanged a look, and Wilovan murmured.

“A few lads should have finally come down from the north. But let’s not discuss business here. This is a lunch.

He emphasized the words, and Rickel sighed. Unlike Cire or Ecleeif, the two Gentlemen Callers held Rickel at a remove. They appreciated his help—but they were separate. And—in this moment—the two were seriously considering the all-vegetarian options at the café.

“Is it…safe here?”

“We’re in a lull. Neither side wants to attract the Watch. Collection day is usually quiet.”

“Huh.”

The Earthtenders and the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings were at war. They both had gangs that clashed in bloody ways, raiding each other’s safehouses, taking over streets—but it was a more civilized war than Rickel thought.

At least, in a Walled City. You rarely hauled off and stabbed someone in the streets. It happened, like their first battles and Wilovan’s assassination, but the worst thing to do would be getting a civilian killed.

For the Gentleman Callers, it was unacceptable. For the Earthtenders—the Watch would not ignore that. So you could have the two dining in the open.

True, there was a danger of poison, but Ratici was good enough to keep that from happening. He inserted a little strip into the first soup he was given.

“I can never do soups, Wilovan. Needles in the salad? Simple.”

“Soup is a weakness of yours, Ratici. But I, as a gentleman, never reproach you your weaknesses.”

Rickel loved their banter. He sat there, listening as the two mixed between complimenting the pumpkin-based soup, the raisins in the delightful salad with a refreshing vinegar dressing—sour and sweet—ribbing each other—

And talking shop. Which was why he was here.

“I heard all those Named-ranks are still fleeing to the new lands. Quite a stir, quite a stir from our delightful [Innkeeper]. Did you hear more, perchance?”

“Only a letter.”

Wilovan looked up in outrage.

“You don’t say. A letter? From Erin herself?”

Rickel really, really wanted to meet Erin. And Lyonette—who was not an Earther. He had felt really silly about it at the time, but that meant Erin Solstice was almost definitely one. The woman who lived! He really wanted to exchange notes with her, but again.

Oteslia. Ratici proffered Wilovan a letter, but snatched it back when the Gnoll reached for it.

“When you read this missive, addressed to the two of us, I might note that it came to me, Wilovan, old chap.”

“You held it back all morning?”

“You had been shot. I thought it would cheer you up.”

Wilovan snatched the letter and began to read. His furrowed brow turned into a smile.

“Ah, now that’s a pleasant missive. She has not forgotten us?”

“What an insult, Wilovan, to assume she would.”

“That is upon me, Ratici—and a poorer man to ever think it of Erin.”

They looked so contented at getting a letter from the mysterious [Innkeeper] that they sat back as if that were half the meal. Then they continued talking.

“Extraordinary that she helped the adventurers escape. I hear no less than Orchestra is upon their backs.”

“Hm. Nasty fellow, that Music Maker. A nasty fellow to cross. Who else is there with links to us?”

The [Thief] counted on his claws.

“Well, the Music Maker makes use of services. The Cheerful Lad helps everyone—”

“Of course—”

Rickel was decoding this. Ratici and Wilovan were giving him amused looks as he wrote down a few names, and Wilovan winked one huge eye in confirmation.

“—And the Luckless has debts. Speed Herself is not a pleasant one to cross, nor does she like us. A mixed bag, I’d say. The Haven doesn’t associate with many on our end.”

“No indeed. No indeed. Well, that’s as good as it may be for Miss Solstice. But now it’s my turn. I heard that Orchestra’s riled up the south. Especially their old rivals.”

The Drake had been adjusting his cap as he broke a cracker into his soup. He paused, spoon raised to his mouth, and nearly dripped some onto his immaculate handkerchief tucked into his shirt.

“You don’t say? Symphony?

Now there was a name Rickel knew. He sat up as Wilovan lowered his voice.

“They’re not after Orchestra—yet. But I did hear they took a contract. Rather unpleasant business. Word is that fellow we heard about who causes ruckuses? Was at Cellidel, Salazsar?”

“Ah, Sellme?”

“Yes. The word is that he caused such an outrage that someone posted a rather high number upon him. So high Symphony’s out and playing.

“Nasty business. Nasty business, and not the sort of thing to bring to a luncheon, Wilovan.”

Ratici patted at his mouth, and Wilovan raised a paw.

“I do apologize. I thought it was germane to the topic. The point is just that we should rather hurry to getting a nice place set up for the lads, Ratici. I can’t imagine our great friends in Poruniv’s lot are going to keep letting us walk all over their carpets.”

“Slow business, Wilovan. And you’re still talking work—”

The two were concerned. It was now that Rickel broke in. He felt filled on their talk, and of all the people in Oteslia—he did quite respect the two.

They were real. They had the style. They had the attitude—but they were also real as shit. Even Poruniv had been more of a caricature than they were.

The right folks to back. If only…Rickel were not so frustrated.

“Wilovan, Ratici. I have a question about—Symphony and that sort of thing. You know I’ve done well in the coffee business, right?”

The Gnoll brightened up at once, and the Drake grinned and nodded.

“A fine thing. A fine thing.”

Wilovan looked proud—and he wasn’t even a fan of coffee. Ratici was, but the Gnoll had staunchly stuck to tea.

It might be the biggest argument between them yet. Rickel looked between the two.

“If I can help with clothing for Wilovan or…any other way. How does one contact Symphony or spend all the kind of—the kind of remunerations one gets in a work such as this?”

He tried their style on, and Ratici chuckled with deep approval. He nodded to a young Gnoll with a cap waiting and got up.

“Be right back.”

He stood up, and Wilovan leaned over.

“It’s not the kind of thing we like to put a young man with prospects such as yourself into, Rickel. Best to stay clear.”

“I’m in it already. Plus—I’d just like to buy something interesting. I’ve been talking with Cire, you know. The nobility have their own access to—things. Auctions and so on. But I’d need to be a [Merchant] in some standing to get noticed. Even with gold, you have to have a name.”

Wilovan looked interested.

“I had heard how that worked. So above, so below. Well—I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to tell you the basics. You see, a fellow who’s successful in our line of work doesn’t know where to go either. There are a few known groups—but you tend to be reached out to.”

“Damn. It’s always the elite reaching out to you, isn’t it?”

Rickel wasn’t surprised. Wilovan gave him a huge wink.

“Can’t be too careful. But if you were really in need—we could give you an introduction. Our names do work. Once we settle this bit of unpleasantness, we’ll do just that. For now, any surreptitious folk won’t take our side.”

Ratici reappeared and sat down as Wilovan sat upright smoothly. The Gnoll shook his head.

“Not yet. Not good to upset Poruniv if you think he’ll hold a grudge. A petty man, that.”

Ratici held up a cautionary finger.

“With decent clothing.”

“Indeed, we must give him that. Poor form, though. Poor form.”

Rickel sat back. He frowned mightily, such that even Ratici noticed it.

“Something wrong, Rickel? Are you that interested in buying something? Well—I can see a young man needing something to protect himself. We could see about it…”

He glanced at Wilovan, and the two had offered Rickel protection, but the Earther just shrugged.

“I just wonder—how do you pay for something—expensive? Are you anonymous or what?”

Ratici coughed discreetly and knowingly.

“If you want to be secret—there’s ways. Moving about the kind of coinage is tough. Again, it requires having a few nice places, a system. If we were in Invrisil, we’d take you around.”

Rickel drummed his fingers on the table.

“Damn. I mean—darn. Excuse me, you two. What a problem to have, eh?”

The two laughed. Wilovan reached out and patted him on the shoulder.

“The best kind in the world, young Rickel! The best kind.”

The young Human man smiled wanly. You said that—but how frustrating it could be!

 

——

 

Let’s assume you had money. Great.

Money was so important. Money made the world go round, and contrary to what people believed, it did correlate with happiness to a certain point.

In this world, money mattered more. In Rickel’s, there was a limit to how far money ran. Money could buy favor and bribes—but the ultra-rich ran out of yachts and houses to buy. Then they built spaceships.

Well, in this world, money was a lot more actionable, and you could even argue that the economy of scale was greater. In this world—money could buy you a Relic.

If the relic was on sale. But more than that, Rickel had realized something else.

You could not bid on the Helm of Fire if you weren’t allowed at the auction table. Similarly—let’s assume you had a lot of money. Some people might ask where it came from. And…if you tried to spend it, they noticed.

Of course, getting said money was also a trick and a half. And after nearly a hundred days of investigations—

The team looking into the Golden Triangle disaster still hadn’t found where all the money went.

 

——

 

Oteslia’s Merchant’s Guild was where several Drakes stood. One of them had a rare class—[Investigator].

It was exceedingly rare, even among Watches and similar classes. The rest were just [Guards], [Scribes], [Tax Collectors], and similar individuals appointed across Izril.

They had a northern counterpart, but they weren’t united. There were other teams that had been formed and failed by private nations, and they’d all gotten in their way.

In hindsight, Investigator Gaills reflected that they should have worked together. They should have compared information—but Humans working with Drakes?

Well, everyone had suffered. Now he stood here, at a dead end.

Oh, it was to Oteslia where his trail had led from the City of Gems. He was a son of Salazsar, and he had worked with no less than the Walled Families on matters of espionage and corporate sabotage.

He was used to this kind of thing and had Skills to convince people to talk, to establish leads. But…he had never run into something like this.

A scam, they called it. People paid for membership in the Golden Triangle, recruited other people, and were given great amounts of wealth in return. The higher you went, the more you got—and it all seemed to be working until someone called the alarm.

Then they realized all the money coming out of this scam was less than what was going in. It was only sustaining itself based on the new people recruited, who were making a loss until they moved up the ladder—by recruiting more people.

It was unsustainable. It was doomed to fail—but crucially here—the ones who had perpetrated this scheme knew it.

The ones? The one? He didn’t know. All he did know was that a hundred days later, here he stood.

“Good morning! How can we help you at Oteslia’s Merchant’s Guild? Are you here to withdraw coin? Purchase something? Speak to a [Merchant]?”

The [Receptionists] and [Greeters] at the front desk watched the small team—warily. After all, they had been questioning the staff here for three weeks, and they were empowered by the Walled Cities to get answers.

However—Merchant Itrems, from Manus, had given up. He sat there, exhaling such that Investigator Gaills wondered where all the new air was coming from.

“Gone. The trail’s gone. We were too slow—I think this is it for me. I cannot waste another month of my life here.”

A hundred days. When he said it, the mostly-Drake group nodded. They were sick of it.

Gaills? He was too. He was annoyed by his superiors asking for answers. Tired of walking and talking in circles—but when he thought of the people who’d stolen all that gold, he did get angry.

How much? Even now, he couldn’t tell because each Merchant’s Guild had been in on it. They had jumped on the scheme and funneled the gold through countless groups that hadn’t talked to each other. Whoever had done this had been—smart.

Yes, smart. They’d covered their tracks, gotten the nobility in on it—and when they sensed the walls closing in, they were nowhere to be found. They had never been here at all.

Oh—the leadership of the Golden Triangle had. Rich Drakes and Gnolls and Humans had woken up to mobs and the Watch and angry leaders demanding answers. They had rushed to ask their superiors for answers, but the ‘top’ of the Golden Triangle had gone silent, and those below had no answers.

There had been a top. Gaills saw that. And the trail did lead to Oteslia.

Once you found the people who hadn’t gone into hiding or disavowed the entire scam—the ones not dead from the retribution of the people who’d been wronged—they told you who they’d reported to.

Go up the list high enough and every ‘original’ adopter of the Golden Triangle had come from here. Oteslia. And it was here so much of the gold had gone, funneled through this very Merchant’s Guild.

So—the answer was easy, right? Find the original culprits, find who’d gone to them—find where the gold had gone.

Problem 1: Gaills’ team had found that the gold had vanished via a lockbox, one of the very ones the [Receptionist] at the counter was giving to a haughty Wall Lady. It was an enchanted key the Wall Lady had—and while she demanded an escort and porters for some huge withdrawal or deposit—

The safes were private. So, damn it, there was no one who could say who’d drawn the money out. More than one person came here cloaked or with spells for anonymity.

The Merchant’s Guild itself had enabled the gold to be withdrawn from the accounts that had had most of the gold. It hadn’t even been all gold.

That much coin? You couldn’t haul it away with a thousand bags of holding! So it had gone out in other forms.

Expensive spell scrolls, truly rare magical gemstones. Trade goods—literal magical contracts that were used as bargaining chips. Even artwork, damn it! They’d all been put in Vault #5, one of the largest—and all had been carried out, piece by piece, before the scheme collapsed.

If they ever saw some of the artwork again, like the Dawning of Zeres, made by one of the greatest [Painters] of an age—they’d have a lead. In a sense, Gaills was happy—the culprit had a lot of gold, a lot of gold, but they would have to exchange some of the gems and items at some point.

That left a trail. However—the person who had originated this Golden Pyramid scheme was still invisible to him.

Problem 2: all the first members of the Golden Triangle didn’t remember who they had dealt with. Skills, memory spells—all had failed.

Someone was being protected by Skills. Skills—and clever ideas, like a [Message] scroll to communicate with the Merchant’s Guild and make orders. Hooded cloaks, illusion spells.

There had been a few, at the start, who might have known who this person was. One Drake—a young man—had been apparently one of the first to spread the idea to three dozen of the original founders. Many had thought he was the founder.

Rellas Biscale. Investigator Gaills really thought he’d had the culprit or the answer when they finally uncovered his name. Only to find—

He was dead. The riots during the Golden Triangle disaster had turned on him. And with him went their final clue.

“We can’t just give up. At least let’s look for signs of any of the goods being sold.”

“Some were just gemstones, Gaills. Anyone can sell that, especially on the black market. They could be in any city—anywhere—if we weren’t just chasing them down here, where they hired a messenger or someone to carry the gold off!”

“No. They have to have been here. You don’t trust that much to any servant. Let alone someone for hire.”

Gaills was adamant, but his team was tired. A Gnoll shook her head.

“Okay, let’s watch for the Dawn of Zeres to appear. But until it does—we can’t grab who it is, Gaills. We’ve tried, but let’s be honest. Some of us are high-level. Merchant Itrems is Level 43!

He had shared that level over the long investigation. Everyone nodded as the Gnoll turned to Gaills.

“What are you, Level 36? I hate to say it, Gaills—but you’re the only one of us who has the right class. And you might be outlevelled. This scam—if someone was levelling from it, it went worldwide. What class, what level are they?”

The Drake felt a twisting in his stomach because he knew it was true. He had levelled twice during this investigation.

Twice—because of the scope of this crime. And he hadn’t even found the culprit! Another time, he would be celebrating a double-level in a single year after Level 30.

But if he was levelling like this from just investigating, who had done this? It was true—Itrems was not the right class to counter this kind of thing, for all his level was high.

“Can I convince you all to stay in touch, at least? I’ll ask the Wall Lords of Salazsar for permission to reach out across the High Passes. Just for this.”

The [Investigator] got murmurs of agreement, but he felt a sinking in his bones. He was so close! So close…but where had the culprit gone after this? He could have gone anywhere in the world. It could have been Roshal or…or an underground gang.

He needed something solid to go on, some motive he lacked. How had they known this would work? Why did he feel this scam, this scheme was so well-done? As if they knew how it should be done and when to run.

His senses were telling him something he could not fully understand…the Drake stood there, and his scales prickled and prickled. He looked around the Merchant’s Guild.

“Good morning, sir! Are you here to add money or take it? Oh, Mister Rickel!

“Hey there. Just adding a bit. How’s things, Beansi?”

 

——

 

The young man loitered at the front desk, watching the investigation team out of the corner of his eye. He wasn’t stupid enough to put on Ecleeif’s illusions, not here.

In truth, if he had walked over to Gaills at this very moment and confessed, the [Investigator] might have gotten most of the Golden Triangle fortune back.

Mostly because Gaills’ one big insight was one that most of the world lacked. That Rickel was running into.

How the fuck did you spend all this damn gold without someone noticing? Or rather, he was entirely willing to pull the fifty levels of removal to spend his gold. Proxies, illusions, fake accounts, all the works. But he had nowhere to shop in the first place!

He could buy a million cheap wands at a Mage’s Guild or a shop—but the real stuff? The real stuff just wasn’t available.

Rickel handed over a small pouch of coins with a smile. The Merchant’s Guild was a shitshow.

Oh, it did some things right. It took people’s gold, held it, and lent it out like a bank. But they hadn’t managed to figure out the best way to make more gold was to invest it and lie that it was still in the vaults. They didn’t have stocks…and he liked stocks.

Not because they were that useful for the world, but because he knew how they worked. Inventing that idea took time, influence—and arguably, he didn’t need to do that. He leaned on the counter with a huge sigh.

“You’ve got a little nest egg here. Are you worried, Mister Rickel?”

Beansi, one of the [Receptionists], was a chatty guy. Nice. He also knew how much was in Rickel’s accounts, and the young man gave him a wan smile.

“What’s the point of saving up if I’m just waiting for an emergency, Beansi?”

“Good point, good point—but you’re earning a tidy profit. Ever thought about becoming a [Trader]? You could buy some trade goods, add more coins in if you sell right. I took a lesson from the Golden Gnoll, you know. It’s all about making the money grow.

Rickel tried not to roll his eyes. He smiled at the slim Drake in his neat vest.

“Ah, but Beansi—where do you spend that coin?”

He felt a prickle on the back of his neck. That [Investigator] was staring at him. Beansi raised his brows.

“The Merchant’s Guild has lots of items on sale. If you were to reach a higher amount of investment, I could ask one of the [Merchants] to put you on a list. Then any big [Trader] would contact you and you could access the auction lists.”

Rickel laughed lightly.

“Not in my lifetime, Beansi. Not at this rate.”

“I guess that’s true. It’s an exclusive list—but just so you know it’s there.”

The young man gave Beansi a wan smile.

“Well, now I’ll be thinking of that all day. A special list and auctions? I’d love to be part of that. Any chance you can fit me on right now?”

“Not yet, Mister Rickel. Not yet.”

“Pity.”

Underworld it was, then. Hence Rickel trying to make his way into Poruniv’s good graces way back when. But gambling was a slow road into the big leagues. Ratici and Wilovan didn’t ask many questions of a friend.

Oteslia, Oteslia or bust. He could go to any city in the world, but the door he wanted to open needed a key. And the key was here. Rickel’s eyes twinkled as he strolled past the investigators giving up on his case.

He could hear them asking the [Receptionist] who he was. On a hunch. Good try, Investigator Gaills. But Beansi just told Merchant Itrems the truth.

“Him? Oh, he says he’ll never be on the list, but between you and me, Merchant Itrems? He might get on it this year!”

“You don’t say. Why?”

The Drake stared at Rickel as he sauntered out, and his instincts lit up—until he heard Beansi speaking brightly.

“Why, he’s the inventor of coffee! One of them, at any rate. He’s making a fortune and depositing it each week here.”

“Oh.”

Gaills sagged, but Itrems’ eyes lit up.

“You don’t say. Now that’s a young man to watch. Within a year, you said? Let me see that ledger…he’ll make it in months! We should flag him anyways if he’s so…”

Then the door closed, and Rickel sensed Gaills’ eyes leave his back. He chuckled.

Months was still too long for him, but at least that was paying off. After all—it wasn’t hard to deposit a lot of gold and claim it all came from coffee. Some of it even did.

Schemes within schemes, but he really needed access. He wondered about Erin Solstice, but from what it sounded like, she was a nice young woman. And he didn’t know how his people might react. He was on their side—but some of them could get touchy about the entire scam. Anyways—he walked off, pondering how to help Ratici and Wilovan. Move carefully. And be fifteen steps ahead.

You had to have a plan. If there was one thing that scared him—Rickel had to admit. It might be the upcoming Winter Solstice. Someone else had a game, and he didn’t want to play.

 

——

 

The last leaves were falling thick and heavy from the trees in the capital of Paranfer when Tom heard the name—

Arruif Yal.

It slipped out, unguarded, and the [Clown] let it ring about his head. For once said, the name could not be unsaid, and no matter how hard they tried, he knew it meant something.

But for context.

The name came from no less than one of the two young women who had invited him over for tea.

And yes, inviting the [Clown] who wore his face-paint day and night—who looked nothing like the kind young man who had first come to this world—was considered madness by many. For all he had supporters by the thousands, his troupe of mad, cavorting [Tricksters], [Fools], [Jesters], and, yes, [Clowns]—

Everyone knew he was crazy. The Blighted Kingdom, though, did not draw back from his madness. They reveled in it. They celebrated him, for he was a foe to the Demons.

And any weapon, from the chains of Roshal to the flesh of A’ctelios Salash to the madness of Earth, was welcome here. So long as it served well enough. [Necromancers] were practically the next-door neighbor that came for the holidays with a turkey ready for the table and an undead dog that sat and chewed on its own bones.

There were far worse. So—the two young women had Tom over. They quite liked him, which was a mystery to the giggling [Clown].

But Princess Erille and Princess Isodore, the only two remaining [Princesses] of the Blighted King, owed him their lives. More than that? He probably provided a unique role in their lives.

“Mister Tom, Mister Tom—what do you think of Lord Hayvon?”

“I think he’s a bastard, Princess Erille. Next question.”

The young [Princess] clapped her hands over her mouth, but she looked delightedly aghast. Princess Isodore made a sound and glanced at her guards.

There were eight of them, all over Level 30, and they did not bristle nor stand to attention at all times—but they were here in case of Demons.

Or Tom. The [Clown] sat there in his clashing costume of three colors, yellow, blue, and red, each vying for dominance.

He was—thin. Gaunt. He didn’t eat much, and the tea he drank didn’t do much for his frame. He had once been plump-cheeked, nervous—and kinder, stuttering even, in the brief time they had first met the ‘heroes’ of Rhir before they were sent away.

Even when he’d come back there had been some of him left. But by now—it was as if that kindness had been starved away. He had the look of the court’s finest warriors. Gaunt—and a stare that had seen so many people he’d killed.

No longer did Tom giggle at all times or project that insanity that was half-show. That, too, was refined, and he leaned on his knees, drinking from the cup. The young Erille was only ten. She’d turned ten last month, and the celebrations had engulfed the Blighted Kingdom.

King Othius the Fourth had once had many sons and daughters. None now remained except his latest two, and their lives were safeguarded—that his line might endure. It was no certain thing.

Coretine, the Blighted Queen, was last in a line of [Queens]—not one had ever been divorced. Othius was no philandering king—or to be precise, if he was that wasn’t the issue. Tom wondered if the old man just didn’t have the stamina to produce more heirs. He doubted the Blighted Kingdom would object to more potential heirs.

The Demons came after the royal line. They had been successful—and Rhir itself was a harsh land and had claimed many of the royal line.

This was hell. This was hell, and this was the bastion from which the eternal war had been fought.

Eternal being roughly six thousand years, incidentally. My, how we forgot. But it had resulted in this place. Tom, Tom the [Clown], answered Isodore’s scandalized look with a shrug. She scolded him lightly.

“You mustn’t say that of Lord Hayvon, Tom. He is one of the court and crown’s greatest allies.”

“So? He’s still a bastard. Your father’s best supporters are. He’s good at his job. That wasn’t the question.”

The [Princess] opened her mouth.

“But if word were to reach him—”

“I said it, not you. Does it even matter, Isodore? Does your father really teach you to play politics like that? Maybe it matters—but I bet if you were insane and you killed someone every single night and lay in their blood, they’d still make you [Queen]. So long as you were good at your job. Nothing matters but that. Not here.”

Tom passed a hand over his face, and now, the [Princesses]’ minders shifted. His head snapped up, and he stared with wild eyes at a nursemaid who was a warrior.

Am I wrong? Say I’m wrong.”

“Mister Tom, please. Don’t be upset. I just asked a question, Isodore. I think he’s right. Lord Hayvon is not a nice man.”

Princess Erille’s comment was innocent—but not as innocent as many children. She, like even the toddlers of this land, had a kind of adultness about them.

It came of war. It came of knowing death might come. It was also, probably, why they liked Tom.

“You say things you should not, Mister Tom. Lord Hayvon isn’t touchy, though. So I suppose it doesn’t hurt to impugn him. A Terandrian [King] would be far more touchy. That is a reason to study statecraft.”

“So study it with Terandrians. But call Hayvon a bastard to his face. That’d be hilarious.”

A huge smile spread over Tom’s face at the notion. He looked at Erille. The girl looked scandalized—and privately delighted.

“Could I?”

“Absolutely not, Erille.”

“I dare you to.”

Sir Tom!

Isodore’s raised voice prompted one of her minders to step forwards.

“Sir Tom—”

But it was too late. The [Clown]’s eyes lit up. And he pointed at Erille.

“[I Double Dare You].”

She gasped, and Isodore saw, with her Ring of Greater Appraisal, a mark appear over her head. An activated Skill! Tom had used it on—

Six of the guards jumped him. Eighteen more were at the doors, and he vanished in a swirl of light, fighting them, laughing wildly as the [Princesses] shot to their feet.

He’s used a Skill on the [Princess]! I need a Skill removal, now.

“Don’t hurt him! Stop!”

Erille was shouting—she had seen the first guard punch Tom so hard he dislocated the [Clown]’s jaw, and another had been clubbing him with the hilt of a sword.

Violence. Princess Isodore had seen far worse already, and so had Erille. The Earthers were the ones who froze up when they saw how ready the Blighted Kingdom was to act.

Stop! Do not harm Sir Tom. Stop!”

The words froze the air—and her aura worked. The [Guards] stopped—and Isodore felt them turn to her. With a kind of gratification. She heard the words they never said aloud when they looked at her.

Now there is someone who could rule.

 

——

 

Isodore ignored the pressure of her responsibility when she was with Sir Tom. Even if he did things like this. When he reappeared, his face was bloody and he was grinning. Someone had knocked a tooth out and cracked two more.

“You’ll need the crystal healing beds. No one can waste healing potions. Sir Tom, what possessed you?”

The incident was summoning more of the Blighted Kingdom’s court, the actual people in charge. Tom sat, grinning, as Erille dabbed at his face.

“It’s just a Skill. She can do or not do. But aren’t you making my people level? Fair’s fair. I’m just helping Erille level up.”

He spat blood to the side—and it landed in front of a pointed shoe. Nereshal, the [Chronomancer], came to a halt. He stared down at Tom with the disdain he had for the [Clown]—and it was echoed in spades in Tom’s look.

“Your Highnesses, we can attempt to remove the Skill—but perhaps it would be better to gain the boon. How weighty was it?”

“It—it might be worth doing.”

Isodore confessed. Not just because she wanted to see it done, but because it was from Sir Tom.

A [Clown]. And a [Hero].

He was so high-level that it mattered. A [Mad Clown], Level 35. Which was not the most fantastic level around. The Blighted Kingdom had a lot of individuals over Level 40. Their foes were far, far higher-level.

Lord Hayvon himself was over Level 60, so, alone, that class mattered little—if not for Tom’s other class.

[Hero of Laughter and Grief]. Level 21.

That…that had a weight to it. Isodore hadn’t checked recently, but Sir Richard was approaching Level 40—he might even have reached it as a [Knight]. But to the Blighted King’s courts, Isodore knew, they weighed Tom like a Level 40 warrior on his own plus his [Clown] class. A [Hero] was more than a [Knight]. It was more than perhaps a [Princess].

It stood out to her, the highest-level [Hero] that the Blighted Kingdom held. And she could see, via the ring that so few had, the Ring of Greater Appraisal—his class.

 

Thomas Trautmann. [Hero of Laughter and Grief], Level 21.

 

[Skill – Weapon Proficiency: Knives]

[Skill – Full House Throw]

[Skill – I Double Dare You]

[Skill – Impossible Dodge]

[Skill – Charisma of the Madman]

[Condition: Champion of the Blighted Lands]

[Condition: Bearer of My Vengeance]

[Unit: The Gloomless Troupe]

 

And so on. If she looked carefully, she could see the conditions hovering on Tom. They were not his Skills. Well—the madness was. The madness and luck—but some of the things upon him were not his.

The [Champion of the Blighted Lands] was her father’s Skill. It made Tom heal faster—his bloody mouth was already ceasing to bleed. He was one of the lucky thousand that could be added to Othius’ ranks.

However, that other one—that other one was not as bright, if that made sense. Even her ring couldn’t identify who placed all the Skills on Tom. That was probably the legendary [Appraisal of the World’s Eye] that would give her even more knowledge—a spell lost to time.

However, [Greater Appraisal]—and that was a spell most Archmages doubted existed—could show her what was upon Tom.

Like—for instance—what seemed to be a buff-effect from a citizen of Rhir. A grieving son or daughter or widow. It was empowering him.

He also belonged to the Gloomless Troupe, his own unit. Thus, Isodore knew more about Tom than possibly even he did. She could even see that his Skill—[I Double Dare You]—was activated.

Nereshal was angry—but Erille piped up.

“I shall do it. I don’t like Lord Hayvon, and he shall understand it is a bet.”

“Lady Erille—very well.”

It was a mark of the Blighted Kingdom that the [Chronomancer] weighed the political fallout—as opposed to the benefits of Erille answering Tom’s dare ability. It was a [Hero]’s Skill, and thus…

“I shall escort you to a private setting—”

“No! I shall go to court now and say it. Because…I have to.”

Erille looked positively delighted about her obligation, and Nereshal pursed his lips. But he couldn’t help it.

“Just so long as it does not cause an incident—I shall inform Their Majesties. No other. And it shall be on Sir Tom’s head if it goes ill. Princess Erille, at least wait until the Balerosian—Princess!

Too late, she was gone. Tom chortled as he followed Erille. Nereshal was furious—but Isodore took his arm.

He was old. Seventy years? A hundred and forty? He refused to tell her in their lessons, but only her father benefited from his great magic that could hold back time.

The [Chronomancer] could have been an Archmage of Wistram if he cared to be—but he had served the Blighted Kingdom faithfully. And she trusted him above all others. Of the royal court, she did trust Nereshal, her father’s representative in so many ways, because he was honest with her.

She wished he and Tom would get along. Isodore tried to soothe Nereshal’s quickfire temper. Once, she had been convinced she would wed him and that her father was angling for that. It had been a far more pleasant thought than Hayvon or someone from overseas.

“Nereshal, forgive Sir Tom. He is mad—but he won’t harm us. Or Erille. Or is this your Arruif Yal?

She meant it to tease him and to prove she was listening—but Nereshal’s face froze over—and Isodore realized she had said too much. None of the guards reacted—but Tom’s eyes focused on Nereshal’s look.

Another mistake in her litany of mistakes. You wouldn’t notice that word—unless you saw how Nereshal’s face drained of color slightly. Probably only Tom had seen it.

“—Your Highness jests too much.”

The [Chronomancer] recovered quickly, but as he and she well knew—a second was forever. And then it was said—and Isodore’s stomach lurched.

For it was just a name. And even she did not know the full context. Only that it had come up in the studies only a [Princess] of the Blighted Kingdom should know. In her most private of libraries only the royal family and Nereshal could access.

She had thought it was a joke on the level of some event that Hayvon or older members of the court should recognize. To see Nereshal’s face—

Arruif Yal. Then the word took on special meaning.

 

——

 

They almost missed the moment when Princess Erille marched up to Lord Hayvon. The Balerosian diplomats were no one united core. A hundred mercenary companies each could send their own representatives.

In practice, only the largest ones capable of overseas warfare visited. It still produced a throng, and they were accorded a fair bit of respect even by the Blighted King’s lower stratum of nobility, the Burnished Court.

Warriors who knew combat and blood were often valued higher than [Emissaries], for all the latter had Skills. The Blighted Kingdom was a mix of graciously welcoming and their own form of arrogance—here they waged a war against Demons on hell’s soil.

So even foreign [Diplomats] were not above honor-duels and tests of their mettle. It was customary to sometimes shock a newcomer to Rhir by showing them a Vorepillar infestation or bringing them within range of the front lines.

Naturally, Kaaz was well-loved here. The Gorgon [Pactmaker] was just talking to Lord Hayvon, who was listening attentively to a discussion about the ongoing Balerosian situation.

“—Jungle Tails does not represent us all. Nor have they yet acted as a Great Company should. They did not join the Rhir muster. If it was to keep themselves hidden, frankly, it worked too well. It’s positively Dullahan-like.”

[Long Ear] was a Skill that Isodore had gained as a child. This sniping comment was in reference to the Iron Vanguard and the Dullahans of Baleros’ north.

The rarest sight in Rhir of all the species was a Dullahan. They—were one of two major powers that had never pledged to fight for the Blighted Kingdom.

Why—even Fetohep of Khelt joined the efforts. He sent none of his undead, but a shipment of fine Kheltian arms, each hand-smithed, had noticeably and publicly gone to the [Royal Soldiers] standing at attention here.

A little gesture to show that the Blighted Kingdom was paying attention. Then again—they got little press elsewhere. A separate world that everyone focused on when the Demons gained ground.

Isodore, like her people, had mixed views on the rest of the world living in comfort and safety. No matter how much she longed for it.

At any rate, Hayvon broke off from his discussion to bow to the [Princess].

“Your Highness. What brings you here?”

The Gorgon and other Lizardfolk bowed instantly.

“Your Highness.”

Hayvon smiled at the young [Princess], whom he quite liked.

“I was just discussing matters of Baleros with our brave allies. Have you thoughts on the Dyed Lands, Princess Erille? A disaster such as this—it has been suggested other nations join in the catastrophe.”

“Not that Terandrians or Izrilians move for anyone but Rhir. Or to steal Gnollish land.”

The caustic comment came from a Lizardwoman. It went down just fine amongst the Burnished Court, but several Terandrians turned, outraged. A member of House Wellfar whirled—and the Gnoll emissaries from the Tribes sniffed and chuckled.

“We must all be allies to our neighbors, Pactmaker Troxin. Here, at least, we are united of mind. What say you, Princess?”

Erille took a deep breath, excited, and nearly tripped over her words. But her eager tones were modulated by her [Noble Diction] Skill, so even the adults were impressed by her delivery.

“I think…I think you say such things well, Lord Hayvon. You are a good ally to our neighbors in words. But you are a bastard who only claims he’ll help. You told me the Fraerlings were in danger—but you didn’t go to them. Or the Lizardfolk.”

Hayvon’s face went slack. Erille beamed with delight, and the Lizardfolk and the Burnished Court stared at each other. Then the Lizardfolk began howling with laughter.

“Your Highness. Wh—”

Hayvon began—before he heard that hysterical guffaw. He straightened, and his eyes flashed up.

“I should have known. Sir Tom’s pranks.”

“I did it!”

Erille began to glow. The mark over her head flashed as the Skill’s requirements were met—and then she hopped through the air. One of the Nagas recoiled as she did a four-foot jump.

“Erille! Lord Hayvon, forgive her. She was dared to call you a—well, as you can see.”

The [Princess] landed, pirouetted, and bowed, like a courtier, arms rising like she was dancing. It was so graceful several people began applauding.

“Ah, a challenge Skill. Amazing. It’s powerful.”

A Lamia glanced at the [Clown] pointing at Hayvon and laughing his embroidered ass off. The [Lord]’s lips compressed, but Princess Erille raised her head.

“I meant what I said, Lord Hayvon. Skill or not. The Blighted Kingdom has warriors by the thousands. We could have sent a Level 40 [Warrior] to fight for Paeth. You told me Fraerlings don’t join like the Drowned Folk and Dullahans. Or Drath.”

Hayvon coughed. Some of the visitors looked horrified by Erille’s forthrightness, others impressed. The Burnished Court flashed approval via private means. The Blighted Kingdom’s daughter could not be a shrinking violet.

“We do not weigh in on affairs between nations, Your Highness. Jungle Tails might well yet become one of the Great Companies. The Blighted Kingdom is apolitical.”

“Then we will never have Fraerling allies, Lord Hayvon. Why would we? They’re watching us through scrying orbs, and they saw that we did nothing. The same for the Dyed Lands.”

The earnest [Princess] lectured the [Lord], and he was lost for words. Isodore broke in gently.

“You don’t want to waste your Skill, Erille. How long does she have?”

“About thirty minutes.”

Hayvon answered instead of Tom; of course he knew. Erille gasped.

“I must go. Esteemed guests, forgive my departure! Not my coarse language. You shall have heard worse in the companies, I believe.”

Bemused, the Lizardfolk bowed. The Gorgon gave Erille a toothy smile she returned with all her teeth.

“What an insightful child. The language I’m used to outside of a ballroom—a delight. Your Highness, Isodore. Greetings from the Duscale Company.”

“Oh! Don’t you hold the northern frontier against the Iron Vanguard? It must be freezing, this time of year.”

And again, the Lizardfolk were surprised she knew this. Hayvon was rallying as he glared at Sir Tom.

Of note—few Earthers were allowed in the Burnished Court to talk to the guests. Tom, Richard, Emily—they were the few admitted past the [Guards].

The [Clown] was surrounded by a few interested guests, but most had heard of the madman, ready to stab you or fight. It was quite something, that they assumed he was just a Named-rank equivalent. And they were all crazy.

“Lord Hayvon, I fear I’ve offended you.”

“I had no idea Princess Erille held me in such disdain.”

The man looked actually hurt, wearing his surcoat of armor like a second skin. The ‘fifth-greatest’ [Lord] in the world was a splendid war-leader, and if not the finest duelist of the Blighted Kingdom, he’d taken points off Gold-bell [Duelists] in sparring.

His greatest Skill was the charge of his forces—where they could turn into literal bolts of lightning and race across Rhir. His forces had stormed the Demons’ lands time and time again.

Nevertheless, Erille wounded him. Isodore pursed her lips and spoke lightly, remembering her lessons.

“Say, rather, Erille is dismayed that a man of your abilities doesn’t extend his focus beyond Rhir. I know, you are quite analytical, but she loves Fraerlings.”

“Ah, but they are fine warriors. A child might see doll-sized folk—”

Lord Hayvon. I have never heard you be so uncharitable about Erille before.”

It was then, perhaps, that Hayvon realized Isodore wasn’t as disapproving of Erille’s comments as he thought. He took a deep breath.

“Have I offended your Highnesses in any way of late?”

“Merely observations. I know you are a great supporter of the cause, Lord Hayvon. But you can be—ruthless.”

She gave him a level look, and perhaps then Hayvon realized that the [Princesses] knew what he did that did not include the battlefield. Any deed in the Blighted Kingdom’s name was countenanced—but the royal family knew them all.

He bowed silently. Isodore went on after a moment.

“—Perhaps you can demonstrate your good intent to Erille. Later. For now, why don’t we speak of other things, Hayvon? I fear I’ve quite offended Nereshal, for one.”

“Oh? Your Highness surely shouldn’t take it amiss. Nereshal respects your word more than mine. Will you impress our Balerosian diplomats a moment?”

Tom was leaving. Isodore supposed their chat was over and nodded. Back to work. It was not all dull—but she was careful here, poised. Aware of her surroundings and their chat.

“I shall. But someday, I would like to meet the Dullahans. Tulm the Mithril, for instance, has been invited to the Burnished Court?”

Hayvon grimaced.

“More than once. The Iron Vanguard are as stubbornly ‘neutral’ as the rest of the Dullahans. The Drowned Crews might be more amenable to talk. Now they have a presence in Nombernaught on Izril—it would behoove them. But I fear we’re likelier to see the Drowned Folk than a Dullahan or Drathian this next century.”

She nodded, but it was odd—three species had refused to join the rest of the world’s condemnation of Demons and alliance of arms and soldiers. The Drowned Folk were, one supposed, more disorganized, and many nations viewed them as criminal, but the Dullahans?

“I can never understand it. If only to trade or use Rhir as a port of safe haven when passing north to Terandria—”

“Ah, Your Highness. The Dullahans are mighty, but like Drath, they end up secluded. One might say they’ve enclosed themselves away. The Iron Vanguard has a splendid navy, and Dullahans do not lack behind other nations for wealth or might. But they refuse to join with Rhir on the most common, most decent of issues. Thusly…”

Wait, is that why the Dullahans have so little trade and representation in other continents? Isodore had plucked a glass of water from a tray, and it paused on her lips. Lord Hayvon’s smile was sardonic.

She had known, of course, of the Dullahan isolationism and refusal to join the Blighted Kingdom’s war. Only now, like a girl revisiting an old lesson, did Isodore connect that decision to the lack of ample trade flowing through their ports.

“Fascinating. I hadn’t made that connection before, Lord Hayvon. And the same holds true of mighty Drath?”

He shrugged eloquently.

“Their fleets patrol the edges of the world. They are content to their role—but it is true that the few traders who make regular contact with them are the Dullahans—and the House of Minos, who trades with both groups. But then, the House of Minos is…touchily independent of who they choose to associate with, and they are great allies.”

“Ah. Exceptions to this situation. And the Dullahans and Drathians have never wavered?”

He lifted a glass ironically.

“Dullahans. Stubborn enough to put Drakes to shame. And Drath wants for little, or so they claim. Would that it were otherwise. As for Fraerlings—they have just been hidden, so one supposes there was never any trade to be had. Paeth now…”

Isodore feared they were about to have a riveting, four-hour discussion about the Fraerling potential and quality of their enchantments when someone approached them.

“I say, sir. Did I hear you claim Dullahans were more stubborn than Drakes? I should like to argue that point.”

“Oh, our guests from Pallass. Go on, sir?”

The annoyed Drake with the monocle interrupted the tedium, and Isodore smiled. Smiled and turned to the many people who wanted to support the Blighted Kingdom. But not give all they could to end this war.

With allies of such…dedication…no wonder her father and Nereshal and Hayvon himself placed such hopes in the [Heroes]. Then again, few were of Tom’s quality. And from what Isodore had seen—

Well. The Blighted Kingdom knew how to make warriors out of mice. Some of them had Sir Richard’s gentility or a spark like the others. She wondered how many Toms there were in the lot.

A lot might be, ah—well. Promising, for now. Isodore was slightly dismayed by how Lord Hayvon chose to encourage some of them. But he did know young men.

 

——

 

A thousand Earthers upon Rhir.

A thousand was a large number—and a small one. As armies went, Rhir could squash a thousand [Soldiers] in a second. The Death of Magic could with a single spell.

But a thousand [Heroes] had the potential to change a warfront. If only they lived. If they were not squandered this time—the fact that Richard the [Knight] had reached Level 41 within one year of coming to this world proved that [Heroes] were worth any amount of time invested.

Not only were they levelling at rates unheard of—even in war—they were a cut above regular classes.

[Heroes] gained better Skills. Sir Richard was a [Knight]—but his true class consolidation had changed to one far better than even most Level 40 [Knights] could expect.

[Knight of the Advancing Era].

When he walked around the Blighted Kingdom’s inner palace, private training grounds, and courts in armor, even passing dignitaries asked who he was. For his armor…

His armor was strange enough that even the Dwarves had desired to see it. It kept changing with every new discovery Keith made working the Blighted Kingdom’s forges. Every time the Earther [Inferno Smith] advanced his understanding of metallurgy—Richard’s armor changed.

It was like someone had prevailed upon Earth’s own industrial metallurgists and experts to create a suit of armor. As if a military government had been told to produce armor for Richard.

What they lacked in Mithril or rare metals they made up for in materials that went into his armor that gave it that outlandish look. Right now, it was bulkier and resembled a kind of space-suit crossed with a medieval knight.

Padding and thick layers of inner protection coated the insides of the armor and even covered the traditional weak points of plate mail like the armpits. It was a tough material that Keith thought was a kevlar-rubber composite of some kind.

Richard didn’t know. All he did know was that his helmet definitely had some plastic in it. Tough, military-grade stuff, probably not even sold on the market.

It meant an elephant could kick him into a wall and, even without Skills, he’d do better than with almost any unenchanted plate. It also meant that there was almost always an [Alchemist] or [Engineer] poking at Richard and trying to cut a sample off his armor.

“Sir Richard, lend us your helmet again?”

“It’s going to vanish the instant you try taking it apart.”

“Just let us study the material! We’re looking into the basis of your plastics—”

With a sigh, Richard handed over the futuristic helmet. It was indeed closer to a football helmet he remembered wearing—probably because that cushioned the head from concussions. It was spirited away, and he suspected that the [Alchemists] would try to copy some part of it for their tests.

After all—they desperately wanted plastic. Even if they could do as well with metal and magic, the Blighted Kingdom knew that every technological edge—even the means to make cheap, durable materials without wasting iron—was a boon.

They were amazingly progressive in that respect. In others? Richard didn’t know. Now helmetless, he strode through a land meant only for Earthers and the Blighted Kingdom’s most trusted staff.

It resembled a high-school. There was no getting around it. It really did. There weren’t lockers, but there were personal rooms, classrooms, and Lord Hayvon, in charge of the Earthers’ training, had even organized the feel of the academy to resemble one from Earth.

To make them feel at home? Of course, there were differences. No plastics, impressive marble instead of brick, and they studied swords and magic instead of math and science.

It was the Blighted Kingdom who learned from Earthers, and the ones who knew actual math were standing, doing equations with the most gifted [Scribes] and [Teachers] and whatnot in the Blighted Kingdom.

“No—we’ve done something wrong here. The calculator’s not following our logic. Nor is the computer. Something about our physics equations is off. Take it from the top!”

Here was the thing about having a thousand Earthers. Yes, you got idiots. Yes, you got a variance in abilities. But among the thousand—sometimes you got a Harvard-level student. Which might not be that great, actually.

Or—someone who had written a dissertation on some kind of Stephen Hawking-level math formula and was now trying to bring the Blighted Kingdom up to speed. He had no less than eight glowing laptops, all of which were loaded up with copies of every salient program for understanding math, physics, and the scientific world.

Of the thousand, only 52 laptops were in the Blighted Kingdom, and each one was accounted for. There had been 54—until an accident—and Lord Hayvon had nearly lost his mind when he realized one had been broken beyond fixing in a fight. The other had been destroyed in the chess game.

Again, they’d been clever. There were two ways to move data between computers—a personal USB stick that could hold 8 GB of data and a USB cable for the same purpose. For nearly a month, the Earthers had painstakingly copied over relevant data (and video games and porn) from computer to computer to device.

—That was, until someone realized they could just make a wireless network by converting a laptop into a server. Then it was much faster.

Right now, Thorne, or ‘Hawking 2.0’ as he was being nicknamed, was using simple programs to fact-check his math and demonstrate some concepts to the Blighted Kingdom.

After all—you could model physics using design software. Google Earth had relevant photos and maps—if you had an offline version. A calculator was capable of doing logarithmic checks, and if you combined it all…

You still couldn’t make a jet engine. But they were taking it one step at a time. The model the Blighted Kingdom was trying to work out was Quiteil’s idea.

Bastion-General Quiteil was one of the other members of the Blighted Kingdom who had enough authority to call for projects of his own. The leader of 4th Wall had taken one look at the mathematical formulas and overridden Hayvon’s initiatives to get the math into a level where they could replicate heavy industry from Earth.

He had demanded—and was getting—a computer-based simulation of physics of a trebuchet. The idea was you’d plug in coordinates, the relative draw strength of each catapult, trebuchet, and ballista as well as the ammunition, and with some variance for wind, you’d know where it would land.

If you could chain that kind of mathematical precision into a portable spell, then every siege weapon in the Blighted Kingdom would be able to hit targets they couldn’t see.

The point was, the potential was there. Just like people trying to figure out gunpowder, or Keith slowly figuring out how to find and smelt Titanium with magic creating blast furnaces capable of higher and higher melting points.

But most of the Blighted Kingdom’s efforts were dedicated to improving the industry of their nation. Advancing into the idea of production lines and so on.

In the meantime, the Earthers not so gifted in these areas like Thorne or their genius chess-player, Antal Fekete, who was teaching [Strategists] the game of chess and leveling them up, were training.

Some, like Keith, had an aptitude for smithing. Some wanted to pursue passions, like a rock climber who had climbed countless routes free solo by the time she was nineteen—the Blighted Kingdom had need of that kind of expertise.

But the majority were like Richard. They might not have the most applicable talents—but they would make fine warriors. And frankly, the Blighted Kingdom would have more Level 40 [Warriors] and [Mages] from scratch before they produced a single gas-powered engine.

It was then to them that Richard went, and his fancy high-tech armor, his own ability with the sword—it had been won in combat. Against Demons, with no help from the Blighted Kingdom, in desperation and blood.

He was glad the new Earthers didn’t have to face that. Glad that they would get a chance and not be slaughtered in the first ambush.

But damn it if they didn’t piss him off sometimes. He had attacked Tom the first time the [Clown] had scared the Earthers into taking this seriously by stabbing them. Now—well, Tom was banned from the Earthers’ classrooms, but Richard had half a mind to let him back in for a day.

Here was a sample conversation he heard when he stopped in front of Training Group #4—they were split up by aptitudes and sometimes just personalities. A group of eight were getting post-workout massages by an actual squad of [Masseuses].

Oh—that was the other thing about this place. The staff and people supporting the Earthers were beyond 5-star hotel quality. If an Earther needed something or they were one of the promising ones, they got it. And even if you weren’t at the top, Hayvon had encouraged cooperation, so this was what Richard heard.

“I scored fifteen times this week. Each time, a different girl. I am telling you, go out to the academy. They’re all over you, Milo.”

Miloslav hesitated. He looked over as one of the other guys snorted.

“Fifteen? Weak numbers. I got thirty-eight.”

“You fucker. No way.”

“Truth spell me, bitch. Ever heard of stamina potions? Or is that all you got with them?”

The first speaker rooted around for something to throw and found a pot of oil. Richard heard a shout and the [Masseuses] protesting with their charges—but lightly. They were flirting. It did look like the massage hurt like hell—a proper one did—but there was also a reason most of the group was on their front.

Hero worship. Richard was something of a student of history, so he had recognized what Hayvon was doing. This was like how Roman gladiators were treated—or he supposed—the heroes from another world.

It worked. Richard suspected—he hoped—most of the interested Rhir citizens, often [Soldiers] in training themselves, were not motivated to be interested in the Earthers. Knowing they were [Heroes] seemed to be an allure of its own.

Nevertheless, a few people were too into their celebrity status, so Richard knocked on the door.

“You all done with the massage? Time to go for a run. Then we’re sparring with the Blighted Queen’s own personal unit, the Cleansenborne. Let’s be out there in fifteen.”

“Aw, come on, Coach!”

One of the guys gave him the nickname, and Richard rolled his eyes. Because of his attitude—trying to keep everyone in line, encourage and teach them, they were calling him ‘Coach’. Emily was ‘Waterbender’ because some of the Earthers loved a certain television show, and it pissed her off.

Tom…Tom was just ‘the Clown’. No one laughed about him.

He also, frankly, got the respect Richard wanted. Team 4 were taking their time, joking about, asking when some of the staff got off work, and Richard coughed after eight minutes.

“The Blighted Queen is waiting. We’re not letting her wait.”

“Come on, we’re…”

The eager speaker who had apparently slept around fifteen times, Loreto, was getting a big head. He didn’t finish his thought—because when the staff heard that, they were out of the room and the young men had no one to flirt with.

“Shit. We just finished working out the spear-training with that [Spearmaster], Coach!”

“Suck it up. The Cleansenborne were just on 5th Wall. They fought off two Adult Crelers the Death of Magic dropped on them. You should see how good they are—and if one of you cracks a joke—”

“You’ll put Tom on us?”

One of the Earthers laughed; the others fell silent at the reminder of 5th Wall. It got attacked often by the Demons, and the Death of Magic…

They saw the images and recordings of her fighting, but they didn’t believe. Personally, Richard wondered if they should all get stabbed and, uh—bleed for an hour. Because Tom had not gently kissed any of these guys with steel. For all they bled and trained—

You had Loreto, Milo, Johnson, Jie—they had mixed levels of ability. All of them were fit by now, and Loreto kept showing off the abdominals he had never had on Earth.

That was due to a Skill, and he was going off-the-rails a bit. [Bodybuilder] instead of [Fighter]. Johnson had been a football player, so he was fitting right down a path like [Heavy Warrior].

It was better than some of the [Mage]-trainees. They didn’t have to exercise, so they were only measured on basic fitness—and how many spells they learned. Richard passed by one such group on the way out.

“Running again, guys? Have fun.”

One of the [Pyromancers] waved a bag of chips, and Jie shouted back as they jogged after Richard.

“Fuck you.”

“Send me to the front, Richard! I’m ready! I’ve got [Fireball], [Firebolt], [Flame Spray], [Firefly]—all you need is fire!

That particular cocktail of arrogance was Arden. He was styling himself, he claimed, after his favorite character from some web comic he’d read. He also thought that he had learned to min-max his character’s levels and that this was a game.

—He was Level 18 already, and so he got leeway from Hayvon as long as he proved he could level and fight. They’d see combat someday, Richard knew.

But not against Silvenia. She’d just kill them. He had nightmares from seeing her at 5th Wall. Where would they fight Demons? And how many would die?

It was Hayvon’s dilemma: the Demons did not play around at war. Even if the Earthers had support, gear, and their advanced classes—Loreto would be minced up if he went up against a Demon who actually was ready to kill.

Well—the Cleansenborne coming back and Queen Coretine herself offering to train with Teams 1-7 meant that they’d see what they were up against. Richard grinned as Team 4 joked around.

 

——

 

Richard threw up after the fourth hour. He didn’t feel bad—he was the only Earther who hadn’t thus far.

There was something about sprinting as fast as you could across the rough ground, turning around after a two hundred foot dash—doing it all the way back, doing the infamous ‘burpees’, where you squatted down, jumped up, and repeated the motion fifty times—then doing one full-contact minute against a man seven feet tall who hit you in the stomach with all his might—

That provoked a certain desire to upchuck everything you’d ever eaten and forgotten in your life.

Oh, and that was Coretine’s ‘easy’ training she put trainees through. Half of Team 4 was down, but they were being hit with buckets of water, given shots of stamina potions—or just Skills and shouting.

Up!

“I can’t. I can’t, man—”

Loreto was speaking to one of the Cleansenborne—Richard’s was letting him wipe the vomit from his mouth before continuing the spar. That was how Richard knew they liked and respected him.

The member of Shel’s Cleansenborne, led by Queen Coretine herself, was part of one of the toughest, largest, and most skilled warrior groups on Rhir. Which meant they could punch out Richard without his armor.

Coretine was watching—and she was also as tall as her personal unit. She was the warrior queen that made King Othius look tiny compared to her when they were sitting on their thrones. Then again—she often stood.

She carried a battleaxe, she had scars—even a jagged one down her cheek—and a mane of purple hair. She was also strong enough to send Richard flying even in armor, and a number of Earthers were in awe or love with her.

The Cleansenborne certainly worshiped Coretine, and new recruits and Earthers were replenishing their ranks. Half of them had been killed when Silvenia breached the walls.

The new group would be tougher, stronger—and the veterans were without mercy to the hopefuls. To the Earthers, they were kinder.

For instance—the Cleansenborne soldier did not argue with Loreto more than five sentences. But when he brought up his foot and stomped, he made sure the young man had time to roll away.

Fuck—you crazy—

The soldier kicked Loreto in the stomach and raised his fists.

“Forty seconds.”

“Sir Richard?”

“Ready. I’m ready—”

This was the wake-up call from Coretine. As per requested—even the cockiest [Swordsman] and their [Fencer], who had experience from competitive fencing—France, some kind of Olympian hopeful—were lying on the ground or dying as they ran and exercised until they literally threw up.

They’d be peeing blood tonight, especially because you didn’t heal this. There were salves and massages—no healing potions. Most would level.

Pause! Cleansenborne, rally on me. Show the trainees what it’s like to fight a Demon or an Adult Creler with your bare hands. Give me six.”

Six of the gigantic Humans—and other species—formed up. They got taller, Richard heard, and developed that superhuman physique within a year or less of joining her unit. Coretine herself took them on in a group spar.

The first time she hit someone hard enough to snap his arm around, someone fainted. But the Cleansenborne just stepped back, yanked the bones into place, and accepted a spot-treatment of potion before watching the fight.

Not that Coretine emerged unscathed. She herself had the first layer of flesh removed from one arm by a punch—and the nasty wound only got a spray of powder to keep it from being infected.

Although—by the time the workout was done, an hour later, the wound had scabbed over and begun to turn to flesh. The Blighted Queen—one of Rhir’s monsters.

“I’m never doing that again. Never.”

Loreto was gasping when they were done. Half of the Earthers had to just lie there for another hour before they could drag themselves back to the academy. Richard forbore comment—to him.

“Hapi, good going out there.”

Good?

The bug-eyed look from the Egyptian kid was followed by a stream of vomit. Or rather, water. Richard patted him on the back and nodded.

“You’re working hard. Coretine saw it.”

The Blighted Queen was already marching back to court, but she stopped and gave Richard a nod. She eyed the other Earthers, and he knew she’d be reporting to Hayvon later.

“I couldn’t keep up. I—”

Hapi was still learning English. As were a lot of the thousand Earthers; command of the language varied from where they came from. Richard spoke energetically, adjusting his [Translation] spell.

“No, but you tried. She likes it when you don’t give up. Come on, it’s going to really hurt in half an hour. But we’ll get you a massage and rest and food.”

“My stomach is lying back there. Pick it up for me?”

Richard laughed. He liked Hapi. Some of the Earthers were going to be great. Again—if you could survive this, you’d be ready for any class. Some were even ready for a battle if they had to, like a Demon attack.

Just where would it be? Others—Coretine glanced at Loreto and murmured to one of the people attending her, who was taking notes. She was definitely going to tell Hayvon who wasn’t keeping up.

And the Blighted Kingdom’s motivation was—

Well, it was something.

 

——

 

By the time Richard came back from the palace, Emily had had enough. She found the weary [Knight] and whispered to him.

“Richard, you have to talk to Hayvon. You—you smell like shit.

He was covered in sweat, smelled like puke, and dirty. The [Knight] gave Emily a look as he helped carry Hapi in.

“Emily, I’m dying. Can it wait?”

No! Remember Beclaire? And Cynthia?”

“Our [Goth]? Oh no. Is Cynthia having another panic attack?”

She was one of the old Earthers, the first wave, and she had understandably cracked a bit under the stress of seeing her friends die. Beclaire? Beclaire was a [Goth]. First of her kind, and a bit of a mystery to Hayvon, but once she’d started levelling, he’d encouraged it.

“No! Worse—she’s following Beclaire and some of the girls around like a lost kitten. And they’re getting tattoos. This is like the eighth Beclaire’s gotten this week!”

Richard’s face was totally slack as he stared at Hapi. A servant came forwards with two more to help him away. He gave Emily that blank look she did not like when she needed his support and understanding.

“Okay.”

“Not okay! They’re getting magical tattoos! Beclaire realized the [Tattooist] won’t say no, so she’s changing her ‘look’.”

“Okay. So what?”

“So—it’s terrible! They shouldn’t be tatting up just because they can! They’re—they’re losing control.”

“It’s tattoos, Emily.”

“They’re getting piercings too!”

“Okay.”

He stared at her offended look. Emily grabbed his arm.

“Do you think that’d be okay with their parents back home?”

“I don’t know. We’re not in Texas—or Mississippi, Emily. I get watching over them, but you’re not their mom.”

“We agreed to try and teach the Earthers! You’re managing the melee classes.”

“Yeah. I am. I’m not telling them not to get tattoos.”

Now they were arguing, and Richard’s face showed he was not in the mood for it. He tried to walk off, limping, towards his rooms, and she followed.

“Just have a word with them—”

“I’m not talking to them about good old Christian values like Theodore. That’s stupid.”

Richard—

They’re not even Christian. Drop it, Emily.

“Beclaire’s a Satanist!”

“So maybe she’ll level up! Hayvon would love that!”

He snapped back at her, and she forgot he was Muslim sometimes. And that despite being from America—which not all the Earthers were—he was changing. She let her arm fall, and Richard stared at her.

“Tattoos are not a problem, Emily. Nor are letting the girls drink or have fun or do whatever they need to distract themselves. What’s wrong with the piercings? What’s wrong with—if there’s something wrong, it’s making friends with Rhir’s citizens. Making actual Friendship Bracelets. That’s how Hayvon is tying us to Rhir.”

Emily hid the bracelet she’d made with one of the court [Ladies] behind her back at his pointed look.

“You’ve been talking to Tom again, haven’t you?”

“He’s got a point. Emily, I don’t care about the tattoos. You can remove them, and some of the tattoos are magical. Beclaire can put a [Death Stare] tattoo right on her face for all I care. It’ll probably make Hayvon happy. I’ve got to clean up for dinner.”

He went for his door, and Emily called out after him.

“This isn’t over! Richard—Richard. Someone has to look out for our morals.”

He paused with one crack of the door open, looking exasperated and disbelieving.

“Morals? Here? You mean, ‘morale’, right?”

They stared at each other, and Emily took a deep breath.

“Richard—you have to talk to me. We’re a couple. I don’t want us to fight. Not now.”

He stood there for a long moment, looking her up and down. And it seemed so long since they had come here together—and so different. Now, the [Knight] of the Blighted Kingdom exhaled.

“I think we should break up. We barely do more than kiss and talk about problems.”

Richard? Wh—is this about last night? I’m not ready. You’re not. I said it’s something for marriage—”

The [Knight] gave her a long look. He stared past her, around the Blighted Kingdom, and exhaled.

“Yeah. Well—I’m feeling pretty old. Let’s see other people. Good night. I mean—see you at dinner.”

Then he shut the door in her face.

 

——

 

Princess Isodore heard that Hydromancer Emily was so distraught by her breakup with Richard that she would not be attending the night’s dinner.

Isodore was eighteen now, having celebrated her birthday as well this last year.

She felt…conflicted about Emily’s distress. She had some sympathy and she liked Emily, but as she now understood Earth—and Emily—it seemed a silly thing to grieve over.

You had to remember that Emily was 19 when she came to this world. 20 now that a year had passed. True, one of the observations the Earthers had made was that years were longer here—but Emily had been a girl as Earth reckoned things.

She would have gone through ‘college’ before actually gaining a job, a kind of extended apprenticeship in Isodore’s mind. Yet she had kept her group together, been an adult beyond her years, survived things that people twice her age would have broken against.

Yet she was young. Her relationship with Richard had been the kind of dalliance she was used to in this ‘high school’, both in intimacy and depth.

The Earthers then had, at best, the sort of ‘I might die tomorrow’ romance going on between them, if any. Sincere, yes! Heartfelt, one assumed.

It was just, in the time since, some of them had changed. Richard was no longer at that stage. He had moved past the bravado of young men into something else. When he approached someone to dance or talk, the impetus behind him was different.

‘I have seen death. I like you. Do you want to do something? What can you and I offer each other? What can it become?’

He looked forwards more, or perhaps doubted the present less. That was the attitude of [Soldiers] and Isodore—no wonder he didn’t care about the morality of the Earthers. No wonder he felt it was time to move on.

Isodore herself was more like that than the other Earthers. They thought of her as being around their age.

She felt older. She was meant to rule the Blighted Kingdom, but her mistakes could cost lives. So—that night—she went to see Nereshal before they dined.

“Nereshal. Have I made a grave error in mentioning…Arruif Yal? I thought it was just a reference in one of the royal books.”

He sat there, calmer, at his work station where he was mixing some concoction for her father. Another one of the many treatments to slow age or reverse it. Even for Nereshal—it took countless resources and all his power.

He was old, but he looked young. If you were further away, he might be in his mid-thirties, with his bright hair, his youthful countenance. Only when you drew closer did you see the wrinkles, half there, and the depth of age in his eyes and how he held himself.

As a [Chronomancer], Nereshal was also between his true age and youth mentally. He could, for instance, be youthful enough to converse with Isodore and those of her age—or take measured discourse with the oldest of the Blighted Kingdom’s folk at their pace.

Time mattered. Yet he was also Othius’ servant, and that knowledge was reflected across both their gazes as he exhaled.

“I feared you had—spoken that which you should not. Arruif Yal. Please, do not mention that to me in—such parlance again, Your Highness. By all means, inquire. I thought you had begun to speak something else.”

She hesitated.

“Is it—a secret? Should I not look into it at all?”

“Oh, no, no. It is—a regrettable incident for which we have blame. Remember that if you inquire. Anyone could tell you what was done. The truth behind that incident—you may well understand simply by listening. That truth you must keep secret above all else.”

That meant it was something that the Blighted Kingdom had done that history had written differently. Isodore swallowed—it was likely akin to what Hayvon sometimes did for this nation.

But why did Nereshal speak so lightly of it? Then again, he had mentioned horrors and necessary evils to her before with the same equanimity, teaching the young [Princess] of the weight of her father’s duties.

—Yet when she had first said that word to him, unguarded, she had seen true fear and nervousness in his eyes.

She let it drop. His gaze was begging her to. Nereshal bent over his work as ancient, powdered bone dust from millenia ago swirled around him. Isodore was hurt as she stopped by the door.

“Am I not ready for your truest confidence, Nereshal? Even at my age? Even as a [Princess]?”

The old [Chronomancer]’s gaze flicked up to her, and his eyes were pale blue, so faint they looked like clouds…until you saw time sliding through them, like grains of sand. His faint hair, tinged the deep blue of sapphires from tips to roots, rose in spikes slightly as his robes adorned with the sigils of time and power flashed.

 

——

 

Nereshal saw the [Princess] Isodore standing by his open doorway, looking hurt that he so blatantly kept something from her about Arruif Yal. Even if he had told her the first truth.

—He saw her weeping, calling out incoherently and half-shattered by the news. She got up and ran as he reached for her—-

The [Chronomancer] closed the other vision of time with a blink of his eyes. He nodded to the Isodore in the doorway.

“It is for the best, Your Highness. Believe me.”

He saw too much, sometimes. Too much of if and when. Perhaps that other way was better, but what he saw told him it would be better to err on the side of caution.

She nodded and left, and he exhaled. The bone dust shuddered and lost its power as he drained the time from it.

If only he had caught himself sooner—the [Clown] had seen his face as well as Isodore. But even he could not reverse time once it was upon him. Not yet.

Yet those words. If she had said the phrase in its entirety—she could have commanded him by words only Othius was supposed to know.

Foolish. They should have worked on a better password. Yet this one…

This one meant something. Perhaps Isodore would realize the truth in time. Nereshal bent over his work.

The second reason he had been so disturbed was because when Isodore said it, he’d felt time coalesce around him.

A kind of vortex. Nereshal lifted a hand and found it still shaking, despite the youth he poured into it that made him able to dance and run like a man of thirty. Unlike others—he did not get ‘déjà vu’. But sometimes he sensed moments through his class that had happened or would happen.

“Someday, someone will say those words to me.”

Who? Where? All he knew was the significance—and he felt that shudder upon his bones, as when Fetohep had called the advent of Seamwalkers.

As if someone trod upon his very grave. Nereshal felt as sick as Richard did after training with Coretine. He suppressed the urge to vomit—and had to lean over his workstation, shaking.

What had happened? Was it just The Dyed Lands? He hurried over to a map and scattered fragments of power through the air. They shifted—literal coalesced pieces of mana, which he burned through without pause. They evaporated, but he noted the lines of force, the way the wisps turned.

Where? Where…they were moving…southeast.

That was all he could sense as he produced a compass. Southeast. Nereshal traced the roughest lines across the map and decided it could not be Terandria.

Izril? Izril’s new lands?

“Where is fate taking me? And why?”

He didn’t know, only that it called to him. Something far deeper and greater than his ability to see what might happen if he chose another path. A crossroads, perhaps.

A great divide in time itself. Nereshal shuddered—and then he clutched at his arms until they stopped shaking.

By the sin of…

If those words were said, he feared it. He feared it from Othius, from himself—but even his King would not invoke Arruif Yal that way. Only Nereshal ever taught himself that phrase, decided to remember it forever as the ultimate safeguard, the ultimate password. So if he heard it—

What would it mean?

 

——

 

The [Chronomancer] was late to the night’s banquet. Princess Isodore dined with Lord Hayvon, who seemed to be insistent on remedying the [Princess]’ apparent disdain for him.

Lord Hayvon had an eye for the Earthers, though, or rather, his magical view of them. Obviously, they could not be showcased to the diplomats and even regular Rhirian citizens.

This was not Wistram. They were far more discreet, and so he just observed via a pocket-orb the goings-on. What he saw satisfied himself.

What he saw was Loreto approaching the [Soldiers] in training, the rather attractive members of Rhir’s staff, and even a few citizens of Rhir and attempting to charm them. Well—charm as that young man understood it.

His befuddlement seemed to know no end as he was given an endless cold shoulder, colder than the icy glaciers of Cenidau. By contrast, other Earthers got a far warmer response.

It was not meant to be subtle. Nor did Hayvon particularly care about this young man—save that he was a good, and apparently noisome, example. Loreto stared at the crowd fawning over…Hayvon consulted his notes.

Hapi. Thus, he was practically carried off by a small crowd, and the young Loreto was left fuming.

Examples. Young men were easier for Hayvon to understand. He left the women and—people he didn’t understand—in the care of the Blighted Kingdom’s other experts. Quiteil was good with almost everyone in his particular way, in that sense.

Hayvon could take the simplest steel and make it into Mithril. Simple incentives, straightforward rewards. Leave the delicate touch for those who needed more consideration.

“Lord Hayvon, are you quite done snooping on the Earthers?”

Princess Isodore disapproved. She sat there as Hayvon guiltily turned off the orb.

“Your Highness, I have made error after error. But I assure you, I am always working in the Blighted Kingdom’s best interests. Why, just after we talked—no. I should apologize first. I am always Rhir’s servant.”

He meant it, too. If he quibbled with Tom or did things of his own initiative—it was simply that he thought the [Clown] had no allegiance to Rhir, and some deeds were better done quietly.

Isodore eyed him and relented after a second.

“You may be forgiven, Hayvon, if you explain to me—oh. Arruif Yal. I came across the name earlier.”

Hayvon’s fork hesitated towards his mouth. So that was what Nereshal had been bothered by? He was well aware of the public moment, so he smiled as he responded.

“A terrible incident. I believe it was the impetus for the last great war against the Demons, nearly a hundred and fifty years ago, when the Deaths of the Demon King were slain—or so we hoped.”

His lips twisted, still remembering the Death of Magic’s return. Isodore blinked.

“It was? I know my history—the Archmage of Death and Archmage of Golems themselves fought on Rhir.”

“Ye-es. According to the dramatized retelling of Archmage Eldavin.”

Whomever he really was. Hayvon did not like that Archmage, but he tapped his fingers together.

“Regardless of the true nature of the war, which your father would know of more than I—Arruif Yal was a kind of rallying cry at the time. It was a Terandrian half-Elf village, I believe.”

“What…happened to it?”

He shrugged.

“The Death of Magic. They had—apparently—found a Demon soldier who washed up upon Terandria’s shores. Incredibly, the Demon had survived the sea and predators to end up there. Near-death, I imagine, but they nursed it back to health and claimed the Demon was friendly. In vain, the Blighted Kingdom warned them of the folly of saving a Demon’s life—but Arruif Yal refused to listen. They were suborned by the Demon’s words and began taking its side.”

“Until…”

Isodore murmured quietly. A bit too forwards, but Hayvon didn’t think anyone was listening in.

“The Death of Magic wiped out their village. To the last half-Elven child. She reclaimed her Demon—and Terandria and the world’s outrage led to war. It is well Nereshal remembered it. Such actions make it clear the Deaths are not…benevolent and truly serve only the Demons’ pitiless war.”

“Yes. The Deaths.”

The [Princess]’ face was pale. Hayvon went on, ticking off points on his fingers that the Gorgon diplomat down the table might hear.

“Of late, I am reminded that the Death of Chains is not simply some…enemy of Roshal. After all, we have seen how her war against Roshal has taken many lives. A Lizardfolk village—correct me if I am wrong, but Haxpesprings? It was destroyed by her.”

The Gorgon’s head rose. He hissed loudly.

“Yes. For the crime of harboring Roshal’s own. Just harboring as guests! That Djinni fell upon them and left only a few survivors. I have heard tales of the Death of Wings’ mad strikes upon Izril and Terandria too.”

“No nation can then say they have not suffered the Demon King’s Deaths. Two are awake—let the last lie silent if she is not dead.”

Hayvon provoked a toast, standing, and the distraction let everyone focus on him—not Isodore’s waxy smile. And still—Hayvon wondered why Nereshal had apparently taken that word so seriously.

Was there more to it? He decided not to inquire—for a good while. Some things did not matter. The Blighted Kingdom…he looked around and saw a giggling [Clown] with his Gloomless Troupe. Hayvon’s lips twisted.

They had enough Earthers already. That one caused too much trouble. If the phrase Arruif Yal was enough to have swayed Nereshal’s vote, all the better. Better a Loreto by the hundred than a single Tom.

 

——

 

“You know they’re going to remember Arruif Yal. If you even breathe it, Nereshal will kill you dead.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“Richard broke up with Emily. Think he’s going to fall in love with some Rhir girl? Or will our jaded [Knight] be found with a dead body in bed?”

“Richard’s not like that. Shut up.”

How would you know? You’re crazy.

His spoon was laughing at him. Tom resisted the urge to stab it into his eye. That was just what the laughing Tom in the spoon wanted, and he couldn’t get his way. Sometimes he said prescient things, like the Fool.

His people were giggling around him, and Tom nearly bent the silver spoon to end the conversation before the figure whispered to him.

“You know…you’re never going to find answers here. In the Demons’ lands, maybe. Or elsewhere. But not here. What was up with the Seamwalkers? Erin Solstice. The Singer of Terandria. Canada-man himself. Joseph Soccer Player. You’re going to find them, but the Blighted Kingdom knows they’re there too.”

“Then I guess—we race. Richard and all of us are on the same page. We’re heading to the New Lands of Izril.”

That was the plan. That was Hayvon’s plan, of course. It was almost intelligent.

If you couldn’t train the Earthers up on Demons, why not a better conflict? Like, say, exploring new lands? Tons of monsters.

“It’s stupid.”

The Tom in the silver spoon folded his arms. Or was he Thomas? He looked like the Thomas of old, not in bright clothes, fatter—happier. And mad. He paced around, then appeared on a fork instead. Tom picked it up as a [Jester] licked his ear on a dare.

He stabbed her, and the uproar drew the attention of the rest of the banquet hall. Tom ignored that as Fork-Tom spoke.

“It’s stupid because they know you’re wild. See? You can’t go around stabbing people. So why let us go? Let Richard? The Blighted Kingdom is not stupid.”

“What are you saying?”

The other Tom shrugged.

“I’m just saying—watch out. You think you’re clever?”

“Not really.”

Good. You’re stupid compared to Othius. Even Thorne is stupid. You can’t out-snake these snakes. You’re not more cunning than even Hayvon, and there are a hundred of him here. Quiteil and Hayvon and Nereshal—

“What’s your point? I’m trying to eat.”

Tom dug the fork into a pie, and the other Tom laughed at him.

“You have to be better than they are. But all you can do is be crazier. So dive deep. Deeper! Stop being the [Hero]. Pull out your eye and let’s get to the real—”

The [Clown] grabbed his other hand as it jerked for his face. He wrestled with it as his troupe laughed—but some didn’t laugh. Some wept, with face paint or with tears.

Some were beginning to understand the terribly sad truth behind the laughter. Rhir’s citizens took to the clown’s madness well.

Tom felt a piercing pain in one eye—but staggered back as he yanked his hand away. He blinked—and his eye wept tears—but he could see.

“Not this time.”

He heard laughter in his head—but it was compounded this time by the laughter in the room. The Blighted King himself was applauding.

“A performance to entertain the Burnished Court. Sir Tom, our thanks. We have an announcement, honored guests.”

Tom turned, and the Blighted King stared at him. Tom had the urge to throw a pie, even if it meant he’d be shot—but he felt himself slowly sit down.

Damn Skills. The [Clown] fought the presence pressing him into his seat as the Blighted King rose.

The Blighted Kingdom prepares to send its own ships to Izril! We shall join with the others seeking new lands—but not as aggressors. Our kingdom has been friend to all, and ever shall be. We do not meddle in the wars of our allies, no matter who they are.”

Gasps came from those who hadn’t heard—Tom snorted. As if the Blighted Kingdom hadn’t sent two waves of ships out already.

The Earthers would love this, though. Richard was dining with Queen Abdominals herself, and Coretine smiled like the edge of an executioner’s axe as Richard glanced up. Yet…Tom’s skin was prickling.

Because Othius never made big errors. He had addressed Tom—and that crazy bastard in the spoon knew things, sometimes faster than anyone else. The Blighted King nodded down the seats.

“In this hour, we shall send young and old to the new lands.”

Earthers and Rhirian citizens, to level. The Blighted King laid out the plan, briefly, but then coughed. A stage-cough where he nodded and Lord Hayvon stood. He bowed as the Blighted King spoke.

“Yet we are reminded by no less than Lord Hayvon himself, and our own daughters, that the Blighted Kingdom is oft-seen as impartial to the point of contempt. That we are poor allies to our friends abroad.”

Princess Isodore and Princess Erille looked up, surprised. And Tom’s neck tingled as Othius smiled. At Hayvon. At Nereshal, who had appeared to watch. And at his daughters.

Wait for it. Wait for it—Tom could almost see his other self dancing in the Blighted King’s eyes. Richard wanted to meet Erin or anyone else. They had talked about what would happen if they just left. Just…left.

But even Richard respected the Blighted Kingdom. Even Emily was brainwashed. Only Tom, Tom the mad [Clown], was really insane enough to take a stand.

To listen to a [Fool]’s last words. He knew too much. He was friends with Isodore and Erille. So did it really surprise him when the Blighted King smiled? Smiled with bright teeth, as if he was not filled with rot to the core?

“Therefore—we have elected to take on a cause as noble as any can be found. Sir Tom. You and your Gloomless Troupe have found little to laugh about under threat of the Death of Magic.

It was hard to fight someone who hovered a hundred miles up and threw down Crelers for fun. She had turned the 5th Wall into a dangerous battlefield—but one that wasn’t prone to letting anyone level but her side. Tom waited, his skin crawling. The Blighted King even bowed his head to him.

“Then—we shall send you, Sir Tom, our great champion of laughter and blades, and the forces of Rhir to a suitable place for your great talents. As we embark to the new lands of Izril—the Gloomless Troupe and Rhir’s forces go to aid our cousins in Baleros! To stem the Dyed Lands—a pact between continents!”

The Dyed Lands? Tom heard applause from the Balerosians and the Burnished Court first. He saw Isodore look horrified and begin speaking to Lord Hayvon—but Tom threw back his head and began laughing.

So that was it? He laughed in the Blighted King’s face. And he saw Nereshal watching him out of the corner of his eye.

So that was the trick. Richard looked at Tom, and the [Clown] laughed harder. Level or die. His insane counterpart was giving him the thumbs-up from his water glass.

Baleros, huh? He wondered if it were just him or anyone else that was inconvenient—or needed to level. His troupe was celebrating and dancing. But the [Clown] laughed until he wept.

At least he was leaving Rhir. Toss him straight into the Dyed Lands! He would live. He had to live. And the Blighted Kingdom had made one mistake. If Tom made it out of wherever they sent him, whatever tricks he played—

Well, the Earthers had no recourse but the Blighted Kingdom. But Baleros, he’d heard, had Great Companies.

It had—

Titans.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note:

It’s a shorter chapter and a big week. If you didn’t see it—Gravesong is finally out on Yonder! This is the first publishing group of any kind that’s worked with me, and they have published the first part of the book—and the entire thing will be available on their app.

I’ll post something on Reddit too, discussing the story, but I actually have a request here. In short—we will also have an audiobook coming out via Podium, with Gravesong being voiced by the incredible Andrea Parsneau again, and even with the songs being sung by Cara!

They are not in this version on Yonder because it turns out one year is still a short time to get copyright from the song-holders. But it’s actually in discussion, except for one crucial song.

I would like to use Everything’s Alright by Laura Shigihara, the amazingly talented game developer and composer. However, it’s been hard for the legal team to get ahold of her. I’m posting this publicly not in the hopes people annoy her or spam her, because that’ll annoy her, but just because I’d really love to use the song in Gravesong.

And yes, of course she’d be compensated for it. It’s just that I’m not certain she or her lawyers are aware we’re reaching out. So if anyone knows how to get in touch, please drop her the gentlest of feather-notes. Annoying or brigading her is the last thing I want to do, but that song is amazing, and I’d love for Cara to sing it.

Besides that? This was one of my most skillfully short-yet-compact chapters. I’m not sure if it’s the favorite one I’ve written—Fetohep, Silver Swords, and a lot of chapters are more fun. But this is what a novel tends to do—get to the point. I hope you enjoy and understand the last few chapters have been long. This was good to relax a bit on. Hope you enjoy and remember—Gravesong is out! Now where’s my movie deal?

 

 

The artwork for Gravesong is done by Stephen Sitton, an amazing artist who has a Twitch channel!

Twitch: https://www.twitch.tv/stumpyfongo

ArtStation: https://www.artstation.com/stumpyfongo

Twitter: https://twitter.com/stumpyfongo

 


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31 thoughts on “9.27 RC

  1. Leave a typo for the power of laughter! Or spoons! Or pyramid scams…wait a second.

    (Funny readers: Quynin, Litwickee, Gorexn, MrWiggles, Linnet, Maladal, Robb, ChronoMager)

  2. I hope the next gravesong releases will be available on patreon. I would love to buy a copy of them, but I’m not going to spend money on yonder. I can’t even figure out how much it would cost to purchase it without installing something.

    • More than that. Niers is incredibly intelligent, clever, and resourceful. He already knows about Earthers and when he gets wind of this there’s no way he won’t fit the pieces together. This has the potential to be an unparalleled blunder by Othius. If Niers or the Seer of Steel or anyone in any of the Great Companies finds out what he did, ESPECIALLY if knowledge of Earthers becomes widespread somehow, Othius might just be forced to abdicate his throne.

      • Not really. Winstrum got by with their earther abuse. The real issue that would come up would be bargaining and sharing them… Which could be explained away by exactly what he is doing now.

        The real trick is proving him being the one who is summoning people from earth and having everyone else pay the toll. Remember we have an entire nation dedicated to enslaving people and being nasty, yet nobody messes with them and they are a lot easier to take down than the blighted king.

        Even if he ‘steps down’ who would replace him? How do you convince his population that the HIGH LEVEL KING who is preventing the demons from outright invading even worse then they are now… Just because their king isn’t popular right now?

        The issue isn’t what he is doing. The issue if finding a way to prove something nasty that he is Currently doing.

        Yes the Titan will be of big assistance, but he will not be able to fix the issue. Maybe help get some more people from earth someplace relatively better, but it will not be an easy fight.

        The only thing big enough to make everyone care is the fact he cast the spell that killed so many unborn children. The rest… Hate to break it, but every other nation has done the same or worse.

    • I wonder how he would react if Tom told him all the little tidbits he have picked up on and what he suspects the blighted kingdom of doing.

  3. I see you’re trying to reach out to someone professional who hasn’t replied to I presume your business email by the legal team. I’m going to assume you contacted her through her website contact form. While this is probably the best and most official way to reach out, the amount of spam and useless junk that goes into that form is probably substantial, to say nothing of if the form broke and no message was sent, which is also possible.

    To that end, your best bet is to reach out more directly. Laura Shigihara has an active twitter presence and responds to posts, so it may be feasible to reach out on there. Alternatively, my actual suggestion would be to reach out to people who have *worked* with her and may have more direct lines of contact and just ask if they can let her know that your team has reached out.

  4. Before I read this chapter one thing:
    I asked ChatGPT from openai to tell me a side story about Toren and it genuinely generated a small side story that mentions Erin, Pisces, Imani and Laken.

    Your books have made it into the training data of a conversational AI :D

  5. Good chapter, nice to check in on people. I hope Yonder works out for you. And I hope Yonder figures out a better business model for readers.

  6. I wonder if Rickel’s money scam was to help earther in slavery at first?
    or those in serious need or maybe a huge nest egg due to a past scare on the solstice?

    oh, my poor clown Laugh Your Pain Away I bet he gonna be popular with the lizard folks and other companies to show the world a good act!

    • I think Rickel’s plan was to mak money fast before anyone else. Not saying he’s flat out evil, but nothing he has done hints at him being altruistic.

    • Pretty sure Rickel states why he did the money scheme in this chapter; he arrived broke and realized he needed money to do/get anything good. Also I half think he is going to try and buy that Djinni that was announced to be on sale during Liscor’s big party.

      Clown should meet that A’ctelios war crime company.

  7. I’m looking forward to the half elf village being found out to be one of Rhirs crimes. God they keep pilling nup and up.

  8. I hope this is a setup for Tom to meet one or two of the Genevas, rather than Niers. Or both. A certain doctor who’s become a Purified Telepath would likely be able to help Tom with some of his issues… And it would make sense for them to be around the Dyed Lands, potentially.

  9. “Take me. And take us away from our lives. Use us well, even if we’re to meet our ends faster. ”

    That is such a sad line, and right in the beginning of the chapter too.
    That is very relatable somehow.

  10. It’s interesting, and to the rest of the world’s benefit, earthers are ignorant of the basics or hung up on high tech and theory. If you know the basic components of an ice motor or a jet engine should be able to make a working demonstrator with the resources they have, but I could also see where a layman could get hung up on spark plugs and alternators instead of using a hot-bulb or just making a steam engine. I suppose most people don’t think about how to restart society and industry from scratch, but I’m inclined to believe it’s the bias of the earthers. Is the math wrong or are the laws of physics different here?

    Also, a lot of natives are making a mistake with earth knowledge. Technology empowers the least of us, hoarding it makes it next to useless.

  11. Lodging prediction: The sin of Arruif Yal was not just massacring a half-elven village. Nereshal drained/stole their time/lives somehow and used (or is still using) it to keep himself and the Blighted King alive. Then they destroyed the village to cover up that the once-young half-elves all (mostly?) died of old age. Note that Dionamella grew older whenever she used time magic and Nereshal doesn’t.

      • Interesting. We haven’t heard how System-based oaths work. Can they be broken? I would guess not, since they give you power up-front. But if so, that would certainly be a sin.

        From this chapter:

        “If she had said the phrase in its entirety—she could have commanded him by words only Othius was supposed to know.

        Foolish. They should have worked on a better password. Yet this one…

        This one meant something.”

    • I think it WAS an atrocity that Nereshal regrets, but I also think it’s more.

      I think it’s a passphrase he created himself to use in case of a time paradox where his future self would send a warning to his younger self.

      Kind like Stephen Hawking holding a welcome party for Time Travelers but only announcing it afterwards. If Nereshal creates this passphrase but he commits to never telling anyone, then he’s assured that it’s his future self giving him a warning.

      That was why he was shook when he thought the princess was about to give him the passphrase. Timey Wimey stuff allowed him to know that it will be used in his lifetime and he used chronomagic to determine that it’s coming from Izril.

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