Interlude – Age and Tales

It had been a long time since Nuvityn, King of Men, Elfwed, Leader of the United Peoples of Erribathe, Descendant of the Hundred Families, heir to the Shrouded Crown and the relics of his ancestors, walked the halls of his palace as an observer and not an occupant.

He had other names, other titles accorded to him such that if you wanted to be pedantic, you could use everything from Avel’s honorary Golden Archer title to the actual accolades he’d won in the north among the Taligrit folk. Manoerhog Nuvityn.

The Taligrits had a unique sense of humor. Nor was it a slight. A younger, brash Prince Nuvityn had once joined their festivities and won the title fairly. The most astute diplomats knew that was no…fanciful term like an honorary dukedom.

It was a term of endearment that won you a free drink at every pub you came to and had a lot of local prestige. It came from the great and historied practices of Taligrits, who some called the last [Barbarians] and savages of the north, for all they had a proper kingdom of sorts.

The name, uh—came from the saying. Manoerhog.

As in—‘Man Over Hog’. Which meant you’d beaten a wild boar in a wrestling competition where you endeavored to toss the angry pig into the mud.

Never let it be said that Erribathe’s great [King of Men] did not know how to inspire all kinds of folk. In truth, the Taligrits would have fit right in with some of Erribathe’s wild folks.

He still thought he looked the part. Nuvityn’s hair had finally gone to grey, but only threads amongst dark brown hair. His lines, for all they stood out on his face, still only emphasized a man not yet gone to seed.

He could still stand proudly without clothing or spells to disguise his gut. He still looked like what he was.

[King of Men]. He walked among his people like a reminder of that. He was not touched by immortality like his queen, half-Elven beauty, which was impossible. He was simply what a person could be, in his advancing age. Even when he felt his age in the night, a bearskin cloak hanging around his shoulders, he walked upright.

As if a procession trailed him. Servants did—but perhaps even the mist walked in his shadow, swirling about him. He could look silly. He could be a fool—but sometimes, it sounded like the world was heralding him and the land quieted to watch as he passed.

Then—when he laughed, when he joked, the air was light and free, and youth flowed around him, like when he had emerged with a dizzy hog to be crowned Manoerhog, and given the delighted pig half his drink. For he had been both and learned his manners from half-Elves in their eternal villages. But he had ridden bareback and wrestled with his folk of Kehndroth. Spent years in every part of his land growing up.

The third-largest kingdom of Terandria was vast enough for the nomadic Kehndroth folk with their fine steeds to mix, coming down from the highlands with the metal-loving Osverthians. Half-Elves of three forests—and yes, folk who would happily throw down with a wild pig for fun.

Only, the Forem tribes wrestled bears. Black bears, but they knew how tough the Humans were, and the bears sometimes trained on each other. Not just for the ego of…bears. If they managed to knock down all the challengers in the village, they were fed as much as they could eat.

Erribathe was a varied nation many knew little about. It had the dignity of its years, and the Kingdom of Myth was known as one of the Restful Three. It was a proud nation, proud of the legacy it had not lost.

Yet—betimes, even Nuvityn felt more like the Manoerhog than the King of Myths. It was hard to grow up in the Age of Waning, and he had lived two hundred and forty-one years.

As half-Elves did, really. Though his kingdom was more plentiful, the aspect that had kept him from madness was that Erribathe did keep away from the world.

Two hundred and forty-one years. Long enough to have remembered a time before Zelkyr. To have sent his forces to Izril in outrage—then to Rhir—and then to have fought off the Necromancer when he fell to his madness.

Better to live now rather than to wake up with the mists hanging foul and low and receive a summons. To hear an army by the hundreds of thousands was descending once more, led by that perverted Archmage of Death.

Not that the Necromancer had ever done more than hurl Ghouls into his lands by the thousand. That ‘small’ act was enough—riding in the night, swinging his sword down upon glowing eyes preying upon his border-folk when he was nearing his two hundredth birthday had told him he was old.

For all he shared his lifespan with his consort, Queen Eithelenidrel—it wore on him as much as the reverse—aging faster, living among Humans—wore on her.

Perhaps he would abdicate his throne and give Prince Iradoren his reign. The boy was naught but seventy years of age, for all he looked half-that. He had grown up twenty years among the old villages of half-Elves, so you had to subtract that from his age.

All of this would have left Nuvityn wanting, as he knew Iradoren wanted, to carve out a more fitting legacy for his time. To make Erribathe shine as it had done in days of old.

—But those days were past. And Nuvityn had tried.

What people forgot—even the ‘old’ ones like Feor—was that there was a time before Zelkyr. There was. And in those days, if he recalled his memories of a child correctly, used tonics to drift back to recall clearly, dictated his memoirs—

They had said the same things they said now. The Antinium threat? New, yes, but overshadowed, perhaps, by the threat whispered in his father’s courts.

The Nagatine Empire rising. An age when Lizardfolk had threatened not only Izril—but Chandrar and Baleros. The Blighted Kingdom, battling the Demons, had refused to fight across Baleros.

The Archmage of Baleros, then, the Archmage of Eyes…what was his name?

“Coloquex?”

It sounded vaguely right. Now he had driven fear into the hearts of men. Then died. His forces had persisted thereafter for a long time, even with the Thousand Lances, the aggrieved forces of the Walled Cities, even the might of the Five Families and nations like Nerrhavia’s Fallen coming to arms.

Why—Hellios, that conquered nation, had made itself known in that time. In that age, Nuvityn remembered Khelt had ignored the fighting steadfastly. Its king had not been as—provocative as now.

No one remembered it. Only half-Elves would listen when Nuvityn sat down and talk about it as if it were common knowledge while the Humans looked on blankly. Why, the threat of the Nagatine Empire had persisted since.

Their great temples. Their spells, which some had called profane—Jungle Tails, that silly Great Company, had not been so laughable then.

“Better the Forgotten Wing than them.”

They had risen by dragging down the Lizardfolk in a bloody series of wars—and Nuvityn himself had quietly pulled some strings from Erribathe. Not forces, but donations of gold to the young Titan.

Of course—the fall of the Lizardfolk was more than just the Titan, for all he was the one most people would cite if they thought of it at all. There were other factors at play. Brave heroes of the generation after the fall of Coloquex. They had helped quash the last conspiracies to create empire.

Funny. Back then, the next generation must have thought they were marching and fighting across ancient history. Certainly, the figure who was now as legendary as the causes he had striven against had written it like that.

The Lightning Thief. Once, a dashing young man. Now, a figure of stories. He had stolen the Eye of Baleros, fought his way across a continent—then vanished into the pages of books.

Nuvityn had thought him dead. He could not steal age as easily as lightning—but perhaps not.

All these old things were coming to life again. All these names being spoken—and older names still.

So that was why he padded through his palace in the dead of night, a magical light at his side. His guards held back, and now, the King of Myths rose and beheld something he took for granted.

“Where is it? The Draconium compendia. Not here. Not here…”

He scanned various walls, growing frustrated until a delicate cough and a figure pointed him to the correct hallway. Embarrassed, annoyed, he followed the hints until he found it.

Then Nuvityn gazed upwards. Iradoren was not back—he was raring to go to Izril. They all were. But he had reported in, along with a number of his servants and minders, and the truth was clear.

How many nations now heard that word floating around in more than idle jest? Not just one—but one of the true ones. A name so old it made Nuvityn’s blood chill.

A name so old that the other nations were probably frantically sorting through books, hoping one had survived ten thousand years. Bothering old half-Elves who had lifespans of a thousand years at best.

While the truth…the truth was upon his very walls. That was the age of the Kingdom of Myths. And so, Nuvityn shone up a light upon the walls.

It should have been a torch or some fickle lantern with a flame, wavering—this light was too pure, too constant. He should have felt a great breeze blow through his palace across marble shaped, so some claimed, by Elven hands.

—But then, that was a lie, and he knew it had merely been half-Elves. Perhaps close enough in lineage to claim the Last Queen of Elves, Sprithae, had been within ten generations of them—but no more. And the palace had been rebuilt many times, anyways.

Even those ages were too old for Erribathe to record. Yet this—Nuvityn looked up and sighed. For now he saw it.

Lists of enemies and allies. Some had been removed—this wall obsessively updated, until the last [Kings] realized—there was less point. Now, it was simply art, and he remembered sitting here as a boy and begging his half-Elven tutor, Nenre, to tell him all the stories.

He wondered if she were still in her village. Perhaps he should summon her. But—Nuvityn looked up. And he heard what the other rulers heard, though the wording changed:

 

Have you heard it? Do you believe? 

I have seen him in Calanfer’s Eternal Throne. I have glimpsed the truth writ upon the wall, in wings that beat silently. I have listened to his voice.

Wake from your dreams of mortality. We are at the beginning of a new era. Once more, even now—

There are still yet Dragons.

 

There they stood upon carved thrones that blazed with the elements. Like a kind of family tree—sitting above brave members of their species who had won their way onto mortal paint. Names of the most famous or infamous of their kind.

The Tyrant of Gems, Muzarre. The Silver Knight, Yderigrisel. The Wings of Life, Sasitoret.

Lesser Dragons. Lesser Dragons—you understand? He could almost hear Nenre trying to explain it to him. Each one might be terrible and cunning, brilliant and heroic as you pleased.

—But they were still lesser. They knelt to no [Kings]—some gave their might to causes and nations, but they only listened to one another’s authority.

And that was them. The beings who sat upon those thrones—none dared call themselves King or Queen. Nevertheless, there they were. Or the last of them.

Their likenesses had changed, and Nuvityn thought it a crime that he did not see all the ones that had come before. But only the last Dragonlords remained. He had to remember this had once been a list, an actual resource of dread enemies that his Kingdom of Myth had fought against.

Armies garbed in relics to deny them a goal. Alliances between nations to bring one down. An individual, a single being capable of such devastation that they were nations unto themselves. So capricious and forceful that they required—perhaps created—[Heroes] and legends of old to match them among mortals.

He had long since memorized their names as a boy. So of course he knew one of them. Slowly, Nuvityn let the light shine across each one—and there had been countless Dragonlords. One for each weyr—until entire species of Dragons vanished.

They were all gone. Yet the last…he knew names they said had still appeared in the last great calamity of this world.

The Creler Wars. Three Dragonlords had still flown then. Or rather, flown out of that hell. They had seen Dragons die, emerging to battle a common foe.

The Last Dragonlord of the Wind had fallen, they said. Aeitendeske. His light played over a Dragon with wings spread, eyes shining copper and viridian.

The ‘Dragonlord of War’ was listed below the Dragonlords, apart. But Khetieve, the Dragonlord of Waves, still sat upon his throne, a trident gripped in one claw.

Did he live? Now, Nuvityn had questions. Were they enemies?

Were they…enemies? Iradoren had asked, because it was no longer clear. They were gone. Gone—and even if there were a few, one, he had been in hiding. Was he still some great foe to vanquish or a bastion of knowledge that should be sheltered? Like a Unicorn—guarded such that such things should not vanish from the earth?

Nuvityn felt—strongly—that it was the latter. But he had not lived those times.

“Summon Nenre, my tutor of old. I must hear her tales of Dragons again.”

They had done terrible things. And he—like all the others—stared down at Nuvityn, and the king shivered like the boy who had gazed up at those eyes. Heliotrope and cerulean, gemstones set in the mural. Next to the last Dragonlord of the Void, Xarkouth, head turned as if to address the Dragonlord of Sanctums, the Silver Dragonlord—

Teriarch. Dragonlord of Flame.

So old. So old, even by their standards. Dragonward of the Iltantian Empire. Wyrmbane—a title to one who had slain or aided in the death of a Greater Wyrm. ‘Traitor’ of the Dragonfall Wars, when Walled Cities revolted and their hold in Chandrar was broken.

He had stolen into Calanfer’s throne, bested the Winter’s Watcher and a member of the Thousand Lances, revealed the Lightning Thief might live—and made a challenge to the kingdoms of Terandria.

What might such a creature want? Some great war that even he feared? So he hinted—hinted that it might be Rhir that needed to be scourged ere another Creler War began.

All of it made Nuvityn wish he had come two hundred years back! Then a younger man would have had the will to ride out to Izril hell-for-leather. Now…now, Nuvityn’s heart beat as he imagined it.

The Dragon had come to Calanfer and set kingdoms scrambling in a day. What might he be doing now? A being of his might, roaming the world? What deeds, what goals had he?

The Dragon stared down at Nuvityn as the [King of Men], King of Myths, Manoerhog, felt his kingdom’s long silence and inaction had come to an end. It was painful. And glorious.

 

——

 

Now you knew the weight upon him, the legacy that remained in places like Erribathe, and his legacy—there were things so old that even Teriarch, Terrium Archelis Dorishe, called old. Things he had heard in legends—and now knew to set himself against.

Older than most magics. Capable of casting spells thought dead, in languages that truly were dead, keeper of relics that predated the Walled Cities.

Dragonlord of Flame. Feared by his name. Enemy to old powers, laden with a duty that had called him from beyond death.

—Forgive him as he slept. Curled upon his hoard, eyes tightly shut.

Sleeping. Sleeping, three months after he’d woken. And it had been about nineteen days of pure slumber. Or perhaps forty-nine.

He kept turning off the spell that was meant to wake him up. He couldn’t remember how many times he reset it.

How could you relate to a Dragon? Perhaps in this—he lay there, not quite asleep. Not quite awake. Waking up, hearing the persistent shrill of magic telling him to rise—and turning it off.

Again and again.

It was not restful oblivion. It was more a denial of waking. Because his conscious and unconscious minds both knew that he had a monumental task before him. He knew every passing second he wasted he would have to struggle more.

Yet he slept. He slept, putting off his efforts a moment longer. Because he was tired. Bone-weary, with something more than mere exhaustion. Though there was that too.

His wings still hurt. His body ached and though much of that was age, more came from his wounds of old. Not just recent events.

They weighed him down, and he would rather he slept. Because when he tried to rise, he felt a kind of mortal horror stealing over him. And it echoed days as he slept. Echoed and echoed—

What have I done?

 

——

 

Three months. Three months since Erin Solstice woke, and the Brass Dragon had no idea what had happened in the world. He knew what he had done.

Oh yes.

It haunted him, for all he had found the moment itself nostalgic. For all he had burned with passion as he dared the petty rulers of Terandria to think beyond their shores, to come to Izril, to rise—

He had conceived a horror after that. And it had driven him to this cave after he had done the rest of what he could in the world.

For Teriarch now dreamed of memories. He imagined—he saw—armies scorching their way across another nation’s lands. Slaughter—war—

He had sworn not to. Sworn to…

Who? To Sheta? No. Too far back. For the last Queen of Harpies, he had waged strife against his own kind.

To someone else. Many someone elses. He recalled…sitting in this very cave, perhaps. Telling someone he would not. He—

Didn’t remember. The memories had been taken from him. Severed by his own mistakes. It didn’t matter. The content was the same.

“I shall not begin it again. I shall not take a side and burn the other to ash. I shall not see their blood dripping from my wings and fangs.”

Not again. He had promised. And then broken that promise.

And done it once more. He had just invited a continent to battle for a new land. What had he done?

What he had to do. What he had to do, to arm them in levels. To reclaim older eras. He knew it, but there was such bile in his stomach at the thought he could have breathed that instead of fire.

Dreaming, the Dragon shuddered. And he backed away from waking up, as if he were holding himself asleep.

For he feared what he’d do when he rose.

They should have picked someone else.

The Dragon was not really asleep. He was in that stage where you drifted off…woke up…found yourself sitting and staring at a wall before falling back into your pillow. Or in his case, a shower of coins.

For a Brass Dragon, metals were just a kind of resting place. They could actually lounge on a sea of coins—other Dragons tried it and got them jammed in crevices and back-aches.

Get up. He knew he’d do it eventually. The Dragon snorted a bit of flame, and the gold melted. He’d…

“Rise. Rise and fulfill your duties as you swore! Rise and—”

—His voice jolted him awake. Teriarch turned off the alarm. Another day? He groaned. Then his head lolled b—

“Rise. Rise and f—”

They should have chosen someone else. They should have chosen his daughter. No. Not her. Not them. Not this burden, but not him either. Take Yderigrisel—no, not him. Take Muz—no. Take…

Take someone else. The First Dragonlord of Gems, Saracandre, had the wisdom to do this. The will and might, imperious as she had been when she lectured a little hatchling about manners. He’d just been climbing on a giant emerald. Anyone would do it.

“Tomorrow. Tomorrow. Make a note—tomorrow. Definitely tomorrow.”

But the Dragon drifted off—and when his two alarms blared, he turned both off and reset both. He did not want to do this. His wings hurt. His heart hurt. He could dimly feel that it was changing seasons. Fall was running out, and he wondered if it would snow. Then remembered why it should not and groaned under the weight of fear and trepidation.

He had to fight them! But choose which sides? Arm which forces? Do…too much. He knew he’d get up eventually. So couldn’t he rest another day? Another week? Another month? He knew he’d get up and…

He had done too much already.

 

——

 

Then.

 

That haughty Wyrm. Rhisveri Zessoprical. Teriarch flew from Ailendamus after a week of negotiations.

A week of camping out like a savage in a forest, wiping mud off his scales and trying to present himself in full dignity with the pettiest Wyrm in the entire world—and thus merely average when it came to his damn species.

The last Wyrm. Teriarch tried to remember that—but it was hard. The boy was haughty.

“Take the Dragonthrone.”

“No.”

The entire week-long argument could be best summarized in those two sentences. Oh, there was more nuance to it.

Delicately prying into the Lucifen and Agelum’s new, strange alliance. Finding out to his disbelief that the Infernal Court was no more—that a Goblin King had done what the Demons could not—treating with the other immortals, all of that had been fine.

He had persuaded almost all of them that the Dragonthrone would be a suitable gift—a peace-offering for Ailendamus’ ambitions. But Rhisveri, the Wyrm, refused to take it.

Most of Teriarch’s discussions had truly been assuring them he had not come to rule, nor join, nor threaten the immortal cabal of Ailendamus. Some had taken him at his word.

…Maybe one group had taken him at his word, and that was the Merfolk who remembered their own Dragonlord protector. Even the Agelum had been suspicious.

Fair. Fair. He, for himself, had been glad to meet them. Even Lady Paterghost.

 

——

 

I fear you not, Dragonlord. For I am Lady Paterghost of Taimaguros undivided, inhabited by my sworn protector and companion, Nube!

The Mimic hiding inside the suit of armor shook so hard Paterghost had to hold still as she tried to face and sneer Teriarch down. Which took some doing, because the Brass Dragon was a hill compared to her. And she had no face.

The enchanted suit of armor recoiled slightly as Teriarch lifted a wing, but he merely saluted her with it.

“The will of Taima and Guros unite behind you, Lady Paterghost. May I inquire as to your exact station?”

Then she hesitated.

I—am a Lady by right of my extended service to the crown! For a thousand years, I have served the halls of the palace, and my own lineage can hardly be doubted, nor service to the crown.

“Ah. Then you are royally appointed to the title?”

N—not as such.

Then he realized she might not be as noble as she claimed. Or that Taimaguros wouldn’t have been exactly keen to have an animated suit of armor clanking around greeting [Princesses] like some maternal protector.

But then—spontaneous life like hers was extraordinary. Anyone could make a suit of enchanted armor. Teriarch could probably animate some chainmail in a [Blacksmith]’s shop in a second.

—That wasn’t the same as a being with will. Drathians believed in the power of statues, items, to come to life with affection and time. But it was exceedingly rare for someone like Paterghost to exist.

She must have been in the presence of something highly, highly magical, and her armor might have belonged to someone beloved. That she was immortal was fairly unquestionable. If she maintained her armor, she’d live for as long as metallurgy endured.

Nube was the more interesting one. It must have been some greater form of Mimic, and Teriarch was reminded of the unpleasant thing that sometimes bothered him in his cave—but this one was more traditional, an inhabitant of items.

It was also, he suspected, more than half the reason why Paterghost was dangerous. She might be fairly adept by herself—with her unique frame and Nube’s power, they were probably skilled enough to down all but a Named-rank adventurer in this age with ease.

How to deal with someone like her? Ah, of course. Soothe the ego. The Dragon spoke quickly and eloquently, flicking his wings as if they were a-court and gossiping in parlance.

“Ah, then you must be claiming peerage under the aegis of the Rigor du Servis, an old form of establishment under the Hundred Family’s Havingtel reign. I recall that they merely required three hundred years of citizenship in a knightly capacity for de facto entry into the noble halls.”

Bastards. Three hundred years of combined military service as a [Knight]? A lot of deaths to be called the barest low-level nobility.

She was completely ineligible, but Paterghost instantly brightened up.

“Yes. Exactly. Did you say ‘Rigor du Servis’?”

“I believe the texts may be extant. I salute you, then, Lady Paterghost of Taimaguros. May we converse as equals?”

She puffed up so much he feared her chestplate would explode. But then, Teriarch had always been good at statecraft and the art of diplo ento umbris.

Bullshit diplomacy. All you had to do was know enough old customs, and one inevitably fit a situation.

 

——

 

That had been pleasant. Meeting young immortals? Almost painful. The fierce little Royal Griffon, an actual Titan and hearing how he had been found—pinned by a boulder his mother had placed on him, probably to save him until he was large enough to survive—

The things they had done and lived through to get here in this era. And Rhisveri sheltered them.

It was hard to reconcile with that strutting Sariant Lamb peacock of a Wyrm, all arrogance and hints that Ailendamus could wipe out any forces Teriarch could bring to bear. Perhaps he was better than Teriarch thought—

“Rather paunchier than your illustrations, I must say. I took a look at Sophridel’s references, and my oh my, you must have spent a fortune on bribing [Artists] of your time.”

—Nevermind. Teriarch had resisted the urge to flame the insolent Greater Wyrm multiple times in their discussions.

They weren’t even good insults. But then—the Wyrm was furious. A Scroll of Resurrection that Teriarch would have fought for had been plundered.

An actual relic. An actual legendary object. How did one survive this long? Why did no one—well, if Wyrms had it, it made sense.

He had every right to be wrathful, especially since that young woman—Ryoka Someone—had killed the last Dryad.

The last Dryad. Oh! Teriarch wept silently. But he had more to do, and if he could not make allies with Ailendamus, stemming the hatred of Rhisveri somewhat would do.

 

——

 

Thereafter, he had flown to Calanfer and skulked around, collecting news, setting up his grand entrance. It had even been fun—if exasperating—

—Until it was done. Until he was perched outside of the palace, listening in and hearing all the excited talk and he realized he might have begun a war.

Then he heard his name being whispered to the leaders of other nations, and he felt a wave of—of—

Panic run through him. He could not deny it. They knew he lived.

They would come for him. Again and again, until he faked his death and hid. [Heroes] and adventurers and people begging his help. Young women. Girls and—

He did not want this. He did not, but he had to impel them to move. So he had done what he could, moved all the levers. But the truth was that even now, he was ashamed to admit it after his speech to them.

“The Dragonward Bells shall ring. One last time.”

A grand boast but he—

He did not want to die.

He had already died once! Why did he fear it? The Dragon was weary of his fear, weary of it all—so after a few more efforts, he had flown back to Izril.

Okay, he’d teleported. And been so weary from his fighting with Rhisveri, all the magic and travel he’d been up to—he’d spent weeks in the sun and under the stars. He’d been so exhausted he dragged himself into his cave and slept a good damn month.

Then…stayed abed for the next two. In grief. In guilt. In denial of his duties.

Blame him not.

Please.

He wept, even dreaming—tears at the corner of those unique eyes. For what he had done.

For what he was too weak to do.

 

——

 

Two and a half months ago.

 

Archmage Eldavin had great plans for the future. Great plans.

—He was upset about the Earthers being stolen, though. Even with all he knew, even with Wistram’s might, there were things that could not be easily replaced.

Earth’s knowledge was one such thing. He had confronted one of the architects of this disaster. But Aaron Vanwell hadn’t even flinched much before Eldavin’s wrath.

He had been smiling that evening.

Smiling and as light as a feather, as if a great weight had been lifted off his shoulders. The young [Mage] had raised his hands as Eldavin interrogated him.

“Archmage Eldavin—everyone in Wistram said we weren’t prisoners. Only that you were keeping Elena and everyone ‘for our own safety’. That’s what the Drakes and the Drowned Folk said. And they insisted. It’s not our fault. We can’t fight Gazi, right?”

Sourly, the Archmage had conceded it was hard to see a moment where refusing Archmage Amerys or the other high-level [Mages] would have been easy. However—

Recovering them would not be an easy task. Even if he wanted to. Doroumata was one thing. He’d hinted to her she should grab some of the incoming Earthers off the ships.

Instead, she’d grabbed all the Earthers she could and helped Trey Atwood escape. That…that young man had hurt most of all.

“The King of Destruction over me. What does he have? Troy—no, Trey’s sister? Then Reim first—Az’kerash—the damned new lands, and—”

He had a headache. A mortal frailty, which he disliked along with his aching shoulders. A backrub from one of his companions had sorted that out—but he was still growing used to…

To not being a Dragon. It felt odd, because Eldavin had never felt like one—but now he knew he was not.

A half-Elf with the knowledge of a Dragon and a handful of levels. He had a long way to go to reclaim his power. Even without knowing who he had been…

I shall be better. I have Terras as a faction, and they are skillful, even the ones who have been sloths all their lives like Telim. Form a base of power and work up. I have allies.

He had duties, too. Which Eldavin did not like. But he had to admit…he felt young. If he had ever been old, really. As a simulacrum, he was technically less than a year old.

But he just had to figure out a spell to reverse age. He’d heard there was some [Chronomancer] in Rhir—the techniques existed. If he had not seen fit to give himself anti-aging spells, Eldavin well knew that there was alchemy and other ways to get to the same goal.

He had more knowledge than Wistram had ever lost in his head. Eldavin could see himself arming Wistram to the point where it could take care of a lot of his tasks without his direct control or more than guidance. Which left him placed to…

To enjoy this world. Food! He didn’t remember eating a lot of it, so it was fresh. Food, youth—activities such as chess.

And yes, companionship. He felt, now, a bit silly. Eldavin’s, uh—indecorousness when it came to female attention had come to haunt him slightly.

In that it seemed like every faction of Wistram had at least one female [Mage] who wanted to take personal lessons from him. No, wait. ‘Personal lessons’.

He disliked that. He wanted a genuine connection based on more than physical attraction. But those things took time…didn’t they?

The half-Elf put a hand to his head as he moodily walked around his grand suite of rooms allotted to him. He hated that feeling of half-knowing a lesson or something. How did one—date at this age and authority?

“Perhaps that app on Ryoka’s phone. No. No, I am not going to invent that. Television, radio, yes. Not something for personal gain.”

He folded his arms and faced one of the walls where Feor had donated an image of a picturesque half-Elven village. Eldavin stared at the wonderful landscape and amended his thoughts.

“…Besides, it would be easier to attend a ball or two. Meet people in real settings. I wonder. Terandria, Izril, Baleros, Chandrar, all have social functions. Isn’t there an invitation from that Empire of Sands?”

A rising power or so he was informed. And he had better start meeting and charming all the other nations, not just Terandria. Eldavin was hunting around for a pile of letters when he heard the knock on his window.

His windows were enchanted, so it was probably a hell of a knock. But it sounded faint—and Eldavin turned and sighed.

“Oh, for the love of aphrodisiacs. This has gone too far. Excuse me—no. No.”

He crossed his arms, then realized the person throwing stones couldn’t hear him and tugged in his beard in vexation. But she kept beckoning, and he went to the doors leading to his balcony.

The aforementioned attempts to get on Eldavin’s good side through his lower side? They resulted in some odd meetings. A young lady deciding to swim with him. A student after one of his lectures asking him to clarify an issue.

A Stitch-Woman leaving a hand on his doorknob. That was original. Stitch-Folk flirted in interesting ways. Eldavin should have made it clear—he should have mastered his baser desires.

Otherwise, you got things like the very charming, very attractive—and very naked Drake woman floating outside his balcony.

She was ‘clothed’ in a rather transparent film of what was either a robe, bedding, or shower curtain—which could not fulfill all three roles in any meaningful way. She had some rather magnificent—

Er—

Scales. Lovely turquoise. And her wings were flexing in such a magnificent way as she hovered there—was she flying with her wings or using [Levitation]?

Maybe the spell he’d taught Telim had already gone around? Or she was one of the talented [Mages] who kept their heads down instead of being Archmages, like Galei.

Wait, was this Galei? If it was, Eldavin couldn’t see through the illusion, and he’d have something to say to the Ullsinoi faction. Eldavin opened the windows.

“Young woman, someone is going to look up, and I shall not be the one to explain this to the Council.”

She laughed and flew back a pace.

“Archmage, can I have but a moment of your time?”

“Please, this is hardly the method.”

“But it is working. Come, please. You can surely meet me for a moment.”

Eldavin looked around to make sure no one had opened a window—but he saw illusion magic blocking most views of this area of Wistram.

Plus, it was past midnight. The half-Elf huffed, but decided there was no help for it. He hurriedly cast a spell and strode out across a bridge of light. The Drake woman flew backwards.

Young woman. Please.”

She wanted to fly out across the beautiful bubble of calm surrounding Wistram. Eldavin strode after her, conjuring a breeze to blow her back—and she lost the robes. He closed his eyes—and created a robe of cotton to hand her.

“Let’s speak civilly.”

“Oh, fine.”

She stopped, puffing her cheeks out, and drifted back to Eldavin. He approached her and then noticed something odd. The moon was clear, and she was very—vividly—naked. He could see a lot he probably shouldn’t be seeing. His clear view did not uh, lead to clear judgment. But what he saw on the rocks surrounding Wistram was that she had no shad—

 

——

 

Whumph.

The sound of the invisible Dragon exhaling Dragonfire wasn’t the actual roar of flames, but the sound the air made as it was displaced.

He’d forgotten to muffle it. Damn. Teriarch had also forgotten the shadow of the naked Drake. It worked, though.

In his experience, even the canniest Archmage sometimes fell for the old ‘naked, amorous illusion’ trick. Dragons, Selphids, Dwarves…it got them all.

Men and women, thank you. Though he had to own, female Archmages sometimes didn’t appreciate a naked fellow, no matter how splendidly done, posing behind a decorative cloud. You got them by organizing a group of young, fit [Mages] wrestling on the sand or in the water. Then, while they were peering out from behind their enchantments—

Dragonfire.

It was a concentrated stream, a barrier-shredding flame. It should have killed the simulacrum fast.

—Unfortunately, it caught the half-Elf calling himself ‘Eldavin’, one of Teriarch’s pseudonyms, mid-teleport. He had noticed the shadow.

The scream of agony was still there, though, as Teriarch flew up, cursing. He had hoped for a clean kill.

Wistram had enough magics to do damage, even if they were crippled! He was watching for Golems as he flew up—and the balcony doors were open.

Rookie mistake. The Dragon punched a claw through the open doors and hurled the smoldering figure within out. Then he followed it.

Take the fight outside Wistram’s bubble as fast as you can. They’d detect grand spells. Teriarch flew past the bubble and then unleashed.

“Activate!”

Bolts of lightning criss-crossed the air. They hit the sea, creating geysers of water, struck away from desperate barriers—but when they found Archmage Eldavin, they anchored his position.

Disintegration. Eight beams shot at the simulacrum—curving as he tried to fly.

Was that—[Wings of the Phoenix]? He dove, corkscrewing, then did a minor teleport when he saw the beams twisting. Teriarch’s mind was flashing as he chanted more spells, and he realized something. Several things.

He flies like me.

Of course—he was him. But it was disconcerting. Teriarch had never fought—

The second thing was that the simulacrum wasn’t dying. Of course not. He’d made it to regenerate wounds, to endure terrible damage. It was regenerating off its mana supply.

Make something too well and it turns on you. Golems. You fool!

“—ncy Teleport]!”

He’d just tried to use [Emergency Teleport]. Probably to safety. But the teleportation spells were locked down even if you could teleport to Wistram. Teriarch whispered as he saw the figure burning the beams of tracking disintegration out of the way.

He knew how to do it—you had to throw matter in front of disintegration spells until they ran out of power, so Eldavin just conjured walls of falling stone and rocks to eat the spell—then dove into the waters.

It wouldn’t stop this.

Gaze of the Medusa.

Teriarch’s eyes burned—then the water, the fleeing half-Elf—even the sleeting rain turned to stone.

Stone droplets shattered as a wedge of the ocean began to petrify. The half-Elf might not die of it—but he slowed. And Teriarch exhaled again.

This time, it was a ball of flames—like a [Fireball] but accelerated. He gasped for air as it burned a hole through stone—the water—and hopefully the Archmage himself.

He flies like me. He knows my tactics. Of course he did. Teriarch had given his other self all the memories of combat and magic he thought it needed—even vital memories for the short-term.

He had never thought this would happen. Now, he was correcting his mistake. Archmage or not. Part of him or not—it had to die.

Eldavin had to go. He had done far too much damage unknowingly. Did he scream something as he saw the ball of fire coming at him? Teriarch watched—

And the ball of fire winked out. The Dragonlord of Flame’s eyes widened. He hadn’t seen—something that eats Dragonfire? Even the Necromancer couldn’t do—

Stop!

The Archmage of Memory rose. He was burnt beyond belief, but to Teriarch’s incredulity, he was healing. Then the Dragon realized his mistake.

The simulacrum could use potions! It had used a healing potion, and despite the Dragonfire—no, the first blast had charred him to his bones.

But what had stopped the second one? Eldavin rose as Teriarch began casting subvocally. Then Teriarch observed the final thing.

“[Pentagram of the Five Alchemies]…”

He was using magic like a [Mage]. Magic of boxes. Magic unlike a Dragon. Teriarch spoke at the same time as Eldavin and got a nasty shock.

World’s End Permafrost.

A wave of cold that froze the sea deeper than even the Medusa’s Gaze spell blasted out. But it met a glowing five-sided pentagram, and Teriarch watched the spell being sucked into one of the five quadrants.

His alchemy magic! The Brass Dragon’s eyes widened. But how had the spell come out that fast? He knew how complicated it was. It was almost as if…

Then he saw it, and his heart skipped a beat. In pure disbelief. He saw the half-Elf chanting, lips moving soundlessly—and something burned over his head. An active Skill.

[Rapid Casting].

He had Skills?

“Impos—”

The Dragon almost said the word, then caught himself. He shot forwards, flying upon jet-flames, and bit.

The move caught Eldavin off-guard. He tried to shield himself—grabbing the teeth as they descended in a flash. The Dragon felt the incredible strength and realized Eldavin must have cast [Diamond Body] on himself and strength spells.

Exactly what he’d do. The two fired at the same time.

“[Wave of Seething Acid]!”

Teriarch exhaled. Then gagged, dove, exhaling the burning spell. Damn! It was only Tier 6 and weak, but it was in his mouth. Idiot—

When he emerged from the sea, he expected to see the Archmage in agony if he were alive. But he saw the final thing that made the Dragon freeze and his heart pound in fear.

He had expected to kill himself—hoped to do it first. He had wondered if ‘Eldavin’ would see him coming. That he had not—that he had survived this and the first Dragonbreath attack was just chance.

But the other two?

Violet flames were trying to burn away the Archmage of Memory. They had the same intensity that could make magma look like lukewarm bathwater. They could burn in the vacuum of space.

A Dragonlord’s fire. Yet the half-Elf held it an inch from his skin, and not via a spell. His hands…what was he doing?

They were pressed together. Clasped, and Eldavin was whispering. The words made Teriarch’s head hurt. It sounded like something impossible.

A prayer. Then Teriarch tried to read the class—the Skill—and he saw nothing. Then he feared.

 

——

 

The Miracle had saved him twice. Eldavin’s skin was burning, but he whispered. His second class had saved him where magic could not.

He was trying to kill himself! Teriarch—of course, he didn’t realize. Eldavin? Teriarch? It was confusing, but the half-Elf knew he had to survive this. To retreat to Wistram. But the only thing that could stop the Dragon’s advanced magic, mana pool, and innate abilities was this.

[Divine Protection]. The [Believer of the Old Faith] held out his hands and shoved the fire away. Then he lowered his arms, panting.

Something was drained out of him. Not mana but…belief. Yet he had a reservoir of it. After all—he knew who he was believing in.

He knew they were real.

Did the Dragon say ‘impossible’? Or did he just think it? Eldavin thought he could read the thoughts behind those two brilliant eyes.

Teriarch was in the sea now, staring up through the waters like some great fish. Graceful—poised to strike or move.

And worn out. Heavier than he should be. Slower, too. No one would realize it on first sight, but the Dragon was old. Eldavin, though—he knew.

The [Pentagram of the Five Alchemies] was burning behind him, empowered by one of the Dragon’s spells. Eldavin held it back a second, though, and spoke. The first words he’d been able to get out in the lightning-fast skirmish.

“Wait. Teriarch. Myself. We’re not enemies.”

The Dragon flinched at that word. He looked up—as if pondering what to say—and then stuck his mouth out of the water.

“I hoped to make this quick. Eldavin. You are me. A part of me that should not be. You know, if you are me—that we should not walk this world. I know what you must feel—lower your arms. I will take your memories after destroying you. I can promise no more than a swift death. But you know it must be done.”

Eldavin stared down. Incredulously. His first instinct—no, that was why the Dragon had ambushed him. But he called back down, rasping between healing lips.

“I want to live. Just—just fly back. Or let us converse. Civilly! Are you so willing to destroy new life? Part of yourself?”

Some things should not be done. Of all beings, I can judge myself most harshly. You—look what you have done so far. Made war? Gathered power to yourself like a petty dictator? This is not what I—we would do in control of our faculties.”

That stung. Eldavin spread his arms. He conjured two balls of light and hurled them down—to illuminate the two.

“And hiding in that cave was better? Ryoka Griffin impelled us to action by reason, fool. Or have you forgotten her? Did you forget Magnolia? Our oaths? Haven’t you seen how the world is in need?”

“Not of this. Nor for you to make war on Ailendamus so and give children weapons of war. Other me—Eldavin. What power did you invoke to save yourself just now?”

Teriarch’s eyes were focused on him like beams of power—but trepidation lurked there too. So he didn’t know?

“Shall we speak of it? If you swear, I shall tell you what I can. We are not enemies.”

“—By whom shall I swear?”

The first name that came to mind was one he thought of too much. Eldavin whispered.

“Sheta’s honor. No—swear by Nirayicel.”

Teriarch flinched at that. How had he come back to life? Eldavin swore he had felt himself die. No—Ryoka must have done something. But had he…?

Eldavin was shaking. He longed to reach out and talk—frankly—but he was guarded. Until Teriarch dipped his head.

“By Nirayicel and Sheta’s honor, then. I swear.”

Those were the only two that Eldavin knew—but he knew how much they mattered. So Eldavin slowly descended, and the Dragon rose.

They hovered in the air and spoke briefly. One would speak as the other wasn’t even done finishing their sentence—for they were close enough to know what they would say when hearing most of it. Eldavin began.

“If you had but reached out to—”

“Let you inform others?”

“I have not—”

“Then my wrath will be necess—”

We are not enemies, fool! Did it ever occur to you that we might ally against common enemies?”

The Dragon recoiled. He looked at Eldavin, and he was so haughty when he replied that Eldavin understood, in a flash, every complaint Magnolia, Ressa, Ryoka, and all his acquaintances had ever leveled at him.

“I do not make it a habit to consult with magical accidents before I correct them.”

Eldavin was left speechless. I should really be humbler. He drew himself up and looked his counterpart in the eyes. Slowly, the half-Elf touched his chest.

“I am myself. Teriarch, I am Eldavin the mortal. I have my own dignity and desires, and yes—it was done by accident. Or rather, sabotage. An enemy we did not know of struck at me. But I am now here, and I am worthy of dignity. Or would you spit upon the first Golem to cry out for mercy, the first Stitch-folk to smile?”

That wounded the Dragon, and neither had to dredge up arguments—they had lived through those times. Teriarch growled.

“We are not the same. You are not the same. Simulacra have existed before—say I could have let you live. Your actions are indicative—”

“Forging Wistram anew?”

Sleeping with half of Wistram, more like. Those are mere children compared to your perceived age. Have you no shame?”

The Dragon snorted smoke, and Eldavin colored.

“I am young to love and had no perception. That is an unworthy comment.”

Teriarch lifted an eyebrow of flowing copper.

“It strikes home nonetheless. So you claim this ‘Terras’ faction is also innocent of ambition? Tell me, when will you usurp the other Archmages’ power?”

“So you don’t deny it would be something you’d do!”

Eldavin blustered. The Dragon replied steadily.

“If I were to paint a nightmare of how I would do my worst—yes. You are compromised. Admit it.”

“I can learn and change. You are the one rendered impotent by your fears. Incomplete. Do you remember Magnolia? Ryoka? Say you do. Say you haven’t forgotten what that young woman did for us—what they have all done. How can you hide now?”

The Dragon retreated a few steps, on his platform of light, and then held firm. His wings hunched, but when his head rose, his eyes burned.

I am here now. Am I not?

That was true, and the two stopped. Panting, Eldavin felt the last of his prepared spells fill his mind. But he was determined it not come to blows.

“Just—just come inside. I shall swear upon the same honor of those we knew. Let us speak. We can prepare. For Seamwalkers, for what is coming.”

The Dragon gave him an uncertain look, and Eldavin tried to guess what paranoia, what traps he might be expecting.

“—Or name your place! Safe ground. Valeterisa’s mansion, a café anywhere in the world. Name it, and let us not do what baser instincts would have us start with. We can be the only allies the other trusts.”

Teriarch closed his eyes, and that was a sign of trust—or at least hesitation—that Eldavin clung to. He waited, and the Dragon whispered.

“A single question before I agree. Which one did you pray to?”

Eldavin blinked. So he did know. It made it easier. He nodded.

“Kasigna—”

He saw Teriarch’s head snap back, and the Dragon reeled. His eyes rolled up in his head. Eldavin reached out.

“No, the name shouldn’t—”

He stepped forwards, then stumbled. Stepped back—and looked down at the glowing sword of the Empire of Drath.

Edge of Heart’s Fire. The blade was embedded in his stomach where the Dragon had planted it, concealed in his claw. He ripped it up as Eldavin fell back.

Yet the Archmage didn’t die. His pentagram activated, flashing around the Brass Dragon. Five elements—

Teriarch burst through it as Eldavin rose from the sea. His body was knitting—but even as he hurled spells up and the Dragonfire lanced down, he shouted.

“You dare? YOU DARE? You swore upon her honor! Your daughter’s—

“That name must die. And you with it. We are enemies, Eldavin. Burn.”

Then the Dragon flew up. Up and up—and the flames that seared the sea itself until all of Wistram awoke to the roar of the seas—a world of steam—

That was his wrath.

—But the Archmage of Memories emerged to claim it was a spell gone wrong. He emerged, and the Dragon fled the mortals. Fled Eldavin’s threat to reveal him and set the world on edge if he returned.

Dragonfire had met faith. For the first time in such an age that even Teriarch had forgotten there were things to humble even his kind.

 

——

 

That was then. He had tried. He truly had. Had he hesitated?

The Brass Dragon slept. And he feared weakening, for he knew among his foes—some of whom eclipsed him for age, made his might look paltry—

He was also fighting himself.

Teriarch feared Eldavin like no other. For—the half-Elf had sworn to him, in the breaths between the fighting attracted Wistram’s attention and Teriarch had to flee—

“Stay away from me, Teriarch. Or I will do everything to hurt you in my power.”

It was a terrible thing to face someone who truly knew all your weaknesses. Even if you could hold few swords to the necks of children and those Teriarch had loved—for so many were gone—

There were ways. How far might his other self stoop in service to her? The Three-in-one! Of all of them to worship…

Teriarch made a sound like a whimper as he dozed. For, of all of them—it would have been her he would have followed, too.

Now you understood the Dragon. In part. For no being save his kind—and even most of his kind, even Wyrms—could not understand his burdens. No one could be as the Dragonlord of Flame; even in misery, even in his utmost wretchedness, he was incomparable to any other.

This was the truth. But if there was one thing that Terrium Archelis Dorishe had truly forgotten, it was this:

In this grand world where his tale had been written upon ancient stone and his name yet echoed amongst the living and the dead, even for the being who had once been the contemptuous, wise, noble, and even silly Dragonlord of Flame—

Sometimes, it wasn’t all about Dragons.

 

——

 

Two weeks ago.

 

“I’m old, now. I’m old. I guess this is it. This is my time. When I go—I want you to remember me as I was. Okay? Not like this.”

A weak claw grasped at the arm as a voice rasped. The faded look of the man he had been was but nostalgia in the man’s eyes.

“Weak. Gone to seed. Listen, kid—I think it’s time you have my spear.”

“Shut up, Dad. You’re injured, not old.”

“No, I’m old.”

The Drake determinedly stared up at the ceiling as he lay there on his back. He didn’t even notice the second visitor to his room in The Wandering Inn at first. He sighed, long and loud, and the bandages on his mostly-healed neck showed the closed wound that would have killed someone else.

Deniusth hadn’t needed to lend Relc his scarf, but even with potions and a [Healer], he’d been told to take it easy. Still, the Drake had been able to move about yesterday.

What was wrong with him now? Klbkch, who some called Klbkch the Slayer, one of the first Centenium ever to be created, eighth of his nature, who remembered the First Queen and predated the Creler Wars—leaned against the doorway, arms folded, as Relc weakly groaned.

“I’m old. Klbkch. It’s time for me to retire.”

Wing Commander Embria was so exasperated she barely glared at Klbkch—which showed how much on the same page daughter and partner were. Klbkch addressed Relc bluntly.

“You are not old, Relc.”

“I’m dying.”

“What happened to him? He was mobile yesterday, despite the [Healer]’s orders.”

The last thing that Klbkch had seen of Relc was the Drake bothering everyone in the Watch House. Embria sighed. Loudly.

“He went to the Adventurer’s Haven.”

“…And this convinced him of his age?”

“No.”

We don’t need to bring it up!

Relc spoke loudly at the ceiling. Embria went on, ignoring him.

“Apparently, he had found interesting company, and he was having a grand night in some room they had. Dancing, drinks, food—and then he slipped, bent his tail, and couldn’t get up. And his partner abandoned him.”

“I’ve grown weak! Klbkch—it’s like that monster, Facestealer. If I was young, I’d be dodging him with my eyes closed. This is it. I can feel the Ancestors calling me. Or something. Do they do that?”

Relc cracked open an eye and stared at Klbkch. The Antinium gave him a long look, as he sometimes did when he was on-duty with his partner.

“How would I know?”

The Drake decided to keep staring at the ceiling.

“I hear them calling me. I’m old, Klbkch.”

“No, you are not.”

“Yes, I am.”

“No, you are not.

“Yes, I am—”

You’re not old.

Klbkch snapped, and Embria closed her mouth. Relc’s head rose, and he stared at Klbkch. The Antinium caught himself—and snapped his mandibles together sharply.

“Jeeze, Klbkch. Stop being such an old man.”

Senior Guardsman Klbkch looked at Relc. He resisted the urge to dump Relc out the window.

 

——

 

“Aw, come on, Klb, buddy. Embria, say something that’ll make me look better.”

“Me?”

A few minutes later, Klbkch was still mad. He sat on one side of Relc’s bed; Embria had a chair. Despite his faulty claims he was old, Relc did seem to need more sleep and rest. Especially if dancing could actually make him too weak to rise for a bit.

He had come back. Menolit had not. That said it all, really. Relc’s distant stare of deep regret was only diminished by the awareness that Embria was right there and deeply unimpressed by everything.

Normally, Klbkch would have some sympathy for Relc’s woes. But not in this instance.

“You are not old.”

“Fine, fine. I’m not old. Sheesh.”

“And I’m not old either.”

“Absolutely.”

“Age is an arbitrary number that applies to different species differently. My capabilities have not been reduced. If anything, I have reclaimed my former functions, and the Queens should be aware of this.”

Relc and Embria exchanged a quick glance. Relc coughed and reached for a cup of water.

“You, uh—you not enjoying your work as a [Guardsman], buddy?”

“I am. It is immensely relaxing. I am just—undervalued.”

“Me too. Me too. Undervalued by the Queens—that’s our Klb. You’ve got a new body, a new Skill—heck, you can outpunch me. You’re not old. I’m not old. We’re young!”

“Absolutely.”

Klbkch sat there, arms folded, and Relc coughed. He looked at Embria for support, but she was a member of Liscor’s army. Klbkch was the enemy. She was just sitting here.

“So, uh—what’s gotten you upset, Klbkch?”

“That blue-shelled clam with half an antennae.”

Relc hesitated.

Xrn?

Klbkch nodded. Now, Embria was drinking long from Relc’s morning cup of orange juice in fascination. Both Drakes began picking at the breakfast-in-bed that one of the Goblins had brought to Relc. A service the Drake greatly appreciated, no matter who gave it.

The inn was doing inn things below, but Klbkch began speaking as Mrsha tumbled past the door with her show-and-tell items.

“Xrn intimated to my face that I was still at risk of being a casualty with any delicate task. That I could not fulfill a role close to hers or Wrymvr’s despite her injuries. Which, I note, are quite debilitating.”

“Uh—nasty wound that. Head wound. Same as me. I really feel for her—”

She is the crippled one. Practically incapable of controlling her magic. Erratic. I am not.”

“Yeah, but she’s wounded. A bit of solidarity?”

I taught her how to use a sword. Even if I erred in Antinium familial protocol—”

Now Embria blinked, and Klbkch hesitated—

“That I do not have superiority over her as an ‘older brother’ unit. That I may be behind her in pure combat potential does not warrant laughter. Much less for thirty minutes.”

“She laughed for thirty minutes?”

“Intermittently.”

The fuming Revalantor of the Free Antinium was in rare form. As in, Relc had never seen this of Klbkch. The Drake only noticed now that Klbkch had a bit of a pong about him—but not sweat.

More like burnt ozone or the more ethereal scent of raw mana. And—Relc noticed one of Klbkch’s scabbards had melted at the tip, showing the silvery blade. Klbkch glared ahead.

“Then we fought.”

“You did what now?”

“I merely attempted to prove my point. And I was hampered by the tunnels. I was also careful of her wounds. We also trespassed into an area with Soldiers and Workers, and I was mindful of them as well. One loss given the conditions proves nothing.”

Mrsha poked her head back into the room. Lyonette was about to grab her until she heard that last bit. Relc and Embria sat there.

“So you lost. Buddy, it happens. Someday, Embria’ll kick my tail. Not yet, of course, and I’ve never had siblings, but everyone loses a round.”

“I could return to my old role in a heartbeat. She had the gall to call my organization of the Free Hive ‘outmoded’. I thought of the Free Hive from its inception. With the Free Queen. She claims I cannot ‘keep up with the new Antinium’. That I am hidebound. I do not even have hide. Factually. Incorrect.”

“Dead gods. I’ve never seen someone take Klbkch down like this.”

Relc whispered to Embria as she chewed on some bacon. She was fascinated. Klbkch sat there, staring at the ground.

“…Relc. Do you think Antinium can retire?”

His partner’s jaw dropped, and then it was a reversal. Relc sat up and patted Klbkch on the shoulder.

“Klb, buddy, you’re the most dangerous [Guard] in Liscor.”

“No. I am the fourth best.”

“That’s just what we say to make Jeiss feel better. Right now? You’re the top. You’re a killing machine!”

“I’ve lost all my old levels.”

“You’re still a [Swordslayer]. Name me someone who can slay like the Slayer, huh?”

“Ksmvr took my sword school. He is three years old. I have fallen behind a three year old.”

Relc gave Klbkch a punch in the shoulder. Klbkch fell over and lay there on the bed. Now, he was drained of power.

“Buddy—buddy—losing to Xrn isn’t a bad thing. Everyone does that. Even—even Grimalkin! Is that you? Hey, guy.

Grimalkin froze as he and Lady Pryde walked past the door. Erin had elected to put a place to shower on the second floor, and the two were covered in sweat. He turned.

“Me?”

“You lost to Xrn too, right? See, Klbkch? Everyone loses to Xrn.”

“I have never lost to Xrn. My new body is terrible.”

“It looks great.”

“It is inferior. I am inferior.”

Klbkch lay there for a while as the inn’s guests crowded around him. They began to break up as Relc tried to shoo them away from his partner’s moment of greatest weakness. But the truth was—Klbkch had seen it.

He really wasn’t good for more than paperwork in his Hive. He had no authority over Pawn—who didn’t listen to him. Bird had rebelled from the Hive. Xrn had the [Crusaders]. Even weakened, she and Wrymvr exceeded him.

What was he? Even with his new Skill—he didn’t do anything for the Hive. Klbkch lay there for how long he couldn’t say. Until someone poked him in the back.

“Revalantor Klbkch. Revalantor Klbkch, is now a bad time?”

“Er—the worst time, maybe, buddy. You guys need something?”

Klbkch tried to pick out the person from the voice. He could tell most people by sound alone—this was clearly a Worker, but not one he knew.

“We would like to speak to Revalantor Klbkch. It is not a matter of urgency. Perhaps.”

“Oh?”

Klbkch began to rise as he saw a group of Workers clustered at the doorway. One was next to Relc’s bed. Pryde, Grimalkin, Lyonette, and Mrsha had all made way for them. Klbkch turned.

“Ah. As Revalantor of the Free Antinium, there is something only I can fulfill? A task for me, I take it?”

His head rose, and he sat tall. He was standing when the Workers conferred and one raised a hand.

He was one of the new Workers, Rosencrantz, who had been assigned to the inn. The Worker, who wore the inn’s uniform-apron even when he was off-work and had a tudor flat cap with a feather sticking out of it—and his favorite line from Hamlet written on his back-shell—politely shook his head.

“No, Revalantor Klbkch. We do not have need of your authority. Pawn and Belgrade and Revalantor Xrn do these things.”

Klbkch lay back down on the bed. Another Worker piped up from the back.

“Look at him. Embarrassing. We definitely got the worst Prognugator of all the Hives.”

“Hey! Who said that?”

Relc raised a fist and shook it—Workers ducked and flinched out of the way, covering their heads, but one of them refused to move.

“Crusader 57. Want to start something, old man?”

The two partners decided to lie in the bed while Embria reached for the empty orange juice cup. Relc needed a drink too—and a clawed hand reached out and produced a second cup.

“Here. For handsome Drake.”

Peggy winked at Embria, who gave the Hobgoblin a long look. But the Hob was passing around food to everyone.

The slain Gecko and Slayer lay there as Rosencrantz poked Klbkch again.

“Revalantor Klbkch. Revalantor Klbkch. Do you have time?”

“For what? What would you need me for if not as a Revalantor? To apprehend Mrsha for a crime? To sign your budget? Here. Signed.”

Klbkch pretended to sign something. But Rosencrantz bounced on his feet. He had been chosen by the other Workers—many of whom were not Painted or [Crusaders]—Crusader 57 was here, but he was…him—because everyone had thought he was least likely to die as Erin’s employee.

If Klbkch got mad. The Worker hesitated, then spoke timidly.

“We can only come to you, Revalantor Klbkch.”

“Why?”

“Because Infinitypear and Rasktooth say you tell stories. We would like to hear this story. And we are told there is a story time custom.”

Relc’s head rose, and his eyes fluttered open. Klbkch’s own head slowly rose, and his antennae twitched.

“You what now?”

Before he knew it, nearly two dozen Workers were trying to crowd into Relc’s room. They sat down on the floor in front of the bed. Rosencrantz sat too.

“We would like a story. I have seen this custom in Liscor with children and adults. As a member of the Watch, we believe you will honor this custom. Miss Solstice told us to tell you to do it when I asked.”

“You…want me to tell you a story? What story? What is Infinitypear—”

Klbkch was getting annoyed until he recalled his impromptu recollections with the Goblin and Antinium. Word, it seemed, had gotten around.

And like Workers…like these new Workers, suddenly he had a dozen faces staring up at him. Earnestly. Again, mostly non-Painted, non-[Crusaders].

“We would like a story. We are told it is free.”

These Workers, with the exception of Rosencrantz and Crusader 57, had no money to spend on fine things like books or paint. They were not filled with faith or able to buy delicious bowls of acid flies.

Relc’s head turned from the Workers to Klbkch in confusion. Embria was giving Klbkch the oddest of stares—and Grimalkin was exchanging the longest look of confusion with Pryde. Mrsha cupped a paw to her ear as Klbkch spoke within the room.

“I do not have stories to give. I am no [Storyteller]. I merely related factual events that occurred to me to Infinitypear.”

“Okay. May we have factual recollections of events as they occurred?”

“Of what?”

Klbkch looked so blank that Relc had to agree.

“Listen, Workers. Uh—kids. Klbkch is a good guy, good partner. Not old—but he’s not exactly a great storyteller. I’ve been his partner for ten years, and believe me, he tells stories about as well as Erin makes hamburgers. You think she’s good when she invents them until you see what a real street vendor can do.”

Erin had decided to join the fuss. She had walked up to the room—now, she put a hand over her heart, sagged down the wall, and lay there on the ground. Klbkch was nodding—and the Antinium’s heads bowed.

“Oh. We understand.”

Relc tried to be encouraging.

“Maybe go to Bird, huh? He can probably tell whoppers. Klb—well, what would you even ask him about?”

The sad Workers were rising as Rosencrantz turned.

“We would ask about the time before the Creler Wars when the Antinium were under Rhir. But we will ask Bird. We heard Revalantor Klbkch had done many adventurous things, but that is all.”

They were filing out, and Relc didn’t stop them—probably because his jaw had detached and was bouncing off the floor. Then, and only then, Klbkch spoke.

“Wait. Bird was not there. But I was. In fact…Xrn was not there for a large amount of time. I was. And Wrymvr is not here and a poor speaker.”

The Workers froze at the door. They turned back hopefully, and Klbkch sat up. He stared at them—then in one motion, turned his back to them and stood up. Rather like he had when he had talked to Infinitypear and Rasktooth, he walked over to a window and stared out of it.

A jet-powered bee zoomed past the window. Klbkch ignored Apista. He spoke as a Sariant Lamb slowly climbed up the window’s ledge, listening.

“I suppose—if you had a few questions, I could relate the factual, actual accounts as someone who was certainly there. Did you have a particular topic?”

The Workers mumbled to each other, and Grimalkin lifted a claw. About to speak—then he caught himself as Pryde held a finger to his lips. Don’t ruin this! Embria, dead-Erin, Mrsha, everyone listened as Rosencrantz turned innocently.

“We do not have good topics. What is a good topic?”

“Something. Anything.”

“Um. Shiny gems such as the one Numbtongue gave me?”

Rosencrantz had tied it under his hat so he could look at the beautiful bit of quartz. He waved it at Klbkch, and the Slayer eyed it.

“Ah. That will do. Gems. As I recall, the Hives wanted gems at one point. There were any number of projects, but the minerals became more and less valuable as time went on. At first—useless. Later, Xrn wanted them for magic, and we discovered their properties for the creation of Antinium. I was sent deep to search out pockets of them and guide Antinium to dig them out. Galuc and I would excavate huge amounts and often unearth nests.”

“Galuc?”

“Galuc the Builder, who stands in your image. No…”

Klbkch went back to staring out the window, then turned. And he realized they didn’t know. So he tried to show them. But the room was too small, and now, half the Goblins had stopped on the way to breakfast. So…

 

——

 

“…he stood this tall. And wide. Imagine a Worker this vast and you have him.

Klbkch jumped up and touched the top of the common room’s ceiling in the [Grand Theatre] section. Everyone looked up, up—and Grimalkin muttered.

“Sixteen feet?”

“Approximately.”

Klbkch landed and then drew his swords. Some of the Workers ducked—but he just showed them the blade.

“This was back during the era when we were first battling the other species for dominance, after the Antinium had been established. My own body had been damaged after we discovered beings of flame and rock. Flame or perhaps Magma Elementals, you might call them. As was the custom, the First Queen inspected my body and decided to change it. She used the latest techniques—to adjust my form to accommodate for the techniques of blades, rather than the ones built into my body.”

“Question. Question…”

One of the Workers raised a hand. Klbkch stared at it.

“…You had different bodies?”

Klbkch gave Rosencrantz a blank look.

“Of course. Centenium went through multiple iterations. Wrymvr is ever-changing, but even the best of us were made multiple times. My last form…I think my blades were hidden and would extend outwards via gas sacs, but if I was injured even slightly, I lost that ability. As I was saying, my next form—which became one of my last versions with minor upgrades—made use of blades. These blades.”

He put down both blades on the table, and Relc made a sound.

“Wait. Those blades? I thought they were just some enchanted, cheap blades. How long ago was this? You were joking about the ‘before the Creler Wars’ thing, right?”

“Relc, I am relaying history. Please don’t interrupt. We’re not on duty. I have never had them enchanted. But these blades…”

Klbkch lifted one. It had no breaks or dulling of the edge, and it was perfectly balanced. Perfectly light. Ksmvr and the Custodium bore imitations of this—

—these were made in the Antinium’s first forges. Ah—forges is a strange word. We often did not use fire. It was this that made the War Queens demand I go searching for all kinds of gems. Of course, we were making Antinium bodies out of the gemstone. Blades and arms—until we learned how to grow crystals. But that took a long time before a clever Shaper Queen saw it done, so the first places I went looking for the crystals were the old libraries and buildings.”

He stopped. Klbkch stared at a wall and then chuckled, a laugh he’d learned in Liscor. His audience, Workers, dozens now, were spellbound. Everyone else stared at each other and tried to place this.

This was still under Rhir? Before the Creler…

“What libraries? There are libraries? Why are you laughing?”

Valeterisa raised a hand and stood on her toes. She waved it, and Klbkch replied absently.

“Oh—my amusement was that in hindsight, we did not realize they were libraries at first. It may seem silly, but Antinium had no need for written history given our telepathy. When the First Queen realized what they were, she spent ages down there. But Xrn could tell you more of that. Yes, they were vast—often caved in and infested with monsters. Magical artifacts, in hindsight. Mostly, the Antinium stayed away because some of the unleashed magic could destroy entire Hives. I went down there alone to harvest enough safe magic to be digested in Growing Vats or—in this case—for the crystals.”

“You—ate the magic?”

“To create some Antinium. Again, this was before we learned to produce a lot of what we required—each new type of Antinium was akin to an experimental prototype. A thousand would be made, their efficiency and deficiencies noted, and the Shaper Queens under the First Queen would create the next generation. But where was I?”

Klbkch really was a bad storyteller in some respects. He said some things like they were obvious that had people practically gagging—Embria on a bite of eggs—to write this down. But he also got distracted by a single hand.

“Yes. You?”

“You killed them. diDn’T you? You bastard.

Crusader 57 had just been getting quiet, unusually so, when he sat up. He meant the ‘prototype’ Antinium. He stirred—and Klbkch’s response was calm and even amused.

“Of course not. We added their ranks to new generations—or used the Antinium in auxiliary roles. They were never ill-made. The most promising would even have their deficiencies corrected. They were not like the Queens, you know. The First Queen could do anything. And she made True Antinium. We would kill them for what? They were us.”

“Then why us? Why us Workers and Soldiers by the thousand?”

The Worker exploded, and the other Workers swayed back. Some urgently patted him, because they didn’t want to think of that. Crusader 57, though—never forgot. And to that, Klbkch looked at the Worker, and his response was unapologetic. If you had come to Klbkch for that…in that sense, he was a bastard.

“If you had been created in the Hives of Rhir, you would not look like a pale imitation of Galuc, Crusader 57. You were never meant to be constrained to a single body. I could look around and see not one Antinium similar to another. We failed to keep even a shred of that…that dignity.”

He stared up at the ceiling and then down, and it seemed, then, that Klbkch’s habit of facing a window, looking elsewhere when he spoke, might not just be stage fright. But almost as if he were trying to see something so alien to the world around him…

Even Crusader 57’s rage quieted. For Klbkch’s voice was filled with longing. And guilt. His audience, growing as Workers quietly opened the door to the basement and came up, scaring the hell out of Gothica—sat there next to Relc munching on popcorn.

“The tunnels and libraries. Yes. We called it dorixiidwrf.

His audience winced as Klbkch spoke in a tongue that was only meant for insects. It had a hint of the ultrasonic to it. But Klbkch was already moving on.

“I recall the tunnels as being very apt for me to move about in. Wide—spacious, even. Some reached forty feet tall and had a vast clearance to either side. Perfect for mobile battles. Jumping from wall to wall—evading monsters. Far better than close-combat in tighter spaces. The floor, if I recall correctly, was made of wood, a substance we encountered infrequently. The walls of enchanted stone, again in hindsight. The primary enemy stood about eight feet tall, cast spells, and sometimes talked. They had about a hundred limbs, each long and spiny, and they would come in packs of eight to eighty.”

He described some kind of insectile monster, thin and whiplike, mimicking how it would strike, scurry back—and his shivering Worker audience could imagine how sharp their protrusions might be.

“What kind of creature was it? It talked? Another species?”

Klbkch hmmed.

“I believe I’ve seen them on Izril. You could call them a species. I called them pests.”

“Wait. Wait—were you meeting other species? That many limbs—Selphids? No—

Everyone was suddenly trying to reconcile that idea with a species they knew. But Klbkch had to think. He put his chin in his hands.

“I’ve seen them here. I’ve killed a number—though they’re far different in scope. What are they called? Uh…ah…oh! Of course. Silverfish.”

“Silverf…”

This time, only Valeterisa, Montressa, Pisces, and the other [Mages] got it. Klbkch went back to talking as if they’d solved all this.

“These ones were larger. I didn’t understand the magic they worked, of course, but most of it was just lightning or fire or acid. Mundane spells, one assumes. And they had no Skills, so dispatching swarms was just a troublesome thing. Plus, they kept their library-tunnels clean of the nastier monsters you could run into. I think the Creler Wars wiped them all out. I distinctly recall setting most of that tunnel section ablaze and melting the rest with Devrkr. Excuse me, Devrkr the Glowing. No Silverfish to be seen—just Crelers at that point.”

You did whaaaaaaat?

Valeterisa nearly had a heart-attack, but Klbkch shushed her.

“That came later. Another story. At the time, the First Queen wanted me to collect the ‘books’. I was heading down one of the tunnels, eating sapstuff from one of the moss-creatures that scuttled about. They were about two feet tall, and most beings, including me, let them live because they produced an edible gel. After a quick stop in one of the libraries to collect eighteen such books, I determined that my lingbegh would fit no more if I were to acquire the crystal samples for the Queens. So, down I headed through one of the vast holes in the floor. You see, they led past the fiery lava chutes.”

Grimalkin of Pallass had been born for this moment. He had trained. The [Sinew Magus] had Pryde holding pieces of paper, which he was scribing with his notes as his journal was filled with a dictation spell. Klbkch’s tale was as yet uninterrupted, though multiple people wanted to raise their hands.

“I had noticed the Silverfish had stemmed most of the molten rock, so it was merely warm—perfect breeding ground for them and other monsters. But I had to head down past that to find the crystal caverns that lay adjacent to the libraries. Perhaps they had even been excavated by the original owners? It was there I ran into my first Crystal Golem. Or perhaps you’d call it an advanced Earth Golem. It was almost as tough as my swords, although slow and unintelligent.”

A what? Bevussa mouthed as she flapped in. Bird turned his head to stare at her feathers, and he patted a seat next to him. Klbkch was shaking his head ruefully.

“After eighteen minutes of striking it at increasing levels of force, I’d cracked its body. Excuse me—it was merely ten feet tall, but the sounds of our battle woke up everything in what might have been a mile radius. I was told by the War Queens they could hear the impacts from the Hives. In hindsight, I killed lesser automata far more easily. Mithril Golems—again, we didn’t know they were Mithril—were far less durable. They could be cut—these Crystal Golems, which would plague our excavation attempts, required intense force to crack. Galuc himself became one of the best Centenium at destroying them, which led the War Queens to assume they were easy to defeat. A young Wrymvr—this was before he developed his enhanced exoskeleton and levelled—once fought six for three days and nights before someone rescued him.”

Klbkch chuckled at this. He scratched at his chin.

“—Half the monsters who came to attack us fled when they saw us. One of those obnoxious Armored Crawlers appeared—twenty feet by twenty feet—and I used it battling the Crystal Golem to locate the core and finally break the body and destroy it. The Crawler was mostly battered to death, and the rest of the monsters set about eating it when I cut it apart. Then, I put the pieces of the Golem in the lingbegh before heading deeper into the tunnels. Now, I recall most of the crystals turned oddly purple near some dead bodies and undead, and it didn’t occur to us at the time that these were undead and death-magic. So I had never run into anything like the Wailing Pit before. I attempted to communicate for six minutes while it attacked me, as per my orders, then decided to kill it.”

“Question!”

Someone had to interrupt. If only because the story—for all it was compelling—needed context. It was, in fact, no less than Erin Solstice who was consulting with several people whispering in her ears at once. She poked Rags, got a poke back, pushed Grimalkin’s notepad out of her face, and decided on one.

“Okay. Uh—what’s a lingbegh?

Klbkch looked blankly at her.

“Oh. A bag of holding. Again—we had two. In the entire Antinium population. We had no idea how to make more, and so many Antinium had their own storage capabilities, but I, as the mobile explorer, was issued one of the two we acquired from the surface. So as I loaded it up, I noted it probably had capacity for about fifty-two more pounds of rough matt—”

“Question!”

“…Yes, Erin? I am trying to tell a story here.”

“Where’d you get the lingbegh if you couldn’t make them? And is this, uh, still circa pre-dating the Creler Wars?”

Klbkch hesitated.

“No Crelers in the tunnels…yes, yes it was. So it was before we delved into crystals if we have to segue. This is making the story convoluted, Erin. Let us all put aside my expeditions into the crystal-acquisition. Sometime just before Wrymvr was created, we were branching out in tunnels to see what threats were out there. About, oh, seventeen Centenium had been created. The best metric for our history as we had not begun to keep time, then. It was at that time when I was leading a group of what we’d translate as Borer Workers on my explorations. Then—as we tunneled, we elected to go high, rather than low. That was the first instance when we breached topsoil. As it so happened, it was just past morning, I believe, and I looked up and saw the sun and sky over Rhir.”

Klbkch stared ahead, and the Workers in the room susurrated. The Antinium nodded to himself.

“A stunning sight. We had no concept of the surface—only the waters which we assumed filled most of the world. You see, we had found that if we moved too far in some directions, we ran into the sea. We did not know it was the sea—but it was informing our expansion. There was a lot of land if we expanded laterally—as you understand directions. And even more if you went down, but there was more water if you went too far down.”

He paused and muttered darkly.

“…There’s always more damn water. At any rate, we reached the surface, and I actually appeared when we met the first being upon Rhir. In hindsight—again—it was a half-Elf. I was more concerned for the Borer Workers and subdued what I now take to be an [Explorer] of some kind. But we were so close to their camp, I ended up engaging a small force of magic and blade-users. I imagine it shocked them as my form was not as…humanoid. But when I realized they were speaking language, I did not immediately kill them and retain their bodies for dissection.”

“This was before the Creler Wars? Where, exactly, did you tunnel up?”

Klbkch was getting clearly annoyed by Grimalkin.

“Somewhere on Rhir. Anywhere. It was near the coastline, I believe.”

The Demon’s coastline?

“No. Anywhere. As I just mentioned, we had tunnels expanding across the continent.”

You had tunnels under the Blighted Kingdom?

“We might still have them. But we collapsed our exterior tunnels once we began finding large cities above our heads and after…no. That is a sadder tale. Come to think of it, the library tunnels might have been on the eastern coast. I recall having to run for two days to get there at max speed without sleep. As I was saying—it was a group of half-Elves. Mostly. And two shorter folk. Once we established I was not going to kill them, one offered me the lingbegh of such value. Perhaps as a peaceful gift?”

“Dwarves?”

“No. They were different. I’ve never seen their kind since.”

Erin sat bolt upright.

“Did they have goggles? Were they—funny?”

“No. Well, moderately amusing. I recall they were a half-folk like half-Elves. Halflings? I am done taking questions, thank you. So, that was how I obtained the first lingbegh. I think another was found on a corpse, and so that was the item of little significance other than its ability to carry objects that I was using as I explored the fascinating crystal caverns. I see you waving your hand, Erin. I am ignoring it. The death-crystals seemed to be able to reanimate the Wailing Pit endlessly no matter how much I cut it up. Naturally, I noticed the connection and disabled the death-crystals instead, breaking them up into shards. I collected samples of the pit and crystal and continued downwards. Whereupon I saw the most fascinating prismatic shards, multi-colored. Of course, some colors were not visible in the stratums we see today. If I had to describe them…”

Klbkch never really got through his story, despite his best efforts. He kept having to go back, explain details he clearly thought were irrelevant—mostly to non-Antinium.

The Workers were hanging on his every word. And it was to them that Klbkch spoke—eventually concluding, annoyed, that he’d need to tell these stories in the privacy of the Hive. But he seemed pleased.

For the others, what was the point of his tales? From Chaldion—panting as he clutched at a stitch in his side—from Grimalkin to Pryde to Erin herself—perhaps it was the secrets, the value they placed in knowing worthless things like magical, burned libraries under the Blighted Kingdom.

But for the Workers and Soldiers? Maybe for them the worth was just…hearing a story. From Klbkch. Seeing who he had been, not just the cold Prognugator they had known.

Someday, they might remember him by these tales, not the deaths of Aberrations or the harshness. Maybe it added something to him. Perhaps…it also informed Klbkch. For he realized they didn’t know any of this.

They had never had sapgel. They didn’t know these things. Absently, he accepted a little bag from Mrsha the Occasionally Clever—and began handing out cookies to the Workers.

Feed a child a cookie. He put one into Rosencrantz’s hands and munched on one himself. Then, Klbkch realized something.

He had a legacy. He had stories. And—Relc said the other thing.

“Klb, buddy.”

“Yes, Relc?”

“You’re old.

 

——

 

The present day.

 

Age really just was a number, you know. It was an attitude—and it was relative by species. ‘Old’ meant that Klbkch was old.

It meant the last Dragonlord of Flame was old.

It did not necessarily mean Silvenia, the Death of Magic, was old. For all her hair was silver—she had a spark of youth that refused to burn out. Easier to call Czautha old—and even the Djinni was different.

Old was a perspective. In that sense, the Demons lacked oldness. Oldness sometimes came with peace. It came with knowing your war was done—it came of seeing triumphs and regrets in equal measure, not a constant fight for survival.

Well, that could wear you down. But some creatures like Silvenia thrived in strife. So she was not old.

Neither was Rhisveri, incidentally. Compared to that arrogant Brass Dragon, he was youthful. Not young…no, no. Just—in his prime.

That was how he was going to think about it. The Wyrm paused his morning ablutions, his exercise routine twisting around his pillar-gymnasium, and combat training. He’d upped the intensity.

Obviously, he was in fine shape. He needed to improve. This was…a young man working hard. That was definitely it.

It was not analogous to someone in his middle age striving to keep his body in as much shape as he could. He didn’t recall a time when he could have slithered across half of Terandria without noticing it.

By early morning, Rhisveri was lying across his huge palace floor, head on his side. Someone was trying to be respectful—but eventually had to snap.

Duke Rhisveri. Are you paying attention?”

“Absolutely. I’m fully here. I’m just—adjusting my posture.”

The Wyrm groaned. His scales ached. He’d pushed himself too far. He thought he might have pulled a back muscle, and he was all back muscle. He tried to adjust his head and gave up and conjured a sea of pillows so he could stare at Visophecin.

“Yes, I get it. Blighted Kingdom up to their tricks. So they’re going to Baleros. Let them. I thought we were ‘holding our borders’ while these pests advance into our lands.”

“So long as you are aware of the situation.”

The Lucifen were so damn touchy. Visophecin was unto a kind of spymaster, and his understanding of world events eclipsed even Rhisveri’s own. The Wyrm nodded. Then gave up.

He conjured his fake body, and Duke Rhisveri felt the weight of the tired Wyrm’s body vanish from him. He rolled his shoulders, then stepped away with Visophecin.

“I merely exerted myself unduly. I need to hone my reflexes. I will admit, the Dragonlord had some impressive tricks. But I, myself, just need to improve my technique. He was out of shape. Slow. I am in my prime.”

Visophecin eyed the Wyrm. Wasn’t he over eleven thousand years old?

For once, the pointed look was something Rhisveri chose to ignore rather than counter with any stare of his own.

“If you are so exhausted, Rhisveri, perhaps reconsider your…posturing.”

“Me? Posturing? Don’t be ridiculous. I’m just proving a point. You’re the one who’s taking Ry—that Thief’s suggestions so literally. Overhauling our judicial courts while Wellfar has fleets harassing ours at sea? While we have war on our border with Pheislant?”

Viscount Visophecin didn’t rise to the bait. Both of them knew that judicial and military matters wouldn’t entangle the other. Plus, the Lucifen moving out of their role as judges freed them up for other tasks. Rhisveri just disliked the person whom the idea had come from.

I am simply—rising to the occasion.”

“Then should I have the event broadcast?”

Here was the thing about a Wyrm and Lucifen. Ryoka might see two comparable beings of great power working together, and Visophecin was often the cold calculus to Rhisveri’s initiative, a good match sometimes.

—But without her to make them show off, they did sometimes snipe at each other. In this case, Visophecin’s face was straight, but he was calling Rhisveri’s bluff.

The Wyrm didn’t sweat. But he did nearly miss a step.

“Why—why not? I doubt we can convene Wistram News Network, but have it on our local ‘television’ broadcast. It will be a demonstration of our abundant talents even if it’s only ‘the Duke’, rather than Itorin himself.”

“I’m sure it shall be a sight even my fair cousins will be inordinately stunned by. I shall have all of House Shoel watching. And recording your moment.”

“No—you needn’t, er—it’s a simple task. Barely worth televising, really.”

Suddenly, Rhisveri felt oddly nervous. Which was stupid. But Visophecin was smiling. He never smiled. The Lucifen gave him a full Avelian salutation, the most ostentatious bow you could give.

“For you, Rhisveri, I shall have it ready in an hour.”

“So soon—was it an hour? Are the ch—I could reschedule.”

“The children will be ready. Perhaps His Majesty, Fetohep himself, may even watch the broadcast. I shall reach out to Wistram News Network as best I can.”

“I—doubt we should trouble them. Where?”

“The Solar Classrooms, I believe. Princess Oesca shall be in attendance along with the commonfolk children and nobility. A group of sixty.”

“Sixty?”

“I believe you said, and I quote, ‘if this Fetohep can entertain one, I can entertain sixty’. We have cleared the classrooms of all props and the usual toys and books. I leave it to you to decorate ahead of your arrival in…fifty-six minutes. Excuse me. I must hurry to get the scrying spells in place.”

Then the Lucifen was striding off. And Rhisveri opened and closed his mouth and wondered if he’d bitten off more than he could chew.

Fifty-six…fifty-five minutes. Solar Classrooms. Right. Rhisveri began to walk through the corridors of the palace at a sedate pace. Then—when he was certain Visophecin was gone—he began running. He only stopped when the Lucifen stepped out from behind one of the pillars and asked if anything was wrong.

Visophecin smirked.

 

——

 

What was going on here? Well—well, let’s just think of current trends. Newsworthy broadcasts.

As in, Fetohep of Khelt’s rather pompous showboating to the world. Splendidly done. That magnificent shiny dress, his shows of his richness—and his ‘proof of good rulership’, such as being able to walk through a city without seeing the ailments of poverty, hunger, and so on.

He’d already publicly embarrassed a number of cities and nations with his ‘impromptu checks’. And he was so popular apparently Wistram was discussing having a separate channel dedicated exclusively to him.

None of that bothered Rhisveri, of course. His nation would have passed any of Fetohep’s requirements with flying colors. Which was doubtless why it hadn’t been showcased.

In fact, people didn’t speak about Ailendamus enough. It was practically a paradise, a technological leader, and far, far larger than puny Khelt. Which meant that Rhisveri was that perfect ruler.

He had just the way to prove it, too. A number of rulers, from [Lords] to the King of Avel, had taken up one of Fetohep’s challenges to…hilarious results.

That being—entertain a child or children for eighteen minutes, or an hour, using only your own personal talents. It had attracted record viewers on Drassi’s channel, and she’d even split coverage with Sir Relz and Noass because of how popular the recordings were.

Mostly because…they were live. And they ranged from everything like seeing a [Lord] trying to impress a bunch of frightened children and shouting—to the King of Avel shooting his famous bow past a group of children and then leaping for cover when one aimed the bow at him.

And the King of Avel had been one of the more successful clips. The funniest ones were when the [Lords] got nervous. There was a now-famous image of one of Chandrar’s [Emirs] hiding behind a curtain after getting stage-fright from an uppity little Stitch-Girl.

Of course, some [Lords] proved they could do it and thus won a great deal of popularity. For instance—the rising star of Izril. The now-famous name of that great [Lord] had been doing the rounds on the broadcasts last night.

 

——

 

The [Lord of Love and Wine], Lord Pellmia, did a forty-five minute broadcast where he demonstrated how wine was made, everything from the picking of grapes with an enthusiastic bunch of children to squishing them in a messy—but laughing group.

A nearly flawless demonstration of natural charm and understanding of children. The grape-treading was horrifically gross to some species who hadn’t realized that was how you made grape juice and wine. Like Dullahans.

But Lord Pellmia, juggling peaches while he danced about with the children in the grape press, had probably doubled House Quellae’s usual sales for the month in a day.

As Fetohep would remark, ‘there stands a [Lord] well aware of both the business of his lands, the nature of his people, and his own talents. A threefold man, where most of these half-wits are equally half-men at best. 8/10.’

 

——

 

It had everything for the modern viewer. Funny antics. Powerful people embarrassing themselves in real situations. And a snarky and critical host in Fetohep.

Naturally, Ailendamus had considered doing the same. But King Itorin wasn’t the most interested, perhaps wisely seeing how other rulers had fared.

It wasn’t even natural charisma you needed—you had to be good with kids. Not necessarily a skill other rulers had. Some, like King Itreimedes of Avel, had the ego to drag everyone around with him to mixed results.

Others, like the Sleeping Queen, Geilouna, were canny enough to invite children for a sleep-over where they could eat snacks on beds, gossip with her, and pet her menagerie of animals.

She still got a 5/10.

Rhisveri, though…Rhisveri had told Visophecin to arrange a trial of his own. Not that he answered to Fetohep!

He had been alive when King His-Xe had been causing trouble! Well, born in that time. Yes, Khelt might be a bit older than he was. But Fetohep was a gnat of a ruler. Rhisveri was just…proving to outside viewers he could do anything the King of Khelt thought was admirable.

The Wyrm was a master of all abilities after all. He could fight in multiple bodies, cast magic, and he was a renaissance man of countless talents.

Entertaining children? H-how hard could it be? Especially with Visophecin broadcasting it, damn him.

He wouldn’t get Wistram News Network here on such short notice. All Rhisveri had to do was get some props. And, uh—sixty?

What kind of an activity involved sixty children? Wait, how old were they? They were Oesca’s age, right?

 

——

 

It occurred to Rhisveri, forty-eight minutes later when he peeked behind the curtains, that maybe Visophecin was holding a grudge for something.

Not telling him about the Scroll of Resurrection? Or refusing the Dragonthrone? Or exiling Ryoka until she found a Dryad?

There could be any number of reasons. It occurred to Rhisveri that, given the extensive scrying orbs ready to record the room—that Visophecin might have manipulated him into allowing the recordings.

They were already in the palace and setting up when he approached me. I’ll melt that devilish bastard. A credit to his entire species.

The last thing Rhisveri hadn’t considered was this: Princess Oesca was here, and she was a bright, capable young woman. Young, yes, but nine years old. Capable of stringing together a sentence without drooling much. Able to wipe her nose.

She was…the oldest child in this room by far. Visophecin had intimated she would be the average age. But in truth, the children were three to seven at best.

You bastard. He was here, in person, with half the Lucifen in the palace watching with their faces perfectly straight in the background. Rhisveri was staring in horror at sixty children, some of whom were already crying—and his props?

 

——

 

The broadcast was being televised via Wistram News Network and on Ailendamus’ local channels. King Itorin II, when he had heard of it, had cleared his schedule for the day.

Something after his talks with Ryoka had told him that it would add years to his lifespan if he watched—and he was not wrong.

It started as gloriously as Itorin could hope. After the introduction, through which some of the children had begun asking ‘where’s the snacks’, Rhisveri appeared behind a royal purple curtain. He had a number of servants helping him—and his own impressive magics, which levitated his props into the room.

I am Duke Rhisveri of Ailendamus. Brother to King Itorin II, who has come to entertain you all. I trust we shall enjoy ourselves so immensely we are without recourse but to laugh with delight.

He entered with his head held high and his voice ringing. Two children instantly tried to hide between Oesca. She was the only one who clapped…and the clapping petered out very quickly.

“I believe I shall have some Quellae wine. And snacks.”

Was he smiling? Itorin II, who had been taking tonics just in case his hairline receded further than it already had—almost felt like the hair follicles were regrowing in real-time. And it got better. When the Duke paused and swallowed, he did rally. The first time.

“I’ve prepared—an object lesson in fine baking. Which we shall all attend. Let’s mix up some of Ailendamus’ fine—fine—cuisines…”

He looked around at the children, which he had definitely assumed to be Oesca’s age. In other words—capable of rudimentary cooking. The servants placing bowls in front of the children watched as the first toddler promptly opened a bag, knocked over all the flour in a poof that caused a dozen more to sneeze—and another stuck an entire dirty hand into the pot of butter.

“I—assumed your collective ages would be older. But fear not! I have also prepared wands for you to—”

One of the [Head Servants], possibly a nursemaid, actually grabbed Rhisveri in the bravest act of any of the staff and told him—in whispers that Itorin could practically hear—that you did not give pointy wands capable of casting dangerous magic to children. Especially children who put things into their mouths.

Rhisveri’s face mottled—then went white. The room was dead silent now as the guests not aware of what this would be coughed or tried not to look at him.

“I—I have musical instruments next. A dulcimer.”

He was copying Fetohep! Itorin II’s ribs hurt. His wife was giving him a look of deep concern, but he wiped tears out of his eyes. He had to see. He had to—

All ten of the Lucifen began applauding wildly as Rhisveri was handed the dulcimer. The rest of the room, [Mages] and camera-people included, applauded, and the children did too. Ahead of the music. Rhisveri gave Visophecin a look of pure hatred.

House Shoel were pure evil. When Rhisveri began playing—oh, it was glorious. Itorin II began hiccuping.

He was playing classical high-brow music. The kind that required quiet seating, the right company and mood—and probably more wine—to appreciate.

The children listened for about twenty seconds before one began speaking.

“Is—is this—why is the scary man here? Where’s Teacher Minni? Where’s the toys?”

“Where’s the toys?”

They were getting upset, and several began crying—assuming that Rhisveri had taken away the plentiful toys and objects that adorned the Solar Classrooms. Oesca made it worse by trying to help.

“It’s just Duke Rhisveri. Don’t be scared! He’s going to entertain us.”

“I don’t want him! I want Minni!

Then half of them were pointing at one of the beloved palace teachers, who was waving with a pained smile from the side. Rhisveri kept playing, trying to smile.

If you tuned into Wistram News Network’s broadcast, you could get live commentary from little images of other rulers in the sidebar. Fetohep was just staring, mouth open slightly, while Drassi shook her head in complete disbelief. Queen Geilouna was drinking her entire cup of wine.

Several servants looked at Rhisveri and the man’s increasingly reddening face, and then Teacher Minni rushed forwards and clapped her hands.

“Alright, everyone. Big smile for me! [Who Can Smile]? Let’s have a snack and a short break!”

She made a smile with her fingers. The faltering dulcimer cut off—and the children obliged her with a smile. That they could smile was good—a [Teacher]’s Skill to make sure all was well.

They cheered up, and the crying stopped as a snack was quickly procured and divided up. The snack, incidentally, had been meant for the half-hour break in this hour-long performance of Rhisveri’s abilities.

How long had it been?

Seven minutes. Itorin called for more snacks and to make sure this was recorded and shown across his great lands. In honor of his brother.

 

——

 

“Seven minutes?”

Rhisveri’s face was grey behind the curtain as he wiped sweat pouring off his brow. He—he felt like the Dragonfire of Teriarch hadn’t been as hot as this.

He had feared fighting his actual brother less than going out behind that curtain.

“We could cut the broadcast, Your Grace? Perhaps magical interference?”

One of the servants seemed ready to do it just to save Rhisveri. But the Wyrm just knew his face was going to be all over the television if he didn’t—didn’t—

Okay. First step. [Grand Fireball]. Throw it out the window. Then, if they aren’t impressed, another one for the entire room. Aim at Visophecin.

No, he couldn’t do that. C-could he?

Whatever you do, don’t cry. Don’t shout. Don’t beg. Hold onto a scrap of dignity.

“Wh-what’s next on the schedule? What else do we have?”

“Er…you were going to teach them the art of Drathian folding? Little paper cranes and such?”

Rhisveri stared at the colorful pieces of paper and the sample. He stared at the children.

“Those wretches will blow their noses on them and eat the rest. What else?”

“A lesson on Ailendamus’ history and General Dionamella’s sacrifice? We, uh—have a painting of her?”

The servants were staring at him with such intensity he didn’t need telepathy to read their thoughts. Please not a history lesson. Please not—

“Perhaps not. What next?”

The servants looked down at their list. They looked up and gave him waxy smiles.

“It, ah—just says ‘applause break’ and concluding speech, Your Grace.”

It was then that the Wyrm began hyperventilating. He sat behind the curtain, hearing the precious seconds winding down as Minni asked everyone to be good and to listen to the nice Duke and got a chorus of ‘yes’ from the kids.

What a hero. What an unsung champion. She had to go out there with that horde of rabid vermin each and every day and hold their scattered attention?

Rhisveri could run. He could run—and he’d be laughed at forever. His reputation? Visophecin was out there. He was chuckling, that horned devil. That demon!

“W-w-what should I do?”

Was his voice trembling? The servants looked at each other, and one whispered.

“If a child were to run into the cameras, Your Grace?”

The Wyrm stared at the servant. That was so obvious. Fetohep would call it out in an instant, and Rhisveri would be the Duke who had to fake the cameras going down to save face.

Wait. Dead gods. Teriarch was going to see this. The Dragonlord, the immortals—they’d seen all of this.

Rhisveri had been hot, despite his cold-blooded nature. Now, he went ice-cold. He was spinning. He was stumbling around behind the curtains, and the servants were telling him to breathe, to calm down, to go out there and just begin the history lesson and—

And then Duke Rhisveri, overwhelmed, went quite mad. So entirely mad. And he did the only thing he could think of doing.

 

——

 

“Perhaps we should bail him out now?”

The Lucifen were having the most fun they’d had all year. But they were aware of how petty Rhisveri could be, so they’d come with a backup plan.

Azemith glanced into the hallway where their ace in the deck was waiting. Uzine was ready to take over for Rhisveri and help the Wyrm save face. There was—probably—no way that even Rhisveri could mess with the Agelum’s way with kids.

Visophecin was nodding reluctantly when the curtains swung back. He looked up, expecting to see Rhisveri at his lowest…and prepared to save that image for his darkest hours when he lay dying, just so he could laugh.

But he stopped. The Lucifen’s eyes opened wide—and the other Lucifen turned—and stared. Azemith and her partner, Igolze, stared, and Paxere whispered.

“Oh no. We’ve gone too far. He’s lost it.”

The guests, the audience, even the commentators on the broadcast—all stopped. It took them a moment to understand what they were seeing.

Rhisveri had set something up in the brief minutes he had. It was…well, it was about stomach-height. Low enough that the children could see the edge, if not over it from where they sat.

It was just some bits of wood forming a rough window into which an empty square of space sat.

And…very conspicuously—Rhisveri, ducking down behind it. He was a tiny bit too large for his contraption, so you could see him peeking out from the sides and over the top if you were tall enough.

“What the flying f—

Paxere’s whisper was silenced by her parents. But Visophecin had felt a sudden pit open in his stomach. Wait a second. This looked familiar. Was this…?

The children were staring at the box, and some were wondering where Rhisveri had gone and how much longer this would take when the first unholy being rose from behind the wooden square.

It…opened its ‘mouth’ and began to speak in an exaggerated way. It was a light blue color, and it had two tiny stubs for arms. It was somewhat crudely made, or at least, you felt—you could see the stitching on parts of it.

Oh, and it made the entire room stare. Children included. What came out of the little being’s mouth was a bright, chirrupy voice, slightly off—as if it weren’t coming from the being itself.

It was—in fact—

A sock puppet. And only Visophecin and one other had ever seen its like before.

Hey, little boys and girls! I hear you’re bored of boring old Duke Rhisveri! Well, I’m the Mini-Duke! Rhissy! And I’m going to entertain you because he’s not here!

Statues. Waxworks. People engraved in time in complete frozen silence. The children looked at each other as the little puppet cast about.

“Oh wait, darn! I forgot my clothes! One sec!”

He ducked down—and then came up with a bright red coat that he was shrugging on. ‘Rhissy’ wiped at his brow.

“Whew! Alright. Don’t tell anyone I was naked. Wait. My pants!

He ducked down again, and then someone made a sound. Oesca. It sounded like—a snort. The kind of humor you got at a gallows, perhaps. Or the ludicrousness had just overwhelmed all other emotions. But the children—especially the three-year olds and youngest ones—were showing the first signs of attention they had so far.

Especially when the second puppet slowly rose up over the edge. This one was better-made, and she—she was definitely she—had darker skin, black hair, and looked very familiar to some.

“Psst. Rhisveri’s silly. And he smells.”

“Hey! You! You’re not supposed to come back till later! Get out of here!”

Rhissy rose with ‘pants’ visible on his underside and a club with nails. He began whacking the other puppet, and Puppet-Ryoka fled. Now, the children were looking at each other but pointing to the play.

What is going on? Is he mad, Visophecin?

“I dearly hope so.”

The Lucifen pointed—then ducked as the bat went spinning past his head. It bounced off Igolze’s head, and the Lucifen staggered.

What the giggling children didn’t realize was how damn hard the puppet had thrown an actual piece of wood. But the puppet just pointed one stubby arm.

“Hey, you! Shush! I’m talking here! Alright, kids. Do you like…stories? Can I hear a ‘yes’? Come on now, don’t you know words?”

“Yes!”

A few children picked it up, and now almost all of them were focused on Rhissy. The puppet beamed.

“Great! Then let’s have a little story. A fun story—and a true story, not like all those boring ones. How many of you have heard of ‘the Lightning Thief’?”

He counted hands.

“Oh, not bad! Well, I have a story that happened in Ailendamus. It’s called ‘the Barefoot Thief’. And it’s about a Thief who broke into Ailendamus and stole something. So listen up! It’s about the most amazing Thief in the world. Who managed to not only ruin poor Rhisveri’s life, but makes everyone else miserable! Just by existing! If you want, throw things at her whenever she appears. Alright…here we go!”

He ducked down, and the same puppet from before rose. The children sitting there blinked as little cotton tomatoes and stones appeared in their laps. They stared at the female puppet as it rose.

“Hey, everyone! I’m Ryoka Gr—I mean, Ryoko Griffin! And I’m the best person ever! I’m a famous Courier because I can run barefoot. And I can even fly with the wind! My personal wind! See!”

Then—with an amazing farting sound—the puppet flew up a bit and zoomed around, and the audience saw there was no hand attached. There was even a smell effect and visible green gas. Someone gagged, but the children began laughing.

“And I help people! Like this! See! I have your delivery, sir!”

She landed, and a farmer tipped his cap to her as another puppet rose.

“Why thank you, Miss—”

You’re welcome! Another good deed done!

‘Ryoko’ swung around and slapped the [Farmer] in the face with her hair.

My eyes!

He went ‘stumbling’ around, then slammed into a rake, which smacked him in the head. Ryoko turned.

“What happened? Oh no! Let me help you up! Whoops! I dropped your rake!”

She then tossed it into his face. The screaming [Farmer] writhed around as Ryoko wiped at her brow.

“Whew. Another good deed done. Hey! You know what I love? Stealing from people. This is my rake now. I found it. Hey look! I’ve got a rake!”

She picked up the object and waved it overhead happily as the farmer lay there, crawling after her. And by that point—the first tomato flew at Ryoko. But the children were laughing. And when Rhisveri appeared, stroking his little beard and talking about how happy he was, they were already trying to warn him about the evil Thief coming his way.

It was a silly play. It had fart jokes and slapstick…and you could throw things at Ryoko whenever she appeared. But what kept Visophecin staring, and the immortals—and perhaps even the adults too was because this was a Wyrm’s tale.

A true tale. Perhaps the only one Rhisveri had ever thought to tell. In his desperation, he fell back to it, with some alterations.

But the core was the same. The children giggled and cried out and booed the Thief as she ruined people’s lives in comedic ways, and the Rhisveri-puppet tried to clean up after her and reason with her. That was just artistic license.

—Yet the friendly Dryad and the Great General Dioname were not. Of course, it was just a fantastical element to make the children ooh and admire them. Watching Dioname’s puppet beat down both Eldavin, Tyrion Veltras, and ‘Ser Solstice’ made them laugh. And they cried out when Ryoko lit ‘Fithee’ and her forest on fire.

“Fithee? Fithee? Where are you? Are you alright? Please be alright.”

—But there was silence when the little figure went rooting through the ashes, crying out that name. Such a silence among the Lucifen you could have heard them blinking. They didn’t take a breath.

A little puppet called out, alone, with such emotion that Visophecin realized Rhisveri was mad. Mad—and so raw he had the children crying. Until the Dryad rose.

You cannot defeat the forest. [Regrowth]. Don’t be sad, Rhissy.”

Fithee!

And the forests rose and sent the Windy Thief flying. And Fithee appeared, and the two puppets hugged. Then they went to rescue Great General Dioname, who was fighting off half of Izril by herself.

It was a children’s story, and at the end, when Rhissy, Fithee, and Dioname celebrated and locked the Windy Thief up, the children cheered and clapped. And the Lucifen applauded like a quiet storm, staring.

Staring at the Duke as he appeared, bowing, looking proud of his performance, which had the children begging to beat up the evil Windy Thief or make their own puppets. He didn’t seem to realize the others were there—and even afterwards, not how much they’d truly seen.

“Everyone thank Duke Rhisveri! I’m sure he’ll put on another performance again—and maybe even the little—what did you call them?”

“Sock plays.”

Rhisveri exhaled as the broadcast began winding down. He stepped over to Visophecin and muttered out of the corner of his mouth.

“There. Nothing simpler. I may have stumbled thanks to your pranks at the start—oh, don’t look at me that way. I just took some liberties with the tale. What did you think?”

“It was—well done.”

The Duke stroked his chin, not seeing Visophecin’s odd look.

“Well, that’s fiction for you. Pure improvisation, really. Purely…I knew I could do it.”

The tale of the ‘Windy Thief’ was going to become an Ailendamus classic. As was, perhaps, the new artform that the Duke of Ailendamus had just pioneered. Something less artful than a [Puppeteer]’s dolls—but just as adaptive. Perhaps more so.

And he himself had found a talent, if an odd one. The Duke of Ailendamus exhaled, and the Wyrm relaxed. Whether he ignored it or didn’t see the reaction that separated child from adult—or how real his story had been—

He took a bow. And then proceeded to do an encore after much begging—this time about the Windy Thief back at it again with an obnoxious ‘Green King’ who kept opening and slamming doors while Rhisveri was trying to sleep. They were stealing another of his treasures again.

At least there—Fithee and Dioname danced around. Smiling. Smiling and showing the Wyrm’s wounded heart to the world.

The laughing, bouncing children quieted down like magic. But the only magic was in the little puppets, each carefully made. So you could practically see, despite their button eyes, their cloth—something as alive as any Stitch-Folk.

Duke Rhissy?

A little doll like Princess Oesca rose to the girl’s delight and awe. The ‘Duke’ was staring at his palace, half of which had been destroyed. He turned, and his angry voice was quiet, tired.

“Yes? Occi?”

“Are you mad at the Windy Thief for everything she’s done? Are you going to punish her badly?”

The two puppets turned, and the Windy Thief was in a cage being beaten with sticks by several knight-puppets as Dioname and Fithee watched. But they stopped, and Rhissy’s puppet spoke slowly.

“You know, Occi? I think I’ll let her go free. With a very stern warning and orders not to come back to Ailendamus.”

Noo—

The children echoed Occi’s tone of dismay.

“But what if she causes more trouble, Duke Rhissy? She nearly…nearly got Fithee hurt, and Dioname too. Shouldn’t we lock her up for all of time? That’s what mean Viscount Vis would do.”

The stern ‘Viscount’ stared down from a hill, swishing his cloak now and then. But Rhissy just glanced up at him and leaned over to Occi.

“You know what, Occi? I could do that. The Windy Thief is a silly girl. A troublemaker. But you know something—she’s not a bad person. She’s incompetent, smelly, and she makes tons of mistakes. But…”

“That’s very true. But?”

Rhissy stared at the Windy Runner as she stopped cowering. And his voice was soft as the children watched.

“—But you give people a second chance. There’s no second chance if you just—lock them away. That’s what Ailendamus does, you know. All but the worst people, we give another chance. Even mean old Viscount Vis does that. Even if it’s hard—you can be forgiven. So let’s let the Windy Thief fly away.”

Then they went over and unlocked the cage, and the Windy Thief apologized. Then flew away. And the Duke sat down and looked at his castle once more.

“The castle’s all broken, Duke. What happens when King Itorin comes back?”

Occi was worried, but the Duke shrugged.

“Things…don’t matter that much, Occi. People do. So let’s rebuild. We’ll do it together.”

And so they did.

It was a children’s tale that got applause from the audience. It wasn’t real. Everyone knew that. Even most of the kids. But it was something…something that even Duke Rhisveri seemed to realize was more than it had begun as—

“Lessons. Morality plays. That was clearly the intention. I could see someone—myself since I’m such an expert—putting on more in time. For their tiny minds.”

That was all he said to Teacher Minni, afterwards. She looked at him, but the Duke was back to full arrogance, preening and condescending to the children. As if ‘Rhissy’ and Rhisveri were different people entirely. As if one were but a puppet, mortal and silly, who had been taught by a Dryad and befriended a half-Elf. And the other—

The other was a Wyrm, who stood above them all, expecting naught but praise and applause. And the applause did actually continue for a while. The Duke stood imperiously proud…until he bent down and a shy little boy of three asked to see his ‘favorite’ doll, Fithee. Then, the Duke looked around—and produced one and handed it to the delighted boy.

“Keep it. And remember—she’s a superior being. A Dryad, understand? I can always make more. You want one? And you? Fine—give me fifteen seconds. Who wants…”

And he produced little versions of cloth characters, not the sock puppets, for as many who wanted them. The Duke tried to hide behind the curtain and looked around to see if anyone had noticed—but of course, that was why they applauded.

It was, needless to say, a broadcast that topped all of Wistram’s metrics. It had everything from embarrassment to a rallying success to sadness to hilarity and something new.

As Fetohep would say—

The pretentious pomposity of the Duke is, perhaps, rightly said to be without equal in Ailendamus. Few men could sink so low, but underneath a mountain, nay, a cordillera of artifice and incompetence lies something genuine enough to amuse and capture even an infant’s attention. From infant to adult, there lies a deeper reservoir of something that might be mistaken for wisdom in time. 3/10. A blasphemously bad opening saved by an intriguing performance. Without the former, it could have risen to greater heights. 5/10. Or perhaps the former informed the latter’s success. 6/10.

 

——

 

They had more to give than swords and sorcery, you know. And he did know it. Sometimes, the Dragon just forgot.

But perhaps other people were learning to be—if not old—then different than young. Tell them stories.

Show them a path forwards they had not yet seen. But you could not do that in a cave or while sleeping.

They were finding their path, but the Dragon…the Dragon lay there, indulging in self-pity. Which you had to admit, he was good at. Sometimes, you needed help or a reminder. Sometimes—

Klbkch stared into the distance from the top of The Wandering Inn. He stood on Bird’s tower as the Worker shook his fist and told him to get off. Klbkch ignored him.

Rhisveri, Visophecin, and Ailendamus quieted a moment as even the Wyrm’s ego shrank enough for cogent thought.

And onwards the Haven came, bearing aspects of the north with it. Mihaela Godfrey only felt old when people and things reminded her of it. Like mirrors, which were entirely inaccurate to her truth.

Old was just a word. And there was always someone, something to wake them up. Even in their worst moments.

For the Dragon—well, for a Dragon—it was coming.

Three months had passed since the [Innkeeper] came back. Two full months of slumber.

 

——

 

Now.

 

Rafaema of Manus had left her City of War nearly a month already. She was sick of her massive escort and their pace, but she could see Pallass rising in the distance. And then it was only a hop and skip and kicking all her minders into a ditch. She hoped—

He’d still be there. He had told her he’d find Rafaema, but she had realized he hadn’t said when, and she’d waited two months. So she was going to find him, damnit.

“You’re not coming.”

“Luciva will kill me and Ferris and Aldonss if we don’t go with you, Rafaema.”

Spearmaster Lulv was immune to the Lightning Dragon’s glares.

“You are the worst pick to come with me.”

“You need me. Liscor has a Gnollish population.”

“You just want your spear back. Do you think Liscor will like you? You? Of all the—if Makhir wasn’t busy—send anyone but you! If you mess this up for me—

The Dragon clenched her fist. Ferris, Lulv, and Aldonss all exchanged glances as the elite [Soldiers] pretended they could hear nothing.

What, exactly, Rafaema was going to meet—who—er—what—

They didn’t know. She had refused to say, and Luciva herself was…silent. She wanted them to report back. Everything. They definitely didn’t know they were going to see anyone—anything that might change the fates of their city.

Definitely. And they could be unobtrusive, start no issues, and quietly go about their business. Manus. Subterfuge. Tact. These words were sometimes conflated. Often with laughter.

If it had to be done, it would be. Rafaema didn’t care. But she was nearly there—and her wings opened wide, and she had a thousand questions. A thousand expectations.

Those could be harsher than anything else.

 

——

 

Now.

 

Someone else was also coming, but from the opposite direction. She had no escort—at least not upon the breeze. She clung to her glider and steadfastly did not look down.

Ryoka Griffin was flying south as people looked up and waved to her. Her face was still burning red after that damn broadcast.

She knew people wanted to talk to her about it, especially—she reluctantly looked down and groaned.

—The man riding after her with a carriage and an entire convoy behind him. She made a gesture.

“Shoo. Shoo!

This was going to be a disaster. Especially if she went to the place with the old guy—and Tyrion followed her. Absolutely not. She’d figure something out.

She was smart.

She was reasonably smart.

She could think.

Ryoka Griffin groaned, and in truth, she had no idea if she had the right to visit the only place she could call a kind of home. To visit—people she owed so much to. A girl she should not keep running from.

Here she was, taking Liscor’s most-hated man to Liscor. Ryoka could not imagine someone worse to bring.

She wouldn’t have done it, honestly. She would have left the…left the Dragon who didn’t remember her alone. Really, honestly. Even if it had been two months and she feared he might not have remembered her.

Or gone to sleep. But they could not wait. So Ryoka flew onwards, because she missed her friends. She missed that inn. And she had something else.

It had appeared, as such things did, on her pillow, which was not scary at all. But Ryoka supposed, just once, she could overlook it. At least, here, she felt for the sender of the delicate letter written in pink letters.

 

Dear Ryoka Griffin,

I need a favor…

 

——

 

Now.

 

The letter still galled her to send. It was painful—not because you shouldn’t ask for help or be humble.

It was just that Ryoka Griffin was not the person to ask for anything. Not for this.

Magnolia Reinhart had been first, and it was a petty thing to quibble over. But she had. She truly had.

She’d spent thirty years. More than thirty years prying a silly old man out of his shell. Only for someone to swoop in and do much the same thing. And bring him back from the dead.

Sometimes, you could be the removed [Lady] who stood outside of the great hall. No one needed to be covered in glory. It was a sticky thing, and it didn’t ever last. Also, it attracted flies.

—But this?

Magnolia Reinhart was grumpy when she woke. She was so grumpy that even Ressa didn’t needle her and just handed over a doughnut. And coffee. With sugar and cream.

“There is something so entirely unpleasant about sleeping in a moving carriage. Tell me there are some [Bandits].”

“We cannot run over them, Lady Reinhart.”

Ressa glanced out the window meaningfully—the modest, unpink coach was still enchanted…but barely. And sleeping in it for nigh on a week? When she could have done the same trip in two days with long rests at an inn, max?

Magnolia Reinhart’s one advantage was that no one, ever, in the history of time would think she was in anything but her pink carriage. Which was currently destroyed.

Both of them. Her backup had been lost. The first, to [Assassins]. The second, to Belavierr. Magnolia Reinhart took the breakfast and muttered darkly.

“Damn running them over. I’ll grab a crossbow and a wand and see to it myself.”

Her uncharacteristic bad mood was not going to get worse. She was going to come to Liscor…tactfully. Stop by The Wandering Inn, perhaps, and make some amends with Erin Solstice. Or talk to Larra and see what was possessing her.

Bother Valeterisa—Magnolia Reinhart knew she was disliked, and so she would be as graceful as could be. She only hoped she could make a good impression as such a figure of enmity. But she had to go, and if she met Ryoka Griffin—

Well. She was certain even Tyrion wouldn’t stray close to Liscor, which was one problem accounted for. Magnolia Reinhart yawned.

“I forgot the High Passes had so many monsters. Are you sure you need…all this, Ressa?”

She glanced sideways pointedly. One of the reasons why Magnolia could not lie down to sleep in the carriage—which was still fairly generous—was because of Ressa’s packed items.

Too many to fit above the coach or in the trunk. They had, of course, food, supplies, potions, gold on hand, all the mundane necessities. Things you used to free a coach. Rope, crowbar, spare axels, auto-loading House of El crossbows, Storm Titan bolts, Drathian summoning crystals…

Ressa and the [Maid] sitting with a giant shield and morning star stared at Magnolia. The [Head Maid] glanced left at a [Duelist Maid] with a silver bell attached to her flamberge.

“Fairly certain, yes, milady.”

“Oh. Well…hand me that crossbow, would you? I hear Liscor has a Garbichug problem. I used to have decent aim, you know.”

She stared out the window as she waited for a crossbow to be fished out. Her banter was light…but she was waiting. Just waiting. She truly did have to come here.

Or what was all of what she’d been doing—for? Magnolia stared out the window. The High Passes. If she had to empty out every monster in them, Void Eater Goats or Bossels or whatever Ressa was nervous of, she would.

That old man had better not forget her. Or—Magnolia Reinhart looked at the mundane crossbow bolt Ressa was offering her. She thought she spotted a Garbichug already. Disgusting creatures. They came from Rhir. So Magnolia plucked a Fireball Bolt out and put it in the crossbow as everyone leaned back. Magnolia delicately rolled down the window and took aim.

If he forgot her, she would remind him.

 

——

 

Magnolia Reinhart, Ryoka Griffin, and Rafaema of Manus. They had business with the slumbering old man. Each one different.

And so they came again and again—just as the first time he had ever met a little Harpy perched on a branch, singing in the rain.

Just like all the others, from his daughter to the ones who had come seeking his aid, seeking revenge. Seeking—

Something else. Perhaps that was why he slept, that lazy Dragon.

He was waiting—no, hoping someone came to wake him up.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: Here we are again. A relatively short chapter that’s allowing me to push on edits. I think I’m getting a bit better at keeping the word count down and content up. I can always improve, but…sometimes you have less time.

This month will certainly be that for me. I have family coming in, and while I want to work throughout the holidays until my long break—I will make time for them at the cost of longer chapters.

…Plus I heard Dwarf Fortress is finally releasing with a graphical UI like Rimworld today. So, uh, this might be the last chapter you ever hear from me. Then again, games as legendarily complex as that might just make me never touch a game again.

I hope you liked this chapter, is what I’m saying. And there will be more—the people have spoken and the arc has begun. I may break it up, and I do have an idea of other upcoming chapters I must write, but we are set upon our course.

Now, if only I could get good sleep like that Dragon…hope you’re doing well. I need to buy a new mattress. A bed of coins does not sound comfortable, either. Thanks for reading and remember…have you done your Christmas shopping? I hear there are train strikes that may or may not be happening.

 

 

Stream art by butts! Magic sucking Antinium, Rhissy, and the Windy Thief!

Twitter: https://twitter.com/buttscord

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

 

Ceria by ravvlet!

 

The Silver Dragon, Nerrhavia, Ama, and more by Lanrae!

 


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23 thoughts on “Interlude – Age and Tales

  1. Leave a typo for the power of sock puppets! Dragonfire clearly isn’t getting any work done…

    (Puppet readers: Litwickee, MrWiggles, Gorexn, Quynin, Maladal, emphes, ChronoMager, J, steve)

  2. Dick move from Teriarch, even if Eldavin is a cultist of an eldritch abomination. And I don’t like Rhisveri, but I will say he really captured Ryoka’s essence with his puppets

  3. Hard to say who has it worst.

    Eldavin is misguided. While most seem to care about the goddess of death it has been shown she isn’t that great of a goddess… More like a flawed parent you care about because they are family, but not exactly the best type of person either.

    Needless to say Eldavin is going to get a rude awakening when that partnership/faith hits the rocky shores of reality.

    Teriarch is old and tends to forget about the simpler solutions. His memory loss really does bother him and it feels like that comment he made to Eldavin is coming to bite him back before it bites the [Mage] back.

    Rhisveri? Love him, hate him. He is complicated at best having better intentions than most with an ego bigger than his own nation. The problem of course is his ego and those who are in his way.

    Kib? Learning the difference between knowing and telling. We forget that most of his life (really long) he was used to other ants simply knowing what he talks about or knew. The whole network ability made it easy.

    The real trick he has to learn is getting used to individuals… Because while he is a part of the original cast we keep forgetting (and he even forgets) that he came from a very different place. To the point he could be considered an alien.

    Still a nice build up to see what happens before the next stick of dynamite is lit and tossed at the cast to see if they can put out the flame before it goes boom.

  4. Oh my goodness. I thought this was just a chapter of old people reminciscing the past (which was amazing by the way) but then we get foreshadowing of the impending three-way car crash and a possible train derailment at the end. This might be a disaster. I cannot wait to see it.

    • It doesn’t need to be changed. Earth & World can be used interchangeably even in other worlds. Earth literally just means dirt after all.

  5. Compliments on the chapter, a great example of doing more with less words. I’ve always enjoyed this sort of TVesque dramatic beat style that you pull off so well.

    • Oh yeah, definitely. I would love periodic chapters of world leaders reacting to Antinium feats. I wonder if there were actually a lot more Ancient Crelers that were created, and most were held back and killed by the Antinium with the last five being the only ones to breach the surface. If Klbkch actually killed one himself, I can only imagine the winebreath blasters that’ll be shot.

  6. Oh man. I am so, so looking forward to Tyrion following Ryoka into the inn (oblivious to and ignoring all the signs) and then trying to hurt a goblin. Erin’s anger + aura is going to absolutely bring the delevel’d goblin killer to his knees. Just a shame she won’t hit 50 before then.

    • Actually, given that a dragon, two scions of the Five Families, a Courier, and a small army from Manus will all be at Erin’s Inn as a flashpoint. It creates just the conditions for [Innkeeper] levels, especially if Erin has to sort them all out with her Aura and fists. Dominating the head of the five families with your [Inn’s Aura] along with resisting the Aura of another probably counts at least a level. And Dragons always give great experience just by their proximity alone. I’d say its very much likely that Erin gains another level or two in the ensuing cluster-fuck.

  7. Two things I was wondering about:

    1. Erribathae has a half-elf queen? Wasn’t Terandria ridiculously racist against half-elves? Seems weird that one of the biggest nations would basically not care about that, given it was the half-elf empire that gave them that bad reputation right?

    2. A stylistic choice I see you make a lot is to say ‘now you see it’ or ‘now you know’ etc. It honestly feels a little pretentious to keep hearing it multiple times per chapter; it lends weight when it was used once every other chapter, but now it’s almost every chapter that I see it. But maybe that’s just me.

    Otherwise, thank you for the chapter! I love reading the serial.

    • The kingdom actually seemed to exist before the Half Elf Empire & their presumed atrocities. It was even mentioned how the kingdom was spared the wrath of the half elven empire. So it actually makes sense that the kingdom has a half elf queen, since their traditions are presumably older then the half elf empire which caused the racism to begin with. They hold different ideas and are not as against half elf’s in positions of royalty. It’s likely however that one of the royal couple has to be a human, and that skills are used to ensure that a human can be born to take up the mantle while still holding elvish blood, and therefore the right to rule, as the monarchy claims that power via being descended from the Last Elf, even though that’s a lie. Appearances have to be kept.

  8. Three of the most hated people going to liscor, this will be fun! I really love klbs story out of the three, it gave hollow knight vibes (aka the best vibes)

  9. I’m looking forward to Valeressa meeting the Mathematician, though her hearing about Picies’s spellbook or helping Ryoka figure out the Fae Obal is a good second option

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