9.30

[The Wandering Inn store is having a Solstice sale! Check it out here!]

 

(Trial of the Alchemist, a mystery-fantasy by Trevor Melanson, is coming out free on Royalroad! Check it out here: https://www.royalroad.com/fiction/61221/trial-of-the-alchemist-mind-bending-mystery-fantasy)

 

On the day of the tournament, the <Heroic Quest> in honor of Zeladona, the [Blademistress of Ancients], everyone agreed on a few things.

Firstly—that inn never ran out of entertainment. Apparently, you could just hit the [Innkeeper] on the head and she’d spit out a new <Quest>.

Secondly—everyone wanted to know who Zeladona was. No one really remembered her, which said a lot about her age. That was—until a bunch of Chandrarian nations and even monasteries began digging up a common name who had codified and sometimes improved entire schools of fighting.

A blademaster of another time. So old that there were bounties on the books in Nerrhavia’s Fallen for a full scroll of her sword-techniques that pre-dated Nerrhavia dying.

Nothing would do but for the Iron Vanguard to show off an entire wall in one of their cities that showed sword-forms for Dullahans. And Drath itself decided to announce in singular text the following, which Drassi read on her broadcast:

 

Blademistress Zeladona had visited the Empire of Drath to learn from the masters here in the Lightness Era. -1176 D.O.M.

 

That meant, of course, if you were Sir Relz, you actually popped the monocle off your face as you fell over on your desk. He and Noass were running the desk while Drassi was in Liscor. When he came round, he told everyone that it didn’t stand for the Demons’ famous war-leader, but the era where magic itself was dead.

As for the negative years—some idiot had retroactively decided to count everything in that era backwards as when magic ‘returned’ was the restoration of all that was good in the world and thus Year 0.

That [Historian] had been murdered in his bed for his crimes.

Anyways, the third thing everyone agreed on was that there was no time for a proper tournament. Someone was currently screaming at Noass about it as the Drake nodded along sympathetically.

A proper tournament takes weeks—possibly months or even a year to organize right! There needs to be crowds, stakes! Who are the competitors? Where’s the mysterious masked individual? The foreign team? We need buildup! Drama! And time for more people to show up! Months of practice lead-time for each combatant! Betting! Love-affairs between rivals! Sabotage before the tournament even begins, and day-long exhibitions for the entire week at least!”

They had—opinions—on how a tournament should go. One day? Noass hesitated as Earl Altestiel and Hundredlord Cortese of Kaaz fought for space on the scrying orb.

Altestiel was the one with opinions about the tournament. Cortese had a simpler objection.

I must be there! Half of Kaaz would go—you tell that [Innkeeper] to delay her quest! I’ll charter a ship this day! I’ll pay Wistram to teleport me! Give me one—two days, and I’ll make the journey!”

In fact, people were coming in via Pallass, Invrisil, Celum—whatever areas the door could reach. Archmage Valeterisa herself was teleporting in with guests—after charging them extensive fees.

People without access to magic? A carriage rolled in this morning alongside a Gnoll practically strapped to a horse. The carriage disgorged what looked like a dead Drake.

“I…I made it? Am I too late?”

The Drake in question had raced out of his city the instant he heard about the <Quest> and rode down four horses in the night before ordering the carriage to drive him to Pallass or crash into the walls. He had slept not one wink for the last eighteen hours.

“The tournament’s starting at midday. Who are you, sir?”

Drassi bent over the Drake. He stared up at her.

“Midday?”

He peered at the sun still rising—and immediately passed out. Drassi looked at the snoring figure. Then at the Gnoll, who looked half-dead.

“And where did you ride in from, sir?”

Comoller.

“Isn’t that…a hundred and sixty miles south of Pallass?”

Yes.

The Gnoll fell out of his saddle, but he had the wherewithal to drag himself into the inn.

These were, of course, exceptionally wealthy individuals who could pay for spot-teleportation or multiple horses and sprint from their locations. And even then—Cortese, Altestiel, and the furious people of multiple continents would never get to Liscor in a week’s time, much less a day.

It said very clearly that the world needed faster transportation, and Archmage Eldavin was among those listening to the complaints.

But the fourth and main thing that everyone agreed upon?

That Maestro was a bastard. Possibly a magnificent one, but he and Symphony were something. In fact, Sir Relz had to cut Cortese and Altestiel off—mostly because his other interviewee, Deniusth, hadn’t stopped cursing his name for the last thirty minutes.

Orchestra…was not going to make it back in time. They had taken off after the thieves from Albez, and because they had rushed so far south at their top speed, they had literally made it impossible to return in time.

Thus, it looked like the tournament would be having mostly local fighters from several regions of Izril with a few drop-in guests who had managed the journey. Outrageous. The Maestro, then, was the target of ire as well as grudging admiration. You could hate him taking something you wanted.

You could, understandably, dislike a trained killer holding someone at dagger’s edge. Then again—Symphony had killed no one and lost no one in their concert-Skill. That was the kind of thing some employers liked to see. But even if you hated the Maestro, there was something to him.

It was like watching a [Baron] deliberately extend a foot to trip up the young [Princess] on her debut in court as she held a glass of Amentus Juice that stained wonderfully, and she was crossing a royal carpet that cost over two hundred thousand gold coins. He was definitely a bastard—but you admired how he made the play.

So everyone did have to ask—who was this Maestro, the famous rival of Deniusth and Orchestra? Where did he come from? How did a Gold-bell duelist come to be leading a famous assassination group with little regard for his own safety—or his face being known to the world as a killer?

 

——

 

The day that defined Linvios Reiscale had happened about thirty years ago. Almost to this day. He had thought of it and not thought of it for thirty years.

It happened in Salazsar’s towers. It was spring, and a thousand guests, mostly Drakes, were already gathering, placing gifts in a veritable heap, dining on the expensive food being served to them.

They had come across the continent for this day. In fact—one notable Human had even come all the way from the north to attend the wedding.

Linvios stared daggers at Deniusth every time the two locked eyes.

“Bastard.”

He would show up to an obligatory wedding invitation just to show Linvios he had class. He wasn’t even the Nemesis of My Hour. Just Linvios’ personal, most hated person in this entire world.

Later, people like Colth and Deniusth’s friends—and Linvios’—would hear of their rivalry, which would span decades, where both endeavored to kill or humiliate the other. At this moment, both carried silver bells. But Colth had gotten one thing wrong.

It wasn’t Linvios’ wedding. The Drake was fiddling with his suit, and Salazsar did love suits. But this was a more formal wedding, so the groom, in the oldest traditions of their kind, had put on something closer to a robe of glittering metal. He looked like an [Emperor] with a triangular hat cut from Truegold-laced cloth, adorned with little charms hand-made by his closest friends and family.

The little red charm around his wrist had come from Linvios. Wall Lord Itreus was staring out one window nervously, but as Linvios looked back, the two exchanged a long look.

“Did he really show up? Your rival?”

“Yes. I heard he was in Chalence, but he came four thousand plus miles. Just to spite me.”

“Huh. Better him than my nemesis. Is Zail out there?”

Wall Lord Zail was waiting, and Itreus saw Linvios look out and spot the Drake. Zail, the scion of House Gemscale, stood tall, elegant, wearing his medals and gemstone coat as his longsword stood out from his jacket. A true military man.

“He’s here.”

“It will be strange, not wanting to throttle him at every passing moment. I wish you and Deniusth could do that.”

That was all Itreus said. He looked—magnificent. His scales had always been closer to pearlescent than most Drakes, faintly pinkish as they turned to amber-red. He had been in fights about it with Linvios, even when they were in their thirties. But at this moment, he seemed like no one could provoke him to violence. He was more thick-set than Linvios, especially his tail and legs—but not as much a warrior as the acclaimed [Duelist] of Salazsar.

But then—he was a Wall Lord, and he and Zail would lead their city as the next generation took command of their companies.

Look at him. Itreus glanced at Zail and sighed. Then Linvios glowered at Deniusth again.

“Him? It would never work. For a man who plays the violin so well, he doesn’t understand what harmony sounds like. He’s a solo act. A selfish one.”

His rivalry with Deniusth was both musical and driven by their personalities, their similar skillsets—and the ways their intersections made them butt heads. No—Deniusth would never be his Nemesis of My Hour.

Linvios wouldn’t ever be married, anyways. But Zail had come, and they had put their bad blood behind them.

There was a tradition, amongst Drakes, of marriage. Just like Humans and other species—but Drake traditions were different. One aspect of their weddings that astounded most other species was this:

They would have a ‘best man’, a groomsman just as the bride would invite her closest friend. Only one. If you were playing by the oldest rules from the time of Dragons, you had only one. No ‘multiple best friends’. You chose, and that was it.

You could say their weddings indicated the species—a gift to the bride and groom should be expensive. This was a display of wealth. The weddings started terrible fights sometimes.

—However, there was one thing Drakes did that was also cultural, and it was this: you invited your worst enemy as well.

Perhaps not one who’d stab you on sight. But if they showed up—your Nemesis of My Hour, as the fanciful title was referred to, would stand with the best man. They would be privy to your finest hour in this wedding, and thereafter—whatever grudge you’d held would be gone.

The leadup to this moment had been months of negotiations, hashing out all their animosity, seeing if Zail and Itreus could actually even stand each other long enough to do this thing. Linvios had thought they might actually stab each other multiple times.

—But this was the highest honor you could give someone. And Zail had accepted in the faith you were meant to and put down his long feud with Itreus for good. Here he was.

“Almost time now. A married man.”

“House Occum and House Torimine. Joined at the hip. I wonder what I’ll do. I can’t just wander into your new home and bother you now. Maybe I’ll create an adventuring company and spite Deniusth. Call it…something musical to annoy him and his precious ‘Orchestra’. Or maybe something else.”

Linvios didn’t know what that future held. Only today. He looked back, and Itreus’ bright yellow eyes held his for a long, long time.

“You’ll always be welcome.”

He was House Torimine. Occum—the family he was marrying into—was the famous house who had created the Occum Swords, one of Salazsar’s Gem Regiments. That said a lot about their fame and wealth, but Itreus might actually become the family head. If not that—he was marrying the daughter of the current Wall Lord Hezzien.

The two Drakes stood there a while. Linvios pushed the curtains back and came to stand next to Itreus. He held out an arm, and Itreus—in his robes that Deniusth had claimed more befit a bride than the groom—leaned on him.

“Almost time.”

How they looked, Linvios didn’t know, and how long they waited, he wasn’t sure—until a laughing voice spoke.

There you two are. Ancestors, I knew it. Honestly, you’d think I was breaking up the greatest friendship the Walled Cities have ever seen. Look at them, Careei.”

A Drake Wall Lady made the two start. Linvios bowed slightly as he saw the bride, Wall Lady Calistoca, coming their way. She had on much the same robes—but he didn’t remember how they looked, in this memory of today.

She was as happy as could be, unfussed with the stress of the wedding, and graceful. And Itreus smiled widely at her as she threw her arms around him.

Careei, her best woman, rolled her eyes as she saw Itreus and Linvios.

“They were like this all last night. I saw them at the groom’s party. In their cups, just talking with each other, not doing anything else practically into dawn.”

“I’m not stealing him, Linvios. You two can run about like always—until Father has him managing the company.”

It was something, to like Calistoca. It was hard not to, but Linvios almost wished he didn’t. She took his claws, and he said something he forgot that made her laugh. Then—

And then, like that dream, Itreus was standing there, and everyone was growing silent. Zail was waiting, and for one last second, Linvios stood there and looked at Itreus.

They never said a word after that. Never said it. Never realized, in words, anything but well-wishes, congratulations, the formalities of this moment.

If he should have said something—Linvios found himself walking out of the curtains before the bride and groom to the applause. He stared at the dazzling chandeliers overhead, and he couldn’t remember if he were breathing or not. He looked back once, and the Drake was walking towards him, in those glittering robes. Then Zail put a hand on his side, and Linvios, that expert with the blade, knew his part.

“Swords.”

He drew a sword with Zail and crossed it in the air high, high overhead. The two bridesmaids did the same with daggers since neither were trained warriors. And underneath that arch of steel, Itreus walked past Linvios.

The two held one last gaze, and it shimmered, those pale eyes. That day, his friend smelled like the sharp fragrance of an orchid—and then Linvios lowered his heavy arm, heavier than any other day he had held a sword.

That day, more than the rest as he drifted away from his old friend, took up professions selling his services as an [Assassin], built up a reputation as Salazsar’s assassin-group for hire—

That day defined him still.

 

——

 

“Maestro? Maestro, are you sure this is wise?”

A greyer Drake blinked, and his lapels blew in the cold breeze. He stood outside of Liscor, in the Floodplains, and his people, Symphony, looked at him nervously. He glanced around—and saw the death-stares of Manus, the Liscorian citizens, and indeed, the Watch Captain and everyone else.

It took some gall to just walk back to Liscor after what he had done yesterday. But he had been promised amnesty—and he did not much care if they came for him.

The Maestro feared nothing—but he nodded at the First Flute.

“Of course it’s not wise. But it is a performance—and we stand here, not Orchestra. If they come for us—retreat. Otherwise, I am told this is not a bloody curtain call for anyone. Mind your blades. The best outcome is levels—or that Skill for any one of us.”

Symphony nodded. The Drake adjusted his suit absently. He’d changed it to another cut of dark fabric, but another orchid was still pinned to the lapel.

His bell rang once, and he checked it as he lifted the conductor’s wand. He wouldn’t be allowed to use the magical instrument, which could summon weapons at will—but he carried it until the tournament began.

He must have been unsettled. It had been a long time since Itreus had contacted him for anything. The [Painter] ruining so much art….

The Maestro agreed with the [Innkeeper], a bit. Sellme had ruined gold…but gold was not the same as people. It was careless, foolish—but Sellme had been a rabble-rouser that still pointed out injustice.

Requiel ute Minen had been a wonderful piece, beloved by all. If it had just been that—the Maestro might still have refused, even for an old…friend.

But one of the paintings had just been a vanity piece, which, yes, ought to be destroyed because it was just overvalued paint done by a Level 30 [Painter] who captured scenes without substance, images without anything behind them.

It had been of two Drakes crossing swords over a pair of Drakes about to be married. A remembrance of a day Linvios knew by heart.

“…It will be bloody.”

That was all the Maestro said. He looked across the fields to where House Veltras was warily set up, and the [Lord] was arguing with his subordinates—and the Wind Runner who had destroyed the Guild of Assassins to the north. He admired that. He looked sideways at Manus, entrenched in their own position, and wondered who would be more hated.

Manus? Veltras? Symphony?

It didn’t matter. What they didn’t see was that it wasn’t about the end of the performance. It was the highs and lows, the mistakes, the grandeur of seeing someone at their finest. If he died today?

The Maestro looked up at the cloudy, grey skies.

Let it be a better piece, a far truer song ever after. He waited for the tournament to begin.

So that was the Maestro.

 

——

 

Strange. Strange, how you could either know someone for a second and know them full well, like Lupp, or know someone for a long time and feel like a stranger.

People were tough. Running was easy. So Ryoka Griffin didn’t run in the morning. She stayed where she was. But she felt—

Terrible. Justifiably terrible. Mrsha threw clods of dirt at Tyrion the moment he walked through the front door. And he did come back.

Oh, yes, he did.

“You are insane. You’re risking your life, your—”

Your lack of levels.

“—to participate in some stupid tournament! These are real blades! Unenchanted, but they can kill on accident! And there’s any number of people who hate your guts!”

“Yeah.”

Lord Veltras, I must insist you stop. This is in the name of House Veltras, and the branch families will back me upon this. Remove me from my post if you must, but Ullim? Soldiers. Pull Lord Veltras back. Now.”

“Yeah.”

Jericha was speaking to Lord Tyrion Veltras as the younger man checked the sword and shield he was going to use in the tournament. She was alive with worry, exasperation, and she pointed at the [Soldiers], who hesitated as they stepped forwards.

The ‘yeah’ was coming from Ryoka. She felt it was lame—but Jericha was going off, and she was right. Lord Tyrion Veltras just glanced to the side.

“I am participating, Jericha. It would be more unseemly if I did not. That Skill…”

He hesitated, and he glanced towards the inn.

“…Is worth the risk. This is a levelling opportunity for me. Soldiers, ignore her.”

They stepped closer, and Tyrion stared at them. So they froze up—and looked at Jericha. The fact that it was a question between whose authority they followed was really funny.

Ullim was the tie-breaker. He looked at Tyrion and Jericha and leaned over to whisper to her.

“Lord Veltras would never refuse this, Jericha. You know that. It would be odder if he didn’t participate. And much as I hate to say it—I believe he’ll put up a fight. His jaw’s set. He once challenged a half-Giant around this age.”

Everyone stared at Tyrion’s jaw. The [Lord] unclenched it and glowered at Ullim, but the [Majordomo] looked so nostalgic that Jericha just grabbed at her hair.

“The moment this begins, that [Spearmaster] will come after us. Manus would love to accidentally maim Lord Tyrion.”

“Then perhaps we should ensure he does not. But Jericha—the honor of House Veltras is on the line.”

Ullim was crazy. He had a sword and a buckler, and the seventy-something man looked like he was ready to get into the fighting. Ryoka Griffin looked around.

“You can’t do this, Tyrion. I’m taking over, Jericha. This is a bad idea.”

“I love tournaments.”

Tyrion Veltras actually made Ryoka speechless for a second. He looked at her and then nodded at Ullim and Jericha.

“This is a well-known fact about me. I have participated in every tournament I have ever been able to attend. If this was a jousting tourney, you could not tear me from it with an Adamantium chain. I have won several tournaments, you know, Ryoka. If this were a matter of pure swordplay, without Skills, my chances might be even better. Don’t you think it would be worth the risk to gain…what sounds like a Level 50 Skill?”

He was actually excited. Ryoka stared at him and realized the [Lord] was smiling tightly. Then she realized she forgot. He was so stoic and unmoving like a rock—that she forgot martial combat and this kind of thing was literally what he did for fun. Jousting at training dummies.

“No, I don’t. And I don’t think you know how many good fighters are on the field. There are Gold-ranks!”

“I’ve beaten Gold-rank adventurers in spars. Their technical ability varies. As long as Deniusth isn’t there…Colth the Supporter is acclaimed. That Maestro and Spearmaster Lulv, likewise. Ullim, mark both.”

The [Majordomo] nodded. Ryoka pointed a shaking finger at the other people.

There were hundreds, and thousands upon thousands more watching. But while a lot of people were debating whether or not they should enter—the most confident and talented were already warming up.

One of them was a huge Drake she really wanted to talk to doing warmups with a group of little Gnolls of varying ages. He was showing a girl how to adjust her spear, and she was dying to speak to Guardsman Relc.

“There’s more than one [Spearmaster]! See him? [Spearmaster]. And there’s Klbkch the Slayer, Lehra Ruinstrider, uh…”

Ryoka’s head swiveled. Her problem wasn’t who to single out—it was who not to single out. Every single adventurer who used a blade from Erin’s inn was here. Every single adventurer in the city who used a blade was here.

The Antinium were here. [Crusaders] were lined up with Painted Antinium, and a group of them were staring daggers at Manus. Dead gods, Wailant was here! He was laughing as he tugged a sword out of the way of Garia and Viceria, who were trying to literally kneecap him and drag him away. Garia was kicking at her father’s shins, but he looked delighted by the moment.

He might have fun—but Ryoka was nervous. Tyrion had a plain steel blade from House Veltras’ armory.

Many of the others had blades they’d found since there was no magic allowed. In fact—she even heard someone, Emessa, shouting.

A masterwork blade from Master Pelt! Place an order now and he can have it done in fifteen minutes or less! Steel or mithril! Pay for the highest quality—payment in advance.”

Master Pelt’s anvil was ringing. The Dwarf was actually set up near the gates, and he’d created an impromptu forge. Ryoka had been surprised that the surly Dwarf she’d heard was a famous drunk was here.

But Pelt knew battlefields and competitions—and the chance to double his profits for the month or make many times more than that?

She’d seen the Wall Lady and Wall Lord from Manus, the Drake with the weird body and Aldonss, go over and order two mithril-alloy blades so they’d have an edge.

Ryoka stared for a long time at Rafaema, who looked—off. Bloated, almost, but she was also thin enough…a fit warrior. Why did Ryoka feel like her scales bulged at times as if…?

A piece of dirt bounced off Tyrion’s shield as he raised it. Mrsha.

“Mrsha, stop! Please—”

Ryoka went to the Gnoll, but she was glaring at Tyrion. She ran off—and Ryoka realized it wasn’t Mrsha who’d thrown the dirt.

You’re a bad man! Go away!

Visma raised another piece of dirt to throw, saw Tyrion staring at her, and ran so fast she tumbled down the hill. Mrsha and Ekirra bent to help her up.

Tyrion Veltras was one of the most hated people here. But—Ryoka Griffin was also up there, and the Maestro and Manus. Especially Spearmaster Lulv.

In fact, the only thing preventing Tyrion from being jumped was the fact that everyone thought he was one of the most dangerous men in the world—and Erin’s tournament. Everyone wanted to know how it would be organized, whether or not they had to have a mass-combat before the finalists dueled—clarification on the rules and so on.

“Could you fortify the ground? Miss Griffin, if we’re allowed to do that—could you check for us? Can we use [Mark Target] on foes, or are we just limited to personal combat Skills? Can we use Skills at all?”

Jericha was glancing around, and she turned to Ryoka. The Wind Runner hesitated, but Tyrion dipped his head.

“It would be good to know. And—are Sammial and Hethon still in the Haven?”

“They had better be. I’ll check. Just—just—”

Ryoka ran off without figuring out anything else to say. Just why does every visit to the inn have to go like this?

 

——

 

You know, you could say that despite Erin being held hostage, her putting on this <Heroic Quest> did satisfy a lot of her goals. It got her attention, was a levelling opportunity, and, as Drassi commentated, the eyes of the world were on this moment.

“I think I can see more contestants coming in. It looks like every adventurer you can name is here, Sir Relz—and Pallass has just sent in Keldrass and his Flamewardens. In fact, I see dozens of Pallassian [Soldiers]. Those wouldn’t happen to be soldiers who are active-duty, are they?”

I believe, Drassi, there may have been an exception granted for today. Completely understandable.

The Drake was counting.

“Yes…but I think there are over a hundred of Pallass’ [Soldiers]. We are next to the City of Inventions! Is that fair? Dead gods, they might be [Generals] and whatnot! Is that General Duln, the First General of Pallass? Sir Relz, is it fair to have a hundred Level 30+ [Soldiers]?”

Noass cut in.

“No rule against it, Miss Drassi, and that seems like you’re forgetting all those Antinium on the field. Plus, it’s Liscor. Unfamiliar terrain.”

“…It’s grass hills and valleys. The tournament is on the flat ground where we play baseball, Noass.”

“Unfamiliar. It just seems to me like you’re singling out Pallass here, Miss Drassi. House Veltras is sticking together.”

“Yeah, all twenty of them. Is Pallass working together? Are you allowed to team up?”

Drassi was looking around and eying the distinct…sides…that were appearing. And come to that, she had a few more questions on her list.

“I just don’t know if this will be bloodless. Especially if someone whips out an area-of-attack Skill. Can they do that? Are there safeguards against someone accidentally being cut in half? I think we need to check the rules. So—I’m going to try.”

She turned as Noass began to defend the legitimate use of numbers and tactics and grouping up on one’s enemies in a tournament setting. Drassi, pointedly, just aimed a claw left.

“Have the cameras focus on what looks like someone trying to bribe the adventurers to join Pallass’ side. I’ll be live in five…”

She hurried into the inn. Drassi looked around, and the place was bustling. People were asking for food, coming in via the door—and like her—

“Where’s the [Innkeeper]? Where’s the [Innkeeper]? I am here representing Kaaz, and I would like to make her an offer she cannot refuse—”

A Human was talking to Lyonette—or trying to—because Ser Sest was in the way. And the Thronebearer calmly held up a hand.

“Sir, sir—[Silence, Please].

Thronebearers. They sucked at fighting, but they had all the Skills you wanted for jobs like this. The people trying to get to Lyonette would have had better luck getting through a brick wall. Drassi hesitated, but the guard at the stairs let her through.

To prevent people going up through the inn, a defender had been posted and given a chair and a stick to poke everyone out of the way. That person was Gothica, and the [Goth] would tell anyone, anyone in this world, to fuck right off.

She was enjoying her job, but she let Drassi through. She was impressively doing a good job, too. Any number of people might not fear the stick—but her aura was actually like a dark barrier of shade that was making several people bounce off or slow as they ran into it and back out, cursing.

Of course, if you got past Gothica and went up the stairs, the second room on the right held Erin’s room. You could get to it. If you were a friend.

Otherwise, Shriekblade would kill you. Drassi slowed as the Named-rank looked up from her perch on another chair. She wasn’t getting ready for the tournament; she had no interest among all the adventurers.

“Er…hello. Can I speak to Erin?”

“Let me check. Move and I’ll stab you in the foot.”

Drassi—decided not to move. She saw Shriekblade open the door, and it let out a very irate voice. The Drake said something—and then opened the door wider.

“Go in. She wanted to see you anyways.”

Drassi gingerly passed by the Named-rank and into Erin Solstice’s room. There—she saw the [Innkeeper].

Erin Solstice, during this great day of days, was not downstairs in the inn’s common room or causing havoc or attacking Tyrion with a pan.

She was, in fact…lying in bed. Glaring so hard that Drassi expected to see scorch-marks on the walls and ceiling.

“I need bisque. Just for today. Someone help me get up. I get it. I’ve been using it as a crutch—but I need to get up.

“Or—you could use the wheelchair.”

Someone was arguing with Erin. The [Innkeeper] stared with wrath at the person talking.

“Why?”

“Because the wheelchair makes you remember you need to exercise. It doesn’t strain you so badly you use healing potions. Which you did not tell me about. That is my fault. But your enchanted food is a crutch, and you lean on it.”

“Well, maybe I’ll use it just for today.”

Erin Solstice was arguing with the only person brave enough to have it out with her. Not Lyonette, not Mrsha, not even Numbtongue.

Sinew Magus Grimalkin stood there, arms folded.

“Erin. I have been aware of how—pushy I can be. But I am telling you again—you have made no progress in your recovery. If anything, I feel as though you’ve lost your recovery. Healing potions. Your ‘Bulkup Bisque’. This is the result. Anyone who can dispel those enchantments or if it runs out—”

“I get it. I get it. Alright?”

Erin stared at the ceiling, and the Drake fell silent. She looked so frustrated and angry—at herself—Drassi didn’t want to say anything. Grimalkin opened his mouth, and you could tell he really was trying.

Because he didn’t want to pile on her in this moment. But Erin still wanted the bisque, not the wheelchair, and Drassi understood why. It really wasn’t fun being confined to one when you could magically just stand and do everything after eating some admittedly dull bisque for the hundredth time.

But someone had to do it. So—Grimalkin exhaled. He looked to the side and didn’t lecture Erin.

He called in reinforcements. He asked for help moving this incredible weight, a spotter for the burden even he couldn’t lift.

Erin Solstice looked up as a woman stepped forwards. Lady Pryde Ulta looked down at the [Innkeeper], trapped in her bed, glowering and glaring out the window. The [Lady of Pride] raised her nose and spoke one word.

“Pathetic. Are you going to be like this the next time someone counts on you? There are no shortcuts. Just effort.

Then she turned and walked out the door. Grimalkin hesitated—but Erin’s reddening face said that something had landed. She stared at the wheelchair as Drassi waved a claw.

“Uh—hi, Erin. Bad time?”

The [Innkeeper] looked ready to pop. With shame, with embarrassment. The [Lady of Pride] knew how to lance someone with their own sins.

Drassi knew that Erin would throw things and possibly set the room on fire if she said the wrong thing, like Sir Relz or Noass. So all she did was gesture at the door. She’d left her broadcasting team behind. Her Gnoll, Drake, even Dullahan team…

It was just her. But she was a [Reporter]. Erin looked at her as Drassi brushed at her neck spines.

“…I know it’s a bad time. Get mad at me, but hear me out. Erin…sometime soon, I’d like to sit down with you.”

“I’m going to be doing a lot of sitting, soon.”

That was all Erin said. She stared at the chair, and Drassi coughed.

“No, Erin. I mean, sit down. Talk. Interview you. They’ve seen you time and time again. But I want them to see you. If you come downstairs—”

She reached out and picked something up. Then she handed Erin the comb, and the [Innkeeper] saw Drassi hold up a mirror.

“—Knock them flat, would you?

The [Innkeeper] looked at her friend. Her friend—and she took a deep, long breath.

“Put a pillow on that chair for me. It gets uncomfortable, Drassi.”

 

——

 

There they were. Symphony. Tyrion. The man who had waged war on Liscor, and no one was taking him out. Some [Assassin] waltzes in, holds Erin hostage, and he got to stand there without a hole in his body?

The problem was—it was unclear who was in charge. And that problem was larger than you thought, because Watch Captain Zevara was ready to arrest everyone here and throw them into the new prison Hexel had built for a month.

That was justice to her, the very basic start of it. Manus had made de facto war against Liscor’s army.

But she couldn’t prove it. She knew it, but she couldn’t prove it, and that jangled every nerve that believed in actual law and order. And…she was no fool.

“You will arrest anyone attacking someone outside the bounds of this tourney. No objections!”

She was barking at the Watch on the walls. That included Antinium Soldiers and angry [Guards].

“But Watch Captain—”

Silence in the ranks!

Senior Guardswoman Beilmark barked, forestalling a chorus of voices. She wasn’t happy either, but Jeiss, Beilmark, and several senior pairs had Zevara’s back. The Watch Captain was fuming literal smoke, but she wasn’t an idiot.

She looked an angry young Drake in the eyes, and unlike her previous Watch Captain, when she spoke, she explained.

“We are the Watch of Liscor. Agents of the law. Your class means you have sworn to uphold our laws—but we are not blind. I know what Manus did. I know what that [Lord] down there did. Technically—under the laws of war—I have no recourse to arrest him, only bar him from Liscor. Yes, the Council or any official could arrest him under a number of objections. But we are also not stupid.”

The Watch looked at Zevara, and she exhaled slowly. Klbkch and Relc were standing on the tournament grounds—in a sense, they’d gone rogue. In a larger sense, she hoped one of them got stabby.

“…If I arrest a single soldier of Manus, we have a Walled City against us. If I arrest Tyrion Veltras, all of the Five Families will first cut trade with us. Then hire assassins or mercenaries and, depending on what they do, put all of Liscor into jeopardy.”

The [Guards] were silent as Zevara laid this out. Nothing she said made her happy; she felt like she had acid for Dragonbreath. But it was also true.

“I will never order a [Guard] to break the law to do anything that endangers Liscor. This tournament is unsanctioned, unregulated, and when it comes to Named-ranks, foreign powers, sometimes the law bends or breaks.”

She turned to stare over the walls, and the Watch waited. It took them a beat to realize that was it. They looked at each other, and someone exhaled.

“Within the grounds of the tournament, though, they might be—if not killed—then cut bloody, and anyone participating can attack Tyrion Veltras, right, Watch Captain?”

“That’s my understanding, Senior Guardsman—Councilman Jeiss.”

Zevara corrected herself. They’d really have to revisit his rank. You couldn’t have two positions that conflicted with each other like that. But Jeiss was nodding.

The [Swordsman] of the Watch, considered the best aside from the newly re-bodied Klbkch, glanced down the wall. Then he cleared his throat.

“I think the Watch understands the situation, Watch Captain. The law is the law…and we are the Watch.”

Simply put. The [Guards] looked glum—until Jeiss glanced at Beilmark. And the Gnoll woman smiled.

“Sometimes, even we make mistakes. As I told you this morning, you idiot, Jeiss.”

“I know, I know. But I wonder if the Watch Captain knows…?”

Zevara’s head turned, and she gave them a suspicious glare. Jeiss and Beilmark looked innocent as she growled.

“Know what?”

“I was just pulling up the duty roster, Watch Captain, and Jeiss, that idiot, clocked in when he should be off-duty. He’s off today and tomorrow.”

“Okay. Well, go off-duty, Jeiss.”

He was a family man. Forgetting was unlike…then Beilmark innocently tapped something at the top of the sheet.

“—Not to bother you, Captain Zevara, but it looks like you might have woken up on the wrong side of the bed. Look who’s supposed to be enjoying a two-day break too.”

“What are you talking about? I didn’t—”

Zevara reached for the little calendar, and then she saw Beilmark’s grin. The Senior Guards glanced at each other, and the second-best swordswoman in the Watch hesitated. She eyed the name crossed out in ink and then Jeiss’ innocent look.

“If we’re off-duty, Captain Zevara, I thought I could use a new Skill. You go to the inn now and then. What say we go see how Relc and Klbkch are doing? They’re off-duty too.”

The Watch Captain hesitated as the [Guards]’ heads swung from the two Senior Guards to the Watch Captain. Was it something terrible she was teaching all of them?

The law bent in front of power and necessity. Zevara knew that full well. And sometimes—if you bent the law far enough back, it sprang back into position like a flexible ruler and smacked you in the face.

“I may just do that. Guards—as you were.”

Watch Captain Zevara strode down the ramparts as the people below looked up at the unexpected cheering. And she was not the only one making a sudden appearance.

 

——

 

Erin Solstice had done nothing wrong. She did nothing wrong, and someone had to pay. Or—if she made a mistake. If she was less than perfectly, rationally calm and collected—so what?

Her friends knew who they wanted to stab. Erin’s friends had, to put a fine crossbow’s point on it, just seen her die. And seeing an [Assassin] with a blade to her throat?

Well, it might bother some of them. For the honor of the [Innkeeper] of The Wandering Inn, many people had taken to the field.

Pisces Jealnet was warming up with his rapier as Ksmvr tested the two blades he’d taken out instead of the looted ones from Chandrar. They were eying Symphony—but then Yvlon Byres stomped onto the field.

“Yvlon. Are you participating?”

“I’m not in danger of losing a hand. And if I need a blade—”

Yvlon had a sword in one hand, but she also morphed her arm into a blade. Pisces eyed it and opened his mouth to say something about her going berserk. Then he looked at Symphony and decided they deserved it.

“One feels that might be cheating.”

That was all he said, and it was more in concern she’d be kicked out for the arms. But someone else spoke up cheerfully.

“A blade’s a blade. And it seems like innately magical metal’s good. Doesn’t matter if you have a dead body, either. So…if Pallass can have their officers on the field, I might say ‘hello’ to some folks. It’ll be hard to stop from killing them, though.”

All three adventurers turned. Ceria Springwalker was sitting out, but it seemed they had a new, temporary captain.

Jelaqua Ivirith was wearing one of her remaining Raskghar bodies. And she was carrying her metal flail. Her metal flail of razorblades. Demas Metal.

The instant Pallass’ officers saw that, General Edellein raised an objection. But Jelaqua was within the letter of the law.

No enchantments, no armor…just a dead body she didn’t care if she tore up. The Demas Metal was magical. But it was just a blade.

“I’m going after Symphony. Pallass I’ll ignore. What about you?”

“Symphony or House Veltras. We can take or leave Manus.”

Yvlon had found out she could crack her knuckles. It sounded like metallic hammers smashing together. Jelaqua grinned as someone joined them.

“Moore’s staying out of it. I talked him down from picking up a sword. He’s too big a target. But you’ve got me. Halrac joining in?”

“Halrac? Dead gods, I hope not. He’s not a swordsman. Bird was talking about using his bow because ‘arrows are sharp’. But Lyonette vetoed that.”

The [Silversteel Armsmistress] broke away from studying Symphony and turned to see Halrac, Revi, and even Briganda keeping back. Seborn shrugged.

“Briganda is out too, and Revi just can’t swing a sword that well, despite not really being afraid of sharp things. I told her she could sew on anything we lopped off. Briganda’s a mother, so that’s fair. But Halrac’s better with a sword than you’d think.”

That was news to almost no one. Halrac looked like he could hold his own even if he lost his bow. The adventurers were limbering up in their corner of the field, below the inn. The Antinium had one side, and their group was like a body in itself.

People were taking sides. So—while some adventurers like Keldrass’ team were nodding to fellow [Soldiers] from Manus, the adventurers were an independent body. Someone else called out to them.

“Hoi there! You lot fighting? Let’s have a truce, then. No one stabs each other in the back until the finals. Got it?”

Jelaqua turned her head, and Pisces groaned. But even he nodded at Captain Todi as he swaggered over.

“Todi? Jewel? What are you lot doing here?”

“Levelling up or getting a chance to show off. Selys told me to go for that Maestro or Tyrion Veltras. But I would have done it for free. Hate the fact that I can’t use a wand or anything, though.”

Todi had a shortsword in one hand and a shield in the other, and he seemed uncomfortable at the thought of a ‘fair fight’. His compromise was going from adventurer to adventurer and making a ceasefire arrangement.

He had also, incidentally, done that with the Antinium, tried it on Pallass, the inn’s guests, the Gnolls, and even the Goblins.

The Goblins. Rags, Numbtongue, even Badarrow, were lined up next to Redscar, who was just staring at Tyrion across the field. No questions who they wanted to run into.

“Looks like Liscor’s over there. Let’s also agree not to go after Relc and that lot, eh?”

“You mean, Relc doesn’t go after us. He’s a [Spearmaster]. Technically…who would outrank him in sheer sword-skill?”

Pisces had a healthy respect, in this moment, for the fact that without [Flash Step], his dueling abilities were a lot lower than he’d like. And Relc?

Jelaqua looked at Seborn, who shrugged fairly confidently. Jewel fiddled with her rapier as her two teammates looked at Todi and Ksmvr, who was too modest to say anything.

“I’ll nip over and arrange a truce. Good, good.”

He hurried off.

 

——

 

Now, this was the baseline of contestants.

Wall Lady Rafaema was refusing to leave for the same reasons as Tyrion; in fact, she had an even better reason. Despite the risks—if she could win a Skill?

Was that even possible? She had a great chance. She was, after all, a you-know-what, and even without Skills, she had Lulv and Aldonss and Manus’ best on her side.

In her eyes, House Veltras, Pallass, and perhaps the adventurers would be the most dangerous targets. Symphony might have started this, but they would be picked off in the first few minutes.

Her confidence was only doubled because they had an ace-in-the-hole courtesy of Luciva. The slumbering Drake that had tumbled out of the carriage?

That was Zeter, the Swordsman of Six. Named-rank adventurer. He might have come some of his way on Wyvern-back.

“Watch out for the Slayer and the Gecko. Lulv, no grudge-matches.”

“I hear you.”

The Gnoll was glaring at Aldonss, who was testing his wall-Skill. If it worked, they’d just hunker down and wait to pick off weak targets. Rafaema had approved the plan, and only Ferris was groaning.

“It’s not going to work. Wall Lord, Spearmaster—I’m telling you, this inn is cursed. That [Innkeeper] has a chaos Skill. Our plan is not going to survive first contact.

Rafaema glanced at Ferris and hesitated. She had doubted him yesterday, but she was inclined to listen to him this time. Aldonss just shrugged calmly.

“Pallass won’t come for us until the end. The strategy is sound, Ferris.”

They were obviously going to team-up. Chaldion was a bastard, but he knew the score. Ferris just shook his head. Lulv was turning his head to snarl something at the [Infiltrator] when someone ran over to them on all fours.

It was a little white Gnoll. She came to a halt as the isolated group of Manus’ soldiers, near one of Liscor’s walls, turned. Some raised their weapons—not because of Mrsha—but because of the ominous Gireulashia trotting after her friend.

“Blades down. This place isn’t safe, little girl.”

Lulv smiled at Mrsha. She looked at him. Rafaema was focused on Mrsha—this was the girl from the scrying orb! The girl from the Meeting of Tribes. Ferris just hid behind Rafaema.

Mrsha du Marquin had been throwing things at Tyrion. But she really had no words to express her anger. She knew Manus. She knew what they’d done to Olesm’s forces and the Antinium.

For once, the little Gnoll girl played no games. She got into no trouble by trying to death-spice with Calescent’s mix. She just handed a card over to Lulv, who unfolded it and read it—then stared at Mrsha as she backed up. The little Gnoll trotted down the hill, up another, and sat down on her butt with the spectators and stared at the Manus soldiers.

This is what Mrsha wrote:

 

I am going to curse you with all the bad luck in the world.

 

The Doombearer was staring down Lulv as he hesitated. Aldonss just sighed.

“Shame we don’t have a [Sniper] or an agent in the crowd.”

Rafaema looked at him. The Wall Lord clarified after a moment.

Joke. I doubt she can do anything.”

His confidence lasted about eight seconds. Then—every head turned to the inn. It was obviously through there that a lot of guests were coming, via the portal door. Rafaema had been tagging a few interesting ones like that [Pirate], but everyone turned as someone came through that made even the scrying orbs focus on her.

“Is that—a Troll?

Aldonss’ head swung around, and he instantly focused on the figure.

“Half-Troll. Riverfarm. She—is going to be tough to take down with unenchanted blades.”

Durene and a group of Humans from Riverfarm paused on the hill, looked around—then stared at Symphony and Manus. Rafaema’s scales tingled.

A lot of people were coming here she hadn’t expected. Maybe Ferris was right. Maybe—

“Does anyone have anything to bribe that kid with? Some gold? Ferris, what do you bribe children with? Candy? Buy her a bag of sweets—”

Then she felt a prickle, and her confidence in having Zeter on her side waned. For someone walked out to join the other adventurers.

Colth, the Ultimate Supporter, and the Favor of the North, Caleis, both stepped down the hill. As did the famous duo, Rasen and Teithde. Named-ranks.

Four Named-ranks. They lined up, and Lulv swore under his breath.

“You’re going to see if that sword training paid off today, Rafaema.”

His confidence was still there—because some of the people he would have been truly leery of facing in battle couldn’t participate.

No Xrn. No Valeterisa. No Grimalkin, even. Even a hundred angry Antinium weren’t that dangerous to someone of his level.

Indeed, you could say even Erin Solstice herself expected this tournament to be bigger than it turned out to be. One day.

One day meant that Earl Altestiel was screaming at the scrying orb in much the same way as Niers Astoragon. Foliana, Tulm the Mithril, Xol, the Thousand Lances of Kaaz, even Fetohep of Khelt had asked if she could delay her <Quest>.

Raelt was certainly unhappy—even though they’d given him a commentator role. It was, after all, up to chance. Lulv had his counters like Relc, who was waving at the other [Spearmaster], so the battle could go down to odd individuals.

Like…Ysara or her brother, Ylawes, or even Infinitypear and Rasktooth, who were waving weapons around happily. If a lower-level warrior got lucky, they could take out a strong fighter, right?

Believe in the fairness of tournaments. The dark horse betting was through the roof. Believe—until the air began to split. Until Xrn herself flew above the [Crusaders]—and Valeterisa looked up.

“Oh. He’s here. Wonderful, I had questions about teleportation.”

Then—Ryoka Griffin froze as she jogged towards the inn. She turned her head, and a chill ran down her back. She stumbled, eyes wide, and Erin Solstice sat up in her bed as Drassi and Ishkr helped her into her wheelchair.

“Who is—”

The Archmage of Memory appeared in the sky with an explosion of color. Like a bursting constellation of stars. He stood on a platform of light as Rafaema stared at Mrsha, and the Gnoll girl hesitated—and then decided she’d done her job.

Eldavin descended, glancing at Ryoka Griffin, Magnolia Reinhart, and then around as his company, two men and one woman, somewhat unsteadily touched ground.

“Ah, good. We don’t appear to be late. Courtesy of Wistram.

His voice boomed, and everyone focused on the three people Eldavin had brought. Personal friends, really. Betokening…the fact that the Archmage of Memory could do what he wanted.

Ser Greysten, Archmage Viltach, holding a blade and trying not to puke, and the Spring’s Warden, Dame Pertheine, looked around, wide-eyed.

Naturally, Eldavin would return them whence they’d come, though he had admitted it would be slower and require multiple ‘hops’. He would have loved to pull the King of Duels and someone like the Herald of the Forests, but just getting here had required half the Council of Wistram to link up.

And he could have taken Cortese, or one of the Thousand Lances, instead of the two Order of Seasons champions and Viltach. But Eldavin and the Order of Seasons were allies from the war.

Plus…the Archmage of Memory had a crystal sword he was calmly practicing sword forms with. Sword forms that made a certain Unicorn eating from a bucket of popcorn look up sharply.

Eldavin intended to win this himself.

 

——

 

The Archmage of Memory’s appearance pushed a lot of contestants out—and some in. Lyonette had been debating entering despite the risk to her limbs. She backed out.

So did Noass and Sir Relz. In fact, most people were concerned for the injuries they might obtain.

No killing means you can still be bleeding out when they haul you off the field. And a lost hand—no one has Potions of Regeneration anymore. Well—maybe the Archmage of Memory. Ysara, you must be mad.”

Qwera was arguing with Ysara. Not even Vetn, an acclaimed expert [Thief]—even if he refused to fight—had even given the fight a thought.

But then—he was checking on Tesy. The Drake was lying in the [Garden of Sanctuary], looking half-dead from his travails. The Gnoll had forbidden him from leaving.

“Tesy? You good?”

“I’m dead. Go away, Vetn.”

That was all the Drake said. He was limp like a rag, and his white scales looked sickly. Vetn prodded him with the cold plate and the hamburger. Then he stood up.

“Tesy won’t eat.”

Qwera was rubbing a paw in her gold fur, which could use a touch-up. She shook her head.

“Let him. He knows how serious what he did was. That little idiot…he can’t stay there forever. But as long as he’s in danger of being knifed—”

The two were leaving the [Garden of Sanctuary], but when she heard this, Ysara Byres folded her arms.

“I agreed with not killing him, but there has to be some consequences for what he did, Qwera.”

“There will be. I’ll hit him.”

The Golden Gnoll saw Ysara’s offended expression. She snapped in exasperation.

“Dead gods, Ysara. He nearly died! His life is in danger—possibly for as long as he lives. Drop it.”

The [Lady] hesitated, but someone else coughed. Vetn jumped—and Erin Solstice rolled out of her rooms in a wheelchair. Ishkr was pushing her and swiveled the chair around to face the wall as the door opened again, revealing the common room of the inn.

“I’ll figure out something too. No one kills Tesy. He’s gotta pay—but drop it. Alright. Alright, let’s see what this stupid day has to bring.”

Erin! Erin, someone’s—he shouldn’t be—it’s Eldavin!

Someone rushed towards Erin the moment she wheeled through the common room. Ryoka was dead white, and Erin saw a look of true fear in Ryoka’s eyes.

“I thought you cut off his head.”

Don’t—don’t joke. I didn’t tell you what’s wrong with—”

Then Ryoka noticed the others and shut her mouth so fast Vetn felt his ears try to detach from his head and follow the Wind Runner. Ryoka grabbed Erin’s wheelchair.

“We need to talk. Excuse me—”

She wheeled Erin left as Ishkr nodded to Erin.

“I’ll deal with the inn. But you have a hundred people who want to see you, Miss Erin. And I can’t hold them back forever.”

Five minutes, Ishkr.

The two vanished to the side, and Vetn headed into the common room.

“Going to cheer on Ysara as she loses an arm and turns into her younger sister?”

Ysara ignored Qwera’s pointed comment as the woman stalked towards the door. Vetn just stared blankly outside then went to sit down at the inn’s bar.

“I hate blood. This is all stupid.”

He had, legitimately, no desire to watch people cutting each other up. Qwera raised her brows, but she knew Vetn was genuine. Even during the Meeting of Tribes, he had shed not a drop of blood. She walked off, and Vetn looked at Ishkr.

“Can I get a glass of Rxlvn?”

“No—but I’ll sell you one-tenth and an ale.”

“Fine.”

The [Head Waiter] went for the keg on tap marked with a huge ant’s head on the side and warnings on the black barrel. He pulled the stopper—held a mug under it, and hesitated.

“…Hm. That’s strange. Did Rufelt sell more than I thought?”

He investigated the keg, and Vetn called out.

“Just give me a Firebreath, then.”

Obligingly, Ishkr did just that—and found two empty bottles. He stared under the bar, and then his head rose.

“Excuse me. Did anyone see—Joseph here a few minutes ago?”

The inn’s staff looked at each other, and no one had seen a thing. Ishkr cursed under his breath.

“Hold on, I’ll just order replacements and bother Rufelt. They’re catering the show in their bar, anyways. Can I get you…beer?”

That was one of the things definitely untouched by the mysterious pilferer. Vetn accepted it sourly and heard a few people arguing behind him.

“Peki. You don’t use a sword. Gluing a razor blade to your fist is against the spirit of the tournament.”

“But I can participate. I’ve fought masters of weapons before. There was a [Peerless Spearmaster] in Pomle. I’m doing it.”

“No, you’re not. And neither is Wil!”

Merrik was trying to block the two students from leaving the inn. Wil looked unhappy.

“It’s the chance of a lifetime, Merrik…”

“And with respect, since you can’t use the Diamond Shortsword, you will get cut up, Wil. I’ll dare it, and I bet Dawil and Elgrinna will, but you’re not good enough. The Professor tells us to face facts—that’s a fact.”

Wil hung his head. He stared out the window.

“Ser Greysten is out there. I feel like a fool. Listen—I won’t go and participate, but at least let me ask how Talia is doing! This is unbelievable. If the Archmage of Memory can teleport across continents…”

Fine. And take notes! Peki, I need you to promise on your feathers not to go out.”

The [Martial Artist] was in great danger. Not just because she wanted to go hand-to-hand against so many sword-experts, but because she was too good. Merrik suspected that a lot of blood might run, but every [Healer] was present.

—But the only way to stop someone of Peki’s level was to literally lop off an arm. The Garuda glowered as she peered over the Dwarf’s shoulder. Venaz was already outside with a mundane greatsword being forged by Pelt.

“If I swear on my feathers, you’ll let me go?”

“Absolutely.”

The Garuda brightened up. Merrik clarified.

“—if you break your promise, we will pluck every feather off your body. Wingfeathers included. Swear to the grandfathers. I know that’ll take months to grow back.”

That made the [Martial Artist] hesitate. She wavered as someone slid into a seat next to Vetn at the empty bar.

“Hey there.”

The Gnoll turned his head and saw a young woman resting a crystal hand on the bar’s counter. She looked—well, not innocuous. She had a low-cut dress, and she looked like some kind of socialite.

But he recognized the face paint and the padding that gave her a distinctly different look than her real face, and he suspected she had contacts on. The wig was definitely fake.

She smelled of perfume too, something cloying, to hide her scent. Pretty good. He gave her breasts an obligatory, polite stare. She’d definitely done a lot to draw the eyes that way. Lady Ieka Imarris was still staring.

As for the crystal hand…Vetn raised his brows. He stared at the other [Thief] as she smiled at him.

“I saw your work in the city yesterday. I haven’t seen hands that fast in a while. You…seem talented.”

Her voice was suggestive. Low, husky, and intriguing. Vetn took a sip from his cup as Ishkr slid another at the young woman.

“You look pretty good with your hands too.”

“Hands and feet. But yes, mostly my hands. You should see what I can do in private.”

She winked—and he caught her non-crystal hand as it snuck towards his belt pouch. She was fast! But Vetn just raised his brows.

“Sounds exciting.”

“I wish I could have pulled that off. You are good. I bet I know your name.”

Ruefully, she pulled her hand back, and Vetn sighed. He was pretty sure all this should have had him unable to stand up without embarrassing himself. The coy tone, the looks—

The other [Thief] might have noticed she wasn’t getting the response she looked for, so she leaned over.

“What say we have a more intimate discussion—elsewhere? I’m sorry for being so forwards, but this is a good moment. I need someone with your talents. You remind me of my father, you know.”

Vetn nearly spat his drink across the bar. He coughed and laughed.

That’s how you start? Seriously?”

He saw the young woman’s face turn red. She caught herself, trying to play it off.

“I just meant—nevermind. Listen. I have something I’ve been working on, but I might need a hand. And you’re the best [Thief] in the city right now. And—you’re in a bind. Your friend, the [Painter]?”

Vetn instantly felt his hair rise, and he began to stand, but the young woman called out.

“Don’t play it off. Everyone knows. He’s a dead Drake walking. You want to help him? Paying off his debts might be a good way.”

The Thief of Clouds had thought the same thing, but he jerked around in his seat, scowling.

“A million gold won’t put a dent in it. And I doubt you have that much money if you can’t even afford a real silk dress.”

The young woman rolled her eyes.

Spicy. Listen. There’s more than one way to take at least Symphony off the table. The Walled Cities can post whatever bounty they like—but you and I know it’s the Faces and the gangs who’re the real threats. Hear me out—and this might help out. It’s old, but I think you know it.”

She flashed something, and Vetn saw a glittering mark out of the corner of his eyes. He turned—and the Gnoll stared at the token the young woman slipped into the front of her dress. Yep…

That was definitely a false pocket in the breast pads. He exhaled hard, but if that were the real thing—

“Alright. Let’s get out of here. The walls have ears.”

He put a coin on the bar top for both of them, and Ishkr eyed the young woman as she smiled and hopped off the stool after him. The Gnoll called out after them.

The entire jar of peanuts isn’t free. Bring it back.

 

——

 

“So Eldavin’s not the guy you resurrected. Got it. And he might hold a grudge about the head-chopping thing. He’s not the biggest problem today.”

Erin Solstice could be amazingly calm when she needed to be. Ryoka Griffin was practically wringing her hands, but Erin Solstice sat in her wheelchair and glared.

She glared at Drassi. She glared at Ryoka. She glared at a breakfast of cereal Ishkr put in front of her. She glared at the people asking her questions, and flames, orange and too-bright, of frustration burned across the table.

“Tournament rules? Tournament rules? I don’t have any. You forfeit if you forfeit. If you can’t move or fight, you’re out. Don’t kill each other. Three big slices and you’re done or something stupid like that. Get out of my inn.

“Erin, this is serious.”

I’m serious. That Maestro forced my hand, Ryoka! I don’t have anything because he made me do the <Quest>! And I don’t have control over it! I was going to test out how stuff like this works—and I don’t know how to make it safe! Someone could get hurt or die—I don’t know if the rules will stop that or what!

The [Innkeeper] was shaking with frustration. Then, Ryoka understood why Erin had been laying abed and wasn’t out there trying to control the situation.

It was already…Erin Solstice would have canceled it, but she couldn’t. The cat was out of the bag.

Reagen was sticking his head out of a little sack, meowing loudly and looking around for Numbtongue. He had decided this was his favorite thing in the world; a burlap sack that had been holding some loaves of bread that Colfa and Himilt had brought to the inn. Colfa was pinching Fierre’s ear.

“No fighting.”

“But Mother—

“You’re no good with a sword. I don’t care if Miss Griffin has freed the Archmage of Izril and crossed blades with the Archmage of Memory himself. You are not to fight. Especially as it is bright out.”

“There are clouds!”

“Fierre. The answer is no. Listen to your mother.”

Himilt tipped a hat to Erin, and she waved at him. Fierre looked at her father—and threw herself into a chair, scowling so hugely. But she listened to her father.

“Mister Himilt! Are you—here?”

Ryoka’s mouth fell open, and the Vampire nodded.

“It seemed time to go. We came to see you and thank you—again. Interesting events follow you about, though, like rain. Farmer Lupp asked us to say he was well if we saw you first.”

“Lupp…this is a mess. I can’t believe I’ve done this.”

Ryoka sat down at a table and put her face in her hands. It was Erin’s turn to reassure her friend. She wheeled over to the table and patted Ryoka on the back.

“Welcome to my life, Ryoka. Hey, Ishkr, we got any drinks?”

Someone’s stolen everything, Erin. I don’t know who.”

Joseph. Did he fall off the wagon? Or was it Crusader 57? Is Bird trying to get birds drunk? No, of course. It’s Snapjaw and Numbtongue throwing a party.”

Erin ran down the list of likely suspects as Ryoka shook her head. Gothica stepped around Erin, poking people back, and Ryoka had to know about the [Goth] too.

Too much to do. 

“Miss Griffin. I know this is a terribly pressing moment, but why don’t you and the delightful Lischelle-Drakle family join me? I have a pleasant spot on a hill to watch the tournament.”

Ieka called out as Ryoka hesitated. The Courier panicked, saw Erin moodily stabbing her cereal—with a fork—and replied without thinking.

“I’d love to, Lady Ieka, but I, uh—have to help around the inn. I’ll get your drinks, Ishkr! You have a basement, right, Erin?”

“Yep! Hey, how come she remembers? Who remembers basements? Right there.”

Erin pointed as Lady Ieka looked slightly wounded. Ryoka found herself opening the door to the basement. Maybe she could scream and curl into a fetal ball down there. At least Visophecin hadn’t shown up. She had an image of Rhisveri’s sock puppet holding a sword in its ‘mouth’ and challenging everyone to a fight.

“Life couldn’t get stupider than that.”

Ryoka sighed as she went down into the dark basement. Damn. Perspective didn’t really help here. She tried, idly hoping she could switch through the layers of reality to see a brighter basement, but the most mundane thing was the most impossible.

Faerie rules. Ryoka only saw a bunch of neatly stored kegs and rat-proofed bins of ingredients, a hole in the floor that led to the Free Hive, a Unicorn drinking out of a bucket and the half-empty barrel of Rxlvn…

Taletevirion ignored Ryoka Griffin as he exhaled every few sips. The young woman stood there, probably looking for the drinks, but he’d collected them all, and the basement was wonderfully cool.

A few dead bodies in the corner, but name a basement that didn’t have one. He was feeling warm. Every few sips of the Antinium drink, the Unicorn would exhale.

“Whew. Whew. Tastes like fermented bugs and fungi, but kicks like a Kelpie. Whew, that’s good! I might have to take some to show old Teriarch.”

This might actually take him down. Magical creatures were notoriously hard to get properly drunk because their metabolisms were so strong. But this? He hoped there was a barrel around here somewhere.

The Unicorn was somewhat unsteadily wandering around the basement, kicking the lids off bins, when he noticed the young woman hadn’t left. She was staring in his vague direction.

“Yeah, yeah, piss off, whoever you are.”

He waited for her to find whatever she was looking for—until he noticed something odd. Her eyes were…following him. The Unicorn stopped—and slowly walked left.

The eyes of the Wind Runner, emerald green, moved left with him. Taletevirion felt a moment of panic, but his secrecy and don’t-notice-me spells were in full force. He relaxed a bit, but that was uncanny.

He didn’t mess up and leave shadows or footprints like Teriarch often did. The Unicorn danced left—and then stared at Ryoka.

“I’m not here. You don’t even see a horse. Shoo, shoo.”

She jumped slightly as he said that, and the Unicorn saw those eyes go wide. Then the young woman backed up, and Taletevirion gulped.

Ryoka Griffin stuttered.

“A U—a Unic—a—

The Unicorn looked Ryoka straight in the eyes and then recognized the marks of the fae on her. His stomach rumbled, and he let out a long, huge groan mixed with a burp.

“Oh shit.

 

——

 

Erin Solstice glared at Lyonette as the [Princess] suggested they charge an entry fee. She glared at Chaldion as he came over to suggest that she codify some rules about teams.

Here was the thing. Erin Solstice could normally glower with the best, but you had to admit that the Cyclops, Lyonette herself, and several others were even better glarers in general.

They had the natural haughtiness, irritability, missing eye, and so on of the greatest glowering champions ever to grace this world.

…Right now, the [Witch of Second Chances] had such a look of malignant rage and subdued fury on her face it looked like a rictus death-grin combined with a screaming warrior’s howl in the heat of battle.

Queen Marquin of Calanfer would have praised that look as being one that could cause a [Barbarian] to shit themselves. Oliyaya, who had come in to watch the bloodshed, was so moved she had to show Mavika and her apprentices a real [Witch]’s face.

Erin Solstice glared at Gothica when the [Goth] reached out to poke her mockingly, and the Goblin stared at Erin, did not poke, and decided to sit with her claws folded together.

The [Innkeeper] saw Sir Relz and Noass and beamed in such a delightful, charming way that Valeterisa’s own business-face looked tepid by comparison.

Noass, Sir Relz!

“Er—is this a poor moment, Miss Solstice? We were hoping to ask about the tournament.”

The world focused on the [Innkeeper], and Erin Solstice smiled. She smiled in a way only the Archmage of Izril could recognize, and Valeterisa stopped as she and Eldavin walked into the inn. Eldavin himself remembered the inn—and he eyed Erin Solstice as she gave the cameras a huge grin.

“I would love to, Sir Relz. But before I begin, can I just take a moment to say something important?”

“You have the floor. I can’t imagine anyone else could occupy our broadcast.”

The Drakes looked at each other and chuckled. Erin Solstice gave them a happy smile. Valeterisa began to take mental notes as Erin went on.

“Thank you. Before I talk about my <Heroic Quest> and this famous tournament, I’d just like to talk about something very important. And that’s an upcoming holiday I have planned. In fact, let’s call it the sponsor of this tournament. Not Symphony or The Wandering Inn—have you heard about Christmas?

The two Drakes’ faces went slack as they stared at Erin. Noass rifled through his notes on the tournament and the hundred questions he had. Drassi was just frozen behind Erin, jaw agape.

“Say what now?”

“It’s this great holiday. It’s about a man—a person called Santa Claus. Every year, when winter comes, people buy or make presents for each other and give them out. I’d like to invite everyone to join in this holiday, because Santa Claus will be handing out presents to all the good girls and boys in the world.”

“…What?”

Sir Relz and Noass had no context for this, but Eldavin, Valeterisa, and every Earther did. But even they—were just amazed by how Erin was doing this. The [Innkeeper] had launched what Eldavin had been arguing with Aaron Vanwell for the last fifteen days over. The young man might be getting ahead of himself, but storming up to the Archmage’s Table showed just how passionately he hated—

The world’s first mandatory ad-break featured Erin Solstice holding up a picture of Santa Claus as Sir Relz tried to steer her back to the tournament. It was actually a pretty good one—she’d hired someone in Invrisil to do a mockup of a huge man with a red coat and poofy white hat and beard, beaming at the audience. Then one of a Drake in the same outfit.

Santa works all year-round to make presents, you see. And he has a bunch of helpers! A bunch of Antinium and Goblins work in his workshop to make toys, and if you’re good, boys and girls, you might get a present this year! If not—you get a lump of coal. Can I get some support for the holiday? It would be great if Pallass joined in, or Khelt or maybe the Forgotten Wing Company…”

She stared meaningfully into the camera. And at least three different leaders of their respective organizations had a brief flash of insight.

Perhaps…perhaps it’s not good if Erin Solstice leans on us after all. Especially if this is what she does with that power.

“Miss Solstice, please! Pallass is in the middle of a tournament that could arguably result in a boon of incredible power! We don’t have time for this!”

Erin Solstice lowered her image of Santa Claus. She stared at Noass and then shrugged.

“Okay, then. Each city can only put in ten contestants. Total. Go tell the people outside.”

She folded her arms and turned her wheelchair around. Somewhere in the world, several people fell in love all over again at the sheer pettiness of it. A Titan, among others. Erin peeked over her shoulder at Noass’ waxy face.

“No? Okay then. So, one of the things in Christmas is presents. But first—you decorate. This is the tree a lot of people use, and these are the stockings. And peppermint canes. And eggnog—I have a recipe here—”

She fished out a list as everyone realized that Erin Solstice might have been strong-armed a bit too hard. Because now, she was going to force her message down everyone’s throats, whether they liked it or not.

“Wonderful. And just imagine—we can make people watch this. For free, every thirty minutes. And people will pay us for a one-minute slot. Then, when the complaints grow too much, we can have the audience pay us for an experience without any advertisements.”

Eldavin murmured to Valeterisa. The sheer mercantile nature of it all was beautiful, in a disgusting kind of way. The Archmage of Izril shuddered faintly.

“Fissival would love it. You would do well there, Eldavin.”

The Archmage of Memory hesitated. He wished that didn’t sting so.

 

——

 

Ryoka Griffin stared at Taletevirion for two hundred and fourteen seconds. Two hundred and fourteen seconds in silence as she and the Unicorn processed things.

Ryoka could see him.

He could tell she could see him and that she was fae-marked. A windfriend.

She knew he was probably an immortal in hiding, from the Vale Forest.

He could sense Teriarch on her, and the Wyrm and other immortals.

She saw he’d been stealing alcohol from Erin’s inn.

Taletevirion knew that there were any number of powerful individuals in the area and a camera that the entire world was watching.

Ryoka was aware the Unicorn was a highly powerful being if no one had noticed him, even Erin. He could almost definitely kill her.

The Unicorn could logic that Ryoka was probably not inclined to reveal his identity given her proximity to the other immortals, but she might represent one or more of their agendas. She was almost definitely one of the young women Teriarch was waiting for, and that was a full can of donkey crap. She also looked pretty good.

The Wind Runner stared at the Unicorn, and despite the dingy basement, the Rxlvn fumes coming off him—he looked like something out of stories. But not one of those glowing Unicorns full of innocence. He looked like he could run you through. The being horses would want to be, just like Humans wanted to be superheroes. He was taller than most stallions, his coat whiter than fresh snow, and his horn had that pearlescence that shifted across multiple colors even in dingy light. She was super glad her alleged attraction towards immortals was not activating—and it had better not.

The thinking and reverse thinking between the two took up those two hundred and fourteen seconds. The irony was—this wasn’t either’s first rodeo. What would they say? What would happen next?

Ryoka Griffin stared at the Unicorn, and then she spoke.

“No. Oh no, absolutely not. Not this time. I’m too busy. This is ridiculous.

“I hope you’ll keep this between you and Teriarch—wait, what?”

Taletevirion hesitated as the Wind Runner didn’t say what he’d thought she would. Ryoka Griffin just backed up.

“You know…? No, of course you do. But that’s it. You know what? Piss off. Get lost. I’m done. I don’t need another stupid immortal in my life. Not now! Whatever’s wrong with you—I can’t help you, understand? We never saw each other. Just get out of the basement, and I’ll hit myself with a hammer.”

“Wh—what?”

The Unicorn actually backed up a step as Ryoka backed up—then whirled. Something leapt down the steps, and he nearly blasted the orange cat to smithereens. But Reagen just meowed. Ryoka exhaled—hard—and then stepped towards Taletevirion. She jabbed a finger at him.

“Get yourself sorted out. I’m serious. I don’t want to know who you are. I don’t know you—and I can’t help. I wish I could, but—”

He began to splutter at this point, in outrage more than anything.

“Help me? Who are you? No, I know, that Courier who can blow around with the wind. And you’ve met Teriarch. Another one of his poor heroines. But help me? Don’t be ridiculous.”

Ryoka threw up her hands.

“Great! Perfect! Just stay out of my business. No—you know what? Go to Ailendamus if you need protection. You might find some. But it’s not on me. I really would like to—but I can’t help.”

She stepped back, folded her arms, and stared at him. The Unicorn’s mouth opened and closed several times as the cat lay on its back, waving its paws up at the air.

“Wow.”

That was all Taletevirion said after a second. He looked at Ryoka. She shrugged.

“Listen, I’m sorry—”

The Unicorn cut her off.

“No, I’m sorry. And impressed. It’s not every day you meet someone with an ego bigger than a Dragon’s. You? Help me? The first thing you say upon seeing a being of myth and legend is, ‘I’m too busy for this’? As if you could—what? Solve my issues? Fight my battles for me? Just amazing. The sheer gall of it. I have, and I say this honestly, legitimately met less presumptuous self-importance in an entire court of half-Elves. And you compressed all that personality into, what, a minute of speaking?”

He trotted around Ryoka and nearly kicked over his bucket, staring at her in a kind of impressed disgust. Ryoka had turned red.

“I just meant—these things happen to me.”

“Oh, of course. Unicorns, you can’t swing a cat around without meeting one. I’m sorry I’m in your way, Miss [Hero]. Don’t let me stop you. Where’s the [Bard] to mythologize your exploits? Is it the cat? Is he going to turn into a long-lost [Bard] from fifteen eras ago?”

He pointed his horn at Reagen, and the Wind Runner stared at the cat with the Unicorn. Reagen sneezed on himself. Taletevirion raised his head.

“…You half expected him to, didn’t you?”

“Listen—I’m not taking you lightly. I’ll probably have a panic attack about this later. And tons of questions for Teriarch.”

“Fat chance he answers them.”

The Unicorn grunted despite himself. Ryoka groaned.

“Exactly! And he was supposed to come to me!”

“Hah! Another broken promise by the Dragonlord of Flame who ‘never breaks a promise’ unless it’s one that he didn’t think mattered.”

The Unicorn snorted and laughed as Ryoka’s mouth curved up—and the two caught themselves. This time, it was Ryoka who pointed an accusing finger.

“See? You know him, I know him. I can’t do this right now. Erin is running a tournament and—I can’t help.”

“Help me. There’s that phrase again. Do you just look at people and think, ‘it’s time for me’—whomever you are—‘to interfere and uplift this poor person’s life!’

The Unicorn tossed his mane of hair back and struck a supercilious pose. Ryoka was so flushed it was travelling down her shoulders, but she snapped back.

“Listen, pal—”

“Oh, we’re pals now, are we? You are a speck I won’t remember after today’s drink. Don’t associate with me, you pretentious Human. Look at you—you even run barefoot as if that makes you ‘special’ or ‘in touch with nature’ like some pretend-[Druid]. They wear sandals and shoes. I go bare-hoofed because I have hooves. Giant nails. Fleshy feet were never meant to run on brambles and thorns, and that’s all you get in the grass.”

Taletevirion had a thing about feet. Disgusting. Gnolls had pads, Drakes, scales—but Humans? All they had was foot fungus on the bottoms of their feet.

Ryoka was reeling from the insults, seeing a Unicorn, and sudden paranoia about being dragged into another gigantic affair. But this was too much. She pointed a trembling finger at the bucket and bottles behind Taletevirion.

“You don’t have a problem? You’re squatting in Erin’s basement, stealing liquor with invisibility spells, and drinking Antinium-made Rxlvn out of a bucket. Don’t tell me you don’t have a problem. Teriarch has the decency to pay for the things he steals, at least.”

The Unicorn’s mouth hung open for a good thirty seconds, and Ryoka realized his teeth were objectionably white. Maybe being a Unicorn meant you purified most things, because she didn’t see him brushing his teeth. Taletevirion managed a comeback after another few seconds.

“—Bags of holding were invented for people with hands. This inn and the other inn I raided are rich. And before you go and bother Teriarch, just so you know, he’s not going to sleep with you. He doesn’t do that. A thousand young women have thrown themselves at him and bounced off that idiot’s scales.”

“I wasn’t—”

“Of course not. You just appreciate him ‘as a Dragon’. And also, so you know? Wyrms? Lucifen? Bad company. You might think you’re being a ‘cool mortal’ and they like you—and they probably will enjoy your company right up until they’re eating your liver. Words to the wise. Just a hint.”

Ryoka Griffin and Taletevirion had to step back after that last exchange. Reagen, the impartial judge, was too busy chasing a little undead mouse across the basement to really pay attention to what was going on, and Az’kerash was so busy trying to create a puppet that he didn’t really do more than put his mouse through evasive maneuvers.

A tiny portion of his mind wondered why Ryoka was talking to herself, but he assumed she was crazy.

If there were invisible judges, it was hard to say who had lost that last exchange. Ryoka was panting. She backed up.

“I’m—I’m not talking to you. Pay for the damn drinks, and I’ll tell Erin—I’ll tell her something.”

“Oh, please. I can cover my tracks. It was one of the [Thieves]. Do you know how suspicious it is to leave a pile of gold coins around?”

“Fine, I’ll pay for you.”

“How generous. I can already feel I’m being saved!”

Ryoka Griffin was retreating up the stairs. The Unicorn snapped at her as she wavered.

“Well? If you’re serious, you haven’t heard from Teriarch that I’m done. Stay away from the Vale Forest. It’s safe—and it had better well damn stay that way, or I’ll run you through. Stop teasing Tyrion Veltras and go bother the Reinharts. Or the Els!

“How do you—”

I read the newspapers. Do you think I sleep all day?”

Ryoka knew she should leave or she would have a hundred billion questions. She was turning—before she closed her eyes and threw her head back.

“Oh, fuck me…one question?”

“Am I a Djinni?”

Taletevirion looked exasperated as he levitated bottles into—he did have a bag of holding! The Unicorn tried to hide it as Ryoka pointed. The Wind Runner gobbled silently—then spoke.

“One question. One. Do you, uh…do you know if there are any Dryads left? If there was a seed, in a wand, for instance? Do you know how to, um—hatch it? Grow it?”

The Unicorn froze with the last of the Rxlvn keg hovering in midair. He looked up, and the Unicorn stared at Ryoka. Then he hurriedly tossed the keg into his bag of holding.

“That’s not new.”

“Huh?”

That’s not damn well new. Shut up. I don’t care. Bringing one back won’t heal a forest. There are no more seeds, no more—it doesn’t matter anyways. It’s not new, not my job, and I don’t know anything about it.”

He began to trot past Ryoka, up the stairs. Ryoka was blinking, and she didn’t know about the Unicorn’s self-imposed Geas. Taletevirion was halfway out into the inn when he turned his head, cursed, and snapped at her.

“—You have to grow it in a great forest. And the Vale Forest is dead. A Treant couldn’t do it—they’re all part of the ocean, now. Maybe one of the kelp forests if the Water Dragonlord preserved any. But a real great forest, got it? Where would a seed be?”

“…In a wand of ironwood from Albez?”

Taletevirion and Ryoka Griffin stared at each other. The Unicorn opened his mouth—and Ryoka hesitated, realizing this was the greatest natural magic expert in the entire world. Then Taletevirion kicked her in the stomach.

Nope. I’m out.”

He practically galloped out the door, and everyone in the inn looked around at the gust of wind. Eldavin’s head turned—but he just saw the door shutting and a long tail of…

“…Was that a horse?”

He looked at the basement as a swearing young woman clambered out, only to tell Erin that Reagen had smashed all the alcohol bottles in her inn. Which was a terrible lie, but it was all Ryoka could do.

The Unicorn ran like spit, right up until he turned his head and recognized Teriarch’s simulacrum. Then he stopped, in the stand of Blue Fruit trees, and put the keg down. He poured himself another bucket shakily.

“Not new. Not new…what in the name of Phoenix shit was up with that sword hilt? No—I don’t want to know. It’s not new.

He kept telling himself that.

 

——

 

The [Innkeeper] was awake, and she was the most interesting thing happening today. Definitely. As people waited for her to finish selling Christmas and come outside—

Well, it was an understatement to say people were impatient. Barnethei had to physically stop Sammial from running through the [Portal Door]. Even so—the boy managed to pierce Magnolia Reinhart’s barrier enough to stick his head through the door.

A boy screamed into the inn during Erin’s broadcast where she was describing hanging a wreath over a fireplace you hopefully had.

“No one cares about this stupid thing! Get on with it!”

That statement alone almost redeemed him in the eyes of many. Erin Solstice, upon hearing this, deliberately began talking about the significance of nutcrackers and humming Christmas jingles.

Never let it be said that Erin couldn’t compete for annoying with the best of them. That was probably where Mrsha learned it from, honestly. Mrsha had just not learned that you also needed to bribe the people you annoyed so often.

…Besides. Barnethei glanced down as Liska began to close the door. The [Door Gnoll] looked as impressed as Gothica. But the [Vice Innkeeper] also looked amused—because he had a hand over Sammial’s mouth. Sammy stared at the person who’d done the screaming, and a red-faced Hethon ducked back into the Haven.

But only Ryoka had noticed the difference in the two boys’ voices. Sammy had been going to ask for a mini-tournament for children with knives so he could invite Princess Oesca to visit.

At any rate, someone had realized something about Erin’s tournament that no one else had. Incidentally, it was legitimately one person in the thousands now-gathered on the Floodplains and even more watching.

One person had realized something very, very important. But in the meantime, during the boring intermission where Erin was slowly educating a world about Christmas—and that was mildly entertaining—

Someone else decided that they needed to put on a show.

Tyrion Veltras was watching the Archmage of Memory warming up. His sword moved in patterns that made the [Lord] uneasy.

“He—might be a Gold-ranked duelist. No, a [Swordmaster] without the class. I can’t read his forms.”

There was a level beyond sheer martial prowess. Even the most self-trained warriors who never studied fighting could hit someone with a club as hard as they wanted in the right spot. That was how a [Maceman] could down a Gold-bell duelist.

A blow was a blow—but of course, you could train your muscles to make a certain kind of blow faster, more lethal. You could hone yourself, learn to exploit weaknesses in most people’s guards. The craft of designing weapons, teaching swordplay, and codifying it while analyzing other fighting styles culminated in things like the rapier.

The rapier’s very design and unique style was meant to pierce armor and be the famously lethal step-in strike that often ended a fight in a second. A master of the sword, in the same way, could parry a blow, sometimes even arrows or spells, in the blink of an eye.

Tyrion Veltras knew there was one more form beyond that. And he thought he saw it in Eldavin’s movements. An understanding where swordsmanship crossed from the physical realm into the impossible, the magical.

Ksmvr, ironically, was the best example of this in a tangible form. The Silver Illusion sword-school created actual illusions, walls of blades—he literally bent reality at angles.

But lightly. The Antinium hadn’t learned the true depths of blade mastery. Eldavin…

Eldavin made Tyrion uneasy. Lulv, Relc, and the other best warriors on the field were eying him. If an unhelpful Unicorn was inclined to interfere in this match, he might have vouchsafed that Eldavin was the one unfair contestant.

Forget the young Lightning Dragon…Taletevirion stared at Eldavin, who could fight with all Teriarch’s mortal knowledge in a body that was almost perfect. He was not a fair entry into this tournament.

Even the Named-ranks here were mortal, though their Skills might eclipse everything else. Actually, and ironically, they were grumbling that since they were banned from killing blows, a lot of their best Skills, like Yvlon’s [Arc of the Moon], were too dangerous to use.

“Looks like there are some kind of safeguards. Look at that. I bet that happens if we’re disqualified. Better watch your blades, lads and lasses!”

Todi was laughing. Every head turned as a Drake in Pallass’ ranks began to glow. The Drake yelped—tried to drop the enchanted blade he’d been sneaking in a sheath—

At this point, Tyrion expected the Drake to vanish and appear outside the tournament grounds. Or maybe a magical sign would indicate he was disqualified?

It almost seemed as if the glowing lasted too long. As if—perhaps—something were figuring out what should happen. When it did, Tyrion saw the glow change to a flash—

Something kicked the Drake thirty feet. He went flying, hit the ground, bounced with the most sickening thud that Tyrion had heard—like someone falling off a horse—and lay still.

Todi’s laughter stopped, and he paled. A [Healer] ran over, but an indigo-scaled Drake was faster. Onieva leapt over—threw a potion down—and perhaps that saved the Drake.

Every rib is broken. I think his heart’s stopped.”

The sight of the [Healers] trying to resuscitate the downed Drake was enough to make everyone check themselves slowly. Tyrion wasn’t sure—even if he’d known that was coming—if he could dodge that.

The sight of the Drake jerking and breathing didn’t diminish the—consequences. Especially because he began to scream—and then passed out from the pain.

“That was—not a proportional response. Did the [Innkeeper] set that up?”

Jericha was looking at Ullim in concern. That had been a Level 30 [Officer] of some kind. She imagined that would kill someone without his levels. Ullim shook his head.

“No, I doubt it. She may be direct—but she’s not murderous, and her friends are in this.”

“Perhaps we should make sure we’re not carrying hidden blades or…”

Jericha hesitated, but Ullim flashed a hidden blade up his sleeve at her.

“Jericha, if it has not punished us—everything done so far is legal. Including the Selphids, mithril blades, and all else. Important information.”

House Veltras looked at Ullim, their [Majordomo], and he was saying much the same thing as Chaldion—who had ordered the deliberate rulebreaking—and the other analysts. Definitely don’t use magic, though.

Try not to kill. It was your life on the line, too.

 

——

 

The sight of the rulebreaking punishment made some of the contestants reconsider their entry into the tournament. The rest were just relieved—

“Perhaps we’ll be fighting in brackets? If so—the [Innkeeper] might winnow the most numerous sides like the Antinium and Pallass down against each other. That would be the fairest way to do it. This tournament might take more than one day. At least that seems to indicate sabotage is unlikely.”

Symphony was watching, with less concern, the Drake with splintered ribs poking out of his chest. He’d probably make it.

They were organized, the sixty-some of them, into two groups. Instruments and choir. But also—each one reported to a superior for smaller assignments.

For instance, they were grouped, like an actual orchestra, into divisions. Woodwinds, brass—and then by instrument. Not all had a leader; a trombone might not have a First Trombone but report to the First Trumpet instead.

But each [Assassin] like that, from the First Flute to the others, was the best. The only one who trumped them all was the Maestro.

Gold-bell duelist. He had a simple estoc, today. Thinner and lighter than normal, more like a hybrid-rapier strengthened for repeated clashes of metal-on-metal. Like everyone else, he had no armor, and his formal suit made him stand out from the most plain-cloth clothes the others wore.

He was enjoying his moment at the center of attention, even if it was enmity. In fact, Wistram News Network had made their Channel 1 the coverage of Erin. Channel 2 was for the commentators, from Raelt and other blade-experts.

Channel 3 was being devoted purely to Deniusth, who was still ranting insults about the Maestro. Noass was keeping him company and, occasionally, feeding the fire.

“Surely you have something to say about this Maestro, Sir Deniusth? I am told you went to his wedding?”

“His name is Linvios, and I did not go to his wedding, but Wall Lord Itreus’. Who—I note—has quite fallen out with this criminal. This blade-for-hire. He is a thoroughly pathetic man.”

“But isn’t Symphony considered Orchestra’s rivals?”

Deniusth laughed for a good half a minute, throwing his head back.

“Our rivals? They’re a nuisance who haven’t the courage to face Orchestra in the field. They merely—interfere. Linvios has never defeated me in a duel for the last twenty years.”

Deniusth hadn’t defeated Linvios either, but he didn’t see fit to mention that. It was true—the two were too evenly matched. Yet Deniusth was taking this moment to continue insulting Symphony.

“They are the very definition of ‘quantity over quality’. Linvios is a [Hired Sword] and a [Thug]. He has the musical talent of a grasshopper, and as you clearly saw, Noass, he menaces and intimidates without regard to safety. No class. No shame.”

The Maestro had no love of Deniusth either. And he admitted—freely—that he insulted the Violinist first.

But really. The Drake looked around, still standing upright. Deniusth was going too far. His blood was singing—here they were, standing in honor of a [Blademistress] so old and grand her named echoed to this day.

They were disgracing her. Now, he had cause to regret forcing Erin Solstice’s hand. He watched Eldavin showing off—the half-Elf might have been nervous despite his showy entry, or he would have thought the same thing the Maestro did.

Someone must interject some class into this moment. Symphony—weapons down. We are not participating—yet. Instruments up. Let’s have a song.”

“Maestro?”

However, he was gesturing, and the members of Symphony began to bring out instruments.

Wait, what’s Linvios doing? That show-off—

The Maestro turned off the orb with Deniusth on it. He raised his conductor’s wand, and to his relief, he wasn’t attacked by the <Quest> or [Innkeeper].

“Harpsichord?”

“Here, Maestro.”

“Good. Drums, I don’t think this is the mood for some classic opera. Let’s have something…upswing. One of the private pieces that was such a hit.”

Symphony looked up in astonishment, but that was what the Maestro thought fit. This wasn’t—sadly—solemn enough for a true piece of art. It was rough, impromptu—but there was a joy in that too.

“A steady beat. Let’s have the choir fulfill most of the space. But I’d like a faster piece—harpsichord and hand-organists.”

He’d heard some amazing instruments from the Singer of Terandria. The Maestro had wanted what was apparently being worked on—a ‘piano’—the moment he’d heard it.

But the harpsichord and organ were close enough. He raised his voice.

With me, choir. One, two, a-one-two-three, la la la la—radada dada da~

They weren’t words, not quite, but they rolled off the tongue quite well, and the choir obliged him. The harpsichord and drums played louder, and the other contestants and watchers turned.

 

——

 

What kind of music is that?

Selys blinked and sat up. It was like nothing she’d heard before. But she would be wrong in thinking it was new to this world entirely, which was her instinctual reaction these days. The music was faster than she was used to, and it had a pep that made her want to tap her leg instinctively.

She had no context—but Kevin, sitting with Ceria, sat up and pointed.

“That’s—wait a second, that’s—”

One other group had context for the music. Mirn looked up from where he was whispering to Chaldion, and the [Grand Strategist]’s eye narrowed.

“I’ve heard that somewhere.”

Regardless of the context of the music, the Maestro knew how to conduct. The Drakes and Gnolls sang with him, an odd choir of masked figures who tore the black veils and cloth away to sing in rather magnificent harmony.

Only Deniusth wasn’t impressed. Noass was tapping his foot to the music.

“That sounds rather—intriguing, Sir Deniusth, if you don’t mind me saying.”

They’re talentless hacks. Symphony’s choir moonlights as an a capella group. They’re still murderers!”

Indeed, there was something slightly sinister to the song coming from Symphony. The oddest blend of a swinging dance number and ominous sound. It made you want to get up and dance—and look over your shoulder.

The Maestro, though, was performing. And while not all of Symphony was needed for this song, many were joining the choir from the instruments section. One—the First Flute—stepped forwards as he beckoned. Still conducting with his wand, he took her claw and swung her out. She whirled and linked elbows with him.

Around—and then they were dancing lightly. Kicking wide—and Pisces started.

“That looks like [Duelist] exercises.”

A combination of dancing and music. The Maestro was purely showing off now. The First Flute took his hand—and swung herself through his legs as he spread them, sliding on her knees up onto her feet.

 

——

 

“Huh.”

Cara O’Sullivan propped her chin up on one fist. She saw exactly what they were doing. And unlike the rest of the watchers—she slowly took a long gulp of wine.

“So—someone’s already invented electro swing. Now there’s a fun group. We should really tour Izril. I wonder what their story is.”

Assassins dancing. What would they see next? The Maestro’s impromptu-music only lasted about four minutes. When he turned and bowed, not many people applauded. But he had certainly reminded them he was there.

 

——

 

“That bastard’s showing off. Hey—someone show him what adventurers can do.”

Todi snarled. He looked around, and Dasha stared blankly at him as she hefted a handaxe.

“Why don’t you do that? Dance for us, big man.”

“Shut up, Silver-rank. Hey—wait a second. Isn’t one of your teammates a [Blade Dancer]? Show us a trick!”

He meant Pekona, and the Drathian woman looked up. She had one arm, and she was carrying a shorter, curved blade. She and Dasha were the only two members of Vuliel Drae on the field, supporting Ylawes. Honestly, Anith had wanted to forbid Dasha joining in, but she had claimed ‘Dwarven solidarity’.

As for Pekona…he hadn’t the heart to deny her. The woman had skin a shade darker than Ryoka’s, and she was shorter by a head. Her raven hair was a mess, and she looked far less confident than she had before.

“I…am not a good enough [Blade Dancer] to dance. I am at the beginning of a path unending. A disgrace to my lessons.”

She had been like this the entire time since meeting the [Sword Legend]. Which was fair—her arms had not healed like Yvlon’s, and unlike Prince Zenol, her arm hadn’t been resewn.

If anyone had been unfairly treated—Pekona had only come away from the practice courts when she’d heard about the tournament.

Todi, of course, knew nothing of this, but it was amazing how the man could poke at people when they were down.

“Well, you’re depressing. Alright, then—”

He was looking around when that someone who had realized something about Erin’s tournament before everyone else pushed forwards. Every head turned, and Pisces blinked.

“Oh no. Not you. With respect—”

Yvlon Byres reached out and tried to halt the newcomer, but a number of adventurers were here. Even Spoken Vow, the team who had fought against the Eater Goats and Gargoyles, and A Pact of Flame and Sword were here. Only a few of them from each, but Captain Mickey of Spoken Vow and the [Knife Fighter] were both glancing over.

Riz.

There was an entire backstory in Spoken Vow, a Gold-rank team who’d gotten quite lucky of late. The Eater Goats had been bad—but they’d killed a lot of monsters. Ever since their new rookie joined up, new to Gold-rank herself.

Like the Maestro, like everyone—everyone had a history, like Mickey the Moored, Captain of Spoken Vow. A long one, a book’s worth of tales and grief and triumph.

But if you wanted to summarize them—you could do at least one member of Spoken Vow very quickly. And it was Riz, their [Knife Fighter]. You would say this to Normen or Alcaz, and they’d understand.

You would say: ‘Riz is a former Face. Just like Shriekblade or Ratici and Wilovan. Facecarver Riz. She’s one of the scary ones.’

And they would get it. Even Todi, with some kind of preternatural instinct, had never picked upon Riz like the rest of Spoken Vow. Even if their synergy with their [Hedge Mage], [Trick-Shot Archer], [Dual Slingshot Skirmisher], and [Entrenchment Fighter-Captain] created quite a lot of fighting potential and versatility, you could easily say that over half the sheer killing potential was in one of their members.

Todi might not have realized the same thing that Ceria and Pisces and Ksmvr did, which was why the Horns hadn’t hung out with Spoken Vow after the fighting. But he still stood away, again, with some kind of animalistic sixth sense. You could notice the subtle signs, like how Riz always seemed balanced. How she—hadn’t mourned the loss of their [Slingshot Skirmisher]. Her tears were crocodile.

Ironically, Yvlon gave Riz a nod and a thumbs-up, and the [Knife Fighter] gave her a smile of kinship. Pisces eyed Yvlon’s oblivious face. But then he turned his attention to the person that all the adventurers were staring at.

Including Riz. And besides Yvlon, only one person among all the adventurers had earned the slight nod she gave. Another thing you could notice if you were Ceria and wore the circlet. A Face from the streets had little respect for even Gold-ranks.

Colth and the Named-ranks—perhaps. But that was more like a wolf respecting a puma. Yet one person was striding across the tournament grass right now. And like Riz—

Typhenous had once been a Face.

“Typhenous, Typhenous, stop! You’re old! You’ll break every bone in your body!”

Revi was chasing after him. But Typhenous the Plague Mage was the sole member of Griffon Hunt who wanted to participate in this tournament. He was arguing with her as she pursued him.

“My dear Revi…I do have a history with blades, you know. I’ve lost a step, but that lot is so…so much flash. So much flash and color, and not a whit of respect for the woman who runs these streets. Erin Solstice. Southerners, you know?”

The [Summoner] halted a bit as she tried to understand his words.

“—Absolutely none of that made sense. Typhenous, you’re going senile. Look at you!”

Look at him. He didn’t have on his robes as they were enchanted; instead, he had a younger man’s tunic and leggings. Long, even baggy. Good for blocking a bit of blade. Typhenous was striding along, and he had on a simple knife at his belt.

Long—but hardly a sword or Jelaqua’s flail or a damn spear that could be longer than you were.

“Ever heard of reach, Typhenous? That Gnoll is a [Spearmaster]. He’ll stab you while you’re jogging up to him.”

“Revi, I do appreciate the concern, but you’re rather in danger yourself.”

“The tournament’s not started yet—Pisces, help me talk Typhenous out of hurting himself! Todi!”

“Revi’s right, Typhenous. This is dicey. See what happened to that Drake?”

Typhenous gave Todi a bland smile. Todi, though, abandoned his instincts to go and grab Typhenous and save the old man from his ego. Right up until Riz stepped over.

“Master Typhenous, are you going to greet them? Can I…watch?”

“Miss Riz. Do you want to help me? At my age—I feel the frailty of my bones, as Revi says.”

So saying, Typhenous took Riz’s arm and leaned on her as they walked across the grass. Revi stormed after them, but Pisces halted her.

“Revi—”

“Help me! He’s too old to get hurt!”

“Yes, but who is getting hurt, please?”

Ksmvr peered at Typhenous. He was heading straight for Symphony. Revi drew in a breath to shout at the [Skirmisher]—then remembered that Ksmvr’s grasp of humor was weak. She turned her head.

The sight of a man with a beard of white hair reaching down his chest on the tournament grounds approaching the killers of Symphony made Tyrion, Manus’ soldiers, and everyone else look over. A few cameras swung down, and Rafaema frowned as she stared down at the man. Her keen Dragon eyes spotted something odd.

“Weird. That old Human’s going to get hurt. What’s that on his off-hand?”

Lulv was yawning as he waited for the fighting to start. But as he swung his gaze over to Typhenous, his eyes sharpened. He looked down and spoke a word as Aldonss frowned. Even the Wall Lord of Manus couldn’t tell what it was, but Lulv knew it.

“Huh. There are all kinds of odd weapons on the field here. I guess it pairs with the knife. He’s lucky he didn’t get disqualified by the <Quest>. That’s a caestus.”

“A what?”

Rafaema herself vaguely recognized the name. Lulv gestured at the short glove with metal protrusions on the knuckles.

“Type of tough glove. Hard leather and metal. Some people use it in [Gladiator] bouts or arenas. Or in back-alley fights. A parrying weapon like how [Fencers] carry a dagger.”

“Think he knows how to use it?”

Aldonss remarked as he reached for a report on which Gold-ranker this was. Lulv didn’t reply.

 

——

 

The Plague Mage stopped in front of Symphony. And they stopped playing as he halted. Riz stepped back, smiling, as Typhenous brushed at his clothes.

“—You know, I really am old.”

He began speaking, and Revi did fear he was going senile then, because no one had said anything. But like someone continuing a thought, the Plague Mage went on.

“Miss Solstice’s honor has been impinged. Which is one thing—and I daresay a number of fine ladies and men here are in defense of that. But in my day—I must be old, because when I was a young man, if we saw the south coming up and dancing about, we’d have said something about it.”

Symphony looked at the old man. And what they saw was not what half the concerned citizens of Liscor calling for someone to ‘take the old man to safety’ saw.

Typhenous’ eyes were the faintest tinge of pink across brown. Striata of pink laced between the plain color. With his beard, he looked like a genuine, kind old man who might offer a toffee to a child or ruminate on ‘the good old days’.

He was a Gold-rank adventurer, one of the oldest—if not biologically—then in actual, functional age. But his career as a Gold-ranker was actually fairly short.

So why did he have a title when Revi, Seborn, Jelaqua, and so many others didn’t?

Typhenous the Plague Mage. That was one thing. The second was why he had a skillset and talents that had both caused trouble for his team and sometimes—helped.

If you were someone from the streets, you’d know him. The old man who’d made it to respectable. Not because he’d sold out or quit—but because he’d survived for decades. The ultimate respect to that.

Typhenous. A former Face.

He had three classes that defined him. The first was [Rogue Mage]. The second? [Knifefighter]. The third was [Underworld Survivor].

Facecarver Riz would obviously know someone like him—perhaps had even emulated his departure into the realm of adventurers. They used to call him Typhenous the Plague Knife.

Knifemaster of the streets.

The old man drew a knife from his belt and held it in one hand. His left hand had the bulkier caestus, but he could still hold a knife with it. He showed Symphony the blade as they put away their instruments.

Half had swords or long, wicked, curved daggers. One had a hook guisarme. Another group carried spears—and Typhenous had a knife.

It was about as long as his hand and had a tapered end with a slight curve near the tip, like most knives. A plain, leather-wrapped handle that Typhenous had adjusted just this morning.

It wasn’t like his regular knife Revi knew as she halted in the grass, sensing—something. Typhenous had an enchanted knife, so it was obviously no good. His regular knife was actually quite strange, and he would borrow her belt-dagger because his was fairly crap at cutting.

It had a wavy edge, like a slithering snake, and it was thus useless for slicing. Plus, he would never slice up any of the sausages or anything edible with it.

Now, the new knife flicked up, and Typhenous turned his body slightly, presenting only his caestus-hand to the waiting [Assassins]. The Maestro—the Maestro was smiling.

Typhenous turned and winked at the watchers. Ekirra was worriedly shouting for the nice old Typhy to come back. Mrsha…Mrsha was eying the knife. Typhenous waved at Ekirra with his free hand.

Hm? Where had the knife gone? He looked around as the cameras focused on him. Had he dropped it? The old man felt around—then found it.

He pulled it from behind one ear. He pantomimed surprise as he found it—then he shrugged and flipped it in a whirling arc up into the air. The old man closed his eyes—and caught the whirling dagger hilt first.

That was when Revi remembered that Typhenous had gone after the Drake Revenant [Sword Legend] when he had challenged them all. And the [Sword Legend] had called Typhenous slow…and old. She looked around and began to back up in the grass on a hunch.

This time, Typhenous performed the flick trick with two fingers. Up the knife spun, rotating a dozen times in a whirl. He flicked his hand up—and a second knife appeared. This time, he caught two—one between his forefinger and middle finger, the other between middle finger and ring finger—by the tips of the blades.

Flick, flick, flick. He caught three in his hand. Then he made all three vanish, possibly up his baggy sleeves. The Plague Mage turned, and a fourth knife, this one slightly pink, an odd metallic blade that might have been painted, appeared on his fingers. It had more curve—and serrated edges around the base where it met the hilt.

Typhenous had a blade of grass. He tossed it up, held the knife up, and the blade of grass landed on the knife and fell onto the ground in two pieces.

That done, Typhenous rolled the sharp knife across his fingers. The blade moved, walking across his knuckles. Mrsha had seen people do that with coins. Typhenous did it with a knife—then he twirled it around.

Not once did he hold it—the old man’s hand whirled, and the blade rotated as his knuckles, and his hand made it spin in the air, as if gravity refused to touch it. Then—he flicked it up, and two knives danced across his hand.

Knife tricks. The old man was winking at a [Witch] who rolled her eyes as she sipped from a cup of tea. But the rest of the audience was staring. Then—Typhenous exhaled.

“I really must be old. This used to be so easy. Ah, well—”

His arms began moving faster. And his hands—his arms—knives began to flash across his arms. He bounced one off an arm, caught it across his neck by tilting his head, and Revi tried to count how many he was holding.

Eleven—fifteen? Or were some glittering afterimages of blades? The old man was working hard now, and Symphony…watched. They didn’t think it was just a parlor trick.

Neither did Riz.

“Can I greet our friends across the mountains too?”

“Riz, my dear, I was hoping you wouldn’t ask.”

At that, the other [Knife Fighter] flicked her hands out, and a pair of longer blades appeared in her grip. She began performing much the same trick as Typhenous, but two-handed. She could—somehow—walk a blade up her arm with minute changes of her body’s motion. The two were juggling the spinning knives, and the hypnotic sight reminded Revi of Typhenous’ stories.

Young street lads and lasses, showing off. Spinning a blade and catching it, hopefully without losing their fingers. Right before the blood started pouring. She had thought he made up a lot of tales, because not even Stitch-folk were that careless with blades.

But Typhenous was putting on a show for the waiting tournament audience. And it seemed—every step was carrying him a tiny bit closer to the figures waiting there. One step—he reached out for his spinning knives—another—

Riz stumbled and grabbed at a blade as her Captain called out for her to ‘come back’. She glanced back—

 

——

 

“Miss Solstice, please!

Sir Relz had to interrupt the thirty-second minute of Erin’s Christmas pitch. She looked at him.

“Alright, Sir Relz. I’m nearly done. What?”

“We just—wanted clarification on the tournament rules! Distribution, matchups, who’s going first. Brackets?”

Erin Solstice gave the Drake a long look with narrowed eyes, as if trying to figure out if he were mocking her. When she saw his ‘Sir Relz’ face in full force, Erin Solstice shook her head.

“Listen. What part of ‘I was a hostage’ don’t you get? All these people asking me to change the <Quest>? Delay it? I can’t. Tournament brackets? If you think everyone’ll stand around, you do it. But why would someone like Chaldion let you put rules on the tournament?”

“Well—if that’s so, why don’t you just commence it already? All this waiting around on you!”

Sir Relz was huffing angrily, wondering why he had wasted his time. And then—Erin Solstice looked at him, and the audience perhaps realized something that one man had figured out first. Her mouth fell open.

“What are you talking about?”

The Drake hesitated—then he heard the first scream from outside. Then it clicked.

The Festival of Blades in honor of Zeladona—

It had already been underway. Typhenous the Plague Knife rammed the first blade straight into one member of Symphony’s shoulders. He planted two more in the stomach and an arm as Riz knifed the same Gnoll in the back four times.

Non-lethal. Probably. Then they were sprinting back to the adventurers as the entire grassy field exploded into violence.

 

——

 

“Now that was a proper Izrilian greeting. Just like I remember! Hah! Look at them go!”

The commentary wasn’t from the scrying orb at the moment. Even the King of Duels, Raelt, had frozen at the unexpected way criminals handled things.

Even Symphony, who had probably expected it, hadn’t thought the old man would attack that fast. How many times had he stabbed that [Assassin]? And he’d done it with another Face.

The black-clad Symphony swarmed after Typhenous and Riz in the scrying orb. And all Viscount Visophecin could think was—

I wish I were there. 

He was trying not to smile as blood fell in droplets onto the grass, seeping into the earth. As steel rang from sheaths and voices rose in agony and rage.

Then he remembered he was among his kin, House Shoel, the Lucifen and Agelum. Then he did smile.

A cruel smile, of someone who would have leapt into that fen of bloodshed and presided amongst it.

A judge in gore, an arbiter of hellfire and brimstone.

His counterparts looked different. They sat, and Uziel, lonely without Razia or Gadrea, was laughing. But he laughed like warhorns and triumph. If he descended with wings and watchful eyes, he would have been standing in triumph—and blood—celebrating the bravery of it.

They wanted to be there, Lucifen and Agelum both. They longed to be—and the worst part was that Visophecin knew he could have made it.

The Gateways couldn’t reach across continents so easily, of course. But he had methods almost as fast as Eldavin. And Rhisveri could have probably teleported any number of combatants in.

They couldn’t. Unlike Eldavin, it was wiser to hide their true powers. Teleporting so far would attract attention. So even Rhisveri refrained in a show of wisdom.

Thus, Visophecin just watched, eyes glowing with delight. See that old man run. See Pallass’ [Soldiers] draw their blades and set themselves in ranks, as if this were an actual battle.

But see—the Lucifen’s eyes turned. He had a bet with Rhisveri, actually.

Who was more hated? The instant everyone realized the festival of blades had begun—they focused on three targets.

Symphony.

Manus.

House Veltras.

The real question was—who was most hated? The answer came like a plume of glorious fire. Not Dragonfire—but an echo of it.

It rolled across the grass, and the figures standing on one of the hills took cover. Then—Visophecin’s smile widened as he saw an angry Watch Captain point a sword, and Tyrion Veltras turned. Watch Captain Zevara and dozens of ‘off-duty’ [Guards], private citizens of Liscor, Goblins, Antinium, and, yes, even Pallassian Drakes went charging for House Veltras.

 

——

 

Close ranks! Close—Lord Veltras, no!”

Jericha’s first instinct was to have the two dozen men-at-arms shield her [Lord]. But one look at Zevara’s breath attack had made her realize that Skills were in play.

Skills—and natural weapons like that. It didn’t seem fair—especially because the second thing she heard was a voice.

“[Raise the Wall]! [Crossbows: Overwatch]!”

Wall Lord Aldonss pointed a claw in vengeance for the first clash between him and Tyrion. Fifty some crossbows appeared in the air—

All aiming at Tyrion Veltras. No other ranged weapons were on the field besides throwing weapons, and the [Lord] looked up as Jericha’s stomach twisted.

They shouldn’t have allowed this! He didn’t have his levels! He—

It was too late. Tyrion was moving. And he wasn’t headed towards his own people, but away. He had realized, in an instant, that he would be a fire magnet for the entire field. So he charged down the hill, shield raised.

The crossbows tracking him—fired. Not in one volley, but in three—spreading out their fire so there was no possibility of dodging. Tyrion Veltras muttered.

“[Great Shield].”

He lifted his shield, and the overlapping spectral bolts cracked against a barrier in the air. The [Lord] looked left—and sprinted out of another jet of flames. He began running, and Jericha halted.

Wait a second—

He was fast! The [Lord] took off as a Drake swung—and twisted around. Jeiss tried to correct his trajectory, but even when he began running, he realized Tyrion Veltras was already sixty feet away.

Jericha hadn’t really seen Tyrion running footraces. He was a passionate [Rider]—and besides, he was in his forties.

Had been. Now, a younger man of twenty-eight was booking it. He ran so fast that half the people charging at him turned in a wave, and the first person Tyrion Veltras ran into was Menolit.

“You bastard! [Scythe Rush—”

The [Veteran] came at Tyrion, and the [Lord] ducked into the sweeping sword. It clanged off his shield, and Menolit reached out to bring his own shield down on Tyrion’s bare head. Then he realized the [Lord] hadn’t stopped his mad run.

Tyrion’s shield rammed into the Drake, and the [Lord] went under and heaved up. With sheer strength—he tossed Menolit off him, and as the Drake landed on his back, one boot stomped on his chest as Tyrion ran on.

That was—the move was so stunning that most of the [Duelists] chosen to analyze this fight were lost for words. Because Sir Relz and Noass had classically failed again.

They’d chosen fighting experts and masters of the blade. Not [Soldiers]. Not street-fighters—but Tyrion had seen battlefields. This was a bloody, nasty fight with no rules. And he was fighting like a young man.

No Skills—just the overwhelming confidence of the young that they could run, jump, and do anything they needed to. And—the recklessness that age had tempered.

An older Tyrion would have never left his forces. This Tyrion? He did the first thing that had occurred to him. As half the battlefield ran at Tyrion—

He charged straight at Pallass. 

“That idiot—”

General Edellein of 4th Army sneered at Tyrion as a [Sword Lieutenant] and a hundred plus top-tier officers readied themselves. They’d take him out in a second! Then General Duln swore.

Brace—!

Half the battlefield was coming at Pallass. General Shirka, the last [General] on the field, looked up.

“Liscor’s coming. Blades! Hold formation! Hold—

Get the Antinium. On me!

Edellein saw their [Major of the Charge] assigned to that task leading Drakes and Gnolls down the hill towards the [Crusaders]. Then he saw someone else had had the same idea.

From the left—

Symphony plowed into Pallass’ left flank as Tyrion Veltras swung across their right, leading Liscor’s citizens and his pursuers into a melee with Pallass’ soldiers, who reacted just as they were trained. Tyrion ducked under a Gnoll’s spear, and the two men vanished as Pallass realized it was under attack. Edellein was snarling around.

[Reform Ranks]! Get me a [Mark Target]! Get—

Then he saw the first figure leaping up, dozens of feet through the air. The [General] swore as he reached for his sword. He had a claw on it and could unsheathe it in less than a second.

He should have had it bared already. The Maestro landed as one of Edellein’s [Strategists] slashed at him.

“—Cut the Leaves].”

Edellein blinked. His sword was half out of its sheath when he felt the burning pain on his leg, shoulder, stomach—he collapsed along with three of his officers.

General down! General d—

The First Flute threw a dagger into an officer’s chest, and the [Paralytic Blade] took down a Drake. She leapt after the Maestro. The Drakes were formed up in ranks, but they had no armor. The Maestro just jumped as Shirka leapt after him. Symphony didn’t check whether Edellein or their opponents were down any more than Tyrion did. He swung his shield, clipped someone full in the face—and kept running.

It was a brawl, and that was before the adventurers entered the fray.

 

——

 

“Damn! He’s getting away! Lulv—hold your ground or I’ll rip your tail off!”

Aldonss was cursing, but he had the wall up, and the soldiers of Manus were on it. Tyrion Veltras had vanished in the fighting, and his people were covering him. They stayed on the hill, but more than one person pursuing Tyrion jerked mid-run and began to turn on them.

“Is that old man using [Provoke Target]?”

Rafaema was staring at the person covering his [Lord]. Ullim, wasn’t it? The [Majordomo] was forcing Jeiss off Tyrion—and the Drake was charging Ullim and House Veltras instead.

“[Battlefield Lure]. I could take them out.”

Lulv snarled. He was itching to go out hunting—but Aldonss was watching Rafaema. She was burning to get into it.

“I can fight. The odds of them cutting me are—”

Incoming.

The forces of Manus turned. While most of the angry members of Liscor had gone after Tyrion—they weren’t forgotten either. Lulv’s hair rose, and he turned his head slowly. And the first thing he saw was a huge greatsword resting on someone’s shoulder. And heard a voice as at least two hundred Antinium halted at the base of Manus’ hill.

“Hey, bitch. Remember me?”

Spearmaster Lulv’s eyes focused on Crusader 57. He and half of Squad 5 were looking up at him.

“Me?”

Uh oh. Lulv was already losing his temper. Ferris groaned as he counted the numbers, and Aldonss shifted as the [Soldiers] tightened ranks. Crusader 57 shook his head.

“Sorry, I meant your mother. Look who thought they could just walk through our city. I remember your ugly face. We spanked your elites in the war. Guess what’s going to happen now? I don’t see your fancy armor and weapons.”

“Lulv—”

Rafaema raised her voice as the [Spearmaster] stared down at the Antinium. He twitched.

“Wall Lady?”

The [Crusaders] were staring up at Manus, and Rafaema’s breath crackled. She felt—the words came out of her mouth before Aldonss could say something, and she knew they were right.

Take them out.

The [Spearmaster] turned his head. His teeth—all of them—shone as he lifted his plain spear. His plain spear—which began twisting the air around it as he raised his voice. Crusader 57 realized Crusader 53 wasn’t here—because maces weren’t sharp. He hesitated as Lulv shouted.

[Spear of a Thousand Graves]! I need no armor. [Spear Art: Fangs of the Dire Wolf].”

Then he leapt off the wall and came down like a howling comet at the Antinium.

“Oh sh—

Crusader 57 tried to swing his zweihander, but a bolt of lightning kicked him off his feet. Just a weak one—and the Antinium looked up. The [Crusader] saw a Gnoll coming at him—and his sword—

Fell. Along with his arm. Crusader 57 stared at the stump and the green blood racing out, not realizing there was no limb anymore.

“My arm. mY aRM, yOu BAstaRD—”

Lulv wasn’t there any more. He cut Toni’s leg off as the Antinium tried to whirl. Then he was moving on—a spear stabbing an Antinium in the chest, green blood running to the ground.

He was too fast! It was like the battle all over again. But this time—one of the [Templars] raised a sword.

“[Sword of Judgement].”

Lulv whirled and dodged away as the [Templar] pointed down at Manus. They were flooding down the hill, after the Lightning Dragon. But as he aimed the Miracle—

Nothing happened. The [Templar] felt no release of faith. He only heard a—a kind of voice disapproving in his head. After a pause, so infinitesimal, but so significant. As if something had been watching, deciding.

<Quest: Miracle Disabled.>

“Mush.”

The [Templar] whispered—then Lulv’s spear was whirling and blood was flying everywhere.

 

——

 

No magic. No miracles. Eldavin had realized the same thing as the Antinium. But unlike them—he was trusting to his martial abilities.

“Viltach, best of luck to you. I might reconsider entering the fray.”

The half-Elf spoke lightly as Ser Greysten and Dame Pertheine, the Summer’s Champion and the Spring’s Warden, stared into the bloody fighting in dismay.

Limbs were being lost! Blood was actually flying. Viltach had read accounts of battlefields before, and he’d heard of nonsense like ‘arterial blood sprays’—but that was actually fitting, here.

It reminded him of the day he had realized he was no warrior. When he and his fellow students of Wistram ran into a real war and he exited it, never to seek this kind of thing again. He had thought this was civilized.

Now, the Archmage of Terandria was pale as he held the longsword he was familiar with. Familiar…but no silver-bell duelist. He’d thought if they had a tournament, brackets—

“And you, Archmage?”

The Spring’s Warden was considered to be the best single-person duelist in all of the Order of Seasons. Even Dame Voost was only the Season of Summer’s finest. Pertheine looked at the Goblins—one of the reasons she’d agreed to this stunt.

She couldn’t believe that Eldavin was considering going down there. In her experience, Archmages were pragmatic cowards when it came to martial combat. But the half-Elf looked—excited.

“I remember this. Is Ryoka…? No.

She was staying out of it. As was Magnolia, watching. Eldavin looked at them and seemed to murmur to his companions as much as himself.

“There she is. But this is just—stress relief, stress relief.”

Was he real? Viltach’s mouth opened. And as if someone had decided to disabuse Eldavin of his madness, the first adventurer came charging up the hill.

My name is Captain Todi! Let’s get the Archmages, boys!”

Captain Todi had chosen the most famous target—in his mind—for a bit of quick glory. He had promised Selys to attack Tyrion, but one look at Pallass’ army had disabused him of that notion. Besides, beating an Archmage? Drinks for life. He had seen Viltach and rightly assumed that a [Mage] wouldn’t be a dueling master. But he had made a mistake with the rest.

Ser Greysten disarmed one of Todi’s Elites with an axe. Well, what he really did was hit a charging [Warrior] so hard the man’s own block saved him from the cut—but the blow still threw him head-over-heels down the hill.

Dame Pertheine was faster. She actually flicked a sword out of the hands of one of Todi’s teammates with a bad grip. Then she parried a shortsword’s wild jab and slashed a leg in the same motion.

“Artery cut. You had better quit.”

The [Warrior] paled as one of the women raised her hands as the Spring’s Warden aimed a blade at her throat. Todi’s wild charge carried him straight into Eldavin.

The Archmage of Memory looked at the Captain, who seemed to realize he was outmatched. He backpedaled and sensed the nine members of his team—

Six were down or surrendering within the first five seconds. Eldavin raised his blade.

Ah. A dueling salute from Rihal. Didn’t I give that bastard a ring?”

He performed a slash in the air that cut down at a forty-five degree angle, then twisted back in a horizontal line, twisted up—and down.

A mark of Rihal. Todi swore he could see the glittering lines of the blade like afterimages.

“Er—”

He kicked a spray of dirt up and lunged. Todi’s sneak-attack made Viltach flinch. When the Archmage of Terandria looked up, Eldavin’s sword finished its arc.

Captain Todi’s sword—the upper half of it—landed in the grass. Todi stared at the sword hilt in his hands. He’d bought that from Pelt! And he saw no flawed grain in the steel. Just a—cut—

“I surrend—”

Todi got his wish after all. The cameras clearly showed Archmage Eldavin kicking an unnamed adventurer stupid enough to challenge him straight off the hill. Todi landed on his back as Archmage Eldavin blocked a throwing dagger. He caught it—and threw it back at the member of Symphony, who dodged the blade.

“I hope we meet at the end. Now—time to level as a [Warrior].”

Then he was racing down the hill, and the first person who ran into him was Jeiss. The [Swordsman] put up a better fight than Todi.

He lasted eight whole seconds.

 

——

 

The droplets of blood were trickling down, now. Green, red—and orange.

“Gaaah! I don’t want to kill you, you idiots! Get back!”

Jelaqua Ivirith was bleeding as Erin Solstice stared out a window. The [Innkeeper] was shaking—and Jelaqua was whirling her flail around. Keeping everyone around her away as the adventurers broke up. Some were trying to save Typhenous. Others were locked in battle with the nearest person they had seen.

But this wasn’t what anyone had expected. Jelaqua was bleeding—she was creating a whirlwind of dangerous Demas Metal around her—but several throwing daggers were sticking out of her dead flesh.

“Erin. This is—is this what you wanted? Can you stop it?

Lyonette was horrified. She was glad, now, that she had forbidden Dalimont and the others from joining the fighting. The Thronebearers were supposed to be looking out for Mrsha, keeping her out of trouble.

Erin didn’t say anything. Her face was white—and the inn was silent.

“This—this isn’t a duel. I cannot comment on this. King of Duels, what do you think?”

Six minutes into the battle, someone finally said something, and King Raelt looked up. His voice echoed through the inn.

“This is a battlefield. Any [Duelist] who holds a Gold-bell—we have all been told by our own masters and peers that this is the true test of an expert. If you obtained your Gold-bell only by private duels—I have heard it said that some call that a worthless achievement. There is one Gold-bell duelist on the field right now. And he earned his. Look.”

The Maestro emerged from the fighting, stepping out of Pallass’ ranks without a cut on his suit. His estoc was red—but the Gold-bell duelist stood out. He strode towards a pair of adventurers, and one gulped—the other held his swords at the ready.

“Young duelist. I think it’s time we had our moment.”

The Maestro beckoned at Pisces, and the [Necromancer] paled. But he stepped forwards as the Maestro produced a rapier of his own and Ksmvr lunged forwards. Two-on-one—the [Brave Skirmisher] recoiled as his blades were repelled. The Maestro lowered his stance, and Pisces nearly ran into the first lunge—then he was advancing across the field, fighting Ksmvr and Pisces from both sides.

The best fighters weren’t even being pressed. Eldavin, the Maestro—the Spring’s Warden—it didn’t matter that they had no armor or enchanted blades.

Like Lulv, cutting through the Antinium, they were too fast. It was like an actual adult fighting a child—their Skills put their reactions on a separate level.

 

——

 

Even Tyrion Veltras was keeping up. Despite his lower levels, he was a veteran of enough battles to have that sixth sense in the back of his head.

But he’d already taken a long cut down one arm. Was he going to fall? 

A knot of Drakes was surrounding him, jabbing spears as he deflected numerous attacks at once. The [Lord] lifted a sword—

[Fourfold Strike]!

His blade struck a guard and hit three targets at once. But it was not his famous eight-fold strike. His opponents backed up, but either he was taking it easy, conserving his Skills—

Someone whirled a throwing axe at his back, and the [Lord] pivoted. He blocked the blow—and down came a halberd from behind.

General Duln. He was aiming for Tyrion’s right shoulder. The Dullahan’s stroke came from two dozen feet away.

[Phantom Cut]. The perfect move for someone who wouldn’t fight in the front ranks and still threaten foes. Tyrion was trying to twist left—when the Dullahan aborted his attack. He pivoted—

He actually managed to block the throwing dagger with the shaft of his halberd. But the force of it still sent him stumbling back.

Who—

[Assassin]! Assas—

They were blunted, Duln realized. Someone was actually crazy enough to blunt the daggers—but then he realized that didn’t matter.

One hit still cracked ribs or knocked [Soldiers] flat. And Ressa was throwing a dozen with each second. She threw into the clusters of soldiers as General Duln saw a group of [Maids] and a [Butler] with glowing legs throw themselves into the fighting.

Rescuing Tyrion.

“Reinhart is fighting with Veltras! On them!

“Reynold!”

Magnolia Reinhart shouted. She had ordered her people to save Tyrion. The [Lord] whirled as a man ran past him.

The former [Lieutenant] looked like he was on the battlefield again—and his foes were right in front of him. A [Sword Lieutenant] blocked his furious slash.

“[Perfect Guard]. [Perfect Counterattack].”

[Lieutenant of Perfection], Comois, 4th Army. Edellein’s champion. He almost hit the [Butler]—but Reynold’s glowing, magical legs actually halted his charge and carried him back.

So fast—Duln was stunned as he checked his own mundane cloth armor he had switched out his usual armor for.

“How—those are artificial legs.”

Tyrion looked as surprised by Reynold’s legs as the save. The [Butler] hesitated, and his eyes flickered as the swearing [Lieutenant] advanced.

He heard something—but he had no time to process it as Tyrion and Magnolia’s servants backed out of the fighting.

<Quest: Exception allowed.>

What was—? Then he heard a terrible din from the left, and he saw Pallass’ forces run straight into the Painted Antinium and [Crusaders].

 

——

 

The blood was splattering. An Antinium looked down as a blade cut off their mandibles. Then a dozen slashes made the [Crusader] fall over.

No killing!

The Pallassian [Soldiers] halted—but the wounds were deep. And they were going after the Antinium.

This was the perfect moment. The perfect moment to lop off a limb or—one Drake screamed as his blow trying to sever a downed Antinium’s legs turned into a desperate counterstroke.

Pink Stripes. The [Soldier]’s blade slashed off two fingers on the Drake’s axe-hand, and the Drake stumbled back.

My fingers! My—

Get Pink Stripes to safety! Now!

A voice bellowed, and Antinium seized the Worker who’d lost parts of his mandibles and Pink Stripes, who was bleeding from the gut. They ran him off the field.

Yellow Splatters was shouting as Antinium went down, fighting the Drakes.

“They are bleeding—Pawn! We cannot let this happen!”

He was agonized, watching his people bleed. But Pawn—Pawn was staring at Tyrion.

“Miracles are not working. Tell them to leave if they wish. But there is Manus. And Pallass…”

He looked at the Drakes and Gnolls, and he saw something else. Yellow Splatters just saw his people bleeding, but The Crimson Soldier put a hand on Yellow Splatters’ shoulder. He pointed.

Look.

Pawn whispered.

“That’s how they really feel about us. So remind them—of the consequences.”

He had not been surprised by the attack on Antinium from the two Walled Cities. It still hurt. But the Pallassian attack into the Painted Antinium’s lines?

They had no armor, the Drakes and Gnolls. They couldn’t kill. And—a screaming Gnoll had a chunk torn out of one of his legs as a fallen Worker bit and hung on. Nor did the Antinium seem to fear their wounds.

“[Cure Mundane Wounds].”

Zimrah spoke, and Pawn himself touched Pink Stripes. The [Priest] had a weaker version of Zimrah’s Skill—but it was good enough.

“[Mass Heal Minor Wounds].”

The wounded Soldiers and Workers’ blood stopped dripping onto the grass. Their limbs would not return—but so what?

“We will put gel on this.”

Yellow Splatters assured the [Crusader] who’d lost his mandibles. The Soldier clacked the remaining parts angrily. He wanted to go back and hit the Drakes—but he was out. And Pawn just looked at Yellow Splatters.

“We will level. And limbs will regrow. Trust me. Theirs won’t.”

He looked at the Pallassian soldiers. Many were officers. A Drake was clutching at an axe embedded in the bone. And—

There were so few healing potions.

 

——

 

The [Healers]. The [Healers] were trying to heal the wounds, but the first wounded were screaming.

Healing potion! Use a healing potion!

“I—I can’t! Hold this here!”

One was making up a bandage, but one of the Gnolls didn’t seem to know what to do to stem the bleeding. Drassi herself ran over.

“What’s going on? Why aren’t they being healed?”

“With what potions? We can’t afford that—and supplies are limited. This damn tournament—there’s no more healing potions!”

A furious Pallassian Gnoll—Healer Demerra, owner of the crystal healing beds, who’d healed Chaldion himself—was holding a crystal over a slowly-closing wound.

We need a potion! He’ll die without—he’s belly-cut!”

A Drake was staring at something red half-falling out of a cut in his stomach. Drassi paled—and a healing potion was produced. But the other [Healers] were trying to close wounds, and some had no idea how to do it.

Many of the wounded people were just lying on the grass. There was so much fighting—who was going to run in and risk being cut?

Perhaps a crazy Runner. Someone came out of that melee, holding a young Gnoll clutching at his leg and howling in pain.

Vok! You fool!

Someone rushed over. The young Gnoll’s leg was a mess of blood—he’d been fighting when an angry Antinium had bit him. One of the younger [Healers] stared at the leg—but this wasn’t critical enough for a potion.

“Help him! I have to get—”

The Runner was jogging back into the fray when Ryoka Griffin raced over.

“Fals?”

He was the one who’d grabbed Vok. Garia Strongheart—Fals—and, Ryoka realized, Mihaela herself were running into the battlefield and yanking people to safety.

Not just them. Local Runners were doing the same. Following the Guildmistress’ example. They weren’t fighters, but the unknown force wasn’t after them. An exception had been made.

“My leg! My leg—will I walk?”

The mandibles had torn a chunk out of Vok’s leg, right around his calf. He was staring at the torn fur and blood, and Ryoka—didn’t know what to do.

“Tourniquet. Can you stop the bleeding?”

“I—I’m a [Potions Healer]! But—”

Ryoka was fumbling with her own healing potion to give to Vok. But someone snapped as Drassi’s broadcast showed the blood—which was making many viewers queasy and forcing several nations to turn off the images to spare the children and sensitive.

Don’t waste a potion on that! Give me a look at it—sterilize those goddamn needles! Apply pressure to slow the bleeding!”

What the? Ryoka Griffin twisted, and Healer Demerra lowered her own scrying orb. A furious—Dullahan—was shouting at the [Healers] from the orb.

“Wh-what do we do, Miss?”

“Show me—it’s an artery cut. Use a potion on it. Listen to me, you need to apply three drops. Don’t pour—look, this is how you sew something up. I’ll cut my arm and—”

A Dullahan was snapping orders at the [Healers], giving the ones with no surgical expertise a crash-course in dressing wounds. But that word had made Ryoka stop. Then—she heard more screams, and Fals grabbed her.

“You coming? That [Doctor] told us to grab the wounded! Come on!”

Ryoka looked at him, then ran after him to drag one of the Antinium out. And now—some of the combatants were realizing the Antinium were healing better than the [Healers]. But Zimrah was already getting tired.

And the blood was flowing now, flowing and…

 

——

 

The King of Destruction was among those watching. Curiously, Flos Reimarch had not seemed as—enthused—by this display or as desperate to get to the fighting.

Almost as if he had sensed how it was going to turn out from the start. Contests were one thing. Soccer? Wonderful games or vying to one-up another were excellent diversions.

This was just violence. He sat as the [Duelists] quit commentating. The King of Destruction spoke to Noass briefly.

“Pallass will quit the field. Perhaps not Manus. There are less of them, and they’re guarding themselves well. The Antinium may not—but we will soon see most of the adventurers leave. The Named-ranks are fighting well. Is that the Favor of the North I see?”

Colth, Caleis the Favor of the North, Rasen, and Teithde were fighting a group of four. Four Named-ranks were currently wiping out anyone who got in their way.

Colth had two long daggers and was fighting calmly—not even looking pressed as Rasen and Teithde used a sword and shield combo. Caleis had a flamberge, and the handkerchief-man was cutting a Pallassian [Soldier].

‘Gently’. He only laid open the Drake’s chest and clothing with a shallow cut.

“How do you mean, er—er—King of Destruction?”

Noass was confused, but Flos didn’t bother to elaborate. He just pointed as General Duln, bleeding from a close-encounter with Ressa, grabbed something from his side.

He blew three short horn calls, and the Drakes and Gnolls looked up. They had already been backing away from the Antinium—but now, almost all the Pallassians began flowing off the field, some throwing down their blades.

“It’s not worth it. Tyrion Veltras might wish to quit too. His limbs, at the very least, or eyes, are in danger.”

Flos observed quietly. But the stubborn [Lord] was still there. The King of Destruction was eying the remaining fighters.

“Now—it will be grudges and hatred enough to risk losing your arms. The best will take longer to fall.”

 

——

 

The King of Destruction was right. He didn’t need to be there to understand what was happening.

It was Chaldion who had ordered the retreat. Mirn was sitting next to him, scarcely believing he was next to the famous Grand Strategist, but Chaldion had demanded to speak with him. For a long time, Mirn had not existed to the Cyclops, despite being Saliss’ friend.

Now, the [Grand Strategist] was snapping at a protesting Edellein, who wanted to go back in.

“You fool. Call them out. A limb isn’t worth a level. This was a mistake. Officers out. Keep the [Soldiers] and [Sergeants]. Liscorian tactics.”

He was seeing clearly how costly this festival was. Pallass was quitting the field in droves—but the truth was, they weren’t being contested that hard.

The fighting had been so bloody that everyone had actually slowed. Most common citizens saw someone losing a hand and decided they weren’t willing to do this. But the ones still fighting had no care for that.

Or—they were just too angry to retreat.

“Tell [Lieutenant] Comois to retreat!”

The [Lieutenant of Perfection] was ignoring orders. And 4th Army’s best swordsman had already taken out Dasha and Merrik. Watch Captain Zevara fell over, trailing smoke.

“Zevara!”

She stared down at the tip of a bloody sword as the Drake cut past the remaining [Guards].

“Watch Captain. Yield.”

Comois waited for her to nod before striding on. Merrik was cursing as he pulled Dasha up. She was bloody and dead-white behind her beard.

“Bastard. [Perfect Stab], perfect—”

His head was ringing. He’d lowered his guard to protect her when he saw the [Lieutenant] stab Dasha three times amidst the shoulders. Then gotten a kick and a slash that had cut deep into his shoulders, despite his [Granite’s Armor] Skill.

That Drake was amongst the best here. But the furious advance of Pallass’ [Swordsman] halted as an enraged woman walked towards him.

Pekona, one-armed, lifted her curved wakizashi. She lowered her center of gravity as Comois spat.

“Drathians, now? En garde.

“[Dance of Wisps].”

Despite her one arm, Pekona had something that Merrik yet lacked. The [Stoneshorn War Leader] glanced sideways and saw Pekona vanish.

Comois ducked the first slice as she appeared, but unlike regular [Fighters]—his sword was coming up for a counter, which missed as she slid down, practically face-first to the ground, and scythed upwards. They separated, and Merrik shouted.

[Healer]!

 

——

 

Only someone as furious—or as furious and confident as Comois—was still in the fight. Or—someone with a grudge or without fear of losing limbs.

The Goblins hadn’t entered the fray for the first eleven minutes. They had held on their hill, and ironically, no one had wanted a piece of them.

Who wanted to fight monsters? What would they gain? Rags was staring down into the fighting. She only spoke once.

“Tyrion is there.”

“Now?”

Snapjaw was gnashing her teeth, looking eagerly at Rags. But the Chieftain just shook her head.

“Manus. Wait, wait, wait.”

They waited. They knew a battle when they saw it, and Rags was biding her time. She did not like the Archmage of Memory or the Named-ranks.

Only one Goblin ignored Rags. He had gazed down into the fighting, and he could wait no longer.

Redscar!

Snapjaw whispered as the Goblin drew his blades. Thunderfur was howling in the distance, but as the [Chieftain of the Maw] reached for Redscar, Rags lifted a claw.

“Redscar?”

He had two swords in hand. Just like always. They were not enchanted—but the leader of the Redfangs looked back at Rags. If she told him to stay—

She didn’t. Redscar grinned at Rags and nodded to her. She returned his look with grave worry—but he just inhaled the air.

It felt as though something was calling to him. This moment—this place was perfect.

“Garen would have loved it here. I’m going, Chieftain. Redfangs. Guard her.

He lifted his sword overhead—and then Snapjaw heard a screech. Icecube was roaring so loudly that Jeckel, in Elirr’s shop, began to scream too. But it was accompanied by dozens of wolf-howls.

The Liscorians, the watchers, looked at that Goblin as he raised one blade overhead. And then…Numbtongue saw it.

The [Bard]’s lips moved as Reiss’ ghost looked up—and Pyrite and Shorthilt turned. For they saw another ghost in Redscar’s shadow.

“It should have been like that. All along.”

Reiss whispered in the [Soulbard]’s ear, and Numbtongue nodded. A Chieftain on the hill—and her champion, a warrior of blades. It had not happened the right way the first time.

Now—Redscar began walking down the hill, but each step carried him down. Faster. Faster. As if he couldn’t wait, and his grin was all sharp teeth.

He leapt down as Thunderfur howled, and the first person he met was a famous name. He had been hiding his true power—but the Gnoll who had rode in just in the wake of the Swordsman of Six had been lucky enough to be in the region.

He was Gadiekh, the Worldpact Adventurer. And though he did not have his Bow of Quexals, nor the Serpentarrows of Baleros, nor his blade from the Blighted Kingdom or Armor of the Dunes from Chandrar—

The Gnoll looked up and saw the Goblin coming down upon him. He lifted his blade and roared.

“[Battle Stance: Vow of the Knight]!”

He held himself like a rock, and the Goblin descended on him. Gadiekh cut across the air, and the sound it made was like a great tearing of space. Redscar—-

Redscar danced. So fast and so close that Gadiekh realized he’d made two mistakes.

The Goblin had no fear of his life. 

[Crimson Whirls My Blade].

The Skill appeared over the Goblin’s head, but he made no sound as he came at Gadiekh, blades moving in sync.

Poetry? From a Goblin?

The Gnoll cried out and made his second mistake as he raised a blade to block one sword. Redscar’s sword met his—and Gadiekh heard the crack of his sword breaking. He stared at it in horror—for he had trusted too long to Relics and artifacts.

But Redscar had held a rusted piece of iron in place of a blade. He lanced across Gadiekh’s chest, and the Gnoll fell back, reaching for a backup blade. But the Goblin knew neither mercy nor sportsmanship.

Only blood.

 

——

 

A Named-rank adventurer fell so fast that half the audience barely realized what had been done. He had not proclaimed himself—but people like Barnethei’s blood ran cold. It had been more than an unlucky blade that sealed the Gnoll’s fate.

That Goblin kept going. He arose with a deep wound on his arm and barely glanced at it but to bind it with a piece of cloth. Then he charged forwards.

Straight into Pallass’ lines. The Drakes and Gnolls looked up as a Goblin leapt at them. They would have surrounded him, tried to bring him down with tactics and numbers—but they had more problems.

Numbtongue was glancing down—and he saw Tyrion Veltras backing up. Aldonss, Rafaema, and the rest of the [Soldiers] of Manus had fared better than Pallass. They were the City of War—and they were advancing on Tyrion as Jericha and six remaining House Veltras soldiers not too wounded to keep fighting tried to get to him.

Someone else had the same idea.

To Tyrion Veltras!

The Favor of the North, Caleis, was urging Colth, Rasen, and Teithde to save Tyrion. The Ultimate Supporter was reluctant—the Champions of the Coast, likewise.

Well, Rasen was. His wife looked as excited as could be by the fighting. Despite possibly being the weakest of the four, Teithde was fighting without fear, and the four Named-ranks hadn’t taken a single wound so far.

Rafaema, Named-ranks!

Aldonss swore as she stormed at Tyrion. He was trying to catch his breath—he had a huge gash on his arm and another on his leg and back—but none of the wounds were bleeding. Probably [Bloodless Wounds].

The Lightning Dragon turned, and even her heart sank as the four Named-ranks halted and Tyrion swung his shield up. The [Lord] focused on them—then barked.

Behind you!

All four Named-ranks dodged—but it was too slow even so. The first blade was a greatsword. It flashed through the air as someone hurled it. Zeter, the Swordsman of Six, cut with a scimitar next and a shortsword in his other hand.

He lopped Teithde’s arm off at the elbow, and she screamed. Colth’s eyes went wide as Caleis cried out; the greatsword had torn a hole in his side.

Teithde!

Rasen howled as the Swordsman of Six leapt forwards. He had woken up. And the Named-rank woman was missing her arm—

You bastard, that hurt!

Teithde lifted her stump and sprayed the Swordsman of Six with her own blood. Even Manus’ soldiers couldn’t believe that.

She was a Named-rank. But even for them, she was mad! The Swordsman of Six engaged the other three Named-ranks as Rasen tried to drag his wife to safety.

And while they did that—Tyrion Veltras was facing all of Manus. Aldonss calmly pointed his blade at Tyrion.

“On my mark—”

Two Drakes with spears on his left. Rafaema was ready to breathe lightning with Aldonss in front, and another [Soldier] had a knife to throw. She felt—slightly embarrassed—but this was a battle.

Ressa and the [Maids] were locked in place. Symphony had decided to object to their presence, and the Maestro himself was fighting Ressa.

Tyrion Veltras. Alone at last. He looked about, but Jericha had fallen. Eldavin had run into House Veltras and hadn’t even stopped.

Who else would help him? The [Lord] looked around, and his eyes blazed in a cold mask of fury.

“Come, then, Manus. Time to avenge our debts.”

Then—Rafaema realized he hadn’t quit out of bravado or some sense of not wanting to look poorly. He just wanted to stab them all.

She inhaled—and Aldonss, who had been watching their backs as he lifted his sword, cursed.

“Now? Who is—rear, rea—”

The [Soldiers] of Manus turned. They could handle Ullim—but the old man had already retreated, seeing how deadly this battlefield could be. House Veltras was not better than they were, nor were any number of [Crusaders] save for the Antinium’s best.

But the Minotaur with one arm just ignored the spear that rammed his shoulder. He snapped the staff, slammed the Drake into the ground with one fist—then he swung his axe.

“Do you have. No. Honor?

Calruz of Minos roared it in the third Drake’s face, spraying the Drake with spittle. Rafaema just stared. Then she opened her mouth.

The first bolt of lightning hit the Minotaur and sent him stumbling back. But he shook himself—then roared.

[Thunder Hammer’s Blow]!

“Ff—”

Rafaema went deaf as the battleaxe came down and part of the ground exploded. The Minotaur went into Manus’ lines, fearless, and Aldonss cursed a blue streak.

Another high-level [Warrior]? Where—

Tyrion Veltras saw Calruz surge out of the fighting as he disarmed a [Soldier] of Manus. Tyrion slashed across the Drake’s shoulders, hesitated as he raised his sword—and the Minotaur and the [Lord] faced each other.

“I am on your side.”

Calruz exhaled, steaming in the cold with fury. His eyes—weren’t red with berserk rage. Tyrion Veltras stared at him, then saluted him.

“Who are you? Why are you siding with me?”

To show you I have some honor left.

That was all the Minotaur said—then Manus charged them. Calruz whirled his axe. He couldn’t defend himself, but his scarred hide—he ignored a dagger that glanced off his skin, as tough as steel. Tyrion was faster—he dodged Aldonss as the Drake’s sword shrieked off his shield. Then he jerked.

“[Slash: Delayed Explosion].”

Tyrion’s back slammed into the ground, and he blocked the sword aimed down at his pelvis as Aldonss tried to stab down.

“We don’t need more Veltras children.”

The Wall Lord ducked as a blow cut the air. Then he dodged back as Calruz came swinging in. Tyrion rose, and the Minotaur put his back to Tyrion’s. Someone else was attacking Manus.

Tyrion Veltras! Face me! I am Venaz of House Minos!

“Another one.”

Tyrion muttered. A furious Minotaur was fighting his way up the hill, tangling with Manus’ [Soldiers]. Calruz grunted.

Him. I’ll have words with him as well. Lord Veltras—do you see my honor?”

He looked at Tyrion, his blue eyes blazing. The [Lord] was confused—but he knew Minotaurs, and he nodded his head, exhaling hard as sweat ran down his neck and back, matting his hair. Grit and blood in his clothes.

Dead gods, he felt alive and young again.

“I do.”

Calruz lifted his axe, and Tyrion almost tensed—but the Minotaur pointed it. Across the hill.

Then believe me when I say they have it too!

Tyrion’s head turned, and he stared at the Antinium in the distance. The Beriad were engaging Lulv. And—a Drake [Strategos] was ordering the Antinium off the field.

Olesm. He had personally authorized a certain Minotaur’s entry into the battle. Calruz stared at Tyrion’s look of bewilderment. Then he plunged towards the other Minotaur.

Venaz! We have not finished things!

“Ah. Oop—”

The two Minotaurs went crashing down the hill as Calruz shoulder-charged into Venaz. Leaving Tyrion alone again. He was so startled—he nearly missed Aldonss coming up behind him.

The Wall Lord wasn’t as much of a close-combat specialist as Tyrion, but Tyrion had lost many of his levels. The two struck and parried at each other, and they were evenly matched.

Aldonss was the power of the walls. His sword could leave an explosive attack on things he cut. He could call for showers of bolts or reinforcements.

So the Wall Lord was intrigued why Tyrion seemed so—weak.

“You should be better without your horse. Holding back? [Push the Ranks].”

His own shield came up, and he heaved with such force he could disrupt an enemy formation with it—or throw a man a good dozen feet. Tyrion rolled as he came up, and his sword leapt up.

[Piercing Thrust].

The blade went through Aldonss’ shield and into the Drake’s forearm. The Drake snarled. The two were locked together, shoving with their shields, trying to create an opening to stab the other through.

And Tyrion was—frustrated. He was burning with energy. The same restlessness in his blood, an inexhaustible supply compared to the older man he had been.

He hadn’t realized the difference youth made. Aldonss himself looked—if not tired, then as if he were guarding his energy, like the trained warrior he was.

The Drake grunted as the younger [Lord]’s feet churned into the dirt, shoving at him. A firebrand—he shoved back with all his force, and the [Lord] was pushed back—and the Human hit Aldonss again, slamming his shield into the Drake’s arm. The Wall Lord twisted out of the way of a cut.

A firebrand with the Skill of a veteran! A nightmare for Manus! Twenty more years of this monster growing in strength unless he was taken out.

Yet—the frustration was written on the Human’s face in his cold snarl. The sword stabbed again, and Aldonss turned it.

“[Dragonscale Patch].”

His scales glimmered and became harder than steel across his side where the blade cut once more. He was definitely losing the contest of blades. But the [Lord] who had slain Luciva’s daughter—

He should have been better than this. All the pieces were there, but it was like Lulv without the spear arts. Deadly—fast and filled with boundless energy.

Not capable of taking Aldonss’ life without a Skill. The Wall Lord raised his sword.

[Fire From the Walls]!

<Quest: Skill disabled.>

Wall Lord Aldonss cursed. Then his sword began to glow.

[Armaments of the Lightning Dragon]. The Level 51 [Lord of the Walls]’ eyes glowed as Tyrion stared at the blade and shield coated in…

He really wished he had his enchanted items. The [Lord] croaked.

“[Summon…]”

<Quest: Skill disabled.>

Aldonss’ first strike made all of Tyrion’s hair stand on end, and he felt the charge. He was even faster now—and the only thing that saved Tyrion was his new Skill.

[A Second of Time]. The [Lord] stabbed the Drake in the leg—and that slowed him.

“Not bad. But something’s off.”

The Wall Lord glowed with the lightning as Tyrion backed up. If they locked blades—Tyrion didn’t doubt what would happen.

If he had his lance, he would have been able to use his new Skill. If he had a horse…Tyrion Veltras didn’t dare speak his next Skill.

[Ten-Foot Slash]. [Repel Point]—

His Skills were weaker—but he knew this. Aldonss had to block a slash from afar—but he did it expecting Tyrion to be electrocuted. But the lightning bounced away from Tyrion’s blade, and he aimed a [Lunging Strike] straight at—

Aldonss stepped back. He grunted as the tip, only the very tip of Tyrion’s sword, cut into his breast.

That…was Tyrion’s chance. Now, the lightning crackled as Aldonss charged. The [Lord] swung his shield up. Take it. Take it and—

Aldonss swung his sword down as Tyrion’s shield and sword came up. And the two [Lords]’ blades met silver in the air.

Klbkch the Slayer landed. Then he struck right and left.

“Heh.”

Tyrion Veltras tasted a burning cut and a cold blade in his arm. Aldonss deflected a slash.

Slayer!

Klbkch’s second cut nearly took his arm off. The Slayer whirled his blades left, and Tyrion’s [Fourfold Strike]—

He blocked each one. The [Lord]’s sword darted high and low, like a minnow, as the Wall Lord’s lightning blade clashed against the silver metal of Klbkch’s swords. He was between them and—

Fighting both at the same time. The Slayer was making a fluttering insect sound.

He was laughing. The lightning was refusing to run down Klbkch’s swords. How? A Skill? Were they enchanted?

Or were they made of something ancient—but unenchanted? Klbkch stabbed Tyrion again, then hit Aldonss so hard the Drake reeled and stared down at his shield with a cut halfway through it.

“I know both of you. This should prove I’m not old.”

He was speaking—madness. Was he really—? Tyrion’s blood boiled as the Slayer held out his swords, each one facing a different direction. He stood between the Drake and the Human, and they attacked at the same time. And Klbkch kept laughing.

 

——

 

Calruz hoped he had done something. But Tyrion was alone. He—was busy fighting with Venaz.

The other Minotaur had lost his greatsword when Calruz slammed into him. Now, he had two hands on Calruz’s battleaxe, and the two were fighting for it.

Venaz couldn’t believe it, but even with two arms—he wrenched left, and Calruz headbutted him. The [Strategist] stumbled back, but he held onto the axe. Then he began punching Calruz with his free hand until he realized he needed two hands to stop the axe from being wrenched free.

The two were stumbling, tumbling around—kneeing each other, literally smashing heads as they fought.

Calruz—enough! I’m avenging Erin Solstice’s honor—

There is no honor on this battlefield. Olesm sees it! So does anyone with eyes!

The Beriad were holding Lulv off so the rest of their kin could make it to safety. Olesm—had come to tell the Antinium to stop this pointless, bloody battle. Calruz had come to prove a point to Tyrion in the only language the man knew. To make a difference for those brave children.

And to punch Venaz in the face. He did just that as Venaz wrenched the axe free.

Calruz’s fist crashed into Venaz’s nose, and the other bull-man reeled. Then Calruz grabbed the haft of the axe again and kneed Venaz in the groin.

“You intended to leave? Without passing judgment on me?

Calruz was furious. He slammed Venaz into the ground, and the [Strategist] kicked him back. The axe went flying—and both Minotaurs didn’t go for it. They just raised their fists. They charged—and Venaz grabbed Calruz with two arms as Calruz tried to grab Venaz by the throat.

I already rendered my judgment. I thought you understood the concept of implication!

Calruz snarled.

“I begged for an arbiter of the Beriad—”

And I didn’t kill you! What did you think—that—meant?

Venaz punctuated his comments with a punch to Calruz’s gut. He ate an uppercut as he tried to follow it up. The furious [Prisoner] roared.

You play games with me? My honor is on the line. My salvation—and you just walk—”

He came at Venaz, intending to slam the Minotaur again, but Venaz threw a series of punches that made Calruz slow and raise a hand to shield his face. Then the two were literally locked at the horns as they tried again to knock the other down.

“Honor? Honor is something we all struggle with! I could never give you redemption in a moment—even if I carried your axe! You fool! Keep struggling! The King herself said so!”

“She d—”

Venaz threw an elbow, then another punch. Calruz was on his back now, and Venaz mounted him and began to throw a series of punches—until both brawlers heard something.

<Quest: Disqualified.>

Venaz looked up. And he realized they hadn’t been fighting with a blade for a good two minutes. He sensed a glow and swore.

“Oh—”

 

——

 

The sight of two Minotaurs being kicked across the grass like dolls was the funniest thing Toren had seen all day. He slapped his ribs as he laughed. Especially the one-armed one.

He hated that guy. No, wait, he respected him? He felt bad for him?

Emotions were hard. No consistency.

He was hearing a lot of chatter from the commentators. Everyone was saying things like the Dullahan in Mithril armor, who was agreeing with Bethal Walchaís. Well, her husband was supposed to be commentating, but Bethal was louder.

“Someone stop this madness! Regardless of the Skill—”

Liscorians were calling for the same thing. But it could not be stopped, and the fighting…

The fighting was vicious. The scrying orb cut to an image of Typhenous surrounded by Symphony. He was lashing out with his knives—and they were stabbing him. The man to start the fight backed up as a Drake chose this moment to run him through the back.

Sword Lieutenant Comois had three approaches. Either he disarmed fellow Drakes or people he liked, he wounded others enough to force them to quit—or he lopped a limb off someone he didn’t like.

The bleeding [Knifefighter] might have been in the first or second category—but Typhenous kept fighting—and he slashed a knife across Comois’ cheek so deep it showed the Drakes’ snarling teeth and gums. Then Comois lifted his blade and pointed to Typhenous’ legs.

There was no honor here—but had anyone expected any? Maybe idiots, but from Erin? Erin didn’t fight with honor. She fought, and if there was one thing Toren respected about her, it was that.

But that festival of blades called to him. Just like it called to the others, in the blood now gushing…so loudly that the Maestro, Tyrion Veltras, Lulv, wouldn’t quit.

Couldn’t. And if you could go…

Toren turned his head left, and the argument between the ghost and the Necromancer ended.

“You are breaking the spirit of the quest. I know rules. A puppet is still a proxy.”

“I will take that risk. [Diamond Body]. [Barrier of the Damned].”

A wall of bones rose around Az’kerash, and his body shone in Toren’s gaze as the Necromancer gestured to his own view of the battle. A Drake with a rapier tried to walk into the Festival of Blades.

The puppet made it about five steps before something decided this was not okay.

<Quest: Entry denied.>

Now, wasn’t that interesting? The ghost watched as the Necromancer’s puppet jerked back. The crossbow Skill from Aldonss was allowed—the [Wail of Agony] from the First Flute was a combat Skill—but no support from the walls. Magical legs? Fine. Selphid bodies, fine.

No puppets. The ruling was…inconsistent. But it fascinated Nerrhavia so much her stitches would have tingled if she had a body, because she sensed a—deliberation behind this.

And it went after Az’kerash. Practically no one noticed the puppet go sprawling in the grass—but what Nerrhavia and Toren saw was the same kind of—

Light? It wasn’t yellow or white as Toren saw it. It was more like the idea of light, and he wasn’t even sure it was light itself. It gathered around Az’kerash and, like the others—kicked him in the chest.

Of course, the Necromancer was dead. Plus, he had enchanted himself just in case he was penalized, and he didn’t even move, just sighed as he stared at the battlefield.

“Then young Pisces is the only other qualified duelist on the field. I suppose you are right, Nerrhav—”

He was standing back, disappointed beyond belief, when Toren, Az’kerash, and Nerrhavia noticed the glow wasn’t fading.

It…pulsed a second. As if something were realizing that it hadn’t really gotten Az’kerash. There was a moment of reconsideration. Nerrhavia slowly moved to the far edge of her prison, and Toren decided—

Az’kerash was whispering another spell when the light flared

 

——

 

Venitra, Oom, Ijvani, and the other Chosen were in the courtyard of the castle, watching the scrying orb there. Devail was unhappy because Az’kerash had told him it was ‘too risky’ for him to enter.

The tower where Az’kerash worked loomed above the castle, and the rest of the damage Belavierr and the creation of other Chosen had caused was all repaired, almost unnotic—

The earth quaked, and the undead above and buried beneath it shifted. A nearby Drake town felt the reverberations.

When Venitra picked herself up and looked up, she saw the hole in the side of the tower. A body had hit the reinforced masonry and gone through it and hit the ground so hard as to cause the earthquake. And—she stared at the shattered tower and then the crater fifteen feet deep.

“Master?”

 

——

 

Punishment to those who interfered. The only thing that could make Visophecin look up from his enraptured stare of the scrying orb was a brief—tremor—that ran through House Shoel’s mansion.

“…Didn’t we have earthquake wards in Ailendamus?”

Azemith looked up suddenly, but Visophecin was already on his feet. It didn’t take him long to pinpoint the origin of the tremors.

The palace in Ailendamus and the wing destroyed by the assassination attempt on Oesca was in the middle of rebuilding. Which was why the [Architect] in charge was really unhappy to see another hole in the wall of the palace.

The Wyrm, thankfully, regained consciousness before anyone spotted his head poking through the wall.

 

——

 

There weren’t many experts on the field. Most couldn’t attend. And some who tried—

Suffered.

Lulv knew this abstractly. He was grinning. His blood was racing, and he was alive.

The Antinium were in full retreat, but he was still cutting off limbs. He—was one of the best fighters present, and so were Aldonss and Rafaema. With Zeter—

Blood. Blood welling beneath his feet, in his fur. The [Spearmaster] had fought and nearly died on battlefields like this. No wonder even [Duelists] and adventurers fled.

This was a war! A battlefield! The Gnoll’s spear was howling when he sensed his real opponent. He stopped, and a Drake lifted his spear.

“You know, I really don’t like you.”

Senior Guardsman Relc stared at the Gnoll covered in blood. Relc had been helping the Watch get to safety—until he saw Lulv tearing up the Antinium. Indeed, Klbkch had stopped kicking around Tyrion and Aldonss as he saw the carnage.

Gecko. Let’s see who wins this time.”

Lulv whirled, teeth bared. This time—he wouldn’t let Relc engage in a fistfight. And he might have ten levels on Relc.

The Drake seemed to know it, too. But he set himself. The [Spearmaster of the Wolf] leapt at him.

He was a [Spearmaster] who specialized in overwhelming attacks. He could cleave through the battlefield—bring his foes down with terrible wounds.

Relc? He was fast. But he hadn’t advanced his class. His [Triple Thrust] Skill was—

—Not good enough. He didn’t have enough spear arts.

They locked blades, and Relc nearly lost his tail to Lulv’s [Scythe of the Field].

[Spear Art: Fangs of The Dire Wolf]! Relc swore. [Spear Dance: The Fish Leap]—

The two spear arts collided, but his was evasive and Lulv’s—hunting. He tore a chunk out of Relc’s shoulder. The Drake was sturdy and stacked low-level Skills, but Lulv was the [Spearmaster] of Manus.

He needed to rescue Aldonss and take out Tyrion and the Slayer. The Gecko could dance—but even as a famous headhunter, he hadn’t met enough experts. He was pushing himself back, using a fanciful spear-dance to use the spear like a leg to kick himself back through the air. Lulv raised his spear.

[Throw of the Wyvern Hunter]!

He threw his spear, kicked another one into his hands, and the Drake blocked the spear—but he landed off-balance, knocked down. Lulv was almost on all fours, like a wolf.

Legs.

“[Spear Art—]”

The third speartip was nearly inserted up his rectum when he noticed the presence behind him. The holder followed her jab up with a full extension of her spear, and the Gnoll howled as he dodged the attack just in time.

Who—

Tekshia Shivertail’s spear dance was fast and short. The former Gold-rank adventurer’s slashes mostly cut fur—but Lulv felt his fur open up and blood well forth.

The first blood he’d shed so far! If that had been her famous, fiery spear—

Tekshia Shivertail!

“Gecko, you’re letting the city down.”

“Thanks—Tekshia.”

Relc was on his feet. Suddenly—Lulv was reminded of something. Liscor had two—

“[Relc Feint]!”

A voice roared, and the Gnoll twisted, realized what Relc had s—

Both [Spearmasters] unleashed their Skills from two sides. Good as Lulv was—the Gnoll blocked a series of blurring stabs from Relc, twisted under a guillotine strike—and Relc kept stabbing.

Unending stabs—Lulv stumbled back with a hole in his arm, and Tekshia slashed one leg.

“Think I got a tendon. Careful. Don’t bruise the meat. Braise, braise.”

“My shoulder’s braised!”

“Suck it up.”

They were teaming up on him! The Gnoll was less outraged than worried. He stumbled back—and the two crossed spears as they struck.

They must have trained together! He escaped the second dance, stumbling, and one of his arms felt dead. Pinpoint strike. He looked between the two, snarling.

Did he surrender? Would that work? He couldn’t die or lose a limb here. And Rafaema and Aldonss—but Tekshia was eying him, and Relc was panting, looking behind Lulv.

“Tekshia—”

“Silence, Relc. This isn’t about you. You are Spearmaster Relc. And I am Spearmaster Tekshia of Liscor. This fool hunted our army—I’d make it so he never sits comfortably again, but this isn’t about that, either.”

Her eyes were glowing. Glowing…and Lulv was wondering what she meant until he realized that the glow wasn’t just a Skill or her emotions. It was literal—and pink. Relc hesitated—then he lowered his spear as Tekshia did the same.

“A [Spearmaster] is still a [Spearmaster], even wounded. And Lulv is good enough to fight with one arm. Nevertheless—your turn, girl.

She stepped back, and Lulv whirled about. He recognized the face.

The red scales—not the spear burning with pink fire. But he saw the people behind her. Audience—not on the field, but he knew them.

Three hundred [Soldiers] of Liscor were on their feet. But it was 4th Company, Skywalker’s Company, who was screaming the loudest. The Antinium too. Embraim and his Antinium were cheering the Drake holding the spear aloft.

After all—even if Wing Commanders Narkr and Xith were appalled to have Antinium cheering the Drake standing there, they couldn’t help but shout.

Because the [Spear of Glory], [Wing Commander] Embria, was walking towards Spearmaster Lulv.

A former [Spear Hunter]—but one of the best Drakes in Liscor’s army with a spear. Yet she would not, could not obtain the next class. Like the bells of [Duelists], there was only one way to advance her class.

“This is a [Spearmaster]’s challenge!”

Tekshia shouted, and the audience roared as Embria locked eyes with Lulv. He had bested her during the war. Now—the wounded Gnoll lifted his spear one handed and howled at the sky.

Relc watched his daughter advance, and he had no more taste for blood. No more…he looked at his partner, Klbkch. And the Slayer stood there.

 

——

 

Tyrion Veltras had run away. Klbkch had let him go because it was more fun taking on all of Manus himself. Only that odd one had left, the Drake girl with the sword, after Tyrion.

Wall Lord Aldonss was bleeding from three dozen cuts, and he couldn’t keep fighting. Klbkch had quite enjoyed the feeling of…

Completeness. Not fully—but he could move like he wanted to. He might not have his Skills back, but he had proven it didn’t matter.

I still have it. I’m not old. That was Klbkch’s entire point to entering this festival. Just vanity. Just a sense of loss and wanting to prove he was still the Centenium he remembered.

…That was, until he saw the green blood on the grass. And he saw how many Antinium were lying, hurt, on the grass.

Who had done that? Manus? No, they had been mostly on the defensive. The adventurers? Some had clashed with the Antinium, but most had actually quit the field. Only Colth was still there—dodging back from the Swordsman of Six. The Favor of the North had retreated rather than risk his limbs.

So—the answer was Pallass. Pallass had largely pulled its officers off the field. The [Generals], everyone Chaldion had deemed too important to risk maiming. But at least one [Lieutenant] was there—and their [Soldiers] were fighting.

They might not have armor, but their levels were still higher on average than the new Antiniums’. And they had left a trail of blood in their wake.

Just Soldiers. Just Workers. Klbkch saw them holding their wounds, the rest being attacked as Olesm tried to pull them off the field. A [Sergeant] was leading nearly forty lower-level [Soldiers] forwards.

Command Skills. He was empowering them Liscor-style to cut down Painted Antinium. Klbkch saw them bleeding and flinching as they were cut—without dying—by the soldiers.

Their limbs would heal. And they were just Antinium. Silently, Klbkch stared at them. He turned his back a second.

“Just—”

‘May I call you ‘father’?’

Silly, stupid Anand. Klbkch turned his head back, and the [Sergeant] looked around wildly.

“My [Dangersense]—”

The Free Antinium on the field looked up. The remaining forces of Pallass looked up as Chaldion began barking orders.

Fall back! All forces—

Too late. He did not leap into the fray like some great grasshopper or flying bird. He just ran. Ran, with two silver blades trailing behind him.

Like a silver mantis’ claws. Like an insect from an ancient age. He left a trail behind him in the wind and grass. His kin, Xrn, Wrymvr, and the Queens watched. Xrniavxxel whispered softly.

At last. The Slayer.

The [Command Sergeant] saw the blur coming his way and raised a claw to point. He stared at the stump on his wrist—and then Klbkch brought his blade down again. Again and again and again—

The squad of six stared down at the severed arms, claws still clutching their blades. Then they made sounds as animal, as old and primordial as pain. The Slayer lifted those blades and turned.

“Your legs.”

He swept them across one [Soldier]—and then advanced on the others. So fast they were still hearing Chaldion’s call to run.

He could not kill them all—but he could hurt them.

Hurt them as badly as they had hurt his people. Fair was fair. Klbkch’s blades lifted as Pallass found itself under attack by silver.

 

——

 

Silver and steel. Someone else was rampaging amongst the Pallassian [Soldiers]. She had gone berserk, and not even Ksmvr could stop her.

It wasn’t because of her wounds, though she was bleeding. Her arms had gashes on them, but they morphed into spikes—lancing Drakes and Gnolls—into blades that telescoped for dozens of feet. She was a whirlwind of metal.

The Silver Killer of Izril. Yvlon Byres.

All the Antinium, downed and bleeding. They looked like Ksmvr to her. She had lost herself in a rage, throwing herself at Pallass’ [Soldiers]. Now—between her and Klbkch, they were in full retreat.

But Yvlon didn’t see them—or the other adventurers.

Yvlon, stop—

Ksmvr was shouting, but Pekona dragged him back. She had a long cut down one arm from her duel, which she had broken off. Now, she shouted at him.

Your friend has gone mad—a calming Skill. Does anyone have one?

Ksmvr looked at Pekona. The two of them had taken fewer wounds. But Yvlon—

Yvlon Byres ran at a figure standing over an old man in a trail of blood. Typhenous was on his back.

The [Lieutenant of Perfection], Comois, turned as Yvlon Byres saw him. She pointed—and a finger pierced the place his chest had been. He actually parried it—and when one hand raised a blade—

Yvlon wasn’t using her sword arts. She couldn’t. She just swung at him as he slashed at her arms—and Comois snarled wider.

Adventurers.

He hacked at her arm—realized he couldn’t cut through the silver metal—and dodged a swing. Ksmvr was running at him when Comois swung his blade down.

“Idiot.”

Yvlon stumbled, charged at him, and fell on her face. She looked back blankly, and Ksmvr made a sound.

Her foot stood there in the grass. The [Sword Lieutenant] had cut it off at the ankle. Yvlon looked up—and he stabbed her through the flesh part of her shoulder. Then he deflected a sword.

Ksmvr’s screech was followed by his most wild attack. It nearly—nearly cost him his own legs as Comois cut, but Pekona parried it.

Get back!

Ksmvr was shielding Yvlon, who was staring at her foot. Comois just stepped back.

“Slayer, next. But first—”

He looked down at Typhenous. The old man was barely breathing, but he had cut Comois across his face, and another dagger had wounded the Drake’s side. The only two wounds Comois had. The Drake aimed at the old man’s legs. So long as he was conceivably alive and not dead from the stroke—

 

——

 

Stop!”

Revi was screaming at Comois. The adventurers were on their feet, but Pekona was trying to pick up Yvlon’s foot. She didn’t seem to realize the Drake was no honorable bladesman.

Pisces? Revi looked around as the adventurers howled at the Drake. Jelaqua was out. Seborn separated. Moore himself was running down as Gire tried to stop him.

The [Lieutenant of Perfection] aimed down at Typhenous’ legs—then twisted. Pisces lunged out of the grass, and the Drake knocked his blade aside. Without [Flash Step], Pisces couldn’t—Comois kicked a second blade up, swung it down as he slashed at Pisces.

It never reached its target. Typhenous was staring up, teeth gritted, when the [Lieutenant] staggered. Pisces had slashed his sword-hand, and a shard of silver metal had pierced one foot.

Yvlon’s hand. But the Drake looked up, mystified. As if the blade buried halfway through his neck was the most offensive thing anyone could have done and he had been innocent of the rest.

“You c—”

The words bubbled with blood around the edge of Halrac Everam’s sword. Revi halted her mad run towards Typhenous. Briganda had shielded Cade’s eyes the entire time—

The adventurers went still. The [Bowman of Loss] had seen Typhenous go down and started running the moment he saw what Comois was doing. But unlike the others—

A killing blow. It might not have been the first so far—but it was the first deliberate blow. Chaldion’s head snapped around as Edellein roared.

Comois!

The peerless swordsman of the 4th Army fell. Halrac stared at the dead Drake, then reached down for Typhenous. The old man looked at his Captain.

“Idiot.”

But Halrac hadn’t even hesitated. The man froze as light enveloped him. Brighter—no. More intense than anyone else. He looked up—and everyone around him heard a word.

Echoing in their heads like an announcement.

<DISQUALIFIED.>

The [Bowman] jerked back, as if trying to d—

He vanished. Leaving nothing behind. No whisper. No trace. He was just gone, and Typhenous’ bloody fingers scrabbled in the grass.

“Halrac? Halrac?

He did not reappear. No one—Revi dragged Typhenous to safety as this festival began to come to a close.

 

——

 

The blood was a stream, and now a river.

Erin Solstice sat in the common room of her inn. She couldn’t bear to look at it any more. She was—trying to stop it.

But she couldn’t. And something was dawning. The blood—

The blood made Fierre want to drink. But even she saw what was coming.

The last fighters were cutting each other to pieces. It was no longer a game. It had never been a game.

When the Goblins moved, it was because someone attacked them. And it was shameful because it was Archmage Eldavin.

Him of all? The Unicorn stared at the half-Elf, and he knew that was not Teriarch. Because he scattered the Goblins, left the Chieftain bleeding as he wounded Badarrow, stabbing him through one knee.

Not killing strokes or even the same level of maiming as that [Sword Lieutenant]. But effortlessly. He went after the other adventurers next, as if just picking and choosing targets.

The Goblins broke up—and ran straight into Eldavin’s guests. Greysten. Pertheine. Viltach.

That was their mistake. Ser Greysten was trying to call out.

“We want to—”

He nearly lost his head. Pertheine backed up as Numbtongue swung at her, and Snapjaw, Peggy, and half a dozen Redfangs covered Rags and Badarrow being carried away. But only one Goblin faced Greysten.

The Summer’s Champion had two axes he held in each hand. He glanced at the figure who had nearly cut him down and saw—

Redscar had two blades. One longer, a longsword—the other a shortsword’s length. Just like Garen’s blade and the other enchanted sword he carried.

The Goblin’s eyes were glowing. Ser Greysten swore as he lifted his axes. When he and Redscar met, blood flew from the first chop.

Th-this is—

Viltach was trying to support Pertheine. The Spring’s Warden was taking on six Hobs at a time! He had been frozen half the battle. And because of that, Viltach, like someone thinking he was dreaming when it was reality—had not realized the gravitas of this situation.

He was trapped in the nightmares of his youth, and when it came upon him, he fought as if he were in a war. But he should have run.

Someone moved to his left as the Spring’s Warden unfolded a [Blade Dance] that lashed out like a hundred dandelion seeds, scattering slashes through the air. A Goblin leapt back—and Numbtongue and Viltach locked eyes.

The Archmage of Terandria swung first. He hacked down, and Numbtongue dove away, cursing. Viltach opened up Numbtongue’s back with a second slice and raised his sword.

Shorthilt rose. He parried the third strike and drew his sword back. Then he flicked it up.

He cut Viltach’s arm off, and the Archmage stared at it for a long time in disbelief.

 

——

 

“Father!”

Somewhere, a chorus of voices arose. The bloodless Viltach’s face stared at Numbtongue as the Goblin lowered his blade, away from a killing stroke.

Everyone forgot Viltach was a—the man slumped over as Pertheine cursed and fought the Hobgoblins back to drag him to safety.

Ser Greysten? He was bleeding. So was Redscar as the two struck each other. They leaned on each other, so close that Greysten felt like he could feel the other Goblin’s heart beating.

He kept trying to make room—neither had space to do more than cut with their blades—but the Goblin refused to back up.

Like Gadiekh—the [Knight] realized his mistake. He and Redscar were perhaps equal in battle experience, in practice. Maybe Greysten had the advantage in years.

But he was used to armor. He twisted as Redscar slashed across his chest, going for his organs. The Summer’s Champion struck back, but the Goblin just twisted as a blade rammed into his ribs and lodged there.

One of them embraced the blows. Took one to lance a needle straight into Greysten’s gut. He was laughing. He was—

Summer faltered on that hill as the Order of Seasons watched their champion duel. Only a single Goblin, a [Knight] among them, was screaming his heart out. Be it a mere Goblin, a war leader of a band of raiders—

He could blaze brighter than the summer’s heat.

 

——

 

Rivers, now. Rivers of ichor.

The [Pirate] had joined Colth and was trying to fight off Zeter. The Swordsman of Six was trying to end his enemies.

Humans. Colth had half a dozen wounds, but he refused to quit. He was the [Supporter] of legends—but he was facing a [Blademaster]. The raking cuts along Zeter’s arms proved that Colth had put up a fight where his peers had quit—but Zeter was determined to end things on his terms.

Like a bullying bastard with a blade. Wailant had jumped in, thinking he could tilt the scales—and realized he was out of his depth.

“Humans—”

The Swordsman of Six could use six swords at once. Make the others hover and attack. He cut Wailant so fast the [Pirate] barely felt it. He only noticed the trail of blood when Seborn appeared.

“Bastard—”

Colth just fell over as Zeter lifted his sword into the air. Blood loss had taken Colth out. Zeter looked like a gladiator of Manus, and he had decided to take a limb from each. Cripple his foes. He needed to take out Wailant and Seborn.

“[Pirate], go left—”

“Argh, okay!”

Seborn was a [Rogue]. Seborn, a [Pirate] on his own terms. They were no strangers to the dance on the decks—but Wailant realized he should have given Zeter the dues he would a bladesman at sea.

He was impossibly fast. He blocked Seborn’s flurrying stabs, caught him in the shadows, and Wailant’s scimitar halted as he brought it down with all his force against the Drake’s greatsword.

“You’re not Named-ranks. You don’t deserve this.”

Zeter kicked Seborn hard enough to send the Drowned Man rolling. Wailant lifted his sword.

“We—surrender. Just let us get Colth out. There’s no need for blood, man.”

The Drake was panting, and he looked at Wailant with that damned blank stare of a [Soldier] who saw only enemies.

“Are you mad? You think we’ll pass up this opportunity?”

He flicked a claw, and a long dagger hit Wailant in the shoulder. He went down, howling, and swore he heard his wife and daughter’s voices.

Not here. Garia wouldn’t last—Klbkch was slicing up Pallass. Half the people here had gone mad with the frenzy.

Like Bloodfeast Raiders. He saw Zeter standing over him as Colth rose like a zombie. But he had no chance, no chance, even with Seborn—

Wailant was trying to hold one of Zeter’s blades in his shoulder rather than let the Named-rank yank it free. He was braced—braced with terror for the blow that would take a limb for life. He’d never afford healing, and the Healer of Tenbault couldn’t—

The blow never came. What he did hear was a curse and the ringing of blades so loud and fast that Wailant knew it had to be a Named-rank. Pisces? Then he saw a green leg in his vision and felt a hand on his shoulder.

“Get up and run!”

Numbtongue? 

It was! A Goblin threw himself at the Swordsman of Six, and Zeter heard a whuff as a blade came at his head.

Fast—but the Named-rank parried it with one of his blades and slashed back contemptuously. The Goblin retreated, silent, blocking blades and grunting. Then—something uncanny happened.

As Zeter lowered himself for a blade-draw Skill with the curved katana he carried, he wavered—and the Goblin’s eyes changed. He grinned suddenly, and his face changed—-

[Blade Draw: Steeldawn Flash]!

The Goblin parried it! Somehow, he saw it coming, and while the block threw him back Dragonblood sword cracked slightly—it should have gone straight through sword and bone and everything else. His entire stance and fighting style changed as he came in with more elegance—and even more aggression.

Zeter had rarely seen someone change style in battle. That was—like how he fought.

Scimitar. The Swordsman of Six was still faster. He reached up, caught the blade, and would have taken the Goblin but for a presence at his back.

A shadow—he twisted, and a Drake tried to bury her two long daggers in his back. Her onyx scales alone made Zeter hold back from cutting off her arm as she flipped back.

Salkis?

The Goblin hesitated as his stance changed again. Zeter’s head swung from the Drake, who was panting.

“Don’t give him—”

They went for him on both sides. Zeter was—he grabbed a dagger and deflected each blow as Colth limped forwards and Seborn shadowstepped around the two, looking for a chance to strike.

A Goblin and a Drake, working together? Impossible!

Wailant couldn’t believe his luck. Numbtongue! The Goblin was covering the downed [Pirate]. But the Hob was bleeding, and Zeter nearly maimed him as he aimed his greatsword and the floating blade swung at the Goblin. Only Numbtongue’s own savior had pulled him out of the fray.

Salkis had a cloth mask over her face, but she was slashing, forcing the Swordsman of Six back with as much skill as Seborn.

Even so! Colth, Seborn, Numbtongue, and Salkis weren’t enough to keep him off them. He was the Named-rank adventurer of blades in the south! The blades he wasn’t personally wielding swung around him, so he could fight even surrounded.

He would have taken them out, starting with Wailant. That scimitar spun as Zeter threw it—and Numbtongue tried to parry the blade with his sword and—missed. The blade kept going towards Wailant’s legs.

—Yet it stopped. Someone caught the sword, and the force of it ground boots deep into mud. It drove one foot down into the soil, nearly a foot deep, and Zeter—

Zeter had only seen someone do that twice before. The Swordsman of Six halted. Colth couldn’t do that, wounded as he was. Zeter slashed with his sword, and for the second time—someone parried the blade.

Who…?

Then Wailant saw his savior who had interceded to save his friend’s life. His…new friend’s life.

The [Farmer] had a wide-brimmed, black hat on his head, and his clothing was black as his family stood on their feet. But Zeter was watching him as warily as Colth.

Himilt held a plain longsword as he covered Numbtongue dragging Wailant up. Then there were six of them, backing away.

“Leave us, Swordsman of Six.”

I’ll remember this, Zeter. And Teithde’s arm! I am no Deniusth. We will settle this.”

Colth called out, and Zeter hesitated. He was certainly seeing the murder in Colth’s eyes—but he was counting the six fighters. And—

He looked at Himilt, and though he could not know—

The Vampire stood there, like a scarecrow under moonlight. The sun was setting, and the grey skies were turning darker. Darker…his red eyes shone in this field of blood.

He made Zeter hesitate—then Wailant felt Himilt’s other hand on his shoulder.

“Come. This is madness.”

“My friend—my friends—I’m not gonna forget this.”

That was all the [Pirate] said as Numbtongue and Himilt dragged him off the field. What insanity. Zeter was running now, to save Pallass. Wailant had seen those poor Antinium getting minced.

But what the Slayer was doing—

This was war. This was why he’d quit the sea. It was never a cup of blood for a cup. It became—

Oceans.

 

——

 

The Slayer was refusing to let Pallass’ [Soldiers] leave. He had cornered them, preventing them from reaching the [Generals] and other officers trying to rejoin the tournament. And he was cutting off—limbs.

There was no pity or hesitation as he swung his blades. Nor could anyone who had exited the tournament already rejoin it.

If this tournament were honorless—the Slayer was earning the abhorrence of countless nations. And the understanding of some. One thing to see him ignore his people suffering.

Understandable to see what he did in vengeance. The King of Destruction understood. But Pallass was watching their soldiers being maimed.

And it was too much for some. A cry broke through the sky, and Merrik looked up.

Peki! No!

He bellowed as a figure descended, someone who had not entered this senseless bloodbath before. He shouted at the falling Garuda until he realized—

Her feathers were spring green, not a mix of purple and green. 

Bevussa Slenderscale, the Captain of the Wings of Pallass, dove at Klbkch. The Slayer lifted his blades as she dropped with a shortsword into battle.

He whirled his swords up, and they flashed like mirrors. When Merrik could see next—he stared.

Because Bevussa wasn’t limbless. She darted left, shaking blood off her feathered arm. Then she shouted at the [Soldiers].

“Run! I’ll cover you!”

Again, she dropped as the Slayer turned on the Pallassians. And—it looked like she tumbled as she came down. A sweeping blade meeting two silver flashes.

She was good with the blade. So good she merely lost blood and feathers rather than limbs. Had he known that about her?

Merrik didn’t know. Only that Pallass was cheering Bevussa, and as if reminded she was not his true enemy, Klbkch just turned and sprinted after the last [Soldiers]. His blades swept low for their legs, and he deflected another lunge from Bevussa.

“Enough.”

Someone parried the blade. Parried it so hard Klbkch nearly swung into Zeter. The Swordsman of Six ducked a cut—and someone stabbed him too.

Klbkch’s blades whirled. He slashed at the Swordsman of Six, who tried to shout this was his rematch—but a blade nearly hit Klbkch. The Antinium leaned out of the way. Bevussa halted, staring at the last figure.

Who would fight for Pallass? Zeter was taking attacks from one side as he swore at the newcomer.

“We’re on the same side—

A slash cut off his neck-spines at the tips. Then a clawed hand pointed at Bevussa, and the Garuda leapt back. She turned—and the two swordswomen held their ground as Klbkch tilted his head. Bevussa—vaguely—knew the stranger, but just like no one had known how good she was with a blade—

She had no idea Chaldion’s grandniece was this talented.

 

——

 

“What is he doing?”

“She. It’s she.

Mirn’s voice was the only thing that Chaldion heard. He was on his feet. In horror. Mortal, mortal horror.

Losing members of his army? Classes changed. Losses happened. It hurt—but it wasn’t personal. Losing Zeter would be a disaster, or Lulv.

This, though—he just looked across the field as Pallass went silent. Someone was covering the last of the soldiers, sword pointed up, holding it at the ready like the master she was. Zeter was confused—because of course, he felt like he was facing a Named-rank.

Because in a sense—in a very real sense—he was. Though she was no warrior with that class—

Onieva was an [Alchemist] of that level. And she stood with blade in hand.

Chaldion’s heir. But Saliss would never have done this. Chaldion still didn’t understand. Because he still thought it was Saliss.

But Mirn knew, and he was trying not to weep with fear, with exultation.

Onieva and Bevussa were fighting side-by-side, and Pallass was watching a swordmaster in their ranks. The feckless, layabout cousin of the famous Saliss of Lights and grandniece of Chaldion—

Could never, would never hide behind anonymity again. Onieva lifted her sword, and Pallass cheered her as she smiled, light flashing off pink and blue scales.

 

——

 

Tyrion Veltras was amazed he had survived this long. He was counting them, now, and realized how many of them…

Sung.

That was how he had heard it described, once, by one of his aunts who had been gifted with the blade. Everyone could say the words with the right music—especially in a choir.

But some sang louder, more beautifully than others. It didn’t matter—a loud enough voice would drown out the most elegant yet soft voice, especially one weakened by age, sickness, or injury.

But who was that half-Elf? Eldavin?

Eldavin, peerless above all. Some made sense. Tyrion had faced the Spring’s Warden, and he knew her acclaim with a blade would have matched him if he had his levels. Zeter, likewise. The Maestro was a Gold-bell duelist.

But—that Drake with pink and blue scales had arguably more talent, more practice and acumen from battle than the Gold-rank Garuda. It—showed.

Spearmaster Lulv was limping now. But he stood as a Drake gently carried his daughter away. The Gecko turned his head—and Lulv tensed, but Relc brought his daughter to a [Healer]. And Lulv—

Lulv hesitated and felt at the two holes, one in his arm, one in his leg. Both so deep he knew a potion was needed or he would lose both limbs. He looked at the battlefield—and had to drag himself away.

Klbkch the Slayer. The Goblin with the two blades that had tried to attack him—Redscar?

He was stepping away as Ser Greysten checked his open wounds and had to withdraw or bleed out. The Summer’s Champion was red with blood, and he sang well. As well as any warrior.

A one-armed [Sword Dancer]…the [Necromancer], Pisces, and the Maestro.

The Maestro had been safeguarding his Symphony. He had personally forced many of Symphony to leave when he saw how bloody this was. He was still—dueling. Dueling Pisces.

Gently, though. His and Pisces’ rapiers clashed as they seemed to stride down the field. The two fought without tricks or teaming up on each other.

Beautifully. The Maestro didn’t try to kill Pisces—and when he placed his blade at the [Necromancer]’s throat—he didn’t force the young man to quit or wound him to do so.

“Keep practicing, young man.”

That was all Maestro Linvios said. Pisces looked at him, covered in sweat, and the Maestro put up his blade.

It was almost as if the rage against him had been eclipsed by the deeds performed by other people on the field. He had killed no one. Maimed no one.

He was still trying to conduct himself with dignity that was not always returned to him. He didn’t belong in this festival of blades, dedicated to Zeladona and sullied by red. 

Tyrion Veltras saw it all. Then someone spoke, and he felt the crackle in her words.

“Look at this. Look at this. You—you are emblematic of what haunts us. War without end. You did not have to attack, again and again. Here you stand in Liscor. Do you have no shame?”

Tyrion looked about, and there stood someone else who sang oddly. With such practice and strength—but oddly, as if she had never seen battle. Old and young. Dangerous and not.

Rafaema of Manus held her longsword low, aimed up, two hands clasped on the sword, a traditional en garde pose. Tyrion lifted his sword, holding it wide of his shield covering his chest. He spoke through the burning in his lungs.

“…Who are you?”

Her eyes went wide with fury. She slashed—and he pivoted left and cut her hard across the shoulder. She cried out, and somewhere, her people cried out with the wound—but it was shallow.

Hard. An ironflesh Skill? She was—fast. She came at him like lightning, and they tangled—but she tired faster.

A loud, sharp song like flashes of lightning. She blew chunks out of the grass with thunder, and then he found a Goblin at his back. Tyrion stabbed Snapjaw in the stomach, and Rafaema looked up. She opened her mouth to roast Redscar, a monster—and Pisces ran his rapier through her leg. He looked up as Zeter and Onieva crashed into the battle, and then there was Klbkch, Bevussa, Pekona, a woman with a rapier, shaking and standing to the side—

An ending of things.

 

——

 

Taletevirion watched Eldavin do what the Dragonlord of Flame was so regretfully good at. Why he hid so long—and why his simulacrum should not have been allowed to live.

He destroyed. 

Five of Symphony’s best including the Maestro had stayed to fight. Eldavin ran into them, and three fell, missing a hand, a foot, an arm up to the elbow—

“Bastard.”

That was all he said. The Floodplains were turning into another Bloodfields. He could sense the grass drinking it all in. If this happened a hundred times, a thousand—

Even without death, this was too much. And Eldavin was too good. He was after the First Flute now, and the Maestro struck at him, so furiously even Eldavin had to back up, sword deflecting strikes of that long estoc the Drake used.

But he was too good. Even a Gold-rank duelist—fell back, cut across the wrist. But not deeply enough to sever bones. The [Healers] would have to labor to save that arm if a potion wasn’t used. There were so many wounded—and Zimrah was passing out, the power of the few [Priests] all but gone.

And he had no morality.

Eldavin, that was. Taletevirion knew that the half-Elf probably considered himself moral—but it was a man’s mortality with no wisdom of age behind it. Look how he treated [Assassins] instead of his other foes, slashing off limbs as if they were lesser by virtue of their class.

And that Swordsman of Six had none. He was still trying to lop off limbs—this time the [Lord]’s.

Tyrion Veltras had finally run up against his match. He knew what to do, tried to pivot, parry, and overwhelm Zeter’s defenses, strike one solid blow against the six Zeter could—

But he was unable to. In Taletevirion’s eyes, the [Lord] held a blade of a spruce sapling’s branches instead of steel. He touched Zeter’s spinning wall of Skills, and though the [Lord] was the better—

The Skills were walls of stone that Tyrion could not reach over. Zeter’s sheer strength tossed the [Lord] back, and he raised his claws in triumph, holding down his foes all by himself.

Even Klbkch couldn’t touch him easily. But the Antinium sang even more beautifully than Tyrion. Like a wounded voice regaining itself. When Zeter faced the Slayer, his Skills cleaved the earth and sent showers of dirt fountaining up.

He was sinking into silver mists. Lashing about as the insect danced like a waterbug in a pond of illusions. Almost—the Swordsman of Six took a blow that cut him down one arm, but his Skills protected him. Handicapped and shielded by them, like a babe in heavy swaddling cloth. If the Slayer had the same levels, this would be over already.

If you had ever studied the sword or seen a master train long enough, you would have understood more than anyone else who the most graceful on the field was. Ressa’s own sword fell behind even Tyrion’s, but she was a fighter, throwing daggers and bladed chains, distracting Zeter.

If only Magnolia could have reveled in it like the Goblin, Redscar, who came at Zeter without fear and forced the Swordsman of Six to take him seriously. But she only saw her dear friend fighting as blood ran down her arms.

She had never wanted to see this again—and here the [Lady] stood, almost in the same place as when she had led an army across the Floodplains to face the Antinium.

A girl of sixteen, at the head of the Five Families, waving a sword and believing this was glorious. Magnolia tasted the bile of it. She saw the fallen Antinium and other species—and she had seen it too many times.

“What purpose is there to this?”

She looked about—and saw the one great master of blades who had not entered the battle. Even a Dragon’s pride had brought Eldavin into the fray. But one immortal of them all remembered there was more to majesty than the tip of a sword.

Taletevirion had long stopped drinking, but he was still hidden, and the Wind Runner was trying to close wounds with the [Healers], drag people away. So he was surprised when someone spoke to him.

“Taletevirion. Will you speak to me a moment?”

He jumped—and a [Lady] in pink stood there.

“Magnolia.”

Her [Maid], Ressa, was still trying to save Tyrion. A dedicated servant. All the others, from the Silver-bell [Maid] to Reynold, were out. Only the best remained.

Only…Taletevirion thought that the young [Necromancer], Pisces, shouldn’t be amongst the finalists. Ksmvr and Pekona fought with him, and as a team, and they all had talent, but without his magic, he was weakest of the three. The Maestro, ironically, had covered for Pisces by dueling him so long.

“It has been a long time since we talked.”

“If you want small talk—get lost. I’m not in the mood.”

The Unicorn, master of battles from the Vale Forest, looked bleakly at this bloody sight. He had fought his own kin and others—but this was a disgrace. Though he understood how it had come to this.

Magnolia’s fingers were clasped together tightly, but she spoke, her voice kept airy.

“Very well. This is not the moment. I just came to ask you—if you had paid attention to my deeds in Oteslia.”

He snorted.

“It is the last Great Tree of Izril’s south. Even if they’ve leeched it to hatch that little brat who runs about. I saw.”

“Did you approve?”

The Unicorn tossed his head angrily. What was with the stupid questions? Yes, he ran about Izril and did as he pleased—but the Vale Forest was still largely safe. No Crelers had truly plagued it since the Creler Wars.

“Am I not sworn to come to fight if true war calls? Did I send you a message saying otherwise? Yes, Magnolia, I approve. And I daresay that gigantic fool you’ve come to see—

He lowered his head, calmed himself.

“—He will see what you have done for what it is. A true attempt to build peace.”

Magnolia Reinhart, so guarded, so secretive, looked young when he glanced her way. Young—and relieved, like a young woman not sure if her path was right. So he didn’t regret saying it.

“I am just trying to…”

She never finished it, but he did for her. Impress him. No—that wasn’t right. That was uncharitable, because she had spent half her lifetime already at this. He whispered.

“You are growing a great forest from a single seed. I see it, Magnolia.”

She bowed to him and murmured.

“I heard a variation of that saying of late. ‘A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.’ It sounded…quite apt when I heard it.”

The Unicorn did look away, because he was ashamed, then. Ashamed, and his voice was old as he lay on his front, for all he was still the warrior. But once, he had been the diplomat, the healer, more than the warden. His voice broke ever-so-slightly where once it had echoed in gladed halls.

“I’m—that’s well said indeed. I’m sorry, Magnolia. I believe in that quote with all my heart. But it seems—I somehow managed to outlive even the trees.”

He closed his eyes, and the grass seemed to weep around him in the cold winter’s air. But Magnolia just looked at him and nodded.

“You approved, though? You saw what I did and how dear it cost me—but how I continued? How I will, even if my work burns down and I have to sift through the ashes?”

The Unicorn opened his gaze and met hers with rare respect. Respect such as he had not shown Ryoka—but he didn’t know her.

Everyone could be brave a moment, but he had seen twenty years of courage. So he dipped his head.

“I do.”

Behind him, the Swordsman of Six struck Pisces, and his sword cleaved straight through the [Necromancer]’s side. Pisces stopped and stared at the cut running up to his spine. He fell—and Ksmvr leapt on top of him as the Named-rank adventurer aimed another cut, and Ksmvr blocked it with his body.

He raised his blade, and Jewel deflected the greatsword he aimed down at the two.

I am Jewel! A Silver-bell duelist! Stay back!”

She screamed, face white and red with terror and determination. In the inn—the [Innkeeper] sat frozen, unable to move, fighting against something rising from the blood. Her fingers—twitched.

Magnolia Reinhart stood in the shadow of the Amentus trees with Taletevirion as they saw this obscene bloodsport—and she looked at him. Looked at him, and her voice cracked across her lands, and the Vale Forest shook a hundred thousand leaves of autumn onto the ground.

Then how dare you sit there? Stand, Last Unicorn!

He jerked to his hooves—but he held there as Ksmvr tried to pick up Pisces and they shouted at him to come to a [Healer]. Taletevirion looked at Magnolia as Klbkch stabbed Zeter through a foot—then whirled to face Eldavin as Rafaema wiped blood from her eyes.

There stands a Dragon and the memory of one. Would you have me fight them?

He snarled back, and Magnolia slapped him. Not as hard as she could, but she slapped him and put the other hand on his head and stared him in his eyes.

“Are you a sword? Go and do what you have always done! Save them.

The Unicorn looked at her—and then the bloody mess of it all. Then he lowered his horn, nudged her aside, and charged. He ran forwards, springing into motion, fast—faster.

He raced past the weary Guildmistress, the Courier of Izril, who was bending over, hands on her knees, trying to breathe as poison clogged her lungs and continued to eat away at her breath. Mihaela was choking—

Until a breath of clear air filled her. She inhaled—and saw something run past her. Quicksilver. A dream. A being faster than she—she tried to catch it.

But the Unicorn just ran faster. His horn glowed, and Mihaela Godfrey felt Wrymvr’s poison halt in her veins and some of it vanish.

If only he could have stayed an hour, a day, a week with her. Yet there was only one of him, and a sea of blood. He ran into it, driving forwards with the horn shining brighter as if trying to drag the tides with him.

 

——

 

Klbkch and Eldavin looked at one another, and the two—stopped.

Stopped as the remaining bloody fighters, Symphony, the Maestro, and all the others, locked in the final throes of this madness.

“Who are you?”

“I could ask the same question. You…who taught you that sword style? You fight as well as—you fight impossibly well.”

Eldavin was breathing hard, but his body tired so slowly he knew it was on par with a Named-rank of this era’s. He felt alive—but Klbkch made him feel uneasy. The swords reached for him like two silver arms, and Eldavin threw them back, too hard, losing his cool.

I taught myself.

They were fighting, too equally for Eldavin’s comfort, when something slashed along his arm. He twisted, grimacing—and waited for the wound to heal.

Only to hear a voice.

<Quest: Magic cancelled.>

Then he faltered, and his head turned—and Klbkch nearly cut him down. But Eldavin’s head whirled as he saw something shooting past him.

Was that—

 

——

 

“I don’t—I don’t have the energy.”

Zimrah was trying to get up, to heal the many wounded as Ksmvr ran over with Pisces. The [Necromancer]’s face was white, and he was cut so badly blood was—

It would be a deathblow. But Zimrah didn’t know if her shaking hands could even use [Cure Mundane Wounds] again. Each cure exhausted her!

—Then she felt a spring’s breeze blow across her face. A hand reached down, and Ksmvr, a hole through his side, jerked as a brown Antinium who seemed more lithe than the others touched his side. Ksmvr yelped.

“Stop—”

Then he stared at the closed hole in his body. Zimrah turned, and the Antinium tilted his head towards her. She stared into those multifaceted eyes and knew two things in that moment.

This was no Antinium. And…they were beautiful eyes.

“You heal like someone pouring a cup over a fire, no matter how big or small. It isn’t your fault that you didn’t know. Healing is an art. It is not a paste or a potion to pour. It is a balm to apply perfectly. You wield the razor of life.”

He traced her hand over Pisces’ side, and Zimrah stared at the stranger. She had never thought of it that way. But if the Miracle she prayed for was more than…

She bent over Pisces, and the line began to dissolve—and Zimrah did not collapse this time. The stranger nodded, looked around, and kept running. Many limbs were already fallen, and even he could not mend a tree long cut.

But he could try. His eyes glowed.

A Drake with white scales halted amongst Pallass’ lines and beheld the Drakes and Gnolls holding severed limbs. He looked at Healer Demerra, at the Dullahan shouting orders out of the scrying orb.

Anyone who can sew—just hold a hand over those wounds! Press! Does no one know how to sew?”

Selys Shivertail was trying to stitch up flesh, but it was nothing like cloth. A screaming Drake was white under his scales—General Edellein was a tough man, but the nerves were cut along one leg.

“I’m trying not to hurt—”

A pale white claw reached down, and Selys thought it was Tesy for a moment. But the claw picked up the needle and drove it straight through flesh without hesitation. Another claw held down the [General]’s kicking leg and stitched.

Geneva Scala looked over as a Drake spoke, sewing the leg shut and compounding the [General]’s agony.

“Hurt them if you must. But hold on to them. With flame. With thread or magic. Stop playing with beautiful healing and stitch!

He shouted at Demerra, and the Gnoll dropped the healing crystal. Mercilessly, the Unicorn picked up another needle and sewed flesh like cloth. And the [Doctor], the Dullahan, almost wept. Because she was not alone.

On, the Unicorn went, and he was changing. It didn’t matter. Form was an illusion, nevermind if he was a Drake—

—A Human with silver-white hair, staring at Yvlon Byres’ wounds. He saw her vice grip on the stump of her leg and the whites of her eyes. In silence—between the bubbling saliva at the corner of her mouth suppressing even the barest whimper of pain—in the raging of her blood—two cold, immortal, sympathetic eyes gazed down at the woman of metal.

Someone was hurrying over with a ‘healing potion’ for Yvlon. He pretended to stumble—and a hand seized the creeping Tolveilouka before he could touch Yvlon’s wounds.

The half-Elf stared into eyes that had lost more than his. Pale silver—and he backed away. The Unicorn turned as he let go without a word. He pointed down his hand, smeared with blood, as he turned, looking ahead for someone else crying out in pain.

As if he had no time for her. The [Armsmistress] almost screamed at him until she saw—he was pointing at her arm. Her metal arm, twisting with pain. Then—at the place her foot had been.

“No. I’m—afraid. It—it will consume me—”

The woman spoke then, with shaking hands and voice. And all the Unicorn said was this:

“It will define you, or you will define it. It is not your master unless you allow it. Choose. Women of metal forged themselves with hearts harder than the hammers they endured.”

Then he ran on. On. A Gnoll with fur as pale as ivory passed by Mrsha as she tried to hold a cloth to Typhenous’ body. The potions…they were using potions, but he wasn’t getting up! But a Gnoll reached down, and she felt green—

The old man’s eyes shot back open. He jerked upright as the bloodless skin flushed. The Gnoll didn’t say another word; he just stood. Racing on, vanishing from Mrsha’s sight even as her head whirled around.

He left no footprints. He raced past bodies like a breeze in the forests, so fast and graceful that Ryoka Griffin heard the air singing around him.

The Unicorn. Only seen sparingly. Never on camera. He ran faster, trying to race death.

And then—

 

——

 

Ask yourself one question, now. As this terrible day came to a close.

This…festival of blades.

Not a tournament. It had never been a tournament with genteel laws and rules. The [Innkeeper] sat in her inn as Shriekblade stood watch, and if you looked at this day in its entirety—ask yourself one question:

Why?

Why had it come out this way? Because she was forced by the Maestro? Because Erin Solstice—wanted this?

Those were possible answers, but they didn’t explain this bloodshed. This madness that seemed to take ahold of the Slayer, Tyrion, and the others. Almost as if—despite themselves—they couldn’t leave the bloody grass.

This was the question—why did this happen? Did this really honor…Zeladona, a [Blademistress of Ancients]? If you asked yourself that—you might then realize the error in your thinking.

Perhaps…

Perhaps if you examined your thinking, you might understand the fallacy in all of this. Which was assuming that this was destroying Zeladona’s good name. Perhaps the <Quest> reflected the intent or the person behind the power.

Why would this day honor her? 

Who…was…Zeladona?

And why did the <Quest> require Erin Solstice to have a Talent Potion to post it?

 

——

 

The answer was coming. Erin Solstice felt it. It was more than creeping dread, more than a sensation of blood pooling without end.

She had started this all—but even she hadn’t realized what it meant. Now, she was fighting it—but it wasn’t as if she could fight a thought. There was nothing to push against, nothing to resist. She felt a voice in her head.

<Quest conditions activated.>

“Erin? Do you want something?”

Tessa was watching her, but Erin Solstice didn’t say a word. She had…something on the table in front of her. Tessa had expected Erin to tell her to run out there and save her friends, but Erin hadn’t.

She was staring at a little vial of viridian liquid, glowing as a simple cork stopper held the contents in place. It was the same one that had vanished. Now—Erin’s shaking hand picked it up. A thumb knocked out the cork, and Tessa realized—

Erin was trying not to lift the vial up.

“Erin?”

Tessa looked around for magic, a hostile Skill, or something—anything. But she could not hear the voice in Erin’s head.

 

——

 

<Zeladona’s Trial of a Thousand Blades: Fulfilling quest.>

<Zeladona Ischen, Level 84 [Blademistress of Ancients] not found. Searching…>

<Zeladona Ischen, Level 84 [Blademistress of Ancients] not found.>

 

That voice was so displeased. Erin had…heard it before. Just once. Just once, when she came back from the dead and slept, she had thought she had heard the barest ounce of something more than just calculation.

She heard it again. It wasn’t pure anger or even irritation or frustration. It was a kind of emotion like her flames—a kind of dissatisfaction.

This wasn’t right. It must be fixed. Erin’s hands shook as she lifted the vial to her lips and opened her mouth. Then she heard the voice sound—satisfied. As if it had just figured something out.

Erin, sitting in her wheelchair, opened her lips and tasted the faintest hint of…Yellats? Then she heard the voice as her aching body suddenly jerked.

 

<Zeladona Ischen, Level 84 [Blademistress of Ancients] not found. Creating temporary copy based on…>

 

——

 

“Erin?”

Shriekblade saw the young woman drink down the vial to the last drop, then let the bit of enchanted glass fall. It rolled on the floor as Tessa, Shriekblade—suddenly backed up.

The Named-rank adventurer drew her blades, put her back to the wall, and stared. Every scale on her body froze as the young woman…closed her eyes in her chair. Then stood.

Stood, so gracefully she trailed an afterimage as she took a step, two, then turned. She looked—taller. She looked older.

She didn’t look like Erin at all.

“Who are you? What did you do with—”

Tessa saw the woman throw back her hair, and though she knew it was hazel—it suddenly looked faintly turquoise and longer and her fair skin darker, almost as if Tessa could see golden stitches.

A woman gazed out of Erin Solstice’s face—and for the second time, someone else looked around in her body, flexed her hands. She glanced around and whispered in a surprisingly quiet voice.

“The festival is almost done, and I’m called here. I was dead. I was fighting—”

She passed a hand over her eyes, and they flickered.

“—nevermind. We get only one chance, and I did not slay death. I need a blade.”

Who are you?

Tessa shouted, and Zeladona’s head rose. She smiled through Erin Solstice’s lips.

 

——

 

Zeter, the Swordsman of Six, did not know who Rafaema was—exactly. But he knew she was on his side, and her lightning breath seemed to have no end. It was driving back the other fighters, and he was waiting for his chance to hit either the Slayer or the Archmage.

They were going to win. He could almost taste that legendary Skill—but the remaining fighters were—tough.

Jewel was just a brat, and he’d already cut her twice along the wrists to warn her—but she kept coming, like a little dog that didn’t know how to quit. That Drake—Onieva?

She was dangerous, but she had no Skills. At least, very few that worked on him. She reminded him of Saliss. Or maybe it was the Cyclops. He could best her with his Skills, but Bevussa was in his way, and he was loathe to cut her permanently, even if she was a Garuda. They were both Walled City adventurers.

But the Slayer. The Slayer and Lord Veltras were enemies to the quick, and he would have cut them down if he could—but the [Lord] had a time-Skill and all the reflexes of his class.

The Slayer was…had wounded Zeter twice. But he could be brought down.

Tyrion first. Either he was taking it easy—still—or he didn’t know who he was up against. He had just blocked a slash from the Maestro, and the damned traitor shouted.

Watch out!

Zeter lunged.

“[Cleave the Hills]!”

He roared, and everyone either ducked or leapt as his swing tore the entire battlefield around him. Tyrion—ducked. And he looked up as Zeter pointed a claw. Zeter’s five other swords, spinning behind him, might be mundane. But they took aim at Tyrion’s limbs—

—The inn exploded. Not all of it, but Zeter was facing it, and he saw a hole open in the wall and shrapnel blow out with the sheer force of the explosion. Something flew through the air, and the Drake he’d been expecting to fight against or fight with—Shriekblade, that useful maniac—landed on the grass.

“Shriekblade! You’re with—”

Tessa lay on her back, staring up at the sky. She had…no daggers in her claws, which was unusual. And she looked stunned. Zeter hesitated as Tyrion rolled away.

Had something just hit her out of the inn and all the way down here, about two hundred feet away? He raised his head and then felt something run all the way down his spine.

Terror.

Zeter’s confidence, his focus on Tyrion and Klbkch—everything—left his mind in a second. He stopped fighting and turned his head.

Straight towards the inn. Klbkch, Eldavin, everyone in the tournament ground suddenly turned as a kind of silence enveloped all.

Which was silly. You didn’t have scenes like that in Zeter’s experience. In stories, everyone froze when the [Hero] entered the throne room. In practice, even when Luciva herself was visiting you, someone was whispering or telling a joke or your tail itched.

Only—this time, his voice seemed to reduce itself down to nothing. No—that wasn’t right. The sky, the air…

What’s going on?

 

——

 

A figure walked through the inn’s hallways, humming slightly as she inspected the swords she’d found. Pekona had a blade she could no longer use one-handed, and some of Pelt’s works had been on display, in every style, for the competitors to purchase.

She was—turning her head, staring left and right, touching the walls, but she seemed drawn to the outside, as if she knew she had a purpose that could not wait. She hummed a lullaby of Chandrar they still might know to this day.

When she opened the doors, Erin Solstice stood outside. Or rather, her body did. But again—

When they looked at her, they saw someone else. As if the afterimage of her were Erin. And the real woman had turquoise hair, long and trimmed straight by a blade because she was too careless for aught else.

Her stitching was golden, but the skin was careless, worn cotton, as if she had once worn finer but could no longer be bothered by it all. Her eyes—her very pupils seemed sharp, as if the round dots of blackness were not circular, but edges of a million straight lines. Only, the color, a light grey, looked like lines of water running to light white as they met the pupils.

She was tall, long-armed, and when she looked out, her back was slightly hunched over, as if standing tall were wrong. She did not have a pleasant smile, nor did she look as if she remembered what it was like to sit with a friend.

Yet—when she buckled the katana to her belt, it seemed as if that completed her and she were wearing a loose garb of silk, faded with accolades, stained by weather—cut at the hems, a light coat of faded brass buttons open and fluttering over an open skirt that reached just down to her ankles. A mix of clothes and cultures from the places she had been.

Terandria, Drath, Baleros, Izril, Chandrar, of course, Tiernas, the Continent of Glass—even the undersea havens. Everywhere but the blasted desolation of Rhir where nothing lived.

She rested a hand on the hilt of the katana, laughing lightly with delight.

“A true blade of Drath! Simply made, but they endure! And look—what a strange, small little festival! It calls me hence. Lend me your body, Erin. You have given me a glorious death—and a chance even now. I shall teach them what you wished.

Her eyes flicked down, and she stared at this familiar sight.

Then everyone seemed to hear that voice again and remembered how it had been posted. This time, they remembered how it had been worded.

Zeladona’s Trial of a Thousand Blades. Trial. As if this were something that had once been done. To gather a thousand people and shed blood.

Potential to gain the Unique Skill of Zeladona.

Potential…that of course meant it wasn’t guaranteed. Now, though—

Zeladona looked down, and she stared up at the clouds hiding the sun as it tried to sink to the High Passes.

“To see the sky once before I vanish! To breathe air and shed blood under wild wind and in the lands of the living! Look, oh masters of old!”

She cried out, lifting a hand, and looked upon the final people locked in strife. Jewel, Dame Pertheine, Eldavin—and at the others, tending to their wounds. At everyone—as if they were foes, and Zeladona cried out.

I see the unworthy and the talented, the weak and the glorious. Look now, [Blademasters] of each and every era! I am Zeladona, [Blademistress of Ancients]! We convene the oldest trial in blood and glory! Face me, you warriors gathered here! Show me the sharpness of your souls!”

With every word, her voice grew until it was booming across the Floodplains, scaring Razorbeaks and other birds into the air where they fled in every direction. Ceria Springwalker looked up, and even her circlet was afraid.

“Oh, fuck.”

The Stitch-woman looked down as she put a hand on the sheathed blade and lowered herself. Every person with a sword, wounded or not, in the fighting or not, lifted their weapons instinctively.

—But for a moment, Zeladona paused and looked up.

 

——

 

Mrsha chanced a glimpse up. The girl did—because every warrior, from Gire to Lyonette—was shaking and staring at Zeladona. But the little Gnoll girl stared up at the sky, and she saw the same thing as Sammial Veltras.

 

——

 

The [Lord] of House Veltras broke away from the scrying orb—and stared up at the sky. The Haven was nearing the High Passes, and he saw…the exact same thing as what the scrying orb showed.

“She split the sky.”

He said it in a very, very distant voice and pointed. Every head in the Haven looked up, and there—a line was widening in the grey clouds of winter overhead. Sunlight, bright and pale, and the blue skies beyond shone down on a patch of land in between the mountains.

 

——

 

The light shone so beautifully—but it never touched Zeladona. Instead, she stood in the shade, and so did The Wandering Inn. For the light emerging from the cut clouds…

Split amidst a cone of shadows just past Bird’s tower. Bisected in two.

Zeladona admired the light and took one deep, long breath. Then she tensed with Erin’s legs and leapt.

It was sixty seconds before she touched the ground. Naught but air blew around her as she fell towards the ground, accelerating as gravity took hold of her. The people staring at her falling from the inn realized she was heading at them and ran.

Dead gods, dead gods, dead—

Jewel ran. She turned her head back as Erin Solstice—no, the [Blademistress of Ancients] landed. She had unsheathed her blade.

The greatest [Blademistress] of her era left a line in the grass that stretched a thousand feet. The cut went so far down that an Antinium Worker stared straight up out of the Hive up at the woman.

“How curious. So that’s what it was.”

Zeladona smiled at the Worker—but he had no blades. She had come here for blades. Zeladona rose, and she lifted her sword.

“Who shall be first?”

No one moved. Then—a voice called out.

Symphony—this is the greatest performance of our lives. On me.”

The Maestro looked at Zeladona to make sure it was allowed. But she just beamed as the Drake looked around.

Figures in black, some missing limbs, formed up around him. He looked at them, and some were shaking. But the Maestro simply produced a longsword and held it at his side.

His magical conductor’s wand had changed into the sword, and Zeladona’s smile widened. There was no thought in the Maestro’s mind to obey the laws of the quest. If he had time, he would have put on armor.

“Symphony—walk with me.”

They bunched up. Not shoulder-to-shoulder, but in a mob. Walking together, blades at the ready. The [Blademistress] stared the Maestro in the eyes—then she began to walk.

You have the honor of seeing it. Be it so coarse as to speak a Skill aloud—come, singers of deadly little lullabies.”

Symphony slowed—then sped up. They advanced, and the First Flute’s hands were shaking on the hilts of her sheathed daggers. Zeladona had not drawn her blade—it was somehow resheathed at her waist.

“Your best Skills. Play—we shall never know a greater performance than this.”

That was all the Maestro said. His voice shook. His claw tightened on the longsword hilt, and the world around Symphony narrowed until Zeladona filled the entire world. She strolled towards them, hand on her sword’s hilt.

They were about two dozen feet away when Symphony struck as one. The First Flute’s blades cleared their sheaths.

[Blade Art: Execution of D-Minor].

Her daggers came out like a song. A falling crescendo with two notes. One—straight for Zeladona’s head. The other to ram through her chest.

The First Flute closed the two-dozen feet in a blink of an eye, and the cuts could have rent through a [Knight]’s enchanted armor without slowing. It never occurred to her to pull her attacks or try to save Erin Solstice’s life.

Sixty [Assassins] did the same. Sword arts, spear dances—their most deadly attacks. They took aim for Zeladona, and the Maestro’s sword cleared its sheath.

But he—he alone wavered. For he saw Zeladona lean out of the way of the First Flute’s first dagger strike. She twirled the katana up as she unsheathed it.

[Lightning Iai]. A move from Drath. An unsheathing of the sword so fast it sundered the First Flute’s second knife, and the bolt of lightning arced down from the skies and hit the Drake mid-step.

He saw the perfect move send his great performer down in a single strike—but the Maestro also saw Zeladona draw a pair of daggers she had stolen from Shriekblade and cut the air.

A vortex sucked in the poisonous gas—and she swung her daggers across the world. Sundered it as they slashed upwards into a smile—

[Dagger Art: Grin of the Vortex].

The First Trumpet wasn’t even close to the tears in space, but they ripped the Gnoll’s fur out, left his eyes bloodshot, him bleeding from every orifice from the sheer pull until the rifts closed.

He saw these two things, you see. The Maestro. Then he saw one of the members of the choir leaping at Zeladona.

Zeladona—who leapt and spun and twisted, and her sword cleared the air.

[Leap of Twin Swallows]—a shortsword dove down in two places.

A body, cut. 

Each strike was beautiful. Each Skill—mastered. Learned, not simply acquired from levels. And Zeladona did them all simultaneously.

Sixty [Assassins]. Sixty counter attacks. It looked to the Maestro as if Zeladona were going for a walk. Simply…strolling forwards. But simultaneously, activating sixty Skills and cutting down each and every member of Symphony.

All at once and independently. It took just a heartbeat, but each blow played out as fast as they should. And she was coming towards him.

“[Walk of the Blademaster, Path of Legends].”

That was what it meant. A sheer display of insurmountable talent. The Maestro relaxed. And smiled.

“You are the most beautiful being in the entire world.”

Then he put a claw on his blade. He drew his sword, and the entire world sang in a narrowing crescendo of music as he strode towards her. First prestissimo, then allegro, adagio…

 

——

 

The Maestro left a trail in the Floodplains where bare grass had been cut into beautiful patterns after his sword art.

But he fell, with the rest of Symphony, as Zeladona walked. Her Skill took a breath, a second, and it carried her a hundred feet.

Then she sheathed her katana, and the Maestro lay with blood running across his suit. But his smile—

“Next.”

Symphony didn’t get up. The [Blademistress] looked around—and she was after them all. Not just [Assassins]. Someone had to stop her.

As if she saw the magic moving across the ground, Zeladona’s hair swung around, and she shook her head.

“No magic. You did not shed blood. You were not worthy.”

A foot touched the ground, and then she was gone. She vanished—and a thousand paces away, the first words of a spell—

“[Chain Light—”

Zeladona removed her sword from Grimalkin’s raised claw before he felt the pain. The tip of the sword had run straight through his raised palm. She stepped back and looked at him as he froze.

“A warning.”

The heads were still swiveling towards her, their blank stares changing to fear, when someone pushed themselves up—faced that monster, that impossible woman.

“This is—”

Zevara was on her feet. She exhaled—and the woman leapt, twisting her torso over the flames. Zeladona landed, and the Watch Captain raised her blade. She jabbed with it, intending to twist and cut it up.

To her surprise, the [Blademistress] seemed—slow. She still moved like quicksilver and slowly unsheathed the katana, deflecting Zevara’s jab along the emerging blade. Zevara tried to cut across Zeladona’s—Erin’s—neck. But the woman just raised the hilt of her sword, catching Zevara’s longsword across the katana.

“—No.”

That was all Zevara heard. A faint hint of disappointment in that voice and those eyes. The two were locked at the blades, but Zeladona’s katana, aimed down, just flicked up.

Fast—but again, she shouldn’t have been visible.

It still cut Zevara, a blade slashing up across one armpit and the bottom of her jaw. She stumbled, fell over—and Jeiss shouted.

Watch Captain! [Sword Art: The Salamander’s Tail]!

A swing—Zevara was still sinking to her knees. She would have warned Jeiss—

He was standing in front of his family, who had run after him. Zeladona saw the deadly cut coming. She looked—bored.

She planted a longsword in the grass, and Jeiss’ swing glanced off the blade as she parried his slash with a simple twist of the handle at the perfect moment. Then she drew the sword up and, holding it like a classical longsword specialist, cut down. Jeiss saw the move and went to parry and riposte across her chest.

Zeladona’s sigh was quiet. She drew the longsword across his face, cutting in a ‘z’ before he expected it. And again—

She was moving at his speed. Swinging as fast as Jeiss or Zevara could.

There was still no contest.

“Not you. You should have never wed.”

People ran as she turned from the two downed Drakes. Then, Zevara, clutching at her bloody wounds as Jeiss cried out, saw Zeladona turning to them all.

You.

She pointed—and Dame Pertheine lifted her blade.

 

——

 

Two minutes.

Dame Talia had seen Pertheine training with the other heads of the Order of Seasons. She had seen the Spring’s Warden go all-out against Knight-Commander Calirn. Even a secret duel with Voost where the two settled who was the better duelist.

The Spring’s Warden sang with her blade like the greatest [Knight] of her order, a brief song that made even Zeladona smile.

The wind itself called to the Spring’s Warden, whirling down, a cyclone upon the grasses, and she stepped in a dance with the [Blademistress] that carried her across the Floodplains. Each strike, Talia was certain, could have wounded her mortally.

At the end of it, the wind came down in a gale fit to blow down the walls of Liscor, a hurricane of winds upon the [Blademistress].

Zeladona cut the air in half, and the Spring’s Warden knelt as a hundred of Pertheine’s cuts struck air and a single reply slipped past the Dame’s ribs and gently kissed her beating heart.

The [Knight] looked up with blood on her mouth, and the [Blademistress] addressed her.

“You sang too much together. In armor, in pride. Not enough alone.”

Then she swung her sword again, and Talia knew that, in time, the Order of Seasons would replay and replay that match to see exactly what had been done, to see how to step to avoid a blow just so, and see the perfect curve.

But she could not see it right now, through the tears. Spring’s champion lay there, bleeding onto the grass.

 

——

 

—Arc of the Moon].”

A blade through steel. Zeladona looked down at the woman with one good leg, swinging a sword wildly.

She didn’t reply to Yvlon—but her shortsword kept going and swept the top of Yvlon’s metal arm off. She caught the hand—handed it to Yvlon, and walked on.

Shortsword, now. She kept picking up blades. Each one she knew the use of. But she was—inspecting the people here.

She cut through Pallass’ [Soldiers] without a word for any of them. As if searching. She paused twice, once to stare at Chaldion with a look of disappointment as the old [Strategist] stared at her.

“[Path to Victory].”

He was blind. Zeladona moved on. Three [Generals] of Pallass stood against her, and she laughed.

It was as if each encounter took longer for the people involved than…than how fast it was for those watching. She had cut through hundreds already. Then Chaldion realized what it was.

She was walking in between [Immortal Moments]. Was she—using Erin’s Skills?

She had to be. Bevussa dove down, and Onieva leapt over a collapsing General Edellein. This time, Zeladona halted.

Ah. You—

What they said to each other, then, Chaldion couldn’t hear. But Zeladona smiled. Onieva tried to dodge as Zeladona leaned over and slashed. Bevussa fell out of the sky, trailing feathers.

Was she murdering them all? Chaldion bent over Edellein—and saw the blade had gone deep in his side. But he wasn’t dead. He looked up—and he saw Zeladona looking about. Searching for something only she could see.

 

——

 

She found it in the Minotaur. He stood with one arm holding an axe. The [Blademistress] let him strike at her, leaning out of the way of each blow.

“You’re afraid for Erin. Holding back.”

Calruz’s arm was shaking. Zeladona looked so amused by the notion of it, though—Calruz barked.

“There’s no artistry in my form. No craft in my strikes.”

Not one-armed. Not with the crushing weight of a battleaxe. He meant that almost as a complaint or—challenge.

For answer, the Stitch-woman tossed aside the rapier she’d picked up. She picked up a battleaxe like his—an exact replica, dripping with frost, from the grass. It looked—heavy—and she swung it up, and the body she wore actually stumbled.

“Minotaur. It is not in the subtlety of every strike. It is knowing and perfection such as that [Lieutenant of Perfection] could not understand with a class alone. Come.”

She walked at him. Shouldering the heavy axe. He hesitated—and saw the death in her gaze. So he heaved his axe up and charged.

They swung their axes at the exact same time. She was as fast as he was, matching his strength for strength.

But somehow—Calruz was the one who went reeling backwards, and he stared at the shattered axe blade as she stood over him.

“Like that.”

Then she brought the axe down.

 

——

 

The Swordsman of Six did not impress her in the same way. She looked at the floating blades and sneered at the five artifacts and the Relic-class greatsword.

“You are a swordsman indeed, no master.”

“I—am an adventurer.”

He roared and drew his greatsword up, dubbed the Fang of Manus. Zeladona drew her shortsword back in an exaggerated motion, behind her back—and the two blades collided. Zeter was braced for the impact. But all he felt was a ringing in his blade—then his greatsword wavered.

She left the steel shortsword halfway through it. As she walked on, he grabbed the long dagger. He swiveled—and she did too, Zevara’s longsword in her hand.

The Swordsman of Six kept rotating and then fell over in the grass. Zeladona lowered the blade and then looked up.

“Why are you crying, girl?”

“I’m unworthy again.”

Pekona lifted her wakizashi, and Zeladona looked at her.

[Blademasters] are equally unworthy. In life—I would have cut your arm off. I mastered art, not kindness. Show me.”

There was no confidence in the song that came from the [Blade Dancer]. She had seen Toren dance, and he had done it for the sheer joy of it, with talent, and humbled her. She expected Zeladona to end it with a single blow, take another arm, but the [Blademistress] parried each strike roughly, using force to turn Pekona’s slashes.

“Stop—face me in a dance!”

The Drathian woman shouted in outrage as Zeladona fought her like a [Knight], turning blows with brute strength and simple deflection. For answer, the woman raised her sword up and rained down blows on Pekona, breaking her guard, taking away the artifice of it.

“The destination is the same.”

She raised her sword high overhead, angled down around her back, and Pekona saw it. When Zeladona brought it down, the simple Terandrian form looked beautiful again. She buried the blade in Pekona’s shoulder and left it there.

“Try this blade. Try them all. You’ve only ever sung with the melody of home.”

 

——

 

She knew all their capabilities, all their strength. But three times she drew her sword and fought.

The first—was against Ksmvr. He looked at her, shaking, and she laughed.

“Your silver blooms!”

She cut him down with the key-schools of Samal, the paradise. Then she turned.

And you are the heart of it. What happened to you, great one?

Klbkch stopped. He spoke haltingly.

“I died. [Recaptured Sublimity]. Shall we?”

Zeladona bared her teeth.

Show me something even I have never seen before!

Her leap left a physical arc in the air, a deadly cut that remained for minutes thereafter. At first, she moved so fast she was a glittering blur—and their battle could not be seen. But to them, it looked as though Klbkch had created a world of silver falsity and lured her in—but she fell like a comet, breaking apart his illusions, seeing through the heart of even glittering artifice. He had never met someone like her, and he felt regret in every line of his exchange.

My body—

You fight like you’ve lost it.

The two locked blades, and Klbkch stared at Zeladona. Her teeth bared—

He leapt, and she thrust a blade up. She stabbed towards the very rising moon, and Klbkch realized something.

I should have—

—adapted after losing it.

He landed, and his swords rang. Rang and rang as he had never heard them, like the chimes of an insect’s shell, so loudly that he feared they might break. Zeladona saluted his blades. He raised his swords, but his Skill burnt out.

A bug with blades now, he lowered his weapons and stepped back. But he remembered it—in the very depths of his soul and began to realize how dull his heart had been without polishing it. Zeladona looked wistful—but in that moment, someone who was merely observing made a sound.

 

——

 

“Oh. Oh!”

Even Valeterisa had been watching, though she had no taste for mere swordsmanship. But the magic Zeladona used with her mastery of the blade was beyond even the Archmage of Izril. Yet it was seeing her and Klbkch fight that crystallized something in Valeterisa’s head.

The Wind Runner’s hints with her magic that had no Skill or level behind it. Seeing Eldavin as he had first come to Wistram—

And now, Valeterisa clapped her hands together as it all made sense.

“Of course! It should also be elegant! It should have always made sense. Numbers that fit, not memorization. But magic must be beautiful. Form matters as much as function. Like the clocks! Without both—”

Her great work looked so ugly, now. But if it must look beautiful—she saw a path open up in her head. And she began to chase it. If intention were the blocks upon which she built to her goal—the route there was like a bridge under silver moonlight, illuminated by art.

Art…as Zeladona would agree, was in everything you could do. She was, like a [Potter] at the kiln or a [Carver] laying hands upon a chisel, someone who refined and worked and endlessly pursued a higher ideal. Klbkch had been a wonderful surprise—if only she had met him when he was in his prime.

Surely, then, after that, the [Blademistress] would beam with delight when she saw the half-Elf waiting for her. Eldavin stood there, and his blade traced the same schools she breathed in every motion.

All she did was frown.

“You—”

 

——

 

Eldavin’s blade slammed into Liscor’s walls. He tried a sword art—but he didn’t have the Skill, and the [Blademistress] who leapt over the walls, changing her trajectory through the air with a wave of her sword, landed.

She completed her thought after forty-five seconds of matching him. And her face was puzzled. Then—hostile.

You know the song and the words. But you don’t practice. You sing loudly, but you have not earned it. You don’t deserve this.”

“I—”

They met once more, and he tried to roar like a Dragon upon the battlefield. Spread a wing like flame and cut the world with fire.

A dance of swords that descended from the heavens and left nothing in its wake. Like Dragonfire spun into sheer artistry and talent, footwork, blade, and body all moving in a single melody.

He couldn’t. His mind knew the steps—but Zeladona was that thing that Eldavin’s memory had copied. And she—

She burned in that dance of Dragons and left scars on Liscor’s wall, and she demonstrated how it should be. A simple broadsword in her hands turned white with heat, but refused to melt, and a [Smith] screamed, for here was the worthiest wielder of his craft that he had ever found!

His grandfathers would have forged a sword for her.

But not Eldavin. His sword suddenly felt clumsy in his hands as Zeladona finished the dance.

“You did not master this—whomever you are. You are a Skill incarnate. All borrowed power, no form of your own. But even masters elevate Skills. You have earned nothing.”

He tried to deny it with a sweeping step of his blades, tried to copy a tapestry of falling strikes like stars.

Zeladona nailed Eldavin’s shoulder into Liscor’s wall with such force that the sword snapped. The woman turned away.

“Raise that blade in my presence and I will take your head off.”

 

——

 

On and on. Jewel and Pisces fenced her, and she held a rapier, laughing with delight and mocking their failings.

She cut them down.

Possibly, she didn’t know any other way. Possibly—that was Zeladona’s teaching method. Maybe she just wanted to. She believed only in blood. She might have been…a bit of a bastard in life.

Thrice, she fought with light in her eyes, wild and excited, seeing something new, testing their limits—once that excitement turned to frustration and contempt.

But three more times she bowed.

Once, to the thing no one saw, thin air—and bowed deeply.

“Master, will you not fight with me? Even if you will not dance this day away? To you—I could give you what is so richly deserved. Perhaps. Will you not dare it and try?”

She was excited, then, and the [Blademistress] looked almost as if she might weep when—apparently—the answer was no. As if a challenge had been denied her.

Perhaps she was a marionette, dancing to someone else’s tune—but if so, one that didn’t mind the strings so long as she was allowed to dance once more.

The second time, a look of great confusion passed over her face. She halted—and a Goblin holding two swords, one red and famous, looked at her.

“A monster sings? Hah! I thought your ilk long dead.”

So said Zeladona. For when she had lived—his kind had only been legends, hunted. She looked down mockingly at him, and the Goblin lifted his head.

Redscar exhaled as sweat chilled across his body. But what he said to that eternal refrain was this:

“You people always try. Again and again—fight me, great warrior.”

A great sneer came over Zeladona’s face. She was offended—until the Goblin lifted his blades. Then she looked at him as he came off the ground.

Like a great bird from a people she had never dreamed of, stepping carefully, spreading two wings of red feathers.

She had seen better. She had seen faster. Zeladona struck him with steel once, with impatience, and the heron flinched not at all. He struck back, and with such pride—

He sang a song he had taught himself, an echo of the Chieftain he had served. It ran in his bones and his blood. It sounded—

Beautiful.

Zeladona was no longer mocking, then, as Redscar knelt. Not because he had been bested—but because he could no longer move. And he cursed his body for betraying him.

A look of concern crossed over the [Blademistress]’ face. She touched her heart—as if the body she possessed were in pain—and then at her eyes, as if searching for scales fallen from them.

“No. He sings. And a purer song than…”

Her eyes swung over Zeter, over Eldavin, and the warriors she had left in her path. Zeladona stood over Redscar, in confusion, and a sudden understanding swept over her face.

—Then she bowed her head.

“Had I been alive to realize this truth—I had never faced a Goblin in my years. No wonder your kind refused to die. Stand, one last time, warrior. And show me how you would die.

In that moment—perhaps—she did Erin Solstice a greater favor than all this carnage and misery. Her words forced the Goblin to his feet by willpower alone, and she saluted him.

A great bird spread his wings upon the Floodplains, a fledgling yet growing. But he—he might fly one day.

Zeladona walked on, letting him collapse in her wake. And she looked for them, strange beasts and exotic creatures. Real beings amid a world of fakery and Skills. Had they but lived—the [Champion of War], Salui, and the [Sword Legend] trapped in a Revenant’s body would have wept with joy to meet someone like her. Just as she had wept to see Sprigaena. But on Zeladona searched, for seeds and creatures she knew. She found few.

 

——

 

Not a [Paragon]. Not a Watch Captain or all but one [General]. Not in the [Spearmasters] three—for they were either complacent, finished with ambition, or already searching. Zeladona was looking for something, and when she touched it in them, she kissed them with steel and gave them her blessing.

Ressa stood next to Lord Tyrion Veltras and the people of the north. First went Colth, and she smiled like him—two demons lashing each other with blades until he fell again.

“Sinister warrior, you had a fine teacher. Keep practicing. Come now, girl of shadows.”

Ressa went next, with Reynold, and she felt a hint of remorse. For Zeladona looked so regretful as she knocked Ressa’s hand down and caught the dagger.

“You could have walked this road. And you didn’t. What a waste.

“Sometimes—you want to help someone more than yourself.”

The tip of the sword was running up through Ressa’s chin, tickling the bottom of her tongue. Zeladona withdrew the dagger and flicked it aside.

“Then I have nothing to say. Because I was always alone. And the sword was all I ever wanted. Come, child of Trolls. Show me courage. You last of all, lord of the woods.

She and Durene locked blades for a moment, and all the strength of the hills couldn’t move Zeladona’s arm as she let Durene have one blow against a raised greatsword—then answered in kind. When she turned, Lord Tyrion Veltras looked the second ghost he had met in the eyes and nodded.

He lifted his sword, and his shield too. Confused—no, earnestly. And Zeladona bent down and picked up a shield.

Oh, stranger. Oh, man trapped in a boy’s body. Oh, child—have you never seen art with sword and shield?

“I’ve seen it with a lance—but never sword and shield. Show me. Please.”

So she struck her shield with the sword’s hilt, and then she raised the shield overhead as he brought down a sword with all his might. Ylawes Byres, Ysara, and Tyrion Veltras rained down blows against a wall of steel higher than the Walled Cities, thicker than Facestealer’s bones—and as light as a feather.

Ere she cut them down, she showed them it didn’t matter. Shield—sword—spear—knives or greatsword. There was art of it, buried at the bottom of each. But she did cut them down. As the [Lord] of House Veltras raised his shield, she pressed a blade through it, through his arm, and watched him finally lay down.

Just as promised. Only at the end, as the woman looked around and saw no more foes to behold, did she seem to wake up from a dream.

“Ah. Is that it? Is that it? So short—so sweet!”

She held a hand up.

“I would give anything for…but I owe her my death. Alas, I see it now. And I am done.”

She blinked a few times. Passed a hand over her head and staggered, then looked down ruefully.

“So this is what a body of flesh is like? I was so afraid it might come apart at the seams—even more than cloth!”

The woman was standing on Tyrion’s back. She glanced down.

“Stranger, you have longer than I. Damn you. I give you nothing but—”

She spat on his head.

“—envy. Cherish your years. Would I another decade even in age! I envy half-Elves! I wish I had sat at the feet of her, the origin of this all, and worshiped her and begged her to learn!

She almost cried, staring at the image of an Elf only she could see. Now—Zeladona’s presence was wavering, and she was coming more to herself. But even she could sense she was—

What happened then? Names…places…who called me here? Erin…I should repay her. Has she any enemies? You—tell me whom this girl hates, and I will kill them.”

She looked around, pointed at Drassi, and the [Reporter] and [Camera Gnoll] stared at her, frozen. Frustrated now and looking almost panicked, Zeladona whirled around.

“Beautiful land. For a meal—what year is this? Who are you? Who are you?”

She stared at Selys, then Tyrion, as if she had never thought to ask. Zeladona was growing—erratic. But as her head cleaved left and right and Drassi realized she might be in more danger right now—Zeladona froze.

She turned to the last person and appeared. She kicked the ground, and it was like teleportation—that was how fast she moved. What could she do in this time? Chaldion was calling out.

“You need to kill—to kill—

He was trying to stride over to her, but one look at his face and a dozen hands, paws, and claws held him back. Everyone in earshot stopped the Drake. Chaldion fought with them.

It didn’t matter. Zeladona was reaching out to someone, entreating.

“Show it to me. Please? I shan’t hurt you.”

She was, of course, talking to Ryoka Griffin. It was always Ryoka Griffin—but Zeladona barely looked at the Courier. She was staring at…

The Windsword. The famous Kaalblade that Ryoka Griffin had been gifted by Lord Deilan El. When Zeladona saw it spring to life, she cut it in half—saw the light fade, and tears sprang to her eyes.

Ryoka could not make it work for her in that short time, but the [Blademistress] bowed then. She bowed over the blade and gazed at it so wonderingly.

“Another hundred years. There is no school for this! No—there is, there surely is! Wars fought I daren’t dream of! Mysteries left…if only. Damn you!

She rose and shouted at the sky.

Damn you! But enough. If only I had—

She uttered the eternal refrain of ghosts and then raised her hand. A great calm passed over her, and the air hushed. Zeladona cut nothing more. She just stood there, weary, and nodded.

“Yes. Yes. Here you are, Miss. Catch her, ere I go.”

Zeladona stepped closer to Ryoka Griffin, and the Wind Runner lifted two shaking hands. But the [Blademistress of Ancients] seemed to be counting something, nodding along.

“Yes, each one. Yes and yes…may I not say…? Damn you twice upon Dragons’ scales, then. And thank you, if aught can be said to one such as…yes.”

She didn’t seem there anymore. But as she faded—Zeladona said one last thing. She wrinkled Erin Solstice’s nose, looking at something with a huge frown.

“Who? Oh. I care it not. I know how it would be—but these things happen. I would cut down those who dishonored my festival and trials—but I am not living, am I? No, I would not always cut down one. It varies. Such things do. Let him go, then. Punishment? I care it not. I…”

Then, though she would doubtless have liked more words, more time, and more deeds, Zeladona Ischen sighed.

Just a sigh. The longest sigh in the world. It was more than breath. It was…everything. Leaving the young woman who collapsed without a word into Ryoka’s arms.

Erin Solstice stared out of her own eyes again—and then it really was over.

Zeladona’s Trial of a Thousand Blades, the <Heroic Quest> of Liscor, came to a close. It had left surprisingly few dead. Far too many wounded.

But however the blood.

However the grief.

Despite the carnage and senselessness and the travails of it all—

From that day, her name echoed. And when you looked at her, caught by magic, her image reflected across an [Innkeeper]’s face, for a second, you could see her raise that sword.

No one was worthy of Zeladona’s great Skill. But it echoed.

 

——

 

In the Minotaur’s mind, as he was led back to the army’s camp, one-armed, without salvation, redemption, or punishment. Yet—he was ashamed that he reveled in the glory of it.

Ashamed that a pair of mice made his heart warm, that he still clung to the cheers and the words burning in his mind.

 

[Skill – He Left Pride in His Wake learned.]

 

——

 

It came to the [Blade Dancer] as she lay, clutching her blades, and word came from her very [Emperor] to safeguard the katana that Zeladona had touched, to send it back to be enshrined as a relic. Once again—no, for the first time after she had knelt before a Drake in an undead body, she dreamed.

 

[Skill – She Danced in Moonlight’s Grace learned.]

 

——

 

In the grasp of Spring. Though she was unworthy of it—though fell deeds had been done and the consequences might not be mended, as the Archmage of Memory bore her back to her Order, she lay there and heard a voice that brought a tear to her own eyes.

And she was resolved to repay the Goblin of her suspicion, make amends. She had called him, ‘knight’, but still held him at arm’s length. Until now, for she had heard and seen much that shook her. The Warden of Spring had a winter’s chill upon her, though, but Spring worked hardest in the cold.

 

[Skill – When She Drew Her Blade: Time Fled Her learned.]

 

——

 

And last—last of all, the last thing that came from Zeladona herself, not some impartial arbiter, not from their own struggles and realizations, but from her, to the worthy—and she might have selected any or all, but she did judge fairly, so only chose four—

The last voice came to the Hobgoblin who lay slumbering against his Carn Wolf. And he alone had thought this entire affair was great and glorious and how it should be. The Hobgoblin bared his teeth, and his red paint—and scars—were so intermingled he could not tell the difference sometimes.

He alone thought this had been an excellent day.

 

[Skill – He Walked and Shadows Split learned.]

 

——

 

And then? Well…the [Innkeeper] lay in her bed, and this time, she couldn’t move at all. She lay there—and the world changed and talked, and there was much to do.

But what could trump this? What else could come besides—please—a break? A breath of fresh air and all the rest in the world?

Perhaps only—

Christmas.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note:

I’ve come to a conclusion of late. When I am calm, the writing is calm. The pacing, style, is calmer. When I am stressed, near the end of a writing cycle or the year, I write chapters that become frantic, rushing forwards.

Writing imitates life. And so, depending on my energy, mood, the tone of the story changes. Being calm is good. It doesn’t mean the plot moves slow; if anything it might be incisive, fast-paced, and hopefully even elegant at times.

When I am tired—as of now—the writing can border on manic. It certainly might affect the level of prose—and by prose, I mean descriptions, my ability to set the scene, and so on.

Like a heartbeat, I suppose. Your heart can be beating a mile a minute while you run slow or fast. Your pace is not always connected to your experience.

…Does this analogy make sense? I’ve written about 90,000 words in six days. I hope it is good. One Christmas chapter left—and hopefully I can finish Volume 1. Throw all the energy into the fire and create something good.

Good and fast. I have done all I can in the time I had, and I hope you enjoy it. Enjoy it—again, different from always being happy and reassured. Thanks for reading and hope you’re doing well.

—pirateaba

 

Gargoyles and Gargoyle Bossels by Enuryn the [Naturalist]!

 

Hold Still by pkay!

 

Tesy the [Maid]? A proposed way to pay off the crimes, by butts!

Twitter: https://twitter.com/buttscord

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

 

Tesy [Maid], Christmas, Suprised Pikachu aba and…by Brack!

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

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

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Brack_Giraffe

 

 

The Maestro and Peki the Blade by Fiore!

Twitter:https://twitter.com/atlasphenomenon

Ko-fi: https://ko-fi.com/fiorepandaphen

 


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90 thoughts on “9.30

  1. Leave a typo for the greatest tournament of blades in the world…that Peki was not allowed to participate in!

    (Peki fans: MrWiggles, Quynin, Gorexn, Litwickee, Coleopteris, Captdeth, Maladal, ChronoMager, Aliased, WuvWoo, Robb, emphes)

    • and while the block threw him back Dragonblood sword cracked slightly -> back and his Dragonblood sword (or something other change, but something is missing as written)

      • My goodness, I’ve literally made Elementary-level mistake. That’s 20+ hours of wakefullness for you.
        A one-armed [Blade Dancer].

    • “And he had no morality.

      Eldavin, that was. Taletevirion knew that the half-Elf probably considered himself moral—but it was a man’s mortality with no wisdom of age behind it.” – ‘mortality’ -> ‘morality’

    • As if the afterimage of her were Erin.

      This should either be afterimages (plural) or “of her was Erin.”

      She was tall, long-armed, and when she looked out, her back was slightly hunched over, as if standing tall were wrong.

      This is more of a discretionary edit but the “were wrong” should be “was wrong” to mirror “she was tall” and match tenses etc.

      • No, in both these cases _were_ is in an irrealis mode (“_as if_ [X] were [Y]” describes a hypothetical, non-factual condition) traditionally called the _past subjunctive_, and therefore is correct even in the third person (or first, for that matter: “If I were you…”). This is a subtle part of English grammar that is easy to forget (or never notice in the first place), since _to be_ is the only verb in modern English to have a specific form for it instead of using the past tense (or perhaps rather, to have separate past tense forms distinguishable from it) – but it is still considered grammatically correct.

  2. A very good chapter, the blade mistress of ancients final dance. I must admit I’m very excited for the next chapter. I assume it is the Christmas chapter post on what will me Christmas eve. Considering even thing that’s happened Eran will probably level. We might even get a double level, and she hit the second major milestone level 50. Well we will see, AHHHHHHH I can’t wait.

  3. I expected a tournament where one on one battles would be fought and old enemies would pour their hearts out, but instead I got carnage. The shift in tone around the middle was quite chilling, I was afraid that it would keep snowballing into complete annihilation, this definitely sets the precedent that it wont be so easy to mass-level everyone, its as if the past attempts were like videogame exploits, handing levels out like candy– there will be reprecussions for this. Aside from the four that got something did anyone else learn anything? I’m curious as how this would change them. Certainly this was one way of avoiding all out war, by literally leaving every faction incapacitated. What will the fallout be?

    It was incredible to see Zeladona come alive. And it was also interesting to see the Geneva copies (apostles?) travel so far to spread medicine, I see them playing a big role in against the half-elf with the long name. Perhaps Christmas wont be entirely happy or restful, as the fallout has yet to hit. Will there be a Balto-esque conflict? Running against time and the elements (and the half-elf) to save the sick? Will we have our first steps at catharsis from grudges and blood feuds? What twist will Christmas bring? Thank you for your writing, and I hope you rest well!

    • Agh, adding to the fallout, I forgot about Halrac! What will Erin and his team’s reaction be? It’s not gonna be pretty. Talk about consequences for a quest, goes to show that these things aren’t to be treated so casually like that chess tourney. There are stakes and I love that!

      • Also, that characterization of the Maestro at the beginning was surprisingly poignant and unexpected. For all his spiel about the sanctity of art in the previous chapter, it was the gaudy yet deeply personal memory that made him take the contract. Did he have a deeper connection with the Wall Lord? They were best friends as they all say. I appreciate add that nuance to his character. He’s still a bastard of course, but he has depth!

        • I read that as the Maestro and his friend being partners that couldn’t be in an official relationship because of Drake stigma

      • Really? I thought those people that were healing and stitching the injured were the Geneva clones. That sequence was a bit unclear for me, might reread.

  4. Holy moly, did Halrac get erased from existence?

    Erin offered everyone Christmas, but noooo everyone wanted blood. “;..;”

    Thanks for the story!

  5. First off, that was awesome and bloody. 2nd off, HALRAC NOOOOOOO! 3rd off, I’m going to pray to one of them if Erin doesn’t get something good for Christmas after going through all this.

  6. Who was that Undead drake that Pekona knelt before? I might have missed or forgotten something..
    Also theres an inkling in me that these four will somehow be liked to future narrative progression, perhaps Drath is coming sooner than we think…

    • The [Blademaster] Revenant from the Village of the Dead raid. He cut off Pekona’s arm. She has read shit luck with dead people…or maybe great luck? She got a skill here and Toren did gift her team a relic.

  7. Ysara was quite conspicuous with her absence in the telling of the melee this chapter–especially since she apparently survived to the end.

    This is like referencing the gun on the shelf and then actually ignoring it completely.

  8. The blade marks left on Liscors wall due to Zeladona and Eldavin’s fight should be a landmark lol. Just like from those wuxia stories where some grandmaster leaves their swordskill through cuts on a cave wall waiting to be understood by a lucky student, perhaps blade enthusaists and warriors would flock to Liscor now to gleam something from it all.

  9. I actually didn’t like this.
    This was OKAY and exciting and showing off a lot and fun but ultimately… Samey. We have seen this before. But this time the merging of characters and plotpoints was, by design of the quest, unnatural and sudden. And thus the magic was a bit gone for me and most perspectives felt just a bit formulaic.
    I think I don’t want to see a lot of BIG NAMES at the same place for a while now.
    Also being a part of the quest trumps your soul being consumed forever, good to know.

  10. Why would Chaldion order Pallas to attack the Antinium? He knows he can’t kill them due to the nature of the quest. So, maiming is the best he can do, but he must know that Antinium can regrow body parts.

    He’s going senile.

    • Probably to guarantee that none of them even remotely had a chance at an insanely good Skill. Chaldion did screw up but I think he assumed things wouldn’t have been so chaotic and messy. Seems like most people were assuming it would be more of a tournament than the mayhem that it was.

      • I thought “He was blind” was because he couldn’t see a path to victory with his skill.

        Though, I suppose, Zeladona would think that relying on skills without elevating them with your mastery is blinding yourself.

      • Probably Az’Kerash. It’s why he was trying to walk closer to her. He didn’t want to shout the name in front of the scrying orbs.

    • Politics.

      The Walled Cities want the ants damaged and he had to put his troops to do it because nobody else had an army to do it. Same reason why Licsor couldn’t throw Magnus or the human who sent an army at their city walls in jail… Politics.

      It was simply ‘cheaper’ to support the walled cities and do some damage to the ants rather than the economic or political pressure they would have received if they didn’t. Politics tend to suck like that.

    • To be fair he probably wanted to kill them before he knew the consequences of the quest. Then decided to settle for maiming. It’s shitty, but with a big enough numbers advantage and no faith skills he just figured he could roll the ants, get some levels, and not risk important people. Will fodder get cut up? Sure…but they are fodder and Chaldion cares about his society more than it’s people.

  11. How will Eran handle the consequences of this, both of the deathless massacrer, and Zeladona using her body.

    (Bet a level 50 general got nothing on a level 84 blademisstress.)

    How will Eran deal with Chaldean and his many violations of basic decency. As well as what we can only assume was him trying to get Zeladona to attack the Antinum.

    Also how hard was Askarash kicked, and what will Halracks punishment be.

    (Sorry about the miss-spelling I am bad with spelling.)

    • Backlash probably won’t be as bad this time. The Zeladona simulacrum thing was carried out by the system. The supervising force always knew that it had temporarily cranked up Erin’s limits. Sserys possessed Erin by cheating and confused the system into thinking he was alive.

    • She has a RED CLASS, all her life was dedicated to the path of the sword. Imagine the countless number of people she killed just because they weren’t dedicated enough to the blade.

      • I don’t think [Blademistress of Ancients] is a red class.

        The first message was an error, so it was red. The second was the system accepting that error as input, and was grey. The third, the creation of a new, temporary being, was blue. The class appeared in all three of those lines, in the same color as the rest of the line.

      • I don’t think she actually had a red class, so much as the system erroring. It first shows up as white, then red, then white, then becomes a blue condition on Erin.

  12. Alot of stuff in my life is not great, and I want to thank you for writing this series. It is one of the things I really look forward too.

    • “Who? Oh. I care it not. I know how it would be—but these things happen. I would cut down those who dishonored my festival and trials—but I am not living, am I? No, I would not always cut down one. It varies. Such things do. Let him go, then. Punishment? I care it not. I…”

      … signs point to “getting punished, but not dead.”

    • Zeladona told the system at the end to bring him back it seems like. Idk if it decided on a punishment though, she was pretty ambivalent

  13. This chapter left me speechless, from the excitement in the beginning with all the faces showing up, to the growing dread when all started and all the grudges and hatred started to emerge, and finally the awesome climax with Zeladona. I really hope Halrac is okay. Maybe we had more darkness coming, but with a Chrismas chapter and now that everyone has acted on their grudges i hope Erin manages in someway to plant seeds of forgiveness and empathy in everyone, including herself.

    Shout out to Magnolia, as i haven’t seen her mentioned in other comments, even with her faults it is one of the few characters that keeps fighting for peace on the grand scale and she deserves some wins, her talk with Taletevirion was emotive and it was telling that it was the only thing that managed to get him to act and care.

    • Same here, I’m glad Magnolia got some W’s in this arc. She’s not as insuffrable when she’s actually doing something good for once, it’s great to see her cooperate with people instead of strong-arming everyone to get her way.

    • I read that as Magnolia suffering from some very serious self doubt and needing a bit of a bolster from an immortal.

      I liked Ryoka’s interaction with him more. Taletevirion is blown away by her arrogance, but in this particular case, she actually has quite a bit of leg to stand on. He smelled the various immortal beings on her and saw the touch of fae (she could even see and hear him). She’s trying to bring back the dryads, and even knows where to find a seed. It’s a shame they went back to being judgmental of one another instead of bonding of Teriarch being a shitty friend. He knows what she’s been up to, as he has a comment on her (human) love life. The unicorn’s parting shot of “I won’t remember you” was straight up bullshit.

      I’m guessing Magnolia’s purple “get off your ass” speech will bring Taletevirion back to Ryoka once he’s done stabilizing people. When you consider Magnolia’s “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit,” with the Unicorn’s “But it seems—I somehow managed to outlive even the trees,” and Ryoka’s dryad seed, it feels a bit inevitable. It still might not happen, but that’s some heavy duty foreshadowing.

      … Also, Taletevirion, my man, she has impossible-to-cut foot wraps now, she’s not totally barefoot. Chill with the feet hate.

      • I liked the parallel between Ryokas and Taletevirion.
        Taletevirion told Teri that he Does not care about mortals and the world anymore. And now Ryoka told him she Does not care about immortals anymore.
        He Just got his own attitude showed down his throat and it rankled.

  14. I love the hints and possible foreshadowing we are getting!

    It seems people’s perception of the system has shifted over time.

    There has been much discussion in these reddit threads talking about how inn world has lagged behind technologically and has lost so much due to its reliance on the skills of high level individuals and how civilization or production is often reset because when people die their skills go with them.

    However, looking at big scary swordsman Z, it seems that in her time, skills weren’t a crutch so much as a learning tool. I get the feeling when you got a sword skill or a magic skill in her time, you practiced it, and learned how to do it yourself (without activating the skill), essentially giving yourself a model as a teaching tool to figure out how to do something new. This would make the system meant as a means to learn things yourself as an individual as opposed to just being able to do cool things.

    There are 2 other sentences that I believe give credence to this- 1) how she disparaged big E for using the skills he had inherited without practicing them himself and really understanding what he was doing. 2) in a previous chapter it was mentioned that there are people who knew the word incubation period in innworld, but most of them learned it as they got skills to deal with spreading plagues. This again is showing how the system could be used as a teaching tool to fill in knowledge and skill gaps- not to replace them, but to show the individual the next step or what they should learn next- a bit like getting a hint in wordly/ or reading your teachers syllabus to see what you should learn in the next module.

    to further said example: A person who got a new plague skill that included the incubation time would then realize that his other plagues also had incubation time, and would now know that this is something to look into when he is looking at a new one that wasn’t skill generated. This is also knowledge he could share with others furthering societies understanding of plagues- perhaps even leading to people discovering germ theory either as individuals or as a society.

    If people had used the system as I just described in the past- a lot less knowledge would be lost from generation to generation as people would understand the core principles behind the skills of the greats and these would not be lost when the best of the best died.

    Imagine, the reason the world is waning is because people are using the system incorrectly. They are using it as a crutch instead of a learning tool. Waning caused by a shift in perspective.

    • It’s that and it’s also a way of rewarding mortals who do great things. You can get your own Skill, something uniquely you. Skills can teach, but they can also reward someone for trying something different, or walking down their own path.

  15. This chapter would’ve been solid 9-9.4/10 if not for the Erin’s most horrible Christmas advertisement. This is second ‘Erin Idiocy Moment’ in a row–the first being her fight and becoming hostage– and I can’t ignore it despite the second half of this chapter. 7/10.

    • Why was the Christmas advertisement stupid? Her goal before she was taken hostage was to get Drassi to help her spread the word about Christmas. She basically forced the world to sit through a thirty minute infomercial for her holiday before she lost the world’s attention. That’s really smart.

      • Also Erin is not stupid even though she tries her hardest to look that way to catch people off guard. She knew the quest was already active and I think her christmas commercial was just a way to stall for time and prevent the bloodshed from starting. Although since Orchestra forced her hand in posting the quest she had no way to of stopping it anymore.
        I am with you that her getting taken hostage was kinda stupid of her. But it seems that she kinda learned her lesson, judging from the beginning of the chapter.
        Erin Grimalkin training montage when( apparently Orchestra can already provide the soundtrack)?

      • “30 seconds of unskippable ad make us hate the product”.
        And Erin went with 30 MINUTES of it. There is the tournament live-stream, but people have to listen to someone selling them her product. The world’s reaction should’ve been total rejection and her failure, hence I said it was stupid, but pirateaba is too kind to her.

    • I suggest you install Adblock or VPN because it seems you hate advertisements from the heart. It’s an intelligent move to literaly choke the world’s neck to listen to what she wants to advertise. It’s her main goal to tell the world about Christmas and she got that.

  16. Despite the flack about Christmas… I think it might even be more important than the tournament.

    As we saw with the Golden Triangle leader… Winter is coming and the [Jerk Parasite Gods] are getting their moment to walk around in the world again.

    Christmas is the only thing Erin can think of as a defense against them and we have seen all the damage these dead cretins can do… And Erin has four of them ready to go after her.

    She lacks a suit of Relic grade gear and weapons… So promoting A holiday that would weaken them is very important. Especially if they pull a jerk move like planting their hand next to her bed so she ‘graps it’ in her sleep.

    Or try physically forcing her against her will by grabbing it and forcing it to take their hand… Or just flat out try murdering her again.

    As for the [Quest] system… Hopefully this will prove to be a good lesson on why Erin is careful with it in trying to work out the kinks in the system rather than just upright demanding a [Quest] with no idea on what you get.

    I still loved the obvious if brutal answer “Rules? Time to start? It already started.”

      • Not sure if he would if he knows that might actually help out against the innworld gods. Erin does it because she knows it would help. Everyone else from earth might just think this is her attempt to be obvious to let others from Earth know that the Wandering Inn has someone from earth.

        It is hard to warn everyone about a threat that you are not allowed to name or fully describe.

        Still would be hilarious as it would help spread out that treasure for other people to mistaken them as part of the Golden Triangle lead suspects.

  17. What a marvelous, glorious, terrible chapter. Terrible in the old way. Heart-wrenching, difficult to watch. I loved it. Thank you, Aba.

  18. The system really is becoming sentient, this chapter had the biggest hints yet! I wish it’d let Halrac go though, the bowman of loss can’t die after saving his friend that’s too sad…

  19. Continuity error:

    “…the Maestro’s sword cleared its sheath”

    And then:

    “Then he put a claw on his blade. He drew his sword”

  20. I enjoyed the chaos of this chapter but was I the only one singing America’s “the Last Unicorn” When Taletevirion saved all those people? (Sings off key in old millennial * THE LAST UNICORN! I’M ALIIIIiiIiiIIIiiiivVEEe! I’m alive! )

  21. Intense, yet somewhat dark and sinister music involving a harpsichord? Sounds like the Mantis Lords theme from Hollow Knight. Of course, transitioning to Sisters of Battle when Zeladona shows up.

  22. Warning
    Long Comment

    Music for Foliana

    N64 Original Soundtracks of…

    Turok: The Dinosaur Hunter, Perfect Dark AND GoldenEye.

    Because she’s THAT awesome.

    Dude!

    First person shooting chapters of Three-Color Stalker completing missions for the Forgotten Wing and United Nations Companies.

    And Erin.

    Paige reverse engineers the weapon and builds hand cannons for a rogue.

    Paige figures out how to make ammo for Foliana. And a suppressor.

    Than Paige or Foliana gains a skill to make the suppressor into a silencer.

    Mission mini bosses

    Monsters in the wilderness of the Dyed Lands

    Level bosses

    Strategists, Commanders, Generals

    Final mission

    Jungle Tails HQ

    Final boss

    Peclir

    Rogue vs Spy

    Look at Captain Bird steppin up and tryina flex on E.

    As if Eldavin is gon sweat that front.

    Todi

    Boy, ain’t nobody scared of yo bitch ass.

    You know what?

    Ryoka has a lot of things missing.

    Missing piece on her ear.

    Missing fingers.

    After she delivered the cure, she lost her damn mind.

    Tekğshia,
    Nearly turned Lulv from a Spearmaster to a Speared Asshole of the city of Anus.

    With respect.

    Without the M.

    Roshal starts the 3rd Antinium war by enslaving the Grand Queen.

    The Antinium from both continents give chase.

    The Inn gets involved when Pisces gets recaptured.

    A two in one for Roshal.

    Peril gives chase too.

    In my mind, Erin is fully functional at this point and also joins the fray.

    Niers worries and decides to get the Forgotten Wing Company involved.

    The United Nations Company sees Earthers in danger and also gets involved.

    The Champions of the Harpies decide now is a perfect time to free up a lot of slaves too and sky bomb Roshal.

    Flos drops what he’s doing and declares war on Roshal alongside Fetohep.

    A great place for the Twins, United Nations Company to meet the Wandering Inn.

    Sammial to Wilovan

    “How’s that bitch of yours doing? Magnolia. Because we all know every thug needs a down ass bitch.”

    I mean

    Sammi said it because Zineryr said it.

    We all know

    If Zineryr said it, it has to be True.

    Poor Tessa.

    I can’t imagine how painful it must be to get blasted through a wall that has reinforced structure on it.

    Lady Ieka… Fuckin perbert.

    Ain’t nobody want you staring at them like a piece of meat.

    That brings to mind…

    Xevccha is STILL a damn sexy name.

    People may tell you that she’s a little overweight.

    Any real man will let you know.

    Alright.

    There’s nothing wrong with a woman with a fat ass.

    Ya know what I’m sayin?

    Hint hint

    Wink wink

    Nudge nudge

    ;D

    My chubby chasing anthem.

    “Chunky” by Bruno Mars

    “I Choose You” by Mario

    What I said about Ieka stands.

    This does NOT make me a hypocrite.

    I don’t know what you’re talking about.

    You’re crazy.

    Chut. Up

    These YT vids just make me laugh

    “The Count Song Censored”

    “Batman and Superman Team Up”

    Kermit Snaps! (Censored)”

    Calm down Homie.

    What ever did that bowl of cereal do to you?

    Ieka… fuckin perBert!

    xD

    “nearly inserted up his rectum”

    Tekshia… you foolish hilarious woman you!

    The real funny part is Lulv is probably sprinting.

    AND somehow this elderly Drake woman gets the drop on him.

    Good golly that still has me chuckling.

    Honestly!

    Who comes up with this shit!?

    ;-*

    Not gonna lie.

    Ksmvr losing it over Yvlon.

    That made me tear up.

    Touched me in such a way that I would have never done myself.

    Why in the fuck did that sound dirty!?

    Tear that ass up!

    Just. Wonderful.

    The weather outside is frightful…

    Goodness.

    It was completely worth the wait.

    Who knew Erin was into B.D.S.M.?

    Because she surely enjoys being possessed, helpless, dominated, being in pain and being in danger.

    She certainly “walks” on the wild side.

    The good gurls guide to bad gurl sex

    Zing!

    Enjoy your break.

    And.

    Fuckin RELAX!

    Stay safe.
    Hope your fam recovered from the rona with no lasting effects.

    “Good Vibrations” by Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch

  23. That joke about Badarrow! I Just noticed it on the second read.
    Other people get arrows to the knee, Badarrow gets stabbed through it!
    Good one!

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