[I am taking two updates off to finish my rewrite of Volume 1. The next chapter will be out on the 14th. Wish me luck and enjoy this chapter.]
In the darkness crept a pair of wicked little girls. The scariest creature in horror to some. Their sinister…heads…and whispering voices terrified people in the mid-shadow gloom of early night.
There was something about seeing a little figure standing there in the middle of a hallway when you didn’t expect it that could trigger instinctive fear. Certainly, Numbtongue nearly choked on his toothbrush when he saw them.
He debated telling on them, but he was more on their side than not. So he waved them off with a faint glare.
Thus, Nanette and Mrsha tip-toed through the inn, giggling now and then as they stealthed past the inn’s late-night guests and staff. They used Mrsha’s [Natural Concealment], and Nanette could be rather stealthy herself.
This was, in fact, a combination of ideas between the two. Mrsha had the idea…and Nanette said ‘why not?’. That delighted the Gnoll girl to learn that her new friend was an even bigger troublemaker than her.
They managed to get past the guardians half due to luck, half because the conditions were right.
Namely—Ishkr was on his day off. The [Head Server] was too canny to miss the two. But the Antinium weren’t as perceptive that this wasn’t allowed, and the Goblins…didn’t really care, did they?
Plus, Erin was asleep. The [Innkeeper] knew where everyone was, so she was practically impossible to fool unless she was distracted. But the signature move was Mrsha and Nanette planting the idea that Lyonette deserved a night out with Drassi, Zevara, and everyone else they could bundle into Pallass. As it turned out, Maughin and Jelaqua had decided to do a group night with Rufelt and Lasica.
The adults were fools. When Lyonette, tipsy, got back to her room, she saw Mrsha rolled up in her bed, and the [Princess] fell asleep almost at once. Then Nanette opened the door, Mrsha rolled up some pillows, and they crept out.
Where were they going? Where else? Not the new gardens. That was potentially dangerous. Instead…Nanette and Mrsha appeared in Erin’s [World’s Eye Theatre] and, laughing, high-fived.
No one was here. Which sort of disappointed the two.
“I thought Mister Kevin was going to play the older films.”
Nanette sighed. Kevin had been over the moon and was organizing a late-night viewing of what he called the ‘gorier’ or more ‘adult’ films. The problem was—the [World’s Eye Theatre] drew from what Erin had seen.
If you thought people bullying her about her taste was bad, you should have heard the argument about her movie selection.
Doesn’t matter! Let’s go have fun! Want to bother Fetohep?
“That’s your go-to for everything. You’ll get in trouble.”
Yeah, because he’s sort of cool. Don’t tell him that.
Mrsha was embarrassed, but Nanette smiled. She looked up and exhaled.
“Show us…the secret adult movies!”
The [World’s Eye Theatre] didn’t move. The glass ‘eye’ didn’t blink, and Mrsha scratched her head in confusion.
Maybe we need to know the name. Creler testicles.
“I suppose so. Then—let’s see someone interesting. It’s night—but we could talk to anyone!”
Nanette’s face fell. Mrsha had good ideas, but she sometimes lacked creativity. She was creative for the idea itself…like someone who invented fire. And then used it to just bake potatoes instead of burning a bunch of brush to scare prey into a trap.
“How about someone more interesting, Mrsha?”
“How about someone we don’t talk to regularly?”
Mrsha’s eyes lit up as she followed Nanette at last. The two thought for a long moment. Who was someone they wanted to speak to—or would be really cool to talk to but couldn’t?
The problem was all their cool people were here. Mrsha came up with a few ideas.
“Shouldn’t you do that with Miss Erin? I’m sure she’ll want to talk. Someone fun, Mrsha. Like…like…don’t you have anyone you’ve been dying to meet?”
Mrsha was struck by the thought. She wrote.
Honestly, it’s Lehra! And she’s less fun in real life.
The [World’s Eye Theatre] blinked in response to Mrsha’s comment. And there—was Lehra Ruinstrider!
In the center of the dome, Mrsha and Nanette saw the world change around them, mimicking their destination. And then they saw Lehra in front of them.
…Sleeping. In the inn’s guest bedrooms upstairs. She had somehow rolled herself into her blanket and kicked half of it off her so it hung around her neck like a cape while her lower half was slowly sliding off her bed.
It was the most amazing thing Mrsha and Nanette had ever seen in a vague sense.
“How does she sleep like that? She’s practically vertical.”
Named-rank Adventurers have all kinds of weird talents. Who else? Who’s your favorite, Nanette?
The witch shyly fiddled with her braids.
“I had some witches I liked…but they’ll be angry if I bother them. And a lot of my heroes are—I don’t want to bother them and get in trouble.”
Come on, give me someone!
“Well…if only we had this twenty years ago! And I back then! Then I’d be able to talk to all the legends when they were young! Like the King of—”
Nanette stomped her foot and then clapped her hands over her mouth just in time. Mrsha’s eyes widened. This could be dangerous.
But super fun. Nanette sighed.
“I wish I was eight years older. I bet you soon everyone including Miss Lyonette will be using this to talk to the really popular people. I’m surprised no one’s asked for the, um…Lord of Jigs. From Nadel?”
Handsome guys? Bleh. Boring.
Mrsha stuck out her tongue, and Nanette pointed accusingly at her.
“Just because you don’t see the point—you wait! In four years, you’ll get it. Maybe less. Besides, you like the books on the Lightning Thief and such. You’ll like them more later.”
Yeah, because he’s cool. He steals lightning.
Mrsha realized Nanette’s enjoyment of the famous series might not be purely due to the Lightning Thief’s famous coolness! She was about to have it out with her friend and their precarious alliance seemed in jeopardy when the [World’s Eye Theatre]—
Nanette and Mrsha whirled. Nanette’s eyes opened wide, and Mrsha’s did the same with confusion.
Wait. He was dead. The book series had never gotten to his death, but no one had seen the Lightning Thief for over a decade. He was dead, right? He was definitely dead.
So what was—
The [World’s Eye Theatre] blinked. Then—the glass shivered. Both girls waited, frozen in place—and the glass eye blinked again. Then…
“Wh—what was that? Did it fail?”
Maybe. Does that mean he’s alive? No way.
Mrsha looked at Nanette. The girls stared at each other, and then Nanette had a very witchy idea.
“What about…Archmage Zelkyr?”
Mrsha’s head snapped up, and they both stared at the dome overhead. They stared and stared, and the dome…
Did that eye twitch? Mrsha’s gaze fixed on it, but she couldn’t be sure if it was her imagination or not. Did she see the slightest quiver or was it her own eyes?
…She couldn’t tell. There was no big sign. She gave Nanette a wide-eyed look, though. This was getting a bit scary.
Which was awesome.
You think if we named, like, the biggest [Assassin] ever it would work? Or the BK of Rhir?
“Don’t do that. Let—let’s be safer, Mrsha. You know what? Let’s do someone safe. Like—what about someone who knows us?”
Nanette was reconsidering the real implications of cold-calling a living legend. Mrsha nodded rapidly. Someone they knew who wouldn’t get too mad and post a bounty on their heads—but someone cool.
What about…Human Grimalkin? He seemed cool. What if we ask him to teach us how to perform a super-punch?
“Human Grimalkin? Oh—the Strongest of Pomle? Why not? Show us Orjin of Pomle!”
Nanette looked up in relief, and Mrsha smiled. The dome shivered—then the eye blinked, and the world around them vanished. And they were transported to another world in image, sound, if not feeling or smell.
It was not where they expected, though. Mrsha and Nanette expected to see Pomle by night, the oasis and maybe the Strongest training or sleeping.
They…had not heard the latest news from Pomle. If they had, neither one would have considered this an appropriate person to call. Not right now.
What the girls saw was cold Chandrar by night. The night sky was in full bloom, and stars of every color shone down—a thousand thousand scattered across the sky, so vivid that they looked up in wonder.
It was so clear here. But then the girls looked around for Orjin.
What they saw—was a brick road. Not yellow, but pale brownish-red, like the soil of many parts of Chandrar. Old clay—more ancient than the roads the King of Destruction had laid in the east. And—pooling light below each lantern post—
They hung from ancient metal poles, each one a thousand paces away. But on this endless road in the Lantern Lands, it meant there were countless lanterns stretching out into the distance, marking the long road as it split.
Glowing marshflame, will o’ wisps dancing below perfect cones of colored light. The nearest one was yellow, like one of the lights from a movie about Earth in the mean streets of some city. Mrsha stared at it and saw the ball of light within the enchanted lantern moving.
Where is this?
“This…is the Lantern Lands of Chandrar. My hat! It’s so beautiful! Mother told me their lanterns had endured from ages past. You—you’re not supposed to stray from them when the mists roll in. I’m glad we’re not here in person! It’s dangerous at night!”
Nanette was instantly agog. She stared at the lanterns with the awe of a traveller. Mrsha just scuffed one phantom-foot at the road. It was a nice road. This place was so flat, though. Flat and dry, the ground disappearing into the distance, cold.
Not nearly as cool as the Great Plains of Izril, even. But…then Mrsha’s eyes picked out something in the distance.
Wait, is that a cloud?
She pointed, and Nanette turned. A billowing cloud, probably a mile long, was slowly drifting on the ground over parts of the road. Only the faint lights of the lanterns shone through it. Nanette’s jaw dropped.
“The mists. That’s no cloud, Mrsha. They’re magical mists that blow in from the sea or something in this land lets them exist. It’s dangerous to be caught by them.”
Now that Mrsha looked around, she saw more pale clouds littering the landscape. Something about them vaguely triggered her [Dangersense], even from here. She shivered—looking again at the lanterns and realizing they were here for people’s protection.
Some had failed—but most had been kept out of necessity through the ages.
So this is a kingdom of Chandrar?
“A region. The kingdoms within the Lantern Lands aren’t as permanent as the geography itself. This is close to the Empire of Scaied. Remember the one that Yvlon mentioned? She had a [Gladiator] friend from there?”
Giant scorpions. Yuck. Wait a second—where’s the Strongest?
It did beg the question why they’d been given a view of this night road. Mrsha and Nanette had been standing here for about half a minute, and they realized Orjin was nowhere in sight. So they looked around. At first—they saw nothing until a shadow passing by one of the lanterns to their right made Mrsha point. Nanette turned—and they saw him.
Orjin. The former Strongest of Pomle was here, hence the [World’s Eye Theatre] focusing on this place. But he was moving so fast that it had apparently decided to place them ahead—or at a spot where they could reasonably talk to him.
Mrsha waved her paws, and Nanette cupped her hands to shout.
Then…they stopped. The two girls looked into the distance, and they saw him pass under another lantern’s light for a second. What they saw was a running man.
Arms pumping. His huge arms and legs flashing in the light, running despite the late night as if nothing had yet slowed him down. That fell in line with what they thought the Strongest of Pomle would do.
What made them stop and hesitate was realizing that Orjin wasn’t alone. Something else was following him.
Up, down, up, down—Orjin’s arms pumped, and his bare feet hit the ground so fast that when they heard it, it sounded like Kevin on the drums.
He was running full-tilt. And only when Mrsha saw his face did she lower her arms and hide behind Nanette. Suddenly—aware of how rude it was to bother someone without Fetohep having to spell it out to her. Nanette looked up—then she and Mrsha were pushing at each other, trying to push the other girl in front.
They ended up hiding behind one of the lantern-stands. And that was because—
This was not the moment to interrupt Orjin. Mrsha had seen something behind the Strongest…and it gleamed in the light.
It looked like—paint. It was blood. The soles of his feet were bleeding. He left a trail of footprints behind him on the brick ground. He was running so fast that Nanette had to wonder—
If he was at Pomle last they knew, and he was in the Lantern Lands right now? He had passed through the entire Kingdom of Scaied, then. In a single day?
How fast was he moving?
The answer was so fast that he would have left Ryoka Griffin before she got her wind powers—and arguably even now—in the dust. He was running, without stopping or resting, so incredibly fast that the panting camel galloping full-tilt after him could barely keep up. And the Empress of Beasts herself had blessed Spitty with a Skill. He was barely keeping up, and Orjin was carrying all of his possessions in the bag of holding.
That was one thing. The pure intensity of movement. The huge [Martial Artist] running in silence, so fast that he had passed by several of the Lantern Lands’ mists by just outrunning them.
The second thing that made the girls hide was…the other blood. It was a trail behind him, the soles of his feet scraped off as he outran Ryoka Griffin’s wildest dreams. But she would have known how Orjin ran—because she had once run like that.
Run—because there was nothing left. Run—because it beat sitting still. Run without feeling pain or without ever wanting to stop.
The man who had been the Strongest of Pomle passed by Nanette and Mrsha, and they saw his face. He kept running; he hadn’t spotted them. Nor did they call out.
Blood was running down his face. Not from a wound. Mrsha looked up, and she saw it running down his cheeks and down his chin onto his chest, falling behind him.
Blood? The twin trails of dark liquid made Nanette stare. Because they were—
She had never heard of such a thing. No—hadn’t her mother told her that she had sometimes seen men and women literally sweat blood in times of such great stress? Tears?
The Strongest kept running. He never made to wipe at the blood. Perhaps—he didn’t even know he was weeping. Like sweat, like the pain from his feet—he might not have felt it. He might not have even felt how he was wounded.
He had been the Strongest of Pomle. He had had a home. But right now, Orjin ran. Ran—and the vision of him vanished as Nanette and Mrsha stood there, staring at his back. They were holding each other as the [World’s Eye Theatre] returned around them.
Then a voice snapped.
“Aha. I knew my little girl was too quiet! Especially when you always have to go to the outhouse in the middle of the night. What are you two doing?”
Lyonette looked at Nanette and Mrsha as they jumped. A sleepy Ser Lormel had answered the call and used his Skill [Locate Ward (Person)] to find them.
The [Princess] was ready to scold the two—but one look at their faces made the young woman hesitate.
“What happened to you two?”
We saw something sad.
Mrsha wrote and then burst into tears. She ran over to hug Lyonette’s skirt, and Nanette wiped at her own eyes. Lyonette put her hands on her hips—then gathered Mrsha into a big hug.
“Ser Lormel, milk with honey. You silly little girl, Mrsha. It’s Erin’s Skill. You don’t play with that kind of thing until you want your heart broken. There, there. What happened?”
Mrsha, gulping, tried to explain, and Lyonette’s face fell. She turned to Lormel as he paused by the doorway.
“Something’s happened in Pomle. Find out.”
Why can’t Erin have one happy thing that doesn’t also make you sad?
Mrsha wiped her nose on Lyonette’s skirt. The [Princess] sighed.
“The problem with Erin is that she shows you true things. Let’s go to Miss Larracel’s inn tomorrow, why don’t we? She knows how to lie sweetly. Sometimes you need that.”
She ushered the tearful girls into the common room of the inn so they could be cheered up, scolding forgotten. That was fine for them—but Orjin kept running.
Running and running until Spitty collapsed. Then Orjin slowed down. Only when he wiped at the sweat on his face did he wonder if he’d been hurt. He touched the blood dried on his cheeks, and…his expression didn’t change.
But he was a poor liar.
It was travelling that gave you time to think and reflect on your feelings. Like sadness. Guilt. Loss. The future. Something about having nothing to do but either talk or sit in a bumping wagon or carriage and think for hours on end was either appealing for a while—or a kind of torture of its own.
Mind you—Yvlon Byres did jump out of the undead-pulled wagon and run for at least a few miles every day. It was hard, and Pisces had to slow down their pace to let her do it—but the [Necromancer] did it himself too.
By the third day on the road, he had even taken to changing into a tunic and leggings rather than his eternal white robe because he kept tripping over the hem and faceplanting.
The sight of Pisces in anything but his white robes was so odd that Yvlon would stare at him for the first few minutes of the run. Then she’d have to concentrate on running.
The peg-leg did not make it easier. In truth, the wagon was slowed to about a jog, and Yvlon ran on her healed stump. It—hurt. The prosthetic needed to be re-fit, and Peggy had suggested Yvlon get a better one. The Horns could afford it.
Slamming her weight into her tender right leg where the prosthetic joined just above her ankle did hurt. Yvlon ran through it. She had to run hard and not waver because it was also difficult for her, missing limb aside.
She was a Level 39 [Silversteel Armsmistress], courtesy of participating in Zeladona’s Trial of Blades. Yvlon was a Gold-rank adventurer, a seasoned warrior, and fit enough to run in armor.
Running for a few miles even with the peg-leg should be easy…but she was heavier than she used to be.
Two arms made out of metal added to her weight. And swinging them around as she ran made her tired. Yvlon…could barely do two miles each morning, which was disgusting.
By contrast, Ksmvr ran for eight miles, all the while keeping up a non-stop discussion with Pisces about what would be the best pet to own. He only stopped when he noticed Yvlon counting the miles, and she felt bad about that.
Then again, he was a [Skirmisher], and she would never say anything bad about him. He could do nothing bad in her mind, really. He was a child—and a brave one.
Pisces, by contrast, was an annoying prat…who had gone through unbelievable torment in Chandrar. And who was not so much the self-centered [Necromancer] she had first met as a brave man playing a two-copper role as if his life depended on no one finding out who he was. To say she respected him—not least because he put in six miles before he crawled into the wagon and lay there, swearing about the agonies of physical exertion—was putting it lightly.
If Yvlon did not like her team, she would have left long ago. She liked Pisces, though the unspoken agreement was neither would ever acknowledge that under torture. She explicitly took care of Ksmvr and tried to teach him life lessons since everyone else was doing it wrong.
Yvlon loved her team. Pisces, the noble contradiction of a [Necromancer]. Ksmvr, the lost Antinium she thought of like the little brother she’d always wanted.
And Ceria, her Captain. Who was a weasel in half-Elf flesh, a gluttonous, possibly inbred rodent with all the morality and personal hygiene of a Creler in a sack of shit. A treacherous slug. A…
“Yvlon, come on. I’m sorry. Don’t hit me, though.”
Ceria tried to get Yvlon to open up during a lunch. But the half-Elf—who had been riding with the Ekhtouch in their own group—got only a scowl from Yvlon that was so deep that Pisces and Ksmvr immediately distracted her and blocked her with their bodies.
If Yvlon got in range of Ceria, she might punch the half-Elf on purpose. The separation was for everyone’s own good.
The fight had raged for two days, and even Venaz seemed disinclined to get in the way of it. But then, Erin’s traumatic booning of him might have added to his introspective silence. Yvlon stabbed Yellats with a fork, piling them up until they were the length of the tines. Then she took bites of the roasted lunch in deep silence.
Ceria had lied about the circlet. She had lied to the adventurers who had risked their lives at the City of the Dead. Lied to her team. Lied to everyone and convinced everyone else to take a smaller share of gold.
Yvlon got why Ceria had done it. It was the kind of thing she might think to do as an adventurer—save the Relics, pay less gold for how much the Horns had risked and almost lost in the Village of the Dead.
Oh, yes, it made sense. Yvlon would have been tempted to do what Ceria had done. If she had all the morality of Todi.
No—even Todi was better than that. Yvlon said nothing as Ceria coughed.
“I saw you having fun running, Pisces. Even Merrik and Peki. The Gnolls did the same a ways back. Ekhtouch can run.”
She nodded to Gireulashia, who paused as she wolfed down entire Yellats to shrug. She was eating twice what anyone else was, and the nine-foot-tall [Paragon] always seemed hungry.
“Not you, Captain Ceria?”
“Eh. I don’t want to.”
Pisces glowered at Ceria along with Wil and the other [Strategists]. Everyone had been so inspired by fighting Zeladona they’d resolved to work out, and Pisces had picked up a [Fencer] class, even. Because he wanted to change and embrace…well, his love of using the rapier, regardless of his personal history.
The only person who didn’t go for runs was Ceria. Yvlon muttered out of the corner of her mouth without looking at the half-Elf.
“I should have known that some people won’t ever try to improve themselves. Even after meeting a literal legend face-to-face.”
Pisces sucked in his lips, and the lunch group fell silent. Ceria opened and closed her mouth—then replied. She didn’t seem—angry. Which pissed off Yvlon no end. In fact, she seemed to hide a moment of amusement before replying carefully.
“Personal fitness is good. But I’m a realist; if I’m going anywhere fast in a fight, I’d skate instead. You saw me doing that. Different method, same mentality.”
Yvlon didn’t reply. She stared at her plate and ignored Ceria completely. The half-Elf had been skating on her floors of ice, sometimes obnoxiously well with her Skill, other times building up practice there.
The [Armsmistress] knew Ceria had been doing that each night, and she’d still made the comment to annoy Ceria. Yvlon clenched one fist and resisted the urge to punch Ceria.
She was so angry.
—And the problem was that a lot of it, most of it, was Ceria’s fault. But some of it was due to Yvlon’s Skill.
[Berserker’s Rage]. Yvlon could sense Ksmvr watching her anxiously, and only that stopped her from getting up and—
She did not want to attack her team again. And as if he were a reminder of that himself—Colth the [Supporter] leaned over.
“Everyone’s exercising hard, there’s no doubt about that. But—given how tense things have been on the road, what say you all we stop at the next big settlement we come across? It would give us a moment to break, relax, and rest up. Pay for an inn?”
There was a murmur of agreement about that. Yvlon bit back a remark that forced its way out anyways.
“We don’t need to waste the coin, Colth.”
He raised his brows. Colth, as ever, looked younger than he was. He was in his early thirties but looked five years younger, with brownish-green hair and youthful features, sometimes innocent and kid-like.
Similar to Ksmvr. He carried so many objects on his adventurer belt that he looked like some kind of wandering [Peddler], but his eyes were pale violet and always seemed—knowing. He was a kind of amateur-expert on almost everything, and he was friendly, the glue in a relationship.
Right up until he was fighting or serious when you saw his eyes turn into blades. And when he smiled, really smiled—
Well. He nudged Yvlon with a smile, ignoring her sour tone. She swatted at his hand, a bit too hard—and his arm blurred.
He grabbed her head with one arm and rubbed his knuckles into her hair. Pisces inhaled some of his food and began choking as Yvlon shoved him off—and Colth danced back with a laugh.
“Yvlon. I respect your pique, but you are speaking like a Silver or Bronze-ranker. Coin? I’ll pay for everyone if you want, but the Horns can pay for any lodging at the finest inn without sweating. If you want to live like a [Monk], feel free, but you’re not going to level without the class.”
He winked, and Yvlon turned red—because she realized he was right.
The Horns were loaded with coin. Yvlon sometimes forgot how much they had—not least from Albez, but all their adventures since! Gire broke the silence with a growl from her stomach.
“I—wouldn’t mind stopping to eat.”
“Now there’s someone who’d strain even Deni’s budget.”
Colth remarked, and everyone laughed. Yvlon settled back, cheeks red, and still the anger bubbled and seethed.
She’d really thought she’d gotten better at it since Nerrhavia’s arenas, with Menorome’s help. But the Ceria thing had set her off, and she thought…
She thought that Colth was right to insist she go meet Berr the Berserker. She needed help. Her Skill was overwhelming her.
It was not all her fault, though. Yvlon was…she truly was betrayed by Ceria. Her team captain, who they had gone through so much with, was wearing an invisible Relic on her head.
Colth knew. Pisces and Ksmvr knew, and sometimes some of the Gnolls or one of the [Strategists] would stare too long at Ceria’s hair, but it was impossible to see. Even touching Ceria’s hair, like trying to drag it off her, didn’t work.
She refused to take it off. She claimed it only gave her intelligence and had a few ‘minor side effects’, but Yvlon refused to believe it.
The fight between the Silver Killer of the Horns and the Ice Weasel had put a damper on the trip so far. However, they could at least eat lunch, and Yvlon Byres could be sociable.
She sat there with Wil Kallinad as Merrik tried to play cards on the bumpy wagon with Venaz, Peki, Ksmvr, and Pisces. Ceria was with the Gnolls, levitating a spellbook as she rode, and one of the other people heading to the Meeting of Tribes was snoozing in the wagon.
“So. Lord Kallinad.”
“Wil will do, Miss Yvlon.”
He seemed—reserved. Yvlon put on her friendly smile, realizing she had not made the best impression so far. He might not have seen her accidentally attacking her team—in Liscor—but watching her punch through walls of ice as she threatened to throttle Ceria to death—
Yvlon could see how it would affect his view of her. Or maybe it was her morphing arms. She kept them very still, in her lap, as she sat with her back straight.
Good posture, friendly demeanor…and good conversation. Yvlon thought for a second, then nodded.
“—What do you think about the Ailendamus conflict now that the migration to the New Lands has begun? Pheislant, nor many nations, have not actually signed a peace treaty. I even understand Wellfar is pushing the remaining Ailendamus ships at sea, and the Order of Seasons continues a limited campaign along their borders.”
Wil gave Yvlon a blank look, then a weak smile for some reason.
“Oh—that’s what I’ve heard. The Order of Spring and Summer have a front along one of the western borders—Ailendamus is defensive, pulling back after losing so many warriors and their Great General. I imagine this might turn into a war of a hundred skirmishes until one side is willing to pay rather than continue the conflict. They might draw up another large army, but I don’t believe the political will is there.”
“So do you feel Pheislant will try to claim any lands?”
“The Order’s front has some Pheislant soldiers, but no, the nation proper hasn’t committed a full army for fear it would escalate the fighting once more. That would be what I’d do—so I believe the Order of Seasons is mostly harrying the soldiers themselves and trying to overrun positions without fortifications.”
“I see. And how are the courts reacting to the new lands?”
“My father himself might go to Izril, if that’s any indication. They are abuzz, as you can imagine.”
“Izril and Terandria both seem to be preparing for the journey.”
She nodded with a smile, and he nodded back. Then a deep silence fell over the two. Yvlon began another line of inquiry regarding how he thought Calanfer was doing, and Wil responded. It was going well, though they did have some moments of silence. It was hard to keep a conversation going, and she reflected she might well sit and think—but it was worth trying to talk for a bit.
Someone else was listening to the smalltalk between Yvlon and Wil. And it was smalltalk. Unlike Yvlon, they had a different reaction.
Dead fucking gods. Yvlon Byres made him want to throw himself under the wagon. And to look at the [Lord]’s face, Wil was about five minutes from that too.
It was…amazing, actually. A kind of inverse talent. You had Yvlon Byres, a Gold-rank woman with arms of steel who had just been to Chandrar, who knew a Courier who had participated in said Ailendamus war, and an [Innkeeper] that was exceptionally high-level and talented and involved in countless current events.
On the other side, Wil Kallinad, student of the Titan, sharp as a whip, possessor of a Relic-class blade, and also related to as many events.
Somehow, Yvlon made the conversation banal. Oh, she asked about current events, but like—like a Golem. Like someone thought they should make for ‘interesting conversation’.
It was so bad that the unwilling listener couldn’t take it. Eight minutes, and he sat up out of the pillows the Horns had placed for naps and cleared his throat.
“Er…I may not know about Terandrian politics, but would you let me join the conversation?”
Wil turned so fast it looked like the guess about his desperation was spot on. He nodded and paused.
“Absolutely, er—I beg your pardon, I’ve forgotten your name.”
He reddened a bit, and Yvlon nodded as the Gnoll chuckled deep in his chest. He rubbed at his black fur, and his light brown eyes opened a bit wider with his toothy grin.
“Nailren. Captain—former Captain of the Pride of Kelia. As I am disbanding my team.”
“Ah, that’s right. We hadn’t talked much—”
The Gnoll shrugged, waving it off.
“It’s nothing, yes? I’m the small adventurer compared to Gold or Named-ranks. I thank you all for taking me with you. It’s been entertaining.”
And informative. Erin Solstice’s new powers, secrets about Ceria…and just observing some high-level people at their job. Yvlon turned.
“Did you have opinions on the political situation in Terandria?”
Wil’s eyes begged Nailren for relief. His problem was that the [Lord] could still be timid. Nailren thought for a second, scratching at his chin.
“I do have a pressing Terandrian question.”
“I—have as many answers as I can give.”
The Gnoll smiled slightly.
“Your sister, Talia Kallinad. One of the [Summer Knights], yes? Is she the one crossing tails with that ‘Ser Solstice’ or is it someone else? One of the [Princesses]? Any gossip from there?”
Wil’s eyes bulged, and the Gnoll chuckled at his expression.
“Captain Nailren! I don’t know if that’s fit to talk about.”
“It’s funny. Ah, Humans and siblings. I’d know something like that about my sister in a Gnoll tribe if I had one. If it is too personal, I apologize.”
“I don’t—I know she’s friends with Ser Solstice. Nothing more, and I am not intimating any other way!”
Wil spoke hurriedly, face still red, and Nailren waved it off. But that was interesting conversation. You saw the difference? He demonstrated again by leaning over.
“Then—let’s talk Pheislant. When they come, will they agree to respect any Gnollish tribes or will they come with fire and sword?”
Wil paled a bit at the pointed question, and the others playing cards looked up. The [Lord] was even quicker to respond.
“I can’t imagine we would do anything against the tribes, Nailren. My kingdom was horrified by what they saw.”
“Yes…I hear that a lot. Everyone is horrified. But that means nothing to Gnolls. You understand that if you come to our lands and we find an army where a new tribe has settled, that tribe will assume at some point your horror will be for all the innocent Gnolls you accidentally had to kill in self-defense. I’m sure the Chieftains will ask you the same thing.”
The young man was not a fool. He saw the obvious point Nailren had made. Yvlon looked highly uncomfortable by this. She would never say something like this—but she would punch at Ceria hard enough to shatter six-foot thick solid ice. Strange how people worked.
“How—how would we assure you of our good intentions?”
Nailren hmmed theatrically, despite knowing his answer.
“Send a caravan to the Meeting of Tribes. I heard you promised Honored Feshi—hah, Chieftain Feshi now—a trade caravan next year. Well, it is a new year coming up. Send it with [Diplomats] and enshrine a peace treaty in writing and magic. That will put you ahead of many nations.”
“I can suggest that. I can’t promise it…”
The [Lord] looked intrigued by the thought, and Nailren shrugged and spat over the side of the wagon.
“Someone must. Your courts will not, and I tell you, it’s the only thing we’ll respect. Not words. All Humans will look alike. Just like we must look to you by the thousands, you understand?”
“I understand. Thank you for your candor, Captain Nailren. I’ll write my father—now, actually.”
Wil fussed with a [Message] scroll. Nailren winked at Yvlon, who seemed taken aback. But there it was.
Fast conversation, interesting, with merit—and he hadn’t even brought up the fact that Wil’s people were stealing lands meant for Gnolls. But then, it was a friendly conversation. Nailren would have pulled out that other card if he got annoyed.
The fact that great ghosts of Gnolls had literally pulled the land up from the sea for their people was a fact—but it didn’t matter. The fact that the rest of the world was coming to grab what they could and enforce it with armies despite not being Izrilian didn’t matter.
These ‘facts’ would be countered by other people with statements that were also true for a given value of ‘I want to believe this’. Like ‘there was a lot of land there, far too much for the Gnolls to use’.
‘If you can’t hold onto it, you don’t deserve to keep it’.
And so on. These convenient facts were practical, true, and also lacked for any kind of morality. But they were true, and Nailren was a pragmatist. You didn’t need any real reason to be a bastard; they just made you feel better.
If anything, that was what he liked about Ceria Springwalker. She made no excuses to Yvlon for what she did. She wanted to do something and did it.
“So are you going to the new lands, Captain Nailren?”
Yvlon said this as if she didn’t know the answer. Another boring question, but it didn’t have to be a boring answer. The Gnoll smiled at her.
“Of course I am. I have dissolved my team. Once I go to my tribe, I will tell Chieftain Eitha I am done. Hawkarrow’s Gnolls may come with me, some of them—but I will not go as a Silver-rank adventurer nor as a Gnoll of a tribe. I go as an explorer, and whether I found a tribe, come back, or perish there—I am going. I wish I had waited for your brother, in part, but I thought he would delay my journey at least a week, possibly a month. And I will not wait.”
“You intend to be first to the New Lands? Does it matter that much? Unless—you’re staking a claim?”
Yvlon blinked. Nailren shrugged.
“Maybe I shall, but that is hard to enforce, no? I am going fast as I can, Yvlon Byres, because there is a glory in being first. First to see what no one else has. First to walk a new soil. Does it call to you?”
She was an adventurer. Surely she felt some of it in her blood. Yvlon turned—and he saw a spark of it in her. But only a spark. So little…the woman just shook her head, troubled.
“I think my team has more than enough on its plate right now. It’s appealing, but we have no goals there, Nailren.”
“That land is a goal in and of itself.”
She looked at him, and his eyes shone. Shone like they never had since he was a boy—and he looked at her in great sympathy.
“You do have much going on, Yvlon. For me, this is a defining time in my life. For you?”
The woman looked at him and then shook her head.
“I suppose I don’t feel it.”
He sat there, as the wagon bumped, and exhaled.
“Drakes’ Ancestors. You do need help.”
Then he put his head back and stared up at the sky, as if it were all fresh. Yvlon looked offended—then seemed to realize he was absolutely right.
The Horns of Hammerad were a fascinating lot. They had shot up from out of nowhere in a year to become Gold-rank, so they were filled with an amazing amount of competence in some areas—and absolutely zero ability in others.
As a unit, they were solid. The fight with Ceria and Yvlon notwithstanding, Colth rated them highly on his personal ranking charts.
And yes, he had charts and statistics and character sheets. As individual fighters and together, the Horns looked excellent and were still growing.
—As adventurers, they sometimes sucked.
A fine example of this was when they stopped at the city of Loeri.
Loeri, an interesting city. You had Liscor, with walls forty feet in height, which they planned on upgrading. Taller than even a major Human city like Invrisil’s—though Invrisil did benefit from Magnolia’s [Aegis of Grace], so it wasn’t entirely a fair comparison—and on the level of most Drake cities.
You had Pallass with walls four hundred feet high. Massive, defying physics, and the greatest walls in the world save for Rhir.
Most Drake cities did not even come close to the top. There was an exponential cost to building higher, hence the average wall height being ‘only’ thirty feet.
Thirty damn feet. Imagine how much stone went into that? To enclose a city? Anyways, the point was—
Loeri’s walls were eighty feet high.
To be fair, they had done it cleverly. The city had first developed on the igneous rock pitted and cavernous, filled with lava-tunnels of a long-dead volcano. The first people to live here had been scavenging for one of the things Drakes loved so much. Gems, metal ore, or gold.
Loeri had been the gold. It had long since run out of the gold, though, and the deep shaft-mines had eventually been turned into living spaces. They had built down—and as either [Geomancers] or erosion reduced the height of the land, Loeri had risen.
It was a vertical city. Also—it gave most people an insanely unstable feeling as they approached.
“…Did someone knock the city over?”
“A Giant pushed it once, I heard. And earthquakes have sent it tilting. See how the wall’s slanted like that?”
Loeri was leaning. In fact, a wall had once gone over such that it was now a slant—and they had rebuilt around it so it was more like a ramp-wall. In fact, even some buildings looked shifted diagonally; ones made later were properly upright.
“What a jungle of a city! It looks like a mess. Can we visit? We have to visit.”
Ceria Springwalker was delighted, and even the Gnolls agreed this was a place to go to.
“Is it safe? Did they come after us during the war at the Meeting of Tribes?”
Gire was a bit worried, but Nailren reassured her.
“Not Loeri. They would not attack tribes unless they were formally at war. And they have no ongoing wars with Gnolls. Not that they’re the most hospitable to our tribes all the time—but we haven’t clashed. The harder part will be Ksmvr. And Pisces.”
Antinium. [Necromancer]. The Horns’ ebullience faded, and Pisces and Ksmvr looked at each other.
“Perhaps, ah, we could remain outside? We shall not die for want of seeing a city.”
Pisces remarked, and Ksmvr looked disappointed, but Nailren hmmed.
“You may be able to get in. Loeri’s strange. And Ksmvr is famous. Let’s try.”
They headed over, and Colth rubbed his hands together. He loved this. He hadn’t gone to the south of Izril for a long time, and the opportunity of the New Lands?
He knew of Loeri, of course, but visiting? So worth it.
Here was the way that the Horns and Colth differed. It might be hard to see at first, because the [Ultimate Supporter] hung back to see what they would do. And longer still to get them into the city.
Firstly, it took the Horns ten minutes to realize Loeri had no gates. Literally none. They were heading along the walls when polite laughter made them look up.
“Entering or looking for someone? State your names—passports if you have them.”
The Watch on the walls were staring down at them. They had odd throwing weapons that made the Ekhtouch Gnolls eye them warily, but both sides kept their hands free of their weapons. Ceria shouted back.
“Hello! We’re the Horns of Hammerad! No passports, but we’re an accredited Gold-rank team! Can we come in? We’ve got, uh—”
She indicated Ksmvr, and the Watch shouted.
They recoiled, seeming to see him only now. A lot of people did that. The feared Black Tide was so reviled that they seemed to think Ksmvr needed war drums or ominous tingling in the air to be present.
“And a [Necromancer]! Listen, if they’re not welcome, we’ll go!”
“Stay there! Someone summon the Watch Captain on duty! Procure a passport if you have one!”
The Horns had no passports, but they had the advantage of fame. In short order, the Watch came down to meet them in the way Colth hoped they would.
They swung down on ropes. They placed a line on some anchors and rappelled down. They were nimble!
“That must be hell to import goods into their city with.”
Ceria remarked with amusement to Colth as they waited. The [Supporter] whispered back.
“They’ve got elevators. I hear teams of up to a hundred haul goods up and lower them down into their city. Plus, Chests of Holding make this viable. Things go down—”
“And how do they go up?”
“They try not to take anything heavy down. Otherwise, it goes up—painfully.”
“And Pallass didn’t sell them their fancy elevators?”
“They’re not perfect yet—and it’s a matter of pride among Loeri. You think the Yoldenites are the only weird Drakes?”
Ironically, the Yoldenites came up as the Watch Captain strode over. He was one of those grey-scaled, hard-bitten types with a scar along his tail. Loeri had seen monsters, and he carried two bolas—ropes with heavy weights for tossing—along with, of all things, a harpoon. The end had a rope.
“My name is Watch Captain Yegosi of Loeri. I know you, Horns of Hammerad. This…Antinium is alone?”
“Yes, Watch Captain. I’m Captain Ceria, and this is my team. With us are also Gnolls of the Ekhtouch Tribe, a Silver-rank Adventurer, and Colth the Supporter.”
The Watch Captain and some of the Drakes stared at Colth, and he bowed to them, hands folded together. Yegosi grunted in approval.
“We like Named-ranks who obey the law. And it is law Loeri respects. The City of Ropes will welcome the Horns if you give us assurances under oath this [Necromancer], Pisces Jealnet, and Ksmvr of Chandrar will cause no harm.”
They were famous! The Horns still seemed surprised everyone knew of them. Ceria even said it with a tight grin.
“You seem pretty welcoming of Antinium for a Drake city. And here I thought the Yoldenites were the odd ones.”
The Loeri Drakes’ faces turned at the mention of them.
“We’re not blind to the news. Don’t associate us with them. They’re—completely separate. Now, if you are intent on entering our city, I will give you the basic explanation all visitors receive. You must have an anchoring rope on you in any marked area. Anyone who goes without, Named-ranks or not, is fined. It’s not for your safety, it’s for everyone’s. Break no laws—and I will assign you, Captain Ceria, with a marker tally. If you commit any transgressions, it will be noted, and you will need to present this marker upon leaving the city. Failure to do so will have great implications. We obey the laws in Loeri…you will too.”
If they sounded ominous—they let in the Antinium with surprisingly little difficulty. And that was because Loeri respected two things:
Law. And rope.
“I hear they have a group of enforcers that actually supercede the Watch. So their Watch is more like their army.”
“A Watch above the Watch? What, are they made of Zevaras?”
“They’re called the Gallowsmen of Loeri. So—don’t break the law.”
The Horns took that seriously, as did the Gnolls. They all had to climb up the ropes to get into the city. They could have taken an elevator for a small fee, but everyone could climb. Colth was worried about Yvlon, but she didn’t even use her feet—she just pulled herself up with sheer upper body strength, and the Drakes were so impressed they shook her hands.
Loeri was a weird city. Pallass had multiple floors that went down towards a center like an inverted pyramid.
Loeri…had shafts. You could walk from shaft to shaft, which had openings to pass from one section of the city to another, and most of the eighty-foot drop from the walls was honeycombed with stairwells. At any time, you could attach your ‘anchor rope’ to one of the freestanding ropes and rappel down.
Rappel…a climbing term where you kicked off the wall as you descended. It was a new experience for everyone but Nailren and Colth, and Ksmvr hated it.
“I do not like heights. I do not like heights!”
Loeri’s folk had heard an Antinium was coming, and a crowd had gathered, tightly-packed and semi-hostile.
But the sight of Ksmvr panicking and clinging to a rope as Yvlon tried to coax him down sort of undermined the terror of him.
“Ksmvr, I will catch you. I’ve seen you jump higher than this! How can you be afraid of heights?”
“I do not like dangling! I am not a spider! I will jump down myself!”
A Watchman instantly shouted back.
“Not allowed! Obey the rules, Ant, or you’ll get a slash on your marker!”
“Yes, get out of the city you—you—monster!”
Someone shouted. A Drake [Trader] had been staring at Ksmvr in horror. Now, he raised the nearest object he could find—a Prelon off a stand—and threw it. Ksmvr batted the Prelon away as Yvlon turned, fists balling.
Before she could do anything, Colth, prepared to stop her, saw the most funny and gratifying thing happen.
Which was—instantly—for someone to loop cord around the surprised [Trader]’s wrists and cinch it up. Then a Drake with a braided series of rope running down his arms shouted.
“Attacking a guest of Loeri! Throwing an object in a rappelling zone! Stealing fruit from a stand! Three transgressions, to be decided now!”
“Wh—but he’s an Antinium! Let go of—”
The [Trader] yelped, but then his eyes bulged, and a rope was pulling his arms up and up—he stood there, tethered, as one of the Gallowsmen grabbed his marker tally hanging by his waist and began to write the offenses down in some kind of permanent ink.
The law of Loeri.
“Wow, they are strict.”
Ceria was staring in perplexity as the [Trader] complained. Colth called back as he watched more Drakes using the rappelling zones, going down marked spots or climbing up others. There were handholds or ladders and ramps for others, but Drakes liked the ropes.
They had to have great body strength to do this. But if a child did this all their life, like the Drake child nimbly climbing past him…
“You don’t fuck around with heights. Someone fights where the ropes tangle and you can kill people in more ways than falling. Loeri’s strict with the rules. Plus, they’re good with rope.”
The Gallowsmen. But while the Horns were reassured of Ksmvr’s safety—if not a warm welcome from all—Colth was drinking in what made the city unique.
It wasn’t just their extreme altitude that made him smile. You could stare down a dizzying way anywhere in the city, and some of Ekhtouch looked nervous about the height. But the rope-decoration…was everywhere.
“Apparently, they have some really good wool, hemp, and other materials. Did you see the throwing bolas? I want to buy some here. You need good bindings for anything, from vehicles to climbing gear—you come to Loeri. See? It’s even decorative.”
He pointed, and Pisces’ head turned. The [Necromancer] saw a passing Drake citizen with a kind of knotted lattice-work on her tail of all things.
It was hard to explain. Someone had taken rope and created a pattern by looping it so many times in a precise way that it created a net-like effect that clung to the tail. The Gallowsmen or Gallowswomen had black bindings on their arms—it seemed like that was a uniform.
Ksmvr observed. Ceria raised her brows.
Yvlon glared at her. The Drake looked hugely embarrassed by everyone staring at her. Colth elbowed Pisces, and the [Necromancer] flushed.
“Eyes up a bit. Or don’t stare at the female Drakes, maybe?”
The tail decorations were common, though. Colth supposed it was akin to fishnet stockings—and there was a practical element to it too. If your anchor rope, the sturdy rope you clipped to your belt or a harness, broke—you wanted to have a backup.
They were still a city of Drakes, though. And as Loeri would say vehemently—they were normal, just specialized, compared to the Yoldenites.
As such, the Horns were getting a lot of attention. Adventurers, people who had seen their exploits, people angry about Pisces or Ksmvr or who wanted a word—the only thing keeping them from swarming the lot was the rules about crowding the rappelling zone.
“Why don’t we split up? Let’s all meet…at Cormidoon’s Rock Grill! I’ll sort us an inn, eh?”
Colth called out, pointing at a nice-looking place. Then he slipped off as people were focused more on the Horns than some random Human. The irony was that since scrying orbs were so new, everyone knew the Horns’ faces and names more than Colth the Supporter.
Here was what made the Horns different from Colth, now. By the time he came back, Colth saw the Horns hadn’t largely moved. Ceria was laughing and talking with some blushing Drakes about something he decided was definitely lewd.
Ksmvr was alternating between introducing himself and shaking hands alongside Pisces with Drakes who wanted to tell him personally how much they hated his people and Pisces his undead.
By contrast, the [Strategists] seemed to have headed out to explore, but Colth had seen a flock of people crowding around Wil asking for autographs and the embarrassed [Lord] being rescued by Venaz.
Yvlon was stiffly shaking hands, and he wondered if she had shook a thousand. Colth walked over, hands in his pockets, and told them the bad news.
“Horns of Hammerad. I like you guys. You’re my kind of crazy—but you lot have less style than a single strand of Deniusth’s dyed hair.”
They looked up, greatly offended, and Pisces sniffed.
“Style is a self-possessed quality, Colth. I do not lecture you on your attire—and I hope you would not do the same to me.”
Colth blinked at Pisces. Colth wore enchanted chainmail over cloth, color-coordinated for his dyed leather leggings to be a deep, natural green. Dyed steel, and a natural kind of cloth-and-metal armguard design that made him look suitably armed without clanking like a full [Warrior] every time he walked around.
His belt looked like a menagerie of items. He had a grappling hook that some of Loeri were nodding at, three wands, two visible potions, a belt of alchemical items—on the front, and his twin blades hanging at his side.
He looked like an adventurer.
“Pisces. I have apparel. You have white robes. We are not the same. Adventurers—the ones who have a career—have a style. Even Griffon Hunt and the Halfseekers do. You want to see mine? Stand back. I wasn’t going to overshadow you, but I didn’t realize you were lying flat on your faces.”
He motioned them back, and the skeptical [Necromancer] snorted—until Colth grinned—and looked sideways.
A Drake was going up the climbing section at amazing speed. Even for a native of Loeri—he was climbing claw-over-claw with such smooth motions it seemed like he was gliding up the floors. His scales were a teal color, burnished darker, and he was a [Climber].
One of the highest-leveled in the world, not that it was a wide class. He had summited lesser mountains of the High Passes. His name was Zebvron Leywing.
—He was so focused on heading up to the higher floors to ask what the commotion was about that he only noticed the voices and the person climbing next to him after a minute.
That wasn’t odd; you had all kinds of climbers you shared space with. What was odd was that it was a Human keeping pace with Zebvron. His form wasn’t as good, but he was strong and fast.
—And he was going up as fast as the [Climber]. Zebvron ignored him and climbed a bit faster—and realized the Human was rising higher than he was. And he was speaking.
“[Fast Hands]. [Kneader’s Grip]. Let’s see…[Speed].”
His eyes glowed as he cast a spell. Then the Human accelerated.
This was more than Zebvron would allow. He glanced down, saw a huge crowd, and realized the Human was racing him.
Him? The [Climber] almost laughed. He began to pull himself up with a will and realized the Human was accelerating. Zebvron began using his own Skills. You could have jogged slower than they were going up now. The Human was using magic and Skills—and Zebvron got annoyed, so he called out.
“[Free Ascent: 50 Feet]!”
He grabbed the rope with one gloved claw, grinned at the Human, who twisted his head to stare with fascinated violet eyes—
And Zebvron rose. The rope hissed in his gloved hand as a force pulled him up smoothly, and he pulled as he reached the topmost floor—and gently landed on his feet. He instantly felt embarrassed—but then heard merry laughter. Seconds later, the man appeared, and Zebvron turned to him.
“Who are you, stranger, and who taught you how to climb like that? An adventurer? Most people who come to Loeri can’t even travel a single floor easily.”
For answer, the Named-rank adventurer spread his arms and beamed.
“They call me Colth, the Ultimate Supporter. Named-rank adventurer of the north. And you are Zebvron, the great [Climber] of Loeri. I would love to challenge you again and learn how to climb like a master.”
The [Climber] blinked as people called out and looked around, and Colth bowed. He gave Zebvron a look of genuine respect.
“I have travelled three continents, and all I have found is there is always more to learn.”
Colth’s style was to be…obsequious. Or perhaps the word was, rather, ‘ubiquitous’. They looked vaguely similar.
Pisces was reminded of how he had first seen Colth performing with the Haven’s band. He did that—he would work himself into a group and take up whatever they were doing with considerable natural talent.
And it seemed he was known for going from place to place and begging, ingratiating, or challenging local masters to teach him their craft. He would pay for the honor, do you a favor, or put in enough work to make it worth their while.
In fact—when he came back from climbing and talking with Zebvron, the first thing he did was walk into the Rock Grill’s kitchen and come out to fry their lunch on a heated rock slab with the damned [Chef].
What they did was take embers, shove them under flat rock ‘grills’, and fry food in front of customers. The sizzling of strips of meat had Pisces’ mouth watering.
“That’s what I meant by style. Like him, hate him, Deniusth’s first move upon entering a city is to put on a performance with Orchestra publicly. Then seek out the most expensive inn and attractive company.”
Colth was telling them—nicely, between stirring the meat with long tongs and copying the [Chef] sprinkling the food with salt and spices—how to be adventurers.
“What does Eldertuin do, then? Elia?”
“Oh, Eld’s an old hand at this. Viecel will just hit the gambling dens—that’s a style of its own, selfishness. Eld will go ask a meeting with the local Council or [Mayor], and the man will humbly—remember, he is one of the Five Families—ask if they have a great monster and offer to take it down for them.”
“Five Families. You Humans and your odd customs. This is the first time I’ve served an Antinium.”
The [Chef] was slightly hostile, but Colth grinned.
“You don’t know the half of it, Chef Rivvip. But I have never seen someone grilling with stone like this! I’ve seen metal—is there a reason for stone?”
The Drake was instantly distracted.
“Oh—the stone keeps the flavor, obviously. My father’s father used this very same grill! You can use metal, but this is legacy. [A Taste of Generations]. A Skill passed down across my family.”
Colth was good. The Drake was distracted, and with a wink, Colth went on.
“Now, Elia Arcsinger is a bit odd. She and her famous team will consent to be invited to the richest restaurant or noble’s manor where she will eventually be coaxed into telling the famous story of slaying the Goblin King. Whereupon she will give the tale—I have it on good authority she has the speech memorized, but she does it well, you see?”
“Ah. Style. Do Griffon Hunt or the Halfseekers have one?”
Nailren had an answer for that.
“Jelaqua always found people like her. Different. Moore walking in is a style. Griffon Hunt? Halrac comes in, sits down, and you think someone’s just died.”
Everyone laughed about that. Pisces was very happy, though, because some fried buckwheat noodles, vegetables, and the sizzling meat combined for a hearty bowl the [Chef] served—but he gave them a special because Colth was here.
He had two halves of a bone, and he placed the sizzling marrow on the grill—then let the fat drizzle over the bowls. He was going to stop when he got to Ceria, but the half-Elf slapped the table.
“Give me that marrow, my Drake. Extra serving and as much sauce as you’ve got!”
It was a bit—barbaric to Pisces and Yvlon’s sensibilities as neither had been raised to eat bone marrow—and after one bite, Pisces decided this was another thing his home culture had gotten wrong.
Chef Rivvip’s smile was smug at his expression.
“Now there’s a use for bones, eh, Mister [Necromancer]? Or would you like to animate the pieces?”
He laughed, and Pisces looked up warily, but the Drake waved a claw.
“I saw you on the news. I’m fine with your presence or I’d have you out and the Gallowsmen over here. Just don’t bring a zombie into my restaurant!”
Pisces gave him a weak smile, but it seemed like fame cured all ills. Somewhat cynically, he reflected that it had not saved Az’kerash—or helped Ama—but he would take this small victory. He was a Horn before he was a [Necromancer].
And that was alright.
Mind you, it was weird for even a law-abiding Drake city to be this cool with Antinium. Even with the Gallowsmen around, Pisces had this prickling feeling on his back even as they ate lunch. Nailren was coolest; the Ekhtouch were almost as wary as the Horns—although that might have been because of the bill as Gireulashia ate enough for six refills of her grill.
The onlookers kept coming, though, and they gave the Rock Grill enough business to keep everything moving. The copper coin finally dropped when someone came up.
“I never saw the Necromancer, and his undead never got to us, but I saw what his hordes did. I don’t like undead, and the Antinium will never be our city’s allies. But I hope you can see we’re better than other Drake cities. Councilmember Drinn.”
“…Pleased to meet you, sir.”
Pisces’ nose twitched with the effort it took not to sniff. The Drake nodded a few times and then hesitated. He peered around.
“With all that said—do you think there will be an occasion to get on the scrying orb sometime during your visit? Loeri could use the publicity.”
Pisces’ face went blank as he realized part of his protection was—Yvlon’s face was colorful, but Ceria got up, cackling.
“Councilman Drinn? I’m delighted to meet you. Captain Ceria.”
“Oh, of course. I take it you’re enjoying your stay, Captain Ceria?”
The Drake shook her hand, and Ceria looked around thoughtfully. The snow that had covered Izril made this restaurant’s heat welcome, and the vertical city was fascinating. She smiled genuinely.
“It’s fascinating. And I’d love to look around. Your customs with rope—your ability to climb everywhere—I might want to borrow some of the designs and ideas. Especially the fun ones.”
The Drake’s face reddened immediately, and Yvlon reached over to punch Ceria in the shoulder. Hard.
“—I’m sure I can introduce you to some of our finest designers. Is there an occasion?”
The half-Elf [Prankster] kept smiling beatifically.
“I have at least one friend considering it. Well, no, two. Captain Jelaqua Ivirith is always interested in new things. And of course, Sinew Magus Grimalkin and Lady Pryde’s impending nuptials could use some interesting attire.”
“Sinew Magus Grimalkin of Pallass? And Lady…”
“Lady Pryde Ulta. Their marriage, yes. Don’t spread the word, but it’s coming up.”
Every head in the restaurant turned, and people in the know who realized that was not a Drake name dropped their utensils. Worse—Pisces saw at least one truth stone flashing serenely blue as people consulted it. Because of the damn circlet.
Ceria’s smile was huge.
—Right up until Yvlon grabbed a pitcher of ice water and poured it over Ceria’s head. Then hit her with it.
[Prankster Level 9!]
Anger was something difficult to manage.
Everyone saw the most extreme examples of someone who blew up and said, sometimes very reasonably, that they were out of control of their own emotions. Especially if the instigating event seemed petty.
The truth was that no one could know another’s thoughts—unless they could read minds, obviously—so they saw the final straw, sometimes of a wagon that had been filled with straw over decades.
Nevertheless. There was no excuse for losing control if your strength exceeded those around you. If your class focused around honing your technique, your own emotions were another muscle to work on.
Orjin of Pomle knew this. He was careful about how he acted. He could not get angry—because he knew the consequences of rage, both in how he fought and to others.
—It was odd. As Strongest, even when fighting Vandum, he had not often had to work on his fury for nearly ten years.
As Orjin of Pomle, travelling—he was tested sorely. There were multiple factors. Losing Pomle…was worse than his class. If he could have just travelled by himself, with naught to do but run and think and rest, he might have suffered not at all.
However, in her great wisdom, Salii had decided Orjin needed a mount to at least help him carry his burdens. So she had asked around, and Tiqr’s soldiers had provided Orjin with their ‘finest steed’ whom Nsiia had personally blessed and could keep up with the Strongest’s speed.
That…was fine. Although Orjin had not known why Spitty was called ‘Spitty’.
He now respected it and realized why the soldiers were so eager to give up on this fabulous animal…who made every rider’s life a living hell. The camel was grumpy, irritable, and uncannily intelligent. He had spat on Orjin.
To be more precise, he had managed to tag Orjin, the Strongest of Pomle, with his noxious spit that smelled like rotting date fruits and was warm and sticky and impossible to get off easily even with water.
Spitty had nearly died of dehydration the first day, because he kept missing Orjin. The Strongest would dodge at point-blank range with his back turned and seemed to regard the spit-based attacks as a kind of training.
That night, Spitty waited until Orjin was well and truly asleep. Then he spat twice. Orjin actually dodged the first glob of spit. He did not dodge the second.
Anyways. If it were just Spitty, Orjin would have been happy with his companion. He respected a camel who could strike him with phlegm.
The companion he did not respect or want was the one who rode Spitty or sometimes ran with the camel, two arms spread behind him in a ‘V’. The worst part was that he could keep up with Orjin, and sometimes he would do a flying leap, especially if someone were watching, and land hundreds of yards away, conjuring a gust to slow him as he landed.
The Fury of Skies would not leave. The [Cult Leader] and [Martial Artist] of Windcaller’s Wrath, who used his showy wind-based martial arts, had mostly healed from his defeat by the Prophet.
But his followers were rather disillusioned with him, and with the other masters of Pomle diminishing his already-dissolving flock, he had announced he was going on a ‘journey of personal enlightenment’.
Especially when he had ferreted out the fact that Orjin was going to visit Torreb, the highest-level [Warrior] in the world.
“Go away, Fury of Skies.”
“My name is Soloxenethn, Orjin of Pomle. We are both diminished in class and stature. Let us be fine companions.”
He had…some kind of amazing power that let him sit on Spitty’s back, no matter how hard the camel tried to buck him. Orjin stared at Soloxenethn.
“I shall call you the Fury of Skies. I do not want companionship.”
“Does the Strongest of…no. Does a [Martial Artist] of Pomle turn away seekers on the great path?”
The man folded his arms, sitting cross-legged on Spitty’s hump. He seemed to weigh far less than he should—probably how he executed his flashy jump-attacks and why Spitty wasn’t constantly complaining with him around.
Orjin disliked sophistry. It was not a word he often used or had in his lexicon—but Soloxenethn was sophistry embodied. The problem was that Pomle did teach such things, and Orjin believed it.
He just did not like the Fury of Winds. Anyone—Raul, Salthorn—Vandum would have been a better companion.
“I do not respect your martial art. It is wasteful and showy.”
“Yet with it, I can strike a man a hundred paces away. Can you do the same, Strongest?”
“I can do the same with a rock.”
“Hah! Seeyaw! Fft!”
The Fury of Skies threw three sharp punches with a decent amount of speed—emoting as he did. Orjin saw the air ripple, and three blades of air cut some of the mist drifting by them in a dangerous cloud to their right. The man turned to Orjin.
“My Skills do not run out. Your rocks do. If I had fought Revine, I would not have been forced into a hand-to-hand battle so quickly.”
She would have killed him. The Fury was—annoyingly—above the level of an apprentice by far. He could take down a number of Pomle’s lower-level fighters. He was, sadly, Level 41.
Orjin couldn’t believe it. He refused to believe it, but it did make sense; the Fury of Skies could throw his wind strikes around as long as he could throw a fist.
“I was a great [Leader of the Devoted Path] before I became a [Cult Leader]. My class consolidated with [Windfist], which turned into [Windtouched Martial Fist], into my final class. [Martial Fury of Skies]!”
Why did everything he say have to sound like he was endlessly proud of it? The Fury of Skies beamed with self-satisfaction—then frowned at Orjin.
“And you, Strongest?”
“I leveled up from training.”
The Fury waited, but that was all Orjin had to say on the matter. And the Fury’s teeth clicked as he shook his head.
“You have little aspect of a leader about you. No wonder Vandum replaced you.”
“That is not how Pomle works.”
“No? I am a leader of men and women, and you inspire little, Orjin of Pomle. A leader should be bold. They should be seen to move and live in style, to show others what can be aspired to. If nothing else—Pomle should know your strength, but you do not show it! Perhaps this journey will teach you more than you think.”
Was this what it was going to be for weeks? A month? Orjin stared across the Lantern Lands. The Fury of Skies had fallen behind that night he’d run as far and as fast as he could—partly to lose the man. But the Fury of Skies had caught up that morning, looking smug. The wind was on his side, and his entire class revolved around being mobile, after all.
“Let us stop at the first city we come to. We lack for provisions. Besides, you have a hefty bag of coin.”
“I am not wasting it on you.”
“At least let us buy provisions! Or do you intend to starve our camel here?”
The Fury slapped Spitty’s side and dodged the return-spit, but it was true that they had little feed for Spitty, and the animal looked weary from going so far. That swayed Orjin. He grunted.
“Excellent. Wait, what—”
The average Sandworm could be up to fifty feet long. It had a circular mouth with teeth lining the interior, like a leech, and it would lie in the sand, sometimes for ages, before erupting up and trying to consume anything it saw.
Its hide could deflect arrows, and the Fury of Skies’ wind-slashes bounced off it. But the great beast was not that fast—if you circled, it had to either try and strike you with its tail or encircle and devour you.
Orjin finally managed to make it writhe away and retreat after his fifth [Quake Palm] to its side. The wounded monster left a trail of yellow ichor as it fled.
He guessed he’d damaged its internal organs fairly badly. The Fury looked…rather impressed as he stopped running around in circles, trying to get a shot at the beast’s vitals. Orjin hadn’t run—he’d just walked as the Sandworm tried to enclose him, striking the monster in the same spot as he kept his pace.
“Again, you refuse to show off! You have greater Skills!”
“I was saving them for another Sandworm or a pack of them. If I can defeat a foe with a Level 5 Skill, I will. Your style looks impressive, but it cannot hurt many foes. As I proved.”
That took the wind out of the Fury’s sails, and he was quiet for a good two hours after that. However, once they got to the city, he was talkative once more.
“A bar. To it! Feed, drink, and food for us!”
It was called…Spotlight of Ixen. Ixen being the city they were in.
The city of Ixen was sovereign to a kingdom in the Lantern Lands, but Orjin didn’t know the name. He did not know much outside of Pomle aside from where warriors came from, and Ixen was certainly strange enough to him.
Every street had a colorful lantern hanging up. Not all were magical, but they glowed, especially at night. It seemed to Orjin to be entirely too colorful compared to his Pomle, and the citizens all had side-lanterns at their side.
They stared at the two [Martial Artists], especially the Fury of Skies’ swagger. To Orjin’s surprise—they knew him.
“Strongest of Pomle. It’s the Strongest of Pomle, here? I saw him in the scrying orb Wistram sells…”
No, he wanted to tell them. That is no longer me.
But he did not feel the need to speak. Nor did he want to stay at the bar, but the Fury had somehow gotten a hold of the bag of coin that Orjin had packed away, and Orjin had to follow to avoid him spending all of it.
“Two warriors? No blades bared. And coin up front!”
The Spotlight’s owner looked wary, but the Fury assured him neither Orjin nor he intended to bare a blade. He placed a gold coin down, and the [Bar Owner]’s face lit up.
“Fine food. Something hot—and a drink of barley tea for me. Fine feed for our camel, and summon your highest-level [Stablehand] to rub him down.”
“At once, sir.”
Orjin disliked the presumptuous way the Fury ordered people around. He stood, uncomfortably, until the Fury beckoned him over to a table.
“No stronger drink?”
He had expected the Fury to order some alcoholic beverage. But the other man just scoffed at the prospect.
“It is not night, and we are travelling. I do not partake of such substances unless I am resting. We have just defeated a Sandworm; more such monsters might come.”
His loud voice attracted some attention, and a Fox Beastkin [Waitress] turned as she delivered two barley teas to the table.
“You fought a Sandworm? And you’re alive? Where?”
“Not a mile outside the gates. We chased it off, and it dug down so we could not follow.”
The Fury spoke airily, and he began to regale a crowd with the tale—and told two nervous [Guards] where it had been on the road.
Orjin was silent throughout all of this. He was so uncomfortable that even the Fury noticed.
“What is wrong, Orjin?”
“I dislike bars. And bragging. Are we—disrupting the custom of this place?”
He looked around. They were certainly the center of attention. Warriors were giving them challenging looks, and he had heard ‘Strongest’ more than once being spoken. But the Fury was airy.
“Not at all. A loud voice means little. Ah, our food.”
Orjin stared as two platters and two entrées were served up—and he eyed the fried scorpions on one plate.
“From Scaied. A delicacy. Honey for them…and a marbled texture to this meat. A better dining experience than I thought.”
Even the Fury looked impressed as he pointed out fatty lines in the meat. Orjin was uneasy.
“Do we have enough to pay for this? You have ordered too much for us.”
“Orjin, we have gold. You act as if you have never dined in such places.”
“I have not. The last time I did was when I was fifteen. Xil took me out of Pomle.”
The Fury nearly dropped his fork. He blinked at Orjin and realized—Orjin had only actually eaten in an establishment with a roof over his head once in his entire life.
The amount of food and the quality of it did not mesh with Orjin. But he ate and found the first bite of meat—so disturbing that a huge frown came over his face. The [Bar Owner] and [Waitresses] stared at him, as if worried he had swallowed a bone.
“Something wrong, Orjin?”
The Fury was eating in good humor, and he saw Orjin was keeping up. In fact, Orjin had finished his main dish and half the entrées and still looked like he could eat. He was large enough, after all, and he had been exerting himself heavily these last few days.
“You could have another dish. We have the coin.”
It was a strange thing. Orjin was used to buying Yellats or even planting them to harvest later. The idea he could buy as much as he wanted was disconcerting, and his frown deepened.
“I should not.”
“Why? Watching your intake?”
“No…I should not enjoy eating. And I do.”
The Fury blinked as he used a toothpick to clean his teeth. The listeners relaxed, and some laughed. The Fury looked at Orjin.
“Why is eating a sin?”
“It should not matter. Dedicating your life to eating is a waste.”
“…Why is it a waste?”
The former Strongest was perplexed by the question. If you compared it to a life of refining your talents as a [Martial Artist], of course it was inferior. But the Fury demurred.
“A [Gourmet] is a kind of class, and they seem happy to eat. If I had the coin, I might try, but my stomach is too small. I enjoy a refined dish now and then. So too do Pomle’s masters.”
“They do not need such things. Nor have I ever seen Xil demand high-quality cuisine.”
Though he had brought Orjin to a restaurant to ‘show him what good food tasted like’. And he would leave the oasis now and then. The Fury seemed to be able to pick apart Orjin’s arguments.
“Ah, but they enjoy it. I would bet half my levels upon that fact. Some might be keen on privation, but enjoying something in its element is not wasteful. Or would you rather everything tasted like mush?”
Orjin would prefer that. He was getting increasingly annoyed by the Fury, but that was not when he got—angry.
He got angry when a group of warriors, including at least one adventurer claiming to be Gold-rank, came in and challenged him to a match.
“I am not the Strongest of Pomle.”
Orjin repeated himself for the sixteenth time. Everyone else was tense, but the Fury of Skies was leaning back in his seat, and the eleven men and two women refused to relent.
“Strongest or not—you’re Orjin of Pomle, the one who fought in that battle, aren’t you? Former Strongest will do. Let’s settle this with blades or fist. Or are you a coward?”
“I do not wish to fight you. I refuse.”
Orjin’s face was blank. He folded his arms as he stood there—and the Gold-rank adventurer pushed him with one hand roughly. He nearly pushed himself over; Orjin didn’t move.
“You’re more of a coward than I thought. Don’t you warriors of Pomle always talk about improving? I’m a Gold-rank adventurer. Oresen’s Steel Brigade. You think you could take me down without a scratch?”
“I did not say that.”
“But you’re too good for us, eh? Typical. No wonder Pomle’s been losing. You’re all talk about fists being able to beat swords. Too afraid to take on an actual warrior with an artifact.”
Slowly, Orjin’s head rose. His voice was level as his black hair, tied back with a bit of twine, shook slowly.
“You could not beat half the warriors in Pomle. Even with that blade. Pomle is not weak.”
“Ah. Prove it or swallow those words, coward. You’re not walking out of here now!”
The Gold-ranker shouted, and the [Bar Owner] wrung his hands.
“Outside, please! Not in here!”
Orjin went to leave; they had already paid. But a hand grabbed his arm roughly, and he turned as a local [Mercenary] or [Thug] sneered at him.
“You can duel us and show you’re not all words, ‘Strongest’. Or we can do this all at once, and you w—”
His mouth kept moving before he realized the huge hand covering his face was cutting off his voice. The Gold-rank adventurer recoiled. The other warriors fell silent as Orjin’s other hand removed the hand from his shoulder.
It was a gentle squeeze on the man’s face. When Orjin let go, the red face tried to wrench his other arm free of Orjin’s grip.
He could not. Orjin had hold of the iron gauntlets and the man’s wrist, and he spoke very slowly, enunciating his words.
“Listen to me. I am not the Strongest. Even if I were—I would not fight you. Because I cannot hit you.”
Faces wrinkled up in confusion at Orjin’s words. The [Superior Martial Artist] looked the other man in the face. A Stitch-man, burly, probably at least Level 20—maybe verging on Level 30? Iron armor, but brawny enough. His nose had been broken at least once, and he probably could take a punch from someone else.
“I cannot hit you. If I do—I will kill you. Do you understand? I cannot exchange a blow with you. Because I will break every bone where I strike you and rupture your organs. And you—you cannot hurt me. I do not fear your fists. I do not fear your sword. You cannot make my blood boil.”
“That’s a lot of—talk—”
The Gold-ranker looked slightly uneasy, but his companion said nothing at all. He was grabbing at Orjin’s wrist—and then someone swore quietly.
“Lanterns out. He’s…”
Every ear slowly heard a sound. And the sound was the creak of metal. Orjin’s grip was closing. And it was closing around the iron gauntlet, bending the metal as the Stitch-man tried to make him let go.
It didn’t even look like Orjin was struggling to bend the gauntlet. And that was terrifying. When he let go, the man fell to his knees, trying to remove the metal that was compressed into his skin.
He stared at the man—at the Fury’s delighted smile—and he was ashamed.
He had lost his temper. He hadn’t done that since he was…nineteen.
“There is nothing wrong with proving yourself. Or losing your temper. Some warriors fight hot.”
“Not I. That was a lapse in judgment. I hurt that warrior.”
The Fury scoffed as Spitty chewed on something and sauntered with the other two [Martial Artists] down the street. They were given a wide berth this time—and the group that had accosted them was not demanding a fight. The Fury nodded back the way they’d come.
“You saved the bar from damage and prevented a fight.”
“I lost control. The last time I did that, I injured my opponent. Badly. We cannot lose control, Fury of Skies. You know that.”
Orjin was staring at his hand. He had always known he was stronger than many others. Even without levels—he had been a large boy and seen the damage his fists could do. The Fury eyed him.
“I have injured opponents before by accident. You?”
“Yes. I was angry, as a boy. It took a long time to learn to quell that. I was hot-headed.”
“You? Truly. Then I see why you love Pomle.”
“It gave me discipline. It made me who I am.”
If there was one truth Orjin believed in, it was that. If there was one person proud of Pomle—
It was him. And the Fury of the Skies’ critique of how he lived in his isolation did not mean the Strongest was some passive hermit who would never raise a fist. It was just that Orjin saw no value in a random challenge from a low-level warrior.
“Sirs. Sirs. Did someone say you came from Pomle?”
A voice called out before the two [Martial Artists] were at the gates of Ixen. Orjin turned, ready to refuse someone else—and found not that.
Instead, he saw a grinning, furred face.
A Fox Beastkin. Another one—hobbling at them. He was older, and several people ducked back when they saw him and looked around warily.
—Because he was a beggar?
He had no eyes. His empty sockets focused on them, and he lurched forwards with a cane, uncannily coordinated. The Fury answered for them.
“We come from Pomle. But we are not representing it. Do you want tidings of news or war? All we know is the war around us.”
“Oh. Oh—but you are closer to Nerrhavia’s Fallen.”
“We have fought them.”
The Fox Beastkin grinned as he leaned on his cane. Something was wrong with his arm. It looked healed in the wrong way.
“Then they are fighting Pomle and the Empress of Beasts. And—have you been north? Have you seen the King of Destruction? He is coming, isn’t he?”
Orjin blinked. The Fury of Skies stared at the Fox Beastkin, then glanced down the street. Someone was pointing at him, and a few Fox Beastkin were hurrying forwards.
“Grandfather…don’t ask. You’re going to get in trouble.”
“They’ve seen him. Haven’t they? He’s coming. The King of Destruction. We have been waiting. We couldn’t abandon our homes and make that journey so far. But you…they called you the Strongest of Pomle.”
He focused on Orjin. The [Martial Artist] opened his mouth to deny it, but the old Fox Beastkin was speaking on.
“He’ll visit you. If you see him—tell him we’re waiting. We will be waiting when he returns. But most of us will be hiding. The cowards here have put down our voices like they did to Sottheim’s monks. To others. But we are waiting. He will return. That breaker of traditions. Just like last time.”
“The militia is coming, old man. You had better lower your voice—or run.”
The Fury of Skies observed quietly. The Fox Beastkin just gave him a toothy grin. It had—no fear. It disconcerted Orjin, and he saw the other Fox Beastkin running as he picked out armored soldiers.
“They have already visited me enough times. You see? I thought I had better tell someone who would meet the King of Destruction. I am out of time.”
He passed a paw over his empty sockets. Orjin fixed on them suddenly. Then on the grim-faced Stitch-folk.
“Treason against the Auguries of Corzein. It’s you, Gavros. There’s no point lying or running.”
One put a hand on the Fox Beastkin’s shoulder and grabbed him roughly. Gavros, the old Fox Beastkin, bared his teeth. He leaned on his walking cane.
“Running? You’ll find me later. But I—”
He whirled, and Orjin saw a Skill activate. Gavros’ swing might have crushed the warrior’s arm and ribs with the force of it.
But he was blind. And they had seen it before. The walking stick missed the cursing warrior, and another struck the Fox Beastkin from behind across the knees. Down the supporter of the King of Destruction went.
“Treason! For the third time. You could have lived as a beggar, you fool. No more. By Corzein’s will—you will be executed for this.”
Two warriors with spears lifted them as the Fox Beastkin struggled, a foot on his shoulder. He shouted, to the street, to his people watching, to the city people gathered to watch in hushed silence.
“The King of Destruction is coming. He’ll uncover what Corzein has done and shatter the Lantern Lands a second time. Wait as long as you have to. He’s—”
The spears thrust down, and in that moment, Orjin kicked the first Stitch-man into a wall. The Fury of Skies slashed the haft of the second spear in half with a knife-hand and a sigh.
The two warriors recoiled. Their leader opened his mouth.
Orjin punched him in the face but pulled the blow. He thought he broke a number of the man’s teeth, and the head snapped back. The Stitch-man went over onto his back, already out. The rest of the squad turned—and Spitty expectorated onto one’s face. The Fury leg-swept another, turned—and Orjin lowered his hand. Three more warriors collapsed as someone began to scream.
The Fox Beastkin had his teeth bared, but he scrambled up, confused, and someone—the [Waitress]—dashed out with her face covered.
“What are you doing?”
Orjin wasn’t sure if she meant him or Gavros. But she was tugging the old Fox Beastkin away.
“He needs to leave the city or he’ll be slaughtered.”
“We have kin—but you’ve made an enemy of the city! Thank you—run! A hundred soldiers will be on you in a second!”
Someone was screaming an alarm in the distance. Orjin looked at the terrified [Waitress].
“How long do you need to get him to safety?”
“How long—? What?”
The [Martial Artist] stared up at the sun. It was almost halfway overhead. Then he lowered his gaze to the City of Ixen. It might not have had the same elements as a Watch—some kind of militia—but they were coming.
Spears, mostly, for fighting Sandworms, he suspected. The tips sparked—they must be enchanted with lightning to fight monsters around here. They slowed as they saw him.
The Fury of Skies did a double-take. Orjin saw the Fox Beastwoman stare at him.
“Longer, if you need it.”
Then he turned. The Stitch-folk slowed as Orjin walked forwards. Then he shouted, as if he were in Pomle and they were challenging them.
“I am the St—I am Orjin of Pomle. Halt or I will face you all.”
He said nothing more. The Fury of Skies stared at Orjin then began laughing at his back.
“I thought you were not willing to fight!”
“Not for no reason. Pomle has always been willing to take a cause. But it must matter. ‘Give me all the righteousness of your cause. Stand there with all the passion to defy the sun. I shall be the strength in your arms.’ I have seldom found reasons like this to fight in Pomle.”
The words came to Orjin suddenly, and he had never thought to speak them because he had never quoted the First Strongest before. But he felt they were true.
No duel with any challenger had made him feel as steadfastly determined. He looked back—and for a second, he thought the blind Gavros’ stare was finding him. Orjin raised his voice and his head.
“I am no King of Destruction. But I will stand here a while, Gavros of Ixen. For I find you worthy of respect.”
The warriors of Ixen slowed—until more gathered. A dozen. Two dozen…they called for bows and slings, and Orjin stared at the sky. He looked down at them, and they hesitated. There was no reward for this, but he stood in front of those gates. And the Fury of Skies?
That man with all his posturing in arrogance hesitated. Then he leapt forwards and took a stance next to Orjin, calling out a challenge, and he with all his silliness and his own faults seemed to still be there.
But if you sifted deep enough through the sand, you might find a sliver of something better. The first gleaming edge of it looked like courage to Orjin.
The sun had moved about two hour’s length down the sky when he walked out of the city. Orjin walked, then began to jog. The Fury of the Skies was clinging to Spitty’s back, exhausted.
Ixen was silent. The warriors not playing dead—and none were dead that Orjin had hit—were lying across the street and walls. Part of the gates were blown open, and Orjin bent the steel crudely back into place to prevent a monster from easily getting in. He couldn’t do anything about the buildings with their walls blown in.
His skin was cut and felt burnt in several places. Someone had shot him with an arrow in one arm. He had yanked out the arrow, but it stung. [Piercing Shot].
Besides that? Orjin walked out of the city and left two hundred of Ixen’s warriors and half the Steel Brigade’s members lying on the street.
“That was a deed worthy of the Strongest of Pomle.”
The Fury crowed about it all the rest of the evening predictably. To his credit, he had taken out at least forty himself, but he had tired before Orjin. Yet his wind-attacks had kept the arrows from hitting them mostly.
“Did that girl make it? I could tell it was her, from the bar.”
Someone had whispered to Orjin that Gavros was safe. The Fury just shrugged.
“They might suspect her. But I think they will not be able to prove it if she’s clever. You can defeat truth stones, and Fox Beastkin are tricky. It will be hard for her people despite what you did—because of what you did. But it is always hard for such people.”
He spoke a kind of truth. Orjin shook his head.
“If she had been a warrior of Pomle…”
The terror in her eyes seeing one of her people about to be executed without having the power to do anything about it—he remembered that more than the fighting. The Fury shrugged.
“Not everyone can fight.”
“They can all learn. If she had been Salthorn’s disciple, she could have done something about it. Or not. Perhaps…only a few of Pomle’s masters could do what we just did. We have seen our weakness in this war. That is what I am here to find.”
The Fury of Skies looked up, and he began to understand part of Orjin’s journey. He exhaled as he leapt from Spitty’s back at a watering hole, and Orjin sent a bucket plummeting into a well where travellers could haul off water. This one was only for camels—but he took a drink of the brackish water himself. The Fury shuddered, but Orjin had a Skill.
[Consumption: Increase Nutrition] and [Stomach of the Hermit]. Even Spitty gave him the side-eye as he gulped from the salty water.
“So that is the former Strongest’s desire. To make his martial art accessible to all. I see, now. You know, I am much the same; my Windcaller’s Wrath took in those like that [Barmaid]. Taught them self-respect, gave them community. You and I are not that dissimilar, Orjin.”
The Fury of Skies smiled. Orjin paused in hauling another bucket of water up and thought about that. He nodded, shortly, coming over to offer the bucket to the Fury. The man instantly refused. Orjin cradled the bucket in one arm as he replied.
“You may not be wrong, Fury of Skies. I have much to learn—and perhaps we are similar. But if we must travel together, I will say one thing about your Windcaller’s Wrath cult and folk.”
Soloxenethn’s smile looked welcoming—until it turned into alarm. He tried to step back, but Orjin’s fist smashed into his nose. Then the Strongest of Pomle tossed the bucket of water into the Fury’s face and hit him with the bucket.
Round two of Orjin and the Fury of Skies’ duel looked much like the first. After Orjin had punched the Fury of Skies enough times, he let Spitty spit on him and tossed him into the well.
And the man caught up later that night. For some reason, he refused to leave. Perhaps he realized the same thing Orjin had.
They both had a lot to learn. And whether the Fury realized it consciously or not, it was why Orjin let him catch up and sit, silent and bruised.
He looked like a picture of how he had seemed after facing the Prophet. The difference was that this time, Orjin had not broken his teeth or beaten him so badly he couldn’t walk. Yet he had hit the Fury.
Not in uncontrolled wrath alone. But like he had fought for Gavros or first offended Nerrhavia’s Fallen by freeing slaves after seeing them being beaten by that [Prince]—Orjin looked at the Fury, and the man flinched. Angrily, uncomprehending.
He had been a reasonable man this entire trip. More reasonable, at least, than Orjin had ever known him. And that was well.
“You don’t—approve of my presence, Orjin? I thought we had gained an understanding.”
His eyes flashed with that uncomprehending anger. The other [Martial Artist] sat cross-legged, face impassive as a campfire’s light flickered across his features. When he spoke, it was with a shake of his head.
“I am on the same journey. I failed Pomle. My martial art and yours seek improvement. Truth. I found some of that, with Gavros, at Ixen. I considered you a braver warrior in that moment, worthy of Pomle.”
“Then why strike me?”
The Fury of Winds leapt to his feet, and the winds howled a second. Orjin looked up, a simple cup of water in hand. And the winds stilled around him. The Fury hesitated—
For he realized Orjin was truly angry. But he held it like every measured word and drop of water he refused to spill.
“You are on a quest to define yourself, Solo…”
“Yes. But I see little guilt in you.”
“Why would I be guilty?”
The man’s face looked so confused and blank that it became, once again, eminently punchable. But Orjin did not move. He sat and spoke, and after a moment, the Fury sat once more and listened.
Perhaps so he might figure it out. Orjin hoped that he would. The difference between the two was that both were searching for something.
But one of them had redemption to seek.
Yvlon did not apologize to Ceria the next day.
She didn’t feel like she had to. Sometimes, you were 101% justified in getting angry at someone, and Ceria just spreading malicious rumors about other people qualified to Yvlon.
She expressed this to Ksmvr and Pisces when he asked her why she had not made up with Ceria—who had apologized for her prank. Yvlon said it reasonably and heard them out and told them how she felt, and they dropped the topic.
Yes, it had put a bit of a damper on their visit to Loeri, but Ceria was not going to do that again in Yvlon’s earshot most likely. They had gotten lucky that no one had given them more than a fine for breaking the peace.
Colth was just as understanding as everyone else when he rode with Yvlon, behind the others, and had a talk. He nodded along as Yvlon explained her rational position.
“I’m not just angry about Ceria’s circlet, Colth. It’s because she’s lying to no point, she doesn’t trust her team, and she’s not behaving like a Captain should.”
“Very understandable, Yvlon.”
“Thank you. Is it wrong to take a moral stance against what Ceria is doing?”
Yvlon couldn’t see any other way to think. Colth gave her a calm smile and shook his head.
“You are a [Paragon of Virtue] and principle. Gire could learn something from you.”
“That might be too much flattery, but I’ll take it in the spirit intended.”
Yvlon kept her face straight, and the [Supporter] raised his hands.
“Oh, no, I’m serious. You’re doing what you think is right. It makes you an ethical woman. And a poor teammate.”
The [Armsmistress]’ own slight smile turned into a scowl. But Colth wasn’t wary of that glare at all.
“Everyone’s got foibles. You think Deni’s team likes him doing half the things he does? Viecel’s got a gambling addiction. Eld…well, he’s unnaturally nice, and he has some things I won’t say, but look at Valeterisa. Killed over a hundred people trying to wake her up. I love her to pieces, and so does Larra.”
“That’s not right. Are you going to ignore what she did?”
If Yvlon thought of that, the Archmage of Izril disturbed her even more. Colth raised his hands.
“Oh, no. I’m upset, and I think Valley’s the most upset—if she would ever focus on her feelings. But she is my friend.”
“So you’ll put her over a hundred innocent dead people?”
Colth thought about it as Yvlon’s eyes flashed.
“Hmm…yes. Yes, I will. And I think you’d better ask whether or not you’re being entirely truthful with why you went after Ceria like that. I’m not holding you to my morality; I’ll stab someone in the back to save a friend. But wouldn’t a more reasonable Yvlon have pulled Ceria aside rather than gone straight to ‘shatter a pitcher over her head’?”
Yvlon flushed at that, because she didn’t like the Named-rank’s own code of ethics. And she didn’t like him being right either.
“—I’m going to visit Berr. You can stop harping on about my temper.”
She snapped, and Colth nodded so calmly she wanted to hit him again. But he switched gears at once.
“Alright, then. In that case, let’s talk about your personal improvement as an adventurer.”
“What about it?”
“Ah, not the right question, Yvlon. Where is it?”
She was so outraged about that she and he began arguing. Yvlon struck her chest.
“I practice every day! Ceria’s the one who has to be bullied into training! Do you not see me and Ksmvr train?”
“I see you doing that, yes. I said ‘self improvement’, not ‘daily maintenance’. Improvement isn’t simple. You’re not training a new style. He is. And so are the other Horns.”
Ksmvr spent a good deal of his time not sitting in the wagon practicing with his swords. He had the blades he’d looted from Hscel in Chandrar, and while they were no Relic-class weapons, he claimed that having two balanced blades fit his Silver Illusion Sword School.
In fact, he practiced with Wil, Venaz, and anyone else who wanted to try him and claimed it was good practice. Even against the inexperienced Wil, Ksmvr was…well, it was hard to say.
He tried to explain it to Pisces as Yvlon listened in one time.
“It is very hard to explain, Comrade Pisces. It is not as simple as…performing a move or even a series of moves. Or sticking a sword into a weak spot.”
“I don’t follow, Comrade Ksmvr. Please explain.”
“Oho. The student has become the master. Very well. I understand many sword schools where you have blade patterns. It is like a dance; you adjust, but you might follow a series of pre-planned moves. It can be effective unless you break the dance. There is also just knowing how to strike a weak spot. Like how most [Fencers] fight.”
“Yes…that’s how everyone fights.”
“Not the Silver Illusion school!”
“So you don’t stab someone when you see an opening?”
“I…create an opening, Comrade Pisces. Or create a wall.”
Pisces’ blank look could have been used to plaster the wall of a house. Yvlon herself scratched her head. Ksmvr tried to elaborate, and his explanation grew more esoteric.
“Imagine the world is made of light, Comrade Pisces. Which it is. But this is a figurative world where eyes are like a cone of light. You can only react to what you see, but the rest of the world is immutable. Things move, and you have to see where they move, but an expert can still predict everything.”
“Yes…I think I understand.”
Ksmvr nodded happily.
“Well, the Silver Illusion is all about taking the world and reflecting that cone of light with the blades. Twisting what is seen—so the cone of light thinks it sees a slash but only sees a silver glitter. That is the first step. The second step is to change the world through trickery. To create a wall of silver that is such a good illusion it makes reality believe it was there.”
Pisces’ blank look escalated into complete stupefaction. Yvlon…
“That sounds like magic, Ksmvr.”
“Only a tiny bit. In dimensions. The Key-Style of Samal does the same thing. Locks and unlocking. My studies showed that you could lock a blade or unlock it in a clash of swords; very inconvenient.”
Pisces stroked his chin, fascinated, while Yvlon sat back, head hurting already. Ksmvr’s blade-school, and her training him, had gone from the material to the esoteric.
The problem was, she sort of got it. In their spars, Ksmvr would strike and parry with her, but when he dueled Venaz and Wil in a three-way fight—
She swore she saw him produce a third blade at one point during the fight. Despite only having two shortswords, and his daggers or Stan’s crossbows in his other two hands, Wil leapt back from a third sword as Ksmvr threatened Venaz with the first two.
If it had touched the [Lord], would it cut?
The point was that Ksmvr was learning a highly distracting, mobile sword school that was capable of a lot of tricks. To say he had grown since Chandrar was an understatement, and he had a path.
In fact, he had two paths. One was his journey as a warrior in Klbkch the Slayer’s footsteps.
The other, it seemed, was to become a [Baron of the Trees].
“Ksmvr, I have something to give you. In light of our quarrel over your lost, um, acreage, I made a few arrangements at Loeri. It would give me great joy to bury the hatchet, so to speak.”
“Bury it where, please? In the back of someone else?”
Ksmvr was wary as Wil and the [Strategists] presented him with something over lunch. Yvlon saw Wil unroll a scroll and clear his throat nervously.
“Nothing so grim. Rather—this is a small deed from Loeri. The city itself is obviously a mining one, but I inquired around, and their Council did say they had a local forest nearby. For a fee, they graciously offered two trees to me. And I would like to remit them to you now.”
The scroll was a deed to two trees in a forest. Ksmvr stared at the title, which recognized him as owning two trees in the middle of a forest. Ksmvr the Antinium, owning trees in Drake territory.
Merrik couldn’t believe Wil had pulled it off. But Peki had put the idea in Wil’s head, and the [Lord] had effected it through a combination of judiciously applied gold and suggestions to the Drakes that they were selling two trees they’d never bother cutting down anyways at a landmark profit.
To an Antinium. Ksmvr stared at the scroll as Pisces, Yvlon, and Ceria held their breaths. The Gnolls were laughing their tails off, but everyone waited to see whether Ksmvr would be happy or throw this in Wil’s face.
Slowly, the Antinium glanced up. Then he looked Wil in the eyes and spoke quietly.
“Wil Kallinad. I have had a low impression of Terandrian Humans of late. But I can see yours is a people capable of great change and insight. Thank you. It will never replace the trees in House Byres I have lost. But now?”
He put two hands behind his back and stared towards Loeri in the distance.
“Tiqr. Loeri. It is a pleasant thing to own trees. I wish I had known this when we were in Loeri. It would have made every meal taste sweeter. Or more woody, I assume.”
Wil grinned in relief, and Merrik slapped him on the back.
“We can go back sometime, Ksmvr! And once again, I’m glad we can make this up between us. I see the value in owning trees now, myself.”
That was just a silly, little thing that kept everyone laughing until they stopped at a Drake city called Marwsh after another full day of riding. This place had lots of cats and more Gnolls than you might expect.
Nailren disappeared at once as Yvlon marched up to the city’s Watch Captain. She presented her team to him and asked if they had any monsters they needed slaying—trying to emulate Eldertuin. The bemused Drake looked her up and down and said yes…yes they did.
A somewhat abashed Yvlon found the rest of her team watching a caravan setting out from Marwsh. Wil was excited as he spoke.
“They hired Professor Perorn? And she charged them hand-over-foot?”
Merrik beamed hugely.
“Classic. And they’re sending a caravan out. With…hunting cats?”
Marwsh was another weird Drake city. They were all weird. In fact, one of the [Beast Tamers] called out.
“It’s our specialty! We don’t use them in warfare—they’re not attack dogs. They’re only pumas.”
Pumas, as in the giant cats that could get up to eight feet long from head to tail and weigh over two hundred pounds.
The ‘hunting cats’ of Marwsh were huge predators that got head-scratches and belly rubs when they wanted it—or they’d nip you. They were padding alongside wagons of Drakes bound for the new lands.
“That’s an interesting strategy. Cats are natural hunters. It must be hell getting them to carry a kill back, though.”
“If they kill or track something down, who cares? Free meat.”
Merrik and Venaz were debating how useful they were compared to dogs, but it was clear this caravan had a specialty. Marwsh’s citizens were almost as fond of the Horns being here, though.
“‘Ow’s that compared to them Yoldenites, heh? Nothing like those weirdos. Mrremenyot!”
A cheerful Drake with the weirdest accent Yvlon had ever heard elbowed Pisces. He made a sound akin to a rumbling cat, and the [Necromancer] hesitated.
“You that bone-person who raises undead? And that’s an Ant-thing. Can I see it?”
Ksmvr was once again beset, but Marwsh too had seen the famous Horns—and Yvlon was just coughing to tell them the city had hired their considerable talents for a…particularly fun monster…when Peki flapped down.
“I have done it. I have done it!”
“Done what? Peki, what did you do?”
Wil’s ebullience turned to extreme paranoia as the Garuda [Martial Artist] folded her arms. She looked entirely smug—and pointed as the local [City Planner] marched over.
“I said, wait—we have to do a ceremony, Miss Peki! You paid the fee and ran off—who am I according the trees to?”
The what? Wil’s face went slack, and Peki started laughing all by herself as Ksmvr looked over. The Drake recoiled when he saw Ksmvr.
“We’re giving two of our trees to an Antinium?”
“You bought him trees?”
Wil was outraged. Peki held up three claws.
“I bought him three trees. Because I am a better friend to Ksmvr than you.”
The [Strategists] were not without some coin—especially since Niers had hired them as officers. Peki had decided it was only fit to buy three trees in one of Marwsh’s gardens and dedicate them to Ksmvr. The Antinium puffed up with delight, and an entire crowd gathered to see—and debate—the Antinium being gifted trees.
When they heard Peki had put down no less than three hundred gold coins for them, they decided the Antinium could take the trees and began arguing how the money should be divided up. Wil nearly shook Peki’s feathers out at how much she’d paid, but no one had ever claimed Peki had passed their budgeting class in the academy.
“Venaz. Venaz. I think you know what’s happening.”
Merrik whispered to Venaz as Yvlon watched Ksmvr being awarded a written contract. The Minotaur whispered back.
“I know. Wil and Peki may have struck the first blow. Next city? Four trees. And a rock.”
Merrik gave Venaz a sharp nod. Yvlon covered her eyes—but this made her smile. It seemed like this was becoming a game, trying to get Ksmvr land-grants.
Her attempt to give the Horns personality was, uh…not as successful. She had not realized the fallacy of Eldertuin’s style, and it was this:
Sometimes the monster needing to be slain wasn’t deadly. It just sucked.
“Yvlon. I know Ksmvr’s grand moment is above, and you are not willing to trust Ceria with this. But please. Let’s trust Ceria with this.”
Pisces would have gotten on his hands and knees to beg Yvlon—if they weren’t standing in Marwsh’s sewers.
Their huge, smelly sewers that made him glad his robes were enchanted. Yvlon stood with literally crap running by her in the giant cisterns and stared blankly ahead.
“I told him we could take on Marwsh’s monsters.”
“Yes, but…a giant rat?”
“It’s supposed to be sixteen feet long. The cats won’t go after it.”
Pisces covered his face with a hand. Yvlon’s face was grim—and she was avoiding looking at him.
“I already agreed, Pisces. Let’s just—get in, kill it, and get out. The Silver-ranks haven’t taken it out. Most are too low-level, and it’s a sixteen-foot long rat.”
“Or maybe they didn’t want to find it.”
Pisces groaned. Yvlon said nothing. Yes, that was probably it. She could have asked Ceria for help, but the [Cryomancer] freezing half the sewers might get them in trouble.
Besides—if you walked wide of the stream of literal sewage, there was some slippery, gross stone to walk on. Pisces chose each step carefully and decided he was buying new shoes for fencing grip—and because he was never using these shoes again after this.
The fee that Yvlon had agreed on might be enough for some decent shoes. Yvlon called out to Pisces.
“At least you can get some rat bones out of this. I thought your stores were low?”
“Of smaller bones, unless I want to shave down Gargoyle bones. I could use some smaller fiddly ones to complete a project I’ve had in mind. Yes…and the smell shall ever linger. But I will take them. I guess.”
Pisces muttered. He wished he could just send a Bone Horror at the giant rat, but—
“Everyone keeps bringing up the salient fact I am a [Necromancer], Yvlon. Despite me not going around with any undead to speak of. I find it rather annoying. I cannot think what Ksmvr must feel, but I am glad the trees are cheering him up.”
“Well—maybe you should. Then they can complain about it.”
Pisces raised his brows. That was a…spicy suggestion. He tapped a finger to his lips—and nearly slipped and went over in the muck.
Yvlon caught him, and Pisces shuddered.
“Yvlon—we have to kill this thing now. [Detect Life]! Oh. Eugh. There’s things in the sewage. And the rats—there are so many rats. How do the cats not eat them?”
“If you were a cat, would you want to eat sewer-crusted rats if you lived in a city that fed you for nothing?”
“…Point. I see the rat. It’s that way.”
Pisces pointed, and Yvlon’s pegleg splashed in the muck as she raised her sword. Pisces eyed it.
“That’s not your old Sword of Weight, is it?”
“Yep. Hedault remade it, remember?”
“Yes…but why don’t you just spike the rat with an arm?”
Yvlon glowered at Pisces.
“I’m an [Armsmistress], Pisces.”
“Yes. And it seems to me your arms are more deadly than your sword at this point. True, your sword is enchanted…”
“Why do you have a rapier if you’re a better [Necromancer] and can cast [Deathbolt]?”
“I withdraw my objections.”
They were bantering, and Yvlon was smiling when the giant rat attacked. It was indeed sixteen feet long and six feet high—no regular puma would tackle this huge, matted beast with yellow fangs and fur encrusted with a hide of…crap.
But the danger was actually the smaller rats, some as large as pumas, who came in a swarm at the two adventurers. Pisces shouted.
“Rat attack! Rat—”
It was the stupidest thing he’d ever said, and he instantly regretted it. The [Necromancer] cast three spells.
First—[Bone Wall]. The rats were clever enough to come from behind—so he walled off behind them. Then he pointed.
[Flame Swathe]! His rapier was in his off hand, but the rats flinched and burned as the flames coated them. It wasn’t ideal in the wet sewer, but Pisces steeled himself for a rush of tiny fangs. He flicked his hand.
[Shatterbolt]. The ring sent a white piercing light at the giant rat. It hit the rat in the face, and Pisces heard a crack. The giant rat convulsed, slowed—and skidded in a slosh of slime and debris. Then it fell over, mouth open.
Pisces stared at it. The rats recoiled—turned to their leader, and Pisces realized his shatterbolt had hit it in the head and probably destroyed its entire skull.
…Was that it? Yvlon’s sword cleaved the second-largest rat’s head off as it darted forwards, not realizing its leader was dead. The other rats stared at the corpse of the largest rat and then fled in a shrieking swarm.
“Better wipe out as many as we can. Er—[Deathbolt]! [Deathbolt]!”
Flustered, Pisces began shooting the Tier 4 spell and saw rats keel over as the death magic passed through them. He stared at the main rat and wondered if animating it to attack its kin was worth the effort. Certainly, the bones might be useful…
“Yep, let’s get them, P—”
Yvlon charged after the rats, and Pisces heard and saw the sound that came next. She had good footing when she was walking, but she tried to break into a charge, and her pegleg…
Slipped. He saw Yvlon go forwards and straight into the sewer muck. Pisces’ eyes went wide in horror as Yvlon tried to close her mouth, catch herself—
The bounty on the dead rat was small. The effusiveness of the Watch Captain who was relieved to see the corpse—worth more.
The smell that clung to Yvlon and her experience in the sewers? She sat, wrapped in towels after eight baths and showers combined, and looked sick.
It was not a good adventure, and even Colth refrained from teasing Yvlon. Mind you, her world-ending fury had abated, and now she just looked ill.
“I hate this city.”
Everyone stayed away from her. Pisces had cast a deodorizing smell, and they’d bought some of the scent bombs from a local [Alchemist], but the knowledge of what she’d fallen in and her complexion made it so only Ksmvr stayed by her side, patting her on the arm.
All the Gnolls decided they were riding, and as it happened, one of them, Gireulashia, found herself running beside Nailren the next day as they left Marwsh. Ksmvr, the owner of more trees, was a fun character. Yvlon was too intense, Pisces was interesting, and Ceria was funny and sharp.
But Gireulashia felt, more and more as they headed to the Great Plains, the weight of her new class.
[Chieftain]. She paced alongside the horses, running rather than riding. She could ride a horse—but few wanted to carry someone of her height and weight. She eyed Nailren, though, the entire way.
He had vanished when they entered Marwsh. Unlike the visible [Strategists] or the Horns and Colth, who attracted attention, Nailren did the opposite. No one knew the Silver-rank leader of the Pride of Kelia. He could introduce himself and win some basic respect, but he was an interesting person.
“Chieftain Gireulashia. Do you want something from me?”
He turned his head, and the black-furred Gnoll grinned at her as Gire stared. The Chieftain of Ekhtouch sniffed.
“I don’t know. Do I want something from you? Do you think I should want something?”
He gave her a puzzled look.
“I’m just a Silver-rank Captain, Chieftain.”
“Mhm. I know who you are. Hawkarrow’s Eitha never mentions you. Even though you’re part of her tribe. And also the Chieftain of the Fletchsing Tribe. Which doesn’t exist. Larr knew that, and he’s part of Eitha’s tribe. I asked around and figured it out.”
Nailren rolled his eyes.
“Good for you. Are you going to shout it to everyone?”
Gire huffed. She had been keeping her voice low for a private conversation between them.
“What do you do in cities like Marwsh? Ask around and see if Gnolls are unhappy?”
He exhaled hard.
“You make it sound like I have specific duties. I do what I want. If you’re worried I’m like the Doomslayers from Plain’s Eye—I am not. Go bother someone else. Another Chieftain. They can tell you I’m well-known. To [Chieftains] and [Shamans]. And I am not high-level.”
“Sure. Silver-ranker. Want to spar like the adventurers are doing? I’ll do bows, but it’s dangerous. Swords? Spear?”
He carried a sword at his side. The other Gnoll shook his head.
“I’m not dueling a [Paragon] of Ekhtouch. You’d learn little from it, and I would only learn what a concussion feels like. But I will say you should spend some time training…however your class does it.”
“You don’t think I’m right for the job as [Chieftain]? What do you think as [Chieftain] of your ‘tribe’?”
At last, Nailren gave up and glared at her. The Fletchsing tribe he claimed as home didn’t exist. Or if it did, it ‘existed’ wherever he went. It was the kind of thing that was funny if you realized how it worked.
Fletchsing sounded like a tribe. No one would ask about it. If someone inquired, they’d probably hear ‘yes, it’s around the Great Plains, I think’, and think no more of it. Only if you really dug would you realize members of that tribe were few and far between.
It was a nice cover, especially if a ‘Gnoll of Fletchsing’ did something untowards. Like, say, wipe out a group of Drakes ambushing Gnoll tribes. Or gather intelligence on a Drake city.
Or masquerade as a Silver-rank team.
Mind you, Gire was fairly sure that Nailren was an adventurer too, but his dual-purpose made him resigning as a Silver-rank and joining the exodus to the New Lands all the more odd.
“Are you really leaving just to explore?”
Nailren’s silence was pained before he spoke.
“Chieftain Gireulashia. It may be hard for you to understand—but I have lived for over three decades—almost four now—and done everything I can for my people. Seen how we’ve diminished, seen the politics, and now—seen a Great Tribe, multiple tribes, meet their end or take a mortal wound. Is it so hard to believe I want to embrace the greatest deed of Gnolls in ages and see something new?”
When he put it like that—no. Gire exhaled. She ran along, then a bit of her nerves leaked out.
“Then…how am I doing? You’ve met a lot of Chieftains. Do you think my tribe’s not asking enough of me? I think they’re coddling me.”
Nailren’s brows rose. He glanced at the Ekhtouch Gnolls riding at a respectful distance.
“No one’s challenging your authority, Chieftain. I can confirm this, if nothing else.”
“I know that. I meant—they don’t expect as much of me as they should. I’m a [Paragon]. The first in four generations! I’m their [Chieftain], and they’ve always said…Firrelle always used to say how I’d lead them to greatness. But I haven’t.”
She was worried she was letting them down. Nailren exhaled.
“Ah. Well—to hear it, you identified the Healing Potions crisis and bought up a small fortune’s worth of them. And your tribe is moving to secure a well in the New Lands. You’ve taken charge of Ekhtouch and are reforming them—more than other tribes can say after this debacle.”
“But that’s basic. I should be—hunting down a Wyvern Lord. Or they should expect it of me. Why don’t they?”
Her people had stopped pushing her, for some reason, once she’d become Chieftain. They stopped telling her what to eat, stopped telling her that she needed to rise to a higher standard—Nailren laughed quietly.
“Perhaps that’s because they’re smart enough to know that pushing you might just hurt everyone. They don’t want to lose you, Chieftain Gire. They probably have the highest hopes for you. That you will be a genius and a great leader. But they can wait. You’re young. And between you and me—it would be wise to know you are young. You don’t scare the Walled Cities yet.”
Gire’s reddish fur rose a bit as she got annoyed, and she shot him a glower.
“I don’t scare the Walled Cities?”
“You don’t scare me. You are dangerous, a [Paragon], and your tribe is mighty, however small. But Chieftain Gireulashia. You are sixteen. If we sparred, you wouldn’t be frightening to me even when you inevitably bonk me on the head and knock me out. Maybe work on that, if anything—though it is not something you can train like the adventurers.”
It was the most perplexing thing Gire had ever heard said, especially to her face. She frowned.
“How am I not scary?”
Nailren thought of how to explain it. His voice dropped, and he looked ahead with less of a smile—but a faraway look that she knew betokened someone going into memories.
“…You have never held a rearguard action, Gireulashia. For all you have seen war, you’ve never seen that.”
“Not true. I have fought in a rearguard before. Twice.”
True, she’d been supported by her tribe and they had been skirmishes, but—Nailren looked at her and shook his head. His faintly yellow eyes had an intensity to them.
“No. You have never fought in a rearguard that was overrun, Chieftain. Never seen it wiped out and seen a slaughter. I have. The desperation of that—I will never forget it. You can defeat a Drake [General] with your wits and strength. But I am not frightened of one of Marwsh’s pumas, however big. I am frightened of rats, if that makes sense. Desperate rats who can sometimes take down cats twice their size.”
He bared his teeth, and Gire got what he meant. Nailren chuckled into his fur.
“In that sense—the Doombearers were always more dangerous than Plain’s Eye. One grew fat and complacent, nevermind that Xherw and Ulcreziek were dangerous by themselves. The others? Survived. I will be going to the New Lands and do what I must there, but if you ever run into a situation in Izril, I would advise you to think not like a champion of Gnollkind, but a desperate rat, Chieftain. And I hope you never have to see that rearguard action yourself.”
Their conversation troubled Gire as Nailren rode ahead. But she did listen, and she looked at the Gnoll’s back and realized something.
Of all the spies that had ever gone to The Wandering Inn…Nailren was one of the only ones that had never been identified, humiliated, or suborned by Erin Solstice and her staff. She stared at his back, then jogged forwards hurriedly.
He turned to her, and Gire hesitated.
“Ekhtouch cannot continue being small. Some things we do well, but I have a lot of plans. If we go to the New Lands ourselves, would you consider joining the tribe? You can marry whomever you want once I get rid of that stupid rule. Not me. That’s gross, and I’m not doing it, like Mrsha. But I want you for my tribe.”
The Gnoll gave her a wide-eyed look as her Ekhtouch warriors turned with chagrin to stare at him and her—and some with excitement—and then Nailren threw back his head.
He laughed and laughed, and Gire sulked for half an hour. Headhunting people was always hard.
By the time they got to the next city, two things had happened. Pisces had been messing around with bones, and he had created six skeletons, which he proudly announced had all of his current artifice and talent in them.
Different. Oh, they had regular Human skulls and humanoid bodies, but each one was six and a half feet tall and bulky.
“I call them…Skeleton Champions. Not Skeleton Knights, you see—as I have not the armor, but they are a grade above a Skeleton Warrior. More durable. Capable of basic tasks. Lift that tree there!”
They ran over to a fallen tree where the others were camped. Six Skeletons heaved—and the tree shifted a bit, then half their arms fell off.
Ceria nearly laughed herself into the fire. Pisces turned red.
“Their strength is still somewhat deficient. But I can animate them whenever I need! And they are durable! Would anyone care to try them out?”
Venaz, Peki, and Merrik offered to give them a go. So did Gire—but after dodging a few blows and punching in one’s skull, Pisces banned her from the test group.
“Hey, they fight like a Level 15 [Warrior]! Not as strong, maybe, but—umph—they take a beating!”
Merrik had to bash his skeleton’s leg in, then hit it on the head—and it still kept coming as Pisces pumped death magic into it. Peki punched hers repeatedly, noting how their reinforced ribs and frame kept them going.
“Pretty tough. Good bodyguards. Expendable.”
Venaz bisected his in one stroke of his greatsword. He turned.
“Is that all a Level 40 [Necromancer] can do?”
Pisces raised his brows. He was not Level 40. Yet. But like Yvlon was preparing to set forth onto a new capstone…
His Skeletal Champion rose as Venaz turned back to it. The Minotaur nodded.
“That would be the advantage. You didn’t say what level you were.”
He gave Pisces a look, and the [Necromancer] smirked silently. His new bodyguards were a helpful group. They could perform menial tasks like digging a latrine, stomping out the campfire, hauling buckets of water even without him supervising them.
They could also piss off every Drake city they came across, which was why he’d made them. Pisces turned to Yvlon.
“What do you think, Yvlon?”
She looked at him blankly, and the [Necromancer]’s face fell. Yvlon was wrapped in a blanket and shivering, and her face was pale—but she was sweating. Ksmvr was patting her on the head with washcloths.
“Uh oh. She’s really sick.”
Ceria got up, and Colth swore.
The septic dive had definitely given Yvlon something. She was burning up and cold—a classic fever, and it had come upon her within a day of leaving Marwsh. She didn’t even know what city they came to next.
All Yvlon knew was that she was miserable, sitting in the wagon corner with blankets on her, and she snapped at Ksmvr not to catch whatever she had. When they came to the city, there was enough commotion that Yvlon’s head rose. She turned and called to Colth, who was watching something from the ground.
“Damn. Time for a fight?”
Yvlon thought she could punch something, at least. She got up blearily and began stumbling around, fists raised. She saw a few Drakes, headed at them—and stopped when she saw the weirdest thing ever.
…A bunch of Pisces’ Skeletal Champions were currently and energetically running with a bunch of boxes past some nervous Drakes through the city gates. Yvlon saw a number of Drakes pointing and Pisces rather nervously talking with an equally wary Drake.
“What’s he doing?”
For answer, Colth grinned at her.
Pisces’ skeletons were hauling goods around! And apparently, he had offered to send them into a sewer in lieu of himself and Yvlon to kill some obnoxious Sewer Slimes that had formed a colony down there.
Style. Colth had been right and wrong. The Horns might not have had much of it when it came to interpersonal affairs, but they had always had style.
Charging into battle clinging to a chariot being pulled by undead bears or horses was pure style. Ksmvr being awarded two trees was style.
And Ceria? Even the half-Elf had her own style. She stood outside the gates, and people stared as she created a huge ice sculpture out of the snow. Yvlon saw walls of ice rising, and Ceria slowly adjusted a sculpture to create a huge, grinning…
“Silver tarnishes. Really?”
She glared—but the cackling half-Elf stood on top of a giant ice squirrel. And she had even cut stairs into the side so you could climb up and slide down the tail like a ramp.
“Don’t be mean, Yvlon. It suits Ceria. It’s funny, memorable—oh wait, I think she’s doing a caricature of the Watch Captain. That definitely looks like him.”
The ice statues were huge, and thanks to the cold, Ceria’s power was at its largest here. The surly Drake with a cartoonish expression of outrage—and a mustache—might last until spring if it wasn’t knocked down first. Pisces’ undead emerged from the sewers and were promptly sprayed with water and exiled out of the city, and Ksmvr collected another group of trees from the city during their visit.
Yvlon threw up three times. Two times were due to sickness. The third?
The third was when they tried to cure it.
“Yep, she’s sick.”
A [Healer] took one look at Yvlon and gave his official diagnosis. The Human woman glared as the [Healer] put on, of all things, a weirdly-scented mask.
“What’s with the cloth mask?”
“I dunno. But the [Doctor] of Baleros uses it. Something about not being breathed on. I can’t healing potion this even if I had enough to waste—but let’s try a serum. I’ve got some Yellow Rivers mold here…”
Yvlon instantly swatted at the strange liquid, but the Drake clarified hurriedly.
“No, no! It’s the mold that kills Yellow Rivers. You know, the cure? I’ve found it works on other infections too. In fact, I have a liquid solution I mixed up with a few Skills. [Efficacious Medicine]. Very proud of it. Your choice, but whatever you’ve got looks nasty. Your fever’s very high, Miss Byres.”
She knew it was. Yvlon’s skin was red and flushed, and she drank water, though she could barely keep it down, because she kept sweating. Only her arms were cool and normal. She took the terrible medicine—and promptly threw up fifteen minutes later.
…It didn’t help. Whatever was wrong with her, it wasn’t fixable with the helpful mold, and the [Healer] claimed he’d encountered types of disease that the mold medicine had no effect on.
“In that case, I’ve got a few other herbal remedies. Let’s give you some of them—but you may want to find a [Shaman] or expert. She fell in a sewer? This is why adventuring is never worth it.”
Yvlon had a terrible rest of the evening and night. She didn’t eat with her friends—she just lay in her private room and sweated and threw up water—and had a time on the toilet she would never recount to anyone.
But her fever did break sometime in the night, and the next day, she was more lucid and able to eat. She was still ill, but she toughed through it—especially when Ksmvr came out of his rooms with an announcement.
“I have a new class!”
He raised his four arms, beaming, and everyone stared at him. Colth banged on the table.
“Alright! What is it?”
Ksmvr gave them all a huge smile with his mandibles.
“It is…[Tree Collector].”
He beamed—until Ceria fell out of her seat laughing. Yvlon rounded on the [Strategists], some of whom put their heads in their hands.
“You need to stop giving him classes.”
“It is, uh, an interesting class, Ksmvr. What level is it, pray?”
“Three. I have also received [Collector’s Bargain], that I might acquire more trees.”
“It’s not even [Lord]! Just [Collector]! Oh, dead gods.”
Ceria wheezed. Wil looked abashed.
“I am so sorry, Miss Yvlon—we’ll stop.”
“Stop? But it is proof of my trees.”
Ksmvr looked hurt. Yvlon shook her head, and that made her dizzy.
“Ksmvr—you don’t have unlimited classes. It might slow your growth.”
Everyone knew that. Pisces nodded, and Ksmvr hesitated—until Colth came to his rescue.
“Don’t listen to them, Ksmvr. Listen to me—every class is useful.”
“I like this advice. I will respectfully pretend I never heard my teammate’s comments. Thank you, Adventurer Colth.”
Aforementioned teammates were outraged by Ksmvr’s sudden betrayal. They began arguing hotly over breakfast, but Colth refused to relent.
“No, no. Shut up. Who’s highest-level here? Me.”
Peki raised a hand. Colth punched her on the shoulder so fast she couldn’t dodge. Lightly—but the [Martial Artist] opened her beak—stared at her shoulder—and went to stand in a corner. Pisces was shaking his head.
“Colth, with respect, everyone knows new classes are to be desired and celebrated. But having multiples—and Ksmvr is also an [Animal Friend]—can be egregious. Levelling in one is ideal. Miss Lyonette and Miss Griffin have both vouchsafed this to me. And one is a…you know what.”
Colth raised his brows.
“One’s a Rulebreaker with no levels? I know.”
“Yes, the other one has ‘royal knowledge’. And is she higher-level than me? Or am I twice her level? Listen, Pisces. Class consolidation makes up for this.”
“Not everyone consolidates, though.”
Ceria frowned seriously. Colth rolled his eyes.
“Someone who can’t make their hobby synergize with their job—or make a secondary class inform their main one—is just uncreative. Every single class synergizes. [Knitter] synergizes with [Swordsman]. [Mage] informs [Cook]—it works. Level up, Ksmvr. Your passion is worth more than doing things ‘optimally’.”
His air quotes were derisive. Ksmvr looked at his teammates.
“I would like to level up in [Tree Collector], please. But if my team believes this is truly a bad thing…should I not level up in my other classes?”
“No, [Brave Skirmisher] is fine, Ksmvr.”
Everyone assured him…until the Antinium went silent. Yvlon turned her head.
“Wait. What level are you in [Teammate] or [Animal Friend] now, Ksmvr?”
If she recalled his report right, he had been a Level 5 [Teammate], a Level 2 [Animal Friend], and a Level 1 [Dancer] when leaving Chandrar.
Ksmvr gave her a double-salute with two arms, one from each side.
“I regret to say that I have not been a good member of the Horns and have only become a Level 8 [Teammate], Yvlon. But I am a Level 6 [Dancer] by virtue of sometimes doing Mrsha dances with Mrsha. And, um…I have been studiously levelling in my other class too.”
The Antinium squirmed. He avoided everyone’s look as the little dog that was the mascot of this inn poked its head up over the table. He had been feeding it scraps and petting it with his classic four-fold petting and scratching technique. The dog’s head was lolling off his lap to the horror and jealousy of the Drake owner.
“U-um. I may be a Level 13 [Animal Friend].”
The revelation that Ksmvr had gained ten levels in [Animal Friend] was the talk for the rest of the day. It was not a combat class.
But as they progressed from city to city, sometimes stopping just for an hour, Yvlon saw the power of Ksmvr’s class that he truly did like. For instance—among the smattering of Skills he had picked up, Ksmvr had gained his Level 10 capstone Skill:
[Animal Respect: Friend by Deed].
If that was a confusing Skill, the effect of it was this. Not all Drake cities liked the Antinium. Some literally refused to have him in at the gates and had to be persuaded by Colth or Ceria to let him in. Others had very vocal people who wanted to tell Ksmvr what a monster he was and how he should be executed at once. They usually didn’t try anything; Ksmvr was more dangerous than almost anyone else, and he had a group of high-level friends.
The pets didn’t care one bit. They would flock around Ksmvr, and Drakes did own lots of pets. The most obvious and amazing example of this was when they came to the Rooftop City of Herizz, where you climbed on roofs to higher points of the city—literally walking over the homes of people—and where rainfall could often sleet down over the roofs in thousands of cascades dribbling down to the impressive drainage system below—Ksmvr was walking across a crosswalk from which a bunch of cats were hanging out.
These were not giant cats like Marwsh, just alley cats, some pets, some feral, lounging around just over the heads of pedestrians. Occasionally, one would swat at neck-spines or a hat from their vantage point.
They spotted Ksmvr, and as the angry crowd of Herizzian citizens kept protesting Ksmvr and chanting ‘Ants get out’, the [Animal Friend] spotted the cats. He marched past them—and Yvlon saw, with her own eyes, the cats lower a paw.
Ksmvr high-fived a tawny cat with brown spots on white, a black cat, and a blue cat with white stripes as they passed. Drake jaws dropped.
Adventurer jaws dropped. That had to be a fluke. Someone tried that with the cats and raised their claw, and the cats ignored them. An enraged Drake, mad at this betrayal by animals of all that was good and proper, hurled a pebble at the cats. One of them leapt on the face of the offending Drake and turned into a whirlwind of claws.
Ksmvr might not have won Herizz over…but the sight of the feared Antinium trundling around with a cat sleeping between his antennae on his head did something to Drake hostility towards Antinium.
Mind you, Pisces was also doing his part as a [Necromancer]. His Skeletal Champions were often refused on sight when he made the Drakes an offer to do menial tasks with them, and he instantly obliged.
But he liked provoking the discussion. In fact, the [Necromancer] had begun a cunning plan courtesy of Ceria.
You might hate her circlet and new penchant for pranks…but she had suggested he offer the skeletons’ services for as long as he stayed for the price of—one copper coin.
Slay a monster? One coin. Do hauling jobs? One coin for as long as they worked. They could dig, clean—poorly—and do anything, but you had to accept it. And if you didn’t…
That was an aggravating style that fit with Pisces. You want to turn down free help? Go ahead. He enjoyed watching the Drakes struggle with the idea immensely. They were indeed all unique cities—but one thing that unified them was that they were not that dissimilar to each other. Some could fit right in with Liscor, and some held people he would never care to associate with.
They all claimed to be ‘unlike those damn Yoldenites’, but Pisces thought there was too much resemblance—probably why the connection was so vehemently denied.
It was evening in the City of Herizz, and he was listening to the delightful patter of raindrops on the roofs overhead. Apparently, the buildings were so good in the city that you could use the roofs as walkways—and owners customized the sound the raindrops made when falling to be soothing, like music, or so on.
“Someone asked to join our team again. Where’s Yvlon?”
“Still? Tree rot, it’s been six days!”
Ceria came in, shaking water off herself as the rentable ‘home’ admitted her. Herizz hated inns, so you rented an apartment, but you could go down to the restaurant below if you needed to. Otherwise, there was plumbing, beds, everything up here. Even…Pisces waved at Ceria.
“Who wanted to join our team? By the way, watch out for the restrooms.”
“Oh no. Did she puke in it? And it was some Silver-ranker Drakes. Three. Do we ever want teammates? This lot said they were ‘even fine with the Antinium’, so I let them down gently.”
Pisces’ lips quirked at the idea. He could not imagine hiring a teammate so lightly. But—teammates? He shook his head.
“I don’t know about teammates—and no, Yvlon was just sleeping last I checked. But there is, ah, an odd water feature. In the toilet.”
Ceria gave him a blank look and decided to find out. The shout from the toilet largely echoed the one Pisces had made, and she came storming out.
“What the heck is that? Who puts water there? It’s hilarious. Are we being pranked?”
Pisces shook his head.
“I asked, and apparently it’s a Drake invention. Something about their extensive plumbing…it’s called a ‘bidet’.”
A look of pure delight spread across Ceria’s face.
“Has anyone else used the restroom? I have to see what happens when the others do it.”
She hurried off, and Pisces wondered how badly she’d prank someone now. Then…as he was sitting back in his chair and wondering if Yvlon could stomach some soup—he heard a voice.
Az’kerash’s voice spoke to him, and Pisces sat bolt upright. He had not heard the Necromancer for some time.
“Archmage! How can I help you?”
He instantly began to sweat. As he always did, but he had gotten more used to the sporadic calls. The Necromancer had been…helpful. He had helped free Pisces from Chandrar.
The debt kept growing. Yet—there wasn’t the conversational tone that Pisces was used to from the Necromancer, as if he sometimes called just to talk or give Pisces tips on magic. He sounded different.
“Are you free of distractions at this moment?”
“Y-yes, of course, Archmage.”
“Then—kindly find a private space. I shall cast [Greater Scrying] that we might see each other. I have—the desire to speak face-to-face for once.”
Uh oh. Oh no. No…but Pisces didn’t know what to say other than to agree and find the nearest surface. Which turned out to be a metal plate.
Az’kerash’s spell touched it, and he appeared perfectly on the cheap metal surface. He sat there, and for the first time, Pisces saw the Necromancer fully.
His blood went cold. He saw a man with white hair.
No—he saw a figure in spectral black robes that flowed around him with all the magic of another age, glittering with spells of a true [Archmage].
He saw those black eyes and white pupils that stared out across the world from the other side of life itself. With such intensity—and with a disarming humanity to them that focused on Pisces with a faint smile on those lips. A smile of…a kind of affection? But the pain in those eyes had pierced them white. And what lay beyond in the depths of those pupils was pure oblivion.
The courage of a man who had once been called the Undying Shield of Calanfer. The intelligence of the Archmage of Death of Wistram. The integrity of the Necromancer of Silvaria who had made war on Roshal for Pisces.
And behind it all, the hatred to consume it all and turn nations to ash.
This was the Necromancer. He looked at Pisces, and the young man froze in terror. What Az’kerash said was this.
“Young Pisces…no. Pisces Jealnet. I must apologize.”
This was not how he talked. Pisces sat in his room, cloaked in silence spells, terrified not that someone would come in—he’d locked the doors—but of this change in Az’kerash. Something had happened.
“Apologize for what? What could you have done wrong, Great Necromancer?”
Az’kerash savored the words, as if considering them for the first time. He shook his head.
“Do not call me that. Call me—Az’kerash. Do not call me Perril Chandler. That man is dead. Do not call me Archmage of Death any longer, for I have long forsaken and been forsaken by the Academy of Mages. I feel as though I have been woken from a pleasant dream. I call you to apologize, for I gave you hints and scraps of magic—spell tomes, yes, but riddles and games. I indulged in teaching like I was the Archmage and you were a student. No longer.”
Uh oh. Pisces was trying to figure out what to do. Yell to Yvlon, leap out a window—was he coming to give Pisces orders? To—end Pisces?
“What then, Az’kerash? You—you told me to go to the New Lands of Izril. Is it about that? I am going, I assure you. I am simply delayed by my team. But if you wish to call in any deed—and I am aware of all I owe you—I will fulfill it to the best of my abilities.”
The Necromancer sat there. Pisces’ heart thundered. Please…not now. Az’kerash blinked at him, and the man—and he was a man now, a man and undead conjoined—shook his head.
“A favor? Not now. Not…I am aware of debts of honor, Pisces. But I do not need anything from you yet. I—am aware of who I am.”
His lips quirked slightly, and Pisces breathed a bit. In confusion. Then—Az’kerash pulled something over. It was…a lunar calendar. It had been noted with the months of the year and dates, and he flipped through it absently.
“In two days, the moon will be full. Both of them. A rare dual full moon. It comes once every three months at most. Rare convergences are as many as seven months apart. Lunar magic is—odd. But it does inform our powers. During the full moon, in the eight hours where they are closest to full—regardless of whether you can see them—it is the opportune time to conduct any ritual spell. You have the [Ritual of the Lord of Bones]. I am correct in this?”
Pisces’ brain was snapping across each thing Az’kerash said, memorizing and growing confused.
“Wh—yes, Archmage? Az’kerash?”
“I believe I said not to call me the former.”
Az’kerash looked up, and Pisces froze—but a slight smile played over Az’kerash’s lips. He waved it off with a finger.
“You have summoned one Skeleton Lord. At your level, it may be your limit. Most [Necromancers] are at least Level 40 before they even gain the spell—so you are ahead of your time. What you do not know because there are so few tomes of Necromancy that spell things out easily is that you can empower your Skeleton Lord with the ritual. Send him armaments and bind weapons or spells to him. You would have…a binding limit of three, I infer. You probably bound that stone to him in one section. I suggest [Fireball], if you know the spell, and perhaps another weapon.”
Pisces mouth opened wide.
“I—I can do that?”
“Yes. Draw the ritual out via your spell, place the scroll or weapon within—and fuel it with your mana. Remember, your Skeleton Lord is limited by the mana it possesses, so unless you give it more power, [Fireball] may be too much. The same for artifacts; to ‘recreate’ it, it will need enough mana, so a mundane sword is sometimes better than a Relic. Especially if yours is in Chandrar. Now, you are no fan of flesh-based undead. I noticed the Skeleton Champions by chance as I scried you—just to make sure I wasn’t interrupting you. I shall send you two tomes I wrote that have doubtless been burned.”
What’s going on? Pisces was flabbergasted. The Necromancer had never been this straightforwards. He had taught Pisces [Deathbolt] via writing it on an undead, once, and hinted at Bone Behemoths and more, but now?
“You seem confused.”
Az’kerash observed softly. Pisces nodded.
“Why are you—ah, so direct in your illuminations, Az’kerash? I don’t—understand what I have done to deserve such an honor.”
The Necromancer repeated the word and closed his eyes. He looked pained, then stared at Pisces.
“You call it an honor, and I have heard [Necromancers] before my time and after I died speak like that. We are a…an odd class. We have apprenticeships, and we guard our techniques zealously. Every [Mage] does, but we are also artisans. Yet you, Pisces Jealnet, grew up in an era of persecutions. Thanks to me. You taught yourself, and you would have been a prodigy even if you had tutelage—is it ‘honorable’ to give a [Necromancer] a basic spellbook and teach him without making everything a riddle? You should have grown up able to buy a book of spells on necromancy. I have played the same game in my arrogance and age. No more. I will send you the books—then I do not know if we will speak long again.”
“What has changed, Az’kerash?”
Pisces was afraid. The Necromancer looked tired. He looked pleased to speak to Pisces, and Pisces felt an odd—sense of elation at the compliments. Prodigy?
It was all he had wanted, but then he saw Az’kerash’s eyes flicker. He looked up and spoke.
“I have remembered my cause, Pisces Jealnet. Remembered my fury against Terandria—and so I will arm you. Arm you, for you have great foes in Roshal. And someday, you too might return to your nation and claim vengeance for what it has done to you. Ailendamus.”
He spoke the word, and Pisces felt a moment of his own anger and memory. The two [Necromancers] looked at each other, and they understood something then. Az’kerash nodded.
“Just so. When you hear what occurs, Pisces—disavow any knowledge of me. I hope I will not be revealed for a long time. But when you hear it—know and understand the depths of my rage and betrayal. You have felt it too. I—”
He leaned forwards and looked Pisces in the eyes. The Necromancer stared at Pisces, and his reflection shivered. Az’kerash spoke softly. Almost…wistfully.
“Do not make the mistakes I made. Go, and I will watch your deeds and hope for a better future for you. But I will have my vengeance. First on the fools who come so eagerly to Izril’s shores. Then?”
The appearance of that undead man. That lich, that myth flickered out, and his voice was all that remained.
“…Whatever else occurs. I will set myself against them all, as both Perril Chandler who was betrayed. And as the Archmage of Death.”
[Tree Collector Level 7!]
[Skill – Recital: Litany of Possession obtained!]
“I am Ksmvr, by right the owner of fourteen trees and three rocks of Tiqr, two burnt trees of House Byres, two trees of the City of Loeri, three trees of Marwsh, four trees of—”
His power knew no end. Ksmvr’s new Skill let him recite all of his holdings, and everyone hated it but Ksmvr.
“It’s a waste of a level. Colth—”
“It’s a waste of a level.”
Even the [Ultimate Supporter] refused to acknowledge that one. But Ksmvr would not relent. For he had great power.
“Yvlon, Yvlon. Comrade Pisces. I have great power. Would you like to see?”
“Not another litany, please, Ksmvr.”
Yvlon was still sick, and Pisces was a bit subdued—but he seemed to be reading a lot of books. Ceria glanced at the tome he held.
“Nice book, Pisces. Did you pick it up in a local shop?”
She said nothing more, and the two very deliberately did not show it to the [Strategists]. To cheer up the sickly Yvlon, Ksmvr pressed all four hands together in front of her.
“Observe the most powerful Skill I have, Yvlon. [Bound Spell of the Collector – Summon Leaves]!”
Pisces looked up from his book. Yvlon Byres sat up. Ksmvr opened his hands and revealed—
Thirteen leaves. One for each tree he owned. Yvlon stared at them. Ceria stared at them.
“Are they…real leaves?”
“They do not vanish. They are my fiscal earnings. As you can see—waitwaitwaitwait—”
Too late. Ceria flicked one into the fire warming their rented hut, and it flared up a bit.
“Huh, real leaves. Ksmvr’s good free kindling.”
Ksmvr was horrified. Ceria looked guilty as Pisces and Yvlon glared at her—until Ksmvr tossed the rest in the fireplace.
“That is okay. I shall get more tomorrow. They’re not very valuable.”
He looked up, and Ceria’s guilty face turned puzzled—then she burst out laughing. Ksmvr raised his hands.
“I have fooled you! Ha-ha!”
“Ksmvr, I love you. This is why you’re a [Teammate]. Now, I’m off. It’s raining freezing cold water, and I’m going to make another statue of myself.”
Indeed, the rainfall had turned into hail and then snow, and Ceria skated out the door, laughing and ready to impress Herizz’s folk.
She was now a mixed [Prankster] and [Cryomancer], and the magic circlet was deepening her magic. Pisces? Pisces sat with a spellbook in hand as his Skeletal Champions fought their way through another sewer against semi-frozen Sleet Slimes threatening to block up the system.
Ksmvr was a [Brave Skirmisher] and heir to the Silver Illusion school, a [Tree Collector], an [Animal Friend], and a [Teammate].
Yvlon was sick. She looked up from her stump of a leg, and Ksmvr’s happiness turned to sadness whenever he saw her ill and hurt and he could do nothing for her. She whispered, as if this slipped out of her mouth from being ill, unguarded.
“It must be nice—having a path. It must be nice to be rewarded like that.”
Ksmvr’s mandibles fell. He sat there, bowing his head until Pisces looked up and Yvlon’s face turned guilty. Then she punched herself.
Ceria Springwalker slid down a ramp of ice and nearly ran into Nailren. This wasn’t Loeri, so the sight of a slip-sliding half-Elf zooming across the City of Roofs on her ramps of ice was more entertaining than a reason to summon the Watch.
“Watch it, Ceria.”
Nailren dodged the half-Elf, and she slammed into a wall. Ceria sat down and groaned.
“Couldn’t you let me hit you?”
“Nope. Can’t you stop?”
“It’s hard. I need those blades on my boots or to figure out how to make the ice not-slick. I’m working on it. What are you doing?”
The Gnoll swung himself up higher, climbing to the tallest point on the tower of overlapping buildings below him. A few Ekhtouch were loitering around on the lower levels. They glanced up as he and Ceria bantered a moment.
The half-Elf and the Gnoll were the two most sparsely-dressed people in the entire city. Even Pisces had put on a fur coat when he went outside, and the Watch had similarly lined their armor with cloth. They looked like hooded, hunched figures in their armor, shivering despite that as the wind blew.
But Nailren had his fur, so he ignored the drifting snowflakes sometimes flurrying sideways. Ceria had even less on her. She wore a light tunic and leggings, and she made people feel cold just looking at her.
She was a [Cryomancer], though. The grey skies above her and the snow piling from the rooftops and around the city were a stark wonderland. But when she looked at it, Nailren was reminded of running around in the snow as a cub.
It could be a cold death out there. But the half-Elf embodied a winter of snowballs, of ice forts and sitting around warming up after the snow had fallen, icy breath rising into clear skies. She fascinated the Drakes, who followed her around the city, but it was Nailren that interested Ceria at this moment.
What the Horns and [Strategists] didn’t always see was how Gnolls interacted with Drake cities. The adventurers were welcome…the Gnolls?
The first thing a lot of Drakes said to Nailren was that they didn’t support the action of the Walled Cities. Just like people brought up Pisces’ class and Ksmvr’s species—that was the first thing they felt compelled to do. As if he could absolve them or it changed things.
Well, Nailren appreciated that anyone felt the need to clarify. It was never pleasant when the next thing they said was ‘but’ or tried to tack on something else to that broad statement.
He was standing on the highest roof, which actually poked over the walls in height. Per code, it was metal-plated in case of enemy attacks, and you technically weren’t allowed up here. Nailren had ignored that by pretending he was an ignorant visitor, and the Watch hadn’t summoned him down.
Not with all the Gnolls about Herizz, many of whom had come to meet Chieftain Gire or Ekhtouch. Not Nailren himself; he was a nobody.
Gireulashia was shaking paws, talking, forging connections with City Gnolls in a very clever way. Even, he suspected, earmarking talent that Ekhtouch or another tribe might steal. But Nailren?
That was not Nailren. He had a purpose, and so did Ceria.
“Are you really making another ice sculpture?”
“It’ll be outside the walls. Something they can look at. How’s a forty-foot sculpture of Pisces’ face sound? I can make the nostrils huge.”
She was a powerful [Mage]. The fact that—even in winter—she could throw up a sculpture like that in a few hours spoke to her power. Nailren was curious, though.
“You’re not doing this because you want to just annoy people, right? What’s the goal here?”
Ceria paused, one foot raised on another ramp. There was no way Nailren could have known about her [Prankster] class—but he had met many people in his years. And he saw something more than just a troublemaker.
Her pale-snow eyes turned to him, and the half-Elf smiled. And that too was fair. If you defined Ksmvr as an Antinium—there were certainly things about his species that made him Ksmvr. Similarly—it was not all Ceria.
But she was over sixty years old. Older than he was, and she was ‘young’ for a half-Elf. Ceria looked out and sighed.
“I realized this in Chandrar, or perhaps before that. When I lost my team—and at Albez and elsewhere. I really loved being noticed. Everyone likes fame. But I liked something else there. Guess what it is?”
“…Hm. From what you’re saying, respect? Being acknowledged?”
She laughed, and she sounded older, then. Like [Shaman] Theikha the first time Nailren had met her as a [Junior Scout]. And Theikha had already been an experienced [Shaman].
“Close enough. I want to be remembered.”
That made sense. Ceria pointed out across the snowy landscape and then turned. She waved a hand as Drakes and Gnolls looked up, and some cheered her.
“Ice Squirrel. Ice Squirrel!”
“The name’s sticking. That’s not bad. Yvlon hates being called the ‘Silver Killer’, and I get it. But me? I just want to be remembered. Even if it’s as the lying half-Elf who pranked people. Colth comes into a city respectfully, but it’s for him. His style is to learn from people. I would rather they think of me a decade later.”
That was slightly fascinating to Nailren, and he leaned against a strut on the top of the roof, ignoring a Drake trying to tell them to politely get the hell off.
“Odd, for a half-Elf. I’d have thought living so long would make you not care.”
“I know, right? But I? I don’t think I’ll make it that long. Not if I live entangled with mortals. And if they remember me—they’ll remember Calruz and Gerial. And all the rest. It means when I go travelling, no one will ask what team I used to belong to. I want to be the Lightning Thief they talk about even after he’s dead. Not a nameless Necromancer who clashed with legends and was lost to time.”
It was some ambition, because Nailren suspected the Putrid One had once been the talk of the world. But the half-Elf spread her arms and began sliding down the ramp. She glanced up at him as she called back.
“And you, Captain Nailren? Do you have any style? Or does one of the Gnoll’s Secret Chieftains, their elite warleaders, have no style now he’s retired?”
Nailren rolled his eyes as she called it out too loudly. This was the problem with Chieftains like Gireulashia. They said the part you never said out loud, and everyone heard it.
But that was fine. For answer, the Gnoll turned and lifted a paw as he put his back to Ceria and looked…west.
The wind blew on his fur, and little snowflakes clung to him, slowly melting away. Always, and ever, the New Lands called him. Style? Nailren stood taller, and as Gnolls of Herizz and Drakes looked up at him, he inhaled deeply. Then—he began to sing.
“Westwards of the Great Plains is there I see it lie
The newest lands of Izril risen from the tide
Unearthing magic and secrets; our people’s home
And the last place I will ever seek to roam.”
It was the tune of a famous song, one of the oldest songs in Gnoll culture, but this verse was new. It made Ceria turn as she slid down, and Nailren had worked on it city after city.
Great Plains Sing. He knew the rest of the lyrics. They sung of places across the world. The resting place of Seru’nial, the grave of the Queen of Gnolls. Igawiz’s Jet.
Places that called to him. But this? This made him sing. He stood there as Ekhtouch Gnolls joined in on the chorus that they knew. Nailren kept singing as the Drakes looked up and Gnollish heads rose. There, clinging to the spire of the tower, he pointed.
An adventurer and explorer yearning with every fiber of his being to go. To run—and to fulfill that claim that had echoed in Satar’s books.
We went everywhere. So Nailren sang—and the half-Elf laughed as she saw the passion that drove him. They looked at each other, and though they were different—
It would carry them into the new world.
[Clandestine Chieftain of the Arrow Level 33!]
[Skill – Faster to Untamed Lands obtained!]
[Prankster Level 10!]
[Mischief Skill – Spell: Rampant Magic obtained!]
And Yvlon Byres was still sick.
You had to feel bad for Yvlon, you really did. She got sick—again. Colth had heard of the plague metal thing. It had come up when he and Pisces amiably discussed Chandrar.
Anyways, he was currently mixing a bunch of alchemical items from [Herbalists] in Herizz. No [Healer] they had met had been able to do much with their home remedies, but Colth decided he’d give it a shot.
He was, after all, about as good as a Level 30 [Healer] if you combined his Skills. Maybe not perfect, but short of a [Shaman] in the Great Plains, he was Yvlon’s best shot.
And they were three days away yet. So—
Colth was mixing next to Yvlon, checking her as she lay, panting and sweating. The rest of the wagon was quiet—not that she seemed to notice.
Her fever had returned with a vengeance on the seventh day. After that first day, they had expected her to pull through whatever had hit her. But unlike the eggs—
Colth’s tone was light.
“I heard you were jealous of your teammates.”
“I took it out on Ksmvr. Is he upset?”
The [Ultimate Supporter] looked up and pretended to frown. He saw Ksmvr staring his way along with Pisces as they talked tensely.
“…He doesn’t seem to mind.”
“Good. They keep passing me.”
Yvlon blinked as Colth offered her his first try. Water—if nothing else. He turned.
“Anyone got some broth? Put a bit of fat into it. Did you eat anything yesterday, Yvlon?”
“I drank water. You’re…you kept trying to teach me how to improve. What was that about? I might as well listen if I’m like this.”
She kept shivering as Colth spoke lightly. And honestly.
“I meant that it does you no good. I saw you challenge Venaz when you were on your feet. Do you feel like you got a lot from it?”
“Fought him. Why?”
Colth sipped from his broth and gagged. Leeches? No, he was no expert on them. And whatever it was, he feared it might be poison in her blood or something like that. Damn sewers. It could be rust or crap or…the Yellow Rivers stuff didn’t work one bit.
“He’s a [Strategist]. You’re a warrior whose most deadly weapons are your arms. I heard you cut up Nerrhavia’s arenas with just them. Few people can do that.”
“If you say it’s cheating, I’ll hit you. You’re an adventurer, not a [Honorbound Minotaur-Headed Duelist].”
“Hey. I resent Minotaur-Headed.”
Venaz protested mildly. Colth rolled his eyes, and Yvlon tried not to breathe a bubble of snot out her nose. He passed her a handkerchief. Then he glanced at what came out.
“Colth, I swear—”
Bloody. The [Ultimate Supporter] spoke cheerfully.
“Do you know what your weak spot is, Yvlon Byres? You have powerful, transforming magical arms. You’re strong, you’re fit—present you aside—”
“What’s my weakness?”
Yvlon stared up at the sky. One of her eyes rolled and glared at him. After a few seconds, she croaked.
“Why’s that matter?”
“I thought your brother was like that, actually. Ylawes Byres—a known quantity. Good Gold-rank, solid, brave as heck—and about as creative as a rock tied to Lord Tyrion’s head. No offense, but I thought he’d never make Named-rank. There’s a reason I didn’t tap him for fighting Facestealer. And that’s because Named-ranks are creative. Before you bring up Eldertuin, he just knows that most threats fall over if he hits them hard enough.”
“Creativity is my weak spot? Really?”
“Your arms can become anything. If I were you…I’d use those arms and see if I could learn to pick locks. How far do they stretch? Can you lay a tripwire like that [Assassin]?”
“I don’t know. I could find out.”
“Yes, well, I don’t see you doing that. Work on it, hmm? Try this…”
Yvlon took a drink, gagged, but it went down, and she lay back. Colth knew he sounded like a broken speaking stone, but his advice really did work. No one really took him up on it, though.
“How about this? You get some rest. I’ll check on you in a bit. I’ve been wrong, by the way. Ylawes Byres is creative. He took out Facestealer, and he had the guts to keep going at it. Maybe he’s not that imaginative, but I thought if you threw something at him his [Knight]-brain didn’t process, he’d freeze. Turns out he just headbutts it. That’s Named-rank quality.”
“Colth. How am I supposed to be creative?”
He looked back and sighed. House Byres really turned out winners in the mental department, didn’t they? But it wasn’t her fault, not really.
It was just that she was a swinging sword or a hammer. And ever since meeting Pisces…perhaps since running into Skinner, he guessed that Yvlon Byres had found things that couldn’t fit into her world. She had done a very good job…but she looked lost.
And sick. He patted her on the head and looked up. Colth stared at something for a moment, then spoke.
“Why don’t you daydream?”
“Imagine it. Don’t you ever imagine things?”
She gave him such a blank look he had his answer. Colth grinned.
“Come on. You’ve never had a dream about being a Gold-rank as a girl?”
“When I was six, maybe. Are you serious?”
“You win up here. [Mages] do it—why can’t a [Warrior] think up a battle plan? Do some thinking. And get some rest.”
Colth walked across the wagon and had a talk with the others. Yvlon lay back on the pillows, staring up at the sky. She had been bundled up, and the snowflakes fell coolly down—but all she felt was wet sometimes.
The sky was hazy. Yvlon closed her eyes and tried to do as Colth suggested.
What she didn’t realize was that the ‘clouds’ she thought she saw overhead? That was steam. It was not impossible for someone to warm up so much that in cold or freezing weather they steamed. It was a bad sign for someone who hadn’t done more than lie there to be that hot.
Yvlon didn’t notice the wagon suddenly pick up speed; Colth and Ceria and Pisces were casting a spell to keep it from bouncing as much as possible. But rather than mix more medicines, the [Ultimate Supporter] just climbed into the driver’s seat and began activating speed Skills. They began to send [Messages] asking if Theikha or an expert could meet them.
They were three days away from the Great Plains’ heartland.
Imagine things, huh?
It sounded stupid, but like all of Colth’s suggestions, Yvlon just bet…there was a serious truth in the silliness.
And she felt—pretty bad, even for her, so she lay there, shivering now and then, trying to do what he bid.
She wasn’t that much use anywhere else. She couldn’t train, she’d hurt Ksmvr…
…How did you do that?
Well, it was obvious to Yvlon. She knew you did it like a dream. As a girl, she had pictured herself being called Dame Yvlon and so on.
But Colth had said it was something more. Creativity. Yvlon resented that. She was plenty creative in a fight. She enjoyed…the arts. Paintings and such. Statues.
Nailren had said her conversation was boring. Was she as boring as Ylawes? No way.
Focus. It was hard, but at least Yvlon could try. Imagine something.
She had no idea where to start. How did Yisame do it?
Her [Reader]-[Queen] friend wrote her a letter each week via [Message] spell. Yvlon tried to write back, but Yisame always had more to say about a book or goings-on in Nerrhavia. She claimed everything was well and that she was supporting Zenol as best she could.
But she was also imaginative, and apparently, Sandquen was getting some notoriety for her stories. She wrote…stories. And they were often embellished and often around the Horns.
How did you do that? Just pluck something out of your head? Yvlon tried. She focused as hard as her dizzy mind would allow. She kept coughing. But this wasn’t meditation, was it? She wiped saliva off her mouth, and it tasted like iron.
Imagine something crazy. Like a new undead. It would, uh…be like…
A…skeleton…with a huge eye? Like a Cyclops.
No, wait. That was a Cyclops made of bone. A new thing. What about…a new spell? It would be, um…ice? Ice that exploded?
This was extremely hard. Yvlon felt like steam was rising from her head, and someone put a cool cloth there. She murmured a thank-you.
“Yvlon, I have found a little flower. I will put it here. Please do not die, alright?”
“I’m not dying, Ksmvr. Just sick.”
She tried to smile at him. The Antinium didn’t look convinced as he put a little red bloom—not a rose, but red like one—on her chest. He overreacted to things all the time. She was going to get better just to stop his worrying.
Yvlon managed to get to it after a coughing fit that took ten minutes to stop. Colth insisted she drink more of his horrible tonic and water. She lay back down. She stared blankly at nothing—
And her mental world was literally empty. Yvlon felt like her head was empty as the snow. A pure, white world.
That was all she could do. Fill it with something. Anything.
Her eyes focused on something red. The little flower. Yvlon imagined a flower in her head.
Good. She was imagining a flower. She was doing it, everyone. And her flower? She had a flower.
…What else? Her mind prodded her, and Yvlon tried harder.
The flower was…red. Damnit. That was literally not imaginative. But maybe the flower was…
Did the flower have thorns? No. Wait, yes. And the flower was red, but it had petals like one of those lovely children’s flowers, round with a stem in the center. Not like a rose.
…Didn’t flowers smell? Yvlon realized that after a while of listening to people mutter in the background. And wouldn’t the flower feel lightweight when you picked it up?
Dead gods, imagining was hard. She regretted her flippant comments to Colth. She could barely represent a flower authentically. She forgot to imagine smell, a…a sweet, cloying smell? And it would prick your fingers?
An hour passed, and Yvlon had visualized a flower in her world of mental imagination. She was so tired by this cognition she passed out.
—She woke up two hours later and couldn’t move. She tried to sit up, but she was too weak. So she lay there.
Imagine something new.
I feel bad about Ksmvr.
I have to pee.
What did a flower—I have to pee—go with? The harder Yvlon tried to focus, the more creativity slipped away.
When you thought of something, even fiercely, it had an ephemeral quality. As if your mind couldn’t recreate something in perfect detail. This was why Yvlon didn’t bother. The real world was far more interesting.
I can’t get up. Flower. I feel bad about Ksmvr. Have to pee.
I think I’m dying.
Thoughts ran together, intruding, repeating in obnoxious ways. Like they did. Someone helped Yvlon sit up. It turned out to be Ceria.
“Your forehead’s hot. You okay, Yv?”
“I need to pee. I can’t move—I’m fine.”
Ceria looked around.
“Sure you are—Gire, Peki? A hand?”
The next few minutes were embarrassing as they stopped the wagon, and Yvlon was finally bundled back up after more water. She spat out all the phlegm leaking down her throat. Ceria stared at it.
“Bloody. Maybe I bit my tongue?”
“Yeah…come on. We have to get the wagon moving.”
“Can’t we stop? Or are we between cities?”
Peki looked at Ceria. The half-Elf nodded.
“We’re between cities. Come on, we’ll try to make it comfortable.”
Back she lay. Yvlon decided she hated imagining things. It didn’t work. She wanted Colth to come over so he could give her more hints.
Okay, a flower. It sat in the white void of her creative genius. A red flower, remember. She kept forgetting. What did flowers go with?
A bug. It suddenly appeared, and Yvlon saw a roach crawling towards the flower. No, eating it. Roaches didn’t eat flowers, did they? This one did.
I don’t want to imagine that. Yvlon squashed the bug mentally. Was she really going to imagine bugs? What kind of…stupid thing was this?
The bug kept coming back. Was it immortal or something? Did she imagine immortal bugs?
Imagining sucked. Yvlon was so fed up with it. She didn’t have the ability to create new things. She…she just knew the world. So she supposed that was where to start.
Why would there be a red flower, anyways? Well—unless it was in the wild, on a bush or something—maybe the flower was in a vase? A glass vase where you had water in the bottom.
The world dropped away from Yvlon as her breathing grew labored. She didn’t notice what was going on around her. Ironically—as her connection to the waking world diminished, the imagining grew easier. So she sank into a kind of waking dream.
It would be…a glass vase with a rose in it, right? That’s what she, Yvlon Byres, would have.
Why? She didn’t know.
Maybe it was a gift. She got roses, she supposed. If she had a house, that would be where it was.
A house? Why would she have a house?
Well, it was the kind of thing that she had vaguely decided she might have when she first became an adventurer. When you got to Silver-rank, you thought of such things.
The Silver Spears. She still could see her friends. They were all from House Byres. All [Warriors] who had grown up knowing each other.
Maise with that weird e on the end when you wrote it.
She hadn’t told their families, personally, what had befallen them. If only…if only she’d not been such a fool.
Focus. She was imagining a rose. But who would give her a rose? A gift, perhaps that she’d put in a house. She could buy a house. She wasn’t going to inherit the manor. Ysara or Ylawes would do that.
Not the youngest daughter. So Yvlon then saw a house rise with white plaster walls, solid beams of wood—a sloping roof overhead, maybe with windows on the roof to let in the sun. Something fanciful, but nothing too extreme. Nothing costly—she wasn’t in love with marble floors.
Nice wooden floors, right. Big enough for…one person to walk around, maybe tend a little garden outside, a room for reading, sitting, a kitchen—she didn’t cook, and a cellar downstairs?
That was already more than she wanted. But Yvlon could see herself being happier here than the manor.
She had forgotten in her delirium the mansion had burned.
Yvlon pictured her bed, neatly made, and had some satisfaction in the dream. A nice apartment…and on one of those simple round foot tables in the hallway she’d put a gift like that red flower.
But it still made no sense. Yvlon’s mind struggled with the red flower. Why did she have it?
Well—it was a gift in her house. This was probably some alternative Yvlon who was…ten years older? Twenty? She’d retired from adventuring.
Would she do that? Yvlon didn’t know. Let’s say she was a successful member of the Silver Spears. All she had wanted was to be as famous and successful as her brother. It was an obsession that had pushed her team, a rivalry with the far-better Silver Swords.
It had been good at the time, but Yvlon of then had never considered what would happen if she actually got her wish. Say she made Gold-rank as she was.
What would happen?
Well, this Yvlon imagined herself being accoladed, treated like an equal by her brother and parents. Smiling—
—And then leaving Izril. Leaving Izril for Chandrar or Baleros or Terandria.
Why would she do that?
She—she didn’t want to stay. That was why. That Yvlon was unhappy. She was in her brother’s shadow. She wouldn’t have stayed in Izril.
Strange. The Horns had changed her path entirely. The other Yvlon would never have had a house. Could this Yvlon?
Maybe. Maybe if she’d never lost her arms. Would that Yvlon be happier?
No. That Yvlon would be dead when the Adult Creler came. So maybe this Yvlon had retired and owned a house.
“Yvlon? Yvlon. Drink something. Yvlon.”
The voice drifted away. Yvlon Byres thought—the house was okay. She had probably saved money on it. So why was that red flower here?
An idea drifted up, and she almost smiled. The house shook slightly as someone shook her and then was made to let go.
Maybe my husband gave it to me? What a silly idea. After all—
No one would ever marry me with my arms. Let alone my foot.
Now that she remembered she’d lost it, Yvlon Byres saw a woman. She had faded blonde hair, turning white, and a peg-leg. She still had some athleticism, but she was definitely alone. A friend? Then she had it.
This wasn’t imagining. This was more like…predicting things. And Yvlon could do that. It never occurred to her how similar the two were.
The flower probably came from the one person who’d give her something like that. Ksmvr. Just like before—
He’d given her a flower.
The Antinium. How would he retire? Ksmvr would probably go around hugging his trees, finding things to do. She’d kept him safe, she bet. She had to. She wouldn’t be there. But how would he age in twenty years?
Antinium didn’t age. Yvlon revolted at the idea his lifespan was short—so he’d just be older. Did—did Antinium get wrinkles or change shells? Then she had it.
At the door to her little cottage came an Antinium in a suit. A silly suit with that red flower. He probably had a horse he patted too much and overfed, and he’d come every week, at the least. Probably twice a week.
And because he was old—he had a grey mustache fixed to his face, a bushy walrus one like Silveran wore. And every time he felt older, he’d turn it greyer. Her silly little friend would be one of the reasons she’d never grow tired.
Yes. Of them all, Ksmvr would be there. And she would be there for him. Yvlon didn’t know if he’d ever fall in love—but maybe that would be Pisces.
He’d show up with either someone who was like him, some sniffing, female Pisces with noble blood, or someone who could balance his craziness.
And Ceria? Yvlon had forgotten she’d forgiven her friend. She didn’t see or feel Ceria’s cool hand on her forehead trying to draw the burning heat away.
That Ice Weasel…she and Ceria would fight now and then. But the half-Elf would look annoyingly the same after two decades. Young…and come out talking about going on dates and tell Yvlon they should go dancing when Yvlon was old.
That was her retirement. Was she happy? Happy being stared at for her metal arms? Of course not. But Ksmvr was there, and she was happy. Maybe she’d go to his wedding. Someone would love that silly Antinium, and Yvlon would have to vet them.
When he finally got the right one, she’d have to make him stand there without his mustache. Pisces would probably insist on being the ‘best man’, and giving a longwinded speech until Ceria made him sit down. And Yvlon would be there, watching as someone she trusted could take care of Ksmvr. Because he was two decades younger than she was, and Yvlon wanted to make sure he was happy.
The entire wedding—obviously she’d volunteer her cottage and maybe have it outside—had a surreal feel. It was as if she was drifting away. Yvlon looked at that vision of Ksmvr and smiled.
And she was happy. Yes, that would be exactly how it went.
Then…Tolveilouka would show up and kill him.
He came in like poison. A half-Elf who broke through the wedding, laughing, took a glass and changed. Bulging, turning rotten, until he seized Ksmvr and Pisces and Ceria and killed everyone. One by one.
And Yvlon couldn’t kill him.
He stood there, in her dream-imagination, laughing as an older Yvlon thrust a blade into his chest, lanced him with arms of metal—and he tore them off her. He healed from every wound, and she screamed. Screamed for air—drowning—in the toxins he’d thrown into her blood—
It was too real. Yvlon fought, trying to figure out a way to kill him. And she realized then, in icy cold—
We never killed him. Unless we kill him, he will come back in my happiest hour.
I can’t do it.
The retired Yvlon was choking to death, airways swollen, breathing out blood as someone tried to get her to breathe. Shaking with cold even as she burned up.
Part of her accepted it. But another part stared up at the laughing half-Elf. At the Adult Creler, its overbearing thoughts beating down on her as she hammered at its body. At Skinner.
And it refused to give.
I will see you dead. She needed—something. Something to protect that silly, older Ksmvr with his walrus mustache and the potbelly he kept pretending he had. Her arms—
How could she kill him? Slice him to bits. Slice him with arms like blades.
“—her arms—get back, Ksmvr—”
No. It didn’t work. She knew it without even having to see him heal. He was a monster of another era.
Dice him into pieces? Now she imagined it. Her arms…her arms turning into nets, wrapping around him and squeezing. But it didn’t work.
Something more. Somethingmoresomethingmore—a blade? No, her arms had to be—
The wagon was exploding. The undead horses tore free, and Peki saved Wil by grabbing him and backflipping off it. The blade of Yvlon’s arms barely missed her.
“What is she doing?”
“She’s still asleep! She’s barely alive—Ksmvr!”
The Antinium had refused to let go of her. He was dead. Wil knew it. He stared at Yvlon and saw…
What were her arms? He couldn’t even describe them.
First, they’d just shifted to razor blades, sword-arms. That was normal. But then they’d begun to elongate.
Like the roots of some tree. Only, so narrow and wire-like that he had never seen it before. Even the tooth of a comb…they moved and splintered, growing out like some kind of artificial structure. The lattice of a gemstone, perhaps.
Not a spider’s web. There was a logical symmetry to them. Like the roots of some mechanical tree, Wil thought. A Golem tree of metal—like the roots of something not of this world.
It cut into the wagon, into the ground. It destroyed everything, and Yvlon’s team took cover.
Ceria rose and shouted. Wil rose, fearing the worst—and he saw the Antinium there, holding Yvlon. Ksmvr was trembling—but Wil realized as he saw the metal structure slashing around Ksmvr, forming a cocoon of silversteel—
It wasn’t touching Ksmvr. Not a single strand. In fact, as his antennae twitched, the metal wires moved around him.
A fractal shield—as if Yvlon were trying to shield him from something. Wil looked at Peki, and the [Martial Artist] took one look at the maze of blades—and backed away.
Even Peki would not get close. But Wil’s awe turned to worry as Yvlon’s shaking grew worse.
“Forget it! Colth—we need to keep moving! I’ll make an ice sleigh!”
Ceria shouted. Ksmvr gently pulled the metal back, and Yvlon’s arms withdrew slowly.
“Yvlon. Yvlon, don’t die. Alright?”
She didn’t open her eyes.
No. The metal didn’t work. She could shield him, in her dream, but she was missing something.
It would have killed Thelican or Skinner or many foes.
He laughed at her, and she remembered what he had said.
Men of metal. He had called her one of them. Half-made. And he had fought them.
She feared it. Feared the conclusion—but then she saw a bright-eyed stare. Silver—more beautiful silver than the images of Yderigrisel, the Silver Dragon and protector of their house she’d always thought was a bit too glorious in their images of him.
She remembered what the man who called himself Taletevirion had said.
“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.”
The woman was dying. Yvlon Byres, the elderly, retired woman lay in a puddle of her own bile, dying as poisons ate her apart. Disease consumed her frail flesh.
But she clung to it. She didn’t want…want to be metal. She wanted her arms. She wanted their strength. But her flesh?
Yvlon looked at Yvlon, and she saw the scar over features that people had called beautiful. Faded, no longer as vicious as it had been when Skinner tore at her face.
But hers. She imagined it made of metal and revolted. Then she stared at her hands.
Metal hands. If only they weren’t so foreign. They were hers and not hers. They felt so…cool. The only part of her not burning up.
Yvlon stared down at her hands.
“I would love you if you belonged to me. If it didn’t feel as fake as this leg. But I need you. I’ll take your strength. But only if you’re part of me.”
She pulled an arm off. Or did it fall off? Detach from flesh too weak to hold it? A body no longer living, but dying? It felt like someone was shaking her now, and her heart was failing.
Yvlon stared at the blank metal shaped perfectly where her shoulder had been. Graceful metal imitating flesh. But…
Aha? There? She wanted to wave her arm around and show someone to complain. She had always known it.
It’s just metal inside. Yvlon had seen arms laid open. Pisces had his precious bones. She knew there was sinew and muscle; she could feel herself tearing them, and her arms had none of it.
It was just solid silver-steel that morphed as she desired. No wonder she could make it telescope and change. There was nothing really there. Just an ingot formed by will. It could turn into anything—but like Colth said, that was all only if she could imagine.
And her imagination was so limited. Yvlon Byres stared down at the arm. Now she felt like she could see into it. Imagine the poison clotting her veins, killing her. Her faltering heart…
Where are the veins? Her blood circulated her body without her arms. Her arms had no blood in them. They were…
At least have veins. Yvlon had traced the blue vein in her skin down her fingers, seeing how it connected and split and ran up her arm. She held her arm and recreated it now. From memory. Imagining the veins, hollow tubes that ran throughout her arms. Bones. And…the blood running through the silver flesh.
That was an arm.
“Her arm’s back on.”
The metal had begun pooling, detaching from a stump on her shoulder. This was Yvlon’s final hour.
They were too far away. Pisces was howling with Colth, racing them down the night road as snow fell. Yvlon’s arm had detached, and Ksmvr was holding her. And so was Ceria.
The half-Elf felt at the arm, and it was back to normal.
“Is she—is she—?”
Ksmvr was holding Yvlon tight, but he had no ears. Ceria pressed her ear to Yvlon’s chest. It was hard below the howling of Gnolls and the rush of the wind and her own thudding heart—but she heard it.
A dying heartbeat. Yvlon had stopped coughing, but Ceria did not think that was better. Ceria held Yvlon’s hand and looked around. She spoke, distantly, as Ksmvr put his own head to Yvlon’s body, listening.
“I am going to freeze her. Just like Erin. Pisces.”
He looked back, wild-eyed, and Ceria remembered what Erin had said.
The dead will not come back.
“She’s still alive, Ceria. I hear her. I hear…”
Ksmvr begged the half-Elf to wait. Ceria bent down. She couldn’t hear it—then she yanked her arms back.
“She’s cooler than she should be. She’s dying. If you’re going to do it, Ceria. Don’t hesitate!”
Colth shouted at her. Yvlon’s fever had turned cold—and her body was cooling too fast as it ran out of energy. But—Ceria touched something and yanked her hand back.
“It’s warm. It’s not been warm—”
She was holding Yvlon’s metal arm. It was lying there, limp, and Ksmvr raised his head.
“Her heart is still beating, Ceria. Even I can hear it. See?”
He held up her arm, and Ceria stared at it. The silver flesh…
“There’s no blood in her arm. Is—”
She put her ear down, and Pisces and Colth looked back. Yvlon’s arm was warm. And Ceria heard, louder than anything thanks to the metal conducting the sound—
Her blood rushing. The half-Elf lowered her wand—and looked at Pisces and Colth.
There it was. Yvlon watched in satisfaction as the blood ran through silver. She had heard, of course, of her aunts and uncles who got silver poisoning from working their job.
But this was different.
Who had not pictured sickness in their lungs as something they could scoop out? Or a twisted back muscle as something that could be unknotted?
Well, Yvlon was imagining just that. Imagining the corrupted blood and whatever else was wrong was running through the silver. Being leeched of toxins. Purified by soft silver. She clenched one hand—and then looked down.
She stood in front of that mirror, and an older Yvlon looked down as she waited for Ksmvr to give her another red flower. She began to hobble to the door on her one good leg—then decided she would rather walk.
So Yvlon stared down at the silver foot and shook her head ruefully. Then her head rose, and she forgot about it. She opened the door—and welcomed her friends into her home. And she felt Ceria’s hand as she took it. And it felt, for once—
That was the first thing Yvlon said. She looked up, and a half-Elf blinked away water.
“Your hands are cool. They’re cold.”
“What are you talking about?”
The [Cryomancer] gave Yvlon the most mystified look in her life—then she flung her arms around her.
“Easy, easy! Get her a stamina potion—Yvlon, you need to stay awake!”
Colth shoved Ceria aside. The bewildered [Armsmistress] looked at him. She tried to speak and coughed.
“What—what’s wrong with you, Colth?”
Then she looked around.
“Why is it night? What happened to the wagon?”
They were riding on a chariot of ice. The Horns and Colth were the only people present; had they split up with the [Strategists] and Gnolls?
“You were dying, Yvlon!”
“Me? No I wasn’t. I told you. My fever was back this morning.”
The Horns looked at each other.
“This morning? That was a day and a half ago! You took a turn at midday, and we’ve been trying to get you to a [Shaman].”
Yvlon Byres sat up. She felt incredibly weak—but her arms took her weight. Then she realized she felt more from them than she ever had before. They were…warm. She touched her arm and felt the pressure from one fingertip. Like flesh.
She had always had feeling, but now her arms felt cold. Cold enough for her to want to put on a jacket. Almost too sensitive. She could feel a tingle as snowflakes landed on them—and when she thought it was unpleasant, her skin seemed to ‘harden’ or ‘solidify’, and the sensations vanished.
But then she reached out and touched Ksmvr’s hand, and he jumped.
“You have cold hands too. You need gloves.”
She scolded him. He nodded as someone else stood up and raised his voice.
“Peki! Peki, tell the others Yvlon woke back up! We’re checking on her—hold a moment!”
Colth was shouting up at someone flapping through the falling snow. Yvlon felt Ksmvr hugging her.
“You didn’t die.”
“I wouldn’t do that to you, silly. I have to wait until you put on a mustache so you take it off.”
The slightly disoriented woman mumbled, and Ksmvr paused. Pisces poked his head back and stared at her. But then Yvlon yawned.
“I did a lot of thinking, Colth. I think…I’m really hungry. Can we stop at the nearest restaurant? But I’m going to take a nap…”
She lay back, and everyone promptly shook her awake until Yvlon clarified she was tired. They still didn’t believe her, but her heartbeat was stronger, and whatever had been in her system—
Was gone. When Yvlon did get to city and the relieved Horns who hadn’t eaten all day began to tuck in, she ate twice what Gireulashia and Ceria combined managed. Yvlon actually stared at her stomach, wondering if it would rupture. But it did not, and she was ravenous.
The stump on her right foot was itching. When the [Armsmistress] passed out again, the voice was waiting. And it said this:
[Silversteel Armsmistress Level 40!]
[Skill – Limb: Imbue Skill obtained!]
[Skill – Silversteel: Structure of Species obtained!]
[Skill – Body: Aspect of Iron obtained!]
[Skill – Body: Aspect of Silver obtained!]
When Yvlon Byres woke up the next day, she felt like she could throw her sword art out of her arms. She woke, knowing that for a time, she could make her body as strong as iron—or as she had done to save her life, as pure as silver.
One last thing—she stared at a foot next to her pale, fleshy, weak toes. A silvermetal foot. Just like she’d expected.
What she didn’t expect was a Gnoll’s furry foot—made out of metal, each padded toe wiggling as she flexed it and stared. Yvlon stared at her Gnoll’s foot—then it turned to a Human one, and she lay back and laughed and laughed until Ksmvr burst into the room to check on her. And she hugged him and felt it.
[Dreamer Class obtained!]
[Dreamer Level 3!]
[Skill – Lucid Dreaming obtained!]
[Skill – Scented Thoughts obtained!]
[Skill – Tangible Concepts obtained!]
[Skill – Perfect Recall (Dreams) obtained!]
She kept that too.
Author’s Note: I cannot write music. Forsooth, it sucks.
I believe I commented on it last time, but I don’t do melody or harmony. I can certainly adapt lyrics based off something I hear, but it’s not a field I ever studied.
And it shows. I thought ‘Great Plains Sing’ was going well. I checked the lyrics and…well, someday I’d like to re-write them, maybe work with someone to have them performed. But I need to up my game like 2000% to write singable stuff.
It would be a nice talent to have.
At any rate, if you saw the announcement at the top of the chapter, I am taking two updates off. This is not my monthly break. I’ll have that too—but this is to finish Volume 1’s rewrites.
I’ve done it. I went through all of Draft 1, talked to an editor, and I have a second pass to run through. I’ve added new parts, rewritten sections—and I just need the time I can’t get if I’m writing a 30,000 word chapter at the same time.
Once that’s done, hopefully, you won’t hear me complain about rewriting Volume 1 again. It has been a helpful process learning how to edit—that is bearing fruit in each chapter I publish because I do go through a mini-editing pass. So I’m going to sit down for a week, and finish this.
I’ll see you in a bit. I appreciate your patience and I’m eager to show you the entire thing, but I will wait. Like level ups, it’s better the longer you wait, right?
Right? Okay, see you later.
Ryoka by Vescar!
Sketches and Olesm by butts!
This is a cursed meme that is popular online and I am putting it all together here because I don’t want to feature it individually. I present…borzoi Mrsha by Artsynada and Brack. This is the most cursed art I’ve featured. You know what you did.
Madain’s Inn and Pisces-Marowack by Brack!